Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Adventure in Andagua Day Four: The Real Death Road

Chachas had the feeling of being closer to civilization than the villages on the other side of the mountains. It's on the mining road, and there's a once daily kombi to Andagua, from where the road connects eventually to the Panamericana and to Arequipa.

We stayed in a spacious attic with about ten beds, sharing the room with the two (noisy) little boys of the host family, and ate downstairs in the comedor. Around the table were men who looked as if they had just come in from the fields, probably because they had. Where were we from, one asked. When I said "New Zealand" he nodded sagely and said (as do about 95% of Peruvians when I say where I'm from) "Ah, a lot of cattle, no?" (the actual word is ganaderia, which means any grazing animal). Not a lot of people here have any idea where New Zealand is, but the majority are aware that it has good pasture.

I concurred - my standard response is "yes, it rains a lot, so the animals get to eat pure grass" (In Arequipa, the cows and sheep make do with alfalfa grown on the irrigated terraces). This guy, however, knew a little more. "You know, when the Majes irrigation project got under way, they used bull semen from New Zealand to breed the cows there" he told me. As it happened, I had read something about this in an online NZ farming publication I had come across by accident a couple of weeks ago, so knew what he was talking about. But I was still quite impressed.

I was almost too tired to sleep properly, in addition to being bothered by the sunburn, insect bites and dust-caked respiratory passages. But it was heaven to at least be in a bed. There's something I learnt on this trip - I'm a confirmed camping wimp. Between a slight claustrophobia, inability to sleep on my back, and a preference for two good pillows, I *really* don't like tents. And I'm not much at pitching them, cooking over a campfire or shitting in the wilderness either. So, I'd really rather walk an extra few hours and arrive at a nice little village where I can sleep in a bed. There - I've admitted it.

Next morning we left the exhausted burro in Chachas and set off to walk the five hours to Andagua. Toño had promised it would be "pure highway" all the way, but in the end we spent just as much time cutting across country and scrambling up and down banks. There's "only" a 400-500 metre gain in altitude from Chachas to Andagua, and the five hours march wasn't much compared to previous days. But, donkeyless, we were walking with fully loaded packs, and it was still pretty tough going.

We were now in the Valley of Volcanoes, a geothermal wonder containing about thirty separate volcanoes. The road wound between old lava flows, twisted mounds of porous rock like chewed-up toffee. The volcanoes themselves were hardly more than little conical hillocks in the desert, about thirty metres high. During one of our cross-country shortcuts Toño pointed out a thin line of bare earth about ten centimetres wide cutting a straight path through the sparse vegetation. It has been there for years, he said. It was certainly not a path for people or animals, as it disappeared into a heap of volcanic rock. So, something of a minor mystery.

Andagua, when we eventually arrived, was a strange little town. Toño commented that it was "poor, sad". The surrounding terrain is rough and infertile, and the atmosphere was different from the simple but verdant villages we had passed through on our travels. The most striking feature were the hedges in the small central plaza which had been clipped, Edward Scissorhands fashion,into the shapes of people and animals.

After lunch in a local comedor we said goodbye to Toño who had to return to Chachas, pick up the burro, then head all the way back to Cabanaconde. He had another three days ahead of him.

For us, it was a somnolent afternoon waiting six hours for the bus to arrive from Arequipa. I chatted to some guys in a 4WD who said they had taken three days to come from Arequipa. Their mission was to work their way through the little villages in back-country Arequipa and establish property titles for people who, by common consensus, owned their dwelling but didn't have an official title to it in Peru's property registers. They were doing urban areas while another team was working on rural properties. I said it sounded like difficult but rewarding work - in the liberal world view having formal title to one's property ought to inspire economic confidence and investment. They agreed, and said that the project was actually being sponsored by the World Bank.

The streets were nearly deserted for most of the afternoon, and it was only when the bus was about to arrive that the village girls appeared with their cheeses, for which I later learned Andagua is well-known. But I had run out of money by this point and wasn't able to sample them.

Though it had been a hard four day's walk, I reckon the most gruelling part of the whole journey was the return trip in the bus. It's 10 hours from Andagua-Arequipa, and I knew the road would be rough. It was - passengers being tossed up and down like rag dolls as we crossed the bumpier bits. This is true torture when it's night and you're dead tired but can't sleep.

I wasn't quite prepared for how steep and narrow it would be, though. It was already dark as we headed out of Andagua and I couldn't see a thing. But couldn't help noticing the bus repeatedly stopping, reversing and then heading downhill again. It was clearly negotiating some pretty tight hairpins...I pulled back the curtain and out the window could see the lights of a small town far below. Between the lights and the bus window was...empty space. I closed the curtain and hoped for the best; it's probably the first time I've felt genuinely scared in public transport.

It was a great relief to arrive at the bottom of the descent and a charming little town of stone streets where we had a break. It was still a way to go on the rough trocha before we joined the tarseal at Aplao, and I never really looked like sleeping, having time to chat to a public health nurse who sat in the seat next to me for a stretch.

On arrival in Arequipa at an exhausted 3:30 in the morning I made my pledge - no more Andes! But maybe it's what hurts and exhaust you this most that is, in the end, the most memorable.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Adventure in Andagua cont...

Day Three - Murder of the Lungs

The zip on the tent was broken, meaning we couldn't close the door, and passed a pretty cold night. I think Toño, who slept outside by the remains of the fire under the donkey's saddle blankets, might have been more comfortable than the tourists.

In the morning condors were circling around the valley with their distinctive silent glide; once you've seen a condor on the wing you can generally pick them from other large birds at a distance. We packed up camp and headed uphill. It was always going to be a challenge climbing to 5200 metres after two hard days, and I was already gasping for oxygen a little as we started off. On the way uphill we chewed a lot of coca. I'm not really sure whether it helps, or whether having a wad of leaves stuffed in your cheek restricts the oxygen supply even more. On balance, I think it is beneficial.

The valley narrowed and we were climbing between mineral-rich mountains painted in copper and sulfur-yellow. There is apparently a gold mine high up in those hills, served by an improbably high and winding road. The other two reached a ridge a little ahead of me and ditched backpacks for a rest stop; immediately Toño leapt off the path and raced down towards a little pool in a hollow to the right. I reached the ridge and saw why. More condors than I could count - probably fifteen or sixteen - were gliding and swooping down toward the pool and taking off again. It was an incredible sight - though I was too far away to take photographs, and didn't have the energy to follow Toño down to the pool. When he come back he said that there was a dead cow by the pool - the condors had found themselves a feast.

On our next rest stop even Toño was looking tired, and the donkey was noticeably struggling. Toño had to offer it words of encouragement to keep it moving ("Donkey! What the fuck's wrong with you, you piece of shit?!") plus the odd healthy blow on the backside. We were amongst clumps of yareta, alien-looking bright green moss that grows here on stones at altitudes above about 4500 metres. I had become so used to walking endlessly on this trip that I imagined we were still some way from the summit. It was quite a surprise when, at the next ridge we reached, there appeared the magnificent vista of the twin snow-capped volcanoes, Coropuna and Solimana, raising their heads above the horizon.

We had reached the summit of the pass earlier than expected, and Toño said this meant we could continue all the way downhill to the village of Chachas if we wanted. The plan had been to camp in a natural stone shelter a few hundred metres below the pass, where local people shelter their llamas and alpacas. Instead we had lunch there; on seeing it I didn't fancy spending another night in a broken tent at this altitude, and was keen to keep going to Chachas and the promise of a bed.

We headed uphill again for a while, following and crossing the mining road. High in a desolate part of the puna we came upon a cluster of straw-roofed huts opposite a small stream. In the stream, a woman with a small child was washing what looked like large cuts of meat, and intestines. She called us over and told us she was salvaging parts of two of her llamas, which had been attacked and killed by a puma. Could we please take a message to her sister in the village of Nahuira, on the way to Chachas, and let her know what had happened?

I had previously asked Toño if there were pumas in this part of the sierra, and he had shaken his head definitively. Upon hearing the woman's story he stil looked sceptical. "It will have been a fox that did this, no?" he asked. The woman laughed and pointed at the remains of her llamas - a fox had done that? (The llama is not a weakling - in the western U.S., farmers sometimes include a couple of llamas in their flocks of sheep to help fend off coyotes). Later in Arequipa, Hugo told me that there were indeed pumas in the mountains - but "a sub-species of puma, which is not as big", he said. Nevertheless, whatever had taken apart the llamas was of reasonable size.

From there, a direct path dropped what must have been a good 1200-1500 metres to Nahuira, many tines cutting across the serpentines of the mining road. Once again we traversed climate and vegetation zones, the tussocky paja brava of the puna eventually giving way to cactus and wildflowers and, far below, green agricultural terraces once more, at the foot of a hill beside a small lagoon. It was a long, weary trudge downhill on a path covered in fine dust which, stirred up, infiltrated and caked the nostrils and sinuses. Toño's insults of the donkey grew more vehement and frequent, indicating that it was really struggling.

Finally arriving in Nahuira, Toño went to try and deliver the message to the llama woman's sister (the owner of the llamas), and then we followed the road another 30 minutes to Chachas. After another nine and a half hours on our feet, it was a desperately weary group of persons and animal who gratefully accepted dinner and a night's lodging in Chachas' only inn.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Adventure in Andagua cont....

Day Two: Murder of the Legs

During the night in Choco, mosquitos (finding a niche in the microclimate by the river) feasted on my exposed parts while a rooster bellowed continually from about 1am. It wasn't the best night's sleep, but was nice to be in a bed.

The next morning we left the village behind and headed upstream, following the Choco river. I should explain that the previous day we had turned at right angles to the Colca river and headed north. The Choco is a tributary of the Colca, and has its very own narrow, steep, canyon. As the maize and alfalfa terraces of Choco faded off, the vegetation reverted to brush and cactus. It was a gentle climb over uneven terrain, crossing and re-crossing the river. There was a cool breeze blowing down the canyon and it was a relief to know that water was always close; several times I stopped and refilled my bottle from the stream.

