A to Z of Adventure Travel: P is for Peru

1 05 2009

 

Whether your personal choice is culture, history, wildlife or simply pushing yourself to your limit, Peru is one of the greatest adventure destinations on the planet.

 

Peru is synonymous with Machu Picchu and hiking the Inca Trail to the former royal city is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for many travellers. The Trail itself is most easily accessed from Cusco, the historical capital of the Inca Empire and an ancient colonial city high in the Andes. At over 10,000 feet altitude, Cusco is also the place that most people acclimatise before tackling the trail or travelling the 80 kilometres to the ruins by train. Served by an international airport, the city is home to both Inca ruins and colonial architecture and hosts a number of spectacular festivals.

 

Most people who opt to hike to Machu Picchu start their trek at kilometer 88 or 82. Due to limits imposed on the trail to protect the environment, all hikers now require permits which are strictly limited and must be obtained from the authorities many months in advance. Most operators not only provide these permits in their tours, but also include local porters and guides thereby allowing trekkers to gain better enjoyment of their experience. The trek generally takes 3-4 days and although it requires no technical skills, it does demand a good degree of physical fitness due to the distances covered and the high altitude.

 

The final morning of any trek emerges at at the Sun Gate and provides the classic sunrise view of Machu Picchu below. Trekkers also have the advantage of being able to explore the legendary site before the crowds arrive by bus.

 

For those with less time, Machu Picchu can also be reached by train from Cusco through the Urubamba Valley with a stop in the small town of Aguas Calientes and its eponymous natural mountain hot baths.

 

Machu Picchu was started in AD 1430 on a mountain ridge more than 8,000 feet above sea level and overlooking the Urumbamba River almost 2,000 feet below. Built for the Inca rulers but abandoned a century later, it became known as the “The Lost City of the Incas” until  ‘rediscovered’ in the late 19th century by the outside world and then popularised by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911.machu-picchu

 

Further south in Peru lies the city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. At more than 12,000 feet altitude, the lake is the highest navigable body of water in the world. Although boasting many colonial buildings, most people use Puno as their staging point to visit Taquile and Amantani islands and the floating islands of the Uros people. For centuries, the Uros have built their floating island homes from bundles of totora reeds as protection from more aggressive neighbours. They are most hospitable to visitors and it’s also possible to arrange a homestay in the area.

 

For a complete change of scene from the Andes and ancient cultures, head west into the Amazon jungle. Starting in Puerto Maldonado, travel by motorised canoe and on foot to a remote lodge deep in the jungle. From there, spend your days exploring the thick forest and winding waterways or the evenings looking for caiman. At night, lie in your bed listening to the distant roll of thunder, the rain pounding your thatched roof and all the wild sounds of the jungle.

 

And if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s always cosmopolitan Lima, local markets, Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon and the rugged Pacific coast.

 

 

Post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

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The Chicken Plane

2 03 2009

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            “Wait, which way is it to Duty Free?!”         (Somewhere in the Amazon)

 

In many parts of the world there are what are affectionately called ‘chicken buses’. Affectionately, that is, to anyone who has never had to use one. These rickety old school buses have no suspension, air conditioning or leg room, are filled to bursting with people and packages, travel on unpaved roads…and often also carry produce, like live chickens. Travellers who use chicken buses rave about the experience, then silently mutter that next time they’ll walk.

 

I once had the pleasure of using the aeronautical equivalent – the chicken plane.

 

There are few options when it comes to reaching the interior of a country almost entirely covered with thick jungle. Roads rarely stretch beyond the coast or major cities and waterways are often not big enough to allow large vessels. Unless you fancy dodging anacondas on foot, that leaves only flying.

 

The domestic airport was nestled in a residential neighbourhood and buzzed with the sound of propellers. We carried our own bags from the small terminal building and clambered up the three steps into the rear of the unbearably hot Twin Otter.

 

Half the seats had been removed and in their place were strapped boxes of food, supplies and engine parts, an outboard motor…and yes, a crate of live chickens. The pilot – his white epauletted shirt as transparent from perspiration as a wet t-shirt contestant at an aviation convention – told us where to stow our small packs and where to sit to properly distribute the weight evenly around the compact cabin. Mopping his brow with a towel, he pulled shut the door and headed for the cockpit. The engines roared into life and we bounced down the runway and into the hot sky.

 

Despite the loud throb of the engines, the chickens could be heard squawking their protest at their extraordinary rendition to an unknown dinner table deep in the Amazonian jungle.

 

For over an hour we watched an impenetrable carpet of jungle slip by through the windows…and through a rather large hole at the base of door! We flew over a few winding rivers and were thrown around by violent thermals. Finally, with ears popping, we descended towards the green canopy. Unable to see directly ahead, we had no idea of our destination. We dropped lower and lower until our wheels licked the tree tops. A loud claxon screamed the stall-warning as we cleared the edge of the tree line and suddenly thumped onto a rough grass strip of burned stalks.

