Isn’t it iconic?

It's gonna be hard leaving good waves and nightly sunset like this.

IN A couple of days I’ll be leaving the epic waves and good vibes of north Peru for the uncertainty and, more than likely, sub-par waves of Ecuador. For most of my trip so far I’ve been fairly well-researched and had a rough idea of at least one or two things I was keen to see in each country. In Ecuador (of which I’ve heard good things about from non-surfers and mixed reviews from surfers) I’m just gonna kind of wing it.

But at some point along my travels through South America’s second-smallest country, I want to visit one of its touristy icons – one of its natural or man-man made wonders that entices people from all over to gaze at its pure radness. In every country I’ve visited on this continent so far, except Uruguay, I’ve made sure I’ve dragged myself away from the coast for at least a day or two to go see something the guidebooks and other travellers told me were a ‘must-see’ or were ‘not to be missed’. In Argentina it was the advancing Glacier Perito Moreno, in Chile – the ‘W’ Trek at Torres Del Paine, in Bolivia I went to Lake Titicaca and the birthplace of the Sun God, while in Peru I spent a day at the South American icon of icons – Machu Picchu. So far, I’d say they’ve all been worthwhile.

Getting all bromantic, atop Wayna Picchu - a mountain that rises above the South American icon of icons, Machu Picchu.

The one thing I haven’t done as yet, which can still be done on my route north, is visit the Amazon Basin. I’ve been told by more than a few people that it’s one of the aforementioned ‘must-sees’ and I’ve read a bunch about how awesome and rad a trip into the jungle is. As a result, part of me feels like I’d be a fool to come to South America and not visit the world’s largest rainforest and one of the mighty River’s many tributaries. The other part of me looks at my bank account and thinks maybe I’ll take a rain check – I shouldn’t hand over a big wad of my hard-earned cash to do something just because I feel like it’s the right thing to do. Especially when I could be surfing. I know I’d have a sweet time and all but I just can’t decide if it’s really worth it, or whether it’d just be one of those things in the future where I’d be like, “Yeah it was pretty good I guess.”. My backup plan is most likely doing a day-hike to one of two volcanoes: Chimborazo or Cotopaxi – the former being the furthest point from the centre of the earth, due to the earth’s equatorial bulge (whatever that means).

One of the pictures that will come up if you type "Amazon Ecuador" into Google Images. San Rafael Falls. Fuck.

Lonely Planet staffer Jane Nethercote recently wrote about ‘travel icons’ and the question of whether or not you should visit them. You can view the article here. She presents the opposing views of two travellers. First is Trent who says,

“These ICONS are iconic for a reason. They’re either the pinnacle of human achievement for their age (Pyramids, Angkor Wat), Mother Nature’s most majestic works of art (Mt Fuji, Uluru) or combinations of both (Cappadocia, Cape Town). They’re iconic because they’re incredible and unforgettable and unique. Stuff the crowds and expense; these things demand to be seen.”

Then there’s Amy, who retorts,

“The icons are popular for a reason but the icon-seekers travelling to some tourist treasure map hunt are short-changing their holidays. The brilliance of travel is in the experience, not the icon. What makes a travel memory are the stories you wend around your experience – the people you travel with, the strange things that happened and generally the places in between those icons.”

I can see the appeal in both these schools of thought. I’ve seen tons of people since I’ve been in South America, whose trips have almost been identical to each other. Maybe some have gone from north to south and the others vice versa, but essentially their trips have been the same. They’ve ticked off every super popular thing you’re supposed to see and do in every country – hike the Inca Trail, do a funny pose at Bolivia’s Salar De Uyuni, got fucked up in La Paz etc. and kinda left it at that. I’m not saying their trips wouldn’t have been mega sweet, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot more to the continent than rushing through countries and ticking things off a well-worn list and making sure to get a photo of yourself at each one.

My trip to Glacier Perito Moreno was epic, but the boat trip part of it wasn't. Hordes of tourists clambering over you to get the best shots and stepping on your toes wasn't fun at all.

Trent rebuts soundly by saying,

“Visiting icons does not preclude one from seeking the difference from the mundane. It’s how a traveller spends the time between icons that defines their travel experience.”

This is probably the most accurate answer to question of whether to visit the ‘icons’. Or maybe it’s lame to even think about, as “joolz2” comments, “What a daft question. Most people are interested in seeing some icons and not others. It’s all a question of taste and your reasons for travelling – whatever they might be.”

El Gringo (Arica, Chile) - an icon in the surfing and bodyboarding worlds.

I think so far I’ve struck a pretty good balance on this trip. I’ve made sure I’ve snuck a few of the big ‘must-sees’ in with some stuff that I guess you could apply the worn travel-snob term, “off the beaten track” to. What percentage of tourists breezing through South America each year have looked out from the inside of an El Gringo barrel or lived in a tent in the Peruvian desert for a month, surfing twice a day? But as usual the most rewarding shit has been the crew I’ve met along the road, seeing the cool and fascinating ways people super different to me go about their daily lives, and having a go at learning another language (although I’ve been seriously slack at this the past month). I just wish someone would make up my mind about whether or not to go to the fucking Amazon. And find me a cheap price…

Further reading

9 Reasons Why It’s Okay To Stay On The Beaten Path‘ Kaleidoscopic Wandering

The tourist industry is in the ‘off-the-beaten-track’ business‘ Vagablogging

Travel Off the Beaten Path‘ Living If

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