A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: DavidandHazel

The Backstory

sunny -8 °C

Back in November of 2013 when we decided on taking this trip and started to book it, there were very few cabins left – so we knew we were not alone in wanting to see this unique and beautiful part of the world.

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West Coast of South America - Galapagos Island Chain to the left

The Galapagos Islands are an Ecuadorian province and national park and are located about 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. They are volcanic in origin and are still being formed. The most recent eruption was in April 2009. They consist of 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands and 107 rocks and islets

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Map showing the largest of the Galapagos Islands

Because they are so far off the coast, the indigenous animals and plants landed there by chance – blown by the winds and washed in by the seas. They have flourished and evolved in their own unique ways and formed new species and sub-species. Records indicate that the Spanish and English had first discovered the islands in the 1500’s. It was here that Darwin landed in 1835 and, after studying the flora and fauna, formed his theory of natural selection. The interesting side bar to the isolation of these animals is that they evolved for eons without any contact with man – so they have not developed fear of us and are very tame.

This is a very protected area with the number of tourist boats capped at 85 until 2017. Of the 85 boats, 4 are the size of ours – the Celebrity Xpedition (90 – 100 passengers), 2 carry 50 passengers, and the remaining ones are quite a bit smaller. We selected the Xpedition because of our wonderful experience sailing with the Celebrity cruise line in the past plus the amount of time in the islands was one of the longest we found at 7 days.

Posted by DavidandHazel 10:58 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

Technical Difficulties

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Our ship's satellite based internet access is down so we are not able to upload anything. We don't expect to be able to upload anything until Tuesday or Wednesday at the earliest.

Posted by DavidandHazel 03:30 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

On Our Way and the City of Quito

Friday & Saturday

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Special Note: Due to issues with the ship’s satellite system we were off the grid for our first week. Once back on the mainland we continued to experience technical issues. The most significant issue was the instability of the Wi Fi service at our hotels. The blog has to be assembled live on line so we need rock solid internet especially when uploading pictures which can take 5-10 minutes on the slower connections. If the connection is lost even for a few seconds we have to start the process for that entry all over again. Also once we hit Peru our schedule became very demanding as we were usually on the road by 8:00 am and going well into the evenings so very little time even write the blog let alone time to fiddle with the internet connections so we concentrated on our note and picture taking. Please pardon us if you are reading this a week or so late.

Friday - On Our Way

Because we were due to leave very early in the morning, Sue and Roy suggested that we all stay at the Marriott next to the airport. For $99 all included we could stay overnight very close to the airport, use the Marriott’s underground parking for the two weeks we are away and take their shuttle to and from the airport. It sounds like a neat way to start our trip and is less expensive than cab fare. Turned out to be a good call as it snowed a fair amount Thursday night and was snowing lightly when we departed the hotel at 5:45 am Friday morning for the 10 minute ride to at the airport. Traffic of course was a mess but since our hotel was so close it had no impact on us.

We were at the airport by 6:00 am and smoothly navigated the various check-in and security line ups and by 7:30 am had boarded our Copa Airlines Airbus for the 5 hour flight to Panama City where we would have a 2 hour stopover before getting our 3 hour connector flight to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador.

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Copa aircraft at Toronto’s Pearson airport

We arrived in Quito to be greeted by the Celebrity Cruise lines staff. There were 10 of us all arriving at roughly the same time so Celebrity had a representative at the arrival gate and a bus waiting for us all. We were driven about 45 minutes further up into the mountains into the old capital city of Quito to the local Marriott Hotel where we were greeted with warm wet towels and fruit drinks along with information on our day tomorrow.

When we reached our room our luggage had already been dropped off – but we then discovered something very strange. The two combination locks on Hazel’s bag had both been removed and one lock on David’s bag was missing. Closer inspection revealed that an underwater watch had been stolen from Dave but nothing from Hazel (no jewelry was packed) AND there was an extra toothbrush in a black case in Hazel’s luggage! We suspect that while we were waiting for our connector plane in Panama, someone had the time to search our luggage and help themselves to some of our stuff. Normally we would not pack valuables in our checked luggage but in an effort to reduce the weight of our carryon bags we foolishly packed a couple of items. Interestingly there was also a fairly expensive Olympus underwater digital camera in the same bag and it was not touched probably because it looks like any cheap digital camera.

Ecuador is considered the rose capital of the world and they are evidently very proud of this because we saw roses everywhere – in the airport and all around the hotel.

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Floral arrangements in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Quito

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Floral arrangements in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Quito

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Floral arrangements in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Quito

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There was even one on our bed when we arrived at the Marriott

Saturday - Quito, Ecudor

After a good night’s sleep and a buffet breakfast we boarded 4 large coaches for a tour of the city of Quito.

Quito has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas. Quito is the capital of Ecuador and at an elevation of 9,350 ft. is the highest capital city in the world. It is located on the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano in the Andes Mountains and is the only capital in the world to be directly menaced by an active volcano. The latest eruption was on October 5, 1999 when with just a few puffs of smoke a huge amount of ash was deposited on the city. Our guide told us it was a very difficult time for the population and the entire city closed down for more than 2 weeks. Other nearby volcanos also occasionally deposit ash on the city. The Quito city limits extend to within 1 km of the equator making it the closest capital city to the equator. With a population of 2.2 million Quito is very densely populated. It is wedged between the mountains and a series of deep crevasses giving it its long narrow shape.

Our first stop of the morning was at the Quito Basilica. Our guide explained that a church is overseen by a priest, a basilica by a bishop and a cathedral by a cardinal. This massive basilica has been under construction for over 200 years and still is not finished.

