All good things…

Around the World trip: WEEKS 23 and 24

ARGENTINA
Jujuy province to Buenos Aires – and the journey home.

by Xavier (and Simon)

Well, we have now completed our journey across South America, from the Caribbean coast of Colombia all the way to the capital of Argentina. This is also the end of the third and last leg of our trip around the world; it’s amazing how these six months have just flown by.

Crossing the border between Bolivia and Argentina was quite uneventful. Our bus from Tupiza dropped us at Villazón and we just walked to the immigration control and into La Quiaca, in the northern province of Jujuy, where we got on another bus to Tilcara – a journey we had already done once before, in 2009. It was great to be back in Argentina.

Map: Northern and Central Argentina

Villazón-La Quiaca border crossing

Argentina is a very special place for me. My great-grandfather took his wife and their numerous children across the Atlantic from Spain to Buenos Aires via Montevideo in the early 1900s, and settled there for some years before returning to Europe. All of his children, mostly grownups by then, remained in Argentina except for his youngest daughter – my formidable grandmother – and as a result, I have an extensive collection of relatives in Buenos Aires and other cities in Central Argentina, that probably account for at least half the family. It was only ten years ago when I travelled to Argentina for the first time. I fell hopelessly in love with it and I have been fortunate to visit many times since. But I digress…

Tilcara

Tilcara is lovely, perfect for enjoying the great outdoors. As we had been before, we had planned to stay only two days but ended up staying five, making good use of our walking boots whilst getting to know the area more. Simon visited the Pucará, an archeological site just outside Tilcara, on a day when I was happy to just sit in the sun; we both hiked around Purmamarca, and through the Red Canyon at Quebrada de las Señoritas, in nearby Uquía – driving on the way past the highest vineyards in the world, Viñas del Perchel, at over 2,600 metres; they produce a small amount of fine altitude wine every year. Of course we took full advantage of the excellent food and wine on offer in Tilcara – compared to Bolivia we had died and gone to Heaven here. The very first restaurant we tried on our previous visit is still open and probably the best place to eat for miles; totally recommended. We were also really well looked after at the great B&B we stayed at – if you are reading this, thank you Mara (and Tomás) for the hospitality, we wish you all the best!

Tilcara

Quebrada de las Señoritas, Uquía

Quebrada de las Señoritas, Uquía

Pucará de Tilcara

on the road, Tilcara

Purmamarca, Jujui

We were sad to leave Tilcara but it was at this point when it downed on us that we didn’t have much time before we had to reach Buenos Aires, so we pressed on and headed to Salta on our way to Cafayate, a place we’d wanted to visit for a long time. Not entirely coincidentally, some of the best wine in Argentina is produced there.

Salta hadn’t changed much since we were there last four years ago. We just stopped for one night to break the journey and change money. We stayed in a very cheap and highly praised hostel a short walk from the centre of town, which I guess was ok – hostels in cities are seldom brilliant – but our room made the underside of a bridge look like a suite at Le Méridien so I was glad we didn’t stay longer. Alas, such are the joys of backpacking.

Cafayate turned out to be a very pleasant little town. The countryside around it is ideal for the production of Torrontés (white) and Tannat (red) wines – though other varieties are also produced. The vineyards are planted at over 2,000 metres, so the wine produced is known as “altitude wine” – vino de altura. We only stayed a couple of days, in a rather nice hostel and spent our time visiting various wineries, where we learnt about the local wine making process, and got to sample different wines and take some with us too – which presented us with the challenge of finding space in our already overstuffed backpacks (we managed).

vineyards in Cafayate

Domingo Molina winery, Cafayate

Cafayate

Cafayate loot

Argentinians are a funny bunch…

image: Yahoo Sports, Tumblr.

It is impossible to spend any time in Argentina without being fascinated by the people, their accent, the way they go about life. Conversations invariably turn to the country’s political and economic woes – the scale of which makes most similar issues in Europe pale in comparison.

Argentina is a relatively rich, developed country but has a long history of really, really awful governments. This dates back to at least the 1970s and early 1980s, when the CIA installed murderous military dictatorships in most Latin American countries – applying the expression “Better dead than red” literally. But Argentina’s brutal dictatorship managed to go further than the rest by murdering far more people (a particularly heinous killing method was to throw perceived “enemies” off military aircraft over the sea or inside volcanic craters, alive; thousands died this way), as well as collapsing the economy and starting a war. Successive governments after the dictatorship have been content with stealing from the people rather than killing them – although that is now being debated – but the tradition of collapsing the economy continues. Which brings us to the currency issues we have had here.

