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Cycling in Peru, Bolivia & Chile (John Rhodes) PDF Printable Version E-mail


A Journey through Peru, Bolivia and Chile

A New Zealand Couple and a Tandem called Apollo

John Rhodes

September 2006

Now enjoying an active retirement, John and Ann Rhodes regularly take time out from their smallholding to sample the pains and joys of cycling and walking in the more challenging parts of the world. And that includes the mountains and gorges of their native New Zealand, where John edits a magazine for walkers (or 'trampers' as the Kiwis call them).

In this article, based on emails John sent from South America, we have an up-close description of cycling and travelling in what is one of the most challenging regions in the world for the independent, NZ11_(109)_Goodbye_to_John_and_Ann.JPGself-propelled and self-motivated traveller.NZ11_(106)_Johns_Tandem_Apollo.JPG

In the photograph, Margaret (centre) says farewell to Ann and John as we leave their home town on the North Island of New Zealand. The tandem 'Apollo' is seen at rest in John's well-equipped workshop.

Click here to read John's other accounts of cycling and travelling in India, Pakistan, China and Tibet.

Peru 1


In the airport in Lima for the second time it all seemed too hard. We had gone on to Cuzco without Apollo, assured by LAN Chile that he would follow us as soon as he arrived from Santiago. But Customs held him in Lima, and I had to fly back from Cuzco to declare his value. Nothing else would obtain his release. Then his tattered box had to be wound in a hundred metres of blue baggage wrap, to the enjoyment of the men who did it and lightening my pocket by US $35. I had had enough of airports and queues and wished I had stayed at home. But then I thought of Thor Heyerdahl in Lima about 1950, getting balsa logs from the forest to sail the Pacific, and I thought, this is not so hard.

The plane rose above the perpetual fog of Lima and flew east over remote villages laid in tiny grids on the mountainsides, and then past white peaks with fissured glaciers, and came in an hour to the brown valley of Cuzco where every roof is tiled with half-pipes. And then I was down among it, pedalling Apollo alone because I had taken only one set of pedals to the airport, and Ann (who came to meet me) in a taxi with the cardboard and blue plastic. Every car here it seems is a taxi, little Daewoos with sloping noses hurrying like dodgems.

Cuzco´s Plaza de Armas has a huge cathedral and the ornate Iglesia de San Francisco, and on two sides colonnades where we tourists visit restaurants or buy craft work, well executed and in a supply exceeding demand by a thousand-fold. In the hotels people rise early, thumping above sleepers' heads and talking in loud voices, to catch the train to Machu Picchu, and get back tired to the restaurants and craft-sellers.

Inca stonework is to be seen, though, throughout the city, built by the Spaniards on its remains when its further demolition became too difficult. The art of Inca stonework would make a linoleum-layer proud, but this is in three dimensions and not in material that can be cut with a knife. It was done without wheels or horses, or even cell-phones; and nothing in our guidebook explains how.

On Saturday we left Cuzco, bumping and rattling over the cobbles till we came to the main road with its servicentros and tyre merchants and brake specialists and soft drink sellers and hundreds of tiny shops offering fotocopias. Then we were out among the stark hills with their eucalypts and cactuses, and people calling hola to the gringos on the bicicleta para dos personas.

A rainstorm came, with thunder, so we sheltered in a servicentro and showed the proprietor and his grandson photos of home and family till it eased. At Andahuaylillas we called at the church built in 1572, with huge paintings and gold-encrusted carving in slow decay like the inside of a dusty wedding-cake. In the streets walked stocky dark women with black pigtails, full skirts just below the knee, bright shawls and high hats, as if in a strange school uniform.

The road came steeply down to the valley, a tributary of the Urubamba, at Urcos, where a funeral procession was under way with music and a banner and a white casket, and an articulated truck was backing and filling in the main street while the tourist buses waited.

The road rose high to cross a shingle-choked tributary where it burst from the mountain wall. As shadow overtook the valley, people were harvesting coppiced eucalypt poles and a vivid green cereal grass, and carrying them to tumbledown mud-brick houses. In the last light we came to Quiquijiana and slept in a hostal behind a general store and restaurant, with a chamber-pot in our upstairs room.

