Latin American Journey

I spent 10 months traveling through Latin America with my girlfriend. It was so long ago, i.e., 1980, that I cannot even remember how we got to London for a flight to the USA, since there was a one-day special offer for flights. (I sometimes can’t remember either if the photos are actually from the place I am respectively writing about. We also lost a few rolls of film, which we had given to an American couple to mail from the States to Mechtild’s parents in Germany, since we did not want to carry the film with us for perhaps a year without having it processed. The Americans were afraid that we were asking them to smuggle cocaine in the film rolls. We assured them that we were not, and that they should only take the film if they trusted us. They took it, but never mailed it, so they apparently threw it away before flying home.)

We camped out on the sidewalk in front of the airlines office in London and were first in line (which was very long by the morning). We visited my parents who were retired living in Sarasota, Florida, and then went to a travel agency to book a flight for Columbia. The woman in the agency immediately said, “Columbia, South Carolina?” in a slow drawl and was rather confused when we said no, the country. I imagine it would be quite different today with all the Latinos in Florida from sundry countries.

We arrived in Cartegena, but were afraid to go out the first night, since we had heard so many terrifying things about crime in that country. However, we discovered over the next few days that it was all quite harmless, and the big crime wave and extensive war with guerillas would not start until a couple of years later. We met an American who was head of an English language school there, who offered me a job teaching English. I was very tempted, but we had just started our trip and I thought that maybe I would do that at the end.

Our next stop was in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park in the mountains in the north of Columbia, for which we had to get permission from local authorities of the indigenous people, the Kogi who live there.

From Wikipedia: “The Kogi (/ˈkoʊɡi/ KOH-gee) or Cogui or Kágaba, meaning “jaguar” in the Kogi language,[2] are an indigenous ethnic group that lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. Their civilization has continued since the Pre-Columbian era.”

Their representative in the mountains could barely read our permission slip (or maybe he could not), but we were allowed to stay. My memories of the place are vague, just people dressed in white clothing and straw huts. Almost as surprising, there was an older German living there, and how he got there remains a mystery, although he could have been one of the Nazis fleeing to South America at the end of the Second World War or just an adventurer who despised what the Nazis had done so much that he fled to this far corner of the Earth.

A big festival was coming up when we realized we were out of cash. No such things as ATMs at that time, and not even any banks. We had no choice but to descend back to the flatlands. It was a weekend, and no banks were open. I was directed to one rather unscrupulous-looking man, whom they said would cash one at a bad rate. I signed the check quickly, and he said the signature was different and he wouldn’t accept it. It was the start of a 10-month trip in Latin America, so I still had a lot of checks. I took them out and showed him the signatures on other checks, which matched the one I had signed. Later I realized that I had shown that I had quite a sum of money for those around and was quite lucky that I wasn’t murdered, robbed and dumped in a ditch. Perhaps there were just too many other people around at the time.

A long bus ride to the next place, but a lot remains a blur. Visit to a Columbian friend in Bogota, from whom I had taken Spanish lessons back home, but told only to travel in the city by taxi, since it was so dangerous. Then on to Ibaque with its spectacular plaza, at least I think it was there.

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We were able to visit San Agustin with its carved rock, believed to have been sculptured between 50 and 500 A.D. They were probably funerary carvings,

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The area is quite mountainous, and the statues are spread out over a large area, so we rented horses to get around.

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Mechtild with the horse renter

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Not long after we were there, San Augustin became a no-go area due to guerilla activity, although I heard it is now possible to go there again.

The bus we traveled in from there to Popayan broke down on the way, but another came along a few hours later and took us there.

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Transport in this area at the time.

Popayan has many beautiful buildings (many destroyed a couple of years later in an earthquake in 1983) and indigenous people and markets. We were in a bar/restaurant there when suddenly approx. 15 heavily armed soldiers entered and I and all other men had to stand against a well with our hands in the air. The soldiers were very young, nervous and sweating, and they were apparently looking for guerilla members. Needless to say, it was a very frightening situation.

