Category: Regions

Cuzco women
Latin America

The Other Side of Peru

Andean Vistas, Unspoiled Cultures & Seldom-Seen Ruins

Snow-capped Andean peaks scrape at the sky. A patchwork of chequered farmland – neat squares of emeralds, olives and browns – stretches over vast valleys, then climb hillsides to altiplano plateaus. Pristine alpine streams race through fields. There is something ethereal at work in the tranquil countryside of Peru. And once you lay your eyes on such sublime beauty, it may come as no surprise that in the religion of the ancient Inca (and many of their modern-day descendants), these forces of nature – mountains and streams and valleys – are revered as apus, or spirits.

For today’s traveller, the most profound way to get in touch with the Inca’s spiritual side is to venture beyond the typical sites and head deeper into this unspoiled country. Don’t get us wrong – we know that no trip to Peru is complete without explorations of Machu Picchu and the Incan capital of Cusco, and we’re sure to bring you to these magnificent places. But behind these cultural treasures, away from the well-trodden tourist paths, another side of Peru beckons… a side embraced by apus, and graced by a history rich in colonial and indigenous heritage.

Behold a Gleaming City of White
The southern outpost of Arequipa is the perfect starting point for deeper Peruvian explorations. Its geographic isolation has allowed it to evolve with little outside influence; today, the city remains a unique and fascinating mix of Spanish and indigenous descendants. In fact, when UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on Arequipa, it called the city’s historic centre “a masterpiece of the European creative coalition and native characteristics.”

This praise owes much to the beauty of the city’s architecture. Its pearl-white colonial buildings gleam in the Peruvian sun; Spaniards built their city from the sillar – cream-colored volcanic rock – that carved this Andean region over millennia. The striking cityscape has earned Arequipa the nickname, “Ciudad Blanca,” or White City. You can almost imagine that its buildings literally rose out of the earthen rock.

From the Depths of Colca Canyon to the Heights of Lake Titicaca
The landscape surrounding Arequipa, formed by a string of 80 volcanoes and epic tectonic shifts, is at once peaceful and dramatic. Andean peaks are everywhere, as we’ll discover during magnificent drives past pre-Inca farming terraces that climb fertile slopes. But one of our most memorable stops won’t have you looking up at mountains, but down into the yawning crevice of the Colca Canyon. This impressive crag in the earth is more than twice as deep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon; its walls, though not as steep, drop 13,650 feet from the rim. We keep our eyes open for the Andean condor as it rides air currents wafting up from the canyon floor.

Our route traverses the beauty of southeastern Peru. It’s not uncommon to come across shepherds herding their sheep or alpacas across these immense plains. It is a classic Peruvian tableau, despite that the horses they ride are not Peruvian at all, but were brought here by the Spanish. But on the lake known as Lagunillas, plenty of indigenous flora and birdlife hug the shores – no imports here! It is a startling pool of blue amidst a solitary landscape.

Despite Lagunillas’ undeniable beauty, another body of water captures our interest, the highest navigable lake in the world: Lake Titicaca, which straddles the Peruvian and Bolivian border. The small city of Puno is our base for exploring the home of the legendary Uros people, a resourceful tribe that centuries ago built vast rafts from the lake’s tough totora reeds so they could escape the wrath of an approaching enemy. On their newly made flotilla-homes, they cast off from shore to avoid decimation. As threats grew on other shores, they simply relocated their Islas Flotantes, or Floating Islands, to another part of the massive lake. The Uros were eventually conquered by the Inca, but their reed-island cultures survived. Today, they no longer have reason to move around like lake nomads. The threat of marauding tribes is gone, yet 44 of their islands – a rich and revered part of their heritage and lifestyle – remain.

Beyond Machu Picchu: Uncovering an Ancient Past
Near Puno, the fascinating Peruvian burial site of Sillustani comes into view amidst a barren landscape. It might at first appear to be a series of smokestacks. But these stone towers were actually funereal chambers for elite members of the Aymara people. An entire family was placed into each tower, called “uta Amaya,” or “houses of the soul” by the Aymara. Openings on the tombs all faced east, where the sun was reborn each day. The more remarkable features of Sillustani are the carved stones that comprise each tower. With their cut rectangular edges and uniform size, the craftsmanship behind them is considered more complex than that used by the Inca, even though the Aymara pre-dated them.

Of course, the Inca were brilliant engineers too, as we see at the seldom-visited complex of Raqchi, one of holiest sites in the Inca Empire. This temple was enormous, more than 25,000 square feet and covered by what was perhaps the largest single roof of the empire. Priests lived in adjoining quarters, and 100 round granary houses held corn and quinoa that were likely used in ceremonies. Incas worshipped here by the thousands.

