BUGS - INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL - AMAZON WILDS, GALAPAGOS ISLES 1996
This trip combines several "biggies" of South America, a visit to the Amazon basin, the incomparable views of Machu Picchu, and the wonders of the Galapagos. Even though several airlines fly directly from LA to Lima, our ultimate destination, we must fly two sides of a very large triangle to get there. We find ourselves in the very modern Miami International terminal. It is stainless-steel modern with black terrazzo floors which feature imbedded, brass sea creatures. The ticketing area was absolutely jammed with passengers, each of whom seemed to have several very large boxes bound with rope. Many passengers availed themselves of the service which wraps stuff in plastic to discourage pilfering.
With some trepidation we finally located the rather small S.A.E.T.A. ticketing counter. I've never heard of this airline. The lack of a crowd here as compared to the other South American airline counters suggests that others haven't, either. We had allowed at least 3 hours for check-in which was accomplished in well less than an hour so we looked for a bar near the boarding gate. Wonder of wonders, they pour generous sized drinks, doubles for $1 more.
When we finally boarded we found that we were on a very new, clean Airbus A320. It turned out that S.A.E.T.A. is the national airline of Ecuador and is very good. The seats are comfortable and generously spaced, we were served an excellent meal on china with cloth napkins, and there was continual free booze.
We arrived in Lima quite late, after a change of planes in Guayaquil. Clearing immigration consisted of standing in a long line until we reached the very bored passport stamper who said not a word as she processed us. We then found our bags and strolled through customs. No sign of the tour guide so we went outside.
The area in front of the terminal is cordoned off by a heavy metal fence. Many police/officials keep the unauthorized out. We spotted an OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) sign outside the fence and started around the fence to reach him. We were stopped by a man with a walkie-talkie who said it was too dangerous for us to go out there. So the OAT guy came in, secured a porter who took all of our bags, and shepherded us to our mini bus, also located within the secure perimeter.
One member of our party had lost her bag so Roger, the OAT guide, and she went back to file a claim. It took almost an hour so we didn't reach the Hotel Jose' Antonio and bed until 2:45 am!
Group travel is sort of like being in a cocoon. You are isolated from the reality of the country you are in. Our brief exposure to "danger" at the airport illustrated that. We will spend most of our time in buses, hotels, and airplanes. Armed guards with bullet-proof vests are everywhere in Lima. They not only guard financial and government institutions, they are present at ordinary businesses. Most industrial yards have elevated guard houses at the corners. All of the nicer homes have iron fences; some even have electric fences, even across roof areas. Living with the Shining Path gorillas all those years must have impacted things a bit.
After a late breakfast we had our first group meeting, a little stroll to the cliffs overlooking the ocean, and then lunch. The Peruvians have an interesting way of preparing coffee. Very hot water is passed through a cartridge filled with the grounds, producing a thick coffee liqueur. A small amount is poured into the cup, followed by hot water and/or hot milk. We weren't to have a good cup of coffee until returning home.
Our lunch stop was a restaurant that features ceveche (raw seafood soup, can't find the proper spelling). After the cholera epidemic last year, I was afraid to try it. We found the restaurant empty at noon and with a small wait staff. By the time we left around 1:30 the customers and waiters had materialized. The siesta is from 1 to 4 pm in Lima.
We returned to the hotel and boarded our "comfortable" mini bus for a city tour with Frankie Ochoa. Facts: 7½ million people live in Lima; 45% of Peru's income comes from mining, 25% from fishing, 15% from agriculture; buses and taxis are all free-lance and go wherever they want. Anyone can become a taxi driver by simply buying a sign from a street vendor and putting it on their car.
Visited the Gold Museum and the first of many ornate old cathedrals. This one contained Pizzaro's tomb. He seems quite revered, even though he destroyed a civilization. I guess he is honored since he stayed, married an Inca, and overlaid a new civilization on top of the existing one.
If its Tuesday, we must be off to the Amazon. Flew from Lima to Puerto Maldanado via Cuzco. We are no longer flying with S.A.E.T.A., Americana is providing our transportation on an aged 727 that must have started life with a German airline. Many of the warning signs are in English and German. At all stops other than Lima, one of the three main engines remains running. The APU in the tail must have failed or been removed to reduce the aircraft weight. Since Cuzco is at 11,000 ft, take-offs are a bit of a challenge, especially on hot days. Baggage X-ray in Lima consists of sliding the luggage across a metal table.
