Saturday, October 31, 2015

Amazing Chile and Home

17 October, Tur Bus, Valparaiso

Almost at the end of our long journey from Lima to Santiago, it is probably a good time to reflect on South American buses. 

We have travelled close to 2000 kms on buses during this trip, from luxury “cama” class to local minibuses. We have survived them all, but the degree of comfort and convenience varied greatly.
As passenger rail services are virtually non-existent in South America and internal flights generally expensive, bus travel is extremely popular.

At the top end of the market are the long-haul coaches that connect virtually every major centre. Bus companies offer a range of classes of travel, but these can be simplified to two general classes, cama and semi-cama. Cama class has more leg room, seats that recline close to horizontal as well as meal and snack services. While not that much more expensive than semi-cama, they provide an element of exclusivity, with only 12 seats per bus, pillows and blankets, a dedicated attendant and  a closed door to protect the lucky 12 from prying eyes. Semi-cama seats offer less leg room, seats recline to about 140 degrees, but are quite comfortable, with snacks provided on longer hauls. What cannot be avoided, for both classes, is the dreaded bus toilet. Enough said.

 Shorter haul buses can be rather uncomfortable, with fixed seats. Mini-buses are, of course, at the bottom of the range. We have used mainly Cruz del Sur and Tur Bus for our journeys. Both are excellent. Security and safety are good on both, although there are often inconsistencies in application of procedures. We were happy overall with both companies.
We also learned some useful lessons about bus travel.
  • Don't expect buses to be on time. They won't leave before the scheduled time, unless they’re full, but they will often be delayed en route.
  • Many towns have several formal and informal bus stations. It always pays to clarify pick-up and drop-off  locations.
  • Most of the buses we travelled on were full, so early booking, a day or two ahead, is essential.
  • Don't expect destination boards or bay numbers for departing buses. Just ask if unsure. We could have been left stranded a couple of times if we hadn't asked! A trick we picked up late in the game was to ask at the company's desk for the actual number of the bus you need to catch. If you do this just before scheduled departure time, the company will know the number of the bus allocated to your route.
  • Small local buses and mini-buses don't always operate on a schedule. They just leave when the driver thinks he has enough passengers. These services don't usually have defined stops either. You just yell when you need to get off.
  • In larger towns, local buses will have smaller terminals away from the main bus station. Again you need to ask around to be sure of terminal locations.
This may sound terribly complicated but, rest assured, it does work. Just be prepared to ask. People are generally helpful. We don't speak Spanish and we managed.

There are a lot of stories around about safety on buses. We may have just been lucky, but we had no security issues. Drivers were uniformly good, even on small local buses. To be honest, notions of bus-jacking seem a little far-fetched these days, even though they were once a fact of life throughout South America. Today, long haul buses operate on major highways that are well-travelled. While small local buses do take back roads, a quick look at the clientele of these services should allay any fears. Most of your fellow travellers are way too poor to be able to offer much to a would-be robber. As always, keep your wits about you and exercise good common sense.
A final tip. If your smart phone or tablet has GPS, you can use the cache memory to store the area you are travelling to, so you can track your location and find your hotel when you arrive. In Google Maps, caching an area is as simple as looking at it while online. You will be surprised how much detail the cache will hold, allowing you to effectively operate offline.

18 October, AirBnB Apartment, Valparaiso

Valparaiso is billed as quaint and quirky. Perhaps dirty and dodgy would be more appropriate. The city has played an important part in Chile's history, but, at least for the moment, those glory days seem to have passed. A port and a naval base, Valparaiso sits on a reasonably attractive harbour, one side of which is devoted to normal port activities. The small, container-loading wharf is not that bad to look at and the naval ships docked nearby provide some interest. Sadly, the rest of the water front and the two or three blocks behind it are an eyesore!

 In their wisdom, the burghers of Valparaiso have constructed a metro line along the waterfront, cutting off access to the sea. Decaying, largely abandoned buildings, covered in graffiti and surrounded by litter, front a not-unattractive palm-lined boulevard that skirts the bay. These sea-level streets are a minefield of dog droppings, populated by an army of drunks and beggars.

Are we being too harsh? Perhaps. Maybe there are plans afoot to redevelop the water front. We can only hope.

