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South American Spice

When it comes to having a real zest for life, South Americans are a hard bunch to beat. They work hard, they play hard, and boy, do they love to dance! From salsa to the samba, the rumba to a paso doble—and let's not forget the tango—the rhythms of South America seem to jive with the fiery spirit of its people and their thirst for life.

As a continent, South America is obviously massive and very diverse, with each country having its own culture and appeal. Ecuador has the Galapagos Islands for nature enthusiasts. Peru is known for its Inca history, with several remarkable historic sights including Machu Picchu, plus the nicest stretch of Amazon River for cruising, from the city of Iquitos. Brazil is famous for its beaches—including Copacabana and Ipanema—plus its private island resorts, the nightlife of Rio, and its stunningly beautiful people. No wonder it's still a celebrity hot spot after all these years!

Then there's Argentina, which packs a lot within its borders. There's something for everyone, from the shopping and nightlife of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires to the spectacular scenery of Iguazu Falls (there's also a Brazilian side to the falls), the wild outdoor adventures of Patagonia (great hiking, rafting, and horseback riding), a landscape of glaciers to the south, and the Lake District, known as "Little Switzerland of Argentina," with its vineyards and a few posh hotels like Llao Llao Hotel & Resort, Golf-Spa.

Bolivia is a relative unknown in the world of tourism, but people do go there for its fishing and unique culture. Uruguay and its capital city of Montevideo are gaining in popularity with Americans, mostly for the country's beaches and generally quieter vibe than neighboring Brazil and Argentina. And skinny little Chile is known for its mountainous Andes region (think skiing during our summer), as well as its delightful wines and vineyards.

Your Hideaways Travel Consultant can recommend the perfect combination of adventures when traveling to this part of the world, including several sample itineraries that are country focused—for instance, Ecuador with a Galapagos cruise or a city/country combo in Argentina (see our member report, next page). For those who want to experience several countries in one trip, we highly recommend a luxury cruise around Cape Horn—the southernmost tip of South America—from Rio or Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, or vice versa.

One thing to note: It can be rather costly to "country-jump" in South America, so it's important to consider exactly what you want to see and do in the amount of time you have. Don't try to cram in too much—your Travel Specialist can tailor your itinerary to make the most of your time and your budget. Finally, be flexible when traveling in this part of the world. Life moves to its own rhythm here—and that's not a bad thing!


Mike & Gail's Big Bolivia Adventure
By Hideaways Publisher Mike Thiel

Sometimes, you feel compelled to visit a place simply because it's there. For me, Bolivia was just such a place—the completion of a collection, since I had visited or lived in every other major country in South America. So, when the opportunity presented itself to see its highlights, Gail and I jumped at the chance.

Honestly, it was one of the most rugged trips we've ever experienced: red-eye flights both to get there and home; traveling well into the night on SUV trips across rugged to non-existent roads; hydrofoils across Lake Titicaca; and, of course, the usual bus tours and late-afternoon side excursions when we could barely keep our eyes open—all at an elevation of 12,000-plus feet. That's not our usual style of travel, but then again, Bolivia is not our typical destination. Was it worth it? Yes, for the one time, to see and experience a new and very intriguing destination.

This photo essay hits the highlights of our big Bolivia adventure. For even more photos and insight, view my slideshow at www.Hideaways.com/boliviaslideshow.

Lovely Lake Titicaca
First, a bit of history: Originally inhabited by the Aymara civilization, Bolivia was conquered by the Incas at the end of the 15th century, and then by the Spanish in the 16th century in their search for gold and silver. In 1809, Liberator Simon Bolivar lead the battle for independence, and the country finally gained its freedom in 1825. Between the late 1800s and mid-1900s, Bolivia had several conflicts with neighboring countries, most importantly with Chile, to which it lost its only ocean access. Since then Bolivia has been land-locked—but it does have massive Lake Titicaca, the world's highest commercially navigable lake at an altitude of 12,500 feet above sea level.

A Day in the Park
As legend has it, Bolivian women have been wearing bowler hats since an industrious English milliner, going out of business and with a surplus of the hats, persuaded the natives they looked distinguished in them. The position of the hat can indicate a woman's marital status. These women are enjoying a day at a park in La Paz, the world's highest capital city at 12,087 feet above sea level.

Witch's Market
The Witch's Market in La Paz sells many treasures including alpaca goods and silver jewelry, and also gives a fascinating view into Bolivian folk medicine and remedies. Here, you see llama fetuses for sale; Bolivians place one of these in the foundations of their homes during construction to bring good fortune.

