A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

Machete, corn, and Inca ruins!

Inca Project in the Andes

Just two short weeks ago, I was in the middle of the “jungle” in the Andes in Peru searching for undiscovered Inca ruins. Now I am sitting on a couch with a big flat screen TV in front of me in central San Jose, Costa Rica, surrounded by MacDonald’s and other popular fast food restaurants. Luckily I’m just here for another day before heading off into the jungle again tomorrow morning to work in the rain forest for two months (Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast).

I spent five weeks volunteering on the Inca Project with a worldwide organization called Projects Abroad (http://www.projects-abroad.ca/destinations/peru/archaeology/inca-projects-in-peru/). We were based in a small town called Huyro, about 5-hour drive northwest of Cuzco in the Lucumayo valley. The region is really beautiful and I loved being surrounded by mountains. Before coming to Peru, I know nothing about the Incas and have zero experience and knowledge in archaeology. I have only seen pictures of Machu Picchu. So how did I end up doing this? I thought I would do something totally different from my training and when I came across this project last year, it sounded really neat and I thought it would be a great learning experience. I did trek the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu the week before I started on the placement and I was extremely amazed to learn about the history of the Inca Empire and to see the incredible craftsmanship of the Inca communities high up in the mountains (the agricultural terracing system is simply remarkable). Machu Picchu was most certainly the highlight, but other ruins along the Inca Trail were similarly impressive.

DSC07625.jpg DSC07686.jpg

After this experience, I was thrilled to begin working on the Inca Project. We lived in an old farm known as El Establo. Living conditions were basic. We did have running water but only cold water (which also meant cold showers only!!)

DSC08059.jpg DSC08061.jpg

A big part of the project was spent up in the mountain clearing and preserving ancient Inca ruins. Prior to this, the only other time I held a machete in my hand was when I was in Kruger National Park (South Africa) and that was only for a very brief period of time when we were building the corral for our sleep out in the park. This time the machete was my ‘best friend’ as it was the main tool we used to clear the vegetations around the Inca walls and to open up path through the forest during our exploration trips. The exploration trips were really fun and definitely the highlight for me. One time we had to jump across a gap in the river to get to the other side, and little did we know that there was going to be a bigger gap that we have to cross before we can get up the mountain to search for undiscovered ruins. So we went back the next day and built a bridge! It was nothing elaborate, just four large tree trunks long enough to rest on the rocks on either side of the river. It was sturdy enough that we were all able to safely crawl across to the other side.


Besides the archaeological work, we also spent some time doing work around Establo---clearing the surrounding drainage system, harvesting crops and one of everyone’s “favorite” things to do---peeling corn! (The corns were already harvested by other volunteers before I arrived. They were dried and we had to peel the kernels off for chicken feed. Many volunteers left with blisters on their thumbs from this experience!)

My time on this project ended with a bang! On my second last day, five other volunteers and I set off at 6 am with Dan, our project leader, and Zenobio, our project archaeologist, in search for a path and ruins in the Lucumayo valley that might connect with Machu Picchu. Huyro is only about 10-15km directly north of Machu Picchu. Because of the close proximity of the two valleys, it is proposed that there might very well be a path leading to Machu Picchu, another Inca Trail!!! We climbed high up over the village of Amybamba, stopping several times to admire the gorgeous landscape. In the morning, we were disappointed when we didn’t find any ruins along the way. I was happy though to see many pretty flowers, and we also ran into a donkey and a cow in our path.

DSC08101.jpg DSC08112.jpg

So we continued climbing up the mountain and after about four and a half hours, we stopped for lunch just as some rain clouds started to move into the area. Our spirit perked up when Dan went off to do a little exploring and came back and told us that he might have found some tombs!! Cool!! So after lunch, with our machetes, we went off to do some exploring! Little did we know that we were going to discover a whole series of Inca ruins! It was incredible!! The deeper and further we went into the bush, more stone walls were found. It became quite funny to hear one of the excited volunteers keep saying, “Uno mas!” (meaning “one more!) We lost count how many structures we came across but there were at least 20 of them! Like a small community!! There was one part that Zenobio thinks it was a quarry. What an exciting finding!! Too bad I was leaving the project and won’t get to help excavate the site. I am very glad to have had this opportunity to be a part of this unique project. Who knows, maybe next time when I’m back in Peru, I will be walking a different Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu!

