This is a rare non-science, semi-personal post. It’s a letter (an email) I wrote to a fellow scientist who is right now enriching her brain and her body with extensive world travel. I wrote about my travels in South America eight years ago, during a year in which I was living and studying in Santiago, Chile. She is headed to the continent and asked for recommendations, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to put memories to words.
I planned these trips using my Lonely Planet guides “South America on a Shoestring” and “Chile”. I recommend LP guides. My launching point was always Santiago.
Big Trip 1: Southern Chile
We started with a flight from Santiago to Osorno, but headed straight to Pucon, a cool little town on the shores of a beautiful lake and in the shadow of the snowy Volcano Villarrica. There is a lot of outdoorsy stuff to do here, and it’s a popular vacation spot for Chileans and also popular with the gringos. If you go you must climb the Volcano, which I did and isn’t that hard, the views at the top are incredible, and the descent is awesome! (You slide down on your butt with an axe as a brake.)
Next we took a bus to Puerto Montt, a much larger town that is a launching point for journeys south. (One destination is the large island of Chiloe, which I didn’t get to but heard great things about.) I don’t remember much of the town, except we stayed at a very nice posada.
We arranged to take a “cruise” from Puerto Montt south all the way to Puerto Natales. The boat wasn’t really a cruise boat, it was actually more of a cargo boat that had been converted to hold passengers. The sleeping quarters were tight and the food wasn’t great, but the trip was still amazing with glorious views through the fjords and plenty of travel savvy Chileans and gringos to chat up. It lasted about 4 days and was fairly inexpensive. I don’t remember the name of the company, but I’m sure they are listed in guide books.
Puerto Natales was a launching point for Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, one of the treasures of South America. It has a lot of shops that cater to the hiking crowd so you can pick up all kinds of supplies there.
TdP was one of my favorite spots in South America. For me it was unique in that for such a spectacular park, it is still relatively unknown to many world travelers. It was like what it must have been like going to a the Grand Canyon or Yosemite 70 years ago.
We entered the park in the late afternoon via collectivo, and with the sun lowering over the vast mountainous landscape, the visuals were stunning. Make sure your driver stops a least a couple times on the way in to get out and explore a bit. We chased some vicunas out there.
I stayed in the park 4 nights, camping each night. The weather here is HIGHLY variable, so be prepared for anything. You truly feel you are near the bottom of the earth. I remember it being extremely windy. For instance, my last couple nights I was solo because my less outdoorsy inclined friends wanted to get back into town, and so I still had a 4-person tent but at one campsite I could not set it up because it was so windy. Luckily they had some sturdy pre-set tents to rent (nailed onto wooden platforms).
The park has numerous hiking and climbing opportunities that you can find out more about in a guide book or when you get there. We didn’t do anything more that day hikes–they were sufficiently amazing!
We flew back to Santiago from Punta Arenas. The trip in total was a little over 2 weeks.
Big Trip 2: Peru, Bolivia, Atacama desert
This was my favorite trip that year, partly because of terrain, and partly because of the great company I had.
We first flew to Arica, at the Northern tip of Chile. We took a collectivo north across the border into Peru and stayed in Tacna overnight. From there we took a bus to Arequipa, a beautiful city and one of Peru’s largest. The nice thing about stopping here for a few days before heading to Cusco is the elevation is about half, so it’s easier to acclimate. It had a beautiful plaza and many old colonial buildings.
We took an overnight bus to Cusco, which was an interesting experience. The O/N buses are cheaper, but the perceived benefit of saving a night on accommodation usually ends as soon as you get there and you’re exhausted and the only thing you want to see is a bed. If you take a bus to Cusco–from any direction–expect a bumpy and very curvy ride. Our bus had a small hole in one of the windows, and temperatures outside were freezing. There was a young mother sitting in front of me with her baby who repeatedly vomited from the curvy roads. So it smelled too. We couldn’t sleep at all. Also be careful about your belongings. None of us suffered any losses on this trip, but I heard stories about thieves getting into gringos bags, unbeknownst to the owners probably while they were asleep, even when they were zipped up and in storage compartments above their seats. This is more likely to happen on an O/N bus headed to a super-popular spot like Cusco.