We can be thankful that even the conquistadors saw Raqchi fit to at least partially preserve. But the contributions of the Spanish throughout Peru are also breathtaking. Off the beaten path, 30 miles from Cusco, the 17th-century church of Andahuaylillas stands as testament to their artistic and religious heritage. Don’t be fooled by the nondescript exterior of this cathedral. Inside, the artwork is dazzling. A rich mix of red and gold hues surrounds a gilded altar. Its painted ceilings and frescoed walls have inspired some to compare this church to the Sistine Chapel.

Untouched cultures … spectacular natural beauty … little-known pockets of rich history. This is the other side of Peru, and our small groups allow unfettered access to its glories. Read more about our Peruvian Legends tour and our Bolivia & Peru: Andean & Amazonian Culture tour, and call to find out more today!

Asia & Pacific

Vietnam & Cambodia: Cultural Treasures of Indochina

Westerners often think of mainland Southeast Asia as a lush paradise of emerald-hued mountains overlooking tranquil villages, terraced farmland tilled by plow-pulling oxen, and French-flavoured cities frozen in time and buzzing with bicycles and motor scooters.

It is, indeed, all of these things. And two nations on this vast peninsular region south of China — Vietnam and Cambodia — stand out as the undeniable cultural core. Each is brimming with ancient sites that have had a dramatic influence in the region, natural beauty found nowhere else and rich traditions that celebrate an enduring heritage.

Vietnam North to South

A profound sense of humanity and harmony infuses every aspect of Vietnam. This mysterious and beautiful country boasts 2,140 miles of coastline, bays crowded with a maze of limestone towers, stunning French-colonial architecture, soaring mountains and a river and delta system that hosts a rich array of wildlife and supports an ancient rural way of life. Gate 1 travellers witness it all in the most enriching manner possible.

Hanoi recently celebrated its 1,000th birthday. For much of its history, it has been the political and cultural capital of the country. During the nation’s more turbulent times, it was the capital of French Indochina (1902-1954) — during which its elegant colonial-era buildings were constructed — and of North Vietnam (1954-1976). More than 50 ethnic groups have shaped Hanoi and the surrounding region; many of their stories and cultural relics are on exhibit at the Museum of Ethnology. But perhaps nowhere is the nation’s heritage more dramatically represented than in the world-renowned water puppetry that originated here. These fascinating shows are performed over a pool of water, depicting ancient folktales and long-cherished lore set to traditional music and Cheo, a form of opera.

Halong Bay Vietnam

Nearby, more than 3,000 islands rise from the shimmering waters of Halong Bay, many of them several hundred feet tall. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is shrouded in myth and legend. According to one tale, the gods sent dragons to this coastline to protect the country and they spat out jade and other jewels into the water. These precious stones protected the land from enemies approaching by sea. Gate 1 takes you sailing through this breathtaking archipelago of karst cliffs on a traditional junk. Floating fishing villages and inviting sandy beaches cling to the shores and vast echoing caves have been carved within the hulking rocks over millennia.

Though Hue was the capital of Vietnam for only 143 years, from 1802 to 1945, its cultural influence on the region has been immeasurable. This may be because the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled from here constructed such a vast and imposing complex of palaces and fortresses. Their Imperial City has undergone remarkable restoration. Its most notable structures are the 1.5-mile wall that surrounds it, the Imperial Enclosure, Thai Hoa Palace (or the Hall of Supreme Harmony), Hall of the Mandarins and the Forbidden Purple City, named after its Chinese counterpart.

Hoi An Vietnam

For a stroll through Vietnam’s past, there is no place in the world like Hoi An, a remarkably preserved trading port. The buildings and streets of its Old Quarter remain much as they were more than 500 years ago. As far back as the 8th century, a thriving spice trade brought unprecedented wealth into the region. Much later, a vibrant trade with Japan, China, India and Holland lured settlers here from those countries. With such a rich past, it’s easy to understand why Hoi An is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spirit of its origins live on in the fascinating Old Quarter, as artisans fashion paper lanterns and residents carry goods in wicker baskets hanging from sticks slung over shoulders.

Like in Hanoi, the city’s French colonial influence is prevalent in the glorious architecture and wide boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City. The twin-spired, neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Basilica was built with materials imported from France. The Saigon Opera House carries echoes of the Petit Palais in Paris. Even the Post Office was designed by a Frenchman, one Gustave Eiffel. The true Vietnam here lives in the city’s lively and mesmerising markets. Dong Khoi Street captures the pulse of the city with its colourful shops and aromatic food stalls. At the intoxicating indoor emporium of Ben Thanh Market, all things Vietnamese can be found, from handicrafts to ao dai, the traditional silk tunic worn by women. And at the city’s fascinating floating markets, ancient houses and canal-side stalls are orbited by traditional longboats laden with all manner of goods and produce plucked from local farms.

