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Paddling through Peru

To say that travelling in Peru is an adventure is an understatement. During our three weeks there very little we did beforehand could have prepared us for the crazy goings on.

To start it seemed to take an eternity to get there. Due to an erupting volcano in Ecuador, our plane took a mysterious diversion to Panama. By the time my wife and I arrived in Lima we were nearly 8 hours late. Fortunately, everyone in Peru expects delays and our hotel still had a room for us.

Lima was a grimy city and not at first glance an attractive place. Its most noticeable feature appeared to be the heavy police presence. Was Lima really a hot bed of crime as our hotel owner assured us?

As she closed the giant protective metal doors to her hotel we wondered if we had made a mistake in visiting this city. Slowly though we got over our nerves and ventured further from the hotel. As we approached the main shopping street of Peru it dawned on us that perhaps it was the location of our hotel that was frightening rather than the entire city of Lima. Over the next two days in the city we experienced nothing but kindness from the locals. Even the poorest people seemed to go out of their way to help us.

The fun part of being in Lima was travelling on the “collectivos”. These minibuses will take you around Lima at the fraction of a price of a taxi. We found that all you had to do was wait on a street corner and wait for one to take you in your desired direction. At some point a collectivo would arrive heading your way. We spent our first afternoon in Lima randomly travelling around the city in the collectivos because the whole experience was so amusing and the other passengers were so friendly.

The odd thing about the locals was that they all told us that Lima was not a nice city and that we should get out and travel to Cuzco. Everyone raved about Cuzco and of course Machu Picchu. It was probably this that prompted us to leave a day earlier. Our hotel owner told us of a travel agent she knew who would give us a good price for a ticket and so we hurriedly booked our ticket.

Unfortunately, our flight was cancelled and we were told that our bargain tickets were now invalid. Knowing reasonable Spanish we thought it couldn’t hurt to start chatting to some of the officials. One thing led to another and two hours later we found ourselves on the plane and a couple of dollars lighter. We had just handed over the Peruvian equivalent of paying an administration charge. I suppose bribery should be an uncomfortable experience but the friendliness and efficiency of the people involved almost made me wish that airlines always operated this way!

Towards Machu Picchu:

Cuzco proved to be every bit as magnificent as people had suggested and the locals were even friendlier than in Lima. Fortunately for us we bumped into a great guide called Serapio outside the airport, who arranged a package which got us to all the sites, but also allowed us the independence to do as we wished most of the time. Not only that but he was amazingly honest. One day he turned up at our hotel with some money for me. When I asked what he was doing he told me that the rate of the Peruvian currency with the dollar had changed and therefore he owed me some money. You would be hard pushed to find such honesty anywhere in the world!

Machu Picchu was quite simply stunning. To see the clouds rise up from the valley below is a magical experience. You could waste a whole film of your camera (as we did!) and yet you would never adequately capture that view. Our guide speculated

that Machu Picchu was the tip of the ice berg and that there were many more lost cities in the mountains. He told us a rumour about a city that was a day’s journey by car followed by a five day hike. Even if the Peruvian government eventually wanted to open these new sites to tourism he believed that it was logistically impossible.

If there was one thing that was disappointing about Machu Picchu it was the attitude of some of the tourists. They seemed to have little respect for the place which made us wonder why they had travelled so far to get there. For many people, the journey seemed to be a ‘macho accomplishment’. These people would boast loudly about the hardships they had endured on the Inca trail, as they threw their cigarette butts around the site. It was no wonder that some Peruvians we had met referred to the Inca trial as the “Gringo trail.”

An amusing thing happened as our bus made its way down from Machu Picchu. All the way down, a local boy chased the bus shouting goodbye in English. This made everyone on the bus laugh and look out for him at every bend of the road. He obviously did this for a reason because when he got on the bus at the end, all the tourists gave him lots of money. The amazing thing was that he barely seemed out of breath for such a run. The fitness of the locals in Peru is incredible. I am sure Peru is an untapped source of great middle distance and long distance athletes who could do wonders at the Olympics.

Life after Machu Picchu:

After seeing Machu Picchu we thought that no other experience would come close in terms of memories – we were wrong. Serapio, our Cuzco guide, had offered to sort out a trip to the famous Lake Titicaca and accepting this led to a bizarre experience..

The first part of our journey was fine. Our bus arrived in the city Puno, beside the lake, and we stayed the night in a local hotel. However, the plans for our next day’s tour of the lake seemed very vague. Our hotel owner told us that we would be staying on an island in the lake, but he did not know where. Naturally, we made assumptions about the hotel at which we would be staying and thought that at worst it might an intermittent hot water supply.

Our tour round Lake Titicaca was fascinating enough, but the engine of the boat kept failing. When this first happened, ten seconds after leaving the shore, all of us laughed. When it broke down three hours later, as we drifted in the middle of nowhere only our guide laughed. He reassured us that it was only another hour to get to the island of Amantani.

