Something To Declare: Inca Trail still off limits as Machu Picchu re-opens
Saturday 20 March 2010
Destination of the week: Machu Picchu
South America's most iconic sight is due to re-open to tourists on 1 April, following the disastrous flooding and landslides in January that cut off the area. The railway line that provides the only terrestrial transport was severely damaged, and the alternative means of access – hiking the Inca Trail – was also rendered impassable.
The railway line is to be partially re-opened on 29 March, though visitors will need to travel by road to the station at Piscacucho, deep in the "Sacred Valley" and a three-hour drive from Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital. The railway between Cuzco and Piscacucho was more badly damaged and will re-open no earlier than June. Until then, the luxury Hiram Bingham train will not run.
The hilltop complex of Machu Picchu itself was not affected, and is expected to be open as normal once the trains are running again. But PromPeru, the tourism promotion body, warns some parts of the Inca Trail are unsafe due to rain damage.
"There are many alternative and outstanding treks on offer, such as the Salkantay and Lares trek," says a PromPeru spokeswoman. The South American Explorers' Club this week said that "access to all of the spectacular sites around the Sacred Valley has been restored".
Pent-up demand from tourists who have been unable to access the site for the past few months could affect visitors to Machu Picchu; booking with a tour operator can help guarantee a visit. For example, Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) has departures every fortnight from 3 April for its 16-day "Sacred Land of the Incas" tour, which costs around £2,000 including flights from London and includes Lima, the Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu.
"We expect the Inca Trail to be open once again by May," said Laura Rendell-Dunn of Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk). "At the moment there is availability for May, but that is likely to change when the trail re-opens. If we can't deliver the trip we will refund the client."
Until the Inca Trail is open for business, there are alternatives such as the Lares and Choquequiaro walks. "They provide fantastic alternatives to the Inca Trail," according to the South American Explorers' Club.
Warning of the week: Camper vans on Coll
A resident of the beautiful Hebridean island of Coll has launched a campaign against camper vans following "extremely noticeable" damage last summer caused by drivers of motorhomes. The island was popularised in the Katie Morag stories by a resident, Mairi Hedderwick; in the books, it appears as the isle of Struay,
"The summer of 2009 saw an incredible influx of people and an unprecedented number of motor homes/ camper vans," says Tony Oliver, the islander who runs the VisitColl website. "Damage to the machair in 2009 was extensive." Machair is a rare habitat that provides a good environment for wild flowers and birds.
"Considering the fact that machair is one of the great natural attractions of this wee rock, it is not only ignorant to destroy this precious asset – it is selfish," complains Mr Oliver.
Hikers, cyclists and sea-kayakers have traditionally taken advantage of the right of "wild camping" conferred by land-access laws.
"It is very rare to find any evidence of the many true wild campers that visit Coll," says Mr Oliver. "However, motorhomes calling their off-road parking 'wild camping' makes a mockery of the concept." It is illegal to drive off the road on to machair.
Caledonian MacBrayne, which runs ferries in the Western Isles, has imposed a new restriction on camper vans to the neighbouring island of Tiree – allowing a ferry reservation only for those with a pre-paid pitch at the island's only campsite or at one of a handful of participating crofts.
Tip of the week: Ostend back on the map
For the past 12 years, Transeuropa Ferries has run a Ramsgate-Ostend ferry, but it has always focused on freight. From next Saturday, though, it will be joined by the French ferry operator LD Lines (0844 576 8836; ldlines.com) and the route will open up to tourist traffic. There will be four sailings a day to Ostend (pictured), with one-way fares for a car and up to nine passengers starting at £27 each way.
Bargain of the week: Low-cost Japan
"Travel within Japan is like no other country in the Far East," says the tour operator Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk), "due to the prohibitively high costs of vehicle hire and wages". But for independent travellers, reaching and exploring Japan can represent outstanding value.
One reason is the imminent expansion of flights from Gulf hubs to the capital, Tokyo. Until now, the lowest-cost gateway has been Kansai international airport, which serves Osaka, Kyoto and the south of Japan. But from 27 March, Emirates and Etihad begin flights to Tokyo from Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
With Opodo.co.uk, the fare on Emirates from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow via Dubai is £539 return for travel in late April/early May. Some lower fares are available from London on Air France for little more than £500. Non-stop flights from Heathrow on ANA, British Airways, JAL and Virgin Atlantic are around the £700 return mark.
As a result of intense competition, budget hotel rates in Tokyo are lower than in London. The Toyoko Inn (toyoko-inn.com) chain has 28 properties in the capital, plus three in Kyoto, 14 in Osaka and five in Hiroshima. Rates start at £45, including breakfast, internet access and a "freebie" at check-in, such as a pair of socks.
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