Spirit in the Sky

We are deep into the rainy season and it rains at least once most days now. Apparently this is most unusual, and everyone is talking about it. Being English, of course I am used to rain - but not to some of the rain we get here.

Last night I was woken by another thunderstorm. But this one didn't stop, and eventually I got up to stare at it out of the window. For at least an hour and half the lightening flashed, some of it appearing as jagged streaks, but mostly the whole sky just lit up, as if someone was playing with a giant light switch, turning it off and on over and over again. & the thunder was continuous, rumbling around and around overhead but occasionally also coming as deafening crashes, or as a great tearing sound as if the sky was being ripped apart.

It was all quite magnificent, and from the safety of my little house I really enjoyed the spectacle. But then I thought about how I might feel if I were walking along an unlit path between villages in the countryside, and suddenly I understood so clearly how so many of the villagers still believe that the natural world (their world) is inhabited by spirits.

A holiday in Peru

My holiday effectively started in Spain, where I had ten hours in transit – enough to take the metro into Madrid and take a tour of the Royal Palace followed by a leisurely paella with several glasses of sangria.

The miserable weather in Lima was a bit of a shock. This is the garĂșa, the effect of the cold air coming in from the Pacific forming clouds over the coastal strip and getting trapped there by the Andes. They stay for nine months of the year, during which time Lima is cold, grey and damp.

Thankfully that was only an overnight stop, after which I travelled south to Paracas National Park for a bit of flamingo-watching and a trip out to the Ballestas Islands. These pinnacles of rock sticking out of the ocean, with their great arches and caves carved out by the waves, are bare of vegetation but covered in birds. Inca terns, three species of cormorant and tens of thousands of Peruvian boobies perch on cliff ledges whilst Humbolt penguins and sea lions lumber about on the rocks below. It is one of those places where mankind has still not taken over from nature.

Also in this region are the famous Nazca Lines, carved out of the desert in pre-Inca times for who-knows-what reason. I took a flight over them in a little aircraft, whose pilot was enjoying banking left and right so all on board could see them clearly – I saw at least one passenger escape afterwards looking decidedly green!

The next stop was the Amazon region, with several days at some comfortable though fairly basic lodges (candlelight only) in Tambopata. Whilst I saw hundreds of amazing birds, a bird-eating spider, a beautiful tree frog, a scorpion, capybara, caiman and six species of monkeys, the highlight was the clay-lick on the banks of the river. This is an exposed stretch of clay on the river bank where birds, mostly parrots, parrokeets and macaws, come each day to eat clay. It is believed that the clay binds with toxins from their fruit diet and thus is vital for their health – presumably the toxins existing only in fruits in this region as it is not known for parrots in other parts of the world (not even in Central America) to indulge in this behaviour.

We had to get there early so as not to disturb the birds – which meant being in place on the opposite river bank by around 6am. Then gradually the parrots started to arrive in the nearby trees. The birds are nervous at the lick, as they are more exposed to predators than normal, so whilst they squawk loudly at this big social gathering they also get frightened easily and take to the sky and fly around until they feel safe enough to land again. Finally the bravest make the journey from the trees to the clay, and the real spectacle begins as hundreds of colourful birds converge on the bright red clay. We counted three species of parakeet, five species of parrot, and finally six species of macaw. This is a photo of just one of the blue-and-yellow macaws at the lick – try to imagine the noise and colour of several hundred (thousand?) such birds!

After Tambopata was another kind of jungle – the cloud forest of Manu – steep-sided hills often swathed in cloud (though thankfully not for much of my visit) where the trees are dripping with mosses and lichens. Again there were monkeys and beautiful birds – more trogons and tanagers, plus a golden-headed quetzal, a highland motmot, a blue-banded toucanet, a lyre-tailed nightjar, an umbrellabird and the bizarre cock-of-the-rocks. The cock-of-the-rock is the national bird of Peru, though there has been some pressure to change it because it is sometimes considered a joke bird. It is pigeon-sized, bright orange coloured with dark wings and tail, with tiny little pale eyes and a large round orange crest which juts forward to the end of its bill. The males gather together everyday in a ‘lek’, which is a display-ground for impressing females. There they produce various croaks and grunts, and jump about with their wings spread and their heads down, so that they look at you over the top of their crests. In other words they look totally ridiculous.

Unfortunately they like to display under the trees where it was too dark for my little point-and-shoot camera, but if the guide remembers to send me a decent photo (as promised) I will add it in here later. I shouldn’t forget to mention another great bird, one I should have got a photo of if I had not always been so captivated by it that I forgot to try – the booted racket-tail. This is a tiny little green hummingbird, with two very long tail feathers that appear to have been stripped of the feathery bits until flaring out again at the end, and with chestnut coloured tufts of fur over their legs like little fluffy legwarmers. Gorgeous little things.

After the jungle I went to the beautiful town of Cuzco – what an amazing place and how I wish I had been able to spend more time there, to just wander about taking in the architecture, browsing in the art galleries and trying out a selection of the restaurants. As it was, however, I did at least manage to try both alpaca and guinea pig. The former was pretty uninteresting and the latter surprisingly nice, though with rather too many fiddly little bones.

Finally came the highlight of the trip, I think – a visit to Machu Picchu. It is one of those wonders of the world that does not disappoint. The ruins themselves are quite interesting, but it is the setting that is most impressive. It is perched on top of a steep-sided mountain, surrounded by jagged near-vertical peaks and with snow-covered mountains further back. &, well, I don't know what else to say about it as you have all seen the pictures so many times - but here's another in case you have forgotten.