National Geographic ENDEAVOUR CHILE TO PANAMA
This was the inaugural trip of the re-christened Lindblad National Geographic Endeavour and went from Santiago, Chile to Panama. As a part of the new association with Lindblad and the ship name change, the National Geographic supplied four lecturers for the trip, two of them archeologists who have worked in the area and published in the magazine, one a magazine contract photographer, and a geologists. They also equipped each cabin with a National Geographic Atlas and the ship with many of their books.
The trip covered over 3,000 NM over 16 days, most of it in the cool, rich waters of the Humbolt current. Prior to embarking the ship we did a pre-trip extension to the Atacama Desert.
After a rather frantic two days we have arrived in San Pedro de Altacama. We left LAX shortly after noon on the 28th. Our previous encounter with TSA exposed us to huge lines but this time was a breeze. We were checked in at LAN Chile, through security, and in the Quantas lounge within ½ hour. The lounge was almost empty. When our flight was called we went to our gate and boarded a bus to drive out to the far reaches at the west end of the airport.
Service was ok: food was ok: seats weren’t comfortable enough to allow sleep. Jodie enjoyed three movies using the movie-on-demand system.
We arrived in Santiago on time at 5:40 am, paid our $200 reciprocal fee, and ventured into the terminal. We found a man holding a Lindblad sign and were quickly driven to the Hyatt hotel. Although we were checking in quite early, the local Lindblad rep was present and we picked up the itinerary for the start of the trip. Our room was ready and quite nice with a large window which allowed a spectacular view of the Andes. After 24 hours with no sleep I became incoherent and required sleep while Jodie was trying to discuss repacking for the Atacama trip. I slept for 3 hours and then we went in search of lunch at the hotel, usibg our $20/person credit.
We enjoyed a delightful sandwich and glass of wine beside the pool and then set off in search of the promised nearby mall. It was about 2 blocks away and quite similar to a SoCal mall. Even many of the stores were the same. Curiously, many signs throughout Chile are in English. We were searching for a promised grocery store and strolled the mall with no luck. Jodie even stopped people, asking first if they spoke English, and then asking if they knew where the store was. Eventually we found it and bought Chilean wine and bottled water.
A brief tour of Santiago filled the time until dinner.
We had dinner at the Hotel Anakena Tai restaurant with some of our fellow travelers.
This morning started with a 4 am wake-up, in-room breakfast at 4:30 and boarding the bus to the airport at 5. A very uncomfort-able and cramped Airbus 319 took us to Calama. (I thought no one could ever make a plane as uncomfortable as a Boeing 737 however Airbus has succeeded in a grand way.) The excruciating discomfort was relieved by the vistas revealed after we cleared the cloud layer. The stark, barren mountains were spectacularly revealed by the low morning sun angle. There were random roads chris-crossing the desolate landscape with no apparent destination. I could see no vegetation but thought this was because of the altitude. Later, on the ground, I still saw nothing. (Some areas of the Atacama desert have never experienced rain since people have been keeping records.)
After collecting our luggage we set off in a 16 passenger Mercedes Benz van to tour along the way to San Pedro de Atacama. There were 8 of us in this little group, along with Magnus Forsberg our Lindblad escort. He is from Sweden and an avid birder. We have traveled with him before and again found him to be an excellent travel companion.
In Chu Chu we visited one of the oldest Catholic churches in Chile. Its most notable feature was that the roof and door are made of flattened and dried cactus wood.
All of the civilizations of Chile have been dependent upon the Andes. Because of the formidable rain shadow they cast, there is almost no rain. Because of the Andes, however, there are rivers flowing both on and below ground that allow verdant, irrigated valleys. We entered one, the valley of the Loa River, and viewed Incan petroglyphs along the sides. Eventually we stopped at an old Incan town/fort. These are usually built on the arid hills above the cultivated valleys. (No point in wasting useful land for a town.) We also had lunch consisting of typical native dishes at a small restaurant there.
After lunch we drove to Chuquicamata, the location of the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. We had to don long sleeves and wear hard hats just to ride a bus to the view point. There was a continuous stream of gigantic trucks hauling overburden and ore out of the deep pit. The volume of overburden is slowly engulfing the near-by town of the same name which has been mostly abandoned. It is more economical to rebuild the town than to haul the overburden the other direction. Really ugly, cookie-cutter housing cubicles have been built in Calama to house the displaced residents.
