Detomo's Abroad

Detomos Abroad

Archive for March, 2017

2017 Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands – Part 1

March 14, 2017 6:22 pm

It is Sunday morning, February 5th, 2017, and we have left our Peruvian Guide and traveled with our 11 other adventurer travelers from Cusco to Lima then on to Quito, Ecuador. Here, we are met by our new Country Guide, Louis. Louis is a certified Galapagos naturalist who was born and raised on the Galapagos Island of San Cristobal, where his family still owns and operates a farm. Louis is married with a daughter, and lives on the mainland in Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil. After collecting up our group, we head downtown to our hotel, The Mercure Alameda. From here, we have a few hours to explore the area, so a group of us walk down to Ejido Park where weekends are bustling with artists, food vendors and handicraft markets. Quito is Ecuador’s capital city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits in a long, narrow valley, 30 miles long by 3 miles wide, between a number of active volcanos. After a “Welcome Dinner” in the hotel, we rush off to watch The Super Bowl and Lady Gaga’s spectacular halftime show – broadcast in English and in Spanish!

Apartment buildings in Quito

The next day, after breakfast, we go to a special school to watch, and participate, in a presentation by the Sinamune Disabled Children’s Orchestra. This Orchestra was founded by Maestro Edgar Palacios, a famed musician who gave up his personal career to lead this group. Since 2005, Grand Circle Tours had partnered with them to help support the group. They demonstrated tremendous musical ability in playing instruments, singing and dancing, and in their interaction with the audience. After the concert, we went to Quito’s historic section and saw La Basilica and toured the Plaza de La Independenzia. Here, under a winged-statue of Freedom, all sorts of activities were underway, including a march supporting a woman candidate in the soon-to-be Country’s elections. We entered the Presidential Palace and took pictures with the stoic Palace Guards, before walking further to San Francisco Square. Here we ate lunch at Hotel Casa Gangotena, a beautiful colonial residence turned boutique establishment. After lunch, we strolled and shopped on the narrow lane of La Ronda, before finally returning to the hotel and having dinner.

Sinamune Disabled Children”s Orchestra

 

Politics in Plaza de La Independenzia

On Tuesday morning, we collected up just what we need for the next 5 days and traveled to the airport for the trip to the Galapagos Islands, located over 600 miles offshore Ecuador. Our flight was delayed, so we enjoyed lunch at the airport, and instead of flying via Guayaquil, we would fly directly to Baltra, Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands were undiscovered until 1535 when Spaniard Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants. De Berlanga’s vessel drifted off course, and his party reached the islands on 10 March. Until the early 19th century, the islands were used by English pirates who robbed Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain. Throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s, the islands were a way-station for fleets of whaling vessels. They used the great Galapagos Tortoises as their main source on meat, since they would survive on-board for up to a year without food or water. This led to the extinction of some of the species, and near extinction of almost all the tortoises, until the widespread use of petroleum oil made whaling in these remote waters too expensive. Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands in 1832, and in 1835, the voyage of the Beagle brought the survey ship HMS Beagle, to the Galapagos with young naturalist, Charles Darwin, aboard. In the early 1900’s Ecuador tried repeatedly to sell the islands, but with their limited resources and remote access, there were no takers. In the 1920s and 1930s, a small wave of European settlers arrived in the islands, principally from Scandinavia, and settled in Floreana, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, creating the core of the settlements that remain today. In the 1940’s, the USA paid a lease for a military base on the island of Baltra to aid in protecting the Panama Canal. In 1959, The Galápagos Islands became a national park, and tourism began in the 1960s.

