American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania

Picture this; you exit the airport terminal on a lovely tropical island to get your international flight to another tropical island. Once you step foot on the tarmac, you realise that the only plane that can be seen is not even big enough for ten people. In fact, you can only see 4 windows! This is just the first of many things that make American Samoa an oddity in Oceania.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Smallest International Flight Ever

American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – Smallest International Flight Ever

This tiny plane, the inside of which is about the size of a minivan, only runs once a week between Tonga and American Samoa. At US$374 for a flight that takes less than 2 hours, it was the exact opposite of cheap. But that’s not even the strangest part. On the way to the American Samoan capital of Pago Pago the plane made a scheduled stop in Samoa. Although they are in the same island chain, American Samoa and Samoa are separate states.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Inside the Tiny Plane.

Upon landing in Samoa, all seven people in the plane were required to alight and pass through immigration. Just to get back on the plane again straight away. Our plane was so small that our pilot also doubled as the cabin crew. He didn’t even need a microphone to do the safety announcement. As you could guess, there was no cabin service, but everyone got a window seat. As the flight duration was too short to reach cruising altitude, we all had a pretty awesome view for the whole flight.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. View From the Plane

American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – Entrance Fee

As I was the first person from our plane to make it across the tarmac to the arrivals area, there was no line at the immigration window. To tell the truth, it didn’t even feel like immigration. The officer welcomed me in a cool and casual way. That’s not normally something you expect when going through immigration! He then looked at my passport and told me that I needed to pay an entry tax to visit American Samoa.

For a moment I thought that he might have been talking about the Electronic System Travel Authorisation (ESTA) used in the US. American Samoa is a US territory, after all. So I said, “Oh, I have ESTA”. He then informed me that even though it’s an US territory, ESTA is not required. American Samoa instead required visitors to obtain an entry permit if they are staying in the territory for more than one day.

Seeing as I had a flight out the next day, I thought I’d check if I would be exempt from the fee. The lovely officer asked what flight I was leaving on, without asking for any proof. He must’ve memorised the flight schedules. That wouldn’t be particularly hard considering that there are only 3 airlines running international flights from that airport. He then handed back my passport and said, “Okay, have a good time in American Samoa”

As of 2019, people from the countries that could previously get the entry permit on arrival must now apply online for the Entry Permit Wavier Program (EPWP). The country list is the same as that for the US Visa Waiver Program. The processing fee for the EPWP just happens to be the exact same price as the old entry tax.

America in the South Pacific

After exiting the small airport, it was immediately obvious that this was a little bit of America in the South Pacific. Everyone was driving ‘trucks’, which don’t exist on other Pacific islands. Anything that wasn’t a truck, was a minivan from one of the many resorts in Pago Pago, or an old-style US school bus. Who knows how they got transported all that way.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Welcome to American Samoa K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. US Style Bus

Having visited the US on several occasions, Pago Pago really felt like it could be a small continental US town. The roads and infrastructure were almost identical to those I saw in the US. The island also had its fair share of American chains, like McDonalds as well as American style malls. All the people I spoke to had very strong American accents. Even they said they felt that they are a lot more Americanised that other South Pacific Islands. It’s actually something they are proud of.

The Beauty of American Samoa

Pago Pago, pronounced Pango Pango in Samoan is located on one of the two main American Samoan Islands, Tutuila. There is one major highway on Tutuila that runs from the airport in the southwest to the east of the island. The highway runs along the coast for almost it’s entire length, which makes for some mesmerising views on the way to your accommodation.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. The Flower Pot Rocks

The Flower Pot rocks are a prominent feature on the righthand side as you drive away from the airport. Just after them, you’ll see the Pago Pago Harbour, which is one of the deepest harbours in the world. The harbour is flanked on the opposite side by Mount Pioa, which is also known as Rainmaker Mountain. It is a big part of local folklore and is said to trap clouds, giving the harbour some of the highest amounts of rainfall in the area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Pioa Mountain

American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – American Traditions

While American Samoans have passed down a lot of their traditions and folklore through the generations, they have also whole-heartedly embraced American customs. I got to see this first hand because I was there around Christmas time. While Christmas is celebrated around the world, there are certain things that I’ve only seen in the US during the festive season. That includes people going out of their way to decorate their houses with colourful displays of lights.

K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. Colourful House Lights K in Motion Travel Blog. American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania. House With Light Star

One final thing of note about American Samoa is that despite being in the same chain of islands as Samoa, it’s on the opposite side of the International Date Line. That means that it’s 25 hours, or more than a whole day behind it’s nearest neighbour. That definitely causes a few headaches when trying to book flights. In fact, when flying from Tonga or Samoa, you will land in American Samoa the day before you left. Then when it’s time to go, you’ll land two days after you left. That essentially means you’ll be flying back to the future!

