Delightfully Salty! A Photo Shoot Like No Other

What have you imagined heaven to look like? Living in the blue sky, walking on white fluffy clouds? Welcome to Salar de Uyuni.

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The doors of our jeep opened and we leaped into the sky. Or at least it felt like it, until our feet touched a shallow layer of cold water. Here we were in the middle of the Bolivian desert, in the largest salt flat in the world, stepping on the largest mirror in the world.

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Everything you’ve read, seen and heard about this place is true. The place is almost surreal. I’m not sure where the sky started or ended. What was real and what was the reflection. For as far as your eye could see it was the sky, above and below you.

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Perched up ~3600m above sea level, in the land locked Bolivian desert is this natural marvel. No doubt it was once submerged in sea water, probably a few millennia ago before tectonic plates shifted to make the world as we know it today. But today this salty delight is in the middle of the South American continent. Accessed from a non-descriptive little town called Uyuni, the salar is the crowning jewel of this little nation.

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The best time to visit the salar, in my humble opinion is the rainy season. Although most would prefer the dry winter months, when it rains a thin layer of water remains on the surface of the salt flat creating an amazing mirror effect that gives the feeling that you are walking on clouds. The dry season I’m sure is perfect, but when you see the sky and ground collide to create one seamless white & blue paradise, you know it just cant get any better.

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There isn’t much to see here other than whiteness for as far as your eyes can see (over 10,000 sq km to be precise), but the setting does make for a fantabulous backdrop for perspective photography. So we hired a few “props” from our hotel (side note: all hotels have cupboards full of toys and toiletries and what not that one can rent for props for a day of photography) and set out shoot the day away.

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Just remember to bring out the crazy in you, or ensure you have a crazy friend in tow, like we did (thanks Swa for the brilliant photo direction!) to end up with pictures like this

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A few things to keep in mind when visiting the Salar,

  1. If you go in the rainy season, remember to pack water proof shoes. Stepping into the cold water early in the morning was not pleasant as a few of us discovered

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  2. Pack water proof clothes, pants at least, so you can roll around in the water, shooting pictures with no worry
  3. Consider staying in a salt hotel, its an interesting experience to say the least! Read about our’s here.
  4. Nights in the salar can be bitterly cold, so pack well
  5. You are in the middle of a salt flat, so be extra careful with your camera and such devices, the last thing you want is the insides of your precious SLR corroding
  6. Tons of sunscreen is a must. You are completely exposed to the sun with no where to hide. At the end of the day we were burnt crisp.

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  7. Take tons of props with you and let your creativity unfold.

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The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.

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We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.

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The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.

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We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

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Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!

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I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.

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We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.

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We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…

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As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.

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  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.

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  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

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  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.

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  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!

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An Amazonian Adventure 

Exploring the world’s biggest rain forest was an obvious bucket list item, so I didn’t even hesitate to fit it into our South American adventure.

We accessed the Amazon from Brazil with our guide, whose name was…wait for it…RAMBO! He’s from a local tribe and apparently after spending 5 years in the Army he got this nickname.

The best – and sometimes only – way to access this thick rainforest is by boat. The part of the Amazon we visited was around Rio Negro and Rio Amazon. We boarded our small boat and set off to see the spot where these two epic rivers met – one black, full of minerals met the other, brown, cold and apparently more aggressive. It was quite a spectacular site as the two opposing rivers formed almost a line when they met.

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We cruised along the rivers and every now and again spotted fishermen (or maybe some kind of water weed gathers) hiding among the thick vegetation on the river.

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Rambo took us around to find various Amazonian residents including

1. The sloth bear – having very much a humanlike face and clinging on to you like a baby it was the cutest animal ever!

2. A baby anaconda – this baby weighed a ton and coiled itself around my neck before I quickly passed it on..I’ve tried pythons around my neck before, but the anaconda was something else. It was a lot heavier and stronger!

3. Enormous carnivorous cat fish!

4. Amazonian monkeys who we tempted with bananas. They aren’t tamed so these little creatures were slightly afraid of us and wouldn’t interact too much. But the allure of food got the best of them so they would stretch and jump to get hold of the bananas
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We also spotted some residual giant water lilies growing ahead of the season or left behind from the last. Rambo calls them Amazon pizzas!