Galapagos Map Part 1

Upon landing at Baltra, one is struck by the landscape of nothing but volcanic rock with few scrubs and bushes. The airport is built upon the old USA military landing strip, and the base housing has long since been scavenged to their slabs. There is nothing actually on the island, so we immediate bus to the local ferry dock to transfer to the more populated island of Santa Cruz. Here we board a bus, and travel across the island to our ship waiting in Porto Ayora on the southern coast. Along the way, we travel through the area of Bellavista and Tunels de Lava where we stop to see Galapagos tortoises in a park in the wild, and walk 200 yards through an underground lava tunnel. The number of tortoises in this area were significant, since the adults travel up to these highlands during this season for food, the cool air, and mating. We saw a pair mating, and watched as another male chased-down a shy female before achieving success. Here, the males grow to 750 lbs. and the females to upwards of 400 lbs., with the females laying 10-15 eggs that hatch in about 4 months. When we arrive in Porto Ayora, we are greeted by sea lions lying about the dock. We boarded our ship’s 2 pangas, (inflatable zodiacs), and board our home for the next 5 days, a cabin cruiser with 9 cabins that can tour up to 16 passengers, named “Carina”. On board Carina, we occupy cabin #7, and have time to unpack before taking dinner in the dining room. The rooms are all air conditioned, and the boat is manned by a crew of 9. We pull anchor and get underway as soon as everyone is on board, as we will travel all night to our next destination, near Puerto Villamil, at the southern end of Isabela Island.

Giant Tortoises Mating on Santa Cruz Island

Julie & guide Louis in the lava cave

Carina – our Galapagos ship

Because the heat of the day drives the land animals to rest at those times, we wake-up early and take a 6am pre-breakfast excursion via the pangas through the wetlands surrounding us. Along the way, we spot a Galapagos penguin, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and bright-red sally-light-foot crabs. We make a dry-landing ashore where a nature trail through the rough volcanic rocks is maintained, and take a walk past nesting iguanas and resting sea lions. Along the way, we pass two large green sea turtles caught in the low-tide estuary waiting for high-tide to escape, and a colony of 100’s of marine iguanas all moving begrudgedly from our path. We return on-board for breakfast, and then leave again at 10am for our first snorkeling trip in a large estuary surrounded by mangroves. We are greeted at the snorkeling dock by the ever-present sea lions snoozing on the benches and steps. After making our way past them, we enter the underwater world of the Galapagos, and although the water is not Caribbean-clear in this estuary, it is warm – ~80 degrees Fahrenheit, and we still see lots of tropical reef fish, eagle stingrays, green sea turtles, white-tipped sharks and playful sea lions swimming among us.

Swimming with a 200 hundred pound green turtle

Swimming with a Spotted Eagle Ray

After an hour and a half of snorkeling, we head back to the boat for lunch and a brief rest, before leaving again in the afternoon to go back to the docks, but this time to catch a bus to go to the Charles Darwin Research Center Breeding Station, where we get to see Galapagos tortoises from each island, in captivity, including eggs and even a baby tortoise only one month old.

The red mature Sally Lightfoot Crab

Female Galapagos Marine Ignuana

Baby Tortoise at the Darwin Breeding Station

Next to the Center, is a nature walk through some of the island’s wetlands, among hundreds of Darwin finches, and past Flamingo Lake where pink flamingos sift for brine shrimp in the brackish waters. Finally, we emerge at the beach at the town of Puerto Villamil, where we take a casual stroll down the white sandy beach before stopping at a local beach-bar for a rum coconut, and finally boarding our panga for the ride back to the boat. Dinner is buffet style with an excellent assortment of vegetables, meats and fish, all expertly cooked by our onboard chef. As we finish dinner, the Carina hauls up anchor to begin our next overnight travel to tomorrow’s destination.

