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Chapter 6

Chilly to Equador

Sat, 19 Jul 2003

Right. This one's probably going to be the mother of all emails, so fasten your seatbelt if you have one - or maybe you prefer just to pray to your plastic dashboard Jesus, depending upon your relative subscription to fatalism.

As an indication of its length, if you copy this text into a Word document you will end up with more or less 10 pages. So you might want to print it out and digest it in smaller chunks. Probably safer that way. Don't say I didn't warn you if you get literary indigestion, verbal heart-burn or prosaic gastroenteritis!

It has been remarked upon by certain long term correspondents that I seem to have lost my edge. Gone are the tales of ropey encounters and dangerous situations precipitated for the most part by a seemingly never-ending appetite for easy gratification. Instead you are being regaled with tales from the tapas bar. I hope to be able to assuage this tendency and, well, basically get out more and do things...

The original plan for the six weeks that Teresa & I would spend together went something like this:

Well, we stuck to the plan with some minor alterations. Chilling out in Chile went a bit far and we didn't really warm up again until we were chilling out in Ecuador and the bit in the middle was challenging but opinions varied on the rewards reaped. In any case, it's all going to seem rather fast-forward in comparison to previous chapters as we were planning to pack in 4 countries - we made a lightning dash through conservative Chile, a quick time-warp in rural Bolivia and a quick visit to the seat of power of the Incas. So without further ado, here it is: (apolgies if sometimes it reads like the Fodor guide to South America!)

Chile

T & I had a happy reunion on a Sunday morning in Santiago and enjoyed the comfort of our first Hotel Gran Palace. We had heard discouraging reports about Santiago and so stayed only 2 nights visiting the Parque del Cerro Santa Lucia which is a small but interesting botanical park in central Santiago. Built around a hill, it is a maze of paths and levels - and hence a haven for snogging couples of all types - but mostly young and presumably with nowhere else to go. We fitted right in. The next day we started our search for the perfect ceviche at the fish market. Sadly, we were put off by over-enthusiastic ceviche sales agents who pounced on us as soon as we set foot in the market.

From Santiago it was a short bus ride to the historic port of Valparaiso whose name will no doubt be familiar from history lessons regarding the naval campaigns of Franis Drake - or thereabouts. Coming from Guernsey we are a bit spoiled for quaint historic harbours and Valparaiso was something of a let-down. Traffic-choked streets, no pedestrian access to the seafront, an over-priced restaurant and our first taste of Chile’s chill all contributed to our disappointment. It seemed more decrepit than full of charm and getting lost in its foggy hills was made somewhat less relaxing by a unexpectedly stark warning from the guide book about the dangers to ones personal safety in the older parts of town. The highlight of our stay was a visit to Pablo Neruda’s house zany artist’s abode in the hills. Apparently he didn’t spend much time in Valparaiso - and to be honest, I can’t blame him! On to La Serena...

It was a longer bus ride to La Serena which was cold and foggy and a mercifully shorter journey to Vicuña about 40km inland. By an odd quirk of meteorology, those 40kms make a considerable difference and the area around Vicuña is used by the international scientific astrological for the exceptional driness and clarity of its atmospheric conditions. Observatories dot the hills all around. We stayed in Vicuña for a few days in the end and tried to do our planned chilling out phase. One of the highlights was an evening at a tourist observatory. The local amateur astronomers have a small but beautifully formed observatory which hosts interesting guides to the southern hemisphere’s night sky. You may remember me crowing about the paucity of good quality constellations in the southern skies. I was set straight by the erudite young Eduardo, our host for the night, who transformed the milky way’s "Coal-sack Nebula" into the head of the Inca’s snake constellations and the pointer stars to the Southern Cross into the eyes of the Inca llama constellation. Our first of many encounters with the llama.

At this point, T and I were still enjoying our reunion after a few weeks apart and were having a great laugh in the anonymous darkness of the observatory dome. The dry atmosphere and the frottage of our fleeces was causing quite some electricity between us so it was rather embarrassing at one point suddenly to be highlighted in the beam of Eduardo’s torch and asked to step up to the eyepiece.

