South America Post 14 Perfect Peru Part 2 – Cusco and a special train!

Sad to leave the Sacred Valley, we headed for Cusco, located at 11,510ft, staying 1 night at the lovely old Andean Wings hotel, formerly a Spanish villa. Breathing was noticeably harder here, and most hotels have oxygen available.Cusco means navel, because it was the centre and capital of the Inca kingdom, which at it’s height stretched to Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. We had just 1 day, so chose to do an excellent walking tour with Inka Milky Way! Our guide was excellent, it is a beautiful city and we learned so much.There were once 15 Inca palaces in Cusco, but when the Spanish came, they demolished them, and used the stones to build Spanish colonial style buildings and churches.One Inca wall remains, plus recently discovered Inca Palace foundations, showing a symmetrical pattern of rooms, and a water system.Outside town is Sacsayhuaman, an Inca citadel with amazing walls all with the mortar less construction.Later, I visited the Cathedral, which is really 3 churches in one. The Gold and silver decoration is dazzling, as were the intricately carved wooden choir stalls and screen.We have been learning how, when the Spanish invaded, they imposed Catholicism on the local people. Many adopted it, but retained their allegiance to their original deities, gods of Sun, Moon and Patcha Mamma, or mother earth. So it is not unusual to see Inca imagery and local customs entwined with Catholic symbolism in churches. In Peru, Guinea pig, or Cuy, is a very popular food. (We have eaten Llama , Alpaca but resisted the temptation of Cuy..partly because it is very expensive!) To return to the cathedral, inside is a huge painting in Rennaissance style, done in about 1750 by local artist Marcos Zapata.However the food in the painting is not fishes and bread, but Guinea pig and potatoes!! No photos were allowed, but I sneaked these!Following our tour, we embarked on a cookery course. Jesus took us on a very informative tour of the market, which was built by Gustav Eiffel! Outside, he explained that street food is a main way to eat in Peru, and many people will take meals this way, especially breakfast.Inside the market, masks were popular. These were designs from the past when the locals mimicked their Spanish rulers, depicting them with big noses and moustaches!These were some of the highlights:The jelly stall… including a creamy cow bone marrow one!Many different potatoes… including ones which are freeze dried by being left outside, high on the altiplano, where it is hot in the day and below freezing at night. They keep forever. Just rehydrate and use.Drying is a very popular method of preservation. This rather unappetizing stall sold very dried fish!Every part of the pig is eaten.And not for the squeamish, aborted Llama fetuses are dried, and sold to be used as offerings to the Gods.Many varieties of Quinoa…. (now we know it is officially pronounced ‘keenwah’), which we saw growing everywhere…it is very pretty crop.55 varieties of corn, and popcorn is hugely popular (excuse the pun!)We bought many exotic fruits and vegetables, and returned to his studio for our cooking class.First, and most important how to make the perfect Pisco Sour.Then we made: 3 types of Ceviche.. raw fish cooked simply by placing it in citrus based marinade. All were gorgeous.Then, a potato souffle, Quinoa Risotto and a 3 fruit dessert.It was good fun and yummy!Next day and another adventure. I had booked tickets on the recently revived 10.5 hour train trip up through the Andes from Cusco up to Puno, on Lake Titicaca (12,650 feet). We splashed out at £150 each, but we had no idea what to expect, and as you know, Chris loves trains, so it was an early Anniversary present.It was fantastic. The time literally flew by! A beautiful train with a partly open observation car made viewing the stunning scenery a real pleasure.As we travelled there was frequent tooting, as there are no level crossings, and people, animals and vehicles freely cross the tracks. Not everyone was happy… dogs howled and many children covered their ears!!Plantain and corn nibbles, plus tea coffee and water were freely available. Then, welcome Pisco sours (at 10.30 am!!), really superb local musicians and dancers who did 2 different shows, and a fashion show of baby alpaca clothing!Audience participation was actively encouraged.The guitarist was a secret rocker, and we had the slightly surreal experience of him launching into Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry numbers between the Panpipes!!A great 3 course lunch, with wine, and afternoon tea were all included in the price.And, the loveliest toilets, kept spotlessly clean throughout. Take note British railways!We also stopped at the highest point on the route, at 4,139 metres or 13,698 feet where we were able to buy some handicrafts made by local people.We passed through Peru’ Guinea pig breeding heartland, and learned that 65 million are consumed here each year!We literally drove though the market in Juliaca, and as we passed, stalls were re-erected on the track. Many things were left between the rails for us to pass over. As soon as the train had gone, the track was filling up again. But Peru, like most South American countries, has a massive poverty problem. A close look showed large sections of the market selling things we would throw away as rubbish.Decrepit housing – 22% of peruvians have no direct water supply! And these shacks are the toilets for the nearby housing.We also saw people washing clothes in the rather murky river.Throughout our trip we have seen terrible poverty, and social divisions, but again in Peru we were told that by using local firms and small businesses, we were helping the economy, and reaching the lower paid in the society.Still, we felt guilty, returning to our lovely journey! We arrived in the city of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in the dark, and were taken by taxi to Mirador de Titicaca… our hotel. We knew it was a little out of town, but not that it was up an almost vertical dirt road!!We knew we were high, as we were out of breath just walking to the loo!! It turned out we were just over 4,000 metres! Luckily, apart from a slight headache, tiredness and breathlessness, we escaped the worst side effects of being at such a high altitude. It is a very real problem, and most hotels, and the train, have oxygen cylinders at the ready.Apparently, at this height, oxygen saturation drops to 65-75%. Normally, doctors get worried below 94%! The hotel was lovely, but we would have to wait until morning for a view of the highest navigable lake in the world!

