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South America Part 1: Canyon Country of Peru

South America

Part 1 – Canyon Country –  Peru

 

February 20, 2009

Dateline: Lima, Peru

Latitude at Lima 12.05 South, Longitude 77.02 West

Despite the gloomy economic picture on Wall Street and Main Street, we decided an investment in an international adventure was going to have just about the same return as our investment portfolio (negative that is) and we decided to go ahead with our plans for a big adventure on the South American continent.  So we took off for Lima, Peru, to meet up with friends to get our adventure underway. We flew from Atlanta, via Miami, which itself can offer the opportunity to have a third world country experience without even leaving the USA.  Our flights were uneventful (the very best kind) and we arrived in Lima around 10:30 p.m. We were met by a driver from our tour company and taken to our hotel in an area of Lima called Miraflores which means “look at the flowers” in Spanish, but it was way too dark for that.  We did see the streets were crammed with people eating, drinking and celebrating the weekend, although it was approaching midnight. Our friends Stu and Sharon arrived at the hotel at 2:30 a.m. and reported the same activity, so we were anxious to check the apparently wonderful restaurants out, but we  sincerely hope they would open before our bedtime. Two other friends, Bill and Mara, are flying overnight from Washington, DC to join us and we will meet them tomorrow.

Lima is a city of 9 million people (with apparently at least a million of them on the streets partying at any given time) in a nation of 28 million, 50% of which live on the coast. Lima is located on the Pacific Coast in a smallish valley. Most of the country’s population is mestizo – a mix of indigenous people and Spanish. Approximately 80% of Peruvians are Catholic so there is no shortage of churches to visit here. The Andes Mountains are just beyond the clouds/smog and they, along with ocean currents determine the climate of Peru. They only have two seasons – wet and dry.  We are arriving toward the end of the wet.  The time zone is the same as Central Standard Time so at least we don’t have to make much of an adjustment in that regard.  The currency here is the sol which is worth about 31 cents.

February 21, 2009

Dateline: Arequipa, Peru

Latitude at Arequipa: 16.23 South, Longitude 71.32 West

It was very foggy as we woke up in Lima, giving us a taste of what they call the “garua” which is a gloomy fog that hangs over the city for most of the winter months. However it is still summer here, so I’m not sure if this was an authentic garua or just a preview. We all boarded a LAN  flight for the city of Arequipa, in the southernmost part of Peru. It is an old colonial city at an altitude of 7,700 feet, with 3 major volcanoes looming in the distance. We checked into our

 The Libertador Hotel

The Libertador Hotel

hotel, the Libertador, which is a rather startling shade of pink (more Pepto Bismol than sea shell), but very luxurious nevertheless. It is sited in a park-like setting, which much to our delight, had llamas grazing on luxuriant grass outside our windows. They are tethered and quite tame and are moved from area to area, so we have dubbed them “Llama-mowers”. We had the afternoon at leisure, but because it was raining, we decide to have lunch at the hotel and map out a plan. Then, of course, came the leisurely lunch with local and quite good wine. Gary and Stu ordered alpaca which tasted like beef, but with a sort of lamb-like aftertaste.  We have since learned that the alpaca, like the llama, and their much smaller cousin, the vicuna are part of the camel family which does nothing to make this dish more appealing to me.  After lunch we went outside to visit the resident guest tortoise, a giant Galapagos tortoisee, 76 years old so we are told, assuming my Spanish was correct. We assume it was taken before Ecuador got so touchy about such things. We also were reminded that tortoises live on land whereas turtles live in the ocean so all those reptiles crawling around on land have apparently been,  and continue to be mislabeled over the years.

The turtle tortoise outing gave us a chance to assess the weather (raining) so we decided, we’d better do some more planning at the hotel bar over  our complimentary  round of pisco sours, the native drink of at least 3 countries, and there was even a war fought over it. Well the war was a little more complicated than that, but the right to make pisco, a white grape brandy, was one of the spoils of that particular war. The combatants were Bolivia and Peru versus Chile. It was essentially over land and mineral rights, but pisco got into the mix as well. It lasted from 1879 to 1883. Chile won quite decisively and consequently looted Lima, took the disputed land and got exclusive rights to produce pisco, which stayed in effect until 2005. The pisco sours were a huge hit with us, and we had to have another round to make sure they were still good, and the bottom line is, we spent the first full afternoon and evening of this great adventure in a bar. I can only hope we do better tomorrow or this shall be a very short, very dull travelogue indeed.

We did have one highlight – a local wedding, or at least wedding photos, right outside our bar. We thought it was the father of the bride and the bride, but no one else showed up and the bartender tipped us off that this was the bride and groom. Oops. We never did find out where the wedding guests might have been so maybe it was an elopement, perhaps a Peruvian Anna Nicole Smith and her sugar daddy. Whatever the case, the exit was done in style – they drove off in a Rolls Royce rather than joining us in the bar for pisco sours, as we were certain they would do since we were extremely witty and charming by this point.   Bedtime came early – like about 8:30 p.m. and we agreed it must be the altitude that made us so sleepy.

February 22, 2009

 Dateline: Arequipa, Peru

We had breakfast and met our tour guide, Arnold, and our driver, Julio, at 9:00 a.m., resolving today to pick up the pace on the travel adventure angle of the trip. The name Arequipa is Quechuan (a native people in this area) pronounced Ketch-you-ahn with accent on the “ketch”. One of the first myths debunked on our tour is that the indigenous people here were called Incans – this is not so. Inca was the title of the emperor. The people are Quechuan.  Legend has it that the 4th Inca  was asked by some of his soldiers if they could stay in this area and he replied “ari quepay” which means “yes, you can” and thus the name of the city evolved. Then in 1540 the Spaniards came along and “re-founded” the city, which today has 1.3 million people.

The Sleeping Lady

The Sleeping Lady

Our first stop is an overlook at Carmen Alto from which we can see the city, also called the Ciudad Blanco (White City), so named since it is built of a volcanic stone called “sillar” which resembles limestone. We could see the terraces on the mountainsides above the valley which date back to ancient times (like B.C. and “B. Inca”). We saw mere snippets of the three volcanoes that loom above the city since it was cloudy and we only got partial glimpses of each. There is Chachani, the tallest of the three at over 18,000 feet and whose name means Sleeping Lady in Quechuan, although I must confess, the way

Carmen Alto

Carmen Alto

Arnold pronounced it, I thought it was “Schlepping Lady” – maybe named for a Jewish housewife. There is also the cone shaped Misti which looks quite volcanic at a mere 15k feet plus, whose name means Lord. I’m not sure why the Sleeping Lady is bigger than a volcano named Lord, but maybe I misunderstood that too. The third peak, actually the smallest,  has two summits and thus the name Picchu Picchu which, translates as “peak peak”.   While these peaks are quite impressive, they are not the tallest in Peru. The highest peak is Huarascan (named for the next to the last Inca) at 22,205 feet. Arequipa, like much of Peru sits astride the Cadena del Fuego which means “chain of fire”, which refers to the extensive earthquake zone and active volcanoes that formed the Andean Mountain Range and create earthquakes still today. The last time there was an eruption here was  when the Sleeping Lady woke up in a bad mood in the 1600’s, which seems like a lot of time to build up lava, so we are listening carefully for a Big Rumble as we marvel at the peaks in the distance. Also stretched out before us is the quite scenic Chilina Valley, bisected by the Chili river, which Arnold tells us has its “home” in the Pacific Ocean.  Key industries here are wool from alpaca and sheep, along with agriculture and mining.

Church of San Juan Bautista

Church of San Juan Bautista

From  Carmen Alto we went to the Yanahuara District to the Church of San Jan Bautista built in the 16th Century. There was an interesting crucifix outside with a ladder, hammer and other tools seemingly attached to it. We asked Arnold about it, which launched a linguistic comedy of errors. He thought we were saying “letter” and he went on at length about the letters INRI which were on the crucifix, then he thought we meant later and gave us a chronology if events, and finally after much charade activity, he understood we were asking about the ladder and tools. He said it was a custom in Peru to show the implements used in the crucifixion with the cross. It is an interesting, if somewhat unconventional idea, but then unconventional is why we’re here. We also saw a lot of big wine storage jugs called chambos lying on their sides, now used for landscaping, but there numbers make it clear that there was plenty of “vino” in the olden days.

Cuy Ready for Market

Cuy Ready for Market

Arequipa is one of those places that you couldn’t mistake for a North American or European city. People are quite short and stocky, (most not taller than a Fifth Grader) so it makes it rather hard for us gringos to blend. There are some touches of the USA –  Coke, KFC, Burger King and so forth, however a local restaurant with rotisserie chicken called Norky’s really puts KFC in the shade.  When you see an guinea pig (cuy) farms, an old Toyota putting down the street with a load of alfalfa on the top, a boy herding sheep on a bicycle, little shrines along the road that resemble doghouses bedecked with plastic flowers and flanked with  a crescent of old tires painted yellow, women carrying babies in brightly colored woven slings on their backs, but talking on cell phones, 3 wheeled taxis that are essentially a 3 wheeled motorbike with a cab holding a family of 6, a pedal cart with a mattress strapped to it with a small waif pedaling and peering over the top, and  gas stations named The Faith in Christ Service Station or the Virgin Del Carmen Gasoline and Tire Store – it becomes apparent that  you and Toto are not in Kansas anymore

We had  a short visit to the Plaza de Armas (the central plaza) and the Cathedral , built in 1621 and occupying the entire length of the block. We did go inside briefly to admire the architecture and décor.  It was particularly bright and cheery with melon colored walls, a marble altar, with pastels and gold leaf used extensively.  Mass was in progress so we were on our best behavior.

The Santa Catalina Monastery

The Santa Catalina Monastery

We then toured the fabulous Monasterio (monastery) de Santa Catalina. You wouldn’t expect a monastery to be fascinating, but it was in so many ways.  We got a different guide since Arnold told us they only allow female guides – I’m not sure of the rationale since there were plenty of male tourists. This was and is not your average convent. It is still in operation today with about 20 nuns. It is a cloister, i.e. the nuns have no contact with the outside world. It was established in 1580 by a rich widow who became a nun. It was open to both the poor daughters of local Indian chiefs called curacas, as well as girls from the wealthy

 

The Cloister of Santa Catalina

The Cloister of Santa Catalina

upper class (of Spanish descent) which was a noble thought, but as it turned out, some nuns were more equal than others here.  The ones from wealthy families brought all sorts of creature comforts, including servants, living much the same life that they did outside the convent including having parties. In its heyday, there were 450 occupants, two thirds of which were servants or cloister employees. The fun nuns, however, had a rude awakening when Sister Josefina Cadena arrived in 1871 and put an end to not only the revelry inside the walls, but actually instituted an austerity program that one would normally associate

 

A Residential Street of the Santa Catalina Monastery

A Residential Street of the Santa Catalina Monastery

with cloisters.  No word on the dropout rate at the nunnery, but we can only assume the sisters had to shape up or ship out after Sister Josefina appeared on the scene. She also freed the servants who were slaves and invited those interested to join the convent.  Also interesting was the age at which girls were admitted – twelve years old, which seems quite a tender age to commit to such a lifelong endeavor. Today they have to be at least 20.

 

 

The Lavandaria at Santa Catalina

The Lavandaria at Santa Catalina

The cloister is built of sillar ( white volcanic stone), but it is brightly painted on the inside with intense colors – cobalt blue, burnt sienna,  and umber.  It is a huge structure, intended to be a self-contained town  of 100 rooms with its own street system named after cities in Spain. There are a number of kitchens attached to the “cells” of the nuns, which are more reminiscent of college dorm rooms since as many as 3 or 4 would share a room. There was also a communal laundry called the lavandaria built in 1770 which was quite cleverly contrived with a central conduit for water running (gravity fed) past a series of the large wine storage earthenware jars (chambos) cut in half with a drain hole cut in the bottom. To do a load of laundry, you could just hold your hand to direct the water into your “tub”, with the plug in of course, until it filled.  The nuns also had their own market where they bartered goods that they made.

Cuy for Lunch

Cuy for Lunch

After our tour, we had lunch at the Mixto restaurant which was on a rooftop in the old part of the city. Both Bill and Gary ordered cuy, a Peruvian delicacy, which is actually guinea pig. It was grilled and served whole and you could even see two little buck teeth in front, forming a sort of guinea piggy grimace that looked as if his last words may have been “ouch”. The guys reported their delicacy to be tasty, but not nearly filling, since the serving is one per person. Fortunately the rest of us passed on having a bite since a bite was about all there was once the bones and other inedible parts were discarded. Delicious or not, neither Bill, nor Gary every ordered cuy again, despite numerous opportunities.

We strolled the streets, oblivious to the fact that we were in the midst of Carnivale Week. We puzzled over groups of young people throwing water balloons and buckets of water at each other and spraying what looked like foam rug cleaner on each other.  Then Mara and Sharon were “slimed” by a passing car with this same squirt foam , which we later learned is labeled  something which roughly translates as “Cosmic Snow”,  and marketed,  we assumed just for the

Celebrating Carnivale

Celebrating Carnivale

purpose of Carnivale fun.  We all managed to get slimed  in a matter of minutes, but the Cosmic Snow was harmless and did no lasting damage so it was all fun. We walked back to the hotel past a park where there was a flurry of celebratory activities, including a comedy act in progress in Spanish, of which we understood little or none. Of course when the gringos were spotted, there were more jokes (few of which we understood, but all of which we assumed were good natured). The comedy team was also selling little packages of cookies. Gary had no small bills or coins and ended up offering 10 sol (about 3 dollars) and he received about a dozen packages which he gave away to surrounding children and a few mooching adults, so he was thrust into the role of  Santa or the Easter Bunny, at least until the cookies ran out.  Other areas of the celebration were kind of a fair/carnival with such attractions as scales set up to weigh you for a fee, an extremely short boat ride, all sorts of food, performers and assorted wandering people.

We went into town for dinner (in a taxi to avoid further sliming) and had a fabulous meal at the ZigZag restaurant. The guys had alpaca, ostrich and beef and pronounced it delicious. And of course there were more pisco sours, good medicine for the altitude and the attitude.

February 23, 2009

Dateline:  Chivay and the Colca Canyon, Peru

Latitude at Chivay 15.35 South, Longitude 71.46 West

Today our guide is Pilar and we have our same driver, Julio. We left Arequipa this morning for our drive to the Colca Canyon where we will spend the night and the day tomorrow. As we drive, the altitude more than doubles, from around 7,400 feet at Arequipa to a mountain pass of over 16,000 feet.  Our destination for tonight is at just over 12,000 feet. Everyone is feeling the effects to a certain degree, but between the two remedies, Diamox, a prescription drug and coca tea, a hot tea made from the leaves of the coca plant, we manage to cope. Coca leaves are the same ingredient found in cocaine, but it has to be distilled and concentrated to a very great degree to become cocaine. The tea with a little sugar tastes a bit like Earl Grey. The locals also chew, or perhaps I should say “dip” the coca leaves (just a pinch between cheek and gum, just like Copenhagen snuff). We found  this to be almost as unsavory a practice with coca leaves as it is with tobacco products, but without the requisite spitting.

The Altiplano

The Altiplano

Peru is a very diverse country from an ecology perspective. They have within their borders one-sixth of the world’s plant life species on less than 1% of world’s landmass.  They have 84 (out of 114) eco-regions as defined by Holdridge Life Zones. Our journey today will take us to the Altiplano (high plains) which is extremely high and extremely dry. Our American “high plains” east of the Rockies are really the low plains compared to these plains which range from 12 to 16 thousand feet. The other major regions are the Coast and the Amazon Jungle.

This journey into the countryside would have been quite risky ten years ago when Peru went through a rough patch with a Maoist Organization called Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path) from 1980 until 2000. Their idea was to empower the poor mountain people and give them opportunities, but unfortunately they were victimizing the people they were purportedly saving – drafting young boys, raping and enslaving young girls, as well as detonating car bombs in Lima and kidnapping foreign nationals. In 1996 they took over the Japanese Embassy where a number of Peruvian dignitaries were visiting, and which had to be taken back with a commando raid.  President Fujimora led a crackdown and captured the ringleaders and their organization folded. Unfortunately, Fujimora became embroiled in corruption, apparently taking bribes in addition to taking names of Sendero Luminoso members, and he fled to his father’s native Japan, from where he faxed in his resignation, but he was still extradited and tried.  Senor (President no more) Fujimora was sent the Peruvian Big House and his “army” more or less melted into the countryside to become peasants again. Currently he is on trial for human rights violations.

Leaving Arequipa we saw a large number of shanty towns, with each shanty separated by low stone walls. Some are vacant lots also with low stone walls.  Pilar tells us these are squatters who have come down from the mountains and set up housekeeping on federal land. They came to the cities looking for work, hoping to escape the Shining Path terrorists in the late 80’s and few have gone back. They have little access to services and have to have water trucked in. The government is attempting to give them an opportunity to own the land (a homestead sort of deal), but there is much red tape and much illiteracy at work, and thus progress is slow. An interesting note on taxation:  In Peru, as in many other Latin American countries, the people don’t have to pay taxes on their homes until construction is finished. Consequently, there is rebar sticking up out of every house, indicating a second floor will be added at some point in the future. With the policy of “Never Finished, Never Taxed”, why would anyone want to complete construction?  It’s quite bizarre, but then I guess it is not any stranger than some of our tax laws. They store their extra building materials, along with everything else from doghouses to spare tires on their roofs. Not only does it provide storage, it keeps the tin (or the tarp for the less fortunate) from blowing away.

Alpaca on the Altiplano

Alpaca on the Altiplano

It is the rainy season now and the hillsides are lush and green until we get above 10,000 feet and the landscape changes to largely rock, volcanic ash and scrub brush.  About the time we get to 13,000 feet, we are either in the clouds or above the clouds continuously.  It is very foggy and rainy with occasional sun, so we have the opportunity to spot the wild vicunas, the smallest of the camelids, here and there. There 4 branches  of the camel family in these parts and they are, in the order of their size: guanacos, Llamas, alpacas, and vicunas.  Only the llamas and alpacas are domesticated. The guanaco are very few in number and live way up in the highlands and are rarely seen. The llamas come in a range of colors – white to dark brown, and are next in size. They are used for pack animals and their

A Young (very young) Shepherd on the Altiplano

A Young (very young) Shepherd on the Altiplano

wool is used for rugs and blankets. The alpacas come next and they provide meat and their wool is used to make clothing. Their colors are white or cream. Baby alpaca is the best quality and comes from the first or second shearing of the animal. The most highly prized wool is that of the vicuna which can only be trapped one day a year, sheared and released, by members of a government sponsored association. Their colors are either fawn or cinnamon. Llamas have pointy noses, pointy ears and longish necks and their tail goes up.  Alpaca are smaller, with shorter ears, shorter faces and much softer wool with tails that go down. Vicuna are so teensy, there’s no mistaking them for the other two.  Their predators are the puma and the fox, but of course the fox has to go for the newborns or the disabled in order to have vicuna for lunch. They have herds of around 15 females to one male and new babies only stay in the herd until they are around 8 months old. The females have it easy, in that they are always welcome in another male’s herd, but the males have to duke it out with other males once they reach 2 years old, for the right to mate. It’s hard to imagine two Bambi’s going at it, but that’s the way it works here in the Altiplano.

A Stone Shelter on the Altiplano

A Stone Shelter on the Altiplano

On the domestic side, llamas and alpacas can interbreed, but their offspring are sterile and often have serious birth defects, so they are separated by herdsmen (or in this country more often herdchildren) during mating season so as to avoid any unintended consequences.  Dogs are used occasionally to herd the flocks, but since they require a steady diet of meat, they add significant expense that the families can ill afford. Also on the wildlife front we saw a vizcacha which is a type of chinchilla that looks very much like a rabbit, especially with the ears, but they aren’t normally made into clothing, since, we assume, trapping enough of them to make a coat would be very hard to do. We also saw a very incongruous sight at this altitude – pink flamingoes feeding at a soda lake where the same type of algae that gives them their distinctive color at sea level grows. They apparently don’t mind the cold and get plenty of nutrients to keep them “in the pink” so to speak.

We learned this and much more from Pilar, who is quite knowledgeable, and we found her manner of speaking to be very charming. She speaks excellent English, but some of her expressions require a little thought, such as when she told us about “shaving”  the sheep and the alpaca (I had a mental image of a farmer approaching an alpaca with a Gillette razor, a handful of shaving cream and a hot towel).

Stone Cairns

A roadside Apachuta (Stone Cairn)(

On our route we saw many rocks piled in cairns (called apachutas), originally done by locals as part of their religious beliefs and since taken up by tourists, ourselves included. The original idea was to place something symbolic (e.g.  coca leaves under the rock pile) for good luck – sort of like the penny in the wishing well.

The road was getting increasingly rough and potholed and just as we traversed the pass, it began to hail. We have concluded that this trip is not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder. We were surrounded by volcanoes of the Chila Range, many active, but none currently erupting or steaming, and all of which are over 16,000 feet. The vegetation was sparse, but there are meadows dotted with blue-purple lupine and yellow daisies. We only glimpsed at the mountain

Above Chivay

Above Chivay

peaks through the clouds and intermittent fog and rain. The town of Chivay was visible far below us in a valley at 11,000 feet and we made our descent to have lunch. Chivay is a small village of around 14,000 people who live largely in adobe houses. There is a town square and a lively market that sees few tourists and thus is quite authentic. We purchased ponchos for $12, which proved to be a great investment given the increasingly soggy weather, at a market stall that also offered donkey shoes, shovels and alpaca hats. These people appear to be right out of the pages of National Geographic, but by and large are not wearing costumes – these are the clothes they have in their closets (if they had closets that is).

Photo Op at the Chivay Market

Photo Op at the Chivay Market

We did find a few folks in traditional dress with cute children and fluffy white baby alpacas (obviously a tourist set up) that allowed us to take their picture for a sol or two. There is a very high adorability factor at work here. The surrounding valley is too high and cold to grow many crops, but they specialize in cold weather crops such as corn and potatoes. Unlike the mountains above, the valley looked positively Ireland-like with every imaginable hue of green, blocked off in squares and rectangles terraced into the hillsides.

 

The Chivay Market

The Chivay Market

We had a buffet lunch at the Qhapaq Nan (pronounced cha-peck-non) which means town restaurant.  They served a lot of local dishes (no guinea pig that we were aware of) including good soups and fresh vegetable dishes.  They also have dish called “tuna”, but it is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, versus a fish. A surprisingly good dessert was a type of corn pudding made with purple corn. It looked sort of like Jello that hadn’t quite jelled yet, but tasted like a rich berry and cinnamon jelly, but not overly sweet. They also had little free-form donuts served with local honey which were very tasty. Peruvians seem to have a fondness for uncooked things – ceviche and carapaccio  are very big here, and are quite tasty, if somewhat risky from a digestive perspective for tourists, which of course, we had to learn the hard way.

A Local Chivay Girl

A Local Chivay Girl

After lunch we headed to the Colca Canyon under low heavy clouds, and our driver, Julio, put on a CD with some Andean  music  featuring the pan flute (called the zampona) made from reeds with two rows of graduated length, bound with leather thong-like strips.  Other local instruments are the Andean version of the harp, mandolin and ocarina which yield haunting, and sometimes melancholy music, but very fitting to the scenery. There is also an instrument called the “donkey jaw”, but I have to say, I’m not clear on how any tuneful music is rendered from that.  Our drive took us parallel to the Colca River, which starts high on the western slopes of the Andes and empties into the Pacific. The river and the canyon are named for the many cool dry caves on the sheer rock walls above us that the ancient Quechuans used to both bury their dead and store grain – hopefully not in the same caves.

We traveled through Yanque town with a drive-by of the Church of the Immaculate Conception which has a façade covered with saints. We encountered very rough roads and the occasional “cow jam” or “llama jam” where herds blocked the road and we had the occasional rock slide to avoid.  And speaking of avoiding, we were urged to avoid llama spit at all costs. Apparently llamas do not just spit what they have in their mouths and throats. They do this projectile spitting of stomach contents as well. We subsequently gave llamas a wide berth. People here are also are very attuned to cuteness as a way to make a buck. At every stop we saw cute kids are dressed up in native costumes  with cute baby animals who collected a couple of sols from the thoroughly enchanted tourists.  The road got rougher by the mile. We did see a road grader, but it was on a truck going to where we assume was a worse stretch of road, but we were having trouble getting our heads around that one unless it involved a rock slide or washed out bridge.

Terrace Farming above the Colca River

Terrace Farming above the Colca River

We saw the Colca Lodge long before we arrived at it. It is situated on the Colca River and is reached by a muddy winding road, amid incredibly green fields and steep sided canyon walls. The Colca Canyon is said to be the deepest in the world, as measured from canyon bottom to the top of the surrounding peaks, which is over 11,000 feet (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon). To convey an idea of how high the mountains are, we were at the bottom of the canyon at the Colca Canyon Lodge and were still at an altitude of over 10,000 feet above sea level. It does not have the same dramatic effect (i.e. not so much vertigo)

 

Hot Springs on the Colca River

Hot Springs on the Colca River

as the Grand Canyon since there you are looking down at the bottom from flat plains, but is quite magnificent nevertheless.

The motto of the Colca Lodge is that it is a place privileged by nature. It is indeed in a privileged spot, both rustic and luxurious at the same time. The setting is very rural – sheep trotting up the road, donkeys carrying loads of crops, people working the field (non-mechanized), thatch-roofed adobe and stone houses. There are many activities the lodge sponsors, but we decided to head for the natural hot springs. There were  4 enclosed springs

 

Wine and Hot Springs at the Colca Canyon Lodge

Wine and Hot Springs at the Colca Canyon Lodge

(one too hot to handle at 80 degrees Centigrade), but the other three were delightful after our road ordeal, especially since there was a bartender who served us wine as we soaked alongside the roaring river. Needless to say, it was another short evening, as bed time came early.

 

 

 

 

February 24, 2009

Dateline: Puno, Peru

Latitude at Puno, 15.49 South, Longitude 69.59 West

Condor Country

Condor Country

Today we regretfully left  the Colca Canyon Lodge to head for La Cruz del Condor (the Cross of the Condor) and then on to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. La Cruz del Condor is located on the canyon’s highest point and there is a cross there and a lookout from which to watch the condors soaring over the steep canyon walls on thermals sweeping through the canyons. However, there wasn’t much soaring going on since it was cold and foggy with no thermal action and the condors, who can weigh as much as 27 pounds and stand up to 4 feet high, would have to do a lot of wing flapping in order to put in an appearance. So

Fog Keeping the Condors in  their Nests

Fog Keeping the Condors in their Nests

on cold days, we were told, they stay in the nest. They are not really predators, but are vultures and eat only carrion, so as they soar around (when they soar around), they are actually just looking for some other animal’s leftovers or unfortunate demise.  We waited several minutes but the fog became so dense we couldn’t even see the canyon walls, much less a nest, so the condor mission was a bust.  We went to lower elevations with weather slightly better, but still the condors were a “no show”.

We returned to our same restaurant in Chivay, the Qhapaq Nan, for a quick lunch before heading south to Puno. It was a jolting ride, but a beautiful one, with people tending their fields, some by hand, some with donkeys, with no John Deeres in sight. There are still ancient stone walls that were meant to keep the grazing animals out of the fields and gardens. The rock walls are often topped with cacti to discourage those of the human persuasion from raiding as well. Everywhere we looked we saw fields like bright green patchwork quilts on the terraces. We also saw waterfalls and babbling brooks by the dozens. The elevation was still quite high so we continued to take our altitude medicine, prescription or coca leaves or coca tea – to each his

Sheep Herders Near Colco

Sheep Herders Near Colco

own.  There are many flocks, often a mix of sheep, donkeys, llamas – The herders are mostly on foot and again dressed in what you would swear is a costume, but these are their real working clothes. The women carry brightly colored bags in which to tote things (big loads)  and wraps to tote babies on backs. The most interesting shepherd was a kid on a bicycle with a bent rim on a potholed road trying to round up his sheep. The average age of shepherds is less than 10 years old and many are barefooted, but they seem blissfully oblivious to the fact.

There are some interesting herding techniques here, bicycles notwithstanding. For the cows, they leave a length of rope around the horns of the “alpha cow” – sort of like a dangling leash, and when they make him or her “heel”, the other cows follow along.  For the llamas, there were little strings of yarn attached to their ears. It is used instead of a brand – sort of like suitcases on the carousel at baggage claim, so they can find their llamas or alpacas among the herd.

The Church at Maca

The Church at Maca

They use donkeys extensively – supposedly they are better workers than horses, they eat a lot less, are not so high strung, and require a lot less maintenance. There are literally hundreds of great photo ops with every mile. We stopped briefly in the town of Maca where we heard a voice in Spanish blaring from the town hall and were told this is how the local people get their news, since many do not read or have a radio or television. It’s mostly local and lasts only minutes -blessedly few minutes, since it is audible across the whole town. There was a man at the town square that had a huge eagle he had caught and tamed and

The Eagle Has Landed

The Eagle Has Landed

which for a sol or two he would allow you to pose with it for a photo op. For the second “op”, he would remove his hat and place it on the head of the volunteer tourist and the bird would climb on said tourist’s head. Only later did we wonder what exactly what creatures from the insect world might be living in the hat. The local church was destroyed in an earthquake and was just restored by the Spanish government in 2007 in a country-wide effort to preserve colonial era buildings. The Spanish seem to have more fond memories of Spanish Colonialism than the locals do and thus keep the pesos for restoration flowing.

We also saw evidence of a Carnivale tradition from the prior day in the form of a small fallen tree. Trees are at a premium here so the local people bring one in just for this festival. They put up the tree, called a yunza, and decorate it with little gifts of clothing and food. They then cut the tree down in a ceremony called the cortemonte which literally translates as “cut the mountain”, but for whatever reason, in this case it means “cut the tree”. Couples dance around the tree taking turns whacking at it with a machete. When it finally falls everyone rushes for the goodies – sort of piñata style, and also the couple who took the last whack have to provide the tree and host the event the following year. They also do the water squirting as they do in Arequipa, but it has little bearing on Easter other than timing.

Puno, Peru

Puno, Peru

Puno, our destination, is considered “party city” in these parts, but not in the familiar sense of the word. Here they have folkloric festivals where fraternity-style partying breaks out – sort of like Carnival in Arequipa, but more frequent and more bizarre.  The City was founded in 1688 by a Spanish Viceroy who named it San Carlos de Puno, but the saint part was apparently later dropped. But back to the festivals –  there is the Waca Waca, in which celebrants parody Spanish bullfights, with the men  wearing head pieces resembling bulls in a parade through the town. There is the Diablada, which symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, in which a person in a giant devil costume is pursued through the streets by people dressed up as angels, skeletons and other assorted characters. There is the Llamerada, a dance from the Ayamara, another indigenous people of Peru, in which dancers dressed in fancy ponchos and odd masks pay tribute to the llama by imitating the walk of the llama, again through the streets of the town. Also from the Aymara is the Love Dance where young girls flip their petticoated skirts at young swains who stamp their feet in a dance called Zapateo (after zapatas, the Spanish word for shoes) and whistle while circling around them as they parade through the streets of the town.  And on a more traditional religious note, there is the Festival of the Virgin of the Candles (a.k.a. Mamita Candelaria or Little Mama with the Candles) which is more of a pilgrimage of their patron saint through the streets. Unfortunately, we missed all festivals and had to drink pisco sours all by ourselves with no one parading in the streets – at least when I went to bed.

February 25, 2009

 Dateline Puno, Peru

Today we explored Lake Titicaca (a name which has long titillated adolescents), at an elevation of 12,500 feet,  covering 3,210 square miles.  It is most famous for its floating islands occupied by indigenous people of Ayamaran descent,  since pre-Incan times.  It was considered a Sacred Lake since the it was believed  the first leader (First Inca) emerged from the lake as opposed to being born the usual way.  It is over 1,000 feet deep in places, waist deep in others, with vast stretches of reed filled wetlands. Reeds here are called tortura and have a multitude of uses.

A Reed Boat on Lake Titicaca

A Reed Boat on Lake Titicaca

We went with our guide Freddy and our boat driver, Javier, in the early morning to the Uros Islands, which are approximately 40 tiny floating islands made from the reeds. Our boat is an interesting vessel with a Toyota engine, steering wheel and captain’s seat. The rest of us sat on non-Toyota benches. We disembarked on one of the islands, slightly larger than our dock on Lake Lanier, where we learned about how the islands are made and why. The why was to escape from enemies who apparently were not aquatically inclined.  The people here have a fascinating way of life with reed boats, reed houses, and reed

 

An Ayamara Girl Greets us on Her Island Home

An Ayamara Girl Greets us on Her Island Home

islands. To make a new island, they cut peat-like chunks of soil where reeds are growing. This soil actually will float (sort of like Styrofoam and about the same size as dock foam). They then drive in stakes in each chunk and lash them together. Then they layer reeds on top of that to the desired thickness. From a stability perspective it is pretty mushy walking, but it is manageable in sensible shoes (no stilettos allowed). New reeds are laid weekly since those on the bottom rot out. They told us that an island will last about 20 years. Then everyone will move to a newly built one.  Gary won a prize for guessing depth of water below islands – which was 45 feet.  We learned that 28 people in 7 families live on this island. Other islands have other families, but with only 40 islands, everyone is related to everyone else and there are intermarriage issues to cope with. In an interesting mix of the old and the new, the 7 families use a communal kitchen (stone  based ovens – open flame)  and solar panels to power their TV’s in their reed houses (no flat screens yet). They have small gardens on raised platforms for fresh produce and they trade produce for meat, TV’s and so forth.

Blending with the Locals

Blending with the Locals

We all had the opportunity to dress up in native costumes except for Gary, for whom they had nothing to fit, and in fact they didn’t even try. We had a lot of yuks with the costuming event. As charming as they were, we gave our costumes back to our hosts and took a ride in a reed boat ride. Three of the children rode with us (high adorability factor) and sang for us in Quechuan such favorites as “Frere Jacques” and “Red River Valley” (this last one was a hoot and half).

