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South America


My Blog on South America begins in January 2015 and runs until October 2015. It provides the background to my novel, The Snake and the Condor, which was published by John Hunt Publishing in June 2015.

The text and pictures are taken from my Andean Journal, which will appear both in book form and as a DVD slide show with music and a spoken commentary. The text and photos are copyright. I will be happy to receive comments by e-mail and will answer any questions as best I can.

The Blog is in ten easily digestible parts, which will appear at monthly intervals. The subjects touched on will be: The Andes; Ayacucho; Lima and El Salvador; The Church and the Inquisition; Militarism and protest; Chile; Araucanía and the Mapuche; Escape from Chile; Potosí; Isla del Sol.

Map of South America

Jan | Feb | Mar | Apr | May | Jun | Jul | Aug | Sep | Oct

January 2015

Part One: The Andes

The Snake and the Condor is a love story set in the western part of South America: Chile, Bolivia, Peru. Julieta is the daughter of a senior government official in Santiago at the height of Pinochet's reign of terror in Chile in the early 1980s; Mawi is a Mapuche, one of the survivors of an indigenous people who resisted Spanish colonial rule till the end of the nineteenth century but who were then massacred with disease and superior arms. Those who were spared were herded on to the reservations where their descendants still live today. The Mapuche were persecuted under Pinochet.

Chile is in the grip of fear, suspicion and uncertainty. Julieta is under the tight control of her father, who plans to marry her to the army officer of his choice. If Julieta and Mawi are to have a future together, they must escape  - no easy task, since her father has contacts in the Chilean army and police and in the governments of neighbouring countries.

The way out of Chile is through the Andes. In the mountains one can get away from roads, and police and army vehicles, even if Pinochet keeps his frontiers mined, closely guarded by soldiers and regularly patrolled by army helicopters.

Andes with wisps of cloud

Your first view of Chile or Peru, as you arrive by air from Europe, is of the Andes. Your flight takes you for eight, nine or ten hours over the Atlantic to the north-eastern coast of South America and the border between French Guiana and Brazil. If you are on your way to Peru, the country where Julieta and Mawi hope to find refuge with her grandparents, your jet then flies you for almost four hours and two thousand miles over Amazonian jungle into the clouds of steam rising where the equatorial heat of Amazonia meets the cold air from the Andes.

The steam clears and you have a sharp view against a blue sky of the mountainous landscape Julieta and Mawi have to cross to make their escape.

Perched high in the Andes, at an altitude of nearly three thousand metres, is a Peruvian city famous since 1780 as a bastion of resistance against oppression: Ayacucho. More of Ayacucho in the next instalment.

Amazonian Sky

The Blue Andes

February 2015

Part Two: Ayacucho

Ayacucho is perhaps one of the two most beautiful cities in Peru, the other being Cuzco. Both perch high in the Andes at an altitude of three thousand metres, surrounded by snowy peaks. Both have old cathedrals. Ayacucho has a famous university. Quiet, cool patios provide a setting for emotional peace and philosophical meditation. The days are warm and sunny, the nights are mild and the air is fresh as spring water. This is the part of Peru where Julieta plans to find refuge from her father as she and Mawi, the two lovers in The Snake and the Condor, make their dangerous journey through Chile and Bolivia to the Peruvian Andes.

But Ayacucho's true character is not to be found in its university patios, church cloisters and ideal climate and natural setting. The history of Latin America over the past five hundred years, since the arrival of European colonists, has been one of violence and tragedy. Nowhere has been more involved in that history than Ayacucho.

In 1780 Tupac Amaru tried to reclaim the Peruvian Andes for the Incas. The attempt ended in failure and the slaughter of tens of thousands of Andeans by Spanish colonial soldiers.

The rebellion of 1824 was more successful. It was the victory at Ayacucho of Antonio José Sucre, one of Simón Bolívar's lieutenants, that brought Spanish colonial rule in South America to an end. Bolívar, the continent's liberator, gave the city its name: Ayacucho, 'the city of blood'.