100 pesos

As Argentinians have learnt not to trust their government with their money, they prefer to hold US dollars. This has generally been accepted but the current government has tried to maintain an artificially high exchange rate in order to combat the high inflation that in parallel it forges national statistics to show does not exist. Officially, the exchange rate is around 8.5 pesos to the US dollar – the dólar oficial – and that is what we would pay if we took pesos out of an ATM with our foreign cards. But it is not possible to buy dollars at that price, except perhaps if you are very well connected. Argentinians are allowed to save a bit in dollars under conditions, for a 20% surcharge (the dólar ahorro), and they can use credit or debit cards abroad, for a 30% surcharge (the dólar turista). Otherwise, if they need dollars (which they often do – many transactions including property are set in dollars), they turn to the black market (the dólar blue): the exchange rate is usually between 12.5 and 14, and is published each day in the newspapers – despite being technically illegal.

This is economic lunacy. It means Argentina’s exporters are crippled, foreign investment is deterred, and imports are artificially cheap. In turn, the government has sought to limit imports by imposing largely arbitrary restrictions, but this means Argentinian industrial plants have closed because they are not allowed to import spare parts from abroad, and many foreign companies have quit the country. It should also mean that Argentina is a relatively expensive country to visit, deterring tourism. Except, of course, that no half-sensible tourist pays the official exchange rate. Tourists bring enough dollars in cash to cover their entire stay in the country – we crossed the border from Bolivia with US$2,000 distributed about our backpacks. The fact that everyone does this would seem to make people crossing the border an obvious target for robbers, but this doesn’t seem to happen. Changing money on the black market is easy – it’s advertised everywhere. In Salta the traders stood outside the official bureau de change on the main square, undeterred by the presence of copious numbers of police, who clearly didn’t care about it – or the large “Legalise cannabis” demonstration we saw, where many of the participants were openly smoking it. We have spent a lot of time here checking and comparing exchange rates, and although we rarely got a rate as a good as the “official” black market rate published in the newspapers, this has allowed our budget to go a lot further than it otherwise would have done.

After Cafayate we had a good 20 hour bus journey to Rosario via Tucumán, where we stopped briefly to grab a bite before getting on an overnight freezer, sorry, bus. The last time we were in Rosario we also stopped for one night only and stayed in a fantastic hotel way beyond the budget for this trip, but still managed to find a very decent alternative in the centre. We needed to change more money but failed to spot any street traders – the Police cracks down every now and then. The helpful concierge at our hotel (one of the girls if you ask me) pointed us to a local pub a short walk away where we had no problem with the transaction. Later that evening we met my cousin Rodolfo and his partner Emilia, who had driven from nearby San Nicolás to see us. They gave us a tour of the city and then invited us to a lovely dinner, which was extremely kind of them. Both of them are chartered accountants, it was very interesting to hear their views on the economy, politics, and the rampant corruption that affects all levels of public administration in Argentina.

steak fest in Rosario

Buenos Aires has always felt like a second home for us. It is very much a grand European city in the heart of South America – also a city of stark contrasts: the bus from Rosario dropped us off at Retiro station, next to which we were shocked to see a growing shanty town, known in Buenos Aires as La Villa, which wasn’t there four years ago. We heard that Argentina is having a serious, increasing problem with drugs and everything that comes with them, which we found terribly sad.

Social commentary apart, we wanted to end this trip on a high note so said no more hostels and rented instead a really cool apartment in Palermo via Airbnb. Some years ago most of Palermo was a practically derelict, sprawling working class neighbourhood with high levels of crime. Today, one can find more and more restored buildings, modern apartments, trendy hotels and restaurants, upmarket shops, cafés, and a younger, more middle class crowd.

Our five days in Buenos Aires were very chilled. We mainly hung out with my cousin Christian and his family – we always have a great time with them – and visited my “aunt” Lucía (her father was one of my grandmother’s brothers but she was more like a sister to my mother – feel free to read that again) and her husband Basilio, whom I love dearly, as well as their many children and grandchildren.

