Brazil - here come some superlatives: the largest country in both South America and Latin America, the world's fifth-largest country by area and the largest country to have Portuguese as an official language. This is one of the most multicultural and ethnically diverse nations. It has more Roman Catholics than any other country. It is megadiverse ecologically, most notably containing the vast Amazon basin , where processes like deforestation cause massive global concern.
I’ve flown out to Brazil from London overnight, along with a lady carrying a poodle in her handbag and several cats in wicker baskets. One escapes and they have to appeal for its owner to come and catch it, over the PA. Some members of the tour group are also on board. Candida is alone, but she’s being met by boyfriend Kurt, who’s been travelling in Peru and Chile. He’s waiting at the airport with a bottle of pisco sour and it’s the first time I’ve been inebriated before nine in the morning. We’re giggling in the back of the bus all through group leader Gabi’s introductions. I'm sure she's really looking forward to this tour now.
Brazil's capital is Brasília, but its most populated city is São Paulo. And I'm starting in Rio de Janeiro, arguably Brazil's most well known city and surely one of the most famous cities in the world with Copacana and Ipanema Beaches, (don’t leave your belongings unattended), views from the towering summit of Corcovado topped by the immense statue of Christ the Redeemer (too much traffic and too many people) and the cable car up to the huge Sugar Loaf Mountain, from where the late afternoon views of Rio across a scattering of hills and islands are breath-taking. I also squeeze in the bright, but sad favelas (of City of God fame) and a football match at the renowned Maracana Stadium. Lower league Fluminense are playing Santos and there is plenty of horn blowing and drum rolling, but not many spectators.
There's also plenty to try in terms of food and drink. I've already sampled Feijoada, the local bean and meat stew that is traditionally eaten on Sundays, along with pigs' ears, manioc, pork scratchings, greens and garlic and been to a buffet restaurant where you pay according to the weight of the food on your plate. And I've been to several bars. Candida and Kurt are a bad influence and I’ve already learned to love the national drink, the caipirinha. A typical serving costs about 50 pence and is lethal. One is usually plenty. Kurt and Candida go one better than just getting drunk and participate in a mock wedding at one bar. The ring is a free gift.
Next, Iguassu, home to one of the world’s largest waterfalls. At 1.7 miles wide, with 275 drops, they are more spread out than Victoria Falls, but there are more tourists and the air is full of spray, so decent photos aren’t easy. Nevertheless, we view from the Brazilian side (plenty of wildlife, like coatis, wandering around), the Argentinian side (there’s a close up of the fitfully churning 'Devil's Throat' at the top where the water plunges over the drop, by navigating a series of catwalks) and from the very bottom in a bobbing (very wet) boat.
Via Sao Paula to Cuiaba and into the Pantanal. This is the world’s largest tropical wetland, straddling the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. It is home to over 1000 species of bird and 300 different mammals. The boat trips here, animal spotting in the remote wilderness, are my unexpected highlight, and I get to see capybara (great name), Jabiru storks, howler and Capuchin monkeys, toucans, the striking hyacinth macaw, agouti, a coiled anaconda and numerous Jacare caiman. The locals seem oblivious to the latter and happily fish in the water right next to them, despite the wide-mouthed yawns and glistening teeth. There's a tame caiman (we're told), called Pandora, at our jungle lodge.
Piranha fishing is less exciting and not very productive, but I can enjoy the painted skies of the gorgeous sunset over the river. I’m on my usual challenge to find the most appalling souvenir and this is a rewarding hunting ground. There are stuffed piranhas (to compensate for the ones we didn’t catch) in fluorescent coloured striped gel at the airport, on our departure.
Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon basin, on the banks of the Negro River, has vast tracts of jungle stretching in all directions. Rubber made it South America’s richest city in the late 1800s and lured many wealthy Europeans to the high life. A quick visit to the extraordinary Grand Opera House, before we board the launch, to our stilted lodge. En route we pass the spot where the dark Negro runs alongside and then converges with the lighter brown, muddy Solimões River. This results in the stripy phenomenon called the “Meeting of the Waters.”
