Off Hours: A Woman’s Travel Guide to South America

SOURCE: NewsBlaze

I was strolling along Rio’s famous Copacabana Beach when suddenly I felt forceful yanking at my throat. I thought my assailant had gotten my backpack with valuable documents and money, but to my relief, I realised the miscreant had ripped a thin gold chain with a small diamond from my neck. He’d also gotten my faux gold earrings, all while riding a bike. “My diamond!” I screamed. Luckily he dropped the goods – I learned later that resisting can lead to bodily harm – and with the help of a wonderful ‘abuela’ (grandmother) I recovered my lost gems.

I was foolish to wear jewellery in Rio. Warnings abound in South America’s capital cities about street crime, largely committed by ‘favela’ kids so poor that theft is their only option. The threat of being accosted is real but can be avoided and there is so much to commend the continent that fear of crime should not dissuade women travellers from exploring South American treasures.

On a recent trip to South America I was rewarded with amazing treats. These ranged from learning about Inca culture to listening to music from wonderful wind instruments; from making new friends to eating delicious local cuisine; from exploring the metropolis of Buenos Aires to taking in the splendid mountains surrounding Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of Peru.

Here are some highlights recorded in my travel journal: “At the Arcos de Lapa, a 17th century viaduct in Rio, we watched the annual Easter Passion Play enacted by 100 professional actors. As Christ made his way through the Stations of the Cross to his crucifixion, I was so moved I wept. …The biggest attraction in Rio is the beauty of the city itself, especially when viewed from Sugar Loaf Mountain or Rio’s iconic Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). … Rio is superbly situated with mountains, sea, and bay forming exquisite vistas.

“No wonder Buenos Aires is called the Paris of South America! Wide boulevards and neighbourhood cafes abound in this cosmopolitan city. … At a parilla (steak house) we ordered sirloin tip steaks and a bottle of Malbec; both melted in our mouths like butter. … In the Cemetario Recoleta everyone who is anyone in Argentine history, including Evita, has a spectacular monument. … We went to the central square, site of the weekly marches of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the old presidential palace, Casa Rosa, where Evita made speeches to adoring crowds. …San Telmo and La Boca are colourful, bohemian neighborhoods…the tango show in which four couples perform the amazingly sensual and difficult dance of Argentina was terrific…We took the Subte (subway) to the Museo de Evita Peron, housed in a gorgeous mansion she acquired as a women’s shelter. There are videos, photographs, the big black Cadillac limo, Evita’s clothes and more. I continue to be perplexed by this woman but one thing I know for sure: she had great taste in shoes!

“Chileans are extremely friendly and playful, easily given to laughter. …The Plaza des Armas is a lovely square with plentiful palm trees, a fountain, sidewalk artists and people milling about. … At the Palacio de la Moneda, the large government building where in 1973 Salvadore Allende died when the Pinochet revolution began, we watched the changing of the guard as they marched with the precision of New York’s famed Rockettes. … In the neighbourhood of Bella Vista, we visited one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses in Chile. Neruda called the house he designed, La Chascona, “the woman with the tousled hair” after Matilda, his third wife. It is intriguingly full of Neruda memorabilia. Bella Vista is also where the rickety funicular takes visitors to the top of Cerro de San Cristobal for a bird’s eye view of the city. I could hardly look down as we ascended but the view was spectacular!

“As we drive to Valparaiso and Vin del Mar vineyards are plentiful. … En route to Santa Cruz, mountains surround us, with occasional glimpses of snow-caped Andes. Men on horseback in traditional flat-top sombreros dot the road. Along the ‘Ruta de Fruta’ acres of vineyards form a palate of goldenrod, autumnal browns and Christmas red and green. The sun burnishes the landscape with that special light captured by Impressionists; everything is bathed with a calm aura of expectation.

“Pabel, our tour guide, meets us at Lima’s (Peru) Airport with a great bear hug and a kiss on the cheek. … The cuisine, as everywhere else we’ve been, is the best; we think Europeans must overcome their andocentric culinary ideas and wine snobbery! … Cuzco is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by mountains, bustling and bigger than I’d imagined, its main plaza is a gardened centre of activity. The spectacular cathedral is representative of 16th century Spanish architecture. Shops and cafes surround the plaza, arcaded for shade. Women in colourful indigenous dress wander with their llamas in hopes of a few solas (coins) if tourists photograph them. …We make our way to the bus that will take us up to Machu Picchu, hairpin curve by hairpin curve. Verdant mountain spikes surround us; occasionally we see white-peaked Andes above the river running like a long ribbon below. …Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley are awesome: Incredible landscapes and Inca marvels of architecture, myth, practice.”

These excerpts barely reveal all there is to see, taste, experience, and enjoy on the beautiful, friendly continent of South America.

Handy Travel Tips

  • Know about the political environment of countries you visit. If travelling in remote areas, register with your embassy. Tell someone reliable where you are going and when you will return.
  • Learn some of the local language. Knowing a few words will transform you from a vulnerable visitor to a friend not to be taken advantage of.
  • Scams and rip-offs happen everywhere. Be vigilant about your surroundings and knowledgeable about what things like taxi rides should cost. Negotiate up front and, when shopping, especially in markets, bargain. Watch the locals and follow suite. Exercise an abundance of caution in crowded places like stations (e.g., don’t fall asleep without securing your valuables; carry/load your backpack yourself.)
  • Keep valuable documents and money in a money belt under your clothing with only a small amount of cash readily reachable in a front pocket. Keep copies of valuable documents in a safe place. Beware of distractions (e.g., kids fighting, café spills). Avoid looking flashy or inappropriate: outside of beaches, women dress modestly. Wear NO jewellery! Put your camera in a small backpack, worn in front. Don’t linger reading maps; ask for help in a hotel or Internet café.
  • If men are bothersome ignore them. Don’t make eye contact or converse. Wear a wedding band or refer to a husband (even if you are single.) If machismo behaviour persists, be firm, and loud.
  • Long distance buses in South America are efficient, safe and comfortable. Local buses require caution and like subways, should be avoided during crowded rush hours. At night take taxis; be sure they are “radio cabs.”
  • Connect with other travellers, especially if you will be in remote places (e.g., hiking), or going to bars or clubs. Get references on guides for solo activities.
  • Choose safe hostels or hotels and trust your instincts if things don’t feel right.
  • Look confident, keep your antennae up, be aware of your own abilities and limitations, take care who you trust. And then, have a great time!
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