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“Follow me, quick, hurry up. I’m so sorry those people are awful.”
I was confused, a street cleaner was ushering me towards the bus station in Buenos Aires at a rapid pace: “I’m going to tell the police, they shouldn’t do that to tourists.”
Still confused I ventured a “Urrrrm what did ‘they’ do?”
It appeared I had been saved by the friendly street cleaner from a potential third robbing in Argentina. By spraying me with a tube of mustard, con men had hoped I would stop and put my bag down to survey the damage, leaving it free for them to steal. More fool them, I was too intent on catching my bus to notice their little game.
This incident left me feeling a little sad about Buenos Aires, a great city, but with a larger than usual number of petty thieves and robbers that had started to get on my nerves, I was not sad to be leaving.

The bus journey to Bariloche was less than uneventful, the scenery was flat and arid and my mood the same as I smelled faintly of mustard and had been unable to secure myself a train ticket from Viedma to Bariloche, the impossibility of booking in advance a huge frustration. According to Hector at Tren Patagonica, the journey was a delight. Original resorted carriages with fireplaces, comfy beds for the overnight journey and fantastic views. Although the dust, as in Paul Theroux’s day was apparently still an issue.

But my mood lifted upon sight of Bariloche. The town, reminding me of an European ski resort, was set to the backdrop of Lake Nahuel Huapi, snowy mountains and volcanos. The scale and expanse of the view was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen and I began to understand the Patagonian love affair.
Paul Theroux had not ventured to Bariloche, many people had suggested he visit but he was on the home straight, taking The Lagos del Sur from Buenos Aires to Jacobacci and then The Old Patagonian Express (official name La Trochita) ending his journey at Esquel: “A dot at the lower part of the map” as he had once described his destination, this was where the trains ran out of track travelling south. (The route now impossible as the railway no longer runs from Buenos Aires nor from Jacobacci, but there are plans underway for its restoration.)

The only way for me to get to Esquel and The Old Patagonian Express was by bus. The forest-covered mountains and purple wildflowers had me transfixed as we rumbled through the countryside. After a couple of hours on the bus my excitement and impatience at reaching Esquel were at a peak, when in true South American style we broke down. So close yet so far from my goal I sighed and tried to control my rising frustrations. The locals on the bus huffed a little and then fell asleep as the driver announced that we were awaiting a replacement bus. “When will this arrive?” I asked, hoping for a vague sense of timing. The driver looked at me incredulously “I don’t know?!” Of course, I thought, this was not the first time that Argentina’s developed façade had lulled me into a false sense of security, this was still South America after all, specifics were not commonplace. Two hours later we were finally on our way, the lush landscape giving way to the ‘Patagonian desert’ of dull green scrub against a background of flat brown earth broken up by the odd heard of llamas. The view brought to mind Bruce Chatwin’s description from In Patagonia: “The Patagonian desert is not one of sand or gravel but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed.” And Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle pondered on why the “arid wastes” of Patagonia had taken such firm possession of his mind.

Esquel itself seemed to meld into the surrounds with its unremarkable buildings stretching for blocks and samey blocks into the desert. Offering nothing in the way of distraction except the railway, I started towards The Old Patagonian Express with eager anticipation.

It was a dusty walk to Esquel station from the towns centre. I spotted the train tracks crossing the road and decided to approach by walking along them, avoiding the cars and their dust clouds. La Trochita and the Esquel station sign slowly came into view and I felt strangely emotional, this train representing the end of my journey; so important yet so insignificant compared with the months of travel preceding this moment. I started to think back to the highs and lows of my venture, the seedy Costa Rican bars, the Andean scenery, my fears in Colombia and love of the one train I managed to catch in Ecuador, the grimy hotels and the friendly (and not so friendly) people I met along the way. All of these memories I would never forget. But most of all I thought about my strange quest to follow in the footsteps of Paul Theroux, what had I gained and lost along the way? I felt a sense of elation as I had achieved my goal but also a sense of anti-climax. Now what? I had done my best to retrace Paul’s steps, I had examined the people, landscapes, cultures and railways as I had hoped, while providing my readers with some distraction while I travelled.

