It was day #261 (Saturday 24th September in old money), and “The Day” had finally arrived.
Giddy with excitement like a kid on Christmas Eve, unable to wipe the smile off my face and barely able to stand still, hopping nervously and excitedly from foot to foot, gripping the barrier in the Arrivals Hall at Lima Airport with my heart fit to bursting – any moment now my friends would be walking through those unassuming arrival hall doors would reunite me with familiar faces in this unfamiliar land, halfway across the world.
[I’ve never given Arrivals Halls much credit or even a moments thought before, but then I’ve never been the one waiting for someone, or vice versa, so I went all a bit Richard Curtis about the whole thing… they could probably make more of it, just saying…]
You don’t realise there’s a piece of you missing till it comes back and immediately takes the piss out of you, or how much you missed that signature Bold-strut until it’s strutting towards you. T’internet, blogging, whatsappalanches, social media are all a great comfort and e-lifeline/umbilical cord to those I cherish, but you just can’t beat a Bold IRL.
Wellll, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em… so he did…
The next 15 days would take us (at an eye-watering pace) to Lima, Huacachina and Cusco, crossing Peru’s southern border to briefly dip our toes in the wonders of Bolivia – La Paz, Lake Titicaca and back again to Cusco… holiday warp-speed, engage!
This bumper-edition features two very special guest editors: the one, the only, Mr Richard Bold, & the fearless, unflappable (dark-blonde) Italian, Marica Dapporto.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then buckle up, and Mr Bold will begin…
1. LIMA [RB]: Lima could be described as a dump if you go to the wrong places: which we may have done. But, amongst the inner city ring-road motorway and the proliferation of terrifying poverty, a fecund and electric overflow of humanity can be found.
Taking one wrong turn led us into the midst of a none-more-Catholic parade: widows wailing, young men either chanting or forcing their incantations through a full range of brass instruments, musical notation sellotaped to their backs for the following musician behind to follow. In the centre of it all, a golden Christ held aloft on the shoulders of the devoted. Swaying left and right to the beat of gospel horns as thick copal incense fills the air, the procession forges forward through the packed crowd.
All of a sudden the grey, dilapidated city had come alive with music and voices and, with the turn of another corner, silence fell once again.
TRAVELLER NOTES: we stayed in the Barranco district of Lima for a laid-back bohemian vibe; lots of bars and restaurants, views of the Pacific Ocean and well worth a stroll. We recommend bunking at Barranco Backpackers Inn, which nestled us nicely amongst it. Mira Flores is about a 15/20 minute walk up-town from there.
2. PERUVIAN HISTORY [JH]: Upon a recco, we hit up the Museo Larco to do us some learnin’, be well cultured n’that, and marvel at “the finest gold and silver collection from Ancient Peru” (clang). If you believe the history books then “Peru is one of 6 regions of the world where the first civilizations emerged independently, uninfluenced by other societies and known as the Cradles of Civilization”. Peru was first inhabited some 14,000 years ago. You’re probs alllll dying to know what the other 5 are now, aren’t ya – China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mesoamerica… History fun FACTS!
…and then, discretely tucked away in a separate building there’s the erotic archaeological collection, noted as one of the “most visited Peruvian tourist attractions” (sniggers).
Trying to be terribly grown-up and respectful about the whole thing, I even attempted to read the plaques underneath the exhibits, and I did learn a bit about what it all meant, but there’s just something about statues with giant stiffies, depictions of various sexual acts painted and sculpted on (yet more) pots, and the way they’re presented in a serious way – a contrast of content and form – that just brings out the child in you – like when you read the Kama Sutra for the first time at your mates parents place – feeling naughty for taking photos, snatching a sneaky picture here and there, and I could sense we were all moving at a slightly quicker more embarrassed pace through this collection than the one before. I don’t know why we all feel a little awks when it comes to sex and bodies and stuff, I mean Life’s a sexually transmitted disease after all! but I mean, come on… when faced with relics like this… who wouldn’t snigger a little?
3. HUACACHINA: a 5 hour bus (book with Cruz Del Sur in Lima) will cost you around 40 soles each and deliver you to the desert Oasis and sand dunes of Huacafuckingchina (their words, not mine) – a beautiful one-horse town with just 96 inhabitants, who maximize their assets by exclusively offering Dune buggying and sandboarding experiences to the truckloads of tourists arriving each day.
