Cuenca Walkabout (November, 2011)

Cuenca: the whole world!

Saturday  

We have traveled to Quito so many times in the past year that it is easy to breeze through customs and we are at our hotel in no time.  We are hopeful that tomorrow will be clear.  Our flight to Cuenca does not leave until 6:30pm.  We have the whole day and want to visit Teleferico, a cable car attraction that gives visitors a breath-taking view of the city and surrounding mountains.

Quito from the plane

Sunday 

We are not disappointed.  The day is sunny and bright, with a clear view of the snow-capped peaks.  We are the first to arrive at the base of the mountain.  There is no line and we hop on the first cable car available.  

cable car up to Teleferico

It is a long way to the top:  Quito sits at 9,000 ft.  The base of the park is at 10,000 and by the time we exit we are 12,500 ft above sea level.  It is hard to breathe at this altitude but the view is spectacular.  We can see all of the surrounding peaks:  Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe.  

view of Cotopaxi from 12,500ft
TG

We hike up the hill.  The Cruz Loma crater, part of a still-active volcano, is three miles further along the steep path.  Horses are available for hire but TG chooses to wait while I hike for another twenty minutes.  

horses for hire
Cruz Loma crater

The volcano is no closer and the thin air makes me short of breath.  I turn back.  A family has stopped along the side of the path.  I say “Es difícil respirar.”  It is difficult to breathe.  “.”

It is a short, one-hour flight to Cuenca and we can see the mountains clearly from the plane window.  Even from this height they are massive. We collect our bags and arrive at the Hostel Chordeleg by 8pm.  This will be our home for the next six days.  We walk to the main square for dinner. 

Volcano Cayambe

If you travel to Ecuador for peace and quiet, you will be sorely disappointed.  It is many wonderful things but it is never quiet.  The streets are crowded and bustling, with every car beeping its horn as often as possible.  Street vendors loudly hawk their wares and fireworks ka-boom at all hours of the day and night.

the Cathedral at night

Monday 

We are awakened by sunshine pouring through the slits in the wooden shutters and the sounds of traffic on the street below.  We walk south, towards the river.  The city is still waking and the stalls in the square are not yet open for business.  The market, however, appears to have been bustling for hours.  

produce market
produce market

We wander through aisle after aisle of produce: mountains of bananas, mangos, strawberries.  The meat counters overflowing with slabs of thick red meat, piles of plucked yellow chickens, and cakes of white lard.  A pig hangs from a steel hook.  We are astounded at the variety of it all. 

meat market

Upstairs we share a table with another couple while we drink our coffee.  The people-watching is incredible and we try to be discreet as we take our photos.  The upstairs vendors sell cooked foods: beans, corn, and sheets of chocolate.  Later we will learn that city women buy their beans pre-cooked to avoid the long soaking process.   And the chocolate sheets are bitter:  you must add sugar and milk to make hot cocoa.  But for now we are content to just sit and soak it all in.

meat market from our second floor perch
you wonder: whatever his story it must be very sad
beautiful women and children
so much variety!

The afternoon has grown warm.  Before we left home the forecast for Cuenca was overcast, drizzly and 60’s.  We brought long-sleeves and down vests.  But it is sunny and in the 80’s. We return to the hotel to cool off and plan the week.  There is a tour company across the street and we sign up for a day hike in the Cajas National Park tomorrow and a city tour on Wednesday morning.

street vendor
flowers against a wall mural
the river walk

Tuesday 

The bus picks us up at 8:00am.  Cajas National Park sits just outside of Cuenca.  The highest elevation is 14,000 ft, at the continental divide.  Even though it is only 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, all waters east of this point flow across the continent of South America to the Atlantic Ocean.  The national park land was formed during the ice age by glaciers moving across the mountains.  There are over 320 lakes in the region along with beautiful “paper” tree forests, whose bark is so thin the Incas used it for paper.  The micro-climate is called a cloud forest because of all the vegetation that grows at this altitude. 

the start of our hike: Three Andrean crosses
Cajas lake
Cajas lake

We did not know what to expect.  The tour operator said a “short walk through the hills.”  We hike, some of it quite arduous, for three hours.  But are rewarded with one incredible view after another.  The guide warns us to stay with him.  It is easy to stray off the path and lose your way.  Every year people are lost on the mountain after dark and die from hypothermia.   It is sunny and warm again today but at this altitude once the sun sets temperatures will drop quickly.

Cajas cloud
JET
Cajas lake

Ten miles later, we finally arrive back at the bus.  We are taken for a traditional Andean lunch: potato soup and fried trout.  The soup is delicious.  The trout is presented with head and eyes fried along with the rest.   We are no longer hungry.

no thanks!

Wednesday 

Our guide, Juan Carlos, meets us promptly at 9:00am.  He takes us to the Homero Ortega panama hat factory.  

Homero Ortega panama hat factory

Cuenca is the birthplace of the panama hat and we learn much on this tour.  Hats are still made as they have been for centuries: by hand.  Local craftswomen deliver the hats to the factory where they are sorted by quality.  The finer the straw, the better the weave, more expensive the hat.  Each hat goes through a process of bleaching, pressing, and shaping before it is ready to be sold.  

hats are handmade by local craftswomen and delivered to the factory
hats are bleached and then dried in the sun

The factory walls are lined with photos of celebrities: Sean Connery, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts have all worn Homero Ortega hats. This is the largest exporter of panama hats in Cuenca: they export over 600,000 annually.

the finer the straw, the better the weave, the more expensive the hat

After the tour we drive across town and up the hill for a view of the city.  Cuenca is very red – the clay used for much of the building materials and tiled roofs is from the local hillsides.  We stop at Eduardo Vega’s studio.  He is the premiere ceramicist in Ecuador and I instantly recognize his work.  I purchased some of his pieces the last time I was in Quito. 

Cuenca is very red
view of the red city

Juan Carlos drives us back into town.  We start our walking tour.  We visit the Museum of Modern Art, where we find the hummingbirds and gardens far more interesting than the art. 

Museum of Modern Art
hummingbird in the Museum of Modern Art gardens

We walk through the market and Juan explains the various fruits and vegetables.  He points to a narrow passage and tells us that is the best place to purchase handicrafts and panama hats.  He takes us to the cathedral.  Until this point it has been a dominating force in the center of town but we have not gone inside.  We stand in awe.  He describes in detail the history of this beautiful building, the story of each stained glass window and statue.  The church comes alive and we will visit it often during our stay this week.

the Cathedral
stained glass window
inside the Cathedral facing towards the alter
the alter
rosaries, crucifixes, and candles sold on the Cathedral steps

We visit the flower market where discreetly tucked in one corner is the entrance to the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion.  There is much mystery surrounding the monastery, home to an order of cloistered nuns.  Even the locals tell conflicting stories.  We hear somewhere between 16 and 18 nuns, all university graduates who must first serve as a novice for somewhere between two and nine years.  Once accepted, they will never leave the monastery and can never be seen again.  If they have visitors their faces are covered with a thick veil.  They raise money by making various products. Juan Carlos tells us the pigeon jelly (geletina) cured his daughter.  We purchase as much of the locion for sore muscles and crema for dry skin as we can carry home.  

the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion
locion and crema

Thursday 

Today we look for panama hats.  Buying the right hat takes patience and stamina.  We walk from one store to the next.  Nothing speaks to Tall Guy.  We end up back at a shop we visited on Monday.  I like a blue hat with blue band I find laying on the table.  We explain to the clerk what Tall Guy wants:  a good-quality weave, black, with narrow (pork-pie) brim, green band, size XL.  They can make it.  It will take about an hour. 

the panama hat store

While we wait, we happen upon the Cuenca Zoo.  It is no more than a storefront, with cages and tanks full of all manner of strange reptiles and insects.  It is fascinating and ever so campy. There are two albino things in a water-filled tank.  I am obsessed with finding out what they are.  I can hardly believe that they are real. The docent speaks no English.  I get (somehow) that they are juveniles as he shows me a photo of an adult.  Ah!  Definitely some sort of lizard (thing).  We turn a corner in the tiny room and are surrounded by snakes including a thick python. Most are sleeping with their heads away from us.  But a yellow one dances in front of the glass while we take photos. 

python at Cuenca Zoo

I am so mesmerized by the snakes that I almost miss the green iguana sitting on a tree next to my head.  He is not in a cage.  Up a flight of stairs and I am looking down at a 6 ft crocodile, sharing his pen with a small Galapagos tortoise.  The next room is full of slimy snails and spiders.  We are happy to escape this strange little place and spill back into the bright sunshine on the street.

Cuenca street
flowers everywhere!

Our hats are not yet ready.  We are brought upstairs to a balcony with a beautiful view of the city.  We wait high above the street and traffic.  It is worth it:  TG’s hat is exactly what he wanted.

panama hats!

Hats on head, we walk back to the flower market.  We did not have time yesterday to take as many photos as we wished.  The perfume from the flowers fills the air.  We sit in the shade and enjoy the beautiful colors and smells.

the flower market
the flower market
the flower market
the flower market

Today is Thanksgiving.  Someone tells us that a restaurant is serving a traditional American dinner: turkey and all the trimmings.  We stop in to confirm.  “Yes!”  they tell us.  “Wonderful,” we say, “we will be back for dinner!”  I have the pasta primavera and TG the mixed grill.

Happy Non-Traditional Thanksgiving!

Friday   

We have reservations at the Piedra de Agua thermal hot springs & spa, a short ride outside of Cuenca.  We arrive when they open at 9:00am.  There is no one else here.  We are treated to a 15 minute eucalyptus sauna, followed by cold rinse, and then repeat. We are coated in red mud, baked in the sun, rinsed, coated in blue mud, baked in the sun, and rinsed.  We are brought into a small cave.  At the bottom on the steps, lit with small candles, is a thermal pool of very hot water.  We soak for ten minutes, and jump into a freezing cold bath.  We sit for two minutes, gasping for breath, and then repeat the whole process three more times.  David, our attendant, asks if we would like a glass of wine.  “Si.”  After wine, we are encased with only our heads through a round opening at the top of a wooden steam box.  A Canadian sitting next to us jokes about the James Bond scene in Thunderball when the box is jammed shut with a mop handle and the steam turned on full.  We laugh, nervously.

TG at Piedra de Agua

It is time for our massage.  TG is on the other side of the screen from me and we finish at the same time.  After lunch it is time to head back to Cuenca.   We are utterly relaxed and our skin is baby soft.  We were at the spa for six hours and the total cost was only $80 per person.

all that for just $80 each!

Saturday 

The office calls and TG must crunch numbers.  I go for one last walk around Cuenca.  I am drawn to the cathedral, the flower market, and the monastery.  I try to absorb everything, not knowing when we will be back.

one last visit to the Cathedral
beautiful bread lady

We have a five hour layover in Quito.  We have checked our bags straight through to Miami and have plenty of time to go to the market.  We are almost there when a horrible hail storm hits.  The hail is the size of gumballs, pounding against the taxi.  We dash into the market, seeking cover in the narrow aisles of the stalls.  This is awful!  It is wet and chilly.  We head back to the airport.  Traffic is backed up and the streets are flooded.  They are shoveling the hail like snow.  We are grateful we gave ourselves plenty of time.

The Colorful Faces of Puerto Lopez: July 2011

Our first visit “Chasing Silver,” watching the humpback whale migration off the coast of Ecuador

the garden at Hosteria Itapoa

It took a full day to get here:  two planes, a five hour layover in Quito, another flight to Manta, followed by a two hour drive south to Puerto Lopez.  Hosteria Itapoa is simple but clean and comfortable.  It sits at the north end of the malecon, directly across from the beach.  The rooms are small bungalows.  Ours comes with a tiny second floor and balcony.  Including full breakfast it is $13 per person per night. 

Hosteria Itapoa

Situated within easy walking distance of restaurants and shops, we head to Exploramar Diving first thing Thursday morning.  I sign up for a two-tank dive to Isla de la Plata on Friday.  And then we go whale watching.

“Observación de ballenas”
the beach at Puerto Lopez

We surrender our shoes to a large rice sack and walk across the beach.  It is a cacophony of boats, fisherman still unpacking their gear, fish caught fresh that morning chopped and bleeding on blocks of ice, dogs chasing each other and birds swirling about.   

Puerto Lopez harbor
stray dogs everywhere

We spend close to an hour searching before we find our first pair of whales.  They stay close to the boat, surfacing to breathe and shoot water from their blowholes.  They show us only their large hump backs but even that is magnificent. They are every bit as long as our boat – maybe longer.  In the distance we see one breach.  The boat races but by the time we are close enough for photos it has stopped.  We do manage to capture a fluke, dripping with water.  We are hooked.

surfacing close to the boat
humpback whale tail

After waiting for an hour at the dive shop on Friday morning I am told that the boat was overbooked.  I cannot dive today day.  I return to Itapoa.  Not expecting me home until 5:00pm, TG is pleasantly surprised to see me.  We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Las Frailes, one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador.  It is almost deserted and we are not disappointed.  It is beautiful.  We walk for an hour along the beach, photographing the pelicans and tiny sand crabs.  In spite of the overcast sky it is a perfect day.  I may (or may not) dive this week.   The whales are calling.

Las Frailes

Later that evening a young man tracks me down at the hostel.  He is from Exploramar Diving.  Management just found out what happened and he has come to apologize.  They will have a space for me whenever I wish to dive.  Regardless of whether or not I accept their offer, I appreciate their follow up.

horseback tour through the jungle

Saturday we have arranged for a horseback tour through the jungle.  No waivers are signed; no one even asks if we have any experience.  If they had asked, we would have answered we have ridden an elephant more recently.    At times it is absolutely terrifying.  I am certain my horse will slip on the narrow path and we will slide down the side of the steep, muddy mountain. Our guides whack a path ahead of us with machetes.  

whacking the way ahead with machetes

But we are treated to panoramic views every where we look; we see rare capuchino and the more common black howler monkeys.    

howler monkey

Roberto and Policarpo speak no English.  They point out various plants as we struggle to understand.  My pockets are full of tobacco leaves, coffee beans, and a tagua nut.   “This leaf is good for medicine.   The wood from this tree is used in constructing houses.”   By three o’clock we are back at the road to meet the moto-taxi.  We are exhausted but exhilarated.

TG
Roberto and Policarpo
Roberto knocking down oranges

It is Sunday and we have booked an all-day trip to Isla de la Plata.  Barely twenty minutes out and we already find whales.  At first we see only their backs.  Suddenly one breaches.  It is so close to another boat!  We are at the perfect vantage point to photograph both the whale and the boat – giving perspective on how big these creatures really are.  We spend an hour with him as over and over he rises up out of the water, showing us his enormous size before splashing back down beneath the waves. 

humpback tail with boat
humpback breaching next to boat

It is time to move on to Isla de la Plata. “The Poor Man’s Galapagos.”  It is a wind-swept island in the middle of nowhere, covered with palosanto trees.  We recognize the sweet earthy fragrance.  We smell it even before Sandra, our guide, points it out. 