Happily, it isn't all bad news. The hills of the city are so steep that 15 ascensores, (funiculars) have been constructed to scale the precipitous hills. The oldest of these is well over 100 years and several have fallen into disrepair and no longer operate. It is in these hills that some redemption lies for Valparaiso. During the heady days of the Nitrate mining boom, both the poor and the wealthy built on these hills (probably to escape the dreariness of the waterfront!). Many stately Colonial mansions have been maintained or restored and painted in Valparaiso’s traditional bright colours, that contrast with the multi-storey, drab and rusty, corrugated iron-clad boarding houses and tenements built for the workers. One of these large homes now houses the excellent Valparaiso Museum of Fine Arts. Nearby, an attractive Colonial Naval Station hosts the Maritime Museum, which features Chile's rich naval history. The serpentine streets offer pleasant surprises for the eye at every turn and it’s easy to become happily lost, happily because you just have to head down to find your way again.

Along with its pleasant close neighbour, the Santa Monica look-a-like, Vina del Mar, greater Valparaiso would have close to 1million citizens. It can only be hoped that Valparaiso can learn from its neighbour and do something to repair the malaise affecting the lower part of the city.

21 October. Air BnB Apartment, Santiago

We have four days in Santiago, partly as a bit of a wind-down at the end of our trip and what a great city to wind-down in! The more we see of Santiago, the more we like it. Sophisticated, modern but with an old European grandeur, Santiago is not what we expected at all. Lima and La Paz are definitely South American cities, more than a bit rough and ready in parts, sometimes a little “edgy” but with a definite South American vibe. The predominance of indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia probably accounts for the difference we feel. Their culture is strong and omni-present in both Peru and Bolivia. Chile is vastly different. It is a city of grand, tree-lined boulevards, public squares and monuments, almost the Madrid of the South.

Our usual round of museums and art galleries has kept us busy to date. Most of what we have seen can best be described as bizarre! Contemporary art is right out there in Santiago. We just wandered about shaking our heads. Of far more interest was the Museum of Human Rights that covered the dark years of the Pinochet Government when thousands of Chileans “disappeared”. Almost 40,000 political prisoners were incarcerated between 1973 and 1989. Many suffered torture and regular beatings, many more died. Pinochet came to power in a coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Pinochet ruled with US support and it is fairly clear that his coup was also supported by the CIA. The Pinochet Regime was eventually overturned when a Plebiscite and an enormous “people power” movement, combined against it.An interesting side-bar to the issue of US-Chile relations is America’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the War of the Pacific in the 1870s.Chile was at war with Peru and Bolivia and at one point it looked as though the US might intervene to protect its commercial interests in Peru. Seems the USA thought better of it when it realised that it would be easily out-gunned by the more powerful Chilean Navy.
The city has a population of 6.5 million. It is simply vast with multiple centres and many different neighbourhoods. The Metro and bus systems are simple to use and inexpensive. We purchased a Bip Card which is a simple, stored-value card that can be topped up at machines in the Metro. Because there is just a standard fare for the whole system, you only need to “Bip” in, not in and out, so one card can be used by multiple people. By repute, Santiago is the most expensive city in South America. It is clearly more expensive than Lima or La Paz, but we have not found it outrageous compared to Australian cities. By our major comparison tool, the beer index, Santiago is on a par with home. We are self-catering, so we have only eaten out at lunch and that is fine, a couple of big baguette rolls for $4-$5 each. Supermarket prices are about the same as Australia, except perhaps for beef, which seems to be very expensive by our standards.

26 October Home

The long return flight now behind us, we are slowly adjusting again to the regular rhythm of home life. The pace of the last couple of months was nothing too unusual for us, but it always feels great when it stops!

This trip and our adventures in China, Russia and the Baltic States last year have been a bit of a change from the road trips by car and the motorhome trips of the past. Here in South America we have been totally reliant on public transport, as we were last year. Most of our travelling companions have been half our age and, as we moved away from the more travelled tourist routes, fewer and fewer people spoke English. Our Spanish is extremely rudimentary, but we have muddled through without too many dramas. Booking buses and trains doesn’t require any language skills at all. We just write out what we want and the counter staff  turn their monitors so we can check the booking process on the screen. Most other interactions can be managed by pointing or using some basic words. We rapidly learnt a useful phrase in Chile, “Dos mayores, por favor” (“Two seniors, please”).

