A Travellerspoint blog

Heavy Breathing in Cusco

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Arrived in Lima with everything we owned soaking wet from the humidity and sweat of the jungle, so first thing, a jumbo laundry bag sent out. Lima was OK, but like any big city. It was really cold though, especially when compared to the jungle. It’s their winter, which means the city is covered with a low hanging cloud, lasting for several months. At night, the cloud/fog descends to the city and moistens everything. It apparently never rains in Lima? A local told us he has never seen rain in the city in his lifetime. He was only about 25, but still… just strange. We spent the day wandering the streets and ocean front, constantly expecting the skies to open up on us; it was that dark and threatening, but, nope. Bad news for the umbrella industry I’m thinking.

Next day we flew into Cusco. The airport is filled chok-o-blok with tour operators, touts and stores – absolute crazy chaos. We were told that 600,000 people come through Cusco each year to visit Machu Picchu.

Inca foundations in the streets of Cusco

Inca foundations in the streets of Cusco


Our hotel, Casa San Blas sits on top of a hill in the old town. We spent the rest of our first day following the experts’ advice – doing didly squat. Lazing about, knitting, reading, and drinking a ridiculous amount of water to try to help adjust to the altitude of 3,400 metres or 11,150 ft above sea level. In the Amazon, I wished I had brought my tape recorder to capture the amazing sounds coming from the forest, especially at night. In Cusco, I thought the same thing, this time to capture the sounds coming from us after we climbed the rocky streets up to our hotel. Quite the symphony of gasps and pants, trying to get some oxygen into our lungs!

On the road in the Urumbamba Valley

On the road in the Urumbamba Valley


We ventured out the next day for a full day tour of the Urubamba Valley – the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Driving through this valley was a trip back through time. It is an incredibly fertile area, with rolling hills of gold and iron-rich red soil. Towering peaks backdrop these fields and villages, some crested with snow, others with clouds and mist. The local peoples are out walking or working in the fields with their wonderfully colourful outfits accompanied by donkeys, llamas and alpacas. And seemingly every corner you turn as you wind through the valley are remnants of the incredible sophisticated and elaborate Incan civilization. The Incan farming terraces are still being used today as are many of the aqueducts and remarkable watering systems, all built between the 1100s to 1534, when the Spanish came in search of gold. This unique and advanced civilization was wiped out in a relative instant by the Spanish numbers, guns, horses and devastating diseases.

Corn in Pisac Market

Corn in Pisac Market


Our first stop was to Pisac market, which was much nicer and more fun than Otavalo. Especially the food market. Peru has over 1000 species of potatoes, 600 of them in this region of Peru and the sacks of potatoes in the market were fantastic. The variety and colours of the corn, natural dyes, peppers and other foods were exceptional.
Mounds of potatoes in Pisac Market

Mounds of potatoes in Pisac Market

We found a nice quiet corner of the market for a drink, that had a really nice house/pen for a bunch of really cute guinea pigs… right next to the huge oven :-o We’re going to try this Peruvian specialty later on, but really didn’t need to see the little cuties like that before eating them!
Guinea Pig house, Pisac Market

Guinea Pig house, Pisac Market

Ollyantaytambo Incan Ruins

Ollyantaytambo Incan Ruins


Our next stop was the last settlement in the valley before Agua Calientes and Machu Picchu called Ollantaytambo. The fortress/temple is built into the Cliffside at the end of a narrow valley and surrounded by towering mountains, the sides of which were lined with Inca farming terraces and stone sarcophagi. The perfect canals still carrying rushing water from the mountains to the town below. The Incas were actually able to successfully defend this site against the Spanish in 1537 and protected the Manco Inca. The site was originally thought to be built as a site of worship to the sun and moon and its temple entrances are aligned with the sun as it crests the mountain peak opposite the temples during the solstices.
Ollyantaytambo Village still serviced by Incan acqueducts running through the streets

Ollyantaytambo Village still serviced by Incan acqueducts running through the streets

We climbed the steep 200 steps to the upper temples showcasing the typical incredible Incan stone engineering – massive granite stones transported from 7 kms away, and fitted together with such precision there are no gaps or mortar on the surface, yet filled with gravel and small stones in the interior so that they are the only structures in the valley to regularly and reliably withstand the many earthquakes of the region. We walked around the main structure and onto an Incan trail (one of several trails that eventually winds its way to Machu Picchu), to storehouses and other buildings that the archaeologists still debate about. The site appears not to have been completed with construction ramps used to bring up the massive construction blocks still in place.
Face carved into mountain, suns rays shine from the crown, to the temple entrance during the summer solstice -- can you see it?

Face carved into mountain, suns rays shine from the crown, to the temple entrance during the summer solstice -- can you see it?

