God bless America

I have always been rather disdainful of the Americans.

Not in a hating or malicious way but in the same look-down-my-nose-and-snigger-condescendingly way as many Europeans.

It is not something I am proud of, that “ah yes, the Americans, how silly they are with their ‘have a nice days’, their worship of unregulated capitalism, their crazy gun control laws, their lack of a national health system, their religious nuts, their ostentatious wealth, their ostentatious poverty, their love of unnecessarily massive cars, their belief that a mere 100 years’ existence qualifies a building as rare and historic” kind of attitude… I could go on.

In my defence, it is true that many Americans do display the kind of naive arrogance that can only come with having grown-up in a world superpower which models them into patriots from babyhood onwards. They have to pledge allegiance to their nation every morning in school for God’s sake – the only way that could ever happen in Britain is if UKIP came to power.

Yes, unlike us Brits who eschew national pride in favour of piss-taking and pints, the Americans often demonstrate an earnest, unquestioning belief that their country and way of life are simply superior to the rest of the world and that they are doing the rest of the world a kindness by bestowing (or imposing) their knowledge and values upon less fortunate nations. They are the modern Victorians.

As one who grew up in a country which was until really quite recently also an arrogant world superpower but is now a weary and cynical has-been able to see what damage its earlier imperial self wreaked during global domination, I have only ever felt able to shake my head in resignation at this well-meaning misguided attitude.

Even descriptions of the Americans’ abounding friendliness have always sounded fake.

“Give me a grumpy Frenchman telling me, at 1.31pm, that his restaurant stopped serving lunch at 1.30pm. At least he says what he means”, I’ve stubbornly argued.

Then I went to America, or to one tiny part of that massive continent which poses as a country, and I fell madly in love with the Americans.

I was forced to cast off all my cynicism, my disdain, my British superiority, by the overwhelming realisation that America is populated by the most charming people on earth.

A lifetime’s preconceptions stamped out, thanks to a brief stop-off in Miami to see some friends on the way home from Cartagena.

Ah, Miami. The city welcomed us in its sunny Art Deco arms and whirled us through four days of neon lit and cocktail fuelled fun before packing us off home to grey Britain, where clearly we belong.

Maybe it is just Miami, maybe just the ‘sunshine state’ of Florida, maybe this is not representative of every single one of those 50 united states but the whole place fizzes with goodwill and optimism.

People greet you in the street, in the lift, in the hallway. Shop assistants are so kind and helpful you positively want to spend more money. Waiters offer you advice on far more than simply the restaurant menu.

People go out of their way to help you and ensure you do indeed “have a nice day”. And it works.

Their friendliness is not fake, it is not cloying, it simply brightens your mood and makes your daily existence that bit more enjoyable.

Happiness, like misery, is infectious.

Suddenly that cool surliness which the northern Europeans have turned into a sort of art form just seems faintly risible. Life can be so pleasant when everyone goes out of their way to make it so.

Often of course, it is just good service. As my friend Harry, who we were staying with, said: “Here, they really have perfected the art of persuading you to willingly and cheerfully part with your money.”

But this almost laughable niceness is not just tied to money-making because it comes from everyone, your Uber taxi driver to the guy queuing behind you in the cafe.

It would, however, be difficult not to feel cheerful in Miami, a city where the temperature rarely dips below 20C and the white sand beaches stretch for several miles.

Miami is bright, kitsch and ridiculous and it doesn’t try to be anything else. There is no pretence at sophistication or class. It is unashamedly tacky and undeniably fun.

The bars along Miami South Beach sell cocktails in glasses large enough to feature in an aquarium. EDM – to a Brit just ‘dance music’ – blasts out onto the sidewalk deafening passers-by while semi-naked women dance on podiums throughout the day and night. People of every style and dimension can be admired on South Beach where wannabe glamour models’ boob jobs compete with the rippling pecks of perma-tanned gay men. The warm sea is a perfect Caribbean turquoise.

Our wonderful hosts Harry and Jess, both Brits who have been living in Miami for a couple of years, have definitely eaten from the tree of truth.

“You know that sort of festival feeling you get in London on a really hot sunny day, where everyone flocks to the parks and everyone is just happy and upbeat,” said Harry. “Here it sort of feels like that all the time.”

It is amazing what a difference good weather makes.

Another startling difference between our cramped isles and American way of life is simply the amount of space available.

Harry and Jess moved from the usual claustrophobic London shoebox to a swanky spacious two-bedroom apartment on the 43rd floor of a condo building in downtown Miami with glass walls on three sides offering views of towards the beach, the business district and beyond.

They have a swimming pool on either side of the tower block, one which catches the dawn sun and the other for use at sunset.

Their building, which is a fairly average size when compared with the many others in downtown Miami, is 50 storeys high. One Canada Square in Canary Wharf, until five years ago the tallest building in Britain, is 50 storeys high.

But in America, everything is bigger.

Normal roads here are three lanes wide, most of the cars wouldn’t fit down many London streets. I have already mentioned the size of the cocktails.

Over four days we met lovely people, we ate in fantastic restaurants, we had Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas at breakfast, we meandered in the sunshine and frolicked on the beach. I defy anyone to dislike Miami.

On Monday, when Harry and Jess returned to work, P and I rented a Mustang GT and drove down to the Florida Keys as far as Seven Mile Bridge – the clue is in the name.

This 120-mile spit of sand with its chain of tropical islands which clings precariously to the tip of Florida is a spectacular drive.

Just when we thought our love for Miami could not be bettered, a huge manatee swam up to the dockside of a small harbour where we happened to have stopped and poked its whiskered nose out of the water to say hello.

That evening as we drove back to the city for our final night we stopped at a small waterside bar and sat on a wooden jetty watching the red sun sink towards the still waters. P and I drank down cold beers while the silhouette of a small sailing dinghy luffed across the pink horizon. Larger yachts bobbed on their moorings. The melodic tones of a live singer performing Jonny Cash floated over from the bar next door. The sun sank lower so the tips of the wavelets sparkled gold. Seagulls skirted across the water. The warm air tickled my bare arms.

God bless America, I thought.

Ciao Colombia, adios America del Sur

I left South America in style.

Well… That’s not entirely true.

I left South America hungover.

Yes, I know, another flight, another hangover.

But I certainly said my farewells to South America in style.

P and I decided we would allow ourselves one day of pure adulterated indulgence. So…

We said farewell while soaking up the last of the Colombian sun in a rooftop pool overlooking the golden splendour of Cartagena.

We said farewell again while enjoying a bottle of crisp white wine next to said pool and watching the sunset.

We said farewell once more with a sumptuous cocktail while darkness descended.

We said another farewell while being expertly smothered with coconut oil after deciding that we couldn’t possibly leave Colombia without first experiencing a full body massage under the stars.

We toasted farewell with the complimentary bottle of champagne that came with the massage.

We slurred farewell while tucking into a delicious supper and red wine in the hotel restaurant downstairs.

There may have been another farewell when I scoffed down a snickers bar from the minibar later that evening.

There may have been many other farewells.

For our last night we checked into one of the most stylish hotels in town and delighted in the hot shower, the soft feather pillows, the cool white linen, the cleanliness and most of all, the air conditioning.

It could not have been a further contrast from the simple palm huts – buckets of cold water for washing and no electricity – we had called home for the previous six days.

We decided to eschew luxury in favour of the tranquility of the wilderness where the only disturbance came from the dawn cacophony of a thousand tropical birds and the distant, or sometimes not so distant, call of monkeys.