Almost 8% of Chile’s income is produced by this mine. Mining is the most important industry in Chile followed, in order, by fishing, agricultures, and tourism. Average income is $6,000 with a 7.3% unemploy-ment rate. The major part of Santiago looks far more prosperous than this however there are poor regions on the fringes of the city.
After a very long day we finally reached San Pedro and checked into the Hosteria San Pedro de Atacama where we had dinner.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town or oasis located around 6,000 feet in the barren desert. Both foreign and Chilean tourists seem to outnumber locals. The narrow, dirt streets are crowded with pedestrians and a few vehicles - and many dogs. As befitting a tourist town, there are many restaurants and souvenir shops including a long, covered alley of shops. We ate lunch at one of these local restaurants during our 3-day stay.
Our first stop in a day of touring was Poblado de Tulor, a pre-Incan settlement. The houses were circular and built of mud. They probably had pole-supported thatched roofs and were attached to each other, like a cluster of bubbles. An Inca fort/town by the San Pedro river was our next stop. They were prodigious builders. In addition to their famous works at Cuzco and Machu Picchu they constructed adobe brick towns all over their area. Many are built on the settlements of previous civilizations. They were in power for only 100 years before the Spanish destroyed them. It is intriguing to imagine what the Inca could have accomplished without the Spanish intervention.
We next visited the Valley of Death. Its name originally wasn’t Death but the name just metamorphosed into that from it’s previous name. This was a starkly eroded wide canyon of sandstone, as barren and lifeless as the rest of the desert. Some of us were dropped off at the top and hiked a couple of miles down and were picked up at the lower end.
On the way to the Valley of the Moon to view Sunset we stopped by an extensive salt flat. The lowering Sun sparkled off of the blanket of salt crystals. There were small pools of what appeared to be ice. Since it was still quite warm they couldn’t be ice. They were actually salt. Two pillars of salt were called “The Three Marys.” One of them had fallen down.
After a brief, steep hike we viewed the sunset from a narrow ridge of volcanic ash. It was beautiful as the colors of the surrounding mountains went from their natural browns to deeper and deeper shades of red and purple.
We arose at 3 am for a 4 am departure to view the Geyser de Tatio basin at dawn. The promised snack at the hotel failed to materialize. The dirt and rock road was long, winding, and bumpy. When we finally arrived at 6:15 at the 14,500 foot high basin, we wound around the active geothermal features and eventually parked. The reason for arriving before dawn was that the steam is most spectacular at dawn. The temp-erature was -5o C. Our guide, Pablo Del Canto, and driver, Christian, prepared breakfast while we wandered around. Unlike Yellowstone, there are no fences or designated walkways. We were free to walk as close as we dared to the bubbling fumaroles. One of the smaller ones was used to heat the water and milk for breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, we had scrambled eggs with toast serving as a plate.
The temperature rose after the Sun peeked over the eastern mountains. We drove by many vicuna on the way to the thermally heated swimming pool where several of the group, including Jodie, swam. There was no dressing room so a stone wall and strategically draped towel served as her dressing room.
On the way back we came upon surprising sight, a pretty marsh area in the middle of this arid desolation. It was populated by several birds.
For our morning potty break we stopped at a small village with a very picturesque church. There was a charge for using the toilet which Pablo paid. The villagers raise llamas and alpacas for wool which they spin and use for knitting and weaving.
We returned to San Pedro de Atacama for a late lunch at a local restaurant and then rested a bit before going off on our afternoon tour of the salt flats and flamingo lagoon. Pablo and Christian provided us with a little farewell cocktail party at the visitor center. We had crackers and cheese, Chilean wine, and Pisco sours.
On the way back to Calama we had a final view of the area from a view point. Our search for guanacos along the road was finally rewarded with a fine view of a mother and calf. We also stopped at a monument to 26 people who were “disappeared” during the Pinochet regime. They were killed and initially buried at this location but eventually removed. The current location of their remains are unknown.
Around noon we flew back to Santiago via Antofagasta and Copiapo. We were served a soft drink in the brief interval before arriving at Antofagasta and then lunch after Copiapo. Since it was Saturday the plane wasn’t full so the flight was much more comfortable than the flight to Calama.
That night there was a welcome cocktail party and elaborate dinner where we met the rest of the group.
Yesterday was the big day. In midmorning we traveled from Santiago to Valparaiso where we found the newly painted National Geographic Endeavour. National Geographic yellow is featured prominently in the color scheme. In addition, the yellow rectangle is present on the bow, on the swimming pool bottom, and on the funnels. We enjoyed some champagne while the final passengers boarded, then we departed.
