It might surprise some Norte Americanos to learn that South America was settled earlier. Its discoverer, Cristobol Colon, is celebrated with a monument in every Latin American city and village. In general, its nations have not succeeded as well in business and technology as in the north, nor have its governments been as stable—Bolivia, for example, has had more governments than years of existence. Revolutions can break out at a moment's notice, as in Chile in recent memory. This makes travel in South America more than a little exciting.
"Tall and tan and young and lovely,
the girl from Ipanema goes walking..."
Brazil is the largest country in South America, both in size and population, and was settled early in the 16th century by explorers and speculators from Portugal. It is the only country on the continent where Portugese is the official language. One of the first things I had to learn there was how to say "Thank you." The expression is Obrigado, when spoken by a male, and Obrigada, when spoken by a female; it means "obliged," and as an adjective, its gender must correspond with the gender of the person modified, i.e., the speaker.
Entry into Brazil is through the international airport in Rio de Janeiro. I have only flown there twice, and both times I was pulled out of the queue at the immigration desk and brought to an office for questioning. There was no explanation, just a series of questions fired at me by an official behind a desk; they didn't seem to lead anywhere, and I was dismissed within a few minutes. Nowhere else has this ever happened to me—my name or face must be similar to someone on Brazil's "wanted" list.
Rio de Janeiro
Leaving the airport after my first arrival in Rio in 1979, I boarded a bus for the city, scarcely knowing where I was going. I told the bus driver the Meridien Hotel and he nodded in the affirmative. Watching closely for signs, I somehow missed the hotel on the other side of the street, but one of the passengers pointed it out as we passed by. As a result, the driver let me off one full stop past my destination, and I had to walk back several blocks with my luggage.
Almost immediately I was set upon by a group of boys carrying shoe-shine boxes. I did my best to discourage them, but they were persistent. One even sprayed some polish on my shoes, trying to convince me it was bird droppings, but that only made me madder. Refusing to yield to pressure, I began swinging my bags at them, and they dispersed. This is a common problem in Rio, and at night, it is not safe to walk the streets alone—even the main thoroughfares. One night, I was walking with three friends when we were accosted by rough characters bent on some evil intent—we just kept walking and they eventually left.
The Meridien Hotel is located on Leme Beach, adjacent to Copacabana, perhaps the most famous beach in the world. The coastline faces south, and Leme ends on the east at a rocky wall, beyond which is the Sugar Loaf. To the west, Leme merges with Copacabana, forming a long arc of sand. Still further, it becomes Ipanema beach–made famous in song–which ends in another rocky promontory. The total extent of the arc is over two miles—I walked it and back one day barefoot, ending with blisters. The surf while I was there was enough to give bathers a thrill, but not high enough to satisfy surfers. The beach is very wide all along the arc, accommodating multiple soccer games end to end on weekends. (In South America, soccer is the national game, and is known as futbol.)
Not far from my hotel was a plaza with shops and restaurants, and a beautiful Church of the Holy Spirit, gleaming white. Inside, there are statues of St. Dominic and the Blessed Virgin, he receiving the rosary from her. Brazil has the largest Catholic population of any country in the world. On a taxi ride to a meeting at the Hotel Gloria, we passed by the mountain known as Corcovado; the taxi driver pointed to the statue on top, "Christo!" This is a famous landmark in Rio, often pictured from the air: an enormous statue of Christ with arms outstretched toward the city, standing on the summit of a mountain having a profile similar to the Sugar Loaf.
On one occasion, I entered a restaurant for lunch alone, and was shown to a table by the railing on the veranda. A waiter took my order. While I was waiting to be served, a woman carrying a little girl of 3 or 4 years old approached me from without, and began speaking in Portugese. I tried to explain that I couldn't understand her. Soon the waiter came to chase her away, but I was bothered by the event, and recognized that her child seemed to be in ill health, coughing. She must have been in need of money for medicine for her child, and I didn't respond, although I could have, and should have.
Salvador, also known as Bahia (celebrated in a song of the same name), lies further north along the coast, between Rio and Recife, the easternmost part of the country. It is a very old city, dating to the 16th century, and not as frequented by foreigners as Rio. English is not understood by many there, so that I had to use my dictionary to give directions to taxi drivers. My hotel was perched on a rocky shoreline with no beach, so that swimming was in the pool only, although there was a long stretch of beach along the road from the airport. We could not walk to the city from the hotel—it was too far—so I went there only once, strolling through the market but buying nothing.
An incident here gave a good indication of the way business is conducted in Brazil. Our conference was scheduled for three days, opening with a keynote address at 9:30 followed by papers given from 10:30 until 1:00; the afternoon session was to run from 2:00 until 6, with my paper first. The conference was late getting started, waiting for the arrival of the keynote speaker, so that all the subsequent papers were also late—the morning session didn't end until 1:45. At this point, my host took our company group to lunch at his offices. When I protested that I would be late for my presentation, he told me not to worry. Being accustomed to promptness, I was on edge and unable to enjoy lunch. We did not return to the meeting until after 3:00, but no one seemed in a hurry to get started. Finally the afternoon session began about 3:30, ending about 7:30 with drinks. Simultaneous interpretation was provided for foreign-language speakers.
When I commented on the slippage of schedule to our sales manager, he passed it off as perfectly normal. He said that to make a sales call in Brazil, you must arrive at your customer's office between 10 and 11 in the morning—earlier than that, he is not yet in, and later, he has already left for lunch. Brazil is universally recognized as a country with great potential, in mineral wealth, forests, manpower—but it largely remains untapped because of this prevailing attitude.
The conferences I attended there were sponsored by the Brazilian Petroleum Institute, representing the most advanced industry in the country. They have an important mission, for they have very little crude oil production for their growing population, relying heavily on imports. At that time, there was a campaign to develop ethanol from sugar cane as a motor fuel, far ahead of efforts in other countries. A significant number of vehicles had already been converted to run on ethanol. While driving along one night, my host pointed out one such vehicle, a Volkswagen van, bearing the bumper sticker, Movido a alcool. Observing the erratic motion of the van, he wondered aloud whether it was the vehicle or the driver that was powered by alcohol!
During my second trip to Brazil in 1981, I flew from Rio to São Paulo (pronounced "San Paulo"), at that time the second most populous city in the world (next to Mexico City) with about 15 million people. Landing there was quite an experience, for the city seems to consist principally of high-rise buildings—it resembles a pin-cushion from the air—and the airport was in the middle of the pack. There, we visited our general manager for Latin America, who lived with his wife in a small house in the city center, now almost swallowed up by the surrounding tall buildings. A Russian, he had grown up in Shanghai and was forced to leave with his parents during the revolution of 1948. He was very interested in my observations of Shanghai during my 1979 visit there, as he had had no contact with the place after leaving. I had identified his school, the College de Ste. Jeanne D'Arc, now converted into a public high school.
My principle recollection of São Paulo involved a stop at a jewelry shop known to my host. I was shown a tremendous variety of natural gemstones for which Brazil is well known: amethysts, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, topaz, garnets, aquamarines, tourmalines, citrines, etc., at very reasonable prices. I sorted through tray after tray, making my selections carefully. I finally came away with an aquamarine that would be set in a white-gold ring for my wife, along with an assortment of less-expensive stones. If I paid in cruzeiros (the local currency) there was a list price; for travelers cheques, 15 percent less, and for greenbacks, 30 percent less. I had enough greenbacks to complete the transaction, pleased with my purchase, although it was not a large amount and the proprietor must have been disappointed in the sale.