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Quito basilica

After time for pictures outside the basilica we boarded the busses again and headed off through some of the older sections of the city dating back to the early 1700s where we were able to continue our walking tour. Interestingly we were cautioned to stay together as a group and were accompanied not only by our guide but also an armed security guard – petty crime such as pick pocketing is apparently a problem in the crowded areas.

We walked to the central square of Quito which in typical South American style for the era is bordered by the Presidential Palace, the local Cathedral, the local government administration building and the local cultural center or in more modern times a commercial shopping area. You’ll see this pattern repeated over and over in old South American cities and it is still preserved in many.

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Central square from the Presidential Palace

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Presidential Palace. The current President doesn’t live but does work there. The large veranda outside the palace has sections of iron work which came from the Bastille in Paris.

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Quito Cathedral

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Cultural Centre with the worst restoration job ever.

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Statue to commemorate independence from the Spanish, If the top figure looks familiar that is because this statue was created by the same person who created the Statue of Liberty

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Honour Guard outside palace

We boarded the busses again and visited 2 very ornate churches – one built by the Jesuits and one built by the Franciscans just a block away. Apparently there was a lot of competition between the two factions in their early years with each one trying to recruit local followers and often denigrating the other.

The Franciscan church had an incredible amount of gold decoration on the inside and we weren’t permitted to take pictures. Dave managed to get one snapped quickly before they stopped him.

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Inside of church - check out all the gold leaf covering. It is obscene how much gold there is in this place

We then went to the Monasterio de San Francisco – a monastery built by the Franciscan monks which has sections open to the public but others which are not because it is currently an active monastery.

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Monastery courtyard

This monastery has a small statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus which was carved by a man who was directed what to carve by a monk who was able to read the scriptures. The scriptures indicated that she ascended to heaven so the carver gave her wings. This is the only statue of Mary with wings. It is fairly small and very ornate and, of course, we were not permitted to take pictures. However, there is a very large copy of the statue on one of the hills in Quito.

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Statue of Mary

We again boarded our bus to the theater district where we had a lovely Ecuadorian lunch.

After lunch we once more boarded the coaches for a short trip to the northern suburbs of Quito to see the Equatorial line and visit a museum there. They have turned this imaginary geographic line into an interesting tourist attraction with a large monument and an actual yellow line marking the center line of the earth with the latitude notation of 0.0.0. We were very happy to be in a city with the high elevation as it kept the mid-day temperatures very reasonable (24C) considering we were at the equator. A few folks suffered from headaches from the altitude but the four of us noticed very little effects except for being a little short of breath on some of the steeper climbs.

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Huge Monument Marking the Equator - Note the observation deck on the top

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Line Marking the Equator

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Sue and Roy

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Hazel and David

After returning from the tour we had dinner at a local gourmet restaurant called the Gloria and then returned to our hotel to pack our bags and put them outside our room. Celebrity staff would transport them to the airport and expedite them through agricultural control and ensure that they were on the plane and transported to the ship. Next time we would see our bags would be in our cabin on the ship.

It has been a busy first day and tomorrow looks to be even busier.

Posted by DavidandHazel 10:39 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

Galapagos Islands

Arrival at the Galapagos Islands and Boarding our Ship the Xpedition

sunny 26 °C

Sunday

We were up bright and early (6:00 am) again on Sunday for a quick buffet breakfast at the hotel and boarded our charter buses for the 45 minute ride down the mountain to the 5000 foot level and the new and very modern Quito airport. After the usual airport checks we boarded our charter Airbus 319 for the two hour flight to the tiny island of Baltra. Baltra is one of the Galapagos Islands and is located 1000 km off the Pacific coast of Ecuador.

During our two hour flight we were even given a small meal complete with full Celebrity linen, china and silverware. We disembarked right on the tarmac and walked into the small airport. It was a lovely warm and humid day with a steady breeze blowing in off the Pacific Ocean.

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Our charter plane on the tarmac in Baltra

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Main airport building in Baltra. The airport was originally a US Air Base

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Small "VIP lounge" at the airport where they gathered all of us Celebrity folks together before ushering us into two busses for the short trip down to the small loading wharf in the local harbour

After gathering all 96 of us in the airport “VIP” lounge, we boarded several rather tired busses and drove a few minutes down a very bumpy rural road to a small shore side landing spot where we were given life jackets and loaded in groups of 14 into Zodiac rubber boats which would transport us the short distance out to our ship which was anchored in the local harbor. Even though our ship is smaller than any traditional cruise ship there is no facility large enough in Baltra to handle a ship of this size. In fact at no time during the entire voyage did the ship tie up in a port. The Xpedition is roughly 300 feet long and weighs in at about 2800 tons but she draws 25 feet of water which in an undeveloped area like this limits her ability to find a suitable port.

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Sue and Roy getting ready to board the Zodiac

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Passengers boarding the Zodiac one by one - note they do not tie the Zodiac to the wharf, the operator just puts the nose up against the wharf and keeps the power on - simple but very effective

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Our home for the next week - The Xpedition at anchor

Our ship, called the Xpedition, is operated by a division of Celebrity Cruise lines. But make no mistake, this trip bears little resemblance to your typical cruise ship journey. This is more like a safari or an Adventure Tour that happens to be based on a small ship. I have seen private mega yachts that are bigger than the Xpedition.

Once on board we collected our room keys and found our cabin on deck 5.

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Our cabin #506 on the Xpedition which is classified as a suite!

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Hazel on the verandah - the verandah was a very nice feature on this trip as we spent much of our day light hours at anchor and close to shore

The ship is very well appointed but aside from the passenger's cabins it really only has a dining area and one main central lounge. There are a couple of outside sitting areas and a hot tub on the top deck – never did see anyone using it. This trip is not about onboard shopping, entertainment or casinos and bars. It is about long hiking tours exploring sensitive geographic areas and daily snorkeling adventures in very interesting waters.

