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My top 5 travel destinations in South America

May 11, 2018

 

 

After 90 days of travel across Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with my wife (Fran) I’ve come up with a list of some of our favourite locations.

 

1. Straight in at number one, is Salar de Uyuni,                the largest salt flat in the world.

 

I must be honest, and admit that we’d never heard of the location until we were deep inside Bolivia. At the time we were on a 4 wheel drive adventure, from the remote town of Tupiza. After searching (and finding) the town of San Vicente, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid battled with the Bolivian Army, we made our way towards the salt flats. Spread across an area of 10,000 square kilometres, the salt encrusted flats merge into the horizon and are acknowledged as one of the most remarkable landscapes in South America.

 

We arrived just before dawn, bleary eyed after a night out at a remote mining village.

 

I’ve added a short excerpt from my 1st book …

 

The first soft rays of light crept over the horizon, and with sunlight, came the truth. The land was dead flat and brilliant white. No matter where you looked in any direction there was nothing but white against an awakening sky.

‘Fran, listen.’

‘I can’t hear anything.’

‘Exactly.’

‘What can you see?’

‘White – just white. And clouds and the sunrise and puddles.’

She zipped her fleece up tight and moved nearer. ‘Did you know that such a place ever existed?’

I answered honestly, ‘No, never.’

No plant, animal or insect could be seen or heard, only the sounds of our sandals crunching on white crystals. We hunted for shallow puddles of clear water from recent rains and captured photo opportunities before the magic of dawn was lost. While taking photos of our long shadows and silhouettes, a faint noise gave away the location of a group of miners. We ventured nearer to watch.

They swung hand picks into the thin crust and used wooden shovels to scoop the precious mineral from the dried lake. Had they worked all night? They were surrounded by small mounds of salt. It looked like an enormous mole had been burrowing under the dried lake. As the sun rose we traversed the vast area and stopped briefly at a deserted hotel made entirely from salt. The sun was rising fast now and the romance faded as rising temperatures and harsh light reflected off the glaring minerals. It was time to head back to Tupiza.

2. Volunteering for the Jatun Sacha Foundation in Ecuador

The meaning of Jatun Sacha in Quichua (Indigenous South American language) is ‘Big Forest.’ In relative terms, the reserve is small. But packed inside its 2,500 hectares, is one of the most species rich environments on the planet! The goal of the foundation is to conserve the remaining forests, educate those who inhibit the local villages and to continually increase its size by purchasing disused farms that sit on its fringes.

 

Volunteers bring in much needed currency and assist with reforestation projects. I was lucky enough to become the English teacher. Although totally unqualified for such a task, I took my chance without both hands.

 

Within weeks, I was taking lessons by the edge of the Rio Napo, a major tributary of the Amazon.

Be warned! If you do decide to become a volunteer on a conservation project, it will probably be one of the most rewarding periods of your life. Those that work at Jatun Sacha full time are known as Guardians of the Forest. With an intimate knowledge of the environment and a passion to share their home, they are held in high regard. Each week, we would go out with one of the guardians, to explore the forest that we were helping to protect.

 

Sometimes, we'd hire river taxi's to take across the water, in search of remote villages.

To give you a taster, I’ve added a short excerpt from my book …

 

Our day walks with the guardians were always different, depending on who you went with. Milton was regarded as an avid bird enthusiast, taking volunteers on a magical journey in search of parakeets, white-eared jacamars and (if you were lucky) the greater yellow-headed vulture. William’s trips were fun, noisy and full of laughter. These were our Tarzan moments – climbing trees, swinging from vines, or searching for jaguar prints in the dried mud.

 

Lunchtimes in the forest were special moments. The guardians would wind their way through the trees towards gurgling streams of cool, clear water. The canopy was alive with birdsong and large butterflies fluttered overhead. Volunteers would dip their toes in the sweet water and feast on lunches prepared by the kitchen staff. Our meals were lovingly wrapped in banana leaves and held together by freshly cut vine. As the days sped by, some volunteers played hooky, shirking all forms of responsibility. Others enjoyed the arduous but worthwhile activities.

 

Occasionally, volunteers would head for after-work drinks at a remote wooden cabin called The Lab. This was the locals’ name for the jungle bar. Our first visit was by invitation from a group of young Germans. Using lanterns, they showed us a secret path that wound through the dense forest towards a clearing where the wooden building had been erected.

 

Scientists, volunteers, locals and gold prospectors came to drink and party. Black rubber boots mixed with funky flip-flops on the dance floor of the wooden bar, as volunteers from across the globe gyrated to the generator-fed DJ. Salsa, rock and Kylie Minogue blasted into the jungle as cold beers were washed down with the local rocket juice known as Cristal Limón.

