Luke's South American Diary
Home Index by Dates Index by Trips Photo Gallery Search this Site Last Month Next Month

January 1995

12 January 1995

Things in Caracas are approaching something like normality after the shenanigans of Christmas and the New Year. I am still on chauffeur duty as the bank car is still out of service, and this is no longer as pleasant as it was because normal traffic has returned to clog up the roads, and I must confess I am beginning to miss my lie-ins. Unfortunately our car has also developed problems, so I can only hope that the bank car is fixed soon before ours get much worse (certainly to be in Caracas without a car at all would be unthinkable).

Our activity levels seem to be decreasing as time goes on partly because Julie is usually so tired (being busy at work and pregnant), and our evenings and weekends are becoming progressively slobbier. We were even reduced to playing board games over the weekend, something we had not done for donkey's years, although I must admit we rather enjoyed it. We did, however, make a pleasant day-trip last bank-holiday Monday through the cloud forest of Henri Pittier National Park to colonial Choroní, including some time on busy Playa Grande, a trip Julie had not made before (we observed on the way that it was our first trip out together on our own for a long time). In fact we seem to be as close to each other now as we have been for some time - I am not sure that the anticipated baby is necessarily the cause, but the pregnancy does give us more time together, and I am also making more of an effort to be helpful and caring.

I have been fruitlessly searching Caracas for a replacement stereo recently, and it has brought home to me both how poor the selection of such luxury items is here, and also just how lacking is the service mentality in the stores. When finally someone does answer your questions it is usually with such bad grace and with such little encouragement that it can almost appear as though they are deliberately trying to discourage sales. Added to that, now in the New Year when the rest of the world is having major sales drives, most of the shops here are still closed until 7 January and many long beyond that, apparently for extended stock-takes, which I, standing with my ready cash desperately trying to buy things, find intensely frustrating.

When, at last, I found an electrical goods store with a good stock at reasonable prices in an obscure part of central Caracas, I splashed out on a towards-the-top-of-the-range model with more knobs and buttons than you can shake a stick at, the vast majority of which I will never find a use for. It does all manner of remarkable and intelligent things which I will almost certainly never use, but on top of all that it even sounds good (I am a very late-comer to CD technology), so at the moment I am the proverbial kid with a new toy, and really relishing having music again.

With this major electrical purchase, we feel like we are single-handedly kick-starting the Venezuelan economy, and God knows it needs all the kicking it can get. More banks have gone under recently, reportedly due to major fraud (as though anyone thought otherwise!), and the financial markets are still distinctly jittery despite the President's apparent optimism - he seems to be the only optimist at the moment. Mexico is going through major financial traumas, Argentina has just dollarized their currency, Brazil is teetering, and the whole atmosphere in Latin America is distinctly subdued. The only exceptions are the relative success story of Chile, which is looking to join NAFTA, a rehabilitated Peru, and drug-supported Colombia, which remain quite buoyant despite various problems of their own.

Our upcoming trip to Miami to (among other things) get married, is taking on an unwelcome life of its own as, in addition to Julie's idea to invite Helen and Iain down to act as witnesses, it now transpires that Julie's parents will be in Florida at exactly the same time, and so they had to be invited too. Unfortunately they do not seem too willing to take it in the spirit in which we wanted it to remain, and however much we stress that the whole thing is merely an administrative expedient to allow me to stay in the country a little more easily, they are still talking in terms of a wedding and not just a marriage, and have been asking whether Julie wants a dress bringing (as though they do not have such things here!), and how we are going to celebrate. I think they may have a bit of a shock when we head straight off from the marriage ceremony to get everything notarized and set about all the other administrative details we have to tackle, such as sorting out Julie's transeunte visa (which we have finally been advised we cannot do from within Venezuela), obtaining vaccination boosters, and some serious shopping. We really do not have the time to waste, and we will have to insist on doing things our way even if it means stepping on a few feeling along the way.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to expand my mind a little by reading books like "A Brief History of Time" and a couple of similar but slightly more basic ones like "Cosmic Odyssey" and "Deep Time". It really is quite mind-boggling stuff, and I am still having problems getting my mind round concepts like what happened at 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after the Big Bang (yes that is 51 noughts!), and how ever smaller basic particles seem to be being discovered all the time. But it does seem that, the more detail is discovered and the closer to Time Zero science approaches, the more questions it raises, and the basic underlying philosophical questions of what was there before the Big Bang, and why it happened in the first place, are no closer to being solved. However, the ground that has been made to date is fascinating, even to a stupid layman like me, despite the incomprehensible distances and magnitudes involved.

