Backpacking in South America

Armed with an iPhone 4, we finished our circumnavigation of South America, visiting Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and finally Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Not surprising, 3G was available almost everywhere! Most of South America could pass for Anywhere, USA—except that everyone speaks Spanish! (Come to think of it, that is no different than the Southwest U.S.) 

On this leg of our trip, we met many interesting people and visited five of the South American "Natural Wonders": Colca Canyon, Harbor of Rio de Janeiro, Amazon Rain Forest, Moreno Glacier, and Iguazu Falls. Our entire trip was planned, recorded, and photographed with the iPhone.

Bolivia: Salt flats, silver mines, and the world's most dangerous road!

Potosi MinesBolivia sits atop the Andes, making La Paz the highest capital city in the world. Terraced hillsides surrounding the city are covered with neat rows of well-maintained coca bushes. Men in Bolivia often carry pouches on their belt filled with coca leaf. In hotels, piles of coca leaf sit next to thermoses of hot water instead of tea or coffee—cocaine is simply a way of life for the population. 

The conquistadores established the Potosi silver mines in the 1500s. 
They are very primitive by modern standards (right).

Mountain Bikers - World's Most Dangerous RoadNearby is North Yungas Road, also known as the "World's Most Dangerous Road." This track winds its way through La Cumbre Pass from La Paz to Coroico and is a favorite of mountain bikers. It's a "white knuckle" ride over steep roads covered with loose gravel and sporting 600-meter vertical drops. An average of 290 people have been killed each year going over the side, including 18 cyclists since 1998. The good news… there's 3G coverage all the way down!

Mountain bikers enjoy the challenge of the "World's Most Dangerous Road"… but stay well away from the edge.

GPS Log3G lets me use my favorite travel app: GPS Log ($7.99, This app continues to improve with time. The latest version has added features and capabilities, and its easy-to-use interface makes it convenient when you're on the road on a bike. I used it to keep a log of every place we visited, along with pictures, GPS location, and notes. I e-mailed the final result to myself then posted the file so that anyone could fly-thru our entire trek in Google Earth (

I used GPS Log (right) to track my trip

We visited the famous Potosi silver mines, first established by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. They are still being mined after hundreds of years and still utilize human-powered mining practices. Safety does not seem to be much of a consideration here; we spent hours exploring hand-dug tunnels supported by broken and rotting tree branches. The bare-chested, sweating miners go days without eating by continuously chewing coca leaf. (We offered bags of coca leaves and bottles of water as gifts.) At one point, the guide passed around a lit stick of real dynamite. We were like first graders doing a Show-n-Tell, taking pictures of each other's strained faces while holding the burning and crackling fused explosive. After a couple minutes, the guide grabbed the dynamite, ran about 50 meters away and ran back—it blew-up within 60 seconds.

Purportedly, the Salar de Uyuni are the largest salt flats in the world and can be seen from space. It is big, and when you're in the middle of it, there are no geographic features to use as landmarks. It was comforting to be able to track our location on the iPhone, especially when the lone vehicle we were traveling in broke down in the middle of nowhere. Of course, we used the iPhone to call for help.

Using Google Earth to view a .KMZ file

Google Earth
A file with a .kmz file extension contains geographical data in a format that Google Earth and Google Maps can display. Google Earth is free, but to use it you have to have it installed on your Mac or PC computer ( or your iOS device ( Once installed, you can display the information in the .kmz file. Using the South American Trip file as an example, here's how you do it:

On a Mac or PC:

  1. Enter the URL into the address bar of your browser (

  2. When prompted, save the .kmz file to your computer.

  3. Start Google Earth and go to File >Open.

  4. Browse to the .kmz file on your computer and select it.

  5. Click on the Open button.

On an iOS device:

  1. Go to Google Maps on your Mac/PC and log in.

  2. Click on My Maps and then on Get Started (or Create a new map).

  3. Click on the Import link. The "Import KML" screen is displayed.

  4. Browse to the .kmz file you downloaded to your computer (see steps 1 & 2 in the Mac or PC instructions or…

  5. Enter the URL address of the file online (

  6. Click on the Upload from File button. (It will take a while to upload.)

  7. Click on the Save button to finish.

  8. Open Google Earth on your iOS device, tap on the Layers button in the upper left, and select My Maps at the bottom of the menu.

  9. Tap on the My Maps Account button at the bottom of the pop-up screen and log into your Google account.

  10. Tap on the Layers button again, select My Maps, and tap on the South American Trip. It should display in the Google Earth app. You can drag the map around with your finger and zoom in and out by pinching.

Argentina: Futbol and waterfalls

ArgentinaThe eponymously named travel app Argentina Travel Guide ($0.99, was filled with places to see, things to do, and where to eat. The restaurant section includes user recommendations, and one past-customer listed "gastric problems" at one establishment. Of course, we had to check it out. I am happy to report that the food was excellent. User-critics can be so fickle.

The Argentina Travel Guide was filled with information and user feedback.

