Paradise in the Middle of Nowhere

Banda Islands are a group of volcanic islands in the middle of the Banda Sea in the province of Maluku. Located approximately 4.5 degrees south of the Equator and 2000 kilometres east of Java. Although very little known to the world today, it was once the world’s only supplier of nutmeg and mace – commodities that Europeans fought mightily to have a sole control of. Nutmeg was said used not only as a spice but also to cure stinking breath, comfort the stomach, help digest food easily and as preservative before refrigeration came into existence.

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Nutmeg Tree.

We had been dreaming of coming to Banda for years but due to its poor accessibility, we kept putting it off. One can get to Banda, nowadays by boat or by plane. Both have very unreliable schedules. At the time of our visit, NBA air is the only airline company serving the Ambon-Banda-Ambon route, twice a week. A month before our flight to Indonesia, our contact on the island advised us that flights have been stopped due to some major safety issues. Two weeks later we were told flights are back on again. I was concerned about taking the plane and wanted to take the boat but my husband thinks it will be just as worse, safety wise. In the end, I was glad we took the flight as I heard horrible stories about the boat ride. Apparently the boat is always fully packed to the point where you could not even move around. We met some people who got stuck inside their cockroach-infested cabins for the duration of the trip (14 hours) because some passengers are sleeping outside their doors they couldn’t get out. They said they needed a whole day to recover after the boat trip.

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NBA flight arriving at Banda Neira.

The flight was smooth and we arrived safely in Banda Neira. Bahri, our contact on the island picked us up at the airport. He manages 2 accommodations on the island – Delfika 1 & 2. We stayed at Delfika 2, the newest of the two, located at the waterfront directly facing Gunung Api. We paid $15 for an aircon room per night, includes breakfast for two. Banda Neira is a very small town. There are no ATM’s on any the islands, so make sure you are cashed up. There are a few guesthouses and restaurants around. We ate mostly at Delfika 1. But one shouldn’t miss the buffet dinner at Mutiara, where fresh grilled seafood and authentic Bandanese cuisine are served. My favorite was eggplant with kenari (local almond, which is abundant in Banda) sauce.

Banda’s landscape is dominated by an active volcano called Gunung Api, rising at nearly 700 metres above sea level. Its last eruption took place in 1988. Although, we are a little crazy about climbing volcanoes – this is not the main reason why we came to Banda. We wanted to explore what lies beneath the surface of its crystal clear waters, where pristine coral reefs and interesting marine life abound.

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Gunung Api, as viewed from Banda Besar.

As soon as we landed, we were off snorkeling. First destination was Pulau Hatta. It is the farthest of all the islands, approximately an hour by boat. On our way to Hatta, we saw a whale from a distance. According to our boatman it was a killer whale. Unfortunately, it was way too far for us to confirm or even take a photo. Hatta has fantastic snorkeling. Some great massive walls and drop-offs. No wonder why divers talk about this place so highly.

The next day, on our way to Pulau Ai, we were greeted by pods of dolphins. What a nice day to start our trip, I thought. Ai has got some incredible snorkeling. On two occasions we were in Ai, we had a chance to snorkel with a dozen of Humpheads. They seem to be a resident in Ai, as we haven’t seen them anywhere else.

Among the other places we enjoyed snorkelling at were: Nailaka, Pisang, Banda Besar, Karaka and Batu Kapal. And just at the northern shore of Gunung Api, approximately 5 minutes boat ride from Banda Neira is another great spot to see new coral growths on the cold lava flow.

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Pulau Nailaka.

Dolphin sighting is a very common occurrence in Banda, usually early in the morning and mid to late afternoon. Snorkeling with the colourful and beautiful Mandarin fish is also not be missed. Just in front of Maulana Hotel is where they usually hang between mid to late afternoon. Snorkeling and island hopping trips can be organised through guesthouses or locals who own a boat. Bahri was good at arranging a snorkeling trip. There is no set price per trip as such. The more people join the trip, the cheaper it is you have to pay.

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Dolphins we chanced upon one morning on our way to Pulau Ai.

On our last day in Banda, we decided to climb Gunung Api. From Delfika 2, we hopped on a small outrigger boat and we were paddled across to the start of the climb. The climb up is rather challenging. It involves a lot of scrambling on scree. The humidity was nearly unbearable. Then there are mosquitoes. I must have sweet blood that these bloodsuckers love me so much. It rained half way thru to the top, which was greatly appreciated. It did make the trail a bit more challenging but it was refreshing. Fifty-five minutes later we reached the summit – the view is amazing. Truly worth sweating for!

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Storm approaching Banda. Viewed from the summit of Gunung Api.

We spent a total of 17 days on Banda. There wasn’t a single day where we were not out doing something – be it diving, snorkeling, hiking or simply just hanging out with the locals. It was an absolute joy to finally be able to tick this place off our list.

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Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu

Day 01. Approximately 2 hours drive from Cusco, then a whole day of hiking took us to our first campsite. There were 12 trekkers, a guide, a horse driver and 2 cooks in our group. We hiked mainly on a dusty road that is actually being utilised by vehicles. It wasn’t very enjoyable. The view from the campsite, however, was amazing.

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View from our first campsite.

