Facts About Machu Picchu To Outsmart Your Tour Guide

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Outsmart your guide at Machu Picchu

Peru has so many ancient ruins, villages imbued with an infusion of ancient and modern Incan tradition, mixed with a melting pot of Colonial and pre- Spanish Peruvian culture. 

Of all the Peru landmarks, Machu Picchu (which in the Quechua native language, means “Old Peak” or “Old Mountain.”) is the one categorised as both one of the best known and also most mysterious of the ancient Inca sites. Call it cliche to label it the jewel of Peru’s crown or it’s most famous contribution to the 7th wonders of the world, but Machu Picchu has remained in the limelight since it’s discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911. It stands at 2,400 meters above sea level and it’s precise stone construction is spread along a narrow and uneven mountain vista, tucked up against a 400m sheer cliff, overlooking the Urubamba Valley and River. The whole city was hidden (and thus saved) from marauding conquistadores for centuries and its high remote location makes if feel like it is floating on a sheet of mist.

Local guides will tell of legends withed down from Inca ancestors, archaeologists will give you another perspective all adding to the sites enigmatic status, but it’s actually quite hard to put your finger on the reasons why this citadel in the clouds is just so fascinating.

Many of the discoveries in and around Machu Picchu have led to more questions than answers around it’s true purpose. The more discoveries made it seems, the wider the variety of possibilities.

Rather than give you a list of dates, numbers and scientific facts, this page is going to offer you a treat, so you can wow your guides and make them think you’ve been on a crash course of anthropology and/or Incan philosophy!

I probably don’t need to tell you that Machu Picchu’s walls, caves and buildings are widely adorned with intricate carvings in the citadel, boasting carefully selected cave entrances, strange altars, 600 impressively engineered terraces, a 1km long aqueduct and exquisitely engineered buildings. Quizzical llama lawnmowers help to keep the grass around the buildings all beautifully manicured, showing off their best features. It is indeed a sensory feast for 21st century eyes staring firsthand at structures built by Incan hands more than a thousand years ago!

Did you also know that the positioning of the buildings are no accident. Inca people were master astrologers, the milky way had particular significance, and they arranged structures within the citadel to align with the cosmos or rising of the sun at specific times of year?

Standing amongst these features, everyone marvels at the masterful engineering the ancient Incan builders managed to achieve way back in the mid 14th century. You may find yourself getting lost in stories told by local legends if you walk through the various buildings with a local guide (like our Cynthia Valledares). When you also understand the significance of the structures around you from a spiritual and ritualistic point of view – it is not at all difficult for ones mind to be blown!

The technique used to build the structure is called called “ashlar”, this means that stones that are precisely cut to fit together without any mortar. This method is so precise that not even a credit card can slide between stones. Peru has experienced hundreds of years of seismic activity, yet the stones the Inca’s crafted stand strong, mostly undamaged by natures powerful forces.

Some of the most interesting architectural features of Machu Picchu are all closely huddled together over it’s total area of 32,592 hectares, an assortment of structures, each with an archaeological and spiritual back story that would make even Indiana Jones proud!

Sacred Rock

Looking out over the central plaza to the far end of Machu Picchu , we find the Sacred Rock, something you will notice in almost every Inca village. The Inca practiced placing a sacred stone in close proximity to the building site and this was dedicated to the site itself, which adds to the intrigue of the site; what did this mean to these people, and what daily practices took place right here where you stand, some say they can still feel the energy of these people and the land they revered so much.The Sacred Stone of Machu Picchu was carefully placed at the base of Huayna Picchu (or little peak), a place from which it’s possible to ascend right up to the summit, for a magnificent view down the valley. After your hour-long hike to the top of the peak, you can choose to stop off on the way back down at the Gatekeeper’s shack for a signed memoir, verifying you have conquered the steep climb up Huayna Picchu. The rock, resembling the shape of the top of the mountains behind it is a shrine where the Incas carried out special rituals and pachamamas (offerings to the earth).

The Sacred Rock is a powerful symbol in Machu Picchu, and is recognised as being a spiritual area for meditation and absorbing positive energies.

Many visitors like to include Temple of The Moon cave, another enigmatic structure situated approximately 1280 feet or 390 m below the summit of Huayna Picchu facing North. This is less than an hours walk from Sacred Rock, and will reward you with not only grand Inca structures to marvel over, but also spectacular views down the valley.

Central Plaza

Temple of the three windows, Machu Picchu, Peru

The Central Plaza of Machu Picchu is laid out with rows of many roofless stone structures embedded among steep terraces, facing outward for a grand view of Huayna Picchu. The lush green grass colour in the middle of the plaza can be likened to an island sitting amongst the rest of the Inca stone buildings that make up Machu Picchu. It’s an enticing and inviting spot amongst the buildings for Llamas and other grazing animals to frequent for a tasty meal. The Central Plaza’s grassy field also provides separation from the Sacred Plaza and Intiwatana to the residential areas on the farther side of the complex.

One of the buildings bordering the plaza is the Temple of the Three Windows. From this standpoint we look out to see a pretty view out on to the green central field, if we carry on from here, a flight of stairs at the back of the Sacred Plaza takes us back down to the Central Plaza.