South America Post 13 Perfect Peru Part 1

Arriving to Lima late in the evening, I had booked a night at an airport hotel before our 08.00am flight to Cusco, high in the Andes. At Cusco, we were met by Pablo, who taxied us 90 minutes into the Sacred Valley.

We were staying at a B&B called Lizzi Wasi, in Urubamba. Lizzi, from the US, is married to a Peruvian, and has created a fabulous oasis of rooms in lovely gardens, centrally located in the Sacred Valley.

It is a perfect base from which to explore this Inca heartland, using fairly inexpensive taxis. Located at over 9,000 feet, we ‘rested’ for a few hours before our first trip, to Pisac. A charming village of cobbled streets, gardens and colourful local markets.

After a great lunch at Bistro Terra we drove up the steep valley sides until some remarkable Inca terracing came into view.

We climbed impossibly higher until we reached the old Inca settlement. Walking to the top made us feel about 120 yeas old, as we huffed and puffed due to the altitude. It was incredible to see.

The Incas were active here between 1425 and 1540. They had no written language, and had not invented the wheel, yet their settlements involved transporting building materials over great distances, and up huge mountains, and were quite sophisticated, especially in their water transportation and bathing arrangements! This was a line of separate pools!

This hillside was the cemetery. Each hole is a burial site.

Back to Lizzi Wasi for a good night’s sleep, but en route we also saw many Adobe blocks and Adobe houses being built in the countryside.

Next morning, off to see 3 major Inca sites. The fortress and town at Ollantaytambo was huge and impressive. Climbing to the top was exhausting, but rewarding!

Again, the bathing areas were sophisticated.

The most remarkable structure is the temple de la sol which was never finished. Unused granite slabs litter the ground, and 6 huge monoliths create a wall. However did they get these up here?

This is the huge wall which was built to block the valley, and which they used to dam the river and then flood the valley, in the Incas only significant victory over the advancing Spaniards.

Here we also visited a charity for girls that a friend had worked at some years before. Girls in poor, remote communities in the high Andes often receive no education at all. Thanks to the Sacred Valley Project, they can stay in dormitories under the care if a house mother, go to school and have help with their homework. We were made really welcome!

We also drove high into the mountains again to visit 2 incredible sites. Firstly the Maras Salt mines. A spring here has an unusually salty composition. Since 200 AD local pre-inca people have recognised the potential, and created over 5000 mini salt pans, in terraces down the mountainside.

Over 3,000 are still worked today, and demand is now global. Pink Himalayan salt is hailed as the most healthy, and a recent study has shown that the Pink salt from here is even better! All the pans are still worked by hand, and it was like taking a step back in time nearly 2,000 years! The photos do not do the enormous scale of this justice. From here, we drove to Moray, where another remarkable Inca creation was cut into the earth.

To Get an idea of scale, look for the people in the above picture!!

Much larger, and deeper than the pictures show, this incredible construction appears to have a scientific purpose. It is exposed to all aspects of the sun, shade and wind, and has temperature differences of up to 15 degrees difference from top to bottom. There are various theories as to its purpose, but soil, seed and plant traces have been found on different levels, and different orientations. Most scientists believe that this was an agricultural laboratory for testing crops in different soil’s and microclimate, so they could make the best use of each part of the empire. Even more remarkably, there is evidence that they practised hybridization, developing new strains of vegetables like potatoes that were better suited to prevailing conditions. The outcome is that Peru has over 4,000 varieties of Potato, and they feature in some way in most meals. We were left so impressed by everything we had seen today.

An early start on Wednesday saw us driving back to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, and Machu Picchu. The weather forecast was bad so we prepared ourselves for looking at low cloud and rain and saying “Well that is where it should be!”

The train journey follows the Sacred Valley and was stunning at every turn.

Aguas Calientes reminded us of an Alpine village with cute bins!

It’s little church had an Andean take on the traditional Mary and Jesus statue!

We had to queue for buses to drive up the mountain at our set entry time. The flow of visitors is always increasing – potentially over 2 million visitors per year – and the authorities and UNESCO are constantly battling between protection of this modern wonder of the world, and commercial profitability. We could see the clouds gathering as we ascended and we just hoped the rain would hold off for a while. The road twisted and turned, climbing steadily for 30 minutes. Surely nothing could be up here?

