Tag Archives: adventure

The Gentle Giants of the Sea

The Tarsiers were cute. The Thresher Shark was cool. But they were just a warm-up for the big one: swimming with whale sharks (or Butanding as they’re known locally).

I missed them by a few weeks while I was in Utila – so there was no way I was going to make the same mistake in the Philippines. For Donsol is possibly the best place in the world to see the world’s largest fish, and it’s become a magnet for travellers who want to try their luck. It all turned out to be one of the craziest experiences I’ve had so far – but easily one of the best too.

After another typical Philippine journey (boat – bus – taxi – plane – tricycle – jeepney – tricycle) it was straight to bed an up early to get a place on a boat. Luckily enough I ran straight into Simon (who I’d had met in Manila) and four of his friends who were looking for one more person to make a boatfull and we were soon on our way.

Now despite the fact that Whale Sharks are pretty huge by fish standards (they can grow to over 10m long) they are still pretty small compared to the size of the sea – which is where the spotter comes in. The six of us loaded onto a pretty small bangca (outrigger boat), with a local spotter standing perched right up on top clinging on to the mast, and his task is to scan the sea for the telltale dark shadow just below the surface.

waiting to swim with whale sharks in donsol, philippines

Getting ready to go...

It’s a pretty difficult task, and we spent the first couple of hours cruising around in circles with no luck, and our initial excitement soon gave way to a worry that we’d be one of the 5-10% of boats that fail to see any during peak season. So we’d just settled down to a snack (peanut butter sandwiches) when the boat suddenly slowed down and our “Butanding Interaction Officer” suddenly cries go go go! and the madness begins.

The boat is pretty damn narrow, and of course our snorkels, masks and fins were scattered all over the place so we had chaos as we all frantically climbed over each other, kitted out and jumped into the water after our guide.

Now the boats aren’t allowed to get too close to the sharks, so you have to swim pretty quickly if you want to get there in time before the shark dives. That sounds easy enough – but it turns out two other boats had arrived at the same time, so the water was a churning mash of bodies and fins all ploughing through the water at high speed, the confusion being compounded by the fact that everyone is looking down (to try and see the shark) rather than ahead (to see where you’re going and who’s in front of you). On that first attempt the chaos was overwhelming, I felt like I swam fast enough to qualify for the olympics (amazing what adrenaline can do) and all I ended up with was being battered in the head by fins. For the shark dived before we got there.

After all that excitement the disappointment was crushing…so we swam back to the boat, climbed in, and got back to the waiting game. This time the waiting wasn’t quite so long, and despite being a bit more prepared for what was happening, it was all still just as chaotic – with one crucial difference. As I manically paddled away I suddenly saw movement just below – and it was enormous. After all that waiting nothing could prepare me for the moment I realised I was swimming just two metres above a Whale Shark, gently gliding its way through the sea. It was a bit of a blur of spots, a huge dorsal fin…and then it was gone, suddenly diving back down below our range of visibility.

excitement at having just swam with a whale shark

The celebrations begin

It may have just been a brief glimpse, but it was incredible, and as I all surfaced and looked around, I was surrounded by people grinning like idiots and cheering and laughing. It’s impossible to describe if you haven’t done it, but the combination of hours of hanging around waiting, one minute of frantic, adrenaline-raising swimming, and then just thirty seconds of seeing what you set out to see turns out to be the perfect recipe for inducing euphoria.

Whale Shark Fin

A fin (what did you expect? They're far too big to fit in one shot when you're swimming right on top!

The atmosphere on the boat afterwards was electric, and it still hadn’t worn off before it was time to go again – and yet again we were succesful. The second encounter was very similar to the first one, and had exactly the same results, and by the time we tried again for a third time, failed, and then were told by the captain it was time to go back in, none of us cared – because even those brief glimpses had been incredible.

Whale Shark Fin in Donsol Philippines

This time, a fin


Whale Shark head in Donsol Philippines

and finally the head

But all credit to the spotters – we were already an hour over our allotted time and still they kept on looking. And boy am I glad they did – for soon the cry went out again and we had the best encounter yet. This one was huge – about 10 metres long – and really close to the surface. So close in fact that at one point I practically jumped out of the water to get out of the way as its tail nearly hit me as it turned. We got to swim with this one for longer too, and as if that wasn’t exciting enough, we had literally just started climbing back in the boat when we were back in the water again for one final encounter, this one just as good as the previous one – and for me especially, as it swam right towards me, meaning its entire length from head to tail passed right beneath me.

Post whale shark high

Post-whale shark high

Words cannot describe quite how awesome the experience was. The wonderful feeling kept going all day, and even now as I type a twinge of that incredible natural high is hitting me again.

What a way to end my time in the Philippines. The usual round-up posts will follow next – and then on to Singapore.

