Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Peru 1: Arequipa and Colca Valley

Following our delayed flight from Quito, we arrived in Lima a bit bedraggled to be met by our Enjoy Peru rep, Jenny, and her driver. On the 30 minute ride to our hotel, Jenny was on her cell phone constantly, taking or making at least a half-dozen calls (with whom does one speak at three o’clock in the morning?). We were tired buckos when we were picked up at 9:30 am for our flight to Arequipa and the first part of our Peruvian adventure.

Upon our arrival in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city of 1 million (who knew; we thought it was a modest town!), our local guide, Renaldo, took us on a city tour, the highlight of which was an hour-plus stroll around the Santa Catalina Convent. Founded in the 16th century by the Dominicans, the convent is really a miniature city of more than three acres that was occupied by as many as 450 cloistered nuns. Girls entered the convent at age 12 and were placed in one of three social classes – the daughters of Spanish aristocrats (usually the second child) whose parents paid a significant dowry and who brought with them servants; mestizo girls whose parents paid a modest dowry (and had no servants); and children of the lowest socio-economic class who paid no dowry but were expected to work more than the others. Sometime in the 20th century, the Pope abolished the class system (and the private suites occupied by the nuns in the highest order) and forced them to live the traditional communal life. The number of nuns dwindled and in 1970 the convent was opened to the public as a major tourist site. The 30 or so remaining nuns have retreated to a small portion of the walled community situated in the heart of Arequipa. Wandering through the beautiful grounds that contain everything the nuns needed to live a very comfortable life (far beyond what one might expect for those who took the vow of poverty!) was a fascinating experience marked by exquisite period furniture, art from the Arequipa and Cusco schools, and a maze of cobblestone streets and plazas.

We also visited the cathedral which occupies one full side of the lovely Plaza de Armas, an elegant open space with palm trees, gardens and the typical fountain centerpiece. Founded in 1612, the cathedral contains a marvelous Belgian organ, an intricately carved wooden French pulpit, Italian statuary and a spectacular Spanish chandelier. Many of these items were donated following the collapse of one of the cathedral’s twin towers in the 2001 earthquake. We walked across the plaza to visit La Compañia de Jesu, the Jesuit church and cloister. The Jesuits were everywhere and it seems they maintained an interest in acquiring gold – as in Quito, this Compañia sports lots of the shiny stuff! An interesting note, unlike Quito where we were told few of the overwhelming majority of Catholics actually practice their religion and we saw few in the churches we visited, people streamed in and out of the Arequipa churches. Indeed, Renaldo says many in the community (including him) stop in church several times a day!

After settling in at the Hotel Casa Andina (an upper midlevel Peruvian chain in which we are booked throughout our stay in the country), we took one of the hundreds (perhaps thousands!) of yellow taxis that fly dangerously around town, ignoring stop signs and playing “chicken” at every intersection down to Calle de San Francisco, the principal street of restaurants in the city center (we cabbed it because Barbara swears as we were walking to the hotel she saw a kid about eight years old come out of a doorway waving a real handgun in front of another smaller youngster; neither Renaldo nor I witnessed this event!). An excellent Chilean cabernet/merlot accompanied an excellent dinner of different stuffed avocado starters plus huge entrees and topped off with cappuccino – the total, including tip, was about US $40. We also were entertained by a group of local college students dressed as singing minstrels. Remarkable!

The next day we joined a group totaling 12 (two guys from the Netherlands, one from Scotland, two women from Budapest and another two from South Korea plus a young woman from Korea traveling alone), led by Mariaugenia, a knowledgeable 25-year old who has strong populist political views, and our driver, Gustavo. We expected a boring 4 to 5 hour van ride from Arequipa to the Colca Valley (much on unpaved roads) for the opportunity to rise early the next morning for a chance to watch Condors swoop on the thermals rising from the valley. Instead, starting out at about 3,000 meters and climbing as high as 4,900 meters, our four hour trip was filled with multiple spectacular snow capped peaks (of 6,000 and plus meters), many of them active volcanoes, and interesting animals – llamas and alpacas in domesticated herds and the endangered vicuña in the Aguada Blanca Vicuña Reserve. To adjust to the high altitude, we had to drink coca tea, chew coca leaves and nibble on coca candy – naw, you don’t get high but it helps relieve altitude sickness!

We arrived in Chivay, the capital of the region (in truth, a tired, sleepy and extremely poor town of 6,000), in mid-afternoon, just in time for a couple of relaxing hours at the La Calera hot springs, set in a lovely valley and near a bridge which, according to Mariaugenia (whose family comes from a nearby Colca Valley village) is the site of an almost annual suicide by a (usually male) lover frustrated by parents who continue the arranged marriage tradition! That evening, half of our group (several suffering from altitude sickness – headache and nausea – skipped dinner altogether) joined Mariaugenia and Gustavo for a “typical dinner” with local music and dancing. The dinner was OK (soup was great, the alpaca steak just alright but the chicken was vile) and the dancing strange. The dancers – the husband of one of the waitresses in this family owned and operated restaurant and a high school girl who does this gig every night for tips – were colorfully dressed and filled with energy. One of three dances – something to do with getting rid of Yellow Fever – included throwing the partner to the ground and whipping them (a bit too S&M for Barbara). Of course, the shtick included the dancers grabbing new partners from the audience and, of course, I was one of those grabbed (see photo) – so I bounced wildly around with the crowd for a few minutes until altitude and age combined to sit me down!

