Que Pasa? Me No Pop I

On Monday, we had decided to head inland a little and visit some of Mexico’s most famous Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. The recommendations we had read were that you should get there early, before the tour buses from the coastal resorts arrived. We decided the easiest way to achieve this was to stay nearby on Monday night and get along early on Tuesday morning. Donald and Azza recommended a couple of places and we plumped for Ik-Kil, a hotel with a cenote on the premises.

On the way there, we stopped off in Valladolid, named for its Spanish counterpart and established in 1545, just fifty-three years after Columbus’ first transatlantic voyage. The reason for our hiatus here was twofold: we wanted some breakfast, and we were keen to visit Casa de los Venados, a private house which also served as a museum of Mexican folk art. We went to the house first and ascertained that the next tour would be at 11:30am, so we sat down for breakfast at a place just around the corner, called Los Portales.

Nourished, we headed back around to the Casa to take our tour. The house was bought as a ruin by an American named John Venator, who decided to retire to Mexico. (All the cool kids are doing it.) As the house was being restored, he started buying Mexican folk art direct from the artists and acquired an extensive collection. He formed a foundation for the artworks and it’s his intention to leave the house and works to the foundation upon his death. Meanwhile, the place is his home.

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From the bench in the reception area, with images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (that you can sit on) to the specially commissioned card table in the living room,

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this is a museum where you get up close and personal with the exhibits. There are no roped off areas. The works aren’t buried behind glass or in cabinets. It’s a working private home, where you pass through the sitting rooms, the guest suite bathroom, cross a bridge over the swimming pool and pass by the kitchen counter where the cook was making what smelled like spaghetti bolognese. The art is eclectic, the setup is eccentric, and you should definitely go. Obviously, you can only visit on one of the guided tours, and they take place at 10:00am, 11:30am, and 1:30pm most days.

After our tour, we drove on to Ik Kil, checked in, and were escorted to our bungalow. The setup here was very nice and Ishbel took the camera out on to the porch to see what birds might happen by. She was delighted by what did happen by.

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The Mexican Raccoon is also known as the Coatimundi. It may be obscure, but this little fellow led me to today’s post title.

We decided to take a look at the cenote to see if we wanted to have a swim. And promptly decided we didn’t.

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There were far too many people in there already for us to want to join them. As we walked back to the bungalow, we encountered a group of Mayan dancers and, of course, we had to get a photo of them with Ishbel.

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We had heard that Chichen Itza has a nightly light show at the pyramid so we decided we would head along there early and buy tickets, then have dinner somewhere nearby before the show. Sadly, as has been the case so often for us, the light show takes place from Tuesday to Sunday. I may remember no other Spanish from this trip, but the phrase Martes a Domingo is seared on my memory. We had dinner in a nearby restaurant then headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

When we had checked in, the receptionist had told us that the cenote opened at 8:00am so we decided to grab our snorkels and head up there to see how busy it was.

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We spent a half hour swimming around with the entire cenote to ourselves. Very refreshing, and we were certainly awake and ready to face the day by the end of our swim. We showered, changed, breakfasted, and headed along to Chichen Itza. Our cunning plan to beat the tour buses hadn’t been entirely successful as we didn’t arrive until after ten, and there were plenty of buses already there. We bought our tickets and decided to hire a private guide as well to show us around the site. It’s a quite amazing place and was an important city in the Mayan civilization.

DSC_0485Just as we started our tour, there was a torrential tropical downpour. Our guide cleverly positioned us in the shelter of a tree while explaining some of the site’s salient points so we missed the worst of the rain and dried off quickly once it stopped. The tour lasted over an hour and we picked up a lot of information that we would never had gathered on our own so felt the guide was definitely worthwhile.

After Chichen Itza, we decided we would take the jungle road back past Coba, another site of Mayan ruins. About halfway there, the heavens opened and rain started bucketing down. In the UK, it’s fairly well known that the first rain after a dry spell makes roads very slippery. I was in no hurry to get anywhere so I was perfectly comfortable driving at a much reduced speed. Even then, as I drove I could feel the potential for aquaplaning in some of the accumulated puddles on the road. Some of the local drivers don’t share my caution and I was happy to let them pass, although not so happy with some of the places they chose to do so.

Eventually, we arrived at Coba and the rain had not yet relented. We decided to grab a coffee and snack at the restaurant just next door and sat there watching the rain. A couple of chaps wandered up who had been at the top of teh Coba pyramid as the rain started. And it showed. They were utterly drenched, to the extent that Ishbel felt obliged to offer them the use of our travel towels, which they delightedly and eagerly accepted.

The rain threatened to ease off a couple of times, then started again with renewed vigour so we gave up on the idea of Coba and headed back to Donald and Azza’s place. The whole area had experienced the rain and it was actually cool in the evening. So much so that, for the first time in quite a while, Ishbel needed a blanket to sleep under. We have a dive booked for Wednesday morning. Let’s hope the weather clears up.

Reeling in the years

Saturday morning, we packed up to leave Cozumel. We had breakfast then took a taxi along to the ferry terminal. The embarkation was considerably less stressful than on arrival and, before long, we were comfortably ensconced on the modern ferry that traverses the 12 miles to Playa del Carmen in about 45 minutes.

