Our June 2001 holiday
BRAZIL ARGENTINA PARAGUAY BOLIVIA PERU CONCLUSION
"The more you knew of South America,
the more you would understand that
anything was possible - anything".
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in "The Lost World"
Following our visits to Egypt (1999) and China (2000), Roger & Vee chose South America for the third consecutive trip outside our usual vistas of Europe and North America - each trip longer and more adventurous than the last. This time we took three weeks to see something of five countries: Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. It was our first visit to the southern hemisphere and took the number of countries visited by Roger to 31.
We prepared ourselves intellectually by looking at travel books and articles and reading about the history of the conquistadors [for review click here] and prepared ourselves physically by having all the usual injections plus Yellow Fever. We had to pack carefully because we stayed in hotels in 10 locations and encountered an extreme range of temperatures.
We travelled with the company Journey Latin America [click here] and the JLA name for the tour was Hummingbird [click here]. The booking information warned that "there may be moments of discomfort" and "delays (manana) are a way of life" - so it proved to be!
Our Tour Leader was 5 ft 4 in Jill Harvie from Edinburgh who was a few weeks short of her twenty-seventh birthday. She was enormously efficient and professional and managed to cope with each new problem that we encountered. Also she proved to be an incredibly warm and open person and we had terrific fun together.
In contrast to our China trip where the group numbered 22, the Hummingbird tour only had six clients, so we had to get along well together and we did. Besides, Roger and Vee, there was another middle-aged couple, Tony and Wendy Mitchell from the north of England. Tony is a doctor who has just returned to general practice and Wendy is now retired having run two kitchenware businesses. The other two tour members were women in their 30s who had never met before they shared rooms for the trip. Rebecca (Becs) Brindley works as a buyer at Tesco and 5 ft 11 in Helen Guest is a training consultant.
In the course of the three weeks, we used a wide variety of forms of transport, ranging from a bi-motor dinghy to a reed boat, and had some very challenging - that's one word for it! - journeys. The outward flight from Madrid to Rio was nine and a half hours and the return flight from Lima to Madrid was 11 and a half hours; our longest train journey (Puno to Sucre) turned out to be 12 hours; but the worst journey (Sucre to La Paz) was one of 13 and half hours in a coach with no lighting, no heating and no toilet through the highest city in the world (Potosi) in the middle of the night when we all froze almost to death (more about this later).
The highest point on our travels - La Raya in Peru - was 14,400 feet (4,313 metres) - that's more than three times the height of Ben Nevis which is the highest mountain in the UK. At times, we encountered some really freakish weather and, while we were in Peru, the country suffered a serious earthquake.
In the circumstances, we fared very well physically. All of us suffered some diarrhoea and symptoms of altitude sickness, but that is inevitable on a journey of this kind. Vee had the worst experience when she had to spend two days in bed in La Paz because of bad altitude sickness. In spite of all the scare stories, none of us was mugged and none of us lost anything but, of course, we were very careful.
The adventure starts here ...
Our trip took us from coast to coast, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, so we started at Brazil. When the Portuguese and the Spanish were arguing over the territory of South America, the Pope divided the New World into two zones of influence at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. What we now call Brazil went to Portugal which is why the official language is still Portuguese.
Whereas the Spanish zone fragmented into many different nation states, the Portuguese zone remained a unitary whole and Brazil today comprises some 48% of the land mass of South America which is an area as large as the USA (without Alaska). The name comes from braza, the Portuguese for red hot wood. The country won its independence in 1822 and today its citizenry of 154 million is a real mix of individuals tracing their ancestry from indigenous natives, black slaves and European settlers.
RIO DE JANEIRO
At 4.30 pm on a grey and wet Saturday afternoon, Roger and Vee took a cab to London's Heathrow Airport where we took an Airbus A320 on a two-hour flight to Madrid, followed two and a half hours later, by a nine and a half hour flight in a Boeing 767 from Madrid to Rio de Janeiro. Both flights were with Iberia [click here].
We were met at Rio's airport by our JLA Tour Leader Jill Harvie and our local guide Maria Luiza Sfair and transported into the centre of the city. Unfortunately we were too early to access our hotel rooms, so we walked round to the "Eclipse" bar on Avendida N.S. Copacabana for a breakfast of toast and coffee. It was 9.15 am when we were able to enter our room - after a door-to door journey of over 20 hours.
Our hotel was the Luxor Regente, located on the street - the Avendida Atlantica - running alongside the world-famous Copacabana beach [click here]. Vee had found the flight to Rio exhausting and was really out of it for the morning, but Roger could not wait to go people-watching, so he took an hour's walk along Copacabana beach to Ipanema beach. June is the depths of winter in South America, but the temperature was still 26C/79F.
It was an incredible scene - like something out of a television holiday programme. Since it was Sunday, the road nearest to the beach on the dual carriageway was closed to traffic and Rio's citizens - known as cariocas - were strolling, power walking, jogging, roller-blading and cycling. The beaches themselves were awash with sunbathers and swimmers. There were people of every age, colour, size and shape, most of them wearing virtually nothing, with tons of cleavage and some amazing breasts, buttocks and stomachs.
At 12.45 pm in the hotel reception area, we met the other members of the tour group and had a briefing from our Tour Leader Jill. Then, at 2 pm, we commenced a three and a half tour of Rio with our local guide Maria Luiza.
We started with a visit to the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain which locally is called Pão de Açúcar. Actually we struggled to understand what a sugar loaf is. Apparently the name of the mountain comes from the little sugar cones which, when turned upside down, provide a curved shape like the eponymous mountain. Access to the mountain is in two stages, each involving cable cars carrying some 75 visitors. First, one goes to the top of the Urca mountain and then one continues on to the higher Pão de Açúcar. According to a sign, these mountains are 560M years old and are the result of "agglutination" of the South American and South African land masses.
Sugar Loaf is 1,300 feet (400 metres) high and it is frequently - as today - shrouded in heavy mist, but it was still a good view. As we returned down the mountainside in our cable car, we could not help recalling the scene from the film "Moonraker" where James Bond battles Jaws on the top of one of Rio's cable cars.
Rio has a beautiful setting around the large Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas lake, as well as next to superb Atlantic beaches, but some of its city centre buildings are really ugly. We could not decide which was worse - the Petrobras headquarters or the São Sebastião cathedral (finished in 1976) which are actually located next to each other.
Next morning (Monday), Vee was fully recovered from her jet lag and able to enjoy our next tour which took four and a half hours. First stop was another, higher mountain - the Corcovado mountain at the top of which is located the symbol of Rio, the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) [click here]. The word corcovado means hunchback and the mountain is 2,340 feet (700 metres) high.
We took the funicular to the top to see the hugh statue which was completed in 1931 and stands 127 feet (38 metres) high. At first, it was very misty and the head and shoulders of Christ were obscured, but then the sun came out to the cheers of tourists and the clicking of cameras. While we were at the statue, police and firefighters arrived - apparently someone had just jumped off the mountain and committed suicide.
Half way down the mountain, we left the funicular to take a look at Tijuca, once a coffee plantation and now a resourced rain forest. We visited several locations, including the Cascatinha Taunay waterfall. It was strange to experience a rain forest in the middle of a city of 7 million people. In total contrast, a little later, we drove past the largest of Rio's 30+ shanty towns. Favela da Rocinha (literally Little Farm) accommodates in a fashion some 100,000 of Rio's poorest citizens.
After such a long tour, we had a free afternoon. Roger and Vee took the opportunity to walk by Copacabana beach which was almost free of sunbathers in contrast to the mêlée of Sunday. The group then came together for a fun evening.