When we entered our cabin we found two nice dark blue polo shirts emblazoned with “National Geographic Endeavour Inaugural Voyage.” We had also received a National Geographic backpack prior to the trip. Three National Geographic magazines were also on the bed. Two contained the articles about the two archeologists on the trip. The third was the current issue. In addition, the current issues of the National Geographic Traveler and the National Geographic Adventure were on the bed.
Lunch was followed by unpacking which we finished before the scheduled life boat drill. Rather than the drill we visited several feeding blue whales, a fin whale, and a young upstart humpback who kept slapping his tail fluke on the water, providing excellent photo opportunities.
With the smashing of a bottle of champagne against the side of the bow, the Lindblad MS Endeavour became the MS National Geographic Endeavour. Officiating were Sven Olif Lindblad, John Fahey, the president of the National Geographic Association, Captain Leif Skog, and a blond bimbo. The bottle was attached to a long line which was in turn attached to the rail. It was tossed in a great arc that ended with a satisfying smash against the side of the ship. Flying in the face of tradition, the passengers enjoyed Pisco sours rather than champagne while all this was happening. The ceremonies took place in a quiet bay rather than in the open sea since there was a fair amount of rolling at sea.
The grand celebratory dinner was preceded by a cocktail party in the refurbished lounge. Dinner was a 7-course affair.
Today we took the all day tour to the cloud forest in Fray Jorge National Park. Although there is only 1" of rain here annually, a thick fog envelops this coastal ridge. The condensation from this fog supports a lush forest. The vegetation is reminiscent of that found in the Southern California Mountains although, with the exception of some eucalyptus trees, none are the same. At the start of the hike in the lower area the forest was somewhat dry but became more lush as we ascended the ridge. We encountered a fox, butterflies, many birds, and viewed some rodents that had been captured by the research staff. After the hike we had a Power-Point presentation, in Spanish, by one of the rangers. This was followed by a delicious picnic lunch.
4-6 At Sea
We spent yesterday at sea and will do the same today. Yesterdays cruise was broken by a zodiac tour around Isla Pan de Azucar, a small island. We saw many, many Humbolt penguins, pelicans, Peruvian boobies, and brief glimpses of one or two rare and endangered ocean otters. Along the way we also encountered more feeding sperm whales.
Today our second cup of breakfast coffee was interrupted by whales. We had excellent views of several sperm whales, fin whales, pilot whales, and bottle-nosed dolphins.
Instead of recap last night, Sven Olaf Lindblad conducted a question and answer session concerning the co-branding of the ship with the National Geographic Association. At the start he suggested that all drinks would be free which caused a minor stampede to the bar.
The National Geographic Association is a nonprofit 501c enterprise that makes $40 million a year. Their profits support research. This new arrangement with Lindblad is not a financial partnership. National Geographic Expeditions does 60% of its business with Lindblad; they are the largest customer of Lindblad. (Affinity travel, such as National Geographic Expeditions, provides 25% of Lindblad’s passengers.) There is a 15-person advisory board whose purpose, I believe, is to suggest joint projects for the ship and the National Geographic. It will meet four times a year. There is no National Geographic corporate involvement in the ship operation however they split the cost of rebranding the ship with Lindblad. Part of the reason for the National Geographic involvement is that their subscriptions have dropped from 10 million to 6 million. They are looking for more exposure and also sources of programs for the National Geographic Channel.
It would cost $80 million to build a new Endeavour. No company has built an expedition class ship from scratch and not gone broke, A ship needs 80% occupancy all year round to break even. The Lindblad logo is the All Seeing Eye of Isis.
4-8 Matarina, Peru
Yesterday we took a train ride to no where, but it used to be somewhere. We were in Arica, our last stop in Chile. Part of the group took a 3-hour one-way bus ride to Lauca National Park at 14,000 feet. Since we had already done the Altaplano we opted for the train.
The group boarded three old passenger cars that had once been quite nice. The seats were still comfortable although the upholstery was worn. As an indication of their age, the toilets empted onto the tracks. A small, dirty diesel engine coupled up and we set off with a few jerks. We stopped in the yard to pick up 12 empty freight cars that were on their way back to Bolivia. As a result of the War of the Pacific in 1880, which Chile won, Arica is Bolivia’s ocean access.