As soon as we boarded there was a buffet lunch available for any of those people who still had room for food followed by a short briefing in the Discovery Lounge on the activities on days to come.

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Briefing in the main lounge

Our next task was to get ourselves set up with the snorkeling equipment that we would be using for the following week. So off to Deck 6 where we were given a large mesh gear bag with our room number on it. For the next week we would store and carry all of our snorkeling gear in this mesh bag. We then went around a variety of snorkeling equipment stations set up on Deck 6 selecting the appropriate gear to fit each of us – a mask and snorkel, swim fins, and a shorty style wet suit for each of us – the water temperature varies between 18 & 24 at this time of year but for long snorkeling trips the wet suits are nice in the cooler water spots plus they provide a bit of floatation assistance which is nice especially in some of the areas where the water would be fairly rough.

Once we had selected all of our gear it was stuffed into our assigned mesh bag. All of the bags and their contents were then taken down and hung on our assigned hook (same as our room number) on an open air section of Deck 2. Whenever we left the ship for a snorkeling expedition we just grabbed our bag and gear and boarded the Zodiacs which loaded from Deck 1 a few steps below the storage area. When we returned to the ship after an outing we would rinse off the bag and the gear in a big tub of water and hang the bag filled with our gear up on our assigned hook to dry. This way we did not have dripping sandy gear bags being lugged through the living areas of the ship.

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Roy & Sue trying on their wet suits

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Hazel trying not to laugh as she watches us all try to squeeze into our wet suits

After our snorkel gear selection we returned to our cabins to find our luggage outside our door and ready for unpacking and getting put away in our cabin. After about twenty minutes of unpacking we got the signal to go on deck to practice the mandatory lifeboat drill.

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We all gather up on Deck 5 for the mandatory lifeboat Drill

Shortly after the lifeboat drill the ship set sail for a short narrated circumnavigation around 2 nearby islands. We were enchanted by the weather, the scenery, and the always present frigate birds accompanying us.

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Frigate bird perched atop our mast

Around 7:00 pm there was the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail party in the main lounge on Deck 4 after which we got a detailed briefing about the following day’s activities from the Cruise Director. Once all of the business was out of the way we all walked down to have dinner at the Darwin Restaurant down on Deck 3 which is the main dining area for all meals on the ship. Dinners are the closest thing we will see to a traditional cruise ship all week. The dining area is relatively small but they can sit all 96 of us at the same time. The evening meal every day is a very nicely presented three course meal with complementary wine or beer if desired. The menu always had a good variety of choices for every course and while we did not find the quality quite up to Celebrity big ship gourmet standards it was always very nice. Breakfasts and lunches are buffet style service with lots of choices. As well there is a light lunch fare served on deck 4 many days including a bar-b-q one sunny day.

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Ship’s Main Dining Area

Our first day at sea has been hectic and we look forward to a good night of sleep. Unfortunately, we are 1000 km out in the Pacific Ocean and there is a fair ocean swell hitting us on our starboard beam so the ship is rolling from side to side probably close to 20 degrees total swing. Many people find it hard to navigate the corridors and at breakfast in the morning there are complaints from sleeping partners about mid bed collisions during the night. This is something that you will never experience on a large cruise ship, however, we have spent many nights on friend's sailboats so we have learned to cope with a rocking cabin even when it is rolling as much as this. In the morning lots of folks were a bit green and many had donned their Transderm-V motion sickness stick on patches. Fortunately none of our group of four seemed to suffer any ill effects from the motion. Motion sickness is very individual and different types of motion affect various people differently. David has had a tendency towards motion sickness but only in smaller boats and it has to be very rough. Hazel seems to be almost immune to motion sickness except for one time when we were motoring in a mid size motor yacht off Halifax in fairly rough seas and she decided to go below and read! Anyone who has ever had a tendency towards motion sickness knows that reading is a sure way to take you over the edge.

Part of the reason for much of the rocking was that for a good part of the night we were at anchor as we only had a relatively short distance to cover during the night to get to our next days objective, the islands of Santiago & Rabida.

Posted by DavidandHazel 20:32 Archived in Ecuador Comments (3)

Daily Life on the Xpedition

Adventures both on the land & in the sea

sunny 26 °C

Life on board the Xpedition follows a well-organized pattern. Each day we have an off-ship morning expedition with 2 options to select from, one fairly strenuous activity and one less strenuous activity. Everyone selects their choice of activity the night before after the briefing on the following day’s activities. Starting around 8:00 am we all board the Zodiacs and head for our respective activities. Each Zodiac carries fourteen of us plus the driver plus our Naturalist. Each Zodiac must have at least one Naturalist/Guide on board at all times. The Naturalists are all very skilled and all must be certified by the National Parks authority.

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Our great group of Naturalists - all of them wonderful guides and hosts

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Group headed to shore for another day of exploring

Around noon we all return to the ship for lunch. After lunch we can just relax for an hour or so or one can choose to go to the main lounge and hear a lecture on the area or watch a documentary featuring various Galapagos related topics. Around 3:00 pm we again board the Zodiacs to head off to our previously selected afternoon activities. Again one option is more strenuous and the other less strenuous. Sometimes there is a third optional off-ship activity sandwiched in as well. All options are well described both in written materials delivered to our cabins and at the daily briefings offered each evening just before dinner. They have wisely scheduled the off-ship activities earlier in the morning (8:00-8:30 departures) and the afternoon activities later in the day (3:00 to 3:45 pm departures) in order to avoid the very intense mid-day sun here at the equator. Even with these activity times we are all continuously slathering on the high SPF sunblock. We even noticed one of the Zodiac operators with SPF 100 in his cubby. The Naturalists who lead our shore expeditions and the Zodiac drivers all wear long pants and long sleeved shirts as well as head protection and sometimes a face guard and even light gloves.