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After six weeks in Columbia, we continued on for six weeks in Ecuador. In Quito, we stayed at the “Gran Gringo” hostel in the old part of town where most backpackers stayed in those days. Backpackers there had lots of stories about who had gotten robbed in Columbia. Many years later when we returned to Ecuador finally to visit Galapagos, the Gran Gringo was gone. We then stayed in the old town for a couple of nights before realizing that the area had become too dangerous and the streets were empty in the evening, soon relocating to the “New Town.”

Spent my birthday at a good restaurant in the mountains above the picturesque town of Otavalo, then a great beach at Atacames on the coast when the owner wanted to sell me his cabins and resort. Plainclothes police showed up one day and searched all the cabins for drugs, and we were afraid they might plant some. My girlfriend had some tampons, which puzzled them, and they tried to open them. The resort owner finally explained to them what they were.

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On my 30th birthday in the mountains above Otavalo

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To Banos and then the edges of the jungle for a boat ride into it, but I don’t like jungles: too many bugs!

Then six weeks Peru, where I got robbed for the first two times. The first time in the north on the coast, just a small flashlight and such things, then my watch off my wrist in a crowded street in Lima: amazing how fast that was done and passed on, so that the thief that I grabbed no longer had it.

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Reed boats at Huanchaco on the Peruvian coast: these are fishing boats, which have been used in Peru for approx. 3,000 years.

We then went up into the mountains to Cajamarca at approx. 2,750 meters. From Wikipedia: “The history of the city is highlighted by the Battle of Cajamarca, which marked the defeat of the Inca Empire by Spanish invaders as the Incan emperor Atahualpa was captured and murdered here” It also has some beautiful colonial architecture.

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There is an amazing irrigation system constructed by the Incas near Cajamarca in the north.

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But we also heard around this time that three German backpackers had been murdered and robbed in the mountains.

Long bus rides back to the coast and down to Lima where we were able to find an American Express office and pick up some mail. That was quite an experience in those days when there was no internet. Strange when I think of the necessary articles on a trip these days: All the things that I used to need, i.e., traveler’s checks, Walkman, flashlight with replacement bulbs, book light for nights, film, various camera lenses, batteries, alarm clock, even plane tickets as well as a towel, now all things of the past. I have my debit card in instead of traveler’s checks, a smartphone with music, dictionaries, audio language lessons, flashlight and myriad other features and tickets are no longer needed, the airline company has everything in their computer system. I could even do without a camera and just use my smartphone to take pictures, but I guess I am just too old-fashioned to adapt to that change so quickly. No more lugging a few heavy books around; I download a few e-books and its backlight lets me read at night without my old itty-bitty book light. Few places don’t supply towels or toilet paper anymore, something that was a real rarity traveling on the cheap years ago. I no longer need to go to American Express offices to pick up my mail and can have constant contact with relatives and friends, whereas in the past this was not the case for months. No more postcards to send even if you could find one; just a quick photo send as an e-mail attachment (and my parents’ mail carrier—then called a mailman—use to love delivering my postcards from sundry places in the world). It was a qualitatively different traveling feeling when you really were far away without contact to relatives and friends. And there were sometimes problems, e.g., when you could not cash a traveler’s check. Still, we recently had a similar problem in getting cash in Cambodia recently. We were on the thousand islands in Laos, where there are no ATMS, and then crossed into Cambodia and continued to the next bigger town, Kratie. There were two ATMS there, but the first one was not working, and the second one would only accept visa cards while I only had my bank card and a Master’s card. We lived frugally for two days, made sure we had sufficient funds to get a bus to Angkor Wat and then had no problem with the ATMs. But for a couple of days, we were quite uncomfortable with the situation.

We continued down the coast to see the South America sea seals.

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Another long bus ride to Cuzco at approx. 3,400 meters. (My photos from there are all gone, thrown away by the two Americans who promised to mail our film).

