Southern Colombia: Ipiales, Pasto, Tatacoa Desert and more

While my last text looked at the general information about tourism in Colombia, the following article will describe the first part of 3-4 week basic itinerary covering this beautiful and diverse country. The goal is to cover the locations suitable mainly for the travellers visiting Colombia for the first time, especially when travelling in direction from south to north. Let’s start at the southern border with Ecuador then.

the full 3-4 weeks “gringo trail” itinerary

Ipiales

One of the major border crossings between Ecuador and Colombia is Tulcán – Ipiales and if you’re travelling to Colombia from Quito by road, you will most likely end up passing by here. For me, the crossing was rather heartbreaking experience, given the situation of Venezuelan refugees and the humanitarian disaster they are forced to suffer from, while there’s not much hope for any positive change happening anytime soon. Read more here in case you were interested.

Once you get stamped, the first place you’ll see in Colombia will be a small outpost town of Ipiales. My first and pretty much only thought of Ipiales as a town was that I was happy not to grow up there. This is not to disrespect the otherwise friendly locals or to point at Ipiales‘ visibly challenging economical conditions, it’s just coming from a person who grew up in a small town and left it as soon as he could. Life here however does appear to be hard and it must have been even harder at the height of Colombian Conflict.

From the tourism point of view, Ipiales is a gateway to a place where one of the most iconic pictures Google provides about Colombia are taken: Sanctuary Las Lajas. A collectivo (a shared taxi) would take you there for about in under 20 minutes for only 2200,-COP (€0.70) from the city’s Bus Terminal. You don’t need to pay to get in, unless you want to see the museum bellow the church, which will cost you 1500,-COP.

Santuario de Las Lajas

Pasto

Few hours of rather stunning bus ride further north will take you to San Juan del Pasto, the capital of the south-western department of Nariño. As opposed to Ipiales, Pasto (pop: 500k) appears larger and livelier at the first sight. It’s famous for its Blacks and Whites’ Carnivals, that take place in early January each year. One can also visit National Park Corota, a small island with a well preserved wildlife that’s located on a near by lake of a glacier origin (Laguna de la Cocha) at 2 280 meters above sea level.

Cali and Popayán

Between here and my next entry (Tatacoa Desert), there are two popular destinations travellers like to visit. Unfortunately I had no time to stop by due to the social commitments I’ve already made in Bogotá. If you are interested to know more about Popayán and Cali, here‘s a blog post written by a couple that call themselves NZFrance.

Tatacoa Desert

Desierto de la Tatacoa is located in the Colombian department of Huila. From the tourism point of view, it benefits from its surreal desert landscapes as well as the possibility of incredible stargazing. Visiting Tatacoa was an amazing unforgettable experience and I fully recommend it, 2-3 days would however be a sufficient time spent there. You can either rent a bike or get a tour to visit both, grey as well as the prettier red dessert.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

Other destinations in the southern Colombia

My local friends advised me to head south to Guaviare. This Amazon-bordering area which was considered a no-go zone just few years ago is now open to be explored by curious travellers. Whether it’s the mysterious cave pictograms in Serranía La Lindosa or Caño Cristales AKA the river of seven colours, one can apparently expect a priceless memory.

How to get there

  • Quito to Ipiales: 5hrs bus ride from Quito‘s North Bus Terminal to Tulcán @ $6 USD. Taxi from Tulcán to the border @ $3.5 USD. Taxi to Ipiales Bus Terminal @ 10 000,-COP (€2.85). A word of advise: Only in South America, there’s more than 3.5 million often mobile refugees from Venezuela, 1.1 of them in Colombia. Try to arrive early to the border, it can get very busy. Check if there are any local festivals or national holidays that could turn your day at the border into a heartbreaking cue marathon
  • Ipiales to Pasto: The alleged 2,5 Bus/van from bus terminal took 4,5 hours (due to the 2019 road construction work) @ 9000,-COP (€2.55). Word of advice: sit on the right hand side if you have a chance to enjoy the views 😉
  • Pasto to Antonio Nariño Airport 45mins @ 45000,-COP (€12.80)
  • Bogotá to Tatacoa: 6hrs bus ride from Bogotá‘s Bus Terminal @ 35000,-COP (€9,90) to Aipe. Walk through the village and entertain the local kids with a presence of a gringo 🙂 Walk further down into the meadows and take a boat across the river Magdalena to the village of Villavieja for 3000,-COP (€0.85). From Villavieja take a rip off tuk tuk to the dessert @ 20000,-COP (€5.70)
  • Tatacoa to Bogotá: 1hr bus/van drive to the city of Neiva @ 15000,-COP (€4.26). Then 7hrs bus to get to Bogotá @ 30000,-COP (€8.40)
  • Cali to Tatacoa: if you are travelling from Cali, the 383 km drive to Neiva takes apparently nearly 7 hours, then you’ll need to retrace my last steps in the opposite direction towards Villavieja

Stay

  • Pasto: I have “risked” staying in one of South America’s cheapest hostels Colombian House Hostal that had no reviews at the time and I was lucky. Run by a friendly dude who’s got a band and his attentive girlfriend, the place was spacious, offering kitchen, a large terrace and a very friendly atmosphere. It’s not Hilton but you’ll get a clean private room for only $6,-USD per night. I would recommend the place to my mates on a budget
  • Bogotá: I’ve personally stayed at my mate’s place so I ain’t got no recommendations. The areas to stay are listed here by Xixerone
  • Tatacoa Desert: First I’ve stayed in a review highly praised place called Alojamiento Casa de campo los Cactus. There were very friendly owners but the room I was given wasn’t the one I’ve booked according to the pictures and description, plus it cost me the staggering $25 for a private room, while I’ve slept in an empty dorm by myself. I’ve therefore moved to Hostal Noches de Saturno that came with a decent restaurant, more social opportunities and a swimming pool for only $6,30 for a basic private room. Unfortunately I couldn’t book this place in advance as they didn’t respond to my booking request made via their Fcbk site

Heading further north?

