Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

Easter Island

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

Easter Island 212Easter Island has two claims to fame.  It has 600 fascinating, bizarre statues, called Moias (pronounced Mo-eye’s), spread around the island.  These Moias are carved out of volcanic rock, and located in a range of spots, from still being carved out of a mountainside to upright on a oceanside platform.  And Easter Island is the world’s most remote inhabited location, with its 4,000 people living over 2,000 miles from the nearest neighbor. 

Easter Island 133 I’d like to give a positive report on our visit to Easter Island, since it’s such an unusual place.  But you’d really have to have your heart set on seeing these moias to justify the trip here.  It’s 2,300 round trip from Santiago, so you chew up a full day getting here and a full day returning.  We ended up spending five full days to see these statues, along with a few other interesting artifacts, and could really have used the time on mainland South America.

Easter Island 125 The moias are truly amazing.  They weigh up to 100 tons, and were carved in situ in a quarry on this volcanic island.  Then, they were transported from the quarry’s highlands to spots all over the island.  As best as anyone can tell, they moved these gigantic statues by rocking them back and forth and “walking” them along.  They’ve done modeling of the process, and think that a reasonable number of people could move these huge carved stones.  And the moias weren’t religious tributes of any kind, but were statues carved and erected in memory of particular important people who lived on the island. 

Easter Island 205 We had one really interesting day during our stay on Easter Island.  Our guide for the day was Jose Letelier Morel, son of former U.S. Ambassador from Chile Orlando Letelier who was assassinated by agents of a prior Chilean government.   Jose (in photo on right) has lived on Easter Island for 15 years, and has a strong background in architecture and archeology.  We first went to a great village site with several moias, a stone chicken “coop,” and various homes build from stone under lava overhangs. 

Easter Island 229 We then went to meet with a downtown craftsman, who guided us all in the stonework required to make our own moias.  We used soft stone, and sharp steel tools, in contrast to the early inhabitants here who carved huge moias from much harder stone using very primitive tools.  My moia was the unanimous choice for “worst” of our group, but we had fun, and learned a lot about the art of carving stone.

Easter Island 242 We then went to Orongo, a volcano with a lake filling in its crater, surrounded by moias and stone houses.  The volcano was too big to capture well on film, but looking down on its interior was fascinating.  And standing up on the bluff, amidst the reconstructions of these ancient stone dwellings, was quite an experience.

Easter Island 235 The Rapa Nui people were historically quite creative in their island-wide contests.  Apparently, hundreds of years ago, bitter in-fighting among island inhabitants threatened the future of its existence.  Rather then killing each other off, they came up with a serious-stakes contest.  Each of the ten or so tribes would designate one representative to participate in an annual ritual, with the winner’s tribe controlling all island resources for the coming year.  Talk about high Easter Island 327 stakes!  The contest??  Climb down to the ocean from this cliff (photo above looks down on the smaller islands, photo to left looks up at the cliff), swim a mile and one-half across shark-infested waters, find a bird’s egg on one of the two small islands, and bring the bird’s egg back to the top of the cliff without breaking it, presenting it to your very happy tribe’s chief.  Oh, and the other participants are encouraged to kill off any early leader.  (Sounds almost as brutal as the primary process used in the U.S. to pick candidates for President).

Easter Island 284 That night, we had dinner at a local resident’s home, which sounds more interesting than it was.  But on the way back to hotel, we stopped for the kick-off to Easter Island’s annual festival.  The new version, which lasts two weeks, is a competition among young women on the island to become its queen for a year.  And it’s a very interesting competition.  There are two weeks’ worth of events, ranging from dance contests, to singing contests, to rowing, to swimming, to sliding down a mountain on banana leaves.  The prospective “queens” aren’t the ones competing, though.  They have to line up people on the island on their team to compete on their behalf. 

Easter Island 216 Anyway, we only got to experience a half hour or so of the festival, which got drenched by a tropical rainfall just after we left.  Good timing on our part!  But if anyone is tempted to come to Easter Island, coordinating with this festival, which captures the attention of the entire island, sounds like a smart move.

