Some of my top travel destinations in South America
May 11, 2018
After 90 days of travel across Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with my wife (Fran) we’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.
‘I can’t hear anything.’
‘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. Jatun Sacha, 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.
Here are some of my students!
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 1st travel book, Postcards from South America.
"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 evening drinks at a remote wooden building known as The Lab. It was the German girls who first showed us the way. Using lanterns, they led us along a winding track through the forest. I could hear the music from afar, pulsating from the darkness as we moved steadily along a boggy trail.
We came to a clearing and held our lanterns high. The timber-clad bar loomed close, and in the fleeting light I caught sight of numerous people standing by a hatch. I heard laughter, the clinking of bottles and the consistent thud from a nearby generator, competing with the sound of pop music from an overhead speaker.
This was the place where graduates, volunteers, villagers, gold prospectors and jungle guides came to relax, drink and dance. Very few patrons displayed any fashion sense, but no one seemed to care. Some danced in flip-flops, others paraded in gumboots and most wore shorts, along with singlets. The sounds of salsa, rock and Kylie Minogue resonated across the jungle, as cold beers were enjoyed, along with the local rocket fuel 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 Blanca, 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!
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)
Here is a short excerpt… (After arriving in Huaraz after enduring a freezing night while on an overnight bus from the coast)
We woke at midday and set out to locate the hostel we’d previously booked. The city centre bustled with cars and people, all going about their business. The rain had cleared, leaving behind a deep blue sky and the chance to point out snow-capped peaks, just beyond reach. A roadside café offered the chance to refuel, plus the opportunity to get directions for our luxury hostel. The waitress studied the address, pointed towards a nearby street and watched enthusiastically as we crossed the road and followed her directions.
We still couldn’t find the hostel but did discover a row of shops. Some sold a vast selection of camping equipment and others offered adventurous excursions to the nearby mountains. Some of the display windows showed posters of daring climbers, clinging to the sides of icy crags. Others displayed numerous items for sale, including rain jackets, tents, walking boots and maps. One shop caught our attention due to a colourful poster by the doorway, depicting a couple trekking towards a dazzling blue, glacial lake, sitting at the base of a snowy peak. The image was titled, Laguna 69. The words underneath said: English speaking guide available, plus hire of equipment. See inside for details.
I looked at Fran, she smiled in reply, and without a word we opened the door to Andean Summit and stepped inside. The owner was standing on a stepladder, adding an ice axe to a wall display before turning briefly to welcome us. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with masses of dark curls, sunburnt cheeks and wide shoulders. I approached the counter and called up to him. ‘Excuse me. We’d like to trek to Laguna 69 and wondered if you have a map?’
He stepped down from the ladder and asked, ‘How long are you in the area for?’
‘We’re not sure really, maybe for five days.’
He smiled brightly and held his hands out wide. ‘Laguna 69 is a very beautiful place, but you’ll need to sacrifice a day to see it. This involves a three-hour bus trip to the start point, followed by a three-hour trek to the glacial lake. After an hour by the water you’ll then head back the same way you came. If you have five days to play with, I suggest a longer trek, with the chance to camp in the wilds. After all, you are close to one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. Have you travelled all the way to the Andes for an adventure, or to drink coffee and enjoy day trips?’ he asked cheerfully.
One wall was decorated with a large map, depicting the mountains of northern Peru, and he called us over to study it. He pointed out Huaraz and let our eyes wander across the chart. There were mountains everywhere, plus lakes and rivers. There were few roads, and some seemed to stop abruptly, as though there was nowhere else to go. He then traced his finger between a series of mountains and hills. ‘I think this is the route for you. It is the Santa Cruz trail. For a set price I will supply good-quality tents, cooking equipment and the name of a local guide.’
He studied our straight faces and said, ‘Don’t look so worried. The trek will be amazing and in my opinion is far better than the Inca Trail.’
His words triggered a wide smile from me and a tentative grin from Fran, as she absorbed the information. During the trek we’d follow alongside a wide river, before tackling a steep mountain pass. It would take three or four days, with nothing in between, except meadows, glacial lakes and wild horses. After we’d paid the fee, he took us next door to a labyrinth of indoor markets, to purchase provisions. These were packaged by the thankful stallholders and stashed overnight in a corner of the camping shop.