The inflation rate for cruzeiros at that time was between 50 and 100 percent per year, incredible by our standards, but nowhere near as high as Argentina was then experiencing. From São Paulo I next flew to Santiago, Chile, for my first visit there.
My arrival at Buenos Aires in September of 1980 was in late morning after an overnight flight from Miami. My host picked me up at the airport, and as it was nearly noon, suggested lunch at a steak house on the way to the city. The Argentines are proud of their beef and their wine, so I expected a good lunch, and was not disappointed. The rump steak was suggested, along with a bottle of domestic Cabernet Sauvignon—an excellent combination. In response to my host's inquiry as to the quality of my steak, I replied that it was indeed a very good cut of Black Angus. I had been raising my own Black Angus beef at home for three years, and had recognized the taste—we often had rump steaks for dinner, so even the cut was familiar. I must admit that the Argentine beef was on a par with that raised at home, but my host seemed a little deflated with this commentary.
We arrived in the city in a hailstorm—it was the end of winter. In retrospect, the climate was similar to Melbourne, at least in September, where there were palm trees, but also cold rain and wind. The city itself seemed so much like New York that I might as well have been there. My hotel was near the street known as La Florida, a famous market area. But the prices! I wanted to bring home ponchos for my two girls, but found no bargains—a cotton poncho sold for $100—too rich for my blood. (I left the country with next to nothing in the way of gifts, but this was remedied by stops at Quito and Guayaquil on the way to Mexico.) Everything was expensive—$10 for a drink at the hotel bar, $25 for dinner—I had no appetite unless invited to dinner, where I let my host do the ordering.
Inflation was so high that room rates in the hotel escalated weekly. The attitude among wage earners was to spend their pay as soon as they got it, because next week it would have lost 15 percent of its value. As a result, on Friday nights the restaurants were packed with people eating and drinking freely—eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will be broke! The reason everything seemed so expensive to me was that the government had manipulated the currency exchange to the point (2200 pesos to the dollar) where residents of B.A. could fly to Miami, buy a color TV, and return home, for less than they could buy a comparable TV at home. This boosted the economy of Miami, Rio, and Santiago, but closed factories in Argentina—a very short-sighted government program. This situation was corrected sometime later, after the effects on local industry became obvious.
My three-day seminar in B.A. was a great success, with a vigorous exchange of ideas between the local engineers and myself. No interpreter was required, which was a big help. But it didn't start off that well. At lunch on the first day, dining with some important customers, I had to excuse myself quickly and head for the men's (caballeros) room, with an explosive case of diarrhea. I apologized to my host for leaving so abruptly, explaining my situation, and indicating I would go on with the seminar. He found some black pills for me, and I made it through the day. For the next two days, I was still unsettled, but able to eat and carry on with the program. A full week elapsed before I felt normal again. (Palm hearts were a part of that lunch, and I have avoided them ever since.)
The weather through that week was dreary—dark and rainy. My only consolation was Mass at a nearby church every afternoon after the seminar. After that, it was back to the hotel to rest and read. I became anxious to leave Argentina.
On my last day there, my host drove me and his wife in his Ford Falcon (the most popular car in the country, made there long after they had been discontinued in the U.S.) to the nearby resort area of Tigre (Tiger). On the way, we drove along the shore of the Rio de la Plata, where we could look across and (almost) see Montivideo, Uruguay. At Tigre, we took a river cruise, where lunch was served as we traveled along inland waterways, viewing summer homes of some of the wealthier Argentines. The waterway and landscape in the fresh green of early spring reminded me of the place where we summered on Lake Ontario during my school years.
The next morning, I took a taxi to the B.A. international airport to board an Ecuatoriana flight bound for Mexico City.
Ecuador means equator, as the country, and particularly its capital Quito, is positioned thereupon. On our approach to Quito, we flew over the snow-rimmed crater of Cotopaxi, an active volcano nearly 20,000 feet high, and I was able to get a very good photograph of it from above. My Ecuatoriana Boeing 707 was painted green and covered with motifs of snakes, trees, palm fronds, frogs, etc. in a wild display of Indian art—it was quite a spectacle. Upon landing at Quito, I saw other airliners painted similarly, but no two were identical—each bore its own unique motif. We had an hour layover in Quito, and so all passengers disembarked. It happened to be high noon on September 21st as I walked across the tarmac to the terminal, and cast no shadow, as the sun was positioned precisely over the equator—a unique experience for me.
Although I did not leave the airport for the city, this stop was significant in light of the difficulty I had in shopping for gifts in B.A. Quito airport was a bonanza for shoppers! There were several stores where one could buy local handcrafted products, and at great bargains. At this point, I was glad I had not bought a cotton poncho for $100 in B.A., for here I found genuine llama wool ponchos in beautiful colors for only $10! So I bought two, along with a magnificent wool scarf striped in colors that would be the envy of a tropical bird. A few other odds and ends rounded out my collection to bring home to the family.
From Quito, we flew to Guayaquil, on the west coast of Ecuador. Being at sea level, the temperature was much higher there than at Quito, which rides the crest of the Andes. Here again, we had an hour layover, with airport shops offering similar bargains. As we reboarded for departure, a family took the row of seats behind me, and their little girl—about ten years old—sat next to me. Before takeoff, she was chatting with her mother behind us in Spanish. After takeoff, she turned to me and said in perfect English, "Are you going to Los Angeles?" (the final destination of the flight). From her appearance, she seemed to be a native of Ecuador, but must have been well educated. I was simply envious that with much study, I have never been able to master a second language as well as that little girl.
At the end of my second trip to Brazil in 1981, I flew from São Paulo to Santiago, Chile, to visit an old friend and give a seminar there. My friend was a Catholic priest who taught electrical engineering at the Catholic University in Valparaiso, a seaport not far from Santiago. He also was experienced in installation and repair of shipboard instrumentation, which kept him very busy. I had met him on several occasions when he traveled to our factory in Massachusetts for training in our products.
Chile extends from about 17.5̊S to 56̊S, which comes out to about 2660 miles. By contrast, its width in the vicinity of Santiago is only about 100 miles, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Its capital, Santiago, lies roughly in the middle of the country, both from north to south and east to west. It is close enough to the highest peak in the western hemisphere, Cerro Aconcagua at 22,834 feet above sea level, for it to be seen on a clear day. But days are rarely clear enough anymore. Just after dawn one morning, I was able to discern a snow-covered prominence from my hotel, but not for long.
It is my custom on arrival in a new city to seek out a church first, and learn its Mass schedule. I found an old church in downtown Santiago, and attended Mass next morning. I was surprised how rundown the building was, and how few people there were in attendance, compared to what I saw in Buenos Aires. Yet the Chilean people I found to be much more friendly and hospitable compared to the Argentines. I found a market where local handicraft was on sale, and I bought a beautiful hand-knitted sweater for my daughter Liz's birthday.