The train itself was a huffing, puffing black and red monster, the carriages, perhaps the very ones that Paul had travelled in, restored to their former glory; wooden exteriors and sky blue painted insides with wood burning stoves in their centre. The first class was painted brown inside with cushioned seats and high backs. We started with a jolt and the Argentinean tourists cheered as we clattered out of Esquel. The day was sunny and bright with not a cloud in the sky and I listened to the guide explain about the trains restoration and its fame as we bumped along the tracks, the windows clattering and carriage joints creaking and straining.
Our one and only stop was Nahuel Pan; old engines and carriages littered the flat desolate plain and greyish mountains shaded purple rose up out of the unforgiving ground. Tourists bought handicrafts and hot bread while taking photos of themselves and La Trochita (Little Gauge) which looked far more formidable than its real name.

With a shrill whistle we were soon on our way. This time heading back towards Esquel the final ‘dot’ on my map. I looked out of the window onto the Patagonian countryside and imagined Paul’s impatience as he had approached Esquel. I too felt impatient; to return to England and see friends and family, but also concerned as a quote of Paul Theroux’s came to mind: “Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”

Stepping off The Old Patagonian Express at Esquel station I looked around at the tourists and marvelled that I had made it this far, for them the train ride had been a simple jaunt, a way to fill a day, a break from the humdrum. For me the ride had been a full stop; the end to a long journey which had started so many miles away and ended here in this Patagonian town, a dot on Paul Theroux’s map and now a full stop on mine.

“My arrival did not matter, it was the journey that counted…..the nothingness itself a vast beginning for some intrepid traveller, was an ending for me.”
Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express

As I near the end of my journey I’ve been wondering about the name you gave to the train from Jacobacci to Esquel: ‘The Old Patagonian Express.’
I liked the fact that the boy you were talking to on the train, Renaldo Davies, said: “This train is too insignificant to have a name. The government is talking about getting rid of it.”

In part the government have succeeded to do that as the only remaining segment of the train line that runs on a regular basis is from Esquel to Nahuel Pan and back again. A tiny section of the last train journey you took on your South American adventure.

But I stumbled across an interesting fact when talking with Hector, Argentina’s last remaining train expert. He informed me that the train has always been known as La Trochita, in translation, Little Gauge. Did you know this at the time or was it a fact you discovered later on, long after ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ had stuck? Your name sounds much more romantic and is now even on the current train tickets for La Trochita: The Old Patagonian Express as they now officially call it.

Getting hold of one of those tickets from anywhere else in the world apart from Esquel itself was near-on impossible as I have recently discovered, but having been immersed in some Patagonian literary research, it seems this is the beauty of the place; its isolation and solitariness.
The great expanses of nothing, the vast desolate plains and the lack of habitation which would turn into stretches of lush forests and snowy mountainous are overwhelming. These vistas led W H Hudson to feeling he was: “Incapable of reflection: my mind had suddenly transformed itself from a thinking machine into a machine for some other unknown purpose. To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something that bade me still, and I was forced to obey.”

Perhaps this is the effect Patagonia has on its inhabitants, as I must admit to feeling something similar as I gazed upon the landscapes and marvelled at their rugged beauty.

Luckily upon my arrival in Esquel I was able to procure myself a ticket to your legendary train and the end of my journey. The Old Patagonian Express.

Best Wishes
Rachel.

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I had trouble striking up conversation with the portenos (locals) in Buenos Aires, their withering glances and patronising stares were not inviting. And when a stroll along Florida Street left me without my wallet I felt even less inclined to chat.

Despite all of this there was something I liked about Buenos Aires. I had been recommended a restaurant named Desniveles by a friendly Australian on my bus, it turned out to be the best steak I had ever tasted. The place was packed and its plastic tablecloths and penguin wine carafes gave it great character (unlike the portenos). I spent much of my time in the city strolling around various areas and sitting in the shade hiding from the relentless 35 degree heat. La Boca with its colourful houses and tango dancing charmed me and I enjoyed the boutiques of Palmero. Nothing as literary as Paul Theroux’s week with Jorge Borges, but I did visit his family home and duly admire the plaque on the wall there.

