© 1989, 1991, 2001, 2013, 2016 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
I've been once to each of six of the 13 countries. I'll cover them in the order in which I visited them.
Official Name: Republic of Peru; Capital: Lima; Language: Spanish; Country Code: PE; Currency: nuevo sol (PEN)
In November and December of 1981, I had my first adventure holiday, to the Amazon River in northern Peru. To outfit myself I went to a military surplus store and spent about $25 on some khaki shirts, trousers, and a webbing belt, and the shirts even came with some rank and insignia. At the end of my jungle trip we were taken to the airport by bus where we waited by a hanger. Several military helicopters swooped in and landed near us and a whole bunch of armed soldiers jumped out. There I was looking every bit like a mercenary or gunrunner, except for one standout feature, the bright red laces in my hiking boots! It turns out they weren't after me, they were headed out on "pirate patrol" on the Amazon. [While on the river, I saw evidence of that in the form of navy patrol vessels.]
While at our primitive jungle camp on the Amazon, we were about to board a boat for the 6-hour trip back to base camp when an oil-company floatplane touched down on the river next to us. After some discussion with the pilot, our guide announced that the pilot was flying to the same place we were headed and that he could take several people with him if we wanted to go, for about US$30 each. The trip would take less than an hour. I volunteered as did one other guy, and we were off bouncing along the water trying to get enough takeoff speed. All the controls were in English, which the pilot didn't speak, and a few things seemed to be tied together with string, but, hey, it was an adventure. Being in a floatplane, we had to follow the waterways so we could land in an emergency. It was only when the pilot took short cuts over the jungle that I worried a bit.
Some highlights of the trip were seeing a morpho butterfly, the size of a dinner plate, fly right by me on a jungle trail; canoeing and watching kids swimming where piranhas were swimming; canoeing at night looking for Caiman alligators with a flashlight; and drinking home brew with an Indian chief and then finding out the basis for it is a root that has to be chewed by women as only their spit has the right ingredient for fermentation to occur!
From there, we went on to the capital, Lima, where we spent a couple of less-than-interesting days. I seem to recall this was not long after a civilian government had taken over from a military one. Fortunately, it was also before the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) came on the scene in a big way.
From Lima, we flew high up in the Andes to Cuzco, the former seat of the Incan Empire, where I experienced firsthand a dose of altitude sickness. From there, we took the train to the famous Incan ruin of Machu Pichu where we stayed overnight. Once the day-trippers left mid-afternoon, the 100 or so of us staying over had the place to ourselves until mid-morning the next day. It definitely was a sight to behold!
Official Name: Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; Capital: Caracas; Language: Spanish; Country Code: VE; Currency: Bolívar fuerte (VEF)
For Christmas 1989, I took my family to Venezuela for the school winter break. After some time in the capital, we flew to Canaima, and later spent some pleasant days on Margarita Island. (This was in the days before Hugo Chavez.)
[Diary] We flew from Caracas, in a Boeing 727-100, which is like a VW Beetle with a V8 engine! We were headed for Canaima near the base of Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall. However, instead of stopping at the airport the pilot raced up the valley giving the passengers—first on the one side and then on the other—a bird's eye view of the 1,000-meter falls "just out the window". It was not your typical jet flight and most tourist destinations would charge you $100+ to do that in a small plane.
[Regarding the flat-topped mountains–called tepuis–and the isolated plant and animal species in that area, read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World. The giant spider in the movie Arachnophobia came from the area, and the animated movie Up has the guy in the balloon land there.]
Apart from the falls, there was nothing very special about the trip, but at least it was much warmer than back home!
Official Name: Republic of Chile; Capital: Santiago; Language: Spanish; Country Code: CL; Currency: peso (CLP)
In October and November 1991, I had my second big adventure trip (for the first, see Peru above), which involved a couple weeks riding in a tour bus with a group, crossing southern Chile and Argentina, billed as a Patagonia Walking trip, preceded by some days on my own in Santiago getting in a Spanish-speaking mood.
[Diary] The main street of the capital is called La Avenida de O'Higgins. Now while Bernardo O'Higgins was a famous local general, his name doesn't sound very Hispanic. However, there are streets, hotels, and even a bank named after him.