Day 02. We were awakened by a knock on our tent, then we heard someone say “Buenos Dias! Coca tea, Coca tea!” It was our cook serving coca tea to each tent. What a great service, I thought! I’ve never ever had coca tea before so I was excited to try it. Coca leaves are said to contain alkaloid, which when extracted becomes the source of cocaine. But apparently the amount of coca alkaloid content in raw leaves is only very small. I was told that the consumption of coca leaves is equivalent to just having coffee or normal tea. And yes, it did feel like it!

Our biggest challenge was going over the Salkantay Pass at an altitude of 4600 metres. It took me roughly 3 hours to reach the pass. I was one of the slowest. The view is nice but nothing like the Huayhuash Circuit. I am too spoiled (I know!). We spent nearly an hour on the pass enjoying the view and taking photos before descending to a small village at the bottom of the pass where we had lunch at. The hike down to the village was nice and pleasant – streams running at the side of the trail, rocks covered with moss and beautiful wildflowers everywhere. Just after having lunch, a massive hailstorm started bucketing down followed by torrential rain. We had to squeeze ourselves in a tiny little farm hut nearby. The rain didn’t ease off until about 2 hours later. We got to our campsite a bit wet and our shoes were totally covered with mud giving us no reason not to take a quick freezing cold shower. Tough and rough day.

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Salkantay Pass at 4600 metres.

Day 03. Yummy breakfast – cereal, pancake, tea/coffee/hot chocolate! Our hike started on a dirt road for a very short period of time then we crossed over a bridge on to the jungle. Lush vegetation, interesting plant life communities, gushing waterfalls, crystal clear streams are the features of this part of the hike. We stopped for lunch at a small village south of a town called Santa Teresa. From there, we were driven to our campsite at Santa Teresa. I’m glad we did not walk it as the trail was on a dusty road again. Upon dropping our bags off at the campsite, we headed straight to the hot spring. It was absolutely rejuvenating! Dinner was extra special (with chocolate pudding for dessert!). Dessert was never part of our meal in the last 2 days so it was like a special treat. I thought maybe our chefs are trying to impress us so we can be generous with tips. Our meals have been really great from the beginning so giving them a decent tip is definitely not an issue for us. Later in the night, our campsite turned into a wild party place. It explains why our guide was so excited to get here. He was already drunk before dinner is served.

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One of the waterfalls along the trail on Day 3.

Day 04. We all slept in. Everyone in our group had a hung over so we decided to take the bus for the first half of the day, at least up to the start of the railway where the hydroelectric plant is located. This part of the trek was once again on a dusty road so I was thankful we took the bus. It was a 2-hour hike by the railway to get to Aguas Calientes from the hydroelectric plant. I was stoked to find out that we are actually sleeping in a guesthouse, and that our room has an ensuite and hot shower. At dinner, we thanked and farewelled our 2 cooks.

Day 05. I was up as early as 3am. That’s how excited I was to see Machu Picchu. By 4:30am, we were already queuing up at the first gate. As soon it was opened at 4:50am, everybody rushed up the hill. It was like a competition of who gets to the top first. The pressure was intense. Well there is a reason for this – the first 400 people queuing at the second or main gate gets the privilege to climb Wayna Picchu, the highest peak in Machu Picchu. The easiest & quickest way to get up there is by bus. First trip leaves Aguas Calientes at 5:30am and only takes 20 minutes. Bus costs US$8 each way. We could’ve taken it but we like a little bit of adventure so we opted to hike it up and back down. The hike is virtually uphill and considered strenuous so think twice before doing it. We managed to get a permit for Wayna Picchu but I was knackered.

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Machu Picchu, just after sunrise.

We had to attend a compulsory 2-hour guided tour of Machu Picchu first before we were able to tour around on our own. Our guide was good at taking us in areas away from where everyone goes. Hubby and I took a tour of our own after the guided tour. We explored every nook and cranny of Machu Picchu, watched the llamas graze and had a chance to pat them. I took heaps of photos. At 10am, we queued up to enter the Wayna Picchu gate. It took us 50 minutes to reach the summit. From the top, we got to enjoy spectacular views of Machu Picchu (bird-like shape), the river that flows so fast and crashes against huge boulders and interesting mountain range. After about an hour at the top, we headed back down. We spent the rest of the day staring at Machu Picchu filled with awe. It is indeed a stunning piece of architecture blending perfectly with nature. We met up with our group once back at Aguas Calientes, had our last dinner together as a group before hopping on the train bound for Ollantaytambo. Hubby & I spent one night in Ollantaytambo, while the rest of our group went straight back to Cusco.

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We spent hours just staring at this incredible view.

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I took countless photos of Machu Picchu from every possible angle.

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Grazing Llamas, with background view of Wayna Picchu.

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Atop the Wayna Picchu.

Salkantay trail is an okay trek. I was a little disappointed that the trail is mostly on a dusty road that is actually being utilised by vehicles. My husband did the Inca Trail a few years ago and said there is no comparison between the two. Inca Trail, though, is very expensive and has to be booked months in advance. I mean there’s no regrets at all – we hiked with such a fantastic group of people from all over the world and I got to see Machu Picchu, which was the main purpose.