We stopped shortly after leaving town to view some Inca geoglyphs on a distant hillside. They were figures of llamas, people, and other unidentified items. They were made by assembling dark red stones on the grey-brown mountain sides. Their purpose is unknown. (A geoglyph is added to a surface; a petroglyph is scratched into a surface.)
The train proceeded up the Lluta Valley and then struggled up the mountains to Central at 4,800 feet. After we left the irrigated valley we passed through desolate barren land. Central was once a major railroad center with a population of 4,000. In addition to refueling, they also performed major engine maintenance there. Now no one lives there. There are a few squatters living in the area who are experimenting with agriculture. Since the Bolivian border is near there is a small military presence.
The little engine that “almost could” dropped us at the abandoned yardmaster’s house. where we enjoyed wine and cheese while it dropped off the freight cars and turned around. Presumably some other engine will come up from Bolivia to pick them up. After our little snack we enjoyed a brief performance in the old theater. Then we reboarded for the much faster trip downhill, consuming a box lunch along the way.
At Poconochile we left the train and boarded buses that crossed over a ridge to the neighboring Azapa Valley, known for its olive production. There we visited a museum, a church, and then viewed the Cerro Sagrado geoglyphs from a speeding bus.
Our first day in Peru started in the lovely fish-meal port of Matarina. (Imagine what it smelled like.) A fleet of small busses took us off to the Mejia Lagoon costal preserve. This was a good spot for the bird watchers. We saw two pygmy owls, one quite white, a tri-colored heron and a night heron along with countless water birds.
4-9. Puerto San Juan, Peru
Today was Nazca Marks day. We arose at 5:15 to be ready to leave the ship at 6. We were lucky members of the first group. (As it turned out, we were lucky.) At some time well beyond 6 the local authorities permitted us to leave the ship. We took zodiacs to the dock and boarded a large, comfortable bus for the 1-hour drive to Nazca. (Puerto San Juan and Nazca seem to be two of the World’s largest garbage dumps. Apparently there is no organized trash collection so the residents simply put their trash, sometimes, in trash bags and throw them into the nearest ravine. Of course, the bags rot and the stuff blows all over.)
Johan Reinhard presented a talk yesterday debunking several theories about the purpose of the marks and then stating his, which is that they were tools for the worship of various mountain gods and water sources. He is a National Geographic Explorer in Residence and is the discoverer of the Ice Maiden. He has subsequently found many more mountain top sacrifices from the Inca.
We were among the first to board planes. Ours was a 12-passenger Cessna turboprop. Our views of the figures were good, and, thanks to sea sick pills, we escaped any upset. After viewing the lines we hung out at a hotel across the PanAmerican Highway from the airport until everyone on our bus had flown. Our next stop was at the shop of a potter who recreates Incan pottery. We then visited an old Incan complex and then had lunch.
Lunch was at a very nice hotel and featured a buffet of typical Peruvian dishes that were cooked in clay pots buried in the ground with hot coals. I ate myself uncomfortable. While we were eating we were treated to a performance by a horseman riding a Peruvian Passo horse. Later a group of energetic musicians entertained.
4-10. Islas Ballestas and Paracas
The startling contrast between the barren, lifeless land and the rich seas was quite apparent in both of our outings. In the morning we spent about an hour touring the guano islands, Islas Ballestas. In addition to a liberal covering of guano, the islands were the home of thousands of sea birds and also quite a large number of sea lions. The guano harvesting facilities are still present although currently unused. Old photos show a much greater population of birds however man’s competitive harvesting of the seas has reduced the amount of food available.
Our afternoon visit to Paracas started with a bureaucratic hassle. The port authority dictated that we must enter the harbor area at 5 kts., anchor 2 miles out, and the zodiacs had to approach the dock in groups of three. When we reached the town we found nothing but a gaudy local tourist area. Since this port had been sacked by Sir Francis Drake three or four times we decided that the port captain was fearing another attack. (We learned the next day that the ship was fined $500 for not departing on time. This was probably the reason that there were such stringent requirements on zodiac operations, a means to retard our departure.)
We boarded a large bus and drove across the lifeless, sandy hills to the coast where we found many sea birds plus one lonely, recovering injured Humbolt penguin. He seemed to have imprinted on one of the park rangers and was following him around. Eventually he went into the park office.
The birders in the group had a grand time spotting and identifying the many species we encountered. The most beautiful bird I saw was a grey headed gull although the two different species of oyster catchers were quite nice.
