Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Saturday 7 August 2010

Desert Rats

Well, we're into Peru.  At the border, amongst a milling group of self-appointed bicycle guardian angels, we met a small, shuffling bespectacled bear, clad in an incongruous duffle coat, a rather unusual felt hat and wellington boots, and clutching a battered old suitcase.  He welcomed us in typically warm Peruvian fashion and insisted that we enjoy a number of his favourite foods whilst we are in his country.  Since that border, now a few days ago, we have run into welcomes of consistently Paddingtonesque warmth and have indeed launched into his favourite marmalade sandwiches among other delicacies.

But there's been more to it than bespectacled bears.
We left civilised, comfortable, relaxing Arica in a thin sea mist, with that rarest of things - a slight tailwind.  And almost immediately found ourselves in the desert.  We were aware that there was desert out there along the Peruvian coast, but it was only once we were actually into it that it became apparent just how deserted it is.  If we thought the Patagonian desert was barren, we have been forced into a rethink.  In comparison to this, it was a vibrant habitat of flora and fauna, a veritable jungle of life.  The Peruvian desert is cartoon desert.  The kind that stretches for miles and miles on either side of the road, off to the most distant of mountains and the most enormous of dunes.  It is like a giant version of the 1980s Turkish Delight adverts, 'Full of Eastern Promise' but of not much else.  Not even cacti.

It's amazing, though.  The colours of the elegantly flowing sands blur, like an Isle of Wight display jar, from cafe con leche brown, through a range of ochres, to the palest of beiges.  Not a plant or an animal in sight, the llamas and vicuñas are well behind us for now, and trees are things that only happen in towns.  The only evidence of humanity is the eternal strip of tarmac, which shows little inclination to change direction on those long open plains, an ongoing string of pylons, and - most intriguingly - things that look like tiny bathing huts.  Of course there's not much swimming to be done around these parts, now that we have headed in from the coast, and it turns out that these little cuboid huts are part of an 'invasiones': effectively a planting of a metaphorical flag by those with no property of their own, sometimes individually, usually as part of a group, in an effort to coerce the government into agreeing to cede a patch of government land to them.  Apparently it usually works.

Aside from those long stretches of straight, flat asphalt, the roads have largely defied our optimistic hopes that we could snuggle into a wind-assisted, post-Andean trundle up the coast to Lima.  Ooooh no...  Most of our first three days of cycling in Peru were almost as tough as those Bolivian Andes, only in more subtle ways.  Where Bolivia's idiotic altitudes, biting night cold, shocking roads and incessant headwinds were honest, blunt instruments of torture - sort of sledgehammers - Peru's desert equivalents have been more insidious thumbscrews...  Descending from the Andes, we thought warmth would be something we could never grumble about - but by the time we'd spent a 4 hour morning slogging 17km up a 700m climb in temperatures well into the 30s, it was time to reconsider!

We are now in a world in which parching winds, even if they come from behind, need to be matched with copious drinking.  Each time we reach the top of a climb (and, far from coastal coasting, we are now having to climb back up to a peak of 1900m in order to get back down again), there seems to be a cruel descent that gives it all back.  On our most recent day's cycling, we left at 8am, and crawled into Moquegua at 7pm, having completed just 70km.  These are proper Andean landscapes, with all the roadbuilding challenges that come with that.  We don't want to sound hard to please, but it's been a hard 200km so far!

But what a great country.  We are loving Peru.  Despite the harshness of the desert, it is intercut with the most extraordinary verdant valleys - the kind that fill your nostrils with the lushest of smells.  The road up the valley to Moquegua was particularly lovely, 15km through deliciously cool evening temperatures, passing smallholders tending to neat patches of crops and vegetables, sometimes shaded by 5m high bamboo plantations, and weaving around tiny groups of livestock being led dustily along the road.  The irrigation systems were gushing, and life seemed good for those concerned.

Those concerned are the inhabitants of Moquegua.  We had only had one brief night to form an impression of Tacna, which appeared a sophisticated, attractive city of 250,000, with banks and pharmacies open late into the evening and the inhabitants seemingly living well in a neat and well kept city centre.  But Moquegua has detained us for longer.  It is a truly lovely little city, smaller than Tacna, but quite how it has evaded the tourist route is anyone's guess.  It should be integral to it.

