All of these tours were an eclectic combination of history, geography, politics, art, local gossip and incredible passion. In South America, as we had also discovered in Asia, guiding is an honoured profession and the guides we met were well educated and experienced in their communities. It was an incredible way to learn the “story” of where I was traveling through.
Free Walking Tours
Many of the cities in South America have free walking tours – although there is a connection, each city’s tour is developed by passionate locals who want tourists to know their city better. The idea is that you pay what you think the tour was worth.
I’d seen the free walking tour guides as we wandered the historic center of Rio de Janeiro and decided to check out the Buenos Aires tours to get a quick orientation to the city before striking out on my own. Our guide, who was an architecture major at the local university, introduced us to the different types of buildings, passed on some great gossip about locals and suggested areas to check out further. The highlight, for me, was his sensitive but very clear description of the politics of the Falklands/Los Islas Malvinas and how it informs the way that Argentina sees its place in the world. Later, when I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s “On Patagonia” the vision of Argentina before and after the war was so clear.
|Las Islas Malvinas. These silhouettes were everywhere.|
I was excited to discover that Santiago also had a free walking tour and again it did not disappoint. The events of the military coup and the death of Salvador Allende were told in the plaza where it happened and explained this huge empty square with barricades – visually, this is how Chili shows their people that the President will be kept safe. This tour also gave context for when I toured the Genocide Museum. There were stories of the many statues around the central area, all of which give me a picture of what is important to Chili. We finished outside the home of Pablo Neruda, politician as well as Nobel Laureate.
|Salvador Allende Central Plaza|
In Potosi, Bolivia, I was delighted that our crew organized a walking tour for our morning enjoyment. We were only in the town for a day and I hadn’t even thought to check what might be available. Our guide’s English was excellent and she introduced us to the many churches (including checking out the bones lying on benches in the underground crypts), the history of the mines which drive the economy in the area, some great snacks, and suggestions for other things to explore in the afternoon. It still fascinates me to think that the Spanish in South America were building elaborate churches in the “middle of nowhere” before there were any settlements north of Florida.
|Cristos. Of silver mined from the local mines.|
|The devil in the background was considered the saint of the miners.|
My next opportunity to check out a free walking tour was in Popayan, a historic city in the south of Columbia. Before the tour even started, I learned that Columbia puts tourism as one of their three branches of the military. I still smile at the uniformed military officers, complete with guns, outside the tourism office chatting with me and asking where I was from and how I was enjoying their country. The tour itself included visits to historic churches, the merchant bridge which was the gateway to the interior of South America, and the law school where many of the country’s presidents were educated. We were joined by a number of local university students who were practicing their English (which was a requirement to graduate) for a traditional lunch.
|"Street of Humiliation" coming off the bridge where all merchants had to pass on their way south and pay taxes to the city.|
|Central Plaza. These horses were over 100 years old - locals would bring their children for photos.|
Medellin also had a free walking tour (Real City Tours), although it was more formalized due to the size of the city – I had to register on line, not just show up at the joining point, and when I checked in, I was directed to one of three English language groups (there were also two Spanish language groups running in parallel). With a bit of careful choreography, it felt like we were the only tour group in town. Our guide, Camillo, helped us to understand how Medellin fits within Columbia – geographically, it has been isolated from other cities by the mountains so was more free to develop its own identity. We got a short introduction to “the gentleman” Pablo Escobar and informed that it was best to not use his name in public as people are still very passionate about him. Of course, as we wandered around we were introduced to the politics of Columbia within the context of Botera statues, the plaza where the church served the local prostitutes, drug users and other homeless people as well as the local politicians and where it was/was not safe to visit.
|Sadly, I didn't get a chance to go inside this textile museum.|
|Incredible display of the history of Medellin. Our guide pointed out the many wars, the indigenous people, and recognition of the cocaine wars.|
|A modern high end mall inside a historic building.|
|At night, this square is home to prostitutes and the drug culture. The church in the back serves its community.|
In Cartagena, we had an included walking tour of the historic center which was very much like I had come to expect of the other tours I had taken. In two hours, we got an orientation to what was where, some background on history told with humour (like why you speak Spanish not English in Cartagena) and some suggestions of other places to check out.
|Sea wall built to withstand the English pirates in the 1600s.|
|Protesting housing issues|
|A wall needs to be thick but not so high to withstand cannon shots from pirates.|
|Modern art museum in the background with Maria Mullata (the blackbird), This plaza had statues representing people from all walks of life.|
Unfortunately, there were some places where I tried to take a free walking tour, but they just didn’t happen. I was at the right place at the right time in both Cuzco and Cuenca but nothing was happening. Not to worry, I just had to do my own touristing.
