Sunday, 16 May 2010


(Chrissy and Mei write)

So.... Peru. Many drinks and a nasty hangover later, we crossed the border and reached Cusco, the bellybutton of the world. We spent a couple of days being proper tourists on tour buses, our Argos pink Pentax bouncing off our bellies, viewing the amazing Incan ruins at the Qorikancha (unforgettable for its architecture) and Sacsayhuaman (unforgettable because of the size of the stones and cos the name sounds uncannily like ‘sexy woman’). Cusco is one of those places like Luang Prabang (in Laos), Hoi An (in Vietnam) and Bath (in England) that is touristy in a good way. When the Spanish arrived and found this home of Inca civilisation, it was like Dick Whittington’s vision of London. Gold everywhere. And, OK, they melted it all down and shipped it all home as the rightful property of the King and the Catholic Church, but at least, when they finished destroying almost everything that the Incas had built up, they replaced it all with squares and churches that were the equal of anything back home, as if to say, “OK, the Incas may have been good with big, smooth, oddly-shaped stones, but we know a few tricks of the building trade too!” Even though Cusco’s citizens may not all have held a warm welcome – the guy who spat in Chrissy’s face, for example (more on that later) - it is still one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Of course we had to go to Macchu Picchu and we opted to do the cheapest and last-minute-bookable four-day trek there. It involved a three-hour hurtle down a mountain road on bikes (Mei safely stowed in the minibus, finishing reading The Damned United) on the first day, then two days of trekking over Incan trails and more mundane roads until we arrived at Aguas Calientes, bruised and knackered for a four-a.m. dash up to Machu Picchu in time for the sunrise and the chance to climb to Winay Picchu.

There is no point trying to describe Macchu Picchu which has probably become the image that most people associate with South America. It’s just enough to say that it looks just like all of the photos you’ve ever seen. Familiar yet awesome. Of the whole trek a personal highlight for me came at the end of the first day’s trekking. After several hours of toe-blistering walking and a tasty supper, we found ourselves in the central square of tiny Santa Teresa (where we spent the second night). The plaza was full of kids, the boys chasing a football and the girls playing netless volleyball. We (the Gringos) divided ourselves along similar gender boundaries (apart from Shirelle, a tidy striker from Texas) and we took on some of Peru’s finest preteens! Let’s not dwell on trivial details such as the final score which was influenced by the fact that many of the Gringo Grown-ups were forced to play barefoot on concrete due to our flip-flops hampering the skills we had developed on the streets of Amsterdam, Barcelona and Builth. The real winner was football (with sore feet coming a close second).

There were a few problems on the way home with bus drivers refusing to believe that our incompetent tour company had reserved seats back to Cusco for us, but we crawled into our hostel beds twenty-four hours after we had got up to see the sun rise over Macchu Picchu, and it was all well worth it.

The lowlight of our final day in Cusco happened as we walked from the indoor market, where we enjoyed our first ceviche since leaving Buenos Aires, intending to take a local bus to Pisac which apparently has Inca ruins to rival Macchu Picchu and a great artisanal market. Unfortunately we never got there, as Chrissy got – understandably – upset when a guy with a mobile phone and a football shirt decided to spit directly in her face.

I was walking slightly in front of her when I heard a shriek. I turned around expecting that she had been stung by a wasp, but saw a big, unmistakeable gob on her cheek. At the risk of punning in poor taste, I must point out that Chrissy was so calm that the perfect adjective to describe would have to be “phlegmatic”. After the initial yelp, she just said, “He’s just spat on me. He wants to rob us. Keep walking.” Being the type to value the contents of my wallet above a lady’s honour, I did what I was told, and it only later occurred to me that perhaps I should have thumped the blighter!

By this stage in our trip, we are beginning to realise that, if we intend to reach Mexico City ready for our home flight without resorting to too many time-saving flights, we will have to miss some places on our wish-list and take some long bus journeys. Cusco to Lima was 21 hours. And windy. But the roads have smoother surfaces than Bolivia’s dirt tracks so it was bearable. One night in Lima felt like enough to eat more lovely, cheap seafood and visit the catacombs in the Franciscan monastery with a tour-guide who either needed a strong coffee or new job to keep him awake. We also took a tour of Lima’s Museum of the Inquisition which provided yet more reminders of the special gifts brought from Europe – religious oppression, torture etc. Here the tour guide managed to at least look awake although the monotone she used created some pretty weird juxtapositions: “This is the rack on which the limbs of heretics would be stretched until they confessed. And above, you may admire the carvings on the beautifully restored ceiling.”