 

A Short Ride in a Reed Boat with Local Children in Tow

A Short Ride in a Reed Boat with Local Children in Tow

From Uros, we went to Tequile Island, which unlike Uros is solid land, or perhaps solid rock mountain is more apt. It is very Greece –like, with walled paths and stone arches and steep, steep inclines.  Tequile it seems is also celebrating Carnivale (it was actually Ash Wednesday, but just because Lent has started, doesn’t mean the party is over in these parts).  We had a lengthy hike – 545 steps to the village at the top of the mountain. The local women, about four feet tall and carrying over 100 pounds on their backs, made everyone look bad, as they carried suitcases and cargo up the steps and lapped us more than once en route. When we finally collapsed in a heap at the top, we had a delicious trout (trucha

Celebrating on Tequile Island - Lake Titicaca

Celebrating on Tequile Island – Lake Titicaca

in Spanish) lunch. Gary did such a good job of cleaning the meat off the bones, he was awarded 2 more. While we were having lunch, a huge party broke out with people in costume coming from all over the island for a dance competition (folkloric rather than Dancing with the Stars type competition). Costumes were very brightly colored and very elaborate, again, right out of the pages of National Geographic. The women have pompoms they twirl (much smaller than cheerleader size.) and there is a lot of stamping and drum beating.

 

Leaving Tequile Island

Leaving Tequile Island

We left the island by a different set of steps (they tell us there  are about 700) with no two steps the same height. The sun came out, the day cleared, and we could see mountains of Bolivia in the distance on a lovely ride back to Puno. We were accompanied into port by a Peruvian Coast Guard vessel which was originally built in 1878. Since the lake has no access to the ocean (totally landlocked) the vessel was brought overland in pieces by truck and donkey.  As old as it was, it easily outdistanced our Toyota-boat and got to home port long before we did. Tomorrow we head to Inca Country.




South America Part 2: Inca Country – Peru

South America

Part 2 – Inca Country – Peru

February 26, 2009

Dateline: Cusco, Peru

Latitude at Cusco 13.30 South, Longitude 71.58 West

A Little Tidying Up in Puno - the Party City

A Little Tidying Up in Puno – the Party City

Today we left Canyon Country on The Inka Express, a luxury tour bus which was to take us to Cusco, allowing us to take in several sights along the way. Our journey started at the bus station at downtown Puno. The whole town is perched, rather precariously it seems, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and appears very monochromatic due to the ubiquitous adobe buildings that make up the town. It is all very brown- roofs, walls, streets – sort of a South American Naples without the laundry flapping in the breeze.

Our journey covered about 240 miles and we had commentary

The Church at Pukara

The Church at Pukara

en route from our guide, Rodrigo. Our first stop was the village of Pukara, most famous for its pre-Inca ruins from around the time of the birth of Christ and a Spanish era church from the 16th Century. We were greeted by the usual assortment of vendors on our way to visit a small museum to see the artifacts that have been excavated to date. Of special note is their devotion to frogs, which they believed had magical powers, and if you could make them sing, it would bring rain. There was some confusion over exactly what would make them sing – either praying to the frogs captured in a jug or sacrificing them by putting them in a jug and burning them – I’m not sure which, but there was a jug involved – maybe they just experimented until they got the desired results. At the museum we also learned about Pachamama (earth mother) who was worshiped from ancient times as the source of all goodness(rain and crops), but she could sometimes get disgruntled and deliver hail, earthquakes and volcanoes, so it was necessary to make nice with Pachamama with offerings of corn, grain and the occasional sacrifice. If all goes well, she will look favorably upon the supplicants and grant a big harvest.

Dos Toros on a Pukara Roof

Dos Toros on a Pukara Roof

Pukara is also known as the place of origin for the Dos Toros, the good luck, evil spirit banning  home adornment. The Dos Toros consist of two bulls made of clay facing in opposite directions. They are to be mounted on top of the house on the center beam and will bring good luck, protect those that dwell within, etc. Bill bought one and we look forward to seeing it atop their home in suburban Washington, DC. We stopped briefly at the church which was “interesting” to say the least.  It was in need of serious repair, the wooden floor spongy and rotted through in spots. The roof had several leaks and several of the niches had Baby Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary wrapped in plastic to keep the rain off. (We thought they may want to hold off on those frog sacrifices for the time being). The main oddity was the altar which featured flashing red and green lights – not sure what was up with that. Hopefully they can get a few pesos together for the church before Pachamama sends the next big earthquake. Our guides tells us that in Incan times, the word Inca referred only to the emperor of the people, in modern times it has come to describe the Quechuan people so we can use the term either way correctly, which is a relief because Quechuan doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

The Market at La Raya Pass

The Market at La Raya Pass

Our second stop was a high pass of approximately 13,000 feet called La Raya, where multitudes of Peruvian women were selling multitudes of tourist stuff, much of it made from alpaca, and surprisingly, of apparent good quality, although we are told by our guides that if the price seems to good to be true, it may be more polyester than alpaca. At La Raya we saw the beginnings of the Urubamba River which is given various names, and which we will more or less follow all the way to Cusco. La Raya is on the continental divide where the east and west ranges of the Andes meet. The temperatures here are cold to freezing cold and it is too dry for crops. The main form of sustenance here is herding and selling stuff to tourists. Herds are often mixed sheep and llamas (shlamas we have come to call them) with the occasional alpaca mixed in. The herders try to keep the flock out of the paths of pumas and tour buses, but only the former is the endangered species here. The local people here are also very short, but like those at Titicaca, can haul loads that would bring the average hulky Caucasian to his knees. We are told that their hearts are typically 20% larger than us lowlanders and they have an extra half gallon more blood. Their short limbs and stocky trunks (compared to ours) are believed to be an evolutionary adaptation so the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to get blood to the extremities and hypothermia is much less likely. The local dress we were told is the genuine article, although the hats they wore bear a distinct resemblance to the one sported by Charlie Chaplin in The Little Tramp.

Once we went over the pass, we were in the inter-mountain valley which is very lush and fertile. The Andes ranges keep all the moisture over the valleys and the rain forest, leaving the Pacific Coast very dry. We started to see trees, mostly eucalyptus which were imported for timber from Australia in the 19th Century and have done well here. This is a big area for crops and the hillside terraces are as green those in the Colca region. The landscape is also dotted with blue metal outhouses, another useful contribution we supposed, from the leading nations of the world. They are a little incongruous with the adobe houses, and although singularly lacking in charm, they are apparently functional for those brave enough to use them.

New Alpaca Hats

New Alpaca Hats

Our third stop was is Sicuani where we had lunch and the ladies made a great hat purchase  – pure Baby Alpaca for only $20.00. We pronounced ourselves as stunning as movie stars, fresh off the set. We continue to be impressed by the fresh produce here, all locally grown and picked ripe, particularly the delicious avocados.

Our fourth stop was the ruins at Raqchi  (pronounced Ratch-ee) which had a temple to honor the god Wiracocha, who was believed by the Tiwanaku culture in pre-Incan times to have

The Ruins of Raqchi

The Ruins of Raqchi

emerged from the waters to create heaven and earth. I’m not sure how that worked since if he emerged from the water, then the water must have already been there, but logic tends to get lost where the gods are involved. Wiricocha  had a side-kick, a magical bird called Inti, who was worshiped as an all-knowing, all seeing god who represented the Sun. Wiracocha himself was invisible, but was sometimes portrayed with the head of a puma. Also the blue collar people couldn’t worship him – that was reserved for the ruling class. We saw the remnants of a huge Inca temple (300 feet  long and over 40 feet high) with astronomical alignment to the equinoxes. This was a very large tambo (an Incan word for resting place) with houses, and stone grain storage facilities by the acre. The village was surrounded in Incan times by a wall built on the high ridges around the city, along the lines of the Great Wall of China, but on a much smaller scale.

A Treasured Dagger Complete with Llama Teeth

A  Dagger Complete with Llama Teeth

There was a small open-air market in the town square where Gary bought a “treasure” for our collection of treasures at home. It was a knife with the handle made of sheep’s horn, and a scary sort of warrior face with seeds for eyes and a mouth with llama teeth, upper and lower. When you pull the knife out of the sheath, the teeth separate as if the scary face is opening wide for the dentist. It’s a marvel to behold.

Our last stop before Cusco was the village of Andahuallilas, which is pretty much a one horse town, but with a multi-horse church with lots of gold, gilt and an altar that stretches from floor to ceiling. It is called St. Peter’s Church and was built in 1650 by the Jesuits on the foundation of an Inca temple. It is so elaborately frescoed, that it is referred to as Peru’s Sistine Chapel. You can’t really see much of the Jesuit art since the Franciscans and Dominicans came in later and kept painting over each other’s stuff. At the exit, there is a fresco of heaven on one side (narrow, steep path) and hell on the other (big wide inviting path) – one last, not so subtle, reminder on your way out of church to behave yourself. They have a statue of their patron saint, a copy of the original in Cusco, which they call the Black Jesus. His skin looks quite dark, but it didn’t start out that way.  The smoke from candles over the centuries, like the one in Cusco, has discolored the paint. The statue is also called Our Lord of the Earthquakes, a.k.a. Christ of the Tremors.  It is believed that while Cusco was experiencing a serious earthquake in 1650, some of the church faithful had the idea that they would take the statue on a processional through the streets and maybe God would stop it . As they did so, the earthquake did indeed stop, and they attributed it to a miracle and built the church to to commemorate the event. In a subsequent earthquake the statue here fell over and the whole altar fell off in the floor, but the belief in the power of the miracle remains unshaken (no pun intended).

We arrived in Cusco, (whose name means the Navel of the World per the Incan culture) in the late afternoon and had a nice meal in the hotel. It is a boutique hotel called the Casa San Blas, located in the heart of the old city  We plan to explore said “bellybutton” for several days.  The altitude is around 11,000 feet so we move slowly and breathe deeply as best we can. We have gotten very good at moving slowly. We hope to be able to pick up the pace once we return to lower altitudes, but slow is good for now.

February 27, 2009

Dateline: Cusco, Peru

A Typical Cusco Street

A Typical Cusco Street

We continued to be at high altitude with its side effects quite apparent (i.e. if you wake up from a dead sleep panting for breath in the middle of the night, there’s your sign) so we were popping our Diamox pills and drinking our coca tea at breakfast before setting out on our city tour.   Cusco is a charming old city with narrow cobblestone streets, every bit as steep as San Francisco’s Market Street, but without the cable cars to haul you up and down. It was the capital of the Inca Empire, which peaked in the 15th and 16th Centuries and only lasted around a hundred years. Their empire was done in by Civil War, as much as conquest by the Spaniards, who were able to do so with amazingly few troops. Superstition and ignorance were also on their side. The Incas thought horse and rider were one entity, having never seen a horse before. They also thought gunfire was thunder, having had no experience with that either it. They were also were exposed to smallpox to which they had no immunity, and believed it was sent by God via the Spaniards as a sign they were to submit  to the new rulers. So when Pizarro arrived from Spain with his own version of a “shock and awe” campaign, things went downhill for the Incas from there. And then the missionaries arrived very shortly thereafter to another bonanza. They found thousands of willing converts, whose descendants are still overwhelmingly and devoutly Catholic.

Today we toured Cusco and its immediate surroundings. Legend has it that the city was founded by the children of the sun and moon (named Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo respectively) who had set out on a quest to find a place to establish their kingdom. They picked Cusco when a staff made of gold was driven into the ground disappeared (apparently that was their sign that here indeed is the world’s bellybutton).

Koricancha - cusco

The site of Koricancha – Cusco

Our first stop on our tour was the main square, today called the Plaza de las Armas today so named by the Spanish, but it predates the conquest and the natives called it Huacayapata, which translates as Warriors Square. The Incas had built temples here and after the Conquest, the Spaniards simply used them as foundations for their own buildings. The Incan structures were far superior in terms of earthquakes, the largest in 1650, which brought cathedrals, monasteries, and palaces built by the Spanish crumbling to the ground, but the Incan foundations remained solidly in place. We first visited Koricancha (which means golden enclosure), an Inca temple built to honor Inti, the Sun God. It originally had gold plated walls studded with precious stones and a garden filled with silver and gold sculptures. Of course the

Inca Stone Masonry - Too Tight even for a Credit Card

Inca Stone Masonry – Too Tight even for a Credit Card

Spaniards made short work of these and made off with everything that had a shine to it. What remains today is some of the walls from the temple, which were only revealed after the 1650 earthquake.  It is really amazing to think that they used no mortar. Instead they fitted stones together like a  jigsaw puzzle, not an easy one either. The sides were all polygonal, some with as many as 12 or 14 sides. They built trapezoidal walls, bigger on bottom and angled toward top, which proved to be optimal for withstanding earthquakes.

The walls themselves contained niches which held statues, but also served as repositories for mummies of dead Incas. Mummies were placed in the fetal position and their tombs were filled with food and drink for the afterlife and little statues of servants – very much like Egyptians. We were told that for special celebrations, they would bring out mummies, (We envisioned them maybe propped up in the corner, sort of like an Irish wake, but with really old corpses). After the party, then it was back to the niches until the next big event when they would get dusted off again and brought out for the festivities.  Incas did perform animal, as well as human sacrifice so many of the celebrations were more fun for some than for others.  The good news for the working families was that humans chosen for sacrifice had to be high born.

Also on the good news front, the locals made chichi, which is corn beer, and drank it from decorated cups called keros. The biggest party date was the winter solstice (June in the Southern Hemisphere), called the Inti Raymi or Festival of the Sun. It is still celebrated today, but the sacrifice is just a llama. They also worshipped the moon, the mountains, the sky, certain animals as well as the earth. An Incan symbol is a three leveled cross, with the levels representing the condor, as the sky, the puma as the earth, and the snake as the underground.

The Cusco Cathedral

The Cusco Cathedral

From there we walked over to the Cusco Cathedral (La Catedral) which is actually a complex of churches built on ruins of the Inca Palace and armory, over a period of 100 years. The main cathedral is also called the Holy Family, (Familia Sagrada in Spanish). It is attached to two smaller chapels called Capilla del Triunfo (the Triumph) which was the first Spanish Church built in Cusco and the Capilla  Jesus, Maria y Jose . All of them, while having modest facades, are just mind bogglingly ornate with silver and gold altars stretching to the ceiling, frescos, a magnificent choir carved in cedar with figures of saints and popes, granite columns and marble floors – the works. But my very favorite part was a painting, (amateurish by Old Masters standards) of The Last Supper, done by a local artist, Marcos Zapata, who apparently was striving for a little local color, when he painted Jesus and the Disciples drinking chichi (corn beer) out of Incan mugs, with cuy chactado (roast guinea pig) prominently featured on a platter in the foreground right in front of Jesus. Our guide suggested that the artist needed to illustrate food in some way and didn’t realize that guinea pig was not universally revered as it is in Peru. The expression he gave to Jesus has Him rolling his eyes heavenward as if to say “Yuck, I thought we were having fish”.  Zapata, also gave Judas the face of Francisco Pizarro, and thus getting in a subtle jab at the conquering Spaniards that probably no one noticed for centuries. They also have here the actual Crucifix that was carried into the streets in the 1650 earthquake that is credited with stopping said earth quake. It is called El Senor de los Temblores (which translates as the Mister of the Earthquake, but more commonly called Jesus of the Earthquake or the Lord of the Earthquake. The figure on the cross is called El Negrito, supposedly because he has dark skin, which like the one in Andahuailillas, was discolored by centuries of candle smoke.

Our guide pointed out to us that both local sculptors and painters from that era seemed to have trouble with perspective and proportion in their artwork. They typically have the heads too big for the bodies, and arms and legs  too long or too short, etc. It appears in later years they  gave up on bodies and just put big robes on everyone. El Negrito illustrates the problem. His head is as wide as his shoulders and his arms are very long and would no doubt touch the ground since his legs and torso are so short in comparison. They have a fancy shawl draped over the lower half of his body, not so much for modesty we thought, as to disguise the lack of skill of the carver – but then if it can stop earthquakes, that’s got to be way more important that good art.

Above Cusco

Above Cusco

We left the city to visit nearby Inca sites and en route learned a few more facts.  The Incan empire ran from Quito down into Chile – almost entire length of Andes, covering more than one-third of South America. Being smart people, they didn’t venture much into Amazon and we know why – more on that later. They were great engineers and architects with building design, terracing, drainage and irrigation, but apparently the idea of wheel never occurred to them. It certainly would have made that temple building a lot easier, but then the ancient Egyptians, as smart as they were,  never caught on to that concept either.  They were also great astronomers, and were very good at lining up structures so the sun’s rays at the solstices would hit just the right spots.

The Inca Empire at its peak lasted barely 100 years although there were supposedly 13 Incas going back several centuries to 1197; however six of those Incas were legendary, versus the flesh and blood variety Legend has it that the first Inca  emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca. The Inca in the flesh and blood category who gets the most credit for empire building is Pachacutec, who ruled from 1438 to 1471 and started the massive expansion of Incan influence. This was achieved through a combination of conquering, assimilation and moving entire communities when it suited them. One of Pachacutec’s most ambitious projects was the Capac Nan (Royal Road), which was actually a network of stone roads 3 feet wide used to reach the far corners of their empire. There was a total of 2,500 miles of road, some of it as high as 16,000 feet stretching from Quito to Santiago – sort of like the Romans, but in this case all roads led to Cusco.

Tupac Inca took over from 1471 to 1493m and then,  Huayana Capac succeeded Tupac and became known as the Inca with the children who screwed things up for everyone. Everything was cool until his death in 1525. Things fell apart when his sons, two half brothers Huascar and Atahualpa, started squabbling over who would become Inca now that dad was gone. Huascar was considered the legitimate son and he chose to stay in Cusco. Atahualpa was the illegitimate son and he set up his court in Quito. They engaged in a brutal civil was which Atahualpa won, but then the Spanish Invaders captured him in 1532. He was reportedly very naïve about what the Spaniards were up to, not realizing the value of gold in the “civilized world”. Incas called gold the “sweat of the sun” and all gold belonged to the Inca. The Spaniards begged to differ.

Atahaulpa tried to buy them off with about 11 tons of gold, but they weren’t having any of that when they realized they could just take as much as they wanted. The Spanish actually thought Cusco was the fabled El Dorado and totally sacked the city collecting every speck of gold they could find. What they didn’t put in local churches or their own pockets, they shipped back to Spain, ironically, losing much of it in shipwrecks such as the Atocha. The Spaniards executed Atahualpa in 1533 and continued to defeat further Incan resistance. There was a brief and unsuccessful indigenous uprising in 1781 led by Tupac Amaru II, but that was quelled rather abruptly with his beheading in the Plaza de las Armas. What is modern day Peru remained a Spanish Colony until 1821.

Polygonal Stones at Sacsayhuaman

Polygonal Stones at Sacsayhuaman

Our next stop was Sacsayhuaman ( pronounced Sock Sigh Wah Man, accent on the “sock”, in case you want to drop that name into a casual conversation) and it translates as Resting Head or Contented Falcon, take your pick. It was used as a military stronghold made up of 3 terraced ramparts built of gigantic stone blocks using the Incan polygonal interlocking design. The ramparts are almost a thousand feet long, built in a zig-zag pattern, and as high as 17 feet in some places. Many of the individual stones weigh as much as 350 tons.  Legend has it that as many as 20,000 men were required to heft the big stones into place. That sounds like an exaggeration if you try to do the math and figure how could 20,000 people pull on something (anything) attached to a stone the size of say, an SUV? Another story says that one of these monster stones toppled and crushed thousands of workers. It sounds like exploring these legends would be a good topic for the Myth Busters on the cable channel. I think not all Inca legends are intended be analyzed in any great detail.

The zig zag pattern of the walls was adopted so that any one trying to scale the wall, would be vulnerable to attach from the sides. Here too, as in the temple walls in Cusco, the stones fit so tightly a knife blade cannot be inserted between them, and again these are dry stacked, no mortar involved.  Over the centuries some of the stones have developed space between them due to earthquakes, but only small ones. Far more devastating were the Spaniards who used Sacsayhuaman as a quarry to build churches and other structures in Cusco.

The only battle fought here was between the indigenous people and the Spaniards in 1536, once the people figured out the Spanish were (A) not God’s messengers, (B) not harmless as assumed and (C) not going away any time soon. It was extremely lopsided battle with the Spaniards coming out on top and slaughtering the locals, but their leader, Manco Inca escaped and lived to fight another day, but that didn’t go as planned either, although indigenous resistance lasted another 40 years.

We had a good soaking from a sudden cloud burst, but then when the skies cleared, we had a beautiful view of the city of Cusco on the valley floor below us. It was supposedly designed by the Incas of to resemble the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman as the head (thus the “resting head”, but apparently the suburbs that evolved in the ensuing years have made it hard to visualize).

The Sacrificial Altar at Quenko

The Sacrificial Altar at Quenko

Our last stop of the day was another Inca ruin just outside the city called Quenko, pronounced something like when-koh, but with a lot more guttural sounds than the average English speaker can muster. It means “labyrinth” in the Quechuan language and it is a labyrinth of sorts, but not so complex that you would get lost in it.  Quenko is believed to be a religious site or shrine (called a huaca), where sacrifices were made to worship various gods. It is comprised of a jumble of boulders and rock formations, many natural, others carved or hewn by hand with underground passages, small rooms, and stairs. There is an altar with channels carved in the rock where historians presume the sacrifices were made, with the channels serving to drain away the blood. No one seems to be quite sure what was done with the blood afterward, but we speculated it was probably something unsavory from our perspective. They also used chicha, the corn beer during their ceremonies, but hopefully they drank it instead of “sacrificing” it. There is a large rock at the entrance which is said to resemble a puma and many drawings of pumas as well inside the caves, lending more evidence to the supposition that this was a religious site. I did see the likeness to a puma, crudely drawn, but still a likeness, on the inside of the caves, but as for the big rock at the entrance that is supposed to look like a puma, I couldn’t quite see it. I suspect too much chicha may have made the Incas see a profusion of pumas where there are none.

A Tourist Attraction at the Crafts Shop - Cusco

A Tourist Attraction at the Crafts Shop – Cusco

On our way back, we stopped at a small factory that specialized in high quality alpaca goods where we made a few purchases and made friends with a few alpacas. On the way back to the hotel we stopped in to Paddy O’Flaherty’s pub for a pint or two. The beer drinkers in our group reported it as authentic, despite the distance from Dublin.

We had an early dinner with soup at the restaurant next to our hotel. It was an interesting Mexican restaurant with a surprising absence of actual Mexican food, but what they did have was very good, especially the tortilla soup, hold the tortillas.  They had an interesting inventory management system. The patrons would order, the waiter would dash down the street to a market or two and return with the items required to prepare the order.  This also applied to any beer ordered –  sort of a “Just In Time” program. We did see a restaurant called the Inca Chifa across the street, but learned that Chifa is actually Chinese food and Peruvian Chinese just seemed too much of a stretch for us as this point. We retired early since this 11,000 foot altitude really sapped the energy and the appetite.  We learned earlier this afternoon of a farmer’s strike scheduled for March 2 that affected our plans to go to Machu Picchu because transportation workers are striking as a demonstration of solidarity. And thus our train trip to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu was rescheduled for early tomorrow, so we can be there and back before the strike. The issue seems to be a tax on water used for irrigation. You have to love a country where workers schedule and advertise strikes in advance like that so everyone can work around them.

February 28, 2009

Dateline:  Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, Peru

Latitude at Machu Picchu 13 .09 South, 72.32 West

A Rail Car on the Train to Machu Picchu

A Rail Car on the Train to Machu Picchu

We had a 2 hour van trip to Ollantaytambo (pronounced Ah-lan-tay- tahm-bo with accents on “lan” and “tahm”) and then took the train which followed the course of the Urubamba River through the Sacred Valley to the small town of Aguas Calientes (translation is Hot Water) where our guide Alberto was to meet us at the train station for the short walk to our hotel, the Inkaterra Lodge.  The scenery en route was fabulous, the river roaring along like chocolate milk in a blender. Machu Picchu is 72 air miles from Cusco, situated on the eastern slope of Andes, at about 8,000 feet in elevation which is actually lower than Cusco’s

 

The Urubamba River

The Urubamba River

11,000 feet. As you can imagine a 3,000 foot drop in elevation in 72 miles makes for a very rambunctious river. We followed along the Urubamba  with ancient Incan terraces carved out of the precipitous mountainsides above us. We were in the cloud forest (as opposed to the rain forest of the Amazon) where there is a constant blending of cloud, mist and rain, with occasional sunshine so brilliant it calls for sunglasses and rain ponchos within the same five minutes. We were surrounded by the jungle, but it is a highland jungle, wet and cool, versus the wet and hot of the rain forest.

A Yale professor, Hiram Bingham is credited with the discovery of Marchu Picchu in 1911 and it became known as “The Lost City of the Incas”. However, it wasn’t lost as far as the locals were concerned, particular the farmers who were still using some of the terraces there for their own crops. Bingham was actually shown the ruins by the son of one of the farmers in the area. The ruins of course had been overtaken by the jungle, but enough remained to cause Bingham to declare it “breathtaking”.

Construction on Machu Picchu was started in the 1400’s by Inca Pachacutec and was still under construction a hundred years later when it was abandoned due, it is believed to the war that broke out between the two brothers, Huascar and Atahualpa. It is believed also that its purpose more or less evolved over the years. It was originally more of a way station than a destination since the Inca Trail clearly continues far beyond it. The Inca himself would have been carried over the Inca Trail from Cusco, but everyone else had to hoof it – 72 miles over very demanding terrain It was originally more of a spiritual retreat than a temple – sort of a Camp David. Today  itis a UNESCO World Heritage site and is treated very reverentially as the most religious and iconic Inca site. However historians are of the opinion that today, we attach much more significance to it than the Inca and his people ever did.

Main Street Aguas Calientes

Main Street Aguas Calientes

We arrived around noon and walked just a few hundred yards to our hotel, the Inkaterra. The hotel was a rustic lodge, very big on charm and warmth, with luxurious rooms surrounded by luxuriant foliage. We had lunch there and then walked to the bus depot to catch the bus to Machu Picchu for an afternoon tour. The bus depot is something of a misnomer. It is more like a bus stop. The only way to get to Aguas Calientes is by rail or a four day hike on the Inca Trail which starts near Ollantaytambo. The only way to get to Machu Pichhu is by bus or on foot. We traveled over a dirt road that climbed through the clouds for several thousand feet with a series of hairpin turns.  As we drove higher, the views were increasingly more ethereal with only brief glimpses of waterfalls, the valley below and the jagged peaks above us as the mist swirled around our small bus.

The Sanctuary of Machu Picchu

The Sanctuary of Machu Picchu

We got off the bus at the Visitor’s Center and had a steep trek to the much anticipated entrance of the sanctuary of Machu Picchu. Our first view of it did not disappoint. It was absolutely mesmerizing and breathtaking (or it would be if you had any breath left after the trek.) Because the clouds and mist were so low, the scenery seemed even more other-worldly, appearing out of the mist and vanishing like Brigadoon. We all agreed Machu Picchu easily makes the top ten list of the most beautiful places we have ever seen.

Of course we immediately started taking pictures. We learned that Machu Picchu means Big Peak but it is not the one seen in all the photos. While snapping pictures of the classic panorama of the ruins, the photographer actually has his back to Machu Picchu which is looming (often behind the clouds) behind him.  The peak  seen rising behind the ruins is Huayna Picchu which means Young Peak. There is also the seldom seen from here (due to the clouds), Wayan Picchu which means Old Peak. The ruins before us are remarkably intact after having been abandoned for over 500 years, with just the roofs missing

Ruins in the Royal Sector

Ruins in the Royal Sector

(understandably so since they were thatch). The city is clearly divided into two neighborhoods, roughly the Haves and the Have-Nots. The Haves part of the city is called the Royal Sector and housed the Inca and his court and contained all the important religious sites. The same incredible stonework we saw in Cusco – polygonal stone blocks fitted perfectly together with no mortar were also here. We did notice than in the Have Not sector, the workmanship wasn’t this precise, but still was impressive. There was also a series of fountains providing fresh water from a nearby spring to the whole complex.

A Double Rainbow at Machu Picchu

A Double Rainbow at Machu Picchu

We made our way past what is termed the Caretaker’s Hut, which really served more as a watchtower since it commands a view of the whole site. It is one of the few buildings whose roof has been restored to allow us to see what it would have looked like 500 years ago. From there we rambled along through the ruins visiting the Funerary Rock, believed by some to be used as a sacrificial rock to offer up llamas to whatever deity was being honored or bribed. Other scholars believe it was more of a mortuary where Incas and other nobles would be laid out to mummify. We also visited two temples (1) the Temple of the

 

The Mountains Surrounding Machu PIcchu

The Mountains Surrounding Machu PIcchu

Three Windows which during the winter solstice the first rays from the sun would come through 3 trapezoidal windows filling the room with light and illuminating a column now missing.  (2) The Temple of the Sun was our last stop today. It is the only building in the complex with curved walls, and complex entrances. It has a special window for astronomy including exact alignment for the summer and winter solstices. We had a special treat here with a double rainbow appearing after a brief rain shower. Our guide, Berto says rainbows here are rare in that he has only seen 5 in 18 years of guiding and he had never before seen a double. We take this as a sign the gods are as pleased as we are to have the privilege of seeing  Machu Picchu.

Pisco Sour Room Service at the Inkaterra

Pisco Sour Room Service at the Inkaterra

We retraced our serpentine journey on the bus and trekked back to the hotel in a serious rain. We had dinner and spent a great night at hotel, windows open to a cool night, drumming rain, fireplace lit, scented candles, bed warmed with hot water bottles, fluffy duvets – it was fabulous (although when comparing notes with our friends the next day we did learn that some fireplaces were drawing better than others). Smoky or not, everyone agreed it was great.

March 1, 2009

Dateline: Cusco, Peru

The Terraces of Machu Picchue

The Terraces of Machu Picchue

We had a late afternoon departure on the train back to Ollantaytambo and the van to Cusco, so we were able to spend the morning at to Machu Picchu. The weather had changed dramatically overnight and it was a brilliant sunny day, so of course this called for more pictures because it seemed even more stunning than the day before and we were once again totally wowed. Today we hiked to the Inca Bridge, which was part of the original Inca Trail. The trail to the bridge actually winds part way around the peak of Macchu Picchu and leads away from the ruins. Since it was cut into the mountain, it was not

 

The Inca Bridge and Trail

The Inca Bridge and Trail

particularly steep: however it did have some death defying aspects to it, particularly, the drop-off into dense jungle foliage if you should happen to lose you footing and plunge over the side. To ensure we were cautious (as if we needed any encouragement to be so) Berto told us of a lone hiker-tourist who set out on this same trail never to be seen again. Searchers combed the trail for over a week and peered over the side every few feet, but never saw any sign of him. Needless to say we were hugging the hillside with every step. The bridge was quite simple in design, but not at all simple to construct. It is around 50 yards long built of hand hewn stones that bridge a crevasse of several hundred feet between two solid sheets of granite mountainside. The approaches to the bridge were made in the same fashion.  Each stone (and most were big boulder-size stones) had to be carried or dragged here over the same trail we were tiptoeing along. It made us wonder how many workers might have suffered the same fate as the missing tourist. As we were walking back we heard a distant rumble that Alberto told us was a rockslide, so then we were looking both up and down as we trod ever so gingerly along the precipice.

Back at Machu Picchu

Back at Machu Picchu

We returned to Machu Picchu proper to see things we missed the day before, which included the Temple of the Condor. The Temple gets its name from two slabs of rock which look like two giant bird wings (if you’ve had enough chicha I suppose) and a slab of rock on the floor which has the head of a condor carved into it. It is speculated that the many niches here are where they set out mummies during special celebrations. No one is quite sure what the dungeon-like areas below the temple were for. Hiram Bingham thought they were prisons. Modern scholars think not, but offer no other theories.

The Hitching Post to the Sun

The Hitching Post to the Sun

Our next stop was the Sacred Plaza which is an open area surrounded by the various temples, including the allegedly most-polygonal of all polygonal stones. It has 32 angles and still fits as tightly with its neighbors as ever. From there we went up a short stairway to seen the Intihuatana Stone. A word on stairs here – it’s a mystery. These people were very, very short. Why did they make their steps so very, very tall? Anyway back to the Intihatana – Inti is the bird/sun god and hatana means hitching post in Quechuan and thus the name of this place is the Hitching Post to the Sun. The stone served as a calendar of sort – its pillar positioned to indicate the precise dates of the solstices and equinoxes. For example, on the winter solstice, there is no shadow on the pillar. Marks on the stone indicate where shadows will fall on other key dates.

We also visited the Sacred Rock which is a carved rock used as altar to worship Apus, the gods of the Mountain, Water and Fertitlity. This was our last stop in the Royal Sector and we then explored the Common District, where the workers lived. Here we saw the relatively inferior construction (stones not so tightly fitted together), but still it was by no means shoddy and still standing after all the centuries. We bid a reluctant goodbye to Machu Picchu and boarded our bus to go back to Aguas Calientes.

A Mountain Stream near Inkaterra

A Mountain Stream near Inkaterra

After lunch at a small restaurant near the hotel we had a tour of the gardens of Inkaterra with an orchid specialist who showed us some odd specimens found in the Cloud Forest and gave us the low down on the high drama of orchid collecting. We also had the concurrent hummingbird tour, which was a little more lively. With our curiosity about orchids and hummingbirds sated (and rather quickly so), we were ready for our naps by the fire and some reading until departure time.  We found ourselves really tired really often, with brain and muscles getting a lot less oxygen than they are used to, so napping is essential.

We had an uneventful train ride to Ollytaytambo on which we met Monica, a young lady from California traveling by herself whom as it turned out we would see later on our Amazon  Adventure. It was well after midnight when we fell into bed in Cusco back at the Casa San Blas.

March 2, 2009

Cusco, Peru

We had the luxury of sleeping late today since we had a free day due to the farmers strike  scheduled for today with the tour operators honoring the strike as well.  We learned this morning that there was a rock slide last night on train tracks between Aguas Calientes and Ollytaytambo that caused the train after ours a 6 hour delay while the tracks were cleared. There was some speculation that the striking farmers had caused the slide and were thus sending a message on the eve of the actual strike, but those who may know weren’t talking.

Packing our Box at the Fed Ex Store

Packing our Box at the Fed Ex Store

After ten days of touring, it became obvious to us that we had way too much stuff in our luggage and we had acquired way too many treasures to haul around South America for the next 34 days. We decided to seek out a shipping company, UPS,  Fed Ex, DHL or whomever we found first, and what an adventure this proved to be. We set out on foot from the hotel, rather surprised (not out last surprise by any means) to find that once we left the tourist area, very little English was spoken. I was able to dust off some high school/college Spanish enough to ask for a few directions and even understood a sentence or two once I got them. We did find, after several blocks of walking, a FedEx office with a very helpful gentleman (or maybe not so much a gentleman – we’ll never know for sure) at the counter.  Our idea was to ship the box to our neighbors and we piled in extra clothes, shoes, souvenirs and so forth – the so forth including Gary’s noise canceling Bose headphones. Gary and Stu hopped behind the counter to pack the box and securely tape it (very securely tape it) shut. Then we figured out we needed to list the contents and their value on the manifest, and we sort of guessed at both since the box was sealed. Then they wanted the neighbors’ phone number which I guessed at since I didn’t have it with me. Then the “gentleman” told us it was 260 we thought it was in sol (around $85.) but we had another surprise since it was in US dollars. And then the surprises kept on coming via email and phone calls. I had the phone number wrong, the numbers on the manifest did not add up, and the whole FedEx box would be shipped back to Peru if we didn’t clear up matters in 5 days. We are eternally grateful to our neighbors for getting everything straightened out and taking delivery of the box.

