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Exactly Equatorial

Quito and the Galapagos Islands

"Kicker Rock" puts the heel of its boot to our sister ship. Sailing through the Galapagos Islands, July 4

Fri, July 2:

Our alarm went off this morning at 4:15 AM and we didn't put our heads down onto pillows again until Quito, Ecuador, 2 AM the next morning, a twenty-two hour travel process. Our flight had been "cancelled" about two weeks ago, then rescheduled at the exact original time at twice the price, precipitating a furious battle on Jenn's part to get somebody - Expedia, Air Canada or Avianca - to honour the original ticket price. They did, in the end, but switched us to a three-leg journey: American Airlines to Miami, then Avianca from Miami-Bogota and Bogota-Quito. Not nearly as convenient as our original itinerary, especially in passing through the shoe-removing USA. Avianca (Columbian) was far superior in comfort and frills, even including on-demand TVs for the one-hour flight from Bogota to Quito. Anica still seems to really enjoy the process of travel, especially comparing airlines and airports.

Arriving at Hotel Los Alpes in Quito, we were felt like we were in the private home of a South-American great aunt who'd fallen into genteel poverty. But in a good way. Our "room" was actually a two-room affair (not a bad surprise), with a long hallway leading to the bathroom and wood panelling everywhere there wasn't nausea-inducing wallpaper. Anica's room had sloped ceilings composed of thick wooden beams.

Sat, July 3:

We would have slept in longer but the bleating of a goat woke us up! A goat. In the urban core of the capital city of Ecuador, population 1.4 million. With daylight arriving, we discovered that our room in Quito has a view! Mountains hem in this city to the west and we can see them from our hotel windows. Quito, Ecuador is our first experience of elevation in South America. It's 2835 metres above sea level (9300 feet). We slept fine, no altitude sickness.

Quito has the reputation of being a dangerous city, even for tourists, so we cautiously made our way to the Mariscal area around noon. No worries: it was a sleepy Saturday, and the police presence was everywhere. German soccer fans celebrated in the streets when Germany beat Argentina in today's World Cup game. We had lunch at one of the trendy places on the Mariscal's Plaza Foch.

In the afternoon, we had a driver/guide (HIM: "My name is Andres, but you can call me Andrew." ME: "Can we just call you Andres?" HIM: "Oh, thank you very much, sir.") to take us on a tour to the "Middle of the World." This involved driving up to a fogged-over "mirador" (scenic viewpoint) at over 3000 metres. Yes, we could feel it in our legs, but Andres had us walking so slowly we didn't even get out of breath.

The big attraction is the monument to the equator called "Mitad del Mundo," but a few years ago, using GPS, they discovered the huge monument was about 200 metres offf. Pretty close, considering it was 18th century French scientists who calculated it. Now, however, there's a fascinating and pretty folk history park at the real equator. It's bizarre to be at the equator and have it be chilly in July, but it's the elevation. The sun is incredibly strong but it never gets more than spring-like in Quito.

At this site, we saw traditional Ecuadorian rural homes, exhibits on shrunken heads, and - best of all - little homemade experiments that you can only do at the equator. Like a sink filled with water: unplug it and watch it drain clockwise. Then lift the sink across the equator and watch it drain counterclockwise. Then position the sink right on the equator and watch it drain straight down. Did you know it's harder to walk in a straight line right on the equator? Or that somebody on the north side will seem stronger than somebody on the south side? I don't know if it was real science, or the power of suggestion, but it was all very fun to try.

Let the great world spin: "Mitad del Mundo," Quito, from the northern hemisphere

Then we visited the official (but inaccurate) monument to the equator, which is a huge bronze globe on top of a four-sided rectangular stone tower that you climb for a better view of the surrounding hills. On the way down, each floor has a gallery explaining all about the "Indians" of Ecuador.

Sun, July 4:

And now for the first of the "main events" of our South American trip: the Galapagos! The equator passes through the Galapagos Islands, too, but they're 900 km west of mainland Ecuador. That meant a flight on "Aero Gal." Yet another airline for Anica to rate!

