Sand, Salt and Sunsets in the Atacama Desert

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Chile, that “long petal of sea, wine and snow” in the beautiful words of its Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda, stands out on a map of the world. At 2,700 miles north to south, it is longer than any other country except Brazil – roughly the same as Britain and the United States bolted together. Yet it is all of 40 miles wide at its narrowest point east to west, 220 at its widest and a little over 100 on average.

The south has glaciers and ski slopes, the north has the Atacama Desert. Geographers know it as the driest place on earth, but it is better known now for the San José mine where, in 2010, 33 copper miners were trapped underground for over two months.

Valle de la Lune (Moon Valley) is around 300 miles to the north of that, roughly in the middle of the desert. The sand is sprinkled with ancient salt deposits, like lorryloads of Shake n’ Vac. Natural sculptures sprout in the middle of nothingness. Dunes rise three storeys high, pristine except for a narrow strip which has been corrugated by the wind. Nature has carved the variegated sandstone into walls, as if of a fairytale castle. There are narrow alleys which you can squeeze through, and jump in alarm when the walls bang as they cool in the late afternoon and you think the whole lot will collapse.

As the sun dies down and the sky dims, the golden rocks turn gradually pink then gradually red. The Licancabur Volcano we had tracked towards on our way from Bolivia was pink at the crater, blending to red, then blue, then purple at the base of the cone. Busloads of people had come to watch the sun set. They crouched with their cameras, fussing with tripods; or sprawled on the rocks, sipping wine from plastic cups.


Back in San Pedro, I went to a restobar with tables outside and a bonfire to chase off the chill of the evening. The fire crackled and scented the air as I looked through the menu and the waiter brought a basket of bread and the bowl of pebre, which always comes with it in Chile. It is simple enough to make. Roughly chop a handful of coriander, toss with a couple of diced tomatoes, a few sliced spring onions and a finely diced green chilli, add a glug of wine vinegar, three or four of olive oil, a sprinkle of seasoning, and toss it all again.

I was out by seven the next morning, looking to hire a bike. But everything was closed. Doors were bolted, windows were shuttered; there was no one else about. It was the same again when I went back at eight. A few cafes had opened by nine, but everything else was still shut. I had a coffee and an empanada de pino as I waited for the hire shops to unlock their doors. Then I really needed the exercise: Chilean empanadas are massive things, like half a rugby ball.

Sometime around 9.30, the keenest of the hire shops opened for business and I chose a mountain bike which surprised me by stopping when I squeezed the brakes. Hire bikes tend just to slow down. I had, as always, to remind myself that it was left hand drive. Squeeze hard on what would be the back brake at home and you are over the handlebars wondering how it happened.

I pootled around town and into the outskirts and rode out to the remains of a pre-Incan fortress named Pukará de Quitor. I could have cycled all day in that weather, but I had a bus to catch in the early afternoon: South towards Santiago.

© Richard Senior 2015

Across the Altiplano to Chile



An Aymara lady muttered to herself as she laid out a blanket on the island in the middle of the road and set out the fruit which she hoped to sell to the drivers who passed by. Down the street, a door banged, a moped started and a man wobbled off to work. The rest of the town slept on.

Uyuni was 100 miles to the north; Chile was 50 miles west, or 150 south. To the east there was little but mountains for 80 or so miles until you got to another small town named San Vincente, which became unexpectedly famous a century ago when  two North Americans were shot there. Their names were Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, but they are better remembered as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Juanito strapped the backpacks on top of the jeep, warmed the engine, kicked the tyres and bundled us in. We tracked south again, to Chile the long way round. Out of the town and onto the plain, following a river, watched by vicuñas, the patrician cousins of the plebeian llamas. In the near distance behind them, a row of adobe huts, abandoned so long ago the roofs had rotted away. In the far distance, purple mountains speckled with grass, dusted with snow.


