Fire and Water in lovely Lima

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“Who’d have thought that shots of fish juice would taste disgusting? Weird.”

“Okay, okay, I’ve got one,” I tell Phil with a grin, rubbing my hands together gleefully.

“When…is our anniversary?”

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“That was delicious, I’ll have a pint of fish juice please.”

Silence. Phil looks nervously left and right. He scrunches his face up with a sort of pained wince and even looks desperately at the waiter as he sets down another bottle of Inca Kola on our table.

Gotcha.

Begrudgingly, my travel bud picks up the large shot glass of black fish juice in front of him, takes a deep breath and attempts to down it. Cue much grimacing and spluttering.

This is how we spend half an hour trying to sheepishly dispose of the five glasses of ‘leche de tigre’ we have over-excitedly ordered at one of Lima’s most popular ceviche restaurants, La Choza Náutica. A sort of warped, smelly drinking dare game.

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Tucking into some ceviche

Leche de tigre – literally ‘Tiger’s Milk’ – is a tangy, fiery drink made of the leftover citrus fruit and chilli juice that raw fish has been marinated in to create Peru’s signature seafood dish.

We could have ordered just one to try. But oh no. Acutely aware that we have mere hours left in this incredible country, we demand a special platter of the stuff, made from all sorts of weird and wonderful marine life.

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Jets of water shoot up, illuminated by multi-coloured lights

Supposedly the drink is famed for being an aphrodisiac, as well as a hangover cure. I wouldn’t know whether or not either of those are true though as I feel like I am going to be violently sick after our little game.

Managing (just about) to keep it all down, we head to the capital’s Parque de la Reserva as the sun sets to do its ‘Magical Water Tour’.

The park is already bustling with couples and families who pay a small entrance fee to wander around – and often through – its stunning water fountains.

The multi-million dollar creation of 13 different fountains that flow amid stretches of lush green grass and colourful flowers has made it the largest fountain complex in the world.

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It’s a little weak, where can I find a PG Tips bag in Lima?

Teapots, pyramids and moving mazes of liquid jets are illuminated in alternating bright colours, glowing all the more intensely as the sun dips below the horizon.

At the hourly show by the huge Fantasy Fountain, the crowds cheer and clap as gigantic videos of graceful ballet dancers, soaring condors, blossoming flowers and darting hummingbirds are projected seamlessly across a 120-metre-long sheet of water that is shot into the air. It’s an incredibly beautiful spectacle.

And the perfect way to bring the trip of a lifetime to a show-stopping close.

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The incredible water tunnel

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“Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty…”

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A beautiful sunrise ahead of our morning of misfortune in Arica

It is 5.45am in a dusty bus terminal somewhere near the Chile / Peru border. We are the only gringos in town.

Trying to reawaken drowsy, sleep-deprived senses after a shaky overnight journey across the Atacama I order a couple of caffeine hits from the bustling little cafe.

Plonking one of our two day packs down I take a seat in a tattered metal chair.

From nowhere a scruffy, notepad-wielding woman is in front of us spitting out a volley of high-pitched utterances in barely comprehensible Spanish

Have you ordered already? What can I get you? A coffee? A sandwich? No? Okay.”

Before we can think “This is weird,” she is gone.

Looking down to the floor our hearts sink.

In 351 days of overland travel through nine South American countries, we have had only one unsavoury incident, the pickpocketing of my camera in Quito.

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Not in the mood for a photo after our bag was stolen

Now, just three days before our return to the UK, a lapse in concentration has cost us one of our day packs.

A disinterested, pot-bellied security guard informs me that distraction thefts are rife in Arica and that I should look in the nearby bins.

After sifting through banana skins and old newspapers for an hour I reluctantly decide to give up the search.

Fortunately our passports and cash are not in the stolen bag, but I hope the fake waitress and her accomplice appreciate my collection of 78 beer labels, enjoy reading Sophie’s diary and manage to make use of the Amazonian blow pipe in their next hustle.

More than losing personal keepsakes, I hope this last minute misfortune doesn’t tarnish our incredible memories of a continent full of decent, kind-hearted people.

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Dante tries to raise our spririts in Tacna

We make our escape from the scene of the crime but a feeling of utter dejection still overwhelms me when, after crossing the border, we arrive in the lively Peruvian city of Tacna a couple of hours later.

