November 24, 2004

South America travel tips

My friend, Ed, sent me an email asking for tips on travel to Brazil. He's going there in August with his wife and kids. They're lucky enough to know people there and will be staying with friends in Sao Paolo and in the central part of the country. They'll be there 2-3 weeks and, wrote Ed, "We'll finish up with an Amazon trip -- still looking at providers. Any recommendations if you've been down that way..."

South America is a wonderful destination and, to quote a tour guide at Iguacu Falls, Brazil, "Brazilians like Americans and think they're friendly people. Tell your friends that Brazil is a good place to travel to!" I've found the same feeling of welcome in the other five South American countries I've visited (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile. True, as the world watches the situation in Iraq devolve further into a moral and military morass, there will be protests, as there were recently in Santiago. Even last summer, when I was in Santiago, buildings around the city hosted graffiti that read, "Bush es el terrorista"). Don't let our government's agenda deter you from exploring your planet. Be a good ambassador. And trust your intuition. If something doesn't feel right, get out of the way.

So, some recommendations for Ed and anyone else considering travel to fabulous South America. Ed's staying with friends, so he doesn't need a package tour. For those who do, I highly recommend SmarTours, based in New York City. My family took their Brazil, Chile and Argentina tour, and it was outstanding. The value for the money spent is simply unbeatable. There were some 30 people on our tour, experienced globetrotters all, and many of them were on their fourth or fifth SmarTour. I'll travel with them again and am currently scoping out their Vietnam/Cambodia trip.

If you prefer to travel independently, it's easy to arrange sightseeing once you arrive in South America. I traveled independently to both Ecuador and Bolivia and booked guides, drivers and rail trips from the official tourist offices located in Quito and La Paz. You do not need to have everything arranged before you leave the States. Get yourself a plane ticket and book accomodation for the first few nights, then book your sightseeing locally, saving a lot of money. Your hotel can point you to the tourist office or to reputable local travel agencies.

For Ed's trip, he'll likely fly between Brazilian destinations. The country is staggeringly large, and air is really the only way to go unless you have months to spend. A good place to gather basic information is Embratur, the Brazilian Tourism Ministry. With apologies to Ed's friends who live there, Sao Paolo is not where you want to hang out. With a population in excess of 18 million, it's bigger than many countries. When you fly into or out of Sao Paolo, you fly for quite a while before the city and its sprawling reach of suburbs finally disappear beneath you. Sao Paolo is, however, an excellent air hub for flights around Brazil. You'll use the city's domestic airport for intra-Brazil flights. Two destinations I highly recommend flying to are Rio de Janeiro and Iguacu Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world's national wonders (photo below).

From Sao Paolo, you'll fly into the city of Foz do Iguacu. (You won't land if there's fog in Foz. We got all the way to the falls and had to turn back and try again in the morning. That thwarted night flight over the deep, black Brazilian jungle was one of the five most terrifying flights of my life -- funky fodder for another post...).

At Iguacu (Iguassu, Iguazu), stay at the stunningly-sited Hotel Tropical das Cataratas. (Google searching for this hotel yields a handful of aliases -- Tropical Iguacu Falls Hotel; Tropical das Cataratas; Das Cataratas Hotel --I never actually found an official hotel website. Make sure the hotel you book is the one located at Br 469, Km 28, Foz Do Iguacu. The phone is 455 231 108, and it's the hotel in this picture. ) Why splurge and stay here? Simple: LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. The falls are outside the door. An experience you will never forget.

Ed wants to finish up his South American odyssey with a trip to the Amazon. You can have an Amazon experience in either Peru or Brazil. I spent several nights at the Amazon Safari Camp, upriver from Iquitos, Peru. You can fly to Iquitos, a former rubber boomtown with a frontier, Fitzcarraldo-like feel to it, and book a stay at a river camp. Or, if you want to stay in Brazil, fly to Manaus, the heart of Brazilian Amazonia, and book a river stay from there.

Ed mentioned in his email that he was "looking at providers" to travel with. The Internet makes it both easy and difficult to find reputable travel and tour companies. Easy, because of the proliferation of websites. Difficult, because of the proliferation of websites. You can find a ton of stuff, but you're not sure exactly what it is you've found.

A few tips. First, consider not booking over the Web. As I suggested above, get yourself to a jumping-off-point destination and then book tours locally from the tourist bureau or a reputable travel agency. If you're standing in a brick and mortar tour office talking to a live human, you can get a pretty good sense of things. If you do want to book ahead, do what I did when I booked a do-it-yourself Kenyan safari over the Web with a company (Star Tours) in Nairobi. First, I looked for tour operators approved by the major Kenyan tour operators' association (KATO). Then, I emailed several that seemed interesting. I evaluated the companies based on how I felt about our "email relationship." I asked lots of questions. Did they respond? How quickly? How thoroughly? Were they polite? Bottom line -- how did they "feel" to me? I got a "good feeling" from Star Tours, and my family was rewarded with a fabulous, private Kenyan safari at a fraction of the cost of booking through a US operator.

Finally, read this article about shopping the Web for tour operators. Written by a Peruvian operator, the advice makes sense. And, visit one of my favorite travel sites, Real travelers offer nearly a million unbiased and highly informative opinions on hotels, resorts, attractions and tours. The site's a bit unwieldy,chock- full as it is with information, but once you perfect your search method, you'll uncover a bonanza of useful reviews.

Well, Ed, this post's for you. Hope it's helpful. Thanks for asking.