PERU – down by the Sea

All things pass, even fourteen hour coach journeys. An hour and a half at the border at 1.30am is disjointed and vaguely surreal. At least we didn’t have to unload our bags unlike some poor sods. The young German got off early heading for the beach in Mancora.

New hotel is quite swish, lift to 5th floor, air/con, fridge. Casino in the basement looks a bit jaded and the bouncers very bored.

Anyway an immediate shower is very welcome as it is now hot and dry land. The landscape along the coast road had been arid and the mountains bare of any growth. And sections of the PanAmerican Highway were rubble and dust. So now it’s over 30 C and all blue sky.

Chiclayo is hard and noisy, traffic tooting and pushing through the narrow cobbled streets. Most are one-way which makes crossing easy. Booked a trip that goes to three of the main sites. I can get a combi to the other. There are small beach villages not far by combi so will take a book and do that tomorrow. There is an enormous long pier. Quite a few families spread out near the water. The only signs of fishing are the long thin reed boats similar to those on Lake Titicaca.

Talking to the man repairing the prow, they only last three months before becoming waterlogged. And their reedbeds are under threat. One son follows his father the other is a chef.

Seagulls cluster round the women cleaning fish. A lone pelican waddles by. Hadn’t appreciated how big they are.

Another surprise was to see a burrowing owl that had established itself in the middle of the pyramid site.

After the “guided tour”- solitary anglophone in party of 15 makes you feel like a burden- to three sites ends up hustled and bustled, it is a pleasure to go on my own to Lambayeque in a combi. Museu Bruning is outstanding in presentation and content. Most of the original artifacts from the unplundered tomb are here along with the bodies.

The gold jewellery is exquisite, delicate and elegant, even more so when you consider the early dates.

An observation: long straight black hair is practically de rigueur. Minimum is over the shoulders. Explains why there’s so many hairdressers. Reminiscent of Turkey thought that tends more towards barbers.

Financial tip: How to draw cash using a credit card without paying interest:

1) Have a card that doesn’t charge for foreign use such as Nationwide, Saga Premium or Santander Zero

2) Have no outstanding payments due on it

3) Credit money to the account using a debit card. Santander limit amount in to £100 per transaction for some reason but total can be over £100

4) Once money shows up on card account, withdraw cash using card from ATM. Make sure ATM provider will not charge for giving you money! Warning will appear giving option to abort.

Amount of withdrawal needs to be tailored to credit obviously.

Is it worth it? Well, in a country where cash is normal, yes.

Tour operator had recommended coach company for Trujillo that turns out to be really comfortable. Almost sorry it is less than four hours.

I do get to watch”Dunkirk” albeit it in Spanish. I’m surprised by the lack of soggy in it, though the incessant time switching becomes irritating. Maybe it was a tech glitch from Netflix. It seemed to just stop – again Netflix? Some of the films on the coaches have been wall to wall violence- a lot of Jason Statham and Samuel Jackson! Plenty of children on board as well.

The Pan American has been much better on this stretch, four lane and even six occasionally. Doesn’t stop buses sitting in the fast lane. Quite a lot of undertaking- in both senses probably! Haha, bad joke. On reflection haven’t seen any crashes.

From here on it’s all planes or trains.

So now Trujillo, capital of Marinera and colonial faded splendour.





So, here it is, elegantissima city in Ecuador, as they like to proclaim. After the filth in the streets of Riobamba it certainly seems so at first glance. The centre is laid out in a now familiar grid beloved of the colonial Spanish. It certainly makes for easy navigation- two blocks up, three across.
They have been waiting four years for the completion of the tramway designed to run from the airport via the bus terminal into town and out again. The rolling stock was delivered in 2015. It might start in May this year! People can’t believe(accept?) the level of political and economic corruption, and just shrug their shoulders.
A recommendation for a restaurant in the main square leads to a fine dish of large succulent prawns with vegetables stir-fried. With a large Club beer and a tip it sets you back $12.50. And right next door Tutti Freddo has really good ice-cream. I make the mistake of ordering two bolos-$2.25- which is more like four scoops. Just as well it was good flavour and smooth texture.
The new Cathedral, 1893, is the second largest in South America. This may be the full extent of its noteworthiness. When full it can accommodate five thousand people. It’s high it’s wide the columns are thick. But it has none of the elegance of Haghia Sofia nor the simple elegance of the Mesquite in Cordova. You feel you are in Brobdignab.  This ruined Adobe/cob house was not far away.