It was over three hours up the canyon before we left the river and swung uphill. If Choco was like a Biblical paradise after nine hours dusty walk, Miña was straight out of fantasy literature. Nestled up against ever-steeper mountains, the collection of straw-roofs was preceded by a broad green swathe of cornfields and grazing cows. A long, winding path of loose rocks framed by tidy stone walls led uphill towards the village. It could easily have been the Shire (albeit mountainous) in Lord of the Rings, or any enchanted village from medieval fantasy.

On the way up the canyon we stopped for a break when we met a Choco native coming back downriver with his mule, and he and Toño spent a while discussing the relative merits of their respective animals. Later we passed a harassed-looking young guy coming the other way; Toño asked him whether he was from Miña or Choco. "No, man, I'm from Lima!" he replied. Turned out he had been up in Miña repairing the town's satellite phone. That's a long way for a maintenance man to go.

For people who had created and maintained the gravity-defying terraces which ascend the hills in sinuous green ribbons, I thought the inhabitants of Miña might have given the path up to the village a somewhat friendlier surface. Back in Arequipa, Mickey Zarate told me that the whole route up form Choco to Miña used to be much prettier; the lower part of the valley was covered with fruit trees, and apples and oranges "fell on your head". A few years ago, says Mickey, a massive huayco devastated the entire catchment; people were killed in Choco, and the fruit trees along the upper Choco river were wiped out. I guess the current path has been put back together from the rubble that must have covered the mountainside.

We followed a stream to a property perched above the village with panoramic views back down the valley, and ate lunch there. The owner, a small and cheerful man, was drying cheeses in the sun and gave Toño a cup of fresh milk.

Miña is about 3300 metres, and we still had to cross a pass at 4200 metres to reach our camping spot. Toño pointed out the bluff high on the slopes above us that we would have to round before the end of the afternoon. The previous day was I think the first time I've ever walked nine hours straight, and today we would travel a vertical 1900 metres from Choco, which I think very few people manage ever (by comparison, the final ascents of Chachani and Misti were 1200 and 1300 metres respectively).

We climbed up out of the corn-growing belt and into high-altitude desert of cactus, brush and wildflowers. I spotted a hummingbird feeding from a cactus flower. As we gained altitude a panorama spread out beneath us; the peaks of Ampato, Sabancaya and Hualca Hualca rose over the horizon, below them could be seen the great rift which is the Colca Canyon on its westward course to the sea, while perched at the foot of Ampato were tiny dots glinting in the sun - the village of Cabanaconde which we had left two days previously.

Nineteen hundred metres of vertical ascent is a killer for legs which have walked nine hours on the previous day, and as we neared the top of the pass the altitude was starting to have an impact on the oxygen supply. My calves were beginning to shake, but we eventually arrived at the top and the familiar cairns of medium-sized stone which always mark high points here. It is believed that one's sorrows and worries are left behind in these stones that are piled on mountaintops.

We dropped into a narrow, shallow valley at whose head Toño pointed out the 5200-metre pass we would have to cross the next day. There were still snowdrifts scattered beneath the rocky peaks. As we descended to our campsite - a flat area next to a stream sheltered by low walls of loose stones - we spotted groups of deer dashing up the hillsides. It was 6:30 in the evening and getting dark - we had walked another 9 1/2 hours. In the fading light we saw large, eagle-like birds circling the hills - called huachera said Toño.

We ate by a small cooking fire and Toño told me that he had served in anti-terrorist unit of the army in Ayacucho during the struggle against the Sendero Luminoso. Had he been scared, I asked. He shrugged - "we had to go where they sent us; we didn't have any choice in the matter" he said. But had he seen actual combat, I wanted to know. Oh yes, he said, there was "all kind of slaughter". He laughed - "they had compact Russian weapons with a range of 1500 metres. We had rifles like this (pretending to cradle a large and unwieldy weapon), accurate over about 500 metres".

In the dark I saw large flashes behind the mountains to the north - bolts of lightning in a clear sky? Yes, said Toño, we were seeing storms in the jungle far to the northeast beyond Cuzco.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

For the love of a good parade....

If there's one thing which unites Peruvians - rich, poor and miserable, indian, mestizo and European - it's the love of spectacle, in particular of a decent parade. Central Arequipa sees an average of about two processions a week; if there's no protest organised, there's usually the feast day of some saint, or the anniversary of a college.

Yesterday in the morning it was the turn of a range of protesters, including the university workers' union, pensioners and civil construction workers. All across Peru, yesterday was a big day of strikes and protests, ranging from Ministry of Health doctors and midwives striking for more pay (sound familiar??) to people protesting against environmental contamination from mining operations. La Republica came up with the snappy headline "Paro, Luego Existo" (I Strike, Therefore I Am").

In Arequipa it was all pretty tranquil. "It's a protest, as opposed to a strike" Tessy explained to me. "Which means we don't have to close the doors when they go past". There were still the usual effigies of Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo and a few shouts of "death to Chilenos!" (Chile slightly trumps the government as the cause of everyone's misfortune).

Later in the afternoon, a smiling crowd of people marched down Santa Cantalina with streams of blue and white balloons and banners proclaiming support for, ah, the Virgin Mary. They sang, and called out "arriba Maria!" and, I think I heard this right, "arriba the Pope!". "You give us hope, Maria!" said one of the banners (I was tempted to ask "how?").

Why are they parading? I asked the girls in the office. "What - don't you know who Maria is?" said Noemi. "She's the Mother of God". Yes, but why today? They couldn't tell me...sorry, lapsed Catholic, can anyone out there tell me what is special about 25 November??

...and off to have an adventure

I have quite a bit to write about, but won't be able to for the next while, as I am off on a five-day trek in the wilderness. We're starting from Cabanaconde, near the rim of the Colca Canyon, and will be trekking to Andagua, in the Valley of the Volcanoes, where there are apparently over 300 volcanoes of all shapes and sizes. On the way passing through remote wilderness up to 5200 metres. I'm going with a French guy, who speaks only a little Spanish and a little English (I've already had to practice my French with him), and guide organised by Lizbeth's father, who is apparently some kind of shaman. Should be quite an experience - will write about it when I get back.

NB #1
Anyone who is interested in reading the stories I've submitted to various newspapers etc, click here. As always, I'd be happy to get any comments, which you can make by clicking on "comments" at the end of this post.

You may have noticed that I've changed the name of this page from "Bidsta Blog" to "South America Bidsta Blog", to now "South America Bidsta". This is an attempt to get Google's robots to notice that the page is about South America, and place relevant ads accordingly. I get paid about 30c every time someone "clicks through" to one of the ads on my page. I am strictly prohibited from artificially generating clicks myself, or encouraging others to do so, but should note that, if anyone sees an interesting ad on my page (especially if they do pick up on the content and put more South America-related ads there), feel free to click on it!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


On Saturday it was back to Cerro Juli, where we went to watch the bands on Arequipa's anniversary; this time to see Puerto Rican salsa singer Jerry Rivera. Now, despite being a fan of salsa, I have to admit to not having heard of Jerry Rivera - I guess I just like whatever they play. Pretty much everyone else had, though - there were about 10-15,000 people crowded into the bullring at the "Fia" on Cerro Juli.

The event summed up a lot of what is typical about Peru. The tickets said "7pm", and some of my friends were convinced that this meant Jerry Rivera would start playing at 7. I had a tough time convincing them we didn't need to go out there that early. Of course, it turned out that they didn't even open the gates until nearly 9pm, by which time there was a huge line outside.

Inside, the organizers had done their absolute best to ensure chaos at the beer tents. There was a total of 1 tent for each of the three levels, with two harried girls serving in each. They were taking payment in cash, but of course had no change. Naturally there was a glass ban, meaning every person's order had to be laboriously poured frothily into a plastic cup. Division of labour being an unknown concept; both the girls franticly tried to accept money, find bottles and cups, and serve the beer.

I waited for an hour to buy two glasses of beer. It was a short, but extremely packed queue, with the crush growing greater as time went on as everyone tried to manouevre themselves into better positions for when the next person would extricate themselves from the counter area. There was no limit on the number of drinks that could be ordered, meaning that some people spent 15 minutes at the counter, handing an endless chain of drinks back to their friends.

Meanwhile, as the series of lukewarm opening acts finished up, there was absolutely no indication of when Jerry Rivera would appear. Recorded music was piped out from about 11:00 without comment, and by 12:30 I was fully expecting Jerry not to show at all. About 12:45, he finally made his appearance on stage, and I was deafened by the screams of all the girls around me, inspired to sever their tonsils by the sight of a short, chunky guy at the distance of about half a kilometre...

An hour of bouncy salsa later it was all over and everyone traipsed out. Thanks for coming, Jerry...

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Trouble on the Streets...

Last week Arequipa experienced what I believe is normally called "unrest". There were 48 hours of strikes, headed by the transport workers union and principally intended as a protest against rises in petrol tax. But diverse groups also wedded themselves to the strike, and it became a general outpouring of frustration at unemployment, the cost of living and the perceived incompetence/corruption of the government.

The first 24 hours were notable in the centre of the city mainly for the eerie peacefulness of the streets, empty of the normal bustling traffic. Roads in and out of Arequipa were blocked by pickets and stones strewn along the roads (in Peru they're not as full on as in Bolivia, where they like to block roads with wrecked vehicles). People arriving from other towns had to walk several kilometres to get into the centre. La Republica reported that there was trouble around the "pueblos jovenes" (shantytowns) of the Cono Norte area and incidents as some vehicles tried to cross the pickets.

On day two the protests spread to the centre of town as strikers marched, making laps of the central eight blocks. All the businesses along Sta Catalina had their doors pulled a little way down, and as the marchers appeared at the top of the street everyone hastily started dragging things inside and closing doors. Wan't that a little excessive, I asked the others inside our building. Aren't there protest marches all the time, without problems?

Turned out they were wise, though. On the first lap round the march was peaceful - a group with a manner proclaiming themselves as the Young Socialists handed out anti-government pamphlets with a silhouette of Che Guevara and the chants were "down with (Peruvian president) Toledo and his government" as well as "down with Cerro Verde" (the large copper mine 34 km from Arequipa; it's owned by an American company, but I don't know what exactly the principal complaint against it is)

On the second march past we were closing everything again; Lizbeth was dragging in our sandwich board where the tours are advertised, and I was sitting at the computer. I heard a couple of loud crashes and turned round in time to see the second of two sizeable stones strike the sign. I was angry - why the hell were they throwing stones at us, I wanted to know. "They say we're amarillos (yellow); we're not supporting their strike" said Tessy. "Bloody ignorant..." I spluttered, suddenly feeling less sympathy for the whole strike.