22 January 1995 Back to top

Florida, USA (marriage)
Our trip to Miami was a very mixed week of holiday, bureaucracy, enjoyment stress and disappointment. We arrived on the Saturday and met up with Helen and Iain at the airport where we rented a car between us (Iain had made no less than three confirmed reservations to choose from!), and booked in to our rather extravagant hotel in Miami Beach. The next day was spent ("at leisure" as they say in the holiday brochures) in the Everglades, most of which seemed to be still flooded after a particularly bad summer and fall, including an interesting (if wet) boat trip through Florida's extensive mangrove forests. I always find Florida a bit of a bore both scenically and culturally, but at least some of the Everglades are still intact, even if I have explored them to death over the years. That evening Julie's parents also checked into our hotel, as they "just happened" to be in Florida, and the next day was spent doing the rather limited tourist sites of Miami, and eating more ridiculously over-sized meals.

The main reason for this "meeting of the clan" occurred on the Tuesday morning (17 January 1995 should, I am sure, be indelibly etched on my memory, but I have a suspicion it may not turn our quite like that). We all bundled into Miami's Marriage Licenses Bureau - a far from romantic place - after an unfortunate false start when we arrived at the 15th floor of the wrong building to a reception of several very anxious-looking pacing lawyers. We had desperately tried to play down the whole occasion, stressing that it was just a marriage for administrative convenience (perfectly true) and not a traditional wedding to be celebrated and cooed over. We never quite managed to convince everyone else of this, however, although when we had a photo taken of the official signing of the VISA receipt, Julie's mother's disbelieving expression did start to show some glimmer of realization.

There was a short civil ceremony of sorts, throughout which Julie (six months pregnant after all) giggled semi-hysterically, triggered I think by the image of a young Hispanic girl in the queue behind us dressed in full white regalia, complete with tiara, rushing around trying to find someone to be their witness. I, quite heroically I thought, managed to keep a straight face almost throughout, but Julie's mother's dreams of a dignified and formal wedding must have been well and truly shattered. She paid the municipal car-parking fee in lieu of the white Rolls Royce, and we all went for a very good curry that evening, which Julie's mother insisted on calling the "wedding breakfast", and during which Julie's father embarrassed everyone by making a short speech.

It was only after the marriage, which in retrospect actually went off rather better and less stressfully than we had anticipated in our more despondent moments, that things began to go wrong, and I am sure it was no coincidence that this was when we started to deal with Venezuelans again. We managed to legalize the marriage at the Venezuelan Consulate with relatively few problems, but they insisted that they were not able to put a new transeunte visa stamp into Julie's new passport (to replace the one which had been stolen along with her old passport six months earlier), despite assurances from the authorities in Venezuela that this was the only way to do it - another Venezuelan Catch 22. As much as anything it was the attitude and the surly service of the officials which annoyed us, especially after the efficiency and pleasantness of the staff in the Marriage Bureau.

The next day, Julie's family left us, having unburdened themselves of various unsolicited cards and presents (and some solicited ones, such as English Ribena and mint sauce) which we had to cart back to Venezuela. I hate to sound ungrateful, but it does seem that, however much one compromises and tries to make one's preferences known, people will still go ahead and do exactly what they want. Between a few other items of bureaucracy to which we had to attend, and an unfruitful attempt to circumvent the Venezuelan visa system by applying directly to the Vice-Consul himself, we spent the next two days blissfully (and quite successfully shopping).