If you are heading towards Bogotá or Medellín, click here please. As for Caribbean Colombia, click here please.

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Colombia: general tourism info

This is the first part one of the few texts I’ve prepared about this beautiful, diverse and troubled country. This article will bring you some general tourism related info, including an attempt to answer the question about safety in Colombia. The upcoming texts will follow my physical journey through Colombia from the southern border town of Ipiales up to Darién Gap’s outpost town of Capurganá.

My final text on Colombia will humbly attempt to cover the basic facts and general misunderstandings about Colombian recent history as well as the country’s journey from the social and political struggle; through more than 50 years of a bloody Civil War; the rise of the bloody narco-trafficking and the terror it came with; up to 2016 peace agreement and the subsequent political aftermath.

Present day tourism in Colombia

It’s crazy how fast things can change. 15-20 years ago, it would be considered rather insane to travel in many parts of Colombia, then one of the most dangerous countries to visit, while the neighbouring Venezuela and its people would still be flourishing from it’s rich oil industry. Thousands of Colombians would be looking for a better life in Venezuela, then a major tourist destination as well as economic power in the region.

Both countries made a long way since then and things are the exact opposite of what it was back then. Flights from Europe to Bogotá are now some of the cheapest in South America due to the high demand. In the multiple forms of increased security, one can still observe the echoes of the conflict – that is by the way not entirely over – but the numbers of tourist in the country has risen by tremendous amount, making Colombia one of the 10 fastest rising tourist destination on the planet.

Most visited city in Colombia: Cartagena de Indias, la perla caribeña de Colombia

Safety

I guess than the main question people normally ask about Colombia is: Is it safe? Well, the picture bellow suggests that is not unsafe, the numbers of tourists wouldn’t be going steadily up otherwise. Personally, I haven’t experienced or witnessed any dangerous situation. I admit, the security measures in the whole country are immense if compared to European levels but there are not many places that aren’t. Anyway, what exactly is safe?

Yes, in some places I was very cautious – far more cautious than if I were in for example Prague. But it still doesn’t answer the question what exactly is being a safe destination. In your opinion – is the USA a safe destination to travel? It all depends what kind of traveller you are and what are the things you are looking for.

Taking all that into consideration, the only answer I can give you is that there certainly are areas in Colombia where tourists are as safe as anywhere else in the world, like for example Cartagena and there are also areas, the locals wouldn’t go unless they had to.

source: CEIC

Diversity

Colombia is the only country in South America with both, Pacific as well as Atlantic oceans. It’s size gives the country massive diversity when it comes to climate conditions. One can visit an Andean Bogotá and within few hours he or she can sweat in a dessert or in Amazon jungle. There’s so much to see one would need months to cover the highlights.

To give you an idea about the geographical size, Colombia would take up 11% from the whole European Union. It’s nearly 5 times larger than United Kingdom and it would cover the area of France and Spain together.

When to go?

As most of you know, Colombia isn’t a four-season country so it requires a bit of planning to catch the suitable weather for your activities. The best time to visit the country is December to March/April, however due to the huge diversity of the country, the weather patterns are bit more complex than that.

In conclusion

I’ve loved Colombia and its people. IMHO, it’s the only country that could match the friendliness of Argentinians, from within a tough competition of general friendliness that goes on in South Americas. Maybe it’s because the tourism in many parts of the country was nonexistent and seeing tourists is still somewhat exotic experience for the locals whom lived under the self-governed rules of paramilitaries or guerillas for decades. Well – I don’t know that for sure – it’s just my theory.

The fact is that you will have a chance to have numerous real conversations with locals as opposed to purchase-orientated conversations in other countries, with more evolved tourist industry. I’m talking about a wide range of topics, such as life, politics, sports – you name it. Colombians were very curious about my culture, how people live in my country, if my folks are doing well and so on. For me, that was extremely refreshing, specially after visiting Cusco, where I felt like a walking wallet on many occasions.

Possible destinations in Colombia

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Quito

The elevation of 2,850 metres above the sea level makes Quito the second highest capital cities in the world after Bolivia’s La Paz. With a population of about 2,5 million, San Francisco de Quito is the most populous city in Ecuador. From 2008, it’s also the “Brussels” of South America because the city was designated as the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations.

The historic center of Quito has one of the largest and well preserved historic centers in the Americas. I must confirm the rumors about its beauty because besides Buenos Aires it was the most beautiful South American city I’ve visited. No wonder that together with Kraków, Quito was among the first two cities declared a World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1978.

very pretty old town of Quito

Equator and Coriolis effect

The main square of Quito is located about 25km south of the equator AKA zero latitude. While I like the sound of it (zero latitude), I must say that I’ve skipped the opportunity of this glorious tourist trap so I won’t be able to provide you with a video of various scammers “proving” how the draining water spins the anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere and clockwise just few yard north.

FYI, while the actual (Coriolis) effect is a fact, it needs far larger distance to show. The scammers just “help” the water a bit to get some cash of yours in return 😉 But I was sad to leave the Southern Cross out of my sight as I don’t know when I will see it next ):

La Catedral de Quito
Cathedral and the city of Quito
Quito‘s Cathedral “courtyard”

Safety

Well, this is where it goes a bit tricky. The old town is full of banks and various offices and during the opening hours, there’s a heavy presence of police officers around. However, when the sun sets, the office workers as well as the police pretty much depart for the night and the city switches into it’s natural mode.

Just the taxi journey from the Southern Bus Terminal made me rather cautious and I admit, this was the first time I got a bit worried when the taxi driver picked up extra passengers on our way. FYI, the southern Quito is almost a no-go zone for gringos and driving through it at 6am confirmed that at least visually for me and just so you know, I’m not paranoid person but it did look very rough.

Personally, I haven’t had a problem but my guards were naturally switched to their full powers when I observed the change. Some friendly locals also warned me about not walking certain directions and the hostel I stayed in had a security guide for when the nights fall upon the old town.