It was in Vicuña (warm in the daytime, freezing cold at night) that we started to realise that Chile was not only chilly - it was brisk, nippy and decidedly parky. It was cold! In Vicuña we were some of the few tourists around and perhaps it was because of the lack of company as well as the seemingly universal policy of all the town’s restaurants to a) have not a joule or calorie of heating and to b) leave the doors wide open all night. T felt it worse than I did and it was not uncommon to find us both wrapped up in thermals and fleeces whilst we ate - and to find T wearing no less than 4 layers.

We went shopping for some warm clothes and stepped out later in fleecy or heavy wool trousers and Kurt Cobain shirts.

Next we went north on our worst bus journey - overnight with no remission for good behaviour. The schedule was strict and they wouldn’t let us get off the bus anywhere to stretch. Aaargh! And they wouldn’t sell us any chemical aids at the pharmacy either. Strange to think that at home I would get agitated by a three and a half hour train ride to Manchester - sheer luxury! - notwithstanding the company of Chelsea’s pride - the travelling "head-hunters".

Anyway, the point was San Pedro de Atacama. More bone-dry mountains but no observatories here. Nearby there are places where it HAS NEVER RAINED!!! But at least they knew how to cater for the warmth-loving grockle market here. Plenty of atmospheric bars and restaurants, well supplied with fires and stoves and most places had a bit outdoor fire-pit around which to cluster with hot chocolate and to get that desert night experience from within the comfort zone.

It was here that I met my nemesis dog. Dogs are very predictable aren’t they? They love chasing sticks and cars - and love chewing your shoes, damn them! On the night of our arrival I decided to exile my boots for some solitary time in the cooling night air. In the night I woke up to hear a scuffling noise emanating from just behind our door and joked to T that it was probably a dog eating my boots. Annoyingly prescient - in the moring light my right boot was revealed to have lost a good inch around the top surrounded by incriminating dog bite marks. Luckily there was a man in town with the wherewithall to affect an quick and excellent looking if not entirely comfortable repair. We were off on perhaps the most challenging part of our trip the next day - a 3 day Jeep ride to Uyuni on the other side of the Bolivian border. But the dogs hadn’t finished yet! On the already sleepless night before we left the hotel dog insisted on keeping us awake nearly the entire night to enjoy with him the desert chorus of dogs barking their sovreignty into the night. I was obliged on a couple of infuriating occasions, awoken just as I was about to drift off, to enter into negotiations with the mongrel about keeping the peace. Unfortunately, he wasn’t that good on memory and couldn’t seem to keep the terms of our peace treaty for longer than about 15 minutes - about enough time for T & me to start drifting off again... little bastard!

The next day we were off to Uyuni (in Bolivia) by jeep: three days and two nights in the high altitude desert and bad-lands spanning the border between Chile and Bolivia. We hadn't slept too well the night before and the mood was further affected by the cold which we were both dreading. T set off wearing, I think, 3 layers on the bottom half and 4 on the top. It wasn't quite that bad and the jeep turned out to be better than I had anticipated. I had been fearing an open truck (or "ute") with us bouncing along in the back hanging on for dear life whilst suffering permanent spinal damage. In fact it was Toyota Landcruiser with seats for all and even though T & I were squeezed in the back, it was actually quite comfortable... The main discomfort we suffered over the next days was internal - T & I were on a 4 litre a day regime to help cope with the altitude and kept having to ask to stop every 20-30 minutes or so! At least we didn't get sick though - unlike one of the American girls in our jeep, who had quite a bad turn at one point, notwithstanding the coca tea (give me PG Tips every time!)

Our fellow pilgrims were two American girls and an amiable couple from Newcastle/ Ireland called Drew & Fiona who provided some much needed humour and sympathy! People have told me that Israelis, Scandinavians and British people all stick together. I can see the first two but hadn't really noticed it amongst the Brits until then, but it's true, Brits do tend to flock together with satellite Aussies, Americans and occasional others - and I think it's largely to do with the humour and general approach to life. They're used to everything being crap or worse and can take it all lightly. So refreshing after travelling with the serious-minded johnny-foreigner! Or maybe it's just a colonial swash-buckling attitude... ;-)