The stunning rice terraces of Batad

It’s never a nice surprise to arrive in a new town, bleary-eyed after a restless night on a bus, to find it pouring with rain.

“Isn’t it supposed to be the dry season in January?”

“Dry season? Ha ha. No. That doesn’t start here til March”

Serves me right for trusting the Lonely Planet when it comes to planning for the weather. For it turns out that yes, while the dry season starts in January in most of the Philippines, high up in the Cordillera Mountains of North Luzon it’s a different matter. Which was a bit of a problem. We’d made the epic journey up north for one main reason: to see the spectacular 2,000 year old rice terraces of the Ifugao people – and looking out of the hotel balcony, we couldn’t see a thing, as the entire valley was shrouded in cloud.

On arriving in Banaue I’d met up with an English / Ecuadorean couple (Matt & Carolina) and a German (Dominic) and we quickly abandoned our plans to go up to the viewing point over the town. The view would be even worse there. So instead we donned our raincoats and headed out for a wander around the valley in the hope we might actually get to see something. After a while the cloud lifted a little bit, but unfortunately the rain just got heavier and heavier (which is no fun at all when you’re walking along a very muddy unpaved road) so we had to admit defeat and turn back before we’d seen anything but a few smaller terraces.

Rice Terraces close-up

We’d only planned to stay two nights in the area before heading on to Sagada, so despite the weather we optimistically booked ourselves on to a trek for the following day.

The following morning only offered a slight improvement – the clouds were a smidgen higher, but the light drizzle continued. It was our only chance to see the terraces, so we jumped into the Jeepney for the bumpy one hour ride down the road praying for miracles. The weather continued in the same vein throughout the first section of the walk, down very steep, slippery steps and along yet another muddy path as we headed to our ultimate destination – the village of Batad.

We weren’t all that hopeful about our prospects of a good view, but as soon as we came round the corner and saw the village’s rice terraces in all their glory, suddenly the weather didn’t matter any more. For even with grey skies and persistent rain, the sight was spectacular. The guidebook describes them as looking like an amphitheater surrounding the village, and that’s pretty accurate – they rise high up the hillsides in a semicircle all the way round the village, and continue down the valley below as well. As we were there just before the new planting season, every terrace was full fo water – and as they completely surround the village, from our viewpoint above it made Batad look like an island.

The Batad amphitheatre

Trying not to fall in

An island in the mountains

The hike then took us out onto the terraces themselves, walking right along the narrow dividing walls The sight alone is impressive and beautiful enough – but it’s also quite incredible to think that they were carved straight out of the steep mountainsides, at over 2,000 metres, such a long time ago – and not just in Batad, but over a huge area (apparently laid out end to end they’re stretch the whole way round the world several times).

Rainbow over the rice terraces

It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen on my trip so far – and pretty unexpected too. If I knew anything about the Philippines, it’s as a destination for beaches and diving. I really wasn’t expecting such stunning mountain scenery. Just four days into my stay in the country and I was already falling in love with the place.

You can see all of my photos of the rice terraces here

I wanna hold your (furry) hand

Lake Toba was a pretty lovely place to spend a couple of days chilling out, but I was really only in Sumatra for one reason: Orang Utans.

A couple of hours north of sprawling (and not particularly exciting) Medan is the tiny little village of Bukit Lawang. It’s a charming little place, but it’s not the village everyone comes to see. Sumatra is one of only two places in the world (the other being Borneo) where Orang Utans still live in the wild. Just outside the village is a national park that protects both the rainforest and the animals that live there; on the edge of it is an Orang Utan rehabilitation centre that has been so succesful that the park can take no more of the animals, with the result that a second centre has been opened up elsewhere.

With that many Orang Utans living so close to the village, it’s no surprise that a steady stream of tourists head to Bukit Lawang to trek into the jungle to see them up close (although with this being Indonesia, that stream of tourists is more like a trickle compared to the flood that would visit if it were in most other South East Asian countries).

First monkey of the day

So at eight thirty in the morning, I met up with our guide, Alex, and the group of seven others I’d be trekking with – unusually for Indonesia, they were all English. It took us just a few minutes from the hotel to make it into the jungle, and in no time at all we came across our first close contact with some apes – a troop of Thomas Leaf Monkeys. They weren’t shy at all, and the adult male of the group came down from the trees to have a good look at us (and pose for photos), whilst the kids crashed around the trees above, chasing each other round, swinging from vine to vine and performing rather impressive leaps from tree to tree. Being a young monkey looks like a lot of fun.

It was a nice way to start the day, but we all knew we were there for one reason only, and so we soon moved on to try and find some Orang-Utans. Soon we came across another group standing at the bottom of a tree in silence staring straight up – and we quickly realised what the spectacle was. Perched right at the top of a tree was an adult female Orang Utan in her nest, while her child swung around the tree-tops above her. Exciting as it was to see one, she was so high up, with the sun directly behind her, that it was pretty hard to get a good view.

