A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Trains, (Salt)Plains and automobiles (well 4x4´s)

sunny 20 °C

So after leaving Cusco, we headed to the town of Puno, which is nestled on the shore of Lake Titicaca. We didn´t really have time to explore Puno, other than a local bakery. For those of you that know of my dietary delictation, this was not an opportunity to be missed and a large piece of cheesecake was gratifyingly ingested.

The next day we hopped on a boat to go and visit the Uros islands out on the lake. This is basically a collection of small man made islands, constructed from reeds and inhabitated by several different families. They live and work on these tiny floating isles and also pause to entertain curious tourists about their lifestyle. The cynic in me couldn´t help but wonder if, when all the tourists had gone home, they all got into their speed boats and headed back to the mainland.

Meet the Uros People - (Colour coordination hasn´t reached them yet)
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We ventured a further 3 hours out into the vast expanse that is Lake Titicaca until we reached Amantani Island, which was to be our home for the night. No hotels here, we were divided up amongst the locals to stay within their homes and experience a bit of island life. This involved us all dressing up in the evening in traditional wear, and attempting to dance to some of the local music. My apparal consisted of a large blanket with a hole in it, otherwise known as a poncho, and a traditonal peruvian wool hat complete with dangling tassles. I thought I looked quite fetching, which was confirmed by the father at my homestay, when he offered to find me a local mountain girl. At least I think he said girl, or was it goat.....?

Amantani Island, a paradise to behold (even if it was freezing!)
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The following day we headed back to the mainland and then passed over the Bolivian border leaving Peru in our wake. Peru is a country of many contradictions, stunning landscapes and rubbish plumbing! I leave with many fond memories (and a couple of unpleasant, bottom related ones too).

Our first travels through Bolivia required a river crossing. The bus was loaded onto something resembling a raft, while we all had to be ushered onto smaller boats for the crossing. It didn´t help that one of them was called Titanic. Apparently, they used to allow passengers to stay on the bus while it crossed until an incident where the raft sank killing several people on the bus!

Precarious? No, it´s just the Bolivian way of doing things
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Onto La Paz then, one of the highest cities in the world. Sadly that´s one of the few claims to fame it has. Virtually all of its colonial past has been demolished, such is the thirst for building space here. The whole city seems to sit within a bowl shaped valley and every available piece of land has been used. It´s not what you´d call a pretty city, but there is a certain charm about its rawness. Political strife is also very evident, with industrial action occurring on a daily basis by one faction or another. I experienced this first hand during a tour of the city when some of the locals decided to blockade the main route out of the city. Growing pains perhaps, of a city, and a country, trying to embrace change.

La Paz - A park would be nice
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No, still no space in this direction either!
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Somehow these buildings have survived demolition, shocking isn´t it?
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From La Paz we took an overnight train to the town of Uyuni. Whilst waiting to board I notice some carriages being loaded with unused coffins. I wasn´t sure if that was just effective planning, or whether it was an even cheaper ticket than we had.....

Ultra Economy Class?
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The train arrived into Uyuni at 2.30am, on a dark, chilly and drizzling morning. It was just like being back at home! We walked the short distance to the hotel only to discover that our trip to the salt flats was leaving at 10.30 later that morning. Sleep would have to be secondary to "the tour". Who needs sleep anyway.......zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Unbelievably, heavy rain had destroyed the initial itinerary, so we headed in the opposite direction to our planned trip. Just outside Uyuni we visited a steam train cemetery. An array of steam trains in various states of decay were lined up, almost as if they were ready to make one last journey. They had orignally been sent over from Britain in the 19th century, when we still led the world in ´something´, with the slightly odd circumstance that no coal deposits exisited in Bolivia, so the fuel had to be shipped over as well. Can´t help thinking a clever salesman had struck that deal......

All aboard the ghost train to, well, nowhere
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British Engineering at its finest - Not sure about the quality control on this particular model
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From here we set off into the Bolivian desert to look at some rocks. Not just any rocks, but some which had been left over when the Andes were formed. Well, the tour guide was trying to inject some enthusiam about the whole rock gazing experience.