I wore my altitude-indicating watch on this trip and watched it when flying. Usually the cabin altitude climbs to approximately 6,500 feet as the aircraft climbs to cruising altitude and then drops proportionally during the landing approach. Going into Cuzco is a bit different. As the approach begins, the indicated altitude increases to match the ground elevation of 10,400. Upon take-off, the cabin altitude begins decreasing and continues until landing.
The Puerto Maldanado terminal is rather primitive. Baggage claim is an outside counter under a thatched roof. The baggage is transferred from the aircraft into huge fork-lift bins which are trundled to the counter and manually dumped. There is a secure area here, just like Lima. Several boxes of live chickens accompanied us on this flight. They will be raised here for local consumption.
We claimed our luggage and boarded a beat-up, crowded mini bus for the short drive to the office in town. Most of the vehicles in town are motorcycles, two and three wheeled. The road into town from Cuzco is quite poor so vehicles that can be flown in are preferred.
We stored most of our luggage at the office, taking only a small duffle bag for the three nights at the Tambopata Lodge. After the potty stop we bussed off to the river. Our motorized dug-out awaited us. It was much more comfortable than I was expecting, but then again, I wasn't expecting much. It had a roof, padded seats, and the seats had backs! We "enjoyed" a box lunch during the 3½ hour ride up the river.
After 1½ to 2 hours into the trip we encountered a hard rain that lasted at least an hour. The boat has plastic side curtains that roll down to offer some protection. This is the start of the rainy season so we can expect rain almost every afternoon. The water level is at least 20 to 30 feet below the high water marks on the banks. The river is capable of raising to that level in a few hours.
Tambopata Lodge consists of several thatched-roof buildings and is quite attractive. The buildings are all on elevated platforms and well screened. There is also metal flashing to discourage animal entry. The well-kept grounds are graced with beautiful flowers everywhere.
The large central building serves as the dining room and general assembly area. Somewhat cold beer and warm wine are available. The kitchen is in a separate building close by. All cooking, and refrigeration, is done with propane. There is no electricity although a small generator provides light for the kitchen.
Each cabin has accommodations for two or three parties. The partitions do not reach the roof so there is no sound privacy. There are private bathrooms with COLD showers. Although there are flush toilets, the used toilet paper goes into the waste basket. Each bed is provided with a mosquito net. We found that malaria is not common here; the human population is too sparse to support it. Illumination is provided by two candles. The water is not potable.
To bed by 9 pm and up at 6 for breakfast at 6:30. At 7 we boarded the boat for a 20 minute ride to the start of a hike to a couple of ox-bow lakes. About all we saw on the hike was a couple of McCaws. Got back to camp around 1:30 for lunch and a nap. Jodie has acquired a number of bites in spite of wearing long sleeves, long pants, and bug repellent.
Went on another hike with Laurel, a young PhD from Scotland, at 4 pm on one of the camp trails. Saw a Brazil nut tree and some empty nut pods. The tree was one of the largest in the forest. The nuts form inside a round, hard shell that looks something like a small coconut. The animals, and the harvesters, open the pod and extract the nuts. We also saw a quinine tree and tasted the bark. It is extremely bitter. The bitterness from touching a small piece of bark to my tongue lasted for almost an hour.
Had a slide show (another small generator) and then a boat ride before dinner. The point of the boat ride, taken after dark, was to spotlight caiman. The intense beam of the spot light is reflected from their retinas, allowing them to the located. We found several and the boatman even caught one for us to inspect. The spotlight was powered by a car battery that the naturalist lugged to the boat. It is recharged by solar panels during the day. It also powers an HF radio by which the staff communicates with the office in town on a regular nightly schedule.
Supper at 8, in bed by 9.
Another day, another hike. The previously scheduled hike is unavailable due to flooding so we boated to another spot. The high point of this trip is that we found a family of capybara on the river bank, three adults and three babies. They are the largest rodent in the world and are quite large, about the size of a pig.