[Diary] At the bus station, I bought a one-way ticket to Valparaiso, the country's main port and second largest city. The fare was 650 pesos. The coach was very nice and had a driver and two staff dressed in uniforms. One could buy food and drink, and there was a toilet on board. A radio was broadcast throughout the bus, and Tom Jones used that to serenade us in English en route. Driving time was 1:45 hours. I sat next to somebody's grandma, and we chatted a bit with me asking her lots of questions and she replying so fast I understood about two words per sentence, although when hearing rapid-spoken Spanish, it's hard to tell where one sentence ends and the next one starts. For all I know she may well have telling me about a boil on her butt!
While I was making progress on my Spanish reading and speaking, it was clear I was very deficient in comprehension. My most common responses were no entiendo (I don't understand) and mas despacio (speak more slowly).
[Diary] The town of Viña del Mar was very much up-market, so much so that I didn't think I'd be able to find cheap accommodation. I got wind of a hostel, but after 45 minutes of walking, I discovered it had closed down. After that long walk had tired me out what to do but stop at a supermarket and buy a bag of dried sultanas (golden raisins) and sit in the sun and eat them. They didn't help my feet any, but they sure tasted good.
Well, my travel motto is, "Always have a plan B, even for Plan B!" I finally found a place right downtown on Agua Santa. It was your typical hostel with mix-and-match furniture. The share-bathroom had a pan, cold water basin, and shower in a tub. A large gas cylinder sat at the end of the tub, and one just switched on the gas, struck a match, and "let her rip!" The price was $5/night, which was just fine with me.
Today was the day the staff had chosen to replace some of the furniture and bedding in my very room. So when I say that I had to make my bed, I mean that I had to make my bed, literally. Being much taller than the guys assembling the double bunk beds I offered to help them, and we become buddies even though we could barely understand each other. However, there was one bit of good news. One of the bolt holes in the bed was drilled incorrectly, and the bolt wouldn't fit properly. Just that very morning I had been learning some new Spanish verbs, one of which was to fit, and lo and behold I got a chance to use it in a real-life situation, "It won't fit", or as we'd say in Australian-Spanish, no bloody fitto, Jose!
We assembled three bunks and put on new mattresses, sheets, and blankets. My mattress was rock-hard, just as I like it. The old mattresses we replaced sagged almost to the floor. With them, I reckon I could have rocked myself to sleep trying to get out of bed.
I did learn one important lesson; if you are 6'4" tall and sleeping on the bottom bunk, don't sit straight up in bed as you'll hit your !@#$ head!
[Diary] Valparaiso was definitely a step down from Viña del Mar. I found the main Post Office, bought stamps and more cards, and posted some cards. From there I went to the main square, Plaza Solomayor. And right across the street, I spied the Hotel Reina Victoria (The Queen Victoria), but I doubt she'd have been very proud of it, at least not in its current state. The front desk was up a flight of stairs and it was tended by a kindly grandmother. We got along famously and soon, I was ensconced in my own large private room on the 3rd floor. The room had a washbasin, two face washers, a mirror, and a power outlet. There was a large wardrobe and a bed that sagged quite badly. The bedside stand had a small reading lamp on it along with—yes Ladies and Gentlemen—a chamber pot! A small table, chair, and a rug completed the décor. The two windows opened out over the plaza. To my left was the Chilean Navy Port and to my right was the Naval Headquarters. A window seat was built into the wall, and as I sat, I could see sailors coming and going to/from the Armada de Chile building.
Now, I ask you Ladies and Gentlemen, how much would you expect to pay for such luxury and a view? Well I paid 2,000 pesos per night, a little less than US$6. Continental breakfast was included and would be delivered to my room. A share bath was down the hall and ran on a gas-fired apparatus. I even had a view of the plaza from the toilet seat. But wait, there was even more; my room came with a living pot plant!
I went downstairs to go out for a walk and the manager informed me about the local street thieves. I set off to find a bakery, which wasn't hard, as there seemed to be one on each block. I devoured a meat and onion pie all washed down with some strawberry milk. I sat and watched the world go by for a bit before going back to my room for a nap. The strong coffee from the previous night had kept me awake, so I needed to get some ZZZs.