I can cover our other three days on Easter Island quickly.  Boring.  On our first two and one-half days, we had our two worst guides of the trip, who seemed intent on showing us little to nothing of interest.  And our last day was supposed to be a noon flight to Santiago, but a flight delay meant we hung out at our hotel doing homework for most of the day. 

Easter Island 053 Easter Island went through a period of heavy de-forestation and wildlife kill-off.  As a result, the island is rather barren, with almost no wildlife other than horses.  There are just five land species of birds to be found — a sparrow, dove, finch, hawk (the Chimango Caracara at right), and tinamou.  Remarkably, our guides were barely able to identify them as birds, let alone to be able to determine which of the vast selection of five species we were seeing :-) .   We learned, though, that the main criteria for being a guide on Easter Island is to be a native of Easter Island.

Easter Island 109 Anyway, there is little chance we’ll return to Easter Island, so I suppose there’s merit in having been there once.  And the moias are truly fascinating, so we’ll carry that memory forward.  But after the moias, there’s precious little to do there.  And, as I write this on the looooonnnnnnngggggggg flight back to Santiago, I need little reminder of Easter Island’s remoteness :-) .  Anyway, for more on the moias, and our trip to Easter Island, feel free to check out our photos.

The Astounding Atacama

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Atacama 153 With some reservations, we headed from Machu Picchu for the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.  After the magic of Machu Picchu, we were braced for a letdown.  And I had been to San Pedro de la Atacama seventeen years ago and found it interesting, but not a “must visit.”  Our travel strategist highly encouraged us to go there, though, and we followed her suggest — thankfully!  This place was a clear trip highlight.  Any family that enjoys the outdoors will have a blast in Atacama, especially if they stay at the Awasi.

Atacama 195 The Atacama is the world’s driest desert, and places there have never recorded a drop of rainfall.  Not surprisingly, sand is in abundance, and plant and animal life are unusual, although far from scarce.  At times, we felt like our worldwide trip had been extended to include another planet, since the geological structures in the Atacama are so surreal.  Much of the region stands between two mountain ranges and, over time, a lake bed there evaporated, leaving a bizarre residue of crystallized residue.

Atacama 212 Our days (and one of our nights) were filled with unusual and astounding activities.  Our first night we went for a hike in the Valley of the Moon just before sunset.  We walked high up on some cliffs and watched a gorgeous sunset.  It’s one of the few places where the best view of the sunset is facing in the opposite direction, and we saw magnificent colors reflecting off the Andes, which were to our east.   

Atacama 519 Our first full day included a hefty hike along a mountain ridge, followed by a couple of hours of “sand-boarding.”  Our sand-boarding instructor was one of the sports pioneers, and it was a blast to ‘surf” on a board down a huge sand dune.  [In fair disclosure, I was the photojournalist, leaving the surfing to Elizabeth and the kids].  I think we could have stayed there for several months and our kids wouldn’t have tired of it, despite the lack of a “sand lift.”  After every trip down the dune, the surfer had to walk their way through deep sand back up to the top of the hill.  You may want to check out a couple of our videos of sandboarding in motion.

Atacama 696 That afternoon, we drove to a local national park, where we saw some great wildlife, including birds and lizards.  And we got another great sunset there.  The birds included two species of flamingos (Chilean and Andean), a Puna Plover, and some fascinating Andean Avocets.  The combination of a great view of the Andes, a surface that looked like the moon, and some beautiful animals made this a great visiting spot for us.

Gibson Atacama 234 The next day brought more once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  That morning we dirt-biked about an hour from our hotel to a very salty and beautiful lagoon.  The salt concentration at this lagoon is 7x normal ocean saltwater, making it impossible to sink.  We swam in the lagoon at length, and also saw some great animals.  It’s hard to describe how much fun it was to swim in this lagoon, but the experience probably resembles how an astronaut feels when he or she is weightless.

Atacama 731 After lunch and homework, we then headed off for our second desert water experience of the day.  After a short drive, we hiked a challenging hour through a ravine.  Our path was often blocked by boulders or a native plant with leaves as sharp as razor blades (not a good thing, in case you’re wondering).  At the end of the hike, though, we came to a series of hot water pools made by the stream, and were able to soak in delicious hot springs for an hour or so.  The hike seemed well worth it once we got to our destination.

