Peru & The Quarry Trail Trek to Macchu Picchu – Travel Tips & Tricks

Peru, famous for one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu. There are so many ways to see Machu Picchu, some more common than others. The known Inca Trail is one, but have you heard of the Quarry Trail?

Everybody has heard of the Inca trail in Peru, and for many, it’s a bucket list item for when they finally plan a trip to Peru and visit the infamous Machu Picchu. My husband and I were firmly in this boat when we booked our Peru intrepid tour. 

But when we were asked what hiking option we wished to do: Inca trail or quarry trail, we were intrigued. What was this quarry trail trek option?

The quarry trail is another hiking option for those wanting to see the Peruvian landscape and Machu Picchu and in our opinion, turned out to be our best option! Keep reading to see why 🙂 

How can you visit Machu Picchu?

There are various itineraries for Machu Picchu, but generally, the three most common options for visiting Machu Picchu are: 

  1. No hiking, you catch a train to the town Aguas Caliente and from there, hop on one of the many regular buses from the town up to Machu Picchu. This is ideal for visitors who don’t wish to trek or have limited time visiting this wonder of the world. 
  2. Hike the very well known 4D/3N Inca trail and on the last day, enter Machu Picchu at sunrise through the sun gate. 
  3. Hike alternative trails, including the 3D/2N Quarry Trail. At the end of the 3rd day after trekking, check into a hotel in Aguas Caliente and on the following morning (4th day), catch a bus from Aguas Caliente to Machu Picchu. 

For options 1 and 2 there is a wealth of information out there already, particularly from people who have hiked the Inca trail and lived to tell the tale. 

Below we would like to share our experience of choosing option 3 where we hiked the Quarry Trail and why we chose it over the classic Inca Trail. 

What is the Quarry Trail?

This 26km 3 day, 2 night hike takes you through gorgeous Peruvian landscapes, ascending to a maximum altitude of 4,450m (14,599ft) – slightly higher than the classic Inca Trail. Permits are not required to hike this trail, and while you think that may mean more hikers, it’s the opposite! 

Day 1: Beginning at 9 am, you first drive to Choquequilla, a ceremonial place for the Inca for a ‘test run’ mini hike. After the visit, you’re driven to the starting point at Rafq’a where you begin the 7km ascent from 3,600m up to your campsite at 3,750m. 

Day 2: From here, you’ll trek for 14km through two passes, reaching your highest elevation of 4,450m at Kuychicassa pass. You’ll see sacred sites including Intipunku (‘Sun gate’, though not to be confused with the Machu Picchu sungate!) and camp at Choquetacarpo at 3,750m.  

Day 3: Another early morning wake up, but with a more leisurely 7km hike back down to Ollantaytambo, with stops including Kachiqata quarry for which the trek gets its name. You’ll arrive back in Ollantaytambo town around midday and catch a train back to Aguas Caliente and spend the night in a hotel there. 

Day 4: After yesterdays shower and good night rest in a comfortable bed, take a bus from the town up to Machu Picchu at 6 am and catch the sun hitting Machu Picchu first thing in the morning. You’ll spend the day in Machu Picchu with a guided tour from 9 am – 11 am. 

Why choose the Quarry Trail over the Inca Trail?

While we didn’t do the Inca Trail, we were part of a group where fellow group members did do the classic route, and of course, we couldn’t help but compare notes. Keep in mind though our observations are based on what we experienced and what we factually know about both the Inca Trail and Quarry Trail. 

Below are some of our thoughts on why the Quarry Trail was an excellent fit for us and why it could be a better alternative for you too:

1)    You won’t be hiking with 499 of your closest friends 

Perhaps the best differentiator between the Quarry Trail and Inca Trail is the number of other tourist hikers you’ll encounter along your trek. On the Inca Trail, permits for 500 hikers are issued each day and sell out months in advance. This means that throughout your 4 days, you’ll be hiking alongside many other tourist groups, tour guides and their porters. 

In contrast, you are virtually hiking alone with your group on the Quarry Trail. During our 3 days, we encountered one other hiking group briefly on our second day; otherwise, it was all locals going about their daily lives. You truly feel you are trekking off the beaten path in the serene Peruvian wilderness! 

2) Be treated to unbeatable views 

Every day during our 3-day hike brought the most incredible views of Peruvian mountains and valleys. The scenery from start to finish was spectacular, with a particular highlight waking up on the 3rd day in the clouds as you looked out to views of Nevado Veronica mountain.   

3) No dreaded stairs

If you’ve read up on the Inca Trek, you’ll know the second day of the trek is essentially a giant stair master session at altitude. On the Quarry Trail however, there are virtually no stairs! It is predominantly meandering paths through the Peruvian landscape, and while there are definite inclines or steep parts, there is no full day dedicated to feeling the burn like in the Inca Trail. So, if you suffer from bad knees or ankles, this could be a key difference. 

4) Stress less with emergency horses! 

If you are worried about fitness levels or injuries, a bonus aspect of the Quarry Trail is it comes with emergency horses. Due to the terrain, pack horses are used to carry all bags, food and equipment (as opposed to the traditional porters on the Inca trail). Included in this team of horses are two horses designated “emergency horses”, which as the name implies, can be used in the case of any individuals falling ill or injured. 

On our trek, we had one lady fall ill with the flu on the first day, and two others suffer more severe altitude sickness. So for some parts of the trek, under the request of our guide they were popped up onto these horses. If these individuals had on the Inca Trail, they would have been forced to ‘tough it out’ or likely be turned back to town by their guides. 

Another minor side benefit of having horses as opposed to porters is the weight limit for your packed duffel is a little bit more lax. On the Inca Trail bags are weighed precisely to ensure Porters are not carrying additional weight, however, on the Quarry Trail this didn’t happen. That’s not to say you can bring your whole suitcase though as the duffel bags provided are limited in size anyways. 

5) Still physically challenging

Although emergency horses are provided, they are just that – only for emergencies and when needed. You are still climbing to elevations of 4,450m, and as two relatively fit and young people, we found the Quarry Trail physically demanding without being overwhelming. 

6) Meet locals and experience their way of life

A wonderful aspect of the Quarry Trek is passing through small local towns and having many opportunities to meet locals and see their way of life. 

Before embarking on our tour, our group leader took us to the farmer markets where we were able to purchase fresh fruits or biscuits to distribute to families we met along the way. 

On the morning of our second day, our guide provided wonderful insight into the lives of local Peruvians, with one family kindly inviting us into their homes and allowing us to see firsthand how they lived. 

7)    Only 3 days and 2 nights camping

Another benefit of the Quarry Trail for us was the length of the trek. At 3 days and 2 nights, it is 1 night shorter than the Inca Trail and we felt it was the perfect amount of time for us.  

8) You’ll be clean and well-rested for your visit to Machu Picchu

 When you finish trekking on the 3rd day and return to a hotel in Aguas Caliente, you’ll be rewarded with the best hot shower of your life. You’ll be able to sleep in a comfortable bed the night before and be well-rested (not to mention clean!) when you enter Machu Picchu. That simple luxury should not be discounted! 

9) See Machu Picchu without the hordes of tourists & still visit the famous Sungate

As you catch a bus up to Machu Picchu on the morning of the 4th day, you can be one of the first people to enter Machu Picchu. You’ll be able to experience the site people-free. As we arrived in the first wave of buses, we were also treated to seeing the first rays of sunlight hit the Incan site. 

A common misconception is that the Inca Trail allows you to be amongst the first people entering Machu Picchu. Whilst it does allow you a magical sight of seeing Machu Picchu through the Sungate at sunrise (albeit at a distance), you’ll need time to hike back down to the site. In contrast, those visiting Machu Picchu from Aguas Caliente by bus will enter the grounds well before the hikers get there. 