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We had reserved a rental car for the rest of our stay in Mexico from a company called Carflex which combined competitive pricing with the convenience of an office on the pier at Playa del Carmen. They handed over the keys to a Chevrolet Aveo into which we crammed our luggage and set off south to visit our friends.

We first met Donald 35 years ago in Copenhagen, when his first words to us were, “You must be Brian and Ishbel. Would you like a beer?” With a greeting like that, how could we not be friends? We were in Copenhagen visiting mutual friends at the time but we’ve stayed in touch over the years across many different geographies. He has retired from working in the US to live in Chicago with his wife, Azza and they have kindly agreed to host us for the rest of our stay here. Donald greeted us in the traditional manner, so we had a beer and chatted for a while, combining a catch-up on recent events with random reminiscences from years ago.

They live in a beach side community populated by a number of ex-pats and we met a few of them on Saturday evening and enjoyed a delicious meal in the local restaurant where we had a lovely meal as the Caribbean lapped against the beach. After dinner, chatting and drinking continued until, eventually, we all ran out of energy and called it a night.

Ishbel was up early on Sunday morning and went for a walk along the beach. The wind was blowing hard that morning and the sea was quite lively.

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The weather mellowed a little as the morning wore on and, before too long, Ishbel was able to capture this picture of an osprey after it had caught a fish.

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The Yucatan Peninsula rests on a bed of limestone. A defining feature of limestone is its porosity: water seeps through the stone and, over time, creates cavities and channels. The caves formed by this erosion are subject to subsidence above, creating sinkholes, similar to the one we saw in Australia. Here, these sinkholes are called cenotes, and were sacred in the pre-Hispanic Mayan culture. The cenotes come in various shapes and sizes. Some are steep sided pits, others look more like rivers with an extensive water course at ground level.

Nowadays, many of the water-filled cenotes are used as swimming holes, or for cave diving. On Sunday, we visited the nearby Casa Cenote, a U-shaped lagoon-like version where we were able to snorkel to our heart’s content. I was so intent on looking for marine life with my eyes focused below the water that I was surprised when I looked up and saw a sign instructing me to go no further without a guide. I decided to turn around and was even more surprised to see a sign I had already passed bearing the legend: “Caution. Crocodile area.”  Donald reassured me later that it was only a small crocodile that lived in the cenote, and it didn’t eat people.

On the way back, we stopped at La Buena Vida in Akumal for a late lunch on the beach. Once again, the food was delicious and there was an added bonus since they had craft beer on draft. Donald and I shared a pitcher of Mundo Maya IPA. We headed back to the house and relaxed for the rest of Sunday. I realise my life hasn’t exactly seen a lot of stress for the last six months, but this beachfront living is particulary relaxing!

So happy together…

Friday morning’s routine followed the same pattern as Thursday with an early breakfast, a 7:45am pickup, and out to the marina and on to the dive boat. We were on the bigger boat today with a total of ten divers and two dive masters, Jorge and Steve. The first dive site was Palancar Caves, and I was last to get into the water. Luckily, Steve had waited at the surface to see how I got on, and spotted that I was close to losing my weight belt. He grabbed it from me and took it back to the surface, where I had to get out, put it back on, then get back in the water. After that drama, it transpired that the rest of the dive group had moved on, so Steve was stuck with Ishbel and me which turned out to be fortuitous. We saw eight turtles over the course of the dive, including one huge loggerhead. The group of divers who chose not to be delayed by me didn’t see any turtles at all. (Incidentally, today’s title is taken from Happy Together, by The Turtles.) This was an amazing dive, which also included my first ever swim-through. Back on board early again, but the excitement of the weight belt drama accounted for a load of my air use.

We then headed to our second dive site of the day: Chankanaab Bolones. Yet another amazing dive, this time with two encounters with lobsters. One of them was in a typical spot, tucked into a rock and looking out at passing divers, but the second one we surprised on the sea bed as he was out for a mid-morning constitutional. We also spotted an unusual form of marine life: a submarine.

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There’s a small pleasure submarine that takes people underwater for little cruises. Apparently, one of our fellow divers at some point in the past mooned the submarine, much to the consternation of its passengers. Luckily, no such misbehaviour was recorded this time. Back on board first again, but only just! Another couple came to the surface at pretty much the same time as us, so things are improving. Thus ended our Cozumel diving experience and we headed back to the marina.

After being dropped at the hotel, the day repeated the events of Thursday. By this time, I was exhausted and decided that a siesta would be a good idea. My loving wife did me the great service of setting an alarm to go off an hour after I fell asleep. Waking up to an alarm you didn’t set is a confusing experience. Waking up and finding that none of the electrical devices in the room work, even more so. While I dozed, a power cut had wiped out electricity supply to the whole of the Yucatan Peninsula. I got up just as Ishbel returned from yet another snorkelling adventure and we both got ready for dinner, despite the fact that we weren’t sure whether the hotel would have the wherewithal to prepare a meal during the outage.

It turned out that they have emergency generators for just such a contingency which support the food preparation but not the air conditioning. We had a hot dinner, in every respect, then decided to take a walk along the road to La Internacional again. We couldn’t bear to think of all those delicious craft beers being cold with nobody to drink them, so we decided to help out. The bar is one floor up with an open terrace overlooking the road so we sat there watching the town get darker as the sun went down. Eventually, power started up again, so we had street lights to light our way back to the hotel that evening.

