If you’re not up to spending 4 days hiking the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu citadel in Peru, one of your other options is to take one of the many buses that careen up and down the mountain all day long. But don’t think you’re getting off too easy: it’s quite a ride up the tight switchbacks of the road, with a steep drop-off on the outside edge.
The view is amazing but disconcerting: it feels like you’re suspended in mid-air at some points, at others like you’re floating straight up the side of the mountain.
The drive becomes really interesting when two buses have to pass each other! It’s all worth it though — seeing Machu Picchu in real life is an incredible experience. But that’s a tale for another Challenge entry 🙂
On this frigid winter day in Ontario, I’m enjoying looking at photos of exotic (i.e. warmer) places I’ve been to (and wish I was at right now) .
Border crossings in foreign countries are always interesting (and an exercise in patience). Probably the most fun we’ve ever had was the crossing from Peru to Bolivia at Desaguadero, a scruffy little town on the road from Puno on Lake Titicaca in Peru to the ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.
The scene can best be described as chaotic – there are all kinds of vehicles transporting all kinds of cargo down a dusty street lined with funky stores, with two lines of street stalls down the middle selling everything from household supplies to raw meat, interspersed with moneychangers who wouldn’t look out of place in Las Vegas apart from their traditional Andean clothing. Everyone jostles for space in the street before or after lining up to move slowly through the Customs office.
As our tour bus arrived, amidst many other buses, we were told by our tour leader to hide anything that looked valuable, as the border agents are given to asking for bribes if they see something interesting, but none of our group of about 30 people encountered any issues.
The free show outside the building was the best entertainment as we got back on the bus and crawled slowly between foot traffic, vehicles, animals, crates, sacks of potatoes, people having lunch on the side of the road… This photo captures the feel of the traffic, with this man trying to move an older woman along on his bike surrounded by the huge tour buses – a wonderful juxtaposition of cultures in the middle of the Andes.
If you’re not up for the strenuous hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, you’ll likely end up taking one of the trains along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes, where you can catch a bus up to the top of the mountain to see one of the world’s most famous ancient citadels.
If you do it as a day trip, you’ll arrive at Machu Picchu amidst hordes of other tourists, spend a few hours at the citadel in the peak of the midday heat, and zip back to Cusco on the train without having had a chance to absorb the cloud forest in which Machu Picchu is set. There’s a better way.
There are a variety of hotels in and around Aguas Calientes where you can spend a couple of days enjoying the ambience and exploring not only Machu Picchu itself, but also the cloud forest that cloaks the mountains in which this amazing ancient wonder is located — the same cloud forest through which Hiram Bingham and his guide hacked their way in 1911 to find what has become the most famous ancient ruin in South America.
Peru is a patchwork of widely differing habitats: vast stretches of desert along the coast, the craggy Andes mountains down the spine, the cold and desolate Altiplano high up in the Andes, the lush rainforests of the Amazon basin on the eastern side of the Andes, and the marvelous cloud forest surrounding Machu Picchu, which many people don’t take the trouble to visit.
The hotel we stayed at, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, just across a short bridge from the main part of Aguas Calientes, has won numerous awards and this year was named one of the top 5 resorts and lodges in Central and South America by Travel & Leisure magazine. It’s more affordable than you might think, though, and makes a wonderful base for a few nights.
You’ll stay in your own bungalow set amid the gardens, where thick woolen blankets ward off the night-time chill, toiletries are made from botanicals right on the property, and you’ll eat some of the finest food in Peru.
The ambience is very relaxing, so you can choose to just chill out a bit after the challenges of the altitude in Cuzco (about 4,300′ higher than Aguas Calientes), although you’ll still get a bit breathless walking up and down the stone paths at the hotel, but there’s plenty to do if you feel like exploring.
The first thing you’ll probably want to do is visit Machu Picchu, which you can arrange through the hotel, who’ll provide a private guide and the entry passes – the site is now restricted to only 500 people a day. You’ll get up for an early breakfast and take the bus up the mountain (a hair-raising ride in itself) at dawn to be among the earliest to arrive, and you’ll spend several hours exploring the massive site, stopping to rest for a light snack as well.
Some things to know beforehand: the morning air heats up very quickly to an intense blaze, so wear a good sunblock, a wide-brimmed hat and an overshirt with sleeves that you can roll down when you start to broil. There are no washrooms inside the citadel, so make sure you visit the ones outside the entrance gate. The site is very steep, and the ancient staircases are worn and slippery, with little in the way of handholds or barriers, so be very careful and take walking poles if you’re not steady on your feet. On the way out, don’t forget to have your passport stamped — Machu Picchu has its own stamp that you can add to your collection.
After your visit to Machu Picchu, you can have lunch in the charming and picturesque town of Aguas Calientes, which has plenty of decent restaurants to try authentic Andean food and a thriving craft market, or you can return to the hotel. Make sure you try the passion fruit cheesecake at least once either in town or at the hotel.