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Zodiac operator well protected from the sun

The vast majority of passengers participate in the off-ship activities every day. Our day usually starts around 7:00 am with the buffet breakfast in the dining room with all of the usual breakfast options - it is easy to over eat. We then return to our cabins, gather our cameras, towels, sun block and other paraphernalia that we may want to take ashore with us. We then go down to Deck 2 where we assemble to put on our life jackets and gather our snorkel equipment bags if we plan a snorkel excursion while ashore. At 8:00 am they start us boarding the rubber Zodiac boats.

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Zodiac loading for a shore trip

Boarding the Zodiacs takes place on Deck 1 at the water level where we step off a very large swim platform at the stern of the ship onto the Zodiacs which are bobbing around in the water as the seas here are fairly active. We board the Zodiac from the front. The boat operators keep the Zodiacs pressed up against the swim platform by keeping steady engine power on the Zodiac. There are two staff standing on the swim platform helping everyone aboard. It is a bit awkward at first but after a few boardings and disembarkings most people get fairly used to the process. This is clearly not a trip for the mobility impaired. They have 5 Zodiacs that ferry us to and from the shore.

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Zodiac being lifted off the ship

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Zodiacs waiting to be loaded

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Zodiac being loaded for a shore trip

Landings on the shore are classified as “wet” landings or “dry” landings and we are told well in advance whether the landing for a particular trip will be wet or dry. If it is wet it means that when you disembark at the shore you are slipping over the side of the Zodiac and stepping into water that is 12”-18” deep. In the case of a dry landing you are disembarking much the same way you do at the ship. The Zodiac operator presses the front (bow) of the Zodiac up against the rocks or a little cliff or even in two cases a marina ashore and keeps the power on the boat so that the Zodiac holds tight against the object and we can just step ashore from the front of the Zodiac. This process can be a little intimidating for people with poor balance especially with the Zodiac rocking around and when one is stepping off onto a notch cut out of a cliff side. However, the crew know all of the good spots to use and no one went overboard all week.

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Wet landing on the shore

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Wet Landing on beach

The one exception to the wet or dry landing routine is when we go out on the “expert deep water” snorkel runs. This requires that we don our wet suits prior to boarding the Zodiac. Then once at the dive site we get on our snorkel gear and slide over the side of the Zodiac. This should be fairly simple, however, the seas were always fairly rough on these trips so it was often a bit of a trick getting on your gear and getting off the Zodiac into the waves. Getting back on the Zodiac after one of these outings was also a bit ungainly as we had to toss our swim fins up onto the Zodiac while still swimming in the water and then grab the bobbing swim ladder, get your feet braced on the ladder and hoist yourself up over the side of the rubber Zodiac and hopefully step gracefully into the Zodiac. Occasionally a person would flop into the bottom of the Zodiac looking somewhat like the ever present sea lions who slid on and off the rocks in a similar style.

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Deep water snorkel expedition swimming from the Zodiac

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Sea Lion playing on the rocks, they are everywhere and very friendly

A typical day would see the 4 of us (Roy & Sue Vanderkwaak plus David & Hazel) heading off at 8:00 am for the more active option. Typically this would involve a long hike on one of the many islands through some unique vegetation or land formation or even a long walk over lava flow. After that we might wrap up the morning with a snorkel expedition off the beach. Folks who selected the less strenuous option would have gone on a shorter hike or a zodiac ride and then taken part in the snorkel activity or gone directly back to the ship after their hike. Once back on the ship we would grab lunch and eat on the open deck.

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David & Hazel sitting on deck after lunch

Around 3:00 pm we would once again gather on Deck 3 and board the Zodiacs for a trip ashore for another lengthy hike on an island followed by a second snorkel outing. On other days we elected to take an exploratory ride in the Zodiac around some interesting shoreline where we could see the various wildlife up very close and personal. Most of the wildlife has no fear of humans and you could literally pick up a chick from a nest. The sea lions are also very tame and playful but we are cautioned not to get too close particularly to the big males who are quite territorial if you infringe in their space. If you give them some space they never bother you and when swimming the younger ones are very curious and swim very close by they speed around our group. This activity might be followed by a “deep water” snorkel activity where we would jump directly off the Zodiac in our gear to explore deeper waters usually along a rugged coastline. This type of snorkel activity provided some additional challenges as the water was often fairly rough causing some people to feel motion sick. The wave action also had a tendency to wash you up against the rough rocky shore so we had to maintain our distance from the shore.

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Everyone Ready for a deep water dive trip

Posted by DavidandHazel 14:18 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

The Wildlife in The Galapagos Islands

sunny 25 °C

For this section of the blog we thought that rather than describing our daily activities it might be more interesting if we just did a pictorial of the wildlife and limited our narrative to the picture descriptions. We hope you find it interesting.

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What do you call a group of lizards? A lounge of lizards! So here we have a lounge of marine Iguanas sunning on a rock - these creatures seek out sunny spots where they can get warm as they are cold blooded reptiles. You have to watch where you walk as they have no fear and are not easy to see as they blend in with the surrounding rocks and sand

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Another marine Iguana

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So ugly he is cute

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Mother and baby sea lion. The young sea lions stay with their mothers for a long time and are not completely independent and on their own till about 24 months old. Again they are very tame and we were no more than 10 feet away when this shot was taken

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Sally Lightfoot crab moulting his shell. These crabs are as common as flies on the rocky shores

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The sea lions go to great lengths to find the most comfortable rock and then much like your cat they mould themselves to the space and you can walk within 5 or 6 feet of them and they will not even acknowledge your presence