One of our mail objectives there was to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu, which was still not supervised or for which an entrance fee was not required. After three days, we arrived above Machu Picchu one morning.

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On the trail: There were a total of eight people (including us) hiking the Inca Trail at the same time, although we spread out during the day.

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Arrival above Machu Pichu

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View of Machu Picchu from the end of the Inca Trail; the trail takes you to high above the ruins, and seeing them from such a viewpoint after three days hiking is simply a magical experience!

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We arrived in the early evening and slept above the ruins, and then went down early the next morning before the arrival of many tourists later in the day. We carried out our garbage during the three-day hike and disposed of it in garbage cans at the exit of the ruins. The next morning, a truck came and collected the garbage and then drove down and dumped it into the river.

The owner of our small pension in Cusco was rather sleezy, confirmed when an acquaintance of his came displaying stolen cameras. Hence, we felt no remorse when we left town without paying the last couple of nights.

Train to near the border with Bolivia, and three men entered as we arrived and attempted to get behind me and into my backpack. I kept turning every time they tried to maneuver behind me until they gave up and headed toward other possible booty.

Lake Titicaca was not that polluted yet, and we were able to stay on one of the islands where the men were involved in knitting: quite good knitwear and I still have the hat!

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I have read that Lake Titicaca has become terribly polluted, so am especially glad that we were able to see it beforehand

On to La Paz, which was under martial law. We could hear shooting at night outside after the 10 o’clock curfew. My cheap rain jacket and couple of other trinkets were robbed from our room. The hotel owner searched his one employee’s room with us for the goods, but we found and could prove nothing. At least that was the last time we were robbed on this trip, and it has never happened again during sundry trips in following years.

We witnessed a local festival in Bolivia, but I really can’t remember where it was.

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Train to Chile, which is no longer operating, from La Paz to Antofagasta, Chile, the highest altitude was 4,257 meters above sea level. Strange, since still the dictatorship put in place by the US American-supported coup was in power. We hitched as far down as the road went and took a boat to the island of Chiloe. The fish at the markets was delicious, and we constructed a small stove from two cans so we could cook tuna with garlic and butter. Locals told us that the fish taste especially good, because the ocean water is very cold from the Humboldt Current.

Chiloe Island

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We planned to continue with a boat down to Tierra del Fuego, but I had not realized that I need a visa for Argentina. With heavy hearts, we hitched back to Santiago, where I also learned that I needed a new passport to get the visa, since mine was going to expire within six months.

Hitchhiking again, this time to the border with Argentina at the mountain range separating the two countries. The Argentinian border guards were quite friendly, and when no one offered us a ride after a longer time, one asked a well-to-do couple to take us. The man responded that only if the border guard took responsibility, which he promptly did.

We got out shortly before Cordoba, since Argentina was very expensive at the time and we would not have been able to afford lodging. We slept on a hill near the road and then hitched into town the next morning, asking simply for water at a local bar.

Back on the road, a truck driver picked us up. Miguel, the driver, became our friend and companion for the next nine days on our way to Iguazu Falls and Brazil. He picked up a couple of other young Argentinian guys, who were also quite friendly and on their way to Paraguay. The military dictatorship was still in power, and police checkpoints not infrequent and scary. At one, Miguel stayed close to my wife, saying that there was a real danger of them molesting, i.e., raping, her. Miguel was very nervous too, but he made sure that nothing happened.

 

He was transporting goods to approx. kilometers before Iguazu Falls, but decided he would drive us there after making his delivery, since he had never seen them either and we were all sad to part. He bought kilos of steak and sausages as well as lots of red wine our last evening and prepared a great barbecue. The next day, we waved goodbye as we crossed the border into Brazil and we could see a tear forming in his eye, parting from someone with such a big heart and to whom we had become so close in a short nine days.

Miguel

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We stopped at some sights along the way, I wish I remembered where they were.

