Adventure Destination: Patagonia

South America has some of the most remote and amazing places on the planet. The continent is home to the Amazon and the Andes of course, both of which conjure images of beautiful, wild places. But perhaps the most remote, beautiful, and wild of all, lies far to the south, transcending the borders of Argentina and Chile, in a place called Patagonia.

Sitting just on the southern end of the Andes Mountains, and stretching east onto a series of stepped plains. Patagonia is amongst the most geographically and climatically diverse places on the planet, with arid plains, icy mountains, spiky rock towers, and wondrous glaciers. As if all of that weren’t enough, the region is also home to a number of active volcanoes, which bring bubbling hot springs, geysers, and an occasional eruption to the region as well.

Patagonia is also legendary for its weather, which can best be described as tempestuous. Because of its proximity to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the entire area is buffeted by storm fronts on a regular basis, and visitors should always be aware that weather conditions can, and do, change very rapidly, with beautiful, warm, sunshine giving way to high winds, rain, and snow, on a moments notice.

But those who make the trip to Patagonia will be rewarded with an outdoor playground unlike any other on Earth. Hikers, climbers, paddlers, and backpackers will find plenty to keep them occupied, with spectacular trails stretching throughout the area, and some of the best rock climbing in the world. The Torres del Paine National Park, for instance, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers a number of classic treks, several of which pass within the shadows of the Towers of Paine, three rock monoliths that are considered amongst the most challenging big walls on the planet. Patagonia’s Pacific Coast serves up spectacular sea kayaking, with a multitude of islands and glaciers to explore as well, rounding out the outdoor adventurers wonderland.

Patagonia isn’t just for the adventure crowd however, as the amazing scenery is worth the journey for anyone who appreciates beautiful outdoor environments. The sweeping vistas and breathtaking mountain views can be viewed from the comfort and safety of a tour bus as well, and wildlife, which include cougars, foxes, an assortment of birds, and guanaco, an antelope-like herd animal, are abundent.

For many, Patagonia represents the ultimate adventure travel destination. It is remote, strikingly beautiful, and sits practically at the ends of the Earth. So whether backpacking, climbing, paddling, or just beautiful scenery is your thing, you’ll find plenty to like in this South American paradise.

Was Machu Picchu always a tourist attraction?

Travelers to Peru almost invariably make a stop at the famous Inca lost city of Mach Picchu. Situated on a mountain top, the spectacular ruins have been luring visitors almost immediately after they were rediscovered by Hiram Bingham back in 1911. But according to this story from National Geographic, a new theory is being put fourth by Italian scientist Giulio Magli who says that the fortress may have always been a tourist trap, even when it was first constructed back in 1460.

Historians have long debated the real purpose for Machu Picchu’s existence. Situated at 8000 feet above sea level, it couldn’t have been easy to construct, nor was it easy to reach after it was completed. Some people believe it was a palace built for Pachacuti, the ruler of the Inca Empire at the time of the city’s construction. Others have felt that it has some type of celestial observatory. But Magli feels that Machu Picchu was built to be a pilgrimage site that worshipers would make the trip to in order to relive an important journey from their historical past.

According to legend, the Inca people were created on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca. Later they made an important and difficult journey through the Earth, emerging at a place called Tampu-tocco. Magli feels that the journey to Machu Picchu was a symbolic recreation of those travels, and he even points to landmarks within the ruins that represent certain elements found within the myth. Furthermore, he feels that the site was accessible by commoners and royalty alike, who traveled there to relive a portion of that mythology.

This is an interesting theory, and if true, should make us all feel a little less guilty for beating a path to the Peruvian ruins. After all, if it was meant to be a tourist spot all along, we’re only doing what the original architect intended. He should have planned ahead for higher capacity, or at least expansion, though.

Photo of the Day (5.31.09)

Light and shadow are the photographer’s secret weapons, something artfully demonstrated in this image from Flickr user nabil.s. Nabil took this shot of the Andean Mountains in Peru, darkened by eerie clouds and enveloped by the oncoming dusk. I love the tiny plot of brightly-lit mountain in the background. It looks like it’s about to be swallowed by an approaching monster.

Do you have any travel photos you’d like to share with our Gadling readers? Why not add them our group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Alternative Treks to the Inca Trail

Yesterday we wrote about The Inca Trail, one of the best known and most popular treks anywhere in the world, culminating with hikers arriving at Machu Picchu following a stunning four day journey through the Andes. Unfortunately the popularity of the trail is also one of its drawbacks, with literally hundreds flocking to it on a daily basis during the high season. Those crowds can deminish the experience for those who prefer solitude on their adventures.

