Category Archives: cities

Going big

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 4: Cape Hillsborough National Park, Nr. Seaforth – Cairns (715km)

It all started with a giant mango. Sorry, a big mango. By all accounts, it was giant. It’s all relative. Or a matter of lexis. Or something.

Actually, the day started with a relaxed breakfast. Problems, of course, came later. But for now the three of us sat down to a fluffy banana and blueberry pancake feast and a mug of percolated coffee. Bursts of tastebud bliss.

Day 4 was about completing the bulk of our journey north and getting to the provincial city of Cairns. We knew it would be a long day but it had to be done: we were meeting people there that night.

Significant stops started with the Big Mango. Yep.

I’d heard and read about Australia’s quirky obsession with all things big – pineapples, prawns, and mangos (evidently) – so now was the time to immerse myself in some big stuff culture.

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Me and the giant… err… mango (but I’m thinking James and the Giant Peach…)

Ironically, we couldn’t buy any real size, real life mangos but hey, let’s not complain: I got a photo (ah, just get stuck into the silliness) and had a breather from cramped car time.

Across the road from a beach that without sunshine looked dull and grey, The Big Mango enjoyed a constant trickle of tourists taking two second photos before continuing on their journeys. We were now not too far from the town of Bowen whose role in Baz Lurhmann’s recent Australia film (starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) had pushed up the profile of this small coastal hub.

But we had no time for film buff stuff, only Big Mangos and big cities. So onwards, to Cairns.

And then a bit of a  clearer run, just us and a lot of truckers, it seemed, cruising alongside train tracks and cane tracks, past coverings of yellow-brown grassy tufts and spindly trees, some of which boasted an attempt at a green-brown canopy explosion.

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Cane tracks or train tracks?

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Cane train crossing

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Not too welcoming

Leaving my wallet in the bathroom in Townsville service station marked midday, although quietly because it wasn’t until we were 2 ½ hours on, right up by Cardwell, that I realised my loss. Or my stupidity. Well, both. Dammit. My improved health high had obviously impacted on my ability to stay switched on. It could have been worse. I could have, for example left my Eclipse festival tickets at home (yes, at the same time of my wallet realisation, someone, somewhere in Cairns – no names – had the horrible realisation that their tickets were tucked up in their bedside table draw some 1,800km away. It’s all relative).

Late afternoon we drove on towards mist covered mountains, through Euromo and Tully and still further on through plateaued valleys, Cairns feeling as far away as on any other day.

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The skies get ready to pour

Dark and damp kicked in until finally we were there: through winding roads and ineffective windscreen wipers we saw the approach to the relative calm of Cairns.

Parking down at the esplanade, we stepped out of the car. I felt too grubby to be in the city, somewhat unkempt after four days and nights camping and road tripping up the north coast of Australia, yet a little giddy shiver shot up my body as my feet touched down on the pavement. The Far North Coast. We’d made it.

I took in a deep lungful of Cairns’ warm breath and went to get lost in amongst sparkling lights and people spilling out of cafes and bars.

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The need to budget for health whilst travelling

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 3: Byfield State Forest – Cape Hillsborough National Park (430km)

It was an emergency that stopped me exploring our camp spot by light. Everything got thrown into the car; pots and unwashed coffee cups shoved into ill suited gaps, L-man’s backseat den more cramped than cosy.

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When in doubt, check Papeete out (again)

Papeete from a nicer angle (*not my pic*)

Papeete from a nicer angle (*not my pic*)

After weeks at sea living in a bubble of near isolation, away from crowds and concrete and all things developed, my first impressions of Papeete – the capital city of Tahiti – weren’t positive. In fact, I’d made some harsh judgements and whilst those observations were true, they were undoubtedly subjective and they definitely weren’t the whole truth.

