Monday, 28 December 2009


Sillustani was my favorite of the places we visited around Puno.

We signed up for a cheap tour at our hotel. It was a short drive from town, about an hour or so, and we had seats at the very front of the bus, so we had a good view the whole way.

The site is an old burial grounds, spanning thousands of years, the oldest structures from pre-Inca times (2000BC or so) and the most recent built by the Incas themselves.

Our guide explained how the burial techniques developed over the centuries, from underground tombs to the tall towers that make Silliustani so impressive today. According to our guide the changes were motivated by a desire to better preserve and protect the mummies.

As we explored the area, admiring the ancient towers, the weather went from blazing sunshine to windy and overcast, with dark rain-filled clouds looming overhead. Even before the clouds arrived, thunder boomed in the distance, providing an apt soundtrack for our exploration of this peculiar cemetary.

Our guide explained some architectural differences between the Inca and pre-Inca structures: the Inca stone cutting techniques were more advanced and less regular. Based on our experiences in Machu Picchu, Ewelina noticed other differences: the Inca structures had small handholds still protruding from the giant stone blocks, and the Inca towers generally had doorways carved out of a single stone. Not to be completely outdone, I pointed out that the doorways, Inca and older, all faced East, toward the rising sun. We felt very clever.

On the way back to Puno, our tour visited a farm selling local weavings and crafts. But we were more interested in the llamas and puppies, and taking photos in the ever stronger wind. As we left the farm and boarded the bus for the last time, the clouds finally, forcefully, released their burden of rain.

Perfect timing, as usual, and we quite enjoyed our ride back through the lashing downpour.

Sunday, 27 December 2009


Taquile was the second stop on our tour of lake Titikaka. It's a decent sized island, with a population of a few hundred people. There is a community-run crafts shop on the main square, selling various textiles, one of the towns main sources of income. We bought a tiny knitted Spongebob Squarepants.

We ate lunch with the tour group, at a restaurant which also belonged to the community - tasty fish and an interesting tea/infusion made from an herb which grows on the island. There was some confusion about payment - apparently we were the only people whose lunch was not included in the price of the tour. That explains how cheap it was...

After eating and sorting out the bill, we just walked around and our boat picked us up on the other side of the island for the trip back to Puno.

The most interesting thing here would have been the costumes worn by the local, elaborate and colorful. If you knew how, the hats worn by the men could be read for information about their marital status and their improtance in the community. To us they looked basically like colorful nightcaps. Similarly, the women hasd colorful pompoms tied to their long braids, the size of which also asdvertised whether they were single or not.

We were entertained and impressed by the clothes, but at the same time we it reminded us how lucky we are to have relative freedom to dress how we like - and freedom to keep the details of our love lives private if we prefer.

Islas Uros

Islas Uros were the first of two stops we made on out tour of Lake Titikaka.

The islands are famously large floating masses of reeds built and maintained for the past 2000 years or so by the Uros people. As was explained to us during the visit, the islands themselves and the small houses built on top of them require constant renewal, the houses being rebuilt entirely at least once or twice every year. Also, the reeds are not just a building material, their roots and flowers are used for food/drink, and their high flourine and iodine content supposedly gives the locals their startlingly bright, white smiles.

We tasted the root: it was good!

Modern technology has not bypassed the islands entirely, of course. Although they hold onto their traditions, nylon rope had replaced straw as the preferred method for tying reeds together and anchoring the islands, every island had at least one solar panel (the first arrived in 1996) and the little house we visited had a tiny TV/radio-set. Apparently the arrival of solar electricity dramatically reduced the incidence of fire from candles on the islands... When it comes to clothes, changes are obvious in the men, who wear jeans and t-shirts, but more subtle in the women, who still wear traditional clothes. But the thread and yarn they use to make the clothes is bought in Puno markets and probably comes from modern factories. And finally, tourism has of course changed everything and being strange and interesting has become the Uros people's main source of income - the resource which makes all the other changes possible.

We bought a beautiful tapestry depicting creatues, real and mythical, from the lake.

One of the more interesting things about this stop had little to do with the islands themselves. Our guide had us gather round and sit on reed benches, while he explained many things about the lake itself: how the lake is shrinking due to global warming, it evaporates faster than it is replentished, how the lake is a major route for smugglers bringing cheap electronics from Bolivia into Peru, and how an introduction of trout and kingfish in the years 1942-55 resulted in the extinction of many local types of fish.

Interesting stuff.

