Máncora

Our last stop in Peru after Lima was Máncora, a surfing destination close to the northern border with Ecuador. It is a popular backpacker spot but most importantly, it has a beach.

We decided to find somewhere quiet to stay and found a nice bed and breakfast just down the road from Máncora. Marcial and Cecilia were wonderful hosts, great cooks. We really enjoyed our stay there, some much needed seclusion.

Our room at Marcilia Beach Bungalows

Our hosts explained that at this time of year the humpback whales were travelling south along the coast. That afternoon, as the sun was setting on the horizon, we saw a humpback from the comfort of our deck. We rushed down to the beach and watched the creature launch itself out of the water, again and again. Magic.

After two nights of solitude we shifted to Máncora, where we stayed for three nights. Again, peace and relaxation were on the cards. Fortunately some friends from the dune boarding adventures were also in Máncora so we caught up with them. A friendly Irish lad also became a regular drinking partner.

Kimbas Bungalows

Máncora was a good stop but we were surprised by how austere the landscape was. Much of the Peruvian coast is arid and desert-like. Máncora was an orange, rocky expanse with a beach. If it wasn't for the surf break it may not have become a destination in its own right. We had heard that Montañita in Ecuador was better so we packed our bags, gulped down some ceviche and said goodbye to Peru

 

 


Lima: The City of Kings

The best thing about this city is the food. We finally found something worth eating – ceviche, the delicious dish that is the star of Peru’s culinary repertoire.

A sample of ceviche.

Wandering along the coast line, stopping to drink wine and eat seafood is a pretty awesome introduction to any new place. We decided to stay in Miraflores, the seaside suburb of Lima, and stopped for lunch at ‘La Mar’, one of Lima’s best cevicherias. Here we were treated to a selection of different ceviche dishes (variations of raw fish, chili and onions marinated in lime juice). Ceviche, where have you been all my life!?

Lima is also the home of the Pisco Sour, a cocktail that is popular along the west coast, and the Lima Sigh, a wonderfully sweet desert. A stop at the Gran Hotel Bolivar, where the Pisco Sour was conceived, is mandatory, and any decent restaurant around the central squares will spoil you with a Lima Sigh.

We weren’t in Lima for long, but we did manage to catch up with old and new friends, as well as wander around the shops and city streets. A referral put us onto a city tour bus, which we thought was the easiest and cheapest way to get around and see the sights all in one afternoon.

We went through the old squares in the center of town and saw the glamorous buildings from the colonial era, which still look magnificent.

The tour finished at the Museo Larco, which has one of the most incredible collections of Inca art anywhere in the world. The museum is a beautiful building of white washed walls and red flowers. Established in 1926, the Museo Larco hosts a vast collection of around 45,000 artifacts excavated from northern, central and southern Peru.

Photo taken from the courtyard.

Peru is one of the six cradles of civilization and the museum exhibits cover the many tribes that rose and fell over the last 5,000 years. Over time it is possible to see how the art became more sophisticated and how the different cultures influenced each other. The apex of this art is represented by the Incas, who amalgamated all of these influences as the empire spread across Peru.

We learnt a lot from the visit, and as it happens many of the best pieces from Cusco’s Museo de Art Pre-Colombino are on loan from this museum. We were so impressed with the collection that we bought a photographic book published by Museo Larco (which Mark used to design a tattoo on his back).

Lima itself was rather grey due to a haze that hangs over the city from April to November. It would have been nice to stay longer, but we were getting travel weary and were keen for some sunny beach time. So we boarded a dreadful overnight bus and escaped to the surfer’s paradise of Mancora!

The hazy shades of Lima.

 


The Nazca Lines

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While we were staying at Huacachina, we arranged for a day trip to Nazca and a flight over the Nazca Lines. Although we had heard scary stories of the plane ride, we thought it was an opportunity not to be missed.

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Apparently these lines were created by the Nazca people sometime around 400-650 AD, but only became well known after a Peruvian archaeologist saw them while hiking in 1927. Although some can be seen from on top of the surrounding foothills, it is best to see them from the air to get the full scale and magnitude of the images.

