Saturday, May 31, 2008

Top Ten Travel Wonders of South America - Rank 6 - 10

This entry covers the South American travel wonders ranked six to ten. Please read the top five list first.

6. Patagonia / Torres del Paine (Argentina / Chile)

Jagged mountain peaks, azure-blue lakes, cascading waterfalls and thick glaciers provide an alluring outdoor experience to those wandering into the southern reaches of the American continent.

7. Andes

Snaking around 8000 kilometres (5000 miles) from the southern tip of the continent to Venezuela, the Andes are the world’s second highest mountain range including the imposing Aconcagua.

8. Angel Falls (Venezuela)

Tumbling 979 metres, the world’s tallest falls are difficult to access but are little changed from when the American bush pilot stranded his plane when landing near the top of the falls.

9. Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

The sun-soaked Atlantic beaches, the world famous Carnaval festival and the two great city vistas (from Sugar Loaf mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue) makes Rio the most rewarding city in South America.

10. Nazca Lines (Peru)

Only truly visible from the air, mysterious and spectacular geometric designs and giant animals (100 to 200 metres across) including a monkey, a spider, a condor and a hummingbird were gouged into the arid Peruvian desert by an ancient culture.

Come back in a few days to see the top five South American travel wonders.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cycling the Death Road (La Paz, Bolivia)

Chiselled through the steep-sided travel wonder of the Yungas Mountains in Bolivia, the rough one-lane road from shrouded La Cumbre (at a lung-bursting 4700 metres above sea level) to Corioco (at a tropical 1100 metres) is variously described as the World’s Most Dangerous Road and El Camino de al Muerte (the Road of Death). There is supposedly a death every week or so.

With fog, rain, mud, dust, no guardrails and sheer dropoffs of many hundred metres, it hardly seems the description of the ideal holiday bike ride. Everyday adrenaline soaked cyclists share this treacherous but spectacular road with delivery trucks and vans. One slip and it is your last journey.

Your heart leaps every time two of the trucks pass each other. The downhill truck, belching fumes like a heavy chain smoker, moves gingerly to the outer edge, wheels teetering over a steep fall while the uphill truck carefully sneaks down the inside, the numerous paint marks and scratches worn like scout merit badges, a legacy of past successful journeys.

For the keen mountain cyclist, it is an exhilarating opportunity to plunge over 3,500 vertical metres over 60 kilometres (35 miles) of undulating dirt road with only two short uphill portions. Just think, 60 kilometres and hardly the need to turn a pedal.

Masked with thick fog and mist, little prepares you for the road ahead as your bikes are unloaded and you rug up for the freezing few first kilometres. The only two uphill parts of the whole journey are early on, which is great as pedalling starts to initiate enough blood flow to warm the fingers and toes and ears. Little can you believe that in a five or six hours, you will be sipping cold beer wiping away a dusty sweat in the steamy Amazonian jungle town of Corioco.

As the day clears and warms, your mind is a muddle. Peeling a layer of clothing every half hour as the temperature climbs with the dropping altitude, the mountains start to open up as the mist wafts away. Wanting to enjoy the staggering mountain vistas, waterfalls tumbling down the sheer cliff walls, your eyes dare not venture at all from the rutted road immediately ahead for fear of missing a turn. Your mind resonates all day with the strong message “control your speed” and “don’t use the front brake”. You get the feeling that one lapse and you could be swan-diving over the handlebars and into the jungle below.

Riding the World’s Most Dangerous Road is a truly great travel wonder and travel experience. And the scariest part – the ride back up the road in a truck returning to La Paz.

Recently, a new road has been built through to Coroico meaning the trucks and vans are no longer on the road. But the cycling continues. I travelled with Gravity Bolivia who were highly professional with good quality bicycles, a well-equipped support vehicle, enthusiastic experienced guides and a strong claim that they haven’t lost anyone to the road. As an update, Alistair, the head of Gravity Bolivia has left a message that "... even though the old road has not been closed to traffic, almost no vehicles use it. On the other-hand, an ever increasing number of bikers do use the road, and each group of bikers has a support vehicle, so sometimes it is still quite busy."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Happy Birthday Peak Tram (Hong Kong)

As travel wonders go, one of the great train journeys in the world is one of the shortest. And in two days time, it is 120 years old. Happy Birthday!

Taking less than five minutes, the 1.4 kilometre (less than one mile) ride up the funicular rail gains an elevation of around 400 metres from Hong Kong’s central district to the top of Victoria Peak. From the top, one of the world’s finest cityscapes and one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities is unveiled for all to see.

