Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reflections on Walkabout and South American Travel

Our four and a half months in South America are at an end.  We fly to California on the fourteenth and will be on the West Coast for two weeks before we leave for Ireland.

Sometimes we are asked where is the best place we have visited.  That is not an easy question, and the answer really depends on the context.  Suppose you asked me to name the one place on this walkabout that I would be most unhappy to be told that I could never go there again.  I would unhesitatingly answer "Cape Cod."  Yes, it can be touristy, and no, it is not exactly exotic.  But the Cape really appealed to me.  I can't really explain why that it is so, but I know that it is so.  Cape Cod over Viña del Mar?  Actually, yes!  That doesn't mean that I don't like Viña.  And I do have to admit that I like Paris.

Where on this walkabout do I most want not to visit again?  Also without hesitation or second thought:  Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.  Some place are like that!  I have been to Port-au-Prince and hope I never go again.

Sometimes those who ask such questions are looking for ideas for their own travels.  So one might ask, "Where in South America should I go?"  We have spent about nine months here over the past six years.  I can also answer that one without hesitation or second thought.

If you are going to South America only once in your life, and are limited by time as to the length of your itinerary, then go to Macchu Picchu.  No doubt about it!

How do you do that?  Fly to Lima, the capital of Peru that is located on the Pacific coast.  You should stay there for two days before proceeding to Cuzco.  One of those two days will be needed to recover from the long flight.  A wide range of accommodations are available in the Miraflores and Barranco areas of Lima.  Everything from luxury hotels that might make you think you are in Los Angeles to backpacker hostels that will leave no doubt in your mind that you are not in Los Angeles.  (That is a good thing!)

There are two ways to get to Macchu Picchu from Cuzco.  One is a guided group hike of a few days' duration.  The other is to take the train.  When we went, one had to buy the train tickets in Cuzco.  Now, the railway has a ticket office in the Larcomar shopping center in Miraflores.  Buy the tickets there before you leave Lima for Cuzco.  Give yourself at least a day in Cuzco to adapt to the altitude.  Preferably two days.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.  How to get from Lima to Cuzco?  You could do it by bus, but I don't recommend this.  It could be more adventurous than you really want.  See my earlier blog post on bus travel in South America.  I usually recommend it, but not in this case.  We flew Star Peru round trip and booked those tickets while in the US.  Another option would be LAN, the Chilean airline that has a Peruvian subsidiary integrated into its system.  We would probably use that one were we to go now because LAN is a OneWorld partner with American Airlines, where we have our mileage accounts, but it isn't the only way.

Cuzco is a great town.  It seems in many ways a spy-hole into the colonial past, and it is a different Peru than the one that you will see in Lima.  We stayed in at Torre Dorado, which we highly recommend.

A trip to Macchu Picchu is an adventure, but it is do-able.  You don't have to be in shape for service in the commandos to go there.  We went with my 85-year old mother-in-law.  She is pretty spry for her age, and she didn't do any climbing when she got into the Macchu  Picchu park itself.  The bus from the train station takes you up to the park entrance, which is about halfway up the mountain slope upon which the phenomenal complex sits.  So those who want to take the walking a little easier are able to enjoy the experience just like those who want to use it as a stair-climbing trainer.

However you do it, it will be the experience of a lifetime, and one that extends your personal limits.  Go to Macchu Picchu.  You won't regret it!

Here are a few photos:

Above and below are views of Macchu Picchu.  It is hard not to take a photo that looks like one of those old Pan American Airways travel posters!

A view from the train from Cuzco to Macchu Picchu.
Two views of the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco.

Lima's cathedral in its Plaza de Armas.
Parque Kennedy in Miraflores.

Montevideo, April 5-14, 2011

Montevideo has been a very nice three weeks for us.  This was to be one of those places where we didn't go at a fast pace every day for fear of not seeing something or other.  Above is pictured the Sunday street market on Calle Tristan Navaja.  Some blocks of it were as densely packed as Manhattan midtown during Christmas shopping season.
We bought some really good cheese from the folks in this old Ford truck.  I didn't get a chance to ask them what year it was.  The truck, I mean...not the cheese.  A local office of the Tupamaro party is in that street.  This is the former guerrilla movement whose activities led to my visit being cancelled in 1972.

Sergio and Karen are the owners of Casa Sarandi, the guesthouse where we have been staying.  They are most charming hosts.  They had us to dinner, and we cooked for them too.  I should say that Penny cooked for them.  We try to split the cooking 50-50, but when company comes, we usually put on the first team.  Sergio called one day and asked if we wanted to see a soccer match.  Futbol.  He and Ivan, their son, picked us up and took us over to the Cerro district, where their team Defensores was visiting the stadium of Rampla Juniors.  We had a great time!  It was a 0-0 tie.  Defensores had already qualified for the finals based on their play in the first half of the season, and Rampla Juniors is in danger of being sent down.  There wasn't a lot of passing attack like you see watching Barcelona or Real Madrid, but it was an experience.  In one sense, it seemed like choir practice since many of the fans spent so much time singing their team's fight song.  
Defensores are in purple.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Piriapolis is a beach resort town located east of Montevideo.  World-famous Punta del Este is farther to the east.  The pictures of Punta del Este remind me of Miami Beach, but I didn't like Miami Beach at all!  Piriapolis is a much smaller place.