We had done our first day´s ride in Peru.

Peru 2

Wedding at San Pedro

Late on our second day of cycling we visited the Inca ruins at Raqchi, and instead of doing the last 16 km to Sicuani in failing light we found a basic hotel in the nearby town of San Pedro ('basic' in that my enquiry of the landlord about duchas calientes or hot showers was met with 'no, frio' - cold).

The sound of revelry and loud music came from across the Plaza de Armas, where the school had been taken over for a matrimonio. The highly amplified MC spotted me as soon as I arrived in the playground, and his welcome to el turisto boomed out as someone put a glass of chica (maize beer) in my hand. 22-year old Hilda (pronounced 'Eelda') adopted me so she could practice her English. I excused myself to fetch Ann.

This was the celebratory part of the proceedings, which had been in progress for the entire weekend. Two bands, one conventional and one electronic, threatened our eardrums in turn. I was caught up by the bride, and despite not having danced for 40 years did creditably well except for the bits where she raised our linked hands and expected me to whirl underneath. Meanwhile Ann and the groom were similarly engaged while Hilda minded my camera.

She is a security person in the municipalidad of San Pedro, but because she is short her chances of promotion are slight and she plans to study physiotherapy. The groom is one of her work colleagues.

Guests lined up to give presents of money. Ann and I decided to contribute 50 soles (NZD 25). I reached the head of the queue, quaffed a tumbler of sweet wine, added my note to the pile, was embraced by bride and groom, refused with difficulty four open bottles of cerveza (beer), and entered our names and the amount of our donation in a book. I noticed that most gifts were of 40 soles or less, but it was too late to back out. To my mortification, as I went back to Ann and Hilda the MC announced to the gathering (and to the town of San Pedro at large) the turisto´s gift of cincuenta soles. This raised a great cheer. Relations between Nueva Zelandia and San Pedro were now cemented and we could do no wrong.

Though the crowd had finished eating (but not, apparently, drinking), the bride´s father led us away and organised women to provide us with dinner from the left-overs. Then we returned to the bands and the dancing, and made incomprehensible shouted conversation with friendly, very tipsy San Pedrians. Others begged for their photos to be taken as they danced, open cerveza bottles in hand.

A stocky, felt-hatted, full-skirted woman took me by the hand and led me into the arena, and we danced, her skirt billowing and her black pigtail flying.

For several days I had been trying to take surreptitious photographs of just such women as this, and now I was hand in hand and pushing and pulling and whirling with one of them. The dance seemed endless, especially after a moderate day´s cycling, so by way of a diversion I manoeuvred my partner in Ann´s direction and encouraged an exchange of hats. The Peruvian lady enjoyed this idea, but Ann seemed uncomfortable with it, I thought because she had had less beer. But it was because of nits, I learned afterwards. Men do not think of such things.

At about 8 pm we excused ourselves to our upstairs room at the Hotel Wiracocha, with its cracks between the floorboards and its view of crazily tiled roofs and the courtyard below with the family and chickens and children and single tap for everyone, and the cold shower and the two squat toilets behind flimsy doors.

As we went to sleep there came loudly across the plaza the repetitive beat of the music from the matrimonio, but we did not mind because it was our matrimonio and our music, and we dreamed of the pounding dance.

Peru 3

Voyage on Lake Titicaca

I used to think that to get anywhere near Lake Titicaca, with its reed islands and boats and its hatted women, you needed to work for National Geographic. That may once have been so; but now there are sealed roads and petrol stations and reinforced concrete all around Lake Titicaca, and buses between Puno at one end and Copacabana at the other, and the only things that are adventurous about it is that it is at 3800 metres above sea level and you can´t get a decent meal.

Unless you like trout, which Ann does. Ann highly approves of Lake Titicaca. We have just had dinner, and for the equivalent of four NZ dollars Ann had trout, and for $2 I had fries and indeterminate meat. We both had soup. And rice. You get rice in quantity whether you order it or not, which I consider an insult in this homeland of the potato, especially if it is cold as it was tonight.