Pink Flamingo on Isabela Island

Peru & Machu Picchu – Part 2

5:52 pm

Today we would go to Machu Picchu! The morning was Wednesday, February 1st, 2017, and after checking out of the hotel and taking only what we really needed, we again took the bus to Ollantaytambo. We left earlier than we had planned because of reports of protesters from Cusco who would be trying to shut down the highways! After weaving the bus through various boulders and tree stumps in the road, we made it to Ollantaytambo, where we caught the train for a 90-minute ride down the Willkanuta River in the Sacred Valley, through tall trees, rocky outcrops with hanging orchids and bromeliads to the village of Aguas Calientes. All along the way there is evidence of the Incas reforming the landscape with terraces, villages and ruins. This Village is the closest access point to Machu Picchu, which is still ~3.7 miles away, and can only be accessed via Park bus and by foot. The town is named for some warm natural springs located there, but we did not visit these. Upon arriving, we checked into the El Mapi Hotel, located in the center of town, near the town square. Since we ate a box lunch aboard the train, we immediately caught the Park Bus for the “switch-back” ride up the side of the mountain to the Park’s Entrance, and then climbed another 500’ up to the “overlook” to survey the sight of Machu Picchu. Cesar took us on a 3-hour walking investigation of the ancient city, its history, rediscovery and significance. After the tour, we returned to the hotel to enjoy a free drink and Happy Hour, before assembling for a short walk across the street to the Inca Wasi Restaurant and Pizzeria.

Machu Picchu from the Caretakers Hut.

Machu Picchu from the Caretakers Hut.

 

Machu Picchu with the Huayna Picchu Mountain.

Machu Picchu with the Huayna Picchu Mountain.

Thursday morning, after breakfast, Julie and I chose to go back up to Machu Picchu to hike up to the Sun Gate, “Inti Punku”. We were joined by a local OAT guide, Yessica, and one other traveler, Nancy. After getting to the “Caretaker’s Hut” past the “overlook” we began the ascent to the Sun Gate. From there, the trail followed the originally-placed stones of the Inca Trail. The Sun Gate trail follows a path which is is modest in angle, and offers spectacular views of the valley, surrounding mountains, and Machu Picchu all along the way. We passed dozens of types of orchids, and stopped regularly to take pictures of them and the view. As we approached the Sun Gate, the trail became a little steeper. Reportedly, Incan Imperial guards used the Sun Gate to control entrance to Machu Picchu, and for this reason it was believed that Machu Picchu only welcomed selected visitors of the imperial elite. We made it to the Gate in a little over 90 minutes, spent a half-hour there, and then descended to Machu Picchu before returning to the hotel and meeting the rest of our group for lunch. After lunch, we caught the train for the 2-hour ride back to Ollantaytambo, where we re-boarded our bus, picked-up the rest of our luggage, and made the trip back to Cusco, and re-checked back in to the Jose Antonio hotel where we all gathered for dinner.

The start of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate

The start of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate

 

Julie & Nancy hiking to the Sun Gate

Julie & Nancy hiking to the Sun Gate

 

The switchback road leading from Aquas Calientes

The switchback road leading from Aquas Calientes

 

At the Sun Gate

At the Sun Gate

 

Yessica, Julie, Rocky and Nancy at the sun Gate with Machu Picchu below

Yessica, Julie, Rocky and Nancy at the sun Gate with Machu Picchu below

On Friday, after breakfast, we took a walking tour to the main square, Plaza de Armes, which was beautifully landscaped, surrounded by shops and restaurants, and full of people. From here, we toured the Cathedral and then walked to the historic Plaza Regocijo, surrounded by its churches, government buildings and shops.

Plaza Regocijo in Cusco

Plaza Regocijo in Cusco

We were then on our own, and so a group of us made our way to Cicciolina’s for lunch. Afterwards, Julie and I went on to explore and shop at the local Artisan’s Market, before returning to the hotel and going out with friends for a relaxed Italian meal.
Saturday, we traveled to a steep hill that overlooks the city which contains a series of fortified archeological sites. The first site, Sacsayhuaman, dates to the 13th century, and is a series of huge stone mounds that once housed great towers.

One of the mounds at Sacsayhuaman

One of the mounds at Sacsayhuaman

Many of the stones have long-since been taken and used in construction within the town, but the larger carved and fit stones remain. Here we were treated to a local scouting group or children sponsored by the town’s Fire Department, hiking and singing as they made their way. We also were reluctant witnesses to Llama’s mating, the first in a long string of animal mating observations along our trip. Love must have been in the air! After visiting Sacsayhuaman, we traveled a very short distance to Qenqo, a labyrinth of tunnels and altars carved in the stone whose historic use is still unclear. From there, we went to an Alpaca shop that offer all types of Alpaca clothing and linens of a range of quality and prices. For lunch, we decided to check out a restaurant located near the Main Square named “Baco”, on recommendation of a friend. Unfortunately, it was closed until 3pm, and so we ate at a restaurant on the Square called “The Inca Grill”, where a very nice meal before spending the afternoon shopping and packing. That night was our “Farewell Dinner” for Peru, but since we were all traveling to Ecuador, it was really a farewell to our Guide, Cesar!

Cesar describing the stones at Qenqo

Cesar describing the stones at Qenqo

On Sunday morning, we all went to the airport and caught a flight from Cusco to Lima and then to the city of Quito in Ecuador, from which we would enjoy the second leg of our adventure.

Peru & Machu Picchu – Part 1

5:51 pm

One of our long-held dreams was to visit both Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands, and, after almost a year of research and planning, we finally chose Overseas Adventure Travel for our trip. We started our trip on Saturday by driving a short distance south to Miami’s Airport and flying the 5-hour trip to Lima, the capital of Peru. There we were met by our first OAT Representative, Cesar, who collected us up for the short bus trip to our hotel, The Jose Antonio.

The Pacific Coast - Lima

The Pacific Coast – Lima

In the morning, Julie and I walked the 4 blocks to the Pacific Coast to get a coffee at Starbucks, and to enjoy the great vistas and views afforded us on the bluffs overlooking their Pacific Coast highway and the morning surfing crowd. After breakfast, back at the hotel, we gathered our group of 13, (5 couples and 3 singles), with Cesar for introductions and questions and answers, and then began our facilitated adventure with a short bus ride to the historic center of town where we learned of much of the history of the country of Peru. For lunch, we were back to a restaurant on the coast where we were treated to the “national” alcoholic drink, a Pisco Sour, a buffet of local foods, and cultural dancing by professional dancers.

Traditional Dancing

Traditional Dancing

After lunch, we were off to an Inca Archeological Museum that captured artifacts and recovered tombs from the Inca civilization. Since it was Sunday afternoon, we visited Saint Martin’s Square, and then the main square in the center of town, which was fronted by The Presidential Palace, and The Bishop’s Palace, and was full of people visiting churches, listening to music and enjoying the beautiful weather.

Bishop's Palace in the main square of Lima

Bishop’s Palace in the main square of Lima

We walked to tour the active Saint Francis Monastery and Convent, including the catacombs, before returning to the hotel. The Church and Monastery were consecrated in 1673 and completed in 1774, built in the Spanish Baroque style, and is listed as a World Heritage Site as part of historic Lima. Although Cusco was the historic capital of the Incan Empire, Francisco Pizarro founded Lima as the new capital in 1535 after conquering the Incans, and a Spanish Colonial city was created. That night was our “Welcome Dinner” where we all got to know each other better before our travels inland tomorrow.
Monday morning, we arose early and caught a Lantum Airline flight from Lima to the historic Inca capital city of Cusco. Cusco sits at 11,150’ altitude, and one could definitely tell that the air was thinner from the sea level we had just left. At the Cusco airport, we boarded a touring bus and started the trip to the city of Urubamba, within the Sacred Valley. Along the way, we traveled through the town of Chinchero, our trip’s highest point, where we stopped for a “healing ceremony” with a local medicine man. He assembled a variety of items to represent all aspects of “life” and then burned them, blessed each of us, giving “thanks” to the great mountains surrounding us, and then would bury the ash remains.

Andean medicine man performing healing

Andean medicine man performing healing

Following this, we participated in a traditional weaving demonstration starting with Alpaca wool, involving brushing, spinning, coloring and weaving of the wool to make beautiful clothes.

