Great day at Machu Picchu!

We had arrived at Aguas Calientes the day before after a three hour hike. Its SO touristy! Restaurant- massage- massage- souvenir shop- restaurant- fancy hotel- massage- restaurant! It’s the town at the base of Machu Picchu, where the trains go. If 3 000 people visit the ruins each day, that means that 3 000 new people arrive in Aguas Calientes every single day. We ate at a basic restaurant with the group that night, and we were so happy that it wasn’t soup, rice, dry chicken and beans! We got to order our meal, so I got spaghetti bolognesa. Our guide Aurelio explained to us the plan for the next day. We were to meet him inside the ruins at 6:00 AM Inka time (6:00 AM sharp, because the Inkas were always on time).
There are two ways to get up: bus and walking. The busses start leaving at 5:30 AM and take 15 minutes to get up, and walking up takes about an hour, so starting at 5:00. Since our family planned to hike up Machu Picchu mountain (It goes waayyyy up from the ruins) and also the Ausangate trek when we got back, we decided to bus up.
Inka Jungle Trek day #4
My dad was in line for the bus at 4:50 AM. The busses did start leaving at 5:30, and we were on the 4th bus up at about 5:32. Since it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, they’re only supposed to let in 2 500 people per day, but apparently they let in more than that.
The ride up was so amazing! I felt like I was in the movie Avatar, because it was so misty and I couldn’t really see the bottoms of the mountains. When we got to the top, there was already a lineup to get in. Kate and Steve from the Galapagos cruise warned us that the only bathrooms are outside the gates, and if we went out and back in we had to line up again. After a pee and water bottle filling and purification, we were ready.

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The people with jackets on took the bus up, and the people with t-shirts walked.

We found Aurelio, and soon our group was complete. He gave us a brief tour of Machu Picchu, showing us things we wouldn’t have noticed.
Some Machu Picchu history: Archeologists estimate that it was built in 1430 by the Inka people. It was so sacred to them, as soon as the Spanish arrived to conquer Cusco in 1532, the Inkas abandoned Machu Picchu so that the Spanish wouldn’t discover (and destroy) it. They never found it.
Fast- forward to 1911: Hiram Bingham, an American professor, heard legends of a Lost Inka City. He searched the area, and spoke with a local farmer about it, who directed him to the general area.  He climbed part way up and found another farmer who said “Maybe up there”. The farmer sent his son to guide Bingham, and Bingham was so amazed at what he saw! Even though the city was all overgrown, he knew that he was in a very special place. National Geographic started burning away the vegetation in 1912.
Tourism didn’t really get going until they put a train through the valley in the 1940s.

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Aurelio talking to us about his ancestors, the Inka people. The clouds were starting to disappear.

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I wonder how many pictures are taken of these llamas each day?
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The Inka people were incredible farmers. Here's how they did it: terracing! All done by hand. Likely potatoes here.

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Machu Picchu was a real city!
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can you see how the rock in front was carved to match the mountains behind?
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All the rocks fit perfectly! There is no mortar between them, and it's a real mystery how they're cut. If it doesn't fit perfectly, too bad for you, go start all over again.
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This rock points North, South, East and West. Using the compass app on Aurelio's phone, it's right!

I think that the Inka people are really amazing and smart! Our biggest question was “How did they cut the rocks so perfectly so that they fit together like a puzzle?” Aurelio told us that they would stick wet pieces of wood in the cracks and let the wood expand so the rock breaks… but that doesn’t really answer the question! I guess we don’t know much about the Inka people, they are a real mystery! I would love to learn more about them now.
At about 8:30 AM, we did a feedback page for the Inka Jungle tour, then said goodbye to our group. There are two mountains you can climb from Machu Picchu: Machu Picchu (1 hour 30 minutes up) and Wayna Picchu (45 minutes up). Wayna Picchu is the more popular one, because there’s a temple at the top. There is a limit of 400 people per day on it, and you can only spend 5 minutes at the top because of the crowds. So we chose to climb Machu Picchu instead.
On the way up, we found the picture spot!

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Can you see the face lying down? The nose (the mountain in the middle) is Wayna Picchu.

The hike up was hot and tiring, but we saw some great views of the face and the ruins. It was so steep! An hour and a half of extremely steep stairs! For fun, we said “hello” in weird accents to everybody we went past and tried not to laugh.

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Goin' up...
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Us at the top. Look carefully to see the ruins and little Wayna Picchu behind!

