Submitted by Lincoln Yates (Catch22) October 2002
This is an insight into what we did during a six week stint, in southern Peru.
Before I begin I would like to mention that it is a good idea to have a little Spanish under your belt, as once you leave the confines of the cities not many speak English.
I was not sure what to expect, I had heard so many stories some good some bad, the main concern was about Lima, and as I was flying into Lima at something like 11.00 PM at night I was a little concerned.
This big city is really split into two, a very modern side (Miraflores) with all western outlets, nice houses, and appartments, and the old colonial side (Central Lima). All the bad stories seem to be about Central Lima, as I did not want to stay in Miraflores, I started to do some research on the web, particularly on the Thorn tree. I found what seemed to be a great little Hotel right in the heart of old Lima, and surprisingly they would arrange to have me picked up from the Airport for $15
The Hotel is called "Hotel Espania" just off the Plaza de Armas, from the outside it does not look much at all,a drab looking building, but as you walk through the thick iron clad doors, you realise it was once a lovely old mansion, the hotel rooms and dorms all face a courtyard type of area, which is open to the sky, long trailing plants hang down from the top floors. In all the rooms and dorms large beautiful oil paintings hang auspiciously, a garden cafe set in lush surroundings, takes up most of the top floor, a few parots and a couple of large tortoises reside here . The basement has a Internet cafe, but I did not use it, as it was cheaper in the square
I slept in the dorm the cost was $3 a night
You have to be a little careful walking around especially at night, I had no problem, but was careful not take out any bags or camera,s with me
In the day I had a little scruffy daysac with my camera inside, and never let it out of my sight, There are some great little eating place all around the Hotel
For most of the time I used public transport or shared taxis's and the like. My 6 day stay in Lima was very pleasant and I found it to be a very interesting and beautiful city, although the weather was always dull.
From here I decided to head south to Arequipa which was an overnite bus journey, I booked the ticked the day before from the bus station, but can be done through the hotel, there are several good bus companies, the ones I tended to use where "Ormeno and Cruz del Sur" On this occasion I used Ormeno, the cost was about £9 which included a sandwich and a drink, loads of videos, great reclining seats with plenty of leg room, really modern double decker coaches
Arequipa the white city
This is a beautiful old rambling city, with fantastic bars and restaurants, surrounded by snow capped mountains. After a short journey from the bus station we arrived at Hotel Casa La Reyna. I had met a couple of lads, so we shared a room for about $4 each, nice clean place with roof top terrace, good views.
There is Lots to see in and around Araquipa, my first day in the Monasterio de santa Catalina , this is a large complex 20,000 square metres it takes time to take in all the sites and look around, churches and old colonial building dominate the city, many are built from a light coloured stone, hence the name "The white city"
One of the most fascinating and I think rewarding, was a visit to the Museo Santuarios Andinos where "Juanita the ice Princes" is on display. This is the frozen body of an Inca maiden sacrificed on the summit of Ampato about 500 years ago. Juanita is preserved in a glass walled freezer, and very well preserved, you get to see a video and a guided tour
A trip that I would recommend highly is to go to Colca Canyon, you can join one of the many organised groups or do it yourselves, we opted to make our own way there. It was quite easy and a great experience especially on the old buses, (watching a man trying to strangle his wife, and the fiasco that followed, but thats another story), it was a very entertaining trip, well worth the effort and cheap.
From the bus station we boarded a public bus headed for a place called Chivay 3700m, this is a lovely little town up in the mountains, it is easily worth a couple of days, there are hot springs within walking distance, and would you believe it an Irish Pub, it is said to be the remotest one in the world. I can't remember the name of the place we stayed, but it was only a couple of dollars a night.
When you decide to move on, you have to be in the main Plaza very early in the morning to catch the bus to Cabanaconde 3290m. Before you reach this town it is worth getting off at Cruz del Condor, to watch the Andean Condors catching a ride on the thermals, they soar past really close, and have large wing spans of a couple of metres.
You can either walk it from here or catch the next bus that comes past. On arrival at Cabanaconde get yourself something to eat in a restaurant and ask them to show you, the start of the trek to the bottom of the canyon, once on the trek its just down down down, take plenty of water.
As you descend the little lodges with swimming pools get bigger and more inviting, the swimming pools are area's that have been dammed, grassed are very clean refreshing and you just can't wait to get in them after the walk down.