After Ollantaytambo (pronounced oleeyantaytambo – say that 3 times fast) we visiting the town of Chinchero to see an old colonial church, built of course on top of an old Incan sacred site, so the foundation is wonderful Incan construction and then on top the primitive construction methods of colonial Spain.
Donkeys going out for the day in Chinchero

Donkeys going out for the day in Chinchero

The Catholic Church seems interestingly open and flexible in this part of the world. Sunday services are always full, with Spanish Catholics sitting in the pews, and the Quechuas sitting on the floor. The Quechuas are actually not coming not to celebrate catholic mass (in fact they don’t participate in the rites the priest delivers). They are coming instead to sit on the floor to be closer to their God – Pachamama, the earth mother – and because this site is one of their holiest places. The surprising thing to me was the tolerance and acceptance the priests and church have for this. It’s also interesting the views the Quechuas have on religions. The Quechuas or Mestizos (Spanish Incan mixed peoples) still worship in the old ways, ultimately to Pachamama, but they consider any and all religions as simply another possible path to help an individual to achieve enlightenment. This view seems to have allowed them to continue to worship and believe the way they always have, despite attempts to wipe out their culture.
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Chincero also has an interesting version of a tuktuk. It looks very similar to the Indian style, but the cart is simply mounted onto a motorcycle, which is used to power the vehicle.
Peruvian style TukTuk

Peruvian style TukTuk

Monday we took a city tour of Cusco and nearby monuments. We had a wonderful guide for this tour – Fernando with a great sense of humour. Our first stop was the cathedral in Plaza de Armas. Completed in 1659 it was built, of course, on the foundation of an Incan Palace. In fact, if you look out over the town from the surrounding hills, every church you see was built on top of a sacred Incan site in an attempt to wipe out the religion and culture of the peoples.

The cathedral is beautiful but same old same old for Spanish colonial religious stuff. Carved wood leafed in gold, usual themed Catholic paintings, etc. Of course, all the artwork and construction was done by local ‘volunteer’ artists. This made for some really funny (and missed by the priests working so hard to build new Christian churches at every turn, all over the land) inserted Incan symbology throughout the church. There is a beautiful painting of the last supper but Christ et. al. are drinking the local corn drink chicha and eating roasted cuy (guinea pig)! Three major symbols of the Incans are the Condor, the Puma and the Snake. These are found throughout the church in paintings and carvings, which are surprising for the snake in particular, since Christian’s refer to the snake as an instrument in the fall from grace. The female/male balance, and all balance in nature, is extremely important to the Incan faith. On the arms of all the elaborately carved cedar choir-stall chairs, are the bare breasts of a woman, over the Incan phallic symbol. Wonder what happened when the priests finally realized? All in all, it was one of the more amusing and interesting church tours I’ve had in a while.

Sun Temple foundation, Cusco

Sun Temple foundation, Cusco


Ancient Incan Cusco was the centre of the Incan civilization and was laid out in the shape of a Puma, the head being the Temple of the Sun – the remains of which we visited next. It was originally covered in the metal of the gods – gold – and of course destroyed to make a Catholic convent. Machu Picchu is laid out in the shape of the condor. Lost Billyantambo is said to be in the shape of the serpent. But, it has yet to be discovered and is believed to be in the Amazonian jungle between the borders of Peru and Ecuador.

Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman


Just outside of Cusco is Sacsayhuaman. This massive structure is referred to as a garrison or fortress and is constructed of 3 stacked zigzagged massive stone walls. Only the bottom wall is still complete. It was most likely a religious temple, though most experts believe it had military significance. Many of the base stones are huge – some are 3.6 metres tall.
Lower wall of Sacsayhuman ruins

Lower wall of Sacsayhuman ruins

Also within this massive complex is Tambomachay, a small complex of terraces and pools fed by an underground spring that still runs. The waters are said to aid in fertility as well as being a fountain of youth! Must be true, because Fernando told us he was 89 years old! Cusco_2010..4llamas.jpg

Our last full day in Cusco was free, so we went exploring and shopping. Was fantastic and long, but we are becoming used to the altitude. Still huffing and puffing, but don’t feel like you’re going to die now. That’s good! Our final meal in Cusco, and we had the local delicacy Cuy – roasted guinea pig. For my non-western friends, this is probably not a big deal, but in the west, guinea pigs are a very common children’s pet, so it was a bit odd to be gnawing on the bones of Fluffy. Still, it was delicious! And rather like a cross between duck and rabbit. Hope my nephew will forgive me :-o Oh yeah, and the Pisco Sour, with coca leaves – the best yet.

Next stop, one of the new 7 wonders of the Ancient World – Machu Picchu.

