Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

The Remote Land of Patagonia

Friday, February 7th, 2014

688_thumbnailPepper Trail has traveled around the world in the course of his studies on the ecology, behavior and conservation of birds. After receiving his Ph. D. from Cornell University, Pepper did post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the California Academy of Sciences. An expert photographer and writer, his work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic and American Birds to Science, Evolution and Conservation Biology. Pepper has led natural history tours in Africa, Costa Rica, Brazil and the Amazon, and his enthusiasm and sense of humor always convert a few ‘non-birders’ to ‘birder’s every trip. He is the ornithologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.


The very word “Patagonia” conjures up images of untamed wilderness, windswept and remote.  And indeed, that is what our group of intrepid travelers experienced again and again on this journey – climbing to the base of the Martial Glacier in Tierra del Fuego; standing on the cliffs of Cape Horn, looking south toward Antarctica; walking among a herd of wild guanacos beneath the towering spires of Torres del Paine National Park; hiking above treeline on the Osorno Volcano in Chile’s Lake District.  All this adventure was cushioned by our nightly return to luxurious lodgings, where we relived the day’s events over gourmet meals.

In the finest Smithsonian tradition, we learned as we traveled, with lively discussions on topics ranging from how Gondwanaland lives on in Patagonia, to how Darwin’s explorations of the region shaped his theory of evolution, to the extraordinary adaptations of albatross and penguins to their challenging world.

Finally, our experiences in two great South American capitals, Buenos Aires and Santiago, were the perfect prelude and postscript to our Patagonian journey. Whether we were watching a stunning tango show in Buenos Aires or creating our own special red wine blends at the Verramonte Winery outside Santiago, these cities provided a sophisticated and glittering frame to our wilderness adventures.

For all of us, “Patagonia” is no longer terra incognita, the uttermost end of the earth.  It is a place filled with memories, of adventures with an extraordinary group of fellow travelers, and of transcendent landscapes which will remain part of us forever.


To learn more about our Patagonian Explorer tour, click here.

A Sumptuous Tour of Peru

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

681_thumbnailJames Kus recently retired after forty one years at California State University, Fresno, where he taught courses on South American geography and archaeology. He first traveled to Peru in 1966; since then he has lived in that country for more than eight years, taught at Peru’s leading university, and carried out archaeological research on ancient agriculture in the northern coastal region. Jim has led more than twenty tours to Peru and has published widely on Andean archaeology and geography, in both popular media and professional journals. Jim is particularly excited to introduce Smithsonian travelers to Andean culture and food; he notes that Peruvian cuisine has recently become very popular worldwide.


When people hear that I’m going to Peru again, they often assume that it is to visit archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu or others in the Cuzco area.  Or perhaps it’s to see some of the spectacular scenery – snowcapped peaks, the rainforest, or Lake Titicaca.  But more and more these days, when asked why I go to Peru, my answer is “for the food.”

In recent years, Peruvian cuisine has become world famous, thanks to the work of such noted chefs as Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid Gutsche, who have several restaurants in Lima and elsewhere around the world (several of our tour participants have been lucky enough to secure reservations for one of their Lima spots – but this takes much planning well in advance of the tour).  But every one of the hotels that we use on the Smithsonian Journeys tours have great restaurants, so it is possible to sample a wide variety of typical dishes as well as some of the new eclectic fusion plates and the local wines.

One item that surprises many first-time visitors to Peru is cuy (guinea pig) – usually served roasted, and frankly not an everyday dish for most Peruvians .

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Consumption of cuyes is most often associated with special celebrations for Peruvian families, but tourists may have a chance to sample roasted cuy at a restaurant in Cuzco.

A very typical Andean food is the potato – several hundred varieties are grown in mountain regions.  Although baked, boiled, or fried potatoes are part of many meals, a great introduction to the Peruvian potato is a dish called causa – essentially cold mashed yellow potatoes, stuffed with chicken, seafood, or vegetables.  Kus-photo-two515My favorite is a causa stuffed with mariscos (shellfish), but some restaurants, such as the dining room at the Inka Terra hotel, feature three different causas as an entrée. Kus-photo-three515 Another typical entrée is ceviche – often a white fish, shrimp, or shellfish prepared in a strong lime/onion/chili pepper mixture (the citric acid “cooks” the fish).  Usually thought of as a coastal dish, some highland restaurants now serve a ceviche done with local trout.

One of the most typical main courses found on dinner menus is lomo saltado – thin slices of meat stir-fried with french fries and vegetables and served with a side of rice.

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Other dishes that you might find on the menu include lots of varieties of chicken (my own favorite is aji de gallina – shredded chicken in a mild spicy sauce over rice) – or try pollo a la brasa (whole chicken roasted on a spit).

