South America Summary

A rather amazing trip, from Cuba in the far north, down to Ecuador and on to Peru, where I ate guinea pig, alpaca and llama, missing out on Machu Pichu but taking a 22 hour bus ride from Lima up to Cusco in the heart of the Andes. Over then to Lake Titicaca and a boat trip out to the weird, artificial islands of floating reeds and over the border into Bolivia where the bus seemed to climb endlessly and I lay sprawled in my seat, munching coca leaves and gasping for breath as we topped 4800 metres. A gradual descent then, of only 200 metres towards La Paz, only to find the city blocaded by local indigenous people who had thrown up ramparts of earth and rubble blocking the main highway into the city. Eventually we had to stop and take on an Incan guide who showed the bus driver how to thread his way rough narrow, grimy back streets until we eventually arrived, me exhausted and still panting, in La Paz. The next day, the whole city ground to a standstill as angry miners paraded through the city centre, while heavily armed police with pump-action grenade launchers stood on every street corner, heavy steel chains in their hands ready to seal off any street disturbance. The next day it was the turn of the students and again the city centre was paralysed. Enough was enough for me, and, still breathless, I managed to get a bus out and south, although that took unneccesary hours as again we had to thread our way past endless blockades. Finally, a train, one of the noisiest and decrepit trains I have ever been on, down as far as the Argentinian border. What a relief – an ordered, organised city with working traffic lights, freeways and highway diamonds and gorgeous wine. Even better was the black market In foreign currency – the official rate for US dollars being about 9 pesos to the dollar. Unofficially, the rate was about 16 to the dollar, and quite openly so – touts hanging around outside banks and exchanges. Made quite a difference to the budget and was able to afford some very decent wine. On from Salta, on the border into serious wine country, thought the most magnificent canyon and arid countryside to the little town of Cafayate where I spent more than a week eating huge steaks and plundering their bodegas. Down to Tucuman and Córdoba (cities I had never heard of, where accomodation was hard to come by as it was the middle of an exceptionally long holiday weekend. On again to Mendoza , the real heart of Argentinean wine and more steaks, huge 500 g slabs of bleeding cow on a plate washed down with more than a bottle of red wine. Bliss. I seem to have adopted a paleolithic style diet where all I ate was meat – no veg or fruit, just meat and gulped wine.

I made enquirers about a bus over the Andes to Santiago in Chile, only to be informed  that all bus services over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago had been suspended due to bad weather and snow. So more steak and red wine and eventually I managed to get a ticket for Saturday but no guarantee that the bus would run the 8 hour trip.

What a ride! Probably the most exciting and certainly most scenic bus trip I have ever taken.

Finally the end of the trip approaching in the form of Santiago, Chile and I could breath again, altitude a mere 480 metres only. A few days there, more steaks, and yes, more red wine but now that I have arrived in Valpariaso, it is gorgeous seared tuna fish with a salad of avocado, asparagus and tomato and white wine.

I must admit, with tales of the Gringo Trail in mind, I was expecting to be offered tons of coke and weed, but it was a surprisingly sober trip. I bought a gram of coke in Ecuador for $15 and approached it with trepidation, rolling up $100 bills in expectation. I thought it might be best to do it straight and then go for a beer and that is what I did. A tiny bit of speed, maybe, and nothing else.

Bought another gram somewhere else and marginally better – I was only doing this, of course to help with the breathing. Somewhere else, in one of the hostels, got chatting with one of the guys working there, I think he was a Brit, and he invited me to share an actual lump of coke which was – I think – much better but as I stayed up until 5:00 am, I’m not too sure. I then had to face a 14 hour bus trip so I was a subdued little man for a while.

General Observations

Cuba – very fat ladies squeezed in to tight Lycra pants; very generous measures of rum; great music in the bars, mildewed buildings.

Ecuador – organised and efficient, gorgeous ceviche, panic buttons in this taxis, dry Sundays!

Peru – no pepper in restaurants, crap coffee, grey Pacific, rum served with whipped egg white, coca leaves for chewing with a lump of stevia (to help with altitude), super clean wet markets, amazing displays of fruit, veg never seen before, enormous servings of meat, inca women with very long plaited hair, shawls and bowler hats perched on their heads

Bolivia – a shambles, road blocks condoning off La Paz from the outskirts, erected by local indigenous in protest at …, huge street protests in La Paz, seriously armed police with pump action tear gas shotguns, trouble breathing most of the time.

