Sunday, February 13, 2011

Spas of the Sacred Valley-Machipichu, Peru

Spas of the Sacred Valley
By Ian Belcher
Published: February 11 2011 17:35 | Last updated: February 11 2011 17:35
Spa at Rio Sagrado
The spa at Rio Sagrado
I’m nervous. I can’t move. Painted in gloopy Andean mud and mummified in a plastic shroud, I appear to have become a ritualistic offering. Given my location – halfway down Peru’s Sacred Valley where the Incas weren’t averse to the occasional human sacrifice – I feel a tad vulnerable.
But the gods will have to wait. After 20 minutes of light basting at gas-mark five, Talia, the high priestess of my chic contemporary spa, shows mercy. I’m unwrapped for a muscular massage using Peruvian mint, coca leaf and horse tail. There isn’t a ceremonial dagger in sight.
A traditional Peruvian costume
A traditional Peruvian costume
At Rio Sagrado, which opened last year, the luxury travel company Orient Express is harnessing local traditions, produce and staff to create a fresh take on upmarket accommodation. At a point where the valley widens and the Urubamba River curls languorously beneath sheer ochre cliffs, the hotel’s 11 rooms, 10 suites and two villas are spread out through gardens of Andean fuchsias, amaryllis and broom.
Mixing the traditional (eucalyptus beams, terracotta pantiles) with the modern (unfussy decor, glass-sided bathrooms), it offers widescreen views of the river and star-drenched night sky. A melodic tinkle of water is a reminder that centuries-old Inca irrigation channels still deliver snowmelt to the gardens from surrounding glaciers. After dark, strategically placed spotlights team up with the moon’s rays, alchemising the Urubamba into a ribbon of silver.
The opening puts Orient Express at the forefront of a luxury boom in the heart of the valley that chases the muscular river from Pisac towards Machu Picchu. Within a 20-minute drive, its neighbours include Starwood’s Tambo del Inka, opened last May, and Aranwa, recently expanded to embrace South America’s largest spa complex.
But that’s just the start. Developers are stacked like aircraft above Heathrow. Chilean wilderness operator, Explora, along with Peruvian ecotourism pioneers, Inkaterra, are set to break ground in the area soon, while Aman Resorts, purveyor of pared-back elegance, is rumoured to have earmarked a site at nearby Huayoccari (though it won’t officially comment).
The increasing popularity of the central Sacred Valley is partly down to altitude. It’s relatively easy on the body for anyone arriving in the Peruvian Highlands – and the cultural attractions of higher, more physically taxing Cusco can be scheduled for later in a trip. “At 2,700m we’re a lot lower than the city – you’re less likely to get sick,” explains Rio Sagrado general manager Rodrigo Ofner.