Never again will we sneer and frown superciliously at Venezuelans bringing back truck-loads of shopping from Miami. We had already checked out some of the prices in Caracas of strollers, car-seats, etc, and the savings from buying them in Miami (over 60%!) are just too great to ignore, especially for expensive items, (in fact for a big ticket purchase it can be worth making a special trip, in addition to the much greater choice available). So we ended up buying a stroller, a car-seat, a multi-system TV, CDs, maternity clothes and various food and toiletries items not available in Caracas. In fact the only thing on our list which we were not able to obtain was our third hepatitis shot (which would supposedly have given us ten years of immunity), and that was because the particular vaccine we had had was not available in the US, so we would have to start all over again.

We even managed to get all this sorted out in time to take off for a couple of days to Naples on the Gulf coast for a spot of R&R. Naples is rich even by Floridian standards, but is a pleasant place to spend a few days, with a nice beach and a wonderful Japanese restaurant which we discovered almost by chance. We spent a leisurely afternoon canoeing through the mangroves in a nearby State Park, at one point surprising a large flock of white ibises into flight. It brought home to us how much we missed simple pleasures like canoeing, being able to walk on a beach at night, and for that matter being able to buy everything we needed and at reasonable prices. But of course we have to guard against any such ex-pat bitterness - there are many compensations, and in any case we entered into the deal with our eyes open to the potential drawbacks.

31 January 1995 Back to top

First impressions of Peru
Having arrived back from Miami, I had all of one day to unpack, sort everything out, rest, and prepare for my next trip - to Peru. The flight down to Lima over the mountains of Colombia and Ecuador, was unusually clear, giving a good impression of the tortured wrinkles and ridges which make up the Andes (although no real sense of their scale). The paucity of settlements also became apparent from the air, even though the Sierra is actually much more heavily populated than the steamy Amazonian interior of the continent - it is, even today, a truly wild place. In places the lower lying hills were covered in a patchwork of green and brown fields, fading to yellow and brown as the altitude increases, and then to a purply-brown moorland on the highest parts. Over Ecuador, from time to time, a snow-capped volcano pierced the clouds around its base, and the pilot was even good enough to identify some of them for us.

Further south into Peru, the cloud cover increased, but it was clear that the mountains had become still more arid and brown, with only the odd dry river bed breaking the monotony. Our route parallel with the coast saw the mountains give way to brown hills surrounded by miles and miles of dry yellow-grey sand and dust. The almost featureless desert (an extension of the fierce Atacama Desert further to the south) ended abruptly at the Pacific Ocean, sometimes in crumbly cliffs, sometimes in endless beaches of unappetizing grey sand-dust. Equally unappetizing was the huge sprawl of Lima, with its outskirts blending almost imperceptibly into the grey dust of the surrounding desert.

At the airport, there followed some rather bizarre bargaining over the number of free kilometres per day the rental car should have, which ended with Avis (with whom I had the reservation) introducing me to a small rival company and suggesting that I take their car instead. It was certainly cheaper with more free kilometres, but I just had to hope that the little old jalopy they rented me would be able to cope with the Peruvian deserts and mountains I hoped to explore in it.

I finally got under way through the grimy, desolate suburbs of Lima, where driving practices proved to be even more chaotic than those of Caracas. The city has much more of a feel of poverty and squalor, with shabby people living in shabby houses, and the ubiquitous urchins begging at every street corner. It is also the only city I had been in where soldiers in tanks were openly on display on the streets, albeit not in any particularly threatening way, but a disconcerting experience nevertheless. I was also unprepared for the fierce heat, having misread the guide book and having packed for the fog and cool temperatures of the southern winter. After a wrong turn (streets are poorly marked if at all, and navigating is quite tricky despite my seemingly excellent map of the city), I did get a quick unscheduled glimpse of the central colonial area of Lima, which looked much more promising, although my explorations would have to wait until Julie arrived later in the week.

