Way to go?

Trip Start Jul 29, 2013
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, January 19, 2014

Way to go?

Everywhere we go in Peru we see bright colours. The women wear vividly-coloured skirts and cardigans and carry their children, or their shopping, tied onto their backs in brightly-coloured woven cloths. The cheapest and most common form of public transport is the tuk-tuk, a three wheeled motor-cycle, in which the passengers sit behind the rider, and all are protected from the elements by a highly-decorated, plastic canopy. Of the countries we have visited to date, Peru wins the prize for making the greatest effort with town squares. Poorer by far than neighbouring Chile and nearby Argentina, each Peruvian town has a central square that is green and ablaze with colourful flowers.

With a ready supply of wool from the large herds of alpacas that graze the altiplano, knitted and woven garments and wall-hangings in every imaginable hue are available from market stalls, in fancy souvenir shops and from roadside hawkers. This riotous display of colour is set against a background of well-tended market gardens, soft green mountains, bluer than blue skies and puffy white clouds.

Peruvians love to party. On first encounter, these people, largely of Quechua or Aymara origin, appear quieter and more reserved than the Latino populations of Chile and Argentina, but we have lost count of the number of street parties, colourful processions and parades we have witnessed. The feast of Candelaria (Candlemas) takes place in Puno during the first two weeks of February. Unfortunately, we had to move on too early to be able participate, but troupes of dancers and marching bands were practising all over town, so we gained a good impression of what the actual fiesta will be like. When Peruvians get dressed up for a celebration, they pull out all the stops. We saw costumes of the most elaborate design and we learned that, even though this festival takes place at the height of the rainy season, this does not deter people from congregating outdoors to parade and party in the streets.

From Puno, we took a boat trip to the Uros islands on Lake Titicaca. These man-made floating islands are home to hundreds of indigenous Peruvians, who live, work and raise their families in this unusual environment. The islands are made from layer upon layer of totora reeds which grow naturally in Puno Bay. The reeds are further used to construct houses and boats and are also a source of food. The people support themselves by fishing and hunting the many birds that live among the reeds, and supplement their income from tourism.

We were welcomed to the community by a group of women who showed us how the islands are constructed, and how they cook in small ceramic ovens placed over stones to protect the reeds underneath. They explained that when a wedding takes place on an island, there is not usually sufficient room to accommodate all of the guests, so families simply cut their islands adrift from their moorings and punt them through the water to where they can tie-up several islands together.

We were invited into an island family's home and encouraged to dress up in typical garments, which are worn every day. The ladies displayed some of their handiwork for us and, as we were leaving, they sang a couple of traditional songs in the Aymaran language, followed, to our great surprise, by 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat’, in English! We got a ride in one of the amazing reed boats too.

There are more than seventy islands on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. A further 25 kilometres across the lake from the Uros islands, we visited Taquile, a most scenic, non-floating island. The main sources of income for the people of Taquile are agriculture, tourism and handicrafts. Notably, the men of Taquile are the main producers of beautifully-crafted knitted and woven garments. We saw men of every age knitting as they walked along or sat in the shade. The fabric and finished items they produced were so fine we would have thought they were machine-made if we had not observed the work in progress.

By now, we had been at altitudes exceeding 3,500 metres for almost two weeks, and while we had adjusted to some degree to the thinner air, we were longing again for some sunshine and warmer weather. Reluctantly leaving the small, friendly town of Puno, we set off, once again, towards the Chilean border. Originally intending to travel through Bolivia en route to northern Argentina, we had been put off by tales of flooding, poor road conditions and uncertainties about the availability of diesel. Also, the Disco had been losing water, very slowly, for a few days and we thought that if we were to need a mechanic or spare parts, we would have a better chance of finding these in Chile.