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The lines are made by removing the red pebbles on the ground and uncovering the lighter coloured ground beneath. Once up in the sky, it is quite astounding to see that there are lines EVERYWHERE! Along with the familiar pictures there are also just geometric shapes and random lines scattered across the desert landscape.

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The most impressive where the hummingbird, monkey, whale, dog and the waving man that looks like an alien!

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Sandboarding in the Desert

The coast of Peru is one long stretch of desert. We got our first taste of it on the trip from Cuzco to Lima, which covers some fantastic landscapes, moon-like plataues of rock to massive sand dunes.

We had learnt that it is possible to stay at a small oasis in the desert a couple of hours south of Lima. The oasis has become a resort style town called Huacachina and it is surrounded by crazy-huge sand dunes that you can sandboard on. We were mad keen to give this a go so we stayed a couple of days and hit the dunes.

The oasis at Huacachina.

The dunes stretched as far as the eye can see.

The size of the dunes requires some serious machinery to get around. This came in the form of dune buggies on steroids. These machines roared up the hills at speed. As we would reach a summit the driver would plant his foot and we would plunge down the other side. It was like a roller-coaster ride, a huge rush!

We were pumped by the time we hit our fist dune. We rushed to the crest and after a quick wax we were throwing ourselves head long down the biggest dunes we had ever seen.

Waxing the board.

It was an awesome buzz. Here's hoping we get to do it again sometime soon!

 


Alternatives to Hiking the Inca Trail

Hola amigos,

Today we wanted to share a few ideas on great treks that you can do around Cusco in addition to, or as an alternative to, the Inca Trail. This post largely reflects our own research but also conversations with fellow travellers. If you find the Inca Trail to be prohibitively expensive, or you want a bit more Indiana Jones in your adventure, then this might be of interest to you.

There are three trips near Cusco that we would recommend looking into:

  1. Choquequirao
  2. Salcantay to Machu Picchu
  3. Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa

These trails are great alternatives the Inca Trail. There are companies offering hikes to all three, although Choquequirao and Espiritu Pampa are not covered by many companies, which is part of their appeal. They are also multi-day hikes of at least four days in duration.

A brief explanation on each is offered below. If any of them catch your interest then we highly recommend looking into the South American Explorers Club, who have a Cusco office. They gave us valuable information on everything from details on the trails, the cost of guides and where to buy hiking equipment. Membership is cheap and covers all of their clubs in South America. We also highly recommend the Trailblazer Guide to the Inca Trail, which provides detailed hiking information on these and other trails.

Note: Machu Picchu is part of a network of trails within the region. The Inca Trail is but one route to get there. The other trails range in terms of difficulty but it is possible to link up other ruins as part of a greater multi-day adventure to reach Machu Picchu. See the Trailblazer book for more information.

Choquequirao

This hike caught our intention for a number reasons. It is one of the few trails you can do without a guide, which brings down the cost substantially. In fact all you have to pay is the park fee, which from recollection is under USD100. So, those used to carrying their own gear will appreciate it. The trail is also straightforward – it is two days to the ruins and you return along the same path.

Choquequirao is a large site south west of Machu Picchu. Some consider it to be Machu Picchu's sister site because of its size and the quality of the stonework. Part of the appeal lies in the fact that the ruins are still being uncovered, so there is a genuine opportunity for a bit of exploration. It is off the beaten track too so you won't have the same crowds and it is possible to walk from here to Machu Picchu or to Espiritu Pampa.

We were dead set on tackling this but due to a bought of food poisoning we had to pull out. A shame as we put a lot of time into planning it. Send us photos if you go!

Salcantay to Machu Picchu

This is touted as one of several alternative trails to Machu Picchu. Salcantay is a nearby mountain with trails that can connect you to Machu Picchu. This trail is common amongst tour companies and it costs less than the Inca Trail. We are not clear on whether this trek can be done independently but we suspect it will require a few vehicle pick ups.

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b6/Salcantay_Stevage.jpg

We spoke to several peope that tried this trail and highly enjoyed it. Worth looking into!

Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa

Those wanting a real adventure need to seriously consider Espiritu Pampa, the real lost city of the Incas. This was the city Hiram Bingham was trying to discover when he found Machu Picchu. For many years people really thought Machu Picchu was the last city if the Incas. However, the general consensus is that in fact it was Espiritu Pampa, the last refuge of Manco Inca when he was in rebellion against the Spanish.

Source: http://www.thewhiterock.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Peru-2011-333-Copy.jpg

Like Choquequirao the ruins are still being uncovered however you are probably going to see more vine-covered ruins here. The reason is that this site is so off the beaten track. We only found two companies that would hike there. Unfortunately at the time we could not go because the Peruvian army was cracking down on local drug traffickers. Anyone interested should make enquiries as to the security situation.

Our understanding is that it is not advisable to tackle this hike on your own. Guides should be used. The track is not frequently walked and is at least four days. To get there you need transport to Huancacalle, the last town on the road west of Ollantaytambo. We explored public transport and it seemed difficult. We looked into just visiting Huancacalle for the day and were told it would cost several hundred dollars. So, a trip that needs serious planning and a good guide.

The White Rock. Source: National Geographic.

This trip has the advantage of including Vitcos, the ruins of an Inca town, and the sacred white rock. Neither site is visited frequently and apparently the local valleys are beautiful.

And so ends our series of posts on the Incas. We hope you have enjoyed them and if you missed any just click on the 'Inca' tag below or on the right hand pane.

Gracias,

Mark and Saskia

 


MOVE: A Fantastic Travel Video

Hi everyone and happy new year! Apologies for the gap in posts, we are getting back into it soon!

Saskia found a great travel video online. It is only a minute long but take a look. The premise: three friends took one second of footage at scenic locations across 18 countries. An inspired idea and a great result.

Enjoy :)


Death Road Part 1

We are interrupting our scheduled broadcast to bring you our first posting on Death Road. We recently reached 1,000 subscribers for the blog and thought putting this up would be a good way to celebrate.

Mark gets ready.

That's Mark raising his hand.

This is part one of two postings on our Death Road cycle tour in Bolivia. We've had to split it up as there is an hour of footage and a lot of photos. The second post will go up as soon as the remaining video has been edited.

We picked Altitude on the basis of a recommendation from friends. They proved to be a good choice, great guides and there were enough to accommodate different speeds.

Mark switching on his GoPro.

The tour was split into two stages. The first began at the top of the mountain pass and ended near a truck stop. This was all on tarmac. The second stage involved getting back in the vans and travelling to the start of Death Road, a dirt road that hugs the side of a mountain range. This road has now been replaced by another route so it is much safer to use. However, unbeknownst to us when we booked the tour, the new road was partially blocked by a recent landslide so there would be traffic coming back up towards us…kind of a problem when the road narrows to one lane with no rails to prevent a fall.

The tip went well though. No-one was hurt, apart from the guy that front-braked for a shopping bag…Saskia rode shotgun in one of the vans as she didn't fancy riding a bike, but this was just as scary as she had to deal with traffic coming from the opposite direction!


A bit of video for ya. Best with headphones.

 


Discovering Machu Picchu’s Secrets

We have previously written about the Inca's reverance for nature and their clever use of solstice lines in town planning. In this post we are going to delve a bit deeper and reveal a few secrets about the design of Machu Picchu and it's exciting features.

Top: Mark puzzles over clues. Bottom: A wall with the three windows. Scholars are still undecided on it's purpose.

The Gates of Machu Picchu

Pachacutec and his architects aimed to amaze with Machu Picchu. This is demonstrated with the sites superiority in overall design but it also becomes evident in the detail. For example, the placement of the Sun Gate, the point where 'The Inca Trail' ends, on the ridge south of the ruins was deliberate. The gate there has been placed to create a grand impression of the town and it's vista. Even today it inspires awe, an effect the Incas wanted visitors to experience.

Machu Picchu. Still impressive.

