Over the last few weeks, I have taken my readers on the first parts of a journey around the southern half of the world. We started in New Zealand, and then took the great leap across the entire Pacific Ocean to South America, a continent so fascinating that the curious nomadic traveler could spend a very long time exploring from Tierra del Fuego in the South, to steamy, amazing Amazonia in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Now we will finalize the South American leg of the journey by visiting two fascinating nations that straddle the Andes between the Amazon Jungle and the Pacific Ocean.
If, like most travelers, you arrive in the country at Lima’s Jorgé Chavez International Airport, you will likely be greeted by the overcast, foggy, cool weather created by the nearby Pacific Ocean’s cool Humboldt Current. Judging by this weather, you would probably never guess that you are a mere 12° south of the equator, well within the Southern Tropical Zone.
The capital city has been an important regional center since Francisco Pizarro founded it on January 18, 1535. The city has also been the victim of numerous damaging earthquakes. One in October of 1687 caused severe damage to Lima and surrounding towns, wreaking havoc in combination with the ensuing tsunami. Another occurred in 1746, keeping the urban renewal spirit alive. Lima sits on the infamous ring of fire and has very recently (October 29 2011) been the subject of a nerve rattling 6.9 magnitude temblor.
Despite this, Lima has survived and has a very fascinating history dating back to well before pre-Columbian times, having been settled by people called the Itchimas before being conquered by the Incas, who in turn were defeated by the Spaniards, led by Pizarro. When exploring today’s historic old Lima, you will find that many of the buildings display old Spanish-style architecture with their protruding wooden balconies.
Today’s Lima is a modern, world-class city, serving as one of South America’s financial centers as well as a major manufacturing hub, being home to over 7000 factories. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you will find many beautiful old classical buildings, such as the Church of San Francisco, the Cathedral of Lima, and the unforgettable Torre Tagle Palace on Ucayali 363. These wonderful historical buildings are of various building styles, evoking past centuries of Spanish grandeur. Additionally, there are so many parks, museums, and performance venues to experience that visitors will remain well occupied in Lima for a good while.
A note of caution here: I am sure all my readers are aware that traveling in developing nations has its risks to go with its charms. As everywhere, keep your bling to a minimum, use your hotel’s safety deposit box, if they have one, to keep your passport and tickets safe, do not carry a your wallet in your back pocket, and be aware that eating seafood from street vendors may lead to a bout of Cholera.
Peru of course has much more to offer than big city Lima. The most common choice for travelers is the city of Cuzco, which, with an elevation of 11,200 ft, is a perfect place to acclimatize yourself to the altitude before going to Machu Picchu, which is about 3000 feet lower, but will be a place where you will be undertaking some mildly strenuous exercise as you explore the famous “Lost City of the Incas.” The most strenuous activity you are likely to encounter in Cuzco is cutting your steak or lifting a glass of Pisco Sour to your lips, but with the added altitude, that would count as vigorous exercise for your circulatory system. If you are visiting Peru, magical Machu Picchu is an absolute must, as is the tropical Amazonian region of Iquitos.
To get to Iquitos, you can fly from Lima on a very scenic flight of less than two hours duration. But what a change in culture you will experience! From a modern, fast-paced big city environment, you will suddenly find yourself in the hot steamy jungle of Amazonia, where the aboriginal inhabitants of this rainforest abound everywhere. There are many jungle lodges available for you to stay at near the city along the river which allows you to witness the incredible sounds of nature during the night.
Another absolutely amazing sight to behold are the Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs dating back to the 5th century. The various designs (best viewed from the air due to their size, represent lizards, orcas, hummingbirds, spiders, and more. Various theories have been put forth about the purpose of these lines and designs, but the truth is shrouded in mystery. You can book sightseeing flights from hotel tour desks, but be aware that the flights operate out of a makeshift airport in the desert. Try to book and pay for your flight in advance as the on site operators are less trustworthy. There are several tour operators running all inclusive tours out of Lima, eliminating the middleman hassles, and taking you to the site in comfortable air conditioned buses with reliable flying services.
There of course is much more to see in Peru than I can get into. Get a feeling for what you want to see, other than the usual tourist destinations, which in the case of Peru really are almost mandatory to visit. Other places to explore include Lake Titicaca, intriguing ancient pre-Incan cultural sites such as Chan Chan and Chavín de Huántar, several nature reserves and national parks, and villages that range from indigenous jungle lairs in the east to the traditional colonial throughout the Andes to popular surf spots along the coast.
As its name implies, this country’s capital is located right near the equator. Surrounded by Peru on its south and eastern flank and Colombia to the north, this is a nation with incredibly diverse flora and fauna, ranging from the Pacific coastal plains up to the high Andes mountains and down into the tropical Amazonian lowlands in the east. For the adventurous traveler, there are many options to explore. For the suicidal, there are excursion on the Putumayo River, the border between Ecuador and Colombia, where drugs are transported across the wide open border all along the river, which is pretty much right on the equator (not really recommended).