So, anyway, err, please forgive any tendency towards jingoism in that last paragraph and back to the plot. The scenery over those days was quite spectacular! I love that kind of thing, especially if psychotropics are involved! I first discovered it in Nepal (where the Anapurna Circuit map has marked along the way "fields of marijuana" here & here...) climbing up to 4500 meters and still being way beneath the surrounding hills. But that's another story! On the first day of the jeep trip, we climbed from San Pedro at 2500 meters through soaring peaks and alongside glaciers to the shack-like Bolivian frontier post at over 4000 meters (Drew remarked that the poor buggers who are stationed there must have done something really wicked!) Soon afterwards we saw lakes of white and green which are caused by mineral deposits; apparently they've both got the same thing in them but the wind whips up to make the green lake green and to cause a deep froth around the edge. Some people waded in, to their later chagrin, as their clothes seemed to be permanently stained with a nasty white mess. :-) After that, a quick visit to some stinking sulfurous geysers and then on for lunch at the red lake (another kind of mineral deposit) which is surrealed inhabited by pink flamingos. At which point, I think it was, we saw our first of many llamas!

Quite trippy, all of it - and with soundtrack provided by Drew (aka Prof Gadget) with his 40Gb mp3 player and travel speakers. We would all throw in requests which he would then (most often successfully) try to locate. I think he said he had 5000 tracks or thereabouts!

That night we were anticipating the roughest night of our lives, having been warned of -15ºC temperatures INSIDE the huts. But it wasn't that bad; we stayed at a modest and friendly place (with a flushing toilet!) at 3900m. In fact we have to say a big thanks to the American girl at this point without whose altitude sickness we would have been staying at the usual shit-pit barracks at 4500m! :-) Nevertheless it was chilly, parky, etc. I tried to tough it out when everyone else had crawled into their 3 layers and sleeping bag/blanket combos and tried to sleep in only my thermals and the blankets provided. It went OK until about 4am in the morning. Have you ever noticed that not only is the darkest hour before dawn, but so is the coldest? I had to admit defeat and added a sleeping bag layer to my blankets and managed to dose off again.

On the next day it was THE BADLANDS! I've got no idea why they are called the badlands - one kind of imagines a shadow of the valley of death or something, n'est ce pas? But they're not really that bad per se - in fact they're quite nice - and rather spectacular. Unless, that is, you get stranded in them, I suppose, in which case you couldn't help but be influenced negatively in regards to them. Luckily for me this time I was in a group this time and somewhat bound by the itinerary so I didn't but as a (very) part-time climber I couldn't resist going and attacking the most interestingly shaped and photogenic formation I could find every time we stopped, only to find out repeatedly that they are made somewhat more challenging by their altitude.

Leaving the badlands we could see manifest before us the landscape-sized creases created by the folding of the South American continental plate as it collides (and rides above) the South Pacific (aka "Nazca") plate. Next came a magnificently deep canyon at the top of which we did the obligatory album-cover shots (with help from Drew's several gadgetty cameras). Later we crossed the rail-track from Chile at a borax mine (err... what's borax, you ask, according to my research it's chemical name is hydrated sodium borate and it's a very versatile cleaner/disinfectant/deodorant but it's gone out of favour - probably about the same time as everyone stopped drinking Ovaltine and Horlicks, I would guess!). Anyway, what came to mind at the time and throughout the journey was how much mineral wealth there was in them there hills... and all the wars fought over this spectacular but bleak bit of the earth's crust. Chile, Bolivia and Peru have all done it and, like dogs, they established their local order of power with Chile as top dog and Bolivia as mangy mutt. Bleeding dogs - don't get me started on dogs, let me tell you..!

Anyway, that night we stayed on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni and were distracted from a particularly spectacular sunset by the fact that the temperature outside was dropping drastically and there was a nice warm room inside with real electricity and even hot showers (sometimes!). The lecky didn't help us sleep too well though. Even though we were lower than the night before, we spent the night tossing and turning punctuated by the occasional snore from the lucky ones - and the occasional insufficiently discreet fart, usually from my direction (I blame it on the altitude!)

It was therefore, somewhere between a shock and a relief to have to get up at 5.30am to head off to see the sunset from on the Salar de Uyuni itself. After the last two days on rough and ready trails, it was blissfully smooth to arrive at our goal and drive onto the salt flats. The driver turned off his lights (it was stil dark), accelerated and let go of the steering wheel. Something of a showman, really, but it left us hoping that there wasn't a stray llama out there who had got up early for a stroll down to the newsagent or something.

