Wicked places in South America
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If you like deserted places, the train graveyard just outside of Uyuni is a true gem. A collection of turn of the century (end of 19th start of 20th century) steam locomotives and trains are spread out in the desert. Uyuni used to be a major crossroad of train tracks for transporting minerals away from the mines. Since the decline of the mining industry in the area, the old steam train were also abandoned and put to rest in the desert. For most tour groups this is the first stop on the standard tours in and around the salar de Uyuni. To avoid the crowds and for better light it is better to go late afternoon.
Carnaval in Rio
Rio de Janeiro
Everyone knows the images of Carnaval in Rio. The 12 best schools parade through the Sambodromo spread out over two days and nights. You can buy a ticket to watch the parade but try not to end up in the foreigner sectors. There’s a lot more dancing and partying when you are surrounded by Brazilians! Learn the samba songs by heart so that you can chant with the thousands of other spectators and know who is who in the parade so that you get most out of it.
Did you know that you can also actually join the parade? This is the real deal. You can join a samba school, buy a costume and parade as a real samba queen/king!
Then there are the street parties all over the city. These parties are free and easy to join. The street bands follow a circuit and people join to dance, party, drink, kiss,....
Don’t just blindly head out to carnaval. There is a lot to do in Rio and it is best to seek information so that you know what is going on and can enjoy the party with all it has to offer.
Dance till you drop
Salvador da Bahia
Maybe not as famous as the carnaval in Rio but definitely a party not to be missed. There is not a lot of samba or decorated floats in Salvador. Instead there are "trio electrico’s" or also called blocos, which are trucks with a band on top of them, playing mainly Axé and Samba-reggae music. These trucks slowly follow one of the three circuits in the city. Around each truck is a huge rope carried by people. If you want to follow the truck from within the rope you have to purchase a special shirt for that night for that bloco. You can also be a "pipoca" and spend your time on the streets watching all trucks and bands pass by. Every year several of the same famous Brazilian bands and artists are programmed such as Ivete Sangalo, Timbalada, Chiclete com Banana, Daniela Mercury and the more traditional Afro-Brazilian bloco Filhos de Gandhi.
If your feet and back are not tired after 6 days of strait partying you’re a true champion!
Any fashion store
The first time you'll see one of these mannequins in a fashion store, you will probably laugh. They are heavily disproportionate with huge tits and round, gravity defying, apple butts. The first thought is that they must have been made by a dirty-minded male sculptor, but then you realise that some Colombian women are created just like that. And then you stop looking at the mannequins.
The 15-meter high mud cone at El Totumo is not just a pile of mud, but a real volcano. Instead of spewing lava, it just bobbles mud up. You can climb to the top by wooden stairs and take a mud bath right in the crater. Well, that is the reason to come here in the first place. Besides the whole wellness feeling, it is also a very strange sensation to be descending into the bottomless pit full of mud (and just for the record, you do not sink).
The old part of Popayan is not just another pretty Colombian whitewashed colonial town. It is very much alive, and not turned into a groomed tourist attraction. On special occasions, the town's many churches are lit up in the night like giant Christmas decorations. The biggest church is San Sebastian, which distinguishes itself from the other churches by having a morbid hidden attraction. During the big earthquake in 1983, the church building got serious damaged, but out of the cracked walls fell two mummified monks. These are now displayed up under the church roof and can be viewed if you ask. It is a very low key affair and can be extended with tour on the church roof (if you ask the guard nicely) with splendid views over the town.
Cayamba Solar Clock
How cool is it to cross equator?... Well, not very much for you will hardly noticed it. Luckily Ecuador has a handful of monuments that will remind you of the fact that Equator goes through the country. Most of the monuments does not actually lies on the Equator, which of course have only given risen to disrepute and contempt from the ones that actually does. The Cayamba Solar Clock does actually lies right on the Equator line (we checked with GPS) and you can even observe the fact twice a year, when the sun is vertical over equator, with their orange solar clock. Interesting there exists an ancient Equator monument on Catequilla mountain, which is precisely on the Equator line... way better than the most famous monument, "Mitad del Mundo", which is off by several hundred meters.
Cacao and Javouhey
It might be a surprise to find Hmong villages in French Guiana since they originate from the mountain regions of Laos, Vietnam, China and Thailand. When many Hmong people became refugees after the Vietnam war, several thousands of Hmong people were relocated to French Guiana where they were given land. There are two main Hmong villages in French Guiana: Cacao and Javouhey. They feel very much like Laos.
The Cacao Sunday market attracts many day-trippers from Cayenne. Most people just come to eat the fantastic Laotian food, but you can also shop for Hmong souvenirs such as hats and embroidered cloths.
There are also great walks in the Cacao region, the most known and important one being the Molokai trail that takes you through the jungle in one very long day or in two regular hiking days.
Another popular thing to do in Cacao is to go to the Saut Bief, a pretty river with rapids that make a great place for a refreshing swim after hiking or just to go digest the lovely Laotian food.
Prison islands Îles du Salut
Off the coast of Kourou
Such beautiful palm tree-filled islands bear such a sad history. These islands were named Îles du Salut (Salvation islands) after the missionaries came to escape the diseases on the main land. There wasn’t much salvation on these islands, but prison camps for the French. It wasn’t the worst place of all the French prison camps in Guiana but still life was tough, escape nearly impossible and many people didn’t survive this place. The islands are owned by the space centre and are being renovated. During a rocket launch they get completely evacuated.
The main island, Île Royale, is where you can stay overnight in either guard houses or in a hammock in a prison quarter. There are trails all over the island with beautiful views to the other islands, monkeys, parrots and plenty of agoutis, a rodent somewhere between a rat and a hamster. Île St Joseph is smaller and is also worth a visit. The prison buildings here are decayed and overgrown by trees which gives it an even more spooky feeling. The third island, Île du Diable, is closed for visitors.
Outside of Kourou
Even if you don’t have a space fetish, have no idea what exactly is a satellite or have never heard of Battlestar Galactica, don’t miss out on this space centre. Because of its proximity to the equator, it takes less energy for a rocket to be launched from here and Kourou is not inside a hurricane or earthquake area. These advantages make Kourou the prime launching site for pretty much all European rockets: Ariane and Vega and also several Russian ones, like Soyuz.
A free tour that takes up all morning leads you by bus to the main sites with guides that give full and understandable explanations (if you speak French, that is). You can see the launching sites of these rockets and get up close to the fire pits and the movable towers where the final preparations before a launch take place. If you plan well ahead or you are lucky, you might even see a launch, which happens nearly every month.