There’s a lovely flower market round the corner with vibrant colours in the confections they sell for people to give to the church.
I have booked a tour to Cajas national park tomorrow that will happen whatever the weather. She gives me a thick yellow plastic poncho! It has been raining all the time.
We are eight and I’m the oldest. Juri is wearing just a cloth jacket and a sweater. Everyone else is kitted up for cold and rain. He keeps saying ” it’s OK I am from Russia”. Learn later Aeroflot mislaid his bags in Washington three weeks ago and they are still missing!
The first hour’s walk around a lake is interesting for flora and a few birds and fairly flat, but pretty muddy. These are both gentians! Still boots better than wellies which the rest are wearing. The guide has been coming here since he was eleven. Halfway round there is a large deserted brick building. Some Germans set up a brewery fifty years ago but the only thing going for it was the good water, so it folded.
The next part is higher and much more exposed. Strong wind blowing and underfoot lots of black boggy sections threatening to suck off the wellies. We pass through a polylepis forest that is ghostly. It’s two hours of battling through and round rugged bare landscape that in sunshine would be very much different. And at 4200 metres you are catching your breath on the steep bits. Half way round the heel comes away on my right boot. I can tie it up but rain is getting in. The glued up left boot is fine -the industrial glue from Quito has worked. We all make it to the end and down the road apiece for good thick soup and grilled trout.
It’s very quiet round the table, some weary trekkers.
Supper with a gynaecologist from Portland breaks the pattern of solo eating in a good way. The downside is going to a”well-regarded” Italian called Mangiare benne(sic). Non e non, non e Vero. When in Ecuador…….
Crazy music going on in the main square, Latin versions of 1960s type footstompers, great gusto and volume, inducing couples to dance a neat shuffling dance.
The trip next day to Ingapirca is as bad as the Cajas was good. The guide is brash loud and speaks with a heavy American slurred accent. We take four hours to cover 45 kilometres thanks to gratuitous stops at roadside cafes( payback?) and market so he can buy fish for his supper. It did furnish a couple of interesting pics though. Mini Pink fur apple. The second was a bit naughty

At the site the guide’s information is erratic and inconsistent, the very worst type of bullshitter.

A visit the next day to a Museo de Culturas Aboriginales has enormous quantities of pre-Incan ceramics going back to 1500 bce. It brings home how much Luis Gonzales didn’t know. A large group of 15 year old students are being sadly bored to tears by an overly- detailed presentation by teachers. There is a lot of giggling over some sub-Kama Sutra clay modelled intimate figures.
The final day becomes frustrating when museums supposed to be open aren’t. Time on my hands combines with an increasingly uncomfortable stomach. The last thing I need before a long coach journey. I do manage to buy some dried broad beans to plant in March. Banking on them liking the lower altitude.
The man in the hotel has been unfailingly polite and helpful. The room was spacious and the central courtyard area old-fashioned elegant albeit a little bit rundown. WiFi is generally pretty good here in Ecuador, occasionally a patchy signal. But always the underlying sense of struggling to make things work, to step up from a subsistence living.
A frequent theme is that despite compulsory voting most people don’t care and a free chicken will buy their vote. The outcome of the referendum in February will determine if they revert to the old corrupt Correa or look for a new way.

These are rather downbeat thoughts for the end of my stay in Ecuador. It’s a fascinating and immensely varied country. The people have been polite and enquiring and helpful, from city folk to weather-beaten women working the land. It would be terrible if they went the way of Venezuela.

The coach to Chiclayo is once a day and full. People trying to buy tickets half an hour before leaving are turned away. Strange that you leave a long significant journey to chance and a 24 hour wait.
At least the seats are comfortable and the young German girl next to me is not large. She’s rather sweet though how she manages without wearing her glasses is a mystery.
A long day’s journey into a Peruvian night beckons.

A train ride to Hell

The track going down from Alausi to Sibambe is quite steep. Surveyed and laid by British engineers in the nineteenth century,it is a marvel of civil engineering. They still run the old carriages though the puffers have been replaced by prosaic diesel.

A lot of station staff wearing rather camp hats and trying to look busy. We left at 8 o’clock on the dot. You trundle along the narrow gauge track hugging the cliff face. They used to ride on the roof until a few years ago when a pair of Japanese fell off!

You are greeted at the lower station by a group of local people in costume doing unconvincing folk dances to taped music. I couldn’t bring myself to photo them, they seemed so forlorn.