As a consequence, I therefore don’t know much about Quito’s nightlife scene. However, being a place where many American expats settle, there apparently is quite a rich nightlife scene outside the historic centre.

I was told by my Ecuadorian mate to watch out for the overly-friendly people so I thought I pass that advice to you here 😉

La Catedral de Quito

Tourism

I however didn’t mind being a proper camera-trigger happy tourist in the early hours. The city was less crowded and the sights were almost empty. The central square was full of cafés and places to eat and with my camera, I felt like a parody of myself doing exactly what I’ve seen tourists doing in Prague, London or Dublin when I’ve lived there.

There are many sites worth visiting. Except from random strolls around the historical centre, there’s vistas, particularly the Basílica del Voto Nacional and the Hill of Modern Art.

Sorry but I’ve decided to delete my further possible suggestions because at the time my drive for mass organised tourism dropped a lot so my research wasn’t up to my usual standards. There are however plenty guides offered to you at every hostel that explain things in further detail, in case you were around and interested of being a proper tourist. FYI: many people at the hostel were praising the “free” walking tours.

streets of Quito, Ecuador

Practical notes

  • I have arrived to Quito by a night bus from a small Ecuadorian beach town of Puerto Lopez just north of Montañita. Because I’ve heard and read a lot about the safety on night buses in Ecuador I was rather cautious. No incident occurred to me at all but I have noticed higher level of security precautions on various stops. People were searched upon entering the vehicles and cameras were placed inside the buses.
  • Make sure that you will take an official taxi from the Southern Bus Terminal to avoid unnecessary uncomfortable feelings I’ve mentioned above.

Stay

I’ve stayed in Rebel Hostel near the historical city centre. It was possibly the cleanest hostel I’ve ever been. Upon my very early arrival, the owner welcomed me with a free breakfast. The whole place is a well oiled machine, with hardworking friendly staff leading the way. Dorm beds are equipped with a “shutter” so you get privacy but it felt like being in a coffin to me. If you over 180cm – make sure to book a room with longer beds or private.

streets of Quito, Ecuador

Next possible destinations heading north

Next possible destinations heading south

Enjoy the beauty 😉

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Crossing the line

Humanity, humanity

I’ve just crossed the border crossing between Ecuador and Colombia. I’ve crossed many borders lately but this one was heartbreaking. Seeing the amount of Venezuelan people stranded there, with children, wrapped in blankets wasn’t easy. It was actually hard to take. Among other things such as the personal impact it had on me, it was also hard to accept the reality that even people from a rich country have to flee their homes because they have no other option. No food. No medical services. No access to a drinking water. No safety. No future.

It’s different when you read about refugees in the paper because it’s an article only, a distant reality – but seeing the tragedy with your own eyes – it’s truly heartbreaking. Currently (April 2019) I am in Bogotá, where Guaidó (the self-proclaimed president of Venezuela), Pence (the vice president of the oil hungry US of A) and the so called Lima group (multilateral body of 12 Central and South American countries) plot the overtaking Maduro‘s government.

Why is Venezuela so screwed right now?

I’m not going to dive deep in this political shit because it would involve a long text which would have to include the history of the whole region going back as far as conquistadors. From the more recent history, the proper analysis would have to describe the history of USA’s interference and support overthrowing governments by various dictators in the region for which Mr Henry Kissinger got a Nobel Peace Price for some utterly bizarre reason.

Furthermore, we would have too look at where Chávez screwed up as well as where he did help to improve the lives of the poorest in Venezuela and why would they now fight for the political movement he started. The subject of why is his successor Maduro an egocentric asshole and semi-dictator would also require a lot of attention.

Even the whole library of books analysing the current situation in Venezuela would not help those millions of people who were forced to flee their homes. There seems to be a massive game played here and except the Red Cross and other NGOs, no one really consider the actual people, unless we take the political gestures of aid into consideration.

Gloomy sunrise at the Gulf of Urabá

What’s next for Venezuela?

In reality – it appears that currently there are only two options for Venezuela. On the first hand, there’s the egocentric asshole and semi-dictator Maduro who’s obviously not capable of running the country, while he keeps making a fortune for himself with the help of his Chinese and Russian mates. On the other hand, there’s is Guaidó who’s willing to start the civil war just to sing the paperwork signing the Venezuelan oil to the US.

None of these two assholes really consider the consequences of their actions, while the most obvious solution of replacing Maduro by a professional cross-party emergency government or at least by a new leader of his party until the next election was never mentioned by either of them.

It’s a stand off of two idiots, both supported by different kinds of power interests, while their people continue being badly screwed. Well done humanity – once again you’re proving what we are worth, when it comes to power-hungry psychopaths who we, for some bizarre reasons keep electing to represent us against interests of other power-hungry psychopaths.

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Máncora vs Montañita

AKA predatory party town economy, “legends” and more

It’s funny how small party towns are all the same, nevermind the culture nor location. It’s just part of human nature that some of us like to get relaxed with the help of some poisons. Many intercultural elements are divisive, but this particular one is rather universal for everyone.

The party ground also comes in a complex package that includes the certain universal types of people such places attracts as well as those who make profit out of it using their tricks and various tactics. So whether it’s Hoi An in Vietnam, Magaluf in Ballearia, Máncora in Peru or Montañita in Ecuador, there are quite a few things all these places have in common.

Máncora and Montañita are two small beach party towns just some 12 hour ride from each-other in the north of Peru, respectively in Western Ecuador. Both are a classic party towns, which involves tons of bars that are all blasting shitty music across each-other; mad traffic with horn-trigger-happy macho drivers; predatory tuk tuk drivers/shady drug dealers.

<img src="https://alongthelinenet.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/img_2540.jpg?w=840&quot; alt="
Máncora‘s fishing boats on Sunday

“The legends”

And there’s also a lot of what I call legends – you know the type that’s been around for a while with overdeveloped narcissism/attention seeking syndrome, who’s always up front by the DJ in the rave, who wants to be seen and who speaks to everyone and then greets everyone with cool gestures…

The legends are not all bad – some of them are actually very nice and some are just pure assholes – there’s no particular good-or-bad typology – there’s just that bit of narcissism and the rest is differences in personality, age and the years or of a substances abuse.

