Last updated: 05:00 PM ET, Thu March 03 2016

Perspectives On a Dog’s Life

Features & Advice | Brian Major | March 03, 2016

Perspectives On a Dog’s Life

Travel’s innumerable pleasures include opportunities to view everyday life from a new perspective. Take dogs for example. I’ve made a practice of photographing dogs — strolling with their owners, lying around estates and wandering the streets claimed by no one. You can learn a lot about a place by observing a dog’s life.

In several journeys around Latin America, I’ve discovered a region filled with dogs and dog lovers. The relationships locals form with man’s best friend somehow mirror the spirit of family and community that runs through Latin American culture, but are unlike those in other dog-loving regions, including the United States.

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Still, dogs are everywhere in Latin America. I've found noble, working-breed house dogs at nearly every mansion, hacienda and mountaintop residence I visited in Ecuador and Chile. I’ve witnessed dozens of cherished family dogs walking, strolling and sitting with their humans in the public parks and shady urban spaces in Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

U.S. residents visiting the region for the first time will likely be amazed by the legions of stray dogs wandering about several Latin American countries. Strays are found in the cosmopolitan, modern cities like Lima and Santiago, and in the mountainous areas beyond the city centers.

At times the strays create safety and humanitarian issues. It’s a problem nearly every country in the region seems to confront.

Yet Latin Americans in general have a different conception of a dog’s life compared with our own ideas. Dogs are certainly prized as companions in these countries, but they’re also viewed in the more traditional role of family guardian and sentry.

In short, most Latin Americans consider it quite normal for a dog to roam freely, returning home for meals and shelter. These dogs even adapt to urban environments: in Santiago it’s not unusual for stray dogs to wait with pedestrians at crosswalks as they knowingly traverse the town. I later realized that some of what I took to be strays were actually family pets allowed to roam freely.

For one reason or another, Chile seems to be particularly dog-intensive. It’s here that I took this image of a boxer bounding about one of the many public parks in the capital city of Santiago. This dog was walking about with his owners, with whom I spoke briefly.

I told them my last dog was also boxer, and with obvious bias we agreed it’s the very best dog breed. Like my late, beloved pet Rocco, this boxer was in excellent form with a show dog-like quality. I marveled at how this pet wandered about without bolting away, but again, many Latin American dogs spend plenty of time off leash and never seem to lack the escape mentality of house-bound U.S. dogs.

Later in Valparaiso I encountered a pack of stray dogs who, sensing my innocuous intentions, allowed me to capture a few colorful images. These two slept peacefully along the painted steps of a somewhat deserted side street of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Valparaiso emerged as a center of Latin American trade and culture in the 19th century, when the coastal city emerged as a key port in the maritime trade between Europe and North America. Latin America’s first stock market and Chile’s first public library established in 1898 and 1873, respectively, were located in Valparaiso. El Mercurio, the world’s oldest continuously printed Spanish-language newspaper, was founded and remains based in the city.

The city’s 42 steep hills are traversed by winding, cobblestone-covered streets. Funiculars installed in the 1880s still ferry residents up and down the hillside streets, filled with bars, shops and restaurants offering sweeping views of the picturesque port. Not to mention a few stray dogs.

A few years ago while touring Chiloe, part of Chile’s Los Lagos region, our group encountered a small and energetic young dog who appeared suddenly from a large house on the grounds of a national park.

All was mostly quiet as we took a morning hike through the mountainous rainforest region. Our little friend however was anything but quiet as he playfully latched onto the shoes of one journalist in a desperate attempt to get someone to play with him.

The little guy nipped at Joel’s shoes, barked, ran in circles and nipped again for a solid five minutes. As we finished our laughs and finally began to wonder whose dog he was, he took off again in the direction of the house, never to be seen again.

While Peru’s premier attraction is undoubtedly Machu Picchu, there are several fascinating stops visitors can make in the Urubamba Valley on the way to the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of these is Ollyantambo, where I encountered this family chatting quietly as their dog waited patiently.

While Machu Picchu deservedly gains tremendous attention among travelers, Ollantaytambo is in many ways an equally important architectural site. The village served as the royal estate of 15th century Incan Emperor Pachacuti and later became the stronghold of Manco Inca Yupanqui, who led the Incas’ resistance to Spain’s conquest of Peru.

Today, visitors can tour the magnificent structures and amazing hillside architecture from those ancient times. Ollyantambo is also considered the primary starting point for the famed Inca Trail hike.

Ecuador’s Hacienda Zuleta hotel and ecolodge offers travelers an experience tied to four centuries of pre-Colombian, Spanish and Ecuadorian traditions. It was here I found this regal pet lounging in what one of the owners told me is his personal chair. His quiet elegance seemed to fit the scene perfectly.

Ecuador’s haciendas were said to originate from former farming communities left vacant by indigenous Caranqui people whose numbers were reduced by successive Incan and Spanish conquests.

Following a colonial period and Jesuit occupation, when the site was likely a Spanish livestock and faming settlement, a private owner, Gabriel Zuleta took control of the Hacienda Zuleta property in 1713. In 1898, the farm was sold to Jose Maria Lasso, the ancestral link to hacienda’s present owners.

The present-day hacienda offers visitors activities including hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and exotic bird-watching. The main house features fascinating paintings, sculpture, art and books collected by Galo Plaza Lasso, a former president of Ecuador and an internationally celebrated bullfighter and diplomat.

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Land reforms introduced during Plaza’s presidency returned substantial tracts of land back to the indigenous Indian peoples. Several hacienda employees are from the Zuleta community and the greater community also includes farmers and women engaged in the local embroidery industry.

These are only a fraction of the images of dogs I’ve taken around Latin America. There’s a story behind each photo, and I’m looking forward to capturing a few more in 2016. 


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