Thursday, July 5, 2007

Back Home and Summary

We are back home now and struggling to remember not to put the loo paper in the bin beside the toilet but in the toilet bowl, to use tap water to brush our teeth and not grab a bottle of water, and not to roll up toilet paper and stuff it in our pocket first thing in the morning. E-mails have been flying amongst the members of the Truck group listing first meals or food eaten when we arrived home: these include: Sunday roast, filet mignon, Heinz baked beans, proper fry up, curry, bacon, cheese on toast, lea and perrins, PG tips and I add proper milk, good bread and rolls. Of course we cannot replace the amazing variety and wholesome taste of the fruit and vegetables and the best meat in the world in Argentina.

Since we have come home, friends have asked us various questions including: “What is it like to be back home after 4 months away?”; “Are you happy to be home?”; ”Would you do another overland truck trip?”; “What did you learn through doing the trip?”. I’ll try and answer some of these questions briefly. (I just re-read this post and I don't think its quite "briefly"!)

By the end of 17 weeks away, we were excited to come home to Canada. Three months away did not seem long enough, but four months seemed just perfect. I think it would have been the same had it been longer, because it was not that we wanted the trip to be over, but knowing that the end was coming, we started to think about home, seeing Alanna, re-connecting with friends, and getting back into a routine – ugh, I hate routines – but getting back to doing something more constructive. We were really excited to see Alanna. Four months plus is a long time to be away from your daughter. I just wanted to be with her, chat with her, do things with her, and give her a huge, huge, hug and hold her oh so close!

I am amazed at how easy it has been to slip back into every day life in Canada. Dare I say that it feels as if we haven’t been away? Despite this, there is however, a heightened awareness of our surroundings. For example, everything seems so “ordered”. While driving home and into Uxbridge the other day, I looked out of the car window over the country side. It was richly green, fences and rows of trees lined the fields, the roads were paved with regular hard or soft shoulders on either side, houses were neat and tidy, towns were garbage free, and the buildings were either in the process of active construction or completely finished. There is also an element of “boring”. I met an American on our travels who had done a couple of years with the Peace Corps in South America, went back to the States for a year and a half, and decided to go back to live in South America because he found the States boring. I didn’t have time to ask him to expand on this, and I couldn’t understand what he meant. But, maybe he felt as we have felt. In South America there is always something happening around you, not necessarily big things like being in the middle of a shooting, but small things. For example: the street life in the towns and cities and even the countryside, its alive, people are animated and expressive, there is often a van going around with a loud speaker broadcasting some local event; in the citites people hang out of buses and vans shouting out the route; dogs are fighting, or you can just watch the dogs patrolling their territories; their might be cows, or sheep or llamas or other animals on the road. Finally, the people are never complacent or apathetic. They are actively involved in their country’s politics and they all have strong opinions about current issues – hence there is heated discussions, and lots of demonstrations about any issue. There is always some type of sports game going on, either football, volleyball, or some game where a ball about the size of a squash ball is hit back and forward over a net with the hand volley-ball style. We never did find out the name, but if you know it, let us know.

Then, the big question, “Would we do another overland truck trip?” Looking at the pros and cons of overland truck trips we came up with the following. First, the pros. Travelling by truck as opposed to local transport offers a certain degree of personal safety both from the point of view of safe travel on the roads, and from the point of view of lack of opportunities to be robbed, held up, abducted, etc. Although, having said this, I have heard that particularly in Africa, thieves have targeted some of the overland trucks from time to time. As well, the tour leader and driver take care of all of the organization, border crossings, documentation, hostel/hotel and camp site bookings, etc., therefore you are not dealing with local authorities over passport issues etc. When we arrived in a town, our tour leader would have all the activities pre-arranged, all we had to do was decide which we wanted to do and confirm with the tour company. At all times we could do our own research and chose another tour company, but why would we when Oasis has the experience of knowing the reputable companies from the non-reputable ones? Further, local transport in South America is often subject to delay and cancellation. I don’t think that we could have covered as much ground in 105 days if we were doing our own bookings using local transport. Our third pro is companionship. We heard people who were traveling on their own, talk about being lonely, and saying how happy they were to meet and spend time with the Truck group.

With respect to the cons of overland truck travel we identified the following. First, lack of flexibility. You are pretty well tied to a routine and a route, however, it was always possible to leave the truck if you really wanted to stay somewhere, and catch it up again further on – at your own expense obviously. Second, it is easier to remain isolated from the locals if you do not make an effort to be independent of the people on the truck; and thirdly, you are basically stuck with the same people throughout the trip and there are always people in the group whose habits clash with your own ideals. It takes maturity to maintain your own identity on the trip and not to compromise your own character, beliefs, etc.

So what sort of person could manage a truck trip happily? I would say someone with the following: First, a love of road travel. You have to enjoy driving trips, sitting in a vehicle and finding ways to amuse yourself, if you find this boring, don’t do it. Second, you need to be flexible. You have to contend with a lot of diversity. Not only are the people on your truck group likely to be of different ages, sexes, and nationalities, but you have to contend with the diversities in the countries you are visiting. Also, you need to accept the unexpected without concern. Third, you should like people and be tolerant of their differences; there is good in everyone, but if you have trouble finding it, you will be miserable.

Understanding the above pros and cons, we would definitely take another overland truck trip. Based on the experiences we had with our own and other truck groups (Budget, Kumuka, Bukima, Exodus, Dragoman, etc.) we would be vigilant in checking out the following: (a) information regarding the number and age groups of fellow travelers; (b) reputation and stability of the trucking company; (c) reputation and driving record of the driver and tour leader; (c) design of the truck and participation required by passengers. We were so lucky! Our truck group was diversified and terrific, Tony our driver was amazingly competent and safe, and Diana, our group leader, was confident, well organized, and responsive in emergency situations.

And what did the trip teach us? Firstly, an abundance of knowledge about the 7 countries we visited, about the experiences we had, and about living within a close community. Second, humility. When you compare the human life to the magnitude of our universe, our lives are but a split nano second. Third, not to “sweat the small stuff”. The South American attitude of “its not a problem” is healthy. You notice it in all aspects of life. Ask a North American server to serve you an un-refrigerated beer and they look at you as if you are crazy and make a big deal about finding one. Ask a South American server, and they will smile at you, and find one immediately, even if it means sending someone out of the restaurant to get it elsewhere, and serve it to you as if everyone else had the same request! Fourthly, we don’t need half the possessions we have to live happily and comfortably.

One of the interesting things to me is that life never stands still, and while we were away traveling, all kinds of mainly good, but sadly some bad, things happened in our friends lives. We tried to keep in touch with as many people as possible, probably in some cases communicating more than we would have done had we been in Canada. But that is the beauty of e-mail and I just love the ability to be in constant communication with our friends. Here are some of the things that happened in our friends lives that we are happy to hear about:

Sam’s pups (remember the beautiful Irish Setter in one of my first posts) have grown up and left her with the exception of “Alfie“, who is now a healthy, robust five month old puppy and driving Sam, John and Pauleen nuts with his exuberance. I am waiting for a picture of Alfie and will post it as soon as I can. (Pauleen????)

Tam, our neighbour, is expecting her first baby on September 11. She is threatening to call him/her “Osama”!!

Two of our friends’ daughters have become engaged: Joanna Cooke, and Jenetta Vena.

Lloyd and Sherry had a wonderful holiday in Mexico in March; Roger and Joanne had a dream holiday in May celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary with a trip through Italy, France and Spain.

Pat and Richard have made lifestyle changes and are selling their beautiful home in Etobicoke to purchase a condo in High Park and a condo in Collingwood. Great decision – and we look forward to spending relax time with you on the Bay.

Brian has got a new job, and he and Teresa have sold their awesome home in Wayne Pennsylvania and moved to Annapolis, Maryland. We hope to take them up on their offer to visit!

Sadly, while we were away, Donna lost her Mother, and a business associate of mine, Kevin Munro, passed away.

So life goes on.

Finally, a huge “thank you” to Peter and John for checking through our house, and keeping it safe, to Matt for his virgin snow tracks in the driveway, and to Pat and Richard for taking such loving care of our moggy Chloe. You made our holiday so much happier by being so generous with your time and caring.

And to everyone who emailed us, and sent comments on our blog, thank you for participating in our trip of a lifetime.

So, now all that is left is to get on with life, …. and plan the next trip! I am working on Ray to do a 20 week trip from Tunisia to Bejeing. Any takers to come with us?

Keep in touch!! …. And stayed tuned! There is more trekking in the offing! Also, we are frantically trying to sort out our photos to add some to the last posts on the blog. Maybe check back around the end of July and see whats new!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Six Days in Paradise - A Visit to the Galapagos - June 7 - 12

The Galapagos Islands are like jewels floating in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles/1000 km off the coast of Ecuador. Visiting them is like going to Paradise. There are 13 main islands, six small islands and about 42 islets spread throughout the Marine Reserve around the islands.

