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Some words from the Southern Hemisphere III

by jimbob72 

Posted: 28 November 2003
Word Count: 1670
Summary: Peru (in two parts)

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Part I

A 10hr, midnight border crossing is a fine way to prepare for a new country and a new experience. Staring, bleary-eyed at a rotund, moustachioed immigration official, as he explains the need to be in possession of a particular form (i.e. the one that suddenly costs an extra $4), can quicken the pulse as effectively as an espresso.

So Peru. The first stretch is where coastal desert, dotted with perfect crescent dunes, lies like a ribbon of Ryvita twixt the Pacific and the lofty Andes. The towns (Piura, Chiclayo, Trujillo) seem to be populated solely by taxis and vultures (the difference is slight) and everything is for sale. This Peru is the sun setting in a pink, dusty haze, packs of scruffy dogs sniffing each others backsides and the sound of 83 fruit salesmen competing over loudspeakers. The monotone 'Mandarina, Mandarina!' amplified and echoed like frogs mating is utterly bizarre and yet somehow in keeping with the surroundings.

Ruins abound in the desolate, sandy wasteland. I don't envy the guides though who try to convince incredulous tourists that some squat, crumbling mounds of dust constitute archaeological finds as important as the those pointy things in Egypt. Nice weather though (my nose now resembles a baby aubergine).

The other bits of northern Peru are the mountains and the jungle (which, because I'm a jungle snob, I'm skipping in favour of the more biodiverse southern rainforest - you get a better class of monkey there). Huaraz is the trekking, climbing and men-with-strange-shaped-limbs capitol of SA. People go there to be buried under avalanches, fall from great heights and swap Star Trek anecdotes. It is pretty damn impressive though [Note to Ecuador: - this is how you make mountains]. Against my better judgement I spent 3 nights in a tent accumulating icicles, struggling to breathe, and nursing my savaged feet. Needed a cerveza-drip afterwards.

The thin air does funny things to ones thought processes. On the way down from the ice and snow, we came across two Englishmen bedecked in crisp white shirts, slacks and Panamas, perched on a huge boulder surveying a field in which a number of Peruvians dug ditches and broke rocks (who said slavery was dead). Turns out they are building a hostel for backpackers and trekkers. Now, at a more sensible altitude they would have been planning say 10 rooms, hot showers, use of kitchen, book exchange, that kind of thing. But no. Up in the breathless cordillera, they have blueprints for 60 rooms, sauna, English pub, tennis courts (you would die trying to play at that height), helipad and (I kid not) a croquet lawn. Oh, and a wind-farm, solar panels and an ecologically sound waste disposal system with methane extraction. I promised I'd be back sometime to check it out but I suspect I may just find some ditches and broken rocks. Still, one of the guys used to work for Andersens so at least the accounts will look good.

Lima. Think Barcelona, take away about 90% of the aesthetic beauty, and add a fair sprinkling of Birmingham. Actually, Lima still has a bull-ring (two in fact). Full of riot police looking for heads to crack. Not much else I'm afraid. Only time the weather has been less than perfect, with a damp, grey blanket of mist clogging the whole place. Was welcomed in style though, as the entire Peruvian air force (8 planes) flew over as I was quaffing my cappuccino. They were however all flying in different directions, either through sheer confusion or in a desperate attempt to look busy (oh oh, here comes El Presidente, take to the skies boys!).

Nazca. The mystery of the lines and their spiritual and cosmic relevance. Too hazy. Didn't see them. Horrible town.

Arequipa, Peru's 2nd city, sits slap-bang beneath the cone of Volcan Misti and basks under 360 days of solid sunshine a year. This though is definitely on the tourist trail. Four different restaurants, four pan-pipe bands, four different versions of Imagine. Perhaps sneakily ringing the prayer bell in the convent of Santa Catalina was ill-advised and now I'm just paying for my sins. One of the bands really was awful. Absolutely no way did they deserve any dinero. Good ones are skilful, courteous and play interesting and complex pieces at a sociable volume. These guys were like four drunks in curtains, blowing Yesterday into their gin bottles.