We arrived in San Cristobal, and actually walked across the tarmac towards the tiny airport. After a quick bus ride to the docks, we got our first sample of the Galapagos wildlife: the black rocks of the shore were littered with bright red crabs. Sea lions were lounging on the ramps to the water. Our naturalist guides gave us a moment to take our first close-up pictures. The wildlife-spotting had started even earlier - from high above. As Anica said, "Wow! We haven't even got off the plane and I've already seen whales and dolphins!"

A "panga" (dinghy/zodiac) took us to our ship, the Flamingo I, anchored in the harbor. It would be our home for seven nights - along with the crew, 15 other passengers, and our naturalists, "Pepe" and Andres. We were quickly getting to know the other families, especially at the Captain's welcome aboard toast in the "lounge." (The Flamingo I is not so much a cruise ship as it is a yacht-sized boat). There was a family of eight from Connecticut (four kids, two parents, grandmother and niece), a family of three from Colorado (one boy, age 11) and a family of four from New Jersey (daughter the same age as Anica). Happy 4th of July, American friends!

Soon we were on a beach that we shared with angry, charging male sea lions! And lots of other, tranquil sea lions playing and lounging. But you had to keep an eye out for those defensive males! Wetsuits were also needed, as the water's pretty cold this time of year. We'd been sized earlier, but Jenn and I wore the wrong wetsuits (each other's - totally my fault!), so not a good fit for either of us, during that first swim.

Back on board, we headed up to the sun deck (rooftop of boat) to watch as we circumnavigated the vast, cleft "Kicker Rock" or "Sleeping Lion." On the way, dolphins swam in same schools alongside the ship, and a whale surfaced with a splash in the distance. The sun set and we ate our first onboard dinner at about 8:00. We would be sailing through the night.


Posted by jennrob 09:42 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

You Tell Me That It's Evolution

Darwinian Travels through the Galapagos Islands, July 5-7

Strike a pose! A sea lion basks in the sun on North Seymour Island, The Galapagos

Mon, July 5:

We woke up near Genevesa Island in the north-east of the Galapagos chain. Our "wet landing" on the beach was onto hard coral, but we were rewarded with a guided walk from Andres, where he explained about the frigates, boobies and pelicans we were seeing up close. It's a great time of year for nesting. Eggs and baby birds everywhere - and still no fear from the birds. Only Darwin's finches fly away the way you would expect.

Oh, Frigate Baby

I chose to go snorkeling when the opportunity came, and found myself swimming with schools of parrotfish and surgeonfish. Anica and the other kids simply played in the waves, wetsuits and all.

After a lunch back onboard highlighted by shrimp skewers, we "docked" elsewhere on the island and walked up "Prince Philip's Steps" to the top of the island. Pepe and Andres, naturalists not historians, asked me who the steps were named after. I said I wouldn't be surprised if it was Queen Elizabeth II's husband, an avid bird-watcher. Later, I found out that yes, he visited in 1964, and the wooden staircase was meant to aid his access to the birds.

The cook made sure we had an early dinner tonight so we could all go up top to watch the sunset.

Tues, July 6:

The otherworldly landscape of Fernandina Island, The Galapagos

Fernandina Island this morning, another uninhabited island. In fact, we've only been seeing a few other people each day. There's two other boats like ours, that we sometimes catch sight of, but they time the visits to the islands so that you hardly ever bump into the other groups. It's like all of the Galapagos are being explored in privacy by the sixteen passenger on our ship.

Fernandina is the "youngest" of the Galapagos Islands, being farthest to the west, meaning it's closest to the volcanic hotspot that gives birth to all the islands, then sends them drifting to the east at the rate of a few inches each year. Its "ground" is mostly black volcanic rock - lava now hardened into tracks. It looks freeze-framed into place, like it could start flowing again at the push of a button. The whole island is otherworldly. If a dinosaur had stomped out of the brush this morning, I wouldn't have been overly surprised.

Great spot for marine igaunas

Here we saw - and almost stepped on - marine iguanas. They rested on black rocks, blending in, except for when they sneezed saltwater. We also saw flightless cormorants, a tiny Galapagos snake, a Galapagos hawk with a small iguana in its talons, lava lizards, lava heron and the skeleton of a beached whale. One of the running jokes we have goes like this: "Oh, there's a snake. What kind of snake is it?" "Galapagos snake." "Oh, there's a mouse what kind of mouse is it?" "Galapagos mouse." You get the idea.

Just hanging

Looking into a mangrove-fringed inlet of water, we saw turtles and eagles rays.