The cost for one night including breakfast and evening meal was $8, the little huts were very basic but clean, no electricity, a great place to explore the canyon and visit other remote villages, would have loved to stay longer but after a few days it was time to head back to Lima and Hotel Espania where I was to meet my girlfriend who was flying in from the UK. We stayed a couple of nights, while she got over the jet lag, then we flew to Cusco.
The main reason most people arrive in Cusco is to start or book a trek to Machu PicchuCuzco was once the heart of the mighty Inca Empire, it is a great place to explore and visit the fascinating archaeological ruins which abound the area. You could easily spend a week or more exploring in and around the city. If time is short, book you trek as soon as you arrive, as you have to spend three days there before you can start the trek, this is due to acclimatization.
We did the rounds, looking at several trekking companies they all were very similar, so we booked one we liked the look off, the cost was around $200 including Guide, food, tents and cooks etc, if you wanted someone to carry your pack that could be arranged at an extra cost, you could pay a lot more than that if you wanted extra luxuries, we just went for the basic package, it was also cheaper because it was the begining of the rainy season.
One thing I would suggest is, to take with you one of those big orange plastic survival bags that you can sleep in, cut it down the middle to stop you sweating and use it to lay your sleeping bag in at night. The reason being, the ground sheets on most of our tents leaked quite badly giving us all wet sleeping bags every night, which was not pleasant..
The trek was fantastic, and I would recommend it to anyone with a reasonable degree of fitness. There are some quite long days and you trek over a pass at a height of 4200m which is the highest part of the trek, but it is all worth it when you reach Intipunku (gate of the sun) and you get your first view, its a awesome sight, that you will not forget in a hurry. You are allowed to explore the site, on your own, and for those who are not scared of heights or squeamish when it comes to ropes and ladders, Huayna Picchu is worth a climb, beware it is very steep and if you fall you could injure yourself badly
When your all ruined out! a walk down to Aguas Calientes to soak you aches and paines in the natural thermal springs is just the thing.
Puno and Lake Titicaca 3830m
From Cusco we then headed for Puno and lake Titicaca, Puno is really just a stop over and starting point for the many trips to the islands
We opted for a trip to the floating Islands and then on to the Isle of Taquile and a stay with a family in thier home, the floating island were fascinating, small communities live on these islands and everything is made from reeds, it was like walking over a giant water bed.
Our next stop was Taquila, we arrived at the jetty to be greeted by a very steep stairway that leads to the centre of town,and at almost 4000m it takes some getting used to, once in the centre you are allocated to a family, by the head of the village, it is quite a strange feeling watching the group slowly dwindle as people disappear up the little streets with complete strangers,
We ended up in this beautiful adobe two storey house with sea views, the family was very kind and accommodating, feeding us three great meals a day, the evenings were spent talking or trying to make conversation in pigeon Spanish, but on the day we arrived, a dance was held in the local hall organized for us all. before heading out to the hall our host asked us did we won't to wear any poncho's and hats, which we found strange but all was revealed when we got to the hall all the locals were dressed up and the few tourist who had taken up on the poncho's were joining in,It was a fantastic experience, just wish we had got dressed up and had longer to stay on this island. From Puno time was getting short so we started to head back up north towards Lima. we booked a bus with Cruz del Sur to Nasca.
After a long journey we arrived in Nazca, a very dry dusty place, the same day we booked our flight over the Nasca Lines from a small airport. We were to fly in a little Sesna 4 seater the cost was $25 for a one hour flight, they usually fly in the morning.
The next morning arrived and I had been told to take a sea sick tablet, and I am so glad I did, the flight was not rough, but to enable everybody to get good views, the pilot would say for those on the right side this is the monkey and he would steeply bank the plane over and visa versa for the people on the left side, and as there are many drawing we did a lot of flipping from one side to the other. It was a absolutely brilliant and a thought provoking experience, even though the plane looked like it was held together with glue.
That afternoon we arranged a Taxi to the Nazca Cemetery, You can join an organised tour, as there was four of us, it was cheaper to use a taxi. The desert in this area is so dry that nothing rots and as you walk around this old cemetery, you can see bits of Inca clothing, pottery and we actually saw a little mummified baby sticking out of the sand, standing looking at this tiny baby brings visions running through your mind. There are also about 10 tombs below the surface, all with mummies with very long hair, again very fascinating.