As we're so isolated I’ve stocked up on food I can eat, including a can of cashew nuts. The monkey who scrambles across the moored boats to meet us has obviously encountered these previously. Before I can protect my bag he has purloined my can and is perched high on a branch devouring them. He hasno difficulty with the ring pull. I could swear he’s laughing. The rest of the group certainly are.
To be honest, the much anticipated Amazon is an anti-climax after the Pantanal. It’s quiet and beautiful. We swim by the stilted lodge (no nasties here we’re assured) but there is little new to see. There’s a Caboclo village to visit to gawk at the ‘natives’, long muddy jungle walks and we go piranha fishing – again. This time the guide hauls out some baby caiman for us to admire. Much vaunted river dolphins scoot by. Most of us miss them.
I’ve decided I’m never sharing a room on a tour again. My roommate, German Anne, snores mightily, (deja vu) comes in late and puts all the lights on, and insists on setting the alarm at least 90 minutes before we need to leave in the morning, so she can prink.
Our last stop is Salvador, now the capital of the state of Bahia,. It was initially considered to be the nation's capital and is one of Brazil's most historic cities. It was ‘discovered’ in 1501 by the navigator Amerigo Vespucci. Its magnificent setting and soaring cliffs protect the bay. So, this is one of the most sheltered harbours on the eastern coast of the Americas. I read that 'The Pelourinho area is regarded as the most important collection of seventeenth-eighteenth century architecture in the whole of the Americas.' It’s a hotch-potch of narrow cobbled streets, gilded baroque churches, and spacious squares surrounded by mansions in need of restoration.
The city has a predominantly African feel. This is not surprising as most of the inhabitants are of African descent (working sugar cane and tobacco plantations); there is a real vibe and some incredibly flamboyant costumes. Bruce and Laurie in the group pose against a cut out for photos and invite me to Fort Lauderdale.
We start in Lima, the capital city of Peru, founded by Francisco Pizarro. Nowadays, it’s touted as a worthwhile and safe visit, but it wasn’t then and there’s a swift departure. The buses are efficient and comfortable and even show movies. Well, one. We watch Analyse This six times.
First, Paracas, on the edge of the costa desert, for the Islas Ballestes and the giant sand dunes. The former are said to be a must see on any Peruvian itinerary, though true to form on such occasions the sea is misty and the islands smelly, due to the huge heaps of guano. Nevertheless, seals and quantities of sea birds are discernible. And we don’t have to walk far to see the dunes. They tower over the artificial lakes around the hotel. Dune bashing is on offer, if you are so inclined.
Next, the mysterious Nazca Lines. I’ve been obsessed with these ever since I saw the film Chariots of the Gods. Von Daniken believed that the only plausible explanation for this network of giant desert etchings is that they were created by aliens. You can only properly view the geometric figures, animal and plant drawings, from the air.
A small plane flight has been booked for us, but there are only four places and I’m elbowed into the middle of the back seat by a very aggressive German. We’ve been warned that the plane banks steeply to get good views and there are plenty of thermals with the hot air too. The German is soon throwing up badly, proving that there is a God after all (Or an alien). And one of the pilots takes pity on me and borrows my camera. That explains how I got some pictures, though no-one so far has come up with a a better solution to their origins. And Von Daniken's is a fascinating theory....
Cuzco and Machu Picchu are almost obligatory on a trip to Peru. Warding off altitude sickness, here in the high Andes, is the first challenge. There are baskets of coca leaves scattered around our hotel; I’m not sure if they’re working, but they make my tongue go very numb. Cuzco is a tourist hub and trekking mecca, the South American Kathmandu, a gorgeous maze of red roofed houses ringed by mountains.