We crossed the river and drove into the hills. Herds of llamas with coloured ribbons tied into their wool as badges of ownership were the only sign that anyone lived for miles around. But further along, a dejected group of Aymara sheltered behind a rock from the sun. “They wait for the bus,” the guide said. “It comes once a week, but not always”. I am not sure whether he was joking.

We stopped for a break near the lip of a canyon and I scrambled along to the edge of an outcrop and peered into the depths at the deep green river slithering along the base. Then on from there to a valley littered with rock formations, rising anything up to a hundred feet, pitted in places, smooth in others, patiently whittled by centuries of wind into arresting shapes. I free-climbed a few to amuse myself; but whatever I climbed a guy from another jeep climbed something higher, and put his camera on timer and photographed himself doing star jumps at the top.

We explored lakes and rock formations, spotted flamingos, vicuñas and an occasional retiring viscacha, a big rodent which looks like a rabbit with a long bushy tail. Then, with something like a hundred miles left to run, we stopped at an eco-hotel with concrete beds, visible wires, and a toilet which the wind whistled up and rattled the seat all night.


The setting, though, was stunning. It was on the banks of Laguna Hedionda (which sounds better in Spanish than it does in translation as the Stinky Lake), the only building in sight. The lake was framed by mountains with folds of purple, brown and blue, and a sprinkle of snow on the highest peaks. On islets of mud and around the edges, mineral deposits left bold swathes of yellow and green over a white undercoat.

Vicuñas glanced from the banks at flamingos as they strode through mud, searching for food. There were dozens on the lake, noisily treading water as they built up the airspeed to fly, or gliding into land, cutting the power and braking hard with outstretched legs, then backtracking down the runway, or taxying along an islet awaiting clearance from the tower. I got closer to them than I imagined I would, but whenever I made a noise, the whole squadron scrambled, flew a circuit of the lake then cautiously landed back.

I had always wanted to see flamingos in the wild but, until then, had only caught a glimpse through the filthy window of a Sardinian public bus. I was very happy, until later in the evening when I had to attempt the hotel food. It was the worst I have had anywhere, ever. Even in Britain. The steak was perfectly cooked, if you wanted to use it for knocking in nails. The mash it was served with might have been okay, but I think that the top must have come off the salt when they seasoned it. I pushed my plate to the side and filled up on the hard bread which came with it.


We started early again the next morning, heading south through a canyon, bumping along boulders, then racing across the Siloli Desert with a great plume of sand behind us. The sky was the same unbelievable blue as a dedicated rambler’s anorak, the sand so red it might have been the road to Uluru.

Until then, we had listened to Juanito’s CD of Andean folk songs, which were about as cheerful as Country and Western but at least added local colour. Then the guide plugged in his iPod and played Eighties pop. No one else seemed to mind, but there is little that gets me down more reliably and his playlist included all of the most cynical, saccharine tracks from that horrible decade of white BMW’s and big mobile phones; but I had my own iPod on quicker than a fireman can strap on his breathing apparatus and listened to Martin Garrix while the others had Tears for Fears, or some shit.

There were more rock formations in the middle of the desert, including the famous Stone Tree. With a runaway imagination, many beers and some acid you might think it looked vaguely like a tree, from a distance. If anything, it looks like a massive oyster mushroom.


Minerals in the water have turned Laguna Colorado the colour of tinned tomato soup. A flurry of flamingos came to feast on the algae, pink against rusty red. They and the mountains reflected in the surface. There were volcanic rocks scattered along the banks, poking through clumps of spiky grass. The sky was still faultlessly blue. I could have stayed and gazed across the lake all morning, and I thought that I might when the guide realised that he had left his fancy altitude-sensing watch on the bonnet at the gate to the park and went off to pace the road. Incredibly enough, he found it. Then the jeep had a flat and Juanito seemingly learned on the job how to change a wheel. I was worried that the hand-tightened nuts would work loose, the wheel would come off and the jeep would end up on its roof; but I forgot about that as we pushed on across the Altiplano.