Our last stop before Lima and home was Huacachina this is about 5km west of Inca, we choose this place because we wanted some where to chill and relax before we headed home
We arrived at Ica a large colonial town, from here we got a taxi to take us to Huacachina this place is a lovely little village next to a palm fringed oasis on the edge of the desert. we stayed at a little hotel with a swimming pool, bar, and huge sand dunes that finished at the foot of the garden, these dunes are incredibly big, so large that snow boards can be rented to board the slops, the walk or slog should I say to the top is very tiring and I think you would probably only do it a couple of times.
After a relaxing break, it was back to Hotel Espania and the airport, if you are flying out of Lima there is a stiff departure tax of $25
Submitted by Tanja Hill 2004
Inca Kola, vultures and bones
I landed in Lima late at night, having watched the most amazing sunset during the flight. Venus shone so brightly over a band of flaming shades of orange and yellow fading into a thin ribbon of red, only to be cut off sharply by the blackness of the Earth underneath. ("I could paint that", I thought).
My Peru tour started the very next day, with a walk around Lima. I had heard many negative things about Lima, and hence, to a degree, was positively surprised to see the impressive squares with rider statues, fountains and flowers, and the old colonial buildings with big wooden balconies.
Black vultures circled in the air above the rooftops around Plaza Mayor, where an Inca temple and a palace for an Inca prince had once stood, perhaps reminding us about the past. They had little scuffles over the best roosting spots near the bell towers of a convent, making our pigeons back home look very tame indeed.
Innovation is the name of the game, when work is hard to come by. Musicians were playing pan flutes for tourists near restaurants, and street artists were willing to entertain anyone happy to watch their tricks. Some artists were magicians - of the type that make things vanish from your pockets and bags. Also known as "silk hands", these people are master pickpockets. Many of them are children. Whilst our guide, Rudy, did the talking to the group, Roger was acting as a "bodyguard" or "The Extra Pair of Eyes", watching our backs (and bags) and protecting us from these "artists", as well as the beggars. Some beggars may be genuine enough, but begging in Lima is also a well-organised profession.
The beggars arrive early in the morning - in cars! Some women carry dolls to imitate babies, and they could earn an Oscar for the tears they shed. Apparently, there had been a documentary about begging, and a journalist had dressed up as a beggar for the day, and earned USD 80! (In a country, where a doctor might earn under USD 60 per month and probably drives a taxi to supplement his income, that is big money….). Rudy had even seen a beggar buy a much more expensive mobile phone than what he could afford… (We learnt a lot from Rudy, and these snippets are mostly from him. Whilst some may seem rather boring bits of information, I found it immensely useful to understand how this stunningly beautiful, incredibly varied, and culturally rich, yet troubled country works).
So, everything is not always as it seems in this part of the world…. Here are a couple of more examples:
The centre of Lima is very colourful. There are lots of flowers around the squares, and the mayor wants them changed to different colours for every occasion, significant or not. Is this because the mayor likes flowers so much? Well, perhaps, but you might have guessed it: the mayor OWNS the flower business…. Just imagine the headlines back home, if that happened here in the UK!
Need to change some currency? It couldn't be easier! Sleazy-looking men are sitting in street corners with large piles of cash in front of them. They are "moneychangers". And the money is fake. Sure there is a lot more where it came from. What is quite bizarre, and wouldn't occur to us in Europe, is that here you can even get fake money from cash points (ATMs)!
In order to try and tackle the problem of crime on foreigners, "tourist police" do their rounds in the centre of Lima. Whilst they can be helpful, it doesn't mean some are not corrupt (as I later discovered). Sniffer dogs zigzagged through the crowds with their tails wagging, looking more cheerful than their police handlers. Drugs are a huge problem, particularly cocaine. It is possible to buy it here by the kilo (not that I tried!). The local prison is, tragically, full of young Americans and Europeans, majority of them women, serving 25 years or so for trafficking. It is possible to visit this prison and speak to the inmates, which must be much-appreciated. Ordinary Peruvians may also find it difficult to get a passport to travel due to the drug problem, which really is quite sad. There are plenty of wonderful, friendly, educated and honest people in Peru, who would welcome the opportunity to travel - but the border for many remains closed.