By evening the marches had mostly dissipated, but what remained was decidedly uglier. A rag-tag group of protesters made their way down Santa Catalina; one was dressed in military fatigues, giving a somewhat chilling suggestion of the Sendero Luminoso. They stopped outside Lan Peru (Lan Chile's Peruvian arm, it has been involved in various legal battles over its status as a domestic carrier) and tried to get some of the people in our shop to help them down the Lan star, which they said was "Chilean". They chanted "Death to Chileans", "Death to Lan", "Chilean Interests Out", "Viva Aero Continente" (the Peruvian national carrier) and "Death to Cerro Verde", while between times a soemwhat wild-eyed woman led chants of "El pueblo/unido/jamas será vencido" ("The people/united/will never be defeated")

Eventually they contented themselves with painting a slogan on the closed door of Lan, and moved on. The police were conspicuously absent during all this, but then that's hardly unusual.

Meanwhile, the first of several civil trials of Abimael Guzman, the imprisioned leader of the Sendero Luminoso, began in Lima. There were particular efforts to ensure that he couldn't make any televised discourse, which might be transmitted to his potential followers.

The next day everything was back to normal; the streets were choked with extra traffic, as everyone tried to get things done they hadn't been able to in the previous 48 hours. For now at least, it's business as usual.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mid-term Report

I've now been in South America for a little over six months, so it's time for the mid-term report. Before going away, I set myself some goals. This was kind of mandatory - spending a year sampling local beverages and chasing female fellow travellers might be acceptable at age 22 or 23, but at 30+ it's necessary to set down some kind of life-improving, career-advancing or at least time-justifying Strategic Framework with Terms of Reference. Here's how I've done on the Key Performance Objectives so far:

Improving my Spanish: 8/10

This is one area where I give myself pretty good marks. The best things for improving your language skills are: staying in one place and getting to know people, getting a job, and involving yourself with local people of the opposite sex. I've done all of those things rather avidly, at the expense of other objectives. And my Spanish has improved: I feel relaxed and comfortable in most situations now, and in Arequipa often forget that I'm speaking my second language. Of course, there are still moments when I find something incomprehensible, or struggle to get words out...but then, that happens to me in English as well.

I've been quite good with books - have read once piece of serious literature from Chile, one from Peru, and am half way through another Peruvian one (how many pieces of serious literature do you read per year anyway??). Think I will read some thing Argentinian next. Bit more slack with movies - have watched far too many in English with subtitles. But there's really not that many Spanish-language movies at the cinema, and when I'm watching cable TV in my apartment in Arequipa I'm normally really tired.

The one area I haven't really challenged myself and am still lacking in confidence is speaking on the telephone. I really only ever call people I already know, and even then reluctantly. This is perhaps forgiveable, since I've always disliked the telephone. Nevertheless, this is an important area to work on.

Travel Writing: 7/10

This gets reasonable marks, if only for sheer volume. I've been quite good with the blog, after a slow start - I think it takes you a while to get the feeling for what to write, how much, and about what. Since I put the hit counter on my blog I've also noticed that regularly posting seems to have a big impact on the number of visits I get, which is obviously motivational - one must satisfy one's public...

I also wanted to put together some punchy travel stories that I can sell to magazines or newspapers. This is proving to be much more of a struggle for two reasons. One is that I haven't put quite enough effort into it - I keep getting distracted by other things. The other is that I just write too much. Whereas the ideal length for travel stories is around 1200 words, what I put together always seems to drift on to 2500-3000....well, I've always been verbose. I don't think I've got the style quite right either, and my research isn't as in-depth as it could be. There's a lack of experience there. I'm going to put in a significant effort on this one in the coming weeks.

Having Crazy Adventures and Seeing Exotic Places: 5.5/10

I scrape a bare pass mark here. I'm not being too down on myself, since some of the objectives are incompatible, and this one has been sacrificed for some of the goals listed above. In six months, I have ticked off the bare minmum of "must dos" in the countries I've visited: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, the Colca Canyon, San Pedro de Atacama and the Salar de Uyuni, the La Paz-Coroico road, Lake Titicaca. People on tight schedules, of course, sometimes do all these things in a month. I also get some extra ticks for the mountain climbing - Chachani and Misti might not be "technical" mountains, but how many people get above 6,000 metres at all?

However, I really haven't properly got off the Gringo Trail; almost all the places I've visisted are well-known tourist destinations. Sure, in Arequipa I've got away from doing purely gringo things (I get marks for that elsewhere). But it's still comfortable and touristic. I haven't taken the slow route from small town to small town in any country, soaking up the authentic culture and exploring little-known places. I haven't gone to any of the more impressive-sounding countries (Colombia, for reputation; Paraguay, for obscurity; Venezuela, for a bit of both).

I haven't ridden on the back of a truck for twelve hours across some obscure part of the Andes or into the jungle. Hell, I haven't been to the jungle at all (it's a rather curious fact that I've managed to pass now about a year of my life in Latin America without going to the jungle at all; in fact I've only spent a few days in a truly tropical climate - in Puerto Escondido in Mexico). I haven't done any real independent tramps, carrying all my gear and food, pitching my own tent etc. I haven't been on a trip down the Amazon on a riverboat sleeping in a hammock. I haven't really taken many risks....

So, there's a significant amount to work on there.

Meeting People, Getting Work & Understanding the Culture: 7/10

On the surface, this is what I've done best. I've settled down in Arequipa and made lots of friends. I think I've picked up quite a lot about what makes Peru tick (which is a whole lot of incomprehensible things that nobody really understands). I fond that I've been involved in doing things which really interest me and use my skills (no English teaching or bar work thank god).

However, in some ways my experiences have been rather superficial. It's not only that my friends are all middle-class, but also that I've noticed that I really don't know many people who aren't involved in some way in the tourist industry. I often don't make the effort to get to know people or find out about their lives (only a couple of times have I talked to people on buses). In my experiences with "ordinary people", especially from the countryside, I recognise that I tend to focus on how dirty and rude they are, and forget to consider or ask about the circumstances of their lives, which often in Peru are incredibly difficult. I've on several occasions discovered things about everyday life in Arequipa through reading the paper, to which I'd previously been completely oblivious.

This lack of effort has to an extent limited the kind of material I have for my stories and articles - I could make *much more effort* here.

I also find myself being pretty judgmental about people ("why don't they get off their asses and stop bothering me or sending their kids to sell sweets") when I'm a fundamentally lazy and lacking in initiative myself, being fortunate enough to come from a country where there are cosy and well-paying bureaucratic jobs in which people who are occasionally rude to their superiors and often late to meetings are not only tolerated, but given pay rises.

Physically & Financially Staying in One Piece: 7.5/10

It's hard to know how to mark this, since it's largely about avoidance of disaster. By and large, I have (avoided disaster), though of course it can strike at any time and I' m probably tempting fate. Money-wise, well, I've spent about $8,000 NZD in seven months - that might sound impressive, but I could easily have spent less. It's difficult to overstate how cheap the cost of living can be, at least in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Anyway, it's far more important *what* you spend money on, than how much you send (see "having crazy adventures, etc") I haven't lost any of the trip-destroying things - air tickets, wallet, passport - and have managed to keep hold of the things of secondary value - camera, electric shaver and trekking boots. Heck, I even have most of the clothes that I left NZ with.

Physically, my teeth and eyesight are still fine, which were the things I was most worried about. I got really sick once - the mandatory Lake Titicaca food poisoning case, which drifted on for a week or so and had a violent aftershock the night of my birthday in Arequipa. I regret to report that my cigarette intake has steadily increased since I've been in South America, but to counter that I think my alcohol intake is significantly lower than back home - which is not to say that there hasn't been the odd day spent in a dazed hangover. At times I've found myself a bit unfit and out of shape - while paradoxically at other times I've been in more or less the best shape of my life - after doing the Inca Trail, for example. This is an ongoing one.

So, I get pass marks in all areas, but there's quite a lot of "could do better", Mr Bidwell!!

Key Objectives and Milestones for the Rest of My Time Here

>>Work on telephone Spanish and speaking confidently to people I don't already know; seek out more Spanish-lanuguage movies

>>Get some of those punchy 1200-word stories out!>>Take the slow route through some more obscure places (North Peru??), take a riverboat trip in the jungle (to Iquitos??) and tick off one more impressive-sounding country (Colombia??)

>>Pitch my own tent at least once

>>Be more patient and interested in the campesinos and their somewhat miserable lives

>>Don't lose anything major (my passport, a limb)


Saturday, October 30, 2004

Up 1,000 Steps in 31 Degrees

In Salta, on the other hand, I immediately felt like I'd arrived in the right place. Surrounded by tree-covered hills, it nevertheless has an arid feel, since most of its 700mm rainfall falls December-January. It's often said that in this part of Argentina you start to feel the influence of Bolivia, and that's true to an extent. There are plenty of mestizo people, whom you don't see in other parts of Argentina, and many of the streets outside of the central few blocks are bumpy and lined with faded, crumbling buildings. But I'm not the only one to comment that the lazy feel, tree-shaded streets and pretty churches reminds them of Spain.

Salta is also sounded by beautiful and diverse countryside, from the lush microclimates near the city, to the towering, cactus-sprinkled canyons to the north near Jujuy. You can do all kinds of trekking, horse riding, biking and rafting nearby. Plus it abounds with attractive cafes, bars and restaurants and, I was assured, absolutely rocks on the weekend. I only wish I'd had more time to take it all in.