We took the morning bus from Tres Cruces bus terminal and spent the afternoon walking around.  Piriapolis is a very pleasant town, and we liked it much more than Algarrobo, Chile.  We would happily come back here.  It was pretty empty, though, probably because the season has passed.  Many places were closed.

The Hotel Argentino is an old-style sort of place.  It reminds me of the Moana Hotel in Waikiki.

Schoolchildren playing on the beach.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Colonia del Sacramento, April 5, 2011

Today we took a day trip to Colonia.  This small town maintains an image and markets its heritage in a pleasant way, and is quite successful at that.  Many trips come across the River Plate to Colonia from Buenos Aires, which is a shorter trip than it is to come from Montevideo.  Colonia was founded by Portuguese people coming down from Brazil.  Colonia sits astride the entrace into the Atlantic Ocean from a huge river system including the Parana and the Uruguay Rivers.  Silver coming out of Potosi in present-day Bolivia was legally shipped out through Lima in present-day Peru.  A great deal of the silver was smuggled straight out to Atlantic ships via the River Plate.  So that's why the town was created in the first place.

Parts of the wall fortifications are preserved, and the streets are of cobblestone.  So in one sense, the town reminds me of Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, or of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, or of Concord, Massachusetts.  There are five small museums, and I must emphasize here that they are small.  The Portuguese are famous for their tile work, or azulejos.  There is a small azulejo museum and display in Colonia, needless to say.  All the tiles displayed there were from nineteenth-century France.  You get the idea.  The museum of the Portuguese period has a Portuguese flag inside.  Nothing pleases a historian more than to catch some major error in a thing like that:  the red and green colored flag dates from 1910 when the monarchy was overthrown!   :-)  The flag before that was blue and white.  

This cannon is of late manufacture.  You can see from the red color of the corrosion that it is made of iron.  Cannons of the period of Portuguese occupation would have been of bronze, and corroded to a green color.

They are everywhere!  Everywhere! 

Note the brown color of the river water.  Huge amounts of silt drain through the River Plate's tributaries.

Uruguay is known for having many old cars around.  It is, or used to be, very costly to import a motor vehicle into the country, and so the ones that were here, tended to be kept running at all costs.  I don't know the current situation, but we see a lot of cars or shells of them still around.  The Studebaker below is still running, but the Citroen and Model A Ford have been put to other uses.

When in Doubt, Get the Steak

Neither Argentina nor Uruguay is a place for a vegetarian.  Chile is a little different, but not much.  Steak and fries is what they do best.  Things are much better in Peru.

Yesterday, we went to Colonia for an afternoon visit.  We tried a place that was not right on the main tourist square.  It had customers in it, which is always a good test when you are out searching for a restaurant.  This parilla (grill) place had a chicken for two option.  We took that one, as even I was beginning to tire of beef, beef, and more beef interspersed with the odd bit of lamb.  Major mistake!  Major mistake!  That chicken had been roasting for who knows how long.  The driest I have ever seen, and I have ruined chicken myself on rare occasion.

This was decidedly worse than that just-below-mediocre meal we had at a place back in Cape Cod.  The people at the table next to us ordered bife de chorizo, which is a very nice steak.  Theirs looked good.  We should have got the steak.  Did I mention that we made a major mistake?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Montevideo, March 26-April 4, 2011

Only ten more days on the South American phase of our walkabout, and we have been in Montevideo for more than a week.  On a long walkabout, as opposed to a short tour, we need some slow time, or some down time.  Call it what you will, but nobody can just keep going at a tourist's pace for great lengths of time.

So we have been taking it easy here.  Casa Sarandi is a guesthouse in the Ciudad Vieja (Old City) section of Montevideo.  Karen and Sergio run a marvelous place.  Calle Buenos Aires is a bit of a sound canyon, and it seems to be the major thoroughfare for city busses.  It can be a bit noisy, but one learns quickly to compensate for that.  And we have met very interesting people who have stayed here.

"They" say that Montevideo is a kind of time warp place that reminds folks of what Buenos Aires was like fifty years ago.  Coca Cola ads are everywhere, and every one of them is retro.  A pleasant city, but I can see that there may not be much opportunity for young people.  It seems somehow not quite as prosperous as Buenos Aires.

Montevideo was a seaport from colonial times, much less subject to silting from the River Plate than Buenos Aires.  So it stayed, and Uruguay ended up as an independent country instead of attached to Argentina or to Brazil.  The channel from the river into the port is dredged and marked with buoys.  If you look carefully, you can see a little bit of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee sticking up just outside the channel.  The ship was scuttled there in 1939 because it was trapped in a neutral port and the British navy was waiting for it to makes its break down the narrow channel across the mud shoals to international waters.  I could see the ship's remains, but the camera could not.

What goes out of the port?  Livestock products:  meat, wool, leather.  Just like it was two hundred years ago.  Salted meat at first, then corned beef and mutton (yummy), and finally frozen meat once the technology was available.

Like Argentina, this is no place for a vegetarian!

The "ramblas" along the waterfronts are very pleasant walks.  The river is so wide here that Uruguayans call it the sea, which in fact, it is.  We are planning to visit the town of Colonia del Sacramento on one day, and to the beach at Piriapolis on another.  Not planning to go all the way to Punta del Este.

This won't be the last entry for Uruguay, and I am thinking about a short one on South America in general.  But in a way, I have already leaped ahead mentally to Ireland, where we will head after two frantic weeks back in the States.