The hotel is set in its own private 12 acres of cloud forest, so if you feel like exploring after lunch, you can do so on your own or in the company of a naturalist, just viewing the forest ecosystem or doing some bird-watching.
The cloud forest is also home to over 300 species of wild orchids, and if you visit in the November orchid season as we did, you’ll be treated to an amazing variety of the flowers in all shapes and sizes. I’d recommend booking the orchid tour with one of the naturalists, though — many of the plants are quite tough to spot without an expert eye.
The Inkaterra has also partnered with the Peruvian government to rescue and rehabilitate the native Spectacled Bear, the only bear in South America. The bears are gentle arboreal creatures who are often captured illegally to either sold as pets or killed for their body parts, for which there is an appalling trade in Asia. There were 3 bears on hand when we visited, and they were delightful to watch.
The Inkaterra also grows its own herbs for the kitchen, and has its own small tea plantation, where you can learn all about tea production and make your own bag of tea to try out.
Most of these activities are included at no extra cost in your stay at the Inkaterra, but if you like there are a nice selection of activities with a range of prices as well: you can book a spa treatment — I had a fantastic massage with fragrant botanical oils — or have a native Andean purification ceremony, see a musical performance, etc.
At the end of the day, you can snuggle up in your comfortable bungalow and listen to some of the night sounds of the forest all around you. It’s a great way to see a bit more of Machu Picchu than most people bother to experience. The people at the Inkaterra were great to deal with, and very enthusiastic about their hotel and Machu Picchu. If you’d like to do Machu Picchu a little off the beaten path, you can’t go wrong with this choice!
Ten years ago a tiny skeleton unlike anything that had been seen before was found in the Atacama Desert. It’s only six inches long, with a very elongated, alien-looking skull – shades of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls!
Recent DNA testing has indicated that it’s a human skeleton, but there are many issues: the skeleton appears to be of someone who was roughly 6-8 years old, and it has fewer ribs than would be normal in a human. The cone-shaped skull could have been the result of a birth defect, but not all the genes matched those found in humans.
There are theories that it was a primate, or a human with a number of birth defects, although in modern history there’s never been a medium-aged child that tiny. Unsurprisingly, there’s also been speculation that it could be an alien from another planet – if you look at the photo in the original article in the Live Science website, you’ll see why people might think that.
I was in Peru and Bolivia last fall, and the landscape in southern Peru, which is sometimes classed as part of the Atacama Desert, is very alien – it would make a great setting for a sci-fi movie! The Nazca Plateau in particular is a fantastic sight, layers of multi-coloured earth covered in the hundreds of strange shapes, both animalistic and geometric, sculpted by the Nazca peoples many hundreds of years ago.
Seeing the shapes from the air is an amazing experience – you can see why the gigantic animal shapes might be used for ritual purposes, but there are also straight lines running in a variety of directions for miles and miles, and huge trapezoids running across the plateau and into the mountains, that don’t seem to make any sense at all.
On the ground, we walked the burning sands around Chauchilla Cemetery, strewn with the house-like tombs of the Nazca dead, and churned by numerous towering dust devils. I’d never seen one in real life before, and they are eerie. In the photo above you can see three at the same time silently whirling around in the distance: one on the left, another in the centre and a fainter third on the right to the right side of the road.
The Atacama Desert is the driest place on our planet and has been compared to the planet Mars. The heat and aridity are forbidding; it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to live there. If you want to experience a truly other-worldly landscape, you don’t need to go into space — just head to the west coast of South America!
I live in a small city that’s getting overbuilt. We moved here when I was eight, and I still remember how beautiful the drive was along the southern shores of Lake Ontario, when all you could see was the bright gleam of blue water amid the lush fruit trees that used to line the highway. At the time I thought that must be what Florida looked like. Now the drive is lined by concrete noise reduction walls to serve all the wealthy home owners who chose to build near the highway. There are a few spots where you can see the lake, but they’re getting fewer and fewer. The blight of land developers has spread throughout the Niagara Region, so when my husband and I travel I’m drawn to vistas of endless space, like this drive along the coastal highway in Peru. Peru has over 2400km of coastline along the Pacific, much of it almost barren and other-worldly in feel.
One of the best things about travel to foreign countries is the opportunity to truly ‘get away from it all’ — to leave everything about your daily home life behind and infuse your life with some fresh perspectives. The BBC website recently posted an interesting article about how the Tweets of travellers improve in mood the farther they are from home. Researchers at the University of Vermont set up criteria to measure the mood of Tweeters based on the language used in their messages. Although the sample size of the research only covered the relatively small percentage of travellers who currently use Twitter, it won’t be surprising for those of us who travel that the happiness-level of the Tweeters rose steadily as their distance increased. Travel is one of the most effective ways to blow the cobwebs out of your mind and see things differently, not to mention the beautiful views, fascinating history, great food, delightful encounters with the locals…the list goes on. Check out upcoming posts about how to get the most out of a travel experience. You can find the BBC articlehere.
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