Further exploration of Papeete helped me to warm to the small city. How can you look negatively on a place that seems to thrive on activity, from full boats of early evening rowers to friends speed walking the waterside pathways; a town where women really do wear colourful dresses and flowers in their hair, and where markets provide a visual feast of trinkets and food accompanied by the smell of fresh pineapples?

Markettime

Market time

Favourite moments included my extended trip to the famous Mana’o Tattoo Studio where tattooist Matt talked me out of getting freshly inked (‘What you want is too small’, he said, ‘I think you can find someone who will tattoo you but it won’t look good that small’) and made me laugh with his finger moustache tat. His honesty and chat were a winner, and the various artists’ portfolios of beautiful tribal designs made me all the more keen to book an appointment. Maybe I could get a stingray, instead of what I’d initially planned? Or a turtle? Where on my body would I get the tattoo? How big?

Should I go for something similar?

Should I go for something similar? (photo from www.manaotattoo.com)

I didn’t, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the place. (Or to go back myself, should I ever happen to be sailing by Tahiti again!)

But the highlight of Papeete? Food related. Always a winner.

After the dinnertime rush at 'the trucks'

After the dinnertime rush at ‘the trucks’

Cooking up a street food feast

Cooking up a street food feast

Known as ‘the trucks’, this one-stop food haven is an easy walk from the centre. With all sorts of foods served out of the back of vans and a selection of traders that changes daily, this waterside place is the place to eat great street food at prices that are competitive and absolutely worth it.

Both the island road trip and further delving into the sights and sounds of Papeete itself absolutely helped me to understand its appeal. Maybe it took a bit longer to see the positives because I was having to readjust to civilisation again?

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Land ho! Tahiti tempts us back to society

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Land or something else?

It’s the morning of 5thJune 2012. Dawn light teases the horizon, hinting at the possibility of land mass. It could be clouds, though. I squint. I relax my eyes. It’s the same.

Land ho!

I take a short, quick breath and exhale slowly. Over 3,000nm. We’ve done it. We have all but arrived.

Less than a day and half ago I was coming off of my night watch when the lights of Fakarava came into view, the first hint of civilisation. Early ideas had been to drop anchor in the lagoon and explore and snorkel and splash about for a few hours. It might have been a good, small-scale reintroduction to other people, to social niceties and some geographical normality, albeit in the form of a coral atoll. But a midnight stop-off would be wasting time, so on we sailed, Tahiti bound.

Accompanied by a speeding beat in my chest, we pushed through a burst of grey downpours into our twenty second day at sea, into a day of still oceans, glorious sunshine and puffy cumulus clouds above a horizon that felt even farther away than usual. I checked the catamaran’s computers regularly. We were well inside French Polynesia and the Galapagos islands felt like a lifetime ago.

And now, here, pushing on into Day 23 of our voyage, we’re sailing towards Tahiti. There’s a ship off our starboard quarter – a trading vessel – and I sense that the hustle and bustle of real life and people and interaction can only be a few hours away. I’ve got mixed feelings and all sorts of chemical reactions surging through my body. I feel a little sick, but I’m smiling.

Up ahead I see the peaks of Mt. Orohena and Mt. Aorai start to push through a morning cloud blanket, high, spiky crests with more solidity than I’ve seen for some time. They are the identifiable markers of Tahiti Nui, markers that have guided in many a sailor towards the port of Papeete.

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Definitely land…

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We did it! Happiness at the bow of the boat

The sun starts to touch the volcanic ridges and peaks and melts the cloud cover to reveal steep, emerald rock faces. We’re seeing it from the same angle that Captain Cook would have back in 1769, sailing on north-west past Venus Point towards the inhabited parts of this green island full of sharp ridges and dramatic peaks. Coincidentally, we arrive the day before the 2012 Transit of Venus, and the magic of turning up to this tropical paradise of the Society Islands after such a lengthy voyage is accentuated.

