Monthly Archives: September 2004

Religious fervour

I just witnessed an exhibition of religious fervour that was kind of spooky and surreal…

I was sitting by the window in an empty restaurant called Las Querenas around 7pm, eating an allegedly traditional Arequipan meal of steak and potatoes, when I noticed that the normally incessant horn-honking of the taxis and combis (crazy little private minibuses, common throughout Peru, that solicit passengers by sounding their ambulance sirens and having a conductor who hangs out of the door shouting at passers-by) had gone quiet, and that people in the street were crossing themsleves and going into the convent opposite.

Soon afterwards, the convent’s bells started ringing a discordant and unsettling tune, and a procession with a military band appeared in the street carrying some kind of float with a huge effigy of Santa Catalina, the patron saint of the monastery (I’m guessing 8 September is SC’s saint’s day). Even more bizarre, there were nuns in white habits on the roof of the convent shovelling great bucketfuls of rose petals down onto the effigy. The procession stopped right in front of my window, the float with the effigy of SC turned 90 degrees, and then they all went into the convent. I heard a round of applause from within, and then it all went quiet.

Minutes later, the military band left with their instruments, and normal traffic resumed in the street.

It probably doesn’t sound that odd as I’ve described it, but the whole scene had a very David Lynch quality at the time.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t normally make 3 posts in one day, but I came home to get some sleep before my trek and discovered that there’s a computer with free broadband in my hotel, and couldn’t resist.


I’m now in Arequipa, at an altitude of about 2400 metres in the southern part of Peru. The climate here is much more comfortable than either the jungle or Lima — it’s warm, sunny and dry, although I’ve been warned that it’s going to get pretty cold tonight.

An agent met me at the airport and put me in a taxi that brought me to the tour operator’s office in the centre of Arequipa. It took quite a long time, because traffic was restricted due to a religious festival going on in the main square, Plaza des Armas — lots of people (including nuns and monks), statues of Jesus and the Madonna, incense and religious fervour.

The folks at the tourist office explained the itinerary for the Colca Canyon hike I’m doing tomorrow: Somehow I’ve managed to book myself onto a serious walking tour — 7 or 8 hours hiking a day for 2 days — and cheat myself out of another night’s sleep! They will be coming to pick me up at the hotel at 1:30am tonight, after which we will go on a (probably rickety) public bus somewhere or another, start hiking around dawn, and will continue hiking in the hills pretty much all day until we stop for the night at some cabanas out in the sticks (sounds a bit rustic again). The next day we hike some more, and eventually finish up at the Cruz del Condors, a vista point in one of the deepest canyons in the world that is full of, er, condors (and reputedly one of the best sights in South America). They also told me I need to bring all kinds of things that I don’t have, such as warm clothing, a hat, gloves, and a torch/flashlight.

After checking in at Hostal San Isidoro (nice, but quite remote from the centro in Vallecito), I came back into town and had my first food for over 24 hours — a desayuno americano (American breakfast — basically the Peruvian idea of bacon and eggs). Probably not the best thing to break a fast after a period of stomach upset, but it was good! As for my stomach… So far, so good.

After breakfast I found a street full of cheap knock-off goods and bought myself a fake NY Yankees baseball cap for less than US$2 (I needed a hat anyway, as I got pretty sunburned in the jungle and my face is peeling), and then bought myself a jumper/sweater made of baby alpaca wool for about US$40, which will apparently do the job of keeping me warm (I think an alpaca is some kind of indigenous llama-esque creature). Then I went a bit crazy and, seduced by the idea of functional souvenirs, bought another baby alpaca jumper/sweater and a pair of baby alpaca gloves.

After my shopping spree, I visited the Monasterio d Santa Catalina, a huge convent, parts of which date back to 1579, and apparently the “finest example of colonial architecture in Arequipa.” It was actually very enjoyable strolling around the various cloisters and streets of the convent; I haven’t really done that much cultural/historical tourism on this trip, and it was architecturally interesting, highly photogenic and muy tranquillo, as the say en español.

Now that I’ve spent another hour or so in this Internet cafe, it’s almost time to find some dinner before heading back to the hotel for a few hours’ kip before they come for me at 1:30am…

Escape from the Jungle

Getting out of Iquitos and the Amazon jungle turned out to be much harder than I anticipated, because of the UTTER CRAPNESS of Peru’s state airline TANS Peru.

