A postcard from Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno, Cuenca

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The Virgin Mary stands serenely in a nightgown waiting to be dressed, Eve wears Playboy bunny eyes and St Michael poses lasciviously in a very short tunic and boots. This is the Labyrinth of Pieties, a temporary exhibiton by Fernando Coellar, at the Modern Art Museum in Cuenca.

We were lucky enough to stumble upon the place just days before the exhibition was set to close. Having visited some pretty bad modern art and design exhibits in my time (San Jose in Costa Rica, I’m looking at you in particular) this interesting museum in Cuenca came up trumps. Inside the long corridors and blocky rooms of this former-Casa-Temperancia (center for alcoholics)-turned-prison-turned-art-gallery, we found an interactive exhibit of adorable, cartoon religious figures. The aesthetics were kitschy pop-culture, with floating chiffon, shiny acrylics and sequined beads. But it wasn’t all frivolity. I loved the skill and detail with which each piece was executed. Although my knowledge of Catholicism isn’t very extensive, the explanation (in both English and Spanish) gave me a deeper sense of what it meant to Coellar.

And that’s why I love just wandering and getting lost, because we’d never have found this exhibit if we hadn’t.

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A postcard from a minibus at Laguna 69

bus groupThis is us. I thought the photo was taken by Melanie, but I can see her sitting behind us on the left. This is how crazy we have become after six hours of waiting in this minibus. It’s the fourth day of the Santa Cruz trek. We actually finished the trek yesterday evening because our guide kept us going for eight hours until we reached an hospedaje in Vaqueria instead of stopping earlier to camp at that nice spot by the river. The group of twelve (plus guide, porter and cook) is one of the best we’ve ever had the pleasure to tour with.

So what went wrong?

When we got to Huaraz, we really had no idea about the area and decided on a whim to do a three day trek to the archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar. Problem was, every agency we asked just said ‘no’ and that was it. No alternatives. No suggestions. Just flat out refusal. By the time we found a place called Peru Diamond, I was ready to hand over the cash simply because they were the only ones to even act like they wanted to make money.

Instead they suggested we do the Santa Cruz trek because the scenery was better. It was also cheaper because they already had a group going. We agreed. We went. It was absolutely beautiful.

On that last day, after hiking an hour uphill and waiting for the bus on a hot, dusty road for two hours, we were looking forward to spending time at the turqoise-coloured Laguna Llanganuco. We saw it from a distance, at the high pass between Yanapaccha and Chopicalqui. We drove down the winding road, getting closer and closer until it was finally out of view. And then we stopped. We stopped at the entrance to the trail leading up to Laguna 69. We didn’t know why. Finally the driver said we were waiting to pick up more people.

So we waited.

After a couple of hours we were getting antsy. The driver wouldn’t give any more information, probably because he didn’t have any. We realised that although we’d all booked through different agencies, we’d been combined into one group that was being led by Galaxia Expeditions (which is one of the cheapest and least reputable in Huaraz).

We waited some more.

We ate the last of our food (which wasn’t much as we’d binged the day before, thinking we’d be back by mid afternoon). We ran out to the ‘toilet’ in the bushes one at a time when no other vehicles were about. We discussed bee-keeping and how to use snow instead of toilet paper (something we luckily didn’t need to test out). We decided to share all our photos on Dropbox. We lamented that Laguna Llanganuco was so close, yet we were likely not to see it until it was too dark to appreciate it. As temperatures began dropping and shadows crept across the valley, we told the driver to get back in the bus and wait with us but, fearing the wrath of a group of gringos, he refused.

Eventually we began to see poor people struggling their way along the path, suffering from altitude sickness, as they returned from Laguna 69. We tried to guess if they were the people we were waiting for. We counted how long it took them to turn round the bend before they went out of sight and then guessed how long it would take until they came into view again. We waited until everyone had been picked up by their transport and driven away. Our people were the last. We’d started calling them ‘our people’ because by this point we just felt sorry for them. They must have struggled terribly if they were this slow.

Finally they arrived.

And we started back towards Huaraz in the dark, tired and more than relieved that we didn’t end up spending the night out here. When they realised we’d been waiting for hours, they were apologetic and embarassed (they also spoke English very well and could tell we were really fed up even if we said we weren’t). But it wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was just really bad organisation on the part of the tour agencies. It was something that isn’t that surprising in this part of the world.

So instead, we arrived back in Huaraz in the middle of Peru’s Independence celebrations and said our hurried goodbyes. Some of us ran to get an overnight bus to Lima. Others went straight for food. Jon and I rushed to find a room in a hostel and the first thing I did was to take a hot shower. It probably would have felt just as good six hours earlier, but I like to think the extra wait made it even better.

A postcard from Nasca airport

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Nasca airport. A grey strip of concrete in a dusty, grey desert landscape. I’ve just returned from a twenty-minute flight in a tiny plane to see the Nasca lines. Staring out the window as the plane tilted dizzyingly to one side and then the other, the pilot’s crackly voice announcing which image we could see, I traced the familiar images with my eyes.