3. Trekking the Santa Cruz circuit in Northern Peru using donkeys as support crew

 

Think of Peru and for many, the first adventurous activity that comes to mind is trekking along the Inca Trail. We decided to warm up for the Inca Trail by heading into the Cordillera Blanco, a mountainous region, approx. 600km north of Lima.. Our aim was to soak up the sights and take part in a series of easy to moderate day walks. After an overnight bus ride from the coast, we woke, surrounded by snow peaked caps.

 

We were in the high altitude town of Huaraz and after finding a room, followed by a morning nap, we went in search of a late lunch. On the way, we passed a shop called Andean Kingdom. What followed next, set us up for a 4 day adventure that we’ll never forget.

 

Within days, we'd be alone, in this valley!

Here is a short excerpt…

 

The owner was standing on the top of a step ladder, adding an ice axe to a new display and turned briefly to welcome us. He was in his thirties, with masses of dark curls, sun burnt cheeks and wide shoulders. We approached the counter and declared confidently, ‘We’d like to trek to Laguna 69 and wondered if we needed a guide?’

The owner grinned, stepped down from the ladder and replied, ‘How long are you in town?’

Fran looked at me, then at the owner and replied, ‘Five days.’

He smiled brightly and held his hands out wide. ‘Then you are crazy! Forget Laguna 69. Come and look at this map. These mountains are the highest range in the world, outside of Asia. Have you travelled all the way to Peru for an adventure, or to drink our coffee?’ he asked cheerfully.

One wall was decorated with an ordinance survey map of the area and his finger traced a thin line that cut through a section of mountains. ‘This is the route for you. It is the Santa Cruz circuit. I will supply tents, food and the name of a guide. He will supply donkeys and might even catch fish for you along the way.’

He pointed at our weary faces and said, ‘Don’t worry, my friends. The trek will be amazing and will help you to smile again.’

 

He was right. This is why we’d left the UK and I could feel my heart pulsating as he explained the route. The trek passed through three valleys from one remote village to another, giving us the opportunity to find solace and adventure. He took us next door to a labyrinth of indoor markets to purchase dried foods and provisions. These were packaged by the thankful stallholders and stashed overnight in a corner of the camping shop.

 

The following morning he was at the bus stop, wrapped deeply in a fur lined jacket. Our provisions were neatly bundled on the pavement and he helped put them in the hold. His final contribution was a mud map, scribbled on a piece of paper. On it were the directions to the starting point of the trek, plus the name of the man that we had to find.

 

His name was Carlos and according to the map, he lived in the remote village of Cashapampa. With handshakes and smiles we bid the store owner farewell, stepped on board and set off towards the distant foothills.

Here we are with Carlos.​

And this is Angus the Donkey! (Carlos wasn't keen to see me feeding our rations to Angus, as we were 3 days walk from the nearest shop)

4. I couldn’t leave out the Inca Trail

 

Those that trek the Inca Trail never forget Dead Woman’s Pass. Thousands hike the fabled path each year and there are few that emerge unscathed from Dead Woman’s Pass. It is the highest point along the Inca Trail and is tackled partway through day two of the trek. It’s not only the altitude (4,215 metres/13,828 feet) that takes its toll, but also the drop in temperature, rockier terrain and lack of trees to buffer the chill winds.

Despite the pain, the rewards are worth every step. Once on top of the mini summit, the next valley is spread before you. Snow-capped peaks glisten on the horizon and those that have trekked before you, now resemble tiny dots, far below on the valley floor. Trekkers stop for breath, wide eyed at the sight, eager to capture the moment in a photo.

I hope you enjoy the following excerpt...

 

Creative types enjoy the story about Dead Woman’s Pass being named after a mummified lady found buried beneath the path, by explorers searching for the Inca trail. Others have heard that it is named after a local woman, who got caught on the pass during a violent snowstorm without shelter. She was found the next day, frozen on the summit. The traditional thought is that the outline of the pass, when viewed from a certain angle, resembles the subtle shape of a woman’s breast.

 

There seemed nothing voluptuous about the abrupt path, which was now scattered with trekkers from across the globe as they struggled for breath. Although the adjacent fields held scatterings of lonely sheep and small herds of wild llamas, I felt oblivious to their beauty or close proximity. I was lost in deep thoughts, trying to ignore the stabbing pains in my stomach. Fran remained close, cajoling me gently. ‘Come on, you’re nearly there. Look, I can see Miranda and Tom waving from the top.’

