Reflectons of Travel to South America

As a four-decade Certified Travel Agent, international airline employee, researcher, writer, teacher, and photographer, travel, whether for pleasure or business purposes, has always been a significant and an integral part of my life. Some 400 trips to every portion of the globe, by means of road, rail, sea, and air, entailed destinations both mundane and exotic. This article focuses on those in the South America.

Argentina:

Argentina, the first of them, entailed entry through Buenos Aires, and its city-related attractions included the Plaza de Mayo; the Catedral Metropolitano; the Casa Rosada, the mansion and office of the Argentinean President and the famous balcony from which Eva Peron spoke to the masses; and the almost mandatory tango show.

A side trip to San Carolos de Bariloche was a deposit into the German Alps, with its architecture and chocolate shops. A 585-kilometer drive of the Circuito Grande encompassed the lake- and mountain-surrounding Llao Llao Hotel and Resort for an elegant afternoon tea, the Villa Traful, the Villa la Angostura, and “teleferico,” or “chairlift” ascents, up the Cerro Otto and Cerro Catedral for dramatic views and lunch.

Other Argentinean trips further north entailed entry through Puerto Madryn and a tour of the Punta Tombo Penguin Rookery, the world’s largest.

The motor coach, in this case, left the pier and crossed the bridge toward National Route 3, the main highway connecting Buenos Aires in the north with Ushuaia in the south, beneath powder-blue skies, traversing Chubut, one of Patagonia’s provinces, past the flat, dry, scrub-blanketing steppe topography characteristic of the coast. Passing through Trewel, a town settled by the Welsh where traditional afternoon tea was still served and the second largest in the area with its own regional airport, it threaded its way through the low-elevation White Hills, which appeared like the Badlands of South Dakota, and intercepted the dry, dusty, gravel surface of Provincial Route 1, passing indigenous South America wildlife almost camouflaged by the low scrub, such as the mara and the guanaco, the South American equivalent of the camel. Ultimately entering the gates of a private sheep farm, it covered the final 39 kilometers to the rookery, itself on the Atlantic, where the hills rose from the predominately flat expenses, completing its 170-kilometer drive.

Punta Tombo Penguin Rookery itself offered a glimpse into the life of these sea birds.

Magellanic penguins, which are diving seabirds with hydrodynamic bodies, inhabit the costs of Argentina and Chile, feeding at sea and breeding on land. Punta Tombo, with 175,000 breeding pairs, is the world’s largest breeding penguin colony. During September, males return to the area, refurbishing their previous year’s nests, at which time the females are reunited with them. After courtship, the female lays two large eggs, whose 40-day incubation period is guarded by the male and the female on alternating days.

For a short period after birth, the chicks, wearing a feathery, gray coating, are unable to swim, during which time the males follow precise paths to and from the sea in order to obtain food until the skin mulches off. When they are old enough, they are the first to leave the nest, followed by the parents.

At the end of the breeding season, they migrate more than 6,000 kilometers from the Patagonian coasts and the Falkland Islands to islands off of Brazil, during the April-to-September period.

Numerous penguins were viewed during the one-kilometer walk, but their gray, rock-resembling skin and their semi-hidden locations, in recessed dirt burrows beneath the low dome plants, initially rendered them undetectable. Crossing a wooden footbridge, below which a multitude of them poised themselves toward the hot sun, and following a winding, climbing dirt path, I almost kicked two large, gray rocks on either side. Both, it turned out, were penguins, which apparently had no innate fear of humans.

A lava rock outcrop, at the end of the trail a few meters higher and overlooking the beach and the Atlantic Ocean, had sprung from volcanic activity 120 million years ago.

The gray gravel beach, littered with thousands of penguins, led directly into the ocean at a very narrow angle, serving as the pathway to their sustenance. The Punta Tombo penguins swim as far as 600 kilometers from their nests to seek nourishment for their chicks, while a one-minute dive takes them 12 meters below the water’s surface.

South of Buenos Aires and served by Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city, was Patagonia, with its dramatic waterfall, forest, mountain, and glacier topography in Tierra del Fuego National Park, some of which was experienced on a ride on the Train at the End of the World, the narrowest of the existing narrow-gauge railroads.