High style at high altitude
Puyuncuy House, Mollepata
Dramatic views of the snow-licked Andes are part of the package at Puyuncuy, which opened last March, 90 minutes’ drive west from Cusco. With terracotta walls, wood floors and local textiles, the boutique adventure lodge works either as somewhere to acclimatise before tackling the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu, or as a base for hiking and horse riding.
From £143pp per night,
MV Aria, Iquitos
Offering three-, four- and seven-night cruises from Iquitos along the Amazon and tributary rivers, the Aria cruise ship will bring a touch of contemporary cool to the Peruvian jungle when it launches this April. The 16 suites, Jacuzzi and gourmet restaurant will provide a luxury floating base for piranha fishing, wildlife spotting with expert guides and a visit to Pacaya Samiria, the 5m-acre national reserve with its extraordinary birdlife and animals, including the pink river dolphin.
From £1,585pp full-board for three nights,
El Mapi Hotel, Machu Picchu Pueblo
This relaxed accommodation from “byInkaterra” – the cheaper arm of eco-tourism pioneers Inkaterra – opened last summer. The 48 rooms, cafeteria and bar introduce an uncluttered, almost Scandinavian functionality to the Peruvian cloud forest, while its outdoor thermal pool and piped oxygen soften the blow for any guests daunted by a climb to the ruins.
Doubles from £124 including breakfast,
Hotel Titilaka, Lake Titicaca
Another distinctive design by Jordi Puig – the man behind El MaPi Hotel in Aguas Calientes – brings cool, unfussy style to a peninsula 20 miles outside Puno. All 18 rooms have lake views, heated floors and bathrooms with oversized freestanding tubs and rain showers. As well as the hotel’s funky lighting and sofa, it offers creative Andean cuisine – fava bean gumbo anyone? – and trips to floating islands and colonial churches.
Doubles from £187 including breakfast,
“It’s also more convenient for nearby Inca sites. Guests spend a couple of days acclimatising with visits to Ollantaytambo, Maras and Moray. If they’re staying in Cusco, they have to travel out to the valley and then return at the end of the day.”
His hotel’s claim to be a natural base for the onward journey to Machu Picchu has strengthened with the opening of its new railway stop directly outside. One of PeruRail’s Vistadome trains now runs from Urubamba to the mountain-top citadel, using a line mothballed for five years.
Despite its geographical advantages, Rio Sagrado experienced one of the most traumatic births in hotel history. Just weeks after Orient Express assumed control in January 2010 – it was launched by different owners 13 months before – the area was hit by a catastrophic deluge. The Urubamba’s steady flow mutated into a ravenous surge, obliterating the gardens and closing the hotel for two weeks.
Business, however, was floored for a further two months. Floods down the valley washed away sections of railway, leaving about 2,000 tourists stranded. Sanctuary Lodge – the Orient Express hotel at Machu Picchu – became a crisis headquarters with floors covered in mattresses for visitors awaiting helicopter evacuation. The rail route, along with a viable flow of tourists, wasn’t restored until April.
Now Rio Sagrado has hit its stride – and is aiming for close integration with the surrounding community. Locals make up 94 per cent of the staff and the hotel sponsors handicrafts and agricultural workshops, while sourcing produce from the area’s farmers. Regional flavours haunt the menu at its El Huerto Restaurant: mountain trout, lamb and llama, served with valley crops from fava beans, high-altitude potatoes and sun-dried corn to lemon-scented quinoa mousse.
Even the striking glass-fronted spa, where a waterfall cascades off the raised deck’s spectacular plunge pool, taps into long-held local knowledge about medicinal valley plants. Coca leaves are natural anti-oxidants, muna (Peruvian mint) is good for altitude sickness, while eucalyptus oil clears the respiratory tract.
To an ambient backing track – I’m happy to report it didn’t include panpipes – I am exfoliated with salt from the Inca mine at nearby Maras. “I follow Andean traditions,” explains spa director Talia Luna. “The Incas didn’t use reiki, but knew all about the transfer of cosmic energy by hands. They were strongly connected to the natural world and the mountains.”
I’m pretty certain that connection didn’t involve squealing four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles. But with more visitors now staying in the valley – and Louis Vuitton luggage replacing backpacks – Cusco adventure experts, Loreto Tours, have opened a well-equipped base downriver from Rio Sagrado. “Our clients now come from a range of five-star hotels but there’s still a big call for adrenaline activities around this area,” stresses owner Mateo Ochoa. “We offer the same excitement – rafting, climbing, biking – but with a far higher level of comfort.”
I’m all for that. But nature doesn’t necessarily follow the new upmarket regime. I arrive to find landslides have left the Urubamba muddy and uninviting rather than sacred. As shafts of sunlight drill through bruised clouds, quad bikes are more appealing than river rafts.
Their 1,500cc engines, whining like super-sized mosquitoes, are a savage intrusion on the serenity. But all is forgiven after 20km on red dirt tracks deliver us to 3,300m. We stop, remove our helmets and breathe slowly. Laid out before us, across shimmering fields of high-altitude wheat, is a vast panorama of peaks and vertiginous cliffs. Veils of mist open and shut like theatre curtains, providing glimpses of the snaking river and railway far below. If you can’t write that difficult second symphony here, you won’t write it anywhere.
And the best is yet to come. Close to Maras, the town that once boomed on the profits of Inca salt mines clinging to nearby hills, we turn off the rough agricultural track. At a perfect viewpoint opposite the glaciers of Chicon and San Juan, a smartly dressed waiter is putting the finishing touches to an Orient Express picnic on a bright local weave. Exquisite pork rolls, honey chicken, pasta and flutes of bucks fizz – an offering to guests, rather than gods – are conclusive proof that luxury, with all bells and whistles attached, really has arrived in the heart of the Sacred Valley.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Julian Assange Extradition Hearing Begins Monday As WikiLeaks Founder Faces Legal Battle

Julian Assange Extradition Hearing Begins Monday As WikiLeaks Founder Faces Legal Battle

Hiking Mexico City’s Three Highest Peaks -

Hiking Mexico City’s Three Highest Peaks -


Mexico City: Hiking Mecca?