We have covered a lot of territory in just 7 weeks, but South America is a very large continent. We will have to return.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Salt Flats and Chile

11 October, San Pedro de Atacama

Finally got off on our tour of the Salt Flats a few days back. We fell in with a great crew for our three day, two night tour. Of the ten starters in our group, eight were Australians and two were Dutch. Naturally enough we were by far the oldest in the group, but that was no problem for us nor the rest of our group. We headed off about 11:00am and from the start it was full-on for the whole three days. We travelled in two Toyota Landcruisers, which were comfortable enough, but no luxury ride either. The Uyuni Salt Flats are one of those few features that can be clearly seen from space. The horizon is so distant that it is easy to see the curvature of the earth. One of the must-do things on the Flats is to take "'silly" pictures. People bring along props like plastic toys and stuffed animals to set up bizarre shots, using the distant horizon and flatness of the landscape to create photo-illusions. During the afternoon of the first day, the wind started to increase, bringing a bitter chill that had us all reaching for cold weather gear.

Our first night was in a hotel constructed entirely of salt bricks. Chairs, beds and the floor were all salt. We scored a private double room with toilet, so we were comfortable and, with sleeping bags supplied by the tour company, we were snug and warm. The food throughout the trip was great, considering that it all had to be prepared from makings bought along in the vehicles.

From the Salt Flats we climbed higher up into the Andes, driving through some of the most spectacular scenery we have seen anywhere in the world. Sand hills, boulder-strewn plains, remnants of coral reefs that today have become cactus islands in a sea of Salt and, of course, the mountains themselves.

Although the second night was in very basic accommodation, we had the advantage of having the nearby hot springs to ourselves for an after-dinner dip. The desert stars were out in their full glory on a cloudless night. We stayed in the springs until, prune-like, we struggled back to our lodgings in the pitch dark.

The last morning was a bit of a rush as it had started to snow during the night and there was some concern that we might not get to the border in time to catch the bus into Chile. By the time we got moving the wind was almost blowing us off our feet and the chill factor must have driven the temperature down well below -5C. That didn't stop us from piling out of the warm cars to see the enormous flocks of flamingos on Red Lake. In peak breeding season, more than one hundred thousand birds cover the lake. Today there were nothing like those numbers but there would have been several thousand birds. The flamingos here are especially pink, even red. This is brought about by the red algae they eat on the lake.

Our exit from Bolivia was easy enough. We even had a happy, smiling official. Things were a little more difficult entering Chile. Formalities are managed by the bus load, so with only two windows operating and a half a dozen buses arriving, processing through Immigration was extremely slow. Customs is very strict entering Chile. Every bag is hand-searched. After probably an hour or so, we were on our way into San Pedro de Atacama.

We hadn't realised it until we tried booking accommodation, but this is a long weekend in Chile for Columbus Day. We had settled for a four bed room in a Hostal about 1km from the town centre. For the price ($160 AUD an night) we would have expected a fairly classy place. What we have is a bit basic, but there is hot water and comfortable beds.

San Pedro is a bit of a culture shock after Bolivia. Most noticeable is the predominance of people of Spanish origin, rather than indigenous folk. Almost 90% of Chileans are of Spanish heritage. We have seen very few "Indians". Wandering the streets, one could easily be in any southern Spanish city. Next shock was the prices. Eating out yesterday we found prices on a par with home. While San Pedro has some poorer, Bolivian-like dwellings on the outskirts, things are a lot flasher in the middle of town. White-washed adobe is the favoured look in the small town centre. Dozens of tour agencies compete  for space with restaurants and up-market craft shops on the dusty streets and, on this holiday weekend, the streets are packed with city trendies who well out-number the tourists and travellers.

Today was to be a rest day for us to catch up on some washing and shake off some of the dust from our Salt Flats tour. We did however manage a 3 km walk out to the ruins of Pukara de Quitor, the site of the last stand of the Atacama peoples against the Spanish. As you might have guessed, the outcome was fairly well pre-ordained. The Spanish overcame the local defenders, beheading 300 warriors.

