South America

The following is a compilation of stories and photographs from David Karlton's trip to South America from December 1998 through January 1999.

If you're looking for comprehensive information about South America, or award-winning photographs of its lands, peoples, and sites, you're probably in the wrong place. Maybe you should try somewhere useful.

If you're looking for one lowly traveler's account of his journey, including an abridged travel journal, as well as (mostly silly) pictures of his trip, you're probably in the right place.

I made this trip initially with two other friends. Who am I? Bad question.

The following is a list of the major spots we visited on our trip, and links to photos from each place. We started early December in Ecuador, and went to the Galápagos Islands. We continued south through Peru and Bolivia, and then flew to Buenos Aires in Argentina. We spent New Years on the coast in Chile, and journeyed through the Chilean northern high deserts. Our last leg was in Venezuela, at the end of January.

Here are the emails I sent out during my trip, usually from internet cafes that we found along the way:

Date:        Wed, 2 Dec 1998
Subject:    safe in the southern hemisphere

Hello all!

i just wanted to say hello and let you know that i made it safely
to south america.  my flights down here were not very fun.  i went
from san francisco to los angeles, and then waited there until after
4 in the morning for a flight to mexico city.  then to san jose, costa
rica.  and then finally to quito, ecuador.  it only took about 21 hours!

i will hopefully write more as the trip goes on.  there are plenty
of internet cafes, so it's pretty easy to check email.  (of course,
we're in quito, so who knows what it will be like in other cities.)

we're not sure where we will be headed next.  possibly the galapagos
islands, or maybe just staying here in ecuador, since this weekend is
the festival for the founding of the country.

hope you're all well,

take care,


Date:        Sat, 19 Dec 1998
Subject:    More adventures in South America


hello.  just wanted to send out a little update to let you know how
things are going down here in south america.  so far, it has really
been a great experience.

i started out in quito, ecuador for a few days.  i was lucky to arrive
for the annual city festival, which meant there were lots of fairs and
street parties.  *really* good parties.  ;)

we then headed to the galapagos islands.  what a place!  i was fairly
impressed with the ecological attitudes of the inhabitants, and we were
able to see a lot of wildlife.  we even did a dive and saw large
schools of hammerhead sharks.

back to the mainland, we had a horrible time getting from southern
ecuador to cross the border to peru.  we picked a really bad time to
make the crossing, right when it was closing.  this just meant we had
to waste lots of money on bribes so the officials would let us pass.
what a nightmare.  and then our "taxi" broke down and we had to push
it for a quarter mile.

we eventually made it to cuzco, in central peru (after spending a night
in tumbes, then one in lima, because the flights were so few and far
between).  cuzco is at about 10,000 ft, and it's a nice little city.
on tuesday morning we left on a backpacking trek to reach machu picchu,
arriving there early friday morning.  the trip was pretty tough for me,
because i ended up acquiring some kind of gastrointestinal problem the
night before we left.  (surprise, surprise!) i almost gave up on going,
but persevered, and somehow survived.  (we had plenty of cipro
antibiotics, which really
saved me.)  by the second day i was feeling better, although we had
to cross a pass at 4200 meters, and it was raining like crazy.  lots of
fun though!  the reward was wonderful, though, as we reached the
highlands above machu picchu early friday morning, and watched the sun
rise onto the ruins.  what an amazing sight.

now we're back in cuzco, and we're about to head to lake titicaca in
the morning, then south through bolivia and into chile.  we're hoping
to make it to santiago for christmas, but it might be tight.

i hope all of you are doing really well.  the holidays are almost upon
us, and although it's not very obvious down here, i'm sure things are
in full swing up north.  i wish you the very best, and know that i
think of you often.  tomorrow will be the 18 month anniversary of the
loss of my parents.  thank you for all your support over these many

much love,


Date:         Mon, 28 Dec 1998
Subject:     More from South America
hola chicos,

well, we're in argentina now, in buenos aires.  we arrived here
shortly before christmas, and spent it pretty much on our own, since
it's really hard to meet people in this town.  but it was still nice
nonetheless, in a twisted sort of way (somehow we ended up going to
a bizarre nightclub on christmas eve, full of transvestites.  hey, at
least matt and i were wearing little santa caps to keep in spirit.)

