A loop around Latin America

21:17, Sep 18 2012
Latin America loop
CAPITAL VALUE: Lima is a surprisingly ancient city, established long before the Spanish arrived in 1535.

There and Back Again is all very well for a hobbit, but people prefer circles. Ever since the 1600s, there's been a well-trodden circuit around Europe - but, popular though it still is, running rings through the Old World is just so 17th century.

South America is the latest location for the Grand Tour and, thanks to some new routes on the LAN Airlines network, it's now easy to join some very famous dots without any of that irritating back-tracking.

Santiago de Chile is still the gateway, and why not? Full of contrasts, it's always fascinating: big-city smog and snow-capped Andean peaks, a tumbling mountain river between busy roads and office blocks, cathedrals and coffee, smooching couples in every archway and the best-fed stray dogs in the world. On this trip, though, we bounce in and out, flying over the Andes and the jungle to cross Argentina's wide green pampas on the way to Buenos Aires.

Latin America loop
MYSTERIOUS: No-one knows how the moai moved 700 years ago, though our guide Beno isn't puzzled. 'They walked, with mana.'

It's a Sunday, and the vibe is relaxed: families picnic and fly kites in the linear park, and at the flea market outside pretty St Pilar church in picturesque Recoleta, people enjoy the live music, consult the tarot reader, browse the stalls. The city is a mix of lovely colonial buildings and ugly concrete towers, wide avenues and green parks, churches and monuments.

Next morning the streets are full of vehicles driven by independent-minded locals - 'We see road markings as suggestions only' - and, in the parks, dog walkers are strung with up to 20 animals each.

A city tour takes in the classical elegance of Palermo with its ivy-clad embassies, San Telmo's pretty cobblestoned streets and colonial buildings, and the Recoleta graveyard, where tall tombs line narrow walkways in this city of the dead, populated by stone angels and stray cats. La Boca is colourful and crazy, a hotch-potch of recycled materials and street art, where the tango is said to have begun and women in fishnet stockings seize on stray tourists to pose for photos.

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There's the Plaza de Mayo where Eva Peron addressed the adoring masses, the Opera House, a symphony in marble and stained glass, and everywhere enticing shops and coffee houses ... but we're on our way again, flying northwest to Iguassu Falls, a New Wonder of the World.

On the border with Brazil, with Paraguay just downstream, the falls are immense enough for everyone to have a piece. The figures alone are astonishing: 1.5 million litres per second flowing over 2.7 kilometres of falls up to 80 metres high, the spray rising 150 metres; but the sight is truly spectacular. Or rather, "sights", because we do the falls thoroughly, from above, below and both sides.

Below is, unsurprisingly, wettest: an inflatable takes us towards the frightening maelstrom of the Devil's Throat and nudges under one of the waterfalls. Shrieking, we're instantly soaked, but the water's warm and we're blown dry on the way back. On the Argentinian side, where cute raccoon-like coatis come begging, we get wet again, walking down to stand between the two levels of the falls, the spray swirling around us making rainbows above our heads.

On the Brazilian side, walkways take us from the jungle's birds and butterflies across the water to stand on the very lip of the waterfall, where we gaze down at the white water roaring and foaming below. It's absolutely mind-blowing. Finally, we take a helicopter ride over the top, amazed to see that what's looked till now so super-sized is completely dwarfed by the vastness of the jungle around it.

The next leg of our Grand Tour takes us to Peru. Lima is a surprisingly ancient city, established long before the Spanish arrived in 1535, with a rich architectural heritage including earthquake-proof brick pyramids 1800 years old, brightly painted colonial houses and modern glass buildings. Above them all, black vultures soar on the thermals rising up the cliff while surfers ride the waves breaking below.

In the Plaza Mayor, tanks guard the Government Palace, horse-drawn carriages take tourists over the cobbles and, in the cathedral, the bones and skull of conquistador Francisco Pizarro are reunited again in a glass coffin after hundreds of years apart. There are more bones nearby in the catacombs of the Monastery of San Francisco, skulls and femurs bizarrely arranged in patterns in the low arched tunnels.

Coming to Peru expecting potatoes, we're delighted to experience a taste explosion: pisco sours, ceviche cocktails, fabulous seafood, suckling pig with perfect crackling. It's a revelation.

Along from our beachside restaurant, at La Punta people fish from the harbour wall, play soccer under the palms, gossip outside their colourful houses, and stand to watch the sun set in a haze of gold.

We fly west ourselves, to Easter Island, five hours away. Rapa Nui is the most remote settlement on the planet, so it's interesting and dismaying to find there a perfect example of man's destruction of an environment. The land is bare of any original vegetation, and hundreds of horses keep it that way, wandering freely over the island. The clear blue sea is empty, after years of over-fishing.

It's unexpected, but then so is everything else here: the underground gardens, the hidden henhouses, the shocking history of the population, reduced by slavery and disease to 111 in 1877. And then there are the moai, the huge carved stone heads, up to 80 tonnes in weight, all around the island, all toppled.

Some have been set upright again and given their stone topknots, but still no-one knows how they were moved 700 years ago; though Beno, our guide, isn't puzzled. 'They walked, with mana,' he says, seeing no mystery.

We walk the land, climb a volcano, have lunch on the rocks watching the waves, visit the islet of Birdman fame, go to the moai quarry, learn the facts, hear the theories - then shrug and side with Beno. Mana will cover it.

And then we fly back to Santiago, our Grand Tour complete - and our appetites whetted for more of this fascinating continent.

The writer was a guest of LAN Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there: LAN Airlines offers six weekly nonstop flights from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to more than 80 other destinations in South America.  For more information or to make a booking contact travel agents, call LAN reservations on 0800 451 373, or visit lan.com

Where to stay: Caesar Park Hotel, Buenos Aires caesar-park.com; Hotel das Cataratas, Iguassu; Miraflores Park Hotel, Lima  orient-express.com; Explora Hotel Posada de Mike Rapu, Easter Island  explora.com
Getting around: Chimu Adventures chimuadventures.com; PromPeru  peru.travel

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