We arrived just in time and sunrise over the Salar was fascinating. We watched from a cactus-garden island rising from the middle of the vast white flatness. Very strange and wonderful! Sunrise is always spectacular but it was special here in this other-wordly place! Teresa and I had a romantic moment as the sun came up - then went down on to the salt flats to play. It feels strangely intimate in that seemingly endless expanse of whiteness - almost like being in a game - or that world which Homer Simpson goes to when he goes 3D. There was a big bunch of rich English students with posh accents on a geology field trips and rahs being rahs, they had the doors of their jeep open and were playing some very loud techno. So T & I tangoes for a while, then joined them and raved for a while, then just played around with our shadows, making shapes on the blank page of the Salar. Later we drove on - through a salt farm: great piles of salt stretching out into the distance, yet covering only a tiny proportion of the Salar's 12 000 square kilometers.

Bolivia

From there it was on to Uyuni, stopping for chips along the way! (Bolivia is big on potatoes - there are 250 varieties cultivated apparently!) We checked into the town's most luxurious hotel, the strange and rather basic Hotel Kori Wasi. But it was sheer luxury to have our own room and bathroom! And there was a restaurant where they had real, nice pasta! And wine! Aaaah!

But as you can tell, we were on the move! No rest 'til Cusco! So next day we went on to Potosi and it was on that bus that we got our first real taste of Bolivia. And it tasted of... raw llama. It was a step back in time to come from the relative modernity of San Pedro and Chile to the almost 19th century feel of Bolivia. This is a rural country! but arid! The main farming seems to be livestock - llamas to be specific. It's always puzzling, though, to see people getting on and off the buses seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes it's in a small settlement, sometimes it's at a place where there is nothing on the horizon at all which might signify life, the only landmark being a llama track heading off into rocks and scrub. The smell of llamas seemed to pervade Bolivia but we realised later that it was a localised thing. The culprit for our particular pong identified himself (rather brazenly I thought!) when he got off the bus just before Potosi and his luggage was unloaded from the roof; sacks of llama body parts. I'm sure the lucky recipients were looking forward to a nice bit of llama - for a change!

Potosi is high too - at 3800 meters - and exhausting - and prone to black-outs. Or at least I hope it is. As I plugged in my music player to recharge, all of the town's electricity went off - err, but I suppose it could have been my fault with my stack of travel adapters... Anyway, another sleepless night, notwithstanding our increasing level of hotel luxury. It was here that I discovered that my brother's baby had finally made an appearance. Hoorah and well done to Will and Sally! No doubt T & my last few sleepless nights would pale into insignificance...

The next day we went on to La Paz where we vowed to stay for at least a few relaxing days. La Paz has the distinction of being the highest capital city in the world. A long bus journey, it was enlivened at the end by our arrival in La Paz. We were expecting La Paz to rise up in front of us, but in fact the road is at the north end of the Altiplano at 4200 meters and the valley in which the city lies falls away from the road to reveal a twinkling star-scape of city lights. Back to civilisation! A quick taxi ride took us to the best hotel in town - the Hotel Gran Palace where we took a suite (!!) with cable TV and room service! Nice! I'll take a G & T!

Four days we spent in La Paz having varying kinds of fun. Shopping for a charrango (a tiny 5 stringed instrument), oggling at the disgusting llama foetuses available at the "witches market" and used in the preparation of good luck charms, apparently, eating Italian, coffee and bacon sarnies at Pete's cafe, seeing The Matrix Reloaded (fun to escape but really only a generous 6 out of 10), visiting the coca museum (1. finding out that it was only salt in their lab mock-up but 2. being sick on the floor after trying to chew it and 3. finding out that it really works for altitude sickness - it makes your body use less oxygen and more body fat - for real!) and visiting the National Art Museum. All the time staying in the Hotel Gran Palace. Nice!

The luxury continues as we took the Crillon Tours trip to the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca which lies on the border between Bolivia and Peru, a couple of hours by bus north of La Paz. We went via Copocobana (the original one - after which the beach in Rio was named!) and the Isla de la Luna where the previous inhabitants (Tiahuanaco or Inca) would keep their virgins for safe keeping, but where the locals now only keep their herd of (surprisingly) Guernsey cows. It felt like home, mon vieux!

Arriving on the Isla del Sol we spotted a rather amusing little incident. We pulled into the harbour at the same time as a local Kon-Tiki style reed boat with local residents labouring at the oars. "What they will do for the tourists!" we thought. A couple of dozen tourists disembarked and headed off in their catamaran... after which the reed boat suddenly sprouted a plume of black smoke from one of it reed-bunch corners and the rowers lay back and lit cigarettes as their vessel powered off back the way it had come, making quite good speed.

