Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Lima - the last stop

I felt a sense of sadness upon arriving in Lima, the capital of Peru. This would be the final Latin American stop of our trip. Eight months of travelling had almost come to an end. The flights home had been booked months ago, but only now was the realisation starting to sink in.

However, it was as if Lima had realised my sadness and decided to cheer me up a little. Our hotel, based on the outskirts of Miraflores, didn't have a great deal going for it but it was opposite one of the stations of a new bus route straight into the centre of Lima, called the Metropolitana. And in no hurry to recoup any costs, they hadn't even started charging people to use it yet. So we hopped on. How very kind of them.
While Miraflores is the up-market, clean and trendy part of Lima, where you will find all the western goodies, the best hotels and theatres, you shouldn't pass up on an opportunity to see the historic centre. It has the upper hand on architecture with the main Plaza del Armas particularly vast and stunning. We walked through it and took a moment to consult our map. Within seconds, two members of Lima's Tourist Police came over to see if we needed any help. They spoke English, provided us with some sightseeing tips and warned us to watch out for any would-be criminals lurking about. It is one of the most striking things about my experiences travelling in this part of the world. They value their tourists very highly. Perhaps our trip has coincided with an increase in prosperity or a new effort to stamp out crime in city centers. Whichever, it certainly makes you feel a little more comfortable to roam the streets.
We had earmarked Lima as the place to do some last-minute market shopping to pick up some gifts. It was by no means an easy task. The bulk of the shopping had been done in Arequipa, where I had had the same feeling when looking around stalls and shops; would anyone actually appreciate this stuff? There are a certain type of folk who love nick-naks and ornaments and, well, anything as long as it has come from a far and distant land. I do not know many of these people. My family, much like I, do not have a fondness for Inca figurines or miniature llamas to collect dust on the mantelpiece. So, it had to be items of clothing instead. And warm items at that. Everything is made from thick and soft materials like Alpaca. So. they would have to serve as presents for the upcoming British winter in, erm, six months time!
We did take a break from the trauma of market shopping to visit the San Francisco Convent and its catacombs. Here a guide took us around the church, showed us the paintings and then guided us through the underground vaults that contain skulls and bones from as many as 70,000 people. Creepy, but amazing. The second part of the tour enabled us to see the famous library. Standing at one end of the room you can see hundreds of books dating back hundreds of years. A bit odd, but they had roof-lights letting in loads of air and natural light. Apparently stable environmental conditions are not needed to keep the books from crumbling away.

Back in Miraflores for the evening, we indulged in some heavy eating at a North American-style bar and grill which left us barely capable of walking. The area down by the sea-front is a large complex built into the side of the cliffs, and is a perfect place to watch the sunset over a cocktail - or a huge steak in our case! It is a slice of modern living that I suspect only the top end of society in Peru could afford, and it seems a million miles away from the mountain villages we visited just weeks before. But nonetheless it made for a fantastic final evening on the South American continent.

Owing to what I can only assume is past experience, the general consensus is that tourists should take a cab to the airport. Not only that, but a recognised and registered one. And if you do just pick one from the street, memorise its number in case you get into bother. The trouble is that a cab to the airport costs about $25 to $30 USD, and it's really not all that far. Our hotel wanted about $40USD to shuttle us there. No, we'd rather run the gauntlet instead. What's wrong with little drama to end the travels anyway?

You can get to the airport for far less by taking a collectivo (minivan/bus thing) that follows a certain route and gets you to within a few blocks. So this is what we did. Bright and early on a Sunday morning we waited on a street corner with our back-packs until the right numbered van came along. It would cost all of about a dollar between us doing it this way. I had a rough idea of which direction the airport was in, but not long after making a left turn here and right turn there, I had no idea where we were. The van continued to drop off people and pick-up new ones as we headed out of one district and into another. It wasn't long before I started to play out nasty scenarios in my head. For each person we picked up I made a two second character evaluation in my head. Was this going to be the guy who would hold up the van and make off with everything we own? What would I do in such a scenario? I couldn't get mugged on the very last morning now could I? My only comforting thought was that it was Sunday morning and I'm quite sure that criminals like a lie-in!
An hour passed and we were still none the wiser about when we would reach our destination. Things would be a bit touch and go if we didn't get there soon. Suddenly the van stopped at a junction and we were told this was our stop. We got out and learned that the airport was left and about four blocks on. Seeing that we were about to undertake this journey on foot, a local man stepped in and offered that we share a taxi with him, as he was going that way. I made a snap judgement that this guy was in fact friendly and genuinely concerned for our well-being. Eight months travelling sharpens the senses but I made sure I had the penknife to hand. Not a clever strategy to fall back on, I know!