Apart from drugs and widespread corruption, Peru is facing similar problems to its neighbouring countries that hinder its development. There are wealthy people in Peru, and a rather hard-to-define middle class, but poverty is a real problem: 47% are officially unemployed, 60% of people are classified as poor, with 20% very poor. Political instability and terrorist action, particularly by the infamous Shining Path in the past haven't helped. Everyone here knows someone who was assassinated by the Shining Path, and just mentioning the name today often gets a reaction, even tears, brought by the painful memories. The intentions of the terrorist organisation may have sounded good, and hence it gained support, but in the process some 30,000 people were murdered, and many kidnapped for ransom. Ten years ago, Lima was the world's most dangerous city; with bombs exploding around the main square a couple of times a day (donkeys and even children were used as walking missiles…. What charming people!).
It was hard to imagine what Lima had gone through in just the last 15 years, when I sat in a restaurant in the wealthy Miraflores area and watched young people with some money in their pockets enjoying a night out. City lights from pricey hotels and trendy eateries dot the edge of the Pacific Ocean in this part of town. The view is rather spectacular - and even better over a lovely meal.
It was in just such a trendy café-restaurant (Café Café) in Miraflores, where we had a welcoming dinner for our group. I just had to try one of the local specialities: "ceviche" (swordfish marinated in lemon juice served with the biggest maize I've ever seen). I'm not too keen on raw fish normally, but this stuff was delicious. Only afterwards did I hear that you could get an amoeba from raw fish. Well, thankfully I didn't, and it was worth the risk!
Along the beach nearby, in Parque del Amor, there is a huge statue of a kissing couple, discreetly lit up at night. This is where lovers gather come nightfall, and we could already see a few of them arriving. The police actively patrol this area, as in the past; those less lucky in love may have been tempted to jump off the nearby cliffs (now, I ask: is anyone worth THAT???)! But not that night - we saw only happy couples, busy trying to copy the statue!
Most of Lima is totally different from Miraflores - very poor. As for poverty in Peru, America too has a lot to answer for, as it holds a firm grip of the country's rich resources. It feels quite baffling that the world's second largest producer of gold (after South Africa) is so underdeveloped. The mines are owned by Americans, who also pay whatever they see fit for other products (50kg of potatoes may go for as little as one Peruvian sole - with 3.5 soles to one USD - well, how many potatoes would you get for that money?).
The power to rule the country is split somewhere between the president and his government, and the Catholic Church. The church can overrule a decision made by the president the very next day. And it has happened - on free contraceptives to teenagers on this occasion, and the child pregnancy numbers are shocking! The church doesn't hold power just over the government, but people too; many pay their last soles to the church despite not having dinner on the table. It is, of course, more important to book their place in heaven, isn't it?
On the subject of churches, the San Francisco convent had to be seen. Oddly, here monks live in convents and nuns in monasteries, the other way around from Europe. This particular convent is impressive, with huge paintings, intricate woodwork ("no nails, no glue, and always cut by hand", explained Rudy to us several times), and a beautiful library with enormous old leather books, undoubtedly priceless, on display.
One particular painting stood out, but not at first glance. It was a huge painting of "The Last Supper" covering most of the wall. In those days, the artists were not allowed to sign the paintings, but local artists were clever; on closer look, you will notice that this picture could not have been painted by a European artist. Why? The main dish for the supper is a guinea pig, locally known as "cuy" (this is a small and very cute hairy rodent, a popular children's pet in Europe)! The rodent is served with potatoes (that come from Peru). On top of that, the twelve apostles also tuck into their dinner using knives and forks! Well, perhaps these apostles were a little bit ahead of their time
Talking of guinea pigs, Rudy suggested we should try garlic hamsters - I hope he was joking! I also hoped he was joking when he told us about a "health juice" made by liquidising live frogs in a blender - how GROSS is that!!!
