Posts tagged ‘Peru’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.


There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery


December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

Just hurtling through. Huacachina, Peru

It’s not hard to see why Huacachina was once upon a time a playground for the rich and famous. A postage-stamp sized resort town, it is no more or less than two parallel streets which circle around a swampy lagoon. What is memorable about Huacachina is its location, plonked right at the centre of an unbroken ring of sand-dune mountains. It is, in every sense of the word from its waters to its palm trees and exotic flowers, an oasis.

While colonial buildings and inflated prices bear witness to previous greatness, it is clear that Huacachina is past its heyday. In the time we spent in town there wasn’t a single busy bar or restaurant – not that there are that many around – and not really a whole lot of fun to be had. Sure there were sand boarding and dune buggy tours on offer. Yes you can rent a boat and punt about the lagoon/pond for an hour. And there is no doubt that the sandy mountains were well worth climbing for sunset views but beyond a day on the dunes and some time by the pool, Huacachina doesn’t have that much appeal.

While the charming little oasis was a perfect stop off for us in our hurdle south, as high season comes to its conclusion in Peru and the flashpackers head back to university, I probably wouldn’t recommend it as more than a one or two-day stopover.

There are more photos from Huacachina available in the gallery

September 27, 2010 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

The road to ruins. Lares to Machu Picchu, Peru

There are a handful of moments on this trip that I know I will remember forever. Walking the Great Wall of China; taking my first breath underwater; watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat; and trying to decipher the curve of the earth in Salar de Uyuni for start. Now I have another snapshot to add to my gallery – struggling uphill to a crumbling ancient tower and stopping to catch my breath only to have it stolen away again by my first complete view of Machu Picchu, ‘The Lost City of the Incas.’ Like our Great Wall of China visit, the first hour of our visit to Machu Picchu had been swallowed by a thick mist, making a joke out of our guide’s best attempts at a tour (“if you just look at that mountain over there…”)

Bit by bit, stone by stone we uncovered the city behind the fog. First a manicured terrace used for planting crops, then a small house, a temple built to honour the sun and a dozen seemingly throwaway stones placed with precision to catch the summer and winter solstace and reflect the light in a basin of water. Slowly we were realising that in this ancient city – built 500 years ago by people that searched high and low for the perfect stones and soil, carrying them hundreds of kilometers from the lowlands and jungle with only a few llamas for help – there was no such thing as a throwaway stone.

In Machu Picchu everything had its purpose be it to tell the seasons, please the Gods or enhance the community. Sound from the top terrace was magnified by the mountains so that the layfold could hear the words of their leaders and priests from their living rooms. This is not a city built by amateurs or ‘uncivilised’ folk as was the presumption of Bingham, the American who ‘discovered’ the ‘lost’ city while it was inhabited by three families and after it had been visited by two Europeans. No wonder Bingham bashing is such a popular sport among tour guides and visitors to these parts.

By the time the fog lifted our guide Paul had showed us the city’s every nook and cranny, somehow finding spare time to deliver a full history of Peru from pre-Incan times to present day. We thought that we were finished but how wrong we turned out to be. To be truly appreciated Machu Picchu has to be seen from a distance – admired as a whole. So we climbed up to the tower and gasped and sighed and then filled ourselves up with sugar in preparation for the climb up Huayno Picchu, a very steep neighbouring mountain.

Mark, Gary and I had been up queuing since 2am in the hope of securing three of the limited tickets handed out daily to scale the peak and gaze upon the ruins. In hindsight this may not have been such a great idea because (warning: controversial statement to follow) while the view may be worth climbing the steep, backbreaking steps for it probably wasn’t worth the early morning and lingering exhaustion. In my opinion the view from the tower is better although it is rather nice to perch on top of a rock at the top of a mountain looking down on one of the world’s wonders, marvelling over how it can be so very intact after sitting uninhabited at the top of a mountain for so long. Have they really done so little renovation work on it?

Getting to the ancient city was no walk in the park either. Over the past three days we had hiked 42km up back-breaking hills and down into tumbling valleys. We had huffed and puffed as we reached the crest of a mountain only to realise that we were just half way to the top. We had threatened to vomit from altitude sickness and taken long breaks in an attempt stave off dizzy spells. Katie had fallen over at least a dozen times and I once when karma kicked me in the face for laughing at her.

We had zig-zagged our way up, down and across so many different landscapes that it seemed impossible we were still on the same trail. Occasionally a horizon once dominated by a record-breaking, snow-capped mountain melted into a hazy afternoon image of horses grazing by a ribbon of freshwater lakes. We walked for hour upon hour without meeting a single person only to find a lively village where schoolchildren chattered on their way home and indigenous women laid out blankets laid with Coca-Cola and alpaca wool hats for us to buy.