Rocks, more rocks and a snowy rock in the background
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Onward further still to a lake which, we were promised, would be full of Flamingoes..............

I can barely see the lake it´s so crowded!
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So day one hadn´t exactly been a day of magnificent wonders. It didn´t help that our hovel of a hostel for the night wasn´t brimming with amenities either. Still it´s all part of the travelling experience I suppose. You need some inferior trips to appreciate the better ones.

Day two did finally see us set off to the salt flats. A vast expanse of umm, salt, that was up to 10m in depth at some points. The only living things out here were the locals, who are allowed to collect and sell the salt, and a large number of 4x4 vehicles containing tourists.

Salty workers plying their trade
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2x4x4 (but there´s only 8 wheels)
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Salt as far as the eye can see - but not a chip shop in sight
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The following day we head to the town of Potosi. The day we arrive there is traffic chaos in the centre of town due to the impending football match between the local team and the "Flamengos" from Brazil. Apparently football is popular in this part of the world, and some of our group decide to go and spectate and soak up the atmosphere from the 30,000 strong crowd. Not being a particular fan of football, in any part of the world, I decided to do something more interesting, such as darn my socks or stare at a wall.............

Potosi is famous, or should that be infamous, for its mining. The Spanish exploited the local workers for the rich silver deposits here which once made the town the wealthiest in South America. The Cerrano Rico mine is known as "the mountain that eats men" which is appropriate given that, in its 450 year history, it has claimed a staggering 8 million lives. Sadly that number continues to increment with regular accidents and lung silicosis very prevalent. The life expectancy of a miner is around 45 years old. If you think that´s shocking, then you won´t believe that children also work in the mines, some as young as 10 years old. It would be easy to condemn the Bolivian government for this, but economic hardship is a very acute problem here and real life takes precedence over idealism. There are opportunities to do a ´tour´of a working mine. However, as already experienced in Bolivia, Health & Safety are foreign concepts in this country and there is a real and present risk that something could go awry during the ´tour´. The mines are run by miners´ co-operatives, so you are expected to purchase a gift for them. Their preferred gifts are not money or food, no they prefer something more eminently practical such as dynamite! That´s right, it´s perfectly legal for you to buy someone some dynamite here. The conditions the miners endure are no better than a 100 years ago, so I decided to give this trip a miss. I don´t need to see men working themselves into an early grave to appreciate how arduous their jobs are and I don´t think I could have coped with seeing young children in the same environment. Sometimes, just sometimes, you realise how lucky you are to have been born in a country where such hardships don´t ever enter your consciousness. If you want a glimpse of their lives there is a very powerful documentary about a 14 year old boy who works in a mine at The Devil´s Miner

I am now in the city of Sucre, the capital city of Bolivia. What a breath of fresh air this place is. It has successfully retained its colonial architecture and has parks and greenery which give the city a distinctly european feel. There is still an internal political struggle in Bolivia, with a slow creep of powers shifting from Sucre to La Paz. The latest incumbent changed the Bolivan constitution 4 years ago and attempted to make La Paz the official capital, unsuccessfully. Given my experience of both cities I can´t understand why they would want to make La Paz the capital. Surely you would want a capital city to represent the best of your country, which La Paz definitely isn´t. In fact Sucre is so markedly different to most other places I´ve been to in Boliva it sometimes feels like I´m no longer in the same country.

Government building, but no politicians to fill it anymore
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The Triffids are coming! (City view of Sucre)
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A city tour proved to be very informative and I particualrly enjoyed a trip to some of the back alleys of the city where we were told the rebels used to gather for secret meetings to plot their next attack against the Spanish. When the Spanish eventually tracked them down they were executed and their bones were used as aggregrate in the prison walls and streets as a visible reminder to others of what they may face. Fragments of these bones are still visible and it´s quite a chilling reminder of the gruesome end these men encountered. On the lighter side side, the streets where they used to gather are all named after cats, such as "Calle Gato Blanco" (White Cat Street) as a reminder of the quiet and stealth like way they used to move during the night, (right up to their brutal murder that is!).