Atacama 339 That night, we got an astronomy lesson from a local French astronomer, who had a very useful set-up with about six different high-power telescopes set up to explore different areas of our Southern Hemisphere sky.  Since the previous three weeks were cloudy with rain (!!) at times, we were quite fortunate to have crystal clear skies for our stay in Atacama, and for our astronomy night.  We learned all about the Southern Cross, Orion, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the Seven Sisters, overhead satellites that were perfectly visible to the naked eye, and the history of astronomy.  It was a late night for our kids, but a great night for all.

Atacama 653 On our way to the airport the next day, we stopped at the world’s biggest mine, a copper mine operated by the state-owned Cordecal.  We saw some gigantic trucks (able to hold up to 400 tons), and an enormous open pit mind.  We also saw, and felt, and breathed, lots and lots of dust and dirt, so the visit didn’t rocket to the top of our highlight list. 

Picture 312 Our time in Atacama contained another highlight some 4,000 miles away.  In South Carolina, where we lived until June, the Democratic Party held its primary, and Barack Obama won resoundingly.  We were very involved in Barack’s campaign while we lived in South Carolina, including meeting him at his first rally in Columbia (see photo above of Barack with Sterling’s favorite stuffed animal, Little Bear), and then hosting and helping organize his first fund-raiser in Charleston.  We followed the primary quite closely, both from news sources and friends in Charleston.  I think Barack was put in a very challenging position by some of his competition, and did a great job of balancing “push back” with running a dignified positive campaign.  So we were thrilled with the outcome.  Fired up, ready to go!! 

All in all, Atacama is just a fabulous spot to visit.  It’s not the easiest place to get to, but we had a blast there and will go back again down the road!  For now, though, feel free to check out our photos.

Marvelous Machu Picchu!!

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

Machu Picchu 198 On a trip like ours, it’s easy to get occasional surprises.  Sometimes, we develop high expectations for a location, and things just don’t seem to click there.  And other times, we kind of roll into a country or location with no clear expectations, and are blown away.  That’s what happened to us at Machu Picchu, a place whose name I couldn’t spell a week ago!

Machu Picchu 165 Machu Picchu is a six hundred year old Incan temple and village, built in the Andes for the Incan rulers.  It took sixty years or so to build, but was only occasionally used by the Incan leaders, probably because it’s so isolated.  Like Siem Reap (link!!), it fell into disuse, and was largely overgrown, until Hiram Bingham stumbled across it in 1911.  The grounds are still being renovated almost a century later, but it’s easy to get an clear idea of what Machu Picchu (which means old peak in Incan) was like centuries ago.

Machu Picchu 117 Machu Picchu isn’t easy to get to.  It’s a three hour train trip from Cusco, or 90 minutes from the Sacred Valley.  We wussed out and took the train directly to the site.  Other options are a four day backpacking trip up the Incan Trail, or a train drop-off spot where you hike the the last six hours.  We felt that the direct route was best for the four of us, and gave us almost two full days to explore in and around Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu 053 We had a range of weather conditions while we were there.  Our first morning was misty and occasionally rainy.  The afternoon wasn’t as wet, but was overcast with some spectacular cloud formations (often below the level where we were standing).  And the second day was brilliantly sunny, which gave this spiritual place a totally different feel.

Machu Picchu 171 We saw some great animal life around Machu Picchu as well, including this great shot of an Andean Guan.  We saw a bunch of great birds, including six species of hummingbird.  We saw something called a Vizcacha, which is sort of a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel.  And there were a bunch of llamas on the grounds at Machu Picchu.  On the Inca Trail, weMachu Picchu 264 ran into many lizards, which is always a highlight for us.  Gibson stalked a Tiger Lizard and managed to snag it.  And we were fortunate to have a great guide during our time at Machu Picchu, who was familiar with all aspects of the location — culture, history, geology, and wildlife.  So it was fabulous all around.

Machu Picchu 153 As usual, our visit here had its close calls.  On our train trip back to Cusco, there was a rockslide that shut down the train for a couple of hours.  They had to use dynamite to get the rock broken up enough to be moved, and we were glad they didn’t overshoot and destroy the tracks.  And, on one of the steeper trail faces, our kids slipped and were hanging precariously, with a 750 foot drop awaiting them if their grip failed.  Fortunately, we sent four llamas to pull them back, and they managed to survive another wild experience.