Three days ago we took a launch trip from Puno for an overnight stay on Taquile Island, travelling by the ponderous collective boat owned by the Taquilians, who run their own tourist operation.

Soon after leaving port on the three hour journey back to Puno, a breeze raised waves of about 30 centimetres. This may seem little enough, but the launch rolled so alarmingly that we feared a capsize, as did the other passengers (mainly Taquilans) and crew. The collective boat is distinguished from tourist boats by its slowness and overloading. A tourist boat of similar size which passed us had ´´CAP 25 PASJ´´ stencilled on its hull; but ours had that number in the cockpit alone, and another 35 in the cabin (headline: NEW ZEALANDERS BELIEVED DROWNED IN PERUVIAN LAKE TRAGEDY). At least ten lifejackets were safely stowed under the cabin roof. Nobody could move. One man spent the entire journey standing in the bano (toilet). The mate/engineer brought people down from the cabin roof, reducing the rolling but increasing the congestion. He wore a traditional white Tequilan jerkin, gay woollen hat and woven cummerbund, with his tasselled coca bag at his waist. At the worst of the rolling he passed coca leaves to everyone within reach and threw some in the water to placate the spirits of the lake.

The engine was a petrol V8, with its ignition coil on a long HT lead to allow it to hang outside the engine housing for cooling. Wrapped around the coil was a cloth which was periodically removed and dipped in the lake. Men baled the bilge with an old cooking oil bucket.

When we came into the shelter of a headland the bowler-hatted woman beside Ann, who had shared coca leaves with her, resumed her spinning in the few inches of space by her knees.

At last we entered the channel in the totora beds near Puno, the reeds bending and swaying in the wake of the boat, and the mate handed out life jackets to the half dozen tourists on board so we could be seen wearing them when we tied up.

Bolivia 1

Constipation in San Pedro de Tiquina

We came down to San Pedro on the straits of Tiquina at about 5pm, too late to go on to the next town on our rudimentary map. We´d started late from Copacabana, not expecting a long hill which took us to over 4000 metres on a peninsula into Lake Titicaca. The road was quiet from a drivers´ strike, with patches of snow and views of the Cordillera Real, where Heather was mountaineering. Although the guidebook listed no accommodation in the small lakeside town, we learned that an alojiamento existed.

When we thought we were near the right spot we asked again and discovered that we were outside the alojiamento, which had no sign and a closed steel door. Bystanders gathered, and one threw a pebble against an upstairs window. At length a girl´s face appeared above, and after more delay another child of about seven partly opened the steel door and asked for our documentos. We showed our passports and she retreated, closing the door, to return some minutes later and repeat her demand. We said our passports were muy valiosos, and kept them. The girl disappeared once again to confer with her sister.

A young woman from among the small crowd now took charge and negotiated our entry. We hauled Apollo up steep steps to a courtyard where the sisters insistently repeated their documentos request, which we again refused. They gave up and showed us two sparsely furnished upstairs rooms which we could have for B15 each (about NZD 3).

There was apparently, however, no baño. This small oversight in the design of the facilities could be overcome by going through a door from the courtyard, avoiding a pile of dog droppings, to a gravel area where to orinar was possible. For more serious endeavours we must use the baño publico down the street, which (in preparation for emergency) we subsequently located. The kindly woman in charge promised to unlock it if we knocked loudly at any time after 7am.

We took a light dinner of pollo con fritas at the San Pedro´s only restaurant. Experience had taught us to insist that it be served caliente (hot), but the proprietress was not to be deflected from her normal regime. She served our food from a roadside display cabinet on a bed of cold, stale rice. While we ate she cooked more pollo and fritas and carried them steaming hot past us to cool in the cabinet ready for her next victims.

Back at the alojiamento the girls´ mother provided a plastic bucket for our nocturnal convenience. We slept well. In the morning we breakfasted and hurried down to the wharf to hire a boat for the five-minute crossing to San Pedro´s sister pueblo, San Pablo, where the baños publicos were mercifully open.