You see, I’d wanted to visit the Nasca lines since forever. When I was young, I had a book called ‘The Unexplained’ (which I read to the point of obsession). The lines were in a pseudo-archaeology section about Earth Mysteries. When I found out they were real and I could actually see them (unlike fairy paths and ley lines), I was amazed. When I decided to go to South America, I realized I actually had a chance. And so we went to Nasca and I took an expensive plane ride to see what I had already envisaged so many times before.

Despite studying archaeology at university, I don’t know much about the lines. They were created by removing rocks from the surface of the desert to reveal the different colored soil underneath. Their use is unknown: current theories suggest they’re processional paths used in water and fertility rituals. Or astronomical calendars. Or irrigation systems. You can see why they might end up in a book of The Unexplained.

I suppose my imagination tends towards grandiosity so I was surprised not at the lines themselves, but because the desert was so small. From up in the plane I could see green river valleys and irrigated farmland. I had no idea that the lines were built on a plateau. What was even more surprising is that earlier I had walked a couple of kilometers between the man-made and natural miradors and couldn’t see the curve of the road only a few kilometers ahead, let alone the edge of the desert. Walking from the hills on one side to the edge of the plateau on the other would have been hot and dusty, but looked completely doable.

I wonder how the people who made the lines viewed the landscape, how far they travelled and how regularly. Seeing the lines in situ has transformed them into something far more concrete to me than they ever were before. But they’re also now more intriguing.

I flew with Aero Paracas for $85, in July high season. Flights run from 8-11am and it’s possible to turn up and get a flight same day.

A postcard from the Salineras in Maras, Peru

The Incas receive so much praise and attention around Cusco that people often forget that they weren’t the only clever ones. A visit to the Salineras in the Sacred Valley is a good reminder of this. Long before the Incas, the people of this region diverted the flow of salty water from an underground stream into shallow pools that evaporate in the sun and leave salt behind. These pools are separated into terraces along a hill in an impressive and photogenic bit of engineering. At the site you can touch the water, even lick it if you’re so inclined. It’s salty (duh). Be careful not to fall in (Rosie almost did).

Cost: 7 soles

How to get there:

There are a few ways to get to the Salineras. The easiest, but most expensive, is to take a taxi from Cusco or Ollantaytambo. Be sure to negotiate the price beforehand. It’s a good idea to include a visit to the agricultural terraces of Moray in the same trip.

Another option is to go with a tour group (tours leave from both Ollantaytambo and Cusco). A half day tour from Cusco costs about 12 soles. There are also horseback and cycling tours available.

There is also public transport from Urubamba, but you will still have to hike from Maras, or the intersection of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo.

A postcard from Flor de Leche

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Good cheese is hard to come by in La Paz. You can buy ‘Cheddar’ and ‘Gouda’ but you’ll be disappointed at the plastic consistency. You can fry tasty queso criollo (like halloumi), but it doesn’t melt which makes a lot of cheese recipes impossible.

But, if you’re willing to pay for it, there is Flor de Leche. Run by a Belgian, located in Achocalla (just outside of La Paz), and producing organic, European-style cheeses and dairy products, Flor de Leche is sold in all the supermarkets here. And, you can visit their factory in Achocalla. Even better, they have a restaurant there which serves fondue and raclette.

Hell, I didn’t even know what raclette was until I saw the table next to me. But that saturday lunchtime, sitting on a lawn eating a big pot of melted cheese, I could be forgiven for forgetting I was in the middle of the altiplano. Except that the fondue came with little potatoes as well as bread and salad. Unlimited potatoes, bread and salad. It was good. Really good. The perfect way to get a cheese fix in La Paz.

After stuffing ourselves on fondue (which was meant for two but easily fed the three of us), we asked our waiter if we could see where they made the cheese. Although no one was working in the factory at the weekend, he got the keys and opened up the processing areas to show us. It was pretty cool seeing lots of cheeses floating in the dark.

Flor de Leche
Contact: (591-2) 2890011 it’s necessary to make reservations
Open: Saturday and Sunday
Cost: Fondue / Raclette 150Bs, Pizza 75Bs
Directions: No.4 Calle 4 de Abril. From La Paz or Zona Sur, take a bus to Mallasilla, get off at the roundabout and change buses to Achocalla (it might be the same bus you’re on, so ask the driver). You can also get a bus direct from El Alto. Stay on the bus as it goes past the lake in Achocalla and look out for a small wooden sign on the left. Flor de Leche is a few minutes down the alley.

Mercado Rodriguez

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Vast, winding and sloping, Mercado Rodriguez is a network of cobblestone streets where everyday items such as vegetables, spices, meat, kitchen utensils, clothes and toys can be found. There’s also quite a nice collection of health food shops, selling whole wheat bread, herbal supplements, quinoa powders, cereals and so on.

This is a real market, not a phony witches market for tourists, so keep in mind that vendors may not appreciate you getting in their face with your giant camera. Still, it’s a great place for a stroll, and a good opportunity to see the kind of things normal Bolivians buy and sell. People are usually friendly if you treat them with respect, so don’t be that gringo who haggles aggressively over every penny. Everything is cheap as it is, and in my experience, I’ve never been ripped off.