First in Isle Grande, which is anything but ‘grande’ in both dimension and pretension, where we found ourselves at the idyllic ramshackle Ecopackers Hostal Las Palmeras, a collection of about four small huts nestling among the palm trees five minutes walk from the beach. Run by the friendly but formidable Anna Rosa and her family, we were fed a simple breakfast, lunch and supper and left to our own lazy devices for the rest of the sweltering day.

We lay on the hot sand, we bathed in tepid blue waters, we snorkelled, we meandered the length of the island, around mangrove swamps and dusty beaches, we swung on hammocks, we did really very, very little. And it was blissful.
By 9pm each night, blanketed by total unremitting darkness, we were asleep.

Then we headed for what is often labelled as Colombia’s crowning glory, the Tayrona National Park.

This 150 square km of hilly jungle which lines the coast north east of Santa Marta, boasts some of Colombia’s finest sandy beaches. But you have to be willing to work for them.

It is a two hour walk through jungle thick with hanging vines and echoing with the strange calls of unknown creatures from the entrance of the park to the coast, where the sweating backpacker is finally able to feel a fresh ocean breeze on their cheeks and spy turquoise water with its promise of cool relief through the branches. But if they think their trudge through the steaming hot jungle is about to be rewarded they are mistaken.

The first few beaches are among nature’s cruel jokes. While their white sand and clear waters stretch into the distance like a holiday commercial, the waves carried in on the Caribbean swell crash shoreward with a force that make the water too dangerous for swimming – “More than 100 people have died on this beach”, the signs warn, “Do not become another statistic”.

So, sticky from the rabid humidity and dreaming of ice lollies and fridges and cold showers, you continue for what seems like several days. After, more accurately, another 45 minutes of passing beautiful but lethal beaches from where the sea spray whispers sweet nothings to you, beseeching you to ignore the signs and die among their silken waters, you reach La Piscina, where you can finally plunge bodily and safely into the welcoming water and lose yourself amongst the soft surf.

Even more stunning, and even further to walk, is the picture perfect sandy bay of Cabo San Juan protected from the dangerous currents by huge granite rocks which jut into the ocean on either side. And boasting some of the smallest bikinis and best bums in South America, as rated by P and I.

We spent two happy, very sweaty, days walking through the park, accompanied by monkeys, lizards and rare birds, and lazing on its gorgeous beaches before heading back to civilisation and preparing for our final hurrah in Cartagena.

We exploded into that hotel in a flurry of excitement over the rooftop pool and chic interiors.

Colombia is too colourful a country to leave sensibly. You should leave Colombia singing joyfully and tunelessly while trying to dance salsa with a cocktail in one hand. Con mucho gusto.

Falling for Colombia

People fall in love with Colombia. I have listened to friends wax lyrical about this formerly troubled country for hours.

“Oh my god, Colombia,” they intone, their eyes sparkling, whenever the name is mentioned.

“You have to go, it’s amazing.”

Medellin left me feeling confused as to what it was these people were seeing that P and I were missing. It was not beautiful. It was not particularly enjoyable to walk around. There was not much to do or see. The food was at best average. It was a big sprawling city.

It felt like travelling to the Colombian equivalent of Southampton.

Even the Parque Arvi, 17 square kilometres of jungle on the high hills above the city, did not blow me – or P – away.

Frankly Medellin was an underwhelming experience. I wanted to love it, I was ready to love it. Particularly as one cannot have anything other than great respect for the resilience of its people who have been through more turmoil than most in their lives but appear upbeat and charming towards the unknown foreigner.

But all I felt at boarding the bus to leave was relief.

Then we arrived in Cartagena and suddenly everything became clear.

Cartagena is where people fall in love with Colombia.

It is fairytale pretty. The colonial houses, their wooden balconies overflowing with bougainvillea and other bright flowers, are painted every shade of the rainbow.

It is where the Caribbean collides in colourful confusion with Latin American and the results are spectacular. A beautiful colonial city with a tropical twist.

Caribbean beats pour into the street from ornate carved balconies, majestic plazas overflow with palm trees, the colours are brighter, clothes are tighter and sweet Jesus it is hot. So hot.