Then, we glimpsed a few terraces, still high above us, with the valley far below.

On entering the site, we chose to climb high above it, up towards the Sun gate, and then walk in down the old Inca trail, seeing it as the original visitors would have done.

This was a great choice. The view from above really gives you a sense of how remarkable this lost city is. I confess, I became quite emotional!

The city was abandoned in 1572 as the Incas fled from the Spanish, who never found it, and it remained undiscovered until the American, Hiram Bingham arrived in 1911. Well, undiscovered except for the 2 tribal families who were living here, totally unaware of it’s significance!! Sadly, during excavations, the treasures were removed and taken to museums around the world, but the city is still remarkably complete.

As we descended to the city itself, the heavens opened, but it allowed us to see Machu Picchu in all her colours, and it was truly atmospheric as cloud swirled around.

Our guide thought looking for shelter was unnecessary, so we learned about life here while getting progressively wetter.

(It didn’t help that one of my boots had torn in Tierra del Fuego, and the repair was failing, AND my trusty Berghaus waterproofs decided 12 years was enough and sprang some leaks!)

Machu Picchu contains housing, temples, meeting areas and an extensive agricultural section of terraces cascading down. They had complex irrigation and drainage systems which we witnessed in action, as water cascaded through gullies and into a central canal. Inca building techniques are remarkable. Machu Picchu was built without metal tools, the wheel or mortar! Granite is cut along natural fault lines, and then polished into blocks using coarse sand. They are smooth, and are fitted together with no mortar at all. The walls all recline slightly, for earthquake resistance!

Astrology and earth rhythms play a huge role in Inca culture. Temples are built to receive shafts of sun through windows on solstice and equinox days . These were used as signs for the next agricultural season. Planting, harvesting etc.

This immense sundial was used in the same way. Unfortunately visitors cannot get close to it, after it was broken by a crane falling on it during the filming of a beer commercial in 2000.

This was a sacrificing table.

This was the temple of the Condor.

This huge slab is cut to be the shape of the sacred mountain behind.

We left this amazing site in mid afternoon, completely awestruck. We had 3 hours to wait for our train back, so we found Mapacho, a recommended cafe / craft brewery, and decided to have a 3 course meal, to spin out the time and let us warm up. Chris was very happy!

The Urubamba river was roaring past the open windows, adding drama!

We moved to the station waiting room, still dripping, and suddenly heard our names being called. On reporting to the man with clipboard and microphone, he told us with great delight that we had been upgraded to the first class carriage. ‘Ooh, comfy seats’ we thought! That was just the start. We were escorted to a Pullman carriage, luxuriously furnished…. and to a table set for dinner! We were served a complimentary 3 course dinner, with Pisco sours, wine and after dinner drinks all included! Despite having eaten a few hours before, we did our best!

It was a delightful end to a wonderful day. We ❤ Peru!

South America Post 12 Whistlestop SW Patagonia

Landing in remote Ushuaia, we were greeted with….Fog. Bad news because we had a 90 minute internal flight at 10.45 to El Calafate. We had just one afternoon there, and so we were being met by a taxi who was driving us 90 minutes to see the Perito Moreno glacier. Cutting the story short, we landed at 4pm, 4 hours late and had given up all hope of the glacier. But we had underestimated Nico, our driver. “Of course we go to glacier” he said, and we roared off across the Patagonian desert! He also gave us a running commentary on nature, geography, history and glaciation!! We drove alongside stunningly blue Lake Argentina, 500 metres deep and 80 miles long!!

When we got to the glacier, we said we would just grab a few photos. Nico was horrified, and, thankfully, sent us off on the 90 minute marked hike, saying he would be waiting at the end. The hike was amazing, especially when we realised that what we had been looking at, was just one third of the glacier.

For us, it was one of the highest high spots in a high spot filled trip.

The glacier covers 35 square miles, is 3 miles wide, and is 240 feet high. It is advancing, which is good, but losing density, which is bad. It created, groaned and fractured, making us jump with sounds like rifle shots. It calved, with huge splashes creating large waves, and I could have watched it all night.

We left at 7pm for the return drive. When we tried to thank Nico, he answered “No. I should Thank You. I haven’t been here in the evening for a long time, and I had forgotten how beautiful it is”. How lovely was that!

Back in El calafate we stayed at La Cantera hotel which was cosy and warm! Out for supper to a traditional Disco restaurant. Nothing to do with 70’s dancing! A disco is a casserole dish, and the pan cooked dishes are made to share. Our beef disco was delicious!


We fell into bed, ready for another early start, including a breakfast whose buffet included lemon meringue pie – apparently a Peruvian national dish!

Then a bus trip 250kms across the border into Chile, and a tour of the stunning Torres Del Paine national park. The low cloud meant we didn’t see the really high peaks, but this amazingly remote place is so beautiful.