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 23:28 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Adventures and Misadventures in the Amazon Basin

rain 28 °C
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Me again! And we’re off to the Amazon basin! We left the hotel for the airport and were met by Jorge, a rep from La Selva that checked us in and then escorted us to a private waiting room where we had tea or coffee, lounge, internet, etc. very VIP! Then off for the short 30 min flight over the Andes to Coca in the eastern part of Ecuador. So fantastic but not so much for photos. In many ways this wildlife adventure was the exact opposite of the Galapagos. We saw so many strange and wonderful creatures, but in the Amazon, unlike the Galapagos, everything has a predator, and the vegetation is so dense and wonderful, that your sightings are magical glimpses, most often far away. Unfortunately I don’t think I really captured the wonder of this place photographically, so will try to paint a picture with words.

Stepping off the plane we ran right into the reality of a rainforest – a constant, torrential downpour and heavy, humid air. Was a bit of an adventure traveling to the lodge. We took a 10 min bus ride to a rather suspect hotel in Coca, then waited for our motorized canoe to take us on a 2 ½ hour trip up the large Napo river, a major tributary of the Amazon, running from the foothills of the Andes. It was pouring down rain, the canoe low in the water and spraying river water over the sides as it picked up speed. When Jorge took a huge plastic sheet to wrap himself up in and then lay down to sleep, we knew we were in trouble and back to being wet! Really beautiful though. The trees kept getting bigger, with huge canopy trees rising suddenly from the surrounding forest.
On the Napo River

On the Napo River



We saw an oil operation on the way, which is Ecuador’s largest industry. Unfortunately the entire Amazon rainforest is sitting on top of masses of discovered, and undiscovered oil. The UN and the Ecuadorian government have come to an arrangement to limit the exploitation of oil in the rainforest. The UN is to pay Ecuador for holding on to this vital region for the planet and not allow further drilling into protected areas. Typically, the payments have not yet begun to arrive. The people, especially those concerned with the forest, are cynically hopeful that they will eventually come through and it will help protect the region.
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The rain started to ease up as we approached our landing dock, which was high above the water line. There had been no rain for 8 days, and the river had dropped dramatically. Though by the next day it had risen 5 or 6 feet, which is amazing when you see how large the river is. This meant we had to climb out of the boat onto a muddy and slippery bank and clamber up the embankment. Christa, the first of our party to attempt this, promptly slipped into the river and mud! Poor girl. This is the first time we’d managed to get her into more adventure/wildlife type travel, and this wasn’t a good start. Tho we all had a good laugh and I took a lovely picture of the end result, which I have promised not to put onto the internet! After we had all disembarked onto relatively dry land we started a 30 min hike over a slippery rotting boardwalk, through a jungle, to Garzacocha Lake. A quick 20 minute canoe finally had us to our lodge.
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La Selva is lovely and made with local building methods and materials. We met our guide Isabella, and our local native naturalist Adolpho, and after a bit of a rest and orientation… we went swimming! Well Jo, Ian and I did, Christa abstained, given her accident prone nature and went straight to fishing for piranhas… at the dock next to where we were swimming!!! We were assured that the piranhas don’t attack people (except in Brazil were they go through periods of drought and starvation). Uh huh! But still, you can’t not take an opportunity to swim in the Amazon rainforest.

The water was actually quite nice and warm, but we were told not to jump too deep so we didn’t stir up or touch the bottom. Uh huh… The water is also very brown with all the silt and nutrients, which means we couldn’t see anything in the water around us. It’s filled with fish, eels and caiman crocodile that grow to 2.5 metres long – they apparently won’t eat us either. We also saw a massive fish, a pirarucu, crest the water on the canoe ride in. They apparently grow to 3 metres and are very territorial, making itself known when the canoes come too close to its area. We didn’t stay in the water all that long.

Red-bellied Piranha Christa caught

Red-bellied Piranha Christa caught


After swimming, we joined Christa trying to catch piranhas with pieces of pork on a hook and line. Although we all had lots of bites, and had to replace the meat frequently, Christa was the only one of us to land one. A red-bellied piranha, and it had really big teeth. Good for Christa cause leaving our room for dinner, she went through a board on our walkway, and then took out the handrail trying to catch herself! Luckily she wasn’t hurt but she’s getting a bit of a reputation and is a bit worried how she’ll survive trekking in the jungle in our rubber boots!

Hiking in the dark

Hiking in the dark


After dinner we went on a night jungle hike! Really!! Going out looking for night insects. In the Amazon jungle 70% of life is nocturnal. It was unreal walking through the thick growth, getting stuck in the mud and trying to avoid not touching or grabbing on to anything. There is a surreal beauty to the forest at night, making me anxious to see it in the daytime. As we walked scanning the sides and giant trees and ferns for life, I was struck by how alien it all seemed. The plant life is gigantic and most things completely unrecognizable. Large vines hang down across your path, thick trees and bushes and ferns stretching out high overhead and across the path, gently brushing against you as you go by, sometimes, brushing your head, which is pretty startling let me tell you in the thick of the night.

The sounds were also incredible. Constant and loud. Owls, crickets, cicadas, frogs, and countless other insects made an almost deafening sound that continued through the night as we slept under mosquito netting in our bamboo huts. At one point Isabella had us all turn out our torches. Was completely black, with patches of dark blue slowly becoming visible over head in the small patches open to the sky through the dense canopy.