Then there are desserts – a whole range of sweet treats made with local fruits –try lucuma ice cream for something distinctly different.  But my all-time favorite has to be the messy sundae at the Inka Terra restaurant.  That’s the name for it (although on the menu it’s called the “miskey sundae”) – vanilla ice cream, homemade brownies, and a fudge sauce to die for, with the serving glass dipped in the sauce to create the “messy” name.   !Kus-photo-five515


Read more about upcoming departures of our Legendary Peru tour here.

Cono Sur of Patagonia

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Dr. Jeffrey A. Cole is a Latin American historian. His interest in the region was kindled at the University of Connecticut, where he completed a B.A. and M.A. in history, including a semester at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, México. At the doctoral level, Jeff focused on civil-military relations in Argentina and Chile, the archaeology of the Americas, modern Chinese history, and – primarily — colonial South American history. He won a Fulbright grant to complete his dissertation research in Perú, Bolivia, and Argentina. Upon receipt of the Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, he taught at Tulane, SUNY, Cornell, the University of Massachusetts, and Smith College. Jeff also served as Associate Director of the UMass exchange program with Argentina from 1985 to 1991, during which time he taught at the Universidad de Buenos Aires as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. His last full-time job was as Director of International Programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. For the last twenty years, Jeff has served as a Study Leader for Smithsonian Journeys (nearly sixty in all) and as a lecturer on other academic excursions to Latin America.


This departure of “Patagonian Explorer” was special for three very unusual reasons, all of which were unplanned and, as our Argentine Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay put it, “espontaneous.”

The first, of course, was that our group was witness to the inauguration of the first South American (and Argentine) Pope, Francisco I, and the celebration of the events of his first week in that role by the people of Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole.  The obelisk in the middle of the “9 de Julio” avenue was draped in yellow and white (the Papal colors), the Plaza de Mayo was packed – from Monday evening to late Tuesday morning – with people following events at the Vatican on large television screens flanking the Cathedral, and the city as a whole showed symptoms of hope for the future than were absent as recent as a month ago.  No Argentinians were more proud than the fans of San Lorenzo, the new Pope’s favorite football (soccer) team; indeed, the supporters presented Francisco I with a team jersey with his name and a halo as his number!


Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

The second grand surprise was the morning of our landing on Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, just north of Punta Arenas, Chile.  Disembarkation in zodiacs for this visit to a huge Magellanic penguin colony always comes early, as the winds tend to be lighter and the waves lower in the morning, but on this occasion we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over Tierra del Fuego to the east and a bath of golden sunshine flooding the penguins ashore and in the water.  There was no wind at all, and even the ship’s crewmembers were on deck taking pictures.  As we all sat down to breakfast later that morning, there was an enthusiastic comparison of photographs to see who had taken the best image.

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Third, Easter Sunday brought a forced change of plans caused by the closure – probably because of an accident – of the Pan-American highway south of Santiago.  We were returning to town after a wonderful visit to the Haras de Pirque winery, when access to the highway was closed off.  Taking side streets to get back into town, we were destined to miss our appointed times for a visit to “La Chascona,” one of Pablo Neruda’s homes.  Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay, local guide Iván Bustamante, and I agreed to go instead to the Museum of Remembrance, which chronicles the military coup d’état of 11 September 1973, which toppled the government of Salvador Allende, through to the removal of Augusto Pinochet by the 1988 plebiscite which told him “No” to his staying in power until the end of the twentieth century.  Iván’s family had been forced into exile in Britain as a consequence of the coup, and his guiding of the Associates through this powerful museum was extremely moving.

The Patagonian trip offers Smithsonian travelers many different dimensions of two wonderful countries, Argentina and Chile, including landscapes and nature, but we never ignore the terrible moments in their recent histories, for the two peoples’ ability to recover and progress despite those events are all the more remarkable after we learn what they have suffered.

So, by the time we traveled from Valparaíso to the Santiago International Airport on 1 April, we all knew that we had been witness not only to Buenos Aires and the Argentine tango, fabulous Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia aboard Vía Australis and in Torres del Paine National Park, as well as the pleasures of the Chilean Lake District, but also to three different experiences that were unplanned and unexpected, but very special indeed.  Such surprises are often the most memorable moments of a tour.

I am sure that the 2013-14 season of “Patagonian Explorer” will bring similar “espontanous” experiences, and so am already looking forward to my return to the Southern Cone and Cape Horn.  My license plate and its frame say it all:cono sur


To learn more about our Patagonia Explorer tour, click here.

Beyond Machu Picchu – Two Places in Peru You Should Add to Your List

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Dr. James Kus recently retired after forty one years at California State University, Fresno, where he taught courses on South American geography and archaeology.  He first travelled to Peru in 1966; since then he has lived in that country for more than eight years, taught at Peru’s leading university, and carried out archaeological research on ancient agriculture in the northern coastal region.  Jim has led more than twenty tours to Peru and has published widely on Andean archaeology and geography, in both popular media and professional journals.  He is particularly excited to introduce Smithsonian travelers to Andean culture and food; he notes that Peruvian cuisine has recently become very popular worldwide.