Saturday, 26 December 2009


Puno itself was a relatively unremarkable stop, but it was a good starting point for short day trips to explore Lake Titikaka and Sillustani.

Highlights: it was cold when we arrived, a rarity on our trip. Our first meal was a rather nice pizza, accompanied by live music - a very lively band playing typical Andean music (which I usually hate), but doing so with such enthusiasm and such energy that we liked it in spite of ourselves and bought their CD.

In Puno we also had our last Peruvian meal; Pisco Sours, Titikaka trout in cherry sauce and alpaca steak in a rum sauce. Excellent stuff.


Pukara would have been a relatively boring stop, if it hadn't been for the time of year.

We stopped to visit a museum and learn a bit about pre-Inca cultures, but ended up being fascinated by the Christmas festivities that dominated the town square.

There was a brass band, beer vendors and hundreds of people dancing around the square in all sorts of colorful costumes, and it seemed to go on forever. It looked like the entire town was out celebrating, truly an amazing sight.


Our second stop on the way to Puno was the Inca city Raqchi. The name of the city means "ceramics", but the most striking feature is the ruins of an Inca temple dedicated to Wiracocha, the Inca god of creation, and the ruins of the surrounding town.

The town was quite important, as it was built right between two regions, the dry altiplano (high plain) and the lower region surrounding Cusco, occupied by the Aymara and Quechua people, respectively. As a result, the town was a major trading post, swapping animal products from the South for produce and grain from the North.

So in addition to the temple, an artificial lake, a massive city wall and many houses, a major feature of the site is the ruins over 100 circular warehouses or silos. We posed for pictures inside some that had been restored.


First stop on our touristic bus ride from Cusco to Puno.

We stopped to look at a chapel from the 16th century. It was really quite amazing, the walls were all painted with religious murals, some of which were covered by more recent paintings on canvas. Everything was quite old and a bit faded, the altars, the murals, even the benches.

The altars were all gilded with 24 caret gold, apparently the town used to be a residsence for Spanish royalty who preferred the climat to that of Cusco, which is a bit higher up and colder.

My favorite detail was the ceiling though, a fantastic combination of wood beams and colorful painted patterns.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Inca Trail

Our expedition starts at daybreak. Streams of rain flow along the cobblestone streets of Cusco and the town slowly comes to life, while we wait under the roof of our hostal to be picked up. Dressed in jeans, a sweater, a scarf and a hat I am shivering from the cold. When our vehicle finally arrives, we are half an hour behind schedule. Four Australians are already inside, sitting with their bags between their legs. Our group is supposed to number twelve people: four of them, us two and six Latvians. Plus ten porters and two guides.

We reach Ollantaytambo at about nine in the morning. At this time, the main square resembles a parking-lot for busses. Tonnes of passengers pour our of the busses´ insides and try to break through a crowd of local women. Trade of chocolate, coca leaves, water, thin rainproof ponchos, and walking-sticks for the hike, begins. In a packed restaurant that also doubles as a hostel, we eat our breakfast. All public toilets are busy, so - if the need arises - one uses the bathrooms in the emtpy hostel rooms. Sipping my coffee, I look through the window over the square, at this unparalleled Spanish/English spectacle amongst the busses, at the last minute shopping, trading, this final exchange of goods. When I gaze up, I have a feeling that, along with myself, ghosts of local inhabitants' ancestors are watching these events; ghosts, that must still live in the town's ruins that can be seen on the slope of the opposite mountain. I wait for one of them to notice me and greet with a nod or a wave; but time is running out, we have to travel further. Passengers board their busses, the town fades into the distance and we, along a river, on a bumpy, muddy, one-lane road, head toward kilometer 82. It is here that we are to start our four-day long, unforgettable hike along the Inca Trail.


It is drizzling when we cross the suspension bridge to the other side of the Urubamba River, also known as Vilcanota or Wilcamayu, Quechuan for Holy River. There are only ten of us, two Latvians dropped out somewhere along the way. Dressed in rainproof jackets, walking-sticks in hand and backpacks on our shoulders we start our ascent. We are in the middle of the road when, surprising even myself, I stop and gaze at a point far away. On the other side of the canyon, high above us, a female silhoutte stands out against the horizon. Her clothes are so obviously different from mine: a layered, pleated skirt reaches half-way down her calves, her hair is braided in two long plaits. A little dog is loafing around her feet. The woman strolls back and forth along the abyss, right, left, the dog following her every move, finally becoming still only when she stops, on the edge. For a moment they both look at the wanderers below, at me. It seems like they are counting how many of us walk the trail today, I have a feeling that news of our arrival will be carried through the mountains quickly. I want to share this incredible sight with Bjarni, but when we look up together, there is no-one there anymore. And it seems like there has never been.

