South America. The tranquillity of “where heaven and earth meet” at Machu Picchu, the raw never-ending might of Iguazu Falls, juxtaposed with the hustle of Rio de Janeiro, and the calm order of Buenos Aires make the region a once-in-a-lifetime journey.
DIVE IN DEEP
Starting in the deep end of unfamiliarity, there is Lima, the coastal capital of Peru and one of its most densely populated parts, with almost 10 million people living in the metro area.
The streets are dusty and well-trodden, intersections choked with vehicles, the housing is haphazard and there is comically large Coca-Cola billboard advertising.
Past the grime, Lima’s old and greying buildings are vibrantly painted with political slogans, its roads lined with rural produce, monuments bristling with colonial splendour and markets bursting with unadorned, inexpensive gastronomy.
The pick of the bunch is Surquillo Market in Miraflores District, a sprawling hive of fresh fruit, meat and vegetables from the Andes and Amazon where locals shop daily.
Pick up a bag of the sherbet-sweet cherimoya custard apples and the deliciously messy Andean passionfruit, granadilla. Both are divine and make perfect travel snacks.
Alongside the bustling daily markets and high-rise buildings are the country’s historic Incan roots.
These can be seen proudly exhibited, with the ancient adobe clay pyramid, Huaca Pucllana, a relic of the past in Lima’s downtown area.
Its huge cultural presence is only a whetting of the appetite compared to later sightseeing inland.
Historic hotspots dot the city waiting to be explored such as the Presidential Palace, the 17th-century San Francisco church and the Larco Herrera Museum of pre-Columbian art.
While in town, enjoy a Pisco sour, the citrus-y national cocktail made with grape brandy, lemon and egg white, which will put a bit of pep in your step for the tourism activities ahead.
SOUTH EAST SIGHTS
Sightseeing of significant archaeological sites begins in the South East, with the country dominated by fine stonemasonry structures.
Each building, while impervious to earthquakes, is constructed with walls precisely cut into shaped stones and fitted without mortar, a feat locals boast had yet to be replicated.
The walls are packed so tightly, a single playing card cannot be inserted in between, as often demonstrated by tour guides.
The best-preserved examples can be found in the Sacred Valley with the hilltop Incan citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo as must-see tourism locations.
They both offer an enduring reminder of how locals cultivated advanced cropped farms of potatoes, quinoa and corn alongside extensive mountainside villages.
Unfortunately, “before it was destroyed by the Spanish” will be a well-worn refrain from local guides, with the 1530s invasion by Spanish conquistadors causing widespread demolition, and annihilation of temples and cultural artefacts.
THE COCKTAIL OF BUENOS AIRES
Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, gives a fresh take on South American culture.
The city of 2.89 million people is professional, sharp and ordered, with the occasional hipster restaurant, but has a persisting feeling of being hit hard by financial struggle.
Inflation and economy woes are everyday topics even in casual conversations at the city’s many late-night bars — the visit is saved by the sheer elegance of the city’s tourism.
Sophisticated tango shows are scattered throughout the area’s oldest neighbourhood, San Telmo, and stylish steakhouses offering quality beef are a cut above what is available back home.
Fernet con coca, a local favourite cocktail mixed using the bitter, aromatic Italian spirit and Coca-Cola, is both a sweet and spicy snap to the tastebuds.
SUN, SEA, SAND
Before finishing the tour and heading back to Australia, make a stopover in Brazil to enjoy some sun, sea and sand.
Bring your best Portuguese to Rio de Janeiro, the seaside city with a population of 6.32 million with its famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.
Bronzed bodies dot the main tourist beaches, while the nearby beach volleyball nets and footpaths alongside have a constant stream of residents keeping in shape on foot or by bike.
A selfie with the 38m Christ the Redeemer statue atop Mount Corcovado is almost a compulsory activity for the budding traveller and is also a good sightseeing tool for understanding the different social areas of the city.
The central business district has a distinctly corporate feel, with numerous office towers next to Galeao International Airport on the waterfront.
This contrasts with the disadvantaged and elevated fringes of the city with sprawling slums, called favelas.
Tour guides will recommend to avoid the favelas, which are loosely policed by the military, and will instead insist that you take a ride by cable car to the granite peak of Sugarloaf Mountain in the safety of town.
Finish the South American tour off with a beach sunset or head to a few of the bars, which serve Brazil’s national cocktail, caipirinha, made from sugarcane liquor, sugar and lime.
Cold, crisp mountain air hits the lungs, its purity electrifying as the real tour of Peru begins in earnest around 3300m up at the former capital of the Inca empire, Cuzco.
While famed as a gateway to archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, the city stands on its own as a hub of architectural beauty, culinary excellence and upmarket baby alpaca wool clothing.
Acclimatise by taking a moonlit walk along the cobblestone alleys to the city’s restaurants.
Off the main square, the Pachapapa Peruvian restaurant has specialties such as oven-roasted whole guinea pig.
It would be a mistake to continue without trying dishes such as ceviche — raw fish cured in citrus juices — or lomo saltado — marinated strips of sirloin with onions, tomatoes and potatoes.
Machu Picchu, Peru
The ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, 2430m up in the Andes mountains, can only be described as “where heaven and earth meet”.
Dozens of towering grey stone structures loom from the shroud of mist covering the mountain summit.
The green grass of the farming terraces underfoot starkly contrasts with the surrounding sheer cliff edge falling into endless jungle below.
International tourists flock to the New Seven Wonders of the World site, queuing to see its dry-stone walls and astronomically aligned buildings while llamas lazily graze in front of panoramic views.
There are pre-booked optional trails held at set times during the day at the site.
They take you on perilously narrow stone steps high into the adjacent mountains and require moderate fitness — but are well worth the effort.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil
Who can say no to seeing the largest waterfall system in the world? Iguazu Falls is on many bucket lists.
The 2.7km wide and 82m tall, 12,750cum per second downpour is a natural border between Argentina and Brazil, with guided tours competing for your dollar on both sides.
Traversing the Iguazu River on metal walkways around the falls is an easy walk, but the real experience is joining a boat tour to be dunked head-first into some of the smaller waterfalls.
Visitors have their heads on a swivel to catch sight of jaguars, despite their rarity in the area, but other animals such as small capuchin monkeys and snouted raccoon-like coatis are plentiful, regularly snatching un-supervised food.
The Brazilian side of the falls also features one of the largest bird parks in Latin America, Parque das Aves, a privately owned zoo exhibiting numerous animals and butterflies.
(Top image: A young Llama at the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. Picture: Robert Dougherty)
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