BESIDES the 10 'proper' countries of South America, three adjacent smudges occupy the gloomiest corner of the continent. Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana were described by Evelyn Waugh as 'little gobs of empire'.
Britain, France and the Netherlands could not bear the prospect of the Iberian countries controlling all of South America, so each grabbed a slice. Unfortunately they chose a region where the mosquito is king and life is miserable. There is little chance of the poverty being relieved by tourism, since these countries possess not a single decent beach between them; the slothful rivers that rupture the coastline spread silt all along the seafront.
Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana, has at least made it on to the medals table this Olympics. Neighbouring Guyane, the French sliver of South America, is notable as the launch pad for European Space Agency rockets. And Guyana, the Commonwealth's sole representative in South America, provides the answer to all manner of trivia questions. It is the location of the world's lowest Test cricket ground, 10ft below sea level, and is the poorest country in South America (though Peru is descending rapidly to its level). Its capital, Georgetown, is the most dangerous place in the continent - quite an achievement when the competition includes Rio.
'Choke and rob', a not unduly sophisticated technique, is the favoured method of mugging. The victim is held by the neck by one assailant while an accomplice steals wallet, watch and camera. I strayed too deep into the back streets of Georgetown and was targeted by two villains. Suddenly an entire family rounded the corner, and the mother scolded the would-be robbers. They melted away. 'You guard he]' instructed the mother to her seven-year-old, who relished the prospect of escorting a gangling whitey back to his hotel.
Life in Georgetown is uncompromising, and Westerners are told to take a taxi two blocks. So why would anyone want to go there? Well, a country where the Morris Oxford is undisputed king of the road is bound to appeal. And it is wonderfully cosmopolitan, with Asians and Africans, Hindus and Muslims. The pace is slow and easy, the music is pure reggae, the people - almost all of whom are thoroughly honest - are charming.
An evening on a colonial veranda at the Caribbean Rose restaurant is as close to ideal as this imperfect continent can get. The sultry heat is mitigated by the breeze blowing in from the Atlantic and pierced by the song of tropical birds. Plantain, yams and okra enliven the Caribbean staple of pork and rice. Do not be tempted to wash a meal down with 'sherry' (made from rice, yeast, sugar and 'port flavour'), but the local beer - brewed at Thirst Park - is excellent. So, too, is the local cocktail, 'brown cow', nine parts Tia Maria and one part milk.
It was worth spending all afternoon stewing in the Guyana High Commission in London while the staff decided whether to issue a visa. Hypersensitivity to visitors is partly a result of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978. The Reverend Jim Jones started the People's Temple cult in California, but was hounded out of the United States for human rights abuses. The clan settled at a clearing in the jungle in north-west Guyana and named it Jonestown. When a Congressman and three journalists arrived to investigate, Jones had them shot at the airport. He then ordered his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide from a huge drum. Those who refused were shot. All but four of the 1,000 cult members died.
Guyana has had an unhappy time since independence. When the British left in 1953, an assortment of vaguely Marxist-Leninist parties sprang up. The People's National Congress (PNC), led by Forbes Burnham, achieved a grip on Guyana which it has yet to relax. Burnham modelled himself so closely on Soviet leaders that he even had a Lenin-style mausoleum built. His body was interred after his death, but rapidly putrified and was taken off public view for reasons of taste.
The mausoleum still stands in Georgetown's lovely park, which looks uncannily like an English municipal garden, except that the pond is full of manatees (sea cows) rather than mallards. The manicured lawn leads to a small zoo containing the world's largest rodent. The capybara is quite the most disturbing animal I have ever seen. It looks like a labrador-sized rat, which is exactly what it is.
The ruling political party is widely regarded as a bunch of rats, struggling to retain control by using every undemocratic device imaginable. The PNC is listed in the telephone directory under 'Government Departments', as is its offshoot, the Women's Revolutionary Socialist Movement. But the phone book also lists the home numbers of all the ministers, so voters can call to complain about such unfairness.
Georgetown is a delight for anyone who enjoys a gently crumbling colonial capital, complete with strident statue of Queen Victoria and a weatherbeaten cricket ground. The skyline is dominated by a gigantic clapperboard cathedral: St George's, 142ft high, is the largest wooden building in the world. In contrast with the heavy air outside, the cathedral achieves a coolness to match the sense of space and grandeur.
The most intriguing place in town, however, is the museum. It documents the history of slavery (including a receipt for 'Ten Negroes', dated 1801) and displays the machine upon which the world's rarest stamp - a British Guiana one cent - was (mis)printed in 1856.
The city lacks the vigour normally associated with a national capital; with a population smaller than that of Skelmersdale, this is perhaps not surprising. The action is concentrated around the sprawling Stabroek market, where peppers in a dozen hues, from red to gold, nudge up against mildewed Christmas cards and nylon socks. Outside, the busiest people are the bookmakers. British horse racing is immensely popular; just remember that the 2.30 at Ripon is actually run at 10.30am, Guyana time.
A map of the country is enticing. The road to the Surinam border, for example, passes through Success, Paradise, Profit and Whim. But I chose to go inland to Bartica. The journey began with a trundle across the the world's longest pontoon bridge, over the mile-wide Demerara river, which gives the sugar its name. 'Muddy' hardly does justice to the murky brown sludge posing as a river. A bus on the other side slithered to Parika, where the coast road ends. From here the Lady Northcote steams grudgingly upriver to Bartica.
The decay of Georgetown was no preparation for the terminal decline afflicting Bartica. Dusty tracks, the same dull brown as the river, comprise a vague pattern for the town to flop around. The smell was of stagnation and sweat, the noise was the smoky old generator rumbling away to power the cinema, smothered by the din of an arriving helicopter carrying Comrade Desmond Hoyte, the president. The PNC was on the campaign trail, bringing trinkets and trite rhetoric for the voters. I consulted the phone book to file a complaint. Listings are arranged by town, so I leafed through Friendship, Industry and Ogle before arriving at Vryheid's Lust. Guyana may be the poorest country in South America, but it has the richest names.
BUENOS AIRES has a bit of every capital: Paris's gracious lines and audacious scale, Vienna's wood-panelled cafes filled with gossipy old men, London's cricket ground (though Eva Peron ordered the original pavilion to be burnt in 1948). Argentina has bleak altiplano scenery in the north; the magificent Andes - including Aconcagua, five miles tall and South America's highest mountain - and the wilderness of Patagonia. Ten years on, the Falklands war still hurts but British visitors are unlikely to be taken to task.
BOLIVIA has a dire record of political stability, with an average of a coup every 10 months since independence in 1823. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Che Guevara all met their deaths here. Yet it is an immensely peaceful country. The city of Tiahuanaco, 500 years before the Incas, ruled a large slab of the continent. The ruins show political and agricultural sophistication that have eluded modern Bolivia.
Potosi, the world's highest city, lies at the foot of Cerro Rico - a mountain, the Spanish believed, of solid silver. Eight million people died in the monomaniacal quest for wealth. Even though the minerals are all but exhausted, 1,000 men still work the mines, while their wives - or widows - sell coca leaves by the roadside. A few lucky miners become tour guides, leading visitors through the labyrinth. Because of the altitude and the foul air inside the mountain, it is mandatory to chew coca leaves. The active ingredient numbs the senses and relieves the twin anxieties of claustrophobia and vertigo.
Flights arriving at La Paz are met by a medical team since visitors flying up from the coast risk altitude sickness. But in La Paz, the chill of the highlands is mitigated by the warmth of the capital's citizens.
RIO DE JANEIRO is draped across a jagged edge of the Brazilian coast, home to 10 million people. The ostentatious rich cruise around Ipanema and Copacabana. The poor live in the favelas - shanties clinging to the hillsides - and scratch or thieve a living as best they can.