We continue the hike, slowly covering some ten kilometres and making our way towards the first night´s rest. We hike along the river; this evening the rush of its water rocks us to sleep at the campsite in Wayllabamba, the last harbour of civilisation on the trek. I fall asleep curled up, in training trousers, with Bjarni´s body warming mine, slightly cold from the chill of being at 3000 metres above the sea, wrapped in my sleeping bag. In the middle of the night, light from torches wakes me up; voices are approaching outside. It is raining cats and dogs and our guides are checking if the tents are alright, whether any of them are leaking. Listening to the sound of drops beating at the tent´s cloth, I slowly drift back towards dream-land.

Our awakening is sudden, and very early in the morning - five thirty. Bjarni draws back the zipper and the hands of one of our porters pop into the tent, with two cups of hot tea, made from coca leaves. We warm up to this warm liquid, gathering the strength to go outside. After spending a few minutes packing our bags, we decide to greet the new day. The valley of our campsite is covered in mist, although the sun is slowly burning its way through the white layers. Dew brightens the grass, birds warble in the trees, the river roars in the distance, from the other tents our companions slowly emerge. All together, in a much larger tent, we eat breakfast, sitting on little folding chairs arranged around two small metallic tables. Today is supposed to be a challenge for us, as we have to conquer the most difficult part of the trail: the Dead Woman´s Pass. At 4200 metres above sea level, it is the highest point of our journey: reaching it will take us some five hours, followed by another few hours going down the other side, to the next camp. Although it is cold, I sweat relentlessly and stop every few steps to catch my breath. I am astonished by the porters: one after another, twenty, fourty, sixty years old, carrying at least twenty kilos on their backs, they run past, leaving me standing with my mouth agape. They clap their hands when, exhausted, I finally reach the pass; at the same time, a few are nourishing themselves with cigarettes. I am speechless.

It rains a bit as we head back down, on our way coming across a deer foraging for food. It comes so close, almost within reach of my hand, and looks straight into my eyes, until the rustle of another hiker's rainproof jacket suddenly scares it away. This night we sleep at 3600 metres, surrounded by the snow capped cones of still higher mountains. In a tree next to our tent, hummingbirds have a nest.


The third day welcomes us with mud, drizzle, and, as always, coca-tea. We start to feel muscle pains, but still have enough strength to walk another thirteen kilometers. It doesn't seem like much, but at this altitude every kilometer counts triple. At least for me. Down, up, climbing stairs so tall I can barely raise my leg from one to the next, on a trail covered with stones, through a dried-out lake, past ruins of consecutive towns that used to cater for the one that is my destination, through an Inca tunnel hollowed in the rock, along the river - I struggle with the altitude for every gulp of air. I forget all about the noise of planes, the smell of petrol, hot water, fresh shirts, dry shoes. Edwin, our guide, tells stories I listen to with amazement. Like the one about chasquis, specialised runners, whose task was to deliver messages, royal delicacies and other things as quickly as possible from place to place throughout the Inca Empire. Especially for them relay stations, tambos, were constructed, places where they could rest, eat and change their clothes. A few kilometers before reaching such a station, the chasqui would take a pututu out of his bag, a trumpet made of a conch shell, and with its help he would announce his arrival. Another chasqui would run to meet him half way, take charge of whatever his predecessor was carrying, and then he himself would commence his sprint over the next few kilometers. When Sapa Inka, the Sun's son and the god regent, settled high in the mountains, far from the sea, requested fresh fish, he could enjoy it the very next day.

Today I, at 4000 meters above the sea, wait in a tambo for the muffled sound of a pututu, staring at a distant pass between mountains, a pass I struggled with so recently. I make an offering of stones and coca leaves, bowing in three directions and reciting "Sulpayki Apus": "Thank you, Mountain Spirit" for your help in this journey. Between the rustle of bamboo leaves and the hum of small waterfalls, I try to catch voices of people who, a few centuries ago, were travelling the trail I am conquering now. I delude myself that nature will share with me the unspoken.


I fall asleep to wake up in darkness. Crowds of hikers with flashlights are queueing to attempt the last leg of the four-day trip. I didn´t fully realise how many people had started the hike together with me. Now we are all waiting for a gate to open. At five thirty a.m. we are allowed to cross the fence, we start the last walk along the trail. We slowly climb up tall stairs, known locally as the "Gringo Killer", in mist we complete our journey. When the clouds finally part, the town appears.