The afternoon began with a deep water snorkel in Elizabeth Bay (off Isabela Island). Anica's been having problems fitting a mask for snorkeling; that and the extremely cold water in this particular bay meant that she and Jenn were soon out of the water. I stayed in long enough to see a few more of the fish, starfish, urchins, and turtles. A penguin swam past me so fast I didn't even see it until it was out of the water and waddling across the rocks.

When we got back to the ship, Anica joined the brave kids who were (and this was the guides' idea) jumping off the top of the boat. This is like jumping off a four-story building! Anica showed no fear, but slipped just as she was about to jump and hit the water sideways. Ouch! Her legs and shoulder were stung and bruised, and she received ice, Advil and the admiration of all the other passengers.

Despite being somewhat banged up, Anica was with us for a panga tour of the bay. We saw more from the panga than we did snorkeling, really: many more penguins, flightless cormorants, pelicans, black noddys, sea lions, turtles, etc. You could even see the red, blue or "chocolate chip" starfish just below the surface of the water.

Night-time, however, was far from idyllic. Travelling all night through rough waters, I had diarrhea that evolved into seasick vomiting. So did about a quarter of the people aboard. Jenn and Anica seemed better-protected by the anti-seasickness patch (I had one on, but it had been knocked in the water), though Anica didn't like the feeling of being almost lifted off her bunk as the ship plunged through each wave. Luckily, this would turn out to be the only rough night we would have.

Wed, July 7:

Santiago Island: a black ash beach. On shaky legs and with an empty stomach, I joined the hike past an abandoned salt mine to the tidal pools on the far side of the island. Fur seals, marine iguanas, and a natural stone arch were our photogenic rewards. Andres like to mimic our touristy exclamations: "Oh my goodness. It's so cute! Take a picture!" The kids say it in a chorus along with him, as soon as he starts in with "Oh my goodness" in his Spanish accent.

Sleepy Head: a sea lion on the black sand beach, Santiago Island, The Galapagos

I didn't think I'd snorkel from the beach afterward, but I did. No wetsuit - that helped revive me! Anica played with Megan on the beach, sculpting with the "natural clay" they found. Until an adult pointed out that it was dried sea lion poo. Hand-sanitizer, anyone? The crew, and Megan's Dad, played soccer (sorry, football) on a somewhat level plateau above the beach. The beautiful game has been everywhere on this trip. That explains why more ships than usual converged here this morning.

The afternoon snorkel was even more rewarding, as I swam with a white-tipped shark for the first time. This was opposite "Chinese Hat Island."

After dinner, a surprise: one of the crew members had his birthday. Pepe played the guitar and a few others sang. We ate the birthday cake and danced. Then I asked for a turn and sang Brown-Eyed Girl and Twist & Shout and everyone sang along.

Posted by jennrob 10:10 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Nature's Rewards and Punishment Soup

From The Galapagos to Quito and on to Peru, July 8-12

From the peak to the "pinnacle rock," Bartolome Island, The Galapagos

Thurs, July 8:

Thank goodness for being anchored at night! Once you get it in your head that seasickness is a possibility, it's nice to feel some definite relief. Actually, the scopalmine patches are working wonders for Jenn. Anica, too (unlike some of the other kids) hasn't had any worries.

From our anchored position off Bartolome Island, we took the panga to a staircase/wooden walkway. It leads to a lookout that's the highest spot on foot in all of the Galapagos Islands. We took group photos there. It's really a great group of people - as good as you could ask for on a tour.

We also picked up huge lava rocks that are incredibly light because they're filled with gas, then snorkeled on a beach beside a rock called the Pinnacles. Anica used Jenn's mask and had a good snorkel with that. I was with the group that swam out to the pinnacle rock at the corner of the bay. There I swam above (and slightly behind!) a white-tipped shark for several minutes.

Lava light

After lunch, on North Seymour Island, we saw a couple of land igaunas (for the first time), blue-footed booby nests and frigates doing their famous red-chest display.


We sailed to Santa Cruz Island and anchored in its harbor for the night. Everybody was too spooked to eat while we were sailing because it was pretty rough, but by 9:00 we'd arrived and all was calm. It was weird seeing all the lights of the town - we'd been mostly anchored off the shores of uninhabited islands so far.

Fri, July 9:

Disembarking at the pier in the town of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos Islands (pop 20, 000), we took a half-hour bus ride to the "highlands." Each island we've been on is different, and so is this one. It's older, meaning there's more growth. It's the greenest island we've seen; instead of otherworldly, this is lushly tropical.

Still, though, there is the spectacular evidence of its volcanic origins. We peered into huge craters, and walked through "lava tubes" (tunnels created by lava flow) so big we could have driven our bus through them.

We visited a farm that has "wild" tortoises roaming it in what's basically their natural habitiat anyway. The farmer now makes most of his money charging visitors to come see the tortoises. These land tortoises are perhaps the most famous of the Galapagos creatures. They're equal parts impressive and comical. The first ones we saw were wallowing in mud. The next ones were perfectly positioned to pose behind for photos. Then we captured a male giving "low speed chase" to a female.


In the afternoon, led by Pepe, we went with Megan's family to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. At their pier we saw marine igaunas swimming for the first time. But it was the tortoises at the CDRC that were the stars: babies, just a year old or less, numbered in bright colour-coded paint by their island of origin; "Lonesome George," the last of his kind from Pinta Island; and Diego, who was returned from the San Diego Zoo and his since fathered 2,000 babies!

Free time followed on the main street strip, where Anica bought a stuffed animal (blue-footed booby), Jenn bought a "retablo," art-work, and I avoided the temptation to buy the t-shirt that says "I love boobies."

We doled out our extra patches, as everyone anticipated a rough night of sailing, but it wasn't too bad even though we sailed through the night again.

One note about the food: as good as it's been, we've noticed that if we don't finish it the first time, the leftovers will show up the next day in the soup. Jon has coined a phrase for this: 'punishment soup.' Although it's a buffet, the soup is served directly to our tables by our unflappable waiter, Jairo. There's no escaping the punishment soup.

Click-Clacking away: Waved Albatross on Espanola Island, The Galapagos

Sat, July 10:

It's our last full day on Flamingo I. Espanola Island this morning, where our hike took us past many Waved Albatross. These birds have an enormous wingspan, but we saw them mainly around their nests doing their curious mating dance. It consists of clicking beaks together, and "sky-pointing." Pretty weird. Also that they'd continue to do it with a dozen tourists five feet away from them.

The cliffs on this island reminded us of Ireland's Cliffs of Moher - not as tall, but somehow similar. We took pictures of the famous blow-hole, trying to time it so the spraying water was at its apex.

Cliffs, and More. Hiking across Espanola Island, The Galapagos

The final beach was the nicest: white sand and many playful sea lions. I swam out to the rocks offshore to snorkel after a while, and saw a golden ray and coronet fish as well as the usual schools of other fish. The current was pretty strong, though.

One final event back on board was the "Captain's Cocktail." Each crew member was thanked, and then each passenger got a map of our journey, and a certificate of equator crossing where we were re-baptized with a Galapagos species name. Jenn: yelllow warbler, Anica: flamingo, me: giant tortoise. Read into that what you will!

Lay off of my blue suede shoes!

Sun, July 11:

Back onshore in the town where we started! It was Sunday morning and some streets were closed for a "marathon." Our group walked instead, a kilometre to the "Interpretative Centre." As the runners passed we all clapped. Most of them looked pretty surprised at this show of support!

The Interpretative Centre showed the natural and human history of the Galapagos, thus functioning as a sort of review of what we'd learned. After we walked the main strip of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Andres said goodbye to the kids ("Now everybody smile and pretend we like each other") and dubbed Anica and Megan the "gossip girls' and Jenn and I "best-behaved couple."

On the fight Jodi (Megan's Mom) sat with Jenn and I so Anica and Megan could sit together. All the families said goodbye at the baggage claim, and we were back to Hotel Los Alpes in Quito in the same room.

We had arranged to meet Jon, Jodi, Jackson and Megan at the "Magic Bean" restaurant and we each arrived and departed by separate taxis (don't walk the streets of Quito at night!). It was nice to seem them one more time. Anica and Megan will be staying in touch by email. They were instant, inseparable friends - a great experience.

Our taxi driver after dinner had no idea where our hotel was, and spoke not a word of English. He drove us around for half an hour, and eventually asked the right people where to find it. The surprise was that he didn't rip us off: he charged just $1 and apologized! An honest cab-driver!