We take a bus for a day trip to the Sacred Valley for Pisaq market, Pisaq ruins and Ollantaytambo fortress. Inca temples, hewn out of stone, hog priceless views. The famous market is crammed with bright woven goods and woollen ponchos. They aren’t cheap, but it takes up to six months to spin, dye, and weave a traditional Peruvian poncho. Peruvians generally receive one poncho upon becoming an adult and it is expected to last a lifetime. (Nearly every weaving technique known today was invented by Peruvians – and all of them were in use before 3000 B.C.) The local people are equally colourful with their high cheekbones, lampshade hats and cautious smiles.
We also have our first encounters with alpacas. Three-quarters of the world’s alpaca population lives in Peru and the proud Peruvians decorate them like dolls, with tasselled striped coats and woolly ribbons in their ears. They’re so cute, and look deceptively so much friendlier than their larger llama cousins, that it’s hard to decide whether they or their owners are the most photogenic. The Peruvians exploit this knowledge, to their best advantage, and it’s hard to begrudge payment for such appealing pictures. Despite this, the national animal is the smaller wild vicuña. (Alpacas are descended from vicuñas and llamas from guanacos. Vicuñas come in 22 natural colours and their wool is considered to be the world’s most luxurious fabric.)
Then it’s a train for an overnight stay in fabled Machu Picchu. This, most famous of Incan ruins, was (re)discovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. I wrote an essay on the Incas at school when I was twelve and I’m dredging my memory. It’s not that difficult to recover the facts - it’s a fascinating and frightening story.
Peru’s ancient Inca civilisation was larger than imperial Rome and included 24,855 miles of roads at its peak. That’s almost enough to stretch around the Earth itself. It relied on a network of chasquis (runners) to keep the kingdom connected. The first census was created by the Incas. They had no formal system of writing, and so developed a system of record-keeping using different coloured knots called “quipus” made from wool or cotton strings. Their empire was brutally brought to an end by the greedy Spaniards, with conquistador Pizarro breaking his word to the emperor, Atahualpa, after Atahualpa had kept his end of the bargain and filled a chamber with gold.
Today’s Machu Picchu has no echo of this violence, surrounded by enchanting white tipped mountain walls. The Andes are truly stunning. Machu Picchu is at its best early morning and evening, when the day trippers have left. We walk backwards up the last part of the Inca Trail for the famed view through the Sun Gate. We haven’t contemplated actually walking the trail. It’s been deemed too dangerous over recent years, because of the Shining Path protest raids and besides, I’ve only recently had glandular fever and I understand it’s a very tough trek.
Sitting on a stone bench at Machu Picchu, ringed by mountain walls, the electric charge is amazing, energising and wonderful. I don’t want to come down. The staircase descent goes on on for ever, but is preferable to the bus careering round the hairpin bends. The railroad is built right up the main street of the town, Agua Caliente below. You can lean out of the carriage as the whistle blares its warning and do your shopping.
Criss-crossing the mountains on buses and trains and sampling the ceviche and pisco (Peru's national beverage, a brandy made from grapes - it's also claimed by Chile) in the Cuzco tavernas, we keep meeting the same people, ships in the night. One couple, who had better remain nameless, are working at the same University. Only he is married to someone else and his wife doesn't know about their relationship - yet. We arrange to meet for a final meal to drink pisco and sample the native delicacy, guinea pig (these are farmed by most of the locals).
I have to pass on the food. The guinea pigs are grilled whole, skewered flat, heads attached, complete with little paws pointing upwards in supplication. The pisco sours are much more welcome, however. And I have an empty stomach. I fall instantly in love with a bearded American, Jay, who joins us. He professes to feel the same. It is unfortunate that he is just moving into a shared place with his girlfriend in California, but this is so different and amazing, he promises that he will stay in touch. We can’t let this go, he will come and see me very soon. He writes his email address carefully on a paper napkin and I, just as carefully, put it away. Jaybird - transitory flash of iridescence. Reader, I never hear from him again.
Our last spectacular rail journey takes us south, through the mountains to Lake Titicaca. At 12,507 feet above sea level this is the world’s highest navigable lake and coca leaves are still required. It’s a fitting end to a magical journey across Peru, with its reed boats, brightly costumed inhabitants and curious lakeside rituals. On the far side, Bolivia awaits.
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