Machu Picchu, proud and beautiful, shines in the sun, welcoming its next arrivals.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Cusco and Christmas

Cusco is a really pretty town, once you make it to the old center. It's all hills and narrow cobblestone streets and colonial buildings, surrounded by mountains and comfortably cool. Aside from the altitude (3500m), which makes hills extra challenging, Cusco is a fantastic town for exploring on foot, and explore we did.

That historic center is of course also the most touristic part of town, full of restaurants, shops, travel agencies, clubs and pubs - including at least two Irish pubs. We visited Paddy's a few times, drawn by the Christmassy atmosphere and the model train which circled the place every few minutes, enjoyed a cosy Internet café named Ubuntu and had some very nice meals.

In Cusco there are dozens, if not hundreds of people on the streets trying to sell trips, massages and trinkets to gringos like us - we hadn't been this popular since Mexico.

But even that had a silver lining: within ten minutes of our arrival on the main square, we were approached by a friendly young woman asking if we needed to book some tours or hotels. We mentioned the Inca trail and she promptly took off her travel agent hat and assumed the role of salesperson for KB Adventures, one of dozens of companies organizing Inca Trail hikes, that just happened to be run by a good friend of hers.

We were sceptical, but in the end we took her up on her offer, getting both the date we wanted (the 19th) and the best price we've heard of: $230 each.

Having thus sorted out our trek within 3 hours of getting off the bus, we spent the next couple of days sightseeing and hunting for hike-worthy shoes for Ewelina. Our first attempt was ultra-cheap rubber shoes which she soon discovered were too hot, then at the last minute we bought her a pair of nice brown hiking boots which she ended up wearing on the trek.


We returned from the Inca trail on the 22nd, tired but happy, looking forward to Christmas in Cusco before heading further South. We stayed that night in Hostal Rojas, where we had stayed before our trek. Rojas was a nice place, but we had fancier plans for Christmas.

We had reserved a beautiful, if expensive, room at the oddly vacant Rupa Rumi, in the charming San Blas neighborhood. It had everything we needed to make our own little Christmas: hot showers, wifi, a kitchen. The manager was a bit iffy, but we didn't expect to see him much.

Wrong! When we arrived on the morning of the 23rd, we quickly discovered that the wifi didn't work. Considering the cost of the place, and the role Skype was to play in our holiday plans, this posed quite a problem to us. We complained, and the manager made an appearence that afternoon, blaming the problem on "his employee who didn't pay the bill" and proposing to fix things by lending us a powerful wifi antennae with which he hoped to "borrow" Internet from his neighbors. Why pay when he could steal? - he joked.

When it turned out there was nothing within range he could steal, he tried calling his "friends" in nearby hotels, begging for passwords - considering his sense of humor, I was not very surprised when they refused.

At this point, Ewelina had lost her patience and quietly begun packing. I joined her. The guy wanted us to stay the night, claiming that during one of his many phone calls, the manager of Nextel in Cusco had personally promised him he would have a new working connection by morning. That sounded rather like "free Pisco Sours" to me; we kept packing.

When he realised he had lost us, he showed his true colors, first demanding we pay for the night anyway, then shouting at us to "get the fuck out of his house, right now".

Up until that moment, I had felt some sympathy for the guy, he had seemed to be really trying to fix the problem. But that was too much. We now felt we understood why the place was so empty, and wanted nothing more than to do as he so rudely demanded.


I spent the next hour looking for a new place for us, hoping for a double bed, Internet and a kitchen we could use. I failed quite miserably. When I rejoined Ewelina around sunset, empty handed, I felt like Christmas was ruined. We shouldered our packs and headed towards town, dejectedly making new plans.

But as luck would have it, we hadn't walked more than 100 meters when we passed the Koyllur hotel and Ewelina suggested we give it a try. Bingo! A cosy room, hot showers, fast wifi and best of all: friendly staff who said we were free to use their kitchen as long as we cleaned up our mess. And it was even a bit cheaper than Rupa Rumi.

Christmas was saved!

It was great. We exchanged gifts from the amazing Christmas market, chatted with our far-away families over the Internet, and cooked a fantastic little dinner together.

We shared some of the dessert with the receptionists as a thank-you for their kindness - the next day they gave us a piece of typical Peruvian cake.