At the very lowest end of the Central Plaza we find what is known as the Prison Group, this is essentially a network of cells, passageways, and niches extending both underground and up to the plateau above. Right in the center of this group of structures, we find the Temple of the Condor, some visitors and locals call this the main attraction because of its attention seeking condor carved in stone right above a rock pile. Behind this striking carved condor head, is a doorway leading to a tiny underground cell.

Temple of the Condor

Temple Of The Condor

The Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu has to be one of the highlights (although you will find it difficult to choose one) of your exploration of these Inca ruins. It is an exquisite example of Inca stonemasonry. The Inca took a natural rock formation shaped by the elements millions of years ago, and skillfully shaped it into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. The Condor represented spirit and higher levels of consciousness, so the Inca considered the Condor to be of elevated importance in the animal, and spirit kingdom.

On the floor of the Condor temple you can see a rock carved in the shape of the condor’s head and neck feathers, this section of the rock makes up the figure of a three-dimensional bird. Historians speculate that the Inca used the head of the condor here as a sacrificial altar. Underneath this is a small cave that used to contain a mummy, the hierarchal importance of which perplexed archaeologists like many other mummified remains found in this area. Behind the temple, is situated a prison complex. The prison comprised of many human-sized niches and an underground maze of dark dingy dungeons. The close proximation of the alleged sacrificial temple and the prison structures conjures up visions of how the Inca may have used them for sacrifice or other rituals. Similar Inca prison sites, record events outlining the handling of an accused citizen… word has it that the prisoners would be shackled into these niches for up to 3 days to await their fate. The jury could nominate their death for such simple sins as laziness, lust, or more in line with Victorian punishments, theft.

Funerary Rock Hut

Funerary Rock Hut

If you are a photographic enthusiast, you will want to take a small hike to Machu Picchu’s Funerary Rock Hut. It’s believed this location was the place where Inca nobility were mummified, and like many places chosen for overseers to rest, the vantage point from the hut offers a dramatic view over the whole complex.

Every day herds of Alpacas and Llamas arrive via the terraces near the Funerary Rock Hut to graze leisurely on the grass. These furry manicurists keep the lawns short, neat and tidy for our benefit whilst filling their stomachs with rich green grass. From this position we look out towards the start of the Inca Trail, in contrast to many of the skinny mountainous trails in the region, it is easy to see because the Inca Trail is a well developed wider road that connects the Cusco region directly with Machu Picchu.

The hike up the long sturdy stairs that lead to the Funerary Rock Hut will give your muscles a good workout, but the rewards at the end of this short but relatively steep hike are worth every drop of sweat. The views from this viewpoint will stay in your memory along with many snapshots of your unforgettable trip to Machu Picchu.

From this point we take a detour back down the stairs to arrive at the Royal Tomb.

Royal Tomb

Royal Tomb Machu Picchu

Walking down and to the left descending a long set of stairs, we approach the Royal Tomb. This cave-esque area of Machu Picchu is decorated with ceremonial niches and adjacent to the Temple of the Sun is a carefully carved Inca cross. The cross design resembles steps, and represents the three levels of existence in the Inca world. The first step, symbolised by the snake, is representative of the underworld or of death. The second step represents the present, or human life, symbolised by the jaguar. The highest step represents the celestial or spiritual plane of the gods, and is symbolised by the condor.

This revered site has been the focus of numerous mummy excavations. Over 100 skeletal remains have been discovered here, 80% of which were women. For this and several other factual reasons, historians surmised that the area was inhabited primarily by Inca high priests and an elite selection of chosen women.

Immediately to the left of the royal tomb lies a series of 16 ceremonial baths, cleverly linked together via a skilfully engineered viaduct. At the top of this system we find the watershed hut, which passes beside the rock quarry emerging at the Sacred Plaza.

Intiwatana

Intiwatana Hitching Post Of The Sun

The Intiwatana at Machu Picchu, is referred to by Inca and modern people as the “hitching post of the sun”. One of Machu Picchu’s primary functions was that of astronomical observatory. It is a carved rock pillar with construction planned to orient towards the four cardinal points. As accomplished astronomers the Inca used the angles of the pillar to accurately predict the solstices. The sun was an integral part of the Inca way of life and greatly influenced agriculture which supported the life of the whole community. The Inca considered the Sun the supreme natural god and during the winter solstice on June 21, it is said that the high priest would rope a golden disc to the Intiwatana, to symbolically catch the sun, returning it back to earth, thus ensuring another bountiful season of crops.

Sadly the Intiwatana is the only structure of its kind left standing by the Spanish conquerors, who went on a aggressive campaign to wipe out all structural references to Inca religion. Many visitors report that Machu Picchu feels like one of Earth’s magnetic focal points, it emanates a mystical quality and carries an inherent spiritual or metaphysical power.

When you’re sitting on the edge of heaven, perched high above the valley at the Sacred Plaza looking down at the Urubamba River below, it’s hard to deny the etherial sense this place is embued with. Turn around behind you, and absorb the genius of the ancient builders who created these stone plaza and temple structures, framed magnificently in the background by the spectacular mountain peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu to the left and right. How could you not be moved and humbled by this experience?