Getting close to Mina

The day continued in a similar vein, with regular glimpses high up in trees, often obscured by branches, and moving away as soon as we approached. Trying to spot wild animals is always going to be tricky, but it was pretty frustrating all the same. Our luck was about to turn though: as we sat down to have lunch, another group came running past us, as they were trying to get away from the notorious Mina. We’d heard all about her – before she was in the rehabilitation centre, she had lived with humans and had no fear of them. In fact, we had more to fear from her, as she knows humans normally carry food, and she can be quite aggressive in her pursuit of it. So we quickly finished our meals and headed in the direction she was supposed to be, and soon found her. She made a beeline for our guide, who managed to placate her by feeding her bananas one at a time, but as soon as they ran out she started heading straight for us, forcing us to make a quick exit down a steep hill to escape. While they may be shorter in height than humans, they are heavier, and much, much stronger, so it’s really not a good idea to get on the wrong side of one.

With all the excitement over, we headed back down the hill, down some waterfalls, to our camp by the river, with all of us on a real high from getting to see an Orang Utan so close up. We had no idea the best was yet to come.

Jackie

Soon after we made camp, we were all sitting around drinking tea, when Alex pointed out that another semi-wild female, Jackie, was heading down the waterfall and in our direction. She soon made it over to us, and perched on a short little tree just a metre away from where we were sitting, with her adorable little baby (with a cool little Mohican) hanging off her side.

She sat there for a good half hour checking us out, before coming down from the tree and holding the hands of the two nearest people from our group, Helen & Sheri. I really hadn’t expected to get quite so close to an Orang-Utan, and for the next twenty minutes or so, she sat in the middle of us, at one point even giving Sheri a great big hug (which sounds great, but with her huge size and vicelike grip I think Sheri was quite glad to be released again).

Making her way down from the trees

Hugging Sheri

Getting close

It soon became clear that Jackie is quite a bit smarter than Mina – rather than using aggression to get her way, Jackie lulled us into a false sense of security with her affection, and once our guard was down she made a beeline towards the kitchen tent. The guides managed to stop her just in time, and I ended up holding her hand and walking her back across the rover and away from the camp while one of the guides tempted her with some bananas.

Getting ready to walk her away from the camp

She knew she was on to a good thing with us, because as we woke up the next morning she was back in the tree above camp, and soon came down again to get close to us. This time chaos ensued. A troupe of long-tailed macaques had decided to take advantage of our distraction by sneaking round the kitchen tent from the back to try and get at the food, and as soon as we realised what they were up to we stopped watching Jackie for a second and she was off – straight into another tent where she had clearly sniffed out our fruit supplies. In no time at all she’d nabbed all our bananas, oranges and lychees (as well as Helen’s breakfast) and was back up in a tree just out of our reach munching away at her prize.

A Macaque takes advantage of the chaos to steal some toast

We were all pretty speechless. I’d come along on the trek hoping to see the Orang Utans, but I had no idea I’d be able to get so close to one as to be able to hold her hand. They are such beautiful creatures, so human-looking in some of their actions and facial expressions, and clearly very intelligent too. Bukit Lawang had never been on my original itinerary, but I am so glad I made it now. It was my last day in Indonesia after two months, and what a way to go out, as it’s without a doubt one of the best memories of the entire trip to date for me.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here

Here be dragons

As the boat approached Komodo, we were all busy trying to convince ourselves that it really didn’t matter if we didn’t see any dragons, you know, as the snorkelling had been so good and my what beautiful sunsets and weren’t the flying foxes amazing and how it’s all about the journey rather than the arrival and other such nonsense – but of course getting to see Komodo dragons had been the whole point of the exercise for all of us and we all knew deep down we’d be gutted if we didn’t get to see at least one.Keep silent

For those who don’t know, Komodo Dragons are the world’s biggest lizards – monitor lizards to be precise – and they are pretty deadly too, as just one bite from an adult is enough to kill a human through blood poisoning within just a few days. It was not exactly comforting to be told on arriving that they had no stock of the required antibiotics on the island, and that any bite would require evacuation to Bali, which is not exactly close. The sense of unease was heightened further as we set out on the path to be told about the Swiss tourist who had died after being bitten when he was separated from his group (although to be honest it was his own fault for lingering behind to get more photos), and about the park ranger who was recently bitten by a young dragon – although luckily thanks to its young age, he survived and was back at work within a few months.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long before catching our first glimpse. We soon reached the first waterhole, to find a single dragon stalking a group of deer. As soon as he caught sight of us (we were quite a big group, after all) he ran off deeper into the bush. Even with that brief glimpse, he was quite a menacing sight. Nearly three metres long from nose to tail, they really are massive beasts. Their big, wide bodies are propped up on short, powerful legs, and when they walk the whole body and tail move from side to side, like a giant snake on legs.

