A Travellerspoint blog

On the trail of the Incas

Cusco, Peru

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Few people travel to Peru without visiting the famous Inca city of Machu Picchu. This world heritage site is located at 8 000 feet above sea level and lies above the Urubamba valley near the city of Cusco. The city was constructed by the Incas around 1460 AD but then abandoned less than a century later when the Spanish conquered the Inca kingdom.

There is a Peru rail train that runs from Cusco to the small town of Aquas Calientes, only six kilometres away from Machu Picchu. Taking a return trip on the train allows you to explore Machu Picchu in a single day. However, it is also possibly to reach Machu Picchu on foot by walking the well-known Inca Trail. The trail takes four days and follows the ancient Inca road system of which most are still the original construction.

We decided that four months in South America definitely allowed us adequate time to walk the trail. Whether or not we were fit enough for it though was a whole different matter. We spent a few days in Cusco to try and acclimatise to the altitude while waiting for our trail to start.

Day 1: The trail starts
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The local tour company’s mini-van pulled up to one of the many quant plazas near the centre of Cusco around 8am, where we were patiently waiting for the start of our trail. We were introduced to our fellow travellers and to Ruben, a friendly local Peruvian who would be our guide for the next four days. All the luggage was piled high on top of the roof rack of the van before we set off to make our way to the famous kilometre 82, where our Inca trial officially started.

On the way we stopped at a small village where we bought walking sticks from the local vendors there. Walking sticks that would later proof invaluable on the long and tiring days on the trail. We received a cooked lunch of pasta and soup before we made our way to the trail check point where our tickets and passports were checked. We crossed an impressive wooden suspension bridge just after the checkpoint and then very enthusiastically started our trail. It didn’t take long for our initial enthusiasm to change to mild panic as we realised that we were indeed quite unfit and the next four days were going to be very long and very hard. As we walked, Ruben mentioned that there is an annual Inca run in Cusco where the locals race the entire Inca trial to see who can complete it in the shortest time. The current record is just under three and a half hours. A trail that would take us four days to complete!

The walk on day one took us only about three and a half hours and we also passed our first Inca ruin that day. From the top of a hill, we had a magnificent view of Patallacta, an ancient Inca site that was inhabited around 500 BC and was used mostly for religious ceremonies and crop production.

At the end of day one we arrived at our camp site to find that our porters had already pitched our tents and we found dinner ready and waiting for us. The food was remarkably good considering the fact that we were deep in the Andes and that everything the cooks needed had to be carried along the trail. After dinner we stayed up for a short while to discuss the day with some of the other travellers in our group before we headed to bed around 8pm. We had an early start on the second day and we were told that day two was easily the most difficult day of the entire trail.

Day 2: Dead woman’s pass
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Day two commenced with breakfast at 6:30am and we started walking at 7am. After less than an hour uphill we reached the first water point, and just over an hour and many steps later, we reached the second, and last water point. We rested there for about twenty minutes before we continued the long steep ascent to the top of dead woman’s pass, or Warmiwañusca, as it is locally known. It was a continuous steady uphill climb with what seemed like an endless amount of steps along the way. We stopped along the route to admire the never-ending hills of the Andes and the winding streams in the valleys below, but also to rest before continuing the climb.

It was around 11am when we reached the top of dead woman’s pass and the view from the top made the journey well worth it. We stayed at the top for a while before an icy breeze persuaded us to start the downhill track. We arrived at the camp site for the second night just after 1pm and were rather pleased with our progress for the day.

Day 3: A walk in the clouds
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Day three started just after 7:30am with a slight uphill climb for about half an hour. The soft drizzle that fell earlier in the morning had stopped by the time we started to walk. We passed a number of Inca ruins on day three including Runkuraqay, a site that overlooks a magnificent valley, the Sayaqmarka ruins at a dramatic altitude of 12 000 feet, and the incredible and extensive ruins at Phuyupatamarka (Cloud-level town).

It started to drizzle again lightly but we welcomed the rain as it took our minds of the tiring walk. After we passed our second Inca ruin and had a tasty hot lunch, the trial took us through the cloud forest. The high forest covered peaks of the Andes pierced through the lowest lying clouds as the trail continued through tunnels, around sharp bends and next to sheer cliff drops. We pressed on through the rain and our walking sticks proved invaluable as we continued over steps and under the low cloud blanket. One of the hikers in our group announced with marked excitement in his voice: ‘This is fantastic, I feel like Gandalf in the Fellowship of the ring!’

We reached our campsite at the ruins of Winaywayna (forever-young) late in the afternoon. It was somewhat of a ‘luxury’ camp with a restaurant and bar where we had a drink and relaxed in the evening. We were very excited as the next morning we would set off early to make sure that we reach the famous sun-gate near Machu Picchu before sunrise.

