Sorry this is so long but it does give a full picture of our daily activities... We hope it is helpful as others plan a visit to these two wonderful places.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Our adventure to Galapagos and Peru began at 5:30AM when friends drove us to LAX for our flight to Quito via Miami. Even though we arrived at LAX about 6:00AM check-in and security were mob scenes. The American flight #202 left on time and we needed the three hour layover in Miami to have dinner and find the gate for American flight #967 to Quito. A Celebrity representative was at the Baggage Claim area waiting for us and two other couples who were on the same flight. We were ushered to a waiting van for the short ride to the JW Marriott Hotel. The hotel staff greeted us with cold drinks, warm face cloths, and the schedule for our time in Quito. Registration was quick and within minutes our luggage was delivered to our room on the sixth floor. The tour of Quito began at 9:00AM in the morning so a good night’s sleep was essential.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
After a buffet breakfast at the hotel we assembled in the lobby where we started meeting our fellow travelers, first a short conversation with a couple from the Czech Republic and then a chance meeting with a couple who had toured Peru independently prior to arriving in Quito. We learned much about their experiences in Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco. Right on schedule we boarded four different busses for the day of touring. First we drove to the Old Town section of Quito with its cobbled narrow streets that were jammed with too many cars. Our first stop was La Basilica del Voto Nacional, a typical Gothic church which took more than 100 years to complete. The most unique aspects of the structure were the gargoyles of iguanas, tortoises, anteaters and penguins. We encountered our first street vendors who were selling finely woven scarves for about $2.00 USD.
It was soon time to climb back onto the bus for a short and congested ride to the Plaza de la Independencia which was surrounded with impressive colonial era buildings: the Cathedral, City Hall, The Cultural Center and the Presidential Palace. Adriana explained the symbolism of the large monument in the center of the plaza. We could see why Old Town Quito had been designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site. After another short bus ride we entered La Compania, another large stone church but this was more Baroque in style. The columns on the façade were copies of the columns used by Bernini for the bronze alter in Rome’s St Peters. La Compania’s interior was covered in gold leaf. “Excessive” is an understatement! We then moved on to Plaza San Francisco in front of the church of the same name which was constructed in the late 1530’s and is the oldest one in Quito. Once again we encountered street vendors who were mostly children and women selling woven crafts. We soon left the city and drove into the countryside to the El Crater Restaurant which sits on the rim of the crater of the volcano Pululahua. The complex also included a hotel building and a gallery of modern design. Unfortunately the crater was filled with fog so we could not see the agriculture maintained within the crater. Lunch was served and we were entertained by local musicians. The food was not outstanding but it was a good escape from constant touring. We wandered the grounds for about an hour before boarding the bus for our stop at the Mitad del Mundo, or the Middle of the World! We took the requisite photos of us straddling the painted line representing the equator even though the accurate location of the equator was several meters away. We enjoyed nice views of the park from the top of the monument and walked through displays of the various ethnic groups who make up the country of Ecuador. We then had less than an hour to explore the shops and exhibits before boarding the bus for the return to the hotel. After returning to the hotel we rested for a couple of hours before setting out for dinner at the Teatro Sucre which was a restored theater. Dinner was excellent and we were entertained by a talented tenor who sang everything from opera to show tunes. Throughout the day we learned much about the history and Quito and saw traditional tourist sites and the rough and tumble neighborhoods of the city. All of the people we encountered during the tour were extremely helpful and pleasant.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Our luggage was placed outside our hotel rooms at 5:00AM and then we went to an early breakfast buffet. Next step was to pick up our boarding passes for the charter flight to Baltra at 6:30AM and at 7:15AM (right on schedule) we boarded the buses for the ride to the domestic air terminal. Adriana and other Celebrity representatives handled the details of checking our luggage. The boarding process for our charter AeroGal flight to Baltra started at 8:00AM and we were soon on our way to the Galapagos Islands. The plane made an intermediate stop at Guayquil Ecuador to re-fuel since the 9,000 foot altitude at Quito forces planes to flight lighter than usual. Another unusual aspect of the flight was that all carry on items that were in the overhead compartments were disinfected before we left Guayquil. The flight from Guayquil to Baltra was about two hours and when we landed we felt a blast of warm air. After a short shuttle bus ride to the dock we learned the proper technique for boarding the zodiacs and the “Galapagos Handshake” used whenever we boarded or disembarked. We were a little awkward during the initial boarding process but our technique improved throughout the cruise. Since the Xpedition was being re-fueled we puttered around in the harbor where we saw our first Blue Footed Boobies and the familiar Brown Pelican. We boarded the Celebrity Xpedition at about 1:00PM. The welcome consisted of a cold drink and the first of many greatly appreciated cold face cloths!
