Friday, 22 September 2017

A glimpse of Peru

Leaving Europe for a while to explore the unknown which lurks in the depths of south america - the land of the Incas!
Well, all my friends/readers probably have noticed that I am more of an "Europe traveler" and that is very true! On the other hand, I am also aware that there are many more beautiful and cultural places out there in this world.
South America is part of the "new world" - a term associated to this continent, since it was "discovered" by Europeans about 500 years ago. I found this term to be unfair. What about the first men to ever settle this huge landmass? History of the Americas can be perhaps as old as Europe's. The Incas were a civilization that inhabited the so called "sacred valley" much earlier than European navigators reached the new continent. I then thought of adding one more country to my list of visited countries and came in person to Peru to check it out by myself. I came to see Machu Picchu - the famous Inca town situated somewhere 2000 meters above sea-level in a place where a country named Peru is located now.
I know that Peru is more than just the sacred town of Machu Picchu, but for this trip I decided to complete skip Lima and Arequipa and focus on Cuzco and Machu Picchu. I believe that the country side can show more identity of a country than its capital city.

Getting to Cuzco

Cuzco has the nearest airport to Machu Picchu site. From Europe, I would recommend the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Lima - a direct flight to Peru. Even though we took a different route to save money, that one would be the most comfortable option. KLM uses either a Boeing 787-9 (Dreamliner) or a larger B777-300, which is OK for such a long-haul flight. Then after take an Avianca flight from Lima to Cuzco.  That is a Star Alliance member (popular frequent flyer program in Europe), so you can earn points when flying with them too.

In Cuzco

Cuzco is a cozy Andean town, very underdeveloped though, but not dangerous. People are very friendly and prices are very low for goods, services, especially taxis. One thing to have in mind is that Cuzco is situated somewhere at 3400m above sea-level. Get ready for some altitude sickness symptoms like headaches, tiredness, vomiting. For reference, even though I was the oldest traveler (34yo) in our small group of 6 people, I was among the 2 who didn't vomit. So, take some pills and upon arrival try the local Coca tea (yes, coca leaf tea) which is believed to mitigate high altitude symptoms your body may face on the first couple days. So I recommend two days buffer time in Cuzco before taking the trip to Machu Picchu hills, even thought M.P. itself is situated in a lower altitude - I think about 2500m above sea-level.
There are a whole sort of bars, restaurants and night clubs in Cuzco. Try to get a hotel near "Plaza de Armas" where most of the nightlife is going on. A beer would cost from 10 to 15 soles in a bar and a meal in a good restaurant from 35 to 50 soles. If you get out of touristy area and try to live like a local, you could eat for half of that. A taxi to airport (in 2017) costs around 10 soles. A airport pick-up (implying that the taxi driver arrives earlier and prepares a banner with your names to wait for you at the arrival area and etc, might cost twice as much. We paid 20 soles for airport pickup per car).

Reaching Machu Picchu area via Ollantaytambo

There are some different ways to reach Machu Picchu, including the famous "Inca trail" path through the jungle that takes few days, so one can feel like a real "conquistador". Keep in mind that you have to book this tour with some local operator and these sell out fast.
The easier option is to ride a van to Ollantaytambo town, then getting a train to Aguascalientes, which is the base village for Machu Picchu hills. The government of Peru has imposed a daily limit of visitors since the infrastructure is not so good. There are limited trains and limited housing in small Aguascalientes village. So, one has to book Machu Picchu national park tickets in a official site run by the government of Peru, the ticket is a non-transferable, and associated to specific names and nationalities filled out when buying the tickets. They check documents when entering the national park of Machu Picchu. The official website is: http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ - Keep in mind that the website is a bit obsolete and still uses Flash technology. You might have browser compatibility issues. Before buying directly with this website, check if you can buy a whole excursion package which would include vans from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo, train from there to Aguascalientes, hostel for one night prior to the ascent and tickets to national park itself. I took that option for about 250 USD.

Aguascalientes (Base town to Machu Picchu)

Get your mosquito repellent ready 'cause these beasts bite deep and draw blood. Some people might have allergic reactions to mosquito bites. Bring sunscreen as well. The sun is severe even in winter. I chose September for this trip, and arrived in Machu Picchu national park before 7am. It is the best time to arrive there, before the first streams for light pop out from behind the hills. By 9am the sun is already annoying!! Even being above 2000m altitude, Peru is fairly close to the equator line and it will get hot no matter what. It might be a bit chilly during early morning hours but if you wear too many layers you will regret later.
The little village has many restaurants and is full of tourists. There is also one SPA with hot water which would reason the name of the town - Aguascalients ("hot water" in Spanish). Relax the day before the ascent drinking one "Cusquena" beer. Really good taste.

Machu Picchu

Definitely a reward after so much traveling through small towns, narrow roads and waiting times between connections. A photo (or a selfie) here is the most memorable souvenir from this trip. Some people would also say that a photo with an alpaca or llama would be necessary too, but that I skipped.
This sacred town was a self-sufficient society, with schools for men and for women separately, plantations areas and livestock. Their religion included sacrifice of children. They also had stone calendars, primitive way to see what time of the year just based on how the sun casts a shadow on some of their stones setup. Their steep ways and paths could protect them from external tribes or threats of any sort. No one knows where they migrated. Some historians still believe that there should be another hidden refuge of the Incas which is not yet found. A mystery to be solved.

