We had so many incredible experiences on this trip, I thought it was easiest to put them in writing–so we could remember everything and you could get an overview (if you have the interest and time.) So here goes:
Our guides were wonderful. They were from each area we visited, were very knowledgeable with excellent English. Good senses of humor were the finishing touch.
After getting a brief taste of Lima for one afternoon, we got up at 1:30–that’s right 1:30 a.m., to head off to the Amazon.
Our first lodge, with thatched roofs, and walkways over the water, had no electricity or hot water. No reason not to hit the mosquito-netted bed early, since it’s almost impossible to read by the light of a kerosene lantern. They had resident parrots and a Scarlet Macaw couple which soared over the compound every morning with their wake-up screeches.
There were 12 of us on this leg of the trip. Talk about bonding. We fell in love with each other. We would stay in the common area after dinner and play “31,” a great card game that became our primary evening entertainment throughout the trip. Here we are playing the game as a group in an airport.
We would head out on boats to explore the region. We took early trips to see birds, sloths and iguanas.
All along the way we saw beautiful jungle flowers.
We saw the ingredients to the famous poison arrow: the poison Red Frog.
Late trips to see stars (wow!) snakes curled in the trees and fish jumping. On one afternoon trip, we got to see the infamous freshwater pink dolphin (twice) and then headed into an areas where we fished for piranha. Pickin’s were slim, but I ended up catching two of the three largest ones we could take home for dinner. It was amazingly delicious.
We went to a monkey rescue location, where they take in orphaned monkeys. Interspecies, monkeys will nurse each other. This doesn’t happen in the wild. These monkeys were so tame they would jump on us, sit in our laps and play.
We went to a rum factory, which is also the local watering hole. They grow, cut, grind and cook sugar cane into a local brew that will knock your socks off..
Another adventure we took was to go to the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies. At this location we walked on the Canopy Walkway, 1/3rd mile of rope and plank bridges suspended from tree to tree at 130′ above the jungle floor. We were actually above the canopy. A couple of groups had been on the walkway before us, so most wildlife had taken cover by the time we got there. We did get to see some Tucan and butterflies though.
We went to an indian village, the Yagua (or something like that) where they danced and played instruments for us. This was no Disneyland village, it was the real thing–gals covered on top only with small and inadequate grass aprons. Very National Geographic-like. These people spoke no English, in fact had their own language. They had wonderful crafts to sell. We got to shoot the blowgun…Kevin hit the bull’s-eye, I hit the log. Oh well. Who is the sharpshooter in the family anyway?
We went to a village along the Amazon called “Indiana” since one of the settlers sent one of his children to Indiana University. We took harrowing “mototaxi” rides through the town. These vehicles are motorcycles with two seats attached to the back. One wrong move and it would have been a big spill.
While in the Amazon we also saw the Morph Butterfly, Yellowbellied Whip Snake, a Rainbow Boa, Tapir, a full grown but tiny deer, an incredible Giant Waterlily. Bats came into our bedrooms each night and lived in them during the day…some under the beds. We found out later, didn’t see this (thankfully) that the boas come in at night, stay in the rafters to eat the vermin. A poisonous snake ended up getting into one of the helps’ cabin…but they caught and killed it. Much excitement. I was bit by mosquitoes there, but we pre-medicated by taking Malarone.
We also got “Amazon’s Revenge” but started taking Cipro right away, so each of us only had part of one day in which we laid low.
Our last two nights in the Amazon we moved to a “luxurious” lodge with air conditioning, warm water, electricity and a pool with slide. This was a very nice way to end our time in the Amazon. Although nothing ever dried while we were there, this might have been my favorite leg of the trip. Mostly because of the people we were with. We had to endure the hardships together, so there was lots of helping, along with laughs.
Unfortunately, five of the 12 weren’t going to the Galapagos, so on the next leg (Cuzco, Peru) they were put into another group. At that point, seven new folks joined us. The Amazon was an “add on” and these 7 opted not to take that part of the journey. Since the original group had shared so much, and we were a bit “trepidatious” about the ability of these new folks to blend in, it took some time for all of us to bond, but in the end we did, beautifully.
After the Amazon, we spent some time in Lima again (we had left half our luggage there, since space was limited on the jungle leg.) The Peruvian people are very industrious. Lima has it all…very posh neighborhoods, all the way to shantytowns, where the people establish their own “neighborhoods” from nothing, actually wasteland. We visited one that is 2 years old. They had just gotten electricity. We bought them chickens to use in their community kitchen from an amazing market. Unemployed residents pay 30 cents for one meal a day. Amazingly enough they are happy, since they have hope. The day we visited, they were having an election. The voting booth was a blue tarp hung in one corner of the community kitchen. We met the broadly smiling outgoing “mayor.”