We spent a few days in Cusco before doing the Inca trail. There are various day trips worth taking from Cusco, like the Sacred Valley and Sacsayhuaman. BTW, the Inca trail is not optional, you have to do it! It was amazing. Unless you don’t have time constraints, you should book a guide before you get to Cusco. We didn’t and had to sort something out at the last minute that was less than ideal. Spend a few days in Cusco prior to doing the trail, and hike around a lot to get used to the elevation. I recommend hiking boots for the trail. We took the train back to Cusco the same day we arrived at Machu Picchu. Avoid Aguas Calientes as a place to spend the night before heading back. It’s a heavily overpriced tourist trap.
We next headed toward Lake Titicaca, taking a bus to Puno. Puno was kind of a shithole, but you go there to see the “floating islands” which are really cool. From Puno we headed East toward Bolivia. I remember having to go for a short hike to get across the border. Bolivia is even poorer than Peru, so just be prepared for that. We first stayed in Copacabana, which was a pleasant town right on the shores of the Lake. Our hotel that night was I think about 75 cents American per person. Cheap.
The next day we took a boat out to Isla del Sol and spent the night there. This place was really just incredible, so beautiful, you should really go. The island has no roads, and little electricity. But the people were so incredibly nice. We had a nice dinner at this one tiny restaurant filled with easy going gringos. Hike around as much as you can, just be back well before dark, because it gets pitch black. I have never seen stars as spectacular as I did here. Highest navigable lake in the world, on an island with nearly no electricity, the stars were bursting horizon to horizon. The sunrise was worth getting up for too.
Next we headed to La Paz. This was one of my favorite cities in Latin America. The setting is spectacular, with the population filling the basin of a deep valley, volcanoes overhead. It’s a great walking city. We did a well known mountain bike ride, called La Cumbre to Coroico. You start at the top of a snowy mountain, and ride down the world’s most dangerous road, losing a few thousand meters, and end up in a hot, humid, dusty jungle. There are places on the road with 1000m drops to the side. No barriers. You should do it. The jungle part where you end turns out to be pretty nice, I wouldn’t have minded spending a night there.
Next I took a bus to Oruro, which is the launching point for a famous railway that heads south to Uyuni. The train ride was somewhat long, but very pretty. Uyuni is where you set up to take a tour of the largest salt flat in the world. This was one of the highlights of South America for me. You go in small groups with other travelers in beefed up Toyota Land Cruisers in a caravan across the salt flats and then over the Andes mountains toward Northern Chile. The trip was about 4 days. The sites are otherworldly. At one point we reached 5000m and the temp was –20 ºC .
The trip ends in San Pedro de Atacama (or nearby), and SPdA is where you should spend a few days. The Atacama desert is the driest in the world, and some of the geography makes you feel like you’re on Mars. It’s got a cool, laid back town too where I met great people. Definitely check out Valle de la Luna and whatever else you can.
From SPdA I took a bus back to Santiago which I think took 25 hours (!!!).
The trip in total was about 2.5-3 weeks.
Big Trip 3: Brazil, Uruguay, Buenos Aires
This trip distinguished itself from the others by warmer weather (I went in December), great beaches, better food, and a more lively vibe.
I flew into Rio de Janeiro and spent about three days there. Communication was a little more of a problem for me because I spoke no Portuguese, but knowing some Spanish helped. Even if you can’t understand them, the Brazilians are very friendly to foreigners.
Rio is a visually striking city, and if you go it’s essential to get up high at some point, like on Sugar Loaf or the Christ the Redeemer statue. Based on whatever preconceived notion I had of Rio, I was fairly paranoid about walking around with my camera or much cash, thinking I would be robbed at any time. Overkill yes, but vigilance was good. I didn’t stay out at night much unless I was with a group from my hostel.