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Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

The South Pacific Ocean is known for its crystal blue waters and amazing marine life. It’s also known for pristine beaches on resort islands. But probably one of its best-kept secrets is the tantalisingly tropical Tonga island chain. If you haven’t heard of the Kingdom of Tonga before, it’s about time you did! The archipelago of 169 islands in Polynesia that form the Kingdom of Tonga lie to the northeast of New Zealand.

Logistics of Getting to Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

To be honest, none of the South Pacific island countries are known for being easily accessible by sea. Unless you have your own boat. In fact, the most efficient way to move between them is to fly. Although quick, these flights do not come cheap, no matter when you book them. The flight from Nadi in Fiji, to Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga in the Tongatapu group of islands, took just over one hour but cost US$250.

The Fua’amotu international airport in Tongatapu is rather small. Interestingly, the runway is only graded to handle smaller jet aircraft, so you’ll never see a 747 there! Even though the airport is classed as international, don’t expect to be able to get a flight there from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the only connections are to and from Suva and Nadi in Fiji, Pago Pago in American Samoa, Sydney in Australia or Auckland in New Zealand. Perhaps the strangest thing about this airport is that it closes on Sundays. Let’s just say it takes a bit of planning to get there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. International Airport

Arriving in Tongatapu

Once you’re there, you’ll be given a welcome serenade, as seems to be the island way. This had also happened in Fiji but somehow the Tongan welcome wagon was a bit lackluster. Or maybe they were just too cool. As you would expect from a small airport, immigration was quick and the officers were really friendly.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. International Airport Welcome Serenade

The capital Nuku’alofa, is around 20 kilometers away from the airport but there was a slight problem. There was no public transport from the airport to the town. Taxis were, of course, available for 40 Tongan Pa’anga (TOP)/US$17.50. I had decided to do things a little differently. While researching for this trip, I had come across quite a few comments about hitchhiking being a viable way of getting around in Tonga.

A Hitchhiking Adventure in Tatilisingly Tropical Tonga

I’d barely even made it out of the airport grounds before a minivan stopped. This minivan was full of ladies who, almost in unison, motioned for me to get into the car. The ladies were very talkative and very interested in why I’d decided to go to Tonga. They seemed quite surprised that I would choose to go there. I got the impression that they believed Tongatapu was the most boring island in the Tongan chain and that there was nothing to do there.

After a while of chatting, the lady driving pulled over onto the side of the road. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Perhaps we were just waiting for someone? I couldn’t see any buildings around though. Just then, a lady seemed to appear out of nowhere and joined us in the car. It was at that point that the driver turned to me and asked if I had a license. I indicated that I did, then she opened her door and said, “I don’t like driving in town, so you can drive!”.

I was so surprised that I think I agreed before I really knew what was going on. But hey, I do like driving, so why not? The ladies directed me to their village, just outside of the town, where we had to drop someone off.

We stopped at a house where there seemed to be an impossible amount of people residing. At least 4 generations of people. They invited me in for dinner, but I had a host waiting for me in town, so I had to regretfully decline. My host Jasmin, who I’d meet from Couschsurfing, was infinitely amused that my hitchhiking adventure had turned in to a driving adventure. I guess that’s not an everyday occurrence.

Food in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

I was fairly hungry when I arrived and it was around dinner time. Luckily, Jasmin knew where the good local food was made. But what do you do when you’re waiting on a tropical island? Drink from a coconut, of course! A coconut straight from the fridge, no less.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Drinking Coconut

Cliche coconut consumption aside, I was looking forward to trying a local delicacy. A popular dish in the area consists of meat wrapped in taro leaves that have been soaked in coconut milk. There are two variations; Lu Pulu (beef) and Lu Sipi (lamb). I grabbed the Lu Sipi and it was super rich and delicious. Given all the meat and coconut milk it contained, it was also a very heavy meal. I was barely able to finish it!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Lu Sipi

Imported foods

Tongans also love having dessert after their super heavy meals and I was interested to see what Tongan desserts looked like. Unfortunately, pretty much everything was closed because I was on a small island after 7pm. I did manage to find an ice cream shop open though. It seemed to be the only place open besides a couple of bars. I’m not sure if that’s why it was so crowded, or if it was just because locals really love ice cream? Even if the only flavours available were vanilla, strawberry and blitz.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Super Scooper Ice Cream Shop

