Monthly Archives: April 2013

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Cajas National Park (near Cuenca, Ecuador)

For those visiting Cuenca, I highly recommend Cajas national park. Its just outside Cuenca, but offers excellent hiking and takes you a world apart. At the park entrance, you pay the fee and the park ranger will give you an excellent map and show you what hikes are available. The trails are very well marked and the scenery is simply beautiful.

Getting there

Get on a bus going to Guayaquil. It costs $2 per ride, even though its only 1/2 hour per ride (its roughly $1 for every one hour of bus rides) to get off at the entrance to the park. $2 entrance fee for maps and trash bag. Restroom facilities can be used here.
We walked the pink route which is clearly marked. This is a scenic and easy route. We packed our lunches at the hostel and stopped for lunch. Eventually you will hit the road back to Cuenca – flag any bus heading back and climb on. As easy as that!
El Cajas is beautiful and has a surprising mix of landscapes. Gentle meadows with creeks flowing through and stark mountain vistas abound. 
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Cuenca – Ecuador’s suave colonial city

Cuenca in southern Ecuador seems to have it all – cute colonial streets, a bustling plaza, good cultural scene, great restaurants and excellent weather. It was our last big city stop in Ecuador.

Cuenca is the sort of place to put on some comfortable walking shoes and just wander around. If you get bored and crave the outdoors, a 1/2 hour bus ride is Cajas National Park, which offers excellent and safe hiking. The towns of Chordeleg, Sigsig and Gualaceo are a convenient day trip to get in some small town culture. We were accompanied by our Chinese friend Bones while we were in Cuenca and we even managed to celebrate Pongal together.

A small photo tour of Cuenca:

Local sweet stall

at the plaza

Cajas NP

Waiting for the sun to rise at the bus station

Local snacks

We were just walking and saw this performance at the plaza as we passed by. No idea why.

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A stopover at Lima, Peru

Lima was mainly a stopover for us to connect between Iquitos and Cuzco. We were running short of time and had to quickly see Machu Picchu as our time to enter Chile was running out. We were even contemplating dropping Chile out of our itinerary.

Lima had really tasty veg food, starting from the 6.50 sole meal at Govinda’s and corn from street carts.

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A few hours in Arequipa, Peru

We only had a few hours in Arequipa, Peru. We arrived via overnight bus from Cuzco and had a flight later in the morning to Santiago, Chile. Our friend Cat from England was kind enough to let us tag along with her to her hostel where we could freshen up. We all went for an early morning walk which was really enjoyable.

A military parade in the main plaza

Fruit vendor starting the day

We ran into this little shop that was offering an early breakfast. The locals who were awake were all wandering in for a porridge like drink made of soya and maca, mildly sweetened. Address: 427A Sucre

Soya maca drink – major hit!

We want some more!

Snowcapped mountains in the background

 It was on to the airport after this, to Santiago, Chile.

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Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

For the unplanned visitor to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail is often not the best way to go. The Inca trail gets booked months in advance, is closed in February and is very expensive (at least $500 per person and climbing up each year). We did not want to be restricted by booking the inca trail in advance as we had no idea when we’d be in Peru.

Yes, we biked down that road!
Relaxing on hamacas at one of the lunch stops after long hours of hiking
Cat – powerful but effortless hiker, most of us struggled to keep up with her
Steep narrow verdant hiking paths
Our patient and charismatic guide, Ebert
Relaxing at a hot spring towards the end of the day

When we arrived in Cuzco (we used the 20+ hour Cruz Del Sur bus service) it was already February and the Inca trail was closed. We have heard about a lot of other beautiful treks in the region, so we didnt think it was particularly important to go on the Inca trail. Some of the other treks offered from Cuzco are:

