Treasure of the ages: Seaborne Odyssey unlocks secrets of the Andean world

Claudia Capos for The Boston Globe

Chilean sculptor Juan Diaz Fleming’s towering Tutelar Figures in the Atacama Desert depict sacred human and animal symbols of the Aymara people.

By Claudia Capos Globe correspondent 

ARICA, Chile — It’s getting hotter by the minute. Every footstep on this russet moonscape reminds us that Chile’s Atacama Desert has earned a reputation as the driest, most desolate place in the world. Nothing grows or moves on its barren hard-packed crust. Well, almost nothing.

In the outlying desert, we drive past giant hen-scratch images, made by unknown hands, depicting a herder and his llamas and two monkeys clinging to the slopes. Now, as we walk on the Pampa de Chaca plain, strange apparitions loom in the stark landscape. They resemble the gigantes and cabezudos that parade through the streets during carnival celebrations.


As it turns out, the Atacama Desert serves as a curious open-air museum for the creative works of artists who lived centuries apart. Chilean sculptor Juan Diaz Fleming fashioned his towering Tutelar Figures in the 1990s to depict sacred human and animal symbols of the Aymara people. More than 1,000 years earlier, Andean Indians etched the surface of hillsides and used dark rocks to create enigmatic geoglyphs.

Just as Doug and I begin to feel french-fried by the blistering sun, a troupe of dancers in beaded blue-and-red satin outfits arrives, and somebody passes out plastic cups filled with pisco sour. After a few hearty refills, we watch the animated dance performance against the majestic backdrop of the Atacama Desert.

The treasures of the Andean world, both ancient and modern, were ours to explore during a 17-day cruise that started in the bustling seaport of Valparaiso, Chile, and took us north along South America’s western edge, then through the Panama Canal and Caribbean Sea, and finally, to Miami.

We discovered that the Pacific seacoast fringing the dramatic Andes Mountains, stretching from Chile to Colombia, harbors some of the world’s best-kept secrets — pre-Inca palaces and pyramids that lay buried for centuries, the world’s oldest mummies dating back 8,000 years, and cloistered valleys where centuries-old ways of life still flourish.

This seaborne odyssey aboard Oceania Cruises’ Marina opened our eyes to people, places, and events we knew little or nothing about.


“This itinerary appeals to seasoned cruisers who want to stop at out-of-the-way ports, visit unique destinations and cross far-distant countries off their bucket list,” cruise director Peter Roberts tells us.

Spanish conquistadors and English buccaneers, including Sir Francis Drake, left their mark on Coquimbo, Chile, our first port-of-call. Locally run booze-cruise boats still fly the Jolly Roger. Traveling by bus along the “Ruta de las Estrellas” (Route of the Stars) toward the Elqui Valley, we stop at two Spanish colonial villages, La Serena and Vicuña, to scour the local markets for alpaca sweaters, leather bags, and exotic fruits.

Passing long stretches of leafy vineyards, we arrive at the Capel pisco distillery. The Spanish first brought Muscat grapes to Chile, and pisco making began in 1733, our guide says, as she leads us on a distillery tour. Fermentation tanks, oak barrels and the sweet pungent aroma of wine fill the rambling building. Double distilling produces a smoother pisco preferred by Chileans, who turn up their noses at harsher-tasting Peruvian-made pisco. After sampling several fruity versions in Capel’s tasting room, we have to agree with the Chileans.

Slate-gray Navy ships and freighters belching black smoke greet us in Callao, Peru, the gateway to the capital city of Lima and, via plane, to Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca citadel set high in the Andes Mountains. Arriving at Lima’s Plaza Mayor , we find ourselves surrounded by wedding-cake palaces and imposing civic buildings. Inside the massive Lima Cathedral, we jockey for a glimpse of the crypt holding the bones of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who founded the “City of Kings” in 1535.

In Lima’s lively shopping district, store owners entice us with gold and lapis-lazuli jewelry. A short walk takes us to Casa Aliaga, the oldest colonial mansion in Lima and, some say, the Western Hemisphere. The stately home has been passed down through generations of the Aliaga family since the days of the conquistadors. Stepping through the doorway transports us back in time nearly five centuries, and we admire Spanish tilework, antique furnishings and a charming inner courtyard, as we sip Inca Kola.

Descendants of the Chimu people, who predated the Incas, still use mud bricks to construct their houses in the Peruvian seaport of Salaverry and neighboring Trujillo, much as their ancestors did centuries ago. Standing at the entrance to Chan Chan, the former capital of the Chimu kingdom, we marvel at the scale of this 8-mile-square “city of palaces,” the largest earthen metropolis built in the New World. Only one of Chan Chan’s nine palaces, dating back as far as 900 AD, has been excavated. Threading our way through the labyrinth of thick mud walls, we discover ceremonial courtyards, platforms for ritualistic offerings and the royal family’s living quarters inscribed with sun and moon motifs.

At our next port-of-call, Manta, Ecuador, we are surprised to find the central plaza brimming with Panama hats for sale. The vendors of this iconic headwear — which originated in Ecuador, not Panama — are handily outnumbered by Goth-looking iguanas foraging for sandwich scraps.

Our taxi driver, Darwin, offers to take us up to Montecristi, where artisans have been hand-weaving “superfinos” for several centuries. In the center of town, at the Manufactura de Sombreros Finos, a small Indian woman leans over a wooden hat form and deftly weaves thin toquilla straw fibers to create the crown and brim of a Panama hat, a process that can take months. After we select our favorite styles and wander through the town, Darwin drives us up to a broad plaza where we visit the impressive memorial to Ecuador’s former president, Eloy Alfaro Delgado, and savor the lofty view.

The following day, the Marina sails across the equator, and crew members dressed as King Neptune and his royal court perform the Order of the Shellback ceremony, a rite of passage commemorating a sailor’s first equatorial crossing. We are officially transformed from Slimy Polliwogs into Trusty Shellbacks.

Before the Marina enters the Panama Canal, it docks at Fuerte Amador, where we share a cab with Janice and Martin, a couple from Winnipeg, Canada, to see the sights around Panama City. Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias Dávila founded the city in 1519, and it became an important stopover along the trading route. After the buccaneer Henry Morgan sacked and burned the original city in 1671, it was rebuilt on a peninsula five miles away.

Over the years, Panama City’s old quarter, Casco Antiguo, fell into neglect, and many of its ornate Spanish and French colonial buildings crumbled. Today it is being restored and has become a trendy hotspot for culture, dining, and entertainment. We wile away the afternoon, poking around the artisans’ market, nibbling chocolates at Oro Moreno Chocolatier, wandering through the lattice of brick-paved streets and admiring the famous gold altar in the Church of San Jose.

Although Casco Antiguo has not yet regained its past glory, we return to the Marina knowing we have found another treasure in a far-distant country that we can now cross off our bucket list.

IF YOU GO . . .

Oceania Cruises offers a variety of South American cruises with different itineraries in 2018 and 2019. For information on sailing dates and pricing, call 855-623-2642 or visit

Claudia Capos can be reached at