Potosi on Paper…

On paper, Potosi sounds quite nice, even charming. Narrow streets lined with period buildings, a tree-lined main square with all the Spanish colonial trimmings and alleyways lit by imitation gas lamps.

However, despite all this there is an air of depression in Potosi. Perhaps it’s the city’s history – boom followed by bust, followed by boom followed by bust (first silver then tin). Perhaps it is it’s knowledge that it’s glory days are firmly placed in the 17th Century, or that a locals’ day’s labour risks life and limb for, at best a few dollars worth of base metals. Depression in Potosi is infectious.

It starts for you when you are dumped, unceremoniously, in a square on the outskirts of the town by a night bus driver from La Paz, who clearly can’t be bothered to drive further in to the town and it’s bus station (presumably for fear of catching depression).

You walk the deserted streets until eventually someone claiming to be a taxi picks you up and takes you to your hostel.

Any hope of having your spirits raised are dashed. You wait countless minutes and numerous doorbell rings before being let in and shown to a room barely large enough to accommodate the bed. You lie down – a rest will make everything better. After clearing the plethora of jet black hairs from the bed you doze off, only to be woken by the pounding of rain on the filthy sheet of corrugated plastic that serves as both window and skylight.

There is little left but to throw on some warm clothes and stumble out on to the street in search of a bar to drown your sorrows in. But of course there are none, every turn only yields a closed up storefront that should surely be a watering whole. Are we to believe that the residents of Potosi are so straight laced as to not enjoy a beverage at 6pm on a weekday evening? Hardly. Perhaps the lack of licensed premises is a contributing factor in the Potosi Blues.

The only thing the town does seem to have in abundance is pharmacies – presumably cashing in on the latest boom – antidepressants.

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“The Most Scenic Drives in South America”

We have done several drives over the course of our 3 months in South America, all of which have been recommended by some guidebook or the other. The drive up from Sao Paulo to Rio via Paraty. The Linea Verde along Brazil’s North East coast, and, most recently, The Pan-American Highway from Nazca down to Arequipa and southern Peru. All have had good points, but frankly none have seemed up to the titles offered them of “most scenic”.

Then you board a bus for a route where the books say little more than “be careful at the boarder crossing” and expect nothing, but are treated to a breathtaking journey along the shores if Lake Titicaca, each bend hailing something different. Sometimes a glimpse of the lake through the countless eucalyptus trees that dot the lake, others of water on both sides as we traversed a headland. Just when we thought that we could somehow be in the Mediterranean we came to a tiny port town where the gringos were herded off the bus and on to small boats while the locals and buses were loaded on to rafts so that everything could be transferred to the other side of the lake.

From there the route was admit idly downhill (technically uphill) as we crossed the barren wastelands of the Bolivian altiplano, but for 2 hours as we skirted Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian boarder, was the most scenic drive in South America… so far anyway!

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The Borderline

When you put it in numbers, it doesn’t sound as impressive, but by last count I has visited 33 of the world’s 196 countries. It’s a fair number and I happily consider myself well travelled. However, it is only an occasion like today’s that make’s me realise how little I have actually seen and experienced.

Today marks a first for me in my travelling experiences. A first that many of you from outside of Europe and from none island nations may baulk at… today I travel from Peru to Bolivia, and it will be the first time in my 29 years that I have crossed via land from one country to another… needing a passport.

Sure I’ve driven from The Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, and been on coaches from France to Belgium (and vice versa). I’ve even skirted with the German boarder on a train in Austria. But none of these require a passport. There is just a sign welcoming you from one to the other. In the case of the Irish, simple a sign reminding you to drive in miles per hour and nothing more. I have never crossed a national frontier having been forced to get out of the vehicle, enter one building and then walk the dozen or so metres to another country. That was until today.

I imagined it like a Cold War thriller, with a bridge, flags at opposite ends and armed sentries. No such luck. The Peruvian police office was essentially a house with one, ‘plain-clothed’ policeman sitting behind a desk. A cursory glance at you passport and your Peruvian immigration form was stamped “NEGATIVE”. You then walked next-door to the ‘immigration hall’, where two Peruvian immigration officials sat behind a desk with a television chat-show on. They stamped your passport to say you had left Peru.

