Friday, November 23, 2012

South America 2012

After past journeys to Brazil and Ecuador, the spirit of South America beckoned me to return, shining reality on three travel dreams: Macchu Pichu, Easter Island, Patagonia. Again, the beauty of nature befriended me and presented the gift of illuminating the world--a light of memories that burns life-long.

Peru.

Felt welcomed by the Peruvians: even strangers on deserted streets greeted me with “hola”.
  • Lima, with its oceanside location, old town, and markets where good paintings were offered, was impressive. Children seemed happy, playing hopscotch or jumping rope. Families seemed intact. At the food markets, the offer of vegetable varieties surprised me, especially black corn. As for archeology, the library-shelf looking Inca site, with its stone-spined books was a splendid masterpiece widening over present-day urban architecture.
  • Cuzco, the former Incan capital, appeared to be Florence set in a Peruvian valley, only with sienna brown tiled roofs instead of the burnt-orange Florentine ones. The Incan spirit breathed on the hill-tops, in the cathedral paintings, on the symbols mown into the mountainsides. An air of creepiness leaked in the unlit cobblestone lanes. Also, the presence of llamas, alpacas, and vicunas flavored the Andean meadows nearby. At times, altitude sickness seized me: Cuzco is 2,600 meters above sea level.
  • Machu Picchu, world-class sight, mystical, breathtaking in several ways, almost spiritual—the mountains inhale you. The citadel remains are exquisite. The richness of the shades of green atop this Incan paradise pleasingly stuns the senses. The shape of stone abounds: trapezoidal doors, an arrowhead compass, triangular rooftops. Also of interest in the Incan valley, Ollantaytambo, a little-sister archeological site to Machu Picchu; yet, a worthwhile visit, with its Incan-cross designed water conduits, carved mountain faces, and lookout towers—a site of cultural heritage indeed.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

  • The feeling of being orbited to another planet. An isolated, eerie-landscaped island, a sea castaway, on which wild horses outnumber people and statues stand, kneel, bend, slouch, and lie prone and supine on coasts, hillsides, and coves. One crater contained a slope-sized patch of pink bourgainvillea flowing into sapphire waters dotted with massive lily-pad islands on which three-meter high grass sprouted. Like the Galapagos Islands, Rapa Nui possesses an unearthly uniqueness that roots itself in a memory fascination harbors.
  • The presence of horses created a Wild-West atmosphere. There were times in the day and night these unsaddled animals strolled down steep streets at will. The sound of hooves added to the surrealistic mystique of the island. One horse actually walked into the post office. Another night, three cowboys rode into town, tethered their horses to a post, went into the bar, returned an hour later and rode back up the hillside, disappearing under the dusty moonlight.
  • The 1,000 statues speak for themselves and about themselves.

Chile

  • Santiago, A metropolis that grows on you. First impression: fractured smog, a la LA, with wraparound mountains veiled in a haze that only lifts itself at sundown. Bellevista, sociable part of town, fresh, energizing: Santiago neighborhood of Pablo Neruda, whose house opens as a museum filled with odds and ends: Picture-tube-less TV converted into a shelf for cutlery, watermelon scenes, sailing collectibles—compasses, portholes, bars. All in all, a hodge-podge of souvenirs and gifts he amassed—an artist’s thrift shop feel pervaded. Yet it was special to be in Neruda country, to be near the spirit of his poetical genius.
  • Patagonia, The flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas took place under clear skies, which enabled spectacular views of the Andean lakes, fiords, glaciers, and volcanoes in Chile. One volcano was active. These snow-capped peaks looked like scattered vanilla ice-cream in moss-green cones.
  • Punta Arenas’s winds were gale-force level, making it hard to photograph the 9 condors and hosts of Magellan penguins that frequented the area.
  • The cloud formations over Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales are every painter’s dream. They have a 3-D look that makes them come alive right before your very eyes.
  • Torres del Paine National Park. One of the most beautiful in the world, with glacier chips floating on calm lakes, lakes whose colors are so varied it astounds. Also, a canary-yellow shrub makes for a fairy-tale landscape in this expansive park. Unfortunately, a tourist allegedly made a campfire and the winds spread the flames and much of the park burned: this wonderful nature haven had to be closed indefinitely—this fire took place just two days after my departure.

Cruise through the Straits of Magellan, Beagle Channel, Cape Horn

  • After an almost midnight-sun experience at Puerto Natales, a harbor where cloud formations boggle the mind and the eyes, I joined a mini cruise (100 passengers), on a 5-day ride ending in Ushuaia, Argentina. Once a-sea (an ocean feeling indeed), I noticed we were always alone. Saw no boats and no lights ashore—generated an explorer feel to the entire cruise. Also there was an ever-present rough sea, a storm-approaching aura hovering over our passage through the waters. We rode the Zodiacs (rubber boats) to uninhabited islands, which offered diverse sights: Magellan penguins, tropical forests, beaver-gnawed woods, topaz-ice glaciers. On Cape Horn, the southernmost point in the world, the rains came, forcing us to scuttle back to the Zodiacs, but not before crossing the boardwalk to the iron albatross monument and testing the view from the desolate lighthouse.
  • The whole cruise route presented a cornucopia of wildlife: penguins, cormorants, condors, albatrosses, elephant seals, dolphins, and whales.

Argentina

  • Only a brief stay in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. A respectable harbor town that has to cope with the disembarkments of hotel-sized cruise ships.
  • Buenos Aires. Strong European flair here. Quay area made into an upscale waterside setting hotels, restaurants, and sailboats edge.
  • Street life interesting and honest.
    --The Boca neighborhood. Reminded me of the Prater amusement park in Vienna. Colorful corrugated-iron facades, boasting balconies plastic figures peer from: Evita and Maradona seem to dominate.
    --South of the city, ranch visit. Enjoyed tango show and a solo dancer who spun bolas from his teeth while hot-stepping it (temperature: low 90s Fahrenheit). The horse show presented the skills of the gauchos, particularly a horse-sprint under a bar on which rings were suspended on leather straps. The gauchos, on their half-tailed horses, dashed at breakneck speed under the bar, stabbing at the rings with pens. These cowboys then proudly rode to appealing women seated in the front row of the performance and spilled the captured ring onto a finger these spectators teasingly outstretched. The prize for the gaucho was the woman’s joining him for a 5-minute ride around the ranch.
Note: for me, the beauty of Argentina still lives in the pristine world of Iguacu, the waterfall paradise I had the good fortune of visiting five years ago. The walk across the metal bridges enables nature lovers to ensconce themselves in the beauty of sound, wildlife, and water. Unforgettable.

Uruguay

  • Montevideo. Authentic South American capital. Has its own flair. One of standing still in time. One which missed the boat to high technology and modern architecture—which makes it appealing.
  • Punta del Este. The opposite of Montevideo. Miama beach set on the Atlantic. Beachy culture and atmosphere. Still far from the predatory yacht harbors of North America and Europe.
  • Casa Pueblo. The Antonio Gaudi/Friedensreich Hundertwasser version created by Uruguayan artist, Vilero, who happened to be there. He generated a gracious, humble impression. Word has it, his son was one of 5 survivors of a plane crash in the Chilean Andes; and the house/hotel was built by the father to pay respects to the unfortunate who didn’t survive the 70 days in grueling conditions. In this regard, Casa Pueblo is designed like a glacier that tongues the sea. A sight that’s more than what meets the eye.

Trip summary

It’s hard to top southern South America. I felt like I was hopping across stepping stone of paradise, feeling how some of the biggest travel dreams in my life not only became true, but also became a sturdy reality and a solid path of sure-footed memories I wish to use again and again.

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