I also paid a visit to the police station to report my various thefts and get a crime number. This proved to be more entertaining than all my sightseeing put together.
A fleshy policeman ushered me into the ancient station and bade me to sit, promising he would be able to help. He proceeded to smoke a cigarette while sitting at an empty desk, wondering if this was the idle officer’s way of helping me I took in my surroundings. It felt as though I had returned to the seventies, the paint was peeling from the walls and old black and white photos of former policeman hung wonkily. An ancient chandelier dangled precariously by a single wire as water dripped onto it from a leaking pipe in the ceiling. The smoking policeman watched the drips form a puddle and sighed before looking over at his colleague who was diligently typing into what looked like an IBM computer. I waited…. A member of what looked like the ymca came in and gave the smoker his lunch, he was wearing his police uniform with tight style and copious amounts of hair gel, much kissing and greeting occurred, a cultural embrace between men that I was still getting used to. I was beckoned over to the IBM and we discovered an issue: my bag had been stolen in a state outside of Buenos Aires police jurisdiction. Both police disappeared into the office of the jefe (boss). Then the stunningly handsome jefe appeared from the office and put his arm around me: “Let me tell you a little secret….your bag wasn’t stolen on the border, it was stolen here.” He waggled his perfectly shaped eyebrows at me and nodded. “Great..thanks a lot” I managed to stutter while staring into his beautiful eyes; it felt like I was in some sort of South American soap opera. Much back slapping and kissing between the policeman occurred again as they agreed on the dates and times of the crime and the IBM typer got to work. Everyone was happy and I stumbled out of the station in a daze with my crime statement wondering if I had just played a bit part in a camp musical or was about to see Ashton Kutcher shout ‘you’ve been punk’d.’

My next plan was to organise one of the last legs of my trip; how to get to Patagonia. Paul Theroux took the Lagos del Sur to Ingeniero Jacobacci before taking La Trochita (The Old Patagonian Express). So I went in search of a train ticket.
The Tren Patagonico office was where I met Hector Cassano the last train expert in Argentina and saviour of La Trochita. His stories of political persecution had me rooted to my seat…more about that to come…and I discovered (again) that the only way to get a train ticket in Argentina was to book three months in advance. It seemed despite Buenos Aires European aspirations its reality was still firmly rooted in South America.

The Expresso Sur to Villazon

The Expresso Sur to Villazon

How I longed to be able to board the train in La Paz and three days later arrive in Buenos Aires. Despite the delays Paul Theroux arrived in Argentina’s capital unscathed. I felt rather like I had undergone some sort of emotional and physical challenge and to add insult to injury I was robbed a second time on my first day in the city.

After a bumpy seven hour bus ride on my way out of Bolivia, on unsealed roads through some of the most desolate landscapes I had seen in my life, I thankfully boarded the Expresso Sur bound for the Argentinean border. Sadly the train was not a sleeper but it boasted reclining seats and blankets. I tucked myself in and fell fast asleep, the clickity clack of the train on the rails rocking me into a deep slumber. I awoke feeling refreshed and headed straight to the dinning car where I was served a good breakfast of coffee and eggs. The landscape had changed, it was greener yet still mountainous. It filled me with hope, the dry riverbeds and barren vistas of south Bolivia had started to depress me, I longed for a paved road, a clean bathroom and a tasty snack. The pretty cacti that speckled the ground had started to look more hydrated and it felt as though this lusher landscape was leading me to better things. This was sadly something of a delusion.

The border was the usual melee of queues and chaos. The gringos were being stamped out of Bolivia ahead of the natives and their wads of paper. The Argentinean side was not as speedy, I spent some while trying to work out why a gringo tourist was wearing rubber gloves and searching luggage, until I realised he was Argentinean, I was filled with a sense of relief… I was no longer going to stand out, I would blend in with the locals for the first time in months. This excitement was sadly somewhat premature, at the bus station in La Quiaca I stood out enough to have my bag swiped from the office of a bus operator. I had placed it on a table for no more than two minutes before it disappeared. The only people in the office had been myself and the bus company employees. Trying to contain my anger I attempted to bribe, beg and cry for the return of my bag but all to no avail: “It must have been the Peruvians, they are thief’s.” was the only answer I could wrestle out of the employees. This was one of several frustrations I was to suffer in Argentina, I think the look of the country had lulled me into a false sense of security, the city streets reminded me of an older Spain or Portugal and the chino wearing men and glossy women looked like they had stepped out of an eighties European fashion magazine. But despite a shiny exterior the inner workings of Argentina seemed to have a lot of catching up to do and according to the papers things were moving back not forwards.

