13 September, 2009

Hawai'i's Aquatic Garden

The Tunnels, a dive site on Kaua'i's north shore

Kaua'i, known as Hawai'i's "Garden Isle" features a landscape as lush as any of the Hawaiian Isles. Many come here to hike among the dazzling waterfalls, visit the man-made "glass beach", covered with thousands of pieces of glass dumped offshore then washed and polished by the sea, or hike the famous Napali Coastline. There are relatively few who come here to dive. Yet, the Garden Isle offers just as much diversity and splendor under its waters, as it does above.

Spanish Dancer, an appellation given by the sea slugs movement as it swims

Green Sea Turtles at Sheraton Caverns, on the south shore

Green Sea Turtle at Sheraton Caverns

Among the islands many eels, you'll find the White-Mouthed Moray wedged in the volcanic rocks

The Bandit Angel Fish, one of the islands many species of angel fish, is named for the black streak covering the eyes

A Blue-Finned Trevally dashes past the camera

Next time you journey to this land, don't hesitate to explore the wonders below.

28 July, 2009

The Sacred Valley

It's easy to see why they call this the Sacred Valley: rich farmland, crystal clear mountain streams, and white-capped peaks

Of the many ways to get to Machu Picchu, the two most popular with backpackers are to 1) hike the infamous 3-day Inca Trail, at times sharing the trail with 400 other tourists; or 2) take an alternative trek through the surrounding Andean highlands, where the local-to-foreigner ratio is skewed severely in the locals’ favor, and finish with a train ride to Aguas Calientes. At this point in our trip, we were tired of sharing our experiences with dozens of other gringos so we opted for the latter. We couldn’t have been happier with the results.

Researching the trip can be quite daunting. There are scores of operators, each offering similar treks. The 5-day Salkantay Trail, a “challenging” hike by most accounts that reaches 4590m above sea level, was the first to catch my eye. Not only would the remote location and challenging terrain offer more solitude, but we could also go longer without showering. Due to time restrictions, however, we had to pick a shorter trip. The Lares Valley Trek, a 4-day walk that climbs over a 4500m pass, was the group consensus.

Next step: picking a tour operator. I had initially considered self-supporting a trek through the highlands, but the complicated logistics and chance to support the local communities swayed us in favor of a guided tour. Browsing the online lists of operators, you can pretty quickly narrow it down to 5 or 6 reputable companies. From there, it’s just a matter of contacting them and obtaining prices. Since they’re all offering the same services—horse packing, 3 meals/day, a “unique” trail that nobody else uses, etc—we decided to go with the best price, which was Chaska Tours out of Cusco.

Here are a few of the pics… Enjoy.

Quechua women in Quisuarani village

Alpine Flowers

Clouds opening to reveal a glaciated peak

Alpine Lake

Looking down into the second valley

Llama Skull

Cascading Stream

Pack mules crossing the stream

Camp 1 in Cuncani village

Sacred alpine lake above Cuncani

4500m Pass

The third valley

Crystal clear waters

Picture-perfect Camp 2


Thought to be an Incan-era sanctuary for locals traversing the valleys

Land of the Inca

View from Machu Picchu ("Old Peak" in Quechua)

Machu Picchu is the Mecca of South America’s gringo trail. For many it’s a starting point, for some it’s the long anticipated culmination, for others it’s just an amazing stop along the way. At one point or another, every serious traveler makes a pilgrimage to the lost Incan city.

The religious complex at Machu Picchu

Leading into the religious complex. The door could be blocked by tying a wooden gate to the niches on either side and stone hole at top.

Early morning at Machu Picchu

This popularity has led to an amusement park-like atmosphere at the southern continent’s biggest attraction. Much like the religious experiences of the Muslim Hajj or Jerusalem during Easter, the spirit of Machu Picchu can be lost in the blur of timetables, long lines, and $7 cans of Coke. From Aguas Calientes, you’ll wake up at 0500 to catch the first bus up to the park entrance (passing those who tried to hike up earlier but underestimated the long, steep hike) in order to run to the base of Huayna Picchu after the park gates open to be one of the first 200 guests who will be allowed to climb Machu Picchu’s higher sister peak (offering a great panorama of the ruins). After that, you’ll browse the ruins with the thousands of other guests before climbing the impressive Huayna Picchu (“…there’s a trail up that?!?”) Then, wander the site for a bit longer before hunger sets in and debate whether or not to pay $20 for a small snack at the park concessions stand or mosey on back down to Aguas Calientes for lunch. In summary, it’s spectacularly draining and it’s one of the most impressive sites you’ll ever visit.

When you arrive on the peak before the sun has burned off the cloudy vale, there’s a hallowed feeling that hangs in the air. When Hiram Bingham rediscovered the site in 1911, the forgotten city was overgrown. Over several seasons the site was cleared and inventoried by Bingham and Yale University archaeologists. Although technically not living, Machu Picchu has in a sense been reborn. The early morning buzz of tourists climbing the cleared terraces while swallows dip and dive overhead lends the sense of a city stirring to life. The city was lost only to be resurrected. There’s something special about this mountaintop sanctuary.

Cliff side farming terraces

View down the valley from the prisoners' area

Steps leading out of the prisoners' area

Located only 50 miles from the Incan capital of Cusco, Machu Picchu remained hidden from Spanish conquerors. Due to this fact, and its importance as an intact archaeological site and Incan holy place, the area is considered sacred to both academics and local indigenous populations.

Scholars who have studied the site believe that it was still being expanded at the time of abandonment. This suggests that the site was a relatively young religious complex of the ephemeral empire. The Incas in the region were believed to have fled to the jungle city of Vilcabamba, where the Spanish finally defeated the Incan empire, in order to conceal the sanctuary’s location.

Harrowing trail up Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu's sister peak

Steps creatively utilizing stone, which, like the complex's walls, will last centuries

On top of Huayna Picchu

Terraces on Huayna Picchu

Steep, slippery steps up Huayna Picchu

This complex is believed to be either a factory or a nunnery

Practicing levitation using psychic energies

For centuries before rediscovery by western scholars local indigenous populations, who lived amongst the ruins, inhabited the site. Archaeologists and Peru’s tourist economy can thank these local populations’ tight lips, which helped conserve the site as one of the extremely few not plundered and disassembled by westerners. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu will be preserved and protected for millions to enjoy and revel in the serenity of this mountaintop sanctuary.

Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. This main square was the center of the Incan capital before Spanish conquered and lined the sqaure with churches using stones from deconstructed Incan buildings.

Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

Mural depicting the Incan golden age

The Inca

Shooting pigeons in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

Graduation parade in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

Celebrating Andean tradition in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

One of the positive effects of globalization: you can get great (and cheap!) Indian food in Cuzco. One of the best Chana Masalas that I've ever had.

Incan baths above Cuzco

Life sized indigenous dolls

Eucalyptus forest above Cuzco

Snubbed by a llama

Quechua woman and lamb

Defense portal at Saqsaywaman, the three-tiered fortress on Cuzco's north side.

Saqsaywaman Fortress

A view of Plaza de Armas from Saqsaywaman

Turbulent skies above Cuzco

Old Spanish tiles, Cuzco

Festival decorations in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

Children playing on the Cathedral in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

Parade in Plaza de Armas, Cuzco