Backpacking in South America

Michapicchu1My wife, Gwynne, and I are at a place in our lives such that we can travel the world—we do so with our possessions on our back and an iPhone in my pocket. Our visits to Africa are chronicled in past issues of iPhone Life. This time, we're off to South America for a full-immersion, four-month circumnavigation of the continent.

I expected good cell phone coverage and plenty of service providers to choose from. Plus, I figured most of the roads would be paved and toilet paper would not be as much of a specialty item as it was in Africa.

Our Africa excursion ended in the Middle East, and so did my iPhone 3GS when I dropped it in Jordan's Dead Sea. I purchased a sleek, new iPhone 4 to replace it and was ready to try out some new travel apps on Apple's latest technological marvel. Before starting the trip, I called AT&T and bought their 200 MB per month data plan ($19.99/month). I knew that it wasn't enough to satisfy my on-the-fly Web access needs, so I planned on using Wi-Fi hotspots wherever I could find them (primarily in the cities).

We arrived in Quito, Ecuador on September 11, 2010, and I was immediately surprised by how iPhone-aware the people were. For example, when the night manager of our hostel saw me using my iPhone, he asked, "Is that the new iPhone?" I assumed he didn't know much about the iPhone and immediately began describing it and singing its praises. He stopped me and said, "Oh, I have the 3G; I just noticed you had the 4."

Learning Spanish

It's important to have a working knowledge of the language if you're going to spend months instead of days in a foreign country. Otherwise, you and the cabdriver will become very frustrated with each other. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who absorb new languages easily. I had to plan ahead.

 EngSpanLiteA quick search of the Web provided me with plenty of free audio Spanish lessons to populate my iTunes playlist. I spent 10-15 minutes every day of the trip listening to Spanish conversations on my iPhone. In addition, a few excellent apps helped me improve my Spanish, and one even acted as a surrogate translator in a pinch.

English to Spanish Lite ($2.99, is a "talking translator" that lets you select common English phrases and play the Spanish translation out loud. You can use it to learn the language or communicate with a waitress or shop owner. I found myself going to this app many times.

WordOfTheDaySpanish Word of the Day (free, gives you a new word to study each day. In addition to the word and its English translation, it gives an example sentence in Spanish to show you how it's used. However, it does not enunciate words audibly and it requires a data connection. Still, I hardly ever missed a day using it.

WordOfTheDay Spanish Phrasebook with Audio ~ Conversational Spanish ($0.99, has a small dictionary of common words, with enunciation. I would sometimes use it to find out how words were pronounced.

I used English to Spanish Lite, Spanish Word of the Day, and Conversational Spanish to gain a basic understanding of Spanish and translate on the fly during our trip.

A final and more visual way to learn Spanish is to watch "Plaza Sesame" (the Spanish language version of Sesame Street) segment on YouTube. It's a little embarrassing to admit how much I was entertained by Plaza Sesame—my tastes must resemble a 5-year-old's.

Exploring the Galapagos Islands

BlueFootedBoobies No attraction in South America was more compelling to me than the evolutionist's Mecca (or Creationist's heresy) known as the Galapagos Islands. They were almost mystically enticing because they represented the science-verses-religion conflict I felt as a child.

The Galapagos Islands are a pristine biological preserve with exotic birds like the blue-footed booby (right), sea lions, and marine iguanas.

To visit the Galapagos, you fly into Baltra Airport on Santa Cruz Island. I'm happy to report that the airport has 3G service. In addition, data service is available, but on a somewhat intermittent basis, on the other islands. Cell phone service was available most of the time, even on the sailboat to visit the different locations. I used my iPhone regularly to look up the islands' histories and facts about their many exotic species, especially at the Charles Darwin Foundation Research Center on Santa Cruz Island.

The islands are a pristine marine environment and biological preserve. You'll see colonies of sea lions, strange reptiles, and exotic birds like the blue-footed booby. These appropriately named birds have large blue feet they use to cover their chicks; even the adults are bit clumsy and fun to watch. (You also get to smell their large deposits of pungent excrement.) To fully appreciate the Galapagos Islands, be prepared to do some snorkeling in cold water.

