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?

6 Replies to “Planning the South America Leg”

  1. Peru and Machu Picchu. I’ll most likely be meeting you and Jeff during my winter break so you’ll still be in South America at that point. All the destinations have so much to offer that I can’t eliminate any of them. Good thing I don’t have to do that. Galapagos Island of course. Can’t miss the boobies. Brazilian beaches of course. Can’t miss the boobies. Africa of course. Can’t miss the National Geographic boobies.

  2. It all sounds so incredible! South America has never been one of my top places to see, but I have to admit that I know very little about it so I can’t wait to hear about your adventures there and see your pictures!

    As to the whole Carnival thing in Brazil, like you I tend to avoid those kind of things. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which I’ve turned down the opportunity to experience, it’s just not for me. I hate big crowds and I particularly hate big crowds of drunk people. Oktoberfest in Munich was even a little too much for me and the World Cup in Kaiserslautern was just an all around unpleasant experience. On the other hand… it is a once in a lifetime opportunity and something that many people would love to attend. Certainly it would be interesting to see and a very cool cultural experience (if only there was a way to see it and not be surrounded by hoards of drunk people).

  3. The priest’s last name was Rankin(although I’m not sure I spelled that correctly). On a related note, I think we had the opportunity to meet some cool priests back in the day.

    Chile is the place to go.

  4. This is the leg of the trip that I am most excited about. I would like to do this part of the trip someday or maybe just Central America. In South America, I would like to stand on the equator – sounds strange – just some imaginary line, but I’d like to do it. Ask Zachary about Zenezuela – I think he went there while he was living in Barbados. He also had a roommate from there. Argentina seems like a fun place – my 9th grade Spanish teacher was from there and a friend Jon just spent a week there and said the food is incredible. Chile – I want pictures of the penguins!

  5. South America has sooo much to offer. It’s hard to squeeze everything into 4-5 months. I haven’t been to Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, or Bolivia, but I’ve heard wonderful things about all of them. Places I’ve been and can recommend:

    – Torres del Paine is amazing. Probably the bests hiking of my life. The scenery is just fabulous and the refugios system (we did the W trek and stayed in refugios along the way) is great. We got lucky and had good weather most of the time, but the weather is quite finicky down there. Try to do a glacier trek while you’re there.

    – If you like whitewater rafting, it doesn’t get much better than the Futaleufu River in Chile. A lot of people say it’s the best whitewater in the world. We went with Bio Bio Expeditions. The trips on their website sound insanely expensive, but if you call them up, you might be able to score a good deal (if they have open spots and don’t think they’ll fill them, they might give you a discount; you also might be able to get a discount by offering to help out, i.e. lug boats, cook, etc). Also, they only list week-long trips on their website, but, at least when we were there (2001), they would take day-trippers for I think about $150/day. It’s a bit hard to get to, but definitely worth it.

    – We did Carnival in Brazil. I loved it, but I’m a city person and generally love chaotic environments. I will say that Carnival is much more than a drunken party. It is nothing like mardi gras. We saw surprisingly little public drunkenness. It was much more about the music and the dancing than I expected. We split up our time between Rio & Salvador, and really enjoyed both. If you go for Carnival, you must try to dance in the sambodrome with a samba school. It’s expensive (about $200-300 for the costume), but it’s a fundraising tool for the samba schools, and definitely worth it. If you go, I might be able to hook you with a samba school connection. I do think that Carnival is a gotta-experience-once type of thing (and I enjoyed it *much* more than other “gotta-go” parties like mardi gras and the full moon party at koh phag ngan). That said, if you really don’t like crowds and general chaos, you might want to avoid it. It is very crowded & loud & you will get lost & there is a general sense of craziness. And it’s not cheap. Plus, it’s not the “real” Brazil. I really want to go back to Brazil some other non-Carnival time to see more of the country. Everything shuts down for Carnival, so it’s not the best time to see the sites. If you have the time, the best of both worlds might be to explore Brazil in the weeks leading up to Carnival (I think it would be great to see the Carnival preparations; I’m pretty sure you can attend samba school rehearsals & watch them build the floats), and then just to stick around for the first 2-3 days of Carnival, to get a taste for it but not get too overwhelmed by the madness. There are also great Carnival celebrations in other parts of S. America.

    – Buenos Aires is a lot of fun. Worth the visit.

    – Not to add more difficult decisions to your list, but Colombia is wonderful. It’s overlooked by most western tourists (we only met 1 other American in our 2 months there), which makes it that much nicer for the people who do go there. The people are the friendliest I’ve ever met. They really are thrilled to have visitors to their country (they know the bad press it gets) and go out of their way to make it a pleasant visit. It’s got everything from great cities (Bogota, Medellin) to beautiful countryside (San Gil, Armenia), to some of the best beaches in the world (Parque Tayrona, Cartagena). If you are considering it & want more information, let me know.

    Phew, that was a long post. Good luck making your decision! Btw, I’ve started seeing your blog mentioned on other travel blogs (most recently on writetotravel). Congrats! 🙂

  6. Here is my $0.02 –

    Brazil –
    ~Definitely go see Foz do Iguacu on the border. That was one of my favorite things. Don’t go to the Uruguayan (gosh, how do you spell that?) town just over the border.
    ~I lived in Brazil for seven months and still don’t dare to go to Carnival. If anything, I’d go to Salvador… but then again, I like the previous poster/commenter’s idea of going to a samba school and watching some of the preparations. I did do that, and loved it!

    Peru –
    ~ Are you guys surfers? I hear Peru is the new Costa Rica… I supposed if you are surfers, then you’ll already know…

    I’m drawing a blank now… but I’ll try to make more recommendations if I can remember them.

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