Recap of My 8 Months in South America

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Colorful colonial building in Cartagena, Colombia
So today is the last day of my trip, after 8 months of traveling around South America I have finally reached the end. It´s funny how things change as your grow used to this different type of life. I remember arriving in South America, or to be more precise in Panama, unsure and uncertain about the culture, where exactly I was going, basically of everything, and speaking hardly any Spanish definitely didn´t help. I remember talking to all the other travelers to find out about other places that I was planning on visiting, to find out all the things that you can´t learn from reading a guide book. And now, 8 months later I find that the tables have turned, it is everyone else who is asking me, and I am the one giving advice about all the places that I´ve been; but such is the way of life, the student invariably becomes the teacher at some point down the line.
Me with a Colombian soldier on the trek to Ciudad Perdida
I´m not sure exactly when things began to change, but certainly by the time I reached the southern tip of the continent I had already amassed considerable knowledge of all the places that I had visited. The route that I have taken has led me through some of the more remote areas of the continent, at least those accessible via public transportation, and I think has been much more challenging, interesting, and rewarding than following the so-called "Gringo Trail" everywhere. Considering the shear number of people that I have begun to ask me the same questions, things such as what I liked the best and what I thought about this country or that country, I thought that I should share my thoughts along those lines. What follows are a few lists and summaries of what I liked and didn´t like throughout my trip. The pictures that follow alongside are some my favorite photos that I have taken, however I am going to reserve my ten favorite photos for my last entry of this travel journal.
Inside the salt cathedral, Zipaquira, Colombia


Now, on to the lists:

Best Experiences of my trip, in order traveled:
1. Sailing trip from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia via the San Blas Islands
2. Trek to Ciudad Perdida
3. Carnaval de Blancos y Negros
4. Hiking to Kuelap and traveling the backroads in northern Peru
5. Macchu Pichu and back through the strike
6.
Inside the action at the Carnaval de Blanos y Negros, Popayan, Colombia
Day trip from Arica to Parque Nacional Lauca
7. Hiking the W in Torres del Paine
8. Iguazu Falls and the Jesuit Missions
9. Southwest Bolivia and Salar de Uyuni
10. Pampas tour in northern Bolivia
11.
The mighty walls of Kuelap being reclaimed by the cloud forest
River boat down through the Amazon
12. The savannah and jungle in Guyana
13. Trek to Mount Roraima
14. Upriver to Angel Falls by boat
15. The Llanos

My Favorite Cities, in the order visited:
1. Cartagena, Colombia - colorful colonial buildings, a walled city, and a massive fortress
2. Bogota, Colombia - the most pleasant and inviting of the big cities, modern enough but still retains its traditional Colombian character
3.
Humberstone ghost town and a mining blast in the distance, near Iquique, Chile
Cusco, Peru - surrounded by extensive ruins, a very pleasant city with lots to offer
4. Iquique, Chile - perhaps the most beautifully set city I visited, with old mansions, nice beaches, and mining ghost towns
5. Valparaiso, Chile - a truly unique place and very cultural place with colorful houses stacked precariously on hillsides
6. Sucre, Bolivia - just a nice place to spend time and also the street food capital of South America
7. La Paz, Bolivia - where else can you see Aymara Indians eating at Burger King and a Witch´s Market selling llama fetuses next door to a Hard Rock Cafe
Honorable mention: Cuenca, Buenos Aires, Fishing villages on island of Chiloe

Worst Cities, places that you can´t wait to leave, again in the order visited:
1. Panama City, Panama - oppressively hot, dirty, and noisy, with chaotic streets overcrowded with cars and run down buses
2.
Reflections of the palafitos in Castro on the island of Chiloe, Chile
Sihuas, Peru - dump of a mountain town where I couldn´t even find a place to buy a cold drink
3. Tocopilla, Chile - expensive, overpriced and with almost nothing to offer
4. Pueto Montt, Chile - perhaps the best feature of this city is the modern shopping mall
5. El Calafate, Argentina - merely a place that wastes your time when you come to see the glacier, the center is dominated by a garrish new casino
6. Uyuni, Bolivia - a stark contrast to the beauty of southwestern Bolivia, try to spend as little time here as possible
7. Asuncion, Paraguay - hot and sketchy, what there is to offer in the city shuts down real early and shanty towns flank the oppulent government buildings

Things I would have done if I could have (but for lack of money mostly, was unable to):
1. Isla Gorona, Colombia - Colombia´s version of Alcatraz with supposedly excellent diving and wildlife
2.
The granite towers of Torres del Paine glowing under the rising sun
Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado, Bolivia - remote and isolated with gorgeous waterfalls and plateaus, but super expensive
3. Isla Fernando Noronha, Brazil - a beautiful island tropical paradise that seems lost in time
4. Antarctica - the final and most costly frontier
5. Galapagos - people who visited said that the amount of wildlife and the close interactions that you have with them are truly remarkable
6. Easter Island - mysterious giant statues on a remote island
7. Isla Mocha, Chile - a Chilean marine biologist that I met who has been everywhere in Chile told me that this was the most impressive place he has seen in the country, and for Chile that means a lot
8.
A deep blue lake, green vegetation, and snow capped mountains in Torres del Paine, Chile
Trip to Pico Neblina on the Brazil-Venezuela border - several days upriver and then travel through uncivilized villages followed by hiking from the heart of the rainforest up to 10,000 feet.