Further into the site one will find the Main Gate. This marked the formal boundary for the city (the exterior mostly consists of agricultural terracing and guard houses). This gate was placed to frame a view of Huana Picchu and Machu Picchu as one passes through. Again, the intention here is to impress.

The Main Gate.

Of course throughtout the ruins one will find many clever designs. It's easy to spend a full day exploring the site!

Left: A window looks out into a courtyard. Right: Saskia stands in a doorway, an excellent example of Inca stonework.

Imitating Landforms

The Incas had a special reverance for mountains, which they considered to be sacred. Possibly because of this reverence for 'Apus' the Incas carved out small rock models of the nearby peaks.

The clearest example is on the left. The rock on the left in the foreground has been carved to resemble Huayna Picchu, which is in the background.

We didn't use a guide but we needed help finding these stones. If you opt not to use a guide try trailing one of the groups and you will find them fairly easily.

The Southern Cross Stone

In the temple complex there is a courtyard where you can look out to Llactapata. In this courtyard the Incas carved a kite shape into the rock. At first this seems a little pointless but a compass reading shows that the top and bottom points run South to North. It is possible that the shape mimics the Southern Cross constellation and for this reason the rock has been named the Southern Cross.

Never leave home without a conpass.

As an side, the Cusco Planetarium is worth a visit to learn more about the Inca's knowledge of astrology. For example, they had named their own constellations, including black patches of sky where there are no stars. After a visit one can easily find the condor and the black llama!

The Intihuatana Stone

Machu Picchu has the best remaining example of an intihuatana stone. Placed with a commanding view of the valley, the stone sits within the Sun Temple, the highest point in the ruins complex. We were able to see people standing on the edge from the train station's intihuatana stone below.

The stone features many different flat planes carved on it's sides. If you look at the above picture, in the bottom left corner, there is a step at the base of the stone. The top edge of this step runs along a north south alignment (we checked this ourselves). Furthermore, it is possible to trace an invisible line between the peaks of Mounts Machu Picchu (south) and Huayna Picchu (north) along this edge.

The gnomon.

We are not sure whether the other flat planes are also aligned to other points of reference. It is possible that there are connections to other mountains and cities but we haven't looked into this. If you are curious have a quick read of this Wikipedia article for more info.

The Condor

This one requires a bit of imagination but on the eastern side there's a patch of cleared earth with a triangle of rock. This has the outline of a condor head carved into it. Looking up, two rock outcrops stretch away from each other. They are the condor's wings.

Pachacutec's Tomb

There are several notable buildings within the ruins of Machu Picchu. We have already mentioned the Sun Temple and the Main Gate on the western side. On the eastern side, where the residential buildings are placed, the Incas built a squat tower called the Torreón.

The eastern side of the Torreón.

The purpose of the Torreón has long caused debate amongst Machu Picchu enthusiasts. This enigmatic tower faces due east and contains a doorway on its western side. Inside the tower are possible scorch marks around a rock slab. The tower also features a courtyard with trapezoid insets (which often designates a temple) and there is a cave with carved rock underneath.

As recently as 2011 an enthusiast put forward the theory that Pachacutec was buried at Machu Picchu. The Peruvian Government undertook an excavation in the courtyard behind the tower and a chamber was discovered. As Mark Adams reports, this may have been the tomb of Pachacutec.

Looking down onto the structure. The excavation sight is on the right, covered by plastic roofing.

Looking into the chamber.

An alcove where possessions would have been stored.

We won't go into the details in a big way but it is also believed that the Torreón housed a gold statue of Pachacutec. This statue was described in Spanish chronicles as part of the empire wide ransom payment to the Spaniards when Atahualpa was captured. It is possible that the statue was fixed here atop a platform, which the Incas burned in order to remove it.

Mark Adams also established that during the winter solstice the sun shines directly through the east facing window, in a perfect line that may have lit up the statue of Pachacutec, if indeed this was where the statue was stored…As we noted above, such design features are unlikely to be coincidences. Perhaps with time there will be consensus but we at least believe the theory that this was the resting place of the Inca empire's greatest Sapa Inca.

Statue in Aguas Calientes. Note the use of the condor, jaguar and snake.