The altimeter briefly went over 5,000 metres above sea, higher than the peak of Mont Blanc, higher than the halfway point of an Everest ascent. Desert handed over to geyser field. Smoke issued from tears in the ground, mud sputtered in pools, sulphurous skid marks stained the rocks.

Juanito pointed at the distant volcano which had been growing in the centre of the windscreen for an hour. “Chile está allá,” he said, to general incomprehension. “Other side it is Chile,” the guide clarified, and raised a collective cheer.


They dropped us beside a dead bus on a square of rough ground behind a hut with the national flag hanging from a rusty pole. It was the border post. A bored civil servant collected departure cards and put stamps in passports, which might have been hand-drawn on folded card for all the notice he took.

There was nothing much for half an hour, except roads that were as good as any in Europe – a novelty after Peru and Bolivia. If this were back home, the tabloids would get themselves apoplectic about the scope for immigrants to disappear across country. Even when we reached the official checkpoint, there was no barrier, no guard and little beyond your conscience to stop you driving straight through.

My preconceptions about Chile, grounded in the Pinochet era and fuelled by reading Isabel Allende, were plainly all wrong.

© Richard Senior 2015

Graduating from Uyuni


The bus driver stopped twice on the way to Uyuni: once to dump some old tyres at the side of the road, and once for a toilet break at a remote house with an outside loo. It was not at all obvious that the owners had said that he could. The women from the bus formed a long line to use the one toilet. The men, of course, pissed where they felt like.

Uyuni is a small town with a frontier feel and the temporary look of a film set. The wind howls down the broad streets, whipping up dust, and you expect, when it clears, to see Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach among the filthy jeeps and kids on old BMX’s. It is a staging post for the famous salt flats. Every parking space is claimed by an overland truck with the logo of an ‘adventure travel’ company on the side, or a Land Cruiser belonging to one of the local outfits. Buses arrive as incessantly as planes into Heathrow, disgorging travellers, who struggle down the street under backpacks. Everyone ends up in Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza. It has a happy, hostel-like buzz, but the food is not at all revolutionary. I had spaghetti with ‘pesto’ which came from a jar, as I ought to have realised it would.

The Uyuni salt flats, the world’s largest, extend over 12,000 sq km, roughly the area of the Falklands; NASA uses them to calibrate satellites. The outer edges were still under water from the rains of a few days before, and through some alchemy I would not understand if a scientist patiently explained it, the salt, the sun, the water and sky came together to create a perfect reflection.


The view from the jeep was a view as if from a plane: clouds above, clouds below, and clouds to infinity each side. Without a mountain or another jeep as a reference point, there was no way of telling where the salt flat ended and the sky began.

What used to be the Paris-Dakar Rally before fundamentalists forced it out of Africa had roared through the salt flats a few weeks before and Juanito drove as if training for next year’s event; he had the stickers on the flanks of his jeep already. Further into the flats, the salt was dry and cracked into pentagonal shapes. The sky was a searing, intense blue, the salt flat dazzling white. Flamingos occasionally scrawled a pink line between them.

The conditions induce psychedelic effects. I watched a column of jeeps roll along the horizon and distort into weird, trippy shapes; the bodies compressed, the wheels stretched like elastic, until the jeeps had morphed into a camel train. All sense of perspective goes: someone standing ten feet away looks beyond walking distance. A camera is as easily fooled as your eye, and we spent a giggly hour taking novelty pictures of the sort which appear in the brochures. I held a tiny person in the palm of my hand, then a giant dangled me from his fingertips, a group of us stood in a bowl, resigned to being eaten by a hundred foot man, then a big cartoon dinosaur chased us all away.

