*1st stop the beach*
The border crossing is pretty straightforward. I sleep through most of it, arousing to a semi-conscious state to get my exit stamp in Ecuador and entry stamp from the Peruvian official who offers to be my boyfriend. When I`m forcibly awoken at the bus station in Piura, I`m in a completely different land. Desert. Litter. Tuk-Tuks and taxis the size of SMART cars.
I meet up with Christina and we head out to Mancora, a surfy little town on the coast. We spend the next few days eating ceviche and fruit on the beach, lazing in the sun and avoiding the transparent charms of the colombian bracelet sellers. It`s tiring. We join the lively little community after dark - swigging rum on the beach to the sound of waves crashing against the shore, chatting with the locals like a bi-linguist (post rum) and dancing to a strange mix of reggae and salsa. Thanks to an over-enthusiastic dance partner, I end up injured and have the pleasure of sitting it out listening to a drunken gringo whose chat is worse than the Colombians`. On our last night our bent key breaks in the hostel door. I learn that arguing with a swaying security guard stinking of Pilsner is a positive waste of energy and we camp out in another room until the morning when we can take up our case with the owner. He gives us the spare key. Case closed.
Trujillo / Huanchaco
*ruins in the desert*
Despite great historical significance, there`s nothing much to report about Trujillo. It`s a busy city with more buses than people and internet cafes on every corner (in which you can opt for a private booth - a curtain around a terminal that does not disguise the heavy breathing!).
We visit some of the ruins on the outskirts. Chan Chan, the largest pre-hispanic city in Peru, inhabited by the war-loving Chimú people is now a huge sand-coloured edifice, camouflaged by the surrounding desert and largely destroyed by the Spaniards, grave robbers and the elements. The older capital of the Moche people, with the colourful Huaca de la Luna pyramid temple, is pretty impressive. The stories of human sacrifice and gruesome offerings to the Gods are really interesting although the guide prefers to chat about the fiestas for Navidad and Nuevo Año.
We stay out on the coast in the fishing town of Huanchaco watching the daily activities from the shore - reed fishing boats (caballitos) take tourists out to sea to be soaked by the waves then stand drying against the sea wall, full-wetsuit clad men reminiscent of 007 or the Milktray man pull weeds from the ocean floor, and the kids catch fish with their hands in a scoff to both. We consider trying to surf but watching the surfers skilfully skimming around the pier supports I decide the water is too cold.
*Christmas in the capital*
From everything I read about Lima, I am expecting a city permanently covered by a big, dark cloud. As it turns out the district of Miraflores is modern, clean and pretty damn posh. The sun is shining as housemaids take pampered pets along the cliff top walkways to the special pooch parks and budding sports pro`s volley balls across the tennis courts. I head to the mall for a Starbucks mocha frappuchino.
As it turns out, I later discover that the old town matches the profile I`d expected. Some big interesting buildings (why is everything yellow?) and a whole lot of people, cars and pollution. And set 3-course menus for $5 which promise all sorts of pain later.
On christmas eve I visit a tiny, poor village of Quebrada Verde in the north of Lima and help to distribute xmas presents collected by the hostel to the kids. Small cars for boys, dolls for girls, a chocolate vanilla lollipop for those who are last in the line. I am wearing a santa hat in the mid-day heat. The kids seem a bit bewildered. So am I. Christmas day is fairly traditional - I get up late and watch a movie, eat too big a dinner and lie on the sofa watching TV. Oh, and walk to the beach in the sun for some fresh air :0)
My christmas present finally arrives on the 27th. It`s the first time I`ve ever collected anyone from an airport and in all the excitement I forget to prepare my sign: "Esteban".
Cusco & Machu Picchu
*Crazy and Beautiful - and very wet*
We fly into Cusco (avoiding the Backpacker Special 30-hour bus ride) and spend a few days wandering around the town, drinking coca tea to acclimatise and avoiding the overly persistent tour touts. Outside the tourist centre of the city it`s easy to get lost and we find ourselves in a busy street market clearly not intended for tourists. Lots of local produce including raw meats slowly cooking under the watch of local flies, unusual looking vegetables and herbs, and what looks like dried, skinned cats although turns out to be nothing more sinister than llama foetuses. We outwit the drunk pickpockets, who started drinking before christmas and will probably stay inebriated until long after new year, and head back to the safety of touristville.
Ready for some realy trekking, we head out to the local ruins, scoffing at the idea of taking a bus to the furthest site and walking back. We return exhausted with sunburn and sunstroke. All the perfect ingredients for new year`s eve celebrations! Which are completely crazy. After some warm up drinks at the hostel (Adam, John "In the morning...") we head en masse to the central square to join the thousands of people already waving sparklers and eating pig and potato from tiny stalls. All wearing yellow pants to bring luck and prosperity in 2007. As the big hand strikes midnight, the olympic laps of the central square begin. Firecrackers go off all around us. It becomes a hilarious game of crossing the minefield avoiding the mini explosions as the police sit in their cars at the side of the street looking on, with firecrackers going off under their vehicles.