The Isla del Sol was one of the highlights for T and me. We were given the eagles' nest at the top of Hotel Posada del Inca and the food was great. On the first night there was some kind of festival in progress in the small enclosed field next to the hotel - some saint's day I think - which would apparently mean 7 - count them! - 7 days of pure debauchery for the entire village. We went to have a look and didn't feel particularly welcome. Conspicuous as the only gringos in the field, we felt rather uncomfortable, but more so because of the level of drunkeness which had been attained by the locals. The band was still blasting it out and many were reeling around the field; many were also reeling around totally lashed. One man toppled over almost on top of T, not to be seen to move again. We retreated and tried to capture a little snippet of video for posterity. I was narrating conscientiously when T noticed that one of the traditionally dressed women was squatting just in front of my field of vision and a suspicious trickle was running down the hill away from her. Oh my gawd! Let's get out of here! It was worse than the "South Show" in Guernsey!

We proceded up the hill to partake in the rejuvenating "energy"-drenched sunset on the Isla del Sol by finding a restaurant with a garden and getting the beers in. From where we were, we could here the strains of the music from the village down below but the musicians were clealy a little the worse for wear. They were playing a ragged version of what seemed to be the same tune, endlessly repeated. But suddenly there was a short break and the strains of a different and fresher tune drifted up to us. We wondered whether perhaps they had some kind of subs bench system: when, for instance, their key umpah-loompah player finally succumbs to the alchohol poisoning he has been courting since 10am and blocks up his horn with sick, they call on their super-sub to take control at the centre of the field. It's at this point that the music benefits from a new burst of vim (which, incidentally, is probably what the umpah-loompah player's horn will require the day after), the dancers whirl afresh and a new strain develops for half an hour before melding back into the old favorite again.

Our co-occupants of the Posada del Inca were the members of a group of American tourists who had come to Peru as prescribed by the Celestine Prophesy and had come to the Isla del Sol to be healed/re-birthed at this famously energetic spot. The next day (day 2 of 7!) we walked the length of the island - a beautiful walk on which one could imagine being in the mediterranean, seeing the "sea" on both sides of the island and the mountains around La Paz forming the backdrop (but all of it at around 4000m above sea level!). At the north of the island there are ruins - a temple complex with a maze of chapels, meditation rooms and living quarters once occupied by the religious warrior devotees of the Tiahuanaco empire. And it was there that we saw the Americans on top of the ruins with some kind of energy stick business which they were pointing in the direction of Alpha Centauri or thereabouts.

Some time later, we saw the men, led by their portly silver-fox David Hasslehof leader and their own imported guru, chanting and raising their energy to levels at which they might transcend this mortal world. The women, demonstrating, I thought, some lack of solidarity, sat around chatting rather than focusing their life forces. It was probably this lack of fortitude which let them all down. Their presence back at the hotel that night bearing witness to the fact that they had, unfortunately for all concerned, failed to tune their energy to the higher, non-physical frequency requisite for their departure to the stars.

Peru

From there we moved quickly on to Cusco, barring a quick stop in what might well qualify as the weirdest volleyball match in the world on islands of Uros. The village between whose houses the local women's grudge match was being played floated on a 10m thick raft of reed at 3820m above sea level. Tricky, I would say, but it didn't seem to affect the players who were obviously used to it. Probably on performance-enhancing drugs, I would say! Oranges and cocaine all round at half-time.

Cusco, we had been led to believe, was a traveller's paradise. It is full of restaurants, gift shops, tour agencies and hotels, pubs and bars. It has all the trappings of said paradise but like so many other of our stops, it was cold! But we enjoyed it, nevertheless. We went to the Blueberry Lounge for fusion food, Los Perros for their comfy sofas and wine, the excellent Japanese restaurant for noodles and the infamous Mama Africa's for a night out. Err, I'm veering towards the culinary, aren't I?

However, looming large on the agenda was one of the highlights of our trip, the Inca Trail. Three busy days and easy nights in Cusco later we were off on the bus to "kilometer 82". We dropped to below 3000m for the first time in over two weeks and passed through the orderly agricultural village of Ollantaytambo which can trace the origin of its amazing irrigation system to pre-Inca times.