So in spite of everything, Christmas in a quiet hotel was the perfect happy ending to our stay in Cusco. Thanks Koyllur!


Just before 4am, as I was starting to finally drift off, our bus stopped. The hostess said many things in Spanish which we did not understand at all, aside from some talk of hours and days and nearby villiages and a lack of busses. That's how it was for the next couple of hours.

When it started to become brighter outside we could see that our bus wasn't the only stationary vehicle, and we could see people, Peruvians and tourists alike, walking past us, down the road.

Ewelina, curious, wanted to go out and have a look around, but the bus staff wouldn't let her. But as soon as she had returned to her seat, they change their mind, opened the door and encouraged people to go for fresh air.

Eventually we found people whose English and Spanish were both good enough to tell us what was going on: a roadblock!

Local villiagers had blocked the road as a political protest. There were no police in sight, people said it might take days to get cleared up. The roadblock was supposedly 15 minutes walk away, and on the other side were busses that might give up and turn back - if we could get on one, we could continue onwards to Cusco.

So after some delays and debates and deliberations, we got our bags from the luggage compartment and started walking. It wasn't far, 5-10 minutes at most, to the roadblock: four large mounds of dirt and some large rocks strewn across the road, villiagers in colorful traditional dress sitting in the hills along the roadside and banners with their demands draped over the grass.

As far as we could make out, they wanted a road paved.

We did our touristic duty, taking photos and greeting the protestors. We found busses and trucks on the other side, but none seemed inclined to move. So we waited, chatting with other stranded travelers and pointing our camera at things.

Eventually police showed up, with shields and helmets and guns. But they weren't pointed at people, a negotiator spoke with the villiagers and eventually, the go-ahead was given to clear one lane. Tourists and bus-drivers and truckers proceeded to attack the mounds of earth with shovels, planks, plastic bottles and bare hands.

The first vehicle to cross was a bright yellow dump-truck, like a giant child's toy. It stopped after crossing the diminished pile of dirt, reversed and crossed again. It did this a few times before driving off, compacting the earth so less sturdy vehicles could follow.

And soon enough, we were on the road again.

Back on our luxurious bus, I mentioned to Ewelina that it was a good thing we skipped the canyons around Arequipa - this was much more fun! She laughed and agreed.

Cusco, here we come...

Saturday, 12 December 2009


We arrived in Arequipa very early, around 7am. We took a taxi from the bus terminal to the city center, and I left Ewelina with the bags on a bench outside a beautiful old Franciscan church.

My walk to find a hotel was one of the nicest I've had on our trip so far. This early in the morning, everything was quiet, it was comfortably cool and the light made everything very pretty - a bit like it does in Iceland where the sun is so often low in the sky. We are rarely up and about early enough to enjoy that here.

Arequipa's center is old and the area I found myself exploring had winding, narrow streets which clearly predated cars by a few centuries. Most of the hotels and hostels were still closed at this hour, but eventually I found one, Solar de Macarena, which offered us a beautiful room on the second floor with windows overlooking a relatively quiet street, our own bathroom, access to a kitchen, wifi, breakfast, a comfy patio with tables and parasols and chairs, and a pizzeria on the 1st floor. 60 soles, we were checked in by 9am.

That morning set the tune for our stay in Arequipa - the climate was comfy, the city was beautiful and we had a great place to stay where we could cook, be nerdy and relax. We played pool and visited the excellent restaurants and bars made possible by mass tourism.

The beaten track has its perks.

One of our main touristic excursion was a visit to the amazing old convent Santa Catalina, which covers an entire city block, a villiage within a city, where rich 2nd daughters lived a religious, illiterate life of luxury - most of the "cells" we visited were bigger than my apartment and included servants' quarters. Apparently horses were only banned after one of the nuns demanded one from her family and caused too many accidents riding it. Not really the kind of place that springs to mind when you think about nuns...

Another excursion was a visit to the museum Santury, where we had a guided tour telling us the story of, and finally showing us in person, a mummified Inca girl. Inca priests sacrificed her to the forces of nature, modern scientists brought her back to civilization and named her Juanita. She was found, still frozen, on top of a nearby volcano mere weeks after a neighboring mountain's eruption melted her icy grave, causing her 500 year old body to slide down the slopes of a crater. Fascinating stuff.

In Arequipa Ewelina and I also visited travel agencies and debated how and when to book the Inca Trail, and whether to go on a trip to the gigantic nearby canyons. In the end we didn't book anything, skipped the canyons, and hurried onto a night-bus to Cusco to make sure we would, for a sane price, get a place on the Inca trail in time to return to civilization for Christmas.