buenos aires is a really beautiful city, very european.  it's quite
a contrast from the rest of south america that we've already seen.

we're soon heading off to chile, which should be nice since we
have quite a few friends in santiago and viña del mar to spend new
years with.

i'm including a message for a link to see a short AVI video that
we took in an internet cafe here in argentina.  check it out if you
have the chance.

i hope all of you had a wonderful christmas, and have a great new
years.  i miss you lots.

un abrazo y un besote,


p.s.  my very very good friend deren finks will be having a kidney
transplant on december 30 in los angeles.  please send warm fuzzy
thoughts in his direction!  (if you want to be on the mailing list
for info on that, send a request to

The three amigos are wearing black, looking as cute as ever, and
wish you all a merry christmas on video!

Merry Christmas,



Date:         Wed, 6 Jan 1999
Subject:     1999 in South America


well, i am still doing really well down here in south america.  right
now i am in La Serena, in chile.  it's beautiful here.  after buenos
aires, matt, lou and i flew to santiago, and drove right away to
the coastal town of viña del mar.  we stayed with one of matt's friends
from high school, and spent new years there.  it's a really beautiful
town, and we are ready to move there.  the beaches are great, but the
water is even colder than in SF.

unfortunately, lou got sick of us and decided to go back home to
the states.  actually, he was just a little tired from so much
traveling, and really wanted to go skiing.

now matt and i are heading up more north to san pedro de atacama,
which is a town in the desert that offers a lot of really
interesting natural sites nearby.  then we'll pass quickly through
peru (maybe), and then ALL the way north to venezuela to see more
of matt's friends.  we might extend our return to the 19th instead
of the 15th.

buenos aires was nice, but it could have been a lot nicer, since we
didn't know anyone there to show us around and hang out with.  although,
i should point out that a number of friends gave us huge lists of
contacts, but not until we had already left the city.  oh well.  maybe
we'll go again some other day...

chile is a great country, though.  we feel very at home here, even
though of all the places we've been, it's the hardest to understand
the spanish.  (they drop the "s" all the time, and mumble and talk
really fast.)

i hope everyone had a great new years!  see you soon.



Date:          Sun, 10 Jan 1999
Subject:      two gringos still chugging away

well, matt and i made it successfully through san pedro de atacama.
what a great place, with lots of neat things to see around the area.
it's set fairly high in northern chile, and there
is a wonderful valley called "valle de la luna" (valley of the moon),
which is a very apt name.  lots of interesting geology, sand dunes,
the whole bit.  then we got up at 3:30 in the morning in order to see
some geysers at around 4300 meters (i.e. very high).  and even some
time bathing in relaxing hot springs.

we have since sprinted to the northernmost town of arica, on the border
with peru, and just took a "taxi" into the southern town of tacna, peru.
in a couple hours, we will fly to lima, where we will probably spend
only one night.  and then hopefully off to caracas, where we can check
out angel falls (assuming it hasn't dried up too much by now), and to
see some of matt's friends who live there.

i'm definitely going to come back to chile someday.  i'd love to have
a chance to see the lake district in the south and patagonia in
southern argentina.  and i'd love to take a crack at some of these
high peaks that abound in the andes.

i hope everyone is enjoying 1999 as much as we are.

take care, un abrazo,


p.s.  i'd love to hear from more of you!  don't be shy to fire off a
message and help me validate the struggles we go through to find these
hole-in-the-wall internet cafes.  ;)  (don't worry, no pressure.)

p.p.s.  thanks for sending good vibes toward my friend deren.  his
kidney transplant apparently went smoothly, and he's being very well
taken care of by good friends and family.

