6 September 1998
Another anniversary has crept up on us unawares: we have now been in Bogotá a whole year. It has been a good year for us, despite some rather dodgy developments in the country. We arrived to an exchange rate of US$1=Col$1174 and now it is at US$1=Col$1532 (after yesterday's devaluation), but then we seem to have an inflationary and destabilizing influence wherever we go - when we first arrived in Venezuela the exchange rate was US$1=B's123; when we left just three years later it was US$1=B's495! A good proportion of our savings has also followed the Latin stock markets on their seemingly never-ending nose-dive in recent weeks. But, with Latin America in general back on the familiar roller-coaster, at least the blood-spilling and kidnapping which accompanied Andrés Pastrana's coming to power has tailed off, although I think people's expectations of the peace process are probably a little more realistic now.
While, weatherwise, Colombia has proved even more agreeable than I had expected, largely due to the effects of El Niño, which gave us at least six months of beautiful weather, (beautiful, that is, if you are not a farmer), all the signs are that his little sister La Niña will not be so kind. She will be the dominant force during the next year, bringing unsettled weather, greatly increased rainfall and flooding to this part of the world - not a pleasant prospect. The last couple of weeks have been marred by a sort of thermal inversion, which has left a grey pall of smog and pollution over the city, despite a few agreeably sunny days.
But Bogotá has proved to be a generally very pleasant place to live. I still get a kick from some of the forms of address the punctiliously polite Colombians use, such as "Doctor" and "Don Luke", and the almost excessive politeness one encounters in stores and restaurants ("Para servirle", "Con mucho gusto", "Que esté muy bien", etc). And we already have more native friends (as opposed to ex-pats) in Colombia than we ever had in Venezuela.
Elena continues to grow more and more loquacious by the day, and will launch into one of her interminable, ever-evolving and usually distinctly surreal monologues to whoever is willing to listen, and in whatever language seems appropriate at the time. Apparently she is still doing well at school, and her teacher maintains that she has a better than average vocabulary in Spanish. I must admit that this surprises me, especially because she has a habit of Spanish-izing the English of those words she does not know in Spanish, by adding an "o" or "a" ("Pour-a el jugo, Maritza!"). But it presumably just means that she has an even better English vocabulary - we do not have much to compare her with here. But it does seem that the older she gets, and the more able she is to do things, the more her imagination expands to find ways to taunt and torment us…
Meanwhile, America appears to be reeling under a scandal which has bored the rest of the world to tears. Between the vindictiveness of Kenneth Starr's ego-tripping zeal and his apparent Republican vendetta to destabilize the world's foremost political power, and the patheticness of President Clinton's belated tears and his erratic inconstancy, it seems to me that America has merely succeeded in embarrassing itself in the eyes of the world, whom are at a loss to understand the importance of a mutually agreed private affair in the public life of a politician.
My web-site for the Cámara de Comercio Colombo-Canadiense (since replaced - March 2002) has more or less come to fruition, although not before an extended wait for input, a complete name change (and the accompanying make-over), and a lot of translating into English and Spanish and even some French. The result is hardly spectacular, but cogent and hopefully appropriate to the organization. It has certainly occupied an awful lot of my time in the last couple of months, although I have largely enjoyed the challenge.
But, whether the web-site was finished or not, I was off back to Adventureland, for the first time in what felt like a very long stretch (although people tend to just laugh at me when I say that…). Adventureland in this case translated as Peru, my excuse being to meet up with Richard and Sue, who were over there "doing" Cusco and Machu Picchu. By the time various flight reservations were re-scheduled, then cancelled, and then re-scheduled again, all without notice, I ended up on the late night flight to Lima. And then by the time it had left two hours late and arrived three hours late, I only had to spend about three hours pacing up and down Lima airport in the middle of the night before my 5am flight on to Arequipa.
|Arequipa to Puno, Peru (Volcanoes, Salinas y Aguadas Blancas Nature Reserve)
Then, when the car rental reservation fell through,
I was beginning to feel like turning round and going straight back home, but they did eventually manage to find me a clunky old pick-up truck. It stalled and would not start again for some time the first time I went over some bumpy ground, and within a few hours the speedometer and odometer had given up the ghost as well, but I was able to more or less gauge my speed from the pitch of the strange whine the car made whenever in motion. These were, however, just early teething troubles, and when we had had time to get used to each other, we came to more of an understanding, and the old truck actually ended up serving us quite well through some pretty challenging drives.