Tarantula

Tarantula


We saw tons of critters. First up was a med sized tarantula about the size of my palm. Then a really long, almost cuddly millipede that Isabella picked up to show us. A couple of mating stick insects, lots of spiders of all sizes and webs of giant proportions. Night crickets with really long feelers, day crickets hunkered down with their short feelers. A huge snail, about 10 inches long. A cicada moulting as it grew to its next size. This looked really alien – like one creature was bursting from the body of another. A bullet ant that will apparently make a grown man cry! So probably make a woman whimper? It was about an inch long. We were warned not get close to them, and never to lean unthinking against a tree as the most painful things in the jungle are the smallest. A giant cockroach about 3 inches long landed on Ian, and we made him stay still as it crawled up his pant leg and shirt so we could get a picture of it with size perspective, only fair! And a weird sort of mock spider called a whip spider or a tailless scorpion.
Moulting Cicada

Moulting Cicada


Whip Spider or Tailless Scorpion

Whip Spider or Tailless Scorpion

It was surprising to learn that the rainforest is actually a desert. With very poor soil, and no water past the surface soil. The trees trap the moisture that feeds the forest and the rivers. So much water that the Amazon dumps 56 million gallons of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean per second! You can go out 100 miles into the ocean from the river and still be in fresh water.

Type of bean flower

Type of bean flower


Most of the nutrients come from decaying forest material, which means the jungle is very short lived, not like our Canadian temperate rain forests. Some trees can grow 6 meters per year, and all of them have very rapid growth compared with other types of forests. Some tree trunks are huge, spreading out to gain nutrients from the surface. Others, like the walking palm have a trunk that branches out into many long ‘legs’ that move toward moisture. There is incredible biodiversity in the forest. Everything is so specialized and there’s not much competition between plants and animals since they each focus on a small part of the forest for sustenance. In North America for example, there are 200 species of trees. In one hectare of land in the Yasuni National Park where we were, over 420 species of trees. Tiny Ecuador has over 1500 species of birds, North America just over 700.
Wandering Palm

Wandering Palm

Day 2 saw us spend the morning on a canoe ride back on the Napo and then hiking through the forest. Saw tons of parrots, a crowned night heron, capuchin monkeys as well as squirrel and black-maned tamarind monkeys and the strangest of all, a strange bird called a stink-turkey or hoatzin. This bird is the only member of its genus and family. It eats leaves and has multiple stomachs to digest them, similar to cows. There is no agreement about how to classify this bird in relation to any other bird, but fossil records seem to indicate it is a prehistoric bird and may be a link between dinosaurs and birds. Still, seems to be controversy there too.
Hoatzin or Stinky Turkey

Hoatzin or Stinky Turkey

Unfortunately, Joanne, Ian and I seemed to have picked up a bug, so we missed the night boat ride. Eight months traveling in India without an issue, and I get waylaid in South America. Christa is good though, which is only fair given her accidents thus far.

Barbet

Barbet


Looking back up the Tower

Looking back up the Tower


Day 3 and our usual 5:30 wake up and into the jungle by 6:30, trekking to the canopy tower high in the top of a really tall tree. Passed a troop of black-maned tamarinds and later on some capuchins. Also saw toucans, tanagers, barbets, flycatchers and tons of other birds I don’t have a hope in hell of remembering the names of, from the tower.
Tanager

Tanager

Tanager; we saw many species of tanagers

Tanager; we saw many species of tanagers

The humidity here is something else – 80%. You really noticed how much the forest traps when we were in the tree canopy, where it was relatively cool. Taking the stairs back down to the forest floor, the oppressive wet humidity starts to creep on you, until you are on the ground and completely soaking wet. The temperature is not all that high, though the sun is intense, maybe 28 degrees C, but you are completely covered in sweat as soon as you step into the forest.
The forest canopy from the tower

The forest canopy from the tower

Jungle attire is fun, and despite the heat you should cover up. So we have our rubber boots, with trousers tucked in. Apparently chiggers (small ticks) are an issue, and they like to climb pretty high before feeding. Didn’t want a repeat of the Sri Lankan leech experience, so I tucked those pants in very well let me tell you! My versatile Indian headscarf has come in handy here too. I tied it on in the jungle to keep critters dropping down on my head, plus can pull the end round to wipe your face at will and stop the sunscreen and deet from pouring into your eyes!