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We then disembarked at a small town to buy supplies for the next few days in the jungle and drove inland to take yet another boat to get to our lodge. This was more of a canoe than a boat. We loaded all our stuff and set off through narrow winding streams and lakes to get to our very basic jungle lodging.

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After resting for a while we set off to capture one of Amazon’s most feared predators – the piranha! A few mins away from our lodge we stopped the canoe in a shaded area and Rambo took out the fishing rods. My expression was “sorry, right here?!? You mean I shouldn’t dip my toes in the waters outside the lodge?!?” Of course he failed to mentioned the river was piranha infested! Pro had even ducked his go pro underwater in hopes of getting a shot at some fish!!! Narrow escape apparently.

Rambo took out a few piranha delicacies – beef and pork, cut it in small pieces and fixed it onto the hooks of each of our rods. Apparently piranhas don’t like the fat part of the meat so that had to be cut off..demanding much! With the bait in, we waited. For most part we felt that we were feeding the piranhas than fishing for them. It was either the lack of experience or the intellect of the fish, they managed to gobble away the bait without getting caught.

Rambo of course had no problem whatsoever and kept catching all 5 varieties of piranhas. But they did trick him too many times and kept eating the bait, so it was just our lack of experience.

Piranhas aren’t as big as the one on the movie poster, they were little harmless looking fishies with killer well hidden teeth.


Swa managed to get one but flicked the rod too hard that the fish got tossed off to the other side. This happened twice and the third time was of course the charm! He ended up catching 3 little monsters!!

 Piranhas in stock we set off to watch the sunset. I snoozed off for a while and when my eyes opened we were approaching a beautiful soft white sand beach…how did that happen in the middle of this river?!

We took some stupid photos while waiting for the sun to set – some jumping, some silhouettes and some down right weird shots later we witnessed a beautiful sunset turning the sky and the lake orange at first and then a beautiful shade of pink

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As darkness set we headed back to the lodge for a grilled piranha dinner.


The next morning we were up before the alarms. Such is life in the jungle, the sun rises and the surroundings quieten down signaling your body to wake up.

Today Mother Nature reminded us that we were in a rain forest. The skies opened up and poured all morning. But of course this didn’t stop us as we set off to find and swim with pink river Dolphins. This was by far the cutest Amazonian experience (not that one expects the Amazon to be cute!).

At first I was a bit skeptical about getting into the water. Although Rambo swore it was piranha free, who knew?! And what other strange swimming floating creatures could be in these dark waters, it was the mother of jungles after all. I had heard horror stories of invisible creatures getting into your body and taking residence! But after seeing the Dolphins jump out of the water and interact, I couldn’t help myself. Screw the piranhas, I will take the chance!


These Dolphins were completely wild but playful. They would come and rub against you, bite you. I freaked out at first (was it a piranha?!) but it wasn’t painful and they were just being their excitable selves. Their skin felt like human skin and they didn’t seem to freak out at our touch. So, dancing in the rain with Dolphins – check!

We then went to Rambo’s friends place in the jungle and snoozed on hammocks while Rambo cooked the most delicious chicken stew and rice. This guy is multi talented! It was the perfect comfort food our wet bodies craved. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and snoozing after that heavy lunch.

  
We were meant to camp in the forest tonight but the blessed rain was not going to allow that. So Rambo’s friend Dorian kindly offered us hammocks in his hall. When night fell Rambo made a kick ass barbecue before taking us caiman spotting.

Now this caiman spotting was something else! Decked up in rain covers we set off in the dark and walked down to the river and boarded a small canoe. It was pitch dark. Complete black. Rambo sat at the front of the canoe with a flash light on his head. He was like a lighthouse or a flood light. Turning his head around and lighting up the river banks. Not seeing is a scary feeling! The waters were so still and the blackness was daunting.
Rambo nodded in one direction and the boatman changed direction. He slowed the boat, Rambo casually reached out and lifted a caiman!! Just like that! Oh shit! The waters are infested with man eating alligators and here we were floating around in the darkness! For its recreation value!!!!