To skip ahead briefly, our final surprise was when we opened the box once we were home. It was still (or should I say again?) securely taped with FedEx Peru tape, but not only were the Bose headphones missing, so were a pair of Sharon’s shoes, a plastic poncho and a nylon raincoat belonging to Gary. Our only consolation is that shipment was insured and that poncho and raincoat are going to be way huge on any of those short little people. We figure they are big enough to shelter a family of 4 Peruvians from the rain – just our small way of giving back to the country which has given us so much. As for Sharon’s shoes, we decided some little Peruvian lady is going to be wearing those to mass every Sunday. We have to wonder if the irony of wearing stolen shoes to church will be lost on her.

The Most Adorable Thing at the Museum

The Most Adorable Thing at the Inca Museum

We walked back to the Plaza de las Armas and decide to visit the Irish pub, Paddy O’Flaherty’s and try their burgers. It was not exactly like Five Guys – a lot more meat loaf than all beef patty, but the Guinness was good. Since it was now early afternoon and we had yet to see a single “touristic” place (as the local tour guides term the points of interest)  we decided to visit the Inca Museum, which proved to be quite interesting. It occupies a Spanish era building called the Admiral’s Palace, which was built on top of Inca foundations. It is devoted to artifacts from a wide range of indigenous people of Peru. There were mummies (those party animals) ceramics, jewelry and textiles, as well as a big collection of keros (the wooden drinking cups – featured in the Last Supper Painting in the cathedral.)We also saw portraits of the 9 Incas. Each had the same face, but different clothes. We suspect the artist only had one face down pat and couldn’t get too creative beyond that. We found that art here can best be appreciated as more representative than realistic.

All of this “touristic” business made us quite thirsty so we stopped for cocktails at another Cusco landmark, the Hotel Monasterio, which as the name would suggest, is an old monastery remodeled into a luxury hotel – heavy emphasis on the word luxury. Wine and cocktails with bar brands were a relatively modest $8.00. Martinis were advertised at $13, but our party decided to splurge and order one and specified Gray Goose. When the drinks came the martinis were surprisingly small and even more surprisingly expensive. As if $13 wasn’t stiff enough for a not so stiff drink, the premium brand martinis were $26.00 a piece. After much inquiry as to the

Trying to Break Even at the Monasterio Hotel

Trying to Break Even at the Monasterio Hotel

nature of what must surely be an error, the waiter came back with a reduced tab of $106 for one round of drinks for 6 people. We suspect it may have been as much to get us out of their bar as to satisfy us, plus Gary was threatening to take the candelabra from our table so we could sell it to help offset the cost of our cocktails which was most likely would have caused a stir. We finished the day of expensive surprises with a modest meal and agreed that we need to get back to an organized tour. This disorganized tour we had today when left to our own devices cost us a fortune.

 

March 3

Cusco, Peru

The strike is over so today so we resumed our power touring full speed ahead. Today went to several places of interest in and around the Sacred Valley, which is bisected by the Urubamba River which eventually leads to Machu Picchu, the Amazon, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.. We had our excellent guide with us once again, as well as my own D&K Eyewitness Travel Guide. However, we also had the very colorful Cusco Mystic Touristic Map and Guide which we bought on the Inca Express en route to Cusco, and  whose “Spanglish” requires some further translation. For example, a church near our hotel has a famous carved pulpit, but in the Inka Express Guide it says “it is ignored the author of this work.” Translation: “artist unknown”. Then there is this one describing the Cusco Cathedral: “the altar is covered exquisitely with silver irons . . . and there is a large custody of gold” Translation: the altar is  made of silver and there are many gold artifacts”  And my personal favorite is the phrase which described the Last Supper painting we saw in the Cathedral which read: “Marcos Zapata, the author of the linen, The Last Dinner in which the figure of the guinea pig detach.”  Translation: (I think).”Marcos Zapata, the artist of the painting (canvas), The Last Supper, which depicts a guinea pig. We can only imagine that the Peruvians had as many laughs over our Spanish as we did with the “Spanglish” in the guide book.

The Crop Lab at Moray

The Crop Lab at Moray

Our first stop was at Moray, believed to be an agricultural lab of the Inca where scientists experimented with various soils, crops, irrigation and altitude. It is built in a oval (like a small amphitheater) in a natural depression with a series concentric terraces called muyus at various levels. They were built on retaining walls and had a complex irrigation system that brought water in from the surrounding mountains. The terraces vary in height, some as shallow as 7 feet, and the bottom terrace is approximately 240 feet deep.  Archaeologists have found traces of as many as 250 different species of cereal and vegetable plants here. They also found that there is one degree centigrade difference for every level, thus permitting them to determine the optimal growing conditions.

The Flocks at the Village of Maras

The Flocks at the Village of Maras

We then went to Maras, a charming little colonial town where farm animals were kept inside courtyards at night and let out by “herdschildren” during the day so the streets were teeming with photo ops at every turn.  The best shot I never got, was a donkey with clay jars instead of saddle bags full of grass (for the guinea pigs presumably) ambling down the street on the town square.  We are in potato country –as evidenced by the profusion of purple and white flowers for mile after mile, interspersed with yellow fields of mustard plants. There were all sorts of wild flowers, yellow white orange and purple, lining the roads and mixing in with the crops.   Our guide asked if we had noticed how few Peruvians had gray hair, even those very advanced in years. She says they attribute that fact to the chewing of coca leaves, and we did notice that many those raven-haired locals did indeed have a “chaw” working between teeth and gum.

The Salineras at Maras

The Salineras at Maras

We then went to the Salinas de Maras which are salt works, created in pre-Columbian  times, but still producing today and worked by hundreds of miners. A natural salt spring was channeled into around 3,000 man-made ponds (salinerias) where the water is left standing to evaporate in the sun. The ponds are terraced into steep hillsides, each with its own little gravity fed channels to allow water in and out. We walked around a few of the ponds and dabbled our fingers in the spring where the water was surprisingly hot and clear.

From Maras we stopped for lunch at a very nice restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which had been built to resemble a country home of a well-to do family, more Spanish in style than Peruvian. From there were went back to Ollantaytambo, where we had been before en route to Machu Pichhu, but we had never toured there. It is actually a large architectural park at an altitude of just under 9,000 feet, with ruins much more extensive and intact than Machu Picchu, although the setting is not nearly as dramatic. It is named for an Incan General Ollanta, with the “tambo” part meaning resting place. The city itself is still has many intact Inca- era constructions, including a working water system.  Most of the ancient structures in town are the canchas, which are blocks of stone houses built around a courtyard with a single entrance. However, all we toured this afternoon was the fortress, called Araqam Ayllu. which was still under construction when the Spaniards arrived, and thus many of the requisite temples and astronomical sites were not completed.

An Incan Fortress

An Incan Fortress

The Incas, led by Manco Inca, did manage a victory here against Ferdinand (a.k.a. Pedro) Pizarro (the younger and more inept brother of Franscisco) and actually defeated the gun-toting Spaniards in 1536. Again, I must quote directly from the Inka Express Guidebook on this event. This is priceless, particularly in how  the translator tends to play fast and loose with the pronouns. Here it is, straight from the Cusco Mystic Touristic Map and Guidebook: “the conquering Pizarro . . . arrived to Ollantaytambo before the dawn to surprise the enemy sleeping, but it was big the surprise when thousands of arrows of all color rushed on the by the archers’ squads . . . Such was the scene that Manco Inca sat down on its horse observed and it directs its army. Pedro Pizarro wrote we found the place so preserved that it culminated in a horrible scene. Manco Inca, foreseeing the return of a new contingent of Spaniards moved to Vilcabamba, up to where the Spaniards arrived and captured Coya Cura Oqllo  (wife and sister of Manco Inca) who was used to negotiate Manco Inca’s rendition.” (Nope, wife and sister were not two separate people –  just like in Appalachia. But there’s more from the guidebook: “Francisco Pizarro when not getting his purpose ordered to whip the Coya naked, then he give her death and throw her body in a raft to the river so that she was discovered by Manco Inca’s men”. No word on how that worked out for Francisco P. and the Spaniards, but in any event, the Cusco Mystic Touristic Map and Guidebook account was hugely entertaining.

Giant Steps of Ollantaytambo

Giant Steps of Ollantaytambo

Okay, back to the fortress. It was truly amazing in size and structure, with the same monster boulder-size interlocking building blocks we had seen in other places, but the amazing part is how far they were moved (on ramps they believe)  to build here. Our guide pointed to a mountain across the valley and across the river where they came from. It makes you wonder what was wrong with the stones around Ollantaytambo, but I suppose no one asked at the time and lived to tell about it. One of the most impressive of their endeavors here was a huge Mt. Rushmore size carving of the Inca in a mountain on the other side of the city. It is in profile and was left in very rough form, but it does bear more than a passing resemblance to a human head, one with a quite beaky nose I might add. This was really a worthwhile stop and we needed more time. To quote the Cusco Mystic, it is a “trek that should not get lost”.

The Springs of Tam

The Springs of Tambomachay

Our next stop was Tambomachay (pronounced Tahm-bo-mah-chay with the accents on Tahm and chay) which according the Cusco Mystic Touristic Map and Guidebook is the “well-known place as bathrooms of the Inka” and “a cult place of the water”. I think the Cusco Mystic must have meant that there are water fountains here, as opposed to latrines. Our guide described it (probably more accurately) as a temple to the water deity.  It is composed of a series of platforms, niches and fountains, but more along the lines of little springs and spillways than the Bellagio of Las Vegas. I did have an American tourist at the entrance speak to me in Spanish, so feel like I may be starting to blend. Maybe I could get a job here, proofreading for the publishers of the Cusco Mystic Guidebook.

Our last stop of a really exhausting day (everything seems to be uphill both ways) was at the town of Pisac where there is a large crafts market. It too has impressive ruins including a fortress, but they are up on top of the mountain above the town and we decided we were fortressed out, plus it was getting dark and besides the air was still thin. We strolled and shopped at the market and headed back to Cusco where we met Donovan, (the gentleman who arranged our tour for us) and his wife. We walked to dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Baco and got acquainted. We were scheduled the next day to head to the Amazon for four days. We were looking forward to flatter land, lower altitude and warmer weather. Little did we know, this only proves you have to be careful what you wish for.




South America Part 3: The Peruvian Amazon

South America

Part 3 – Amazon Country – Peru

 March 4, 2009

Dateline: Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Latitude at Puerto Maldonado 12.35  South, Longitude 69.10 West

Today we traveled by air 198 miles from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado to begin our tour of the Tambopata National Reserve. By land, this journey would take up to 6 days from Cusco on 310 miles of bad road.  In less than an hour, we went from a climate that was chilly to really cold to one that was hot to steaming hot, and from an altitude of 11,000 feet to 600 feet. We were booked into a lodge in a primary and pristine rainforest, meaning it has never been logged or cultivated. It is in southeastern Peru, very near the border with Bolivia We were met by our tour operator and our guides, Leny and Oscar, who work for an operation called Rainforest Expeditions, and both of whom are from local families here in the Peruvian Amazon. Our destination, La Posada Amazona , we thought, was a sister lodge of the wonderful Inkaterra in Aguas Calientes, since both were designated at “eco” resorts. We were okay with the idea of an eco resort, thinking it meant they only change your towels when you ask, recycle your beer cans and so forth. However, here in the Amazon, “Eco” means roughing it with none

The Posada Amazonas Lodge

The Posada Amazonas Lodge

of the niceties you associate with civilization as we know it, except for the flush toilets. We were at best naïve, at worst, totally delusional, although I will say that the beds with mosquito netting were okay – it’s what could be on the other side that netting that can give you the willies. But then after all, the tour was billed as Rainforest Expeditions, not Rainforest Resort and Spa,so I guess we should have anticipated some sort of privation, and we did, but just not to the extent that we were actually deprived over the coming days.

Feeling there must be some sort of “failure to communicate” to borrow a phrase from Cool Hand Luke, I called Donovan, our tour operator in Cusco, for a short consultation as we stopped at the headquarters of Rainforest Expeditions to repack only the essentials that we can carry ourselves over roughly 1.5 miles of rough terrain..  It seems Donovan was aware of the amenities (or should I say the lack thereof) at La Posada Amazona – he just failed to communicate them to us. His part of the conversation went something like this, although I must admit most of the snarky parts are more what I thought, rather than what he said:

No hot water – no problem, you won’t want any hot showers anyway. No electricity – no problem, you don’t want to see what’s creeping around out there since your room is open to the elements, and oh did I mention that there are no doors to the rooms? All rooms are open to the outdoors, but no problem, we have never had a tourist carried off by wild animals. Yep, with no electricity that means no ceiling fans, no air conditioning, but no problem, it’s cool there at night. And yep that means a mini-bar, TV and Wi-Fi  are out of the question.. And also no swimming pool, but hey, you’re going to get plenty wet out there on the trails, what with the rain and sweat and so forth.

After a brief group discussion, the six of us decided to adjust our attitudes,  “man up”, put on our Big Girl Britches,  or whatever, and  embark upon this adventure with as much enthusiasm as we could muster. In Spanish posada means a place for stopping so the name of the Eco-lodge, La Posada Amazona means, the place for stopping in the Amazon. The question is por que ( i.e. why – as in why would you want to stop here?) We resolved to find out the answer to this as we set out to the Tambopata Reserve and our accommodations.

From the headquarters of Rainforest Expeditions, we took a bus to a place called Comunidad de Infierno (which, and I am not making this up, translates as Community from Hell). We came to learn over the next few days first-hand how the community earns its name. We took a motorized canoe – a very long, very narrow boat, powered by a car engine and steered with a long tiller. The boat was so narrow with practically no ballast, so the sequence of loading and unloading people and goods really mattered, as it tended to tip alarmingly with any type of movement on board.

The river we will be traveling on and the state we are in is called Madre de Dios (Mother of God), but we think it should be Madre de Dios Hace Calor Aqui (translation: Mother of God it is hot here). The Reserve takes its name from the Tambopata River, another Amazon a tributary that joins the Madre de Dios at Puerto Maldonado. They merge with several other rivers that form the Amazon River which flows for 3,000 miles to the Atlantic.

Lunch on an Eco-friendly Banana Leaf

Lunch on an Eco-friendly Banana Leaf

We head east from Puerto Maldonado on the river, which is brown from all the silt, not so much the chocolate milk color of the Urubamba, but more of a mustard brown, maybe a Grey Poupon. Turtles were abundant along the shore with hordes of butterflies swarming around them. Leny said the butterflies are attracted to the salt in the turtle tears. I suppose somewhere someone got a government grant to determine this, but then you never know when you’ll need a fact like that at  a cocktail party. We were served an interesting and surprisingly delicious lunch on board – fried rice served hot, wrapped in a banana leaf. Our instructions were to just throw our leftovers and banana leaf plates overboard to clean up, but of course the plastic forks were disposed of otherwise. We suspect fingers are the ecologically correct way to eat our lunch, but were glad to see this minor concession to convenience and to conspicuous consumption.

Sunset in the Amazon

Sunset in the Amazon

The Tambopata Reserve has over one million square hectares, (one hectare is roughly 2.5 acres) and the Peruvian Amazon comprises over half of Peru’s land mass; however, only 5% of their population lives here. The Reserve contains the most diverse ecosystem on the planet. There are around 200 mammal species, such as the giant otter, which is actually “giant” only when compared to the average otter. I was thinking when I heard the name that it would be some ground-thumping sort of creature out of a Michael Crichton novel, but we learned it was the same creature we know by the name “nutria”, that pesky species that was introduced into North America and which continues to multiply like rabbits. They also have the collared peccary, a javelina relative, which is a pig-like animal with bristles and there is the tapir, which looks like a pig-like animal with a big fleshy snout, but it is most closely related to hippos and horses. They have a creature called the horned currasow, which is not a sow at all, but a showy bird. Then there is the largest rat in the world, the capybara, which is the oddest looking rodent you can imagine – sort of gopher-like with a squared off snout. Perhaps the most notorious inhabitant is the anaconda, which apparently lives up to its reputation in terms of size, but does not in terms of the number of humans consumed. As far as they know, that number is zero. They also have the beautiful, if exceptionally shy jaguar, similar in appearance to the African leopard, but much smaller and the even smaller ocelot, also spotted, but weighing only around 25 to 35 pounds. They also have a small bear, also a shy creature, called the spectacled bear, with golden fur around the eyes, and black elsewhere, giving,  the impression that the bear is wearing glasses. Unfortunately, the shy animals chose not to reveal themselves, but we were assured they are out there.

A Major Thoroughfare by Amazonian Standards

A Major Thoroughfare by Amazonian Standards

The real biodiversity here comes in the form of birds, plants and insects. They have over 900 species of butterflies, 190 of reptiles, 94 of fish, 2,000 of flowers, 187 of trees and 207 of plants.  As we chugged along down the river, we saw deer and flocks of scarlet macaws and parrots flying along our route. You have to really work to see the much of wildlife here since their survival is predicated on their remaining unseen. The insects however are downright brazen, and we learned we must always coat ourselves with repellant with a minimum of 40% Deet, which of course makes it hard to sneak up on any wildlife possessing a sense of smell.

A Local Family in Tambopata

Laundry Day in Tambopata

People here are outnumbered by just about everything, which is somewhat refreshing after the crowded cities we Americans inhabit. Many local tribes still exist and live the way they have for centuries – dugout canoes, blowguns, and poison-tipped darts. In the 1870’s there was the big rubber boom, which later collapsed with advent of artificial rubber. Today there is primarily just subsistence agriculture practiced by the riberenos (river dwellers), although this area does export Brazil nuts, coffee and tropical fruit.

 

A Hammock for our Leisure Time in our Open Air Room

A Hammock for our Leisure Time in our Open Air Room

Once we docked, we had the long trek with our backpacks to our lodge, up the banks of the river to a path with a gazillion steps, tree roots and swampy mud holes,  with big wet leafy things slapping our faces every few yards as we made our way through the jungle’s dense canopy. Our quarters were as promised – no doors or windows –and open air, kind of like putting a bed out on your screened in porch, except there were no screens. The walls were of rather thin bamboo on 3 sides and open to the fourth side with just a deck-like railing. There was a hammock suspended from the ceiling, in case you wanted to have a snooze

 The Banana Cage at Tambopata

The Banana Cage at Tambopata

there, but there was no netting, so it was open season for the insects. We marveled that no creatures invaded our quarters. Of course we would later find we had no cause to marvel at this, but more on that later. We had little time (or need since it was really small) to explore the lodge since we had a trek to the canopy tower scheduled for a 4:00 p.m. departure. We did take note of a special feature – the banana cage just off the lobby. Bananas are hung their daily there for us to nibble on, but are placed in a special cage that we are smart enough to open, but the monkeys are not. We were wondering if we needed to be furtive about operating the lock mechanism in case any savvy monkeys were perhaps spying on us.

Before our first hike, we had to pick out our footwear which proved to be tall rubber boots which would prove invaluable over the coming days. However Gary had to roll his boot tops down to make his into short rubber boots since his calves were to big for the legs of the boots. We were advised to tuck our pants into the boots to thwart any insects which might be interested in exploring our persons via that route.

The View Above the Canopy

The View Above the Canopy

We were dripping wet with sweat from the trek to lodge, but found on this adventure we could and would get even wetter. En route to the canopy tower, we were chattered at by, and actually had sightings of, several dusky titi monkeys (Leny says it gets is name from the noise it makes, versus any particular feminine endowments) We also had a spontaneous serenade by unseen birds up high in the canopy. After a mile or so of trekking we arrived at the tower, a structure of scaffolding, approximately 130 feet high, and roughly 12 feet by 12 feet with a platform at the top. We climbed and sweated, climbed and sweated,  and repeated as needed to reach the top at last. At this height we were well above the trees and could see a number of nests of various birds. It was really a treat to see the wild parakeets, parrots, and macaws in flight. We could hear the peccaries (wild pigs) rooting around somewhere far below us. And for the first time we heard a sound very much like a fierce winter wind whistling and howling around the eaves. Leny told us that we were only hearing a single male howler monkey who was just letting everyone know whose territory this is, but it was enough noise for a whole troop of them.  Leny cautioned us not to touch anything – apparently teeny tiny ants are everywhere. The leaf cutter ants were sort of fun to watch (we were a little hard up for fun, in case you can’t tell) They are little ants about the size of a poppy seed trudging along in single file, toting a postage stamp sized leaf back to the anthill.

The Shadow of the Tower on the Canopy

The Shadow of the Tower on the Canopy

On the tower we saw a great sunset in one of the few places where you could actually see the sun drop over the horizon since the jungle was so dense at ground level. Unfortunately, since the sun was setting while we were up in the tower,  it was dusk by the time we got down and thus our return trek was in the pitch black dark –  and not a good experience. The ground was squishy with a snarl of roots, the air was thick and humid, and the foliage was wet and clingy. Thankfully the mosquitoes that had been buzzing about seemed to diminish after the sun went down.  We learned that when they swarm, the trick is to keep moving so they don’t settle in and stay for lunch. We also learned that it is not a good idea to shower before dinner because (A) you will wash off your Deet which will still be sorely needed in the open air dining room and (B) you will again be drenched in sweat by the time dessert is served anyway.

We agreed that Donovan was right about one thing – none of us wanted anything but a cold shower, and so our nightly routine became to quickly wash off sweat and insect repellant, attempt to towel dry, and make a bee-line (no pun intended) for the bed and dive under the mosquito netting.  After dinner, things were pretty quiet and very dark. We had kerosene

Sleeping Al Fresco

Sleeping Al Fresco

lanterns set in window openings with access from the outside walkway. We had a night watchman of sorts (kind of like the Warden at the Big House) who came by and turned the lanterns off around 9:00 p.m. If you wanted to read in bed, (or write notes for your journal) you had to get out your flashlight or headlamp and switch it on. However, the light will create a frenzy of attacking insects attracted by the light and beating themselves silly against the mosquito netting, so this is not as soothing an activity as one would expect. We were tired enough for sleep, but our survival instincts kept us thinking about those al fresco bedrooms and wondering if anacondas would be seeking out warm bodies in the middle of the night. These sleeping arrangements definitely called for a dose of Ambien. We were pleased that it was, as promised by Donovan, cooler at night here and thus we had a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

March 5, 2009

Dateline: Tambopata Reserve, Peruvian Amazon

The warden came by and lit our kerosene lanterns early – before sunrise since we got up about that time for our day’s adventure. In case we missed our wake-up knock, the howler monkey started up about that same time and there was no sleeping through that, no matter how many Ambien you swallowed during the night.  We hopped out of bed and into our clothes and coated ourselves with Deet, hoping to be quick enough about it that the mosquitoes didn’t even know we were awake. We brushed our teeth with bottled water, although it is reportedly distilled from the waters of the yellow brown river just down the hill, so who knows what organisms may still be there. The microbe-rich stuff out of the tap is definitely not recommended.

Sunrise on the Amazon

Sunrise on the Amazon

We again trekked the 1.5 miles to the river (at least it was downhill this time) when the sun was not quite up and we took our motorized canoe to a dock where we boarded a pontoon boat of sorts for our river otter spotting expedition at a nearby oxbow lake, which was formed when the river changed courses and eventually doubled back on itself.  The problem with river otter spotting is that you are supposed to be very quiet – which proved to be quite a challenge for the six of us who were anxious to trade war stories about our night in the wild, e.g who has the most insect bites, who had the most critters on their mosquito netting, whose tap water was the brownest, and oh by the way did you notice the floor of your room has one inch spaces between the boards and we were speculating on just how skinny some those 190 species of reptiles may be.

Staying here at La Posada Amazon, we decided, is sort of like Girl Scout Camp without the mothering, or boot camp without the push-ups, and, although we do perform some pretty grueling marches in unflattering boots, at least we don’t have to double time it. And of course, although we do have the warden, we are not confined to our rooms – not that anyone is prone to wander off premises anyway. And did I mention it’s hot here? I think I like the idea of the Amazon better than the reality of it.

River Otter Expedition

River Otter Expedition

Once on the river, the sun rose and we saw flocks of the usual birds – for here anyway – parrots, macaws, toucans, tanagers, parakeets and we also saw pheasant (Amazonian version) and heron- like wading birds. We did see the elusive otters – a family of 5. They never left the water so what we saw was the V shaped ripples and their heads as they swam by us. In our idle time (and there was a lot of it on this particular morning) we learned a little about the love life of various creatures. The river otters are monogamous with only one mate at a time. Many of the bird species are monogamous and they mate for life. Jaguars and deer are polygamous, i.e. one male may mate with multiple females, but the double standard is alive and well because female monkeys are referred to as promiscuous – i.e. the females mate with every male they can get their paws on. We had a good yuk about this, deciding that these would be called these “slut monkeys”.

At an Oxbow

At an Oxbow

Several notorious Amazonian creatures were present here at the oxbow lake. We saw tracks of a caiman, a type of crocodile (not as large or vicious as their African cousins) in the muck. And we were all riveted by the flattened grass that Leny told us is evidence that an anaconda has recently slithered by. There were no sightings of either creature, despite our cameras being at the ready. After the otters left, we had some time for fishing – piranha fishing to be precise. This is another Amazon species whose man-eating capabilities are greatly exaggerated in that there are no documented cases of this actually happening. Piranha means

Little Fish - Big Teeth

Little Fish – Big Teeth

“cut the skin” in a local dialect, which is pretty much what they do. However they are really teensy little fish with teensy little bellies and it would take thousands of them just to make a dent in your leg. This is not to say they can’t give a nasty bite, as Leny demonstrated with a stick. There were many catches, but no keepers, and they proved to be extremely tricky to take off hook.

We managed our return boat trip, our trek back to lodge and our lunch before a big, big rain arrived to provide a really fine backdrop for a delicious afternoon nap. We did have one

The Killer Piranha is Subdued

The Killer Piranha is Subdued

somewhat alarming interruption of said nap when a maintenance worker right outside where our door would be if we had one yelled “Culebra, culebra” We hurried outside to see him brandishing a machete and pointing under our room (whose raised floor is made of the decking with the one inch spaces). I seemed to recall that culebra means snake in Spanish and shared that tidbit with the rest of the nappers in our group. We searched for any signs of the culebra, but gave it up. With that incident so fresh in our minds, nap time was pretty much over.

 

En Route to the Shaman's House

En Route to the Shaman’s House

We had a trek planned for 4:00 p.m. which was almost cancelled, but the rain stopped just in time and so we slugged in the mud back to the river to take the canoe to visit the shaman and  tour his magical mystery farm. The shaman is roughly the equivalent of a native-American medicine man. He has multiple roles in both spiritual and medicinal realms. This particular shaman looked remarkably like a Peruvian Spanish speaking Robin Williams. Leny translated everything he said into English, which made for a very long time to be standing still for us mosquito targets, but we learned a lot. For example, the shaman said that the jungle has

Part of Shaman's Crop

Part of Shaman’s Crop

good spirits and bad spirits and his job is to discern the difference and figure out how to enhance the good and mitigate the bad, most of the time with plant based medicines. He is a healer and an herbalist (or a more interesting, if somewhat contrived term, a “vegetalist”). Much of the local religion is based on visions the shamans have had through the years after sampling the local medicines. The shaman makes the distinction that drugs he prescribes are psychotropic versus hallucinogenic. (These are drugs that affect the central nervous system and emotions, but unlike hallucinogens – do not make you see stuff that is not there. I.E. they are mood altering vs. reality altering.) The hallucinogens, we suspect, he keeps for personal use.

We had a tour of the shaman’s gardens and learned about the following plants:

Chacruna which is from the coffee family and has a hallucinogenic alkaloid. It is used for eye drops and migraines. It is also used to brew ayahuasca, a local fun beverage.

Ayahuasca   (Pronounced eye-yah-whas-ka with the accent on “whas”) is the name of a vine, plus the name of the brew made from the ayahuasca and other plants. It is a purgative, but it is also described as a magical drink producing profound insights that will, per our translator, “get your head right”. It has ceremonial uses as well as medicinal.

Mapacho is black jungle tobacco. The shaman smokes it and blows smoke over individual with unspecified ailments with unspecified results. Leny was a little vague on the details here so this may bear further investigation. We had a chuckle over the idea of where exactly the shaman was “blowing smoke”, but the colloquial expression did not translate well and Leny had no idea what we were laughing about.

Una de Gato or Cat’s Claw appears to be a wonder drug of sorts. It is a thorny vine that is an anti-oxidant so you can treat your wrinkles while curing arthritis, bursitis, allergies, and  bowel and intestinal disorders. It is also an immune booster, and a cure for cancer, herpes, AIDS, and fungal infections. And if you chose to take chemo therapy instead of this particular medicine, it can also treat the side effects of chemo.

Chuchuhuasi  seems to be the closest thing to snake oil in the jungle. It is said to be a cure for rheumatism, tuberculosis, bronchitis, stomach ache, digestive problems, cramped muscles and female troubles. Or to quote Leny, who is translating for the shaman: “it cures a woman’s bad spirits” which we interpreted to mean cramps, PMS, or some other hormonal difficulty.  It is quite bitter so if you have any bad spirits to cure, you should take it with honey.

Para Para– This plant is the Amazonian Viagra and is aptly named, since it translates as “stand up, stand up”.  Fortunately the shaman did not personally demo the effectiveness of this potion, but he did bend a leaf of the plant and it sprang right back up, so if that’s any sign, it works really fast. No word on whether this is the key ingredient in Viagra, but the Amazon is the source of the vast majority of prescription drug ingredients, so it may well be the case.

The Shaman Discussing Tangarana

The Shaman Discussing Tangarana

Tangarana  is actually a tree and is home to some nasty ants by the same name. The ants will ferociously attack anyone or anything that messes with their tree. They live in the hollow core of the tree and eat its sap, which is the price the tree pays for defense. They do a good job of it. They don’t let any other plants crowd in and no animals will climb the tree. There are stories about local tribesmen tying naked enemies to these trees to torture and eventually kill them. We are unclear over what the shaman uses the tree for, but we were warned that the ants are lightning fast, so we should not touch, and not even get close enough to touch.

Sampling the Shaman's  Remedies

Sampling the Shaman’s Remedies

We were offered some samples of a few of the concoctions, (no ayahuasca), but we did not experience any miracle cures, although to be honest, with the exception of mosquito bites, we didn’t really have many ailments for the shaman to work his magic on.  We again found ourselves negotiating the 1.5 miles from the river to the lodge in the dark. We had our supper and went to bed fully exhausted well before the warden doused the lights. Amazon night life was pretty sedate as evidenced by this typical post-bedtime conversation:

I say, “Gary, roll over you’re snoring”.

He says,  ”It’s not me, it must be Stu on the other side of the wall.”

I say, “No, I just heard him in the shower, and he let out a yelp and said ‘Damn that water’s cold’.”

He says, “Do you think it’s Sharon?”

I say, “No it’s not Mara either. It’s not dainty enough for a woman’s snore.”

He says, “I don’t think it’s Bill” (who was two rooms away), “I just heard him cough and then their toilet flushed”

I say “I wonder if it’s the howler monkey. And if so, I wonder how we could get him to roll over.”

He says “Are you enjoying the Amazon?”

I say, “Oh yeah. Is there any more of that Ambien?”

March 6, 2009

Dateline: Tambopata Preserve, Peruvian Amazon

The View from the Man-Hide Hut

The View from the Man-Hide Hut

Today we were again up before dawn, and we left right after breakfast for a trek of about a mile to a salt lick on the banks of the river. Our plan was to see the macaws, along with other birds,who flock by the hundreds to the banks of the river where clay formations provide needed minerals. We were told that the monkeys like it too and if they come, they will drive the birds away so we hoped they would stay away.  We had to tip-toe to a hut (they call them “man-hide” huts in East Africa) with slits in the window like WWII bunkers at Normandy, but they are made of wood vs. concrete and again we have to be quiet since macaws spook easily. We both heard and saw many of them roosting in trees above us, but there was no salt licking going on. A lot of river traffic, chattering dusky titi monkeys and those rowdy tourists didn’t help either. We had met a Dutch couple, Jill and Rati (it was pronounced Rotty, but it was a nickname for something

Caricature Time in the Man-Hide Hut

Caricature Time in the Man-Hide Hut

unpronounceable to our non-Dutch tongues) who were in the hut with us. They were both caricaturists (typically booked for conventions and meetings) and to pass the time, Jill did caricatures of us. Gary asked how she picks features to focus on. She replied that it is what strikes her as the most prominent features. His next question was whether his ears, nose and neck really that big? He did agree that my neck was that skinny and my cheeks do look like a squirrel hoarding walnuts. She gave us the sketch and it is one of our best mementos of our trip.

We reversed our steps for the uphill trek back to the lodge for

Under the Giant Kapok Tree

Under the Giant Kapok Tree

lunch. In the afternoon we had another trek to see a huge kapok tree and a canoe trip downriver to a local farm. The kapok tree is estimated to be 400 to 500 years old. Trees in the Amazon do not have rings because they do not have seasons, so age is harder to judge.  En route we saw a sloth, up in a tree being slothful, true to his name, totally oblivious to passers-by.

The farm was about as basic as you can get. There were a few lean-to’s, campfire cooking with a motley assortment pots and pans and utensils. The farmers were nowhere in sight so we sort

 

Amazonian Farmhouse

Amazonian Farmhouse

of poked around the fields with Leny to see the banana, manioc, papaya, avocado, and mandarin orange crops. Leny grew up on a farm like this in large family and still she managed with help of siblings to get an education. Since we were practically melting in our rubber boots and under siege from a ravenous horde of mosquitoes, we petitioned Leny for a boat ride in lieu of more time at the farm, just to get the air moving if nothing else. It proved to be a good move. We finally saw the funny little capybara – the world’s largest rodent, about the size of a small pig, rooting around on the river banks, where it eats brazil nuts and spreads seeds as it passes them. Jaguars love to snack on capybara, so we were on the lookout there, but no such luck. We also saw several wild turkeys and were treated to another beautiful sunset on the river, the only place other than the tower to see one.

