Earlier this month, Pat and I returned from our trip of a lifetime - a two-week visit to South America, including highlights of Chile, Argentina and Brazil. We were on Tauck's Essence of South America tour with 30 other travelers from across the U.S., two from Canada, and one each from the U.K. and Israel.
Chile and Argentina were part of the Spanish Colonial Empire from the early 1500s to the early 1800s, before achieving independence. Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese beginning in 1500 and declared its independence in 1822. All three countries suffered a series of political upheavals, brutal dictatorships and economic crises before emerging in the 1980s and 1990s as stable constitutional republics.
Pat and I flew from Tucson to Dallas and from there had an 11-hour overnight flight to Santiago, Chile, where it was the middle of summer.
Chile is long and narrow (2,700 by 109 miles average) with a total area about twice the size of Montana. The country is a model of financial and social progress. Many of its 17 million people are employed in copper mining, agriculture - including a rapidly growing wine industry - and salmon farming..
Santiago, Chile's capital, with about 5 million people, was the gathering place and kickoff city for our grand tour. Following a welcome dinner, the next day we toured the city and a nearby winery. The next morning we flew down the coast to Puerto Montt in Patagonia's Lake District - a wonderland of lakes, mountains, glaciers and fjords.
We spent the next few days crossing the Andes Mountains to Argentina. We traveled by bus, then boat, then bus, then boat across an incredible landscape of mountain lakes ringed by icy glaciers. The entire area is preserved as a national park, and our route was along a historic trail that has awed travelers - including Teddy Roosevelt in 1916 - for more than 100 years.
Pat and I got to take our first helicopter ride, flying over the beautiful lakes and above and among the snowy, waterfall-filled glaciers. Pat used the articulated viewfinder on her camera to shoot photos through an open small window to achieve some of the best pictures of the trip.
My photography was suffering because after a dusty, four-wheel-drive excursion, the protective external shutter on my camera failed to fully open. For the rest of the trip, I had to remember to prompt the mechanism with my finger or a cotton swab.
We crossed the Andes to arrive at one of the world's finest rest stops, the Llao-Llao Resort in western Argentina.
With a population of about 41 million, Argentina is the world's eighth-largest country - approximately the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. While livestock was the historical basis for Argentina's wealth, primary contributors to Argentina's economy today are manufacturing and agriculture, including growing wine production.
We spent a couple of days at the Llao-Llao Resort resting, hiking and learning to tango. All agreed that this was a place to stay forever.
Reluctantly, we next bused to Bariloche, known for its fabulous chocolates, where Pat and I made the big purchase of our trip - a box of chocolates - then flew to Buenos Aires.
The next three days were filled with tours of the beautiful city, a visit to the neighborhood where the tango was born, a walk through a mausoleum-style cemetery containing the remains of the famous Eva Perón, a tour of a historic, ornately decorated opera house, and an entertaining dinner tango show.
On Day 10 of our grand tour, we flew to breathtaking Iguazú Falls - noted by many as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the highlight of the trip. The falls are in the middle of a subtropical jungle, on a bend of the Iguazú River between Argentina and Brazil, along a 1.7-mile long cliff face.
The falls consist of about 275 individual falls ranging from picturesque cascades to immense thundering cataracts plummeting more than 200 feet. Iguazú Falls is higher than Niagara and wider than Victoria!
We spent a day on the Argentina side of the falls, hiking along trails overlooking the grandeur, approaching the edge of the falls at several places on metal catwalks, and physically experiencing the power of the falls.
At the largest of the drops, the famous Devil's Throat, Pat and I got soaked by the frothing water while trying to take pictures. But that was nothing compared to how wet I got later that day when I took an open-boat ride up to (and it seemed into) the bottom of one of the larger falls. It took days for my clothes to dry.
The next day we headed to the Brazil side of the falls.
Brazil is the world's fifth-largest country - 10 percent bigger than the U.S.'s lower 48 states - and is the economic powerhouse of Latin America with the world's seventh-largest economy. Its 194 million people are principally involved in manufacturing and agriculture.
The panoramic views of Iguazú Falls from the Brazil side are absolutely spectacular. A single catwalk takes you right into the action at Devil's Throat.
This was another place we hated to leave, but it was time to fly to our tour's last destination, Rio de Janeiro.
Rio is built among a group of mountains and features a mix of old and new architecture, with a national park right in the middle of the city - a very beautiful place.
Our hotel was on Ipanema Beach, made famous by the well-known 1960s bossa nova song, "The Girl From Ipanema," which our guide sang to us in Portuguese.
Early on our first day in Rio we traveled to the most-visited tourist site in South America, the Christ the Redeemer statue, atop 2,300-foot Corcovado Mountain, reachable by cogwheel train. Unfortunately, the more than 100-foot statue was shrouded by fog during most of that visit.
Later that morning, we stopped at a samba school (a dancing club) to see a parade float being prepared for Rio de Janeiro's famous annual pre-Lent Carnival to be held the next weekend. It's the world's largest carnival, with 2 million people lining the streets. A special surprise was a performance by an enthusiastic samba dance group.
A fitting end to the touring on this trip was a visit to 4,290-foot Sugar Loaf, a granite block rising from Guanabara Bay, reachable by bubble cars suspended on cables. It's an awe-inspiring ride with fantastic views of Rio and its harbors and beaches.
Our final event, a farewell dinner, was at a harbor-side restaurant that served grilled meats of every conceivable variety on skewers that were continuously brought to the table.
Pat and I had a relaxing final day in Rio, where we watched a "warm-up" beach-side Carnival parade and frolicking sunbathers. Brazilians really know how to party!
We flew back to Tucson on another overnight flight - happy to be home.
Odds and ends
We had perfect weather for the entire trip, though in some places it was hot and humid.
Contrary to pre-trip warnings, we were not bothered by bugs.
Everywhere we went, we could drink the water, eat the food and flush the toilets - our definition of developed countries.
We were surprised at the late dinner hour in Latin America, doorbells on hotel doors and almost constant Internet connectivity.
We appreciated nature's wonders more than the terrific cities we visited. The theme seemed to be water - rivers, lakes, glaciers, harbors and oceans - plentiful and beautiful.
Thanks to our fellow traveler friends for helping make our trip so memorable and to our first-rate tour director, who coincidentally lives in Tucson when he's not touring.
On StarNet: Read Bob Ring's recent columns at azstarnet.com/bobring
E-mail Bob Ring at email@example.com