Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thursday, Feb 28th, Cuenca, Ecuador


First, thanks for all of your birthday wishes.  Celebrating my 65th by going to see Ingapirca was the perfect present.  On the way, we stopped by El Rocio, a church built on the site of yet another miracle and vaguely reminding us of a small European castle.  The views of the town of Biblian from the walkway around the base made you understand why so many early empires cherished these valleys.

Ingapirca has been called the largest Inca ruin in Ecuador.  To call it Incan is not the whole truth, however.  Though the stones which finished the Temple of the Sun are mostly of Incan design, the site was made by an earlier civilization known as the Canaris.

For almost a thousand years before the Inca, these stone temples served as the home of the Canaris leadership, and were used to chart astronomical movements and guide agricultural decisions.

But the Incans were good at incorporating their foes cultures into theirs, and it didn't hurt their PR to be defeated by the Spanish in so grand a style.  So we branded everything found as Incan.  But if you ask any local who built most of what is in Ecuador and Peru, you'll get very proud responses which reveal the complexity of these early advanced building communities.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on: Thursday, Feb 28th, Cuenca, Ecuador

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wednesday, Feb 27th, Cuenca, Ecuador


That wonderful dinner we had last night was not well received by Diego's stomach, and he sent Wilson Galarza to fill in for him today.  As Wilson explained, "We're the two best tour guides in Ecuador", so there were some high standards for him to meet.

He didn't disappoint us.  Today, we enjoyed another great day in what is a truly great South American city.  Cuenca has grown in the last 40 years into one of the best combinations of pre-Inca, Inca, colonial Spanish, Republican Ecuador, and modern 21st century experiences we've seen.  Its cosmopolitan population brings a rich blend of sounds, smells, colors, and experiences.

Walking around the city's center, on pedestrian and bicycle-freindly streets, illustrates why almost 4,000 Americans have established homes here.  The river walks alone are worth the trip, and the climate just adds the desert to this beautiful menu.

To see the few photos we took today, click on Wednesday, Feb 27th, Cuenca, Ecuador.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tuesday Morning, Feb 26th, Guayaquil, Ecuador


This is an unusual morning post, but we've a few minutes before breakfast, and then off with Diego to drive to Cuenca.   I thought that I'd add some notes about the Galapagos.  We're healthy, but Pat's knee is still keeping her from walking well.  We're icing it at night, and everyone was patient with our pace.  My coughing is still episodic, and comes when I try to talk too much.  Is that a good thing?

First, the boat.  Klein Tours owns three boats in the Galapagos,  We were on the biggest, which holds 100.  With 80 passengers, and 70 crew, we were very pampered.  Each day, we'd be awoken at 6:45am by Kari's voice on the intercom, informing us that breakfast was being served at 7.  At 8, we'd begin disembarking by groups of 16 to zodiacs with our guides (we were Cormorants with Javier) to go visit the island that our boat had moved to during the night.  After a n hour or two, we'd return for lunch, and head back out afterwards to another part of the island.

There are lots of islands in the Galapagos, and our tour took us to five of them.  Each has different variations of mostly the same animals and birds, as you all know the evolutionary reasons.  I found myself surrounded by really good photographers, and chose not to try to top them in great shots of the animals.  Two in particular said they'd let me use their photos when I get home to construct a great album.  stay tuned for that.  I did get some shots in the photos you can see in yesterday's post.

More in tonight's post.  Off to breakfast.

Something is still very wrong about the process of linking photographs to these posts.  Several times now, I have re-loaded the photos in the spaces where there appears thee "minus" signs.  Each time, the minus re-appear.   Also, many of my photos are not making it to the albums.   It's a real bummer.  I'm not happy, and will get to the bottom of it.  Probably not until I return though, so i'm crossing my fingers that it does not get worse.

Off to breakfast on Wednesday.   We're touring Cuenca today.



Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday, Feb 25th, Guayaquil, Ecuador


We're in Guyaquil, the port city of Ecuador, on the biggest river emptying into the Pacific from Latin America.  Our trip this last week to the Galapagos was wonderful, but we did suffer from no wifi.  I'm not sure that "suffer" is the right word, as we had plenty of activities seeing lots of birds, fish, land creatures, and fellow travelers.  We're taking a short break this afternoon, after getting in to the Hampton Inn in Guayaquil.   We'll be seeing the city at 4:30pm, and then going to a restaurant.  For the next 6 days, it's just our guide (Diego) and the two of us, so it'll be like a private tour.

We'll post a longer blog tonight, and try to upload some of the photos over the last week.  Stay tuned, and we'll catch up to today.

To see the photos taken on Wednesday, Feb 20th, click on Wednesday, Feb 20th, Quito, Ecuador
To see the photos taken on Thursday, Feb 21st, click on Thursday, Feb 21st, San Cristobal, Ecuador
To see the photos taken on Friday, Feb 22nd, click on Friday, Feb 22nd, Espanola, Ecuador
To see the photos taken on Saturday, Feb 23rd, click on Saturday, Feb 23rd, Floreana, Galapagos, Ecuador
To see the photos taken on Sunday, Feb 24th, click on Sunday, Feb 24th, Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador
To see the photos taken on Monday, Feb 25th, Guayaquil, Ecuador


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tuesday, Feb 19th, Quito, Ecuador


We stayed at a really nice place last night.  Another hacienda, but this time one that simon Bolivar and Alexander Humboldt stayed in.  It's right in the middle of the major volcanos of Ecuador, and we could see one of them from the grounds.  Today, we were going to see a volcano as close as we could get, no matter what.

On the way, Diego asked us if we could stop by a project that a Canadian had funded and established.  It's a school, and an organic garden, and a weaving collective, high up at 14, 500 feet. But it's been closed for about a year, and Diego had hoped it was open again.

It's a beautiful project, but the children who had been going there were now going to another school closer to the big town.  The organic garden had been left untended after the second year's crop was not as successful as the first.  We talked with a remaining family, and took photos of one of the last children.  Diego left some money he had raised, and we said goodbye.

On the way up to Chimorazo National Preserve, Diego made sure we understood that the flora in Ecuador absolutely is spectacular and plentiful at very high altitudes.  And vicunas, and hummingbirds, and eagles and hawks.
We drove (actually Dannie did) all the way up to a 16, 465 foot refuge at the snow line to see a real volcano (Chimorazo), and it did not disappoint us.  It left plenty unseen, but that seems to be the lot of volcanos in Ecuador.  But it made our day.

The other thing I forgot to say earlier is how impressed we are that the Ecuadorians have found every square inch of these mountains to farm.  And the result is a beautiful quilt of green patches that feeds this nation well.  We benefit every day from the great food we've eaten, and from the people who work hard to make it happen.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Tuesday, Feb 19th, Quito, Ecuador

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday, Feb 18th, Riobamba, Ecuador


This morning, Robert and I hit tennis balls for about an hour on a court that has seen its best days.  The racquets and balls we used have also seen their best days.  Notice I didn't include either of us in those statements.  Hope still springs eternal.

After lunch, we hopped in our bus and headed off to see if we could find clear views of the volcanos in the area near our next hotel.  Along the way, we drove through several towns which feature specially items: ice cream, jeans, roses, more wood carvings.

We also headed to a higher elevation valley to see a railroad station at about 13, 000 feet.  Invited into one of the main houses across from the station, we were served local plums, pears, and cherries, and a sweet berry juice which were all delicious.

He also had a great drawing of famous leaders on the wall, and a book of photos of the volcanos in the area published in China in 2002.  Looking through it was about the closest we were going to get to seeing the volcanos, as the were very stubborn today.

Behind his house were two old thatched-roof houses which gave us an idea of how the typical rural indigenous family lives.  Guinea pigs were being raised inside, and the remainder divided into food/wood storage and sleeping quarters.

We finally arrived in Riobamba, and walked the streets to, as Diego said, "experience Ecuador".  One vendor stall offered a delicious fried plantane (banana) with cheese, as we watched it being prepared.  After about 30 minutes of walking, we met up with our bus, and then drove to a lookout point to try one last effort to spot the volcanos.