The forest is filled with all kinds of useful items that the locals use, in fact they rely on the forest for everything. 1 in 4 plants has a medicinal value to the natives, and countless others a practical tool or food value. Adolpho showed us the tagua nut, or vegetable ivory. Makes all kinds of useful things like buttons and carved items, but also is a water source for locals, since when it is young, it is much like a coconut for milk inside. Also filed my snagged nail with a sandpaper leaf. Very effective and a wonderful grit for nail filing. Adolpho also caught a poison dart frog to show us. One of the less toxic varieties used to poison weapons by the forest people – he just has to be sure that he doesn’t touch his eyes or mouth before washing.
Poison dart frog

Poison dart frog

On our final canoe trip, we spotted a troop of howler monkeys high in the trees by the lake. They are the largest, and loudest monkeys in the forest and a favourite food source for the Quechwa, so once they were sure they’d been spotted, they melted into the forest. A wonderful sighting of a monkey who’s calls we had heard since our arrival. A fitting end to our time here.
Howler monkey in the treetops

Howler monkey in the treetops

Loved this part of the trip, but didn’t see a jaguar, so will just have to try again. After all, it took 4 trips into Indian parks before I saw a tiger!

Oh yeah, and best Pisco Sours thus far were had at the lodge bar!!
Toucan

Toucan

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 19:30 Archived in Ecuador Tagged rainforest wildlife amazon coca napo_river capuchins howler_monkeys piranha yasuni Comments (1)

Colonial Culture in Quito

all seasons in one day 21 °C

Ola Amigos and Amigas! This will be a short post on our 3 days in Quito, with our Amazon adventure up by tomorrow. We're in Cusco at the moment, following the expert advise to do nothing but acclimatize for the first day.

When last I left you, we were in the lovely colonial town of Quito, which is so well preserved from its early Spanish heyday. It was founded by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1534, on top of a razed Incan city. When the Incan king learned of the Spanish advance, he destroyed his town rather than have their treasures fall into Spanish hands. Quito is nestled in a valley between 2 Andes ridges and ringed by 3 volcanoes – the last eruption being in 2006. It’s at a pretty high altitude, 2800 metres above sea level, so walking up stairs and up the winding and hilly streets is a bit of a challenge. But after all our activities in Galapagos, we’re OK.

Christa joined us our first night in from the Galapagos, ready for our Andean and Amazonian adventures, so the gang’s all together. Early morning saw us taking off through the mountains, volcanoes and valleys leading up to the popular market town of Otavalo, which was interesting. None of us are really big shoppers (we need you here Sandra) and we found most of the stuff similar to what you can see in Canada, but the local food market and outdoor food stalls were really cool. Fabulous foods – odd and familiar meats hanging, piles of vegetables with mysterious fruits, and mounds of peppers and spices. Then we were off strolling through the stalls set up for local lunch, with covered boards set up as makeshift tables, bringing amazing smells from the roasting pigs and fish and chicken.
Food market in Otavalo

Food market in Otavalo

This market is important for the local Quechua (indigenous) peoples, both to market their handicrafts but also as a means for socializing and catching up with the events of friends and family spread out through the valleys. They are really small! I’ve never been somewhere where I feel so gigantic! Even Christa towered above people strolling through the market place. Probably on average 4 ½ feet tall.

Cayambe Volcano

Cayambe Volcano


We stopped in a small town of Cayambe where they are famous for their volcano, and for incredibly delicious, light and crispy biscuits called bizcoches. You eat them with string cheese and we all fell in love with them. It seems like the entire village is involved in making these tasty treats with every 2nd store or restaurant advertising the best in town. Yum!!
Making bizcoches in Cayambe

Making bizcoches in Cayambe

Back in Quito, the clouds had rolled in and we had a big thunder and lightning show. We have decided we would take on the task of determining the best Pisco Sour in Ecuador and Peru. It’s a tough job, but I think we’re up to it. Pisco is a Peruvian brandy made from grapes, which is then mixed with lime juice and bitters and topped with egg white. With that very difficult and strenuous obligation in mind, we decided on pisco sours in the hotel bar, and so far, it currently ranks #2. So far, our scientific investigations have determined:
1 – Eco Lodge Santa Cruz: Wonderfully sour with nice amount of bitter, excellent foam
2 – Quito’s Patio Andaluz: Good foam, could be colder, not quite sour enough
3 – La Pinta boat Galapagos: Not enough foam, quantity is a bit small, nice flavour and bitters
Will keep you updated as this important work continues.

Presidential Palace in Plaza de Independance

Presidential Palace in Plaza de Independance


Our hotel is in a lovely old colonial hacienda, and is located in the old part of town, which is really beautiful. On Sunday, Quito closes down the streets to traffic in old town so we were able to stroll the beautiful colonial streets freely. Of course for this part of the world, city life is centered around the church, primarily the Roman Catholic Church. Two lovely squares are the main gathering places for locals and tourists, and they are bordered by elaborate and decorated churches and colonial government buildings. One of the churches – surprisingly, Jesuit – was the most elaborate I’ve ever seen. The outside is intricately carved out of stone, with curling columns and beautiful friezes. On the inside, the carving gets more elaborate and is almost entirely covered in 23 carat gold leaf. Incredible! Unfortunately no pics allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it, but spectacular doesn’t even cover it.
Jesuit Church