Here they however kind of wilted by turning their talents into the those people who are trying to get you to eat in the restaurant on the streets, the flyer people, or some even dressed like Captain Jack Sparrow getting your attention to get a picture with or enter a club, etc…

Pelicans having lunch right next to me in Puerto Lopez, 40-odd kilometres north of Montañita

Oh yeah – and there’s also a lot surfers here. I’m not entirely sure about surfers yet – they are a bit too sporty for me but they are kinda nice – I’m just not sure how real that nice is. It’s not like with mount climbers because their niceness is genuine. Surfers did not make me trust their genuinality just yet. Maybe it’s because they all look like a cliché, I don’t know..

OK – screw the typologies, although it’s a great subject and I could go on about taxi drivers (not to be trusted liars or their nemesis, the romantic take – super nice like from Jarmush’s Night on Earth); actors (dramatic, sensitive, egoistic and defensive); psy trance (parish-like special group of people that doesn’t let you in completely unless you have dreadlocks and a dog) and so on…

Máncora vs Montañita

The major difference is that Montañita is bigger. It therefore has more clubs, out of which not all play reggaeton. Funnily, you are also less bothered by the street touts here but other than that, the towns are like a siblings. Perfect waves and tropical vegetation. Quite nice, I must say.

Well, Máncora is also a popular tourist destination for friendly Peruvians. Except from its main beach, one can stroll to quieter Los Pocitos 10 minutes walk south of the town, take a collectivo to Punta del Sol, a popular family destination or take a tour to swim with the sea turtles in Los Orangos. Upon seeing the video how the poor turtles trying to get away surrounded by many people in the water, I’ve opted against this activity.

As for Montañita, its beaches were cleaner unlike in Máncora where I didn’t even bother to go into the ocean after I spotted dead fish and birds in the water, not to mention the plastic on the beach and so on. As for other activities, I’d recommend a day trip to Los Frailes beach.

And drink some water before you go to sleep – it should smooth up your next day’s hangover 😉

Next possible destinations heading north

Next possible destinations heading south

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Is Machu Picchu overrated?

How to, how much and so on..

Machu Picchu. The first image that crosses ones mind when the words Peru or Inca are pronounced. Is it really that impressive?

The simple answer is yes, it is very impressive. If you however look at it within the concept of its big partners from the 1st league of tourist attractions, such as Sagrada Família, Taj Mahal or Temples of Angkor, Machu Picchu has its limitations. Well, they all do but what or who doesn’t?

Machu Picchu: this way

Some facts about Machu Picchu

In the Quechua language, machu means “old” or “old person”, while pikchu means either “portion of coca being chewed” or “pyramid, pointed multi-sided solid; cone”. The name of the site is often interpreted as “old mountain”.

Wiki

Machu Picchu is a 15th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the jungle of Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru on a mountain ridge at about 2,430 metres above the sea level. Some archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), some say that it was a spiritual centre.

train treks in a stunning nature @ Aguas Calientes

How to get there?

Upon arrival to Cusco, Peru, one has several options how to reach the iconic site of Machu Picchu. The most authentic experience appears to be taking one of the two multi day treks: Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek. The first one means following the historical trail built by Incas, while the latter is more about enjoying the beauty of the surrounding nature.

Other options are taking a train to Aguas Calientes, which is a little spa town nearby the site or getting a bus to the nearby hydroelectric station and walk the remaining distance to the same town of Aguas Calientes. This little town serves as a base to reach the site in the morning.

fog doesn’t mean that there’s no beauty @ Machu Picchu

How much?

For Inca Trail, you are required to have a certified guide, while Salkantay Trek is also apparently doable solo and on cheap. We’re talking about multi day treks so it involves either carrying your own camping gear or paying a “sherpa” to do it for you, which is usually optional to be included in the tour price. The prices of the 4 day Inca Trail tours vary from $450 to $650.

Enjoying the train ride through a breathtaking scenery would cost you $320-400 for the whole package that includes “everything”, meaning the hotel, entry fee, guide and meals. The train itself cost “only” $140.

The bus tours range from $80 to about $120. It usually includes the bus journey, meals, a hostel bed at Aguas Calientes, park entry and guide’s attention for the first two hours on a site. The rather crazy bus ride takes about 7 hours and the walk from Hydroelectric station where you get dropped off to the town of Aguas Calientes takes 1,5-2 hours, following the train treks.

In case you wanted to avoid paying the agency, the bus journey would only cost you $24 and the basic entrance ticket is $44. Dorms in Aquas Calientes go from about $11. FYI, all tickets are sold with issued time of the site’s entry so make sure to be there on time. You then have 4 hours to spend on a site.

Aguas Calientes in a rainy season

To get to the actual site in the morning, you can pick between taking a 20 minute bus ride from the town ($12 each way) or walking 1-1,5 hour hard core steep 1200m altitude changer. The buses back to Cusco leave the hydroelectric station at about 2:30pm, which leaves you with 3-4 hours on the site, depending on how fast you are able to get to the hydroelectric station from the site.

In conclusion, we now know that, unless you do it by yourself in a semi-legal way (of camping in wilderness), which would cut down your expenses down to meals, water and park entrance fee ($44), the current (2019) prices to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco vary from the approximate absolute minimum of $80 getting up to $650+.

In comparison, the temples of Angor will cost you $72 for a 3 day pass. Additional expenses normally are hiring either a push bike ($1/day) or a tuk tuk ($15/day), meals and accomodation, that is considerably cheaper in Cambodia and SEA in general. If I had to pick only one of these two sites, I’d personally pick Angor but that’s an entirely pointless statement because who would be ever forced to make such choice?

first impressions of Machu Picchu were rather foggy (:0

How to book a tour? Which company to pick?

I’ve personally opted for Marcelo’s, a company you’ll find on Plaza de Armas in Cusco. It was $90 for an all inclusive bus tour. They were OK – no one promise was broken – there was no bullshit involved, although given the high SCAM potential in Cusco, I’ve expected anything.

