Bolivia & Peru

18th February 2011

I am in Mancora, a hot surf spot in northern Peru. It feels like one of those STA Travel adverts in which a racially diverse group of good looking young people dance around under palm trees and destroy the local culture. Although we are in the middle of the Peruvian rainy season, the sky in Mancora is as crisp as a laundered sheet.

I am in a snooty lounge bar on the beach. I sat down and quickly realised it's far too expensive for me, but by then I was holding the menu and too embarrassed to bail. I have ordered a camomille tea that I intend to nurse for the next eight hours. I would have writen this up in my hostel but I am staying in the cheapest place in town and the smell of piss in the alley next door is so bad that that even the homeless have abandoned it. Here I am with their ferocious guard dog:

I got to Mancora by bus. Local buses in Peru are not the worst I've ever seen but they have some silly design features. The hand-loops are incredibly high, so short people (all Peruvians) must either jump up and hang suspended like chickens at market or headbutt tall people (me) in the balls every time the bus goes round a corner. The overcrowding also means you can only breathe in when people next to you are breathing out.

The reason I am without my usual transport is that the Toyota office in Lima sold me the wrong clutch plate. I want them dead. Perhaps crushed in some kind of meat processing machine. It mustn’t be quick. Not for those bastards! When karma wins out, these people will be reincarnated as Satan's suppository medication. They kept saying - "My God, the car's not insured? You must be insane!". The point is, I have requested dozens of quotes and no-one will touch me. Also, it’s a 1993 Toyota containing a fridge, a dirty mattress and a couple of guidebooks. That's not exactly what I'd call "a lot to lose".

I have booked a surf class for tomorrow. I feel more confident than I would normally. After spending most of the past two months at silly altitudes, I feel like I only have to breathe about once a minute down here.

My most recent travelling companions have been Benjamin, David and Marieke in Bolivia:

And Rory and Michelle in Peru:

It's time for all of the exciting news. The story has mountains, jungle, poverty - the aftermath of colonialism at its best. You ready? Hang on a second while I pour myself another cup of the creature.

Some Numbers
  • Days in Bolivia - 23
  • Days in Peru - 30
  • 6000m mountains climbed - 1
  • Attempted shakedowns by the police - 6
  • Number of times I paid - 2

    Bolivia's history is a tale of misfortune, incompetence and exploitation. The country's valuable rubber, silver and tin resources regularly made them a target for their more powerful neighbours and they lost much of their original territory in various wars. The Bolivians generally had both the moral and topographical high ground but it was rarely enough. The country could have disappeared altogether but for the fact that their neighbours decided to keep the place going as a kind of potato patch cum weapons testing ground.

    Social cohesion is a major problem. The country is deeply divided along geographical and racial lines. The highlands are inhabited almost entirely by indians and mestizos, while the whites live in the lowland tropics around Santa Cruz. There are a number of beautiful and unspoilt colonial towns with great fiestas and also some very interesting indigenous villages.

    Bolivia basically has two kinds of landscape:

    1) Altiplano: The Tibet of South America. Very remote, very high and very barren. The wildlife seems limited to filthy massive-beaked crows. If Yellowstone erupts and the resulting ash cloud turns the world into a freezing, desolate, scarcely inhabitable wasteland, it will look like the altiplano.

    2) Jungle - A boiling sump of mosquitos, deadly tropical diseases and humidity. I hate the jungle. Nothing ever gets properly dry and your life is a constant battle against biting insects. And don't expect to see any animals – they are shy and well-camouflaged. The only ones you will see are tarantulas, snakes and leeches. Christ, it's just dreadful.

    The indigenous population, who make up 70% of the total, have a sad history of being abused and exploited. Many of them are subsistence farmers who scratch out a living in the barren soil of the Altiplano. A general point occurred to me while I was there - are all jobs worth saving? In the early nineteenth century about half the population of Europe worked on farms. Today, it's 2%. No-one seems to be complaining.

    The cities, especially La Paz, are full of indigenous farm folk from the provinces, searching, mostly in vain, for a better life. They always seem to be queuing for something and have a nithered look about them.

