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INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL : More of South America From a Latin Lover

March 06, 1988|CATHERINE HEALY | Healy writes books and articles about Latin America. She is associate editor of Americas magazine. and

Latin America is my passion, and so I went south again recently to discover other curiosities that I had to see in order to fulfill a search for contentment.

My list is set forth to entice you if you haven't yet looped around South America. And if you have, to remind you that once is not enough.

Consider, then, these prizes:

Natal, Brazil: Miles of tremendous dunes sweep down to the Atlantic Ocean on this easternmost tip of the continent.

For $5 an hour, drivers spin dune buggies across this exhilarating stretch of sand. Beach lovers are seduced by Vila do Mar and Imira Plaza, a couple of new, small (about 60 rooms) luxury hotels built on the opposite end of the city.

Arequipa, Peru and environs: Not to be confused with Ayacucho, center of Shining Light guerrilla activity, Arequipa dazzles the visitor with its white walls of a pearly volcanic stone.

I want to walk back four centuries inside a miniature 16th-Century walled city, Santa Catalina Convent, where daughters of the wealthy and their servants lived cloistered in tiny buttressed houses until 1970 when it was given over to the government for a beautifully furnished museum.

White-Water Trips

Near Arequipa lies the deepest slash in the earth, Colca Canyon. River rafters can stare straight up 2.5-mile granite walls, more than twice as high as our Grand Canyon.

Explored only a few years ago, guided white-watering trips for experts are offered down the 70-mile canyon, while condors soar overhead. Contact CanoAndes in New York at (212) 286-9415. Warning: One- and two-day excursions commonly sold in Arequipa go only to the south of the canyon, an unimpressive one-mile wall.

For 10 years I have been traveling alone in Latin America, a blonde gringa with a computer, cameras and $100 bills pinned inside my brassiere (when I'm between hotels and their safes). Even with my monetarily inflated bosom, I've never been hassled sexually.

However, I did have my briefcase stolen in Buenos Aires, which is how I learned to carry a photocopy of my passport and leave the real one in a strongbox.

Safety comes in not being stupid. I don't go out of my hotel in Santiago when demonstrations are scheduled. (Management usually warns guests ahead of time.) I don't wear valuable jewelry or carry lots of cash in a billfold, and I don't go into guerrilla zones for some test of my bravery.

The fact is, I have never known anyone who was murdered in South America.

Four places deservedly have captivated the North American imagination: the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon River, Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro.

Drastic Changes

In my more naive, bossier days I used to tell people not to flog themselves around these destinations in a typical two-week vacation. But I found that they couldn't resist the temptation to see all the places that fascinated them in "one trip of a lifetime."

OK, but plan your way carefully around Machu Picchu or you'll get colds and diarrhea from the drastic altitude changes.

Cuzco, capital of the Inca Empire, rises to 11,480 feet. Because planes from Lima land there, Cuzco is the traditional acclimation stop before going down to Machu Picchu in a 7,500-foot Andean saddle.

In other words, travelers are traditionally knocked silly by Cuzco. Wise ones, however, flee the colonial Indian city immediately upon landing and seek refuge in the Urubamba Valley, at 3,500 feet. They begin to adjust from the equatorial Galapagos and the Amazon in the quaint luxury of Alhambra III, a restored monastery, now a hotel in Yucay.

Down time doesn't have to be wasted resting; Inca masonry can be visited up and down the valley, including aqueducts watering terraced plots that are still being farmed. Boaters can thrill mildly with day-trips on the Urubamba River. These can be arranged through your travel agent.

Give yourself a couple of days in the valley, then go up to Machu Picchu. But stay the night. Don't hurry and miss the extraordinary sunrise from the Temple of the Sun. Then, finally, catch your breath and enjoy Cuzco. You'll charge back down to sea level with loads of extra oxygen-rich red corpuscles.

Languorous as Rio is, you'll need plenty of energy to keep up with midnight dinners and the never-ending flow of caipirinhas (limeade lightning, I call them). And you'll need an appetite for the best seafood restaurant I've ever come across--Gottammare, Rua Gomes Carneio 132 in Ipanema.

The month I lived in Rio, I stayed in a Leblon apartment-hotel with a nice pool--Rio Flat, Rua Almirante Guilhem 332.

Colonizing New Land

You can see the Amazon by cruising with Society Expeditions, phone (800) 426-7794, or by taking the 1,800-mile-plus bus ride from the south of Brazil to the pioneer state of Rondonia near Bolivia.

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