As it was I had to content myself with two days worth. On Tuesday I explored the city, photographing the churches - pastel coloured with an Andalucian influence - and climbing the Cerro San Bernado, a hill rising up behind the city. There's a cable car to the top, but of course, I had to take the hard way, up the exactly 1,000 steps (the numbers are marked at intervals of 50). There are little grottos marking the stations of the cross on the way up. On the thorny hillside with the sun beating down and the previous night's bbq and wine squeezing out of my pores, it did rather feel like my own personal Calvary. Later I checked the internet to find that the temperature had hit 31 degrees. Salta has a beautiful, warm climate, with the summer months aliviated by afternoon storms; it averages 26-28 six months of the year, but it's in the months October-December that the temperature can soar up towards the 38 degree mark.

On Wednesday I was up early to go rafting on the rio Juramento, about two hours drive away below the dique (dam) of Cabra Corral. The river wound through beautiful steep canyons with eroded layers of different colours. The rapids were grade III, ideal for beginners, they say, to which I would agree. There were only a few moments of "un poco de emoción", as the guide described it, the rest was pretty relaxed. Of course none of us had any idea what we were doing; the guide oversaw the direction of the boat and told us when to paddle. Nevertheless, I wasn't the only one to feel like I perhaps could handle something a little more dangerous.

On the way down the river we saw dinosaur footprints on a flat part of the canyon wall. According to the guide, it had been a stormy beach before the Andes rose up; later erosion has peeled away the layers of silt that covered over the dinosaurs' prints in the wet sand. The last 200 metres of the trip the guide told us we could throw ourselves out of the boat and float down to the bank, bouyed by our life jackets. Great fun! - and possible because the water was about 15 degrees; you wouldn't try that on the white water in NZ...

Apart from me, a Mexican guy and an English girl, the rest of the people in the two rafts were again Argentinians. It makes the tourist experience a little more genuine when you're doing it with local people.

I should also mention that the hostel in Salta was one of the most pleasant I have stayed at - run by young Argentinians (and one Israeli) who seemed to be enjoying themselves, it has a nice roof terrace with a bar and a collective bbq every Wednesday. Even though I was only there a couple of days, I felt like I'd made some friends, and was quite sad to leave.

If you have the chance, go to Argentina!! In upcoming editions, I'll explain why...

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tucuman, Argentina?

Sometimes you really feel like you've drifted into a different dimension in transit. So it was with my day in Tucuman. The only reason I went there was to break up the trip from Mendoza to Salta (though it was still 14 disorienting hours overnight on the bus). I knew nothing about it, except that Martin Santillan, who worked in the Albert Hotel in London (he was "loud Martin" as opposed to "tall Martin", who was from Mar del Plata) was from there. Lonely Planet said it was the centre of a big rice and sugar-growing area, and had a hot climate ("visitors in the summer months may find the heat very oppressive"). It was also supposed to be rich in colonial history, peppered with orange trees, and one could still see the occasional horse-drawn cart wending its way through the streets. Sounded quaint.

Imagine my puzzlement, then, when the bus left the highway after 14 hours travel and two hours unexplained delay, to wend its way past faded, peeling buildings through crumbling streets, under deathly leaden skies starting to release big cold drops of rain. The big sign over the bus terminal did say "TUCUMAN", so I was assured I hadn't got on the wrong bus in Mendoza, at least not in this dimension. The largely open-air bus terminal did indeed give indications of a warm climate, but there was none of it in evidence as the skies began to open shortly after I got off the bus.

The streets appeared to conform to the map in my LP, and the recommended hotel even existed. But there was no sign of colonial architecture, orange trees or anything resembling sun in the grey, drab streets. Exhausted from the long trip and a big night out in Mendoza previous to leaving, I crashed in my hotel bed and listened to the rain pelting down onto the incongruous airy balconies.

By later afternoon I was awake and desperately hungry, so I went out looking for something to eat. The town was if abandoned even by ghosts, and the rain was still pouring down in cold waves. It reminded me of nothing more than some of the less attractive parts of Christchurch in winter. I had rediscovered siesta when in Mendoza (in South America, unique to Chile and Argentina outside the capitals) but there were still plenty of things open from 2:00 to 5:00. In Tucuman, however, the streets were completely deserted, and I looked in vain for something to eat. Eventually, near the main square, with its few colonial buildings emerging through the mist, I found what appeared to be a comedor, a few tables and chairs inside a bare cavernous space, with one couple huddled together over a bottle of beer. After some persuasion, the elderly woman there admitted that yes, she had some empanadas, and 15 minutes later I managed to assuage some of my hunger.

Later I found an internet cafe where the pretty girl working at the counter wished me "suerte" as I left. Evening had arrived, shops were opening, and there were some people in the streets. The rain had stopped, and orange trees had appeared in the plaza, but there was still a chilly breeze blowing. I found an Italian restuarant, where I gorged myself on pizza, then went back to the hotel to crash once more. A couple of hours later I felt something biting me. Mosquitos!! They had also been brought over from the steamy, subtropical Tucuman dimension. I smeared myself with repellent and went back to sleep to be plagued by vivid, guilt-wracked dreams for the rest of the night.

The next morning the sky was clear, the sun was bright, and I was off to Salta. "I thought this place was supposed to hot" I said to the taxi driver on the way to the bus station. "It is" he replied. "Then what was yesterday about" I wanted to know. "I don't know" he frowned. "It was strange...unstable, very unstable" he muttered. I don't know whether he meant the weather, or the fabric of the space-time continuum.

As the bus drove out to meet the highway to Salta, we passed plenty of orange trees. Just at the turn-off, there was even a horse-drawn cart.

As a postscript, I note from checking on the internet, that Tucuman has spent most of this afternoon and evening hovering around the 34 degrees Celcius mark.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Getting on the Horse...

We're actually what seems like a hundred miles an hour down the canyon, the horses' hooves are throwing up dust, I'm desperately trying to simultaneously grip with my knees, keep my feet in the spurs, and maintain my balance. Bouncing up and in the saddle, I keep having the wind knocked out of me.

It lasts what is probably, in real time, a couple of minutes. I can't imagine keeping it up for any longer, let alone turning round in the saddle to fire my revolver at any pursuing bandidos. When we stop I ask Tito whether we were in fact galloping - what exactly does galope suave mean? He talks me through the speeds of a horse: the walk, the trot, the galope suave and the carrera (literally "race"). Right, so a galope suave is a canter. It sounds more impressive in Spanish. But Tito says I've done well, and that not many manage to do any kind of gallop their first time. "Look how your mood's changed from the way out to the way back!"

He's right - I was rather apprehensive this morning, having booked the horse riding rather despite myself. I think someone had told me that it was one of the Things to Do in Mendoza, and I had it classified anyway as something I Ought to Do At Least Once in South America. There were to have been five people in the horse-riding group, but the other four apparently cancelled at the last minute, leaving me to do it alone. Great, I thought, I'm not even going to have company in my incompetence.

I shouldn't have worried; Tito is very used to guiding beginners, and was very relaxed, which in turn affected me. He says he used to be an executive in a multinational company, but gave it up recently as it was too stressful. He learnt to ride on the pampas of his parents' hacienda in the Buenos Aires as a kid and now has a little ranch only 10 minutes from the centre of Mendoza. His dogs were going barking mad with anticipation as drove up; apparently they love going out on the horse treks.

It was hard to believe that we were so close to the city, as we rode out into the badlands near Tito's ranch - there was no sign of any other people, alone civilization. The horses walked through narrow quebradas and dry gulches, stained with salt deposits leached by the occasional storm waters which had created the pathways. Amidst the brush and cactus there were splashes of red, yellow and white wildflowers, and every so often the single flowering bulb of a cactus. After a while I began to relax on the horse. "Have a cigarette if you want" called Tito. "It tastes completely different on a horse...I can't, because I've got a sore throat right now".

We broke into the occasional trot, climbed up and down little rises, then some steeper hillocks. At first I was a little stiff with fear, but gradually gained more confidence. The horse knows what it's doing, I told myself. And it's not actively trying to throw me off,in fact it knows full well that I'm supposed to stay on it...what have I got to worry about? Overhead, a condor floated. "It knows me" said Tito. "Sometimes it comes down closer and teases the dogs".

On the way back we spurted along the flat bits, breaking into a couple of gallops. Well,canters, I suppose. I didn't really have any choice about whether I followed, as my horse, well aware that I didn't really know what I was doing, prioritised following Tito's horse ahead of any instructions I might give it. Still, a little out of breath, I survived. I think I might even do it again one day soon.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Seven Years in Mendoza...

Two hours of sleep wasn't a great prelude to my "Alta Montaña" tour, but with 85 Chilean tourism students determined to party in the hostel patio every single night, it was a case of if you can't ignore them, join them. Still could have been a little bit less enthusiastic with the beer, and I was cursing myself when they woke me up from my dead-to-the-world slumbers to go on the tour. It almost felt like Puno & Lake Titicaca all over again.

Turned out to be a minibus, stop-and-snap trip, which normally I avoid like the plague, but am keen to see as much as possible in the short time I'm here. The other passengers all turned out to be other Argentinians, mostly from Buenos Aires, and included two distinct honeymooning couples and another couple of retired schoolteachers. Together with the bubbly, enthusiastic guide Noelia, it made for a pretty jovial atmosphere on the bus, which I didn't appreciate that much at first, but cheered me up as the day wore on.

Two hours out of Mendoza we reached Upsallata (sp!), a picturesque town in the shadow of the front ranges, or Cordón del Plata, famous because in the surrounding area Brad Pitt & co. filmed "Seven Years In Tibet". Notable for me because the countryside, with rows of tall poplar trees and dry hills, bore an uncany resemblance to the Cromwell area of Central Otago. They even have a local föhn wind, called "El Sonda", when fronts from the Pacific sweep across the Chilean Andes; apparently it creates heat, dust and irritation in Mendoza. As we returned inthe afternoon familar big lenticular clouds were forming over the mountains.

The main objective of the trip for me turned out to be a disappointment: Aconcagua was well and truly clouded over at the one point in the road from where it can be seen. If I had had more time, I would have done the three-day trekking trip to the first base camp; I also have to admit that the idea of one day attempting the 15-day trip to the summit is starting to nestle persistently in my head. It's not El Misti though - I'd have to do plenty of immediate climbs first. Noelia said the previous year had been a "good summer"; only four people had died on the mountain.