My thoughts on each of the countries that I visited:

Colombia - Overall I would have to say that Colombia was my favorite country that I visited on this trip; it has virtually everything to offer, beaches, mountains, jungle, rainforest, ancient ruins, and great cities. Because of the past violence between the drug cartels and the ongoing internal conflict with the FARC Colombia gets a bad and unjustified reputation safety-wise. In my travels through the country I encountered no problems and found the friendliness and helpfullness of the Colombian people to be amazing.
Clouds blowing across the mountains of Torres del Paine
Even though I spent about a month in Colombia I only scratched the surface of the number of places to visit, and this is only considering the mainstream places. Pick up any book on the national parks in Colombia, sure some are dangerous to visit for foreigners due to the civil conflicts, and you´ll be surprised at what there is to see.

Ecuador - Proceeding south from Colombia I visited Ecuador, a much poorer and more indigenous country. For my travels in Ecuador I stayed in the middle of the country, in mountains, and was rewarded with beautiful mountain views, snow capped volcanos, and small indigenous villages. The cheap price of gasoline, about $1.50 a gallon, results in lots of cars on the road and a hectic character to many of the cities, but also a fair amount of societal advancement but still pales in comparison to Colombia.

Peru - I found Peru to be much more indigenous and lost in time than Ecuador.
The Dientes (Teeth) de Navarino at the end of the Americas in Puerto Williams, Chile
Similarly to Ecuador I traveled only in the mountains of Peru, all the way down to Chile. The vast amount of arcaelogical ruins that Peru contains is astonishing and undoubtedly Machu Picchu and Kuelap are some of the most outstanding sites in the world. But throughout numerous hours of bus rides through impoverished mountain towns I couldn´t help but thinking that people and society of Peru have advanced little since the domination of the Inca empire and that perhaps the country had already reached its pinnacle. Many of the people seem to live the same way today as they did 500 years ago, plows pulled by livestock and manual agriculture, with the exception that now they take the bus into town to sell the vegetables of their labor.

Chile - By far the most modern, and richest country (looking at the GDP) in South America, Chile is a country where things work and things run on time (about as much as you could realistically hope for at least), sure there are still strikes and protests but nothing of the sort of other countries.
Changing leaves and Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, Argentina
Santiago with its setting and smog is strangely to Los Angeles. What sets Chile apart is its 4,000km in lenght and a landscape that features just about every conceivable climatic zone from one of the driest deserts in the world, the Atacama, to the glaciers and fjords of patagonia. If you like the wilderness you could spend several lifetimes exploring the vast tracts of uninhabited spaces that Chile has to offer, and the unspoiled places like Isla Navarino are spectacular.

Argentina - While not as modern as Chile, Argentina is still leaps and bounds ahead of Peru, Ecuador, or Bolivia. The difference between Argentina and Chile is that on the surface things seem to work and run smoothly but many times this is merely a facade. The strange thing about a country this size is that everything seems to revolve around Buenos Aires, perched on the far eastern edge of the country, from the news to flights, to distribution.
The jungle canopy in Guyana
And while Buenos Aires is a world famous city, it is so modern that looking around in some parts of the city you could see the same things you would see anywhere in the world; it´s too modern for its own good, having lost much of its charm and charisma. But aside from Buenos Aires the natural beauty of Argentina is unmistakable, from the glaciers of the south and deserts of the north to Iguazu Falls and the Jesuit Missions there is loads to see.

Uruguay - For better or worse I made to Uruguay in the off-season so I didn´t get to experience the world famous resorts of places like Punta del Este. But I did get to see the beautful colonial town of Colonia and Montevideo in itself was nice, although a bit reminiscent of a more run down Buenos Aires. The highlight of my time in Uruguay were the deserted stretches of beaches up the coast towards Brazil. With hardly any tourists to spoil it, there are small fishing villages, some old fortresses, vast starry skies to be seen; but I got the impression that this all is somehow overrun with tourists during the summer as populations surge, prices rise, and things fill up well in advance.
Angel Falls, Venezuela


Brazil - I had originally intended to travel up the coast of Brazil but after experiencing the costs of transportation in Brazil I quickly had to decide against that. With gas costing a bit under $6 per gallon, a 12 hour bus ride in Brazil costs about $50-60, quite the difference from the $1 per hour it costs in most other countries. The parts of Brazil that I did get to experience, the Amazon and the little panhandle in the south were very interesting and I traveled through some very isolated areas. The shear amount of water in the Amazon, it was the wet season and the water level was up 12 meters in Manaus, and the vastness of the whole region were mind-boggling. Days spent on the riverboat were dull but sleeping in a hammock surrounded dozens and dozens of Brazilians was definitely a unique experience.