Once onboard we were escorted to our “stateroom”, AKA cabin and then we attended an orientation meeting in the Lounge on Deck 4 followed by a buffet lunch on Deck 3 and the mandatory evacuation drill. No time was wasted and soon we were on our way to North Seymour Island for our first excursion. Karina, the Cruise Director, had advised us to wear sturdy shoes and apply sunscreen before we left the ship. This advice proved to be very useful. We boarded the zodiac about 4:30PM with Manuel as our naturalist. After a tricky dry landing we started our mile long walk on an uneven path littered with small boulders. Walking sticks were indeed helpful as we learned to navigate on the boulders. As we walked on the inland trail our first sightings were Land Iguanas and Blue Footed Boobies which made everyone very excited and the endless photography began. We were also treated to male Great Frigate Birds showing off their inflated red pouches. After walking for about an hour with many stops where Manuel explained the habits of the various creatures we arrived at the far side of the island which was a western facing beach where we encountered Marine Iguanas, Sea Lions and more boobies and frigates. As we made our way back to the zodiac we came upon two baby sea lions that looked very weak and we were told they were probably not going to survive. It was a hard to hear that humans try not to intercede in the natural life cycle of the wildlife. At 7:30PM Captain Fausto Pacheco welcomed us with a toast and Karina presented the daily briefing for Monday’s activities. Dinner was served in the Darwin Restaurant at 8:00PM and we all collapsed into our cabins shortly after dessert. This would be the regular routine: Briefing at 7:30, dinner at 8:00, sometimes after dinner entertainment and in bed by 9:30 at the latest.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Our alarm was set for 6:30AM so we could enjoy the zodiac circumnavigation of Kicker Rock as the sun was rising. Kicker Rock is a tuff formation which resulted from the mixing of water vapor and ejected ash from a volcanic eruption. The rock rises abruptly from the ocean and seemed to glow in the light of the rising sun. Our naturalist was Fernando who pointed out various birds that nested on the steep sides of the small island. The trip around the island was about an hour long and was certainly worth the early morning wake up call! When we returned to the Xpedition we had a buffet breakfast and were ready for the 9:00AM excursion which was a dry landing at the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno where we would visit the Interpretation Center than explains the history of humans on the Galapagos Islands. It was quite hot even though it was early morning and we confirmed that April is one of the hottest months in the islands. We took a shuttle bus to the center and explored the various exhibits for about an hour before returning to the town for a walk through the shops. We returned by zodiac to the ship in time for lunch and a quick rest before getting ready for the afternoon activity.
At 3:30PM we boarded the zodiacs armed with walking stick, sun screen and insect repellant. We had a dry landing at Point Suarez on the northwest tip of Espanola Island which is the southernmost and oldest island in the archipelago. We saw a wide variety of wildlife along the two mile trail which consisted of boulders for the entire length. Fernando was our naturalist again and we saw Galapagos Doves, Red Marine Iguanas found only on Espanola, Lava Lizards, Darwin finches, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Waved Albatross, a large colony of Masked Nazca Boobies, Sea Lions, Swallow Tailed Gulls, more Waved Albatross, and a blowhole that shot 50 feet into the air. We walked on the boulders for more than 2.5 hours but we were overjoyed (and over-tired) by the time we returned to the ship after 6:00PM to marvel at a gorgeous sunset. It was then the normal routine of cleaning up for dinner, briefing and dinner before an early bedtime!
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
After an early breakfast we were ready for one of the first zodiacs to leave for a wet landing at Cormorant Point on Floreana Island. Floreana was one of the four islands visited by Charles Darwin. Our first wet landing was on a beach and getting off the zodiac was not too difficult. After putting on shoes and socks we began a two hour walk where we passed a brackish pond with Greater Flamingos feeding and several types of Darwin finches. After we crossed an isthmus we came to a white sand beach that was a large nesting area for the Green Sea Turtles which we could see swimming in the shallow waters. Our naturalist Freddy explained the life cycle of the sea turtles and the low rate of success from hatching to adulthood. The beach was bordered on one side with tall cliffs of volcanic rocks. We following the same trail back to the beach where we landed where we tried snorkeling for the first time in five years. Getting back on the zodiac from the beach was much more difficult than getting off the zodiac. After three hours we were back on the Xpedition and it was nearly time for lunch and the daily rest period. We slept through the lecture on the geology of the islands.
At 3:30PM we left the ship again for another wet landing followed by the climb to the Baroness Lookout. The lookout was used in the 1920’s by and eccentric group of German settlers to spot ships that were stopping at the island. The trail was a steep switchback and steps to the viewing platform. The “Sticky Plant” grew along the edges of the trail and everyone was covered with the bright green leaves and stems of the plant which stuck to any cloth that it came in contact with. After we came back to the beach we boarded the zodiacs and enjoyed a slow zodiac ride among several small islands. During the zodiac ride we saw our first Galapagos Penguins, more Blue Footed Boobies and Sea Lions, and a group of Great Frigate Birds that were fighting over a meal of Sally Lightfoot Crabs attempting to hide in the crevices of the volcanic rocks. Video of the birds recorded the competition better than the still photographs. We were back on the ship a little earlier than other days and the extra free time was spent downloading photos and getting ready for the evening. After the daily briefing and dinner we watched the Ecuadorian Naturalist Party on Deck 5 for about an hour and then some wonderful stargazing on Deck 6. It was a new moon night so the stars were brilliant and one of the naturalists pointed our specific constellations including the Southern Cross and the False Southern Cross. It was our latest night so far on the Xpedition and we did not return to our cabin until almost 11:00PM!
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
After breakfast we set off for a wet landing on Bachus Beach on Santa Cruz Island with Freddy as our naturalist. Bachus Beach is another beautiful beach that is littered with the remains of World War II military barges that washed ashore. The upper part of the beach was another large nesting area for the Pacific Green Turtles but we saw no sign of the turtles except for their tracks in the sand and the depressions where they lay their eggs. There were several grotesquely shaped Galapagos Cactus growing on the edges of the beach that we avoided touching. We saw Brown Pelicans, Black Necked Stilts, and a Great Blue Heron near the edge of the water. This hike was described as “easy” but it was helpful to be wearing shoes rather than sandals since there were several areas of the beloved medium boulders. Our first stops were at two brackish ponds where we saw Greater Flamingos feeding at much closer range. This was definitely a much less strenuous excursion! We enjoyed another buffet lunch and then it was time for the afternoon excursion which proved to be a much more strenuous event.