What followed was surely something anyone who has flown internationally (yours truly included) has experienced. You are nowhere! No longer in Peru, but not yet in Bolivia, you walk up a 50 metre stretch of hill, literally in ‘no-man’s land’.

Through an archway and you’re in Bolivia, technically if not officially. To your left is an immigration building that you can go into, though it seems the choice is entirely yours.

Inside, there is another man in civilian clothes whom you assume is an official. Another cursory look at you passport, a quick set of stamps and you are free to explore Bolivia for the next 30 days.

So what to make of my first proper border crossing. Honestly? There’s a part of me that’s disappointed there was no prisoner exchange. I was clearly not deemed important enough to either the Peruvians or the Bolivians to be traded for a communist spy! It was also somewhat frustrating to spend nearly an hour on formalities that neither country seemed to care enough about. If I had robbed the Bank la Nacion in Lima the day before, the plain clothed Peruvian police officer would be none the wiser. And if I planned to overthrow the Bolivian Government tomorrow (something which frankly seems a lot of effort) the Bolivians would be clueless.

Kind of makes you miss the practical approach employed in Europe.

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The Source

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It may not look like much, and to be frank, it’s certainly not one of my better photographs (try doing more in a 3 minute bathroom break at 4,800 metres high with a main road running through the shot). But this photo represents a nice circular conclusion to the first three months of our trip.

En route from Colca Canyon to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and from there on to Bolivia and our next chapter, we traversed the Andean Altiplano, seeing some of Peru’s most stunning scenery.

The mountain range in the shot is the Mismi range in the Peruvian high Andes, and up there is a small, almost constantly frozen trickle of water. What’s the big deal? It’s not the biggest mountain, or the toughest to ascend, and lots of mountains have frozen streams. Well this frozen stream is the source of a certain river called the Amazon.

It nicely draws to a conclusion our 5 weeks in Peru since arriving in Lima from Brazil and the Amazon itself.

It’s been a great time and the country has been nothing but welcoming to us. Machu Pichhu was most definitely a highlight, but it was far from the only one. Trekking up in Huarez was stunning, Lima was great and the food was fantastic.

But as is always the case with travelling, it’s time to move on, and Bolivia will hold its own challenges and highlights. Can’t wait.

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A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… or to put it more accurately, it was a mildly annoying time, it was a great time.

That fairly surmises our recent visit to The Colca Canyon in southern Peru.

The canyon itself is spread along 70 odd kilometres between the towns of Chivay and Cabanaconde. Chivay is the first stop when traveling from the main southern city of Arequipa and is also the regional capital and administrative centre of the canyon. As such it is the obvious place to start ones exploration of the area.

Unfortunately, this is a foolish assumption. Although the town is well served with amenities, it is not attractive nor situated to easily travel into the canyon. At Chivay, the start of the world ‘s second deepest canyon is nothing more than a small, narrow valley with a river running through it. We rented bikes to get out of the town and explore the surrounding villages which were raved about in tourist offices and guidebooks alike. Unfortunately these villages, much like Chivay offered little in the way of picturesque views or welcoming locals.

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The view from the bridge west of Yanquay – the canyon starts to get deeper but remains far from the world’s second deepest.

The next day we took the sensible decision and boarded a local bus to Cabanaconde, having decided to leave early and stop at the Canyon’s deepest point in the hope of sighting the giant Andean Condors that can, if lucky, be spotted. We were both very lucky and very unfortunate. Like the hundreds of others that had come out in the hope of seeing a condor, we were not disappointed – largely due to the local tour guides arriving several hours earlier to put food out for the birds. However, being the photographic whore that I am, a photo is a photo, whether set up or otherwise.

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A female Andean Condor circling on a early morning thermal with the canyon and Rio Colca far below.

After that, we were frustrated to find that the next bus wasn’t for another 4 hours and so, in the 30 degree heat we set off on the 14km trek to Cabanaconde. Predictably, we arrived just in time for the bus to pass us!

Cabanaconde, being much smaller than Chivay and barely even a village had none of the amenities offered in its larger cousin, but it’s one bar/restaurant had a great vibe and the fact that everyone was forced to go there gave it a great village pub feel. The hamlet also differed from Chivay in that just 20 minutes walk from the main square and you were looking down an almost vertical precipice into the Canyon itself, and a proper canyon to boot.