We took a cab with him and found that the four blocks were very long and very, well, dodgy. The local man had feared for our safety and rightly so. The taxi driver charged us a little too much for this five minute journey, but we had made it to the airport in one piece and with all our belongings, toy llamas and all!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Flight of the Condors - Canyon del Colca

Not only is Arequipa the most tranquil and pretty places in Peru, it is also close to a canyon more than twice as deep as the famous Grand Canyon in the United States, called Colca Canyon. That statistic alone makes you want to take a look. Coupled with this chance to see some natural wonder is the chance to do a bit of bird watching while you're there. There is an area called Cruz del Condor high up overlooking the canyon, a spot where condors like to hang out and where you can hang out to watch them.
Wanting to save some cash we decided against one of the many tours from Arequipa. Instead, we took a bus to Cabanaconde, a small town within the Colca national park. The idea was to head to this town, stay over and then get up early to go see the condors, a short journey away. Seems reasonable enough, but we hadn't really considered how much time we would spend on an uncomfortable bus. The bus to Cabanaconde from Arequipa took a long long time. A good seven hours I believe, which was more than the five the tourist office reckoned and more like the eight our guide book approximated.

The bus makes a stop at a town called Chivay and this is where you are asked to pay thirty-five Soles to enter the national park. I felt a bit wary of this. Not only because it is very expensive (a double room for the night would cost twenty), but another traveller had told us that park rangers try to get you to pay this when you're attempting to get a snap of a condor and that you don't really have to pay it. I also found the manner in which this tax was being enforced a little distasteful. There was no official ticket office. A woman simply stepped on the bus and looked to single out the white faces. Once she saw us, she came straight up the aisle and asked us to pay. Had she passed by any other folk on the bus up for a bit of tourism? Who knows. They all looked suitably Peruvian, but how can one operate a policy based on crude appearances? I immediately wished I'd dressed as an old indigenous woman. It would have been easy, just some face paint and copious layers of patterned material would have done the trick!
Maybe I overreacted when I challenged this setup. I don't mind paying my way, and hopefully, if it goes to the right people, it is a good thing for a relatively poor community. I just didn't like the way it was done, nor the disproportionate cost. We did eventually hand over the cash as the bus wasn't going anywhere until we'd paid.

By the time we entered the canyon area it was dark and we couldn't see anything out of the windows. Once we eventually pulled in to Cabanaconde all there was to do was to get a room for the night and eat something hot, as again we found ourselves in a cold place.

The next morning it was one big fight to get on the 6.30 am bus that would drop us at Cruz del Condor in time to see the birds in flight. Not only were there many a tourist doing the same thing, there was also a dozen local women wanting to get there too, so that they could set up their souvenir stalls. There was a fair amount of pushing and shoving but by ten past seven the very full bus started the fifty-minute journey to Cruz del Condor.

Once at the look-out, we were soon accosted by rangers, but were able to produce our tickets bought the day before. We found a good spot and waited. It was cold, and only a few intermittent breaks in the cloud allowed us the comfort of some early morning sun. After three quarters of an hour or so we spotted the first condor. It circled the vast area between the canyon walls and gave everyone a good view of its impressive wing span. Soon, three or four more appeared and made everyone feel the early start had been worth it. I took advantage of the continuous shoot mode on my camera as well as the telescopic lens and captured a good few hundred photos. That would be great fun to edit later!
We got what we came for, so technically it was a successful trip. However, I was still left wondering if it had been worth it. Perhaps if I was more into bird watching there would be no question. But take a look at the photo below - not exactly the most attractive creatures you're ever likely to see. I felt glad that we had gone to see the canyon, but most of that was done through a dirty bus window. We had to make the long ride back to Arequipa in time for our Lima-bound bus that evening, so there was no time to hang around.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Arequipa and kebabs!

