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Escaping Asunción

Our last day in Paraguay. I'm glad to have come here to see it but am very happy that we're now moving on. We checked in at the airport to await our flight. The first leg is with TAM - a very comfy and smooth flight. We got to Santiago at about 3pm. It was strange being back there again and we were both itching to be out of the airport and back down to the lakes. However, we contented ourselves with Pisco Sour, free internet access and whiled away the time until our flight to Lima.

In the airport we also saw signs that it was Father's Day (yes Dad a confession - even though its always the Sunday after Beccie's birthday I'd forgotten!!) so I called home quickly to speak to Dad and Mum. It was great to hear from them. Having the odd phase of Luddite tendencies, I still find it amazing that even though we're half way round the world I was speaking to them as if they were just round the corner.

The leg to from Santiago to Lima didn't match up to the previous high standards we'd had from Lan Chile. The plane had seen better days but the flight passed smoothly enough and we soon touched down in Lima at around 11pm.

Here we'd expected a pretty grotty airport and an onslaught of people pushing "cambio, taxi, hotel" but it wasn't the case. The airport was very modern and looked as if it was recently built. I'd spotted that they'd only given Stef a 30 day stamp on his paperwork but they happily changed it so that we both have 90 days. We probably won't be here for more than 30 but it gives us the flexibility just in case.

In the main arrivals hall there were loads of people meeting the flight, many being drivers from hotels collecting new customers. Stef had phoned yesterday to book us into an the Inkawasi hotel in Miraflores. They said they would collect us but were nowhere in sight. We called them and got a "we don't collect" reply. Stef also had the feeling that the person he spoke to knew nothing of our booking. When we arrived there - nice looking place - Stef's suspicions were confirmed. No double room with private bath just bunks in a dorm - not for us!

Fortunately we had a friendly taxi driver who had waited while we checked (there were no lights on and the door was closed). He took us to an alternative, Hotel Ejecutivo, still within our budget but closer to the centre of Miraflores, the part of Lima we'd planned to stay in. They had a room, basic but OK. It was a long day but sleep was slow in coming.

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Newest club member

I'd slept like a log, Stef not so well. We both craved a good shower but it was not to be. Seems like its going to be a recurrent theme on this trip!!

We'd planned that we would spend today researching about Peru and planning our time here. Getting here a few weeks earlier, due to missing out Bolivia, means I'm not as prepared as I wanted to be and I don't think Stef is either.

Lonely Planet gave information about a voluntary organisation called the South American Explorers club which has offices in Lima, Cuzco and Quito - all places we're planning to go to. They provide information and help on what to do and how to get there, plus have a clubhouse that you can camp out in during the day to use their facilities. We signed up for a years membership and spent the next few hours there doing our research.

It’s a great place. There's loads of information and reference material as well as reports from other travellers (with the inevitable bias towards what went wrong rather than what worked well). There's comfy spaces that you can sit and read and free tea, coffee, water and internet access (including wireless) to keep you going while you plan. Its also handy for just meeting other people and sharing tales and recommendations. We hit information overload after we'd planned the first part of our stay and will probably end up there again when we next hit Lima in a couple of weeks.

As with Asunción when we first arrived we're still finding our feet. Our hotel (near to the gay only sauna!) had locked gates in front of it. So do all of the houses around the SAE club. It again makes me wary. We asked if it was safe to walk around the Miraflores area at night and got a "yes, as long as there are other people around" reply. Logically, this is what we would say to people new into London but it leaves a lingering doubt. It made me take a fresh perspective on how daunting London must seem to people who don't know if, especially if they don't speak English. We take it for granted that we know which bus/tube/taxi/train is OK to travel on. Here in Lima we still haven't a clue!!

On our way to SAE we passed a small park and headed back there for an evening drink. This was after an abortive attempt to send some guide books and leaflets back home - at US$160 it would cost us less to buy them all again when we're back. We also had a failed attempt to buy our bus tickets for tomorrow. Despite the SAE saying we could buy bus tickets at Wong's supermarket (about a 15 minute walk from where we were), Wong's didn't sell them

By the time we hit the cafe we felt we'd earned a drink or two. The Pisco's (local speciality) were great and we relaxed into people watching mode, or rather car watching. In front of us people we're parking in spaces that had been laid out ridiculously small, requiring some pretty smart bodily contortions by the drivers to enable them to get out of their cars.

Heading back to the hotel later we felt perfectly safe - perhaps we're already just starting to tune in to a Peruvian rhythm.

Despite trying yesterday we had failed to get accurate information about which bus could take us where we wanted to go or when and where it left Lima. Overnight, we had changed our travel plans and decided to stay in Paracas (small coastal resort) rather than Pisco (home of the local drink). This means a different bus to the one we thought we probably would get so our inability to buy tickets yesterday actually worked in our favour.

We headed back to the SAE to kill time before the bus and to check this site for messages. We'd parked ourselves at a big dining room table which people use for looking at maps. Stef was getting annoyed with a French couple who were map reading. They had stuff spread out over most of the table already but were still heading down towards us, totally oblivious of the fact. That got a "they're French what do you expect?" comment from me.