I had booked the Eat Rio walking tour before leaving home on the basis of traveling in Asia with a couple who made a point of finding food tours wherever we stopped. It was fantastic – the guide, Tom, was married to a local girl and delighted in showing off his adopted city. We started at one restaurant in the early morning for appetizers, wandered past a bar for “the best caparhinas in Rio”, hit the market on the way past the Celardon Steps (where I learned more about them than on another walking tour), then tried acai at a wee shop near where I was staying then finished with a three course meal at another local restaurant. I used Tom’s recommendations to book a tour of Rochina favella and also to book a Parilla tour in Buenos Aires. The funniest thing about this tour is that all of us were Canadian – I was tagged onto a group of friends from Vancouver who were in Rio for Carnival. Two of them actually knew where I lived as they had Northern Alberta relatives.
|A type of pepper that looks like a parrot's beak - which is its name in Portuguese|
|How many kinds of bananas are there? Dozens.|
|Looked like a durian, had similar consistency but had a lovely smell.|
|This merchant had carefully displayed his peppers to catch the attention of shoppers. He was delighted when I asked if I could take his photo.|
|Tom, describing cashews to us. We ate the fruit but in order to safely eat the nut, it needs to be thrown into a fire and have the toxins burned off the outside.|
In Buenos Aires, the Parilla Tour was all that Tom had promised. I had a chance to try out my point and smile Spanish to take the bus to the starting point. We tried appetizers, wines, ice cream (great ice cream seemed to be everywhere in South America), some chocolate, and for lunch had a genuine parilla (barbecue) at a local restaurant that I would never have been able to find on my own and not known what to order if I had found it. We got introduced to how meat is cut differently for a parilla, and that there is a master who is in charge of everything going on and off the parilla at the right time. The Alberta snob in me had been rather unimpressed by the quality of Argentinian beef (to be honest, the cattle do not have the quality of grazing that Alberta cows take for granted), including at a rather expensive restaurant near our hotel. But, at the parilla, it was incredible – tender, tasty, and better that anything I can remember in Alberta. Just goes to show, it’s all in the preparation and presentation.
In Arequipa, Lonely Planet suggested the Peruvian Cooking experience. Not so much a tour of food, but rather a chance to cook a traditional meal. We started by exploring the local market and buying some of the things we would use to cook our meal. I learned that the fruits and vegetables were grown in the Peruvian Amazon (we had gotten to Arequipa through the desert-like altiplano and I had no idea that Peru shared the Amazon with its neighbors) and took about 12 hours by truck to get to the market which counted as pretty darn fresh in my books. The fish (we made ceviche) came from the coast and would have been caught the day before. We also got a quick introduction to the traditional medicine part of the market – the red and black seed bracelets to keep the evil eye from your baby, the fetal llamas to ward off evil, the flowers and herbal remedies that the people throughout the Andes would often use instead of western medicine.
It wouldn’t be fair to explore Argentina and not do some wine tours. In Mendoza, we hopped on bicycles to visit three wineries then finish for lunch at a craft brewery complete with homemade empanadas. In Cafayate we pitched our tents and headed out to find some of the local wineries as well, where we got to taste Torrontes which is only grown in Argentina. There was no time for wine tasting in Chili, sadly.
|olives (not grapes) need the same sort of conditions|
Real City Tours in Medellin also offered an Exotic Fruit Tour, which gave me the reason to figure out the Metro, and explore the huge Minorista market north of the city center. Our guide shepherded us from one stall to the next as we taste tested dozens of fruits, many of which are not available for export, tried the best arepas (bread made from fresh ground corn) and had a bit of introduction to politics and history of Medellin.
|Group photo. We had to choose our favorite fruit. They were all fantastic.|
|Arepa. Mmm. Got to see the whole process from peeling the corn husks (took most of the top floor of the market) to cooking on the grill.|
|one of three or four kinds of passion fruit - maracuja - that you can eat in Columbia|
While in Salento, we checked out the San Martin coffee company. A new company determined to keep the best coffee beans in Columbia and create excellent coffee at home, we got to see how coffee is roasted then ground to make truly fantastic coffee. It really does taste different depending on where the beans have been grown. I also learned that what I was looking for when I go home is “single origin” not “free trade” if I want great coffee that the farmer gets a fair price for. There are a number of companies in Columbia that are looking to reverse the trend of all the good beans being exported, while you drink second rate (often imported from other countries) coffee in the local shops.