Hope you enjoyed the post. Machu Picchu was great fun to explore and we highly recommend doing the research before paying a visit. That said, it is still a great time regardless and a good guide can share much, if not all, of what we have covered here.

This is our second-to-last post on the Incas. The last post will share our plans to visit the last city of the Incas, Espiritu Pampa, and the sister site to Machu Picchu, Choquequirao.

Stay tuned,

Mark and Saskia

 


Machu Picchu

Llama photo bomb!

Machu Picchu. You have seen it all before. But don’t be put off by the touristy cliché, it is amazing, and it is one of the world’s top tourist destinations for a reason!

Seeing the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu was something we had been looking forward to for years and we were really excited about it, despite aforementioned food poisoning. Everyone at our hostel seemed keen to get up at 5am to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. However, we had read that the mountains are usually covered in a morning mist that blocks out the sun, so we decided to sleep in to a more respectable time.

Arriving at the top of the mountain, looking down to the Urubumba River.

It is possible to hike to the entrance from Aguas Calientes but as we weren’t feeling well we decided to just catch a bus up. This was cheap and easy and got us to the entrance to Machu Picchu at around 9am.

When we arrived it felt like we were lining up to enter a theme park, but the lines moved quickly despite the hundreds of people pouring off buses all at the same time. After a quick bag check we had our passports stamped and we were on our way!

First glimpse of Inca Ruins at Machu Picchu.

This was actually a perfect time to arrive, as the mist was lifting and the ruins were starting to show us their full glory. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect. After having seen thousands of images of Machu Picchu over the years, we were worried that we might be underwhelmed. However, this was definitely not the case as the sheer scale and location of the ruins were breathtaking!

We wandered around for a while, took a few photos, and pinched ourselves. Hikers started to appear covered in mud from multi-day treks, and even though that would have been an incredible way to arrive, we were just stoked that we made it at all!

Machu Picchu: morning and afternoon.

Unfortunately we didn’t book our tickets in time to hike up Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the ruins – numbers are limited to 400 people per day and they sell out quickly). We were however able to get tickets to hike up the higher peak, Mount Machu Picchu, which overlooks the postcard view. The mountain is ridiculously steep, and combined with altitude and remnants of food poisoning, pretty tough! The last part was more like rock climbing than hiking but the views over the valley were spectacular and gave us a good idea of the layout of the ruins as well.

The steep climb up Mount Machu Picchu.

Looking down over the ruins from Mount Machu Picchu.

Mount Machu Picchu.

We brought our own food and had lunch on a grassy terrace overlooking the ruins. The mist had slowly cleared and we had perfect views of the whole valley. We spent the afternoon wandering through the ruins with our guidebook in hand, feeling like explorers. Every now and then we latched on to a tour group to hear their explanation of certain sites, but it was pretty easy to get around and by 3pm most people had left. One of the best tips we had was to stay two nights in Aguas Calientes so that we didn’t have to rush off to catch a train back to Cusco. That was great because it meant that we had access to the ruins without being surrounded by hundreds of people, and it was easy to just catch a bus back down the hill when everything shut at 5pm.

Machu Picchu in the afternoon, minus hoards of tourists.

Just before we left we went on another walk to see the Inca Bridge, which is precariously placed on the side of a cliff. It is no longer possible to get too close (a tourist died trying) but it's still interesting to see how they would have controlled these access points as a security mechanism.

Inca Bridge at one of the entrances to Machu Picchu.

After a long day we headed back to the hostel, quickly got changed, and wandered up to the thermal springs to soak our tired bodies in warm pools. The complex was really nice and it was the perfect way to finish off the day!

 


Llactapata to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a big deal. The feature piece of Inca architecture, it was designed with strong connections to nature. We will talk about this in our next post, but one major point we picked up is that the Inca's beliefs strongly influenced not only the design of their cities, but the relationships between the cities.

The ruins of Llactapata provide a classic example of this. Situated on an opposing ridge, Llactapata has been designed to have structures that align with both the solstice line and key buildings in Machu Pichu.