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El Libertador

We took a taxi to the bus depot. It was a little Hyundai which runs on LPG. The tank took up most of the space in the boot so it was a snug ride. The traffic here is pretty mad - more parallels with India were drawn! Our bus is a Royal Class affair which comes with in flight entertainment (Lord of the Rings part 2 - yes the journey was long enough for  the whole film but fortunately the sound was iffy) and a free sandwich and drink. Before boarding Stef bought a bottle of Inka Cola, a local drink which is very sweet and a bit similar to Irn Bru and Lucozade. I doubt we'll buy it again and was surprised at how many people on the bus (almost exclusively foreign tourists) bought it.

The couple behind us (Duncan and Jen) had also just arrived in Lima and are off to trek the Inca Trail. We'd not planned that far in advance and its now fully booked until September. After Perú they're off to Chile so we ran though what we'd seen and done there and left them our website details also.

We've hit Peru at the start of its 8 month season of sea mist (its desert country so there's no rain) so you can't see clearly beyond a couple of hundred metres. Its a shame because our route takes us down the Pan-American highway along the Pacific coast. As in the north of Chile though the scenery changes little. Its mainly arid desert but where there's water its very green.

When you reach an area with water the agriculture is extensive. Its hard to believe they can grow anything much here. We could make out cotton and corn but I have idea what else is being grown. Along the route there were also big long low structures like a cross between a garden shed and a poly tunnel. Where these were close to the road you could make out what they were for. I'd assumed they were perhaps nurseries for plants but they're battery chicken farms. There are so many crammed in that they can't have much space to move.

We passed through Chincha and Pisco before reaching Paracas and I was glad we'd changed our plans. Neither looked great but I suppose you get a distorted view from the bus. Being a double decker we were above the height of the buildings. Its earthquake territory here so they are mainly one storey buildings. The roofs look like they've been made from corrugated iron and some have old bits of furniture thrown on top. I'm not sure if this is just storage or whether its a tactic to stop the roof blowing away.

The towns both looked dusty and dirty and I've got the taste of sand in my mouth like we had in northern Chile. When we passed villages in the desert you could barely make out the houses through the fug. The bricks they are made of are the same colour as the ground they stand on and it all simply merges into a blur.

This journey was uncomfortable with not much leg room and seats at a funny inclined angle. We were both pleased when we finally got to Paracas. Our chosen hotel was on the outskirts of the village - the bus stop was at the other end of the village. As we started to walk through town we came across a new hotel, Posada del Libertador, which only opened 3 months ago so it isn't yet in any of the books. As its closer to the village centre we decided to have a quick look.

Its made up of five bungalows. Each has a small lounge/diner and a kitchen. Downstairs there's a single en suite. Upstairs there's a double en suite and then two more triple bed rooms which share a bathroom. No one else is there so we got a whole bungalow to ourselves and at US$30 a night for B&B it was cheaper than the other place. Stef made an apologetic "we fell asleep on the bus and missed our stop" call to the place we'd booked. Although the place we're at claims to be new, some of the fixtures and fittings are either second hand or its simply an existing hotel that's just been refurbished and re-registered under a new name. Whatever, its clean, comfortable and quiet.

We ambled along into the village looking for a shop to buy water and also to get information on tours to the local sights - Islas Ballestas and Paracas National Park. Finding the main strip along the beach (which is also new) we were instantly hounded with offers of trips (buy now its cheaper than in the morning). All the restaurants on the strip were also out pushing their menu's in our faces. There must have been about six or seven places open, a lot seeing as how there are only a few tourists here.

Ignoring the lot we went back to an office we'd passed on the way to get the tour information. We got a very detailed explanation (almost to the extent that we don't need the tour!) and booked up. Back on the front we went for dinner to the only place that hadn't hassled us to go in. They seemed really excited that we'd chosen them. When we left (leaving the only 2 other customers) we understood why - most of the other places had closed, no customers so no point in staying open.

Even though we're heading towards the equator its cool here. As I write I'm in a t-shirt and have goose pimples on my arms. We've got a thick feather duvet on the bed. Based on the snippet of Wimbledon I saw this morning it looks warm and sunny back home. It was Tim Henman playing - will he find enough of the tiger in him to go all the way this year and win the Championship? Only time will tell!!

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Getting to know the locals

I slept really well and had a good shower into the bargain. Breakfast was served on our little balcony overlooking the inner courtyard and small pool. We're hitting the typical tourist trail today  for the first time. Tour number one this morning is a trip to the Islas Ballestas (described in Lonely Planet as a mini Galapagos) and then on to the Paracas National Park (tour number two). We were picked up in a sand dune buggy (possible tour number 3 which we have so far declined). Great marketing from the tour company as it attracted interest at the dock.

The islands trip is in an open glass fibre boat which is very basic. Everyone has to put on life jackets but I reckon if we capsized they'd be useless. The guide and boat driver only wore theirs on the way out from the dock and coming back in again when they would be visible from land.

