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 Two

Banana Republic

The above pejorative term for a country run as business for private profit, shared between the State and favoured monopolies, was first coined by the American writer O. Henry in 1904.

Take a wild guess – which country is the biggest producers of bananas in the world and is also the highest capital city in the world? (provided you don’t count La Paz in Bolivia, which is only the seat of government and not it’s constitutional capital). Bingo! Quito, at 2850 metres (or 9350 feet) above sea level, is the national capital of Ecuador.

Arriving late at night in Quito, via Panama from Havana, the last thing I expected was to be pulled out of line by customs as I strolled through. Politely but very insistently, they went through my bag with a fine toothcomb, checking the lining and the straps fairly thoroughly and insisting on seeing how much money I was carrying. No hassle, just an hour delay or so but in repacking my bag, I forgot my jar of vitamins! Quito seems a different ball game with fast, free wifi at the airport and hair-dryers in the hotel bathroom!

img_3233At about 2800 metres above sea level it is lovely and cool, compared to Cuba. What that also means is that it is a little hard to breathe, with not enough oxygen, for me, anyway, so I had to walk very slowly but even then I was panting a bit. Radically different too from Havana – market stalls here in Quito have more stock than entire shops did in Havana.

Surrounded by some active volcanoes, the air fresh and light I took a cable car up to 4100 metres and then tried to continue up hill on foot for another 45 minutes or so, each breath a rasp on the lungs hungrily sucking in the oxygen. img_3235img_3249Active volcanoes ringed this amazing city but I began to feel light-headed and aching so back down to the city level at about 2800 metres and into the Archbishop’s palace for a refreshing ale.

Staying in the historic centre which is beautiful and substantial – the old Spaniards knew how to build to last, or at least they made sure their slaves did so. Despite staying in the centre of the old historic part of Quito and asking policemen and newspaper sellers and other sundry hop-off-my-thumbs, I could not find a bar. All the bars and nightlife are tucked away in a different part of this vast city apparently and I need to take a taxi to “la zona rosa” for a refreshing beer. Luckily taxis are cheap, the flag fall starts at .50 U.S. cents and most rides cost less an 3 dollars!

Going into a bar just opening up for the evening trade, Dieter, the manager and part-owner of the bar was proud of his Spanish. From Jo’Burg, he told me with a strong South Africa accent, he had only been in Ecuador a short time when he had been mugged and had both his ankles broken. img_0648During his convalescence he had met Rosa his fiancé and it was with her father’s help that he was now part owner of a bar, he boasted. Insisting I try a local speciality, be busied himself preparing a Michelada – a salt encrusted beer mug filled with lager, lime juice, tomato juice, hot sauce and then decorated with an olive. Hmm.

Moving on to another bar, looking for a place to pass on my illegal tender, I found a busy corner place, dimly-lit both inside and out where the service appeared casual and lackadaisical among the young and carefree crowd. Ordering a jug of Margarita, knowing the twenty bucks would more than cover it, leaving a generous tip for the server, I sat back to enjoy the scene. Leaving the note protruding from the payment wallet tossed down on the table beside the empty jug, I slipped around the corner and into a taxi.

Leaving Quito tomorrow by bus and heading down to sea level to a fishing village called Canoa to get a beach bungalow and enjoy some beach life for a while. I am looking forward to the bus trip tomorrow down through the mountains. How the Spanish ever found their way up here in the first place is absolutely amazing. And then to build not just one but several mighty cities, and all under the control of less than 500 native Spaniards?

Dr. Denny, an American expat ran a seriously minimalist backpacker place just off the beach. Lurching slightly and gesturing with a beer bottle, he inducted me into Ecuadorian essentials. Wearing a stiletto on a chain around his neck, he showed me how he dealt with anyone trying to put any muscle on him, half pulling the stiletto out of its up-side down sheath on his chest. “It’s all they understand, man”, he assured me, explaining that everyone in Ecuador distrusts everyone else so that their taxis all have webcams and red panic buttons for both drivers and passengers. Sundays were dry, with no booze on sale, he warned me before solemnly leading me over to a shed in a corner of his property. Removing a heavy padlock he threw open the door to reveal a rough and ready bar with a shuttered window giving onto the side road.

I am still always surprised when a season is actually given precise start and end dates. Summer officially ends on the first Monday of September with a suddenly barren beach, img_0650everything shuttered and closed down and the sea no longer looking inviting.   Chasing the sun, further south to Puerto Lopez and on down the coast to a bigger beach resort – Montañita – but while there were still cafes and hotels open, what would have been loud and bustling now seemed tawdry and shonky.img_0662

Intrigued by the sound of “why I kill” I moved on again, inland and east to Guayaquil – but found it dull despite its reputation for being a dangerous city – thank God!

Early the next morning my bus laboured up into the mountains to Cuenca, 2600 metres above the beaches. In a high valley, surrounded by mountains, small rivers, with solid stone bridges, sectioned the town. img_0693Refreshingly cool and sunny during the day but chilly at night, Cuenca is famous for its reviving use of chocolate in both drinks and cooking, and, left breathless after wandering over a local zoo spread over half a mountain, I determined to try chicken in chocolate as I sipped hot chocolate with cafe liquor – didn’t know that chocolate was a big speciality. Things seemed much cheaper here in the mountains compared to the lowlands so I thought I might stay for a few days before contemplating the next onward stage.

One attempt, so far, at a partial mugging in Cuenca and I just laughed and pushed a bit out of the danger. A barmaid in one of the pubs I stopped off to have a quiet drink in, warned me not to go near a certain corner nearby because, she said, there is always trouble there. Not knowing the area anyway, I blithely paid no attention to her directions of how to avoid that particular spot. When I eventually left to look for a late dinner, I almost immediately came to a corner where a group of young toughs moved meaningfully to block me as I approached. Without slowing down or faltering in any way, I grinned and nodded maniacally at them as I brushed through them and kept going. No harm done to them or me.