The bottom section is so steep it has to use traverses.

The name Nariz de Diablo apparently refers to a rock sticking up on the hillside but I couldn’t see it. The story goes that the Devil didn’t want it built which explains the two thousand deaths including the chief engineer during its construction.

Alausi itself is a scruffy dump with no perceived good features. A young off-duty policeman told me everyone is at home by  8pm. He appeared to be right.

Next stop Cuenca four hours away on the coach. The prospect of a well-heeled and elegant city.



For all its (mostly spurious) claims for firsts of this and that, it’s a rather dirty rundown place. The streets are dirty, the shops mostly scruffy and very little evidence of municipal care. Every single church is kept locked following a spate of anti-religious attacks last year. The man in the Cathedral stone museum was vague as to the motives. Abusive priests?

Bamboo is very big for scaffolding. This reminded me of India.

Cars sound their horn at the least reason- it does attract the attention of the driver on his phone at the lights.

On the subject of cars, anyone who wants to make a killing selling Volkswagen Beetles should come to Ecuador. They are more common than Morris Minors, some pimped some perfect, some rough.

It has rained for three days on and off. Day 2 here I headed off out towards Chimborazo hoping for a break in the weather. It was briefly sunny, enough to catch my forehead but otherwise low cloud covered the upper slopes. An initial bright spot was the llama museum in a village rejoicing in the name of Palacio Real. I learned a lot about llamas and alpacas and vicunas. They are Gods’s gift to man: food; clothing; manure; transport. Watch the ears for mood, and the tail. The urine is an abortifacient. They can breed across species. All that didn’t stop the Incas sacrificing a thousand at a time to appease the gods and replenish the earth.


Women were sowing seed broadcast and men following with enormous mattocks. When one saw me she came over and we chatted about crops country, weather and villages nearby. She was curious and happy to stop for a few moments. I’d cut myself a stick after having nearly been bitten by a dog in Tena. They are everywhere, roaming wild in the streets or out with owners of whom they take no notice. I’d already had to shake it at several nasty specimens, mostly small.

These two had dogs with them.

There never was a break in the clouds over Chimborazo. On reflection my day on Cotopaxi was blessed by the weather.

Having trudged up into the village recommended by the sower, found nothing of note and started to retrace my steps, an old boy in a pickup and his wife offered me a lift. He had a house in the village and another being built in town that he wanted to check on. As we came within sight of Riobamba he swung off the road down a dirt track. A bit like coming into Exmouth down Raddenstile a hundred years ago. We saw his house- four walls no roof, work in progress – and carried on till we suddenly came out on the ring road. He ended up dropping me a hundred yards from the hotel!

For a strongly Catholic country you see a lot of young couples in public holding hands kissing, being intimate. Doubt that this would apply to same sex couples.

Hornados is very big round here. It’s a whole medium sized pig slow roasted with lots of crackling. Very tender and tasty,served with salad and boiled corn. Mostly in stalls in the market, $3 a go.

Got to the bus station a bit early and found myself being thrust into a busy additional was pulling out. Meant my big bag stayed with me on the bus. Inter city buses stop like they were a local service wherever anyone wants to get on or off.

Driving through wide valleys of lush fields with all kinds of crops, beans peas, maize, potatoes, onions. No seasons, you see them all in different stages of growth.

Bus pulls into Alausi 10 metres from the hotel. Perfect.




Jungle Part 2

I was distracted by the Hudl charging trauma.

Although there were no sightings of wildlife I did see several tracks of a very large tapir and also what Ramiro said was an armadillo. No poo anywhere, apparently it is dealt with very quickly by beetles.

I did have an impressive butterfly in my bedroom one night. Wingspan is about 5 inches.

On reflection the event that had the most impact was when I went into the jungle with Ramiro and Jens’s young intern after dark. There were lots of weird and wonderful insects to see, stick, spiders beetles. But it was when he motioned to turn off our torches. It was black, totally black. Up in the sky nothing, sideways nothing. You knew there were two people within arm’s reach but no sight. And the noise of all the insects pressing in on you.

We were supposed to go to a saltlick to see parrots in the morning but it involved wading through a river that would have been too swollen with recent rains.