13 October,  Tur Bus, Antofagasto to Copiapo

Two fairly solid days of bus travel will bring us to Copiapo - five hours yesterday and another six today. Most of yesterday and all of this morning we have travelled through desert - not at all an attractive landscape. Sulphur mines, copper mines and various other activities that involve large trucks throwing clouds of fine dust into the air, line the well-maintained highway for hundreds of kilometers. Virtually all traffic is mine-related. Heavy tankers haul sulphuric acid, ore trucks rumble along the highway and dozens of fire-engine red mine utes rip through the desert, aerials and orange flags swishing wildly in the almost white dust.The coastal plain is at its narrowest here, less than one kilometre in many places and the country is fairly desolate, not even enough vegetation to support any grazing

14 October, Copiapo.

So this is Chile? Very nice. Malls, flash cars, supermarkets, clean streets and everything a modern developed/developing country should have. And all credit to the Chileans. They have built and are building what will probably be the first country in South America to boast the "Developed Nation" tag. We aren't sure who hands out these gongs, but by all reports and from what we have seen so far, Chile is well on the way to gaining one. Now we don't begrudge the nice people of Chile their increasing prosperity, but we have to say that we miss the more "gritty" parts of west coast South America. Viva Bolivia and Viva Peru! There cars don't stop at stop signs. Zebra crossings are just interesting decorations on the roadways and every taxi beeps us as they pass. We were stunned today when traffic stopped at a give way sign to let us cross! That doesn't even happen in Australia! What thrill is there in life if traffic actually stops to let you cross the road? No dog poo on the footpaths.  Very few dogs on the streets. No hawkers, or dancing restaurant touts (female) and no colectivo conductors hanging out of mini bus doors yelling at us.

It might sound strange, but we miss it already.

On a more positive note, Chile is very safe for travellers, everything works, there is electricity 24 hours a day and life, at least in the small towns and cities we have seen so far, is very laid-back.

On our stroll through the town today, we did discover one gem - the Atacama Regional Museum. Here, along with the usual bits and pieces that grace these regional collections, was the actual rescue vehicle that was used to free 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground by a mining cave-in in 2010. At first we thought it might have been Chile's first attempt at a space vehicle, but we eventually figured out what it was. Our Spanish is obviously getting better!

So we will take advantage of the relative sophistication of Chile to have a bit of a holiday for the last week of our time in South America. We are off to the beach resort of La Serena tomorrow, then to Valparaiso on the coast near Santiago.

15 October, La Serena

Just a 4 hour bus trip today. The scenery doesn't change much in northern Chile. Desert, mines and then some more desert. What is of note is that Chile seems to have embarked on some major infrastructure projects using the bounty from the mining boom. Much of the Pan American highway that runs the length of Chile is dual carriageway and many parts that aren't are being rebuilt.

La Serena is yet another very modern city. It is a long way from the dusty roads of Bolivia to the tree-lined boulevards of La Serena. We took a long walk to the beach this morning with high expectations. We were sorely disappointed! The sand was grey, the surf flat and worst of all,  the dunes behind the beach were best described bas a rubbish dump. Building materials,  bags of household refuse and piles of rotting garden trimmings littered the whole area, including parts of the beach. Most unattractive!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Surprising Bolivia

30 September, Airbnb Apartment, La Paz, Bolivia

Yesterday's three hour hike ended up being closer to five hours all up and there was a lot of UP. Our ferry left Copacabana at 8:30, taking about two  hours to reach the northern jumping off point in the Isla Del Sol. It was a bit of a dodgy old ferry, but the sea was calm and the water colour blue as blue. As seems to be the norm on any form of transport in South America, we struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller, a Hungarian guy who was having some travel time between careers. We have met some very interesting young people from all over the world and a few oldies as well. Other than the Hungarian guy, we met an American Japanese, a couple of Aussies about our age who we had dinner with, a young French couple who want to migrate to Australia, (we also had dinner with them) a couple of crazy young "gap year" Australians, one of whom reminded us so much of our niece Grace, that we decided to call her that. All this in just a couple of days in Copacabana. But back to the Isla Del Sol  While the island itself was fairly unremarkable, the views from many points along our five hour hike were just fantastic.