Huayna Picchu

The big little mountain that everyone forgets. Huayna Picchu is like a jewel in the crown of Machu Picchu. Standing at  2,720 metres (8,930 feet), it towers above and behind the citadel of Machu Picchu.  Only 400 people are allowed daily to climb Huayna Picchu in 2 groups – first departing at 7.00AM second at 10.00Am. The steep (both hands and feet needed) climb winds up the side of the rock faces and through a tunnel. It takes about 1.5-2 hours up and about 45 minutes to 1 hour down. For many people climbing Huayna Picchu is one of the highlights when visiting Machu Picchu.  The view from the top highlights how the structures and terraces below are built on seemingly impossible places like they are almost glued to the mountain side. You are in for a breathtakingly beautiful panorama of the site of Machu Picchu below, but also the snowcapped mountains and grand valleys beyond.

Machu Picchu is divided in two parts

Hanan and Urin according with the Inca tradition. This essentially means upper and lower, or heaven and earth.  The upper realm = included the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and constellations (milky way in particular) and was called hanan pacha (in Quechua). The hanan pacha was inhabited Inti, the masculine sun god, and Mama Killa, the feminine moon goddess. The lower realm is where earth spirits reside, or the people who inhabit the earthly realms. 

 Popular Trails Leading To Machu Picchu

Ancient Inca rulers forged trails and communication systems through this region over 18,600 miles long, paving mountain tracks, building runners and swing bridges from straw ropes. Most of these structure still exist today, and it’s quite astounding to think that the well worn steps you are walking on when traversing the Inca or Lares trails were hand constructed by Inca stonemasons so very long ago.

The most popular trails leading to Machu Picchu are the Lares Trail and the Inca Trail. There is also the Salkantay trek, but the two most raved about journeys by far are the Lares and Inca trail. The Lares takes you through many more villages, without the same level of foot traffic you may encounter on the Inca Trail. You can also opt for cycle and kayak options, where you can visit a small village on Lake Titicaca’s reed islands and hang with the locals. Experiences like these are magical, they add a few more days to your adventure, but you’ll leave with a whole new sense of the meaning of immersion in another uniquely Peruvian culture. Check out this comparison between the Inca Trail vs. Lares Trails or take a look at our Jaguar trip which gives you the option of visiting these places and many more.

Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

A trip to Machu Picchu along the Inca trail is the epitome of a spiritual and wondrous experience to one of the worlds most fascinating ancient wonders of the world. An unforgettable experience is not something you have to ‘try’ to achieve when visiting Machu Picchu – you’ll be taken on a journey of curiosity and wonder in all directions.

Facebook Review:

Noel Carroll reviewed Active Adventures – 5 star – 29 July ·

Jaguar trip to Peru. Great guides, accommodations, activities, food. Absolutely the best adventure I have had, and I have been blessed with quite a few. Would definitely consider another one. Hiking the Inca trail on this trip was the hardest and most rewarding thing I have done.

Other pages that may be of interest:

Best Time To Trek Machu Picchu | Machu Picchu Tours |4 Day Machu Picchu Trek 

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Our first ‘Dolomiti’ trip

Our final European adventure for 2016 wrapped up just a few days ago – the skies were clear, the meadows were green, the hiking was fantastic and the Dolomites proved their status as the most beautiful mountain range in the world.

Active Adventures Dolomiti trip

See the full album here!

With 13 past Active Adventures travellers, we explored the Alta Badia valley, the Fanes Sennes Braies Natural Park and the peaks and valleys surrounding Cortina. Its difficult to describe the Dolomites without breaking out the superlatives and grandiose terms, simply because there’s no other way to describe what you see and experience around every corner – “I don’t think Ive ever seen a more perfect setting”, “you’ve got to be kidding me”, “OK, my mind is blown”, “I just need to pinch myself and make sure I’m not dreaming.” These were just some of the comments we all heard ourselves making along the way. And let’s not forget the hiking and biking amidst this perfect back drop! Our days were also complimented with incredible local food and wine and comfortable, elegant accommodation, and even the occasional musical performance from local groups.

I’m slightly jealous that I may not be guiding this trip again for a wee while – that will be left in the very capable hands of Richard, our local guide, and Mike – our long time Active Adventures trip leader who now resides in Austria. If you’re joining this trip in the future, you’ll meet these guys, and no doubt share the same experiences! – Phil

Hiking with Active Adventures Europe

The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: A Photographic Journey

It was around the early 2000’s when we started exploring the notion of running our style of adventure trips in Peru. One of the old hands at Active, Phil Boorman, had already spent years in Costa Rica surfing and teaching, as well as guiding groups overland through South America. So, combining his local knowledge with our team’s experience guiding adventure tours in New Zealand, Active Adventures South America was born.

One of the signature itineraries, which has stood the test of time proving to be popular year in, year out, is the Ultimate Peru Adventure ‘Jaguar’ trip. Over the past 15 or so years thousands of guests have shared this 14-day experience with us, exploring Peru on foot, by bike and in a kayak. Of course, one of the bucket list destinations in Peru is Machu Picchu, and the Classic Inca Trail is the favoured way to reach this ancient citadel. The trail is well worn, which adds to the appeal, as hikers seek to follow in the footsteps of ancient Inca.

