South America - 1983-1984

This account summarises the highlights of a three-month journey in Andean South America.

I'd learned a bit of rudamentary Spanish, and figured it would just have to suffice. Our flight from Perth was via Auckland (New Zealand) to Tahiti, with a couple of days to soak up the southern Pacific sun before flying on to Santigo and then Lima. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Tahiti is the arse-hole of the world! Certainly not a place for backpackers, but even the rich hotels had dreadful "beaches" of jagged rock on the main island. We were staying in the only cheap accomodation we could find - a single cockroach-infested room above the Ping-Pong bookshop. We could only get in or out when the bookshop was open, and it was a real dump. The people in Papeete weren't friendly at all - they seemed to have a wonderful mixture of the arrogance of the French and the indolence of the islands. We were really happy to be leaving.

However, Papeete had one last sting in her tail. The airport, late at night. We were there, the plane was there, but the crew was under siege in their hotel, picketted by protesting hotel staff who had started a minor riot. Police with tear gas were trying to round up the protesters, and the airflight crew weren't going anywhere in a hurry. Two hostesses who had escaped by running down the beach brought news to the airport.

Hundreds of unhappy passengers milled around the airport, waiting for announcements about flights. We met an English couple who were headed for New Zealand and spent the hours talking to them. (Ralph and Mary have since become friends, so something good came out of our long night.) At about four in the morning the airlines dicided to send us back to our hotels. Fine, but the bookshop was shut! A couple from New Zealand took pity on us, and we went back to their hotel and shared a room. In the morning the crew were able to make it to the airport and we happily left Tahiti behind.

Santiago was just a transit point for us - not even time to leave the airport and go into the city. Our last long leg of the trip took us to Lima, arriving at about one in the morning. We took a minbus into the city centre, and told the driver to drop in the centre of town. He refused, drawing his finger across his throat to emphasis the reason, so we figured we had better take his offer of driving us around until we found a suitable hotel. He was right - Lima in the early hours of the morning wasn't a good place for a couple of backpackers suffering jet lag, trying to practice their limited Spanish!

Lima during the day was fine - a lovely city, with lots to see, and the added excitement of water canons parked on the corners of major squares. However, after a few days, Geoff came down with a severe gastric upset and retreated into silence, curled up in bed, so I explored the city alone. I had one narrow escape from the water canons, running mindlessly with the crowd until a man grabbed me and pulled me with him to the back of a hotel, where we crouched behind the bins until the excitement was over and people could get back on the street again.

Chan Chan
We had planned to head north, and had even bought the bus tickets, but Geoff wasn't getting any better, and I was desperate to sort it out, but my lack of Spanish was making it impossible to get medication. Finally, a brainwave. I booked us into the Sheraton, and as soon as I had Geoff upstairs and in bed I rang the desk and asked for an English-speaking doctor to be sent to the room. Great idea - it worked. He was able to sort out what was wrong and prescribe medication I could get from the hotel's chemist. Meanwhile, I had to go to the bus station and sort out the bus tickets. The staff tried their best to understand my excruciating Spanish. Finally I blurted out that my friend had an evil stomach, and that seemed to persuade them that we could reschedule our trip to a later date.

Two nights in the impersonal Sheraton did the trick (actually, the doctor was the important bit) and Geoff was ready to get back on the road.

We wanted to visit Chan Chan, so made Trujillo our base for a couple of days. The ruins at Chan Chan were quite fantastic. We also amnaged to get to a couple of other small towns in the district before getting on the bus for the long trip to the border. The whole area was very dry, and the town only had running water, piped from the distant Andes, for a couple of hours in the early morning.

The drive north was hot and dusty. Floods from a severe el Niño event the previous year had washed away all the bridges and much of the road, making it a slow and uncomforable trip. In the far north of Peru we came into the oil fields, the reason for the long Ecuador-Peru dispute about borders. The bare landscape was dotted with oil pumps, looking for all the world like those toys you used see where a long-necked bird dips its head into a glass of water.

At the border there was the usual chaos. The actual border is a river, with immigration on the respective banks. On the Peruvian side a flourishing market provides common household goods, bought in huge amouts by people going to Ecuador. We had the immigration building to ourselves - everyone else seemed to just trot over the bridge without giving it a second thought. The officer in charge went through the formalities and stamped our passports, but wouldn't give them back. Instead he carefully explained something to us in Spanish. I interpreted for Geoff: "He's saying something about the cost of the upkeep of the building" I said, looking around me at the tiny tin shed. Geoff doesn't speak anything other than English, but he is much quicker then me to catch implications. "He wants a bribe". Oh. Yes. Should have figured that out for myself. A little money one way, the passports back in our hands, and we were across the bridge and negotiating the Ecuador immigration. Just as we finished and were about to head for the bus Geoff realised that he had left a book back in the border shed in Peru. He ran back, prised his book away from the Peruvian officials, waved to the Ecuadorian boder officials as he sauntered through, and we were right to go.