Argentine – easy border crossing with no paperwork at all, bus searched by troops at a military checkpoint, huge highways and flyovers, a modern country (compared to Cuba and Bolivia), a black market in U.S. Dollars.

Chile – Lovely wines – Colchuagua Valley (despite the fact that I never made that pilgrimage) being one of my favourites.

Lounged my time away in Valparaiso and small coastal towns like Viña del Mar, bravong myself for the long flight actoss the pacific to Sydney na d onwards to perth.


Cuba and Beyond

Part One

Fidel in Cuba died recently and I felt smugly pleased that I had made it to that island before he had passed away. Well done, I have to say, for standing up – alone (except for massive Russian help, I suppose, in the earlier days) – to the regional superpower and for sticking to his guns over the last three plus decades.

I remember being exhausted when I thought about how I arrived – the flight from Sydney to Dallas was 15 hours! The amazing thing was that I left Sydney at 1PM on Wednesday 12 August and arrived here in Dallas 15 minutes later on Wednesday 12 August. Still haven’t worked that out. However, on again to Mexico City where I’ll stay the night before leaving for Havana the next morning!

Stayed in a lovely hostel in the Centro Historico in Mexico City and caught my early morning flight to “La Habana” the next day. Arrived safely but a bit tired after nearly 26 hours actual flying time. Stayed in a very nice “casa particulare” which is a private home providing bed and breakfast.  The Cuban government under Raoul, Fidel’s brother, recently decided to allow private individuals to rent a room in their homes to tourists. Fascinated by the disrepair everywhere, I went out for a walk the first evening and got lost immediately – took me 4 hours to find the pension again.

fullsizeoutput_fb7Havana is amazing – Like going back in time – a jumble of narrow streets, all dug up and rough, crumbling mildewed buildings propped up with wooden beams and here and there a splash of bright paint covering up the ruins! If I thought the streets in Hanoi were confusing and the rough paths in Saigon were not for pedestrians, here in Havana everything is worse – the streets are a jumble of broken pavements and street signs are few and not very clear.  So far I have got lost every single time within 5 minutes of leaving my “casa” and I end up walking around in a maze of narrow streets, stopping whenever I can to gulp bottled water and find a shady cafe where I can sit, relax, read, study Spanish and do people watching.  All the men are stick thin, mostly, while the women have the biggest bums and boobs I have ever seen.  I hadn’t realised how black the people are – all shades really from shiny black African types to milky coffee colours. The only peopfullsizeoutput_fb6le who speak English are the touts who offer cigars, taxis and tours – “hello, welcome to Cuba, enjoy your holiday – where are you from? No, no, wait, listen to me, I don’t want your money for myself but if you can buy some oil or milk for my baby ….“. And then there is the music – every bar seems to have a traveling band who play for 30 minutes or so before passing the hat around! Where I had dinner last night – a grilled fish with rice and black beans – the band had a resident couple in a flamboyant costume who danced salsa for tips.  Everything is cheap but not too cheap in Havana and nothing is free of course – even sitting in a park will attract touts and sometimes it is easier to give a few coins than to constantly refuse.

I ended up staying 6 nights and then got a 4 hour bus ride to Viñales a rural town to the west of Habana where the main occupation seems to be sitting on a verandah in a rocking chair, drinking Ron! Very quiet and calm compared to Havana which was a bit too money hungry for my liking.  Here in the village everything seems to be a lot slower as was img_0623the Internet which was intermittent and chaotic.  Queued for more than an hour to buy a internet card valid for one hour and which must be used on the pavement outside the telephone office in order to use the connection there.  Weird system, or maybe no system at all. I really need to book a flight out of Cuba before it is too late because the music, the salsa dancing, the food, cocktails are all so lovely and laid back. Probably going to leave the home stay in Viñales tomorrow but the food is incredible – both the quantity and the quality – I’ve eaten nothing but seafood and last night my lobster was too big for me to finish! – and head off to a beach nearby and stay there for a few days – long enough to get laundry done! All the bars everywhere have a roster of bands playing great salsa music for about 3 or 4 songs before they pass the hat around and try to sell their cd.    The last night in Viñales, there was a ten-man band belting out the music and eight extraordinary dancers at the cultural centre where – of course both the band and the dancers expected – and were well worth – the minimal tips involved.

Left Vinales and took a bus down to the south coast to a town called Cienfuegos where the casa particulare, while pleasant enough, was miles out of town.  I didn’t really like the town despite its fantastic lovely buildings as it was stinking hot and there were not enough bars.  Decided to leave the next day and go to Trinidad and took a taxi to the bus station where I queued for the bus ticket and then queued again to get a seat number on the bus but when the bus finally arrived there were no seat numbers so I just sat down.  Cubans have to queue for everything here – God help them! In direct contrast to Cienfuegos, img_0632Trinidad was lively and colourful – narrow, cobbled streets, loads of bars, great music and fantastic restaurants.  Sitting on a rooftop terrace enjoying the first mojito of the day, listening to another band with a fat lady belting out the songs and swaying to the rhythm when the singer asked me to dance and tried to show me the steps, faster and faster, swaying all the time.  Of course I had to give her a dollar then.  Great fun, though, but God, the sweat pours out of me.

Left Trinidad worn out and hired a taxi for the 12k run to the coast – Playa Ancon, which looked lovely but the hotel was $125 a night – a bit rich for my blood – so back in the taxi, another $7 and down the road to a local fishing village where I found a lovely clean room in a private home where the host also offers breakfast and dinner.  This morning, before leaving Trinidad, I had breakfast in the  casa – a pot of strong black coffee, a pot of hot milk, a basket of toast, four small pancakes, a plate of sliced cheese and ham,  a small omelette, a HUGE jug of fresh mango juice, a plate of papaya, mango and pineapple and a litre of fresh yogurt – absolutely amazing.  Enough to last me for days – or until dinner tonight and I’ve already ordered fish.

Back in Havana and sitting on the balcony of my casa particulare and enjoying the afternoon breeze and listening to the noise of the street below me – groups of young kids kicking a punctured ball around and singing “ole, ole, ole” (probably the worst “music” I have heard since I arrived). Planning to take a ferry ride across the harbour to a fantastic, img_0572fairytale fort on the other side the next day.  Time for my evening cocktail as I try to chat in Spanish to the old man, Gomez and his wife, Miranda who are renting me the room, a/c, private bathroom, big bed and balcony plus a huge breakfast Trying to keep the spending down but had to splash out at the loo today in a hotel! No free lunches here – everything has to be paid for. I’ve enjoyed Cuba but now, it’s getting on time for me to move on and I plan to fly to Quito, which is the second highest capital city in the world, in Ecuador by the end of the month.  Should be cool there, I’d imagine! I drip with sweat the whole time here and my sandals stink despite me washing and scrubbing them every night.

Cuba is really a step back in time. Queues are paramount, even to enter the bank, only one person allowed in at a time, or to buy a bus ticket, or the exchange booth but as yet I have not seen an ordinary shop as we know it. Plenty of souvenirs on sale as well as exquisite lace and embroidered everything but I haven’t bought anything yet, except for food and drinks.  Pathetic in loads of ways, queues in the morning for bread and oil, no internet to speak of, battered and broken down old Russian Ladas and ancient Chevies and Caddies, mildewed and crumbling buildings, incredibly fat ladies squeezed into tight Lycra, but God, the music, the rum, the ambience, the sheer decrepitness of it all somehow combines to provide an out of world feeling.  In the bars at night, there was music in the air and revolution in the air. A rum mojito – although I tended to prefer daiquiris – was an experience as no barman worth his salt would ever dream of using a measure. They just up-ended the bottle leaving barely a fraction for a splash of fizzy water. It became my undoing as they would offen enquire if the drink was “fuerte” enough and of course, being who I am, I would shake my head and pass the glass over where they would freshen it for me. Not much else to say about Cuba mainly because I don’t remember my alcoholic nights which often began shortly after noon for the above reasons but overall, I’d have to say a good time. Nevertheless, glad to leave after nearly 3 weeks there  and flying onto Quito, via Panama, in Ecuador. From there, I don’t know exactly what my plans are but I just find the heat and the humidity here in Cuba a bit draining.  Here’s hoping the cooler air further south will revive me as Quito is something like 2,500 metres above sea level. I doubt I will complain about the heat there. And, there should be regular internet access there. Had enough of poor old Cuba.