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Wherever you go in the world, be in the jungles of South America or the plains of East Africa, you’ll eventually stumble upon a place that serves as the local hang-out for anyone passing through. Rather like the old caravanserai dotted around the ancient Silk Route these places offer a bed for the night, food and drink and a chance to catch up with fellow travellers who may have news of the road ahead. Unlike those early-day voyagers however the modern day frequenter of these routes is not carrying goods to sell in a faraway land – the chances are that his/her pack holds nothing more exotic than a few weeks’ worth of dirty laundry.
So how do these oases spring up and what are the essential ingredients that make these places so popular? If we wanted to set up our own traveller hangout in the middle of nowhere what would it need to include? Here are just a handful of suggestions.
1. Internet café - the first port of call for all who arrive in this town. Hours or even days on the road will have left new arrivals tired, thirsty and possibly starting to ramble incoherently. A quick internet fix is proven to be the most effective solution to these symptoms. Bonus points on offer if the entire town can offer free wi-fi coverage.
2. All-night bar, with non-stop football/music videos on large screen. Full marks if volume is kept at maximum even when the bar is empty.
3. Immaculately untidy hostel - should look like it was an important building in another era – extra marks if it can claim to have once been a brothel.
4. Frozen yoghurt and shake café - for thirst quenching only and certainly not for the purpose of creating ‘happy shakes’, whatever they are.
5. Gear shop – backpackers are no different to the rest of the population and will appreciate the chance to replace the clothes that may have given up their ghost since the last stop. Fisherman’s pants, sarongs and very cool hats are must items to keep in stock.
6. Travel agent – remember that people will only be passing through. Everyone needs a ride out of town and it’s your local tour guy who can offer them a range of escape options. He can also provide jeep rides, rafting trips and bike hire for visitors. Cash only, of course.
7. Sunset bar – for those who are too old, too sophisticated or just too cool to stay in the sports bar, a little straw hut a short walk away from the action can provide a perfect place to sit in silent transcendental meditation with a cool beer in hand while watching the sunset.
8. Fast food joint – not a recognised American chain of course, but preferably a place that makes a thinly disguised and badly executed attempt at looking like one.
9. Slow food joint – this is the place where someone has set up a restaurant with a single portable gas stove. An omelette will take an hour, a pizza maybe longer. For a table of four a meal is by necessity an all-night affair. There is ample beer so no-one complains.
10. The long-haired ex-pat expert – it is the people who make a place and every traveller community needs a respected fully-pledged dude at the helm. Usually a veteran of the travellers’ community he passed through while hitch-hiking years ago when there was nothing here and decided to create a place for travellers like him. Full of useful local information but might get nervous if you say you work for the government.
What else would you add to your perfect backpacker town?
When choosing what book to pack in your backpack you should "read a novel that had no relation to the place you're in." So says Paul Theroux in his book The Tao of Travel. According to Theroux we should throw out those Eric Newby books before we set off for the Hindu Kush and equally dispense with those far-fetched novels telling of random romps in colonial Africa when packing for our safari trips.
This got me thinking about the types of books that we do take on our travels. Take a look at any bookshelf in a hostel or guest house and among the usual dog-eared travel guides of neighbouring countries you'll find a very diversity of titles and topics, from gritty criminal novels to surgical textbooks (yes I really have seen these!). How do you choose the books you take on your travels?
A novel offers us a chance to get lost in a world of dangerous intrigue or fantasy romance set in the place we happen to be visiting. Despite Theroux's words such a choice will have the reader seeing their temporary surroundings in a very different way to their travel companions. Quite likely we will imagine masked gangsters or a femme fatale waiting around street corner.
An author can even influence how we expect the weather to be (since reading Shadow of the Wind I imagine that Barcelona should be perpetually shrouded in mist). Taking a particular Agatha Christie book on the Orient Express may be ultimate cliché in this genre and we shouldn’t underrate the influence of Don Quixote on a trip through Spanish La Mancha.
This is certainly my favourite choice of reading material, again in total defiance of Theroux’s bon mots. Reading The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk really put into context the historical sights I was visiting in Uzbekistan, while I have already got myself a well-recommended travelogue for our upcoming trip to Japan. A well written book can serve a similar function to a knowledgeable local guide, with interesting stories and quirky facts that help the reader to better understand why things are the way they are in a particular place.
I might find it hard to read twenty interpretative boards at a castle or a temple and leave with anything more than a morsel of memorable information about how life was life in the 9th century. An audio-guide can provide a little more detail that I might recall weeks or months later. But give me a novel or a historical reference book that paints a complex, multi-layered picture of a particular place and the people who lived there and years later my memory of whatever it was that I was visiting is that much stronger.
What are we missing?