We also treated ourselves to more steak and wine, obviously, though that’s practically all we have eaten since we arrived in Argentina and we are both seriously craving greens and fresh fruit!

Palermo apartment

wine had been consumed

with Lucía and Basilio

And suddenly it was time to pack and head to the airport to catch our plane home – where we arrived today after an overnight flight to Madrid and a connecting flight to Heathrow, both courtesy of Iberia (“your cabin crew will ensure that no comprehensible English is spoken on this flight“).

It was nice to encounter rain and severe delays on the Piccadilly Line on arrival at Heathrow – it’s as if we’d never left. We should now enjoy a quiet weekend before returning to the daily grind next week. We’ll try to post one more entry to the blog over the weekend. A final round-up of the trip, as it were.

In the meantime, we’re home!

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

A matter of perspective.

Around the World trip: WEEK 22

BOLIVIA
La Paz and Salar de Uyuni.

by Xavier

Map: Bolivia

There is an English pub (take this appellation with a pinch of salt) in La Paz called Oliver’s Travels; on one of its walls it reads: “IF WE CAN’T REACH YOUR STANDARDS, LOWER YOUR STANDARDS.” – which could very well be a slogan from the Bolivian Tourist Board. This is by no means a criticism. Yes, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and that is obvious to any visitor, but at the same time it is still one of the most fascinating destinations.

This part of our trip echoed two previous visits to South America; one in 2009 when we travelled around Perú, and another one in 2011, when we travelled by land from Bolivia to Argentina for the first time and almost exactly to the date. Puno didn’t seem to have changed much in the six years since our last visit, which is a shame, but we were only stopping for one night to break the journey into Bolivia, so it didn’t matter. People mainly come to Puno to visit Lake Titicaca and its attractions, and/or on their way to Bolivia – like us on this occasion. One of the guys with whom we did the tour of the Colca Canyon had also travelled to Puno with us and we met briefly for pizza and beer in the evening, after we’d left our backpacks in the rather forgettable hotel we’d booked for the night. And that’s about it. We were off to La Paz in the morning, stopping in Copacabana to change buses after crossing the border with Bolivia. The bus from Copacabana dropped us in the centre of La Paz about three hours later, having spent a fair bit of that time driving through El Alto

video: Global Nomads Group channel, YouTube.

La Paz was just as crazy as we remembered. The same chaotic traffic, the multitude of street vendors, the long steep streets that, with the altitude, really put one’s lung capacity to the test. I loved it. The city sprawls over a vast canyon, with its poorer suburbs – El Alto – at over 4,000 metres, and its much wealthier neighbourhoods about 1,000 metres below. We found a nice looking hostel in the historical centre, which is more or less half way up, and where most travellers stay. We didn’t really do much while in La Paz, as we had already seen most of the more interesting sites before, so we mainly concentrated in finding nice places to eat and drink, which in La Paz can be a bit of a challenge.

These days the city boasts a growing shiny cable car network – the Teleférico – that connects far-flung neighbourhoods, and the chance to check it out proved of course irresistible for Simon. It is certainly a great way to get a measure of the size and shape of La Paz. One of the lines takes you from Sopocachi, a very trendy neighbourhood, down to a newly built area at the bottom of the canyon where you can find the rather incongruous Megacenter; a huge modern shopping mall that would rival the average Westfield – though in size only – but which on the day we went had only a tiny handful of people in it, with most shops totally void of customers, as if we were in the Latin American equivalent of Pyongyang. Very odd.

On the cable car, La Paz

Always in search of the next death defying thrill, Simon had been very keen from the start of the trip to get to La Paz. One of the main attractions for visitors to La Paz is the cycle ride down the road to Coroico, in the jungle nearly 3,000 metres below the city. Universally known as The Death Road, it was labelled the world’s most dangerous in 1995 when it was still the main route for traffic down from the city – in one infamous incident a bus drove off the edge killing over a hundred people. A new paved road opened in 2007 and the old road is now used as a tourist attraction. Insurance is required – not surprisingly – but our insurer, Columbus, wanted a whopping £140 to add a day’s mountain biking to our travel insurance, requiring us to retrospectively buy it for the full five months we have already been travelling for. So we didn’t go – thanks guys, we’ll use a different insurer next time. Alas, it might be worth pointing out that mishaps are not uncommon every year so, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely disappointed that we didn’t do it. This item on the BBC website expands a little on the subject.