A guy called Dante comes to meet Sophie and me at the coach station, greeting us with a warm smile and much needed hugs.

I’d met this friendly character while playing rugby in Arequipa and he’d kindly invited the pair of us to stay with his family.

He seems almost as distraught as we are when we tell him the news of our backpack theft and is desperate to cheer us up.

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Philip pulls up to the station

Next thing I know he presents me with a replica model of the the city’s Alto de la Alianza arch designed by Alexander Gustave Eiffel, of Paris tower fame, to go a small way to replacing the souvenirs we have just lost.

At the National Railway Museum of Peru, Dante tells us about the old locomotives which carried troops to a bloody battle with the Chilean army in the 1880s.

We all jump on a bus to Playa El Toro beach and join some of Dante’s Ferrocarriles (iron tracks) rugby club team mates for a game on the sand and for the rest of the afternoon I become heavily embroiled in a run around with the inexperienced but keen locals.

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Salud! With Dante and his extended family by Playa El Toro beach

The play continues until the sun finally disappears over the Pacific Ocean.

Dante invites us to stay with his family at their humble beachside home and insists we join them for food with the rest of the gang.

We end up drinking, chatting and laughing until the early hours.

The next day it is time to get on the road and we head for another dusty terminal to board our 221st and final long bus journey of the trip, this time bound for Lima and our plane home.

Ghandi said: “Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

Thankfully as I sit in a bedroom at a friend’s house in London, it is not my solitary misfortune, but my night at the beach with strangers and the many other acts of generosity and friendship we were shown which come to mind when I reflect on our wonderful year in Latin America.

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At Tacna bus terminal with Dante and Kolin Kola

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Dune running in the dark at the driest desert on Earth

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Looking out over the barren but beautiful Atacama Desert

“It is now dark, time for you to run full speed down the side of this 150-metre high sand dune. Go.” At first I thought our guide was joking. He wasn’t.

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With zero visibility Sophie charges down the dune

So, after necking a Pisco Sour, Sophie and I launch ourselves off the deep-red rock cliff and let the momentum carry our legs into the abyss below.

On reaching the valley floor it emerges that our dirty desert rat of a guide has sent us over the top, while he sneaks off to take the 4×4 option.

As we return half of the Atacama Desert from our shoes back to the sandy ground beneath a heated discussion erupts among some slightly scared characters in the group about which direction to take.

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Soph pours half the Atacama Desert back on the floor

There’s just a sliver of moonlight and a scattering of star twinkles to lead us, but eventually we wind up at a dirt track and keep our fingers crossed that we’ll meet our wayward guide at some point before the real desert rats get stuck into us.

Of course a few minutes later a minibus comes screaming around the corner and with a grin as wide as the Atacama Desert Juan says: “Was that fun or what?”

He receives a fairly lukewarm response, but I have got to admit descending a giant dune in the near pitch black is pretty exhilarating.

Before our kamikaze leap of faith we’d witnessed a beautiful sunset in the desolate Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley another desolate spot in the most water-sparse desert on the planet.

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A snow-capped mountain rises up behind Death Valley

It’s a tough, barren landscape which can spell the end for even the most hardy of animals.

Nearby Death Valley is so named because a group of llamas seemingly took a wrong turning, got disorientated and with nothing but sand to munch on starved to death.

Years later the discovery of their piles of bones revealed their grizzly fate.

In the area around the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama there are a plethora fascinating geographical sites of interest.

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Floating on the sodium-rich waters of Cejar lake

Not least the salt-rich waters of the Cejar lagoon.

With a sodium percentage in excess of 30 Sophie and I are able to experience the strange sensation of floating on water.

However, we are not advised to dip our heads under the surface because apparently the high concentration of salt gives the eyes a real sting.

Attempting to swim is also not recommended unless you want to look like an arthritic poodle attempting doggy paddle.

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Mango Pisco Sours at sunset

Trying to make progress in the super-buoyant water is like swimming with a lifejacket on.

The lake is cold and it’s rough underfoot thanks to the sharp rocks below so we don’t paddle in it for long. Once out it’s a drip dry situation.

My towel is used not to get rid of the water, but once dry to brush away the remaining salt residue.

My shivering miraculously stops as soon as I am presented with a Mango Pisco Sour.