Yesterday morning we began (at 5:30 am!) our two-hour plus ride over dirt/gravel roads to the Mirador or Cruz del Cõndor, situated at the deepest point of the canyon (the deepest in the world, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), for an opportunity to see the giant vultures (with wing spans as great as 4+ meters!). Mariaugenia dashed our hopes by relaying that January-February are the worst months to actually spot condors because at this time of year, instead of looking for carrion among the rocks of the canyon walls, the condors fly 200 miles to the ocean to feed off of the placenta left by sea lions giving birth to cubs (yuk, is that disgusting or what?). The jarring ride included interesting stops to observe the terraced gardens created by the pre-Inca communities (the Cabanas and Collegos people) who settled in the valley as early as 900 AD, their “hanging tombs” cut into the sides of the cliffs, and the stark and deep gorge cut by the volcanic and earthquake cataclysm that occurred millions of years ago. We hiked the last bit to the Cruz del Cõndor site and settled in with about 100 or more other folks, hoping to get a glimpse of these big birds (second in size to the albatross). (As an aside for those who have inquired or expressed, Barbara’s knees are holding up well – the drugs and our now famous walking sticks are working!) Although the condors didn’t come “close up, so…you feel you can reach out and touch them” (guide book language!), we did see four of the birds – two high above us, one below and in front diving into the rocks close by (but never emerging – what’s with that?), and the fourth riding the thermal and gliding away from us but close enough to see its white wing feathers. Alas, the photos, taken as quickly as possible by simply aiming the digital camera in the birds’ general direction, show nothing more than a dot in the sky! On the other hand, we got a decent close up of a beautiful humming bird that visited a flowering tree in front of us.

Gustavo reduced the six-hour ride back to Arequipa in five. That didn’t include an hour stop for our “typical” buffet lunch with everything (except the cerveza, of course) for 15 soles (Peruvian currency equaling less than US $5) – at this one I tried guinea pig, the national delicacy – tough but tasty! We also stopped several times for breaks and the opportunity to buy handicrafts or pay a sole or two to indigenous folks for picture-taking (see the one with the tame eagle sitting on me!).

Back in Arequipa, we repacked to make sure our larger piece of luggage was under 20 kilos and the total checked under 40 kilos (we just made it – 39.4 kilos; we better not buy anything in Cusco or Puno or we’ll be walking!) and got an early dinner so we were ready for our 5:00 am pickup for a 6:10 flight to Cusco. We made it even though Renaldo was 20 minutes late. We’re now in Cusco, ready for Part 2 of the Peruvian experience. Stay tuned and we hope you enjoy the photos!

Joe and Barbara

PS Thanks to all who have written comments on the For Our Trips blog or have emailed your best wishes. It means a lot to be able to stay in touch with family and friends during this long trip. Moreover, it has encouraged us to continue to share our experiences (not necessarily a good thing from the perspective of others)!

Convent Crosses & "Famous" Blue Paint; Convent Street; Cathedral Tower Destroyed in Earthquake; Belgium Donated Organ; Jesu Church w Taxis; Mintrels

Fighting Traffic on Best Portion of Road to Colca: Framing Snow Capped Mountains: Volcano Ampato 6288 m; Llamas&Alpacas; Vicunas Grazing in Reserve

Chivay Town in Colca Valley; Thermal Bath; 2 Photos of Dancers; JDH Dancing and Huffing

Canyon+Agricultural Terraces; Hanging Graves; BJB&Dirk (Dutch) Spotting Condors: Condor: Humming Bird: Handicraft Ladies; BJB with Alpaca; JDH+Eagle

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Two Postings in One Day!

Quito and Otavalo Market

Writing this latest posting at the Quito Airport waiting for our delayed flight (around midnight, we hope!). We spent a wonderful couple of days in Quito and the surrounding area and we'd like to share some of it with you.

Our hotel, Patio Andaluz, was lovely. Built around two center courtyards, the hotel offered us a two-story room – a nice living room with a wooden spiral staircase to the bedroom and bath (see photos). Great dining – at the hotel and beyond; two restaurants merit kudos, Mea Culpa (great name, huh?) overlooking the Grand Square had great food (stuffy staff, however!) and El Magnolio (see photo) where we lunched twice (that tells you something!). I came to love a traditional Ecuadorian soup – Locro y queso (a potato soup you could die for!) – so much that I ordered it several times (as Barbara told one of the waiters, “Quatro veces en tres dias!”).

We traveled to the Middle of the World (00.00 latitude, certified by GPS!) where we weighed 2 kilos less (great diet!) and performed some nifty “experiments” (check out me balancing an egg on a nail!) to show the effects of this "centering" of the earth. As you know, I don’t have strong positive feelings about the French. Thus I was delighted to learn that their scientists, in usual pompous fashion, screwed up and were off by about 150 yards in designating the precise spot of the “Middle of the World” sometime ago!