    The ladies' traditional dress is ludicrous and unmistakable - bowler hat, hair in two long braids, apron, voluminous pleated skirt and a multicoloured blanket around the shoulders:

    The men are a collection of morose and blunt-fingered golems with gaping toothless mouths and stomach churning halitosis. Poverty, filth and poor dentistry have reached their apex here. They constantly chew coca leaves to make life bearable and get smashed on puro, a kind of rectified spirit.

    Bolivian Spanish is a nice version of the language, with a soft, comprehensible accent and a penchant for diminutives - sopita, segundito, pesito. About 95% of Bolivians are nominally Catholics, but most also observe pagan or semi-pagan festivals and visit witch doctors. Evangelical movements are also hugely successful. It seems that their message of the world's imminent demise strikes a chord with the fatalistic Bolivians.

    How can I put this? Not everyone in Bolivia is rude and abrasive but the ones that are will make you forget the rest. Of course I met some nice people but the ratio is not great. It was one WTF moment after another. I know that life is pretty hard for many Bolivians but surely no harder than in rural Brazil or India.

    The Atacama Desert
    Let’s pick things up where we left off, on the Argentinian border. The crossing from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama is a beautiful one, across a stunning wilderness of canyons and thirsty riverbeds. Outcrops of rock weathered into strange shapes are scattered across the landscape.

    I spent a couple of days in San Pedro and then decided to drive across the Atacama desert to Uyuni by myself. The journey took me three days instead of two because I got stuck in the mud about a thousand miles from the nearest petrol station or smiling face and had to dig myself out.

    I slept on the roof of the car for the first time in weeks. Sleeping out in the desert alone is always a great experience. The sun sinks with a definite finality, and darkness spreads over the landscape like oil on water. Then the sky becomes a starry sea and you are adrift on a silent shiftless coracle.

    Silence was the thing which impressed itself most forcefully on my consciousness. Any small noise I made myself only seemed to emphasise it. I strongly recommend Gordon Hempton’s excellent One Square Inch Of Silence, a book by an auditory ecologist which has made me vastly more aware of silence and of the unholy racket we're making of the world.

    On the second day I got caught in a snow storm in the desert, which was the absolute last thing I was expecting:

    I stopped randomly because I couldn't see where I was going, and woke up to find blazing sunshine and a beautiful lake with dozens of flamingos. Very memorable. I spent a couple of hours just sitting around drinking tea and taking it in.

    The Salar de Uyuni
    The salt rusts cars badly, so I decided to take a tour. There are several agencies, and I went with one whose main selling point was that their drivers don't get drunk. The conditions in the Salar were harsh - strong winds, freezing cold and sun reflecting off every surface. The climate here is "harto frio".

    I was very lucky to come at a time when it had just rained and the whole Salar was submerged in six inches of water. It is one of the coolest things I have ever seen – a tideless white expanse stretching to the horizon:

    There is a very beautiful cactus-covered island in the Salar called the Isla Pescado which is in fact a huge fossilized coral reef. Don’t miss it.

    Potosi above ground is a nice place, full of old colonial mansions and churches. It is also the site of the world's most famous silver mine, which you can visit. The tour is marketed as "a taste of the most hellish job on earth".

    You start the day by going to the mining market and buying some gifts for the miners (booze, cigarettes, coca leaves and dynamite), before heading into the mines. The miners have a statue of the devil at the entrance. "The mines are underground and therefore part of his territory." says the guide, switching the coca plug from one cheek to the other. We are encouraged to pour alcohol on the statue's penis and put lit cigarettes in its mouth. Good fun and we do some drinking too.

    In the 500 year history of the mines, working practices haven’t changed that much. Most of the work is still done with picks and shovels. You feel cold and hot at different times, there is lots of crawling through small spaces and the altitude is no joke. Potosi, at 4000m, is the world's highest city, which means you get knackered just going to the toilet. I can`t say I`d like to do it again - contending with dust, sweat and claustrophobia in tunnels 500 meters underground. The most fun bit was setting off the dynamite, which I got to do:

    There is an argument that the tour amounts to paying to watch people suffer. It comes down to how you approach it. If you don't treat the miners like zoo animals, then I see no problem. Plus it gives you a chance to furrow your brow and nod thoughtfully at dinner parties as you solemnly relate the tragic story. I found that the down-to-earth miners were among the friendliest Bolivians I encountered. They seemed to like having the tourists there as it provided an excuse for a break. The extra money and booze didn't go amiss either.