I believe that you won’t get lied to, but you need to ask the right questions. You basically need to ask about everything. If you for example ask if the towel will be provided and they’ll say yes, it will be provided. If you don’t ask – you’ll need to pay extra for the towel and so on…

a glimpse of hope @ Machu Picchu

When to visit Machu Picchu?

MaPi is located in the rain jungle at a relatively high altitude, although it’s nearly a kilometre lower than Cusco. The weather there however still vary a lot, depending on the particular season of your visit. While April to October are apparently the best months to visit, our guide informed us that in January there’s always a fog in the morning but it normally clears up at about 8-9am.

And he was right. It did clear up offering clear windows for us to experience the iconic views of the site. We were also told that in February and March there would be a rather high chance for us to see nothing.

the guide was right – it always clears off at this time of the year @ Machu Picchu

The Angkor comparison’s conclusion

Overall, I must say that Machu Picchu is a special place and it’s 100% worth it to go there if you are in the region, there’s no doubt about that. However, in my humble opinion, the surrounding nature boosts the site’s attractiveness so much that without those dramatic steep hills, Machu Picchu would only reach the average levels of excitement – let’s say – it would be equal to any large-ish site of ruins in Europe.

On the other hand, the temples of Angkor, with its massive LA-sized area also receive help from the nature (don’t we all?), but its contribution to the overall level of excitement here is not as significant as it is in the case of Machu Picchu.

way to Inca Bridge @ Machu Picchu

Have you ever wondered how do iconic places look from the other side?

To entertain you a bit after such factual text filled with numbers, here’s a reversed view of the site. I mean that I took a picture from ‘the inside’ of the iconic Machu Picchu photo of a place where the photographer would have to stand to take that classic shot.

reversed view on Machu Picchu iconic picture

Overcrowding

Upon my visit, the weather cleared in about 90 minutes after we entered the park. By that time the site was a bit like Prague’s Charles Bridge at noon, meaning that on the main paths, there were at least 1-4 people per square meter, while more visitors were still entering the site. It’s natural that such iconic places are visited by large crowds because they are special but…

Unfortunately, Machu Picchu is yet another site that has been transformed from being unique and magical place into a money machine instead. The local authorities are often only interested to squeeze every penny out of the site and there’s nearly zero consideration about the visitors. There doesn’t have to be much of a consideration because there will be others, there will.

This might come across as some sort of subjective speculation but reading an article in the local paper how the government plans a new terminal at Cusco‘s International Airport to be able to welcome more visitors only confirms that. I honestly don’t know how they will squeeze more selfie-takers into the site.

Machu Picchu

Future plans

FYI, the walking paths the visitors take at Machu Picchu are one way and the plan for the near future is that each group will need to stay with their guide for the entire duration of the tour, from the entrance to the exit. The guides will then be responsible to leave within a time window given to each group.

It would only make sense if it was to make every visitor happy, which will certainly not be the case because not everyone will get an equal conditions during their tour. For instance, if the new “management” rules were in place during my visit, we’d get a fog’s clearance half-way through the tour, which would prevent us from getting the iconic view.

Many people would only see the site from the bottom, the view will therefore be similar to my reversed picture above. Well, that’s unless they will bribe someone to get them the right ticket, which will be timed well for the particular time of the year and hour to be on the top of the site at the right time.

A paradise for the corrupted human mind, which is exactly opposite of the originally sacred purpose the site was built for. Well, that’s unless it was the emperor’s estate because in such case it was a money machine right from the beginning…

Machu Picchu

Conclusion

To be honest, overcrowding is not unique for Machu Picchu only. Turning the tourist attractions into classic claustrophobic nightmares became a global phenomenon, especially with airlines offering more and more affordable flights. Some cities, such as Florence are trying to come up with some solutions of limited day passes and other places, like Machu Picchu are only stepping on an acceleration pedal to squeeze more money out of them. Only time will show where this is all going but I’m afraid that getting the actual magic of the magical places will only get harder. Serenity will be priceless.

As you might have experienced it yourself already, many selfie-takers could be very inconsiderate. The problem is that the more people there is, the worse the vibe becomes. At Machu Picchu, I’ve even witnessed some extreme forms of being inconsiderate assholes, such as semi-dangerous overtaking on the steep narrow paths, which left some older and/or less mobile visitors rather vulnerable.

Thankfully, all the incidents I’ve experienced at Machu Picchu (there was quite a few in a space of 4 hours) were mostly harmful only by increasing the general irritation of the crowd. However, at points it felt like that some people were not far from starting fights over the perfect spots to take their selfies from. Whatever you do – don’t let the irritation to get you if you can because it spreads fast 😉

the clearance @ Machu Picchu

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Cusco: Beauty and the Beast

Cusco is a breathtaking town, both visually as well as literally because of the lack of oxygen. Its elevation of 3,4km above the sea level makes one’s strolls around this beautiful hilly town rather challenging. The city of nearly 350 thousand inhabitants lives of its close proximity to Machu Picchu as well as Rainbow mountain. Mass tourism is however often accompanied with certain level of SCAM and Cusco is all but an exception to this rule.

Some facts about Cusco

The original city was the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th until the 16th-century Spanish conquest, which makes it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Western hemisphere. The remains of the Inca’s capital can be seen in the early stone architecture, which is sometimes preserved in the foundations and lower stories of Spanish colonial structures. The city was declared a UNESCO World Herritage site in 1983.

From what we know, the Incan spiritual life and beliefs were integrated with their view of the stars in regard to the way that the Incas observed it from Cusco, all being inter-connected to agricultural seasons. Shame that the conquistadors burned the Incan records – it would be a direct source of what Incas – whom were by the way also rather expansive conquistadors themselves – were up to.

