I’m about to disappoint Sarah Brentyn (she of Lemon Shark – go there, it is worth it) for this because I offered her the opportunity to direct me on one of these A to Z tour spots and she suggested Provincetown, or P-Town. But in fact I have recently written a little about my experiences of Cape Cod and the contrast between the conservative, not to say a little prehistoric Sandwich at one end of the cape and P-Town’s liberal, verging on the libertarian let it hang style at the other. If you are interested in this (and another example of Dickhead Tours in action) go here. Sarah, if you are reading this, you can choose again – maybe R thru V?
Anyway, Peru. Back in 1987 the Textiliste and I decided we had had enough of all our holidays being spent on doing up our Herne Hill wreck and we would recklessly go somewhere exotic. Why Peru? I expect we’d seen something on the Beeb about Manchu Pichu. Anyway, I’d been promoted which meant I could take a three-week chunk of holiday, the Textiliste had her boss where she wanted him so he agreed too and off we set on our jolly.
It was October and the way to reach Peru involved a flight to Amsterdam, a long haul to Quito and a hop to Lima. Some 20 hours before we found ourselves in the surprisingly dry, grey and dusty capital.
Up to them I’d never been out of Europe. I’d never seen a slum or shanty town. I’d never seen humanity in such crammed conditions as I spied on the way from the airport to our hotel, an oasis of calm, marble and Bougainvillea and a jarring contrast.
Back then Peru had had a recent change of government (1985) and 36-year-old Alan Garcia, the South American Kennedy came to power. He came with a lot of hope but by 1987 the indications of turmoil were being to manifest themselves. Inflation was taking hold – eventually it reached over 7000% in 1990. The communist party, commonly known as the Shining Path had commenced a reign of terror in certain parts – Ayacucho was, even as we arrived, the subject of martial law. But Lima seemed peaceful enough.
Hmm, naiveté is a dangerous commodity. Still, somewhat jet lagged after our journey and with a day or two to acclimatize in Lima we put on our hats and headed off on a sightseeing walk. We’d go to the Presidential Palace, we thought.
Up to that point, my protesting had been of the sort enunciated by Wolfie Smith in the 1970s comedy, Citizen Smith – here’s the first episode with a very young Robert Lindsay. The credits tell you all you need to know. I’d marched and sat in and the police had stood around looking bored.
So it was with bit of a jolt when we found ourselves being herded by riot police and tear-gassed. That and experiencing a pisco sour were our first two shocks.
A third shock came when we signed up for a trip along the Colca canyon (at 13,500 feet deep it’s deeper by a factor of two than the Grand Canyon), in the hope of seeing the Condor flying. It took us several hours, we went as high as 15,000 feet to get there (and the altitude did me no favours – I had the usual symptoms – sickness, migraine but toothache? Bloody hell did I get tooth ache. It persisted for several days and all I could eat were papaya slices squeezed between my teeth. Any attempt to open my mouth left me feeling like my wisdom teeth would shatter).
Anyway, I discovered Coca tea, a sort of herbal infusion that would set the sniffer dogs’ dial onto ‘frenzy’ had we bought a box of teabags home with us. That eased the symptoms for a day.
We calmed down and headed for Arequipa. This colonial style town was less frenetic and cooler than Lina without the searing altitude (about half – 7000 feet). We spent another day or two here, drinking their odd vegetable beer and even more peculiar red wine (Vino Tinto Don Caesar is not to be recommended). We even sampled roast Coy – Guinea Pig. Don’t.
What I recall most was sitting drinking coffee (probably with the inevitable pisco somewhere nearby – you drink it with raw egg white. I never really developed a liking for it but when in Rome…) and listening to the seed pods on the Jacaranda trees clinking like glass mobiles above our heads.
By now we had officially acclimatised so set off for Puno on Lake Titicaca. This extraordinary inland sea separates Peru from Bolivia and is home to the Uros Indians who live on the reed islands. They are dirt poor and survive by some fishing and the inevitable tourist visits. Not for the last time did I feel uncomfortable that these ordinary people were being shown off, like some Victorian freak show, for our benefit. There is something distasteful in an affluent westerner dropping in, buying some artwork and leaving, knowing the creators of the crafts probably see a fraction of the price. They are the bottom of the pile and inevitably exploited by everyone.
I tried hardtop kill myself, leaving Puno. It was here, perhaps that my love of long distance exotic train journeys began because we caught the Trans Andean train from Puno to Cusco, crossing the Alto Plano, touching 14,000 feet on the way. When I say caught it was more of a run, jump and hang on for grim death until I managed to swing myself onto the footplate. Geez, never have I felt so likely to get squidged as I did that day. I’d been told I could hop off to take a photo but the second I dropped from the train, the bloody thing set off at high-speed. By the time I returned to my seat, sweaty and shaking, the Textiliste had read another two pages of her book. She never really grasped what had just transpired.
The stupendous mountains form a monumental backdrop to the swaying grasses of the valley floors, with local people scratching out a living aside from the inevitable begging children anytime we stopped.
Cusco is a pretty extraordinary city, managing to keep both a colonial and Inca feel to it. But really, for most people it is a gateway to Manchu Pichu. Still we had a couple of days here which we enjoyed. The cathedral contains what seemed to be an unusually forward thinking figure of Christ – he was black. That illusion was shattered when we were told that was just how the wood, from which he was carved had reacted to the rain.
From Cusco we had thought about hiking the Inca trail to Manchu Pica. No it is almost a rite of passage and both the Lawyer and the Vet have done so in the last year. However back then the Inca trail was a death trap and just a few weeks before part had collapsed under some tourists.
We caught the train but not before first hiring a local to drive us to a weekend market. His car, an extraordinary 1950s American beast took us both ways in real style and comfort (we shared it with a few others we had linked up with). Conscious of saving fuel on the way back, which was pretty much downhill, our driver simply coasted riding the brakes all the way.
Manchu Pichu is a wonder. When Hiram Bingham wandered into it in the first decade of the twentieth century, he must have thought he had found Eldorado so extraordinary is it with the sugarloaf mountain behind the altar shaped plateau on which the abandoned town sits. We climbed the mountain (I’m not sure you can anymore) and spent as much time as we could wandering around. I can still reimagine that first sight. It is breath-taking.
Our tour now took us to the Amazon but I will leave that for another time. Here are some other photos from our trip.