Isla de la Plata

We see blue-footed boobys, their webbed feet dipped in bright blue “paint,” red-breasted and brown frigates, warbling finches, and albatross. 

blue footed booby
red-breasted frigate

The landscape is rugged and somewhat barren this time of year.  Sandra tells us that during rainy season everything is green and flowering.  Off shore in the distance we see whales breach.

view from Isla de la Plata

Back at the boat we are surrounded by huge green sea turtles.  They are drawn to the pineapple chunks our crew is tossing overboard.  We spend thirty minutes snorkeling in a quiet bay.  The corals are pretty and I see many unfamiliar fish.

green sea turtle

The boat heads back to Puerto Lopez.  It has been a long day and the crew is anxious to get us home.  We see whales breach and more water spouts during the hour-long ride back but it is full speed ahead.  If Saturday left us exhilarated, today we are giddy.  The camera is full of photos.

we are giddy

We  try a different restaurant every night.  Puerto Lopez is a fishing village.  We order fish; none prepared quite the same way. 

“pescado frito con arroz”
Pilsener: the only beer we ever drink

After dinner we have taken to stopping for a drink.  Last night we found a quiet bar called “Bambu.”  There is a sign on the wall:  “Buena Vibre” Good Vibes.   Tonight Jaime pours us home-made caña, a traditional Ecuadorian drink made fermented sugar cane.  We are living on the edge. 

caña at Bambu

After another full day of whale watching, we have decided to stay on dry land today.  We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Agua Blanca, an archeological site dating back to pre-Columbian times.  We have no idea what we are in for.  There is a small museum filled with artifacts:  funeral urns with human bones still tucked in the fetal position in which they were cremated.  Alejo, our guide, patiently teaches as we struggle to understand his Spanish. 

Agua Blanca

And then we set out on a two kilometer trek through the dry jungle, past a small banana plantation, over a river where women are hand washing clothes and on to a sacred pool.  It is healing sulfur water. We coat our hands and arms in thick black mud, let it dry for twenty minutes and then rinse off in the pool.  I lie on my stomach and let my arms dangle in the egg-smelling water.  It feels silky. There are two toads on the bank next to me.   Tall Guy  says his arms are as soft as a baby  but it does nothing for my dry hands.

the healing waters at Agua Blanca

After all the excitement earlier this week there is little whale activity on Wednesday.  We are disappointed.  We’ve been spoiled.  We see one whale breach but are not in the right position for a photo.  We see a few hump backs and one fluke.  We spend too much time drifting, the engine idling.   One person is sick, and then another and another.  It is the domino-effect.  TG and I sit towards the front of the boat, away from the diesel fumes, frustrated with our fellow passengers and the crew. 

not much activity

Once again back we head to Las Frailes.  There is a small hill we want to climb.  The view from the mirador at the top is breath-taking.

hike up to the mirador
TG 
view from the mirador at Las Frailes

Thursday is our last day in Puerto Lopez.  I have booked with a different boat.  The captain and crew take care to position us so that everyone has a perfect view.  They move the boat so that we are always at the best vantage point to see the whales. 

humpback whale breach

It is, in a word, spectacular.  Multiple breaches, a fluke (“cola”) so close I can almost touch it, and a pair that roll on their backs like overgrown puppies.    But I am not feeling well.  Not seasick, I have succumbed to Jaime’s fermented sugar cane drinks.  I go straight to bed. 

It is unfortunate as we have been invited to dine with a German couple also staying at Itapoa.  They were fishing early this morning and have caught enough to feed everyone.  The hostel kitchen is a beehive of activity:  Maria, her mother, and daughter bustle about filleting fish, dicing potatoes and chopping onions.  TG contributes two boxes of wine. I am sorry to miss the festivities.

Puerto Lopez chicken

By Friday morning we are both sick.  We’re certain it was the caña. We will find out later there were bad batches of caña being served all throughout Ecuador. Many people died.  

the drive to Manta

We manage to arrange a taxi to Manta.  In spite of everything, I am happy to see this drive in the daytime.  The coast of Ecuador is beautiful – nothing but rolling hills and unspoiled white beaches.  The landscape is dotted with palosanto and ceibo trees.  Between the magnificent views are tiny towns:  one after the other.  Machalilla.  Puerto Cayo.  Jipijapa.   The main street of each village is lined with vendors, all featuring the same specialty.  In one village it is beautiful wood carvings.  In the next it is small loaves of bread, the women waive handkerchiefs to flag down the cars.  In a third town all the shops sell grotesque ceramic piggy banks and urns.  In yet another it is stall after stall of honey.  They have recycled every conceivable glass container.  We see honey in pickle jars, ketchup and Snapple bottles.  All this flies by us at 70 kilometers per hour.  We are both slightly queasy and wonder if it is even real.  We are on to the next town before I can say for certain. 

the drive to Manta

We land safely in Quito.  The Mercure Hotel is a perfect way to end the trip:  a comfortable king-size bed and plenty of hot water.  We had plans for our last day.  Jaime told us about a magic lake, a holy waterfall, and a mystic tree just outside the city.  And we wanted to check out the thermal baths in Papallacta.  But tonight we are content to order soup from room service and fall gratefully into bed.

TG on the plane

Saturday is gloriously clear.  We can see to the top of the mountains that surround this city.  We had planned to take the cable car to the top of the volcano, Teleferico, at 13,000 ft.  Instead we walk to the market. We are feeling better but we have a long day of travel ahead.

Magic lakes, holy waterfalls, and mystic trees will be here – for next trip.

P.S. In March of 2012, we returned to Ecuador to spend a weekend at the Otavalo market. We also visited the Mojanda Lake, Peguche Cascade, the sacred waterfall, and El Lechero, the mystic tree. You can watch our video slide show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLdcvrSMQ1o

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Dec 30, 2010-Jan 8, 2011

12/30/10

We are in the domestic terminal at the Quito airport; the monitor reads our flight to Manta is now boarding at Gate 16. There is no Gate 16, only Gates 1-5. I ask the ticket agent if we are in the right place. She replies, “yes, you will board at 12:05.” I look at my watch, and then back to her, confused. It is 12:15. She taps my watch. “Don’t worry about it.”

Quito

Barely an hour later and we are touching down in Manta. By 3:30 we are lying flat on our bed under a cool ceiling fan in our hostel in Bahia de Caraquez. Cocobongo Hostel is simple but clean. The shower begrudgingly gives up a trickle of tepid water, the bed is hard, but the ceiling fan runs strong and we are steps from the ocean.

Bahia sits on a thumb of a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. To the west is the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the Chone river and estuary. It is spectacular. The vibe is beachy-touristy, similar to tourists towns in Florida. This trip is about more than simply a relaxing vacation. We want to live as close to “local” as we can. We want to experience the trickling shower, the power outages, and shop at the produce market.

The produce market!! An entire city block filled with stall after stall of succulent vegetables and fruits, fish caught that morning, live chickens, hot-from-the-oven breads, freshly made cheeses, plus all manner of herbs, spices, and little sticks in bags. Over the week we will spend hours wandering the market but very little money. Three huge avocados and three juicy tomatoes cost a total of $1.00. Paired with a soft roll and some queso (cheese) it will make lunch for days. We will eat for pennies all week.

herbs, spices, and sticks

12/31/10

We take a panga across the river to San Vincente. They recently built a beautiful bridge, so it is possible to walk or drive across the river.

the bridge to San Vincente

But pangas run a regular, inexpensive ferry service and are quick. Only ten minutes shore to shore. The capacity states 20. I count 27 on our boat, not counting the two infants and a small dog. On the way back a tiny abuela (grandmother) boards after us. Her face is wrinkled, her hair is white. She looks ancient. She hesitates at the top of the steps, the small boat rocking in the waves. TG offers a strong, steady arm and her face lights up. She grasps his arm and comes aboard. I scoot over so she can sit next to him on the narrow bench.

There is a different sense of personal space in this country. No one seems to mind sitting so close together. We find this everywhere — not just on the pangas. Shop aisles are narrow and crowded. At 6’4″ TG towers above everyone. We pass another tiny abuela. She is literally the size of his leg. She is walking with a young woman and as they pass, they gasp. If one can communicate “holy sh**t!!” with a gasp, they just did.

New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is like nothing we’ve ever seen. All day we have been accosted by “widows” – young men and boys dressed in black funeral drag, symbolizing the loss of their husband (the old year). They beg for coins to purchase fireworks for later tonight.

New Year’s Eve
the “concert”
Feliz NuevoAños 2011!

At 10pm we gather for a “concert” on the point of the peninsula. It turns out to be two hours of canned rock music, blaring from speakers. There are many families here and everyone is happy and friendly. Roman candles, bottle rockets, and sparklers explode over our heads. At midnight, everyone kisses. “Feliz Nuevo Años, Año Viejo!” Happy New Year, Better luck next year!

And then the bonfires begin. We had seen the paper mache effigies for sale on the streets but were not prepared for the fires — everywhere. Figures, good and bad, symbolize out with the old and are burned along with any bad memories from the previous year.

Someone throws a brick of firecrackers into the middle of a burning pile. The streets are smokey and our throats hurt as we walk home. It’s a wonder no one is hurt, that no fire burns out of control.

bonfires and smoke in the streets

1/1/2011

New Years Day. We take a panga across the river to San Vincente again. We arrange transportation to Canoa. Canoa is like an overly crowded Miami Beach. We cannot see the water for all the little tents, the areas between the tents are crawling with people.

New Years Day at Canoa

We sit at a street cafe and watch the crowds go by. The mood is light-hearted and happy. Used to the Florida sunshine we forget how close we are to the equator. TG has a horrible sunburn. A young man calls from a truck “Oh my got, meester! Mucho sol!” We laugh. “Si.

“oh my got, meester, mucho sol!”

The traffic is a snarled tangle of buses, trucks overflowing with people, motorbikes, and bicycles. People and dogs scurry back and forth between the stopped cars. Someone jumps off his bike to direct traffic. Soon everyone is moving again. It seems there is always a guy willing to jump in and get things moving. We saw the same thing at the concert on New Year’s Eve.

1/2/11

We stay in Bahia today. We walk for miles, all around town. Atop one of the hills is a lookout point with a huge cross. You can climb the stairs to the top of the cross for a spectacular panoramic view of the coast. We hike the road up to the cross and down the other side. We are comfortable on these streets — they are easy to navigate and we quickly learn our way around.

Bahia from the cross

children watching from a balcony above us

On our way back to Cocobongo we pass a small storefront restaurant with rows of chickens roasting on spits out front. It smells delicious. We purchase a chicken for dinner. It comes with rice, beans, and a small salad, more than enough for the two of us, for $10.

1/3/11

Marcelo meets us first thing in the morning. We are getting a tour of the nature reserve and his important reforestation work. But first we stop at the local grade school to meet Miguelito. American classrooms might have guinea pig or hamster for a pet. The grade school in Bahia has a 150-year-old, 525 lb Galapagos tortoise. We find out later that Miguelito has been at this school for 80 years. He was brought from the Galapagos when there were no laws protecting his status and at one point they tried to relocate him back. But he grew sick from missing the children so they returned him to happily live in the grassy playground.

A veterinarian by degree, it’s difficult to explain all that Marcelo does. He is a respected scientist who has traveled all of the world, lecturing on ecosystems. But he has chosen to live in his hometown of Bahia and tend land set aside as a nature reserve. He teaches us much about the tropical dry jungle as we hike. He offers me fruit from the Hobo tree. He says it is good for my brain. I eat it. It tastes bitter, like an aspirin. Later I will pay dearly for this.

fruit for the Hobo tree … I will pay dearly for this

We are far from fluent in Spanish, but Marcelo speaks clearly and slowly. We understand everything he says.   He points to tracks in the dirt.  Ocelot.  He is excited.  He has not seen any evidence for six months and now look, he says, father, mother and baby!

We reach the bottom of the valley, filled with towering ceibo trees, trunks thick as elephants.  They are stately: royal.  As we head back we hear the hooting of howler monkeys.  I peer into the trees hoping to catch a glimpse.

It is James and Anna’s last night in Ecuador.  They leave tomorrow for their long trip home to Tasmania. They have been watching Cocobongo for the past two months while Suzy, the owner, is in Australia, and tonight marks the end of a year of travel in Central and South America.  We will miss them.  They have a gift for bringing people together.  We meet for a farewell dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. Anna, James, Marcelo, Teresa, Nick, Uli and Cleo:  our new friends in Bahia.

1/4/2011

We are up early to say good bye to Anna and James.   We wait for them to leave and then walk to the ocean.   The tide is out.  We walk on the hard packed sand for many miles.  Cars pass us, driving on the beach.  At the white retaining wall we turn in and head up the road.  This will take us back to Bahia.  It is a beautiful walk through more of the same dry tropical jungle as Marcelo’s reserve.  We are on the outskirts of Bahia and rather than head straight back to town we walk over the hill past the big cross again. 

Later Dr. Don and his wife Marian seek us out at Cocobongo.   TG has been communicating with Dr. Don via email for the past year. We go for helado (ice cream).  They share their experiences of moving to Bahia two years ago.  Others pass by as we sit: ex-pats, Mary Lena – the local tennis coach, our waiter from the restaurant last night.  Hola! Hola!  We’re finding Bahia to be a very small, very friendly town.

Bahia cemetary

1/5/2011

Lars meets us at 9:00am to show us his house and land.  Lars and Lone are originally from Denmark, but after sailing around the world for ten years they settled here in Bahia about five years ago.  They built a beautiful home on the hillside just outside of town.  The view across the Chone and to the Pacific beyond is breath-taking.

view from Lars and Lone’s

After lunch we visit the archaeological museum.  Carlos is as passionate about the fascinating history of this country as Marcelo about his reforestation.  His English is fluent and we learn much. 

We have made two special friends since we arrived.  Teresa is Canadian; she is on hiatus from her job and has escaped the cold to stay in Bahia for four months.  We are kindred spirits with potential to be great friends.  Rosita is a small Chihuahua-Min Pin mix.  She is the sweetest, friendliest dog I have ever met.  Although she does not belong to anyone she has adopted Cocobongo as her home. She follows us everywhere and sleeps outside our room at night.  I hope that Suzy will keep her.    I will miss my friends Teresa and Rosie very much.

1/6/2011

Our last morning in Bahia.  We have arranged for Carlos to pick us up at 11:00 to drive us to Manta.  But this is Ecuador.  Carlos’ car was impounded for non-payment.  Uli quickly helps us arrange another taxi.    After breakfast we walk to the ocean once last time.  The tide is high this morning and the surf rough.  It is untamed and beautiful.  Rosie follows along behind us. 

children playing in the surf

I have never been so heartbroken to leave a place.