Friday, 11 December 2009


Our visit to Nasca was very efficient. Within two hours of getting off our bus from Ica, we were climbing onboard a little 6-seat plane to fly over the Nasca lines.

We paid 45USD each for the flight, which was a bit lower than we had been prepared for. So all good. Included in that price was transport to and from the airport, in addition to the flight itself. We chatted with some other tourists about prices and things, they had been sold a slightly more expensive flight with the promise that the pilot would fly at least twice over each major geoglyph, so people on both sides could see.

As we've begun to notice, Peruvians are friendly, helpful and quite dishonest when it comes to sales. They will say anything to make a sale. The pitch made to those other tourists was one example: we got the same treatment, without paying extra. Another example from Nasca appeared that evening as we looked for dinner: a man on the street enticed us into a pizzeria with promises of free pisco sour, but when it came time to order, we were told that he didn't even work there. No free drinks. A few minutes later we saw him ushering tourists to a neighboring table.

The flight itself, over the Nasca Lines, was great. Our plane was a 6-seater, carrying 5 tourists and a pilot. We flew over many famous figures, doing both clockwise and counterclockwise spirals over each so everyone would have a good view. I loved it; Ewelina joked that the lines were all a big con. We keep forgetting to look up how the age of the lines was determined, so for all I know, she could be right. I'm pretty sure this glyph at least, is more recent.

After roughly 30 minutes in the air, we landed and waited for our promised taxi back to town. The wait lasted about as long as the flight itself, but eventually the same little boy-racer car pulled up and a woman and two children got out. The woman and one of the children squeezed into the front passenger seat, we got in the back and the second child joined us - along with his mother, who had been our contact at the airport. Once the little car, carrying all seven of us, got moving, the woman sitting next to me undid her top and proceeded to feed her baby. Truly a Peruvian taxi ride!

After fetching our packs from the travel agency, we decided not to stay the night in Nasca, but went to the expensive Cruz Del Sur bus terminal and bought tickets on a night bus to Arequipa.

Then we just wandered around town, visiting the town square, bars, the dishonest pizzeria, a shop selling Pisco, and a bar which had no internet for guests, but music videos on their big screen were played off Youtube...

Around ten we piled into our fancy bus and headed onwards.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


The sand dunes of Huacachina are strikingly beautiful, their smooth yellow curves standing out against the bright blue sky so strongly you'd think they were photoshopped. The oasis, even interrupted as it is by shoddy South-American architecture, is a gorgeous haven of life; plants, trees and tourists huddled around a rather smelly pond.

Apparently the population, minus tourists, is only about 200 people, but it seems like every building is a hotel. We are so happy we are visiting during the week, during the low season; for us it is a quiet, relaxing place which we almost have to ourselves.

We check into a small hotel with dune buggies in the parking lot, a pretty garden with a clear blue pool and the water of the oasis itself within sight. 60 soles for the night and breakfast, about 15 euro. Easily within budget.

As we check in, we ask about sandboarding and dune buggies: we are in luck, there is a small group preparing to leave the hotel in a couple of hours. 40 soles each. Ewelina and I look at each other... why not? We might find something a little cheaper by walking the streets, but on the other hand we figure hotels probably don't like killing their guests and our guidebooks had warned us against inexperienced drivers. We sign up and take our things to our room.

Later, as we become more familiar with Huacachina, one of the things we get used to and learn to recognize, is the roar of a dune buggy in the distance. I had always thought the phrase "dune buggy" sounded kind of cute, harmless. I was so wrong. These buggies are monsters, roaring and powerful, little more than an oversized engine riveted to a sturdy metal cage on wheels, they are designed to race up the steep dunes and, in the event of driver miscalculation, keep their soft human cargo from getting squished as they roll back down again.

As we climb into our bright red buggy later that afternoon, we have no idea what to expect. But as the driver does the rounds and tightens everyone's seatbelts almost to the point of suffocation, we realize that we are probably in for one hell of a ride.

And sure enough, within seconds of the buggy's engine roaring to life our faces are transformed into adrenaline-fueled smiles of delight.. and fright. Like a roller-coaster ride without the rails, except more dangerous and lasting 2 hours instead of 2 minutes.

Every now and then our driver, a round, balding, dark-skinned fellow with a big smile, looks back to check if his passengers are happy, not panicing or vomiting or dead. Everyone is fine, although the girls do scream a lot during the steeper drops and rougher landings. Every time they cry out, our driver laughs maniacally. I get the impression he likes his job.