We also traveled out of the city to visit the Indian Market at Otavalo (operated by one of the many indigenous communities) and Cotacachi (a town famous for leather) where we found some great bargains (our luggage is now over the weight limit – trouble ahead on our next flights!).

Today we wandered around the "Old City" area of Quito and watched a municipal celebration with colorful parades (check out the kids all dressed up), visited the Augustine museum where we were taken by 16th century native artists, and observed a demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace (protesting the government granting a US request for extradition of a convicted murderer facing execution).

Looking forward to a short night’s sleep in Lima. Tomorrow we’re off to Arequipa, the “white city” and gateway to Colca Canyon, home of the giant Condors. More later!

Joe and Barbara

P.S. Our first week or so in Ecuador has been wonderful. With five weeks to go, we sure hope this wasn't the highlight of the trip!

Augustine Museum; Municipal Parade/Band; Demo at Prez Palace

Lunch at Magnolio; Middle of the World; Otavalo Market

Our Hotel in Quito: Upstairs bedroom; LR; One of the Courtyards

Galapagos Photos II

Clockwise from Bottom:
Galapagos Seals; Green Sea Turtle; Marine Iguanas Fighting; Fur Seal Family

Galapagos Photos

1st photo: Galapagos Penguins
2nd: Cormorants "mating dance"
3rd: Blue Footed Boobies

Posting from Galapagos

Greetings from Ecuador!

This is our first posting while enroute, on this occasion from Quito, Ecuador. We returned yesterday from five glorious days in the Galapagos on board the Coral I, a 34 passenger boat that cruised us around the archipelago. About two-thirds of the passengers were from the US (including sixteen women from Westport, CT who have a history of dumping their spouses and traveling to exotic venues) as well as folks from Australia, Denmark, France, Israel and the UK.

If you haven’t been, try to find a way to visit this extraordinary place – Darwin wasn’t kidding around, folks! The scenery is gorgeous but it is the wildlife – and the ability to get up close to it – that knocked our socks off. We were next to – among others – Land and Marine Iguanas, Lava Lizards, Galapagos Seals, Fur Seals, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Cormorants, Frigates, Galapagos Penguins, Blue Footed Boobies and a dozen other flying creatures, Green Sea Turtles, huge Land Tortoises, and the famous Lonesome George (the last of his unless he somehow is turned on by one of the various females of related tortoise species to whom the scientists at the Darwin Center keep introducing him!).

In the 4.5 days we took eight hikes of varying challenge. Our forays to various islands and terrains were led by naturalists from the National Galapagos Park Service, talented and committed tour guides who stayed on board with us and briefed us each evening on the upcoming events. The consensus of the group was that the daily tours were more strenuous than we had anticipated (although none exceeded three miles according to my trusty pedometer!). The hikes were broken up by snorkeling and swimming in beautiful waters along stunning beaches.

Our group also agreed that the food was far better than we expected (though the wine selection wasn’t great!). The schedule conveniently (and prudently) allowed for midday and late afternoon (before cocktails) rest periods (here read naps!). The seas were quite rough on two of the four nights. Indeed, we lost a number of our colleagues at dinnertime because of the heavy rolls we encountered.

All in all, it was a fabulous beginning of our sabbatical adventure. And Quito is marvelous. We are staying at a gorgeous small hotel and our meals to date have been spectacular. More later!

Joe and Barbara

P.S. Check out the few photos I’m able to attach!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Hi Folks!

We are fully packed and have taken the precaution of weighing our luggage at an "official" Publix scale. Barbara and I each have a bag that weighs in at 20 kilos (44 pounds), the maximum permitted by the internal carriers in Ecuador and Peru and by LAN, the international airline that we will fly from Quito to Lima and later from Lima to Santiago. We also have small "overnight bags" that weigh in at six to eight kilos (12 to 16 pounds) that we hope the airline will check. If not, I pray they let us carry them on along with our backpacks. Actually, we're very proud we're taking off with less than 120 pounds of luggage, well below the former/traditional 70-75 pounds per piece (and they allowed two pieces!) of international luggage!

This will be our final post before departing tomorrow morning. Our hope is that we find wireless along the way and do not have to rely on AT&T Global dial-up. If so, we probably will have difficulty posting photos!

As we begin this adventure, we want to thank Erika Navarro of Enjoy Peru, SA (erikan@enjoyperu.com or www.enjoyperu.com) and Susan Smith of Cruise.com (ssmith@cruise.com or www.cruise.com ). Erika (see photo above) did an amazing job of crafting a personalized three-week land tour of Ecuador and Peru, working backwards from our cruise departure date. She also patiently answered about 100 of my emails! Susan (sorry, no photo) got us a great deal on our two-week cruise around Cape Horn and responded to a similar number of emails. The two of them thought of everything - for example, Erika arranged for us to leave luggage at several hotels along the way to lighten our traveling load and Susan thought of reserving our cabin on the port side of the ship to be sure we will have views of the glaciers, fjords and other terrific sights along the way!