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More fur sea lions

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The omnipresent Blue Footed Boobie. They are everywhere all the time and like all of the Galapagos creatures they have no fear of humans. Their name is a derivation of a name given to them by the early Spanish sailors who thought them to be stupid because of their lack of fear of humans

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Yes they do have blue feet

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Some feet are bluer than others

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Blue Footed Boobies in a mass feeding - they dive into the water head first at great speed as a large group. It is an amazing sight and we were lucky to see one such feeding

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Another shot of the amazing feeding frenzy taken from our boat which was only about 20 meters away

Our first attempt to put a video on the blog - Boobies diving for fish

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Blue Footed Boobie taking off

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Sea Lion playing in the surf no more than 10-15 meters from our boat

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Pelican watching us as we motor by in our Zodiac at very close range

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The Pelicans are everywhere

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Pelican drying himself off in the sun after spending time diving for fish

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Galapagos Penguins, the second smallest Penguins in the world

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As you can see the penguins have no hesitation at swimming close to our Zodiac

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The Penguins are the most at home when swimming underwater where they are very fast underwater but friendly too

Posted by DavidandHazel 17:14 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

More Wildlife in the Galapagos

sunny 27 °C

Here is another post featuring the wildlife that we got to see in the Galapagos.

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A fine example of the Swallow-tailed Gull which is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. This gull is unique in that it only feeds at night and far away from land

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Another of the many, many sea birds

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One of Darwin's Finches

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Frigate bird nesting area showing a female and several juveniles at different stages of development. The hatchlings are fed by the parents for weeks and weeks

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Male Frigate bird expanding his chest in order to impress the females. This mating behaviour was evident all over this island

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More displays from the male Frigate birds

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Frigate bird nesting area. Gives you an idea how close people walk to the nesting area. There are literally dozens of people using this walk way every week yet the Frigate birds continue to nest there every year

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Flamingo feeding in a little lagoon

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The ever present sea lions lounging about at the local marina. They appear to be a local pest on the inhabited islands

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Path made in the beach sand of a female turtle going up the beach to lay her eggs. Because of the tidal action we know this turtle made these tracks within the past 12 hours.

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We happened to see a freshly hatched baby turtle making its way to the ocean. despite the many predators this one actually made it to the ocean while our group watched

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Endemic to seven of the Galapagos islands, the Galapagos tortoise is the largest living species of tortoise in the world. Averaging more that four feet in length and weighing in excess of 500 pounds, the life span of these giants is normally over 100 years and there is a record of one in captivity living 170 years. Here are two fine examples of the Galapagos tortoise who are housed in a preserve that we visited

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More Galapagos tortoises in the preserve

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In the highlands tortoises roam wild in open farmland like we might see a wild deer

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Wild tortoises foraging in open farmland in the highlands

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Sea Lion rolling around looking for some attention - they must be related to dogs

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Earlier we had pictures of the marine Iguanas, here is a picture of a land Iguanas

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Local wildlife makes an appearance at the fish market

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Please just one more bunch of scraps - more wild life at the fish market

Posted by DavidandHazel 16:12 Archived in Ecuador Comments (5)

In The Ocean

Various Specimens from below the surface of the ocean

semi-overcast 22 °C

Although our technology was fairly limited we did have a basic underwater camera with us, an Olympus mid level quality point and shoot that we purchased in St. Thomas three years ago on a previous voyage when we expected to do some snorkeling.

Shooting underwater has many additional challenges that one does not have to face as frequently on land. Firstly your subjects have a bad habit of darting about when you least expect it. Next the lighting is very challenging at the best of times and using a flash is not recommended as it often reflects back blurring the photo. When you finally get your subject in focus and in the light he decides to move into a dark shadow. Finally, using the zoom feature is not advisable as it seriously compresses any murkiness in the water making what appeared originally to be a nice clear shot to turn out as a shot clouded by heavy haze.

Since we did not have our guides walking beside us to help identify the many species of fish we encountered we have not been able to identify the fish.

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A typical scene from an advanced snorkeling trip. The Zodiac would take us off to some remote site where the only point of access was from the boat. We would drop over the side and sight see for 45 minutes and then they would call us back to the boat. In the picture it looks like david getting ready to climb up the swim ladder

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Our intrepid adventurers, from the left side - Hazel, Sue vanderkwaak and Roy Vanderkwaak. For those who do not already know Sue and Roy are the parents of Brian Vanderkwaak who married Hazel's daughter Emily. So as we tell fellow travellers we share a grandson, Emily & Brian's son 7 year old Avery

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Hazel poking her head up for a look around. In this picture you can see how steep the shore line falls off and it continues at the same rate underwater

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The ever present sea lions. they like to come in and cruise by the divers for their own amusement. Note this one is swimming upside down.

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A very colourful fish

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More colourful fish

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Two Galapagos penguins quite oblivious to us snorkeling close to shore

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Sea turtle cruising under us, he was very big and very close

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Another close up of the sea turtle

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Very pretty fish in relatively shallow water

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Fish feeding on the bottom oblivious to our presence

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There is that bright yellow fish again

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Star fish in fairly deep water. In this picture you can see how even a little bit of zoom applied can cloud up the picture

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No name fish, sorry

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Good size school of some species of Tank

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No name fish, sorry

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Another large school of small fish

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Hazel waves good by

Posted by DavidandHazel 17:47 Archived in Ecuador Comments (5)

Hiking & Scenery on the Galapagos

semi-overcast 28 °C

As we mentioned earlier each day we had a number of choices in terms of the guided activities that we could undertake. It is hard to say what our favourite activity was but hiking around the various islands was up there with snorkeling. In this blog entry we'll share some of the photos that we took during our numerous hikes on the islands. Fortunately the sky was partially overcast a good part of the time since the sun is extremely powerful here on the equator line. Every day we would load up on sun screen just before heading out on our morning and our afternoon adventures. During mid day we were back on board the boat having lunch out of the sun and then getting ready for our 3:00 pm afternoon departure.