The highlight of the trip turned out to be the Puente del Inca. High up in the main ranges, only 20 km from the Chilean border, it's a massive natural stone bridge over the Las Cuevas stream, under which flow thermal waters rich in iron and sulphur. It's though that it was formed during an ice age, when an landslides dumped rocks onto a bridge of ice. As the ice melted, the mineral-rich thermal waters cemented everything together, leaving the petrified form of the bridge. The waters leave an oily yellow coating on everything they flow over, and nearby souvenir stalls sell all kinds of trinkets which have been left in the waters for 20-25 days to obtain this coating.

At the turn of the century a hotel was built over the bridge, and tunnels led from the bedrooms to provide each guest with their own private bathroom of natural thermal waters. Gives new meaning to "ensuite"!! Later, more landslides wiped out the hotel, but the ruins are still there, and we were able to walk through the remains of the bathrooms. Truly a unique and surreal experience.

At lunch the retired teachers talked to me about what was wrong with Argentina. "Chile is doing better than us now" they said. One of the reasons given was that Pinochet sided with Britain and the US during the Falklands War, and Chile has been cut all the good deals since. "Las Malvinas are Argentinian territory" I was told.

On the way up the Mendoza river valley, we passed a familiar site - the ruins of an Incan tambo or roadside lodge. Now, I've seen enough blessed tambos to last me a lifetime, and I'm well and trly Incaed-out. But I have to admit it was impressive to think that, 20 hours bus ride, 3 hours plane flight and another 7 hours bus ride from Cusco, I still wasn't far enough south and west to escape the bloody things.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Che, Boludo!

The crossing of the Andes from Santiago was spectacular, as the road serpentined up right through the
middle of the chunky granite peaks. I thought of San Martin crossing the Andes, and the journalist hero and heroine of Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows escaping to Argentina.

After that I dozed while we dropped down through dry canyons into the vineyard heartland of Argentina. Coming into Mendoza we left the multi-laned freeway full of rushing traffic. The city itself, with its broad avenues lined with shady deciduous trees, has a 19th-century feel, and immediately reminded me of Paris or Kensington in London. The sheer modernity is overwhelming too; full of bright shops and restaurants and tiled sidewalks, Mendoza doesn't seem on the same planet, let alone the same continent, as central La Paz. It's hard to believe that Argentina has economic problems; everything seems more modern and advanced even than in Chile, and no one even looks like they're thinking about asking you for money.

The big old trees, forming canopies over the middle of the streets, are most welcome. Although it is still only spring, the sun is fierce and the temperature climbing into the high 20s. I imagine it's a bit of a cauldron here in mid-summer.

After a lot of travelling and some late nights, I crashed into a dead unconsciousness yesterday evening and slept right through until this morning, oblivious even to a loud party that was happening on the poolside patio of the hostel. Today I'm hoping to sort out some tourist excursions, to Aconcagua (to see, not to climb, the latter takes 13-15 days) and the vineyards.

Monday, October 18, 2004

In Chile Again...

Santiago is green and fresh from the winter rains, the oaks and maples along the Alameda are looking healthy and the parks and plazas bright with new grass. The air is crisp and relatively smog-free; it seems that spring is the city's best time of the year.

It also appears strikingly modern and sophisticated after being so long in Peru. When I first arrived here I felt I was definitely in Latin America; now it feels like being plunged into Europe. Big, modern buses run up and down the avenues and there are twenty private cars for every taxi - the exact opposite of Arequipa. People are more confident and relaxed, less friendly, less bothersome, and overwhelmingly whiter. You can sit and eat in a street cafe without *anyone* trying to sell you something or asking you for money.

I went straight back to the Hostal Bellavista, where I stayed in April, and found that once again it's inhabited by interesting people. Last night there was a bbq/farewell party for two Argentinian girls who have been working here since August - lots of wine, pisco and chorizo leaving me somewhat the worse for wear this morning. I talked to an English girl who's doing her PhD on the foreign policy of the Salvador Allende government - on Monday she gets to talk to Isabel Allende's stepfather - and a Chilean guy whose father procured foreign loans for Chile in New York during the Allende era.

Meanwhile, the trip Arequipa-Lima-Santiago, while squeezed into 36 hours and ultimately pretty exhausting, was surprisingly easy and incident free. I would have expected something to go wrong somewhere between bus terminals, airports, luggage transfers, passport controls, customs, currency exchanges and taxis, but it all turned out to be too easy. Am likely to head to Mendoza on Monday or Tuesday, giving myself the chance to find out whatever happened to my application for a Chilean working holiday visa on Monday morning.

And the half-term report...

Friday, October 15, 2004

Adding more countries to the list...

After what must have been my most comfortable 14-hour bus ride ever, I've arrived in humid, sea-level Lima for a stay of approximately 12 hours. Tomorrow I should be catching a flight to Santiago, and then hope to be heading pretty much straight away across the mountains to Mendoza, to make my first footfalls in the land of "cheboludos". Probably heading back Arequipa-wards through the NW of Argentina, then Salta-San Pedro de Atacama-Arica-Tacna. will see how it turns out. Am looking forward to good red wine, steaks and voluble, overconfident guys with long hair (the last one not really).

Friday, October 08, 2004

Inca Trail, Machu Picchu and all that...

(Semi)-ancient ruins, stairways into the clouds, towering jungle-covered peaks, orchids, giant ferns, gruelling climbs and helter-skelter descents. Yes indeed, the Inca Trail has it all, folks. As I'm sure this is a subject that has been done to death, I'm going to skip any further description and wait till I get the photos scanned so you can see for yourselves. I'm certainly not going to inflict any of the "magical, mystical" stuff that even the normally dry guidebooks indulge in as, quite frankly, I think that's all New Age bullshit.

Suffice to mention that the 1,000 metre drop down original Inca steps through dripping cloud forest in the dark on the fourth morning was pretty wild. Oh god, yes, and Lord of the Rings. Should really have been filmed there - I felt like I was in it the whole time.

For me, however, none of the archeological or natural elements could quite match the human spectacle of the trail. Of the 500 people allowed onto the trail each day, just under half are guides and porters. In my group there were 17 tourists (all of us young) complemented by 14 porters and two guides. The porters were all small, slight, Quechua-speaking men who rushed ahead of the group to arrive at the next campsite, set up the (two-person) tents and the cooking and dining tents, and prepare the next meal. The food was sumptuous - fish in coriander and tomato sauce, beef fillets, omlettes and pancakes for breakfast, soup with every meal - all served while we sat on stools round tables in the dining tent. To be honest, the food was probably better than many of the 10 soles menus you find round the plaza in Cusco. They even remembered to prepare a special vegetarian option for an Israeli girl at every meal.

All the ingredients and equipment were carried by the porters, including tents, tables, chairs, stoves and gas. Most of them were supporting around double the weight of the heaviest load carried by a tourist. I was close to defining the later category since, realising that the porters would be taking our foods and tents, I added in a novel, the Peru Handbook, my notebook, a small Spanish-Quechua dictionary, sandals for walking round the campsites and my sneakers for wearing after visitng Machu Picchu, in addition to my regular stuff. The rationale was partly that I may as well splurge on the home comforts - since it wasn't "proper camping", why not be able to take off my boots and have something to read in the evenings. Partly the opposite - an attempt to simulate the weight I would have carried on an independent trekking trip. Nevertheless, most of the porters were carrying about twice my pack plus some extra bits. The official weight limit for a porter is supposed to be 25 kilos (established in 2001), but one of my group noticed at the weighing station at the start of the track that one of their packs tipped the scales at 34.5 kilos, without comment.

The most notable thing about the porters' load, however, was the fact that they didn't actually have any packs. They assembled their cargo each morning in bundles with makeshift straps of rope or woven cloth, and hauled it all onto their backs. Forget the waist straps with which most packs distribute their weight onto the hips of the carrier, the porters didn't even have free hands, having to hold their bundles onto their bent backs as they headed uphill. And they didn't have shoes either, making do with sandles constructed from tyre rubber - "Goodyear boots" as I later learned they were dubbed.

Despite this, they all made rapid and sure-footed progress both up and downhill. On the climb up to the 4200-metre Warmiwañuscsa (Dead Woman) Pass on the second day, I was the first out of our group to the top, five minutes ahead of the next guy and two hours before the last few (some of the other guys in the group were I think stronger and fitter than me but my level of conditioning from climbing Misti and Chachani meant that I had less need to stop). Most of the way up I was following a porter who was carrying a 50-litre gas bottle roped to his back. I kept thinking he was tiring and I would overtake him, but eventually it was he who disappeared off ahead, and by the time I got to the top of the pass was well gone.

These guys get paid 100 soles per trip (about $30 USD). It's more than the subsistence they could get farming on their chacras, but wouldn't go far with a family to feed and clothe.

Arriving at the camp sites, feeling a little exhausted from the climbs and grumbling if our dinner was 20 minutes late, we were a little like mehm sahibs. Or, for that matter, like Inca nobles. Amidst all the trekking along the historic trail and the little lessons from the guides about how the runners or chasqui brought fresh fish up to Cusco from the coast, everyone seemed to be missing the irony that, 500 years later, they're still doing the same thing. The stone Incan buildings with their straw roofs might have been a little more comfortable than our tents, but they didn't have electricity or running water either. Being waited on hand and foot while we trudged along the trail, we were living the lives of Incas ourselves, while the porters were time-warped in the roles of their commoner ancestors. The irony deepens when you learn that the the current theory on the purpose of Machu Picchu is that it was a lower, warmer holiday resort from Cusco.

After packing up the tents on the fourth morning, the porters went as far as Wiñay Huyana before descending to Km 104 to catch the train back to Cusco. Did they ever get to go to Machu Picchu, I asked one of the guides. Sure, he said, sometimes people who don't want to carry their own stuff hire an "extra" porter, who goes with them all the way to Machu Picchu. And if they're never hired? Well, they can catch the local train to Aguas Calientes for 3 soles, and on every second Sunda entrance to the ruins is free for people from the department of Cusco. Plausible, I suppose. But it seem that, just as in Inca times, the commoners are denied entrance to the sanctuary.