The waterfalls were wonderful,

We saw lots of guanaco. Related to Llama, they are fascinating. You often see single guanaco on hilltops.

They are older males who can no longer reproduce, and who taking on the role of sentinels, warning of predators. You also come across large piles of poo, because the whole group choose, and use, 1 toilet area so that they don’t contaminate the grass. We also saw rheas, and this lovely red fox, who seemed bemused by us.

We stayed in the national park, and had a final morning trip and walk in this super landscape.

before catching 2 buses to travel 300km back to Punta Arenas. We stayed at our lovely Air bnb again, and were greeted with hugs, like old friends! Next day, a flight north to Santiago, and on to Lima, Peru for the last part of our adventure!

South America Post 11 To the End of the Word

A flurry of posts because of 5 days without wifi, and no chance to upload pictures!From Buenos Aires we flew via Santiago, to Punta Arenas, at the southernmost part of mainland Chile. On the flight we got great views of the Chilean Volcanoes.

Out came the thermals, hats and gloves we had lugged with us!

We had an overnight stay here in a charming air bnb, prior to boarding the Stella Australis ship for our 4 day expedition through the Patagonian and Tierra del Fuego fjords, known locally as the End of the World. It certainly felt like it!

We thought of Punta Arenas as ‘just a stopover’, but we were very wrong! It is a really remote frontier town, with many low, functional buildings designed to withstand ferocious winter winds and cold. However it has some real hidden gems! Two museums display the history of the region, from the original tribes through it’s many roles in the fishing industry, security, oil and gas exploration and even a gold rush.

Today, tourism is a vital component of the economy, and the population is growing! Just outside town is an amazing museum, the Nao Victoria. In a hidden shipyard, dedicated carpenters work on ship reconstructions, all carefully reproduced in 1:1 scale, and related to this part of the world. Their star is the Victoria, Magellans ship on which he discovered the Straits of Magellan in 1520 and on whose shoreline we were standing. At 350 miles long, this was a sheltered shortcut avoiding notorious Cape Horn.

Beware of Spanish soldiers…

Then they have reconstructed the Beagle, captained by Fitzroy, who discovered the Beagle channel in 1830, and who later brought Charles Darwin here, a nice link with our Galapagos visit.

Finally the little lifeboat, the James Caird, which, against impossible odds, carried Shackleton safely from Elephant Island across the worst seas in the world to South Georgia. There he arranged rescue for the men he had to leave behind, 24 months after they set sail for Antarctica.

Their rescue ship, the Ancud, is also reproduced here.

Walking in town, a real highlight is the beautiful wall art.

And did we mention the food? We ate at La Yegua Loca, a newish restaurant highlighting local produce. It was wonderful, and we were grateful for the log burning stoves!!

Then, on Sunday lunchtime everything was closed, until we stumbled upon the Parilla los Ganaderos, or Grill of the Gauchos, full of local families. It was fabulous, and we sat next to the traditional bbq where whole lambs are cooked vertically around the flames.

Next, to our ship, a 100 cabin expedition ship.

We were excited and apprehensive at the same time. Weather forecast was poor, and we were stuck in a sardine tin with lots of other people for 4 days!

We needn’t have worried. Our cabin, and all the public rooms were lovely, and then we were greeted with cocktails and canapes for our briefing!

We would sail through the southern most routes of the continent; the Straits of Magellen and the Beagle channel, into fjords and out into the Pacific.

This was an expedition, not a cruise, so no long dresses were required.. much to Chris’ relief!! However the food seemed worthy of a much grander trip, with three delicious meals a day, and a constantly available buffet of cakes, biscuits, tea coffee.

Oh.. and the fully inclusive bar where I discovered the Pisco Sours and Calafate Sours! We were lucky to share our table with Meghan and Scott from New York. A young couple on their belated honeymoon! They were married last year, and it turned out we had the same Wedding Anniversary. They were delightful, and much fun was had.

Most staff were Chilean, and so friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Each day was a combination of interesting talks, and trips in the Zodiac ribs.

Our route is shown on this map.

After leaving port, we saw just one other ship, and 2 buildings in 4 days! This is a wild and remote place. A hostile environment in which to survive, due to extreme cold, bitter, strong, unpredictable winds, and precipitation. Vegetation struggles too, and wildlife is limited to sea birds, seals, some fish and a few mammals. However there is evidence that early tribes settled here up to 10,000 years ago. Needless to say the Spanish, British and others tried to ‘civilise’ the tribes, but diseases like smallpox, and persecution almost wiped them out. The Yamaga tribe were most remarkable. Each family lived in an open canoe, with a fire in it which the children kept alight. They were no clothes at all, even in winter with temperatures of -25, using seal fat on their skin to keep warm!

Our first excursion was to Ainsworth Bay which provided a stunning backdrop to a very informative nature walk, learning about the sub Antarctic forest.

Amazing mosses and lichens grow here.