Machu Picchu 072 The New Open World Corporation recently conducted a poll to identify the new seven wonders of the world.   Their list contains three we won’t see on this trip (Mexico’s Chichen Itza, Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, and Rome’s Colisseum) and four we will (Machu Picchu, the Great Wall, Jordan’s Petra, and the Taj Mahal), with the Great Pyramid of Egypt getting the mysterious “honorary status.”  I have no idea who the New Open World Corporation is, but I wouldn’t dispute their including Machu Picchu on any list of wonders.

Machu Picchu 075 When it comes to Machu Picchu, the old proverb “A picture is worth a thousand words” couldn’t be more accurate.  The lush green and towering mountains, the beautiful Incan structures, and clouds and sky made for great photographs.  But the main thing about Machu Picchu was the spiritual impact.  We’re not a particularly religious family, but being at Machu Picchu is magical, and it really does feel like you’re at heaven’s doorstep.

It will take a while to look at all of our Machu Picchu photos, but it’s worth it.

Surprising Peru

Friday, January 25th, 2008

We arrived in Lima, Peru, with a ten day exploration planned of this country.  None of us had been in Peru before, and had only a hazy idea of what we’d encounter.  Our trip included Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu.  I’ll save Machu Picchu for a subsequent blog posting, and cover the first part of our Peru adventure.

Lima 026 Lima is a surprisingly pleasant city right on the Pacific Ocean.  It’s noteworthy for its almost total lack of rainfall (about three inches per year), its size, and its role as capital of Peru.  Gibson and I played baseball with a great group of young boys here, while Elizabeth and Sterling explored old Lima.  We had a long (way too long!!) lunch at a restaurant with a great view of the ocean and all the Lima surfers.  And we hiked around an ancient burial site in downtown Lima. 

Sacred Valley 047 The next day we headed to Cusco, which was a short flight from Lima.  But the altitude transition was a big challenge.  Lima is at sea level and Cusco is at 11,000 feet.  All of us felt the impact, but none more than Elizabeth!  After just a few hours in Cusco, she was feeling all of the negative effects of altitude sickness, and it got serious enough that she went to an emergency clinic.  The doctors there were terrific, as were the Abercrombie and Kent people in Peru who helped us with the trip.  After an hour in the pressure chamber, and five hours at the clinic, we got our first Cusco day out of the way.  Ouch!

Sacred Valley 037 The next day we explored Cusco, a city of about 900,000 people with a beautiful downtown city square.  After the day before’s adventures, we took it easy in Cusco, and didn’t see a whole heck of a lot.  And I have the impression we didn’t miss much, either.  It’s a pleasant enough city, but I wouldn’t rate it as a “must” on any trip to Peru, other than its role as the gateway to Machu Picchu.  Our biggest disappointment about Cusco was missing out on meeting Barbara Perrins there.  We had planned to meet her on Saturday night, but ended up at the emergency room.  Even though we had never met her (she’s the mother of Nicholas Perrins, who works closely with the next Senator of Virginia, Mark Warner), she was incredibly kind in offering to help us.  It sounds like she’s doing some amazing things in Peru, so that will be yet another reason for us to return.

Sacred Valley 339 Following Cusco, we dropped down a couple thousand feet (thankfully) to explore the Sacred Valley of Peru, which we found fabulous.  It gave us a real view of rural Peru, with gorgeous countryside and some great hiking and exploring.  One afternoon, Gibson and I explored a fascinating set of salt mines.  A small stream, full of salt, runs through  a terraced area which is partitioned into hundreds of small staging areas.  Interestingly, each area is owned by a local family.  Our guide Sacred Valley 350indicated that the families make about $10 per month on the salt they collect from a salt plot.  And there’s no transportation to the salt flats other than by foot, so the locals end up walking 45 minutes each way on the days they work the land.  It gives you an idea of this area’s economy.