We were warned not to eat breakfast before the tour as it could be rough. The boat skimmed along with the odd up and down but nothing compared to the sailing we've done. A chap next to me looked decidedly uncomfortable and got gradually greener as the trip progressed. After about 10 minutes it stopped so we could see the "candelabra" or cactus tree on the side of the dunes. This is apparently similar to the Nazca lines (we'll see when we get to Nazca). No one knows who produced it or why. Was it a navigational aid or is it a sign from aliens?

The main part of the tour is wildlife watching on the islands. There are more birds here in one place than I can recall seeing for a long time. Long lines of birds were flying to and from here as we came by boat and they seemed to be racing us (they won). The sides of the islands are in part carpeted wall to wall by birds. There are cormorants, pelicans, turkey eagles and humboldt penguins. There are also lots of sea lions.

One sub has been on its own on the rocks for four days. Our guide reckons its mother has been killed by fishermen so its probably got no one to learn from and will simply die. I also found out why you also see sea lions in clusters. Each male has a hareem of around ten females and they swim and bask together.

The islands produce an export crop for Perú - bird droppings! They are full of nitrates and are exported to the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia as fertiliser. There are always two people living on the islands, partly to protect them but I suspect also to manage the industry. I don't envy them their home - its a pretty foul smelling place to be be. The sand coloured parts of the rocks aren't sandstone but their export crop.

In true tourist trap style, we had time at the dock to kill before the next tour. There's a small feria artesenale selling the usual collection of t-shirts, beaded necklaces and bags. The strip of restaurants are doing a booming trade with late breakfasts. For the trip to the National Park we got on a little bus causing a bit of confusion. We'd booked locally so the guide didn't have us on his list and couldn't make his numbers tally.

First stop was a viewing platform to see flamingos. There were about 20 or so but thousands are expected in early July. Apparently the Libertador of Perú landed here and the flamingos inspired him to choose red and white as the colours for the national flag. They are huge birds but very graceful with it. Next stop was the small, and not very informative, visitors centre. The main message here was don't leave litter as it gets washed out to sea and eaten by the sea lions and penguins who subsequently die as a result.

We then bumped across the desert to the coast. The landscape is mainly a salt flat (all this area used was under water millions of years ago). Despite now being arid and with no vegetation people used to live here. Fresh water used to be just 30cm under the surface. Now with intensive farming its 30m under ground. Every now and again we pass piles of shells - I couldn't decide if they were natural or if they were somehow stage managed.

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Nice parking! (yes, that's the cliff edge right behind the rear wheel)

At the coast we stopped to see a rock formation called the Catedral. It's a big rock that's been eroded by the tides and the winds but I've seen more spectacular sights in the UK. Here too there are birds galore. The locals claim that the top of the Catedral is the same shape as a Peruvian lady in national dress - peaked hat and wide layered skirts. Not having seen any yet I can't really comment.

The final stop was to a small bay with restaurants so we could buy lunch. We were back at Paracas by 3pm and decided to take a look at the Hotel Paracas - Lonely Planet's top end recommendation. We could have been anywhere in the world. Perfectly manicured lawns and gardens, three pools (two being renovated), gym, crazy golf, children's play area, private jetty for tours to the islands (the hotel alone has 6 boats) and very attentive staff. True five star luxury if this is what you want. There must be over one hundred rooms all set out bungalow style and there's a large, formal(ish) dining room. Our budget didn't stretch to staying here and I'm not sure if I would have wanted to anyway - it was a bit too clinical.

We're pondering where to go next. Should we stop at Ica as planned for the museums and pisco places or just head to Nazca to see the lines? Probably the latter will win out but the office to check bus information and buy tickets is now closed so we'll have to wait until tomorrow morning to finalise our plans.

I spent hours yesterday updating the diary part of the website having been justifiably chastised by my brother in law for being a bit slack!

We decided to skip Ica and head straight to Nazca. The only problem we had is that the direct bus from Paracas only leaves at 5pm and we want to leave this morning. We were assured that if we took a taxi to the PanAmerican we could get a direct bus there. Turns out this was porky pies as you have to change at Ica. After  a bit of confusion about where to get the bus and which company to go with we plumped for Flores as they also do the Ica to Nazca leg.

To get the bus we simply had to wait on the side of the road by the red cabin (a coca cola shack). A few buses from another company went by before the Flores bus turned up. It was a normal, standard bus, no loo or in-flight entertainment but seats much more comfy than the Royal Class Ormeno bus we took to Paracas. It was also very cheap costing us the equivalent of £3 each for a four hour bus journey. This was a bus used by the local people and we were the only foreign travellers on board for most of the journey.

At Ica we had to wait a short while for our connection. Stef went off in search of lunch and came back with very simple but very tasty avocado rolls. A guy on the bus tried a couple of times to get us to book into "my hostel" but as we've pre-booked somewhere else we declined. Even so he was pretty persistent.

On the way to Ica the scenery was pretty much unchanged from what we had seen on the way to Paracas. The main difference was that we were above the coastal mist and into sunshine. From Ica on it was a different story. Here we started to climb up through hills and valleys, very reminiscent of Northern Chile. The floors of the valley had water sources so crops were grown and there were bright splashes of colour amidst the blandness of the desert.