10) You’ll still be able to see the famous Intipunku Sungate

 After entering Machu Picchu by the main gates and snapping a few hundred photos, there is still the opportunity to hike up to the famous Intipuku Sungate. And the best part? By the time you arrive all the Inca Trek hikers will have started their descent down – so there won’t be a huge crowd! 

Also, whilst not the Machu Picchu Sungate, there is also a sun gate to be seen on the Quarry Trail. The vista from this viewpoint simply took our breath away. Emerging from the mist, it offered incredible views over the valley and was well worth the slight detour! This sun gate is located just before you reach the camp on the 2nd day and only adds an extra 15-20 minutes of walking time.  

11) No 3 am wake-up call! 

On the 4th and last day of the Inca Trail, hikers experience a 3 am wake up call and approx 1.5-hour wait in the cold outside the gates of Machu Picchu. While the gates only open at 5:30 am, many groups get up early to be the first ones in. This early wake up is also necessitated by the fact that porters need to pack up campsites by 4 am to be able to catch their early train back to town. If they miss the early morning one, their next train isn’t till nightfall! 

In contrast, if you are travelling to Machu Pichu by bus from Aguas Caliente, you can head down to the bus stop at any time you wish. If you do want to be one of the first ones in, however, you may need to start lining up from 4:30/5am. Being said, we only arrived at the bus stop at 5:50 am but through our wonderful guide, were able to jump straight onto a bus and bypass the queue. We’re still not quite sure how he managed it, so definitely don’t bank on your guide being able to do it too!  

Are you interested in booking the Quarry Trail?

We booked our Quarry Trail trek as part of our Peru/Bolivia intrepid tour here. [https://www.intrepidtravel.com/en/peru/explore-peru-bolivia-116640]

Just some final bits and pieces:

  • Keep an eye out for travel expos or sign up to Intrepid sale updates as you can easily get this tour at a discount. 
  • Remember to check your insurance covers activities at altitude!
  • Remember to check the weather at that time of year and bring layers. You get pretty hot trekking during the day but at night, temperatures are cold.  
  • If you have them, pack your trekking boots. 

 Being said, my husband and I completed this Quarry Trek with regular sneakers (and terrible tread!) with no issues. Luckily it didn’t rain during our trek as if it did, I think it may have been a different story…3

Check out some of our tips and tricks when travelling to Peru.

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12 Things to Know Before Visiting Machu Picchu: Tips & Tricks

Machu Picchu is one of the most incredible 7 wonders of the world. It’s not surprising given its vast beautiful views and breathtaking old ruins high atop the mountain valley. But you want to make sure you’re prepared before visiting, so here are our top 12 tips and tricks to think about before visiting the famous site.

1. Where to stay

It’s easiest to stay in Aguas Calientes, the closest based town to the infamous site if you’re not hiking into Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail. There is a range of accommodation on offer in Aguas Calientes, and from here you can easily catch the regular buses departing every 10 minutes for USD24 return that takes between 25-35 minutes each way. [ https://peruways.com/aguascalientes-bus/ } 

If you’re feeling more active though, you can hike up to the entrance too relatively easily for about 1.5 – 2 hours. There is a clearly signposted trail.

2. Pre-purchase your tickets

Pre-purchase your tickets online via this government website for SOL152 (~AUD68) per adult. [https://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/inicio] This is recommended particularly during peak season or if you plan to hike Huayna Picchu as well to make sure you don’t miss out!  Once you purchase your ticket though, write down your reservation number – many people have complained about never receiving a confirmation email, but if you have this number, they can pull it up and re-print the ticket for you.

Looking over the incredible Machu Picchu site.
Looking over the incredible Machu Picchu site.

3. Know your entry time

All tickets are split into hourly entry times now from 6 am, and you are officially given 4 hours to view the site. Being said, there is still much confusion over enforcement of this rule and when we visited in May 2019, people could stay as long as they desired as they have no way of enforcing ticket times and ushering people out yet.

4. You can’t leave and re-enter

You’re not allowed to leave and re-enter the site on a normal Machu Picchu ticket. Once you’re in, you’re in!

5. Toilets!

The only bathrooms at Machu Pichu are located outside the entrance and cost SOL2, so make sure to go before you head inside as you can’t exit and re-enter the site (unless you hold a Huayna Picchu ticket as well). It’s a stupid rule but one they haven’t seemed to address yet!

6. Get a guide

Official no visitors are allowed in without a guide on their first visit. Whilst listed as new regulation, many people have entered without a guide as, like many other regulations, enforcement has been quite lax. We recommend going with a guide to best understand the history and various aspects of the site, and what’s more, they’ll know the best route to take as tourists aren’t allowed to backtrack to certain areas once you’ve passed specific checkpoints. The guards stationed at various points will turn you back around.

7. Visiting Intipuku, the Sun Gate

Your regular ticket to Machu Picchu includes access to Intipuku (the famous sun gate) and the Inca bridge. If you wish to see these, however, make sure you visit them before you descend into the ruins as you aren’t allowed to backtrack up to these two spots!

A quick shot from the Sun Gate, looking back over Machu Picchu.
A quick shot from the Sun Gate, looking back over Machu Picchu.

8. No disposable plastics

Officially, only reusable water bottles are permitted within Machu Picchu; however, we saw many people with one-time plastic bottles, so it looks like this rule is not yet enforced.

9. Take a small backpack only

Other things to leave behind are large backpacks (you could be asked to store it in a locker), food, tripods, selfie-sticks and drones.

10. Best time to go

Our recommendation is going early. This does mean trying to catch one of the first buses from 5:30 am. When we rocked up with our tour guide at 6 am to the bus stop, there was already a considerable line as it’s a first come first serve basis, with many people in queue as early as 4:30am. We were lucky, and thanks to our guide managed to skip the line, but I would recommend going as early as possible if you’re looking to watch the first sun rays hit Machu Picchu.

We can wholeheartedly say it’s magical to watch and so worth going early and getting those first few snaps of the incredible site people-free!ho

The one and only, Machu Picchu.
The one and only, Machu Picchu.

11. A Special Passport Souvenir

Bring your passport and get a souvenir Machu Picchu stamp right outside the exit as a memento!

12. Keep Warm!

Don’t forget to bring layers if you’re heading there early. It was quite chilly early morning, but by 10:30 am and after hiking up and back to the sun gate, it was hot!

Thinking about doing the Inca Trail? Have you thought about the Quarry Trail instead?

We’ll have post up soon giving you all the exciting insights into trekking the hidden gem that is the Quarry Trail.

In the mean time check out our latest post on, tips and tricks when visiting Peru.

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Peru: Travel Tips & Tricks

Peru is one of the most beautiful countries, tucked away one the West Coast of South America. Home to one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu, Peru is a must see destination for any casual or adventure traveler. But before you go, here are some tips and tricks we picked up on our journey through Peru.

When we visited Peru, we had the luxury of being on an intrepid tour so whilst it generates a different perspective when travelling, there are nevertheless a few travel tips and tricks we picked up along the way.  

1) Yellow fever vaccination 

Per the SmartTraveller website, “You’ll need to present a valid Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate on entry into Australia if you’ve visited Peru in the previous six days.” [https://smartraveller.gov.au/countries/americas/south/pages/peru.aspx#entry_and_exit]

The US CDC also has the recommendation to be vaccinated for any travellers heading to the Amazonas, Cusco or Puno region. To be safe, add yellow fever vaccination to your list of things to do before you leave the country – particularly if you are heading to the Amazon region. Just remember to ideally have your vaccination 10 days before your arrival in the risky areas.

Looking out over the Amazon River, just as the sun sets behind an oncoming storm.
Looking out over the Amazon River, just as the sun sets behind an oncoming storm.

The good news is, the validity of the yellow fever vaccination was also extended in 2016 from 10 years to the duration of a person’s life – so you only need to be vaccinated once for life! If you are ever considering heading to Africa, that’s another incentive to get it as the vaccination is mandatory for travel to most African countries.