DSC08129.jpg DSC08131.jpg

Posted by RobertaS 10:43 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

The Great Walks of New Zealand

Jan-Feb, 2012

New Zealand is simply beautiful. This country of two islands with a population of only about 4.5 million has it all……volcanoes, lush rainforests, beaches with golden sand (there are black sand beaches too!), mountains surrounded by glaciers, charming fiords, thermal hot springs and mud pools, and not to mention, all those lovely creatures that I like---sheeps and penguins!! Before coming here, I knew that this country is pretty from pictures that I have seen, but now having seen it with my own eyes and having been immersed by the stunning landscapes, I have to say that this is the prettiest country that I have ever visited.

DSC07894.jpg DSC07240.jpg

From my experience, the best way to explore New Zealand is by car because it allows you to make stops at different scenic spots and it gives you the flexibility to change travel plans when the forecast predicts five days of rain when you want to spend some time relaxing on a beach (speaking from personal experience!)
I spent my first two weeks on the North Island and loved it! (Don’t let people persuade you to “skip the North Island and just head to the South Island”!) In the North Island, there are nice beaches all along the coast and great opportunities to hike up dormant volcanoes, to experience thermal hot springs in Rotorua and to explore caves and see glowworms in Waitomo. Perhaps the one thing that is on a lot of people’s list of “Things to do” in the North Island is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This alpine crossing is a 19 km one-day hike that is touted as one of the best one-day hike in New Zealand and perhaps even in the world. The crossing is one section of the 4-day Tongariro Northern Circuit trek in Tongariro National Park. It is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” as set out by the Department of Conservation (http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/great-walks/). Well, I did do the 19km hike and even scaled up Mt Tongariro. I can say that it was certainly a memorable one for me but I can’t testify whether it is indeed the best one-day hike I have ever done because I hardly saw anything that day!! I didn’t even take one single picture on my camera!!!
The day started out fine but as we got higher up, the wind got stronger and the rain started and did not stop until mid-afternoon when we got down from the alpine zone, which is supposed to be the prettiest part of the walk with nice views of the surrounding volcanoes and emerald coloured lakes. Sadly we miss all of that. We did briefly have a quick peek at one of the coloured lakes before the clouds hid it from view again. The cloud/fog was so dense that we could barely see the next orange pole/trail marker in front of us.


One thing I learned from this hike is that New Zealand’s weather, especially in the alpine areas, is very unpredictable and if you are planning any hikes, especially a one-day one like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, give yourself plenty of flexibility on the hiking date. We were actually all packed and ready to start the hike a few days before we actually did it, but only to find out that the windy weather up in the mountain is too dangerous and we were advised not to go up, so we left the park to visit other regions in the North Island and to wait for better weather. Unfortunately we did not wait long enough…..we only have pictures from postcards and posters to remind us how beautiful it would have been.

The weather in the South Island was similarly unpredictable especially in the west coast where the mountain range is. The South Island has the tallest peak in New Zealand---Mount Cook at 3754m. In contrast to the North Island, the South Island appears more dry (less ‘green’) and definitely busier (of tourists that is because there are actually more people living in the North Island than the South Island). There are also numerous parks and hiking trails here. I did three more of the “Great Walks” located in the South Island: the Kepler, the Routeburn, and the Milford Track. These are all multiday treks varying from 32km to 60km. Of these, the 4-day (53.5km) Milford Track is definitely the most well known, hence the most popular. You have to reserve your overnight hut space months in advance! I’m not exaggerating this…..when I tried to reserve space back in August last year to hike this trek in January, most of the hut spaces were already full for the month of January! So how did I end up on the Milford Track? I didn’t actually hike the Milford Track the way everyone else did. I went backwards! (During the busy walking season from October to April, you are only allowed to hike in one direction from Glade Wharf to Sandfly Point.) I stayed two nights at Quintin Lodge, about 25 km from the end point, where two of my friends work with Ultimate Hikes (http://www.ultimatehikes.co.nz/en/guided-walks/the-milford-track). Yes there is an alternate way to walk this track---the “luxury” way (that is if you don’t mind paying a couple of thousand dollars!!) I spent a day hiking up to Mackinnon Pass and visiting Sutherland Falls (at 580m, this is NZ highest waterfall). Like at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I was met with heavy clouds when I got up to Mackinnon Pass and did not get to see the ‘spectacular alpine panoramas’. This trek does pass through several pretty waterfalls. The side trip to Sutherland Falls is definitely worth a visit. Unlike other waterfalls, you can literally walk right up to it.