Legacies of Cambodia’s Ancient Past

The centerpiece of any visit to Cambodia is the ancient city of Angkor, 40 square miles of stupendous architectural treasures unrivalled anywhere in the world. Its famous temple, Angkor Wat, took 25,000 workers 37 years to complete. Many historians call it the largest single religious monument in the world. Its five lotus-style spires are said to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of deities from Hindu mythology. Its walls and moat symbolise Meru’s surrounding mountains and ocean. Remarkable in scale and design, it is considered a perfect example of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.

Angkor Wat Cambodia

The bustling and laid-back city of Siem Reap is the gateway to this spectacular site. Its streets lined with colonial and Chinese-style architecture are a delight to explore, and the city’s artful Apsara dancers cast their spell on all who attend a performance.

The city is also a launching point to one of the region’s most fascinating natural phenomena: Tonle Sap Lake. Loosely translated as “Great Lake,” Tonle Sap has an unusual geographic feature that affects village life on its shores. The flow of water exiting the lake changes direction twice a year. The lake empties into the Tonle Sap River, which later spills into the Mekong River and the Mekong Delta. During most of the year, the lake is fairly small and just three feet deep. But during monsoon season, the delta backs up. The resulting backwash reverses the Mekong’s flow and pushes water up the Tonle Sap River into the lake, enlarging its size six times and increasing its depth to 27 feet, setting in motion the fishing season for surrounding villages.

Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is the nation’s historic and cultural centre, and its capital. One of the prettiest French-built cities at its colonial height, it was known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was named for 14th-century Wat Phnom, still the city’s tallest structure. Elegant architecture and gracious boulevards set a sophisticated tone here and the city’s stunning temples are simply spellbinding. The Royal Palace, especially, boasts magnificent treasures such as the Silver Pagoda, with its floor of 5,000 shimmering tiles and bejewelled Buddha statues. On a more sobering note, the city commemorates a dark chapter in its history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, set in the former high school used as a security prison by the Khmer Rouge, the notorious regime that sent millions to their deaths in the late 1970s.

Explore the River that Connects Cultures

Vietnam and Cambodia are inextricably linked in so many ways, not the least by the Mekong River. Gate 1 Travel’s cruises along this fabled waterway are the most awe-inspiring way to connect with this forgotten world of stilt houses, narrow sampan boats, and locals sporting traditional straw hats.

Along the river’s banks in Cambodia, hilltop temples at Wat Hanchey and Kampong Cham overlook stunning landscapes. Tiny villages welcome you into their communities and schools. A call on Phnom Penh allows for exploration by 3-wheeled cyclo and a chance to pay homage at the Choeung Ek “Killing Fields.” As the river flows into Vietnam, small riverside towns open up to you, revealing long traditions of handmade mat-weaving and floating fish farms in the Cao Dai region. French influence lines the Mekong’s shores further downstream toward Sa Dec, lined with old mansions and merchant homes. In and around Cai Be Harbour, more than 500 vendors gather in boats and at dockside stalls to sell fruits, vegetables and handmade wares. It’s an intoxicating atmosphere, all unfolding in the shadow of the massive French Gothic Cathedral.

So Many Ways to Explore Vietnam and Cambodia with Gate 1 Travel

Gate 1 Travel shows you the best of these remarkable countries and their captivating cultures. You’ll enjoy comfortable accommodations every step of the way, the expert and welcoming services of our Tour Managers and generous features that bring the local culture to life – all at the Gate 1 value you know and love.

We hope to see you in Vietnam and Cambodia!

Elephants wrestling in Kenya

Heavyweight Wrestling, Kenyan-style

Gate 1 traveller Sharon (@sharon_berardino) caught a glimpse of these two playful elephant teens in action on Gate 1’s small-group Discovery tour 11 Day Kenya Safari Exploration.

“My Kenya experience with Gate 1 exceeded all expectations! Every day was a truly magical adventure – from navigating washed out roads, spying leopard and cheetah in the afternoons, looking forward to finding out what our next delicious meal was going to be, remembering to tie up our tents in the morning to keep the pesky (albeit adorable) monkeys out – it was absolutely perfect across the board!”

elephant friends

Sharon and her travelling companions got an up-close view of elephants in their natural habitat. “We had such an amazing morning that day – several elephant families were crossing the river (babies and all) as we pulled up in our jeep with Rafael, our guide. We stopped and watched for a good half hour or so, taking in all of the elephant antics! The two elephants in question were estimated to be “teenagers” and you know male teenagers! Always horsing around!”

Check out the 11 Day Kenya Safari Exploration & plan your African adventure today!