The Peak Tram claims some mind-boggling safety records – they have never had an accident and have only been out of service (excluding normal maintenance) twice – once for World War II and once for the 1966 floods.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Reed Islands (Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Straddling Peru and Bolivia, the travel wonder of Lake Titicaca (with an area of over 8,000 square kilometres or 3,000 square miles) lies at a oxygen-deprived 3,800 metres above sea-level (12,500 feet) making any activity for a visitor beyond a slow stroll quite a feat of endurance. For hundreds of years, the Uros people have lived peacefully on a handful of small islands made solely of reeds dotted within this huge lake.

Nearly everyone, locals and visitors alike, seem to chew heartily on coca leaves, supposedly to combat the effect of altitude sickness. Though there is scant medical evidence, this South American equivalent of tiger balm also holds claims to combat the cold, fatigue and various other ailments.

Living on a reed island brings some interesting new chores and challenges. Everyone seems to be fairly active either working reeds or preparing food. The leathery skin on the hands of the island women shows the years spent crushing grains with large smooth rocks.

As the reeds slowly rot away in the lake’s waters, there is an endless cycle of collecting, drying and spreading the reeds to build up the island. Fortunately the lightweight reed huts can be easily picked up and moved, a new reed floor being laid every few days.

Exotic, viking-like long boats with giant dragon head fronts are also constructed from reeds and are used for transportation between the neighboring islands. Small stick and reed pens on the edge of the islands house fish which forms the staple diet of the Uros.

The Uros unashamedly encourage visitors, charging them for rides on their boats, to climb their watchtower (you guessed it, made of reeds), for souvenirs such as their colorful clothing and model reed boats and for snapping photos. This money assists them in buying other goods from the mainland.

The whole experience may feel somewhat voyeuristic but a few hours on the island provides a fascinating insight into this unique travel wonder, a chance to view a lifestyle so completely different from our own.


Also worth a visit (and an overnight stay with a local family) is Amantani or Taquile Islands which have sustained subsistence farming families for generations. You may even get a chance to enjoy the Peruvian delicacy of cuy (guinea pig) which naturally enough tastes like chicken!!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hiking the Confection Villages (Cinque Terre, Italy)

Delicately balanced on sharp ridges or squeezed into tight ravines, the random tangle of pastel-painted houses and traffic-free laneways of these five small Italian coastal villages known as the Cinque Terre are a true travel wonder to behold. A local railway connects the five villages running through tunnels gouged from the hillsides with occasional openings to glimpse the wide blue ocean, the green terraced vineyards or the colorful houses.

Far beyond the occasional glimpse from a train is to experience the Cinque Terre by walking the panoramic Blue Path – a rugged walk of around five hours to explore all five lands. Any day sees a good number of walkers on the tracks between each village providing chances to chat with folks from all over the world or to lose yourself in thoughts of different times and places.

I’d suggest starting at the southern most Riomaggiore, its main square and rockwalls full of stacked fishing boats, its houses clambering sharply up the ravine either side of the main square. This village seemed less touristy with the locals going about their every day life, hanging washing or scouring the local market for bread, fish and vegetables. With the waves breaking against the rocks below, a short cliff-edge walk of little more than twenty minutes along the evocatively named Via dell' Amore (Lover’s Lane) leads to Manarola.

With its history dating back to Roman time, Manarola’s confection-like village sits perched on a large black rock, the hills behind reserved for steeply terraced vineyards that have grown there for centuries.

It is a long and steep walk to the next village of Corniglia, perched on a cliff (including an oxygen-sapping 370-odd step staircase to the village center) and a similar steep and uneven (and longer) walk, meandering through vineyards and past ancient dry-stone walls to Vernazza, probably the best of the five villages. It is an excellent spot for a late lunch at any number of nice cafes and eateries, seemingly all serving supremely fresh seafood and pasta (and washed down with the local wines). The wafting cooking aromas in the gentle sea breezes lifts tired legs and energy-sapped spirits. The nearby Doria tower on a craggy rock spur (pictured at the top of this article) offers a staggering view over the village it once guarded and the Cinque Terre coastline, along with refreshing strong Italian coffee.

For many, this can complete the walk. Vernazza provides a treasure-trove of narrow car-free laneways, ancient fortifications and interesting (though touristy) shops to explore and wander.

For those with energy to burn, the final leg to Monterosso beckons a further 1.5 hours away. To me, Monterosso is the least interesting of the five villages and the peace of motor-free townships is broken. The hike continues to follow the contours of the headlands and provide scenic coastal vistas along the length of the Cinque Terre.

Remember that there is always the train to get between any of the villages that you don't want to walk and there is also a network of boats that ply the waters between the small townships.

Cinque Terre is one of the true travel wonders of Italy. Get out into the fresh air and enjoy this Italian coastal treasure.


A simple map of Cinque Terre is available here.

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