South America Post 15 Lakes and Legends

Next morning dawned cloudy and showery, so our view was still hazy.

We descended to town and boarded a boat to take us out through the massive reed beds to the Uros Islands.

The Uros people were persecuted in the 19th century, and fled from their shore settlements in their Reed boats. Gradually they evolved the idea of building floating Reed islands, using floating mud blocks containing reed roots as a base, then laying 2 – 3 metres of reeds on top.

There are over 100 islands, and 40% are fully inhabited, with a floating school and health centres. Many of the others are mainly there for tourism. The islands were small, with 5 -8 small huts on each, and between 10 and 20 people from the same family.

The surrounding water is 18 metres deep! We jumped on the reeds, and they were remarkably solid.

The top layer is supplemented every 2 weeks. Fish and bird eggs are primary foods, but they even grow crops on the island- usually potatoes! Reeds are used for everything, including the water tower, and symbolic condor!

Family feuds sometimes occur, and when that happens, the simply saw the island in half!!

A fascinating way of life.

Onshore, we visited the tiny Puno museum, which contained pre Inca, and Inca artefacts. The pottery was mainly Pre Inca,

as was this remarkable weaving.

This amazing gold neck plate was retrieved from the only Inca tomb that was not looted, as were these mummified bodies, buried in a foetal position, in reed wrappings, with food and essential possessions, ready for rebirth.

We next caught a local bus for a 3 hour drive to Bolivia at one end of Lake Titicaca. The lake is the highest navigable lake in the world, and is huge. It is over 120 miles long, and in parts nearly 1000 feet deep!! Jacques Cousteau came here in the 1970’s, and found giant frogs up to 20 inches long, that never left the water. Sadly they are now critically endangered due to pollution, often from illegal mining operations using mercury.

The border crossing is strict. After exiting Peru, we had to walk 200 metres into Bolivia, which was strangely exciting. Bolivian customs were quite grumpy, but we were allowed in. We saw our first bowler hated Bolivian lady!

Adopted by the locals in the 1920’s, when worn by British railway workers, they are now made locally to a variety of designs!

We were staying 1 night in Copacabana, a seaside village on the Bolivian shore, which gave Rio’s Copacabana beach it’s name. It was charming.

Our hotel was the unbelievably quirky Las Olas. 9 very individual rooms, Gaudi style. We were in a huge egg, with a circular bed, a spiral shower, and a great view!

Alpacas and Llamas wandered around freely! This is blurred as it was at night!

Next door, La Cupola restaurant was charming and we enjoyed a lovely supper. Next morning we took an all day boat trip to the Islands of the Moon and Sun. (Our boat was a bit bigger than these!)

It was a gloriously sunny day, full of fascinating history and dramatic landscapes.

These islands were of huge cultural significance to the Pre-Incans, and Incans. There is a legend that Lake Titicaca was once a dry, fertile land where people lived in peace, but they started to argue, and get greedy, so the Apus, or mountain Gods, decided to punish them, and sent Pumas, to destroy them all. Just 2 people escaped, and Inti, the sun God, cried so much that his tears filled the Lake. The two that escaped were the first Incas!

The Island of the Moon contains a temple to the moon goddess, built around 1450.

This was inhabited by Virgins, some of whom would be chosen to be sacrificed. The Incas believed in life after death, and to die in this way was considered honourable (presumably mostly by those who weren’t about to experience it!) The Incas abolished human sacrifice in the 16th century, but today some still sacrifice a black Llama on certain feast days!

This was a very atmospheric place. 3 delineated areas were for worship to the Moon Goddess, and Mother earth – Patcha Mamma.

The Andean cross was adopted by the Incas from earlier civilisations, and represents the Southern cross stars. It is deeply significant to the ancient and modern people. It appears everywhere in ancient Inca ruins, pottery, and in Christian churches and modern art. The four x 3 steps represent the 12 core precepts of Andean life, and the 4 outer sides are the compass points, the 4 major elements found on this planet, earth, air, water and fire and the 4 stars in the constellation. The centre point is Cusco.

We then moved on to Isla de la sol, Sun Island, where an early pre Incan temple survives, with Inca building on top.

Inti, the Sun God, was their most important. This temple had 3 openings. At each equinox, and solstice, the sun would shine directly into a specific opening, signalling to the people to start their new season of harvest, or sowing etc.

800 people live here, and tourism mixes with a traditional way of life.

We watched the donkeys clatter down the steep steps to the shore ready to carry the provisions that were arriving by boat, up to the top of the town.

We climbed high, and the views were stunning.