The other highlight of the trip was the chaos that surrounded our entry to the trail. Given the limit imposed by the government of 250 trekkers entering the trail each day, everyone reserving a place has to provide their passport details together with a copy of their passport. This, one imagines, is to prevent agencies from overbooking and creating chaos at the start of the trail. Of course, some people cancel. The combined need of agencies to sell and of tourists to get on the trail means that their spots get resold. When we arrived at the stop for lunch before beginning the trek, it was revealed that 9 out of our group of 17 were occupying the places of cancelled reservations. Unable to show their own passport at the control post, they were given the names and passport numbers of cancelled people and told to invent a story about why they hadn't brought their passports with them. Lunchtime featured the somewhat surreal sight of people wandering around, mumbling to themselves, memorising their new identities.

By the time we got to the control post, even the people who were going to enter with our original passports were nervous. It felt like we were trying to cross the Berlin Wall or something. The eight of ous who were really us went first, then waited on the other side of the bridge from the control post. The first couple from the next group took a while to come across, as they concocted some story about how they had just got back from a rafting trip and hadn't had time to collect their passport from the hostel. After that it got quicker as the guides intervened and I think the control post people gave up in exasperation on realising that over half the group didn't have passports.

One of our group, a Norwegian guy called Runar, didn't even manage to get assigned a false identity, I think because the maximum group size is supposed to be 16, and we were 17 in total. The solution to getting him onto the trail? The guides distracted the control post people while Runar dashed across the bridge and walked five minutes down the trail.

A Canadian couple in the group had waited an extra few days so they could go with their own passports. An agency in Cusco had offered them the opportunity to go earlier if they stuck a false name and photo on their passport. They decided not to, as tampering with your passport is, um, generally not a good idea.

The sheer Peruvianess of this whole situation made it for me practically the most memorable aspect of the trip.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

I become a lab rat...

A while back my friend Lenny (she who invited me to the wedding in Ilo) told me about the project she was doing for her thesis in pharmacology. She had a mysterious-looking vial of cream which she said was an experimental skin care product with a base of tuna (an indigenous cactus which grows wild here and has an edible bulb). With visions of possible miraculous rejuvenating properties, I begged to be picked as an experimental subject.

When recently she took me up on the offer, I found the reality was rather different. The cream developed by Lenny and her friend Anyi was to be tested for its sun-filtering ability, along with a gel developed by their pharmacological colleague Cristian. I had to go to the lab at the Católica University and sit on a stool with my shirt off while they shone a focused sunlamp onto my back and measured the time for my skin to turn red when protected by the various products. The reason they were so keen to have me involved was that the whole process is quicker and easier with someone who has pale skin.

For people who've studied an applied science for four years, though, they didn't seem to have learnt much about the rigurous preparation of an experiment. On neither of the two days that I went did they manage to make any successful measurements. The first time they discovered that the stand which supported the sunlamp was too tall, and I had to sit on a pile of textbooks on top of the stool so the light fell in the right place - which got pretty painful after 10 minutes or so. In addition, the holes cut in the boards placed across the lampshade to direct the beam of the lamp were too far apart, meaning that the light fell on different parts of my back, at different distances. The thing that most impressed me, however, was that nobody had brought a tape measure...

The next day I went back, to find that the helpful technician had lowered the stand and changed the position of the holes in the boards, and there was now an available tape measure. We readied for the experiment, focusing the lamp on my back while Lenny tried to draw circles around where the light was falling in order to mark the area to apply each cream. Unfortunately, none of the (biro) pens in the lab made an impression on my skin, and while Lenny was trying to draw the lamp started to get pretty hot. "Don't you guys have, like, a vivid marker?" I asked. "You know, the kind you normally find in a classrooom". All and sundry admitted that such a pen would have been a useful instrument.

As I was leaving the next day for Cuzco, I told Lenny that she'd have to find another subject. The semi-amusing epilogue to the story is that today when showering I caught a glimpse of something on my back as walking away from the mirror. Closer inspection revealed two perfectly circular burn marks, rather bright red, about halfway up my back.

And arrive in Cuzco again...

Without too many hassles, either, despite the 4:30 am arrival time from Arequipa. I spent the morning meeting and greeting people from two tour agencies here who had emailed us at Incaventura saying that many of their customers were interested in doing trips to the Colca Canyon. Hugo has been working with one of them for ages with his German tour groups, but rather surprisingly had never suggested a formal endorsement relationship with his own business...
The afternoon I ended up doing some translations for a guy who has an exhibition of pre-Incan musical instruments (copies and originals) starting up in Cuzco and wanted to have captions in Quechua, Spanish, English and French. I overheard him asking the guy in the internet cafe how to use the automated translator, and with horror informed him that I couldn't allow that. He was most grateful in the end and although I refused payment, did accpet his offer to come and see his exhibition for free and try some of the instruments when I get back to Cuzco - not sure if I'll have time though.

And tomorrow I'm off on the Inca Trail!! - am most excited. It's been overcast with spots of drizzle in Cuzco, and they say it's raining hard on the trail, but I'm not bothered. Would you believe that in six months I've seen half an hour of rain? That was in Arequipa in July, and it made headlines...

Anyway, I am *so* prepared. This evening I obtained six large plastic bags to wrap my clothes and sleeping bag in - yes, this is me we're talking about... I also have insect repellent, suncream, cap, woolly hat, rain jacket, thermal t-shirts and underwear, torch with spare American-made batteries, gloves and over-gloves, two spare rolls of film - you name it. PPPP, Dad.

It's even possible that the cloudy weather will make for better photographs - it's always difficult in Arequipa struggling with the fierce light contrasts. I'm looking on the bright side - no doubt will update when I get back here wet, bedraggled and tired.

Friday, September 24, 2004

This is not a story, just an update...

Last weekend added another mountain to my repetoire - El Misti, at 5,825 metres. Quite different from Chachani, no snow or ice, but you start at 3200 metres, so it's quite a climb. Misti is a perfect volcanic cone mainly comprised of sand and ash, but is ascended by a zig-zag path up one of the rocky ridges running up the mountainside. Five hours walking the first day to base camp at 4500 metres; at 2:00 am the next morning we started the painstaking ascent to the summit. There's more time to get used to the altitude, but you're still very high and it's very cold.
I and John, a trekking guide from Colorado who also lives in Arequipa, made it the summit while the other four - two American girls and a British couple - got to the crater. The crater is only 100 metres lower than the summit, but the last climb to the big iron cross at the summit is a killer. We saw the others arrive at the turn off to the crater while we were taking photos by the cross, then later went down and joined them. The crater is active, and quite fascinating, with smoking vents and big crusty sulphur desposits. One of the American girls was a volcanologist, so was in seventh heaven.
The views from the summit were outstanding - a panorama taking in Chachani, Picchu Picchu, Lago Salinas to the the north, the ranges to the west and all of Arequipa.
We went back down to base camp across the thick ashy sand, which was brilliant - running and sliding we descended within one hour the distance it had taken us six hours to climb. By 3:30 we were back in Arequipa and this time, despite being rather burnt and a bit coldy, I was more or less in one piece. By Sunday afternoon I was well recovered and enjoying a cigarette.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

And the really amusing part is...

That on Monday I went and told Lisbet pretty much what I wrote in my post about the waterfalls of Sogay, and how it ought to be a tourist spot. Wednesday afternoon, she brightly informed me that she had "sold" it to two American tourists, and that *I* was to be the guide...

The couple had only one free day in Arequipa, wanted to see the Colca Canyon, but didn't have time to do the two-day trekking trip and weren't inclined to sit on a bus all day with 15 other tourists to do the one-day "conventional" sightseeing tour. Lisbet, apparently quoting me more or less verbatim, told them that there was "another trek" that could be done in one day, taking in waterfalls, views of the mountains, typical Arequipan countryside and no other tourists. They thought this sounded good, and ended up handing over the $20 each that Lisbet charged them.

When I found this out, I was rather horrified and panicky. I was not at *all* confident that I could find the way to the waterfalls again and told Lisbet there was no way I was going out there to embarass myself with two tourists who had paid $20 each. Lisbet took this in her stride. Chewing thoughtfully on her pen, she immediately started trying to think of people who might know the area and could go with me. Pretty much all the likely prospects were unavailable, but at that moment Rafael had the good fortune to walk into the office. Rafael works as a guide to the Colca Canyon and is from Cabanaconde. He said he more or less knew the town of Sogay, but had never been to the waterfalls.

Nevertheless, I thought it could work if he went with me. As the tourists didn't speak any Spanish, we could put on a bit of a charade, saying that Rafael was a local who had friends and cousins in the area. Then he could wander off to ask for directions at any point on the pretense that he was "saying hi" to somebody. Still a little nervous about the price Lisbet had charged, I insisted that she pack *plenty* of food for lunch. She in turn told me that under no circumstances was I to say that this I had only been once to the falls and that this was an experimental trip.

The next morning Rafael and I went to pick up the tourists from the hotel. Kathryn and René (he originally from Slovakia) were a pleasant American couple. I kept them occupied with small talk while Rafael tried to find a taxi that would take us to the place where kombis leave for Sogay. We weren't making a good show of it being a regular, smoothly-run tour when the first taxi driver refused to go any further after realising where we wanted to go and deciding it was too far. The Cruz de Characato, where the kombis leave from, is indeed a good way into the outskirts of Arequipa, but the second taxi driver was kind enough to not only take us there but also agree to come and pick us up when we got back.

The kombis in fact normally only run as far as the town of Quequeña, but Rafael convinced this one to take us to Sogay, to where we were the only passengers. By now I think the American couple were figuring out that this wasn't something we did normally, judging by the number nervous glances and expressions Rafael and I were exchanging. I tried to keep them as occupied as possible by bombarding them with titbits on Arequipan geography, history, society and politics, something I managed to keep up throughout the afternoon.

In Sogay, Rafael disappeared for a bit while I and the tourists ate apples in the shade of the plaza. When he returned he was looking confident, and I was certainly impressed when he strode ahead out of town, announcing that there would be a stop at a "natural bathroom" in five minutes. Rafael was a legend; we took pretty much exactly the same route we had taken on Sunday, stopping under the same shady tree for a rest and a drink, while he also proved a fountain of information about the various medicinal and narcotic qualities of the vegetation along the route, all stuff he knows from the Colca. Kathryn and René seemed to be pretty enamoured of the countryside, the cows and donkeys, and the fact that there weren't any other tourists.