We flew from Quito to Guayaquil and then over to Baltra in the Galapagos Islands last Thursday. The very smooth TAME flight took just over 3 hours. When we arrived, we, along with 13 others, were met by a guide and ushered through the 1 1/2 hour process of bus ride, ferry, and further bus ride to Puerto Ayora in the southern part of Santa Cruz where our yacht "Spondylus" was waiting. In Puerto Ayora we climbed into the rubber dinghies which took us across the harbour to the yacht. Then braving the significant swell of the ocean, we clambered off the dinghy and up the steps on board. None of us were prepared for the gigantic rolling of the yacht, and we staggered around as if terribly drunk before making it to a seat and sitting down.

We were introduced to the boat and taken to our cabins. Luckily, ours was on the top deck with 3 others, and we were able to leave our cabin door open to let the sea breeze blow gently over us as we slept. The cabin was simple, a huge bed on the left side, a cupboard in the middle, then the bathroom on the right side and a small space for standing in between the lower two thirds of the bed and the bathroom door. On the same level as our cabin, there was a sun deck. On the level below a sitting area, a bar, and the dining area, another couple of cabins, and then on the floor below that another couple of cabins and the crew.The inside of the boat was made of beautiful, highly-polished wood. See this website for facts about the Spondylus: http://www.galapagosyachts.com/spondylus_specificationes.html. I note though, that there seem to have been some renovations done to the boat since this picture was taken, more specifically, the cabin area on the top deck has been expanded.

After the briefing and the introduction to our cabins, we went ashore and were taken by bus to the Highlands of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz was quite varied in appearance. In the northern part near the airport, the landscape was scrub, with small ash-coloured trees, the leaves having dropped due to the dryness, and cactus making the landscape quite bleak. However, in the highlands and in the southern part, the vegetation was quite lush, and in addition there was farming and banana plantations. We went to see giant tortoises which were in captivity for protection. What amazing animals. I couldn´t imagine having to carry shells around the size of theirs. Then we took a walk into a lava tunnel, which included crawling about one meter under the lava to get out the other side. The lava had come from lava flows from the volcano on the island millions of years ago.

After our walk, it was back to the yacht and dinner then after dinner, we took the dinghy back over to Puerto Ayora for a last hit at the internet, then back to the boat around 10.30 p.m. and bed. Around 2 a.m. we set sail for the Island of Floreana where we dropped anchor about 5.30 a.m.

Routine on the boat was rigorous, and we were up each morning at 6.30 a.m. for breakfast at 7.00 a.m. and ready to leave the boat on our first trek at 7.45 a.m. We visited Floreana on Friday, had a really choppy sail to Isabella on Friday night and visited Isabella on Saturday. Saturday afternoon we sailed for about 3 hours to San Christobal. On Sunday around 11 a.m. we sailed to Santa Fee arriving about 2 p.m. On Sunday evening we sailed to North Seymour and on Monday, after a trek on North Seymour we sailed into Baltra where our trip ended.

The most fantastic thing about the Galapagos is the ability to walk among all the animals without them being afraid of you. It is a true experience of man and animals living together. We had wonderful opportunities to see and wander amongst all the animals. My favorourites of course were the sea lions. The females, juveniles and pups are endlessly playful and you can literally kneel down beside them - but not touch them - and they look up at you with such loving eyes it brings tears to your own eyes. On one occasion I was swimming and a baby sea lion wandered over to my towel and got on top of it, then started to go into my open bag and toss out the contents, then lie its head on the bag before getting bored and wandering off. A number of people were watching and apparently the guide took a video. When Ray came back he couldn´t understand why everything was so scattered!! The dominant males can be a little scary if you approach them or enter into their territory and on a couple of occasions one would make his statement and block our path or come and hassle us on the beach. The baby pups were still breast feeding and it was funny watching a baby who had temporarily lost its Mummy waddle across the beach stopping to investigate all the other moms until he finally found the right one that he could suckle up to.

My next favourite was the Blue Footed Booby. These are amazing grey and white birds with pointed blue/grey beaks, and vivid blue feet. People are not sure why the feet are blue unless it is to disguise them when they are flying and fish look up and all they see are the blue feet which are the same colour as the water. These birds dive straight into the sea to catch their food from a great height. Many of them had eggs, and there were also lots of fluffy white babies hidden under the male and female birds caring for them. The males do a wonderful dance to attract their mates, then very sweetly offer a potential mate a twig. If the female is interested, she accepts the twig and they become a couple and make a nest together where the eggs are laid. We were lucky to see this ritual played out a number of times.

The yellow warbler is also a very common bird on the islands. It is a tiny, pretty, yellow-green colour bird that will fly very close to you and again seems to have no fear of people. The other cheeky bird, but not as pretty is the mockingbird. This will actually walk all over you, land on your head, etc. etc. and is generally very brazen, but full of character.

Then there are all the other wonderful animals we saw: pink flamingoes, the giant tortoise, the turtles, the frigate birds, the red footed booby, the Nazca booby, the waved albatross, the Galapagos hawk, the finches, the lava lizzard, the Galapagos Penguin - we only saw a couple of these because 65% of their population was wiped out by the last El Niño - but it is slowly coming back. Fun, but not so attractive, were the marine iguanas and the land iguanas both of which we saw basking in the sun, the land iguanas on the rocks on land, and the marine iguanas on the rocks in the ocean. And then there were the Sally Light Foot Crabs. Hundreds of these crabs covered the rocks so that their red bodies and yellow faces stood out from quite a distance away. Their backs were carved to look like some Inca pottery carvings - they were quite splendid.

On the Sunday when we sailed from San Cristobal to Santa Fee we saw a right whale which circled our boat a couple of times giving us a wonderful display of his majesticness. Then a little further on we came across hundreds of dolphin. They were magnificent. They sped along beside the boat as if racing it, they danced and played in the ocean around us, and we laughed and smiled at their antics.

We were also given a couple of opportunities a day to snorkel in the Pacific either from the dinghies, or off the beach, and we were able to see a variety of sea fish and giant turtles including rays, sharks, and of course to swim with the sea lions. Ray had a really neat experience of two sea lions playing around him. He said it was only a little scary when their noses come straight towards you and then they veer off at the last minute never touching you!

We did have one rather disturbing incident, which I shall let Ray tell you about, but we are happy to say, all was well in the end. I am going to add my bit as to the occurance. We were all dropped in the ocean to snorkel off a substantial outcropping of volcanic formations I understood that the majority of the people were swimming counter clockwise around the outcropping. I followed and then as I understood that the others would do, I cut into the center. The currents here were quite strong and it took a lot of effort to get back to where we were dropped as I thought the others were doing.

As it turned out they, instead of swimming completely through the center against the strong current, went with the current and were picked up on the backside of the outcropping. When I eventually made it back to where we were dropped I signalled two boats thinking they were our group and either they did not see me or chose to ignore my signal as they knew I wasn`t from their boat. Then the broken snorkel pipe which I had caused me to inhale salt water twice as the surf was quite high. I then thought this is not on and headed towards the rocks to see if it was possible to get up on them until our boat returned which is what I did. I did not realize that both of our boats had returned to the main boat without me and there was a momentary panic as to where I was. They eventually returned after I sat on the rocks for about 20 to 30 minutes so it all turned out OK. Meanwhile, Liz was panicking back on the boat, as she went back a little earlier and had told the Guide she had not seen me since she got into the water. ...When we see everyone we will elaborate on this tale.

We also vited Baquirzo Moreno on San Cristobal. This is the capital of the Galapagos and has about 4000 residents. It was a small, quiet town with a modern sea front, cafes, internet, cafes, restaurants, and small shops.

We spent Monday in Puerto Ayora after the cruise and took this opportunity to visit The Charles Darwin Research Centre which recapped all the information we had learned and had a couple of displays of giant tortoise breeding stations, and land iguanas. In the afternoon, we walked out of town to beautiful Tortuga Bay and sat on the beach and felt sorry that our holiday was over. I think it would be wonderful to volunteer in the Galapagos, or even stay there for a few months.


The older islands, which were the ones we visited, were formed some five million years ago when underwater volcanoes erupted pushing up volcanic rock and forming the islands, many of which have volcanoes on them. Because of the remoteness of the islands, the fact that 3 currents merge at the islands, and the violent way in which they were formed, the wildlife on the islands is quite unique as it has adapated to surivive the harsh conditions in which they exist.