  • Salkantay trek – long, hard and very beautiful
  • Choquequirao trek – leading to the ruins of the same name. A shorter, far less common trek. I came to know about this when it got featured on the New York Times years ago. You can continue from the ruins for a few more days to get to Machu Picchu.
  • Ausangate – Ausangate and Vilcabamba are harder and more off the beaten track.
  • Vilcabamba
In addition to these treks, the Huaraz region in Peru offers fantastic trekking (Cordillera Huayhuash/Blanca etc.). Keeping all this in mind, the structure and complexity around the Inca trail didnt really appeal to us. Given it was February, none of these options were open to us anyway. We finally discovered the Inca jungle trek – a biking/hiking combo trek through tropical jungles that leads to Aguas Calientes. And it cost a fraction of the Inca Trail at $180.
Other aspects of the trek:
  • No camping. You get to stay in small family owned lodges every night. The lodge will prepare your meal based on your request.
  • You carry your own stuff – we packed a very light day pack with just a change of clothes.
  • In the villages you can buy stuff
  • You’ll walk next to the roaring river on several occasions, sometimes crossing it on bridges
  • The food was really good. Simple vegetarian fare was very easy to get.
  • Its not cold! Except for the first day and the last day, the weather is tropical and heavenly.

Inca Jungle Trek

The Inca Jungle Trek sees four days of fun filled action and costs ~ $180. We booked our tour at the Loki hostel tour booking desk. Anyone is welcome. They pick you up in the morning of day 1 at Loki and other designated spots and here is a rough overview:
Day 1 – pick up from Loki hostel, drive past ollantaytambo to a high altitude spot at 4200 meters + at Abra Malaga. Crazy and fun downhill bike ride from here. When the ride ends at a village, you get lunch and a small walk later, rest for the day.
Day 2 – long walking day. Involves a very beautiful section on an old Inca trail. One of the rest stops is a small house with hammocks and a monkey. A visit to a hot springs along the way. Mostly in jungle, so the weather is great.
Day 3 – Some more walking and you arrive at the hydroelectrica station near Aguas Calientes. You can take the train if you are tired, but we walked along the rail road tracks for a few hours. Sleep at Aguas Calientes.
Day 4 – Early AM walk/bus to Machu Picchu. Bus cost is not included. Guided tour at MP. Return to Aguas Caliente for evening train back to Ollantaytambo (train fare included). Bus transport to Cuzco (included in fare).
More details here – we booked it through these guys by simply walking to the hostel where our British friend we met in Iquitos was staying.
The trek was really well organized and was a great experience. We had excellent company – in fact, there were two Chilean girls whom we met again in Santiago and an English girl who visited us during her travels in India much later. It rained a lot, but we’d dry off quickly once the sun came out.

Inca Jungle Trek or Inca Trail?

Everyone who visits Peru want to try the Inca trail. While I dont deny for a second that it would be a great experience to be on the historic trail to Machu Picchu, I think its not an easy trek to plan, unless you are exclusively visiting Peru or have rigid timelines. If you are looking for simply a great experience and an opportunity to be amidst natural beauty to forget the rigors of daily life, the Inca jungle trek works just as well! I am quite sure you wont regret doing either trek. Given a chance, I’d happily do the Inca jungle trek again.
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Cuzco and Machu Picchu…assorted thoughts and pictures

After two months of backpacking in South America, some of it through really off tun-touristy areas, we finally reached Cuzco and the first thing we noticed were the number of tourists/travelers/backpackers. The semi cama seats on the Cruz Del Sur bus from Lima to Cuzco was luxurious and I was pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian food served to me on the bus. Yes, the bus has an attendant, a restroom and food served to your seat! I slept through most of the 20+ hours from Lima. The bus was filled with foreign tourists, mostly carrying heavy backpacks and the bus station at Lima has a check in facility for bags. Its not much different from an airport really.

Once in Cuzco, it hit us quickly how much more expensive everything is compared to the rest of Peru we’ve been in. The food, the lodging, the tour prices are in dollars, the shopping! Cuzco is a vibrant tourist base – you can see that its a really old city and has so many plazas and beautiful buildings and museums. One can wander around for a few days and still not see everything. Machu Picchu is mentioned everywhere – tour operators abound near the central plaza and one has to be careful before choosing one. We made several trips to iPeru office on the plaza to understand how the tours work and whats the best way to pick a good company. As I described in a different post, we finally settled down for the Inca Jungle Trek from Loki hostel to visit Machu Picchu. iPeru has been a reliable source of tourist info for us across Peru. They are very hard to locate on the central plaza – do ask around, I think it is the same building as the BBVA continental office. There are many other tourist info offices nearby and the information is not all that good.