I continued the process in Cartagena by taking the Delamesa coffee crawl on my birthday. This gave me a chance to learn all the different ways of making coffee as well as trying out beans from a number of areas in Columbia. At each spot, there was also a wee snack to go with the coffee I was tasting, and we finished off with some handmade ice cream. And, of course, as we wandered the streets of the historic center, Belkin also told stories of the buildings we were passing and gave ideas of where I wanted to come back and explore. Delamesa also does tours in Bogota and Medellin.
I’m definitely going to be looking for other food related tours in my travels.
Other great local tours
As we were traveling through South America, there were a number of other opportunities to learn from locals. What I’ve taken away from these experiences is that my preference is definitely local rather that what might be on Trip Advisor, or be organized by an international company. The local tours are usually less expensive, have fewer people and are definitely more personalized. Here’s some of my favorite memories.
Rochina favella walking tour in Rio de Janiero. My first day in Rio, I had taken a tour that promised to hit all the highlights, including a tour of a favella. Sadly, it was a huge group, travel time meant that we barely touched any of the sites, and it felt rather sanitized. I was delighted that (at the last moment), the Rochina tour was confirmed. It is run by an excentric ex-American DJ who returned to Rochina a few years ago. The guide was of the favella and was passionate about showing us the way things really were – from the improvements now that there is a strong police presence in the favella, to the reality of crime and the politics of favella vs the wealthy who live by the ocean. Lunch at a local restaurant to finish the tour was an opportunity to try some more food.
|Read about this photo here.|
At the Fazenda San Francisco in the Pantanal, we got the example of the “professional” vs “local” experience. We were accompanied to the Fazenda by a guide who took us to see wildlife on a night tour (we didn’t see much) and on a trail ride (interesting but not much seen). The next day, something fell through (maybe snorkeling or something) and we had the option of taking one of the fazenda’s trucks and have a local show us around. This guide, who worked for the fazenda as a gaucho and had driven the truck the day before, actually had excellent English skills and a passion about the area that he was delighted to share with us. The next day, he accompanied us on our boat trip to catch piranahas and see caimen and eagles. His wife was the captain and I was delighted to discover that, now we knew the secret, we could ask questions directly to he and his wife and bypass our official guide who was definitely of the city persuasion.
|The Pantanal is the biggest wetland in the world, apparently.|
|Why do you fish for piranha? To catch caimen (aligators) or eagles.|
In Buenos Aires, an afternoon Grafitti Tour took me through another area of this huge cosmopolitan city. I learned to see the marks on buildings as political freedom (the streets belong to the people, anybody can express themselves) and as incredible art that tells a story if you wish to listen. I definitely watched out for graffiti as we continued our trip in South America.
|The "signature" of one of the well known female street artists|
|It had just passed Cinco de Mayo and the white scarves signifying the marches of the mothers to protest the disappeared were everywhere|
|An Aussie street artist - carrying his house on his back. Protesting that this block of housing was being torn down to create business space.|
When we arrived in Ushuaia, I jumped at the chance to take a boat cruise through the Beagle Channel (the farthest south I am ever likely to be) and then a stop at the Harburton Estancia. This was another example of locals passionately introducing you to their neighborhood. The ship was fairly small, and not fully booked on what we learned was the last day of the season. Our guide provided some discussion about what we were seeing, but then was just available to answer questions. His English was excellent, no doubt reflecting that Ushuaia is an important tourist location where all ships to Antarctica stop for provisions. On arriving at the estancia, we were met by a guide who was actually part of the scientific group that was carrying on the research of Natalie Goodall. It’s still a working ranch, as well as carrying on research related to Tierra del Fuego. The best part was sitting over lunch with my fellow traveler, an older fellow who had been a trucker and mechanic in New Zealand and Tommy Goodall (the current owner, husband of Natalie, and great nephew of Lucas Bridges who wrote The Uttermost Parts of the Earth) as they discussed the many bits of mechanical equipment on the estancia and its similarities with things used in Australia, South Africa and North America. Given that settlement by a family from the UK was happening at about the same time as settlement of Alberta by families from the UK, I too was charmed by the similarities.