We ate lunch at the top, the we walked all the way down and back through the ruins and by then there were a lot more people! We heard about a short 15 minute hike to an Inka Bridge, on a cliff, so away we went. 

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At the entrance to the hike we met our llama friend. As we got closer to him, he started a nervous sounding hum. So we named him "Hummer".

Back in 1912 the party uncovering Machu Picchu knew that Inkas did everything in “3s”.  There was the entrance from below, and the “Sun Gate” from above. So they guessed that there must be a 3rd entrance somewhere and started looking.  That’s how they found the “bridge” entrance.

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They made a gap in their trail and put logs down, so if they heard of enemies coming, they could knock the logs down to slow them down. Notice that the "trail" continues as a ledge along the cliff.
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On the way back, there was a llama jam on the path!
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Inka stairs! Andreas, owner of Black Sheep Inn in Ecuador made some of those and said he was inspired from Machu Picchu.
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Goodbye Machu Picchu!

Machu Picchu is a really special and mysterious place, and the Inkas are an amazing ancient civilization that worked very hard to build things. Something that surprised us was that their empire only lasted 100 years (1430- 1532)! How did they build all that? Up in that mountain? I also think that it really sucks how the Spanish came and slaughtered them. Similar to the Europeans colonising Canada, I guess. But Machu Picchu is a really beautiful place, and I understand why it was sacred in the Inka culture.
We left and decided to walk down to Aguas Calientes. It was a long way! It took us an hour to walk down; walking up would have been exhausting! When we got back to town, we grabbed our stuff from the hostel and got to the train station in time for our 4:30 PM train to Ollantaytambo.

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Trains and foot are the only ways to get in and out of Aguas Calientes, so all the building materials came in by train!

After almost two hours on the train, we got a bus from Ollantaytambo to Cusco. The ride took 2 hours. This day ended with us getting our other bags from our Cusco hostel, learning that they were full, finding another hostel and going to bed. What a fun but exhausting day!
Kaia

The exciting Inka Jungle journey

Friday, November 28th, 2014
It’s been about a week since we arrived in Fiji.  We’ve done so much with Rhonda, Henry and Ben, on Tavewa island in the Yasawa archipelago.  We’ve been handline fishing, snorkeling, swimming and eating lots of coconuts and mangos.  A few days ago, Ben, Kaia and I, with the help of Henry, built a raft out of logs, bamboo, half surfboards, and vines to tie them all together.  We’re planning on going fishing on it sometime.  Our grandma was visiting us for the past week, and flew out yesterday.  Her cruise will stop near our island next Tuesday, so we’ll get to say a final goodbye to her before she flies back to Canada.
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500 years ago, most of the Andes mountains, running along the Pacific coast of South America from Colombia all the way to Chile, were controlled by a powerful empire known as the Inkas.  These people lived high up in the mountains, had a highly organized society, and were extremely skilled builders and farmers.  The empire was the biggest “nation” in the world at the time (1430 to 1530 AD, when the Spanish arrived).  It was well over 2 000km long, and contained 7 million people.  They built many towns out of stone, and trails to get from one end of the empire to the other.  At the centre of all this was Cuzco, in southern Peru.  The town has now grown to populate 700 000 people, but in the downtown area, many of the walking streets are still lined with Inka stone walls.  Though Cuzco was the capitol of the empire, “The Inka”, the emperor, lived high up in a royal estate called Machu Picchu.  I won’t go into detail about Inka culture, because Kaia will write a separate blog about the Machu Picchu itself, so I’ll get right to the point.  Now, Machu Picchu is a major tourist attraction and an important part of the economy of Peru.  To get there, you fly into Cuzco, and most people take a bus and train to Aguas Calientes, at the bottom of the mountain.  But there are many ways to get there on foot, too.

There are 3 real treks, all of them taking between 3 and 6 days.  There’s the Inka trail, the really popular one that goes straight to Machu Picchu along the old royal path that The Inka used to take.  There’s the Lares trek, which goes through some other ruins before arriving in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu.  And, there’s the Salkantay trek, which goes over a high pass, then descends into Aguas Calientes.  We were planning on doing either the Lares or the Salkantay trek, but we found out about a trek about 2 and a half hours away from Cuzco called Ausangate, which doesn’t go to Machu Picchu, but goes around a mountain, and includes climbing over a pass 5200m above sea level, and lasts 4 days.  We decided to do this trek after visiting Machu Picchu, so didn’t do a big trek to get to the ruins.  Instead, we did the Inka Jungle “trek”, which does involve hiking, but also bike riding, whitewater rafting and ziplining!  We talked to a few travel agents in Cuzco, looking for the best price for the tour.  There are so many travel agents there!  Every time you look down a street, you see about 10 signs saying “Machu Picchu tours”.  We eventually booked with a company called Marcelo Expeditions.