By 2:30 we are in Quito.  It is easy for the taxi to find our hostel.  The room is small, even by New York standards; we can barely squeeze around the bed with our two suitcases.  It is in the middle of the old city, with ancient churches and buildings crowding in upon narrow cobblestone streets.  Quito is 9000 ft above sea level.  The altitude has affected us both with a mild headache.  I find myself short of breath walking the hilly streets and up the stairs to our third floor room.

On our flight to Manta a week ago, a woman gave us a business card for her shop.  After dinner we visit.  It is located right across the street from Quito’s largest market and is filled with beautiful Ecuadorian handicrafts.  Between the market and Plaza Naya we purchase many gifts.

Quito market

1/7/2011

Quito sits in a valley surrounded by mountains.  It is like a large bowl and the houses and buildings sprawl up the surrounding hillsides.  They are piled haphazardly on top of each other, every one of them ramshackle and wonky.  If you tried to fix one, you would need to tear down the entire mountain.  With their faded pastel colors of blue, yellow and pink the hills around Quito look like a Dr. Seuss illustration.

view of Quito from hostel

We take a taxi to the Mitad Del Mundo Ciudad:  the equator. 

There is a line extending through the park and we have fun taking photos at 0°00’00.”  We down-dog yoga style across the northern and southern hemispheres.  TG lays flat on the line, like he is taking a nap.  There are shops surrounding the plaza and in one a man offers to stamp our passports. 

The line runs straight through a little church: I name it Our Lady of Zero Latitude.  It seems an appropriate place to say a prayer for Rosita.  I slip into a pew and pray that she will be adopted.  I am overwhelmed and my eyes well up with tears.  Just then the music from the nativity scene at the front of the church registers in my brain: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  I smile and leave Rosie in God’s hands.

1/8/2011

Home to Miami today.  At this early hour it takes us no time to get to the airport.  We arrive at 6:00am for our 9:30 flight.  We check in.  Our flight has been delayed for four hours for “maintenance issues.” This is Ecuador.  They give us a voucher for breakfast.  We have a massage and browse the shops to pass the time. 

We are already making plans to go back.  This is Ecuador. 

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (June 2008)

view from the plane

6/27 Friday

The altitude hits us the minute we step off the plane: an excruciating headache.  As promised, the hotel is there to meet us and after collecting our bags we speed off to Torre Dorada, home base for the next ten days. Cusco is a blur of tin houses, dusty roads, and loose dogs.  The poverty is overwhelming – made more so by the beauty of the valley in which the city sits.  The mountains rise up around us:  now brown during dry season. We muddle through check-in, thinking only of our bed upstairs.  Raphael is eager to explain all that Cusco has to offer. We can barely concentrate. Finally we’re allowed into our room and fall gratefully into bed.

the main square, Cusco

We’re given a ride into the city. The Cathedral dominates the main square: huge and imposing. The street vendors are relentless; they have taken pestering to an art.  A young girl recites the US presidents from George W. Bush back to George Washington.  She caps it off with “Hasta la vista, baby!” Impressed, we buy a puma finger puppet.

the Cathedral, main square Cusco

6/28 Saturday            

We wake up feeling better and head into town to explore.  Torre Dorada offers chauffeur service whenever and where ever we wish to go. The roads are a well choreographed ballet of near misses.  As passengers, it’s a thrill-ride that leaves us giddy. We’re dropped off at the market at San Blas.  We plan to walk downhill to the main square.  A man has a table full of intricately carved gourds. He captures our attention by carving a llama on the bottom of one before handing it to us.

the market at San Blas

The road is so narrow we hug the walls as cars speed by.  The steepness does nothing to slow them down.  We end up at Jack’s Café.  We had lunch here yesterday. We head towards the main square but on the way stop at the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.  The ancient pottery, silver, gold, and shell jewelry are as striking today as when they were crafted over 1,000 years ago. 

the narrow, steep streets of Cusco
1,000 year-old shell jewelry

We walk to Qorikancha: The Temple of the Sun.  It is a beautiful amalgamation of Inca and Spanish architecture.  Later tonight we will drive by and see it lit with dozens of spotlights.  But now the altitude overwhelms us. Heads pounding, we head back to the hotel.  A nap perks us up but we begin to worry about the hike, just a day away. After dinner we stroll around the main square.  There is a live band playing on the steps of the Cathedral.  The cold air and frenetic pace revitalize us. 

school children in the main square, Cusco

6/29 Sunday 

We wake early and head to Pisac with Dayana, our guide.  She is young, charming, and a wealth of information about Inca culture. 

Torre Dorada with Dayana and Santiago

We drive up and up from Cusco and then start our descent into the Sacred Valley.  The valley is named for the Urubamba River, we learn, not the many ruins.  It is so fertile crops grow year round.  The view is breath-taking.

the Sacred Valley
the Sacred Valley

Santiago, our driver, takes us to the top of the mountain.  An archeologist once suggested that all Inca terraces were built to resemble sacred animals.  Pisac is supposed to be the shape of a condor.  I can see wings – sort of.  Dayana suggests that the archeologist may have been smoking something.

Andean flute at Pisac

Our memories of Pisac will forever be accompanied by the song of the Andean flute.  We hear the haunting melody long before we see him and long after we have passed him on the path.  Dayana is so passionate.  We learn much about these ancient people.  It takes us 2 ½ hours to hike through the ruins, some parts so steep and narrow we cling to the rock walls. The headache comes back.  Dayana picks wild mint and crushes the leaves in her hands.  We inhale the sweet, strong smell.  The headache retreats. “Remember this on the trail,” she says. We start our final ascent up to the parking lot where Santiago is waiting.  Dayana stops to rest and entertains us with a beautiful Inca song.

the ruins at Pisac
Pisac
Pisac

We drive down the mountain to town.  Perched on a balcony for lunch we have a birds eye view of the bustling market.  A solemn procession of St. Joseph parades past, church bells clanging. We peruse the market: a kaleidoscope of colors and textures, sounds and smells.  Overwhelmed we purchase almost nothing.  TG buys an Andean cross pendant and two stone bracelets for me.  We find our way back to the car where Santiago and Dayana are waiting. 

Pisac market
Pisac market

Next stop:  Awarakancha, the alpaca farm.  Delighted we feed the gentle animals handfuls of alfalfa.  I am swarmed by five calves, tugging at the greens in my hand.  We see how the wool is dyed using natural plants, minerals, even insects, and then how it is woven.  Lastly we visit the shop but are too tired to do more than look.

Awarakancha alpaca farm
Awarakancha alpaca farm

We meet at the SAS office at 6:00pm for our briefing.  The worst of the altitude sickness is past. We both feel well enough to go.  I have sworn TG to secrecy regarding my stroke.  I am confident in my ability but do not want anyone to worry about my health, not even for one second. Our group numbers twelve and we are by far the oldest.

6/30 Monday

The bus leaves Cusco at 5:45am.  Another couple has dropped out: we are down to ten.  It climbs high through the mountains to the town of Ollantaytambo.  The trail begins at Km 82.  By 10:00 we are through the formalities and on our way.  The sun is hot, the path dusty.  The Urubamba River roars to our right, surrounded by towering peaks.  The glacier, Veronica, rises above: snow-covered and majestic. 

bus drop-off at the start of the Inca Trail
TG ready at the start
Km 82: our group of 10

The pace is easy but we are grateful for the rest stops.  Virgilio, our guide, pauses to let us cool off in a mountain spring.  The water is icy cold, glacier fed.  The path takes some strange turns. At times it seems to run straight through someone’s front yard.  By lunch we’re starving.  An unexpected surprise:  all the campsites have running water and flush toilets.  This is a land of abundant water.  After lunch the real work begins.  The plan is to climb past the village of Wayllabamba, two kilometers up the mountain, in order to shorten tomorrow’s climb.  We have enough time to stop at a trout farm.  We negotiate 4 soles, about $1.30, and a chocolate bar for the ten of us to tour the farm.

glacier Veronica

the trout farm

The path has turned upward; we are climbing through the high jungle.  Through the thick growth we catch glimpses of towering green peaks to our right, on the other side of the rushing stream. The air smells clean and sweet.

TG in the high jungle

By now the group has split.  There is the A-team, very fast and always ahead.  And there is us.  Virgilio tells us that we are average, not slow.  We arrive at camp at 5:30 – just before dark.

campsite day one

 The porters are there, the tents set up and waiting for us.  We have already come to respect these men.  They race ahead carrying our food and supplies, most in bare feet with simple sandals.  One carries a propane tank on his back.  Although we don’t know it yet, we will dine like Inca kings this week.   After dinner the sky is ablaze with more stars than you can imagine.  We see the Southern Cross right above our heads.  Virgilio points out an Inca constellation:  the puma’s tail.     

meals al fresco on the trail

7/1 Tuesday

 5:45 wake up call.  A quick breakfast and we resume our ascent. 

morning wake-up included tea and bowls of hot water for washing
our little tent

We are still in the high jungle.  The trees form a canopy so thick overhead that we cannot see the mountains towering above us.  The stream runs along side.  It is an enchanted forest.  The path continues to rise, relentlessly up and up.  Lungs burning we try to pace ourselves:  we have a long way to go before we reach the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. 

sunrise

We started early to avoid the hot sun on our steep ascent.  The trees give way to smaller bushes and shrubs.  We are at the frost line.  At this hour there is still frost on the ground.  Our guide Elvis tells us that the glacier on the far mountain has been shrinking:  a result of global warming.

sunrise day two
rest stop
fellow travelers

Still we climb, up and up.  It seems forever.  We are grateful for the extra 2 kilometers we put in yesterday. We see the sun rise over the mountain.  By the time we have taken off a layer and applied sun screen we are bathed in sunshine.  It is warm and bright. We can see people high above us, crawling up the side of the mountain like ants.  Gradually they take human form and then finally the summit:  4,215 meters.  We pause to catch our breath. The whole range of the Andes spreads out before us in all directions. I feel I can see forever.  The view is beyond words. 

Dead Woman’s Pass, 4,215 meters
Warmiwañuska, Dead Woman’s Pass

We start down.  It is another 1 ½ hours to camp for lunch.  Imagine the steepest set of stairs, now replace with jagged rocks.  Andy’s knees are screaming and I am in absolute terror.  The more fatigued I am the worse my balance, and I am exhausted. 

rest stop with Elvis (left of TG in gray/black vest) and Virgilio (red shirt at back)

The afternoon is more of the same.  First we climb up again, the rocks just as jagged and steep.  We have come to appreciate the ascents.  As much as our lungs burn and hearts pound it is a welcome relief to our aching knees.  After 300 meters we reach the top of the second pass.  Our lunch camp is a tiny dot below us. 

lunch camp, day two

We start down; this time Elvis stays with me.  He holds my hand and asks me to teach him American slang.  I teach him peeps, bling, and comfy.  It keeps my mind off my lack of balance. 

Elvis and jet

Far behind the A-team, we choose to skip the last ruin and head straight to camp.  The porters are laughing at us.  In Quechua they say “Look — the old people arrived first!”

campsite, day two
toasting our summit of Dead Woman’s Pass (“first some for Mother Earth … but not too much!”)

7/2 Wednesday

Final day to Winaywayna.  We are allowed to sleep until 8:00 this morning.  The first part of the walk is the most beautiful thus far.  The views of the 6,000+ meter glacier, Salkantay, are amazing.  Virgilio points out a dry lake – basically a marsh but so deep horses have been lost.  The mountainside is covered with moss.  It looks like a coral reef.  He pushes in a walking stick as far as the tip. 

sunrise, day three

We see beautiful orchids, lupine, and other native flowers.  Blue and green hummingbirds flutter back and forth across the path.  The Andes are a continuous line of pointed M’s, colored green, with the white peaks of Salkantay, Veronica, and other glaciers looming up in between.  Awesome, wondrous, beautiful all seem to fall short.  I know I will never be able to describe this back home.

the Inca Trail
impossible to capture the beauty of the mountains
find the hummingbird!

Virgilio talks about the construction of the trail – every detail designed for safety and speed.  From the white granite stone to prevent slipping to the slight inward incline of the path itself it is an architectural wonder.  We climb only 300 meters today.  It seems easy after yesterday.

Phuyupatamarka

We stop at Phuyupatamarka; a remarkable ruin Virgilio tells us was for spiritual and astronomical study.  We christen ourselves with cold water from the Fountain of Youth.  At the top he points out holes perfectly aligned with the four points of the Southern Cross.  He talks about the Inca:  their paths of communication, the strange ways of their nobility.  These people had running water, proper plumbing, and a sophisticated calendar for planting.  They had figured out morphine and were performing successful brain surgery during the same time our ancestors in Europe were living in mud huts and fighting off the plague.  He talks for a long time.  We grow cold standing on the mountain but it is fascinating.  We hang on his every word.

Virgilio teaching us about Incan culture

We start down.  It is a long descent of over 2,000 stone stairs.  They are not as jagged as yesterday but just as steep.  Elvis helps me down the mountain.  He is my guardian angel.  We join the group at the power lines. 

the stairs down the mountain

Workers spent most of the 1950’s and 60’s connecting the town of Aguas Calientes to the rest of the world.  Then in the 1970’s discovered the ruins of Intipata, right next to where they had been working.  We pause to rest and admire the view.  We can see the town far below, nestled along the river.  We can see the train as it winds its way to Machu Picchu.  We know the end is in sight.  We head down to Winaywayna for our last night of camp.

the view from Intipata

We are at Winaywayna by 1:30.  Plenty of time for a hot shower before the crowds arrive.  We celebrate our accomplishment with cold beer.  I sit at the table, tears streaming down my face.  Just a year ago I lay in the hospital, swearing to myself that I would walk again.  And today I have climbed a mountain.  Never mind the last three days, the distance I have come in the last twelve months overwhelms me.

Winaywayna camp
saying Thank You and good-bye to our porters

We walk to the ruins of Winaywayna.  We stop at the Temple of the Rainbow.  There are seven windows that each frame a rainbow when the sun and clouds are right. We get a small taste of what we will see tomorrow. 

Winaywayna ruins at dusk

7/3 Thursday

 4am wake up call.  We’re already up, eager for the day to begin.  Our group is second in line at the control point and by 5:30 we are on our way to Machu Picchu.  It rained last night and the early morning air is heavy with mist.  The sun has not yet risen and behind us stretches an eerie trail of bobbing lights. 

ready at the checkpoint

Gradually it lightens but there will be no sunrise at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, this morning.  The stairs turn steep.  I feel like I am climbing a ladder.  More ruins appear out of the mist:  a burial site for priestesses.  I touch a small pile of stones and wonder who left them and why.

heading to Machu Picchu

We are at the terraces above Machu Picchu.  This first view is solemn and holy … nothing can capture the sheer physical presence of the place. The mountains surround the stone city like sentries.  We descend through the checkpoint and walk among the ruins.  It is an architectural marvel, an astronomical wonder, an engineering genius:  a city of impossible construction.  All tucked away in the middle of the Andes mountains.  