After this not overly auspicious start, the adventure proper began, and I was off and mobile again, with the wind whistling through what is left of my hair, along with the dust which was to be a constant throughout the trip. The road started off in fine fettle, but within 50km it had turned into the much more usual bumpy dirt track, which I was beginning to feel was probably my natural habitat. From the drab grey desert around Arequipa at around 2,400m, barely disturbed by dust-laden cactus trees and very little else, the road climbed imperceptibly but relentlessly through various vegetation zones, albeit with "dry and crumbly" being the lowest common denominator of all of them at this time of year, passing at one point a sign of unknown authenticity marking 4,770m above sea level. This was also the place where I bought some petrol from an Aymara Indian family who just happened to have a barrel of it sitting in the middle of their living room - I had not seen any official petrol stations in the 200km or so since Arequipa, and driving my tank on those roads was not exactly conducive to fuel efficiency.
But the sun was shining and the route was little short of spectacular in its variety and scale. Among other highlights, I passed:
- any number of volcanoes, including the imposing conical 5,822m El Misti which looms over Arequipa, recently-active 6,057m Chachani, and in the distance the thick snowfields of 6,288m Nevado Ampato, scene of the discovery a few years ago of the perfectly preserved mummy known as Juanita;
- extensive areas of high-altitude pinky-grey desert (or tundra, call it what you will);
- small saline lakes and bogs (mainly within the Salinas y Aguadas Blancas Nature Reserve) inhabited by at least two species of flamingoes and many other ducks and water birds;
- ridges of volcanic rock protruding like skeletons, moulded by the elements into jagged pinnacles and contorted into anthropomorphic shapes;
- herd after herd of llamas (or were they alpacas?) and even a few wild vicuñas (or were they guanacos?);
- a couple of small rivers I had to cross with great care, apparently rising out of nowhere and going nowhere, their sole purpose being to disrupt travellers;
- chola women in their brightly-coloured (if dust-laden) clothes, voluminous skirts and bowler hats, tending their flocks, or just walking interminably from A to B or C;
- tufts of blue grass growing in the pink desert, surrounded by a horseshoe or ring of lime-green lichens;
- two larger lakes (Lagunillas and Saracocha), sparkling a bright glorious blue in the afternoon sun, and with many water-birds feeding around their loamy weed-choked margins.
I managed to add an hour to an already long drive when I decided to drive off-road for a closer look at a flamingo lake, and found myself seriously stuck in volcanic sand and gravel.
I took to digging around the wheels and placing flat stones underneath, but still could not extricate myself even with the four-wheel drive. Soon the wheel was 50cm down in the loose earth, and the tyre covered in a layer of molten rubber. As luck would have it, the fourth or fifth vehicle I had seen in my four or five hours of travelling stopped to help. The two men set about organizing things with a practiced air, (including a trick I was not aware of, namely letting air out of the tyres for better grip), and the five Indian women passengers mucked in with the pushing without a second thought. I was soon out, and did not really know what else to do, or what I would be expected to do, but thank them all profusely. At least I probably gave everyone a topic of conversation for the rest of the journey.
It was certainly a spectacular drive, but a hard one, much harder than I had anticipated. By the end, my hands were blistered and contorted into claws from fighting with the wheel, on terrain which varied from bumpy rock to pure sand to remnants of the original Spanish cobbled road (this latter being probably the worst in terms of discomfort). My back, still problematic at best, was completely knotted up and bruised from all the bouncing around. All of me, and all of the car inside and out, was covered in a layer of dust, I was sneezing prodigiously, and the altitude was beginning to take its toll. But, nevertheless, I rolled into Puno just an hour or so after dark, and more or less on schedule. The last 40km on paved roads were a blessed relief, even if the car was sounding distinctly unhealthy compared even to when I had started out.