At 3:30PM we boarded the zodiacs again and a dry landing on Bartolome Island which is a relatively recent volcanically active small island. Buzz Aldrin once described Bartolome as closely resembling the surface of the moon. Under Freddy’s guidance we climbed up 375 feet along a wooden boardwalk trail and about 358 wooden steps. The view from the summit was magnificent and on some days 28 different islands can be seen. It was about 100 degrees in the sun and there were not shady places to escape the sun. This was definitely the most uncomfortable excursion but we felt the views from the summit and the stark scenery along the way were worth the effort. We had the option of a wet landing at a beach or staying on the zodiac for a leisurely ride looking for Galapagos Penguins. These are the only penguins that are found north of the equator and they are the second smallest variety after the Blue Penguins we saw on the Otago Peninsula in New Zealand in 2008. The penguins posed for photos and we were happy with our decision to stay on the zodiac although we really did not cool down very much since the relentless sun was quite brutal. We returned to the ship two hours after we left and the cold face cloths, some cold beer and our long showers finally made us feel comfortable! After the briefing and dinner we were so tired that we skipped the crossing of the equator celebration which was attended by King Neptune himself!
Thursday, April 15, 2010
After breakfast we left on zodiacs and headed to Isabela Island the largest island in the archipelago. The island consists of five shield volcanoes which coalesced into one island. The most recent eruption occurred less than two years ago so the island is very geologically active. With Freddy as our naturalist we had a wet landing at Urbina Bay on a black sand beach. Our goal for the excursion was to find Land Iguanas and Giant Land Tortoises. The first thing we encountered was the skeletal remains of a tortoise. Freddy described the various bones and we set off to find one that was still living. But first we encountered an assortment of Darwin finches and land birds. We encountered one large Land Iguana right before we saw our first Giant Land Tortoise which was soaking up the sunshine on the side of the trail. He was a big fellow that Freddy estimated was about 75 to 100 years old. He was also very cooperative and we all took countless photographs of a tortoise in the wild. We then had several close encounters with more Land Iguanas and Freddy shared information about the eradication of the feral goat population. After about an hour of walking on the mostly gravel trail we returned to the landing beach and snorkeled with Galapagos Penguins before we returned to the Xpedition for scenic cruising through the strait between Isabela and Fernandina Islands. We were rewarded when a pod of dolphins tried keeping up with the ship as we cruised to the next landing spot. The views of several shield volcanoes and cinder cones made us aware that we were near the newest islands of the archipelago. After lunch and we attended a culinary demonstration presented by the Executive Chef Lazaro Fleitas. He prepared Ecuadorian Fish and Shrimp Ceviche which was one of our favorites from the daily lunch buffet. He also provided recipes for a Truffle Chocolate Cake and Aspen Coffee which is made with Bailey’s, Kahula, Franfelico, coffee and heavy cream - - what’s not to like!
We boarded a zodiac with William as our naturalist at 3:30PM for a dry landing at Punta Espinoza on the northeast corner of Fernandina Island which is the youngest and most western of all the islands. Darwin described the island as being “covered with immense deluges of black naked lava.” In 1968 the floor of the caldera sank almost 1,000 feet over a two week period and the latest eruption in April 2009 was recorded by NASA satellites. The dry landing with Freddy ended up being a wet landing due to high tide. First we landed dry at a concrete platform that was covered with a large group of Black Marine Iguanas but then we had to walk through a “stream” full of mangrove tentacles and roots. Naturally, there was a delay for everyone to remove and then put back on their shoes and socks! Since the island’s recent eruptions (2005 and 2009) very little plant life exists on the A’a (rough) and Pahoe-hoe (smooth) lava flows. As we approached the large iguana colony the animals were difficult to distinguish from the lava since they have the same color and texture – excellent camouflage! The only color we saw was from an occasional Sally Lightfoot Crab in the lava rock crevices. As we continued along the shoreline we saw Sea Lions, Flightless Cormorants, and several shore birds: Pelicans, Great Frigate Birds, a Striated Heron, Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Plovers. Here we saw only one marine iguana that was in the water. Every now and then we saw Lava Cactus struggling to survive on the lava flows. The Park Ranges had assembled the skeleton of a Minke Whale that had washed ashore. The bleached bones were in stark contrast to the black lava surfaces. Even though we covered about a mile we spent almost two hours watching the marine iguanas and creeping over the lava flows before returning to the ship around 6:00PM. It was an entirely different landscape! After the briefing and dinner we went to the Talent Show on Deck 4 and then crawled into bed.
Friday, April 16, 2010
After breakfast we again boarded a zodiac for a wet landing at Puerto Egas at James Bay on Santiago Island, also known as James Island and San Salvador Island with William as our naturalist. This was the site of a salt mining operation which existed up through the 1960’s. Half of the 1.5 mile walk was along the coast where we saw several bird species and one landed on the lens hood of our camera – twice! There were also flowering purple morning glory and other plants unique to the islands. At the end of the gravel trail we walked on Pahoe-hoe lava flows to an area where large lava tubes had collapsed and formed grottos where Galapagos Fur Seals (which are actually Sea Lions since they have external ears) were found swimming in the turquoise waters. Naturally where there were lava flows we also could barely see the Black Marine Iguanas again. About half way through our walk we were suddenly cooled by a quick rain shower which produced a large rainbow which we all stopped to admire. We did not stay cool for very long as we returned to the landing site for the last snorkel opportunity of the cruise. It was the best snorkeling of the trip and we recorded in video and stills with a little underwater camera. After two hours we climbed back onto the zodiac and returned to the ship for a special Mexican buffet lunch. The afternoon excursion was going to be another 1.5 mile walk so we rested up for about an hour.
