Lands of mountains, mayhem and magic

Twenty five years after his company began taking intrepid travellers into the wilds of Latin America, Chris Parrott recalls his top 10 highlights of this vast and varied continent
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The Independent Travel

I've still got the dog-eared and battered copy of the 1974 South American Handbook, which rated only below my passport as essential packing for my original journeys across Latin America. Since then, I've travelled to most places on the continent and Journey Latin America, which started as a team of two, now employs more than 100 people and sends 30,000 travellers a year to the region.

So what have been the ups and downs along the way? The Falklands War for a start. Between April and June 1982 we made just one sale (to a friend of mine). We've still got the returned and refunded Aerlineas Argentinas ticket which was unusable on 1 April 1982, when the airline stopped flying to London. But within a week of Port Stanley being re-taken, business was back to normal.

We'd had to cancel a transcontinental trip that was due to pass through Argentina in May - and, of course, immediately refunded all the clients. All but one of those clients re-booked in the years to come - and several admitted that they'd expected to wave goodbye to the money they paid to a small un-bonded company.

The activities of the terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso, in Peru in the 1980s could have caused another low point. However, we simply avoided the areas where we knew they were active. It was only in the 1990s when the world became more aware of their existence that it started to affect business - ironically, since by that time the Peruvian secret police had largely neutralised the threat.

The UK Foreign Office (FCO) is much more cautious now than it was when we used to run trips in Colombia. Now the country is effectively off limits to tourism except for a few cities. And when Pinochet was arrested in London, and a few protesters in Santiago burned the Union flag in front of the British Embassy, the FCO instantly advised against all travel to Chile. We had four groups there at the time and dozens of independent clients, but we ignored the FCO's advice and carried on safely. That was only a few years ago, but today we would probably have no option but to bring everyone home.

More recently, of course, we've had to monitor the currency crisis in Argentina when mild middle-class people took to the streets in huge protest demonstrations, banging saucepans when the banks closed and the peso was devalued.

It's been a rollercoaster ride at times, but I wouldn't have missed the last 25 years. Below I've described just a handful of the experiences and places that have made it worthwhile...

ONELLI GLACIER, ARGENTINA

In the winter of 1975, El Calafate - now a booming tourist town - was a forgotten village of a few hundred people. A private group from the Argentine Automobile Club were happy and bemused to let me stand for 13 hours in the outside section of their 20-seater chartered boat to reach the icebergs, frozen lakes, and silent motionless beech forests that bound the Patagonian icecap. Today, it's not quite as silent but is still as magical as it was then.

OURO PRETO, MINAS GERAIS, BRAZIL

Think Blaenau Ffestiniog; drop it into the heart of tropical Brazil and substitute multicoloured façades and terracotta tiles for the ponderous slate-roofed cottages. Add a prestigious university and dozens of bars spilling samba music and students into the sun and on to the steeply cobbled streets. The beautifully-preserved small colonial town of Ouro Preto was built from the wealth of the diamond and gold prospectors, and now earns its living selling gemstones to tourists. Every time I go back, it's pleasure.

YUCATAN, MEXICO

The old sisal mills, mansions and estates of the Yucatan's 19th-century hacendados have been converted into luxury hotels. Situated around Mérida and Campeche they include Hacienda Santa Rosa, San Jose, Uayamon and Temozon - each separate and distinctive, in brilliant mustard yellows and cochineal reds. With elegant pools housed in converted engine houses, these haciendas evoke a spirit of Mexico past; the sort of places where you never regret spending that little extra.

CUZCO TO SINTUYA VIA PAUCARTAMBO

In 1978, I looked at a map and saw a steamship symbol on the Madre de Dios river in Peru's Amazon basin. Leading a group of 10 people, I took the chance that there'd be a regular service. To reach the river from Cuzco involved a 24-hour journey by bus and truck along a single-track unmetalled road. This wound down nearly 12,000 feet in 50 miles, from snow-swept high plains through temperate cloud forests to humid tropical jungle. When we arrived, the steamer turned out to be a figment of a cartographers' imagination. So I bought two dug-out canoes, and we paddled for seven days downstream living on salt biscuits, tinned sardines and tablet-treated river water - with not a single gripe from any of the clients. The escorted group trips we run these days are rather better planned, but we like to think there's still an element of the unpredictable.

