South America (2011)


South American Odyssey


Summary.   Our three week odyssey in South America began at the spectacular Iguaçu Falls in Argentina and concluded in Manaus in the heart of the Amazon jungles in Brazil.  In between, we enjoyed an eleven day cruise along the Atlantic seaboard with ports-of-call in the colorful coastal cities of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and São Luis.



                    Iguaçu Falls                                                                                   Devil’s Throat


Iguaçu Falls.  Globetrotters forever debate which of the world’s great waterfalls are the most spectacular - Iguaçu Falls, Victoria Falls or Niagara Falls.  Actually each has a legitimate claim to that title.  Iguaçu is the widest of the great falls; Victoria is the tallest, and Niagara has the greatest annual water flow.  Most tourists, though, would rank Iguaçu and Victoria above Niagara.  Even Eleanor Roosevelt, the United States’ former First Lady reportedly exclaimed “Poor Niagara”, when she first saw the Iguaçu Falls.

Having now visited all three of the world’s mightiest falls, we would have to give the edge to the Iguaçu.  Iguaçu’s waterfalls exhaust most superlatives; they are simply one of the most stunning, beautiful, dramatic, and powerful natural sights in the world. Straddling the Argentine-Brazilian-Paraguayan border, a system of 275 separate falls, stretching for more than a mile and a half, plummet over the sharp cliffs of the Río Iguaçu Superior and plunge into the mist-shrouded Río Iguaçu Inferior below - all amid a dense, intensely green jungle setting. Most of the falls are around 210 feet high; the tallest drop, known as the Devil’s Throat, is about 270 feet high.

We visited the falls from both the Brazilian and Argentine sides.  While the Argentine side, with its variety of trails, offers more opportunities to see individual falls from close up, the Brazilian side yields the most panoramic views, giving viewers a better idea of the immensity of the entire falls. We favored the Argentine side because of the closer and more exciting viewing opportunities from the narrow walkways which extend out along the top of the falls. The pathway to the Devil’s Throat is the most dramatic of these walkways, taking us to the very top of the falls, where we found ourselves surrounded by thundering water, in an arc of more than 260 degrees, plunging the height of a 27-story building.  Standing in the midst of that swirling maelstrom of water was a breathtaking, overwhelming experience.

From Iguaçu, we took a day trip to the nearby San Ignacio Mini mission, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest and best preserved of the Jesuit missions in the region.   The Jesuits established the missions back in the 17th century to provide a refuge for the indigenous Guarani Indians from the Spanish and Portuguese slave traders.   The story of one of these missions and its eventual destruction was movingly presented in an excellent 1986 movie starring Robert De Niro.  We were reminded of one memorable scene from the movie, The Mission, which depicted a Jesuit priest, strapped to a wooden cross and sent to a dramatic death plunging over the top of the Iguaçu Falls.


             Ruins of San Ignacio Jesuit Mission                                                                  Argentine Gaucho

Buenos Aires.  From Iguaçu, we flew to Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital city of around 13 million people, where we were taken on an all-too-brief bus tour of the city.  The tour ended with a late night tango show in the old quarters of the city, which featured some great tango dancing, the national dance of Argentina.   Forget Bristol Palin; this was the real thing!  Initially shunned by Argentine society as vulgar and distasteful, the tango eventually transcended class and national boundaries and became a global phenomenon.  But, the tango will always be primarily associated with Argentina and it was a thrill to see it performed in its original setting. 

On our second day we left the city to spend the day in the land of the gauchos, where we were treated to an Argentine barbeque at a traditional ranch, called an estancia.  The lunch was followed by music, dances and horseback riding demonstrations.   It was a bit touristy but was a great chance to see some of the beautiful Argentine pampas.


Leaving Buenos Aires, we took a three hour ferry ride across the Rio del Platte to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, where our cruise ship awaited us.  After a tour of the city, we boarded the Clelia II, which was to be our shipboard home for the next ten days.  The Clelia II is a relatively small ship, only 290 feet long with staterooms for 90 passengers. With only 30 passengers signed on, we were treated to cabin upgrades, extra space and excellent service as a consequence of the 2-to-1 crew to passenger ratio.  It was almost like having our own personal yacht.  In fact, the previous owner, a Greek shipping tycoon, had originally purchased the ship as a private yacht for his daughter, Clelia.