DSC07028.jpg DSC07135.jpg

Another Great Walk located in the Fiordland National Park is the Kepler Track. I did the shortened 3-day version (taking an early exit at Rainbow Reach). Unlike the Milford and the Routeburn track, this one is a loop track so it is not necessary to make additional transport arrangements to get back to the start of the track or wherever you have left your car. As much as I tried not to compare these three Great Walks located in the same region, I have to say that I enjoyed the Kepler track the most. This is partly because of the nice weather that I had but I also found this track offered more varied terrain compare to the other two. The first day we walked through beech forest with large ferns on our way up to Luxmore hut. On day two, we were up early to see the sunrise over the fiord down below us (so beautiful!) and did a side trip to the Luxmore cave before setting off on an incredible day walking along the alpine ridge system. (Luxmore cave was really fun. We only walked about 100m or so into the dark cave but you can go a lot deeper. So cool!) This alpine day was so unexpectedly spectacular! It helped that the sky cleared up in the afternoon (so lucky!!) There were beautiful views every turn along the path and on both sides of the ridge, nice 360 degree alpine views! We took our time walking through this section. We didn’t want to leave!

DSC06013.jpg DSC06193.jpg

On the last day, we were rewarded with more nice views of the mountains and of Lake Manapouri (too bad we didn’t have time to go swimming here). The Kepler track is longer than the other two, but the spectacular scenery made it all worthwhile. The weather is certainly a big factor in the level of ‘enjoyment’ in doing these Great Walks. But as I found out, sometimes the rain isn’t so bad when you are walking through a damp forest. I had so-so weather when I did the 3-day Routeburn track (32km). The forecast initially was predicting 3 days of sunshine due to a high pressure system moving in from the west coast (I couldn’t believe it when I saw this forecast, it seemed too good to be true!) Indeed the weather changed by day two as dense fog moved in and stayed in the area with little wind to push it out. My first glimpse of the beautiful Lake Mackenzie was when there was a sudden opening through the fog. This fog and mist from the light rain made my experience on the Routeburn track much more “magical” because it made the walk through the forest very enchanting. The path is narrow, so I felt like I was being surrounded by lush green vegetations and the mist added a nice touch to the atmosphere. I loved walking through the forest!

DSC06466.jpg 1DSC06665.jpg

So from my experience, it’s hard to rank these Great Walks and say that one is better than another. Each has its own unique beauty and given clear weather, I think all these walks will be spectacular. And it is not to say that these walks are the “best” in NZ. I did some other spectacular walks in NZ……Mt Taranaki in the North Island, Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass national park, and Mueller hut in Mt Cook national park. NZ has so much to offer! I would certainly not hesitate to do any of the hikes that I did again if I return to New Zealand!

DSC05325.jpg DSC05615.jpg

I can go on and on about the beauty of the landscape in New Zealand. The bottom line is if you love nature and being outdoors, then you must visit New Zealand! It is very easy to travel around this country and there is no admission fee to get into the national parks!!! Plus at each national park and around the country, there are information centers staffed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) that are super helpful in giving hiking and travelling advice. And I’m not saying this just because one of my friends work for DOC. :) New Zealand should most definitely be on everyone’s “must visit country list”!

Happy travelling!

DSC07246.jpg DSC05782.jpg

Posted by RobertaS 21:44 Archived in New Zealand Comments (5)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]