The landscape here have me a real sense of movement. To me it looks like it was formed through glacial erosion because of the way the hillsides nest and mesh into each other. I have a real sense of seeing water streaming down the hills and running into rivulets across the flat plains below.

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Full moon over Nazca

When we reached the plain at Nazca the effect for me was heightened. It is a vast, flat, open space stretching further than you can see with the naked eye (or with mine anyway!). At ground level there is no indication at all that this site holds great mystery which has been researched, discussed and debated for more than 60 years.

When we got to Nazca we were met at the bus depot by Freddy, who I thought was from the hotel. Turns out he was from the local tour agency that they used! Had we realised where the bus stopped we would not have asked to be met - it was about a 5 minute walk to our hotel, the Oro Viejo. This place is fabulous. From the street it looks like a simply house. The reception is cool and shady and the were very friendly. The hotel then stretches back through a courtyard and down into a lovely green garden. There is a small patio and lounge area with a bar, and tables and chairs are dotted though the gardens.

We asked Freddy to run through the tours he provides. He didn't try to push more onto us than we wanted to do which was a relief. We popped into his agency later to part pay for the tours but more importantly to get a written receipt (Lonely Planet has loads of warnings about people being ripped off by touts). At the Nazca Lines Hotel (another anonymous five star job) we booked our tickets for the hour long lecture on the Nazca Lines and then went to explore the centre of Nazca.

The main road is a trap for tourists with a number of restaurants plying their trade and trying to entice us in. Unfortunately the Plaza de Armas, usually the focus of people watching, is being renovated and is a big building site. I got the feeling that the area around it wasn't one of the nicer parts of Nazca, but I may have been quick to judge.

Back at the Nazca Lines Hotel, the lecture was interesting. It was held in a small planetarium in the hotel grounds built as a memorial to Maria Reiche, a German archaeologist who spent forty years of her life researching and investigating the lines. It ran through the various different archaeological views of the purpose of the lines. These include charting the stars, some form of map, religious and cultural use and the inevitable, that they are alien landing sites! The lecture was informative (we now know what to look for to see the Southern Cross) but unfortunately it was simply a tape as the usual lecturer is away in Cuzco. Stef has bought a topographical map of the lines - it would have looked good mounted in a frame and hung on a wall but its now got a few more lines added to it where its been folded up!

After the talk we went to check information for the buses down to Arequipa, our next destination. Its an 8 hour journey and if we want to go tomorrow the afternoon bus is already full. This means leaving Nazca at 10:30pm. We haven't decided yet exactly what we want to do here so we didn't book then. At 75 soles it is also pricey compared to the bus from Paracas. It is the price you pay for traveling tourist class with reclining seats but it seems to be the only option available.

On our hunt for somewhere to eat we passed a bar with a couple of familiar faces - Duncan and Jen who we'd met on the bus from Lima. We joined them and spent a really pleasant evening just chatting and sharing tales. A small world, they come from Maidstone not really that far from us in Croydon. Sounds like they are going to follow our route through Chile so I hope they enjoy it as much as we did.

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PanAm cuts through Nazca Lines

We were in the middle of breakfast when Freddy (tour agent) turned up to say we were leaving in 20 minutes for our flight over the Nazca lines - we thought we had another hour on top of that to play with. We had to be ready to check our when we got back so it was our fastest showering and package routing to date.

Apparently its good weather for flying and the airport have been ringing round to get people to come out early. From what we were told yesterday we had expected to have to wait in a queue at the airport for an hour or so before we set off. Not so, we turned up and left straight away. This wasn't great for me as I had a dose of travelers tummy (possibly also due to quite large amounts of alcohol last night!) and my request to use the bathroom before we went was met with a very firm "no time" response.

The plane was a little 6 seater. I've never been in one so small before so it was pretty exciting. It rolled slowly forwards and down to the end of the runway, turned around and before we knew it we were off and up in the air. We had been warned (by Freddy and Duncan and Jen) that it was a bit of a roller coaster and that we should not have a large breakfast before we flew. Our earlier than expected departure meant that it was less than one hour since we had eaten so potentially risky. Every one is provided with a plastic bag just in case.

We were also given a map showing the way we would fly over the lines and outlining in which order we would se the various shapes. The plans did roll and turn sharply a couple of times as we flew over each design twice so that both sides of the plane got a good view. My tummy lurched once or twice but turning into the roll and focusing on the horizon soon balanced out any ill feeling.

From the air you start to get a feeling for how impressive this site is. The shapes are clearly delineated but from 1,000m up don't look particularly large. Stef has taken pictures but I've not looked at them yet so don't know how well they will come out. While the animal shapes were stunning, what I found more impressive were the geometric designs - lines stretching straight into the Horizon connecting geographical points of interest as well as large triangular and trapezoidal shapes. Its a real criss-cross of activity and a feat of engineering - the lines don't lose their directness even when they go over hills and down into dips.