First, we ate dinner at the restaurant where the 1960s songwriter Vinicius de Morais composed the world-famous song "The Girl From Ipanema", inspired by the lovely Heloisa Pinheiro. It is called "Garota de Ipanema" and it is located at 49 Vinicius de Moraes. Some of us ate an interesting local dish called picanha a Brasileira which is thin slices of prime beef cooked on a hot plate at the table and eaten with carrots, peas, raisins and a vinegar-based sauce. Then we went on to a show put on by the Plataforma Rio company at their theatre in 32 Rua Adalberto Ferreira. It was a brash, noisy and colourful display of traditional costumes, music, dancing and gymnastics.
Our third day in Rio started very differently. The previous day we had come across some people who provided the opportunity for hang gliding off the Pedra Bonita (literally Beautiful Mountain). Our Tour Leader Jill - who has done most things in South America - had never done this and decided that it would be fun. Vee - who celebrated her 50th birthday with a bungee jump in London's Docklands - said that she would join her. So these two brave women - with ages thirty years apart - decided to throw themselves off a mountain for the sheer thrill of it!
Obviously this has to be done with experienced hang-gliders and the choice was the owner of the operation, 29 year old Marcelo Parfina, or his friend, 37 year old Rony Lima (who, due to an initial mishearing, we called Honey Lemon!). Vee chose Honey Lemon and Jill went with Marcelo. Together they drove in a mini-van to the top of the mountain which is 1,700 feet (520 metres) - that is higher than Sugar Loaf Mountain.
First Vee and Honey Lemon and then Jill and Marcelo had to run down a sloping wooden platform reaching out from the mountain-side and jump into thin air (can you believe it?). But, after that leap of faith, Vee and Jill were rewarded with wonderful views on a brilliantly sunny day as they glided in quiet tranquillity over trees looking from the air like broccoli bushes.
Meanwhile, down on the beach, Roger waited anxiously with his binoculars and camera, trying not to be too distracted by Becs and Helen sun-bathing in revealing costumes and a professional photo-shoot involving a gorgeous Brazilian model with really long, blonde hair. The landings went very smoothly and celebratory photographs were taken, before Roger and the hang-gliding quartet sat on the beach-side and sipped milk from fresh coconuts.
Our good-looking Brazilian friends seemed pleased with the event - Honey Lemon gave Vee his address and Marcelo took Jill on a ride on his motor-bike. As for Vee and Jill, Wendy awarded them "a big tick in a big box". If you are brave enough to want to try this yourself, contact Marcelo here.
Inevitably the rest of the day was somewhat quieter. Roger and Vee decided to spend their last daylight hours in Rio chilling out on Copacabana Beach. We took off our shoes and rolled up our trouser legs, so that we could paddle in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean (is this British, or what?). Then we sat on the beach and just soaked in the atmosphere of being on one of the most exotic beaches of the world, admiring the beautiful view and enjoying the relaxing serenity.
As we left the beach for the very short walk to our hotel, black clouds were gathering and, soon after we entered our room, the heavens opened. Once the storm was over, we went round the corner to our favourite eating spot, introduced to us by Jill. The "Grill Inn" on Avenida N.S. Copacabana was ideal because of its quick self-service arrangement, its economical prices, and its excellent choice of food. There was a wide selection of salads and warm dishes as well as a range of some two dozen desserts (that really excited Roger who never confined himself to one). You pay by the weight of the food on your plate, so it could not be simpler.
Next morning (Wednesday), Vee and Roger were up early to walk across the road to the beach and await the rising of the sun. About 6.45 am, the sun's rays first appeared over the hills. There were no special colours, but it was a dreamlike experience to witness sunrise in Rio.
Another day, another location. After three days in Rio, today we flew by Boeing 737 first to São Paolo (45 minutes) and then, without disembarking, on to Iguassu Falls (another 70 minutes). The airline was Trans Brasil. From the airport, it was a short ride to the National Park and then another short ride to our hotel, accompanied by our local guide Silvio Farias from the tourist company Naipi [click here]. He explained how lucky we were: the previous week, it had been raining, but now the weather was beautifully sunny.
Our hotel was incredible. Topical das Cataratas (opened in 1959) is located right next to the Falls which could be seen from the hotel's forecourt and from our bedroom. A mere 20 minutes after arriving at the hotel, we were all ready to see the Falls.
Iguassu means Great Waters in Guaraní (which is the language spoken by many in Paraguay). After 800 miles gathering anger across Brazil, the Falls are located at the conjunction of Brazil (north), Argentina (south) and Paraguay (east), with the actual cataracts shared by Brazil and Argentina.
There are two theories to explain the formation of the Falls. According to local legend, two young Indian lovers - a warrior named Caroba and a girl named Naipur - were canoeing downstream, escaping the wrath of a forest god who was infatuated with the girl, when the god made the riverbed collapse in front of them. As the lovers hurtled over, the girl turned into a rock and the boy a tree standing over her. The more prosaic explanation is that the Falls are located at the point at which a massive volcanic lava flow suddenly stopped to create a basaltic plateau.
The first European to see these Falls was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in 1541. Today it was our turn - and what an utterly magnificent sight.
Roger and Vee had both seen Niagara Falls twice and had been incredibly impressed, but Iguassu Falls are just so much more awe-inspiring. First, they are quite simply bigger, being twice as wide and taller by 20 metres. They are more than 2 km across and more than 70 metres high with a total of 275 individual cataracts. Second, the area is not just about the water - impressive though that is - it is a sub-tropical reservoir of an amazing diversity of fauna and flora. There are about 350 types of birds and 2,000 species of plants in the National Park. Thirdly - and wonderfully for tourists - there is an incredible system of walkways that enables one to feel a very part of the Falls and almost enter into them.
That afternoon, our local guide Silvio led us across the hotel's entrance roadway straight onto the network of concrete walkways where we had stunning views of the Falls and many opportunities to see exotically-decorated butterflies. The final section of these walkways on the Brazilian side of the Falls takes one above some of the water flows which is very wet and very exciting. Everywhere there were bright rainbows that seemed to follow you as you moved.
The next stage in our exploration of the Brazilian side of the Falls was to go on the Macuco Safari (macuco is a local bird) [click here]. There was a 3 km trail in a four-wheel drive jeep, followed by a 600 metre walking trail down to the river. Our Macuco guide Eduardo explained that the local poison ivy leaves were so large that they could be used as toilet paper which is why Tarzan spent so much time screaming!
Finally, once down at the river, we donned bright orange life jackets and boarded a bi-motor rubber dinghy for a ride up to the Falls themselves. This is not the experience at Niagara Falls where around a hundred people board the "Maid of the Mist" wearing plastic macs because of the spray. This is much more personal - about 20 people speed into the very heart of the Falls and are totally drenched.
Our Tour Leader Jill secretly told the pilot of the dinghy that our little group was up for anything. So, when we finally went into the Falls themselves, it was not once, not twice, not three times, but four times. The last time, we went beyond the intense spray into the waterfall itself, so that those at the bow of the dinghy - which included Roger and Vee - had the full force of the water on their heads. It was like having one's brain pummelled into one's shoulders. Did we like it? We screamed in sheer excitement.
Back at the hotel, Roger and Vee had a wonderfully welcome hot shower before joining the others for our first proper food since breakfast in Rio. Afterwards some of us went outside to look at the sky which was an unbelievably different experience from that in light-polluted, northern hemisphere London. Here, in the southern hemisphere, there were different constellations and, away from city light, there were just so many stars. For the first time in our lives, we could clearly see the Milky Way and it was an almost mystical experience.
Officially Argentina was not on the travel schedule for the Journey Latin America Hummingbird tour because viewing the Iguassu Falls from the Argentinean side was an optional extra to be paid for, but none of us was going to miss the chance to see the Falls from another perspective or to visit another country, however briefly.
Argentina is the second largest country in South America and the eighth largest in the world. Independence was achieved in 1816, followed by civil wars and dicatorships (most famously that of Juan Domingo Peró). After the war with Britain over the Falklands/Malvinas, there were democratic elections in 1983. The population is 35 million.