If you’re considering hiking the Classic Inca Trail yourself, don’t sit back and put it off! Lock in your spot, as hiking permits are limited and always sell out. Once you’ve got your spot secured, sit back, relax and enjoy our photo journey to Machu Picchu (and do a little hiking training to get in shape, if you’re not already!) All the photos you’ll see here are from our guests, taken during their ‘Jaguar’ trip.

The Journey to Machu Picchu begins in Cuzco

Having spent a couple of nights in Cuzco already and having hiked and biked in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, you’ll be nicely acclimatised and ready to hike! Topped up with any last minute hiking supplies, your group will leave town to make your way back through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to the start of the trail at Piscachuca.

Cusco
Photo credit: Summer Zimmer ‘Jaguar’, April 2009

Your hike begins at Piscacucho, or Kilometre 82

Eager and bristling with anticipation, there’s time for a fresh-faced group photo before the hiking begins. You’ll notice all the wooden hiking poles – those are available at the trail head, and widely used due to the ban on modern hiking poles with sharp points (as they degrade the historic track). You’ll hike through a few little villages, dip down into shaded river valleys and take in  your first views of the huge peaks that will emerge even more as you hike further.

Classic Inca Trail
Photo credit: Jen Cha ‘Jaguar’, November 2008

The trail winds its way up as you head towards Dead Woman’s Pass (4,400 metres or 14,435 feet)

Along the hike you’ll be rewarded with contrasting environments, as you gain altitude towards Dead Woman’s Pass. You’ll leave the shaded canopy of the forest and follow the winding trail up through a beautiful mountain pass with stunning panoramic views. There’s plenty of celebration as you reach the top. You’ll have worked up a thirst and will find yourself adding the layers of clothing back as breeze whips over the pass here! A short hike down the other side to Pacaymayo means a hot cup of coca tea, lunch and a chance to rest up for the remainder of the day and take in the views!

Hiking on the Classic Inca Trail
Photo credit: Stan Jacobsen ‘Jaguar’, September 2014

Time for a rest and a chance to take in views of the Rio Cusichaca

Above the tree line at Pacaymayo, you’ll want to have your sunscreen handy and plenty of water at your side. During the main season, from May to September the days are dry and sunny, ideal for hiking!

Resting on the Classic Inca Trail
Photo credit: Jane Marek ‘Jaguar’, June 2009

Along the way, admire the cobbled steps and Inca bridges, built over 500 years ago

After a cup of tea or coffee brought to your tent, you’ll be ready for the hike to Wiñay Wayna – the 3rd and last campsite on the trip. This is where you’ll enter the eastern side of the ranges that descend to the Amazon basin. There are several fascinating Inca fortresses to explore as you descend down into the cloud forest. And even the trail itself offers plenty of incredible glimpses into Inca craftsmanship, such as this bridge. There’s a sense of anticipation at Wiñay Wayna camp, as the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu are only a matter of hours away – it’s an early start the following morning!

Inca bridge
Photo credit: Mandy Gatesman ‘Jaguar’, May 2010

Arriving at the Sun Gate…

After a hearty breakfast, you’ll hike in the dawn light towards the Sun Gate. Intipunku is from the Quechua language; ‘inti’ meaning sun and ‘punku’ meaning door, hence  ‘Sun Door’ or  ‘Sun Gate’ as it’s often called.

Intipunku
Photo credit: Carrie Lehtonen ‘Jaguar’, October 2013

… For your first glimpse of Machu Picchu, as the fog lifts

At this spot, as the fog lifts, you’ll get your first view of Machu Picchu – it’s a surreal moment and a fantastic reward for your efforts. When Machu Picchu reveals itself, it’s an incredible sight. Even our long term guides who have hiked the trail dozens of times still get a rush every time they see it.

Views of Machu Picchu
Photo credit: Rochelle Coleman ‘Jaguar’, July 2010

The day warms by the time you arrive at the ancient citadel

Once you arrive at Machu Picchu, you’ll be joined by a local guide who’ll show you around the ancient city. As you arrived early (before the visitors from Machu Picchu town below), you’ll have plenty of time to explore the many passageways and stone structures.

Triumphant at Machu Picchu
Photo credit: Marian Walrath ‘Jaguar’, April 2013

Huge smiles for a picture perfect postcard!

A trip to Machu Picchu would not be complete without a group photo!

Group celebrating at Machu Picchu
Photo credit: Rebecca Washlow ‘Jaguar’, July 2016

Explore Aguas Calientes (now known as Machu Picchu town) after hiking the Classic Inca Trail

After three nights camping on the trail, it’s a welcome treat to return back to civilisation. Here you’ll have time to pick up any souvenirs and have a look around before we board a scenic train ride back to Cuzco.

Machu Picchu Town
Photo credit: Kristy Woodward ‘Jaguar’. March 2011

Tour du Mont Blanc Guest Reflections

With Nancy’s permission, we’d like to share a note she sent to us, after her ‘Tour du Mont Blanc’ trip with Active Adventures Europe in June. It really sums up why we do what we do! Hopefully it helps to motivate you for your next adventure trip. Thanks for sharing Nancy!

Active Adventures Europe
Nancy, happy to be hiking the Mont Blanc Circuit!
Active Adventures Europe
Hiking on the Bovine Trail

“Hi Phil. I’m back home, suitcases unpacked and hiking boots put away for the next trip. Seems like the trip was months ago, until I look at the calendar and see that it was just two weeks ago that we said our goodbyes and set out in the van to Geneva.