Returning to Copacabana, we visited the enormous 17th century Basilica which sits proudly above the town.

It was beautiful, but again Inca symbolism was part of it.

A few last evocative images from the town before we had to leave. We loved the humming bird at the flower stall!

We were sad we did not have more time in Bolivia, as we climbed onto the bus to return to Peru and our high up hotel!! We had both experienced the usual difficulties with altitude, shortness of breath and fatigue, but nothing more serious. However I think were both ready to return to sea level!!

Our last morning was spent at Sillustrani, 35km from Puno. En route we saw traditional reed thatched farms, with the rooftop Inca bulls as good luck charms.

We had come to see the Chullpas.

These tall chimney like structures were pre-Inca, and Inca burial towers, which had been looted by the Spanish many years ago. As we saw at the museum, the deceased were buried in the foetal position, with food, drink and treasures… and possibly a few members of their family who were killed and buried with them. Rough stones were pre Inca, smooth were Inca.. but you know that by now!!

Each tower had a small opening to the east, through which their spirit would be reborn to the God of the Sun. This opening was surrounded by a half Andean cross. When the sun rises at the solstice, the shadow makes a full cross. Each Incan leader would have his symbol carved on the tomb, as they had no written language. This is a lizard.

These Incan, and Pre-Incan troughs of water were used to reflect the stars.

It was a fascinating and moving site, perched on a hill above Lake Umayo.

From here we headed to Juliaca and our flight to Lima, for the last day of our amazing trip.

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 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 10 Beautiful Buenos Aires

Landing in Buenos Aires in the early evening, on our taxi ride to the hotel we were instantly impressed by the abundance of parks and attractive balconied buildings. It had a more European feel than anywhere else we had been, although the music emanating from shops, cars and parks was decidedly Latin American!! Our small hotel, the Grand Petit Casa would have been right at home in Paris. Tall, narrow and with a tiny, ornate lift that must have been 90 years old!

Invaluable as we were on the 3rd floor. It was in Recoleta, a central and safe district.

Buenos Aires is on the huge River Plate Estuary, and was founded in 1540. It expanded in the 18th century due to successful cattle farming, and in 1816 gained independence from Spain. It has always been a city of immigrants, and is very multicultural. By the early 1900s it was a booming city, with a great love for European art and design, so many buildings have a marked influence from Art Nouveau, Art deco, often in a French style.

Britain built their first metro line, with very ‘London underground’ tiling! Beautiful French style coffee shops abound, with elegant style, stained glass, and amazing cakes! One even had it’s own tango theatre!

We just had to sample them… for research purposes of course!

Having only a few nights in Argentina, I wanted to make sure we had sampled the ‘Best Steak in the World’ claims from every angle, so tonight we were booked into Don Julio’s Parilla, apparently quite renowned, as you have to book months ahead or queue outside. When we arrived at 7pm, there was already a queue, even though the restaurant wasn’t yet open! They eat late in BA. Some don’t open until 8 or even 9 PM!

I had booked to sit at The Bar, which meant you watched them cooking the steaks. Oh my! Sourced from grass grazed Hereford and Angus cattle, these steaks were incredible.

Huge in both length, width and height, they also looked delicious. Our waiter thoughtfully suggested we share, as each steak weighed over 16oz!! They tasted Amazing!

Next morning I had booked Elisa, a local guide who promised to take us to see some ‘hidden treasures’ of the city, rather than the usual tourist trail like the Casa Rosado where Eva Peron addressed the crowds!

First we wanted to visit Recoleta cemetery, famous for it’s ornate mausoleum, created as the 19th century, wealthy families vied to outdo each other, even in death!

Eva Peron is the most famous inhabitant, finally buried here as Eva Duarte, in her family vault. After her death from cancer, aged just 33, in 1952, her body was embalmed and lay in state, but after the military coup, her body disappeared. In 1971, it was eventually traced to Milan, where it had been buried. It was returned to her husband, in exile in Madrid, and eventually back to Argentina and buried, 5 metres below ground, to prevent ‘interference’!

This poignant tomb is of a young woman who died on her honeymoon in Austria. The mausoleum is a recreation of her bedroom, with the girl in her Wedding dress outside with her dog.

Sadder still, are the memorials dotted all over Buenos Aires to the 30,000 people who ‘disappeared’ in the dirty war, during US backed military rule between 1974-1983.

Elisa was true to her word. We visited El Ateno, a beautiful bookshop in an old theatre;

A huge Victorian gothic building in the heart of the city, that we assumed was a museum, or the town hall, but which turned out to be a hugely extravagant building to house the waterworks! These pictures show what the inside was like, and the grand exterior!