The violence didn't end with Sucre's victory. The revolutionary movement that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, and was known as the Shining Path, was conceived in the patios and cloisters of Ayacucho and was the brainchild of Guzmán, an academic at the University. Power is not negotiable in Peru. Any challenge to the established order meets with ruthless repression from Lima. Two hundred thousand Quechuans were massacred at Ayacucho and in the surrounding area. The killing was not carried out entirely by armed forces sent by the Government, however. Guzmán himself adopted the violent methods of the army and police and slaughtered Quechuans who were unwilling to take up arms in his cause. Guzmán was captured by the authorities in 1992. He is still alive, as far as we know - in a concrete cell under the bed of the Pacific Ocean. The tens of thousands of children orphaned in the 1980s and 1990s are now in their twenties and thirties. Some of the widows are already in their eighties. Most live in poverty, without state aid of any kind.

FFlower Sellersive hundred years of violence and tragedy since the arrival of European colonists in Latin America. Five hundred years of commercial exploitation by rich and greedy foreigners. Never has the resulting poverty been as great as today, in a world where globalisation makes the rich richer, and bank-supported multi-nationals wield more power than governments.

The street venders in the two pictures, survivors from the massacres in the eighties and nineties, make only just enough from selling fruit and flowers to avoid starvation.

Even Andeans close to starving keep themselves and their clothes clean as best they can. The very poor have no electricity or running water at home. A water-lorry delivers water to those without a supply but the price is too high for those as poor as the widow in the picture.

She is doing her laundry in the gutter that runs down the middle of one of the streets. There is no state aid in Peru for the poor, the ill and the handicapped.

Herb SellerAt least the herb-seller in the photo makes a few soles a day selling her wares. Less fortunate are the hundreds of farmers and fruit-growers driven out of business by imports of cheap surplus produce from rich countries, especially the United States. They leave their fields and orchards and head for the capital. Few find work. Most swell the shanty-town population of Lima, which numbers more than two million.

Julieta's and Mawi's adventure doesn't end in the Peruvian Andes. Their plans are thwarted. It is not the tranquillity of patios and cloisters that awaits them but the violence for which the area is known. And the poverty of Lima.

The next instalment will concentrate on Lima and its shanty-towns.

Ayacucho patio

Fruit Sellers

Laundry in street gutter

Lipstick Hoarding

Jalopy and rubbish

March 2015

Part Three: Lima and El Salvador

Lima: the capital of Peru and once the wealthiest and most elegant city in South America. The earthquake of 1746 destroyed Lima completely. The city has never recovered. LimaModern Lima is mainly poor, drab and jerry-built. Few buildings are more than two stories high, because of recurrent earthquakes. No wind blows to clear the polluted air that hangs like dirty dish-water over the capital.

In Lima the gulf between dream and reality is wide.

A small number of Lima residents are wealthy. A larger number make ends meet. Most are poor. Many are homeless.Boy sleeping rough

The rich minority live in their palatial homes, with their patios, their silver and gold cleaned by their Quechua servants,Patio with Cerro San Cristóbal and their chauffeur-driven Chryslers and Cadillacs.

The Cerro San Cristóbal can be seen in the background. At the foot of this hill is one of the poorest shanty-towns in Lima.

On his way home. ShantiesHome for this young fruit-grower was once among orchards in the clean air of the Andes. He was driven out of business by imports of cheap surplus produce from the United States and came to Lima in a fruitless search for alternative work.On his way home

There's nothing to stop you painting your shanty pink, if you're lucky enough to find a discarded tin with some paint still in it, or building yourself a fence, doors and a wooden window, if you can lay your hands on some wood.

Julieta's and Mawi's journey, in The Snake and the Condor, takes them to one of the most shockingly poor areas of Lima.

The subject of the next instalment will be The Church and the Inquisition.

Pink Shanty

Inside of Church

Three Inquisitors

April 2015

Part Four: The Church and the Inquisition

For times when life in the poverty-stricken areas of Lima becomes overwhelming, there is the consolation of religion. The houses of God are open to all. You can leave your shanty in El Salvador or on the Cerro San Cristóbal, foot it to the nearest church and feast your eyes on the marble used to build it or the gold leaf that fills the interior.