Our biggest challenge came with our highest peak. At almost 4,700 metres above sea level the Lares Trek topped the Inca Trail for height and just about killed us. That said it was never as hard as Colca Canyon and knowing what real misery felt like made it that bit easier. Getting to the top on our second day to realise that the worst of it was behind us and to chow down on chocolate bars almost made the whole exercise worthwhile too. No pain no gain right?

It wasn’t all sweat, complaints and tears though. Mostly the Lares Trek was a lot of fun. For every uphill there was a downhill which Gary, Mark, Katie and I invariably took at full speed, arms outstretched belting out tunes like The Elephant Love Medoly from Moulin Rouge and the entire Sound of Music and Sister Act soundtracks (much to Paul and the nearby llama’s pleasure.) Then there was the food – the wonderful, delicious, wholesome food that our genius chefs Mario and Mario somehow managed to whip up three times a day in a small tent in the middle of nowhere using only an oven made of stones and a bit of creativity. We ate stuffed avocado salads, chicken satay, omlettes, chips, steak, soups, vegetable rice, fried potatoe salads…. Quite frankly the best food we had eaten since leaving Sucre and that posh French restaurant to be honest. On top of that the SAS staff laid out a basin of warm water and soap for each person, set up our tents, packed away our sleeping bags and roll mats and even carried a portable toilet for three days just to make us more comfortable. We were really slumming it.

Unlike the Inca Trail, Lares was pretty people and culture-focused. Some days it seemed like we were stopping every five minutes to chat with locals, stick out our tongues at grubby faced children and offer a handful of coca leaves to farmers on their way to and from work. Not to mention our first evening when Paul (an absolutely flawless guide and a barrel of laughs) brought us to meet a local family in their homes. There he introduced us to their way of life – from weaving blankets to cooking dinner in an iron pot over a fire and planting and harvesting potatoes and coca plants depending on the season. We saw their farm equipment, the many hats that made up the womens’ daily traditional attire and much to our surprise, the hundred or so guinea pigs that ran freely around the house and shed. Life in the rural valleys of Peru was unquestionably hard but brightened by a strong sense of community and some 100 watt smiles. And to be honest, the thatched roofs and simple but seemingly happy way of life didn’t look a world away from the Ireland of old that we had so often heard lamented.

By the end of our trek we felt like we had really experienced a slice of Peru that few people get to see. We herded hundreds of bleating sheep, llamas and alpacas over a mountain. We watched a full moon rise over the mountains while we sipped macho tea (tea spiked with rum) by a camp fire. We slept soundly in the great outdoors. Plus we had made some fantastic new friends.

As the train trundled its away from Machu Picchu and back down to Cusco we were restless at the thought of leaving our new friends and having to resume our normal life again – well as normal as our lives could be considered. How would we survive without Paul showing us where to go, what not to sit on and how to appease Pachamama (mother nature) before drinking a mug of home-brewed chicha? And how could the rest of South America ever hope to compare to the ‘Lost City of the Incas’?

There are more pictures from the Lares Trek and Machu Picchu available in the gallery

September 15, 2010 at 9:42 pm 3 comments

Making guinea pigs of ourselves. Cusco, Peru

It’s lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon and Cusco’s main square is black with tourists. Most of them are standing in front of huge, imposing cathedral watching a line of people in colourful costumes and homemade masks parade past. A handful of the younger ones are lounging on park benches around the fountain in the main square in twos and threes cosied up next to lovers and friends and trying to ignore the persistent tauts that want them to buy paintings, sunglasses and bootleg cigarettes. On the other side a group has gathered around a traditionally dressed little girl who, to a chorus of oohs and aahs, is holding a newborn lamb on the end of string. The lamb is wearing a green hat and is blinded by a dozen flashing cameras.

As big as the space is it is starting to look a little crowded as more and more people stream in every minute from the narrow winding streets that stretch uphill in every direction. Sometimes it feels like everywhere you go in Cusco is uphill. Like that familiar old boast, “When I was your age I had to walk six miles to school. Barefoot. And uphill. Both ways.” Climbing hills at 3,400m above sea level is no fun but Cusco, with its warren of cobbled streets, artesan markets, Incan ruins, bustling squares, lively cafes and thumping nightlife is worth every painful step and every laboured breath. Cusco (and of course the famed Machu Picchu nearby) has been the beating heart of Peru for centuries.