Machu Picchu in the early morning
gradually the fog lifted and we could see her in all her glory

Virgilio continues our tour.  We stop in a room that has 3 walls of blind windows.  We say ohms into the walls and listen as the sound resonates around and through us.  Next we climb to the top of the Observatory.  A condor soars above our heads. Virgilio says we are blessed; it is only the second time in nine years he has seen a condor.  He says we called it with our ohms.

the condor circling high above us
listening to Virgilio
Virgilio

The group splits.  The A-team wants to climb Wayna Picchu.  It towers above the ruins, tall and steep, but with spectacular 360 degree views from the summit.  We continue with the tour.  A chinchilla scampers across our path.  Lizards crawl along the walls.  These present day inhabitants share this sacred city with the ghosts.

view from Wayna Picchu, courtesy of fellow traveler Brooke

There is a holy feeling about the place – like a temple.  We feel compelled to speak in soft voices.  A group walks by laughing loudly.  It seems somehow inappropriate.

We ride the bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes where we meet the group for a celebratory lunch and goodbyes.  We are staying the night in town: a chance to recharge. We skip the SAS hostel and check into our room at the Sumaq. It is a beautiful hotel under any circumstances but for us, fresh off the trail, it is the epitome of luxury. We are both too exhausted to fully appreciate what we have just accomplished. 

The Inca trail is 49 ½ kilometers.  There are many steep up and down hills with the highest peak over 4,200 meters. Nothing can describe the huge expanse of valleys, the towering peaks, and the glaciers rising even higher: the view around every turn more breathtaking than the last.  We learned much about the Inca but there is so much more that we will never understand.  Virgilio says for every answer there are a hundred questions.

Aguas Calientes

7/4 Friday                  

We take the 8:30 Vistadome train back to Ollantaytambo.  Pretty as it is, the view along the river valley does not compare with the beauty of the trail.  We look up to the top of the ridge, where we walked two days earlier, and think about all that the riders are missing.  Music starts and a strange masked man dances through the aisle.  Then an alpaca wool fashion show.  The 90 minutes pass quickly.

view from Vistadome train
Vistadome train

In Ollantaytambo we arrange for a taxi back to Cusco.  We feel we’ve arrived home when the driver drops us at Torre Dorada.  Miss Peggy, Raphael, and the rest of the staff are eager to hear about our trip.  Their eyes glow with pride as we talk about the magnificent trail and wondrous beauty of Machu Picchu.

Miss Peggy’s candles at Torre Dorada

7/5 Saturday

We arrive in Lima. The sky is gray and overcast.  That, combined with the exhaust fumes, makes the city seem ugly and polluted.  The traffic is the worst we have seen.  Vendors weave through the cars: scissors, air fresheners, cinnamon rolls.  It’s a mobile flea market.

Lima – view from Grand Hotel Bolivar

7/6 Sunday

Our 3:15 wake up call comes at 2:45 but we’re already up.  The main square is a cacophony of cars honking and people milling about.  We know New York never sleeps; apparently Lima does not either. It’s time to go home.

Hasta la vista, baby!

We promised ourselves that one day we would return and stay one night at the Sanctuary Lodge, located outside the entrance to Machu Picchu. In May of 2017, we did just that. You can find photos from that whirlwind weekend here:

TG: https://www.flickr.com/photos/werdnanilmot/albums/72157682256361531

JET: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetomlin/albums/72157684418029466

JET’s Galapagos Dive Log: June 18-25, 2007

June 18, Baltra Island

We’re standing at the dock, waiting for the pangas to take us to the boat. The benches are inscribed with “Welcome to the Galapagos” but we cannot take a seat. They are all occupied by the local population of sea lions, too sleepy to care about this latest arrival of turistas. We find them charming. A delightful welcome indeed.

Welcome to the Galapagos

Later Ruly gives his first of many briefings. He concludes by saying he hopes that the islands will sprinkle some of their magic upon us. We hang on his words, eyes shiny and bright as children on Christmas Eve.

my cabin – a room to myself!

Dive #1 Baltra Straights — A quick skills check and then we are off to enjoy the calm, cool water. A sea lion whooshes by. A white tip shark hovers just out of camera range. Lots of unfamiliar fish … we’ll be studying our ID books later this evening. A bright blue sea star waves its leg as I glide past.

Galapagos sea lion
blue sea star

June 19, Isabela Island

We woke this morning to the boat rocking full speed ahead towards Marshall’s Cape. We’ll be diving off this island three times today. The water is gray and choppy — exactly what we expected. The topography of Isabela is untamed and mountainous, scarred with deep lava flows: this land is still evolving. Everything is different, wonderful, and carved from another world.

Isabela Island

Dive #2 Cabo Marshall — Right at the start, a magnificent yellowfin tuna, easily five feet long. Another sea lion whizzes by. Lots of beautiful blue, yellow, and red sea stars. We drift into a school of bluestriped chub, so large it blocks out the sun.

me!

Dive #3 Cabo Marshall — We descend through another huge school, this time amberstripe scad. These are new to us; they resemble small wahoo. A marbled ray nestles in the sand below while a spotted eagle ray floats out towards the blue. We see more sea stars: blue, bright orange cushions, and chocolate chip.

chocolate chip sea star

Dive #4 Cabo Marshall — The now ubiquitous sea lions bark at us from the rocks above. We are overwhelmed by the abundance of life. A clam peeks up from a rock, a Mexican hogfish swims straight towards my mask, guineafowl puffers, both the yellow and black & white phases, are everywhere. Wahoo float above our heads. We spy a bravo clinid camouflaged against the rocks, orange triggerfish whir by the Galapagos pikeblennies suspended on the wall.

sea lions on the rocks

guineafowl puffer (yellow phase)

We return to the boat and gather on the second floor sundeck. We consult our ID books and compare photos. So many new fish … we repeat the names awkwardly: “loosetooth parrotfish, gringos, leather bass.” “Ok” Wil says. “Now we write.”

sunset on the equator

June 20, Darwin Island

Dive #5 Darwin’s Arch — Backwards roll off the panga, kick down down down and grab on to the rocks. The current is so strong it threatens to tear our hands away. A lone Galapagos shark silently floats by. Our senses are overloaded. Massive schools of creolefish are everywhere. I nestle into the rocks and glance around; a moray eel is nibbling on my fin. A green sea turtle hangs above me, a long fishing line dangling from his mouth. One, two, then three scalloped hammerheads appear out of nowhere, their bodies silhouetted against the surface. A big tuna passes, followed by a pair of wahoo. Suddenly Ruly shakes his rattle: a whale shark! At 40 feet she’s as big as a school bus. She barely notices us as she swims by.

Darwin’s Arch
hanging in the current
green sea turtle with creolefish
whale shark’s tail

Dive #6 Darwin’s Arch — We can’t wait to get back into the water. Another adrenaline-charged descent and before we’re even to the rocks we drop through a school of Galapagos sharks. They ignore us. We back into the crevasses and watch as a parade of hammerheads passes by. They are curious; many look our way. One tank is not enough … too soon we begin our ascent. At 25′ another whale shark, this time so close I could touch her with my fins.

schooling hammerheads

I climb into the panga. In broken Spanish I say “sin palabras, muy bonito.” It’s too beautiful; I am speechless. Words are superfluous in the face of such raw nature.

Dive #7 Darwin’s Arch — The schooling Galapagos and hammerhead sharks begin the parade before we’ve even settled on the rocks. The currents are stronger than this morning, with lots of particulate in the water. I’m afraid our photos will not be as clear as our memories. A school of bluefin trevally surround us. We are escorted by wahoo on our safety stop while big Galapagos sharks circle below us.

clinging to the rocks
hammerhead shark

Dive #8 Darwin’s Arch — Current like nothing we’ve seen. Hang on for dear life and watch the show! Schooling hammerheads drift along, seemingly motionless in the fierce current. A sea turtle flies by. I look beneath me: a spotted moray eel lies coiled like a snake in the rocks. A trumpetfish swims above me, reef cornetfish hang out with the schooling creolefish in the blue. I glance to my left: a school of butterflyfish with one king angel in their midst.

moray eel
reef butterflyfish

Our first day on the Arch has been incredible. There are more fish than one can ever imagine — every direction we look our senses are overloaded. There is such variety we don’t even bother with the commonplace — there is too much to see, too much to absorb. We can’t check off our ID lists fast enough. We have many “money shot” photos. Dolphins and sea turtles escort us to and from the dive sites, foretelling what is to come. Back on the boat, sea lions play in the water beside us. We are giddy; the magic of the Galapagos is upon us.

dolphins escort to/from the dive sites
hammerhead shark with diver

June 21, Darwin and Wolf Islands

Dive # 9 Darwin’s Arch — Same dive plan as yesterday – totally different dive. The currents are strong. We wonder: is that Ruly’s rattle or sand scraping across the rocks? A few circling hammerheads and Galapagos sharks drift by. We swim out to the blue looking for “her.” But the whale shark does not answer us this morning. We head back to the rocks and I am caught in a rip current. My group disappears in an instant. I am surrounded by nothing but blue and bubbles as I am pulled down in tumbling somersaults. I am confused, at first I don’t recognize the down draft. At 80′ I am suddenly heading back up, too fast! I slow my rate and ascend safely. A panga following my bubbles is there to pick me up. Later the rest of the group surfaces far from the boat. It takes the pangas over 20 minutes to find them.

divers on the panga

Dive #10 Darwin’s Arch — The plan is simple: head to the rocks and stay put. The current is the fiercest yet. Barnacles pull off in our hands as we try to hang on. A massive school of bigeye trevally swims by. We see turtles, morays, and Mexican hogfish. Ruly signals us to move so we let go and fly past fish safely tucked in the rocks. A fin in front of me bumps a scorpionfish. I can almost hear the “ha-rumph” as he resettles. We finally stop at The Theatre — another dive site on the Arch. We’re barely there when a manta ray drifts silently and majestically above our heads. As he disappears a lone hammerhead rises from the depths. We are again escorted by wahoo on our safety stop.

green sea turtle

We’re pulling anchor and heading to Wolf Island. After two dives with rapidly deteriorating conditions, the decision has been made to move on. A few divers are disappointed — hoping for another glimpse of the whale shark. But by moving now we stand a better chance of getting two dives at Wolf this afternoon. I, for one, am thrilled. Two whale sharks, multiple schools of hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, turtles, dolphins, sea lions, and every fish in the book! And then, on this last dive, a manta ray! How much more do we dare ask for?

Queen of Galapagos

We arrive at Wolf. The basalt rock cliffs rise dramatically above us, up to 600 feet. Frigate birds and boobies soar over our heads. Dolphins and sea lions plan along side the boat, popping up to look at us before moving on. The wildlife is abundant and amazing.

Wolf Island and Elephant Rock

Dive #11 Landslide, Wolf Island — We have dubbed this dive “Turtle Mania.” They are beside us in the pangas, alongside us on the dive, and hovering on our safety stop. We drop to depth and see hammerheads and Galapagos sharks. We move out from the rocks and are caught in the current – soaring along at a breakneck pace too fast to absorb all that we see. The fish are a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that blur as we fly by.

Dive #12 The Anchorage, Wolf Island — The last few days have been adrenaline-charged rides. Tonight is just plain fun. We giant-stride off the back of the boat and drop down. A turtle, then a slipper lobster appear in the darkening water. Ruly says if we see one redlipped batfish we will see many. We see one, then another and another. At one point we trying to take a picture of five together. We climb back on the boat. Soon after, a batfish surfaces next to the dive platform. Those who passed on the night dive get to see this shy fish after all. Chuck exclaims for everyone “Check!

redlipped batfish

June 22, Wolf Island

The dives have been challenging – with fierce currents, strong surge, cool temps, and low visibility. Many in our group are having ear trouble. We understand now why they say that the Galapagos is not for the novice diver. But what wildlife! We’re checking off our ID lists as fast as we can dive.

Dive #13 Landslide, Wolf Island — Strongest surge of the trip but not much current. We stay close to the rocks and let the water push us forward. A big ray drifts by, then a lone Galapagos shark. We look around the rocks beneath us. They are alive! Eels everywhere, tiny crabs peeking out beside sea urchins. A lobster covered in jewels. Fanged blennies using their fins as feet. A squadron of five Moorish idols. I grab a rock to get closer to a banded sea star. Oops, it’s a stone scorpionfish. I jerk my hand away in time. The surge moves us along as schools of tiny rainbow wrasse dance underneath us.

fanged blenny
juvenile leather bass in the protection of a long spine urchin
 
lobster

Dive #14 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Fast current again. We cling to the rocks and wait for the parade of hammerheads. They school in front of us but we can barely make them out in the particulate-filled water. A turtle heads towards the blue. AJ is in her path. I laugh as she bumps him and he jerks back in alarm. She does not alter her course.

AJ and the turtle

Dive #15 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Lots of strong current but turtles turtles everywhere! We never thought we’d say “just another turtle!” Two hammerheads swim close overhead, as they pass they split and go their separate ways. A school of Galapagos sharks glides in front of us. A spotted eagle ray appears out of the blue. We cling to the rocks, careful of the pencil urchins and watch the turtles floating in the current. As we ascend I look down. Is that a turtle or a ray nestled in the rocks? We are up and away before I can say for certain.

pencil urchins
hammerhead shark

Dive #16 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Once again we are speechless. The dive started as all others: ripping currents, clinging to the rocks for dear life. We skip along: eels, angelfish, puffers, clams, and butterflyfish all tangled in our vision as we fly past. We find another spot to hang on. A lone hammerhead swims past. A turtle swims out towards the blue. Without warning, the symphony begins. Hundreds of hammerheads drift past us — far too many to count. We watch, amazed. One leaves the school and approaches me. She’s curious about my blonde hair. She’s so close I can see the whites of her eyes. I hope that someone gets a picture. We stare at each other for an eternity. Finally, unnerved, I put my beanie back on. She swims away. The parade ends. And a lone turtle swims back from the blue.

“She’s curious about my blonde hair”
I hope that someone gets a picture”

We have crossed the equator twice as we journeyed to Darwin and back. Late one night we climb to the top deck. Rees has promised to show me the Southern Cross. It is there, high above the horizon. It looks like a tilted kite.

June 23, Santiago Island

Dive #17 Cousin’s Rock, Santiago Island — Easy current after the heart-pounding rides of Darwin and Wolf. Just as we descend a white-tipped shark silently glides out from underneath a rock ledge. We’re looking for seahorses and frogfish. We spy many seahorses in the tall sea grass. The corals look like beautiful flower gardens. A blue octopus focuses into view. We ascend to sea lions and fur seals snoozing on the rocks above us.

sea horse

Dive #18 Cousin’s Rock, Santiago Island — Still hunting for the elusive frogfish we see several more seahorses. A huge scorpionfish lies on a ledge. We ascend to 20′ and a sea turtle indulges me. Together we pose for the camera until he gracefully swims away.

sea horse
me and my new friend
green sea turtle

June 24, San Cristobal Island

San Cristobal Island

Our last day on the boat. Tomorrow we fly to Quito before heading home. We need at least 24 hours to gas off so no diving today. We take a bus to the tortoise sanctuary. Ruly talks above the conservation of the islands before we head out to watch the giant tortoises at the feeding station. One crawls over the low rock wall and stops on Dave’s foot. Ruly says “don’t move, even if she bites.” Luckily for Dave she does not.