So next morning, we left our hotel on the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls and drove over the bridge into Argentina, a very easy and informal process. As on the Brazilian side, the Argentinean side has a system of walkways that give visitors wonderful views. There is a lower walkway of 1,100 km and a higher walkway of 1,000 km.
The Argentinean walkways, though, are made of metal grills and run much closer to the water. Down every slope, round every corner, and up every ramp we witnessed another glorious view, another fascinating vista, another inspiring scene, so we took photographs endlessly. It was pointed out to us where Roland Joffé did his location shooting for the film "The Mission" [for review click here]. Roger could hear in his head the film's haunting theme "On Earth As It Is In Heaven" written by Ennio Morricone.
On the Argentinean side, it is easier to see a variety of wildlife from the walkways and we observed a toucan with a magnificently coloured beak, a lizard and lots of swifts, jays, vultures and other birds.
The highlight of the morning in Argentina, though, was the visit to the most violent and fearsome of the Falls' 275 cataracts known as Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat). This involves a short drive round to the edge of the Falls, a short boat ride out to a flimsy bridge, and then a precarious walk the length of the bridge (it was swept away in the floods of 1983 and 1992). At this point, one is standing on a platform looking into the very throat of the Devil and the power of the water is mesmerising. One's ears are pounded by the roar of the cataract and one's eyes are caught by the swifts darting into the spray.
All of us had loved our time at Iguassu Falls. It was not a matter of the Brazilian or the Argentinean side being better; they complement each other - the Brazilian views being the more panoramic and the Argentinean being more intimate - and you simply have to see both.
Journey Latin America does not do trips to Paraguay as such. Its literature on the Hummingbird tour describes the country as "little known". This is a kind of code for 'if you want to travel from interesting Brazil to fascinating Bolivia, you have to pass through at least some of rather less exciting Paraguay'.
The country gained its independence from the Spanish in 1811, but there can be very few nations that have experienced more presidents, dictators, revolutions and coups d'état. Paraguay was in the iron grip of dictator Alfredo Stroessner for nearly 35 years until his overthrow in 1989. The population is only 4.3 million and there has been heavy immigration from Korea, Japan and Taiwan, but even today the native language of Guaraní is almost as commonplace as Spanish.
So, having savoured Iguassu Falls, we took a public coach from Foz de Iguassu in Brazil over the border to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and down the single-lane highway to the capital of Asuncion. The journey took 6 hours 40 minutes and never stopped long enough for us to stretch our legs, but the coach had a toilet and the road was smooth - we were to experience much worse travelling by road soon enough. On the coach were six British gap year students who told us something of their adventures in South America. Travelling in less congenial circumstances than the JLA tour, they had already suffered a couple of thefts.
Paraguay is a country of two distinct halves, divided by the river of the same name. We travelled through the eastern half which is the lush and fertile section where most of the population live. It was very flat and the soil was a vivid ochre.
We reached our hotel in Asuncion - the Chaco at the junction of Caballero and Mcal. Estigarribia [click here] - soon after 8 pm local time (Paraguay is one hour behind Brazil). All we wanted to do was eat and Jill took us to a good place called "Bolsi Restaurante" at 399 Estrella [click here]. Roger finished his meal with a giant banana split. So ended a day in which we had been in three countries.
We had expected to spend the morning in Asuncion but, certainly not for the last time, plans changed. Our flight was much earlier and we had to leave the hotel at 8.45 am, so the only way to see anything of the city was to rise real early. While Vee took her time having a cooked breakfast, Roger joined Becs and Helen and zoomed around the city centre, quickly looking at some of the colonial and political buildings and the main squares (such as Plaza de los Heroes). Even at that early hour, they witnessed a political demonstration.
Once we were in Bolivia, our trip took on a new dimension. This is one of the highest and one of the poorest countries in the world. The population is 7.3 million and two-thirds are of Indian origin with Spanish, Quechua and Aymara all official languages.
Bolivia was created in 1825, but lost large chunks of its territory in wars with its neighbours and is now totally landlocked.The country was effectively run as a feudal system until the revolution of 1952 which resulted in the nationalisation of the land and the mines. Democratic institutions have only operated since 1980 and the current President is Hugo Banzer.
From Asuncion in Paraguay, we made the one and a half hour flight to Santa Cruz in the Bolivian lowlands and, after several hours wait, a further flight of half an hour to Sucre in the Bolivian antiplano. Both flights were in Boeing 727s of the local airline Lloyd Aereo Boliviano and, at the end of the second flight, we were met by our local guide Elizabeth Toro.
Sucre is named after the liberator General José Antonio Sucre. It is located at 9,200 feet (2,750 metres), or over twice the height of Ben Nevis, so as soon as we left the aircraft we were aware of the much thinner air. We had been warned of the risk of altitude sickness or, as the locals call it, saroche. In truth, every visitor suffers some of the symptoms of high altitude which include shortness of breath, heavy limbs, headaches, blocked nose, and increased flatulence (!) but, at this stage, none of us was experiencing any particular difficulties.
Indeed, so excited were we all to be in Sucre that in the evening we all walked from our hotel, Real Audiencia on Calle Potosi, down - in much cooler weather than previously - to the main square of Plaza 25 de Mayo where Jill took us to "Café Tertulia" for a very welcome dinner. All of us began with traditional chorizo before ordering our main course and we were well-entertained by a six-member troupe of local musicians and singers.
The clientele was very international. There were lots of young American students there, since Sucre is such a good place to learn Spanish because it is spoken so purely here. Also there was a Dutch guy called Gert van der Meijden who runs a business enabling tourists to rent motorbikes and see Bolivia in more unconventional fashion [click here].
Next day (Saturday) we were free to explore Sucre on our own in mild but bright weather. Roger and Vee started by slowly climbing the cobbled Calle Dalence up to Plaza Pedro de Anzures which houses the Franciscan monastery of La Recoleta. Here there is an arched mirador which provides inspirational views of the elegant city below and the imposing mountains behind.
Walking back to the city centre, we were able to explore by day now the charming Plaza 25 de Mayo, where there is the cathedral, the museum, and a constant stream of people. When we changed some money in the square, we noticed - as we would now see at all banks on our trip - that there was an armed guard at the entrance. Another fascinating location was the covered Central Market, full of colourful local produce. Twice we stopped in local cafes for cakes and drinks.
That day, we fell in love with the charm of Sucre. The large, hexagonal cobbles, the white-washed buildings, the ornate balconies, the ubiquitous telephone wires, and everywhere those single-decker, high-bodied, multi-coloured buses. The people were so different too - very small and very dark. Most of the women looked like miniature pyramids: at the top, a bowler hat too small for their head; below that, long, dark hair with a centre parting and long plaits; below that, bright multi-coloured shawls carrying produce or baby; and, below that, the traditional chola dress, puffed out with two or even three petticoats.
Roger and Vee returned to the hotel about 3.30 pm to find Jill and Becs sunbathing in their bikinis by the outdoor swimming pool. Roger decided to join them and changed into his swimming shorts. The girls told him that the hotel management had now heated up the pool and the water was really warm. Only when it was too late to withdraw did Roger find that this was their idea of a joke. Having swum a few lengths in the bitterly cold water, Roger emerged from the pool and then tried hopelessly and ineptly to erect a sun chair in a scene straight out of a "Mr Bean" movie. Jill had to help him before she totally fell apart laughing.
That night we all went out again to a different place for dinner (it was much cooler than yesterday evening). This time the venue was "Arco Iris" where we had some more live Andean music.
Next morning, we found the weather totally different - very overcast and very cold. We were all off on a day trip to the Andean village of Tarabuco which is 40 miles (65 kms) east of Sucre, so we made sure that we were wearing jumpers and waterproofs. We set off at 9.15 am in a bus which included our Sucre guide Elizabeth Toro of the company Candelaria Tours [click here], her 83 year old mother (who wanted to check the potatoes on her plot near Tarabuco), a guide for the trip called Pablo Zamora, and a considerable volume of local produce which - we were assured - was going to be turned into our lunch.