We had an uneventful dinner followed by a truly eventful night. I was reading with my headlamp waiting for the Ambien to take hold. Gary was snoring softly under his own mosquito netting when I heard little rustling noises up high in the A frame ceiling. I got out of bed and turned my headlamp to the rafters where I perceived motion and little squeaking sounds. It was all I could do to keep from making my own little squeaking sounds, as I woke Gary up to confirm that yes indeed those were bats, if not in our belfry, then in the straw of the ceiling. What to do? Take another Ambien, ignore whatever guano and bits of straw were  dropping on the mosquito netting and burrow under the covers, making sure no neck was exposed, just in case they were vampire bats.

March 7, 2009

Dateline: Lima, Peru

Bamboo Walls at the Posada

Bamboo Walls at the Posada

We woke early to the twittering birds and the howler monkey, and over breakfast we compared notes on the Night of the Living Bats. Actually we didn’t have to wait until breakfast. Our bamboo walls were so thin you could actually chat, even in a whisper.  In fact Gary had a full conversation with Monica (whom we first met on the train from Aguas Calientes to Cusco) while perched on our toilet examining the interesting droppings on his toothbrush and shaving kit, which he had left out and open overnight. I had to give the sink a thorough rinse before any teeth brushing or any other daily ablutions could commence.  Monica reported that a bat had become entangled in her mosquito netting and she was bordering on hysteria and ready to call for help when it finally escaped. Our other traveling companions reported similar bat experiences and all agreed we were not sad today to bid farewell to the Amazon and to our rubber boots which we have come to appreciate and, perhaps the bat visit was our sign that it is indeed time to go. Conclusion: Eco tourism is not for wimps.

Leaving Tambopata in our Tippy Canoe

Leaving Tambopata in our Tippy Canoe

We loaded up our backpacks and made the final trek to the river to catch our motorized canoe for the dock at Comunidad del Infierno where we learned still another reason this is called the Community from Hell. Leny (about 100 pounds) attempted to help a much larger tourist about twice her size up an embankment and was sucked into the oozing mud up past her knees, and practically had to be winched out. We interpreted that as still another sign that it’s time for us to go back to civilization. From the river bank we took a small bus to Puerto Maldonado down a long dusty road. Much of the road had been washed out by the big rain we had two days ago, so there are mud holes every few feet. We again stopped at the Rainforest Expedition headquarters to reunite with the luggage we did not take with us. We will go to Lima via Cusco, where will have to control the impulse to charge off the plane to gulp in some of the chilly air we were way too hasty to escape just 3 short days ago.

We arrived in Lima in the late afternoon and had a city tour with our guide, Erica and our driver Ronald. The sky is a grey that Erica tells us is called “the donkey’s belly” and that it is frequently this color in the winter months.  There is Atlanta-league traffic, but with a lot more interesting things happening.  For example, at the airport we saw porters with cruise ship luggage piled high on big dollies who parked them, stopping traffic both ways, to help push a broken down car out of the way that was blocking an access ramp to the sidewalk. Later we saw a man jump out of car to give the bus driver in front of him what for, but apparently he did not realize his own car was still in gear. His car smashed into the back of the bus. There was much cursing, or so we fancied since Erica did not translate, and much arm waving. Then in the late afternoon we saw a bridal couple in a stretch limo. They had popped up through the sun roof like the King and Queen of the Prom, waving to throngs of perfect strangers. Although these incidents were not part of tour, they certainly were part of the entertainment.

The Bishop's Palace - Lima

The Bishop’s Palace – Lima

Lima was founded by Spaniards upon their arrival since the existing capital, Cusco, did not provide a seaport. Like much of the rest of Peru, it is very earthquake prone, with particularly devastating ones occurring in 1687 and 1746, which created the need for a great deal of reconstruction. The one in 1746 was the worst in history. It lasted 4 minutes and caused 15 thousand deaths, many in the resulting tsunami at the port of Callao. The tsunami sank or swept inland as much as a mile, taking every boat in harbor with it. There were 40,000 survivors, but only 20 houses of 3,000 in the city were left intact. Priests went out among the people to advise them that the earthquake was a sign that it was time to get right with God, although not exactly in those words. Vigilantes roamed the streets and looters were hanged on the spot. The last big earthquake was in May of 1940 when the city lost 23% of its buildings, but by then the Judge Roy Bean justice system had been toned down quite a bit.

The Pisco Sour Fountain

The Pisco Sour Fountain

Our first stop was the Plaza Mayor where we saw a bronze fountain built in 1651 and where once a year on Independence Day,  pisco sours are substituted for water and people can get as many refills as they want (this is a huge improvement over fireworks, but I won’t hold my breath for this happening here at home). This plaza has been the site of a lot of excitement over the years – bullfights, executions during the Inquisition, the declaration of independence from Spain, and now the free pisco sours. We also saw, but did not tour the Archbishop’s Palace at Plaza Mayor, which looks very much like palaces in Granada. The Moorish influence is clearly evident with the shuttered balconies made of dark wood, intended to make the women of the house see, but not be seen from the street. Situated as it is on the Plaza Mayor, it affords archbishop the opportunity to watch, and even partake in the Independence Day pisco sours.

Lima Cathedral at the Plaza Mayor

Lima Cathedral at the Plaza Mayor

We saw the Cathedral, also on the Plaza Mayor, which was started in 1535 by Pizarro at the same time the city was founded. It was completed in 1540, but has been added on to numerous times. Pizarro’s tomb is inside. – well at least they think it is his tomb now. It seems there was a mix-up over exactly which remains were his.. Until 1990 they had a headless body in the crypt they were touting as Pizarro, but tests proved it was not his. So they apparently went to another tomb and got the real Francisco – at least that’s their story and they’re sticking to it. We also saw Town Hall and the Government Palace, which was built in 1938, after a fire destroyed the original. It has been made to look old and very Colonial on the outside, but it is quite ornate on the inside, with the most elaborate room intended mimic the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (called the Salon Dorado or Golden Room). We resolved to visit more interiors next time we are in Lima.

Skull Sculptures at the Monastery

Skull Sculptures at the Monastery

We did go inside the convent and Church of St Francisco, built in 1557 and rebuilt after a 1656 earthquake. The Church of San Francisco has survived many other earthquakes due to a  special building material called quincha, which is a mix of rushes, mud and plaster which proved more earthquake resistant than conventional European materials. One of the chief “attractions” for tourists is the catacombs which contain the bones of over 25 thousand people, a veritable city of the poor, with skulls and other bones arranged in various patterns. The wealthy, of course, had crypts for their remains so there were not legions of monks making artful arrangements with their bones. The church also has its own Last Supper painting, featuring the ubiquitous guinea pig. There was a spacious courtyard and cloisters with gardens – again quite Moorish in design -with beautiful blue glazed tiles (called azulejos) from Seville on the cloister courtyard walls dating from the 1600’s.

The Plaza Mayor in Lima

The Plaza Mayor in Lima

We walked from the Plaza Mayor to the Plaza San Martin along the Jiron de la Union, a pedestrian only street with shops and outdoor restaurants including a Norky’s that almost overpowered us with a longing for roasted chicken with the scent of it wafting out on to the street. In Peru “jiron” is a colloquial expression meaning a long street or row of houses, although in most of the rest of Spanish speaking world, it is a long strip of cloth or a banner.  The Plaza San. Martin, was built in 1921 on the 100 year anniversary of Independence in a decidedly French style in contrast to the Spanish Colonial look of the Plaza Mayor.   Peru’s version of George Washington was Jose de San Martin and there is a statue of him on horseback in the center of the plaza. At the foot of San Martin’s statue is a statue of Madre Patria (a symbolic figure of Mother  Country). The design intent was reportedly to have a crown of flames (called llama in Spanish) on her head. As you might anticipate, something was lost in translation between Spain and Peru, and consequently the sculptor put a small likeness of  an actual llama on her head. In the ensuing years, it seems to be sort of like the guinea pigs at the Last Supper, in that Peruvians and tourists alike find it quaint, charming and mildly amusing. I guess it is kind of like the eccentric aunt in the family – she may be a goofy old lady, but she’s our goofy old lady. Besides a little touch of the absurd is always appreciated in an itinerary laced with so much history.

The Tunnel Fountain at the Parque de

The Tunnel Fountain at the Parque de Reservas

Our last stop on our city tour was at the Parque de Reservas, a showcase of elaborate water fountains featuring colored lights, music, and laser displays. There is also a tunnel fountain which can be walked through without getting wet and a play fountain where the whole intent is to get as wet as possible. This park is very popular with locals, particularly the children. There is also an 80 meter fountain which holds the Guinness record for height.

We had our driver drop us at the Alfresco Restaurant, located in Miraflores and just a few short blocks from our hotel. Miraflores has a wealth of interesting shops and restaurants, almost all with inviting outdoor dining, featuring delicious seafood and fresh produce. We had an excellent dinner and then walked back to our hotel, the Casa Andina, for our final night in Peru. Tomorrow morning we leave for Ecuador and the Galapagos. We agree that we should have planned more time here in Lima since we are leaving so much left unexplored. As for the Amazon, we are inclined to say “been there done that, got the mosquito bites”. And did I mention that being eco-friendly in the Amazon was really hot? On the other hand, it is fascinating, so if we go back, maybe we will go more “eco-hostile” next time.

 

 




South America Part 4: The Galapagos

 South America

Part 4 – The Galapagos – Giant Tortoise Country

 

March 8, 2009

Dateline: Guayaquil, Ecuador

Latitude at Guayaquil  2.10 South, Longitude 79.54  West

Today we flew from Lima to Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is our departure point for the Galapagos Islands. Our friends Bill and Mara headed home to Virginia, while Stu, Sharon, Gary and I will go on to explore the Galapagos and the mountainous regions of mainland Ecuador. Ecuador actually means equator in Spanish and most of our travel in this country doesn’t stray much from zero degrees latitude.  We didn’t have an organized tour, just a pick up from the airport and a delivery to the hotel, but we decided to hire our escort, Carolina. Our perception was that she did mostly pickup and delivery, since she was a little sketchy on historical details of the city, but we managed to see the main sights according to the guide book I read after the fact, and we found she didn’t make too much stuff up. And since the sights of Guayaquil weren’t all that numerous, and it was almost as hot as the Amazon, one afternoon here would be just fine. We checked into the Oro Verde Hotel (translation is Green Gold) which was a blissfully air-conditioned business hotel. Carolina and our driver met us for a tour an hour later. From there we headed to the usual South American tourist attraction, the cathedral and town square.

Tame Iguanas in Guayaquil

Tame Iguanas in Guayaquil

Guayaquil isn’t really much of a tourist town, but it does have its own brand of charming weirdness. For example, there were hordes of huge iguanas in the park at our first stop, the local cathedral. They were draped over branches up in the trees, sprawled all over the grounds and even sunning themselves on the park benches next to locals reading the newspaper. You had to watch where you sat and or stepped, since of course there was iguana poop everywhere. They are either very tame or just extremely slow moving (the iguanas I mean), and so we got the opportunity to touch them, but they seemed to not even notice. Their skin is like very coarse sandpaper, dry and cool. We concluded they are the slower, bulkier, poopier equivalent of squirrels at home and no one but tourists find them exotic. We are sure the locals got a chuckle out of our pointing fingers and clicking cameras.

From the cathedral  went to the waterfront. Guayaquil is not actually on the ocean, but rather on a broad estuary of the Rio Guayas, which provides the major deepwater port for the country of Ecuador. The city of Guayaquil was officially founded by a Spaniard named Francisco de Orellana , although the area was inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years. Orellana is also credited with “discovering” the Amazon River, despite the fact that the people living here knew right where it was all along. There was apparently a lot of “discovering” of things not actually lost, missing or unknown to mankind in those days. The name of the city comes from the indigenous Huancavilcas tribe, whose chieftain (Guayas) engaged in the time honored tradition of killing his wife (Quil), supposedly to prevent her capture by the Spanish. He then drowned himself in the river which now bears his name.

They did have a big drug smuggling scandal here on the Guayas a few years ago, now termed “The Great Chocolate Cocaine Caper on the Rio Guayas”.  Apparently some would-be drug runners attempted to ship 3 tons of cocaine to the US in boxes labeled “Ecuadorian Cocoa”, but it was so clumsily disguised, the shipment never got through Customs. Ecuador, it seems, was not really ready for prime time drug moving, and this bungled deal apparently convinced the drug lords that more competent help could be found elsewhere. Today the Port of Guayaquil handles 90% of the  imports and 50% of the exports for Ecuador. Their main exports, flowers and produce, have to be flown out, but just about everything else comes through here.  There is a big rivalry between Guayaquile and Quito, the capital city. Guayaquilenos say Guayaquil makes the country’s money and Quito spends it. The average worker here trends toward tattooed sailors and hourly wage laborers, whereas Quito is populated by more clergy and business-suited politicians and bankers.

Our walk led us to the Malecon,  which is a very nice area built along the waterfront with parks, restaurants, gardens, markets, and  museums. There was a good breeze coming off the water,  it was shady and we could sit and watch the ships come and go. However, Carolina had other plans for us so we kept walking. We saw a picturesque lighthouse in the distance atop a rather steep hill. As we kept walking toward it, I kept snapping pictures. Little did I know we were going to ascend said steep hill on foot via the historic Las Penas district – a little community with San Francisco (CA) like streets, minus the street cars. If you want to go up, you have to hoof it.

Las Penas - Guyaquil

Las Penas – Guyaquil

The small wooden houses line the narrow winding streets and share town-house style common walls. It was reportedly the scene for the bawdy and raucous activities associated with sailors back in its heyday. The houses are painted in more colors than in the 64 count Crayola box and are quaint beyond description. There was a big fire here in 1896 which destroyed many of Guyaquil’s wooden houses, but Las Penas has been mostly restored. Unlike San Francisco it is quite warm and humid here (flashbacks to the Amazon), particularly as we climb up and up, the cobblestone streets. Carolina did not tell us we were going to the lighthouse (she probably knew we would bolt). And once there, we assumed our driver would meet us there – but that would prove to be a wrong assumption too. The steps are numbered, and there are 444 of them. People who live on these streets use the step numbers to identify their addresses. We expect those living beyond, say, the 200’s are very skinny people.  There was a big soccer match that day as we trudged by open doorways and past balconies with TV’s on, people dressed in their team’s jerseys, drinking beer and cheering their favorites. Barcelona is a big team here, but it is a local team, not the one from Spain.  Soccer has been known to cause  riots here in South America so we hope we aren’t wearing the wrong team’s colors by sheer accident. And speaking of this neighborhood, Las Penas, we later learned that the translation of the phrase can be “the penalties”, “the difficulties”, “the suffering” – all of which we felt we experienced on our roundtrip 888 steps in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity. And we were paying for the privilege. What were we thinking?

Lighthouse at Las Penas - Guayaquil

Lighthouse at Las Penas – Guayaquil

We did find a bar at the top of the hill, but all the outdoor tables were taken and it was not air conditioned inside, and so we stood and drank quickly because we were advised that we were not supposed to have drinks outside. But it was so hot, an Ecuadorian jail was probably cooler, so we decided we would risk arrest and continued with our law-breaking ways. And besides, the cops would most likely be watching the soccer game too. We were trying to decide whether it is hotter in Guayaquil or in the Amazon – it was a toss up – steaming jungle or scorching cobblestones – hot is hot.

We had the evening free and so we retired to the hotel bar to decide on dinner plans. After a few cocktails, we decided to go to a restaurant called the Caracol Azul (Blue Snail) which Gary and Stu had heard about from the hotel bartender, and which was within walking distance.  However the directions were a little fuzzy (and so were we after several pisco sours) and we set off in the wrong direction. It quickly became apparent that we were in the wrong neighborhood. One of our first clues was a soccer fan lying in the street with his head propped up on the curb, apparently sleeping off the post-game celebration. We stopped a couple of young fans, who may or may not have known what we were saying, but we showed them the rather blurry note on the bar napkin which the bartender gave us, and they pointed us back to the direction from which we had come. About that time a car pulled up alongside us, but instead of the anticipated thugs and gangsters ready to relieve us of our wallets, it was a family of four, and the two teenage daughters spoke English and said their dad was concerned for us idiot tourists (my terminology not theirs) out wandering around in this poor neighborhood and would like to take us to our hotel or at least to a more respectable part of town. It was not a large car, but the 4 of us piled in, and the father drove us about 3 blocks to the Caracol Azul, which was only 2 blocks from our hotel. We piled out, sort of unfolding ourselves like circus clowns in a Volkswagen Beetle, and thanked them profusely, only to find the restaurant closed. We walked toward the hotel thinking surely some of the bright lights we saw between the Caracol Azul and the hotel would be those of a charming local restaurant. Well, we found the local part, but it was a little light on charm. It was apparently a Chinese-Ecuadorian restaurant whose name was Hoja Dorada (which literally translates as the Golden Sheet or Golden Piece – but I am thinking it is probably some colloquial expression meaning really bad faux-Chinese food. No one seemed to speak English, but they did have pictures, and so we managed to point to what we wanted. We all ordered different things in case any of us got food poisoning, we wouldn’t all perish, but everyone seemed to survive with just a minimum number of Rolaids.

March 9, 2009

Dateline: Baltra, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Latitude at Baltra 00.14 South, 90.51 West

Today we had an elaborate buffet breakfast at the Oro Verde that included at least a dozen kinds of bread, cake, pie, cookies and popcorn, just to name a few of the big carb offerings, as well as every fruit imaginable, so we were able to offset any poor diet choices from the Hoja Dorada. Carolina and our driver picked us up to go to the airport. She presented us with hand woven bracelets she had made from yarn using the colors of the Ecuadorian flag (red, yellow and blue), probably to make amends for nearly killing us with heat exhaustion the day before. She said that we were to wear them until they became frayed and fell of their own accord for good luck. So far, so good.

The Lunar Landscape of the Galapagos

The Lunar Landscape of the Galapagos

From Guyaquil to the Galapagos, it is a two-hour flight on a local airline called Tame, maybe an odd name, but a choice much more soothing to the passengers  than something like “Wild and Woolly”.  We landed on the island of Baltra around noon. All of the islands in the Galapagos have two names, one bestowed by the Spanish and one by the British, but I will stick with the Spanish names since they got there first. There are 13 major islands, 6 small islands and 42 islets, many of which are just rocky outcroppings, straddling the equator, and stretching over 30,000 square miles. We will stay in the Southern Hemisphere while in the Galapagos, but not even a whole degree away from the Equator. The Ecuadorian Government is very restrictive on what can be brought into the islands to make sure no foreign species (flora or fauna) are accidentally introduced into the ecosystem, and so we had a thorough search of our bags upon arrival after a little Customs beagle displayed a great deal interest in them. He might have been after my stash of M&M’s, but his handler didn’t let him have any. We never found out what caught his interest, but we were finally allowed in, glad at least that we had not inadvertently brought any insects from the Amazon here in our undergarments.

Giant Tortoise Up Close

Giant Tortoise Up Close

The name of the islands, Galapagos, comes from an old Spanish word for a type of saddle since the first Europeans encountered huge tortoises which they thought looked as if their shells were the shape of a saddle. The islands are 570 miles west of mainland Ecuador and are all volcanic in origin. They were created by shield volcanoes where lava has built up over the millennia, rising from the ocean floor as much as 30,000 feet. Shield volcanoes (named for the resemblance to a Roman warriors shield), ooze rather than violently erupt,  as is the case with cinder cone volcanoes, which have a single vent and hurl lava and rock into the air. There are also composite volcanoes which do both. The oldest islands are 5 to 6 million years old, but the youngest are only 1 million years old. An 1825 volcanic eruption reportedly heated the surrounding seawater to 149 degrees. Volcan Cerro Azul (Blue Hill Volcano) on the island of Isabella erupted several times in the 1990’s. The most recent eruptions were both from Le Cumbre on the island of Fernandina which erupted in 2005 and then a few weeks after we left in April of 2009. The tallest peak is 5,600 feet on the island of Isabella.

A Sea Lion Ignoring the Fawning Tourists

A Sea Lion Ignoring the Fawning Tourists

The first Europeans to see the islands were Spaniards, whose ship was becalmed and taken there on the currents. They saw bleak sun parched islands rising up out of the sea mist, populated with astonishing animals, a natural zoo and biosphere. The Spaniards called these islands Las Encantadas (The Enchanted Ones).  The animals showed no fear of humans, having had little or no experience with them. The animals here still have no fear of predators, whether human or introduced species, which is why they must be protected if they are to survive. Many introduced animals (goats, pigs, cats, dogs, rats) have bred furiously and have become feral, eating eggs, babies, and small adult animals, wiping out many species on some islands. There are 875 plant species, many found only here.. They range from salt and dry tolerant on the coastlines to rain forest orchids and ferns in higher elevations. There are 58 bird species, again many found only here, including the worlds entire population of yellow billed albatross. The preservation organizations are trying to eradicate all introduced species and they also restrict human residents (you must be a native of Galapagos to live or work here). The current population is 18 thousand and it is not intended to expand. Tourists must be accompanied by trained and licensed guides,  their number is limited and there are very strict rules on where they may go. The goal is to restore the environment to its pre-human arrival state, which if taken literally would mean no more tourists, but tourism funds conservation efforts, so it is likely to continue.

There are two seasons here – hot and wet, January through May where average highs are around 82 degrees, and cool and dry, May-December where highs are around 64 degrees. However we have learned that wet does not mean all islands get rain– it tends to rain on the mountainous islands, leaving the flat ones parched. They also have a garua like Peru where it is cloudy and gloomy for weeks at a time. However all the islands do get the hot part of the hot and wet season. Two major currents create the environment and the weather. The Humboldt  Current which comes up from the Antarctic and Chile, cools this otherwise equatorial wasteland enough to allow it to sustain life. The other current is El Nino (translation boy child) which comes around Christmas time and warms the water and brings rain and floods. Both carry a veritable feast of nutrients in their waters, providing for the plentiful sea life. The flora and fauna of these islands got here in 3 ways: (1) flying, and thus the preponderance of birds, (2) swimming, thus the abundant marine life or (3)floating (seeds, roots that are able to get a foothold and multiply and small reptiles that floated here clinging to debris and evolved to big reptiles over the centuries).

The MV Santa Cruz

The MV Santa Cruz

We had a short van ride to the dock where our ship, the MV Santa Cruz is anchored. (M/V stands for motor vessel) We were sort of greeted, but mostly ignored by some sea lions who were dozing on and around wooden benches intended for ships passengers, but both the size and the smell of the squatters tended to discourage our lounging around there. We saw a large yacht called the Laurel, which our guides told us was currently the ship hosting Prince Charles and Camilla, who were visiting the islands on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. We didn’t see anyone on board, although we were eagerly looking for the famous royal wave with the twisty wrist. At the dock we boarded “pangas”, small inflatable open boats, along with other Santa Cruz guests and were taken with our luggage to the ship. The driver of the panga is the “panguaero” if male, or “panguaera” if female.

Our rooms were surprisingly spacious and the ship was deliciously cool. We have grown very fond our air conditioning ever since the deprivation of same in the Amazon. We had the typical life boat drill with the atypical experience of frigate birds circling over head (more on these strange creatures later).  We were assigned to a group of about 12 people and guide for the duration named Diego.

The Santa Cruz is approximately 426 feet long with a beam of 36 feet. It carries a maximum of 90 passengers, 7 guides and 60 crew, so we were very well taken care of.  The emphasis at meals is on local cuisine, featuring lots of fresh fish, including delicious ceviche, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything is brought from the mainland, including the seafood since these waters are a marine sanctuary.

A Dry Landing

A Dry Landing

We had a shore expedition at 3:30 on the northern part of Santa Cruz Island,  just across a narrow channel from Baltra. We would visit the south end of this island later in the week.  Diego explained to us that we will take the pangas ashore for all our trips and that we would have wet and dry landings (the wet meaning you get out in knee to ankle deep water, the dry meaning there is a dock.) This was a dry landing. The land here is scorching hot and somewhat barren, except for mesquite-like scrub brush, seemingly wishing it were growing someplace else. However there is a very refreshing and cooling ocean breeze that keeps us visitors from wilting like the scrub brush.

Land Iguanas Giving Tourist the "Stink Eye"

Land Iguanas Giving Tourist the “Stink Eye”

We took a short walk and saw our first land and marine iguanas (a bit more about the marine iguanas later). The land iguanas were yellowish brown and quite large for a lizard (medium alligator size) and so lethargic you had to step around them since they sprawled across the path and showed no sign of moving anywhere any time soon. They had heavy lidded, hooded eyes that seem to stare disdainfully right through you– sort of the reptilian version of a dirty look. Or as they say in the South, they were giving us the “stink eye”. Land iguanas were among the hardest hit by introduced species The first Spaniards apparently thought they were miniature dragons and thus named a small mountain nearby Cerro Dragon (dragon hill). We also saw the small Galapagos lava lizards, which true to their name, live on the lava where they stake out their territory by performing a series of little lava lizard push-ups (flexing their little lava lizard muscles one would suppose) to let all other lizard know this is their turf. Of course if an iguana comes along, all bets are off.  We also saw and were serenaded by the Galapagos Mockingbirds. They are similar to the ones at home, but larger,  and they seem to sing from the same song book.  Returning to the ship we had dinner on board and motored  to the island of  Bartoleme.

March 10, 2009

Dateline: Bartolome Island  and Santiago Island, Galapagos                                      

Pinnacle Rock - Bartolome

Pinnacle Rock – Bartolome

Today we explored Bartolome Island – a lunar landscape if there ever was one. It has the much photographed Pinnacle Rock and was one of the filming locations of the movie Master and Commander. It is a tiny island, just off the coast of the much bigger Santiago in the very scenic Sullivan Bay. Bartolome is only one-half of a square miles, more of a rock than an island, while Santiago has approximately 226 square miles. Santiago once had a salt mining operation, but it is now uninhabited, as is Bartolome. Santiago has a very rugged shoreline and is quite mountainous. It is home to the most diverse shore bird populations in the islands and also is home to many seals and sea lions. We have seen so many marine mammals, we actually stopped taking pictures after the first hundred or so, but they just seemed to get cuter and closer around every turn.

One of the interesting things we learned about the islands is how different each one is from the other. Each island has its own topography, vegetation and wildlife and no two are exactly alike. Bartolome has golden sand beaches, while Santiago’s are mainly black , and tomorrow we will visit Rabida Island  which has red Georgia-clay colored beaches. The lava now pulverized over the centuries into reddened gritty sand, gets its color from the high content of oxidized iron. The different islands also have different species and variations on the same species. For example, within the Galapagos Islands, finches have evolved to take advantage of whatever sparse fauna is available and this subspecies diversity, led to Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. He noticed that finches here have very specific adaptations to the islands they live on. For example, finches with little pointed curved bills can eat a certain type of spiny cactus on a certain island – so they survived. On other islands where the cactus has soft spines, the finches have evolved with shorter, higher volume bills. A note on the fauna here in the Galapagos – the majority of flowers here are yellow or white. Scientists believe that not as much water, nutrients and plant energy are required to produce these colors, versus the more vibrant shades such as red or orange, and of course water and nutrients here are in very short supply.

A Large Marine Iguana Contemplating Taking the Plunge

A Large Marine Iguana Contemplating Taking the Plunge

We took a boat ride ashore and saw a few Galapagos penguins, but weren’t really close enough to see them well. We also saw a beach where Pacific Green Sea Turtles have laid their eggs, as evidenced by the tracks visible on the beach. We took a nature hike and encountered large numbers of marine iguanas who are black when wet, changing to dark brown with dark red highlights when dry (the better to blend in with the lava), just as the land version of the iguana is yellowish brown with shades of green, allowing them to blend with their environment. The difference between the two types of iguana again offers an evolution lesson – the marine iguanas took to the ocean to find food so they could

 

Clumps of Marine Iguanas Warming Themselves

Clumps of Marine Iguanas Warming Themselves

eat algae and sea weed and thus thrive. When they return to shore, they bask in the sun on the sun-warmed lava and their dark colors  help them absorb heat. They are sort of armadillo sized, but with much bigger tails and instead of an armored shell, they have a row of needle sharp spines running down their backs, the better to discourage predators one would suppose. They also have big froggy feet that enable them  to swim and climb the rocks, but they apparently don’t jump like frogs. Like their land based cousins they are not the least bit concerned with humans. The males get brighter colors during mating season (orange red blue). Once ashore, the marine iguanas clump together in a big tangle of bodies, which not only warms them, but also keeps parasites to a minimum, since there is less exposed flesh for them to invade. The marine iguanas actually sneeze to get rid of saltwater taken in while eating (we’re talking projectile sneezing here so the tourists are advised to keep their distance) which is really quite an unusual, if not pretty, sight.

Flamingos on Santa Cruz Island

Flamingos on Santa Cruz Island

We also saw flamingoes who flourish here in an inland alkali pond, one of several in the Galapagos. They eat tiny crustaceans that thrive in these ponds which make their feathers pink.  There is no fresh water in these islands from ground sources. All moisture comes from the atmosphere and is gleaned in small quantities, from flora and fauna alike.

We returned to the ship for lunch and afterward went ashore to take a boardwalk and wooden staircase to the top of the extinct cinder cone of a volcano and enjoyed some great panoramic

 

Pioneer Species on Bartolome

Pioneer Species on Bartolome

views. This is one of the newer islands, relatively speaking so only the pioneer species are found growing here. (Pioneer meaning the first things to grow once the lava cools and newer meaning having occurred in the last million years.)

Much of the Galapagos needs to be explored underwater, which we will have to save for a future trip. There are seven species of whales in these waters and thousands of dolphins and pelagic creatures such as sharks and manta rays. March is the warmest month for the sea and we found the water is cool, but not cold. Galapagos waters are chillier than many dive destinations, so this will be heavy wetsuit diving. We did have a nice snorkel in the afternoon, giving us a taste of what is in the water here. We saw several King Angel fish and other species of fish which are new to us since they are found only here. The water is not crystal clear due to all the nutrients brought by the ocean currents, but it attracts so many wonderful sea creatures it’s not that much of a drawback.

Sea Lion Pups at Play

Sea Lion Pups at Play

We cruised to the island of Santiago and had another shore trek. Here we found a large number of sea lions which paid us no attention whatsoever as we sauntered along the beaches. If you got too close to the little ones, the mamma sea lions might bark at you, but it had to be a really serious offense for them to rouse themselves to make a move at you. Their coats were gleaming, as they cast occasional desultory looks our way with big brown liquid eyes fringed with long thick lashes. Their heads are small and sleek heads with little teensy ears, which is the primary way to tell sea lions from seals. When they do move, they are often

Nursing Sea Lion Pup Has Lunch

Nursing Sea Lion Pup Has Lunch

comical, slouching toward the water with blubber  rippling, impervious to sharp rocks.  Sea lions actually have nursery/ day care duties which they share. One mother stays with several pups while the other moms are out fishing. Then the “sitter mom” goes out and one of the other moms take over. The joyous reunions are really fun to watch when the babies recognize their moms coming back through the surf. We also saw fur seals, but they are more reclusive and one of the few species that seem to keep their distance from humans. There is some speculation that this is a learned behavior since fur sealers almost wiped out the whole species in the 19th Century.

A Heron Enjoys a Dip at the Hotel Pool

A Heron Enjoys a Dip at the Hotel Pool

We also saw Galapagos striated herons, which like many species are larger than their North American counterparts (must be all the readily available food). These herons actually have a unique method of catching their food. They first catch bait fish in tidal pools and kill them. But rather than eating them, they take them out to deeper water and drop them to float on surface to lure bigger fish. Then once the bigger fish show up, they swoop in for the kill.

One bird we did not see is the Peregrine Falcon, but since these birds can fly close to 200 miles per hour, perhaps they did a fly-by and we missed them. We did see the very majestic Galapagos Hawk, only found in these islands, circling high overhead. In this species, the males are monogamous, but females mate with up to 8 males just to make sure her eggs get fertilized, so we figured he may just be hanging around waiting for his turn for a conjugal visit.

Darwin's Toilet

Darwin’s Toilet

Since the islands in the Galapagos are formed by lava, it creates a very unusual landscape. There are numerous lava tubes formed as lava once flowed and cooled on the outside and remained molten and flowing on the inside, leaving a hollow center. When these lava tubes extend into the ocean, blow holes are created like the one on Santiago called Darwin’s Toilet, which is a collapsed lava tube where breaking surf sprays up jets of water through a round hole in the lava. Ocean spume makes it look like suds, so it gives it sort of a Tidy Bowl effect.

Volcanoes originate from a hot spot under the earth’s crust which moves ever so slowly, only inches a year. The superheated rock erupts through the crust as a volcano and new islands are created. Eventually the hot spot moves on to next eruption site, sometimes only a few miles away before another volcano comes to life and the island forming process starts again. The hot spot that formed the Galapagos is moving from the southeast to the northwest. Geologists predict that the oldest island, Floreana, will eventually sink and become a seamount (several millennia from now). The newest island is Fernandina which, as I mentioned, has had a number of major eruptions in the last two years.

There are two types of  lava, both with Hawaiian names:  pahoehoe (pronounced Pa hoy hoy) which is rope like and aa (pronounced ah ah) which is sharp and spiky.  The breezes here are cool and the air dry with temperatures in the low 80’. It is cool in shade, but shade is at a premium once ashore and so visitors are well advised to bring their own with a hat or umbrella since the volcanic rock and sand can get very hot, with temperatures on the lava reaching 120 degrees.  Santiago Island today is totally pristine, with no sign of mankind except for footprints and they work hard to keep it that way. We had a fabulous full moon tonight as we motored to our next destination, the island of Rabida, just south of Santiago. Despite the full moon, the stars we did see were dazzling.

 

March 11, 2009

Dateline: Rabida Island, Seymour Island, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

A Ghost Crab - Rabida Island

A Ghost Crab – Rabida Island

Today we awoke anchored off Rabida Island, one of the smaller ones with only 1.9 square miles, but packed with critters. The beaches here are orange-red , with big granules the size of bb’s. We took a walk and saw a number of sea lions sunning themselves with many pups and a single male on patrol barking at intruders (us) in case any of us were inclined to mate with his harem. The male sea lions are about twice the size of females and when they are around, there is a lot of bellowing going on to make sure no one tries to move in on his territory.

The dominant male is called the Beach Master (or as the locals call him, Big Daddy) He can only stay on guard for about 20 days in which he neither sleeps nor eats. He has about 20 females in his group, but once he leaves to eat, other males will make a move and hit on his “women”.  In the meantime they hang out on a “bachelor beach” (sort of a lonely guy hangout) just waiting for Big Daddy to head to sea or to nod off. They also go to the bachelor beach to heal up if they happen to be on the losing end of a battle for dominance with Big Daddy. This beach is also a training center where young male Rocky Balboas with mating aspirations spar with each other to ready themselves to defeat the reigning Big Daddy in battle.