I headed straight for the South American Explorers Club, who have an office in Lima as well as in Quito, in a little oasis of calm on a back-street, to pick up maps and up-to-date information on where not to go in Peru. I then went to check out their recommended hotels in the upscale ocean-side suburb of Miraflores, where I found an adequate room for myself for the night, and also booked a double room for the weekend in a nice old colonial house, both for relatively little in a city infamous for its over-priced hotels (as it turned out, the reservation was not honoured anyway, and we had to find somewhere else for the weekend, but that is another story…). My first Peruvian day was capped by my first Peruvian sunset, which I observed with some embarrassment from the cliff-top Parque del Amor, which was predictably full of canoodling couples.

Coast and Desert, Peru (Nazca Lines, Paracas Peninsula, Islas Ballestas)
The next day, I started on my travels south, picking up the Pan-American Highway from Lima's maze of a road system with only minimal problems. Outside the conurbation of Lima, I was soon into harsh, barren, desert scenery again - this was not the attractive, romantic yellow sand-dune desert of the Sahara, but a vast greyish-yellowish-brownish plain, for the most part devoid of even a blade of grass as far as the eye could see. In the distance were low dirty grey hills - I knew from the map that there were huge mountains further inland but, due to the dust and haze in the air, one would never have known. With the possible exception of Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho (which, however, covers a much smaller area), this was the closest thing to how I imagine the surface of the moon that I had ever encountered. As this description indicates, it is not a pretty place, but its scale and extremeness are certainly impressive, and the first hundred kilometres or so were quite interesting, although it began to pall soon after.

From time to time there were oases, either text-book ones with palm trees and goats, or sometimes just a slight alleviation of the barrenness, where a few scrubby bushes clung precariously to life. There were also cultivated areas around the towns along the way, (the main crop apparently being cotton which came as something of a surprise to me), although it was not always clear which came first, the towns or the cultivable areas. The towns were generally dusty, dirty affairs with little to recommend themselves. The main mode of transport seemed to be tricycles, which could be seen stacked up with all manner of goods, and a type of motorized tricycle or rickshaw which served as taxis. The dust was everywhere, and people were out hosing down their front yards in a vain attempt to keep down the dust for a few hours.

The heat was quite overwhelming in my non-air-conditioned little car, and my left arm was soon quite burnt again from wafting in breaths of air as I travelled. Heat haze mirages on the road ahead reflected the surrounding sand hills, causing me concern on a few occasions that I was about to skid on wind-blown sand, until it miraculously disappeared as I approached. There were people, heads wrapped in old T-shirts against the searing desert sun, whose job it appeared to be to sweep with little hand-made brooms the sand which blows constantly onto the road, a task which made painting the Forth Bridge seem like a satisfyingly short-term project. In places, the garua, or sea fog which covers Lima and the coast for most of the southern winter, rolled in, even in the summer, and the coolness came as quite a welcome relief.

My first stop was at Ica, billed in the guide book as a "colonial town", although other than a couple of nice old churches it was really just another hot, dusty town, slightly larger than most of the others. I hope I am not making it all sound too grim - I was actually quite enjoying myself: the sights, sounds and smells were new and interesting, although it has to be said that it was not an instantly inviting place. South of Ica, towards my goal for the night of Nazca, the desert continued, although here with the added twist of what for all the world looked like a layer of builders' rubble on top. Unpromising stuff from close up, but this was in fact my main reason for driving all that way, as it provides the base for the famous Nazca Lines.

I was quite impressed driving through the area that the Peruvian government seems quite serious about preserving and protecting this fascinating and mysterious place, as there were posted signs threatening a US$6,000 fine or five years imprisonment (I was a little unsure of the equivalency of the two alternatives) for anyone caught straying from the road within the protected area. Of course, it is one thing to have such a law, and another completely to police it.