From the border, minus my bag, luckily my passport had been in my pocket, I wearily took an eight-hour bus ride to the pretty town of Salta. Arriving late and with only a morning to spare I strolled around the main plaza, marvelling at its impressive pink cathedral and ate breakfast in a café, all the while feeling like I had been transported magically back to Europe.

I was soon reminded I was in South America when I tried to organise taking the train from Tucuman to Buenos Aries.
“The train is booked until March.”
“March…?” I spluttered back incredulously. “But I’ve only just arrived in Argentina and could not find a way to book the train online.”
“We are sorry the train is very popular in Argentina, but it only runs twice a week.”
Frustrated with both myself and the rail company I tried every trick in the book to get onto the train, I flashed my press pass, talked about The Times, my blog and all to no avail.
I left, resigned to yet another long bus ride. A mere 22 hours to Buenos Aires.
With a heavy heart I boarded the 12.30 Andesmar bus. We stopped to change buses half an hour our of the city and I marvelled at a man in the petrol station, he was eating a huge steak, it must have been the size of a chess board. No salad, no chips, no drink even. Just a huge steak. Well this was Argentina after all.

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I waited a long time to cross the road in La Paz, then all the people I thought were waiting with me got into a collectivo minibus. Ah ha.. I thought and tried to style out my long wait with a jaunty stroll across the road, which nearly ended my life as a taxi screeched to a halt millimetres from my toes.

La Paz was somewhat a confusing city and certainly a busy one, but I felt a change in atmosphere from Peru almost immediately. The people were a lot more smiley and there was a certain openness about them which made me feel relaxed. A simple transaction of buying a cup of coffee could last for hours as pleasantries were exchanged and general chat occurred.
I had met many Peruvians who harboured resentment about the state of their lives and economy and were happy to voice their grievances, but the Bolivians I encountered so far seemed content with their lot and proud of their country, in fact I felt compelled to tell every Bolivian I spoke to that theirs was by far the best country in Latin America. As Paul Theroux remembered on several occasions: They hate criticism.

“Bolivia is my country, I love Bolivia I will never leave here, but I HATE Evo Morales, he is stupid.” Not a common criticism of a president, but this was in fact the second person who had said this to me. I was enjoying a beer in The Blue Note, a cosy bar in La Paz, with a musician whose name I could not pronounce, when I asked about his thoughts on the president: “You want to talk about politicsssssss?” he hissed at me menacingly. “I don’t, it makes me angry for my country.” He shouted beating his chest. I decided to change the subject. The pony-tailed flute player calmed as he spoke to me of the beautiful jungle, mountains and cities in Bolivia.

La Paz left me breathless and confused, just when I thought I knew the way back to my hotel I was faced with another unfamiliar hill littered with small Indian women begging or selling their wares. Looking up to avert my gaze from the beggars I noticed the terrifying wiring, thousands of lines crisscrossing the streets and connecting the jumbled buildings in a decidedly unsafe fashion.
The central square, as with all squares in South America, was filled with life. Women selling drinks and snacks, children playing with the pigeons and men sat on benches chatting. Cheerful armed police posed with tourists as did the guards on the government houses. The buildings were beautiful, especially the Palacio Presidential, designed in an Italian renaissance style and known as the burnt palace as it has twice been gutted by fire.

Each corner in the city brought a new surprise, one day I stumbled across the most impressive parade I have seen for years, rows of women dancing happily in matching outfits, their bright shawls swished as they turned, a brass band ompahhed along behind them all coordinated by a very cool chap who looked a little like a pimp, a real party atmosphere. A saint’s day celebration and a wedding combined I was told.

But I was a bad tourist in La Paz, I didn’t want to see the inmates in San Pedro prison or cycle down the aptly named death road, so instead I wandered around the city watching its inhabitants and eating the most delicious cakes I had consumed in a long time. Perhaps this had something to do with why the Bolivians were so happy, their cake. It oozed out of the shop windows, huge chocolate sculptures that I thought only existed in cartoons. I must have been in a post cake haze one day when I left my bank card in the machine. Cursing my stupidity I returned to the bank the next day with low hopes of retrieving the card. I explained to the pretty lady in traditional dress of blue sparkly fringed shawl and bowler hat (I was having problems thinking of her as a bank employee) when she told me to look for Horacio. After a few ‘Donde esta Horacios’ I found him and lo and behold he had my bank card in his hand. He smiled and handed it back to me with a jaunty nod. I was astonished.