Bolivia 2

La Paz

The word 'incredible' should be reserved for things that are truly unbelievable, such as the first view of La Paz from El Alto.

We came in to El Alto past all its hideous brick and the noise and fumes, bouncing dustily through road works, with mini-buses touting for passengers and an air-force base whose walls bore signs declaring that destitute Bolivia´s securidad depends on air-strike capability.

El Alto is an unattractive overspill from the main city, composed of the ugly buildings at which Bolivia excels, and with all the commerce of the outskirts of a third world city. It lies at the very edge of the altiplano, which turns up like the rim of a gentle saucer so that in the day´s 70-odd kilometres from Huarina by Lake Titicaca we had climbed perhaps 200 metres. Then, among the pedestrians and buses and taxis, the road turned under itself and started to descend. Cyclists met on the road had told us what to expect. We bypassed the toll gate and ignored the sign banning ciclistas, because we were not looking at that.

We were looking at La Paz below in the afternoon light.

La Paz is like Wellington in its encircling basin of hills; but without the harbour and with matchboxes of brick instead of painted weatherboard and with a huge snow mountain behind, and all on a vast scale - which means it is not much like Wellington at all.

We swooped down the autopista among the dry eucalypts, with washing drying on the median strip and people pouring off pedestrian over-bridges and climbing into more minibuses, each with a man at the door shouting the destination and fare. The tar-seal and concrete and traffic led us down among the brick boxes, till near the bottom we saw an exit labelled Avenida Peru and remembered that this should lead us to Avenida Armentia. And then we were in the streets of La Paz.

Apollo seemed to handle strangely. I glanced at the road and saw the shadow of Apollo and that of Ann´s saddle, but not Ann´s shadow. Suddenly I was overcome with the difficulty of finding her, lost in this city of several million, and reflected that I knew our destination but she did not. Replacing Ann with a stumpy woman in wide skirt and bowler hat would cause the inconvenience of lowering the rear saddle and explaining in Spanish or Aymari how to operate the cycle computer. This was too much, so I stopped and saw Ann (who had got off at an intersection and said nothing), walking behind.

We found the Hostal Tambo de Oro and took a room on the fourth floor. When we had been there an hour the telephone rang and the man at Reception said in English 'Your daughter is here.' Soon we were hearing about the route on El Condoriri, with its screes, crevasse fields, ice guts, snow ridges and rock steps, which Heather and Karen and Yasmani had nearly climbed the day before; and we were secretly relieved that in our family mountaineering is a delegated activity.

Bolivia 3


We are in Sorata, a town of 30 people in a great valley, a tributary of the Amazon, with real trees and bougainvillea, at only 2700 metres. The Residential Sorata where we are staying (for NZ $3 per head) was built by Gunther, a German settler, more than a hundred years ago, with wrought iron balconies and polished steps and courtyards and a door to bring the horses in and a garden where the girls saw a humming-bird today. Pinned to the wall outside the baño are the skins of five pythons (or perhaps anacondas), and one is six metres long.

Ann and Heather and Karen and I came here yesterday by bus from La Paz, crammed among skirts and hats and bundles and bodies. We turned off the main road at Huarina where Ann and I had slept three nights before, with Heather and Karen pointing out their conquests in the Cordillera Real whenever they could wriggle near us through the jammed aisle. We left the tar-seal at a sign indicating 53 kilometres to Sorata, and I said to Ann, perhaps we will be there in an hour. It took two. The bus climbed through desolate moraine to a saddle, and occasionally someone would get off with their bundle among the rubble with no sign of, or reason for, a home. Then the road plunged in fearsome zigzags down a cultivated mountainside where we prayed that oncoming trucks and buses would have the drop on their side. A bus went over three weeks ago; and this is not even the WMDR (World´s Most Dangerous Road) - we have yet to experience that.

Sorata is peaceful on its mountainside. It is dusty, like every Bolivian town, but you can forgive dust when a town´s plaza has towering palms and araucarias and you have seen no real trees for a fortnight. This morning I met an Englishman, Geoff, who said he could spend a year in Bolivia. I could not spend a year or even a month on the glaring bare altiplano, but time could pass very pleasantly in the green garden of the Residential Sorata with the slopes of Mt Illanpu dim in haze above.