The hike to a large kapok tree was uneventful and unspectacular, although we did see a pair of crested owls and saw some foliage shaken by some monkeys. Didn't see the monkeys, however. We were back in camp by 10:30 with no other activities scheduled other than lunch and a local hike at 4 pm. It has been quite hot and humid.
The cabins lack any place to hang things to dry. If I ever did this again I would bring some hooked clips. I would also bring a small, stiff brush for removing dried mud from clothes and boots.
This lodge is located in a natural preserve. All that seems to mean is that access by tourists is controlled. Slash and burn agriculture is common and wide spread. The areas all around the lodge have been cleared. Perhaps this is why we saw so few animals. I believe that any animals are fair game for the residents, either by law or practicality.
Although birds and animals are limited, there are hundreds of beautiful butterflies, all over the place. We have a handsome green iguana that lives next to our cabin. The path to the cabin passes over a leaf-cutter ant mound. Jodie encountered a long green snake on her way to the lodge one day.
Up early again on Friday. When you go to bed at 9 pm, its easy to get up early. Breakfast, tip everyone, then into the boat for the long ride back down river. After arriving in Puerto Maldonado we wandered around what town there was until 11 am then went to the airport to wait for Americana to arrive. Their adherence to schedule seems somewhat tentative.
Flew 35 minutes to Cuzco, collected our luggage, and boarded the usual cramped mini bus. When we checked in to the El Dorado Inn, since we were the last names on the list, and since they seem to not have had enough rooms, they didn't assign us one. When this slight oversight was pointed out, they gave us one that was about the size of a closet. I said it was unsatisfactory.
We had lunch with a lot of coca tea and then rested to accommodate to the altitude. At 4 Roger took us off on a walk about the center of the old town. We also took our dirty clothes to a laundry. The hotel was to do something about our room while we were gone.
Roger lives in Cuzco and, in addition, attended college there and is deeply interested in the history of the country. He gave us an excellent tour.
During dinner at the hotel a Peruvian music and dance group performed a few songs, sold their recorded tapes, and left.
Jodie's Amazon bites have really flared. She has a huge water blister on each ankle and a ring of large red welts about the waist. Neither of us slept well even though we moved to a better room. It was quite stuffy since it has no capability of being ventilated. Around 5 am she showered to try to ease the itching. (She tried to shower at 10 the previous night however the water was turned off. The city is replacing the water mains in the downtown area and shut the water off at night to work.) She had hot water! I showered afterward and didn't have as much. (We later learned that each room has its own hot water heater with slow recovery.) It is difficult showering and being careful not to get any water in your mouth.
Did a bunch of Incan ruins around Cuzco today. As I said before, Roger is quite knowledgeable, however a bit off-base on some non-historic items, such as physics. On our way back from Sacsayhuaman and Tambo Machay we drove through one of the local markets. Quite fascinating.
The hotel is quite attractive, but... the shower is like standing under a hose, the beds are very hard, the room smells and cannot be ventilated. We keep the door open whenever we are in the room. It resembles a vault.
Off to Machu Picchu by train. The train switch-backs up the hills of the town, going forward out of the station, backing up the first switch-back, then forward again, etc., until reaching the pass into the high plain. This rich agricultural area is the breadbasket of Peru. During the remainder of the three-hour trip we saw many fertile farms. This continued until the Urubamba River we followed entered a narrow mountain canyon.
The Incas had been active throughout this area. Their terraced hills with intricate stone work are everywhere. The train stopped at the hotel, a special stop in Agua Caliente, just short of the main Machu Picchu station. The Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is quite elegant with separate casitas scattered about the beautifully landscaped grounds. After our experience in Cuzco this was quite a step up. We checked in and dumped our duffel bag, changed clothes, then walked down the tracks to town to catch a bus to the ruins.
The road has 13 switchbacks as it ascends the 1,000 feet to the ruins. Although there are some views of the ruins from the road, we were seated well back in the bus and, fortunately, couldn't see them. That is good because your first view should be from the overlook just inside the entrance. It is breathtaking. All the photos I have seen (and the 100 or so I took) are not capable of capturing the feeling or grandeur of the place. We enjoyed the view then went to the Machu Picchu Hotel for a rather poor lunch.