Back in Peru after a speedy and efficient journey north through Chile, we headed to our last 'new' destination of the journey. Our sojourn in Chile felt like sheer comfort and the small taster of the country left me wanting to return - albeit with a slightly healthier bank balance! Even the overnight bus from San Pedro de Atacama to Arica was enjoyable. It was clean, comfortable and they had someone behaving like an air steward, getting everyone blankets and pillows on request. All very civilised.

So, onto this last 'new' destination, Arequipa. Well, this place certainly had much to live up to. We had missed out on a trip there the first time round, instead opting to stop by on our way back to Lima. In that time we had met many people who sang the praises of the city and everyone said what a lovely time they had had there.
I'm glad to say that they were all right. Arequipa is probably my favourite city in Peru. You could argue that Cusco has the better architecture or the two, but Arequipa isn't plagued by quite so many tourists. It feels like a city in its own right and not quite so obsessed by the gringo dollar. (Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of these people who hates tourists and yet is one, it's just that Cusco can be a bit much with all the hassle you inevitably attract).

There were two things in Arequipa that almost became an addiction - kebabs and cakes. One Turkish restaurant we tried served the best kebabs I've ever had. They could be classed as very fancy sandwiches rather than kebabs and perhaps you'd find something a bit different in Istanbul, but I couldn't eat enough of them. Any weight I'd lost over the previous seven months I think I put back on in two days!

Then there was the cakes. I fear that my healthy appetite for carrot cake, plus my being over thirty and not under, could spell danger up ahead. My metabolism could stall at any moment! One thing is for sure. If you like cake, you're in good company in Peru, and most of South America for that matter. As we sat in a particular cafe enjoying a slice there was a constant stream of people coming in to pick up huge, specially ordered cakes in boxes. And there must have been a dozen cake shops on the same street all doing a good trade.
But that's enough of my ramblings on food. A good way to burn off some calories is a walk around the Santa Catalina convent, not far from the main plaza. Covering an area of 29,426 square meters, it is a city within a city and a thoroughly fascinating place to be. It is the second time I have been in a large convent - the last being in Cuenca, Ecuador - and I find it striking how cut off you can feel from a city that is only the other side of a wall. From within Santa Catalina you wouldn't know that there was a bustling metropolis on the outside at all. I guess that was the idea when they built it back in the sixteenth century. Now that the nuns have dwindled in numbers and only live in a small part of the grounds, it allows tourists to experience the tranquility of the place.

Being a nun is obviously a tremendous commitment, and visiting a convent brings home just how big that commitment is. The entrance fee permits you to walk into most of the buildings within the grounds and see where the nuns cooked, ate, worked and slept. I won't delve into the merits and faults of religion, but I could not help feeling how much of life was missed by the women who lived there and, no matter how tranquil the surroundings, it seemed very sad.
One thing that I know I will miss about Latin America is the plazas. The spaniards, who were obviously big fans of a large central square, really went to town in Arequipa - although giving it the unoriginal title of Plaza de Armas. One side of the plaza is occupied by the beautiful Basilica Cathedral and the other three are made up by two levels of elegant arched walkways, all made of sillar stone. As standard there is a fountain in the middle, surrounded by gardens... and one too many pigeons! The main square is what gives Arequipa the edge over other cities in Peru. Oh, and the kebabs!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

