Tag Archives: scenery

Isla de la Plata

The affordable alternative to the Galapogas Islands, Isla de la Plata is an exciting day trip off the south west coast of Ecuador. Supposedly named after guano from the bird population (and less likely, the hidden treasure of an English sea captain), Isla de la Plata has many of the charms of the Galapagos Islands, just not in a comparable abundance. We had a great time and recommend it, especially if you are at the tail-end of your holiday and running out of kish cash.

Mosh pit.

The above photos were all taken from the landing beach. Not bad eh?

A view of the island.

Frigate birds clustered on a tree.

The charismatic frigate bird. The males inflate the pouches to try and pull the ladies.

A baby frigate bird.

A popular reason to visit Isla de la Plata is an opportunity to see blue-footed boobies nesting. We were lucky to be there at the right time.

As a final treat we were visited by a bale of turtles (that's what a group of turtles is called, apparently). They were pretty big, jumping in the water did not seem like a good idea…

 

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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

 

 


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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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: https://i0.wp.com/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: https://i2.wp.com/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.

 


Pumamarca: Inca Outpost

The area around Ollantaytambo was so beautiful that we decided to stay for a couple of days to have a look around. We read about a day hike to Pumamarca, an Inca outpost in the valley not far from Ollantaytambo. It was only five hours return so we picked up a picnic lunch from Heart's Café and headed up the valley.

Soon we were heading through the valley, surrounded by high peaks and incredible terraces still used for agriculture.

The most impressive piece of terracing we saw.

The path was not well marked, and if it wasn’t for a kind old man who happily rambled away in an incomprehensible dialect and showed us which way to go, we would have missed it completely. One path lead straight through the valley, but we needed to veer up the hill to head for the ruins. The climb was steep, and was made even tougher by the altitude, but the views were amazing!

After about 3 hours, we stopped for lunch inside the ruins of what was perhaps an old grain store, before climbing the last stretch up to the top. Upon reaching the top we discovered we had the whole place to ourselves! This was definitely some kind of outpost, as it was quite remote, but the scenery was beautiful!

A water channel follows the contour of the hill on the left. At on e point it ran right through the ruins but has since been diverted.

We spent a couple of hours exploring Pumamarca. Mark found a water channel and resolved to follow it to the source. This led to a hill rise, where the water tumbled down in a control waterfall. Mark went quite high up but could find where the spring emerged from the rock. It was a cool little innovation though and it was fun to think that this channel had been in place for several hundred years!

Pots, statues and other items would have been placed in these alcoves.

We highly recommend a trip to the ruins. It is a great walk, the ruins are largely intact and there's a good chance you will have them all to yourselves. Note that it is possible to get a taxi up there but we recommend the walk.

 


Pisac: A Royal Retreat

Pisac is a small town in the Sacred Valley, not far out of Cusco. We caught a local bus out there for the day, which was significantly cheaper than going with a tour group (around $2 instead of $30-40) with the aim of seeing both Inca ruins and the famous local markets.

The bus ride was lovely, winding down the valley through some amazing scenery. We arrived in Pisac in time for lunch, only to find that Mark had left his jacket on the bus, with his money and credit cards in the pocket. Panic ensued, followed by a good old-fashioned car chase where we jumped in a taxi and yelled “follow that bus!”

The Sacred Valley from Pisac.

Luckily the bus stopped regularly and we knew which direction it was headed, so it didn’t take long to catch it. Mark jumped on, grabbed his jacket and ran off again, leaving the driver and passengers somewhat confused. The taxi ride there and back meant that we didn’t in fact save any money by catching the local bus, but it was a bit exciting nonetheless!

Pisac turned out to be a beautiful little town with an old plaza and some very good quality shops and cafes. There is a popular market, which sets up around a massive tree in the central plaza. It is possible to buy a huge range of hand made goods here, including the gaudy, colour clashing rugs that are a specialty of the area.

We recommend stopping for lunch at Ulrike’s Café, which serves up an amazing vegetarian menu del dia consisting of soup, a main meal and desert that was so good we came back for dinner before we left for Cusco at the end of the day!

Pisac also has a large Inca fort on the ridge above the town. The young Sapa Inca Pachacutec built a fort here after he conquered the local tribes. The Sacred Valley was and is a very fertile area with a temperate climate, and the Incas knew its agricultural value. A similar fortification was built in Ollantaytambo at the other end of the Sacred Valley and both are easily visited.

It is possible to walk up to Pisac but we opted to catch a taxi up and then walk back down to town. This turned out to be a great idea – the views are stunning and we would have missed them if we hadn’t taken a cab. Upon arrival we turned down a guided tour at ridiculous prices and struck out on our own (again, we recommend the Trail Blazer Guide as it has a map of the ruins).

The Spanish destroyed most of the structures at Pisac in the 1530s, but it is still possible to see that it would have once been quite grand. Highlights include an intihuatana stone, or hitching post for the sun, which can be found in an old Sun Temple (we will provide more detail on these later). There are also large agricultural terraces, aqueducts and look out points.

The black arrow points to the Intihuatana stone.

Aqueducts.

Perhaps the most interesting feature was the evidence of grave robbing. The ridge on the northern side looks like a beehive, full of little holes, which were once filled with mummies inside urns that were accompanied by various treasures to take with them to the afterworld. This area is off limits to tourists but it was still interesting to look at from a distance.