Don’t have your yellow fever vaccination or need a prescription but you’re just about to fly out?

If you’re like us and suddenly realise you may need a yellow fever vaccination to enter Bolivia (let alone head back to Australia!), don’t panic. There is a medical clinic at Lima airport who can get you vaccinated in under 5 minutes. Located beneath a set of escalators, next to the women’s bathrooms and directly opposite the gate 11 exit, this little medical clinic is a godsend. For only SOL145 you can get fully vaccinated for yellow fever (or measles, hep b or even the flu if you need!).

2) Don’t fall for tourist trap mobile plans! 

When we arrived in Lima, like most tourists, we checked out the mobile plans available at the airport. USD20 for 2GB by Entel or USD49 for 3 GB and unlimited calls nationally in 30 days seem somewhat reasonable when compared to Australian prices, but felt slightly expensive for Peru. We held off, and we are so glad we did!

A good tip and trick, is to research the best mobile plans before travelling to the country. But I guess that’s why you’re here!

Our tip is to go to the Claro store direct when you arrive. There was no waiting time, and including the SIM activation fee, we ended up only paying SOL35 (~AUD15) for 3.5GB of data over 30 days – much cheaper than any ‘tourist’ package or plan we saw at the airport. 

3) Withdrawing cash fee-free

While Visa is the most accepted card throughout Peru, like many other South American countries, cash is still widely used and convenient, particularly for tipping, paying for local food or souvenirs and entry to local attractions. As such, you might find yourself withdrawing cash quite often.

A couple of tips and tricks so you won’t be hit with local ATM fees? 

Look for Banco de la Nacion, or the “Multi red” red coloured ATM signs. It’s one of the few ATM’s in Peru with no local ATM fees.

 If these are hard to find, the lowest fee-paying ATM is BCP costing SOL13.50 (~AUD6) per withdrawal. 

 Whatever you do though, avoid BBVA which charges SOL25 (~AU11) per withdrawal! 

4) Tips and tricks for purchasing Alpaca products

Peru is famous for its alpaca and baby alpaca wear, however, be warned as every street corner vendor will swear what they’re selling you is “genuine baby alpaca”. If it costs only BOB$50 (~AU$20) for a baby alpaca jumper, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not what they’re claiming it to be.

Meeting our first Lama up close and personal.  Time for hug!
Meeting our first Lama up close and personal. Time for hug!

Many of the jumpers sold by many stall owners are a synthetic blend, so make sure you know what you’re paying for. The basic test for real alpaca is it should feel cold to the touch – always, even if in sunlight. If you can as well, break off some fibres and light them as real alpaca will burn like hair whereas synthetic will melt. Genuine 100% alpaca jumpers will costs no less than BOB$200 (at a minimum with baby alpaca even more!) but if you’re still unsure head to stores such as Inca Brand or LAM where you’ll pay a bit more but be confident the garments are what they say they are.

Being said, a blend of alpaca and wool still makes a beautiful jumper!

5) Don’t drink the local water 

Unfortunately, all water in Peru is not potable, so you’ll need to purchase large bottles of water if you haven’t invested in a lifestraw. Many hotels will leave you smaller bottles of water for brushing your teeth, but we brushed our teeth using just tap water during our travels with no issues.

6) Allow yourself at least 2 days in Cusco to acclimatise

Cusco is often considered the gateway to Machu Picchu, but in itself is one of the most beautiful cities in Peru. 

 If you are flying into Cusco from Lima, remember to buffer time to acclimatise to the altitude as Cusco sits at 3,400m above sea level. In our opinion, I would allow at least 2 days in Cusco to acclimatise and see the former centre of the Inca Empire. This beautiful city has a lot to offer and is a great place to pick up any last-minute trekking items or shopping!

The one and only, Machu Picchu.
The one and only, Machu Picchu.

We are not doctors by any stretch of the imagination, but some key things to know about altitude sickness are:

  • Altitude sickness unfortunately can affect anyone – it doesn’t matter if you’re the tallest, strongest, most lean or yoga-loving person – there’s no way to predict who and how badly it will impact an individual.
  • There is medication you can take, commonly called Diamox, or Acetazolamide (if you need to buy it in Peru) that can alleviate the symptoms but it’s best to start these 2 days before you arrive at altitude. Be warned though it is a diuretic, so it will make you pee a lot more. It’s almost a glimpse into life at the age of 80+….
  • Stay hydrated and aim to drink 1.5 – 2L of water per day. Hydration plays a crucial role in helping you acclimatise!
  • If you are starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness i.e. headaches, dizziness, nausea or a general feeling of unwellness, rest immediately and if it gets worse, see a doctor. 

 Most hotels also hold oxygen tanks for guests as having 10-15 minutes of oxygen can also help alleviate the symptoms, so ask if you need it! 

7) Make sure to try the local favourite ceviche

Ceviche is fresh, raw fish marinated in citrus juice, typically spiced and is a highly popular dish in Peru, and definite must-try. Throughout Peru ceviche is prepared slightly differently, so why not try it in each region and see which one is your favourite?

8) Don’t flush toilet paper

Alas, like almost every other South American country, flushing toilet paper is a big no-no. Instead, look for the small covered bin in every toilet and kindly dispose of your used papers in there.

9) Try cocoa tea

The famous local cocoa tea is worth trying, if only for the cultural significance the cocoa plant holds in this part of the world. Sworn by locals to combat altitude sickness, it can come in handy those first few days acclimatising in Cusco. If you’re not a tea fan, try chewing it like the locals! (I warn you now though, it gives you a definite buzz if you chew it!) As it is a stimulant, it’s best tried in the morning rather than just before bedtime. 

Having a hot chocolate, looking out over the main square in Cusco, Peru.
Having a hot chocolate, looking out over the main square in Cusco, Peru.

 Also, don’t try and take any back into Australia – I’m 100% sure you’ll be on the next episode of Border Security.

10) Visiting Machu Picchu?

Make sure you’re ready for crowds and entry requirements.

With visitors topping over 5,000 a day in the past, the Peruvian government in 2019 introduced a host of new legislation governing Machu Pichu and restricting the number of visitors to 2,500 per day.

The one and only, Machu Picchu.
The one and only, Machu Picchu.

Check out our post here Machu Picchu tips and tricks, on the top 14 things to know before visiting Macchu Picchu. This will help make sure you’re ready for the best experience.

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12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Bolivia: Tips & Tricks!

Bolivia has an ever-growing tourist following. With a rich culture and otherworldly landscapes, it’s a must-see destination in South America. But with any new country, you need to be prepared. Here are 12 of our tips and tricks, we wish we knew before travelling to Bolivia.

What Bolivia may lack in wealth, it more than makes up for in the richness of its varied landscapes, culture and history. One of the least developed and poorest of the South American countries, Bolivia still has a growing tourism culture. It’s increasingly growing in popularity as a travel destination, as it should be! This is due to its other-worldly salt flats, stunning landscapes spanning volcanoes, deserts and forests and varied local cultures (with over 37 official languages!). Bolivia has something to offer everyone.      

1)   Ensure you have enough time to acclimatise to the altitude

Bolivia is a country at very high altitudes. La Paz is the highest unofficial capital in the world* at over 3,600m above sea level, Uyuni – the gateway to the salt flats – lies at 3,656m, Potosi at 4,067m and Sucre at 2,810m.

As such you should consider a buffer in time (at least 24 hours) to acclimatise. This is particularly relevant if you are flying direct into La Paz. Ideally, to minimise the negative symptoms that might occur, a gradual climb up to altitude is best. However, this is not always possible, particularly if you are beginning your journey in La Paz.