Yesterday started pretty well overall: I woke up in the luxury hotel room, showered, had breakfast, and took a motorkar to Belen Market very briefly for a bit of speed-tourism. The motorkar had a picture of Che Guevara on it, and the young driver, Michel, offered to give me a quick guided tour of the market and port area, made up of houses on stilts — it is flooded during the rainy season, and is known as the “Venice of the Peruvian jungle.” Apparently Werner Hertzog filmed the movie Fitzcarraldo there. After a 10 minute walk, we jumped back into the motorkar, stopped to pick up my laundry, and dropped me off back at the hotel. I checked out and took a taxi to the airport, arriving there about 11:15am.

At this point things started to go wrong again; the TANS Peru flight that was supposed to leave around 1pm was going to be late arriving, and they didn’t even know when it was going to arrive. They told me maybe 3pm, and to come back later for more information.

At this point I could have gone back into town, but I decided to camp out in a little cafe with a soft drink and read my Spanish textbook for a bit. Hours passed. More hours passed. Each time I went back for more information, I was told to come back later.

The chairs in the airport were incredibly uncomfortable, and after getting fed up trying to learn Spanish, I killed time listening to my Minidisc, reading “100 Years of Solitude” (an English edition purchased at great expense at Bogota airport) and having fantasies about forcing the chair’s designer to sit for a similarly prolonged period in one of his own creations. Eventually it cooled down a little outside the terminal building, and I sat at a wooden bench in front of a little snack hut at the far end of the airfield, reading and drinking Inka Kola (basically cream of soda with added caffeine and yellow colouring — it’s good!).

The plane didn’t arrive until 6:30pm, and left 20 minutes later — luckily I was on it, but there was almost a riot at the airport because it was supposed to stop somewhere else en route to Lima, but didn’t. TANS Peru is without doubt the worst airline I have ever flown with.

Anyway, I eventually made it back to Lima, was picked up at the airport and taken back to the Hostal Pukara, where Peter rearranged the remiander of my itinerary. Right now I’m at the airport in Lima, about to catch a plane to Arequipo.

I also had my first bit of “traveller’s tummy” yesterday morning, which was a little strange because all I’d eaten in the previous 12 hours was some very inoccuous-looking frozen pizza. I have some antibiotics, but it’s really not too bad at all and I’d rather not take the medicine, so am gonna try fasting for 24 hours first.

The Amazon

I’m back in Iquitos now (unexpectedly it looks like I’m gonna be here for another night, but more on this later), after two nights in the Amazon jungle: It was a good but very intense experience.

The trip started early on Saturday 4 September. Once again, I had a very early 5am start after not getting very much sleep, and was taken by motorkar (the main kind of taxi here, a motorized tricycle made from the front half of a motorbike with a double seat behind, basically the same as a tuk-tuk in Thailand) to a boat on the Amazon River. A few other Peruvians and gringos came on board, and pretty soon we were on our way south down the Amazon, and since it was dark and there wasn’t much to see anyway, I grabbed a couple of hours of much-needed sleep.

Around 10am I was dropped off on the muddy river bank at a small village with a young guide called Luis, who led me through the village and a jungle path for about quarter of a mile to a small lake called Lago Lapuna. After waiting around for about 30 minutes in light rain, tired, having had no breakfast and becoming increasingly cranky and skeptical about my guide’s ability to guide me anywhere, a small boy arrived with a small canoe, and we all tried to get in it. There was no way it was going to take the weight of two adults, one child and my luggage, and my rucksack got pretty wet in the attempt. The prospects of a successful canoe ride to the other side of the lake were not looking good, and my patience with Luis starting wearing a little thin. Eventually, Luis decided to make multiple trips to the other bank, and then proceed to the next meeting point on foot. The little kid took my stuff first, and then me (with much trepidation, because the canoe was not very stable). I made it without getting dunked though, and then the little kid brought Luis across before setting off in the canoe with my large rucksack to the meeting point.

Luis & I then started off through the thick jungle, and before long my confidence in his jungle guiding and navigating abilities dropped even further. We were stumbling around in circles through thick undergrowth, using sticks to clear cobwebs and foliage because we didn’t have machetes. It seemed like we were wandering around for hours, getting hot, wet and muddy. Eventually we arrived at another bank, and a guy called Peter met us with a larger canoe. We all got into this, and made slow progress through a narrow muddy channel to another lake, Lago Yarina, where the water became deeper. After another 10 minutes of paddling, we arrived at a landing raft of the Emerald Forest Camp.

This was a bit of a shock to me at first, because the camp comprised nothing but a clearing with 4 open-walled shacks with palm roofs, with a bizarre selection of people wandering around (think of the scene in the movie Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen arrives at Colonel Kurtz’s camp in Cambodia). Primarily I was shocked because I hadn’t grasped that I’d booked myself into a jungle camp — I’d assumed there would be some kind of lodge facility with toilets, running water etc. etc. But no, this was much more… Rustic.