At 7:30 pm, I asked the woman at the desk to fire up the hot water, to lay out my silk pajamas, and to get some bearers to carry me down to "el tubbo". Well, the water was very hot and plentiful, and I had a good soak under the shower. It was good to be able to stand straight and still fit under the showerhead. I noticed that toilet paper was supplied, and was in strips of 2 feet laid atop the cistern. (Most cheap places did not supply it.) During my nap, I'd dreamed I was staying in 5-star villa and when I awoke, viola, there it was! Perhaps it will all be turned back into a pumpkin at midnight!
[Diary] The tea that I'd ordered for 9 am arrived at 8:30, and it was coffee! [Don't you just hate that when that happens?] It sure is hard to get good help nowadays. And just as I finished eating, my alarm sounded. Actually, the coffee was not so strong; in fact, the spoon needed some help before it could stand up on its own. The bread was fresh and came with lots of butter, and made a hearty start to the day.
[Diary] On my first full day back in the capital, I went to an afternoon movie and when I came out it was dusk. As I walked down a street, I could see a large group off in the distance chanting and coming towards me. So I went off to get a closer look. Apparently, something panicked them and they started running towards me. Unfortunately, the quickest way out of the street for me was to run towards them and then to a side street, so I did that, and they and I turned off at the same time. Safe, I thought! 30 seconds later, an armored car entered the intersection we'd just vacated and directed very high-pressure water cannons at many of the protesters knocking some of them over. Interesting thought I, and then I heard the sound of something metal rolling along the paved road and saw a teargas canister coming my way. Let's just say that I moved quite quickly down the side street. 200 meters down, I ran into a whole squad of riot police in full gear quietly smoking and talking. Back at my hotel, I was told that students protested regularly over the disappearance of people who had been arrested by the government, and that the whole episode was carefully choreographed. The next morning, I was awakened by a public address system right outside my hotel window where a speaker for some freedom political party was addressing a rally. I was sure that a SWAT team would be rappelling through my window any minute, but after 30 minutes, the protesters packed up and left.
[Diary] I finally caught up with the other dozen or so members of my tour group, and we flew to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of the mainland. From there, our minibus took as to several glacial areas including Torres del Paine. Then as we headed out across the Patagonia I saw a large iceberg that had broken off and run aground way downstream in the desert. That was impressive! We camped our way across to the Argentinian border doing optional day hikes and one overnight hike for which some cowboys and packhorses hauled our gear.
Official Name: Argentine Republic; Capital: Buenos Aires; Language: Spanish; Country Code: AR; Currency: peso (ARS)
As I wrote above under "Chile", I crossed southern Chile and Argentina with a small group in a minibus.
We spent several days camping out, hiking, eating well, and sleeping like babies in the clear desert air. Once we hit the Atlantic coast, we flew up to Buenos Aires for a night. A month earlier, a large volcanic eruption has occurred in southern Argentina, and there was some concern that our flight might not be operational as a result, because volcanic ash is very corrosive. However, by then the wind had dispersed all the ash. The highlight of my 16 hours in Buenos Aires was dinner at McDonalds' (I kid you not) where those super-salty French fries tasted great!
Official Name: Eastern Republic of Uruguay; Capital: Montevideo; Language: Spanish; Country Code: UY; Currency: Uruguayan peso (UYU)
For some unknown reason, I'd long had an interest in this country, so in November 2001, I went on down for 15 nights, changing planes in Buenos Aires. I cashed in lots of Frequent-Flyer miles and went in style, in First Class.
On arrival, I rescued a Dutch woman who was in tears after not being able to get any money from a cash machine. And the airport bank didn't cash traveler's checks, so she was without local cash. I too had a shortage after the bank begrudgingly changed a US$20 bill that was printed off-center and which the bank people thought was counterfeit. Anyway, that got us on the bus to the city and a room for me, and we got money for her soon after.
For the next 14 nights, I stayed two nights each with seven different host families. It was quite challenging, especially as I was moving so often and had to re-tell the same stories and ask the same questions each time, all in Spanish! Two stays were fantastic. The first was with a woman in San Jose where she took me to observe the weekly "counting of the cash" and handling of the tickets for the national lottery, where she worked. Tables were piled high with cash and an armored car came to haul it all away. After that, I joined in the weekly party. The second was with a delightful family of four near the resort area of Punta del Este.