I did attend one kind-of tourist activity in La Paz, one which I decided could not be missed named Cholitas Wrestling.
This was a fun Sunday activity which involved local families and a few tourists turning up to a sports centre and watching women in traditional dress um…wrestle, and not just wrestle each other but wrestle men also. It was the most obscure afternoon I had enjoyed in a long time. The wrestlers were introduced, as in all wrestling matches, with a lot of pomp and ceremony. First up was a man dressed in camouflaged army gear and sunglasses, he marched around the ring as the locals booed and I caught sight of a little old Indian lady with a very wrinkled face flicking him the bird.

Next in was a pretty Indian lady who danced around the ring before removing her earrings and bowler hat for the fight The bell rang and she approached her opponent with a rake, which he swiftly grabbed from her and began to press into her forehead, blood spurted all over the Cholita and the ring. What good clean family fun I pondered to myself, although the blood was fake the effect was fairly horrific. It seemed the lady had not a chance against the tough ‘army’ man and she was ’punched’ and ’kicked’ in true fake wrestling style until left ’bleeding’ having lost the fight in the centre of the ring. Her daughter came to drag her away though, which was a nice touch.

At this point an American lady sat next to me, who had been brought to this traditional event by her Bolivian family, got up and walked out shouting about sadism. Her husband, who had been enjoying himself and yelling at the wrestlers, slunk out after her, tail between his legs.
The rest of the audience was enjoying the show and participated with yells and boos as the fights continued, local favourites came and went, popcorn and candyfloss was consumed and at one point the fighters spilled out of the ring and onto my lap. After a few fights I escaped into the thin altiplano air and back to my hotel feeling somewhat confused and wondering if every Indian women I saw was really a secret Cholita wrestler about to attack.

You once wrote:

The llama was a special reproach to me.

‘The llama is a woolly sort of fleecy hairy goat,
With an indolent expression and an undulating throat,
like an unsuccessful literary man.’

I’m currently in Bolivia swigging, instead of your morphine spiked cement, nasty, pink, Pepto Bismol, and feeling a little sorry for myself, wondering what it is I’m doing here. I feel a little like the llama in your above prose. Nevertheless I have made it this far and will soldier on to my goal, The Old Patagonian Express.
I have discovered the only part of the line left running from La Paz to Buenos Aires is from Oruro to the Argentinean border at Villazon. So this will be my next and I believe, sadly my penultimate train ride, as the Lagos Del Sur Express is also out of action.
I hope you have been enjoying reading my blog and if you have any tips for the last few weeks of my journey then I’ll be pleased to hear them.

Best Wishes
Rachel Pook

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I ran huffing and puffing towards the train station, leaving my taxi abandoned in the traffic of Cuzco. It would be typical, I thought as I dodged the tourists and Indians, if I missed this, the most expensive train of my trip. Arriving at the station while cursing my heavy backpack, a smart guide ushered me through a room of welcome panpipe players and onto the train.
I was a mess: red, sweaty with a dirty backpack and a broken plastic bag containing my snacks.

The train on the other hand looked like the reception of a five-star hotel. The chairs were actually armchairs, the tables were adorned with tablecloths and gold-plated lamps and the other passengers looked haughtily up at me over their reading glasses.
I settled myself in trying to ignore their prying eyes and took in my luxurious surrounds. Wood panelled walls with gold trims and photos of the train from yonder year when the locals could actually afford the trip. At $220 for a one way ticket, there was sadly not a local in sight and despite enjoying the comfort as I sipped my ’welcome’ drink I felt frustrated that this rail journey had now been reserved solely for the moneyed holidaymaker.