Reflections on the trip are still sinking in, but this I know: The trip was everything we hoped for and more. We took a (calculated) leap of faith when we signed up for the Mt. Blanc circuit, new trip, new company (although we had long decided to go with you guys to New Zealand when the opportunity arose.) You’ve put together a really fine team, and seem to know in your bones what people like us look for and need on a trip like this. Good humor, fun, seriousness of purpose when serious things arise. And above all, responding to each traveler’s particular needs and challenges.

I will be ever grateful to you, Andy and Jean-Marc for seeing me through to the end of our incredible journey. The hiking was harder on me than I had expected (maybe altitude, I don‘t know.) But at the end of the eight days of hiking, I felt such a sense of accomplishment in having made it the whole way. And I did it with your support, your patience and your watchful eyes. There was one day when I was tempted to just head to the van, and I just knew I’d regret it. It was a proud moment, indeed, for me to stand with the group in the park on that last night knowing that I had contributed to us all completing the circuit. I saw just this morning that you had awarded me the trip hero. Thank you, thank you, and know that I know I did it with lots of help!

So, cheers. We’ll hope to see you if get up this way next year, and will be looking for our next trip with you guys. Keep in touch. Nancy.”

Active Adventures Europe
Jumping… and hiking on the Tour du Mont Blanc

 

Active Adventures Europe
In typical Active fashion, we like to mix things up with a bit of kayaking here and there. Here’s the group kayaking on Lake Annecy!

 

Active Adventures Europe
Being in the European Alps is as much about the food experience as it is about the hiking

The destination is only half the adventure.

Hot off the European trails, Phil Boorman (owner, director and guide for Active Adventures) has returned home to New Zealand after leading the inaugural Tour du Mont Blanc. Having guided for over 20 years across several continents, the creation of Active Adventures Europe was somewhat of a milestone in Phil’s life. Along the way he took a few moments to collect his thoughts, and reflect on what it is that drives our sense of adventure, and inspires us to keep hiking. Enjoy!

Optimized-hiking Mont de la Saxe
Hiking Mont de la Saxe

“It’s an interesting business, this adventure travel thing. When you create a new trip, you go through a series of emotions and thoughts, ranging from optimism (we CAN do this!), doubt (CAN we do this???), and certainty (yip, we can DEFINITELY do this). Once you’ve put in all the hard work, research and energy, I’m thankful to say that (in our experience) optimism and then certainty wins out at the end of the day. And that’s been the case with our very first Active Adventures Europe trip – the 12 day Tour du Mont Blanc which only just finished a couple of days ago. As we always do, we changed the way this trip is ordinarily done by other adventure travel providers, deciding not to just hike around the incredible Mont Blanc range, but to hike, sea kayak, bike and explore a few extra places along the way. I guess that’s what we do – we take a regular trip idea and flip it on its head – not just to see how it turns out, but because we know it’ll always be more interesting.

And we discovered something else on this latest trip. Something that has been obvious to us since we started in 1996, but never really articulated properly; the destination and scenery, as spectacular and eye opening as they are, are merely the canvas with which we paint our experience on, because ultimately it comes down to how we share it. Over these last 12 days we all experienced unreal mountain scenery, village life, and European culture but it was enhanced 10-fold by what we as a group brought to the table. And that’s exactly what our trips have been about for the last 20 years.

We’ve built a first class guiding and leadership team in Europe. It’s fair to say that our adventure hiking around the Mont Blanc Massif was enhanced every step of the way with our lead Mont Blanc guide – Jean Marc Valliant. Jean brought along stories of the region’s natural and cultural history, along with his personal stories of life growing up in the Alps, his time as a high mountain guide and a professional ski racer. But by equal measure, we all found ourselves drawn to each other’s stories.

Hiking the Chamonix Valley, we heard about life growing up in New York City from 77-year-old Louis D’Agostino, before looking across to the Boossons Glacier. It seemed like it was the exact thing that I was meant to be doing at that moment in time.

Hearing about Steve Jochman’s experience flying Boeing 747s across the Atlantic and his many adventures in different parts of the globe (including 10 trips with us!) over a bottle of wine in the Aosta Valley, it was a perfect way to end the day of hiking over the Col de la Seigne, having seen the huge granite peaks up close and personal.

Ally Gaylor – a pharmacist originally from Texas recounted her many stories of past trips with us, along with her love of marathons and road cycling.

Jim Curren – an Active Adventures veteran since 2008 captivated us all with his stories of working in the Peace Corps in Liberia a couple of years ago, not to mention reminiscing about the great times he had on our very first Active Adventures Himalayas trip in 2011.

col du bonhomme hike
Hiking the Col du Bonhomme mountain pass

Then there are the themes that develop on a trip. Amusing anecdotes that a group somehow identifies with make their way back into individual conversations and group exchanges. Throughout this particular trip, Donald Trump impersonations and 80’s German love songs had us all in stitches. Common in-jokes and themes such as these add so much colour to a trip. When the weather doesn’t play ball and you’re hiking through a bit of rain, these amusing themes and anecdotes make their way into the hiking conversation and turn a grey sky day to blue.