Roger gave us his special guided tour after lunch. We had about an hour to wander about after the tour. It was quite peaceful since the day-trippers left around 4 to return to Cuzco. It was Sunday but not too crowded. As the Sun lowered in the Western sky the ruins acquired a luminous bronze light. At 5:30 we caught the bus back to Agua Caliente for supper at the hotel.
There are a number of kids hanging around the entrance. Most offer to shine your shoes. One was dressed in a kind of tunic which could resemble Incan attire. There are Spanish words stitched on the back, "Don't be lazy. Don't be a liar. Don't be a thief." Roger said this comes from the Incas.
As we boarded the bus to return to the hotel he came to the door and shouted "Goodbye!" The veins in his neck stood out from the force of his shout. As the bus worked its way down the switchbacks, he was waiting for us each time the path down the mountain crossed the road. Each time he saw us he shouted "Goodbye" again. Finally at the bottom the driver stopped and the kid got on to collect his tips.
(Roger Valencia Espinoza guides only four trips a year. He also does some special groups, has a sweater business in Cuzco, has a consulting business that employs a secretary plus two others, and is trying to get governmental clearance and financing to build a hotel in Cuzco. His wife, of Japanese parents, is an economist who works for an oil company. They have two sons.)
We caught the first bus back to the ruins at 7:30 the next morning after having breakfast and checking out of our casita. The ruins were quiet and shrouded in clouds with intermittent mist. We decided to hike to the Inca Bridge, a spot on one of the trails where the trail crosses the face of a cliff. The Incas built a rock wall across the face to support the trail, leaving a gap in the center bridged with planks which could be removed, blocking the trail.
Anyone leaving the ruins on any of the trails must check out and in by signing a register at a guard station, for safety. The guard on this trail has a sideline. He carves sunbursts from soapstone. He offered one to us for $20 and said he would carve our names, the date, and Machu Picchu on the back while we were hiking. That seemed like a unique souvenir so we bought it. His name; Juan Pablo Canchari Auccapuna.
Things were quiet until around 10 am when the first train arrived. After that, there were people everywhere, mostly in tourist groups. You could look across the ruins and see little clusters of people. There was also a cluster of llamas feeding in one area.
When we finished, we went out and had our shoes shined, then went back to the hotel on the 12:30 bus for lunch and then back on the train at 3 pm. Arrived in Cuzco after dark and bussed off to the same hotel. The good news is that they had a room for us, a much better room than our previous one.
Jodie's camera has started acting up. As soon as we reached the hotel I set off for a 1-hour photo processor while Jodie checked us in. There are several within a couple of blocks of the hotel. Of course, no one spoke English at the one I selected and I speak an equal amount of Spanish. We were, however, able to communicate. They asked for a deposit and I said I had only dollars. She pointed to their money changing counter in the corner. We came back in less than an hour and the prints were ready. Most were OK but some were out of focus. (Update: many of Jodie's pictures were out of focus. We took her camera to a Pentax repair facility after we got home. It turns out that the lens position sensing circuit had failed. It is once again fully functional.)
In the morning we departed Cuzco on our last Americana flight. I will not miss this airline. Our take-off roll took 1 minute and 5 seconds from brake release to rotation off of the runway. I'd hate to fly out of Cuzco on a hot afternoon.
We left Cuzco early in the morning because of Americana's irregular schedules. Roger didn't want to miss our connecting flight in Lima. This resulted in our having over four hours to kill in Lima. He had contacted OAT who agreed to pick up the cost of a minibus so that we could visit the National Museum. We paid the entrance fee. This museum presents the history of Peru from the old people to the present and was fairly interesting.
Our flight on to Quito was on an Avianca 757 which was quite a step up from Americana. Better seat spacing, decent meals.
The Sebastian Hotel in Quito was our best of the trip! Among other things, all of the water passes through a low porosity filter so that you can DRINK THE WATER. We had a lovely suite with a sitting room, a 30' x 30' bedroom with a king-sized bed, couch, desk with chair, a tiny breakfast nook, a dressing room, and large bath with bidet. Oh, I forgot to mention the balcony.