Pulling away from the wooden-log, alpine Estacion del Fin del Mundo, the eight-car, green-painted train, propelled by the tiny, 1944 South African-built steam locomotive, followed the one-meter, narrow-gauge track through dense, dark-green forest into a whirling snow blizzard on its seven-kilometer stretch to the National Park Station. The low shrubs, rivers, and grazing horses wore coats of white, while the gray-granite and dark-green mountain face rose almost vertically from the right coach windows.

Following the narrow, almost toy-like track, which multiplied into two, the train arced to the left of the two branches, which were separated by a crude log fence, and ceased movement at Puente Quemado, its only stop, with access to waterfalls.

Emitting an initial, train-trailing explosion of white smoke and translating piston motion into wheel-turning power, the train chugged out of the Puente Quemado station through the whirling, white snow blur, which obscured the mountains and reduced them to but specks of darker hues barely distinguishable through the blinding, horizontal streams of frozen flakes. Snaking rivers were reduced to silver-gray mirrors.

Entering Tierra del Fuego National Park, the train moved through flat, barren, tree stump-ubiquitous terrain known as the “tree cemetery.” The sky cracked into a brilliant blue and the fleecy-white mountains again became visible, reflected by the winding, silver, mirror-like river. The white-blanketed valley, a veritable winter wonderland, stretched to the rising peaks.

Belching streams of thick, white steam, which swept over the chain of tiny, narrow, green coaches like a draped veil and temporarily obscured visibility through their windows, the miniature locomotive climbed the moderate track grade, pulling its eight, tourist-packed cars into an arcing right curve through a skinny, brown-barked tree forest. Following the multiplying track, from the single spur to the current four, the engine branched to the left-most of them and decreased speed, pulling into the platform of the National Park Station at 1335 with a final chug.

As all the doors were simultaneously opened and the 100 or so passengers climbed down to the gravel, Ferrocarril N2 expelled a last, tired hiss of steam.

After a tour of Ensenada Bay and Tierra del Fuego National Park, a performance of the Ballet Folklorico Cruz del Sur was capped with sweet and savory empanadas.

A subsequent trip to Stanley in the Falkland Islands included a motor coach drive along the harbor, passing the Jubilee Villas, the Upland Goose Hotel, and the Christ Church Cathedral. Stops were made at the Falkland Islands Museum, East Harbor, the Lady Elizabeth, a rusted, three-masted cargo ship listing to port at Gypsy Cove, Stanley Airport, and Surf Bay Beach. The tour ended with a peat cutting demonstration.

Cape Horn marked the southern tip of the South American continent.

Brazil:

Brazil equally accounted for multiple-trip travel.

Entered via Rio de Janeiro, a seaside city, it was famous for its Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the 38-meter Christ the Redeemer Statue atop Mount Corcovado, which required several suspended gondolas to reach, and for Sugarloaf Mountain, its granite, cable car-accessed peak.

Petropolis, a mountain retreat, was crowned by the Imperial Museum, which displayed furnishings in the former palace of the 19th-century Emperor Dom Pedro II.

A side trip, via Curitiba in the Brazilian state of Parana, entailed a stay at the elegant Hotel das Cataratas and a close inspection of the water spray emitting Foz do Iguacu, or Iguacu Falls, and its national park.

Boca da Valeria, Manaus, Parintins, and Santarem were all destinations visited on the Amazon River.

The first of these took the form of a self-guided walking tour of the primitive pocket of Boca da Valeria, with inter-language, Spanish and Portuguese communication with the locals.

Sights in the more major city of Manaus included the Museu do Indio, the Aoologico do CIGS, and the Opera House-Cultural Center Largo de Sao Sebastiao/Amazonas Theater.

Parantis offered a unique, tricycle tour. The three-person tricycle featured a metal frame and wooden, box-like accommodation with a padded bench seat for two, a padded back support, and a canopy, and was connected to a conventional, single-wheeled bicycle behind it with a bicycle seat, pedals, a sprocket, two rearview mirrors, and a single tire. A procession of some 40 of these vehicles leisurely negotiated the streets.

Sights pedaled to included the Curral do Boi Caprichoso, which was built in 1998 and served as the location of the Caprichoso, or Blue Team’s, festival rehearsals.

Liberty Square, constructed in 1997 on the site of Parintins’ first airport, featured sculptures which depicted the city’s history.