Last night we met Abram, our guide for the seven day trek to Mapiri in the jungle, and bought food for our party of seven: ourselves, Abram and two porters. It seemed a little like the early Himalayan expeditions which used a third of the porters to carry the money to pay themselves and the others, except with us it is just a great pile of food. Abram said our trek will be muy difficile, and used his cell-phone to find porters, but none would come for the US $70 each that he had quoted because they said the Mapiri trek is too hard. We offered $90 and now we have porters, who will eat avena for breakfast and two pan and a muesli bar for lunch and a dinner of rice or pasta. They will carry all the food, tents and stoves.

We do not know how hard this trek will be. Abram says the camino, an old pre-Inca trail, is narrow and indistinct, and that we shall have to crawl under fallen arboles. It sounds rather like the Tararuas, but our imaginings of it are filled with bears and crocodiles and butterflies and ticks and even more greenery than in the garden of the wonderful Residential Sorata, and vines and snakes and mosquitoes and steaming heat, and afterwards a trip down the river in a dug-out canoe from Mapiri to Guanay.

And best of all, Abram made us buy, for 27 Bolivianos, a machete so we can hack our way through the jungle. So this is to be a real expedition, with porters and a machete and no map; and - who knows? - perhaps pythons too.

Bolivia 4

The Mapiri trek

We left Sorata in a dented Toyota Land-cruiser on a four hour alpine crossing that became an adventure in itself. There were seven in our party plus the driver, but somehow three extras appeared in the back of the vehicle, and when we stopped for a pee at nearly 4000 metres we discovered a fourth man lying on the roof, face down to avoid the dust. They were gold miners using gringo-funded transport to reach their claims.

Early afternoon brought us to Ingenio, a bleak alluvial gold-mining settlement in the valley of the Rio Yani, whence we walked the first hour of the Mapiri Trail. We camped at 3500 m near the Rio Ticata, a tributary of the Yani and a mere stream in the dry season. Karen found she'd left her stove pump behind, so we would have to depend on our guide's kerosene primus; but here we had a fire.

Gap-toothed Anselmo (45) and Rolando (24), our porters, carried all the food and fuel with their own few belongings, in huge cloth bundles tied around their chests. For the last two of the six days they would take our tents as well. Our guide Abram (28) had less of a load, but did most of the cooking and all the machete work in the jungle stages. All three were small farmers with families, supplementing their income through membership of and work for the Asociación Guías Turísticas Sorata. Anselmo had no sleeping bag, so Heather lent him one of her two light ones and he claimed that he slept well, sandwiched between Abram and Rolando. It froze, and Heather did not.

The Mapiri Trail is either old or very old, depending on what you read. It may originally have been a pre-Inca route; but Europeans, if they did not instigate its creation, developed it in the 1870s to bring quinine from the jungle regions to Sorata. Later used to transport rubber and gold, the trail has been un-maintained for half a century and is now used only by tourist parties, about eight (perhaps 50 people) per year. One writer says that in 1903 the entire Bolivian army went down this trail to lose a war with Brazil.

Heather chose the Mapiri Trail because it looked interesting and because she thought her parents could manage it. She dismissed the guidebook descriptions: "adventurous", "hard core trek", "masochist" and "unremittingly tough" and the warning of an Internet posting: "this part-trek, part-commando run is certain to amaze, enrage and exhaust even the most hardy of would-be Rambos." Heather said that these phrases were intended to deter Dutch and Danish backpackers, and that we hardened Kiwi trampers would have no problem.

The second day started with a climb to a tussock pass at 4000 m which brought us to the catchment of another tributary of the Yani. In mid-morning we rounded a shoulder and to the north opened a vast panorama of spurs running down from the distant Cordillera Apolobamba to an ocean of cloud filling the Amazon basin, or this Bolivian corner of it. There followed a long eastward sidle with condors wheeling above. The trail, benched and paved with slate, could be seen far ahead and behind as it wound around the faces. I identified the long north-trending ridge which would lead us down to Mapiri – I thought. However, to my dismay the trail continued, and slowly the truth dawned that our route lay far away on the distant skyline.