Adding to Cusco’s appeal (for us anyway) was the arrival of two of our friends from home – the dashing Mark Grennan and the sparkling Katie O’Connor. Mark and Katie had also brought along two friends of theirs, Roisin and Deborah so it was party time. Cue yet another stint in one of Loki’s hostels, counting the minutes until the bar’s 1pm opening and eating our weight in delicious western food. It really is hard to beat a good Loki. After a few days of hardly leaving the sunny courtyard, Gary Mark and I reckoned we weren’t really giving Cusco a fair hearing so we grabbed our sunglasses and set off for Saqsaywamán, one of the city’s many many Incan sites which was – surprise surprise – a long, sweaty uphill climb away.

Half an hour and many complaints later we were staring at an absolute marvel. Row upon row of gigantic rocks cut to fit perfectly together raised all sorts of questions – where did the stones come from? How did the Incas cut and finish the rocks so smoothly? How did they get them up the hill without trucks? Why did they bother? It was incredible but, since we could see it without going in, not worth the ridiculous €20 entrance fee. Instead we climbed up the hill right beside the site where we found Jesus and a Peruvian man playing the guitar.

Inspired by our day of exploration, we went back to Loki, dragged the girls out of the bar and headed off in search of another cultural experience – cuy. Cuy is what you call guinea pig when you skin it and roast or fry it, usually serving it up whole complete with beady little eyes, menacing claws and protruding front teeth. Sometimes it even comes wearing a hat. In Peru cuy is a pretty common delicacy that is eaten by families on special occasions such as birthdays or when there is an important visitor. Guinea pigs are generally allowed to run free around the house or shed and then when the day comes, are just picked up off the floor, killed, boiled to take the fur off and then roasted. They taste like a cross between rabbit and duck but a little greasier – the skin is the best part, like crispy roast chicken skin. Mmmmm.

Cusco was also where we were to meet Mark’s friends Darragh and Elaine who we would go to Ecuador with but that’s a story for another day. Before any of that we had to tackle the Lares Trek and explore one of the wonders of the world – the one, the only “lost” Incan city of Machu Picchu. Life is so hard sometimes…

There are more pictures from Cusco available in the gallery

September 8, 2010 at 8:45 pm 2 comments

Yes we canyon! Colca Canyon, Peru

There are very few things that merit getting up at 3am in the morning, being shaken to bits for four hours and having your eyes and airways lined with dust. Standing at Cruz del Condor, gasping as a condor with a 3 metre wing span glided over our heads, we knew we had found one of them. When we signed up with Land Adventures to do a three day hiking trip in Colca Canyon we thought that the 3am start was an unavoidable pain in the ass. Really we just wanted to do the hike – warm up for the Lares trek next week and maybe shed a few of the pie pounds that were still clinging to us after New Zealand and Oz. Yet somehow watching these three huge, graceful birds swoop through the canyon was worth every hardship. With only the slightest twitch of a feather they dropped from mountain top to valley floor, relentless in their search for food. Every now and then they thrilled their audience by gliding only a few feet over their heads, causing many (myself included) to almost stumble over the cliff edge as they craned their necks to get a closer look.

Suddenly wide awake and ready for action we got back on the bus and headed to Cabanaconde where we met our group over breakfast. As was the Land Adventure promise there were only five of us and one guide on the trip – one strange German and two even stranger (and definitely more fun) Kiwis, Brooke and Mahea. After the first of many delicious feeds that our very pretty guide Lucia was to cook for us we set off on our trek. Half an hour outside of town we came to a halt at the edge of a mountain and got our first glimpse of the world’s biggest canyon.

Now I don’t know what the exact criteria is for becoming a canyon but Colca certainly didn’t look anything like the dramatic plain of sheer walls and steam-rolled floors that I had imagined it to be. To be honest it just kind of looked like a valley, albeit a nice one. On the side we stood there was very little – a few cacti and two paths that zig-zagged their way from top to bottom. The other side was where all the action was – inca terraces, precariously balanced villages and on the canyon floor a river (the start of the Amazon would you believe!) and what could only have been a mirage. Shimmering in the midst of unnaturally lush and green foliage was a string of bright blue swimming pools. “That is where we are going,” said Lucia before she galloped off down the hill. And as we all know, what goes down must come up…

The first few hours were a pretty boring downhill stumble. We could see our end goal the whole time, indeed we had a clear vista of the entire canyon most of the time during the two days we spent in it, but we just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. When we did eventually get to the suspension bridge we raced down to the river and stuck our very swollen feet in the Amazon. Divine.