Paraguay - I would say that Paraguay, along with Guyana, was the most surprising country that I visited.
The vast wetlands of the Llanos in Venezuela
I´m not sure what I expected of the second poorest country in South America (after Bolivia), but it wasn´t what I encountered. Things were much more expensive and more modern than I thought. But Asuncion was truly a contradiction, an oppressively hot place with massive and opulent government palaces and buildings located alongside vast shantytowns and squatter houses. Even the Chaco, supposedly one of the last wilderness areas on the continent is traversed by a well-paved road all the way to Bolivia. There were lots of places I would have liked to visit but there just simply wasn´t any public transportation to many parts of the country, especially the north. The strange nature of the country is representative of its strange and tumultous past, see War of the Triple Alliances and the Chaco War.

Bolivia - Bolivia was my second favorite country, both for the natural beauty that it has to offer as well as its indigenous culture. Of all the things that I saw on my trip I would say that the single most impressive thing would have to be the scenery in southwestern Bolivia. The culture of the indians is also something special and the clash between modern progression and the roots and continuity of the traditional past meet head on in La Paz, one of the most unique cities I have ever been to. Politically the country is currently the center of the clash between the indigenous supported president Evo Morales and the richer more modern-looking people of the eastern parts of the country. The tumultous history that has seen 106 different presidents in its 188 years of existence will certainly continue if the number of daily protests and strikes is any indication. 

Guyana - Probably the most unique country I visited in comparison to the other countries, perhaps it is the years of British influence that has so vastly changed this small parcel of land. While I didn´t make it all the way to Georgetown, I can say that the interior of Guyana with the Rupuni Savannah and the Iwokrama Forest is very pretty and in almost pristine condition. The country itself reminded me more of the Bahamas than South America.

Venezuela - I would say that Venezuela is one of the more bizarre countries in South America; with the amount of resources at its disposal there are so many strange things that just don´t seem to make any sense. There is a half hour time difference between its neighbors, a fixed exchange rate that has led to the creation of a quasi-legal black market, absurdly cheap gas (3 cents per liter, 12 cents per gallon) that leads to smuggling and contraband, the amount of corruption in the police forces, the trash strewn cities and countrysides, and even national parks, absolutely frigid buses, and just a general uneasiness that most people can feel when traveling throughout the country. Couple that with 37% inflation since January and crazy expensive prices and you get something rather subpar. However, it is hard to demote Venezuela too much because it contains some of the most beautiful scenery in all of South America but when considering everything else, it is far from a pleasant place to travel in and I met very few people who had many good things to say about the country as a whole. In many ways it is a shame because it could be so much more.


I could go on in depth about each country but I think I´ve said enough to give you the gist of things, but if you have any questions feel free to ask. I´ll write one more entry on my thoughts about the trip and the things I´ve seen and experienced as a whole, along with my ten favorite photos of the trip.
Murciana says:
I just made a spectacular trip to Chile, Antarctica, and Argentina and plan to return to Chile and Argentina early next year to visit friends in Buenos Aires and another friend on Chiloé Island. Yesterday, in my search for information about Chiloé, I found your Southern American blog and spent five hours reading it in its entirety and looking at all your wonderful pictures. I was pleased you liked Colombia as I lived there for ten years and am fond of the country and people. Thanks for providing me with a pleasant, entertaining, and educational evening.
Posted on: Mar 14, 2009
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Colorful colonial building in Cart…
Colorful colonial building in Car…
Me with a Colombian soldier on the…
Me with a Colombian soldier on th…
Inside the salt cathedral, Zipaqui…
Inside the salt cathedral, Zipaqu…
Inside the action at the Carnaval …
Inside the action at the Carnaval…
The mighty walls of Kuelap being r…
The mighty walls of Kuelap being …
Humberstone ghost town and a minin…
Humberstone ghost town and a mini…
Reflections of the palafitos in Ca…
Reflections of the palafitos in C…
The granite towers of Torres del P…
The granite towers of Torres del …
A deep blue lake, green vegetation…
A deep blue lake, green vegetatio…
Clouds blowing across the mountain…
Clouds blowing across the mountai…
The Dientes (Teeth) de Navarino at…
The Dientes (Teeth) de Navarino a…
Changing leaves and Perito Moreno …
Changing leaves and Perito Moreno…
The jungle canopy in Guyana
The jungle canopy in Guyana
Angel Falls, Venezuela
Angel Falls, Venezuela
The vast wetlands of the Llanos in…
The vast wetlands of the Llanos i…
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photo by: ellieperla