Convento de San Francisco is also a home to a strange collection of bones in its famous catacombs. Lots of bones! In fact, there are bones from some 25,000 skeletons buried under the building that had been used as a cemetery. However, it is also possible that, as well as victims of natural disasters and epidemics, the catacombs are also the last resting place for pregnant nuns, slaves, and deformed or handicapped people. Perhaps it wasn't appropriate to bury these in the graveyard with the ordinary folk. The bones have been arranged neatly, and sometimes decoratively, afterwards, and sorted by their type. It was almost like walking around Tesco's vegetable and fruit section, with slightly different contents in the trays: I could just picture someone walking around with a little shopping trolley: "I'll have a few tibias, and a kilo of jaw bones, maybe a skull, the one with the hole in it, that will do for the weekend….". That isn't so far from the truth either! In the local culture, it is believed that bones will protect a home from bad spirits, and Indian ladies would go to the catacombs to, well, "shop" for a good bone to put under their houses. Staff at the catacombs started wondering when bone stacks were getting smaller, and now a protective glass is preventing further thefts. The things that people do!!!!
On our round, we visited the famous Post Office. Otherwise a beautiful building, it was missing its roof. The roof used to be glass and Lima lies in a very seismic area. Earth tremors can be expected at least twice a year, and this has been taken into account in the architecture. Except for that roof…
Everyone knows that South Americans love their football with passion. Wherever you go, you will see people kicking a ball around, and the number of people in each team seems irrelevant. Local football shirts are sought-after souvenirs for the British. This may have something to do with the football club's name: Wanka. Another popular T-shirt is bright yellow, with the logo for a local soft drink called Inca Kola. Having tried this yellowy-green carbonated liquid, I have come to the conclusion it has nothing at all to do with cola, as we know it. It must sell well though; Inca Kola has a huge factory right on the foot of the big slum area just outside the centre.
The slums in Lima are horrible. We got a brief glimpse of them through the bus window on our way to San Cristobal's hill for a very misty view of Lima. I wonder if Lima ever has a really clear blue sky. It is renowned for problems with air traffic due to mist and fog. We saw enough anyway: vast areas of shacks built next to each other with no greenery around. Many of these shacks or "houses" if you like, have no running water, or if they do, they may only have it for a couple of hours a day. On one side of the slum area was an enormous cemetery (Catholics can't be cremated, hence the ever-growing size of the city cemeteries). Behind the cemetery, a small mountain stood out with white writing on its side. Apparently, you can pay the city for having your name written on the hillside in enormous letters - just what I wanted to spend my hard-earned cash on…
[Cristina, can you please say big thanks to Rudy for the most informative tour, delivered with such flair and sense of humour - despite him suffering from food poisoning! He opened an insight into Lima that would otherwise have been difficult to grasp].
Pisco & Pisco Sours
It was time for our group to say goodbye to Lima. We watched jugglers dodging cars and performing at traffic lights on our way to the bus station, never quite finishing their act on time to collect money from the passing cars. The windows of our minibus were tightly closed as we drove through this area - for a reason!
Our journey continued southward along the coast to a fishing village called Pisco. Anchovy is what brings money here. There is a huge fish and fish oil processing plant nearby. Some 80,000 people live in Pisco, which appears a much smaller town at first look.
What do I remember of Pisco? A lively night market; enormous cakes sold on the streets (didn't try); delicious dried fruit (did try); an impressive, if small, central square featuring the rider statue of the liberator Jose San Martin; the locals forming the longest ever queue to a cash point (ATM) on the eve of a public holiday; Pisco sour (a popular Peruvian alcoholic drink which, despite its name, comes from Ica!); a very cosy hotel (had hot water too!); and Ciaron's very impressive Irish dance performance to the Andean music played by a local group! In summary, a great little place to stop.
Islas Ballestas - home for "Mike Tyson"
It was time to see some wildlife! A boat trip to Ballestas Islands gave me a small taster of Galapagos. It has actually been referred to as the "Poor Man's Galapagos" for its sea lion colonies, Humboldt penguins, boobies, and what looked like millions of cormorants covering large areas of the red coloured rocks. These islands are a rich source of guano. This highly sought-after fertiliser is the cormorants' gift to the world. It is also known as "the most expensive s**t in the world"! Local men get the exciting job of climbing on the rocks every so often with spades and shovelling the white stuff into sacks. We saw big piles of these, so the birds had clearly been busy. Europe and the US are willing to pay US$80 for 50kg…
The rocky islands were barren, but beautiful. The sun's blindingly bright rays reached the other side of the rocks through a large hole, creating a somewhat dreamlike atmosphere. The light was so strong against the dark edges of the "tunnel" that you could barely make out seabirds using it as a convenient shortcut. The near-turquoise water with white surf gave a nice contrast to the red colour of the rugged cliffs, on which sea lions lazed around in the sun. In one large colony, a single male stood miles out - this enormous beast had been nicknamed "Mike Tyson", and he would have given any heavy-weight boxer a run for his money! He looked quite content in the middle of a large harem of (much, much smaller) seal lion ladies. A group of red-headed vultures kept a close watch on top of the rocks, warming their wings in the sun
Away from the colony, on a sandy beach, and safe from the strong surf (and Mr. Tyson?), was a sea lion nursery. Females came here to give birth and nurse their young, and give them swimming lessons until they were fit to join the rest on the cliffs.