Most of the indigenous people of Peru are devout Christians, the result of centuries of conversion. The Church taught them that poverty and the superiority of the Spanish conquerors were ordained by God and therefore inescapable. Traditional beliefs were sometimes woven into the new religion but were more often brutally uprooted. Where persuasion and brainwashing failed, torture was used.

La Santa Inquisición…

Hanging by his wrists

Lashed backIn the torture that follows, the victim's mouth is filled with wool, which is then saturated with water, so that the wool expands and chokes the victim.

The skulls are real…

Those shocked by the methods used by the Church to enlarge the Christian flock will be relieved to know that the further you travel into the Andes, the more Christianity becomes mixed with pre-Columbian sun and earth worship. By the time you reach Lake Titicaca, you are entirely in the hands of Inti, the Quechua god of the sun, and Pacha Mama, the goddess of the earth.

Pouring water into victims mouthMawi, the Romeo of The Snake and the Condor, belongs to an indigenous people of South America living in Araucanía, now part of Chile. The Mapuche retained their independence until the end of the nineteenth century and were spared the Church's intrusion into their lives. Mawi's beliefs are echoed by those of the Incas, on whose sacred island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the Isla del Sol, he and Julieta find temporary sanctuary. The Isla del Sol becomes a paradise in their minds, to which they long to return. The Isla del Sol will be the subject of a later instalment of this Andean Journal.

In fairness to the Church, it must be said that the Jesuits showed great courage in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helping indigenous people east of the Andes, especially in Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, escape Spanish and Portuguese slave-hunters, many of the Spanish ones sent by the king. Eventually, in 1767, King Carlos III of Spain banned all Jesuits from Spanish territory. Churchmen today have shown no less courage defending the human rights of South and Central Americans against the abuses of despots. Just such a man is to be found in The Snake and the Condor: Father Lorencio.

Human Skulls

Police Bus

Three Bolivian Soldiers in red

May 2015

Part Five: Militarism and protest

Single PolicemanSocial inequalities are great in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. The privileged few live in fear of violent protest and rebellion, of losing their wealth and privilege. The rôle of the police and soldiers is to protect them. Three Policemen with shields

Everywhere you go, there are armed men in uniform, mostly equipped for riot or combat. The principle seems to be to scare the poor into submission, thereby discouraging protest and allowing the rich to live in relative safety.

It is not only the very poor who are the victims of injustice. The protesters on this march through the centre of Lima are civil servants who haven't been paid their salary by the State for over six months.

The violent over-reaction to a peaceful meeting of Andean weavers and farmers in The Snake and the Condor reflects Lima's fear of losing control of Peru's downtrodden majority.Three Senior Officers

Protestors escorted by armed police

Las rocas al mar


June 2015

Part Six: Chile

Much of the charm of Peru lies in the gentleness, friendliness, honesty and hospitality of the mainly impoverished Indian population. Thanks to an inconspicuous process of ethnic cleansing over the centuries, Chile, like Argentina, has a mainly Hispanic population. Chileans of Spanish origin have consciously or unconsciously subscribed to a process of extinction by absorption. Marry into the minority Indian population and you have an unpaid servant; at the same time you dilute into extinction the indigenous blood of the land you have seized.

There have been waves of migrants from Europe, notably from Germany. Germans already in Chile gave refuge and a welcome to their Nazi brothers fleeing the trials at Nürnberg at the end of the Second World War. You see the odd blond crest in Chile, the occasional pair of blue eyes but, as with the indigenous inhabitants, the waves are soon absorbed into the mass of the population, which is unmistakably Hispanic in character and looks, though with little of the warmth of the Spanish people of Spain. Only the Mapuche Indians remained apart and were spared this subtle form of genocide.

