Monday, February 14, 2005

Latin American Lowdown

Five months have passed by very quickly and I am now leaving Latin America behind. I have enjoyed my time here immensely: I've seen and learned many new things, experienced new sensations, tried new foods (grasshoppers probably being the highlight) and made many new friends whom I hope to stay in touch with. My overall impression of Latin America is probably that is more developed than I had expected though I'm not really sure what I did expect). I see a lot of hope for the future of these countries as they have suffered disproportionately throughout the second half of the last century under repressive far-right dictatorships supported by the West ostensibly to stop the spread of communism ("we don't care what you do to the country and the people, as long as you're not Commies"), but luckily now there's some semblance of democracy throughout the region.

At the end of the tour a favourite topic of conversation was to choose our "top 3 excursions/sights" or favourite countries, so here is my personal,and completely subjective, ranking. My favourite activity would have to be, without a doubt, the ice trekking on the Perito Moreno glacier. The immensity and majesty of the glacier, as well as the beauty of the ice formations are just unforgettable. My favourite excursion was visiting the mines in Potosi, which give an inkling of what it must have been like hundreds of years ago (and let's not forget that we got to blow stuff up with dynamite as well!). My favourite park/area is the Torres del Paine national park in southern Chile; the hiking there was breathtaking yet peaceful at the same time. And my favourite city is La Paz, for some strange reason (because a lot of people detested it), probably because it's such a frenetic place that's full of life. I'd also like to give a little resumé of each of the countries so far.

Although it has no one thing that perhaps stands out amongst all the others,Mexico is definitely my favourite country in Latin America because it has everything you could possibly want: its own distinctive culture, great food, pre-Colombian remains, a very varied landscape, many different and eclectic cities (large metropolis, colonial gems, university towns) and kind and generous people. So you could easily spend a great deal of time there and not get bored, unlike some other Latin American countries.

It is impossible to argue against Machu Picchu, Cusco or even the Nazca lines. They are all first rate toursit attractions and worth seeing, and the Peruvians know it. Which is my major quibble with Peru. So many people are geared towards the tourist market that it is impossible to recognise the genuine article any more. Women in traditional Quechua dress come up to you and demand money for a photo, whereas the same people in Bolivia don't care about that and just want to sell you their vegetables. Lima was fun however.

Just behind Mexico in my affections. An odd choice, some may say, as it is quite underdeveloped (the roads are without a doubt the worst in South America) and its tourist attractions don't have the obvious cachet of Machu Picchu or the Moreno glacier. But I like it in spite of that because it is the genuine article: it's noisy, it's bustling, it's honest; just don't expect to get anywhere fast.

The oddest-shaped country in the world has only one thing to offer the traveller: its outstanding countryside and natural beauty, from the Atacama in the north, to Torres in the south. The people know this and get on with their lives without putting on any airs, which is refreshingly genuine. Though I definitely wouldn't go there for the cuisine.

A bit of a disappointment for me, mainly because of the fact that, in terms of culture and mores, it is so much like Europe and therefore doesn't contain as much mystery as some other countries. But it is definitely a very pleasant country, and the scenery of Patagonia and the Andes are splendid, and the food is, though not exotic, very good (you haven't had a steak until you've had one in Argentina). I'm definitely glad I visited, but I won't be hurrying back.

I think it would be disingenuous for me to give a verdict on Brazil as it is such a vast country and I only spent a couple of weeks there, plus it was during the silly-season that is Carnaval. One thing I can say is that the 2 weeks have whetted my appetite and I'll need to go back at some later date to fully investigate.

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