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Tales from South America

From a football match in Buenos Aires to the stone faces of Easter Island, our writers reveal what drew them to South America

Published 26 Oct 2016, 09:00 BST
Easter Island, Chile. Image: Getty
Easter Island, Chile. Image: Getty

Easter Island, Chile

He's not the biggest of the bunch. That honour belongs to his neighbour, three spaces to his right. Nor is he the best looking — his features aren't the sharpest, his complexion a touch mottled. But there's no doubt about it — he's the star turn.

It's amazing what an unexpected splash of colour can do. And this particular statue steals the show with his flamboyant headwear — a huge red topknot, hewn from volcanic rock that weighs more than an adult elephant.

I look from face to face — there are 15 of them, lined up, with their backs to the Pacific, and their gazes aimed at the distant quarry, from which all were painstakingly carved centuries ago.

Then I turn back and examine that implausible topknot, and the heavy brow, sharp nose and defiant pursed lips beneath. The head turns and the lips part. "Why are you here?" he asks.

"For you," I say. "I'm here for you. I've got… questions."

"They've all got questions," he replies.

There's a pause. I take this as encouragement. "Tell me how they did it," I beg. "Tell me how they got that thing all the way up there. How did they even lift it? How did they get you here all the way from the quarry? How many men? How much time?" But the moai at Ahu Tongariki are saying nothing more today. And after a few more moments' contemplation, I turn, walk away and rejoin my companions. We make our way along the coast to a cave cut into a cliff, where a barbecue is in full swing. I'm shown to a seat and handed a cocktail.

As I sip, I gaze out to sea, to the thousands of miles of nothingness that stretch out before me. This is Chile. Technically. Officially. But my goodness, it feels like the end of the earth.

Words: Glen Mutel

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Image: Getty

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Borderlands have always held a certain fascination for me: to my mind, it's at these under-explored margins that cultural and national binaries have the potential to crumble. Top of my wish list for over a decade had been the spectacular wilds of Bolivia's southern boundary with Chile, and now here I am: speeding north through the Atacama Desert in a 4WD vehicle.

What importance were abstract dotted lines negotiated in distant staterooms, I wonder, to local smallholders when these two countries were written into being 200 years ago? What's life like along this rugged, liminal band of Earth today?

An answer sits in the front seat: my driver, Arturo, was born in the remote frontier town of Uyuni in Bolivia, but he identifies as Quechua — an indigenous tribe whose lineage runs back to the Incan empire. Quechua is his first language, and it's what he uses to chat to the border guards when we pull up at a dilapidated train shed. Ominously, this is our portal to Bolivia: blood red, rusted tracks run in either direction through dust to empty horizons.

Passports stamped, we bump across the rails and follow faint tyre tracks east. We're high — around 9,800ft above sea level — and we're climbing higher, the air getting thinner and the light brighter. The amber desert's final throes give way to lush plains of purple quinoa populated by grazing alpacas, and we plough on, finally pulling up to picnic beside a glassy lake dotted with flamingos. That night, our group rests in a basic, family-run pension, sheltering from the cold winds that sweep unhindered across the nearby Salar de Uyuni.

At dawn, we wander out onto this ancient salt flat (at 4,086sq miles, the world's largest) as the sun bleaches the inky, star-flecked night into a watery sunrise. The land is scored into large hexagons, like tiles laid by gods, stretching in every direction to a misty frieze of jagged peaks on the horizon. It's soul quieting, otherworldly; a place that, I feel, could only exist far from prying eyes at the outermost limits of a country.

Words: Amelia Duggan

Boca Juniors game, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image: Getty

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Some people go to Buenos Aires for love. Some for art, for drama, for religion. I went for sport — although you might well argue that I found all these other things too, such is the reverence in which the city's most feted football team is held — and the passion it inspires.

I say 'most feted' because there are other football clubs in the Argentine capital. But there is only one Boca Juniors. And a journey to reach it is like approaching the altar — south through San Telmo, down Calle Defensa, people everywhere. You know you're going the right way because of the dress code — that ubiquitous shirt of blue and gold. You go on, past Parque Lezama, crossing the railway tracks on Avenida Almirante Brown — and into La Boca, that scruffy, beloved slice of the city. On match day nowhere feels more alive.

Officially the Estadio Alberto J Armando, Boca's 49,000-seat stadium is generally called La Bombonera. Pure whimsy. 'The Candy Box' is a silly name for this fiery cauldron, its tiers rearing above the pitch. But it is a site of pilgrimage nonetheless — and one that's witnessed players as great and as controversial as Diego Maradona and Carlos Tevez.

In my case, I wouldn't see either man. Nor would I be part of Argentina's fiercest contest, the derby between Boca and city enemies River Plate. This was a game against lowly Club Olimpo from Bahia Blanca, 400 miles to the south west. They proved no match for the local lions, and when Pablo Mouche scored the second in a 2-0 win, in the 66th minute, the contest was over. But the noise which rained from the stands never stopped.

Words: Chris Leadbeater

Published in the South America 2016 guide, distributed with the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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