With Miguel and an Argentinian hitchhiker

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Iguazu Falls

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On to Sao Paulo, which reminded me so much of New York with its variety of peoples. We visited a former co-student from grad school and then a friend of my wife’s in Rio before arriving in Bahia by way of Ouro Preto. Carnival was just around the corner, and we wanted to experience it in Bahia where everyone dances in the streets opposed to Rio where it is a parade. I checked out a few language schools and would have been able to get two part-time jobs teaching English, but not really enough to support ourselves well. I really wanted to learn Portuguese, and so much was similar to Spanish that I was able to read a short novel by Jorge Amado.

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Carnival in Bahia

We met an American couple, who seemed rather spaced out and who had scored some cocaine that we declined to partake of. They related how their friends back home asked them how they could travel in such a dangerous place as South America, people who lived in much more dangerous cities in the States. The man also told us that the government had forced cancellation of the TV series Star Trek, because they were disclosing government secrets on the show. I guess the cocaine was doing its job.

Another American couple, whom we had been constantly running into over the past months (many travelers were taking the same route), had some problems with their room, suspecting that the owners were renting it out by the hours for sexual trysts when they were not there. They caught me by surprise, asking me to translate for them, although they had a fair command of Spanish and would have been able to communicate their suspicions themselves. I hate getting involved in disputes between two other parties, so I declined without thinking, although I really should have done it. A typical case of me realizing what I should have said or done after the fact. Despite the fact that we had had a good, friendly relationship for months with them beforehand, they never spoke to me again.

However, the couple had told us that they had taught at the American High School in Quito, and that the school was always looking for new teachers every semester. The pay was good, and Spanish was more important than Portuguese, so off we were via Sao Paolo again and then the “cocaine” or “death train” as it is called on a 24-hour ride through a jungle to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It was a modern town in the middle of nowhere with lots of expensive cars such as Porsches racing around. We learned that it was the center of the cocaine trade and that it was better not to ask any questions. We got a night bus to La Paz, and although it was very hot when we left, we went up high into the mountains and it got very cold. All my warm clothes were in my pack on the roof, and I got a terrible cold which eventually affected my lungs, giving my asthma that landed me in a hospital in Guatemala months later and plagued for many years.

Back in Ecuador, there were no openings for teaching jobs at the school. The few hours I was able to get at local language schools were not sufficient, so we decided it was time to head home. A flight to Panama, then to Costa Rica where we stayed with friends of my parents (who suspected me of working for the CIA, because how else could anyone travel for such a long time?). I was sick there for a week, and we were tired of traveling, so we didn’t see much of the country and would only visit it extensively years later. The we rushed through Nicaragua and Honduras, not without visiting the Mayan ruins of Copan where I again was short of cash and only able to cash a $10 travelers’ check with difficulty. $10! Today that is nothing, but it was a lot of money for me and when traveling on the cheap in those days. I would imagine that there are/would not be $10 denominations of travelers’ checks today if they still exist.

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In Guatemala, I wound up in a hospital due to my respiratory problems. I was in a room with four others, but was the only one who spoke Spanish, since the others were Mayans who only spoke their language. I was healthy enough after two days to be released and then very surprised that I did not have to pay anything. Such a poor country and free health care! I can’t understand why so many in the USA are against universal health care; it is very strange!

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Guatemala

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And often met other friendly, interesting backpackers:

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Mexico.

Chichen Itza and the Yucatan

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But, to tell the truth, we were tired, too many impressions, too many new things. After the first three months, it was difficult to get excited about anything new we saw, although we still did because there were some many wonderful experiences.

We worked our way up the west coast of Mexico and finally back across the border to New Mexico. We were able to hitch part of the way, once with a guy who had recently been released from prison and drove up an exit ramp at one point before turning around. At some point, we gave up and took a bus, finally arriving in Cuba, New Mexico, where a good friend from college was working as a doctor and I got a job working in construction. But that’s another story.

 

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