To view the Nazca Lines at their best required an early morning flight, so I booked into a hotel just near the airstrip. Hotel de la Borda is an old hacienda, surrounded by cotton fields, and now converted into 30 or so rooms around a pretty courtyard. It was above my normal standard of hotel when travelling alone (although not by any means extortionate) but, weary from the day's drive and in need of a little pampering, I decided to go for it. I think that at the back of my mind I was also aware that, with a baby on the way, I may not get any more such trips for a while. Certainly it was the perfect antidote to travelling hot, dusty roads to go for a swim, walk through the gardens full of huge old flowering trees (including the largest and thickest-flowering bougainvillea I had ever seen), listen to the noisy birds, and settle down in a wicker chair with some Joseph Conrad. I think I could probably get in to the good life if I practiced a lot. I had a pretty reasonable conversation with the dinner waiter, who praised my Spanish and consequently more than earned his tip, despite my vegetarian meal appearing with ham in it: he insisted that ham is not meat, whereas bacon, well, bacon was obviously meat. I though it best to leave the argument at that, as we were obviously operating on different systems of logic.

Generally speaking I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the Peruvian people - I went expecting Venezuelan surliness, but instead found the friendliness and openness we encountered in Ecuador. I was also impressed that I could understand what people were saying, and realized that maybe my Spanish was not as bad as I had thought - if only people spoke as clearly and slowly in Venezuela. I was, however, still being eagle-eyed for possible pick-pockets, and keeping the car doors locked and the windows mainly closed in built-up areas, despite the heat.

The next morning I forgot not to have breakfast before my flight: it was supposed to be quite hair-raising and nausea-inducing, although I must confess I did not find it so bad - good, solid English constitution. The pilot of our little four-seater plane was a disconcertingly young woman, although she seemed to handle the 45° banks with great aplomb, and took us on a tour of the most interesting of the lines and figures on the Nazca pampa. The lines are light-coloured markings on a very large scale, made by clearing away the dark-coloured surface stones to expose the lighter-coloured sand below, and of course what makes them particularly interesting is that they can only really be seen and appreciated from the air.

There are about fifteen main figures, including a parrot, a hummingbird, a spider, a cute little monkey, a tree, a pair of hands, and what is more or less plausibly described as an astronaut, as well as many long straight lines, long triangles or arrows, and other geometric shapes. They probably date from 300BC-300AD, and their true meaning has yet to be categorically explained, although there are several theories running from a huge pre-Inca astrological chart, runways for space-ships, courses for foot-races and games, and (most bizarrely, but apparently a serious suggestion) knitting patterns. Whatever the explanation, they certainly make an interesting, if expensive with the need for a flight, trip, and much of their appeal lies in this very mystery.

Soon, I was heading back Lima-wards, to the accompaniment of a local radio station which seemed to specialize in all your favourite pop hits from the 50's and 60's but played on the pan-pipes - imagine if you will "The Great Pretender" or "Surfin' USA" played on the pan-pipes! The weather had been none too auspicious during my plane trip, and it further worsened as I made my way north (apparently I had the dubious distinction of witnessing a rare event - rain in the Nazca desert), although soon it began to improve and the heat made its oppressive presence felt once again. The fact that the locals were not used to rain became evident after passing two horrendous-looking accidents along the way. There was also an interesting diversion at a section where the road crossed a small range of rugged hills, necessitating a slightly alarming passage through a low narrow tunnel, roughly hewn out of solid rock. I waited for a large truck to make its way through the tunnel at a snail's pace, and when it finally emerged I realized why it had been travelling quite so slowly - it was stacked high with all manner of boxes and packages, and an unfortunate muchacho was clinging perilously to the top, signalling with a flash-light to the driver when he had found a channel with enough clearance to get through he tunnel.