We however know that the two most important sites for Incan mythology are: the city of Cusco and Lake Titicaca. FYI, the latter is based on a legend of Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo in case you wanted to find out more Google it, but my subject here is Cusco and I’ll try to stay within the theme, although Titicaca‘s mythological story is also very interesting 😉

Church of the Society of Jesus @ Cusco, Peru

The Ayar brothers legend

Well, once upon a time there was a massive flood (surprise) and consequently there were four brothers who set to find the fertile lands. They have travelled together with their wifes, whom were by the way also their sisters (:0

So there were Ayar Cachi and Mama Huaco, Ayar Uchu and Mama Ipacura, Ayar Auca and Mama Rahua and, finally, Ayar Manco and Mama Ocllo. This jolly company travelled together for years. They they fought against local tribes as well as among each-other, as we do.

Firstly, the three “weaker” brothers betrayed the “strongest” one (Cachi) by tricking him to enter a cave that those three “role models” later blocked so he couldn’t come out. Uchu later froze from fear after jumping on a ‘statue of idol’ when destroying someone’s temple somewhere in Huanacauri.

Aucua apparently produced a pair of wings and flew to the site of the future city, where he was transformed into a rock to mark the possession of the land (of the future Cusco), which is not that bad considering the fate of the first two brothers.

The only brother to reach the place consequently appears to be Manco. Accompanied by the four sister-wifes, they then set up the city of Cusco.

Picturesque Cusco, Peru

Part two: The Beast AKA Cusco, the capital of SCAM

Being the gateway to one of the world’s most visited attractions Machu Picchu (read more here), Cusco currently welcomes around 2 million tourist per year. While one can often witness the friendliness of the non-tourism locals, some of the tourist industry people in Cusco could not be exactly labelled as being entirely honest people. I don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush, I did come across some honest and nice individuals but I wish there was more of them. Much more.

One might argue that SCAM is the case of every major tourist destination globally and it would be a solid argument. Cusco however took things to another level, which means that one has to be constantly ready to face the street vendors and various tricksters. I’m talking about being approached be one or two vendors per minute, if you are anywhere outdoors in the historical centre.

Shops @ Cusco, Peru

Their cover usually is shoe-cleaning or being a desperate artist selling “his” paintings but in fact they sell everything, whatever they think people are into. The perspectives of target audiences vary, depending to which marketing stereotype you belong to. Solo-male travellers have a different and often a bit darker offers/experience, if compared to solo female travellers and so on.

I understand that people are trying to survive. Except the fact that in an ideal world, people should have opportunities to live better lives, I wouldn’t have a problem with street vendors at all, only if there were not so many opportunists and tricksters among them. It’s not much of a secret that often it’s not only about selling their products, sometimes we’re talking about petty thieves or even worse kinds of people pretending to sell you things.

Cusco, Peru

How to deal with all that?

Be nice. And sharp. Watch your back as well as your bag and also watch out for the overly-friendly people because some of them could be rather clever, exploiting your good heart.

As for Cusco, the owners of the hotel I’ve stayed in restored the balance and my faith in humanity, re-balancing the negative energy created by the tricksters. The old couple was so nice that I’ve even extended my stay for few days. There’s a lot of beauty and nice people to enjoy in this town – don’t let the opportunists to ruin it for you 😉

Cusco, Peru

Next possible destinations

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Lake Titicaca

Titicaca might just as well be the first ever foreign word I remember as a child. It just sounded too cool to forget it: TITICACA. Caca, being the arguably the most common first word for many of us internationally, and Titi is important word to know for every a child as well.

Well, I guess that in a different way, the importance of both words remains rather high in the later stages of life, but this is already way off topic as well as (in one particular take) also a bit of a tabloid’s 3rd page stupid and mainly it’s absolutely misleading.*

*The terms titi and caca can be translated in multiple ways. In Aymara, titi can be translated as either puma, [lead]], or a heavy metal. The word caca (kaka) can be translated as white or gray hairs of the head and the term k’ak’a can be translated as either crack or fissure, or alternatively, comb of a bird.

Wiki

Some facts about Lake Titicaca

Sunset at Lake Titicaca

Lago Titicaca is a 190km long lake with an area of 8 372 km², which makes it the largest lake in South America and 18th in the world. It is located on the border between Bolivia and Peru at 3 812 meters above the sea level. The average depth of the lake is 107m, the maximum is 284m.

The average surface temperature of 10 to 14 °C. Titicaca‘s birth age is estimated to be about 370,000 BC. The lake is home to more than 530 aquatic species as well as to the large populations of water birds. There are 41 islands on the lake, some of which being densely populated.

Isla del Sol

donkeys, views and ancient agricultural terraces @ Lake Titicaca

Titicaca is an important historical place for Incas. In their religion, the Solar deity (Sun God or Sun Goddess) is believed to have been born here, on Isla del Sol, the largest island on the lake.

Interesting fact about Solar Deities and sun worship could be found in various forms throughout many cultures globally. We are talking about various cultures in African and Arabic worlds, the traces of the sun worshiping could be also found in Chinese, Aztec or Celtic mythologies but also in Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.

I guess that Sun was the firs big global thing for the ancestors of the Snapchat and Instagram cultures. While it was up, humans had an upper hand or at least better chances to survive an attack of other predators as opposed to the time of the Moon, when the creatures of darkness came up to hunt.

Ruins of the Virgin Temple on Isla de la Luna @ Lake Titicaca

Some theories suggest that this day and night survival conditions’ divide led to the mythical divide of good and evil. At the end of the day (funny to use this expression here), before humans mastered weaponry and later the electricity (therefore having improved vision at night) they were rather vulnerable against other predators, especially at night, as mentioned above.

I guess that it wasn’t always a fair fight against a lion in the middle of the night but I’d say than a pre-historic human had more chance against that lion than a lion has now against the priviledged white-fat-cigar-smoking trophy hunter with top of the range hunting rifle.

endless farming terraces and new houses @ Lake Titicaca

Oh – excuse me – off topic again (:0 Back to Isla del Sol then.

The main economic activities on the island, of the apparently around 800 families is agriculture – mainly quinoa (couscous like tasty thingy), fishing (mainly trout, US imported unnatural species to the local habitat) and tourism. Most, if not all hills on and around Titicaca are cultivated for farming with endless ancient terraces.