Day 4: Machu Picchu

We left Winaywayna at 3:45am on the last day as we had to reach the sun-gate before sunrise. We were the second group through the check point and as we continued to walk we could see the long line of people that followed behind us. After three days of hard walking we were very excited at the prospect of finally seeing Machu Picchu. We were also a bit concerned about the weather. We heard that it was overcast the day before, which meant that the view of Machu Picchu from the sun-gate was completely blocked. Of course the weather could have changed but so far we had brought rain wherever we went in South America, including breaking a two year drought in the Atacama desert on the day of our arrival!

There was a final flight of stairs just before we reached the sun gate. It took all my efforts to make it up the stairs but my tiredness was all forgotten when I arrived at the sun gate and saw Machu Picchu nestled in the valley in the distance in front of me. It was a clear and cloudless day. We waited at the sun gate until the sun started to set from behind us and we watched as the sunlight slowly moved over the ancient city. The view from the sun-gate made the entire four days walk well worth the trouble as this is something that we would not have seen if we took the train from Cusco.

We walked the last half an hour to the gate of the city. After three long days of walking we were finally there. The fatigue and sore muscles were long forgotten as Ruben led us into the city to discover the hidden secrets of this ancient city and the people that inhabited it so long ago.

Posted by vedette 02:05 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

A night at the movies

Buenos Aires, Argentina

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I was determined. Not even a six month trip through South America, which inevitably could include the prospect of having to read subtitles for three hours, was going to stop me from watching the latest instalment in the brilliant Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movie, the Two Towers, had just been released to the big screen and was the second in the trilogy if my memory serves me right. It was early January 2004 and we arrived in Buenos Aires only a few days before for the start of our six month backpacking adventure through South America. We planned on spending about a week in Buenos Aires and it seemed like the perfect place to make sure we watch the movie while it still showed on the big screen.

We walked several blocks from our hostel in San Telmo to the city centre of Buenos Aires where there were many people out for a night on the town. We took our place at the back of the queue in front of the ticket office to buy our tickets for that night’s main performance of the movie. We stood in line and patiently waited for our turn to buy our tickets. While in the queue, we also tried to learn the Spanish for ‘Lord of the Rings’ as it was displayed on the billboard outside the movie theatre. We were after all armed with a couple of good Spanish phrase books and were determined to display an eagerness to use the native language as much as possible. After only a few days in South America it was already clear that many people did not speak English all that well. Certainly, if we asked for our tickets in Spanish it would make the whole process run a whole lot quicker and smoother.

Finally we stood in front of the ticket booth and were ready to buy our tickets. The friendly girl behind the counter was eagerly waiting for us to tell her which movie we wanted to see. We proudly announced that we would like: ‘Dos para El Senor de los Annilos por favor’. Or at least that is what we intended to ask for. We did rehearse for ten minutes after all. The girl had a confused yet sympathetic expression on her face and was probably thinking something like: ‘Intento triste del extranjero para hablar Español’, which would roughly translate to ‘Another sad tourist trying to speak Spanish’.

At first we thought that she did not hear us and we tried again in our best broken Spanish: ‘Dos para El Senor de los Annilos por favor’. But by the third attempt it was clear that she had no idea which movie we wanted to buy tickets for. Clearly our pronunciation was not nearly as faultless as we believed.

Just as we were about to throw in the towel we decided to change tactics and asked for ‘Dos para Lord of the Rings, por favour’? ‘Si!’ the girl exclaimed as her face lit up with joy and relieve and a few seconds later we were presented with two tickets for the show.

Half an hour later, we were seated with a fresh box of popcorn and were delighted to see that the movie was in the original English with Spanish subtitles. So my advice? When you are in Buenos Aires and you cannot speak a word of Spanish, try English first. You may be pleasantly surprised with the result.

Posted by vedette 02:38 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

The city less visited

Venice, Italy

It was Christmas in Venice. The illustrious Rialto Bridge arched impressively over the glimmering water of the city’s main waterway, the Canalazzo, or Grand Canal. A chivalrous gondolier gently guided two lovers down a small side canal, as he quietly hummed a nameless tune.

In the city there was a flurry of activity. The Clock Tower on Piazza San Marco, Torre dell’Orogolio, announced the arrival of a new hour and hundreds of tourists braved the cold to relish a classic Italian lunch at the many side cafés that line the square. Street merchants offered a seemingly endless supply of seeds to young children who delighted in feeding the hundreds of pigeons that flock to the square daily. A multitude of tourists scuttled through the inner city streets to ensure that they arrived at the next must-see attraction on time.

We had looked forward to our trip very much so we defied the crowds and visited and marvelled at all the highlights the city has to offer. However, once finished we decided to take a leisurely walk towards the outskirts of the city. As we continued to stroll, the number of tourists diminished with every new side street we turned into. It wasn’t long before the city was remarkably transformed. We felt as though we had Venice all to ourselves.

Pricey tourist shops made way for local convenient stores, delightful delicatessens, quaint cafes and enchanting Christmas markets. The tourist crowd changed into sauntering students, bustling businessmen and ordinary Venetians busy with their daily activities.

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We stumbled across a wonderful and welcoming local eatery in a quiet little side street and decided to stop for lunch. Although an unassuming place, which hosted a colourful shop at the front and three modest tables at the back, the pasta was purely delectable, the house-wine unsurpassed and the staff friendly and efficient. All at a price we fervently returned for the following day.

