Manizales, Thursday 18/06/15

In Bogota I stayed in an area known as Candelaria, which is where the university is situated and is the “historic” part of the city. There are some colorful colonial buildings, the cathedral and several museums, one of which is the museum of Pre-Columbian gold artifacts, many of which have a significance in Shamanic rituals.  

 The secretions from frogs, for instance, may be used to induce hallucinations and certain animals are regarded as mediators between the three worlds, of the gods and spirits, our world and the underworld. 

Their are plenty of little restaurants in this part of the city, including a vegetarian place conveniently next door to my hostel. However, Candelaria has fallen on hard times. There are large ruts in the roads, while others are being repaired and are impassable.  I passed buildings suffering from neglect. 

One of the things I am quietly proud of, is how I have managed to cope with public transport of all types  in so many different countries and with different languages. Most places have a single price system, which is much easier and efficient than the London zones/distance approach, but you do need to keep your wits about you. Bogota, however, got me confused. I wanted to buy a ticket from the main bus terminal. I had already noticed that there were platforms in the middle of the road for boarding and alighting from buses, as there were in Jakarta. The guy in Reception at my hostel explained that I had to walk to the nearest small station and then take the “tunnel” to the one further along.  It wasn’t until I’d wandered around a bit and eventually found the relevant platform that I realised that this “tunnel” was glass-enclosed and above the street, not, as I had supposed, underground. Thanks to his directions, I managed to get off at the right stop and after a bit of a walk arrived at the terminal. I had to locate the right area for buying my ticket, as they were arranged according to which direction you were travelling. After almost completing my purchase, I was informed they did not accept card payment and had to go to the ATM and start the process again. I then returned to the stop where I had got off the bus, inserted my remaining ticket and got on to the platform, only to find that none of the buses going in the opposite direction was the one I needed. Back outside, I asked a policeman standing nearby, who indicated that I had to cross the street and go elsewhere. I never found the right stop and ended up having to take a taxi in rush hour to get back to the hostel. 

The other problem I had was trying to send presents to my grandson, Drake, in the U.K., for his birthday. At the hostel they told me there was no post office nearby and suggested I use an international carrier service. First I had to find a carton to put the gifts in. I found a large stationery store, and they had everything you need to make a parcel, except large padded envelopes or boxes. After several aborted attempts, someone in a small store took pity on me and gave me a smallish empty cardboard box for free. Presents duly packaged, taped up and addressed, I  found the place indicated by the hostel but they refused the parcel because they only deal with “commercial ” transportation.  I tried a couple of private parcel services. They were helpful, but because of the dimensions of the box one wanted to charge me about £80 and the other about £104. However, they both told me there was a post office near. Unfortunately, my lack of Spanish meant that I could not understand their directions and google maps showed me to a large building that was locked. I asked a couple of total strangers, entered a “centre of communications” whose staff had no idea and was finally shown a place across the road by their doorman, who spoke good English! This glass-fronted shop had absolutely no indication on the outside that it was a post office, but so it turned out to be. They weighed the box, asked for my ID, followed some process on the computer that took about fifteen minutes and asked me for £10. I have a large yellow receipt, but did not have to fill out any forms or declare the contents. Who knows if/when it will arrive? 

The ticket I had struggled to get at the bus terminal was to take me to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. Santa Marta is a bit of a mess, but a loveable mess.  

 The old town has narrow streets where modern edifices crowd in on aged architecture. Here you can buy almost anything you want, ATMs abound, there were plenty of vegetarian friendly cafes and restaurants and places offering yoga classes. The second night I was there, there was a thunderstorm and the place flooded. An old man made a walkway across one of the streets using upturned crates and wooden planks and made a bit of money out of the people using it.  There was also a small concert in one of the squares while I was there and I’m almost sure that one of the acts was a police band – they were wearing uniforms and everything. 

One of the things to do in this area is to visit Tayrona National Park,  known for its wildlife and beautiful beaches. I wasn’t keen on camping, so I decided to go for the day. It was not far to the street corner to catch the local bus, but I found myself walking through the market streets. Not a charming touristy spot and quite possibly the smelliest place I have experienced on my travels. This is the bus I took.  

It doesn’t look too bad from the outside, but inside you could see the road through the dashboard, the exhaust pipe came up behind the passenger seat next to the driver and the top speed was around 30-40 mph. It was cheap.  

The park itself is highly organized. You watch a video and get a ticket to confirm this and to take to the actual ticket office, as without this you cannot get entrance.  People were having their bags searched, though they let me through without a fuss. You then take a short bus ride to the entrance. The walkways and camp sites are clearly marked. I didn’t feel completely at ease, however. There were lots of people making lots of noise. In fact I passed one couple who were playing their music on speakers as they walked along. Nevertheless, a movement in the trees turned out to be a large group of Howler monkeys and I also saw a striking black and yellow frog. 

When I reached the first beach, though there was a camp site alongside, it was completely deserted.  

 There were probably several reasons for this. One, it was extremely hot and you would burn on the beach very quickly. Two, there were signs telling you not to enter the water, as 100 people had been killed there. Three, it was that gritty type of sand that hurts your feet to walk on. The most likely reason, though, is that the beautiful beaches are further along the coast and would require an earlier start, more walking and/ or camping. 

So after some fresh fruit juice and a lunch of vegetables and rice, I set off back. I was planning to take a couple of photos to show how dry the forest is, after months without rain, when there was another thunderstorm!

Dodging the drops and making a final dash for it, I reached the entrance of the park and by the time the bus arrived the rain had stopped. This bus was in a better state of repair and it was an entertaining ride, with people laughing and joking. As I now regard as typical, the bus was used as a means of delivery for parcels and shopping, which is often collected by someone further along the route or left by the side of the road for a later pick-up. I was surprised, however, when a man got on with a large stone, which was placed beside the driver. A smaller stone was soon set beside it. I don’t know the importance of these stones. They might be used for grinding, but the large one wasn’t especially flat and the small one not very smooth. Several people were there to welcome the man when he got off the bus. One man carried the heavy stone on his shoulder and the little one was passed around the women, until the little group walked away. Unusual. 

The door to door shuttle service the next day to Cartagena was not very long, travelling along the coast and past lakes and little rivers. It was an easy enough option to taking a bus from the terminal and not expensive. 

The old walled town of Cartagena is delightful.  

     I was quite happy for a couple of days just wandering around, walking the walls, sitting in the squares and relaxing, particularly as it was very hot and thunderstorms rolled around in the early evenings. 

In my next post I will talk about Medellin, which is the next city I stayed in, and a little of the history of the place. 

Santa Marta, Colombia, 06/06/15

My last week in Brazil consisted of two very different halves. 

The first was spent in the flat, swampy area of the Pantanal, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, close to the borders of Paraguay and Bolivia. I was joined at the lodge by four other people; a couple from Holland and two young German men. They were good companions, – quiet when we were searching for wildlife but sociable and amusing in the evening, when there was not much more to do but talk or take a dip in the pool. 

We went on walks, took the boat down the river and rode on horses. Much of the land nearby has been cleared for raising cattle, but there is still plenty of wildlife to see, an abundance of tropical birds and deep jungle coming down to the river’s edge.   

In fact, my favourite time was during the last afternoon boat ride. On our way back to the lodge we encountered hundreds of black ibis, with orange bills, which were preparing to roost for the night.   As we approached, they took to flight and flocked away in front of us. They then tried to settle on the slenderest of reeds and branches before we again disturbed them. Each time this happened, there were more and more of them. As we looked on, the sun was setting above them in a glorious swirl of red and gold. Unforgettable!

Macaws, Parakeets and Peccaries came into the lodge.  

Capybaras and Caimans were completely unfazed by our proximity. 

   I finally got to see Howler Monkeys. On one occasion there was a troupe of them crossing trees close to the river. The second time it was a small family group of male, female and youngster, which I could see clearly through my binoculars. 

I also saw a mother tapir and her youngster in a clearing by the side of the road during a night ride. 

The Pantanal has much smaller animals, however. Namely, mosquitoes in abundance. They swarm around you when you stand still and I actually got bitten, which is very unusual. Thankfully, Aloe Vera soon soothed the irritation. 

I had a flight to catch in Rio, so it was time to get a move on. This involved a truck ride back on the very rough and dusty road to a meeting place under a tree. From there it was a minivan to Campo Grande. After a night there I took a bus in the afternoon to São Paulo, travelling  through that night, and caught the next bus to Rio in the morning. I’m pretty used to these long bus journeys now, but I never sleep much. 

I stayed in a different hostel in Rio this time, which was closer to the airport. It was very comfortable and spacious, with some of the friendliest staff I’ve met. The first night they invited me to a Samba party nearby in Santa Teresa district. The place was large and packed, but we got in for free because someone living in the building used to work in our hostel. After a couple of beers and some dancing, we continued on to a local bar and a shared pizza. I wandered back with two other women at about two in the morning. 

The next day there was a barbecue on the terrace for all the guests and staff. One of the members of staff was having a leaving party, as she had taken a similar position on Fernando de Noronha, a “Fantasy Island” according to the Guardian, 220 miles off the Brazilian coast. There was a lot of drinking and mountains of meat and though I didn’t indulge in either, it was an enjoyable day. 

So goodbye to Rio. There’s lots of fun to be had there, the people are friendly and the location is lovely. Rio is to be host to the 2016 Olympics and I do have some concerns. The metro is quite clean and efficient, but does not cover parts of the city, while the buses can be snarled up in traffic. The iconic white arched viaduct is closed to the trams and half of the road in Santa Teresa is dug up because they are intending to lay new tram lines. However, the people I was with were upset because it has been like that for a year, tourism is down there as a result, the roads are not safe and they feel that no-one cares about their predicament. There is still a great deal of work to be done. I wish them well. 

To get to Bogota in Colombia, I first had to fly to São Paulo, which was a bit of a detour, especially since I had come through there by bus two days earlier. 

The plane took off about fifteen minutes late. There was a lot of what appeared to be turbulence. The seat belt sign never went off and there were several, rather shouty, announcements to remain in our seats. After about an hour, the captain informed us that the right engine had been hit by birds and that we were returning to São Paulo airport to assess the damage and carry out repairs. 

When we had landed, about half an hour later, things got rather chaotic. An explanation was made in Portuguese to small groups at a time. None of the airline staff there spoke English, even in an “International airport”, so I was at a loss. At this stage I was helped out by a man who later turned out to be a Professor of Anthropology, who informed me that we were to collect our luggage and wait for further instructions. 

However, my bag was not on the carousel and there were no airline staff around to help, even if they could speak English. Once again, another passenger, female this time, told me there were some bags thrown in a corner as “overweight baggage”. Even though my bag was not overweight, this is where I found it. 

By the time I got through baggage claim I was almost last in a line waiting to be informed what we were to do. This time it was a young couple, with only a little English, who told me we were being put up in a hotel for the night and also helped me get a seat in a taxi, as by then all the buses which had been organized were full. 

In the end it all worked out. I had a free dinner and breakfast in the hotel, a room to myself and an interesting talk with the Anthropologist. We were taken to the airport by bus in the morning, took off about midday and arrived safely, even if there was turbulence due to the jet stream. In addition, this time I was sitting next to a sweet young Colombian woman, who lives in Brasilia and was going back to see her family. Although we didn’t talk for long, we said a warm goodbye at Bogota airport and she gave me a bracelet!

I can’t pretend I didn’t get a bit agitated during this little episode. It was largely the language barrier, as I do not believe many Europeans speak Portuguese and even those passengers from South America who spoke Spanish were having difficulty. Then thinking that my luggage had been lost was frustrating. I tried to think that we had been fortunate that we hadn’t had to make a more emergency landing, as it turned out there had been a fire in the engine. But I will never forget those people who turned to help me when I was in trouble and eased my way, even when it meant delay to themselves. Their selflessness and kindness was exemplary and will remain with me. 

Iguazu, Brazil, Saturday 23/05/15

The first thing I noticed about Rio de Janeiro was the Frigate birds wheeling in the sky above the city. Perhaps not the most attractive species on the ground, but in the air, with their size, zigzag wings, pointed tails and black and white colouring, they are truly impressive. 