Our journey took us high over an arid and barren landscape as we worked our way through very low mist. It was so cold that, before too long, bladders were under some pressure and so the group developed a procedure which was to stand us in good stead over the next couple of weeks. We stopped in the middle of nowhere and the boys urinated by the roadside while the girls went over a nearby hillock.
After almost two hours driving, we reached Tarabuco, a village of some 30,000 located at a height of 11,000 feet (3,300 metres). Sunday is the main market day and just about everything was for sale or barter: every kind of vegetable, fruit, meat, clothing, utensils. It was like stepping back in time because all the locals were wearing traditional clothing, not as a concession to the tourists but because this is still how they dress. The whole scene only looked the more dream-like for the penetrating mist.
From our time in Sucre, we were already familiar with the dresses and the shawls. Here in Tarabuco, what was absolutely fascinating was the variety of headgear. The most utilitarian was made of leather and curved in the shape of the helmet worn by the Spanish conquistadors of five centuries ago - it is called the montera. At the other extreme, there were the beautifully-coloured 'box' hats, with a pom pon projecting from the top and a coloured fringe hanging before the eyes - this indicated that the young woman in question was still single. And, everywhere, of course, those too-small bowler hats.
At an agreed time, our little group met at a private building with an outside toilet where we sat on bench for a dinner made by Elizabeth Toro and her family. It was a revelation. The soup, called cazuela, was gorgeous and all of us had more than one helping - the ingredients included potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, and rice all in a special peanut sauce. The main course was veal with rice and savoury bananas (called plantains).
It was all washed down with a drink with which were to become very familiar: maté de coca. This consists of small green coca leaves on which one pours boiling water. The refreshing drink may be a little bit of an acquired taste, but we all quickly acquired it. All kinds of medicinal benefits are claimed for the leaves, notably relief from saroche or altitude sickness.
In the highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, the use of coca leaves has been part of traditional Indian culture for more than 4,000 years and some three million South Americans still chew it daily. An important component of the local economy revolves around the growing, harvesting, treatment and sale of the leaves. Unfortunately the American Government only see coca leaves as the raw material for the drug cocaine and therefore it is pressuring the Andean Governments to cut back on coca production which is massively disrupting local culture and local economies.
Suitably refreshed by Elizabeth's wondrous cooking, we re-emerged into the market to find that virtually all the tourists had gone. All of us had bought some kind of local clothing, mostly brightly-coloured scarves and shawls, and Tony had even purchased a charango which is a 15-string guitar made from an armadillo's shell. So we all wore our purchases for a special group photograph and now the roles were reversed. Instead of us staring at the locals, they were laughing at us.
Back in Sucre, Sunday night does not present many musical opportunities but, almost next door to our hotel at the Asur Textiles Museum, there was entertainment to be had and Roger and Vee joined Becs and Helen for a third consecutive Sucre evening of Andean music. The place was absolutely freezing, so we kept on all our layers; the food was pretty awful, consisting largely of huge corn kernels and tough bits of dried meat; but the music by a five-member troupe was the best yet. That night, we slept in clothes and kept the two-bar electric fire on continuously.
On Monday morning, our alarm went at 6.30 am because we were scheduled on an early morning flight out of Sucre up to La Paz - but, at this point, the trip started to become really challenging. It turned out that Sucre was experiencing its coldest June weather on record. We could believe this since our breakfast room, which was totally open to the elements on one side, recorded a mere 43F/6C (now we knew why the waiters wore white gloves).
Jill convened a meeting in the breakfast room and explained that the weather was so bad that no flights had left Sucre for two days, she had no information on when flights might resume, and meanwhile we were in serious danger of falling behind our tightly-scheduled programme. The only real alternative, she suggested, was for us to rent a private bus and drive overland to La Paz but, she warned, we would need to take our own food. So Roger went out with others to the local supermarket and bought all kinds of provisions.
Then we waited and waited. We were not alone. Roger engaged in conversation with two delightful Chinese-American girls, Sophia and Lulu, whose parents were trying to rent a car, so that they could drive down to Santa Cruz as the best means of finding a flight back to the USA. The girls' mother, Amy Chua, was a law professor at Yale University and had given a lecture at the Catholic University of Bolivia in La Paz [later she wrote a book on globalisation, called "World On Fire" (details here), which drew on her experience in Bolivia].
The trouble now apparently was that the coca farmers were protesting over the closure of their farms by blocking key roads and none of the bus hire companies would make a vehicle available to us in these circumstances. So we stayed on at the hotel and had some lunch. It was beginning to look as if we might have to spend another unplanned night at the hotel and lose a day or two somewhere from our schedule, but we were learning that things constantly change in South America.
Somehow a bus became available, but now we had lost so much time that we would be travelling through the night. Jill warned us that it would be very, very cold, so Vee went off with others to the nearby clothes shop and quickly purchased jumpers and shawls. After almost a day of vacillation, towards 3pm the JLA group was finally on the road. The weather had by now improved and our spirits were high, even though our bus had no heating and no toilet - but then we did not really appreciate what lay ahead of us.
As we climbed out the valley in which Sucre nestles, we soon encountered a police check point (something to do with those revolting coca farmers, we supposed). The roads were tightly twisting and bumpy and the hills were green and brown and cacti-covered .. climbing constantly .. We passed over the dried-up bed of the Pilocomayo river and the hills became black ... climbing constantly .. As the air thinned, heads became heavy and breathing became shallower .. climbing constantly.
About 5.30 pm, we reached Potosi. Perched at 13,780 feet (4,200 metres), this is the highest city of its size in the world. In Spanish colonial times, there were a honeycomb of silver and tin mines here, including the largest silver deposit the world had ever seen, and so it was the largest city in the Americas and as large as the London of that time.
Until this point, it had been possible to believe that Jill had exaggerated the trials of the journey but, once through Potosi, it all changed. First, the road - never good - became unbelievably rough. At first, we all thought that it was an exceptional section of 10 or 15 minutes, but for three and a half hours we traversed the roughest road imaginable, driving inches from precipitous drops with no lighting except those from the bus's headlights.
Even worse, the sun went down .. and the cold gradually bit deeper and deeper into parts of our bodies we did not know existed. Roger was wearing shirt, jumper, waterproof, and poncho, plus two pairs of underpants, two pairs of trousers, and three pairs of socks - he looked like an extra from the film "The Life Of Brian". Vee was wearing T-shirt, shirt, sweat shirt, jumper, jacket, two pairs of 60 denier tights, two pairs of socks, and trousers with a poncho draped over her head and shoulders - she looked like ET in the Halloween scene.
Since no lights were on in the bus (presumably to maximise the chance of our driver seeing where he was going), Tony and Wendy wore lights on headbands which made them look like miners who had lost their way in the shafts. Only little Jillita - bless her - managed to maintain any kind of sartorial elegance. In her woollen hat with its pom pon, she looked like a pixie.
About 10.30 pm, we stopped somewhere for a quick drink of maté de coca - and what a sight we made. The drink was marginally revitalising. But of course it meant that we then needed the toilet. We had developed a good routine called - depending on the degree of urgency - either 'stop the bus, I'm bursting' or 'time for a wee stop' in which we would all tumble into the pitch darkness and boys would go the front and girls to the rear.
However, as the evening wore on, the smoothness of this routine was becoming frayed. The colder it became, the more difficult it was to decide which was worse: sitting in the bus bursting or leaving the bus and braving the biting wind. As a result, we more or less stopped drinking, in spite of the risk of dehydration at high altitude. And, of course, the wind caused another problem - the danger of splash-back.
We pressed on .. colder and colder .. through the town of Oruro .. colder and colder .. and eventually reached so many buildings and lights that it had to be La Paz. In fact, we had not realised that effectively La Paz is two cities: an upper city for commuters (El Alto) and the city proper down in the valley. So we still had another hour to go .. colder and colder.