Then the stunningly beautiful church, Basílica María Auxiliadora y San Carlos, built in 1906, and where the current Pope, Francis, was baptised.

It is unusual because the stained glass windows are all floral, bearing a striking resemblance to William Morris designs!

It is also where a certain Carlos Gardel sang in the choir. Unknown to us, he is a legend in Buenos Aires. Tango music had it’s roots in the immigrant and poorer sections of BA society. Not just music, but songs with powerful, sad, or sometimes amusing lyrics are a huge part of society here, and Carlos was one of the most loved singers. His picture is everywhere!

Tango was banned during the military years, seen as subversive. Now it is back, with dance halls, outfitters and classes everywhere, appealing to young and old.

We went to a rather edgy steampunk style hall, where a lesson was taking place. We watched in awe, but I only filmed a snippet!

They had an interesting line in chairs too!

The streets in this neighbourhood, San Telmo, also have a decorative style of decorating their houses called fileteado!

Theatre Ciego has a new lease of life as a theatre for the blind. Each performance is in darkness, encouraging the audience to use their other senses.

This street has some interesting benches.

We were completely fooled by these, completely baffled as to why you would leave fabric seats outside. Until we felt them! They were solid! Brilliant.

Then Tango lessons on the pavement!!

We visited a buzzing market, one of many, where really fresh produce mingles with the delicious aroma of hundreds of freshly baked empanadas!

Finally, in a quiet neighbourhood, a tiny barbers shop, run by a 4th generation family. They have preserved the barber shop as it would have been 60 years ago, including equipment and products!

This device once gave you a perm… how I am not sure!!Barber shops were centres for singing, and every week locals gather here to listen to some old tango singers from another era. We were the only tourists, and were made very welcome. It was a lovely atmosphere and a privilege to see.

Chris resisted the pressure to shave off his beard… in the old fashioned way!!

Our last night in BA was spent in Restaurant Roux, named after the sauce, not the famous chefs! We had a wonderful meal, in a restaurant full of regular patrons, judging by the hugging and kissing that was happening as each one arrived. Despite their horrendous inflation, (prices have increased by 50% in a year), the pound is still strong, so our wonderful meal was about the same as a 2 course pub meal at home.

We loved Buenos Aires. A slightly edgy, vibrant, elegant city.

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!!! )

South America Post 5 The Galapagos Islands

Leaving Cuba, we had a stopover in Bogota, Colombia where we sampled some traditional food and beer!

Then, off to the Galapagos Islands……. What can I say? Well, being me, lots, of course!!

Our desire to visit was mainly fuelled by awesome documentaries, and impossibly close up photos of unique birds and animals made famous by Charles Darwin among others. There are really just 2 ways to visit. Water based on a cruise, or land based. Anyone who knows me will know that, despite having the best travel sickness pills ever, 9 days on board a very small boat (many have just 8 or 10 small cabins), in notoriously rough seas, 24/7, is a step too far! Water based tours also start at about double the price of land based, so it was an easy choice. We chose a smaĺl, locally based company – Guiding Galapagos and together planned an itinerary mixing geography, local culture and of course wildlife.

We were based on 2 different islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela, a 2 hour high speed ferry ride apart. The ferries are somewhat cramped,

On transfer day we had 2 sudden tropical cloud bursts. One as we were going to the boat on Santa Cruz, and one as we arrived on Isabela island. Everyone, and their luggage, were drenched both times!

We were shown to our new hotel room as the staff were mopping up a large pool of water from the floor, smiling and saying “The rain sometimes comes in!!” Trying to dry our clothes was tricky in 80% humidity, and we were a bit fed up, until we saw this sign in the beach bar.

So true, and it put a few wet clothes back into perspective.

Our accommodation was in small locally run hotels, both clean and comfortable. On Isabela it was the Volcano hotel, almost on the beach, renowned for sunsets. It did not disappoint!

The Galapagos archipelago comprises 21 islands, mostly uninhabited, which straddle the equator, so tropical insects can be a problem. There were actually very few! Another invasion of minuscule ants in true Tom and Jerry style lines was passed off by our hosts with… ‘Don’t worry, they are not offensive’. Well, true, they weren’t hurling abuse at us, but we didn’t want them in our bags, so we used our Boots non deet eco friendly insect repellent at the entry point which seemed to deter them!! We also had the tiniest in room gecko on patrol. Spot the gecko!!

It is amazing how something so tiny can make so much noise!