Another imported food that Tongans love is KFC. Tonga is too small for KFC to open there, but all Tongans know what it is. To the point where anywhere that sells any kind of fried chicken refers to it as Kentucky. Jasmin informed me that when locals fly back from New Zealand, where there are KFCs, they will bring back buckets of the stuff for the family.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Food Stall

Nightlife in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

When Jasmin was ready to retire for the night I decided to have a little walk around the town. Except for a few cars here and there, the town was very quiet. It wasn’t long until I’d found my way to some roadside tombs. They were quite ornate and it looked like people added flowers and tended to the graves every day.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tombs

As I wasn’t far from the sea, I decided to take a walk down to the waterfront. That didn’t go as I had planned. I could barely walk a few hundred metres without a car stopping to ask if I needed a lift. Tongans are a very caring bunch and seemed worried that a foreigner was out walking by themselves at night. After the fifth car stopped and I hadn’t even managed to walk 500 metres, I gave up and found some local beer.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Local Beer

Animals of Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

Of course, you would expect tropical islands in the South Pacific to be full of tropical animals like birds and colourful fish. I promise I’ll show you some of that later. Tonga also had its fair share of introduced animals wandering around. There were some stray cats and dogs, which you might expect to see almost anywhere in the world. But chickens weren’t really on the list of animals I’d expected to see. Never-the-less, they were everywhere and normally had a couple of chicks in tow.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tongan Chickens

Other much larger animals that I was not expecting to see were boars. Obviously these had been introduced by European explorers and were eventually left to roam the islands. They generally seem quite docile and are always happy to eat any food you might leave out for them.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tongan Boar

There are stories of fishing pigs. These are boars that have lost their natural fear of the water and can be seen wading out at low tide to catch themselves some dinner. If you were thinking of going to Tonga for some sun and sea, you could end up staying to watch the fishing pigs!

Wandering Around the Town

As I’d been unsuccessful in reaching the waterfront at night, I decided to try it during the day. This time I was able to do it in a respectable five minutes! That’s how small Nuku’alofa is! On my wander, I was able to see some palm trees as you would expect.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Palm Trees

But one of the more interesting things I saw was the Centennial Church. This church was run by the Free Church of Tonga, an organisation set up by the Tongan King and a missionary in 1885.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Centennial Church

Unfortunately, Cyclone Gita hit Tonga a few months after I left, causing widespread damage. The church was one of the buildings damaged and as a consequence, is no longer in use. The royal tombs across the road fared better though.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Royal Tombs

As I got closer to the waterfront, there were a few memorials around.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. War Memorial K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Memorial Plaque K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Waterfront Memorial

And of course, as it was coming up to Christmas, some seasons greetings.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Seasons Greetings

I’d come for the water though. While there was no beach to be seen, the area was calm and peaceful.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Waterfront

Tourist Attractions in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga

As the Tongan island chain is particularly remote and not the most easily accessible, tourism hasn’t had a big impact on the area. That means that literally every tourist attraction on Tongatapu is listed on this roadsign.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Road Sign in Nuku'alofa

That’s not to say that Nuku’alofa has not been set up with tourists in mind. There are actually a few informational signs around to guide you on your way. Like this handy map of the island, near the waterfront.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Tongatapu Map

Under The Sea

After Jasmin finished work, she asked if I wanted to join her for a swim. She had two bikes so we rode down to the waterfront. Given the absolute flatness of Nuku’alofa, the ride was rather quick and enjoyable.

We left the bikes up near the carpark and walked along some rocks to the local swimming spot.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga. Rocks on the Waterfront

I spied this little fella in a rock pool on the way.

But the view was definitely better under the water!

The fact that Tonga is a little bit off the tourist radar and a little bit harder to reach makes it all the more enticing. The absence of the big resorts seen on other islands gives it a more genuine and homely feel. It’s definitely a must-see!

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Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji

When most people think of Fiji, they think of islands, beaches and resorts. While these are certainly prevalent, they are not really what Fiji is all about. When I think of Fiji, I think of my childhood Fijian neighbour, who I thought was the funniest and friendliest man alive. Because of that man, I was expecting a lot of friendliness and a whole pile of laughs in Fiji. I was not disappointed! Read on to find out more about the friendliness and festivities in Fiji.