"Roughing it" in the Amazon Rain Forest

Arajuno-CanoeWhen we visited the Amazon Rain Forest, we got to spend some time with a 3-year old woolly monkey named Mona. Her pastimes include taking the batteries out of cameras, flirting with boys, and while I was there, trying to get her hands on my iPhone. Mona lives with her "dad," Tom Larson, at the Arajuno Jungle Lodge. This private forest reserve sits on 1,200 acres in the foothills of the Andes Mountains of eastern Ecuador. Tom is a native of Michigan who had a long career in the Peace Corps before forming the Arajuno Foundation and opening up the lodge.

The Arajuno Jungle Lodge is accessible only by canoe.

Tom's goal is to restore and sustain the native fauna and flora of the rain forest. His many efforts include raising native yellow-spotted turtles, fish, and ducks for the villagers to farm. He is also reintroducing native medicinal plants and teaching endemic, naturopathic remedies. He and his volunteers visit villages along the rivers educating the people about sustainable ecosystems, encouraging conservation, and establishing breeding pairs of the turtles, fish, and ducks. Like-minded people gravitate to Tom and his ideas: his best friend, Miguel, asks, "Why is the world more concerned about nuclear weapons in Iran than chain saws in the Amazon?"

PeruTravelGuideIt is difficult to believe, but data service was available in certain locations of Tom's reserve! I thoroughly demonstrated the iPhone's features to Tom, and he wants to take advantage of its features to further the work of the foundation. You can help Tom with that and his work by contributing to the Arajuno Foundation (


Peru is famous for its history: both ancient and recent. You can find out for yourself with the inexpensive Peru Travel Guide ($0.99,, which provides data about the country, people, and history, similar to what you could find from Wikipedia but with more nuanced traveling tips. A physical travel guide would provide much of the same information but would not be nearly as much fun to play with.

Nazca Lines

NazcaLines-from the airThe Nazca Lines are a series of ancient and incredibly large line drawings located in the Nazca Desert of Peru. They are famous partly because of their supposed extraterrestrial origin. Before visiting them, I watched "Solving History—Nazca Lines" with the Discovery Channel app (free, NazcaLines-in mediaTheir actual purpose is still unknown to traditional archeologists, but the giant artwork scratched out in the high desert of Peru half a millennium ago has a sublime utility to it.

The Nazca Lines as we saw them from the air (left) and as they are portrayed in the media (right).

We chose to view the Nazca drawings by air, in spite of the fact that a tourist plane crashed in the desert the previous week—the third one that year! Our flight was problem free, but the reality of the lines did not match the hype. They're much more interesting if you assume they were made by visiting spacemen. However, we did have extended cell phone service in the plane, and I was able to go online and look up the names of the figures we saw.

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is a 40-kilometer stone-paved staircase up the extremely steep terrain of the Andes Mountains in Peru. It leads to the ancient and fantastical city of Machu Picchu, which was discovered less than a century ago! Each year, approximately 70,000 lucky trekkers hike this ancient path, which had been lost for over 500 years.

Machupiccha2Phone coverage is completely lacking in the high mountains surrounding the city, but remarkably, I had data service in Machu Picchu itself. I used it to satisfy my growing curiosity about a city that was built between 1438 and 1472, abandoned a century later, and reintroduced to the world in 1911 by the American historian, Hiram Bingham.

Preparing for medical school

We spent long days traveling on buses, and I passed the time reading popular mysteries and studying for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). That's right! I'm looking into medical school at my age. The first hurdle was to pass the admissions test. I prepared for it with MCAT presented by AudioLearn ($24.99, This prep course packs two years of premed into a four-hour overview format. The app includes an incredible amount of information and lets you read or listen to them on the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. It's not a substitute for a classroom, but it's a great review. It's been decades since I took undergraduate biology, chemistry, physics, etc., and this refresher course was just what the doctor ordered. I studied up, took the MCAT, and passed it. I even received an invitation to interview

Phone coverage is completely lacking in the high mountains surrounding the city, but remarkably, I had data service in Machu Picchu itself. 

Pardon me while I book some flights

South America is a big continent, and we still have places to go and people to visit. So pardon me; I have to pull out my iPhone, go online, and book a flight to our next destination.

From the depths of the Amazon Rain Forest to heights of Machu Picchu, the iPhone comes in handy!
March-April 2011
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