My stop-off half-way back to Lima was at Paracas on the coast. The town itself is little more than a large, smelly fish-processing plant, but the Paracas Peninsula is a nature reserve and National Park , so it was towards there that I gravitated and not towards the fish-processing plant. The peninsula consists of rolling desert like most of the rest of the coast, but here the desert falls into the sea over high scenic cliffs, and its position as one of the few promontories on the Peruvian coast makes it the site of one of the highest concentrations of marine birds and mammals in the world. I booked into a strange, deserted little hostal, half the price of the nice hotel next door (conscience pangs from the "excesses" of the previous night), booked a boat trip to the Islas Ballestas for the next morning, and then set off to explore the peninsula by land.

I was stopped at the gates to the National Park and was informed that I had to have a guide before proceeding, which seemed reasonable until I realized that my guide was not a printed sheet of paper but the young lad who had been standing next to the warden all along. He seemed pleasant enough, and he had a nice little folder of photos of what there was to see on the peninsula, so I decided to go along with it. As it turned out he did me a very good tour of all the most interesting parts, along dirt tracks through the desert which I would probably never have found on my own. Among the highlights were a walk down to a beach and into the maws of a huge natural arch, cliffs with thousands of nesting gannets, hundreds of slobby brown sea-lions wallowing on the rocks below, and even penguins (the non-Antarctic type). It was also good for me to practice my Spanish for two or three hours at a time, although, because the people of the region were so friendly I had actually been practicing quite a bit anyway.

The boat trip the next morning was even better. From Paracas, we passed the famous Candelabra, a huge geoglyph carved into the peninsula, only visible from the sea. The Ballestas Islands themselves are a small group of rocky islets just off the coast of the Peninsula de Paracas, twisted into all sorts of contorted shapes by wind and wave, and featuring many large caves and natural arches, and home to many thousands (if not millions) of sea-birds. Ranging from the familiar gannets and gulls perched precariously on rock ledges, through pelicans and red-beaked oyster-catchers, to the more exotic penguins, there were loud squabbling birds on every square centimetre of rock, and many more wheeling around in the air. They seemed quite unafraid of the boat, which was therefore able to approach very close. Even more exciting (for me anyway) was the huge number of sea-lions - or "sea-wolves" in Spanish - lolling and groaning on the rocky shores, especially under the natural arches. We came very close to some large males sunning themselves on the rocks, and others playfully came to sniff at the boat at closer quarters. Quite a few had pups too, being unceremoniously snapped at by the short-tempered adults as they cavorted about (and by several cameras on the boat too).

Lima, Peru (Miraflores, colonial centre, beaches, foothills)
Thereafter I returned directly to Lima, in what was supposed to be good time, but increasingly recklessly as I realized that I was going to be late to meet Julie from the airport. There were really no quick ways through the crush of little smelly buses, and the vast number of clapped-out Volkswagen Beetles which seem to dominate Lima's traffic. As I turned out, and as I might have guessed, I need not have worried as Julie's plane arrived nearly two hours late, the apparent reason being a long delay in Ecuador due to a major and escalating border dispute between Ecuador and Peru, which had been simmering since 1942, and which decided to come to a head while we happened to be in Peru. At first we thought nothing of it and went about our business booking into a hostal in Miraflores for the weekend, and planning a couple of days sightseeing in and around Lima.

Miraflores itself is a very pleasant area, totally unlike most of the rest of Lima: it has parks, smart restaurants, and trendy outdoor cafes (and even a few vegetarian restaurants). We had not really expected to be able to sit around outside a café watching the world go by, but Miraflores is really remarkably unthreatening and quite middle-class family-orientated. There are so many security guards outside all the banks and many of the shops that, paradoxically, one feels quite safe.

We spent some time on the Saturday "doing" the old colonial centre of Lima, which does have several beautiful churches, and quite a few large old houses, which together apparently merit World Heritage Site status. We were sort of press-ganged into an official tour around the Cathedral and its museum, which was actually very interesting, and its wealth of artistic and religious treasures was very impressive. The street market section did not feel quite so comfortable, but was nonetheless interesting and passed without incident.