Cozumel was lovely. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore many dive sites, but I can see why this one is so popular. We would certainly come back and dive here again if the opportunity arises. Tomorrow, we’re off to the mainland!

“Baba-rara-cucu-dada…

…Well, it ain’t barracuda, man, but I think we got a hit record.”

After the trauma of Tuesday’s journey to Cozumel, Wednesday was a day just to relax. We had booked four nights on the island and we wanted to dive a couple of those days, so we set aside Thursday and Friday mornings for that purpose.

One of the reasons that we came to this part of Mexico was that we have a couple of friends who live here and we wanted to visit them as well as build up our diving experience. They live on the mainland, south of Playa del Carmen, so we would be imposing on their hospitality from Saturday for a week before heading to the USA. We had discussed with them our plans to dive on Cozumel and they recommended the Tres Pelicanos dive centre. We were staying at the Hotel Cozumel which was a twenty minute walk from the dive shop so, despite the heat, we decided to take the island air and stroll along.

Cozumel is a major stop on the Mexican Caribbean for cruise ships and there were at least four docked at the dedicated cruise ship pier that we could see from the sea front as we walked along. Many of the passengers had been herded off on buses for day excursions in various places but there were still enough of them around town to attract attentive interest from the many souvenir vendors that throng the roadside all the way along the seafront. We, of course, were caught up in the net as part of their potential target audience so spent a lot of the walk saying “No, gracias,” in response to their exhortations to acquire t-shirts, tequila, cigars, pharmaceuticals, and jewellery. The range of products available is impressive.

We arrived at Tres Pelicanos and booked ourselves in for two dives the next morning and were fitted out for the appropriate gear. Diving here is less than half the price of the same experience in the antipodes so we were pleasantly surprised when we paid the bill.

There was nothing left to do but relax for the rest of the day. We walked back to the hotel and were sufficiently overheated to decide we needed a swim. The hotel has a nice, large swimming pool which, at this time of year at least, wasn’t overrun by children. Nevertheless, we eschewed the pool for a walk through the tunnel that passes under the road leading to the small stretch of seafront the hotel enjoys. There are a couple of pools there that are mostly enclosed but are still open to the sea at one point, so fish swim in and out of the pools.

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We both snorkelled a little over here – Ishbel more than me. I settled into a beach chair to dry off and, with the afternoon drawing on, ordered a beer. We had booked the All-inclusive package at this hotel, since it was only fractionally more expensive that the room-only rate. I quickly realised two things: why the all-in increment was so low, and why everyone in the hotel drinks their beer with lime in it. The inclusive beer is terrible and the lime disguises the taste.

I had no appetite for another beer and, once Ishbel had finished swimming and we’d both dried off a little, we headed back to the room to play the instruments for a while. We’d only had an early breakfast so we were among the first to sit down to dinner once the dining room opened at 6:30pm. A glass of wine with dinner was palatable. More palatable than the beer, anyway. The food was pretty good and we ate well. We didn’t stay up too long, but we headed back under the tunnel to the seafront to watch the Caribbean sun go down.

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After this delightful sight, we headed for the room to get a good night’s sleep in advance of our dive the next day.

We were being picked up at 7:45am, so we were early birds for breakfast on Thursday morning. We nourished ourselves for the exertions ahead and marched outside in time to catch our lift to the marina. Including us, there were six divers on our boat plus our dive master Edgar. This was to be a day of firsts for our nascent diving careers. Straight away we encountered our first novelty when we were told that the dive would take us to sixty feet. This was to be our first dive using imperial measurements! Although Mexico operates on the metric system, the dive boats seem to use imperial since the overwhelming majority of divers they cater to are from the USA. This carried forward into our pressure gauges. In Australia and New Zealand, our tanks were pressurised to 200bar. Here, the tanks held 3000psi. The next new experience was our mode of entry into the sea. Up until now, we had been taking the “giant stride” off the back of our dive boats to get into the water. Today, we would be using the back roll, just falling backwards off the boat with all of our gear on. It involves a lot less moving around while fully laden and we both found it simpler than the giant stride.

Once in the water, we had a lovely dive, seeing lots of new fish including a shoal of barracuda – hence the title of this post. If you’ve never heard the song Summer Fun by The Barracudas, I wholeheartedly recommend you click on the youtube link in the first line.

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The first dive was at Colombia, a site towards the southern end of the island. As was pretty standard for s when we’ve been diving with experienced divers, we were the first to return to the surface. A combination of unfamiliarity, anxiety, and excitement has resulted in our using our air faster than divers who have been doing this a lot longer. It’s something that is supposed to improve as you get more comfortable with the whole process of diving.

Our second dive was just as good and we saw many more fish. The site for this one was Punta Tunich, which is a combination of Spanish and Mayan words that means Rocky Point. We were first up again, but our dive was ten minutes longer than the first one.

Once everyone was up, we headed back to the marina. With hindsight, we should have booked and paid for both days at the same time, but we wanted to see how the first dives went before committing. We needn’t have worried. The organisation and the dive master were excellent so we asked the Tres Pelicanos people to sign us up to dive again on Friday and promised to come along to the shop that afternoon to pay.

