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Manu: into the Jungle

On 18 November 2010 from Lima, Peru | comments closed

There are many places from where to explore the jungle in South America, but most require an expensive flight to get there and away. Manu National Park is one of the exceptions, as it can be reached by car from Cusco. I booked a 5-day/4-night trip with Atalaya Peru, leaving Friday 12 November. Until Paucartambo it was normal sealed road, but quickly thereafter it turned into a one-lane gravel road that was winding its way through the mountains. We made stops along the way to see waterfalls, cock-of-the-rock birds and monkeys. Arriving at the Atalaya Lodge I noticed the lodge was on the other side of the river, and no bridge was present. A simple zip-line trolley was used to get people and cargo to the lodge, where resident red howler monkeys and macaws were awaiting. In the evening the guide Alici took us on a nocturnal tour of the rainforest.

Saturday started with a bath underneath a small waterfall, followed by a visit to a small farm with Scarlet and Bolivian Macaws. In the afternoon we took a longboat to the Amaru Mayu Lodge, located on a cliff next to the Upper Mother of God river. From there we made a jungle walk, spotting dusky titi monkeys and eating pineapple fresh from the tree.

On Sunday we got up early to spot parrot claylicks from a longboat. During the following jungle tour we saw heliconia, cotton trees, the tree of life, cecropia tree, walking palm tree, ceiba pentandra and erotic palm tree. I also got the chance to play Tarzan swinging through the jungle on strangler fig vines. On the fauna side there were army ants, centipedes, hoatzins, blue-grey tanager, social flycatcher, horned screamers, black-capped donacobius, capybaras and red-capped cardinal.

On Monday we made a visit to the village of Pilcopata, before returning back to the Atalaya Lodge with its resident red howler monkeys. In the afternoon Maria, Alici and I went for a jungle walk to the big waterfall, and in the evening we spotted a large toad nearby the lodge. Tuesday was already time for the long drive back to Cusco.

I Survived the Inca Trail

On 11 November 2010 from Cusco, Peru | comments closed

That is what the t-shirt and 2 certificates say, so it must be true. Not that there was any doubt about this, although I have to admit that the days when I was the first one to reach the top of the pass are over.

The Inca Trail is the one activity in Peru that needs to be pre-booked well in advance, as the government (rightly so) only allows 500 people a day. I booked my trek with Peru Treks for their excellent price/quality ratio. They are able to offer good rates because the group size is relatively large with 16 people in a group. For me that was not an issue, and it actually made it more social, especially during dinner where everyone was sitting together in a large tent. It was all very well organised. I was woken up with tea/coffee/hot chocolate at my tent in the morning, there were 3-course lunch and dinners, a large cake at the last dinner, and the tent was already built up when we arrived at the campsite. My sort of camping. I also had a private tent, since there were only 2 people in each tent for 4 people, but there were 3 Swedish guys that wanted to stay together. Aside from the Swedish and 2 Irish guys, the rest were all couples though.

Although it is not the toughest trek in the area, the Inca Trail is not a walk in the park. The second day has a 1100m increase in altitude to 4200m, called Dead Woman’s Pass. On the last steep uphill bits I had to stop every 50m or so to have my heart beat normally again. I really noticed that I got 5 years older since my last real high-altitude hiking trip to Nepal in 2005. Need to do more exercise when back in Europe. I do feel it is getting better though, but I guess that I am also getting used to the altitude. The one thing that makes the Inca Trail stand out from the other treks in the area are the remains of the Inca Empire, like the Llactapata, Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna Ruins.

The last day of the Inca Trail starts early in the morning, with all the groups leaving at the same time to Intipunku, the Sun Gate. Unfortunately, when we arrived to Intipunku all there was to see were white clouds, no view at all of Machu Picchu. So we continued down to Machu Picchu for our guided tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before the tour started, I was able to get a space to climb Huayna Picchu (spaces to climb sell out quickly in the morning), making it possible to see everything in one (long) day. During the morning tour we learned a lot about the site and its amazing stonework. By 11:00 the clouds had dissipated, so there was a clear view of the site when I climbed Huayna Picchu. After 4 days of trekking and the additional climb I was quite exhausted, so the hot springs in Aguas Calientes were very welcome at the end of the day. The next morning I took the train back to Cusco.

Cusco

On 6 November 2010 from Cusco, Peru | comments closed

Cusco is one of the rare cities that can keep a serious traveller busy for a week, especially when considering the surrounding countryside. As I had 4 full days before the start of the Inca Trail, I had an easy start on Tuesday by checking in at Peru Treks and paying the remainder of my Inca Trail fee. In the afternoon I visited Qorikancha, Monasterio de Santa Catalina and checked out trips to Manu (Amazon rainforest).