Our second surprise of the day came when we crossed over the river. It seemed that without even realising we had gone through the wardrobe and opened the door in a whole other world. Gone were the coarse shrubs and menacing rocks to be replaced by well-tended grass, orchards and a narrow path that was bordered on one side by a tiny gurggling canal and sheltered by overhanging trees. Little girls chased runaway sheep while their mothers hobbled amiably behind them. Lucia led us through the warren pointing out different flowers and fruits – some we had never seen before and some, like avocados the size of our heads, we were well acquainted with. The cactus was a big feature, offering up spikey fruit but more valuabley, tiny little nodules that when squashed surprised by turning from chalky grey into 15 shades of red – perfect for dying llama hair or wool threads.

As was to become a reoccuring theme though, our steep downhill climb was matched by an equally steep uphill struggle. At the top of the hill sat our homestay accomodation for the night and five ice cold beers so there was no two ways about it really. We would have to climb the hill. Forty minutes later we had collapsed on the grass at the top, panting and staring with horror at the mountain we had to climb the following day. If we couldn’t get up one tiny hill how were we ever going to get out of the canyon? Hiking at this altitude was like walking around with lead in your shoes and six cigarettes in your mouth. And as Gary so helpfully kept reminding me in his puzzlingly fit, totally-able-for-these-hills state, if I couldn’t do the Colca Canyon there was no hope of ever getting to Machu Picchu.

Lucia woke us up the next morning with pancakes, an obvious but delicious ploy to try and make us forget about the day ahead. Our first stop was a cool little museum in someone’s front room where we sampled the local maize beer – tipping a little out onto the soil for Pachamama (Mother Earth) – and marvelled over the locals and their innovative use of dead animal carcases as water containers and bull’s testicles as ladles. Mmmmm soupy. The next distraction was the promised oasis, a bizarre and really contrived little area on the valley floor where a cluster of hotels with swimming pools had been built as a way to attract tourists. For four hours we sat by the pool staring at the mountain that loomed over us. After lunch we would handle it but for now we would have to settle for a spot of sunbathing.

Of course lunch was over far too fast and then… The Hill of Death. Over only 2km the dusty, rocky, gravelly little path of doom snaked its way up a whopping 1,200m ascent. I was able to keep up with the boys at the start, marching 10ft along the path before stopping, turning almost 180 degrees and walking 10ft in the opposite direction then another 10ft and so on, zig-zagging up the sheer mountain face. Eventually though my muscles started to ache, my throat started to call out for oxygen and my head started to throb. As I sat and gasped on a rock, trying desperately to ward off an oncoming asthma attack and some impromptu vomitting, the boys sped off towards the top. So much for sticking together. For the next half an hour I stumbled along alone, stopping for a rest at every bend and cursing those lazy tourists who had opted to hire a donkey to do the walking for them. Thanfully Brooke and Lucia soon caught up with me though and my misery was halfed – if I was going to die climbing this stupid hill then at least I wouldn’t die alone (although gossiping may not have been the best use of our limited oxygen). In the end Gary got up the hill in 1 hour and 48 minutes (but who’s counting right?) while I brought up the rear at 2 hours and 40 mins. I won the race to the shower though and after scrubbing off several layers of skin and devouring a delicious alpaca steak and a mojito, we were dead to the world.

The last day was a bit of a waste of time. It consisted mostly of time spent back on that awful bus being shaken to pieces although we did get to go to the hot springs – tepid springs would have been more apt – and we got our money’s worth at the fantastic buffet lunch we had at the hotel in Chivay. Meanwhile Gary ran around outside taking pictures of little girls and their alpacas. At least the scenery on the way home was beautiful, a lot more impressive than the canyon itself actually which, although Land Adventures were a fantastic tour company and Lucia was a great guide, probably isn’t worth all the effort unless you are warming up for the Inca Trail or one of its alternatives.

There are more photos from the Colca Canyon available in the gallery

September 3, 2010 at 12:21 am 3 comments

Viva indeed! Arequipa, Peru

It’s 6pm on August 15th in Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa. On the street below our window a small Cassanova in a cream three piece suit twirls his six-year-old seňorita. Her colourful skirt billows out around her and for a moment her partner is lost in a cloud of pinks and blues. When he re-emerges it is on bent knee, a pristine hanky clutched in his waving hand. The crowd goes wild and one enthused fan leaps out of her roadside seat and rushes onto the tarmac. Like the consumate professionals that they are, the minature dancers pose gracefully for photos before the brass band starts up again and they tango their way onto the next block.