As the sun lowered towards the western cordillera its layered ridges deepened in shades of blue. At a place called Mamarami - why it merited any name we could not tell, for it had nothing but mountain, trail and a stream with tadpoles and frogs - we camped. This was almost the only water we had seen all day, and we had each carried two litres. We were tired, for we'd covered a long distance, but with no map it was impossible to say how far.

Abram's routine was to boil water for tea as soon as camped. This was followed by soup, then a generous dinner of pasta or rice before bed, where we spent about 11 hours - in this first part of the journey it was too cold to stay up. At first light we would hear Abram light the stove, then return to bed till the water boiled. After serving tea he would cook avena (rolled oats porridge) and api, a maize-based drink rich in starch and sugar. We were away soon after 8.30 am.

On the morning of the third day the camino, still at more than 3500 m, turned left onto the beginning of the Mapiri ridge, flanked by the Rio Chiñjo on the west and the head of the Rio Corijahuira, with a glacial cirque and lake, to the east. Mostly descending, and sidling most of the peaks, we came to a derelict muleteers' hut at Tolapampa for lunch. The trail was now almost at tree line and in the mist. Here we collected water from the last stream we were to see for three days, then continued among sparse vegetation which soon became cloud forest, with curious pineapple-like plants, huge Lycopodiums, Spaghnum moss, thickets of umbrella fern, toetoe-like grasses, orchids taller than a human, magnolias and many strange species. We camped in a boggy clearing with a small trickle, at 3100 m by the guidebook. "Enjoy it" said the book, "since from here on it is jungle." Abram pointed out the hilltop, Alto Palmar, our goal for the next day. It looked pathetically close, but between us and it lay a tedious switchback ridge of jungle. Abram promised Heather and Karen it would make them cry.

Next day the Mapiri Trail lived up to its reputation. It lay in a deep rut, and many trees had fallen across, demanding feet-first sliding on the downhill sections or climbing on hands, knees or bellies on the uphill. Often scores of arboles were down, necessitating struggles through tunnels of rock, mud, logs and moss. We would reach the end of one such, stand and walk normally for a few paces, then commit ourselves to the next. There was no question of losing our way, for the growth of bamboos, ferns and trees on either side was impenetrable and the trail offered the only possibility of forward progress. Despite Abram's warning the girls, fresh from the snow and ice of the Cordillera Real, treated the exercise as a joke and tackled the hauling of their packs through each new burrow with shrieks of laughter. Occasional tiny clearings provided views of hazy blue ranges and of our forested ridge rolling ahead, but at every pause biting Tabanus flies drew blood on exposed skin. As we came lower new plants appeared, of which we could name bromeliads, Blechnum ferns in abundance, palms, tree ferns, Oxalis and Selaginella. We disturbed a tiny black and gold snake, which Abram cut in half with his machete before we could stop him.

At a brown pond named Lagunillas we strained mosquito larvae from the water, then carried bottles and billies of it to our longed-for dry hilltop of Alto Palmar at 2700 metres. When they at last dropped their loads Abram, Anselmo and Rolando were tired too, and only a strong hint initiated the making of a brew.

After lunch on the fifth day the trail improved, as we had hoped it might as we neared Mapiri. However, when my bootlace came undone and I stepped off the track to do it up, the ground under the fern was two metres down. In a flash Anselmo and Rolando were with me, undoing my pack and helping me to my feet. Thunder rolled around a darkened sky and we trekked all afternoon, mainly downhill, in rain and lightning. In mid afternoon we filled water containers at another dubious puddle and emerged from the jungle onto a ridge of grass and bamboo thickets, much of which had been fired. The storm eased while we pitched the tents and ate, but returned deafeningly about midnight. Through the thunder we heard a disturbance outside, and I looked out to find Abram with the machete cutting a trench around our tent (an MSR Hubba Hubba which performed admirably).

