The adventure of a lifetime
by Jim Todd
I’m fond of saying that it is easy to get along when things are going well, but the real test of a relationship is in the response to when things don’t. My family’s trip to South America was meant to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see all of the iconic destinations the continent had to offer. Instead, it became a non-stop odyssey to overcome every imaginable travel challenge. Despite all of our trials, Latin America For Less helped us every step along the way to ensure our trip was a success.
It probably didn’t help that ours was one of the more ambitious itineraries Mari, our travel advisor, had ever booked. We started in Cusco, Peru via our overnight connection in Lima. Like so many, we planned to make Cusco our starting point to partake of the Inca culture before traveling down to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, on just our first day, first tour in country my 14 year old son Connor began to feel sick. Naturally, we chalked it up to the altitude, the journey, and fatigue so we went back to our hotel early. But as the evening approached, it was clear that this was not the problem. After calling a doctor to our hotel, we were escorted to a local medical clinic where my son was admitted with a giardia infection. Just as we had him connected to his ‘IV’, I turned to the nurse to acknowledge that I wasn’t feeling well either. Once I was able to return from the restroom, I told her that I would have what my son was having. By this time, my wife Robin felt she had done all she could do, so she went back to our hotel only to… well you can probably guess the rest. Looking back, it probably would have made a cute picture to see all three of us lined up in the infirmary with our IV drips in tow. A special thanks to Brynna of LAFL for all of her help.
Two days, over $3,000, and some shuffling of our schedule later, we were off to Machu Picchu. It was all we could do to muster up the strength to make the day long journey, but we managed. It was a blessing of sorts and lessened our sense of missing the first day we were to tour the ruins as the sky dropped a deluge of water on its visitors. As we watched the rain soaked hikers return from their quest, we settled into our Aguas Calientes hotel with the thought that another low key day was probably a good thing and prayed for our son to bounce back. The next day, we all were still very weak yet determined to see this landmark. While it truly is as magnificent as you’ve heard, we couldn’t help but feel disappointed as our son was not able to make the final trek and we found ourselves pre-occupied with his well-being.
With this in mind, we opted to cancel the remote Amazon excursion via Puerto Maldonado in favor of some recovery time in Lima. We would have been able to get there just a little sooner had it not been for the air traffic controller’s strike! Once we arrived, a quiet couple of days in the Miraflores district along the coast was just what we needed to get back on track.
After hitting our trip’s ‘reset’ button, we were off to Argentina for 3 days in Buenos Aires, then El Calafate to tour the Perito Moreno Glacier. We know people who have visited this area of Patagonia a half dozen times without enjoying good weather, but our excursion was full of sun, blue skies, and was simply breathtaking. Try to imagine a ‘small’ glacier that includes 60 meter towering cliffs of ice that are accessed by one of the best elevated trail systems of any national park we’ve visited.
Coming off this high, the all-day bus ride across the southern tip of the Andes didn’t seem so long knowing that our next destination of Puerto Natales, Chile would be the gateway to one of the most beautiful areas on the planet – Torres Del Paine National Park. Our first clue that something was wrong came when our transfer failed to meet us at the bus station. In fairness, given the extreme logistical complexity of our itinerary, this was the only glitch. Shortly thereafter, we noticed that there was an unusual amount of activity for such a small town in a remote region. When we asked the locals what was happening, we were informed that a careless camper had caused a catastrophic wildfire to erupt in the park and the severe winds spreading it had caused park officials to call for its evacuation. Being from a small town next to Yosemite National Park ourselves, we had seen this dynamic once before. I remember commenting to my wife how awful it must have been for some international traveler to come all that distance only to be turned away. Now we faced the same dilemma.
The first hotel we were eventually taken to was little more than a hostel. It was probably the exact opposite of how I had imagined spending New Year’s Day in an amphitheater of towering granite monoliths and glacier lakes. But once I saw backpacker after backpacker being turned away from any lodging whatsoever, I thought at least my family would have a roof over its head. After a few conversations lost in translation, we were then picked up to be moved to another hotel. Driving several miles out of town late in the day to a building that at first glance looked abandoned, I started to wonder if this was the part of the trip where something would go terribly wrong. Instead, we found ourselves at the newly opened, historically restored, 5 star Singular hotel on the aquamarine shores of the Last Hope Sine fjord. Now my family thought I was a trip planning genius!
After celebrating the New Year in grand style, it was off to Puerto Montt to prepare for our crossing of the Andes back into Argentina. We had heard about the ‘lake crossing’ connecting into the Swiss influenced resort town of Bariloche. Since we had family who had family from this area we didn’t want to miss it and the chocolate stores there are famous for a reason. The trek to get there, however, included a combination of bus and ferry connections connecting three large alpine lakes which offered spectacular vistas and close encounters with the majestic volcanoes that peppered the landscape. Little did we know that the grey skies that greeted us as we arrived in Bariloche were an omen of yet another obstacle to overcome. Yes that’s right, the close encounters with the volcanoes where perhaps a little too close as the Copahue volcano was actively erupting and spewing its ash cloud easterly into Argentina. In other words, getting into Bariloche would not be near as difficult as getting out of there. Reflecting the typical Argentine optimism when we arrived and inquired as to the status of the airport, I was informed that the airport was indeed open, but there wasn’t any flights going in or out!
So after our brief stay in scenic Barilcohe, it was another six hour bus ride to the town of Neuquén to catch our plane back to Buenos Aires before going on to iconic Iguazu Falls along the tropical border between Argentina and Brazil. Reaching a warm climate such as this was a great relief to us after the colder climates of Patagonia, even in their summer. Unfortunately, packing bags for every climate means that if the airline is going to lose your luggage between arrivals, you’d prefer to have your warm weather suitcase waiting for you at the baggage carousel in the tropics rather than the cold weather one! Our discomfort was soon forgotten once we started to hear the deafening roar of the majestic falls. We had previously enjoyed the splendor of Niagara Falls, but this awe inspiring wonder is more of a childlike little sister to the grandeur that is Iguazu. Not unlike the tamer Maid of the Mist boat excursion, the up close jet boat version of experiencing these Argentine cascades provides adventurers with much more than just mist. This exhilarating encounter with the thundering torrent of water delivers both a ‘wash’ and ‘rinse’ cycle to ensure yours is an experience you’ll never forget.
Crossing over the falls and the border into Brazil, it was off to our final destination of Rio de Janeiro. We envisioned decompressing from our non-stop adventure by enjoying some of the world’s great beaches and Rio did not disappoint. My wife and I knew that Connor was once again feeling a hundred percent as we struggled to find the appropriate explanation to his question “where were all of the blondes?” Another day touring the city including the iconic destinations of Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain capped views of a city that basks in one of the world’s most beautiful bays and landscapes. It seems only fitting to be reflecting on the inspiration of Christ the Redeemer as I write about our family saga this Easter Sunday.
Driving to the airport for the long flight home, it seemed only apropos that our adventure provide us one last experience to remember it by. Our overnight flight leaving Rio, connecting through Sao Paulo was over an hour late which made our connection through Chicago nearly impossible to make. Despite our sleep deprivation, we maneuvered through customs and made our way to the opposite side of the airport in record time. As the gate attendant watched us race toward her from a distance of 200 yards, she closed the door to the jet way just as we arrived only to say “I bet you gave it your best effort”. While desperately trying to catch our breath, we made our best case to appeal to the attendant’s sense of humanity and open the gate door given that we were still there 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. After all, it wasn’t our fault that her airline was the one that was late which in turn caused this close call despite our best efforts to overcome it. Moreover, I’m not an expert on customer service, but I think it would be safe to say that her statement probably isn’t what a major international airline based in Chicago would want her to say. Seven flights worth of ‘high priority’ standby and most of another day later, our family was reunited in our final destination of San Francisco.
Looking back even today, we still find ourselves not thinking about overcoming illness, an air traffic controller strike, a missed connection, a catastrophic wildfire, a volcanic eruption, lost luggage, or a charming gate attendant; but of all that we enjoyed. South America is truly an amazing land and despite what we endured, our only wish is to have the opportunity to share with our son the places that we missed on our first trip.
Thank you Latin America For Less for helping us to have a great time even when times were not great.