By now we were rushing to reach Ecuador, but knowing we had not done Peru any justice, we chose one more destination: Huanchaco on the north coast. As well as beaches and great seafood, there was the promise of Chan Chan, the ruins of an adobe city that predates the Incas. I’m not sure what the attraction of visiting ancient ruins is, but if you’re looking for a reminder of how time lays civilisations to waste Ozymandias-style, then Chan Chan, crumbling in dust beside the ocean, is perfect.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Bolivia - Sucre, Uyuni, La Paz, Madidi, Sorata and Copacabana

Our stay in Sucre lasted a week (the longest of anywhere since Buenos Aires). The city was beautiful with its whitewashed colonial buildings, life was genuinely sweet in La Dolce Vita Hostel and we met some of the nicest people of our journey so far. We never got around to helping out with the locals’ English lessons but the Spanish teachers at Fenix were brilliant. We both managed to get a little bit ill but there were plenty of highlights including a game of Wallyball (a cross between squash and volleyball), lots of games of Yenith and the funniest karaoke night ever (which is, I admit, a bit like claiming to have met the nicest Nazi ever!)

Eventually the time came to move on, and we decided to head towards the salt flats in Uyuni (which, like most things in Bolivia, are the highest, biggest etc in the world). We decided to get there via Potosi (the highest city in the world, allegedly). Potosi cowers at the foot of Cerro Rico (Mountain of Riches) where the conquistadors discovered gold and minerals of enormous value which helped them to control the locals almost as much as guns did. There are still mines inside the mountain where people work with a maximum life expectancy of reaching forty (which would have made me, to paraphrase Monty Python’s parrot sketch, an ex-miner if I had been unfortunate enough to be born poor in Bolivia). Nowadays tourists like us can go down into the mine and watch the miners as they breathe in the toxic fumes, which strikes me as being a bit like wanting to get in a time machine to see how slavery worked. We had been told by some people that Potosi isn’t worth visiting unless you go down the mine but, as we didn’t go down, we still can’t comment on whether it’s worth a visit. Suffice it to say we moved on the next day with a kid of about ten singing songs on the bus in the hope of earning a few pennies - it may be begging, but I guess it might just keep him out of the mine. And alive.

There were road blocks in south western Bolivia (apparently due to protests at a Japanese mining company being allowed to steal most of the regions’ water) so we were unable to see the lagoon which contains thousands of pink flamingos (poor us!) but beyond the train cemetary at the edge of the town, the salt flats were an amazing, surreal landscape, and we saw a few flamingos too (lucky us!). Uyuni is unlike anywhere I've ever been and even the Argos princess managed to capture some of the eerieness of the place( below). Obligatory silly photos taken, we moved on to our next destination: La Paz.

Next we wanted to get to Madidi which is in the Bolivian section of the Amazonian rainforest, but we knew we would have to go via La Paz, which I expected to hate, but which turned out to be beautiful, in its hideously hectic way. Our Argos camera was never going to be able to do justice to the city with its sheer walls of brown mud-brick houses built into the mountain-sides. In the evening, the windows of the houses lucky enough to have electric lights sparkle like the stars that seem just inches above them, and in the daytime, they reflect the sunshine that spills down from the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Blimey! I came over all lyrical for a moment there. God knows what will happen when I get onto the jungle? Let’s see...

I know that it’s a selfish vanity to want to go to an ecologically delicate place like the Amazon just to see some animals and take a few pics, but what’s a world tour if not a huge self-indulgence? So, from La Paz we indulged ourselves in a 3-night trip to the Amazonian jungle via Rurrenbaque. We agonised over which tour company to use – should we save money or pay more for better eco-credentials and a clearer conscience? In the end, we opted for Madidi Travel, an organisation that was set up by the woman who had originally rescued the Madidi rainforest from “developers”. She had set up the park in a beautiful area of forest containing jaguars, puma, several species of monkey and flocks of tropical birdlife. The park also has natural lakes full of caiman alligators and piranha.

Our track record for animal-spotting was pretty poor; maybe it’s our smell but whenever we go to a spot famous for its wildlife, the critters seem to hide, but we did manage to have an amazing time, even if we were never present whenever the other gringos at the park saw families of monkeys. We saw lots of spiders, insects, snakes, a variety of beautiful birds and a few capuchin monkeys. We also befriended a small spider monkey called Chupila

who had been temporarily adopted by the park when her mother had been killed by hunters. Almost more impressive than the sightings of animals were the sounds of the jungle. The eeriest noise was the song of the howler monkeys which sounds like a dozen hot-air balloons being inflated. Apparently, they’re only small creatures, but they have a big voice-box and they’re not afraid to use it. Our diet was interesting too. As well as the more conventional meals provided, we were treated to termites (which taste like minty-pine sap) and a fat white firefly larva that our guide (Alex) found inside a fruit stone. It was like biting into a tiny sausage containing a milky fluid. Yum!