Fiji Time

Being a chain of hundreds of islands in an endless sea means that Fiji has a culture and vibe all of it’s own. Aside from the friendliness that was noticeable instantly, one thing that struck me on arrival was that everyone was happy. This could be because they have their own version of time over in Fiji. This concept may be a bit hard for busy people to get a handle on. I’m sure you’ve heard of island time, but Fiji takes it to a whole new level with ‘Fiji Time’. They even have the t-shirts to prove it.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friends and Festivities in Fiji. Fiji Time Tshirt

Fiji time is really something else. Things move slower and no one is stressed by deadlines. This means that everyone always has time for others. Fiji has to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming places on earth. In fact, when you visit, you’ll leave with a new word in your vocabulary; Bula, the Fijian word for welcome. You will hear and see it everywhere!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Bula

All travellers arriving in Nadi are even given a welcome to Fiji serenade by locals in their colourful local threads. We may have had no idea what they were singing about, but it sounded cheery and quickly put us at ease.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friends and Festivities in Fiji. Airport Serenade in Nadi

One interesting thing about Fiji is that alcohol is super expensive. Like really, stupidly expensive. So much so that when locals have friends flying in, they ask them to grab some duty-free booze for them from the airport. It’s half the price! I had therefore agreed to grab some bourbon for my host, Save, who in turn met me at the airport.

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – A Local Experience

Save lived in a very simple house in an area not too far from the airport. It was very green and lovely but I was disappointed to find that I was on the wrong side of the island to climb the mountains. The area only had a few small hills.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Far Away Mountains K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Little House on a Hill

As soon as we got to Save’s house, I met some of his family and we immediately sat down for dinner. As I mentioned before, Save’s place was rather simple, so they didn’t have a dining table. That meant that a rug spread across the floor became the dining table for a delicious local meal. Mostly eaten by hand. I like this idea actually. Who needs to wash those pesky knives and forks anyway?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Floor Dining Table

Save’s place was about a 10 minute walk down from the main part of town, where the buses to the city left from. On the way I saw some kids swimming in water that I wouldn’t think was good for them, but they seemed to be having a lot of fun! I also saw horses and chickens wandering around. It wasn’t until further into my South Pacific travels that I realised that chickens wandering around was a normal everyday occurrence on many Pacific Islands!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Horse and Water

I also passed a store that claimed to have all my needs. Although I found this claim dubious, especially considering the rather small size of it, I went inside to check it out anyway. It turns out that they didn’t have all my needs, but the lovely shopkeeper was eager to chat to me. With all that Fijian friendliness flying around, I didn’t leave that little store for over an hour.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Grog Shop

More Friendliness and Chats On a Fractured Fiji

On my many walks through the area that I was staying in, I noticed that there were a lot of Indian restaurants around. I’d also noticed Indian places of worship. I didn’t give it a second thought until the local bus into the city broke down. The bus driver invited me to sit in his bus and wait for the replacement bus to come. While waiting, he filled me in on why there was such a huge Indian population in the area.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Indian Temple

Under British colonisation in the early 1900s, Fiji was a part of the indentured labour scheme. Indentured labour is pretty much just a nice way of saying slavery. While the labourers did get paid, the wages were very low and the conditions could sometimes be atrocious. These indentured labourers had been brought over to Fiji from India at the expense of the colonial government. Yet the government decided that, even though these labourers had contributed greatly to building the colony’s economy, they would not pay for them to go back to India.

That left many displaced workers with little to no money and no way of getting back to their birthplace. With nowhere else to go, they made Fiji their home. While I’d like to say it was all smooth sailing from there, according to Mr Bus Driver, it was not. Even though they outnumbered the indigenous population at one point in history, they remained under-represented with in the country’s parliament for several years. They also endured many years of racism. It seems like things may be getting better if this sign is any indication.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Respect and Love All Fijians Sign

Friendliness in The City

As this impromptu history lesson ended, the replacement bus arrived. Mr Bus Driver made sure I was the first person to step onto the bus. He indicated that I should take the seat behind him. The 30 minute drive into the city cost only FJ$1.5, which is around AU$1. It wasn’t long after getting off the bus that a friendly local had stopped me to say, “Bula!”.

He introduced himself to me as Will and said that if I needed anything while I was in the city, I could go to him. After showing me where the cheap local food was, he insisted that I go to his friend’s shop. He had told me the story of his friend being a struggling artist just trying to sell some traditional handmade crafts. I was expecting a small shop, but it was huge.

While I suspect that story was a bit of a speil, Will didn’t get pushy. With their proximity to Australia and New Zealand, Fijians are no strangers to cashed-up tourists. So I can’t really blame the guy for trying. Even though I didn’t buy anything, he still seemed happy. When I left he asked me to tell all my friends about the store, of course!