Every evening from about 5pm a strong sea breeze blows in from the north east providing some blessed relief. But walking around at 1am in a small sundress will still work up a sweat.

There are plenty of fun things to see and do within a stone’s throw of the city.

One particularly entertaining trip which P and I took was to a nearby geological anomaly, the Volcan de Lodo El Totumo – a 40-ft high volcano which spews forth warm liquid mud. It is possible to bathe in the crater.

The density of the mud makes everyone bob about at the surface like friendly swamp monsters. Looking down at a group of curvaceous stately Argentinian woman who had already descended into the pit and been lathered by the willing hands of the local mud ‘masseuses’ I got the giggles as their impressively buoyant breasts were pushed up to float like twin balloons at the surface, creating a spectacular array of gleaming muddy cleavages for those at the top to admire.

“Tit soup,” I commented to P.

Climbing in you are immediately told to lie back and are passed around to various cheerful clay-soaked gentlemen who massage you with the mud sweeping it over your arms and legs and gently painting your face.

You then float about glorying in the disgusting pleasure of the whole thing and giggling irrepressibly until you are politely asked to move on and make room for others.

It is then a 40 yard walk to a nearby warm lake where a number of women await you ready to take you by the hand and wash you down.

You are instructed to sit down in the water and close your eyes and place yourself entirely in their capable hands.

It is blissful. The woman who had taken charge of me scrubbed my hair, arms, shoulders, legs, and so on.

I was about to drift off when the instruction came: “Take off your bikini.”

Okay!

“And the bottoms.”

Yup.

While she was scrubbing the mud from these garments, P came bounding over disturbing my peace and looking like a puppy who had been given a juicy bone.

“She got me naked! She made me take off my swimming shorts!”

So a good morning was had by all.

After a typical lunch of fried fish, coconut rice and plantain fritters on the beach we headed off for a canoe ride round the mangrove swamps, their oppressive dark tunnels teeming with bird life. Pelicans, white herons, black herons, grey herons and more before returning to the welcoming cobbled streets of Cartagena to reward ourselves with mojitos.

In Cartagena the people are charming, the food delicious, the cocktails cheap, the city stunning, the shops tempting… And delightful beaches and mangrove swamps are within easy reach. What is not to like?

But P and I wanted the beach closer than easy reach. We wanted it on our doorstep. Literally.

So after a few days in the city we headed for the Islas de Rosario, where a palm hut awaited us.

Medellin 

When I was a child, which was not so very long ago, the Colombian city of Medellin was one of the homicide capitals of the world.

Presided over by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, the city witnessed more than 6000 killings in 1991 alone.

It is amazing what a difference a couple of decades can make. Now Medellin stands as a beacon of hope to other cities currently in the throes of crisis.

This is not to pretend Medellin has transformed into a cosy destination. It is still a city with a hard edge to it and not without a sense of threat.

Walking around its rough and tumble centre P and I were very aware of the stares from many dispossessed individuals that followed us. I certainly would not venture out there at night.

Gringos do not appear to be a common sight in downtown Medellin. At least we didn’t see any, but then it was Easter Sunday, a strange day to be out exploring.

A sprawling dirty bric-a-brac market, displaying nothing any sane person would wish to buy, had taken over one of the main arterial roads and the strong smell of cannabis hung inescapable in the air.

It is a city in which at one moment the buildings look solid, the people friendly and you start to relax but then, 100 yards further, you suddenly sense the beginnings of a slum and wary eyes resting upon you.

“I don’t think this looks so good,” said P as we wandered through what had previously appeared to be a respectable barrio towards the Botanical Gardens.

“I feel like a lot of the people looking at us are thinking, ‘I would probably mug you, if I got a chance. I won’t right now because it’s daylight and there are a lot of people around, but if I came across you later on a quiet road, I would probably mug you.'”

He was probably right.