Taking the Easy Way
I took a turn on the one donkey available to those of us making the two-mile trek to our overnight lodging on Sun Island, where an ancient Inca stone stairway takes visitors to the ruins of Pilcocaina. The steps to the ruins were 750 feet straight up—even this was an abrupt change in altitude. Lake Titicaca is in the background.

Uyuni Salt Flats
We couldn't wait for our all-day excursion on Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Flats, an immense white plain of 12.000 square kilometers of salt. It is the only land feature on Earth visible to the naked eye from the moon, and is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes that reach 5,000 meters above sea level.

An Argentine Birthday Bash
By Hideaways Member Don Campion, Detroit, MI

Every once in awhile, one of those landmark birthdays rolls around that just needs to be celebrated in style, and so it was with my son Jeff's 30th birthday. My wife, Pam, and I decided to let him choose a trip, and after much deliberating—Jeff has already traveled extensively in Europe and Asia—he landed on South America. We ultimately chose Argentina after consulting with (Hideaways Travel Consultant) Darcy, who pointed out that the country has no extensive visa process, and that we could enjoy a robust city life in Buenos Aires followed by a beautiful outdoor adventure at Iguazu Falls. And, of course, we had heard they have delicious beef—a big plus for us!

Buenos Aires was all we had hoped it would be—a wonderful big-city experience. We took a tour of the city when we first arrived to get the overall feel, seeing the heart of town and the Boca district with its colorful buildings, murals, sidewalk cafes, and tango dancers. We also visited the main square where the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo are still protesting the fact that their sons remain missing since the 1970s, a period when the government apparently systematically kidnapped and imprisoned activist youth.

We walked Buenos Aires extensively and found it a vibrant and safe place to enjoy city life. Of course, we took in a tango show in an intimate dinner-theater setting—after all, no trip to Argentina would be complete without seeing a tango show. And the steak dinners were delicious and plentiful.

Our hotel of choice was the Alvear Palace, and it was spectacular! It's a lot like being on a Silverseas cruise—run with a sense of pride, and with a team of butlers on each floor to attend to guests' needs, starting with complimentary ironing of two garments on arrival. The butlers were our first point of contact, and they helped with Internet connections, familiarizing us with hotel facilities, and more. I could get used to that!

One of the best parts of our stay was the champagne breakfast buffet, served in a high-ceilinged, lattice-surrounded dining room that made us feel as if we were sitting outdoors. We were served by waiters dressed in formal attire who poured coffee from nice silver service and attended our every need. The food selection was extensive and delicious. What a nice way to start the day! Then we'd head outside to explore, following suggestions made by the concierge on everything from places to eat and shop to insider tips, like how to catch a taxi late at night.

Finally, it was off to Iguazu Falls, a short flight from Buenos Aires. We stayed at the Sheraton Iguazu Resort & Spa, not as nice as Alvear Palace but overlooking the falls, so the setting was great. The weather was very nice—in the mid-70s in May—and the private guide Darcy arranged for us took us on a wonderful tour of Iguazu National Park, including a boat ride where we floated right under the falls. We all got soaked but thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

What more can I say? Darcy came up with the perfect vacation for us, and Jeff had a birthday celebration he'll never forget.


High Water on the Amazon
By Hideaways Member Michelle Lee, Atlanta, GA

Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to see the Amazon River. So this past spring I traveled to Peru with my husband, our 27-year-old daughter, and my 82-year-old mother for the adventure of a lifetime—four nights aboard Aqua Expeditions' 24-passenger M/V Aqua, for a very relaxing cruise on the Amazon.

Our shipboard accommodations and the food were both excellent. And with so few guests on board and such a wonderful crew, we were well taken care of. The crew reminded me of camp counselors, always helpful and even willing to jump in and swim with us if anyone was apprehensive about getting in the water.

A highlight for me was breakfast aboard the skiffs. We took out three of the small boats and the crew lashed them together, then served us a delicious breakfast, white gloves and all. My only regret is that it was high-water season, and I couldn't set foot in many of the areas I would have liked to explore—although we were able to access small tributaries and floating forests we otherwise wouldn't have.

I have so many clear and wonderful memories of our time on the Amazon—the sun setting on the river as we floated along, pink and gray dolphins playing in the water around us. Then the boat drifting quietly as night settled in, everything perfectly still with no sounds on the river. Finally, I remember looking up into that dark, dark sky with so many brilliant stars—truly memorable!

Ed. Note: We highly recommend Aqua Expeditions for cruising the Amazon; members save 5%. Also, read Mike Thiel's extensive report on his Amazon cruise and trip to Machu Picchu at www.Hideaways.com/amazoncruise.

July/August 2011

 
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