Colca Canyon

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On the road to Colca Canyon

Road washout between Cusco and Chivay. We either abandon Colca Canyon altogether given our time frame,  or take the expensive option and fly into Arequipa. Colca wins so we book another flight.

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Before we leave Arequipa we visit the Santa Catalina Convent
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Laundry
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Water filter
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Each cell occupied by a nun had a massive  impressive kitchen
Just a 1 hour hop in the plane through the Andes. As we approach Arequipa, Colca is right there out the window and we seem to be not much higher than the snow caps. Very spectacular.
Arequipa is a bit lower in altitude than Cuzco but we will be ascending even higher again over the next couple of days
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Colca
Heavy fog covers Arequipa as we head out on a pretty dodgy long detour. So lucky to fly in on time early the day before. The fog and cloud continues for several hours as we slog up the mountain behind slower vehicles. Next to nil visibility means passing is impossible.
Headgear worn  by the women in these parts consists of beautifully embroidered white hats. Many women wear blankets wrapped around over their other clothes. The clouds close in again and as we stop to pick people up on the side of a hill, snow is falling.
This is the coldest it’s been so far and condor sightings are really looking a slim possibility in this weather – we do know we are in the wrong season but there’s always a hope.
After a barren landscape covered only with rocks, small bushes and spiky grasses that look like an army of smurfs positioned between the rocks, we finally start to get some canyon views.
When we do eventually get to Chivay, we are grateful to be going direct to our ultimate destination of Cabanaconde because the bus is full and everyone getting on at Chivay has to stand for quite a while.
Sitting on the right side of the bus is pretty important as the aisle full of standing people out of Chivay means there is nothing visible from the left.
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Spiky grasses
In spite of fogged windows with droplets running down, the compulsion to snap away is strong. Plenty of alpaca are around and many are in such a picturesque landscape. Some good views of snow caps as well.
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Only about an hour late into Cabanaconde but safe and sound after a fairly arduous weather impacted drive uphill, up mountain really, most of the way. I spot our hostel as we drive in to the tiny village in the rain and dark, but someone is waiting to meet us anyway.
We park straight in the restaurant close to the wood fire pizza oven to indulge in a glass of Argentine red and a very welcome huge meal, alpaca and pizza respectively.
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Pachamama dining area was pretty cosy with the wood fired pizza oven going
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Coffee break in Cabanaconde
In spite of an obvious zero chance of condor sighting, we break out the thermals and head out the next morning in the Pachamama kombi van to the main  viewing spot. We are practically the last to leave the viewing site because it is so beautiful in the clouds. There are two other viewing spots, again no luck, but some spectacular views. It is now  possible to see the trekking paths down the valley  and up the other side, along with villages on the other side where the trekkers stay overnight.
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Kombi ready for the road. Check out that January weather
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Colca on a very foggy day
Back in  Cabanaconde, we are perhaps the only tourists in town not trekking for 2 or 3 days, but we head out on our own mini hike. Valley views are beautiful and in the far distance there is a waterfall pouring out with tremendous force.
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Plenty of livestock to be seen in rough stone pens and the valley below is just covered in a patchwork of farms. A woman who has just fed her pigs is keen to have a little chat.
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Like a mini Goreme landscape

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Tourist snaps, not a condor
Cabanaconde has obviously attracted a few characters. We find a food spot that looks interesting and get a couple of great coffees from one such character.
Banana late lunch on the terrace of Pachamama watching the ever changing clouds hiding and then exposing the mountains surrounding us. Yet to see the volcano but who knows what tomorrow will bring. It is an amazing part of the world.
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Looking down on Cabanaconde
The road to Puno beckons and yes, we do end up seeing both the volcano and the condor. A phenomenal performance from several of the massive birds as if tracking us on the road and then swooping right alongside our viewing point.

 

Machu Picchu

 

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What must it be like to live in a small village already at way over 3,000 metres, where sheer mountains rise up directly above for maybe up to 1,000 to 2,000 metres more like a giant fence of random but all encompassing rock.