We never did find the luxury hostel and opted instead for one more night on the complaining mattress. As planned, we rose shortly after dawn and made our way to the bus stop to meet the storeowner. A nearby café offered the chance to load up on pastries and coffee. These were enjoyed while traipsing along the city streets, watching as they came to life. The storeowner was easy to spot, waving from afar, while wrapped up against the cold 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 onto a piece of paper.
It depicted a dotted line that led from Huaraz, past a series of mountains, towards the village of Cashapampa. He pointed towards a large X on the map, halfway between Huaraz and Cashapampa. ‘This is as far as the bus goes. Stay on board until the driver tells you to get off. There’s usually a taxi parked nearby, for those heading further into the mountains. Show this map to the taxi driver and they’ll take you to Cashapampa. Then you’ll need to find Carlos. He’s the man that will guide you on the trek.’
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, with our 2 travelling companions and guide, Americo.
Creative types enjoy the story about Dead Woman’s Pass being named after a mummified lady, found buried beneath the path by explorers who were searching for Machu Picchu. Others insist that it is named after a local woman, who got caught on the pass during a violent snowstorm. 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 shape of a woman’s breast. There seemed nothing curvaceous about the steep path, which was now filled with trekkers from across the globe as they struggled for breath. Although the adjacent meadows held scatterings of lonely sheep and inquisitive llamas, very few trekkers seemed to notice. Most trudged past, too tired to take advantage of the photo opportunities.
I was lost in thought, trying to ignore the stabbing pains that had returned. Fran remained close, cajoling me gently. ‘Come on. You’re nearly there. Look, I can see Tom and Miranda waving from the top.’
I couldn’t find the strength to answer, and stumbled forward in silence, my eyes focused on the very next step. As if in a trance, I refused to look left or right, thinking only about lifting my legs to reach 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.
While I caught my breath, a steady stream of stragglers stopped nearby, each one groping for a water bottle, while their eyes adjusted to the new surroundings. Before us lay a steep-sided valley with a single path through its centre, now dotted with trekkers. Far in the distance we spotted a range of mountains, their peaks hidden behind swirling clouds.
While sitting by the track, I looked up to see a group of porters trudge past. I didn’t recognise any of them, but knew they’d have been busy all morning, either preparing food, or packing away camping equipment. They were now transporting tents and supplies to the next location. Some had bulging rucksacks strapped to their backs, while others balanced awkward loads on stooped shoulders. Tom handed one of them a chocolate bar, which he gratefully received with a tired smile, before continuing into the next valley.
At our campsite that evening, Americo poured a few drops of herbal tea onto the earth, as an offering to Pachamama. He then handed me the steaming mug. I’d witnessed the event numerous times since arriving in Cusco, and Americo was happy to explain it further. He talked quietly, about Pachamama being Mother Earth, a goddess who is revered by the indigenous people. By pouring a few drops of tea onto the ground, he was giving thanks to the goddess for giving life to the land, so that rivers will flow and crops can grow.
5. The final location to make it onto my top 5 is an underground mine in Bolivia.
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.
This is what happened next…
As planned, we arrived in Potosi a few months after the completion of the pigpen. The crowded bus deposited most passengers at the town plaza and Jackie rushed from the shade of a nearby tree, rewarding us with welcome hugs. While enjoying coffee at a quiet café we shared stories about our adventures to date, then set off to find a guide for the mine tour.
During our short walk, the mountain was rarely out of sight. Each narrow road seemed to have been designed to give pedestrians an uninterrupted view of the domineering landmass, reaching towards the cloudless sky. But this was not a natural wonder to behold. From a distance, all vegetation appeared to have been wiped from its surface and replaced by a reddish stain. It was hard to imagine that hundreds of workers were at that very moment, deep underground, extracting tonnes of rock in an effort to locate any precious metals.
Just behind the main road we found a narrow shopfront, advertising organised excursions to the mine. Within minutes we were in deep discussion with the owner, about the constant dangers facing the miners each day. He was a stout man, with a firm handshake, sun-ripened skin and a mass of curly dark hair. His eyes were narrow, but his smile seemed genuine, as he softly explained the realities of mining in Potosi.
The dangers include rock falls, asphyxiation and poisoning from leached gases. We also learned that if the harsh conditions do not maim or kill the miners, the debilitating lung disease, known as silicosis, invariably affects many of them.
After taking our payment, there was one more task to complete. He handed out disclaimer forms, which were written in English and filled with legal information about liabilities. He then insisted that we read and sign them, as the mine was far too dangerous for insurance claims. Before we left, he stood by the doorway and said quietly, ‘I hope in some way that you’ll learn something from this tour. We do not get many backpackers in Potosi compared to La Paz but those that venture this far seem intrigued by the mine. If you stay with your guide at all times you should be safe.’