You have to hand it to the Bolivians, they have a crafty knack of extracting every possible dollar out of unsuspecting travellers. Every now and then a smiling local, often in traditional dress, would emerge from the scrub, requesting another 10 or 15 Bolivianos ($3-$4.) It was all legit, with tickets bearing the stamp of the Bolivian National Parks.

Copacabana is a very touristy town - a traditional stop on the track many backpackers take through Bolivia. Consequently, prices are highly inflated. The town itself doesn't have much to offer, just one main street lined with restaurants and bars. The one, not to be missed, attraction is the town's cathedral. The building is way out of scale for such a small town. It is a magnificent, brilliant white church with domes covered in ceramic tiles and an altarpiece that would do any European cathedral proud.

Today we were back on the bus for the advertised three hour drive of 155km to La Paz. For the first hour or so it was reasonably clear sailing, with a good road, little traffic and yet another fairly cautious driver. However, after the crossing of Lake Titicaca, the passengers in small ferries and the bus on what looked much like a raft, the wheels started to fall off. Firstly we hit about 10 kms of roadworks, which forced us off onto some extremely rough detours. Them, just as we cleared the roadworks, we hit a roadblock. Apparently this is a normal form of protest in Bolivia. First we saw of it was a line of women in traditional garb, squatting behind rocks laid across the road. Our bus took to the back streets of the village, finally emerging just beyond the other end of the blockade. Police were in attendance, but they were mainly occupied in assisting traffic to find ways around the blockade. Then we hit peak hour La Paz traffic. We had heard that the city was just plain "loco" with traffic, but we didn't expect this. Total chaos. All, up our three hour trip took four and a half hours.

We are finally settled into our apartment in the centre of the city. Shopping done, dinner on the stove, washing machine gurgling and beer in hand, looking out on a spectacular view of the lights of the city.

3 October, La Paz, Bolivia

Oh we do so love a parade in South America! Almost every day of our trip we have seen a parade, complete with full brass bands and, as with the ceremony we happened upon here in La Paz a couple of days back, baton twirling, and often dropping, marching girls. According to our reference point on everything statistical, the CIA Factbook, La Paz has a population os about 1.5 M. In a reversal of normal form, the poorer parts of the city are high on a ridge, some 800m above La Paz proper. El Alto is a sprawling city of poorly-constructed dwellings, serviced by a bare minimum of public services. We drove through El Alto on our way into the city and to us it seemed a lot better than the slums that encircle Lima. Bolivia is the least developed of the South American countries, but you can see that there are some real efforts being made to improve the country. The Socialist government of President Morales is very popular, winning government at the last election by a vote of 66%. One of the most obvious improvements in La Paz is the Teleferico, a cable car system of three lines, described by some as an above-ground subway system. The Teleferico carries thousands of workers to and from the city centre every day. For tourists it is probably the longest and cheapest cablecar ride in the world. A single fare to El Alto is around $0.70 AUD and for this you get some of the most spectacular urban landscape views around.

Traffic in central La Paz is even more loco than we experienced in sprawling Lima. Mini buses and taxis have private vehicles outnumbered at least 10 to one. In peak times four lanes of buses and taxis cram into the marked two lanes of the main streets. Conductors lean from bus doors yelling destinations to potential passengers, horns blare out as buses and taxis stop in the middle of the street to pick up or drop off passengers, pedestrians weave between vehicles that inch into every available space. Sheer chaos, but somehow it all seems to work.

Walking home to our apartment yesterday afternoon, there was a distinct drop in temperature. During the day it can be fairly warm here, but evening always brings a bit of a chill. When we awoke this morning, the mountains and many of the houses across the valley from us had a dusting of snow. It is October, but things are never as they seem in South America. Many high altitude areas receive most of their snowfall in the summer months because that is when there is enough moisture in the air.

This morning we are waiting for our taxi to the airport for a flight to Sucre. It is just 45 minutes by air, but a full day by bus.

4 October, Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre is probably the most attractive city we have visited so far on this trip. Called the White City, it is the administrative capital of Bolivia and the home of Bolivian independence. The main square is surrounded by magnificant colonial buildings and churches that could easily have one thinking one was in a well-preserved Spanish city.