The Coastline of Rabida Island

The Coastline of Rabida Island

Our walk took us to cliffs overlooking gorgeous clear Caribbean blue water with breaking surf. We saw a large school of mullet with pelicans and other sea birds going to town – finding a big school like this one in shallow water is sort of like winning the lottery for these birds– really easy pickings. The water was so clear, we could also see a school of black tip reef sharks which were below the mullet and herding them into what is termed a “bait ball” The fish will circle and school up, hoping to confuse predators and blend with the group and that thus some other unlucky fish gets singled out by the predators.  Once the ball is formed,  sharks and pelicans alike, one attacking  from the bottom, and one attacking from the top are able to scoop up big mouthfuls very easily.  We then walked to another beach to go snorkeling with hopes of seeing sea lions or marine iguanas in the water, but they were busy sunning themselves on shore and didn’t go in. Still it was a delightful snorkel.

A Male Frigate Bird

A Male Frigate Bird

While having lunch on board we motored north to Seymour Island and took another trek, this time to see the huge colonies of frigate birds and blue footed boobies. The frigate bird is a large black sea gull looking creature The males have a scarlet red gular pouch which hangs on their throats and which they inflate to attract females. Once inflated they look like red balloons and the birds become very conspicuous in this landscape where primary colors are rare. Young ones frequently try to imitate mature males, but they get turned down a lot. In the world of gular pouch flaunting, apparently size matters. While frigate birds constantly fly over water, they do not land on water. They can swoop down and pluck fish from the water eagle-style, but their favorite way to get food is to steal eggs – even from other frigate birds.

Blue Footed Boobies In Love

Blue Footed Boobies In Love

We also saw a large colony of blue footed boobies with their turquoise blue feet and quite comical mannerisms. Their name comes from the Spanish word “bobo” which means clown or dunce. The first visitors were amazed that the birds did not run or fly off when approached by humans. Of course the locals do a huge trade in T shirts and hats with the declaration “I Love Boobies” on them – usually displayed with two blue booby feet,  just to ensure you get the joke. Their foot color is actually created by air pockets in the feet that reflect blue of sky or water, versus being created by a pigment of the feet, so when the sun is not out – the blue feet are not so blue.

They do a funny mating ritual which includes a dance that looks like their feet are getting scorched lifting one foot and then the other in rapid succession.  The way they put their feet down in a rolling motion gives the impression they could be pedaling a bicycle. They also do mock dueling, clacking their bills together and “skypointing” with their wings. If that isn’t romance enough, they bring each other gifts of twigs. The boobies are sea birds and use their tails as a rudder to steer themselves during water landings. The females are larger than males and their eyes are distinctive, with the females having  large black pupils and the males having  much smaller ones. There are Red Footed Boobies in other parts of the Galapagos, but not on this island.

We also saw two of the rare Galapagos lava gulls, one of the only 200 nesting pairs left in the world, all now living on Seymour Island.  There were also a few Galapagos penguins waddling about , but the really large colonies are on Isabella, which we only saw in the distance on this trip. We also saw the rather sad looking flightless cormorant. The flightless cormorants are especially endangered by introduced species since they cannot fly and conservation efforts are focused on eliminating their unnatural predators. This bird is believed to have evolved from ancestors who could fly and had nice big wings with lots of feathers to flap. The flightless cormorants have shrunken wings with just a few tattered feathers on each one, but this does not seem to cramp their lifestyle.  The cormorants here have taken the evolutionary path of the penguins and they dive for food off the ledges and rocks. They use their wings more for steering than propulsion, which is accomplished with their powerful feet.  Fish are so plentiful here, they can just jump right into the middle of a feast. On land they do flap their pitiful little wings, but it’s only to dry them out. We did see them do this, although we missed the first part where they are supposed to scamper over rocks and plunge in the sea and pop up with a fish in their mouths. They also do their mating dances in the water, a courtship ritual which can last up to 40 days, so they don’t exactly rush into romance. We didn’t see this either, but some things I guess are meant to be private. The boobies could take a lesson here since they were shamelessly courting right under our noses.

 A Sally Lightfoot Crab

A Sally Lightfoot Crab

We saw the colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs everywhere along the shoreline. They are a bright red and are quite plentiful on the seaside lava rocks. Aside from the frigate birds’ gular sacks, crabs are the only red things on the island. They get their name because they are so light on their feet, (or perhaps I should say light on their claws). We also saw the more elusive Ghost Crab, which tends to pop into its hidey-hole when anyone approaches.

Back on board, we attended a lecture on Charles Darwin. In 1832 he set out from England on a ship called the Beagle as a companion to another traveler. He went around Cape Horn and eventually landed in the Galapagos. He published Origin of Species in 1859 in which he explained his ideas of evolution based on natural selection (i.e. survival of the fittest). He did not start out as a naturalist, but rather as a medical student. However, he reportedly gagged uncontrollably during surgery and amputations, and so he decided it was time for a career change. He collected a lot of insects and rocks as a child and apparently found that more to his liking and he continued to do so as he traveled up the coast of South America. He only visited 4 islands in the Galapagos, spending a total of 21 days, but his observations here had worldwide impact. He later published 2 books which were banned by churches who found his theories heretical and there is still controversy surrounding his findings today.

March 12, 2009

Dateline: Santa Cruz Island and San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

The Harbor at Puerto Ayora

The Harbor at Puerto Ayora

Today we awoke off Santa Cruz Island, anchored in Academy Bay. It is one of the larger islands with 380 square miles. We are now on the south part of the island, having visited the Cerro Dragon area in the north on our first day. This morning we motored by panga to the small fishing village of Puerto Ayora , whose tiny harbor, with an even tinier entrance, was bustling with commerce and we disembarked at the town dock. There was all sorts of local color here –fishermen repairing nets, marine iguanas on the front porch of some of the local porches, workmen (I couldn’t call them longshoremen because their dock is not even a hundred feet long), unloading barges which had to be towed in from ships anchored off shore due to the size of the harbor.  From town we took a bus up into the mountains to a Tortoise Sanctuary (note turtles are in the sea, tortoises are on land. There is very different terrain here  quite jungle-like with lush foliage all around us.

There were originally 14 sub- species of giant tortoises here, but 3 are now extinct. The mature ones can weigh up to 550 pounds and can live well beyond 100 years. Here there are two species of tortoise – the saddle back and the domed. The domed species live where vegetation is low and plentiful. The saddlebacks have longer necks and legs and live where vegetation is not so easy to get at. They are more agile than the domed tortoises, but, of course, with a 500 pound tortoise, that’s not saying much.

Crawl A Mile in My Shell

Crawl A Mile in My Shell

We took a walk and saw several  wild tortoises, a few sauntering, but most just basking in the sun or nibbling at the jungle foliage.  We also had the opportunity to try on some empty tortoise shells (well I did anyway – as giant as they are, there weren’t any that Gary could manage to slip into). It certainly does give you a different perspective on life with your head only inches from the ground.  We then visited Las Gemolas (the twins, a.k.a. Gemini which are giant sinkholes. This was sort of a yawner, but then we’re easy to entertain. From there we went to the Lava Tube Tunnel which was huge, big enough to drive a truck through

Giant Lava Tube Santa Cruz

Giant Lava Tube Santa Cruz

and close to a quarter mile long,  Then it was back to Puerto Ayora for lunch at the Finch Bay Hotel. They had a nice swimming pool, which looked very inviting, but then a local heron flew in and started paddling around we decided to rethink that swim, just in case that bird flu thing was still a thing.

After lunch we went to the Darwin Research Center, which has an active tortoise breeding program to where they raise and release tortoises into the wild to try to preserve the species. They also had Lonesome George there (since deceased), who was the last surviving saddle back tortoise from Pinta Island and thus the “lonesome” moniker. They had tried to fix him up with girlfriend saddlebacks from other islands, but he wasn’t  having anything to do with these “foreigners”.  They had several huge tortoises

Tortoises Hanging Out at the Darwin Center

Tortoises Hanging Out at the Darwin Center

that allowed us to get close and mingle with them, but they don’t want them to get used to being too much around humans, and they also encourage them to go out and forage on their own for food.  There are an estimated 10,000 Giant Tortoises in the wild on several different islands, which seems impressive, but when Darwin came here there was an estimated 100,000. The population was decimated by pirates and whalers who found they could store the tortoises live on board for months at a time without their requiring food or water and then slaughter them for their meat as needed to feed their crews. Tortoise populations were thus wiped out on several islands.  The Darwin Center will release tortoises in their program when they reach 4 to 5 years old. From there, we walked into town, shopped a little and had some refreshments at a local bar before taking the panga back to the ship for our last night in the Galapagos.  We would travel overnight on the Santa Cruz to San Cristobal to catch our flight to Quito tomorrow.

March 13

Dateline: Quito, Ecuador

Latitude at Quito 0.13 degrees South, Longitude 78.30 degrees West

We awoke anchored off the village of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, named for an Ecuadorian President in the 1920’s, on the island of San Cristobal. It is also the provincial capital. The islands have two airports – the one on Baltra where we arrived, built by the Allies in WWII in case the Japanese kept on coming west, and one on San Cristobal, from which we will depart.  The island of San Cristobal is about 215 square miles. It is very rocky with lots of coral heads. Sunsets here are famous and since they are within one degree of the Equator, they are in same spot every day all year round where the sun drops behind Kicker Rock, silhouetted to the west. We will miss this since we will be long gone by the time the sun sets.

Baltra as Seen from Bartolome

Baltra as Seen from Bartolome

We took a bus to the Interpretative Center, where we learned about how islands were settled. We found that not only does the Galapagos have weird creatures, but they seem to attract really a steady procession of really weird people , most coming to the island of Floreana. This island also has Post Office Bay where people passing through can leave mail for people in distant countries and other people passing through will take mail if they are traveling to the country it is addressed to and post it there. Apparently it is still in use. But let me get back to the real weirdness of Floreana. Here are a few examples:

An Ecuadorian army officer was given land on the island in 1832 as a reward for bravery. He brought in 80 people, whom he enslaved and kept in line with some extremely large vicious dogs, thus earning the name the Dog King of Charles Island (the British name for Floreana Island). He later fled when they revolted.

In 1928 a German dentist named Ritter moved to the islands with another man’s wife and set up housekeeping under a tin roof, saying that houses with walls were unsanitary. When he left Berlin, he had all of his teeth pulled (maybe anticipating good dental work would be hard to find in the islands) and had them replaced with stainless steel dentures. He claimed to be a vegetarian, and practicing nudist,  but it was reported that he would tear into beef and any other meat whenever the opportunity presented itself. There seemed to be no counter-evidence on the nudism claim. Yachts people reportedly liked to visit him for the novelty of it, and often brought food. He later died of food poisoning and his lover was questioned but nothing ever came of it.

Baroness Wehrborn of Vienna and Paris came to the islands in the 1930’s. She intended to start a carnal paradise and to get things going brought two lovers with her from Europe and she picked up a spare in Guyaquil. Like Ritter, she had her own tin roof shelter and dubbed it Hacienda Paradise and herself the Pirate Queen of the Galapagos. She was also her own PR person and placed all sorts of outlandish stories about herself in news outlets around the world. The yachts people eventually migrated to her and Ritter’s “salon” languished. She one day “disappeared” as reported by one of her two original lovers with the other original lover on a yacht no one had ever heard of going to an undisclosed location and was never heard from again. The reporting lover then rapidly decamped from the islands. He had hired another European to take him to the mainland, but both were later found murdered on another island a hundred miles away. The boat and a boy who was with the European were never seen again. This sounds like a good story for Dateline NBC to me. By the way – the total human population on Floreana at this time was 9, including the Baroness’s household, so you’d have to say that the weirdness per capita statistics are pretty impressive.

A Giant Tortoise and Some Medium Sized Tourists

A Giant Tortoise and Some Medium Sized Tourists

In leaving we regret the many islands not visited which we’ll have to save for next time, primarily Isabella, Fernandina, and also Floreana and Post Office Bay, site of the aforementioned weirdness. Plus we want to do a live-aboard dive trip here to see the islands from an underwater perspective.

In the afternoon we flew to Quito where our tour operator provided transportation to our hotel, the Dann Carlton in the newer section of Quito. We were on our own for dinner and were hoping for the Ecuadorian branch of Norky’s that we had seen in Lima where we could get Pollo Brasa – Rotisserie Chicken after a week of mostly seafood. We ended up walking to a fast food place called Pollo Gus where a kindly Chinese Ecuadorian (wait a minute – did we see him at Hoja Dorado in Guyaquil?) helped us translate our order into comprehensible Spanish. Tomorrow we will start our tour of mainland Ecuador, but tonight we sleep in a luxury hotel in a cool climate on dry land. We once again were back at high elevation, approximately 10,000 feet. And if the altitude doesn’t leave you breathless, the scenery certainly will, but more on that later.




South America Part 5: Ecuador

  South America

Part 5 – Volcano Country – Ecuador

 

March 14, 2009

Dateline: Quito and Otavalo, Ecuador

Latitude at Quito 0.13 degrees South, Longitude 78.30 degrees West

Today we started our tour of the Ecuadorian High Sierra and will be based in Quito for the next several days. Ecuador’s electricity is 110 AC, the time zone is the same as Eastern Standard, English is widely spoken and the currency is US dollars, so we are right at home. The country had a serious devaluation problem with their own money several years ago, and they went to the US dollar and never went back.  The population of the country is roughly 13 million people, who speak primarily Spanish. The indigenous people also speak five different dialects of Quichua (similar to Quechua in Peru) so they  use Spanish or English as a common language in order to be able to talk to each other. Ecuador is a large exporter of oil, and they produce enough cheap gasoline for their own consumption, but then again, they don’t consume nearly as much as we North Americans do. They also export bananas, shrimp, flowers, fish, and tropical fruit, as well panama hats which were always from Ecuador, but were widely worn in Panama during the construction of the canal, and thus the misnomer originated and still endures.

A Fruit Stand at the Otavalo Market

A Fruit Stand at the Otavalo Market

Our guide, Andrea, and our driver picked us up and we rode north for a few miles on the Pan American Highway (called locally the Pana or Panavial), which stretches from Alaska to Chile,  before taking a local road toward Otavalo (pronounced Oh-tah-vah-loh with the accent on “vah”), our destination for today, which is a trip of approximately 60 miles. Every Saturday in Otavalo there is a huge open air market for artisans, mostly weavers, to sell their work and for the local people to buy fresh produce and local delicacies, such as frittata, which is a whole hog cooked with roasted potatoes and plantains. And of course on the other end of the piggy spectrum is the cuy, or guinea pig, which is also available here in abundance, but more on that later.

Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

Leaving Quito, the day was exceptionally clear and we saw the distant peak of Cotopaxi which stands at 19,350 feet, but is not the tallest peak in Ecuador. Still it is quite an impressive sight from the city since Quito is at a measly 10,000 feet and Cotopaxi towers so far above it.  The tallest mountain in Ecuador honor goes to Chimborazo to the south at 21,000 feet. And even at that height, Chimborazo is not the tallest mountain in South America. Ecuador’s claim to fame in the Andes Chain is the sheer number of peaks over 10,000 feet, most of them concentrated in this area of Northern Ecuador where there are 42 volcanoes, 12 of which are active. These are the youngest mountains in the Andes and among the highest. The Andes were formed when two tectonic plates collided over the centuries, causing a radical lifting of the earth’s crust. There are dramatic climatic differences here. For every 700 feet of increase in altitude, the temperature drops 1 degree Centigrade (which is 1.8 degrees F) and thus there are many micro climates within a few miles of each other. Major areas are the coastal area bordering the Pacific Ocean, the steep mountains of the West Range, the broad inter-mountain valley between the two ranges, the steep mountains of the Central Range, and the cloud and rain forests of the Amazon.

Our trip today will take us to northernmost Ecuador, just a few miles from the border with Columbia. We traveled through Pichincha Province and then the Imbabura Province to the Guayabamba Valley. The name means “green valley” in the indigenous language. The picturesque valley, as the name suggests, unfolds below snowy mountain tops and around every turn we saw multiple shades of green, bisected by the milk chocolaty waters of  the Guayabamba River. From there we dropped down into the Cochabamba Valley, one of the most prosperous in Ecuador where roses are the primary crop. Last Valentine’s Day they shipped 36 million roses worldwide from this area. It is an ideal location since stems grow tall and straight due to the latitude and there are no bugs, nor fungus due to the altitude. This valley is relatively dry, with most of the rain falling in the mountains to the west. Acacia like bushes give it an African savannah sort of look. There are no terraces since the land is flat enough to cultivate. There are more terraces in the southern part of Ecuador and in Peru where the Spanish took the flat land, forcing indigenous people to move up the hillsides to cultivate their crops. Although the Spanish are long gone, this is still happening in Quito today with the well-to-do taking the land on the valley floor and the poor are forced to the slums called favelas (the word sounds charming, but the reality is they are big on squalor low on charm) which are all built up the ravines and on steep hillsides.  Other big agricultural exports from this valley are cocoa and avocados. The farming here is very community oriented with friends and relatives joining together to plant, harvest, build structures, clear fields and so forth – sort of  like an old fashioned “barn raising” in the olden days in America, but with lots of the local liquor flowing instead of the traditional Midwest lemonade.

Guinea Pig Roast

Guinea Pig Roast

We saw cuy being roasted on a makeshift grill shaped from a 55 gallon drum alongside the road and made a stop for photos. Even on a spit without their fur, they still look like little tortured pets to me. Gary threatened to go to Pet Smart and get a cage full of them for a dinner party when we get home He kept singing “guinea pigs roasting on an open fire” (as opposed to chestnuts) until he was silenced by popular demand. If cuy didn’t suit your fancy here at the roadside stand, there were also roasted bananas and Hawaiian style shaved ice for sale.

 

Freshly Baked Biscocho

Freshly Baked Biscocho

We saw the Cayambe Volcano as the clouds parted from time to time and stopped in the town by the same name. The volcano is extinct, but there are many quite active ones nearby so the locals tend to tune in to any rumblings in the distance. Cayambe is the only volcanic mountain on the Equator in the world. In the village, our guide bought us a local treat they call biscocho, which is a twice cooked biscuit which tastes like shortbread and is served with caramel sauce. It was divinely delicious and might have been the best thing I have tasted on this trip. They also make a soft white cheese here which we tasted also, called Queso de Hoja, (literal translation is sheet cheese), often served in a banana leaf. It is very mild like that we have found in other parts of South America. They don’t seem to make the strong flavored cheeses like aged cheddar or any of the stinky variety (e.g. Roquefort).

Our next stop is the scientific center at La Mitad del Mundo (the center of the word) where the latitude is exactly 0.00. As I child I believed that when you traveled from one state to another and crossed the state line that there would actually be a line that you could feel as a slight bump when your car passed over it. If the state lines were a bump then the Equator should have been a crevasse or towering mountain range, but of course this was not the case, although the Ecuadorans did have a line in the stonework to show us the exact spot. . Gary and I had visited the Equator before in Kenya where we beheld the marvelous experiment where you watch water draining into a bucket with a toothpick floating on top and right on the equator the

Volcan Cayambe on the Equator

Volcan Cayambe on the Equator

water goes straight down. Then you take a few steps into the Northern hemisphere and the toothpick spins counter clockwise and then a few steps into the Southern Hemisphere it spins clockwise. Imagine our surprise and dismay when a scientist at La Mitad del Mundo denounced this as a hoax, saying you would have to travel a number of miles from the equator to see this effect. Apparently this con has been worked on the gullible tourists for years. Andrea stressed to us that we were at the scientifically certified center of the world. Many hucksters in other locales claim to be at 0.00, but are off by a few minutes ( One degree of latitude equals 60 nautical miles (69 statute miles) and there are 60 minutes in each degree and 60 seconds in each minute. The main thing we noticed that was unusual was that the shadows were very short and we were told that there are no shadows at all cast at the summer and winter solstices which would have been interesting to see.

Our next stop was the town of Otavalo and fortunately for us, it was Saturday, the day of the week when the whole town turns into a market (they call it la feria) where people buy, sell and socialize. At dawn many artisans from surrounding villages bring their goods and many small farmers come to sell their produce and their butchered livestock. The market is held in 3 main plazas and the surrounding streets. The market was a feast for the sights and senses – the

Little Piggy Who Went to Market

Little Piggy Who Went to Market

beautiful woven and leather goods and carvings, and the not so beautiful market essentials such as a whole roasted pig with a tomato in its mouth, skinned chickens with the feet still on (glad I ate my biscocho before seeing that),and  a truck just in from the farm, full of eggs in cartons stacked floor to ceiling. The  truck bed also served  as the point of sale. There were rows and rows of stalls with really delicious looking fruits, veggies and whole grains. The people here eat very well, but whatever nutritional item it is that makes people grow taller must still be missing from their diets.

 

Pan Flutes for Sale at Otavalo

Pan Flutes for Sale at Otavalo

Gary bought a pan flute from a local vendor. He could have used a few lessons , but then who besides the locals have enough spare breath to make any noise at this altitude?  He also bought a mask for our collection at home and Sharon and I bought some silver jewelry. The main attraction for tourists here are the legions of spinners, weavers, and textile merchants who spread their wares across the squares in a dazzling display of intense color. The town square is nicknamed “Poncho Plaza” since poncho weavers seem to dominate the market. It is a maze of stands with narrow aisles, and along with the ponchos you can find blankets, tapestries, embroidered blouses and dresses, long woven belts called fajas, woven tapes used to bind hair called cintas, yarn and bolts of fabric of every bright color with no subtle pastels anywhere. The textiles were tempting, but we have another 3 weeks of travel and couldn’t stand the drama (or the expense) involved in another FedEx shipment home.

Yarn for Sale Otavalo Market

Yarn for Sale Otavalo Market

The tradition of textile production here dates back to Spanish exploitation of local people and the encomienda system whereby colonizers were given the right to forced labor provided by the indigenous people. In exchange for their labor, the indigenous people received the blessings of Christianity (also forced so not exactly a good deal for the locals). This practice was banned in the years between 1690 and 1720, but it evolved to a system of debt whereby the peons would remain peons and “owe their soul to the company store” forever. This was called wasipungo and under this system, the people did the same jobs and got a wage, but that was eaten up by the debt to their employers. In 1964 agrarian reform laws were passed and the peons at last had a path to prosperity. Of course the Otavalo textiles are popular with tourists, but the Ecuadorians are actually the biggest consumers.

The Streets of the Otavalo Market

The Streets of the Otavalo Market

This is a very ethnically diverse region with two main groups of indigenous people (called indigenas) which both wear their distinctive clothing, particularly the women. The Cayambe women wear the big full skirts and both men and women wear Charlie Chaplin  bowler type hats. The Otavalo women wear a type of wrap, sometimes a woven shawl called a pano or a simple folded blanket, over white cotton peasant blouses and they bind their hair, worn in a long braid, with cintas.  They also carry shigras which are bright multi-colored bags made of strips of agave which has much the same texture as hemp.  Dyes come from nature, and are either plant or insect based. The jewelry includes elaborate seed bead necklaces that show what community the women are from. The well-to-do wear silver jewelry and quite often sport gold capped teeth where you would expect porcelain. The Ecuadorian equivalent of our backpacks are the macanas, which are comprised of lengths of cloth slung over the back, Santa Claus style, to carry everything from babies to groceries, to small farm animals, to firewood. As in Peru, the indigenous people are very small by American standards.  I would have to say many adult Ecuadorians would not be able to go on the big rides at Disney World if you get my drift. Of course, as in Peru, there is a large mestizo population where Spaniards have inter-married with indigenous people so they are a little taller, but still it makes it hard for us hulky gringos to blend with the locals.

And speaking of blending, it is easier if you have slipped across the border. Northern Ecuador has a problem with illegal immigration since it is so close to the Columbian border. They are largely refugees, fleeing drug lords and the associated violence surrounding the drug business in general. A couple of really cute kids joined us on our van and sang a few songs to us. They were little apple cheeked girls with straight black hair and dark, ebony eyes, and eyelashes so thick they looked like fakes. We let them off at a bus stop. It amazed us how children here at very young ages are out and about with no parent in sight (sort of like small-town America in the 1950’s). Ecuador has a very low rate of violent crime which permits children to have this freedom. It makes you wonder how and why our two societies are so different.

Lago San Pablo and Volcan Imbabura

Lago San Pablo and Volcan Imbabura

We stopped for lunch at a delightful lakeside lodge called the Puerto Lago Restaurant at Pinsaqui. Our table overlooked the very picturesque  Lago San Pablo  with a mountain called  Volcan Imbabura above it at an elevation of 14 thousand feet. A few miles away we could see a sister volcano called Cotachi, looming in the background. The scenery was very reminiscent of the lake district in northern Italy, or perhaps  Lake Tahoe. We got back to the hotel in the late afternoon and walked a few blocks to find a good restaurant. It was another early night for us, as we still are adjusting to being back at high altitude.

 

March 15, 2009

Dateline: Quito, Ecuador

Old Quito

Old Quito

Today we spent the morning exploring Old Quito. During the 13th Century it was the center of the Kingdom of Quitus, home of the Quitua Amerindians and the name Quito comes from their indigenous language which means “center”. Several hundred years later it became the Northern capital of the Incas, but they were only here less than 50 years. There is evidence of much older cultures going back 2 thousand years. Once the Spanish came here in the 1500’s, as in Lima, they found willing converts and began building monasteries, churches and cathedrals with a vengeance, often incorporating Incan religious symbols to facilitate conversions. The old town is well preserved, that is at least the structures that the Spanish built. Atahualpa (the last Inca) had a general called Ruminahui (a.k.a. Face of Stone) who burned all the Inca structures down to their foundations once his defeat became apparent. It didn’t seem to trouble the Spaniards, since they just built their stuff on the excellent stone foundations the Incas left. Quito was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. Ecuador is highly focused on their heritage and to that end, sixty per cent of their income tax goes toward historic preservation.  It is a city of two million people, situated  in a valley no more than

Above Quito

Above Quito

2 to 3 miles wide,  and 22 miles long. Despite the altitude, (they have oxygen bars around the city for those who may suffer from altitude issues)  they have a spring-like climate year round thanks to their position just 15 miles south of the Equator. The city is surrounded by towering volcanic peaks, the closest being Rucu Pichincha, a mountain of almost 16,000 feet. Many of the streets are named after dates of historic significance so navigating around can be a challenge if you don’t remember the month and day of the street your hotel is on.  If you do get lost, they have a special tourist police force, more to protect and assist tourists than to arrest them.

There were a few interesting, if unsuccessful, rebellions  including one against the Spanish  in 1592 protesting a sales tax and another in 1765 based on a rumor that the government was poisoning rum and giving it to the poorer classes to try to eliminate them in a rather novel approach to genocide. We had no word on whether or not this was true. The country remained under Spanish rule until a rebellion in 1822 when all the colonies under Spanish domination began to revolt. Ecuador briefly joined Columbia and Venezuela to form a single country called La Gran Columbia in 1822, but it only lasted 8 years. The old town is called the Casco Colonial, (literal translation is colonial town center). The old town is largely restored with museums, boutiques, galleries and restaurants, but there is still much to be done.

Gargoyles of the National Cathedra.

Gargoyles of the National Cathedral

We first visited the Cathedral called the Basilica del Voto Nacional, built in 1892 and fairly new by Old World standards.  It is situated on a hill above the old town in all its new neo-gothic splendor. It seems no architectural feature was ignored in the making of this cathedral. It has the pinnacles, the spires, the towers and parapets, the buttresses , the arches and of course the gargoyles to both ward off evil spirits and serve as downspouts for rain water. But these are not your standard mythological gargoyles – these are anteaters, monkeys, tortoises, iguanas, sea lions and other native wildlife. It is a little incongruous in this setting, but then incongruity is always much more interesting than the conventional, e.g. the standard dragons and assorted monsters found on most cathedrals.

After visiting the cathedral, we walked a few blocks to a restaurant that has a panoramic view of the city. From this vista we saw 3 (out of 4 that are  ever visible from city) volcanic  mountains in distance  which Andrea says is very unusual.  We saw Volcan Pinchincha  and two others very clearly, but very briefly as clouds and fog began to roll in. We also saw the hill called Cerro Panecillo with a huge statue called the Virgin of the Americas (also called the Winged Virgin) which looks out over the city, sort of reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro without the ocean. There is a cable car (the teleferico) which goes to the top of a peak called Cruz Loma at 14,000 feet and from there you can hike to the top of Volcan Pinchincha, but the visibility is usually poor this time of year. We said thank goodness for that. Otherwise, we would feel obligated to actually attempt it. We were told there is an oxygen bar at the top, but that knowledge wasn’t much encouragement to make the hike since you’d have to actually reach the top before it could do you any good.

The Cloisters at the Monasterio de San Francisco

The Cloisters at the Monasterio de San Francisco

Quito is nicknamed the Cloister of the Americas and with good reason We walked down to the old center city filled with churches, abbeys and monasteries representing all the usual orders – Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite as well as several lesser known ones.. The Spanish church fathers apparently hit the mother lode here in terms of potential converts resulting in a frenzy religious indoctrination in a very short period of time. They did a good job too since the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic today. Because of the plethora of churches (80 in the old town alone), we have found that we

tourists, in addition to altitude and digestive issues, can also suffer from “church overdose”. To avoid this affliction, we didn’t explore too deeply into any of the churches, but instead we just did a walking tour that went by many of them. We first visited the main square, the Plaza de la Independencia, (Plaza of Independence) which is a park like setting filled with palms, park benches and gardens with a statue dedicated to liberty in the center. It is bordered on one side by the 400 year old presidential palace (Palacio Gobierno) and the Metropolitan Cathedral on another. On the other two sides are the archbishop’s palace and city administration buildings. This is pretty standard in Latin America – not only are church and state not separated,  they work hand in glove, with the church being the hand part with all the power. Ecuador has a colorful, if not long, political history, with religion not only bleeding over into politics, but actually taking over (or sometimes only attempting to take over as in the case of the failed coup by the Jesuits of all people)  Between 1901 and 1948 Ecuador had 39 different governments,  including one tumultuous period where they had 4 governments in 26 days. The phrase, “Throw the bums out” seems to have really been taken to heart. They seem to have stabilized since then, but here in Latin America you always need to watch for a flare-up.

The Metropolitan Cathedral

The Metropolitan Cathedral

The Metropolitan Cathedral was first built in 1565, but it suffered from fires and earthquakes and has required 3 major renovations due to earthquake damage – the most recent being a big one in 1987. It is much more modest than the Basilica on the outside, but is very ornate inside as is the standard for cathedrals. It’s real claim to fame is its religious paintings by the famous (in Ecuador anyway) School of Quito painters, whose works  hang inside the cathedral. The Quito School artists painted Christian themes, but focused on the really bloodthirsty ones – tortured and bloody martyrs, saints dying a painful death at the hands of heretics, and other assorted horrors – not recommended for queasy or wimpy tourists. Interestingly enough, life at the cathedral has indeed imitated art. There have been several murders in the cathedral including that of President Moreno in 1875 who was shot leaving Mass and taken back into the church where he promptly died. In 1877 a bishop died during mass, after drinking poisoned altar wine. The cathedral was a dangerous place in those days and it makes you wonder if maybe those paintings depicting so much evil have a subliminal influence to make people start thinking about doing a little evil of their own.

The Palacio Gobierno

The Palacio Gobierno

The Plaze de La Independencia was really hopping today since Prince Charles and Camilla were visiting the president of Ecuador after wrapping up their stay in the Galapagos. They have roughly the same itinerary as ours, but we suspect with different accommodations. There was an honor guard of Ecuadorian troops who wore colorful red, blue and gold uniforms from the 19th Century, but carried modern weapons. We arrived at the Palacio Gobierno along with 400 cops (which may be just about the whole force in Quito) just in time to see Charles and Camilla arrive and be greeted on the portico by the President. We weren’t real close so I could not tell if Camilla is as horsey looking as the tabloids and late night comics suggest. She looked pretty spiffy in a grand dowager sort of way and so did the Prince. He was in a business suit (Savile Row no doubt) and walked with ramrod stiff posture which we assumed he must have learned at Eton or wherever royalty goes to learn how to be royal. We didn’t see them in the Galapagos, but saw TV footage from the Tortoise Sanctuary and noted that Prince Charles was dressed just as formally to visit the tortoise, Lonesome George, as he was to visit the President of Ecuador. (This led us to speculate that Charles probably owns no tee shirts, nor shorts and that the Royal Knees are only seen in public peeking out below a kilt) There were a few pleasantries (we assume since we were out of earshot) and a round of handshaking and they disappeared inside for lunch. A unique feature of the governor’s palace is that the ground level floor is rented out to souvenir shops and boutiques – no word on whether Camilla planned to stop by to pick up a couple of trinkets later in the day.

La Compania de Jesus

La Compania de Jesus

Our next stop was to be at a Church called La Compania del Jesus (the most accurate translation is the Church of the Society of Jesus, and it is also referred to locally as the Gold Church since there is so much of it used on the interior). However, we learned that the church was closed for the afternoon for a private tour for Charles and Camilla, so we had to move on. We did miss a couple of other things in this area such as the catacombs in the basement of the San Augustin monastery and dungeons under the palace where 36 revolutionaries who took part in an 1890 uprising (those pesky Jesuits again) were held for 9 months before being executed (really swift justice compared to the US system). We heard that their deaths are graphically illustrated in a wax museum, but decided to skip that and have a nice lunch while we still had an appetite.

San Francisco Cathedral

San Francisco Cathedral

We stopped briefly for refreshments at an outdoor café on the Plaza San Francisco after seeing the monastery and church built in 1534, making it the oldest church on the South American continent, as well as the largest religious complex in colonial Quito. It was started two months after the Spanish Conquest on the site of a destroyed Incan temple Like most of the other churches of the era, there is strong Moorish influence in the design and it has undergone massive reconstruction due to earthquake damage. It is full of sculptures and paintings and unique architectural features, however we were too full of sculptures, paintings and architectural features ourselves so we decided to just admire it from the outside. While we were sitting at our table, Gary engaged the services of a young shoeshine girl. We learned that the shoeshine business is the primary source of income for kids in the city, with the selling of candy and chicle (chewing gum) a close runner up. These kids

Quitena Shoeshine Girl

Quitena Shoeshine Girl

don’t usually get to keep the money they make – they are actually helping support their family. Mom and/or dad are typically nearby selling other stuff, often textiles from the Otavalo region.  The cost of a shoeshine is 30 cents, but Andrea said your heart will tell you more. Gary’s heart told him about 3 bucks, ten times the going rate, and he bought a Coke for the little girl to share with her two little brothers who were also shoeshine entrepreneurs.