Hiding in a bush

Hiding in a bush

The ranger soon managed to track him down to his hiding place under a bush, giving us the opportunity to get closer. The whole time we took photos we could see him staring intently at us, and the moment we stopped paying attention to him to listen to the ranger talk, he took advantage of our distraction and fled at high-speed once more.

The rest of the walk round Komodo was a bit of a disappointment in dragon-spotting terms, but we weren’t too worried, as our next stop would be the nearby island of Rinca, which is much smaller than Komodo but with a similar dragon population – which in theory should make seeing them much easier. Luckily that theory turned out to be true, as within seconds of getting off the boat we came across a young dragon slinking his way along the path in front of us. From then on we saw loads along the way, mostly adult females basking in the sun. Even though we knew they’d probably be wary of a group our size, having seen them on the move we approached each one with great respect, stepping slowly around them keeping our eyes on them the whole time, as none of us really fancied being taken by surprise.

Not sure I'd want to stay in this guest house

The final group of dragons we saw were some big, lazy ones sleeping under the rangers’ kitchen hut (eating scraps is far easier than hunting buffalo after all), and seeing a big group of them together was rather scary – especially when one of them showed the pointlessness of building huts on stilts by climbing up the stairs and into the office, soon to be chased straight back out by a group of stick-wealding rangers.

Adult female by the rangers' hut

With its wild, hilly, unspoilt landscape filled with primeval looking plants and dragons, Rinca does a pretty passable impression of Jurassic Park – but all the more impressive for the fact that this one is real.

Rinca landscape

Hiking past Mount Doom

With only six days to spend in New Zealand, I didn’t have time to do very much. But it wasn’t hard to choose what to do. I’d often read that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the world’s best day hikes, so after a couple of days relaxing in Auckland after the long flight from Chile, I headed south to Taupo.

On arrival, the first thing I did on checking into my hostel was ask about doing the crossing the following day – and was gutted to find out that it had been closed for the past couple of weeks because of poor weather conditions, and was unlikely to be open again for some time. I soon met various people in the hostel who’d been waiting in Taupo for several days without luck. I really should have checked the weather before heading down, and planned something else. But then a bit of a miracle happened – at 2pm the daily weather forecast came in, and it was a complete turnaround. They were expecting a glorious day – and therefore the walk was on.

After yet another ridiculously early start, we soon found ourselves at the start of the walk, slightly apprehensive about the fact the first part of the walk contained the devil’s staircase – a short section where most of the day’s ascent would be tackled in one, steep, gruelling section. Luckily for me, the benefits of all that hiking in the Andes seemed to be still present, and while tough, it was still far easier than I’d expected (ah, the joys of not hiking at high altitude) and after an hour or so we were at the first plateau, with a great view of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known as being the setting for Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings films) rising up above us. The view wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped, as the day was quite overcast, although it appear to be starting to clear a little.

In the summer months, the walk is even better, as you get the chance to do a tough side-scramble up the slopes of Ngauruhoe – but in early spring there’s just too much snow, so we just had to be content with gazing up at it (I think my legs were quite grateful for that at least), and soon we were on our way across the plateau of the south crater, before tackling the second big ascent. This one wasn’t half as steep or as long as the previous one, but was nearly as tough because this section was covered in snow, making every step far harder than it should have been.

Mt Ngauruhoe

It was all worth it when we got to the top though – by this time the clouds had cleared completely, and we found ourselves on top of a snow-clad, active volcano, with incredible panoramic views across a huge chunk of the North Island, even as far as to Mount Taranaki on the coast. Now normally you’d expect the highest point of a hike, covered in snow, would be a pretty chilly place to stop for lunch – but one of the big advantages of hiking up a volcano was that the rocks on the crater rim are all nice and warm, offering me the perfect spot to sit down and chill out, admiring the views, warming my bum in the process.

Jumping Mt Doom

Full of ham sandwiches and Anzac biscuits, we were soon ready to head on our way – but not before I’d taken the opportunity to get my latest jumping photo, with Mt Doom in the background. One of the great things about jumping photos is not just the end result (a bit more fun than your average posed snap), but they are always fun to take, normally requiring numerous attempts to get that perfect mid-air shot. It’s also pretty infectious too – after I’d shown people the picture of me, everyone wanted a go, so we spent another good half hour or so with everyone on the group jumping up and down.

Tongariro Lakes

The way down is just as spectacular as the way up – soon after the steaming crater, we passed by a couple of bright turquoise lakes, the colours looking even more pronounced when set against the snow. On the final patch of snow it was time for some more silly pictures, with one of my group deciding it would be the perfect opportunity to make some snow angels. So we all stopped again and leapt down into the snow. Snow angels are far too much fun to be left to children.