The reasons behind the alignment with the solstice line are speculation, but the solstice would likely have been a major event for people that worshiped the sun. At this time of year the sun is closest to the earth and the Incas probably staged major rituals in their sun temples and around their intihuatana stones.

Looking out over the train lines and power station. Llactapata is located on top of the ridge in the background. The intihuatana stone is at the bottom of the valley. This photo was taken from the western edge of Machu Picchu.

Several clues suggest that this is the case. In Llactapata a stone corridor has been built in alignment with the solstice line. Mark Adams notes that when the sun rises during the solstice it's light runs straight down the corridor. In Machu Picchu, Mark was the first to establish that during the solstice light shone directly through a window in a major building, the Torreon (also known as the Room with Three Windows and other variations), and is thought to have lit up a golden statue of Pachacutec inside.

The last clue is the placement of the intihuatana stone near the hydroelectric train station. This can be found about 10-15 minutes walk uphill in the direction of Machu Picchu. The word intihuatana literally translates in Quechua as 'hitching post for the sun'. It is thought that the Incas wished to stall the suns passage, possibly to ensure a good harvest. Such stones are present in Pisac and Machu Picchu, however there were many more before the Spanish destroyed them.

Mark and the intihuatana stone. You can see the remains of the broken gnomon to the left of Mark.

Armed with this knowledge we decided to try a different way of getting to Machu Picchu. We had already been put off by the cost of the traditional hike and there was also the issue of not knowing when we would be passing through Peru (our haste to get to Brazil in time for Lollapalooza had put us off booking events too far in advance). So, with the help of the kind folk at the South American Explorer's Club and the handy Trail Blazing Guide (which contains a map of Llactapata), we decided to go the back route…

This consisted of catching a local bus to Santa Teresa, which lies north west of Machu Picchu. From here it is possible to catch a taxi south to the western side of the ridge where Llactapata is situated. We intended to stay a night in Santa Teresa and then tackle Llactapata in the morning. The plan was to then walk down the eastern side of the ridge to the train station, where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes (you can also walk along the train line if you can be bothered, but we wanted to squeeze in more beer drinking time).

All this was well and good until we were struck with food poising during our night in Santa Teresa. Terrible timing! We were guttered as we had been looking forward to this for months. Our main worry was missing Machu Picchu, so we hedged our bets and bailed on Llactapata. This, fortunately, was the only compromise we needed to make for this leg of the trip. We still visited the intihuatana stone (which we had to ourselves) and despite feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves, there were no 'incidents' on the train.

We highly recommend this approach to getting to Machu Picchu. The trip on the local bus was very scenic, amazing views. We would however recommend taking a tour to Santa Teresa if the budget affords – the van will travel at a reasonable speed and you won't be packed in like sardines. Our driver was an asshole with a death wish. Several passengers were car sick (literally throwing up in plastic bags on their laps and he refused to stop or slow down) and we had several close calls on the windy mountain roads. The worst stint we've had, and we've had some bad trips.

That aside, the trip is great, as is the section through to Aguas Calientes. You can actually see Machu Picchu from the train and the intihuatana stone, which gave us goose bumps. The landscape is lush with tropical forest and you'll have to resist the temptation to jump into the Urubamba.

Machu Picchu from the intihuatana stone at the hydroelectric power station.

Getting to the Intihuatana Stone

We found our books to be a bit vague on the stone's location so perhaps our advice may make it easier. To get there walk about 10 minutes in the direction of Machu Picchu. Keep an eye on your right hand side for an unmarked dirt path that runs up the hill. Follow this path to a little house (ignore the carved rocks), where the path hooks left beside the house. Carry on as the path hooks right again and takes you to another railway line. Head along the tracks towards Machu Picchu and you should see a path to your left. There may be a sign but don't count on it. Head downhill and within seconds you will see the stone.

We found the scrappy remains of 'Caution Do Not Enter' tape around the ruins so it may be that the Government doesn't want people visiting. If you do go please don't climb on the intihuatana stone and do your best to leave it as you found it. It was really interesting and worth a look if you have the time!

Cheers,

Mark and Saskia

 


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