San Pedro de Atacama - a brief visit to Chile

Our salt flat tour concluded with a comfortable mini-van ride across the border in to Chile. From the seat behind, a booming voice with a Canadian accent excitedly announced the arrival of asphalt. His proclamation was met with a muted response from the passengers, which was understandable. Through one tour group or other we had all spent two and a half days crammed in the back of Land Cruisers traveling over rough terrain, but we knew what he meant. By the looks of things, Chile was going to be somewhat different than Bolivia.
The Bolivian border control had been a hut in the middle of nowhere. The Chilean one was on the edge of a town called San Pedro de Atacama, was equipped with three times the staff and a huge bag scanner - handy for catching out people carrying Earl Grey tea bags or olive oil, for example. Yes, Chile are very particular about what is brought in, unlike their South American neighbours. 
San Pedro de Atacama didn't look all that impressive at first sight. It was lovely and warm in the bright sunshine, but everything looked rather brown. The streets are unpaved and dusty, and all the buildings look the same. But you can forgive these things given that the town has been built in the middle of a desert. On closer inspection it became clear that the place is actually pretty sophisticated. The streets are lined with tour operators and restaurants and places that provide Internet. It is a tourist town but it had something we hadn't encountered for a long time... cuisine. There was no place on set menu's for fried chicken, fried banana and a ton of rice. No, here the restaurants served up lamb cutlets, grilled salmon or seafood risotto for example, all elegantly presented. 
All this sophistication comes at a cost however. There is a significant financial shock in arriving in Chile from Bolivia, but at least you are left with a feeling that you're getting something for your money. 

We may have just come from the amazingly diverse treasures of the nearby Bolivian salt flats, but Chile has some wonders of its own to offer. Near San Pedro de Atacama, the Valle de la Luna is where you can visit mountainous sand dunes and rock formations that are said to resemble the surface of the moon. Perhaps it wasn't quite the right shade for the moon, but it was a wonderfully unique landscape to see and, with with the sun setting, it looked more like Mars.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Bolivian Salt Flats - Part 2

Day two started with a half past six breakfast, which oddly consisted of tea and stodgy cake, then back on the road by seven, leaving the salt flat and salt hotel behind us. We headed for the Bolivian desert and there were plenty of miles to cover so we stopped at the next village along for some supplies - in the form of more beer. Drinking a few cans while travelling in the 4x4 was an inspired idea. I was glad to see our driver didn't partake despite Brice offering!

Ah, yes. It's about time I introduced our splendid group. Let's see, we had Brice, who I just mentioned. He was always on-hand with the bottle of red wine whenever we ate (good man), lives in Brittany and smokes far too much for someone of just twenty-three years. Then, his friend Pierre, the same age and also from Brittany. He has spent time in Ecuador practicing Osteopathy. He speaks great Spanish and was very much the joker of the group. Next we had Florianne, 25, from Marseilles who is an animator by profession and was on hand with the candles when the electricity ran out. And last but not least her friend Cecilia, 21, also an animator back in France and who was cheerful and generally a pleasure to be around. There.
It was our turn to be in the back of the jeep. It was indeed lacking in legroom, however, despite the many miles we travelled on day two, we frequently stopped to admire views and take photos and stretch our legs. This day would mainly be about visiting a series of lakes. And on some of the lakes we got the rare chance of seeing flamingos! At one such lake we stopped and while Elias, our driver prepared lunch, we photographed the pink-coloured birds and the magnificent reflection of the mountains in the background. 

Lunch, by the way, was delicious. I wasn't expecting much, it being served out of the back of the jeep in the middle of nowhere. But we had bread-crumbed chicken, potatoes, rice and salad. And, of course, wine!
With another day of sightseeing drawing to a close it was time to head for our second accommodation for the trip. Set around a lake, this hospedaje wasn't made of salt but was on par in terms of facilities. It was basic, as expected. But again, it did have electricity so we weren't in the dark after sundown. But what proved challenging was the temperature. It is difficult to tell exactly how cold it is. Having spent a fair part of our travelling days in hot places, I suspected I had become a little sensitive to a bit of cold. Or soft, you could say! And up at around 4000m the wind can really get to your bones. However, we were informed that it was very close to zero degrees celsius and by nightfall temperatures would reach a chilling minus sixteen! The thing here is that we did not have any form of heating. I'm pretty sure I've never felt as cold as I did that night. After playing poker and struggling to hold the playing cards wearing gloves, we called it a night and went to bury ourselves in sleeping bags and blankets before a five in the morning wake up call. Yeah, that was going to be a joy!
It was indeed a painful experience to get up at such an early hour and in such cold. Our guide popped his head in and informed us he was loading the car. I'm sure he hadn't slept without heating. The evening before I'd seen the next house along with smoke bellowing from its chimney giving me visions of all the guides curled up around a big fire like dogs. 
Day three of our trip would be short but sweet. In the dark we drove along until we reached an area full of geysers. With the sun just coming up we had a good old nose around the dozens of holes with hot gases rushing up from them. It was amazing. Pretty smelly though. You could only endure the stench of rotten eggs for so long! 