 

The engines were thrown into reverse as we raced over the rough ground before performing a U-turn at the end of the runway and stopping. The pilot walked quickly down the aisle and opened the back door. Shouting over the roar of the engines, he asked us to help unload as he couldn’t turn the engines off in case they didn’t start again.

 

Obediently, we hurriedly unloaded. Backpacks, boxes, engines, spare parts…and yes, the chickens. We carried them off the strip and over to the edge of the trees, all the while being showered by bits of burned grass in the prop-wash. The pilot pulled the door closed with a bang, revved the engines and in the blink of an eye was gone.

 

We looked around. There was nothing but a small shack and a handful of locals returning to their unseen villages with the cargo we’d unloaded. The hum of the plane quickly disappeared replaced by the rush of a river and the sound of the jungle which pressed in on all sides. We looked at each other wondering if it was too late to light a signal fire and have the aircraft return.  

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Jungley Bits

19 02 2009

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          “So why’s it called a rainforest?”  (Tapanahoni River, Suriname)

 

The jungles of Suriname are about as jungley as jungles get. Nearly 80% of the South American country is still rainforest covered, stretching from the mangroves of the Caribbean all the way to Brazil. This is serious Amazonian jungle interrupted by only the odd winding river and the occasional village. From above, it is a rolling carpet of green as far as the eye can see, but from ground level it is a dark and verdant world that prevents the eye from seeing very far at all.

 

To the uninitiated, it’s a hostile place of deadly snakes, poisonous insects and piranha-filled rivers where jaguars lurk behind every bush. Step in and you are completely disoriented and lost forever…unless you have a local guide and a little timeless knowledge.

 

We were staying in thatched huts along the Tapanahoni River deep in the interior. From the clearing around the huts, the jungle looked magical but intimidating. Certainly not the sort of place you would venture alone. For the local villagers, the jungle was everything from garden to hunting ground. One morning the men headed off armed with bows, arrows, spears and hunting dogs no larger than Jack Russells. They returned with a string of monkeys, wild pigs and satisfied smiles.

 

Leading us through the green curtain and into the rainforest beyond, one of the Arowak men led us down almost indistinguishable paths. Barefooted, he walked effortlessly while the rest of us struggled with fallen branches and clinging vines. Monkeys screamed overhead while our guide eyed them eagerly, clearly disappointed that he’d left his arrows at home.

 

We stopped at a small plant and were each handed a green leaf to chew. The extreme bitterness turned our mouths inside out and puckered our faces as though we’d swallowed working vacuum cleaners.

 

“For diarrhoea.” the guide explained while the rest of us wondered if the cure was worse than the ailment. Further along we tried cures for sore throats and fever, an antiseptic the colour of iodine and a clear fruit that became a dark ink when applied to our skin. It seemed that everything could be eaten or used and that the jungle was not only a grocery store but also a drug store…only without the loyalty points and express checkouts.

 

In a sun-dappled clearing created by a fallen tree, we sat on tree stumps and ate manioc and cold catfish using large green leaves as plates. Our guide grabbed a large vine perhaps two inches thick and withdrew his machete. Holding the bottom of the green cylinder, he gave it a mighty whack and removed a section with a diagonal cut. He held it up, tilted back his head and opened his mouth. Water began to trickle from the vine and into his mouth. He passed it around. The water was cool, fresh and sweet and certainly enough to relieve a thirst. With lunch over, our trek continued.

 

Our guide picked up a thick stick and banged the gigantic buttresses of an enormous tree, explaining that if ever we were lost in the rainforest, this was the best way to attract attention. The sound reverberated through the jungle.

 

Finally, we emerged back into the clearing by our huts. We stopped and squinted in the harsh light before gazing at the clear blue sky that we’d barely seen all day. We turned and looked back at the jungle. It was no longer intimidating or frightening: it was a wonderland of greens laced with shafts of light and colourful birds and stocked better than any corner store. Our guide waved farewell as he headed back to his village to collect his bow and arrow and return to try and find the monkeys.

 

 

Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: A is for Amazon

12 01 2009

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“Garden looks a bit over-grown, luv.”                               (Suriname)

 

The Amazon is the largest river in the world. Starting high in the Andes and continuing for more than 6,000 kilometres, it eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean having drained almost 40% of South America along the way. In the rainy season it can be almost 45 kilometres wide and has the distinction of being one of the few major rivers in the world not spanned by a single bridge. For most people however, the Amazon is synonymous as much for the dense jungle which sweeps down to its banks as for the body of water itself.

 

The Amazon rainforest is not just the area around the great river, but also that which lines its many tributaries. This vast basin covers not only Brazil and Peru, but also Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Suriname and Guyana and is home to more than one third of all the species on earth and one of the richest eco-systems in the world.