Next I admired the mosaic pavements, which I was told resemble those in Lisbon. Flatter than cobbles and with several designs, they add an air of sophistication to a stroll around the city. 

My first day in Rio, it was a little cloudy, so I visited the Botanical Garden and Lage Park next to it. It may be that I lack originality in my choice of places to visit, but I’m always interested in discovering the flora of a region. As it turned out, the garden seemed more like a park, but one with tropical plants, marmosets, small charcoal-coloured squirrels and flocks of parakeets.  

A peculiarity of this place is that it is where extremely pregnant women come to have their photo taken, either by or with their partner and wantonly exposing the enormous bump in their bellies. This theme is replicated by the thousands of figurines of brightly-dressed women in an advanced state of pregnancy for sale in the souvenir shops. I have no idea where this comes from. 

Still waiting for the sun to appear, the next day I toured the city centre. While there are some pleasant enough streets and buildings, the highlight for me was the Selaron Steps in Cinelandia. Selaron was a Chilean artist, settled in Rio, who started decorating the stairs outside his house in the colours of the Brazilian flag, using bits of ceramic tiles scavenged from building sites. The project grew and became a part of his life. Soon people were sending him tiles from all over the world. He was found dead in mysterious circumstances but the work is a tribute to him and to Rio.  

   There is even a familiar recurring figure.  

At last, the sun came out and I headed to the beach. Well, actually, along the eastern and southern sides of Rio it feels like one long beach, but there are landmarks that distinguish one from the other. I headed for Arpoador, the rocky outcrop to the east of Ipanema Beach.  

  

 The sand was silvery and soft, the Caipirinha was ice-cold and the beach not overcrowded, so I happily wasted a few hours there. Caipirinha, by the way, is a national drink made with cachaca, made from sugar cane, and lime and can be lethal. 

I ended the day by taking the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain. I timed it just right.  

 Christ the Redeemer is the tiny speck of light at the top of the first peak on the left. 

A complete change of scene for my next stop, Paraty, a small but beautifully formed old town of colonial houses and stone streets.  

  There’s a harbour and a river, with pretty boats.  

 It rains frequently, (though fortunately not for long while I was there), and when the river rises it floods the streets. I found a street which was not completely paved in which hundreds of little fiddler crabs had made their homes in the ground.  

 It sounds impossibly touristy, but real people live there and there is a lively new town. They celebrated the Feast of the Holy Spirit one Sunday, gathering in the church and on the streets in a small town way. 

Other diversions are the nearby waterfalls, including the “slide” – 

 which I did not try out, and tastings at the cachaca distillery, which I did. There was live music of quite high quality at one of the restaurants. A few days passed easily

Along the coast and a short boat ride away is Ihla Grande. Here I soon settled into the island vibe, approaching the hostel reception each day and asking to “stay on another night”. I was staying up the hill in Vila do Abraao, went for walks along the coast and along a mud path to the beach of Lopes Mendes.  

  

 Thanks to an invitation from a lovely young English woman at the hostel, I went on a private boat trip to some of the coves and beaches, with ten or so others I was able to chat to in English. The weather was fine, but not too hot. I eventually got back to the hostel at 2.30am after listening to some “reggae” in the port and indulging in some Samba dancing in a club. 

It was definitely time to get off the island and see some more of Brazil. 

I’m now in Foz do Iguazu, which is on the Brazilian side of the borders with Argentina and Paraguay. Before I continue I need to explain about a slight dip in my state of health. The Brazilians are LOUD. They have shared  dorms with me here and in Chile, stay up late/ get up early and talk a lot. As a consequence I became somewhat sleep deprived. Then I picked up a cold on the island which led to a very uncomfortable night bus ride here from São Paulo. Nothing serious, but it meant it was a couple of days before I went to see the Iguazu Falls. 

I will try to describe them. First, they go on and on. At first view I thought I was seeing a large waterfall, but then I spotted other smaller falls downriver to my right. Following the trail to my left, there was another long stretch of cascading water with further falls breaking through the jungle. Finally I reached the Devil’s Throat, a U-shaped finale. There is every kind of waterfall you can imagine, from those that resemble a Chinese painting, trickling and tumbling over crags, to lacy sheets, to crashing cataracts. 

Then there are rainbows to be seen everywhere, coming into and fading out of focus with the angle of the sun. 

The water itself changes from ripples over rounded pebbles, to bubbles like a fizzy drink or swirling eddies, which in one place appeared to flow backwards as the pull from another precipice exerted its force. 

It is probably the most beautiful waterfall I have seen. I admit I did take some photos but I’ll only share a couple of them with you now.  

   I should add that along the trail I was accompanied, not only by scores of people, but by all sorts of brilliant butterflies and the inquisitive coatis. 

I walked back to the Bird Park a few hundred metres away, which was another wonderful experience. The birds were all in excellent condition, though many of them had been rescued from intolerable captivity. Though I am off to the Pantanal today, where I hope to see some new wildlife, I probably won’t get up so close to the birds.  

 There will be no free WiFi where I’m going so I will publish this blog now and may have to edit it later. 

Just a couple of asides. It sometimes sounds as if I’m writing a blog about the alcoholic drinks of South America. That might be a book worth writing, (and doing the research for), but it is surprising how each region has its own speciality. It’s also a good way to make friends with the locals, by sharing a drink with them. But I assure you I do not often overindulge. 

Also a couple of links. In Santiago I met a young woman called Ming, who is also writing a blog, but hers is largely focussed on women’s lives. She asked me if she could write about me and has done so at

beingbetterthangood.blogspot.com

Also, as I was going to the boat off Ihla Grande, the guide of the transfer company asked if he could take my picture to put on their website as an Instagram  as he thinks I’m “an example to people about how to live life”. Ha! Little does he know. I haven’t looked at it but the website is

easytranferbrazil.com

Looking forward, but trying to stay in the moment. 

Paraty, Brazil, Monday 11/05/15

A quick catch up on Chile.

Valparaiso sprawls over the hllls in an exuberance of colour.  

 It revels and rebels in street art, of variable quality.  

 You can get around using the metro, crazy speeding buses or one of the many funiculars, all of which are cheap. Bars and clubs seem to be open all night – Chileans don’t seem to eat much before 10pm or later. They have their own version of “Pisco Sour” which is slightly different from that of Peru, and is a favourite with locals and tourists alike. 