The history of the islands is also harsh. They were discovered in 1535 by the Spanish and from then until they were incorporated by Ecuador in 1832 they were used by the European and American bucaneers and pirates, then after the pirates came the whalers and sealers all of whom used the islands as a refugio. Charles Darwin visited there for about 5 weeks in 1835 and he recognized the unique qualities of the islands and made observations on which he based his theory of evolution. Once appended to Ecuador, there were several stories of families going there to settle and starting various business, but all of them seemed to fail, and the people either returned to their homeland, or mysteriously disappeared. An exception to this is the Wittmer family, some members of which still live there today.

A penal colony was established on one of the islands (Floreana) but the soldiers sent there to look after the criminals fled the island leaving the prisoners to their fate. As late as 1944 another penal colony was established on Isabela. This was abandoned when there was a riot and mass escape by the prisoners.

Finally, in 1959 the islands were declared a national park, and in 1979 the archipelago was declared a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1985. Later in December 2001, the marine lands around the islands were declared a World Natural Heritage Site in an attempt to control illegal fishing. In 1997 the government passed a law preventing new tourist operations until 2005 and visitor levels are restricted to 65,000 a year. Despite all of this, UNESCO is currently conducting a survey and will make a report on whether or not to declare the islands a "threatened area". The feeling that the wild life in the area is threatened is due, according to our guide, to a number of reasons: (1) Lack of enforcing the existing tourist controls; (2) Illegal residents on the islands who set up tourist operations that are not licensed, but as there is no policing of the regulations these people are allowed to continue; (3) natural causes such as El Niño - for example, 65% of the population of the Gallapagos Penguins were wiped out by the last El Niño, (4) Introduction over the years of domestic animals such as goats, cats, dogs, horses, donkeys; (5) Introduction of foreign plant life on the island by the settlers, (6) the devastation caused to the tortoise, land iguanas,turtles and birds by the sailers and pirates who captured them for food; (7) whalers and the fur sealers. Another contributor to the depletion of natural species on the islands was the American naval base which was housed on Santa Cruz in the second world war. For example, all Giant Tortoises are now extinct on this island because their food source has been removed.

For more information see: http://www.geo.cornell.edu/geology/GalapagosWWW/Colonization.html

I am sure that none of the people who have inhabited the islands and added to the destruction of the wild life have intended to do so, but lets hope that Ecuador in combination with UNESCO can find a solution which will satisfy the local communities and preserve the wild life. If not, the amazing wild life in this very unique part of the world will be destroyed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Quito - June 6, 12, 13, 14




























On June 6 we arrived at the centre of the world. What a ride! From the "end of the world" to the "centre of the world"! This is marked by a small museum illustrating an indegenous house and way of life - "El Museo de Sitio Intiñan "Camino del Sol"" (http://www.museointinan.com.ec/). It was especially interesting to see the method used to shrink human skulls for war trophies! We also did four experiments on the line of the Equator, to prove that it was there. We tried hard to balance an egg on a nail - some succeeded! We also poured a bucket of water into a sink and then removed the plug. On the Equator, the water went straight down. It went clockwise in the southern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and we had literally moved the sink a couple of feet either side of the Equator. Next we tried some hand grapling and discovered it was much easier to break through the other person´s grip on the Equator, and finally, we tried to walk a straight line on the Equator - it was impossible - the centre of gravity pulled you off! An interesting hour and a half - oh, and I forgot the best - you are two pounds lighter on the Equator! There is another momument to the centre of the world about 250 meters away, but this is not the real Equator. Apparently this was erected despite the fact that the Indians said the centre was where we went. Then the army came in and tested the Indian site with a GPS and discovered that the Indians were correct and that the spot that we visited was in fact the real centre of the world. Needless to say, we did not bother visiting the old spot as we felt it was a little touristy and we were anxious to reach Quito about half an hour away. In Quito we are staying in the Amazonas Inn on Joachim Pinto and Amazonas in the Mariscal Neighbourhood. Its quite acceptable and the staff are really friendly and warm. We arrived late in the afternoon of the 6th, marking the official end of our 105 day trip. That night we had a group dinner in an Indian restaurant nearby, followed by a couple of drinks in a nightclub. It was sad saying goodbye to everyone, and we couldn´t believe that our odyssey was over. Some driving facts about the trip: We drove 20,767 km in 103 days, or 2520 hours. We used 8306 litres of diesel which cost about US$6000. We had 840 hours sleep (other than the illicit-sleep hours on the Truck!). We had 47 driving days and averaged 442 km a day. The longest drive was from Saint Julien to San Sebastian down in Patagonia when we drove 852 km in one day. The shortest drive was Shangrila to Tena in Ecuador when we drove 11km. The next day, Thursday, June 7, we were up around 6.30 a.m. and off to the airport for our 9.30 a.m. flight to the Galapagos. This part of our trip deserves a separate post and I will try to do that before we leave Quito. We were back in Quito on Tuesday, June 12 around 3.00 p.m. We checked back into the hotel and to our amazement, the lady at the desk recognized us. We have a great little room with one of these typical Spanish balconies overlooking the street, and it was so nice to be greeted with such a smile. The hotel also kept our luggage for us, and she even remembered that and had one of the other hotel staff take us immediately to get it out of the storage room. We dumped everything in the room and went out to have some lunch at the Cafe Espanola. The food since we hit Quito on the 6th has been amazing, and its so good to have familiar tastes in your mouth again, such as the butter, bread, and ham. Quito is the capital of Ecuador and is nestled in the Guayllabamba river basin on the slopes of Pinchincha, one of the active volcanoes in the Andes. It is located at about 2,8oo meters (9,200 ft) above sea level making it the second highest capital city in the world, and so of course there are altitude issues to be dealt with, although I must say that apart from breathlessness, I have not suffered any other symptoms, although Ray woke up with a splitting headache this morning, which seems to have now disappeared. Quito is also the headquarters for the Union of South American Nations and thus the de facto capital of South American integration. It is a growing city, currently about 1 1/2 million people with about 2 million in the extended metropolitan area. It has an old colonial district which is quite pretty, and then the modern polluted sprawl. The way of life is greatly influenced by the American culture and there is a much larger middle class here then anywhere else we have noticed in Ecuador. None the less, the City is very attractive, reasonable clean, and has a good feel to it. Of course there is an underbelly, and you can never walk alone in Quito after dark, not even just around the corner. In fact, the nightclub we were at was literally just around the corner from the hotel - maybe 100 feet - and still we had the bouncer walk us home. If you go out at night, you must take a taxi, even a block or two away. And going to the ATM is quite a dangerous affair at night. One of the girls on our Galapagos trip was robbed after getting money out of the ATM at night, and we have heard of numerous stories like this. The bottom line is, you just don´t do something like that at night on your own, and you certainly don´t walk in the streets alone or as a couple. There are two or three hotels-hostels in the street we are staying in and they have hired their own security guard who has a little cabin at the end of the street where he can sit. One of the issues that we read about in the local paper are the young kids (around 10 for example) who are forced into working on the street selling cigarattes, etc. to help survive. They do this from 3 in the afternoon to after 9 at night - no mention of whether or not they attended school which they are supposed to do. I believe the figure is 16% of the kids between the ages of 5 and 17. Yet another issue that the government and the people of Ecuador have to address. We did a walking tour of the "centro historico" which was established as the first UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in 1978 (along with a site in Poland) and that was really quite lovely. Despite 3 major earthquakes, the city boasts some 87 churches. We chose a selection of these to visit and as each one was quite different, it was quite a special day. We caught a taxi from the Hotel to the Basilica del Voto Nacional (http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/basilica.htm) which was our first stop. The Basilica was built in 1873 to celebrate the consecration of Ecuador to the sacred heart of Jesus. We climbed up the bell tower about 115 meters and rang the bells. Quite thrilling!! This also gave us a beautiful view over the city and the mountains surrounding the city. The Basilica is compared with St. Patricks in New York and Notre Dame in Paris because of its style. It is simple and plain inside, but the stunning architecture makes it quite outstanding. Next we walked along Calle Cuenca to the church of San Francisco (http://www.in-quito.com/churches-quito-ecuador/quito-churches-san-francisco.htm, and pictures http://www.in-quito.com/pictures/san-francisco-church.htm). This church was one of the first churches built by the Spanish and was started in 1534. It is beautifully old, and does not appear to have been recently restored. It has delightfully creaking wooden floors and the pews are made of heavily carved wood. Unfortunately, we were not able to get inside many of the historical buildings due to restoration taking place in Quito. Calle Cuenca is quite unique with its little clothes stores. We went to the Plaza de la Indepencia via La Merced which was also closed. Around this Plaza we saw the beautiful Cathedral, and the Palacio de Gobierno with the Ecuadorian guard dressed in their ceremonial outfits. Saw an interesting episode in this Plaza. All of a sudden one of the police officers patrolling outside the cathedral blew his whistle, started shouting and waving his arms, and ran across the front of the cathedral towards the corner of the low wall in front of the cathedral overlooking the Plaza. He ran towards a big, well-dressed man who was standing in the corner very blatantly peeing! We were interested to see what would happen. The police officer took the man down to the Plaza and into a little shop. When they emerged, the man was carrying a broom. Curious, we watched as the police officer led the man back up the stairs, across the front of the cathedral and back to the corner where he peed. At this point there were police officers emerging from each direction, but the man was quite calm about the whole affair. The police officer then made him sweep up his pee, and then he was led back down to the plaza to return the broom. Unfortunately, many of the streets in these South American cities have the putrid smell of urine, and we have seen many men openly peeing on walls at the side of the streets. You often smell the scent of disinfectant and it is obvious that the authorities are trying hard to change this rather uncivilized habit. I was glad to see the police officer take action, as this was a rather obvious spot in which to relieve yourself. However, I think he should have had a bucket of disinfectant-water as well to remove the smell! We walked past the San Augustin church, through the pedestrian-only street Calle Eugenio and went into La Compania (http://www.in-quito.com/churches-quito-ecuador/quito-churches-la-compania.htm, and pictures http://www.in-quito.com/pictures/la-compania-church.htm) said to be the most ornate church in Quito. This was built by the Jesuits between 1605 and 1768. It is said to contain 7 tons of gold, and the altar is solid gold. The walls are covered with highly decorated gold plating and there are many interesting paintings including one which depicts the levels of punishment doled out to the sinners in Hell. It is quite gruesome! The final church we saw from the outside was the Santa Domingo. We walked through Calle Ronda which was a quiet little cobbled lane with renovated 16th century houses with their balconies dripping with flowers. Our second and last day in Quito we visited the Museo Nacional Banco Central del Ecuador (http://www.museobibliotecabce.com/). Here we saw some wonderful exhibitions which showed the arrival of man in South America and all of the significant tribes that have inhabited Ecuador from about 6000 BC up to the time of the Incas in the 1500s. There was also a wonderful exhibition of Ecuadorian paintings from the 1500s forward showing the influence of the Spanish and the French over the years to the current day. It is also interesting that it was the US Independence, and the French Revolution that greatly influenced the independence of Ecuador from Spain in the early 1800s (around 1822 I think). We have enjoyed Quito, and once the safety issues are addressed, I am sure it will become much safer and more attractive to tourists. A final fact: Toronto is a sister city to Quito.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Otavalo - June 4 and 5