|Although I was doing the talking, it was Ralph's name on the tickets. :)|
|Lupins, which are indigenous to the Andes. The dryer and the colder the climate, the more beautiful and dramatic are the flowers/seeds. Farther north, lupins are actually a food staple for the beans.|
Estancia los Proteros in Northern Argentina was operated by a family originally from the UK as well. The current owner, whose last name was anglo, first name was Spanish and who spoke fluent Spanish and English with a British accent because he had been educated there, treated us like friends. We rode the area on retired polo ponies, learned how to taste wine and were entertained one evening by local musicians. The story is that when the Estancia was looking at diversifying into tourism, it was the head of Dragoman (our tour company) that first committed to bring groups out of the way of the main travel routes to visit which encouraged other groups to also try it out. So, of course we were family.
|Los Protreros, or the dry mount walls. This area was originally settled by the Jesuits who hired indigenous people to build these walls to keep horses and cattle.|
I’ve mentioned traveling the Death Road out of La Paz as a cheerleader. I wasn’t sure what to expect, perhaps that I would be seen as a slightly unwelcome guest who wasn’t prepared to ride a bike. Instead, at each stop, the driver would explain to us where we were, what we were seeing, why the road was important to the economy of Bolivia and (what I had not even noticed) why traffic flowed on the “wrong side of the road” compared to the rest of Bolivia. He encouraged us to take photos and to ask questions. I quickly felt like a welcome guest.
|This monument at the start of the road reminded me of memorials in the Himalayas|
Leaving La Paz, we were accompanied by Leo, a very colourful character who was passionate about the area we were passing through on our way to Lake Titicaca. Our crew leader had indicated as we left, that we were going to check out Tiwanacu on the way, even though it wasn’t on the itinerary, because it was interesting and there was enough money in the kitty to pay everybody’s admission. Leo made the site come alive with descriptions of this civilization that predated the Inkas, gossiped about the archeological digs and gave insight into the connections to local indigenous cultures. He had recommended an incredible place for lunch and then chatted for the rest of the day about the area we were passing through. In Copacabana (on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca), we had dinner as well as a picnic lunch for the next day from his mother’s restaurant where she made sure he was helping to take care of her guests. Like many of our local guides, Leo had a university education but chose to work in tourism where he could make a more comfortable living. The next day, he guided us hiking along the shore (OK up and down the hills because, of course, everything in South America is either up or down, not flat) and introduced us to the Inka culture on Isla de la Luna and Isla del Sol (the furthest east expansion of the Inka empire who were meeting resistance from the Aymara), before leaving us at the border near Pucon (Peru).
|Stuked grain. Just like I remembered seeing in La Crete in the early 1970s. Agriculture in Bolivia was exclusively by hand or with animal assistance.|
|Walls not as precise as we would see from the Inka. But still standing hundreds of years later.|
|Dry mount houses along the shore of Lake Titicaca that had been lived in until recently. Very similar to the crofts in Scotland.|
We had only a few hours in Puno before leaving the next day on our further adventures. Some of us made the choice to check out the reed villages, even if they were “rather touristy”. I’d read about these traditional villages and wanted to visit them. Rianne, one of our crew, negotiated our trip and we were off to explore. We saw hints of how the locals really lived on these manmade islands – a big crowd was on one island cheering on their teenagers playing soccer, another island was the local convenience store and restaurant. And, although the presentation about life on the islands was a bit contrived and designed to encourage us to spend money, the people welcomed us into their homes. I particularly enjoyed talking with one of the young women who, with some words of English (and my few words of Spanish) explained the stories behind the traditional embroidered panels that she had created.
|Lake Titicaca from the reed village|
Visiting the Galapagos Islands is the ultimate tour with a local. All the ships are registered on the islands and the crew and guide are residents. Read more here about my experiences.
On our way between Ushuaia and Perito Morenos in Argentina, we took the scenic Ruta 40 through Argentina, did a few bush camps and visited Cueva de los Manos. It’s an UNESCO world heritage site with wall paintings from about 13,000 years ago. Our guide made the area come alive. The connections fascinated me – at a similar time, hand paintings were happening in Australia and also in Europe. Was the knowledge shared, or did people around the world independently discover how to create a paint that lasted for generations? I also smile to think that in my province, Highway 40 also cuts through some very uninhabited land.