Location Mercado Rodriguez begins at the intersection of Zoilo Flores and Admirante Grau in la Zona de San Pedro, one block from the Plaza San Pedro (also sometimes called Plaza Sucre).

Opening hours The streets are closed off to cars on Saturdays and Sundays, and the market is busiest on Saturdays around mid-day. Don’t bother coming super early, as La Paz is cold in the morning and it doesn’t really get going until at least 9.

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A postcard from Casa Blanca Hostel, Tarija

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The thin door underneath the painted sign looked inviting. The fact there was a cake shop next door only made it more appealing. But this was New Year’s Eve, and there was no answer to our knocking. Instead we went to Hotel Libertador, which was decorated with potted plants and calendars of semi-naked women representing important historic events and the provinces of Bolivia.

Two days later, we walked past Casa Blanca again. The shutters at the floor length windows of the panadería were open. We knocked on the little blue door and it opened. And that’s how we discovered the only hostel in Tarija.

Casa Blanca is small and intimate – my favourite kind of hostel. Three dorm rooms surround a covered courtyard where The Beatles tinkle on a stereo and board games sit waiting to be played. Through lofty archways, the courtyard opens up to the sky. A couple of hammocks under a tree are ready for lazing. Two well-stocked bathrooms and a nice-size kitchen lead off from here. The reception and entrance are opposite.

The young owner explains that they’ve only been open a month, so they still need to get wifi and lockers. Also, would we like breakfast as it costs 10Bs more? Yes, of course we want breakfast, considering it includes cake.

Casa Blanca Hostel
Calle Ingavi #645 (between Ballivian and JM Saracho)
(00591) 4 66 42909
60Bs a night, 10Bs breakfast

A postcard from Cementerio General de Sucre

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You don’t have to be a goth teenager to enjoy a stroll through a cemetery. They’re beautiful because they’re meant to be, especially the Cementerio General de Sucre. Unlike the Cementerio General in La Paz, which is fascinating, but not necessarily peaceful, the one in Sucre has manicured grass and full plots with tombstones, combined with the more morgue-like vaults for those who can’t afford more space. On the benches along the main path there are blind people you can pay to say a prayer for the one you lost. Children work for tips, bringing ladders to those who wish to leave flowers, children’s toys, bottles of whiskey, cans of Coca-Cola or photos for the departed on the higher rows.

How to get there From the center, walk southwest down Calle Junin for about 15 minutes.

Cost It’s free, but you can pay a young child about 10 Bs for a tour.

Hours 8:00-11:00 and 14:00-17:00.

A postcard from Museo Nacional de Etnografico y Folklore

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“No fotos!” the ticket seller called out to me as I was walking into the museum. She didn’t offer to sell me a photo permit for 20Bs, even though I knew there was one, and I didn’t ask about it. I paid for it later when I tried to sneak a few pictures and felt incredibly nervous that the security guard would catch me.

But I don’t have the kind of camera that can take good photos in low-light conditions (or from the hip, which is what I was doing to try and avoid detection by the CCTV). You’ll have to just believe me when I say the gallery of masks is one of the coolest exhibitions I’ve seen.

With examples from all over Bolivia, hung at eye-level in poses reminiscent of a dancer in motion and music playing in the background, they looked as if they could have danced right off into the darkness. Even though I’ve seen some of these masks before, bobbing up and down during street parades in La Paz, they looked very different up close. There was no glass between the objects and me so there were no distracting reflections. I could see every detail – sequins, feathers, grass, seeds, foil, cloth and paint – that adorned the wood, metal and plastic surfaces.

The rest of this little museum was pretty cool too. The textile gallery had a light that sensed movement so that it turned off when no-one was in the room (or when you didn’t move for a long time because you were looking at minute figures woven into a belt). The ceramic and feather art galleries also had some interesting pieces (a giant phallus and ridiculously tall plumed head-dress come to mind). There was a cute cartoon running around the entire upper-floor gallery, visualizing the history of Bolivia. And there were lots of coins in the basement (they were the least interesting, but I looked anyway because the kindly guard, who hadn’t managed to catch me sneaking a picture, told me not to miss that section).

Visitors’ info: Museo Nacional de Etnografico y Folklore

A postcard from Cerro San Cristóbal

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Santiago is surrounded by towering snowcapped mountains. This sounds like an ideal city backdrop, and it may be in the summer. Unfortunately, smog gets trapped in the city during the winter months, obscuring what might otherwise be a stunning vista.

Even with a substandard view, Cerro San Cristóbal is an easy and cheap way to spend a few hours. A ride up the old funicular is a fun little ascent and a touch of living history in this thoroughly modern city.

The mirador sits 485 meters above the city, and offers potentially great views, depending on the weather. There’s a museum, a zoo, snack and souvenir shops, and of course the ever present stray dogs of Chile.

How to get there The funicular leaves from Plaza Caupolicán in Pío Nono, Bellavista. Or, if you’re up to it, you can walk to the summit from the same point.
Cost CH$1300 per person.
Hours 1-8 p.m. Mon, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tues-Sun