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Me and the boys celebrate a safe passage

And then reality hits. We make contact with the port captain and secure a berth in the midst of town. A boy trails our boat, riding the wake in his kayak. We motor in towards exaggerated, colourful signs on the sides of blocky buildings and into a channel lined by bright green, mown lawns and palms planted at equal distances.

We pull up beside a super vessel – a boat bigger than many a house and hungrier than most trucks. Three uniformed, small framed guys with similarly styled crew cuts help to dismount some jet skis from off the side of the big boat.

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Approaching Papeete on the northern side of Tahiti

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Our first contact in weeks

It’s mid-morning of June 5th 2012 when I jump off the catamaran, switching carbon fibre and bright, white plastic for hard, hard concrete. I could kiss the ground, but I don’t. Instead, I run, arms out.

And then I turn around and run back to our boat.

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How to waste 5 hours in Colombia

‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ asked my family when I mentioned that I wanted to travel in Colombia, ‘why do you want to go?’ Having chatted to a Colombian girl who had told them that it’s not really a safe country, particularly for a solo female traveller, they were worried. Understandable.

But no need to worry! My new idea of crewing on a sailing yacht across the Pacific Ocean meant I’d have to skip Colombia in any case. In order to stay within a safe sailing window I had to act quickly and be in either Panama or Galapagos, Ecuador within the next few weeks. No cyclones and stormy seas for me, please. And Colombia? Well, it would have to wait.

Or would it?

As often happens, life likes to have a bit of a giggle. The cheapest flights I found routed me via Bogota, Colombia. And when in Colombia, even if just for a few hours, it would be rude not to check out a little of the capital.

Now, on hindsight, I wish I hadn’t bothered. Sure, I can smile about some of the confusion and discomfort and the waiting around, but was it really worth it? Hmmm…

I’d half hoped one of two friends might be waiting at arrivals for a few hours of brunch time catch-up, but the exit was lined with taxi touting middle-aged men. Although unsurprised, my heart sunk. Just a little. After nine months of travelling, arriving into places with no familiar faces to greet me was starting to become a bit tiresome. Ah, what I wouldn’t have done for a big hug, a warm smile and a friend to show me around.

But! – no time to get down in the dumps.  Climb back into your gutsiness and get out there, girl! After changing up some money, I went for a chat with a guy in the tourist info point. He turned out to be a smartly suited bearer of bad news.

The city and all the interesting things are too far away for your stopover’, he told me. I thought momentarily about retreating back into the comforts of the airport lounge. No. Come on! I’m in Colombia! Let’s go live it, even if only for a moment. ‘You could get a bus to Gran Estación ’, he said, ‘There are shops and places to eat, and it’s only ten minutes away’.

Everyone stared hard at the solo gringa as she tried to figure out where to catch a ride, as she struggled to make sense of buses that bore signs stating that they were going to Gran Estación but actually weren’t going anywhere close. She was clearly no Latina and curiosity stopped the odd passer-by. If they looked a little beyond the straggly, mousey hair, the tall, fair-skinned body and the light, blue eyes, they would have seen a touch of deflation and a mood that was synonymous with the grey, morning sky.

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Getting excited yet?

And then at 930AM I was finally there, wandering around an empty shopping centre close to Bogota airport. Nondescript, homogenised, brand focused. Yawn. Do I project my excitement with enough conviction?

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Clean, slick and nondescript

Within an hour everything was open and trickles of people got down to some serious spending, interspersed with fast food refuels.

After a few hours of watching the wealthier and professional people of Bogota meet with colleagues or tap away on laptops over a McCafé coffee, I reversed my Colombian journey back to the airport and a promise of a better tomorrow.

Ecuador, my love, I am returning to you.

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Being a bad tourist in La Paz

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Tourist targeted

I’d love to tell you that I mean bad as in badass movie style bad girl, a rebel out to cause chaos in La Paz. Despite some flirtations with danger, the truth is a little less Hollywood.