One hundred kilometres from Puno, the temperature gauge suddenly shot up, there was an ominous smell of burning, and steam began to appear from under the bonnet. As I sat at the side of the road with my head in my hands, Liam raised the bonnet and declared that the engine and header tank were completely dry. Thanks to our Lifesaver Jerry Can, which we use for drinking water, we had plenty available to fill up the radiator, but as fast as we topped it up, a torrent flowed out onto the asphalt. We filled it as best we could and pushed on around a few more bends until a small village came into view. Enquiring at what appeared to be the only shop, our hearts sank when we were informed that the nearest mechanic could be found either in Puno, 100 kilometres back the way we had come, or in Moquegua, 150 kilometres further in the direction we were heading.

While still in Chile, on our way to Peru, we had been warned never to leave our vehicle unattended. ‘They’ll steal parts off the car while you are asleep in the tent’, we had been told. A further kilometre up the road, there was a toll station, which we thought might be a safe place to leave the Disco, while we hitched a ride to get help. The toll station was unmanned, but there was a helpful watchman at the otherwise unoccupied building, who assured us he would keep an eye on the Disco while we went to get help.

Removing our passports, personal papers and a few other valuables from the vehicle, we donned several extra layers against the bitter cold, locked the doors and stood at the roadside gazing wistfully up and down in the hope of spying any vehicle moving in either direction. We had decided we would let fate decide whether we would go to Puno or Moquegua; the first driver to offer us a lift could turn into a friend for life! Then it started to snow.

There is not much traffic on the road between Puno and Moquegua and the first few cars and minibuses to pass were full. Then along came a huge truck, with a friendly driver, who understood our situation within seconds, and kindly offered us a lift back to Puno. There was plenty of time, on the journey, for the driver to gain a fuller picture of our predicament. He patiently questioned us, using very simple Spanish, and listened to our answers, as we mangled his mother-tongue, using line drawings to further aid understanding. On the outskirts of Puno, the driver halted at a police checkpoint and the helpful carabinero (policeman) on duty gave him contact details for a couple of breakdown recovery agencies. The driver phoned one of these, arranging for a driver and breakdown truck to meet us at a designated spot. The kind lorry driver waited with us, handing us over into the capable hands of the recovery agent, and, in record time, we were seated in the cab of the truck, trundling back down the road towards the Disco. Some hours later, arriving back in town after dark, in pelting rain, our options for safe-keeping of the Disco for the night, were few.

The recovery agent seemed surprised and delighted when we asked him if we could possibly leave the vehicle at his house overnight. Not only was he willing to keep the Disco safe for us, he arranged for his sister and brother-in-law to drive us to a hostel, saving us the inconvenience of standing in the rain waiting for a taxi. The same couple collected us the following morning and escorted us to a garage where a helpful mechanic carried out the necessary repairs within 24 hours. I am relating this story in detail only to underline how important it is not to base one’s impression of a country on someone else’s experience or prejudice. Throughout our time in Peru, we have been treated with kindness, courtesy and respect and our only regret, on leaving, is that we could not spend more time exploring this staggeringly beautiful land that is so rich in history and colourful traditions.

While waiting for the Disco to be repaired, we received a message from David Rynhart of Overlanders.ie, an adventure bike company based in Wexford. Having met David and his Dad, Derek, at the Bike Show in the King’s Hall, Belfast, we were thrilled to hear that they would be arriving in Puno with a group of Irish bikers, on our very last night in the town. Of course we got together for a chat which continued over dinner. The craic was mighty, as they say, and the men gave us very up-to-date information on the fuel situation and the roads in Bolivia, where they had been riding only the previous day. The upshot of this chance encounter was that we reviewed our options about our onward route, and as I write, we are spending our first night in Bolivia, right beside the ancient archaeological site of Tiahuanaco, which we are off to explore at first light.

Ciao for now

Liam and Naomi

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Peter on

Looking good guys and what incredible colours.

Joyce on

What an adventure! Glad it all turned out well x

Jen on

Beautiful photos, as always.

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