SOUTH AMERICA 2004
A backpacker’s experience from a two months trip in seven countries.
South America is more dangerous than Asia. With dangerous I mean that theft is far more prevalent, you have to be more careful after dark and weapons are more readily used. The police are often heavily armed. In some areas in Colombia the guerrilla may hold up buses and take hostages. Houses, hotels and sometimes shops are protected be iron gates. Poverty may be prevalent in both Asia and South America but SA has a macho culture that partly may explain the difference in criminal behaviour. Bolivar, an historic freedom fighter well known in South America, is a central symbol for many countries in this region. Cuba has in addition Jose Marti and Che Guevarra as their heroes. But Cuba has almost no violence, probably because it is a very controlled society.
What are common denominators of most South-American countries?
Historically there have been many military dictatorships in SA but a certain democratisation seems to have taken place. Corruption is widespread but not as bad as in most African countries. The influence of United States is strong, particularly in Colombia and Equador. Equador has now, from 2002, started to use US dollar as their official currency while dollars are widely accepted in countries like Peru and Bolivia. From the ATM’s you could choose if you wanted your money as dollars or the local currency. US also try to stop farmers from growing coca plants, the raw material for production of cocaine and heroin. They use two main approaches. One is to destroy coca plants using soldiers who get weapons from US. Another is to pay farmers some compensation if they start to grow i.e. vegetables in stead. But they make less money this way, and if their coca crop is destroyed they may move to other areas.
Transport and infrastructure: South America has by and large good roads and buses for long distance travel. They run according to announced timetables, are comfortable and cheap, often around 1.50 dollar pr 100 km or at most 3 dollars. One disadvantage is that the bus terminals often are situated at the outskirts of the cities.
Some cities have also an excellent metro. Caracas in Venezuela has a major line running through the whole city from east to west. Medellin in Colombia has also a modern metro running through the city and connecting up with the bus terminal. The drug baron Escobar initiated this metro. He is considered Medellins great son because he did a lot for the city. Sao Paulo is the city in SA with the most extensive metro network and also with a station at the major bus terminal.
Bigger cities also have many flight connections but flying is a lot more expensive than using buses. I made one trip with plane, a Boeing 737, from Rio de Janeiro, via Brasilia to Manaus. This four-hour trip cost about 200 US dollars. By bus and boat it would have taken me around seven days.
Internet access is generally easy available. Often you will find broadband connections to a reasonable price, seldom more than one-dollar pr.hour. La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, was the best place I came across with plenty of Internet cafes and prices from 30-50 cents pr hour. The easy access makes it possible to keep in daily contact with family and friends and read local newspapers. One can even control the bank account and make necessary changes, payments etc.. E.g. in La Paz in Bolivia my credit card, together with other papers, was stolen/confiscated by a false policeman. Within 15 minutes I was able to empty my bank account connected to the card and contact the bank via Internet.
In all big cities one will also find ATM’s making it unnecessary to carry traveller checks or a lot of money. On the other hand it is not so common to pay hotels and goods with credit card as in my country Norway. If you pay for goods in a shop with a card they may add 5% to the price.
Accommodation is generally cheaper than in any other continent. For a decent room with WC, shower and often TV, one would pay 4-6 dollars in cities outside the capitals and at most 10 dollars in major cities like Caracas in Venezuela, Lima in Peru and Sao Paulo in Brazil. One specific thing with most hotels in SA is that the guests have to put the used toilet paper in a basket. If one put it in the bowl the toilet will stop functioning.
Nature in South-America. SA has « a lot of nature ». Many big cities are situated at high altitudes. Caracas 900 m. above sea level (asl), Medillin 1600 m., Bogota 2800 m., Puno at Titicaca, « the worlds highest navigable sea », at 3820 m. and La Paz, the worlds highest situated capital at 3623 m. Surrounding several of these cities one can see snow covered peaks up to around 6000 meters. The road from Arrequipa to Puno in Peru runs up to more than 4500 m. asl.. The effect of the engine of cars at this altitude also becomes clearly feebler and the carburettor of the engine needs adjustment to give it more air. One car I went with had to zik-zak its way up the hills and barely managed.
My itinerary in South-America
Venezuela, Colombia, Equador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela.
Venezuela: Area: 916.445 sq. km, Population: 24.000.000
I arrived downtown Caracas around 8 PM. I descended from the bus from the airport outside a metro station, Gato Negro. When I put down a shoulder bag in front of my feet to put the backpack on my back a young man tried to snatch the bag from me. I grabbed the bag while the thief pulled the shoulder strap until it snatched its hold. This was one of my first encounters with South-America.