Making snow angels = fun

As we made our way out of the crater, the landscape changed dramatically again, giving us a great view out towards Lake Taupo and the hills around. We stopped at a hut on the way down to admire the views for a while, before finally heading back through the final section, through a forest, back to the car park and thoroughly knackered after a great day’s hiking.

Lake Taupo

In the end, I was so lucky with my timing – that night saw a huge dump of snow and further storms, meaning the crossing would be closed for the following few days at least (which also put paid to my plans to go skiing the following day).

You can see all my photos of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing here.

Finally making it to Easter Island

You’d have thought that after waiting a lifetime to visit Rapa Nui (the increasingly commonly used native name for Easter Island), an extra day of waiting wouldn’t matter all that much. But seeing as I only had three full days planned, being bumped from my flight by LAN meant missing a third of my time. And I was furious.

I’d heard before that flights to the island are often overbooked, so I reconfirmed my flight at a LAN office the day before, I chose my seat, and I arrived at the airport nice and early. All to no avail. They’d already decided I would be one of the ones not flying that day, so I ended with insulting compensation and an extra day kicking my heals in a sterile hotel in Santiago. To say I was unhappy was an understatement.

But, after a frustrating day of waiting, I finally made it to the island, to be greeted by glorious blue skies and a fantastically friendly welcome from Marta, owner of Camping Mihinoa. Considering I’d been warned that a stay on the island could be extremely costly, I couldn’t have been happier with my choice – at 7,000 pesos (roughly $14), it was a complete bargain, considering the next cheapest was almost double the cost. And cheap certainly didn’t mean nasty – for the price I got a lovely clean dorm room, a big kitchen & dining area, a big communal TV room, and best of all, probably the best location on the island, sitting right on the water’s edge on a rocky outcrop facing some of the most dramatic waves on the coast. Absolutely stunning, I can recommend it to anyone planning on visiting the island.

Easter Island sunset

For my first evening and as an introduction to the island, I made the short stroll up the coastline to the other end of town, to see the sun set behind the most accessible collection of Moai (statues), which was quite an incredible sight. Despite having seen countless photos over the years, nothing could have prepared me for quite how impressive the giant statues are in real life.

Ahu Tahai sunset

The second day was much colder and windier, so I decided to postpone my plans to head out to see the other main Moai sites until the following day, and instead hiked up Ranu Kau, an extinct volcano sitting on the south-western corner of the island. It’s a pretty easy hike, and the views at the top down the steep-sided crater and across to the wild Pacific beyond are stunning.

The next day started out pretty clear, so I decided to set out for one of the biggest hikes the island has to offer – the 34km coastal hike from Anakena beach at one end of the island, all the way back to Hanga Roa via the major archaeological sights along the way. First stop was Ahu Nau Nau, an impressively restored collection of four Moai, all with their topknots reattached (unlike most other restored Moai). Unfortunately by the time my taxi dropped me off there, it had already started to cloud over, as the sight of the four Moai, surrounded by palm trees and overlooking a deserted beach, would have been ever more magical with the previous day’s skies.

Heading away from Anakena along the North-east coast, I really began to appreciate quite how remote I was. Rapa Nui is 3,500km from mainland Chile, and over 4,000m from Tahiti, the nearest major population centre in the other direction, making it one of the most isolated inhabited places in the world. Walking along the empty coastline, with not a single person in sight (all the inhabitants live on the other side of the island, and there were no tourists around), and the huge waves of the Pacific crashing onto the black volcanic coastline, was a strangely moving experience.

Ahu Tongariki

It took a few hours to reach the next main sight, probably the most famous image of the island – Ahu Tongariki, the biggest single collection of Moai on the islands. There are fifteen in total, all toppled from their Ahu (ceremonial platform) in the 18th century civil wars, damaged further by a tsunami, and finally re-erected with Japanese government help in the 90s. Sitting in a line with their backs to the swirling seas, and facing towards the volcano of Ranu Raraku, where they were made, they make a pretty impressive sight. It’s amazing to thing that such a small island culture could make (and move!) such massive statues at all, although famously the statue cult was to prove the society’s undoing, as the island simply didn’t have enough resources to support such endeavours.

Unfinished Moai in Ranu Raraku

A short walk from Ahu Tongariki sits the other major attraction of the island, the volcanic quarry of Ranu Raraku. The place is testament to quite how quickly and dramatically the social order collapsed, as the quarry is home to dozens of statues that are either complete and still waiting the move to their final home, or still in the process of being carved out of the rock face.

As I began to the long walk back along the south coast to Hanga Roa, the heavens suddenly opened, and I soon began to curse the islanders (for having chopped down all the island’s trees, thus denying me shelter) and LAN again (if I’d arrived a day earlier, I’d have had a day of sunshine and few clouds to complete my hike in). In no time, I was soaked to the skin, and contemplating a 17k walk back. Not an enticing prospect. Luckily, I soon spotted a car pulling out of a beach and managed to get myself a lift from the commander of the local naval base, who had been spending his day off fisghing on the empty souther coast line. All in all, a very lucky escape, considering quite how little passing traffic there is on the island.

