Peters journey through South America April 2019 to April 2020

In ECUADOR, for example, I contact 13 hosts and day hosts but only receive one reply.
But I have a fantastic day together with a day host and his whole family in Quito and surroundings especially at the Monument to the Equator and the museum. I experience the “magic” of Ecuador through some spectacular Andes landscapes, colourful weekly village markets, nature in the AMAZON lowlands, even some beaches on the PACIFIC but above all in the historic colonial style centres of QUITO and CUENCA (UNESCO World Heritage Sites). Accommodation, bus travel and food are no problem in Ecuador and are cheap.

The GALAPAGOS ISLANDS are located a long, long way from Ecuador: over 1000km and a 3-hour flight. But also the landscape, the culture, the mentality and the prices … the GALAPAGOS are an enterprise commercialised by the state, travel agencies and private owners and the high season lasts 365 days a year. And thus I regard almost all the hospitality as motivated by business and most of the (human) inhabitants as boring. But the animal world on the islands is quite unique. In other parts of the world we see dogs, cats, pigeons and sparrows but here seals and sea lions, iguanas, marine iguanas, pelicans and Darwin’s finches lie and wallow on paths, beaches and even benches – showing no fear of humans. Dozens of small sharks or groups of manta rays swim around the bays and harbour basins and seals hunt for fish, cormorants and gannets plunge into the water. In reserves resp. “breeding centres” hundreds of “unworldly” giant tortoises can be seen at close quarters.

PERU has a very inviting infrastructure for tourists and a large number of “tourist highlights”:
A lot of archaeology and history, mystic geoglyphs or sand drawings, numerous colonial style buildings, Inca culture and structures, vibrant indigenous cultures and also a brutal, recent history which still weighs heavily on the country. Sea (the cold Humboldt current!), desert, oceans, oases, dunes; jungles in the Amazon lowlands, the stunning ANDES mountains, hikes at altitudes of over 5200m, with lots of litter, disrespectful drivers, corruption, high crime rates, also excellent and diverse cuisine …. a month seems almost too short to get to know and experience everything properly. I leave hardly anything out. Prices here allow so much more. It is only in the capital that I am fortunate enough to meet some Servas hosts.

We eat and talk together or “celebrate” a games evening or attend the literature group meeting at Café Rilke. Impressive experiences! After a while the night-time temperatures in the Andes get too cold for me! I’m drawn to the subtropical AMAZON where I find and experience interesting ecotourism projects.

Then across the border to BRAZIL.
The state of ACRE does not exist (according to some internet rumours). A “Bielefeld of South America”?? At first I struggle with the Portuguese language and come to the sobering conclusion that Spanish and Portuguese are not “more or less the same”. I just can’t grasp the “ñasal” sounds of the Brazilians. And they don’t understand my Spanish resp. my “Portuño”. Don’t they want to understand?
I am tempted by river tours: Rio Madera, Rio Negro and the Amazon flow through the north and north east of Brazil like huge traffic arteries. Diesel boats transport cargo and passengers at very low prices through seemingly endless forests.

Forgetting time and any sense of hurry, I sit on deck for hours, days, watching the sky in all its changing moods, occasionally exotic birds, sometimes monkeys in the distance, pink dolphins at a river confluence and then the sometimes strange hustle and bustle on board. I sleep restlessly, am often disturbed, in my hammock, on the crowded lower deck, think about “noise as a value” in Latino culture, about (the lack of) consideration and empathy. Through my interactive games I meet a small group of Venezuelans who had tried “their luck” in Ecuador and Peru and, frustrated, are now returning to their crisis-ridden country. Together with a Brazilian, who has lived in Germany and worked for VW and Bosch, I decide on “teamwork”: we take it in turns to look after one another’s luggage, get coffee for one another, point out interesting things. Together we discover the “rainforest metropolis” of MANAUS (with its “charm of disrepair”), enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of SANTAREM and ALTER DO CHAU (with fish restaurants on the waterfront), MACAPÁ (with its old fort and the equator line monument), and finally the city of BELÉM (with its forest at the Amazon Botanico Garden and decaying grand buildings, busy fish market).
The Amazon ends in the Atlantic Ocean. I carry on meandering around the continent, between the Pacific and the Atlantic, and slowly drift southwards. I receive hardly any replies to the approx. 12 emails I sent to SERVAS hosts. The only invitation comes from a host in Ilheus who is no longer even registered with Servas. But he lives the “spirit” of hospitality and we spend some fascinating days together by the sea, cooking and enjoying specialities, talking about the places we have visited and having a good time.