When in the late nineteenth century the Peruvians and Bolivians discovered copper and nitrates in the parts of the territory that bordered on Chile, the Chileans found a pretext for war - the War of the Pacific - and seized the treasure-filled land from Peru and Bolivia. Chile became rich at its neighbours' expense. This is not inconsistent with the thinking and behaviour of modern Chileans. One of the characters in The Snake and the Condor, Julieta's father Franco Reyes, the Capulet of the story, is representative: he is prosperous, greedy, overweight, arrogant.

Chile has  a highly cultured élite. The Chilean poets, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, were both awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of the world's great pianists was a Chilean: Claudio Arrau. Some of the best museums in South America are to be found in Santiago, among them the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.

A cultured élite does not guarantee a civilized society. A visit to the city cemetery is a sobering experience. The thousands of names on the memorial to Los Desaparecidos represent only a small number of the dissident Chileans who disappeared and were tortured and killed under Pinochet's dictatorship.

All my love is here: as the rocks are to the sea, so is my love to their memory.

Salvador Allende was the uncle of the great modern Chilean writer, Isabel Allende. He was president from 1970 to 1973. His left-wing and humanitarian ideals were to reduce the power and wealth of the landowning class, to improve the standard of living of low-income workers and ensure the human rights of the Mapuche Indian minority, to which Mawi, the Romeo of The Snake and the Condor, belongs. He appointed a trusted army officer, General Augusto Pinochet, as his chief of staff. The coup that overthrew Allende was organized with impeccable secrecy and efficiency by Pinochet. Government offices all over Chile were taken over by the army and the presidential palace was surrounded by tanks. When Allende refused to capitulate, the tanks started to blow the palace to pieces. Word was put out that Allende had committed suicide. Those who saw his body agree that it was riddled with machine-gun bullets.

General Augusto PinochetChile's new president, General Pinochet, at once began the process of exterminating Allende's supporters, most of them the low-income workers whose rights the former president had championed. The torture and killing went on for seventeen years.

Today's rulers of Chile have assured the world they would have brought Pinochet to justice had it not been for his ill health. This must be treated with scepticism. Chile's politicians, army officers, judges and lawyers are drawn from the landowning class who were bitterly opposed to Allende and gave their unswerving support to Pinochet. The only people who would have liked to see Pinochet brought to trial are the relatives of the low-income workers who were taken from their homes at gunpoint by soldiers in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.

Salvador Allende's modest memorial can be found beside that of his supporters in the city cemetery.

Salvador Allende Gossens Presidente de la República

Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

White church, blue lake and snow-capped mountain

Monkey Puzzle Tree

July 2015

Part Seven: Araucanía and the Mapuche

A day's journey by bus takes you eight hundred kilometres south from Santiago on the well-maintained coastal road to Araucanía, or the Lake District, generally considered the most beautiful part of Chile.

Araucanía was home to the Mapuche people long before the Spanish arrived in South America. The Mapuche have always been a peace-loving nation, living in harmony with nature, weaving from the fibres provided by the local plants, making pottery, fishing in the rivers, lakes and ocean. History has forced them to defend their lands. This they have done with extraordinary courage and skill. The Incas, with their formidable military strength, were never able to defeat the Mapuche and make them part of their empire. The Spaniards, who laid claim to what is now Chile in the middle of the sixteenth century, took over three hundred years, till the end of the nineteenth century, to conquer the Mapuche. Those who survived the massacres were herded into reservations, where their descendants still live. Mawi, one of the two main characters in The Snake and the Condor, is a Mapuche and grew up on a reservation. Today official policy is to try and destroy the Mapuche by absorbing them into the Hispanic population, though not apparently through marriage. The Mapuche are denied the right to a state education in their own language, Mapudungun. As they are also denied most of the jobs available to the rest of the population, absorption is impossible and official policy backfires: the Mapuche remain apart, their identity intact.

Freedom for the Mapuche nation!Nación Mapuche libre!

The Mapuche community at Lago Budi, right on the Pacific coast, is three hours from the nearest town, Temuco, on a series of local buses that ply the country lanes, with grunting pigs, clucking hens and their owners for passengers, and with a strong smell of farmyard. The bus makes its way through forests of araucaria, a tree that once grew only in this part of the world but is now found as far away as England, where it is known as the monkey-puzzle.