TIKAL AND YAXCHILAN

Both of these jungle-locked Mayan sites give you the feeling that you are among the first to discover the limestone temple-cities of an ancient civilisation. Yaxchilan sits on a high bluff above the green-silt Usumacinta river which forms the Mexico-Guatemala border. It still sees few visitors. The forest plazas are unmanicured and a family of howler monkeys lives in the large tree right in the heart of the site. Their roar is just like a leopard's, and I'll leave you imagine the effect on my alimentary canal when I ambled a few feet below their home.

POTOSI, BOLIVIA

An unusual choice for a memorable trip, this bleak silver- and tin-mining town is 4,000m up in the Bolivian highlands, where the dry cold penetrates to the very marrow of your bones. There's plenty of colonial architecture and it's possible to visit the mines which honeycomb the Cerro Rico mountain whose ore-stained bulk dominates the town. Visitors are only allowed as far as the four uppermost galleries - and even there, the working conditions are only slightly above medieval.

ILE ROYALE, FRENCH GUIANA

When I first went to the Iles de Salut a couple of years after Papillon was filmed, the cell blocks, hospital and administration blocks were all in ruins, the palm trees bent double in a tropical storm, green coconuts scattered underfoot, and everywhere an almost tangible atmosphere of malevolence. Then, I hitched ride with four legionnaires who were going shark fishing. Now, there's a comfortable catamaran, and workers at the Ariane Space Project in Kourou take their families for a picnic. Air-conditioned hotel rooms occupy the clerks' and warders' quarters, there's a restaurant, and a small museum dedicated to Le Bagne (penitentiary) that was here for 150 years until 1938.

SANTA CRUZ TO CORUMBA

Of all the stories of my travels in Latin America, the one which most captured my son's imagination was "El Diario". The 12-hour train journey across the chaco to the Brazil border starts at Santa Cruz, in Bolivia's sweltering eastern lowlands. The 7am single-coach ferrobus had left full (without me). During the course of the day, the station began to fill with backpackers who had heard the rumour that a freight train would leave that afternoon. Apart from some 30 be-jeaned travellers, the only other person on the platform was an eight-year old newspaper boy, yelling, El Diario without much prospect of a sale. Until dusk, when the wagons rolled in. He promptly made two quick sales. His customers laid the paper out on the floor and laid themselves down. A true entrepreneur, the boy changed his cry to camas (beds) and sold out in minutes. There are plenty of more spectacular train trips in Latin America than this long journey across the Lost World tablelands at the humid heart of the continent. But the railway uniquely linked the foothills of the eastern Andes with Brazil - all the way to the great Atlantic ports. These days the passenger service stops at the border, and thereafter access to the wetlands of the Mato Grosso is by road or light aircraft.

TORRES DEL PAINE, CHILE

The Cuernos (horns) and Torres (towers) in this spectacular mountain massif in Chilean Patagonia are almost too steep to be credible. I'd like to say that the experience of breakfasting in the avant-garde hotel Explora, overlooking the lake and peaks beyond, is unforgettable. But I've only ever looked round the hotel and my breakfast was eaten at the threshold of my tent in the nearby campsite.

CYCLING TO MONTEVERDE CLOUDFOREST

Jurassic Park was set on an island off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The three-hour (by 4WD vehicle) journey from the volcanic-sand beaches to the humid mountain landscape of Monteverde, where trees laden with bromeliads are home to quetzals and hummingbirds, proved to be an altogether more daunting challenge by mountain bike. The enterprise of two middle-aged men doing hotel inspections in Lycra whilst also attempting the sort of climb the Tour de France does in the Pyrenees, was doomed from the start. We ran out of water and had to resort to the broom wagon. I'd do it again any day.

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