Planning the South America Leg

Yesterday, during our near-daily phone conversation, I mentioned to Jeff that once he gets home, I want to really dive into the planning and begin a full-fledged attack of the to-do list. Among the things I specified was forming an itinerary that is a little more toothy than our current itinerary, which isn’t much more than general time frames for entire continents. Though I don’t want to get obsessive and plan where we’ll be every day of every month, I do want something a little more concrete. We’ll need some specifics in order to book the framework flights we want to have in place before we depart, and I want to be sure that we don’t miss out on something we really want to do because we didn’t do any planning.

As I ranted about this, falling into one of my “oh my gosh we have to do this right now or everything is just going to fall to pieces” moments (don’t say I don’t know my own faults…), Jeff stepped in to remind me that while we’d at least laid out all the places we might possibly want to go in Asia and Africa, we hadn’t done the same for South America. I’m not exactly sure why it got neglected—maybe because our original plan had us stopping in South America last rather than first, maybe because it feels a bit more familiar than Africa or Asia—but it’s high time we rectified that. So here they are, the many places in South America that capture our imaginations and appeal to our sense of adventure.

Venezuela: Yes, yes, we know. Chavez is a loon, and he has a special distaste for America. It’s not the political conditions we’d pick if this were a choose-your-own-adventure, but damn if we can’t control everything. We don’t, however, consider the situation dangerous. Of course, things can turn on a dime, so we do have a bit of wait and see approach to whether Venezuela makes the final cut, but there are so amazing places there we’d love to see. Mount Roraima, otherwise known as the Lost World, tops our list. We both became obsessed with this wonderland of relatively untouched and unexplored nature thanks to a Discovery Channel production called “The Real Lost World.” (Watch it, and I promise that you’ll add Roraima to your must-see list too.) The only true way to explore it is on a challenging trek lasting a minimum of five days, which we really hope to do. Once in Venezuela, we’d have to hit Angel Falls, since it’s only the world’s highest waterfall, and both the Los Roques Archipelago and Parque Nacional Mochima look like good places to recover after a long, hard trek.

Brazil: Famed for its wild Carnival, tiny bikinis, beautiful beaches, Amazon river and rainforest, and, of course, the girl from Ipanema, Brazil is a country of extremes. Obviously, we have to spend a little bit of time at the beach, though which one is a good question. In the March 2008 issue of National Geographic Traveler, Stanley Stewart detailed his search for the perfect spot on what was deemed “the five thousand mile beach.” That’s a whole lot of sand! Fortunately, I deemed every spot he visited a good spot to unroll my beach towel, so I don’t think we can go too terribly wrong. Then, as I posted previously, Amazon and Brazil are synonymous in my mind, so I’m not sure we can leave without venturing into the jungle or down the river. Finally, we’d be remiss to ignore Rio de Janerio. (What’s that song about Rio? I always somehow manage to sing the ‘Rio de Janeiro’ part of it to the tune of ‘Meet the Flintstones.’ Odd, I know, but I can’t carry a tune to save my life.) The question with Rio is whether we try to arrange our schedule to be there for Carnival. Many claim it’s one of those things you just have to do if you have the opportunity, but I’ve often found those things to be the things I most want to avoid. What would you do?

Ecuador: Long before I knew about the Galapagos Islands, I knew about Ecuador, thanks to a priest we had for a brief period at my elementary school named Father Joe (last name unknown). He usually lived and worked in Ecuador, and because he was cool (and not old and dull like the other priests I knew), I decided Ecuador was cool. And I was right. You can’t argue that the Galapagos Islands are anything but awesome. Penguins, humongous tortoises, seals, all kinds of birds, and the world’s most famous boobies. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is. Though dwarfed by the Galapagos, there are other cool things in Ecuador, including Quito and the supposedly awesome market in nearby Otavalo, and opportunities to explore the Amazon jungle.

Peru: One of the world’s most stunning architecture sites is located in Peru, and it was built thousands of years before the “starchitects” of today. (Thanks, Gregory, for that reference.) Machu Picchu sits atop our list for our time in Peru, and we definitely want to approach it by foot. Whether that is on the famous Inca Trail (which is now heavily regulated and must be reserved in advance) or on one of the alternate trails remains to be determined. Cuzco sounds like much more than just a jumping off point for this trip. That’s good news since we’ll probably need at least a few days there to acclimate to the altitude. After Machu Picchu, next on our list is every grade school student’s favorite lake—Lake Titicaca—where we’d like to visit its islands and perhaps do a homestay with a local family. Colca Canyon and the Amazon (again) round out the sites that have really stood out to us.

Bolivia: I once had a penpal in Bolivia. He wasn’t Bolivian, but was rather an American guy I played soccer with in the alternate years when his family wasn’t doing missionary work in this South American country. I don’t know if he ever told me all that much about the country itself, and the last time I saw him he was driving an ice cream truck. Good story, huh? Anyhow, if there’s one thing drawing me to Bolivia, it’s the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, a place where land and sky are often indistinguishable. It’s a crazy Salvador Dali landscape brought to life. If we’re feeling particularly ballsy, we may also want to try biking “the world’s most dangerous road,” although I have to say that goes against my very nature. And as with Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, Bolivia offers opportunities to see the Amazon jungle, and as a bonus feature also visit the Pantanal. (If you never voted in our Amazon poll, you still can register your opinions about where and in what way we see this wonder.)

Chile: For being such a skinny country, Chile certainly has a lot to offer. Thanks to its stunning snow-capped peaks and glacier mountains, some compare Chile’s Lake District to Switzerland, and I have to say that I love Switzerland. With waterfalls, volcanoes, and hot springs to accompany the peaks and lakes, there’s really very little to complain about, especially if you throw in the highly-regarded wines and some fresh seafood. Chiloe Island offers some interesting kayaking opportunities, and though it’s highly unlikely we’d make it to Easter Island due to costs and time restraints, I can’t claim that I’m not fascinated. Finally, there’s Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego in Chile’s Patagonia, which just might be the area I’m most excited about. The beauty is phenomenal, the environment terribly fragile, and the opportunity for active pursuits abundant. Hiking either the circuit or the “w” route in Torres del Paine is sure to be a highlight. And I’d love to see all the wildlife I just watched in the National Geographic special “Eden at the End of the World.” Those elephant seals are crazy! And who doesn’t like penguins?

Argentina: I’m really not much of a city person, as witnessed by this list and our Africa and Asia lists, but I have to admit that I’m excited about visiting the cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires. After a few months on the road, I think it will be an excellent spot for regrouping and recharging. I also plan to eat some serious steaks while I’m there. My mouth is watering thinking about it. On the way south from Buenos Aires, I’d like to visit the pampas, stay at an estancia, and meet a gaucho…maybe even ride a horse across the Argentinian plains, though I have no horseriding skills even having grown up in horse country. I think I have been on a horse once, and I certainly didn’t do any galloping. Rounding out the itinerary is, again, Patagonia, with Los Glaciares National Park the biggest attraction on the Argentinian side of the Andes.

So what do you think? I figure we have about 20 weeks in South America, which once upon a time seemed like a long time, but now seems like nothing. Given that, where would you go? And what sites would you move to the “maybe next time” list?