At the next stroke/ray of light it will be 10 am "beep, beep, beep"
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In the afternoon I couldn´t resist the opportunity to go quad biking. The size of my "bike" was more akin to a small car, which gave me a little too much confidence at times. We spent 3 hours charging around on bumpy dusty tracks with a beautiful backdrop of distant mountains, the city and at one point, the rather precariously placed runway of Sucre airport.

My baby - Note the speakers in the storage box. Well you gotta have some tunes
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It´s Wacky races time, just call me Sergeant Blast!
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Sucre airport - Is that subsidence, or poor design?
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I will be flying out from that very airport tomorrow, to the town of Santa Cruz and my last stop in Bolivia. Then its the final leg of my journey into Brazil. Don´t be too sad, there´s still time for a couple more blogs yet!

Posted by esotericmind 04:49 Archived in Bolivia Tagged islands lake island la de titicaca potosí puno paz uros uyuni salar amantani sucre Comments (5)

How to desicrate a sacred site in one easy lesson

overcast 18 °C

Arequipa served only as a base for an excursion to the Colca Canyon. Although it is Peru´s second largest city, I didn´t find anything particularly remarkable here, other than the usual collection of Churches, Plazas and tourist tat for sale. It didn´t help that the rain caught us up here and the presence of a Starbucks seemed to annoy me disproportionately.

Colca Canyon, on the other hand, has turned out to be something of a highlight of my trip. My first brush with the effects of altitude also manifested themselves here too. We had been advised to get some "coco" products. I opted for some rather pallatable coco sweets to suck on, while the more adventurous members of the group went the whole hog and chewed on a wad of coco leaves. The chemical that is released is supposed to help reduce the effects of altitude. My theory is that they taste so disgusting that you just simply forget about them. For me the effects were like having a hangover; mild headache, slighty nauseous and an unsettled stomach, or was that actually just a hangover? Anyway, it was worth it for the staggering landscapes that I got to see. The sheer scale of the canyon was overwhelming. It is so deep it makes the Grand Canyon look like a paddling pool. I don´t know enough superlatives to describe everything I saw but hopefully some of the pictures will give you an idea of how beautiful it was.

Llama-rama - It´s the New Forest, Peruvian style
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Meet Steve, my new room mate.
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My brain was on form that day and I was able to embrace the glory of my surroundings without any trivial internal dialogue interrupting me. At one view point we managed to see a couple of Condors soaring at high altitude on the morning thermals. It wasn´t until a few days later I got to see how big these birds are (3ft+). The evening was spent at the local thermal springs soaking up the atmosphere as well the 37 degree water temperature. Unfortunately for me, I think I stayed in a bit too long and part boiled myself. Still it´s progress, at least I didn´t get sunburned, just cooked internally instead!

"Look Jack, I´m Flying"
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Where´s Wally? Well he´s not here......
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Ooh, how mysterious and brooding is that!
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No long bus rides to Cusco. This time we got to fly from Arequipa to Cusco. As you can imagine, the airport was fairly provincial, so the sight of an Airbus A319 at such a small airport took on greater significance. To the detriment of my fellow travellers, I adorned my aviation anorak and transformed into "AeroGeek", reciting useless facts and figures of our beast of burden to Cusco. Strangely they all fell asleep immediately we boarded the plane.

Cusco then, the former capital of the Incan realm. Now host to dozens of outdoor shops selling fake North Face goods to gringos, like me, that were about to attempt the Inca Trail Trek to Macchu Picchu. Armed with a can of oxygen, a hat, some waterproof trousers and the all important rain poncho I felt ready to take on the challenge.

Day One - Started drizzly and overcast, which gave me a chance to don some of my new purchases. There were a few hills but nothing too strenuous. I can handle this I thought, what´s all the fuss about. The porters that carry all the equipment are carved from the same block of ´tough´ as the Himalayan sherpas. They carry up to 30 kilos, which make our day packs look ridiculously light. I had expected dining to be a fairly ad-hoc affair, possibly a sandwich and a drink for lunch and a cookup round a gas stove in the evening. Not so, we had the luxury of a dining tent complete with table and stools. The cook was able to perform small cullinary miracles and we never had less than two courses. This Inca Trail is for pussies, I thought, where´s the hardcore trekkers version.