I was directed to the “dining room,” which was another open-walled shack with mosquito netting around it, and crashed out in a hammock for a whiole before some coffee and eggs were brought in. At this point I noticed the sleeping facilities: Another open-walled shack, with a bamboo platform and a series of small white mosquito-net tents on it!

After eating, I was introduced to a few of the camp’s staff, such as Peter (the owner), Carola (the cook) and Tirsa (the cleaner, who crawled around the camp on all fours due to underdeveloped legs), and my guide, Raoul. I also met a few other tourists — there was a mixed group of about 5 Poles, and another group of two Italian girls, all of whom spoke better Spanish than I did!

After breakfast and resting for a while, Raoul took me for a 4-hour walk through the jungle, pointing out various plant and animal species. He was a pretty good guide, and we saw various critters (including a hawk that swooped down and grabbed a marmoset out of a tree), but also got very muddy and a bit scratched up. We got back to the camp just before it got dark, and I washed myself and my shoes in the lake before crashing into a hammock and waiting for dinner with the other gringos. I was invited on a nighttime excursion to look for snakes and tarantulas, but by this time my lack of sleep got the better of me, so I declined and hung out in the hammock for a while. I played cards with the Italian girls and some of the staff for a while until it was time to cocoon myself in the mosquito net and go to sleep.

The next day after breakfast Raoul and I set off in a canoe for a bit of fishing in the Yarapa River, using very simple fishing rods made of a stick, about a metre of fishing line and a hook. Raoul cut up a small piranha (the most common kind of fish in this river!) to use as bait, and very soon afterwards we started catching more piranhas, which would flip around gnashing their teeth menacingly in the bottom of the boat until Raoul skewered them with a knife. Raoul caught more piranhas than me, but I caught the biggest fish of the day, a catfish of about 20cm length. We also caught a couple of other kinds of fish, but I don’t remember what they were.

Just as we were finishing our successful fishing trip, the Italian girls arrived with their guide Wilson, who was taking them upriver to a village called Nauta to catch a bus back to Iquitos. Raoul suggested that we tag along, so we jumped into a larger canoe with an outboard motor fitted to it, and set off down the Rio Yarapa, with Raoul and Wilson pointing out all manner of critters (eagles, hawks, vultures, kingfishers, various kinds of monkeys in trees, freshwater dolphins etc.) along the way.

After a while, the Yarapa River opened out into the Amazon, and we travelled upriver (west) towards it’s source, the confluence of the Marañón and Pucate rivers. The Rio Amazon is a really bug river! We took the right fork up the Rio Marañón, and after a while reached the village of Nauta. By this time I was using other peoples’ clothes to cover my skin, because I was getting brutally sunburnt (still sore as at time of writing).

The Italians left to get their bus, and Raoul and I had a wander around the town, stopping occasionally to buy bananas, bread and beer. After a couple of hours, we got back in the boat and headed back to the camp for dinner — which included some of the piranhas we’d caught earlier! They actually taste pretty good, although there isn’t a lot of meat on the average piranha, and it’s pretty hard to separate the meat from the bones.

The night passed fairly uneventfully (at this point I was the only gringo/tourist in the camp), with the exception of the commotion caused when the father of the cook showed up from a hunting trip with a dead wild boar.. Some of which appeared this morning on a plate for breakfast!

After breakfast, I packed up my stuff and Raoul, Chino and I set off back to Nauta again, following pretty much the same route as the previous day. Along the way, a different kind of piranha jumped into the boat! We got to Nauta again (although more quickly, since the boat was less full), and after a beer or two Raoul and I got the bus back to Iquitos.

That should have been the end of the jungle story — I should be in Lima by now, in time for a bus trip to Colca Canyon tomorrow — but unfortunately my flight was cancelled. Apparently it’s quite common, and they didn’t even offer to provide a hotel for the night! They were even more arsey with me than everyone else, because I hadn’t confirmed my flight 24 hours previously (apart from the fact that no-one confirms their flights anymore, how could I call them from the middle of the jungle?).

So, I came back to Iquitos by motorkar, dropped off my smelly muddy jungle clothes at a lavanderia, and checked into the flashest hotel in town, with air conditioning, bath, sauna, minibar etc. etc. It’s $77, and so far has been worth every penny! Hopefully I’ll be able to get back to Lima tomorrow — they told me to turn up at 11am (although didn’t sound too certain they’d be able to accommodate me).