The one point it went a bit wobbly was when we started to get deep into the canyon and the track began to run out; I was of the view that it was time to go down to the river, but Rafael insisted we had to swing up the canyon wall and take a route that would lead later back down to the river. Rafael later told me that the second person he had asked for directions in Sogay had told him to take this path, but clearly they hadn't gone that way for a while. I had explained to Kathryn and René that our worried-sounding conversation was a mild disagreement about which was the *quickest* way to the falls; I thought we should go up the river while Rafael thought it would be quicker to take the uphill path.

When the uphill path completely petered out and Rafael turned round sheepishly, I did some quick covering - Rafael was now in agreement with me that the river would be quicker; there must have been a landslide or something since he last came. We now had to go back down an extremely steep and slippery track, which Kathryn found rather testing. Luckily, the couple were pretty good-humoured and didn't seem to mind having a bit of an adventure. With a bit of further luck we found the path to the river on the second attempt, and from there it was all plain sailing. We had spent so much time faffing about by the river on Sunday trying to help people across that it was all familiar to me.

The one unexpected thing was that the river level had dropped considerably; arriving at the last river crossing I announced confidently that at this part everyone definitely had to get wet, before plunging in, crossing, and heroically liftng myself onto a rock on the other side. René, who came behind me, hopped across three successive stones about a metre away from where I had started to wade, without even splashing himself. Well, they had been completely submerged on Sunday...

We had lunch there on the rock, discovering that Lisbet had been true to her word and had packed an immense lunch. The tourists were surprised and impressed, and although I absolutely stuffed myself we didn't even finish two-thirds of the food. Afterwards we made the tricky climb/scramble down to the falls, just precipitous enough for Kathryn to be a little scared and for René to help her out a bit.

After a long walk back to the village in the fierce sun, our cover was completely blown when we had to admit that we had no idea where to go to catch a kombi back to Arequipa. A villager herding donkeys suggested the crossroads; when we headed down there a local woman tending her fields confirmed that kombis to Arequipa passed by there - but even the Americans understood when I asked her "¿con qué frecuencia?"

Fortunately a taxi passed by within five minutes; the driver apparently reguarly offers a "collectivo" service between the Cruz de Characato and the nearby villages. We stopped in Quequeña so Rafael could call the other taxi driver and tell him we were on our way. He was there within five minutes of our arrival at the Cruz de Characato and took us all the way back to Santa Catalina.

In the end I think Kathyrn and René were happy enough with their trek - they didn't complan a bit and in fact thanked me sincerely for the experience. I still think the trip could be converted into a regular one, taking in the petroglyphs near Yanabama and a stop in Quequeña, which is a beautiful little town. We just have to work on some reliable and economic form of transport.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Waterfalls of Sogay

On Sunday we went on a trip to the waterfalls of Sogay, organised by the gymnasium at the Club Internacional, where Paola works. The nature of the destination was a mystery to me, but we followed the instructions to bring shorts or track pants and a change of shoes, plus food for a picnic. We bought a chicken, mayonnaise and celery, and spent the evening cutting the chicken and celery into the small pieces of exact form demanded by Paola.

The town of Sogay is about 40 minutes away from Arequipa, on the road to the Picchu Picchu range. On the way we passed through the town of Yanabamba and visited the ruins of its founder’s mansion. Nearby there are some rough cave drawings, supposedly dating from 2,000 years ago. For me the striking feature of this stop was the view back across the valley taking in Misti, Chachani and, its snow cap floating like a cloud in the distance, Nevado Ampato. Nowhere else around Arequipa that I know of can you see the three volcanoes in a row like that.

Sogay is a picturesque little village with a tiny church and plaza graced by a single palm tree. A pathway climbs out of the town through the green terraces and their irrigation canals. A very diverse array of people had come on the two minibuses, ranging from a trainer from the Club gym to an overweight woman in her sixties. This meant that we made tortuous progress up through the agricultural terraces on the way to visit some more basic petroglyphs and the ruins of an old mill dating from the early 18th century.

Eventually the younger people split off and we made our way out of the cultivated valley into the entrance of a narrow, steep canyon with typical high desert vegetation of brush and cactus, fig and yata trees near the river providing shade from the fierce sun. To get to the waterfalls we had to cross and re-cross the river, further splitting the group. There was apparently more water than usual, up to waist level at times, but it wasn’t particularly deep, cold or rapid by the standards of mountain streams. After a series of mini cascades there was a further tricky river crossing and a scramble up the precipitous side of the canyon to get to the main falls, plunging through a crevice in the narrow canyon. Only eight of us out of the 22 got that far.

This should be a popular tourist spot, and in most places would be. The walk passes through most of the kind of countryside you can find in the Colca Valley, and there’s certainly enough cultural, historical and archeological interest on the way. There are great picnic spots on the sunny spots by the river, and the steep, narrow quebrada has a spaghetti-western drama. And it’s all only 40 minutes from the centre of Arequipa. What’s lacking is a few discreet signposts so people can find their way to the waterfalls and avoid trampling local people’s crops or disturbing their cows. Some titbits of historical and geographical information wouldn’t go amiss either. This being Peru, however, unless there’s a whole oversubscribed industry erected around a destination, it doesn’t really get visited. People here have yet to figure out that if you make it easy for tourists to do things they tend to stay longer and you get more of their money anyway, albeit indirectly.

Note: you do need to wear boots or strong shoes. The rocks on the river bed are slippery, and there’s quite a bit of clambering over the steep, slippery sides of the canyon. Trainers don’t quite cut it, as Paola found out, with me having to help her over most of the tricky bits. It’s true that her fashionably-cut tracksuit did look rakish. But in the end it was my “ropa de gringo” for which I’ve received so much criticism for wearing around Arequipa, that held out the dust and mud better.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Climbing Chachani

“Step strongly” yells Alejandro. “This bit is really icy. You have to step firmly”. I take a step forward and push my foot down with all the strength I can muster. The crampons bounce and slip on the ice and don’t even look like breaking the surface. I stumble, slip, right myself, luckily reach a patch of snow where the crampons sink in, and grab onto a rock, breathing heavily. Alejandro is looking back at me with a frustrated expression. “No, step firmly!” he calls.

We’re crossing laterally the cap of snow and ice which covers the southern face of Angel, one of the mountains flanking the peak of Chachani, at 6,075 metres the highest of the volcanoes which surround the city of Arequipa in southern Peru. The slope seems to have an angle of about 45 degrees and has apparently changed from 90% soft, friendly snow when we crossed it the previous night, to principally treacherous, rock-hard ice and impenetrable frozen earth. My legs have turned to jelly and I’m struggling to even get one crampon in front of the other, let alone plunge their prongs firmly into the slippery bubbles of ice. I look to my right, down the slope into the ravine, recall that there is no helicopter available for search & rescue in the whole of the department of Arequipa, and wonder again exactly what the hell I’m doing here…

Like many tourists who arrive in Arequipa, I’ve been struck by the bit in the guidebook which says that the surrounding mountains are some of the “easiest of their height in the world to climb” and are “not technical”. A persistent little thought starts to germinate in my mind as I explore the cobblestone streets and historic monasteries of the “White City”. Maybe I could climb one of the mountains here? What a turn-up for the books that would be, I smirk to myself. In New Zealand, to even look at a mountain you have to be able to tie 27 different knots, pitch a tent blindfolded, and know the meaning of words such as “carabina” and “belay”. My father is just such a person, and spent years in his youth making tricky ascents in New Zealand’s glacier-riven Southern Alps and the Colorado Rockies. My older sister, a doctor and fitness fanatic, was one of the few in her group to make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, after weeks of careful preparation. My work colleague who sits in the next desk makes weekend trips to scale precipitous, dangerous Mts Cook and Aspiring and delights in quoting Ernest Hemingway’s dictum that “there are only three real sports: motor racing, bullfighting and mountain climbing; the rest are games”

I by contrast, tend to stick to recreations where I can’t directly endanger anyone else. A notable exception to the generalisation that males have strong right brains and are good with spatial tasks, on my very occasional trips to the rock climbing wall, I can never remember how to tie the figure-of-eight knot needed to secure the harness, nor even tell if it looks right. Hell, sometimes I get confused tying my shoelaces.

But - not technical...I imagine climbing a path up a steep hill, with a bit of snow at the top. I can do that; I’m fit enough. The altitude? It’ll be difficult, but I’ve been as high as 5,000 metres on the Bolivian altiplano, and didn’t have too many problems. Then I will have conquered a 6,000 metre peak in the world’s greatest mountain range, the Andes, shading the achievements of my more competent friends and family. I’ll be modestly smug, I figure.

After a trip to trek in the Colca Canyon, where we climb 1,200 metres from the bottom of the canyon to the rim in just over three hours, and consulting a couple of travel agencies, I’m convinced. Ulises, who specialises in organising mountain climbing trips, assures me again that you don’t need experience and the ascent is “not technical”. “Also, it doesn’t really matter how fit you are” he says. “More important is that you have a strong organism, to handle the altitude”. Sounds good. My fitness level has dropped a bit since I’ve been in South America, owing to lack of regular exercise and availability of cheap cigarettes. But my mother always said I had the constitution of an ox.

I choose Chachani (higher but less steep than neighbouring El Misti, what more could you ask for) and am so confident of success that the day before departure I think little of staying out to 4am drinking and dancing. The music and joie de vivre of the bars in central Arequipa are very seductive. After a couple of hours sleep I’m picked up by the driver and guide (both called Alejandro), we stop to collect the others in the group - two young Israeli guys - and we’re on the road.