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – Christmas and New Year

Given their colonial past, you would be correct in assuming that Fijians are big on celebrating Christmas and New Year. But of course, they do it with their own island twist!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Christmas Decorations

I don’t remember seeing many Christmas trees while exploring, but I did see many sets of lights arranged to look like Christmas trees.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. House Christmas Tree K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. LightChristmas Tree

When the new year is almost upon them, Fijians like the light up the sky with fireworks. As is done in many places. But what they do after is a little more unique.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fireworks

As I was walking to a house party I’d been invited to by some people I’d just met outside a club, one of my new friends told me to stop. I was a little puzzled and wondered what was going on. My friend advised that there were people behind a gate getting ready to throw buckets of water at us. We quickly crossed to the other side of the road, where he explained that this is somewhat of a local tradition. Throwing buckets of water at unsuspecting people walking past. Considering it was summer, I could think of worse things to endure.

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – Islands

I guess no trip to Fiji is complete without seeing a few different islands, right? But what’s a budget traveller to do? Would you believe there is actually an island resort in Fiji that caters to budget travellers? It’s still not what I would consider cheap, but the price is considerably lower than other islands.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. One of the Mamanuca Islands

Someone from the family that I stayed with for the second half of my stay, was able to get me an industry discount. That meant that I only paid FJ$190 (AU$125) for a day trip to Beachcomber, one of the Mamanuca Islands. The regular price at the moment is FJ$219 (AU$145).

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Resort, Mamanuca Islands

A free bus transfer to Denaru Marina comes with the purchase of an island package. That was great because I really had no other option to get to the marina, which was several kilometres out of town.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Ferry From Danaru Marina

The boat ride out was quite enjoyable. As you could imagine, there was plenty of blue water to keep me mesmerised. Along with some famous islands.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Blue Waters At Resort Island

There were sporadic announcements about upcoming islands where different movies had been filmed. Some islands were even named after the movies that were filmed there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Resort Island, Mamanuca Islands

We even stopped at a few of the bigger resort islands on the way to drop off passengers. They got their own special island welcome.

Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji – Beachcomber

Beachcomber itself is clearly set up for a younger, more active crowd.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Entrance to Beachcomber

Even though the whole island is less than one kilometre long, there’s a lot to do, if you’re willing to pay a bit extra of course. You could play mini golf on a fairly well-used course. Or do some kayaking. Although that option wasn’t available on the day I was there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Minigolf

The first thing you might notice is The Sand Bar, where you can get yourself a local beverage for about FJ$8.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. The Sand Bar at Beachcomber K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fiji Beer at Beach Bar at Beachcomber

But if you take 10 minutes to have a walk around the island, you might see some wildlife too.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Duck

Or there’s a small boat tour included in your day trip. They’ll take you out to the middle of the sea to let you do some snorkeling and feed some fish.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fish Near Beachcomber K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Fish Feeding Near Beachcomber

Perhaps you’d just prefer to sit on the beach and admire the view?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Friendliness and Festivities in Fiji. Beachcomber Beach View

Keep an eye out for the next stop on my South Pacific tour; Tonga!

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Adventures in Southern Peru

K in Motion Travel Blog. Mountain Rainbow at Machu Picchu, near Aguas Calientes, Peru

Race to the South

After some weird and wonderful adventures in the Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes, I’d hopped on a plane to Cusco. I was edging ever closer to the ancient ruins of an Incan city I’d been waiting my whole life to see. I couldn’t wait to start my adventures in southern Peru!

As I was exiting the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco, I overheard someone at the information desk asking how to get a colectivo (shared taxi) to Ollantaytanbo. As I was going to the same place, we decided to join forces to get a taxi to the Pavitos Street Taxi Terminal. It was there that we would find the colectivo that we needed.

Getting to Ollantaytanboo

First, we had to make sure that the taxi driver wasn’t going to overcharge us. That’s where my boss negotiating skills came in handy. I got the price down from 30 Soles (US$8.90) to 10 Soles (US$3), which was lower than the amount that the airport staff had told us to expect. Score! We got to the Pavitos Street Station and found the colectivo to Ollantaytanbo. We checked that the fare would be 12 Soles (US$3.60), as we had been told, then sat inside and waited for the other seats in the van to fill up.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. On the road from Cusco to Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
View of the Andes on the road from Cusco to Ollantaytanbo

It wasn’t long before we were full up and enjoying the awesome views of the Andes. The drive to the town of Ollantaytanbo, which serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu took 90 minutes. The colectivo dropped us off right in front of the train station. It was possible to buy tickets at the train station in Ollantaytanbo, but I would suggest booking online beforehand at Inca Rail or Peru Rail, as it makes the process a little bit quicker.