In New Zealand, coming out of the bush onto grass means one is nearly at a road, but not in the Amazon. After a morning start among pestilential bees, we walked endlessly it seemed, our ridge rising as much as it fell. At lunchtime we huddled in the shade of a bamboo shelter, the first structure we'd seen for five days, and dipped water from a seep under a mossy bank. Anselmo disappeared into the trees and returned five minutes later freshly shaven. He'd done it dry. As the afternoon wore on, in breathless, gasping heat, the word "unremitting" seemed indeed to apply to the Mapiri Trail.

Late in the day we made a final descent to cultivations of corn, cassava, bananas and pineapples. Then we washed in a trickle of a creek and walked a few kilometres of road to the dried-mud streets and the cockroaches of Saturday-night Mapiri. In this heat the thought of a hot shower had long since ceased to appeal, but a cold one would have been nice. However, at our Residencial Zuñgja the water was off and the rooms were uninhabitable having just been fumigated. Ann and I pitched our tent in the yard. We farewelled our companions with regret, for they had been helpful, cheerful and uncomplaining throughout.

We were now hard-core masochists.


Protopterus lives

Today we arrived in Santiago at 6am from Lima. After a sleep we continued our exploration of the city, on a grey cold day; but the streets were strangely empty for a Monday, with only one or two restaurants open. An Australian couple we met on Cerro Santa Lucia told us that today is a national holiday. If we wanted to see the action, they said, we should head to Parque O´Higgins where the celebrations were happening. So we did, by two short legs of Santiago´s fast, clean and efficient Metro.

At Parque O´Higgins it seemed every child and parent and courting couple and old person in Santiago was there. People were selling food, cheap kites made in China, mechanical toys, clothes, useless junk and rides on side-by-side covered bikes or recumbent two-seaters. Others were painting kids´ faces or enticing people into restaurants in huge marquees plastered with the Coca-Cola logo, or entertaining them with song, amplified music and dance in burstingly tight jeans. Llamas with soft wool and ribboned straw hats stood patiently while their owners took Polaroids of children on their backs. Two mounted carabineri kept a benign watch on the fun and let parents photograph their kids beside the horses, with their movil reten (paddy wagon) parked nearby in case anyone should misbehave (less threateningly than Lima´s police Department of Disturbance Prevention A.P.C. and armoured truck - with two water cannon - which was parked just off Lima´s plaza major yesterday). Under the trees people picnicked on sparse grass with little barbecue fires of twigs. Kite flying was in full swing, and a father tossed a huge sausage balloon, like a two metre caber, while his daughter ran after it with glee. The Chilenos, in their thronged thousands, were having fun.

Two small museums, part of Parque OHiggins´ regular establishment, were open. One, the Municipal Museo de insectas y caracoles (insects and snails) we did not enter. Outside the other, however, a man was fondling a live snake with flicking, forked tongue, in a way which made you think you could become fond of selected snakes. We laid out the few hundred pesos to join the crowds going in. Inside were more reptiles – snakes huddled for warmth, a small crocodile, turtles and geckos, interspersed with grubby, poorly lit cases containing stuffed specimens of South American wildlife – a pair of moth-eaten condors, sundry other birds and mammals, a live chinchilla rabbit, a few dried starfish and a handful of fossils. We thought it rather sad, but to these city people it seemed exciting.

I was about to leave when an eel-like creature in an aquarium caught my attention. Protopterus, the label read. Here at last was something I never expected to see, the South American lung fish, beloved by authors of zoology texts. Half fish and half amphibian, Protopterus obligingly wriggled its spindly fin-legs and reached its nose to the surface for a gulp of air. In that moment I felt a stirring in the roots of my backboned origins and something of the excitement that J.L.B. Smith must have known when he saw his first coelacanth dredged from the depths near the Comoros Islands seventy-odd years ago.

I am hurrying home to re-read the relevant part of Romer´s book Man and the Vertebrates, and to check on the name of Protopterus´ South African cousin, which memory suggests is Lepidosiren. I don´t care whether or not I have evolved from something like Protopterus; all I know is that it is a part of a darned good zoological story.

And today I saw Protopterus at Parque O´Higgins.