We have been in this environment for a few days now. I try to take some comfort from the fact that the mountains appear to be solid rock in light of the huge amounts of seismic activity in Peru. The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes follows the river along a very narrow passage through the mountains. Sometimes it is too narrow and we pass through a tunnel. The peaks rise up above us like giants looking down benignly with the highest reaching a snow capped 5,700 metres. A number of snow caps are more easily seen on the return journey.
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Meanwhile the river is like none I’ve ever seen before. Full of absolutely massive rocks, the water tumbles through at phenomenal speed in an absolutely lethal spectacle. It is awesomely mesmerising.
Maybe halfway into our 90 minute journey the vegetation changes from being quite sparse with cacti and bromeliads to a more sub tropical feel. Warmer temperatures and more rain allow high altitude palms and orchids to flourish.
We kept our eyes peeled for the Spectacle Bear and the National bird Cock of the Rock along the way but no luck there.
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Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes is an end of the line pit stop with a feel of the wild west. Wall to wall eateries compete for your custom. Luckily someone from our hostel met us at the train as I don’t think my mud map would have worked in the rabbit warren. Looking over the rooftops reveals what looks like a shack shanty town on top of the touristy outlets at ground level.
Just up the steps is The Tree House restaurant. Obviously a foodie spot that we managed to luck into.
We meet people who like us have trained in to do Machu Picchu the next day. I would love to know how it panned out for some. A young Paraguayan woman who didn’t like heights and wasn’t sure she’d even go. An American woman just puffed out from walking up to the restaurant had a ticket to climb the mountain behind Machu Picchu which appears to be a vertical climb taking a couple of hours.
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The bus queue in Aguas Calientes to get up to Machu Picchu already extended about 300 metres at 5.30am
We head out at 05.30 and the queue for the bus is good 300 metres long – and it’s uphill to get to the end of the queue. People would have been there at 03.30 to get the first bus. It’s  pretty efficient though and we are on a bus in 40 minutes with a 20 minute ride up the mountain.
A number of fit young things are walking up from the base. Extremely hard work
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The clouds start to lift as we walk  up to the Sun Gate
There is still cloud cover but we hopefully head up to the Sun Gate. Lots of early arrivers are heading down not having seen the sun. We pike at a great spot after 20 minutes and are rewarded with the sun breaking through the clouds wafting over the main site.
Fascinating with cloud cover, it is stunning in full sun light. We head down to join the masses. This is low season yet there are hundreds of people still and more continue to arrive.
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Looking awesome on a beautiful January day
My big mission is to find the location of my 1974 photo and recreate the event. I was already sure this would not be possible having seen many lovely places roped off.
We show the photo to one of the attendants. He smiled “Yes it is 3 Windows, but no puede”. OK,  I can’t,  so I find something a bit similar and Kerri snaps away until another attendant tells me I can’t have my leg hanging down.
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It has been a full on few days and we leave Machu Picchu satisfied but exhausted. We jagged the timing for the day. Around lunch time it started to pour rain – those who got a later start would not have had such a pleasant experience.
There are 2 seasons here, wet and dry. So, for visitors in the rainy season, an overnight in Aguas Calientes with a very early morning start to get up the mountain would be my top tips to give yourself the best chance of a great experience of this magical place.  We haven’t  been here that long but it seems to rain later in the day and overnight.

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I am glad I first visited in an easier and less well touristed time when you could clamber wherever you liked, but it’s pretty special to return nearly 43 years later and fulfil that long held promise to myself. So here’s  the homage to my youthful adventurous self albeit not quite as I planned. 1974 – 2017.

Ollantaytambo – Sacred Valley Peru

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The main square in Ollantaytambo is charming.
Finally we are heading for the Sacred Valley and will use Ollantaytambo as an entry and exit point. The collectivo drops us of in yet another charming village Plaza and we make our way to Intitambo,  our resting spot for two nights.
What a warm and welcoming hostel. None of these mountain hostels have heating but seem to be very well designed and constructed with extremely cosy beds.
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The terrace looks straight out onto the ruins and always up, up to the peaks of the surrounding mountains.
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Looking back to Ollantaytambo. As always, a very steep climb.