Paul Theroux had not managed to take what is now called The Andean Explorer, strikes had meant he was forced to take a bus to Puno, like the locals now. I settled into the undulating Andean scenery, local farms and villages whizzed by as the occupants of the train, spurred on by their welcome drink, retired to the bar carriage to enjoy their expensive cocktails.
The train slowed at one of the villages and dirty children tried to sell us Llama dolls through the windows, I remembered a bag of lollies I had and decided to share them with the kids, they smiled and laughed as I passed them out of the train. One of the haughty women suddenly shouted across the carriage to me:
“Are you giving them lollies?”
“Yes” I replied
“Well tell them to clean their teeth then, all of these children have terrible teeth.”
I doubted that any of these children had ever seen a toothbrush, their parents picked at the teeth they had left with sticks and the kids probably did the same. I desperately wanted to respond to this idiotic woman but I knew that whatever I said would come out rudely so I did the mature thing and ignored her, fuming silently inside.
The train chugged through the centre of the town Juliaca, the market was either side of us selling everything imaginable including car parts and plumbing, haughty lady remarked to no one in particular: “This is the real Peru…I’ve been living in the real Peru for three weeks. It was hard but very rewarding.”
Suddenly a small group formed around her as she told of staying in a village, ‘without a hotel?’ someone gasped. I walked away unsure I would be able to hold my tongue when faced with more of her right-on preening.
The tourists got drunker and started dancing in the bar with the local band, in a very English manner I felt embarrassed for them and stayed in my seat reading Death in the Andes, a dark tale that had me gripped as Mario Vargas Llosa’s fantastic prose gave me an insight into some of the Andean towns I had recently travelled through.

Puno itself is a small bustling town with more tourists than I had imagined, scurrying to and from the floating islands on Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. I enjoyed a beer in a rock bar with graffiti all over its walls and spent some time reading the daubings, my favourite being: ‘We got them out on Lake Titi.’ Lovely.
The bus to the border and La Paz awaited. It’s torn seats and smelly interior filled me with a new dread, I had heard many a horror story about Bolivian roads and buses and this particular one seemed to be living up to its reputation. Paul Theroux had enjoyed the luxury of taking the train from La Paz all the way to Buenos Aires but the details of this part of my trip were hazy as that train no longer runs. The thought of spending substantial amounts of time on Bolivian buses worried me somewhat, but the stunning sunset over Lake Titicaca and the mountains stopped my concerns until I was shaken awake by a Bolivian army guy and asked to get off the bus.

I was confused, he was pointing me towards a little boat where the rest of the passengers were waiting, it appeared we had to cross a small stretch of water, us in a little boat and the bus on what looked like several planks of wood that would then be punted to the other side. I looked around hoping to see a bridge, but there was none. The situation was so bizarre and I was so sleepy I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream, but sure enough after waiting a few minutes on the other side of the water our bus came bobbing towards the shore and we were back on the road. Marvelling at the strangeness of the situation I had no time to be complacent as not much further along the road we came to a sudden halt. I peered out of the back window into the dark to see an overturned bus on the road and a backpacker limping towards us. The driver had been going too fast around the corner and the bus had toppled. I checked that the backpacker was okay. He was very casual about the situation, I think he must have still been in shock:
“I’m fine, I just clung onto the luggage shelf while the whole thing seemed to go in slow motion, but it was really nothing. Where are you planning to stay in La Paz anyway?”
I couldn’t get over how calm he was being as the twinkling lights of La Paz appeared before us. I was excited about seeing this city, one of the few that Paul Theroux had actually praised.

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It was the second time I’d seen the armadillo, but this time it was covered in confetti.
As I stood and pondered why there was a dead armadillo chained up outside a Cuzco internet café, a toothless man popped up next to the animal and cheerfully informed me it was the armadillo’s birthday, hence the confetti, while cackling madly.

It seemed despite being a tourist Mecca Cuzco was not without its idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t decide if I loved or loathed the place. After all the little Andean towns it was strangely comforting to see so many tourists marred only by the fact that all of them were clad in ‘activity’ trousers teamed with llama wool hats and large cameras.
The Plaza de Armas was a mob of relentless restaurant, massage and tour hustlers. But I had decided to avoid a tour and take the train to Machu Picchu in peace and without a guide, so I thought, but it seems the Bert Howie’s of Paul’s day are still around and have grown in number. The tour group surrounding me on the 4.15pm Vistadome were all already sporting Machu Picchu sun hats, one had some sort of Peruvian instrument in a hippie bag and several wore utility jackets.

The Urubamba valley was immense, its high peaks, left undisturbed by the world until Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, towered over the river and train tracks at the bottom of the valley. I didn’t want to like the ‘Vistadome’ train, named thus for its windows in the ceiling, I wanted to prefer the locals trains I had travelled on, but I had to admit that I rather enjoyed being able to see the peaks of the mountains as the train rattled along the tracks.

