South America: Out of the Past

Long before man's arrival, the South American continent was endowed with the world's highest waterfall (Angel Falls in Venezuela) and longest river (the Amazon); a string of snowcapped volcanoes on the equator; fringes of pearly beaches north and south; islands inhabited by wildlife found no where else in the world, and rain forests sheltering unique flora and fauna.

Yet it is the monuments of man that provide the most special attractions along a network of heritage trails, from Inca and pre-Inca cities such as Tiahuanaco in Bolivia and the mountain stronghold of Machu Picchu in Peru, to the giant stone men found in both the San Agustin archaeological zone in Colombia and on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.

In the 16th century, the Spaniards -- and later the Portuguese -- came to conquer and build their own golden cathedrals, Andalusian monasteries and Moorish palaces over Indian temples. Christian met pagan, and a new folklore was born; it lives on today in dozens of colorful festivals, as well as markets and shops full of traditional arts and handicrafts.

Consider some of the historic routes that offer clients new horizons for cultural touring in South America.

ARGENTINA

Most visitors to Argentina have yet to discover Argentina's northwest, a two-hour air journey from Buenos Aires to the towns and provinces of Salta and Jujuy.

In addition to the highland scenery of the Nevadas de Cachi that rise in glorious colors to more than 22,000 feet, this is a region of colonial towns, Indian settlements and traditional crafts that will remind visitors of neighboring Bolivia and more distant Peru.

The earliest Spanish settlements in Argentina were established by the conquistadors in these two provinces, and the visitor to the area will be vividly aware of the influence of the Spanish and the flavor of the pre-Columbian cultures.

First stop on this two-province circuit is Jujuy, with its colonial cathedral, the Mitre Theater and the artisans market. From town, visitors depart to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a splendid rift valley of dramatic polychromatic rock strata and giant cacti. Visits are also made to noteworthy 17th century churches in the picturesque villages of Purmamarca and Uquia, as well as Tilcara with its

ancient fortress of the Omaguaca Indians who defended this land from the Incas and, later, the Spaniards. The town's historic museum contains the burial urns of mummies, as well as ancient jewelry, artifacts and utensils of the Indian civilization.

Salta is quaint, with colorful colonial buildings, the cathedral, the Convent of San Bernardo, the San Francisco church and the Archaeological Museum. There is a wide selection of Andean crafts in the Artesanal Market.

Directly south in the province of Tucaman is the ancient Indian settlement of Quilmes, dating to about 1000 A.D. It is Argentina's best restored archaeological site; its massive fortifications fended off the Incas, but not the Spanish.

BOLIVIA

A 45-minute flight from La Paz, Sucre is a courtly colonial city with many of the finest art and architectural treasures on the continent on display in public places and in Spanish-style churches. Examples of the later include the San Francisco with its golden altar and pulpit; the San Lazaro where the pulpit is in silver, and the San Miguel, the altar of which is a rich blend of gold and silver.

Sucre is the legal capital (in contrast to La Paz, the commercial capital of the country), and visitors here can step back to pre-colonial times for a Sunday excursion to the Tarabuco Indian market, 40 miles away.

From Sucre, visitors can travel overland two to three hours to Potosi. Silver mines made this the boom town of the colonial Americas. Looming above the city at 13,340 feet is Cerro Rico, the mountain that held the richest silver mine of all, before the Spaniards abandoned it. While the silver is gone, tin mining goes on, and visitors may go down into the mine for an eerie tour of its tunnels.

Potosi's colonial buildings include churches with intricately carved portals and mansions still bearing their 17th century coats of arms on the doors. The highlight attraction is the Museum of the Royal Mint.

Bolivia offers a rather special historic route to its well-preserved, highly decorative Jesuit missions, departing from San Ignacio, and including the San Ignacio mission itself, plus Santa Ana, San Rafael and San Miguel.

Clients will want to stop at the mysterious Tiahuanaco ruins en route to the highest navigable lake in the world, Titicaca, site of the sacred Sun and Moon islands, and legendary birthplace of the first Inca.

BRAZIL

When the Portuguese colonizers arrived in Brazil, they didn't tarry along the country's beaches, but headed inland south of Salvador de Bahia where they found what they were looking for: gold.

Riches from this discovery were invested in the Golden Towns, a circuit that lies beyond Belo Horizonte, an hour by air from Rio. The central jewel of this route is Ouro Preto, a city of such historic and architectural importance that it is on the list of UNESCO world monument sites. Its churches with golden altars defy description and there are 13 of them, as well as 11 chapels and a major museum showing off the splendors of the gold rush days.

Mariana lies 10 minutes down the road from Ouro Preto and 68 miles from Belo Horizonte. Here can be found the best religious art in the state, housed in the Se Basilica, the Praca Joao Pinheiro and the churches of St. Francis of Assisi and Our Lady of Carmo.

The town of Sao Joao del Rey is one of the loveliest in the state. Among its attractions are colonial mansions, churches, bridges, fountains and the altars of the Pilar Cathedral. Carnival and Holy Week are two special times here.

Congonhas is the birthplace of the colonial period's greatest sculptor, Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho, the little cripple, whose helpers had to fasten mallet and chisel to his limbs and strap him to the statues he was carving. His greatest life work -- and probably the most important work of Brazilian baroque art -- is here, the Basilica do Bom Jesus.