Adventures In Southern Peru – Ollantaytanbo

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. On Quiet Street in Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
Quiet Street in Ollantaytanbo

Although it has a name that might prove impossible to say when drunk, Ollantaytanbo is a lovely, quiet Andean town. We saw many people roaming around in traditional Peruvian attire. That included this little 2 year old girl. She was so enamoured with the person next to me that she was only half-heartedly into the ‘give me money’ routine that her mother clearly made her perform whenever tourists were around. Using your daughter’s insane cuteness to get money out of visitors; well played mother.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Local Girl in Traditional Peruvian Attire, Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
Girl in Traditional Peruvian Attire

The centre of the town was essentially a huge walk-through market area with many stalls selling local wares. As pretty much the only access point to Machu Picchu, you can’t really blame them for trying to capitalise on tourism, can you? Opportunism aside, the view from anywhere you stood in the town was lovely. It would definitely be a good place to relax for a day or 2, if you aren’t on a tight schedule, as I was.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Town Centre, Ollantaytanbo, in the Andes, Peru
Ollantaytanbo Town Centre

Probably one of the most scenic adventures in Southern Peru is taking the train from Ollantaytanboo to Aguas Callietes. The views just kept getting better and better the closer we got to the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. The 30km train ride takes around an hour and a half and prices start from US$50. It is possible to purchase online up to a few hours before departure. Or get tickets at the window just outside the train station in Ollantaytanbo.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. View From the Train. Ollantaytanbo to Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo, in the Andes, Peru
View from the train on the way to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu Pueblo

Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu Pueblo

The Spanish name of the small town at the base of Machu Picchu, literally translates to ‘Hot Waters’. It was named for the numerous hot springs in the area. I was of course more interested in the ruins above it. This town is pretty much built on tourism. As you would expect, accommodation can get quite expensive. It is probably for this reason that most people only choose to stay there for one night. That means that although it’s right near a world famous tourist attraction, it’s not overcrowded. This makes it quite peaceful and lovely.

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I met some beautiful locals in this town. I got the feeling that even though many tourists pass through the town, not many locals can speak English well. To me, this was appealing as it gave me many opportunities to practice speaking Spanish. I definitely needed the practice. It was actually quite amusing when I needed to get a strap holder on my backpack replaced in the town. Finding the market that had the tailor wasn’t a problem, but trying to explain what I needed fixed was difficult when I wasn’t even sure how to say it in English.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo. Market Building, in the Andes, Peru
Market Building in Aguas Calientes

Suffice to say, I managed to explain to the lovely couple running the store what I needed. They weren’t sure that they had any strap holders lying around though. They said I could leave it with them and they’d see what they could do. It turns out they were miracle workers. Not only had they fixed the strap by the time I returned, but they had noticed another problem and fixed that too. All for just 10 Soles/US$3! I could not imagine getting a pack fixed that cheaply in many other places.

Adventures in Southern Peru – The Path to Machu Picchu

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Inca Trail at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru
Inca Trail
Before you start your journey up, you’ll need to stop in at the Direccion Regional de Cultura Aguas Calientes Office, also know as the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre. There you can grab your park entry ticket. This will set you back around 150 Soles or US$45. The Ministry of Culture has a website where you can book in advance, but I had problems paying through this website. I explained my problems when I went to Cultural Centre and they let me pay by credit card, even though they normally only accept cash. They say they also require a passport, but they accepted my government issued national ID card.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Aguas Calientes. Welcome to Machu Picchu Pueblo Sign, in the Andes, Peru

There are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The best way for you will depend on how energetic you feel, or how much money you want to spend. There is a shuttle bus that regularly runs from Aguas Calientes and back between the hours of 7am and 3pm. When I was there it cost 70 Soles/US$21 for a return trip, but as of 2019 it has gone up to 80 Soles/US$24. The bus is comfortable and airconditioned. As the road is very windy, it takes about 40 minutes both ways.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo The Windy Road to Machu Picchu, in the Andes,
The Windy Road to Machu Picchu

Hiking to Machu Picchu

The other, more adventurous option is to hike up. This way is actually shorter, as it cuts across the road at many points. The trail is probably a bit more challenging than your average trail. It is fairly steep and at a high altitude, but certainly doable if you are relatively fit. I also think this is the best way to go! The views are freaking amazing and you can stop to really appreciate them.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Sign at the Start of the Hiking Trail From Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo to the Machu Picchu Ruins in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Start of the Hiking Trail From Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu Pueblo to the Machu Picchu Ruins in the Andes,

The trail up took me a little less than an hour. I passed a few people that seemed to be struggling with the climb, or possibly the altitude. With that in mind I guess it could take up to 2 hours for some people. Now, here come a heap of photos for your viewing pleasure. It’s hard to choose just a few to sum up the wonder of this place.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Llamas Hanging out at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru
Llamas Hanging out at Machu Picchu

To say the place was amazing would be an understatement. It’s quite hard to get a true idea of the scope and extensiveness of the ruins until you see them for yourself. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen beforehand, you’re still likely to be awed when you get there.