Monday June 4 saw us leave Tena and the Amazon region and drive for 8 to 9 hours through the magnificent Ecuadorian scenery to Otavalo. We noted a number of landslides marring the magnificent mountain scenery. Apparently these are quite common in the rainy season. The local people are Otavaleños. Otavalo is a small town of about 43,648 people (according to the sign driving into town). Its narrow streets are paved, the buildings are brick and block and look quite prosperous, and shopping is great. The people are most wonderful. They go out of their way to talk to greet you and make you feel welcome. For example, Ray and I were walking along a small street and a young girl coming towards us suddenly looked up at us and smiling, stared straight into our eyes, said "ola", as she passed by. In another shop, a gentleman who spoke English came up to see if he could help us. We chatted with him for a while and went on our way. In another shop, someone said "hello" to me. I realized it was the same gentleman. The best part, is there are no expectations. They are not trying to sell you anything, they are just genuinely welcoming.

We arrived last night about 5 p.m. and had a quick walk around town before having dinner and heading off to bed around 9.30. I think a lot of people were still tired from the day´s rafting in Tena! This morning we were up around 8 and headed out to do some shopping. We walked all around the town, saw some churches, the town hall, and of course the markets. The best market day is supposed to be Saturday, however, there were still lots of stalls of textiles, Panama hats, and other tourist items there today. We concentrated on the artisans market and purchased some nice presents to take back to Canada with us.

The Otavaleños are famous for their textile weaving. Due to their history, they have become one of the most economically successful indegenous peoples in Ecuador, and maybe South America, and have held proudly on to their culture throughout the ages. The ladies still wear the exquisite traditional dress consisting of beautifully embroidered white blouses, colourful skirts, and beaded necklaces, while the men have long braided dark hair, and wear calf-length white trousers, ponchos, and sandals. The story is that starting in the 1550s, the Spanish forced the Otavaleños to learn to weave and after independence their ingenuity brought them worldwide fame for their weaving. Under Spanish rule, their goods were made in "obraje" or workshops, now however, it is a cottage industry. Most of their goods are made from sheep wool or the more expensive alpaca wool and are brightly coloured with reds, mauves, greens, blues, brown, and black.

Sadly, we do not have any more time in this area, but it is certainly one that is very beautiful and has much to offer.

Tomorrow, we leave for Quito. We are due to arrive there around 5 p.m. We have to sort out our Galapagos tickets, pack for the Galapagos, and of course attend our group´s farewell dinner. Then on Thursday morning we fly out to the Galapagos at 9.30 a.m. I am not sure if there will be any possibility of communication before we come back from our 5 day boat trip on the 12th. We fly home on the 14th June in the evening, and I will try and do an update before we finish this fantastic trip.

Shangrila Lodge, the Amazon - May 31, June 1, 2

Thursday morning we drove from Rio Verde through Tena to Shangrila, our lodge in the rain forest about 35 minutes outside Tena. The drive took us about 5 hours due to the problem with the broken spring on the Truck and the fact that we had to travel about 40 km on dirt road. Once again, the drive was very beautiful. We travelled through the lushly vegetated countryside decorated with the corals and pinks of the impatiens.

Tena is situated at the foot of the Andes about 500 meters above sea level in el Oriente, the Eastern part of the Amazon. It is a small city of about 26,000 and has expanded rapidly during the past 10 years. Unfortunately, they say that the area covered by the rain forest has been halved in the same period. Also concerning is the fact that the Ecuadorian government has just approved the re-direction of half of the water from the Napo River (the ninth largest tributary leading into the Amazon) to Tena in order to satisfy the water supply to the city. The Napo River feeds the rain forest. Tena is often considered as one of the gateways into the Amazon.

One of the other threats to the bio-diversity of Ecuador, is the oil production. While looking for more information on this, I discovered this quote in Wikipedia:

"The impact of oil exploitation in Eastern Ecuador is now notorious as a result of a long-running $6 billion lawsuit involving 30,000 Amazon forest dwellers and Texaco, once one of the world's largest energy companies but now part of Chevron. In the 25 years that Texaco operated in the Oriente region of the Western Amazon, the oil company spilled 17 million gallons of crude oil into the local river systems (by comparison, the Exxon Valdez only spilled 11 million gallons in Alaska in 1989), dumped more than 20 billion gallons of toxic drilling by-products, and cleared forest for access roads, exploration, and production activities. As of the mid-1990s, lands once used for farming lay bare and hundreds of waste pits remained. In August 1992, a pipeline rupture caused a 275,000-gallon (1.04 million L) spill which caused the Rio Napo to run black for days and forced downstream Peru and Brazil to declare national states of emergency for the affected regions." (downloaded June 5, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tena,_Ecuador).

Once again, we were told that there is some concern amongst the citizens of Ecuador, that the money received from the oil is being ploughed back into the economy of Ecuador as opposed to the off-shore bank accounts of the elite or government officials.

Tena has a highly developed indigenous political community. As a result, according to our guide Miguel, the government provides a lot of support for the indigenous peoples including education, which, according to our guide, may also detract from the assistance given to the non-indegenous population. The area around Tena also supports a lot of volunteer projects in areas such as reforestration and wildlife

However, problems apart, Ecuador is a very beautiful country, with high mountains, volcanoes, fast flowing rivers, and an active indegenous culture.

Shangrila is situated high above the Anzu River, which runs into the Napo River. Our room was on the top level of the wooden lodge and our view extended over the river to the primary and secondary rain forest which stretched as far as we could see with the Andes as a backdrop at the end of the horizon. In the morning we woke up to see the rain clouds drifting through the sky, covering the river and the trees, then allowing us partial glimpses, then clearing around breakfast time to give us the full beauty of the view. It was stunning and many in our group were completely awe-struck.