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Warming up over a geyser in the Atacama Desert

Another spectacular and very different landscape lies slightly further away from San Pedro de Atacama – the highest geyser field in the world.

In the icy morning air boiling hot streams of smelly sulpher water bubble up to the surface to provide much appreciated natural heat.

While they may look like natural jacuzzis, these geysers need to be respected, for they have claimed the lives of two clumsy visitors who fell in and were literally boiled alive. Nice.

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Salt flats of the Atacama Desert

Of course it is not long before the sun comes out and the temperature rises to a fry-an egg-on-the-floor level.

The eclectic landscape also incorporates dusty white salt flats and when it comes to manmade wonders the church in San Pedro de Atacama made entirely from cactus wood is pretty striking, but it is time to get on the road again.

As I gaze out of the window on the overnight bus headed toward the border with Peru I am once again struck by the juxtaposition of the surrounding scenery where the bleak contrasts starkly with the beautiful. An ever present feature across South America.

And while it might be a little unnerving, perhaps sand dune running in the dark is the best way to fully appreciate the awesomeness of the Atacama.

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Jumping over the sun as it sets for another day over the desert

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Zig-zagging through the vineyards of Mendoza…

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Eye on the prize: Sophie checks out the grapes

“Rich aromas of pine and oak with hints of treacle and cinnamon gently coming through to caress and tickle the back of one’s throat,” salivates the pretentious Swiss woman. Continue reading

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Bikes and booze in Bariloche

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The stunning view of lake Nahuel Huapi

On a quiet road with a stunning backdrop there can be no better mode of transport than two wheels.

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It’s easy to see why Che Guevara fell for the lush forest and blue waters

Situated on the Argentina/Chile border it is easy to understand why Che Guevara once dreamed about settling down in Bariloche next to beautiful Lake Nahuel Huapi.

In the diary of his epic journey through the Americas aboard his Norton 500cc motorbike he wrote that he imagined a life “catching fish from a little boat and making everlasting excursions into the almost virgin forest”.

Six decades later the chocolate box town and its startling surroundings still ooze with striking beauty.

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Nice sash Soph…

Unfortunately Sophie and I are unable to find a Norton 500cc classic but we manage to get our hands on the next best thing – a pushbike.

In some respects it is better than the motorised version, the lack of engine noise gives us a chance to truly appreciate the tranquility around us as we set off from kilometre marker 18 on the famous road that loops round the entire lake.

When we begin climbing the first of many hills, however, we are both jealous of the engine power that Che and his travel partner Alberto enjoyed when they visited.

We traverse fast-flowing rivers and gawp at the luxurious hotel for the rich and famous which burned down just a year after it was finished in the 1930s and then rebuilt out of bricks instead of wood.

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mmm beer!

Cycle ride complete we look to put back on the calories we have just burned on the hilly ride by sampling a stout that has just been voted the best beer in Argentina.

Tastes pretty good to me.

Our binge continues when we return to Bariloche to sample the town’s famous local ice creams and chocolates.

They are delicious and Sophie even discovers a bar of chocolate that is seemingly named after her – the “Princess Soffi.”

The following day we are back on the bus, taking in yet more stunning scenery as we wind our way northwards, happy to be scaling the hills from the comfort of a coach.

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Very tasty! The delicious Princess Soffi chocolate bar

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A poetic trip up Route 40

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With retired builder and part-time poet Don Walterio

Years spent working outdoors in the glare of the Patagonian summer sun and braving icy winter gales have given the elderly man’s wrinkled skin a deep burnished caramel tan.

Doffing his black grandpa cap in my direction, he eases himself down into the cushioned seat beside me on the bus we are to take through the vast, desolate plains of the Argentinian Ruta 40 from the tiny village of Los Antiguos to Bariloche.

With his plaid shirt turned up at the sleeves and a regal-looking deep blue cravat poking out from the top, he has the air of a gaucho, freshly stood down from his faithful steed.

In fact, his name is Don Walterio, I discover, and he is a 73-year-old builder. And part-time poet.

The Don’s quiet charm, mischievous sense of humour and flickering twinkle in his eye suggest if he were to write a book of his life, it would probably be a real page-turner.

The packed bus strains to pick up speed over the tarmac that slices across a massive expanse of uninhabited steppe, smothered with small, bumpy silver and gold-coloured shrubs.