The question then returns to the real meaning behind Theroux’s advice. I have no doubt that he would agree that a good book can serve the purpose of adding colour to a destination as described above. Perhaps however he would question whether using another person’s experiences, emotions and interpretations helps us gain the most from our travel experience, or whether in fact it is up to us to paint our own pictures and live our own experiences in any place without an author's influence, whether real or fictional.
Peru's Sacred Valley is a must see destination on nearly every itinerary to Cusco and if it isn't, it should be. Formed by the Urubamba River snaking its way through the stunning Andean mountains, the valley has been a vital resource for the region, dating back to Incan times, with the fertile soil excellent for cultivation. The biggest draw for the Sacred Valley is now tourism although the tapestry of patchwork fields is evidence to the agricultural farming that still continues today.
The majority of people visiting the Sacred Valley are there with the intention of soaking up some Incan Culture and they won't be disappointed. Due to the fertile nature of the soil in the area and also the proximity to Cusco, this area is rich with Incan history, with some excellent preserved ruins and agricultural terracing to visit. The towns within the area are also well worth a visit, with colourful markets and plenty of restaurants. Most Sacred Valley tours start and end in Cusco, with the total day taking around 10 hours. Lunch is nearly always included. A day tour makes for a great activity when acclimatising as exertion levels are not high. The total distance covered is about 170km and the itinerary will take in the following highlights:
The Pisac Ruins are a classic example of the terracing that the Incas are so famous for. Growing their crops in well-irrigated terraces, they perfected the art of cultivating crops in micro-climates, essentially creating the first propagators.
Whilst visiting the terraces at Pisa, most people stop off for a wander around Pisac Market, an enchanting and colourful market offering reams of hand-crafted items.
As well as being the starting off town for the Inca Trail, Ollaytantambo is home to a sacred temple, which was in the process of being built when the Spanish arrived. The ruins are incredibly well preserved and stand as a testament to the stamina and ingenuity of the Incas.
Chincheros is either the first or the last stop of the tour, depending on which way round your guide has taken you. This town is home to some original Incan walls which are worth a look. You will also visit a demonstration of local weaving techniques.
Whilst you can stay in one of the towns in the Sacred Valley, most people visit on a one day tour from Cusco. Trips can either be by bus, in a group of about 30 people, or a private tour with a driver & guide. Whilst the private option is much more expensive than the bus option, we believe that the benefits of having your own guide and being able to explore at your own pace far outweigh the cost savings.
Located between Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Chinceros is a pretty town high in the mountains. Standing high at an elevation of 3,700m, the town was an important strategic stop-off from traders travelling from the sacred valley to the Incan capital. Nowadays, the town is visited primarily by tourists on the day long Sacred Valley tour from Cusco. It is possible to see some excellent examples of how colonial architecture was built on top of Incan construction, with original walls of Incan brick-laying to be seen on many buildings.
Other than the architecture, the main draw to the town is its heritage as the weaving centre of the area. Textiles and handicrafts are woven, by hand, using traditional techniques by the women in the village. Spindles and looms are used to craft the al paca wool into beautiful and intricate designs.
If you are lucky enough to visit an handicraft centre, the ladies will demonstrate traditional weaving methods, as well as the dyeing process giving the ladies a whole rainbow of coloured yarns to work with.
Unlike many of the handicraft centres on tourist trails around the world, the workshops visited by the smaller tours take you to family run businesseswhere there is little pressure to buy. After the demonstration you are free to wander around the stalls, but there is little obligation, with the ladies preferring to chat amongst themselves rather than harangue travellers, giving the place a very laid back feel.
Dating back to the start of the 15th Century, the impressive Ollantaytambo is home to the ruins of an unfinished Sun Temple. The building was interrupted suddenly by the Spanish conquest, meaning that the man-made terraces and massive foundations were left half-built. Whilst most of the buildings in the town were converted by the Spanish into churches and living accommodation, the remains of the temple and terracing have been well-preserved. With no written word inherited from the Inca Culture, it has been left to historians and archaeologists to work out the meaning of the place and to piece together the fragments of the buildings to devise a plausible history.
The site offers impressive views of the Sacred Valley and also gives good indication into Incan building techniques. They were not permitted to use wheels as the circular shape was felt to be too close to the image of the sun that they worshipped. Instead, rollers were used to move the enormous granite rocks from a mountain on the other side of the valley to the chosen site. The sheer scale of the build is awe-inspiring, not to mention when you discover that the terraces here were for decoration only, with no agricultural purpose.
The complex also give an interesting insight into Incan Culture, highlighting the importance of the sun and sunlight in their mythology. The triangles seen in nature from the mountains and valleys are replicated in the building design and the East facing temple is positioned to make the most of the winter solstice and to capture the earliest dawn light. On the mountain opposite the ruins are more terraces and, if you squint a little and look to the left of them, it is said that you can see the face of one of the gods looking at you.
Ollantaytambo lies at about 2,800m altitude so is comfortable. That said, to make the most of your visit here, you will need to climb up some of the terraces, so expect some light exertion.