As we turned back towards the harbour on our speed boat, thousands of cormorants decided it was time for lunch (anchovies on the menu, I guess!), and they headed for the open sea alongside the speed boats, close to the surface at the same speed. It was quite surreal to travel in the middle of a "cloud" of birds, flying just meters from us!
In the harbour, where we had seen bottlenose dolphins in the morning, pelicans were being fed by local boys, in the hope of photo or two, and an appropriate payment in return. So, you had never thought of pelican-feeding as a job? It seems that in Peru, anything that brings in a few soles is a job!
Ica - Sand dunes and the Peruvian Police
In the afternoon, our local bus trundled through the desert towards our next stop: Ica. An old woman stood on the isle singing a melancholy song about a long lost son. Her cheeks were damp from tears. She was good. Good at acting and good at singing. Before the bus reached her destination, she switched into an upbeat cheerful tune, tears now forgotten. Everyone had a good laugh. Her voice was beautiful, and she managed to collect a sole or two before getting off.
At the bus station, we transferred our luggage and ourselves onto "dune buggies". These vehicles have safety bars instead of sides or a roof, and their sole purpose is to increase people's adrenalin levels by shooting down sand dunes at great speeds. It was probably the lack of proper sides on these cars that led to a local opportunist deciding I was carrying too much luggage and promptly relieving me from carrying some of it any longer. It must have happened at the bus station, although we did stop at a petrol station later for refuelling. Nothing I could do, I was in another vehicle at the time…. Luckily, I still had my bigger bag, but I lost a lot of useful stuff, some of it intended for the Inca trail, as well as all personal care items you could possibly imagine. A trip to the pharmacy later in Nazca, with the help of a phrase book, and more shopping in Arequipa (an alpaca jumper to replace the lost fleece top), sorted me out temporarily.
What a fool I felt, my feet strapped to the sand board on top of an enormous dune, watching the Huacachina oasis way below in the distance. Somehow I had to get down! The boards had been prepared with special grease to stop sand from sticking onto them. Our feet firmly in the straps, those mad enough of us to have a go, were ready for a stylish descent! Others watched (laughing), as our small group made our way down. Slowly. Sideways. Stopping and starting. Trying to stand up straighter (me not quite daring, as the board goes faster if you do). Legs aching. Bum hitting the dirt before reaching the goal. Rest assured, my performance looked NOTHING like the elegant and skilful sand boarding in that butter advert on TV! Some did look more graceful, and the bravest (and fittest) just didn't seem to get enough. The rest of us preferred to watch with much admiration - and hilarity - the display of "The 101 Different Ways of Getting Down the Dune" - with or without a board (Becky!!)!
The wind on the top whips up the sand in big swirls, creating wavy patterns on the dunes - just like in Sahara. An Arab outfit, complete with the dishcloth around the head would have been appropriate here! As we didn't have Arab clothing, we were covered in sand - outside and inside! I think I must have been quite young last time I had sand inside my underwear! (I remember saw dust and pine needles inside underwear, after a fall from a horse, but no sand!).
The old Chevrolet engine on the dune buggy had to work hard to get to the top of some of the dunes. Each time, we had a moment to get a glimpse of what looked like a sheer drop, before the screaming started. Our white knuckles were holding onto the safety bars when the buggy flew down the sand like a rollercoaster train, leaving a pair of sliding tyre tracks behind it. Scary? Noooo! Exhilarating? Oh, yeah! Want more? You bet!