Rio is overpowering, and most visitors need to escape after a few days. The north- eastern city of Salvador has two million people, an historic clifftop centre gazing down at the ugly sprawl below, and a beach that stretches all the way round to the mouth of the Amazon. And in Manaus, the Amazon's capital, you can get anything: a banana pizza, a boat ride upstream to Peru, or a night at the opera. Finding an exquisite opera house 1,000 miles up the Amazon hardly comes as a surprise.
THE PEOPLE are largely white, the cities clean and efficient. Escape the capital, urbane Santiago, for rural Chile. North lies the astonishing Atacama. Insulated from the Pacific by the thin spine of the Andes, rain has never fallen here. Yet such is the mineral wealth of the desert that entire towns have sprung up, with water piped in from beyond the desert fringes.
Chile has more forgiving environments. South of the capital, the Lake District is ideal for hikers and cyclists. For wildlife, continue on south to the penguin colonies in and around Tierra del Fuego.
ITS NAME is synonymous with crime; not only are the best pickpockets bred in Bogota, but four times as many people are kidnapped in Colombia as in the whole of the rest of the world. For the visitor, however, Colombia is perhaps the most diverse and rewarding destination in South America and a warm welcome is guaranteed.
A course across the country takes you from Caribbean beaches through rainforest, mountain ranges and prehistoric ruins. You also pass three unique churches. Start at Cartagena, the most perfectly preserved Spanish colonial city in Latin America. At its heart, the church of San Pedro Claver is named after the priest who cared for the slaves brought in to work when the Indians died out. Traces of the cruelty of the Spanish are displayed at the Palace of the Inquisition.
At Ziraquira, in the centre of Colombia, stands a hill made almost entirely of salt. Exploitation began in 1950. The miners have created an extraordinary cathedral at the hill's centre with pews, altar and a nativity tableau, all in sodium chloride.
The closer you get to the Equator, the more blustery and cold it becomes - southern Colombia is two miles high. The shrine of Las Lajas lies in terrain that more resembles the Scottish Highlands than the tropics, a towering church wedged across the spectacular gorge of the Guaitara river.
THE POINT on the earth's surface furthest from the centre is Mount Chimborazo, 20,700ft above sea level but easily beating the Himalayas because of the bulge in the globe around the Equator. Getting around is cheap and easy on air force jets - the average fare is pounds 5. For rather more you can fly 600 miles west to the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin's theory evolved. The patter of visitors' feet is causing damage and each tourist is charged pounds 50. Paradise is expensive these days.
THIS land-locked nation is a sleepy backwater where you can walk unchallenged into the state parliament, or sit at coffee bars in the company of people you suspect to be Nazi war criminals. Trans-continental travellers can go across the hostile Chaco swamps to Bolivia. Or there is the old Paraguayan express, a mighty museum piece, that hauls clapped-out Argentine carriages from Asuncion, past the airport and on to the soporific interior of Paraguay - a bit like Belgium with palm trees.
BECAUSE of the spread of cholera, crime and the activities of the Shining Path guerrilla group, Peru's historic sights are almost deserted. The guerrilla war is now being fought out in the capital, Lima. Staff at the city tourist office will tell you straight which places to avoid.
You will probably be advised to fly to Qosqo (known hitherto as Cuzco). This city ruled one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, and the centre is still a testament to the Incas' achievements. A train runs to the ancient temples of Machu Picchu, which you can enjoy in relative peace.
The rail journey to Lake Titicaca is like riding a sealed train through a war zone. Westerners huddle together for security, and rich Americans travel in a luxury carriage with armed guards. The world's highest navigable lake is more than two miles high. The Andes here form grotesque lunar curves, the air is rare but astonishingly clear, the water deep and freezing. In the middle is the isle of Taquile. No vehicles disturb the peace of this tiny farming community, where men wander around knitting the gloves and hats that are the island's only export.
IN THIS outsized ranch, cattle and sheep outnumber humans by nine to one. Its attributes are: safety (crime is virtually unknown outside Montevideo); beaches - though they fill up during the January summer; and the chance to eat beef in Fray Bentos town.