We set off at 3:30PM for a dry landing and another 1.5 mile walk inland at Dragon Hill on the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island in search of Land Iguanas which were re-introduced as part of a conservation program for iguanas which were at the brink of extinction in 1975. We walked along the beach for a short distance before we headed inland on a trail of boulders to climb up Dragon Hill. We saw several shore birds and a variety of plant life, including a different form of Ice Plant. We encountered two large Land Iguanas smack dab in the middle of the trail. They seemed bigger than the other ones we had seen on other islands. As we starting climbing up Dragon Hill we passed through a “white forest” of Palo Santo (Incense) trees. The views of the island and the Xpedition anchored off shore from the top of the hill were great. We returned to the landing beach by a different route and saw another very large Land Iguana blocking most of the width of the trail. As we approached the beach we saw several Darwin finches, another marine iguana in the water and a lone Great Blue Heron posing for photographs. After we returned to the ship we watched a beautiful sunset during a Margarita Cocktail Party on Deck 4 before the briefing and dinner. We missed the Karaoke competition but sleep seemed more necessary.
Saturday, April 17, 2010 – Our Last Full Day in the Galapagos!
Promptly at 8:00AM we boarded a zodiac with Jaime as our naturalist for a leisurely ride to the dock at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Once we arrive in town we board shuttle buses which take us to the entrance of the Charles Darwin Research Station. The captive breeding programs at the research station began in 1962 and since then many tortoises have been repatriated to their native islands. We walk about half a mile to the breeding center where we visit areas devoted to several types and ages of land tortoises. One of the areas is Lonesome George’s home which he shares with two somewhat related female tortoises. George was not totally hiding but he was tucked in a corner. We spent a long time watching the baby tortoises compete with one another for bits of leaves. We walked back to the entrance area and decided to take an air conditioned bus back to town rather than walk back since it was quite hot and sticky inland where the research station was located. The cool bus was a great decision. We walked through town, did a little shopping, and returned to the Xpedition on one of the first zodiac shuttles. Lunch was an Ecuadorian buffet which was excellent. The afternoon excursion to the tortoise farm was said to be strenuous so we took naps and rested up.
At 3:00PM we left the ship and took the zodiac back to town with Juan Carlo as our naturalist. From the town’s dock we walked to the buses which would take us to the highlands where we were to search for Giant Land Tortoises in the wild. During the 30 minute bus ride we saw the town and its suburbs and then we saw the dense foliage of the wetter highlands area. Our first stop was a short walk to a lava tunnel. We were impressed with the lava tunnel which was about the size of a subway tunnel. It was partially lighted but we did not walk too far into it. Next stop was the tortoise farm where tourists could traipse around along muddy looking for tortoises. We traipsed and saw one tortoise hiding at the edge of a pond. More traipsing and no sign of tortoises so Juan Carlo called for help and a member of the farm family led us to a huge Giant Land Tortoise in the middle of the woods. Juan Carlo estimated it weighed about 500 pounds and we had a great time taking pictures of the fellow – not sure if it was male or female however. More traipsing in the mud and our group decided it was time to return to the bus. It was hot and humid and we had seen a big tortoise so the excursion was a success but we all were pretty tired and ready for the comfort of the Xpedition. The drive back to the dock was very quiet and the zodiac ride back to the ship was pretty exciting since large swells had developed. Once back on the ship we tried cleaning our wet and muddy shoes but ended up putting them in plastic bags instead!
We cleaned up for dinner. No briefing that night since we were leaving the ship the following morning. Instead all the crew was introduced and farewells were exchanged. In addition Karina showed a PowerPoint presentation of photographs the naturalists had taken during our cruise. Everyone received a CD that contained these photographs. The captain reappeared and toasted us all and then we had dinner outside on Deck 4. It was a very nice ending of an exceptional experience. We were instructed to have our luggage to be checked outside our cabin door before we went to bed for the night.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Breakfast was more leisurely since we did not leave the ship until about 9:30AM. We took the zodiac to the dock in Baltra, waited for the shuttle bus to the airport, gathered our boarded passes and waited to board at 11:00AM the charter flight in the VIP Lounge. Once again we landed in Guayquil where the passengers going on the Celebrity tour to Peru deplaned and the plane was re-fueled. We landed in Quito about 2:00PM and after a short bus ride were back at the JW Marriott Hotel. A couple of minutes after arriving in our room our checked luggage appeared along with the one bag we had left at the hotel. We had an hour or so to clean up before meeting in the lobby for the shopping excursion to an artisan marketplace and a gallery of finer goods. The market was colorful and fun because the vendors were willing to bargain. We bought a few items – naturally a little dress for June and funky hats for Alex and Wyatt. Next stop was Galleria Latina which was a collection of South American art. The most impressive items were carvings of Galapagos wildlife made from Palm Ivory. We also liked the handcrafted woven rugs and a few pieces of silver inlaid jewelry. We returned to the hotel for dinner in the nicer restaurant. After we ate we said our goodbyes and settled in for a comfortable sleep.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Most of our fellow Xpedition passengers left very early in the morning but those of us staying an extra night ate leisurely breakfasts. We spoke to the Concierge who arranged for a driver to take us to the Teleferiqo Cable Car that would take up to the top of a volcano which overlooks the city. The driver took us to the ticket area and waited for us while we rode the cable car. The ride up took about 15 minutes and it climbed about 4,000 feet to an altitude of 13,300 feet. We felt a bit out of breath at the top but we walked slowly and looked around. It was quite clear so we could see most of the 22 mile long city spread our before us. The most interesting aspect of the ride was that we were the only people using the cable cars. The place was deserted! After about 30 minutes we rode back down, found our driver and returned to the hotel. For the rest of the day we did nothing but get organized, downloaded photographs and rested. We had earned an easy day since the Galapagos experience was very busy with little down time and we were about to set off for Peru and another six days of touring. We had a delicious dinner in the hotel dining room and got ready for our 5:30AM departure from the hotel the following morning. The Galapagos were certainly amazing!
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
We were up at the crack of dawn - actually it was before sunrise! After a quick breakfast at the JW Marriott in Quito we were ready for the 5:30AM transfer to the domestic terminal at the Quito airport for our 8:40AM flight to Lima. It is Celebrity's practice to provide airport transfers three hours before scheduled departure. After checking our two roller bags and paying the international departure tax of $40.80 each we went through security and found the departure gate. We waited and waited but when the posted boarding time came and went we knew our flight was delayed. The flight eventually departed about an hour late. Naturally the flight was full but the service was comparable to service on any USA based flight.