We are not doctors by any stretch of the imagination, but some key things to know about altitude sickness are:

  • Altitude sickness, unfortunately, can affect anyone. There’s just no way to predict who and how badly it will impact an individual. It doesn’t matter if you’re the tallest, most muscular, lean or the most yoga-loving person.
  • There is medication you can take, commonly called Diamox, or Acetazolamide (if you need to buy it in Bolivia). This can help alleviate the symptoms. It’s recommended to start these two days before you arrive at altitude.
  • Be warned though it is a diuretic, so it will make you pee a lot more. It’s almost a glimpse into life at the age of 80+….
  • Stay hydrated and aim to drink 1.5 – 2L of water per day. Hydration plays a crucial role in helping you acclimatise!
  • If you are starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness, i.e. headaches, dizziness, nausea or a general feeling of unwellness, rest immediately. if it gets worse, see a doctor.
  • Most hotels also hold oxygen tanks for guests as having 10-15 minutes of oxygen can also help alleviate the symptoms, so ask if you need it! 

*Sucre is the official capital but La Paz is the country’s seat of government

2)     Cash is king

As with many developing countries, cash is required to pay for most things. During our time in Bolivia, only at select restaurants (and typically the pricier ones) do they accept credit cards. At the markets and most shops, they predominantly deal in cash.

Best local bank to use

When in Bolivia, our recommendation is to use either Santa Cruz bank or Banco Nacional de Bolivia (BNB). Both are reputable banks and best of all, neither charging a local ATM fee. Just look for the green signs!

Planning to visit the salt flats?

The salt flats are undoubtedly the highlight of a trip to Bolivia and to visit them you will need to hire a tour guide. To maximise your chances of having a great experience, here are some key things to note before you head there:

3)     Know what time of year you’re going for the salt flats

If you are looking to recreate that perfect reflection shot you’ve seen before you need to head there during their summertime or wet season. This typically runs from November to April and sees the salt flats wet enough to provide those infamous shots. The downside during wet season is, the salt flats can get rained out and closed to tourists due to flooding. During dry season which runs from May to October, there is slim to no chance of this occurring. Also, perspective shots are easier to take; however, the trade-off is it will be much colder and you do miss out on the opportunity for reflection photography. 

Sunset over the salt flats Uyuni, Bolivia
Sunset over the salt flats – Uyuni, Bolivia

4)     Do your research carefully before booking your salt flat tour guide

When picking a tour operator ideally they come recommended, but if not make sure they have excellent reviews (that are recent). Even through Intrepid, a renowned tour agency, our experience with the local tour operator they used was less than ideal. After being asked and agreeing to a delayed departure at 10 am, we were still left waiting until 11 am when they finally rocked up.

Why? They hadn’t yet filled the last car so spent the morning looking for tourists who would sign on last minute.

Our tip is to confirm whether the car is already full (or if they will depart with less than 6 in the car) and what time you depart in the morning.

Having a delayed start time eats into the time you have on the salt flats. Unfortunately for us, it meant we only had about 45 minutes to take photos. Including the group shots, this was not nearly enough time, particularly when you’re playing around, trying to work out perspectives and helping out your fellow travellers with their shots as well. 

5)     Know your itinerary

If you book a three-day tour, you should know that you only have 1 day on the salt flats, being the first day of the tour. Most tour operators will then head out from the salt flats and circle back around to Uyuni, never passing back through the salt flats. This means, your only chance for photos and to experience the flats is that first day!

We had friends ask their driver if they were coming back and after assuring them they would, guess what – they never did!

6)     Be prepared for very basic accommodation

Despite being the key attraction in Bolivia, decent accommodation in the salt flats and surrounding landscapes have yet to be built. Besides Luna Salada (the one decent salt hotel where you can expect to pay a premium), all other accommodation is very basic dorm room style. On our second night on tour, we 6 to a room, no showers and 2 toilets for 24 people….

Basic accommodation - Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
Basic accommodation – Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

7)     Pack layers, beanies, gloves and warm socks!

If you are heading there in the wintertime, it can be freezing on the salt flats. With windchill, we experienced  -18°C at 5 am when we visited the geysers. It was so cold and windy, people from only 1 of the 3 cars ventured outside to witness the geysers up close, so remember to rug up!

8)     Check out Uyuni train cemetery after dark

When we arrived in Uyuni, it would not have seemed out of place if a giant tumbleweed rolled down the main road. Uyuni is just a gateway town into the salt flats and where travellers depart and arrive back from tours. The one attraction just next to Uyuni town though is the train cemetery.

This stop is usually the first one for all salt flat tours and as such, becomes quite busy each morning.

Our tip is to visit the train cemetery at night time when it’s peaceful and to capture some fantastic night shots of the sky.

You can organise with your hostel/hotel to have a cab take you to the cemetery late at night. For 100 Bolivianos they’ll come out to the train yard with you and wait around for a couple of hours until you’re finished enjoying the night sky. I recommend doing this between 10 pm and midnight.

You check out my post here about how I took the photo above.

9)     Taking the perfect photo

Getting the perspective right is harder than it looks, and it usually takes at least two people to do.

If you are using props, our tip is not to try and line up the subject and the prop on the same horizontal plane – it is harder to do well and in focus. Instead, angle the accessory and subject diagonally in your camera frame and play with the perspective from that shot!

Salt Flats, Photo on the flats, Uyuni, Bolivia
Salt Flats, Photo on the flats, Uyuni, Bolivia

10)     Bolivia is cheaper for souvenirs than Peru

A popular travel route is to visit Peru and then head down into Bolivia. If this is the case, Bolivia is generally less expensive for the same souvenirs, so it might be worth saving all your shopping until the end!

11) Be careful when purchasing alpaca or baby alpaca items!

Bolivia is famous for its alpaca and baby alpaca wear, however be warned as every street corner vendor will swear what they’re selling you is “baby alpaca”. More like “maybe alpaca!” as our guide joked. If it costs only BOB$50 (~AU$20) for a baby alpaca jumper, i’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not what they’re claiming it to be.

Many of the jumpers sold by many stall owners are a synthetic, or wool blend, so make sure you know what you’re paying for. The basic test for real alpaca is it should feel cold to the touch – always, even if in sunlight. If you are able to as well, break off some fibres and light them as real alpaca will burn like hair whereas synthetic will melt. True 100% alpaca jumpers will set you back no less than BOB$200 (at a minimum with baby alpaca even more!) but if you’re still unsure head to stores such as Inca Brand or LAM where you’ll pay a bit more but be confident the garments are what they say they are.

Being said, a blend of alpaca and wool still makes a beautiful jumper!

12)     Always double check your laundry 

If you’re paying a local laundromat to do your washing, make sure to count the number of pieces before you drop it off. The few times used a laundry service they always managed to; misplace one of our items, or we managed to pick up someone else’s!

They manage the laundry by sewing tiny coloured threads onto the tag of your clothes. There is one colour per customer to help the sort which piece belongs to who. As you can imagine, this can still get confusing, even for the laundromat. So also make sure you remove any previous laundromat threads before you send them for another wash!

Coming Soon: Thinking about whether to do a tour or DIY around Bolivia? We’re pulling together a post that discusses just that and reviews our 25- day Bolivia & Peru intrepid tour.

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5 of Our Must See & Do Activities In Bolivia!

Bolivia is much more than just the salt flats. From lagoons, to mountains, deserts, lakes and forests, there is something for everyone! Here’s 5 of our must see and do activities, when planning your trip to Bolivia.

Bolivia is a country that takes your breath away. Both literally and figuratively! Its largest city La Paz sits at greater than 3,600m above sea level which makes it the highest unofficial capital city in the world (Sucre is its official capital, but La Paz is the country’s seat of government). Whilst acclimatising to the altitude can prove tricky, it’s well worth the trouble.

Although most famous for its salt flats, that’s not all Bolivia has to offer. Beyond the salt flats there are equally breathtaking lagoons, mountains, deserts and lakes. The true beauty of Bolivia we experienced is in the variety of landscapes we passed through and richness of experiences on offer. It’s the only country on our trip where we’ve managed to experience -18°C degrees at geysers above 5,000m and mountain bike through tropical forest climates within the same week.