We also made a couple of short forays out of town, the first such being to the south down the coast, in order to stare open-mouthed at the Limeños at play on the beaches. The beaches are certainly huge and plentiful, even if not particularly pretty, but the Limeños still manage to pack them to bursting point on a Sunday, and we were reduced to shaking our heads in disbelief. On the way back we stopped off at an archeological site called Pachacamac, the drab and dusty remains of a drab and dusty pre-Columbian pyramid, temple and town (arguably we were too hot and tired and irritable to appreciate it as maybe we should have).

The next day we headed east from Lima into the foothills of the mountains to what the book promised us was a pretty valley. By the time we had left behind the grim, noisy suburbs of Lima, and the permanent pall of dust and cloud which seems to hang over it, we arrived at some grey rocky mounds, looking for all the world like overgrown slag-heaps, which apparently constitute the foothills of the Andes. We stopped off at a sort of country club with the intention of pampering ourselves a little, we could not get any food, the drink was limited to the ubiquitous yellow Inca-Cola, and the swimming pool was hemmed in by ghetto-blasters and screaming kids (jaded sight-seers? us?). We returned unimpressed, wondering whatever would we have done at weekends had we been posted to Lima and not to Caracas. Lima does seem to have one of the most dismal climates of any major city I know - cool, drizzly and foggy most of the year, hot, hazy and oppressive the rest - and its immediate environs we found distinctly unappetizing

So it was with something of a sigh of relief that we checked into the ridiculously expensive (even by Lima's standards) business hotel for a welcome shower and swim, and to catch up on the news, courtesy of CNN. It was in this way, however, that we found out that in our absence full-scale war had broken out with Ecuador, which had bombed a Peruvian border post and shot down a helicopter, and we were potentially caught in a war zone. Troops were massing on either side of the border, and things were starting to look quite ugly. Flights to Guayaquil, Ecuador, which was to have been the next part of our trip, had been cancelled, and we were receiving urgent messages from Canada urging us to abandon the trip and get the hell out of there. From the ground, this seemed a little excessive, and we decided to wait and see how things developed in the next couple of days before making any rash decisions. Julie had more business calls to make in Lima, and I had planned myself another little trip, and there did not seem any pressing reasons to abandon these just yet.

Cordillera Central, Peru (Carretera Central, Tarma, Jauja)
My trip proved to be the spectacular introduction to Andean Peru I had been hoping for, and more than made up for the disappointments of the last few days. The Carretera Central leads from hot, dirty Lima in the desert at sea-level, up to snowy peaks and glaciers at a nausea-inducing 4,800m pass (about 15,600ft), all within the space of about 150km and three hours driving. En route the grey slag-heaps of the foothills gradually turned green and increased in size, the cloud and mist cleared, and soon there were spectacular views of green, craggy mountains reaching up to the sky. Still higher, a bewildering variety of colours appeared (mainly of volcanic origin, I assumed): greens, yellows, reds, purples, oranges, greys, white and black. And finally, up near the road and railroad pass, snow topped the jagged peaks, and a huge glacier overhung a text-book hanging valley, above a series of blue, green and turquoise lakes - the contrast with the drab desert below could not have been starker.

I continued into the mountains, and down onto the altiplano, a wide valley between about 3,000m and 3,800m above sea level. Mining towns alternated with wild open moorland and white limestone hills riddled with cave and holes. Over another pass, the excellent road descended towards a town called Tarma, and into another, different, hidden world. Here the land was patchworked with fields and built into terraces on the steep hillsides, almost as far as one could see. The green of crops, the yellow of the prevalent wild-flowers, the red of the tilled soil, and the multi-colours of commercial flower-growing, all shone in the afternoon sun. The fields were being worked by (mainly) women in their colourful Indian dresses: woollen hats, shawls and long bulky skirts and petticoats in all the colours of the rainbows. Young children led herds of sheep and goats along the red-dirt tracks to their pan-tiled mud-walled houses. Forgive me for waxing lyrical over this, but at the time it seemed like someone had opened a door into a fairy-tale world, and Lima seemed so much more than just a few hours away.