This October Dr. James Kus led a group of Smithsonian travelers to Legendary Peru.


When our group met together for the first time at our Lima hotel, along with discussing various logistical matters, we focused on introductions and expectations. Not surprisingly, when asked why they had come to Peru, almost all of our participants mentioned Machu Picchu – in fact, many said that it was on their longtime “bucket list” and, for several, it was the only Peruvian site that they knew much about. At the end of the trip, when we met for one last Pisco sour at the Lima airport, the participants were asked what their favorite spot was among the many interesting places that we had visited. Not surprisingly, Machu Picchu was mentioned by several people, but many travelers cited other special experiences as well.

Vegetables from a local Uro Market

Traditional markets showed a side of Peru that has gone overlooked by many tourists. Photo courtesy of trip leader Dr. James Kus

For example, we visited the town of Ollantaytambo, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its traditional architecture and nearby Inca ruins. My god-daughter’s family lives in this town and we were able to spend almost an hour with her family, who live in a house that dates back to pre-Hispanic times. It is constructed of stone with a thatched roof and has guinea pigs (raised for food) scampering around the floor. We met several members of the family and saw many of the tools used by local agriculturalists as well as the other artifacts of their daily lives. This glimpse into a more traditional way of life was cited as a trip highlight by several of our travelers.

Smithsonian Journeys travelers at a local Peruvian Market

Smithsonian Journeys Legendary Peru travelers explore a traditional market place in Peru. Photo courtesy of Dr. James Kus

Another highlight mentioned was travelling from Puno by boat to see the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca. After visiting one island, we were able to stop at a second island, Tupiri, where a young Uro woman, Amalia Suana, has set up a preschool for Uro children ages three to five. These children sang to our group in their native language, Aymara, as well as in Spanish and English. We toured the school and saw the fantastic job that Amalia is doing with these children (incidentally, she has received a national award last year for her work at her school).

Uro school children -Smithsonian Journeys

Children line up for a song at a preschool on Tupiri, an island in Lake Titicaca.  Photo courtesy of Dr. James Kus

Uro Children Playing Outside

Uro preschoolers performed for Smithsonian Journeys travelers, but also provided an insight into local living on an island in Peru’s Lake Titicaca. Photo courtesy of Dr. James Kus

Finally, before leaving Puno, we visited the local fruit and vegetable market.  Although we had previously stopped at several markets that were primarily aimed at tourists (with lots of native handicrafts for sale), this time we were seeing where the local people shop on a daily basis. The assortment of fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat (plus staples such as toilet paper, soap, rope, etc.) was impressive.

Peruvian Fruit and Vegetable Market

Travelers explore a fruit and vegetable market while traveling around Peru. Photo courtesy of Dr. James Kus

It has been my experience on previous trips that it is often the unexpected serendipitous moment that sticks in the minds of tour participants, and these three places certainly were highlights for everyone on this Smithsonian journey.


For more pictures from Dr. James Kus, visit our Smithsonian Journeys Facebook page and learn more about our Legendary Peru tour here.

Enchanting Iguazú Falls

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Jeffrey A. Cole has led over 50 Smithsonian Journeys to Latin America since 1992, including 26 to Peru and 20 to Chile. He has taught Latin American Studies at Clark University, Tulane University, SUNY-Oswego, Cornell University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Smith College.

In the spring, Jeffrey led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a Patagonian Explorer adventure.


For the 2012-13 season, the Patagonian Explorer journey will offer a pre-tour excursion to Iguazú Falls. Iguazú, which in Guaraní means “big water,” is one of the must-see places in the world, and I am very pleased it is now available to Smithsonian travelers. When Eleanor Roosevelt visited the falls, she was asked her opinion, and her response was reportedly “Poor Niagara!”

Iguazu Falls

Iguazú Falls. Photo by James Elliott.

Many will remember the falls from “The Mission,” with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, which chronicles the removal of the Jesuits from the region in the seventeenth century. Others may have seen nature programs about the swifts that live among the falls. Whatever your inspiration, Iguazú Falls – like Machu Picchu in Perú – usually exceeds even the loftiest of expectations.


Urraca. Photo by James Elliott.

The experience is now enhanced by a network of walkways along and over the falls on the Argentine side, including one that leads to the “Boca del Diablo” (“Devils Throat”), where the volume of water and the noise it makes are impressive. It’s also enhanced by the presence of coatíes (raccoon-like animals) and fantastic birds, including the macaw and blue-and-yellow urraca. At the end of the day, as the sun goes down, the sound of the falls and the animals make Iguazú a very special place, and one you’ll remember fondly.


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Patagonian Explorer tour here.