There is a wealth of activities to do in Bolivia, but below are our 5 favourite must do things in Bolivia.

1) Take a 3 day tour of the salt flats and surrounds, departing from Uyuni

Most people have seen at least one photo of the infamous Bolivian salt flats with its mirror effect or mind deceiving endless plains of white salt. At over 10,582 square kilometres in size, it’s the largest salt flats in the world, with Neil Armstrong famously spotting it from the moon and mistaking it for a giant glacier.  

It’s so popular now that Japanese tourists are even known by locals to fly for over a day just to reach the salt flats, stay for 3 days taking photos before promptly flying back home again! (We call that dedication to the gram)

All that aside, it’s an absolute must visit when in Bolivia. Rather than merely doing a 1 day salt flat tour though, we’d highly recommend taking the 3 day tour through the salt flats and surrounds. Note it may say ‘3 day salt flat tour’ but typically tour companies only spend 1 day on the salt flats with other 2 days spent exploring other equally impressive and beautiful Bolivian landscapes.

Although it is extended periods of driving each day, there are many stops along the way, and the driving will be worth it in the end 😊

Our recommendation:

  • Most tour companies will stop at key sites such as the red lagoon, arbol de piedra, antiplanic lagoon and hot springs, however not all visit the lesser known black lagoon. This lagoon with it’s cute long eared rabbits was the highlight for us in the 2 days outside the salt flats!
  • A 3 day tour takes you into some of the most remote places in Bolivia, away from big cities and lights. It’s therefore a perfect time to do some night shots of the sky, if you have the right equipment. You can check out some tips to do this here.

Look out for our tips and tricks post for Bolivia coming soon with things to look out for when booking your tour operator!

2) La Paz cable car

When we arrived in La Paz, our first impressions of the city as we drove through the congested, dirty streets was somewhat lacking. Considering it is Bolivia’s largest city, home to over 2.3 million people it lacked the beauty and expanse one usually finds in a major city. But rest assured, you can find this in La Paz if you ride their extensive Teleferico (cable car) system.
To see and appreciate the beauty of La Paz, you have to go high! High above the streets where you get a birds-eye view of the valley across which the city is sprawled.

Opening in 2014 as a means to improve congestion and reduce travel time for locals between La Paz and El Alto, the Teleferico is an easy system of coloured aerial cable car lines and an inexpensive way to see the city. Costing only 3 Bolivianos per ticket per line (~AU64 cents), you can ride the cable car system in a circular route around the city in a few hours.

When we were there in May 2019, the Teleferico was never congested and with its prominent coloured lines, dead easy to navigate.

Our recommendation:

  • The red (linea roja) and yellow lines (linea amarillo) give the best birds-eye view of the city, so they’re a must-see. Hop off at the stop El Alto and perhaps if it’s a Thursday or Sunday peruse the supposedly largest outdoor market Mercado 16 de Julio in South America. It’s a giant flea market with everything from pots and pans to car parts.
  • The newer white line (Linea blanco) travels through downtown city buildings too, so provides a different and unique perspective to the other lines.
  • The cable car system opens late, so grab your camera and take the purple line (linea morada) to El Alto to get some great night shots of La Paz!
View of the cit of La Paz in Bolivia
The view from the La Paz cable car

3) Visit Potosi mine

Located to the south east of La Paz (2.5 hr flight or 8 hr drive away) lies the seemingly mundane but historically significant town of Potosi. First founded in 1546, it was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world and larger than Paris and London at the time. Potosi as a silver mining town was established by the Spanish and for 473 years has produced over an estimated 60,000 tonnes of silver. In the second half of the 16th century alone, Potosi accounted for over 60% of all silver mined in the world.  
In keeping with true colonial fashion, the spoils of Potosi were promptly shipped back to Spain where the wealth of the city funded the Spanish colonisation of the New World. It is famously quoted “You could build a silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid from what was mined here – and one back with the bones of those that died taking it out”.

A visit to Potosi mine itself is an incredible opportunity to learn about the history of the town, the process of silver mining and importantly get a glimpse into the modern Potosi miners life. We will warn you though that a mine visit is not for the claustrophobic as to first enter the mine, you need to crouch down and walk through a small mine shaft opening. Once inside, the tunnels do open up to standing height however it is never what you would call spacious!

It is a surreal feeling standing in a mine shaft dug out and still standing from colonial times. The most eye opening part of the tour is being able to see first hand the conditions and working life of the modern Potosi miner. It’s harsh, back-breaking work in what can only be viewed as unsafe conditions with minimal safety equipment, large pits on the side of narrow walkways descending stories down and blasts of dynamite echoing in seemingly close chambers. Hearing about teenage workers and the alcoholism amongst miners is a sobering and sad experience, and one we’ll remember for a long time.

In total, we descended approx. 100-200m into the mine for about 45 minutes, but trust us when we say it felt like much longer and further and never have we been happier to see day light again.

Our recommendation:

  • We highly recommend taking your tour with a miner collective, so all tours are run by miners and profits shared amongst them.
  • Wear comfortable clothing. You’ll be given a thin protective jumpsuit, face mask, hard hat with torch and gumboots for the tour.
  • Visit the National Mint of Bolivia too in Potosi to learn more about the cities fascinating history and see how silver was minted into currency in colonial times. Whatever you do though, don’t forget to bring a jacket as it’s the worlds coldest museum as our tour guide liked to joke!

4) Visit Bolivia’s capital city Sucre

What La Paz lacks in beauty and grand buildings, Sucre makes up for as the political capital of Bolivia. With a population of only 300,000, it is perhaps the antithesis of La Paz, being a relaxed, congestion free city and pedestrian friendly – relative to La Paz! Being lower in altitude at only 2,800 m above sea level, during winter it also has a warmer climate than other cities such as La Paz, Potosi or the salt flats, so can be a welcome warm relief.

Try out local ice cream parlour Vaca Fria.

Known as the ‘white city’ for its fondness of whitewashed buildings, Sucre is a beautiful showcase of colonial architecture and a definite must for those looking for a few relaxing days!  

Our recommendation:

  • For great views of Sucre visit the recoleta, a little piazza close to downtown that overlooks the city and close to downtown, and Convento de San Felipe. A beautiful old monestary, climb to the top at sunset and stand on the roof for a beautiful view of Sucre.
  • For something different check out Parque Cretácico located 5 km from the city centre. Accidentally discovered in 1994, over 5,000 dinosaur tracks preserved in what use to be the banks of a river, were slowly revealed after the top layer of sediment from a mining area eroded. It currently covers an area of 1,200m x 110m and is one of the largest deposits of footprints in the world, and is interestingly seen as a vertical wall now, thanks to tectonic plate shifts.
  • It is rather odd walking down to a historical site that is located right next to a cement quarry, but it is definitely cool seeing footprints from 65 million years ago up close.  The park provides tours in English as part of the entry ticket and if you decide to go, be warned – there are a lot of stairs!
  • My personal favourite – try out local ice cream parlour Vaca Fria. They have delicious flavours, but my favourite is the yoghurt ice cream with honey and quinoa pops. It’s so refreshingly it honestly feels like you’re eating a breakfast snack, so your guilt factor is way less!

5) “You have to do death road!” -Biking down the notorious North Yungas road

Once labelled the “most dangerous road in the world”, the reputation of North Yungas Road precedes itself. Nicknamed death road, there have been many write-ups about this infamous road, but perhaps the main thing to note if you are considering embarking on this 70km bike ride is that in 2006 a new much safer road was opened for cars. This meant the part of North Yungas road most famous for car accidents and deaths is now largely left to just cyclers and quad bikers as cars now take the safer route. Thankfully on our ride, we didn’t have to compete against cars for space on the narrow dirt road.