FutbolFor most North Americans, football involves helmets, shoulder pads, and fans that paint their faces blue. For the rest of the world, it's a fast-paced game played with your feet. South Americans really, really love "fútbol," and we were lucky enough to be at the South American final between Argentina and Brazil—in Argentina—so the excitement level was at a fever pitch. Toilet paper streamers rained down on the field, smoke bombs and roman candles sprayed the crowd, the fences were crawling with excited fans, and a battalion of riot police stood at the ready behind plastic shields. There were no loud speakers, no popcorn vendors, and no scoreboards. I had to use the iPhone to follow the game on a radio feed.

We attended the South American fútbol finals (right) between Argentina and Brazil.

The world's three most famous waterfalls are Niagara (in the U.S.), Victoria (in Africa), and Iguazu (in Argentina). Iguazu certainly belongs in this august company. It actually consists of 275 individual waterfalls and cascades. While we were there, an argument erupted over which fall was the biggest and that could only be solved by the iPhone: "Victoria is the largest curtain of water in the World," but Iguazu has a larger volume of water.

Chile: Fire and ice

Mt. St. Helens is near my hometown of Vancouver, Washington, so I was no stranger to active volcanoes when we visited the city of Pucon, Chile, which sits at the base of the mighty Villarrica Volcano.

AccuWeatherBefore beginning our hike to this active volcano, I checked the weather with the AccuWeather app (free, A clear day was predicted, but the rest of the week would be overcast, so we started our climb to the caldera. After a four hour hike of medium-difficulty, we reached the top and had to be careful to stay away from the billowing plumes of choking sulfur. Amazingly, 3G was available at the top. As I stood close to the superheated maw of the volcano, I went online and read about the last massive eruption in 1971. After the cold, the blinding white snow, and the stinking gas cloud, it was a pleasure to descend—especially since we had brought small plastic toboggans up with us to slide on. It was a 30-minute high-speed thrill ride down.

The sulfuric gas bellowing from Villarrica's caldera did not interfere with 3G reception (Right).

While we were in Chile, I checked with Trailhead (free,, a surprisingly robust app that is based on user-submitted treks. I would immediately access this app whenever we entered a new city and look for an interesting hike. The app automatically locates your current GPS location then finds hikes nearby, sorted by distance away. Each listing details the route and how long the hike is. It also includes notes, landmarks, and GPS tracking so you know where you are in relation to the map. Or you can create your own trek, including pictures taken along the way. The app logs your location and lets you enter notes. Each time you want to enter a waypoint, simply click, take a picture, add notes, and continue.

AccuWeather provided us with forecasts that helped us plan our hikes.

The app turned us on to one of the greatest hikes in the world: the trek through the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile. We added the 5-day, 75-mile trek to our plans and were not disappointed with the rugged, snowy, and immensely beautiful scenery. 

Brazil: New Year's Eve in Rio with two million of our closest friends!

Brazil is the fifth largest and most populous nation in the world, has the eighth largest economy, and is, of course, home to one of the Official New 7 Wonders of the World (, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

New Years Eve PartyWe timed our journey to end in Rio de Janeiro so that our children could meet us there for New Year's Eve on Coco Cabana Beach, the world's largest yearly party. Though the festivities certainly lived up to their hype—fireworks, music, and two million of our closest friends—it was not something I would repeat. We sat on the beach initially, but by midnight we were forced to stand, packed together like sardines. When the crowd decided to leave, we were carried along with them. There was no chance of controlling where we were going and certainly no opportunity to use the bathroom—unless you were not squeamish about public attention… many people were not! Hours later, in the middle of the night, we were lost. The subways filled beyond capacity and all the taxies were gone; the iPhone was our only way to plot a walking route home with Maps. 

The New Year's Eve party on Coco Cabana Beach is always the largest party of the year.

TripwolfFinding other things to do in Rio was no problem with Tripwolf (free,, which establishes your current location via GPS and then provides information about the city you are in. The app provides information about nightlife, restaurants, hotels, shopping, transportation, and lots of other goodies. Even the smaller towns had a couple of entries, and we often felt more comfortable following Tripwolf's recommendations than local tourist brochures.

Tripwolf (right) helped us find our way around Rio.

When you're traveling, you spend a lot of time waiting: at airports, in public transportation, and before tours. My iPhone helped me pass the time, and two favorite apps were USA Today (free, iPhone version:, iPad version: and (free, iPhone version:, iPad version: I looked forward to reading up-to-the-minute USA Today news items. has a wide variety of fascinating articles presented as entertaining digests of recent scientific discoveries. The app, digests, and news bulletins are free; you can purchase a yearly subscription to the site to access complete articles.

A vibrant, modern continent

South America is a vibrant, modern continent with a built-up and well-maintained infrastructure. Cellular data and Wi-Fi availability was widespread. Going without an iPhone in South America seems as silly as going without one in the U.S.

The iPhone came in handy. 3G was available almost everywhere
July-August 2011
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