Puno, at 3,820m above sea level has much of the atmosphere of La Paz with its street markets and the colourful Quechua women selling all manner of items on the street corners, but unfortunately it has very little of La Paz's charm. The next morning, bright and clear again, I ambled around its streets for a short while, and then drove up to the top of the hillside on which the city is perched to better appreciate its situation on the edge of Lake Titicaca. But it seemed clear to me that there were better sights to be had away from the town, even on my supposed "rest day".
|Puno & Lake Titicaca, Peru (Chulpas de Sillustani, Islas de Uros, Lampa)
So I took the little-used "alternative" route over to Sillustani, along a dirt track just as bad as any on the previous day, although at least mercifully shorter, body and car both protesting vehemently. I passed through a couple of pleasant little villages - Vilque in particular had an impressive church for such a small and lonely place - and large expanses of flat altiplano covered with yellow grass, interrupted from time to time by beige ridges of hills or isolated outcrops of rock. After several less-than-enthusiastic and less-than-useful directions, I eventually located the splendid blue Laguna de Umayo and, perched on a bluff high above it, the archeological site of Sillustani.
The Chulpas de Sillustani are funerary monuments apparently built by the local Cholla people in the 15th Century, and a very nice place they found for it too. The most arresting edifices are over 12m high and shaped like plant pots (flared towards the top), and the stonework is at least equal in its quality, perfection and scale to that of the Incas. There are also many other towers of natural unfinished stone scattered around the site, as well as the odd square tower, painted towers, and some low circular walled areas thought to have some ceremonial significance. It was gratifying to be the only one there (apart from hundreds of wild guinea pigs), especially as two or three tourist minibuses from Puno arrived just as I was leaving.
I continued through Juliaca, a rather ordinary town, swarming with hundreds of tricycle rickshaws, its sole saving grace being quite a nice old stone church, and found my way onto the Lampa road. Lampa calls itself the "Ciudad Rosada", although in actual fact most of its buildings are painted an unusual rust-red color, not pink. Either way, it is a very pretty sleepy little colonial town, with a huge and very impressive church with multi-coloured roof-tiles and some beautiful carving.
But this was after all my rest day, so I returned to Puno by mid-afternoon to soak up some of the strong altiplano sun, make a few (pitifully cheap) purchases, and book a boat trip for the morrow, before meeting frazzled but very happy Richard and Sue off the Cusco train, which as usual arrived a couple of hours late after an apparently rather dramatic uncoupling incident en route.
The next day's boat trip unfolded with the usual mix of goodwill and organised chaos, but we were still leaving the wharf earlier than most of the other trips, which was the intention. The Islas de Uros is the tourist trip from Puno, and we went with no expectations of anything other than a somewhat sordid tourist show, although it was still interesting enough for all that. We nosed our way through the thick smelly green algae which edges Lake Titicaca near Puno (due to pollution from the city as our guide almost gleefully informed us), and through an equally smelly section of reeds beyond, until emerging in a clearer area of reeds which is where the Uros Islands are located.
They are usually referred to as the "Floating Islands of Uros", although the majority are in fact fixed natural islands. Some, however, are actually man-made islands constructed from layers of reeds, and they do actually float freely in the water. We disembarked on one of these, and had the strange experience of walking on a bed of reeds, which squelched and moved around disconcertingly beneath us, and through which we gradually sank if we remained in one place for too long. Apparently the islands can actually be towed from place to place, and new ones constructed (tax-free) as required.
We took one of the famous totora reed boats, (surprisingly comfortable and
stable and propelled laboriously with the circular motion of a single oar at the back), across to another larger island where yet more indigenous artifacts were on sale, and the scruffy children were even more assiduous in their begging. Scenic though the islands were in their way, and no doubt fascinating from a cultural and anthropological point of view, the squalor of the Indians' lives there, and the ignominy of their existence as the objects of tourists' snap-shots was mildly disturbing. We all felt a little uncomfortable traipsing through their back-yards, and we left with mixed feelings, more or less as we had anticipated. The islands' inhabitants seemed caught in the limbo between the traditional and the modern, exemplified perfectly by the solar panels which could be seen perched on some of the roofs of the thatched huts.