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The track is precarious when you get round to that structure in the distance.
Climbing any of the ruins in the Sacred Valley has an element of risk. We hear that the Pisac ruins are closed due to someone falling. Another person has died while doing  a star jump for a photo and falling off a cliff  – that is according to some reports. We see people doing exactly that so could be correct (star jumps that is, not falling).
The Ollantaytambo ruins extend up the mountain with various temples and the ever present water features at the base. In the wet season, mornings seem to be the optimal time to set out. The tracks may be a little precarious in the rain, though the yellow ponchos high up tell the story that people do undertake it in the rain.
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Time is obviously a factor for a lot of people heading to Machu Picchu, so many seem to head straight back to Cuzco. Exhaustion plus in my book after a big day at MP. But if time is not an issue, Ollantaytambo is a perfect spot with nice accommodation,  food and coffee. What more could you need?
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Kura Oqllo wife of an Inca king murdered by the Spanish, according to the sign. She is supremely impressive in spite of the statue being mounted with her head in the electrical wires.

Cuzco – Peru

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Cuzco is a gem in the Peruvian Andes. Hippie heaven in another time, now a flashpacker paradise. This time I fly in rather than take an arduous bus ride from Lima. The taxi winds its way in El Centro through streets absolutely never designed for vehicular traffic.