The most commonly held current theory is that they were used to make processions and ceremonies to the gods to bring water to the region. Research in the Andes ice files has shown that there was a forty year draught at the end of the Nazca period. This is likely to have been the main cause of the demise of the Nazca's, after nine separately distinguishable periods of activity.

The ceremonies mainly involved walking processions. Failure to stay on the lines would have been cited as the cause of any subsequent crop failure or other malaise. Walking the lines that mark out the animal shapes is thought to have been done because this would endow the individuals with the qualities of that animal. Around the lines archaeologists have found pottery and ceramics which they believe were smashed as part of the rituals. They also found evidence of human sacrifice - giving something back to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

After the flight we saw a video of a BBC programme on the lines. This was much more informative than the lecture last night providing greater context. It was odd watching a BBC documentary in a brick shed on the edge of an airstrip in the middle of the Peruvian desert. People in the UK may begrudge having to pay the TV licence fee but I think its worth it for the quality of programmes they make.

Back in town we booked our bus but have gone with a different, cheaper and relatively new company. This may turn out to be false economy but the company was recommended by Freddy's cousin so hopefully it will be OK. We spent the middle of the day sorting out pictures and trying to remember what we'd spent our money on so we could check if we were within our budget. It has been a really sunny day and pretty hot with it so we were both glad to be in the shade.

In the afternoon we had another tour to the Chauchilla Cemetery. The name Chauchilla is derived from the Quechua language and means middle lightning. In total the cemetery is about 2km square. It was discovered in the early 1900's but over the next 30 years grave robbers relieved the tombs of their gold, ceramic and textiles just leaving behind bones and broken  bits of pots which were scattered across the site.

About 12 tombs have been restored and mummies and bones have been placed in them to create an impression of the tombs as they originally were. The Nazca believed in life after death so people were buried with their possessions and food as they would need these for their journey to, and life in, the next world. The quality of the tombs and their contents reflected the wealth of the person who had died. Human sacrifices were sometimes also made. A small museum on the site has some mummies on display. AS the climate here is very dry they are remarkably well preserved and their skin, hair and nails are still intact.

Archaeologists have learned a great deal from this site. The Nazca suffered from arthritis, osteoporosis and tuberculosis. They also had a high incidence of infant mortality. Average life expectancy was between 35 and 40.

After the cemetery we were taken through to a craft centre for a demonstration and the inevitable exit through a shop. The demonstration showed how the Nazca made their pottery. The clay is dug up from the ground, soaked in water for a few hours and them mixed with another powder for form a soft a and pliable clay to work with. All of the pots were made by hand using moulds, no spinning wheels were used. The paints used to decorate the pots were made by grinding different coloured ores into powder, again mixing/soaking them with water but then filtering the resulting paste. There were seven base colours that the Nazca could get from their surroundings and they then mixed these to give greater diversity.

Once the base pots were made they were left to dry and harden in the sun for about an hour before any holes and handles were added. After another hour of drying they were painted. Each colour also took time to add and to dry but the resulting painted surface was rough to the touch. Pebbles from the river bed were rubbed against the skin to get the natural oils and were then rubbed against the pots to create a very smooth finish. It must have taken about 2 days to get this far in the process. The pots were then fired overnight and after 14 hours of cooling down were ready to use. The firing ensured the painted colours remained fast.

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Gold Rush in Nazca

We felt obliged to but something and bought a small pot (which will probably break before we have chance to get it home). We declined the shop in advance at the next stop, a workshop showing how they extract gold. The process is labour intensive with chunks of rock being ground down through successive processed to a fine powder. It is then mixed with water and liquid mercury until the gold is extracted (we both lost the plot a bit on this demo so I have probably got the process wrong!). The average miner extracts seven grammes of gold a week, each of which sells for between US$7 to US$ 13 - not a great income.

Back in town we paid for the tours, bought water for the bus trip and went for an early dinner. We're really just killing time until the bus leaves and both of us are twitchy. We had looked forward to coming to Perú because there would be loads to see and do, particularly compared to Paraguay. What neither of us had expected was that it would be so tourist oriented. In Uruguay and Paraguay (less so because we traveled by bus) we shaped and influenced what we did. Here, to make the most of the sights you need a guide and in most cases this means a pre-packaged tour.

What we really need is a base for a week or so that we can move around from. Every day we are either moving on or seeing something and it is as if we are under pressure to do so. We have agreed it would be good to just have a "normal" day or two where we work to our own timetable rather than that of a hotel, and where we do normal everyday things - washing, supermarket shop, paperwork etc ending up curled up in joggers and a fleece on the settee with a takeaway pizza for tea watching a good film on the telly. It is not going to happen for a while!

After dinner we decamped back to our hotel lobby killing more time waiting for the bus. Its our first overnighter and we are not really sure what to expect. Although the days have been hot the nights are cold and we are not sure how warm and cosy the bus will be. As with so many things on this trip, time will tell!