You can join a group sand buggy from 4-6pm (to catch the sunset) for only 45 soles a piece (~£10), or a private buggy for 50 soles each for an hour. Both options include sand-boarding, which entails lying down on a beat up piece of wood vaguely resembling a snowboard, throwing yourself head first, elbows in! down a sand dune, and is a lot of fun.
4. CUSCO [JH]: Catching our first glance of the vast and expansive Andes Mountains out our plane windows “THIS is more like it!” I thought. At times, it felt as if we were close enough as to skim our shirt sleeves against them as our Captain skillfully threaded the plane through the eye of an Incan needle that was the narrow mountainous approach into Cusco – “the belly button of the world”, and the epicenter of the ancient Incan civilization. If that wasn’t breathtaking enough, the 3,467m (11,374ft) [FACTS*] altitude literally took our breath away. There are several remedies to help tourist with altitude malaise, such as chewing on Coca leaves – new experiences.
*to put things into perspective, the U.K. barely raises her regal head more than 162m (531 ft) above sea level.
TRAVELLER NOTES: We highly recommend staying at Casa de la Gringa in San Blas, Cusco. A breathless climb for the newly arrived, but worth it for the warm and cosy refuge that awaits. Single occupancy costs 50 Peruvian Soles (about 12 quid) – slightly more expense than my usual backpackers budget, but deffo worth the extra investment for the home from home feeling. They also facilitate San Pedro ceremonies from here for 340 soles pp.
5. CEVICHE: [RB] Despite since becoming a vegan (a disconcerting viewing of Cowspiracy’s fault), ceviche is the finest use of fish since the finger. If you ever come anywhere near South America then take on as much of this citrus-soaked wonderfulness as possible. Greens on Cusco’s main square was a massive find, allowing us to gorge ourselves on the stuff…
6. BOLIVIA: [JH]: ahhhhhhh road border crossings, how I’ve missed thee. We crossed into Bolivia through the rather rough-round-the-edges scruffy border town of Desaguadero. The first thing that struck me were the bowler hats, everywhere.
I’ve borrowed this from the Internet: “Since its invention in 1849 in London, many famous people have been sporting bowler hats. You may recall the likes of Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and even Mr.Potato head from Toy Story 2 wearing these types of hats. However, none of them have worn the hat with the same style and flair as the “Cholitas” of South America – specially the women in Bolivia.”
But WHYYYYY? The story goes as follows:
Back in Manchester, shortly after the bowler hats were invented, two brothers were manufacturing a line of bowler hats. Their plan was to sell them to the British railway workers who were working in Bolivia at the time. However, when the hats arrived to South America they found that they were way too small to fit the heads of the men. So, instead of throwing them out they decided to create a “fictional” story to tell the Bolivian Cholitas. This story was that all the fashionable women in Europe were going around wearing these bowler hats and it was the new fashion trend! The locals embraced them as part of their traditional clothing, and nowadays the bowler hat is part of Bolivian national pride, the El Sombrero.
We also learnt an extra level of cultural subtlety to El Sombrero:
1. Wearing the hat in the middle of the head in a smart upright position indicates “Hands off Chico, I’m married”
2. A subtle tilt denotes “I’m available (or possibly widowed)”.
3. Wearing them to the back of the head jokingly means that their relationship is “complicated”.
7. THE DEATH ROAD: Ciao! Marica here. The Death Road (Bolivia, La Paz) was one of the best and worst experiences of my life so far. We began at 4700 metres above sea level in light snow, which quickly turned into totally obscuring fog and freezing rain. Hands were frozen and our sunglasses rendered as useless as a frosted window.
Thankfully, this slowly turned into clearer skies and eventually beautiful sunshine as we descended, revealing the incredible peaks and terrifying drops as the road simultaneously went from Tarmac to the uncertain gravel we would get used to over the next 5 hours.
My personal style was to remain seated the entire time and focus generously on my brakes, as the rest of the team stood pointlessly (in my opinion) on their pedals and hurtled to certain death at every unguarded corner. No barriers, sometimes less than 3m width of road and 1000m crevasses to try and ignore as my vertigo screamed its warnings in my ears.
