Travels in South America
Karen and I met on a blind date, and we are still together. Immediately we began to travel. An extensive road trip to the Darien Gap in Panamá introduced us to Guatemala. Subsequently, we stored our belongings in New Orleans and moved to Quetzaltenango in the Maya highlands. We were there about a year. Our stay changed us forever.
At times travelers would stay at our house and share with us their experiences. Excited by these anecdotes, from Guatemala we returned to Louisiana and prepared to leave the United States. We liquidated all our property and closed all our accounts. We bought two backpacks and placed inside them the little that we would carry. We did not know how long we would be gone, or even if we would come back at all. Come back where? We just walked away from our past to seek the new.
A friend drove us to the east side of New Orleans and we stepped out beside the Interstate to Miami and stuck out our thumbs. Good fortune found us a non-stop ride in the camper of a pickup with three fishermen pulling a boat to the Florida Keys. They dropped us and our backpacks out on a corner. We attracted two curious University of Miami students who invited us to a party and a place to sleep, with a promise to have us at the airport the next morning, and we did all that. The jet left Miami bound for Barranquilla, Colombia. We had no return tickets, and nowhere to go but everywhere. Karen was eight years younger than me. I was 28 years old.
We had been on the road for several months before we heard from the United States. We received our mail at the American Express office in the various countries we passed though. For cash we used my American Express Gold card to buy traveler’s checks. The only other way at that time was to have money wired to a bank.
Colombia was where one’s heart would pound from the uncertainty, the violence, the corrupt police, and the drug war prosecuted by the American CIA. We stayed only about a month before moving south along the Gringo Trail.
From the Señorita with the hens, we found a loft to rent in Ibarra, Ecuador. It provided us a home for about six months. We used the casita as a basecamp from which to explore the country. Ecuador and Guatemala are very similar, and both remain two of our favorite countries.
We traveled around the country by any means available, but never by air.
Adiós Ecuador, Vamos al Perú
From our Ecuadorian casita, we bused to Quito, from there to Huaquillas, the main border crossing from Ecuador into El Perú. There we took advantage of a favorable exchange rate to convert traveler’s checks into Peruvian soles on the black market. Knowing that the thieves in El Perú would be awaiting us, we sidetracked to Loja. The next day we continued to Macará, a discreet border settlement on the river that bears the name of the village. That evening we paid a truck driver to carry us across the border to Sullana, a desert oasis in northern El Perú.
We bumped through the night, arriving Sullana at dawn, when we found an alojamiento and slept. That evening we caught a bus that carried us along the Pacific coast to Chimbote, a fishing town with a cannery, where we found another alojamiento and rested. The next morning, still weary from six days overland travel, we bought a bus ticket to our destination.
The mountain town of Huaraz was our first sojourn in El Perú. We knocked on doors asking if there was a room for rent. A family of four, the husband a school teacher, welcomed us. We stayed almost a month, using Huaraz as our basecamp from which to explore the Cordillera Blanca, the northern mountains of El Perú. Inside the casa scurried cuy, the Peruvian guinea pig, embraced as house cleaners and, most important, fresh meat.
Our Peruvian hosts found us to be más que extraño, more than just strange, because we would set out walking into mountains totally unknown to us. When they asked us where we were going, and we answered that we did not know, that no caminamos para llegar, we don’t walk to arrive, they were even more baffled. When we eventually showed up back at their house, with amazement they bombarded us with endless questions and expressions of astonishment. When we departed after our sojourn, and they asked us why we were leaving, we answered that the reason we came is the reason we couldn’t stay, and they were still more bewildered.
Lima and Cuzco offered relaxation from our mountain walks.
Departure to Macchu Picchu is from Cuzco. While the train goes all the way to the ruins, we chose to walk the Inca Trail to arrive. At Kilometer 88, the train slows, but does not stop, and travelers can jump off. We did. The trailhead is found after crossing the foot bridge over the Río Urubamba.