When we landed in Lima we found our way to Baggage Claim where both bags were waiting for us! We then located Eduardo who was going to "escort" us to the domestic terminal after we left one of our bags in a locker. All of our travel arrangements in Peru were done by Martha Cohen at South American Vacations which is based in Florida. The arrangements were done perfectly and everything worked smooth as silk! The airport at Lima was much bigger than the one in Quito and the domestic terminal was at the other end of the long terminal building. Eduardo guided us through the check in process and delivered us to the "Passengers Only" area where we would pay another departure tax - this one was for domestic travel so it was only $6.00 each. We said adios to Eduardo and decided where to meet him when we returned to Lima on Sunday. After the routine of departure tax and security we found the spacious gate area and waited about 30 minutes for the LAN flight to Cusco. The weather was bright and sunny so there was no need to worry about the fog that causes the cancellation of flights into Cusco.
The short flight to Cusco flew over rugged terrain and we saw snow-capped mountains in the distance. Once we arrived in Cusco and claimed our one roller bag, we found Rosa who was South American Vacations local contact in Cusco. We were not at all aware of the 11,000 foot altitude but we did not move very quickly in hopes of avoiding shortness of breath. Rosa walked us out to the parking lot where we met Lucio who would be our guide and driver during our time in the Cusco and Sacred Valley region. Before we dropped Rosa off at her office she gave us a cell phone for us to use; it was a great idea since we could call her if we had questions and she could check on how things were going during our visit.
We could see immediately that Cusco was a sprawling city where houses climbed up the hillsides surrounding it. We could see many large blue tarps as lingering evidence of the recent floods. As we drove out of the city Lucio stopped and gave us our first lesson about the settlement of Cusco by the Quechua peoples prior to the Inca Empire. Naturally this was the first of many opportunities to take panoramic photos. As we left the city behind us the scenery was stunning with green rolling hills, jagged mountains, and a few villages and lakes. We were amazed at how high up the mountains crops were being grown. We stopped a few times to learn more about Inca history, admire the view and of course, take more photographs.
After about an hour we started the descent into the Sacred Valley which proved to be a very rapid descent on a narrow switchback road. It was nearly dark by the time we arrive in Urubamba but we could see it was not a place of great beauty since the floods had been quite destructive there. But, when we arrived at Hotel Sol Y Luna it was beautiful - spacious grounds with flowering gardens, rocky path ways and lovely adobe round buildings. We were assigned to our own private casita that included a large room, a very modern bathroom and an upstairs loft with three twin beds. We were delighted to discover the free Internet terminal in the bar above the restaurant. After touching base with our kids we sat down to a delicious dinner in a lovely setting. We now knew why our daughter’s friend had recommended this hotel so highly. We enjoyed our dinners and then slept soundly after a very long, yet interesting sixteen hour day.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
After breakfast in a lovely sun room adjacent to the patio and pool we were ready when Lucio picked us up for our tour of the Sacred Valley. We decided to visit the ruins above Pisac rather than the town's market as our first stop of the day. During the drive to Pisac which is at the eastern end of the Sacred Valley the drive was along the Urubamba River which had caused damage during the floods in late January. The road was in fairly good condition and Lucio knew the location of every pot hole so we avoided most of the bumps. We did see considerable damage from the floods - homes and buildings flattened by the waters and some repair work was still underway. However, the repair work was being done manually without the help of bulldozers or backhoes. We also saw many women walking along the road dressed in traditional costumes carrying heavy loads of food on their backs. The few men that we saw were mostly dressed in modern clothing.
We drove through the town before driving up to the site of the ruins. Incas built their fortresses and temples high above the towns and rivers which meant the carried all the supplies and building materials on their backs since their culture was unaware of axles and wheels. The countryside was beautiful and the road was a challenging one with many switchbacks and small rock slides. Lucio stopped to buy the tourist tickets that would admit us to many of the sites we would visit. When we arrived at the site the first thing we notices were the extensive terraces, the Andenes, reaching up to the hilltop fortress. We were amazed at the size and scope of the terraces which we would also see at other Inca sites. The terraces were actually being trimmed with weed whackers while we were there. Lucio told us the soil for the terraces was carried up from near the river by the Incas.
As we walked through the entrance area we saw examples of the extraordinary stone work done by the Incas more than 600 years ago. Lucio led us to an area, called Antachaka, where several spring fed fountains have continued to flow since they were built hundreds of years ago. Across the canyon we saw the burial grounds, the Tankanamarka, which were small openings dug into the hillside; this is where important people were interred but the royals were buried in caves under the temple area. We looked up to see the fortress or citadel which guarded access to the site but we chose not to climb to that area. Instead we started walking towards the Temple of the Sun. First we passed through a trapezoid doorway that once controlled access to the temple. The stones of the wall and doorway were cut with perfect corners and flat surfaces. Throughout our visit to Peru we would be amazed many times at the quality of the stonework. Lucio explained how doors were one attached to the doorways. We continued on along the path until we encountered a set of steps leading up to higher levels on the way to the temple. We reached the summit where perfectly cut pink granite blocks comprised the temple complex. The views were great and we greatly admired the construction skills and the challenges the site must have presented.
After the ride back down to the river valley it was time for lunch in a tourist restaurant in Yucay which was on the way to our next stop in Ollantaytambo. Lunch was served buffet style and included Peruvian foods and drinks. We enjoyed the music and courtyard setting; the food was pretty good as well. We continued westward through Urubamba and several other towns. Lucio stopped at the side of the road to show us how a parasite that grows on a common cactus plant is the source of the bright pink natural dye used by weavers. It was amazing to watch the white powder turn to bright pink when he rubbed it between his fingers. During the drive we also saw in the distance the Maras salt flats where salt is mined on terraces that reminded us of the mineral terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.