At the time, Chile was celebrating 200 years of independence. There is no doubt that their government has been much more stable than any other in South America. Still, the excesses of its government are well-known, especially under the regime of General Pinochet.
My seminar was held in a hotel in Viña Del Mar (Vineyard by the Sea), a resort city on the seacoast west of Santiago and just north of the larger Valparaiso. We didn't stay there, but drove back to Santiago after the seminar. That evening we dined at a country club on a hill overlooking the lights of the city. A small orchestra entertained us with typical Chilean music. When I remarked that it sounded Mexican, my host acted offended, but in a good-natured way.
Sometime after returning home, I saw the movie Missing, about the search for people who had disappeared during or following the 1973 coup which toppled the Marxist government of Salvador Allende in favor of Pinochet. The movie had been filmed on location in Santiago and in Viña Del Mar, where the coup began. The scene showed gunfire in the streets, with people scattering and hiding from unidentified mobs of revolutionaries. I couldn't believe my eyes—these were the same streets I had strolled along so peacefully, among such docile people! How could they have had such a violent revolution only a few years before?
My favorite product of Chile is the Concha y Toro (Horn and Bull) wine. It can be procured locally at lower prices than California wine of lesser quality. Their Cabernet-Merlot blend is especially good. One lonely evening in Caracas after calling my wife to tell her I would not be home that day, I drowned my sorrows in
Rosé—but that's another story.
In the year 2000, I received an e-mail from a professor inviting me to give a seminar of three half-days as a part of a conference to be held at the Universidad del Bio-Bio in Concepción in October. (By this time, my friend the priest from Valparaiso had died.) I agreed, and as plans developed, I expressed an interest in seeing more of Chile during the trip. I was asked where and when I wanted to go and return, and the entire trip was planned for me. About a month prior to departure, an itinerary was sent to me for approval, after which an electronic ticket was sent for my travel from Boston to Santiago via Dallas. The conference offered to pay all my expenses, including travel and hotels in the south (el sur). After a summer traveling, first to Los Angeles, then to Chicago, and then Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Utah, including delays caused by labor problems on United Airlines, Betty was not interested in accompanying me.
On October 21st, she left me at the bus bound for Logan Airport in Boston. On the approach to Santiago the next morning, I spotted Cerro Aconcagua towering above the clouds and its fellows, and took a couple of photos. After clearing customs, I was met by a colleague who had been appointed to guide me from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, where I would pick up my ticket to Concepción. There was some confusion about my ticket, so he was of help. Later that day, he flew to Concepción and joined us for dinner.
Since I had been flying almost due south, there was no jet lag, Chile being one hour ahead of Eastern time. That evening, with two other visiting professors, I was invited to dinner by the university staff. Dinner didn’t start until after 9 PM and was continuing after midnight (as in Spain), when I felt compelled to leave. (I hadn’t slept well on the plane, and I had to give a seminar in the morning.) The aperitif served was pisco sour–the national drink. Pisco is similar to tequila, and the sour is made with lemon juice and sugar, similar to a whiskey sour, but better. I enjoyed many of these during the balance of my trip. My host gave me a bottle of pisco when I left Concepción, and I learned how to make a good sour soon after returning home.
Concepción is a city of about a half-million people, 300 miles southwest of Santiago, straddling the Bio-Bio river where it approaches the sea. Like other South American cities, it is relatively poor, and not very clean, but safe to walk about. Political posters stuck everywhere touted two candidates for mayor–the same posters on every lamppost in town. But it was spring, the sun bright, and the air clean. One evening, we dined at the home of the head of the electrical engineering department. It was a simple house, one floor, probably only four rooms, on a small lot at a busy intersection. The lot was surrounded by an iron picket fence with a locked gate. The door of the house was also locked behind us. But the people were very friendly and generous.
One afternoon, a professor took me to lunch at Thome, near the sea, and then to his sister’s cottage on a bluff over the beach. There were beautiful flowers everywhere, principally portulaca. The beach was sandy, but protected by weathered platforms of rock at the water’s edge, where scores of red starfish collected. The water was cold, in fact too cold for swimming even in summer due to the Humboldt current from the south. This professor had been apprehended while watching the uproar in the streets of Concepción during the coup of 1973 when Pinochet took power. He had a German name, which was enough excuse for him to be arrested, although on the staff of the university. He was held incommunicado for 24 hours, until a friend in a position of authority recognized him and secured his release. Others who were not so lucky were sent to prison for months or disappeared altogether. But he held no animosity toward Pinochet and was not anxious to see him tried for war crimes at his advanced age. (Pinochet had been extradited from England to Chile earlier in the year.)
The seminar went well, and I finished my responsibilities with a short speech opening the conference. That evening, I dined at a country club with a group of professors from the university. I would be leaving the next noon for the south and still had no tickets, until one of the professors handed me a folder with airplane tickets and vouchers for hotels. He told me I would be met at the airport in Punta Arenas, and not to worry. I tried to make sense of the vouchers, but they seemed to be incomplete.
Punta Arenas at 53.2̊S would be my furthest venture south, another “end of the earth.” By comparison, the southern tip of New Zealand is about 47̊S, and my previous southerly penetration was limited to about 39̊S on the North Island. The Cape of Good Hope is only about 34̊S. In northern latitudes, I had been to Fairbanks at 65̊N, Reykjavik at about 64̊N, Trondheim, Norway at 63̊N, and Helsinki at 60̊N, but there is much more land in the high north latitudes than in the south (excepting Antarctica). In fact, the reason for the fierce winds and currents of the South 50s is that there is no land mass to break up the circumpolar flows of the oceans of sea and air.
My LanChile flight to Punta Arenas made one stop, at Temuca, taking about four hours total, and about 1200 miles as the crow flies almost due south. I was really excited about landing in Punta Arenas, principally owing to its remote location just north of Cape Horn on the Straits of Magellan. After reading about voyages around Cape Horn, I expected stormy seas, violent winds, and rocky shorelines, but found none of the above.
Punta Arenas means “Sandy Point,” and so it is, with gentle hills rising from the eastern shore of the peninsula where the city lies on the strait, toward a largely barren summit. Low grass for sheep pasture surrounds the city. I was surprised at its size–120,000 people–mostly involved in fishing and ranching, with a deep port to ship livestock. The landscape reminded me of Iceland, having only a very few scattered trees, mostly in cemeteries.
I was met at the airport by a driver who took one of my vouchers and handed me an envelope containing assorted tickets and an itinerary. The latter spelled out in three lines for each of the five days from October 26th to the 30th, where and when I was to be picked up each day, where I would be taken, and where and when I would arrive at the lodging for the night–all in Spanish, of course. On the way from the airport, the driver pointed out several features of interest, including the low hills of Tierra del Fuego across the straits. He drove me to the center of the city to a bus station, where I would board a Bus Fernández for Puerto Natales within the hour. The bus station was small, dirty, without lavatories or benches, and a stall for only one bus. The schedule showed several departures each day. The trip was about 200 miles north and would take three hours.
The scenery along the way was rather boring, principally sheep pastures, and later cattle pastures, with wire fences and scatterings of brush and deadwood. There was little habitation along the way except groups of a few houses here and there, and the occasional estancia (ranch). The estancias must have generated their own power, because there were no power lines from shortly after leaving the city until we approached Puerto Natales.
Puerto Natales (Home Port) is a village of about 20,000 on the bank of a fjord (fiordo) named Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope), which connects with the Pacific to the west. To the east, it is only about ten miles from the border (frontero) with Argentina. The pavement ends there. The roads in this area do not connect with the rest of Chile, but they do connect with the road system of Argentina. The bus approached the city after dark, with its lights gleaming in the distance. We drove directly to the tiny bus station, where a group of people waited. Among them was a man holding a card with my name on it. He loaded my bags into his van, and we headed north on a gravel road for three or four miles, taking a left at a sign with a black-necked swan and the word Hotel. I knew we were on the right track, as I had a voucher for the Hostería Cisne de Cuello Negro (Inn of the Black-necked Swan).
The inn was a three-story white building cheerfully lighted. I entered the recepción area to be greeted by a woman who spoke English well and took my voucher. She asked if I would be dining there (it was already 10 o’clock), and I would. My room was quite small, with a single bed and no closet, but clean and comfortable. Dinner started with a pisco sour and continued with salmón and viño blanco. There were only two tables set–mine and that of another couple, and the same for breakfast. I was to be picked up next morning at 7:45 for the Glacier Tour.
The inn was actually at a place called Puerto Bories, little more than a loading dock for livestock, and half a dozen houses. It was on a hill, looking out on the fiord stretching north and south, with snow-capped mountains to the west and higher mountains with glaciers to the northwest. After a quick breakfast, I was given a box lunch and was met by another driver who took me back to Puerto Natales to the boat dock. He pointed me to a sight-seeing boat at the end of the dock, where I gave an attendant my ticket and went aboard. It was wooden, with a copper bottom, and named “21 de Mayo” (21st of May). It held probably 30 passengers, but there were only a dozen on board when we left.
We followed the fiord to the northwest past Puerto Bories and eventually past a couple of estancias which had no connection by road to the outside world. They were beautiful, silent, isolated havens of green grass and modest buildings against a backdrop of mountains and a foreground of blue water. I could not imagine a more quiet life. A companion on the boat, from Santiago, emphasized, “Too quiet!” We also visited a colony of nesting black-and-white cormorants, and a few black-necked swans swimming. From there we coasted along the Balmaceda glacier at the foot of 5000-ft Mt. Balmaceda, and eventually to a dock marked Puerto Toro on the map, but it was only a dock. We sprang ashore and walked briskly about a mile along the edge of a berg-filled lake to the base of the Serrano glacier. The foliage of the shrubs along the shore was very fine and evergreen, some with pink berries from the previous season, some with buds of new flowers. We basked in the spring sun on the rocks below the glacier, watching Andean condors circle overhead on their 10-ft wingspan.
Half an hour later, we returned to the boat for lunch. Soon, an attendant appeared with small glasses of pisco, cooling in glacier ice. The return trip was uneventful, and I was met at the dock by a taxi driver who returned me to my hotel. Then I had time to walk about the village, taking a few pictures, one of a pair of geese–a white male and a smaller brown female, which both showed black-and-white wings in flight. Most of the birds I saw were black-and-white.
Next morning, I packed, and after breakfast was picked up by a van with about 6 others, heading north into the park. The van had a screen over the windshield, which I inquired about. The guide explained that the sharp gravel tossed from the road by passing cars cracks windshields, and indeed, every vehicle I had been in had a cracked windshield. Our first stop was at La Cueva Milodon (Milodon Cave). When entered by a German explorer in 1895, the cave contained the intact skeleton of a prehistoric herbivore having many very fine teeth–hence the name Milodon (thousand teeth). A statue was erected at the entrance of the bear-like creature about 10-ft tall, but it was said to be related to the sloth rather than to a bear.
Las Torres del Paine Parque Nacional
“Una aventura en el confin del mundo” (An adventure at the edge of the world.)
From the Milodon cave we drove the rest of the hundred miles to Las Torres del Paine Parque Nacional (Paine is pronounced “Piney,” and the word means “blue” in the native language). Torres are towers, and indeed, three of the mountains rise like blue granite towers from just above sea level to about 9300 ft vertically. We entered the park from the east, where the towers were most visible. We then headed southwesterly, stopping to overlook two lakes, and again at a waterfall, Salto Grande, with its rainbow. By this time we were south of the towers and had a completely different view, dominated by Cuernos (horns) del Paine, and Cerro Paine Grande with its great Glaciar Francés. This is the highest peak in the park at just above 10,000 ft. The lower slopes were covered with pincushions of gray foliage, some of which were in bloom with small red flowers.
Then we drove to a campground for lunch, where the view across Lago Pehoé (pronounced “Pay-way”) was just spectacular. I had seen the Grand Tetons across Jackson Lake earlier in the summer and was enchanted by that view, but this view surpassed them. After lunch, we continued south, and then west and northwest to Lago Grey (Grey Lake), where we walked about a half-mile across the moraine at its south end. Its north end was fed by a large, low glacier, Glaciar Grey, and the lake was full of bergs. At one time, a sightseeing boat plied its waters, but is was too choked with ice for that now. Returning to the van, we dropped some passengers off at Hostería Lago Grey, at the foot of the lake.
On our way back, we took a detour to pick up a pair of campers at the end of a spur. On the way, the van began to shake more than usual, and an intermittent banging developed. The driver checked underneath, but made no comment. I said a short prayer for delivery. We continued slowly back to the administration center, where our guide led us from the van, and the driver took it to the maintenance garage. Half an hour later, the van was back with the problem fixed–I suspect a tie-rod had come loose and needed tightening. The next stop was my hotel, the Hostería Pehoé, located on a small island connected to the road by a footbridge about 100 yards long. The view was just fantastic.
My first order of business was to recharge the batteries to my video camera, but there was no power in my room. Later, after a walk and a shower, the power was on, and continued on. However, awaking in the night, I found it off again. Power was apparently generated by propane from tanks by the road, and the generator was turned off when demand was low. That evening during dinner, I watched the sun set against the mountains, with the peaks of two towers glowing as red as hot pokers in the deepening shadows.
The next morning was my 69th birthday. The dawn broke windy, with red clouds scraping the mountain tops, and I got some striking photos of Cerro Paine Grande. The day was free, but I didn’t have any plans. After breakfast, I wrote postcards, and then went for a hike. It took me an hour or so to scale a knoll across the road, where the view was splendid, but very windy. There were cushions of red flowers all around, looking like the land was on fire–which made me wonder if they didn’t inspire the name of Tierra del Fuego, the “Land of Fire.”(According to Magellan’s account, the name of the island was inspired by campfires seen burning at night, though no occupants were ever spotted by his crew.)
From the knoll, I could see the Explora Hotel, which was touted in an article in a magazine on the LanChile planes. So I descended to it and asked about the possibility of having lunch there. When I learned that it would cost me $60, I withdrew and headed back to my hotel. (Later I found out that the minimum stay at the Explora is three nights, charged at $1000 per-person, double occupancy–too rich for my blood.) On the way back, as I sat in the trail to take a stone from my boot, a lone guanaco passed by very close. They are very docile llamas, much like our deer. I couldn’t lay hold of my camera right away, and so missed a good picture. Returning to my hotel, I ordered lunch, with a Cervesa Austral (the local beer). The lunch consisted of a bowl of vegetable soup containing a whole chicken drumstick, whole potato, and part of an ear of corn–it was hearty and good–and only five dollars!