Rio de Janeiro.  Rio is the most visited city in South America and we have long wanted to join its list of visitors.  It is one of the world’s most spectacular harbors.  We found it compared favorably with some of our other favorite world ports - Sydney, Capetown and San Francisco.  Rio was the capital city of Brazil up until 1960, when the capital was moved to Brasilia.

Some of its most famous landmarks include: the 130 foot tall stature of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city and recently named one of the seven wonders of the modern world; Sugar Loaf Mountain with its cable cars running to the top; Rio’s world famous beaches, notably Copacabana and Ipanema; and its permanent grandstands for its annual Carnival.  Unfortunately, we arrived a couple weeks late for Carnival, although we did spot a number of this year’s floats waiting recycling.


                         Sugar Loaf Mountain - Rio                                                     Christ the Redeemer Statue - Rio

Our tour of Rio included visits to all of these landmarks but, regrettably, low clouds obscured the views of the Christ statue.  Even more disappointing was the fact that the light rain discouraged the Girl from Ipanema and the sunbathers from Copacabana from slipping on their bikinis for a day at the beach which, in turn, dampened a day of highly anticipated girl watching for the spectators.  Towards the end of the day, the clouds lifted and, as if by a miracle, the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer, his arms extended over the city, revealed itself through a break in the clouds.

Coincidentally, another visitor to Rio that day was President Obama and his family, although we only saw him flying overhead aboard U.S. military helicopters on their way to the airport.  Rio is looking forward to hosting more visitors in 2014 for the World Cup soccer championships and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016.

We capped off our visit with a late night samba show in the city, which gave us a little taste of what Carnival must have been like.  The music was wild, the girls were beautiful and the costumes (or what there was of them) were spectacular.  I still think, though, that my vote would still go to the Argentine tango, although it would be a tough call between these two national dances.


           Tango Street Dancers in Buenos Aires                                                Carnival Samba Dancers in Rio

Salvador. The port city of Salvador was one of the oldest cities in the New World and was the first Portuguese colonial capital of Brazil.  It was originally one of the main gateways for the African slave trade and received over half of all Africans brought to the Americas.  Having visited the West African slave trading posts of Senegal and Ghana with their “Doors of No Return” five years ago, it was very moving to walk through Salvador’s Pillory Square and central slave market, where upwards of five million African slaves were brought ashore from the mid-16th century to the mid- 19th century. Over 80% of the population of the city of Salvador is of African descent, a fact that was quite evident to us as we wandered the cobblestone streets of the old town neighborhoods of the city.

Manaus.  Our 3,100 mile sea voyage completed, we disembarked from our ship in the port city of Sao Luis and flew inland to a jungle lodge on the Rio Negro near Manaus for our final three days in South America. Located 900 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Manaus is near the junction of the Amazon River and the Rio Negro and is a popular destination for tourists wanting a glimpse into Amazonian life.   We had explored the upper Amazon ten years earlier on a week long cruise on an old riverboat and had spent time at jungle lodge in Ecuador in 1994 as well, so the Amazon was already a familiar old friend. 


                              Manaus Opera House                                                         Amazonian Girl and her Sloth

Our schedule at the lodge included nature walks, visits to a nearby native village and primate rehabilitation center and a cruise down the Rio Negro to where the ink-black waters of the Rio Negro meet the chocolate colored waters of the Amazon River.  Differences in temperature, density and velocity allow them to swirl and flow side-by-side in a curious phenomenon for six kilometers before eventually mixing to form the Amazon River.    We passed the historic Teatro Amazonas in Manaus on the cruise but, unfortunately, did not have time to visit it.

Featured in an award-winning 1982 movie called Fitzcarraldo, the Amazon Theatre is a place we had long hoped to see.   It was built at the turn of the century, when great fortunes were made in the rubber boom, when 90% of the world’s rubber came from Manaus. Taking more that 17 years to complete, the theater cost more than ten million dollars, a fortune in those days, and rivaled the great opera houses of Europe. .  It opened in 1897 and attracted such world-famous performers as Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt and Jenny Lind, despite its remote location deep in the Amazon jungle.   

Our South American odyssey ended at Manaus from where we flew back to Miami and home.   We had seen the majestic waterfalls at Iguaçu and the mighty Amazon at Manaus.  We had visited the great South American coastal capital cities of Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rio.   We had been introduced to history of the Jesuit missionaries and the iconic gauchos of the pampas.  We’d sampled the tango and the samba.   We’d met the people, tasted the foods and learned a little about the history of South America and we had come away with a new appreciation and respect for our neighbors to the South.