We had two full, busy, and exciting days at the Lodge. In the morning of the first day, we were taken for a 4 and a half hour trek through the rainforest with a naturalist guide, Miguel. We trekked up a narrow (about 2 to 3 feet) river bed, struggling through the sandy bottom over rocks and boulders, squeezing through bat-filled rock crevices, scrambling up small waterfalls, and getting thoroughly soaked with all the water which came from every direction, underfoot, from waterfalls above us, and from the rocks in the crevices. It was an awesome experience. The scenery was lush, and the shapes of the leaves from the palms and ferns provided beauty which can only be experienced from visiting the remote landscape that our strenuous river walk had led us to. We saw one of the most poisonous snakes in the jungle - sorry, but I didn´t catch the name. In fact, I walked right past it as it lay curled up at the side of the stream, then our guide who was just behind me, jumped back, and told us all to stop and be very careful and not to get too close. Of course, we were all brave souls, and crept as close as we could to get a good picture. Then it moved, and slowly, unwound its 3 meters of slim, round, body, and glided slowly away from us up the bank. The fruit bats too were amazing. There were hundreds of them flying around or hanging upside down from the rock, as we disturbed their habitat while squeezing our way between the crevices of rock rising up from either side of the river, but they never touched us. The flew so silently, and seemed like black velvet moving swiftly above us. In contrast, the smell of their urine was putrid, and touching all the slime on the rocks made us squirm as we thought of bat urine and bat shit. Once through the crevice, we quickly rinsed our hands off in the freezing cold river water.

In the afternoon of the same day, we went tubing on the Jatunyacu River. This was a tame, but enjoyable, affair, with three pods of 5 inner tubes tied together on which we sat and floated calmly down the river. We stopped off at a Chachi indegenous community called Santa Monica and visited one of the families to learn about indenous life. We tasted some of their fruits, drinks, and food, and learned about the healing properties of the various plants in the forest. Then it was back on the tubes to float down the river to the Lodge. We arrived after dark, and had to climb up the dark cliffside on a narrow, and in some cases circular, staircase, about 80 meters to the Lodge - - carrying our tube. We certainly had our exercise that day!

The next day, we were up early and off in a pick up truck for a 45 minute drive into the forest to Amarongachi Lodge to do a waterfall hike. You might think this sounds relaxing. No, not at all. It was another 4 and half hours of strenuous trekking. This time as well as climbing up another stream, we also climbed up 4 waterfalls, one about 80 feet with the help of a rope. The guides tied a rope around our waist so that if we fell, we would not hit the bottom. It was thrilling to have the cold water pounding down on top of you as you tried to find foot holes in the rock and the guides yelling instructions at you as to how to make it! Then we climbed up through the jungle on to the top of a ridge and down the other side back to the Lodge. In the afternoon it poured. Not that that mattered. We had already spent 2 days being absolutely soaked from the water of the rivers we had climbed up, tubed through, or swum in.

Ray and I drove back to Shangrila in the back of the pick-up, shivering cold, but enjoying the company of an indengenous family, and the 45 minute drive through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and watching the peaks of the Andes float in and out of the white rain clouds produced by the eco system of the rain forest.

Our stay at Shangrila gave us a super experience of everyday life in the Amazon jungle.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Tena - Rafting - June 3

During the night on Saturday, it poured a heavy, consistent, rain-forest rain for about 6 hours. However, when we got up on Sunday morning to leave at 7 am for Tena, the rain had stopped. I should also mention, that just before we left Shangrila, Duncan, yes the same guy who broke his arm, was bitten by a scorpion. The locals sucked out the sting, and put antibiotics on it and apart from a very sore hand (the opposite one from the broken hand) - he was fine. We were going rafting on the Upper Napo River known locally as the Jatunyacu - or Big Water in Quichua (http://www.riosecuador.com/html/rafting.html). We had been told that the water in the river would be warmer after the rain. Huh, don´t believe it! We have never been rafting before and this Level III experience was terrific fun. Ray and I went in separate boats, Ray with the guys and one girl, and me with a mixture, about 6 or 7 in each boat and a guide. I have to compliment the Ecuadorian guides in all of our activities. They have been safety conscious, fun, strong, good looking and charismatic. The ride was a perfect combination of fast rapids, quiet river, and gorgeous jungle scenery. We went through the rapids, up over rocks, round rocks into the dead spot where you thought you would never escape from, body surfed in the water through some of the safer rapids, swam in the river and floated, fast, down stream. At one point we all squeezed up as tightly as we could in the back of the boat so that when we took the rapids, the front was high in the air. Great fun. Then we all stood around the sides of the rubber boat holding hands and leaning backwards until the guide let go of our hands and we all fell in. We stopped for lunch on a wide beach and played with some of the indegenous children. After we had finished eating, the guides called to the kids and about 15 little, brown, lithe, bodies ran across the beach and finished off the left overs from our meal. I am sure we would all have eaten a little less if we had known! We had one other stop for a mud facial. We swam up a small tributary coming into the larger river and the guides covered our faces with browny-green, and yellow mud. This was supposed to remove all the wrinkles - so beware, we are coming home younger looking!

The trip took us 25 km down the river to the outskirts of Tena, where we boarded a bus and drove into Tena City to stay the night at the Travellers Lodge Hostal, another perfectly acceptable accommodation.

This was definitely one of the fun activities on the trip.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rio Verde - Baños - May 27, 28, 29, 30














































We left Punta Sal at 5.00 a.m. on Sunday morning and set out for Rio Verde in Ecuador, about a 14 hour drive. We drove up the Peruvian coast, and the scenery continued to be bleak and barren, but as soon as we crossed the border into Ecuador around 9.30 a.m. the landscape, the people, and the cutures changed dramatically. The border crossing was similar to some of the others we have experienced where you exit one country, then maybe about 20 minutes later go through the border control into the new country. We crossed the border from Aguas Verdas to Huaquillas in Ecuador.

When you drive through the South American countries, there are lots of police road blocks, or police controls, which you have to pass through. Depending on the particular control, depends whether you drive through with no problems or with some problems. A couple of times, we have been glad to have Tony as a driver. I think it was in Argentina where they wouldn´t allow meat, vegetables, fruit, etc. through the control. At one of these they confiscated a huge roast we had purchased for dinner. Tony spat on it, and threw it to the ground and stomped all over it because he wanted to make certain the policemen didn´t keep it for their dinner! Once in Ecuador, we stopped in the grounds of one of these controls for lunch. Apparently, there is always an ambulance sitting there together with some medics. While we were having lunch a battered old green VW beetle smelling of burning gasoline, screeched to a halt, all the doors opened and a young women and a guy got out. The woman was crying hysterically. After a few lazy moments, a white-coated doctor appeared, and a person was dragged out the car, laid straight on the road and examined. After a few more lazy moments, the ambulence drove around and some medics got out and the body was lifted onto the stretcher and raised into the ambulence which put on its siren and drove lazily off. There always seems to be something happening around us.

We stayed at a small rustic hotel just outside of Rio Verde which is about 25 minutes from Baños. We were actually supposed to be camping in the little campsite immediately in front of the hotel, but once again we upgraded to a room. It wasn´t that we mind the camping, but I really wasn´t feeling that great stomach wise - and afterwards we were glad we made that decision because it poured heavy rain for 2 of the 4 nights we were there and the tents got really flooded inside.

From the hotel "Pequeño Paraiso", we took the bus into Baños. Now this was fun. The narrow 2-lane road winds along the side of a river canyon with a fair number of S bends, steep drops, and 5 tunnels through the solid rock before arriving in Baños. The bus, which was equipped with TV, and beautiful blue cotton curtains with yellow tassels, was full of sleeping, baseball-capped, Ecuadorian men. We squeezed in behind the reclined coach-seats of the row in front, so that we literally had the head of the chap in front in our laps, and suffered the rank body odours that some of the men gave off. However, the drive kept us on our toes as I think the bus drivers must have a competition as to who can do the run the fastest. We flew along at great speed, around the corners, and the S bends, passing anything that got in our way, hooting at everyone and everything on the road. It was great fun, but we were glad we made it safely to Baños. On another trip, I met an American who was living in Puyo and he told me that this was the new road, built over the past four years. The old road was, I think, something like the most dangerous road in Bolivia that we biked down. He told me the road was one lane and when the buses met one had to back up, often ending up with one wheel off the road and hanging over the edge of the canyon. He said, when this happened, he would get out of the bus, and wait for the other bus to pass and his bus was safely moving forward before he got back on! Life is literally lived on the edge here.

Baños is a small tourist destination about 1,820 meters above sea level which is nestled among the soaring green hills of the Andes which are literally wrinkled with waterfalls. Its known for its thermal baths, but compared to the baths we visited in Pucon, Chile, they are not nearly as spectacular; so we didn´t bother going. The town itself is really quite sweet. The people are very friendly and helpful, and the narrow streets in the town have a nice mix of locals and tourists.

On the second day of our stay in Rio Verde, we went canyoning. Another new experience. I was terribly nervous and had a horrible night´s sleep the night before. In fact, travelling to the location in the truck in the morning, I almost changed my mind. This was after we had been fitted out in our wet suit, plastic nappy (to protect the wet suit from the rocks), harness, shoes, life jacket and helmet and had our practice at abseiling in the grounds of the hotel.

