A to Z of Adventure Travel: S is for Santiago

22 05 2009

Santiago is the capital of Chile and is surrounded by sweeping vistas of snowcapped mountains. An ancient colonial city and thriving modern cosmopolitan centre, Santiago is an excellent destination in its own right or the perfect place to spend a few days before or after some travelling.

Settled by Spanish conquistadors in 1541, a number of buildings from that period survive to this day, despite being located in a significantly seismic area. One in particular is the Church of San Francisco which was built between 1586 and 1628 and is the oldest building in the city. The neighbouring convent is home to the Museo de Arte Colonial and its unmatched collection of colonial art and artifacts. The courtyard with its lush garden and wonderful tranquility also provides a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.Santiago 2 mw

There are enough museums and galleries in Santiago to occupy a week without seeing anything else. Whether your taste lies in mystifying pre-Columbian treasures or modern art, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. Sadly, with only a handful of notable exceptions, Latin American art is generally overlooked and neglected by the rest of the world and Santiago’s museums provide an excellent crash course with some of the finest collections anywhere.

The Presidential Palace, or Palacio del Moneda, is not only an impressive building and worthy home to the country’s seat of power but has also featured prominently in the country’s history. In 1973, the forces of General Augusto Pinochet shelled and bombed the building in an effort to remove President Salvador Allende from power. The coup was successful although the palace suffered considerable damage in the process. Fully restored now and featuring works of art in the palace’s courtyards, the only evidence of its violent past lie in photographs and displays. Unlike many similar buildings throughout the world which keep its citizens well away behind barbed-wire topped walls and concrete tanks traps, Chile allows anyone to stroll past the ceremonial guard and through the palace’s gates to show the openness and democracy that replaced years of totalitarianism.

For an overview of the city, visit Cerro San Cristobal, the highest hill in Santiago and one that provides panoramic views. There is a funicular that operates almost to the top and the hill also offers beautiful botanical gardens and other sites of interest. At the foot sits the eclectic Bellavista neighbourhood with its studios and great bars and restaurants.

And of course, Chile is renowned for its wines and there are several vineyards within easy distance of Santiago that offer tours and tastings including Vina Concha y Toro, Vina Cousina Macul and Vina de Martino.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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

A to Z of Adventure Travel: G is for Galapagos

26 02 2009


                  “You’d be dancing too if your feet were this cold!” (Blue footed booby)



The Galapagos Islands were untouched by human civilisation until the early 19th century, but have more than made up for that since as a haven for those drawn by its wildlife, scenery, science and snorkelling.


Located in the Pacific Ocean 972 kilometres west of Ecuador, the world famous archipelago is comprised of 19 islands and more than a hundred islets and outcrops, although most visitors tend not to explore more than eight of them. The islands are of course legendary because of their role in Charles Darwin’s formulation of the Theory of Evolution and they remain a natural paradise to this day. The Ecuadorian government, while keen to allow travellers from all over the world to see this natural wonder, are also committed to ensuring that their trespass doesn’t adversely affect the very thing that people travel from all over the world to see – their unspoiled beauty. As a result, the numbers of visitors to the islands are limited and their movements and activities restricted. However, these constraints do not in any way detract from an incredible experience.


The vast majority of people who visit the Galapagos take a cruise around the islands. After a flight from the mainland, visitors are transferred to the harbour to board their vessel. Galapagos operators cater for all tastes and budgets from those seeking seaborne luxury and sparing no expense, to others with more modest tastes and more limited funds. Regardless of the price tag however, almost all boats have their own onboard naturalists who assist with the daily shore excursions and with general lessons in zoology, biology and oceanography to maximise visitors’ experiences and to provide them with the best appreciation of their trip.


Different islands in the chain offer different sights and experiences. Santa Fe is particularly renowned for its colony of sea lions with which it is often possible to swim. Espanola is home to red-billed tropicbords, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and is a nesting site to what is virtually the entire world’s population of waved albatrosses. Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and a nursery that caters for young tortoises. Bartolome boasts the rare Galapagos penguins while Floreana Island has a wooden barrel planted in the 18th century to be used as a post office for passing ships…and is still used by some visitors today!


Trips to the Galapagos vary from a few days to several weeks depending on how many islands the visitor wants to see. While almost all boats boast snorkelling facilities and many also offer scuba, there are also specialist operators catering for more experienced certified divers. But if you’re a bit of a landlubber and your sea-legs are as wobbly as a plate of Jell-O in a hurricane, there are also land-based trips that still explore the islands by boat but remain in hotels at night.


Although now connected to the outside world by direct flights from the mainland, the Galapagos remains as exotic and mystifying as the day that Darwin’s Beagle first explored the beaches, channels and volcanoes.



Photo by: Mariko Yuki     Post by: Simon Vaughan

Volunteer Vacations: Give back in ’08

22 01 2008

Often we travel to relax, to escape, to calm our harried souls and rejuvenate our spirits. We go to take in the the sights, to take pictures, to take a break. But what about giving back to the foreign communities which give us the priceless gift of experience?

Volunteer vacations are the newest up-and-coming travel trend, and tour companies are making it easier than ever for travelers to eschew the traditional ‘us-and-them’ tours for a more integrative and socially-conscious travel experience. While this is an encouraging sign that world-rompers are starting to realize the need to make a positive impact on the lands they visit, there are a zillion different companies promising cultural immersion and a guaranteed warm and fuzzy feeling from all that difference-making. How does the smart traveler sort through the options?

The smart traveler listens to the experts, like the National Geographic Adventure Magazine, who recently named GAP Adventures the best adventure company on earth. GAP runs dozens of volunteer trips in twelve countries from Latin America to Asia in addition to their wide selection of adventure tours worldwide. GAP’s volunteer trips are extensions of their community projects through the Planterra Foundation, and you may find yourself caring for endangered sea turtles on the coast of Costa Rica, teaching life skills to street kids in Cuzco, or coaching soccer in Mozambique. Kind of makes that Waikiki beach break look a little lame, right?

Check out these volunteer vacations from GAP Adventures:

Project Ecuador: Volunteer on an organic farm or at a primary school in the coastal community of Rio Muchacho

Project Uganda: Help rebuild and refurbish schools and orphanages in Jinga before a chimpanzee adventure

Project Vietnam: Work in local schools and with community leaders to improve rural living conditions

Come back from your next trip with more than a tan; return with the knowledge that you have changed lives- not least of all your own.

For more information, free brochures, to speak with an expert or book a trip, please visit The Adventure Travel Company online or call us at 1 (800) 467-4595.

We must be the change we wish to see in the world.  Ghandhi

posted by: Shilo Urban