Lunch at the Incan Ritz
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Day Two - Given my comments yesterday, it seems fate decided to burden me with a few extras to worry about today. My stomach had finally succombed to the inevitable change of water/altitude/food and that led to a dose of the Cuzco Cacas, as they are known locally. The campsite "facilities" consisted of squat hole toliets and a bit of running water, hygienic is not a word you would ever associate with them.The trek was virtually all up hill in the morning to the point known as "Dead Womans Pass" at an altitude of 4200m (about 12200ft!). I started off OK, but as the moring wore on and the climb got steeper, I struggled more and more. My breathing was becoming laboured and I couldn´t take more than about 10 steps before having to rest again, added to that was the risk that at any moment my bowels would join in the party too. With just a 100 metres to go to the top I managed to make out a couple of people from my group shouting words of encouragement for me to carry on. Somehow I managed to grit my teeth (and clench other parts of my anatomy) and finally made it to the top. The initial euphoria of reaching the highest point was short lived. My body had no interest in the amazing view down the valley that I had just ascended. No, it´s priority was far baser than that and I dashed off to find a clump of grass to provide another kind of relief. Hence the title of this blog............
Fortunately the rest of that afternoons trek was downhill and I easily accomplished that. Later that afternoon though I had a bout of vomiting and developed a fever, not quite the experience I had been hoping for on the trek, a memorable day for all the wrong reasons. I went to bed at 4pm and hoped that my body coúld sort itself out overnight.

Day Three - Well, my fever had gone and I felt almost human this morning so I was looking forward to todays jaunt. The bad news was that due to a recent landslide, we would not be able to trek into Machhu Picchu itself and would have to trek down the valley for an extra hour today. It was pretty much down hill all the way, but after 10 hours my knees and legs were starting to get tired and I was glad when the campsite finally honed into view. Today at least, I was able to take in my surroundings a bit more. I have never seen Humming Birds in the wild, so it was amazing to see so many different varieties of them keeping me company along the way.

Day Four - A nice 4am start was followed by a short 1 hour hike along the train track that goes into Macchu Picchu town, which is actually called Aguas Calientes (Hot Springs). It was here that we had to hop on a bus (with other tourists) and take the 30 minute ride up to the entrance to the site itself. It seemed an ignominious way to end the trek and to see Macchu Picchu, but then thats what happens when you have romantic notions of how these things will play out when I dreamed of them back at home. Reality is never quite the same.

I worried that the experience of the last few days and the rather prescribed way of entering the site would leave me feeling disappointed when I finally got to see it. My fears were not founded though. The sun was shining, the air was fresh and my bottom was behaving itself. As we climbed the first set of steps to view the site I turned and got my first glimpse of that iconic image of Macchu Picchu. Except here I was, in person staring at several hundred years of Incan history set amongst a range of verdant mountains with wisps of cloud gliding by and giving the whole place an atmosphere of mystique and serenity.

It´s a strange sensation when you finally realise one of your ambitions, and I must have stood there motionless for 10 minutes just drinking it all in. The horror of day two paled into insignificance and a sense of accomplishment and pride washed over me. I could waste a thousand words describing Macchu Picchu and what features it has, but it really is one of those places that has to be experienced and, at last, I have had that experience.

This picture is sponsored by Immodium
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Our trip back to Cusco started on the local train which winds its way around the side of the mountains at a breathtaking speed of around 20 mph. Thank goodness it has red flags attached to it at the front to warn people of its velocitous motion. It was a pleasant ride nonetheless, after a busy day walking around Machhu Picchu it was good to have a bit of time to reflect on everything that had happened. I spent the next few days in Cusco relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere.

Choo choo! All aboard the knackered trekkers express.
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We also had a day trip to see some other Incan ruins in an area known as the Sacred Valley. I hoped my bout of stomach trouble was over, otherwise it might not be sacred for much longer.....

