South America AUGUST 1979 - JUNE 1980:

First Chile

Santiago, in Chile, marked a dramatic new beginning. A new continent and a new way of travel. My overall impression of Chile was very positive. While, Chile was under the control of the military at the time, even most soldiers were conscripts and generally polite and cheerful to a young traveler like myself. Using Santiago as an initial base, I tried to get to Portillo, but was snowed out in Rio Blanco. I then did a trip to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. Chile, Argentina and Uruguay were all right wing dictatorships at the time.

Given the comparatively higher costs and higher standards of living, I tried hitch-hiking south, making my way to Talca, Temuco and then to the glorious lake district of Puco, Villarica, Valdivia and Puerto Montt.

From Puerto Montt, I travelled south to the island of Chiloe, famous for its wooden churches. I stayed in Ancud, Castro and Lago Huillinco. This was winter and quite chilly as I made my way further and further south. I worked my way back to Ensenada and Peulla before crossing the border at Lago Todo Dos Santos to Bariloche.

Then Argentina

Argentina was a bit of a shock. Prices were extremely high. Also, the military presence was more pervasive and far more obviously aggressive and repressive in comparison to Chile. After a few days in Bariloche, I took a bus south through Patagonia to Comodoro Rivadavia. Argentinian towns in Patagonia tended to be rough around the edges and the howling winds added to my comparative discomfort. Air fares in Argentina were comparatively reasonable, so I bought a ticket to go south to Calafate and the Lago Argentino with the impressive Perito Moreno glacier,a and finally to Argentina’s southernmost town, Ushuiaia. I made my way across one day to Lapataia at the Argentina-Chilean frontier and shared a huge steak with a man in a camper van who was traveling there with his family.

I recall, many bleak hours trying to hitch-hike north from Ushuaia, first to Rio Blanco, then to the farm of San Sebastian, across the border to Porvenir, then to Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Cerro Castillo and the stunningly beautiful peaks of the Torres and Cuernos del Paine. I hitched across to Rio Gallegos, Caleta Olivia, Comodoro once again, Camerones and Trelew and then finally a long lift in a truck all the way to Buenos Aires.

North from Buenos Aires: In Buenos Aires, I met up again with Karen Studdert, an Australian woman I had initially met in New Zealand and we traveled together for the next few months. After Buenos Aires, we took the boat across to Montevideo, then we spent some time along the coast to Atlantida, Piriapolis and Punta del Este, before crossing the frontier to Brazil.

The costs of travel in South America was a bit of a roller coaster ride. Brazil, then, was significantly cheaper than in the other countries we had visited up to that point, and it was good to be able to fell relaxes in spending more money. We hitched up along the coastal side up to Pelotas, Porto Alegre, Florianopolis and Curitiba. This was a very different Brazil, with a fairly high standard of living, a very European population, and modern cities with skyscrapers. From Curitiba we hitched across to Foz do Iguacu. While I have been to many waterfalls in my life, including Niagara and Victoria Falls, the Iguacu Falls were the most overwhelming and impressive that I had ever seen.

We crossed from there into Paraguay. I remember taking a local bus filled with educated, and seemingly prosperous, high school students speaking Spanish, German and English. We made it to the capital of Asuncion. Although I always did research, I ended up being surprised at Asuncion. I had always assumed that Paraguay was very poor, and thus I was unprepared for the comparative prosperity of that capital city. After doing some research, Karen and I came to the conclusion that trying to cross the Gran Chaco by hitching was not really tenable, so we booked a flight up to Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

To the Andean Republics

Santa Cruz was a very strange place. It was prosperous from drug money. We had initially planned to leave quickly, but there were major demonstrations against the President at the time, and this pattern of delayed transport was to bedevil our entire time in Bolivia, as fascinating as the country was. We eventually were able to take a bus to the highland of Cochabamba, entering a world where the indigenous Indian population were dominant. I noticed a striking difference between those living at high altitude in the Himalaya, where gentle hospitality was the rule, and the Andes, where the divide between the indigenous population and Europeans and other travelers were enormous. There was also a pervasive sullenness. Their lives were difficult. We travelled by land from Cochabamba to Sucre then on to La Paz. From La Paz I crossed into Peru to Puno and on to Cuzco.

