About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

31 December 2007

Chivay and the Colca Canyons

About 4 hours drive from Arequipa is Chivay, the gateway to the Colca Canyon - one of the deepest canyons in the world, and also one of the best place to spot condors. Getting to the canyons is not really easy with public transport, and usually requires an early morning (as in 1/2 am) bus out of Arequipa and I therefore took the option of a 2 day, 1 night guided tour which was very well priced at 22 US $, including accommodation.

The tour group had a varied group of people, including a family with two kids, 4 Argentinian girls on a South American trip, a Venezuelan guy finishing his South American trip, a French guy from my hostel who has been volunteering in South America, another Argentian guy from my hostel, Jorge, who is also on a South American trip and a few other people.

The drive upto Chivay was interesting in itself, going over a pass that is 4910m high (which makes it the highest point I have been on land) and through a rather sparse game reserve with the endangered vicunyas (a llama like animal in photo 1, domesticated llamas in photo 2), which are renowned for their wool. Apparently 1 meter of vicunya wool is worth 2000 US $! In the Inca times, vicunya wool could only be used by royalty.

The town of Chivay is quite picturesque, although there is not much to do there. We did manage to find a Irish pub that had a free pool table though - but other than that there is really not much to do here other than sleep and get ready for a trek in the canyon or a tour of the canyon.

And despite FIFA's recent moves to stop competitive football matches at high altitudes, it was great to see club football being played in Chivay. Not sure who the teams were, or what the scoreline was, but the orange team was definitely the stronger team - even though they did not manage to convert any of their 10 odd chances at scoring for the 10 minutes I watched the match.

The trip to the canyon was really early in the morning (leaving Chivay just after 6am), and being so high up in the mountain, it was quite cold too! The canyon has been farmed through terraces for over 1000 years, and it is a stunning landscape of desert, fertile farms, rivers and snow capped peaks. After seeing this canyon, I am quite keen to revisit the plans to visit the Fish River Canyon in Namibia that Jay and I hatched in late 2006.

We were very lucky with Condors - as we got there we spotted two of them sitting on the rocks just below the highest viewing point. After about 10 to 15 minutes they took off, gliding along the thermals of the valley. It was an absolutely stunning sight - and considering condors are scavengers, their flights represent absolute freedom - the ability to fly just because they feel like it, not because they need to.

30 December 2007

Reflections: Arequipa

Arequipa is known as the white city, since most of the buildings (new and old) are constructed from white volcanic rock, sillar. It is a picturesque city at the foot of the El Misty volcano, and considering that it is essentially a dessert town, it is remarkably green.

My guide book describes the main plaza as one of the grandest in South America, and on the basis of the towns I have been to so far, I agree. Flanked by a massive cathedral, it is certainly an impressive site - especially when the clouds lift to reveal El Misti in the background (could not get a picture of that unfortunately) or at night, when the white buildings look spectacular.

While Arequipa's fine architecture (inevitably churches) are certainly a major attraction, for me the highlight is Juanita. Juanita is described as a mummy, but it is not really - it is the completely frozen body of a 12 - 14 year old girl, who was offered as a sacrifice to the Inca mountain gods - presumably to appease a volcanic eruption.

The museum is slightly on the expensive side, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating museums I have ever been to. Juanita was discovered very much by accident, but the discovery has led to the most fruitful and complete picture of not only how the Incas lived, but also a more complete picture of what a human sacrifice entailed. It is also remarkable that the human sacrifice was made at the top of a 6000m mountain peak and not in some temple in the lowlands - very different to the normal portrayal of human sacrifices. From the museum's account, chosen children were effectively raised to be possible human sacrifices, and the children were "brain washed" into the cult of martyrdom - that they were not only serving the good of the community, but by being sacrificed they would become gods themselves. Thus, the children were remarkably healthy (Juanita for example has perfect white teeth) and were considered as royalty. Other tombs of child sacrifices have also been found, but they are just mere skeletons and not a complete body with intact organs telling a very complex story.

Arequipa is also the gateway to the Colca Canyon and is certainly a very interesting city ... but Juanita has certainly been one of the most interesting things I have come across in my travels so far.

29 December 2007

Travel Notes

A few tales that I forgot, or did not fit anywhere else ...

Bollywood Popularity?

