Photo of the Day (7.25.09)

It’s always fun to play with objects and light, as Gadling’s faithful photographer austin fain shows us here. The light glowing from behind this cross makes the image even more powerful, don’t you think?

If you have some great travel shots you’d like to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day!

Adventures in the Amazon: Iquitos, Peru

The Amazon River Basin is an amazing place. It is a vast ecosystem with the most diverse array of plant and animal life found anywhere on the planet. It is also one of those iconic destinations that sparks visions of adventure, with thoughts of Indiana Jones raiding lost temples for golden idols. It was all of these things, and more, that spurred my recent visit to the Peruvian Amazon, seeking a little adventure of my own.

The Amazon River officially begins at the confluence of the Ucayalli and Marañon Rivers in the Maynas Province of Peru. The largest city and capital of that region is Iquitos, which also serves as the gateway to the Amazon headwaters. With a population of nearly 400,000, Iquitos holds the distinction of being the largest city in the world that is not accessible by road. The city sits on the banks of the river, and is encroached on at all sides by the rainforest. Visitors to the city must arrive by plane or boat, and many goods still need to be shipped in via the river.

Iquitos was originally founded as a Jesuit mission around 1750, but it remained relatively small until the 1860’s when it became the seat of government for the region. It remained a modest sized town until the early 20th century, when the rubber industry exploded, and the population of the city followed suit. The remnants of that era can still be found all over the city, with large mansions still in use, and colonial architecture dominating certain districts as well.

Today, tourism has become one of the biggest industries, with adventure travelers making the journey to gain access to both the Amazon River and Jungle. But even with the increased tourist trade, Iquitos is still far off the beaten path for most, as many who go to Peru are there to hike the Inca Trail and pay a visit to Machu Picchu. Indeed, in my time in the city, I saw few people who could easily be identified as tourists at all.

Iquitos is clearly a town steeped in tradition. On Saturday nights the Plaza de Armas, one of the major town squares, is lit up like a carnival, with music playing, bright lights flashing, and food and drink in abundance. On Sunday morning, the same plaza hosts an elaborate flag ceremony, with soldiers and sailors stationed in the city, marching the square, while the flags of Peru, the Maynas Province, and the city are run up the pole to great pomp and circumstance. Locals line the street watching the proceedings, as if they are watching the weekly ceremony for the first time.

Despite the fact that Iquitos is a fairly large city, the people that live there still have a sense of harmony with the Amazon. It may be the largest city in the region, but it is still a jungle town at heart, and that is reflected in the way its inhabitants live. Many of their homes are literally right on the water, and plenty still depend on the jungle in one fashion or another, for their livelihood. The town markets are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and other meats harvested from the Amazon.

Iquitos is indeed a fascinating and lively place, with a rich history. But its real allure is the huge natural resource that surrounds it, and in upcoming stories, I’ll share my experiences there. It is filled with life, both plant and animal, but also plenty of people as well. And the diversity of all three is amazing to behold.

Next: A Visit to the Market

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

Top 10 wine spots, none in U.S.

I realize that, on the world stage, our homeland isn’t exactly the most popular place right now. Part of it stems from eight years of political buffoonery, and a healthy dose comes from traditional “old world” bias against the United States. Like most of us, I’ve learned to adjust for a touch of this when I read international news coverage. To a certain extent, I understand it … we’re more like France than we realize. But, it’s tough when our country doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

This is especially the case for wine.

In an article detailing the top 10 wine spots in the world, Forbes deemed none in the United States worthy of the list.

1. Castello Banfi, Tuscany, Italy: not an adventurous pick for the top spot
2. Montes, Colchagua Valley, Chile: trying to seem enlightened, succeeds
3. Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch, South Africa: see #2, with the same results
4. Fournier, Mendoza, Argentina: doubling up on South America in the top five? Trying too hard …
5. Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, Australia: could call for the middle of the pack
6. Felton Road, Central Otago, New Zealand: again with the doubling up …
7. Bodegas Ysios, Rioja, Spain: classic location, should probably be higher
8. Quinta do Portal, Douro Valley, Portugal: this would have been more exciting at #3 or #4
9. Chateau Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, France: obligatory, but at #9?
10. Peter Jakob Kuhn Oestrich, Rhein/Mosel, Germany: obviously added to the list out of a sense of obligation

And, where are we? No Sonoma? No Napa? Or, a break from the norm with Oregon?

The collection of wine destinations seems to a certain extent like a Little League awards banquet. No country is on the list twice, giving the impression that the reporter sought to dish out as many trophies as possible. The wide reach, of course, makes those absent even more evident.

As you can see, the list is more likely the result of a careful analysis of balancing out different regions and meeting reader expectations than it is a genuine reflection on the most interesting wine destinations in the world.

This is why I hate “listicles”: they have less to do with the content than they do with managing perception. Blech.

Chimu Adventures revenue pops 300% for South America, Antarctica tours

Chimu Adventures, which operates tours in South America and Antarctica, seems to have found a winning formula for these trying economic times. For the first quarter of 2009, revenue shot 310 percent higher relative to the same quarter last year.

These types of excursion aren’t cheap, so why are travelers still shelling out their hard-earned cash for such high-end experiences? Company directors Greg Carter and Chad Carey cite the value offered, “Travelers are looking to save money in these uncertain times yet still want a high quality tourism product. This is where the internet becomes a very important tool and we have seen a growing trend towards online sales. This confirms our belief that the days of high street traditional travel agents are numbered and innovation and specialization is the key to their future growth.”

Low-cost airfares from Australia (Chimu’s core market) to South America have sparked a lot of interest in these deals, as well, “We have regularly seen return airfares to Buenos Aires and Santiago for Aud$1400, Aud$1300 and even as low as $1100 which was just unthinkable a year ago.” And, it’s a shorter flight than Europe or the United States. “People will still always want to go travelling, even in these tough times but are looking for shorter and more affordable alternatives.”

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.