Jesuit Church

As a final touristy thing to do, we went up a cable car to the top of a peak, overlooking the town. It takes about 8 minutes to ascend to 4100 meters, which is by far the highest I’ve ever been, and higher even than Ladakh in the Himalayas and Cusco in Peru. Was a bit nervous about how the height would affect me, but no big problem. My camera bag felt like it weighed a couple of tonnes instead of ½ a tonne, but otherwise was all good. It is strange to feel like you’ve walked up a few hundred steps when you’ve only walk 10 though. I’m sure in Cusco we’ll acclimatize after a few days. We’ll be drinking a few cups of the Coca tea, which is supposed to help with altitude adjustments. Made from the cocaine plant, it is a staple tea and chewing tobacco in the Andes. We tried the tea in Quito and it’s very good. No need to worry tho folks, it is nowhere close to the processed drug version we know about. Will have to stay with the Pisco Sours for that ;-)

Next stop, Amazonia!
Cathedral in Plaza de Independance, Quito

Cathedral in Plaza de Independance, Quito

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 14:30 Archived in Ecuador Tagged travel volcano church colonial quito otavalo cayambe bizcoches Comments (0)

Adventures in Paradise...with Boobies!

sunny 24 °C
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Blue footed Boobie - starting his dance

Blue footed Boobie - starting his dance

Finally back on land and sitting in an atrium of our converted hacienda hotel, high in the Andean Mountains in Quito. Haven’t got my land legs back though. Periodically losing your balance when you move without thinking, or feeling the room sway while you are sitting, is a little disconcerting, not to mention very strange looking! Pretty sure people think we have had one too many cervezas! There is a wonderful thunder and lightning show going on outside and I thankfully have my pashminas doubled up. The changes in climate and temperature on this trip could not get more varied.

Sorry for the large post, but strangely, cruising around the middle of nowhere on the equatorial Pacific Ocean didn’t allow for easy internet access, so, this will be a combined update of our adventures in the Galapagos, or as we all referred to it, Paradise.

Yellow Crested Night Heron & Galapagos Sea Lion

Yellow Crested Night Heron & Galapagos Sea Lion


There was no easing into our adventures in Paradise. We flew into the island of San Cristobel by late morning and had our first sea lion encounter. A youngster greeting our group on the gangplank as we boarded the zodiac to take us to our boat, La Pinta. Of the 50-passenger capacity, we are a group of about 17 as the high tourist season winds down. Awesome! Carlos, one of our 2 naturalists, welcomed us aboard and after lunch, we had our orientation, info on how to jump ship in an emergency, and our instructions for the dry and wet landings into and out of the zodiac. Then came the hilarious kitting out of wet suits, snorkel and fins – just have to say, wet suits, not my best look :-)

Sally Lightfoot Crab - sitting on rocks everywhere in the Galapagos

Sally Lightfoot Crab - sitting on rocks everywhere in the Galapagos

Once that was taken care of, we were off for our first excursion, a trip to a bay off San Cristobal. Where we donned the beautiful wetsuit attire and entered the water. It was our first wet landing too, which just means jumping out of the zodiac into the ocean and wading ashore, trying not to get knocked over by waves, and trying not to notice how cold the water was that we were about to snorkel in.

Galapagos Sea Lions

Galapagos Sea Lions


A small herd of sea lions were on the beach and you can’t believe how close they let you come to them – seemingly oblivious. The whole of the islands are like this. Life is very hard on the for species to survive and the remoteness and isolation means that the only animals to make it there and adapt were reptiles, birds and seals. There are no land predators to speak of, so they are completely unafraid. I’ve never seen anything like it. Beautiful and strange birds nesting right by the paths you’re hiking through, going about their daily routines without a care and totally dismissive of the tourists gawking and taking pictures. It helps a lot that the government does a really good job of managing this special ecological resource. The numbers of visitors are strictly controlled, the routes taken carefully managed and well-trained naturalists are always present. First and foremost is the preservation of this singularly unique habitat. Only 3% of the islands are populated, the rest designated preserved parklands.

School of fab fish

School of fab fish

So day 1, and we were already hiking and snorkelling. The younger Galapagos sea lions doing drive-bys while we were in the water, coming so close to us we could feel the current of the water as they sped by. They’re especially fascinated if you blow bubbles from the snorkel, coming right up to you to investigate. A big sea turtle also came over to check us out, and countless weird and wonderful fish. This was mostly a learning day, but for all that, we had such great animal sightings. Frigate birds soaring all over the skies and dive-bombing the storm petrals dancing on the waves. Frigates look strangely like prehistoric flying dinosaurs when they’re in the sky. They’re the 2nd largest bird on the islands and fantastic fliers, but not very good in the water, so they make their living as pirates. Harassing other birds to drop their catches and sometimes sweeping down and plucking smaller birds, like the petrals, up for a snack. The aerial acrobatics were wonderful.
Male Frigate Bird - Males have a red sac on their chin that they inflate to attract females

Male Frigate Bird - Males have a red sac on their chin that they inflate to attract females

Baby Blue Footed Boobie

Baby Blue Footed Boobie

After cruising overnight, our first expedition in the morning was a dry landing and a hike over the volcanic rocks of Seymour Island. Pablo was our naturalist today and he had me demonstrating the blue-footed boobie mating dance with him – I think I make a rather good boobie! And after that, everyone on the boat knew my name!
Boobies dancing up a storm.