The road started to climb up the side of a mountain and then the "road" turned into a dirt path barely wide enough for one car let alone a bus or two cars passing. This narrow dirt road went right through the ancient town of Ollantaytambo where we arrived at about 3:00PM. The town had been an Inca stronghold during the Spanish invasion in the 1530's. The ruins started right at the edge of the town's market place and ascended by terraces up the side of a steep hill. At the top of the hill were the ceremonial temples which were built of gigantic blocks of pink granite. Lucio told us the source of the granite was mile away and all the material was carried manually. Lucio directed our attention to the mountain side opposite from where we stood and there we saw a huge carving of a face and several building complexes. The sun we quite low in the sky so the lighting effects were very pronounced. The temples at the top of Ollantaytambo were very different from the ones at Pisac - the huge altar stone and carved blocks were unbelievable in size and precision. There were many perfectly cut stone shapes scattered about but their intended use was not apparent. By now it was about 4:30PM and the sun was very low and we were very tired so we walked back to town, took a few photographs of the market and even paid two women so we could take their picture. They were dressed in colorful costumes and not shy about asking for money in exchange for the photo. Lucio continued his lessons as we drove back to the hotel in Urubamba. He told us he would be picking us up at 5:15AM for our train to Machu Picchu. We enjoyed another delicious dinner in the restaurant at the hotel and were asleep before we knew it! Another wonderful day learning about and seeing the remains on the Inca civilization.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
At 5:15AM we were on our way to Machu Picchu, but first we had to get to the temporary train station in Piscacucho. The drive was about 1.25 hours - half on paved roads and half on the bumpiest road ever. This was still the temporary station for the shortened train service due to the floods. They expected the full rail line to be in operation by mid-summer but the damage we saw along the way was so extensive that we doubt that timeline. It appeared that although there was some heavy equipment much of the work was being done with picks and shovels. So we had a longer drive by car and then a shorter train ride compared to the norm. We boarded the 7:00AM Inca Rail train which proceeded very slowly for about 90 minutes to Aguas Caliente. We were met in Aguas Caliente by our guide Wellington who walked us about town for a bit and took us to an ATM which we needed to visit. We then walked to the bus station where we boarded a very nice Mercedes bus for the ride up the switchback road to the Machu Picchu site. The ride was about 25 minutes long and provided us wonderful views of the Urubamba River valley and the mountain peaks that tower over it. When we passed another bus that was going down the hill there were barely inches to spare.
When we arrived at the top at before 9:00AM, Wellington took us to the lobby of the Sanctuary Lodge where we were staying for one night. We had packed a change of clothes in our backpacks and had left the rest of our stuff with Lucio to deliver to the hotel in Cusco. The hotel interior was very understated and reminded us of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite but on a much smaller scale. There are only 29 rooms at the Sanctuary Lodge. We were served cold drinks while heard about the services that the hotel provides. We could not access our room until 1:00PM so we checked our stuff and Wellington took us to the real reason we were there. It is beyond words to describe how you feel when you first see the classic shot of Machu Picchu. It's like seeing Grand Canyon for the first time but even more so since Machu Picchu was built by humans and you marvel at how the could have done what they did. After posing for the requisite photographs Wellington escorted us around the site for about 3.5 hours. We learned much about the ritual and domestic life. We explored the Temple of the Sun structure, then we walked through the Royal Residences where the king and his entourage lived. Next was the Sacred Plaza with the Principal Temple and the Temple with Three Windows with large altar stones and wall niches. The quality of the construction varied from roughly cut stones held together with mortar to perfectly cut edges and smooth side which fit together like a jig saw puzzle without the need for mortar. The former stones were used to build home and workshops for the regular folks and the latter were used for the royals and for the sacred temples. There were many instances where the transition from one area to another was clear to see based on the quality of the stone work.
Next on our tour with Wellington was a climb to the highest point in the urban area, the Intiwatana,where a carefully carved stone resembles a sun dial. That concluded our tour of the Western Urban Sector. We walked to the far side of the large grassy area known as the Plaza. The grass is trimmed by a group of llamas which were very cooperative and photogenic. We next saw the Sacred Rock which mimics in shape one of the towering mountain peaks. Wellington then escorted us through the many structures of the Eastern Urban Sector which included storehouses, smaller residences, workshops, and finally the Temple of the Condor. During all of our tour with Wellington we were mesmerized by the variety pf shapes and contrasts in textures of the site. There was very little color at Machu Picchu except for some isolated flowers and the bright green grass of the terraces and Plaza. Our cameras were busy with many shots of the terraces, the llamas, the Plaza, the structures silhouetted against the sky or the mountains. We ended our time with Wellington with the promise that we would return in the late afternoon and climb up to the Guardhouse to see the site with different lighting and shadows.
A little after 1:30PM we walked back to the hotel (such a bonus and the cost of staying at the Lodge was worth every penny that it cost - and that was a big bunch of pennies!), had lunch and then took naps until we returned at 3:30PM to Machu Picchu to see the long shadows of late afternoon as we promised Wellington. On this second visit to the site we limited ourselves to the Guardhouse area high above the terraces. The lighting and photography was very different from our morning visit. After more requisite tourist shots of the overall scene we focused our attention on trying to reach the lone tree that stood at the southern end of the Plaza. We could not easily get to the lowest level of the Plaza since each terrace was about 10 to 15 feet high which was a bit too much to jump down from one level to another. We saw most of the fountains on the western side and many of the llamas. We stayed until the park's closing time at 5:00PM. Dinner at the hotel was excellent and we were off to bed early since we were getting up for sunrise the following morning. One of the best aspects of the Sanctuary Lodge was its all inclusiveness - all meals and all beverages were included.
