The Top Places I Plan to Visit in South America

As the day gets closer and closer when I am living in South America permanently, I think a lot about the logistics of the move, but I’m also starting to think about all the places I want to visit.

For me, visiting a place just to check it off my bucket list is not what I want to do. I want to experience it rather than just see it. What does that mean? It involves investing the time necessary to begin to know a place — the people, their culture, how they interact with each other and their environment, and the things that makes their world unique. Undoubtedly, that will also bring insights into the characteristics that we all share around the world. There are also a few cultural events that I desperately want to experience. Each, for its own reasons, allows a fascinating glimpse into the culture of a people or a geography that influences a culture.

It’s probably going to surprise some that a lot of the more popular are not included. I didn’t include any major city, though I’m certain I’ll pass through most of them over time. Places like Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, La Paz, Quito, and Santiago are just not as interesting to me as they are to many. I also didn’t include anywhere along the Amazon because I’ve already spent months in the rainforest and will continue to explore all up and down the river.

Here’s a list of the places and events that have been on my personal radar for quite awhile (in no particular order):

  • Young Qoyllur Rit’i dancer

    Qoyllur Rit’i (Peru) — I know I said that these are not in any particular order, but this may be at the top of the list. This remote religious festival in the Sinkara Valley near Cusco is a remarkable mix of both Catholic and ancient traditions that go back centuries. Surrounding villages send representatives to this pilgrimage that attracts thousands of indigenous people from all over the region. Speakers of both Quechua and Aymara (the two major indigenous languages of Peru that are still spoken by large segments of the population) fill the valley with three days of traditional dances and performances.

    Each village sends representatives, many dressed in traditional costumes, to climb high to participate in the festival which culminates in the final climb to the glaciers for a small group who bring back water from the glacier that is supposed to have special powers.

    It’s hard to describe what it is like as I haven’t experienced it in person yet, but it seems to be a one-of-kind event that I cannot pass up. Unfortunately, the 2018 event will take place a few days before I arrive in Peru in June, but I hope to be there in 2019.

  • Roraima

    Roraima (Venezuela) — The most famous tepui of southwest Venezuelan which rises up from the plain as a massive mesa, Roraima has long held a mystique that  inspired both indigenous and western peoples for centuries. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous The Lost World was one of my favorite books growing up and perhaps was single greatest inspiration for my desire to explore distant lands. Because of it’s steep walls, the top is isolated from the lower plain and often shrouded in mist and fog which really does present an other-worldly experience.

    The problem with Venezuela is that it is currently a political and economic mess leaving travel there a serious challenge. Reports of police shakedowns for money are common so this is problem a place I won’t visit until things settle down. I have a strong opinion about the current government of Venezuela, but I’m not about to get involved in what is close to a civil war. (One option that I can consider is entering the country from Brazil though the logistics of getting to Roraima that way, even though it’s closer, might be a bit daunting.

  • Frigate Bird in the Galapagos

    Galapagos Islands (Ecuador) — I think everyone is well aware of what the Galapagos represents to science. It was there that Charles Darwin found inspiration to write The Origin of the Species which changed the course of modern science forever. Because of the uniqueness of each island, a huge variety of spcies can be found in a relatively small area.

    Like always, reptiles are probably the biggest draw for me so I especially want to see the thousands of marine iguanas. I’ve seen green iguanas all over the rainforest over the years both in Peru and in Costa Rica, but the marine iguanas look completely different. I also want to snorkle among the sea animals, if possible. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the water — especially the open ocean — but the opportunity to experience the environment there is probably too much even for me to pass up!

    Lastly, the ability to get “up close and personal” with wildlife that has no innate fear of people would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone like me who loves photography and videography. When I finally make it to the Galapagos Islands, you can expect a ton of photos and videos !

  • Orinoco Crocodile

    Orinoco River (Venezuela) — Few people have heard of the Orinoco, but this 1330-mile long river is the world’s 4th largest in terms of water discharge. It flows from Colombia through Venezuela creating a massive basin of 340,000 square miles covering much of northern South America. Much of it is extremely remote and therein lies the draw of adventure for me. While giant otters and freshwater dolphins can be found in the Orinoco, there’s another animal that really calls to me. I’ve seen countless alligators in my life in the southern United States and even a few small black caiman in the Amazon rainforest, but nothing would compare to Orinico crocodiles. Very rare, these monstrous reptiles number between 250 and 1500 in the wild and are distinguished by their lighter color and elongated snout.

    Just like along the Amazon River, the opportunity to visit remote villages of indigenous people is a lure that I can’t pass up. Lots of people, including myself, are able to visit villages along the Amazon because it’s relatively easy to travel to them, but the chance to visit people who rarely are visited by outsiders is a huge draw for me. While I love seeing unique scenery and exploring new lands, there’s nothing that leaves me feeling truly fulfilled more than spending time with and getting to know people who’s lives are truly a world away from my own experiences.

    Unfortunately, like Roraima, getting to Venezuela may not be very realistic for awhile.

  • Brazil Futbol scene

    A major soccer match between two rivals (i.e., Brazil v. Argentina or Peru v. Chile) — I can’t imagine the excitement and passion of a two rival national teams. I once was fortunate to watch a friendly match between Brazil and Argentina in a Brazilian restaurant. Though the match ended in a tie, the energy that permeated the place was indescribable.

    I’ve also been to a couple of Gold Cup semifinal games and the match involving Mexico was incredible. There were about 90,000 fans filling the stadium cheering on the Mexican team and they don’t compare to the passion and fervor of fans from South America.

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