Wednesday it was time to do some sightseeing of the Inca ruins around Cusco. I took the bus to Tambomachay and walked from there to Puka Pukara, Q’enqo and finally Saqsaywamán (pronounce as “Sexy Woman”). From this last Inca ruins the Christo Blanco (large white Christ statue) was visible and I visited this before walking down into the city of Cusco.

For Thursday I booked an all-day tour of the Sacred Valley. It was quite good value, and I soon discovered why. The first stop consisted of a great deal of stalls selling handicrafts and other touristy items. Luckily we didn’t stay for too long and went to the Inca citadel of Pisac. It was easy to see why the Incas had become so powerful: their fortresses were near-imprenetrable because of the location. If attackers did manage they would have to expose themselves getting to the top, as the fortress was designed to force attackers in a single line. After a touristy buffet lunch, we continued to the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, another site with a great view. This one had great stonework too. The final stop of the day was in Chinchero, where a demonstration of the colouring and weaving of wool was given. Obviously with the intent to sell, but I quickly sneaked out and went to explore the small town.

Friday was the last day before the start of the Inca Trail, and I decided to take it easy, and explore a few more sites in Cusco: the Waterfall Monument and the Pachakuteq Monument, which turned out to be quite a walk from the city centre; taking it easy turned into a warming up for the next day.

The Wednesday after the Inca Trail I would watch traditional dances in the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, and Thursday I would visit the Catedral and Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús.

Arequipa & Lake Titicaca

On 2 November 2010 from Cuzco, Peru | comments closed

Thursday was a good day to check out the sights in Arequipa. Literally everybody told me to visit the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, so I strolled some hours through the passageways, checking out the nun’s cells and making lots of photos. Very much recommended indeed. Afterwards I had some French crepes at another recommended place. They provided the energy to visit de Museo de Arte Virreinal de Santa Teresa, where I got a nice private tour. Then it was back to Cayma by combi, a very cramped minibus. After a brief visit to the church, I decided to walk back to the hostel, a good chance to practice my Spanish, as I had no map of the area and therefore no clue how to get there. I managed.

Friday was spent in the bus to Puno (6 hours) and booking a 2-day tour of the islands in Lake Titicaca. Located at an altitude of 3800m high, it was better not to do too much the first day.

Saturday morning our boat left to the Uros Islands, manmade floating islands made of reed. A boat made of the same reed brought us from one island to the next. Even though the islands itself are a spectacular feat, they were way too touristy for my taste, and it was simply cringing to hear islanders sing songs in English and other European languages. So off to Isla Amantani it was. After docking, we (4 French and myself) were picked up by our host family were we had lunch. Late afternoon we climbed the highest hill of the island (4150m) to watch the sunset and after dinner with our host family, we got dressed in traditional outfits and joined the traditional dancing in the local discotheque (stretching the word here).

Sunday morning we had a nice pancake breakfast at the host family and then set of to Isla Taquile were we walked around the island and had lunch. In the afternoon we went back to Puno, where halloween celebrations were still in full order. In the restaurant I got served by a monster, and I have never seen so many Grim Reapers (“Magere Hein”) wandering the streets.

Monday I took an overpriced Turismo Mer bus from Puno to Cusco. The advantage compared to the normal busses is that it stops at some (pre-)Inca sites along the way: Pucará, Abra la Raya (all busses stop here), Raqchi and Andahuaylillas. This did break up the journey quite nicely, and Raqchi really was an amazing site, with a huge temple and some 156 circular storage silos. In the evening I arrived to Cusco, 4 days early for the booked Inca Trail, but with plenty to do in the meantime. I am staying at Pariwana Hostel, which is quite central and a good place to meet people.

On the Gringo Trail

On 27 October 2010 from Arequipa, Peru | comments closed

On Friday I took the bus from Lima to Ica together with together with Kath, Liz, Sarah & Natasha (all from the UK). From Ica we got taxis to Huacachina, a natural oasis in the middle of huge sand dunes. This place is now totally ruled by backpackers with lots of restaurant and nightlife (OK, 1 place).