Jungle Fever

This is a bit mad — I’m in the Amazon jungle right now! But more on that later…

I spent most of yesterday daytime in Lima faffing around with various admin. chores, such as getting laundry done and changing my return ticket back to the U.S. so that I can fly from Lima on the 15th September, rather than Santiago. This ended up necessitating a reissued ticket and cost me $150 at the TACA office (which is annoying because the flight back from Santiago had a plane change in Lima anyway), but at least it’s sorted.

In the evening, Peter the tour guide came to meet me at my hotel and we planned a comprehensive itinerary for the rest of my trip, although I made sure to leave a couple of slack days with nothing planned in advance: A few days in the Amazon jungle near Iquitos, a two-day hike in Colca Canyon, and then six or seven days in and around Cuzco for the whole Inca ruins/Machu Picchu bit before heading back to Lima for the flight home. I wasn’t originally intending to book everything without some shopping around, but he made it very easy, the price seemed very competitive and I appreciated being able to get everything sorted out quickly in one go.

After sorting out my itinerary, I went out for dinner at an average and deserted chirascurria (charcoal meat grill) in Miraflores, and then took a taxi to meet Eduardo. We had a few beers in Eduardo’s beautiful family home before his buddy Juan joined us and we took a cab to a fun bar/club called Sergeant Pepper’s, for yet more beer. We ended up eating delicious sandwiches at a late-night eatery before I finally took a taxi back to the hostel in the not-so-small hours for 1.5 hours of sleep.

The knock on the door at 6:30am came all to soon, and before long I was groggily in a taxi on my way to the airport for the flight up to Isquitos, a former rubber town in the jungle on the Amazon River. Isquitos has a population of about 300,000 people, and yet it can only be reached by either air or water — there is no road connecting it to the rest of the World!

It’s much hotter and more humid here than Lima, and so far it seems like a very friendly, lively and vibrant town. I have one night here, and then tomorrow I’m going by boat to a lodge in the Amazon jungle for a couple of nights. Should be fun!

Lima, Perú

I finally made it to the Pukara Hostal in Lima, Perú last night around 2am, completely exhausted (and probably quite smelly from wearing the same clothes for more than 24 hours). The hostal is fairly basic (shared bathroom, and this morning I drank the first cup of instant coffee I’ve had in years!), but I have a private room with cable TV and a reasonably comfortable bed, so it’ll be fine for two nights.

I’m gradually dredging up my Spanish vocabulary again, and trying to forget the dozen or so words on Portuguese I picked up in Brazil. It’s definitely good to be able to understand things somewhat again, although I’ll miss the lyrical sound of Portuguese — it was nice to listen to, even without being able to understand very much!

Today is mostly going to be a logistics day — I’ve already dropped some laundry off at a Lavanderia, been to a supermarket, checked my e-mail and arranged to meet up later for a drink with Eduardo (a guy Nan & I met at the hostel in Buenos Aires), and now I need to figure out how I’m going to spend the last two weeks of my trip. Of course I have to go to Cuzco for the whole Macchu Pichu thing, but I’m also thinking of going up to Iquitos to see the Amazon jungle for a while too.

I’m already starting to feel like I’m running out of time on this trip, and I still have two weeks left! I also need to confirm with the LACSA airline that I can avoid going back to Chile for the return flight home — my four segment flight back to the U.S. stops in Lima anyway, so hopefully I can just pick it up there. Not that there’s anything wrong with Chile, of course, it’s just seems pointless to fly down to Santiago just to come back up to Lima again.

Bogota, Columbia

How bizarre — I’m in Bogotá, Columbia! I had a 7 hour layover between the inbound flight from Sao Paulo and the outbound flight to Lima, so I decided to have a quick look around the city rather than just hang out at the airport.

After having a quick look around Plaza de Bólivar, I took the cable car 600m up to the top of Cerro de Monserrate, a mountain at the edge of town where there is a little church and nice views across the city. After I’m done online, I’m following my guidebook’s recommendation and going in search of ajiaco de pollo, a traditional chicken stew made with avocado and capers. Then it’ll probably be time to head back to the airport.

Apparently Columbia is still listed as one of the ten most dangerous places in the World due to the activities of various guerilla factions, although many parts (such as Bogotá, where I am), are as safe as anywhere else in South American. Having said that, there are soldiers with automatic weapons everywhere!

The trip here was long and fairly gruelling as I anticipated (8 hours flying already, and another 3 hours to Lima later), although much of the journey passed in a narcoleptic haze — I went out to say goodbye to a few folks in Rio last night and eventually decided it wasn’t worth going to bed for a couple of hours, so I ended up drinking in a nightclub until 5am before checking out of the hotel and heading out to the airport.