I wasn’t due to be picked up till 7:30 PM, so after lunch, about 2:30, I took a book up to the hilltop to read. About 4:30, I came down, intending to go for a walk. As I headed across the footbridge, I encountered a pair of men asking if I was Francis Shinskey–they had come to pick me up early, which was fine by me. We drove back to Puerto Bories and my old hotel. The next morning was absolutely gorgeous, frosty and bright, with the snow-capped mountains reflected in the blue water of the fiord, and a pair of horses grazing in the green pasture sloping down toward the water. After breakfast, I was driven back to the airport at Punta Arenas, to return home. My return flight stopped at Puerto Montt on the way to Santiago. Leaving my hotel at 10:00 AM on Monday, I reached home at 8:00 PM on Tuesday, 36 hours later. It was a long way home, but well worth the trip.
Following my first visit to Chile in 1981, I flew to Bogotá, Colombia. This was before all the drug wars, but I was apprehensive anyway, as this place already had a bad reputation. My anxiety heightened as the contact designated to meet me at the airport didn't show. Then I discovered that there was an unanticipated change in time zone, bringing me to Bogotá an hour early. So I waited in front of the terminal an hour, but my contact still didn't appear. Now I was worried, because I hadn't been informed about where I would be staying. But before another hour passed, my man arrived accompanied by a plethora of excuses.
I stayed only one night in Bogotá, and didn't venture far from my hotel. Most of the day was spent at the offices of our company representative, planning the seminar which was to be held in Cali. Surprisingly, we wouldn't be driving there. Although the two cities are only about 200 miles apart as the crow files, they are separated by the Cordillera Central, some of whose peaks exceed 18,000 feet. So the next day we flew to Cali on Avianca, reportedly the oldest commercial airline in the world.
Cali is one of the oldest cities in the New World, dating to about 1531. The Intercontinental Hotel is downtown, across the street from a ribbon of park lying along the river. My window looked out across the river to a high hill surmounted by three crosses representing Mt. Calvary, where Christ died. My host told of how, each Good Friday, a procession of the faithful would move from the town to the top of the hill to commemorate the Crucifixion.
Our first day was spent arranging for next day's seminar. We had to pick up some material from a local printer several blocks from the hotel, so we walked. I had not felt so conspicuous since walking in China in 1979. Not only were all the locals watching me, they were suspicious, or resentful, or something which made me feel very uncomfortable.
One of the men attending the seminar gave me some interesting insights into the mindset of the Colombians. He was an engineer in a local sugar mill, who had recently made his first trip out of Colombia, to visit a mill in Louisiana. Upon returning home, his friends and neighbors asked if he had seen any gunfighting in the streets, like they had seen in so many American movies. "No," he replied, "and people even go to church there!" It was remarkable what a misunderstanding they had of Americans, based on Hollywood's exports.
There is usually a letdown for me at the end of a seminar, and this was no exception. After the last session, everyone left, including my host—he had other plans. So I walked a few blocks to attend the late afternoon Mass at the Eglesia de la Mercedes—a gleaming white jewel of Gothic architecture surrounded by snarling traffic. Buildings had grown up around the church, dwarfing it, but leaving it as an oasis of peace in a troubled city. Returning to the hotel, I felt the watchful eyes of all the locals following me along the way. Colombia was in some turmoil at the time, with the military visible everywhere, even in the hotel. A young soldier of the National Guard was even on duty in the elevator. I just couldn’t get used to riding an elevator alone with a nineteen-year-old Colombian carrying a sub-machine gun.
The next morning, I left for the airport where I would fly to Miami via Barranquilla. I shared my relief at leaving Cali with another engineer returning home from an assignment starting up some turbines his company had delivered there. He had a few stories about being detained against his will in South and Central America, when delays brought about by local labor problems had kept him from completing his assigned task. His passport or visa had been held until his work was finished. It reminded me of my first trip to China, where I had to surrender my passport and airplane ticket until the day of my departure.
In 1993, an engineer from Cali attended a seminar I gave in Atlanta. He has called several times since, to interest me in giving another seminar in Cali, but I could only expect the situation to be worse since my original visit. It is simply not worth the money I would earn to cause my family the anxiety and worry about my safety while I was there. So I have not returned.
Most of my trips to South America have been to Venezuela, the "Little Venice" of the new world. With rich oil reserves, it is more industrialized than its neighbors, which is why I have been called there so often—principally to give seminars for petroleum companies. These companies were originally affiliates of U.S. refiners, but have been taken over by the Venezuelan government, and now operate under a single umbrella. Yet they tend to keep their individual identities and some ties with their former parent organizations. For example, one of my colleagues at what was Esso Research and Engineering in the 1960s became plant manager at the LagoVen refinery years after it was taken over by the government.
My first visit to Venezuela in 1979 brought me to Maracaibo, a port on the large, shallow lake of the same name, dotted with oil rigs. The climate there is hot and humid year round. Our business representative there was celebrating its 25th anniversary with us, and welcomed me with a big party and Ron Añejo (aged rum). My picture later appeared in a business publication with some of the staff and customers, where I was identified as a Norte Americano.
After a single night in Maricaibo, we left the following morning for Paraguaná peninsula, a round tassel of land jutting into the Carribean, where two of the major refineries are. Our flight was aboard a four-seat charter, where my host insisted I sit up front next to the pilot for a better view, while he and our service engineer rode in back. Alighting into my seat, I had some difficulty closing my door, and wasn't satisfied that it was firmly locked in place. The pilot reached over and gave it a tug, and it didn't move, so he must have concluded that it was secure. So we took off. Climbing through an altitude of about 400 feet, the door suddenly popped open, improving my view immensely—I could look straight down from my seat! With the wind whistling past the plane at about a hundred miles an hour, the door was impossible to close. Pulling with both hands, I could almost close it, but it wouldn't stay, so that we had to land again and secure it from the outside. With that done, we left once again.
The peninsula's airport is at Las Piedras, "The Rocks." It is very rocky there, and in fact, a rather jagged mountain a couple thousand feet high looms beyond the runway. The peninsula otherwise is flat, set on cliffs above the sea. The climate is hot and dry, and the wind blows constantly; prickly pears dot the landscape. One discouraging feature of Venezuela is its litter. Even in lightly populated areas like this, papers and plastic bags blow about until they are impaled on the cactus spines, where they stay.
On my first visit, we stayed at a small motel in the village of Judibana, checking in late in the afternoon. Wanting a shower after a dusty day traveling, I discovered that there no towels in the room. So I called the desk, but there was a delay, so I went for a walk. In the center of the village, there was a beautiful open-air church where I stopped to pray, and found that Mass was about to begin. I can still remember the priest's flowing vestments whipping in the pleasant breeze. After Mass, I returned to the motel to find my friends already imbibing, so there was no time for a shower. We then went directly to dinner.