Moments later a scruffy individual with glazed eyes who appeared to be staggering a little dropped his lighter at our feet, as he bent unsteadily to save it a crack pipe was clearly evident in his grubby hand.

The Botanical Gardens when we reached them, mugging free, were lovely. Unsurprising given Medellin’s near perfect climate with daytime temperatures hanging around the balmy 25 degrees mark all year round, and the nights a comfortable 19 or 20.

Tropical plants grow here with a vengeance and would quickly reclaim the city given half a chance.

The centre sits festering in a bowl of land hemmed in by huge mountains thronging with vegetation, only held at bay by the steady stream of newcomers from the countryside in search of work. Favelas populate many of the steeper slopes but are no longer segregated from the city below thanks to a new cable car system linked to the metro. The richer neighbourhoods are also found on higher ground where the air is fresher. Huge high rise blocks glare down into the valley from the southern hills.

Most foreign visitors opt to stay in a buzzing little area called El Poblado, about three kilometres south of the centre. A lack of knowledge about the city’s geography prior to our arrival meant P and I were unaware this would be the best course of action and booked a guesthouse near the unappealing centre. But taxis are cheap and the hotel in question, Prado 61, delightfully quiet and comfortable.

We visited El Poblado on Sunday evening and were pleasantly surprised by its relaxed fun vibe. One of its two main plazas, the Parque Lleras is lined by bars and restaurants, their terraces invitingly lit up with fairly lights often wrapped around the many palm trees. A strange mixture of western pop and Colombian beats pour out into the square.

I am not yet ready to judge Medellin as a few factors, for which Medellin stands blameless, have marred our experience of the city so far.

Firstly we had a hellish journey getting here. After waking up at 5.30am on Saturday for a flight from Cuzco to Lima and then straight here we were told all flights were indefinitely delayed due to fog.

“Well, you can’t do anything about the weather,” said P with philosophical resignation.

We ended up having to fly to Lima, four hours later than planned then wait there for another few hours before flying to Bogota where we were finally able to board a flight to Medellin. The fact we were both bitterly hungover from too much wine topped off with Pisco sours the night before didn’t help.

We finally reached our Medellin hotel at about 1am on Sunday morning collapsing with tiredness.

Then yesterday, during our wanderings it became increasingly clear that P had finally succumbed to the dreaded tummy bug. Today he has been forced to remain in bed and near a loo all day. It has been my turn to be saintly.

So neither of us have fallen in love with Medellin but it has one more day to charm us before we head north to the coast. Here’s hoping.

The long road to Machu Picchu

P and I are feeling somewhat heroic. We feel we now sit comfortably alongside the likes of Edmund Hillary, Ernest Shackleton and Ranulph Fiennes.

We made it through cloud forest, rainforest and over rivers and mountain peaks to reach the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu early last Thursday morning.

After four days of trekking, damp, dirty and elated we stood at the Puerta del Sol and watched the dawn sunlight extend its golden fingers with tantalising patience towards that intricate granite city atop its steep mountain ridge. Standing a lofty 2500m towards the heavens the smoky morning clouds drifted below us. We soaked up the beauty with deserving eyes.

It was not made easy for us. Life, as it sometimes does, decided to test our fortitude beyond the simple but knackering task of walking 43km up and down and up and down to altitudes of some 4200m.

The dramas started when P’s flight, two hours over the Atlantic did a U-turn back to Madrid due to a generator failure.

He had the joyous experience of waiting in Madrid overnight before restarting his journey a mere seven hours after he was meant to be enroute to Lima, then Cuzco.

After mild panic over missed connections – and the fact the trekking agency stipulated we must both be in Cuzco by 7.30pm that Saturday in order to start the Inca Trail the following Monday as booked – he finally arrived in Cuzco, sleep deprived but still smiling.

All seemed well that evening, excitement at our impending adventure and a delicious supper wrapped us in a happy haze.