We walked by another church, quite young by Quito standards, called  La Merced (The Mercy), and admired its bell tower and exterior. It was the  last church built in old Quito, started in  1700 and completed in 1734. The tower houses the oldest clock in city which dates from from1817. From there we walked through the La Ronda neighborhood,

La Ronda

La Ronda

once a slum full of muggers and pickpockets, but it is now restored and very artsy. It was built in colonial times at the very edge of the city (literally an edge since there is a deep ravine behind the buildings on one side of the street). The neighborhood has a Greek feel to it with cobblestone streets, white stucco buildings with blue window trim and doors, pots of red geraniums, balconies, maze-like paths, and steep winding stairways. The name comes from the guitar serenades (rondas) that were played here from the balconies in the colonial days.

We had an early dinner in the Mariscal section of the city which is where most of the embassies are. It is a very international community with lots of good restaurants and nightclubs. It’s funny how you can only visit so many churches and monasteries before your interest starts to flag a bit, but that does not seem to be true of bars and restaurants. We wonder why that is.

 

March 16, 2009

Dateline: Avenue of the Volcanoes, Ecuador

We had hoped for a special adventure today which involved riding atop something called the Devil’s Nose Train. The Devil’s Nose is a railway line that winds its way from just south of Quito, down to a town in a valley far below called Riobamba and eventually to Guayaquil, a drop of over 11,000 feet. The train, we learned is not actually a train, but a bus called the Chiva Express that runs on the train tracks and has open air seating on top. A “chiva” is an old fashioned Latin American bus, on which in the old days they put  chickens, grain, bananas and so forth on the roof instead of tourists. We were also told that chivas are often hired for parties in Quito for celebrations of birthdays, weddings and other happy occasions. The host invites his friends to join them and they ride the bus through the streets, sometimes with a band on board and fully stocked with liquid refreshments, doing the local version of “ hootin and hollerin”. The refreshment is often an Andean drink called canelazo which is a mixture of aguardiente,  lime sugar, water, cinnamon, oranges, Aguardiente is the local firewater made from fermented sugar and fruit or grain – comparable to American “corn likker”, and every bit as high in alcohol content.

The route is called the Avenue of the Volcanoes, since the valley is lined with them, a combination of  active, dormant and extinct ones  in two parallel ranges running north to south, with the occasional transverse inter-mountain valley carved out here and there. Ten million Inca lived here back in the time of Atahualpa, but outside of Quito the land is very sparsely populated  today. However there is still a total of 693 individual indigenous communities in the country. There are 20 active volcanoes along the Avenue and 7 of them are constantly monitored in case they create dangers for humans. This was to be one of the highlights of our week in Ecuador; however this particular adventure was not to be. It seems a combination of rockslides and washouts had destroyed a section of the tracks and the Chiva Express was out of service. The destruction happened last fall and we were a little puzzled over why our travel agent didn’t know about this, but we decided to go with Plan B and have fun anyway. Plan B was a tour bus with a few other travelers which would visit the same or similar places, but we were not given the option of riding on the roof, which would have been challenging to say the least since there was not so much as a luggage rack up there. We decided that if this were not the Devil’s Backbone, it had to be the Devil’s Hiney because the potholes were killers and their numbers were legion. We suspect that whatever shock absorbers once existed on this bus were long ago destroyed on the Road of the Devil’s Hiney.

Clouds and Wetlands of Cotopaxi

Clouds and Wetlands of Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi Volcano and the surrounding ecological sanctuary are the primary attractions on any trip on the Devil’s anatomy. The peak is 19,347 feet and is snow-covered all year round. It is surrounded by the  Andean paramo (moorlands or  high meadows). The paramo is not dry like the Peruvian altiplano,  although it is at a comparable altitude. There are 3 rivers that emanate from Cotopaxi and since it is situated on the Continental Divide, it has the unique feature of having two running east and 1 running west. It is still an active volcano with the last eruption occurring in 1904, but the really, really big one was  in 1877 which sent lava hurtling down the valley as far away as Guayaquil.

We started with a clear day driving south from Quito, ascending to a high ridgeline with the whole panorama of  the city spread out below us.  To the north behind us we had a view of Cayambe (the peak located on the Equator) and we could also see the peaks of Cotopaxi and Corazon as we drove along the Pinchincha Valley. The soil is rich and fertile, the landscape green and lush, and the sun burning off the mist was beautiful. But by 9:00 the burning off stopped and the clouds rolled in bringing a driving rain.  The rain moved through quickly and was replaced by thick fog . It seemed to move like a veil, allowing us a glimpse of something wonderful ever so often and then it would be gone as the veil dropped. We played the Andean version of  Peek-a-boo with Cotopaxi for close to an hour, but as the day wore on the gauzy veil became  more like a burqa and Cotopaxi disappeared.

A Walk in the Clouds

A Walk in the Clouds

We stopped for a short trek to commune with nature – it was mostly a cold wet walk in the fog, and parkas with hoods were the order of the day. We stopped at a nature center where we saw a grazing deer through the mist and there were enough birds to delight any ornithologist, although the grand prize, the giant condor remained unseen. We had been on the lookout for condors, which are known to inhabit these parts, but as in the Colca Canyon of Peru, they need thermals to fly and these Ecuadorian Condors apparently don’t like the wet and cold any better than their condor cousins to the south We did have a condor encounter, but unfortunately this one was stuffed and resting on a display case inside the center so it wasn’t exactly the defining moment type of experience we were looking for (i.e. giant condor soaring majestically above snow capped peaks so close that we could smell the carrion on his breath). This guy’s days of soaring over  snow capped peaks were well behind him, and truth be told, he was looking just the slightest bit tattered, thus fueling speculation that the taxidermist might not have gotten around to working on him as soon as he might have. We also were able to see some “chosi” which are single room houses made of Andean bamboo. At one particular chosi we found a very furry donkey staring back at us and surmised that at these altitudes they keep their winter coats all year round.

Our next stop was for another walk in a high meadow with a shallow lake and abundant wetlands in a basin just below Cotopaxi, which again was peeking at us intermittently as the clouds swirled by, and I don’t mean overhead. We were at an altitude where we were literally walking through clouds. They may look fluffy, but they are as cold and inhospitable as a wet dishrag slapped on your face –  nothing at all like those painted on cathedral ceilings with angels sitting on them.  Those artists had obviously never encountered a real cloud up close and personal.  Back in the bus, we splashed through several rivers without benefit of bridges and eventually reached the Tambopaxi Lodge for lunch.

Esstancia La Alegria

Esstancia La Alegria

On the way back to Quito we stopped at a small estancia (estate) which was a working farm on the southern outskirts of the city. Here the cowboys are called “chacas”, which would be gauchos in Argentina. The estate was called Estancia La Alegria (happy estate) and it has belonged to the Espinoza family for the last 4 generations. The house, quite Victorian in design, and nearby barns had many antiques including hand-made saddles.  La Alegria is also guest house (sort of an Ecuadorian Dude Ranch). They offer special guest  packages to travel by horseback to Cotopaxi and other destinations up into the “high country” for two

Baby Alpaca at La Alegria

Baby Alpaca at La Alegria

and three week trips. It sounds like fun for the first hour or so –  but after that, the bus on Devil’s Hiney might feel really good by comparison. While at La Alegria we had coffee and dessert ( a cobbler/strudel like pastry that was delicious) and a short tour. There was a crew working on a drainage problem in one of the fields with docile  alpacas and tourists (also docile) looking on. The horses had been turned out to pasture so we visited with the alpacas who were right friendly and well groomed specimens.

Once back in Quito after another grueling day of touring at high altitude,  we had a light supper and again retired early – party poopers all.

March 17, 2009

Dateline: Papallacta, Ecuador

Termas de Papallacta

Termas de Papallacta

Today was our day off from touring, so we decided to treat ourselves to a day of relaxation. Our destination was Papallacta (pronounced Papa-Yak-Ta with the accent on “yak”) Thermal Springs Resort (Termas Papallacta in Spanish) in the Central Cordillera  of the Andes. Luis, our driver from the day before, came to get us at 8:30 in a small mini-van. We made the climb out of Quito and stopped briefly at the Papallacta Pass on the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet, and then started down the Eastern slope. Although we were descending, we were still high above the Amazon Basin when we reached the town of Papallacta. En route there were numerous switchbacks and steep grades and lots of those little shrines where previous motorists have had a very bad day.

The Termas Papallacta was comprised of a rustic lodge and restaurant, Spanish Hacienda style, set in a mountainous cloud forest. It was built around a series of natural hot springs that

Hot Springs of Papallacta

Hot Springs of Papallacta

have been creatively harnessed, both outside and inside, to pamper the visitors with long soaks in soothing mineral water in pools in a variety of sizes, with and without jets. Most of the springs had temperatures of 100 degrees plus and the air was downright chilly, so it was heavenly to slip into the water and relax. We had been issued speed racer sort of head coverings which sort of detracted from the glamour aspect of our visit, but we had a good soak and then went inside for “treatments”.

We all had massage appointments with one other treatment of our choosing. Stu opted for a nap in the quiet room, which had individual lounge chairs with soft cushions covered with fluffy towels, soft music and soft lighting.  Gary and I chose the steam option. We went into a small room with two chairs and sat beside a waterfall splashing very hot water on lava rocks, creating clouds of steam, sort of like being in the Amazon, but without insects and the trekking. There were cold towels and cold water in case we got over heated,  so all in all, it was an excellent  experience. Sharon, unfortunately did not have such a good experience. Her chosen pre-massage treatment was hydro-massage which was advertised as an exfoliation treatment designed to remove dead skin and stimulate the circulation to produce rosy glowing skin. Well the rosy glowing part was right, although Sharon felt she was taken a few steps past rosy. She reported that she was told to assume the position of standing with arms stretched out to the side, and then she was literally power-washed with a small fire hose with a spray strong enough to blow the freckles right off your body. It was supposed to be a thirty minute process, but she says she cried “uncle” after the first few excruciating minutes while she still had some flesh left. We all had great massages that left us deliciously lethargic with only enough energy to walk the twenty or so yards to the resort’s restaurant for lunch where we invited Luis to join us.

Giant Fuschia at Papallacta

Giant Fuschia at Papallacta

We had a wonderful lunch of Andean trout and local wine and visited with Luis. He told us he had lived in New York for a while and had lost a brother-in-law on 9-11 at the World Trade Center. After that he decided to move back to Ecuador to enjoy the quiet life. We had a stroll through the grounds on our way back to our van and were amazed at the size and health of the plants. The soil here must be world class Miracle Grow stuff, and with the total absence of winter weather, the plants flourish. We saw geraniums that were over 6 feet high and rose bushes taller than the roofline. There were elephant ears growing on a scale that would actually fit real elephants and fuchsia going wild on the hillsides. If you thought about it too much it was borderline creepy. You really start to think that the events in the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, could have taken place here (Were those ferns that close to our van when we parked here? Are those geraniums demanding to be fed or is it just someone’s stomach growling?)

We climbed back into the minivan for the return trip to Quito. It started to rain on our trip back and it made for really good snoozing. We had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant near our hotel, and as is our habit at high altitudes, went to bed early. Tomorrow Stu and Sharon fly to Buenos Aires and Gary and I have one more day in Quito

March 18, 2009

Dateline: Quito, Ecuador

We are on our own today since Stu and Sharon left for Buenos Aires and we had no tours planned. We had a “bit of a lie in” as our British friends would say (that is we slept late) and decided to go back to revisit Old Town, but we encountered some problems, starting with language problems when we hailed a cab just outside the hotel. I gave our destination to the cabbie, who looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. After several repetitions of key phrases, he responding in Spanish, and I finally decided he understood me – I just didn’t understand him. I gradually came to understand as my limited Spanish trickled back to my brain, that for some reason he could not take us to Old Town, but would be glad to take us on a tour outside the city. Finally we agreed he would take us to Mariscal district from where we could walk to the Old Town. In Mariscal there are many English speaking people and we availed ourselves of a very helpful concierge at the Mercure Hotel, who told us of a taxi strike, gave us a map and directions to our destination and cautioned us to beware of pickpockets

It was a very strange taxi strike to be sure. It was only in Old Town, and it was only between the hours of 8 and 11 o’clock. There were marchers instead of picketers. After eleven o’clock, apparently all is forgiven and everyone goes back to work. In the meantime, there was a parade on the Avenida 10 de Agosto (August 10 Avenue) comprised of a stream of protestors, laughing and joking,smoking cigarettes, buying ice cream, singing songs marching under everything from huge banners to small hand lettered signs on cardboard. They were shouting slogans (more football fan, than angry Teamster and not very strident in their demands). I imagined the translation went something like this: “What do we want? Oh, I dunno. When do we want it? Whenever.”  But I guess from their perspective it’s a day off and it gets them out of the hacienda for a few hours.

The parade (oops make that “The Protest March”) started in the Old Town and was marching toward Mariscal so we found ourselves walking on the same street, but more or less against the tide. It was an interesting walk through their commercial area – lots of stores, not many gringos but everyone was very cordial. The stores are quite eclectic – for example one store was selling washing machines and motorbikes, along with batteries, Tupperware and blank CD’s,  could be bought all in the same place. We continued with our walk and then all of a sudden the church bells tolled eleven and everyone more or less folded their banners, flipped their lights on in their taxis and went to work.

Michael Vick Sighting

Michael Vick Sighting

The young people in Quito don’t go in for the native dress as much as their parents and grandparents and consequently, there are a lot of name brands and sports team shirts worn here. Our favorite sighting was an unsuspecting kid in a Michael Vick Atlanta Falcons Number 7 jersey strolling down the street. We were sure there was a real flood of those on the Latin American apparel markets after the dog fighting conviction. We did have an interesting chat with a local woman who admonished Gary that he needed to carry his backpack on his chest rather than his back because pickpockets are especially bad about preying on tourists. We got a chuckle out of this because the average tall adult here is about 5 foot nothing and can’t even reach the top of the backpack where the zipper is, but we thanked her for her advice and her concern anyway.

Shoeshine Shyster

Shoeshine Shyster

As it turned out the pickpockets were not the only thieves in town. Gary finally agreed to a shoe shine from a small boy who had been stalking, accosting and pestering him at a negotiated price of $1.00 which was about 3 times the going rate per our guide, Andrea. In fact Gary had given this same kid a dollar two days earlier when we were here just to go away.  But then after he finished the job the little shyster said the price was $1.00 per shoe. As the chief translator of the Palmer family, I said in my very most threatening voice and wobbly Spanish “Es un dollar para dos o nada” which I intended, and suppose he understood, to mean it’s one dollar for both or nothing.  Thus threatened, el nino took the dollar, but then I guess he took some satisfaction from the fact that he had applied black shoe polish to the gringo’s brown shoes.

Teatro de Sucre Square

Teatro de Sucre Square

We continued our walk and stopped at the Teatro de Sucre Square (a square in front of the national theater named for a local hero) for a glass of wine. They were in the process setting up speakers,  preparing, we assumed, for a dancing exhibition since there were several women in native costume, but as close to an hour passed with no sound issuing forth from any of the ancient speakers, we had our doubts. (There were a lot of hola, holas  being said– their equivalent of testing, testing, – but nothing happening.) We decided to continue our stroll since it could be a long time before any of the dancers decided to “bust a move”. Our destination for today was the church that had been closed to us two days earlier when Charles and Camilla were here. We were hoping we common folk could see it now that the glitterati had departed. En route Gary saw some rotisserie chicken (still on a quest ever since

Rotisserie Chicken Behind Bars

Rotisserie Chicken Behind Bars

our first day in Lima) and wanted to stop there for lunch, (there being a hole in the wall with 4 tables), but I convinced him we should look for something with a little more ambiance, which we found on the Plaza de San Francisco at an outdoor restaurant with a wrought iron fence to keep the shoeshine sellers at bay. We did see a lot of pint size vendors including those selling baskets of fresh produce, with luscious strawberries, peaches and raspberries – 1 gallon Ziplock size for $1.00 (a much better deal than the shoe shine). They also had roasted ears of corn with really giant kernels about the size of marbles, and of course cuy (guinea pig), and little tiny finger size sweet bananas.

From the restaurant we went to the Plaza de La Independencia, which was very quiet today with the royalty having departed and not many souvenir seekers in the first floor shops. We also found we had  La Compania de Jesus Church mostly to ourselves. It was built by the Jesuits over a period of 163 years in the Baroque style and is filled with Quiteno colonial art. The columns on the outside are called Solomon spirals, meant to symbolize how the path to heaven starts on the ground and winds upward. Call me a heathen, but I thought they mostly resembled those swirly cones from Dairy Queen, but then what do I know about baroque architecture? However fancy on the outside, the real treasure is inside with gold leaf altars, and elaborate paintings on vaulted ceilings, giving rise to the nickname, Quito’s Sistine Chapel. Every wall and niche has murals and statuary and the inside columns are patterned after those in the Vatican. The architects also very cleverly incorporated some of the Incan religious symbols in the interior such as a giant sun to represent Inti, the Sun God. The thinking was that this might help convert the locals if they could be made to believe their own religion and Catholicism were basically the same thing.

The really valuable treasures are in a bank vault and are only brought out on special occasions (maybe Camilla got a peek). This collection includes a painting of the Virgen Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrow) whose frame is encrusted with emeralds and gold. This church used to have a lot more treasure, but in 1767, the Jesuits were banned from Spanish lands, and much of the church’s treasure was shipped to Spain although some never made it, as was the fate of the treasure of  the Atocha, salvaged by Mel Fisher off the coast of Florida. The silver was to be sold locally, but people refused to buy it saying it belonged to God so much of that is still here. At the foot of the altar are the remains of Quito’s saint, Mariana de Jesus who reportedly intervened with God to end a combination of plagues and earthquakes in 1645. Unfortunately 14,000 people died before her intercession. After her prayer, she fell ill and died on the spot and the diseases stopped and the ground quit shaking, or so the story goes.

It was late afternoon by the time we got a cab back to the Dann Carlton. We walked to one of the many nearby restaurants for a light meal and went back to the hotel to rest up for our early departure tomorrow morning for Argentina. We have left much left undone in Ecuador – the colonial city of Cuenca, the Ecuadorian coast and the elusive Devil’s Backbone, the quest for the rotisserie chicken,  just to name a few,  and so a return trip is definitely called for.

 

 




South America Part 6: Buenos Aires, Argentina

South America

Part 6 – Tango Country – Argentina

 

March 19, 2009

Dateline:  Buenos Aires, Argentina

Latitude at Buenos Aires 34.35 South, Longitude 58.22 West

Today we flew to Buenos Aires to spend several days with our friends, John and Evelyn, and to see the city. Our pick-up was at 6:10 a.m. to go to the Quito Airport for a 9:10 departure so we were more or less sleep walking through the pre-flight process. We had a two hour flight to Lima, a one hour layover there and then it was on to Buenos Aires, for 4 hours arriving around 7:00 p.m. The time zone is only one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time so we didn’t have much adjusting to do.  We exchanged our dollars for some Argentine pesos (3.5 pesos to the dollar) and took the Ezezia Taxi into the city. Our friends live in the Montserrat district on what is

Along the Avenida Mayo

Along the Avenida Mayo

essentially the Pennsylvania Avenue of Buenos Aires, with the presidential palace (Casa Rosada) at one end and the legislative building (called Congreso) at the other, only their street is called Avenida de Mayo ( which is pronounced majo here vs. mayo in Mexico) It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, having been founded along with the Plaza de Mayo in the 16th Century.

Although it was late, no one seemed to be sleeping here. We were discovering that this is a late night city as we walked down the street to a sidewalk café for a late dinner with a good bottle of Argentine malbec wine. John and Evelyn have an apartment on the 3rd floor of a turn-of –the-century building with tall doors opening onto a narrow balcony with a view of the goings-on in the always active street below. As we came to learn during our week here, the nightlife here is plentiful and of high quality – a true “insomniac’s delight. Since neither Gary nor I are insomniacs, we found ourselves falling into the local pattern of staying up late and sleeping late, which tends to curtail the sightseeing of things historical.

The name Buenos Aires translates as “Good Airs” and we found the climate to be just that – much like Southern California. Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world with 23 provinces or states, and 1/3 of its population lives in Buenos Aires. It is the 3rd largest beef exporter in the world, and the 5th largest wine producer.   They have three seasons of 70’s and 80’s (Fahrenheit) in spring, fall and summer, and then in the winter the highs are in the 50’s.The city is a at sea level on the west bank  of the La Plata River where it empties into the Atlantic. The city proper is 78 square miles with 3 million people. This is a country of high passion and the things they are passionate about are Romance, Music, Meat, Wine and Politics.

Protesters in the Plaza de Mayo

Protesters in the Plaza de Mayo

Political demonstrations here are so frequent as to become the norm versus the exception. It seems the people were so repressed during the dictator years, they now binge protest to make up for lost time. Their history is one of high political drama, verging on the stuff of soap operas. Just in the 20th century there were coups with varying degrees of violence in 1930, 1943, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1970, 1976 and 1983. They sort of alternated between military dictators, civilian dictators and the occasional elected person who evolved into a dictator. Argentines apparently find coups the most expeditious way of “throwing the bums out”. They also seem to alternate between extreme right and extreme left, and then dabble occasionally with fragile democracies. Politics has had many faces here, none of them dull.

The first serious European explorer was Pedro de Mendoza who in 1536 founded a city he called Nuestra Senora Santa Maria del Buenos Aires (Our Lady St. Mary of the Good Air) However the natives attacked and he left in 1537 in one of the first European “cut and run” episodes on this continent. The next effort at conquest came from the west from more intrepid conquerors who had subdued the Incas in Peru and Ecuador. Suddenly the “good air” was no longer good for the indigenous people who were promptly enslaved and died by the thousands due to diseases introduced by the Spaniards (some as simple as the common cold) for which they had no immunity. The population of indigenous people dropped 90% in only 4 generations and then a ruthless governor of Buenos Aires took care of wiping out the other 10% a few centuries later.

They were ruled by the Spaniards until the Revolution in 1816, and then the caudillos (think war lords) were established in various regions after Spanish rule.  A port was established in 1580, but with no silver or gold,  it didn’t really flourish until the beef industry geared up several years later. In 1776 Spain made Buenos Aires the capital of their conquered lands (current day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and part of Peru). Things changed in 1808 when Napoleon overthrew the Spanish King and ultimately this resulted in a revolution in May of 1810. ( for which Avenida Mayo is named) and in1816 Independence was declared.

Evita's Balcony at Casa Rosada

Evita’s Balcony at Casa Rosada

While the history of Argentina is peppered with colorful politics, the 40 years from 1943 to 1983 are perhaps the most interesting. Juan Peron, was an obscure general in 1943 when a coup took place, and because he was allied with labor unions, he was able to position himself to become president. His stature was greatly enhanced when he met and married the beautiful and ambitious Eva Duarte (called Evita or little Eva).At the time, she was a radio star who had worked her way out of poverty. She was very popular with the masses and she was largely responsible for her husband’s success. She was a champion of the poor, viewed as a saint-like savior and established several social welfare foundations. Her best known cause was that of those she called Los Descamisados or the Shirtless Ones, the poorest of the poor. With her encouragement, Juan Peron established trade union support, nationalized industries that were under foreign control and established a five year plan for the economy. He also enjoyed his greatest popularity, appearing with Evita on the balcony of Casa Rosada before as many as 350 thousand people in Plaza de Mayo. Unfortunately, she died in 1952 of cancer at the age of 33 and was nationally mourned in a 4 day funeral extravaganza.

Juan Peron was active in politics for another twenty-two years, but never did fare well without her and his career was mostly downhill from there. Actually “downhill” is putting it mildly since he was exiled in 1955 after  his own military bombed Plaza de Mayo to get him out of the Casa Rosada  in what must have been the strong message that followed their suggestion that he vacate his office. He was eventually allowed back in 1971, but never regained his former power and he died shortly thereafter. After his death, his third wife (Evita was his second) Isabel, became President, and she took a serious detour from the leftist politics and unwittingly set the stage for the bloodbath that ensued. Left wing guerillas called the Montaneros had been systematically assassinating police and military leaders for several years and were particularly active in rural areas.  In 1975 Isabel signed a decree to authorize the military to annihilate the subversives without exactly identifying to whom that term might apply. And so in the province of Tucuman, the military got quite carried away and wiped out the university professors and students, along with anyone else whom they felt might fit the bill as a “subversive”. In 1976, the economy tanked and Isabel was arrested by her own military leaders and eventually allowed to go into exile, while they proceeded to take the subversive hunt nationwide in what they called the National Reorganization Process – a thinly veiled euphemism for political cleansing. Since the economy was in freefall with 1000 per cent inflation, the new dictators decided that the total elimination of the left wing would be just the thing to help the country snap out of it. Consequently, the Dirty War (Guerra Sucia) was born,  as what was once a political war between the left and the right developed into a campaign of terror against civilians by the extreme right.

El Congreso - Home to Argentina's Legislature

El Congreso – Home to Argentina’s Legislature

And thus began the most notorious of political eras that lasted from 1976 to 1983 when as many as 30,000 citizens perceived to be enemies of the dictator were made to disappear. Since the open killings of innocent people tended to create civil unrest, the dictators (there were 3 from 1976 to 1983) embarked upon Operation Condor, an underground semi-covert operation, whereby there would be arrests followed by disappearances with no bodies left as evidence. Those who vanished were called Los Desparecidos (or the Disappeared Ones- not to be confused with Evita’s Shirtless Ones.) The word “disappeared” became a verb meaning “made to disappear” as in “Antonio was disappeared from his office last night”. Thousands of enemies of the state were arrested, taken to detention centers, tortured and killed in atrocities rivaling those perpetrated by the Nazis, if not in numbers, then in sheer brutality. It was nightmare stuff, e.g. taking people out over the Atlantic and shoving them out of helicopters was a favored way “disappearing people”. Imprisoned “subversive” pregnant women were allowed to give birth, but then their babies were taken for adoption to “good” families and the biological mothers were “disappeared”.  Enemies included a wide range of educators, trade union members, judges and lawyers and often their relatives. The lucky fled into exile by the thousands.

In 1981 there were massive protests, many led by the mothers of those who were “disappeared” and this was thankfully the beginning of the end. Then in 1982 the current dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded the Falkland Islands (which the Argentines called the Islas Malvinas) hoping to reclaim them  from Great Britain, probably thinking that there is nothing like a good little war to distract the people from the domestic problem of mass genocide. Unfortunately for Galtieri and his cronies, it was all over in 74 days with Great Britain winning decisively and the Falklands debacle proved to be the swan song for the military junta. Perpetrators of the horrors of the Dirty War are still being tracked down and tried for their crimes today and many families are still looking for children and grandchildren.

And so, it was back to civilian rule, and although the killing stopped, that  would also introduce its own brand of chaos. National elections were restored in 1989, but that wasn’t the end of the melodrama. In 2001 the whole financial structure of the country collapsed in massive defaults, there were widespread riots leaving 27 dead and somehow they had four presidents in an 11 day period. Today Argentina is a democracy with a bicameral legislature, much like the US model. The country is doing well (so far anyway) with an elected female president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner who is very popular, at least for now, but we should all stay tuned for the next dramatic episode surely not too far distant in the future – it never is in Argentina.

March 20, 2009

Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Today we had what our British friends refer to as a “bit of a lie in”, meaning we slept late, and thus we were getting right into the rhythm of life in the city of Buenos Aires. We strolled down the Avenida Mayo for a late breakfast outside. John and Evelyn’s apartment is being remodeled and the kitchen is not chef -ready, but eating out here is simple and economical and everything you need is within a block or two. The “locotorio” where you can have internet access for practically nothing, the laundry service and all kinds of restaurants are only a few steps away and taxis are everywhere. We walked several blocks along the Calle Florida, once home to poets, tango singers, where there is some of the best shopping in the world, particularly for leather goods.  Traffic is fierce, the drivers are aggressive,  and the sidewalks are bustling, but somehow it all works. One of our stops was the Galerias Pacifico which today is an elegant shopping mall. It was built in 1889, intended to emulate the Bon Marche department store in Paris. It later became the headquarters of the railroad, but after they moved out it fell into disrepair. It was totally renovated in the 1990’s with restored frescoes, gilt, and elaborate chandeliers with French and Italian architecture from the Belle Epoque era of the late 19th, and early 20th Century.  We had a late lunch at Posada 1820 with large servings of beef, and much wine, which makes for a pretty lazy afternoon.

Buenos Aires is both a city and a state of Argentina. The city residents are called Portenos. Residents outside the city, but within the state are called Buenos Airesans. There is a ring road called the Avenida General Paz and beyond that is considered the hinterlands by the Portenos. Within the city there are 5 main areas: (1) Plaza de Mayo and the Microcenter which includes the Monserrat neighborhood (2) San Telmo and La Boca 3) Recoleta (4) Plaza San Martin and Retiro and (5) Palermo and Belgrano.  We spent the majority of our stay focusing the first three, but sadly we had to leave much for a future visit.

A friend  had been here in Buenos Aires recently and left without fully satisfying her urge to purchase mass quantities of leather goods, and so I agreed to accept a mission to a Peter Kent store in the Recoleta district to buy a leather purse for her.  After this initial reconnaissance, Gary and I had a leisurely walk back to our friends apartment along the Avenida 9 de Julio (Ninth of July Avenue) which is the widest street in the world at 223 feet. It is a sprawling Parisian-like boulevard lined with trees.  At the intersection of Avenida Corrientes, they have erected an obelisk similar to the Washington Monument, only shorter, to commemorate momentous historical events in Argentina’s history, of which there are many.

Flamenco Performance in Buenos Aires

Flamenco Performance in Buenos Aires

After a brief siesta, we took another short walk to see a fabulous flamenco show and had a late (with late being the operative word, a radical departure from our Quito routine) dinner at Café La Cantareo. Our meal and entertainment lasted from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Music is one of the main passions of the country and although tango is king, there is a wide variety of other types of music, and most involve a grand passion of some sort. It was well after 2:00 a.m. when we got back to the apartment so a bit of a lie-in will no doubt be required for tomorrow as well and thus the pattern starts to emerge.

March 21, 2009

Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina

We again slept late, arising mid-morning, and walked to the Iberia Café, one of the oldest in Buenos Aires. Afterward we took a city tour by bus through several neighborhoods.  They call them “barrios, but they do not have the negative connotation that the word has acquired in the US. Our first stop was the Plaza del Mayo, first built in 1580 as a marketplace, and around which stand several of the city’s most historic buildings, including the oldest building in the city, the Cabildo de Buenos Aires, which served as the government headquarters during Spanish rule. There is also the National Bank and Finance ministry, which always seems to never be located too far from where the president sleeps no matter what country you are visiting. Their financial district is called Microcentro which is comprised of a series of narrow streets near the Plaza, comparable to Wall Street, but without the skyscrapers. It also tends to have a lot more excitement as was the case in 2002 with the currency collapse when protesters took to the streets of the Microcentro banging pots and pans. (It’s just hard to picture this happening in

the Plaza de Mayo

the Plaza de Mayo

Manhattan). The Metropolitan Cathedral also sits on the Plaza de Mayo. It is the 6th church built on this site since the 16th Century, with consecration taking place in 1836. It is a rather somber baroque structure with the silver altar and soaring arches typical of cathedrals in South America. No word on what happened with the previous 5 churches, but they were more modest affairs so apparently someone saw fit to erect churches progressively more impressive. The Pyramide de Mayo is built in middle of plaza to commemorate the May 1810 revolution from Spain

The Plaza itself is a very historic place. The city was founded here when the Jesuits came in right on the heels of the conquering Spaniards in the 16th Century. There was a large scale soul grab which ensued (as opposed to later land grabbing in 1870’s and 1880’s when many of the large estancias were established). Once the Jesuits got things started, the immigration flood gates opened with mostly people from Italy and Spain, France, creating an ideal gene pool for hot tempers and torrid romance, as evidenced in the history that unfolded on the Plaza over the years – protest marches, labor union demonstrations, left wing riots, right wing riots, pronouncements of undying loyalty to a cause, declarations of war, aerial bombardments of sitting presidents – the Plaza has seen it all. The Argentine passions are strong and the collective memory long. For example, every Thursday, the Madres de las Plaza de Mayo (mothers of the Plaza Mayo who are the mothers of the missing or their designates) march here to protest the disappearances of their children in the Dirty War.

Casa Rosada

Casa Rosada

The most well known building on the Plaza Mayo is the Spanish Colonial style Presidential Palace, called the Casa Rosada (translation is the “pink house” it is indeed rosy pink with its color derived from oxblood mixed with whitewash. The blending of colors symbolizes the mixing of the Federal (red) and the Unitarian (white)  parties which were the two opposing factions of the days when it was built from 1862-85.

The Casa Rosada had sort of an Alamo feel to it. Along with the thick walls,  the bullet marks and flak scars added to the ambiance. We were able to go inside to the inner courtyard where we found it to have a very monastic quality, which was sort of a surprise considering Evita’s reputation for Dior gowns and Tiffany jewels, but then she wasn’t here all that long and she did have another residence in a fancier neighborhood. We didn’t see President Kirchner, but she was probably busy with matters other than adding a woman’s touch to the Casa Rosada.

Cafe Tortoni

Cafe Tortoni

From the Plaza de Mayo we travelled down Avenida deMayo past the famous Café Tortoni , which opened in 1858, and where later in the week we would see a tango show and the very beautiful opera house, the Teatro Colon which was closed for renovations while we were there. This area has the highest concentration of churches in the city, but jaded as we were by touring churches, we were content with our guide just pointing to them.  At the opposite end of Avenida de Mayo, we saw the Congressional Building, inaugurated in 1906, on the Plaza de los dos Congresos – Plaza of the Two Congresses. The building, which locals just call Congreso,  is modeled after the US Capitol (with a smaller green dome)  and the US System of government (bicameral houses for the legislature) And of course being a government building, it is an ideal site for strikes, protests, graffiti and general civil disobedience.

We did a drive-by of the Plaza San Martin through an area called Retiro which was once a retreat for monks in the 17th Century. It later became home to slave markets and military barracks, as well as a railway hub. The plaza is surrounded by ombu trees which are native to the pampas of Argentina. They grow quite large – 40 to 50 feet in girth and 40 to 60 feet in height. Their branches are umbrella-like and their leaves are thick and leathery – sort of like a magnolia. The base of the tree has exposed roots similar in appearance to cypress or banyan. These trees grow all over the city and create a wonderful shade canopy for the streets. In the center of the square is a monument to Jose de San Martin, their Revolutionary War Hero in the rebellion against Spain.