The Wild Andes Trek near Machu Picchu was another spectacular example of getting to know an area through locals. I smile every time I think about choosing this option because of the chance to see local weaving (which I did) and getting multiple days of walking with locals and learning about where I was. Getting flowers of good wishes from our resident shaman, baked potato snacks as we passed through the village that belonged to the head of the crew, Wari, who also provided the horse ambulance, were just some of the many memories. Read more here.
In Arequipa, our crew recommended we do the Reality Tour. It’s a group that focuses on social development with the poor and disadvantaged and doesn’t advertise locally so as to not get the government too angry at them. From where you live, who you can marry, what school you go to and even which part of the cemetery you are buried in, we learned that in Peru it all depends on your last name. We checked out the quarry where the white stones for the upper class houses are mined by hand. One of the miners explained that he had moved to Arequipa twenty years ago because it was safer due to military presence. He had no education (wrong last name) and made enough money to provide food for he and his wife because they lived as squatters at the quarry. We also visited local markets, a daycare for children of single mothers and the local cemetery where (if you knew the stories) you were buried not only by your last name, but also by how you died. This tour was sensitively presented by a local who cared dearly about making things better for people in his community.
Between Lima and the border with Ecuador, we had the opportunity to visit Huanchaco and learn more about the civilizations that predated the Inka. This was another reminder that the Inka weren’t the first or only civilization in South America, just the ones that were good at taking over other civilizations and integrating ideas into their own culture. Our guides wove the stories of the civilizations, how the buildings were built and the changes as time went on, with how these were discovered and excavated. The museums were professionally developed, but it was the stories that made things come alive.
· A guided visit to the Chan Chan ruins, the Huaca de la Luna and Huaca de la Sol ruins and Lord of the Sipan Museum (not long enough, sadly)
|In this civilization, every emperor would build on top of his predecessor's works. The challenge in excavating was how to show the older building without destroying the newer. This allowed us to see how the images had changed over time.|
|This wall panel told the story of events happening in the community.|
We only had one day in Cuenca, and it was my hope that I could see Ingapirca because of its connection to the Inka. Thankfully, one of my fellow travelers, Mark, agreed to be the second person needed to make the tour happen. We learned that the importance of this site is that it is a combination of Canari and Inka traditions following the marriage of Atahuallpa to a Canari princess. This is also where he was defeated by the Spanish. This was truly a tour by a local as the company we booked with contracted with a young man to pick us up at our hotel, drive us to Inkapirca where we received a guided tour by one of the site guides, and then explore interesting things on the way back to town. I knew it was going to be an interesting day when, before we even left town, our guide pulled over and pointed to an open field and explained that this was a really interesting market if we were going to be in town in a few days (sadly not). We also had a fantastic meal at a local hotel, checked out a workshop that was hand weaving high end shawls for the local ladies of cotton/silk from Uzbekistan hand dyed in Ecuador, learned the process of weaving de paja toquilla (Panama Hats) and finished the day with an example of how locals deal with car accidents (negotiation and exchange of money).
|The Canari gods as we came into Ingapirca, which is still a thriving town|
|Our guide explained that the layout being circular showed it was originally a Canari site.|
|Part of the Inca Trails - we could have done a multi day hike to Cuzco along this path.|
|Over time, stones from the site had been removed (to make walls or houses) and the government has had a process of bringing them back where they belong to eventually rebuild with.|
|A form of calendar|
|This also was a Canari built wall - not as precise as the Inka would do|
|On the way back, an aqueduct from Inka times|
|Carrot dyed Ecuador wool with a wee Panama Hat from Annette|
We had the pleasure of staying at the Huascilla Amazon Resort on the Ecuador edge of the Amazon. It was a very comfortable introduction to the Amazon, but we had opportunities to check out what makes the rainforest so special. From a guided hike, to exploring local culture, and boating along the main Ecuadoran tributary of the Amazon to visit a wildlife sanctuary, locals shared their passion and knowledge with us.
|Crater lake in the cloud forest|
|This woman was panning for gold on this tributary of the Amazon. Hard work for a small part of the cost that gold would eventually be worth.|
|Me trying something interesting from a communal cup. So much for food and water precautions.|
As I’ve been collecting these examples of learning from locals, I’ve come to appreciate how my tour company, Dragoman, collected these many different opportunities to allow us the pleasure of slow travel and getting to know the area. I would not have had the opportunity to experience South America this way if I had been traveling solo.