One of the problems for the Spaniards was that the Mapuche, who had never seen a horse till the invaders arrived from Europe, stole horses from the newcomers and became far more skilful than their enemy at fighting in the saddle. The main problem, however, for both the Incas and the Spaniards, was that they failed to understand how Mapuche society was organized. They looked for a leader to overthrow, so that the whole nation would collapse. The Mapuche have no leader. They are divided into interdependent communities, each with its council of representatives elected once a year by the whole community. As a Santiago taxi-driver, perhaps a Mapuche himself, told me: 'It's the best example of democracy in the world.'

A Mapuche community consists of several families. Each family cooks, eats and sleeps in a ruka, a hut made entirely of thatch.Archive Ruka

As a guest of the Mapuche community at Lago Budi, you begin your visit with a tour of the surroundings on horseback. This includes a liberating gallop along the shore of the Pacific.

The sun is setting and the air is already cool but you are led into a ruka with a glowing fire and a delicious smell of warm spices from the meal the women are preparing. They wear their traditional necklaces, representing fertility, as do the adolescent girls.

Two Mapuche girlsAfter an evening of spiced fish and game, freshly picked fruit and vegetables, maté to drink, theatre, music and story-telling, you are shown to the guest ruka, brightly lit by the moon.Ruka by moonlight

As the only guest, you have the ruka to yourself. A fire burns all night on the beaten earth floor, with the smoke drawn out in a perfect thread through an opening in the roof. The warmth and the distant sound of ocean rollers breaking soon lull you to sleep.

You wake at dawn and see the view from your doorway for the first time, of an ocean inlet, allowing the Mapuche to fish even when the Pacific is untrue to its name.Ocean Inlet

All around you are copihues, giant red campanulas. The copihue is Chile's national flower. It grows in the Lake District and often appears in the poetry of the two Nobel-Prize-winning writers, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, who like the Mapuche lived in Araucanía.


The Copihue

Atacama Desert

August 2015

Part Eight: Escape from Chile

Chile is a long, thin country, occupying more than half the west coast of South America. The central part of Chile is a huge orchard and market-garden, with a mainly Mediterranean climate. The earth's two climatic extremes are found one in the north of Chile, the other in the south. Conditions in the far south are already Antarctic, with icebergs floating off the coast throughout the year. The north of Chile is desert, half of it above the Tropic of Capricorn. Nothing grows in the vast Atacama Desert, where rain never falls.

Brown mountains - white-capped ones in backgroundThe Andes form a natural frontier between Chile and its neighbours, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. In many places the mountains are impassable, which makes the job of policing the border a little easier.

There were still thousands of kilometres of barbed wire for Pinochet to guard during his usurped presidency from 1979 to 1990 if he was to stop Allende's supporters from escaping the country and posing a threat from beyond the mountains.

In The Snake and the Condor Julieta has to escape from her father to save Mawi from arrest and herself from marriage to a man she doesn't love. Franco Reyes holds an important post in Pinochet's government and has no trouble enlisting the help of the police and army.

The two lovers' only way out of Chile is in the far north of the country, which borders on Peru and Bolivia. Their journey takes them from the towns of Arica and Putre, through the mountainous terrain photographed here from the air, with temperatures well below freezing at night, past posses of Chilean soldiers, under the searchlights of patrolling helicopters, through a minefield, along the ledge of a deep ravine and finally into the relative safety of Bolivia.

Brown mountains - wisp of white cloud

Miner attaching bag of ore to hook

September 2015

Part Nine: Potosi

Potosí, one of the most famous mining towns in world history, features in Don Quixote, Cervantes' early-seventeenth-century novel. Potosí, today one of the poorest towns in Bolivia and South America, once supplied the wealth that made Spain the richest and most powerful nation in Europe. It was the El Dorado the Conquistadores had been looking for, except that it supplied silver, not gold. The mines were worked by slaves taken from the local indigenous population or imported from Africa. When the price of silver dropped in the nineteenth century, Potosí turned to tin, which was also in vast supply.