Local village weavers

Local village weavers

From there, we continued down into the Sacred Valley, but with a short stop to meet a local roadside farmer with a very old steer-pulled plow. The Sacred Valley was lush with fruit trees and crops that provide food for much of Peru and for its export. All along the way, the hillsides were terraced by ancient Incas, and we passed many remnant historic grain store-houses strategically placed high on the slopes. In Urubamba, (down in the valley at elevation 9,420’), we entered the enclosed Hotel Villa Urubamba, a set of cabins scattered across a beautiful, lush set of gardens with hundreds of types of blooming flowers, stone walkways and flowing water. That night we ate at the hotel, completely filling their small but very nice dining room.

Tuesday, after breakfast at the hotel, we took a day to visit and sightsee the local town. First, we visited a modest home of a local single mother with 3 daughters, who would be making us lunch that day. She demonstrated the killing and preparation of a guinea pig, a traditional, celebratory dish in Peru. In their country, guinea pigs are raised for meat, much like chicken are in most places. When one of our travel companions asked “Why would you eat our pets?” the Peruvians responded with “Why would you pet our food?”! She killed it quickly, removed the fur after a quick dip in boiling water, gutted and cleaned it, and then rubbed it with spices and oils, before stuffing it with herbs, and putting it into the oven to cook.

Emma, Our Urubamba Home Host making Guinea Pig

Emma, Our Urubamba Home Host making Guinea Pig

Meanwhile, we left to take the bus a short way down the valley to the town of Ollantaytambo, the entry way to Machu Picchu, since there are no roads that travel to the lost Incan City. The town includes an Inca archaeological site at an altitude of 9,160’ which we ascended. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Incan Emperor, who built the town and a ceremonial center. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru it served as a stronghold for the Inca resistance, and, today, it is one of the most common starting points for hiking the Inca Trail, or catching the train there.

Incan Ruins at Ollantaytambo

Incan Ruins at Ollantaytambo

On the way there, we went to a local bar where we played a game tossing “coins” at a small table with slots and holes that carried value, and we tasted the local “hooch”, a corn-beer called “chichi”, historically drunken by the locals. From here, we left for the local market to purchase side-dish items for lunch. Cesar provided each person with a piece of paper on which was written the Spanish name of a local ingredient, (e.g. chocio = corn), and we were each sent off with a 2 Soles limit (~$0.60 USD) to find, negotiate and purchase the ingredient. The local market vendors were very helpful, and everyone completed the challenge within 10-15 minutes. Then we conversed with a local supplier of coco leaves, the local “drug” of choice to deal with altitude and sicknesses of all kinds!

The local market in Urabamba

The local market in Urabamba

From the market, we all got into tuk-tuks, (a small 3-wheel taxi), for a short ride to a local Chapel of the Lord of Torrechayoc, where a huge cross was once left and the church was subsequently built on-top-of it. Like most churches in this country, everything is only covered in gold-leaf, as most of the solid gold was taken by the Spaniards. Finally, we returned to our host’s house for lunch, helped prepare homemade tortillas, and celebrated with her and her 3 daughters a wonderful meal or guinea pig, chicken, potatoes, tortillas, squash, and salad with roasted peach for desert. After thanking our hosts, we traveled to the home and shop of local artist, Pablo Seminarios. This region provides inspiration to many artists who make their home here. Pablo’s works are on display in Chicago and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and he discussed with us the evolution in his work and his inspirations, while walking us through his workshop and gallery.

Pablo Seminarios discussing his Art

Pablo Seminarios discussing his Art

After a brief stop at the hotel, we assembled for a short ride to dinner, hosted by another artist, Oscar, at his home/restaurant, Wallpa Wasi. He specialized in clay-oven rotisserie chicken, which was spectacular! After dinner, he took us for a tour of his house where his collectables, and some of his and his wife’s art, are proudly on display.
Tomorrow we would go on to Machu Picchu!

Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.

Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.