Date:           Tue, 12 Jan 1999
Subject:       One picture from my travels


hello!  thanks so much to many of you for filling my inbox with lots
of news about what's going on at home.  always nice to hear from you.

i am forwarding a picture that i took at Machu Picchu, shortly after
we arrived early in the morning after 4 days of hiking.  sorry about
the random person in the bottom corner.

lou developed 27 rolls once he got home, and scanned them in.  i will
try to find more good ones and forward them on when i get the chance.

we are probably heading to caracas tomorrow morning.  lima has been
a wonderful surprise, such a beautiful city.  reminds me of mexico city
in many ways.

take care, much love,




Date:         Thu, 14 Jan 1999
Subject:     another Machu Picchu picture


matt and i are here in caracas, venezuela.  we arrived without incident
yesterday evening, and we'll be heading off to see angel falls fairly
soon.  venezuela is quite different from a lot of the other countries
that we've already seen. you can definitely see the caribbean
influences, and the gringo influences as well.

we're still really enjoying ourselves immensely.  there are just so
many things to see, and not enough time.

thanks so much for writing to me!  always great to hear from you.

i have to run because this internet cafe is closing in 2 minutes.

i thought i'd forward another machu picchu picture that matt took.
this one has a different kind of tourist.

take care!



Date:         Fri, 15 Jan 1999
Subject:     Still in Caracas, coming home pretty soon
hello all,

maybe my last message until i actually make it home.  tonight matt and
i are trying to go to a big playoff baseball game here in caracas.
the venezuelans are crazy about baseball, whereas most of the other
latin american countries are much more into soccer.

on sunday night, we'll probably head to angel falls, and spend a few
days there and in the gran sabana.  should be really beautiful.  more
chances for amazing pictures.  i can't wait to come home and develop
the rest of the shots.

just so you know, we've officially changed our return flights.  we have
to fly out of caracas on saturday, january 23rd, and spend the night
in costa rica.  then on sunday the 24th, we head to quito.  matt will
fly home that night.  i'll stay until monday the 25th, in order to
pick up a bunch of stuff we left in quito at the South American
Explorer's Club.  (it's closed on the weekend.)  so i'll get home
monday night.  a little more than a week from now.  i can't wait to
see everyone!

south america has shown us plenty of surprises, and we've been
amazed with all the contrasts down here.  even the differences in
spanish between countries.  not just the accents, but totally different
words, even more dissimilar than american compared to british english.

ok, gotta run.  i send you all great wishes, and i look forward to
talking to you once i get home.

take care,


Date:         Thu, 28 Jan 1999
Subject:     home and well

yes, it's true.  i am finally home after almost two months of
traveling.  what a great trip!  we saw so many things, and met such a
great array of interesting and pleasant people.

i'll fill you in on everything that happened since my last message (from
the 15th i think).  we made it to the friday night baseball game in
caracas, venezuela.  amazing.  they really party hard at these things.
it's a tradition there also that whenever there's a good play, the
people in the stands throw their beer cups.  their *full* beer cups.
thousands of people at the same time.  you get really wet.  fortunately,
matt and i had seats up high, which meant most of the cups were flying
away from us onto the people lower down.

we made it to canaima after the weekend, and went on a three day two
near Salto Angel.  that's the official name of Angel Falls.  the area
around there is great.  it's pretty much a jungle, but a little more
dry.  and angel falls was a true sight to behold.  (of course, matt and
i forgot the video camera the one day that we went to see the fall, but
that just means you all have to go visit there yourself.  i have a
*GREAT* pilot and tour company to recommend, see below.)  in order to
get into and out of la gran sabana, you really need to fly.  most of the
flights are on 5-passenger cesnas.

angel falls is in "La Gran Sabana," which is a savannah in the
southeastern portion of venezuela.  one of the most striking features of
this area are the "tepuis," which in the indigenous language means
"wall" or "mountain."  they look like mesas, squat mountains which start
off normal but are lopped off in a perfect horizontal line, so there is
a huge flat plane on the top.  angel falls actually comes off one of
these tepuis, which happens to be about 1000 meters high, making angel
falls the highest waterfall in the world.  (it has something like 870
meters of uninterrupted fall.)

during our 5 day excursion in the area, we had originally planned 3 days
touring near angel falls, then one day in Kavac, which is another
beautiful waterfall where you can actually walk (swim) about 15 minutes
inside a large crack of one of the tepuis, with the high mountain walls
scaling hundreds of meters vertically on either side of you.  then our
5th day was planned in a more arrid part of la gran sabana, in and
around Santa Elena, very close to the border with brasil.