It was time to meet the Peruvian Police. I had to report my stolen bag. Cristina, our great guide, is used to handling these problems and came with me to the police station. Whilst waiting, we admired the officer's car: a fairly new Toyota four wheel drive with an expensive sound system. He was wealthier than you would expect a policeman to be. We later found out about those "extra perks of the job". The crime report wasn't free - and Cristina dutifully paid the bribe (on behalf of Tucan Travel). [Thank you again, Cristina, for sorting this out!]. I got my report and could use it to claim money back on my travel insurance.
Cristina had to deal with another problem. It was a public holiday, and nobody wanted to take us to Nazca, our destination that night, not even for double or treble the money! Somehow she managed to find us a local bus going to Nazca, by paying way over the odds, and local people had to climb down to allow us gringos onboard. The bus was packed; people were standing on isles, including some of those who managed to climb back on, when we had sat down. If you think standing on London buses is no fun, this trip was four hours long! The locals didn't complain; glad to get to their destination at all!
A little girl had spotted me from the crowd. I sat across the isle from her, and later, as the seat became available, next to her. She beamed at me all the way, her grin stretching her cheeks to the extremes. She didn't speak at first, but didn't take her eyes off me either. I must have looked like an alien with golden hair, or perhaps a pop idol she may have seen on TV. Blonde hair is rarely advantageous in South America (you don't want to attract too much attention), but in some circumstances it may work to your benefit. If only I had known enough Spanish to communicate with her. My phrase book out of reach in the crowded bus, I felt quite helpless, and ashamed of my ignorance. Eventually, we ended up laughing together at the horrible near-porn pop videos shown on the TV during our journey. If you thought Britney, Christina Aguilera or Kylie don't wear much, you should see these Latin babes on stage! What is it about countries with strict religions - just think about those belly dancers in Arab cultures…
. Nazca - Desert art for UFOs and "Bob Marley"
It was early evening. We had arrived at Nazca, the home of the mysterious Nazca lines. I said goodbye to the little girl, still smiling at me, and picked up my bags. I think I had made her day - she had certainly made mine. [I have since enrolled on a Spanish course, by the way].
Our hotel (Hostal Nido Del Cóndor), situated opposite the airport, was beautiful, with arched doorways, lovely gardens (with a few llamas, and a rescued (?) lame deer), a swimming pool and restaurant serving delicious food. They even had their own mummy on display. (More of them later).
The day had been almost too eventful, having started early with our boat trip to Ballestas Islands, and I was glad eventually to hit the bed. I wasn't so glad to discover a single mosquito in the room - too elusive to catch and too whiney circling around our heads to get proper sleep! I was spared, but poor Becky got eaten up!
A good breakfast sorted my head out before drudging across the road to the airport. I, Janine and Bec were introduced to Antonio, our crazy pilot, who rather fancied himself as some sort of disco king. Whilst our small plane circled in continuous figures-of-eight over the famous Nazca lines, our pilot was busy having a jamming session, or switching on the autopilot, so he could turn around and start recommending local night clubs to us! With three young ladies [no comments, please!] in his plane, he did his very best to show off! He let all of us to steer the plane too - even if we had to grow rubber arms to reach the wheel from the back seats!
We got a good look at the bizarre shapes and lines, drawn on the desert some thousand years ago, but discovered only in 1939. Amongst the dead-straight lines criss-crossing vast areas, were many animal shapes (a humming bird, a monkey, a spider, a parrot, a whale and so on). A simple flower and a pair of hands also decorated the empty landscape. The most famous figure is known as "The Astronaut", sparking a lot of speculation surrounding the Nazca lines. Who has created these "geoglyphs", so enormous they can only be seen from the air? How and why were they created? No-one really knows. There are many theories, of course. Perhaps the straight lines were landing strips for UFO space ships? Or part of an irrigation system? Were the pictures a map relating to stars? On the other hand, draught may have played a part, and ancient Nazca people, in a bid to appease angry gods who refused to send rain, shifted rocks or walked the same routes until the lighter coloured soil underneath was exposed to form the figures. If so, how come they used symbols of tropical animals, living so far from this desert across the mountains? Whatever the reason for their existence, these mysterious shapes have lasted the test of time in one of the driest places on earth - and hopefully they will continue to amaze people for many centuries to come.