For the rest of our holiday we roamed the quiet alleyways of the outer city, admired the myriad of glinting Christmas lights and quietly browsed through the multitude of alluring local shops.

When next you find yourself in Venice and have glanced through all the obligatory tourist attractions, remember to take a stroll to the outskirts of the city and you will see the real Venice magically unfolds before you.

Posted by vedette 03:55 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Victoria Falls

Livingstone, Zambia

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Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) is the local name for the Victoria Falls and you will immediately understand the appropriateness of this name once you get your first good view of the falls.

Luck was on our side and Nationwide airlines resumed their flights to Livingstone a week before our trip. The engine of our plane stayed and about an hour after we left Johannesburg we arrived safely in Livingstone, Zambia. Shortly before landing we flew over the eastern side of the falls. This gave us a spectacular aerial view of the falls and it is easy to understand why they are one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Going through passport control and baggage collection was relatively painless and quick. Our tour operator arranged for transport from the airport to the Zambezi Sun, where we were to spend the next 4 nights. The trip to the hotel takes you right through the heart of Livingstone, a very small town comprising of mainly one road, a few historic buildings, some shops, restaurants and locals going about their daily business.

After arrival at our hotel we walked to the Livingstone Hotel, just a short 10min walk from the Zambezi Sun. Even though there is a regular shuttle service running between the two hotels, we enjoyed the walk, and were rewarded for braving the heat and humidity by spotting a couple of giraffes and some zebra on our way.

Arriving at the Livingstone Hotel we headed straight to the wooden deck area overlooking the Zambezi River. It offers a wonderful view of Livingstone Island, (from where David Livingston saw the falls for the first time), and the top of the falls themselves, with many hippos cooling off in the river nearby. The spray from the falls rises like smoke meters into the air and we enjoyed sundowners while enjoying a magnificent African sunset.

Walking from the Zambesi sun to the falls is quick and easy, following a short pathway through a gate not far from the falls itself. You can hear the falls long before you get the first glimpse of the zambesi rushing over the edge of the cliff. It truly is a spectacular sight and one that everyone should try and get a chance to see.

Posted by vedette 11:54 Archived in Zambia Comments (0)

A glimpse of Tana

Antananarivo, Madagascar

Antananarivo, also known as Tana, is the capital of Madagascar. A destination I would normally fleetingly glance over on an airport departures board while thinking: “I don’t think I will ever fly there”. Then, after locating my flight number I will proceed to the check-in counter for a flight to London, Frankfurt, Livingstone or even Sao Paulo.

The morning of Saturday, 8 March 2008 was different however. I arrived at O.R Tambo International early in the morning and proceeded to the check-in counter for Air Madagascar where I checked-in for flight MD123, leaving at 10:20am, direct to Antananarivo.

After take-off our plane had cruised over the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean for almost two hours before the coast of Madagascar came into view on the horizon. Without a cloud in the sky the view of Madagascar from the air was staggering. Crystal clear rivers were gracefully winding past never-ending green hills while small rural villages and the occasional lone farmhouse were dotted across the landscape. I felt my anticipation built as we started our descent into Tana Airport and I looked forward to see what this intriguing country had to offer.

If you are a foreigner, passport control in Madagascar is no simple affair. It is lengthy, tedious and can test the patience of anyone. My entry visa cost me US$83 and an hour in a slow moving queue in front of the only available visa counter. An hour and a half after landing I presented myself to the immigration official and received a stamp in my passport. I was finally able to collect my bag which was standing alone in the corner of the deserted arrivals lounge. I was very relieved to find that my driver had been patiently waiting for me in the arrivals lounge all this time.

The sun was already beginning to set when we left the small airport parking lot and started our drive towards the city. The narrow, dusty city streets were lined with tiny shops and kiosks of which some only consisted of a small wooden table and a few flickering candles for light. There were countless people wandering the streets, some on their way home and others getting ready for a night out on the town.

I noticed a distinct contract in this city. On the same street there were groups of stylish young friends, talking, laughing and flaunting the latest mobile phones and designer labels while only a few blocks away a frayed old man with a small torch rummaged hopefully through a rubbish skip for anything of value.

My taxi continued to wind through the narrow streets until we finally stopped in front of my hotel near the outskirts of Tana. Twenty minutes of hand gestures and broken English later I was fairly comfortable that my driver understood he needed to be back the following morning at 7am.

The Sunny Hotel was quant and comfortable with very friendly and helpful staff. Unfortunately the hotel’s restaurant had already closed when I arrived but there were lovely fresh fruit available in my room. After a comfortably night’s sleep I woke up early to find my driver waiting for me outside the hotel just before 7am. He drove me to the airport where I was getting a flight to the coastal town of Fort Dauphin in the south of Madagascar. I have only caught a glimpse of Tana but already liked Madagascar and was looking forward to see what my next destination has to offer.

Posted by vedette 10:14 Archived in Madagascar Comments (0)

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