All in all it was yet another great experience that Peru offers it’s visitors and the Canyon gives amazing views and spectacular photographs, even if it is spectacular in a stunningly bleak not beautiful way.

One word of advice – don’t waste time on the villages or towns – as with all canyons, it’s about the natural and anything man made rarely improves it.

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The view from the ‘outskirts’ of Cabanaconde, with the near vertical drop of the canyon wall in the near distance.

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Scotland ‘v’ Ireland

As most of you will know, I am somewhat patriotic. I am frequently seen futilely cheering on the Scottish rugby team, I took a secret pleasure in counting how many golds Scottish athletes won at the Olympics* and I was overjoyed on Monday to see British and Scottish number one Andy Murray lift the US Open Trophy. However, sadly there is one area that I must admit Scotland and Scots do not dominate, furthermore, not only do we not dominate, but we are trounced by our Celtic cousins The Irish; it is the arena of themed bars abroad.

Many of you may have read our first rule of travelling, to drink in an Irish bar whenever we saw one. Well, when we arrived in Arequipa that rule was amended once more. On picking up a tourist map my eye was immediately draw to an icon including the Scottish Rugby Union logo. It was for a Scottish run hostel and bar – The William Wallace Bar! It is not often that you see a Scottish bar outside of the UK, indeed it is hard enough to find one in London, a city with more Scots than Edinburgh, and so the rule was changed once more and a visit to The William Wallace was booked.

Tonight was that night. En route I joked that I may have a Laphroaig, my whisky of choice. I didn’t seriously expect it, but I did relish the opportunity of having a malt for the first time in months.

On arrival I knew it wasn’t to be, in fact, any thoughts of home were not to be. We walked in to a large, and empty room decorated with pictures of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The sign above the bar offered numerous spirits and beers, including ‘whiskey’, but nothing Scottish (or notably Peruvian – only Brazilian beer was on offer).

We were served by a somewhat confused, albeit friendly Peruvian barmaid who produced a lukewarm Brahma and a centuries old glass of wine (the bottle had been opened centuries ago, it was not a good vintage).

In fairness they did have a picture of Robert Burns (wearing shades) and Mel Gibson (who’s both racist and an alcoholic) on the wall. But it wasn’t enough to keep us there and we drank quickly and left.

The sad truth is that Irish Bars around the world prevail because they are known for being great craic, whereas Scottish bars are not. This bar did nothing to disprove that reputation.

We headed straight home where I poured myself a whisky and recited Auld Lang Syne.

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*Scottish athletes were very successful at the London 2012 Olympics because they were part of Team GB and received funding from various UK nationwide bodies.

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Machu Picchu

It was 4am, we’d had little more than 4 hours sleep, on gravel with a thin foam mattress for comfort and a small tent for shelter. But despite this, there was a buzz in the air. This was what the moments before the starting pistol must surely feel like. People chatted and joked in dozens of languages but universally in the manner of excited children.

Over one and a half hours were spent in this way, but rather than diminishing the anticipation, the time only added to it. At a few minutes after 5:30, a light came on a few metres up ahead, the crowd hushed and then, slowly, surged forward. The gate was open!

The cursory glance at the passport and the final of 4 stamps on our ticket and we were off. It wasn’t the slow and steady pace of previous days. Nor was there the usual banter. Today we were single minded. The pace was fast, faster than would have been possible at any other point on the trek.

Moments later we caught up with the group in front, demolishing their 4 minute head start. Speaking Spanish and wearing Argentinian football shirts, their slow pace riled us. The path was too narrow to pass and it seemed our bid to reach The Sun Gate for sunrise would be dashed.

Suddenly our guide made his move and, seeing a native Peruvian edge past, the Argentines assumed it was someone official. Pouncing on their confusion, a group of six of us edged passed. Their annoyance was clear and my childish excitement spilled over; “ha ha, we have The Falklands” I muttered as our group resumed our frantic, near jogging pace.

The steps were steeper and more numerous than any encountered on previous days, but we bounded up them and could now see our guide standing at the top, the finish line. People began to wane and words of encouragement were shouted – it was like the Army, but without the bullying or fear of becoming cannon fodder.

Then we were there!