That afternoon we decided to drive along the south coast of the huge lake,
away from the tourist drag, through several rather ordinary villages and towns, distinctly lacking in tourist appeal. Juli was the largest and most developed, but its four colonial churches were indeed, as we had read, in varying states of disrepair, and something of a disappointment. It was, however, interesting enough to see something of the basic, agricultural lifestyle of the people in the rural areas of the altiplano. Everywhere we looked there was someone scraping a living of sorts from whatever crops grow at 3,800m and above, or tending their flocks of sheep or llamas, or herds of cows. We climbed up one of the dramatic red sandstone outcrops which litter the otherwise flat yellow plain, and as far as we could see in all directions there were the dots of people and animals, and little mud huts with tin roofs scattered willy-nilly across the landscape.
The next day we said goodbye to Puno, en route stopping off again at Sillustani, which I was more than happy to see for a second time, so beautiful is the setting, and so peaceful after the constant hubbub of Puno.
From there we made the best of the paved roads through Juliaca and Santa Lucia, before the ordeal of those bumpy dusty roads back towards Arequipa. So I retraced at least part of my outward journey past lakes and open moorland climbing to a brisk 4,700m for a cool but scenic picnic of local cheese, hollow bread, wonderful tomatoes and bananas, all purchased from Puno market the previous evening. From there, it was down through the high barren desert until we arrived at Imata, desperate for fuel. All the stores seemed to be fresh out of petrol, and I had to almost beg at our last chance stop for the last two gallons in town, which we hoped would be enough to get us to the next fuel source, wherever that may prove to be.
From Imata we turned off the Arequipa road towards Chivay, in an increasingly cold and increasingly strong wind, and barely made it to the next gas station in time. A little more relaxed now, we could appreciate the transition from the relatively tedious open moorland to lower, but more interesting, scenery. From Sibayo, after descending into a spectacular wide valley flanked by monolithic rock formations (which turned out to be the upper reaches of the Colca valley), we continued down to Chivay as dusk fell, passing enticing glimpses of the dramatic scenery to come, and the patchwork of cultivated strips clinging perilously to the impossible slopes of the valley. So, after another fascinating, but physically taxing (not least for the passengers) drive, we were grateful for a hot shower and a little relaxation in our under-lit but otherwise comfortable hotel.
|Colca Canyon, Peru (Chivay, Mirador Cruz del Cóndor, Cabanaconde)
During an early morning stroll the next day, I was surprised to find Chivay significantly colder than Puno, with thick ice in the muddy puddles, despite being a couple of hundred metres lower at 3,600m. I followed a narrow alley (marked "Do not urinate in this street" and planted with security cacti along the tops of the mud walls) through the cultivated fields which surround the village to a splendid view of Nevados Huayca Huayca and Sabancaya (5,986m).
The workers were already starting their day, muffled to the eyes against the biting cold, and carrying their wooden ploughs (which even had wooden blades) to work their own small patch of dirt, and I reflected on what a hard life they led. I actually saw a young lad herding his cows along a track and playing his pan-pipes quite unselfconsciously, a pleasant change from having loud pipe music foisted on us as occurs in almost every Peruvian restaurant I have ever been in. The Collagua Indian women of the area wear even more ornate embroidered waistcoats and blouses than those of Puno, and sequin-spangled white boaters replace the black bowlers of the Quechuas.