Quito is another of those high altitude nose bleed cities, with a mean altitude of 9200 feet. So do pace yourself while exploring the historical part of this city, home to about three million citizens, many of them indigenous Quechua speakers. Combined, the Mestizos and Amerindians make up 90% of the population, while 7% are Spanish or white, and 3% of African descent.
Quito, with its combination of altitude and latitude enjoys a very stable year round spring like climate with daily average high temperatures between 64° and 67° F and lows rarely going below 48° F. This makes for restful nights and pleasant days.
As is the case with all former Spanish colonial cities and towns, the many catholic churches and cathedrals make for wonderful photo opportunities inside and out. The city’s well known landmark, the Basilica del Voto Nacional, is a classical example of neo-Gothic architecture. At one time, it was the largest of its kind in all of the Americas. Its spires tower 380 feet above the heart of the capital, making it easily distinguishable from the others. The Metropolitan Cathedral is also located in the heart of the historic district. Construction started in 1562, almost 450 years ago. A notable event took place in this sacred location on Good Friday of 1877, when the Bishop of Quito, José Ignacio Checa y Barba was assassinated during his performing of the Good Friday mass by having the consecrate wine spiked with strychnine.
Just 22 miles north of Quito is the Middle of the World, a monument that celebrates the equator. However, modern instruments such as the GPS system have recently established without a doubt that the equator is actually located almost 800 feet north of the monument. But who cares. A monument is a monument. If you want to experience the unique sensation of straddling the equator, just head north a wee bit.
Another popular destination in the country, home to many expats, is the city of Cuenca, located in the south central part of the country at an altitude of 8400 feet, giving it a similar climate as Quito but with average daytime highs from the mid 60’s to low 70’s. Average overnight lows are between 47° and 51°. This and the low cost of living account for a large portion of the expats residing here.
The historic center of this city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as usual in Latin America, there are a number of significant historic religious sites adorning this lovely city of about 350,000 inhabitants. The original founding of the town was at the confluence of four rivers, the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui, and Machangra, all of which drain east into the Amazonian watershed.
Ecuador is a small country, yet it offers over 1000 km of wonderful white sand beaches, where you will find both small fishing villages and large luxury resorts, with everything imaginable in between.
On the southern coast of the nation, there exists a very special National Reserve named Machalilla. It has been established to protect the onshore as well as offshore environment of this ecologically sensitive area from over-development. There is a string of small fishing villages along the coast here, but do not expect luxury hotels.
There is Isla de la Plata, a small island not far from Machalilla, referred to as mini Galapagos, because of the relatively undisturbed natural habitats of frigate birds, albatrosses, and blue-footed boobies. The island is a great base for snorkeling, diving, and boating excursions.
The city of Guayaquil is Ecuador’s most important seaport as well as an important industrial manufacturing center. Located on the western shores of the Guayas River, it enjoys a relatively sheltered port and the usual array of historical religious monuments at its colonial center. 2.7 million people call this vast metropolis home, with mostly tropical temperatures prevailing year round.
If it’s beaches that you want, all you have to do is follow the coast. If you rent a car in Guayaquil you can drive southwest out of the city on E-70 and take the Progreso turnoff to end up at the nearest beaches in El Arenal, or head all the way out to the tip of the peninsula. Playas is the most popular resort in the area, always busy on weekends and bursting at the seams during holidays. On your return, heading north, there is a sketchy but passable road leading from Playas through several small fishing villages before rejoining E-70. Go for about 10 km before turning left again, this time toward Atahualpa and Aneon. At Aneon, instead of returning to the main road, go left on the first and second forks north and west of the village, and you will find yourself on a stretch of road following the beach all the way up to the Salinas Airport and into Salinas proper. You are now in the westernmost town of continental Ecuador, a small version of Uruguay’s Punta del Este, with high rises, yacht clubs, fine dining, and upscale boutiques. This popular resort is also the beginning of Ecuador’s “Ruta del Sol,” highway E-1, which after changing numbers, will take you all the way up to Esmeraldas. Here, except for the airport on the other side of the river and the village of Camarones, you are at the end of the road in Ecuador, in spite of about 65 more miles as the crow flies to the Colombian border. Be sure to plan your driving trip carefully, make sure your spare tire is inflated, and gas up whenever you can, because not all stations will always have fuel.
This concludes the South American portion of the nomadic traveler’s globe circling adventure below the equator. In highlighting some special places that are dear to my heart, I am hoping to share a wanderlust amongst my readers, one that infected me in my youth. This type of travel dictates that you learn the fine art of travelling lightly, with the idea that you can always purchase items along the way. The less you carry with you, the more freedom of movement you have. Do however keep in mind that you may be at 10,000 feet one day, and at sweltering sea level the next, so try to be flexible.
In our next installment, we will visit the southern Africa, a region that is full of sights, sounds, and smells that are unique on the planet, from tropical jungles to the Kalahari Desert, from the Cape of Good Hope to the diamond and gold mines of Botswana.
About the author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He currently enjoys the great weather and fine wines of Mendoza, Argentina, and edits Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.
Links to useful resources on Ecuador
Medical Tourism in Ecuador
Vacation Rentals in Ecuador