Once labelled the “most dangerous road in the world”

That being said, it is still dangerous and if you have never ridden a bike before, Bolivia’s death road is perhaps not the time to start. If however, you are a competent rider, this bike ride is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and the views you get are genuine showstoppers.

The most common response I got from people who had visited Bolivia when I told them we were going was “You have to do death road!”. Now that I’ve joined these ranks of people, it’s my turn to say it.

We’ll be posting a detailed write up on death road and our experience shortly so stay tuned for it! In the meantime check out our gallery here.

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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Tikal: Guide Tips & Tricks

Tikal is one of the most incredible Mayan ruins located in the heart of Guatamala. Here are 10 tips to prepare you for this must see destination.

Date visited: 18 April 2019

Tikal was an incredible site to visit, but there were a few things we wish we had known before visiting site. Here are the top 10 tips and tricks, for your visit to Tikal.

For most travellers to Guatemala or even Belize, Tikal and its sprawling 16km2 of Mayan ruins are a must-see on their travel plans. Set within 576km2 of jungle it is an awe inspiring UNESCO world heritage site that genuinely showcases the ingenuity and might of the Mayan civilisation before its gradual decline. With over 3,000 structures spanning grand palaces, pyramids and plazas, Tikal expanded and flourished to become one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya until the late 800 AD. Historians debate the cause of the Mayan decline, but it is commonly attributed to several factors including famine, climate change, disease, warfare and unsustainable agricultural practices.

The collapse of Tikal was relatively rapid for a city that had stood for 700 years, with Tikal crumbling in an estimated 100 years and eventually abandoned with the forest quickly reclaiming the settled land.
As with many other famous sites though, it was not until a thousand years later in the 1950’s when dedicated study, excavation and restoration work began to reclaim the forgotten history back from the jungle.

Below are 10 tips, tricks and things learned from our trip to Tikal!

1) Bring your passport or ID

Surprisingly not all tour agencies seem to mention this significant fact, but to purchase tickets, you will need this!

2) As in most of Guatemala, cash is king

While there are EFTPOS facilities, there are no ATM’s around, and on the day we went, the machine was down! Make sure you bring at least Q150 p.p in cash just in case to cover your entry fee.

3) Going early

Tikal is open every day from 6am to 6pm. While we opted out of the sunrise option (which required a bus leaving Flores at 3am), we did opt for the first bus after sunrise which meant the 4.30am bus depart Flores from the ‘Le Peten’ sign at the start of the bridge. (and yes, a 4:30am bus still does not get you there in time for sunrise!). It is a 1.5-hour bus ride, but you should factor in buffer time for delayed leaving times (ours was delayed by 20 minutes) and time for the whole bus to alight and purchase tickets before you are driven to the entry gates to walk through. All in all, we only arrived at the park ready to start walking at 6:50am.

Also, just a note if you are interested in the sunrise option, it is only an extra Q100 park entry fee p.p.

4) Going early for animals

Another reason to opt for the earlier bus is your chances of spotting animals in the national park is much higher! You will be there before the heat sets in and while we did not see the elusive jaguar, we did manage to see howler monkeys, toucans, woodpeckers and plenty of pisotes, all by 9am.

5) Travel quietly

If you are on the lookout for wildlife, it may seem like an obvious one, but travel silently on the trails around Tikal. You are much more likely to not scare them away and spot animals that way.

6) If you’re a Star Wars fan, bring an X-Wing model for a fun photo

George Lucas famously used Tikal as a backdrop to Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope. When we visited, a dedicated fan pulled out a tiny x wing model to take a fantastic and fun shot with it. Our only regret was not being so prepared and doing the same!

7) Beeline to the Grand Plaza, then climb the big temple

When we entered Tikal, we made a beeline for the back of the park via the Grand Plaza and worked our way forward. This meant we could get shots of the central area and larger template with relatively few people in it, as well as climb in the relative cool of the morning before the heat set in. Trust me when we say Tikal gets hot.

8) Alternate restroom

When alighting from the bus in the morning, don’t rush to use the bathrooms at the restaurant next to the bus drop off area. By then there are typically queues from the busload of people arriving, and the toilets themselves are in a less than appealing state. Instead, there are many bathrooms dotted around Tikal with some just inside the main entrance where there are no queues, so I recommend going there!

9) Bring comfortable walking shoes

Tikal is large, and you’ll be walking on trails through the forest or climbing up steps, so something comfortable with good grip is best.

10) What else you need to bring

Bring snacks, enough water (1.5L – 2L) and sunscreen and a hat! While there are a few stands dotted around, it’s best to bring your own snacks (particularly if you want something healthy). Also, make sure you have enough water as you’ll be walking around a lot, and while there is shade at Tikal, there are open areas you need to cross as well that are unforgiving in the sun!

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7 TIPS FOR VISITING THE ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL (ATM) CAVE OF BELIZE

You feel like Tomb Raider hiking out and exploring the ATM caves in Belize. Here are 7 tips to prepare you for this adventure.

Walking deep into a cave is not always for the faint-hearted. I wouldn’t say I’m the claustrophobic type, closing a door to a small dark room won’t make me squeal, but squeezing down narrow shafts of a cave definitely gets the heart racing.

Regardless of any fear the mind may have for narrow dark spaces, boy was visiting the ATM cave of Belize was a blast.

A brief history of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM):

Discovered in 1989 and also known as the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, the cave was used by the Mayans in the late classic period in a desperate plea to their gods to help flourish the lands with crops. Mayans were, as you know, an incredible civilisation, and while their end inevitably came from the arrival of the Spaniards, their downfall began a lot earlier. Although there are many mixed opinions on the matter, what was known as their farming capability was nothing short of destructive and conducive to their famine. Rather than refurbish and reuse farmland, they would burn it, and move on to the next patch. Mixed with drying wells, and bad weather, they soon were in danger of starvation.

Regardless of their technology, advanced mathematics and knowledge of the sky, to help with their famine, they turned to their gods.

Mayans believed in the supernatural, which included heaven and the underworld, both with many levels and deities. In this instance, praying underground, meant praying to the gods of the earth to refurbish the land. This is where the cave came in. It was a direct path to give a sacrifice of human life to please their gods.

Travelling deep into a cave:

The tour is quite the adventure, and you get a fun Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones vibe as you’re walking through the jungle, swimming through lakes and caves, and squeezing through narrow paths to find the hidden tomb.

The guide enriches the experience with deep knowledge on the history of the Mayans and the region.

Reaching the final room is incredibly rewarding and I still can’t fathom some of the bones, pots and natural cave formations left behind over 1,000 years ago. I don’t want to spoil the setting, you genuinely need to experience it.

But the Crystal Maiden is the final site. An almost perfectly preserved set of bones of an 18-year-old girl who had been sacrificed during this period. A reminder of some of the torment Mayans had endured, and their desperation to save their people from the coming famine.

Tips for visiting the ATM caves, Belize

If you are planning a trip here (which you should!) here are 7 tips, tricks and things to know before your visit to the ATM cave:

1) Bring reef shoes
Your feet with being submerged in water for much of the tour, so it’s best to bring reef shoes to wear as they dry quickly and won’t get smelly! Although preferable, you don’t need hard toe reef shoes – completely soft ones are okay and accepted by the tour companies. Ideally, if you are travelling down the east coast of Mexico, get them in Playa Del Carmen as it houses the most shops, offering greater choice (cost is anywhere from $10 – $20USD)

2) Bring socks
There is the dry cavern where you will be required to take off your shoes to enter and walk through. As such you’ll want socks on as the ground has many small sharp rocks!

3) Don’t wear a long sleeve shirt
While it seems like a good idea at first, particularly if you’re prone to getting cold, you do visit the dry cavern for quite an extended portion of the tour and you’ll be standing in damp clothes for a long time. As such, it actually makes you colder since you’re wearing more wet clothing, and don’t worry, the cavern air is relatively warm, so you don’t freeze!