Paraguaná has many small restaurants scattered along the roads, where grilled seafood is a speciality—the camarones (shrimp) and baby squid (eaten whole) are especially tasty. Another speciality is the turtle soup made from sea turtles. This used to be the featured item on the menus, but the government banned the taking of them by the fishermen, probably as they were becoming depleted. But the last time I was there, one could still obtain turtle soup if you knew the chef, and if a turtle had happened to be taken "by accident."
Returning to our motel very late after dinner, I had given up on the idea of a shower. But at this point, I couldn't even find any soap, and the staff had left for the night—I had to borrow soap from my neighbor to wash up. Upon arising in the morning, I tried once again for the shower, but there was no hot water. Forget it—I would be flying to Caracas in the afternoon, and surely the Hilton would have hot water, soap and towels. When I checked into my room at the Hilton that evening, more in need of a shower than ever, there was no water at all! A line had broken, and service was shut off while repairs were being made.
Cardon is another village where I have stayed to give a seminar, and Punto Fijo still another. During my last seminar on the peninsula, I asked my host who had a car, if we could drive to the east side, where there were some beaches. We drove over back country roads, and came across a little church where goats nibbled on the grass. It was freshly whitewashed, and flowers were on the altar, so we went inside for a look. An older woman standing near the altar looked at us as if we were intruders into her own private domain, so we didn't stay, but it was a fascinating example of an old Indian country church.
We drove along the beaches where a sprinkling of cottages dotted the shore, but they were all closed for the season. Little playgrounds and a small amusement park lay idle, not unlike Cape Cod in the autumn, but on a much poorer and smaller scale. On the way back, we stopped for dinner at a little wayside restaurant where there was only one customer at the bar. But there was fresh kingfish on the menu, and with a tomato salad and a couple of cold beers, we decided that this was not a bad life.
The international airport serving Caracas, Venezuela's capital and largest city, is at Maiquetia, on the beach. The drive to the city takes a little over an hour in light traffic, but the traffic is rarely light, so the ride usually takes two hours or even more. The area is very hilly, so the road winds and passes through a tunel on the way. The hillsides are occupied by squatters— people who settled there without ownership of the land, and built villages of shacks from corrugated metal and bricks and scrap lumber, without paved roads or a water supply or waste removal. This first impression of a visitor to Venezuela is not a good one.
Caracas lies about 3000 feet above sea level, making it a little cooler and dryer than at the coast, a blessing at this latitude. It is also bordered by mountains, Pico Avila being the highest at about 7000 ft. In the late 1950s, the president of the country built a resort hotel near the peak, connecting it to the city by a cable-car. Thirty years later, my host took me there not by the cable-car, but by a back road in his jeep. We bounced and lurched all along the way, raising thick clouds of dust from the road, which cut deeply into the earth—my seatbelt was not enough to hold me in—I had to hang on tightly with both hands as well! We finally reached the top and walked to the pavilion of the hotel for a magnificent view of the city. A guard met us at the gate and refused us further passage. The hotel had been closed for years, having failed to turn a profit, now gathering dust as a government white elephant.
On several occasions, I dined with the managers of my company's representative at their homes. These wealthy Venezuelanos lived in a walled compound protected by an automatic gate and an armed guard. After parking inside the gate, we walked to an elevator which required a key to enter, and again to exit on the floor of their apartment. It was like living in a prison of one's own making, apparently needed to protect the wealthy from those who were not.
Every evening during my visits to Caracas, I was invited to dinner, as members of the staff took turns entertaining me. These people are most cordial, and I developed a genuine fondness for them, friendships which have lasted over the years. Caracas has more first-class restaurants per capita than perhaps any other city I have visited, and I ate at most of them. Italian food is the favorite of most of the locals, and scotch whisky their favorite drink. I prefer their dark rum, with soda: "Ron y soda, por favor!" Their coffee is excellent, served after dinner in tiny cups—smaller than demitasse. It is so strong that it cannot be taken black—cream and sugar are essential: "Cafe con leche y azucar." Yet it is a mistake to take more than one of these after dinner, or you won't be able to sleep. The national after-dinner drink is sambuca—a licorice tasting Italian liqueur—to which seven coffee beans have been added (one for each star in the flag) and set aflame. When the beans begin to impart their color to the liqueur, it is time to blow out the flame and sip.
One of my favorite churches is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a few blocks walk from the Tamanaco hotel in the section known as Las Mercedes. The church celebrates the appearance of the Blessed Virgin to an Indian named Juan Diego in Guadalupe, Mexico, in December of 1531. She asked him to have the bishop build a church on the site in her honor, but Juan needed a sign to get the bishop's attention. So Mary instructed him to gather up some roses that were blooming in the snow at her feet. He wrapped them in his cloak and took them to the bishop. After much difficulty gaining an audience, he opened his cloak to spill out the roses, and the bishop saw there on the inside of the cloak, Mary's image in full color, appearing as an Indian maiden, but arrayed in a gown of blue and white, surrounded by golden rays. The cloak has been preserved in the basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico, and is mentioned again in this book in that context. In the church in Caracas, the story of Juan Diego is told in a series of stained-glass windows. The church is beautifully furnished, with a white marble altar. On festivals such as Easter and Pentecost, the altar is decorated with garlands of white roses. The people obviously love their church, and are dedicated to Nuestra Señora.
On one occasion, I gave a seminar at a petroleum research facility at Los Teques, not far from Caracas, the week before Christmas. This was not a good time for serious study, for everyone was in a festive mood. One evening, I went walking through Las Mercedes, hoping to do a little shopping before returning home. Traffic was so thick that it was nearly impossible to cross the streets. Sidewalk vendors also made walking difficult, and four-foot-high fir trees imported from Canada were selling for $75. On the last day of the seminar, the facility celebrated with a party, serving all the traditional Christmas favorites, none of which was familiar to me, but tasty and fascinating, nonetheless.
That afternoon, I was driven to the airport by Gustavo, one of the office staff, for a 5:00 departure. Gustavo insisted he see me through customs, and I was fortunate that he did. While checking in at the PanAm counter, the clerk looked at my passport. "Where is your solvencia?" he inquired. I didn't know what he was talking about. "Your business visa requires you to obtain a solvencia—a statement that you have paid taxes on income earned in Venezuela!" Sure enough, there it was on my visa—in Spanish, of course. Gustavo tried to plead my case with the clerk, and again with the customs officer, but to no avail. We had to return to Caracas, and Gus would hand-carry my solvencia through the tax office with the help of someone he knew who worked there, but not until tomorrow. I checked back into the Tamanaco and called Betty to tell her of the delay of a day (hopefully no more) in my return. A good dinner accompanied by ron y soda and a half-bottle of Concha y Torro wine eased the pain.
Next morning, I showed up at the office, and Ricardo, the boss, cried, "What are you doing here?" When I related my story, he told me that everyone who travels to Venezuela on business knows enough to get a tourist visa rather than a business visa—it was my own fault! Meantime, Gus was working the tax office, and a secretary was working the travel agent to get me on the afternoon flight to Miami, not an easy task with all the locals Christmas shopping in Miami. We all went out to an early lunch and partied some more. When we returned, Gus had a solvencia signed, and I was booked on the 5:00 flight, so home I went, only a day late.