We arrived at the drop off point and had a short walk through the rich vegetation to a narrow, rushing, stream with a deep pool of water where the guide dunked us under and our adventure began. We waded down the river, over the rocks, sliding down small waterfalls, then doing a 3 meter jump into a pool of deep water below. Next we abseiled down about 12 meters, then were immediately hooked up to a zip line to fly across the canyon on the "Flying Fox". We continued our walk in the river bed to the next waterfall where we abseiled down beside a water fall for about 25 meters. Then we did some more river walking to the next abseil which was straight down right beside the falls for about 15 meters. It was so neat, hanging out there on the rock face and looking between the water of the falls and the rock behind. When we arrived at the bottom, we swam behind the waterfall, then across the pool of water to the next smaller falls which we went over face first. As a finale the guide tried to get us to repeat this last drop with a somersault. Ray tried, one of the other girls did, and everyone else, myself included, just bombed it.

It was all so much fun, and I am really glad I went after all.

Our third and last day in Baños, I went for a 4 hour horse back ride with Robin, Nikki, Gemma, and Sam. It was supposed to include a lot of cantering and be a fast ride along the side of a canyon. The horses were really crappy, but none the less we had an incredibly picturesque ride, and Robin and I managed quite a bit of cantering. We took the horses up the side of the river valley, then followed along and came down over a suspension bridge to the opposite side where we rode back along narrow paths with steep drops to the river below. We crossed back over the river on a pretty covered bridge. Along the way we met a few really cool local people all of whom were so happy to see us. One gentleman even shook hands with each of us.

The countryside in Ecuador is absolutely beautiful. The Andes are rich in vegetation, the snow capped peaks of the higher ranges peeping through in the background. Everywhere is lushly vegetated with many palm trees, banana plantations, and tons and tons of impatiens lining the banks and acting as ground cover under the trees. The people too are very sweet. They have wonderful smiles, are truly pleased to meet you, and go out of their way to help you, such as the young lady who walked with me in Baños to show me the way to the supermarket. But all of this aside, the way of life is very simple. We are told there is a lot of family abuse, mainly caused by drinking, the women have babies by different men, and corruption is everywhere. We have had many discussions about sorting out the social, economic, and political problems we have been exposed to, and other than education, we have not come up with any answers.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Punta Sal and Horseback Riding in the Moonlight - May 25, 26







Punta Sal is located along a small road leading off the Panamerican Highway, somewhere around Km 1187. It is a tiny, sleepy, seaside resort on the northern beaches of Peru. The wide, white-sand, beach stretches for miles along a very controlled Pacific Ocean, making swimming there very safe - and the ocean is reasonably warm as the effect of the Humboldt has disappeared. The town is located at the foot of a bleak, barren, hill range which leaves room for a very narrow dirt road leading through the town, paralleling the ocean on both sides of which are an eclectic mix of homes, some obviously quite rich, and others quite poor, but all with a quiet Peruvian charm. There were no shops and only the odd beach vendor selling jewellery and sun-hats. A number of small fishing boats were anchored off the shore but they never seemd to move while we were there.

We stayed two whole days at the Hostal Hua, which allowed us to pitch our tents on the beach. Waking up in the morning to the sound of waves beating on the shore and the sight of the sun rising over the ocean is one of these mind-clearing, soul-feeding experiences that most people need more of in their life.

There wasn´t much to do in Punta Sal except chill. So, we walked along the beach playing with the numerous red crabs that were scurrying away from us to safety, swam in the ocean, lay on the beach, and sat in the shade of the Hostal reading.

We also took a taxi into the nearby town of Mancora which was a 30 minute, 30 soles ride. Mancora is a trendy surfers beach town which is said to rival some of the north-eastern Brazil beach towns with its safe swimming and extensive sands. We were doing some food shopping for the Truck and also trying to buy "papel aluminio" (tin foil). We must have tried 10 to 15 stores, including the local market, and had half the town helping us, including our taxi driver who was driving us from shop to shop. We eventually did find it and with our request for 7 rolls depleted thier supplies. Mancora was larger than Punta Sal and busier with lots of little tourist shops on the main drag and the local shops and market behind, and street vendors mixed in.

One night we cooked a pig on a spit for dinner, a process which took most of the day with each of us taking a half hour shift in which we had to turn the spit three times. We set the spit up on the beach using the metal sand mats that Tony has on the Truck to get it unstuck should it sink in the mud or sand, as the uprights in which the spit was placed and then placed this over the charcoal which was in a pit dug into the sand. As the pig began to cook, the delicious aroma spread out over the beach and by the time it was ready everyone was starving.

The coup d´etat of our stay in Punta Sal was a horseback ride Robin and I did along the beach. We left about 4.45 p.m. with our guide VictorHugo mounted on three beautiful, 15 hh, Peruvian horses, with long flowing manes and slim withers, who were quivering with energy and excitement and foaming at the bit in anticipation. With a mixture of walk, the most comfortable sitting trot ever, and long canters, we made our way for miles along the deserted beach. We passed outcroppings of rock, areas of beach which were scarlet with crabs, white herons, and on the whole two and a half hour ride only three other people. We rode through the brilliant red sun setting, and finished the ride by the light of the moon shining on the water and glistening on the rocks to show us our way back to the hostal - and dinner - and another night sleeping beside the swelling ocean.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Lima to Punta Sal - May 22, 23, 24
















On Tuesday morning, Tony brought the Truck to the hotel in Lima so we did not have to take taxis to the Truck Park. We sadly said goodbye to Iain, Lynne, and Nic which leaves 18 of us in the Truck plus Tony and Diana. We had a sleepy drive through the bleak and barren countryside in a light fog and stopped around 5.15 p.m. by the side of the ocean for a rough camp. A local guy had some van problems on the road beside our camp site and asked us to keep an eye on his van while he went into the village for help. He also warned us that it was dangerous to camp outside the town! So, just as a precaution, we were careful to make sure that none of our valuables such as the camera were in the tent but that they were safely secured in the Truck.

We woke safely the next day, Wednesday, and left early in the morning and after driving for about three hours arrived at the Huacas del Moche archeological site. On the way, we passed a town called Chimbote. This has to be one of the worst cities we have visited anywhere. It apparently used to be a quiet fishing port, but now it is a busy, ugly city of about 159,000 full of unfinished adobe houses, piles of garbage strewn all over the streets and wastelands, and in some parts, dirty-looking people, unusual for Peru because people are generally spotlessly clean. It also stank of fish due to the over 30 fish packing factories and Chimbote accounts for over 75 per cent of Peru's fishing related activities. I think a lot of the "ugliness" in some of these towns is the result of the many earthquakes which leave piles of rubble staggered throughout the city. For example, almost every building in Chimbote was either destroyed or damaged by the 1970 earthquake.

We arrived at two adobe pyramid structures standing in the desert-like landscape 5 km south of Trujillo located by the side of the Rio Moche. These were Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna - i.e. the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. These are believed to be the capital, or most important ceremonial and urban centre, of the Moche culture at its peak between 400 and 600 AD.

The Huaca del Sol is not yet excavated and is not open to visitors, but you can see a massive, very weathered, adobe, pyramid which rises about 50 metres out of the desert. Apparently, this is only about 30% of the original structure.

The Huaca de la Luna on the other hand, located about 500 metres from Huaca del Sol, is much smaller, but more impressive due to the number and quality of the painted friezes. It consists of a complex of interior rooms and interconnected patios decorated with the friezes. The friezes are original and the intensity of the vivid colours is outstanding. The pictures depict nature and the things that were important in the life of the Moche, for example, ray fish (representing water), pelicans (representing air), and serpents (representing earth). It is also believed that human sacrifices were carried out at this site because of the 42 skeletons of sacrifical victims that have been found.

We spent about an hour and a half at the site listening to the information about the life, culture, and legends of the Moche and looking through the naturally preserved ruins.

It is a very sad fact about Peru´s ruins that most of them have been looted - either by the Spanish or by locals, and probably both, thus making it very hard for the archeolologists to be certain of the facts surrounding the various cultures.

After visiting the ruins, we drove into Trujillo, and went to the supermarket to individually buy our lunches and for Cook group to buy the incredients for dinner - spicy lentils and mashed potatoes.

We then drove for another 20 minutes or so eating our lunch as we went, until we reached the ruined city of Chan Chan. This was the capital city of the Chimu Empire in about 1100 AD. The site is enormous and we were told that about 25,000 people lived there in its heyday. The city had 9 temples. Apparently each time a king died, he was burried in the temple and the new king had to build a new temple. There are 3 parts of the site that have been excavated, restored, and preserved, and are open to the public. Of these, the Tschudi temple-citadel is the largest and most popular to visit. We spent another hour and a half going through this site and learning about the ceremonies that took place in the public square, the private life that the 100-200 inhabitants of the temple lived in the private quarters of the temple, visiting the huge well system on which they boated and caught fish, and ultimately about the burial of the king. Unlike the Moche site of the Huaca de la Luna, the colour in the frescoes has been lost due to the fact that the site has been exposed to the weather, whereas the previous site was covered by sand and dirt. Neither the Chimu nor the Moche could write so there are no written records to tell us about day to day life. The Moche however, left graphic descriptions from which archeologists have drawn out information, but the pottery of the Chimu was black and there are few graphics depicting their story.