I stayed in an eccentric hostel tucked away behind a fruit and vegetable stall in the market. The owner took a small group of us to a private beach by his idyllic home in Tunquen, nearby.    


 There was even an artist painting a mural at the hostel while I was there.  

 I arrived back in Santiago in time for May Day. The main thoroughfare of eight lanes (O’Higgins Avenue), was closed for a demonstration in favour of greater democracy and against corruption in politics.   

  There was singing and dancing – 

 and flags of Che Guevara and the hammer and sickle. The police presence was minimal – a handful of them here and there, with no riot gear or body armour. It was good to see this happening in Chile, of all places. 

Like many people, I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, where you can see just how bad it was here under Pinochet. Though it was not on the same scale and no-one was keeping such scrupulous records, the mass graves and accounts of torture were disturbingly reminiscent of Cambodia. 

On a lighter note, in Valparaiso and Santiago I visited two of the three houses of Pablo Neruda, poet, Nobel Prize winner, national treasure, diplomat and self-proclaimed Communist. After his death the houses were vandalised by supporters of the military regime, but have been lovingly and remarkably restored. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the delightful flights of fancy that clutter the interiors of the buildings, (very 60’s), but I bought a small book of postcards as a reminder. 

On 6th May I flew to Rio. In the end, Chile did make me smile, but sometimes it was because that was all I could do. It was a pity that I did not go further South, as I am now unlikely to ever see Patagonia. But a page has turned and my next post will be about Brazil. 

Pucon, Friday 24/04/15

My first impressions of Chile were not good, but that may have been because of my state of mind. 

The view from the bus from Arequipa to Tacna, ( while I was still in Peru), was dispiriting. I realised that this was the start of the Atacama desert, as it was rocky and dusty and dark grey. Tacna had a lively nightlife, but what I saw was not an attractive place. 

The next morning I took a “collectivo” to Arica in Chile. The system is a kind of taxi which collects five people and the driver sorts out passports/ID and paperwork. On the drive to the border we passed hundreds of one-storey buildings about 3mx3m big, each standing alone on a patch of land. I couldn’t work out what they were as there were no people, roads or shops among them. There were fences here and there where the sand piled up. Someone suggested they were for agricultural workers – but this was in a desert where the only plantations were of trees. It would be a nightmare to live there. 

There are those who like Arica, but I am not among them. It’s smelly, there are dogs roaming the streets and the markets only have the cheapest of everyday commodities, with little colour or taste. Everyone lives behind bars and metal fences.   You can learn to surf, but there are far nicer beaches all over the world. Apparently there are clubs and bars, but you can find those anywhere. 

So I set off for San Pedro de Atacama on a long bus ride that goes through the night. I had been warned by the manager of my hotel to be awake when it stops at Calama, because there are thieves who get on the bus and take people’s bags as they are sleeping. All was well with me, but sure enough, in Santiago I met a couple who had had their bag taken with their passports and they knew of two others in the same situation. 

In the morning, as the sun rose, the landscape proved to have changed considerably, with looming cliffs and snow-capped volcanoes. 

San Pedro is a small oasis in “the driest place in the world”. The houses, and even the church, are of Adobe and are single storey.  
  

  Tour guides, restaurants and craft shops line the few streets, but it has a nice vibe and the dogs on the street are healthy and  mostly asleep. I stayed in a quirky hostel, full of ethnic symbols and bric-à-brac and where I made friends easily. 

The only tour I took was to Valle de la Luna and Death Valley. The former is a crater largely formed by upheavals of the earth’s crust. Following the rainy season, the water evaporates and leaves salt covering the land. Happily, I arrived at the right time, as this phenomenon only lasts for a month or so.  

 All around there are sand dunes and rock strata.  

 Death Valley should really have been called the Valley of Mars, because of the reddish colours, but there was an error in the translation.   

 Bizarrely, there had been so much rain this year that a part of the valley was flooded.  

  

The last stop was at Coyote Rock, to watch the sun set. It was a stunning place, but it was swarming with other people, most of whom were queuing up to have their picture taken on a rock that juts out over a valley. They made a lot of noise and I’m afraid it rather detracted from the atmosphere for me. I did take a few photos however.  

 Looking down from Coyote Rock.  

 Looking across the desert towards Argentina. 

My biggest disappointment was that I was unable to do the stargazing tour. I went to the Meteorite Museum, in a little geodesic dome, and learnt a great deal about the origins of our planet and about meteorites of course – did you know they have found Adenine and Guanine, two of the amino acids that make up DNA, in meteorites? On the three nights that I was in San Pedro it was too cloudy and “humid” for the tour of the night sky. This is something people rave about and a few days later it was running again. Circumstances here in Chile can be unpredictable, as you may know by now. 

A propos of nothing, I bought a T-shirt with a symbol I’d spotted here and there.  

 Hoping to find out a bit more about the significance of this figure, I have googled it – but what I get is reference to Doctor Who!

I thought I would break up the journey to Santiago by staying the night in Antofagasta. If Arica was bad enough, this was worse. The “hostal” I stayed in was really a B&B and was OK, but the location was awful. There were crippled and mangy dogs prowling the dirty streets, and on two occasions they followed me barking. I could find no cafe or restaurant and no real shops. Let’s just pass on. 

I spent a couple of days in Santiago, which is a likeable city I think. I will say more about it later, as I will return there to catch a flight to Brazil.  I went on a free walking tour, when the guide, who was a nice enough guy, mistakenly in my opinion, discussed the relative merits, or otherwise, of the elected President Allende and the military dictatorship that staged a coup d’état in 1973. Though he claimed to be “neutral”, it was obvious that he was ill-informed and naive. Yet another thing about Chile that has upset me. 

I’m now in Pucon in a great hostel by the Lake Villarrica, with two large picture windows, one looking on to the volcano and one onto the lake.  

   You can see that the volcano is smoking a little and it did erupt in March this year, which means it’s off-limits for hikers at the moment. 

The town is tiny, with buildings made of wood and all sorts of activities for tourists. My first day I just chilled, because I’d been on buses quite a bit and it felt good to relax. 