The islands are in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 1000 km east of mainland Ecuador. They are heavily influenced by prevailing sea currents. The cold Humbolt current coming from Antarctica brings many fish, and this encourages the birds etc. El Nino years are disastrous here, because it prevents the cold current reaching the islands, so there are many less fish, birds cannot breed, and the food chain is in trouble.

There is no drinkable freshwater on Galapagos at all, which is probably why it was not really settled until the 19th Century, despite being ‘discovered’ in 1535. All water here is either bottled or purified.

Darwin came in 1835, and his observations that the animals and birds were unique, and appeared to have adapted and evolved according to their island environment, led to him proposing the theory of evolution, and writing The Origin of the Species. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The islands are now a National Park, full of wonders. Not always the most colourful or dramatic creatures on earth, but definitely unique. For example 15 species of little Darwin finches, each adapted to have a different food source and habitat to ensure survival. This is the nest of a cactus finch.

There are few natural predators here, so many creatures are fearless. We were standing within a few feet of many of the birds and animals we photographed.

The biggest predators were, and are, man himself and his introduced creatures… rats, dogs, cats etc. 35,000 people live on the islands, and balancing their needs with the protected National Park status is tricky and at times, controversial. For example local people are resentful that they are no longer allowed to fish from their own islands due to the protected status, so must pay high prices in the shops.

The wildlife are the stars. Giant tortoises are incredible.

He is eating apples!! Some live to be 150 years old. However they have a managed breeding programme, because in the wild less than 1% of eggs will reach maturity, mainly due to the predators I mentioned. Amazingly, eggs incubated at 28°C will be Male. 29.5°C, female!! Large Male tortoises can be 4ft long, weigh up to 350 kg, and walk several km a day!

The Galapagos islands are volcanic, and are moving eastwards by 5cms a year, as the Nazca plate drifts. Some Volcanoes are active. We climbed to the rim of Sierra Negra, the 2nd largest Caldera in the world. It erupted just last year, for 54 days, and fumaroles were smoking on our visit.

We visited 6 islands, using boats every day. Sea lions are everywhere, literally!!

We also did some hikes, and kayaking, with sea turtles popping up around us!

Amazingly, my vintage 1990’s swimsuits were worn almost every day, and I gradually became more adept at snorkelling. I jumped off the side of boats and RIBS, and paddled around in deep, open seawater, with big waves! I even swam around an island…. with a life jacket on! The fish were lovely.

but we also snorkelled with huge Sea Turtles, 1.5 m sharks, Rays, Sea lions, and even saw an incredibly well camouflaged Sea horse. It was fantastic.

This is a trench where sharks come to rest during the day!!

Some of the most astonishing creatures are the Iguanas. Living dinosaurs. Marine Iguanas blend in with the black lava rock, or grey stones.

They sleep a lot, often in bunches! They sound as if they are hissing at you, but in fact they must regularly sneeze out salt!

Land Iguanas are golden yellow. They frequently shed their skin, so look rather threadbare, but I thought they were stunning.

They have no predators as adults, but are prone to dehydration…. this one literally dried out in the heat. 30°C most days.

There are some gorgeous beaches – Tortuga and Bachas were our favourites, complete with fresh turtle tracks, and newly hatched eggs.

Crabs abound and are a food source for the super seabirds.

One of the most unlikely is the unique Galapagos penguin which has adapted to live, not in Antarctica, but on the equator!

There is also a Galapagos flamingo. Both sexes of bird have the amazing capability of producing milk to feed their young.

We never tired of watching Brown Pelicans, Blue footed Boobies, Noddies and Terns diving into the sea a few metres away.

On Isabela island, we visited Los Tuneles, an other world landscape of hollow marine lava tunnels and cacti!

There we encountered a female blue footed Booby a few feet from the path. She was singing for a mate.

Amazingly, a Male arrived and did his courtship dance right in front of us! It obviously wasn’t good enough, because she didn’t respond, so he flew away dejectedly (we assume!!).

The next day, this encounter was topped. North Seymour island is home to the Great and Magnificent Frigate birds. Last season’s young were everywhere, being fed by parents who regurgitate food for them.

It was breeding season. The males spend 2 hours inflating a huge red neck pouch, and boom with it to attract a mate. It is exhausting!

They were everywhere, and remarkably were within feet of us. Breathtaking!!

Our visit to Galapagos was wonderful. We had good food, (especially fish), met some lovely people from many countries (hardly any fellow Brits!), and were blown away by the wildlife. There were some quirky things… the in car phone for example!

I even managed to take a Turner-esque sunrise shot!

One word for Galapagos… Incredible!