To see all the ruins nearby and museums in the city, you need a Boleto Touristico which costs 130 soles. We gave this a skip as we’d recently seen many ruins and wanted to just take some day trips out of Cuzco.
Just the train ride to Machu Picchu costs $70 round trip. All tour prices are in dollars in Cuzco. A budget trip to Machu Picchu is not very easy to do! Entrance fees cost 140 soles and 70 soles if you have an ISIC card.
Cuzco has great veg food options. There is a popular Indian restaurant here called Maikhana at Av El Sol on the 2nd floor. El Encuentro has 6 sole dinners and is located on Santa Catalina Ancha 384. There is a very nice Govindas on Saphy street. The folks at Maikhana own Om Cusco on Calle Saphy 661, where you pay for the meal at your discretion. All proceeds go towards feeding poor children in the area. Our favorite though which we repeatedly went to was Prasada – literally a hole in the wall spot in an apartment building on 152 Choquechacha. Awesome lentil burgers here and very pleasant people staff the place. No place to sit, so be prepared to stand or take away.

Chinchero market find

Lentil burger with guacamole at Prasada
Markets in Cuzco are fun. Explore and spot all the cool products made out of quinoa, maca and amaranth that you will not find elsewhere.
We took a day trip to Chinchero. Bus rides cost 2.5 soles per person one way. The market is small and interesting, but there are some lunch ladies who will sell you food. I snagged a plate of greens with broad beans for <2 soles.
From Aguas Caliente, bus rides to Machu Picchu cost $9 one way. At the top, a simple sandwich costs 20 soles.
For our stay in Cuzco, tucked away in a small alley, we found a family run hotel called Jardines Del Inka. They have a kitchen and private rooms for 40 soles after a small bargaining session. Mostly frequented by Chilean and other south american tourists.

Protecting Against Loss During Long Term Travel (and What Travel Insurance to buy)

I wrote about getting robbed in Calama, Chile here and here. A recent comment from a reader reminded me to write this post about how to protect yourself from theft.

In a nutshell, its nearly impossible to make your travel 100% theft-proof. But you can plan so that its nothing more than an unfortunate inconvenience.


I may be the most careful, paranoid person in the world, but someone out there is smarter and is making a living out of stealing. That guy is hard to beat, unfortunately. Swami and I went through a period of retrospection during those countless bus rides immediately after the theft, where we’d keep telling each other “Never again will I do this….” or “Next time, lets not forget to scan that document…”. I wanted to compile some of those lessons learned here, for when you need them, you really really need them.


Here are some tips to ensure that if a theft does occur, you get back on track quickly.

Buy Travel Insurance

Like I said before, we are incredibly glad we got trip insurance. There are plenty of companies and plans out there to choose from, but we purchased ours from worldnomads. They ended up being great to deal with and covered our losses up to the limits specified in the policy, just as they promised. The insurance we bought covered the following:

  • Things we lost – laptop, DSLR camera, lenses, tablet, other electronic accessories
  • Trip interruption – food and hotel costs for the days it to took to recover our travel documents, eg. passport, green card etc.
  • Airfare – one of us had to reschedule our flights, so the insurance covered some part of the cancelled fare/new fare.
  • Documents – passport application fees and Transportation letter fees
Keep policy number and phone number very handy!

Keep online copies of all important documents

When you lose a passport or green card, embassies will require a lot of documentation to replace them. Its best to have them handy on portable hard drives and/or online storage. Here are things to have VERY handy:
  • Passport – copy of ALL pages. Not just front or back page. We had only the front and back page and could not prove to the US embassy on what date we left the country last. We also had to prove to the Chilean police when we entered the country. We also lost all our visa stamps!
  • Other ID’s – drivers license, voter ID, student ID etc. Secondary IDs are sometimes asked.
  • Financial documents – bank and credit card statements. Easy to get online, but you may not have a fast internet connection to accomplish all your online needs. I was planning to use my credit card statement to show I was at LA airport on a given date to prove my residence in the US, as supporting documentation.
  • Visas of resident country – In our case scanned copy of US green card. We had green cards, but we also had all our green card application documents on online storage. Very useful.
  • Entry/Exit stamps – When traveling abroad, whenever your passport is stamped, please take a picture with your smartphone/tablet/camera and email to yourself. You will thank yourself later. We wish we did this with our Colombia entry stamps as the US embassy asked for this.
  • Other travel and identification documents – vaccinations, yellow fever certificate (required for Bolivia), copies of tickets, important receipts etc. Marriage certificate if you are married.
  • BOARDING PASS – most important! Boarding pass stubs are very important documents to store until you are done with your trip. Just a clear picture with a smartphone will do. The US embassy wanted either this or our entry/exit stamps. We had neither and had to frantically figure out other ways to prove our exit dates.