The following day I took a local bus to Huerquehue National Park and walked around the lakes for about six hours. It’s beautiful country and I felt much more at ease, even if there was quite a climb to some of the viewpoints.  

       There are “Monkey Puzzle trees”, ferns, strange grasses and the “bellflower”.  

 The forest was dense but the day was warm and sunny. 

Arriving back at the hostel I heard that Calbuco volcano, South of us, had erupted. In the restaurant that evening I watched pictures on the news of a vast cloud of ash towering over the mountain, lightning flashes and an incredible sunset. They were evacuating people over a 20km radius, so there were queues of people at the petrol station. Closer to home, the Vallarrica volcano started to glow red hot, as if in sympathy. 

I woke at 9am the next morning, (I had been kept awake most of the previous night by two loud, drunk German girls), in total darkness. At first I was completely disoriented, but then I realised that volcanic ash must have blotted out the sun. Outside the street lights were on and ash swirled around, stinging my eyes even as I was wearing a mask over my nose and mouth. We were advised to stay inside, so there was a brief sortie to the supermarket for food and wine. By midday the sky had lightened, but there was a dusty pall over everything. In the hostel we passed the day drinking wine, playing games and chatting, with a pasta dinner for all in the evening. 

The pictures from Calbuco on the Internet are amazingly colourful but the same could not be said of here. 

 This is what the lake looked like at 11 this morning. I managed to go to the hot springs near Lake Calafquen today and though the surroundings were coated in grey ash,  the water was clear.  

 
  Tomorrow I go to Valparaiso, as I no longer have plans to go further South. 

Arica, Saturday 11/04/15

After the floating islands of Uros, we carried on to Taquile, apparently “famed” for the fact that the men there knit. There’s not a great deal to do there except climb up the hill and then down the other side. It does provide some good views of Lake Titicaca, though.  

   Our guide, who is from there as I mentioned, told us quite a bit about the place over lunch. 

There was a demonstration of the importance of hats. Baby girls wear a red and brown pointed hat and boys red and white. It changes at seven years of age and then again the boys wear it a different way round in adolescence. At that time the girls are supposed to be covered in a black veil, but I don’t suppose this is practiced much these days. Boys used to get round the problems this caused to communication by using a mirror, both to see the girl’s features but also to signal to her and if she liked him she could signal back. 

Men and women can live together as a couple for two years without being married, but after that time, or if she gets pregnant, they must be wed and it is “for life”. 

The three Inca laws in Peru were “do not steal, do not lie and do not be lazy”. Our guide explained that these have little relevance on the island, as there is nothing to steal, it is such a small community that everyone knows everything about each other and if you don’t work hard you would starve. They do get some support from the mainland, such as solar panels, but elect their own pair of mayors, (who are allowed to wear a special hat). 

The next day I was intending to take a bus to Arequipa. I had spoken to the woman in reception, who was the only staff member who spoke good English, and she had said she would book a seat, took my details and said I could pay at the office in town when I came back from the lake. 

There was obviously some kind of mix up because when I asked at reception the woman was nowhere to be seen, there was no reservation and the office in town was closed. I had no option but to take a taxi to the bus terminal and buy a ticket for the same day. It turned out OK, because afterwards I decided to walk back to the main square and came across the fruit and vegetable market.  

   

This was certainly the most interesting thing in Puno in my opinion. 

Once I was in Arequipa I went for my customary stroll and was surprised to see the snow-topped volcanoes from the main square.  

 There are three of them; Pikchu Pikchu, Chachani and Misti, which is active. The city itself is known as “the white city” because of the volcanic stone used in the buildings.  

 The following day I had a bit of time on my hands, as I had arranged to go on a tour to Colca Canyon the day after. I had lunch in a place recommended by Trip Advisor, where I had a dish of seven different types of potato with typical yellow chilli sauce, (Salsa de Aji),  and the large corn.  Great for a vegetarian. 

I took advantage of a free city walking tour. This is the Church of La Compania, with a mixture of Christian and pre-Christian imagery.  

 Behind it is an old Jesuit monastery.  

 There is a theory that the carvings on the pillars represent female reproduction, which would appear to me to be a little unlikely.  

 I found the historical old Arequipa attractive, but my main reason for being there was the tour to Colca. The canyon is more than twice as deep as The Grand Canyon, but the deepest valley in Peru is not easily accessible. 

The trip took me to my highest altitude yet.  

 There were little piles of stones all around, both to mark the trail but now associated with good luck.  

 In the afternoon I went to the hot springs at La Calera, very relaxing and not too smelly. After a night spent in Chivay we headed for “Cruz del Condor” early in the morning to see the Condors themselves. This is a prime spot for seeing these huge birds and we had beaten the majority of the tourists to the place. Within ten seconds of arrival I had seen four of them, flying in and out between the rocks, with two adults flying in unison. I found a good lookout position and settled down for the hour and a half we would be there. 

Three of the original birds I had seen settled on the rocks in front of me and began preening. It was still quite cold and nothing more happened for a while. Then the sun broke through and  suddenly a number of birds came swooping round the canyon straight at me. The others took off with them and they were soaring above and around me. I was very emotional. At one time, ten of them were flying in a circle above me and four more diving down below. I could hardly believe it – by the time I had to go back to the bus I had seen twenty-two Condors, and the last four had flown around constantly. 

I’m sorry I have no pictures, for all the usual reasons, though my binoculars allowed me some superb views. 

We went for a walk along the top of the canyon with the tour guide, when two more white-winged Condors surged up from below us and swung away into the distance. 

Though I have no photos of the birds, here are a few of the canyon and the valley, which I found very lovely.  

       

That was the final peak of my Peruvan adventure. I returned to Arequipa and then on to Tacna for one night before crossing the border to Chile. 

Arequipa, Wednesday 08/04/15

Before I continue with my tales of Peru, I thought I’d say a little about my own state of mind. 

I’ve been travelling for seventeen months now and though there is still so much to see and do, there are some things I find myself thinking about. 

Some days it’s hard to get things organised for the next place. It’s good that I can do what I want, but I do need to motivate myself. Everyone finds packing their bag a bore and I have to time it so as not to disturb others in the dorm. Then it seems to get harder not to forget stuff.  Booking buses and beds is quite easy, but I still find myself putting it off. 