We decided it was prudent to have lunch today, which we did after changing out of our wet costumes. With lunch, we drank several rounds of mineral water. Breathing pressurised air is very dehydrating, and you need plenty of water before and after a dive. Afterwards, we decided to get a taxi all the way to the ferry pier where we had arrived late on Tuesday, and walk back to the hotel via the dive shop, giving all of the hawkers the opportunity to hear us politely decline their wares. That plan went splendidly until we reached the dive shop, which was closed. We needed a contingency plan.

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As luck would have it, I had spotted a bar selling Mexican craft beers not too far from the dive shop, so proposed waiting there for a little while to give the staff the chance to return. La Internacional is an excellent beer shop with highly knowledgable staff who were able to steer us in the right direction for some delicious beers. After an all too brief stop here, we went back to the dive shop and found it open, so were able to confirm and pay for our Friday dives.

Ishbel snorkelled in the rock pool once again while I pursued more sedentary activities. These blogs need to be fitted in somewhere. Once again, we enjoyed an early dinner and a glass of wine. To finish the night we went to the bar and had a couple of virgin pina coladas. The early dives are forcing us to be sensible here.

The worst travel day ever…

I’m taking the approach of a tabloid sub-editor and using outrageous hyperbole for the title of today’s post. But this was not a fun journey.

The theory was straightforward enough. We were scheduled to leave Lima at 13:05 and arrive in Cancun at 18:42. The plan was to sped a few days on the island of Cozumel, and do some more diving while we were there. I had checked that the ferry to Cozumel from Playa del Carmen on the mainland ran until 11pm, and it was a 45 minute to 1 hour taxi ride from Cancun airport to the ferry terminal. That all sounded like a reasonable contingency cushion so I went ahead and booked our Cozumel hotel for the Tuesday night.

I was aware in advance that this would be our least comfortable flight, since it was the only route in our RTW trip where business class wasn’t available. We were in economy and when I booked it back in October, I knew I’d be able to deal with a single economy flight with all the rest in business.

We were ready to head to the airport on Tuesday morning when Ishbel, jokingly, said “Maybe you should check your email to see if we’re delayed.” After arriving at the airport for our previous flight, from Buenos Aires to Lima, just as we received an email informing us of a 7 hour delay, we thought it prudent to check anyway. And, as luck would have it, we had an email saying we’d been delayed by two and a half hours. This was going to make it tight for the ferry, but still manageable assuming reasonable immigration and baggage experiences.

We delayed our departure by an hour then Uber’ed out to the airport. No priority check-in are bag drop for us so we queued up and, fairly quickly, handed over the bags then headed through the exit formalities to wait airside. We killed some time with window shopping but, eventually, our flight was called.

We were instructed to form two lines: Rows 1-14 and rows 15-29. I could see our plane n the runway and it had steps at the front and back. I also noticed it was an Airbus A320. I’ve flown in this plane many times because BA use it between Glasgow and London, but I always thought of it as a short-haul craft. Interesting that we have it for a five and a half hour journey. Anyway, I assumed that they would start both lines and our line would board at the front and the rest at the back. But no. Everyone from the other line boarded first the we got on. Luckily, there hadn’t been too much use of the overhead bins, so we got my mandolin and Ishbel’s camera bag in there.

We had been allocated seats 11A and 11B, which I hadn’t really thought much about. I let Ishbel take the window seat since she may want to take photos. I was in the middle. Not great, but it’s not the end of the world. Fully loaded, the doors closed, the safety demonstration was performed and off we soared into the wild blue yonder. And, as we soared and with the seat belt lights still illuminated, the lady in front of me decided it was time to recline. She remained in that position for the entire flight. I don’t usually recline my seat but I decided to give myself that extra bit of room and lounge back myself.

I’m in 11B. The emergency exits are in Row 12. You may or may not know that the row in front of the emergency exit – in this case Row 11 – has its recline function disabled so that a reclined seat does not block the exit in the event of an emergency. So I was stuck there with the lady in Row 10 luxuriating in her semi-recumbent position while I sat hunched up for the rest of the journey.

The captain made up some time on the journey so that we landed shortly after 8:00pm in Cancun. And then we waited 20 minutes before a pier became available for us and we trundled over there and finally got the doors open. Ishbel and I are expert in power walking from the plane door to the immigration queue and we were doubly motivated today by the possibility of missing our ferry. There was a short line when we got to immigration and there was one Mexican lady in particular who was the most efficient official we have seen in our travels. She was speed reading and stamping passports at an incredible rate and, before we knew it, we were at her counter and being stamped with alacrity. Excellent. It was now 8:30pm. We can do this!

All we had to do now was wait for the bags to start appearing on Carousel number 2. So we grabbed a couple of baggage carts and scoped out the optimal waiting spot and stood in anticipatory tension, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Another flight arrived and their passengers started coming through immigration. And their bags started appearing on Carousel number 3. Questioning of the nearest unfortunate in a high-vis vest revealed that all the bags from our flight were being checked by customs officials. At 9:40pm, the familiar siren and flashing light signalled the intention of the carousel to start up. And start it did. Bags appeared. Five of them. Then it stopped again. A further five minutes of mounting tension and rising blood pressure and the siren sounded again. The lights flashed and the carousel finally started disgorging its precious cargo. Our bags weren’t the first out, but they arrived.