Whilst the captain struggled for over an hour to fix the engine, our guide told us about the accommodation plans for that night. He explained that we would be split up into groups and assigned to local families. This sounded exciting and we soon didn’t care that we would not be staying in a hotel.

The wonders of Amantani island:

At Amantani island we were greeted by a large group of locals in colourful clothes. Everyone was keen to get away from the boat and we all happily clambered ashore. My wife and I and a couple of others were assigned to Señor Segundino. For some strange reason we seemed to be the only people assigned to someone with a local name. Most of the names of the locals seemed to conform to the ability of tourists to pronounce them and were reminiscent of American soap operas. One of our fellow passengers was assigned to someone called Nancy!

After asking us about our journey Segundino set off at a furious pace up the hill to his house. We tried to follow but we couldn’t get anywhere near him as the altitude completely drained our energy. So much for us thinking that we were hardened travellers from Machu Picchu. We reached Segundino’s house after what seemed an eternity. We felt so embarrassed as Segundino had to keep stopping for us. He tried to encourage us by giving us a local plant , called munya, to smell. He claimed that it would help us cope with the altitude. Unfortunately, the more we sniffed the munya, the more pathetic and feeble we seemed to become. By the time we got to Segundino’s house he was carrying most of our bags!

Segundino showed us our room and it was then that we realised how useless all modern appliances we had brought along were going to be. Life on this island was of a basic nature to say the least.

To tell the truth it wasn’t bad. Yes, there was a corrugated iron roof but there were real beds inside the room. At one point we found a lightbulb sticking out of the wall, but Segundino told us that he did not have electricity! Perhaps he was being proactive and readying himself for the introduction of electricity to the island.

The real shock was the toilet. It consisted of a hole in the ground inside a shack. Fortunately, we had had the foresight to bring some toilet paper with us. Otherwise I dread to think what we would have done.

Segundino ran a small farm. He grew corn and potatoes and went to sell them on the mainland every month. He told me did not like the mainland, even though a sister of his lived there. Segundino seemed fully aware of what lay beyond Amantani island. He had even been to Lima. He considered it a noisy city, too stressful for him.

An hour later the weather began to change. The sun disappeared and huge dark clouds could be seen heading inland from the sea. The storm that followed lasted for 12 hours and meant that we were trapped in our humble abode.

The locals had arranged a party for us down the hill, but we did not feel like wandering down in the dark in such heavy rain. We could hear the music from the party, but were quite happy to sit in our room listening to the rain cascading onto the corrugated iron roof.

When it became apparent that the rain was not going to stop for some time, I asked Segundino what we should do about going to the toilet. There was no way I was going to wander through the dark to an outside toilet. Segundino just smiled and brought a plastic bowl to place outside the room of the fussy foreigners. It was probably the weirdest place that I have ever been to the toilet.

When we got up the next morning, we found that it had also snowed during the night. I came across a pen with sheep in it. The poor sheep were completely covered in snow.

Following a quick breakfast we made our way down to the shore where our boat was due to leave. We felt quite sad to leave Amantani island. For us, Amantani island was the high point of our visit to Peru. Segundino’s hospitality was very genuine and he asked for nothing in return. He seemed uninterested in our “wealth” but was fascinated by where we came from. He told me that he liked it when foreigners came to stay with him. He asked me to recommend his place to more English people. I promised to do just that, but wondered how I would convince anyone to travel to an island with no electricity and no running water.

Our boat left Amantani overladen with passengers. Our next destination was an island called Taquile and some of the Amantani people had decided to get a free ride there. The water was very rough and everyone on the boat looked nervous as the waves rose higher and higher. The locals on the other hand seemed totally unconcerned by the rough ride.

Taquile island was another place where tradition seemed to be important. Although there was electricity and running water, no cars were allowed on the island. According to our guide Enrique, the people of Taquile live a life which is still very similar to the life of their Inca ancestors. Enrique explained in detail how to determine the status of the people by the way they were dressed. Apparently, you could even tell if a woman was single or not by the way she was dressed.

Enrique told us that if a local man wanted to make the acquaintance of a single girl he had to tread very carefully. If she liked him she would throw him a small stone, indicating that he could come and talk to her further. If she wanted him to get lost she was likely to throw a large stone at him! Men all over the world will be thankful that this tradition has not been adopted elsewhere.

The walk down from the top of Taquile was a tough one. We had to climb down hundreds of steps under the mid day sun. If we felt hard done by then we could only look on in horror as we saw some of the locals carrying heavy supplies on their backs up these steps! Some of the people bringing packs up from the harbour were young boys. It was a stark reminder to us that we were fortunate to live pampered lives.

Weirdos and robbers:

Our boat took us back to Puno and we caught the bus to Arequipa. The journey was long and nerve wracking. My neighbour asked me if I wanted to read his paper and the headline was about two buses being hijacked within 24 hours between Arequipa and Lima!