 

I refused to answer, stumbling forward, my eyes focused on the very next step. I felt like I was in a trance, refusing to look left or right, as my body did the minimum amount of work in order to get to the summit. Then, slowly at first, the steps reduced in height and when I next looked up, Miranda was nearby, smiling as she came closer to hug me. From this vantage point, the remainder of the trail was easy to see, looking far easier, as it wound down the opposite side of the mountain pass.

 

While I caught my breath, a steady stream of stragglers passed me by, each one groping for water bottles, then sucking hard on cool water as they studied the scene. The white tipped mountains were now within reach, spread either side of the valley where our tents would be pitched later in the afternoon. The porters had spent all morning cooking, cleaning and packing away our tents and while we stood at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, they appeared from the valley.

Their loads were contained in various concoctions, including tattered rucksacks, hessian bags and plastic containers, balanced awkwardly on stooped shoulders. They had little time to stop as they silently marched past with strained smiles. 

Without doubt, the porters are the unsung heroes on the Inca Trail. Please treat then with the respect they deserve!

5. The final location to make it onto my top 5 is an underground mine.

 

The expected lifespan of an underground miner in Potosi, Bolivia is estimated to be forty-two years of age. I learned this information from a German backpacker called Jackie, while building a pig pen in the Ecuadorian jungle!

 

Months later, we met up with Jackie once more, this time in Potosi. After signing up for a tour of the mine, we drove to the entrance. Before entering, our guide insisted that we purchase gifts for the miners.

 

This is what happened next…

 

 

During the short walk towards the stall holder I noticed a hessian sack on the floor by his side, filled with green leaves. For a small wad of Bolivianos we purchased enough cocoa leaves to send an airport sniffer dog into a frenzy. At the entrance we were met by a second guide, just twelve years of age. He had the mannerisms of someone far older; talking briskly and unemotionally about his life in Potosi. He was working full-time in order to help feed his family and had abandoned education out of necessity.

 

His English was near perfect and despite his youth, had all the traits of a confident young adult, tucking unkempt curls into his hard hat before turning his attention to our safety gear. He checked our hats and battery-powered head torches, then insisted we follow him into the labyrinth, now partially illuminated by the lantern swinging from his prematurely calloused hands.

 

All natural light faded as we carefully descended into the warren. With each step, airborne dust caught in my throat and more than once I heard one of the women stifle a cough. Our eyes adjusted as the guide stopped beside a cavern, where a grotesque clay statue guarded the entrance. The demonic El Tio is the God of Miners and is highly respected by all who enter the mountain. Scatterings of cocoa leaves ordained the feet of the statue and a smouldering cigarette hung awkwardly from its twisted lips. We also had to pay our respects, adding a few precious cocoa leaves to the pile on the floor.

Our tour would last a few hours but the miners were expected to spend twelve hours underground. During this period no food is consumed, as it is seen as bad luck to eat. To combat hunger, the miners place cocoa leaves in the gap between their cheeks and gums. The constant sucking helps numb their throats and drip-feeds the brain with induced chemicals, to help ease the intolerable situation.

The life expectancy of the miners is short due to the constant inhalation of mineral dust, leading to mal de mina (lung disease). The mines have no safety procedures, maps, exit signs, or electricity and we had no idea where we were going. Our weak torch beams struggled to penetrate the dusty atmosphere, leading to dead ends and minor collisions with jagged pieces of rock protruding from the walls.

 

All the while, a constant drip of sweat trickled from the inside of our hard hats as we tentatively descended into the cauldron. Our young guide confidently led us through the maze of tunnels and we followed silently in single file. Initially I tried to remember each turning in case we needed to return in an emergency, but they were too numerous and the increasing temperature sapped my enthusiasm.

 

‘Un momento,’ he whispered from up ahead. We gathered close, panting hard while waiting further instructions. As our breathing eased, the faint sound of digging could be heard, resonating through the passage. ‘Please follow me,’ he instructed, before crouching down and crawling through an unseen tunnel.

Jackie and Fran, smiling before they enter the mine. (They weren't smiling four hours later)

 

I hoped you enjoyed my top 5 places in South America.

 

The excerpts were taken from my first travel book: Half a World Away: Travels in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

This book was awarded a Red Ribbon by The Wishing Shelf Book Awards.

They described it as..."Not your usual travel book! packed full of drama and fun. A RED RIBBON WINNER and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED."

Happy travels,

 

Alistair

Alistair 
McGuinness