Fortunately, there are some excellent alternatives to the Inca Trail that offer more challenging hikes, little to no traffic, and scenery seen by only a select few. Here are three of the very best of those alternatives:

Salcantay Trail
This trail is named after the tallest mountain in the region, but has also garnered the nickname of “Machu Picchu’s Backdoor”. Much like the inca Trail, this trek is four days in length and ends at the lost city. For now it remains light on traffic, although a number of hikers are switching to this trail with increasing frequency, as the Inca Trail continues to sell out earlier and earlier each year. Unlike the Inca Trail however, there are no ruins along the path, and altitude is more of a consideration as the Salcantay climbs as high as 15,420 feet, nearly 2000 feet higher than the Inca. But those who choose the Salcantay get quieter campsites and smaller crowds, with a similar payoff.

Another amazing trek that ends in an ancient Incan ruin, this time a mountain fortress known as Choquequiro. While not as famous as Machu Picchu, Choquequiro is no less spectacular, with much of the place still being reclaimed from the jungle. The trail to Choquequiro is virtually unknown outside of the backpacker crowd, and the virtually empty route reflects that, but this one is not for the tourist crowd. Far more challenging and remote than the Inca Trail, without the same high altitudes, this hike allows visitors to get up close and personal with the people who inhabit the Andes Mountains in Peru, more so than any of the other trekking options. One of the other draws for this hike is that it can still be done independently as well. Experienced backpackers are able to hike to Choquequiro on their own should they choose, although a guide is still highly recommended.

Cordillera Huayhuash
Peru has some of the best hiking in the world, with stunning landscapes all over the country. Not all of the best hikes are in the Cusco region close to Machu Picchu. Take the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit located north of Lima. This particular trek is not for the faint of heart. While the Inca Trail, and the alternatives listed here are just four days in length, this epic trail takes 16 days to complete, with more demanding hiking across its length. Trekkers pass through 12 distinct high passes and climb above 18,000 feet, surrounded by glacier covered mountains and some of the most stunning vistas in the world. The Huayhuash Circuit is one of the premiere hikes on the planet, and should only be considered by experienced adventure travelers with plenty of trekking experience. Those that do undertake it are rewarded with an adventure of a lifetime.

So, there you have it. Leave the Inca Trail to the crowds, and take one of these other hikes. Enjoy the solitude of the Andes, without giving up the adventure.

Classic Treks: The Inca Trail, Peru

Peru is, beyond a doubt, one of the top adventure travel destinations in the entire world. It offers an amazing array of things to see and do, perfectly blending culture with both mountain and jungle settings, along with ancient artifacts and ruins that rival those found in Egypt. Of course, the most spectacular and famous of those ruins is the lost city of Machu Picchu, located at 8000 feet above sea level, in the Andes Mountains, near the town of Cusco.

Machu Picchu is the number one tourist attraction in a country full of tourist attractions, and there are multiple ways of getting there. Most take a train to the site, preferring to enjoy a scenic ride through the mountains. But one of the other ways of reaching the “Lost City of the Incas” is hiking the Inca Trail, an option that has grown in popularity over the past few years.

The Inca Trail traditionally consists of four days of trekking through the Andes, culminating with hikers catching their first glimpse of the fabled city while passing through the Sun Gate, another small ruin not far from Machu Picchu itself. Along the trail, travelers will experience tropical jungles, cloud forests, and high alpine passes. They’ll also have the opportunity to visit several other ruins as they travel the ancient Incan highway.This option for reaching Machu Picchu is obviously more demanding than taking the train, but more rewarding as well. At least three of the days on the trail are fairly rigourous hiking, and altitude comes into play, with the trail reaching as high as 13,800 feet in a place called Dead Woman’s Pass. Nights are spent camping in tents, and the weather can vary greatly depending on the time of year. But the hikers taking the Inca Trail are there to soak in the scenery and rough it a bit anyway.

In recent years, the trail has become extremely popular, forcing the Peruvian government to put a cap on the number of hikers who can set out each day. During the peak season of June through September, the permits for the trail can sell out weeks in advance, so if you’re planning to hike the trail, get your reservations in early. During the high season, you can expect larger number of hikers, up to 500 per day, and crowded campsites, which can ruin the experience for some. Off peak season means a bit more solitude and open trails, but less predictible weather, usually resulting in more rain or snow.

The payoff for the days on the trail is at the end, when the hikers emerge from the mountains and descend the Incan Staricase from the Sun Gate into Machu Picchu, much the same way that ancient travelrs did hundreds of years ago. Completing the hike is a reward in and of itself, but finding the lost city at the end, and exploring it for several hours, just caps the whole experience.

The Inca Trail is considered by many to be one of the great treks of the world and still holds a high place on many hiker’s “life lists”, despite the fact that it has now become so popular and crowded. For many adventure travelers, it’s still worth the hike, and will always beat taking the train.

If you are interested in trekking the Inca Trail, there are dozens of guide services to choose from. A guide is required by all trekkers, and you are also required to book at least a month in advance, although that too can be flexible when you’re in Cusco. Expect to pay between $300-$500 for the trek, depending on the guides and services they offer.