The walk was beautiful if somewhat blighted by some apparently exceptionally rare dry-season rain (that's what they always say!) Perhaps we were rewarded by the flowers encouraged out by the water... or perhaps we just got wet! Our guide was the archaeologically and botanically encyclopaedic but only 20 year old Cusceña Elizabeth. She taught us about the plants - the agarve for Tequila and a plant called Floriapondia which when brewed up with a certain cactus makes a Carlos Castenada-esque halucinogen which requires the user to have a "spirit guide". The alternative being an almost certain trip into the realms of m-a-d-n-e-s-s. Sadly my current tale won't encompass such a trip.

It's not longer possible to walk the Inca Trail unaccompanied. These days it's obligatory to go on in organised group with guide, porters and cooking provided. Which is just as well in my view - bugger carrying all that stuff! In our group we were fortunate with the company again, especially with the British lads who were spanking their way around Peru. Every ruin or vista was an opportunity for a spanking photo using the walking sticks they had acquired. You can imagine their glee upon discovering that the large package of jam which we used for breakfast and afternoon tea was emblazoned proudly with the brand name of FANNY! It was a constant source of amusement for all parties, I must admit; even the US mummy's boy and his mummy joined in the jocularity, unaware, perhaps that their mild slang for the posterior, be it male or female, had somewhat different connotations in the mother tongue. A good laugh eased the pain of camping, rather, for the first night.

The second day was the hardest, climbing from 2800m to 4200m at the highest pass. T, usually not a big chocolate fan became an convert over 3000m - anything for the energy and we stocked up on about 5 assorted Snickers and Twixes each. The summit itself was a major victory - everyone suffered physically that day, one way or another, everyone on the way up, many on the way down too. Another hour or so took us to a regular canvas city of a camp site where we spent the second night - and where navigating back from the toilet in the dark posed a serious challenge.

That night passed well enough except for the usual camping fun: stones under the mat, sloping camp site leading one to slump during the course of the night into the bottom corner of the tent and of course the cold and the damp. The whole thing can be quite stressful unless you've just done your gold Duke of Edinburgh award and are used to such privations. Needless to say, neither T nor I have. (T got her gold more a good few years ago and I was in the make-believe army called the CCF instead. :-)

Morning came - mostly welcome. We had arranged to leave the site at 6am and hence be have the trail and ruins to ourselves by being first out. Anyway, the days often started rather humourlessly but gaining momentum and some body warmth and being able to see without a torch was usually enough to cheer us up after an hour or so.

The third day was the longest walk and we slowly descended, passing the ruins of a magnificent fortress temple which marked the transition between the alpine and jungle climates. It was also the nicest day's walk with long stretchs of ... just flat! Aaah! Waterfalls, streams and ruins. A lovely, relaxing day's walk. And the campsite at the end of it was a luxury campsite too with hot showers (but the most frustrating queue in the world for them), real tables and a real kitchen. The cooks competed to make the most impressive looking food and T told me that it was a traditional Inca feast. Hmm! She was making it up. Later, the dining room became a sort of high-altitude discoteque with spinning mirror ball, disco lights and all the cheesy pop you could shake a stick at. T and I danced, naturally, the tango, probably much to the annoyance of those around us. We didn't care! We were boozed and happy. But in retrospect, not the best-timed party, perhaps, because the next day we had an even earlier start than the day before in order to reach Macchu Picchu before sunrise.

Of course it is magnificent and marvellous but somehow the anticipation of several years undermined the actual event, possibly aided and abetted by the massive crowds. We watched sunrise from the approach to Macchu Picchu from the Sun Gate and the practicalities of looking for the perfect spot, meanwhile not climbing on any of the ruins to get a good view undercut the whole experience a little. Don't get me wrong, it was great - a once in a lifetime experience - but possibly the biggest smiles of the day were reserved for the cafe at the entrance to the Macchu Picchu park where they served mugs of tea and massive bacon and egg rolls. Aaah - who needs ancient culture when you've got food?