The caiman he caught was small but strong. It had to be held by its head and tail, else one can get hurt. Rambo passed it around and the boys had fun! But I was completely freaking out. They could grow up to 2 meters and are aggressive! One wrong move, the boat could topple and we could be eaten alive! I wanted so badly to have my feet on the ground. But Rambo had other ideas! After releasing the caiman we went around the river and he taught us how to spot the little monsters. Their eyes gleam in the light. Apparently you need to have 100% visibility when you reach out and snap it out of the water. Rambo showed us 3 scars from when he tried to catch them without really seeing them. I couldn’t handle the predator infested water in the darkness anymore and was more than glad when we came back.
Later that night the boys drank local Rum and smoked an Amazonian weed. We sang and danced and told stories.

Rambo was a colorful guy! He claimed to have 3 families – two in the indigenous tribes, one in Manaus! Apparently he fathered 18 daughters and 15 sons with 5 wives!! His oldest is 32 and youngest was 2! He was apparently in the army special forces and was a qualified sniper, survivor, parachuter and commando! He spent 3 months living in the jungle eating rodents, frogs and insects as part of his training. Were these fairytales told around the bonfire to gullible tourists or was this the way of life in the jungle one would never know. But he seems to be more than deserving of his nickname, Rambo.

The next morning the rain had ceased. So we once again boarded the canoe and headed up stream. Rambo found us a spot to enter the forest and we hiked around the thick jungle. Ever so often he would point to a tree or pick a fruit and explain its medicinal properties or how the tribes would use it. The guy was good with his hands he made a bowl out of a leaf, a spoon out of a bark, a spear and even a carrier for our water bottle.

   
At one point Rambo turned Tarzan and started swinging himself on the thick vines that were hanging down from colossal trees.


Of course the boys followed suit!


Later that day we cruised along the Amazon River spotting various animals, flora and fauna. We had spent most our time in the Amazon around the negro river which had a starkly different landscape than the Amazon River. Now seeing this part of the forest, I think I preferred it to the other. But I can’t really say for sure since I only spent a few hours there. But one thing was for sure, there were more animals in this part of the forest, on the banks of this river. We saw a variety of birds, monkeys and even a sloth bear in the wild.

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Our time in the Amazon was coming to an end and we made our way back along some of the same parts of the river we had used to get here. Half way through we had to stop. The entire river was covered with a very thick vegetation that wasn’t there 3 days ago! If you had an Ariel view you wouldn’t be able to say that there was a river here, let alone the majestic Amazon River.


Rambo tried really hard to wade through the jungle and maneuver through the growth. It was impossible! There was no getting through this, so we turned around and took another path.


A few mins later the sky opened up and rain poured down. It was actually quite a nice experience, I loved cruising along the river drenched! Before we could make it to port the rain had stopped and the sun was out. That’s how unpredictable the weather in a rain forest can be, sunny one minute and a proper downpour the next and back to being sunny. It was either that or the cry protesting the end of our Amazonian adventure!

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In Search of the Lost City of the Incas 

The cloud kissed Andean mountains were magical. As much as I wanted to move them away in favor of blue skies, there was something mystical about following the ancient Inca footsteps in this magical setting.

The train slowly moved along the cactus liner river banks. The Urubamba river was gushing through much faster than our train but we didn’t mind, this view was to die for!

Peru Rail was well equipped to take millions of tourists each year in search of the lost city of the Incas. We boarded from Ollayntaytambo after our sacred valley trip and it took us 1.5 hours to get to Aguas Calientes the entry point to the much awaited Machu Picchu.


That night we rested and woke up before dawn. There are two ways up the mountain to see the ancient ruins. You can either take a bus from town or hike up. We chose the former and were glad we did when we saw hikers red faced and almost passing out on our way there. We needed all our energy to get through that day and the bus offered the same dramatic views as the uphill hike.

We were touching the sky, above the clouds. Literally the clouds floated below us. With dramatic drops of the sacred mountains all around us and the Urumbamba River screaming below it was easy to see why the ancient Incas chose this place. There was magic all around us. Pachmama (Incan god Mother Nature) ensured that every element and detail of this landscape was perfect.

From the entrance we hiked about 15 minutes to get our first view of Machu-freaking-Picchu. There it was, standing majestically below us, holding all the secrets of the Incas. There it was, the Lost City Of The Incas.