Many parasitic plants too, like this false mistletoe,

and this innocent looking plant which can destroy a shrub in a season.

It is rough but absorbent, and the local tribes used it as toilet paper!

This plant is known as the everlasting plant, because during storms it’s habitat can be flooded with seawater, but it just regrows!

This is the Devil’s Trouble, and is apparently a powerful laxative!

We saw fur seals swimming, and birds.

Introduced species are problematic, especially the beaver which is destroying the environment.

In the afternoon we anchored at Tuckers Islets and bounced across the waves on the zodiacs to see Magellanic penguins. So adorable.

We also saw Caracara and an Imperial cormorant colony.

Next day was cloudy, but we visited the incredible Pia Glacier, one of the few which is advancing rather than retreating.

We hiked uphill for a panoramic view. The glacier was constantly creaking and groaning, and we witnessed several calvings as ice broke off and thundered into the water below.

The zodiac ride was like Dodgems with ice cubes!!

Our ship then sailed down Glacier Alley, past 5 huge glaciers named after European countries.

The waiters appeared with drinks and nibbles for each country as we passed! Then great excitement as some Orcas swam past, and then dolphins.

Our foray out into the Pacific was decidedly bouncy, but during our penultimate night we sailed right out to Cape Horn. We knew the weather forecast was bad, and just before dawn we were told that it was too dangerous to get close or attempt a landing, as winds were Force 10, gusting Force 11! Chris and I went on deck while in the lee of the island. The wind was howling, and the rain lashing down, but we saw Cape Horn in the dim light. Somehow it seemed more fitting to experience it like this, rather than on a calm sunny day.

We were just 595 miles from the Antarctic islands, and have now visited the southern most points in Americas, Africa and Australasia.

Later that day, we went ashore and hiked at Wulaia bay, where Darwin landed and first met natives.

It was also home to the barrel post office. Mariners would leave letters for family at home, and when another ship came by it would take letters addressed to places it was heading to. We popped in a postcard, and took one to deliver!

When Magellan first came, he found huge footprints in the sand. They believed the natives must be giants and named the land Patagonia from the old Portuguese words Pata Guan meaning big foot! Finally we sailed to remote Ushuaia in Argentina.

The whole trip was amazing. My travel pills were exceptional, and after rolling around at Cape Horn in Force 11 gusts, I polished off a hearty breakfast!!

The sense of wilderness and isolation here was immense, and we felt a huge respect for early sailors navigating these unforgiving waters.

South America Post 9 … Waterfalls!

Our next destination was Iguacu Falls which mark the border between Brazil, Argentina (Iguazu). Both sides are worth seeing, so we were spending one night on each. They had had unseasonably heavy rain which was set to continue, so we knew we were in for 2 very wet days!

We flew into the local airport in Brazil, which didn’t inspire confidence!

It was being rebuilt. Subsequently, the equivalent local airport on the other side, in Argentina looked the same. A huge case of keeping up with the Jones’ maybe!!

Staying in an agri eco hotel meant a cabin in lovely gardens, and fresh organic food.

And we saw our first Toco Toucan! The Guiness variety!Gorgeous bird.

Next morning we visited the Parque des Aves, which was next to our eco hotel. It is a conservation project which rescues injured or sick wild birds of Brazil, and rehabilitates them, and runs breeding programmes for endangered species. A great way to get a close up view of birds we had seen at a distance, as we walked through huge, high aviaries.

Then onto the falls. The rain had started, but it did not spoil the falls! In fact, the volume of water was so huge, the spray was soaking everyone anyway.

These falls comprise over 200 separate waterfalls, stretching literally for miles, plunging down into the river below.

We took a path and walked alongside them, then out over one cascade into the spray and wind generated by another! The noise was indescribable.

Then, in an act of madness, we decided to go on a high speed rib ride. There was a choice of the dry ride – viewing the falls from a distance, or the Wet ride, which would take us under…. not behind, under the waterfall! Well, we were already wet!! Leaving everything dry in a locker we set off, whizzing and bouncing over white water to the foot of the falls.

From here, the power was visible everywhere around you. Then, the boat turned and we went under. It was one of the smaller falls, but the force of the water hitting your head was huge. It took your breath away. He took us in and out 3 times, then we sped back… sodden but feeling rather chuffed we had done it! Not surprisingly, my phone was not out taking photos!!

Back to the lodge where we changed, collected our bags and took a taxi to Argentina and our Air BnB, the Secret Garden. 3 simple rooms at the bottom of a very verdant garden! The owner, John Fernandes, was a famous photographer, but was sadly ill in hospital. We were well looked after by his friends, including Caipirina cocktails and nibbles on the terrace before we headed out for dinner!

I had booked The Argentinian experience some months ago, due to it’s great reviews. It was fab! A group of us were taught how to make Argentinian cocktails, told about the history the food, and the amazing steaks, made our own empanadas, and treated to a 4 course meal that was really delicious, including a divine, and huge, fillet steak each.