From here it was on to the thermal pool, and breakfast. When we pulled up the pool had many a white-skinned human in it already. The air temperature was still very very low, but most had braved it, stripped off and jumped in the warm water. All very well, but getting out again would be a tough task. Pierre and Bryce talked for a while and decided to go for it. Sophie and Floriane stayed in the car with a cup of tea and I copied Cecilia and dipped my feet in the pool, as a half measure. In my defense my towel was packed away amongst the bags on top of the jeep. 
After breakfast we headed for the last stop, Laguna Verde - the lifeless lake laden with arsenic. If you catch it at the right time it is green, as its name suggests. This day it only had a slight tinge of green, but still a magnificent sight. From here it was onwards to the Chilean border where we would go our separate ways, the French heading back to Uyuni and us into Chile. 

The cold temperatures was definitely the main challenge of the trip, not to mention second having to converse in Spanish with our new friends - all good practice. But, as I write from the comfort of my warm hotel room back in civilisation, I am so glad we chose to take the three day trip. The salt flats were out of this world, but the Bolivian desert, with its mountains, geysers and lakes were equally as impressive.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Bolivian Salt Flats - Part 1

We set off mid-morning, once our Land Cruiser had been loaded up with luggage, fuel, food, plus the four French people that would make up our group. A standard three day tour will take six people and they manage to fill the cars, no doubt by tempting lone travellers with rock bottom prices at the last minute. I'd say there is something to be said for standing on the street at five to eleven looking disinterested. Its bound to get you a great bargain!
Anyway, six people plus driver is just about comfortable in the Toyota 4x4 - though the two in the back have limited leg space. But, as all the tours offer the same transport, it is obvious that these machines are the best for the job. Not long had we been travelling out of town had the bumpy terrain started. But it provided no test for these vehicles. It was almost as smooth as a Rolls Royce on new tarmac.
First stop, a train graveyard - quite a spectacular sight, just on the outskirts of Uyuni. The British built railway had once been used to transport minerals from the nearby mountains and transport them to Chile and the coastal ports. However, since depletion of mineral reserves in the 1940's, the trains were abandoned producing an eery train cemetery - and something for us to climb all over and take pictures. Glad I'd had my tetanus booster! Rumour has it that a proper museum is planned for the site, but for now you're invited to climb aboard and pretend you're a train driver from the late nineteenth century!
Next, the reason we came. The Salar. It is nothing short of incredible. The flat white surface of salt stretches out as far as the eye can see and the contrast between that and the brilliant blue Bolivian sky makes it something really special and unique. I doubt there is anything on earth quite like it. Of course, it presented the opportunity to have some fun creating odd perspectives with the camera.
Soon after having messed around posing with some 'huge' cans of beer, it was lunch. Our guide set out an impressive array of food, and the French cracked open a bottle of red. It was good fare and fantastic surroundings - although four of our group would have been happier to finish the meal with some strong cheeses.
The Salt Flat isn't all, well... flat. There is an island to see, formerly the top of a submerged volcano back when the salt flat was a prehistoric lake. The island, called Isla de Pescado apparently because of its likeness to a fish from a distance, has some large cactuses growing on it. But for me the thing to do was to climb up on top of the island and get some more views of the flats. Like others around me, I couldn't stop taking photos. Thank goodness for digital.