A Shop in La Boca near La Bombonera

A Boca Juniors Souvenir Shop in La Boca

From there we drove through San Telmo which we will visit on Sunday, Market Day, and on to La Boca, which means the mouth in Spanish. It is located at the mouth of a small river (the Riachuelo) that empties into the Rio Plata. Our first stop was the futbol (soccer) stadium called La Bombonera, built in the 1940’s and renovated in the 1990’s. The name roughly translates as the Chocolate (bonbon) Box which it is said to resemble. At this point, I’m thinking this tour is obviously for soccer fans, more so than for the rest of us, since the highlight of the stop was to go inside the stadium. We chose to walk around the surrounding neighborhood a bit since we thought a stadium viewing a bit mundane, even if  this one will hold 60,000 screaming fans . There was a lot of memorabilia for sale in blue and yellow, the colors of the local team, the Boca Juniors (The full name is the Club Atlantico Boca Juniors) which was established in 1905. Frequent scandals and bribery have occurred over the years, and of course nowadays, there is probably doping to boot. Fans range from passionate to semi-rabid.

Juan an Evita Featured at a La Boca Bar

Juan an Evita Featured at a La Boca Bar

Players are idolized with a reverence usually reserved for penitents in the cathedral and felons up for parole, but for many this stadium is their place of worship. There are 20 First Division teams in Argentina who play 2 single round tournaments a year, and they also have the minor leagues. And of course they compete for the World Cup, which in itself creates a whole new level of national hysteria. Wins and losses at any level can, in equal measure, cause people to head to the nearest plaza to start a riot.  The Boca Juniors have won two World Cups in 1978 and 1986, but those wins didn’t apparently result in any coups or takeovers of third world countries. Soccer is as widely played as it is watched with soccer pitches all over the city – anywhere there is a sprig of grass or a relatively flat place where sprigs might emerge if given the chance.

Equestrian sports are also big here – polo, racing, hunting, showing, and perhaps most curiously, the game of pato ( which translates as duck in Spanish). It is also called horse ball – sort of like polo without the mallets and the little ball. They have a bigger ball-shaped basked with 6 leather handles and the rider has to gallop up lean sideways in the saddle and grab the ball to move it. He can then pass it to other players on his team in sort of a keep away game from the opposing team. The game gets its name from the days when there was a live duck inside the basket. I don’t know who thought that idea up, but I can only imagine how messy a highly-agitated live duck might get.

Shopping at El Caminito

Shopping at El Caminito

Our next stop in Boca was El Caminito (which means little road) which is a pedestrian street filled with markets and restaurants and lined with buildings painted in every shade imaginable. . Throughout the streets are three dimensional carvings of everyday street life, e.g. a woman hanging out of window shaking out a dish rag side by side liberal doses of  really skilled trompe l’oeil painting,( the “trick the eye” technique making you think you are seeing something 3 dimensional) so you never can tell for sure without touching it. There was art everywhere – modern art, classical art and everything in between. There were booths and

In the Heart of La Boca

In the Heart of La Boca

booths of craft vendors and Gary bought a leather Carnival mask at one of them. We also wandered down Calle Necochea – another narrow, pedestrian only street. There were restaurant recruiters with pamphlets hawking the charms of specific restaurants and tango shows on open air stages. Here we saw the famous houses (some more shack than house) of La Boca with corrugated zinc roofs and walls painted in vivid colors – a design scheme that supposedly came about as immigrants scrounged whatever paint leftovers they could find in the city. Despite the humble architecture, the ambiance is vibrant and welcoming – very much alive. There is apparently a street party here every day. The whole area seems to be an eclectic mix of polychromatic garish façades and faded signs on the shop fronts. (Not many Martha Stewart moments in Boca).  It somehow works here, but we were thinking we should not try these color combos at home.

A Local Boca Tango Bar

A Local Boca Tango Bar

Walking through Boca gives you a real taste of the old days. Many of the buildings here were former brothels or bars frequented by sailors and immigrants out on the town to indulge in cards, drinking, fighting and wild women. – all the vices plus the tango in one place. But today it has become gentrified and only the vices of beer drinking and the tango remain.  We also walked through La Vuelta de Rocha – an area at the “elbow” of the Riachuelo River where it makes a 90 degree turn.  It is a grubby yet picturesque sub-barrio of Boca. It was a makeshift port during the Revolution and later the home port of a steamship that made the trip to Montevideo, Uruguay daily.

Puerto Madero

Puerto Madero

Our last stop was Puerto Madero and we decided we would get off the bus, have a leisurely stroll, enjoy a glass of wine and then take the short walk back to Avenida Mayo. Puerto Madero was built in the late 19th Century as the shipping needs of the city and country outgrew the Boca waterfront. A competition for the design was held and the winning concept called for 4 docks to be built parallel to the Rio Plata with a grid of streets all named after women. Unfortunately, the design created spaces too narrow and shallow for the larger ships of the 20th Century and a newer port was built upriver which took from 1922 to 1925. The warehouses of Puerto Madero that had housed grain and perishables to be exported to other countries fell into disrepair and were allowed to decay for several years. Then in the 1990’s the whole area was rebuilt with a yacht club, boutiques, hotels and restaurants – all very upscale.  We sat at an outdoor restaurant and had our wine and light meal with a view of the graceful and very elegant Puente de la Mujer bridge that was added as part of the renovation.  Just after dark we walked back to the apartment and apparently our light meal was too light for Gary so he and I stopped by a late night Argentinian Chinese buffet. Gary reports food was” interesting” – always a dangerous sign so I was glad I only watched.

March 22, 2009

Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Today we again walked down Avenida de Mayo to have breakfast before catching the Subte (subway) to San Telmo for the Sunday Market which is called Feria de San Telmo or San Telmo Fair. The main site for the market is Plaza Dorrego, surrounded by two-storied balconied buildings with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and like Boca, it is quite bohemian in atmosphere. Residents play cards and chess outdoors here during  the week, but on weekends there is a mass influx of people for the market where there is a huge selection of antiques, jewelry, arts, crafts and assorted flea market gewgaws such as vinyl records, old books, housewares, silver jewelry, and leather goods, just to name a few. There were some real deals to be had here – sort of a touchy-feely version of EBay with the goods spread out right before your eyes. The houses around the square were once homes of the city’s aristocrats. On other streets are the more modest places where the working poor lived, such as the Casa Minima (minimal house) also called the Casa Chorizo (sausage house) because it is long and narrow like a shotgun house. It was built in 1880 by freed slaves and is one of the few remaining examples of this type of indigenous architecture. Access to these tiny houses was via  narrow corridors off the street.  The plaza has a life size sculpture in the middle called the Canto al Trabajo (Ode to Work). It is comprised of fourteen life size laborers struggling to move a boulder – more classical than realistic, but then maybe fourteen guys hauling bananas wouldn’t be as artistic.

As in Boca, much of the signage here is in the style called “Fileteado” which is now a Porteno folk art form. It involves flamboyant, elaborate calligraphy, with an ornamental stylized border with flowers, scrollwork, curlicues and so forth, usually in bold, primary colors. ( sort of like the signs from the old West advertising Wild Bill Hickok’s Wild West Show or Dr. Feelgood’s Medicine Show.) The city buses use this type-face for sayings and proverbs plastered on their sides. Strangely enough this type of signage was banned during the Dirty War since it was considered leftist subversive stuff.

San Telmo was the actual site of that first landing by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536. It was the main residential area from the 16th to the mid-19th Century. Boca and San Telmo became distinctly more blue collar in the mid 19th Century with an influx of immigrants from Genoa, Italy, who built their homes along the docks where they worked. The more affluent moved north to Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano where they still are today. It is said the “Soul” of Argentina was left behind, so they typically go to party  in Boca and San Telmo get in touch with this missing “soul”.

Both Boca and San Telmo claim to have given birth to the tango and there are milongas in both places, which are basically salons where those who are reasonably skilled in tango dancing go to dance with others of similar levels of accomplishment. Occasionally there is a live orchestra, but mostly this is not the case. Rookies at tango are expected to simply watch. The word “milonga” is believed to be African in origin, as are the rhythms and music because at this point the area was inhabited by former black slaves who were freed when the slave trade was abolished in 1813.  The process is fairly structured in that the men ask the women to dance for 3 songs in a row and it is serious business. As they dance there is no chitchat – it is considered performance art, not your usual social encounter where you exchange phone numbers, text your friends, and snap photos on your cell phone.  There are many street tango dancers who perform for donations from passersby who will also pose for pictures with the tourists. And then there are  tango shows that are not so serious, often open air with no admission charged. Their purpose is to amuse the tourists who are eating and drinking at an establishment, passed off as an attempt to teach the tango to the uninitiated. This involves generating the general buffoonery associated with a sultry vixen of a woman coaxing onstage, a chunky tourist in a billowing flowered shirt and baggy shorts, sporting sandals with dark socks.  By this time you a praying this man is not an American, but in your heart you know he probably is.  Sometimes you just have to just look away and keep walking.

Restaurants seem to line every street – whether under a roof or open air and were all seemed to be serving asado –  which is a term for both the open air barbecue for grilling and the meat itself. It is also possible to buy mate, a bitter green tea that the gauchos drink, usually from a leather gourd, but we chose to stick with the tried and true – wines from the Mendoza region. We found a restaurant on the Plaza Dorrego which mercifully had no Tango Amateur Hour and ordered our wine and pizza. Even before the food came, we had our own street side entertainment with an assortment of “borrachos” (drunks), perros (dogs) and assorted characters selling assorted stuff. I was a little startled, to say the least, when I sensed something amiss, and I looked down to see one of the borrachos had passed out under my chair and his lolling head was directly between my feet with  his beard tickling my ankles. I was glad I was not wearing a skirt (oops, let me rephrase here – I did have shorts on). At this point the police showed up and moved the borrachos along to some other part of the fiesta. It made for interesting lunch conversation while it lasted, but we were glad to return to watching just the mildly weird and the slightly intoxicated from that point on.

After lunch we made a few purchases – I bought some silver jewelry and Gary bought a set of boleadores which are used by gauchos to capture large flightless birds called rheas – it more or less trips them up, gets them all entangled and then they can be easily caught (sort of like roping calves). Boleadores are hard heavy balls covered in leather tied on to short, but sturdy ropes brandished like a lasso. Gary seemed to think these were made from the private parts of a bull, but I like to think not, especially since they are hanging on the wall of my library at home. If Gary is right, I think it just sends the wrong message about me. We walked quite a bit, stopping a few times for a refreshing glass of wine before taking a taxi back to Avenida de Mayo. We had steak at a local outdoor restaurant and called it a night fairly early for Buenos Aires, around 10:00 p.m.

March 23, 2009

Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Today Gary and I set out on foot to explore several areas we had seen from the tour bus. We walked along the Avenida Mayo for a close up look at the Congreso, but kept going until we reached Recoleta, the part of Buenos Aires most often compared to Paris. We found it to be sort of Paris without the attitude with broad tree-lined boulevards, blatant disregard for calories and fattening food, meals consumed outside  in outdoor cafes and bistros, dogs allowed everywhere, meals eaten very late, fashion conscious shoppers in high-heeled shoes shopping in high-end boutiques. It is very much a neighborhood for walking, unless of course you’re wearing those stilettos.

Recoleta Dog Walker

Recoleta Dog Walker

Recoleta became the primary residential area for the aristocracy after a yellow fever epidemic broke out in San Telmo in 1871, and then there were all those tacky immigrants moving in too.  Today it has further burnished its high glamour reputation – very much the Park Avenue in terms of refinement with art museums, expensive dogs with walkers, high end shops, upscale restaurants elegant apartments, well manicured parks. The professional dog walkers are called paseadores and it is not uncommon for them to walk10 to 25 dogs at a time, almost exclusively expensive and well groomed pure-bred animals. While many paseadores carry a bucket, poop scooping is apparently not a mandatory part of the job description, so pedestrians are well-advised to watch where they walk, which is a special challenge after dark.

We had a wine and a fabulous empanada snack across from the shady park which was called Plaza Francia,  and enjoyed watching the paseadores and their charges ambling down the street in a tangle of legs and leashes. The empanadas were right out of the oven and really tasty.  I have resolved to make these little meat filled pastries at home, but then again they are almost too sinfully good. I would put them in the same category as hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts – too much of a good thing and then you find yourself  headed to the mall for new clothes in the next size up.

We walked by a few of the highlights of Recoleta, such as the luxurious Alvear Palace Hotel, the only 5 star grand hotel from olden days. Built in 1923, it remains very Gallic with an orangerie and French décor throughout. Everyone who is anyone stays here, except for us of course – we’re staying on the Avenida de Mayo. There were other sights as well which we only strolled by, such as the National Library and the Fine Arts Museum. One we missed was the Ice Rink Palace (Palais de Glace) which was built in the 1920’s by Baron di Marchi for ice skating and then later it became a ballroom. Legend has it that Carlos Gardel, (the Tiger Woods of Tango in his day) was shot here by a rival in a sort of Tonya Harding kind of incident, only it was dancing not skating. And like Tonya’s victim, Nancy Kerrigan – Carlos lived to tango another day.

There was one discordant note we saw in Recoleta –  well two if you count the dog poop –  i.e. there is a “hippy’ market (looks like they came here straight from Woodstock) near the cemetery that looks somewhat out of place. I wanted to tour the cemetery, but we were saving that for tomorrow. I found Peter Kent and made my purchase and then it was Gary’s turn to pick what we would do and so we embarked on a personal quest to locate the Buenos Aires Harley Davidson store.  We had the address and found the street, but the street number seemed to be several digits higher than the numbers we were seeing. The problem was that we were in

The Local  Harley Davidson

The Local Harley Davidson

Recoleta and the store was in a suburb called San Isidro, and not walk-able without several days worth of food and water. We got a taxi whose driver was extremely friendly, but he knew little English – only Italian and a little Spanish. I was able to chat with him a little in a really limited way by mixing both languages and I understood him to say his father emigrated from Italy several years ago and married his mother, an Argentine. With the help of my guidebook and a lot of mime activity back and forth, I was able to understand things he was showing us en route including the place (formerly a naval mechanics school) where prisoners were detained, tortured and killed during the Dirty War – a landmark not usually highlighted on the organized tours. Today it is undergoing conversion to a museum to honor the victims. We finally arrived at the Harley store, but unfortunately is was closed on Mondays, so Gary will have to order his H-D Buenos Aires shirt from the Internet. But it was a fun ride anyway.

We had the cabbie drop us in Recoleta for a long, but leisurely walk back to our friends’ apartment along the Avenida 9 de Julio. We found that while Recoleta is very Parisian, the rest of the city is pure Latin American – graffiti, petty crime, litter, crimes of grand passion and crimes of petty theft, dictators and demagogues, music and dancing, and of course machismo is very much alive and well.  While there is a lot of Italian and Spanish influence here, there is also a significant German population – although more so in the mountains around Bariloche, which was known as a hideout for Nazis after WWII.  For the most part, people here are fine-boned and slender, with fair skin, dark eyes and hair – but there are many blondes as well – don’t know if it’s Clairol or the Germans. The orangey-red hair color not found in nature on otherwise dark haired women is also popular here.

In the evening we went to an apartment in Recoleta for cocktails belonging to a friend of John and Evelyn’s. From there we walked to the Centro Cultural Recoleta, a center for the arts, to see an excellent Cirque du Soleil type performance that Evelyn recommended.  The Center is housed in an Italianate building which was an art school built on land donated by the monks in the 17th Century. It is now a venue for a wide range of performances. The performance we saw was on the open air stage and the evening proved to be quite magical with the lights of the city in the background. Afterward, we saw that the historic church adjacent to cemetery, the Church of our Lady of Pilar. (Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Pilar) was open so we had a quick peek. It was consecrated in 1732, well before the adjacent cemetery was built. It has a very simple architecture with a really elaborate baroque silver altar. It was brought here by mule train over the Andes from Peru, which is no small trip, even by car or truck. We then walked to a nearby Italian restaurant for dinner and took a cab back to the apartment sometime around midnight.

 

March 24, 2009

Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Protesters on the Avenida De Mayo

Protesters on the Avenida De Mayo

Today we awoke to thunderous drums and blaring loud speakers. We learned that there is a “Big March” today for the Disappeared Ones on this, the 33rd anniversary of the coup that led to the military takeover of the government and the Dirty War. There was a combination parade/protest/commemoration going on right outside our windows on the Avenida de Mayo. We were sorry we were going to miss it but we planned to spend the morning at the Recoleta Cemetery. We needn’t have worried because it lasted all day and well into the night.

We had an appointment with an English speaking guide at the

Recoleta Cemetery Street of Mausoleums

Recoleta Cemetery Street of Mausoleums

cemetery so we took a cab to ensure we didn’t have to hear it in Spanish. The official name is the Cementerio de la Recoleta and it opened in 1922. It occupies 14 acres and is surrounded by high brick walls with trees, spires, crypt roofs and sculptures poking up above the walls.  Inside the walls, there is a small central plaza with wide leafy avenues going off in four different directions. From the avenues the necropolis becomes a labyrinth of paths with elaborate tombs for the rich and famous, along with thousands of wealthy unknowns. The paths are marble and granite walled corridors, most with polished well-kept facades along with a few tombs fallen into disrepair. Individual families are responsible for upkeep of the tombs,and if a family dies out or goes bankrupt, then the site deteriorates. Unfortunately some of the tombs are little more than stone piles which might be a neighbor to a Greco Roman mini-palace with a fabulous sculpture.

Recoleta Passageway

Recoleta Passageway

The marble labyrinth can be a little eerie, and of course it is reportedly haunted. There are many writers buried here along with presidents and generals and industry tycoons The cemetery is a hodgepodge of architectures – neo-classical, neo-gothic, art deco, modern, colonial. There are 6,400 mausoleums and just about as many styles, with 70 considered national historic monuments. There is a mix of fine sculpture and kitsch, Greek temples and fairy tale castles with even a few pyramids thrown in. The corridors all have streets names and were constructed with 90 degree angles so it is possible to navigate with the aid of a

The La Paz Family Tomb

The La Paz Family Tomb

map. Aside from the architecture, the sculpture is really something to behold. There is a plethora of angel, Madonna and Jesus statuary, along with carved likenesses of the mere mortals entombed here. Some of the sculptures are true masterpieces, such as the one of the deceased lying on a bed very life-like, with the coverlet slightly rumpled, the quilting on the covers clearly evident– all in marble.  Another example of such mastery is the Paz family tomb which has sculptures like something out of the gardens at Versailles, but with lots of Virgin Marys, angels and cherubs instead of Neptune and the sea nymphs.

The Tomb of Evita Peron

The Tomb of Evita Peron

The most famous Recoleta “resident is Eva Peron, whose tomb is a very simple black marble affair with numerous commemorative plaques. The tomb is actually that of Duarte family, which was her maiden name. The original plan was to bury her under an enormous statue of the Shirtless Ones, but there was the coup which forced Juan to flee Argentina, leaving Evita’s remains behind. The anti-Peronistas took over and tried to erase all evidence of the Perons which included sending Evita’s remains to Milan, Italy under a false name where they remained from 1955 to 1971. Juan was in exile in Spain at that time, so Evita’s remains were sent to Madrid to be near him. Then in 1973 Peron was brought back to Argentina and he assumed the presidency for the third time and, yup, Evita was supposed to be trundled back to Buenos Aires when her tomb was finished, but Juan died before they could get “round to it.” Peron’s third wife Isabel who became president when he died in 1974 actually had Evita returned and she was a very well traveled corpse by this time. She would have racked up lots of frequent flyer points had there been such a thing. Supposedly, to gain popularity with the working class, Isabel had Evita buried next to Juan in the Presidential palace, but then two years later, there was another coup by the military and they wanted the Perons to vacate the premises. So Juan was sent to Chacarita Cemetery and Evita to Recoleta to the Duarte family crypt, where hopefully her traveling days are over.

But there are other fascinating stories of the not so famous, such the one of David Alleno, a night watchman at Recoleta,  and an Italian immigrant who dreamed of being buried there – the only problem being, he wasn’t dead. He saved money to buy his spot, travelled back to Italy to find a sculptor who could do justice to a carving of his likeness in marble, and brought it back with him. Some legends say as soon as the tomb was finished, he killed himself so he could move right in, but other sources say he waited to go the regular way. He supposedly haunts the cemetery at night and they say you can hear his keys jangling as he walks the narrow streets.

Rufina's Tomb

Rufina’s Tomb

The story of Rufina Cambaceres is one right out of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. Supposedly she suffered a cataleptic attack (a nervous disorder which forces the body to go rigid and not respond to external stimulus). They thought she was dead and buried her in 1902. However she supposedly woke up and began screaming and clawing at her coffin. Security guards heard her screams and came to her rescue, but by then she’d died for real of a heart attack and thus was buried again. Her mother, feeling more than a little guilty, went all out on the second burial and had a new tomb made in Carrara marble with a life-size statue of a girl at a door with her hand on a doorknob. She also had her put in  a glass topped casket so if she wakes up again, she can see out , summon help or whatever, but given her history I  would think  a doorknob  inside the casket would be more useful– but that’s just me.

Then there is General Juan Manuel de Rosas – one of the caudillos from 1829 to 1852 who ordered the genocide of thousands of indigenous people. He started out as an okay guy – he had a ranch, and was sort of a well-liked gaucho’s gaucho. However, after a political assassination created an opening for governor, he was elected and then became quite a despot. He met Charles Darwin on his trip to South America and had him put into stocks for violating one of his rules (the one that says no knives shall be carried on Sundays). He reportedly liked to use buffoons at lavish balls to say outrageous things to invited guests (particularly foreign ambassadors), that he chose not to say himself since challenging a court jester to a duel just wasn’t done.  In 1835 he was offered “la suma de poder” which gave him full power with no oversight meaning he was a full-fledged dictator, as opposed to his previous years when he was only partially fledged.  He had a secret organization called the “Mazorcas”, who would beat, maim and kill not only those who opposed him, but those who did not overtly support him.  He did have his supporters who were called “Rosistas” so it was cool to be a Rosista and dangerous not to be. He received an award from the Revolutionary War Hero, General San Martin called the combat sable and was declared a “maximum hero” of Argentina. Despite his hero status, he was overthrown in 1852 and spent the rest of his life in exile in

An Abundance of Sculpture in Recoleta

An Abundance of Sculpture in Recoleta

England, where he was eventually buried since he wasn’t all that welcome back home. Then there was a general period of pursuit, murder and mayhem, sort of open season on “Rosistas”. And one of his enemies advertised a Sunday spectacle where Rosas’ former residence would be dynamited for the amusement of the masses. After several more coups (and of course they were coming fast and furious) – all was forgiven and he was shipped back to Buenos Aires in 1989 and buried in Recoleta. It is rumored however his body was once kidnapped and held for ransom, but it was recovered and new security measures were put in place. They think he is there within his marble mausoleum, but given the political chess game played here with dead bodies, who can know for sure?

After the cemetery tour we had lunch at an outdoor café in Recoleta (great empanadas again) and walked to the Palermo barrio to see the Evita Museum which is housed in a 20th Century mansion that belonged to an aristocratic family. It was bought as a shelter for the homeless in 1948  by the Eva Peron Social Aid foundation. It was used for administrative purposes after the fall of the Peron government before becoming the Eva Peron Museum. There was a good collection of Evita memorabilia including old letters, newspaper and magazine articles and photographs, many going back to her radio star days in the 1930’s. Among of the most interesting things were her dresses. (Dior no less) and her jewelry (pictures only, the real stuff was probably stolen and/or pawned long ago). It was interesting to see how glamorous she must have seemed to the impoverished masses – sort of like Princess Diana in the slums of India with Mother Teresa.  Although the clothes must have been stunning in their day, a few of them could have fit into the wardrobe for Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy, particularly that little polka dot number.

We took a taxi back to the apartment, only to find the protest marchers still going full force, but at this point it seemed to be more Woodstock than the Million Man March on Washington. Marchers were splashing in the fountains and the streets were totally trashed with copious graffiti on just about every surface within reach. In the evening we shuffled past the litter to dinner and a tango show at the historic Café Tortoni, opened in 1852. The Café Tortoni was named after a bar in Paris which was a writers’ and artists’ hangout, complete with a poet’s corner. Carlos Gardel danced here, both before and after being shot by his rival. Many famous people came here, everyone from the King of Spain to Hillary Clinton. The World Tango museum is here, along with a research library on the tango.

Tango music and dance are as much a national pastime here as soccer. Ardent fans of the tango are called “tangueros” The professional tango shows are sometimes called fantasias and often seem to have a plot involving lust, jealousy, pride, domestic violence and passion gone amok.   The dance involves a lot of theatre and rigid rules. The man sometimes wears fedora sort of hat called a funyi pulled low over one eye.  His dark hair is oiled and gleaming and he oozes testosterone (in sort of a foppish way, not so much NFL). His role is to project sort of refined Tarzan-like male dominance. He maintains a stiff upper body as he spins and dips his partner. She wears a slinky dress, showing just enough leg and cleavage to be titillating as she performs her complicated footwork and suggestive gyrations. Her role is to portray the fiery and feisty siren whom he tries to subdue. They will often pause in their dance shooting a haughty sneer at each other and occasionally turn to the audience as if to speak. If they did, I think it would go something like this:

He: You see this how faithless bimbo who has ripped my heart to shreds. I should plunge my priceless bejeweled dagger into this slut’s bellybutton”

She: “You see this jealous maniac I live with? I hope he doesn’t try to plunge that cheap Walmart knife into my bellybutton again”.

All dramatizations and exaggeration on my part aside, it was really a wonderful performance. The professional tango show is a must on any visit to Buenos Aires.

March 25, 2009

Dateline: Buenos Aires, Argentina

San Isidro Cathedral

San Isidro Cathedral

Since we got to bed in, the wee hours, we again found ourselves sleeping late and walking down the street for breakfast on this our last full day in Buenos Aires. After breakfast a van picked us up to take us to the Tren de la Costa which will take us to an area called El Tigre. It is upriver from Buenos Aires in the delta of the Parana River where it empties into the Rio Plata. The train took us to San Isidro, not too far from the Harley Davidson shop actually, but today we were on another mission. We had a short walk under the jacaranda trees to visit to the local cathedral and just enough time for a glass of wine and a snack and then it was

Docks of El Tigre on the Parana River Delta

Docks of El Tigre on the Parana River Delta

back on the train to El Tigre. It was founded in 1820 and was named for the jaguars,  (which were apparently perceived to be tigers) which were abundant in the area at the time. It became an important port for timber and fruit to be shipped downriver. The port city for the area was named Puerto de las Frutos (Port Fruit) and today the town still has a large market which was expanded to include crafts. It is a big draw for tourists and city dwellers alike.

 

 

el Tigre Tour Boat

El Tigre Tour Boat

Upon arrival in El Tigre, we boarded a boat for a tour of the many canals and islands. The shoreline on the other side of the Parana River is Uruguay. Many people from Buenos Aires have summer and weekend homes here with boats and docks. It is similar in appearance to south Florida along the Inter-coastal waterway.  It was very relaxing to sip our wine as we motored past the houses, ranging from the elegant neo-colonial mansions from the 1870’s to the modest little cabins with indoor furniture brought outdoors – sort of Argentine Redneck style. In the late afternoon we took a van back to the city and walked to a restaurant for our last dinner here.  We were glad to see the protest trash cleaned up, but the graffiti will require a little more work. Tomorrow we leave for Santiago, Chile and the final leg of our trip, but we realize that we have left so much unseen, not just in Buenos Aires, but the hundreds of places beyond the Avenida de la Paz as well. Maybe next time.

 

 




South America Part 7: Chile

South America

Part 7 – Glacier Country – Chile

 March 26, 2009

 Dateline: Santiago, Chile

Latitude at Santiago South 33.25, Longitude 70.33 West

Above the Andes

Above the Andes

Today we left Buenos Aires,  Argentina to fly to Santiago Chile, a distance of 710 miles. In Chile, we will join 7 other couples for a 10 day trip, with 3 of them joining us at the airport in Buenos Aires for our 10:30 a.m. flight. Our route took us over the highest peak in South America, called Mt. Aconagua at 22,831 feet above sea level. The mountain itself is on the border between Argentina and Chile, but the actual peak is in Chile. We arrived at 11:45 a.m. in the same time zone as Eastern Daylight Time. Upon arrival we had to pay what they call a reciprocity fee of $134 per person. It seems they are charging US citizens the same fee that the US charges Chileans to enter the US.  I don’t know who started it, but that’s the way it was so we paid up, grabbed our luggage and headed for the bus to the Santiago Sheraton where we would meet the rest of the group, most of whom had arrived overnight from Atlanta in the wee hours. The exchange rate is 550 pesos to the dollar and we cashed in a few hundred dollars to tide us over.

 

Chile is famous for remote places such as the Atacama desert, the Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), and remote islands such as Easter Island, which is 1,240 miles from the mainland. There are also closer in remote places such as the Juan Fernandez Islands where there really was a shipwreck and a marooned man, after whom Robinson Crusoe was patterned. There are vast wildernesses in Patagonia and the Andes, dotted with hot springs and volcanoes in a number of national parks. Adventure opportunities  abound here from mountain climbing to surfing.  Chile is known for its exports of wine, fruit, and seafood.  The widest point of the country is only 221 miles, but the length is 2,700 miles. It has 2,085 volcanoes, of which 55 are active, along with countless glaciers. It has 12 great lakes on the Andean plateaus and 1,000 island archipelagos

 

Chile is very much a land of extremes, having one of the earth’s driest places – the Atacama,  and also, if not the highest place, then certainly the  steepest. They have terrain which goes from sea level to 23 thousand feet in fewer than 60 miles. They also have lush valleys similar to those in California in climate and crops, the most prominent of which is the Central Valley. And like California, the ground every bit as shaky and prone to earthquakes. Santiago, the capital of Chile and home to six million residents, is at the latitudinal mid-point between north and south of the country.

 

Chileans are  primarily mestizo, a mix of indigenous and Spanish descent. Some of the more interesting indigenous people were the Atacamenos who mummified their dead, and the Diaguitas who had the disconcerting habit of taking their wives to the grave with them (ready or not). The Incas only got as far south as Santiago and gave up on conquering the tribes of the south, but they only were in Chile for 40 years. Their only real lasting contribution – was the 3 Paths of the Incas (whom you may recall were very big on building paths) through the desert, the coast and the altiplano (high plains of the Andes).

 

Above Santiago

Above Santiago

The first European here was Ferdinand Magellan, who sailed through the Straits later named for him in 1520. Next came a series of Spaniards looking for treasure, but they didn’t find much. What they did find was a lot of resistance from the locals in the south, the Mapuches and other tribes (more on them later.) Wars continued with native people in the South for most of the next century and there was certainly an abundance of chaos. Spain had trouble controlling Chile despite sending some of their best lunatics. Take for example, Dona Catalina de los Rios y Lisperguier (nickname La Quintrala) who supposedly poisoned her father, cut off the ear of one lover, had another lover murdered while she watched, had servants and slaves killed or mutilated as the notion struck her.  Even La Quintrala was no match for the Mapuches, but of course she had to deal with the distinct disadvantage of  constant attrition of her employees.

And the church members were also running amok – fights between different orders, name calling, gambling and womanizing – (actually this sounds all too familiar – some things just don’t change). Independence from Spain came about in 1811, primarily due to troubles back in Madrid and an inept governor who allowed a group of Chileans to form a junta to rule themselves as long as they proclaimed loyalty to the Spanish king. At the same time, the junta formed an army, established trade with other nations and set up a national congress and more or less slipped into self-rule while Spain was otherwise preoccupied. Of course this didn’t last long – about two months to be exact – before there was a power grabbing coup. Then the Spaniards woke up and invaded in 1813 trying to get their colony back, but the genie was out of the bottle. About that time a military hero with the unlikely name of Bernardo O’Higgins (seriously – he had a Chilean mother and an Irish father) strolled onstage to become their version of George Washington. The Irish were welcomed here in those days as allies since they shared a common enemy with Spain – the English.

 

After several reversals, Bernardo and his Army won the war for independence in 1818 and he became “director supremo” continuing to fight the Spanish with other countries to get them out of South America all together. There ensued a rather rocky road to the democracy they enjoy today – coups, strikes, wars with neighboring countries, economic collapse, depression, right wing dictators and left wing radicals. Finally elections were restored, but only as recently as 1989. Their first female president, Michelle Bachelet, was elected in 2006, So far so good –  Chile seems to be thriving.

 

We met our other friends by the pool at the hotel where a fabulous lunch awaited us in the form of a great buffet, including a whole lamb roasting spread-eagle (or spread-sheep I guess I should say) on a spit. There was some speculation as to whether the adjacent oleanders which had been blackened by the heat from said roasting lamb, would or would not result in poisoning a person, but there were no signs of illness after consuming it so apparently not. There was also a grill slightly smaller than a school bus where every type of meat was being cooked. The tables were laden with mounds of fresh fruit  and there were all sorts of vegetables and sinful desserts. After shamelessly stuffing ourselves, we had a restful afternoon and all met for dinner where a lesson we already knew was learned once again. The lesson is that when you have a party of 16, asking for separate checks will guarantee unbridled chaos to follow. After our waiters tried for approximately an hour to get our bills straight and were still unsuccessful, we surrendered and paid whatever was on our respective bills.

 

March 27, 2009

Dateline: Puyuhuapi, Chile

 Latitude at Puyuhuapi 44.24 South Longitude 72.38 West

Aysen Countryside

Aysen Countryside

Today we traveled south from Santiago to Puyuhuapi, (pronounced Poo-you-whap-ee with the accent on the “whap”), located in the Aysen  region of Patagonia. Our flight was to a small regional airport at a town called Balmaceda. The name Aysen (also spelled Aisen and pronounced Eye-Sin) comes from a description of the area by English speaking voyagers who had rounded Cape Horn, and recognized this place as where the “ice ends”. Phonetically that became Aysen. We again had a flight with beautiful views of the Andes, with many peaks over 20,000 feet from the left side of our airplane, and occasional glimpses of the coastline and the Pacific on our right. Our plane stopped in Puerto Montt and we almost lost Gary since he was sitting up front and the rest of us were in the back. He didn’t get the memo about an intermediate stop. Fortunately it is a small airport and he realized he was by himself once the tarmac cleared and none of us had disembarked. We were met by our large and quite comfortable tour bus, dedicated to the 16 of us, along with a few other travelers, which is a good thing because we were to be on this bus a very long time.