Has anyone seen my youth........?
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I´ve now made it to La Paz, in Bolivia, but haven´t had time to type up the intervening days, so you´ll just have to wait for the next instalment, you lucky things!

Posted by esotericmind 12:52 Archived in Peru Tagged arequipa picchu cusco cuzco macchu Comments (4)

A taxi named Patricia and the inflatable croc.........

sunny 28 °C
View South American Odyssey on esotericmind's travel map.

So where was I? Well I did get to see the volcano erupting, quite a surreal experience and that was just the journey to get to see it. We boarded something that resembled a mobile nightclub. In reality it was just an open sided truck decked out with lots of flashing lights and a very LOUD music system. Possibly not the most auspicious way to prepare yourself for watching a volcano. We reached the viewing area, which was basically a field full of cows in the middle of nowhere. When the excited chatter died down the low rumbling sound of the volcano gargling its lava was audible. We continued to watch the occasional flume of magma rise forth from the top before it slowly flowed down the side of the hill. Quite a unique experience that should have left me in amazement, but instead my brain kept reminding me of the Austin Powers film where Dr Evil recites the word 'Mag-ma' in his inimitable style, so I stand there in the dark chuckling to myself instead of being awe struck.

The links below show a couple of photos for the volcano night, taken by one of my fellow travellers:
Party Bus
Mag-ma!

The next day I go white water rafting and suffer a serious case of, you guessed it, sunburn. My shoulders got absolutely fried and only now are they starting to recover. I now keep my bottle of sun tan lotion with me at all times!!

We headed to the city of Cuenca for our Christmas "holiday". Traveling on christmas eve proved to be a struggle as the bus was overbooked and we were fighting the locals for seats. One of our group ended up having to sit next to the driver, which is not for the feint hearted if you know what the driving style is like here. It´s with good reason that we nicknamed the front passenger seat "el asiento de muerte" (the seat of death!) since if the driver had needed to brake hard, the passenger would have been gracefully, but fatally, catapulted through the windscreen.

Cuenca is quite a big city but nothing particularly remarkable to report. Lot´s of churches, as expected. We spent Christmas day evening having dinner in a restaurant owned by an Englishman. Although the menu was a traditional roast and trifle for pudding, it wouldn´t have passed muster for Christmas dinner at home.

The aliens have landed! A rather space age nativity scene in Cuenca
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Aww, it´s so pretty.......one of several dozen churches
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So Ecuador has now been ticked off on the "to do" list and I´m currently in Peru, or Pear-roo as they say here. We started off in a nice little beach town by the name of Mancora. It was here I tried my first "Pisco Sour" which is a very famous drink here in Peru. To try your own DIY version, take a bag of Haribo Tangfastics and put them in a glass of vodka to soak for a while, the resulting taste will be something similar, well in my head anyway.

Life´s a beach!
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A moto-taxi looks for another pedestrian to mow down
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My first Pisco Sour....the happy taste of Haribo.
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The next couple of days were a bit of blur as we got on and off numerous buses, whizzed through several towns and tried to remain conscious in the stifling heat. One noteworthy excursion was to the "Royal Tombs of Sipan" in a place called Chicalayo. It was here I realised how ignorant I was about South American history, believing the Inca´s to be the oldest civilisation. In fact the Inca´s were the last of the ancient races before the Spanish came and changed the continent forever. The museum had artefacts, jewellery and bodies found from a tomb of a Sipan leader dating back some 1600 years ago. My first taste of culture for some time had caused my brain some difficulty as it had not been used to thinking for a few weeks now. An ice-cream seemed to be the appropriate solution to coax it back into hibernation.....mmm ice-cream.

A mammoth 9 hour non-stop bus journey to Lima was cushioned by the fact that we were on some sort of luxury bus. The seats looked like something out of the business class section from an aircraft. A lady occasional stopped by to give us food and drink and several films played out along the way. Apart from the air-con, my favourite part was when the hostess passed out Bingo cards for us all to play. I think I shall write to National Express when I get back and suggest a similar form of entertainment for their coaches, or how about on board Twister. The possibilities are endless. As you can tell I was quite excited by this bus, perhaps more understandable if you had travelled on some of the fetid, sweaty, toilets on wheels I had been used to travelling on!