But my feeling of happiness were quickly eroded that night as an invisible hand began to grip my stomach with a ferocity that seemed unnecessarily vindictive.

I had spent the last few weeks concerned that it would be P who might struggle on the trek with so little time to acclimatise to the altitude while I, having travelled through the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru would be skipping up the mountains. Ha! It was not to be.

Apologies in advance for my lack of delicacy, but I awoke on Sunday with a stomach that refused to ingest or hold anything more substantial than air. I could not eat, or drink, without rushing to the loo within seconds.

The very idea of food made me fall into a nauseous sweat – and those who know me well will know that it takes a severe illness to put me off my food!

I soldiered on through Sunday but by the evening, weak and shaking collapsed in a tearful sick heap terrified I would be forced to miss out on something I had planned for six months and may never be able to do again.

So I made what was probably a very stupid decision. I decided to walk the Inca Trail with the squits.

I downed several rehydration sachets and put my faith in my immune system to fight it off sufficiently quickly that I would not have to be carried back down the mountainside.

P was saintly, supporting this foolhardy faith, looking after me and bullying me to force down water and the odd bit of bread.

I dealt with the problem by laughing, slightly hysterically, at the ridiculousness of the situation and diving off the trail into bushes at regular intervals. Enough said.

Lastly, the weather. It rained. And rained. Admittedly opting to do the Inca trail at the tail end of the rainy season was always a a risk. But by the end of March the rain should confine itself to showers rather than day-long downpours.

Even this would be fine if balanced by high temperatures but four kilometres above sea level, even this close to the equator, is cold. On the second night as the rain pounded our tents we all struggled to sleep as we tried to bury ourselves deeper and deeper inside our sleeping bags.

But honestly, despite all these minor set backs, it was an incredible four days.

We walked through some of the most magical mountain landscapes imaginable and were lucky enough to land among great group of people none of whom even contemplated anything other than enjoying themselves. Some people were battling altitude sickness, others recurrent leg injuries – one woman had just had the all clear after being treated for breast cancer – but there were no complainers. No whingers. Everyone trooped on up those mountains, huffing and puffing and always cheerful on arrival.

At 5.30am on the Monday we boarded to bus to the start of the trail. Thank god the first day is the easiest as it felt like lead weights had been tied to my ankles.

Day one is flat but ‘Peruvian flat’, which is not flat in any normal sense but simply means you are going up and down at gradients which do not make your knees want to explode but still set your heart beating like a drum.

It was a stunning walk through the Urubamba valley, passing two Inca ruins, the small hillfort of Huillca Racay and Llactapata.

The sun shone and our merry band hiked on until about 5pm to Wayllabamba, on the banks of the Rio Cusichaca where our wonderful team of porters were ready and waiting, tents set up. Supper was already on the go, overseen by chef-come-magician Justin whose ability at whipping up mouthwatering three course meals using only a gas stove was nothing short of miraculous. Justin was not one to let standards slip simply on the basis of his jungle surroundings. Every day he emerged in his chefs whites and hat, ready to direct his porter sous-chefs.

A word about the porters. These remarkable men, most of whom are local farmers trying to earn some extra cash for their families, scamper up and down the precipitous Andean paths in their sandals or bashed up old converse carrying loads of up to 30kg. They used to carry more until the Peruvian government imposed strict weight restrictions. Most stand at little more than 5ft 5ins and are dwarfed by their heavy packs. They are pure sinew. And in the case of our porters, never betray a moment’s resentment but offer only welcoming smiles to the well-fed tourists complaining of their aching limbs while carrying small day sacks and arriving each evening to find their food and shelter provided.  Peru Treks, the company we chose for the hike, prides itself on porter welfare as any reputable trekking company should. Without the porters the Inca Trail would not be possible. They are the worker bees who make it happen.