 

For adventure travellers, the Amazon is a wonderland of exploration and discovery that offers something for everyone. Luxurious ships serve as waterborne hotels and cruise its wide expanses with smaller craft employed to explore the narrow tributaries. For the more intrepid, there are classic wooden riverboats that offer mosquito nets, ceiling fans and oodles of character. For those happier on terra firma, there are luxury lodges hidden in the jungle, lit by oil lamps and serenaded by the sounds of the bush. There are camps with minimal facilities but maximum experience and rustic lodges that combine comfort with unforgettable adventure.

 

Regardless of the country in which you choose to explore the magnificence of the rainforest, there are always plenty of people eager to share their verdant paradise. Whether guides, biologists, geologists or enthusiastic locals, you can choose between hiking the thick undergrowth, following easier jungle tracks or strolling wooden walkways with access available for every level of fitness and every appetite.

 

While some people stay for a week or more, most are satisfied with a few days spent watching for monkeys and parrots, dolphins and caimans and learning of the indigenous people and the threats to the environment. A trip to the Amazon can be made by aircraft and boat from most major cities in the area and combined with a beach stay, a week exploring cities, towns and markets, or a trek to Machu Picchu.

 

Regardless of your budget, choice of accommodation or style of travel, the Amazon will reward you with spectacular wilderness, an almost-overwhelming verdancy and magnificent – if sometimes elusive – wildlife.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 95

11 07 2008

 

Always check local pronunciations before going swimming.


We were flying over the endless Amazonian jungles of
Suriname in a small turbo-prop aircraft. Despite the air flooding in through a small hole at the bottom of the door, the heat was so intense that the pilot’s shirt was transparent with moisture and perspiration cascaded from his brow.  Amid boxes of food and drums of fuel I turned to our guide who was sitting in front of me:

 

“Are there many piranha here?” I shouted over the din of the engines, nodding towards the window.

 

He surveyed me quizzically.

 

“No,” he paused, “…not here.”

 

The next day we were relaxing in a crystal clear river after a long jungle hike. Huge trees hung languidly from the banks providing shade from the relentless sun while glorious birds flitted from one side to the other. We lounged on pristine sand flecked with fool’s gold, the shallow cool water reaching to our shoulders and lapping at our necks. Colourful fish swam around our legs and midrifts: magnificent blues, reds and silvers. We watched them idly while revelling in our beautiful surroundings.

 

“What fish are those?” someone casually asked our guide.

 

“Peee-ran-ya.” he replied.

 

“Pirr-arna?” we all exclaimed in unison, sitting bolt upright and staring at our piscine friends.

 

“Yes, peee-ran-ya. But don’t worry, they only bite if you’re bleeding.” he explained.

 

“None of you have any cuts, do you?” he suddenly asked quite concerned.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





The One That Got Away – Thank Goodness!

30 03 2008

 

 

 

 

Suriname jungle

Taxi, please!

 

I will be the first to admit that I’m not the world’s best swimmer. I can quite nicely lie on my back, I just find it difficult to move. I can even lie on my stomach and make reasonably credible swimming motions by flailing my arms and legs, but I do have trouble with coordination and can’t seem to master the art of breathing, which can be a problem.

Being fairly considerate, I do hate to inconvenience others when I am drowning, especially when on holiday. Instead, I stifle my gurgling screams, struggle to remain calm and try to get myself into the more secure position of floating like a log. It has worked well so far and I’ve only had to be resuscitated once or twice. 

This aquatic inability really hasn’t hampered my travels much, however. In South America, when faced with the decision between a 5-hour hike through the dense Amazonian jungle from which I’d just emerged, or a quick swim across a rather wide yet inviting river overhung with trees and glistening in the tropical sun, there really was no choice. Until our guide mentioned that the river was home to “little” piranhas, “small” caimans - and candirú.

For those who haven’t read that 19th century classic “Scary Wee Beasts of Jungley Rivers”, the legendary candirú strikes more terror in a man’s heart than any other creature on earth. Forget great white sharks, Bengal tigers and anacondas, the candirú is a tiny fish that swims ‘upstream’ into the male urethra. Once settled, it buries its spines into its surroundings and sits there. Forever. This results in extreme pain, rather a lot of inconvenience and eventual death.

But I digress.

Really not fancying the juggle trek, and against my better judgment, I struggled my way across the river using a combination of lumber-impersonation, and kicking and flailing on my stomach while holding my breath. After a few minutes of exertion, the river seemed as wide as the Pacific, the current as strong as a tsunami, and the chances of ever reaching the far bank seemed distinctly remote. Quick death by piranha was suddenly quite appealing and I contemplated wiggling my toes like bait - although I still resolutely declined to even consider the candirú option.

I did eventually reach the sandy bank and stumbled ashore, utterly exhausted but somewhat triumphant.  I had not only swum the greatest distance of my life, but I’d also dodged a variety of very nasty creatures that likely found me quite appetizing.

Seeing how much I had struggled, our local guide came over to me as I slowly recovered on the warm sand.  He knelt down and pointed to an object tied to a tree on the far bank. 

“Did I forget to mention the dug-out canoe?” he asked, innocently.

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2008