We loaded everything onto our trolleys then bounded hell for leather towards the exits. Where we encountered another queue. Every single bag, including hand baggage, from every single passenger, was being passed through an x-ray machine before we could exit. We finally reached the front of the queue and hefted our bags onto the belt then scurried round to pick them up again. Charging on, we encountered one last obstacle. There was a random baggage check and you had to press a button. If it was green, off you trotted. If red – a full open bag check lay in your immediate future. My head may have exploded if the red light had come on but fortunately, it was green. It’s now 9:55pm.

The first thing I see upon exit is a currency exchange. Conscious that I have no pesos, I rush towards it in time to see its sole occupant exit and rush towards the toilets. OK – no time to wait for him. Ground transportation is a priority. Ground transportation that will take a credit card. There are counters. I decided randomly on one. It’s just on 10pm.

“I want to get to the ferry terminal at Playa del Carmen. Can you get me there by 11pm?”

“Sure,” is the suspiciously casual reply. Either I’m worrying needlessly or this young lady doesn’t give a damn whether I make it or not. I don’t have time to analyse the nuance of her tone. I pay what she asks and rush outside to find my allocated car. We load all the luggage in the boot and dive into the back seat ready to be whisked ferry-wards. The driver appears to have found some paperwork that needs to be completed before the engine can be turned on. Apoplexy is only just around the corner for me.

Finally the key turns and we’re off. I tell him we need to make the last ferry at 11pm. He wants a good tip if he makes it he says. I agree, without necessarily explicitly revealing that his tip will be paid in a combination of leftover Chilean Pesos and Peruvian Soles. We arrive at the entrance to the terminal at something like 10:53pm. We disgorge ourselves and our luggage and I thrust some random currency into the driver’s hand. Then we start running. And running.

It turns out that the nearest vehicular traffic can get to the ferry is the entrance to a mall which is around 500m from the ferry itself. Eventually, we see a sign pointing up an escalator for ferries to Cozumel. Onward and upward we race and reach the entrance.

“Two returns to Cozumel,” I proudly say.

“No. Ticket office downstairs.”

Ishbel waits with the luggage and I take the stairs two at a time, locate the appropriate booth and acquire the tickets. Back up I go, heart pumping and every ounce of fluid in my body pushing its way through the pores in my forehead. We have tickets!

“You’d better hurry,” say the helpful ticket collectors. We pass through the ticket barrier, then have to go downstairs again. It’s a long pier, and the ferry is at the very far end of it. More running. More sweating. As we near the ferry, they pull up the gangway nearest us. Bastards! We run on. We check te two suitcases and we’re on board. We made it, with the gangway being pulled up behind us. We find seats with a table and slump down. We deserve a beer so I pop to the bar to acquire a couple. It’s cash only. And I still don’t have any pesos. They take US money, but can’t change the $100 bill which is the only thing I have. OK, the beer can wait.

It’s a 45 minute ride to the island and all goes smoothly. We disembark, collect our bags, walk to the exit, then ponder our options. There are no ATMs in view. This doesn’t look like the kind of place where te taxis will take cards. We consider walking. We dismiss walking. Fortunately, there’s a taxi marshal who speaks English. He agrees that we can get a taxi who will take us to an ATM on the way to the hotel. This part of the journey goes smoothly and without a hitch.

We pick up pesos and we drive to the hotel. The check-in process is straightforward and we’ve arrived.

“One last thing,” I say to the gentleman at Reception. “Where can I get a beer?”

“Sorry, sir, but the bar’s closed.”

 

 

Strolling in Lima

We finally stopped signing up for guided tours and spent Sunday and Monday walking in Lima independently. We decided on Sunday morning to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, so ordered an Uber to take us there. This time, I don’t blame Google. It was closed to set up a new exhibit so we couldn’t get in, but it was supposed to be open. The lady at the ticket counter told us that they had put a notice on the website that it wouldn’t be open today, but I suspect they neglected to add it to the English language version that we had perused prior to our attempted visit.

We had downloaded a self-guided walking tour that we would take after the museum, so we just set out on that. We were in the Barranco district, south of Miraflores so we saw some Tuk Tuks.

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These are barred from operating in wealthy areas like Miraflores but are used extensively in other parts of the city.

We walked from the museum down Avenida San Martin, where we encountered some poorly maintained gothic mansions, a 5-star luxury hotel (Hotel B) and some popular restaurants with people queuing outside. We dallied at none of these and pressed on deeper into Barranco until we reached Parque Federico Villareal. This houses the dilapidated church Iglesia La Ermita which suffered damage in a recent earthquake and the funds haven’t been found to undertake the required substantial remedial works.

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But the vultures enjoy the undisturbed perching points.

From the church, we crossed Barranco’s Bridge of Sighs, which looks nothing like its Venice namesake, leading to the Bajada de Banos. In this context, Banos refers to the beaches which is confusing because we passed a lot of playas as well, but the playas in this case are parking lots. We carried on across the bridge and walked down Avenida Pedro de Osma until we reached the Mario Testino museum.

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I was aware of Testino’s photography but hadn’t realised he was Peruvian until now. This is an interesting place full of examples of his celebrity portrait work, but there’s also a room dedicated to a personal project of his where he is collecting images of native Americans in traditional dress. An interesting museum and well worth a visit.

From here, we carried on down the avenue until we reached the Museo Pedro de Osma, which we decided to visit as well.