Despite my anger with LAN for costing me a day on the island, the two and a bit days I stayed there were incredible, and a beautiful way to spend my last major stop in Latin America before the next leg of my trip began.

You can see all of my Rapa Nui / Easter Island photos here.

Failing to die on the Death Road

There are certain things one does when traveling that it’s probably best my mum doesn’t know I’m doing them til afterwards. Cycling down the World’s Most Dangerous Road (© the Inter-American Development Bank), aka the Death Road, is one of them.

The road gets its reputation from the days when it used to be the main road from La Paz, up in the Andes, to Coroico, the gateway to the Bolivian Amazon. It’s so dangerous because it’s an unpaved, gravelly, single track road, that basically hugs the edge of a cliff as it drops over 2000m from the La Cumbre pass (4,700m) over 64km. For much of the way, the road is sandwiched between vertical rock walls on one side, and a sheer cliff on the other. Now imagine that as a busy main road with buses, cars and trucks trying to travel in both directions, with the usual insane Latin American drivers roaring round blind bends without a thought of what might be coming in the opposite direction. Conditions of course are even worse in the rainy season, and the road became the scene of many tragic accidents.

These days, things have changed a little – a new paved road bypasses the death road, meaning that the only traffic is the very occasional car heading to one of the villages along the way. Meaning the road is mostly clear for the dozens of backpackers making the descent. And I for one was very glad indeed I didn’t have local traffic to contend with on the way down.

Despite the dangers, it’s totally worth doing – the road is absolutely spectacular, and the views it offers across the mountains are stunning. The ride is great fun, especially the opening section down a paved road from the mountain pass (before the new road branches off) – this section has none of the steep drops, and is wide and safe, so you just jump on your bike and go as fast as you want, with no effort other than braking whatsoever.

The mid section is the most dangerous of all, but gives the best views of all, including the famous corner where everyone stops to take the ‘classic’ photo. After that, the road widens a bit, the drops get less dramatic, and you speed up again all the way to the bottom. Slightly scary in places, absolutely exhilarating, and worth every Boliviano.

I’m very glad I chose the company I did – Vertigo – as the bikes were excellent, the safety briefing and guide gave me total confidence, and we seemed to get much better safety gear than most of the other companies – full face helmets, protective outer gear, and elbow and knee pads. I’d recommend them to anyone thinking of doing the ride.

The road itself ends near the pretty little town of Coroico, and rather than rushing back to La Paz, we chose to stay the night, chilling out in a lovely little hotel perched on a hill overlooking the mountains. A perfect end to a brilliant day, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the pool, very relieved that we’d failed to die on the death road.

Seeing Machu Picchu (despite the clouds)

It has been noted in the past that I can be somewhat…competitive, and the prospect of competing with two hundred other trekkers to get to Machu Picchu made me determined to beat them all.

So despite a few two many beers the night before, Adrian & I found ourselves getting up at the ungodly hour of three to make sure we made it to the starting point for the final stretch before all the others. Despite our best efforts, when we made it to the gate at around 4.15am, we found that two Americans had beat us to it – but we were soon very glad we’d left as early as we did, as just fifteen minutes later pretty much all the other hikers were lined up behind us in the dark, waiting for the gate to open at 5.30am and start the final hike up to the Sun Gate.

Now bizarrely enough you’re actually at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to getting to Machu Picchu before everyone else if you do the Inca Trail, as they say it takes about an hour to get from the campsite entrance gate up to the sun gate, and from there another half hour or so to the main site – whereas all the day trippers enter right into the main site from 6am.

With that in mind, we were determined to try and negate as much of that disadvantage as possible, so the moment the gate opened we sped off, almost running the final stretch to get to the sun gate as early as possible, see the sun rise over the mountain and get a clear, empty view of the site itself. All that effort paid off, and at 5.59am Adrian & I were the very first people of the day on site. Only to be greeted by a wall of clouds. Yep, as we came through the sun gate, we couldn’t see a damn thing. Which was especially annoying after having really clear mornings every other day of the trail.

Being first through the Sun Gate. Priceless.

Being first through the Sun Gate. Priceless.

The view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

The "view" of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Still, all was not lost – the other reason we’d been determined to make it to the site early was to get a chance to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the tall, steep-sided mountain that you always see in the background of the ‘classic’ photo of Machu Picchu. Again, doing the Inca Trail means you are at a disadvantage of getting to climb Huayna Picchu, as tickets are limited to 400 a day, and are given out to people in the queue for the main gate. So, after rushing to the sun gate, we then had another rush to make it all the way down to the bottom of the site, out of the gate and back into the queue (!) to get the tickets – and we just managed it, they’d already given out 350 of the 400, but at least we made it, especially in the knowledge that we’d be among the very few who get to do both the Inca Trail and the Huayna Picchu climb.

