Exploring Peru and Chile: Summer in South American During Ithaca Winter

"Exploring Peru and Chile: Summer in South America During Ithaca Winter," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, The Ithaca Journal, March 1, 2008, 1C, 5C.

After visiting Argentina and Brazil last December, my wife and I wanted to continue our exploration of South America. While our primary goal as travelers is learning about history and culture, other incentives were South America's warm summer weather and long hours of daylight during our dark glacial Ithaca winter.

When possible we try to avoid organized tours. Using some suggestions from tours brochures and friends, we booked our trip ourselves and made arrangements with hotels by email. LAN, the Chilean International airline, served us well throughout our trip. We arrived early Dec.17th in Lima, where, as we descended, I had my first sighting of the magnificent Andes. From beginning to ending, including flights, our trip last 18 days and included several domestic flights and a good deal of moving about.

Ten Reasons to visit Peru: 1) Machu Picchu, recently voted one of the Seven Wonders of the World; 2) beautiful Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world; 3) stunning views of the Andes; 4) warm weather (Although we were in Peru during the beginning of rainy season, we hardly had rain); 5) the hum and buzz of Lima; 6) hiking, climbing, and trekking; 7) Excellent food; 8) wonderful crafts and alpaca products; 9) strong dollar in relation to the Peso; 10) hospitable host population who want to please tourists.

Peru operates on two economies, one for the tourists and the wealthier classes, and one for the rest of the Peruvians. Within the local economy, meals are inexpensive and often excellent. Be forewarned that, while most Peruvians are tourist friendly, you will encounter, especially in cities, some poor people begging, selling junk, and not above trickery like selling prints as signed originals or agreeing to a price before changing their minds. One young man who agreed to shine my shoes tried to charge me extra before beginning the second shoe. And you need be aware of pickpockets.

With a third of Peru's 27 million population, Lima is not the glamour city of the world, but it does have some splendid sites which can be seen in a few days. Essential sites: Plaza Mayer—the heart of Central Lima-- and, in addition to the main cathedral, three significant churches: the Franciscan Church and Catacombs, San Pedro, and Iglesia de la Merced. Somewhat off-putting was the Museum of the Inquisition, with models of tortures and torture victims. On the day I was there offered guided tours only in Spanish, although other languages are supposedly available.

The archeological collection in Museo Larco with its native Peruvian treasures, including a section devoted to sexuality, will give visitors an education in the many civilizations that preceded the Incas. With descriptions in Spanish, English, French, and Italian, it is beautifully organized and housed in an elegant 16th century colonial residence. A second fine museum is the Central Reserve Bank Museum of Peru. Most museums are free or have minimal admission charges.

The somewhat upscale area known as Miraflores is worth a visit, particularly the new area known as Larcomar—really a kind of upscale mall--on the cliffs of Miraflores, with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The area also contains an impressively large ancient pre-Inca storage site, Huaca Pullana, in the shape of a pyramid. In Miraflores, we had a wonderful simple fresh fish dinner at Café & Canela for 11 dollars for 2 (at 3 sol per dollar).

Another night we had a decent but unremarkable dinner in Chinatown for $5.30 for 2 at restaurant recommended in our guidebooks. For safety measures, at night, one needs to take a taxi to this section. A as part of an excellent meal at the main dining room of our excellent Sheraton hotel, we enjoyed ceviche, a citrus marinated raw fish dish that is a kind national dish of Peru. Peru also offers a number of exotic fruits not commercially available in North America.

Cusco, the Inca capitol, and its surroundings have many fine Inca sites. A half-day tour, including the Dominican monastery and the colonial Cathedral is recommended. We stayed at the exceptionally beautiful Hotel Libertador built on the site of Inca ruins; the hotel offers impeccable service and compares well with any hotel I have ever stayed in. At the Tunapa, a restaurant on the beautiful main square, we had a serviceable buffet along with a Peru folk culture night that included a band and dancers.

Machu Picchu, Peru

The highlight our entire trip was a visit to Machu Picchu, the famous Inca ruin in the Andes that is thought to have been built in the 15th century by Emperor Pachacuti. We took a 6 am train to the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo—formerly known as Aguas Calientes--and then a half hour bus ride to the actual site, which stands strikingly between two peaks. The scenery as one approaches the site is spectacular. The natural views are stunning and the site built into the mountain is among the world's great sites.

The Incas were wonderful builders and architects who understood how to construct earthquake proof structures. They didn't use mortar but cut each stone separately and carefully fitted them together, sometimes using a tongue and groove system. Speculation continues on for what Machu Picchu was built, in part because most of the mummies found have been women. The site seems to have combined elements of shrine and astronomical center, while also having an agricultural function.

While all visitors need be in shape for some climbing, younger and some older ambitious travelers approach Machu Picchu as part of a four day, three night trek on the Inca trail from Cusco and/or do a good deal of climbing within the Machu Picchu site. Most tourists return on the 3:30 train but we overnighted in the town Machu Picchu Pueblo where an unexpected highlight was an exquisite lunch at a French Peruvian restaurant, El Indio Feliz, that was among the bet meals of our trip.