Saturday morning the sand dunes needed to be conquered with a sand buggy, driven by Jesus. After driving across the dunes with speeds of up to 85km/h (as measured by my GPS), we stopped on a sand dune to make photos. When trying to depart, our buggy did not start anymore, but luckily Jesus had the skills to hotwire the buggy. The next stops were devoted to sandboarding down the dunes. As boarding down something has never been a skill of mine, I decided that laying on a board would be way more effective. It was, except that I got sand literally everywhere. Luckily the hostel had a swimming pool to cool down in. When resting at the side, I was offered a direct ride to Nazca. This turned out to be much faster than the bus, driving up to 155km/h on the Pan-American Highway (once again measured by GPS, the speedometer on the car stuck to zero).

In Nazca I went shopping for flights over the Nazca lines. Due to either fuel shortages (the story I was told) or safety reasons (the story I suspect) only 3 airlines were operating, boosting the prices. When I was certain I could not get a better deal, I booked a flight with Alas Peruanas. In the evening, I visited a show on the Nazca lines in the
Planetarium Maria Reiche, getting a cool photo of the full moon through a telescope.

Sunday morning I made the flight over the Nazca lines with a 6-seater Cessna (2 pilots + 4 passengers). Of course I totally forgot to take anti-motion sickness pills, and with a plane kept banking from left to right to show the lines, that was pretty hard on my stomach. But the lines were clearly visible from the sky, and it was very interesting to watch these man-made geoglyphs that have still not been explained exclusively by science.

In the afternoon I visited the Chauchilla Cemetery together with Jacqui (from New Zealand) who was also on the flight in the morning. Afterwards we went to the archeological museum (Didáctico Antonini).

Sunday evening an overnight bus from Cruz del Sur brought me to Arequipa, where I met Kath, Liz, Sarah & Natasha at the hostel again on Monday morning. Together with 2 guys we went into the centre and checked out the frozen Inca maiden in the Santury meseum.

Tuesday morning started at 03:00, because the bus to Cañón del Colca was picking us up at 03:30. Around 09:00 we arrived at the Cruz del Cóndor, from where we could see a number of condors fly through the canyon. At around 10:30 we started to trek down into the second-deepest canyon in the world. FYI: the deepest one is Cañón del Cotahuasi, but it would have take a 12-hour bus ride over unsealed roads to get there, and I could not be bothered for the extra 150 metres depth. After hiking down for 3 hours we reached the bottom, crossed the river and went back up for half an hour to have lunch. From there it was another 2,5 hour to get to Sangalle, an oasis at the bottom of the canyon, complete with swimming pool and bungalows.

Wednesday morning we started the climb out of the canyon at 05:50, and reached the top (1100m higher) after an exhausting 3 hours. We had breakfast in Cabanaconde and drove to Chivay to relax in the 39-degree thermal pools and have lunch there as well. After lunch we drove to 4910m altitude and back to Arequipa. Funny thing is that during this tour I have been alternating in speaking English, Dutch, German and my few words of Spanish. If my French had been any better I would have used that too.

I called this post “On the Gringo Trail” because that is what it feels like. Most backpackers travelling from Lima to Cuzco stop in these places and do these activities (perhaps except the Nazca lines flight). I actually looked into going to Cañón del Colca by myself using public transport, but it would take at least a day longer and only be marginally cheaper. So the Gringo Trail it is, at least up until Cuzco.

The Journey Begins

On 21 October 2010 from Lima, Peru | comments closed

The journey began on 19 October 2010 at 06:00, when my dad gave me a ride to Düsseldorf Airport. From there a KLM Cityhopper Fokker 70 took me to Schiphol. I decided to take the flight from Düsseldorf as there was no difference in the ticket price and it is a lot easier to reach Düsseldorf Airport in the morning than it is to reach Schiphol; the departure time at home would have been the same. From Amsterdam my longest flight ever (12,5 hours) was starting, and I was all prepared: netbook battery full, MP3-player battery full and lots of magazines. As it turned out, I didn’t even need most of this, as the in-flight entertainment system was excellent, so I watched “Grown Ups”, “Knight and Day” and “The A-Team”. And every time I was remotely starting to feel hungry or thirsty, one of the cabin crew was offering food or drinks.

Upon arrival in Lima, everything went smooth, with a taxi driver waiting for me and bringing me straight to the hostel. After getting some money (Peruvian Soles) and food, I had a really nice and long night sleep.

Wednesday I went exploring the nearby 1500-year-old ceremonial site of Huaca Pucllana together with Kath, Liz, Sarah & Natasha, who arrived at the same day. In the afternoon we went shopping for a new pair of waterproof overtrousers, which I completely forgot too bring. After not having any luck at 2 large department stores, I finally found an expensive pair at a The North Face store. I also got some altitude sickness pills. After some nice ice-cream with a view over the Pacific Ocean, we went back to the hostel. In the evening we went out for a few drinks on Calle de Pizza (pizza street), ending up in a karaoke bar with too many pisco sours.