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS discovered South America only on his third voyage, and then merely brushed the coast of Venezuela. The capital, Caracas, is a high- rise city crushed into a steep-sided valley. You can walk from the main square - 3,000ft high - a further mile up to the summit of Mount Avila, then look down on the Caribbean on one side of the ridge and the city on the other. Take a cheap internal flight to visit the Angel Falls - the highest waterfall in the world.
Simon Calder is co-author, with Emily Hatchwell, of 'Travellers Survival Kit: South America' (Vacation Work, pounds 12.95).
GETTING THERE Specialist agencies include Journey Latin America (081-747 3024), South American Experience (071-976 5511) and Steamond (071-730 8646). Lowest prices to Rio next weekend are pounds 515 on Iberia via Madrid, or pounds 705 nonstop on Varig, through South American Experience.
Organised tours are sold by these three agencies, plus Passage to South America (071-602 9889), Exodus (081-675 5550) and many others. The cheapest holidays are those to Venezuela operated by Ilkeston Consumer Co-op (0602 323546), starting at pounds 499 for a week in October.
GETTING AROUND To see plenty of South America (or, at any rate, its airports), the Condor airpass enables you to cross the Atlantic and visit eight South American capitals plus Rio, Cartagena and Qosqo for pounds 1,338. It is marketed by the Colombian airline Avianca (071-408 1889). Good-value airpasses are sold for travel within Argentina, Brazil and Chile; those in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela are less worthwhile because of the low ordinary fares and unpredictability of services.
The main form of surface transport is the bus. The term covers a multitude of vehicles, from smooth, air-conditioned coaches to converted trucks (or even unconverted trucks). The ejecutivo services on the highways of Brazil, Argentina and Chile are fast and comfortable. At the other extreme, you may find yourself clinging to the back of a lorry which is lurching precariously between mudholes in rural Bolivia. The Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable gives an indication of frequencies on main routes, but precise schedules often change. The timetable also details the depleted network of railways in South America.
Driving is only for the fearless, bearing in mind the imaginative motoring techniques employed by the locals. Venezuela has the highest rate of road deaths in the world.
RED TAPE Guyana is the only country in South America that requires visitors to obtain a visa in advance. Apply in person to the High Commission at 3 Palace Court, London W2 (071-229 7684) and produce evidence of your financial resources; the fee is pounds 20. All other countries admit British citizens without formality for short visits, except those who arrive overland in Venezuela (who can obtain a visa from any consulate).
MONEY Pounds sterling - either travellers' cheques or cash - are hard to exchange in South America. US dollars are preferred and a reserve of dollars 1, dollars 5 and dollars 10 bills can help temporary shortages of local currency. Cash dispensers on the Link or Plus networks can be found in most countries, and Visa cards can be used to draw cash in every country except the Guianas. Since rapid devaluation is the norm for South American currencies, obtain only a little at a time.
LIVING COSTS You can live very cheaply in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. A good dinner might cost pounds 2- pounds 3, a night in a comfortable hotel pounds 10. Life is cheaper still if you eat the comida corriente (set meal) like the locals, and stay in places busy with insect life. Costs are substantially higher in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Guianas and Uruguay, but lower than in the UK.
HEALTH Except in the south of the continent, it is essential to take precautions against malaria, hepatitis and yellow fever. More specific advice is available from the Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad (071-631 4408). The new edition of Travellers' Health by Dr Richard Dawood (OUP, pounds 7.95) makes useful, if sometimes disconcerting, reading.
LANGUAGE The main language is Spanish. The BBC's Mexico Vivo is an excellent course intended for people with a basic knowledge of Spanish; the book costs pounds 9.99, the tape pounds 6.99. Spanish will help you get by in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. English is spoken in Guyana, French in Guyane and Dutch in Surinam. Indian languages are common in Bolivia and Paraguay.
FURTHER information Latin American Travel Association, 10 Hanover Street, London W1R 9HF (071-493 2214).
The Foreign Office advice line is on 071-270 4129.
IN LAST week's South America travel special the wrong telephone number was given for Journey Latin America. The correct number is 081-747 8315/3108. We apologise for any inconvenience.Reuse content