We were alone in Macchu Picchu. This was well before the day of recreational tourism. We witnessed sightseeing beginning to increase by 1976. About that time, local women began to spread their blankets on the sidewalk around the Plaza de Armas and place artesania for sale.
In 2018, between January and June, more than 600,000 tourists descended upon the ruins. What we witnessed is gone forever. Now there are restrictions on the number of visitors allowed into the site.
During our travels in El Perú we attended festivals and mingled with the gente.
Lake Titicaca lies on the border of El Perú and Bolivia. The Bolivian border was closed when we arrived, along with other travelers, so we built a bonfire, spent the night, and cleared Customs the next morning.
From the lake we traveled by bus to the 12,000 feet altitude capital La Paz. Our dollar room there was large. Community shower had almost warm water. We used our personal pad lock for our room key, as customary everywhere. We enjoyed La Paz as a base from which to venture into the mountains to buy weavings.
As we traveled south along the Gringo Trail, we heard travelers recount their experiences in Argentina. “Be careful” was the common and unanimous theme. “Police state” was the habitual characterization. “Be prepared to deal with the police all the time” was a collective cautioning. Stories included being pulled off buses because of appearance, being denied services because of appearance, being questioned and having passports inspected routinely, being forced to provide your hotel name and room number, having to open your backpack to inspection frequently. There was a reason for these inconveniences and threats.
The 1976 Argentine coup d’état was a right-wing military coup that overthrew the elected government of Argentina. The coup was planned in October 1975, with the USA encouraging the generals and heavily involved in the preparations. After the coup ensued the Dirty War.
Henry Kissinger, the foremost promoter of the Dirty War, urged military leaders to destroy their opponents quickly before outcry over human rights abuses grew in the United States. To expedite the extermination of opposition, the CIA organized Operation Condor on behalf of the Argentine generals. The United States government provided planning, coordinating, training on torture, technical support, and military aid to the junta, directed through the CIA. This campaign of political repression and state terror included assassination of opponents and suspects.
The targets of Operation Condor were students, teachers, militants, trade unionists, priests and nuns, writers, journalists, artists and any citizen suspected to be an activist. They were exterminated in an attempt by the junta to silence the social and political opposition. These state terror tactics were enforced by the military, secret security forces, and death squads. The number of deaths directly attributable to Operation Condor is estimated as at least 60,000.
The junta systematized the repression through desaparecidos, forced disappearance, leading to the common explanation of why a person was no longer present – he was “disappeared.” This tactic had been used successfully in Chile in 1973 during the USA sponsored overthrow of that elected government. The tactic made it difficult to file legal suits as the bodies were never found. Military men responsible for the killings often spared pregnant women for a time, keeping them in custody until they gave birth, then killing them and giving their infants to childless military families.
We heeded traveler’s warnings by hurrying through Argentina. But not without experiencing the Argentine police.
From the Argentine border on the north, we bused to Salta. On the way from the Salta bus station to find a hotel, we were befriended by two Salteños who recommended an alojamiento. After checking into our room, we found that a stray cat had messed up our bathroom. We changed rooms. That night we could hear the police looking for us in the room we had abandoned. The hotel clerk had failed to make note of our room change or the police would have found us. The two friendly Salteños were, in fact, plainclothes police, who had set us up. At dawn we fled the hotel to the bus station, where we quickly caught a cruiser to Tucumán.
Of all the tales told by travelers, Tucumán raised the most concern. In that rural province and small city, Marxist admirers of Che Guevarra took control. The generals sent the military to destroy the insurgents, which was accomplished swiftly and ruthlessly. The military remained, forcing the police to seize foreigners. Travelers were taken off the bus to the police station and interrogated. There was no way to avoid Tucumán, so we prepared for the eventuality. But Señorita Suerte shielded us and we passed through calmly.
In Buenos Aires the police photographed us on the street, demanded our hotel and room number, warned us not to leave our room after dark. We encountered people at a restaurant who inquired how they might escape Argentina. Their paramount fear was being seized, flown in a military plane over the Atlantic Ocean, and pushed out, a common practice of being disappeared.
