Tag Archives: World Heritage Sites

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.

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 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).

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

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The most beautiful creature in the ocean

As if having Komodo dragons wasn’t enough of an attraction, the Komodo-Rinca National Park also turns out to be one of the best diving spots in the world. All those powerful currents in the relatively narrow Komodo Strait mix warmer and colder water from the Flores Sea to the north and the Sunda Sea & Indian Ocean to the south, and that produces a huge diversity in marine life.

With my advanced diving certificate newly under my belt, I was dead keen to brave the currents and see how much I’d improved, so along with Victor and two of the others from the Komodo cruise, we popped into one of the dive shops in Labuanbajo (the main western port in Flores, and jumping off point for all boats into the National Park) and asked about diving the next day.

“Do you want to see big stuff or small stuff?” was the first thing he asked, and we all knew exactly what we wanted to see: big stuff, and in particular Manta Rays, which we’d heard were frequently seen around Komodo. So he promised to try his best to find us some big stuff, so the next morning we woke up for the last time on our boat, started saying our goodbyes to all our new friends, and prepared to head off to meet up with our dive boat.

Except there was one small problem we hadn’t factored in: the tide had gone out and the boat was too low down for us to reach the dock. After a few minutes trying to come up with an alternative, it soon became clear there was only one – we had to hop into the boat’s tiny canoe and be paddled out to the shore by one of the boat’s crew. Now these things aren’t the most stable at the best of times, but add in two huge backpacks and we were terrified we’d capsize, with all our luggage before we even reached land. Turned out that was the least of our worries – as the only place we could land was on a mudflat. So we had to get out of the canoe, put our backpacks on, and struggle across thick, calf-deep, slimy mud without falling. That was followed up by a scramble up the very sharp rocks that made up the edge of the harbour.

With that little mission out-of-the-way, we were soon on the dive boat and heading out into the Komodo Strait. The dive master had decided to save the Mantas til last, but he promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed by the sights on offer at the first dive site, and he wasn’t wrong. Within seconds of getting into the water we’d already come face to face with a black-tipped reef shark, and that set the scene for the rest of the dive – we saw loads of them prowling around along the coral wall. I’d only managed to see one previously in Honduras, and none on the Gili Islands, so seeing that many at once was incredible. If that wasn’t enough, we saw three big hawksbill turtles too. I’d seen turtles before, but only ever on the edge of the reef; this was the first time I’d seen them swimming freely in open water, and I was amazed to see how graceful they are compared to their awkwardness on land.

Amazing sights apart, the dive was a bit of a shock to the system for all of us – none of us were all that experienced and the currents were way stronger than anything we’d experienced before, which made the diving harder work, plus with their unpredictable nature we all found it much harder to control our buoyancy and keep a constant level. We could see properly why when we got back to the surface to wait for the other group – the dive site was around a little islet, and as the currents hit it, they swirled all around it creating ferocious torrents and whirlpools. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Dive number two took us to a site called Manta Point – named for obvious reasons – although he was keen to remind us that nothing could be guaranteed on a dive. After seeing some in the water from the boat while we suited up, we laughed this off – but soon realised he’d been right to damp down our expectations, as the dive was incredibly frustrating.

The dive site itself was easily the dullest I’ve been to, with very little live coral, and not many fish either. Furthermore, the current was even stronger than the previous one, so there wasn’t much to see and even that was hard work. From time to time we’d catch a glimpse of a ray in the distance, but nothing like I’d hoped for. With the time ticking on, and air running gradually lower, I was starting to resign myself to missing out.

Manta Ray - by Jon Hanson @ Flickr

And then, right towards the end, we suddenly came across a group of four not far away. We all swam over to a nearby rock, clung on for dear life (the current would have swept us in the opposite direction otherwise) and sat and watched, just a couple of metres away. It was worth all the wait, for they are truly stunning creatures. The biggest was huge – about 4m across – and they are so incredibly graceful. They were hovering on the spot in the current, gently flapping their wings up and down to keep them steady, while at the same time groups of tiny, colourful fish danced away right underneath them. We just sat and watched until it was time to head up for our safety stop. We only spent maybe ten to fifteen minutes of the dive with them, but it was a moment I’ll never forget. The Komodo Dragons may get all the fame (for obvious reasons), but for me my fondest memory of the national park will be those ten minutes I spent with the Manta Rays, they really are the most beautiful and graceful animals I have ever seen.