The following pictures will illustrate another aspect of this amazing adventure tour.

We are moored in Elizabeth Bay for a hike up the side of an old volcano on Isabela Island. Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands with an area of 1792 Sq. miles. The highest point is Volcan Wolf with an altitude of 5600 ft. The island's seahorse shape is the result of the merging of 6 volcanoes. One side of this island is inhabited but the other side is not.

The first part of our hike today starts with 150 steps up an old wooden walkway put in place by the National Parks officials to limit the damage tourists were doing to the landscape. The first stop is the look-off at Darwin's Lake. The lake is a crater which was thought to be filled by a tidal wave resulting from the eruption of a volcano on a neighboring island. The water in the lake is salt water.

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The start of a long hot trek up the side of an ancient volcano to visit Darwin's Lake

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Our ship the Xpedition moored in Elizabeth Bay. Picture taken from the look-off at Darwin's Lake

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Darwin's Lake, a salt water lake created eons ago by a giant tidal wave

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Our group making their way up the trail to the top of the old volcano

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Hazel at the top of the old volcano after a long hard climb up the side of the old volcano. You can see our ship way off in the distance anchored in Elizabeth Bay

Santiago Island has an area of 226 sq mi and a maximum altitude of 2976 ft. Marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins and sharks are found here. Pigs and goats, which were introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species, have been eradicated (pigs by 2002; goats by the end of 2006). Darwin finches are abundant as are the Galápagos hawks. As on most islands there is also a colony of fur seals. Our stop today will be at Sullivan Bay to observe a recent (about 100 years ago) lava flow that came right down to the ocean.

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Landing on shore at Sullivan Bay the landscape is completely barren due to the lava flow of over 100 years ago. Our afternoon hike was a very interesting walk over the lava flow to see several points of interest

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Barren lava flow

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More of the lava flow with Pinnacle Rock in the background

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More lava flow

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A blister in the lava flow caused by a small explosion during the cooling process

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Interesting features created as the lava thickened and flow reduced as the lava cooled. This particular form is known as rope lava and is also common in Hawaii

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Vegetation is starting to pop up after only 100 years of cooling

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Checking out a large void created during the cooling process

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Remnants of a little side stream of lava that flowed down a small valley

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Landscape showing how the lava sought out an old stream bed as it flowed towards the ocean

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Returning to our ship after an afternoon of exploring

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Late afternoon shot taken from the Xpedition as we departed for our next destination - anybody for a drink in the lounge as we watch the sun set

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Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. You can see the remnants of an old supply barge that broke away from its moorings on the island of Baltra during a storm many years ago. Depending on the currents this wreck can be visible like this or often it is completely covered in sand. The National Parks service determined a number of years ago to leave the wreck here as it would be more disruptive to the environment to remove it than to leave it as is

This afternoon we have opted for an exploratory adventure in the Zodiac to explore Cerro Brujo which is along the coast of San Cristobal. Cerro Brujo is a tuff cone that was named for its shape which is said to resemble a witch’s hat. The next few pictures were all taken along the very rugged coast of this area.

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You can see that there is a fairly rough seas rolling into this area. The drivers had to work hard to keep from soaking everyone

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[i]Working our way through calmer waters

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Our Zodiac can get into some amazing spaces in between the rocks

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Looking through a hole in the shoreline out to Kicker Rock. Kicker Rock is a 485 ft. tuff cone that was formed when boiling lave encountered the cold ocean and exploded. It has since been eroded into 2 parts. It is a nesting site for many birds and got its name from resemblance to the shape of a boot. The Xpedition does a full circle around the rock and the timing today is perfect for some good late afternoon photos

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Late afternoon return to the Xpedition. We will get underway fairly quickly so that we can circle Kicker Rock in the good light.

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Kicker Rock at sunset

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Our group on deck having a late afternoon cocktail with Kicker Rock in background

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Another angle of Kicker Rock, it was a stunning sight

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Hazel with Kicker Rock in the background

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A sister rock to Kicker located only a few kilometers away

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Kicker Rock quickly fades into the sunset as we set sail for our next destination

Bartolome Island consists of an extinct volcano and numerous volcanic features such as tuff cones and spatter cones. It is quite barren. Its best known feature is Pinnacle Rock – a tuff cone seemingly rising out of the water. It was formed by magma expelled from an underwater volcano. Once cooled by the sea the hot lava exploded with bits and pieces of rock bonding to form Pinnacle Rock.

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Pinnacle Rock taken from the top of a nearby peak after a long and hard climb up the side of a neighbouring hill

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An easier shot of Pinnacle Rock taken from the Zodiac. Probably the best snorkeling of the trip was around the base of Pinnacle Rock

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The Zodiac brings us back to the Xpedition for our last dinner before the end of this portion of the trip

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The sun sets on an amazing week of exploring the fabulous Galapagos Islands and learning about the exploits of the truly amazing Charles Darwin whose thinking was so far outside the box it is not hard to understand why his detractors ridiculed his theories

This ends the Galapagos portion of this adventure. Tomorrow we disembark the Xpedition and head off to Peru where we will begin the next stage of the tour - stay tuned.