The bus trip to Guayaquil was amazing. Not for the condition of the bus or for the volume of the speakers, both of which were astounding in their own right, but for the smuggling operations that were obviously taking place. All that soap powder and loo paper bought in the market in Peru was stacked everywhere on the bus - under the seats, under our feet, around the driver, on the roof. Less than an hour down the road we came to our first checkpoint - Ecuador had them on every road, and buses like ours were stopped regularly, in some places at every town along the way. Our first such stop was the focus of much drama. Women, who made up the bulk of the "smugglers" screamed and cried. Much yelling and hysterics took place, then a big fat mama of a woman took the officials aside and talked earnestly to them, thrusting money into their hands. Suddenly the treatened unloading and searching of the immense load on the roof of the bus was cancelled, there were smiles all around, and we drove off to the next checkpoint, to repeat the drama all the way to Guayaquil.

Guayaquil itself wan't an attraction for us, although had the railway to Quito been running it would have provided the start point for a trip into the mountains. However, the railway line, like everything else, had been washed away with the floods, and we were in Guayaquil in order to get a flight to the Galapagos Islands. All the information we could find said that there were no banks on the islands, so we had to be heavily cashed up before we left, particularly as we were only buying a one-way ticket to the islands, and planned to buy our return ticket to Quito once we got to Santa Cruz, not knowing how much time would spend out there. We went to the local cambio to cash traveller's cheques. Only after we had signed them did the staff tell that that they only small-denomination notes. Our hundreds of $US turned into thousands of sucre notes, far too bulky to fit into our money pouches, and the passing Ecuadoreans stopped to oggle as Geoff stuffed money up his shirt and down his daks and I loaded up my bra!

Galapagos: getting ready to climb Alcedo
We had an excellent trip to the Galapagos. A friend in Australia had told us not to bother with tours and boats - that is would all sort itself out when we got there. She was right. As soon as we got out of the bus that took us into Santa Cruz we were met by an English couple who were looking to make up a boat-load of travellers. We agreed to join them, and spent the next couple of days with them, recruiting more people and sorting out the boat, crew and guide. Eventually we had seven travellers, and set off for the island of Isabela, to climb the volcano Alcedo, where we had permission to camp. We fished off trailing lines on the way to the island and caught dinner - the cook proved to be fantastic, and we had great meals.

The first day we anchored off the island, and walked around to see the flightless cormorants, followed by a swim with the sharks. That night we slept on the boat, and made an early landing to climb to the top of Alcedo. Geoff seemed to suffering a recurrence of his gastric upset, or had contracted a virus - in any case, he became quite ill on the way up, so much so that I took the contents of his pack, and even then he decided to go back down and join the boat. Looking back down the slope he could see the boat had already left the shore - the crew had decided to take off for the two days we were on the island, so poor Geoff had to struggle to the top. And it was a struggle. The lower slopes are barren lava flows and less steep, but as you get further up the volcano the vegetation starts and the slope gets steeper and steeper. Right at the top it was a very hard climb through quite dense vegetation and Geoff was totally stuffed by the time we set up camp. The volcano is quite high and creates its own micro-climate, with moisture from the misty clouds that shroud it making it a choice place for the tortoises to live. A live fumerole steamed on the other side of the crater, and we resolved to walk around the rim in the morning before making our descent. In the meantime we had giant tortoises around the camp, and apart from poor long-suffering Geoff we were having a great time.

In the morning Geoff was still sick, as was one of the girls, so the rest of us left them with instruction to dismantle the tents and pack them up - we would spend a couple of hours walking to the fumerole through lush vegetation, seeing lots of tortoises along the way. When we got back the tents were still up, and Geoff was ashen and exhausted, having spent all his time warding off the tortoises which slowly and relentlessly tried to eat their way into everything - the tents, the garbage bag, the food, our clothes. He had resorted to sitting on top of them and banging them with his fist, keeping their heads inside their shells. The other girl had been too sick to help. We broke camp, packed everything up and redistributed the loads to make it easier for the invalides, and set off to make our rendevous with the boat. Geoff was better going down the volcano, but the poor girl had diarrhoea, and just had to squat in open view, while the rest of us filed past.