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We rattle over cobble stones and take our chances with the oncoming vehicles. Backing up is the only option, in the narrow streets that are reminiscent of Sevilla in terms of the dimensions.
At our highest elevation so far, there is no time to worry about altitude sickness, important business to attend to. First stop Plaza Mayor for Peru rail, but we just have to stop and take it in, the Plaza is splendidly beautiful and grand.
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Train tickets to Aguas Calientes in hand and at phenomenal expense for a 90 minute journey, next stop the government department that sells entry tickets to Machu Picchu. A bit of a queue here and luckily we have plenty of soles because US$ are not accepted. Passports are required for both the train and MP tickets.
So over $300 each all up just to get the return train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes  and to get into MP. Will be another US$50 for the return bus from AC to MP and return. Luckily it is only about $4 to get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco!
Priorities complete, we can now eat lunch, it’s nearly 4pm.
One of the things I love about South America and Cuba as well, is that there is never a wrong time to eat. If you want a 3 course meal at 4pm, no problem. If it’s only a small snack at 8pm also no problem.
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Back to our lovely hostel, so convenient apart from the fact it’s uphill with just 67 or so steps at the end of the climb – that’s Cuzco. After 3 weeks of internet deprivation in Cuba, there is a lot of catch up and research waiting to be done.
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Day 2 in Cuzco and instead of searching for the local bus, we take the expensive option and get a taxi to Tambomachay. It’s only about 8kms up the road, and the key word is UP. We go to about 3,700 metres and the plan is to walk back to Cuzco taking in the Inca ruins on the way.
There is quite a long walk in to the Tambomachay ruins and we are puffing a bit even on the flat to start with. We purchase the tourist ticket that covers 16 different sites through the Sacred Valley and will cover us for 10 days.
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Such a beautiful location with the inevitable fast flowing water that seems to be present in every Andean location in this part of Peru. A herd of sheep flash down the adjacent hillside adding a touch of life to the ancient beauty we are exploring.
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Just across the road is Pura Pucara, stop two in the ruins exploration for the day.
From here, we decide to take unmarked trails cross country to get to the next site. I have written some directional notes so we set off confidently past a huge stand of very tall eucalypts.
Immediately we know this was a great decision. It is so green, lots of rain here, and the countryside is stunning. We pass crops, stock  and farms.
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After about half an hour or so, my notes seem to taper and we are on the verge of heading back toward the road. Suddenly, from behind, we are hailed. “Going to the Temple of the Moon?  I am going, come with me.”
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Our impromptu guide sets a cracking pace
Carrying an enormous shovel, the local man is clearly on his way to work somewhere. Seems like a great option so we take up the offer. He speaks no English but endeavours to educate us on the way, drawing a mud map of the extent of the Inca empire.
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He points out the potatoes, an amazing range available in Peru, and plucks two different sorts of wild mint. The aroma of the first is so strong and aromatic, unlike any mint I have smelt before.
In spite of these interludes, he is clearly in a hurry. “Walk faster”.
We walk at an absolutely cracking pace, luckily mostly downhill. I am mesmerised by his feet and legs and keep a close eye on where he is stepping as we proceed along the rough and sometimes wet track.
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His lower legs and feet look as if they have been beautifully crafted from clay, they are so sturdy, brown, strong and slightly muddy in the simple sandals.
Muy tranquilo he says waving at the spectacular landscape we are walking through. Absolutely, there is no better description to describe where we are.  Just a wonderful 20 minutes or so sharing a small journey with this lovely man.
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The Temple of the Moon is a good resting spot after our exertions in getting there. Having seen no one for an hour or more, it suddenly becomes comparatively busy.  Locals are enjoying a Sunday picnic and tourists are coming in on horses from the lower ruins. Feels pretty special to have had that interlude on our own.
Next stop Q’enqa followed by the big one Saqsahuaman.
Coming from this direction and after such a huge effort already, it seems like a very long walk in to Saqsa. Beats coming the other way though which is as uphill as you can get from Cuzco.
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Have to say  I am a bit excited as this is one place I visited in 1974 and here it is. Wonderful to see again.
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In spite of weary bodies, we have to do the main section, then it is downhill, sometimes just as difficult as uphill, back to Cuzco.
Plans for further activities are abandoned as we are stuffed to use the vernacular, so have a late lunch again, a coffee at our favourite spot and retire for the day with a cup of coca leaf tea.
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The bed is super cosy with blankets and doona, no heating needed though I sneeze if I venture to the bathroom in bare feet. Quite cold at night. In spite of walking maybe 20kms at altitude over about 5 or 6 hours I don’t sleep as well as I thought I would. Maybe the body is overtired or maybe a couple of late coca leaf teas was not a good idea.
Real yoghurt, white and creamy is a treat for breakfast. I have to say that because to date Peruvian yoghurt has been bright pink and fairly liquid. Cuzco offers plenty of culinary treats. Kerri tries alpaca steak which she enjoys.
What I enjoy is a menu that has GF written after many meal options. That’s a first for me in South America even though I have no problem finding gluten free food. It’s  a little more expensive not being able to eat a sandwich or pizza which seem to be available everywhere.
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You’ve  not heard anything until you hear prolonged, enormously loud claps of thunder bounce around the surrounding Andes mountains. Stupendously awesome. Even our favourite coffee barista was moved to call on her God at the noise level.
She recovers enough to tell us in such careful Spanish that I am able to get most of it, about the Fiestas that are currently happening in Cuzco. Every day different areas or suburbs are celebrating their saints. With a warning to be very careful of our belongings in the crowds, she encourages us to go to one. Sounds too good to miss.
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San Sebastian Plaza is a riot of colour and noise. Participants are dressed in so many varieties of elaborate costumes.  Masses of bands are playing so loudly the noise seems to vibrate right through me. As they finally start to march off, various band members gradually straggle out from a nearby drinking establishment. The crowds wait patiently but surge and relocate as the procession moves on. The dancers and musicians must be exhausted by the end. The day is very hot and most of the costumes are all encompassing often including full face masks.
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Guinea pig is popular
 Tomorrow we head off for three days to Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the Machu Picchu adventure.

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Lima -Third and Final Brief Stop

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Lima has been our most visited transit stop along with Guayaquil but this is the final visit for this trip.