Sacred Valley 367 We also saw some great birds, including the Giant Hummingbird, at the place we stayed (Sol y Luna) in the Sacred Valley.  We loved our accommodations, and felt like we could watch this very large hummingbird for hours on end.  We had bushes right outside our hotel room, with a little deck and chair where we could sit, read, and watch these hummers.  I have to admit, hummingbirds are one of my favorites, but everyone in our family was fascinated by these fast-moving birds.

Sacred Valley 358 We were sorry to be leaving the Sacred Valley, but were excited to be moving on to Machu Picchu.  But feel free to check out our photographs of the first phase of our stay in Peru.

Baseball In Lima!

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Baseball in Lima 154 Under crystal clear blue skies in dry Lima, Peru, we played baseball today with a great group of kids and coaches.  Baseball isn’t a popular sport in Peru, at least not yet, but these coaches were enthusiastic, and doing a great job with some really terrific kids from Callao, Peru.  Their program includes kids from 9 through 15, and they have a couple of respectable fields to play on.  During their summer, they practice six times a week, but during the school year they are only able to practice once a week.

Baseball in Lima 159 Callao is a town located about 15 kilometers (or 9 miles) from the practice fields.  That may not sound like that big an issue, but for these kids, it’s a huge challenge.  Callao is a very poor suburb of Lima, and these kids often don’t have the money to cover bus tickets to/from practice, or even enough for lunch money.  The coaches help out, and they’ve gotten some donated equipment, but this was the perfect baseball program for us to be helping.

Baseball in Lima 175 We were able to set up the visit through the National Federation of Baseball in Peru, led by Karel Asseff.  They have a small office and an initiative that now has several thousand kids in Peru playing baseball.  We played on a Friday morning, but January is the “summer vacation” for the Peru schools, and during their summer these kids practice regularly.

Baseball in Lima 171 We started the practice by playing an exhibition game of about four innings.  For 12 and under kids, they use a hard rubber ball instead of a standard baseball, which took some getting used to.  The coaches would pitch to the players, and they exercised some judgment as to how many outs to allow each side.  The kids got in a ton of baseball in the time they were playing, and everyone had a blast.

Baseball in Lima 039 We then stopped for a soft drink and a sandwich, and got a chance to talk to the players and coaches.  I speak a bit of Spanish, so I could talk directly to these kids, and they were so nice and polite.  It was very exciting to see their enthusiasm for baseball.  They gave Gibson and me their Peru team baseball hats and shirts, which we will always treasure.  Gibson got uniform #1, and we suspect that one of the kids volunteered to give up that number for someone visiting from the U.S.  And all of the coaches (including head coach Jose Herrera, in the center of the picture up to the left)autographed a ball for us as well, which will have a prime spot on our shelf of great autographed baseballs back in the states.

Baseball in Lima 043 We talked to the group a little bit about our trip, and gave them all Red Sox hats.  We also talked about the Red Sox commitment to players from Latin America.  Most of the kids seemed very aware of the Red Sox and their recent World Series win (!!!!).  We had no problem getting the one boy with a Yankees hat to switch over!  And they all asked Gibson and me to autograph the hats, which made me feel a bit like a baseball rock star (well, that’s probably stretching it a bit, but . . .)

Baseball in Lima 056 We then went back on the field and did about 45 minutes of drills, mainly fielding drills.  The boys seemed like they could easily play for the entire day, and were obviously having a great time among themselves, helped by a very informative and enthusiastic coach.  Toward the end, I took over and hit them some long fly balls, which I think gave me more of a workout than it did the kids!

Baseball in Lima 048 As a follow up, we’ll be providing this team with a complete set of baseball gloves, bats, balls, bases, and catcher’s gear.  Given how appreciative they were of the hats (and they look terrific in them!), I’m sure they’ll make excellent use of this equipment.  Right now, they get most of their equipment from hand-me-downs from a local Japanese team, and the coach said none of the players or their families could even afford shoes.  It was just exciting to see these kids developing a real love of baseball, helped by good coaches, and we were thrilled to be a part of it, even for just a morning!

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Feel free to check out our photos from this excellent baseball morning!