During a week in La Paz I managed to avoid most of the usual tourist traps like the trudge up to the Kili Kili viewpoint of the city, or the climb up Huayna Potosi. I didn’t swot up on Coca leaf history, and I missed out on hanging out in Route 36 (what has to be one of the only clubs in the world to openly sell you a gram of coke to your table) and I didn’t party with a predominantly gringo crowd in the Blue House.

I didn’t visit any of the museums. I had wanted to check out the Coca Museum (Linares 906) and the Bolivian Musical Instruments Museum (Jaén 711) and the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore (Ingavi 916 esq. Jenaro Sajinés) but time just disappeared. I didn’t prioritise them. And I also missed out on others, such as Museo de Textiles Andinos and the National Museum of Art, the National Museum of Precious Metals and the National Museum of Archaeology.

But I did swing by the San Pedro prison, go out to some traditional peña and face paint up for a party where someone got stabbed. I went to the sketchy area of El Alto and watched Cholita Wrestling and locals dancing and playing competitive table football. I got a pretty, beaded lulu knotted into in my hair, I had customised rain trousers made for 80Bs. and I went shopping for woollen dresses and presents and a travel guitar. I queried the purpose of dried llama foetuses and healing herbs at the Witches’ Market, and I took taxis all over town in search of doctors and hospitals and testing laboratories. I sat in a posh hairdresser and for the first time in a year had someone attempt to do something with my hair for a price I could actually afford. And I survived a stay in a Loki hostel.

So in terms of being a bad tourist, I’d love to tell you that I mean bad as in badass movie style bad girl, a rebel out to cause chaos in La Paz. The truth, however, is that my time there was not about losing my cocaine virginity and getting lost in hedonism, and had very little to do with gangsters and corrupt authority figures.

In a way, I just lived La Paz. Not as a local, I shan’t pretend, but I pottered about and got a feel for the city. And I’m all okay with that.

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La Paz mapped

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Lining up at Route 36

The Guardian calls it ‘the world’s first cocaine bar’ and others have dubbed it ‘one of the greatest travel experiences in South America‘. Route 36, a late night lounge bar in La Paz aimed solely at a tourist clientele, has established itself firmly as a must-stop-off on the gringo trail by offering a relaxed club environment where you can buy cocaine and chop up lines in relative comfort.

Labelled ‘cocaine tourism’, other bars in La Paz are now starting to copy Route 36’s lead and tap into travellers’ spending power and intrigue. But how are these places actually able to exist?

The legality of such a place is of course at the forefront of conversations surrounding Route 36’s existence, an existence that sees the bar switching location every month or two in order to beat the authorities and avoid pissing off too many neighbours as a regular trickle of tourists make their way in and out of the venue.

Who knows how long it will be before the Bolivian government start a proper clampdown on corruption associated with the cocaine trade, and in turn this trend for coke bars?

Bolivia is currently ‘the world’s third biggest cocaine producer‘ and it’s going to be a struggle convincing the world that it’s actively battling the drug trade whilst they’re still pushing for global acceptance of the traditional use of coca leaves. There are clearly some cultural considerations that the wider world needs to be aware of and the country is taking steps to raise awareness whilst also making some significant changes. A recent increase in cocaine production, for example, has resulted in Bolivia putting to bed a previous public disagreement with the US Drug Enforcement Administration and accepting offers of help from the US and Brazil to fight this ‘war’.

But in terms of Route 36, cocaine with its low cost and easy availability forms the crux of its attraction, and the place itself is undoubtedly designed to appeal to the sensation seeking tourist and provide them with a story for when they return home. You went where? A cocaine bar? Really? No way! Imagine if we had…! The police would… blah blah blah. You get the drift.

