With its tales of spectacular waterfalls, lush jungles, harsh deserts, remnants of long lost cultures and man-made wonders, South America has always been a continent that has beckoned to me. But it wasn’t until 2005, as a grandmother in my late fifties, that I managed to spend six weeks there, travelling independently and on my own. Like many travellers, I had a ‘shopping list’ of places I wanted to visit, including Iguaçu Falls in Brazil; Easter Island; the Atacama Desert of northern Chile; Sun Island and Lake Titicaca in Bolivia; Cusco, Machu Picchu and Nasca in Peru; the Valley of the Volcanoes in Ecuador and finally the beautiful, volcanic islands of Galapagos. A long list for such a short time.
In most locations, I had a local, knowledgeable guide and driver to take me around. Many places, like Machu Picchu, are of course very popular, but I was hoping to be surprised. I wanted to see and experience places tourists don’t normally go to, as well as exploring for myself. The popular travel guides always have ‘dangers and annoyances’ sections in their publications, but the best advice often comes from unexpected sources. Watching friends in Rio showed me how to pay for things without making open displays of money; how to keep small amounts in different places; how to move around without attracting too much attention. Then, a chance encounter with a Chilean man in Calamar airport (N. Chile), provided excellent advice on how to avoid altitude sickness; don’t exert yourself, eat little and often, drink plenty of water and rub metholatum under your nose at night – it helps breathing when asleep.
The departure for each new location, was like the start of another adventure. On Easter Island, a lovely Rapa Nui woman called Edith took me to visit her favourite places, including old lava tubes, caves and other sites which most tourists never see. Patricia, my guide in San Pedro de Atacama, shared insights about ancient Andean Indian beliefs, which were to provide an excellent foundation for the rest of my trip. I learnt about the condor (representing the freedom of the skies), the puma (the ground world) and the snake (water and the underworld) – symbols which I was to see over and over again; expressed in paintings, on pottery, in sculpture and legends. On Sun Island, Lake Titicaca, I was privileged to watch the local Kallawuaya (fortune tellers and native doctors of the Northern Altiplano) as he conducted an offering ceremony to bless Pachamama (Earth Mother) for bringing fertility and prosperity to the Lake and its peoples. On the outskirts of Cusco, we explored the rarely visited Temple of the Moon, built around and inside a natural rock formation. Long before the Inca, these rocky outcrops were considered sacred (or Huaca) and used as places of worship; and they are still in use today. In the Nasca desert, I learnt of a culture totally built around water, or the lack of it. As well as the famous Nasca Lines, there are mummy cemeteries filled with the remains of women and children sacrificed to bring rain; ancient stone aqueducts that still bring water from the mountains to the parched plains; and pyramids buried in giant mudslides. On the Galapagos Islands, I learnt how to snorkel and swam with turtles, seals and penguins. On land I came face to face with giant tortoises in the wild, mating and cavorting in a natural mud bath. So many places and wonderful memories.
Five countries, eleven islands, nineteen planes, three trains, six boats and numerous cars and buses later, I landed back at Aberdeen airport, safe and sound. My journey and experiences in South America were priceless; and now I have a further list of places that I know I will definitely return to one day.
Note: A personalised itinerary like this needs a specialist travel company. After several tries, I used Audley Travel in the UK www.audleytravel.com – I would thoroughly recommend them and have used them since for many of my travels. Other companies said they could organise this kind of trip, but tried to combine each part of the journey with other standard tours and travellers, which was not what I wanted.