Just as we started to regret their departure a deafening sound rounded the bend of the parade route. Were Santa and his reindeers making that racket? In August? Line by line the street started to fill up and the brass band were shoved out of our eyeline by a huge crowd of peacocks. Strutting about with a dozen tiny bells stuck on each boot were three dozen handsome Peruvian men in matador-esque costumes. Bejewelled to the hilt they somehow managed to come off as pure, bottled testosterone, stamping, air-punching and shouting like the All Blacks mid-haka. Scattered in their midst were a few girls in similar outfits and caps but who was really watching them twirl their sticks while their male counterparts were executing backflips in the middle of the street. Women swooned, men made grunty noises within minutes no-one was thinking of Cassanova anymore.

From 1pm until around 9.15pm the party raged on Arequipa’s streets. Aztecs, Indian warriors, hula girls and beauty queens danced, drove, waved and floated along the 5km parade route. It seemed like the whole world had shown up to the city’s 470th birthday party. Local business competed with corporate giants like Coca-Cola for who had the bigest and loudest float, who could dress their beautiful dancers in the least clothes and who could throw out the most fliers, sweets, t-shirts and… potatoes? Despite the chaos there was a strange symmetry in the proceedings, loaned by the fact that every band, every hi-fi system and every truck was pumping the same three-note song. Do do do do do do do, bam bam bam bam bam…HEY.

But it wasn’t the floats and dancers that made the day. It was the audience. Ferociously proud of their beautiful, glittering, sunny city to the point that they would seek independence from the rest of Peru, the Arequipiňos were giving it socks on their city’s birthday. For days beforehand they had gamely lined the streets to watch the troupes practice for the big day, the pinnacle of which had come the day before when a few of the more… rural… floats had done a few laps of the block. Pity the organisers had forgotten about the cattle grid on the edge of the square. Never mind, not even two bulls tied together rushing headfirst into the path lined with children could ruin their spirits. “Viva Arequipa!” screamed one little girl on her Daddy’s shoulders to a hearty response by the gathered crowd. Viva Arequipa indeed.

So come Sunday the Arequipiňos were rearing for a party. They came out in force, filling the tens of thousands of plastic seats that lined the parade route hours before the festivities began. Three or four generations of families came along, colonising sections of the narrow paths for themselves and buying just about everything that went past – ice-creams, whistles, paper hats, and inflatable toys. For the next eight and a quarter hours they got soaked in pisco fired out of a cannon, they got covered in glitter, they jumped up and down to catch the badges and sweets thrown out by beauty queens, they swooned, they rushed onto the road to embrace and photograph the paraders and they got up and danced on the streets – showing the tango dancers exactly how things were done.

By the end of the day, exhausted and full of borrowed emotions, Gary and I were about ready to sign up as citizens of wonderful Arequipa. We had encountered the friendliness and spirit of its inhabitants on another occasion – when we met Sophie and Min for an emotional, booze-filled farewell party. By the time the Brits left to get their 2.30am bus to La Paz they were well-oiled and we had expanded our party hugely to include two giggling local teenage boys who Sophie and I had dragged onto the dance floor, a bi-lingual lawyer and the most beautiful young Peruvian Mum to whom Gary was confessing his undying love. Thankfully she hadn’t a word of english and after so many Cusqueňos, Gary’s limited spanish wasn’t serving him so well.

The city’s appeal wasn’t limited to its citizens and celebrations though (which, by the way, put Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day party to shame). According to the locals (and my dated Lonely Planet), “When God seperated the moon from the earth he forgot about Arequipa.” Built mostly out of silica, Arequipa is another ‘White City’ although this one is far more enchanting than even lovely Sucre. The main attraction is the central square where a huge cathedral looms, surrounded eternally by a flock of pigeons and the odd condor that it has bankrolled to flap endlessly around the steeples. And there is plenty to do – a gigantic monastary/city to be explored and the Ice Maiden, a woman who was sacrificed to El Misti volcano thousands of years ago and was unearthed recently by archeologists and laid to rest in a glass cabinet in the university museum, to be visited. Not that we had any time for that. We were busy rejoicing in finally, after nearly a month in Bolivia, finding some real, healthy, guilt-free food, the highlight of which was Fez on Av. San Francisco which serves the most incredibly falafel that has ever passed my lips.

A lot of it must have been the novelty factor too. Having spent the last 10 months travelling three continents only to always show up the week after a huge festival or the morning after a life-shaping party, we were thrilled to finally be in the right place at the right time. In fact, so far we have had 9 months of winter. Maybe lovely, sunny, crazy Arequipa would change our fortunes.

There are more photos from Arequipa are available in the gallery

August 31, 2010 at 12:29 am Leave a comment


Thanks for coming to visit us – stay tuned to watch us argue, punch, kick, pinch and scream our way around some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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