Near the edge of the salt flats, there are two long rows of rusting steam trains, sunk into the ground to their axles. They call it El Cementerio de Trenes. The trains were apparently abandoned there when the mines they worked closed in the 1940’s, but someone has gone to the trouble to arrange them artistically in parallel lines and hang children’s swings from a few. Others have gone to the trouble to steal anything worth a few Bolivianos.


We turned south and drove on until late afternoon, then stopped for the night in a one street town with a cluster of houses, a shop and a backpacker hostel. The room smelled like laundry left in the machine for a very long time and the bed felt like concrete. It was concrete. But I slept better there than I often do at home. Perhaps I should build a bed out of concrete; and, when my neighbour asks me what I am doing with the cement mixer, I can tell him I am making the bed.

© Richard Senior 2015

Potosí: Rich Hill, Macho Beef and Altitude Sickness


Un Potosí is a Spanish idiom which loosely means a fortune. It is credited to Cervantes, who had the mad Don Quixote say: “the mines of Potosí would be insufficient to pay thee”. He was alluding to a city four hours southwest of Sucre, where Bolivia’s Central Highlands blend into the Altiplano. 

Nowadays it has the look of an old, unloved Rolls Royce, curbed and keyed, filled with junk, but still nonetheless a Rolls Royce. The buildings are painted in blues and reds, yellows and greens, muted now, but obviously striking once. The pompous columns, the intricate doorways, the heavy iron grilles on windows all sing the same song. The words are on the coat of arms:

            I am rich Potosí

            Treasure of the world

            King of all Mountains

            And the envy of kings

The King of all Mountains dominates the city, visible from every street. Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), it is called, because it is laced with silver. It is popularly said that the Spanish shipped out enough of it to build a bridge to Madrid. They shipped slaves the other way, from Africa, because the indigenous workforce kept dying and they still had targets to meet.

The mountain is like a honeycomb, now, after five hundred years of unconstrained digging; and engineers worry that the whole thing might collapse. But the miners are fatalistic. They have to be. They work with hammers and chisels, picks and shovels, breathe the foul air, and carry rock on their backs to the surface. Wads of coca leaves and cheap, strong alcohol get them through the day. They are all likely to be dead before 40. Even if they avoid the frequent cave-ins and runaway trucks, silicosis will get them anyway.


Agents all over town arrange tours of the mines, with a stop at the market to buy coca leaves, cigarettes and dynamite as presents to give to the miners. Some dismiss it as voyeurism, others think it educational. I was not sure what I thought, but on balance I was minded to go.

Altitude sickness decided the point in the end. It crept up on me during the bus ride from Sucre and left me unable to do much except read and drink coca tea. At 4,090 metres above sea, Potosí is higher than most of the Alps; but the guidebooks overreach themselves when they call it the highest city in the world. It was not even the highest I had been on that trip: El Alto is at 4,150. But altitude sickness is hard to predict. It gives no credit for being fit and healthy, nor for being used to altitude. It can do anything right up to killing you of pulmonary edema; but in my case it was much like a hangover with laboured breath as a bonus. I was fine by the time I went to dinner.

Pique a lo macho is aimed at men with Popeye arms. It seemed the right thing to order in a tough guy town like Potosí. The cook sautés strips of beef with garlic and cumin, adds beer and reduces it, then tosses with slices of onion, tomato and chilli, balances it all on a plate of fries and garnishes with hardboiled eggs. Finishing one alone has about the same significance as eating three Shredded Wheat. It means you are a greedy bastard.

The beef was tender and the flavours were good but I could only manage half. I am not at all a tough guy. I like cats and poetry and even wear a coat in winter.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu


The train rattled alongside a furious river hemmed in by mountains as Andean flute music wafted from speakers above. Then it stopped, nowhere, just like a British train…except that this one was meant to.

Excuse me, esir, you need for to get off


You do the Inca Trail, no?”

Oh, yeah.

There was no station, no platform: we just opened the door, dropped to the track and crunched through the gravel until we got to a bridge more rickety even than any I saw in Laos. It swayed and creaked as I hurried across the rotten slats, expecting, any minute, that one would give way and leave me dangling over the river.