After three weeks in Cuba, the shopping opportunities appear so vast in Lima. There is such limited consumer availability visible to a visitor to Cuba and it is hard to find a shop as we know it selling anything. They obviously exist somewhere as our Casa owner was very proud of her new chairs.
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Plaza Mayor in the Historical Centre of Lima is magnificent. The police presence on the corners is a little surprising but they looked fairly relaxed with their riot shelds propped up in front of them. The Governors palace taking up one whole side may be the reason for the security presence.
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A brass band playing in the courtyard attracts plenty of cameras but the guards keep everyone well back from  the wall. If you want a photo of the well fitted out band, it will be framed with the slats of the metal wall.
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Our attention is drawn to the buildings on the other side which look strikingly magnificent. For around $10 we get a ticket that provides entry to the the cathedral and the adjacent Archbishops residence, now a museum.
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Full of religious art in every medium from wooden life size statues, 3D tableaux, paintings and objects, we tour the opulent rooms of the museum which still house all the furnishings that were presumably in use when last occupied. Bizarrely, a very large nativity scene is in place right beside a Lima version of the Manneken Pis, the original being located in Brussels.
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To say the Lima cathedral is awesome in size barely gives a true indication of the grandeur of the building. The mortal remains of Pisarro rest here in a prominent place, along with those of hundreds of lesser folk in the catacombs.
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Live street art is popular along the main pedestrian boulevard down to the Plaza. Chains seemed to be a big thing with some of the “statues”.
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At night Plaza San Martin and the surrounding area was very lively. Crowds gathered around people who seemed to have a political or religious opinion they needed to express. Lots of bars and eating places.
Just a short stay and such a different, richer experience to staying in the Miraflores area.
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Cuba – Playa Larga

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Perfecto, we seem to be finishing our 21 days in Cuba with a bang.

If I could start again knowing what I know now, I’d shave a day or 2 here and there and add a couple to Playa Larga. Still, I’m  grateful we didn’t spend the night in the park in Vinales for want of being fancy free, the absolute ideal.
Caleton,  the little town we stay in is also a place where virtually every home is a Casa offering rooms. It is right on the beach and would be unpleasant in a hurricane I imagine. Our hostess is totally gorgeous, a great cook and is familiar with gluten free, thanks to travellers who have come before.
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Our number one goal is to visit Las Salinas, home to up to 10,000 flamingo along with many other birds,  Cuban and American crocodiles plus a variety of other creatures. The park is massive and starts just at the end of village.
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We are in the back of mini moke type vehicles and head off early with our guide and fellow travellers for a fabulous morning. The rain last night has left puddles on the firm dirt road. So straight, it seems to stretch infinitely ahead through dense shrub that eventually becomes mangrove, then savannah.  We will drive about 23 kms, occasionally seeing the sea on our left, then fresh lagoons begin to appear.
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Finally flamingo. They are a different species to the Galapagos flamingo and exceptionally pink. The lagoons are massive in parts, so at some spots, masses of flamingo are in the distance, and at others we are lucky to get great views. Seeing a flamingo spread it’s massive wings and take to the sky from close quarters is quite awe inspiring.
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On this trip, we have to date only seen brown pelican, here however there are white pelicans and they are very big birds, bigger than the flamingo. Storks, tern, cormorant, Heron – our guide points out a Blue Heron in flight. I did clearly see the pink Spoonbill in flight, that was stunning. We have several variety of fabulous Spoonbill in our very own wetland at home, but this was a new one.
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The wind has picked up and it’s not a day for swimming though the water looks fabulous. Lots of sea grasses which is why this is also home to the manatee. We opt for a very long walk along the narrow strip of sand following the bay around till we turn back in case the incoming tide forces us into the mangroves.
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Boys play with kites, one snorkels looking for bait fish, and we pass just a few other walkers. With a variety of cocktail bottles set up on a tiny table on the sand, an enterprising bartender demonstrates right there on the open beach his talent for juggling bottles a la Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown in the movie Cocktail. Another man taps a rhythm on his small bongo drum to attract attention to his hummingbird wind chimes suspended from the bongo. This is the home of the world’s smallest bee hummingbirds.
Like a miracle, we can pick up WiFi on the  terrace of our Casa. Very poor quality as everywhere else, but it is usually only available in a park or in a big hotel in a city so this is total luxury, even though we still have to use the purchased login cards.
Things are under construction everywhere in Cuba. Especially in smaller towns, one level, sometimes two, of a house is constructed and clearly another level will be added when funds are available. In some places, the builders were much more rough and ready with rusting iron protruding untidily from almost every house creates a decidedly unattractive effect. Here in Caleton, there is no rusting iron, but there are mounds of dirt and gravel scattered along most streets.
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Not too much in the way of eating establishments in Caleton so we are happy to take up the offer of dinner each night. Last night chicken, tonight pork.
The food process is pretty similar everywhere and is an added extra option to the cost of the room. Breakfast is a plate of fresh tropical fruits, papaya, pineapple, guava, maybe watermelon or banana in some combination of at least three. There are bread rolls and usually some sweet pastry or muffin with a main dish of eggs as you like them with ham and cheese plus usually some salad. Thermos of coffee, hot milk and hot water are on the table plus there is a large jug of juice. Occasionally a large amount of added sugar makes the juice undrinkable for me.
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Dinner will be soup, followed by a large salad, cabbage seems to be popular, but nice tomato and cucumber. Then the main meal, a good cut of whatever you have chosen. Chicken, pork, shrimp and in some places lobster or crab are options all served with rice, sometimes black beans, and vegetables. Then there is a dessert of a flan or something nicely preserved fruits. All of this for CUC$10 or Euros10 and a bit more in Aussie$. A bit more if you get lobster as well.
Today we enjoyed street food snacks of churros and for me maize fritters. A bit of a mini dough binge after no gluten free bread like products of any kind for weeks.
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Getting from place to place has not proved problematic. The Viazul bus didn’t  really work out for our itinerary so we have used taxi collectivos exclusively.  Costs a little more, but they leave in the morning and do a pickup plus delivery to your next casa.
How auspicious is our very last collectivo back to Havana in the morning? We are approached by a guy on the way back from the beach. Havana tomorrow? No but seems like this is time to tee up our onward journey. His name is Kenny and he is from Australia, which amazingly, is a town just down the road from here. We seal the deal with a handshake, feeling a special bond with Kenny, especially when I tell him my brother is also Kenny. He is super impressed.
Casa Ileana has just been a gorgeous if brief stay. She is such a warm, happy soul who clearly loves having guests in her home, making us feel quite special. Warm hugs all round on our departure.
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Ancient Textiles, Modern Life, Old Friends – Lima