Another thing that makes him laugh, is sandboarding. Or, rather, helping us sandboard. He shows us how to wax the beat-up boards with a broken candle, how to lay on the board, hold on, elbows in, spread our legs for balance. Then he pushes one of the girls over the edge and laughs as she screams all the way down. Everyone makes it down just fine of course, and the group is all smiles as we move to bigger and bigger and bigger dunes, and our driver demonstrates parking on 40 degree inclines.

The crazy dune buggy ride makes a brief stop at an uninhabited oasis, where a magnet demonstrates how many iron fragments are mixed in with the sand (lots). The wild ride's final destination, before racing back to Huacachina, is on the top of a dune with an amazing view over the desert and the sun setting between dunes on the horizon. So pretty!

The rest of our stay in Huacachina is pretty laid back. Strolls around town and around the pond, ceviche and pisco sours, a burger and beers in a little metal/goth themed café... we like Huacachina. And yet, still feeling the need to make forward progress after our long delays in the Amazon, we only stay the one night.

The next morning we eat breakfast at our hotel, hop in a taxi to Ica and get on a bus to Nasca.


We get to Lima in the evening and catch an expensive taxi from the airport to the district of Miraflores, hoping that the hostel we found on the internet will have a room for us. On intersections there are platforms with the Inka Kola logo, policemen inside directing traffic. Unbearable noise, horns honking, vehicles squeezing into every empty space, fancy new cars next to accident scarred clunkers, exhaust fumes, hundreds of people on the streets, light from smokey street lamps, English-language songs in our leather-upholstered taxi (for the first time in South America we listen to British music instead of the ubiquitous Latin-American rhythms), thousands of small grocery shops and, finally, skyscrapers on the cliffs of Miraflores - that's how I remember the thirty minute taxi ride. The Angels Inn Hostel offers us a room for 84 soles (Peru's most expensive so far), with a bathroom, internet and a huge TV. We stay for seven nights.

At first enchanted by Lima, I soon discover that this city is not at all different from the others in Peru. The centre is crowded and congested, renovation everywhere, the Plaza de Armas far from being the prettiest. Miraflores is all about skyscrapers and expensive restaurants. After five days I regret that we cannot leave Lima a bit sooner - but appointments at a private clinic keep us here, we want to confirm that Bjarni is completely rid of his typhoid. The clinic makes my blood boil: on Friday a lady downstairs gives us an appointment at 12:20 on Sunday (the clinic is closed on Saturdays, we are also ordered to show up 15 minutes early). On Sunday, on the third floor, it turns out that we must first register with the receptionists on that floor, who charge 80 soles (20 euro) and direct us to a doctor. She sees us some thirty minutes after our appointed time; a conversation in Spanish lasts a mere five minutes, we are then referred to a medical examination in the laboratory downstairs and told to knock on her office door at 2:00 p.m. the next day to get the results. At the laboratory we are told they are closed for the day, we have to return tomorrow and the results will be ready the day after. When pressed, they concede that if we arrive at 7:00 a.m. there might be a chance to get the results at 4 p.m. the same day. Too late for the doctor's visit, but we give up and ask how much the tests will cost. They send us to a cashier. The cashier's position is closed. Frustrated we leave the clinic: we had different plans for tomorrow, we didn't plan to spend another day here. We don't come at 7 a.m. the next morning, we decide to cut our losses and visit a doctor in a different town. However, Bjarni soon starts to complain that he doesn't feel very well and decides he will return to the clinic after all, to confirm he isn't relapsing. He takes all the tests and after a short fight with the third floor's staff, who don't want him to see the doctor without registering and paying again, he finally manages to knock on a door with the sign: "Knocking forbidden. Please wait your turn". After a few days of visits to this private clinic, spending more than 200 soles, Bjarni learns he is perfectly healthy and I miss the quick, cheap, no-nonsense clinic in Yurimaguas. I also realize how much I hate going to the doctor.

Glad about the news, we want to play pool. We have some unusual kind of bad luck in Lima, as all the bars recommended in our book don't seem to exist any more, even though they still have up-to-date websites. We have no problem finding restaurants, but finding a nice (and not too expensive) pub turns out to be impossible. During our search, however, we find the charming, bohemian district of Barranco, where we sample pisco sour from a booth at a Christmas market on the central square. We plan to visit Barranco again, during the daytime, but somehow we never get around to it. Instead, we sacrifice a whole day's budget for paragliding that lasts all of ten minutes. The cliffs and skyscrapers below, birds beside us - those are our best and most memorable ten minutes in Lima. We both look forward to doing it again, sometime soon.