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Rainbow to Ruins

I was lucky enough to go there on a rainy day, which meant I got to see more than a few rainbows, which made it even more surreal.

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Rainbow to Ruins

I even walked a bit of the Inca Trail that ended behind some of the ruins which gave me the chance to see yet another awesome view.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. View of the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. View From the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu, in the Andes, Peru

After refilling my water and getting called muy bonita by some of the park staff near ticket checking point, I was feeling a bit excited and managed to get back down to Aguas Calientes in half the time it had taken me to climb up. When I got back to my accommodation, I was greeted by some drunk Chileans who were super disappointed when they found out that I was leaving the next morning. They tried their hardest to convince me to stay an extra day so I could drink with them. They eventually settled for promises to keep in touch.

Adventures in Southern Peru – Cuzco/Cusco

I think I was so tired that I may have napped for most of the trip back to Cusco. This southeastern Peruvian city was once not only the capital of the Incan Empire, but also the historical capital of Peru. Now it serves as the capital of the Cusco Province. With under 500,000 people living there, it’s by no means a large city, but it certainly has a lot of character.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

The centre of this Andean mountain town is roughly shaped like a puma, as indicated by maps and pavement slabs around the town. The Puma is said to represent the power of the earth, with a fortress at the head built to protect the city from invaders. It ultimately failed at it’s job, since the Spanish Conquistadores invaded and took control of Cusco in the 1500s

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Cusco was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1983 and it’s not hard to see why. There is a lot of history in the town, from Incan, pre-Incan and colonial Spanish societies. I was told that the Spanish mostly built on top of existing Incan structures. That means that there are still a lot of Incan buildings in the city underneath or behind the colonial buildings.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Colonial Building Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

It’s also a vibrant city with a lot going on, including random carving competitions and art displays in the streets.

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And of course there are Alpacas.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Alpacas Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

Cuzco Culture

But perhaps my favourite thing about this city is the traditional culture and how willing folks are to share it.

I stumbled upon this performance in the centre and it was amazing! All of the instruments this guy used were hand made. The sounds that came out of them were divine. He had everyone’s undivided attention!

After he’d finished, he invited everyone watching him to have a look at his instruments and try them out. He made it look so easy, but when I tried, I just looked like an idiot. Not that I minded, because it was really fun to have a go.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Adventures In Southern Peru. Traditionally Dressed Man Andean Mountain Town of Cusco, Cuzco Peru

I thought I could sneak out of the area without anyone noticing while people were having their photos taken. The performer foiled my escape plan and insisted that I put on some traditional cloth and have my picture taken with him. So here’s the cheesiest photo I’ve ever been in.

I ended my trip on a high note with a free Peruvian cooking and cocktail making class in a quirky little hilltop pub. Nothing beats looking over a beautiful town whilst eating and drinking things that you’ve made yourself.

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Have you had an amazing experience in Peru? I’d love to hear about it! :o)

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Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes

K In Motion Travel Blog. Tumbes Mangrove Tour. Line of Boats.

Getting to the Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes – Aguas Verdes Border

My time in Ecuador was up, so I made my way to the northern Peruvian Frontier town of Tumbes. That involved taking an overnight bus from Guayaquil to the Aguas Verdes border with Peru. Unfortunately, the checkpoint was closed when we arrived around midnight. The bus company had not mentioned this until we got to the border. The bus driver also seemed to be surprised, so maybe it wasn’t normal. With no other options, We waited in the bus and tried to sleep a bit. I groggily arose from slumber at 3am to join a crazy long line that had developed while I was snoozing. Awesome.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes. Crazy Line at the Aguas Verdes Border Between Ecuador and Peru
Crazy Line at the Border

The line started moving slowly around 3:30am. Although it seemed like much longer, it probably only took 30 minutes get to the entrance to the immigration area. Luckily the room was small, so once I’d made it to that point, there wasn’t much of a wait. The interesting thing about this border was that both the exit from Ecuador and the entry to Peru were processed at adjacent counters, which made things pretty quick.

Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes

I was running against the clock by this point, as I’d been more captivated by Ecuador than expected. This meant I didn’t have time to travel overland all the way to Cuzco as I’d originally planned. So I’d found myself a last minute flight to Cuzco out of the tiny northwestern Peruvian city of Tumbes, just over the border from Ecuador. Never heard of it?