We couldn´t help but contrast the civilization of the Chimu in 1100 AD vs the civilization in Europe at the same time. Just thinking how much more we know of life in Europe and how much more of this life still remains today compared to the now extinct civilizations that existed in SA. But that is probably not an educated comparison. In any event, it was pretty marvellous to be exposed to so large a site, and to visit such well preserved ruins of a culture that was so very different from our own.

After leaving Chan Chan, we drove west and north up the bleak coast to Huanchaco and the Hotel Bracamonte where we styaed the night.

Huanchaco is about 12 km west of Trujillo and is a small resort on the ocean which is turning into a surfer´s haven due to the huge rollers crashing into the beach. It is also a fishing town and you can see hundreds of fisherman riding the waves in their tortola reed caballitos del mar. These are made from four cigar shaped bundles of reeds tied together into a tapering arc at each end. The fishermen kneel, or sit, at the stern and paddle kayak-style while they drag their fishing nets through the ocean to make their mini-sized catches returning to shore around 3 to 4 p.m. daily.

Huanchaco is a neat little town that could provide a couple of weeks relaxation or surfing as desired. The weather however, was cold and misty, probably due to the influence of the famous Humboldt currents that are still prevalent in this part of coastal Peru.

The hotel Bracamonte was quite unique. It was built into the hillside on a small street close to the ocean. On the roof, it had a small camp ground which could support about 10 tents and provided a nice camp kitchen, dining area and lounging area with hammocks. Camping was about 3 soles a night each. Across the narrow street, the second building of the hotel supported more bedrooms, the lobby, restaurant, and internet room. We upgraded for 35 soles into a double room which at least had private bath, hot shower sometimes, and was very clean.

Thursday was another long driving day through the northern desert of Peru. This really is stark, barren, and desolate coastal desert with scattered rural communities such as Chiclayo, Lambayeque, and Piura (commercial centres). Nonetheless, despite its bleakness in landscape, the region is rich in archeology and history including pre Inca, and Chimu as well as a number of pre-Columbian cultures which have provided a wealth of archeological sites and led to gathering an abundance of information about life in the region thousands of years ago.

Peruvian tourism is trying to establish the "Circuito Nororiental", which is the route from Trujillo, through the Moche Valley, archeological sites around Chiclayo and the northern beaches like Mancora (where I am writing this from), and Punta Sal, where we are staying as well as the ancient citadel of Kuelap. This would be an exciting and interesting trip for anyone who is interested in Peruvian cultures.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lima, Peru : May 20, 21
















We had two full days to see the sights of Lima. We decided, that since this is a city of 8 million people, we would take a city tour which started at 9.15 on Sunday morning. On the second day, we wandered around on our own, did some washing, updated the blog on the internet, sent some emails, and tried to confirm our Galapagos trip for June 7. It was nice just to have time to ourselves and accomplish some of the admin stuff we needed to make the rest of our journey comfortable.

Lima is a big city. It has a couple of nice areas, Multiflores and San Isidro, where the rich people live and some of the houses and parks are truly spectacular. However, it is also a city that has grown very fast, and therefore there are a number of areas or shantytowns where the majority of the poor population live which are not too pleasant to see. Surprisingly, one of the major problems is unemployment, which we find hard to believe because the city seems very busy, lots of building, and we also met an accountant from PWC in Lima who told us how healthy the economy is. Something doesn´t add.

There is also the colonial Centro where the old Spanish buildings are being fixed up and looked absolutely spectacular, especially at night when they are all lit up.Our hotel is very near the Plaza Mayor which is one of the two main squares. The cathedral, government palace and city hall are all located in this square, and all are very distinguished buildings. This morning, we watched the changing of the guard at the palace which was a rather sleepy, noisy procedure that brought out a ton of riot police, a couple of tanks, a water truck, and hundreds of additional police, police dogs, etc. Quite an event. This happens every day at noon.

We have visited the San Franciscan nuns convent and went down into the catacombs where all the bones and skulls of the 25000 dead people buried there have been separated out into containers labelled with each type of bone. A little gruesome.

There have been several earthquakes in Lima and a big one in 1746 destroyed 70% of the colonial buildings, but these seem to have been rebuilt in the 1800s and then recently restored as much as possible. None, or very little of the Inca buildings remain, as the Spanish destroyed them all before building over the top of them. We did see an archaeological site dating back to the Lima Indians who lived 200 to 700 AD. It is currently being restored in Miraflores. We also went into the Banco Central Museo which was quite fun as it was an old bank complete with vault in the lower level and cash cages on the first floor. Here we saw an explanation of all of the South American cultures leading up to the Incas, and there are many of them depending on which part of the continent you are in. We also saw splendid examples of Inca gold jewellery and other artifacts. The Inca prized sea shells more than gold or silver, and so most of the ceremonial jewellery is made of seashells.

Lima also has a large China town, which we saw the outskirts of.

There is a strong European influence in some of the buildings, mainly Italian, and French, as after the WWII many Europeans moved here for safety. We learned that the Spanish have big doors so that people could ride right into the house to take their horses to the courtyard behind. Also, the Spanish loved processions, and so all the houses have tons of balconies so that people could stand on the balcony watching the procession.

We also stepped into the Postal Museum and saw myriads of beautiful stamps from around the world, let alone a beautifully restored colonial house. One of the lovely things about the people here is their enthusiasm. The security guard who ushered us into the Museum was so anxious to have us visit. He was so excited to show us in and tell us where things were. This spontaneity and enthusiasm are definitely missing in the service areas in Canada. Just like the restaurant we had lunch in today. It was a small little typical cafe and when we walked in the waiter was so delighted, he took us upstairs, smiling all the time and treated us like kings. There is no subservience about their attitude, it is just one of genuine delight.

Late yesterday afternoon, we went out to Larco Mar in Miraflores which is a suburb of the city situated on the coast, and sat high in one of the restaurants on the rocks above the sea shore watching the sun set. We had quite a ride getting there. The cab was very broken down. No shock absorbers, a half chewed back seat, the dashboard was stripped, and the cab stank of petrol. We had agreed on 10 soles for the ride. The cabbie couldn´t find the restaurant. He tried to ask a young chap on a motorbike delivering pizzas but the young lad wouldn´t even stop to speak to him. Then we stopped a Miraflores security policeman,and he directed us to a restaurant. The cabbie let us out just around the corner and another concerned citizen took us to the cafe. However, it turned out there are two in Miraflores and we had the wrong one. So we had about a half hour walk to the shore to the correct restaurant. The view was perfect though looking out over the Pacific Ocean. We also saw the statute to the Lovers. Two lovers kissing. Apparently on Feb 14 there is a kissing contest to see who can kiss the longest. It has to be a Peruvian kiss, a French kiss is not acceptable!!

The people in Lima are generally very friendly and helpful and get a big kick out of you trying to speak their language. But it is still a little racy, although we believe 10 years ago, it was a lot worse, and the door of our hotel for example, has iron grills in front of it which are closed all the time and the security guard has to let you in and out. This doesn´t give you a very good feeling. We were also warned not to walk on the streets at night in the Centro area. This really makes us feel very limited in what we can do after dark as Ray and I both like to walk a lot. Anyway, its really only another big city. I do hope the economy continues to pick up and that way the City will be able to develop into a safer environment.

While in Lima, we learned that Penny, one of the truck group who left us in Santiago had been travelling by overnight bus and someone had crawled under the seat in front of her, slashed her day pack and taken out her passport, travellers´cheques, money, and some other items. It seems that all of those who left us and continued their journeys on their own have had major items stolen. This confirms to us that one of the major advantages of travelling overland on a truck is the security and safety issue and we just don´t have to worrry about those sorts of things happening during our travel time. Means we can sit on the Truck and sleep in peace as we journey!

Early tomorrow morning we are off on the next stage of our journey. We have 9 nights of camping, five in Peru and then we enter in Ecuador. We also have 3 nights at Punta Sal, a beach resort on the Pacific which we are all looking forward to. So stay tuned, but bare with us if we do not get pictures or more text updated for a while. Not every camp site has an internet, and we do have a couple of rough camps thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Trains, and Boats, and Dune Buggeys ' May 18, 19











On Thursday, May 17 we drove from Ariquipa to Nazca through barren sandy hills covered with alluvial deposits from the volcano activity which occurred in this region thousands of years ago. At Nazca, we camped in one of the best camp sites yet. There was a fabulously clean swimming pool, a restaurant, bar, internet, and hot showers. The next morning, Friday, we were up around 6.00 a.m. to be ready to start our plane flights over the Nazca Lines. The flights started early so as to avoid turbulence which seemed to build up later in the day. The Nazca Indians are thought to have existed between 200 and 600 AD. Many mysteries surround their culture, including why they disappeared, however, they are the tribe that is reputed to have constructed the Nazca Lines.

