MY ROUGH GUIDE: Whatever you do, don't trust the maps

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The Independent Travel

One of the best discoveries I've made while wandering around Peru is a magical little island. Some 11,500ft above sea level, the rustic Taquile lies four hours by launch across the vast blue surface of Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake. Home to a thousand sun worshipping, toil- tilling Aymara Indians, arriving here is like stepping back in time at least 500 years.


Gringo Bill's Hotel is located at the end of the Inca Trail, three days trekking from Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca empire. A ramshackle dive, it has evolved over 12 years from a flapping shed to an amazing complex of organically clustered rooms clinging to the hillside. A pretty wild North American, Bill fell in love with the fabulous ruined citadel of Machupicchu which dominates the valley from towering forested hills high above the hotel. Bill's happy hospice is located only a few hundred yards from the Banos del Inca, natural hot spring baths enjoyed for thousands of years and sublime under a full moon.


The Uros Islands are also in Lake Titicaca, though much closer to the shore than Taquile. There are over 40 floating islands, all made from layer upon layer of tortora reeds, the dominant plant which grows in the shallows around the lake. Tortora is a source of food as well as the basic material for islands, house roofing, walling and fishing rafts. On really windy nights, many of the islands float around, their human inhabitants never knowing exactly where they'll be by morning.

Visiting the islands these days, leaves an ambivalent aftertaste. The 1980s saw a rapid devastation of their traditional values. Many foreign visitors are put off by what they experience on landing at the island - a veritable human zoo, with pushy little children scrambling over each other to ask tourists for "sweets, por favor!" and "money, meester! money!"


"Baja a la esquina, por favor ..."(Let me off at the corner please ...) These words may one day make the difference between life and death. It is Lima's public transport system, not anacondas or terrorist attacks which threaten to kill the average tourist or Peruvian alike. Colectivos - known in English as "crazed minibuses" - race each other flat out day and night across Lima in every possible direction trying to beat each other to the next corner where more passengers might be waiting. Scores of people die every week in crashes.


Though I could easily name three more, the best has to be ceviche, which is the Peruvian national dish. Traditionally fresh seafood soaked briefly in lime juice it is served with chili, garlic, red onions, sweet potatoes and sweet corn.


Whatever you do, don't trust a Peruvian map. Doing so nearly cost me my life. I persuaded two jungle colonist lads to drop me off in their canoe, just downstream from the Pongo de Mainique, the most dangerous white water on the Urubamba river, a major Amazon headwater. I discovered that the village marked on my map didn't actually exist. By then my ride had gone back upstream and I was totally alone. I had hoped to travel down river in a boat from a community that didn't exist. A few days downstream there was a small town and air taxi service. Having only enough food for a three or four days I set about making a balsa wood raft. Within a matter of hours I was caught in a whirlpool, then stranded on the river bank. It took eight scary days and godsent rescue by a local rain forest Indian to complete my journey, floating by day and night, down river.


For me, the best value souvenirs are Shipibo jungle Indian cotton cloths. Woven in striking and elaborate geometric patterns, each design is said to be donated to the human world by rainforest spirit beings.


Alpaca woollen products - ponchos, sweaters, rugs and ethnic belts - are varied and very cheap. However, for value it's hard to beat the well- named, cheap and very cheerful pisco, a strong white grape brandy. Undoubtedly the best bargain, though, are the excellent cane pan-pipes available for less than $2 (pounds 1.25) from Artesania Markets in Miraflores, the downtown heart of Lima, Peru's frenetic capital.

Dilwyn Jenkins wrote 'The Rough Guide to Peru'. (pounds 10.99) Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week. Taquile is reached from the town of Puno. Several companies there run day trips and can arrange accommodation. The Inca Trail takes up to six days, a breathtaking trek. The jewel at the end, the ancient Inca citadel of Machupicchu, is one of the wonders of the world. Most tour companies based in Cusco organise treks. Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire. The small heart of the city, in the blocks around the Plaza de Armas has arguably the best square mile of nightlife in the entire Americas. FACTS Getting there Usually involves a stopover and a change of planes. From Heathrow you can expect the journey to take from 16 to 22 hours.

Getting about Buses: Good value and go almost everywhere, though the country's amazing railways are often attractions in themselves.

Flight coupons: most domestic airlines offer competitive flight coupons to tourists. Some airlines offer different deals, with one to six flights for a set rate of about $60 (pounds 37.50) per flight. But be careful, some domestic connections cost less t han $60 anyway!