Sabara is the last of the gold circuit towns, one with whole altars and pillars covered in gold, a Gold Museum and colonial mansions.

CHILE

Almost any time is a good time to go north, to an area famous for its high-altitude desert landscapes, lava fields, volcanoes, dunes and ghost towns.

The superstar of this region is the Atacama Desert; the easiest air gateway is Calama. Remains of man dating back 20,000 years have been found in the desert. Discoveries from this era are exhibited and documented in the village of San Pedro de Atacama where visitors learn all about prehistory at the Father Le Paige Museum.

Further north is Arica, where the seashore and colorful harbor are populated by pelicans awaiting discards from the daily catch of local fishermen. Outside the city, the hills are dotted with large figures of ancient geoglyphs. In the Azapa Valley is the San Miguel Archaeological Museum, with a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts of the Diaguitas Indians, as well as sand-preserved mummies from cultures pre-dating those of Egypt. Arica is also the departure point for a full day tour of the Lauca National Park and a visit to the geoglyphs of the Lluta Valley.

Visitors can fly from Arica (or Calama or Santiago) to the seaside resort town of Iquique to visit the Pintados, where immense glyphic images of animals and stylized figures cover the mountain foot hills.

Off shore, 2,300 miles out in the Pacific, is Easter Island, which was settled by Polynesian people and offers a grand outdoor museum of hundreds of huge carved moai, stone heads that tower as high as 70 feet and weigh as much as 60 tons. Of additional interest are the petroglyphs carved on rocks and cave walls.

ECUADOR

Located an hour by air from Quito and founded on the ruins of the ancient Inca town of Tomebamba, Cuenca basks in a 17th-century Spanish past, the remaining charms of which include blue- and gold-domed churches, buildings with ornate balconies and cloisters full of fine religious art. Cobbled streets lead from one flower-filled plaza to the next and down to the Tomebamba River.

Ingapirca, Ecuador's most important Inca site, lies two hours north of Cuenca. Ancient remains include the great stone fortress, the barracks, the stone Inca face and the various zoomorphic carvings; there is a museum on site.

The Pacific coast has been a region of major discovery and remains of the Valdivia culture, close to the oldest in the Americas, are still being uncovered. Many finds are on display in museums in Guayaquil.

Salango and Real Alto are two ancient sites reached on a full-day tour from Guayaquil. Real Alto's antiquity spans an occupation from 3400 B.C. to 1500 B.C. Exhibits from the archaeological dig of the area are displayed in the Museum of Real Alto. Nearby is Santa Elena where the cemetery dates to 5000 B.C. The village of Salango has the Presley Norton archaeological museum, with artifacts from local excavations.

In the Pinchincha province, just 15 miles from Quito, the pre-Inca fortress at Rumicucho has been excavated.

PERU

Peru, back in the spotlight of tourist interest, might easily be called the heartland of pre-Columbian and colonial cultures.

The Cusco-Machu Picchu excursion remains Peru's highlight visit. Cusco is the archaeological capital of South America, rich in ancient treasures such as the Koricancha temple and the vast Sacsayhuaman fortress, as well as colonial treasures of mansions and churches (the Cathedral, La Merced, La Compania) built on Inca foundations.

History also fills the surrounding countryside, from the Inca village of Piquillacta and the colonial Andahuaylillas church to the Ollantaytambo fortress and Pisac, with its ancient ruins above the town and a Sunday Indian market in the village square.

A fascinating three-hour train ride from Cusco leads through the Urubamba River Valley -- a favorite for adventure river rafters and take-off point for Inca Trail trekkers -- to Machu Picchu, the remote mountain fortress to which the last of the Incas fled.

Travelers can continue from Cusco by rail to Puno (also accessible by air from Lima) on Lake Titicaca, a major folkloric center of fiestas and markets, and visit the cathedral, the Carlos Dreyer Museum and the Aymara Indian burial chambers of Sillustani. Puno is also the stepping-off point for exploring the floating islands of the Uros people, and Taquile Island, famous for its skilled weavers, as well as the departure point for crossing the lake by hydrofoil and then boarding a bus to La Paz.

Three hours by car from Lima on the southern coast lie the Nazca markings and the nearby Paracas necropolis. From a small plane, one looks down on gigantic figures etched on the land of the ancient Nazca peoples; from a boat, visitors may view the cliff carvings that decorate the coastal ground once occupied by the Paracas culture.

Further north on the coast are more fascinating remnants of pre-Inca civilizations. North, first by air to Trujillo, is Chan Chan, an urban complex of the Chimu people who worshiped the moon and left nine royal compounds spread over 12 square miles. Overland visitors can continue to Chiclayo (or fly from Lima) to visit Sipan, Peru's most important recent archaeological find that includes the tomb of the Lord of Sipan and the nearby Bruning Museum, which houses its treasures of the Moche culture. Visitors here can also tour the enormous site of Tucume, distinguished by pyramid-like funeral mounds.

Flying south to Arequipa, a colonial city that lies below three towering volcanoes, clients will want to see La Compania church and the delightful Santa Catalina convent which once sheltered a community of 400 nuns. They should also consider a day trip or over-night excursion to Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, which cuts through a region occupied by people whose lives have changed little since Inca times. The road to Colca runs past the Aguada Blanca, a national reserve protecting vicunas (relatives of the llama).

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