Colca canyon (second deepest in the world after its neighbour Cotahuasi) is a sight and a half. Eschewed an organised tour in favour of mucking in with the locals (which basically means spending hours on a bus with my knees around my head, listening to someone shouting the benefits of Mr Toothy toothbrushes). Saw 2 condors up very close, which was very cool. One flew straight at me when I was standing on the lip of the 3,300m deep canyon, which was nice of it.

Tomorrow, off to Cuzco, centre of gringo hell. Don't intend to stay too long as I'm not (horror!) doing the Inca Trail. Don't fancy paying lots of money for the privilege of four freezing days trudging in the wake of loads of fat, wheezing pac-a-macs (apologies to those that have done it, and to any wheezing pac-a-macs reading this). Will spend my money blow-piping rare wildlife in the jungle instead.

Part II

I think I'm developing vista fatigue. I can't find it on the medical websites, but I now greet each new panorama with gradually diminishing awe. Despite the best efforts of the natural world to surprise me on every turn with yet more eye-boggling spectacles, I find my shoulders irrepressibly rising in a vague hunch and my face betrays the feeling that I've seen it all before.

I believe I left you in Arequipa, where no doubt you've been having a ball (despite the best efforts of the pan-pipe mafia). I shall therefore pick up the tale from Qosqo, navel of the Incan civilisation, and armpit of the tourist trail. A pretty city centre, set neatly around a colonial plaza, dissipates into the usual jumble of dusty streets and half-finished concrete buildings. Most of the original Inca stonework (which is mighty impressive) has been swamped by Spanish and modern architecture, such as the gaudy Cathedral which contains a breathtakingly vulgar display of religious plundering. The town itself seems populated by a bizarre mix of tourists, touts and tricksters. In fact there doesn't seem to be any normal citizens at all.

Despite all of this, I lingered in its grip for some time as there is so much to see. The surrounding country contains upwards of 20 large Incan ruins, the centrepiece of course being Machu Pikachu (now owned by Nintendo and operated under its Pokemon franchise). It might as well be, given the vast amount of cash generated from such a basic premise as herding large numbers of wealthy culture-seekers up and down a rocky outcrop. The view, once I'd managed to clear the sweat from my stinging eyes, was fantastic
(this was before I started to develop my new illness). I had to pinch myself, as I felt I was back in Trailfinders staring at a poster on their wall.

After two other ruins, which where less spectacular but infinitely more charming given the lack of people and therefore the lower risk of tripping over a cool-box, or of spoiling someone's group photograph by 'unknowingly' standing behind them and picking one's nose, I had had enough and needed a change of pace (it's a definite sign of ageing when ruins are too hectic).

East of the Andes lies the rainforest. So I went east. For once (well, ignoring the Galapagos, which was a long time ago), I threw in the backpackers towel (which is a kind of frayed, and rather stained item) in favour of the type of luxurious, tasselled bath robe worn by pampered package goers, and spent a week being carried through the jungle on a raised chariot, flicking the flies from my pith hat and barking orders at my entourage. Three lazy days spent in the cloud forest watching crazy coloured birds flee their perches just before I depressed the shutter release, and four sultry days cruising the brackish waterways of the rainforest proper and tracking strange and exotic beasts in the heart of darkness. I could tell you about all the animals I saw but it would just bore you or make you jealous. Suffice to say I didn't find the last tick until I boarded the plane back to Qosqo.

I'm afraid that's more or less it, as Peru rather fizzled out after that. I chose not to subject myself to the rigours of Lake Titicaca and the hoards of deprived and emotionally-draining children. The view from the bus was nice (V.F was beginning to set in at this stage), and I got to Bolivia in good time. The border wasn't even that hard or fun, although they did have a rather strange system of rooms, through which you were expected to proceed in numerical order. Room 1 contained a couple of relatively smart men who checked passports and gave vague, approving noises. Room 2 had a slightly less well-dressed man who actually stamped the passports and tore off part of the immigration form. Room 3 had a woman and a man, both of whom looked like they'd just got back from a cider festival, who copied names into a large book and then giggled when I said I was from England. Room 4 was empty, which after all the others was slightly unnerving.

Anyway, here I am in La Paz. Not sure I'm going to stay all that long as the smell of those Argentinian steaks and that Chilean wine is getting stronger by the day and from what I can gather, the main sights in this country consist of a disused mine and large expanse of salt. Still, I will of course tell you all about it once I'm done here

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