Day two is when the knees really start to burn. It is a relentless four to five hour climb, ascending more than a kilometre in altitude to the Abra de Huarmihuanusca or Dead Woman’s Pass, up the steep stone steps laid by the Incas more than five centuries ago – most of the trail is still the original stones.

We passed through cloud forest, thick with knarled trees and dainty flowers until even the trees refused to go any higher and the land opened out into meadows, exposing the mountain peaks, scatterings of snow still visible. After the pass we headed back downhill for a couple of kilometres and reached the second campsite at about 1pm just as the heavens opened. They did not close again until the following morning when we all emerged wet and shivering for the 16km walk to the final campsite at Winay Wayna.

The third day we entered the jungle. Machu Picchu sits on a climactic and botanical dividing line where the Andes meets the Amazon.

After another steep climb, another pass, we descended and the humidity rose. Thick green vines and hanging mosses dripped and steamed, ferns brushed our legs and exotic orchids bloomed.  We passed the impressive Inca development of Sayacmarca, which means Inaccessible Town, surrounded on three sides by sheer rock faces.

Just when we were celebrating a few hours of morning sunshine, the rain arrived.

I suppose one has to expect rain in the rainforest. And rain it did, all day.

But as we neared our final campsite after eight hours of walking and emerged onto the incredible Inca terracing of Intipata, the clouds slowly lifted and cleared to reveal a breathtaking view down the Urubamba Valley, the raging river at its heart winding away into the jungle mists towards the mighty Amazon. We were nearly there.

At 3.30am, yes 3.30am, the next morning we were gently but firmly woken for the final trudge to Machu Picchu.

As we walked night slowly conceded defeat to the day and sunlight began to illuminate the highest peaks.

Then suddenly we were there, rising up before us in ancient stones, the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu and far below clinging limpet-like to its mountain was the lost Inca city, discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, and now more than a century later by us. The skies were a clear perfect blue at last.

All the discomfort, the aching muscles, the lack of sleep was rewarded in those precious minutes as Machu Picchu was slowly lit up before us.

It is an extraordinary place. Huge, intricate, beautiful, fascinating. And absolutely crawling with tourists.

We could see them already streaming in like ants as the sun rose at 7am.

Even with the ever growing crowds the site is worthy of its fame. But to walk there along the ancient paths which lead to it, soaking up more and more Inca history as you progress, makes it part of a greater experience than simply ticking off another ‘must see’ sight on the well trod South American tourist trail.

At Machu Picchu everything we had learnt along the way under the laid back tutorship of our brilliant guide Edwin came together.

The movement of the sun, the constellations, the four corners of the Inca empire, the three parallel kingdoms through which Inca souls would journey, all feed into the symbolic design and location of the ancient city.

Even the brawling American accents that seemed to reverberate off the prefect Inca stonework could not ruin Machu Picchu for me.

In this instance the journey really is as important as the destination.

The gang, elated on arrival.
The gang, elated on arrival.

On Condors

If condors did not seem magical enough, I have a story to tell about these winged giants who make their homes in the high rock faces of the Andes.

It is a Shakespearean love story but it is true.

Condors are among those rare creatures who chose just one partner for life.

The male condor, when he finds the female he wants, performs a dance wings outstretched while singing for her.

She, should she choose to accept him, does so until death do them part.

When one of the couple dies the other, be it male or female, flies higher and higher into the blue yonder until it runs out of oxygen and plunges lifeless back to earth, following its lost love to the grave.

These are the Romeo and Juliet of birds.

Nature, it seems, has a sense of romance.

Cuzco

I am sipping steaming black coffee and eating freshly made chocolates on a sunny balcony. Below me is a small tree-lined plaza surrounded by cool shaded walkways under the stone arches of whitewashed colonial buildings. The rainbow coloured Inca flag – easy to mistake for a gay flag for those not in the know – flutters from the tower of a building opposite and behind it a green hill rises up to the ruins of the enormous Inca fortress of Sacsaywaman.

Welcome to Cuzco.

I expected Cuzco to be a fun, fascinating, buzzing city.

What I was not prepared for is how utterly stunning it is. It makes Arequipa seem pedestrian.

The historic centre of Cuzco is a rambling hilly mass of ankle-threatening cobbled streets, balconied buildings, behind whose wooden painted doors lie secretive sunlit courtyards, and beautiful plazas. Around it gentle peaks rise with the wind-whispered promise of bigger mountains beyond.

The city oozes history from every crevice. Inca stonemasonry is merged with Spanish imperialist architecture. Quechuan and Spanish street names sit comfortably alongside each other.

But the bloody fight for Peruvian independence still holds a powerful place in the collective consciousness of this city and is memorialised in the main square, the Plaza de Armas, where Tupac Amaru II, an Inca descendant who sowed the first seeds of rebellion in Peru, was forced to watch his followers and family killed before himself being hung drawn and quartered by the Spanish imperialist masters.

Modern Cuzco also offers every comforting amenity to the weary traveller with tempting bars, cafes and restaurants littering every street,  alongside shops overflowing with technicolor Peruvian knitwear, albeit at prices vastly inflated compared to the rest of Peru, and spas and massage parlours for those seeking to relieve aching muscles after trekking among the nearby ruins.

Its honeypot appeal for travellers is inescapable and you hear English spoken on every street corner but Cuzco is worthy of its international renown – and not just for its proximity to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

Keen to avoid any overpriced and irritatingly inflexible ‘tours’ I took a local bus for the grand sum of 2.50 soles – about 50p – to the Inca ruins of Tambomachay about 8km outside Cuzco. From there I was able to walk along the road back towards the city passing four other Inca sites enroute. I saw a number of tour buses go whizzing past looking overcrowded and sweaty and felt a sense of deep satisfaction as I strolled along in the shade of fluttering eucalyptus trees. After 45 minutes or so of walking I came across a roadside cafe which sat high above the Cuzco valley and stopped for a coffee. It was really just a little rural cottage whose inhabitants had laid out a few tables and chairs in their garden. I sat in silence admiring the city far below, my only companions, a donkey in the adjacent field and an elderly Quechuan woman tending her crops.

I finished up at Sacsaywaman, whose magnitude is bewildering despite the fact that what remains is only about 20 per cent of the original structure. There are rocks used in its construction which make those at Stonehenge look like child’s fodder. How in god’s name those diminutive Incas hauled them to the top of this hill is beyond me.

In 1536 it was the site of one of the Inca’s final stands against the Spanish when Manco Inca recaptured the fortress and laid siege to Cuzco. His eventual defeat left Sacsaywaman littered with the corpses of his soldiers which attracted fleets of carrion-eating birds. Sacsaywaman allegedly means ‘satisfied falcon’ in Quechuan.

Away from the history, Cuzco is a city where you could, if you chose, party hard. They mix a mighty fine Pisco sour round here and hallucinogenic plants like San Pedro and ayahuasca, traditionally used in Amazonian shamanic ceremonies are now frequently pedalled to tourists for a quick buck. There are posters advertising trance raves in nearby Pisac in the Sacred Valley. Raving among ancient ruins? It’s every new age hippy’s dream come true.

I have not exploited the Cuzco nightlife – my sociable juices seem to have finally been sapped after nearly seven weeks of hostel dormitories and making new – often very temporary – friends almost daily. I just cannot be bothered. I hope this does not make me a terrible person. I am sure it will be short-lived.

Either way, it matters little because his lordship, who will hitherto be referred to as P as he is likely to feature in this blog quite a lot from now on, arrives on Saturday. Aside from my obvious delight at seeing him after a two month absence, I am also deliriously excited that I will be moving to a plusher hostel tomorrow where I have booked a double room.

This will be the first time I have not shared a bedroom with several strangers since I started travelling. Privacy seems like a very precious commodity right now!

It is going to be bliss. I can’t wait!