When we had originally entered our bus, Jill had warned us that the drivers - we had two - said the journey would last some 12 hours, but she indicated that she thought they were being cautious and it was more likely to be 10 hours. In fact, as we rolled up to our hotel in La Paz, it was 4.20 am and we had been on the road for an incredible head-splitting, teeth-chattering, bone-rattling, bladder-bursting, feet-freezing 13 and half hours. We almost had to be chipped out of our seats and fell straight into our beds.
At almost 12,000 feet (3,600 metres), La Paz is the world's highest major city. It is located in a deep basin surrounded by high hills and the skyline is dominated by the snow-capped Mount Illimani which is over 19,000 feet (6,000 metres) high.
For Vee, La Paz was a blur. After that horrendous overnight bus ride, she woke up with a splitting headache and a severe dose of altitude sickness. Around mid day, a local doctor visited her in her hotel room and prescribed no less than three sets of tablets. Jill very kindly looked in on her every few hours.
However, by early evening, Vee was still very rough and we called upon the services of Tony as our 'doctor-in-residence' and someone who had personal experience of altitude sickness in Nepal. He put her on a course of diamox and this soon started to have a beneficial effect. But, in the end, Vee spent two full days in her bed at the El Rey Palace Hotel.
For Roger, La Paz was a buzz. Soon after mid day on that first morning (Tuesday), he joined the others from the group in taking a taxi to the city centre on a bright and sunny day. Starting in Plaza San Francisco where there was some sort of demonstration, he explored the shops and stalls in the nearby streets of Sagarnaga (which leads up the hill from the square) and Linares (which crosses at right angles to Sagarnaga).
He found a great place to rest from the effects of the altitude: a little café called "Pepe's" in Pasale Jimenez, just off Linares. Here all the tables had hollow tops covered by glass and, underneath the glass, there were either coffee beans or coca leaves. He had the usual café con leche and an enormous slice of strawberry cake.
At 3 pm, Roger reunited with Becs & Helen and Tony & Wendy. In Linares, most of us bought a souvenir set of pan pipes, more properly known as zampoñas. Then, at the corner of Linares and Santa Cruz, there is the famous Mercado de Hechicería or Witchcraft Market. The Bolivians are very superstitious and here one can buy all kinds of bizarre products to warn off ill luck or bring good luck, including dried up bird, monkey, cat, lamb, armadillo, or llama foetus. Some of the things we simply could not identify, but they would not have looked out of place in the film "Jurassic Park".
Wherever we turned, there was another market and another street lined with pavement vendors, all wearing traditional costume. The Mercado Negro was particularly vibrant. It seemed impossible to believe that so many people could earn a living in this way.
By this time, we were ready for a sit down and drink and by accident Tony found us the perfect place. It was the café of the Club de La Paz on the corners of Avenidas Camacho and Colón. It was like stepping back into the 1930s: the ceilings and doors were incredibly tall and small, balding, elderly men lined one wall smoking and chatting with equal vigour. It was no surprise to learn that this was probably where many of Bolivia's coups were hatched and where Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie used to hang out.
Finally we returned to the hotel down La Paz's main street which starts as Mariscal Santa Cruz, becomes Prado, and finishes up as 16 de Julio. Here one finds the top hotels and the finest architecture.
Since Vee was still so unwell, Roger went out for a meal with Jill, Becs and Helen. The venue was "Mongo's" in Hnos Manchego where we sat in front of a real log fire. The menu had all the names in English and all the descriptions in Spanish and there were loads of special drinks including one called "Silly Jilly". Roger ordered the delicious Mango's crêpe which included ham, bacon, onion, tomato, cheese, potato and bechamel sauce. It was something of a girly night out as we all talked about broken relationships.
The second day based in La Paz (Wednesday) was used for a trip to a place called Tiwanaku (or, as it is alternately spelt, Tianhuanaco), which is located around 40 miles (64 kms) west of La Paz and very close to the southern point of Lake Titicaca. We were joined by a few extra tourists, including Connie McCabe, an American freelance journalist now living in Chile and writing a feature on the trip, and a senior citizen from New Zealand called Bernie Swedlund who told us a naughty ditty about a character called Roger:
There once was a girl called Brod,
Who thought children came from God.
But it wasn't the Almighty,
That lifted her nightie.
It was Roger, the lodger, the sod.
Our journey of an hour and a half took us out of the city of some one million, into the upper city of another one million, across the harsh altiplano (literally, high plateau), through Laja (the original location of La Paz) and past Puente Katari (where there was a cattle market in progess).
Once at Tiwanaku, we spent a total of two and a half hours visiting the museum and studying the ruins. Until then, none of us knew anything about the culture of the Tiahuanaco.
South America is marketed as the 'Land of the Incas'. In fact, the Tiwanaku preceded the Incas - whereas Inca civilisation commenced around 1350, the Tiwanaku culture began around 1,500 BC. Furthermore, the Tiwanaku culture was much more long-lasting - whereas the Incas lasted a mere 200 years, the Tiwanaku were around for about 2,700 years. Finally many of the architectural and other developments so associated with Inca civilisation were adopted by the Incas from the Tiwanaku.
Our local guide for the day was Nemecio Apazachui who was both extremely knowledge and genuinely passionate about his subject. First, he took us round the museum which - as a result of the powerful air conditioning - required us to wear jumpers. He introduced us to many of the concepts and figures important to an understanding of the culture, such as pachamama (the mother earth).
Outside once more, the weather was brilliantly sunny, but up on the altiplano there is often quite a breeze. Neme walked us round the fascinating ruins, explaining what is known about their construction and purpose. This included the Kalasasaya ceremonial precinct measuring 128 m by 118 m, the Gateway of the Sun, the Gateway of the Moon, and a variety of imposing monoliths. The area even has its own pyramid called Akapana, originally built with seven levels but now reduced to three. Less than one-sixth of the site has been excavated, so no doubt there is much to more to be discovered and to be learned.
Lunch was at a place close by called Hotel Tiahuanacu. This was the first opportunity for us to savour a local soup made of grain called quinoa. On the way back to La Paz, we stopped at a mirador for a fabulous view of the Cordillera Real or Royal Mountains, a branch of the Andes. Once back at La Paz, we kept going through the city to visit a bizarre area just seven miles (11 kms) to the south-east. It is called Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Unbelievely, eons ago this area was under the sea and long, long ago tectonic plates forced it to its present height. The physical formations are really weird.
Back at the hotel, Roger found Vee back in the land of the living, but not strong enough to go out for a meal, so we had room service and celebrated 20 years of being an item (Roger gave Vee a pair of silver Inca ear rings that he had bought in La Paz).
By now, we were finding that things did not always run exactly to plan in South America and first thing Thursday morning Jill convened a meeting to explain the latest problem. This morning we were scheduled to drive to a place called Puerto Perez on the south-east tip of Lake Titicaca and spend the night there in a beautiful hotel before crossing next day into Peru.
However, there were more protests in Bolivia and the chances were that the border crossings would be closed tomorrow and we would be confined inside the country. So, following Jill's guidance, we decided to miss Puerto Perez from our schedule and endeavour to enter Peru by nightfall.
We left La Paz at 10 am and before noon we had reached Lake Titicaca - a place which, until today, had simply been somewhere with an amusing name in a school geography lesson. It is a huge expanse of water covering more than 3,000 sq miles (8,000 sq km) with more than 30 islands and it is divided - roughly east and west - between Bolivia and Peru respectively.
What struck us immediately was the colour of the water - it was just so blue or azure or (as the JLA itinerary put it) cerulean. However, the water is always freezing cold because the lake is located at 12,700 feet (3,810 metres) which makes it the world's highest navigable lake.