Friday, April 23, 2010
When we walked out of the hotel at 5:45AM we were greeted by a long line of young people who were planning to hike up the Huayna Picchu - limited to 200 hikers per day. The park ranger who was handing out the stickers to the first 200 hikers just skipped us after he looked at us! We entered Machu Picchu before sunrise at 6:00AM and waited for the sun to appear over the eastern mountain tops. My husband set himself up at the Temple of the Sun to record the sun's appearance while I aimed my camera at the overall site to watch the spread of the light as the sun climbed in the sky. The patterns of light and shadows were once again very different from what we had seen the previous day. We wandered about for another hour or so before walking back to the hotel for breakfast which was also excellent and beautifully presented! After breakfast and checking out of our room we went back to the site about 9:00AM for another three hours or so until we were saturated and had taken about 1,000 photographs. During this final visit we focused our attention on the Eastern Urban Sector where the views of the agricultural terraces from a vantage point at the lower levels were very impressive. Also the Temple of the Three Windows looked very different from that angle. We tried unsuccessfully to take a good photograph of the Temple of the Condor; we failed because we couldn't get far enough away from it to include the condor's head and wings in one image. We watched workmen doing restoration work which included labeling each stone with a unique number, drawing grid lines on the area being restored, and drawing of diagram of the area on paper before the stones are removed. It looked like a very tedious and thorough process. We finished our final visit to Machu Picchu by exploring the edges of the area near the Sacred Rock where the structures meet the encroaching rain forest. Then we crossed the Plaza, stopped for some touristy photos at the base of the Intiwatana before making one last visit to the cave beneath the Temple to the Sun. We ended up at a level much lower than the tourist gate and decided to take a shortcut on steps that ran the full length of the lower agricultural terraces. All went well until we got to the upper section of the steps and the angle of the steps became much steeper. Our only option was to crawl up these final step to reach our exit point. Before leaving however, we did take a few farewell shots of this marvelous place.
We had an excellent lunch that we thought we needed to pay for but our waiter checked and said it was included with our room. So we enjoyed one dinner, one breakfast and two lunches during our stay! After lunch we relaxed and napped on the hotel's terrace until 3:30PM when we finally rode a bus down to Aguas Caliente for the return train. We wandered about a market area and bought a few trinkets before boarding the 5:40PM train. Everyone was dozing during the train ride. We were met by a driver and took a van with four other people back to Cusco - back on that very bumpy dirt road and a long 2.5 hour drive. We arrived at our hotel, Casa Andina Caterdal, at 9:30PM. After checking in we had the joy of climbing 41 steps to our room - remember, Cusco is at 11,000 feet so we did get a little winded. The hotel was very near the main square and cathedral; it was modest but comfortable and we were so exhausted that we slept very well.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Fortunately Lucio was not scheduled to pick us up for our city tour of Cusco until 9:30AM so we had a rare late start for the day. Our first stop was the Cusco Cathedral which was right next to our hotel. The church was an immense Rococo building with very short bell towers. The interior of the church was amazingly fancy to the point of being gaudy. No photographs were allowed however. The various chapels were lavishly decorated, the choir was intricately carved by a single person, the dome was awesome, etc. Lucio was very proud of his cathedral and we were overwhelmed by its excessiveness. We then took a short drive to the Convent of Santo Domingo which was built on the foundations of yet another Inca Temple of the Sun. Cusco had been the capital of the Inca Empire so its Temple of the Sun was bigger than the others we had seen. The buildings were now part of a museum that preserved both the Incan and Catholic histories. Since this had been such an important Temple of the Sun the carved stones were even more perfect than the temples in Pisac, Ollantaytambo or Machu Picchu. Lucio shared many interesting facts about the temple and the remnants that we were viewing. The walls had been covered with gold which naturally had been removed by the Spanish conquerors. We then drove through some of the Old Town area and made a special stop to see the Stone with Twelve Corners. We posed for the touristy shots and we were reprimanded for almost touching the special stone.
Next was a short drive to the ruins of the fortress of Saqsaywaman which sits high on a hill overlooking Cusco. When we first saw the ruins we both said "Wow, are those big stones!" and Lucio said we had not yet seen the big ones. As we walked along the gigantic zigzag wall we saw what his statement meant. The stones were up to 25 feet tall and could weigh as much as 300 tons - remember they moved those without mechanical help but there must have been a very big crowd who did the work! It was a challenge to capture the size and scope of the site in a single image. We climbed to the top but there was not much to see besides the wonderful views of the city of Cusco. Stones from this site were used to build the Cusco Cathedral we had seen earlier. As Lucio had promised we stopped at a large shop that sold beautiful textiles and baby alpaca yarn which we purchased for our daughter. If we had lived in a cooler climate many of the items would have been very useful but woolen clothing in Southern California is an oxymoron. Next stop was at Q'enqo which was an unusual site that was constructed in and on a limestone mound. At least they did not have to move the stones to the location as they did at Saqsaywaman. The top of the mound had zigzag carvings which we could not see. We did see a large monolith that cast specific shadows at certain times of the year. Under the mound there were ceremonial caves with beautifully carved altars and seats. This was one of the most unusual sites we visited. We continued our drive through the countryside north of Cusco to the ruins of Tambomachay which was probably a water temple or baths for the royals. What is known is that water was critical to the survival of the empire and that the Incas were masterful water engineers since there water delivery systems are still operational. About 3:00PM on the drive back we passed Puca Pucara but opted not to stop - the half day tour had turned into a full day excursion. Lucio drove us back to the hotel where we relaxed for a couple of hours. We had a recommendation for dinner at Cicciolina from one of the couples we met on the Xpedition where we had a delicious Italian meal. Our time in Cusco was short but we learned much about Incan history.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