Thursday morning there was a Spanish lesson at the hostel. Very useful and lots of fun as well. I used the rest of the day for getting organised and planning the next couple of weeks. Travel planning is so much easier when you can ask other people about their experiences. I also decided to give most of the sights in Lima a miss right now, because it’s simply too cold (less than 20 degrees during the day and always overcast) and I will be back here when the weather is nicer. I almost bought the Starbucks mug of Lima for my collection too, but first I need to find a way to get it home in one piece.

What to Pack?

On 18 October 2010 from Reuver, Netherlands | comments closed

Even though I have packed bags hundreds of times by now, it can still be a challenge, and is usually something I tend to leave to the last minute. Packing for business trips is easy: suits, shirts, socks, underwear, toiletries, done. Only evening outfit and coat are dependent on the weather. For my trip to South America weather I need to pack for both the cold and rain of the mountains in Peru, and the hot summer beach weather in Brazil. As a guideline I used my packing list that I made for Australia and New Zealand in 2003, and found it fairly useful, although the amount of gadgets that I am bringing has increased quite a bit, as well as the number of warm clothes (I remember buying sweaters in Australia). Here’s the full list.

Things to wear
Large backpack (Lowe Alpine, 70 litre)
Smaller daypack (Berghaus, 25+5 litre)
Sleeping bag (Nomad, 1,5 kg)
Lightweight Travelsheet (150 g)
Long trousers (2 zip off and 2 regular)
Wind- and waterproof jacket (Gaastra)
Fleece sweaters (2)
T-shirts (2 longsleeve, 4 polo)
Button down shirt
Underwear & socks
Thermal underwear, hat, gloves
Light hiking boots (Hanwag)
Sandals

Things to use
Towels & serong
Hat, sunglasses & sun protection spray (Nivea Invisible, factor 30)
Swimming shorts & prescription diving goggles
Small medicine bag, mozzie spray (DEET) & malaria tablets (Malarone)
Large toiletbag (including electrical toothbrush and shaver)

Things invented
Netbook (Asus Eee PC 1015PE)
Camera (Canon PowerShot S90) + underwater cover
GPS Travel Recorder (QStarz BT-Q1000X)
Phone (Nokia 6300)
MP3-player (Philips GoGear Spark 4GB)
Compass (Recta, for worldwide use)
Pocket knife (Wenger, Swiss of course)
Headlight (LED)

Things written
Passport
International driver’s license
Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate
Debit card & credit cards
PADI Advanced Open Water card
Lonely Planets (Peru, South America on a Shoestring)
Books & magazines

Time for a Sabbatical

On 12 October 2010 from Prague, Czech Republic | comments closed

Ever since my trip to Patagonia & Antarctica in 2007-2008 I have wanted to go back to South America. From other travellers in Argentina and Chile I heard great stories about Galapagos, Machu Picchu and Salar de Uyuni. I was planning to go to these places at the end of 2008, but decided to travel in South-East Asia with a Swiss friend instead. At the end of 2009 there was no chance of taking a leave from the project in Prague for 5 weeks. So in 2010 I can finally make my dream come true. 2,5 months of paid leave and 3 months of unpaid leave should provide ample time to visit these places, and more. I am basically going back to slow travelling (like slow food or slow IT – Ron Tolido wrote some interesting columns on the topic), the method of travelling I got used to during my time in Australia, New Zealand and Patagonia. With a 5-month trip there’s not the (self-inflicted) rush there was in South-East Asia, where on some days I would be travelling by bus for 7 hours in the morning, do some sightseeing in the afternoon, and travel another 7 hours by bus the next day.

Obviously I will be exploring all the highlights of the places that I am visiting, but also the less known sites, of which I generally treasure the fondest memories. And it will allow me to simply stay longer in a place that I like, for example Ushuaia and Bariloche in Argentina. Arequipa in Peru is likely to qualify for this as well. To keep things flexible, I decided to have only a short list of must do’s for this trip: the already mentioned Galapagos, Machu Picchu and Salar de Uyuni, as well as the redeemer of Christ in Rio de Janeiro and Chitzen Itza. This way I can see all the new world wonders in the Americas in one trip and boost my score from 1 to 4 out of 7. And 5 countries (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico) in 5 months seems a lot more managable than 5 countries in 5 weeks.