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This is full of Peruvian religious art, but also houses a collection of South American decorative gold and silver pieces and coins.

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When we emerged from here, we found ourselves at the southern end of Barranco, at the border with Chorrillos, so decided to retrace our steps. As we walked back up the avenue, our attention was drawn to a group of dancers who were performing on the other side of the street from us and seemed to be getting photos taken for some publicity work.

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We walked past a restaurant called Tio Mario which offered Peruvian specialities so we decided to have a late lunch/early dinner there. After we had eaten, we walked back along the seafront hilltops for a while before eventually fading in the heat and summoning an Uber to get us back to the hotel and calling it a night.

On Monday, we decided that we would re-visit the historic centre so took an uber to the Plaza San Martin and took a walk through town.

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There’s an organisation called Arte Express that has acquired a huge number of historic buildings across central Lima. It seems to have been structured as a charity whose aim is to preserve key buildings in the city and they certainly seem to be doing a great job of maintaining the buildings in their portfolio. We went into one of them, Edificio Wiese, to enjoy a coffee in their ground floor cafe.

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Refreshed, we walked at random through the rest of the town, but the eventual aim was to arrive at Bar Cordano, the oldest bar in Lima. The bar had been pointed out to us on our guided walk but we didn’t get the opportunity to step inside it, so we wanted to see it at our leisure.

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It doesn’t look like much from the outside but it definitely has the feel of the city’s oldest bar once you’re inside.

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What I love about this photo is that, if you look in the top right, there’s a photo of the bar taken in the 1920s and it looks exactly the same.

After our brief refreshment here, we headed back to the hotel to relax and play the instruments. In the evening, we walked down to a Peruvian restaurant called Panchita and enjoyed an excellent meal that we finished off with a glass of Pisco – Peru’s favourite spirit – and shared a wonderful dessert called suspiro limeno. Our only regret was waiting until our last night before ordering this.

A slow stroll back to the hotel with a cursory attempt at packing before retiring for the night. This was a pleasant farewell to Peru. Tomorrow, Mexico!

Wetlands in the desert

Lima sits at the Northern edge of the Atacama Desert, the only true desert that experiences less precipitation that the polar deserts. It’s dry here, so we were intrigued by Haku Tours‘ Nature Tour, which promised a trip to a Wetlands reserve 20 minutes from Lima. We signed up and were picked up from the hotel on Saturday morning to be whisked there. Our tour guide today was Edwin, a true native South American who could speak Quechua.

Ishbel and I were the only guests on this tour so we were in a nice 4×4 with Edwin and the driver, Jorge. This is a recent addition to their catalogue of available tours and, to date, not many people have signed up for it. They’re hoping to be able to introduce more ecology tourism to their itinerary and this is an early step in that direction.

The Pantanas de Villa Wildlife Reserve is located in the Chorillos district. I’ve mentioned a lot of Lima districts in previous posts so at this point, I will clarify the structure of the City / Region. The province of Lima is divided into 43 districts, each of which elects its own mayor who wields significant power over the public finances of that district. One of these mayors is also elected to be overall mayor of Lima, an even more powerful political position. In Lima, the district is important.

On to the Wetlands. We stopped at the entrance and paid our fees (included in the tour price) then drove into the park itself, where we encountered another gate, this time for a gated residential community. It transpires that money talks and if you can persuade a corrupt mayor to let you build a residential development in a Nature Reserve, nobody can stop you. Anyway, off through the houses till we reached the beach. Just inland from the beach is a large lagoon which is home to a wide variety of bird life.

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From egrets and herons…

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…to skimmers and gulls. It wasn’t easy to get close to them because burrowing owls nest in the area around the lagoon and we need to keep to the footpaths to avoid disturbing them, but Ishbel did her best with the big lens.

We had arrived here at around 10:30am, and the day was really heating up. There’s no shade out here either, so we were glad of our hats and pleased we had brought plenty of water. We walked past a group of Black Vultures feasting on a dead sea lion on the beach, and were glad to get upwind of that little party.

As we strolled on, we saw more and more birds, but they were moving around quickly and it was difficult getting a decent photo of them.

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Eventually, the heat got the better of us and we made our way back to the car. Just as we were meeting up with Jorge, Ishbel spotted a bird sitting on a telephone wire and occasionally jumping off to catch flies on the wing.

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It turned out to be a Kingbird.  We had an enjoyable visit and we were pleased to have seen some wildlife during our Peru trip. But it gets pretty hot there in the middle of the day.

We got back to the hotel and relaxed for a little while then Ishbel decided to pop down to our little courtyard with the camera to see if she could catch any of the bird life that we had seen over the last couple of days at breakfast.

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Eventually, her patience was rewarded with a little Bananaquit that finally stayed in one spot long enough to be photographed. These things are about 8cm long, but make an incredibly loud noise. You will always hear them before you see them.

She also caught on camera the Rufus Collared Sparrow.

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But she was beginning to despair of catching the main prize that we had seen a couple of times at breakfast: the Amazilia Hummingbird. As luck would have it, one arrived just as she was getting ready to pack up, so she hastily re-attached the camera to the tripod and fired off a couple of shots before it disappeared again.

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It’s hard to make out the green head and bronze coloured body, but it’s so rare to see a hummingbird with its wings straight out that I thought I should share it.