Observation: all hotels on this trip have no air conditioning or central heat. If heat is required there is some kind of electric space heater available. Most have no provision to open the windows to admit any air if it is hot.
Quito, and perhaps most of Ecuador, is in the midst of a power shortage. Almost all electricity comes from dams. At the end of the rainy season the water level behind the dams is quite low. As a result, they have rolling blackouts. When we checked in to the hotel, it was running from its own generator. Many homes and businesses have their own generators. That night the power was out from 7 pm to 11 pm. The next morning it went off at 7 am until, I assume, 11 am. The next day the blackout started at 11 am.
Our day in Quito was spent touring churches (yawn) with our guide who read most of his narrative. During our visit to the government square we encountered a parade of child bands kicking off the celebration of the founding of the country. In the face of this wonderfully interesting thing the guide rigidly stuck to his discussion of some stupid monument in the center of the square as we drifted away to watch the beautiful children. Finally he gave up, but only temporally.
Our tour continued with lunch and a visit to the Equator. There is a rather elaborate facility, complete with many souvenir shops and some restaurants, marking the passage of the Equator through Ecuador. The large tower is actually a museum about the various ethnic groups comprising the population. After returning to the hotel, we shopped the main street, a few blocks from the hotel.
Thanksgiving Day, just another day here. We boarded our bus for a tour along the Avenue of the Volcanoes. But first, we visited an animal market near the town of Sasquisili. What a sight! Pigs, cows, sheep, even llamas for sale along with bundles of fodder for them. The pigs were quite upset when being loaded into trucks, one person lifting on each ear and one on the tail.
Then we visited the weekly market in the town. Perhaps a quarter of it is devoted to tourist stuff, the remainder is for the people. We didn't get to explore the whole thing because some of our group was bored and decided we should all leave early. One of the disadvantages of group travel.
The high point of the trip, literally, was advertised as a drive to 15,400 feet, in Cotopaxi National Park. After entering the park we stopped at a small visitor center and enjoyed our Thanksgiving lunch of cold sandwiches and cold chicken. Actually it was quite enjoyable since we have been having very large lunches and dinners every day. The light simplicity was a pleasant change.
While eating we had our only view of Cotopaxi. The clouds briefly parted, allowing us to see most of the thing. Then we drove on to the high spot which was quite a bit lower than the advertised height. Some of us got out and hiked about a mile in the rain across a barren plain, populated by wild horses. The ground was covered with grey lichen.
We spent the night in Rumipamba De Las Rosas Hosteria in Salcedo. This is a large complex of buildings with antiques all about. Our Thanksgiving dinner consisted of some kind of meat, some kind of soup, rice, fried bananas, and a chocolate ice cream sundae. The meal was preceded by a hot, sweet, alcoholic drink. Soup seems to be part of every meal except breakfast.
I haven't kept track, however it seems that stomach or intestinal upset has been our regular companion in this group. Before the trip was over, all member with the exception of one have had problems. Both of us have and we have been very careful about what we have eaten and drunk.
Another transportation day. Up early and put out the duffle bags. Go to the restaurant and wait for the staff to show up, late. On the bus at 8 for the trip to the airport in the fog and rain. It rained most of the night and the volcanoes are covered with snow. The area we visited yesterday is probably inaccessible today.
We tipped the driver, local guide, and Roger, and eventually boarded the plane. We had to show our passports to get out of Quito, to get in to the Galapagos at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and once again on board the boat. We also had the usual government forms to fill out once on board.
After the paperwork we were assigned our cabin, Boobie 6. There is a wide range of cabin quality on this small boat or "yacht," the Eric. After our experience so far of being assigned leftovers, with the noteworthy exception of the Hotel Sebastian, we wound up in one of the better cabins. There are four cabins on the bridge deck, ours and one other shares this deck with the kitchen and dining room, and the remainder very small ones on the next deck down. Those assigned to the "basement" are quite unhappy since we all paid the same price.
We have a standard double bed which fills ¾ of the room. There are four drawers, two under the bed and two in a built-in "dresser." There is a small closet whose length is truncated by the air conditioning heat exchanger. (Yes, the boat is air conditioned.) The bathroom is so small that only one person may occupy it at a time, unless one is in the shower. The water is not potable and used toilet paper must go into the waste basket. Since the water supply is limited, you must take "Navy" showers.