In the 1980s tin prices plummeted. Of the sixty or seventy thousand miners employed by the State and by private companies, all but seven and a half thousand were made redundant. Forty-five thousand of the  unemployed miners formed their own co-operatives. Today they extract zinc, tungsten, antimony, lead, iron, silver and tin in mines they can't afford to maintain, with old, out-of-date equipment.Miner with drill

The mines are unsafe and thousands have been killed in accidents. Silicosis has also claimed many lives. At four thousand metres there is little enough oxygen above ground. There is no oxygen supply in the mines, the air is thin and the temperature 35º centigrade. The tunnels are often so low that you have to crawl on hands and knees.

Black face on wallOne of the miners' ikons is the black face on the wall of one of the mines. It's a reminder of the origins of many of the slaves who once worked the mines.

Another ikon is this so-called god of the miners, obviously a devil.

The miners, who survive on swigs of 95 per cent proof alcohol, always scatter a few drops on the ground in honour of their god before putting the bottle to their lips. The miners' god was adopted centuries ago and was probably an ironical protest by slaves against their so-called Christian masters, who grew rich working the men without pay in diabolically inhuman conditions. The god/devil features prominently in the miners' riotous annual festival at Oruro and at other events in the Andes, where for hundreds of years indigenous South Americans have found it safest to protest against their conquerors obliquely rather than openly.Two Miners with a drillLight at the end of the Tunnel

Today's self-employed miners work an average of twelve hours a day six days a week. When they strike a particularly rich vein, they work for eighteen hours at a stretch. Life in the mines begins at the age of eleven or twelve - sometimes younger. The average life expectancy is thirty-eight years.

Light at the end of the tunnel…

Potosí features in The Snake and the Condor. The husband of a friend of the two main characters dies as a result of a mining accident.

The Devil at Oruro

Inca road on Isla del Sol

October 2015

Part Ten: Isla Del Sol

Having escaped from Chile, Mawi and Julieta, the two main characters in The Snake and the Condor, make their way on their donkeys to the town of Guaqui on the shores of Lake Titicaca. As they have no visas in their false passports to get them out of Bolivia at frontier posts and into Peru, they decide to buy a boat and sail under cover of darkness from the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca to the Peruvian. The boat they buy is made entirely of reeds, tightly bundled, the work of the Uros islanders who live north-west of Guaqui in Peruvian waters.

TReed Boathe people of the Uros fled the Spaniards in the sixteenth century and made their home among the reeds of Lake Titicaca. The resemblance of their boats to Viking ships has led to the somewhat wild theory that the Vikings plundered as far afield as South America. The islands the Uros people live on are also made of reeds. Only mature reeds are used. If they are cut too young, they sink to the bottom of the lake. The reeds eventually rot. They are replaced, section by section, every twenty years or so.

Lake Titicaca, situated at more than four thousand metres above sea level, high above the clouds somewhere between heaven and earth, is described as the highest navigable lake in the world. This is probably accurate, as most lakes at that altitude would be frozen over. Lake Titicaca lies between the Tropic of Capricorn and the equator. If it were at sea level, it would be surrounded by jungle. As it is, the days are warm and the nights are cool. The lake is bigger than many seas: a hundred and sixty miles long by forty-five wide. The view across the water, wherever you look, is of azure water merging with the azure sky, with a ring of azure mountains round the lake, and behind them another ring of mountains, massive and white, the highest in the Andes.

Sacrificial altar on Isla del SolLake Titicaca was the part of the earth the Inca gods loved best. The Isla del Sol was the most sacred place in the Inca Empire. It was here that the Incas built a sacrificial altar and a temple to the sun. On midsummer's day, 21st December, the sun rises exactly in front of the altar, as it does on 21st June above the heel-stone at Stonehenge in England.

