What does Latin America have to offer?

Kaya Placement Advisor Heather Harrison, after spending around 3 and a half years working and travelling in Latin America, is our resident expert. Keen to pass on her enthusiasm for the continent, this blog outlines some of her top “not to miss” activities in the area, for any potential travellers. 

So you want to see some of those amazing places you see on the television, in books, brochures and websites? You want to develop yourself, improve your prospects, increase your confidence, set yourself goals and step outside your personal boundaries? You want to connect with like-minded people, to help and assist, to build lives and futures, to bring happiness and hope? You want to make memories for both yourself and others?….So why not volunteer?

Volunteering can give you all this and so more, I can tell you this from the heart, as I was exactly that person with those dreams and visions, and I made the move to make them reality. Now I am a very different person with a sense of achievement, lasting memories and life-long friendships.

So why did I choose to travel and volunteer in Latin America? …that’s an easy one…, because it offers everything from rainforests, reefs and ruins to coastlines, cuisine and culture, wildlife, birdlife, city life or rural life – it’s all there waiting to be discovered, explored, experienced and enjoyed.

My love for Latin America began when I was studying Spanish at university.  I had always been intrigued with its fascinating history, so I decided to specialise in Latin American Spanish as opposed to European, and to study at university in México.  As a result of studying Latin American Literature, I developed a great desire to find out more about this incredible continent so decided I would see as much of it as my pocket would possibly allow.

Covering the majority of México, from the beautiful Sierra Madre region in the west where I lived, to the canyons in the north, dense forests, fabulous beaches, ancient cities, tiny villages and more ruins than you can possibly take in, I finally had to go home to earn some more money!

But by then, I was bitten by that bug – the one that seems to get under your skin and keeps itching – anyone who has travelled will know the ‘bug’ that I’m referring to and it doesn’t have legs or wings!  All I wanted to do was to see and learn more of Latin America, so selling my baby – a very old VW Golf! I bought a flight to Peru and suddenly I felt my life was back on-track!

Peru was top on my list of places to visit in South America as it oozes history and culture. Any traveller to Peru must undoubtedly visit the incredible city of Cusco. This city proudly sits high in the Andes at just over 11,000 feet above sea level. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas and their indigenous language; Quechua is still taught and widely spoken. Home to the ancient Inca civilisation, evidence of their existence is very prevalent all over the city and is a magnet to tourists from every corner of the world.

The people of Cusco are fiercely proud of their ancient heritage and to a large extent their lives have remained unchanged for centuries. Many still go about their daily activities dressed in their national costume, and it’s a very common sight to see women and children walking down from their hill-tribe villages with their llamas, alpacas and mules in tow.

Life in Cusco is always at a wonderfully leisurely pace and everyone loves to  welcome people into ‘their world’ stopping to chat and pass the time of day. They  love to hear you having a go at speaking Spanish and are keen to teach you a few  words of their beloved Quechua – it always brings a smile to their weather-beaten  faces as you grapple with the awkward words! If you’re willing to let them practise a  little of their English on you; especially the children, you’ll be a friend for life!

If you can bear to drag yourself away from this ‘honey-pot’, there are some world  famous sights in reasonably close proximity. It would be doing Cusco an injustice  not to mention the incredible citadel of Machu Picchu close by. It is at the top of  everyone’s ‘to do’ list; an incredibly emotional and spiritual experience, and is a  wonder to behold.

Another magnificent area to visit is the Sacred Valley (or Urubamba Valley); just a short public bus ride away from Cusco. Here life slows down still further – if that’s possible! This is paradise for walking and trekking, with tiny villages nestled in the depths of the Andes, and the giant Urubamba River snaking its way through the valley. Inca ruins are scattered throughout the entire valley and the intriguing small town of Ollantaytambo is still in the same lay out as it was in ancient Inca times.

Travelling in a south-easterly direction from Cusco, I was eager to see the famous ‘Floating Islands’ at Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.  These islands are an incredible sight as they are made purely from the strong, thick, ‘Totora’ reads that grow in profusion in this area of the lake.   These islands are home to the ‘Uros’ tribe, who date back to before the Incan civilization.  Centuries ago they inhabited the shores of the lake but were brutally targeted by neighbouring tribes over land ownership and eventually were forced out onto the lake where they ingeniously created their very own land from the reads that nature had provided.  They have stood firm – well, not quite so firm, ever since!  They have their homes on the islands, which continuously require maintenance to prevent their small dwellings from flooding.  These people are fiercely proud of their incredibly unique heritage and on occasions open their homes to visitors who can experience an overnight stay in an accommodation with a big difference!  This is well worth the effort if you get the chance.

Travelling further east, I entered Bolivia where the views of Lake Titicaca are really quite spectacular.  This lake is the highest navigable lake in the world and sitting at around 3,800 meters above sea level, it is approximately 120 miles long and 50 miles wide, straddling the Peruvian and Bolivian border.

Wanting to spend time in this area, I decided to stay at a small chilled out place on the shores of the lake called Copacabana – somewhat quieter than the famous one in Rio I hasten to add!  This is an amazing place to chill and take in the wonders of the lake.  There are some great boat trips you can take on the lake, over to ‘La Isla del Sol’ (Island of the Sun) and ‘La Isla de La Luna’ (Island of the Moon) but please remember to take plenty of sunscreen and a hat, as the sun is fiercely strong here due to the altitude, and together with the wind, you could end up with a very red nose (been there done that!)

I spent a short while in Bolivia and keen to see more but I also wanted to see the southern area of Peru, so tore myself away and headed back to Cusco to bid a final farewell to all the friends I’d made there before heading to the south.

My 13 hour coach journey took me to the spectacular city of Arequipa; or the ‘White City’ (La Ciudad Blanca, in Spanish) as it is famously known. It is known as the White City, due to the fact that it is built almost entirely from a local, very pale coloured volcanic rock called ‘sillar’ which appears white in the beautiful sunshine of Arequipa.

Dropping down significantly to around 7,500 feet above sea level, Arequipa is situated slightly below the edge of the Altiplano and is therefore a great deal warmer and drier than Cusco. Indeed during my 12 month stay there I experienced around 2 hours of drizzle one Saturday afternoon; quite a novelty – the local children were ecstatic! The city is looked over by a beautifully symmetrical volcano called ‘Misti’ that is still active and has lain like a sleeping giant for 30 years. You can join a guided hike up Misti and get some breathtaking photos!

One great source of interest to those visiting Arequipa, especially for the French, is the Iron Bridge situated slightly out of the city. It was designed by the world famous Gustav Eiffel in 1882, to carry the railway over the river Chile and is still very much in use today. Arequipa does not have the Inca heritage that Cusco has, but what it lacks in history, it certainly makes up for in cuisine! There are an incredible amount of great places to eat and at very affordable prices, especially if you explore the tiny streets outside the area of Plaza de Armas; the main plaza. Another great reason for sampling the food here is that the city is less popular with tourists than Cusco and therefore it’s rather more affordable with some delicious regional dishes!

Another great thing about Arequipa is that it is a fairly compact city with great things to do and see all within very easy walking distance, and there aren’t the endless steps and cobbled streets to contend with like there are in Cusco, so it’s a little easier on the leg muscles!

If walking, hiking and white water rafting are more your style than the city, then you should most definitely head out to the Colca Valley; about 3 hours drive northwest of Arequipa. The River Colca cuts a deep canyon through the valley and created some of the most spectacular views in the whole of Peru. The canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona USA, making it a truly spectacular sight.

There are some fabulous places to stay in the valley: Huambo, Cabanaconde, Chivay, Majes to name but a few, and if you visit the canyon at first light as I did on a number of occasions, your reward for getting there so early is to see the magnificent Condor in full flight. The condor is one of the largest flying birds in the world and due their huge weight they need to live in windy areas where they can easily take off and ‘rest’ on the wind during flight. With their vast 10 foot wing-span they look truly majestic as they glide over the great canyon. This is a without doubt an unforgettable image and a definite for all photography lovers. The best place to see the condors in flight is at a point called ‘Cruz del Condor’ (Condor Cross, in English), where the floor of the canyon is 4,000 feet below – not for the faint-hearted!

The Colca Valley has been the victim of many a ‘direct hit’ when it comes to earth quakes. Sitting directly on top of one of the worlds’ major fault lines where the Nazca and South American tectonic plates meet, means the area has experienced some very traumatic times. The narrow winding roads through the valley frequently reveal significant evidence of previous quakes and in places, huge gaping cracks are clearly visible. During one of my hikes through the canyon, I stood astride such a crack one foot on the Nazca plate, the other on the South American plate – another ‘not for the faint–hearted’ moment!

So…., going back to my original question asking if you dreamed of see amazing places, want to develop yourself, improve your prospects, increase your confidence, set yourself goals, step outside your boundaries, help improve the lives of others and create lasting memories, then I think you have your answer…

The world is ours, discover it, respect it and enjoy it!