On November 5th, we got up early to meet our guide Aurelio, who brought us to the minibus.  The first part of the tour involved a 3 hour drive up to 4300m, where they’d give us bikes and we’d ride 60km downhill on a switch backing road.  On our drive up, we met our tour mates.  A couple from England, a group of 3 from Argentina, 2 young women from Holland, a young couple from Switzerland and 2 more women from Argentina.  And, we met the other guide, Jesus (pronounced Heysoos), who did the interpretation for the Spanish speakers in our group.

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The downhill ride was awesome.  The road was all paved so we could go fast, and the view of the valley we were riding into was amazing.  A bit foggy at first, but once we got below the clouds, the weather was nice.

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The river below is the one we whitewater rafted on later that day.

We rode down for about 3 hours and 2 vertical km until we arrived at a little village.  Our bikes got put back on a trailer and we drove half an hour to the town of Santa Maria and had lunch.  Chicken, rice and soup.  That was where we slept the first night of our tour.  But our day was far from over.  After lunch, we went whitewater rafting!  It was Kaia’s and my first time.  The guides gave us a quick briefing about the different orders.  “Paddle”, “Stop”, Paddle backwards”, and most important, “Get down!”, and we’d need to brace ourselves for a big wave.  Most of the time we were floating along the river, but every few minutes, we’d go through a rapid, hit a huge wave and get drenched.

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Sorry about the drop of water on the camera lens.

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After every rapid, we’d slap our paddles together and yell “sexy llamas!”.  Something tells me that safety laws are not very strict in Peru.  Here’s why:
-We were rafting in thunder and lightning
– In certain places, the guide would tell us to stand up in the raft while going through a rapid!
-At one point, when we were floating down a calm section before a rapid, the guide said: “Who wants to jump in now?  Hold on to the raft while you’re swimming and make sure you get back in it before the rapid.”  So we did.  I don’t think that’s something you can do while rafting in Canada!

We got out after 2 hours of rafting.  A pretty action packed day!  We drove back to the town for dinner.  Chicken, rice and soup again!

The next day was the long hiking day.  We needed to get from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa, 18km away.  We left after breakfast (not chicken, rice and soup).  The first part was on gravel road, but we soon got onto a trail going through coffee plantations and coca leaf farms, the main ingredient for cocaine!  Aurelio explained to us that the farmers are supposed to sell their leaves to the Peruvian government, who used to sell them to the Coca-Cola company, but they stopped using coca leaves in Coke a while ago, so there’s lower demand for the leaves.  The Peruvian government is trying to buy the leaves from the farmers for a much lower price now, but the farmers find that they can make a lot more money selling them to the drug dealers!

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coca plants

In the morning, we’d stop every hour or so at a house where we could refill our water bottles and buy snacks.  At the first house, there was a monkey with a rope around him tied to a post, and we were told to not go within the length of the rope, or he’d jump onto us.  He jumped onto one of the Argentinian women’s backpack!

At the next stop, Aurelio told us about beliefs of the Inkas.  The number 3 was very important to them.  There are 3 worlds: The underworld, the middle world, and the upper world.  The world of the dead people, our world and the world of the gods.  There is an animal that represents each world: The snake, the puma and the condor.  So they’d hold up 3 coca leaves, pray to the gods, then chew the leaves, which are 0.5% hallucinogen.  They don’t get you high, but make you feel relaxed and make you feel not hungry for a while.

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Aurelio also talked to us about different kinds of potato in Peru, like the long, skinny one in his hand.

Aurelio and Jesus also painted our faces in Inka designs with an orange paint that comes from the inside of some fruit.

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And, there was a marmoset there too (a marmoset is like a monkey).  This guy was friendlier than the monkey at the last stop, and we could have him jump on our shoulders if we wanted!

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marmoset is on my shoulder
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The marmoset has a moustache!

After that, we all got dressed up in traditional clothes.  Most people had colourful hats, shawls ands skirts, but Rob, the man from England, and I had these big thick cape things and weird masks we could hardly see out of!

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Don't worry, the thing Kaia's holding is a doll!