Portable hard drives in different bags

Swami did a very clever thing by getting us each a portable hard drive and backing them up regularly. By doing this, we only lost about a week’s worth of pictures on our DSLR, as our laptop was lost too. Thankfully our compact camera preserved our memories from Torres Del Paine. I highly recommend carrying portable hard drives and/or pen drives placed in different bags with some backup data.

Keep a handy list of information in your travel notebook

Dont have a travel notebook? Its better to start one and keep things like 
  • frequent flyer numbers, 
  • membership numbers and 
  • coded passport numbers etc. 
  • Numbers to your credit card and debit card institution. Our stolen backpack had a bunch of cards that had to be cancelled and we didnt have access to these numbers.
  • Insurance policy number and their phone number

Cheaper and fewer gadgets

We love technology and went overboard on the expensive toys we carried. A macbook pro, a very good Nikon DSLR and a wide angle lens, a tablet, a compact camera…the list goes on. Next time I travel, I will exclusively be using a netbook or a used old laptop just for this purpose. The MBP was meant for storing large amounts of data and video/photo editing which doesnt happen as often as one would like. Infact, I am still updating the blog a year after we completed, so the MBP was not mandatory at all! I am no travel blogger or full time writer. My blog and picture editing can wait until I return from the trip. 

Protecting in layers

Some things are very painful to lose. Passports and documents like green cards. Our passport was really easy to get, but the green card process is much much more complex. And its just a card which we could have protected easily. We have a hidden wallet, but we did not use it at that time. Having fewer critical things to protect is easier than watching a heavy backpack with gadgets. I didnt lose my hand bag and I could have kept the passports in it! You dont need one of those weird wallets, but just make sure that what needs maximum protection is lightweight and close to the body.

Carry less

A lot of what we lost was unnecessary for the purpose of travel. We simply got carried away. If we had lighter, fewer packs (one big pack, one small pack, etc), caring is much easier. You lose less, cant really refute that!

If you have had a similar experience, I’d be really eager to hear about your lessons learned.

Protect your data

  • Password protect all devices. 
  • Encode all important documentation in a folder preferably. 
  • Change all email passwords and bank passwords immediately
  • Sign up for a service that tracks devices/automatically purges information (or just bring a chromebook!)








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Packing list for the w trek in Patagonia

As a vegan trekking in Torres Del Paine, I wanted to share our food and gear list. All items are easily available in the chain supermarket called Unimarc. Since the W trek is a completely independent trek, you are responsible for carrying everything in and cooking for yourself.

Food list for W-trek, patagonia:

  1. Candy
  2. Trail Mix
  3. Dried Fruit
  4. Spicy peanuts
  5. Oat cereal bars
  6. Cereal mix oat cookies
  7. Costa muesli cookies
  8. Energy bars from Peru – found vegan energy bars in Lima!
  9. Soya cookies
  10. Dark chocolate
  11. Maggi stock cubes – checked ingredient list multiple times
  12. Soup packets
  13. Dried noodles
  14. Rice primavera instant food
  15. Tea bags
  16. Hot chocolate – 1 bar
  17. Hot breakfast drink pack from Cuzco containing local grains – excellent buy!
  18. Raisins
  19. Oats
  20. Jam (sold in blocks)
  21. Instant juice packets. Mix water to make juice.