The Incas were the dominant branch of the Quechua people. They are sometimes said to have had the best-planned society the world has known. Their empire rose during the eleventh century. It grew quickly because, like the Roman Empire, it was driven by organizational skill, and military strength and expertise. Individual rights were unknown. An Inca's immediate duty was to his family. Each family was subject to the strict discipline of the ayllu, the village community. The staple crops were maize and potatoes, because they grew well at heights of three or four thousand metres. Part of the crops went to the State for storage in case of crop failure in the future. The llama, alpaca and dog had been domesticated by previous societies and were much used by the Incas.

The Sapa Inca, or king, and regent of the sun-god on earth, lived in splendour, surrounded by an élite and by much gold, sometimes at Cuzco in Peru, half a day's journey by road today from Lake Titicaca, sometimes in the mountains eighty-odd miles from Cuzco at Machu Picchu, which was impregnable. The Sapa Inca's élite was drawn not only from the Incas but also from nations defeated by them. This helped unite the empire, as did the imposition of a common language, Quechua, by perhaps the greatest of the Sapa Incas, Pachacuti.

Dead straight Inca roadIf Pachacuti had flown in a jet airliner from north to south of his vast empire, which stretched most of the length of South America, it would have taken him between eight and nine hours. More remarkably, when he sent a message from the far north of the Inca Empire, in what is now Colombia, to the far south in the bottom half of modern Chile, it would arrive in less than two weeks, thanks to the Incas' excellent roads, many of them as straight as the one in the picture, and their system of relay runners.

A letter posted today in South America often takes more than a fortnight to get from one side of town to the other.

Inca building - window openingThe Incas are famous for their stonework. Notice the battering of the window opening - that is, the converging of verticals. The Incas discovered that openings built in this way were far more resistant to earthquakes than squares and rectangles.

Legend has it that Manco Kapac and Mama Ocllo, the children of the greatest of the Inca gods, Viracocha, were created out of the waters of Lake Titicaca to found Cuzco and the Inca dynasty. A three-hour walk along the Inca road that follows the spine of the Isla del Sol will take you the length of the island, from the temple and sacrificial altar to the flight of steps, worn and moss-covered, which Manco Kapac and Mama Ocllo climbed when they rose out of the lake.

On your way you will have some unforgettable views.

Woman carrying load on her backYou will meet swineherds, women leading llamas or carrying loads on their backs…

Andean women - even very old women - carry almost everything on their backs, wrapped in a shawl: babies, laundry, the fruit and vegetables they have bought or picked. Sometimes the loads are large and heavy. The old women scuttle at great speed, so that it's almost impossible to photograph them.

You will meet Quechua children.

The sun soon burns at four thousand metres. Children are told to keep their heads covered.

You reach the steps at the end of the island and wait for Manco Kapac and his sister to rise out of the water and restore the fortunes of their impoverished people.

Mawi and Julieta in The Snake and the Condor find temporary sanctuary on the Isla del Sol. It becomes a paradise in their minds, to which they long to return to set up a school and medical centre.  

The Inca Empire came to an abrupt end in 1532. The Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, invited the Sapa Inca, Atahualpa, to a friendly meeting at what is now Cajamarca, in northern Peru. Atahualpa and his followers came unarmed to the meeting. Pizarro and his men slaughtered all except Atahualpa. Atahualpa was promised his freedom if he could fill a large room with gold and precious stones. The Sapa Inca gave orders for the gold and jewels to be collected. When the room was full, Atahualpa was not freed but garrotted. Pizarro's men then set about ransacking temples and palaces. The Conquistador's actions set the tone for the next five hundred years in South America. Pinochet's recent régime in Chile was no less barbaric than Pizarro's conquest of Peru.

Sunset over South AmericaThe sun sets as you wait for Manco Kapac and Mama Ocllo to appear.

You look westwards over South America, a continent of tyranny, poverty and early death from malnutrition and disease, and wonder what triumphs of civilization and prosperity the past five hundred years might have brought if Pizarro's meeting with Atahualpa had not led to an act of barbarity and gross betrayal on the part of the Spaniard, greedy for gold, but had instead marked the beginning of a friendship and of collaboration between Europeans and South Americans.

Woman with black pigs

Lake and mountains

Woman leading Llamas

Quechua child

Titicaca fishermen - Andes