    To be perfectly honest, conditions in the mine were better than I expected. In a way, I felt bad that I didn't feel worse. Ultimately, this kind of hardship and poverty is not unique to miners or those living in Potosi. It is one of the best paying jobs in Bolivia. They know the health risks and take them willingly. The miners work in co-operatives, which means they set their own hours and keep everyhing they find. Every now and again a team strikes it rich, which is what they all dream of. Compare that to conditions in mines in Africa, where the workers are virtual slaves and safety standards are a joke.

    Bolivia vs England
    The mining areas of southern Bolivia are not nice. A numbing grey sky is permanently bolted into position and the landscape looks like a picture of a smoker's lung. The place is choked with grey smoke from cement factories and scarred with gravel pits.

    I chatted to a friendly eleven year old boy whose job is to shovel rocks onto hand wagons for 14 hours a day. He has never been to school, he told me. Later, lying in bed, I thought to myself, "I wonder what I was doing when I was his age?" and I suddenly had the clearest memory of an afternoon fishing in Worcestershire where I grew up. I remembered vividly how it felt, luxuriating in the deep grass, with the golden sunlight filtering through the oak leaves above me, listening to the birds and the rustling of the undergrowth and watching the stream flow past, the heavens reflected in its surface. It was a great place to grow up, a world of thick woods, twisting lanes and cozy pubs. Constable country.

    When you're an expat or long-term traveller, the England you remember is invariably better than the England you actually left behind. Still, the awfulness of my surroundings cast it into transcendent relief.

    La Paz
    La Paz is a visually stunning place. The city fills a huge bowl-shaped canyon, with adobe houses clinging to every rocky outcrop. As you're traipsing up and down the narrow cobble-stoned streets you get amazing glimpses of the crammed hillsides opposite, down the branching alleyways.

    The place has a bad reputation. Taxi drivers reputedly pick up westerners and drive them to a secluded spot to meet accomplices who then rob them. It is also dirty. There's nothing like stepping in human faeces in the main shopping street of a capital city to really make you respect a country. Crapping in the street was big in Europe in the middle ages, so I guess they're just keeping the old traditions alive.

    I visited the presidential palace and Morales was apparently home. They were broadcasting one of his speeches in the square outside and a crowd of locals were standing in rapt attention, as though they were in Bethlehem listening to the voice of Jesus. He served up a large helping of nationalism, a sprinkle of anti-colonialisms and a small side of "screw the Americans".

    The main things to do in La Paz are:

  • The death road. I did not cycle it, partly because I am a crap cyclist and partly because I have driven many more dangerous roads in central Asia. The picture is of David starting down. Key piece of advice? Don't look where you're going, you'll only terrify yourself.

  • The witches market. They sell all kinds of weird stuff - dried frogs and hallucinogenic cacti, as well as llama foetuses, which the Bolivians bury under the foundations of their houses to protect against earthquakes:

  • Visiting San Pedro prison. Illegal, so no comment.

    A Night in the life - The Wild Rover
    There are two infamous party hostels in La Paz, Loki and The Wild Rover. Both are Irish run and, as the LP rightly points out, if you haven't heard of them before you arrive, you shouldn't be there. Benjamin, Marieke, Daniel and I decided to go for a few drinks and arrived at the Wild Rover bar at about eight.

    The place is packed with eighteen year-olds in off-the-shoulder T-shirts milling around like touts at a U2 concert and engaging in the kind of bare knuckle flirting I haven't seen since I left London. The Germans soon bail out citing stomach issues, so I start chatting to an Irish girl called Claire. She introduces me to her table - there is a ginger haired Scotsman whom we shall call Wingnut (not his real name for reasons which will soon become apparent) two other Brits and an Italian.

    Wingnut is in full flow and I struggle badly to make out what he’s saying. The buzz-saw whine of his voice comes at me in a steady stream. God, was that even in English? He is making alot of noise but somehow still seems like the kind of guy who hides behind his mother when a dog barks. It soon becomes clear that as a result of consuming too many recreational chemicals of the go-faster variety, his setting is stuck on "transmit" rather than "receive”. I shake my head as I ponder how stupid he must be to put that filth into his body. I take a sip of my fifth Jager-Redbull. The Italian on my left is a fanatical birdwatcher. He is interesting to talk to, as are most enthusiasts, but is constantly being shouted down by the Brits.