Mon, July 12:

The Church and Convent of St. Francis, Quito, Ecuador

Now we had one day in Quito with a flight to Lima tonight. Museums are closed Mondays, so we went to the Old Town Quito. We started in Plaza Gran, where a celebration was going on (maybe for the top students because they were all lined up in front of the Presidential Palace in their various uniforms). Then the President (?) spoke from the balcony (from his wheelchair?). A band marched in, soldiers on horses, flags were raised...we had no idea what was going on, but it was a neat spectacle. The crowd left huge gaps open where the direct sun shone down and stuck to the shaded areas. It may only have been 16 degrees but it's still the equatorial sun.

Waving Flag...

We bought a printed walking tour of the Old Town and followed it with Anica reading it aloud. We ate a full "Menu del dia" for $2 each. The taxi back again was no trouble - no rip-off - very refreshing compared to Bangkok, Beijing, Mumbai....

There was a huge lightning storm as we headed to the aiport that evening, flooding thre streets and - for the first time ever - penetrating part of our backpacks.

To Lima we flew TACA - great leg-room. Fly TACA if you can, say to a Central Amerian resort from Toronto. They're way nicer than Air Canada or American. We had a ten-hour layover through the night in Lima, so we checked into a hostel near the aiprport that a lot of backpackers use in transit. It's called "Pay Purix" and run by Australian ex-pats. All funky neon and lava lamps. Unheated, of course, like most places in Peru. It's in such a rough neighborhood that there's just a small hand-written sign on the door and they answer it like a speakeasy. At 3:30 AM, strange sounds woke Anica. "Mommy, what is that?" Jenn: "Some idiot pretending to be a rooster." Turns out, it was a rooster! Welcome to Peru.

Posted by jennrob 09:22 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Peace in the Valley

The Inca's Sacred Valley: Pisac and Ollantaytambo

Cusco, from the hills above it

Tues, July 13:

Our brief layover in Lima left one impression: some of the craziest traffic we've seen anywhere in the world. Merging in the immense traffic circles near the airport is a full-contact sport. Our brief flight to Cusco seemed to bring us a world away from all of that. The hills around the city are higher than the flight paths which really messes with your mind. It's a beautiful backdrop, though. Jenn had washed her debit card the night before (there's a travel tip for you!) and today it worked for the first time on the trip. We now had our Peruvian "nuevo soles" and hopped in the car that the "Pisac Inn" had sent. It's so nice to see someone holding up a sign with your name on it!

We took pictures even on the drive from Cusco to Pisac (of the view from above the city, of the "Cristo Blanco" figure, of llamas, etc).

Roadside Alpacas, on the way to Pisac

The Pisac Inn is right on the main plaza of Pisac at one end of what's known as the Inca's "sacred valley." Pisac is nestled into where several mountain valleys converge. Many Incan towns were located this way. High above the bustling market town (and it was a full market day when we arrived) were the Incan ruins. We walked through the market and then had dinner at the Inn. I had "trucha" (trout), Jenn had alpaca steak and Anica and I tried an Inca Cola (favourite Peruvian soft drink since 1935!). The owner/manager explained that in the morning we would have a choice of American breakfast or healthy breakfast!

Pisac's market

Ancient tree at the centre of Pisac's market square

Traditional Quechua women in Pisac market

Wed, July 14:

Talk about not sticking to the game plan! In this case, the game plan of altitude acclimatization. We got tempted by the mountain right in front of us and decided to walk up to Pisac's Incan citadel. That was a mistake! It's our first full day at altitude and from the very start we felt the difference in our legs and lungs. A few above the market square, we'd crossed the 3, 000 metre mark. But, we bought the ten-day "Tourist Boleto" and walked up the stone steps, criss-crossing agricultural terraces and dirt trails. Casually, we hooked up with a guide (he was playing pan pipes as he walked ahead of us...). He "helped" us avoid the steep steps right under the citadel by having us go around the mountain and come in front the back side. Unfortunately, that seemed to about double the time and distance. We ran out of water and started thinking about how long it would take to get back. The sun was very hot.