We packed up a belongings, each of us left a pair of well-worn sandals, ate breakfast and checked out of Casa Andina Catedral. Rosa and Lucio picked us up at about 10:00AM for our noontime flight back to Lima - the latest start for a day during the entire trip! Yes, we again paid a domestic departure tax before boarding the LAN flight. After claiming baggage we once again met Eduardo and were off for another city tour - this time in Lima. Lima was a much bigger city compared to Cusco. The airport is actually in Callao, an industrial city north of Lima. People, cars, buses, motorcycles, and trucks filled the streets even though it was a Sunday. Our first stop was a beautiful square, San Martin Plaza, honoring the 100th anniversary of Peru's independence from Spain. The square was surrounded by European styled white buildings and a large statue of Jose San Martin dominated the center. Eduardo told us to enter one building to see something special. It was the Hotel Gran Bolivar which had a beautiful stained glass dome in the lobby. Cusco had been the capital of the Inca Empire and the Spaniards created a new capital in Lima after their conquest. Lima was fashioned after the great cities of Europe and many of the older building had been beautifully restored. This square was especially attractive and a good starting place. We continued into the Old Town section of Lima. After parking the car we walked to Lima's Chinatown district which was very interesting and very familiar to us since it resembled Chinatowns we had visited elsewhere. The main difference was that the Peruvians used the word Chifa rather than China. We continued walking through Old Town while Eduardo pointed out brightly colored elaborate building that had been mansions but were now used either for offices, businesses, or museums. The most distinguishing features of the grand old buildings were large carved wooden enclosed balconies for the second and third floors of the buildings for which Lima is known. The pace of our march through Lima fortunately slowed a bit as Eduardo told us about the various churches we passed. Our next destination was Plaza Mayor, the main square of Lima. This square was surrounded by several government buildings ranging from Lima's City Hall to the Congressional Building and the Presidential Palace. The Baroque Cathedral and Archbishop's Palace were on the eastern side of the square and there was another large fountain, erected in the 1650's, at the center. It was interesting that the buildings around the plaza were either stone structures or bright yellow stucco facades. Once again the architecture was strictly European and very ornate. Eduardo seemed very proud of this busy place in the heart of Old Lima.
We returned to the car and drove south towards Miraflores, the newer district of Lima. Miraflores has become the business and banking center for multinational corporations and it looked like a miniature Shanghai with modern glass towers and heavy traffic. We drove by one of several pre-Incan pyramids constructed of millions of clay bricks that were discovered after an earthquake in 1969. The pyramids were very large and dated back to 400AD. They had been buried by sand and the newer city was built on top. Next up was a stop at a park that had formerly been an olive orchard. The trees were hundreds of years old and the park stretched for miles. It was an excellent example of preserving something special and not allowing the city's growth to destroy the trees which still produced olives each year. We arrived at the coast of the Pacific and it looked very much like the coast of Southern California with high bluffs over the ocean. Actually, it looked more like Santa Monica since there were high rise condo building along the oceanfront drive. We stopped to see two other interesting parks: one with gardens in the form of the Nazca lines in southern Peru and the other a park with colorful ceramic mosaics benches much like the ones at Park Guell by Gaudi in Barcelona. At the center of this park was a huge statue of a kissing couple - it was of modern design and not particularly beautiful but it did inspire couples visiting the park to kiss one another!
It was now after 5:00PM and we were exhausted! Eduardo had planned on showing us a light show that took place at the university campus after dark but there was no way we were going to keep on the go for another two to three hours. He recognized our fatigue and started the long drive back to the airport. It was a slow journey but we were able to see more of this bustling city, including the home where Eduardo lived as a child. Lucio had shown us his childhood home near the Twelve Cornered Stone in Cusco and now we had seen Eduardo's in Lima. The driving skills of the residents of Lima was unique - making left turns from the right lane so the long drive back to the airport was thrilling to say the least! We arrived safely at the airport a little after 6:00PM. Eduardo escorted us to the check in area for our flight to Miami. We compared notes with another couple who had done similar visits to Galapagos and Peru but they schlepped more than twice as much luggage. When the check in process began is went fairly quickly but this time we did not need to pay the international departure tax since it was already included on our American ticket. Unfortunately the dinner options at the airport were not terrific so we made do with mediocre chicken and ice cream cones. We still had a long wait until our flight at 10:15PM so we relaxed and dozed until the boarding process began. Since we were sitting in row 11 we were the last group to board. We settled in for the overnight flight to Miami during which we were able to sleep for several hours.
We arrived at Miami's International Airport just after 5:00AM at a gate that must have been as far from the Immigration area as possible. We walked what seemed like miles to get to the crowded processing area. We did notice that the lines for non-citizens were much longer than those for US citizens. We turned in our forms, we collected our baggage, we processed them through security and about two hours later we were ready to find a decent breakfast before boarding our final flight to LAX. After another endless march to our gate we boarded the 777 around 8:00AM. This time we were in the first coach boarding group as our seats were in row 40 with extra leg room as noted on Seatguru.com. At 11:00AM PDT we arrived at LAX and met our friends for the drive home. We had a wonderful journey and will cherish the photographs and memories for a long, long time.
Both aspects of our trip were flawless: The Celebrity Xpedition package to Quito and Galapagos went like clockwork – the guides, ship’s crew, naturalists, food, accommodations - - everything was wonderful. The same was true for the Peru package put together by South American Vacations (www.savacations.com) - our guides were very punctual, knowledgeable and articulate, the vehicles were comfortable, the tours were interesting, the hotels were perfect – it was also wonderful!!! We loved every moment!
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Galapagos and Machu Picchu - - A Perfect Combo
Sorry this is so long but it does give a full picture of our daily activities... We hope it is helpful as others plan a visit to these two wonderful places.