Posted by DavidandHazel 11:56 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

The Final Leg of our South American Adventure

The ancient city of Cusco and the wonders of Machu Picchu

overcast 17 °C

When booking this Galapagos tour we noticed that Celebrity also offered a four day land tour extension to Machu Picchu and Cusco as an option. Since we were already in South America we decided to take in the extension as well. Roy and Sue opted out of the extension as they have already visited Machu Picchu as part of another trip which they took. In all, 32 of us on the Galapagos tour opted for the Machu Picchu extension. We were delighted that we did. Both Cusco and Machu Picchu are magnificent examples of the ancient Inca culture and sadly also a terrible example of ethnic cleansing during those early colonial times as the Spanish did everything they could to wipe out the Inca culture and its symbols and replace them with the Spanish Christian values and symbols. They also stripped the country of every piece of gold they could lay their hands which included the desecration and destruction of any Inca religious sites they could find.

Leaving the ship on Sunday did not get our extension off to a very good start as we had some flight delays due to the weather in Quito. We managed to catch another flight from the Island of Baltra that eventually got us to our days ultimate destination of Lima, Peru by late afternoon. We stayed in Lima overnight and in the morning we flew south east to the city of Cusco which is way up in the Andes mountains and sits at an altitude of 11,200 feet. Since we were to return to this hotel in Lima again in four days we were able to re-pack and leave a bag at the Lima hotel with some of the clothes we only needed for the ship portion of the trip. We were able to get everything we needed into one bag and still meet the weight restriction of 20 Kg.

Cusco is in southeastern Peru near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain Range. Its population is about 435,000. It was the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire and is a World Heritage Site. Due to the high altitude the temperatures are fairly cool for this part of the world with a February average high temp of 18C and the low Average is 6C. Fortunately we had done our research and dressed for the temperature and the wet weather.

Upon our arrival we quickly checked into our hotel, grabbed lunch and headed out with our new guides for an afternoon of sightseeing including the obligatory Cathedral, the Main Square, Qurikancha Temple (Temple of the Sun), and nearby archaeological sites: Sacsayhuman (Saksaywaman) a walled complex built about 1100 AD by the Killke who also built an aqueduct, major temple and major roadways,

Our hotel in Cusco is a very large old monastery called the Monasterio that has been wonderfully restored. The rooms are beautifully done and tucked into nooks and crannies of the old Monastery.

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The ancient city of Cusco nestled among the peaks of the Andes chain. The elevation of the city is a "breathtaking" 11,200 feet. Walking any distance up hill one can't help but notice the thin air. A number of folks developed head aches

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Narrow little streets of the old city of Cusco dating back many centuries

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Our hotel was an old monastery beautifully restored

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The old chapel of the monastery is still maintained and used for functions

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Inside the courtyard of the monastery with a 300 year old cedar tree in the center

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Beautiful gathering room and bar just off the lobby of the hotel

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The other side of Cusco. As the city has grown there is little evidence of planning as native peoples from the countryside have moved into the suburbs and set up what amounts to shanty towns on the outskirts of the old city - note the dogs, they run loose everywhere in the shanty towns but not the old city center

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Group of dogs doing a bit of a dumpster-diving. Notice one is even on top of the dumpster

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A Peruvian native leads a llama through one of the old Inca ruin areas

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A common decoration mounted on the peak of many of the houses particularly in the country. The figures are indicative of a number of things in the household such as occupation, family history and good luck omens.

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Inca ruins that overlook part of Cusco. You can see where part of the wall has been restored with smaller rocks. Note how the huge blocks of stone were notched to fit together. They are also sloped back into the hill. This helped them hold together during the frequent earthquakes in the region. One should remember that the Incas moved these stones from quarries located substantial distances from this site. Even more amazing they did not have the benefit of having invented the wheel when this settlement was constructed

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Another example of major construction

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Art being displayed in a Spanish built cathedral. The Spanish demolished an Inca temple that was located on this site and used the stone to build their cathedral

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Note the protrusion in the stone at the left. that is how the Incas got their stones to fit together so well without any mortar. The Incas did not use any mortar in any of their major construction sites

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The next day's adventure took us about 50 km into the Andes and the general area known as the Sacred Valley which was an ancient center of agriculture

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Local transportation

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Farming on the highland plateau, note the terraces

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Black long haired Alpaca

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Alpaca and llamas are probably the most common domestic farm animals

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Native Peruvian woman weaving Alpaca wool to sell at a local craft shop

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Different shades of Alpaca wool for use in the weaving. All dyes come from natural sources.

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Examples of local corn and potatoes. Both very popular crops and they have many varieties of each. Their corn has very large kernels and is quite woody without a lot of taste

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An amazing local market in one of the Sacred Valley villages. This market must have covered several acres and included everything from local crafts to locally made silver jewellery to paintings by local artists however I did not see anything made in China

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An amazing example of ancient Inca farming community. The Incas practiced very intense farming on these terraces. Because of the very steep terrain here in the mountains they had to build terraces in order to farm the land. See the next few pictures for a better look

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Note the terraces to the left of the picture. Straight across the valley you can see structures on the mountain side. Those are grain storage structures high up on the side of the mountain

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Better view of the flat surfaces that were created when the Incas terraced the landscape

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More grain storage structures on an adjoining mountain. Remember these are all built above the 10,000 foot level

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During one of our lunch stops we were treated to a lovely horse show

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We next entered the final phase of our trip, the visit to the ancient "lost" city of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu, often referred to as the Lost City of the Incas, is one of the most famous examples of Inca architecture. The ruins, located in a lush jungle high (over 7000 feet up) in the Andes mountains, are believed to have been built in the mid-15th century. Lost in history, they were not rediscovered until 1911 by the American explorer, Hiram Bingham (1875-1956).

Bingham was not a trained archaeologist, yet it was during Bingham's time as a professor in South American history at Yale that he discovered the largely forgotten Inca city of Machu Picchu.

Bingham was fascinated by the prospect of unexplored Inca cities and organized the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition with one of its objectives to search for the lost city of Vitcos, the last capital of the Incas. On July 24, 1911, local farmer Melchor Arteaga led Bingham to Machu Picchu, which had been largely forgotten by everybody except the small number of people living in the immediate valley.