At least I learned quite a lot about the medicinal properties of a lot of the trees. Sangue de drago that seemed to cure most things and could be used for facepainting and then rubbed in to become a creamy sunscreen. Thick yellow extrusion like butter coming from cracks in a really old tree that is the Amazon answer to Vick. Roots of plants that are mashed up and used to catch fish by stunning them. A plant whose leaves you mash up mix with water and drink to stave off snakebites long enough to get treated.

Ramiro had trained as a shaman since he was seven. His father and grandfather were shamans. They hold a body of knowledge built up over hundreds or even thousands of years. And his children aren’t interested. He needs to find someone in the village willing to train.

Down in the Jungle, staying in a hut

All your cares in the World gone kaput. Well apart from how to get anything dry again.

Fast buses in Quito have dedicated  lanes that whisk  you through the rush hour traffic and all for 9p. The coach down from Quito had been uneventful apart from a quickly repaired landslip that is best forgotten.

The views of the river slashing through the hillside are dramatic.

The hostal is on a hillside overlooking the town surrounded by forest and a cacophony of insects once the sun has gone. Run by a German and longtime resident who also has a project in the Jungle where I have been for three days. An hour in a car and an hour walking to get there. Genuinely isolated and cleansingly simple. No electricity, water from the mountain river, no “signal”. Wooden huts on stilts. He takes students as interns to help maintain the estate of about twenty hectares of raw forest. The guide, Ramiro, is a kichwa who speaks spanish and is also a shaman.

  A group of Canadians – french and english- turned up from a long march and made a lot of noise. Ramiro had found big fat beetle larvae that got them all jostling as to who would handle or eat them. Not sure they have ever seen “I’m a celebrity”. Fish baked in banana leaves,fried yucca, salad- and chopped up grubs that had been fried. Some coffee them were eaten with declarations of deliciousness! At 68 you no longer have to prove stuff like eating weird food.

“At this point I left the hammock I was swinging in, two empty beers on the table, to go into town to eat. Fine, had another good meal in same place, got back and packed ready for Riobamba in the morning.

Morning saw complete gutwrenching panic. Tablet hadn’t charged overnight and had 17% power. Cable at reception the same. Plugged camera in and it worked which was odd. The prospect of no Hudl was unnerving. No guidebook, no communication, no news. No access to booking ahead if needed. Wasted trip to Mall merely confirmed it wasn’t the cable. Do I get April to post the spare micro USB port sitting on my desk? And where to? Continuous feeling of nausea particularly as it had been so easy getting a battery charger for the camera.”

Last night I left it plugged in- no logic just irrational hope it might get better. It had turned off so had to restart it. Red light back on, 85% !! I was ecstatic and furious all at the same time. So no hunt along the street of computers for someone to fit a new port. And the cafe for breakfast was excellent. So return to semblance of sanity.

Had an illuminating conversation with my neighbour on the coach. Working for organisation certifying fair trade products all over the country. Coffee cocoa quinoa. Confirmed stories about farmers selling all the quinoa and buying junk food. Big problem is educating them about keeping some back but the money is persuasive.

He was worried about getting to Riobamba in time to play for his daughter’s fathers football team. They were in the semifinals.

Libertador hotel is cosy, clean, warm and decorated in thirties colonial style. Station is outside my window. Booking office, museum but no longer any trains except at weekends. Until last May there was a Tren del Quinoa that ran to Alausi but ” there were (unspecified) problems”.

Anyway I now have my ticket for  Nez de Diablo on Thursday. Apparently not for the squeamish. They banned people riding on the roof after a couple of Japanese fell off. Suppose it makes a change from the selfie trip back over the cliff.

More to follow.

Cotopaxi – and that’s not a cloud

Today has been awesome. Sorry for the cliche but it just has been. The forecast was rain most of the day. They could get a job in Exeter! It was bright sunshine as you can see all morning. Four Canadians, one yank and me. Average age 30 not including me. One of the Canadians turned out to be from Iran so we had lots to talk about. It’s a big jump from 4200 to 4800m as I found out. However much you breath there’s not enough to keep your legs going. The first twenty minutes were very hard. Even chewing on coca leaves didn’t seem to help. Guide was encouraging and admitted hard even for him coming from Quito. An unappetising truth is that it was the Canadian girl trailing behind that in part pushed me up rather than down. Pathetic really worrying about losing face at my age. We all made it to the top eventually.

The view out over the countryside made you feel small. No sign of habitation, no power lines no roads.

The guide had never noticed the face in the rock before. An Inca carving?