There are the things about others in the hostel that can be trying. Snoring is the obvious one, but stage whispers at night, leaving the door open and even whistling have all caused me to mutter under my breath. Hair in the sink is another. What’s interesting is that these are the sorts of things that annoy people who are living together in relationships, so I suppose it’s the price we pay for companionship. 

Speaking of which, though it would be nice to be living in relative comfort, the hardest thing about being so far away is missing my family and friends. Hugs are precious. 

A lot of the time I feel strange. Why is everyone taking pictures of themselves? Indeed, why is taking photos the first thing they do, before they’ve even had a look around? The tour guides know this and build their itineraries around the phenomenon. Some people even acknowledged to me they never look at these photos again. 

Then there’s health. I got rid of my sore throat when I left Mexico. Now I watch my toenail turning black, though it doesn’t really hurt. Also I worry about my teeth. I should have got the problem with my crown sorted out in Mexico, but it would have meant staying in one place for a while and there was so much I wanted to do. 

All these are such minor things, I know, and they can all disappear in a flash when I find myself in wonder at nature or human kindness or simply laughing at life’s little ironies. In spite of that, at this moment, I could do with a friend close at hand and close to my heart.  

So, on with the Motley. After the Inka trial, I took a single room in Cusco behind the Cathedral. I thought I would get a good night’s sleep out of the dorms/tent, but my room was close to the lobby and the dining area, so I was disturbed by people coming in at three in the morning and others leaving at 5.30. I was pleased with the area, though, full of little local shops, narrow streets and a vegan restaurant where I met some interesting people. The next day I met up with the two Canadian women I had met on the trail and we had a great day; saw the picture of the Last Supper in the Cathedral, with guinea pig on the table, had brunch in the Chocolate Museum . . . 

meandered through the local market . . . 

   

 

 and bought some silver earrings in the form of the Inca Cross from a street stall. 

We finally said goodbye and went our separate ways. 

I was trying to arrange a trip to “Amazonia” on the internet, but having some problems. As it happened, I went to the office of an “Ecolodge” and because I couldn’t manage to book flights on my iPhone or their PC, I went to the Avianca office and the ticket cost half the price!

On Friday 27th March I flew to Puerto Maldonado, then took an hour and a half boat ride up the Madre de Dios river to the lodge.  

This was my personal hut.  

 And this the view from the verandah.  

  I spent two days and three nights there and it almost certainly was the most expensive place I stayed, though it was full board with guides, etc. I wish I could have stayed longer.

I don’t have wonderful pictures, as my iPhone does not like moving targets, deep shady forest and distant objects. I caught glimpses of Toucan, Brocket deer, Tamarin monkeys, Squirrel monkeys, Black-faced and White-faced Capuchins, Agouti, some strange birds and so on. There were plenty of Caimans and Leaf-cutter ants and I got very close to some Spider Monkeys.  

“Cool”.

I heard, but did not see, Howler monkeys in the morning and only saw tracks of Tapir and Jaguar. OK, I’m not David Attenborough, but I’m very pleased I went. 

I flew back to Cusco, where it was Palm Sunday and they were making elaborate structures from Palm leaves. The following day they paraded the Black Christ they keep in the Cathedral in honour of some patron of the city and a huge crowd gathered in the Plaza de Armas in the evening. 

Though I liked Cusco very much, it was time to move on. The bus ride to Puno gave me a surreal experience as they showed “Hairspray” on the small screens – not really what I was expecting.  

Puno is on the shore of Lake Titicaca, but other than that is of little interest. I found myself sharing a “2 bed dorm” with a young Brazilian man, Pascoal, who had lived in Stoke Newington for two years, just North of where I had lived in Dalston, London. 

We ended up going to the “main attractions” together. On the first day that meant the tombs at Sillustani where archaeologists found Inca mummies in the towers. The Inca towers are quite impressive.  

 This is the Twelve-Angle stone which serves as an entrance to the chamber for the mummy on two of the towers.  

The towers built by the original inhabitants are much simpler.  

 The area itself has a wild beauty.  

 There is even a “mysterious ” stone with the spiral that represents Pachamama,  or world mother, that messes with your compass.  

 We visited a local family, in stone houses, who offered more good food – potatoes, cheese and a kind of fried bread. They keep guinea pigs, not to eat but because they believe that caressing or sleeping with them is curative, (or at least that was what we were told).

 I love these people, ( the guinea pigs not so much).

Though it was cold and pelting with rain that night, the next day was sunny and we took a slow boat out on Lake Titicaca. 

First the Uros Islands. According to our guide, (who lives on Taquile Island, our next destination), these artificial floating islands were constructed to protect the natives from enemies and also to evade the conquistadors who wanted them to work as farmers. First they tried building on piles of reeds, but these floated away. Then they tried living on boats, but these were too constrictive. Eventually then found that if they built on the roots of the reeds they could maintain a habitation. They then went through several stages of construction   

(A small model of how the floating islands are made).    

Not all the inhabitants accept tourists, but the life must be hard, with no running water and schools and medical services a long boat ride away, so any extra income must be welcome. They do now have some solar panels to provide a little electricity. Their food consists of  fish, birds and the stalks of the reeds. 

Once again poor WiFi means I haven’t been able to complete this narrative so I’ll just leave it for now with some more photos.  

    The  kitchen  

  

 Adios.   

Arequipa, Saturday 04/04/15

Peru is breathtaking, literally. 

I flew from Cancun to Lima, arriving around midday. The taxi ride from the airport was somewhat off-putting, as I passed rows and rows of dowdy streets with colourless shops. Then there was the sea-shore, with swimming prohibited, an expanse of wasteland and high nets preventing the black gravel cliffs from tumbling into the road. 

The hostel, however, was charming, being an old Manor House with plenty of character and in a bustling part of town. It took me all afternoon to sort out my SIM card, as iPhones can cause problems and my constant changes do lead to confusion. However, the staff were very patient and a young woman eventually sorted it out for me. 

In the evening I went for a short walk and had the first of the many fresh, pretty, delicious vegetarian meals I had in Peru. Hurrah!

The next day I did something I don’t usually do and paid for a tour of the city. I’m glad, because I did find some parts of the old city attractive.  