As we looked for other interesting things to do or see in La Paz we came across Cholita wrestling, an extraordinary thing indeed which we also missed on this occasion, but which I have penciled in for the next time we come to La Paz.

video: Vice magazine channel, YouTube.

Going back to our hostel, it was rather nice and in a great location, and the staff were terrific, especially the lady who runs it; but our room was tiny, had no ventilation other than a window into the hallway, and was so bitterly cold that we had no option but to move out after the second night, and seek refuge for the next – and last – two nights in La Paz in the hotel where we stayed during our previous visit; which happened to be nearby, available, and totally over budget – but well worth it if you ask me.

And without further ado, we continued our journey towards Argentina and travelled the 730 kilometres (450 miles) from La Paz to the world famous Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, spread over 12,000 square kilometres – which is noticeably larger than Qatar and only slightly smaller than Vanuatu.

Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia has some of South America’s few remaining long distance trains. Despite being slow, they remain useful because many of the parallel roads are in a terrible condition. The first stage of our journey south from La Paz was a bus ride to Oruro, three and a half hours away along a smooth, wide, direct road – in fact remarkably un-Bolivian. The bus, however, was very Bolivian. It appeared not to have been cleaned in many years and, not to put too fine a point, it stank. In Oruro we boarded the train to Uyuni after a short break. The rather misnamed Expreso del Sur – the South Express – took nearly seven hours for little over 300 kilometres, but it was at least clean and fairly comfortable, and for £5 each we had steak with chips and a large beer in the restaurant car.

Expreso del Sur, Oruro, Bolivia

Once in Uyuni, we stayed at the same place as the previous time. When we first visited in 2011 we did a three-day tour of the salt flat plus the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve on a battered 4×4. On that occasion much of the salt flat was flooded and we couldn’t get to it, so here was our second chance. The town doesn’t really have much in it other than tour agencies and cheap places to eat, and it’s almost exclusively the main base from where to visit the salt flat and surrounding area – though to be fair it has also hosted all the off-road races of the legendary Dakar rally in 2014 and 2015, and it will do so again in 2016, so kudos Uyuni.

Opportunist tour agents pounce on the travellers that arrive on the evening train from Oruro in the hope of selling overpriced (more often than not) tours the following day. Most tours depart from Uyuni around 11:30am and there are plenty of agencies around town which offer similar services at not too dissimilar prices (except for Red Planet, who charge double than the rest because they provide English speaking guides, we were told) so it’s very advisable to browse before booking a tour. Also, space in the 4×4’s is not very generous. Seven people including the driver is the absolute acceptable maximum in our experience, even for the one-day tours. We also think a guide is unnecessary unless you don’t speak a word of Spanish, but even so; the more people in the car, the worse. There is, however, no safe bet when booking a tour. All cars are the same (they only last about five years) and if one is not filled with a group from the same agency they will fill it with people from other agencies. Different people seem to have very varied experiences regardless of the tour company, especially for the multi-day tours (you just need to read the reviews online, or check out what other bloggers have to say about it, like this one) so there is a certain amount of pot luck involved. The first time in Uyuni we booked our three-day tour with Licancabur Tours and yes we had some glitches but overall it was great. On this occasion we ended up booking a one-day tour (about eight hours) of the salar with Andrea Tours, for which we paid £15 each, including lunch, sharing a 4×4 with four other guys plus the driver. Everyone had booked with different tour agencies. There was one more passenger at first but he didn’t come with us in the end and we really welcomed the extra room.