“When my eyes beheld an eerie sight…”

I’ll admit some of the titles are getting a bit obscure but any fan of novelty songs will recognise the second line of the classic Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kickers.

On Friday, we signed up for another excursion with Haku Tours. This time, it was a walking tour around Lima’s historic centre. We were accompanied by two others on this trip: Sheila, an English lady who is retired and enjoys travelling, so leapt at the chance to visit Peru while her son was here on business; and Eric, a gentleman from the USA who was accompanying his wife, who is here on business. I have to avoid calling him American because he told me that he has been corrected several times when he used that term. “Well, we’re all American,” reply the Peruvians.

Amadeo, who took us around Pachacamac the previous day, was to be our guide once more. We were picked up at the hotel and driven to Plaza San Martin where the tour commenced. The square is named after General Jose de San Martin, one of the three main liberators of South America, the other two being Bernardo O’Higgins and Simon Bolivar. Bolivar, of course, is the only one who had a country named after him. Had things been different we may have had the chance to visit O’Higginsia, but it was not to be.

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The depiction of Victory on the statue’s pedestal is interesting for its iconography. If you look closely at the helmet, you will see that it is crowned by a llama. The story is that the sculptor was commissioned to create the statue wearing a helmet crowned by a flame. The Spanish word for flame is llama. Anyone could have made the same mistake.

Peru’s centre is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and enjoys the protection such status endows. It also suffers the associated restrictions imposed by UNESCO. Any repairs or changes must maintain the outward appearance of the building and, where possible, use the same materials as the original. Most of the city centre buildings are privately owned by wealthy Peruvians who moved away decades ago and, to a large extent, subdivided them into multiple commercial or residential units. This makes getting any kind of repair done difficult and effectively kills the chance for any major work to be undertaken.

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This building suffered a fire 8 months ago and has been left in a state of disrepair ever since. Nobody is willing to foot the cost necessary to rebuild it in a manner compliant with UNESCO’s regulations. Amadeo told us that there were currently six burned out buildings in the historic centre awaiting repair.

We then walked down Jiron de la Union, admiring the Spanish Colonial architecture which is visible if you look up one storey. The ground floors of the buildings are now all commercial buildings, but it’s interesting to see all of the international brand names and logos depicted in black instead of their usual corporate colours.

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That, again, is a UNESCO requirement. We stopped for a look inside the ornate Convento de la Merced before walking through the old financial centre.  The Peruvian Stock Exchange was one of the first in South America, founded in 1860 and still trading today. We passed by the building that houses it, but weren’t allowed to enter without prior permission.

We saw a lot of the city before eventually arriving at St. Francis’ Basilica, the largest church in Lima. The Franciscans were one of the first evangelising orders to arrive in South America and held an important role in Lima as the city’s funeral directors. At the time, it was believed that you needed to be buried under a church in order to get to heaven. Tens of thousands of Lima’s citizenry were buried under St. Francis’. We were able to get a visit to the catacombs under the church and saw the bones of many of the people buried there. The practice was that a service would be held in the church. The mourners would then leave and the body would be removed from the coffin and stacked, with several other bodies, in a niche in the crypt. They would then be sprinkled with lime to aid decomposition and to keep down the stench of tropical, rotting flesh. The introduction of cemeteries with consecrated ground finally put paid to the requirement to be buried under a church.

We weren’t allowed to take photographs in the catacombs themselves but managed to snap an image of bones through the grating in the aisle of the church above. I assume this is intended to remind worshippers of their own mortality.

Emerging back into the afternoon sun, we walked on to Plaza de Armas where sits the Government Palace. We arrived just at the changing of the guard, but had a poor view since most of the square was cordoned off in anticipation of an impending protest, although nobody seemed to know in what cause. Escaping the potential flashpoint, we zig-zagged down a couple of side streets to rendezvous with our driver and headed back to the hotel.

We relaxed for a little while in the afternoon then decided to head out for dinner. We’d been relatively frugal in Lima to date, so decided to head to a nice looking steak restaurant not far away called La Vaca Loca. We refused to let its being called The Mad Cow put us off and they seated us promptly upon our arrival. The food here was amazing. We shared two starters: morcilla, which is Spanish black pudding; and a dish simply named provolone that the waiter recommended and which turned out to be a red-hot skillet full of deliciously seasoned melted cheese. It was reminiscent of the famous Stewed Cheese dish served up for the last 100 years at Simpson’s Tavern in Lombard St, London.

The steaks that followed were excellent and we had ordered one of only two bottles of Peruvian wine on the list. Since there were about twenty each from Chile and Argentina, I was slighty concerned but there was no need. The wine was delicious and complemented the meat perfectly. At the end of the meal, I happily called for the bill and paid the requisite amount with a song in my heart and a smile on my face. We strolled hand in hand back to the hotel, where I found that my Revolut payment notification was for a good 25% more than the bill.

I stormed back around there in high dudgeon, accusing the staff of skullduggery. They dug out their records and showed me that they had in fact put through the amount I had agreed on.

It transpires that, in Peru, there appears to be a habit for someone – and it may be Revolut themselves – to add a conditional percentage in case…I’ve no idea what it’s in case of, but I was embarrassed to have accused the restaurant staff of wrongdoing. This is the first time I’ve had cause to take issue with Revolut and I’m not entirely content with the customer service. I’m still waiting for the bill to be corrected, a week later.