Not Quite Amazing, Not Quite Amazon

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Sacha Lodge 042 We followed our visit to the Galapagos with an exploration of another great nature area of Ecuador — its rain forest in the eastern part of the country.  We flew from Quito to Coca, took a two hour boat ride to a dock, hiked a half hour, took a five minute canoe ride, and then . . . we arrived at our destination, the Sacha Lodge.   (Remind anyone of the movie “Planes, Canoes, and Automobiles”?)  And while we wouldn’t recommend Sacha to anyone other than hard-core birders, it did teach us a lot about the jungle, and made us interested in exploring the Amazon sometime down the road.

Sacha Lodge 084 The Sacha Lodge is in a large jungle area purchased by a Swiss family years ago.  They created a small eco-lodge of four rooms fifteen years ago, and it’s now grown to about thirty rooms and a staff of 70.  It’s located on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon running through eastern Ecuador.  The rooms were basic, the food was basic, the bathrooms were basic, well, . . . you get the picture.    But the flora and fauna were far from basic.

Sacha Lodge 077 The area around Sacha is remarkably diverse.  There are more species of trees in a hectare there (400) than there are in all of North America.  It is home to a huge number of bird species (600 distinct species seen on the property), and various other exotic mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. 

Our “quest” animal on this trip was a snake, in particular an Anaconda.  But we were willing to settle for any old snake.  We figured the Amazon would have more snakes than an Indiana Jones movie, so we were surprised that two full days (including night hikes) resulted in 0.00 snake sightings.  I can’t imagine turning over more leaves, branches, or clumps of stuff on the trail in two days, and not finding much beyond a millipede.  

Sacha - GIbson 179 We met some incredibly nice people staying at Sacha.  Many were expert birders, but a highlight was talking to a couple from England, Ruth Miller  and Alan Davies, who are spending the entire year of 2008 birding around the world.  They sold their house in England to help fund the trip.  And they are going for the world’s record, which currently stands at 3,662 birds seen by someone from the U.S. in a year.   After what we observed, I’d bet that this great couple will break the existing record.

Sacha - GIbson 193 Ruth and Alan started their year in Arizona, then went to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and are now in Ecuador.  Next stop — Ethiopia!  And how are they doing?  Well, when they arrived in Ecuador, they had seen 500 bird species in two weeks.  At Sacha, they saw 170 species in just two days, including the gray-bellied hawk above right!  I’d bet heavily they exit January with 1,000 species (they have 708 as of January 18th), which would be amazing in and of itself! 

Sacha Lodge 005We met Ruth and Alan in an observation deck at the top of a canopy walk (41 meters above the ground), where we were all waiting out a rainstorm.  Even though they were shooting for a record, Ruth and Alan spent a lot of time with our children, explaining to them interesting things about animal behavior, answering questions, and helping them see fascinating birds through their telescope.  They couldn’t have been nicer.  You can follow their trip at www.thebiggesttwitch.com.  And, in a year when the U.S. screenwriters are on strike, someone out there ought to figure out a way to turn their adventure into a television reality series!

Sacha Lodge 113 We had numerous highlights while at Sacha.  The Lodge has lots of expert naturalists.  Our family of four, for example, spent each day exploring with two naturalists, one from Quito and one whose father is a shaman in a nearby village.  They knew every animal cold (not at all easy, given the area’s diversity), and knew tons about the plant life.  And Benji, who could become his village’s shaman (a leader with wisdom and expertise in all sorts of areas, including the use of plants to treat illnesses) in the future, taught us an enormous amount about the jungle. 

Sacha - GIbson 312 While in Sacha, we saw a bunch of fabulous birds, and got great views of a three-toed sloth (left), four types of monkeys, two types of caiman (South America’s version of a crocodile), a poison dart frog, a dwarf iguana, and piranhas.  People went fishing for piranha in the lodge’s lake, which also served as a great swimming lake.  Apparently, not all piranha attack humans (or the lodge would have lost a fair number of its guests!).

Sacha Lodge 035 Among many fun things we did at Sacha, our night-time canoe outing stands out.  We went out on the lake, and also explored many of the streams feeding the tributary.  We were on the look-out for the Brown Caiman, which we found.  But the sounds at night of the jungle as we glided silently along in our canoe were unforgettable.