I’ve learned, that currently there’s a beef between the families from northern and central parts of the island and the southerners so the tourism is consequently only allowed in the southern part of the island. In my personal opinion, the tourism serves the southerners well, judging by the new and sometimes even luxurious houses in the main village as well as the amount of golden teeth I’ve seen when the friendly but otherwise rather shy locals smile at you.

BTW, the children of Isla del Sol are not so shy, on the contrary, they will engage you in conversations about what they are doing right or what are they planning to do soon. “Tienes que venir aquí esta noche, es mi cumpleaños y yo estare cantar.” Very cute 🙂

As for the tourism, there are many ruins on the island. The most visited are Sacred Rock, labyrinthy Chicana, Pilco Kaima and, Kasa Pata. Most of these date to the Inca period, which is around 15th century. The human presence in Titicaca goes however way beyond that. According to Wiki, in 2000, a team of international archaeologists discovered ruins of a temple underwater, thought to be between 1 000 and 1 500 years old, apparently built by the pre-Inca, Tiwanaku people.

Isla de la Luna as seen from Isla del Sol @ Lake Titicaca

Isla de la Luna

According to the Inca legends, Isla de la Luna is where Viracocha, the creator of all things commanded the rising of the moon. The non-impressive ruins of Mamakuna AKA Virgin Temple are the major touristic attraction on the island. Why is it not even weird thing to find out that the stupid and bizarre obsession with women’s virginity doesn’t concern Christianity and Islam only?

How to get there and where to sleep

You can take a comfortable, around 4,5 hrs long bus drive from La Paz to Copacabana, a town on Bolivia’s shore of Titicaca (not to be confused with the Brazilian one) for 30 Bolivianos (€3,80). It has a short stop to take a ferry across the lake, where you get off the bus and take a separate ferry for 2,-BOB. To get to the islands – get a ticket in one of the numerous agencies. We paid 30,-BOB each with an hour-long stop at Isla de la Luna.

As for sleeping in Copacabana – there are many hotels – so many that it appeared an overkill for the amount of visitors so we have scored a single room each for 50,-BOB, which is very cheap for Bolivia and far much cheaper than the booking sites asked for. Prices in Isla del Sol appeared to turn lower with the altitude – the higher one went, the lower the price. We went to the top of the hill at the beginning of the village and paid 80,-BOB each for a single room with private bathroom.

What would I do differently if I was coming to Titicaca with the knowledge of the place I have now?

I would have maybe tried to stay one extra night in the posh-ish hotel in Copacabana and find/start some party. The place looked busy before, with a massive party potential but then, after the sunset everyone disappeared. There were however many party facilities available with unusually low amount of reggaeton around.

I would also leave my large backpack in the Copacabana hotel so I would not need to climb steep hills at nearly 4000m above the sea level with a heavy luggage without Oxygen 🙂

Next possible destinations

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Riding the Death Road

Kinda report from our Death Road Tour + some possibly useful info for the first timers

Death Road is currently a major tourist attraction that used to be a regular road from La Paz to Coroico connecting Yungas region of Bolivia and La Paz. In 1995 it was marked as world’s most dangerous road. In 2006, it was estimated that 200–300 travellers were killed along it each year.

The road descends from 4650m at La Cumbre Pass to 1200m at the town of Coroico, changing from cool Altiplano terrain to rain forest as it winds down through steep hillsides and deep cliffs. Except the tours, the road is presently used by few locals living in the area only.

The road descends from 4650m

Which tour operator to pick

This, of course completely depends on your budget. The cheapest option we have found started at 320,-BOB (€41), which would mean riding a bike with the front suspension only and the bike itself was either a fake or refurbished model from the 90s. The most expensive option was just above 800,-BOB (€102) and the bikes were apparently not more than one year old Konas.

We have opted for a company called Barracuda, the mid range when it comes to prices. Bikes were Konas, in this case they were original. The bikes had both wheels suspended and the obligatory helmet, gloves as well as optional suits, elbow and knees protections were provided. Snacks and dinner were also part of the package for 545,-BOB (€70).

The scenery as well as the altitude were both literally breathtaking

Politics

We were informed that there’s about 20 certified and another many non-certified companies that provide the tours. The whole Death Road related tourist industry in La Paz appeared to have a fragile micro climate and very question-skipping kind of professional attitude about its competitors so we were not exactly sure what was the honest information and what was the professional attitude. So how did we pick? Like many others: reviews + budget factors did the job of decision making pretty easy.

There are many, many crosses on the Death Road, marking the places where people have fallen off the cliffs

Drive safely please

The road’s dangerous nature has made it a popular tourist attraction from the 1990s on, drawing some 25000 visitors annually. Nevertheless, road remains dangerous; at least 30 cyclists have died on the road since 1998, the last one being an Aucklander Emile Vollenhoven on January 22, 2019. RIP dude ):

The more expensive tour doesn’t necessarily need to mean being more secure, the latest tragic accident proves that point. I must say that our guides stressed the potential dangers many times before and during the tour. They have made many group-stops to warn us about the more dangerous parts ahead, but it was still up to an individual driver how fast he or she went.

I am only saying that because my inner teenager has woken up turning me into a bit of a stupid downhill racer. If you used to be into this kind off thing, Death Road might get quite tempting. Only about half-way down I’ve decided to take it easy and it was only because at that speed I could not really fully enjoy the scenery.

It was just then when I realised how stupid I’ve been up there racing down at 30-40km/h at some points because anything could happen at this kind of speed, especially when driving on unpaved dirt road. After all, the latest tragic accident only happened here just two days before our tour. Just look at those drops on the picture above, they are enormous. Please ride carefully and don’t let your testosterone to overcome your abilities – the place is not called Death Road for no reason.

the drops are enormous

The Tour itself

After about an hour’s drive out of La Paz, we have arrived to the spot. After trying our bikes and the gear, we were given many safety instructions by the Barracuda team. They took it seriously and stressed the dangers many times over and over. Then the photo shoot begun. All the activities now are a photo shoot, aren’t they? Normally I’d hate it but the only other option is to be a bit of a miserable git so I’ve embraced it (again).