Two and one half years after I waved my sister goodbye at Stockholm airport, I greeted her in Cuzco. That first afternoon as we were walking through a crowded part in Cuzco, her bag was slashed by a thief. Fortunately, she noticed the pushing and moved out of the way before anything was stolen but her bag had to be replaced.

The Inca route is one of the most popular, and one where a large number of travellers get things stolen. We went up to Ollantaitambo for some hiking, then to the incomparable site of Maccu Picchu. Unfortunately it was a wet and soggy day when we were up there, but the majesty of the place was impressive all the same. We spent a bit of time in Pisac. We went across to the island of Taquile in Lake Titicaca, one of thee most magical spots in all of South America. Later we went down to Arequipa, for me one of the most pleasant cities with the most pleasant climates in all of South America. It was from there that I once again waved my sister goodbye, until I was to finally return to Canada in mid-August 1980.

While in Arequipa, I met up with a Belgian and a Dutch guy and we climbed Cerro Chachani, a mountain peak to the north of the city with an altitude of 6076 metres. It was the highest altitude that I have ever achieved.

Later I decided to continue south to Tacna, then crossed back into Chile to Arica, and the heart of the Atacama – the driest desert on the planet. My hotel room in Arica had an open skylight in the roof – no worries about rainfall. My main destination points were to go to Calama and the small town of San Pedro de Atacama.

From there I took a train back across the frontier to Bolivia again to Rio Mulatos, and on the the famous city of Potosi. We went back to La Paz, then arranged to do a three day trek along the Takesi pre-Inca trail. Karen and I took another trip to Caranavi and Coroico, along what is known as the most dangerous road in the world. Hundreds of metres below the cliffs one could see fuselages of various buses which had gone over the edge, killing all of the hapless passengers.
We then took another trip to Sorata. But gradually all of these arduous bus journeys were beginning to take their toll on us, and I recall that our times became less pleasant in the later stages.

We travelled again to Copacabana and Puno before returning to Arequipa. Now two months later, I started to turn north again. We went first to the Nazca Lines, the Islas de Ballestas, Ica, Pisco, Huancevelica, Huancayo and Lima. Karen and I split up in Lima, she heading back to Australia via Santiago, me continuing north from Lima.

North from Lima

From Lima I went up to Chavin, Huaras, Yungay and Caras. The Cordillera Blanca was one of the most picturesque parts of the Andes and a group of us did a four day trip into the mountains north of Yungay. Ten years earlier, a devastating earthquake led to a landslide that obliterated the town of Yungay, killing more than 30,000 people.

From Caras, I went along the coast to Casma, Huanchaco, Trujillo and on up to the Ecuadorian border. There was a dramatic transition going north. In a relatively short distance one went from bleak desert which had characterized northern Chile and almost the entire coast of Peru to Ecuador. Then as we drove north past Tumbo, vegetation started appearing, scrub at first, then increasingly dense the further north we went to Ecuador. This is the point that the cold Humboldt current veers away from the coast of south America, allowing the warm air from the Pacific to reach the shore rather than dropping it on the cold currents off the coast.

A gentle malaise gradually sets in: While at this point I still had a few months to travel, I was increasingly aware that I was enjoying these later stages of my trip a bit less than earlier. I have heard other long distance travelers mention the same phenomenon. And I was starting to get my head around being back home. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, it was the return to Canada that appeared more and more in my head as the next big adventure, not further travels in Latin America.

Into Ecuador

I dubbed Ecuador as “the Andes without tears”. The country was verdant and greener in the interior than either Bolivia or Ecuador, the passes were lower, and life for people in the country seemed less austere and difficult than what had prevailed earlier. I arrived initially at Cuenca, then worked my way up to Riobamba and Banos. I personally found the series of trips that I took over the high passes and down the Andes to the Amazon basin to have some of the most dramatic topography on the planet. In the case of Ecuador, I worked my way down to Puerto Napo and Misahualli. The Amazon in those days still attracted those wanting to make their fame and fortune from the land. One American had planted four thousand lime trees and hoped eventually to be able to harvest four million limes annually. Another American was setting up a lodge for backpackers and other travellers. I took a boat along the Rio Napo as far as Coca, overnighted there, then made my way on the back of a truck to Baeza and on to the capital of Quito.