Our destination in Argentina was Glacier National Park, located in the extreme south of the country. We traveled there by bus.
From the south of Argentina we crossed into Chile and continued to Puerto Natales, where we found Hotel El Busca and our first hot bath in weeks. We traveled a dedo, by thumb, hitchhike in English, to the national park of Torres del Paine. The guest list showed less than 200 visitors for the entire year. While there we saw no tourists. A park guardian invited us to his small cabin, where he enjoyed our stories and we relished his cooking.
By dedo we returned to Puerto Natales and bused to Punta Arenas, the largest city in the region. There I visited the Chilean Navy command and convinced them to carry us to Puerto Williams, a navy base on the Beagle Channel. Strongly in my favor was my business card, showing that I was a professional geologist and a Distinguished Lecturer of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
We boarded a Chilean ship and cruised eastward through the Beagle Channel to the navy base on Isla Navarino. There the base commander lodged us in a fine guest house, complete with a seaman cook. A boat was assigned to carry us wherever we wished to go. We stayed three months.
While there I built a museum for the base, organized the library, investigated a UFO sighting, circumnavigated Isla Navarino by ship to interview the islanders about possible mineral caches, and traveled by destroyer to islands south of Cape Horn to investigate the possibility of minerals there. We participated in island culture, welcomed warmly by the hearty settlers.
Cape Horn is the end of the road. The tip of the Americas. Our quest from the beginning of our long walk was to reach Cape Horn. The prize.
One evening a sailor knocked on our door and told me that I was to report to the base commander immediately, so I rushed to the comandancia. There I was informed that a destroyer would embark at 0600, bound for Cape Horn, tasked to replace the propane supply for the Cape Horn light, and from there continue to the Islas Diego Ramírez for reconnaissance of potential mineral reserves and to report on albatross nesting conditions.
Karen and I embraced each other tightly that night. Tears of joy and emotion. Hold on tight to your dreams. We thanked our friend Ralph Waldo, who had encouraged all the way south. “Lowly faithful, banish fear, Right onward drive unharmed; The port, well worth the cruise, is near, And every wave is charmed.”
Aboard the destroyer I befriended the sailors rather than the officers. None of them could comprehend our walk south. They remained awestruck at the reality of our journey—the distance, the time, the endurance, the dedication. We founded a robust bond those sailors and me.
Strong arms rowed us ashore. The beach was a court of white boulders, rounded by the perpetual tide, wind and waves at the Cape. The sailors lugged two bottles of propane up a slope to the Cape Horn light. I was stunned that such a tiny thing guided giant ships around one of the most perilous points on the planet. The sailors hooked up the new propane bottles. Then they huddled together for a moment.
A sailor approached me and asked for my camera. Seeing my surprise, he nodded in the direction of the light pole. When I passed to him my camera, he placed in my hand a flint striker. “Enciéndelo,” he said. Light it.
Three sailors hoisted me onto their shoulders and pushed me up the pole to where I could grasp a handle. My hands quivered as I opened the gas valve and squeezed the striker. In a burst the propane ignited and the light shined bright.
As I turned to look down, I saw that the sailors had all moved away so that the photographer had a clear shot of me. The successful lighting brought a cheer as they rushed to help me down.
Back on the destroyer I found a quiet corner and allowed my emotions to gush out. At every mountain pass that Karen and I had crossed over, we had always paused and joined hands, then walked through together. She was there on that pole with me, her face shining in the light.
Las Islas Diego Ramírez are volcanos in the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica. The islands are home to macaroni penguins and nesting grounds for black-brow and gray-head albatross.
For our departure from Isla Navarino, the Chilean sailors boated us across the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, Argentina. Almost all travelers arrive at that southernmost Argentine town from the north, but we came from the south. For the first time we had turned north.
We traveled again a dedo. First by truck, ensconced in a Volkswagen atop a trailer, with three Swiss in the truck cab. Then by boat.
Along the way we found kinship.
We had reached the end of the road, each of us carrying an emotion that only can know those who go, that only can be found after the hunt is long and the will is strong.