We arrived in Arequipa at about 6am, both very glad that Stef had kept his sleeping bag with him. Being taller than the average Perúvian neither of us had enough leg room and although the seats reclined we couldn't get comfy. I slept fitfully waking each time the bus stopped. No passengers seemed to get on or off, it was just people from the bus company who simply seemed to count how many people were on board.

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Plaza de Armas, Arequipa

When we booked, Stef asked if there were seats available on the bottom of the bus. Luckily there were and only five out of the twelve of them were occupied. If we slept badly I dread to think what it would have been like upstairs with people getting up and down and young children too. If we have to do a night trip again at least we'll have a better idea of what to expect. Given a choice though I'd much rather travel by day.

Arriving in Arequipa was a bit of a surprise though - it was the first bus terminal we've seen in Perú. Everywhere else each company has its own depot, normally near each other, but here they are all consolidated into one place. Getting accurate and reliable information and which buses go where, when and for how much has been challenging!

We took a taxi to our hotel which is just outside of the centre of town, La Casa de mi Abuela (My Grandmother's House). You are dropped by a metal door in a high brick wall. This opens to reveal pretty gardens with steps up to the hotel's reception area. As it was so early our room wasn't ready but we went through to a different block, through a mini courtyard with a fountain with fish and into the main gardens. There were tables and chairs dotted around the lawn and a small pool with sun-beds around it. It was beautiful and had the homely feel we'd been talking about yesterday.

Shattered, and wanting a power nap and a shower, we had no choice but to sit out time in the gardens until our room was ready - about a 3 hour wait. We went to the local tour agency to get information on what to see and do. Affiliated to the hotel, Giardino Tours is in our Lonely Planet "bible". The lady there either had a cold or was suffering from an allergy, she didn't really seem interested in giving us information and was a bit offhand. We signed up for a 2 day tour of the Colca Canyon, another part of the typical tourist route. If we wanted we could have had an extra day of free time but as this doubled the cost we decided it was an expensive way to pay for a hotel for a night and declined.

When we finally finally got into our room (very nice with a view onto the main gardens) and freshened up the need for a power nap had gone. We set off in search of a bank and a hairdresser for Stef. The cash machines in Perú limit the amount you can withdraw to 500 soles a day - about £80. They also charge you for the privilege of using them. We wanted to get into a bank to withdraw higher amounts over the counter.

The security guard at the bank told us to by pass the normal system and go to window 2. We explained what we wanted and the young girl called over a supervisor who then told us to go to window 16. Here they would do what we wanted if we had a Visa credit card. We have Visa, we have credit cards but not both combined! We were too late to try another bank so will have to leave it until next week.

Our next quest was a haircut for Stef. The miserable lady at the tour office told us where to find her hairdresser Mirabel. She politely checked that we would not be offended by Mirabel as some of her customers are - Mirabel is a he and is a transvestite. We explained how we are used to it in Brighton and London and got a "Perú is not yet that free" type of response.

The next half hour or so was really entertaining. Mirabel's was a tiny shop with 4 women in varying stages of having their hair done. No hair washing seems to happen. People come in, get their hair squirted with water, cut and then they're off. You only seem to get your hair washed if you're having your hair coloured. Mirabel was busy so another lady looked after Stef. He explained what he wanted and, for a ladies hairdressers I was surprised to see the clippers and cut-throat razor all to hand.

No matter how surprised I was it didn't match the hairdresser's surprise when he said he wanted short all over not just short back and sides. A shocked "really" was followed by giggles from her and the other customers in the shop. I do not think many tourists go there, and certainly not men. They all went home with a tale to tell!

After a very successful haircut we headed onto the main Plaza de Armas. This has to be one of the best we've seen. One side is flanked by a cathedral, the other three by double storey colonnaded buildings. The square itself has the obligatory fountain and palm trees and it was full of people whiling away the lunchtime hours. It will be interesting to see if its still this busy during the week.

We are going to spend a day seeing the "sights" of Arequipa when we come back from the Colca Canyon so just whiled away some time with a spot of lunch and people watching in the Plaza. Kids everywhere were feeding the pigeons and then having great fun chasing them away. A man turned up, Bible in hand, and promptly started preaching - no one seemed to be paying him any attention but he carried on regardless.

The rest of the afternoon was spent mooching around and hunting for a hat to keep the sun off my head (unsuccessful) and sunglasses for Stef as he's already lost his (successful). Up until about five o'clock the centre of town was quiet and many shops were shut. By six, it was like rush hour. The streets were thronged with people and cars blocked all the roads. There was a real buzz about the place. Arequipa seems affluent and quietly at ease with itself. Everything here seems orderly, clean and in working order.

Heading back up to the hotel, Stef noticed that all of the taxis seemed to be from a different company. They are all small cars (but still manage to squeeze 6 passengers in) with a lighted sign on the top. They almost look like toy cars out of a cartoon.

Here. more than in Lima and in a different way to Paracas, it is clear that we are on a tourist circuit. Everywhere you look you see people in the travelers "uniform" of quick drying, non ironing clothes, walking boots and day packs. There are entire streets just wall to wall with tourist shops selling the usual tacky stuff as well as jumpers, scarves and other woolens made from Alpaca wool.

