Friday, 31 August 1984

PERU August 1984: Puno, Arequipa & leaving Peru

27-31 August 1984:  Puno, Arequipa & Lima

We woke to find the overnight bus to Puno stuck in a river and we were soon the only passengers left onboard.  It was just starting to get light and it was apparent that we were going nowhere in a hurry.  The river was only two feet deep but it was absolutely freezing - no great surprise as we were at an altitude of over 3500m and it was mainly melt water.  With no alternative we got our bags off the roof and waded to the far bank.  Here we dried off and joined a few of the other passengers who had not walked off completely.  After half an hour or so a truck crossed the river and we all piled into the back.  It took us to Puno where we left our bags at the Tourist Office and made for the jetty where we hired a boat to take us onto Lake Titicaca.  Most tourists go out to see the Indians that live on floating Reed Islands and it took a while to convince our seemingly dim boatman that we had no interest in this at all but instead wanted to head out into deeper water to look for Short-winged Grebe.  Reluctantly he agreed (Mike rarely losing his rag and threatening to withhold payment until we saw the grebes helped despite there being no common language) and things were fine until we spotted a grebe and insisted he slowed the boat right down so we could watch it.  It then became apparent that we had a fairly large hole in the bow that was only kept above the water line when he was motoring along.  His desire to only visit the islands was now clear!  We got back to shore with limited bailing, paid him off and then spent the rest of the day pottering around the edge of the lake, getting a bus ticket for the next stage of our journey and eating.

open water of Lake Titicaca, not the best place to be in a holed boat!
Reed islands on Lake Titicaca
We were getting the evening Arequipa bus, but only taking it half way as we wanted to visit the high altitude (4000m+) salt lakes at La Salinas.  Our driver assured us that he knew where we wanted to get off and it felt as if no sooner had I dozed off than we were pulling over in the middle of nowhere at about 1 am.  This we were assured was our stop although a strong wind and freezing temperature were hardly welcoming and came as quite a shock after the warmth of the bus.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but it was only when the bus had left that we spotted a large warehouse opposite us.  On investigation it had a partly open door, so we could at least get out of the biting wind, but was virtually empty – a few empty salt sacks that we used a supplementary bedding – and almost as cold inside as out.

We were up at dawn to take stock of our surroundings.  We’d been in the main building, a couple of huts nearby appeared to be deserted and there was no one else around.  The hope of there being a café where we could get a hot drink was soon dashed but the lake was visible not too far away and fortunately wasn’t dry as it is sometimes so we headed off towards it.  Some ponds on the way were completely frozen but the lake was too saline and an impressive number of flamingos were evident round the edge.  We spent several hours birding the area, which was superb, the highlights being an amazing 5000+ Wilson’s Phalaropes, 1500+ flamingos (2/3 Puna, 1/3 Chilean and 4 Andean), 15 Andean Avocets and 10 Puna Plovers.  Our plan was to get back on the road and get a lift much of the way to Arequipa (60 kms away) where we wanted to stop in lower, more vegetated habitat.  We sensibly had some food with us in case we couldn’t get any at La Salinas (as proved to be the case) but assumed we would find a stream relatively easily there and so didn’t take that much water.  This wasn’t very well thought out as the whole area was incredibly arid, it was after all a salt lake!  Our plan on getting a lift was also flawed as most vehicles travelled the route overnight while anything leaving Puno in the morning would be passing in the afternoon.  We decided to start walking, in the hope of finding a stream, seeing some different birds or flagging down a vehicle.

La Salinas salt deposits and a distant volcano
We had feared that the lake might be dry but that was clearly not the case
some of the nearer pools were frozen ...

but they still held Andean Avocets
a very stocky bird suited to surviving at high altitude
distant flamingos over La Salinas
even more distant flamingos at the far end of the lake
flamingos at La Salinas
never quite as approachable as one might wish
Puna Ground-Tyrant
leaving La Salinas, Mike bringing up the rear
looking back down the road to Arequipa, no vehicles, no water and few birds ...
road to Arequipa, still no vehicles, water or birds but at least the volcano El Misti was getting closer
After about 20 kms, with no streams or vehicles and few birds, we overtook an old lorry parked-up collecting wood.  A km or so later it caught us up and we were told it would eventually be going to Arequipa so we climbed on top.  500m or so later it stopped for more wood and slow progress ensued for what seemed like most of the afternoon, although was perhaps just an hour or so.  During this period Mike flagged down a tourist bus – the only other vehicle seen all day - but for some reason that I can’t now remember Nick and I decided to stick with the wood-cutters.  We’d had enough after a couple more stops with the road starting to drop off the plateau by way of some zig-zags and the wood pile we were sitting on getting ever bigger and more uncomfortable.  We’d probably done about 8 kms in over two hours but at least we hadn’t been carrying our bags!  We then walked another 5 km or so until dusk, had another water ration and slept out in the lee of El Misti.

El Misti from our camp site
Nick crashed out, I was too cold to stay still
We awoke to a beautiful morning but we clearly hadn’t dropped much in altitude as the remaining water in my bottle had frozen and I felt as if I had.  We packed up camp and continued birding 10 kms down the road to Arequipa seeing White-throated and Straight-billed Earthcreepers, Creamy-breasted Canasteros and Black-hooded Sierra-Finches.  We then got a lift into town the last 8 kms on the back of a quarry lorry and ended up covered in chalk dust.  In Arequipa there was no sign of Mike so we bought bus tickets back to Lima for that evening.  While waiting at the bus station a couple of shifty locals tried a pincer movement on us with one distracting Nick from one side while the other sidled up towards his bag from the other.  Fortunately we’d found a corner from where there ploy was obvious and they soon slipped off.

El Misti dominating Arequipa main square
We arrived back in Lima the next day ahead of our flight back home the following morning.  Mike had by then gone back to Paracas where he was spending another couple of days before flying home three days later than us.  We returned to the airport, checked in and our flight was on time but Peru had one last card to play.  Hurtling down the runway for take-off there was an almighty bang from the rear of the plane and the pilot slammed on the brakes stopping us just before the runways end.  We were taken back to the terminal and disembarked.  At this stage I thought it was a puncture that could be repaired but after a couple of hours we were told to collect our luggage and taken to a posh hotel in town where we’d be staying until a replacement plane could be found.  This was expected to take three days! 

Our flight was headline news in the paper the next morning with the rear engine (it was a DC10) having failed on take-off.  A few seconds later and we might not have stopped in time.  The three days in Lima were pretty boring.  We had exit stamps in our passports and so were reluctant to even leave the hotel after our encounters with Lima police at the start of our trip.  We’d also used all our local money and didn’t want to change any more so bird listed were restricted to the five species we could see from our window.  The only good news was that when sorting out the holiday insurance Nick had paid a pound extra each for £20/day travel delay cover.

Less fortunate was Mike, who’d not got his own insurance thinking the same deal that Nick got would do for him despite the dates not overlapping.  On his last day, which was co-incidentally our last, but two days after the insurance expired, he was robbed while getting a taxi to the airport.  He’d put his shoulder bag with valuables down on the pavement while manoeuvring his rucksack into the taxi and a bag-snatcher ran off with it.  Luckily his passport, cash and plane tickets were in a pouch around his neck but he lost his binoculars and camera.

It was mostly a very enjoyable trip and Peru is a country I remember with fondness, but was quite stressful at times – more so than a budget trip usually is!  I saw about 520 species of which just over 300 were new, although a few inevitable misidentifications have come to light as the literature has improved.  Many thanks to Barry, Mike and particularly Nick for excellent company throughout.

[blogged November 2012]

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