The salar is just the most extraordinary place. Imagine standing on a slightly surreal flat white surface that goes on as far as the eye can see, all around you, and the whole of it turns into a mirror when covered in water. Our cheery driver, Roly, made a decent effort to keep us all entertained and make sure we could take home some awesome photos of the day, which we did. The other guys that came with us were also great fun, so we really enjoyed ourselves and were very glad to have come to Uyuni again.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

From Uyuni we needed to head to Tupiza, on our way to the border with Argentina, but there was no train running on the day we needed to travel, and the only buses south leave Uyuni at 6am or 8pm – neither of which were ideal. Fortunately, Simon found out that some vehicles from tour operators in Tupiza, which also offer tours of the salt flats etc, finish in Uyuni around lunch time and return empty to Tupiza, so it is possible to hang around the street that passes for Uyuni’s bus terminal and find a Tupiza driver willing to take passengers on his way back. Indeed, we found a driver who agreed to give us a lift for £10 each for the roughly five hour drive. On the way, we were shocked to see that both the road and the local buses were in a much worse state than we’d anticipated, and realised what a nightmare it would have been to attempt the journey by bus – we’re still reeling from our experience in northern Perú. On the up side, the landscape between Uyuni and Tupiza is quite something and after a couple of brief stops on the way we arrived without any problems for our overnight stop. Having been there twice now, we still don’t have much to say about Tupiza, other than it is not too far from the border, which we reached the next morning.

All in all we only spent one week in Bolivia but it was an excellent one. We are now chilling out in northern Argentina, where some of the finest wine in the country is produced – and currently consumed by yours truly. Slowly but inexorably – to use a cliché – we are making our way towards the final stop of our six-month trip around the world, and hands down one of my favourite cities: Buenos Aires.

 

 

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

El cóndor pasa.

Around the World trip: WEEK 21

PERÚ
The South

by Simon

Map: Nazca, Peru

There is really only one reason tourists visit Nazca, and that is to see the Nazca Lines, a series of lines, geometrical shapes and animal and plant figures etched on the desert by the Nazca people some 2,000 years ago. The lines cover a large area and some of the individual figures are over 100 meters across. They may have represented constellations, or heavenly figures, or have been fertility symbols; nobody really knows. German archeologist Maria Reiche dedicated much of her life to the study of the lines and is commemorated throughout the town (although some murals of her made her look like Harry Potter or a gorilla, so not entirely flattering).

The lines are best viewed from the air early in the morning, when there is better visibility and less turbulence; therefore we were at Maria Reiche Aerodrome shortly after 7am for our short flight with AeroParacas, which we were told has a better safety record than some of the other operators (which doesn’t say much). The pilots didn’t exactly go out of their way to explain what we should be seeing, and the sound system on the plane was so unclear we could hardly hear them anyhow. However, we did see a range of shapes including a condor, monkey, whale, hummingbird, spider, and some hands – although I only really know this by comparing my photos with the diagram the airline provided telling us what we should have seen.

Nazca desert and the Panamericana

Nazca Lines

above: the Hummingbird (bottom left), and the Whale (bottom right); below: the Spider (top left), the Hands – or the Frog – and the Tree (top right), and the Condor (bottom right)

Nazca Lines

We were back in our guesthouse by 9am, where owner Nancy had breakfast waiting for us. At this point Xavier went back to bed, and I joined Grace and Jason for a quick tour of Nazca’s other sites. This included other lines that can be seen from hills, and an underground aqueduct system built by the Nazca but still used today, which brings water down from the Andes to the desert below, enabling some of the area around the town to be used for agriculture.

Cantalloc Aqueduct, Nazca

And that was Nazca. 24 hours after arriving, we were already on the bus out. After our unfortunate experience with the económico bus between Máncora and Trujillo, we had tried to stick with the largest bus company, Cruz del Sur, but they were full this time and so we used their competitor, Oltursa, for what should have been a nine hour trip to our next stop, Arequipa – it’s amazing how 9-12 hour bus trips, a prospect which would horrify most people in the UK, have now become routine for us. This company also provided a modern, comfortable bus – we could even turn off the speaker above our heads so we didn’t have to be deafened by the dubbed versions of Son of Rambow and other equivalently exciting films they played on the video. Unfortunately, Peruvian bus schedules seem to express hope more than expectation, and it was past 1am when we pulled into Arequipa. Apologies to the manager of our lovely hostel for keeping her up until we arrived.