On our way back to the airport, Antonio let the plane fall for a couple of seconds, and we just had to hold tight! Each time, he turned around and laughed: "Ha-ha, you're floating (as I hit my head on the ceiling)! You liked that? Want more?" Before we had time to answer properly, I felt that tickle in my tummy again - our bottoms promptly left the seats and down we went! It was such fun! Despite the fun, I was relieved to feel terra firma under my sandals again, not because I don't like flying, but all that circling gets to your system after a while, and you need a strong stomach. Lucky, I've got one. Some didn't.
Word of warning: Antonio will start flying for Lan Peru or Lan Chile in the near future. If you are travelling in South America and have an unusually bumpy flight, and you hear singing and laughter from the cockpit, he may just be your captain!
In the afternoon, we headed off to a cemetery. This was truly a cemetery with a difference. For nearly a thousand years, a large area of the pampa in Chauchilla has been a home to mummies, sitting in their tombs on circular mounts, wrapped up in cotton cloth, hair and even some skin still attached to the bleached bones. Grave robbers (huaqueros), who still visit the site occasionally, have looted the area comprehensively ages ago, but the mummies were not of interest to them. (These ancient Paracas people helpfully pointed the grave robbers to the right direction by placing a stick on top of each covered tomb - they only had to dig deep enough). Afterwards, archaeologists have rearranged them, and protective bamboo shelters have been built recently, just in case El Niño brings rain. It did once, and some poor skeletons lost more skin off their faces, as it softened from the moisture. Surely, that can't be allowed to happen!
Most of the mummies looked pretty friendly, with jaws wide open, grinning at us, as if trying to say something. So lifelike were their "faces", and so "human" their sitting position, you could easily imagine them having a conversation with a fellow mummy sitting next to them. Perhaps they did, once everyone had left. What would they talk about? The weather? No, boring, it was always the same - sunny and hot! The tourists who ogled them? Farming in the good old times near an oasis? Maybe they engaged in a sing-along to make all those centuries go faster? Or perhaps they had a whole soap opera going on without our knowledge - a kind of alternative East Enders on the Desert? (Now, I'm not going into a story line, but perhaps this is something Channel 4 could take on board…?).
One lady had almost perfect hair on her white skull, just slightly parted in the middle and wrapped up on a bun at the back. Hair must have been a holy thing for the Paracas people, or at least a status symbol. There were bundles of hair, meters long, hung on the walls of the tombs (by the archaeologists who tidied up the mess left by the robbers), and some mummies had long dreadlocks reaching all the way to the ground. One such a mummy was nicknamed "Bob Marley" (no offence to either Mr. Marley or Mr. Mummy!). His enormous dreadlocks covered most of his bundled-up body, and his jaw bone was hanging loose, as if he was laughing heartily at a joke. He looked quite a character!
The mummies told many stories, some very sad. There was a small bundle of a little girl sitting on the edge of a tomb, completely wrapped up in cloth tied up with string. She was not a mummy; her internal organs were still intact. She had died much later than most of the residents of Chauchilla - of tuberculosis, brought by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. There were many little bodies of children, some missing limbs and heads, possibly damaged during looting of the graves.
It was interesting to learn that the tombs were often classified by the people buried there. For example, musicians could be found in one grave, with all their instruments, children in another, some tombs contained members of the same family, and people from the upper class were given their own little "apartments".
Wherever you walked, it was possible to trip over bundles of cotton cloth or bits of bones that lay everywhere (I nearly stepped on someone's spine - apologies!). We even made a new discovery during our walk around the area: a pile of cotton and bones exposed right next to the path, unearthed by robbers, perhaps.
Our tour around Chauchilla had been full of surprises, and it was rounded off by a visit to a potter who still uses those ancient methods to create replica pots, vessels and incense holders, many in the shape of animals, just like the Nazca lines. His pet falcon watched us carefully, tucking into a piece of meat, whilst we admired his master's handiwork. We were also treated to a demonstration of how gold is extracted with mercury. Another activity, I don't do at home that often….
After dinner, and some movies, we piled into a double-decker Royal Class night bus. It turned out to be a hot night, with stifling temperatures on the upper deck. Blissfully, I knew nothing about it! Whilst others squirmed in their seats, I spent the night comfortably unaware of the real world, dreaming of flying and of friendly mummies. Our bus followed the road along the coast in the darkness towards Arequipa.