I was interested in doing another loop, this time to the Pacific Coast. I went to Esmeraldas, then to the beach at Atacames, then the bus train up between San Lorenzo to Ibarra and Otavalo. Otavalo Indians are famed around the world, both for their instantly recognizable dress and for their business savvy.

One of my great highlights was to go to the Galapagos Islands. Even then, concern about the impact of tourism was lifting the cost of visiting, though in early 1980, it was far cheaper than what it now costs to visit. I was there for just under two weeks, staying in the capital at Gus Angermeyer’s hostel, then taking the boat the MS Daphne for a seven day trip to the different islands. I had spontaneously formed a group with a number of the other travelers and was fortunate in having an international group that was motivated and easy to get along with. For those who have never been, the Galapagos is one of the most otherworldly places. First is the profusion of large reptiles. But more dramatically was that virtually all animals had no instinctive fear of humans. I have never witnessed such a phenomenon anywhere else.

And on to Colombia

Once back from the Galapagos, I worked my way north across the border into Colombia. In those days, Colombia was considered one of the most dangerous countries for backpackers. The guerrilla movements were only in their nascency. Yet overall levels of crime and violence really diminished my enjoyment of the country, even though the topography is stunning. I stayed first in Pasto and then the beautiful colonial city of Popayan. I enjoyed southern Colombia, going to the traditional Indian town of Silvia, then to the archaeological caves of Tierradentro, La Plata, the famous ruins of San Augustin, then up to Girardot and Bogota.

Bogota was one of the most intimidating cities I visited on my trip. Nevertheless, I did go to the Gold Museum, then booked a flight south to Leticia.

Along the Amazon

My objective at this point was to take a riverboat down the Amazon as far as Manaus, then head up into Venezuela from there. After I arrived in Leticia, I was informed that the boats going to Manaus actually left from the Brazilian village of Benjamin Constant a two hour ferry ride away. I crossed to Benjamin Constant but found that there was no boat. So I ended up whiling the days away waiting for a boat to arrive. If there was one virtue, it was that Brazilians love music and the quality of music made passing the time in the tropical heat less difficult.

After a few days of boredom, I decided to go back to Leticia, simply to pass more time and the fact was that there was more to do in Leticia than in tiny Benjamin Constant. That morning, however, I found that the ferry boat, the Capitano Pinhero, had finally arrived. I was assured that it was not going to leave until the following day, so I decided to take the ferry back. I noticed a western couple had gotten off the boat and were in the ferry with me.

We began talking, to Daryl Copeland and his then girlfriend Martha Durdin. We quickly established that we had gone to the same small university together, the Norman Paterson School of International Affair. We had a good day together. I gave them information about the routes further south in South America. They had been in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and had come down through Venezuela to Manaus. I bought his hammock, we did a currency exchange and we exchanged addresses. A year and one half later, both of us joined the foreign service of Canada on the same day in September 1981. We have remained good friends ever since. Indeed, the setting up of his website guerrilladiplomacy.com, more an analytical foreign policy commentary, was partly an inspiration for me to set up this one.

The trip down the Amazon was pleasant, though I found it hard to sleep in a hammock at night. In total, it took us four days to get to Manaus. A group of us who had taken the boat to Manaus all stayed in a cheap hotel downtown and one evening took in a musical show in the famous Manaus Opera House. I then traveled north to Boa Vista, and took a side trip to Lethem in Guyana. Many years earlier, I had taken a bauxite freighter from Trinidad to Parimaribo and up the Cottica River to the bauxite mine at Moengo, and slipped across the border to St. Laurent du Moroni in French Guiana. My short visit to Guyana would thus complete the visit to all countries of South America.

Due to its reserves of oil, Venezuela had a reputation of surly border guards and difficulties in visiting for backpackers. I did make it through and went up to the border town of Santa Elena, then went to Tumeremo and on to Caracas. My original plan had been to go across to Cartagena. However, the South American Handbook painted such a grim picture of the risks to travelers in the Guajira that I decided to go only as far as Maracaibo, then grab a plane to Panama City.

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