 In the cathedral I found an effigy of Jesus in bed, which is something you don’t see every day.  

 (Of course, it’s supposed to be him laid to rest in the tomb, but the Spanish had to dress everything up).

That evening I met a small part of the group with whom I was to spend the next eight days and the following morning we were off to Cusco. 

I will say more about Cusco later, but when we arrived we met up with the rest of the group, sixteen in all, and had just enough time to have another good meal, then pack for the next day and off to bed. We were allowed our own day pack and no more than 6k for the porters to carry for us on the  four day Inka trail, to include sleeping bag, change of clothes, etc.      

We all piled into the bus and set off for the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was at Ccaccaccollo, where we visited the women’s weaving cooperative.  

The hats indicate that these women are all married – if they were single the brims would be turned up. 

We encountered the domestic llamas,

 as well as the smaller, fluffier and more attractive alpacas.  

We had an amazing seven course meal in tiny village called Huchuy Qosqo. This was the first course, which was avocado stuffed with mixed vegetables, potato crisp and pigeon egg. 

 We spent the best part of the day in the Sacred Valley 

 and we rested by the terraces of  the Pisac ruins.  

 By the late afternoon we reached Ollantaytambo, with its impressive Inca fortress.  

   As we reached the highest point, we were all amazed to see this rainbow behind the mountains, even though it had not been raining. I took it as a good omen for the coming days.  

 The next day we set off on the Inca Trail, 27 miles in the Andes. This is a picture of the people travelling, with the “hikers” in the back and all the porters and cooks.   

This first day was relatively easy, as we only walked about 7 miles. It rained a bit, but that cooled us down. We ate well in the evening and tried to sleep in the tents. As I had not paid for an inflatable mattress, I found myself on a plastic sheet about 3mm thick. Not ideal!

The next day was hard. It took about four to five hours to climb the long, steep path to “Dead Woman’s Pass”. The steps are very uneven and though we started in good weather, it clouded over the higher we got.  

 I was really pleased to be among the first of the group to arrive at the top.  

 Also Paul, a member of one of the two Canadian families on the trek, commented that whenever he saw me I was sitting down, but whenever he reached a meeting point I was there before him, which I thought sounded rather magical. 

What goes up must come down and camp was about 1,000m lower. The descent was hard on my knees and when there were no steps and just a slope, harder on my toes. I believe I will lose the nail on my left big toe. Hey ho. However, there was time to admire the scenery and even spot a hummingbird. 

It rained during the night and the mountains were cloudy and moody first thing in the morning.  

The weather improved and so did the walk, though it was our longest day.  More cloud forest.   

 The remains of the spa where the Incas would bathe before entering Machu Picchu.   

 More stunning views.  

 Once again, it rained hard all night. I wasn’t feeling  quite right and didn’t know if it was late onset altitude sickness. But as we were about to get up, the rain stopped and I was determined to get the best out of the day, even if it was 3 O’Clock in the morning. 

We rushed to the Sun Gate, but there was far too much cloud drifting about to see Machu Picchu properly. Then, as we approached, the sun broke through and the day grew warm and wonderful.  

  I’m sure you will have seen pictures of Machu Picchu, or could download many which would be better than mine. There are a number of different temples; this one is the Room of the Three Windows.  

This is the Temple of The Sun.   

 

  The Inti Watana stone is one of the many astrological features of the site.  

This is the head of the Condor on the ground in the Temple of the Condor.  

Together with a short guided tour,  we spent about three hours roaming the site, taking some time off in the shade and chewing some Coca leaves.  

 Then it was a bus ride to Aguas Calientes, where we had a late lunch and a few drinks and then took the train back to Cusco. 

I had hoped to cover more of my time in Peru in this post, but the WiFi in the places I’ve stayed is making it really hard to upload pictures. 

It was a once in a lifetime experience for me to see Machu Picchu and to manage the hike. The group were friendly and fun and we were lucky with the weather. Tomorrow I’m off to Colca Canyon.   

Cusco, Peru. Monday 30/03/15

It was a brief affair with Mexico and I did not do or see all that I wanted, but I had some strange and wonderful experiences there. 

In Mexico City I went to two extraordinary museums. The first is the museum of folk art, which is full-on from the moment you walk in. Kites and enormous  creatures,(Alebrijes), are strewn all over the central atrium.  

They have fun with Devils  

 And the ubiquitous skeletons  

 There are videos of extremely colourful festivals with mad masks and crazy dances.  

Display cards explain about the local beliefs in Nahuales, totems which help you change into an animal, and the Tona or totem animals. There are tales of mermaids, (interestingly also true in South Africa), and beautiful works of art.    

 I was quite dazzled. 

The Museum of Anthropology is the premier cultural attraction and is like entering another world. I thought I knew a little about South American history, but it is vastly complicated.   I only visited the ground floor and not the first floor which deals with present day culture, but it took me hours. 

I particularly liked the fact that the earliest cultures produced many simple pottery figures of women with children.  

 Things soon changed with the arrival of the Toltecs and the Aztecs and the rise of the priesthood. Later masks and sculpture are incredibly elaborate.  

 
It was my first encounter with this character.  

 Chac-mool, an intermediary between the physical world and the gods, used as a sacrificial altar. He was associated with Tlaloc, the rain or Thunder God and he more usually looks like this – 

 I also found out a bit more about “the ball game”, of which more later. 

On to Oaxaca, where I passed a thoroughly enjoyable day thanks to a chance meeting with a young Mexican woman, Elena,  in the hostel bathroom. I told her I was planning a trip to Monte Alban, a pre-Columbian pyramid site nearby, sacred to the Zapotec. She invited me to join her and her boyfriend, Alessandro, as they were driving out there that same day. I readily agreed. 

We spent an hour or two wandering around the wide open site among the mountains.  

   We then moved on to Matatlan for some serious Mezcal tasting. Thanks to Alessandro we found some very rustic and authentic Mezcal distillers. 

 We finished the day at an excellent restaurant where I tried three different types of “mole”, each of which contains over twenty ingredients.  

 I confess my preference for the “mole negra” with chocolate. 

The next day I spent wandering the streets of Oaxaca.  