We had meals in private homes, both in Peru and Ecuador. In Peru, we got to eat their delicacy, guinea pig. They raise them in their kitchens, and then eat them. In Ecuador, we couldn’t communicate at all with our hostess, but she had a beautiful voice, so she would sing a song, and we would sing a song. Very congenial. Another thing OAT made sure we experienced were schools in each of the communities we visited. It had been suggested we bring supplies to donate. They were so grateful for these gifts.
Lima is on the coast, so had beautiful cliffs on the seaside. You can clearly see on the coast how the city was formed by earthquakes. Our tour guide, Marcial, majored in Geology, so telling us about the formations was his bailiwick. There is a restaurant perched on a rock out in the ocean called “The Place From Which the Monk Jumped” based on a true story of the suicide of a Monk from that very spot. One more tremor, and it’s history though. We got to see a huge cathedral in renovation, where we could clearly see the bamboo that is used as the substructure to insure against earthquake damage.
In each city we visited in Peru and Ecuador, we went to the local museum, at least one market and the center of town, where the government buildings are located. We passed by the woman’s prison where Lori Berenson, a U.S. citizen convicted for terrorist activity, is still jailed. There are amazing ancient ruins right in the heart of Lima. Ruins are pervasive throughout the country. In fact, the Peruvian chamber of commerce saying is “Where the History Live.” Brilliant!
CUSCO, PERU/MACHU PICCU
After experiencing Lima, a town we ended up really enjoying, thanks to Marcial, we headed out to Cusco, Peru. Cusco is at 11,500 feet, so most of us experienced altitude sickness. Each of us drank the coca tea as instructed, but it did take a day or two to acclimate.
Since Cusco was the center of the Inca empire, it was surrounded by incredible ruins. There were even buildings in the town that had partly been built by the Incas. The Incas were the last of many epochs (?) in the region, but since they took the best of all the other “tribes” and were incredible administrators, their regime flourished. The Spanish invaded, after only 100 years of Inca civilization, pillaged the area and wiped out the royalty. Therefore many of the secrets of how and why they did what they did, are lost forever.
The pinnacle of this part of the trip was our train ride through the Sacred Valley up to Aqua Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Piccu. The place was so crowded, but fortunately we got to stay for two days, so had a peaceful morning at the site. It is mysterious and magical. You look at this massive ruin and wonder what is was for, how in the heck they built it and why it was located so far from Cusco. Believe what everyone tells you, it is breathtaking. We got to hike up the Inca Train in the morning to get an incredible view of the site. The walking stick came in handy here. We briefly considered climbing the tall peak, but learned that you have to get there at 4:00 a.m., get in a cue and hope that you are one of the 400 who get a permit to climb. Last year there were two deaths on the climb…one a heart attack, one a fall (they couldn’t recover the body for 3 days) so we took a pass and settled for the Inca Trail. There are around 300 types of orchids at Machu Piccu and it is very lush. Everything about it was incredible.
We had a rare opportunity to see a Condor soaring above Machu Piccu. Our Tour Guide had only seen about 9 in his lifetime; his 20-something helper had only seen a couple. The Condor was one of the three very important symbols for the Incas…Snakes representing hell, Cougar earth, the Condor heaven.
Our hotel, on the other hand, we decided had to have been built for deaf dwarfs. The rooms were tiny, kids were screaming and playing in the street right outside the place until 11 and at 4:42 a rooster started crowing and never stopped. Had to have been a bargain for OAT. Every other hotel on the entire trip was great, hairdryers and all.
Machu Piccu was 5,000 feet lower than Cusco, so you’d think breathing would be easier. Yea, right. Anyway, we went back up to Cusco by train and bus for a day of seeing the ruins nearby, visiting a llama, vicuna and alpaca farm. Of course, we stopped at an Alpaca sweater store. Anything made from vicuna was out-of-reach…a suit made from the wool of this creature would cost around $8,000. Maybe in another life. We also stopped at a pottery factory run by a fabulous artist who has a new exhibit of his work at the Chicago Field Museum starting this summer.
We went to a religious ceremony put on by a local Curandero, another name for a Shaman. Again, nothing fakey about it. This trip was immersion at its best.
Our tour guide stopped in the middle of farm country. The Peruvians developed and exported the potato. It is the national dish (along with luscious Pisco Sours…yum!) There are hundreds of different kinds of potatoes. When we visited the market (which was an eye-opener) we would see rows and rows of bins of different shaped, sized and color potatoes. Even beyond the potatoes, Peru is a very colorful country.
Most of our meals were included on the trip. An occasional dinner was on our own, but only a few. We felt like we were eating all the time. Most of the meals were wonderful, some spectacular. We fully expected to gain weight, especially since we did so much sitting on trains, planes, buses and boats, but alas, Kevin stayed the same and I actually lost 4 pounds. Will wonders never cease!
We were very sad to leave Peru. For the end of each leg, I wrote a recap in honor of the tour leader. When I read what I had written for Lucio at the end of our Amazon trip, I wept with joy and thankfulness and who knows why else? So, I had Jane read what I had written after our Cusco-Machu Piccu trip. She managed to keep it together. After the Galapagos, since I wrote a song for Lourdes, I managed it just fine. So, I got lots of writing done on the trip. Plus, it was Kevin’s birthday our first day on the Galapagos boat, so I wrote a piece in honor of him. Most others bought him little, silly gifts, so it was quite a jolly night.