And then there’s the heroes. For me, the heroes of a trip are those who overcome their obstacles. 99% of the time, the obstacle is self-doubt. When “Can I DO it??” melts into “I can DEFINITLY do it!” a hero emerges and we walk away knowing we’ve played our part in opening a door for someone.

The hero of our Tour du Mont Blanc was Nancy Metzloff from Durham in North Carolina. Nancy and her husband Tom had done a few adventure trips before their trip with us (although this was their first experience with Active Adventures) but Nancy was a little nervous about some of the uphill parts of the trip, and whether she’d keep up with the group. To Nancy’s surprise (but not to ours) she kept a steady pace the whole way and gave us all a renewed lesson in perseverance & optimism.

Hike above Mer de Glace
Hiking above Mer de Glace

So, we’ve launched a new trip in an incredible destination, where we’ve added our unique Active DNA. It’s an amazing part of the world, but it’s the shared experience that makes this trip, and indeed all our trips so enormously memorable.

I can’t wait to get out and go on the next one!”

Phil Boorman.

Owner/Director/Guide
Active Adventures

Top 10 Guest Photos 2015

Photo competitions. They’re not necessarily a good thing for an organisation like us to run, because there can only ever be one winner, and we leave hundreds of other people disappointed. But we can’t help ourselves, can we? That’s because it’s just too damn hard to take bad photos on our trips and we’re naturally compelled to share them with everyone. And what’s life without friendly competition amongst family and peers?!

But rather than showcase just the one winner, here’s the top 10, in no particular order, all taken by you guys on our trips in 2015. What a year it was!

We’ll tell you who the winner is also – don’t worry.

1. Aoraki Mt Cook & Lake Pukaki, ‘Rimu’ – Allen Cameron

Aoraki Mt Cook

This is a scene our guides never tire of seeing, no matter how many times they visit the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. There’s always the butterflies that flutter in your stomach as this landscape greets you. As you get closer, the waters of Lake Pukaki become more radiant and the slopes of Aoraki Mount Cook and the surrounding hills become more dramatic. After passing Lake Pukaki you’ll delve deeper into the National Park and get the chance to hike onto Mueller Ridge, where you’ll experience the most mind blowing mountain views in New Zealand.

2. Hiking Siberia Valley, ‘Tui’ – Bob Secor

Hiking Siberia Valley

You step out of the aircraft that has just dropped you into arguably New Zealand’s most isolated and dramatic wilderness area, and there’s just one way out from there; on foot. The plane takes off again and you realise it’s just you, your fellow hikers and the native birds accompanying you through this area of untouched beauty. Not a bad way to spend a couple of days. Well… technically you’ll get to take a jet boat ride down the Wilkin River as well, so it’s not just hiking!

3. Sand Boarding Te Pouahi Reserve, ‘Kauri’ – Bonnie Mullin

Sand Boarding

Sometimes it’s important to just be a kid again. And what better way than taking an old body board (not intended for anything other than use on the water, but hey – it’s fun!) and sliding down a huge sand dune and getting completely covered in sand? It can’t all be too civilised can it?

4. Swimming with a Turtle, ‘Tortuga’ – Charlotte Sherman

Swimming with a Turtle

If you don’t swim or at least see a turtle when you join us on our ‘Tortuga’ trip in the Galapagos Islands, then there will certainly be something wrong with the space/time continuum and we’ll have to look into getting into another business. Here’s the reason why we called the trip the ‘Tortuga’ – they’re everywhere and you never get sick of seeing them, especially in crystal clear water!

5. House on the Svelte, Patagonia, ‘Condor’ – Dennis Wilson

House on the Svelte

Patagonia has many faces, yes there’s the enormous granite peaks and glaciers of Torres Del Paine and Glaciares National Park, fiords and picture perfect lakes. There’s also the windswept plains dotted with grazing cattle and traditional “Gaucho” farm houses (now with solar power!). You find yourself wondering if you’ve stepped into a time machine.

6. Immaculate Forest Walk, Nelson Lakes National Park, ‘Rimu’ – Donal Rafferty

Immaculate Forest Walk

Can you see the hobbit in the trees in this shot? Well, there is no hobbit but you’ll be forgiven for expecting some sort of ancient creature to walk across the trail as you’re hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park. So no hobbits here, but you’ll probably be greeted by a South Island Robin – one of our most inquisitive native birds. They often peck at the ground you’ve walked on as they know your hiking boots may have opened up some soil for worms!

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7. Machu Picchu Selfie, ‘Jaguar’ – Jen Risser

Machu Picchu Selfie

Check out how happy Jen Risser is, after hiking for 3 days on the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. We arrive at Machu Picchu super early in the morning before the sun comes up and get ahead of the numerous people who visit the site every day, but when the sun does come out, it shines directly down on the site all day – it’s an incredibly refreshing place to be. The other thing we’ve noticed about this photo is that it’s a reminder of how much of a big job it’d be to mow those lawns, just look at em!