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Choiques in Patagonia. Flickr picture courtesy of PabloBD.

Don Walterio offers me a chewy sweet and points out of the window to a large group of long-necked baby choiques (rheas), currently leaving a trail of brown and white fluffy feathers in their wake as they speedily zig-zag across the road ahead.

Leading the escape is the adult male, who raises the chicks of several females while they go off to find another mate.

We chat during the 14-hour journey from the stark southern scrub, where the only other movement besides the jumpy choiques are the equally spooked huanacos who perform Grand National-worthy leaps over wiry fences to escape our noisy metal machine.

Some of them don’t make the jump and at various points we grimace at their pitiful carcasses, left draped over the wooden sticks like an offering to the gods.

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Our driver’s red scarf honours Gauchito Gil

My new bus friend is a fount of knowledge. As we trundle along he recounts the legend of Gauchito Gil, a 19th-century Robin Hood-type hero who was murdered and has since become a kind of saint for many inhabitants of the Argentinian provinces.

People continue to leave symbolic red cloths and even bottles of red wine in small shrines at the roadside, as they pray to him for assistance in resisting injustice.

The Don is on his way to a small town over the border in Chile, where the landscape changes dramatically to towering mountains carpeted in the rich green of pine and fir trees, surrounded by fast-paced rivers and deep blue lakes.

Its name is Lonquimay, and he explains that although he moved away with his mother aged just three, when he first returned in 2009 it was ‘like coming home’.

At that point he opens a leather pocket book and carefully extracts a neatly folded single piece of paper, upon which he has written a beautiful décima poem in honour of his birthplace.

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View from the Ruta 40 bus

It paints a picture of serpentine rivers, green valleys and trees. He refers to the place as an old friend.

He modestly reveals that he once won a prize for his poetry and is taking this latest composition to see if there is a cultural centre or museum in Lonquimay that might like to have it.

We snooze in our chairs as the thick heat fills the bus and slowly warms up my once-chilled bottle of grapefruit juice to bath water temperature.

In the distance, the outside air has taken on a dark, misty haze, a result of the fine cloud of ash still spewing from Chile’s nearby Puyehue volcano that started spluttering last year.

The bus pulls in with a jolt at the main drag in Bariloche, where locals and tourists bustle past chocolate shops and local breweries perched in front of the calm azure waters of Nahuel Huapi lake, now enshrouded in a purple-pink sunset.

As we step down I ask Don Walterio if he feels like Chile is his real home. He replies: “No, I am in love with Argentina. She is like my girlfriend. People ask why we don’t get married, but we just can’t get the papers in order.”

And with a flash of his grin and another doff of his cap, he is on his way.

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Our friend Don Walterio

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The Hands of Time

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Handy reminders of the past

It’s a spooky sight. The coloured handprints creep out from the darkness and upwards, along a large gallery of rock, as if trying to claw their way out of history.

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Ninety per cent of the prints are of the left hand

We have driven 40 minutes outside of the small, lakeside town of Los Antiguos to visit the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) – a fascinating collection of strange artwork that dates back 10,000 years – so long that experts don’t know the names of the tribes that created it.

Young and old tribespeople would mix up all sorts of liquids, from blood to urine to natural dyes and then either dip their palms into it and imprint it onto the wall, or spurt it out of an animal bone onto their outstretched hands to create this stamp of identity.

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Llamas were among the other animals drawn on the walls

At times they use guanaco feet for the same effect, and there’s one case of a particularly eerie six-fingered hand.

Beside these creations there are pictures of tribesmen hunting guanacos and others of pregnant animals under a full moon, symbolising fertility.

We walk through the vast canyon past the trickling river water and learn that when the tribes would journey here during the summer to gather food, they would leave behind their elderly relatives.

Their grandparents were unable to make the journey from their winter residence – which later became known as Los Antiguos, or the ‘old ones’.

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The incredible valley at Cueva de las Manos

We get a lift back to ‘The Old Ones’ and wander around the sweet little town, which just last week was swelling with the weight of visitors arriving for its annual cherry festival.

Cherries are big business here – even the local pharmacy stocks them. And so as the sun sets we make our very own imprints on the sticky fruit stocks of this sleepy and ancient little place.

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Cherries with a cherry on top

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