You'll have to forgive my many telephoto shots trying desperately to capture the moment when one of the five volcanos appears from behind the clouds.  We got close with one, but will keep trying.  I still say the photos look good with the clouds and the mountains peaking out.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Monday, Feb 18th, Riobamba, Ecuador.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday, Feb 17th, Banos, Ecuador


Our tour guide, Diego, is a very nice man.  He’s shared with us stories about his childhood, his parents and brothers, and his wife and daughters.  We’ve been very impressed by not only his abilities as a tour guide, but about how who he is comes across in the choices he makes in what to share about Ecuadorian life, and about his culture.

When he describes the upcoming day’s itinerary each night before dinner, he goes to great length to explain the historical, geographical, and sociological significances of each place we are to see.  He has a detailed understanding of the contributions of the area we are visiting, as well as the part played by the residents of each town and community.

Over the past two days, he’s taken us through several provinces, staying at historic haciendas and attempting to get a glimpse of two very impressive volcanoes.  Unfortunately, the weather is causing clouds to obscure the peaks, and Diego and the group are a bit disappointed.  We are traveling to interesting places, however, and are currently (Sunday) in Banos.

Nestled on the slope of a snow-capped volcano, Banos is famous for its hot springs and a Virgin whose healing waters attracts a pilgrimage.  We spent part of the day visiting the town plaza, where we stopped by the local elections precinct.  Today is the national elections, and we’ve been talking for a week about the candidates and the current state of democracy in Ecuador.  Diego is quite fond of the current President, and it appears that he will win the election.  His tenure is one of the longest stable periods in recent history, and the Ecuadorians are experiencing significant economic growth.

To see all of the photos taken on Saturday, click on Saturday, Feb 16th, Hacienda la Cienaga, Ecuador
To see all of the photos taken on Sunday, click on Sunday, Feb 17th, Banos, Ecuador


Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday, Feb 15th, Hacienda Chorlavi, Ecuador


Today, our tour took us to the Otavalo Valley.  In early years, the Otavalo Valley was filled with farmers who raised crops in fertile lands where they lived. In the 14th century, the Inca expansion reached north into the Otavalo area. The Caraquis who inhabited the area resisted the invaders. For 17 long years, fierce fighting continued as the defiant Caraquis refused to be subjugated by the Incas. The Spanish arrived a few years after the Incas. They established a Hacienda system of workshops where Otavalenos were forced to work 15 hour days weaving fabrics. Today, this weaving tradition forms the basis of a lucrative industry that has allowed the Otavaleno indigenous peoples to join the world economy while retaining their traditional values and skills.  

We visited a workshop where dough figurines were being made and sold.  It reminded me of a similar craft operation long ago in Santa Rosa using developmentally disabled participants to fashion Christmas tree ornaments.  
Our guide, Diego, has been wanting to show us some key volcanos which surround the valley, and a key viewing point is a small national park visitor center overlooking the lake formed within a caldera.  It was a beautiful sight, and the clouds almost allowed us to see the top of the volcano.

Back in the town of Peguche, we watched a master weaver in her shop demonstrate her fine art.  On the walls were news stories from all over the world, where her family had provided Ecuadorian weaving demonstrations at exhibitions.  
In the same town, we were allowed into the home of one of Ecuador's finest musical families, Los Hermanos Pichambas.  Treated to the opportunity of watching a pan flute being made from scratch, it was followed by a brief concert by three members of the family using guitar, flute, and drums.  I was able to video both, and hope that I can produce two short YouTube videos when I return home.

The afternoon highlight, however, was our cooking lesson and dinner at Alpaca Wais, an Ecuadorian restaurant surrounded by an Alpaca farm, owned by Ivan Viscaino and his family.  Ivan's mom gave us an exquisite Quinoa soup cooking lesson, which followed an introduction to bowlfuls of local fruits.  Then, we sat down to a home-cooked Ecuadorian meal featuring all the ingredients and more.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on: Friday, Feb 15th, Hacienda Chorlavi, Ecuador

Thursday, Feb 14th, Quito, Ecuador


We just flew back to Quito, after four days at the Cuyabeno Lodge, which is reachable via a plane flight over the Andes to Lagoagrio,  a bus for two hours to the Bridge, and a motorized canoe for four hours upriver to the Lodge.  We just returned in reverse order, and almost didn’t get out as the water level in the river was so low we had to drag the canoe many times.  Tomorrow, probably would have been too late.  As our guide, Enrique, answered, “We’d probably just have to wait for the next big rains in the Andes.”.