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

Three days in the Red Centre: Uluru

“Why would you want to go all that way just to look at a rock granny?”

is apparently what the granddaughter of a Scottish woman I met on the way to Uluru said to her before she left home. I must admit I was worrying the same thing. After all, it’s a very long flight from Perth to spend what I knew was likely to be the most expensive three days of my trip…just to see a series of rocks.

On arriving at Yulara (the only place to stay if you want to be near the rock), I checked into my obscenely expensive ($36 per night), twenty bed dorm, rushed straight out to book my tours (on the bright side at least I managed to wangle myself a nice discount from the nice lady at AAT Kings thanks to it being my birthday that day), and then hopped straight onto a bus to see the famous Uluru sunset.

After a short drive, we arrived at the sunset viewing area, sat down to enjoy some red wine, and waited for the dramatic colour show to start. Or so we thought. What instead happened, was that it went from a dull brown colour to a dullish purpley colour.

Uluru Ayers Rock

Before


Uluru Ayers Rock

After

Uluru itself is pretty stunning, but the sunset was not exactly the birthday treat I’d been hoping for. The only thing for it was to retreat to the bar, have a few celebratory drinks (while listening to an old codger sing Waltzing Matilda and Down Under) and get an early night before trying again the next day.

After the slight disappointment of the sunset, getting up at 4am the next day to go see the sunrise was not exactly that enticing a prospect. Especially as I’d read the previous week various articles in the Australian press about how poorly situated the brand new, multimillion dollar sunrise viewing platform was. Having seen it, I must say I agree – it’s really much further away than I was expecting, it’s not big enough to fit everyone trying to view the sunrise, and possibly worst of all, there are several trees blocking some of the view. Luckily the platform isn’t the only option, so we followed some paths down in front of the platform, from where we got a much better view – and at least this time we got to see some decent colour change, as the rock was lit up a beautiful bright red colour.

Uluru AYers Rock at sunrise

Uluru at sunrise

After the sunrise, next up was the base tour (and optional climb). Now I’d been wrestling with my conscience – to climb or not to climb? – for quite some time, and I still hadn’t made up my mind on whether or not I was going to even as we headed over in the bus. On the one hand, I do respect the fact that the local aboriginals, the site’s owners, ask that you not climb the rock, and I really don’t want to go around offending people. On the other though, is that fact it’s a damn impressive-looking climb, and apparently the top of the rock isn’t even particularly sacred – it’s actually the base of the rock that has all the culturally significant sites, so I’m wondering how offensive it really is. But as we arrived the decision was taken out of my hands – the forecast temperature and wind speed were too high (the climb is so exposed that high winds can be deadly) – and the climb was closed for the day. In the end I was quite glad really not to have to make the decision – and instead headed off for the 8km walk all the way round the base.

Uluru

Uluru's north side

Actually I’m quite glad it turned out that way, as the full base walk is pretty special, getting to see the rock up close, and appreciating how odd-looking a formation it is, sticking straight, almost vertically up from the surrounding flat landscape, with all sorts of weird rock formations and different textures all the way round. As well as just looking at the rock, there are some rock paintings, a couple of waterholes and some small caves you can look round. All in all, getting close to the rock turned out to be more rewarding than either the sunrise or sunset views, and if you do go, I can highly recommend going the whole way round rather than just doing one of the shorter walks (although with temperatures rapidly heading over 40 degrees even in the morning it’s pretty tough going).

Next up was an afternoon trip to see the sunset at nearby Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)…hoping that it would turn out to be more impressive than its Uluru equivalent.

You can see all of my photos of Uluru here.

Going down the mines

If the Death Road turned out to be nowhere near as scary as I’d been expecting, my next big excursion turned out to far more.

Potosi was once the biggest and richest city in the whole of the Americas – and at one point even bigger than Madrid, the imperial capital, and all because of one thing: silver. The city is the highest city in the world, and owes its existence and its fortune to the hill that dominates the city’s skyline.

The Cerro Rico, Potosi

The Cerro Rico, Potosi

Legend has it that one night a local Quechua llama herder ended up spending the night on the hill, and lit a fire to keep himself warm. He was soon surprised to see a shiny molten metal trickle out of the fire – he’d accidentally stumbled on the richest seam of silver ever discovered. It’s now thought that the Inca had long known of the hill’s riches, but kept it secret from the Spaniards. Which was probably a wise thing – as soon as the colonisers found out, they soon began a massive mining operation in the newly named Cerro Rico (rich hill), that helped fund the Spanish Empire for centuries – apparently still in Spanish today, the phrase ‘valer un Potosi’ means ‘to be worth a fortune’.