8. Milford Sound Kayaking, ‘Rimu’ – Jim Lane

Milford Sound Kayaking

Believe it or not, photos like this are EXTREMELY rare. Not because it has captured a truly perfect moment in time for Jim and his son Ben Lane, in the world’s most spectacular fiord, but because it’s captured a person in a double sea kayak who isn’t engaged in an argument with their fellow paddler… For that reason, this photo is our winner! Who needs flat horizons anyway…

9. Blue Duck in Repose, ‘Manuka’ – Joyce Barbour

Blue Duck in Repose

Our native Whio (Blue Duck) are known here in New Zealand as the “whitewater duck”, as when they’re spotted, they are often seen riding the rapids in our streams and rivers. They are also extremely rare. Contrary to how it appears in this photo, they do actually have heads, and two legs.

10. Hiking Amongst Giants, ‘AST’ – Marjorie Pilli

Hiking Amongst Giants

Almost there! In this shot, you’re only about 30 minutes from arriving at the Annapurna Sanctuary – a spectacular alpine amphitheatre that has to be seen to be believed. That’s our guide DK in the picture, pointing out the surrounding peaks but clearly not holding the attention of the other guy in the photo. It’s OK – we’re working on his presentation skills… ?

Killing Time in a Backcountry Hut

It probably doesn’t come as a great surprise that around 30% of New Zealand is public land, and a lot of it covered by 18 incredible National Parks. What you may not know, though, is that there are over 950 back country huts throughout the country (accessible to the public). They come in all shapes and sizes with varying levels of ‘luxury’ and charm.

Some of these – the most charming of the lot – date back to the 1800s and are the foundation for our Kiwi love affair with the ‘back country hut’.

There’s so many memories tied up in these huts. So many friendships forged, heroes born and, probably, people conceived! There is a certain routine that happens – it’s a totally enjoyable routine that to a kiwi usually ‘just happens’ without thought – like foraging for dry wood. And in between this routine there’s time to kill and fun to be had.

So we came up with an idea. Let’s break down the routine and also give you a few ideas for how to create uncontrollable laughter and grins from ear to ear, in a backcountry hut (you could supplement that for tea house, tent, refugio and so on!)

Here’s the routine…

Tired legs turn the last bend along the trail, only to discover that it is in fact not the last bend and the trail continues to meander along the valley floor. This goes on for a while until the ‘real’ last bend rewards you with the welcoming site of shelter.

Angelus Hut
And there it is, our home for the night! Angelus Hut in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Spirits lift and energy comes seemingly from nowhere. Enough even, to scrounge for dry firewood on the approach to the hut.

You ease your pack off tired shoulders, a pack heavier than it needs to be, with a bladder of red wine. You hang up your hiking poles and examine your toes out of your boots. 

Boots at a Backcountry Hut
Boots drying after a day’s hiking

Damp boots and socks now lay resting next to the sizzling wood fire. No one cares about the odor. It’s worth it.

Food is a priority. Everyone chips in – or maybe it’s someone’s turn and you’re lucky enough to put your legs up. At any rate, snacks arrive quick smart.

Backcountry Hut Food
Hut food is the best!

Dinner happens. It’s epic. You look around the room in the aftermath to flushed faces, enjoying the warmth from their hearty meal, their home-made mulled wine and the glow from the fire – your new best friend.

Backcountry Hut Glow
Backcountry Hut Glow

You lie snug in your sleeping bag listening to the old guard wax lyrical with hero stories. In this particular story the old guard was a NYC fireman sharing riveting, ‘real’ stories, better than any Hollywood movie. Rain tipper-tapers on the roof lulling you away to the best sleep you’ve had in ages. 

OK, so all that happens. That stuff needs to happen. That’s basic survival stuff really. Shelter, food, rest. But what about the other stuff. The fun that happens spontaneously. Well, there’s no harm in having a few tricks up your sleeve. Here’s our favourites:

Spoons

This really is a classic, and we’d like to think it’s an Active speciality. And the best part is, you’re guaranteed to have spoons with you (if you don’t, something has gone terribly wrong!). The game is simple really – place a number of spoons on a table (1 less than the amount of people playing) and make sure they’re evenly spaced so everyone sitting around the table can reach one. Grab a full pack of shuffled cards and deal 4 cards to each player. Nominate someone to draw a card off the top of the face down deck so they have 5 cards in their hand – they need to discard one and they’re trying to get 4 of a kind. They’ll discard a card and then pick another – the quicker they do this, the faster-paced the game and the more exciting it becomes. The first person to get 4 of a kind grabs a spoon and then everyone has to grab one. The person who misses out on a spoon is OUT. If you go for a spoon before you’ve got 4 of a kind you’re out. Faking is allowed though, most definitely, as long as you don’t touch the spoon! Here’s a short video of a recent spoons game on an Active trip, in this case not a backcountry hut, but you get the idea!

Star gazing

So you’re going to need a nice, clear night for this. If you’re really lucky you might be on our ‘Winter Rimu‘ trip, relaxing in the natural hot springs at Welcome Flat, on the Copland Track. It’s a dreamy experience to lay under the stars and listen to the natural sounds of the forest, whilst you rest your tired legs. It’s also a pretty special way to bond together as a group.