 

 

 

 

 

Pachacamac and the Incas

We had taken a look at the urban sprawl that constituted Lima, and we’d identified some of the things we wanted to see outside the city itself. We’d also taken a close look at Peruvian traffic and driving practices and determined we didn’t want to engage in them at first hand. We looked online for some tours that would best meet our needs and settled on a company called Haku tours. We signed up for a visit to Pachacamac on 28th March.

Pachacamac is a name we were not familiar with before arriving here, so we did a little bit of pre-reading before setting out on the Thursday morning. The site was settled in about 200 AD and grew in importance under the Wari empire, eventually holding status as the home of an oracle under the Inca empire.

The site is about an hour’s drive away from our base in Miraflores, passing a number of interesting points. Our guide, Amadeo, drew our attention in particular to the many shanty towns that have sprung up around the city. In the 1950s, Lima was a city of one million people in a country with a total population around 8 million. It now hosts 11 million citizens, representing one-third of the Peruvian population of 33 million. As with many Southern hemisphere countries, economic growth has been associated with increased industrialization and, as a direct result, people move from the country to the city. And their children tend to stay in the city.

Although he describes them as shanty towns, the literal translation would be “Young Towns.” The owner of Haku Tours grew up in a shanty town and everyone in the company gets two days off every month to go and do volunteer work in the towns.

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When we got to Pachamac, I was surprised at how huge and well-preserved the site was. There are a number of distinct areas which supported different activities. The Mamacones complex was an educational establishment for the female children of the elite of the Wari culture. Although Wari men filled the role of leaders as warriors, true political power resided in the women.

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At Mamacones, the girls were taught how to govern by senior women. They spent their formative years learning and drinking beer and, at the end of their education they were offered three choices: marry, stay and be a teacher, or become a sacrifice to the gods. Apparently, enough of them chose the last option to keep the gods appeased. Possibly in part due to the permanent state of intoxication in which they existed.

As the Incan empire expanded, it adopted many of the existing belief systems of the conquered peoples and incorporated them into their own. Thus, Pachacamac continued to be a place of pilgrimage for individuals who wanted to consult the oracle who, in turn, continued to dispense enigmatic and ambiguous predictions.

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They even constructed a road that ran direct from Pachacamac to their showpiece capital at Machu Picchu.

From my European perspective, I’ve always thought of the Incas as the dominant pre-Columbian force in South America so it’s interesting to discover that their period of dominance lasted only around 100 years. In fact, the Spanish conquistadors exploited the resentment of the peoples conquered by the Incans. This was in part what allowed them to overthrow such a huge empire with a small expeditionary force.

 

 

“In llama land, there’s a one man band…”

Today’s title is lifted straight from the Sinatra standard Come Fly With Me, the lyric coming straight after “Come fly with me, Let’s float down to Peru,” which is where we now find ourselves on Wednesday, 27th March. It’s now four months since we departed the UK and the time is flying by. Having said that, we’re not yet halfway through the trip so we will continue to enjoy each day as it comes along.

Our friendly hotelier here at Huaca Wasi welcomed us down to breakfast. He provided a delicious fruit bowl of mango and watermelon followed by a ham, onion and pepper omelette. This set us up nicely for the day ahead which Ishbel had planned for us. She had sourced a self-guided walking tour of Miraflores that would allow us to familiarise ourselves with our immediate area and get a look at the Pacific Ocean into the bargain.

We had been driven in from the airport in the dark last night, but it was clear that Lima is a city of interesting geography. We had descended from urban clifftops along hairpin bends to travel along a coastal road before gaining height once again and arriving at Miraflores. We wanted to see what this city looked like in the daylight.

Our route took us through a couple of parks towards the shore. The parks displayed signs advising that they were designated safe zones in the event of earthquake, tsunami, fire, or other emergency. I’m not sure what other emergency they envision. Maybe they just don’t want to say Zombie Apocalypse or Alien Invasion. Who knows? Fortunately, no emergency arose during our stroll and we reached the front safely. Well, not really the front.

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We remained a couple of hundred metres away from the beach, vertically. It’s odd that the main parts of the city are constructed on these cliffs with a road and a strip of beach at the foot. But the beaches seem to be well used and Lima has a renowned and thriving surfer community. It’s renowned for consistent waves and different beaches offer surf for different skill sets. Just below Miraflores is ideal for beginners, apparently. No, we weren’t tempted.

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The cliffs are topped by a series of parks that we wandered along, enjoying the cooling sea breeze but acutely aware of the blazing sun above. With a latitude of just 12° S, this is the closest we will be to the equator at any point in our travels so we need to protect our pasty Scottish complexions. Eventually, we took refuge in the Larcomar shopping centre to enjoy some air conditioning and, since we were here, grab a light lunch. We each had a salad, which was very healthy. Then we shared a dessert called Ponderacion, which was all pastry, ice cream, and the ubiquitous dulce de leche, which was less healthy but damn delicious.

We considered taking an Uber back to the hotel, but we’d spent a lot of the previous day cooped up on the plane so decided to walk back. This gave us the chance to see some of the commercial streets of the area. There’s an odd juxtaposition of high-end luxury and low-end tat as you stroll through the streets. Peru seems to be a country of contradictions. Hopefully we’ll find out more as our week here progresses.