 I bought some chocolate and visited the museum at Santo Domingo, an old monastery.  

    Though I had hoped to visit San Cristobal de Las Casas, everyone’s favourite town it seems, and Palenque, Mayan ruins in the jungle, time was running out for me, so I headed for Merida and Chichen Itza.  

I managed to get to Chichen Itza before the hordes of tourists, but not before the lines of hawkers. Unlike Palenque, it now sits on arid land. 

This great pyramid is aligned with magnetic north and at sunrise at the equinox a snake-like shadow runs up the side. 

There is a ball court, with stone circles set high up on either side. 

There were two teams of seven a side and the object was to get a solid rubber ball through one of the circles, probably using only the hips to direct the ball, (I saw a video of people playing like this in the folk art museum in Mexico). There was great spiritual significance to this game, which dates from around 1,400 BC. 

 This stone sculpture at the base of the wall appears to show “the man of the match” being beheaded, with blood spurting from the neck.  

 Facing him is the leader of the opposing team, who is holding his severed head, which you can see at the bottom to the left of the large circle. There is still some debate as to whether it was the winner or the loser who was decapitated, though knowing the Maya’s I would think it would have been considered an honour. Either way, they were playing for very different stakes than today’s football “heroes”.  

I had a plane to catch on 16th March, so on to Cancun. I don’t have anything good to say about it. It was “spring break” and thousands of students from the USA descend on the hotels and beaches to “party”. I met a writer for Trip Advisor who took me and a couple of friends of his to experience the clubbing phenomenon for free. Anthropologically speaking, it was something to see, but in the end I was glad to leave. I still have good memories of Mexico, but my next post will be about my adventures in Peru.

Oaxaca, Saturday 07/03/15

I have thoroughly warmed to Mexico now and that’s not just down to the Margaritas and Mezcal. 

Mazatlan is relatively user-friendly, with little stores selling a large variety of fresh foods, large supermarkets, a long beach and attractive buildings in the old quarter.

It’s very spread out, though, and hard to work out the buses, particularly as the bus stops are hardly identified. I have a limited time in Mexico, so moved on to Guadalajara. 

The coaches in Mexico are great. You don’t need to book, as there are very regular services going practically everywhere. This is a good thing, as the coach companies do not except payment by foreign credit cards so I could not book online. Public toilets are clean and well equipped, though you do have to pay. Also, many of them have floor to ceiling turnstiles, which entails contortions on my part when carrying my backpack and daypack. 

For me, Guadalajara won’t do. Again, some beautiful buildings.


I enjoyed the sculptures and some of the art work. Though  some of it is very dark, some is fun.



There’s a lively night life, families strolled the streets and I even watched some fireworks from outside the faded beauty of my hostel. Still, it lacked something for me and I was happy to proceed to Mexico City. 

Coming in to Mexico City from the West, you pass over a high flyover and get a good view of the many different districts. When I arrived, however, I wasn’t feeling so good. I have developed a sore throat that still hasn’t gone, over a week later. I took a day of rest, but there was still something I really wanted to do and time was running out.  

Since Tucson I had met people talking about the Monarch Butterfly and their hopes of being able to visit them while they are still amassed in their winter residence in Mexico. I had checked this out and discovered that there are very few places where you can go to see them in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, North-West of Mexico City. Literally millions of them arrive there annually in November and the females depart again after mating in late March. A chance of circumstance not to be missed, so I bought a bus ticket, booked a bed at one of the three hotels in Angangueo mentioned on the Internet and set off just after midday. 

I arrived four and a half hours later- there was a demonstration in the city, (there is always a demo somewhere), which caused a traffic jam. Also the bus doubled for the school run, so let children off every five minutes along the final part of the journey. I asked a local for the hotel and was told to take a little bus, which was free. 

People on the bus told me where to get off and I expectantly looked around for someone to check me in. When I found someone to come to Reception and gave her details of my booking, she said she had no record of it and there was no room for me. Well, she spoke no English and I speak no Spanish, but it was clear what she meant. I showed her the confirmation email from Booking.com, but she said that as I had no confirmation directly from them, this did not count. So I was in a very remote part of Mexico, with no bed for the night and no bus back to the city.

To cut a long story short, after discovering there was a room, but they wanted to charge me much more for it, I started a half hour walk uphill through the village to another hotel, carrying my backpack and daypack on a very hot day. I had almost arrived when a car drew up beside me. Inside was a local guide, Oscar, and the woman from Reception. As I had been writing the name and number of the other hotel, she had noticed his name in my little gold notebook. She had tried to call him earlier, while I was with her, but only got hold of him after I had gone. He sorted the whole thing out for me, got me the room at a reasonable price and agreed to take me to see the butterflies the following morning. He would even drop me off at the bus stop on the main road to catch my ride back. 

After I eventually installed my bags in the room and had taken a cold shower and changed, I was offered a glass of wine by the couple in the next room, which we took out on the veranda. Disaster averted and it turned out well in the end. 

There are differing estimates of the altitude of the El Rosario butterfly reserve, but it is around 3,000m above sea level. Oscar drove me up a winding mountain road to a lookout point.

Though it would have been possible to visit El Rosario without Oscar, I was glad of his help and his company. He is a kind and sensitive man and we talked easily. When you get to the reserve entrance there is a small fee to pay and you have to be accompanied by one of the official “guides”, who are really there to ensure you do not disturb the insects and keep to the regulations.Then there is a steep climb up to where the Monarchs gather. It takes about 45 minutes, but I admit I had to stop several times to catch my breath, because of the altitude. At least I wasn’t the most affected, though. 

On the way we stopped at a flower-filled glade and watched butterflies and humming birds flitting here and there. As you approach the sanctuary, you start to walk among the butterflies and see them dropping to the ground as they mate. 

There were only about twenty people at the top and they ask everyone to keep quiet, which is a relief. I spent about one and a half to two hours just watching the millions of Monarchs. They hang in clumps that resemble wasps nests and as the sunlight reaches them through the trees they begin to fly. Early in the morning I was able to watch whole clusters suddenly break away and the air is simply filled with thousands of the little creatures all at once. My mind just drifted away and I stood entranced.


So many tiny lives, yet each has made an incredible journey and each fragile spirit is there for a purpose.