After that we drove to another area of the park and then walked along the top of a cliff to a view point. Part of the reason for our visit to this area was the hope of a condor sighting however we were disappointed in that area.
Our day started with a bus ride from the port of Callao to the old section of Lima. Our first stop was the Plaza Mayor where we visited Casa Aliaga, the oldest house in the Americas continuously occupied by the same family. Capt. Jerónimo de Aliaga, who came with Pizarro, built and occupied the house. The Aliaga family still occupies the house. The entry off of the street is a plain door in a plain wall however once inside an elegant open entry with a handsome wooden stair greeted us. There is extensive use of wood throughout the house. The walls, of course, are hung with family portraits and religious paintings. There is an open central courtyard which boasts a 200 year old ficus tree. There were several doves in it.
After the house we toured the San Francisco Monastery. It was in rather poor shape, having been damaged many times through the years by earthquakes. One wall and attendant columns are bowed. I was relieved to leave before there was another earthquake. There was beautiful tile work dating from 1602. (I thought the cherubs looked like Bill Clinton.)
We then had a rather long drive through town to kill time before we could visit Guillermo Cock’s laboratory. He and his team have recovered over 400 Incan mummy bundles. His work was described in a National Geographic article. Three bundles were laying open on a work table. There were several heads resting on the shelves, including the one that was on the National Geographic cover. Articles recovered from one bundle were displayed on another table. The passengers and Señor Cock had an interesting question and answer session until the guide cut it off. We needed to get to lunch.
Our lunch was at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant which is located adjacent to one of the several pre-Inca pyramids that are in Lima. The owner worked out a deal with the authorities to co-locate his restaurant so that the lease payments could fund the restora-tion of the ruins. This task is now well underway. The meal was quite good and was typical Peruvian food. We have also become accustomed to the welcoming Pisco sour with each lunch served off of the ship.
After lunch we had a hurried and intensive half hour shopping experience at the Indian Market then we went off to the Laraco Herrera Museum. This is an extensive, private collection of artifacts. There are the usual ceramic items, a collection of silver objects, gold objects, and a strange collection of erotic ceramics.
4/12 Salaverry, Peru
Our arrival was later than planned, for undisclosed reasons. Based on the original plan where we were to arrive at noon, breakfast was delayed and replaced with a 9 am brunch. As our lateness became more apparent a description of the activities two days hence was given by Bud Lehnhausen, who had scouted/planned the entire voyage, then Expedition Leader Tom Ritchie presented a fascinating discussion of the “Columbia Food Exchange.” There are 5,000 vascular plants in the world, 3,000 of them edible. Of those, only 150 are commonly eaten. Of those, only 13 are major contributors of human nutrition. In order of descending importance, they are rice, wheat, corn, sugar cane, sugar beats, common bean, peanut, soy bean, white potato, sweet potato, casava or manioc, coconut, and banana. Most came from the new world rather than having originated in Euroasia.
This was followed by a snack of pizza served by the pool.
When we finally arrived we immediately boarded one of four very large buses and set off to view the Sun and Moon Temples built by the Moche civilization. The Sun temple, made of 50,000,000 adobe bricks, was almost completely destroyed by the Spanish in their lust for gold. The moon temple has been nicely excavated and presented a fascinating glimpse into the life of the royalty. It was six layers deep. Layers were added about every 100 years. They utilized live sacrifice to the god of the mountain behind the temple.
We then went off to Chan Chan to visit the restored capital of the Chimú people. This was actually a vast complex of adobe ruins. Each chief built has own palace complex and then was buried in it when he died, His successor then built his own, but, of course, bigger than his predecessor. Hundreds of acres are covered but only one has been excavated and restored to some extent. As in all of these ruins, grave robbers have been quite active and destructive.
The Chimú were the successors to the Moche and were in turn taken over by the Inca.
As the Sun was setting we rushed off to the sea shore to view the reed boats used by some fishermen in this area. It was almost dusk when we arrived however we were able to get some photos. We also received key chain replicas of the boats. The tour company provided us with a filling snack of various fried items, fish, chicken, yucca, etc. When it was time to board our bus we were told to board one of the others. Ours had sunk into the stone-paved road and couldn’t move. That was a shame since it was a very luxurious, two-level bus with deep, comfortable leather seats. One of the ship’s ice chests was left in the bus in our rush to leave. We were under threat of another fine for a late departure.