The following morning we met our driver, a thin man of about thirty, with a powerful handshake and bloodshot eyes. He watched with interest as we wrestled into worn boiler suits, then helped us to choose suitable hard hats from a large container. Once satisfied, he drove us out of town in his pickup. Soon after, we turned off the bitumen, onto a rough track that had been etched into the mountainside.
As we traversed along the ridgeline, it suddenly struck me that I couldn’t see any birds or hear their calls. As the mine entrance loomed closer, it looked like the surrounding area had been abandoned by nature, with barely a speck of greenery to be seen amongst the discarded rocks.
The entry point consisted of a wide fracture in the mountain, blasted decades earlier. Close to the entrance, two stallholders waited patiently for passing trade. Their presence made me think back to a newspaper kiosk that I used to visit, located outside the car factory gates. It had been three months since we’d left England and so much had happened in a relatively short space of time. Would the kiosk still be open, now that the factory was planned for demolishment? I found myself remembering the early morning banter as workers queued for papers and chewing gum, shuffling forward one by one, for the brief exchange of money and goods.
But there was no such queue here. It was just our vehicle and the two stallholders, watching as we clambered out of the truck. The driver then pointed towards them and said, ‘Please, you must buy gifts for the miners. It is very important.’
I appreciated the friendly thought and strode towards the vendors, to check what they had for sale. Both sellers were young, I guessed thirteen, but they were dressed for a day of work, in jackets, jeans and boots. They stood slightly apart, smiling as I wandered nearer. There was no sign of newspapers, chocolate or mints on the tray of the first vendor. He had only one product for sale – sticks of dynamite.
Unsure of what to do next, I called out to the driver for advice. Although he was busy helping Fran with her hard hat, his reply sounded loud and clear. ‘Sí, señor. Please buy sticks of dynamite and a bag of coca leaves. Today, we will make one of the miners happy.’
I pulled out some notes and was offered two sticks of dynamite, which I tentatively placed into my boiler suit pocket. I then turned my attention to the next vendor. He produced a bright smile and pointed towards a hessian sack, filled with fresh leaves. For a small wad of bolivianos, I purchased enough coca leaves to send an airport sniffer dog into a frenzy.
At the entrance we were met by our guide, a teenage boy, called Marco. He wore scuffed boots, jeans and a long-sleeved jumper, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of short blonde curls, which were soon covered as he positioned a hard hat on his head, in preparation for entering the mine.
Marco seemed to have the mannerisms and self-assurance of someone far older, and in near perfect English, spoke briskly about his life in Potosi. There was little emotion in his voice as he explained that this was now his part-time job, taken out of necessity to help feed his family.
‘What about school?’ I asked.
Marco raised his chin and stood tall, his voice loud and clear. ‘My family need me to bring in money from the mine. So, for now, I guide visitors whenever I can. I still study, but mainly in the evenings if I am not too tired.’
He then turned his attention to our hard hats and battery powered headlamps, to make sure we were as prepared as possible. Seemingly happy, he then placed his mining lantern on the ground, adjusted a dial and lit the wick. As we watched the lantern come to life, he explained that the protected flame was not only used for light. If the flame changed colour or became brighter, it could mean poisonous gases were present. While I pondered this thought, he held the lantern high and asked us to follow him into the mine.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I studied the mine entrance. It initially resembled the type of overhang that I’d seen on caving trips. But there were no stalactites or stalagmites within view. Instead, we were faced with a clay figurine, which guarded the entrance to the main tunnel. Scatterings of coca leaves ordained the feet of the sculpture and a smouldering cigarette hung awkwardly from its twisted lips. In the subdued light, its head resembled a goat, complete with a scraggy beard, and two horns that gave it a demonic look.
Marco placed a few coca leaves by the feet of the effigy and then turned to face us. ‘This is El Tio, the Lord of the Underworld. He is highly valued by all who enter the mountain. If we pay our respects and leave an offering, he will protect us while we are underground. If we do not feed him, then he may feed on us instead!’
Without a word, we sprinkled coca leaves around the feet of El Tio. As they fell to the ground I felt a shiver run through me. I felt unsure if it was in response to a chilly breeze from a hidden shaft, or the thought that we were just about to enter a very dangerous place!