Our arrival yesterday was a little delayed due to snow and ice on the runway at La Paz. The afternoon was cloudy and dull so we didn't really see Sucre at its best.This morning, however. was just perfect. Warm, bright sunshine and, being Sunday, an almost empty city. We took the long climb to La Recoleta, a viewing point high above the city. Again we had the place fairly much to ourselves. The view was great, but an added bonus was the small square, complete with church, that could have come out of a 19th century Spanish town.

Morbid as it might seem, we completed our morning with a visit to the General Cemetery. The Bolivians do look after their dead. Magnificent lawns and gardens surround the elaborate family mausoleums of the very wealthy. The not so well-heeled house their departed loved ones' ashes in small locked cabinets set in long walls in the gardens. A very peaceful place, even for us, the living.

We have been very careful throughout this trip on the very few occasions we have had to take taxis. There are some real horror stories around about muggings and worse, involving dodgy taxis. We have always tried to take cabs that look legit, that is, those with company names and taxi "bubble" signs on the roof. Every second car in the major cities has a simple sticker on their windscreen saying TAXI. Seems the purchase of one of these stickers is enough to get you into the taxi game in South America. Here in Sucre we have seen only one cab with a proper Taxi sign and many hundreds with just a sticker. Oh well, when in Rome... We have to catch a cab out to the bus station tomorrow to pick up our bus to Potosi. Guess we'll have to chance it.

5 October, Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi is a mining town and not always a peaceful one. Industrial strife has led to frequent blockades on the road into the city. There were no blockades today, but we did encounter a minor problem on the road. About an hour into our three hour trip a loud pop signified a blowout, not much of a surprise given the state of the tyres. Under the close supervision of most of the male passengers, the driver soon had the spare on and we were on our way.

On the edge of the city heavy equipment was re-working old gold mining areas using water sluices, much the same as those used on the gold fields of California and Australia in the 19th century. On the edge of the city, the bus stopped amd people started to get off, so naturally we joined them. Only when the bus drove off did we realise that some people had stayed on. Where were we? No idea! We had no option but to grab a cab off the street and and head for our hotel. After seeking directions from several people along the way, our driver finally found our hotel, much to our relief.

All was good in the end though. Turns out our hotel is just around the corner from the bus station for Uyuni, our next stop. Our short foray into the city centre did little to improve our initial impression of the city - grubby, untidy and chaotic. We had to content ourselves with a couple of beers and a fairly horrible chicken and chips dinner from a local cafe.

7 October,  Uyuni, Bolivia

"A little rain must fall," and it  fell on us today. Every trip must have its calamity. It serms to be a rule. We are experienced and cautious travellers, but accidents do happen. Uyuni is very much a frontier town.  Out in the middle of nowhere, perched on the edge of 1200 sq kms of salt flats with deserts all around, the town looks like a 19th century Mexican movie set. But hidden just below the salt flats on the edge of dusty, dry old Uyuni is 100M tonnes of lithium. Yes, just like in the batteries. More than 40% of the world's known reserves are sitting out there waiting for the inevitable lithium boom to hit.

Our journey from Potosi was relatively comfortable and we made excellent time,  even with the usual picking up and dropping off of passengers who simply wave down passing buses. The road was excellent and what was once a six hour nightmare is now a three and a half hour scenic desert drive.

Our disasters began when Paul walked off from an ATM leaving his card behind. He only discovered the loss about an hour later. Back at the bank, the staff were distinctly unhelpful,  until one of the  police guards who spoke a little English came forward. He got the bank staff moving and after a tense half hour or so the card was produced. Seems the ATMs gobble up cards that aren't retrieved. Many thanks to our new best friend, Officer Florres, Polisi National de Bolivia.