Perhaps it’s too many issues of National Geographic, or watching Indiana Jones with such a frequency, but I couldn’t help but feel a slight disappointment that the citadel hadn’t been revealed to me with a swipe of a machete and the falling away of foliage. Instead, tired and slightly out of it, we stumbled through The Sun Gate, a centuries old archway on a high ridge overlooking Machu Picchu.

We stopped and stared, not fully comprehending that we were there, we had made it and we had beaten hundreds of others to it. And yet, it was still more than a mile away. The buildings were still just dots in the distance, the small hills and the peak of Huayna Picchu looked wrong, the angle wasn’t right!

It took yet another hike, this one largely downhill and lasting a mere 40 minutes, before we found ourselves amongst the buildings themselves, impossibly well built, with masonry work that seems to elude all but the best craftsmen today with the most sophisticated tools, let alone the Incas, with nothing more that other rocks, wood and sand to carve these huge stones from.

And then it came, the moment I, if not everyone else had been waiting for… our guide pointed to a large boulder protruding from one of the countless terraces. I stood right on the edge, looking out over Machu Picchu, my camera glues to my face, my right index finger in turn glued to the shutter release. This was the “classic view”. There was nothing new about it – since 1911 there must have been thousands of photos of it, now seen by millions of people. It was instantly recognisable the way few places in the world can be. It was utterly familiar and yet different. This wasn’t a photograph or a video, it was real and it was in front of me.

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The Google List

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Have you ever found yourself at 4,000 metres having a heated argument with an Australian about the name and lyrics to “The Hokey Cokey”?

If you’re from the colonies, you may have already realised how the argument went – are the words hokey cokey or hokey pokey? But at 2.5 miles up in the Andes, 30 KM away from the nearest town and two days hike from anywhere that is likely to have a wifi connection there is no way of proving it one way or the other. The result is the most primitive form of mob rule – majority wins. One Irish, two Australians, two Canadians and 5 Americans verses 3 Brits meant the conclusion was inevitable, and no amount of “we made your countries” or “it’s called English for a reason” would work. For those two days, we were subjected to illegitimate renditions of The Hokey Pokey.

Such was how the Inca Trail panned out for us. Lists were made that were to be verified on Wikipedia at a later stage. Ignoring the stunning beauty of the fringes of The Andean Jungle and pausing only briefly to listen to our guides explanation of the countless Incan ruins dotting the trail, we debated everything that came to mind: how long were Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes married for?, is it true Peruvians keep guinea pigs under their beds to keep them warm, what are the lyrics to “These are a few of my favourite things”? (turns out Julie Andrews didn’t tie up kittens with warm woollen mittens).

And so we past the days and nights of the trek. Of course we listened intently and shot off countless metaphorical reels of photos. We encouraged each other up steep inclines and offered hands to those coming down big steps. We were a family and got on amazingly. The setting was fantastic, the people great, the food delicious and the trip unforgettable…

And what was the first thing we did to celebrate the achievement of completing the Inca Trail? Google The Hokey Cokey*.

Machu Picchu was a whole different story of course, and I’ll save that for later.

*http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokey_cokey#_

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Massaging the wallet

I have been given legal counsel to issue the following disclaimer:

“THE FOLLOWING POST IS IN NO WAY SEXUAL. ANY INNUENDOES ARE INFERRED AT THE READERS DISCRETION AND ARE NOT THOSE OF THE AUTHOR, HIS SISTER, PARENTS OR AFFILIATES.”

Having been ambling around Cusco for a few days now we have been offered on countless occasions massages. Indeed so fixed in the tourist agenda is a Cusco massage that it rates highly in WikiTravels top things to do in Cusco.

So, after a particularly uncomfortable night’s sleep and because of a high degree of bed swapping that has taken place over the past two months, we decided to splash out and dive in.

Being true to our traveller routes, we shopped around for the best price, settling on 15 Soles (about £3.75) for a 1 hour, full body massage.

We arrived at our allotted time and were shown into a fairly typical room. As is usual practice, we stripped down to our underwear, lay on the bed and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited.

After about 15 minutes, we heard a door open and looked up expectantly. A boy of about 5 ambled in. He casually walked around the tables chatting away in Spanish. I ventures a “¿dónde está la masseuse” to which he replied “Machu Pichu con la Incas”. This was unsettling. We decided that the boy would be no use as a masseuse and seemed to posses little relevant information so we dismissed him with a “vamos”. The child simply stared.