 
There was also a young capybara there, and we could hold that too.

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Capybaras are the world's biggest rodents, and people eat them in South America.

We hiked for a while after that until we got to the lunch spot.  This lunch was better than chicken rice and soup.  It was chips with guacamole, then spaghetti.

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After lunch, my dad and I went for a walk around the area.  We found a house with a little pond behind it.  In the pond, there were so many ducklings!  There must have been at least 40 of them, and they all started to follow me!

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We brought Kaia to it, and found a kitten there too!

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The hike after lunch was along a path dropping of a huge cliff on one side.  The stone steps were built hundreds of years ago by the Inkas.

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We hiked down into the valley until we got to a bridge across the river.

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We hiked for another half hour, then had to cross back over the river, but this time, we had to use a form of local transport.  It was like a zipline, but a bit different.  3 people could sit in a little cart at a time, and zip across the river.

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The Argentinian group going across.
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me, Kaia and my mom crossing the river

It was only about a 5 minute walk after that to get to some hot springs.  They were big, clean and didn’t smell like sulfur at all, which is apparently rare to find in Peru.  It felt so good after a long day of hiking to swim and relax.

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We then had the choice to either walk another 45 minutes into the town of Santa Teresa, or go in the minibus.  It was getting dark, so everyone chose the minibus.  We got to our hostel, had dinner, which I think was chicken, rice and soup again, then went to bed.

The next morning was the most exciting of the tour.  Ziplining!  When we got there, we got our equipment, then had to hike up, and up, and up until we were high above the valley.  We had our little safety talk up there, then off we went!

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The first 2 lines went across a smaller valley, but the 3rd line went across the big one.  It was so high, more than 200m above the ground.  The 4th, 5th and 6th lines descended lower than the 3rd down into the valley.  Plus, the 6th one was superman style (spread eagled, facing down) and on the 4th one, we could ride upside down!

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here is Kaia going upside down 200m above the valley!

Out of the 4 times we’ve been ziplining on this trip, twice in Costa Rica, once in Ecuador, and here, I think this time was my favourite!

We then drove 20 minutes to a place called Hydroelectrica, where we had lunch.  Chicken, rice and soup!  But they ran out of chicken so my dad got to have beef.  From there, we walked for 3 hours along the train tracks that all the tourists that don’t trek use to get to Aguas Calientes.  It was in a big valley with mountains rising on both sides, and a guide told us that Machu Picchu was on the other side of one of the mountains we could see.

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We got into Aguas Calientes at about 5pm.  It is a crazy place.  3000 new tourists come through it every day.  There are so many tourist shops, bars and restaurants.  We had dinner at a restaurant that had a menu, for the first time on the tour, so we could have something that wasn’t chicken, rice and soup!  We went to bed early, because the next morning, we had to wake up at 4am to get up to Machu Picchu before the big crowds arrived.  Our tour was already going fantastic, and we hadn’t even got to the most important part of it yet!

Jake

Traveling south to Cusco, or: Peru is bigger than we thought it was!

Our wonderful Galapagos experience had come to an end and it was time to get back to reality:  planning our own itinerary, making or buying meals, and deciding where we would sleep each night.  We flew back to Guyaquil on the mainland and immediately took a cab to the bus station where we caught a bus to Cuenca (about 3.5hrs away).  Cuenca is an attractive, colonial city which happened to be celebrating a triple-whammy of festivities that weekend:  Hallowe’en, the anniversary of the city and area’s independence, and Dia de los muertos.  Somehow, we always seem to arrive during festivities (or are South Americans just constantly celebrating something?)  Needless to say, accommodation was at a bit of a premium, but we found a hostel/cafe called “el cafecito” that was central, clean, friendly, and fairly comfortable (except for the rock-hard mattress on the double bed!  Within minutes, I was inflating my thermarest to put on top of it.)  Of course, el cafecito was also located beside an old church.  With bells.  That started ringing at random intervals starting at about at 5am! 

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We took a bus tour of Cuenca.
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Rooves that extend beyond walls are Spanish, and balcony grates are French-inspired.
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We were told to remain seated as the bus drove under this arched bridge.
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We visited a couple of markets and shared some jelly coconuts.
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Flowers and decorations were being sold for families to decorate graves on Dia de los Muertos.
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Kaia and Jake are holding guaguas (pronounced "wawas"). They are sweet bread "babies" that are eaten at this time of year, usually paired with colada morada, a delicious drink made from purple corn flour.