We were picked up at the hotel by Elfer (our guide), Pepe (the driver) and Nestor (drivers assistant). Elfer took a little while to adjust to. His almost over friendliness and staged humour did, by the end of the day, reveal itself to be part of his "act". Our initial view that he was irritating was replaced by liking him. Pepe was good fun and chatted to us off and on during the tour, improving his English as we improved our Spanish.

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Tea time

There are about 17 in our group, a mix of Germans, Scots, Peruvians and Aussies. The Aussies were father and daughter - she was irritating and I think everyone found he so. In some ways I felt a bit sorry for her. Everything about her from the way she dressed, behaved, spoke, struck up conversations, was screaming out that she wanted attention. She seemed very different to her father and I wondered what he made of his daughter.

On this trip they have the tourist route perfected. Before we had even left Arequipa there was the first stop to "buy water, biscuits, local handicrafts, use the toilets", one of several en route. Ahead of us we have a five hour journey until we reach our overnight hotel at Corporaque. I've woken up with a cold and do not feel great. There is a bus strike tomorrow and if it wasn't for that we would have tried to delay our trip. The strike means that all roads into and out of Arequipa will be closed for most of the day.

Writing this 2 days on, I can't really remember much of the trip. The countryside was similar to Northern Chile - vast open expanses of desert like landscape, framed by high mountains. Where there is water there is agriculture and green strips of fertile land. These are few and far between. As we climb the landscape changes and long spiky grass appears, itself also replaced higher up by cactus and moss style plants. Higher still we see vicunas and llamas - all very similar to our trip in Chile to Lago Chungaro.

Shortly after the tarmac runs out and you are on to bumpy roads we stopped for a break. The usual assortment of colourful textiles are on display and we both bought a hat (bad buys that we'll probably leave behind). We also opted for a local brew - coca leaves and something else I can't remember the name of. The locals claim its a good way of combating altitude sickness and settling your tummy. With a spoonful of sugar it didn't taste too bad and I was thankful that the gurgling in my tummy was a pleasant acceptance of this local delicacy rather than an adverse reaction!

We stopped a couple more times. At each stop I felt a little more light-headed and unsteady on my feet. At the highest point, just over 5,000m, I did not get off the bus. Stef was fine and snapped away capturing the piles of stones placed by locals and visitors alike, each of which is an offering asking for good luck (I think!). By this stage I had a thumping headache and couldn't correct the pressure in my ears. After forty minutes and 1,300m downhill we arrived at Chivay, the entrance to the National Park of the canyon. By then the pressure in my head was high and I felt like I had a migraine.

Our hotel at Corporaque was about 15 minutes further on. I'm not one to succumb lightly to illness but when I do it always reduces me to tears. These came as soon as we were in our room. My head was pounding, I felt sick and I was hot and cold at the same time. Seeing the tears Stef knew something was wrong. He checked the health section of Lonely Planet and then called someone from the hotel. His suspicions were confirmed - I had altitude sickness!

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Smile @ S/.1 each...

The lady from the hotel was superb. I was anxious and scared because it can be dangerous. She reassured me that its quite normal, to relax and try to sleep. She wrapped me warmly in blankets and having dismissed Stef and sent him off to lunch she set about sorting me out.

She had come armed with a bottle of alcohol - not the drinking kind - which she poured onto her hands and made me inhale. This helped to clear the airways and ease my breathing. She massaged my head to relieve the pressure, fed me aspirin and water and left me to sleep, checking in on me during the afternoon. Bad as I was, I wasn't the worst affected - nurses were called out to check on one lady who had tingling sensations in her arms and legs.

Rather than seeing the local sights and having a dip in the thermal pools, the standard part of the tour, I spent the rest of the day tucked up in bed and feeling lousy. Stef also stayed at the hotel and I could tell he was concerned about me. In the evening I managed to make it to dinner but could only face a small bowl of soup. I still felt strange and moments of total lucidity were interspersed with a pounding head and a distracted, not entirely there, type of feeling.

I was anxious about the next day knowing that the return trip would take us back through the same path and altitude. The pressure in my head has eased but I'm still full of cold. I didn't suffer like this at higher altitudes in Chile and am rationalising it (and hoping) that the cold is a significant factor!

Postscript note from Stef: Yes, Ness was feeling like sh*t this day, but in the evening she did make it out for a little bite of the buffet and afterwards we stood outside, looking at the stars - I had managed to cajole Ness to come outside briefly. Unfortunately the scene was rather lost on Ness, but the setting was simply stunning, with a dark, black sky filled with stars, more than I have ever seen in a sky (and I have seen a few by now!), with a dense thick ribbon of the Milky Way. Being at high altitude in the thin cold air it added to the special atmosphere of the place. Even now, writing this postscript over a year later (Nov 2006 to be precise), this was one of those moments that still stands out in my mind, even after all the other sights that followed. Oh, and the buffet was pretty amazing too, with tasty local fresh veggies, soups and fruit - it just tastes so ... intense, simple things like a tomato burst with flavour.