Argentinian wine accompanied each course (sadly not for me as I still cannot drink wine), but Chris loved it, especially the Malbec. We slept well!

Next day we went to the Argentinian side of the falls, which were equally good. A series of walks give you a different perspective, and a mini train ride takes you out to the river that feeds the waterfalls. You walk across 1km of bridges to the Devils mouth, where one of the biggest concentrations of water pours down. On both sides of the river. Unbelievable!

The magic was enhanced by many hundreds of Great Dusky Swifts whirling and swirling up and down in the spray. Unbelievably, they nest on the rocky face behind the torrent. Magical!

Coatis prowl everywhere, ready to pounce on a discarded sandwich. Although cute, apparently they have a bad bite.

It had been a wonderful few days, and we were awestruck by the power of these amazing falls. Sadly, time to leave, as we were off to the airport for our flight to Buenos Aires!

South America Post 7 The Cloud Forest and Farewell.

Warning….lots of photos, many birds!

Ecuador is one of the geographically most diverse countries on earth! From Volcanoes, and high Andes peaks, to Jungle, coastal lowlands, and the Cloud Forest. The vast number of species here is due in part to it never having had an ice age.

The Cloud forest is a belt of mountainous land between 1000 and 2,800 metres above sea level, where cloud is frequently trapped. High rainfall and moisture mean flush semi-tropical vegetation, and masses of wildlife, particularly birds.

After our very long journey, we arrived late to a lodge, Las Terrazas de Dana, and were shown to our cabin up a very long flight of steps. The owners organised dinner for us on the veranda, and although it was too dark to see much, we sensed we were somewhere special, although the insect visitors were a bit alarming!

Despite our long day travelling, we couldn’t waste any time… although when the alarm clock woke us at 5am I did momentarily doubt the wisdom of booking the early morning bird walk!! We went down at 6.00 to meet Julia, our guide, and left in the dark to climb up the hill. As it got light, Julia came to life, planting her telescope down and calling ‘Hurry hurry, Look look, special bird’ as she pointed out lots of new and magical birds. 3 species of Toucan, Laughing hawks, brightly coloured Tanagers, Parrots, and many more.

59 new species to be precise, and an alarming wasp nest!

Julia came back to the lodge with us at 10.00am… where we found breakfast was waiting!

This was the first time we could see the lodge in daylight, and we were in beautiful tropical gardens, with views of the cloud forest all around.

Amazingly, the gardens were full of hummingbirds.

We sat and watched them for ages, before returning to our room to plan the afternoon….. and promptly fell asleep!!

Later we walked down into the local town, Mindo. It is an unspoiled Ecuadorian town, and although many of the houses were very basic, and there were people who obviously had very little, they were happy, friendly, and never once were we asked for money or help. Birds and colour seem to be a big part of their life. Murals adorn many walls, including the football ground!

We found the delightful Food Studio, a Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant run by a charming Ecuadorian couple. We had an unusual but delicious supper there, and loved the fact that if you weren’t fully embracing the Green life, for $4 extra, you could add a piece of beef, Chicken, Fish or cheese! A cunning way to broaden your customer base, and cater for groups with mixed eating needs!

The highlight of the meal was vegan icecream made from Plantain juice and Flowers. The Hibiscus was divine.

Passionfruit and Basil sounded odd, but was gorgeous, and the others were fruits we had never heard of, but equally yummy!

Back to the lodge to discover that the bird tour we had booked for the next day required us to be ready at 05.20 am. Gulp… early to bed then!

The 4.30 alarm was harsh.. this had better be good. The lodge gave us muffins and bananas to keep us going and we set off with a jolly taxi driver who spoke no English. Our Spanish lessons mean I can manage a little bit of conversation, but only the basics. All the roads here are packed earth, and very twisty and bumpy, so it was an interesting 45 minutes. We pulled up behind a few other vans, just as it was getting light. We were introduced to Angel, one of 2 brothers who own the land at La Paz des Aves. We were in serious company. Mostly men carrying expensive cameras with huge lenses, and top of the range binoculars. We had come to see a rare and iconic bird, the Cock of the Rock. Very elusive, if we were lucky, they would gather here for a short while at dawn.

A gate was unlocked, and we were led down a twisty, narrow path to a hide.

We were lucky. About 12 birds gathered in the trees. Never coming really close, and in poor light, but giving us a great view through our binoculars. A really stunning bird.

We felt somewhat inadequate.. Chris with his little Lumix camera, and me with my phone, so these are the best pics we got.

We didn’t realise this was only the start. We climbed back up the hill, into the taxi and Vans and set off to another spot, where Angel and his brother disappeared into the forest, whistling and cooing. Suddenly, Angel appeared, and called us all over. At the edge of the woods he put a banana and cooed gently. Suddenly 2 birds appeared and pecked at the banana, keeping a wary eye on us. This was the Great Ant Pitta. A very very rare bird.