We, Ray and I, John and Lynn, Robin, and the pilot, took off in the 6 seater Cesna 182 from Nazca Airport, directly opposite the campsite, listening through our headsets to the pilot pointing out the 13 shapes we would see on our short, 15 minute flight. Takeoff was smooth and we climbed steadily to about 1000 feet. Numerous other small planes filled the aire space around us, but we had learned that due to some previous accidents, each plane was now given its own altitude to fly at, and thus able to avoid mid air collisions. Then, unexpectedly, the pilot banked the high winged plane so that it was almost perpendicular on its right side, then very quickly banked to the same position on the opposite side. As the blue sky whizzed above me and to the left and right of me, I tried desperately to steady my swirling stomach and find my equilibrium. Needless to say, I totally missed seeing the first shape ' the whale. Thank goodness none of the other moves were quite as violent, and when we compared notes with others in the group, this seemed to be an automatic first move. Perhaps it was purposely done to set us up for the rest of the journey, which although we seemed many times to be flying perpendicularly while the pilot identified the shape ¨at the tip of the right wing¨ for example, none of the other moves were as alarming. The flight was very smooth and our Peruvian pilot very slick.

The ground below us was a continuation of the sandy desert like alluvial landscape that we had become accustomed to in the Truck the day before. It was hard to make out the lines and shapes because of the numerous other visible lines and car tracks over the ground, but when we did, it was an amazing sight to distinguish the perfectly formed shapes of triangels, an astronaut, a monkey, a dog, a condor, a spider, a hummingbird, Alcatraz, a parrot, hands, and a tree. We are quite concerned about the preservation of this wondrous site, as at present, it seems to be totally unprotected from money grabbing tour operators.

What do these lines mean? Since they are only properly distinguishable from the air, how and why did the Nazca make them, if in fact they did? There are many theories including: ancient gods, a landing strip for returning aliens, a celestial calendar created by the ancient Nazca civilization -- putting the creation of the lines between 200 BC and 600 AD, used for rituals probably related to astronomy, to confirm the ayllus or clans who made up the population and to determine through ritual their economic functions held up by reciprocity and redistribution, or a map of underground water supplies. There are about 300 hundred figures etched in the surface of the desert pampa sand made of straight lines, geometric shapes most clearly visible from the air. The shapes have survived due to the almost non existent rainfall in the desert area which minimizes the effects of the wind so that there is no rain to wash the lines away, or blowing sand to cover them.

All too soon, our flight was over, leaving us with more questions than answers about this strange phenomena in the Peruvian desert.

We stayed around the camp site at Nazca, after the flight, sitting by the pool, eating lunch and relaxing and about 1:30 p.m. loaded up in the Truck for our 3 and half hour drive to Huacachina. Here we left the comfort of the Truck for a dune buggey. The buggeys were weird looking vehicles wtih a strong roll bar mechanism built on top of a 4 wheel chassis. I thought I was embarking on a sandboarding trip with an overnight stay under the stars in the desert.

There is a strip of desert in Peru that stretches for about 177 kms long by 57 km wide. The desert is created because of the Humboldt currents in the Pacific. These are areas of cold water which create a cold atmosphere above them and do not allow any rain to fall on the land. Occasionally, the effects of El Nino will counteract this, and torrential rains will come causing substantial flooding and damage to the area.

The settlement of Huacachina is about 5 km southwest of Ica. There is a myth that says the lagoon was formed when a princess stripped off to bathe and noticed in the mirror that a male hunter was watching her. Startled, she dropped the mirror which turned into the lagoon. The settlement only has about 20 houses, but in the 40s it was an exclusive resort, surrounded by sand dunes, palm trees and the curative powers of the lagoon. Then the subterranean source of the water became eratic and the water now is pumped up from Artesion wells. The curative powers of the lagoon still attract people. The mud from the lake is said to cure arthritis and rheumatism, and the sand is said to help chest problems such as asthma or bronchitis.

We set off in our sturdy dune buggesys straight into the desert. And then the fun started. The dunes are huge and stretch as far as you can see. Our drivers determined to give us the ride of our life. We were racing across the sand, then headed straight up the highest dune only to shear off near the top and head straight back down again. Another trick took us flying across the desert, straight up the dune to the peak, a moment to level out and straight down the opposite side flat out, just like a roller coaster. Ray and I were sitting in the front seat with the driver. Ray loved it. I sat gripping the bar on the dash with one hand and the other hand held on to the seat. I should aslo mention that I was strapped in with a waist belt and another belt that came up between my legs and over my shoulders and connected somewhere around my tummy button. I guess this should have alerted me to the fact that this was not going to be a normal ride!! I was also wearing protective eye glasses... but no helmut. I am not quite sure how I made it through. I remember slipping further and further down into my seat trying not to let my tummy get ahead of the buggey. Ray said the concern on my face showed all the fear I was feeling. Having analysed it, it wasn´t fear ' it was dread of the terrible reaction I was trying to hard to control in my tummy.

After about 30 minutes of whooping and hollering our way through the desert like a bunch of kids on the Thunder Mountain roller coaster at Canada´s Wonderland, we stopped for some sand boarding.Relief, bliss, now I was in control. Because we had no experience, instead of riding the board like a snow board, the guides suggested we lie on them and head straight down the sand dunes, face first. Now this was fantastic fun sliding down a hundred foot sand dune on your belly. Unfortunately, one of our young guys, Duncan, who was taking the steepest and longest dune standing up, got going too fast and crashed, breaking his wrist in two pieces. Once again, Diana and Tony came quickly to the rescue and had Duncan into the medical clinic, x'rays taken, casat fitted and back to the join the group for dinner around 7.30 p.m. We do really have to complement the medical services here. For 400 soles )about $US 135 he had x'rays, consultation, cast, medication in the swiftest time imaginable.

After we finished sand boarding, we drove through the desert to a protected area, in otherwords a dune valley, where we stopped for the night. Our buggey drivers turned into chefs, and barbecued a brilliant meal of chicken and sauseage, potatoes, and vegetables over the charcoal fire which they built well into the sand. After supper, our by now multitalented drivers, struck up a band with a guitar, a beer bottle and spoon, and the speaker box out of one of the vehicles as a drum. And, so we spent the evening, sitting around a camp fire, drinking a few cervezas, chatting, some singing, some dancing. Around 10.30 p.m. which seemed like the middle of the night because it had been dark for so long, some of the group, including Ray and I wandered from the fire to find a flat spot where we blew up our air mattresses, opened out our sleeping bags and curled up inside our sheets in side the bags, well protected from the cool desert air. We lay staring up at the starts in wonder, until slowly, sleep carried us into a peaceful, desert induced oblivion.

The next morning, I woke up at daylight, I think I was the first awake, and lay listening to the quiet and marvelling at where we had spent the night. Slowly, bodies came alive and crawled out of their sleeping bags shaking sand out of hair, ears, and clothes. There was a moment of excitement when Gemma was showing us the scorpion she had squashed under her sleeping bag, and suddenly it got up and ran across the sand. You can imagine how quickly we all scattered!!

Shortly after 7.00 a.m. we climbed back into the dune buggeys for our thrill ride back to town. It ws then I knew I hated it and that I would never knowingly put myself in that situation again!

Back in Huacachina, we had breakfast then drove 1 and a half hours to the Paracas National Reserve. This is an area established in 1975 to protect the marine wild life of the 117,000 hectares of pampa that surround the coast. Here we boarded a 24 seater motor boat which whisked us through the swell of the Pacific Ocean to the Ballestas Islands, sometimes referred to as the poorman´s Galapagos. These islands are heaving with birds and sea lions and covered with guano or bird droppings. Every inch of flat space was taken up by birds of all kinds including cormorants of numerous varieties, boobies, terns, pelicans, penguins, etc. Our guide told us that they harvested the bird droppings every 6 years. The smell of all the droppings was quite ripe!! This boat trip was about 2 hours and a half. When we arrived back to shore, we had lunch in a small restaurant on the front and then drove another 4 hours to Lima where we stayed at the Kamana Hotel. A very pleasant hotel, with a spacious room, TV, phone, ensuite and hot shower that seems to work all the time.

That night, we had a farewell dinner for the 3 people who are leaving us in Lima. I have to admit to not feeling very well, suffering from cramps in my tummy and the odd bout of diahorrea. However, since I have been totally fit and well for the rest of the trip, I think I have got off quite lucky.