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?

Face Off #2: The Amazon

All election, all the time. Does it seem that way to ya’ll too or is it because we live in the nation’s capital that we feel this way? It’s all about the vote. Who’s voting, how they’re voting, and why they’re voting that way. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of tired of hearing about it. Obama or Clinton? Clinton or Obama?

So how about having a say on something else, something much more interesting, I dare say, than who will be the next leader of the free world? For instance, where we should go for our Amazon experience. Yes, yes, I think that’s it.

In the second face-off to appear on Lives of Wander, we ask you to cast your vote for the place/manner in which we experience the Amazon, one of South America’s most dominating landscapes. Yes, folks, this is a two-part vote, reminiscent of the days when the president and vice-president ran separately rather than on one ticket. Crazy, I know, but I trust that you bright folks can handle it. So review the options, vote in the poll below, and then leave a comment explaning why you voted the way you did.
(In the first face-off, 67% of you voted for Indonesia over the Philippines, and we’re heeding your advice. No Supreme Court overthrows here…at least not yet!)

Manner of Experiencing the Amazon

Option 1: Rolling On the River
Named a 2008 Dream Trip by Budget Travel magazine, there’s something rather old world about traveling by riverboat. It’s a bit Mark Twainian bargaining a ride with a captain, stringing up a hammock, and watching the world pass by from the deck of your boat. It seems to be a good way to get a slightly firmer grasp on what the Amazon is since you’ll cover a decent amount of ground. And is there a river more exotic than the Amazon? The downside is that being out in the middle of the river, you don’t get to experience life on the ground in the jungle. And from what I hear, some stretches of the Amazon are so broad that you can hardly even see the bank! Imagine that. Other negatives include the fact that the budget boats can be overcrowded and there’s not a lot to do but relax and take in the views. With a little more money, however, you can get aboard a boat designed more for tourists and that includes stops for jungle activities. But does that ruin the authenticity?

Option 2: Jungle Lodge Expeditions
Offering short two day/one night stays to week-or-longer adventures, jungle lodges are scattered throughout the Amazon rain forest. Some are luxury, far beyond the reaches of our dollars. Others are budget-friendly, while a fair chunk fall right square in the middle. Some of the most appealing options I’ve seen are eco-friendly, working hard to protect the rain forest, realizing that the true salvation of the forests may come from tourists. There’s money in tourism, just as there is in logging. And if there’s enough money in tourism, than perhaps there will be less destruction of the forest. A number of the lodges also work with native tribes. One of the difficulties is in sorting out which exploit and which assist. In general, these lodges offer an opportunity to go on nature hikes and short boat rides with guides that can point out the native flora and fauna. It’s a bit of a “best of” experience. A little of this, a little of that. An introductory course, if you will. Our friend Joyce had the opportunity to make a short visit to one and highly recommended the experience. Other lodges that I’ve come across include Explorers Inn, Inotawa Expeditions, New Huao Lodge.

Option 3: Hoofing it in the Amazon
If we want to get very intimate with the Amazon, then I’m not sure there’s a better way to do it than by traversing the jungle on foot. This isn’t a nature walk; it’s a jungle adventure, with guide, cook, and porter. It is very likely to include bushwacking and machetes. A number of trip organizers offer the option of hiring locals with advanced knowledge of the rainforest to take you on a multi-day hike through the jungle. So long as you vet your guide, and find someone who can speak your language and who seems reliable, it’s an awesome up-close-and-personal experience. Take the wrong guide, and that’s a disaster waiting to happen. With all the hiking I’m going to be doing for the guidebook I’m writing, this option might be tailor-made for me. But then again, sleeping on the jungle floor with all the Amazon’s creepy-crawlies, I’m not so sure. I mean a tarantula isn’t your everyday house spider and an anaconda is no garter snake. It’s not a walk in park, but then again, you don’t think National Geographic gets their awesome footage by venturing a few feet into the forest now do you? No, they get it by venturing down the path that’s not beaten until you’ve stamped it down yourself.