Our second drama for the day was the unavailability of places for the salt flats tour tomorrow.  We thought we had booked online, but apparently not! The company, Red Planet, had come highly recommended for these trips, but, so far, we are less than impressed. So now we have a whole day to kill in Uyuni. We have seen the town square, walked the main street several times, the last remaining attraction is the local church.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Over the border to Bolivia

24 September
Cruz del Sur bus, Puno to Arequipa

Weather gods normally smile upon us when we travel. Not so yesterday. We had booked an afternoon tour to Sillustani to visit the tower tombs. It had been a beautiful morning, but by the time we left Puno, thunder clouds were on the horizon.  We threw in an umbrella and a poncho just in case and headed off with a jolly crew of Korean Americans and assorted others. By the time we reached the site, the sky was a nasty mix of green and black. Had we been on our own, we would have run around the towers, fired off a few happy snaps and grabbed the first bus out of town. We were trapped!

Our guide insisted on giving us the full routine, even as the wind reached gale force and the rain began to fall. The crafty Koreans managed to detach themselves and, unnoticed,  bolted back to the shelter of the bus. Paul's souvenir cap flew off over a cliff as the temperature dropped to near zero. Amongst the asorted others were a couple of Polish girls, who had come well equipped for such a major weather event. They looked like they had just stepped out into a Warsaw blizzard by the time they had layered up. All we had were light jumpers. At the third "stop for informations", we followed the Koreans' example and headed off at top speed to the bus. We did learn a few things about the tomb towers, including the surprising fact that the Incas only used the site for just over 80 years, until the Spanish invasion. Earlier cultures had used similar towers for burials for up to 700 years prior to the Inca Period. To top off the day, Paul's errant cap was returned by our ever-watchful bus driver who must have seen it sail off the cliff.

All the guide books will tell you that there isn't much to Puno other than the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. Having spent the best part of two days strolling up and down Ave Lima, the main street, we would have to agree. But if you look hard enough there is nearly always something going on in a Peruvian towns. At 10am on our last day, with time to kill as our bus was to leave at 3pm, we spotted a group of MPs and a group of fully kitted-out modern day Peruvian warriors. Further examination revealed preparations for a military parade. We are becoming big fans of South American military parades. We took up front row seats on the edge of the main square with a couple of dozen other retired locals and took in the whole performance, from the arrival of various pieces of equipment, to the careful arrangements of that equipment, through to the removal of that equipment all together. And that was before the Main Event! More military arrived, groups of Indigenous in traditional dress lined up and the excitement built as the band could be heard warming up on a side street. Not all went to plan though as we were shooed off our front row seats by a baton-wielding lady soldier. Not at all phased, we took up lower quality seats on the steps of the Cathedral with the locals. What a show! Led by a large group of pre-school kids done up as angels, the parade was on. Altar boys and girls, incense-dispersing priests and the statue of the Virgin Mary on a plinth, held high on the shoulders of soldiers.

The now-familar Peruvian national anthem was cranked up, the crowd stood, including us, hats off, hands on hearts rifles at "present arms", hundreds of military singing along with "mucho gusto". We all finished off with a resounding "Viva Peru"!  The parade pressed on up the main street with school children, more local cultural groups and, of course, the soldiers. What a way to kill a few hours.

There was a very interesting cultural lesson about Peru in all this. There was a strong message in all we saw. The military ran the show, but the church, the local community and indigenous groups all played a part. Given that the celebration was a religious feast day, the leading role of the military would seem out of place in most countries. Not in Peru!

Another interesting observation is that Peruvian cultural heritage is "cool". The biggest thing among teenagers seems to be traditional dancing and music. It is fairly common to see large groups of kids practising traditional dance in town squares. Groups of teenagers, mostly boys, gather on corners playing traditional tunes. Groups of girls hang about, just listening of course.

25 September, Casa Tintin,

Despite the rather odd name, our Tintin hotel is really very nice, situated in a secure residential area with a fantastic view of the snow-capped volcanoes that surround the city. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru, but at around 1 million people, it is dwarfed by Lima with almost 9 million inhabitants. We did a fair bit of walking around the city and inner suburbs today and were very impressed. Like most towns and cities in Peru, Arequipa's streets are extremely clean, if a little delapidated in places. It is just amazing how little litter there is, even in small villages. People seem to take responsibility for their own footpaths, constantly sweeping and washing away the dust.

Arequipa's main plaza is just beautiful. A creamy white stone is used through most of the central city and with the bright sunlight and brilliant blue sky today it was just a picture. Sadly, the Cathedral that runs the length of one side of the plaza was covered in scafolding. We only have one day here and a lot of today was spent chasing up tour companies for our trip through Colca Canyon. Frustratingly, we were fed a lot of rot by some companies here and in Puno about canyon tours. We eventually found Giardino Tours, who knew immediately what we were talking about and booked us up for tomorrow. Sometimes you have to wonder whether some of these local companies just play dumb, forgetting that there is such a thing as the internet!

Sitting on our balcony with the volcanoes looming in the late afternoon glow, kids playing in the park below and the rubbish truck moving slowly through the neighbourhood, blaring out some recognised but not named number by the Shadows. Earlier on this afternoon we were almost knocked off the footpath by the sound of another garbage truck playing some Spanish number at ear-splitting volume, must be what they do to let the locals know they are coming, A bit like Mr Whippy we guess, but with more volume.

28 September, Copacabana, Bolivia

The fact that our last blog was on 25 September is an indication of just how flat out we have been. Arequipa seems such a long time ago. A string of very early mornings, long bus trips and some spectacular places has well and truly filled in the time.

From Arequipa, we took a two day, one night tour out into the Colca Canyon. Our group was a hodge-podge of two option groups from larger tours and us, generally pleasant souls, but two days with a few of them was about all we could tolerate. The drive out to the canyon was through a National Park that boasted some wild native animals, including puma, but all we managed to see were llama, alpaca, sheep and some wild relatives of the llama whose name we never caught. We also managed to spot a couple of condor, but from a fairly great distance.

While the wildlife-spotting was a little disappointing, the scenery was far from a disappointment. The scale of the upper plains of the Andes is just breathtaking. It is the dry season, so the landscape is bare and dry. A moonscape is probably an apt description. Beyond the plains, in the distance, four enormous volcanoes loom, one sending up a constant steam cloud. As we climbed into the higher Andes the temperature stayed amazingly warm. We are much better with the altitude now. At close to 5000m we are almost back to our sea level respiration rate. We did a couple of short hikes, one to some hot springs out side the village of Coporaque, where we spent the night. We weren't terribly excited about the colour of the water in the hot springs so we passed on a dip. Many of the villages in this area are extremely poor, particularly those that depend solely on agriculture. As with many other areas we have visited in Peru, the land is quite rich and productive, but the scale of production is holding agriculture back. Bullocks pull ploughs and men chip and cultivate by hand on the narrow terraces, many of which were built more than 1500 years ago in pre-Inca times. Again we need to remind ourselves just how recent the Inca empire really was. In the Colca Canyon area, the Inca were in power for less than 100 years before they were overcome by the Spanish in 1535.

We were on the road early on the second day of our tour to see tha Condors at Condor Crossing. Our guide recommended a 50 minute hike along the rim of the canyon for better condor viewing. We saw more than the hundreds of other tourists perched around the peak of the crossing, but the birds were a long way off.

After avoiding another enormous lunch, (if we spent more than a couple of days on a tour we would be unable to walk! Three course lunches seem to be the norm. We were able to negotiate our intake down to a plate of soup.) we joined yet another tour group for the transfer back to Puno.

Today's bus excursion took us on a rather cramped, long distance coach across the border into Bolivia and the small lakeside town of Copacabana. This was our first land border crossing in South America and it was just as advertised. On the Peru side only two immigration officers were on duty. One of these was engaged in a long-running argument with a woman who seemed to be short some significant documentation. She kept half the the total processing power of the immigration office off line for at least 20 minutes. More buses arived, the lines grew and we stood in the belting sun! Eventually, we were processed and wandered up the hill to seek out the Bolivian customs and immigration post. Not too hard to find it as it turned out. It was the building with the long line of travellers now standing in the blistering Bolivian sun. All this said, we may have been lucky. We hear that this crossing can take up to 3 hours!

Copacabana is extremely touristy, catering to the young back-packer trade. We were definitely the oldest people on our bus and, with the exception of a couple of local women staying in our hotel, we may well be the oldest travellers in town. Our reason for being here has nothing to do with the party atmosphere. We  will take a ferry tomorrow morning for the Isla Del Sol to do a three hour hike over the island, north to south.