Cuenca is an artsy place with markets, bookstores, and a lively music scene.  We attended a free guitar concert the night we were there and saw a display of traditional, handmade guitars.  The craftsman was there as well.  The concert was a one-man show with guest appearances by an interpretive dancer and a singer.  The music was pretty mellow, and we were sitting on the steps since the small venue was full, so when it wrapped up after an hour, it was just right!  Cam and Kaia went to check out the entertainment at the central square, and I took Jake back to the hostel.  We had seen online that the forecast in Peterborough for that evening (Hallowe’en night) was for near-freezing temperatures, rain, and possibly snow!  So we missed the dressing up and trick-or-treating, but not the cold feet and soggy costumes!  There were many parties happening in Cuenca that night (thank goodness for earplugs!) and next morning… church bells… 5am.
Cam spent most of the day blogging, processing photos, and backing up data.  The kids and I visited a museum of anthropology and went to a bookstore that had a good English-language section.  E-books are fine as long as you can keep your devices charged up and wrestle them out of the hands of your electronics-addicted family members, so I am still partial to the paper kind!  So we each picked up a book in preparation for long bus rides ahead.  First up, that very night:  a 9-hour overnight bus ride down to Piura, Peru, which included a 2am stop to cross the border.  At that point, I night have welcomed some church bells as I was feeling a bit groggy!  Crossing borders seems to involve A LOT of repetitive paperwork (I have memorized all of our passport numbers because they have to be written multiple times on these forms!)  First you have to fill out forms to exit Ecuador, and then, almost identical ones to enter Peru.  I have never written my home address so many times!   However, the border crossing went much more smoothly than we’d anticipated based on some blogs we’d read that described buses driving out of sight once the passengers got off, and people having to run back and forth through no-man’s land in the middle of the night to get/deliver the proper paperwork.  Now, in a welcome example of efficiency, the ‘exit’ and ‘enter’ booths are conveniently right next to each other in the same building.  So, our entire busload of zombie-like passengers obediently filled out forms, lined up and got our passports stamped.  Most of us looked even worse than our passport photos and I think it was really starting to look like “the day of the dead” !
Then, back on the bus for more troubled sleep, or, in Cam’s case, sleeplessness.  We looked out the windows as the sun rose and asked ourselves, “Are we back in Africa?”  Dirt roads, 3-wheeled motorized tuktuks, and corrugated steel rooves were everywhere!  The town of Piura didn’t look like much and we were in a rush to get down to Cusco.  For Cam, one uncomfortably sleepless night on a bus told him that we couldn’t spend the next 2 or 3 days/nights doing the same thing.  You see, we had a flight booked from La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov. 19th, and that left us only about 18 days to get to Cusco, visit Machu Picchu, try hiking in the high Andes, get down to Bolivia and do some things there.  And Cusco was still at least 24hours away by road.  So we went to the airport in Piura to check out if there was any truth to the rumours of “dirt cheap domestic flights” that some people boast about on the internet.  Of course, it happened to be Sunday at this point, and a holiday (Day of the Dead), so the airline ticket counters weren’t open!  However, where there are Gringos ready and willing to spend hundreds of dollars, there is a local entrepreneur ready to help them do so!  We were directed to some guy standing around the airport who made several phone calls for us and then took us to a travel agency right near the airport.  The “cheap flights” didn’t exactly pan out but we got a pretty good fare to take us all the way to Cusco via Lima.  Only hitch:  we’d arrive at the Lima airport at 10pm and our connecting flight left at 4am.  Aaargh!  Another night without a bed!  Anyway, we booked it, and then Cam really needed to sleep so we jumped in a taxi and went to a really cheap (and disgusting) hostel/rooming house where we got a couple of rooms for the day for the equivalent of $10. 
Jake and I went out in search of food and walked through empty streets.  Eventually, we saw some action a long way down a side street so we walked towards it.  Turns out, everyone was at the cemetery!  Of course — it was Nov 2nd — the Day of the Dead!  There was a carnival-like atmosphere outside the gates of the cemetery, with food, drinks, candy, decorations, and candles being sold.  The heat and dryness were oppressive, but it was quite an experience to walk through a south american cemetery on that particular day!  There were so many families there and the graves were all decorated.  Instead of just having graves underground, there are tall structures (4-5 graves high and dozens long) where coffins can be placed behind a stone or cement facade.  Its kind of hard to explain, but sorry, I did not take photos as that would have felt very inappropriate! 
We took Cam and Kaia back via the cemetery before catching a couple of tuktuks for the short drive to the airport.