Option 4: Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Why take a big river boat when you can row, row, row your own dugout canoe? Okay, chances are you won’t be rowing; most of the dugout canoes have outboard motors, athough I hear they die frequently, so yeah, maybe we will row. Like the hiking option, this is a more intimate way to view the forest, but with the addition of time spent on the water. But let’s be clear here; you’re most likely not rowing on the Amazon river itself, but rather one of its tributaries. A tad bit safer that way, I guess. Again, you work with an outfitter to hire a guide and a cook and then you make your way into the jungle, by water rather than on trails. As with hiking, you spend your nights camped out in the jungle. Days are spent trolling down the river, stopping at villages, and going on hikes. It kind of sounds like the Grand Canyon trip Jeff and I went on, except without the white water and with a completely different type of scenery. But it’s the same kind of idea–travel by water, take a few hikes, camp on the shore.

The Places:
I guess saying you want to see the Amazon is a bit like saying you want to see the United States. Um, what part? It’s a big, big, big (maybe I should just say humongous) place. Almost every country in the northern half of South America gets a piece of it. Did you know that? Growing up I didn’t think “Amazon” without thinking “Brazil,” and I don’t think I’m alone in this. But as it turns out, many of the countries we’re planning to visit have gateways to the Amazon rainforest.

Option 1: Brazil
60% of the Amazon rainforest is located within Brazil. Additionally, the majority of the Amazon river runs through Brazil, so if you actually want to travel on this Grand Dame of rivers rather than one of its tributaries, this is the place to do it. For tourists, Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazon region, is a popular jumping off spot. Many, many boats stop here if you’re looking to catch a ride down the river, and there are also jungle lodges in the area. If you take a look at a map of Brazil, however, you’ll see that Manaus is pretty doggone far away from well most everything else. So while there are flights and such, getting there and back isn’t as easy as it is in other places. But this is iconic Amazon.

Option 2: Peru
Though perhaps better known for its Incan ruins, Peru also claims a section of the Amazonian Rainforest. Manu Biosphere Reserve might be the best known section of it. And it’s not lacking for acclaim, having been named a Living Eden by PBS. This area claims to contain more species of plants and animals than any other place on earth. Fortunately for the earth, but unfortunately for tourists, visits to the Reserve are strictly controlled and aren’t exactly inexpensive. But there are other similar areas in the Peruvian rainforest that are more accessible to the average tourist. Puerto Maldonado, on the Madre de Dios river, is one of the more popular areas in Peru for Amazon exploration. In a nearby lake, 9 of the last remaining 1000 giant otters live, and the area is heavily populated with macaws. Iquitos, believed to the largest city unreachable by road, is another, especially as it is actually on the Amazon River and it’s possible to catch a riverboat from here to Manaus, Brazil.

Option 3: Ecuador
Ecuador is already on our list because of the natural wonders of the Galapagos. I hadn’t given its jungle much thought, and that might be because only 2% of the Amazon is located within Ecuador. It’s not that large of a country after all, and it only gets the far reaches of the Amazon. The good news about that is that most of the access points are within easy reach of Quito. Yasuni National Park, Limoncocha Biological Reserve, and Cuyabeno Reserve are popular Amazonian regions of Ecuador, offering river and jungle experiences. In Ecuador, many indigenous tribes still live in the rainforest and some trips incorporate learning about their lives. Unfortunately, however, it seems that some of these so-called protected areas are being legally exploited for oil.

Option 4: Bolivia
Now Bolivia wasn’t even in my wide-angle lens when I got to thinking about the Amazon rainforest, but when I look at map, I can’t figure out why I ignored it. It does, after all border both Peru and Brazil. Thankfully, we live in a very connected world and when I started trolling message boards for information on the Amazon, I kept finding references to a town called Rurrenabaque, which like Puerto Maldonado doesn’t have a lot going on itself but is a starting point for adventure, particular in the Madidi National Forest. Many travelers noted that this was one of the least expensive places from which you could explore the Amazon, and it’s hard to quarrel with that. A bonus feature of this area is that it not only provides access to the jungle but also to the pampas. So you can venture into the jungle, where you’re more likely to see interesting flora than fauna, then travel into the pampas for wildlife encounters with the likes of caimans, monkeys, anacondas, capybara, and river dolphins. It’s like two destinations in one.

Here’s Where You Vote
So I know this is just a tiny bit of information for you to decide on, but come on, go ahead and admit it, it’s more information than you have about most of the candidates you vote for. Don’t even try to lie to me and tell me you know anything about the people you vote to be secretary of agriculture, county judge, or school board member. So study the synopses, do your research (hey, I provided links), and cast your vote. Or just go with your gut. We won’t know the difference.

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