Dive buddies Big Dave (UK) and Rees (Australia)
Ruly talks about the conservation of the Galapagos
tortoise feeding station
tortoise stopping on Dave’s foot

We drive up to the top of El Junco, a crater lake. The highlands are so different than the arid land at the coast: lush, green, and cool. A light mist covers the morning sunshine.

We pile into taxis and head to the beach. The waves are crashing against the rocky shore. Sea lions are everywhere. I get too close to a bull and his harem. He roars at me to back off. “Sorry!” I cry and move away. Further down the coast we find marine iguanas, their bodies as shiny and black as the rocks they sit upon. Sally lightfoots scurry about. We are told that the crabs were named by English sailors, after a beautiful woman who danced all night.

marine iguana

Our gear has been rinsed and is scattered about the boat, drying. A baby sea lion as crawled up onto the dive platform. She is sleepy but has treated us to as many photos as we wish. Bookends of the trip: sea lions welcomed us the first day on the pangas and now a sea lions has climbed aboard to say farewell.

Special thanks to dive buddies and fellow travelers: Edward, Simon, Rees, and Wil for providing all of the underwater and most of the topside photos used in this blog.

Kruger Revisited: Lions, Leopards and Lots of Firsts…

lioness-8323
The eyes of a lioness close up

We had visited the Kruger National Park in South Africa twice previously, in November 2015 and 2016.  The first time was spectacular, only to be surpassed by the second visit, and this most recent trip, 23-November through 3-December, 2018 the best yet.  I believe that this is because the Kruger is so vast, so rich with wildlife, with a potential “money shot” experience around every corner of whatever road you are on.  For many, especially wildlife and nature photographers, The Kruger must be savored over multiple visits in order to extract its deep, rich magic.

ellie-0903
A lone elephant grazing in the vastness of the Kruger National Park

First timers will surely be overwhelmed, as we were.  It doesn’t matter how much research is done, how many questions are asked, how painstakingly detailed your self drive itineraries are prepared.  One buffalo kill just off the road, with 7 or 8 lions gorging themselves and the hyenas, jackals and vultures waiting patiently nearby, and poof!  two hours have passed, and you realize that the 6:30 gate closing is an hour away, with 35 kilometers of bumpy gravel roads in front of you.  You start each day with a general plan and direction…and then it is up to the road…

game drive-9894
On a private, full day game drive aboard a “10 seater” in the Kruger

After our second visit in November 2016, we really had not contemplated another visit to the Kruger any time soon.  We had literally “seen it all” in 9 days.  Big 5?  Check, several times.  Cheetahs?  Check.  Wild Dogs?  Check.  Honey Badger?  Check.  Surreal sunrises and sunsets over the vastness of South Africa? Check.  About the only bucket list item missing was the extremely rare pangolin, which many lifelong Kruger visitors have yet to see.  In short, we were satisfied. And then…

In early March 2018, our friend Deb visited for a weekend of wildlife photography.  She casually mentioned that she was planning her first visit to the Kruger in late April, and was having some difficulty arranging lodging for more than one or two nights at any of the rest camps in the park.  We explained to her that she was trying to book reservations during a very busy season, that most people reserve months in advance, not weeks.  She seemed somewhat disappointed.  She had enjoyed both our notes and photos from our previous visits, and really wanted to go with her sister.  My wife, JET, looked at me and said nonchalantly, “Deb, if you can wait until November, we’ll go with you and Sheila…”

game drive 5x7-1405
Our last full day in the Kruger…a selfie with elephants at Tshokwane picnic site

Just like that, the hunger returned.  Planning in earnest started the next day.  Timeframe: November 2018.  Duration: around two weeks including travel.  Rest Camps: TBD.  Within a week, I had put together a detailed budget for two parties of two traveling together, soup to nuts, including how much in Rand per person for spending money.  I focused on Satara rest camp, mainly because our most fruitful sightings had been near this camp.  Although JET and I had stayed at multiple camps on our first two visits, we decided this time that a single camp made more sense and we had not yet stayed at Satara.

The SanParks website showed a two bedroom bungalow available, each bedroom with en suite bath, for 9 consecutive nights in our desired time frame.  I reserved the bungalow and let Deb know that we would have to make a hard commitment soon and pay for the reservation to lock it in.  Within 2 weeks of our initial conversation, we had a fully paid reservation for 9 nights at Satara in a GC6BD guest cottage.  By the end of April, flights had been booked, a rental vehicle reserved as well as hotel rooms at JNB for our first night.  We were good to go…

Satara entrance courtesy of ExploreKNP.wordpress.com
Satara Rest Camp map courtesy of SanParks.org. We stayed in Unit 88 Circle D

Let’s face it, traveling 36 hours to anywhere is brutal.  Long  international flights are never fun.  There are multiple options from South Florida to Johannesburg and we have tried a couple different routes.  The best we’ve found is Delta to ATL and then a direct 16-hour flight across the pond.  It’s grueling but at least you can settle in one spot for the duration.  Our flight left ATL around 6:30pm and we arrived in JNB at 4:40pm the following day.  The City Lodge hotel is adjacent to the international terminal and we have found it to be a  convenient spot for a good night’s sleep before traveling on to the Kruger the following morning. 

Travel tip:  You can order a SIM card with call minutes and data very reasonably on line, and have it ready at the airport when you arrive.https://b4i.travel/

a breakfast buffet is included in the $138 per night room rate at JNB’s City Lodge hotel

Our domestic flight left at 10am and we landed at SZK, inside the Kruger National Park, within the hour.  After stopping at the SANParks desk to confirm our reservations and pay the conservation fee, we picked up our rental car (a Hyundai H1 premium van) and were on our way.  Our goal was to arrive at Satara by 5:30pm in order to check in and confirm our four pre-arranged full-day guided game drives.  We had plenty of time to make a stop at the Skukuza rest camp for a new map and bottled water before heading north on the H1-2.  

Skukuza Airport inside the KNP

Our very first game drive, traveling the tar roads from Skukuza to Satara, did not disappoint.   We saw four of the Big 5 and many iconic Kruger animals including  zebras, giraffes, warthogs, baboons, and (our favorite) impalas.  JET has composed a little song just for the impalas and within minutes we were all singing along with gusto.  “Impala!  Impala!  We love you!  Impala!”  This was to become the theme for the week.  Every animal we saw, from the ubiquitous impalas to a rare mother leopard with cub, was sung to and thanked before driving on.

male impala

We arrived at Satara on schedule and were soon tucked into our home for the week, a two-bedroom, two-bath bungalow with ample great room and kitchen.  It was perfect for two couples traveling together or in our case one couple and two sisters.  We had barely settled in before there was a knock at the door.  Edward, head guide at Satara, stopped by to discuss the week’s arrangements.  He was to be our guide and would pick us up at 4:45 the next morning.

D88 — our home for the week
All the camps at the Kruger are surrounded by electric fences.  Animals frequently hang around the outside — looking IN at the people in the “cage.”

Rather than give a day-by-day account of all we saw and experienced, the following are just a few of the many highlights from eight full and two half days we spent driving around the Kruger.

Satara is located very close to the S100, a road famous for its big cat sightings.  Edward took us there first thing the morning of November 25.  We drove about 3/4 way east, sighting among other things a beautiful fish eagle. 

fish eagle

Edward remarked it was a “quiet morning” and turned back in the other direction.  Shortly after he turned we came upon two lionesses by the side of the road.  They were soon joined by six more, moving among the few cars there to witness this extraordinary event.  

lioness on the S100
lionesses on the S100

Deb remarked that all we needed now was a big male with a beautiful dark mane.  No sooner were the words out of her mouth than he magically appeared weaving his way through the tall grass, magnificent in the morning sunlight.

male lion in the morning sun

Later in the day we had stopped near a dry riverbed to watch some elephants taking a mud bath. 

ellie family mud bath

As we waited, we noticed a lioness intently watching a warthog.  She was crouched in a pouncing position and we wondered if we might witness an actual  kill.  But it was during the heat of the day, almost 94 degrees, and Edward said too hot for her to expend the energy.  Sure enough, she eventually walked away towards the shade on the far bank.  “Pumba” lived to see another day.  By the end of our first day we counted 39 unique animal sightings including the Big 5.  What a great start to our week!

lioness and warthog

The following day we planned to self-drive north to Olifants for brunch and then take a slow, meandering drive back south.  The camp is located high on a hill with some of the most beautiful views in all of Kruger.

view from Tindlovu restaurant at Olifants rest camp

After brunch we headed south on the H1-5 and then turned west onto the S39.  Thus began the most bone-jarringly bumpy road we have ever experienced.  Have you ever done something that you sorely regret but are too far committed to turn back?  We kept thinking “it’s got to get better!” and it just never did.  The 28km drive to Timbavati left us feeling like we’d been through a rock-polishing tumbler.  

There were some highlights:  a beautiful giraffe drinking at a water hole and an adorable baby ellie.

giraffe at water hole on the S39
ellie family on the S39

But within the nightmare of the drive there was something even worse.  We had stopped at a cistern to watch some elephants when suddenly out of nowhere we were engulfed in a dust storm.  We were pummeled with rocks, sticks, and dirt as we quickly closed our windows.  It circled around our car and then spun out across the clearing, leaving us gasping.  What the heck?!?  JET marked it a “dust devil” on her sightings list.  The next day we described it to Edward and asked what these mini-tornadoes are called.  He replied “dust devil.”

 dust devil off in the distance from high on the H10

Edward picked us up at 4:45 the morning of November 27, our 36th wedding anniversary.  We started the day with an exceptional sunrise.

27-November sunrise just outside Satara gate

One of the advantages to hiring a private guide through the Kruger camps is that the park rangers are allowed on the no-access roads.  No one else, including the outside concessions, can drive on these roads.  We had the privilege to take many of these roads and were treated to some incredibly rare and close-up sightings. 

Deb with giraffe

Just as we turned off a no-access road onto the S126, a passing ranger told us of four male lions sleeping up ahead.  Sure enough, they were there.  As we watched they slowly woke up and made their way towards a water hole.  Within a few minutes we were treated to eight lions, four males and four females, lounging around the water hole.  It was a spectacular sight and we enjoyed their beauty for a long time.

lion pride at water hold on the S126
lion pride at water hole on the S126
lion pride on the S126

As if the day had not already brought enough, Edward had one more surprise for us.  He suddenly stopped the vehicle and backed up.  “Owl” he whispered.  And there, sitting so quietly in the tree we could hardly believe our eyes was a Verreaux’s eagle owl.  An exquisite creature and a first for us all.

Verreaux’s eagle owl on the H6

As Edward dropped us at our bungalow that evening, he told us of lions on a fresh buffalo kill on the S36, just south of the H7.  Our plan was to be out the gate at 4:30 the next morning and head straight there. 

November 28 came early and we were one of the first cars at the lion kill.  Four large male lions were feasting on the buffalo, the body was gruesome but still recognizable.  Hyenas, jackals, and vultures lurked in the background, waiting to steal a scrap or two.  

lions on a buffalo kill
vultures waiting their turn at the kill

Another big male lounged a dozen yards away and even more drama awaited us at the water hole on the other side of the road.  Four lionesses sat guarding at the water’s edge while giraffes and zebras stood by, anxious to take a drink.  One at a time they approached the water hole, only for a lioness to lift her head as if to say “go ahead, I dare you.”  We could have watched this pageantry forever but cars continued to arrive so we moved on, letting others take their turn at this prime viewing spot.

“Go ahead, I dare you to take a drink”
lioness at water hole S36

We meandered our way down to Tshokwane picnic site, where we ordered “roosterkoeke” toasties, grilled cheese & tomato on delicious bread.  A cheeky monkey jumped up on the table and took off with half a sandwich before we even knew what happened. So it goes picnicking in the bush!

While we checked the sightings board at Tshokwane, a couple traveling from the south told us of three leopards on the Marula Loop along with another owl.  We drove back and forth on the loop four times but did not see any leopards.  We did, however, spy another Verreaux’s eagle owl. Two owls in as many days! On our way back north another couple told us of a lioness with cubs and this time we struck gold.  In the late afternoon drizzle two lionesses with three cubs moved from the bushes about 100 meters away and crossed the road in front of us.

lioness with cubs on the H1-3 north of Tshokwane

Barely two kilometers from Satara we ran into Deb and Sheila’s first major  roadblock, epic even by Kruger standards.  Lions, of course.  Cars were lined up three across and six rows deep, all vying for a position to better see and photograph them.  Fortunately everyone was headed south and after managing a couple quick shots we were able to scoot around the traffic jam and arrive safely back at camp well before the 6:30 curfew.

Kruger roadblock with lion in the rear view mirror

After temps in the high 90’s all week, November 29 blew in cold and windy. Edward gave us each a heavy wool blanket to bundle up in as we headed over to check on the status of yesterday’s buffalo kill.  

bundled up in warm wool blankets!
wearing everything we brought!

The lions had moved on and the hyenas, jackals, and vultures had taken over the carcass.  It was amazing to see this food chain happening before us in real time.  

hyenas, black-backed jackal, and vultures on the buffalo carcass

The lions had moved to the the water hole across the road.  They were lying in a lazy pile with full, bloated bellies.  One sat up with a look “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!

Ugh!  I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!

All throughout the Kruger you will pass broken and uprooted trees.  This is the work of elephants who will literally pull marula trees out of the ground to get at the nutritional roots.  A little further on our way and we witnessed an elephant doing just that.

After a late lunch at Satara, Edward took us north in search of a leopard sighting.  We arrived to a mini-traffic jam but he managed to find us a fairly good spot to see the leopard with impala kill, lying on the bottom of a dry river bank.  Imagine our surprise and delight when a little cub tumbled into view!

leopard cub with impala kill

Another advantage to full-day game drives with a park ranger is the issue of time.  All gates have a 6:30 curfew and no matter where you are, you must give yourself enough time to get back to camp or face a hefty fine.  Rangers are not under the same restrictions.  As the afternoon wore on, cars began to leave in order to make it back to their respective camp or gate.  Edward was able to move our vehicle into the best possible viewing position just as the day turned to dusk.

leopard and cub in dry riverbed

We arrived back at Satara well after dark with another Big 5 day under our belts.  We were tired but absolutely ecstatic.