Cuyabeno Lodge is a 25-year old environmental camp begun when the oil fields were busy, and tensions were higher between indigenous communities (Siona and Secoya) and Ecuadorian leaders.  It now sits in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Preserve, in the Comassario del Putamayo in the region of Mocoa, on the Ecuadorian side of the Putamayo River.  It was founded by some of those responsible for establishing the wildlife preserve.  Housing about twenty in tent cabins, with a dining hall, storage area, and three-story viewing tower, the Lodge occupies a hill whose size depends upon the river.  When it’s low, you’re thankful for mud boots. 

I really am amazed at the stamina I’ve seen Pat exhibit over these last few days.  I know most of you realize how fragile her knee is, and so will understand the stress of climbing up and down hundreds of feet of narrow, slippery trails from the river to the camp several times a day.  Now add to that our first full day here, in which the morning consisted of pursuing an anaconda across about a half-mile of thigh-deep mud, amidst dense with spine-covered branches.   Falling face-first into a bush full of spines, after twisting her knee deep into the mud, I saw how really resolute she is.  I think that helping each other's struggle with our infirmities has brought us even closer together.

Each day was filled with morning, afternoon, and evening forest walks and boat trips.  All of the support staff were excellent, and we could not have been better educated and guided.  One of my favorite outings, though didn’t think I would enjoy it, was piranha fishing.  The final competition between Robert and Mary Anne (she narrowly won with three in the boat, two others out of the water) was intense and hilarious.

While I began the Amazon adventure caring and using both my regular, wide angle lens and my telephoto, I soon found more interest in using the former, and will depend on a couple of my fellow traveler's photos for shots of the birds and monkeys.  I just couldn't get close enough with my 300mm lens, and will add those shots to my albums when we collaborate after our return.  For those of you who are dying to see them, you'll just have to be patient.  I'm hoping that by concentrating on capturing the story of the adventure in my regular lens shots, you'll be able to follow along with us better.

The high points?  Watching a Harpy Eagle fly overhead while we drifted down the river, carrying a monkey (him, not us).  Where and when snakes would show up.  Learning about the yuca root, and how many delights it provides.  The sounds of the tropical forest, and not assuming you can guess right who makes them.

Our health?  Pat's cold is mostly gone.  Mine's still hanging around.  Robert's almost over strangling me for passing it to him.  Diego's fine, as is Rusty, Mary Anne, Clarence and Susan.  While Quito is still 8,500 feet, we're feeling much better than last Sunday.  Tomorrow, we head out to see the volcanos of Ecuador.

To see the photos taken during our visit to the Amazon, click on:

Monday, Feb 11th, Cuyabeno, Ecuador
Tuesday, Feb 12th, Cuyabeno, Ecuador
Tuesday Evening, Feb 12th, Cuyabeno, Ecuador
Wednesday, Feb 13th, Cuyabeno, Ecuador
Thursday, Feb 14th, Quito, Ecuador

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday, Feb 10th, Quito, Ecuador


We've had colds at six different altitudes, and it's no fun anywhere.  But now we're at 9, 250 ft, and it's easier to breathe.  The day as filled with checking in and out of three country's airports, and that's not very photogenic.  We're at the Mercure Quito, and are about to meet two new travelers at dinner at the hotel's Spicy Restaurant.  Tomorrow, we head to the Amazon.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Saturday, Feb 9th, La Paz, Bolivia


We drove from the top to the bottom of La Paz today.  At the top, we walked around the mudded Valley of the Moon, which looks a lot like our Bryce Canyon in Arizona.  The more expensive homes are perched in gated and reinforced communities up there, and owned by ex-politicians, oilmen, and diplomats.  They have also included expensive schools for their children, and plenty of security.  But they have landslides when it rains.