I woke feeling better today but still not 100%. Its another long day with our route initially taking us back through Chivay and along the valley of the canyon to go condor spotting. We see huge swathes of irrigated terracing which dates back to pre-Inca times. The locals all work on a cooperative basis to maintain the terraces and the irrigation channels.

At Cruz del Condor there is a cross, more local ladies selling their wares and a variety of places to view the birds. The local women throughout the canyon still wear national dress (not sure about the men). They have brightly coloured and decorated wide skirts, matching jackets and fabulous hats. To get here they walk from their village, Cabanaconde, which is about three hours away. Seeing them hoist their packs at the end of the day when the tourists left was an eye opener. These women are short, their packs huge and I suspect very heavy. I do not envy them their walk in the heat of the midday sun.

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Graceful condor

Their must have been about seven or eight tour buses already at the Cruz when we arrived. Condor spottings were slow and few of the buses left. After a while though there was just ours and one other. It was as if the condors had waited for people to leave because as soon as most of the tourists had gone, the condors came out to enjoy the thermals.

We were treated to an amazing display by a group of eight condors, which included two young birds (identified because they are brown not black). These birds are enormous with solid huge bodies and thick, sturdy wings. They stand 1.2m tall, have a wingspan of 2m and weigh 17 kilos, the same as my backpack. They are also supremely graceful.

Flying by it was as if there were watching us. The flew quite close on a couple of occasions and when they did you could hear the whoosh and whine of the air through their feathers. Stunning. Stef has some amazing photo's.

We walked down hill to a lower viewing point, which is where we got the best photos. I was still bunged up and slightly unsteady on my feet but put it down to my cold. What I hadn't realised was that this was the start of a 45 minute walk, with the bus picking us up at the other end. I soon found myself very short of breath. No matter how deeply I inhaled I couldn't get enough air. Elfer our guide realised we'd dropped behind and came back to check on us. At a point where I was wheezing he took me on a short cut, sending Stef round the main way. I suspect this must be what it feels like to have asthma -  I simply couldn't get enough air.

The downside of getting altitude sickness here is that I'm prone to get it again. Our next two planned stops are high altitude locations and I don't want to miss out on either - Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu - two of the main sights in Perú.

We stopped in Chivay for lunch and had time to wander around the market and them it was time to head back. I was consciously breathing deeply, blowing my nose and yawning all the way up the initial 1,300m climb to the highest point. It seemed to do the trick and my head felt clear apart from the cold. By the time we were back close to Arequipa though I'd lost the battle and couldn't get my ears to pop any more.

The sun set as we drove and the stars soon came out to play. Elfer and Pepe (the driver) were in charge of the music. Barry White wasn't too bad but when they started to play Cliff Richard I was quite glad I couldn't really hear.

On the outskirts of Arequipa we hit a trail of trucks and coaches. The strike (protesting at high insurance (US$70p.a.) and fuel prices) is not yet over and the road is still barricaded. Elfer and Nestor got out to see what was happening. Within seconds we were surrounded by locals pushing carts. Initially I could not work it out - they were all children and surely too young to be involved in the strike. The initial threatening feeling subsided when we realised they were trying to cash in on the strike. For 3 soles each, they would take us into Arequipa (or at least past this blockade) in their carts. They were summarily dismissed by Pepe.

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One of the 400 local kinds of tatties

Elfer and Nestor returned shortly. Another bus from Giardino's tours had left Chivay earlier than us and had been stuck here since 3pm - over three hours. It had turned out to be a wide move to have been the last leave Chivay. We stopped, started, stopped, started then stopped. In the distance we could see the front of the queue of trucks. As we were still 16km from the centre Pepe was concerned that even if we got through this block there would be more.

I saw flashing blue lights in the distance and then about twenty trucks passed us in the other direction - the police had opened the road. The trucks and coaches that were blocking it had been removed but the rocks from the roadside still blocked one way. Further on, riot police were our at another blockade. The scene looked angry and I was glad that we passed through with no problem. In total we were probably held up for about thirty minutes - not bad considering.

We got back to our hotel in Arequipa at around 8pm. Shattered, thirsty and hungry we decided to stay put and eat in the hotel. Two other couples who had also been on the trip had the same idea and looks of "we're shattered too" were exchanged as they walked in to the restaurant. Fed and watered we were in bed before 9:30 - normally the time we have been going out for dinner!

A record - our shortest diary entry yet!!

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Needs no explanation!

I feel lousy again today. It is meant to be our sight seeing in Arequipa day before moving on tomorrow to Puno and Lake Titicaca. None of that is going to happen. I'm still full of cold and my ears haven't popped fully yet. Stef brought me breakfast in bed reporting with dismay that "the place is full of Americans". He left me in bed and went for breakfast.

We have spent the day at the hotel. In the garden I wanted to be in the shade (the sun is very bright) but was cold in the breeze and had on Stef's fleece. An odd contrast to the bikini clad sunbathers around the pool. We spent the day updating this site and catching up on mail and our diaries. I had not written mine for 3 days - it is amazing how hard it is to remember back just that short space of time!