Later we all went for a longer walk, up what seemed a likely-looking track up the majestic rock-crested mountains on the south side of Chivay. Unfortunately it dead-ended within sight of another path which appeared to continue over the brow of the hill and then back towards town. We decided to attempt to pick a way through the thorn bushes, prickly grass and cacti which form the basis of the natural vegetation of the region. But we needed to gain a lot of height before meeting up with the other path and I, being ahead at the time, volunteered to check out the way ahead to see how practical a proposition it was. I managed to scramble up a certain way on the loose scree and gravel, at one point inadvisedly using a cactus as a hand hold. But there came a stage where I realized that I could neither continue up nor down and was perched precariously above a near-vertical scree slope. When he realized that I had started to panic and hyperventilate, Richard, luckily an experienced climber, followed me up and successfully talked me down, albeit covered in spines and prickles.
Having retraced most of our progress thus far, we then lowered our sights a little,
and took another track up another hillside until we reached a wonderful viewpoint over the valley far below, covered in Inca and pre-Inca terraces and an almost medieval system of walled fields. From there we followed one of the many irrigation conduits around the contours of the hill back to our starting point in the now baking hot sun and perfect cloudless sky. In fact we discovered a huge network of irrigation channels designed to provide water for the parched terraces, including a large modern conduit which tunnelled all the way through the mountainside and on down the valley - obviously a mammoth engineering task.
We peered in briefly at Chivay's thermal baths (the hot springs are apparently hot enough to boil an egg, although presumably the baths are not), and decided unanimously to give it a miss due to the Saturday afternoon crush of bodies in there. Instead we went for a short drive down the northern, less-travelled, edge of the canyon which, even here in its youthful stages, was a dramatic narrow gorge of several hundred metres. On either side the terraced fields reached right to the edge of the precipice and up the apparently infeasible slopes above. The fields were being ploughed by oxen, and the scenes were truly timeless. In places the narrow road followed the precipitous edge of the gorge, and eventually we found a way down to a narrow bridge across the river. Unfortunately part of the concrete base of the bridge was broken and some rather hair-raising precision driving was required to negotiate it. Once across, we stopped briefly to admire the richly decorated façade of the white church at Yanque, before making our way back to Chivay through the returning herds of cattle and sheep.
The next day we drove down the more frequented south side of the canyon, through
ever more expansive views over the terraced fields and the splendid valley which varied from narrow rocky chasm to wide shallow basin, all the while with the dramatic mountains as a back-drop. We passed ageless rural scenes, as families walked their donkeys and oxen to work, the women often spinning alpaca wool as they walked so as not to waste valuable time. We also passed several tin-roofed villages on both sides of the canyon, a few with the remnants of impressive churches from the area's hey-day in the early years of the Spanish occupation, albeit in an advanced stage of deterioration.
Some 60km from Chivay, after some rather hair-raising cliff-top roads (including one section through an unlit rough-cut tunnel bored right through the mountainside), the canyon became once more sheer-sided and rocky as we approached the Mirador Cruz del Cóndor in the deepest part of the canyon accessible by road (apparently further downstream it becomes even deeper and wilder). We had timed it to arrive just as all the tour mini-buses from Chivay were leaving, and we soon had the place to ourselves.
This central part of the canyon is perhaps the most exhilarating and awe-inspiring landscape I have ever experienced. From the viewpoint by the road, the cliff falls away vertically 1,200m to the green river below, and across the other side sheer-sided rocky mountains rise 3,600m uninterrupted up to the peaks of volcanic ash and the remnants of retreating glaciers. Small villages cling perilously and insignificantly to its lower slopes, and cultivated terraces scale parts of the side valleys at impossible angles. Peak after volcanic peak stretches away into the distance in both directions along the chasm. We gazed for some time quite dumb-struck at the scenery until first two, then four, and then group after group of condors appeared, gliding effortlessly and riding the thermals in spirals until almost out of sight. Some even paraded themselves right over our heads, giving us a close up experience of these magnificent birds.
After a while, we dropped down into the village of Cabanaconde for lunch, down to about 3,280m above sea level, although still high above the canyon bottom, and still surrounded by extraordinary volcanic scenery. Cabanaconde is the centre of the Cabana Indians, who sport even more embellished waistcoats, tunics and sashes, and intricately embroidered felt caps, totally different from those of the Collaguas in Chivay not so many kilometres away. We were surprised to find the town square, with its fine but dilapidated church, all but deserted, until we realized that on Sunday afternoons the whole town repairs down to the football game on the edge of town, and we fondly imagined that every week the game was against the arch-rivals from the village just across the river.