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A large desert city where rain never falls yet it fronts the Pacific, Lima seems an incongruity. This is Peru so Coca leaf tea becomes a breakfast option. Just a short stopover in Lima as we continue to push north to start the itinerary proper.

How would a reunion for the first time in 50 years go here in Lima? Easy, relaxed and lots of fun as it turns out. Plenty to catch up on of course and Pisco Sours more than help a great evening mellow along. Jan and I last saw each other as our high school years wound up at the end of 1966. It felt a little surreal trying to marry the face in front of me with the fresh faced 16 year old that was the memory in my head.

We get a tiny taste of ex pat life on the other side of the planet and an introduction to a local delicacy – beef heart. Delicious. Honestly!

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Museo Amano is the highlight of  this brief visit. Dedicated to Pre-Columbian textiles, this is is a lovely museum, spaciously displaying amazing artifacts stretching back thousands of years.

I love the ancient accounting technology  in the centre image above. An intricate series of knots that build on each other over time to document all kinds of important records. Everything from the census and taxation to genealogical records and songs could be recorded using this technique.

The brilliant item in the lower image is made from feathers.

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Starting to get into the mode here finding venues just off the main drag that offer the Menu. A choice of three entrees, three mains plus a juice for $2.50 each. Totally tasty, filling and nutritious; popular with the locals and with us.

From the ancient to the modern, suburban Lima delights with the unexpected and interesting vignettes.

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Volvo
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Lantana Hedge

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How better to enjoy our last night, for now, in Lima than watching the sunset over the Pacific at La Rose Nautica? Jan introduced us to yet another great restaurant – the food is divine.

Lima perches spectaularly on cliffs overlooking the ocean. We have driven along this amazing road a few times now and for the second evening we get to  watch the blazing sun sink into the Pacific. Our restaurant sits out on a very modern pier like structure. Evening surfers brave the chill water bobbing on their boards almost within reach through the wall of picture windows that line our beautiful dining room.

Check out what happened to those 16 year old chicks. …

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We’ll  be back next month and then again in January but it will be hard to top these couple of days with such a nice reunion.