The whole morning was spent with the brothers who called almost magically call these wild birds. Their land is a world renowned refuge, and they have spent years creating a safe haven here, and building up relationships with the totally wild birds.Finally, we were taken to a shack, where breakfast had been prepared for us (at 11.00am). It was surrounded by stunning views and Humming bird feeders . So many birds visited while we were there. Here are some photos. What a morning!

Some of the birders were a bit intense, and we struck up a friendship with a Netherlands couple. She had a wicked sense of humour, and she and I did have some very non serious giggly moments!! Here are Chris and I looking like proper birders!

Back to the lodge. In the afternoon we walked into town again. Several hostels have sidelined to bring in a few extra dollars. One had an amazing garden of Orchids. There are over 4000 species of orchid in Ecuador, and some of these were miniature, which perfect flowers just 1 or 2 mms across.

Another hostel had created a hummingbird garden and a terrace. We sat there for ages watching 10 or 11 different species performing aerial acrobatics. Finally, to an artisan Chocolate cooperative, where we were shown all the steps to making natural chocolate, which, if made from pure cacao, is very good for you!! We had lots of tastings at the end which were yummy.

Our last dinner back at the lodge, and then packing for our flights the next day.

We were lulled to sleep by rain, and then rudely awakened (well I was…. Chris snored on!!) by thunderous rain which lasted for hours. The cloud forest was living up to it’s name!

Next day, en route to the airport we stopped at Mitad del Mundo, literally The middle of the World. Ecuador is the only country to be named after a geographical feature.. Equator. And we were on it…. well, nearly on it. They built a big monument on it, but when GPS came along, they found it was a few hundred metres down the road, so the Intinan museum opened there. We visited that which is tacky but fun. On the equator line they do experiments like pouring water down a plug hole. On the equator, straight down, no spin. Northern hemisphere, it whirled anti clockwise, southern hemisphere, it span clockwise. We also tried to walk along the equator with our eyes closed despite being 11am, Chris looks as though he is quite drunk! (He really wasn’t! Honest!).

Quite how this all works, we aren’t sure because new scientific measurement suggests the real equator might be another few hundred metres away! Anyway, it was fun, and we had a kiss across the equator, one in each hemisphere!

We are sad to say goodbye to Ecuador. A diverse, friendly, beautiful and wildlife rich country with great food! The world’s largest producer of bananas, home to 1600 species of bird, and of the Panama hat (yes really), two of Unescos first World Heritage sites, the World’s largest active volcano, and the first country in the World to abolish slavery.

Quite a place. Ecuador, we will miss you.

South America Post 6 The Amazon Rainforest.

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‘Amazon Rainforest’ evokes wonderful images of a huge, fast flowing, muddy river surrounded by towering, dense rainforest teeming with life. We knew we had to visit. Although the fact that the teeming life includes a vast array of insects, spiders and snakes was slightly disconcerting.

The Amazon basin is vast, covering an area nearly equal to the whole USA. It extends into 8 countries. The Amazon river is formed from several main rivers and many small tributaries, all originating in the Andes.

There is some dispute as to which is the longest river in the world between the Amazon, Nile and Mississipi. The Amazon is over 4000 miles long. What is not disputed is that in terms of volume of water, the Amazon wins hands down. It’s estuary is 205 miles wide, and it discharges over 200,000 cubic metres of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean PER SECOND!!

Our easiest access point was in Ecuador. Easy being a relative term.

We took a local flight over the Andes to Coca. There we were met by the wonderful staff from La Selva eco lodge. It was Carnaval fiesta day. The locals were enjoying themselves, spraying foam and water everywhere!

For us, the next 4 days were to be some of the most amazing travelling we have done.

Firstly, 50 miles down the huge, brown, fast running Napo river in an open sided motorised canoe dodging sandbanks and floating trees!

Then a walk through jungle to a still and silent chocolate brown creek, where paddle canoes waited to take us on a mystical 20 minute ride into a huge lagoon.

Our lodge was at the far end. This is the only way here. No roads. Everything, supplies, water, fuel, laundry is transported by boat, 3.5 hours to Coca.

I will confess that after reading horror stories of people waking up with tarantulas on their pillows in the budget rainforest accommodation, I did go for something a bit more comfortable, but didn’t realise how super La Selva would be.

All staff were Ecuadorian, and many were from the local community. Our room (and loo!) had no windows… just mesh to let air in and keep bugs out. Temperature is between 75 and 95 degrees F all year round. Humidity is 80% plus.

The food was amazing, and locally sourced. Everything was quietly organised like a well oiled machine. We were issued rubber boots which hardly left our feet for the next 3 days.

The high humidity meant we got used to a permanent damp feel to both us and all our clothes!

The solitude and silence were immense. Especially at night. It was almost overwhelming. Then it would be broken by bird song or the eerie sound of the Howler monkeys, or warring Caymans in the lake.