Long distances, night-long bus rides characterise my tour. BRASILIA, the modern capital city planned in the 1950s, with its modernist architecture and urban planning designed to allow the free flow of traffic, tries to appeal to some people. In this urban planning I sometimes seek, in vain, people, individuals, disabled…

In PANTANAL I join an organised group to experience the fauna of this national park “in the wild“: boas, jaguars, tapirs, caimans, giant otters, piranhas, blue macaw parrots… You could sometimes call it “stalking wild animals”.

I’ve been looking forward to BOLIVIA for a very long time. But then I’m irritated by the fact that so few of the SERVAS hosts here respond to my (10) emails which were written individually to every host. Don’t they read their emails? Don’t they want any Servas visitors? Or just not a “gringo” + old + man?
Receiving no answers means: I feel ignored. I realise that I can get hurt. One host does get in touch but wants to know so many details about me, as if I were an “applicant”. When I get to his town, I hear nothing from him. A host on the other side of the country does get in touch. But she is only in La Paz for a week before she goes travelling herself. I decide to cross the country faster. It’s worth it for a personal meeting. But although we arrange a time and place, it does not materialise. I have waited in vain. What a disappointment! Something is wrong here. I am seething. I start speculating. On a continent that is completely corrupt, why should SERVAS be any different? Fictitious lists to obtain money or privileges? Anything’s possible. But I don’t want to make any accusations, have not come here to do anything like that. However, I do not want to leave this country without meeting at least one Servas member. So I write letters to everyone I find in the list, describe my experiences, point out that ignoring one another cannot be the language of a “worldwide family” and I hope to receive replies telling me we can meet, we can’t meet, without excuses or long explanations. One single reaction comes the very same day from a former Servas traveller. We agree to meet for breakfast (with her whole family) the next day and we get on. So I do have one nice meeting with SERVAS BOLIVIA! It’s good. Many Bolivians I meet on my travels are friendly but very reserved. I accept it. The country has beautiful scenery, colourful folklore. As far as the economy and infrastructure are concerned there is a noticeable “upswing”. In my opinion the new cable car system in LA PAZ & EL ALTO can set an example to so many cities all over the world that are polluted by cars. But Bolivia’s political stability is “shaky”. The country is polarised.

It is not until the following weeks (when I am already travelling in Peru) that I receive more SERVAS reactions to my “appeal”. None of the first emails with LoI that I sent seem to have arrived! It seems to be a well known fact that in Latin America only one percent of letters sent by airmail actually arrive (maybe even open) but emails? Or maybe emails sent to Servas hosts end up in spam. It’s a disturbing feeling!

And as far as SERVAS is concerned, PERU is also disappointing (except in the capital, as described). Lake TITICACA, the ANDES and AREQUIPA and surrounding area draw me to the country a second time. Several trips (by boat, bus or walking) make it all worthwhile. Great impressions! In TACNA I even met a SERVAS day host. We really enjoy the short time we spend together.

In the north of CHILE there are no SERVAS members. I am tempted by the ATACAMA desert and very impressed by the diversity of the landscape (around SAN PEDRO de ATACAMA), the large number of natural spectacles (such as geysers, salt lakes, mountain lakes in a variety of colours, lunar landscapes, …). The area is a popular tourist destination with high prices but I also go on quite a number of excellent excursions with good tour guides.  

I cross BOLIVIA again. My (organised) jeep tour takes me through a fascinating mountain and desert landscape to the world’s largest salt flat, the SALAR DE UYUNI. Later I experience the colonial cities of POTOSI and SUCRE in a uniquely tense atmosphere: in a few days the presidential elections will be held. They “divide” the population. I receive SERVAS invitations, first from the national secretary who, together with Servas friends, takes me on a tour of COCHABAMBA followed by a meal together. She then arranges for me to stay with another host. Finally she invites me to organise an English lesson with her students at her language institute. It’s a very lively question and answer lesson which prompts other teachers (some of them also Servas) to ask me to attend their classes. Unforgettable days. I continue my journey with the feeling of having met a real Servas community in Cochabamba. In the idyllic town of SAMAIPATA I meet another Servas member, a really good clown and organic baker. He takes me with him to some friends who are really happy to enjoy an afternoon of games. I’m so glad that I have travelled through Bolivia a second time and have had some really positive SERVAS experiences after all.

A long, bumpy road leads through the vast GRAN CHACO to the centre of PARAGUAY. The new national secretary tells me that SERVAS PARAGUAY is currently in a sort of comatose state. But I’m glad that anyone has replied at all because the (SOL) host list that I find is like a notepad with names, no addresses, no information on languages spoken, on personal interests etc. Contacts are made in a sort of void. I, of course, do not send an LOI and avoid any more personal information. Current SOL* experiences! (The technical transition to “ServasOnLine” is too much for many Servas members and national Servas groups). But then my visit and the simultaneous arrival of a Danish traveller are the reason for us all to have lunch together in the centre of ASUNCIÓN. This is the first time that many of the hosts meet. Bente and I get to know 8 nice Servas members, receive invitations, tours of the city and a lively impression of something that has just been revived. They show me that the host list has been overhauled and improved (with photos, details, …).
The vast, flat CHACO region, the (not at all small) metropolis of ASUNCIÒN, some pretty little towns in the province and the busy border town of CIUDAD DEL ESTE (with the
Iguasù Falls und Itaipú Dam in the immediate vicinity) but it is above all the very interesting and hospitable Servas hosts that make a visit to this little known country worthwhile.

I visit BRAZIL again, this time the south and south east.
And, of course, first of all the stunning IGUAÇU waterfalls (and World Heritage property/National Park). SERVAS hosts from SÃO PAULO & surroundings are immortalised in my personal Guiness Book of Records: I sent four emails and within 24 hours I had received four replies and they were all positive!

The city, that so many people had warned me about, receives me with “open arms”. I meet really nice hosts and again find a kindred spirit. We arrange to meet for breakfast and spend the whole day together discovering SÃO PAULO and common interests. For the following day he organises a SERVAS get-together at the Immigration Museum. A lively little group! We all talk about our own migration background. They declare me to be a “migrante mundial”.
A day host takes me round the “MEGALOPOLIS“ of SÃO PAULO, and we walk along busy streets for hours. He shows me museums, galleries, a central park, before we take the absolutely packed underground to his apartment. Airplanes, that have just taken off, roar past his balcony at five-minute intervals. Quite a contrast in nearby VINHEDO:
My hosts there have turned their home into a “little paradise”. They motivate me to stay a bit longer. After all, they want to help me learn more Portuguese and, at the same time, they want to practise their German. Give and take! That’s what makes SERVAS such fun!
RIO DE JANEIRO is an absolute must for anyone who visits Brazil. It attracts visitors with its sites and relaxed lifestyle. My Servas host impresses me the most. The messages she wrote before I came were really nice and now as a host and “guide” her empathy and motivation are so refreshing. Together we go to the Servas National Meeting in the charming little seaport town of PARATY. WOW! We party, we chat, we discuss. The new management committee is elected. For me these are two days on which I have to listen very closely and try hard to understand. I imagine what it’s like for people who attend meetings in Germany without speaking the language.

I came to this meeting for a particular reason but it is so busy that I’m hardly able to present our Servas “WELCOME” game.
But some days later my hosts in BLUMENAU, (a town founded by German settlers which still has a German beer brewing culture, its own “Oktoberfest” and Christmas market as well as half-timbered houses in the centre of town), decide to start working on the Portuguese version of this language game.

In Peru I quickly became a ceviche lover. But in the three months that I travel around Brazil I become a Flamengo fan. And it’s neither food nor a dance! It is, in fact, the most popular Brazilian soccer club by number of social media followers. From Manaus to Blumenau I am accompanied by soccer events and supporters in their red and black striped shirts, and “pain”, dramatic victories and a double triumph winning the state league and the “Copa de Libertadores” (equivalent to the European Champions League). When the Rubro-Negros play, streets everywhere are empty and cafés and bars with TVs are packed!

URUGUAY wants more travellers!”, says the host list.

For the main part you can experience and get to know a country through SERVAS. But I don’t think you can plan everything. It’s more of a case of being open for anything that happens and savouring it! Too many tourists just do a day trip to Uruguay (from Buenos Aires) or they cross the country in one or two days. It’s possible. A bus ride from the Brazilian border to Montivideo takes six to seven hours: in Montivideo there’s a high speed boat that takes two to three hours to Buenos Aires. But if you want to experience something of the country, it is worth travelling around the country slowly, doing a different bit every day (between the Uruguay River and the Atlantic coast and also along the Rio de la Plata) and taking extra time for the capital. And it takes more to get to know Uruguay and above all Montivideo. SERVAS hosts will give you more contact with the country! I am lucky and quickly receive six positive replies to my 12 (individual) emails. “Don’t think that you can see MONTEVIDEO in just two or three days. Include more time for us in your plans!” And: “If you bring enough time, we can do a lot together in a week. ¡BIENVENIDO AMIGO!” it said in 2 of the encouraging reactions. It’s great to have plenty of time and no firm travel plans! The two weeks are full of people and experiences with a folklore festival and a tango night and concert and carnival rehearsals (“candombe”, …) and tours of the town, walks along the beach, visits to museums, local food, invitations to lunch, to a family celebration as well as a big SERVAS end-of-year party with18 people, a lot of good food, singing and games together. There are about 30 hosts in the Uruguayan list and I get to know about two dozen of them! Wonderful! They all seem to enjoy showing me and letting me experience the best of their small, rather “ignored” country before I move on to the big competitor ARGENTINA and especially BUENOS AIRES.