After five fairly intense days of animal viewing we decided a change of pace was in order.  On November 30 we drove north to Letaba to give Deb and Sheila a different perspective of the Kruger and  visit the Elephant Museum.  Letaba is a beautiful camp in a peaceful, quiet setting.  You can find the Big 5 in this area but you have to look harder for the animals.  We enjoyed a leisurely lunch overlooking the river and spent quite a bit of time in the museum.  It is very well-done, with beautiful graphics and loads of good information.

Letaba rest camp

Having seen all of the Big 5 multiple times and more lions than we could ever hope for, Deb was anxious to see her first hippo.  We found some grazing in the river just north of Letaba.  They were covered with green plants and water lilies so we affectionately dubbed them “Chia hippos.”

“Chia hippos”

December 1, 2018.  In addition to our full-day drive with Edward we had also scheduled an evening “Bush Braai.”  Our drive would be cut a little short in order for us to catch our breath and get ready for the night. We decided to swing by the lion kill on the S36 once again.  All that was left were a few bones and a now picked-clean skull.  Elephants had taken over the water hole.  One approached us, coming closer andcloserandcloser.  JET whispered “Edward … are we good?”   “We’re good, just stay calm,”  he replied.  The ellie stopped within two meters of the vehicle and just stood there, eyeing us.  None of us dared to even breathe.  Afterwards we all said “we should have taken a photo, we should have taken video, we should have tried a selfie!!” But in that moment we were, quite literally, awe-struck.  

Ellie close-up 

After a lunch and a short recess, we were back on the road at 4:30pm for a sunset drive, followed by the Bush Braai.  Soon into our drive we spied another bucket list first:  a giant kingfisher!

giant kingfisher on the S100

The afternoon sky turned a brilliant red as we watched the sun go down.

sunset on the S100

On our way to the braai spot Edward pointed out yet another Verreaux’s eagle owl, silhouetted against the evening sky.

Verreaux’s eagle owl at night

We arrived at the Bush Braai and much to our surprise and delight found a table set with linens and crystal.  It was an experience of a lifetime:  candle-light dinner under a blanket of stars so many you could barely see the sky.   An armed guard to escort you to & from a charming outhouse (also candle-light) serenaded by the roar of lions off in the distance.  At one point a hyena ran past our table, attracted by the smell of food.

So many stars you could barely see the sky (including shooting stars)

After dinner Edward suggested we drive home in the direction of the lion roars.  We found not-one-but-two “honeymoon couples” on the way back to camp.  It was truly a night we will never forget.

lions sleeping at the corner of the H7 and H1-3
male lion on the S100, around 9:30pm.  Edward said he was making all the noise during dinner

Our original reservation was for four full-day ranger guided drives.  But two things had happened during the week to change this.  First we found Edward to be both charming and entertaining:  an excellent spotter, very knowledgeable about the fauna and flora of the park, and with the good sense of humor needed to put up with our singing to the animals.  He was into it, calling out sightings for JET’s tally and singing along with us.  “Steenbok!” he’d call, no matter how many we’d seen.  “Kudu!”  “Impala!”  Secondly, that horrendous self-drive down the S39 left us literally and figuratively quite shook up.  We inquired if he might be available for a fifth guided drive on our last full day, Dec 2.  And he was!  Today was to be another long, full day.  Our plan was to drive south to Lower Sabie so that Deb and Sheila could experience the southern end of the park.  Our itinerary also included a late breakfast stop at the Skukuza Golf Club.

Deb & Sheila at Skukuza Golf Club with warthog

But first, Edward wanted to swing by the “honeymoon couple” from the night before.  We took a no-access short cut to the spot, and sure enough they were just a few meters off the road.  The “action”  was over within seconds and they both promptly fell asleep. Edward explained that this activity would go on for several days, until the female was satisfied that she was pregnant, and to give them 15-20 minutes.  Sure enough, about 15 minutes later the female signaled she was again ready.  We stayed for round two and then let other cars take their turn while we traveled south.

Sheila is an avid golfer so today was a special day for her.  While we were waiting for our food to arrive at the Skukuza Golf Club, she disappeared.  We looked out onto the course and there she was, asking a stranger if she could borrow his club to hit a ball.  He graciously obliged and Sheila took a swing on one of the most exotic golf courses in the world.

In the hole!

The day grew long and hot.  99 degrees hot.  There were many hippos at Sunset Dam but none were willing to do much more than break the surface of the water.  We headed to Lower Sabie’s Mugg & Bean restaurant for lunch.  JET had heard of resident owls at the restaurant and the waitress was happy to point them out sitting high in the rafters.

barn owl in the rafters at Mugg & Bean, Lower Sabie
lunch at the Mugg & Bean, Lower Sabie

After lunch we crossed the river to drive north via the H10.  And right at the bridge we spied, much to everyone’s delight, a very large hippo getting in and out of the water.  We all got close-up “money shots” of this beautiful animal as he crossed under the bridge directly below us.

The drive home included a quick stop at Tshokwane.  The restaurant was closed and the parking lot and men’s room had been taken over by a herd of elephants.  

ellies at the Tshokwane men’s room

We arrived back at Satara shortly after 6pm, another exciting Big 5 day.  It was time to finish up our packing so we could be on the road first thing the next morning.  We planned a leisurely drive south to Skukuza with enough time to stop for brunch at Tshokwane and get to the airport for our 1:30 flight back to JNB.

We dropped the keys in the box and were on our way by 4:30 the following morning.  After a quick drive west to look for wild dogs around Orpen, we pointed ourselves towards Skukuza for our final game drive of the trip.  The ellies were in the riverbed below Tshokwane and we spent our last morning in the Kruger observing these beautiful, magnificent creatures.

We didn’t shoot much video this trip but here are a few seconds of our magical last breakfast with the ellies:

Ellies in the riverbed below Tshokwane picnic site

This trip exceeded all expectation. We visited six different camps and saw over 450 unique animals sightings — not counting the number in any given herd or flock — everything from an African wild cat to Zebras.  We were blessed to see the Big 5 many times and lots of babies of all species:  lion cubs, leopard cub, ellie calves, impala calves, hyena cubs, and even two vulture chicks high in a nest.  

I have a T-shirt imprinted with “There is a little bit of Africa in all of us.”  And that is certainly true regarding the Kruger.  Once its magic captures your heart it stays with you forever.  We are already dreaming about the day we will return.

Muzandzeni picnic site

Flickr Albums:

Tall Guy 
https://www.flickr.com/photos/werdnanilmot/albums/72157704606565405

JET https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetomlin/albums/72157674505329987

p.s.  A brief note regarding rhinos.  As in the past, we have avoided mentioning any specifics in this blog.  Poaching is still a huge problem in the Kruger and rangers are fighting what has been termed a war.  God bless the guys who are out there every day and night!  We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

anti-poaching rangers waiting for morning pick up after being out all night

A Whale of a Good Time (…in search of Humpback Whales along Ecuador’s coast)

From Wikipedia:  “The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a species of baleen whale. One of the larger rorqual species, adults range in length from 12–16 m (39–52 ft) and weigh around 25–30 metric tons (28–33 short tons). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobbly head. It is known for breaching and other distinctive surface behaviors, making it popular with whale watchers. Males produce a complex song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating.

Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 km (16,000 mi) each year. They feed in polar waters, and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth, fasting and living off their fat reserves. Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net technique.

Like other large whales, the humpback was a target for the whaling industry. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, its population fell by an estimated 90% before a 1966 moratorium. While stocks have partially recovered to some 80,000 animals worldwide, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships and noise pollution continue to impact the species.”

SONY DSC

In 2005, JET and I visited Boston for the marathon, which she was participating in that Patriot’s Day.  We added a few days for sightseeing, and went on a whale watching excursion on a large boat similar to this:

catamaran

(courtesy of  Boston Harbor Cruises)

We were crammed on the boat with perhaps 100 other tourists hoping for a glimpse of a humpback whale.  Tours like this one leave every few hours on most days, and cost $50 or more per adult.  We did see whales during the tour, although mostly of their backs, and from quite a distance…let’s just say that our whale watching appetite was not satisfied.

Fast forward to 2010.  We visited Bahia de Caraquez on the coast of Ecuador for 10 days.  While there, we inquired about whale watching possibilities in Ecuador.  “Oh, not here…” we were told.  “…you must visit Puerto Lopez down the coast…that’s where to see las ballenas…”

When we got home, we immediately started to research Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village  with about 20,000 inhabitants, set in an arched bay on the Pacific coast in the Ecuadorian Manabí Province. Puerto Lopéz is the Machalilla National Park headquarters. The main industries include fishing and ecotourism, including humpback whale watching.

_DSC0001 1

In June each year, younger male humpbacks begin to arrive in the warm waters off of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, after a 7,500 mile migration from Antarctic waters, where they spend six months of each year feeding.  The next group are the adult males, followed by the females in mid July, many nearing the end of their gestation and soon to give birth.  These gentle giants remain here until October, where they engage in mating behavior and give birth to their calves.  There are so many in these waters that it is not uncommon to see them from shore.

mouth

The Telegraph posted a recent article stating that whale watching tours can be arranged in no fewer than 119 countries around the world.  Adventure seekers from all over descend on this sleepy town to see “las ballenas” because Puerto Lopez is arguably the most cost effective destination for some intimate, incredible whale watching.  What follows is a primer for humpback whale watching in Puerto Lopez, including a “soup to nuts” cost estimate and plenty of photos and videos taken by me and JET in July & August 2018.

A note regarding money and costs: Ecuador has been on the US dollar since around 2000.  This is great if you are from the US.  First, there are no foreign currency fluctuations, and second, your US dollars have strong purchasing power in Ecuador.  Be advised, however, that credit cards are seldom used, especially away from larger cities.  This is due to the hefty surcharges added by businesses, as much as 10%.  Cash is king in Ecuador, and make sure you have a lot of small bills so you don’t have to receive change back.  Additionally, make sure that your paper money is fairly new, and has no tears or missing pieces.  For our recent 3 week stay, we brought about $2,400 in cash for spending money, including $500 in small bills ($10’s, $5’s and $1’s), and used nearly all of it.  The only costs paid for with a credit card were the whale watching trips that will be discussed later.

Our budget and (actual) for two people for 21 days was $2,456, broken down as follows:

Meals, including alcohol and tips (Ecuadorian beer is quite good)  $760 ($721)

Lodging at Hosteria Itapoa, 20 nights with free late check out on last day:  $800 ($800)

Tips for whale tours and Itapoa team:  $80.00 ($274)

Taxi from/to GYE:  $200.00 ($210)

Miscellaneous spending for souvenirs, water, etc:  $616.00  ($65)

Total land cost excluding whale tours:  $2,456 ($2,070).  The average actual per day land cost was less than $100 for two of us, and we came home with $384 in cash.   This was for 3 weeks, and we never felt like we were pinching pennies.

SONY DSC

Getting There

Most people fly into either Quito (UIO, 3.5 hour flight from Miami) or Guayaquil (GYE, 4 hour flight from Miami).  In the US, Miami is a great hub for South/Central America travel, with multiple nonstop options to UIO or GYE.  During whale season, nonstop economy and business class fares to either UIO or GYE are currently around $600 and $1,200, respectively.  The closest airports to Puerto Lopez are in Manta (2.5 hours by taxi) and Guayaquil (3.5 hours by taxi).  Manta airport (MEC) can be reached from Quito direct via a 40 minute flight and costs around $80 for a one way fare.  Most of the flights from GYE to Manta connect through UIO, making this option impractical.

If flying into Quito, an overnight stay near UIO may be required, since there are limited flights to and from Manta each day, and connection times make it hard for same day travel to Manta.  A private taxi can be arranged from UIO to Puerto Lopez.  The trip will take about 9 hours and cost $200 or more one way.  Having taken that route once, we do not recommend it unless you just want an adventure.  From Manta to Puerto Lopez, a private taxi will cost about $50.

Flying into Guayaquil is a better choice.  Instead of either a 9 hour taxi from UIO or an overnight stay in Quito, a short flight the next day to Manta, and finally a taxi to Puerto Lopez, you can take a taxi immediately from GYE to Puerto Lopez for about $100.  It is a 3.5 hour trip, and a taxi can be arranged at any time of the day or night.  On one visit, our taxi driver met our flight arriving GYE  at 2AM, and we made it to Puerto Lopez for an early breakfast!!!

Taxis from either Manta or Guayaquil can be arranged by the hotel or hosteria you will be staying at.  Just make sure that you are clear with the hotel how many people and pieces of luggage will be involved.  Many of the vehicles in Ecuador are quite small.

DSC09964

Where to Stay

Quito Airport (UIO)

SONY DSC

If you fly into Quito, chances are that you will need to overnight in Quito before taking a short flight to Manta the next day.  The new airport is quite a distance from the city, which involves a much higher taxi fare and as long as 90 minutes each way, depending on traffic.  A better option is to stay at Quito Airport Suites, an inexpensive hotel in Tababela, a small town 10 minutes from the airport.  Taxi fare one way is $8 from airport to the hotel and $5 from the hotel to the airport.  These prices are per group, not per person. The rooms are comfortable and affordable, less than $40 per night.  They also offer simple meals for a reasonable price.

Puerto Lopez

DSC09984SONY DSC

In the past 10 years, the number of hostels, hotels, airbnb’s and apartments in Puerto Lopez has increased dramatically.  What you will find is a dizzying array of choices, from $10 per night bed space in a dorm style room and shared bath to an entire home with ocean views for around $100 per night, and many choices in between.  Many include a simple breakfast in the price, and usually charge per person rates.

Our choice for each of our many visits to Puerto Lopez has been Hosteria Itapoa, a sublime oasis owned and operated by the Nieto family.  Here you will find a number of private cabañas with en suite baths, ceiling fans, hammocks and some even have air conditioning.  The price is $40 per night for two people, including breakfast each day (eggs, baguettes, fresh fruit, fresh juice and coffee), served in an open air cabaña overlooking the new malecon and ocean.  Dorm rooms with shared baths are less.  The grounds are beautiful and secure.  WIFI is available at no extra cost, but don’t expect 5G speeds.  Maria Nieto will take good care of you during your visit, and can help arrange a number of activities, including tours and taxi service to/from airports or other destinations.  Laundry service is available for $2 per kg.  They only accept cash.

SONY DSC

(Pelucon and Africa, two of the resident dogs…our cabaña can be seen on the left)

Eating

DSC06276

(Aloha Cafe veggie burgers)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Ecuador is very inexpensive.  Your dollar goes a long way here.  The farther away you get from Quito, Guayaquil or Cuenca, the cheaper it is.  Puerto Lopez is loaded with restaurants of all kinds.  Now, even vegetarians are being shown some love at many places.  There are even a couple places offering vegan fare.  I could go on for an hour about all of the decent restaurants, but the best thing to do is just walk around.  Most restaurants have someone standing outside with menus to look at.  Check out Tripadvisor’s reviews….and don’t be afraid to try the more local establishments…they are usually really good and cheap.

