DAWN ALONG the rugged coastline of northern Peru. Outside a dusty village in the remote, arid countryside, my bus pulled up to a police checkpoint, rousing me from a fitful sleep. It had been a long, cramped night as the overcrowded vehicle bounced south along the rough pavement en route to Lima. I had shared two seats with an elderly man who snored, his 8-year-old grandson, their burlap sack full of live chickens at our feet and, I later became aware, a swarm of fleas.

The only foreigner, I climbed off to have my passport examined in the guard's shack, one of several such delays I had caused my fellow passengers on the 20-hour trip. When I stepped back outside a few minutes later, I was dumbfounded. The bus had disappeared, and with it my suitcase. My heart sank.

How could they do this to me? The night before, the old man had complained of a headache, and I had given him two aspirins. He seemed so grateful. Why hadn't he told the driver to wait? The other passengers had seemed friendly enough. An inexperienced traveler far from the standard tourist haunts, I was close to dispair.

And then, "beep, beep," I heard the horn in the distance, and saw the bus slowing backing into view from around a hillside curve. The driver, his head poking through the window, sported a wide grin. So did passengers peering from the rest of the windows. A half dozen men and boys jumped from the bus and ran alongside laughing.

It was all a joke, just a funny game everybody had agreed to play on the young gringo to break up the monotony of the journey. When, still shaking a little, I stepped back onboard, they broke into applause, patting me on the shoulder and shaking my hand. They had meant it in good fun, and I took it that way, flashing my friendliest smile -- in relief as much as for good manners.

Later, my seat companion hesitantly explained how pleased he and many of his countrymen were that a norteamericano could speak their language and knew something about their history -- though they were puzzled why I would ride a bus when they knew all Americans could afford to fly.

By the time the trip was over, most of them knew my story -- newspaper writer on a fellowship for several months of study at the University of Chile in Santiago -- and I had learned a few of theirs.

This happened 18 years ago, but it remains vivid. To me, it was a lesson learned of the delights awaiting a traveler who breaks away from the packaged tours to sample the everyday life of the people beyond the luxury hotel, air-conditioned tour bus and airport lounge. That's where you find the adventures.

It was a lesson I could profit from. Back then, my trip to South America was the first time I had been outside the United States. Uncertain about what to expect -- were there acceptable places to stay? -- I consulted a travel agent, who booked my flights and made room reservations at some of the big-name hotels in the capital cities on my route.

What I discovered, as I first explored Caracas and then flew on to Bogota, was that these cities had any number of small, clean hotels, centrally located, that charged sometimes only a quarter of what the fancy tourist places asked. These more-modest hotels were where the Venezuelans and Colombians themselves stayed: the business travelers, professors, ranchers.

By the time I reached Ecuador, I had decided to cancel my high-cost accommodations and seek the cheaper rooms. There were no swimming pools, but the service was good, the toilets flushed and the hotel restaurants served local food instead of the so-called "continental cuisine."

And it was in Quito, Ecuador's capital, where I realized that getting around in South America was much easier than I had imagined, and I turned in a big chunk of my airline ticket.

That was another sign I had begun shedding my naivete. Despite their poor economies, countries like Argentina, Chile and Peru tend to have fairly extensive train or bus networks -- which, of course, is how the ordinary folks travel. The ride wasn't always as comfortable as a plane flight, and I didn't always arrive on time, or anywhere close to it, but I got instead a fascinating picture of each country.

On a bright February morning in Quito, I boarded a single-car train that climbed first into the chill of the high Andes, where Indians herded flocks of sheep and llamas, and then zigzagged down the mountainside into a steamy jungle, where bananas grew wild (I'd never seen a llama or, for that matter, a bearing banana tree). At noon, the train pulled into a small city, and to my astonishment, we all got off for a short walk to a restaurant where lunch was waiting. I suppose it was the railroad's way of making sure we all reboarded on time. The next train wouldn't be along for a couple of days.

Just at dusk, we pulled into the outskirts of Ecuador's tropical port city of Guayaquil. Porters scrambled for the luggage, loading it aboard a small lake steamer. The lights of the city twinkled in the distance as our little boat threaded its way through blooming water plants, their fragrance heightening the magic of the night.

From that moment on, I took ground transportation whenever I could, which is what got me onto the bus down the Peruvian coastline. The several months I subsequently spent in Chile emboldened me even more into traveling away from the beaten path.

So much so, in fact, that I didn't hesitate, when it was time to return to the United States, to set out by train from Santiago across the Andes to Buenos Aires, northward by bus over the Argentine plains to the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion and onward through dusty, red-dirt hill country to the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Before my departure, no travel authority was able to assure me the trip was possible, but they could see no reason why it wouldn't be, since each leg of the trip ended at a capital city, and certainly there must be transportation between them. It was just that they had never sent any tourists along the route.

As it turned out, I only had one moment of doubt during the leisurely three-week trip. That's when the driver of a van-sized Paraguayan bus deposited me -- and only me -- on the bank of the Parana River that separates Paraguay and Brazil. Across its wide expanse, he explained, pointing to a cluster of ramshackle buildings, is where I could catch the next bus to Sao Paulo -- in a couple of days.

I pondered this for a bit, but rescue arrived before gloom set in. From an equally ramshackle collection of structures on my side of the river, a small boy emerged. He picked up my suitcase, waving for me to follow him as he slid down the muddy river bank. At the bottom, a border guard appeared from a small shelter to stamp my passport. In a minute, my bag and I were loaded into a small motorboat operated by the boy's father, and I was ferried across.

On the other side, I struggled up the bank, presented my passport and explained my plight. Where was I to stay until the next bus showed up? No problem, said the Brazilian border guard, and pointed to a jeep taxi. Twenty miles later, through what I recall as intimidating jungle growth, I arrived at the famed resort of Iguacu Falls -- fancy lobby, luxury rooms and a big swimming pool.

By then, I welcomed it all.