Marcos Ferro/Aurora Photos
Climbing Ayoloco glacier on 17,126-foot Iztaccíhuatl, a two-hour drive from Mexico City. While the mountain does not demand much technical skill, its sheer altitude should be taken seriously
“WHO knew that this was here?” said Alejandro Escalante, a young businessman from Mexico City, his suit jacket flapping like a flag in the wind. Above us loomed the serrated edge of Nevado de Toluca, a 15,000-foot-high extinct volcano an hour’s drive and a short hikefrom the Mexican capital. From deep within its crater, two shallow emerald lakes reflected patches of snow that, by last spring, still stubbornly clung to the mountain’s broad shoulders.
Omar Torres/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Ascending snow-capped Ajusco volcano, on the outskirts of Mexico City, is a popular day trip for hikers.
Michael E. Miller
Lago del Sol, seen from Nevado de Toluca’s crater rim, an hour’s drive and short hike away.
Twenty-five years ago, few could have answered Mr. Escalante’s question in the affirmative. In the 1980s, residents of the teeming capital nearly forgot the mountains existed. So thick was the haze encircling Mexico City that some of the tallest peaks on the continent virtually disappeared.
No longer. The mountains surrounding the megalopolis are back, both in view and on travel itineraries. Cleaner air, better roads and a growing middle class have boosted mountain climbing in central Mexico, and hikers are starting to take notice. “Famous climbers come here to start their careers or to train for other mountains,” Mario Andrade, a veteran guide, told me. “Nowadays the reputation of our mountains is widespread and growing fast.”
Still, while increasingly popular among Mexicans and foreign climbers training for the Himalayas, they are almost unknown to the millions of foreign tourists who visit the country each year.
And so, after living in Mexico City for a year, I prepared my backpack, dug out my boots, and set myself a 10-day goal of hiking a trio of the tallest mountains within a day’s trip of downtown: El Ajusco (12,894 feet), Nevado de Toluca (15,354 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,126 feet).
Like most journeys in Mexico, mine began near the city center: the bustling heart of what Mexicans lovingly call el monstruo (the monster).
I met a group of friends in the subway, and we headed south toward Ajusco, a peak rising from the edge of the city like a lookout tower. At the last stop of the train we caught a cab, which — in about 30 minutes — took us the remaining miles to the base of the mountain, past roadside roast chicken stands, paintball courses and patchy soccer fields.
After our taxi dropped us at the side of the road near a final, lonely restaurant, we headed straight up the slope, through light forest and over an irrigation ditch, until we eventually stumbled onto a well-worn path. I had chosen Ajusco as a warm-up for more demanding hikes, but its sheer elevation and sweeping vistas are still more than enough to take your breath away. After a fairly easy two-hour ascent that wound its way around the mountain like a corkscrew, we stood atop a narrow rock ledge named El Pico del Águila, or Eagle’s Peak.
Looking down, we saw the city wrapped around us like an enormous sleeping dog. We and several dozen other day-trippers rested near a series of metal crosses, sucking in the thin, cool air. (At nearly 13,000 feet, Ajusco is considerably higher than Mexico City, itself already more than 7,000 feet above sea level.)
A few days later, my legs fully recuperated from the Ajusco hike, I met a friend at Mexico City’s western bus station. Our aim: to climb Nevado de Toluca as a final preparation for Iztaccíhuatl, the eighth highest mountain in North America. We arrived in Toluca in little more than an hour and haggled with a taxi to take us the remaining 45 minutes to the base of the mountain. The cab bounced along a switchback dirt road before dropping us off at the entrance to the park. An old man waved us in the direction of the peak, promising that we could not miss the path to the top.
We followed a faint trail through the forest, as small birds and squirrels flitted in front of us like spirits. A forest fire several months earlier had left large swaths of undergrowth charred and stunted, and small yellow flowers and saplings sporadically broke through the black crust. After half an hour of gradual hiking, we reached the tree line. Suddenly, Nevado’s summit, Friar’s Peak, stared down at us, more than a mile above the city of Toluca behind us. Under its watchful eye, we hiked along a dirt road around the mountain to the Posada Familiar where, on weekends, visitors can camp or cook a hot meal for a fee of a few dollars.
Although Ajusco is the most popular hike near Mexico City, Nevado de Toluca is not far behind. One reason is that it is only as difficult as hikers make it. Many Mexicans, including Mr. Escalante, the Mexico City businessman, drive all the way up to the posada, park their cars and walk only the steep half-mile up to its volcanic crater. From there, its twin lagoons — Lake of the Sun and Lake of the Moon — shine like turquoise jewels against the red and gray rock surrounding them. Against the backdrop of its austerely beautiful serrated crater rim, this place seems farther away from the chaotic capital than New York or Miami ever could.