And now my Inca soap-box rant. We had met a friend of Becky's (my sister-in-law) in Cusco whose boyfriend was a rather unwell looking American photo-journalist called James who has done a lot of work concerning the Incas (too much, he said!). He is not entirely convinced by the whole Inca story which, he says is rather fabricated as a focal point for Peruvian tourism, the party line brooking no opposition in this regard. (In fact Elizabeth told us that the Incas was the name of the kings of the "Inca" empire but the name has stuck and now means the civilisation as a whole.) Anyway, the Incas civilisation was only around for less than a century, previously only controlling a small area around Cusco which has led James (and many academics) to question the ability of the Incas to build everything with which they are creditted in such a short time-span. In fact it's more likely that the Incas inheritted a lot of their edifices and skills from previous cultures. Nevertheless and notwithstanding the rather optimistic time frame foisted upon them by the Peruvian tourist board, their achievements as the acme of per-colombian South American civilisation are not diminished in my view. 9 out of 10 for Macchu Picchu, though perhaps only 3 out of 10 for my own experience - one can't help feeling rather overwhelmed by the other 699 people who are allowed on the trail every day or the other thousands who just visit Macchu Picchu.

Macchu Picchu is at 2400 meters - which is a real relief after all those 3000m plus places we had previously visited. From the height of the pass on the second day, minus an overnight stop in Cusco, we were on our way down to the beach.

The train on the way back to Cusco rounded off our exhausting last day with its backwards and forwards antics as for the last day it inched down the hill towards Cusco. We had a last meal at the Blueberry Lounge (missing Jim

y Jo - sorry guys!) and went to (a real) bed!

The next day was yet another exhauasting 4.30am start as we headed straight for the beach and flew out of Cusco via Lima to Guayaquil in Ecuador for the reward we had promised ourselves after all the culturally enriching, educational and COLD hard work of the high places.

Ecuador

Guayaquil is Ecuador's biggest but not it's capital city, in the south west of the country. We arrived around midday and, perhaps setting some kind of record, by 6pm we were checked in to the Hotel Montañita right on the sea-front, with a back-ground of crashing waves providing the soundtrack.

Aaah! Holiday time with the sand, sea, and err... sun. No! Sand and sea - check, but no sign of the sun whatsoever. Looking at a map of the world you would be forgiven for thinking that this must be a hot and sunny place - it's almost on the equator after all! No, we came in the cloudy and rainy season, damn it! We had to wear our fleeces out on the first night - but by this time I suppose we were used to it! But it wasn't quite the beach time we had so long anticipated. There was surf and great food (fruit and sea-food) and a laid back atmosphere and a bar called the smoke shop, and, well, we had a nice time anyway and it was sunny every third afternoon for a couple of hours and it didn't rain much but dammit, it wasn't really beach weather!

The time slipped by as time tends to do in those sort of places and perhaps the most notable thing we did was go whale-watching off a town called Puerto Lopez and visit the Isla de la Plata where the dread pirate ... Francis Drake (oi, that's Sir Francis to you, Mr Spanish-centric guide!) dumped a few tonnes of silver one time and which is now inhabited most by... wait for it... boobies. Masked, red-footed and blue-footed boobies. Well, we had a bit of a chortle about that one! Childish, perhaps, but what can you do? The whales were good - it's not often you see a hump-back going about its business - but I bet they don't appreciate being buzzed by 6 tourist boats a day when they're all hot and want to get on with some nice quiet mating.

All too soon it was time for T to head back to Guernsey to undertake her dreaded reverse transformation from fleecey traveller back to high flying and respectable banking executive. In retrospect, perhaps we tried to do too much but perhaps mellowed by time, we will pick out the best bits and forget all the pain - and above all, the cold.

On T's last day, we headed back to Guayaquil so that she could catch the Iberia flight back to London. We were a couple of hours early and, because of my recently dodgy stomach (probably due to a couple of litres of disgusting sewagey tasting sea-water I had ingested whilst surfing a couple of days before) she treated me to a nice lunch at The Hilton. We made quite a sight trekking in there with our fleeces and bags, but bugger it, wasn't our money as good as anyone else's? As I was tucking into my first substantial meal in the last three days, I noticed on the menu that this was not any old Hilton, but the Hilton Colon. Ah, yes!

A sad and protracted farewell to T later, I was on my lonesome again. So back to Montañita to drown my sorrows - or myself if their neck-breaking beach break...

Only one more to go after this one and you can give your inbox a rest.

Cheers

Rob

PS Did you get it? Correct! Chilly is spelt C-h-i-l-e and Equador is spelled with a "c", not a "qu". Well done! Give yourself a pat on the back. :-)