In fact, Lake Titicaca is not one lake but two, the main lake and a smaller one on the south side called Lago de Huinaimarca. Both the larger and the smaller lakes are divided east-west between Bolivia and Peru respectively but, at the point where the two lakes join (where the land almost touches), the international boundary dips to bring both sides of the interconnecting 'mouth' inside Bolivia.
We crossed the lake at this point, called San Pedro on the east and Tiquina on the west. The crossing takes a mere ten minutes, but it is the excuse for land-locked Bolivia to have navy in order to carry out the 'onerous' checks. Another fun feature of the crossing is that, whereas the passengers travel by motor launch, the bus with the luggage floats serenely behind on a raft.
From Tiquina, it is only a short ride to the picturesque port of Copacabana (this is actually the original one and the beach in Rio is named after it). Here we had lunch at Hotel Rosario del Largo where Vee had the local trout called pejerra.
Suitably refreshed, we then took the opportunity for a three and a half hour boat ride out to the largest island in the lake called Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). This island - which today still has some 3,000 inhabitants - has a special historical significance, since Inca folklore holds that this was the birthplace of the original Inca who took his powers from the sun.
On the island, we were taken to two sets of Inca ruins. Most of the group walked a coastal trail between the two but, since Vee was still very weak from her altitude sickness, she took the boat between the sites and Roger accompanied her. From the Isla del Sol, one could easily see the much smaller Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon).
As we returned to Copacabana, the sun was setting over beautiful Lake Titicaca, but we had no time to waste because there was a border to be crossed before protests closed it and kept us in Bolivia. In fact, when we reached the Bolivian/Peruvian border, it was already closed. We were never sure what Jill had to do to make it possible, but somehow eventually we crossed the last international border of our five-nation tour.
So now we were in what Paddington Bear would call "deepest, darkest Peru". Although we think of the Amazon as Brazil, in fact two-fifths of Peru is Amazonian jungle. In a survey conducted by the UK's Consumer Association "Holiday Which?" magazine in 2001, Peru came top in the incidence of travellers suffering holiday illness with 66% of holidaymakers falling ill.
Peru gained its independence in 1821 and today it is a country of some 26 million. Spanish and Quechua are both official languages.
In the 1990s, controversial President Alberto Fujimori crushed the Shining Path guerilla movement and revitalised the country's ailing economy. Just prior to our arrival in the country, there had been a new presidential election and almost every wall - especially in the countryside - seemed to be covered with supporting material for one or other candidate.
In fact, the victor was Alejandro Toledo, the son of an Andean shepherd who rose from poverty to become president at his third attempt. His main rival was former president Alan Garcia who came a close second.
Once in Peru, our bus drove on to Puno where we were spending the night. In fact, our hotel - the Isla Esteves [click here] - was on the outskirts of Puno, on a promontory jutting into the western side of Lake Titicaca. From outside, it really spoils the landscape but, from inside, it gives superb views of the lake. That evening in the hotel, Roger decided to try a local delicacy: suckling pig roasted in its juice and seasoned with Andean spices.
Next morning, we were joined by local guide Henry Vallejo. He was a little hesitant in explaining matters to such a vibrant group, but he endeared himself to Roger when he revealed that he was just completing a media studies degree and had recently shot a short film. From a mooring just outside the hotel, we took a motor launch to Isla de los Uros, the reed islands.
Most of us had never heard of the reed islands before but, amazing as it seems, these are islands made of local reeds which are strong enough to sustain small communities. The reeds are replaced every two-three months to keep the islands afloat. There are around 40 such islands and between them they are home to some 1,000 people.
We took the motor launch to an island called Tribuna Kollas and, even though it was very small, it had a school and a museum on it. We then took a reed boat over to a second island called San Migel. Henry broke a reed and encouraged us to taste the inside. Drifting quietly and peacefully under a brilliant blue sky on the bright azure lake on a hand-made reed boat was just paradise - a million miles from the pressures of work.
We returned to land and were turned loose in Puno (the word means to sleep in the Quechua language) for lunch. As we reached the main pedestrianised shopping street, there was a religious procession with a statue of Christ carried at shoulder height, following by a brass band, followed by teams of uniformed school children.
As we had a lunch in a café, something strange happened to the weather - it actually hailed. So we returned to the hotel for jumpers and waterproofs before we went on our afternoon trip, a short journey inland to the pre-Inca burial ruins of Sillustani ( the name means fingernail in Quechua because of the shape of the area). Henry did his best to enthuse us about the historic significance of the place with talk of the intiwatana or hitching post of the sun, but it was hard to concentrate because we were now assailed by thunder, lightning, rain and hail. We took one of our regular group photographs, but this one showed us pressed against a rock face being blasted by wind and rain.
On the way back to town, we visited a typical peasant home. There was no heating and no lighting, just mud buildings in an exposed landscape. On top of the arch to their home, there were a pair of bulls which most Peruvians put on their roofs to symbolise health, wealth and work.
In the evening, it was another meal in the hotel and another opportunity to try some local fare. This time Roger had alpaca grill marinated in a "panca" hot pepper, oregano & garlic sauce.
Saturday morning was an early start (alarm at 5.45 am) because we were making the train journey from Puno to Cusco. This has to be one of the great train journeys of the world. It is certainly one of the longest - it is scheduled to take 12 hours to cover only 240 miles (385 kms) - and it is definitely one of the highest with altitudes of up to 14,400 feet (4,313 metres) and one of the most scenic with absolutely stunning views.
We pulled out of Puno precisely on time at 8 am. It was a special tourist train, with no local travellers and no local stops. We were well looked after. At mid morning, we were served with a local alcoholic drink called pisco sour - this is made from grapes and topped with egg white and lime. Later we were given a three-course lunch. Meanwhile we climbed up into the mountains, rails rattling, carriages rocking, bell clanging, horn blaring.
At regular intervals, we would see alpacas, llamas, horses, cows, pigs, and farmers, all against magnificent scenery. Indeed we were becoming quite adept at telling the difference between the similar-looking alpacas and llamas - the alpacas have their tails down, while the llamas have their tails up (so now you know!).
All was going splendidly until we hit one of those South American moments - actually it was rather longer than a moment. In the middle of nowhere, somewhere on the top of the world, we just stopped - and we stayed there for the next two hours. Nobody ever explained why, but we thought it had something to do with another train being defective and this was one of the few points on the single-track route where the repair train could pass by us.
So, what did we do? We all climbed out the carriages and wandered up and down the track talking to each other. One of the passengers we met was fellow Briton Roy Peters, an inveterate traveller who runs his own web site. If you think Roger is a bit obsessive, check out Roy's site [click here]. When we did eventually move off, we soon reached the highest point of our journey: La Raya (literally The Line) which is almost 14,400 feet (4,313 metres) - it was actually snowing. Even here, though, there was a chapel and the ubitiqious vendors.
Around 5.30 pm, it became dark which was a pity because the best of the scenery is towards Cusco. Around three hours later, at 8.30 pm, we eventully reached Cusco after a journey of 12 and a half hours rather than the scheduled ten. We were pleased to reach our hotel: the Picoago on Santa Tereza, a wonderful place which was originally the mansion home for a Spanish nobleman and has rooms set around a charming cloister.
Although we did not realise it until next day, that afternoon Peru suffered its most serious earthquake in 30 years. The epi-centre was off the coast opposite the second largest city in the country, Arequipa, due south of Cusco. The earthquake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and caused over 100 deaths and some 1,300 injuries and affected at least 40,000 people.
The name Cusco means 'navel' in the Quechua language (which locals still speak to each other) and the city was known as the navel of the Inca empire. It is located at 11,000 feet (3,700 metres) in El Valle Sagrado (the Sacred Valley) which was said to take the shape of a puma, the sacred mountain lion of the Incas.
The Spanish, led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, arrived in Cusco in 1533 when the population was an estimated 15,000 (it is now 140,000). One conquistador described the city as "the greatest and finest ever seen in the country or anywhere in the Indies … it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain".