4) If you’re a competent swimmer, you don’t really need a life jacket unless perhaps it’s the wet season!
During our visit in early April 2019 (the end of the dry season), the water levels were relatively low, so there were only 2 sections during which I had to swim as my feet could not touch the bottom (I’m 1.7m tall). This was at the very entrance to the cave for about 10m and after about 10 minutes into the cave.

Being said, our guide explained that during the wet season the water levels in the cave can rise by almost 50-60cm, in which case there would be significantly more spots on the tour where swimming would be necessary. Of course, if you are not a confident swimmer, or want the added warmth, then a life jacket is for you!

Also if you are looking to go in September/October, be mindful it is hurricane season and if water levels rise too much, the ATM cave is closed to tourists for safety reasons.

5) Get on the bus early
Being the first group in the cave is magical as the waters are clear (as groups traipsing through haven’t yet stirred up sediment) and with the quiet, it feels like you have the caves all to yourself. We were lucky enough to be the 1st group through for the day. As we were leaving, because you exit the same way you enter, we often ran into groups who had only just begun and were then forced to stop at multiple points to let exiting groups pass. As always, the early bird catches the worm!

6) You can’t bring cameras or video recording devices into ATM cave. Period.
Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events with tourists in the past have lead to this ban on all devices in the cave. The upside though is you don’t need to worry about dry bags, fiddling with cameras, and your attention is 100% focused on taking in the moment 😊. You do receive photos at the end of the trip, but they are pre-taken photos of the cave by the tour agency – there is no tour guide following you with a camera and taking pictures of your group!

7) You don’t have to be Indiana Jones or Lara Croft to do this tour
The tour does require some climbing up rocks and minimal parts of swimming (approx. 10m – 15m), but you don’t need to be a gym junkie to do this. The hardest parts are swimming into the entrance of the cave, climbing up a short ladder and a rock boulder to get to the dry cavern and probably squeezing through some tight spaces. All of this, however, is very much doable, and the tour guides guide you through every step, foothold and movement along the way.

Date visited: 16 April 2019.
Tour agency: MayaWalk Tours. We decided on these guys as they were one of the most and highest rated tour operators on TripAdvisor and departed at 7am from their office in San Ignacio.
The price paid: USD85 per person. We were initially quoted USD$95 but received a discount after requesting one for a group of 5 people.

7 Tips & Tricks for Visiting the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave of Belize

You feel like Tomb Raider hiking out and exploring the ATM caves in Belize. Here are 7 tips to prepare you for this adventure.

Walking deep into a cave is not always for the faint-hearted. I wouldn’t say I’m the claustrophobic type, closing a door to a small dark room won’t make me squeal, but squeezing down narrow shafts of a cave definitely gets the heart racing.

Regardless of any fear the mind may have for narrow dark spaces, boy was visiting the ATM cave of Belize was a blast.

A brief history of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM)

Discovered in 1989 and also known as the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, the cave was used by the Mayans in the late classic period in a desperate plea to their gods to help flourish the lands with crops. Mayans were, as you know, an incredible civilisation, and while their end inevitably came from the arrival of the Spaniards, their downfall began a lot earlier. Although there are many mixed opinions on the matter, what was known as their farming capability was nothing short of destructive and conducive to their famine. Rather than refurbish and reuse farmland, they would burn it, and move on to the next patch. Mixed with drying wells, and bad weather, they soon were in danger of starvation.

Regardless of their technology, advanced mathematics and knowledge of the sky, to help with their famine, they turned to their gods.

Mayans believed in the supernatural, which included heaven and the underworld, both with many levels and deities. In this instance, praying underground, meant praying to the gods of the earth to refurbish the land. This is where the cave came in. It was a direct path to give a sacrifice of human life to please their gods.

Travelling deep into the cave

The tour is quite the adventure, and you get a fun Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones vibe as you’re walking through the jungle, swimming through lakes and caves, and squeezing through narrow paths to find the hidden tomb.

The guide enriches the experience with deep knowledge on the history of the Mayans and the region.

Reaching the final room is incredibly rewarding and I still can’t fathom some of the bones, pots and natural cave formations left behind over 1,000 years ago. I don’t want to spoil the setting, you genuinely need to experience it.

You get a fun Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones vibe.

But the Crystal Maiden is the final site. An almost perfectly preserved set of bones of an 18-year-old girl who had been sacrificed during this period. A reminder of some of the torment Mayans had endured, and their desperation to save their people from the coming famine.

Tips for visiting the ATM cave, Belize

If you are planning a trip here (which you should!) here are 7 tips, tricks and things to know before your visit to the ATM cave:

1) Bring reef shoes

Your feet with being submerged in water for much of the tour, so it’s best to bring reef shoes to wear as they dry quickly and won’t get smelly! Although preferable, you don’t need hard toe reef shoes – completely soft ones are okay and accepted by the tour companies. Ideally, if you are travelling down the east coast of Mexico, get them in Playa Del Carmen as it houses the most shops, offering greater choice (cost is anywhere from $10 – $20USD)

2) Bring socks

There is the dry cavern where you will be required to take off your shoes to enter and walk through. As such you’ll want socks on as the ground has many small sharp rocks!

3) Don’t wear a long sleeve shirt

While it seems like a good idea at first, particularly if you’re prone to getting cold, you do visit the dry cavern for quite an extended portion of the tour and you’ll be standing in damp clothes for a long time. As such, it actually makes you colder since you’re wearing more wet clothing, and don’t worry, the cavern air is relatively warm, so you don’t freeze!

4) Do you really need a life jacket?

If you’re a competent swimmer, you don’t really need a life jacket unless perhaps it’s the wet season!

During our visit in early April 2019 (the end of the dry season), the water levels were relatively low, so there were only 2 sections during which I had to swim as my feet could not touch the bottom (I’m 1.7m tall). This was at the very entrance to the cave for about 10m and after about 10 minutes into the cave.

Being said, our guide explained that during the wet season the water levels in the cave can rise by almost 50-60cm, in which case there would be significantly more spots on the tour where swimming would be necessary. Of course, if you are not a confident swimmer, or want the added warmth, then a life jacket is for you!

Also if you are looking to go in September/October, be mindful it is hurricane season and if water levels rise too much, the ATM cave is closed to tourists for safety reasons.

5) Get on the bus early

Being the first group in the cave is magical as the waters are clear (as groups traipsing through haven’t yet stirred up sediment) and with the quiet, it feels like you have the caves all to yourself. We were lucky enough to be the 1st group through for the day. As we were leaving, because you exit the same way you enter, we often ran into groups who had only just begun and were then forced to stop at multiple points to let exiting groups pass. As always, the early bird catches the worm!

6) No cameras of video devices!

You can’t bring cameras or video recording devices into ATM cave. Period.

Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events with tourists in the past have lead to this ban on all devices in the cave. The upside though is you don’t need to worry about dry bags, fiddling with cameras, and your attention is 100% focused on taking in the moment 😊. You do receive photos at the end of the trip, but they are pre-taken photos of the cave by the tour agency – there is no tour guide following you with a camera and taking pictures of your group!

7) The tour and hike is not dificult

The tour does require some climbing up rocks and minimal parts of swimming (approx. 10m – 15m), but you don’t need to be a gym junkie to do this. The hardest parts are swimming into the entrance of the cave, climbing up a short ladder and a rock boulder to get to the dry cavern and probably squeezing through some tight spaces.

You don’t have to be Indiana Jones or Lara Croft to do this tour.

All of this, however, is very much doable, and the tour guides guide you through every step, foothold and movement along the way.

Date visited: 16 April 2019.
Tour agency: MayaWalk Tours. We decided on these guys as they were one of the most and highest rated tour operators on TripAdvisor and departed at 7am from their office in San Ignacio.
The price paid: USD85 per person. We were initially quoted USD$95 but received a discount after requesting one for a group of 5 people.