Despite his less than pleasant first trip (I'd enjoyed it!) Geoff was keen to get out some of the other islands, so we joined another boat for a longer trip around most of the islands. This was an organised trip, where quite a few passengers hadn't turned up, and the travel agent was keen to get travellers like us to take up the slack, offering it at a discounted price. it was OK, and we did get to see almost all the places and animals we had wanted to see, but the organisation and crew on the boat were pretty bad compared to the boat we had organised for ourselves. While we were ashore on one island with a wet landing they helped themselves to money from belongings left in the cabins - other passengers confirmed that they, too, were missing a small sum of money - they seemed to have taken a little bit from each of us!

Back at Santa Cruz we had a couple more days just lazing about, walking to local beaches, eating lobster, enjoying the company of hundreds of iguana and Darwinian finches, discovering the banks that everyone said didn't exist, and sorting out our return flight (cheaper than our flight out!). We flew back to Quito.

Quito was great. After a night in one of the worst hotels we found in South America we moved upmarket (to $3.50 a double) to a great place and decided to spend a reasonable amount of time in the city. there were lots of things to see - we were in the old city, but made trips down to the new city (for bookshops and real coffee) as well as day trips out to market villages nearby and up to the equator.

One night there was a festival in the old city - the streets around the cathedral lined with food carts (I don't recommend the grilled intestine!) and people thronging the roads. When it was completely dark people set off fireworks (at random, in the middle of the crowds), and a group of men had wonderful miniature hot air balloons, made of paper and powered by rags dipped in kerosene put into the basket and set alight. The balloons rose up into the air over the head of the crowd, dripping burning kerosene as they went - no-one seemed to care. The breeze wafted them gently up and onto the roofs of the cathedral and surrounding buildings, where one assumes they went out, since nothing drastic seemed to result.

We wanted to trek in the Amazon basin, so went to Misahualli to find a guide. Great little town. Our bus had a head-on smash on the way, and the only place to stay was above the bar of the very noisy pub. The (then) Lonely Planet said to ask around for Douglas, which we did, and met his son, Adonis, who would guide us into the Napa, but only in a party of five or more. There was another couple, Dana and Remus from the USA, who also wanted to trek, so we four agreed to pay for the fifth non-existant person, and set off with Adonis, who was a fantastic guide and good company. Our trek started with a dugout canoe trip down-river, then a trek through the jungle to the Napa. Gumboots provided - the mud was something else again!

We camped for a few days on the banks of the Napa, sharing our campsite with army ants, streaming through in their millions. We swam in the fast-flowing river, reassured by the local kids that there weren't many piranha. The water was so fast the "swimming" consisted of letting go of the rock you grabbed when first getting into the water, rushing downstream with the flow, then grabbing another rock to stop. Remus also needed reassurance that the fishes that swim up your penis weren't going to get him!

From our camp we made trips out into the jungle accompanied by a local man who hunted small animals there on a regular basis. He showed us the traps he used and how they were created from materials growing on the spot, and talked about the poisons made from plants endemic to the area. On the last day, Adonis took us to another local family, where they showed us how to kill monkeys with a blow-gun. Mind you, they illustrated by killing oranges on the tree in the back garden! Then it was back up the river in an outboard-powered dugout, sitting so low in the turbulent water that we expected to sink any minute.

Back to Quito, then we were heading south again, a different route, along the mountains. We took a special side trip out to Baños, where, as luck would have it, the local kids were putting on a street parade - floats depicting the local volcano spurted smoke, and the kids were dressed in big pointed hats, hiding their faces, with naked tummies painted as faces - they looked great! Banos is also the home of taffy - everywhere along the streets you can see sweet-makers at work, pulling long ropes of multi-coloured taffy. Our journey south took us through Riobamba and Cuenca (more fantastic hot air balloons), an amazing ride with Macho Man and Chickenshit to the border with Peru, then a quick re-trace of our journey along the coast to Lima.

This time we had a better look at the city. We were staying in a dilapidated, once-grand, hotel in the centre of town. In the foyer was a magnificent staircase, flanked with huge statues, all falling to bits. No lights in the corridors, so we struggled in the dark with the key to our room - it opened to reveal an ante-room and, beyond, a bed chamber. No other word for it - the ceilings were about 14 foot high, the bed and wardrobe were awesome. Down the corridor was the bathroom, dominated by a huge claw-foot bath up on a pedestal. It was marred only by the thin trickle of cold brown water that issued from the taps. Everything was in the last stages of decay - this was a hotel with character!

The Shining Path were blowing things up - even the city suffered nightly bombings - making the train trip to Cusco impossible; the railway line had been blown up. We had to take the long way round - south to Pisco, along a barren, empty coast, dotted only with incongruous chicken sheds sitting on the bare sand. From Pisco (nice little town) we went further south and inland, to Nazca, but spent no time exploring the "lines". It was exhaustingly hot, and we had a 12-hour wait for the bus to Araquipa, so took advantage of a nearby up-market hotel to lounge around the pool, trying to keep cool.

Araquipa was one of those wonderful surprises - a place we knew fairly little about, and loved on first sight. We were staying in a very friendly family-run guest house, tables in the courtyard, a view of the volcano, Misti, up the road. The town has a fantastic cathedral on one side of the plaza, and a wonderful old convent to wander around. The surrounding countryside was pleasant, and the ever-present view of the volcano just added to the wonderful feel of the place. Oh, yes - they also make chocolate there. Lots of chocolate. The air so thick with the smell of raw chocolate you could O.D. by breathing deeply.

The train trip to Puno and on to Cusco is one of the world's great train trips, and we enjoyed it immensely. From the heat of the coast we were now in the wet cold of the mountains. We pulled into Cusco in the dark, rain bucketting down, and sloshed our way from the station into the centre of town, happy to find a friendly, small hotel to strip off and get dry and warm. It was my trun to be ill - the altitude affected me badly, and I was sick and exhausted for a couple of days, leaving Geoff to explore the city alone. So much for walking the Inca Trail - I couldn't even walk to the local café! Once I recovered a bit I did get to look around Cusco, but it was obvious that if we were going to Macchu Picchu it would be by train, not on foot. We took a day trip out on the tourist special, and had a great day up on top of the mountain, exploring the ruins. There were buses to take us back down to the train station, looking like a toy in the valley below, but the time shown on our ticket for the return journey reassured us that we had time to walk down the mountain, looking at the fantastic orchids and other plants along the way. There were walking trails everywhere, so we didn't spend much time on the road, and didn't notice the buses going down. We did notice the train pulling into the station, still far below us, and then pulling out again, but didn't think much of it until we finally go to the station to find it deserted. A man we found nearby made it quite clear to us with excellent mime that we had missed the train - that was it we had seen leaving an hour ago - and there were no more trains today. So much for the time on the ticket.

The chap we were talking to guestured us off down the track, so taking his advice we set out and came to a small town a couple of hours later, where we were able to find a bed for the night. In the morning we persuaded the conductor on a non-tourist train to honour our tickets, and were back in Cusco by lunch time, none the worse for our unexpected night out.

Back along the same great train trip to Puno, the obligatory trip out to the Uros floating islands, before we took a boat trip across the lake to Bolivia, calling into the Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon on the way.

Arriving in La Paz after dark is breath-taking. From the monotonous black of the countryside we were suddenly spiralling down into a bowl of lights, with the city far below us. We really liked the city, and, again, found a great place to stay, where the people made us feel really welcome. We were booked to fly back to Santiago and then home from La Paz, but had a week to spare. The flourishing blck market made air fares unbelievably cheap, tempting us to take a quick side-trip to Potosi, where we spent Christmas. Christmas day itself was a bit bare - most of the market was shut, and we were lucky to get a cup of coffee for breakfast. Lunch was sharing a packet of dry biscuits with another traveller, and the three of us counted outselves very lucky to find a café open that night, where we could finally get some food. Potosi is a fantastic place with a terrible history of exploitation - a major silver mine is on the outskirts of town, and many people were worked to death there. The town is actually very attractive - narrow cobbled streets, colourful local dress, wonderful markets.

The last leg of our journey - flying back to La Paz with snowy peaks on one side and barren antiplano on the other, then the flight to Santiago. This time we were to spend a few days in Chile. We loved Santiago, but were very aware of the politics. It was strange - during the day on the main plaza you wouldn't know anything was wrong. A band played waltzes in the rotunda, the streets thronged with people, life looked rich and happy. But on New Year's eve we went out to eat on the other side of town and walked back at about 9 p.m. through a city almost deserted on what should be the busiest night of the year - no-one went out at night if they could avoid it.

When we left Chile we promised ourselves that we would go back some day, hopefully in happier times. We kept that promise fourteen years later.

Our trip back to Tahiti (Yuk! - fancy having to go back there!) took us via Easter Island, where we were able to see the statues. In Tahiti we made a point of getting off the main island, and it was a lot better the further you got from Papeete. We also avoided the Ping-Pong hotel and treated ourselves to something a bit more upmarket, although the service didn't get any better we could at least come and go as we chose.

New Zealand provided a welcome overnight stop. We had lived in Auckland for a few years and have good friends there, so were able to call in and stay a night before flying on to Perth and home.

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