It takes three or four days to walk the length of the Inca Trail, but we were cheating a little and starting two thirds of the way in. That still left a long day’s hike.

The trail led relentlessly upwards, snaked round the mountain, and continued upwards, until we had left the valley we started from way below and the river was but a scribble and the train track a toy shop display. We scrambled up Incan terraces, passed waterfalls which plunged gorgeously down the face of the rock, and looked across at the neighbour mountains carpeted with trees, and paused to contemplate flowers which erupted from the ledge in shocks of yellow and orange, and pink and red.

Once we saw porters from the four day trail, running down the mountain with mules-worth of weight on their backs. They carry the tents, the chairs, the stoves, the gas bottles and food so the tourists need not worry about weight.


It started to rain and the clouds slipped down and filled the valley like expanding foam and, for an hour or two, we were walking above them.

Bepe, the guide, kept stopping so we had a chance to catch our breath and he had a chance to share his passion for orchids; but I wanted to press on and did, until I came to a sign with a picture of a bear and some text I did not understand and jumped to the wrong conclusion.

I had just read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, in which he worries his way along the Appalachian Trail thinking about bear attacks. But there are no grizzlies in Peru, it turns out, just the spectacled bear: a shy little thing you would expect to have petite-bourgeois manners from the fifties and a bag full of marmalade sandwiches. The sign was urging the walkers not to bother the bears, not warning the walkers that the bears might bother them.


I went ahead again, and passed a hard-looking man who glared from a step, and I remembered something I had read in a guidebook about muggings along the trail. Three more men emerged from shelter when I climbed up the steps of Inti Punku, the last but one of the ruins on the trail. “Buen’ dias,” one growled and I looked back with relief to see Bepe and the others at the foot of the steps.

Who were those dodgy bastards?” I asked after we turned the corner.

“The rangers,” Bepe said.


“They’re making esure that nobody is still walking when the trail closes.”


We would, he said, have had a good view of Machu Picchu by then, if it were not for the clouds. I thought he might have kept that to himself. But as we walked on, the clouds dissolved and the iconic image materialised before us, just as it is in the brochures. It was a magical effect.


© Richard Senior 2015

Of Poop and Parties: San Pedro de Atacama


They were full of shit.

The islands to the south of Peru were thick with seabird guano. It made excellent fertiliser, and Peru millions. They exported it all over the world. In 1864, the Spanish used a flimsy excuse to occupy the islands, and Peru, Bolivia and Chile went to war with them and won. It was the first time that nations had fought over bird shit.

Then, when saltpetre from the Bolivian desert became even more marketable than seabird crap, a Chilean company secured the right to mine it free of tax. But Bolivia reneged. Talks went nowhere, and they ended up at war. Peru joined in on the Bolivian side. But Chile resoundingly won and shifted its border hundreds of miles north through Bolivia and into Peru. Bolivia lost its saltpetre deposits and coastline; Peru lost some of its guano. There is bitterness about it still, 130 years later.


The Chilean army marched on San Pedro de Atacama in 1879 and Bolivia never saw it again. It is an arty, bohemian enclave now, a charming place. Adobe shoeboxes with peeling whitewash and beaten up doors line the main road and half a dozen side streets. The shops sell copper jewellery, textiles and indigenous art. Alternative types sit in the plaza in the shade of the trees overlooking a cute little colonial church.

Two jeeploads of us arrived from Bolivia and, whether it was the waves of positive energy the hippies claim to feel, or the stupefying sun, or just a sense of release after three days driving across the altiplano, everyone seemed to be in a party mood. We went out en masse to eat, swapped stories about scams and overnight buses, and stayed on until late for cocktails.  Some peeled off to their hostels, and the rest of us went looking for a club.