The Japanese couple beside me relaxed and put on their slippers as their mulleted tour guide bleated on about the difficulties of the Inca trail and how taking the train was ‘easy peasy, lemon squeezey, Japanesey.’ Not very politically correct considering his audience.
I felt strangely alienated from these wealthy tourists and they in turn seemed not to know what to make of me, so left me alone.
Perhaps they took me for a ‘freebooting backpacker’ just like the ones Paul encountered in the seventies. The breed still exists but they now seem to spend any extra pennys they find on cheap, potentially dangerous adventure sports. I’d seen many of them busing into towns, white-water rafting, trekking and then busing out without even a glance at the local community or culture.

I felt alienated from these travellers also, with no inclination for adventure sports or buses if I could avoid them. I felt like a strange observer neither in one camp or another.
This feeling reminded me of Paul’s comment: “ I had neither a tourist badge or a rucksack. I trod a narrow implausible line between the two…” (although I do actually have a rucksack and often wonder how Paul managed this journey with a suitcase.)

The tinny pan pipe music on the train suddenly changed to an upbeat dance song and it was announced that we were to be subjected to an alpaca fashion show, unfortunately not including alpacas themselves, just embarrassed train staff in rather nasty jumpers parading up and down the carriages. As we neared Machu Picchu I wasn’t sure who felt more embarrassed, me or them.

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These words, from The Old Patagonian Express, rang in my ears as I clung to the edge of my seat and kept my eyes tightly shut as the bus negotiated the highest, narrowest and scariest ‘puna’ (high, cold plateau) I had ever encountered.
Taking a route across the Andes via Andahuaylas had seemed like an excellent idea from the comfort of a town that actually had paved roads running in and out of it.

Two bumpy, dusty hours out of Ayacucho and frightened for my life I was beginning to have my doubts. Alarm bells had started ringing when the bus driver had backed out of the station smashing his wing mirror off in the process, this was not boding well for his negotiation skills, but I tried not to worry and kept my head in my book, also trying not to think about the fact the bus looked as though most of it had been glued back together at one stage or another in its long life.
An hour out of Ayacucho the brakes started making a horrific squealing noise, further adding to my panic. It was starting to become very difficult to concentrate on reading (My book: Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes – not a great choice at this point in the trip) and by the time we reached the puna I didn’t know what to do with myself.
We were as high as the highest snowy peaks and the formidable mountains surrounded us as the creaking monster of a bus struggled around the hair pin bends, looking at every moment as if it might slip off the road and down into the precipice below. At each bend the driver hit the squeaky breaks and honked his horn for the benefit of any oncoming traffic.

I alternated between staring out of the window while shrieking quietly to myself in harmony with the breaks and keeping my eyes closed and breathing deeply. Just as my thoughts of ’why, why did I choose this route?’ started to get out of control, the driver came to a screeching halt and all the passengers screamed as we nearly had a head on collision with a truck on a hairpin bend overlooking a sheer drop of 350 ft.
This had an almost cathartic effect on my mood. How much worse could this get? I thought to myself, and an hour later when we stopped for lunch I shared my fears with one of the ladies on the bus. She looked at me and burst out laughing: “This bus journey is very safe the roads are wide, they used to be a lot worse than this. There is no reason to be scared.” I felt a little bit embarrassed and laughed nervously while thinking… well its easy for you not to be scared there is no awareness of safety in this country whatsoever. Just walking down the road is a liability with uncovered drains and giant potholes everywhere you look. A simple stroll to the local shop would be an American lawyers dream.
After lunch the track became slightly more tolerable and I spent a great deal of the afternoon trying not to be covered in a bottle of oil a local woman had brought onto the bus. She was dressed in local garb with a smelly bundle on her back and a lidless bottle that kept tipping over and emptying its contents over my feet. The problem was made worse by the fact that whenever I tried to right the bottle she snatched at it, thinking I was trying to steal it and snarled at me with a toothless grimace. Just as I thought things could not get anymore uncomfortable or weird a man got on the bus and started giving the passengers some sort of sex education talk before trying to sell them posters of scientific diagrams of genitalia.
It is safe to say that the ten-hour trip from Ayacucho to Andahuaylas had been one of the worst so far and that the Lonely Planet’s description of “a tough ride on a road rarely used except by the most hard-core travellers” was not wrong, although I very much doubted that I fell into the category of ‘hard-core traveller’.