But for now, we go further south.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Finally in Iquitos

Something so sophisticated as a traffic lane, doesn't exist on the roads of Iquitos. In this town, whose population varies wildly according to different sources (1 million according to a local in Lagunas; a local from Iquitos claims 600,000; Lonely Planet: 460,000; the city's official web-site: "261,648 habitantes aproximadamente"), mototaxis hurl along the streets, squeezing themselves into every empty space. Three, four abreast, they block the rare cars that are like clumsy giants, stuck traffic and surrounded by the little taxis riding motorcycles. It's amazing how much a mototaxi can transport: huge clusters of bananas; a stack of ten plastic garden chairs; flowers in colorful pots; long planks of wood and two meter long metal pipes. Plus passengers, of course. Scattered amongst this horde of three-wheeled vehicles, one can spot speeding scooters from time to time. Sometimes a young child sits in front of its father, who steers the scooter, without helmets or belts, and sometimes the child is behind its father and in front of its mother, the trio crammed together as they race along the streets. Aside from young men, one can also see women on scooters: the younger ones steering, while the older ones, dressed in skirts, let their elegantly closed legs hang off to one side, riding side-saddle behind them.

Iquitos is ugly: grey, shabby, noisy, full of the mediocre buildings so typical for South America, where only the facade is painted or decorated while the rest stays unfinished. I totally cannot understand why Bjarni likes it here. It is true, here we eat good pizza instead of thin broth made of chicken neck, in our room we have the internet instead of grasshoppers, "a shower" means warmth instead of a bucket of ice-cold river water, but I just don't feel welcomed as I felt in Lagunas. The children don't run towards me, asking for a picture, the adults don't smile at me at every step, "Buenos dias" doesn't reach my ears on the street, no cook looks at me with the hope that I will like her soup.

The Amazon, which Iquitos overlooks, is big and brown and full of piranhas and crocodiles: one cannot swim in it. Belén, a floating neighborhood, looks sad: the river hasn't flooded the raft-houses yet, it is too dry, so all there is to do is walk between hovels, past outhouses lined up behind shacks on stilts, among people with sad faces, their whispers echoing behind you: "Peligro, peligro.. Hide your camera, it is dangerous here..". The Bellavista Nanay port greets us with a flock of touts offering rides on boats they don't even own, and with beer in a bar whose walls are painted with ladies flaunting naked breasts and seductive hips. In Peru, when we want to buy two beers (one each), waitresses apparently mishear something: we always get one beer to share, the second one has to be requested again, later. It is no different in this bar, though our waitress does venture a shy smile when, for the third time, she comes to wipe our table clean of the water that has condensed off our cold beer bottle. An unplanned visit to the Bora tribe, North of Iquitos, leaves me with a feeling of disgust: for a stiff price men and women dressed only in skirts dance their traditional dances for us. The reality of these dances is a sad display of Indians completely bored with theater for tourists: three steps to the right, three steps to the left, to every single dance; one of the girls has her toe-nails painted, as if she awaits an evening party in town; the second one chews gum; the singing is muffled and unclear; above our heads a group of men in jeans thatch the roof. After this display, we are surrounded by our dancers, jostling and desperately offering trinkets for sale.

Pilpintuwasi, Quechuan for "Butterfly Farm", is the only place worth visiting in Iquitos. Monkeys run slowly around the green grounds, parrots perch in the trees, crocodiles swim in the pond, and little turtles dry themselves in the sun. All the animals here are victims of bad treatment, rescued and recovering in this place. Tony the Piranha, a brown capuchin, is a local troublemaker: he jumps on the wire mesh of the butterfly incubator, trying to catch and eat them, sometimes he mistakes a male monkey for a female - and he is very charming. Apparently, I am surprisingly popular with the monkeys here, as two of them climb to my shoulders: Tony the Piranha is sweet when he wraps his tail around my arm; Chavo on the other hand, a red bald-headed uakari, scares me when after five minutes of pulling my hair and making angry faces, doesn't want to stop.

After so many days in the humid, tropical climate I cannot wait to leave the jungle. I don't know if, if it weren't for the fact that we spent two weeks being sick in Yurimaguas, I would enjoy our little adventure more. For now I am tired and look forward to Lima. We are not getting on a boat again, we are flying instead.

The past!