Clothes list for one person, male or female

  1. Quick dry pant, 1
  2. T-shirt for hiking, 1
  3. Fleece pant for sleeping, 1
  4. Synthetic base layer shirt, 1
  5. Synthetic base layer pant, 1 – available at REI
  6. Rain pant
  7. Rain jacket
  8. Fleece shirt
  9. One extra t-shirt – optional
  10. Innerwear – as required

Gear:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Stove
  • One pot for cooking. Utensils. Plastic cups for drinking hot/cold.
  • Gas canisters
  • Matches

Other very helpful items to have:

  • Large plastic bag to cover the tent fly as it gets wet in the rain
  • Hooks/carabiners outside the pack to strap things
  • Camp slippers
  • Fingerless gloves
  • Minimum toiletries
  • Spare camera battery
  • Candy is great to carry handy
  • Small empty water bottle. The water in TDP is amazingly tasty and refreshes immediately, so no need to carry water.
  • No need for plates – can eat from pot directly.
  • Many plastic bags for rain proofing
  • Hiking poles
  • At least one pair of quick dry clothes
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Chilean Patagonia for Indian Citizens

You might wonder why I titled this post “Chilean Patagonia for Indian Citizens”. Torres Del Paine national park is one of South America’s most visited national parks with good reason. It brings to mind the image of rugged, uninhabitable terrain that only a few have conquered, windy weather, wild horses and glaciers. Its extraordinary beauty can only be experienced and visiting this place is one of those memorable moments that sticks to you for a long time.

However, an Indian backpacker who prefers overland travel to air travel will not find Torres Del Paine a straightforward place to visit.
The only roads leading to Torres Del Paine are from
a.       Punta Arenas
b.      From Argentina
There are no roads to TDP from Santiago which do not traverse into Argentina.
·         An Indian backpacker wanting to travel to Torres Del Paine by land should have not only a Chilean visa but also an Argentinian visa.
·         If you want to visit the rest of Chile, Torres Del Paine and Argentina, this will require multiple entry visas for BOTHcountries. This only applies to those who want to do overland travel.
·         If you only have a Chilean visa (like we did) and want to visit Patagonia, the only way to do so is to fly to Punta Arenas from Santiago. Bus travel was out of the question  as we did not have a visa to Argentina.

Punta Arenas
The super friendly owner at Don Santiago hostel  helped us book our tickets to Punta Arenas via LAN online.  Once you arrive at Punta Arenas airport, there are buses outside that will take you to the center of the town. Once there, you can get to your hostel and start preparing for your trip to Torres Del Paine.
Punta Arenas is a good place to stock up on groceries. The Unimart here is well stocked with groceries. We bought candy, cookies, dried noodles, dried pasta, nuts and dried fruits etc for the w-trek. The food choices for vegetarians in Punta Arenas were slim pickings, but I did come across on vegetarian restaurant that was closed for the weekend. Sigh! Only in South America do we find restaurants in tourist destinations closed for the weekend.
We stayed at the Blue House hostel, an Israeli bastion with mostly Israeli backpackers and signs in Hebrew and cooked at the hostel.
Isla Magdalena
From Punta Arenas you can go on the boat tour to Isla Magdalena and see the Penguins. This is as south as we’ve ever been in our lives. To our very pleasant surprise, we bump into a very friendly Indian couple from Bangalore, of all places, on the boat. Priya and Rohit live in Santiago with their dog and were enjoying a vacation to Patagonia. It was a very fun and pleasant way to spend an afternoon. The penguins are very very loud and were molting when we were there.
Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
There are many bus companies that ply buses between PA and PN. We used Fernandez Sur for …
By now, we’re used to finding hostels after arriving at a town/city. Once we got here, we just walked around the central area and looked for hostels. We found a great cheap one at Refugio Esmeralda. Just a block from it is a convenience store with all essentials – El Virgel.
Puerto Natales is a typical trekking town. You will find people walking around with extra large backpacks either going to or return from treks in TDP. It lives and breathes TDP. Every second store is an outdoor outfitter or rents/sells camping equipment. And then there are nice restaurants to celebrate your return from the trek.
If you want to do the W trek or the full circuit, head to Erratic Rock hostel for their daily briefing. It is a great information session that tells you how to do the trek. You can rent equipment from them, but we got ours from a shop here (use satellite view)  and we got excellent rates for good quality gear.
Enquire around the shops in the centro area about things like gas canisters for stoves, last minute food purchases etc. We packed our backpacks for the trek, purchased tickets to Puerto Natales, rented our equipment and left the remaining stuff at the hostel. Off we go to the W trek, something I’ve been dreaming about for years.

Some pictures from the W trek: