Lying several bumpy hours on a bus from Lima (as is the case with most of Peru) is Ayacucho. A city famed for its 33 churches (one for each year of Jesus’ life) and role as base camp for the Sendero Luminoso’s terror campaign of the 1980s, its name, derived from the native Quechua, can be understood as “death corner” or “spirit corner” – interpretations which refer to its setting as the final great battle for South America’s independence, and to the devotion of the ayacuchana people. In short, this bustling town in Peru’s mountain belt is chockers with history – and offers visitors a lot to see and do.
One of my bucket list items was to travel long-term through South America. You see, the knowledge that glaciers, mountains, cities that never sleep, hot spice, twisting dance moves, ancient ruins and beautiful seafood were there waiting to be experienced was too intense an idea to ignore.
South America is “the” continent and I would recommend it to anyone. But hey, if you’re going, learn from these bits and bobs I picked up.
Bookshelves or backpack stuffed with papers, notes and guidebooks? Whether planning to run away or currently in flight, the convenience of the guidebook is sometimes hard to ignore. Guides no doubt take the strain off facts-gathering, but when using them traveling can all too easily become a question of putting the pieces of a puzzle in their logical, time-proven place: First visit Village A, then Town B, then Ruins C and Beach D…tadah! You’ve done Country E!
I try to move as much as possible without consulting guidebooks. I use people instead, be them locals, other travelers, friends or those on forums who I’ll never meet. Very often my sieve-like mind will immediately forget what I was told – but not to worry; there’ll be someone else not far down the road whose ideas and tips will refresh my memory and colour in the sketch of my trip.
Sometimes I realise that a whole new country is about to open up and -uh oh! – I’m going in tipsless, completely cold. But these moments that catch you off guard without any idea what to expect from your new destination can be where you let go, and magic happens…
In this way, traveling cold and without knowing anything of its fame, I went on a whim to Vilcabamba; a chokingly famous little mountain town sometimes nicknamed “The Valley of Longevity” for the so-called health benefits of its waters.
Not long after stepping into Colombia, ¿tomamos un café? - the suggestion of a quick caffeine pick-me-up – started to feel completely normal. Necessary even. Served short, dark and strong (much like many of the men perching like hens on benches in local plazas), the kick in the guts provided by my first few coffees soon turned into a wee little addiction. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration that I – and the great majority of those around me – were generally pretty buzzing, chattering around like old-fashioned wind-up toys. But even more so in Salento, centre of the country’s Zona Cafetera, or coffee-growing region…
Oh patacones, my arteries are hardening just remembering your deliciousness. We have Ecuador and Colombia to thank for you: my little darlings, plantain patties, smashed into perfect little crunchy disks, double fried and served alongside salads, fish and rice….rice always follows you.
Dearest patacones. For your golden brown, sun-disc appearance (not unlike the yellow shadow of Osiris himself), we thank you. For making use of the plantain, a food otherwise verging on the hostile, we applaud you. For creating a perfect crunchy-salty-fried combination with just a hint of could-that-be-sweet left over from the plantain’s almost-banana-soul’s departure from its tough green peel, we adore you. You are wondrous. Moreish. Probably an entirely indecent snack choice. You are everything we want from fries when potato no longer rocks our taste buds.
Even now almost a year later, those of you which are remain welded into my grey matter were from Montañita, Ecuador’s coastal corner where all the continent’s alcohol poisoning-bound Chileans and Argentinians go to drown in 2-4-1 cocktails. The perpetrator of my near death by patacones was a smiling señora running a nondescript lunch joint…and goodness me could she make you guys well. Her $2 menu del día kept my tummy happy, once, sometimes twice times a day…and the fact that she was willing to serve you up instead of (more) rice earned her a special best friends foreva place in my food heart.
After Montañita, I went many weeks without you, my golden loves, before learning how to make you myself. There, on a beach under the watchful eye of a Colombian traveler and the evil eye of the weed-smoking, spherical cook whose gas stove I was using, I eagerly scorched a batch of you. I apologise for that afternoon’s fallen soldiers – I ate them with gusto anyway – but rest assured that the rotund cook watching me over his four chins was neither impressed by my keeness to learn, nor the result of my efforts. But as I promised you that day: I will forge ever bravely on…
With a huge craving,
yours in salt, plantains, oil
(and avoiding high cholesterol),
Though it wasn’t a sunny or even particularly beautiful day, it was Sunday morning…and that in itself was cause for celebration.
That expanse of time and great absence of thought where breakfast and lunch cuddle up and merge into one…
Where newspapers are read (or tablets flicked over)…
One coffee is not enough…
And nature demands to be seen…
Unless you’re plagued by back pain, it is, I feel, absolutely impossible to hate hammocks. Sure you might dislike getting tangled during your dismount – but in the meantime you’re probably making this uncoordinated attempt at a beach while slurping on a cocktail, so who cares?
My life was woefully lacking in contact with hammocks before coming to South America. Happily, I have enthusiastically made up for it since and am pleased to announce that in my Hammock Studies 101 I have made two major conclusions:
One (rather obviously): Hammocks are the epitome of all that is relaxation and spoiling one’s self stupid.
Two: They can and do save the day, thus turning shitty situations into perfectly lovely ones.
Here are two such moments, when a hammock turned a frown upside down…
Bless you hot water, for you are divine. The bathing Romans knew it. The Hungarians, South Koreans and Germans joined in. Hell, even babies agree: Lazing in hot water is blissful. While talking with a friend recently about the fact that having a therapist in Chile and Argentina is incredibly common, and not at all hidden amongst friends, I began to wonder what would happen to patient numbers if visits to thermal baths were prescribed instead of medication. While I was contemplating the sea of blissed out ex-patients that would surely eventuate from such a prescription, my friend mentioned that in general people weren’t looking for medication, but rather that someone be there to act as a “recipient for all their crap”. Curiously, this brought my mind straight back to thermal baths – and specifically to one I’d visited in Peru. One that resembled, at first glance, exactly such a recipient.
Thermales Monterrey lie a short bus ride out of Huaraz. After hearing about their existence, my hyperactive mind started having all sorts of visions of their crystal waters being in a forest grove, not far from a waterfall where pixies danced for your entertainment and Peruvian guinea pigs dressed as waiters brought you cool drinks. But sadly, this was not to be the case.
Newly arrived, we were offered a bathtub-sized private room which we declined, surmising that:
A) waaaaaaaaaaay too many sexy times would have been had in those rooms, and
B) in any case, it would just be much too much of an awkward, Twister-reminiscent puzzle to fit the five of us in.
(We were especially happy with our choice after seeing the rooms and noting how the fixtures had long since been flirting with a nice layer of rust.)
So off we went to the main pool…a pool whose waters were poo brown in colour. I think if it hadn’t been for the locals in the water already busy with their family swimming races we might have called it quits at that point. But instead we hopped in and nervously threaded water while watching the mini Olympics before us. Later (still treading water, though now slightly less nervously) we saw how the brown sediment swirled near the surface and perspective made it seem to thicken in the depths, causing our hands to disappear from view even when hardly submerged.
Happily, it was the water’s dense mineral content that made it look from afar as if an army of babies had shat in it. But seriously, never have the minerals ever-present in thermal baths been so visual.
Next time I want a fluro yellow pool please, Mr Universe.
- A collectivo leaves from Huaraz’s main bridge for Thermales Monterrey and costs one sol. Taxis will be around 10-15 soles.
- Entry is 3.50 soles and the baths are open until 17.30.
Midway through a hangover-smiting-lunch post night out salsa dancing in Cali, the idea of going to San Cipriano was first floated. Though the thought soon became a reality, the name never really stuck, and our destination was referred to thereon in using whatever mildly similar word came to mind: San Cilantro, San Silencio, San Cítrico…
We arrived by bus, crammed into the aisles and driver’s cabin. The boys and their 1.5 litre bottle of aguardiente made friends with those up the back, while us girls crowded in beside the driver and tried to forget the
cramps that were boring holes in our bums.
The ride took twice as long as we’d expected (a trait that we would later take as a given in Colombia), and when we were finally left at the side of the highway, the day had blackened into night. The ten of us looked at each other.
Where were we? What was this San Syphilis place anyway?
No two places, nor ourselves in them are ever exactly the same. The exchanges provided from travel and migration show us that when we are pulled away from the well-worn fabric of our lives and woven temporarily into that of another, a lot is discovered.
Major aspects sketch the outline of our experience…
…landscapes, language, typical foods and the cost of living…
Which more subtle differences then colour in…
…people’s attitudes, public transport frustrations, coffee quality, time deemed appropriate to eat dinner, how people dance, bizarre coins and fashions.
Without question, becoming aware of these nuances is my favourite thing about travel. Indeed, this need to observe, cross-pollinate and permeate the mind with other cultures is inherently human. It is, after all, what caused our ancestors to leave the comfort of their campfire and cross the darkness, in order to share with those in the distance warming their hands over similar flames.
And generally, the experience is one of growth. Or at least one which gives you food for thought. A little snack for your mind to chew over.
But this week, I’m struggling.
I have just moved to Chile.