Arequipa

Arequipa is the third-largest city in Perú, but only a tenth the size of Lima. It is a well preserved colonial city with more impressive churches and museums. There is a free walking tour every day at 3pm from Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, which we joined with Grace and Jason. It took us about three hours to walk around the historical city centre, stopping at various points to learn about the history and culture of the city and its people. Thoroughly recommended. We also visited the Monasterio / Convento de Santa Catalina, which resembles more a walled city complete with streets, squares, fountains and houses (apparently the nuns had to buy their living accommodation), and beautifully decorated courtyards. We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos, which displays amongst other items the recovered bodies of children ritually sacrificed by the Incas on the summit of the Ampato mountain. The bodies were buried so high that they froze and have been found relatively well-preserved 500 years later.

walking tour of Arequipa

Monasterio y Convento de Santa Catalina, Arequipa

We intended to stay only one day in Arequipa and then join Grace and Jason for a two-day tour of the Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world and the main highlight of the region. However, we were both struck down with another stomach bug and had to make an unplanned extension to our stay. It was sad to say goodbye after over a month following the Gringo Trail together – perhaps we’ll see them when we go to Canada in September.

a farewell drink

Later than planned, we headed out towards the Colca Canyon in a Colca Trek minibus with three other travellers, a guide, and a driver. On the first morning, we hiked around some extraordinary rock formations, and then drove high into the Andes, at one point reaching nearly 5,000 meters – perhaps not coincidentally, everyone in the minibus seemed to get semi-comatose at this point. As well as seeing the various volcanoes which surround Arequipa (some of them still active), we saw a selection of Andean fauna including llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and viscachas – we now know how to tell the difference between a llama and an alpaca. After tucking into some of these at lunch, we toured the local market in Chivay and sampled some strange Andean fruits, including a kind of prickly cactus pear – I don’t think any of them will be Peru’s next export success though. We then followed a spectacular valley carved with thousands of terraces towards the canyon. Next day, we were up early for the second part of the tour. This started with an alarmingly rapid cycle ride down (and in places, more challengingly, up) a road along the edge of the canyon. We then stopped at the Cruz del Cóndor, a point overlooking a section of the canyon where it is possible to see condors as they fly out of their nests every morning. Condors are some of the biggest birds in the world, with a wingspan of over three meters. It was amazing to see these birds circling just a few meters above our heads.

Throughout this trip, I’ve been mentally ticking activities off a list. So far, I’ve swum under a waterfall, ridden an elephant, gone “tubing”, kayaking, trekking, snorkelling, mountain biking, sandboarding, and on dune buggies. One of the other activities which people had been trying to sell us since the start of the trip, and we hadn’t quite yet had the courage to do, was zip lining, where you zip across a valley suspended by a harness from a cable. As this could have been our last chance, we finally tried it here and it was a lot of fun, at least once you got over the initial panic induced by hanging 100 meters above a rocky river.

After the tour, it was another bumpy six hours on a bus to Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, where we stayed the night before crossing into Bolivia.

Patahuasi, Peru

tip: click on the photos to view them full size.

Bosque de Piedra, Patahuasi, Peru

Colca Canyon tour

Colca Canyon tour

Colca Canyon tour

Cruz del Cóndor, Colca Canyon

zip lining in the Colca Canyon

zip lining in the Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon tour group

in Bolivia

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Telling the tale.

WEEK 19

ECUADOR | PERÚ
The Pacific coast.

by Xavier

Map: Montañita and the coast, Ecuador

I don’t think I will ever forget the last week (a bit like Jesus, when you think about it).

Montañita was our last stop in Ecuador as we continue following the Gringo Trail across South America. The guidebook wasn’t too encouraging about it, but it was going to be one of our last chances to relax on the beach so I thought we should give it a go, and convinced Simon to make the journey there just before Easter.

We took an afternoon bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil, where we found that the connecting bus was full so we paid a man US$20 for the pleasure of cramming in a stuffy van with nine other people, plus the driver, and off we went. Beetles are among the most numerous living things on Earth; the bright lights above the pumps of a petrol station where we stopped for a few minutes were attracting a nightmarish number of them, many the size of chestnuts, and not all entirely harmless. They buzzed and crawled all around us, even landed on us. The unfortunate ones got crushed under the moving vehicles or under people’s shoes, with a hideous crunching noise. It was like a scene from a horror movie. Fortunately, none of the creatures got inside the van with us and about three and-a-half uncomfortable hours later we arrived in Montañita.