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The most common form of transportation in Piura.
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Cam and Kaia pose for a selfie in the tuktuk.

So the flights were fine, but the night on the floor of the Lima airport sucked.  We rolled out our thermarests in a “quiet” part of the airport, but… it happened to be where they were waxing the floors that night and had to move all the furniture! 
Next stop:  Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire.  I’ve just recently learned that the Incan Empire only lasted for about 100 years — from the mid-1400s until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532.  I’m still having trouble accepting that fact because it seemed like the Incas were so powerful, influential, and managed to build so much great stuff!

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Plaza San Francisco in Cusco, with large colonial churches (built on the foundations of Inca structures).
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This narrow street is typical and shows the remnants of the Inca walls with colonial structures on top.
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Cam is standing next to the 12-sided Inca stone -- the largest stone found to be used in the Incan Empire, which also happens to have the most complex geometry. How did they cut these stones so precisely? I never got a satisfactory answer.
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The Incas actually invented LEGO! That is part of the secret of how the stone walls stay together.

The Spanish built many of their homes and churches using Incan foundations, and when an earthquake struck, guess what?  The Spanish part collapsed and the Incan “lego” walls stood strong! 

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The typical shape of the Inca window. Here you can see how well they were lined up.
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Here we can see where Spanish arches were built atop Incan walls.

We spent most of our time in Cusco being harassed by people trying to sell us stuff, and talking to different tour operators about options for visiting Machu Picchu and hikes in the mountains (Jake, Kaia, and Cam will be writing about those adventures.)

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Cusco markets are colourful, and yes, we did buy a few things, knowing that Cam's mother would be able to carry a few things home from Fiji!
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Typical sight in Cusco, where the indigenous population represents 45%.
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Courtyards, fountains, and woodwork were colonial standards.
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Enterprising locals bring tiny lambs or alpacas into town for tourists to pose with (for a small fee).
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Yes, we paid for a photo with an alpaca!
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One can never be too careful when heading into high altitude! Actually, we did not buy this enormous hat!
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Food for thought.

Yvonne

Geology in the raw in the Galapagos

This entry is being typed en route to Fiji from L.A.  Mom just joined us in L.A.  With the help of a couple of good sleeping pills, I got a little sleep during the 3 flights yesterday; the kids did not fare so well.  I’m taking advantage of some down time with a little table in front of me to write the final Galapagos blog entry.  My 2nd round of sleeping pills will kick in shortly …
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3 days later … We’ve been in Fiji for 3 days now – we’re staying with friends Rhonda, Henry & Ben on one of the outer islands (Henry is from here).  Absolutely beautiful. Fantastic snorkeling yesterday.  Great fishing today.  Tenting seaside has been idyllic. Very hot but so far we’ve had cooling breezes.  Internet connectivity a challenge here hence the dearth of communication … but we’ll be busy writing in the days to come …
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The Galapagos are remarkable for many reasons.  Jake talked about the amazing “underworld”.  Kaia talked about the wonderful marine iguanas and sea lions.  I wrote earlier about the boobies and other lovely birds.  And Yvonne talked about the story of species decimation and subsequent recovery efforts.  Perhaps what is most obviously remarkable about the Galapagos is the geologic story they tell.  They are a living lab of volcanism, that is so easily explored on a cruise such as ours.

To understand these islands, you have to understand the concept of plate tectonics over a “hot spot”.  A hot spot is a place in the earth’s mantle that has magma welling up to the crust (through convection).  Scientists don’t really understand what creates these hot spots deep in the earth’s core, but the upwelling lava ultimately breaks through the crust and creates volcanoes.  Add to this the reality of plate tectonics – whereby the crust is moving over the magma below – and you get a string of volcanoes as the plate moves over the hotspot.  The most famous of such a string is the archipelago of the Hawaiian Islands.  The island over the hot spot is usually the largest and is “active” (eg. the newest island Hawaii is furthest west) while the oldest island has moved past the hot spot and is now inactive and heavily eroded.

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This is exactly what is going on in the Galapagos.  The plate that the islands are sitting on is moving east, just as the Hawaiian islands are.  So not suprisingly, the eastern islands of San Cristobal and Floreanna are nearly flat and highly eroded, while the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina have high, active volcanoes.  In fact they recently discovered (underwater) “sea mounts” off the east side of the islands (see map below).  These mounts were Galapagos Islands 4 million years ago before they were eroded away.  They also filled in a missing piece of the evolution story for scientists.  The oldest present day island is about 5 million years.  But evolutionary scientists felt like 5 million years was not enough to explain the adaptive changes of present day wildlife species.  But adding in the 4 million years of these previous islands (now sea mounts) apparently completes the evolutionary story.