Day one was almost over. Not a particularly strenuous one, I know. But it was a welcome change to be driven around and not be expected to hike for three hours or climb up to a mountain summit. Plus the French (don't worry, I'll get around to introducing them) had a supply of beer and every so often one would be passed around the car as we sped over the crusty white salt surface. Realising we'd missed a trick, we stocked up ourselves whilst stopping at a small village.
As the sun started to set and the last dregs of Pacena were being swallowed, we pulled up at a little community of houses on the edge of the plain. Our home for the night was to be made of salt. Yes, that's right, there is so much salt in these parts, they build hotels from the stuff. And its no shoddy job either. These blocks have been professionally cut and look just like they are made from stone. Only on close inspection can you see the shimmering crystals.
We were told that of the two nights on the trip, the stay at the salt hotel would be the more luxury of the two. OK, they had a shower (which was actually out of service on this occasion) but it was hard to see how much more basic a hotel stay could be. I suppose electricity could be classed as a luxury. But after dinner and a few games of cards, one by one the lights went out and the water was turned off. Thankfully our French pals had brought along head lamps and candles. Well done them! We would have really struggled otherwise.

To be continued...

Monday, 24 May 2010

Bolivia's second 'Death Road'?

I couldn't tell you exactly how many miles we have travelled since arriving in Mexico city last October. But I'm fairly sure that I can now tell you where the most difficult of those miles occurred. After spending time in the plush and serene surroundings of Tarija, the bus ride north towards Uyuni served as a reminder that Bolivia is amongst the poorest of the countries we've visited.
To get to Uyuni from Tarija requires taking an overnight bus journey to Tupiza and then a further seven or so hours on a bus from there. I no longer find it hard to psyche myself up for these journeys. You soon know what mindset you need to be in to avoid the frustrations of stops in the middle of the night, winding roads, crying children and drivers who want to emulate Ayrton Senna. What works for me is having plenty of battery on the mp3 player, your own supply of loo roll, a sleeping bag and a bottle of water. Then, sit back and see what happens. Who knows, you might fall asleep!

Well, none of that was going to make a difference this time. After settling in on a battered, grubby bus with broken seats that stayed reclined, we pulled out of Tarija. The lights went out at all of half past eight and the bus turned off the main road and onto a dirt track. The road to Tupiza is all stoney track and no tarmac. 

To say that the track was bumpy is an understatement. Right from the off we were thrown all about the place and frequently my body left the seat several inches and then crashed back down again. Hardly the best environment to catch some sleep. This was to be the state of things until we arrived in Tupiza in the morning. The road is said to be a fairly dodgy one too and perhaps it was better that the dark prevented the sight of any sheer drops.

At half past ten we made a stop in a town I'll call World's End, or Termina El Mundo if you like. It was cold, dark, the wind was blowing a gale (containing lots of dust) and there were just a couple of buildings around, one a restaurant. Some got off for a meal. We only wanted to use the facilities as in Bolivia they don't provide toilets on buses. The trouble is, they're also not concerned with stopping somewhere with a toilet. The restaurant owner claimed not to have any toilets and told us to go outside. Nice. 
After a further six hours of being thrown around inside a bus, we arrived in Tupiza. Second to a lack of hygiene, Bolivia does not synchronize its buses. It was five in the morning and the onward bus to Uyuni was scheduled to leave at ten o'clock. What else to do in the cold and dark than to unroll the sleeping bag and curl up on a bench. See, I told you it was part of the essential kit list! 

After sunrise we discovered that Tupiza didn't offer anything by way of places to grab a bit of breakfast, so we gate-crashed a hostel and got them to feed us some bread and a cup of tea. 
The next leg of the journey was very long and very cramped and involved a stop at Atocha, a mining town surrounded by desert and mountains. This surely is about as rural as it gets in Bolivia. Again there was a harsh wind blowing dust around and anything that wasn't nailed down. It was an interesting place to see but unfortunately none of the restaurants or market stalls had any food to sell. I think it's the first time I've encountered a place that has turned away a bus-load of travellers. Surely a bus stops here every day about the same time. Perhaps the thing to do would be to get some food on the go?

As a rule, an overnight bus will get in early and a day bus will get in late. We reached Uyuni by around six o'clock tired and in need of a shower. Uyuni is a basic town that is full of tour agencies but it has many restaurants plus a few stylish pubs. The trick is staying warm. I'm not sure if a lack of sleep will generally make you feel the cold more, but I wore as many layers as I could and went about getting myself a bowl of soup to huddle over!

The roads to Uyuni are never going to compete with the Death Road near La Paz, but perhaps it is a stretch that could be dubbed "Make-you-feel-like-death road"!