Climbing the steep terraces to the Pisac ruins

Nonetheless, we saw an Incan "cross" carved into stone, old houses, granaries, the temple ruins, etc. Beautiful views of the town and valley below. Views of the other side of the mountain and the valley that unfolds in that direction. We took one more path of about a kilometre in total where the guide literally "called" a taxi by yelling up the hillside. We came back - after four hours - in time for a late lunch at "Ulricke's Cafe" (adobe oven pizza served to us on the second floor). After this more strenuous than anticipated hike, we promised Anica she could do "nothing" for the rest of the day. We did enjoy talking to a family from Connecticut staying at The Pisac Inn (Rich & Bridget, and their three children).

From part-way up, we look back, down to Pisac's market

Inca Temple ruins above Pisac

A well-earned Inca Kola for Anica!

Thurs, July 15:

5 AM is the perfect time for a brass marching band, don't you think? A festival started here in Pisac today. Very early today. By the time we were dressed and breakfasted the festivities were nowhere to be found - the procession was on its way to another time. Today, however, did give us a chance to see the plaza completely emptied of all the marketplace stalls, quite a transformation.

On to Ollantaytambo. There was evidence of the landslides earlier in the year as we drove down the valley road along the river. The taxi only got us part way through Ollantaytambo; much of it is pedestrian-only cobblestone streets as it has been from the time of the Incans. In fact, the whole town is still the same layout that the Incans made, and in some cases, the same stone walls and doorways are still in use. The temple/fortress, though similiar to Pisac, is only a few metres above the rest of the town. It functions like a skyline or backdrop for the whole town, and, to our delight, was the view from our room at Apu Lodge.

Great view of Ollantaytambo from Apu Lodge

Water rushes past from the mountain sides, in irrigation channels planned by the Incans. The water being channelled is loud, fast, and an impressive piece of continuity between today and the pre-European past of this town at the far end of the Sacred Valley of the Incans (actually there's only one "Inca," the emperor; a more correct term would be "Quechua" after the people/language who still live here in the 21st century).

Apu Lodge was being looked after for a couple of months by Francis and Barry, a South African couple who will soon be emigrating to Canada. We couldn't have asked for a warmer welcome, and we loved talking with them at length about their travelling adventures (and ours).

We walked all over town, after lunch at Hearts Cafe, and ran into Rich and Bridget and their kids, and walked to the train station area of town with them.

Get Your Chicha Here!

Following a "siesta" back at Apu Lodge, we walked the cobblestones again, past houses with red plastic bags tied on the end of tall sticks (a signal that there's homemade "chicha" corn beer for sale) to a restaurant called Pukarumi. I had the chicken saltado (a diced meat dish very common in Peru). We almost needed our headlamps on the night-time walk to and from the restaurant.

Fri, July 16:

We walked across town after breakfast to the ruins, deciding to explore without a guide. After a few minutes, we saw Rich & Bridget's family (four days in a row we've run into them!). This time we exchanged email and addresses, etc. before saying goodbye.

Such niche children, don't you think?

What's neat about the Incan ruins in "Olly" is that they were never quite finished. They successfully defended it against the first Spanish attack, but not the second. So there's stone still lying around from 500 years ago. Anica and the other kids actually played hide and seek in the section of the ruins that was the old baths. Very much like the Roman baths at Carthage.

Ollantaytambo from the Inca ruins

In the afternoon, we climbed up to some other ruins located directly "over" the Apu Lodge. It's like a local hangout and romantic spot in the afternoon. There was actually rain later tonight, the first we've seen since that storm in Quito.

Posted by jennrob 07:46 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Navel Gazing

Interlude in Cusco, Peru

In the square, dancing: Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Sat, July 17:

Cusco, Peru, was the capital of the Inca empire, and they called it the centre or "navel of the world." The Spanish conquistadors tore the gold off the walls and melted it down, burned down the rest of the town, but the town was so well-planned and the Inca's stonework was so good, that you can still see evidence of it everywhere. In any case, Cusco today is a beautiful city.

One of the many beautiful squares in Cusco

We got here by car, and the driver, Ronnie, told us this long story in Spanish about driving tourists to Lima and paying the police 5 soles as they went. Jenn and I were desperately trying to follow along with our limited Spanish. After about ten minutes, he gets to the punchline...10 soles, this is Lima! Then he just cracks up.