On my long bus ride between Nazca and Cusco, one of the movies shown onboard was a Bollywood movie, with Spanish subtitles. It was a highly convoluted romantic story, and I didn't watch much of it. And most of the passengers on my level of the bus also seemed to be asleep for most of the movie. That raises the question of why that movie was played? The streets of Peru are filled with pirated movies, and since the bus ride, I have paid more attention to the type of movies on sale. Most of the movies are Hollywood movies, and apart from a few Chinese blockbusters (like Hero) I have yet to see any "foreign" movies. In hindsight, I should have just asked the purser on the bus ...

Cusco Ticket Usefulness

In my post on Cusco, I commented on the apparent uselessness of the Cusco ticket beyond visiting the ruins. Just before leaving Cusco, I had the opportunity to use up one more of the attractions: a showcase of regional dance and music, at the cultural centre. This is certainly a cultural highlight of the ticket, and worth a lot more than the museums in my opinion. The fact that the show takes place at 7pm, is also a bonus.

Getting Ripped Off (1)

John and I paid 30 Soles (10 US $) for our bus between Cusco and Puno. It was a rackety bus, with the reclining seats being the only redeeming feature of the bus. There were a three other tourists on the bus, and they paid between 40 and 45 US Dollars each for the bus ticket, which they bought from a travel agent in the town. This is particularly surprising as I had also investigated various options for the bus ticket, and no one quoted more than 45 Soles for the ticket. I am also surprised that they did not check around before buying bus tickets. 45 US $ is a lot of money for a bus ticket - the most I have paid is 30 US $ and that was for a very good seat on a very long trip (Nazca to Cusco).

Getting Ripped Off (2)

Foreign exchange controls in Peru are very lax, and US Dollars can be used to pay for goods and services and money exchangers are common in most towns and cities. It is here that I got ripped off, when one of them short changed me by 50 Soles. Oh well ... let leave and learn.

How the poor travel

The bus ride between Cusco and Puno ride was also a demonstration on how the poor travel. A mother and her two kids (a young girl of around 9 and a baby) bought one seat. The young girl was well prepared: she took out a few blankets, put them up against a corner and sat down for the ride. They were well prepared and it seems that this is a common occurrence as the bus conductor did not make a single comment!

27 December 2007


Puno's main claim to fame is that it is the gateway to Lake Titicaca, the world's highest lake. Otherwise, it is largely unremarkable, although one of the guide books (I think it is Lonely Planet South America) correctly points out that the drivers are more pedestrian friendly when compared to other Peruvian cities.

I arrived in Puno on an overnight bus from Cusco, together with the John the Canadian Globetrotter (see Lima post). I did meet up with him in Cusco, went to Machu Picchu and some of the museums. John is off to Bolivia, only 3 hours by bus from Puno, while I continued to Arequipa later that day (Dec 27).

One of the big attractions of the lake is Uros: a group of inhabited man made floating islands. The islands are constructed mainly of a local type of reed (whose root is edible, although tastes quite bland), which are combined to form floating blocks. These blocks are then combined together with ropes to make larger islands. The stry of how Uros islands are made is part of the tour (10 Soles for the boat trip, 3 soles for the "entry" fee or about 4.33 US$ in total) given by one of the locals. And although the talk was in Spanish, enough gestures are used to get the point across. The islands themselves are anchored, and quite soft ... comparable to a mattress - one of those Sealy Posturepedic types, not waterbeds :p

The islands do not lack modern conveniences though: solar panels provide electricity and there are even phone booths! Although it is clear that some of the islanders still fish, I am not sure how many of them actually carry on their traditional lives. Looking at the number of boats that were docking at the various islands, it seems that Uros has become more of a living cultural curiosity rather than an actual culture. This is not new off course ... in SA we have Shakaland, and I remember something similar in Germany. While it is great to save a culture, I am not sure if it is worth saving simply for the sake of saving ...

26 December 2007

Reflections: Cusco

Cusco is the main tourist destination in Peru, since it is the starting point for Machu Picchu. Cusco is thus a tourist town, and everything good and bad that can be expected from a tourist town is here.

The good: there are many people who can help in English, it has good tourist infrastructure in terms of food, accommodation and travel.

The bad: I find it somewhat overpriced, and every one assumes that the tourist has money - so there are a lot of beggars and vendors trying to sell you something at every corner. It is sometimes just frustrating to travel around the city.