But San Pedro is not as liberal as it seems. There are no clubs, no late bars; in fact, no bars at all outside of the restaurants. There is nowhere to drink legally after one in the morning, and nowhere where it is legal to dance. I discovered that later, though.


Some locals invited us to a beach party, which was a puzzle because San Pedro is a long way from the coast. Or at least it would have been a puzzle if any of us had been sober. I was not happy with the idea of following them out of town and down a dark lane and away from any houses; but dozens of gringos joined the procession, travellers who had stopped off on their way north or south.

We bought beer from a guy who had stockpiled a few crates and was selling it off can by can, and we plodded up and down the dusty hills, shouting and giggling and talking crap, and the drunkest of our crowd fell over a lot, until we eventually got to the ‘beach’. It was a quarry. The party was a hippie with a Spanish guitar and a bunch of his mates quietly singing along. It was hardly Ko Pha Ngan. But it was all there was in San Pedro.

There was an earthquake next morning which shook the town and knocked things off shelves, but no one who had been to the party noticed. I stumbled out into the blinding sun and trudged in agony to the restobar on the corner, where I ordered two cafés con leche and a medium-sized pizza for breakfast.

My head throbbed, my stomach churned and my mouth felt lined with guano.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Bus to Puno


The bus station was teeming with Quechua families with suitcases-worth of belongings in rainbow papooses which they squeezed through the doors of the buses. There were a few gringo backpackers, too, with the look of the road about them. Touts shouted destinations, barely pausing to breathe. “Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Aquipa-Aquipa-Aquip-Aquip….” But no one was buying tickets to Arequipa.

I wanted to go to Puno and knew from the guidebook that it would be a full day’s drive.

Will it be a coach?” I asked.

“…Almost,” the guy said.

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I imagined a scrapper with four bald tyres and seats like park benches and filthy windows taped shut; and it was easy to picture, because most of the buses in Lima had been like that. I expected to arrive in the sort of discomfort you feel when you commute on British trains.

It was not so bad, though. The bus cannot have been more than thirty years old – not much more, at any rate – and although it pumped out black smoke and wallowed over bumps, it looked capable of getting to Puno. The buses in Lima never looked as if they would make the next traffic lights.

The single track road stretched for hours ahead on its serpentine way through an endless landscape of plains reaching out to distant mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains, chaperoned by a river and flocks of sheep and herds of llamas which grazed beside and blundered right onto the road, forcing the driver to stop.


Sometimes, in the middle of miles of nothing, there was an adobe hut with a collapsing thatched roof which looked like a relic from decades ago, but nearby there was a Quechua herdsman who could surely have lived nowhere else. There were the ruins of an ancient stone village, with a new adobe village abutting it; there were charming little towns, a long way from the Gringo Trail; and then there was Juliaca.

All the gringos stared out the window as we passed through, much as they might at a car smash. It is the scariest city I have ever seen, despite growing up in West Yorkshire. The roads were just mud and boating lake puddles in the bit that I saw: no surface, no pavements at all. Dangerous-looking young men lounged in doorways, scowling from under hoods. My guidebook warned that daytime muggings were common enough, and at night were too frequent to mention.


But Puno is better, in parts. It has a nice Baroque cathedral, photogenic decay and indigenous markets selling colourful fabrics and sandals made from car tyres. It is worth a day of your time.


I arrived, by chance, the day before the festival of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the party erupted all over town next morning. There were street food vendors on every corner and I bought an anticucho (marinated beef heart skewer) outside my hotel and tried to eat it while I threaded my way through the crowds. Scuse me! Scuse… err… ¡Permesso! There were brass bands and flautists and men with big drums they call wankaras. Aymara dancers trooped down the street whirling batons. I wanted to cross but there was never a gap, so I joined the parade and slipped out further down the road. Wankara, someone said.

A very drunk man leaned against a wall in a lane, with his head lolling a few centimetres from speeding mototaxis. Another happily pissed in the middle of the road and people pretended not to notice.