In the now crowded bus we rushed back to the ship. In keeping with a day of strange eating, supper was a light buffet. Since most had partaken heavily at the sea shore it was good that the meal was light.
April 13. Isla Lobos de Tierra
This was another guano island, but we were allowed to land here. There seems to be no active guano collection activity here now but there were thousands of sea birds, mostly blue-footed boobies and pelicans. We spent a very enjoyable morning strolling about the island with naturalist Larry Hobbs.
During lunch back on board the ship encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins actively feeding and accompanied the plunge diving birds. It was a spectacular sight!
(Its time for the mandatory cabin description. Our room, 203, has two single beds covered by duvets. There is a tiny night stand with two drawers between them. A very convenient deep recessed shelf is under the two port holes. There is a tiny desk with 240 v, 50 Hz and 120 v, 60 Hz outlets. The desk also boasts a tiny lockable drawer. There are two closets, each with three drawers. One nice addition from the National Geographic is their big World Atlas, stored in a wall rack. The newly refurbished bathrooms have additional storage on a shallow shelf above the sink. Insulated metal coffee mugs and plastic water bottles are stored on a shelf below and to the left of the sink. There is no plug for the sink since people allow the sinks to overflow. Shower gel, shampoo, and lotion are available from wall-mounted dispensers. The walls of the cabin are nonmetallic so magnets do not work. There is a small hanging rack and shelf next to the desk plus two hooks for the inflatable, zodiac-style life preservers. There was room under the beds for all of our luggage.)
April 14. Cancas, Peru
This was our last day in Peru. The ship anchored in the Cancas harbor and we went ashore by zodiac. Since this was the first visit ever by a passenger ship to Cancas we were met by two brass bands on the pier, lines of school children waving Peruvian flags, and many townspeople. There were four tour options offered. I selected the dry forest hike while Jodie opted for the mangrove canoe trip.
We set off in a fleet of minivans with a police escort. Eventually we left the paved road and drove a very long time on a rough, curving dirt road. The road passed through several small villages. We made a final pit stop at the medical clinic in one of these villages. Eventually we reached the trail head.
The forest certainly was dry although there had been rain two weeks ago. The initial part of the trail was quite steep but after about 200 feet of elevation gain we reached a level area. We saw a few birds and some flowers but not much else. It was quite hot. (Now, two days later, I am plagued with insect bites all over my legs and some on one hand. Although I was wearing deet I was heavily consumed.)For the mangrove tour we drove about an hour in a large bus to the hotel where we changed to seven passenger minivans for the 30 minute rough ride to the dock in the mangrove forest. Once there we were assigned to a boat, ranging from covered motorboats to traditional dugout canoes. I ended up in a six man fiberglass pseudo canoe which was propelled by a very hard working oarsman. The channel was quite wide and in full sun all the time. Our English speaking guide knew nothing of the flora and fauna of the region as she was usually a city tour guide. We did see some nice water birds and lots of crabs. There was an interesting demonstration on crab harvesting. This is done by an individual traversing the forest on the mangrove roots and reaching into the thick mud up to their shoulder to catch the crab. They can catch about 60 to 70 crabs in six hours. They also capture black clams in the same manner. The experience was not worth 2 ½ hours on a hard slat seat in a crowded canoe in the midday sun.
We returned to town and had lunch at the Costa del Sol hotel. This area is a resort area for Lima. After a delicious lunch of mostly sea food there was a formal presentation from the local officials.
The principal mode of transportation in this area is a moto-taxi which is a motorcycle attached to a covered bench seat with wheels. They buzz about all over the place.
April 15. Puerto Lopez, Equador
We left our constant companion, the Humbolt Current, last night. We have been traveling in its cool waters for the entire trip. The richness of its upwellings is the reason for the frequent sightings of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea birds. Now the water is quite balmy and the air quite warm. We have put away our warm clothes. Suddenly the -5o C temperatures of the Altaplano seemed pleasant.
For our only day in Equador we selected a hike in a tropical forest. When we went ashore by zodiac we were met by a group of kids who eagerly assisted us in taking off our water shoes, cleaning our feet, and putting on land shoes. It was quite hot and dry but there was a nice selection of birds. We stopped on the way out at a tiny village bar where Bud treated us to a welcome beer.
In the late afternoon we did a zodiac cruise at Isla de la Plata which is a bird sanctuary. There are a lot of birds there.