Cusco has its own attractions, but except for Qorinkancha (see here), most of the attractions in Cusco itself are rather mundane. To visit Saqsaywaman and most of the other ruins, a Cusco Tourist ticket is needed - and I spent this morning going through the museums included in the ticket. While they all have something interesting, I would not have considered going to any of them if I had to pay to enter them individually.

That said, I have enjoyed my time in Cusco. In particular, I had a great Christmas Eve. The residents of Cusco really celebrate Christmas by setting off fireworks and many clubs along the main square throw big parties. It was a great night out, and would have stayed a lot longer if I did not have to get up by 6 am on 25 Dec to go to Machu Picchu.

25 December 2007

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was the reason I decided to come to Peru. I first came across it on a movie, and I have been facinated by both Machu Picchu and Inca history ever since. Because it was only "discovered" by the west in 1911, it is one of the best preserved Inca cities. High up in the mountains, it is a showcase of civil engineering, that I think many modern engineering works would be hard pressed to match.

Getting There

There are a number of ways to get to Machu Picchu. The best known is the Inca trail - a four day trek following the original Inca highway from Ollantaytambo (a town about 80Km from Cusco) to Machu Picchu. The trail is highly regulated, but I did manage to find a spot leaving on 23 Dec. However, that would have left me no time to acclimatise to the altitude and considering my current fitness levels (i.e. poor), I decided against it. After panting up and down to Saqsaywaman, I am glad I did not do the trek.

The tourist option to get there is to catch the expensive train (about 73 US Dollars return ticket), then a bus to the entrance. The hostel I am staying at got me a good deal for this option which included a full guided tour. Yes, it was well worth the money spent, but the train was certainly not worth 73 US dollars. While part of the journey was scenic, it was highly uncomfortable, and I think it is a complete rip off.

There is a cheaper option of getting to Machu Picchu, which involves a lot of walking and taking buses at 3 am and an overnight stay at Aguas Calientes (the town at the bottom of the mountain, which is the train stop). I did consider this option, but I could not find cheap accommodation at Aguas Calientes to make this option worth the pain ...

The Ruins

Machu Picchu is spectacular. Surrounded by mountains and spectacular views of the valley below, it is worth coming here for the views alone. Because the Incas did not have any written language, a lot of mystery remains. It was built in the mid 1400's and took about 70 odd years to get to the current state, and then the city was abandoned. The city remained incomplete, and it has been preserved pretty much as it was left. While it is clear that the city held very deep religious significance, the exact purpose of the city remains unclear.

One of the most impressive aspects of the city is its alignment to the sun. On the two solstices (June 21 and Dec 22) the sun rays (during sunrise) fall exactly through the windows of the Temple of the Sun and it is reputed to be a spectacular sight. There are other astronomical markers including a representation of the Southern Cross which creates an accurate mapping of North, South, East and West.

Personally, what I found most impressive were the terraces. The terraces were built specifically to support the town, and prevent it from sliding down the mountain. Furthermore, it provides excellent drainage and allows all the water to drain away without affecting the foundations of the city. As with other Inca constructions, there is no mortar used in the construction of the town and the town has survived earthquakes, heavy rain, was overgrown with tropical forest (and about 30% of the forest has yet to be cleared) and now a steady stream of tourists.

Returning Again

I would very much like to return to Machu Picchu. Next time, I would definitely do the classic Inca trail and then the other less traveled Inca trails around Aguas Calientes. I am thinking of a trek that would end on either 22 Dec 2008 or 21 June 2009. If anyone is interested, drop me a mail ...

24 December 2007

Inca ruins around Cusco

Being the capital city of the Inca empire, Cusco has a number of Inca ruins dotted around the city. The most famous of them is the fortress of Saqsaywaman, on a hill near the city. Part military fort, part religious complex, the remains of the fort give a great overview of the incredible skill of the Inca builders.

The Incas were master stone craftsmen - shaping stones and boulders and then constructing buildings with these stones, without any cement. The stones have various interlocking angles which allowed them to have a perfect fit with adjacent stones and maintain a strong coupling. Their work is really impressive when you consider the fact that Peru has a number of small earthquakes every year, and a number of big earthquakes every century. Yet in all the earthquakes, the Inca buildings have yet to be damaged and have maintained their form.

Regrettably, most of the Inca buildings around Cusco were dismantled by the conquering Spaniards. The Spanish conquerors were one of the most destructive conquering forces in history - they not only killed the ruling and nobility classes (the nobility classes included all the scholars and priests of the Inca world) but also destroyed the artwork (melted down the gold and silver) and the buildings to make their own. In some cases they adapted Inca buildings - like the temple of Qorinkancha, which was converted into a monastery (and is still a monastery), but is now a major tourist attraction detailing the building craftsmanship of the Incas.