Boobies dancing up a storm.


The name Boobie means clown. An apt description! Their courtship rituals involve a lot of honking, dancing to show off their bright blue feet and elaborate back arching with wings outstretched. We saw lots of blue-footed boobies nesting, displaying, and with various aged young. The landscape was interesting with black lava porous rocks, large cacti like prickly pear and lots of varied low lying succulents. Also really cool white barked trees – the ever-present San Palo trees -- whose sap is a beautiful blood-red and smells like incense.
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Back to the boat, into our wetsuits and off to our first deep-water dive. Cool!!! And I mean that literally as well. The waves were pretty rough so was a bit scared but turned out to be no problem, especially once your head was under the water. The parrot fish are particularly large and colourful. Also, they’re responsible for most of the white sand beaches. They eat coral and other calcium-heavy foods and consequently poop an average of 1 tonne of white sand each year! Makes you rethink white sandy beaches doesn’t it? Our dive had to be cut short about 30 minutes in when we started to run into increasing numbers of jelly fish. The water also became dotted with little round floating ‘pearls’ about 3mm in diameter. They looked like millions of eggs, but Carlos said they were dead jellyfish. So we started swimming and weaving through the water dodging, the little critters to get back on the zodiac. One of the group got stung, but not seriously – they had vinegar on the boat to reduce the stinging.
Parrot Fish

Parrot Fish

Land Iguana

Land Iguana

Next up, a 3km afternoon hike clambering over black lava rocks on Dragon Island. Named for the many land iguanas that dot the hillside. Land iguanas are about ½ metre long and wonderfully colourful, especially the larger males. It was mostly sunny for the first half of the trip, so very hot with the equatorial sun, but always breezy, which is good for the hiking. My Orissan cotton scarf proved to be a great head covering for the hikes here, providing a great covering that didn’t blow away in the wind and provided an extra towel on the beach, so a bit of India made it to the South Pacific. And, I have orders from the other folks on the boat for them.

After a wonderful dinner, we were standing on the back of the boat looking at stars and wishing per usual that we knew more about astronomy when we saw some shadows in the water. The crew turned on the lights and we saw 4 sharks swimming around, periodically chasing schools of flying fish. Long silver fish that skimmed the water in panic periodically as a shark got too close. The 4 sharks gradually turned into 7 and were joined by a large sea lion and the occasional pop ins of a sea turtle. We watched mesmerized for a few hours and when we finally decided we’d head for bed, a school of the fish came right up to the boat, and then the seal made a mad dash into the fish, and caught one! Chaos ensued. Fish flying everywhere and the sharks circled. Was rather like a fireworks show finale. Getting ready for bed, a smaller sea lion swam past my window. So awesome!!

Bottle Nosed Dolphin off the ship

Bottle Nosed Dolphin off the ship


On average, we would do at least one hike and one snorkel excursion a day, sometimes two. On the way to Floreana Island, we ran through a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins. At one point they seemed to be everywhere as far as the eye could see. The snorkelling was absolutely amazing but cold, strong currents that you could literally feel tugging at you. Still, we snorkelled for an hour and it was stunning. Schools of brightly coloured fish, swimming with waters teaming with schools of bright silver salema fish – we’d swim into a huge school and watch the fish part around you as one shimmering mass. As you’re swimming along the islet’s sides, it is a bit intimidating to see the sheer drop-off into the black abyss. These volcanic land masses have no gradual slope into the ocean.
Ian diving down through a school of salema fish

Ian diving down through a school of salema fish

After yet another wonderful lunch, we were off for a wet landing at Punta Cormorant beach and then back into the water to swim with the many giant marine sea turtles we saw grazing on the seaweed of the rocks. Punta Cormorant beach has a slight green cast and sparkles because the volcanic eruptions of that area created the semi-precious gem peridot during its eruptions, and you can pick small stones up off the beach pretty much anywhere.
Giant Marine Turtle

Giant Marine Turtle

On Monday we arrived at the largest of the islands, Isabella. This island is on the major hot spot of the Galapagos and has 5 active volcanoes. We hiked up to the rim of one that last erupted in 2005 – Sierra Negra – to breathtaking views of the caldera, the volcanic depression, which was 9km in diameter. Absolutely breathtaking, and not just for the view. After that meal, and my relative lack of hiking history over the last few years, it was a real workout. At the rim, we could see sulphur rising across the black lava flow basin of the caldera. The thought of all that volcanic pressure underneath us was a bit intimidating.
Small Ground Finch, Darwin Finch

Small Ground Finch, Darwin Finch

The seas are getting rougher and getting into and out of the zodiacs is quite a challenge in these conditions as the sea would rise and drop 5 or 6 feet. A rapid drop occurred while Ian was getting off the zodiac and onto our boat platform – good thing he has long biking legs!