About ten minutes into our journey a man stood up and started making a long speech about corruption in Peru and how the future of Peru’s next generation was in grave danger. This man droned on and on and we thought he was a lunatic. Actually, he was a salesman! After his speech had finished he told us that we could “save Peru’s youth” by buying some sweets he was selling! What the connection between buying these sweets and solving social unrest was I’ll never know, but it was an original line and he certainly sold plenty of his stock. This type of sales routine occurred on other journeys in Peru and became an amusing feature of travelling by bus.

Arequipa is a beautiful, prosperous city, dominated by its famous volcanoe “El Misti”. Unlike the other places we had visited the weather in Arequipa seemed fairly constant and warm. Most of the time we were able to wander around in T-shirts. Arequipa had been badly hit by a recent earthquake which meant that we were unable to enter some of the old buildings. We did however, manage to see the famous mummy of Juanita, an Inca girl sacrificed 500 years ago and found on Mount Ampato by archaelogists.

From Arequipa we travelled to Nazca. Our bus was due to arrive at 7am, but arrived almost two hours earlier and we were dumped in the middle of nowhere. As we got off the bus we were surrounded by aggressive touts and taxi drivers, which was not a pleasant experience. Our arrival in Nazca reminded me of one of those lawless dusty, border towns you see in spaghetti westerns.

As we got into one of the taxis a tout followed us and got in as well. When we reached our hotel he demanded money for “helping us reach our destination.” At 5am we were in no mood to argue and handed over a minor sum for him to buy a coffee. Despite speaking Spanish and considering ourselves fairly street-wise, we never felt totally at ease throughout our stay in Nazca because of the numerous suspicious characters that wandered around the main square. After Nazca we could really believe some of the horror stories we had heard about the potential dangers of travelling in Peru. This was a pity because Nazca does have many things to see and the local people were generally friendly and welcoming.

During a typical morning we were approached by a local man he claimed to be a guide and offered us a cheap price to visit the famous Nazca lines in the desert. These lines run for miles and despite the various archaelogical theories that abound, no one knows who made these lines and what they signify.

We decided to give our mysterious guide a try but took some precautions first. He must have thought that we were paranoid. We checked whether his identity card was real with a random set of locals in a café, left our valuables in the hotel safe and agreed a price in writing with him before we set out. He did prove to be a knowledgeable guide but I would not have trusted him if we had not been so tough. Throughout our tour of the desert he kept hinting about some of his family wanting to move to Europe and asked if we could get them jobs! It was probably not a nice thing to do but I portrayed Europe in the most negative light possible. I told him that Europe was in the grip of a heavy recession and that his family ran the risk of being unemployed. This seemed to do the trick and he sulked all the way back into town.

From Nazca we made our way back to Lima, with a short stop at a town called Ica. Ica was a small friendly town and had more to see than we had bargained for. The highlight was the oasis at Huacachina. Nearby was a local vineyard which we decided to investigate. The wine was not very nice but we were able to pick up a few small bottles of the famous Peruvian spirit “Pisco” as gifts.

By the time we got onto the bus for Lima we felt as if we were seasoned travellers and looked forward to relaxing before our flight home. Sadly this was not to be. About an hour into the bus journey, I suddenly found that one of our bags was missing. We panicked and managed to get the bus driver to stop the bus. When I asked the other passengers, they remembered a man getting off the bus shortly with a bag that matched my description. They advised me to go to the local police but we realised that in the village where the bus had stopped, the police would be unable to do much.

Fortunately, I had put my valuables in a pouch I wore under my clothes. The thieves managed to steal a bag containing US$3 in cash, some travellers cheques (easily replaceable) and a lot of dirty clothes! What annoyed me the most was that my address book was in the stolen bag.

In Lima we went to a main police station to report the theft. As we thought, there was little the police could actually do but they were extremely helpful and friendly. They gave us a form for insurance purposes and told us how sorry they were that we had been robbed. In fact we stayed in the police station for the next couple of hours generally chatting to the chief about our travels around Peru and about life in Europe. As we still had one day to go in Lima he recommended some local restaurants to visit and advised us about gifts. He even came out to the main road to make sure that the collectivo driver did not cheat us for the fare into the centre of town. Thanks to the kindness of the police we actually felt that paying a visit to their headquarters had been yet another amusing memory of our travels in Peru.

We were very sad to leave Peru. The entire trip had been a fascinating yet unpredictable adventure. In general the Peruvians are very friendly and hospitable people. All the locals we spoke to were extremely sympathetic and seemed embarrassed that we had been robbed during our stay. To the Peruvians, crime against foreigners conveys yet another negative image of their country to the outside world. When we explained that such things also happened in Europe they were astonished. We assured them that at some future point in time we would definitely be coming back to Peru

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