Some while later, a woman in her twenties walked in and proceeded to Mairead’s table. To my somewhat shock and alarm, she was followed by a girl of about 12. Another nuisance child a thought… alas no, this was to be my masseuse.

She started on my shoulders and back, but clearly lacked the strength to penetrate the several layers of knots that had built up. She heaved herself up onto the table in order to gain greater purchase whilst talking to her colleague in Spanish, I assume saying something along the lines of “Are you serious? Have you seen the size if this bugger? I’m only bloody 12! And also, his left shoulder is pretty hairy but his right has none… what’s that about?”

As she worked away, there was a large degree of clapping involved, so much so that I presumed she was also training as a croupier at the local casino, ably demonstrating that she was neither fixing the cards or my back.

In fairness to her she soldiered on. She moved from my back to my feet, which she simple tickled for 5 minutes. She then moved on to my legs, at which time her fellow masseuse got a phone call which she took. Evidently the news was exciting and as the information was relayed, my girl started rubbing up and down my leg faster, effectively plucking half the hairs out.

The whole amusing ordeal ended when she sat me up, took my head in one hand and my torso in the other and twisted in opposite directions. It was a move I can only guess she learnt from Sean Connery in the best escape from Alcatraz film made with Nicholas Cage, where Connery kills an enemy Marine with the same move. Sadly for my aching body (and no doubt you the reader) she failed in her attempted murder, announced “OK my massage friend, massage over” and took her S/ 15 and left.

I hobbled back to the hostel, swallowed some painkillers and took a hot shower.

Now, can anybody point me in the direction of the nearest Irish bar, I need a whiskey.

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The 1st Amendment to the First Rule of Travel

In his book, McCarthy’s Bar, Pete McCarthy tells of the first rule of travelling; “if you see a pub with your name on it, you have to go in.” with my surname being Cameron, the chances of this happening outside if Scotland or Nova Scotia (and even there it would be remote) are slim to none, so on arriving into Rio over two months ago, we settled on the 1st Amendment; if you see an Irish bar, you must go in and have a drink.

This amendment worked pretty well. We saw an Irish bar in Ipanema but it was closed, we saw one in central Rio which was charging the equivalent of £4 entry fee so quickly introduced the 2nd Amendment; if you see an Irish bar (that isn’t charging to get in), you must go in and have a drink.

And so life was good (and relatively sober). European’s tend not to travel north of Rio in Brazil and so we saw no more Irish bars.

We arrived into Lima in Peru and went out for something to eat and, out of practice at Irish spotting, we shocked to see a neon leprechaun dancing and smoking a pipe. Always a slave to a rule we wandered over. Alas it was a casino not a pub, so we were spared another potentially messy night.

So we arrived in Cusco with our livers in good shape, and, as we went to meet Mairead’s friend Colm in the ominously sounding Wild Rover hostel which he owns and runs, we walked past Rosie O’Grady’s Irish Bar. There was no escaping it, we popped in for one. To my relief, it was as authentic Irish as Barack Obama and after swilling back a bottle of Cusquena we headed on.

Our good fortune was not to last. The Wild Rover was the Real McCoy (not to be confused with an English pub in Cusco called The Real McCoy).

Drinks were brought, drank and replenished without ever being asked for, most of them without being paid for. I was escorted back behind the bar and told to pour myself a whiskey and then brought a second for good measure. Rows of shots were lined up on the bar and, if memory serves there was a dice game.

The evening ended (in true Irish style) with a table quiz – pub quiz to the Anglo-Saxon. Drunk as we are we somehow scraped a win by one point, probably by knowing the 2005 World Elephant Polo champions nationality – it’s pretty obvious when you think about it – Scotland*.

As we staggered back to our hostel through the now deserted streets of Cusco, closer to tomorrow than yesterday, our hearts sank as we saw a sign: “Paddy’s Bar – The highest 100% Irish owned bar in the world”.

This brought about the 3rd Amendment to the First Rule of Travel; if you see an Irish bar (that isn’t charging to get in), you must (though not necessarily there and then) go in and have a drink.

*If facts need to be verified: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/4235210.stm

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