Coming back to a cold La Paz night by plane, we headed off in a minivan towards Sorata, 4 hours north of the capital. A protest group had set up a blockade along the main road out, which meant we had to navigate the bogs and rocky suburbian dirt track of El Alto, getting out to push the bus when the way proved too tough. The suburban landscape was as close to hell on earth as anywhere I’ve ever seen. Half-built, adobe huts with goats and sheep tethered to the ground trying to find a blade of grass amongst the rubble. Our minibus driver didn’t seem the most competent, and when he stalled the van for the second time, one of the more Alpha male passengers muscled him out of the drivers’ seat and took the steering wheel for most of the five hour journey into the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Sorata was described by the conquistadors as the garden of Eden when they arrived in South America, and it probably hasn’t changed much. It’s a quiet little town (apart from the constant shouts of “La Paz! La Paz!” from the bus drivers touting for passengers in the main square) nestled amidst the greenest mountains we had seen since leaving New Zealand. On the bus we had met Tomas, an archaeologist from Sorata, who looked like a cross between Lee Scratch Perry and Haile Sellasie and who decided to befriend us for the duration of our short stay in the town. He spoke even less English than we speak Spanish and most of his conversation revolved around his discoveries of ancient artefacts around Sorata. He seemed to have a theory that the pre-Incan Tiwanaku civilisation had extended much further than generally accepted, but our limited knowledge of archaeology and Spanish made it difficult to establish whether he was a genius or a nutter. Anyway, we had a lovely couple of days there and walked in the beautiful hills to the local cave (where a funny little man took us on a pedalo on the underground lake) before moving on to Copacabana (the one on the shores of Lake Titicaca not the one where music and passion are always the fashion).

The bus journey to Copacabana was unglamorous enough to warn us that this was probably not going to be the place that Barry Manilow had been thinking of. We had to jump off the La Paz bound coach and flag down one that was heading towards Copacabana. The driver stopped but told us the bus was full so we could pay the fare if we were happy to stand. So we stood nearly all the way, doing a little aisle jig to the mixture of cumbia, pan-pipe fluff and Latin cheese-rock that blared through the bus’s blown speakers.

Copacabana is on the shores of Lake Titicaca and most of the gringo travellers pass through on their way to Peru taking a boat trip to Isla del Sol where the Incas (and the Tiwinaku culture before them) believed that the sun and moon were created. The town itself didn’t seem to have much going for it initially, with its endless stalls selling llama hats, scarves and jumpers and with its back-to-back cafes proudly proclaiming endorsements from Lonely Planet. But we happened to be arriving in time for a saint’s day fiesta and the grubby town would soon transform itself into an extravaganza of crazy carnival costumes, jazzy brass band music and some of the grooviest line-dancing outside of Texas. And then there was the alcohol! We found ourselves adopted by a group of shimmying dancers replete with brass band who appeared to have not made the grade for the main procession, but who made up for what they lacked in style with their impressive fireworks display, their hot ‘whiskey’ that they insisted was ‘pure’ and ‘healthy’ (who were we to argue?) and their warmest of welcomes to two uncoordinated gringos. They tried to insist that we stayed up all night but we had already bought our bus tickets. We made lots of heart-thumping gestures and slurred avowals that hopefully sounded something like, “Mi corazon es siempre en Bolivia!” and told lies about how we’d meet back up with them for more dancing at dawn just so that we’d be able to get some sleep before the journey to Peru. It took us until our last night to see Bolivians letting their hair down, and they seem to take their pleasure as seriously as they take everything else.

Writing this several days later now, I realise what a special country Bolivia is. Here, in Peru, the “western world” has been fully embraced with our tight jeans and our willingness to smile at strangers (as long as they are potential customers), but Bolivia is still another world, and I wish we had taken loads of photos of cholitas (the traditionally dressed ladies) to remind us of it. At every road block and every toll booth, alongside every rubble wall with political graffiti proclaiming things like “Mas Evo”, there would be half a dozen old ladies desperately trying to make a living selling chewing gum or fizzy drinks. They never looked particularly happy, but they managed to raise something closer to a smile than I could if I was in their position.