2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Machu Picchu: the Sun Gate and Wayna Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the most dramatically located ancient sites I’ve ever been privileged to visit. While that is obvious from anywhere in the ruined city, a 2km walk up the Inca trail brings you to the Sun Gate where it’s possible to get the view of the city that those who walk the Inca trail get when they first sight the city.

But for a birds-eye-view of the city, the surrounding mountains and valleys there’s nothing for it but to climb up the near vertical Wayna Picchu mountain, at the top of which another  audacious Inca citadel awaits.

The walk to the Sun Gate is a pleasant 40 minutes and every step seems to deliver yet more views of the beautiful surrounding mountains and valleys.

Machu Picchu with Wayna Picchu looming in the background

Fortification on the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, Machu Picchu, Peru

City planning Inca style, Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail, Peru

The view once you reach the Sun Gate is nothing short of spectacular. I could have spent an hour drinking in the view but I had an appointment with the big hill on the right of the photo below so cut my stay short and set off back down the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu from the Sun Gate, Peru

I know walking up big hills isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it. So I figured a walk up Wayna Picchu would be good for body and soul and also provide some respite from the crowds that would inevitably be marauding around Machu Picchu by mid-morning.

I hadn’t factored in that the climb is lung-burstingly vertical for much of the route, that at 10am the heat would be severe, or that there would be little in the way of safety features on the route – with sheer drops off the side of the trail, vertical stairways and very worn and slippery steps you need to be mountain goat-like sure footed. Reaching the top though is another exercise in finding yet more superlatives (and the odd expletive). This time I did spend an hour drinking in the views and getting my breath back.

Inca buildings on Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

There are quite a number of buildings on Wayna Picchu literally built into the near-vertical mountainside, and of course there is more agricultural terracing. It is mind-boggling how the Inca built such an extraordinary site in such an extraordinary place.

Even if the Spanish had found Machu Picchu, it is inconceivable that they would have been able to capture the fortifications on Wayna Picchu. At one point I was crawling on my hands and knees up through a stairway cut into the rock about 20 feet beneath the summit of Wayna Picchu.

Stairway up through the rock on Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

View of Machu Picchu and valley almost from the top of Wayna Picchu, Peru

It is difficult to describe the sensation of reaching the top of the mountain. Apart from a security guard at the top I was alone with my thoughts and the view for the best part of an hour. Chatting to the security guard (who had been doing this job for 15 years) turned out to be a big mistake; people have died on Wayna Picchu, including one person who was hit by lightening right in front of him.

With that sobering thought, I set off down the stairway of doom back to Machu Picchu. The views were spectacular but it’s not wise to to take your eyes of the steps when walking down an incline so steep it seems like you are hovering over the edge of a giant precipice.

Looking straight down Wayna Picchu past Inca buildings, Machu Picchu, Peru

Steps down Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

Steps coming down Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

The way down Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

With trembling knees I made it down to the base of the mountain, encouraging everyone I met on their way up with the words, “It gets much worse further up.” Strangely this didn’t seem to have the invigorating effect I’d expected.

Regardless, if you are visiting Machu Picchu the climb up Wayna Picchu is worth it for the spectacular views, but book early, they only allow 400 people to attempt the climb each day.

Wayna Picchu pokes above buildings on the Sacred Plaza, Machu Picchu, Peru

The magnificent Machu Picchu

I have a horror of tour groups. I understand why they exist but they still bring me out in hives. So after spending a few pleasant days wandering around the Sacred Valley away from the crowds I approached Machu Picchu with a sense of trepidation. Will it live up the (high) expectations? Will it be disappointing? Will the other 2499 tourists allowed in the same day make it unbearable?

It’s probably selfish to want the whole of Machu Picchu to oneself but when I reached the bus queue in Aguas Calientes at 5am there were already a hundred people in the line. I wasn’t alone in wanting to get to the site before the tour-group hoards arrived mid-morning.

Mist clears from the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu, Peru

In the end I worried needlessly, Machu Picchu was magnificent. Yes, by 10am the site looks more like London at rush hour; but at 6am, sitting on centuries old Inca terracing above the site watching the mists clear from the ruins as the sun rose over the surrounding mountains, was a magical and mystical experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for all the looted Inca silver in Cusco’s cathedral.

Actually, when I first arrived there was a tantalising glimpse of the city and then the mist swept back across the mountain and obscured everything. It took about an hour for the mist to clear again and I was beginning to wonder if we’d get to see anything. In the end the Inca gods were just playing with us and the wait was worth it.

A fleeting glimpse of Machu Picchu before the mist descended

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, probably because it had already been abandoned by the time they arrived, and it is easy to see how it remained hidden from the outside world for several centuries. It is built on top of a mountain, surrounded by mountains and located above an inaccessible narrow and deep gorge…and then there’s the mist.

City in the mist, Machu Picchu, Peru

City in the mist, Machu Picchu, Peru

City emerging from the mist, Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

An Australian friend who works in the travel industry has done an analysis of the cost of Machu Picchu compared to other world famous tourist destinations; Machu Picchu is around five-times more expensive for the average visitor, which puts a lot of pressure on a visit. But as the mist slowly dissolved in front of us and Machu Picchu revealed its true beauty the cost became irrelevant.

The other thing to reveal itself was the very large hill behind Machu Picchu. Called Wayna Picchu, I had booked a place to climb this monstrosity at 10am. Seeing it in the flesh was a bit disconcerting, but it turned out to be a really good decision (of which more later).

Until 10am there was plenty of time to wander through the ruins of Machu Picchu and marvel at the brilliance of the Inca buildings – surprisingly, it is easy to find yourself alone in the ruins with only the wind and tremendous views for company.

The Sacred Plaza and residential quarter, Machu Picchu, Peru

View over the Temple of the Condor, Machu Picchu, Peru

Building in the Three Doorways area, Machu Picchu, Peru

View down the Sacred Plaza, Inca terracing in the background, Machu Picchu, Peru

Inca terracing on the flanks of Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu in the background, Peru

A few days before we arrived at Machu Picchu I received a compact camera with a video function for my birthday. I should probably have practiced before reaching Machu Picchu, but below is my first video…I apologise if it is a bit wonky.