On one of these hills, the city has recently taken over the property and is making a beautiful vista park which we visited.  Towering peaks surround this valley, and the location is spectacular.
We plunged down into the city plazas, and saw the Presdential offices, legislative chambers, and courts.  As the Carnival was being organized along the city's main street, all of the traffic in the city was in chaos.  We chose to walk as much as our oxygen-strapped lungs would allow, and stopped by the Witches and Crafts Markets.

We also spent some time in the Museo de Instruments Musicale, holder of the Guinness book of World Record for most instruments, and admired the collection of unique Andean musical artifacts.

The more you travel to see other places in which you think people lived differently, the more you find your shared values and interests with them.  Whether the present day people, or those who preceded them, you find it easier to understand their lives and communities, and how alike we all are.

Our trip turns tomorrow to less looking into the past, and more absorbing the present.  So I thought I'd acknowledge how taken I've been by the opportunities it's given us to see so clearly back so far into this region.  It takes a lot of work to create people with as much to love as those in this region.  It doesn't just happen without a rich blend of highly-developed societies, each contributing to the next.

The uniqueness of Carnival de la Candelaria in La Paz today is that it's all about  helping the kids have fun.  It has its origin in asking Virgin Mary as Mother Earth to be kind to the crops and the people of the Sun.  But it's also about just asking what everyone wants for their children: a little peace and prosperity.  For Bolivians to have finally found a few years of political stability, and be on the road to righting old divisions between indigenous people and economic exploitation, let's hope their prayers are answered.  It's been great to join Bolivia in it's celebration.

Gregory and Pat

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday, Feb 8th, La Paz, Bolivia

Copacabana is one beautiful little town.  In 1968, Jacque Cousteau mounted an trip here certain he would find a lost city of gold from the Inca empire.  What he found were the remains of ruins from the Island of the Sun which had been placed in the shallows off the island when the lake levels dropped during a global warming which took place in 1100 AD,and which led to the eventual disappearance of the Tiwanakans (more later).
The road to Bolivia starts with a bus load of coughing, tired travelers.  Despite feeling I had given it to all of them,  I was able to summon up the one hour of sleep's energy and use it and lots of water to keep the coughing to every few minutes.  It also helped the Pat suggested I sit up front so's to keep from making it worse. The quickest way to La Paz is by taking a ferry across another lake south of Lago Titicaca, with our bus on one ferry and us on another.

Driving on, our interim destination was Tiwanaku, a ruin built in about 300 BC, by a culture which was already over a thousand years old.  Lasting until a century before the Incas, the Tiwanakans stone-carving, monolith-building, irrigation systems, and pottery- making skills placed the on par with any in the world at the time.

 The centerpiece, a seven level temple, is only partially re-constructed, and work in continuing with the help of Venezula's President, Hugo Chavez.  Astronomically-precise, with calendars abounding, it's leaders pioneered techniques used a millennium later throughout South America.  One monolith, which we couldn't photograph, rivals any I've seen produced by the Mayans 500 years later.

The road to La Paz travels from there over rolling green hills reminding us of Sonoma County, except that it's 14,000 feet.  I really think hilltops at that elevation ought to be jagged and made of granite.  Not smooth and made of layered limestone, full of old shells.  But this whole area once was an eight times larger Lago Titicaca, until the gentle slope of the uplifted plate led all the water south to a huge salt flat.

Dropping down (1,000 feet) into a valley, we reach La Paz.  Near the entrance to the downtown stands a statue of Che Guevarra, made of recycled materials, standing on an American Eagle.  Not the capital of Bolivia (that's Sucre), but with 2.5 million people and all the major government buildings, it will certainly satisfy our needs to experience Urban Bolivia.   Tonight, we walked from our rooms at the five-star Radisson to a trendy restaurant for six versions of filet mignon, as we watched university students begin to organize for the week-long Carnival de la Candelaria.  We expect it to be a little crazy tomorrow.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Friday, Feb 8th, La Paz, Bolivia.