After being led to our cabin, we got a 10 minute warning that we were going back ashore to visit a California sea lion colony out near the airport. It wasn't really necessary to leave the boat to se sea lions. Every unoccupied small boat in the harbor had sea lions on it.
The colony had quite an assortment of really cute pups. We also saw the tracks left by the marine iguanas as they left the ocean to spend the night on lava rocks in the bush.
The Eric motored all night, making sleep difficult. We arrived at Isla Genovesa in early morning and anchored in Darwin Bay. After breakfast we climbed Prince Phillip Steps to the plateau. Birds everywhere, and with no fear of man. You could walk right up to a bird, grab it off of its nest, and steal its egg or chick. We didn't, however. There was a pair of swallow tailed gulls nesting next to the stairs. I was at eye-level with them and no further than 2 feet.
There were masked boobies nesting on the ground; red and blue footed boobies nesting in the trees, and great frigatebirds and red-billed tropic birds flying all around. The tropic birds are quite spectacular with their bright red bills and long tail feathers.
We walked to the other side of the island and encountered our first marine iguanas. They were quite far from the ocean, apparently looking for nesting sites. They are comparatively small on this island.
Genovesa is an extinct (I hope) volcano. We anchored in Darwin Bay which is actually the caldera with one wall collapsed. The island is covered with short scrub no taller than 10 feet. One happy fact, the guide said that 7 out of 87 tourist boats sank last year.
Did a little hike in the afternoon and saw some eagle rays swimming near the beach.
Motored to Santiago Island that night.
Two islands, three landings, the first at Santiago or James where there used to be a salt mining operation. Saw many, many marine iguanas. Walked the shore line as far as a fur seal colony then walked back to the beach across the center of the island.
Then we motored to Bartolome Island, home to a very small number of Galapagos penguins. Also saw sea turtles and lots of blue footed boobies and pelicans fishing. Of course, the bright orange sally lightfoot crabs are everywhere. Also have seen yellow-crowned night herons, lava herons, and American oystercatchers
Our only view of the famous Galapagos Giant Tortoises was the next day at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Isla Santa Cruz. There are a number of adults there, including Lonesome George, the last of his subspecies. He won't breed with females that aren't from his home. There are also quite a large number of small tortoises being raised in protected cages until they reach three years of age. At this age they are safe from the introduced cats and rats so can be released back on their home islands.
For our last afternoon in the Galapagos, we visited Isla Plaza Sur, the home of some land iguanas. They eat the leaves of prickly pear cactus. As an adaptation, the cactus have grown quite tall and have developed trunks like trees.
During our visit to the Galapagos, Jodie snorkeled at every opportunity. I, on the other hand, was enjoying the "bugs" romping through my intestinal track. She large schools of fish, including large eating-type fish, some sharks, a ray, lots of different kinds of coral, got bumped by a playful sea lion.
During our farewell cocktail, the captain announced that it was my birthday so all sang "Happy Birthday" to me. It happened again after dinner when a decorated cake emerged from the kitchen. How the cook baked a cake on a rolling ship is beyond me. Maybe Jodie brought it in her duffle bag.
That night we motored back to Isla San Cristóbal. After breakfast we went ashore and took to bus to an overlook, then back to town for a little shopping, back to the boat for lunch and then eventually to the airport.
The 90-minute flight to Guayquil was uneventful. We arrived around dusk, had a brief walking tour of the downtown and dinner at the hotel.
Final day. Last flight on magnificent S.A.E.T.A., schlep our bags from the Miami international terminal to the domestic terminal, wait a few hours for the awful American Airlines flight home. I wonder why at both New York-Idywild and Los Angeles arriving international passengers may recheck their bags immediately after passing through Customs yet in Miami you must haul the stuff yourself or hire a skycap?
It was quite a trip. It went places I have always wanted to go. The Amazon was quite disappointing because of the scarcity of wildlife. We have been back three weeks as I write this. Jodie's bites still itch but the red welts are fading away. My stomach is still not comfortable. (My discomfort was caused by the anti malaria medication, Larium.)