Giant Galapagos Domed Tortoise

Giant Galapagos Domed Tortoise


Our next stop was at Santa Cruz, the most populous town, with 20,000 people living here. We started our morning with a visit to a tortoise breeding centre and visited massive domed tortoises. So strange, looking kind of like old men. Then a drive into the incredibly lush highlands to visit 2 twin pit crater formations – Los Gemelos. The forest surrounding had loads of canopy trees – scalesia forest – covered in mosses, ferns and orchids. Tres cool. Then off to visit lava caves, and then back to Puerto Ayora for lunch at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel. Best Pisco Sours so far. For the afternoon we visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre, which houses breeding programs for all the remaining species of tortoises, land iguanas and various flora and insects. Here we were able to see the saddle-backed tortoises for whome the islands are named. Galapago is Spanish for these tortoises.
Giant Galapagos Saddle-back Tortoise

Giant Galapagos Saddle-back Tortoise

Galapagos Penguin

Galapagos Penguin

Wednesday and another great day in paradise. Our first stop at Bartolomé Island had us swimming with penguins, and then hiking to the summit of a volcanic peak to see the surrounding amazing landscape.
Pinacle Rock and lava flow.

Pinacle Rock and lava flow.


The lava flows just opposite us were incredible. From an eruption 150 years ago, it flowed down into the sea in a mass sheet, engulfing a bunch of smaller islands forming new mainland. Very little lived on this new island but live was starting to establish – lava cactus, lizards and grasses had gained a foothold and started the cycle of life already flourishing on other islands.
Lava Catcus with La Pinta in background on right

Lava Catcus with La Pinta in background on right

Nasca Boobie

Nasca Boobie


It’s Thursday, and I couldn’t believe it was our last full day in paradise. This last day brought us to Espanola Island. What an amazing place but really tough trekking and climbing over small and large volcanic rocks and boulders. But all of that effort brought us past nesting blue-footed boobies, nasca boobies and billions of marine iguanas piled on top of each other to keep warm. Including “Christmas” marine iguanas. During their mating season, male marine iguanas start to turn bright red.
Marine Iguana Orgy

Marine Iguana Orgy

Waved Albatross

Waved Albatross


The piece de resistance of this island though, is the encounters you have with the largest bird on the islands, the waved albatross. What beautiful birds, nesting everywhere with ugly-duckling chicks and elaborate greeting rituals that resemble fencing match. Baby waved albatross

Baby waved albatross


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There were so many animals here it was a fitting end to our adventures. Seals with their pups, a dominant male showdown when we arrived, and a bachelor pad hangout for the poor males ousted from their prides. The surf was awesome and rocky landscape awe-inspiring, but as usual, the animals stole the show. You didn’t know which way to look and had to be careful you didn’t look when walking to avoid a broken leg. Carlos lost his walkie talkie somewhere on the island so we were all at the landing area jumping up and down and waving to the boat, as well as setting off our camera flashes. We had visions of being stranded on the island and wondering who we’d eat first! But, we finally got their attention and the zodiac came to get us.

Our cruise overnight back to San Cristobal for the departure back to Quito was the roughest journey yet. Ian set his GPS tracker thingy on for the 6 hour journey. He uses it to track the overall height he travels when biking, and for those six hours it said we ascended 1200 metres! That’s totalling the height of each wave the boat hit! I’m not sure I’ll ever stop swaying!!!

Some cool-looking duck

Some cool-looking duck


Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher

Darwin Finch

Darwin Finch

It was very sad to leave here, and we left with a desire to see more of these remarkable islands, so I leave yet another place vowing to return one day and explore further. And also with a new love, snorkelling and underwater photography. There is simply no time to work!!!
We’re off to the Amazon jungle tomorrow, which I imagine will be just as ‘unconnected’ as the Galapagos, so the next updates will likely be from Lima.
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Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 19:24 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals snorkelling volcano la iguana galapagos boobies seals albatross pinta Comments (0)

Pre-Travel

Learning to Blog

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View First Foray into South America on LisaOnTheRoad's travel map.

My first foray to South America a week away, and my first foray into official Travel Blogging. No more mass emails, quickly squeezed into brief sit-downs at others' computers. I have my new netbook ready and my new TravelBlog set. So really, this is just a test... testing... 1, 2, 3...

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 09:08 Archived in Canada Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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