From Gato Negro the metro brought me smoothly to Plaza Venezuela. Near this station there are a lot of hotels with rooms available. This is also a very lively area with plenty of shops and stalls in daytime and restaurants at night. The administrative centre with many tall modern buildings is located further to the west and is considered somewhat less safe after dark.
Politics: President Chavez is a controversial politician. In 1992 he attempted a coup but failed, was jailed for two years and then turned himself into a leftist politician. He won the election in 1998 and seems to have the support of the poor people. In 1999 he got the constitution rewritten giving sweeping power to the president. In 2004 many tried to get rid of him by collecting signatures expressing that he should step down as a president. Well, he is still in power. He appears to be a good friend of Fidel Castro in Cuba. In the meantime the economy seems to detoriate. One indication is that the black market rate of dollar was 3200 bolivares to one dollar while the official rate was 1920 on March 23. 2004. Chavez seems more interested in staying in power than improving the economy. He can often be seen on national TV. In one speech I listened to in connection with a visit from representatives of Cuban authors he talked about the old freedom fighters in Venezuela and Cuba but not about the current political- and economic situation. In another program he was interviewed by a journalist who asked him questions about his childhood and parents. This program seemed to be part of image building. My impression was that he tried to avoid addressing controversial issues.
Colombia: Area: 1.141.748 sq km, Population: 40.000.000
I visited three cities in Colombia. 1: Cartagena. 2: Medellin. 3: Bogota.
Cartagena is located at the Caribbean Sea and supposed to be a relatively safe place. Part of it consists of a pleasant old city with plenty of restaurants and a fair amount of tourists. Boats can bring you out to islands, one with an aquarium with dolphins and other types of fish.
Medellin is probably the most modern- and well off city in Colombia. It is situated 1600 meters above sea level and has a modern bus terminal, which is linked to the metro. The city centre is lively and with lot of cheap restaurants. In daytime you feel it is a safe place. I suppose the city owes a lot to the drug baron Escobar. He was supposed to have had 200 billion dollars and offered to pay the debt owed by Colombia. He was not very popular with the Americans. They probably contributed to that he was killed in 1993.
Bogota: The capital is located 2600 meters asl.. The bus terminal, located some distance from the city, has a rather special arrangement if you want a taxi. You line up in front a sort of office. They ask where you want to go, write down the address and price on a piece of paper and you go to the taxi stand and deliver it to the driver. Well, this is one way of protecting tourists from being cheated. In a lot of places around the world you have to bargain with the driver about the price.
Bogota is not supposed to be safe after dark so taxi is recommended. The first night though I walked from my hotel down to a nearby restaurant with a fireplace and nice reasonable food. The next couple of days I walked around the city feeling safe.
In the backpacker place I stayed one local told me about how Indians were treated. In the 1960-ties oil had been found in a border area between Colombia and Ecuador. The
oil company wanted the land cleared so they invited the Indians to a meal which was poisoned. Those left were shot. My informant told he tried to help a local Indian composer that had sold at least 500.000 CDs but had received no money. He had recently suffered a heart attack but had no money to go to hospital. This may give some indications of what sort of society Colombia is. The country is functioning but with the help of a strong military force. You see a lot of soldiers along the main roads and especially up in the mountains where guerrilla attacks are more likely to occur. Most people today regard FARC, a well-known guerrilla organisation, as a bunch of criminals with no ideology and central leadership.
Ecuador: Area: 283.560 sq. km, Population: 12.920.100
The capital Quito with around 1.200.000 inhabitants is situated 2850 m. asl. and has a pleasant climate. One may distinguish between Old Town and New Town where most tourists stay. Buses connect the two parts and have their own lanes and waiting booths/rooms for passengers. The passengers pay before they enter the booth.
Quito has many beautiful plazas and churches in Old Town and some pleasant pedestrian malls. Many Indians can be seen and there seemed to be some political unrest among them. In some places they tried to block the road and demonstrations took place in Quito.
Peru: Area: 1.285.216 sq. km, Population: 27.012.899
Lima, the capital, has close to 9.000.000 people and is considered a dangerous city. One example may be; I walked from the centre to the bus terminal about two km. away around 5.30 p.m. A boy asked where I came from, I turned my head slightly while another came from behind trying to tear my watch from my wrist. When he failed and I turned against him he ran away. Let me add that the centre of Lima in daytime was pleasant and lively and the suburb Miraflores, where I and stayed, was safe and pleasant.