Working in the Cerro Rico would have been a particularly horrible experience – for a start, with the mines being at well over 4,000m, the low oxygen makes altitude sickness a constant threat. Aside from that natural effect, the conditions in the mines themselves were pretty awful – constant dust inhalation caused silicosis, the techniques for extracting the silver caused mercury poisoning, and there was much potential for mining accidents. Some estimate that as many as 8 million indigenous people have died in the five hundred or so years of mining, a truly horrifying figure.

The silver is mostly exhausted today, but the mine continues to operate, mostly producing zinc and tin, and it’s possible to visit them as a tourist. We signed up for a tour with Koala Tours, a company owned and operated by former miners, and that provides an additional source of income for one of the mining cooperatives.

Geoff the Miner

Geoff the Miner

After an early start to get kitted up, we headed down to the miners’ market to get gifts for the miners – coca leaves (to be chewed to help cope with the low oxygen levels), 95% proof alcohol (used as an offering to ‘El Tio’ – aka the devil, who ‘owns’ the mine), dynamite, and soft drinks.

El Tio...smoking a fag and having a drink

El Tio...smoking a fag and having a drink

From the moment we entered the mine, it soon became clear it was going to be a pretty claustrophobic experience – even the main passageway was narrow, and with a low ceiling, and choked with dust. From there we travelled deeper and deeper into the mine, with the air getting thinner, the temperature warmer, and the tunnels narrower. At some points they were so small we couldn’t even crawl, instead we had to lie down and pull ourselves along with our elbows.

One of the narrower bits

One of the narrower bits

Even a couple of hours in there was pretty unbearable – and after meeting the miners and seeing the conditions that they work in, it’s quite incredible to think that these men spend years of their lives down there, all hoping to strike it rich by finding an as yet undiscovered seem of silver. Every time the guide stopped us to check everyone was OK, we all smiled and answered in the affirmative – but on the way out all admitted to each other that actually all of us had been suffering a bit.

Potosi miners at work

Potosi miners at work

Final excitement of the day was the chance to hold a lit stick of dynamite (don’t worry, I’m not that mad, it had a pretty long fuse), before getting to see it blow up a little section of the mountain in the distance. Still, claustrophobic and scary as the whole experience was, getting a chance to see such an interesting piece of history, and to see the rather terrifying conditions the miners work in was well worth it, and I’m glad I did it.

Happy to be alive, well, and safely back out of the mine

Happy to be alive, well, and safely back out of the mine

Although now I’ve done it, wild horses wouldn’t manage to drag me back in to do it a second time.

You can see all my photos of Potosi here

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.

Cusco

In my first few months of traveling, I’ve hardly managed to get away from the gringo trail, so I’m quite used to seeing places that are full of tourists. Nothing could have prepared me for Cusco though – it’s easily the most touristy place I’ve been to so far. The city is absolutely heaving with travellers, and quite a different mix to the usual backpacking crowd.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

As the jumping off point for the number one tourist attraction in Latin America, Machu Picchu, it attracts travelers of every age from all over the world. Luckily, the city has more than enough charms for that not to matter one bit. I’d been particularly excited about visiting the city ever since reading The Last Days of the Incas (you can see my thoughts on that from an earlier post here). Far from just being a colonial city, Cusco was the capital of the vast Inca empire before the Spaniards arrived.

Narrow streets in the district of San Blas

Narrow streets in the district of San Blas

At first sight, with its beautiful colonial houses and churches, the Inca heritage isn’t immediately obvious, but as you wander around, it son becomes clear that the city the Spaniards found was too impressive to wipe out completely (as they had with Aztec Tenochtitlan). Several of the buildings are built on top of original Inca constructions, which stand out because of their massive stone walls, impressively put together with huge stones, precisely cut and slotted together without mortar. The fact that they were all put together without the use of the wheel is just mind-boggling.