After dinner we held a premature celebration of the crossing of the Equator. Rum punches were served on the pool deck and one of the passengers was thrown into the pool. We actually crossed the Equator around midnight.
4-17. Isla Coiba, Panama
We were at sea all day yesterday with a few lectures to break up the time. Dinner was the traditional Philippine meal that seems to occur once on each trip, since almost all of the crew and hotel staff are from the Philippines.
We arrived at Isla Coiba around noon. Water sports and a late afternoon hike were offered. Jodie enjoyed snorkeling from a sandy beach in very warm water. In addition to tropical fish she spotted a white-tipped reef shark and a pair of snake eels. We opted out of the hike in the tropical forest.
During recap it was announced that we were heading immediately toward Balboa rather than hanging around Isla Coiba for another day. It seems that the primary hydraulic pump that controls the propeller pitch failed a week ago. Efforts to repair it have been futile and we cannot go through the canal with only the back-up operational. A new pump is waiting for us in Panama City or Balboa. (When pressure is lost the propeller goes into full reverse.)
One problem with our early arrival in Balboa was that no docks were available. Eventually we were allowed to tie up to a fuel dock, with the proviso that we had to bunker. Our change in plans caused some real scrambling among the staff to put together a last minute program. Their problems were exacerbated by the uncertainty of our dockage and arrival time. Sometime after lunch we set off on a tour. We first visited the new visitor center at Miraflores Lock and view the exhibits. The best part was observing the passage of a ship through the locks from the observation platform on the roof.
We then toured the old part of Panama City. Some of the wooden buildings built when the Canal was under construction are still in use however they are in terrible condition. There seems to be quite a bit of renovation going on in the city, which seems quite prosperous with the exception of the aforementioned wooden buildings. It is an off-shore banking center, among other things.
We still had no idea when we would transit the canal so the staff continued to improvise. We got up early and rode the train across the Isthmus and then came back by bus. The train was quite nice however there weren’t many views of the canal. The ride took an hour but the ride back in small, cramped busses took more time. Along the way we encountered a 3-toed sloth which brought all the busses to a halt along the highway. We entered one of the many abandoned US military bases and walked along the road for a bit. We found a sick juvenile howler monkey hanging in one of the trees and heard adults in the distance.
Eventually we reboarded the buses and drove on to the ruins of a Spanish fort built to guard the mouth of the Chagras river. After touring the ruins we had a snack of muffins and fruit and then drove to a luxurious hotel for a delicious buffet lunch. There was a small display of native craft items, molas, baskets, jewelry, and t-shirts, for sale in the hotel lobby which was welcome to the shoppers. We left the hotel and drove back to the ship.
Promised pilot arrival times came and went. Finally we started out for the canal at 6 pm. This was impacting the Captain’s farewell cocktail and dinner however things just slipped until we passed Miraflores Locks. By then it was dark so most people came in and drank the captain’s free booze.
It was a real challenge to pack for our trip home with all of the activity.
We boarded large busses at 8:30 for the 1½ trip back across the Isthmus. When we reached Panama City a half hour was allocated for shopping at the native handicraft center. As we reboarded the bus we were given a sack lunch sent from the ship and then we went off to the airport where we arrived shortly after noon.
Since our flight didn’t leave until 7 pm we had hoped to check in immediately and wile away the time in the business lounge. We couldn’t check-in until 3:30 since all baggage for US flights had to be checked by security and they weren’t on duty until then. We found some chairs and read until the appointed time. All of our checked luggage was hand searched and we were allowed to approach the ticket counter. We could not, however, touch our bags. The security people moved them to the counter. Check-in, immigration, and personal security went quickly and we soon found ourselves in the nice, quiet COPA lounge. There was almost no activity at the airport and there was almost no one in the lounge. This suddenly changed around 5 pm when COPA planes started arriving. Panama City is their hub and it became quite busy.
We boarded our flight at 6:45. The business class seats on the stretch 737 were wide leather but had no leg support, probably because the pitch was rather short. We arrived on time in LA and taxied up to the United terminal where we boarded a bus that took us to the Tom Bradley terminal to clear immigration.
Our voyage was an interesting combination of history/archeology and nature. The presence of the two National Geographic experts provided useful insights into the early cultures of the area. The usual fine staff of Lindblad naturalists/lecturers allowed greater enjoyment of the environment. We had traveled with three of them before, Magnus Forsberg, Larry Hobbs and Jim Kelley, and enjoyed being with them again.