We improvised a walk in the hot sun along the edge of the canyon, largely following the contours of the terraces.
The crops here seemed much further advanced than those at Chivay, despite not being many hundred metres lower. Everything was still utterly dry and dusty, but many of the crops had already been planted in anticipation of the rainy season which was apparently due at any time. After soaking up so much magnificent scenery, and a hot and enervating hike at altitude, we repaired back to Chivay with no further diversions for a well-earned cup of mate de coca. Once again as on all the previous days, a cloudless sunny day gave way to a clear moonless night, where the Milky Way was almost as bright as the stars themselves, and the constellations were confused by the sheer number of stars visible.
The next morning was if anything even colder than the previous two, and I awoke after an appalling night's sleep with a bad case of the runs,
as well as aching thighs from two days of unaccustomed hiking, and a sore nose from so much blowing. Consequently the drive back to Arequipa, although only about three-and-a-half hours in total, was purgatory for me. The first third or so of the journey was interesting enough as we climbed in short order right back up to about 4,700m or higher, where there was next to no vegetation except some huge overgrown cushions of moss or lichen endemic to the area, and where there were views over the frozen dry moon-surface tundra to various volcanoes in various directions.
However, as we began to gradually descend from tundra to moorland to desert, the landscape became less interesting, and after some admittedly splendid views of Volcán Misti and Chachani, the final dusty approach into Arequipa was little short of depressing after our recent experiences. The outskirts of the city were just one big rubbish dump, and the cars and buses were pumping out black smoke which, mixed with the dust in the air, hung in a pall over the city. We successfully negotiated Arequipa's totally illogical one-way system to find our hotel, which thankfully turned out to be an oasis of peace in an apparent war of traffic, complete with flower-filled gardens and free e-mail facilities. I needed to lie down for a couple of hours before I could function properly again.
|Arequipa, Peru (Volcanoes, Convento de Santa Catalina)
But function I did, and while we still had the use of a car we visited a couple of recommended suburbs, which boasted impressive churches but were in other respects distinctly unimpressive. Our introduction to Arequipa was therefore something of a disappointment after all the wonders we had experienced before it, so we concentrated on getting a good night's sleep in the hope that that would improve our receptivity. And a good night's sleep was indeed all we needed. The next morning my headaches and body aches were gone, my bowel conditions were under control even if not normal, and even my thigh muscles were starting to function again. All I needed to do then was to stem the flaking dry skin which had spread across most of my face, and I had achieved even that by the end of that day. It is amazing what ravages a short time at altitude can reap.
After the disappointment of our initial impressions,
Arequipa grew on us rapidly. With temperatures ranging from the mid-20°C's during the day to the mid-10°C's at night and sunshine 360 days a year, it certainly has a glorious climate. It had felt uncomfortably hot when we arrived but we soon realized that that was just a reaction to the cold of the Sierra. The city is known as the "Ciudad Blanca" because most of the centre is constructed in the white volcanic stone of the area called sillar, and despite losses over the centuries from earthquake damage, it boasts some wonderful examples of religious and secular architecture. There are five or six main churches in the centre of town dating from between the 16th and 19th Centuries, most with ornate carved façades and intricate gold and silver altar pieces. In addition there are several colonial mansions with equally ornamental entrances and cool courtyards within, some of which are open to the public.
The main Plaza de Armas is surrounded on three sides by two-tiered white colonnades, and on the third by the huge twin-towered Cathedral. We sat in one of several cafes on a balcony on one side of the square and gazed across the flowering trees in the square to the Cathedral and to the perfect cone of Volcán Misti beyond, the light and shadows changing constantly as we watched. We also poked around the main city market for a while, fascinated by the different varieties of potatoes and corn (including a pure black corn) and the colourful displays of fruits and vegetables.