Bumbodromo was the dividing point between the city’s Red and Blue Team sectors. The Bumbodromo, constructed in 1988, was the location of the annual folkloric festival, its stylized ox head configuration providing seating for the authorities in its face, the entrance through its horns, and the head its main arena with bleacher seating. The stadium alternatively served as a school, a health center, and a sports arena during the remainder of the year.

Finally, Our Lady of Carmel Cathedral, founded on May 31, 1962 and constructed of brick with tiles, was located in the heart of the city and was the largest Catholic Church in the state of Amazonas with a 40-meter-high tower.

Santarem sightseeing included the Centro Cultural Joao Fona, the Museu de Santarem, and a typical manioc farm, consisting of thatched-roof, open huts with Amazon-indigenous fruits, and demonstrations of medicinal plant usage, rubber tree extraction, and manioc flour processing.

Chile:

Like Argentina and Brazil, Chile was toured on several, multiple-mode trips.

Sights visited on the first of them, from Santiago, included day trips to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, the latter a seaside resort.

This was followed by a flight to Puerto Mont, a port city in Chile’s Lake District and gateway to the Andes Mountains. A 577-kilometer road coverage, from a base lodge in Puerto Varas entailed Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales, Petrohue, in the shadow of snow-covered peaks, and the Osorno Volcano. The car climbed the winding, cloud- and mist-shrouded road toward it, transitioning from pavement to gravel, as it passed the smooth, black, treeless hills at its summit. Its 1,200-meter-high alpine center featured a cafeteria, a gift shop, ski lifts, and views of Lake Llanquihue below and the snow-covered volcano itself above.

La Serena, accessed through Puerto Coquimbo, afforded sightseeing opportunities of its lighthouse, the Iglesia Santo Domingo, the Plaza de Armas, the Museo de Historia Regional, the Catedral de la Serena, the Iglesia San Agustin, the La Recova Market, and La Herradura Bay.

Punta Arenas, a city near the tip of Chile’s southernmost Patagonian region, was located on the Strait of Magellan, which itself connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and was often used as a base for excursions to the surrounding wilderness and the continent of Antarctica.

Cerro la Cruz offered views of the city’s multi-colored, low structures, the dark, blue-velvet Strait of Magellan, and the silhouettes of the mountains on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego. Principle sights here included the Cementario Municipal, the Braun Menendez House, La Plaza Munoz Gamero, and the Cathedral.

Lunch, in El Galpon (the shed), a reconstructed, relocated wooden ranch house with tree-trunk support beams, wagon wheel chandeliers, an open-pit fireplace, an A-frame ceiling, and modern, almost-Scandinavian wood block dining tables, included pisco sours; cheese empanadas; open fire pit-roasted lamb and chicken, rice salad; scalloped potatoes; sliced tomatoes; corn and onions; a carrot, nut, and raisin salad; rolls and butter; Chilean red wine; strawberry cheese cake; mocha ice cream rolls; trifles; and coffee.

A subsequent farmland walking tour amid sheep, llamas, and horses was capped with a sheep-shearing demonstration.

Colombia:

Cartagena was the major destination during a trip to Colombia. Located on its Caribbean coast, its walled Old Town, founded in the 16th century, was characterized by squares, cobblestone streets, and colorful colonial buildings.

The principle sights here included the Fortress of San Felipe de Barajas, the Craft Market, the Plaza de Santo Domingo, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the Palace of the Inquisition, San Pedro Claver Church, and the Naval Museum of the Caribbean.

Ecuador:

Ecuador, another multiple-trip and -mode South American country, offered a particularly varied travel experience.

Guayaquil, the hot, humid city on the coast, served as the gateway to a cruise of the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago some 1,000 kilometers distant in the Pacific Ocean and considered one of the world’s foremost wildlife-viewing destinations. Its protected status and isolated terrain sheltered a diversity of plant and animal species, which have remained unchanged throughout. Charles Darwin’s own visit in 1835 and his observation of both the islands” flora and fauna inspired his theory of evolution.

A five-day, 298-nautical mile cruise aboard the 48-passenger, 878-ton Corinthian entailed two daily expeditions of the islands of San Cristobal, Tower, Bartolome, and Santiago, usually requiring bare foot submerges into the water and a short trek to shore.

Quito, Ecuador’s capital, sat in the Andean foothills at an altitude of 2,850 meters. Constructed on the foundation of an ancient Incan city, it was known for its well-preserved colonial center, which itself was rich with 16th- and 17th-century churches and other structures blending European, Moorish, and indigenous styles.

Excursions to Cotopaxi National Park entailed lunch in a hacienda and a subsequent horseback ride, and to La Mitad del Mundo, or equator, where visitors could spread their legs, placing one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern one.

Another expedition, accessed by the port city of Manta, entailed a tour of Machalilla National Park. Located in Puerto Lopez, in the southwestern corner of the state of Manabi, the 136,850-acre park was created in 1979 to preserve Ecuador’s tropical scrub desert and dry forest. Of its lowland and rain forest fauna, the white-tailed dove, howler monkey, anteater, and agouti were its principle ones, along with some 200 species of birds, while its flora included the mesquite tree, the kapok, the guayacan, the guaruma, the barbasco, the prickly pear, and the balsa tree.

Specific attractions included the Agua Blanca Museum, the archaeological site and burial urns, Sabastian, the Craft Market, and Playa las Frailes, a beach bookended by lush, green hills with crashing surf. A tour-included box lunch both symbolically and practically featured tuna, caught from the very ocean that lay only yards away. It was followed by a nature walk across the now-dry Rio Buenavista and through the Bosque Humedo de Sabastian.

French Guiana:

Located on the northern coast of South America between Suriname and Brazil, French Guiana, which was settled by the French during the 17th century, was both an Overseas Department and an Overseas Region, and constituted the largest portion of the European Union outside of the European continent itself.

The Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands, lay eight miles northeast of Kourou in the mid-Atlantic and comprised Ile Royale, Ile St. Joseph, and Ile du Diable, the latter Devil’s Island itself.

Settled by French colonists seeking to escape the disease-ridden jungle of the low lands on the continent in 1760, they subsequently served as outposts for ships too large to dock in Cayenne, and were initially known as “Iles du Diable” or “Devil’s Islands.”

A walk to the path’s summit was met with a treed, green grass expanse of the island and several penal colony-remnant structures, such as the two-story, balconied “Gendarmerie Poste des Iles” or “island police station,” and the brick and block “Eglise Classee,” or church, which was constructed in 1854. Its

Peru:

Lima, he capital of Peru, was situated on the Pacific coast, and its preserved colonial center afforded sightseeing of its Plaza Mayor, the Catholic Archbishop’s Palace, the Government Palace, the Cathedral, City Hall, the San Francisco Monastery, San Marcos University, and the Parque del Amor.

Tacna, located in Northern Peru and a short distance from the Chilean border, afforded sightseeing opportunities to the Museo Ferroviario; the Catedral de la Ciudad de Tacna, a neo-Renaissance church located on the central Paseo Civico; the Plaza de Armas; the Fuente Ornamental; the Arco Parabolico, dedicated to the soldiers of the War of the Pacific; and the Casa de Jorge Basadre, reached after a single-car train ride across the Atacama Desert from Arica.

Uruguay:

Uruguay, developed throughout much of the 20th century, was one of Latin America’s more progressive countries, notable for its political stability, advanced social legislation, and a relatively large middle class. Montevideo was the main port of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and afforded sightseeing opportunities of its Plaza Constitucion, the Plaza Independencia, the Parliament, and the Plaza de la Armada.

Venezuela:

Venezuela, accessed by its capital, Caracas, accounted for four trips. Its sights, centering on Simon Bolivar, the country’s liberator, included the Centro Simon Bolívar, la Plaza Bolivar, la Casa Natal, El Capitolo, and la Catedral.

A “teleférico,” or cable car, ascent up Mount Avila, in the Maripez District, provided magnificent views and opportunities for lunch.

Outlying attractions included Los Tecques Glass Factory and Colonia Tovar. The latter, founded on April 8, 1843 by a group of 390 immigrants from the then-independent state of the Grand Duchy of Baden, bore the cultural imprint of their origin with peaked, A-framed structures reminiscent of a German village. Handmade ceramics were made and purchasable, and lunch in la Selva Negra, or “The Black Forest,” Restaurant featured typical German fare, such as sauerbraten, dumplings, schnitzel, wurst (sausages), and sauerkraut.

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