We arrived in Cusco on the eve of a very special annual festival called Inti Raymi. This is celebrated each year on 24 June and is the Inca feast of the winter solstice. The ritual was lost for four centuries before being reconstructed in 1944 and composed in his native Quechua by Faustino Espinoza Navarro, who also played the Inca for many years. Today almost 1,000 local actors participate in the production.
Our local guide for our time in the Sacred Valley of the Incas was Ivonne Dalguerre. She had studied Inca history academically and therefore was incredibly well-informed as well as really enthusiastic about all aspects of Inca culture.
Sunday's festival of Inti Raymi lasted all day, but fell in three segments, all blessed by excellent weather.
The first segment - starting about 9.45 am - was located at the Church of Santa Domingo. At the time of the Inca Empire, this was the Templo del Qorincancha (Temple of the Sun) with walls covered in gold and windows constructed so that the sun would cast a near-blinding reflection of golden light. The Spanish took all the gold and destroyed all of the temple, except the massive stone foundations on which today's church rests.
The second segment takes place up the road at the Plaza de Armas where the original festival was held in Inca times when the place was called Huancaypata. Today the wide, open square is dominated by the Spanish Renaissance cathedral of 1559 built on what was once the palace of Inca Viracocha at the very centre of the Inca empire. The bell is made of a ton of gold, silver and bronze and is reportedly the largest on the continent.
The third - and by far the most spectacular - segment actually takes place just to the north of Cusco, among the stone ruins of the megalithic fortress of Sacsayhuaman (which, in English, sounds exactly like 'sexy woman'!). This Inca fortress was constructed from massive stones, one of them weighing 125 tons, and consists of a double wall in zigzag shape. In the battle of May 1536, the Aztecs (probably) led by Titu Cusi Guallpa fought the Spanish led by the three Pizarro brothers Juan (who was killed in the battle), Gonzalo and Hernando.
The finale of Inti Raymi takes place from 2.00-4.30 pm and is attended by a huge crowd of around 100,000. In previous years, people were allowed to sit on the giant stones themselves, but - to Ivonne's delight - this has now been stopped. So the local people cover every inch of the surrounding hillside, while the tourists - like us - pay $40 a place to sit on specially-erected grandstands opposite the stones.
The ceremony begins with the dramatic appearance over the hills behind the stones of row after row after row of soldiers, each carrying the spectrum-coloured flag of the Incas flapping in the breeze. Then hundreds of brightly-coloured characters, representing all the tribes of the Inca empire, troop down the hills and into the central arena, followed by the Inca's attendants, and finally the Inca himself. Throughout it all, rhythmic music is played as people shuffle into the arena and perform the various dances. At the end of it all, the Inca cuts the heart out of a llama. The animal is real enough and so is the heart, but fortunately the heart does not actually belong to the llama.
The whole thing is a kaleidoscope of costumes and colours and the Quechua script, the music and the dancing make for a wonderful multi-media experience.
Next day was Monday 25 June and it was Roger's 53rd birthday. Not many people get to celebrate their birthday by spending the day in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, but that was the schedule for the day. The weather was superb again and we had the ever-cheerful Ivonne to explain all the history and culture.
She explained that the Incas envisaged three worlds: the upper world represented by the condor, this world represented by the puma, and the lower world represented by the snake. Also she told that Inca architecture was characterised by the three Ss: symmetry, simplicity and solidity.
We started the day by travelling north-east out of Cusco, first to the Inca hillside food terraces of Puca Pucara, then to the wonderful vantage point of Taray, and finally to the Inca ruins of Pisac (named after a local bird).
In its way, Pisac is as important as Machu Picchu, but there has been much less reconstruction because the Spanish used much of the stonework to build the 'new' colonial city at the foot of the valley. There are adobe brick buildings, a very large burial site, and the intiwatana or hitching post of the sun. To see all of this, one has to take an Inca trail that involves some stiff climbing and, at one point in the particular, a very tight turn on a very narrow path with a very, very precipitous drop. It was worth it though because the views of the valley were just stunning.
We then took the road west further along the valley. At house after house, there was a pole outside with a red plastic bag wrapped around it, indicating the availability of the local brew of fermented corn called chica which in Inca days was the sacred drink. When we reached Yucay, we stopped for lunch at a charming place called "Sonesta Postadas del Inca". Roger had Andean cheese in tomato chilli sauce, followed by caramelized kingfish lasagna in corriander pesto with sweetened tomatoes. Then, to his surprise and delight, a birthday cake was produced, since Jill and Ivonne had tipped off the restaurant owners.
In the afternoon, we drove even further west down the valley to a place called Ollantaytambo which is 45 miles (72 kms) from Cusco - Ollantay was the name of an Inca general and 'tambo' means resting place. This fortress was laid out in the early 16th century and it was the heart of the Inca resistance to the Spanish invaders. In the battle of 1537, the Incas were led by Inca Manco and the Spanish were commanded by Hernando Pizarro. The Incas held off the Spanish before withdrawing to their final retreat of Vilcabamba.
After a full and fascinating day, we returned to Cusco by a different route which took us through the pass at Chinchero which is 11,400 feet (3,800 metres). Although it was around 5.30 pm when we reached Cusco, some of us were still keen to do some shopping, so Ivonne took us to a special warehouse. Roger bought a blue and white alpaca jacket and Vee bought baby alpaca scarves of various colours, while Becs and Helen made their own purchases. Between us, we spent $200 in about half an hour.
The day was not over for the birthday boy because Jill had organised a special event at a restaurant called "Macondo" (the word means banana in the batu language) in Cuesta San Blas. A table had been reserved for all of us and there were funny hats. Helen had composed a special song about Roger's peculiarities, sung to the tune of "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" and to the accompaniment of Tony on his charango! The splendid evening finished with the production of a huge birthday cake which Roger expertly sliced for all the members of the happy group. Thanks for organising such a fun time, Jill!
In over two weeks of travelling through five countries, we had thrilled to so many new experiences but, in many respects, the best was yet to come: Machu Picchu. At 4.45 am (!) on Tuesday morning, the alarm went, so that we were in good time for the 6 am train which departed just as daylight was breaking over Cusco. The railway was built by the British and opened in 1913 to take account of the discovery of Machu Picchu two years earlier.
Like the train from Puno to Cusco, this was only for the tourists. Again, like the trip from Puno to Cusco, this has to be one of the great train journeys of the world. Since Cusco is built on a lake bed, the trip starts with an ingenious system of four switch-backs to take one out of the steep valley up to 10,800 feet (3,600 metres). We were given an airline-style packed breakfast and a distinctly non airline-style drink of maté de coca. For much of the trip, on our left, there was the fast-flowing, rock-strewn River Vilcanota and behind that the snow-capped and cloud-topped mountains. It all made for a wonderful journey.
After almost four hours, we reached the end of the line: Aguas Calientes. Here a bus took us up the private road which snakes up the very steep mountain-side to Machu Picchu itself. On the way, we were entertained by a guy who managed to play three Andean instruments simultaneously: he strummed a guitar with his hands, he blew pipes with his mouth, and he had shells round one of his ankles. Once at the top, we booked into the Sanctuary Lodge hotel [click here] where we were greeted personally by the French manager Philippe Sabo.
Machu Picchu is truly one of the greatest sights in the world - up there with the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, and of course the Iguassu Falls (all of which Roger and Vee have been privileged to see). The sense of history and the stunning location are simply awe-inspiring. For further information on the site click here. It is not surprising that the operators of the location have invited visitors to vote it as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Shortly before 11 am, we started a three hour walking tour of Machu Picchu - the entry to which is merely yards from the hotel - accompanied by Ivonne. She started by explaining the name. Maccu Picchu (Old Peak) is the name of the mountain from which one looks down on the ruins, while the mountain which looms behind them is called Huayna Picchu (Young Peak). The location was revealed to the outside world by the American explorer Hiram Bingham who came across the site in 1911 while actually searching for the last refuge of the Incas at Vilcabamba. Machu Picchu was inacessible until the discovery of the Inca Trail in the 1940s and even today it is only accessible by train or foot. The whole area is semi-tropical because it is 3,000 ft (900 metres) lower than Cuzco.