Machu Picchu has become one of the major tourist attractions in South America, and Bingham is recognized as the man who brought the site to world attention, although many others helped to bring this site into the public eye. The non-stop narrow dirt switchback-filled road that carries tourist buses way up the mountain to the site from the Urubamba River is called the Hiram Bingham Highway. Bingham was considered a bit of a rogue as well and it is thought that the Hollywood character "Indiana Jones" was at least partially patterned on Bingham and his various exploits.

For our trip to Machu Picchu we took a bus 45 minutes to the train station where we board the Hiram Bingham luxury train. The Hiram Bingham train cars are distinguished by their blue and gold colors and for warm and cozy interiors that feature elegant upholstery. Decorated in the style of 1920s Pullman carriages, each has been furnished in polished wood and brass with large comfortable furniture. This service has four cars, two dining cars, an open backed observation car with a bar and a kitchen car. The train has a total capacity of 84 passengers. The 32 of us formed the dominant group.

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Dave getting ready to board the Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu

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Ready for our delicious lunch on board the H.B. train

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Our table mates for the trip, Pat and Hal from California. We had lots to talk about as Hal and Pat are both motorcycle riders and Corvette owners

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The band playing at the back of the bar car in the Hiram Bingham train. The band knew everything from traditional South American folk songs to good old Rock'n Roll

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Dave & Hazel standing at the back of the observation car.

The Hiram Bingham train took three and a half hours to get us to Aguas Calientes, a small village nestled in a deep valley below the citadel of Machu Picchu. The train dropped us off in the village in the valley where we board busses for the 25 minute switch back ride up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Only these locally provided busses and parks service vehicles are permitted to make the perilous journey up and down the narrow dirt road. When two busses meet it can be a major "thrill" as one has to back up until the back end is hanging out over the edge of the mountain. Guard rails are infrequent and more for decoration than accident prevention. It is no wonder you hear about south American busses careening down a mountainside with a load of tourists.

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One of the busses making the perilous journey down the mountain

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Looking down into the valley from the ruins in Machu Picchu

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Terraces used for growing crops in Machu Picchu

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Some of the restored ruins of Machu Picchu. This is a residential area and each stone house would have had a thatched roof. It is estimated that there were well over 1000 people living in this mountain top settlement

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Notice how the thatched roof was fastened to the stone structure. This high in the mountains the winds can be very strong so the roof had to be securely fastened to the main structure of the house

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More ruins of this highly organized ancient town

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More ruins of this highly organized ancient town

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Close up picture of the next mountain across the valley, Note all of the structures here. This looks down on Machu Picchu and the very adventurous can climb this mountain and look down on Machu Picchu. This is a challenging climb with two technical climb sections. Parks officials limit this to 400 climbers a day

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The valley far below with a bridge crossing the river

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Adjoining mountains as the clouds move in late in the afternoon

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The guard house at the very peak of Machu Picchu. This section of the town is another fair climb further up the mountain so only the hardy or the foolish attempt this last push in the thin mountain air. Being young and foolish we both decided that since we were already here we might as well join the hardy and do the last few hundred stone steps to the very pinnacle

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Looking out one of the guard house windows down into the valley

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David standing about as close to the edge as he cares to go. The drop is about 3000 feet. Not a great spot to let the kids out to play

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The view over the edge, this could be the short way down but we decided to take the stairs instead

We were off the mountain by late afternoon and boarded the Hiram Bingham train back to Cusco enjoying an elegant dinner during the trip.. Bright and early the next morning we once more boarded a plane, this time we were heading north and on our way back home via a stop in Lima, Peru

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Back in Lima we settled into the lovely Country Club Hotel. A beautiful old hotel in a nice residential district of Lima.

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Inside the lovely Country Club hotel

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Typical street scene in Lima, peddlers everywhere selling everything from trinkets to ice cream treats in the very hot climate. Lima is essentially in the midst of a desert and along with Cairo it is one of only two world cities situated in a desert. Lima only gets about 2 inches of rain a year

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Another peddler plying his wares in the midst of a busy downtown street

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Pedestrian mall in central Lima, note all of the various styles of balconies

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Typical South American central square

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Presidential palace on one side of the square

There is a strong police presence all around the square. They are there to remove anyone who tries to set up a protest. Protests are legal but not in the main square. For a relatively poor country it seemed to be a lot of resources (there had to be 60 heavily armed anti riot squad types lurking discretely around the various buildings and alley ways) to be dedicated to keeping potential protesters from Presidential view,

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Another side of the square is anchored by the ever present cathedral with lots of marble and gold - note the wooden balcony here too

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Inside the cathedral

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Inside the cathedral

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Flower laden walkway to restaurant where we had lunch

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More flowers at the restaurant

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Last meal in South America - Dave catching breakfast on the outdoor patio at the Country Club Hotel.

Shortly after we headed out to the airport for our three hour flight to Panama City where we only had a hour before catching the 5 hour flight back to the cold at home in Canada.

This brings to an end our wonderful South American adventure. We hope you enjoyed reading about the trip one tenth as much as we enjoyed taking the trip. One of our tremendous joys in our retirement has been our ability to explore the world and learn about history and other great cultures. Exploring other cultures gives us so much more insight into our own culture and a much better understanding of our world and why much of it is the way that it is. Best of all it always reinforces our belief of how truly fortunate we are having been born in Canada and enjoying the things that we are able to experience from our very privileged perch in the world.

Our next adventure is a trip to China later this year. First we will be spending some time in Shanghai then a week on the Yangtze River in a river boat and finally a few days in Hong Kong before returning home.

Till next time

David & hazel

Posted by DavidandHazel 13:29 Archived in Peru Comments (2)

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