However, as a reminder that all was not necessarily idyllic and bucolic, I caught just a hint of the other side of the area. I had turned my less than enthusiastic little car along an incredibly bad dirt road (supposedly a short cut) towards Jauja, where I had intended to spend the night. According to the locals I had asked en route, I should have been able to get there before dusk, which is always my goal in the unpredictable environment of South America. But probably a quarter of the way there, I changed my mind. Up ahead, two men carrying spades and pick-axes had blocked off the road with large boulders. I stopped tentatively some way off, while a small bus went on, and after a good deal of arm-waving and remonstrating, the boulders were moved and the bus continued. Quite possibly they were there to warn traffic about a particularly bad pot-hole, but as I was on the edge of the coca-growing guerilla-infested part of Peru, I decided to let caution prevail and made my way, tail between legs, all the way back to La Oroya, and booked myself into a cold, cheap hostal in that unexciting, but at least safe, mining town.

The next morning was the first genuinely cold morning I had experienced since the previous winter in England (the overnight temperatures mist have dipped to very close to freezing, and indeed on my return journey it snowed quite heavily crossing the highest pass). But first I had a few hours in which to explore a little further afield, so I headed further down the pretty Mantaro valley, staying well above 3,000m throughout. The valley is quite impressive in its own right, although it was disconcertingly reminiscent of the English Peak District or Provence, with its steep hillsides and bare white limestone sticking out like bones.

Just off the main road was the attractive little town of Jauja, now an aesthetically-pleasing jumble of red roofs, although back in 1534 Pizarro decided to make it the capital of the virreinato for a while. Women in their smart white top hats were sat in their doorways doing chores I remember from my own childhood, like shelling beans and stringing watermelon seeds. One old woman was sat talking away to her cow, which was contentedly grazing on the central reservation of the main road into town. Purely by chance I was there on market day (or maybe every day is market day), so I parked up and went to investigate. I was met by scenes straight out of a coffee-table book: the women in their white hats, coloured shawls and voluminous skirts, were hawking their goods on the traffic-free streets, squatting behind their piles of beans, bewildering varieties of potatoes, and other vegetables and fruits. As usual I was much too embarrassed, sensitive, or just plain cowardly, to take photos of the people, and anyway as the only foreigner there I was already attracting enough attention, which only added to my self-consciousness. But the sounds, sights and smells (this last most definitely not reminiscent of my childhood) were riveting, and I spent quite some time just wandering around, or sitting in the squares people-watching. As much as anything, it was just nice to see Peru looking attractive and thriving, after the disappointing down-at-heel look of the capital and its environs. Not that Jauja was in any way well-to-do, but it exuded a feeling of energy and self-sufficiency which Lima and the coast never had (although maybe the weather down on the lowlands is enough to oppress the people's spirits, as it had ours).

Reluctantly, I had to make my way back to Lima in the afternoon, and the lower I got the more reluctant I became. I arrived back to the news that the border dispute was still smouldering, and flights between the two countries had been cancelled, and so Julie had rescheduled our flight directly back to Caracas for the next day. We arrived back late at night and dog-tired after a very mixed, but on the whole interesting, trip. Our return to Ecuador would have to wait for another, more auspicious, time.

The next morning it felt strange to be driving Julie to work (the bank car still not fixed after two months) through all the smart, gleaming cars of Caracas and the thoughtful civilized drivers - the complete opposite of our first impressions of Caracas traffic - which just goes to show that everything is relative.

Home   Index by Date   Index by Trip   Photo Gallery   Search   Last Month   Next Month   Back to Top