Every day, and night, we were taken out in our small group of just 7. Us, and 5 lovely people from Massachusetts, USA. Hello ladies!!

We had Edwin, a Naturalist, plus Medardo, an unbelievably eagle eyed native guide, with us all the time.

They pointed out things we would never have seen, and constantly explained fascinating details about the wildlife, and also the plants and trees, and their uses, especially in natural medicine. This fungus is peeled apart to reveal a cool gel used to treat burns.

This black sap heals wounds.

This seed case is a comb, and the leaf below can be folded and twisted without it breaking. One use is to wrap food before cooking.

This is a place for people who can be ‘Wowed’ by tiny things and details. There are relatively few mammals, many of which are highly reclusive, so sightings are unlikely.But the tiny things are incredible. Tiny frogs and toads with amazing leaf coloured camouflage….

Then turn them over and WOW!!

We loved the fact that nothing was stage managed. There was no point where we felt that we saw something because it was enticed by food. Medardo would swiftly pounce and suddenly be holding a frog, but never harmed them at all. Everything was wild and natural. The guides were as excited as we were when something was spotted.

I had to curb my natural desire to jump up and down and squeal with excitement!!

We started in at the deep end with a night walk. Head torches and bug spray on, we set off.

Our photos often don’t convey size, but believe me, some of the insects were HUGE… just as many frogs were tiny.

These bugs were 4 inches long!

This was the weirdest Caterpillar ever!!!

We saw capuchin monkeys, too fast to photograph!
The highlight was 2 Tarantulas. The bigger one scuttled into it’s hole, but this one was more obliging!

At about 5 inches across, I mentally thanked myself for booking the better accommodation. Phew!

The next few days were spent doing various jungle walks and canoe rides. Here are pictures of some of the creatures we saw.

This is a Howatzin, a large and very unique bird. No links to any other species, they eat semi toxic leaves, and therefore exude a terrible smell! They can dive underwater to escape predators, and young birds have hooks on their wings so they can climb around in trees!

The great Tinamou is very elusive. This one was asleep…with eyes open.

These were Howler monkeys, hanging on with long prehensile tails. Their eerie calls could be heard echoing around the forest.

The Great Potoo…

A spectacled owl!

The jungle is a place of survival. Camouflage is one defence. This is a toad!

Large numbers and team work are another. These ants worked as a team to carry this insect leg.

Some ants were huge. The bullet ant is feared. It is an inch long.

This Is a huge Owls eye butterfly…. confusing to predators

Or Maybe have viciously sharp spines….

Or enough poison to put a human in hospital, although you are less than 1cm long….

Or Just be horribly sneaky… this fungus seeps in through the insects pores, grows inside it, reaches it’s brain and turns it into a sort of zombie. The insect then walks to the sort of location which is ideal for the fungus to grow, and dies. 😱

Or just walk away! This is the walking tree. It apparently searches for light by casting fast growing roots in the direction of the light. It then loses the roots on the darker side and literally ‘walks’, possibly up to 8 metres in a year.

The lodge has a tree top tower which was so much higher than I expected, and every step and landing was metal that allowed you to see down.

My vertigo screamed NO!However I used NLP and somehow got up all 120 feet of it. We still weren’t at the top of the canopy but it was sensational.

There was a beautiful double toothed kite building a nest in the Kapok tree we had climbed, and we saw lots of birds around us! Magical. Getting down was accomplished by following Chris and singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ to myself! My mantra song!

When rain or land slips occur, they sometimes expose mineral rich seams in the clay riverbank. These ‘Clay licks’ are then frequented by hundreds of parrots, who use the minerals to counter digestive disturbances brought on by consuming certain seeds and fruits.

We were lucky enough to witness this, and also stunning Macaws visiting a freshwater spring. Beautiful but unbelievably noisy and argumentative!!

We also visited the local community, and amongst other things, tried blowpipe blowing!

Our lodge leases land from them and supports their education and health programmes. Many of the lodge staff are from the village.

Our final night included a canoe paddle in pitch darkness to see night fishing bats and the Caymans, …or at least see their eyes reflecting back in the torch beam. The largest can grow to 9 feet long and they hunt at night. Rotten picture but you can see the body outline and the eyes!!

The lake also contains Pirhanas. We tried fishing for them, with beef as bait! Despite lots of nibbles, and a nearly catch for Chris, I have to show you the one caught by our guide! Eek! Those teeth!

Now we are being paddled silently along the chocolate creek for the last time.

Everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, genuinely sad to leave this magical, faraway place.

(Our remoteness was brought home to us when, after nearly 4 hours boating upstream, we arrived in Coca to find our flight back to Quito was cancelled due to storms. Edwin organised a bus, and within 30 minutes we embarked on a 6 hour road trip across the Andes!!

Our transfer to our next destination, in the cloud Forest, had waited at the airport, and then drove us through torrential rain and lightening for 2.5 hours. We arrived at 9pm after 14 hours of adventure!!! )