Breakfast is included in the nightly rate at many hotels and hostels.  Don’t expect a Denny’s Grand Slam, though.  You will get a nice serving of incredibly fresh fruit, including naturally ripened bananas instead of the artificially ripened and tasteless ones in the States.  Also, a glass of fresh squeezed fruit juice that can change daily, scrambled or fried eggs, a couple of flaky baguettes and perhaps some coffee. (Note:  if you are a coffee hound, do some research for hostels with good coffee – hard to come by in Ecuador.  Otherwise , your coffee may be a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafe).

If you want something different for breakfast, there are several places offering crepes, pancakes and traditional “Manabita” breakfast made from eggs, cheese and plantains….I really liked it, JET not so much…

Breakfast Recommendations:

Cafe Dinoflagelado, crepes, juice and smoothies, north end of the Malecon, good coffee

Aloha Cafe for pancakes, good coffee, american breakfast…try the Manabita!!!

Lunch and Dinner are available at many more restaurants in Puerto Lopez, as well as at the fish and produce markets.  Meals at either of those venues are even cheaper.  There are also a number of street food carts along the malecon with inexpensive food.  The risk taken when eating food from either market or street vendors is that your digestive system might not fair well if the sanitary preparations were lacking.  It takes a while to adjust to local bacteria, and you might pay for your adventurous gastronomy.  Best to stick with restaurants.

Fish is available everywhere, some of the freshest you will ever have.  There are all kinds of fish, and it is cooked in many different ways, from ceviche, to fried to “la plancha” or broiled.  Other seafood is also readily available, from shrimp to calamari to lobster to octopus.  A seafood dinner at most restaurants consists of a nice portion of your chosen seafood, a small salad, a side of rice and either patacones (fried green plantains) or papas (french fries).  The cost will be around $6 – $7, depending on the restaurant.   Our favorite “Ecuadorian” restaurant is Spondylus, which has a large menu, cheap prices and a good vegetarian selection, such as the splendid vegetarian rice dish below.

DSC06202

Ceviche is its own little world.  Ecuadorians love ceviche prepared with many different seafoods, but fish is probably the most popular choice.  Ceviche Pescado (fish) costs  $4 – $6, depending on the restaurant, and includes a bowl of ceviche, several fresh garnishes to mix in (tomato, cilantro, peppers, onions, etc) and a portion of patacones or papas.  You can also order a portion of rice to mix in with it.  An interesting note about ceviche is that Ecuadorians rarely eat it for dinner, mainly breakfast and also lunch.  Not to worry, though…I happily ate ceviche for many dinners there.

DSC06203

(Ceviche pescado at Spondylus, with a side of rice and patacones)

There are many other alternatives to fish in Puerto Lopez.  Excellent pizza can be found at several places for a reasonable price.  Our favorite is Porto del Forno, located very close to Hosteria Itapoa.  They are only open for dinner a few hours each night.  The crust is thin and light, the toppings fresh and not overloaded.  An individual size pizza runs from $9 – $12, depending on the ingredients.  This is expensive by Puerto Lopez standards, but it is delicious, and the ambience is relaxed and intimate, a nice change from the noisy part of the malecon further south. Note:  this restaurant will move several blocks north in September 2018, but will definitely still be worth trying.

SONY DSC

(pizza vegetariana at Forno del Porto)

Casa Vecchia is a long standing Italian restaurant in Puerto Lopez that we have visited many times over the years.  Everything is made from scratch, the atmosphere is sublime, and the hosts and service are marvelous.  It is one of the most expensive meals you will eat while visiting Puerto Lopez, but quite reasonable for the quality by U.S. standards.  Go ahead…have a “date night” and spend a couple hours eating superb pasta or pizza and listening to blues…

(Casa Vecchia, fettunta garlic bread, pizza vegetariana, fettucine al pesto)

For a Colombian gastronomic delight, be sure to check out Patacon Pisa’o, another long standing restaurant located on the plaza just off the malecon.  The star of the show here is the patacon, made from plantains, in several different ways.  The owners are friendly and speak very good English, the food is excellent and the portions are huge.  Dinner here with a shared bottle of beer will set you back $20 – $25 with tip, and you will not leave hungry.

DSC06266

(Patacon Pisa’o, vegetarian skewers with salad & papas, beans with cheese and hoga’o sauce, papas and a cerveza)

In summary, food is quite cheap in Puerto Lopez.  We averaged $34 a day for meals, including drinks and tips, for our 21 day stay.  That average is actually high, because we ate at the pricier Forno del Porto and Patacon Pisa’o three times each and Casa Vecchia once.  If you stick with the more typical restaurants, the average will drop considerably.

And now, about those Whales…

_DSC8194

Puerto Lopez offers a variety of different things to do during your visit.  It is the gateway to Machalilla National Park.  There are horseback amd hiking tours into the jungle to see birds and monkeys, Agua Blanca is an interesting, centuries old village with significant historical aspects, and from November to May, the coast of Ecuador in general, and Puerto Lopez in particular, is a beachgoer’s dream, with ample sun, wide beaches such as Los Frailes, as well as great surfing.  The countryside is green as an emerald.

That being said, from June to mid-October each year, humpback whale watching is king.  That is because thousands of these exquisite animals inhabit the relatively shallow waters off of Puerto Lopez.  Walk down the malecon any day during this period, and you will surely be asked by several people if you want to see “las ballenas”.  In fact, there are dozens of tour operators in Puerto Lopez offering whale watching trips, and it can be a daunting decision to pick which one and what type of trip.

There are two types of whale watching trips available.  The least expensive is a three hour +/- trips, with mostly morning and some afternoon departures.  These boats are usually around 38 feet and can have as many as 20 tourists sandwiched on board.  The cost is $25 per person, and includes whale watching, snorkeling and spotting blue footed boobies at Salango Ialand and a drink and snack.  On these tours, the actual time spent watching whales is perhaps an hour on most days.  This is because the whales are not readily present until the boat gets away from shore, perhaps 15 – 20 minutes or so.  Another hour is allocated to getting to the snorkeling sight, setting up and breaking down the snorkels.  We went on many of these trips early in our visits to Puerto Lopez, and they were fun and exhilarating – at least until we got bored seeing dorsal fins and tails, but rarely any breaching.  If you have never gone whale watching before, or if you don’t care about getting money shot photos of breaches, these short tours deliver a lot for low cost.  If you want this type of encounter…

SONY DSC
Male humpback breaching close to Isla de la Plata

….you will most likely want to take the other type of whale watching tour available, a full day visit to Isla de la Plata, the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” about 25 miles off shore from Puerto Lopez.  $46 will buy you an 8+ hour, full day boat ride to and from Isla de la Plata, and includes (usually, but depending on conditions) morning and afternoon whale watching, a pre-hike snack while you stop and see dozens of Green Pacific Sea Turtles once at the island, two to three hours of hiking on the island, with several trails, close encounters with Blue Footed Boobies and other birds, lunch, excellent snorkeling and another snack.  It is quite simply a bargain…

JET and I have gone out with many different tour operators over the years.  Some were quite good, some not so much.  The best of all of them, hands down, is Palo Santo Travel.  I will post the text from JET’s Tripadvisor review of Palo Santo, because I certainly can’t improve on her splendid words…

SONY DSC

“Every year from June through September humpback whales congregate off the waters of Puerto Lopez to mate and give birth. There are a couple dozen tour companies offering either ½ or full day trips to see these majestic creatures. But for the best whale experience there is only one option: Palo Santo Travel. The owner, Cristina Castro, is a marine biologist who has partnered with the Pacific Whale Foundation. She has assembled the best team: best captain, best sailor, best guides, and (more often than not) a marine biologist along for the ride — primarily to observe & document the activity but also available to answer questions and interpret what you are seeing. They also have an underwater listening device for whale songs. (They don’t always bring it so be sure to check beforehand)

Although everyone on the Palo Santo team has years of experience, they are incredibly passionate about the whales and will be as excited as you when one suddenly surfaces beside the boat. Never once have we seen them exploit the whales in any way. The whales always come first.

Capt Jaime has a sixth sense when it comes to spotting active whales and will put you on that adult breaching multiple times, the momma with calf, or a pod swimming with dolphins. And he will never scrimp on time: if you’re on good activity he stays – even if it means getting to Isla de la Plata later than the other boats or getting back to Puerto Lopez long after everyone else. He also knows how to keep the boat steady for photographers and follow along perfectly as the whales travel through the water. He will even move the boat around the whales if the light is not ideal.

SONY DSC

The hike on Isla is always fun. Guides Silvano and Galo know it well and even after multiple visits we still learned something new every day. They are excellent guides who also diligently guard the safety and well-being of the many beautiful birds.

Everything about this company is top-notch and professional, from Laritza who manages the office to Stalin the sailor always available to lend a hand while also keeping the engines running. The full day tours include whale watching to/from Isla de la Plata, hiking on the island, snorkeling near the island, turtle watching, snacks, and lunch. The $46 price is by far the best bang for your buck.

In 2018 Cristina also added “Scientifico” tours which include another 2-3 hours of whale watching during the island hike. For that duration it’s basically a private tour and increases your chances of seeing whale activity. The $80 price for this tour is incredibly reasonable and if you are looking for that perfect shot it is highly recommended.

double breach

Muchas Gracias mis amigos. Hasta Pronto!”

Well, that about sums it up…Puerto Lopez is a magical place all year, but especially when the Humpback Whales visit each June – October.  I will leave you with some more of our favorite images from our trip.  Enjoy!

Whale Images

Whale Videos

Isla de La Plata Images

Isla de la Plata Videos

Puerto Lopez

Here are links for a complete set of JET and Tall Guy’s images from this trip…

Off We Went To The White Continent…

 

 

 

SONY DSC

JET and I have always had a sense of wanderlust, a deep desire to travel to the four corners of our earth.  A couple years ago, we finally bit the bullet and reserved a cabin on an expedition cruise to Antarctica, the White Continent.  Antarctica has been on our travel bucket list for decades, for good reasons:  1) Antarctica is not easy to get to.  It involves two days at a minimum to reach the port city of Ushuaia, at the very bottom of Argentina,

ushuaia

then another two days crossing the Drake Passage, arguably the roughest body of water in the world.

Plancius proposed sailing route

2)  the window of opportunity for a visit is short, from Mid November through March.  3)  Accordingly, it is quite expensive, due to 1 and 2 above.

Most tour operators open up itineraries as far out as two years from the embarkation date, primarily to allow enough time for normal folks to save up coin and pay for the trip over time.  There is no turning back now…the trip is fully paid for, our bags are packed with assorted clothing that is quite foreign to most Floridians…

warm clothes

…and we head for the airport in a matter of days…

Rumor has it that we will have internet access during the cruise.  I plan to keep a daily journal of our journey, and post updates each day, if possible….next up…..Buenos Aires, Argentina…hasta pronto!!!

Buenos-Aires

Interesting Facts about Antarctica

  1.  About 37,000 people visit Antarctica each year, which is approximately .0005% of the world’s current population.  About 5,000 people live on Antarctica during the summer, and only 500 year round.
  2. The largest land animal in Antarctica is an insect, a wingless midge, Belgica antarctica, less than 13mm (0.5in) long. There are no flying insects (they’d just get blown away), just shiny black springtails that hop like fleas and often live among penguin colonies.
  3. If Antarctica’s ice sheets melted, the worlds oceans would rise by 60 to 65 meters (200 – 210ft) – everywhere.
  4. Antarctica is the best place in the world to find meteorites. Dark meteorites show up against the white expanse of ice and snow and don’t get covered by vegetation. In some places, the way the ice flows concentrates meteorites there. The ice makes them gather in one place.
  5. It has been estimated that during the feeding season in Antarctica, a full grown blue whale eats about 4 million krill per day (krill are small shrimp-like creatures), that’s 3600 kg or 4 tons – every day for 6 months. Having laid down a layer of fat from this feeding activity in Antarctica, they then starve for several months.This daily intake would feed a human for about 4 years! If you could stomach it. Krill may be nutritious but they’re not very nice as people food – which is lucky for the whales!
  6. Antarctica is the only continent with no native species of ants, and no reptiles.
  7. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius), registered on July 21, 1983, at Antarctica’s Vostok station.
  8. The average thickness of Antarctic ice is about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers).
  9. In January 1979, Emile Marco Palma became the first child born on the southernmost continent. Argentina sent Palma’s pregnant mother to Antarctica in an effort to claim a portion of the continent.
  10. The male Emperor penguin is the only warm-blooded animal that remains on the Antarctic continent through the winter. It stays to nest on the single egg laid by its mate (the female spends nine weeks at sea and returns in time for the egg to hatch).
  11. The Antarctic Peninsula, which juts out into warmer waters north of Antarctica, has warmed 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1950, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. That’s about five times the rate of warming measured for the rest of the world, according to NASA.
  12. Antarctica is the largest desert in the world.
  13. 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of the world’s fresh water is in Antarctica.
  14. No sitting U.S. president has visited Antarctica.
  15. Every year, a half marathon, marathon and a 100K run take place in Antarctica despite an average wind chill of -20°C, or -4F.
  16. There are more than 40 airports in Antarctica.
  17. You cannot work in Antarctica unless your wisdom teeth and appendix are removed.
  18. Antarctica (technically) contains every time zone on the planet.

12/14 & 12/15/2017 Away We Go!!!

We dropped Ellie at Cyndi’s home in Plantation for her first sleepover away from home in 11 years.

We continued on to MIA, and arrived at the Aerolineas Argentinas check-in counters four hours before our departure time.  One important note regarding travel to Latin America:  Better not be in a hurry, because they are not in any hurry at all.  We stood in a quite lengthy line for over 30 minutes before they even opened up the counter stations, and it took us 90 minutes total to check in and clear security.  We struck out at both the Delta Sky Club and the Priority Pass Lounge.  The one drawback to getting free “memberships” via certain credit cards is that the clubs can refuse entry for basically any reason.  We have been fortunate up to this point….c’est la vie…

Our very full flight included two of the narrowest, cramped seats we have encountered in 35 years of travel.  I could barely fit into the narrow seat, and it was physically impossible to have my knees within my seat boundary.  I kept my left leg in the aisle the entire flight, moving only when the carts came through.  Accordingly,  I basically did not sleep at all, because I had to get up every 90 minutes or so to “un-sleep” my leg joints.  JET and I plan to make every reasonable effort to fly business class going forward on any flights over 6 hours in length.