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Huancayo is a buzzing little Andean town, full of colour, people and life. Certainly not the cold, sad picture that I had imagined after Paul Theroux‘s descriptions:
“There was something about the damp walls of every room in this town, and the muddy roads leading out of it that made the isolation palpable; it’s chill conveyed a physical feeling of remoteness.”
No longer so isolated from the rest of Peru, with good connecting roads, the town has blossomed into a thriving Andean centre, famous for its Sunday markets and even boasting a modern shopping centre.
The square was a veritable social club, always full of chatting families and street sellers. I had arrived on the weekend of Halloween and the pavements were mobbed with miniature vampires and ghosts, while a Christian concert took place on a makeshift stage. It all felt a little surreal as I watched little children dressed as devils sing Halleluiahs with their parents.

But I could not linger long, I was going to take a train that even Theroux himself had not managed to get on; he had returned to Lima from Huancayo and flown to Cuzco, as in the seventies, when he took his trip, there was no passable road or railway through the mountains to the east. Now it is possible to take the train to Huancavelica then a bus to Ayacucho and then two more mountain buses across the Andes to Cuzco.
This was in fact the same route which Michael Jacobs took in his book Andes, so I started mentally preparing myself for the bus rides, which sounded a little rough. Although I should have perhaps focused on the train ride which was also a little less than comfortable. Even the queue for tickets was an experience in itself: I was serenaded by a man in a wheelchair and his son, sold bread, offered sweets, moisturiser, tiger balm and flowers. So distracted by these offerings I failed to notice a man push in front of me, which caused quite a stir when the security guard picked him out of the queue giving me a disparaging look and a telling-off as he did so. The ‘queue’ was a colourful melee of shouting, pushing and a distinct lack of personal space, so taking a deep breath I stuck my elbows out and pushed forward in an attempt to get a ticket while wondering why on earth I hadn’t thought about booking in advance.
I was still wondering this when I found myself sharing my bag, which was now being used as a seat, with a small family of three, off to visit their relatives in Huancavelica.
The mother, dressed in the usual Andean outfit of smart hat, brightly coloured flared skirt and belongings tied in a shawl on her back asked me:
“What is the traditional dress in England?”
That’s a good question I thought to myself and ashamedly I could not give her a very satisfactory answer.
“What kind of food do you eat in your country?” was the next question, crikey I thought, this is going from bad to worse, I tried explaining fish and chips, the lady looked less than impressed.
The scenery was beautiful, craggy peaks and tiny villages passed by as we climbed to a height of 3676 metres. A “classic” Andean train journey as described by The South American Handbook. We clung precariously to the side of the mountains whilst negotiating numerous tunnels (38 to be precise) and bridges.
From my perch on the floor I marvelled at the goings on in the train: families squabbled, children cried, strange looking foods were consumed and the jostling continued. I peered jealously into the buffet class car. This car had been full when I reached the ticket office, it boasted numbered seats and no one was allowed in the aisles or doorways. It’s attendant was tasked with serving food to the entire train. He tottered up and down carrying plates piled high with food, his skill in this task was impressive as he never seemed to spill anything despite the numerous obstacles in his path – including myself.
At each village people poured off the train and even more climbed on. At one point I was nearly hit in the face by a lamb bleating in a bag. After a while an English teacher from Huancayo took pity on me and offered her seat for half an hour, I gladly accepted as the man now sitting next to me had fallen asleep and his breath was less than fragrant. As I prised his head off my shoulder and relinquished the space on my bag-turned-seat the teacher explained:
“Sorry, that’s my brother.” She added apologetically. “He drinks.”
I took her seat in the carriage to be faced with what felt like hundreds of people staring at me, as we bobbed along I enjoyed the views which were unlike anything I had seen on a train ride before, the towering mountains took my breath away and the peering locals made the experience all the more unusual.
The peering did not stop once I had disembarked from the train in Huancavelica, a charming little town nestled in the craggy mountains. Sitting in the square after a stroll I watched a little boy try and teach his brother how to ride a bicycle, the little boys inability to balance was not the only problem in the venture, a stray dog, of which there are many in Peru, was nibbling at their ankles as they circumnavigated the square. I was happy to have something to watch, it took my attention away from the local inhabitants who were mostly staring at me, this was somewhat unnerving as it appeared I was the only tourist in town.

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