It was like a Saturday night back home.

© Richard Senior 2015

Landscape image: Shutterstock

A Perspective on Lima


Lima is a pretty city,” reckoned Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Lima is an atrocity,” insisted Matthew Parris in Inca Kola.

Parris’s impression is the one generally held, especially by those who have never been. Lima has a shocking reputation. It is ugly, they say; it is dangerous. There is nothing much to look at while you are being mugged at gunpoint. Parris noticed concrete and tin, dead dogs and cars without windscreens.

The city is smothered in fog for much of the year, which cannot help to endear it. “The white veil,” Melville called it in Moby Dick. But I was there in late January, when the sky was blue more often than not, and the sun was hot enough to redden my neck. The fogs came, all right; but ephemerally, like dry ice from a smoke machine.


I think Lima must, in any case, have smartened itself up in the twenty-four years since Parris was there. I never saw a dead dog – although strays were everywhere – and saw only one car that was missing a windscreen. Most were in a lot better fettle than the minibuses, which roared along with blowing exhausts, great gashes down their sides and several important bits missing.

Hotel development in the Miraflores district has been about as unsympathetic as it could be (Guevara would have been spared that in 1952); but next door Barranco is full of character with its shabby-gentile colonial buildings in jaunty, contrasting colours like forest green and lilac, anorak blue and orange, and dogshit brown and dayglo pink. It would be a stretch, though, to call it pretty.

The Centro Historico is genuinely pretty with its plazas, its fountains, its grand public buildings and a cathedral to which Guevara devoted a long and exuberant paragraph. You might, for a moment, imagine yourself in an important city in Spain; but the illusion cannot last for long. A shanty town spreads round and up the surrounding mountains, painfully visible from all over town; and just a few blocks from the grandest plaza are workaday districts with litter in the doorways and broken chairs slung onto roofs.


In short, it is not as irredeemably ugly as popularly believed, but it is hardly Cuzco either. The danger is apparently real, but even at night it feels a lot less edgy than somewhere like La Paz.

My guidebook – never knowingly underwhelmed – reckoned Lima “the gastronomic capital of the continent”. That sounds like windy exaggeration, but two of its restaurants are listed among the World’s 50 Best: equal with London, one fewer than Paris. It is the place to go to eat ceviche, Peru’s most famous dish: a buzzword, now, on fine-dining menus in the English-speaking world.

The chef squirts lime juice over sliced raw fish, and then flavours it with garlic, chilli, coriander and red onion and leaves it to marinate so that the acid in the juice “cooks” the fish. “Better than it sounds,” said Parris, who seems to have the classical Englishman’s approach to food and usually only mentioned it when it upset somebody’s stomach.

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The version I had at a smart restaurant overlooking the sea in Miraflores used chunks of sea bass, crab claws and scallops, and came with the Peruvian staples, sweet potato and corn. “Una experencia incomparable,” the menu declared with a good pinch of hyperbole, but it was very good.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Cuzco: Shadows of the Incas

“The word that most perfectly describes the city of Cuzco is evocative,” said Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Intangible dust of another era settles on its streets, rising like the disturbed sediment of a muddy lake when you touch its bottom”.

Even Matthew Parris admitted in his often curmudgeonly book, Inca Kola, that it is “worth seeing”.

It has the same raffish charm, the same flyblown pomp as the ancient towns of Sicily. Smarter, grander around the Plaza de Armas in the middle of town, tattier, poorer the further away you go from it; but all of central Cuzco has character. Few walls are freshly painted, few have their stucco intact; many are plastered with the tattered remains of several generations of fly poster. But you will want to walk those cobbled streets for hours, for days, forever.