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We visited Sacha in the “dry” season, which can only make me imagine what the rainy season is like.  We got heavy rain each day we were there, although it made for great nap weather.  Hearing the rain on the dense jungle canopy only amplified the sound, and even a light rain shower sounded like a downpour.  We were able to work around the rain to do our nature exploring, but there’s definitely a reason why they call this a “rain forest.”

Sacha - GIbson 216 I’d definitely recommend exploring the Amazon River basin and jungle if you’re remotely interested in exotic plants and animals.  It’s unique in its diversity (including the dwarf iguana on the left, photographed by Gibson), and many of the species are just astounding.  We missed seeing some of the giant snakes (Anacondas as long as 11 meters have been seen at the lodge), anteaters, jaguars,  and other rarities.  One of our challenges, though, was our short stay at Sacha (just two days), and the “overhead” of spending two full days to get there put a damper on the experience.  And, as much as we love nature, our overall recollection of this place will be hiking through mud in the rain, scrutinizing trees until our eyes got tired, and not quite seeing what we really hoped to see.   That said, as soon as we get internet access, we’ll be looking for another destination (one on the actual Amazon) for a future, longer visit.

Feel free to check out our photos and videos of our time at Sacha.

Darwin’s Inspiring Galapagos

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Galapagos 521 If you love nature, a visit to the Galapagos is an absolute must! It’s really an astounding archipelago, consisting of some 130 wildlife-packed islands. After a while, you get used to hiking on narrow paths and having to step around sea lions, marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies. It’s that kind of place.

Galapagos 066 As Gibson pointed out, we actually visited more islands in the Galapagos than Charles Darwin, who played a big part in making the Galapagos famous. Darwin, in his famous five-year voyage, spent a month here, and set foot on a total of just four of the islands. But his observations about each island’s distinct species helped catalyze his theories on evolution. And things haven’t changed since Darwin’s time — islands often have their own distinct set of species, including finches, mockingbirds, and lizards.

Quito 049 We flew from Seattle (although I came via Iowa City) to Atlanta, and on to Quito. The Atlanta to Quito flight is less than five hours and very manageable. Better yet, there are direct flights from JFK Airport to Guiyacil, which is the departure point for the flight to the Galapagos. You also miss entering Ecuador through the Quito airport, where they have about three customs people on staff to process hundreds of passengers; we waited over an hour to get through Quito’s customers.

Quito 070 We had a brief stay in Quito, but did manage to tour around a bit. We went to the old section of the city, which has a certain charm. And we went to a spot right, smack dab on the Equator. Gibson managed to throw a baseball all the way from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere there! They have a big tower, topped by a globe with the equator shown prominently, in Quito at the equator. And there’s a nice little museum inside the tower, so we had a great time straddling the hemispheres.

After our day in Quito, we then flew to the Galapagos, first stopping at another city in Ecuador (Guayacil). We boarded a ship operated by Lindblad, and were on it for seven days and nights. Each day, we’d take a zodiac from the ship to an island to explore, generally a couple of times each day. The ship was staffed by three naturalists (two were quite good, and one had a bit of trouble differentiating a bird from a turtle :-( ), who led each day’s hike or snorkle adventure.

Galapagos 073 Right away, we knew we were in for a treat. On our first day, we saw sea lions, frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies, small ground finches, and marine iguanas. The wonder of it was in part the exotic species that were everywhere, but also how easy it was to be close to them. The area is so unspoiled, and the animals would let you get within a foot or two of them. At left is a male frigatebird, with its ballooned wattle, hoping to attract a mate. The male can be out in the sun all day like this for weeks, and as the wattle weathers and fades, so does his chances of attracting a mate.

Galapagos 451 We had snorkled in August at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we snorkled this trip in the Galapagos. All of us agreed that Galapagos snorkling is better. There were a great variety of stunning tropical fish and fabulous coral in both places. But in the Galapagos, we encountered many sea lions (often swimming right by us), Pacific Green Sea Turtles (quite large), giant manta rays (very large, and got us all thinking about Steve Irwin), white-tipped sharks (not harmful), Galapagos Penguins, and Brown Pelicans. At one point, I ended up in the middle of a fight between sea lion and pelican, but escaped unharmed!