Look at those beauties! (To borrow a phrase from a colleague of mine)
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Lima is a huge city with a sprawling population of around 9 million. It was good to be back in my natural habitat for a couple of days and to see in the New Year here. There are several plazas (squares) with amazing architecture dating back to the 17th century. Here are a few snaps from two of the biggest plazas.

San Martin Plaza - Trying for an interesting perspective of the posh Hotel across the road
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Main Plaza - Interesting building no.1
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Panarama of the Main Plaza (ish..)
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Bootiful Frontage
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The modern district of Lima is called Miraflores and is right on the shoreline. It wouldn´t look out of place in any western country with modern restaurants and clubs all jostling for business. We spent the first night here having dinner as a group, but New Years saw us break into different factions. I opted to spend New Year with three other travellers and we decided to just wing it and see what we could find. This proved to be a more rewarding experience than paying a huge wad of money to get into a bar with hundreds of others.

We started the evening at the Parque de la Reservas, which is basically a park with several fountains that are all illuminated at night, with one that puts on a picture and light show every hour or so. It was an amazing place, and with an entrance fee of just a quid, just the sort of price us backpackers can afford.

¿Where´s the sherbert?
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Err, there was supposed to be a fountain in this picture!
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After finding a restaurant run by some crazy Eqyptians, we had a great meal and I finally tried some ceviche. It´s a fish dish that uses lime juice as the means for "cooking" the fish. Not sure its my thing, but it is a very common dish out here, so at least I´ve tried it now. We then managed to find a suspiciously empty bar. The Habana bar was a small, locals only, kind of place run by some Cubans, but they were more than friendly to us and I reneged on my promise not to drink any more mojitos. The bar man, Lalo, really knows his stuff and I am now a very big fan of a drink called a "Mojito Mulato". I can remember him showing me how to make the first one, but not the second, or third, ...............Oh yes, "Feliz Año Nuevo" (Happy New Year) to all you BR´s (blog readers)

Mojito Central 2011 to 2012
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Our group has now changed again, as three have moved to a different tour, and nine more have joined our tour. I´m not sure if I have the energy to socialise with another group of strangers again, so I just sit away from the group on my own, dribbling and making the odd grunting noise. That seems to keep them away from me.

We passed from Lima tothe town of Pisco, which was a bit of a dive. The primary reason for the visit was so we could go on a boat ride to the Ballesteras Islands. It was here I got to see my first Boobies, Peruvian Boobies that is, of the feathered variety. The islands are home to thousands of them, alongside penguins, mmmbbdns & other birds I´ve never heard of.

The Peruvian Boobie - His relatives have blue feet
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Boobie Wonderland
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I´m currently in Nazca, home to the mysterious lines. I decided to opt out of the flight over the desert as it was pretty expensive and it didn´t help that the Foreign Office website is recommending against flying with the local operators, due to dubious maintenance practices. There is also a famous cemetery here which is home to some of the ancient tribes that once lived in this region. I did suggest to some of the others that were taking a flight that they might want to book a reservation at the cemetery "just in case", but I don´t think they saw the funny side.

Well Chicos, that´s it for now. I have an overnight bus ride to look forward to tonight, which will hurtle us to the town of Arequipa. The good news is that the trek to Macchu Picchu is drawing ever closer. The bad news is that our tour guide has recommended that we buy some oxygen cannisters prior to that little adventure, which suggests it may be quite a bit tougher than I had anticipated.

p.s. The title of this blog is a tribute to a taxi I caught site of when travelling on a bus. It seems to be customary for Taxi´s to be given female names and emblazon that name on the back window. We followed "Patricia" for a few miles with her cargo of a chair and a large inflatable crocodile tied to the roof.

Posted by esotericmind 12:05 Archived in Peru Tagged lima pisco banos cuenca Comments (1)

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