I spent 19 years crisscrossing the globe with the world's leading travel broadcaster, Travel Channel International. I visited over 80 countries. But amazingly, apart from a brief stint in Ecuador, I seem to have missed out the whole of South America. Admittedly, I don't speak Spanish but I'm never one to shirk a challenge. I have 4 months to play with and I'm setting off to explore Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina on my todd. If you've ever thought of taking a career break or grown up gap year or simply have a fascination with South America but have never taken the plunge, then follow my trail ... The Petra Trail. Who knows where it may lead...?
25 years after my first back packing experience, I'm now equipped with a pull along bag, doubling up as a back pack when needed (that's if I can carry it). I have all manner of gadgets and the requisite chargers (fingers crossed I've brought the right ones), a pillow, even a catering pack of PG tips and a kettle that has been unceremoniously crammed in. Initially, there's going to be very little roughing it and I'm easing myself in gently with the first port of call, Peru's capital Lima, and a stay at the city's' newest boutique hotel Hotel B http://hotelb.pe/ an early 20th century mansion, it's now a luxury hotel situated in Barranco, an up-market bohemian seaside suburb famous for its art galleries and historic houses.
The hotel which opened in April this year is a pristine example of a Belle Epoque mansion. It was originally built as a summer seaside retreat during the presidency of Augusto Leguia. Peru was celebrating 100 years of independence and Lima was transformed for the occasion. Hotel B perfectly captures the celebratory spirit of the 1920s. It's very ornate, all wooden floors and enormously high ceilings. There are some nice touches, a complimentary tea every afternoon and even a complimentary mini bar with soft drinks and snacks, a first for me. I can see I won't go hungry.
To be honest, I wasn't that excited about visiting Lima. It's not a city to inspire the imagination. The most romantic thing I could conjure up was the city's association with Paddington Bear (soon to be voiced in a new film by Mr Romance himself Colin Firth). Even in Michael Bond's books, Peru was always preceded by "deepest and darkest" and all I'd read about Lima was that the city was shrouded by fog for half the year. Still, you've got to start somewhere and Lima, an 11 flight from Madrid, was the obvious choice.
Lima has some of the best museums and nightlife in the country but this is a personal journey, and as I'm a fresh air freak and not one for late nights, I've opted instead to get the lay of the land and explore the city by bike. Bike Tours of Lima offer guided tours of the most important sites in the city. I opted for the longer 3 1/2 hour bay tour visiting the neighbourhoods of Barranco and Chorrillos. Having witnessed the traffic and Peruvian driving skills (I'm still not sure what side of the road they drive on, as everybody just seems to weave in and out), I have to say I was a little bit dubious about riding a bike. However, the friendly guide expertly lead us through quieter side streets, mainly on the pavement (nobody seemed to mind) sharing anecdotes and tales of local folklore as we rode along. The tour is not at all strenuous, and the bikes the easy to ride sit up and beg variety.
I've seen the fountain display at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and more recently the fountains performing outside the Dubai Mall but the last place I expected to find an elaborate fountain show would be in Lima, said to be after Cairo the driest capital city in the world. However, a run down old park near the downtown area has been transformed into one of Lima's top attractions and the un-expected highlight of The Petra Trail so far - The Magic Water Circuit. More than a dozen fountains shoot water into the air (some as high as 80m), some into amazing shapes, some allowing the foolhardy to play chicken with the spray, jumping in and out the fountains as the spray is turned on and of. There's also a 25 minute show of water, music, lights and lasers. All in all it's pretty spectacular.
Now to my biggest worry. I don't speak a word of Spanish. And I'm afraid I stumbled at the first hurdle, forgetting the Golden Rule of Travel - always have your hotel address written down. The taxi driver had no idea where I was staying. On arrival, jet lagged and exhausted, I realised I should have also written down or learnt how to request in Spanish my required non allergenic pillow. Instead, I embarrassed myself doing an impression of a chicken to illustrate feathers which the staff found highly amusing.
The weather in Lima has been grey and wet (described by locals like the belly of a donkey) but it is after all still winter. Lima could be said to have only two seasons, a long winter and a short summer. The traffic is congested (apparently there are 180 new cars per day in the city). However, the welcome at Hotel B has been wonderful and there's the added luxury of time on this trip. I'm not having to rush through the city before heading to my next destination. I've had an initial flavour of Peru which I think I'm going to get more of a taste for as I head next for the country's premier attraction, Cusco, The Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu.