Wednesday, February 13, 2008

So You Want to Go?

So let's say you've read this blog....and you've fawned over the photos of the amazing sites and very cute animals...and you want to go. Moreover, you've noticed that I dropped no names of airlines, hotels, agencies, guides, etc. And you want some down to earth travel advice.

If you do not book a prepaid tour, you can hire guides and drivers on an adhoc basis or buy a combination of one to four day package tours and treks from one of the many agencies in Cusco or Lima. Typically the smaller agencies have less overhead and more of your fees go directly to goods and services (rather than administrative middle men). The Cusco/Machu Picchu area is a destination for many Latin Americans who do not have large budgets and thus there is a tremendous amount of very inexpensive group travel. The Cusco-area City Tour which includes a bilingual guide and a six hour visit to four different sites sells for $12. The full day tour to the Sacred Valley which includes a sumptuous buffet lunch sells for $25. Comfortable hotels in Cusco with a full breakfast can be booked for $35/single and $50/double. And there a tons of cheap hostels which go for under $10/night. The treks can also be booked by Cusco agencies (both in-person as well as online). A standard Inca Trail trek (4 days; 3 nights) which includes bilingual guides, porters, cooks, food, tents, pick-up in Cusco and the train ride back from Machu Picchu sells for about $280. While the trip from Lima to Cusco is about an hour by air, it can be upwards of 25 hours by bus, so book your own flight in advance for at least this portion. LAN and TACA are reputable airlines which fly this route. Travel between Puno and Cusco can be done either by bus or train. The train only goes certain days of the week, while there are plenty of safe/comfortable tourist-oriented buses that go every day. In Puno you can go down to the wharf and book a day-trip to Uros. While there are agencies who sell the overnight visit/homestay to Amantani and Taquile Islands, more of your money goes directly to you host family if you book this $30/trip at the wharf as well.

If you do not have enough time to travel overland between Peru and Ecuador, you can purchase an open-jaw air ticket flying into Lima and out of Quito. In that I flew on American Airlines which has a partnership with LAN, they included the flight from Lima to Quito in my flight package.

While Otavalo can be visited as a day-trip from Quito (typical cost for such a trip is $45), one can catch a local bus for $2 each way and spend a night or two in this very indigenous and quite prosperous town. The Saturday markets (that spill out from the plaza and through all of the streets) are not to be missed. In addition to the usual market fare (food and housewares for the locals) and weavings for the tourists, there are countless artisans with some delightfully original creations. Quito is a modern city with much well-preserved colonial architecture. Allow a couple of days to visit museums and the equator site.

There are basically three ways to visit the Galapagos Islands. You can see it ship-board by booking a 6-10 day trip which includes the flight from Quito (or Guayaquil) and full transfers and accomodations. These ships vary from super-luxury oceanliners with room for upwards of 100 guests to small chartered houseboats with room for about 15 passengers. Typically, the more you pay, the better your food and accomodations will be. You can book at hotel in Puerto Ayora on the very touristic island of Santa Cruz and book day-trips to snorkel and visit neighoring islands. Most islands are at 2-3 hours away...and thus any day-trip is likely to involve a fair amount of transit time. The final version (which we did) involved booking a trip-package which included staying in quite comfortable hotels on four of the islands, a plethora of activities (snorkeling, biking, hiking, horsebackriding and museum visits) as well as passage by means of a comfortable motor boat between islands. While such a trip might be down independently, booking hotels and arranging passage between the islands (e.g. chartering your own yacht and crew) could be quite pricey. Our ten day tour which included the flight to and from , just about every meal, bikes, snorkeling equipment, as well as a stay at a spiffy Quito hotel was about $2,000. The ship-based tours tend to average between $300 and $500 per day, while the land-based Puerto Ayora version would depend on the hotel and day-trips one booked. Puerto Ayora has a full complement of different hotels to choose from, with a growing number catering to the interests of budget travellers.

The Culture of Tourism

The moment I stepped off the plane in Peru, I was thrust into a dynamic. There were roles I was expected to play--and a country-filled with counterparts to engage these presumed roles. I was expected to be interested in seeing indigenously dressed natives--in taking their pictures and purchasing their crafts. Moreover I was expected to be interested in viewing ancient Inca and Aymara sites...and being photographed visiting these places. This was just all a given. Who would go to Peru or Ecuador as a tourist and not want to do this?

To support such activities there has developed a whole complex of businesses and trained professionals. Many young Peruvians go to tourism school to become guides, translators, travel agents and hotel and restaurant managers. Being that there is a constant influx of tourists to Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, few Peruvians living in these areas even think of engaging in non-touristic occupations. Those who don't acquire professional training may make and/or sell crafts or wear indigenous attire and pose for "voluntary" tips. They were all primed for my presumed tourisitic appetite. Moreover, I was expected to play a certain part in this fixed exchange.

Of course we tourists come with their own agendas...especially to physically challenging places like the Peruvian highlands. We want to avoid altitude illness, we don't want to be taken advantage of financially...and we want to feel safe. So then the intercultural dance begins. Some tourists arrive on their prepaid tours and their guides watch over them like hawks. Others of us arrive a bit more independently and are immediately regarded as marks for the panoply of Peruvians who might potentially profit over our presence in their country.

In private corners the Peruvians chat about who tipped them well, who bought pricey stuff from them...and who didn't. And then we tourists have our chats. What's a good price? What's a good place to eat? sleep? and to take those ubiquitous photos? Who are the good agencies? guides? And where can you go when you just want to shake the whole thing off...when you've heard enough factoids about the ancient Incas and bought enough alpaca products?

And the Galapagos? Well the whole archepelago is sustained by tourism. Interestingly it is far more European than it is Ecuadorian. European pirates and whalers sought refuge there in the 15th and 16th centuries...and then beginning in the 19th century, European colonies and outposts sprouted up. While the habited cities on the islands do offer touristic-based employment to many Ecuadorian families, they are ultimately rarified places. Crime barely exists while the islands' best and brightest become naturalists and guides in the spirit of Charles Darwin.

As for the touristic appetite on the Galapagos...largely it is to share space with the many fearless species of birds, tortoises, iguanas and those oh so cute sea lion pups. And considering that we come there for that...they make very sure that we readily find all of them...and as often as possible. Scratching beneath the touristic veneer, we do find out that this wonderland is being genetically engineered for our enjoyment. If it weren't for touristic appetites, the six nearly extinct strains of tortoises would not be living in breeding sanctuaries with master plans to repatriate all of the niches that were nearly lost to the very hardy goats (on board with the early colonists' ships). After a couple of days on the Galapagos, it becomes very clear that there are no pristine places....except for the touristic imagination.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Wind Down

My final night in Ecuador I faced I'd caught a fever (my skin was crawling with the chills) and that my tummy felt yucky. It was cold and rainy and I could barely sleep. In the early morning, I jammed my months-worth of purchases into two bags, alongside of sandy clothes from the Galapagos and wet socks from traipsing around Quito's torrential rains. My hostal manager made me some chamomile tea and after sipping as much as I could, I caught a cab to the airport.

After paying a pricey departure tax, I was informed that the only way I could take my Inka Trail walking stick back home was to incorporate it into one of my two official bags.... Either that or pay $100 for an extra checked item. The airline folks advised me to have it plastic-wrapped against my smaller bag (a cloth Ecuadorian duffel bag) for $7. Initially, I didn't believe it would work as the bag kept collapsing as more plastic was imposed on it and the stick....eventually it did work and I made it over to the final waiting room. As I took a seat (next to Amanda, an Australian woman who had been on the Galapagos tour), I faced that I really felt sick. She'd been sick (with some version of this bug) during the tour...and confirmed that whatever I was feeling was "real."

I went over to the airline desk and told them I didn't feel well. I must have looked pretty bad in that they immediately offered to let me fly another time. The thought of taking a cab back into rainy Quito sounded worse, so they changed my window seat to an aisle seat to enable me to get up and down more easily. Then I proceeded to take all the possible remedies I could: tylenol and ibuprofen to reduce the fever...and Bonine and Immodium for my tummy. Amazingly, I survived the first stretch to Miami, even partaking in a bit of breakfast. Miami was a total zoo. First there were passport inspections. Then all baggage had to be reclaimed, inspected by customs and re-checked. The first sign of American life was a Starbucks which was absolutely teaming with customers. Then there were all the business people on cell phones, blackberries, and laptops. For a moment I thought, wow Americans are so industrious! Then I remembered all the ladies in Ecuador with pails of mangos, all the barkers selling chips and sweets on city buses, and the countless Peruvians who engage the tourist dollar around Cusco and Machu Picchu. I went through one more (huge) inspection line in which terrorist contraband was again investigated (in Quito I'd gotten a nearly-full water bottle through inspection with no problem). This time I ran no such private tests...and again passed. Eventually I was seated on my last flight of the trip. Still feverish, I wrapped myself in the flight blanket and hoped for the best. The flight had yet to take off....and suddenly I found myself ruffling in the seat pocket for the airsickness bag. My worst travel fears began.... I began puking, first in the bag...and then just all over--the airline blanket...and one of my jackets. Two flight attendants rushed over and began to bag up all the soiled items...a nearby passenger, handed me several wads of baby wipes, another puke bag and a bottle of water. The attendants asked if I would prefer to fly another time, advising that it was completely feasible to wheel the plane back to the terminal. In that moment I felt better....and opted to stay on the flight. All I did for the next six hours was to drink ginger-ale, and stare at whatever movies/TV programming were playing. I arrived into the cold of LA, still sporting a Galapagos suntan. My cell phone was completely dead (I'd burned out the charger by plugging it into a 220 volt outlet on my first night in Lima). Fortunately a woman on the curb allowed me to use hers to call Don. He eventually came (the traffic that evening around the airport was so thick that he took him several tries to access airline curb in which I was waiting.)

Images from the Mitad del Mundo (equator park)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Visiting Around Quito

Over the last couple of days we´ve taken in many of Quito´s attractions. Yesterday we took a series of local buses out to the Equator Park, El Mitad del Mundo. Aboard the bus were mothers nursing babies, women with pails of mangos, a guy trying to hawk embroidery thread, and an endless supply of guys selling little packets of potato chips. The park was a bit empty in that it was a weekday, making it easy to take lots of clear photos of the monument. The monument itself houses an impressive exhibit featuring dioramas of the many tribal peoples of Ecuador. After looking through a well-designed exhibit on the history of man´s efforts to measure the earth (beginning with the Greeks and featuring lots of French scientists) and poking around many of the gift shops we headed back to our hotel in Mariscal district of Quito. Rather than another colorful busride, we shared a cab with a delightful couple from the Boston area that we´d met on the flight to the Galapagos.

Today I again attempted public transit, this time on a metro-bus over the the Grand Plaza. It´s an impressive set of government buildings, churches, exhibition halls and of course a well-appointed plaza. After surveying a heavily gold guilded church, I found my way into a photo-exhibit featuring winners of the world press association´s annual contest. It was an amazing display, some of my favorites were tourists (in bathing suits) attending to African refugees on an island off of Spain and the wedding photo of an American girl and her Iraqi war vet husband whose face was so mangled by injuries he barely looked human.

In the afternoon I hooked up with Andy for a visit to Quito´s Cultural Center which houses museums, a dance company, a library and a theater company. We spent several hours looking through a fabulous museum which looks at Ecuador´s social and artistic history, beginning with pre-columbian artifacts, onto the Spanish conquest (with all of its challenges) onto Simon Bolivar´s successful fight for independence and finally a selection of work from a variety of contemporary artists.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Inside a Lava Tunnel / Cave

Galapagos Tortoises

The small ones are about five years old and were hatched in a breeding program. The big one is part of a line of tortoises, living on Santa Cruz Island, that has never faced extinction.

Galapagos Green

Golden Land Iguana

These are a completely different species from the water iguanas that roost along the sea rocks.

Lava Flows on Isabella Island

We climbed all over these...amazing colors and texture.

Brown Pelicans

These guys were waiting for handouts on the fishing wharf at Santa Cruz Island

Horseback Riding on Isabella Island

Backlit Galapagos Cactus

Much of the island terrain is desert... These begin as plants and eventually grow into trees...

Perfect Beach at Santa Cruz Island

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Galapagos Wind Down

Yesterday we visited the Charles Darwin center and took in yet another exhibit on the unique geology of the Galapagos. Then we met more tortoises that we being bred so as to "repatriate," the islands back to a time before colonists, pirates and an environmental movement. Afterwards we visited a huge lava flow-cave that took about 15 minutes to walk through. There were some parts that were so low that we had to crawl on our bellies. It was slippery, a bit unnerving and altogether amazine.

Later we wandered through a huge field that sported tortoises whose line had never gone extinct. Perhaps it was a confluence of living on an island with no natural water source (unlike Floreana and San Cristobal) which had discouraged the arrival of 16th century pirates and such. After lunch I took a 40 minute walk to a beach which sees very few tourists (due to the long walk). It had the whitest smoothest sand and perfect waves. I swam a bunch and then borrowed a friend's boogie board so as to seriously ride some of those delicious waves.

After a final dinner which featured a big hunk of tuna on a lava rock (which enabled one to cook it as little or as much as they desired), we had sea lion honking contests and called it a night. Today was largely dedicated to getting back to Quito. The trip involved a taxi to the edge of Santa Cruz Island, a short ferry to Baltra Island, a bus to the airport, a plane ride to Guayaquil, refueling the plane, another plane ride to Quito, a short bus ride to the terminal, and a van ride back to the hotel.

I can't believe that in a couple of days I'll be returning to winter rains and cold. I'm not ready.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Santa Cruz Island (the tourist center)

Today we finished visiting laid back Isabel Island where the streets are covered with sand and the beach is just about empty. We took in more Iguanas and snorkeled amongst sea turtles and some of the most beautiful fish I´ve ever laid my eyes on.

After gathering together our things, we took one more long boat ride (about two hours) and landed on Santa Cruz Island, the center of Galapagos tourism. The streets are lined with curio shops, tour agencies, Internet Cafes, and non-stop restaurants. And the bay is filled with huge tour ships, each housing upwards of 100 people. Feels like a bit of culture shock compared to the slow-paced worlds of Isabel and Floreana Islands. The main good thing (as far as I´m concerned) is that there is broadband Internet, enabling me to easily load photos!

Two Day Old Tortoise

Galapagos Lagoon

Lagoons like this are fabulous for snorkeling

Iguanas Establishing Rank

The Iguana on top is putting the lower one in it´s place...

Iguana Waiting for Action

The most important thing for male iguanas is to find a desireable spot to see and be seen. Once properly placed, the females appear!

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I have finally mastered snorkeling! The last time I´d tried (in Jamaica), my mask didn´t fit well and kept leaking water...and then I got horribly seasick from the rocking currents. This time our guide stuck with me until we found a properly fitting mask--one that would stay on steadily and not disrupt my contact lenses! With that in place I pushed through all of that anxiety of feeling like I was gasping for breath and allowed myself to just swallow gently and breathe through my mouth.

I dove off of our boat and onto an amazing site. Outcroppings of coral...the most gorgeous fish in the world (at least MY visual world)--gold, turquoise, black, bright orange, and then schools of sharks! And then sea tortoises....and finally the cutest sea lions--which seemed primed to play not just with each other, but with ME! No underwater camera...sorry. But believe me, it´s all true!

More Galapagos

I´ve been offline a couple of days because we´ve been on some pretty remote islands. We visited Floreana island that has a very small human population (around 100) and a very intriguing history. Several German families were drawn to the island in the early 1900s to live an ascetic life...then a baroness came with three lovers and plans to build a 5 star hotel. The German families vetoed her plans..and then the lovers got into disputes (having no possibility of cooperating on a project to please the baroness) and ultimately did each other in. Before then, the island was a hide-out for pirates who helped themselves to the huge tortoises (which provided oil and portable food for those long sea journeys).

These days there is a rather spartan hotel on the island (which we stayed at) and a tortoise reserve. It was the closest to a desert island paradise that I´ve ever seen. While I could imagine just sitting on the edge of the sea for weeks, writing up a storm and engaging in the sort of ascetic life those German families sought, we were scheduled to leave the next day for Isabella Island.

Isabella has about 2,500 human inhabitants and a gradually increasing population of tortoises. Five different subspecies are being bred so as to repopulate those that were destroyed by pirates and a maniacal farmer named Antonio Gil. So why repopulate the island with slow-growing tortoises? Obviously it´s not for their meat nor their fat nor their speed. Simply it´s for tourism. "Galapagos" means giant tortoise...and thus they must be restored! And all of those goats that have inhabitated tortoise niches are in the process of being eradicated. There is no such thing as a pristine ecological niche. All that they are doing here is re-creating a vision of one!

Today we rode horses and then hiked along the lava flows of several of the volcanoes that have formed this island. It´s the largest of the Galapagos Islands and amazingly diverse. This morning we were in a light rain storm up amongst the still-warm volcanoes...and then descending we passed through coffee plantations...and then finally back to the edge of the sea with beautiful beaches.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Galapagos Sunset

Galapagos Heron

This one was tame enough to rest on our boat´s motor.

Galapagos Sea Lions

Sea lions have free reign here, sleeping on park benches, stairways and hanging in large camps on the beaches.

Galapagos Launch

The evening before last I arrived in Quito to connect with my tour of the Galapagos Islands. Andy and I had searched the net for days and settled on a 10-day GAP tour that was land-based. Many tours are ship-based, meaning that one lives on board a ship during the time they spend on the islands. We wanted to get to know the islands more intimately (by sleeping on them). I was also anxious about being in a constant state of seasickness (before discovering the power of Bonine) and thought that a land-based tour would be more settling.

First impressions: I had this idea that the Galapagos Islands were (and always had been a pristine) national park. Hardly. They were the outposts of pirates and whalers in the 1500s who ruthlessly destroyed tortoises and such. When Darwin came to study adaptation (which led to his theory of Natural Selection) in mid-1800s, there were already settlements in place on several of the islands.

Arrival: We flew into Baltras which houses the primary airport on the island of Santa Cruz. That airport was absolutely filled with tourists who were either leaving after their week or so long stays or who were arriving. Tour guides thrust signs into the air to gather their groups. Tim, an athletic guy with sandy blonde hair from New Zealand met our group. After claiming our bags we were whisked into a bus for a quick ride over to a motor boat. We then took a nearly 3 hour ride bouncing through rough seas to get to San Cristobal Island. Despite having drugged myself up with Bonine, I suffered. I sat quietly closing my eyes, hoping that ride would end...

San Cristobal is home to many Spanish speaking Ecuadorians, many who were born on the island. There are ranches and farms as well as low-keyed tourist offerings like day-trips, a number of small hotels, and a bunch of cozy restaurants. The first afternoon we went bike riding
through groves of coffee, papayas, etc. Today we took the boat out and snorkled in two amazing coves. I could not believe my eyes! I frolicked amongst baby sea lions, swam amidst countless schools of fish, and got upclose and personal with sea tortoises and sharks. Later we visited a culture and nature interpretive center and then went over crunchy lava fields (all of the islands are volcanic).

Tomorrow we´re off to Floreana, a small island that sports a rich social history including a 19th c. woman who came here with her three lovers with the intention of growing rich through opening a successful hotel. Instead the lovers fought each other other jealousies, with several ultimately losing their lives.

We have a super-early morning wake-up call, so I´ll write more the next time I can get online.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Butcher Counter with Canine Freeloader

Every meat department has a cadre of dogs looking for handouts!

Otavalan fruits

Condor Park Bird with Message (video)

Otavalan weavings...

Otavalo Markets and Such

I gave myself a couple of days to explore Otavalo which is a major indigenous stronghold. Quichua (not Quechua) speaking peoples live here...and the region is known for excellent crafts production. Master weavers and leather workers create exquisite work...and then there are the new age artists who work with "ecologically correct" materials like seeds and bark as opposed to plastics and glass.

The hotel I stayed in is run by an expat American who has called Ecuador home for the last 30 odd years. We chatted for awhile, noting all the American anthropologists we've both know. Then she launched into her astrological analysis of my personality...somewhat accurate, but hey we all believe what we want to!

While in town I wandered through a small anthropology museum at the university campus and then caught a cab up to a nicely designed condor park The park was designed by a Dutch NGO and fits beautifully into the hilltop landscape. After peering over the entire town, I proceeded to walk about 4 miles through Indian villages on my way back to town. That evening the hotel offered a special Quichwa concert featuring charangas (small guitars) and Andean flutes and drums. It was quite exquisite.

Then this morning I jerked myself awake at 6 am to check out the Saturday animal market. There two-week old calves, baby pigs, goats, chickens and sheep were offered for sale. It was a rather informal affair wherein buyers approached purveyors and/or purveyors shouted out their prices to all interested parties. Being a tourist with a camera, I was hit upon, too. Knowing I was unlikely to buy a goat or a pig, enterprising women with photos of themselves weaving, approached me to buy their beautifully woven scarves. And yes, I spent some money, too.

Afterwards I wandered through more of the Saturday markets--fruits and vegetables, housewares and then for the busloads of tourists: a sprawling crafts market. I bought things I'd never even realized I wanted, like a painting of an ancient Quichwa calendar on a lightly processed bark. With my daypack brimming with stuff, I decided I'd made my contribution to the artisans of Otavalo and packed up my p├║rchases. I caught a dollar taxi which took me to the bus terminal where I boarded a two dollar bus back to Quito. I sat in front with the bus driver, the fare collector and a young women. Between bites of sugar cane cubes (juicy and delicious), they decided to tell me about about the dating and mating practices of Ecuadorians. The guys would proclaim one thing while the young woman would laugh in their faces. Can't say I learned any take-home facts, but nonetheless we were all in stitches over each sex's claim over what the other one was like!

On the edge of Quito, I was dropped off at a spot where I caught a cab over to my hotel. Andy was already settled in (he{d arrived yesterday). After awhile we met with the 14 others (largely Europeans) who will be part of our Galapagos tour group. It promises to be a great tour. Tomorrow we catch a 7 am flight, leaving the hotel right before 6 am. I{m excited.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Inka Architectural Details

This last image features a hook for attaching a wooden door.

Machu Picchu Details

In this last image one can peer through a succession of windows.

Classic Views of Machu Picchu

It was cloudy and overcast the morning we arrived....

Friendly Llamas near Machu Picchu

Archaeological Remains Along the Inka Trail

The trapezoidal windows and doors prevented earthquake damage.

Inka Trail Campground

Each encampment had between 5 and 15 tents. The larger tents were for cooking and dining. The porters carried all of these plus cooking gear and food for everyone.

The Top of the Highest Pass of the Inka Trail

The guys featured here were my very enthusiastic guides!

Andean Mountains Enveloped in Clouds