About the only negative with snorkling in the Galapagos is the water temperature, which is pretty chilly. One might think ocean water at the Equator would be warm, but it’s fed by the Humboldt Current, coming up straight from Antartica. So if you come here, be forewarned — even with a wetsuit, it’s still a cold water experience.

Galapagos 465 When we weren’t snorkling, we were hiking in our mornings or afternoons. The hikes were generally 2-3 miles long, but over challenging terrain. Interestingly, the islands are quite close to each other (tens of miles at most), but are quite varied. We hiked on one where its surface resembled a different planet, due to relatively recent lava flows. On others, we scrambled over boulders. And we would occasionally find nice, sandy paths.

Galapagos 167 But while the hiking was challenging, it was quite doable for almost all of the group. And, boy, was it worth it! Pictures will be far better at communicating the range and beauty of what you see in the Galapagos, and the animals are not spooked by nearby humans. So you really get to see them. We saw countless iguanas (marine and land) and lizards, so our kids were in seventh heaven! And the birds in the Galapagos are extraordinary, and fairly easy to identify.

Canon to be sorted again 110 One extraordinary sighting was a pair of Pacific Green Sea Turtles mating in the surf (picture courtesy of Gibson). We had hiked up over a hill and down to a secluded beach, only to discover a rather intimate interlude on the beach. The turtles didn’t seem to mind our presence, though, and we got some good photographs. Not sure if it’s National Enquirer material, but it was amazing to watch.

Galapagos 368 As we were cruising around the Pacific Ocean, we ran into pods of Common Dolphins and Bottlenosed Dolphins. They would swim around the ship for quite some time (half hour or so), and there were so many of them. The Common Dolphins really leapt out of the water, and it was worth getting to the deck at 6:15 a.m. to see them. And the Bottlenosed are really beautiful animals, that we could watch for hours.Galapagos 372

We cruised on Lindblad’s Islander, a boat holding up to 48 passengers, with a crew of 32. After a week on the boat, we felt like we got to know many of the other passengers well. We were fortunate that we shared the trip with some incredibly interesting and nice people, which made the entire experience that much more fun. And the staff was very capable, with a real eye for making the experience safe and fun. That said, we did run into our unusual cases, which can become an issue on a small ship over a week-long period.

Galapagos 119 So, we’re back in the swing of things on our trip. The biggest downer for the week here was the New Hampshire primary, where I was hoping Barack Obama would lead the field. But, I’m encouraged with his win in Iowa and a very close second in New Hampshire, so I am looking forward to following the Nevada and South Carolina results. Now, back to Quito, and then on to the Amazon!

Feel free to check out our (way too many!!) photos and some great videos of the Galapagos wildlife. And I’ve included some of our better wildlife pictures below.

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Here Sterling walks by a giant Galapagos Tortoise. These animals must weight close to 500 pounds, and are fascinating to watch as they plod along.

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Not all of the creatures in the Galapagos are big, exotic birds. This beautiful bird, the Galapagos Dove, could be found on a couple of the islands that we visited. Its markings are so striking that we often found ourselves looking at it for minutes at a time.

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We got a number of great looks at the Galapagos Penguin. It’s a great warm-up for us prior to Antarctica. We may also see more penguins further south in South America.

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With as many ready targets on the different islands, raptors are scarce. We got great views of the Galapagos Hawk, but there are almost no other hawks, falcons, or eagles on the islands.

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This Yellow Warbler can be found in North America, so isn’t quite as exotic as most of the animals we saw in the Galapagos. But its color stands out so gorgeously against the lava rocks that it’s worth including.

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Sea lions were everywhere. On our last morning, we went to a beach and it was literally packed with sea lions. They were beautiful to watch, and would often swim right around us when we were snorkling. Also, one night, we watched them off the side of the ship chasing fish and got to see just how fast they are.

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The Sally Lightfoot Crabs were everywhere. Their coloring is spectacular, and they are fun to watch as they scurry along the rocks.

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Galapagos-2 191Here a Hood Mockingbird plops down on a log next to Gibson for a little afternoon chat. They talked mostly about lava lizards, and Gibson wondered what they taste like. The Mockingbird just laughed.

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Feel free to check out our photos and videos of this special place.