After returning to my office, I let our travel agent know that any of us going to Venezuela should have a tourist visa. A couple years later, one of our sales people went there with a case full of new products we were introducing. When trying to leave the country, the customs officer wouldn't accept his tourist visa. Checking the contents of his briefcase, he pronounced, "You're not a tourist!" and sent him to the American embassy to procure a business visa. While at the time the most stable government in South America, Venezuela has flip-flopped on many issues, so each visit was an adventure.
Still later, visas were not required at all, only a "landing card." But for some reason, on my next trip I was not issued one when my PanAm flight departed from Kennedy airport, and when I reached the immigration desk at Maiquetia, I was empty-handed. This is not ordinarily a big deal, because the immigration desk has a whole stack of blank cards, and it would only take me a minute to fill one out. Yet the officer threatened to send the whole plane-load back to Kennedy airport. It turned out to be no more than a threat, but I was worried about Betty, who would be following me down at the end of my seminar for a week at Isla Margarita. So I called to warn her to be sure to get a landing card at Kennedy to avoid being chewed out by a surly immigration officer.
At the end of the seminar all of my associates took me out to dinner, and I lost track of the time. We arrived at the airport to pick up Betty 45 minutes after her scheduled arrival. I fully expected she would be just emerging from customs, based on the delays I had experienced on my flight earlier in the week, but not so! Her flight had arrived early, and she had been waiting for nearly an hour (slowly simmering) for me to show up. In the meantime, some stranger had offered to pick her up. Then we stayed overnight at the Tamanaco, leaving for Isla Margarita the following morning.
On my last trip to Caracas in November of 1990, I was given a personal tour of the cathedral and of Simon Bolivar’s residence—a beautiful adobe building with courtyard and gardens shaded by tropical trees, and maintained as a monument in the heart of the old city. My hosts also took me to their private club with its swimming pool and elegant dining rooms. It had once been a hacienda and coffee plantation, and still contained antique Spanish furniture and a charm that had lasted through the centuries. After that, the government changed, oil revenues declined, and I was not invited back again.
Between seminars at Paraguanà and Caracas in February of 1987, my hosts organized a trip to the Venezuelan Andes, where we could do some hiking. We flew from Maiquetia to Merida, landing on its single airstrip cut into the side of the mountain at about 5000 ft above sea level. The runway is abnormally short, but is inclined as well; landings are uphill and takeoffs downhill, rather than both into the wind as is customary on level runways. After arrival, we rented a car and headed for the mountains.
Along the way, we stopped at a farm called Los Altos (The Heights) opened for tours. It included a tour of a (semi)restored village, complete with blacksmith shop and schoolhouse. Life was hard in the village, and still is for the peasants of the Paramà, as the high plateau is known. Barnyard animals roamed freely, protected by signs that said "¡No moleste los animales, por favor!" When a fierce Muscovy drake ran over to Ricardo and began biting his shoe, I reminded him of the sign, to which he replied, "He is molesting me!"
We stopped at a restaurant in a village at about 10,000 ft above sea level for lunch. The most appealing item on the menu was trucha (trout), which we ordered. Suddenly, I wasn't very hungry, and only picked at my lunch. Ricardo, a big man, attacked his with gusto, but before finishing, turned pale and headed for the restroom. He returned looking like a ghost and complained of "mal de Paramà," high-altitude sickness. The third member of our party, a short and stocky Peruvian named Angel (pronounced Àhn-hail) felt ok. He drove the rest of the way to our hotel as Ricardo snoozed in the back.
The hotel was a 17th-century abbey, a beautiful whitewashed hacienda. The owner checked us in and promptly whisked our bags off to our rooms. Huffing and puffing, I failed to keep up with him, though I was not similarly burdened. The altitude made any activity difficult. Later, we drove to Pico Aguila (Eagle Peak), where there is an observatory at about 14,000 ft. My head was pounding hard with each step, so that I couldn't enjoy the scenery. We retired to a restaurant there for hot chocolate and arepas, a cookie-shaped piece of white cornbread which is the staple of the Paramà. I managed only to nibble at one, but this was home-cooking to Angel. That evening, we ate only part of the dinner served at the hotel, and ordered box lunches to be prepared for the next day's hike.
After a good night's sleep, I felt much better, and ordered panquecas con mielo (pancakes with honey) for breakfast. Thus fortified, we drove to our trailhead at about 11,000 ft. From there, we gradually descended to Laguna Negra (Black Lake) at about 10,000 ft, walking along its shore. At the end of the lake, we met some campers who spoke of frost on their tent overnight, although by now, the temperature was at least 80°F. From there, we ascended through a forest for several miles till we reached a rocky promontory above Laguna de los Patos (Lake of the Ducks) at about 12,000 ft. There we stopped for lunch, surrounded by 13,000 ft peaks. Much as I would have liked to climb higher, the afternoon was very hot, and we had a long walk back, so we decided to turn back. Just then, a wild white horse appeared in the brush beyond the lake. I tried to get close enough for a good photograph, but as soon as I did, he would take off. After half an hour of chase, we headed back. The last 1000 ft of ascent from Laguna Negra to the car separated us, with Angel arriving first and Ricardo last.
After this, we stopped in a village for something to eat. Salty potato soup, more arepas, and hot chocolate tasted good at this point. That night, we returned to the observatory, where Angel had a friend who would let us in. We were able to look through one of the telescopes, but not for long, because a class of high-school students had arrived, and blowing clouds obscured the stars most of the time. My strongest memory is of freezing in the cold wind with a fresh sunburn. The sun had even burned the top of my head through the perforations in my baseball cap.
We didn't return to the abbey, but stayed overnight at another hotel closer to Merida. Next morning, we dropped Angel off at the airport, and took the cable-car to the top of Pico Espejo (Mirror Peak) at 15,650 ft above sea level—this is the highest cable-car in the world. The trip from Merida takes two hours and is broken into four separate sections. This extended time is supposed to help passengers acclimate to the altitude change, but it is not sufficient, as indicated by the condition of the people at the summit station. As we proceeded up the mountain, we passed through four distinct climactic zones, indicated by different forests. From the equatorial jungle, we passed through a temperate forest, followed by a range of conifers, and last the arid, rocky terrain above tree-line. The last was featured by low silvery bushes called frailajones, seen at the higher reaches of our previous day's hike. At the third landing there is a mule station for those who want to trek to a remote mountain village which accommodates a few visitors. The village has no electricity, and accommodations are rather Spartan, but staying there is reportedly a wonderful experience, with fantastic views of mountains and sky.
Atop Pico Espejo is a white marble statue of Nuestra Señora de Neve, Our Lady of the Snow. There was no snow there at the time, it being common only during July and August, when the humidity is its highest. Glaciers could be seen higher up, however, along the flanks of Pico Bolìvar, the highest mountain in Venezuela at 16,150 ft, and Humboldt at 15,850 ft. Other high peaks are El Toro, and Leon (The Bull and Lion). We spoke with some hikers returning from ascending Bolivar, tired, dusty, and sunburned, but triumphant. It looked close enough to touch, but was several miles away across broken rock. This was the highest point on earth I had ever reached in my travels.