 

It was rainy when we landed and it continued to rain. We met our guide Daniel who told us that there are 2 seasons in this area: Wet and Very Wet. He said the average annual rainfall is 4 to 5 thousand millimeters which is around 160 to 200 inches.  We boarded the bus, and our baggage was stowed, including one bag lost on the International flight, but which was miraculously reunited with Leo, its owner, shortly before our flight left Santiago. This was a good thing since Leo is quite tall, and if he had to borrow from the rest of us, he would be wearing very short pants. Although, given the amount of rain and puddles we were to slosh through on this day, short pants might have been just the thing.

 

I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of traveling to Patagonia – the name is so exotic and the clothing of the same name leads you to believe you’ll be well equipped for the rugged terrain ahead. It is far more beautiful than anything I had imagined, but the rugged terrain part was quite accurate. There are miles of thick forest, roaring rivers, steep snow capped mountains, with glaciers peeking over the high passes. Our ultimate destination was the Puyuhuapi Lodge which is northwest of Coyhaique (pronounced Coy-hi-kay with the accent on “hi”) in the Province of Santa Cruz.  While the land is vast, it is very lightly populated – 90,000 people, with half of those living in Coyhaique. The Aysen region has and abundance of fresh water with approximately 4,800 rivers, offering some of the best fly fishing country in the world.  (or so they say – more on this later) Scattered throughout the countless fjords are approximately 2800 islands, almost all uninhabited. Daniel said there are very few unemployed people, like fewer than 10, and everyone knows who they are and helps them out. Crime here is unheard of since everyone would immediately know who did it. This area is primarily cattle country, but timber is also a big industry.

 

We stopped at Coyhaique for lunch at a restaurant called El Reloj (translation is the Clock – the same word for wrist watch) and enjoyed a delicious soup and crepe which was perfect for rainy day, plus some good Chilean wine. The town sits beside a lake that was once a glacier in the 1800’s and it steams in the middle where hot springs bubble below the surface. After lunch we travelled along the Simpson River on the Austral Road. We left the paved road for some segments with the road map showing dashes versus solid lines for our route, which we came to learn means that rugged is going to be taken to a whole new level. We drove past precipitous cliffs both above us and below with much evidence of recent and ancient earthquakes and rockslides.  In the late afternoon we came to a washed out bridge at a place called the Piedra del Gato (Cat’s Rock) which is now truly a bridge to nowhere with the lanes, as narrow as goat paths, shooting off into  empty space with the river gorge many, many feet below.

 

The roads were full of vast potholes which made the trip to the back of the bus to use the bathroom a challenge. And it was somewhat entertaining to glance back to see who might just be sitting on the throne when the door flew open after a jolt from a serious pothole. At least the exposed person was among friends – sort of good news, bad news story.

 

There was evidence all around us of an old forest fire. Daniel said that after a war between Chile and Peru/Bolivia in 1879, soldiers were paid with land. All they had to do was clear it, which they did by burning, and they could have as many hectares as they could clear. This ended in the 1920’s, but the forest still has not recovered. Few big trees have emerged from reforestation and there were many burnt logs and stumps still in evidence, but somehow they didn’t distract from the misty Brigadoon-like setting. There was lush vegetation and  waterfalls at every turn – and there are plenty of turns  (298 of them on this stretch of road). Many waterfalls are seasonal – somewhat diminished when it is Wet, vs. Very Wet, we suppose.  For much of the drive there was a sheer rock wall to one side and a sheer drop off on the other. We were surrounded by craggy peaks, new mountains, relatively speaking which are very different from the smooth older ones we see in the Eastern US. These are more like the Rockies in the American West.

 

We stopped for delicious biscuits at a small village en route which may have been named Campo Grande, but I have to say between using the facilities and munching on the biscuits and honey, I could be mistaken about that. However,  since we’ve only gone through 2 villages in the many hours since Coyhaique, I have a 50/50 chance of being right.  We began following the Cisnes River (Cisnes translates as swan) on Route 7. The name “route” is loosely applied since this is a gravel road and there are no signs of the swans, but then again it’s getting dark and they could be out there.

 

Chilean Glacier

Chilean Glacier

We have seen a number of glaciers nestled in the “V’s” of the mountain peaks on our route. Patagonian Chile has 64 glaciers. Daniel told us there were four Ice Ages in this area, with these glaciers the remnants of the last one which was approximately 25,000 years ago. The first was 200k years ago, the second 160k years ago, and the third 60k years ago  There are basically two types of ice on the glaciers – glacial and snow.  The clear blue glacial ice is frozen water left over from the last Ice Age.  The dirty white ice is frozen snow which has fallen on the glacier and has frozen there. Per Daniel, the Ice Age came on so fast, in Alaska that scientists have found fully preserved mammoth remains with grass still in the creature’s  mouth and throat – perhaps the first case of flash frozen food.

 

We thought we were arriving in the afternoon, but we actually arrived well after dark – pitch black, major league dark. Actually Daniel and the bus driver were the only ones who were sure we actually had arrived since there were no lights anywhere. We more or less felt our way down to a dock that they promised us was there, where we boarded two boats to cross the fjord to reach the Puyuhuapi Lodge on the other side. This trek to the water’s edge was accomplished despite a gale force wind (my estimation, not the National weather service standard) and a driving rain. Our boat had to turn back and wait for the second boat since we were told the “radar” was not working.We supposed they must have needed to ascertain where the shoreline was since there was no river traffic to worry about. This fjord is not all that wide and the hotel had the only lights around, but it was tucked into a little cove and not visible. With the changing tide our captain pronounced “Ahora o Nunca” (now or never) and we set out and bounced our way across the fjord in the dark. We could only assume that if we didn’t depart “ahora”, the tide would take us somewhere out in the Pacific, far from our destination.

 

Spa Orientation at Puyuhuapi

Spa Orientation at Puyuhuapi

Despite the shaky embarkation and crossing, we had a great welcome of pisco sours and caipirinhas. We were encouraged to get into fluffy white terrycloth robes and go to our welcome Spa Experience, which included a brief orientation followed by a soak in one of the hot spring pools. This was not just any hot spring – this was an Olympic Size pool with little surrounding pools of varying temperatures. Then we went to dinner in the lodge for a good meal, barely recalled due to fatigue and languor brought about by the bus ride and the hot springs respectively. We went to sleep with our balcony door open to the soothing sound of the rain drumming away.

March 28,  2009

Dateline: Puyuhuapi, Chile

Puyuhuapi Lodge

Puyuhuapi Lodge

We realized when the sun came up that the rooms have fabulous views of the fjord and surrounding mountains. Well ,we had to kind of imagine the mountains due to the low hanging clouds – but just like good friends, you don’t always see them, but you always know they are there. The landscape and the climate is very much like the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest – so temperate in fact that there is fuchsia growing wild here.

 

The Puyuhuapi Resort and Spa has a rather intriguing slogan that goes like this: “Un Secreto al Sur de Silencio”  which translates as A Secret South of Silence” It’s a secret in that few people know it’s here,  it’s south for sure, and was silent until we got here. All true, but how do you go south of silence?  Maybe it’s like those Incan myths – they are meant to be spiritual and not intended for any of that analytical type scrutiny. One thing was for sure with the arrival of the16 of us, the silence was indeed in shattered. It is entirely possible we were those boisterous people that hotel patrons usually call the front desk to complain about.

 

Newly Outfitted Patagonian Trekkers

Newly Outfitted Patagonian Trekkers

After a hearty breakfast we reported to a small garden shed-like room to pick out our rain gear for the day which was comprised of voluminous ponchos and somewhat ill fitting rubber boots, that were sort of like clown shoes, since they tended to be somewhat bulky. Boots are essential, given that the trails are perpetually muddy. We later learned that muddy would prove to be understatement – we almost lost our friend Alison in a mud hole which was up to mid-calf and still sucking her downward when she was pulled to safety by her fellow trekkers.

 

Hiking in  the Rain Forest

Hiking in the Rain Forest

The mud was a mild distraction, however, as we took the North Trail through  a fairyland forest with moss, tiny flowers, big elephant ear-like plants called nalco as best I could tell, which is probably not right since no amount of Googling can get confirmation. Anyway, their giant leaves were large enough to shelter a small family. There were towering trees, including many unusual species such as cinnamon, well over a century old, covered with moss and lichen, giving the appearance of an enchanted forest where a whole tribe of Hobbits could live undetected. The forest floor was carpeted with an assortment of giant ferns, exotic plants,  and tiny blooms, some almost microscopic, and all slurping up the moisture. We found it to be similar to Olympic National Park in Washington State, minus all the ancient old growth timber.

 

Thermal Springs at Puyuhuapi

Thermal Springs at Puyuhuapi

After our trek we had lunch at the lodge and then visited the outdoor spas, a series of natural thermal springs along the banks of the fjord with steam rising and blending into the mist of the colder air. Given the proximity to the fjord, it was possible to have a soak and then take a plunge into the icy waters of the fjord, but we only watched in shock and awe of those intrepid spa-goers who did so.   The temperatures varied from pool to pool so you could pick your comfort level, depending on which spa you selected. Many of us had spa treatments in the afternoon – I selected a milk bath with a Jacuzzi so active I actually kept looking to see if it had churned any butter while I was lounging. It was quite relaxing and sent me packing back to our room for a recovery nap. Gary picked a wine bath with the same fizzy element and had a similar nap-inducing experience. He swears he did not taste the waters, but he hoped it was an inferior vintage that did not make the grade in the tasting room.

 

The Good Life at Puyuhuapi

The Good Life at Puyuhuapi

It continued to rain so we had card games and cocktails before dinner in the lodge, watching the clouds and the mist out on the fjord fade to darkness. And when it gets dark here – it is a black, really black kind of dark. We are housed in groups of individual lodges that are only a very short walk (climb) from the main lodge but we have to pick our way carefully along the flagstones. There is lighting along the walkways, but it really doesn’t stand a chance against the dark.  The lodge provided umbrellas for going to and from the dining room, so the object is to make sure you leave for your room before all the umbrellas have gone before you.  Again the sleeping was spectacular.

 

March 29, 2009

Dateline: Puyuhaupi , Chile

We awoke to clouds in the morning, but by the afternoon, bright sunshine emerged and the scenery became even more stunning and breathtaking. Local wisdom says that in Chile you can have all four seasons in the same day and today we can see this for ourselves. Gary and our friend Skip had a fly fishing adventure scheduled, so they set off right after an early breakfast.

The rest of us were doing a trek to the Hanging Glacier in Queulat National Park.  The glacier does more or less hang over the waterfall, although this was not always the case. Our guide, Daniel told us that in the 1800’s the glacier covered the gorge we crossed and the trail we hiked up and in fact extended all the way to the fjord where the Puyuhuapi Resort is. As recently as 1975, the glacier was in the gorge and on this trail. It is retreating so quickly that it provides clear evidence that the earth is warming, regardless of  the cause or the consequences. We took a short boat ride to Rio Union  and then boarded a bus to the national park. Once on foot, we crossed a huge gorge with a roaring river below on a swinging bridge. Only 4 people are allowed on it at one time which doesn’t do much to inspire confidence in the structure, but they say no tourists have been lost here yet. The river here is chocolate milk brown from all the silt that is disgorged by the glacier action. From the bridge we could see the glacier at the top of a waterfall in the distance; however, we were seeing only a fraction of it. The bulk of it is in the high valleys in the peaks above us. Our walk took us to within a half a mile of it. We saw the two types of ice quite clearly – the brownish white of years of frozen snowfall and the underlying aquamarine of compressed ice from the original glacier formation. In 1975 the waterfall we were seeing was about 13 feet high. Today it is 300 feet high. Daniel told us that this glacier is actually trying to advance ( i.e. there is forward movement), but it is melting so much, it loses  all the ice it gains over the winter and then some.

 

We were fortunate enough to see a calving, where a chunk of the glacier broke off while we were there. We actually saw it first and then heard the crash of it a few second later. The concussion is often so great that it stuns the fish in the river below and they come floating to the surface, which for the birds circling above, is like winning the lottery every day. So from their perspective, this global warming business is not such a bad thing.

 

As for the fly fishing expedition, the report that came back was that fishing was good, but the catching was bad. The outfitter had some good equipment, but he had one XL and one L. Skip and Gary are both XXL kind of guys, but Skip, deciding he is the daintier of the pair, very graciously offered to take the L. We have pictures of the guide trying to shoehorn Skip into what we came to call Fisherman’s Spanx. (For my male readers, Spanx is a brand of  under-clothing  designed to make women look skinnier.) Although Skip looked at least 10 pounds lighter, he has declined to switch to size L spandex clothing on a permanent basis. The streams were too murky for the fish to take the bait so Skip and Gary retired to a small lodge for lunch, where fueled by good Chilean wine, they proceeded to concoct the fish stories that they planned to tell the rest of us.  The lunch and wine were so much more satisfying than the fly fishing, they decided to not “mess with success”  and that they should keep at this endeavor until it was time to return to Puyuhuapi in the late afternoon.

 

Lounging on the Fjord

Lounging on the Fjord

For the rest of us, it was an equally leisurely afternoon napping, reading, cards, and of course the spas. The lodge had kayaks available, but it looked pretty damp by late afternoon so our group remained lethargic for the most part. At dinner tonight we met Lucia, a friend of Alison’s who was totally charming. From Lucia we learned a new phrase in Chilean Spanish,  espereme un minuto which is used to mean roughly Wait a minute, hang on a minute, etc., but literally translates as “Wait me a minute.  We had dinner at the lodge and fell into bed early with a 6:00 a.m. wake up call looming the next day.

 

March 30, 2009

Dateline: Chacabuco and the San Rafael Glacier

Latitude at San Rafael Glacier 44.24 South, 72.38 West

 

Typical Glacier Exploration Vessel

Typical Glacier Exploration Vessel

Today we traveled by boat to our destination  –  the San Rafael Lagoon and Glacier and then on to the fishing village of Chacabuco to spend the night. We had to have our bags out at 6:30 a.m. for a departure at 6:50 (a.k.a. 0:dark thirty) on a large catamaran called the Patagonia Explorer. Fortunately no one had to invoke the “wait me a minute”phrase for the departure. The San Rafael Glacier covers 4,600 square kilometers and is a thousand meters thick at its deepest point, a thickness supplemented by 600 feet of snow per year. Once at the glacier we were as at 44.24 degrees south, and still we are about 10 degrees north of the southernmost tip of the South American continent, Cape Horn. It was mostly sunny as we motored out of the fjord and into Laguna Los Tempanos. (Lake of the Ice Floes) which made the already impressive scenery truly spectacular. There was no lake here until the last 30 years when the ice retreated, although despite its name we saw only stray chunks of ice here and there instead of floes.

 

An Iceberg Recently Calved

An Iceberg Recently Calved

As we travelled the length of the lake, we concluded that Puyuhuapi and the Aysen area of Patagonia are definitely on our Top Ten Most Beautiful Places in the World. As the day progressed, we expanded that to include the  San Rafael Glacier area and the austral fjords that lead to it. The trip took on a mystical quality with the alternating mist, sunlight and clouds playing over heavily forested mountains.  The water was as flat as a mirror with our vessel generating the only ripple in its surface. Then as special icing on the already fantastic cake, we encountered several schools of dolphins which swam beside us from time to time. We also saw the black necked swans that are very common in this area.  The scenery had that same “Wow Factor” as did Puyuhuapi. Around every bend was another ethereal scene, with the sun emerging from time to time like a benediction. It proved to be an excellent time and place to reflect on and to count our blessings.

 

San Rafael Glacier

San Rafael Glacier

We eventually passed a tiny fishing village clinging to the rocky shoreline. There was so little land with no soil to speak of, they had their cemetery across the channel on another island.  Since it was an 8 hour trip to the glacier by boat and we would not arrive at the Port of Chacabuco and our hotel until after 11:00 p.m., there were about 5 meals served on the boat, all basically okay, but not gourmet. We had breakfast lunch and dinner, as well as an afternoon and evening snack.  The Chileans call snack time “onces” meaning the elevens, and, as I understand it, is sort of like happy hour.  Onces usually is between 5 and 7 p.m. and, as originally observed was more like the British “Tea” (little cakes, little sandwiches, perhaps crumpets, or maybe not) It is intended to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner which is usually eaten around 9:00 p.m. in these parts. It is said the name actually came from British custom of having a late morning snack around 11:00 a.m. and it sort of evolved to consumption of a local liquor at men only clubs in the olden days. The liquor was called aguardiente, which I would think would translate as “tooth water”. Correct or not, I think the “tooth water” moniker to describe a liquor of choice could catch on, as in Toothwater and Tonic, Toothwater Martini and so forth.

 

None of the meals were a highlight (especially the lowlight huevos revueltos which should have been scrambled eggs. However, I have to find out if revueltos can also mean revolting which was also true of these same eggs.) They were served, well, a little on the rare side – like barely out of the chicken. However, we were not here on this boat or in this place for the food, so we continued having a fabulous time.

 

There was plenty of leisure time on the boat so when we were not gagging on the eggs, we played card games. Our first glimpse at the glacier confirmed for us that the trip was worth every minute of travel and countless undercooked eggs. The glacier was simply magnificent. Sections of it were the usual white shades, but the blues ranged from aquamarine to sapphire and all shades in between, with the shifting clouds and sun making the colors change dramatically. The cold weather here rivals the highest altitudes of Peru and is damp too boot, so deck strolling required getting all  bundled up. Those baby alpaca hats Sharon and I bought in Peru came in handy and we appreciated their sacrifice. I did note, after getting wet in a brief rain shower, my baby alpaca hat gave me a distinct “Tina Turner on a bad hair day” look, but it was quite glamorous while I was dry.

 

The Glacier Up Close

The Glacier Up Close

One of the most memorable events of this trip was going out in little inflatable zodiac-type boats to see the glacier up close. We wore life jackets of course, but the water is so cold they are merely a formality so they can recover your frozen body and ship it home (my words, not theirs). While we kept a safe enough distance, we were thrilled to hear a crack and a roar followed by a huge splash and we were close enough to feel the swells generated, which  seriously rocked our boat. We watched as the sea birds swooped in to collect the dead or disoriented fish stunned by the concussion. The glacier itself is massive at sm Glacier Traditionthe water’s edge – 120 feet above the waterline and 230 feet below. It also calves underwater which is kind of dicey for small boats – you don’t want one of these to come surging to the surface under your inflatable boat like a submarine in an emergency surfacing drill.  It was quite an adventure to be motoring among icebergs from car to house size with 80 to 90 per cent of their bulk underwater. When we returned to the catamaran, we engaged in a tradition of the Patagonia Express by having our own onces with whisky on the rocks served over ice chipped from icebergs recently calved. If whiskey was not to your liking, you could have your tooth water of choice.

 

We stayed at the glacier until dusk and motored north again to Chacabuco, arriving well after dark. Our hotel was the Loberias del Sur. I can’t seem to come up with the translation of loberias, but given the décor, I thought it must mean sea lions or seals. Sur, of course is south.  We regret that it was too dark to see much of the scenery, much less spot any loberias, so that will have to wait until tomorrow.

 

March 31, 2009

Dateline: Santiago, Chile

Countryside Near Chacabuco

Countryside Near Chacabuco

We took the bus for the drive from Chacabuco via Puerto Aysen and Balmaceda. We made a short stop,  for some shopping in Puerto Aysen – a long stop would be superfluous since the town was so tiny and the shops so few, but it was nevertheless charming.   On our bus ride, we had the opportunity to learn more about the area. For example, the name Patagonia came from Magellan. Patagon was the name of a giant from a Spanish novel, although many thought it was a word that meant “Big Feet”. This seems quite feasible since when Spaniards first came, they saw tracks in the snow made by the indigenous people (Tehuelches) who were using snowshoes made from guanaco hide. Spaniards concluded that the inhabitants of the area had monstrously big feet. Magellan also might have though they were giants because the average Tehuelche male at the time averaged 5’11 and the average Spaniard only 5’1. So they may well have been giants from the Spaniards’ perspective. The land defined as Patagonia is twice the size of California, but it is much more sparsely populated. (1.5 million compared to 34 million).  We took an afternoon flight back to Santiago and rechecked into the Sheraton.

 

We had the rest of the afternoon and evening at leisure so Gary and I took a walk to the surrounding neighborhood of Providencia to get a feel for the city. We crossed a bridge over the Mapocho River which has been tamed and channeled by concrete much like the rivers in southern California. The low humidity,  and scrubby hillsides are comparable as well. Santiago only averages 12 inches of rain per year and that comes in May-September (winter). This part of Santiago is very mixed between modern glass buildings and more traditional European architectures with broad leafy avenues and a lot of outdoor cafes. It seems popular with the local after work crowds. We had a quick dinner at an outdoor pizza restaurant and walked back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow’s winery tour.

April 1, 2009

Dateline: The Maipo Valley, Chile

Today we boarded a small bus for a four hour drive to south of the city of Santiago to the upper Maipo (pronounced my-po with the accent on “my”)Valley which runs alongside the Maipo River, and was a little dry this time of year. En route we had the chance to learn about the history of wine making in the area.The first “spirits” were made the the indigenous people, the Mapuche (pronounced Mah-poo-chee, with the accent on “poo”),  which was about 4% to alcohol. Their methodology was a little bizarre. They apparently didn’t have a good source of yeast since they found it necessary to use the yeast found in saliva to start fermentation. No word on who spit in the first batch to determine that this would indeed work. It would make an interesting story – perhaps some irritated serving girl spit into an obnoxious customer’s unfermented beverage of choice and he liked the result.

 

The local vintners actually have the Spaniards to thank for bringing in the first grape cuttings. They needed wine for mass and it certainly didn’t hurt their recruitment efforts with converts. The locals had to like this particular enticement, and the fact that no spit was involved in the making of this product would seem to be especially attractive. There was a local 8% alcohol beverage called chichi, but it was not made from corn (as in Peru), but from grapes and was a forerunner of pisco, which is a white brandy made from Muscat grapes.  Local wines typically have an alcohol content of about 14%, and due to the heat, grapes ripen quickly. Originally, the wine was stored in cow skins with the hair on the inside for whatever reason. And even more strange was the practice of keeping  the tail on to assist in draining the bags.  I didn’t even want to know how that worked.

 

The area where we are going was first occupied by the Mapuches, who had a leader that they called the Toki. If he was killed or when he died, they just picked another – none of this royalty business for the Mapuches, but this earliest democracy was squashed by the Spaniards who had the nasty habit of putting Mapuche heads on spikes (no longer attached to torsos) to intimidate the others. The area was more or less in a constant state of warfare from 1536 to 1880 when the Mapuches fought the Spanish tooth and nail, mostly between Santiago and Puerto Montt.

 

A Spaniard named Valdivia was told he could keep any land he could conquer and manage to hold on to, so with a motley crew of 150 he founded Santiago in 1541. There was an uprising by the indigenous Mapuches, but they were defeated in a day long battle by Spaniards, which included  Valdivia’s girlfriend, Ines De Suarez who donned some chainmail and apparently acquitted herself admirably. The bad news was that everything they had was destroyed in battle. Valdivia tried to spread civilization by establishing other cities and essentially enslaving the indigenous people to farm and pan for gold. However, his troops were stretched too thinly and there were several uprisings. He was killed in battle by Mapuches – supposedly captured and tied to a tree and forced to swallow molten gold (no doubt an exaggeration, containing more poetic justice than truth). Even after the revolution when the Spaniards went home in the early 1800’s, the Mapuches fought against the new governments that followed.

 

Grapes Ready for Harvest at the Santa Rita Vineyard

Grapes Ready for Harvest at the Santa Rita Vineyard

Our visit today was to the Santa Rita Winery, founded in 1880 with imported machinery and enologists from France. The imported French Oak barrels were the key to flavors created – a vast improvement over the cow hides with the hair inside and the cow tail spout. No word on whether the so called“bung hole” , where the wine comes out of the oak barrel has any connection to the cow tail of old, but we can only hope not. We toured the winery which had a small Andean Museum with artifacts, pottery, and weaving from various indigenous cultures. After the tasting of several excellent Medalla Real Wines, we had lunch in the Dona Paula Restaurant at the winery .The restaurant is named after Paula Jaraquemade, a woman who hid Bernardo O’Higgins and 120 soldiers from the Spaniards during the rebellion from Spain. Santa Rita is the largest vintner in Chile with 5 wineries. The one we visited was in Alto Jahuel, where they make 19 million liters per year. We also visited the Bodega Uno, one of the oldest cellars in Chile at this same vineyard.

 

We returned to Santiago on the same route, part of which was on the 2,700 mile long Pan Am Highway which we were on earlier in Ecuador and which stretches from Alaska to Puerto Montt,  several miles south of here. Chile has only 110 miles of the Pan Am,, but it stops far short of the southern most tip of the country at Punta Arenas. Tonight we had dinner at the Fabula restaurant, located in an old house, recently renovated in a residential neighborhood. The dinner special was called Ropa Viejo (which translates as old clothes), but is actually a beef stew kind of dish that is pretty tasty. We returned to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow’s city tour.

 

April 2, 2009

Dateline: Santiago, Chile

 

Today we toured the city of Santiago with our guide Jean (the French version of John) and our driver Gabriel.  En route we commented on the number of dogs running around the city off leash. Jean told us that there are a number of stray dogs, but that they are very well fed. Apparently Santiago people take the attitude that the dogs belong to everybody, versus nobody, so everyone feeds them.  Santiago has almost no wind since it is blocked by the Andes to the East and hills to the West so smog is an occasional problem, but we didn’t experience much on our visit. Many local cops here ride on little Vespa like lime green motor scooters with lime green vests and the locals refer to them as the Ninja Turtles.  At various intersections they also have interesting street entertainers who collect money from people at stop lights. For example en route into the city we saw a juggler with a clown nose tossing knives in the air standing on a box in the middle of the intersection. It certainly keeps the routine commute interesting.

 

La Moneda

La Moneda

We started our tour in the Old City which included watching the changing of the Guard at the Government Palace. It is called La Moneda, which translates as the coin. The name is appropriate since this palace was originally a mint. It doesn’t exactly seem palatial with air conditioning provided by window units, but the elaborate guard ceremony is worthy of a palace and provides a distraction from the Rube Goldberg effect of the palace’s cooling system which is probably cost effective, but not too attractive.

 

One of the most famous of the residents of La Moneda was Salvador Allende, who was elected by a left-wing coalition in 1970 on the platform of providing a pair of shoes and free milk to every school child in Chile. However, there was a military coup in 1973 and the far right took over from the far left. Salvador was last seen alive in a helmet, wielding a machine gun given to him by Castro as the bombs fell on La Moneda. Allende was later found dead inside and it was said to be a suicide, but with all the bullets flying, who could tell? I was envisioning their taking his weapon from his cold dead hands and thought that it was too bad he was a leftist –otherwise he would have been a great poster-man for the NRA.

 

Government House

Government House

The coup brought the dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet and the usual round of torture, killing and repression of all individual freedoms ensued. Pinochet finally fell from power when he allowed a vote of confidence election that he was so confident of winning, he didn’t bother to rig it.  Pinochet managed to stay in power officially until 1989, at which time democratic elections were restored. In 1998 he was detained in Europe and charged with crimes against humanity, but was later ruled mentally unfit to stand trial – just another wacky third world dictator, which is actually a pretty sizable club.

 

Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral

Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral

From there we went to the main square of the old city called the Plaza de las Armas to see the Government House and to visit the Metropolitan Cathedral. En route we saw a cloister and church founded by nuns who got stranded here while trying to reach Quebec. We went inside the cathedral, but we got a little distracted at this point because there was a major protest outside in the Plaza de Armas and the surrounding streets. Students and teachers were demanding lower tuition, government funded education and financial aid and there were all sorts of riot police to ensure things didn’t get violent. When we emerged from the

 

A Minor Riot in Downtown Santiago

A Minor Riot in Downtown Santiago

cathedral, we became inadvertent participants, mingling among the sign-wavers and slogan chanters. As we gawked, plastic barricades suddenly started flying and that’s when the water cannons came out and people started running for cover. Our guide directed us into a nearby museum and the door was barred behind us. But by this time the excitement was pretty much over so we didn’t miss much. We did a walk by of the historic home of a  local wine family, the Cousinos  who established a winery called Cousino Macul, one of the oldest in Chile, but once you’ve been part of a riot, historic homes seem pretty tame.

 

Pueblito Los Domenicos

Pueblito Los Domenicos

Our guide seemed anxious to get us out of the city center with all the dispersed protesters, and so he took us to the top of Cerro San Cristobal to see city which sprawls for miles. Atop the hill is the Santuario de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception) with a 46 foot high statue of the Virgin Mary. From there went to lunch at a charming little place called Pueblito Los Domenicos and had the opportunity to shop in a wonderful crafts market. That night we had dinner at another great restaurant called Pinpillinpausha. I may have inserted a few extra letters in here, but it translates to something like “butterfly in the bush” in some language other than Spanish. Dinner is served late in the city and thus it was close to 11:00 when we returned to the Sheraton.

 

April 3, 2009

Dateline: Valparaiso, Chile

Latitude at Valparaiso 33.03 South, 71.36 West.

 

Casa Del Bosque Vineyard

Casa Del Bosque Vineyard

Today we traveled over the Coast Range and through the Casa Blanca (White House) Valley to the port city to Valparaiso and the neighboring resort city of Vinas del Mar Vineyards by the Sea) with a visit to Casa del Bosque (House in the Forest) en route. The Casa Blanca Valley was very reminiscent of Napa in climate and ambiance. We all said, (or at least we would if we all spoke Spanish), que lindo (how beautiful). As we drove, we noticed the same sort of roadside shrines for those lost in accidents along the roadside that we saw in Peru and Ecuador, but these were even more elaborate, little dog-house like structures, often decorated with shiny things (e.g. hubcaps, glass bottles, etc.), One even had tires cut in half and stuck in the ground forming little arches of rubber fencing around the “doghouse”.

 

Casa del Bosque Visitors Center

Casa del Bosque Visitors Center

Since we were visiting just at the start of harvest time, at Casa del Bosque, we had the unique experience of actually going into the vineyard’s fields and tasting the ripened grapes right off the vines. We also had an excellent grape and wine lesson. We learned that unlike wine grapes, table grapes are kept out of the direct sun so their skins do not become thick and tough and to ensure that they do not ripen too quickly since they often travel to distant markets. They are also typically trained to grow on a pergola so they are shaded by their own leaves and then they are picked from below. White grapes are grown in cooler regions near the coast and red are grown in the hotter regions. The climate here is just right since they have a nightly fog and warm sunny days. Their little grape tasting crop had all the varieties, but the fields were primarily red grapes. The growers want the wine grapes to get maximum sun (more sun means more sugar content) and are not concerned with skins or time to market, but they do pay attention to the region where they are planted, Some varieties call for an early pick and others for a late pick. Tannins are in the skins and the vintner can take them out or add them in, depending on the desired taste.

 

Our grape tasting, like our wine tasting that followed went from light to heavy. We tasted Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and a regional wine and grape called Carmenere, exclusive to Chile.  It was once thought that this grape variety was extinct (a blight wiped out the European crops) but vines were later found and propagated  in Chile. Both wine and grape are fabulous. Carmenere is most comparable to Malbec in Argentina, and is similar in some respects to cabernet sauvignon, but lighter. We found it remarkable that the vintner’s assistant could describe accurately for us what taste and what sensations we would have in our mouths with each wine.

 

Coastline of Chile at Vinas  del Mar

Coastline of Chile at Vinas del Mar

After the wine tasting we continued on to the coast while enjoying the fertile valleys we travelled through.  Eighty per cent of the land in Chile is mountains and they have a sizeable desert area so arable land is a precious commodity and they make the most of it with a bountiful harvest. In this area they grow, in addition to grapes,  avocados, olives, berries ,  and citrus – each the most delicious imaginable. Raspberries are so plentiful here they make juice from it to serve with breakfast.

 

 

Rocks near Renaca Beach Vinas Del Mar

Rocks near Renaca Beach Vinas Del Mar

We stopped for a delicious seafood lunch at a quaint little place called Delicias del Mar right across the road from the ocean at Renaca Beach. Having lunch right on the beach was not an option since there were waves crashing on the rocks and occasionally over the sea wall. There was also a dramatic surf display on a big rock protruding out of water called Monte Mar (the translation is Sea Mountain, but it is nicknamed Michael Jackson Rock since it started out black, but is now white thanks to sea birds) There were plenty of sea lions on the rocks, but so distant that they were merely dots on the horizon. We could hear them, but thankfully not smell them since this can spoil a good lunch if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction and it was indeed windy.

 

The Port of Valparaiso

The Port of Valparaiso

After lunch we had a brief visit to Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but we were running short of time due to too much sampling at the winery and too much dallying over lunch. The city is named after a city in Spain whose name means “valley of paradise”. Valparaiso experienced a serious earthquake in 1988 with 300 dead and they had to do extensive restoration to their historic area.  Copper mining is the number one industry in the hills above the valley and the city is the main seaport for the country. The city is built on steep hills – very San Francisco like, perhaps without the glamour, but not without the charm. There are Victorian gingerbread houses in pastels in many neighborhoods, while in others there are more eclectic

An Acsensor at the Valparaiso Waterfront

An Acsensor at the Valparaiso Waterfront

styles in all the colors of the rainbow and then some. All the houses, regardless of style, seem to be clinging to the hillside for dear life.   There are a number of funiculars (called ascensores) in the city  that people who live there use daily to come and go. We rode one to the top of Cerillo Artillerano (Artillery Hill) overlooking the commercial harbor and from there we could see the whole city and up the coast line to Vinas del Mar in the north. We returned to Santiago for dinner at the Mestizo Restaurant in Santiago. We had another wonderful meal, but most of us passed on the conger eel that our friend and hostess, Alison suggested we try if we wanted a true taste of Chile.

 

April  4, 2009

Dateline: Lima, Peru

 

We had a leisurely morning, packing up our dirty clothes and preparing to leave Chile on an evening flight. We walked to a restaurant called Divertamiento, an outdoor café for a casual lunch. We lounged around the pool at the Sheraton and left in the late afternoon to catch an 8:00 p.m. flight to Lima. We thankfully had reservations at a hotel on the airport grounds since we checked in after midnight.  We set our alarm for 4:00 a.m. to catch the next leg of our return trip.

 

April 5, 2009

Dateline: Miami, FL

We had a 6:30 a.m. flight to Miami to catch our connecting flight to Atlanta so we were really glad to have spent the night literally across the street. The flight was long and uneventful (always a good thing), and it gave us time to reflect on what we’d seen and done over the last six weeks and do the math on how far we travelled.  Not including tour vans, boats and treks on foot it came to 18, 510 miles and yes, every mile was absolutely worth it.