What I hadn’t quite anticipated is the hot, small, dirty town we encountered. A notorious party beach resort that makes Southend look like St Tropez. There is nothing in Montañita besides hostels (ours was surprisingly good compared to some of the others, which was a relief), countless bars, cheap food outlets (one or two decent ones), and endless shops and stalls selling all kind of merchandise with the name of the town on it, including a place that was selling “I SURVIVED MONTAÑITA” t-shirts – little I knew how prophetic that would turn out to be. The denizens of Montañita are mainly a collection of local tourists, Argentine waiters, beach bums, backpackers, surfers, Israelis celebrating the end of their military service, and peddlers. We spent any amount of time declining continuous offerings of quality sunglasses, hammocks, all sorts of hand made ornaments and, especially, freshly baked brownies and cookies of the kind consumed by adventurous youths – what I took to calling The Great Montañita Bake Off.

Despite all this, we ended up spending four days there – Simon likes to think of it as our own South American version of The Beach – and actually had a really good time, mainly due to coinciding again with Char, Matt, Grace, and Jason, which goes to show how it’s always the people what makes the difference.

Montañita

Montañita nights

We Survived Montañita

It all went rather well until the last day. The sun was up and the beach wasn’t crowded after the hectic weekend. There was some surf but it wasn’t rough, yet only a handful of people were in the water. We had just said goodbye to Grace and Jason, who were moving on, and had made arrangements to meet later in the evening with Char and Matt. Simon settled under an umbrella and I went for a swim – and very nearly didn’t make it back.

To Igor and Conrad, the two surfers that got me out of the water after I got washed away by the current: thank you again; nice one.

That evening was very subdued after the day’s events, but we still managed a couple of nice beers with Char and Matt, who were planning to hang around the area for a bit longer while the rest of us headed to Perú. We wish them all the best and hope to see them again some time, who knows!

And that was Montañita.

The next morning we rode the bus back to Guayaquil and changed to another bus which took us across the border with Perú at Tumbes (apparently the worst land border crossing in South America but on this occasion quite painless except for the mosquitos that came to say hi while we waited to get back on the bus) and on to our next stop. For the second time on this trip (the first was on arrival at Easter Island) my Spanish passport baffled the border control officers, who kept asking if I had Colombian citizenship. Once again I really wanted to say “Do I look Colombian to you?” but of course we all know the answer to that, so I just stood there smiling until they eventually stamped me out of Ecuador and into Perú, much to Simon’s amusement.

Map: Máncora and the coast, Perú

It took us about 13 hours to travel from Montañita to Máncora, another popular beach destination. With Easter Week in full swing (it was already Holy Wednesday) we were expecting to find the place busy, and indeed available accommodation had been scarce by the time we booked our hostel. The usually infallible Lonely Planet describes Máncora as “the place to see and be seen along the Peruvian coast – in the summer months foreigners flock here to rub sunburned shoulders with the frothy cream of the Peruvian jet set. It’s not hard to see why – Peru’s best sandy beach stretches for several kilometers in the sunniest region of the country, while dozens of plush resorts and their budget-conscious brethren offer up rooms within meters of the lapping waves.” – yet this write up differs somewhat from our experience.

hello all...

Besides the initial shock on arrival (“budget-conscious” doesn’t even begin to describe where we stayed, though to be fair the place has glowing reviews on Tripadvisor and the people there seemed alright after we got to talk to them a bit more), the whole place looked very rough. There was hardly anyone or anything on the long barren beach except for the odd fish carcass. It seems the whole coast has been battered by recent bouts of extreme weather, and indeed there are numerous signs that a particularly bad El Niño is already affecting South America this year. Weather notwithstanding, the handful of people that we did see on the stretch of beach closest to the town didn’t look terribly jet-set either, so I guess anyone who had come here to rub their sunburned shoulders was staying put inside the plush resorts, of which we spotted a few. Longingly. We were also warned not to wander around the area outside our hostel as it wasn’t safe, which added another layer of discomfort since the hostel itself had no walls to speak of, or locks on the doors, and we struggled to see how it could be safe inside either. The town itself was pretty charmless, though we found a nice café for lunch. We tried a prawn filled version of a popular Latin-American snack called tequeños, which was very good. That, and a spectacular sunset, were definitely the highlights of the day. We’d only booked two nights in Máncora and it was clear that we weren’t going to stay a third, so we made enquiries about buses to Trujillo, our next stop. With the Easter weekend looming all buses the next day were full, but we were offered instead to leave on the last bus that same night and we jumped at the opportunity. Our Canadian friends Grace and Jason were in Máncora as well – and apparently enjoying it about as much. They were staying in a much better looking hostel just down the road from ours, so we were very glad to meet them there for some reparatory beers before leaving to catch our bus.