There is a bustle in the streets surrounding Mercado San Pedro, and an indifference to outsiders.  Sacks of beans are piled to the top of doorways, chicken’s feet claw out of windows. The butcher hacks up a carcass to order on a slab right out on the street front. Andean ladies with dirty fingernails squat on corners selling fruit. One has a basket filled with whole roast guinea pigs, a delicacy in Peru. Honking cars burst from every side street and converge in the stalemate of a main road. Mangy dogs quietly thread between them. A policewoman blows a whistle, more in frustration, I think, than in hope of bringing order.

The street food is good and cheap, and every few steps there are ladies grilling sausages and anticuchos*, or else kneeling with a bundle of empanadas.


Cuzco was the Inca capital once, and it is an important centre for their modern descendants, the Quechua people. Ladies in fedora-like hats, voluminous skirts and Nora Batty stockings carry their babies in rainbow papooses and walk their llamas on leads. Some are there touting for business – “fotto, amigo, fotto please” – but most keep to themselves, huddle in the shade and chat.

The Spanish built on top of the structures they found, and often you spot the big, interlocking stones of the Incas at the base of colonial buildings. The Andean people adopted Christianity in much the same way, superimposing it onto, incorporating it into their traditional beliefs. While eighty per cent of modern Peruvians declare themselves Catholic, many nonetheless worship Pachamama** much as the Incas did.


(c) Richard Senior 2014

*marinated beef heart kebabs

**mother earth

The Tyranny of the Bucket List


My alarm went off at 3.30am. I got dressed and went out and tagged along with the procession of half-asleep travellers crowded into tuk-tuks or furiously pedalling unlit hire bikes through the crepuscular gloom.  At Angkor Wat, the hawkers were patrolling the car park with torches,

“You wan’ coffee-breakfast?”

“Not now, thanks.”

I joined the concert crowd assembling in front of the temple and sat and waited with increasing impatience for an hour or so until the sun struggled over the horizon. Is that it? I thought and went to get coffee-breakfast.


It occurred to me later that I had seen dozens of landmarks, just as iconic, but had never before felt the need to get up in the middle of the night and watch the sun rise behind them. But it had never before been a Thing You Must Do before You Die.

It is always a must: a sternly-worded injunction, a must try … do not miss … essential … cannot leave without: never a friendly, you could do this if you want. It is like working for a manager proud of being difficult.

I have been white water rafting, but that was in Thailand which doesn’t seem to count. You have to raft the Lower Zambezi or nothing. I have been to Ibiza several times – I was there for the openings once – but I have never been to a closing party, and that is all the authors of bucket lists recognise. I am not doing very well.



I have no chance of getting to all of the 1000 places in Patricia Schultz’s book, especially if I have to find time to read the 1001 books and see the 1001 movies listed in the Quintessence Editions. And I have not even looked at 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Before You Die. There are still things outstanding which I should have done before I was 25.

Come to think of it, though, it is hard to see how any one person will ever do all the things which routinely appear on bucket lists. The sort who dream of making a million, meeting the president and having things named after themselves are never going to live out of a van.

Someone putting in the work to get a book published and have an artwork in an exhibition, while becoming fluent in a foreign language, inventing something and running his or her own business, will not have the time to visit every country in the world. He or she will be hard pressed to fit in milking a cow and skinny dipping at midnight.


In truth, I am not fussed if I never see A Clockwork Orange, and I have wrestled with Finnegans Wake before and been beaten and I am not likely to try again, and while I had the chance to go to the Golden Triangle when I was in Southeast Asia, I decided not to bother.

I have no intention of doing a runner from a fancy restaurant, I am happy to pay for my food; and I certainly do not want to get arrested. I cannot see the point of shouting “the drinks are on me” in a crowded bar, even if (which I don’t) you have pots of money; and I am not sure there is anything to forgive my parents for.

There are, as well, a load of things I have done and want to do which I have never seen on any bucket list but which will stay in my memory long after that early morning at Angkor Wat has faded.

So when I went to Peru and they told me I had to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, I ignored them and spent longer in bed.

(c) Richard Senior 2014