Some more photos (click to enlarge): 











Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Iceland pt.3

One can't just get enough of Iceland, right? Right! So, choose the airline of your choice and go! I've flown IcelandAir in my two previous trips but this time I experimented "WOW air", a low-cost airlines with some purple-coloured fleet, haha cool! Let's put some colour in this gray scenery then.
I admit I was apprehensive about the weather. It could be windy as hell but it was just fine. I heard that people don't use umbrellas in Iceland due to its infamous windy weather. For a late-April weekend the weather however was good. It was observed a "peak" temperature of +6C(+42F) with clear sky. If you believe in global warming, go 'all-in' here, because businesses are booming. :)

Hallgrimskirkja

This time I wanted to explore more of the city centre of Reykjavik, because in my previous trips I was just too drunk at all times during my stays in that town that I only have flashes of my city-walking in Laugavegur street which is the nightlife hot spot. I finally visited the Hallgrimskirkja, which is on the highest neighborhood in the centre, with a nice view to the old town if you pay 900 ISK to take the elevator to go the top of the tower. Do expect some queuing. This is a Lutheran church built of solid concrete to endure the winds of the Nordics and hosts one of the biggest pipe organs (music instrument) in Europe. Nearby this church, one can try a traditional Icelandic food at Loki cafe. I recommend the lamb soup.

Harpa

 This impressive event hall is sumptuous and can host different sort of events, event music festivals. From outside some special dynamic lighting effects on its glassy facade resemble the northern lights. Well, it is free to enter there if no event is happening but do try to plan your trip during one of the festivals that take place in here, so you will have the maximum experience. For instance, the SONAR REYKJAVIK event generally takes place in Harpa.

Northern lights

Well, it is not the best photo of the northern lights, I know, but this one was taken by me at least! So, I don't need to still from Google Images. :P
To see the aurora, go on dark month (November - February). The brighter the days are getting the lest intense will be your aurora experience. I have observed massive auroras in Lapland, but this time was my first aurora in Iceland. There is one place which is relatively dark for a capital city where one gets a better view of it without leaving Reykjavik. It is by the

Reynisfjara shores

Also known as 'the black sand beach' - in the touristy English colloquial. I know it is near the village of Vik, which requires few hours driving away from Reykjavik towards the south and east but it is still considered a "Reykjavik attraction" because it is perfectly feasible to visit it and go back to your hotel in Reykjavik in a one-day trip.
I am mentioning it here because it is among the new attraction (new to me) of Iceland which I hadn't visit in my previous two trips. It is a volcanic beach with sneaky waves (people-eating unpredictable waves). Big warning signs tell you to keep always one eye on the waves and never turn your back to the sea because once in a while a nasty wave will come for you. Apart from that, enjoy this awesome scenery and take some amazing photos.

Here are some more photos (click to enlarge):








Sunday, 30 April 2017

Lofoten - A beautiful archipelago in the Norwegian Lapland

Wow, one more breathtaking place in the true north of Europe to chill, hike and take some amazing photos.
As an enthusiast of the north, or better yet, the "true north" (!) meaning that it has to be somewhere inside the arctic circle (> 66°33' N) for it to be cool. For reference, Stockholm is around 59°N and Reykjavik (The northernmost capital of the world) is 64°N.
Being here feels good. Less population density, and a certain sense of freedom. One can hire a wooden cabin in a recreational area and breathe the freshest air one can get in this decaying planet. Air will soon become a important asset just as water is, even though many people don't perceive it.

When reading about the first tourist of Lapland, I discovered the history of Francesco Negri, an Italian Catholic priest who, during 1663-1666, travelled in Scandinavia. In 1670, he published an account of his travels to Lapland entitled Viaggio settentrionale. Back in the days, a journey to these marvelous lands were a real endeavour to accomplish. Our generation should be happy to belong to the age of the fast flying jet planes. Maybe, I can be the first Arctic explorer with a teddy bear! Is there any record about one? ;)

How to get there?

We booked an excursion at Timetravels which provided us a bus departing from Oulu (Finland), but having Luleå (Sweden) as a pick-up/drop-off along the way for those joining from Sweden. Even though I currently live in Sweden, it was easier/faster/cheaper to reach Oulu by plane, then going to the Swedish town of Luleå by any means of transportation. Well, it is not the most comfortable way to go to Lofoten archipelago, it is more like a budget option. If you are travelling with a smaller group and/or as a couple on a romantic getaway, try to fly to Tromsø (Norway) and rent a car to drive to the archipelago, or if you are OK with driving longer, there are much cheaper flights to the town of Trondheim, but then add few more hours of driving.

When to visit?

Even if you like winter and snow, don't be a fool. Winter in Lapland might be as cold as -35C (-31F) and it will be a perpetual darkness. I went in late April/early May and the weather was amazing. Note in this photo I took with the teddy bear: I wear no beanie, no gloves, nor scarf and I am happy! Of course, if you are aiming to see the Northern Lights, you have to go from October to February, but that's another story.

Where to stay?

We stayed at Svolvær, the main island of the archipelago. It is possible to find housing via booking.com even. So, shouldn't be a problem. Just be aware that there is not so much infrastructure and it is an isolated area (away from bigger towns), so get your housing fixed before hand.

What to do?

Hiking. Photographing. Drinking. Sauna. Chilling... hmm.. a Viking museum! Yeah, we found one on the way. Here is the address: http://www.lofotr.no/

Here are some of the climbing paths near Svolvær: http://www.mapmyhike.com/no/svolvaer-nordland/


Not much to describe further. Just enjoy some of my photos below.

Some photos (click to enlarge):

Random landscape on the way

Sense of freedom near the top of hill

This is an average village up north in the Lofoten archipelago

... and that's an average lager there ;)

Not like Copacabana, but they do have beaches...