The steep climb to Huayna Picchu

The steep climb to Huayna Picchu

What we hand’t factored in was the difficulty of that climb. It looks ridiculously steep in photos. And that’s because it is. I can honestly say it’s the steepest section of mountain I’d climbed in a month of trekking in Peru, and after four days of Inca Trail we were exhausted when we got to the top, yet again to be confronted with more cloud.

Waiting...

Waiting...

But we had time on our hands, so we sat and waited…and waited…and eventually they cleared, giving us a totally different view of the site to all the usual photos you see. Beautiful, and well worth the hike. The site is absolutely incredible, perched on a steep mountain, surrounded by other stunning mountains, it is rightly one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world, and I can recommend it to anyone.

Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu

When we made it back down, we had time to wander round the site. But to be honest, after taking in the impressive views, we had no desire to spend ages there. After seeing so many impressive (and empty) ruins along the way, and working so hard to get to the site with hours of walking every day, to be suddenly confronted with thousands of (clean and fresh) daytrippers was a bit of a shock to the system. So we decided to leave…only to find out that in a final infuriating error, our tour company had forgotten to give our guide our bus tickets (and we had no money left on us to buy more). So, absolutely exhausted, we had to walk the hour or so down the steep hill to Aguascalientes, made all the harder by having shiny air-conditioned buses whizzing past us every step of the way. (Note to anyone reading: do not under any circumstances book your Inca Trail with Exotic Adventures of Cusco. Aside from the mistakes I’ve mentioned here, there were countless others too dull to go into. But really, please avoid giving any money to the bastards).

Well worth the wait (and the stern telling off I got afterwards for jumping on an archaeological site. Whoops)

Well worth the wait (and the stern telling off I got afterwards for jumping on an archaeological site. Whoops)

Despite the slightly infuriating ending, a couple of hours later we’d recovered with a refreshing soak in the hot springs that give the town its name, eaten pizza and drunk beer (by now my traditional post-hike celebration), and the problems with the tour company suddenly seemed not to matter so much. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu are worth every bit of time, money & effort it takes to get there.

You can see all my photos of Machu Picchu here.

The Inca Trail

To think I wasn’t even going to do the Inca Trail orginally. I’d fallen into the trap of listening to too many other backpackers talk about how it’s too touristy, too expensive, and not even as good as the many alternatives such as the Salkantay Trail.

Luckily, a comment from Gillian on this post started to bring me to my senses, and when my friend Adrian decided to fly out to join me for three weeks on holiday that settled it – as Gillian says, it would be a shame to travel all that way and settle for the first runner up option. Because after doing the Inca Trail, I’d have to say anything else would be a disappointment – don’t believe the naysayers, it’s worth every penny.

The start of the trail

The start of the trail

We were lucky to make it onto the Trail in the first place though – the company we booked with forgot to give our entnce tickets to our guide, meaning we had an agonising three hour wait at the start for them to be driven down all the way from Cusco – and the guide had already told us that if they didn’t arrive before 12.30 they’d have to start the trail without us in order to make the camp by nightfall – and we wouldn’t have got a second chance, as the tickets are for a specific day only. Luckily, the arrived with minutes to spare, and we were finally on our way.

Walking along the sacred valley

Walking along the sacred valley

Day one is a relatively gentle start, heading along the sacred valley. I’d heard beforehand that we’d pass some other minor Inca Ruins along the way, but I was expecting themto be pretty small. So when we rounded a corner and found ourselves looking across at the vast ruins of Llaqtapata I was stunned. They’re pretty huge in themselves, and served as a guardhouse at the start of the trail and was also used for agricultural purposes.

Llaqtapata

Llaqtapata

We reached camp around nightfall, and settled in for an early night to get a good rest as we knew the next day would be the toughest. Day two has the longest day of walking, and includes the trail’s highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s called that because it allegedly looks like a woman lying down, although to be honest other than a vaguely nipple-like bump on top of a mound, you have to really stretch your imagination to see it.

The climb itself is pretty relentless – we started climbing right at the start of the day, and just kept going and going. While not as steep or as high as several of the passes I’d tackled elsewhere in Peru, in some ways it’s tougher going, as several chunks of the trail are on original Inca stone steps, which are much more punishing on the legs than a standard slope. As we slowly slogged our way up hill, it was amazing to see our porters racing past us carrying huge packs with all our food, tents and spare gear (pack animals aren’t allowed on the trail, so everything is carried by porters). Every day they left camp after us (giving them time to pack up) and every day they had everything erected again by the time we made camp. Quite incredible.

Eventually we made the top…just in time for it to cloud over, after a beautfiful clear day. Typical. But we made the most of it by taking lots of photos of us jumping at the pass.