The plaza is as pretty as any we have seen, centred around an elegant Gustav Eiffel fountain and surrounded by colonial balconies and intricately carved ancient wooden doorways.  This hub appears to rub off on the Moquegueños.  Aided by a climate that stays at around 30c all year round, in which rain happens about three times a year, it feels like a perpetual holiday town - yet one in which most people appear to be gainfully employed.  Streets are clean, even in the outskirts, shops are neat and full of the kind of stock that has as yet bypassed Bolivia, and cars are well cared for.  Even those old Beetles.

We have been especially lucky to run into the topically named Beto Chavez Morales (he got there first with those names!), one of Moquegua's true gents and a fixture about town.  On our first morning, we shared breakfast with him at his parents' restaurant, which is just opposite our shady and characterful colonial hostel.  Having immediately hit it off, we rejoined him for lunch at his own ceviche restaurant across the road.  There he gave us a ceviche making lesson in the kitchen, creating one of the world's great dishes from fresh sea bass, red onion, coriander, copious lime juice (which cooks the fish), sugar, salt and an enigmatic 'magic' salsa.  Comically, achingly delicious.

We then set off in his trusty old Hyundai for a two hour tour of Moquegua's sights.  To call Beto's approach generous would be to underplay it - he gave us his entire afternoon, showing us every angle of the city, oozing pride yet leaving us enthused to an equal degree.  It is really lovely - whilst the money coming in from the local mines (they found South America's second largest gold mine nearby recently, to say nothing of the other minerals dripping from the mountains) has contributed heavily to excellent infrastructure, the character remains intact.  We weaved down lanes outside the city that connect farms and pisco bodegas, marvelling at the perfection of the stone walls and terracing, and feeling exotic amongst the roadside explosions of bougainvillea and palms.

Back in town, we have had an unscheduled couple of extra days whilst poor Miss H recovers valiantly from a bout of the lurgy.  But what a great place to chill.  We have found Wifi whilst sitting on rickety wooden verandas overlooking the plaza, and wandered through the cool courtyards of perfectly preserved colonial buildings.  We have found the dogs - often a good reflection of a country - to be friendly, accommodating and to have good senses of humour.  And the people are similar - only significantly more sophisticated, with fewer feet and without exception happy to chat with us in that way you do when the sun shines all the time.

All this sunny comfort is in slight contrast to our night between Tacna and Moquegua, which I almost failed to mention...  We knew there was not a great deal of accommodation between the two.  Well, nothing actually.  So it was always going to need some improvising.  Fortunately we ran into a couple of traffic policemen patrolling just outside Tacna.  They suggested we have a chat with their colleagues 80km further on.  And so we did.  It was a stretch to get there, and after a day of sometimes sharp undulations we ended up cycling gingerly through the gloaming and finally wheeling in the pitch dark for the last couple of km.  On arriving, we bounced up to the Policia Nacional outpost, manned by five rather serious looking large gentlemen in fancy dark green uniforms.

As luck would have it, our diplomatic offensive bore fruit.  Our New Best Friend Abra-Al took a liking to us, and before we knew it he was taking our passport details and we were eyeing up mattresses being shifted around over his shoulder.  This was one of the big ones on our list of 'Ridiculous Places to Spent the Night': a genuine police cell, complete with real bars, one of those little door-in-doors for feeding or poking prisoners through, and even mournful messages etched on the walls by former inmates.  It was right up there alongside a Bolivian teenage girl's bedroom and a petrol station forecourt on our list.  It had another feature, too - Abra-Al, who came to join us on the adjoining bed to our bunk in the early hours.  They could not have been better to us, in fact, especially since they turned out to be the wrong police - the colleagues of our friends from the morning were actually in the next building along the road!  And the soundtrack of late night arguments with civilians over document problems, The Simpsons dubbed into Spanish and high pitched howls of police laughter will live with us for some time.

We may yet run into problems in Peru, but up to now it has been fantastic.  The supposedly corrupt police have typified this, with all those we have met (indeed throughout South America) exuding charm and openness.  Sitting last night with Beto and his friends at the opening of his new plaza-side bar gave us a great insight into how good life can be here.  Clearly, Moquegua is much lovelier and more comfortable, thanks largely to the mining spoils, than some other parts of the country that we are yet to see.  But, ever since Paddington welcomed us in, it has been a great new country to be in.

More marmalade sandwiches, please.

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