Walking back down was comparatively painless marred only by the sole coming off one boot and throwing me head over heels for five metres. Bootlace adapted to hold it on worked really well. And the next stage being a cycle ride took the pressure off. I think it was the longest freewheel in my life and pretty fast considering it was a rutted dirt track. By the time we reached the lake it was as if the air was full of oxygen.

A really good lunch at the same little restaurant where we had breakfast included passion fruit juice and cheese and potato soup which was by then very welcome. On the ride back into Quito I turned round to see all the others fast asleep. Mind you I felt pretty whacked as well. But it was worth every aching muscle and tortured lung.

Tomorrow will be five days in the jungle so there could be a gap.



Higher and higher

First real taste of native pottery in a museum created in an old colonial mansion from the owner’s personal collection. All beautifully presented but sadly lacking contextual information. This specimen had such a perfect look of satiation. And made by hand,not thrown. Maybe not quite right on a rooftop.

This morning took the cable car up to volcano Pichincha which is not far from the city. It’s another 1400m up, so 4200 which gave me a hard hit for about 15 minutes. Contemplated going straight down again but it eased up and eventually be a slow two hour ramble through wild and empty hillside. A big eagle was curling in wide circles overhead until it finally dipped a wing and slid out of sight. Walking through stunted trees and shrubs I realized I was being watched by two llamas.

A bright sunny day gave a clear view of Cotopaxi some 70kms away. In fact when I finally got back l noticed I will have to slap on a lot more of the factor 50 next time.

I stopped by the craft market to look for the man selling “old” pottery I’d seen the day before. There were similar pieces in the museum and I could better judge what he had. There was a tiny clay figure different from the rest and it is now awaiting travel to Europe. Well I think it’s genuinely old.

Had a very homely meal tonight instead local cantina suggested by hostal owner. Barbequed slice of meat, rice, lentils and salad and a bottle of Sprite. Ended up sharing the table with family of five quitenos. Discussed recent incident in Cuenca where a passenger upstairs on a city tour died going under a bridge- he was standing up taking photos. Dangerous business photography.








Quito in the Clouds

Getting high in the Andes was a twenty four hour headache that has now receded. You do everything slowly, one step at a time, or run out of steam. Quito is steep and hilly but it occasionally makes for stunning views. In a taxi this morning staring down a steep cobbled streets. I think he said it was dangerous when it rained. Understatement!
It’s difficult to pinpoint where the city lies economically or socially. There’s a lot of action on the street selling anything from bags of mangoes through street food ( Moto) to brush heads. I have learnt a new way to eat mangoes. But the girls standing outside the shops holding up extruded garish ice-cream are not tempting.
Whole streets are pedestrianised and even more at the weekend. But there are also beggars and mutilated occasionally.
Museums have ranged from closed for the last three years to being ultra new and swish. City museum was free today-not restaurants or Heritage Day, they were installing a new computer programme!
The churches are all( so far) bling on bling.But the Nativity scenes are astonishing in detail and colour.
No rain so far so it was the right decision leaving the brolly in Heathrow. So l don’t need to worry about looking like the Burk on the Coast programme when I go up Pichincha volcano via the teleferico.
An early start to catch the sun.

Heathrow Connect

Sitting in Terminal 2 wondering at what point I misplaced the two brownies brought specially. Not starving as such, just irritated – they were very good.
There is a gentle hum of noise but otherwise more like a library than a nursery of screaming children on their way to a beach. Hour and a half before gate is opened but a 25 minutes walk to get there.
Which raises the question of Heathrow Express- Why?. It is 15 minutes quicker than Connect but three times the price. If you’re catching a plane do you really time it with a 15 minutes gap to get there? Is it boarded by the people who board the plane at the very last minute? Would passengers on Express look different from those on Connect? More harassed? Perhaps more relaxed in the knowledge they are so important the plane will wait for them? Yes admittedly you have to walk to platform 11 instead of 6 but is that all? And you would miss seeing the station signs in Southall that whimsically are sub- titled in hindi. Fond memories of riding the Mumbai suburban railways at rush hour. They should send Southern Trains executive out there to see how it is done properly. 3000 people turned round in three minutes.
Someone has left a ( see through) brolly where I am sitting. It has been here for some time now. Given the forecast for Quito is unending thunderstorms do I appropriate it? There is no turning back for its owner now somewhere up above. What would Voltaire say? Is it booby- trapped? Do I really need it?
I think watch an episode of Bluestone 42 and then decide. All the rest is same after being in their world.