Don’t be fooled by these photos…

Máncora

Máncora

The overnight journey between Máncora and Trujillo ended up being ten excruciating hours. A mixup at the bus stop meant that instead of the marginally more comfortable bus we had paid for, we were put on the one they call Económico, and the worst bus ride of this whole trip ensued (Simon later on looked up the bus company El Sol on Google and found that it is regularly mentioned in news reports for crashes, robberies, and fines for breaching safety rules). To cut a long, dreary story short, we arrived in Trujillo early in the morning, feeling and looking the absolute worse for wear but in one piece and with all our belongings. Due to a fortunate foresight from our part we had booked a nice posh hotel for that night so we knew we’d at least get a proper rest after the ordeal. True to our style, we turned up with our dusty backpacks in tow, dishevelled, and in much need of a shave. The staff were very gracious as usual. We did get a few looks from other guests, but we were beyond caring by that point. I spent most of the day sleeping, while Simon somehow managed to drag himself out for lunch.

Trujillo, Peru

Trujillo is actually an OK city. Much recovered by the evening, we ventured out to the old town, which is lined with colonial buildings and had a lively atmosphere. We had an excellent dinner at El Celler de Cler, which I totally recommend to anyone visiting Trujillo. Rested and scrubbed up, we were ready for a spot of sightseeing the next day. The largest Pre-Columbian city in South America lays about five kilometres from Trujillo. Now a vast archaeological site, the ruins of Chan Chan are a must for those travelling in Perú. We shared a local guide with a Spanish couple from Barcelona – apparently both engineers working on the construction of the metro in Lima – and wandered for about an hour around the parts of this extraordinary city that are open to the public. Just as entertaining as the tour itself was witnessing the battle of wills between the very inquisitive Spanish woman and our tour guide, who clearly didn’t appreciate being interrupted. From Chan Chan we drove a short distance to another fascinating Pre-Columbian site, the Huacas de Moche, where we also had a very interesting guided tour, after which we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and make our way to nearby Huanchaco, on the coast again, which had been our original planned stop after Máncora.

Chan Chan

Huaca de la Luna

Chan Chan and Huacas de Moche

Huacas de Moche

The best thing I can say about Huanchaco is that it wasn’t as bad as Máncora. The town stretches along the coast for quite a bit. The sea looked quite rough but we saw considerably more people around than we had seen so far. The B&B we had booked was very odd. The common areas looked rather nice but the room definitely wasn’t. The manager, a middle-aged man from Argentina, reminded me a bit of Basil Fawlty but perhaps more helpful. We only stayed one night, so didn’t get a chance to see much, but we did catch a glimpse of the Good Friday celebrations before meeting Grace and Jason, in town once again, for more drinks later that evening. It is remarkable how much more enjoyable some places become when you can share a mojito or two with friends.

Easter in Huanchaco

We headed back to Trujillo in the morning. Our next bus journey – about nine hours – would take us further south, along the road between the coast and the Andes, the Panamericana, all the way to the capital, Lima. No longer trusting agents, Simon booked our bus tickets directly online with Cruz del Sur, the same company we had used to cross the border with. The bus this time was a modern, clean, double decker with huge, fully reclinable seats (three across!) with individual entertainment screens, air con, meal and drinks service… I almost cried when we got on. The views along the way were very impressive. The sea to our right, the Andes to our left, and just sandy desert all around us. At some point we got diverted off the Panamericana and for a while drove on a fresh-looking road carved on the side of massive compacted sand dunes – I called it the Sandes… geddit?… Simon says I may have a career in cracker jokes – and it made for a truly spectacular view.

the road to Lima

It was 2009 when we were in Lima for the last time. We are going to stay here for a few days to chill and get our strength back before carrying on, and have rented a great apartment in Miraflores via Airbnb. Simon is also fighting off a cold, so a few days of rest will hopefully do us a world of good. We hope you all have had a lovely Easter. More news soon!

loving the Ball Chair

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.