Lake Titicaca, Peru

After another night in Cusco, we flew to Juliaca and were driven to Puno where we stated at another Hotel Libertador, the only five star hotel in the Puno area, with a splendid view of Lake Titicaca.

There we took an all day boat tour to the Uros Floating Islands, where we were rowed from one island to another one in a reed canoe, and then to the island of Taquile, where we did a considerable hike up to the main square at 13000 feet because no motored transportation is permitted. We also visited the Pre-Inca Sillustani burial sites between Puno and Juliaca.

Craftswoman on Floating Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Those who are not in robust condition need to know that visits to such sites as Machu Picchu, other Inca sites near Cusco, and Taquille on Lake Titicaca require physical exertion and that rapid changes in altitude from sea level to 11000 or even 13000 feet may be difficult. Many people have trouble adjusting to Cusco at 11,000 feet after arriving from Lima, which is at near sea level. Physical exercise will be more taxing. Some tourists take prescriptions drugs to adjust to the heights and avoid headaches and nausea.

Chile, with 16,600, 000 residents, about 6,000,000 of whom live in Santiago, is far more modern and European than Peru. We enjoyed Chile but we did not see any world-class sites in Chile. Nor is Chile as tourist friendly as Peru or other Latin American countries that I have visited. For one thing, tourism is not a major industry; that category includes exports of copper, seafood, and agriculture. Our Chilean company ADS Mundo—which we booked through an American agency that had done well for us in Peru, Argentina, and Brazil—was a bit parsimonious in its city tours and in the quality of hotels in the Lake District. (These were, the only hotels that I didn't book myself). Beware of restaurants padding the bill with bogus charges and a general reluctance to be accommodating and flexible, something I never saw in Peru, Argentina, or Brazil.

Santiago, Chile

Santiago is a bustling, attractive city with fewer beggars and street people than other major South American cities we have visited. The roads are excellent, and the metro is efficient and easy to use, although crowded. We enjoyed the Museum of Fine Arts—which had an outstanding exhibit on modern international artists influenced by Picasso--the Museum of Contemporary Art, and, especially, the splendid Pre-Columbian museum which I would rank with the Lima's Museo Larca and the archeological museum in Mexico City as the great museums I have seen in Latin America.

Fish Market in Santiago, Chile

We also enjoyed a visit to the Central Market, where fresh fish along with inexpensive if not distinguished fish restaurants are featured.

We had a full day tour to Valparaiso, a major port of the nineteenth century before the Panama Canal and a center of Chile's New Year festivities, and to the beach resort city, Vina del Mar. On our way, we passed through some wine and fruit growing regions reminiscent of Northern California, the climate of which is similar this region of Chile. We visited one of Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda's houses in Valparaiso and a small archeological museum in Vina del Mar whose focus was Easter Island.

Our Sheraton Four Points hotel gave us a suite and a great view and treated us very well. We had a respectable and nicely presented Italian dinner at Rivoli and a decent fish dinner at Mare Nostrom, a fusion of Chilean and Peruvian food, but because the latter outrageously padded the bill, I would avoid it.

Lake District, Chile

To begin our tour of the Lake District—the so-called Switzerland of Chile--we flew to Puerto Montt where we stayed at a modest but serviceable new Holiday Inn Express in a large room with a view overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In Puerto Montt, a regional capital which has a small town feel, we walked along the waterfront to the old market area known as Angelmo where we found crafts and a wonderful fish market. We had dinner at Rhenania, a quaint and pleasant sandwich and teashop.

On the following day we took a bus from Puerto Montt, stopped at a Petrohue Falls, and then crossed All the Saints Lake (Lago Todos Las Santes) to Parque Nacional Vicente. We stayed a night in Puella at the Hotel Natura in the park. This hotel and its sister hotel and have a few restaurants, but there is absolutely nothing else—not even shopping—on Puella. Were the weather clear, we might have chosen among the activities offered—hiking, boating, fly fishing, etc.-- but they were all canceled the day we arrived. While we did some walking during our 28 hours stay in Puello be aware that it rains over 250 days in the Lake District and that rain and clouds severely impede one's view of the natural sites, including surrounding volcanoes and the Andes.

After recrossing the lake the next day, we spent our last night Puerto Varas where we stayed at Hotel Cabanas Del Lago with a fine view overlooking Lago Llanquihue. While the hotel is supposedly rated four stars, it was a modest establishment with small rooms and a tiny bathroom with a half-tub. In the Lake District the hotels have minimal staff and no air-conditioning. After a decent dinner at Las Buenas Brasas and falling asleep exhausted at 11, we awoke New Year's Eve at midnight to an impressive midnight fireworks show.

The Lake District is it is not for those who expect world-class natural sites on the order of Iguassu Falls or Victoria Falls. In retrospect, probably we should have made day trips from Puerto Varas rather than done three hotels in three nights and/or possibly crossed the lakes into Argentina. To be sure we saw some splendid views, even in the rain, and we did take some scenic walks and visit the edge of Patagonia. Nevertheless, I would recommend skipping the Lake District and visiting either Easter Island, with its awesome statues, or the Chilean desert in the north, or perhaps going deeper into Patagonia.