Off the beaten track in Peru

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Terraced land in Colca Canyon.
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The sillar rock building in Arequipa.
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Colca Canyon is a sight to behold.
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The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa.
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Altiplano, between Cusco and Arequipa, viewed from a plane.
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The landscape of the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve is unique.
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Condor-spotting in Colca Canyon.
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The Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve.
Updated 07 July 2017
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Off the beaten track in Peru

Peru is far from almost everywhere. Tucked away in a remote part of a remote continent, it is understandable that most visitors check out the highlights, visiting Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca, while devouring ceviche — Peru’s seafood delicacy — by the bucket load. But that is just the starting point of this diverse nation that spans rainforest, mountains, deserts and coastline in an area twice the size of Texas.
Venturing off the regular tourist circuit — one that usually sees visitors land in Lima, then fly to Cusco to tour Incan ruins — often follows on from Cusco, and there is no better place to push onto than Peru’s understated second city of Arequipa. In just an hour’s flight you are whisked from the subtropical lushness of the soaring Andes (where the airport is some 3,300 meters above sea level) to the semi-arid flatlands of Peru’s desert region (landing at a still lofty 2,300 meters), but the difference is immediate and astounding.
Departing Cusco’s narrow, steep, often wet streets, you land into Arequipa’s dep
endable warmth and clear skies. Founded by the Spanish in 1540, the city is famous for its Old Town built mostly from white volcanic rock, sillar, which provides not only a shimmering, pure look, but also practical protection from the earthquakes and tremors that rock the region. Arequipa was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1868, after which most of the city was reconstructed, and the Old Town’s sturdy sillar walls (built around 1.5 meters thick) have so far prevented the need for a similar rebuild.
The city center’s Plaza de Armas is the main magnet for visitors, offering shade and a window into colonial Peru, featuring lily-white rows of broad arches along three of its sides, and the baroque Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa as its mighty centerpiece, shining bright by day, captivating all at night, with subtle, artistic lighting. You can while away several hours people-watching in the square, admiring what is a beacon of stubbornness — the cathedral having been rebuilt and patched up half a dozen times since its original incarnation in the mid-1500s.
Inhaling the view, it is now time to focus on adventure-planning, and in the Arequipa region that means a trip to Colca Canyon, famed for its gargantuan condor birds, predators boasting a 3.3-meter wingspan that tease tourists with fleeting appearances, akin to spotting vacationing royalty or fully-clothed Kardashians. Getting there is best done with a tour, which meant hopping aboard a Colca Trek minibus, riding the truck-laden road out of town, and weaving through hectic pueblos jóvenes (shanty towns) that envelop much of Arequipa’s outlying areas. Dotted with indolent dogs, semi-complete homes and tangled cables, these shanty towns are at once sad and joyful, a mixture of need and nesting, framed in a patchwork of jostling concrete, choked by poisonous traffic. After hours of crawling, finally you will be liberated, emerging into the dry folds of the altiplano (high planes), then passing into the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve to spot the vicuña camelid (a sort of small, rather dainty llama). Box ticked, the tour ascends, all the way to 4,900 meters above sea level from where you can spot three volcanos — Ampato (dormant), Sabancaya (active), and Hualca Hualca (extinct) — along with the supposed source of the Amazon river, Nevado Mismi mountain.
Seeing the Colca Canyon itself begins the following morning, after a night sleeping at its edge. An early start is made bearable by driving to the Mirador Cruz del Condor, a viewpoint overlooking a 1,200-meter drop, from where condors are best spotted, especially early in the day. None were in flight, so we turned our attention to tackling one of the world’s highest bike rides, free-wheeling down a winding, empty, recently-asphalted road for almost an hour, only having to pedal a few short uphills, before cruising on down the gentle declines, stopping regularly to snap the canyon. At the bottom, you are scooped up and taken back to the viewpoint for more condor-spotting; with relief, our attentive guide yelped at the sight of the elusive birds; three condors were swooping low and distant, over a kilometer away, viewable through his essential binoculars. They appeared to be adept at teasing tourists, but even at such a distance it was easy to see why they have long been held in reverence in South America, with the condor being a national symbol of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
The Colca Canyon is almost the world’s deepest, pipped by the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon (3,354 meters deep), but debate rages as to whether it is even a canyon at all. At its deepest point it drops 3,270 meters, twice as deep as North America’s Grand Canyon, and yet our guide honestly pointed out that Colca Canyon snakes between mountains, rather than carving its way across plains, marking it out as more akin to a gorge, rather than a canyon. Either way, its beauty is remarkable, corrupted slightly by a disrespectful smattering of litter, something that is sadly common to much of Peru.
As with any tour, your enjoyment may be determined by those with whom you share your journey; pray for likeminded types; pray for condors in the canyon; pray for clear weather, as traveling in a mountainous area means inevitably experiencing all that nature can throw at you. The free-wheeling, high-altitude cycling is worth the price alone, but this is also rewarding travel, far-removed from the Disney-esque masses of Machu Picchu, and a must-do for those seeking adventure in Peru.
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Malaysia welcomes its first durian-friendly hotel

An overview of the Durian Research Center. (AN photo)
Updated 16 July 2019
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Malaysia welcomes its first durian-friendly hotel

  • Tan sees the resort’s agritourism ecosystem as a long-term goal toward creating a platform for durian research and cultivation

KUALA LUMPUR: Durians are known for their distinct, pungent smell, which many foreigners describe as a combination of rotten onions and old socks. As such, most hotels in Asia forbid the fruit on their premises.
But with the rising popularity of durians among locals and foreign tourists, Malaysia is welcoming its first durian-friendly hotel and resort.
Situated an hour from Kuala Lumpur’s city center, the beautiful, scenic Bangi Golf Resort includes a hotel overlooking a golf course, and an agriculture farm.
“When you first go into any hotels, you usually see the signs ‘durian is not allowed’ or ‘durian is forbidden’,” said Tan Ban Keat, director of the resort. “We soften the tone for the hotel to be ‘durians are allowed in durian-friendly zones’.”
Hotel patrons can buy, eat and bring durians to designated zones throughout the resort.
“We’re actually the first hotel to practice that,” said Tan, adding that he does not believe the move will prompt other hotels in Malaysia to follow suit.
“It doesn’t do anything to their business. We do it because we grow durians on the premises. We have the annual durian festival … and we’ll include the Durian Research Center in the near future,” he said.

FASTFACT

Musang Kings are considered premium durians due to their intense yet well-balanced, custardy sweet taste. They are the premier durians for export to China and other overseas markets.

Tan expressed his hope that the center, which is under construction, will become a premier research hub for better durian breeds.
“I hope to create a Super Musang King,” he said. Musang Kings are considered premium durians due to their intense yet well-balanced, custardy sweet taste. They are the premier durians for export to China and other overseas markets.
Tan sees the resort’s agritourism ecosystem as a long-term goal toward creating a platform for durian research and cultivation.
“These durian-friendly zones are created to be a platform for agriculture. Durians have a place in many people’s hearts. They’re a national treasure,” he added.