The most interesting thing I did there was a favela tour. At the time (2003), I think these types of tours were a fairly recent concept in tourism, and now I think they are more commonplace worldwide. These tours raise eyebrows morally, but I had to see for myself. After being driven in a shuttle van from the hostel to the bottom of the favela, we got out and transferred onto the backs of small motorbikes. Police were stationed near the outer boundaries of the favela, but they did not patrol inside. Apparently they only go inside when they have a specific task to complete. We were whisked up to the top Indiana Jones style, and then walked down with the guide. He assured us that we were safe, and it wasn’t long before I believed him. (Afterward, I couldn’t convince myself otherwise that the tour company pays a portion of their revenue to the drug dealers that run the favelas, to ensure tourists’ safety.)
As advertised, we toured a slum. It was ugly, smelled, and I felt self-conscious about having paid money to see how very poor people live. But the residents made us all feel completely at ease. The children were so happy, and eager to pose their beautiful smiles for my camera (though they were disappointed when they found out it was a film camera). The tour was a great experience for me, but I will never do one again.
After Rio, I headed for Sao Paulo. I stayed for less than 24 hours, and it was mostly just a stopping point on the way to Foz de Iguacu. I have little recollection of it. Just a big-ass city.
Foz de Iguacu is a popular destination, with a pretty incredible set of waterfalls bisected by the border between Brazil and Argentina. The falls weren’t very full when I saw them, and thus pretty brown, but the area is really nice. You’re in a jungle climate, and I saw some “exotic” wildlife–colorfull birds and large reptiles and huge bugs. Lots of green everywhere.
After the falls I headed back east to Curitiba. It’s a very pleasant, modern city with nice parks and restaurants and good shopping if you’re in need of upgrading (I bought some sweet addidas sneakers here). There’s also a famous train route that runs to Parangua, east, and the views are spectacular as you drop down from the jungle to the rocky coast.
I next headed to Torres, a bit south. Getting to this area of southern Brazil, it becomes obvious how the people are different from the North. There is a lot of German, Italian and Swiss ancestry in the south (random note: most Brazilian supermodels come from this area of the south), and the culture is quite different. Torres was a super laid back beach town that reminded me of California. There were these amazing, huge rock formations on the beach that go right up to the water. You can hike up them and get sublime views of the coastline.
One reason I stopped in Torres was as a jumping off point to Parque Nacional de Aparados da Serra. The park has a massive canyon that drops hundreds of meters, waterfalls flowing in. It’s like a baby Grand Canyon, but with much of the land covered in lush vegetation. It’s easy to hike in and get a nice overall view, and there are also more extensive trails too.
Nearby the park, the day before going, I stayed at a small pousada in Cambara do Sul. Here I met a family of brothers. They were all Brazilians from Porto Alegre, the capital to the South. We got to talking (they were all fluent in English, as well as German and Italian and Portuguese), and it turns out they were all headed to the park too. So I was able to tag along, and this really made the trip.
Upon leaving, one of the brothers, a college student, and his girlfriend who was also there were driving back to Porto Alegre, and invited me to come. I stayed with the brother for a couple nights, and he showed me around Porto Alegre, including taking me to the most amazing food spots. The best food I had in South America was in Porto Alegre (fancy steakhouse in Buenos Aires close second). My favorite were these flaky pastries filled with spiced meats and vegetables, man they were unbelievable. It’s meeting local people like this that can turn a good trip into a great one.
I next headed to Punta del Diablo, Uruguay, which is where I spent Christmas. It was a tiny fishing village, with a few hotels and beach houses you could rent out (I had a whole beach house to myself one night until the roaches drove me out). The beaches were nice, but the place was really boring.
Next I headed to Montevideo, which is kind of a poor man’s Buenos Aires. Much more interesting was Colonia del Sacramento, or just “Colonia” as most people call it. It’s a super-charming little town with cobblestone streets and shaded plazas with views of the Rio Plata. If you go to Buenos Aires and have a day to spare, definitely go across the river to visit here. I wouldn’t bother with anywhere else in Uruguay though.