Dancing bears (from Puno, apparently) in the Plaza de Armas

Dancing bears in the Plaza de Armas

Best example of all of this stonework is the huge fortress of Sacsayhuaman, which sits on a hill overlooking the town. From down below it doesn’t look all that impressive, as the side facing Cusco is steep enough to be its own natural defence. Round the back is a different story though. After a steep climb up the hill, we arrived round the back to be faced with a series of absolutely massive, zig-zagging defnesive walls, with some of the individual stones being vast, and the view from the top is spectacular – well worth the climb.

Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman

Looking down on the Plaza de Armas from Sacsayhuaman

Looking down on the Plaza de Armas from Sacsayhuaman

With the prospect of seeing so many ruins on the Inca Trail, we decided to skip the other sights in the Sacred Valley and just spend a few days acclimatising to the altitude and just wandering around the city. It may be full of tourists but it’s such a beautiful city it makes a great place to chill out for a few days.

You can see all of my photos of Cusco here

Frog Juice and Fried Guinea Pig

So far on this trip I’ve eaten some strange things (grasshoppers in Oaxaca and ants in San Gil, Colombia), but I have to say the things I saw in Arequipa market have to take the biscuit.

As in all Latin American markets I’ve been to, there are plenty of stalls selling freshly squeezed juices and delicious smoothies. It’s just in Arequipa, the range of smoothies available contained the odd surprise – such as beer, milk & eggs. Which really sounds like one of the most disgusting concoctions imagineable.

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Or so I thought until I wandered further into the market and came across this little stand.

For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, Jugo de Ranas means Frog Juice. Yes, that’s right, that tank contains lots of little frogs all waiting their turn to be popped into a blender and served up to a local – apparently they are great for helping women get pregnant and for those with memory problems. And sure enough, there seemed to be a steady stream of people coming up to give it a go.

Did I give it a go? Of course not. It looked disgusting, and anyway, I have nothing to prove on the frog front after having polished off a plate of whole deep-fried Mekong river frogs in Laos a couple of years ago.

Strange smoothies aside, Peru has quite a few other unusual culinary specialities to serve up, so the night my friend Adrian arrived from the UK (for a three week visit), we took the advice of our guide book and headed out to ‘the best restaurant in Arequipa’ – one specialising in local cuisine that was apparently so good it was picked out as one of the five highlights for the whole chapter of the book. Located ‘a few blocks east of the centre’ we decided we’d walk.

And walk we did. Further and further out of town. Down deserted, slightly-menacing looking lanes (in a city we’d been warned to be careful about after dark). Past the ring road. Past a sign announcing we’d entered the next municipality. Down a lonely dual carriageway. After an hour of walking we eventually realised there must be two streets in town with the name we were looking for, and decided we’d cross the road to jump in the taxi waiting on the other side of the street.

As it turned out, the reason he was there was because he was sat outside the (signless) restaurant. It looked shut, be he assured us it wasn’t, so we went in – to find the biggest restaurant I’ve been to in Peru. A huge affair with giant tables and a dancefloor. The kind of place you might go to on a bad office party – of which there were two in place when we arrived. After walking that long, we decided to go for it anyway, only to realise just after we’d ordered that the office parties were leaving, the DJ had stopped playing, and we were sat alone in a rather cavernous, empty restaurant (the guidebook had neglected to mention the place is only worth going to at weekends).

Still, we’d heard the food was great, so we’d ordered some of the native wildlife to try. Adrian went for Cuy, and I figured I’d give the Alpaca a go. Turns out I made easily the best choice. Alpaca is fantastic – like a tender, lean beef, it’s great in stir-fries and as a steak. So good was it I ended up having it quite a few more times later on in the trip.

Adrian wasn’t so lucky. Cuy is better known in English as Guinea Pig. It’s native to the Andes, and is quite the delicacy, apparently. I’m not sure I can see why. The traditional way to serve it is cooked between two hot stones. Whole. So what you end up with looks like roadkill, with its legs splayed and head squashed. It’s really not the most appetising sight in the world, and after staring, rather disgusted for a while, he tucked in. Only to find about five mouthfuls of meat. Rather him than me.

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Other than our culinary adventures, I had a lovely time in Arequipa. Five days of chilling out and enjoying one of the most beautiful cities in Peru. Most of the town’s buildings are made of a nearly-white volcanic rock called Sillar. The Plaza de Armas is particularly fine, with the cathedral taking up the whole of one side, and the other three having terraces full of cafes with views towards the massive Volcan Misti rising up above the city.

Volcan Misti

Volcan Misti