Happy to have made it to the top

Happy to have made it to the top

The third day was definitely the most special. After winding our way up to a smaller pass, and past another couple of minor ruins, we found ourselves on a narrow path that basically hangs off the side of a cliff, with sheer drops to the valley below and stunning views across the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The path passes through an Inca Tunnel in the rockface after a while, before finally reaching a ridge with incredible views down onto the Sacred Valley, the town of Aguascalientes, and the back of Machu Pichhu mountain itself. Just below the ridge sits yet another set of ruins, and when we got there we had them all to ourselves – despite the fact that 200 people a day do the trail, everyone sets off at different times and walks at different speeds, meaning it’s still pretty tranquil most of the time – giving us the time to sit down, chill out, and marvel at the views

More ruins on day three

More ruins on day three


With the toughest bit of the trail out of the way, all that remained to do was make the final descent to our last campsite, by the ruins of Winay Wayna, reward ourselves for all our hard work with a few beers, and get some sleep to prepare ourselves for a stupidly early rise the next day: we were determined to be the first people to reach Machu Picchu itself the following day…
Wiñay Wayna

Wiñay Wayna

You can see all of my pictures of the Inca Trail here.

The Nazca Lines (and a very lucky escape)

The last  stops had brought some real ups (trekking in the Andes, sandboarding in Huacachina) and downs (the Islas Ballestas). Arriving in Nazca it seemed to me that the Nazca Lines could easily go either way, and I was in two minds as to whether to bother with flying over them or not.

Eventually, I realised that while Huacachina and the Ballestas are hardly world famous, whereas I’ve known about Nazca since I was a kid. So I decided to give the flight a go, hoping the reason for that fame lay in more than just their mysterious origins.

The flight itself cost $50, which I suppose is quite cheap for a flight, but still a little pricey for a forty minute experience. The plane itself was tiny, with seats for just five passengers, and I got to sit right in the front, next to the pilot, which was pretty exciting in itself.

Co-Pilot Geoff

Co-Pilot Geoff

We were soon airborne, and within minutes were over the giant rocky plain that is home to the lines. Despite a lifetime of work by the archaeologist Maria Reiche, no one is quite certain why the lines are there, with various theories being espoused including suggestions that they pointed to water sources or were fertility symbols, or even left by extra terrestrials. Whatever the truth, the fascinating thing is that they can only be seen from the air, so flying over at around 200m is the only way to see them.

Ultimately, they are just giant stick symbols. I wasn’t expecting to see them all that clearly, but as soon as we were above them they stood out way better than I was expecting, especially the hummingbird.

The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird

My personal favourite was the monkey (probably because it reminded me straight away of someone I know), but they are all pretty cool.

The Monkey

The Monkey

Getting off the plane, I realised I was really impressed and I really couldn’t work out why. It’s not that they are ancient and mysterious – I just can’t manage to get very excited about all that for some reason. I think it’s partly because it was fun being up in such a tiny plane, partly because I was expecting so little, and partly just because it’s cool seeing giant animals drawn on the ground in such a way you have to fly above them to see properly. Whatever the reason, it was bafflingly good fun.

The Whale

The Whale

It very nearly turned out to be a bargain, too. When I went to pay the night before, I only had two 100 sol notes on me, and it cost 150. As per usual for Peru, they had no change, so I just paid 100 with a promise that the person collecting me would ask for the other 50 in the morning. What with it being an early start, I forgot entirely and no-one asked me for it. I didn’t realise until later when I was sitting in a restaurant and it suddenly hit me. At which point I was hit with a moral dilemma. Should I ‘fess up and pay? Or should I hide out for the rest of the day and hope I’d get away with it?

One the one hand, immoral Geoff was thinking what the hell, I know for a fact I’ve been overcharged for things recently (after comparing prices with other travellers), in one case by a fair bit more than 50 soles, so I’m due a bit of payback, and anyway, they’d probably never find me.

On the other hand, moral Geoff was thinking, they have costs to pay, tourism is down this year because of the crisis, it would be wrong to try and defraud them when I can easily afford it. Plus I’d had a very lucky escape earlier (jumping out of the taxi back from the airport my wallet had fallen on the pavement without me noticing, and I was lucky enough for it still to be there when I realised quarter of an hour later when I went back – I was in a real panic for a moment, as it had my only card in it), and if the locals were honest enough to not to steal from me, who was I to steal from them?

Luckily, my moral dilemma solved itself pretty damn quickly without me having to make a decision. Nazca’s a small town, and there are only so many cafes a tourist can hang out while they wile away the hours between the early morning flights and the late evening night buses. As I sat there pondering what to do, the travel agent turned up in the restaurant. Seeing her before she saw me, I realised the game was up and had the 50 soles in hand before she even got to the table.

What would you have done in my situation?

You can see the rest of the Nazca Lines photos here.