But by far the highlight of the city (which would have justified a visit all on its own) was the Convento de Santa
Catalina, which occupies a complete large city block, and constitutes a veritable city within a city. It was founded in 1579, but up until 1970 it remained hidden from the world behind closed walls. During this time, the original strict order gradually became more and more relaxed and decadent, and the nuns could pay for more or less luxurious quarters, receive guests and carry on a thriving social life - until the Pope found out about it and took things in hand. Today, just twenty nuns lead a life of seclusion in one small wing of the building, and after meticulous restoration the convent (as it was in its decadent phase) is open to the public.
One enters into a maze of narrow shady cobbled streets, cloisters and sillar buildings, painted in vivid oranges and blues, and decorated with bright red geraniums and other flowers. To walk the streets and peer into the individual houses (complete with period cooking implements and furnishings in some cases), creates a feeling of serenity and peace far removed from the bustle outside the walls, and the colours and shadows and nooks and crannies are a photographer's dream (I snapped the best part of a roll of 36 there alone!).
Thus more reconciled to the city, and having actually missed out on one or two of its more minor attractions from lack of time, we started the painful process of the return to civilization. The first leg took us back to Lima where, due to bad connections, I was to spend most of a day and the next night. We passed the time as profitably as possible by visiting Lima's Gold Museum, which I had never seen before. It has an absolutely huge and comprehensive collection of pre-Inca gold and pottery artifacts, as well as mummies, textiles, domestic curios and ceremonial objects. Unfortunately there were just too many exhibits to take in, and they were not sensitively or logically displayed, so that on the whole I think that the Bogotá Gold Museum is probably superior, but the sheer volume of gold displayed is quite awesome and overwhelming.
I introduced Richard and Sue to a little Lima-style driving, which I think they would probably as well not have experienced, but their time was soon up, and I deposited them at the airport once more, physically wrecked and nerves a-jangling, but spiritually much the richer, and toting a good selection of Peruvian handicrafts. I spent the night in cosmopolitan Miraflores, quite a change from the kind of pared-down basics to which we had become accustomed, before flying home the next morning.
The trip on the whole had been quite a success:
my choice of hotels had turned out well (always a concern when choosing for someone else); the weather had continued glorious throughout - cloudless blue skies and warm sunshine - excepting Lima, of course, which was it usual grey foggy self; the scenery we had experienced (particularly around the Colca Canyon) was among the most stunning I have seen anywhere on my travels; and culturally the whole trip had been fascinating. One minor regret was that, at the end of the dry season, the snow on the volcanoes was at its sparsest, and the vegetation a dusty grey-brown rather than the vibrant green seen in the books and postcards. But, hey, I can hardly complain…
One day back (and you can imagine how relaxing that was!), and "once more into the breach"… Or in this case, "once more onto the beach". We had booked a long weekend away some time ago, and so it was back to Bogotá airport, which we now all know so well, this time all together. We flew via Quibdó, a small hot town deep in the green jungle of Chocó state, and then in a Twin Otter on to Bahía Solano on the Pacific coast of Chocó.
|Chocó, Colombia (Bahía Solano, beaches, Ensenada de Utria National Reserve, whale-watching)
Our hotel transport did not show, and we were reminded that we were once again in the tropics,
and even worse on the coast, and that we should not expect the levels of efficiency of the interior of the country, even this country. We persuaded a local bus/taxi (a brightly-painted wooden open-sided affair of indeterminate age) to take us, and after an unexpected detour into town, we eventually set off in the right direction. The road soon deteriorated to a rutted mud-bath, (we were there at the height of the rainy season), as we passed through rural scenes of striking contrast to those I had passed just that week in Peru. Here the vegetation was lush tropical jungle, the brown muddy rivers (which seemed to be everywhere) were in full spate, and many had burst their banks flooding the surrounding fields and often our road too. And, yes, it was raining.
But, after a bumpy, squelchy hour, we had cut across the peninsula, and found ourselves back on the coast near El Valle.
From there we drove across a wide low-tide beach to reach our hotel, one of several on the beach but apparently the only one showing any signs if life.