A week later, I rode another bus an hour and a half southeast of the capital to Amecameca, the launching pad for ascents of Iztaccíhuatl. Because of the climb’s increased difficulty and greater risk of altitude sickness I hired a guide, Alberto Buendía, who picked me up at the bus station in his truck.
We barreled past fields of corn and agave, through thick forest and past old women selling quesadillas until we reached El Paso de Cortés, the saddle between Iztaccíhuatl and the still-active volcano Popocatépetl.
Unlike Ajusco or Nevado de Toluca, both of which can be trekked in half a day, Iztaccíhuatl is a two-day hike. And while it does not demand much technical skill, its sheer altitude should be taken seriously. At more than 17,000 feet above sea level, it is nearly two miles above the already nosebleed-high Mexico City and taller than either the Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Altitude sickness often forces unprepared visitors to cut their hikes short. Even the mountain’s name is ominous. Iztaccíhuatl means “White Woman” in Nahuatl, a reference not only to the way its peaks resemble a reclining woman’s curves, but also to the two glaciers and year-round snow near its summit. Unlike the other two climbs, Iztaccíhuatl can be attempted only from late October to May, during Mexico’s dry season. During the summer, when heavy rains soften the snow and glaciers, the upper stretches of the mountain are unsafe to climb.
My guide and I shouldered our packs, stuffed full of food, water, sleeping bags and extra clothes for the summit, and gripped our hiking staffs. Our ascent began in a breathtakingly green valley, less than four miles but thousands of feet in altitude from the summit. As we hiked, Mr. Buendía explained to me how hiking had grown in Mexico since he became a guide 11 years ago.
“Nowadays there are so many 16-, 17-year-old kids joining hiking clubs and rescue teams,” he said. “Technology has made climbing easier, and now they can see on television what it is like to hike these mountains. They look up, see the summit, and say to themselves: ‘I can climb that.’ ”
After an hour, tall grass gave way to gravel and rock. The countryside opened up below us, a glacial stream running off to our right. Our path turned into sand, then slippery mud as we entered the appropriately named Soapmaker’s Pass. Finally, after three hours, we reached the refuge halfway up the mountain, a silver trailer cemented to the mountain. Like many hiking huts in Mexico, the trailer is available on a first-come-first-served basis. But on this day, we had the barren, amenity-free wooden sleeping platforms to ourselves. As thunderstorms broke on the slopes beneath us, I tucked into my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep.
After a night of little rest, I ate a ham sandwich frozen stiff by the cold. We donned our heavy coats and left the refuge shortly after dawn, moving up Iztaccíhuatl’s rocky “knee,” at times hand-over-hand. The wind whipped across the ridge, and fog settled on us like a ghost, only to disappear again. We passed a frozen lake as gray-blue as an Arctic sea. After another hour we reached the mountain’s “belly”: a glacier the size of two football fields. As Mr. Buendía walked in front of me, his left foot plunged through the glacier’s crust and into the icy water below. He howled with cold, but trudged on nonetheless.
We continued upward, past a false summit and over a narrow, vertiginous pass. The smell of sulfur washed over us from natural springs below. On either side, steep, snow-covered slopes disappeared into thin air, and I gripped my walking stick tighter. Finally we reached the summit, Iztaccíhuatl’s “breast,” nearly three miles above sea level. Forty miles to the northwest, Mexico City was humming and honking as loudly as ever, but here, above the clouds, there was only the sound of the midday wind, and my shallow breaths.
From Mexico City, the easiest way to reach all three mountains is by renting a car. However, Ajusco is accessible via the metro and then a taxi (120 pesos, or $10 at 12 Mexican pesos to the dollar ). Buses leave every 10 minutes for Toluca from Mexico City’s western bus station, Terminal Poniente de Autobuses, and every 15 minutes for Amecameca from the eastern bus terminal, TAPO (Terminal Autobuses Oriente). Once you are in either town, taxis to the mountains are expensive, running as much as 600 pesos round trip.
All three hikes require some level of physical fitness but no climbing experience. Ajusco can be climbed year-round, but the best time to hike both Nevado de Toluca and Iztaccíhuatl is between late October and May when the weather is generally dry and mild. Hikers of all skill levels should watch the weather before any attempt, and inexperienced hikers should only ascend Iztaccíhuatl with a professional guide.
Rubén García Fernández runs Cumbre 7 Expeditiones ( out of Amecameca. For an English-speaking guide, try Mario Andrade( in Mexico City.
Experienced hikers can rent their own equipment from Aguayo Deportes(, a cheap and friendly store in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood.
Altitude sickness, or mal de montaña as it is called in Mexico, can be deadly. Visitors unaccustomed to high altitude should spend at least three or four days walking around Mexico City, and Iztaccíhuatl should only be attempted after several easier, acclimatizing hikes.

Eloisa A South American Lady

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