Star Gazing
Star Gazing from a NZ backcountry hut

Uno

More colourful than your average card game, essentially it’s all about getting rid of  your cards. Each suit has a colour (red, yellow, blue or green) and a number. Like a normal game of cards, you’ll follow the circle around and place a card from the 7 in your hand, onto the pile (so long as it’s the same number OR colour as the previously laid card).  The tactics begin when you change the colour to suit yourself (by laying the same number in a different colour) or by throwing down a ‘wild card’…  Sprinkled through the pack are ‘specialty cards’ which could either mean your neighbour has to pick up another 2, 4 or even 8 new cards to add to their hand, skip their go or switch the direction of play – which may or may not make you some new friends and enemies! Once you’re down to a single card in your hand, you have to shout ‘UNO!’ and the first person to lay down their final card wins. Pick up the pace, add a few more rules to the game and you’ve got yourself an evening of fun as well as a great way to make some new hut-friends (unless you screw them over…!).

Meet the wildlife

Many of our backcountry huts are situated in beautiful alpine environments, so when you visit one of these huts you’ll be sharing your home with the Kea, an endemic South Island parrot. The kea is thought to have developed its own special characteristics during the last great ice age, by using its powers of curiosity in its search for food in a harsh landscape. It’s a highlight for many, to sit and watch as inquisitive Kea fly around the hut. Just make sure your belongings are inside and please don’t feed them!

Kea
Endemic NZ Alpine Parrot – the Kea

Build a dam

Assuming you have some energy left. There’s nothing more satisfying than diverting a stream’s river flow. Even if it’s only for half an hour. Unleash the engineer within and get to work! A dam, with 100% no end goal, is a beautiful thing.

Bananagrams

It’s the “anagram game that will drive you bananas!” If you’re OK about calling out ‘Peel’, ‘Split’ and ‘Bunch’ in a public hut, and judged accordingly, this game is for you.

Look for glow worms

You’ll need a local guide for this. Coerce them into an evening tour and go to find some glow worms. It’s like star gazing but you don’t need to crane your neck!

NZ Glow worms
NZ Glow worms. Image courtesy of nz-trip.com

Whittle a walking stick

So you’ve built a dam and you’ve still got some energy. It must be the middle of summer and the days are long, allowing for extra MacGyver time. You’ll need a good bush knife for this and remember to whittle away from you, not towards your body! Don’t cut down our native tress either, please find a tree that’s already fallen down naturally. A Lancewood would do the trick. Oh, and be careful about trying to take your new walking stick through customs on your homeward journey…

Bush rummy

You’ll need at least two packs of cards for this game and any number of players. It would take a whole post to explain the rules of bush rummy, so you’re going to need a resident expert within your group. Essentially though, it’s based off gin rummy, but once you go past the first round you can place cards down at any time – you don’t have to wait your turn. So like many of the games listed here, it can get pretty crazy!

Country-themed sing along

One of the brilliant surprise elements of a backcountry hut experience is the mix of people you’ll be sharing your evening with. It’s like the fun part of flatting, without the hassle of having to do it day in/day out. You’ll always find some banter, whether it be around sport, politics or pop culture. And if you’ve got a merry crowd you might just get into a good old fashioned sing-along – so bring along a ukulele if you have one (and can carry it)!

Tantrix

We had to include this game – it’s from New Zealand! Tantrix is “the world’s most twisted puzzle game!” So what is it exactly? It’s a hexagonal tile-based abstract game. Huh? There are 56 tiles in a set, each containing 3 lines going from one edge of the tile to the other. The aim is to use the tiles to create the longest line or loop. It’s probably best if you invite Miriam along on your next backcountry hut adventure – she’s our resident Tantrix expert.

Tantrix Backcountry Hut games
Tantrix – we thought you’d need a photo to understand it!

Cards against humanity

If we need to explain this game, you’ve been hiding under a rock.

Success in the Himalayas

Active Himalayas was proud and excited to see the season’s first ‘Mustang’ trip head out on August 24. The trek could only be described as challenging, rewarding and inspiring. We caught up with trip leader Dan Thomas, and he gave us a run-down of how everything went!

Optimized-Mustang4
“The trail itself was fine, there were no visible earthquake related issues at all. The only difference was the lack of people out on the trail… it felt like we were the only ones out there at times – which was great! Kathmandu and the surrounding villages were also fine. As we expected, the Nepali people got stuck in over the summer months and cleaned the city up at light speed! Their hard work was especially apparent in the Thamel tourist area, where you’d hardly know there was an earthquake at all. Local store owners were ready for business, but the biggest difference here was again, the lack of crowds. In saying that, we did notice the town got busier when we returned from hiking the Mustang trek, so hopefully things are picking up again.

Optimized-Mustang
Having spent some time around the Kathmandu region myself, I did see the difference… but I felt the whole area was really clean. Noticeably cleaner than any of my previous trips.
Thamel also seemed really quiet. It felt like the locals and store owners were ready for tourists to return, but still it felt a lot quieter than the Kathmandu I have experienced in the past. In saying that, after the trek it did seem like there were a quite a few more tourists in town, so hopefully things are picking up again.

Optimized-Mustang3
As for the rest of Kathmandu, some of the main tourist sites and temples had visible earthquake damage, but repairs to most of them were already well under way and we felt really safe the whole time.

Optimized-Mustang1
As far as I can say, Nepal is open for business and eagerly awaiting more visitors in the coming trekking season.”
So with our next trip heading into Annapurna Sanctuary on November 23, we can’t wait to see what’s in store! Be sure to check out our hashtag #HikeNepalAgain on Instagram and Facebook to stay up to date with the latest updates from Nepal!