The spiritual safety precaution before the ride is to give a bit of booze to Pachamama AKA Mother Nature the ancient Inca god to keep you safe. I only did it because she’s a female god, which is a rare thing. And also because everyone is also required to have a bit themselves (as a safety precaution). It was apparently 96% alcohol – except that it was not 96% – it wasn’t even 50%…

it wasn’t even 50% alcohol 😉

Unlike other Bolivian roads, vehicles on Death Road are required to drive on the left, so drivers have a better view of their outer wheels and passing is safer. We were quite lucky because due to the landslide, there were almost no cars present on the road. The thing is that the road itself is rather narrow. The largely single-lane road follows cliffs with drops of up to 600m. Most of it is the width of a single vehicle, about 3.2m.

Most of it is the width of a single vehicle, about 3.2m – the picture is just an optical illusion because I’m jumping 2m in the air 😉

I must admit that at the beginning I found it rather bizarre to enjoy a strip of road where so many died, it does ): At points it felt a bit disrespectful to me personally doing a cheesy photo shoots in such place marked with so many crosses. To feel better about this dilemma, I concluded that it was all but disrespecting those whom died here. After all, Pachamama serves us with all things, death included for everyone at some point…

so the photo shoot continued

Then we just rode and rode further down. Pachamama served us with riding through the waterfalls and many places with magic views. As we descended to lower altitudes, the climate changed drastically, the beauty levels however remained equally high. It was very hot down there at only 1200m above the sea level, the lowest I’ve been in weeks. Being high all the time doesn’t suit me so much. I like Oxygen a lot.

Some of us have ended a tour with a zip line adventure (not included in the price) and then we have all met in a hotel for a little swim in a pool and a delicious lunch. Overall, it was rather expensive day, given the fact that for pretty much the same money you can get driven around Salt Flats in Uyuni for 3 days in a Jeep but it was worth it. It was a great day 🙂

*Please note that the pictures in this piece are made by the tour guides.

Next possible destinations in Bolivia

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Bolivia: Sucre vs La Paz

OK. In this piece, I’m going to try to give you some facts and few thoughts about the cities of Sucre and La Paz. In this case it’s not going to be easy because I don’t want to squeeze too much information in a piece, in order to maintain the easy reading mode. So this text is not going to be a proper guide you’d find in Lonely Planet or so, although there will be some practical info and few tips.

Bolivia has the highest proportion of indigenous population in the whole Latin America. Together with it’s generally high altitudes it makes the country unique if compared to most of its neighbours. The country also has two capitals: Sucre and La Paz, the two rather different places, both charming in their own ways.

Sucre

Why does Bolivia have two capitals?

The answer to this question depends on where you ask. The facts are that in 1825, when Bolivia gained its independence, it was founded as a Republic in the city of Sucre. Then there was a civil war AKA tin mining money backed up by a Liberal Party (La Paz) vs the Conservative Party and their silver mining sponsors (Sucre). Yep, Silver Conservatives vs Tin Liberals.

Thank god they didn’t have much gold – wonder what party would that be. Anyway, after the stupid civil war, an agreement was reached. La Paz became the seat of the executive and legislative branches of the Bolivian government and the judicial branch remained in Sucre as it did have the infrastructure from the colonial Spain.

Anyway, there’s also a good thing that came out of this shit. The Liberal Party promoted many advantages to protect the indigenous communities in order to get their support during the fight. I sometimes wonder if human history was studied by some peaceful alien – what would they think of us and our stupid wars. A parody or just a stupid vulgar joke?

Sucre from a viewpoint

Sucre

Considered to be the prettier one of the two and that is due to it’s preserved colonial architecture. It is also one of the popular spots for travellers to learn Spanish. Various language schools offer affordable classes and in combination with Bolivia’s let’s say economic prices it makes the city a good spot to take a break from travelling and learn some Spanish.

Sucre

When it comes to the night life, I wouldn’t call Sucre a hotspot, unless you are a reggaeton fan. Around the main square here are few nice-ish bars one can enjoy a drink or two but that’s about it. Nightlife itself is limited to few clubs that blast reggaeton or long forgotten tunes from 80s.

For example Bad Boys Blue seemed to be rather popular in Sucre (:0

In Sucre’s defense I must say that it comes with rather good coffee scene (unlike the rest of the country). My fav was Condor Café but there are other places that will make you stop and order a coffee 😉

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz

In comparison with Sucre, La Paz is much bigger and it has its special vibrant vibe I liked. Architecure-wise it’s rather bad mix of modern and colonial architecture but it comes with more life and energy as opposed to Sucre.

La Paz

The major tourist activities here is riding the Death road, visiting the Cholitas wrestling show, taking a tour in the cable car public transport system and looking for Route 36. Oh yeah and there’s also this weird architect Freddy Mamani and his IMHO rather vulgar style.

Anyway, riding the Death road proved to be a great experience, Cholitas wrestling was fun for about 15 minutes, riding the cable cars was brilliant way to see the city from above and the infamous Route 36 bar is a stupid tourist trap. FYI, regarding the last “attraction” I’ve mentioned, Route 36 is an illegal pop up establishment that serves cocaine and nobody supposed to know where it is, except all taxi drivers.

Overall I personally prefer La Paz due to its energy and vibes it comes with. Sucre is the prettier of the two but it’s rather limited when it comes to culture life and with the knowledge I have now, I would prefer other place to take break from travelling while taking Spanish classes. For example Valparaíso.

night falls on modern La Paz

How to get there

The bus ride between Sucre and La Paz takes approximately 12 hours and it will cost you around €25. The night bus ride was comfy, I’ve slept all the way, although it didn’t mean not to be a bit “bus-lagged” the next day.

Next possible destinations and/or activities in Bolivia

The incredible La Paz

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