    I finish my drink. Nature abhors an empty glass, so I scan the menu and plump for my old favourite – a Black Russian. What I got was lukewarm cough medicine. It was verging on an insult in a cup. I leave Wingnut discussing politics with his fellow giants of the mind and hit the dance-floor with Claire. The demented teenagers are getting out of control, so she suggests we go to a club. My self esteem had been hovering around normal for quite some time and I'd been meaning to smack it down to minus a hundred, so I agree.

    We arrive at the club, which is atmospherically filthy. The guy on the door turns out to be the kind of uppity bastard who, despite getting paid $20 a month and living with his parents, looks down on anyone he thinks might be poor and feels justified in being snooty because he gets treated like crap by Bolivian "celebrities". Claire somehow gets me in despite my flip-flops and awful clothes.

    The club is a low-ceiling affair, poorly lit and alive with menace. The crowd is an unappealing mix of try-hard locals and pikey travellers, all packed onto the dancefloor. No offense to nature was absent. No deformity was excluded. They heaved and twisted, groaning and emitting dissonant ululations. There was even a guy doing that gay no-arms Irish dancing thing from the early nineties. Jesus wept.

    I stepped up my drinking to compensate. I seem to remember meeting some more people, including a girl I liked who had blonde or possibly brown hair. Or was wearing a hat. We apparently went on to another place but I can't remember a thing about it. I will grow out of this kind of behaviour at some point, right? There's time, isn't there? Of course there is. The next day I shunned everyone and went to an expensive coffee shop by myself, where I ate croissants and read three chapters of Fraser, which was an absolute joy.

    Morales & the New Left
    The rise of the populist left in Latin America has exposed deep cultural fissures across the continent. Chavez led the charge in Venezuela and has been followed by Morales in Bolivia, who has much the same agenda. There's also a new guy in Uruguay who's called... no, sorry, it's gone. The liberal left in Brazil and Chile is markedly different and combines free market economic policies with social reform.

    You don't need to dig far to find the roots of the movement. South American economies taken as a whole have been doing well. The problem is that this growth has been very uneven. Family oligarchies keep the playing field tilted in their favour through the use of monopolies, concessions, privileged access to capital etc. A substantial population, especially in the Andean nations, live outside the money economy and have no stake in the political system.

  • The Positives: In principle I am rather in favour of Morales & co. These are politicians who actually stand for something. In the UK, the parties are all camped in a line in the middle of the road, trying to lure voters through the flaps of their massive all-encompassing policy tents. Morales represents the poorest, most marginalized people on the continent. He seems to have genuine feeling for them and will probably introduce some only moderately cretinous social programs. Plus, the Americans need a kick every now and again. There are other positives. It seems the mayor of Caracas has begun the forced acquisition of several golf courses, which will be used to build homes for the city's poor. Now, I am in no way concerned about the suffering in Venezuelan slums, but I am a fervent supporter of anything that irritates golfers.

  • The Negatives: The illiterate poor are easily attracted by radical populists who offer simple solutions to complex problems. One thing Morales is now discovering is that idealism is fine in opposition but politics in power is the art of the possible. A case in point - fuel prices in Bolivia have been frozen for years, during which time global oil prices have quadrupled. The cost is becoming a vast burden to the government, so Morales quite reasonably announced a reduction of subsidies on fuel. The result? He was forced to abandon the plan after violent strikes and uprisings around the country. Welcome to reality brother.

    I am all in favour of redistribution of wealth. I just question whether pinhead politicians who couldn't pass GCSE economics should be making these decisions. Morales's solution? Send in troops to take control of the country's gas and oil fields. They have been, he says, looted by foreign companies. Now, it's abundantly clear that this "nationalization", was just a headline-grabbing play to the masses ahead of the upcoming Bolivian elections, but in the eyes of investors this is will remain straight theft. What it means is that foreign firms will simply not invest, and it will make capital very expensive for Bolivia, which desperately needs it.

    Venezuela is the exception to the rule. Thanks to record oil prices, Chavez can institute nonsensical economic policies and run a massive fiscal surplus to keep spending high and buy the loyalty of his core voting base. This is all fine and good, but if oil prices ever drop down below $50, it’s game over.

  • The Likely Outcome: My problem with these guys is practical rather than ideological. They are just as given to the machinations and petty power plays that define Latin American politics as their opponents, and they are mostly pushing the populist angle because it is politically expedient. Morales will likely follow the path of most rabble rousing mini-Castros that spring up in South America. In ten years he will be as mad as a melon, the flag will be a picture of his face and Bolivia will go back to being a massive drug-money launderette. He already spends 20% of GDP on posters of himself grinning in traditional dress.

    Chavez is well down this path already, passing legislation that will allow him to appoint regional governors that were previously elected, changing the country's constitution to allow him to run for unlimited terms, barring opponents from standing against him, denying licenses to unfavourable media outlets and so on. If you feel like taking a stand against the great Satan, I recommend Cuba, which has good-looking girls, a perfect climate, hip-swinging local music and an excellent attitude to lunchtime cocktail drinking.

    The country is a treasure trove of ancient ruins, if you like that kind of thing. A succession of different cultures rose and fell here, and despite no knowledge of the wheel, iron, heavy draught animals or the written word, they left behind Chan Chan, the Nazca lines and Macchu Pichu. Like Bolivia, the political history of the country has basically been one military dictatorship following another. Things seem to be going pretty well for the most part. The Shining Path Maoist rebels have largely given up and tourism has become a big source of income for the indigenous peoples of the highlands.

    The Peruvians I met were much friendlier than the Bolivians. They really make you feel welcome. I had dinner with a very charming family in Nazca after I gave their son a lift in the desert. I was given huge quantities of fish and potatoes. I told them about the trip and where I'd been, which triggered them to force yet bigger helpings of potato upon me. I did not offer to pay them. These are people who have little but their hospitality is not for sale.

    The Conquest of The New World
    There are few more improbable stories than that of a handful of Spanish pirates landing in South America and overthrowing the then-mighty Inca empire. I have read several accounts, and most are couched in tones of high handed moral indignation. This is the kind of history I hate - history with a political agenda. Collective responsibility and I are uneasy companions. The conquistadors were a gang of unscrupulous opportunists taking what they could get, which is what people did in those days, and mostly still do.

    The Incas were themselves the inheritors of an amalgam of cultural threads that sprang up along the coast from 2000BC. They wiped out most of their contemporaries during their expansionary phase and spent their time cheerfully hacking off each other's heads and using them as paperweights. If anyone thinks I'm saying the colonies deserved to be conquered then they have keen glasses on. Nor was it acceptable to enslave them for centuries to work in mines or use their ancient buildings as raw material for cement. What I'm saying is that they were living in very different world, a world in which the academic bedwetters that wrote these books would have been rightly exterminated.

    As usual, there's more to the truth than just the facts. The throne of the Incas is yet vacant and we Europeans may well get our turn when China rules the world and we are squatting in the shadows between the dragon's feet.

    I was planning on doing some light sightseeing in Arequipa and somehow got talked into joining an attempt on a 6100m mountain in a blizzard. Mountaineering is something I previously had little interest in. Wild horses have regularly attempted to drag me up mountains, with minimal success. God knows why I agreed. I think I felt it would be good for me and might also leave my features slightly more rugged and interesting. Get your popcorn ready for an adjective-filled tale of hardship, the triumph of the human spirit and so on:

    Things start poorly as we arrive in the morning at HQ and find that all the gear we tried on the day before has disappeared. We start over and predictably nothing fits. Given the miniscule cost of the "expedition", the crappy quality of the gear is hardly a surprise - basically a selection of disintegrating leather boots from World War 1, a scattered pile of third-rate gardening gloves and some urine-stained children's ski pants.

    There is a Japanese guy loitering about. I ask him hopefully if he's going with us - the Japanese are great mountaineers and tough as nails from half a century of combating Godzilla. Sadly, he is doing a different trek. I finally cobble together bits and pieces into a semi-viable outfit. In my excitement to get going I start swinging my ice axe over my head and nearly take out my own eye. The guide looks at me with contempt.

    "You do have mountaineering experience, right?"

    "Well, I'm not sure if you'd call it mountaineering but I have done some pretty tough hikes."

    His gaze slides over my shoulder, dismissing me as the rank amateur that I am.

    "I also watched Into The Void on DVD a couple of weeks ago...” I waffle on diminuendo.

    We finally head off in a jeep. The road winds up into the mountains for a couple of hours and ends abruptly in the middle of a rocky declivity. "We have arrived", the guide says unnecessarily.

    We eat some sandwiches and gather round to listen as he outlines a plan crazy enough to loosen the bowels of a marble statue.

    "We'll be walking with our full packs for several hours to base camp, then after some soup we'll get a couple of hours sleep and get up at half past midnight for the seven hour assault on the summit. We'll do the ice axe training on the way."

    "Great", I say.

    "It is extremely tough. I expect no more than half of you to make it."


    "If you are too tired or sick to continue, one of the guides will take you back to base camp to drink tea and wait for the others."

    "Great", I say again, sincere at last.

    A four hour slog clambering over huge boulders in zero visibility takes us as far as base camp and we set up our tents. It soon becomes clear that the others have all been given soaking wet sleeping bags. Nice touch. Thankfully I brought my own.

    Niels, a young Dane, asks to share my tent because he is freezing. It's really a one man tent so we get to know each other pretty well. I can hear him shivering all night, poor bastard, and give him what clothes I have. I sleep fitfully, tossing between our grotesque reality and terrifying, surreal dreams. We are awakened by a shrill beeping from one of the other tents. Already!? I wish I could say I awoke with a bird singing in my heart but that would be inaccurate. I am the last out of my sleeping bag. People keep tapping the tent and saying "pack up". "Give me a break, will you! I’m DOING IT!".

    We have a cup of tea and start off. The sky is clear, which is a nice surprise, and I imagine the stars moving across the sky like the hands of a clock. The ground is so frozen my boots sound like tearing velcro.

    People start turning back within twenty minutes of our departure. Altitude sickness is a nasty thing. The first two are close enough to the camp to return unaccompanied. The next is four hours later and takes one of our two guides with him. To take my mind off the grinding exhaustion I imagine being on a reality show where I have to choose between a massage from Mila Kunis and a kebab. Christ, I could have murdered a kebab.

    Here is a picture of the remaining team looking not-so-awesome about halfway up. The body language is terrible.

    Niels (centre) has terrible altitude sickness but we only have one guide left, so if he gives up we all have to go back. “Sorry about complaining and slowing everyone down", he says. I try to explain that complaining is a respected art form in the UK, but he doesn't seem to understand. His weakening morale hardens my resolve and I stride on, head down with apparent purpose.

    We cross a snow field that is so bright that it seems to be casting our shadows against the sky. This is the trickiest section for me because my sunglasses are pathetically inadequate and because of the gale. I have higher wind resistance on account of being fatter. None of this phases me, however. Because I've got the eye. The eye of the tiger.

    Niels gets worse and worse. He is falling over every few steps now, but somehow keeps going. "Chin up. You can do it!" I shout despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. I tell him it's only another half hour, which is what I've been telling him every ten minutes for the past two hours, partly because that's what the guide keeps telling me and partly to keep him going. He accuses me of lying. But I am not lying, I am merely expressing truth at an incipient stage.

    After an age, we make it to the top. Everyone is too shattered to really celebrate. It's a waste of time to try to enjoy such moments as they happen. They are just for remembering. Niels collapses in a heap. "That'll do pig", I say. When Matthew McConnaghey plays me in the movie version, I think perhaps he should carry Niels for the last few hundred metres.

    The way down starts well. We take a steep shortcut through deep powder and make good time. However, my boots are quickly saturated and then it starts snowing hard. Putting on our backpacks again at camp was awful. Several of the group were literally staggering with exhaustion the whole way back. It seemed to take forever. I pictured Napoleon clinging to the mane of his dying horse on the way back from Moscow with the remnants of his broken army stretched out behind him and idly wonder how long it takes to get trenchfoot.

    When we finally got down I had a bite to eat and slept like a rock for twelve hours. It was, for the most part, a good experience. And by “good”, I mean that we didn’t die. I would be extremely surprised if that isn’t the only 6000m peak I climb in my life.

    Cusco is ultra-touristy and picturesque. There are innumerable beautiful buildings, mostly around the Plaza de Armas, where thousands of indians were publically tortured to death over the centuries. This area is the epicentre of the Peruvian rainy season. It has the kind of rain that isn’t obviously falling, it just sort of hangs around the place, leaving the streets empuddled. I had a water fight with some local kids on the first day, but then just hid out in the bar at the superb Yamanya hostel.

    I won't say too much about Macchu Pichu. The structures themselves are less impressive than those in Guatemala or Mexico, but the setting absolutely takes your breath away. Despite being South America's worst kept secret, it is well worth the trip.

    There are also some very pretty villages in the area, including one known to the Incas as the birthplace of the rainbow. The landscape is stunning, even in the rain, with dramatic black slabs of cloud stretching out in all directions and the grass glittering like little knife-blades.

    The architecture is mostly an anything-goes mish mash of styles. Parts of the old centre are nice, as is Miraflores, but much of the rest is a vast suburban sprawl of bland grey boxes. Not much else to say. I spent little time here.

    Virtually all buildings in Peru and Bolivia are unfinished. I'm guessing that, like in the Middle East, this is because the government levies a tax when a house is finished. Thus, they never finish them. How hard can it be to restructure this system? The results are hideous.

    The Middle Eastern "Situation"
    I've chosen to spend most of the last two years in the middle of nowhere in far flung climes, which means I know virtually nothing about anything. I barely watch the news, and when I do it is usually stuff like a report about a cat that likes to watch "So You Think You Can Dance". The problem is that even when I stop following the news, it somehow finds me, usually filtered through the brain of a retarded backpacker.

    Something appears to be rotten in the kentish orchard that is the Middle East. It is one of those exciting times when western politicians can't agree on what they should be most afraid of and the air is thick with the stink of moral equivalence. As usual, I can promise to be sincere, but not to be impartial.

    There are significant differences between the various states, but despite their evil non-BBC worldview, most of them are only moderately despotic, clocking in at well below 300 Adolfs on the Hitlometer. However, frustration has been building over the woefully unequal distribution of wealth, the total absence of a free press, or any kind of rule of law. Trouble is inevitable in Arab countries - the population is impetuous and ungovernable, and every family has six kids and plans for ten more. Some of the regimes have caved in with embarrassing ease, while others have drawn strength, like Giordano Bruno from the flames licking at his feet, from the howls of the grubby malcontents rattling the gates outside.

    The western powers, nominally in favour of democracy and freedom, are busy supporting the friendly dictatorships, lest they be replaced by a mental medieval caliphate, and denouncing the unfriendly ones. As usual, the only real issue is oil. In the meantime they conveniently ignore such trifling irrelevances as the profound injustice created by the existing structures. The hysterical commentary by government "experts" reveals far more about their own agenda than it does about the uprisings. They are especially worried that the Saudi rulers might be next on the block.

    The West is understandably reluctant to commit itself to a ground war in Libya, especially the Americans, who are still smarting from the bloody nose they got in Iraq. Before we send our jets over, it seems wise to consider whether the enemy doesn't also have jets. In fact, the ones we sold him. Fortunately, several other Arab nations have teamed up against Ghaddafi. To paraphrase Shaw, “put an Arab on the spit and you can always get another Arab to turn him”.

    It is not clear if the world is getting worse or if there are just alot more reporters about. In any case, all this may result in an all out war, or it may dissipate like so many other chimeral crises. Things will right themselves in due course.

    Best Moments
  • Lake Titicaca. The name alone makes me laugh. I spent a happy afternoon walking the length of the Isla del Sol with David. We had perfect weather. Titicaca trout is the big culinary attraction in the region, and varies dramatically in quality. Sometimes you get a pair of divinely poached fillets, other times what looks like a tazered sardine.

  • Sparring with Tony "The Peruvian Savage" DeSouza, Peru's only world class cage fighter. Had a really fun time and learnt plenty:

  • Camping on the way to Toro Toro. Had a great BBQ on the edge of a canyon.

  • Caving in the Toro Toro National Park:

  • Going to the wrestling in La Paz. It had everything - men vs women, people dressed as werewolves. Top quality:

  • Sandboarding down the dunes at Huacachina:

    Worst Moments
  • Constantly getting lost: Usual problem. Getting directions from locals is haphazard at best. The guy you are asking has probably never been out of his village but will confidently point you in a random direction.

  • One thing that sucks about travelling. Occasionally you meet someone that you immediately get on with. You hang out for a couple of days, then they head off in the opposite direction and you're left pretending to yourself that you never liked her that much anyway.

  • Driving in Bolivia is the worst in the Americas so far. Dangerous bends are marked by little memorials to people who've died in traffic accidents there and give you a good advance indication of how likely it is you'll meet a lorry coming the other way doing a full power-slide.

  • Getting shaken down by dirty cops. This kind of thing is a daily occurrence here. I had one such encounter two days ago:

    A snoutfaced traffic cop with a moustache waves at me. He looks like an actor playing a cop. There are two kinds of police waves in South America, one where they are telling you to slow down so they can take a look at you and another where they are telling you to stop so they can steal your stuff. This was the second. He demands my papers and squints derisively at my international driving license. I can see from his body language that he's going to get me for something.

    “You were speeding and will have to pay an on-the-spot fine”, he says in Spanish.

    “I have always believed that strawberry pop tarts are superior to cinnamon & apple”, I reply, nodding in agreement with myself.

    The key is to pretend not to speak a single word of Spanish. Just respond with a phrase in English. Anything that comes to mind. I just kept this nonsense up until he finally he gets bored and, with his jaw slightly clenched, lets me go. Just another lazy and corrupt South American public servant who knows that, save for committing murder in broad daylight, he cannot be fired.

    Best/Worst Food
  • Bolivia: Bolivians are obsessed with soup, which mostly takes the form of a thin, flavourless gruel with quinoa. I often ate at market stalls where hygiene is not exactly a top priority and so my plumbing was a total disaster for much of my stay.

  • Produce: Bolivia has the most incredible fruit that comes up from the tropical lowlands. And there are juice stalls everywhere. An absolute life saver:

  • Alcohol: You have two choices for cheap alcohol in Bolivia: Sugary and piss-weak chicha, or throat searing, gut wrenching, head-pounding "puro". Hobson's choice. I mostly went for puro - it rates poorly on taste and quality but it does cure gonorrhea. Also, after drinking it your piss will eat through steel.

  • Pique a la Macho - I had this alot. Grilled llama or beef with chips, tomato and beans, all mixed together.

  • Without false modesty, one of the best things I have eaten in the past two months has been a chilli I made for everyone in Puno. You wouldn't believe the carnage that I made of the kitchen, but it was snarfled down in about 5 minutes with no noise but the slurping of wine and the sound of contented mastication.

  • Peruvian food is generally better than Bolivian. There are great local specialities like ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice and chilli), roast guinea pig and lots of stews. The locals eat a lot of sandwiches, which I avoided because the ham is foul. The cheese isn’t up to much either - it comes in several different colours but all taste identically of nothing. They have a national soft drink here called Inca Kola which tastes a bit like liquid bubble gum. Not recommended.

    It’s a couple of days after I started this entry. Today has been a long rainy day spent boldly going nowhere. If you guessed "off milk" then you win this week's round of "What's that revolting smell in the car?". The stench has prompted the first serious clean-up since I left. I have had the car cleaned many times but not a full scrub-round-the-back-of-the-toilet job like this. I'm nearly done. I have also been working for more than an hour on replacing the rubber bit on my left windscreen wiper. My god, I feel so alive.

    I am camping tonight. It’s been a while. Bolivia is so cheap there was no need. It has reminded me how little I generally enjoy it. Camping is fine if you're really getting out there to some beautiful remote spot. But camping next to a hostel, that's just idiotic.

    Re-reading this entry, I may be overplaying the unfriendliness and rural decrepitude of the Bolivians. I have to call it as I see it though. They still use those razors with only the three blades for god's sake. Whether you enjoy any country has a lot to do with luck - what weather you had, what people you met and so on. Maybe I just didn’t have it.

    It’s time to get out of Peru. I'm on my way to Guyaquil to see if they have the spare part that I need. If I don't find it, Guyaquil will burn. After long weeks of mostly grey skies and sub-zero temperatures, I am looking forward to Central America.

    More next month. I will be in Ecuador for the next couple of weeks arranging for the car to be shipped to Panama. The future is moving towards me. It's simply a matter of waiting for it to arrive.

    And so to bed.