I finished this trip in Buenos Aires, which I had also previously visited on an earlier trip. This was one of my two favorite cities in South America. Although I wouldn’t make my first trip to Europe for another seven years, at the time I guess it felt like a bit like I thought a European city would be like. Sophisticated is a good word. Nice architecture and great nightlife. When I went, Argentina’s economy had recently tanked, so everything was dirt cheap. On one outing, my friend Miguel and I went to the most expensive steakhouse we could find, and we ate like kings. They reluctantly seated us, but the place was completely empty. Some rich family were the only others within an earshot. For about $35 USD, we got what would have cost probably $200 in the US. Great meat and great wine, all Argentinean.
The trip in total was about 2.5 weeks.
Small Trip A: Vina del Mar, Valparaiso
These are both medium-sized ocean front cities a couple hours by bus from Santiago. While next to each other, they are each very distinct. Vina del Mar is a very popular vacation place for residents of Santiago, and has great beaches, a casino, and plenty of parties.
Valparaiso is a UNESCO site, with a large port, colorful buildings covering the hillside, and a network of cobblestone streets that can be easily explored by foot. And the famous ascensores. This city has loads of charm is the best way of putting it.
Small Trip B: La Serena
This is north of Santiago, and has nice beaches but is also a starting point for Valle del Elqui which is a big agricultural region. It’s a pleasant place to spend a couple days if you find things to do. We went into the valley and took a tour of the well known Capel pisco distillery. There are several observatories around here (Northern Chile has many world-class observatories because the atmosphere is so clear), and on a separate trip I stayed at one overnight to document meteorites for my Astronomy class project.
Small Trip C: Chillan
I went here on a road trip with a couple friends, so one guy had a car and we drove. It makes for a great stop off the Panamericana highway, just a few hours from Santiago. If you’re feeling rich there is a famous ski resort with hot springs here.
Small Trip D: Mendoza, Argentina
I went here twice. For us, living in Santiago, its novelty was that it was Argentina at a fairly close distance. The Mendoza region is famous for its wine, and it was a very pleasant spot to spend a few days, with great food, and a laid-back feel. The bus trip over the Andes was also interesting (not for those scared of heights).
Small Trip E: Easter Island
This was a bit of a splurge trip for me, but I had a blast. It is very typical of tropical islands in the Pacific, but by some measures is the most remote island in the world. And it has those big stone heads.
The plane ride is 5 hours from Santiago, entirely over ocean, so you’re really out there. It’s a tiny island, so it’s fun to explore everywhere. There’s a beach, what’s left of an inactive volcano, and of course all the heads. An interesting mix of people and I grouped at the hostel–a business girl from London, two Belgian dudes, and this hilarious guy from Japan, and we drove around the island together in the boxy Susuki Samauri 4×4 that I rented. You get to do actual off-roading, which was super fun. The last great thing about Easter Island is that few people you will ever meet will have been there, so you get lifetime bragging rights.
To summarize, the places I most highly recommend are the National Park Torres del Paine in Southern Chile, San Pedro de Atacama and surrounding region in Northern Chile, the Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu, Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca and the off-road trek through Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia, and the South Coast of Brazil, parks and beaches included. My favorite big cities were Buenos Aires and La Paz.
As for places I really wanted to venture to on the continent, but didn’t have the time, Colombia is at the top. (In other words, if you go there, I’d probably join you.) In fact, I probably would have gone to Colombia but at the time it was too dangerous, especially for people with passports from the USA. I would have also liked to visit the Pantanal because of its rich biodiversity, and also Southern Argentina, though I imagine it closely resemble Southern Chile. The Northern Coast of Brazil is also very popular with travelers, and I would like to see it. And of course the Amazon! Angel Falls in Venezuela would also be great, but a bit $$$ I suspect.