We do not know exactly when the buildings were constructed, but we believe that the first buildings can be attributed to Inca Pachacuti. Equally we do not know how they engineered the stepped and ordered geometry of precisely keyed polygonal blocks and trapezoidal openings. Finally we do not know why the city was abandoned. The three main theories are that there was an invasion from the jungle, there was yellow fever or malaria, or there was a major fire caused by lightning.
Much of the reconstruction is based on Bingham's ideas of how the Incas lived, but some of it is guesswork and some of it is wrong (for instance, the Incas did not have windows in their buildings). Nevertheless, it is a really inspiring place. There is the Temple of the Moon, the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the intiwatana or hitching post of the sun.
Back at the hotel, we had an excellent buffet lunch, before being left to our own devices for the next 24 hours, as Ivonne took the train back to home to Cusco and Jill went to stay the night down the road at Aguas Calientes.
There are three trails to be walked (or rather climbed) at Machu Picchu. One leads to the top of Huayna Picchu, but we were warned that this is a really difficult climb with a vertiginous conclusion and none of us in the group had the inclination (sorry about the pun!) for this. Instead, that afternoon, Roger and Vee took the trail to the Puente Inke (Inca Bridge). This was challenging enough, with some really precipitous edges.
In the evening, we joined Becs and Helen for dinner at the hotel. The service was slow, but the food was excellent. Roger had duck, Vee had oriental spicy prawns, and we both finished off with crêpe suzette.
Next day (Wednesday), all of us were up early to see the sun rising over Machu Picchu, although each of us chose different vantage points. Technically sunrise was 7.20 am, but it more like 7.40 am before the sun appeared above the mountains. It was too overcast for colours, but it was thrilling to see the first rays stream down the mountainside to illuminate the ruins.
Roger and Vee returned to the hotel for a leisurely breakfast and it was just magnificent to be able to eat while looking through the restaurant windows upon the wonderful mountain views. Suitably refreshed, we then took the other more accessible trail, that up to the Intipunktu (Sun Gate). This was a longer and steeper climb than the trail to the Inca Bridge, but along the whole route there were fabulous views and the scene from the Sun Gate itself was inspirational. In this area, we could clearly hear the hummingbirds after which our tour was named, but they fly so fast that you had to be quick to see them and it was impossible to photograph them.
That morning, we met lots of trekkers who had done the three or four day Inca Trail from Corihuachina - including Dennis, Brian and Teddy from the USA - and we really admired them, but we could never have managed it. Roger and Vee - middle-aged office workers that they are - felt that they had done quite well climbing the trail at Pisac and the two trails at Machu Picchu and we will leave the tougher climbs to the youngsters.
Towards lunchtime, individually we took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes where, at the agreed time, we all met up with Jill for the train journey back to Cusco. We set off at 3 pm and at first Roger & Vee and Becs & Helen had great views as we sat at the front of the first carriage and sped through tunnels and countryside. Then a dog decided that it would be fun to run in front of the train, weaving on and off the track, until the train actually caught up and went over him. The driver screeched to a halt as the animal-loving British tourists feared the worst - but the dog survived.
Once we reached Cusco, it was dark and, as we manoeuvred through the four switch backs, we had magical views of the twinkling lights of the city below. Back in the city, we all had a meal at a small restaurant called "Pucara" in Plateros.
Thursday morning and we could see the end of our wonderful tour. In Cusco, we were up at 5.30 am and, after breakfast, said good bye to Helen who was leaving us to go on a tour extension to the Peruvian Amazon. For our part, we caught an Aviandina Boeing 727 for the one-hour flight across the Andes to the Peruvian capital of Lima. From the airport, we were driven to the fashionable Miraflores district of the city where we were staying at the José Antonio Hotel on Avendida 28 de Julio.
In some ways, the less said about Lima the better. It is only on the tour schedule because one needs to go there for international flights and one only spends a night there because the operator cannot risk doing a domestic and an international flight on the same day. It is such an anti-climax after the thrill of Machu Picchu. It is a widely dispersed and, in the main, rather ugly city with mad drivers and bad pollution. Where there are attractive districts, all the houses are heavily barred.
Nevertheless Vee and Roger were determined to see something of Lima. First, we strolled down to the sea so that we could see the Pacific Ocean. At a shopping centre, we bought three CDs of Andean music and had lunch at "Tony Roma's".
Then we took a taxi to the suburb of Monterrico in the south of the city to visit the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum). In fact, there is not that much gold there - the Spanish looted it - but there is a remarkable collection of pottery from the Moche culture which flourished in northern Peru from 200-700 AD. The Moche people obviously had a lively interest in erotica because the pottery depicts vaginal, oral and anal sex as well as some examples of bestiality and many representations of the phallus which are enormous in relation to the remainder of the figures.
It was our last evening of the three-week tour, so Roger and Vee, Tony and Wendy, Becs and Jill all went out for a night on the town. We started by walking to a bar called "Haiti" where we all had giant glasses of pisco sour which went straight to our heads. While he was still capable, Roger - on behalf of the group - thanked Jill for all her services and presented an envelope with tips. Next we walked on to a restaurant called "Las Tejas" on Avendida Diez Canseco. Here Roger had cebiches", a delicious cut of swordfish cooked in lemon and special natural ingredients and both Roger and Vee finished with pancakes. Once Tony and Wendy had left, things became a little wild and it would be decent to draw a veil over events. But it was a great evening!
On Friday morning, we said farewell to Tony and Wendy because they were catching a separate flight home that afternoon. That still left Becs and Jill and, after breakfast, Roger and Vee plus Becs took a taxi to the city centre on a grey, overcast day.
The heart of the city is the Plaza Major (formerly the Plaza de Armas) and we found that, since it was the Feast of St Peter & St Paul, there was a major procession in progress. Fanciful costumes and several bands made for an exciting and joyous event. We were not the only one to enjoy it - suddenly the President of Peru appeared from inside the cathedral.
Lima's most active square is Plaza Saint Martin and this is linked to the Plaza Major by the pedestrianized Jirón de la Union. As we strolled between the squares, another procession appeared, this time with a shoulder-high statue of Christ. It seemed as if, everywhere we went in South America, there was a demonstration or a procession.
Finally Becs showed Roger and Vee a great restaurant that she had discovered in the Miraflores district near our hotel. It was called "La Tiendecita Blanca" and located on Avendida José Larco near the L'Ovalo roundabout. Here we had lunch in surroundings which were a version of art nouveau. The chef's salad was cherry tomatoes, boiled egg, York ham, Dambo cheese, celery, olives and pecan nuts and afterwards there was a wonderful selection of delicious cakes.
Later, back at the hotel, we teamed up with Jill and the four of us went to Lima airport. Becs took a different flight home, while Jill travelled with Roger and Vee on an Iberia Airbus A340. Take off was 8.10 pm so, after a meal, we mostly slept. It was 11 and a half hours later when we reached Madrid and, two and a half hours later, we made the two-hour hop to London Heathrow on an Iberia Airbus A320. Allowing for the time difference, it was 6 pm local time when we landed in the UK after a wonderful, wonderful holiday.
It had been the longest, the most adventurous, and the most fascinating and enjoyable holiday of our lives.
It was a photographer's dream and Roger took over 750 pictures. We saw so many very different and very thrilling places, but Iguassu Falls and Machu Picchu had to be special highlights. Finally we met so many interesting people and Roger managed to collect some 30 e-mail addresses. We look forward to reliving the memories and to keeping in touch with our new friends.
Many thanks to Tony, Wendy, Becs and Helen for their warm companionship and to Jill for all her support and fun.