So the novelty factor, maybe, plays a role in attracting in the punters. Nowhere else have I heard of a public bar where you can happily sit down, order up a few lines and snort them openly. It’s essentially the normalisation of drug taking; a place where you can indulge and party away from any critical judgement of non-drug taking friends and family. ‘It’s a pretty regular bar’ said one of my friends who found himself there on a few early mornings when he wasn’t yet ready for bed. The only difference between a ‘regular’ club and Route 36? Ask about the coke on offer, spend out 150Bs. (£13.69 / US$21.55) and you’ll get yourself a gram in the latter. No questions asked. No problems.

Why avoid the place? Other than the obvious health and legality issues, for what you pay, there is a far purer product out there at a cheaper or similar price. Friends and cocaine connoisseurs tell me that the quality of Route 36’s offerings is pretty pitiful, suspected to be cut with amphetamines that keep you uncomfortably awake way beyond the end of the party in a way that purer powder won’t.

Overall though, I can’t comment with any real conviction. I’m no expert and for various reasons I didn’t get around to visiting the place. Missed opportunity? Maybe.

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Attempted murder on the dance floor

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Party people in La Paz (photo: Carl Maybry©)

It was gone 03:30am, I was totally sober and one of a few people in the Azul nightclub in La Paz not revved up on alcohol or cocaine. Tiredness was giving me that dazed, drunken effect but I felt pretty damn good that I was still holding up.

I became an artist, decorating friends’ faces with UV paint. In turn, my face was painted in yellows and pinks, covering some of the black stamps from another creative burst earlier in the evening. I chatted and laughed, I swigged water and I danced shamelessly to bad music on the teeny dance floor.

And then I saw it: pools of bright red blood covering the ground by my feet, fainter towards the bar where people had unknowingly stumbled through, streaking and smearing the place in the colour of danger. Splodges of UV paint shone out in between.

And the crowd continued to dance.

I’d somehow missed the disturbance on the dance floor. A stabbing, some local guy told me, two Bolivians. I couldn’t see how someone could have survived that much blood loss. But was it really blood? It was so bright.

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Starting to notice the blood

Bar staff eventually started to mop up and the revellers were encouraged to leave. And there again, trails of blood, coagulating on the stairs and on the pavement.

We waited for a taxi. A few of us were hushed in disbelief. People continued to spill out of the club. Some stood in the pools of blood, oblivious. I stopped a few. If they didn’t care about the stabbing, maybe they’d care about their shoes? And would the blood not need to remain as it was for police evidence?

A man came out of the Azul nightclub and started to pour a clear liquid over the blood on the pavement. He scrubbed away with a stiff brush, pushing a watery, bloody mix onto the road. Before long, little remained. No police showed up.

A few days later I discovered that the man had survived. This was the same time that some of the partiers who had been there that night finally realised that someone had actually been stabbed.

Three times, I told them, did you not see all the blood? Too off their heads. But for me, sober, I saw it and I felt it raw and it stuck like something from a movie still. And I wished it were just all a movie or a figment of my imagination but no, this was real life touching on the only certainty of death.

The papers didn’t report it, from what I managed to gather, and the police seemed to ignore it. I discovered that a tourist had also been involved in a minor way.  But that about the main guy? Despite the double stabbing, he got lucky and was recuperating in hospital. Life wasn’t done with him just yet.

People told me that La Paz, like many a city, has a dangerous, crazy side, but to see it up close on my first night? What a reality check.

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City to hippy: Santa Cruz to Samaipata

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Plaza Principal 12 de Julio, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

On my first day in Santa Cruz I met an American traveller who had lost his friend in the city the previous night. Halfway through an evening of drink and drugs in some third ring Santa Cruz bars – an area where tourists are advised not to venture – both guys were arrested for not carrying identification. They were thrown into a city jail along with a load of other tourists. Following pay offs and promises to return with passports the following day, both boys were released. The partying continued. And then somewhere, somehow, Marc lost his friend to a girl, or to hedonism, or to who knows what.

5:00pm the following day and Marc was worried. His friend hadn’t made a reappearance. If a girl had been involved, motel kicking out times had long passed. Marc started to imagine the worst. Was he back in jail? In hospital? In a gutter? It wasn’t like his friend to be so late, so inconsiderate.