We flew to Quito, Ecuador and were shown around by a local guide. The current Ecuadorean government is allying with Chavez and really doesn’t like the U.S. We were warned about pickpockets and muggings, so we were well taken care of. We went to “zero degrees” on the equator. There was an Equator Museum filled with amazing experiments we got to witness, like water swirling down one way, 4 feet one direction from the equator, and the other way 4 feet, it swirled the other direction. Amazing. At this same museum we saw the Giant Amazon Humming Bird up close. They also had lots of Ecuadorean wildlife in formaldehyde…like a huge boa and tarantula.
We went to a local market and the things we saw and bought were superior to the stuff we’d seen in Peru. Good thing we had held off. Jewelery and leather goods. Yummy stuff.
THE GALAPAGOS, ECUADOR
We flew to Guyakil, Ecuador and then changed planes, after it was thoroughly fumigated meeting Galapagos standards, and flew to the island of Baltra. From there we took a short public bus ride to a public boat so we could cross to Santa Cruz Island. (These two transports were our only public local transportation we took…everything else we took was just for us) From there we took a 45 minute private bus ride to the town where we took zodiacs out to our next “home,” Tip Top III. It was a boat, which housed only about 20. Very nice and comfortable. Only problem is that, days after leaving the boat, I still feel like I’m on the boat. There was lots of rockin’ and rollin’ going on…even with anti-seasick patches. This too shall pass.
The Galapagos were much drier than I envisioned. But the wildlife we encountered there was amazing. We say Giant Tortoises at the Darwin Research Center, as well as in the preserve. We met Lonesome George, the last male of his kind and not interested in mating (even when shown…believe it or not…tortoise porn.) And we met Super Diego, who, on the contrary, produced hundreds of offspring after he was discovered at a San Diego zoo. He is now responsible for about 2,000 new tortoises. Each island that has tortoises, has a different type.
There were both land and marine iguanas. The Marine Iguana is the only swimming reptile. We only saw the Pacific Green Turtles when they would bob their heads up, but since they were nesting, we saw many tracks, shells and nests on the beaches. There would be many sea lions (not seals) lounging on the beaches we went to. Kevin was even chased by a couple. These animals are great. We saw many juveniles nursing and even saw a female in labor. We learned that when snorkeling, if you dive down, the juveniles will swim and play with you. This was indeed true. What a ball!
I saw a white tipped shark while snorkeling (Kevin missed that one,) starfish, sea cucumber, marbled rays and many colorful fish. One of my favorite creatures was the Sally Lightfoot Crab. They are bright red and cling to the black lava rocks. When they move, they seem to dance, thus the name. Ask to see my Sally Lightfoot earrings next time we meet. We saw insects, reptiles and birds….wow, the birds! We saw many Blue Footed Boobies, and got to witness a mating ritual up close and personal. We visited one of the only two islands where the great Alabatross nest. These birds, with wing spans of 7-8 feet are amazing. They are so huge they need a cliff to take off from. In the air they are graceful, but on land they are dorks. They would be sitting on nests and simply look back at us. The Condor is the only bird bigger. On one beach we saw Frigates hunting for the newly hatched sea turtles. There were Black Necked Stilts, Great Blue Herons, Pelicans, Terns, Punta Cormorant, Red Billed Tropical Bird, Pintail Ducks. It just went on and on. Behind the boat, we would often see a flock of Elliots Storm Pestrals. It looks like they are dancing. They are small black birds with relatively long legs and dance on the water trying to pick up plankton. Here is my video of these amazing birds. One night we witnessed Split Tailed Galapagos Gulls soaring next to the boat while we were at top speed. They would dive, fall back and climb in the air. Since they are white and huge, they glowed almost angel-like. Magical. On one day, we say both Penguins and Flamingos. Talk about diversity.
We ended our trip at a luscious resort in the middle of Santa Cruz Island. An American fellow built the place, large swimming pool, hot tub and all, just for guests of his choosing. This was lap of luxury. From there we took a couple of trips to see geologic features of these volcanic islands, like a 380′ deep sinkhole and a just discovered (5 years ago) lava tunnel.
Even though we gave tips to every tour guide, some quite generous since they spent days and days with us, the trip was very reasonable. We considered it to be an excellent value. Also, incredibly enough, we never got too much sun, even though we were on the equator. We wore UV protecting shirts, wore hats with “skirts” to cover our necks, slathered on lots of sunscreen, and wore long sleeves and pants.
Our heads are still spinning. We had 11 takeoffs and 11 landings, were as high as 11,500 feet and below sea level diving with the sea lions, on a boat for 5 days and had many very early morning excursions. It will take some time to get back to our everyday lives. This trip was fantastic. Man, were we ever lucky!!