Arequipa, 2325 m. asl. and with one million inhabitants is one night on the bus from Lima. The city is surrounded with snow covered mountains and has a pleasant temperature. It feels like a safe place so there is no problem walking the streets after dark. The central plaza is both beautiful and lively. After three days it was time to move on to Puno at Lake Titicaya but this was easier said than done because of a nation wide bus strike. I went to the bus terminal reckoning there might be some alternative to the bus and found one with a Toyota Corolla station wagon offering a ride to an acceptable price. But first he had to fill up the car with other passengers. Well, this took quite some time. Gradually the car filled up until at last I counted 10 people and luggage in addition inside the car. The road climbed to somewhere between 4500 and 5000 meters. The speed was slow up the gentle slopes and halfway the carburettor had to be adjusted due to the thin air. But the road was new and of a good standard. I was worried about the brakes downhill also because the driver coasted along just using the brakes, not the engine to reduce the speed. Well, we came down without incidents. When arriving Puno late in the evening it was rather cold. A bicycle taxi brought me to a hotel. The next day a boat took me and other tourists around Lake Titicaca. The one and only stop was at The Floating Islands were Indians live in small villages. They have also a school at one of the islands. The islands are built from totora reed, which grow in Lake Titicaca. From this reed they also make things like small boats which they sell to tourists and the huts in which they live. Fishing is probably another source of income.
Even if this area is poor is Puno an attractive town with, a big plaza, a mall and other narrow streets extending in all directions with a variety of restaurants. You can i.e. get trout from Lake Titicaca and prices are very reasonable.
From Puno it is easy to come to La Paz in Bolivia in one day. Most hotels sell tickets and a van comes and picks you up and brings you to the bus. It is also possible to take a bus to the border and then another to La Paz in Bolivia.
Bolivia: Area: 1.098.580 sq. km, Population: 8.152.620
The border crossing into Bolivia went smoothly and the bus arrived in downtown La Paz around 6 p.m. The view just before entering La Paz is spectacular. One can look down at the city which is situated in a valley surrounded with snow covered peaks.
La Paz, the capital, with about 1.500.000 inhabitants, is located 3632 m. asl.. There are many steep streets in La Paz and you easily get short of breath due to the thin air in this altitude when walking uphill. What surprised me most with La Paz was all the Internet places there with fast connections to a very reasonable place. It is the best city I have ever been to as far as availability, good and cheap Internet access concerns. This is surprising in one of the poorest countries in South America. Young people used them extensively.
Out of Bolivia: At the bus terminal you can buy tickets to both Argentina, Chile and Brazil. A ticket to Sao Paulo in Brazil cost 130 US dollars and the trip was supposed to take three days. It took almost four days and three different bus companies. The first started in the evening and went to Santa Cruz in the southern part of Bolivia. The bus was comfortable enough with reclining seats and in good condition. But around midway, early in the morning, it arrived at a river where the bridge had been ripped away several months before but not repaired. The passengers had to get out of the bus and take small boats across the river while the bus had to wait for a bigger ferry together with a lot of trucks and buses to get across. Well, this process took around three hours and we arrived in Santa Cruz around noon. This was the main road into La Paz. The next bus started 9 p.m. and was an ordinary bus with fixed seats. Most of the trip in Bolivia went on dirt roads. One can image what it would have been like in the rainy season. Well, we encountered no rain and reached the border to Paraguay in the afternoon. The passengers had to line up, take out their luggage and place it in front of you. The custom officers/soldiers, heavily armed, went through the luggage while a dog sniffed at it. This process took about two hours. Nothing illegal was found as far as I could observe.
Paraguay: Area: 406.752 sq. km, Population: 5.500.000
We arrived in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, around midnight. I found a hotel adjacent to the bus terminal and fell soundly asleep after having stayed awake for two nights. The next bus, to Sao Paulo in Brazil, was supposed to leave the next day 10 am. When I inquired at the bus terminal the next morning it turned out that the bus was leaving at 4 p.m. in the afternoon. It gave me time to go to the city centre which turned out to be quite pleasant with lot of people in the streets, many street stalls and sunny weather. The city, Asuncion, seemed to have improved somehow since my last visit there in 2002.
The bus to Sao Paulo belonged to a Brazilian company and had a very good standard with aircon and reclining seats.
Brazil: Area: 8.456.510 sq. km, Population: 170.000.000
We passed the border into Brazil very smoothly and quickly in the evening via The Friendship Bridge at Ciudad del Este.
Sao Paulo: The next day around noon we arrived in Sao Paulo at the bus terminal Tiete. From there you can catch the metro. A convenient place to get off is Placa da Republica. Coming up from the metro station one quickly locates a tourist booth with a helpful English speaking person inside. There you may get a free map over Sao Paulo and recommendation of hotels near by if wanted. There are a lot of reasonably priced hotels and places to eat in this central part of the city. There are also many shops and cinemas in this area.
Sao Paulo, with 20 million citizens, is the biggest city in South America. Its elevation of about 700 m. asl. gives a pleasant temperature. From Praca da Republica it is easy to walk to the downtown area with tall office buildings in narrow streets. This area is crowded in daytime; a lively and interesting place also with a lot of shops and people selling from stalls in the streets.