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I’ll start the photo story on the island of Santiago which lies in the middle of the grouping.  We went ashore on lava that looked like it had cooled just days or years ago.  In fact it was just a little more than 100 years old.

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Santiago Island - an old volcano in the distance with a very new lava flow in the foreground

It was remarkable to walk on this lava – the patterns were fantastic.  You very easily could imagine that a liquid had cooled.

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different colours represent different mineral content - usually presence/absence of iron

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Victor is explaining all things lava. Each time we went ashore he'd remind us to wear good shoes because of the sharp lava. When we pointed out that he was taking his own advice (have a look in picture) he said his shoes were "made in Ecuador" and were up to the task. 🙂
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look carefully ... you can see where lava has cooled around a small log ... and the log has subsequently decomposed
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here's the same "log" formation ... from ground level
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classic "pahoi pahoi" lava - it looks like rope, or the skin of a cooked pudding as it is pulled back
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Victor got caught in this lava flow, but was wearing a heat protective suit so is still smiling. We had to wait till the lava cooled before we could extract him. 😉
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not your average hike!
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The extent of the most recent eruption is so clear here
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lava cactus has taken root ...and is the only living vegetation in sight
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looking back across the lava to Bartholome Island and our Floreana boat

That afternoon we climbed to the top of Bartholome Island. 

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The boardwalk up to the peak of Bartholome was built to prevent erosion caused by foot traffic. Lava cactus in the foreground.
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This plant "Taquilla" is very susceptible to erosion; hence the boardwalk

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Bartholome too was an old volcano.  But in this case, you could clearly see the small “parasitic” cones where small fissures allowed magma to form cones around the main cone.

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note the many "parasitic" cones
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a parastic cone visible from atop Bartholome, with the extensive lava flow across the channel on Santiago (where we'd just hiked earlier that day)
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later afternoon light on the Floreana from atop Bartholome
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From atop Bartholome, we could see our next day's objective - the aptly named "China Hat"

ok … just woke up.  3 more hours to Fiji ..

China Hat was a volcanic “plug” surrounded with slopes of lava.  The main attraction here was a sea lion nursery (that Kaia showed photos of).  However I was enthralled with the power of the surf crashing onto the lava shores.

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Although the islands are generally "stark" in their appearance, we would discover pockets of vivid colour like this.,

Here’s a photo I included in an earlier blog post, showing the tunnels left behind when a volcano subsided and the lava retreated from its lava tube.

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Genovesa Island is a circle - the remains of an eroding volcanic cone. The bay you see here is the crater "lake" (but is open to the sea in one spot)

In the last few days we moved west to the newest (and most active) islands of Isabela and Fernandina.  Isabela has no less than 6 volcanoes on it (its “plate” was moving a little north-south as it also moved east, hence the pattern of volcanoes (see map at start of this entry).  These volcanoes are at about 1400m, and have massive craters in them.  Even though they haven’t spewed lava in the past 30 years, they are still active; a large crater lake disappeared from volcanic activity about 20 years ago.  We went ashore on Isabella and climbed up past a crater lake just inside the island that was part salt and part fresh.

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Note our Floreana boat in the background. It carries max. 16 passengers. Next to us at this point pulled in a cruise ship carrying 100 passengers. They came ashore in waves. Glad we were on the Floreana!
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here is our mildly sunburned family, with Isabela island backdrop
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I liked the pattern formed by these seasonally dormant trees on the side of the crater. The green will come roaring back to life in the rainy season of Dec-Feb.
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looking across at 1400m Darwin volcano from Fernandina Island

Fernandina is the youngest island, and fully erupted in 2010.  Victor was leading a tour at Genovesa Island at the time and received permission to change his itinerary to take his clients to see the eruption.  Now THAT would have been pretty cool!

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Young Fernandina Island. The southern end of the island is directly over the hot spot. Note the parasitic cones (lava traveling through smaller secondary fissures)
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the shore visit to Fernandina Island at Punta Espinola was outstanding for many reasons, including seeing this reassembled whale skeleton that had washed onto the shore

One of our favorite shore visits was on the smaller island if Rabida, known as the “red island”.  I believe it is mostly a high iron content that led to this colouration.