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7 THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE VISITING CHICHEN ITZA: GUIDE, TIPS & TRICKS

Considered one of the new 7 wonders of the world. here are 7 tips, tricks and things to know before your visit to Chichen Itza.

Considered one of the new 7 wonders of the world as voted in 2007, the UNESCO world heritage site Chichen Itza is a must see in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. Located approx. 2 hours drive from the popular Tulum and Cancun, the Mayan engineering marvel is a fascinating sight to behold.

Dominated by the famous El Castillo or Temple of Kulkulcan, the ruins are made up of multiple sites and a network of paved roadways, reflecting the city complex, which was built sometime in the 5th century AD. By 600 AD, Chichen Itza had grown to become a thriving urban centre of Mayan civilisation, with an estimated 50,000 people living in the city at its height.

If you are planning a trip here (which you should!) here are 7 tips, tricks and things to know before your visit to Chichen Itza:

Beating the crowds means having the temple all to yourself.

1. Timezone differences!
Perhaps the most important of all, particularly if you are making the visit from Tulum or Cancun, is being aware of a possible time zone change. In 2015, the state of Quintana Roo (in which Cancun and Tulum are located) decided to change to Eastern Standard Time, permanently gaining an hour of sunlight for tourists. Chichen Itza located in the state of Yucatan however, which still observes Central Daylight Time. Although, during April – October when daylight saving is in play, both states operate in the same time zone.

Between October – April when daylight saving is not observed in Yucatan, this creates a time zone difference. During this time, Chichen Itza is an hour behind Tulum, so if you’re planning on getting there just before opening at 8 am don’t forget to factor that in otherwise you’ll be like us and arrive before 7 am!

2. An early start to beat the crowds
While you don’t want to be too early, you do want to get there as close to opening as possible. A small queue had already formed by 7:45 am and being amongst the first people inside for the day means you get to enjoy the quiet and awe of Chichen Itza without the crowds and in the relative cool of the early morning.

3. Taking in your SLR camera
Be mindful there is a fee for the use of what they deem professional cameras and videos at Chichen Itza and requires a separate ticket to be used (i.e. DSLR’s and go pros. Regular point and shoot cameras like our Sony RX100 was fine). As such if you’re not willing to pay the fee, or happy to use our phone to snap pics, leave your camera and GoPro at home.

4. Entry fees
You will need to buy two tickets at Chichen Itza – one is the federal fee (MXN75 p.p), and one is the state fee (MXN400 p.p). When we were there in April 2019, we could pay both tickets on credit-card, but it’s often said that the state fee is paid in cash.

5. Cenotes of Chichen Itza
Unfortunately you can’t swim in the cenotes at Chichen Itza, however, if you’re looking for great nearby ones, our favourites were Ik Kil (8 mins away) or Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman (45 mins away just on the outskirts of the nearby town Valladolid and on the way back to Tulum).

The cenote Ik Kil.

Both open top cenotes, Ik Kil though is consistently rated in the top cenotes in Mexico with beautiful vines that dip down to the 40m deep waters. It has many facilities, including an on-site restaurant, lockers and accommodation options. The entrance fee is MXN70.

For Hacienda Oxman, what’s different about this cenote is it has both a natural underground pool (with rope swing!) plus an above ground pool with a bar if you’re craving a bit of sunshine. It also has three options for entry fees, all of which include life vest use and access to the pool.

a) MXN80 flat entry fee
b) MXN100 entry fee with MXN50 redeemable on food and drinks
c) MXN150 entry fee fully redeemable though on food and drinks

While we didn’t try the food, it was nonetheless a perfect post-Chichen Itza stop for an afternoon swim and drinks!

6. Lunch
A fantastic stop for lunch near Chichen Itza is Yerberbuena in nearby town Valleidod. This serves a delicious meal with local Mexican dishes and even vego/vegan options. If you go, we highly recommend their mango frappe – it was divine!

Snapping a selfie with no crowds around.

7. Special events
There is a bi-annual festival during the spring and autumn equinox each year at Chichen Itza that celebrates the beginning of spring. An interesting fact: there is equal (12 hours each) of daylight and night.

Occurring every year in March and September – generally on the 21st of the month – on these days in the late afternoon around 4 pm, the light of the sun casts a shadow along with the steps of the Kulkulkan template that makes it appear like a serpent is slithering down the pyramid. This amazing display of the Mayan’s advanced astronomical knowledge and is a fun celebration to be had as thousands gather each year to admire this phenomenon. While we missed it this time around, if you are planning a holiday in these months, it will be well worth lining up the dates!

A NEW APPRECIATION FOR TRAVELLING

From someone was fear of long term travel, I’ve built up a new appreciation for the world and am now excited to take on the new challenges put before me.

—by Chris Sinclair—

Four months ago, I sat behind computer screen running digital consulting projects for my clients. Deep diving into their business, I would uncover gaps and areas they need to improve and help set them on a path to success. I loved it, I loved my job and loved the people and the company I worked for, I was fortunate.

I had done a small share of travelling before taking this long journey, but never I had I thought to leave my job for an extended period, jump on a plane and start exploring the world beyond a couple of weeks holiday here and there. The idea of it actually gave me anxiety. If you asked anyone close to me, they would tell you I spoke more negatively of adventure to come, than I did positive.

It sounds weird, naive, almost selfish, but I felt this for many reasons.

Firstly, I had a fear of changing scenery impacting my dyslexia. Knowing I would be breaking rhythms and processes I had put in place to help me build confidence in everything I do. I talk a lot about this here.

Secondly was the picture I had of the world. Media would tell me the world is a dangerous place, filled with criminals, terrorist and communists. And while this is true in some areas, the fear that is built up through social media, news and magazines is far from painting an accurate depiction of what the world is actually like.

We just finished our trip through Central and South America, starting from Mexico and working our way down to Brazil. And while we encountered dangers, I can confidently say none of these should ever have faltered how I had initially felt.

On the contrary, the challenges and experiences have been uplifting and reassuring that even breaking rhythms can help improve how I can combat the functions of my mind. I’ve would continuously think through and write out the experiences I’ve had to maintain the structure, and utilised mind app games to keep my head busy. And more exciting for me, putting my thoughts into a blog to share.

What I’ve also learnt is that sometimes you have to take everything you hear as a grain of salt. The barriers we build around ourselves and entrench our lives in, create illusions of distress in life. Most often, painted by the false nature of today’s media. It extends to prove how important it is to do your own research and gain a better understanding of a situation before letting it truly impact your decisions or emotions.

My best example of this was related to Gabby’s and my own desire to visit Brazil. I had heard so many stories of the issues and violence that occurs in this country, particularly in tourist areas. Similarly, I was chatting with a Brazilian friend back home and mentioned I was visiting their homeland. Their response to me was, “why?” And then they continued to list off everything dangerous about it, particularly the tourist areas like Rio. What I didn’t ask in return, was, “what are the good things?” and “how then could I stay safe?” Instead, I focussed on these negative points, and almost convinced myself and Gabby that we shouldn’t go to Brazil.

Needless to say, if I hadn’t had visited Brasil, I never would have known what I missed out on – but current me would scream that I would have regretted it.

There are dangers everywhere you go, even my own country, which I would consider one of the safest places on this Earth. That being said, even just last week, it was uncovered that a tourist had been kidnapped in South Australia. It unfortunately happens.

I now sit on a plane, making my way across Europe, ready to experience a place I am most excited about, Greece. But I travel with a new appreciation after coming from the Americas. It’s not one of being fearless. Please don’t misconstrue my newfound appreciation for the world as one of being fearless, it doesn’t matter where you go, you should always be cautious and aware. Instead, it is one of excitement and challenge, an open mind to understand and appreciate what the world has to offer, and how amazing every culture is, both positive and negatives.

Central America, it was the land and nature. In South America, it was the people and culture. Most notably, my appreciation for even the roughest parts of the world, people are still smiling and welcoming (check out my story on the Brazilian Favelas here).