anyway, our guide during angel falls suggested we actually skip kavac
(where you go inside the tepui) in favor of more time in the more
southeastern part.  we thought he was crazy, but he managed to talk us
into it.  of course, this involved tyring to get a refund of our last
(4th) day in the angel falls area.  to make a horrible story short, the
pilot agreed with matt and me to refund 70% of our last day's
excursion's worth of money, right there while we were at the airport.
in turn, we were going to try to make it to santa elena one day early.
well, while our backs were turned, the pilot took off (literally), with
our money (about $200), and we never saw him again.  and the flights
that day ended up being full to santa elena, so we were stuck in the
small town of canaima for one night, with nothing to do, and no money.
i talked with the wonderful pilot on the phone a couple of times, and he
was most congenial.  but all his promises to have the money sent to us
with someone or to show up himself were never honored.  at least my
spanish got REALLY GOOD, especially some of the nicer words.  the tour
company never really tried to help us.  "this is between you and the
pilot, we are a third party."  whatever.

the worst part was that this pilot was actually recommended by our
friend in caracas.  when we got back there, he called the pilot for us
and arranged for this pilot to wire him the money.  yeah, right.  i'm
not holding my breath.

(sorry if i sound a tad bitter.)

all in all, this was the only really bad thing that happened to us
during the whole trip.  granted, crossing the border from ecuador to
peru was pretty awful, but it was much more of an adventure as opposed
to just being plain screwed.  in fact, we ended up very fortunate in not
having any problems with things being bodily stolen from us.  most
people we met either had had stuff stolen or knew someone who had
troubles.  mostly in peru.  (i still recommend going to machu picchu,
don't get me wrong.)

our last day we enjoyed the rest of La Gran Sabana.  it is simply
amazing!  it looks very reminiscent of portions of africa, but the
skyline is broken by these amazing tepuis.  i look forward to when the
film is developed.  we also were fortunate to meet two really great
americans and a spaniard during the tours.  one thing matt and i noticed
was that most of the tourists who are bold enough to venture into south
america are quite easy going and nice people.  usually the last thing i
want to do when i'm traveling is meet other americans, but this time was
the opposite.  everyone we met during 2 whole months was just great.

we left caracas (which is a really weird city, that as far as i'm
concerned, combines the worst influences and features of the US with the
worst influences and features of latin america, mixes in a little
caribbean flair, and then just shoves it all in your face), and then
headed for one night in costa rica (wait!  that's in central america!
yeah, i know.  the plane's were cheaper this way.)  in costa rica, we
found out about an annual fair being held in a city about an hour
outside of san jose.  we went.  i think we saw only two other tourists
there, out of thousands and thousands of "ticos" (costa ricans).  games,
rides, music, dancing, beer, and food.  kind of like oktoberfest, but a
wee bit more latin.

next day we flew to quito, and matt flew back to SF in the evening.  i
toured a bit the following morning (monday), then took an afternoon
flight through costa rica (doh!  we had to go back to quito because our
return flights were from there and we had so much stuff stored away that
i needed to check on the plane).  unfortunately, my flight from costa
rica to san francisco left without me by about 5 minutes (our arriving
flight from ecuador was delayed pulling into the gate in costa rica,
only because we were waiting for a plane to disembark.  this happened to
actually be *my* plane to SF.  they neglected to hold it for me.)

i had to go to LAX instead, and spent the night there.  i made it home
tuesday morning.  whew!  my bags, on the other hand, are still missing.
unfortunately, Lacsa Airlines (a fine costa rican company) is not being
altogether forthcoming about where my luggage might possibly be.  HA.

it's really really nice to be home.  claude is visiting here from
switzerland, which is a real treat.  we are hoping to go down to mexico
quite soon to see rodrigo for a little bit.  (i must admit, i am tired
from and of traveling, but claude and i have been planning this for a

there are quite a few pictures from our trip online, up until Viña del
Mar in chile (that's when lou went home, beginning of january).  i put
some of the better ones here:

please enjoy!

i look forward to seeing you, and i'll apologize in advance if i'm a
little slow on responding, or in calling you now that i'm home.

take care, happy new year!


David Karlton