I spend the next few days incapacitated. After a few hours in the local hospital, almost fainting as I watch my vains pump blood into a little testing pot, the doctor diagnoses Salmonela AND Guardia Lamblia. He prescribes antibiotics and rest. So the next day we take a taxi, a train and then an early morning bus to Machu Picchu to do some trekking around the famous Inca city. Whoever said I`m not hardcore.
It rains for most of the morning and we get our anticipated cloud-only view from the Intipunku, the Gate of the Sun. Nevertheless we can test out our waterproof ponchos and are looking pretty damn cool. As we approach Machu Picchu, the sun breaks through the clouds and blue skies appear. We stand and look at the picture postcard sight in front of us, with one eye on the grazing, spitting llamas nearby.
We spend an hour climbing Huayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking the site, up steep steps and through a small, damp and muddy cave. At the top we are rewarded with an amazing view over the surrounding valleys with Machu Picchu nestled above it all. It is breathtaking, and not only because I have climbed up from 2380m with my little parasites. The journey back is tough. There`s a sheer drop to the right of the huge stone steps (how did the little Incas climb this?!) so I pin myself against the wall on my left like an old lady needing a stannah stairlift and take tentative steps until the ground levels out again. Returning to the site, we wander around the terraces, temples, and living quarters, discretely listening to the tour guides tell fantastical stories to wide-eyed tour groups. We consider running tours of London with imaginary stories of Gods and wars and a little sexual intrigue for good measure. Watch this space!
*A family affair*
We arrive in Puno, a brief stop for tourists heading to the islands on the lake with nothing of any discernable interest of its own. We take a tour out to one of the reed islands of Uros. The ground is made of reeds, the houses are made of reeds, the boats in which they get to places not made of reeds are made of reeds. Supposedly this is how people live although there`s no real evidence of inhabitation. Our suspicions that this is just a tourist attraction are further fuelled by the tin roofs and smoke from cooking fires in the distance.
The tour continues to the natural islands of Amantani and Taquile - huge mountains protruding from the lake. In Amantani we`re introduced to our new family. Our father meets us off the boat but we don`t see him again until we leave. I suspect he has a mistress. Our mother is very nice and cooks up some delicious samples of meals. We have delirious, hunger-fuelled dreams of being served the pineapple we gave as a gift but never see it again. Our brother is training to be a tour guide but is still at the age where candy is a better tip than money. He takes us to the start of a climb to the highest points - the temples of Pacha Mama and Pacha Tata, and leaves us to tackle it alone. He is obviously wise enough to calculate the tip:guide time ratio and decide that his time is better spent playing football. We make it home safely before the storm starts and get cosy in our sleeping bags, sharing a single bed made of straw.
Arequipa is another town that people seem to visit only to use as a base to get elsewhere. The Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world, is another painful 6-hour bus journey away so we decide instead to check into a nice hotel and spend all our time eating in the gardens, watching movies and playing table football. I`ll give you that sport my boy, just remember you can`t beat me at pool! We venture out to the Misti volcano mirador, but the views are obscured by the clouds so instead we wander around the town and buy icecream beans in the market, a fluffy white fruit encased in a long green shell. Very addictive.
*sick bags and grazed knuckles*
Despite the cloudy skies and intermittant rain, the local agent assures us that turbulence is worse during the hot days so it`s the perfect time to fly. I`m all for that. The lines are amazing from above - a spaceman, a giant spider, a dog, an enormous monkey, birds... Impressive, although their sense of perspective was a bit off. The pilot flies like Nighthawk, turning the 6 seater plane sharply in both directions so the lines are visible from both sides. I`m beginning to feel queasy when a musty food smell fills the cabin and the Colombian in front of us begins sweating profusely. The pilot hands him a tissue, opens the window and continues to loop the loop.
We later borrow the agents car and drive it into the desert to see the lines close up. It`s pretty much impossible to make out the shapes from either the official viewpoint of the small hill recommended by the guidebook but we´re able to get close enough to examine the depth (very shallow) and width (very narrow) and ponder how they`ve survived all this time without being blown away by the wind.
At 5am the next morning, we`re climbing Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world. As the sun rises, our tops become makeshift headscarves and we start work on our 5 litres of water and vast supply of dried fruits and nuts. From the summit the view is beautiful, but we´re not here for the scenery. We strap on our sandboards and tentatively push ourselves over the edge. I elegantly slide down the first slope in a stop-start motion, my board jamming in the sand every time I get up a little speed and forcing me to my knees. It takes me about an hour to descent the longest slope, although I give up three-quarters of the way down as I feel the cramp in my calves kicking in. I opt for sledging the rest of the way. Which is harder to control and I hurtle down at breakneck speed gaining a few superficial cuts to evidence the days battle.
Ica / Huacachina
*Oasis in the desert*
We arrive at a little resort in the middle of the desert. We spend the days lounging by the pool, sleeping in the sun and listening to the resident parrot immitating the neighbour´s peacock. We rouse ourselves for a stroll around the murky green lake described by my guide book as `curative green sulphur waters´ and watch the dune buggies navigate the vertical slopes of the enormous, imposing sanddunes surrounding us.