We landed on time in Buenos Aires.  90 minutes later, we met the car and driver waiting for us and arrived at the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt by 7:00 AM.  The travel gods took some pity on us, and we were able to check into our room right away…I highly recommend this hotel.  Splendid rooms, excellent service and location, good food.  The rack rates are pricey, but if you belong to the Hyatt Rewards program, you can get a $700 room for free with 20,000 points or $125 and 10,000 points.  We had enough time before our tour of the city at 9AM to change clothes, freshen up and have a nice breakfast overlooking the hotel gardens…

We booked a 7 hour full day city tour with toursbylocals.com.  It was $460 for a private tour with a knowledgeable, English speaking guide with car.  The only exclusions were our lunch and bottled water.  Andres met us promptly at 9AM…over the next 7 hours we visited the following Buenos Aires attractions:

Plaza de Mayo, site of many current demonstrations, Pope Francis’ former Buenos Aires Cathedral and the Government House where Eva Peron made many speeches.

La Boca/Caminito – the old port area where the “Tango” dance was born, also home to colorful homes with walls made from corrugated metal, and many beautiful murals.

San Telmo – a neighborhood famous for its many antique stores, and markets.  We had a superb lunch of home made empanadas followed by Alfajores de Chocolat dessert cookies.

The widest Avenue in the world, 9 de Julio, 16 lanes across, the Obelisco and the Buenos Aires Opera House.

Recoleta Cemetery walking tour, including Eva Peron’s mausoleum and the mausoleum of Rufina Cambaceres, the “woman who died twice”.

Palermo neighborhood, filled with embassies and old money mansions.

Rio De La Plata Estuary river park.

We returned to our hotel at 345PM, thoroughly exhausted after 24 hours of travel and touring.  After cleaning up and looking through our pictures, we decided to order room service for dinner.  40 hours without sleep will do that to you…..on to Ushuaia in the morning…buenas noches!!!

 

DSC05112

 

12/16/2017  – Ushuaia, Argentina (The End of the World)

We left the comfort of our heavenly Buenos Aires hotel after a hearty breakfast and headed to Aeroparque Jorge Newberry for a mid morning flight to Ushuaia, some 1,600 miles south of Buenos Aires.

DSC05119.jpg

DSC05135.jpg

DSC05141.jpg

Ushuaia is the southernmost city in Argentina, and a jumping off point for Antarctica expeditions.  The brisk wind and very cool temps hit us quickly,  a harbinger of the weather ahead for the next two weeks.

We took a taxi up,up,up to our home for the next two nights, the Arakur Resort & Spa, a newish, beautifully designed property about 20 minutes and 1,000 feet up the mountain from town.  This place is not cheap, but for the view, facilities and comfort, it is quite the place to relax for a couple nights pre-cruise.  We were fortunate enough to secure two nights on the front end and one night after the cruise by cashing in some credit card points.  The room for the night at the end of the trip does not have the channel view shown below, but sometimes one must just suck it up…

Arakur-ushuaia-resort-spa-1

The property sits on a reserve of a couple hundred acres with hiking trails in the foothills.  Included in the room rate are several free daily hikes led by guides…we signed up for the late afternoon one…there is also a full spa, pool and fitness center, and a free hourly shuttle to/from town….

JET and I have been blessed with some incredible journeys over the last 35 years….this one is shaping up to be at the top of the list, and we are barely into it…

A Room with a View

room 210 view of Ushuaia

The view of Ushuaia from room 210…very high tech room…the curtains are motorized and can be set to open and close at certain times of the day…

room 210

There is a king sized bed, plenty of seating and many outlets…

room 210 3

The bathroom has a separate rain shower, dual vanity sink and a huge soaking tob with that view…

DSC04540.jpg

We moved the desk in front of the picture window so we could both work at our laptops…

More to follow after our hike…

Afternoon Hike with Daniella from the Arakur Resort

We went on a 2 hour hike through the preserve surrounding the hotel with another couple and Daniella, one of the hotel guides.   The fresh,cold mountain air is intoxicating.  We saw peat bogs, lichens that will only grow in areas that has essentially pollution free air, trees that fell over and fused with other trees instead of dying, a very out of place cow skull and beautiful birds that followed us on our trek….what a wonderful way to spend an afternoon….please enjoy some photos from our hike…

12/17/2017  A Day of Rest and Reflection, with an eye toward Embarkation Day…

The Arakur Hotel was a great choice to unwind after 48 hours of long travel.  Everything about this place is about minimizing stress, claustrophobia and rushed feelings.  The public spaces are enormous, with 12 foot floor to ceiling windows looking out over the Beagle Channel below…

Looking toward the mammoth sitting areas from the front desk.  There are dozens of very comfortable chairs and sofas in three separate areas…the farthest room in the distance is where the bar is, which also is a splendid place for lunch…

DSC05169

The restaurant is equally spacious, probably capacity for 200 diners, and the tables are spaced well apart from one another….a lot of thought was placed on these areas, and how to create a tranquil environment…

Guests can explore the hotel grounds in relative solitude…the fresh mountain air is intoxicating…or perhaps spend an hour or six in the pool and spa,complete with swim under outdoor infinity pool and hot tub, with majestic mountains as your backdrop…

_DSC2077

***

After breakfast, we took a shorter hike up to the summit above the hotel, since the skies were relatively clear and the sun was out…

We then decided to take the complimentary shuttle down the mountain to town and explore a bit.  Unbeknownst to us, not much is open at all on Domingo.  We still enjoyed walking around this quirky little port town…

After walking around for a couple of hours, we decided to stop at a small panaderia for some café negro…..on a whim, we decided to partake of the national beverage, “mate” (pronounced mah-tay)…  from Wikipedia:  “Mate is traditionally drunk in a particular social setting, such as family gatherings or with friends. The same gourd (cuia) and straw (bomba/bombilla) are used by everyone drinking. One person (known in Portuguese as the preparador, cevador, or patrão, and in Spanish as the cebador) assumes the task of server. Typically, the cebador fills the gourd and drinks the mate completely to ensure that it is free of particulate matter and of good quality. In some places, passing the first brew of mate to another drinker is considered bad manners, as it may be too cold or too strong; for this reason, the first brew is often called mate del zonzo (mate of the fool). ”

I second the notion that the first brew is often called “mate of the fool”, because I felt pretty foolish after a few swigs of this beverage…perhaps it is an acquired taste…

We quickly asked the waiter for dos café negro, por favor…

Next up:  Embarkation Day!!!

ushuaia cruise ship dock

12/18/2017 – Embarkation aboard m/v Plancius

SONY DSC

The photo above was taken from the bridge observation deck aboard m/v Plancius, our home for the next 11 nights.  Plancius is an ice rated former research vessel that now accommodates around 100 passengers during both Arctic and Antarctic voyages.  Although not at all swanky, Plancius offers comfortable cabins, roomy common areas, 24 hour coffee, tea, hot chocolate and snacks.  The bar in the lounge is reasonably priced.  Meals are served in a somewhat cramped dining room.  Breakfast is always buffet style, lunch and dinner are served both plated and buffet equally.  The food is plentiful, if on the bland side.  Vegetarians will struggle to find much variety over an almost 2 week voyage.  Vegans?  Hahahahahahahahahahaha…fugeddaboudit…

Top and bottom left:  our cabin;  Bottom center:  dining room;  Bottom right: obervation lounge

We arrived at the pier late afternoon, and breezed through “security”…..because there was no security.  No one checked our passports or ship boarding documents, either at the main entrance or at the ship gangway.  I know it is the small port of Ushuaia versus the Miami cruise port, but it was odd that they let us on without confirming our identity at the very least…

Plancius set sail shortly after 6 PM local time.  By this time, most passengers had unpacked and stowed their luggage, and had congregated in the observation lounge to mingle.  First up was a mandatory lifeboat drill complete with survival life vests and a tour of the two lifeboats, each capable of carrying 63 passengers.

2017-12-18 - Leaving Ushuaia Esther Kokmeijer-12.jpg

Next, we celebrated embarkation with the ship and expedition teams in the lounge over a champagne toast.  Dinner was served afterward.

One of the odd things about summer at the end of the world is that it stays light very late, and never really gets pitch dark.  After dinner, most guests were either in the lounge or out on deck, watching the Beagle Channel drift by – Argentina to the north, Chile to the south.  We spent time chatting with other guests and enjoying the anticipation of the journey ahead.  One interesting thing about a trip to Antarctica is that most of the passengers are very well traveled.  it was not uncommon to meet people who had traveled to over 100 countries, and about half of the ship’s passengers were visiting their seventh and final continent on this voyage.  No less than 3 other ships departed around the same time as Plancius.  Here are some images from the first evening at sea…

12/19 & 12/20/2017 – The Drake Passage

A cup of tea during the outbound Drake crossing…

The Drake Passage is arguably the roughest body of water in the world.  The Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans converge, with little land to impair their currents.  As a result, 50 foot seas are not at all uncommon.  Hence, the affectionate nicknames for the Drake Passage, the “Drake Shake” and the “Drake Lake”.  Which of these one experiences during a voyage to Antarctica comes down to luck.  We were fortunate going both ways.  The outbound journey was sportier, perhaps a 3 or 4 on a 10 point scale, with a 10 being 50 foot waves.  The return sail was much more calm, perhaps a 1 or 2, and we made great time…

During the roughest parts, the Captain of Plancius closed access to the outside decks, except for the bridge deck.  There are barf bags located all over the ship, and the crew tied these nifty 2 inch thick rope rails in 3 sections of the lounge.  There were times where one could not walk 5 feet without grabbing onto something.  Sitting in a chair in the dining room meant sliding into your neighbor.  A cabin bed became a vibrating massage table.  Here are a couple of videos about 24 and 48 hours into the voyage, the latter of which is just as we can see the outer islands of Antarctica…

JET’s optimistic view

Sporty seas coming into sight of land…

12/21/2017 – Land Ho!!!  Bramsfield Strait to the Neumayer Channel

We woke up to the sight of land for the first time in over 2 days….vast mountains and glaciers, not a speck of green to be found, nor any hint of civilization.  The tone among the passengers was electric as we ate breakfast.  This would be our first zodiac excursion to land…technically one of the outer islands and not the Antarctic peninsula itself, but exciting, nonetheless…here is a map of the actual route of our voyage, the area we would spend the next week in, and some photos of our fist glimpse of the white continent…

IMG_20171228_072441[1]

Antarctica Map.jpg

Our first zodiac landing was at Damoy Point.  Zodiac landings in Antarctica are somewhat laborious.  First, you have to put on several layers of warm clothing.  Next comes a water and windproof outer layer, as well as waterproof boots, gloves, hat, perhaps goggles.  Then, we each had to put on the mandatory zodiac life vest, which had to be completely fastened.  Finally, if you were bringing a backpack, it had to be worn so that BOTH HANDS are free.  No slinging it casually over your shoulder.

Once ashore, there were some historical huts to look at, as well as many Gentoo penguin colonies and the penguin highway where Gentoo’s were making their way back and forth to the water. Expedition team members mark the path we are allowed to hike on, and wildlife always has the right of way. We walked past several Gentoo colonies and up to a point called Tombstone Hill where we got a great view of the bay. Ester, one of the Expedition team,  took the photographers to see the penguins and helped her group to take some beautiful pictures. The mountaineering group climbed a ridge directly across the bay from us.  The kayakers were blown out for day one because of strong winds.  After a couple of hours, it was time to return to Plancius for lunch….

After lunch, our second landing of the day was a split landing between Port Lockroy on Goudier Island and Jougla Point. At Port Lockroy, we were able to visit the famous Penguin Post Office and send postcards back to friends and family.  After the post office, we were able to watch Gentoo penguins nesting and some lucky ones were able to see their first Gentoo chicks only a few days old. At Jougla Point we hiked up the ridge to incredible views and more colonies of nesting Gentoo penguins.  After several hours, we returned to the ship for hot chocolate and conversation before the day’s recap and dinner…

12/22/2017 – Cuverville Island and Danco Island

Plancius traversed the Errera Channel overnight, and we were already positioned opposite Cuverville Island by morning, which was to be the location of our first landing, and regarded as having one of the largest rookeries of Gentoo penguins in all of Antarctica.

Conditions in the bay were smooth and the landing was easy. We spent the morning exploring the shore of the island between the various penguin colonies.  The penguins at Cuverville were in the beginning stages of nesting, most still sitting on eggs and putting the final touches to their pebble nests. Numerous brown skuas were circling looking for an easy lunch of an unguarded egg.

After a few hours, we headed back to Plancius for a buffet lunch, but no sooner had we finished was it time to get ready for the afternoons landing at Danco Island.  Snowshoes had been brought ashore, and made the walk a bit easier through the soft snow.  Expedition team leaders led the hike around the island and up to the summit,  and there were even more Gentoo penguins right at the top. The views from the plateau were stunning.

Once the group was gathered back at the shore, it was time for the infamous ‘Polar Plunge’ so those mad enough to brave the icy water got themselves changed. About forty brave souls stripped off and took the plunge.  After the plunge, the group headed back on board Plancius.  Soon, it was time for our daily recap, followed by another dinner filled with conversation about the day…

39498117711_482729db59_o

12/23/2017 – Lemaire Channel, Pléneau Island and Port Charcot

The day started very special with a cruise through the Lemaire Channel. Lemaire is known as the most scenic channel in the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s also known as the Kodak Gap, because of the many photos that are taken here. Although often inaccessible due to ice early in the summer our Captain navigated the channel relatively easily, and we were able to enjoy the fabulous views that the narrow channel has to offer.

Plancius anchored off Booth Island, allowing for an ice cruise with the zodiacs. This whole area is known as Iceberg Alley or an iceberg graveyard due the shallow nature of the area, and the huge icebergs that get stranded here during the season.  It is often difficult to get the ship very far into the bay area. The light was perfect, with icebergs were sticking out in front of the dark sky. Unfortunately, the wind speed increased during the first cruise, making the zodiac rides very bumpy, and most everyone got wet. It certainly made for a challenging photography session.

In the afternoon we made a landing on Pleneau Island which is around 1.2 km long. From the cobbled beach on the eastern coast, smooth rock terraces slope gently upwards towards a large crevassed ice‐cap, which covers the western two‐thirds of the island. At the landing site a colony of Gentoo penguins welcomed us. The walk over the ice cap lead us towards the northern end of the island where Blue‐eyed shags were nesting. Half way along the walk was a small colony of Gentoo penguins and there apparently was one Adélie penguin hanging out with the Gentoos.

12/24/2017 – Base Brown & Stony Point

Flanked by icebergs to both sides, Plancius inched her way through the Ferguson Channel.  Crabeater seals were lounging on some ice floes.

We finally reached Paradise Harbor to find that it truly lives up to its name. It was totally calm, and the glaciers and ice peaks were mirrored in the flat water. At Base Brown we went ashore, stepping for the first time on the Antarctic continent.  Here lies the remains of the base that was set aflame by the station doctor in 1984 because he didn’t want to spend another winter there. Base Brown was unoccupied for many years, and now it only operates in the summer.  Argentinians were due to arrive in a week.

After some time ashore we went Zodiac cruising. Some humpback whales were spotted and some Zodiacs even got close to them. On this cruise we saw many blue eyed shags (cormorants) nested high in the cliffs above us,  and many glaciers.