Another ruin, close to Saqsaywaman, is that of Qenqo - a temple that was once used for human sacrifice. Human sacrifices (usually children) were made as offers to the gods for a good harvest or for a good planting. Since I did not have a guided tour of these ruins, I do not have any more details :(

23 December 2007

Nazca to Cusco

Peru has some really scenic routes - particularly in the Andes. The road between Nazca (on the coast) to Cusco (in the Andes) is no exception. The road is also one of the oldest routes in the Americas: Cusco was the capital city of the Inca civilisation and Nazca was one of the major trading towns for the Incas.

I will be taking a lot of busses on my trip around Peru - and there are a number of different buses in Peru. On the bottom end, are the mini buses, which rarely travel intercity. They are usually overcrowded and I have yet to take one of these buses. For intercity buses there are basically two types: there is one that is more like a commuter bus that will stop anywhere along the route, less comfortable (more like economy seats in airlines) but off course cheaper. The second type is the straight intercity buses that only stop at designated terminals. These have two types of seats: on the upper deck, the seats are like premium economy on airlines: wider and quite decent legroom, while on the lower deck, the seats are close to business class on airlines: really comfortable leather seats which recline to almost a bed. Surprisingly the price difference between the two is only about 5 US Dollars.

For my trip between Nazca and Cusco, I had no choice but to take the best seat ... as it was the only seat available. I was glad I did - 16 hours on a bus feels so much better when it is comfortable! There was only one piece of drama on the road: due to overnight rain, there was some rockfall on the road, which closed up one lane of the road. On top of that, a bus managed to get stuck on the lane that was "open". This off course backed up traffic and caused a full 2 hour stop. But it gave me time to take a few pics ...

22 December 2007


Due to my early start to the day (I arrived in Pisco around 5am), I had finished with the Nazca lines and was in Nazca the town by 1pm. My bus is scheduled for 9pm, and thus have a massive 8 hours to kill, in a small town, which features a number of bus companies, a number of tour companies and not much else.

In the Inca times this was a major trading town, where the Incas traded their wool (from the highlands) for the cotton (from the lowlands). The trading centre remains as an open ruin inviting anyone to wander through. It is an impressive site, and I wonder how it really looked 400 years ago.

The Inca's built other things around here: most notably a canal system to supply water to a desert town, which is still in use (and according to my guide book, more important than ever). However, my guidebook's directions to the canal system was sketchy, and I did not find it. With the heat, and general tiredness, I decided to just chill on the main square for the rest of the afternoon ... I am after all on holiday :p

Nazca Lines

The Nazca lines are huge, and best seen from a flyover. However, I am already running a bit over budget and spending 50 USD for a stomach turning spin was just not my cup of tea today. That said, I think I would love to return and do it properly.

There is a lot of speculation with regards to who made the lines, why they made the lines and when they made the lines. Regardless of which theory you believe, they remain a majestic sight. There is a lookout tower built on the side of the Pan-Pacific highway (running through Chile and Peru) and you can have a look at least 4 major lines from the tower with no difficulty. And the tower costs only 1 Sole (about 33 US cent), so a much better bargain! Sadly, the really famous figure: the hummingbird is one of the more remote figures, and the ones that can be clearly seen are: Flower, Hands, Tree and Lizard together with one of the massive line complexes (that look like runways).

Traveling on public transport is quite difficult as you have to wait for the next bus to come through, and I had the luck of waiting about 50 minutes. While the wonders of who, why and when are perfectly legitimate - I have a different question: how did the lines survive. From the vantage point I found two small dust storms, and I am sure, this area gets a lot more stronger storms. How can the lines remain so visible after all this time?


I was surprised that Ica did not suffer as much damage as Pisco, given their relatively close distance. The town centre, as most other Peruvian towns, is dominated by colonial architecture. The town itself is over run with auto-rickshaws, which seem to be more popular than the 4 wheeled taxis. I did walk around a bit, but in the end, there is not really much to see in the town itself. There are well known Peruvian wineries dotted around Ica, and as it is also the start of the desert, there are some magnificent dunes visible on the route down to Ica (and further south). With my main aim of securing a bus to Cusco from Nazca complete, I decided to head on to see the Nazca lines.