By the time we got back down into the main part of town, the weather had turned cold and windy. We did manage to have a quick wander through the market and buy a few little souvenirs. Most of the markets sell exactly the same products – standard llama clothing, scarves and beanies; rocks and crystals for the spiritual tourists; key rings; toys; jewellery etc. but we did manage to find some handmade silver jewellery, which was a nice souvenir to take home from such a pretty little town!


Isla del Sol

We ended our time on Bolivia with a visit to Isla del Sol, the Inca's mythical birth place of the sun and the god Varacocha. It is from here that the first Incas are said to have journeyed to Cusco to found the Inca empire.

The island can be found in Lake Titicaca, the largest high altitude lake in the world. To get there we took a boat from Copacobana, a small town on the eastern edge of the lake.

This was our first time getting up close with a significant Inca site so we were pretty excited. We opted to stay a night on the island to catch the sun set and sun rise, which as you can see above turned out to be a great idea.

Yumani Village, Isla del Sol.

Things got off to a comical start. We stayed at Yumani Village, one of two main drop off points on the island (the other is Cha'llapampa). Our hostel was on a ridge but we hadn't realised how steep the hike up would be…

Old Inca terraces used for agriculture.

At 3,808 metres altitude the hike, with all our bags, had zero appeal. We retreated to a nearby café and tried to work out what to do. Saskia in particular has a hard time with altitude and was a little distressed.

As we waited and took in the view we saw several herds of donkeys being shepherded down the slopes. We found out that the donkeys carry supplies up to the restaurants on the ridge…the answer to our problems! So, we paid six dollars for two donkeys and headed up the ridge with our pack animals in tow.

Isla del Sol features several sets of ruins and minor sites but the two main attractions are arguably the terracing and stairs at Yumani and the Chincana complex to the north. These sites are linked by a picturesque half day walk along the island's ridge line, which we tackled the next day.

The stairs, known as Escalera del Inca,.

We really enjoyed the walk, although the thin air made minor slopes feel like hills! The views are sensational. It actually looks remarkably similar to the Taupo region in New Zealand and Mark had to keep reminding himself that this was a serious Inca site.

A small village on the ridge line.

Looking south towards Copacobana.

Piles of stones. In the background you can see the Andes, which pass on the east.

The big draw for Chilcana is the sacred rock, the site where the sun is meant to have emerged. The site also contains a small ceremonial plaza and dramatic ruins that once housed the priests and caretakers of the rock.

To be completely honest we thought the rock itself was a disappointment. We walked straight past it several times and it was only through deduction that we worked out which one it was. They really need to put signs in there, but regardless we couldn't understand why that piece of the landscape was singled out.

What's the big deal?

Opposite the rock is a small patch of cleared ground with a ceremonial table. Not sure whether the area has been restored but that was slightly more interesting.

The ruins a few metres north were far more interesting. They are a small, labyrinthine complex that provided accommodation and food storage for the priests. Perched on the edge of the hill, they look down onto a tranquil beach and provide a good view of the lake.

Note the wall insets in the left. These are actually very common in Inca architecture and apparently are where religious artefacts would be placed, as well as mummies.

After a bit of a rest here we headed down to Cha'llapampa to catch a boat back to Yumani. It's a nice spot with am interesting museum. Apparently there's an underwater village just north of the island. Not sure how old it is but they've recovered pots etc and put them in the museum. Worth a visit while you wait for the boat.

Kids pretending to go fishing.

One thing we really loved were the boats made out of reeds. They look like old viking boats. The locals on the Peruvian side actually make islands out of the reeds as well as boats. We considered paying them a visit but heard the area has become heavily commercialised, so we skipped it and headed to Cusco instead.

And so ends our trip to Bolivia. We have one more dispatch on Death Road but it will take awhile to pull together (Mark has an hour of footage). All in all we really enjoyed our five weeks in Bolivia. The altitude got the best of us in the end but it was definitely worth the time. If pushed for time make beelines for Rurrenabaque and Sucre, they are great places to stay and offer plenty to do in the region. Don't linger in La Paz, it's not worth it!

The next posts will be a series on the Incas, including trips to ruins, museums and general stuff we learnt. Will mark them all with the 'Inca' tag so that they are easy to pull up for those interested. Looking forward to going back over the material.

As always thanks for reading. We've clocked up over 450 subscribers, which is both flattering and humbling. We get a real buzz looking at which countries our readers are based in, very cool! This blog has exceeded our expectations and we hope everyone else is enjoying this as much as we are.

Kind regards,

Mark and Saskia.

 


Day Five: Salt Flats

We got up early to drive out on to the salt flats to watch the sunrise. It was freezing, but the beautiful colours made up for it. As the sun came up we started to get a sense of just how massive the salt flats are!

We had breakfast at Isla del Incahuasi, one of 26 islands in the middle of the salt flats. The island was covered in cactus trees and provided a stunning lookout point over the salt flats. After wandering around the island, we said our goodbyes to the rest of our group who were continuing on to Uyuni. We jumped back in the jeep with our guide and cook and headed towards the opposite end of the salt flat to hike up a volcano!