The east-central region of Venezuela is known as the Gran Sabana, a wide, grassy plain extending nearly to the boundary with Guyana. It is scattered with isolated Indian villages, one of which, Canaima, has developed into a modest resort. On a weekend between seminars, we flew there from Maiquetia, there being no other reasonable means of transportation across this nearly roadless plain. The flight to Canaima offers the traveler a real treat—a closeup view of Salto Angel, Angel Falls, the highest waterfall on earth at over 3000 ft. It was discovered by a bush pilot named Jimmy Angel while prospecting for gold. He reportedly found a rich deposit, but promptly lost its position in the violent storms which frequent the area.
The Gran Sabana is not entirely flat, but dotted here and there with flat-topped mountains called tepuis, rising abruptly from the plateau to heights up to 10,000 ft. Being isolated from their surroundings by steep walls, each has an ecology all its own. A huge tepui named Roraima, located on the border with Guyana, is a destination for hikers interested in a really rugged experience. Humid air rising from the plain daily lifts its moisture to these heights where it is chilled to saturation, precipitating severe thunderstorms. Torrential rains fall almost every afternoon, filling the tops of the tepuis with water which overflows into hundreds of waterfalls dropping over a thousand feet. The tepui containing Angel Falls is horseshoe-shaped, with the water flowing down the inside and therefore protected from view from most directions, which was responsible for its late discovery. Our pilot approached the tepui from above and behind the horseshoe, taking us over the top and down, giving a closeup view of the top of the falls. We then circled once for all passengers to see, before continuing to the airstrip at Canaima.
A short bus ride from the airport brought us to the resort at the side of a round, black lake fed by wide, low waterfalls along the entire far side. The water is actually colored like tea from decaying leaves, and is loaded with tannic acid which gives it a low pH and a very soft feel. The swimming there was great. The lake was fed by the river Cerrao, where we didn't have to worry about the flesh-eating paraña, because the water was too acid for their survival. In fact, there was very little wildlife in the area, owing to a lack of fruit trees, and apparently the grazing was not that good. The scenery had a very mystical quality—a vast expanse of blue sky with billowing clouds, and a horizon terminated at intervals by steep, flat-topped mountains where the world seemed to end.
One of our hikes took us under a long waterfall, where tiny scarlet flowers bloomed in the constant mist and eerie light. At another place, we could swim and dive through a waterfall. The piéce de resistance was a trip in a dugout canoe that had been made by hollowing out a log at least 30 ft long and 3 ft across. Seats fastened in it could accommodate 30 people, and it was powered by a large outboard motor. The crew took us up the river to an island where we would have lunch. The river was bordered on both sides by tepuis with strange rock formations on top. Each turn of the river changed the view before us. At one point, I could count 11 waterfalls each falling over 2000 ft, some failing to reach the ground before evaporating entirely. Our canoe pulled up to an island where we were asked to disembark and walk to the far shore where we would board once again—the canoe had to negociate some rapids in getting around the island, which it could not do fully loaded.
Our lunch consisted of chickens grilled on sticks arranged in a conical form like a teepee above the fire, as was traditional among the natives. When we returned to the place where we were to disembark before the canoe encountered the rapids, my host talked the boatman into letting three of us remain aboard. Moving with the current, we pounded and bounced and held on for dear life—it was great fun, but ended too soon. If we had had three days there, we could have continued upstream to Salto Angel and camped overnight.
I rose early the next morning (Sunday), interested in hearing Mass at the little stone church in the village. Arriving about 7:00, I found a few people gathering, but nothing to suggest a celebration. One woman came in and lay prostrate on the stone floor in front of the altar, for several minutes. Soon another came and assumed the same position. In the meantime, other people came and went, looking upon me as an intruder. So eventually I left, feeling out of place among the natives. After arriving back in Caracas that afternoon, I went to Mass at Eglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
In November of 1988, Betty joined me in Caracas after a seminar, and we flew the next day to Isla Margarita, a few miles off the coast of Venezuela, for a week’s vacation. This had been planned ahead, but before I left the office in Caracas, the manager gave me a voucher which covered our hotel expenses there. At that time, prices were not high for Americans in Venezuela, but the help was very welcome, and typical of the hospitality I was shown by my hosts there.
We landed at the airport in Porlamar, the principal city, and our bus had to pass through city traffic to our hotel on the other side. The island is roughly 40 miles east-to-west by 20 miles north-to-south, with Porlamar in the center. A long sand bar connects arid mountains about 2500-ft high in the west to Porlamar and a scattering of small villages in the east. Columbus discovered the island during his third voyage, on August 15, 1498, but did not land there. It has no fresh water of its own, but must be supplied by ship regularly from the mainland.
Our resort hotel was probably one of the best on the island, but still appeared not completely finished. For example, the stairway from our floor to the main lobby was not lighted, and was hard to negociate at night. There were also piles of construction debris scattered about, which is typical of Venezuela. Our own beach was sandy but somewhat narrow. Even in November, the sun was so hot that you couldn’t stay out in it for any length of time. You had to either be in the water or in the shade. There were small areas shaded by a thatched roof, where you could buy a pizza and a couple of Polar beers for two dollars—a pleasant and inexpensive way to lunch on the beach.
We rented a small car to tour the island, and were told not to worry about the two warning lights on the dash—the car was ok. After a couple of days driving around, more warning lights were lit, so we turned in the car. But there wasn’t much to see, anyway. One day we drove to Vallee, a small village in the middle of the island, where there was an unkempt common and a miniature Gothic church in white marble in the village center. There we found an entrepreneur selling Coco Frios from a truck—these are ice-cold coconuts with the top sliced off and a straw inserted to sip the milk. You can also dig out the pulp with a spoon. We continued on to the old village and fort at Asunción. The fort, which lies largely in ruins, was located on a high point in the island. Later we stopped at a public beach for a swim, and felt out of place among the mobs of locals. For a place to sit on the sand, we bought a beach towel which said “Isla Margarita,” which we still use (for bathing the dog). We also stopped at a small fishing village for a lunch of octopus (which I found rubbery).
During a stop in Porlamar, we were approached by a woman showing us a slip of paper and asking for something in Spanish. Not being able to understand, we continued on. Later it occurred to me that the slip of paper was a prescription for medicine, and she needed help paying for it. Another opportunity to help was missed.
After these experiences, we turned in the car and decided to take a couple tours. One took us to the long sand bar to the west, by means of a speedboat through mangrove swamps. Once on the bar, we settled into beach chairs under a thatched roof. Food and beverage were provided by a local entrepreneur with a gas grill and a cooler, as there was no power nor any buildings on the bar. The swimming was great, and the grilled lobster and beer even better. Another tour we took was on a sailing yacht to a quay for snorkeling, which was not particular interesting as there wasn’t much to see on the sandy bottom. Lunch was more interesting. The yacht pulled in as close to the beach as it could get, and we swam ashore. A huge black man came out of the restaurant and carried the ladies ashore one by one. We dined at the bar right on the beach, on fresh grilled kingfish, pisca del rey.
One evening we taxied to Porlamar for dinner at one of the more advertised restaurants—the dinner was ok but nothing special. I decided to walk back to the hotel, which was probably not a good idea, as we passed through a rather dingy neighborhood, and Betty was definitely uncomfortable, but nothing happened. It just was not the scenic route. By the end of the week we were ready to leave, and flew home via San Juan, Puerto Rico.