We sat and drank a welcome cold beer, looking out over the tropical garden to the Pacific beyond, and watched the antics of the extraordinary variety of birds (electric blue, yellow, scarlet and black), humming-birds and butterflies around us. There were frogs and lizards (including some which had a rather comical way of running on their hind legs, like miniature dinosaurs), and we found ourselves in a veritable nature reserve in the company of just a handful of other guests.
The first afternoon we relaxed on the beach (black sand, warm but rainy weather) and paddled endlessly in the surf.
But the next morning was the first of our whale-watching trips, the main reason for our travelling to such an isolated place (apart from the isolation itself). Under brighter skies, we headed down the green hilly coast into the waters of the Ensenada de Utria National Park. We stopped off at the Park head-quarters (full of roosting bats) for a rather boring chat - apparently the Park receives about 3,000 visitors per year, which given its splendid isolation and the paucity of tourists even during the whale-watching season, actually sounded like an exaggeration. The emerald green hills, covered in a great variety of tropical trees, contrasted beautifully with the now blue skies and the dark sparkly blue of the ocean, and we dropped off one or two people at one of the few white sand beaches in the area before heading out into deeper waters in search of those elusive hump-backed whales.
The whales head up from their breeding grounds near Antarctica, to feed in the rich waters off the Pacific coast of Colombia between August and November each year, but, what with El Niño and La Niña, we were wondering whether we would see them, especially as there had been no sightings in the last week or so.
In fact, we saw a couple of huge schools of dolphins, leaping and weaving in and out of the water close by, and a few swordfish making huge vaults out of the water, but no whales that first trip. The next morning, however, we headed north instead of south from our hotel, and there indeed we saw a couple of yabartas (hump-backed whales), although not particularly close, and they were not particularly friendly or accommodating, choosing to remain down below for the majority of the time, popping up every seven minutes or so in random places so as to catch us out. But it was still a thrill as always to see these majestic animals, and we were certainly not disappointed.
We spent the afternoons on the beach, Elena playing inexhaustibly with the sand, damming the streams, and paddling in the warm water.
She actually showed much less apprehension at the sea than she had done previously, and swam enthusiastically between the breakers (and even through some of them!) with no signs of her usual trepidation, and without complaining about the taste of salt - a great development. She behaved herself well for most of the four days, and she now hops on and off of aeroplanes like other children do buses, with great self-assurance and the minimum of fuss. We returned with just one or two ant-bites, none of the expected mosquito bites, and fond memories of a beautiful secluded place, and a successful short holiday of compromises (mornings for us, afternoons for Elena).
We returned, however, to a domestic crisis of substantial proportions. We had had our suspicions in recent weeks that money was starting to go missing with increasing regularity, but had not been able to prove anything. For that reason we had started to count any money we left in handbags and purses, even for short periods of time, and we now had incontrovertible evidence that Maritza, our indispensable help and Elena's third parent, was in fact helping herself to increasing amounts of cash, and with increasing brazenness.
We can only assume that her recent associations with various long-lost cousins and with the mysterious "man" were the corrupting influences, but whatever the reasons we had no choice but to take her to task, despite the inconveniences it would no doubt cause to us. The scene was ugly, and she only admitted the truth (and then only parts of it at a time) when there was no way out, and it was this lying more than the money which really hurt and angered us, and which forced us to dismiss her there and then - a sad end to a working and social relationship of three-and-a-half years.
We were then also forced to take all sorts of paranoical precautions, such as changing the locks, ensuring that everyone knew that Maritza was not allowed to see Elena, or pick her up from school (in case of any unforeseen complications, and in case she was under pressure from third parties to do anything stupid). It is also sad to think that we will now have lost touch with her forever, and more importantly that Elena will never see her again. Elena was asleep when it all happened, and we have just told her that Maritza has had to go away for an unknown period. So far, after an initial short-lived sobbing fit, she has not reacted too badly, although I am sure that she does not yet fully realize the implications, which will only sink in over a period of time. Hopefully that time will allow her to absorb it all, and in the meantime we are playing the whole thing down, and trying to avoid mentions and connections which may prove painful to her.