My style of riding meant that the rest of the team had plenty of rest stops as we progressed and I was given the proud title of “slowest in 20 years” but at least I didn’t suffer the fate of one of our team: a rival squad of riders mixed up with us at one point, shaking the grip of our most confident member, a German whose name escapes me. He came off his bike hard and managed to dislocate his shoulder!
All we could do was make uneducated medical suggestions (including the group leader) as he nearly passed out from the pain, sat on a convenient road-side barrier. We had been told – in humour we thought – that statistically only 5 out of every 6 riders make it. Our party was 6, so losing the German meant the remaining 5 were safe for the rest of the trip! #everycloud
The landscape was phenomenal, the riding more than exciting, and I never thought I’d be able to achieve anything like it. My war against my fear of heights achieved a huge victory. More please!
TRAVELLER NOTES: There are tons of agencies offering tours to the Death Road in La Paz. We booked ours through Free Bikes, offices near the Witches Market and the main Bus station. We bargained a deal for 300 Bolivianos each (35 quid) for the most economical bikes. A lot of companies take large groups – we had 6 in ours and I think that’s Free Bikes MO – depends on your preference, but fewer people suited our taste.
8. WITCHES MARKET, LA PAZ [JH]: Encountering macabre dead Llama feotuses, lotions and potions at the Witches Market in La Paz is an insight into Bolivias soul. At first sight, the Witches Market didn’t seem so witchy. For the first 10 meters or so it’s just stalls with small figures stapled on top of each other, some herbal tea and old women sitting lazily on the stairs of the cobblestone streets. You’d never guess that this is the place to buy powdered dog’s tongue, which can be secretly added to a man’s food to make him loyal to his lover like a dog is to its master. But it is – for the right price.
9. TOURS OF LA PAZ PRISON [JH]: Turning up drunk at the entrance of La Paz prison, and asking the Guards in bad Spanglish “can we, like, come in?” because we were told that was “a thing“.
“After gaining notoriety from the book Marching Powder, the not-exactly-legal tours of this bizarre prison without guards became a popular part of backpackers’ tours through Bolivia. Inside, visitors could observe a prison unlike any other – where inmates with the right resources were afforded luxuries unthinkable anywhere else like saunas, alcohol, and full-service restaurants.”
Sadly, this “tour” is no longer available… but disdainful looks from affronted Prison Guards is freely available to any drunken tourist who wants it.
10. LAKE TITICACA: ISLA DEL SOL [JH]: Ahhhhhhhhhh, after the hectic fast paced schedule of the preceding days, arriving by boat to “The birthplace of the Sun” felt like coming home to Lake Atitlan. Space, peace, horizon, lake, pure terrain (no cars), lots of Sun and our home for at least 48 hours this time… a chance for some RnR and to be swathed and swaddled by Incan history, as it’s believed their Sun God was born here… an ideal spot to settle in, catch up on some much needed meditation, and to watch Sunrise and Sunset.
We opted to stay on the Nonorthern part of the Island, Challapampa, which has a beach and is close to some of the famous pre-Columbian ruins. It’s a small farming/fishing community with a basic but pretty plentiful approach/supply of accommodation, restaurants and shops etc. We didn’t bother booking any accommodation in advance – as soon as you step off the boat there’s a swarm of local lads/tour guides, poised and ready to either take you to where you want to go or to help you find somewhere, but it’s easy enough to just wander around and find somewhere you like by yourself. Walking through the small village to the beach, we managed to find a hostel with a balcony view (recommended to make the most of those sunsets), costing me 35 Bolivianos for a bed in a Compartido (shared) room, and around 130 for a Privado.
The 70 sq km island was reminiscent of my beloved Isles of Scilly – small enough to walk from tip to toe in 4 hours, and definitely merits at least night or two – you can then devote a day each to the northern and southern ends, taking a walking circuit of the main sights across a long day. There were some that arrived with the intention of hiking the Island in a day, which is possible but far too much of a box-ticking exercise for me. If you have the time, I’d highly recommend sticking around a while, drinking in the quiet serenity and gorging on plenty of Trout before heading back to the port of Copacabana.
11. GOODBYES [JH]: Writing this from Casa de la Gringa, back in Cusco, some days after those good eggs left, reeling emotionally and physically from their fleeting but warming visit and excited about what South America has in store for me next.