Our hotel here, both before and after the Inca Trail, will be a place called Torre Dorada. It's in a residential area about 4km from the main square (the Plaza de Armas). What they do, though, is drive you everywhere, free of charge. It's their way of competing with the more centrally-located hotels. Torre Dorada is a bit of a splurge for us. They actually have heat! It's been single-digit Celsius temperatures at night in Peru, and only the thick blankets have made the rooms warm enough in other places.

So,we asked for a car and were driven past the statue of the Inca (emperor) Pachacuti and down the Avenue of the Sun into the Plaza. The Plaza de Armas is big, with a fountain in the centre, nice flowers, park benches, views of the hills and is ringed by churches and buildings with carved wooden balconies on their second floors. We walked the Plaza and other streets and arrived for dinner at "Two Nations," an Australian-owned burger place that's touted in all the guidebooks as a must. They have big burgers. Really big.

I can't eat all my dinner!

We were treated to what Anica called "the symphony of dogs" at night!

Sun, July 18:

After battling with my indigestible burger, I hauled myself around the sites today, not wanting to let Jenn and Anica down. Even by the end of the day I still wasn't feeling much better. But...

We had a guided tour of four Inca ruins just outside of Cusco. Tambo Machay, with its purifying fountain waters, flowing again; Puca Pucara, the red control fort that was also accommodated pilgrims; Qenko, the labyrinth where human offerings took place; and, finally, Sacsayhuaman, the huge temple that was the most important in the Inca's world. There's room for thousands on the flat ground between the two stone sides of this temple. On one side is a zig-zag pattern of huge fitted stones, for the lightning god. On the other side is an arced pattern of rocks for the rainbow god. Some of these stones weigh over 100 tonnes each! Our guide pronounced "gods" like "guts," which was a little confusing at first. He also had the habit of saying "look" at the start of his sentences. "Look! There are guts everywhere."

Sacsayhuaman: pronounced "sexy woman" by some tourists...

Our laundry was returned to us by the end of the day, all itemized. According to their records, we even got our "3 bozos" cleaned. See, sometimes it's fun not knowing much Spanish.

Mon, July 19

Although I felt better today, Jenn was coughing some. Not good timing with the Inca Trail just two days away! She's started a course of our traveller's antibiotics, hoping to nip this in the bud. We did notice the pollution in Cusco more today. Even though the skies are a brilliantly clear blue, it's still a valley, and there's more cars here than in the other towns, so the pollution is trapped.

We were out all day, playing in the automobile fumes. First, the Inca Museum, which actually showed a lot of the pre-Inca civilizations and cultures. The highlight was actual Inca mummies, including a child, a baby and a dog. Real, creepy and real creepy! There aren't many examples left of Inca mummification, as the Spanish destroyed most of them.

Then the cathedral. We accepted the guided tour, then also looked around on our own. There are Inca/Quechua touches all over the cathedral, little subversive artistic motifs. The best one is the "Last Supper" painting. Not only are the disciples eating "cuy" (guinea pig), Judas Iscariot is painted to look just like Francisco Pizarro! Another cathedral highlight is the silver-plated car that they use instead of a traditional litter in the annual procession. They pimped their ride for the Lord!

In between these buildings, we'd sit in the sun in one of the squares. It's like hot and cold plunges with the unheated museums and churches.

In the afternoon, we went to Peru Treks, paid the balance for the hike and had our briefing.

Back to square one: Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Tues, July 20

Our goal is to limit the walking today - Inca Trail tomorrow - with Jenn coughing and not feeling well. We went to the "Artesenal Market," and Anica got gifts for a couple of her friends. We then took "Inca" passages, or alleyways, from the main Plaza to "Koricancha," and toured this convent built on top of a conquered Inca palace which in turn had been built on the foundations of an ancient, pre-Inca structure. It has beautiful grounds and is a mesmerizing mixture of Quechua and Christian art and architecture.

Coricancha: two kinds of stonework visible

Inca stone detail at Koricancha: meticulously fitted without mortar

Grounds, gardens at Koricancha

Re-packing for the trail was very difficult and time-consuming. Jenn's coughing meant that we were wondering what would happen when the alarm went off at 4:30 the next morning and the bus comes to take us to the trail.

Mischevious but literate hillbillies express their patriotism

Posted by jennrob 07:31 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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