In the big metropolis on the other side of the RIO DE LA PLATA I first “hide” from the Christmas hype. No Servas contacts here either. Just don’t bother anyone while they’re on their shopping sprees looking for presents. But I do learn something from some graffiti that says “There really is a “PAPA NOÉL” (i.e. Father Christmas)! But it is us who do not really exist!” Christmas Eve “celebrations” consist of fireworks and people drinking lots of alcohol in the streets.

Endless expanses”, steppes the occasional flock of sheep or guanacos await you in PATAGONIA. It’s a long journey along the Atlantic coast and you don’t often see the ocean. A largely uninhabited area. It’s only in the south of TIERRA DEL FUEGO (Fireland) that the scenery changes with enchanted hilly forests and some snow- covered mountains. USHUAIA, “the southernmost city in the world” (another “end of the world”) attracts huge numbers of tourists. Some of them even spend 5 to 6000 dollars to go on an ANTARCTIC cruise. I turn round. I’ve had enough of the cold. As a nomad I prefer to move with the summer. But the wind and cold accompany me for a while.

The ANDES route leads me northwards across the TORRES DEL PAINE National Park (in CHILE), with spectacular mountains and great hiking trails – if the weather permits.
To love PATAGONIA, you must like the wind and cold!

How do the PanAmerica cyclists manage to ride against so much wind? You see a lot of them in and around Ushuaia. And even more motorcyclists.

After a few days in the great south of Chile, I again cross the border to ARGENTINA, to experience CALIFATE and the PERITO MORENO GLACIER. 100s of people watch the spectacle of the huge glacier almost reverently and in silence when several times an hour shards of ice tumble into the lake making an impressive roar. EL CHALTÉN and its wonderful natural scenery with peaks and glacial lakes is the national capital of trekking. January and February are the high season in Patagonia when huge numbers of tourists arrive.

Buses and accommodation are usually full, prices rise astronomically and locals offer very commercialised “hospitality”. I usually travel by bus in South America; now I also hitchhike. Not easy but possible and generally more interesting and more communicative! In the buses lots of people sleep, the curtains are drawn and the television is on at full blast; some trashy Hollywood film. It’s mainly the ever-present telephone junkies who talk in the bus – no matter what time it is or if other passengers just want peace and quiet. Rail passenger transport services have almost disappeared from Latin America (except for a few tourist panorama routes or trains in the suburbs). Public bus transport has taken over almost everywhere with acceptable to low fares, sometimes very comfortable and sometimes in “worn out” vehicles. The image of reckless, ruthless bus drivers racing along winding mountain roads is largely a thing of the past. It is not until BARILOCHE that I meet my first SERVAS host and perk up when we talk about “cultural misunderstandings”. The other “hosts” in Patagonia do not react.

I travel to CHILE again, first to its “LITTLE SOUTH” (with Puerto Montt, Osorno, Valdivia), later to the centre of the country (Linares, Santiago, Valparaiso, Viña del Mar). CHILE is going through a huge social crisis and seems to be preparing for more violence and destruction. Depressing! I see people I’ve met on my travels again, and get to know SERVAS hosts with unforgettable visits; easy-going, warm hospitality mean that I can relax and remember this long, narrow country positively. It is so important to meet and get to know other people. And intensive exchange is essential if you want to get to know a country. The SERVAS idea is very much alive! I travel through ARGENTINA again, this time through the more subtropical NORTH and NORTHWEST. I cross the rugged mountain chains of the ANDES again, enjoy summer days in green, shady MENDOZA, hike through beautiful mountain scenery (SALTA, JUJUY) and relax in thermal springs.

The corona virus starts to dominate discussions and political measures and suddenly makes travelling freely very difficult. I prepare my next transatlantic flight and another summer of visits in Europe, notice that I’m looking forward to seeing so many people there again, to doing things together and to creative projects. The rapid spread of the virus, and lack of knowledge (despite great determination) quickly change the world: borders are closed, curfews imposed, flights and other means of transport are cancelled and make planning an absurd game. I feel as if I’m being pushed by the events and decisions, forced to carry on travelling, to cross another border today instead of “staying put until further notice”.

What does a traveller seek in a world with closed borders?

Where does the “nomad” stay when there are curfews?

Maybe I’ll write something on that in my next travel report.


Published on 16 May 2020