If one wants to move to other parts of the city the metro is the obvious choice. Even with a good map and compass it is hard the walk across the city mainly due to all the motor ways which are hard to cross. But one may also find quiet spots in the city like a jungle like peaceful park just off the busy Av. Paulista. Big trees and dense bushes very effectively dampen the sound from the cars in the busy street. A peaceful oases in a bustling city.
Rio de Janeiro: To get there from Sao Paulo is very easy. Just take the metro to Terminal Tiete and you get a bus within 15 minutes. Five hours later you are in Rio. The bus terminal in Rio is not connected to the Metro. Bus or taxi are the options, but they have a helpful English-speaking people at an information desk.
In Rio I had been invited to live with a family in the suburb of Botafogo by a young Brazilian I met when travelling in Brazil in 2002. The family lived in a three bedroom flat with a living room and kitchen in an apartment building. They consisted of mother, father, their daughter, who studied medicine, and their son who studied law. The mother worked and the father was a pensioner. The family had PC with a fast Internet connection.
I was overwhelmed by their friendliness and was impressed by their easygoing attitude. Most of the time my young friend had his girlfriend living with him and his sister had her boy friend living in the apartment at times. Nobody seemed to be annoyed or irritated because of many people in an apartment with limited space. Few Norwegians would have taken it in the same easygoing manner. I felt at ease with the family.
My friend also had a social engagement. With a student friend he had started a soccer club for disadvantaged children and also worked towards rising an activity house close to a favela (slum area).
Rio is considered a violent place but I didn’t experience it that way. We visited many places around the city, also late in the evening but saw no incidents. My Brazilian friends obviously knew the city and wouldn’t go into dangerous areas like favelas at night. But my point is that one of the allegedly most dangerous cities in Latin America felt safe. But let me add that almost every apartment had iron bars at their entrance door.
From Rio to Manaus: I caught a flight leaving in the evening and arriving at Manaus at 2 a.m.. I bought the ticket the same day and could have chosen another time of arrival, but this was the cheapest ticket. Well, 2 p.m. is not a convenient time to arrive and the airport, was quite some distance from the city, so the best options was to stay at the airport, which was open all night, until morning when I could catch a bus.
Manaus feels and looks very tropical and as a medium size city, nothing like Rio or Sao Paulo. In daytime one will find some lively narrow malls but in the evening the city is rather dead. There are few people to be seen. One advantage with this tropical city is that it has no malaria mosquitoes at all due the acid water in Rio Negro. This again is because Rio Negro flows very slowly so biological waste rots and affects the water.
Manaus as such has little to offer but is an excellent starting point for jungle trips. There are many companies to choose from. I went on a one day trip on the river. The boat first went to the point where Amazon meet Rio Negro and a clear difference in colour can be seen between the black and slow moving Rio Negro and the brown fast flowing Amazon which has a much richer biology. After lunch we were transferred into a canoe to go piranha fishing. I got two.
The Amazon is impressive with its enormous amount of water, which may vary with 12 meters between the dry- and wet season.
Back to Venezuela:
From Manaus one may get a bus to Puerto La Cruz in Venezuela via Boa Vista. In Brazil the road goes partly through open landscape where cattle can be seen, partly through tropical forest. The road in Venezuela is partly more hilly. My bus arrived in Puerto La Cruz around 3 a.m. on a Saturday and again I had to wait at the bus terminal until morning. This city, situated at the sea, is a popular holiday resort and was the only place I had to search for 2-3 hours before I found a room. The city has an impressive promenade along the sea but the water was too polluted for swimming. But half an hour outside the city nice beaches with clean water can be found and are easily reached by frequent bus services.
Among the biggest problems in South-America is the vast difference between the rich and the poor. Brazil is sometimes mentioned as the country in the world with the biggest difference between the rich and the poor. At the same time it is among the most advanced countries in S.A.. From a Scandinavian point of view it seems desirable with change. But what forces should contribute to change? The Indians seem to be the group who suffer most but they live in different countries and have no powerful organisations represent them. Peru has an Indian as president but he is not popular and is accused of corruption. President Lula in Brazil was promising but seems to have difficulties in making significant changes. President Chavez in Venezuela, with substantial income from oil, may try to do something for the poor people, but the high black market rate of dollars may indicate that his economic policy is not popular among many people, that they will place their money in banks in US or similar countries.
The people with power, money and positions are not interested in change because they have a comfortable life even if they have to protect themselves behind iron bars.
South America though is open towards the world at large and may slowly change as the world around them changes.
What has been written above is an attempt to give some impressions and views on South America. Comments are welcome.
Norway Aug. 30, 2004.