Back in the capital, I stayed with a woman who played cello in a national orchestra. She lived close to the national football (soccer, that is) stadium and the very afternoon I arrived, Australia played Uruguay in a rematch as part of the World Cup regional finals. The Aussies were so concerned about safety—they had beaten Uruguay in the previous match—that they helicoptered in from Buenos Aires for the game rather than staying in-country!
An eye-opener was a day-visit to a kid's center run by Catholic Charities in one of the many slums. Due to the acute shortage of schools, kids only went for half a day, with half of them going in the morning, the rest in the afternoon. As such, they needed a safe place to spend the rest of their day. I worked with some kids and got a workout in Spanish. A very smart young girl who asked me a lot of good questions very much wanted to take me home to meet her parents. So I went. She, her five sisters, and parents lived in a shanty with dirt floors. The father was an alcoholic and the mother in and out of mental-health facilities. It was quite heart-breaking.
Official Name: Federative Republic of Brazil; Capital: Brasília; Language: Portuguese; Country Code: BR; Currency: real (BRL)
My only trip there was for seven days, to attend a series of international meetings in the capital, Brasília, which I reached via São Paulo.
[Diary] Although pleasant and comfortable without overdoing it, the hotel wasn't cheap, but nothing much is in this fair city. I had a room on the 13th floor with large windows that overlooked the city and parklands. After four weeks of living out in the country with no streetlights glaring in my windows and no noise of air conditioners and traffic all day and night, it was quite a shock to be in the middle of a noisy and bright city. However, the drapes kept the room dark. At least the noise outside was constant. The staff was all very pleasant, although they kept on speaking to me in Portuguese. And that darn language has words for everything!
Breakfast was included in my room rate. When one stays in such a place for seven days, the food can get rather repetitive to the point of being boring. However, I am happy to report that the variety was such that I could have stayed another week without that happening. A chef stood by to make custom omelets, which I sampled several days. And the oatmeal was almost as good as Grandma used to make. There was a good supply of fresh fruit and juice, and I ate large slices of sweet watermelon most mornings. Unlike bacon back in the US, the bacon here had little fat and it was cooked nice and crisp. Over the week, I ate the equivalent of a small pig, and loved it! (Sorry about that, pig.)
[Diary] On arrival in a new place, one of the first things I do is find a grocery store/supermarket or at least a convenience store. However, giving the city's zoning laws, the former were non-existent in the hotel district, and the latter had limited choices. Being a growing boy, ordinarily, I drink a liter of whole milk a day; however, there was no milk to be found except for the UHT/shelf milk served at breakfast to be put on cereal. As partial compensation, I drank lots of juice.
[Diary] I can get by with basic Spanish, and there are a lot of cognates between Spanish and Portuguese. As such, I was able to get the gist of more than a few things on signs and menus. But, of course, just when one thinks one has a handle on things, one finds that most words are unique to the language and that there are also false cognates. I didn't prepare for this in advance, and, quite frankly, didn't bother to learn any words while there. I spoke English, and if that didn't work, I spoke Spanish, and after that, it was sign language.
was designed and built some 60 years ago, way out in the middle of nowhere. From a certain perspective, that allowed the planners to "get it all right" to begin with. Yet I found the completely predictable grid and block numbering system and the strict zoning (all hotels are in a concentrated 4-block area) rather clinical. Now while most cities grow in fits and starts and can be rather haphazard, they have character, which is something Brasilia lacks.
I had thought about taking the 3-hour city tour, but I couldn't even get inspired enough to do that. Instead, I went on a couple of walking expeditions around the parks, the hotel district, and a neighborhood nearby. It was a contrast of upscale architecture and shabby places, but with colorful gardens and fountains at regular intervals. Every now and then, the bright red clay soil was exposed in vacant blocks or construction areas. There was more than a little trash on the streets.
The weather was nice the whole week I was there, and the food was decent.
My time in South America has all been pleasant and mostly very good. One positive aspect of flying there is that there is only a 1–2-hour time change from home.
Bucket List: From time to time I think about visiting Bolivia and Ecuador, and getting a look at Iguazu Falls.