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I had to pinch myself. This was not a dream. I was standing above this hallmark of a great civilization. A place I had dreamed of seeing, a place that had been on my bucket list for a long time, here it was, and here I was.

I would have taken a 1000 pictures, each one more perfect than the one before. Machu Picchu was only some 500 years old. Many countries had historic marvels much older than this Incan city, including my own country, but it was this setting, the stories behind it, the mountains, the mist, the clouds that made Machu Picchu a little bit more special than the rest.

Of course there was also the architecture and technology that shouldn’t have existed 500 years ago that the Incas were using. Their obsession with the sun, the moon, the stars made it all very mystical. Incas were obsessed with the number 3, they had 3 rules for life, 3 principles, 3 gods, 3 of everything. Each building had 3 sets of windows.


  

There are many stories about what Machu Picchu really was. Some say it was an ancient retreat for the Incan empires – but could this be true? Incas believed in equal treatment and no social class system, so would they then have a retreat for the selected? Another theory is that this was an ancient university. Our guide Fernando was convinced on the fact. However, I’m personally not so sure about it. Machu Picchu was heavily guarded, there was many secret trails leading upto it guarded well by many guard posts set high in the surrounding mountains. Don’t forget that the Spanish conquerors never found this place. Why would university students need so much security? Also where were all the classrooms or lecture halls? There were no structures or rooms big enough for the purpose. The third theory is that this was an administrative and political capital of the empire. Now this made more sense to me. But the Incas died together with their knowledge of what this place really was. So one can only assume.

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We spent hours walking around the ancient ruins – from the sun gate way up in the mountains, to the main entrance, to the sun temple and the moon temple, to the living quarters of the empire and the empress and the high priest and those of the common man, to the terraces where the grew crops to the sun dial and the temple of virgins. Machu Picchu was jaw dropping at every turn.

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Something about Machu Picchu makes you want to physically exert yourself to earn the right to be there. Some hike the Inca trail (which is closed in February every year so we missed it), some hike up to the sun gate, some upto Machu Picchu. We chose Wayunapicchu – the familiar mountain that stands over the city of Machu Picchu. This is where the ancient astronomers of the empire lived, high up in the mountain to get a closer view of the stars and planets in the night sky. Legend has it that they kept their eyes closed during day and trained themselves to see better at night and that they could see upto 5 planets with the naked eye! Like I said, legend has it.

Everything about the Incas was larger than life. Apparently they were as tall as 180 meters and could run all the way to the coast and back in 45 mins. We could barely make it up Wayunapicchu! We literally dragged ourselves up the slippery path and at some points we crawled, on all fours! It was not an easy climb. Fernando had more faith in us than we did. He assured us it would take us only 45 mins up the mountain, it took us just over an hour but it felt like 2.

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This is not for the faint hearted and definitely not for the unfit. But once you are up there the views are completely worth it.

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But remember you have to come down as well. Usually coming down would be easier, but Wayunapicchu was strange in a sense that we had to climb down first before climbing up, which meant that the last stretch of the trek was uphill.

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We almost made it with zero casualties, but somewhere down the slippery slope Sandi twisted his ankle. The macho guy refused help and almost ran the rest of the way to make the last for a shorter time. He might have been inspired by the Incas, who knows!

After coming down we walked back to the exit. I kept looking over my shoulder taking one last glance after another of the magnificent Machu Picchu. There really wasn’t anything like it. The Incas may have been simple people but this lost city was beyond imagination, it really was a trip of a lifetime. And nothing sealed it better than an official Machu Picchu stamp on our passports.

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Before I end my somewhat dreamy narrative, here are my top tips on this Incan marvel

1. Visit it. You must. If you see just one thing in your life, then it must be Machu Picchu.

2. Hire a guide, it really makes a difference. A huge difference. Without a guide Machu Picchu is a beautiful stone city, with a guide is a mystical marvel of human history

3. The weather is unpredictable and it can rain anytime. But don’t worry about it, the rain and the clouds are a part of the charm

4. Skip the sun rise. You can’t see it anyway because of the clouds, so why bother dragging yourself out of bed and battling the crowds? Go a little later in the day. The best time is in the late afternoon when most of the crowds have left

5. Some may not agree, but don’t hike up to Machu Picchu. Do the Inca trail by all means, but on the day you see this ancient wonder, save all your energy for it