I never found out what happened, how this resolved. It unsettled me a little, but it wasn’t unusual. Most people showed up eventually with a good story.

But it made think: did I really want to stay in a city like this?

Santa Cruz, many told me, is a fun place to party and spend a few days but beyond that doesn’t offer a huge amount to a backpacking crowd. I only spent three days in Santa Cruz and as far as my limited exploring revealed, it is just another South American city with yet another lovely plaza and cathedral.

However, as my taxi driver warned me, despite a warm climate and a modern, Brazilian influence, it also has its dangerous side.

Call me boring, but I’m a bit over dangerous cities. I’m not really a city girl, in all honesty. And maybe because I was also seriously under the weather and on a good dose of antibiotics, I wasn’t really feeling the place. I needed country air. I craved a welcoming, safe environment.

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Views on the way from Santa Cruz to Samaipata

So I squished into a taxi with four Israeli backpackers and wound my way down from Santa Cruz through a mountainous landscape towards the fresh air of Samaipata.

But first, a stop-off at what sounded like a hippy idyll in Bermejo: an organic farmstead that embraced music and creative arts and was working towards self-sufficiency.

Surely this would be the ideal place to recuperate and re-energise?

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First impressions of Lima

It’s 7:00AM in Lima, Peru and the city is getting ready for the We Run Lima 10km run sponsored by Nike. Stands are being set up and areas of the street cordoned off and sound systems tested.

At 9:00AM the horns blow and the music starts. A group of young guys are ready with their ‘junk’ band – metal bins and brooms – along Malécon de Reserva on the bridge by Parque del Amor. Onlookers join in, clapping, and the occasional runner breaks from treading tarmac to shake their hips to the beat.

I’m walking into the flow of runners (no, not being totally annoying, I’m out of their way). The sea of red t-shirts bobbing up and down makes one dizzy. There’s a real mix of age groups taking part although I can’t help but notice that the majority of runners are male. What’s that all about?

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I duck out and sit in Parque del Amor. The huge stone statue of lovers entwined serves as a backdrop for couples photographs and the colourful mosaic seating outlining the park acts as a rest point for couples emulating the statue. The mosaic spells out messages of love, declarations of affection and positive messages: Viva la vida, Angela’ says one. Live the life.

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Looking out to sea, the surf is coming in in perfect lines and peeling steadily to allow the clusters of surfers to catch rides. Most surfers stick to the Redondo breaks left of the pier, away from the beginners learning to surf at Makaha Surf Beach. They catch long left handers. The better, bigger waves are farther out; even the ones being surfed are a considerable paddle out, although it’s fairly relaxed, not too heavy on the inside.

Little parks and pedestianised walkways are dotted along the road that runs the stretch of the sea front. People of all ages rollerblade, skate or longboard along the pavements, peddle their bikes, wander along hand in hand or walk their dogs. It’s a lazy Sunday morning but these guys are in full swing despite the grey start. The sun tries to push through; it’s warming up.

The walk back into Miraflores up Malecon 28 de Julio takes you by the pristine tennis courts of Club Tennis Las Terrezas Miraflores, a place that smells of affluence. From the courts there are far reaching views out over the sea and for a moment I try to imagine myself living that life: weekend tennis with my friends followed by a coffee or cocktail (or is that too unhealthy for this place?). I shake the thought pretty quickly.

By the time I make it back to the central park of Miraflores, the early morning stillness has been replaced by the sound of vehicles and chatter, and the streets and the parks are heaving with people of all nationalities.

The Miraflores district of Lima feels wealthy and westernised, full of comfortable, homogenised places to eat, drink and shop. It feels nothing like the other parts of Peru that I have visited. On the one hand it is pleasant and familiar; on the other hand it’s horribly boring. I realise that this can’t be the full picture.

Show me more of yourself, Lima.

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