Neither had I. Until I booked a flight from there. I’d actually chosen to fly from there because it was the closest Peruvian city to my location. It was also much cheaper to fly to Cuzco from within Peru than it was from Ecuador. It turns out that the city has quite a long history. It’s a pre-Incan settlement named for the native tribe of the area, the Tumpis.

With a population hovering around 100,000, it’s fairly small as far as cities go. That made it more surprising when the people from the bus company insisted that the place was dangerous. They tried very hard to convince me that I shouldn’t walk around by myself. I couldn’t see anything about this town that indicated someone was going to jump out of nowhere and mug me, as people had suggested. Still, as I normally do, I kept my wits about me and had no problems.

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Tuk Tuks and Tours

I didn’t get far on my walk before a worried Tuk Tuk driver insisted that I ride with him. He was still insistent even after I told him that I wasn’t going to give him any money. He decided to drive me around the town and take me on a mangrove tour to an island with a crocodile park, for free. I, of course, asked him a thousand questions about life in Peru and came to the conclusion, after he offered to pay for my flight to Cuzco, that Tuk Tuk drivers make the big bucks.

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Rax, the Tuk Tuk driver had to get some maintenance done on his vehicle, so he dropped it off at the Tuk Tuk repair place. He didn’t know how long it would be before it was ready to drive again, so he said that he wanted to organise a lift to the airport for me. I declined as I’d reached my limit for sitting down by that point. The airport was only 5km away, which is a comfortable walking distance for me.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes. Tuk Tuk Workshop.

Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes – Unexpected ‘Danger’

Little did I know, that this walk was the start of a whole new adventure. As happens in many places, I had taxis and Tuk Tuks stopping to offer me rides, which I politely declined. After a short while, I came across a roadside stall. It was run by a sweet older man, selling all kinds of homemade Peruvian treats and refreshments. He was the first person I’d met in the town who hadn’t told me it was dangerous. He was actually quite interested in how I’d ended up there.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes Sculpture/Building in Central Tumbes, Peru
Building on the walk to the airport in Tumbes

When I told him I was walking to the airport, he said it was 10km away, which was weird, because my map was saying it was only 3. He suggested that I should get a taxi, but after I informed him that I wanted to walk a little more, he wished me luck and I went on my way.

Police Escort

About 2 minutes later, I was stopped by 2 people who were sitting in a stationary car in a bylane of the main road. They did their best to assure me that they were the good guys and they weren’t going to hurt me. Not that any thoughts like that had even crossed my mind. It turned out that they were off duty police officers. They showed me their police IDs so that I would know they were genuine. By that point, I was getting the idea that locals think there are a lot of dishonest people in their city.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes. Monument
Monument on the walk to the airport in Tumbes

When I told them my plan to walk to the airport, they said it was 10km away, just as the man at the stall had said. I was still puzzled by that, as my map had never steered me wrong before. Maybe Peruvians have no concept of distance? They insisted that they would drive me. They simply weren’t taking no for an answer. So what choice did I have? Less than 2 minutes later, we were at a gate that serves as the entrance point to the airport compound. Yes, the airport is in a compound.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes. Tiny Airport
The tiny Tumbes Airport

We arrived at the airport building shortly after and it was tiny and empty. The car park was empty except for a security guard walking around with a gun. A gun? I wasn’t sure whether to feel safe or scared. He asked to see my flight confirmation then told me that I needed to quickly go inside because it was dangerous outside. I was again perplexed. I still couldn’t see anything remotely dangerous about the place. There wasn’t even anyone else around.

K In Motion Travel Blog. Northern Peruvian Frontier Town of Tumbes. The Only Cafe in the Airport
The only cafe in the tiny Tumbes Airport

Tiny Airport

There were only 2 shops inside and they were both closed when I got there. The place was almost completely empty except for some cleaning staff. It was then that I found out that the airport only has 2 flights in and out each day. It’s then closed for several hours in between. I had gotten there a tad early because I wasn’t expecting a lift, but it wasn’t long before the cafe reopened and I was able to grab some food. Unfortunately there was no WiFi. The flight was only short and I was sure there would be WiFi available on y stopover in Lima.

All in all, Tumbes proved to be a lot more interesting than one would think. It seemed like a nice quiet town and everyone was super nice and friendly. There also seemed to be a perception around town that it was unsafe. But it didn’t feel unsafe. It felt like people in the town were overreacting or being overcautious. or perhaps they had a different idea of danger to me. Either way, the fact that those locals were willing to help keep a stranger safe, makes it a safe place. It’d be worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Check out the continuing adventures in southern Peru in my next post :o)

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