The new asphalt highway towards Puno climbs through the desert in big sweeping curves. I chat with the Alejandros and the two Israelis, who are lean and fit-looking, fresh from their army service. With the altitude the landscape changes to puna, sparsely vegetated highland plains. After two hours we turn off the highway and pass groups of wild vicuñas, their big doe eyes watching us warily. We’re now on the other side of the Chachani massif from Arequipa, where the altiplano folds more gently up into the skirts of the volcano, allowing a 4WD vehicle to get to a higher altitude. The track gets steadily narrower and bumpier but Alejandro the Driver steers onwards and upwards in cavalier fashion, bouncing over the ruts, until eventually we stop on a flat bit where we see the beginning of a walking track zig-zagging up the mountainside. We unload the truck and pack the equipment into our packs. "My ice pick" says one of the Israeli guys, grinning and handling the unfamiliar tool. "Never thought I'd say that". Good to see that I'm among fellow amatuers, I think.

I'm determined to take the climbing easy, but after a while, not having been struck down by the soroche, I quicken my pace. Still a little worried about how fit-looking the Israelis are, I'm pleased to catch up with an Austrian woman in her fifties who is alone with her guide. If she can do it, so can I.
Less than two hours of easy climbing and we're at base camp. There's sweeping views over the bare altiplano; the sun reflects off vehicles making their way along the far-off highway and we see the resevoir from which Arequipa derives all its water. Along with us and the Austrian woman, a group of four French travellers complete the population of Chachani base camp for this night.

After making camp in the lee of a stone shelter (just as well Alejandro understands the idiosincracies of the tent construction) we start walking up towards the pass above us, to test our legs at altitude. I try and go slowly and deliberately, but manage to keep up with Alejandro. About a third of the way up, we notice that the Israeli guys have fallen behind. We stop and wait; Itzik stays sitting on a rock below while Oren eventually catches up with a pained expression on his face. He's struggling with the altitude; Itzik even more so. We carry on to the top of the pass; Itzik stays stranded about half way up, while Oren catches up after many rests. “Where is the oxygen?” he says in English “This is crazy; at home I go running in the desert with a 20-kilogram pack, and I’m fine. I enter in competitive races and come second, third. But here – I can hardly breathe”. Alejandro looks puzzled, and I translate Itzik’s comments. He smiles and nods. “Yes, it doesn’t really matter how fit you are” he says. “It’s more about your organism”.

We pick our way down through boulders of volcanic rock back down to the campsite, where Alejandro starts to prepare dinner - soup, barely digestible rehydrated potatoes and coca tea. In the interim the Israelis' condition worsens considerably. They're both prostrate with headaches and stomach cramps, and Itzik has started throwing up. Alejandro climbs back up to the pass to try and get a cellphone signal to call for help from Arequipa, but is unsuccessful. They'll have to spend the night on the mountainside - but won't be leaving the tent.

I crawl into my sleeping bag to try and get some rest, but discover a fact that I wasn't aware of - at 5400 metres it's almost impossible for the unaccustomed to sleep. I toss and turn, and after the sun goes down curl up against a bone-chilling cold. Inside the sleeping bag I'm wrapped in four layers, thick socks and a woolly hat, but the cold still penetrates. At 3:00 am Alejandro hardly needs to rouse me; we drink some more coca tea, secure our packs, and we're off.

We start up the path to the first pass, our headlamps lighting the way between the boulders, and now I'm genuinely excited; I'm on the way to the summit of a 6,000 metre mountain in the Andes! On the way up to the pass we pass the Austrian woman and her guide, walking slowly and deliberately. We're at the top of the pass in less than an hour, where we see the start of the snow, giving off a sinister gleam in the light of the moon and our torches. This is the bit where I start to feel out of my depth; the crisis of the Israelis' illness has meant that Alejandro hasn't had a chance to show me how to put on the crampons, and I have to sit there while he ties them. I'm not sure I could have done it anyway; there's a bewildering series of loops and cris-crosses.

Then we're onto the snow and, occasionally, patches of treacherous ice. Alejandro seems to know the mountain like the back of his hand, warning me as each stretch of ice approaches. "Step strongly here" he says. I try to follow his advice, but don't seem to have the correct technique. Technique! This whole climb was supposed to be "not technical". Still, I manage to stay on my feet, and after an interminable hour we're on the other side of the ice cap. "Wouldn't it be easier to do this by day?" I ask Alejandro. "No" he says. "It's better when you can only see directly in front of you. By day you can look down the slope to where you might fall, and you start to get afraid". Right, I'll take his word for it, I think.

The crampons are off for the next stretch, the long climb up the northern face of Fatima. As we start, Alejandro helpfully informs me that "the people who don't make it all the way to the summit, this is the bit where they fail". Thanks for letting me know that, I say. "Don't worry" says Alejandro. "I think you'll make it". About a third of the way up I'm starting to wonder. The track makes endless switchbacks and now the altitude starts to take its toll on me. My legs feel leaden and every breath is an effort. Time and again I stop, leaning on my ice pick and gasping, waiting for Alejandro to turn around so I can wave at him and yell "descanso!"

At some point in the climb the sky gets light, revealing the flanks of the surrounding mountains, like huge beasts crouching in the dawn. The sun appears over the peaks, preceded by the reddest sunrise I've ever seen. I should be awestruck, but everything seems like a personal affront. The surface of the mountainside is loose, shaley earth, and a step forward is frequently matched by a half-step slide backwards. I'm stopped from actually bursting into tears by the appearance of a fringe of snow at the end of the latest zag. It's the end of the steepest part of the ascent and now, I imagine, I should theoretically make it.

The stretch of snow across the front face of Fatima is mercifully short, and flat, and then we ditch the crampons on the other side, along with our packs. The final stretch to the summit of Chachani itself will be made unloaded, carrying only my camera.

The 40 minutes Alejandro says it will take seem more like 40 hours. Just when it seems that the succession of zig-zags and false ridges will never end, I see that Alejandro has stopped and is waving back at me. I drag my oxygen-deprived legs to the top of the rise and see that he is standing beside a simple metal cross. The summit! I pick my way through patches of snow and, gasping for oxygen, reach the cross.

I put away my camera after a finger-freezing three shots, just to prove I was there. The landscape is like an awesome 360-degree topographical map; incredibly, we’re looking down on 5800-metre Misti’s volcanic cone, and the other smaller mountains and hills are like folds in a ruffled blanket. I don’t feel triumphant though; I feel half-dead. Alejandro points out other mountains on the horizon, including 6300-metre Nevado Ampato, where the famous "mummy Juanita" was found in 1995, intact and frozen after being sacrificed to the mountain gods 500 years previously. Thirteen year-old Inca princess Juanita and her entourage trudged up to the summit of Ampato in sandals and without equipment, before she was fed coca and alcohol and wacked on the head with a small mallet to speed her journey to join the gods. It wouldn't have seemed like such a bad option, I reflect.

And we still have to go back. I've expended what seems like every ounce of energy in getting to the summit, and the next three hours are a nightmare; later I reflect that they're probably the most physically difficult of my life. The zig-zag track down from the summit is not too bad, nor is the short stretch of snow across the south face of Fatima. It's just that I'm moving with all the alacrity and agility of a wounded tortoise. On the descent of Fatima's steep northern flank I really start to hurt. Instead of the painstaking series of zigs and zags by which we climbed, on the way down we take the direct route. This should actually be fun, I think. The surface of the mountainside is loose earth and sand, and the descent is more skating than walking. But I have no strength left to brake myself, and have to choose between going very, very slowly, or sliding the whole way down on my backside. As it is, I take a couple of tumbles, before finally reaching the bottom, where I'm desperately hoping that Alejandro has discovered some new, gentle route bypassing Angel's ice face. But no. We have to go back exactly the same way, this time we're heading slightly uphill, and what had previously been mostly snow now seems to be almost entirely ice.

Every step is pure, glittering pain. And they're not even proper steps. The previous night I wasn't stepping quite as strongly as Alejandro would have liked, but now my paces are like those of a drunken duck. I flounder forward, crampons slipping and ice pick bouncing weakly off the frozen surface. And I realise Alejandro was right. By day I can see down the gleaming slope to my right into the ravine; to where I could fall if things go badly wrong. I calculate that the tumble wouldn't actually kill me outright - but a broken leg at the bottom of the ravine wouldn't necessarily be preferible.

A couple of times I actually stumble and fall; the spikes of the crampons catch and rip my trouser legs and I'm clinging precariously to a nearby rock At one point Alejandro actually has to physically help me over a tricky bit of frozen earth. He looks back at me and says: "Do you have a girlfriend?". I give him a puzzled frown and say "Well, there's a girl in Arequipa, but really, I only met her recently...". Why is he asking me? Does he want to know whom he'll have to inform that my frozen corpse is located at the bottom of a ravine on the flanks of Chachani? He grins back at me and says: "I have three - one each for Thursday, Friday and Saturday".

At some point long after all my physical strength has gone we come to a broad flat stretch of snow which I recognise as the last part of Angel's ice cap. On the other side is the top of the pass, from where we will descend to base camp. Dirt and boulders have never looked so beautiful.

Painstakingly I pick my way bck down to the campsite and collapse prostrate in the sun, joining the Israelis who are still extremely unwell. On the way down Fatima, Alejandro and I have passed the Austrian woman, still walking slowly and deliberately, and later one of the guys from French group, each with their guide. Three out of nine tourists have made it to the summit.

We pack up camp, me making the feeblest of contributions. As we descend back down to the point where the 4WD is waiting, everyone forges ahead of me, even the Israelis, who have recently stopped vomiting. I feel like I've been gifted a sneak preview of old age.

On the road back to Arequipa, blissfully leaning back into the seat of the 4WD, I comment to the Israelis "Look at that rock - it's in the form of a human face". They nod and shrug. It's only after a puma, a couple of llamas and several other human individuals have appeared to me in the rocky desert that I realise with detached interest that I've entered some kind of hallucinatory state brought on by exhaustion and dehydration. I give myself up to it, and within two hours we're back in Arequipa. The air seems unbelievably warm and sweet, a hot shower like manna from heaven, and my bed a blessed sanctuary. I swear never to go near another mountain again.

After a couple of days of a dizzying head cold and nosebleeds, I'm feeling comfortable enough to sit on the terrace of the Casa la Reyna hostel in central Arequipa and admire the view of Chachani's tryptych of peaks, snowy pavilions glistening in the morning sun. "I climbed that mountain" I say to my French room mate as we share a cigarette. "Do you want me to show you the route we took?"