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From this vantage point on Rabida Island we watched sea turtles swimming and huge manta rays surfacing and splashing their "wings"

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Family photo. We tried to adopt these two friendly sea lions but the Park rules have some crazy reason that forbids this.
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sorry .... couldn't resist ...
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interesting formations on Santa Cruz
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Galapagos fur seals were relaxing in the pool created by this natural bridge
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again ... we had to be careful not to step on the marine iguanas

I’ll finish out the blog with some photos that capture a bit of what it’s like to live aboard a Galapagos cruise boat.

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our crew - captain, mate, sailor, steward, engineer. Victor is not in this picture.
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sunrise on our final day at sea
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sunset over Isabela Island
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we would typically get in from our 2nd snorkeling outing by 5PM and would have chance for a relaxed drink before 7PM dinner.

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getting to/from zodiacs is something we did about 8 times/day
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the Floreana
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carrying around a giant tortoise shell is harder than it looks!

We parted company with our crew and cruise companions upon arriving back at Baltra Island.  The cruise had surpassed any of our expectations.  Unfortunately expensive – few folks (well … OK … 60,000/yr) are as fortunate as us to be able to experience this.  But probably just as well for those lovely creatures.

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All good things must come to an end ... 😦
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This logo on the plane pretty much sums up our experience in Ecuador. I now am the proud owner of a similar t-shirt to remind me.

Wow … the Galapagos.  Next entry we’ll be back on mainland.  Until then ….

Cam

  

Up close and personal in the Galapagos

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in La Paz Bolivia. Tomorrow we start the marathon of flights to Fiji at 4 AM, so we head to the airport tonight. La Paz – Bogota. Bogota – Houston. Houston – Los Angeles. 5 hours in Los Angeles then 12 hours overnight to Fiji. I can tell you envy this amazing flight itinerary… But Fiji will be really nice. And we meet our Grandma in LA and she will stay in Fiji with us for a week.  We will be relaxed there so stay tuned for lots of updates! In this entry I’ll talk about two animals in the Galapagos: sea lions and marine iguanas.

Sea Lions
These animals originally came from California, but they were isolated for so long that they evolved into a new species. The Galapagos sea lions are still very similar to their Californian cousins, they even still have the same Latin name. What’s the difference between a sea lion and a seal? Our guide Victor explained that sea lions have external ears, and seals don’t.
I think that sea lions are like the puppies of the ocean. The story of their life: play in the waves for a while, eat some fish (there are more fish than they could ever eat), then sleep on the beach! Sounds good to me. The babies especially are very curious. When I tried to get a picture with one on the beach, respecting the 2 meter rule, the little guy came up to me and tried to touch me! Victor told me not to let him, because mothers and babies only recognize each other by smell, so my smell can’t touch him.

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What's a kiss without a mustache?
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Victor estimated this guy to be two days old!
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This is yoga- sea lion style!
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I guess this is relaxation pose!
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this one took a break from playing to observe the rare gringo
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Being so gorgeous is exhausting...
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On the red beach of Rabida Island

Now for the fun part… underwater pictures! Even the big males got playful one day. I cannot describe the feeling of sea lions surrounding you and doing flips around you in the water… maybe magical works. Keep in mind that these pictures are not zoomed in, they are taken with GoPro.

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I believe I can fly...
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Can you spot the odd one out? Look closely!
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This guy got the honour of becoming my phone's new wallpaper
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Kate got so excited when this happened! We learned after that swimming with sea lions was her number one goal coming to Galapagos.

Here are a few very short videos of these guys playing in the water:


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Here's what we saw in Porta Villamil, Isabela Island! The animals really aren't afraid of people.

Marine Iguanas
Yes, you read that right, marine iguanas! These guys don’t have quite as easy a life as the sea lions. Since there is no food for them on land, they have evolved to eat algae off the rocks, metres below the surface! In the morning, they have to warm up their blood in the sun, because they are coldblooded. Then, they take the plunge! They can hold their breath for up to nine minutes! By the time they come up for air, they must get out of the water fast, or their muscles will tense up in the cold Galapagos water. It’s difficult for them to get in and out of the water, because the waves thrash them around. But the hardest part is that baby sea lions enjoy playing with them. Not killing or hurting, just playing. Just what the Marine Iguana needs when its muscles are tensing up and it’s so tired.
They ingest so much salt water while underwater, that they have a special gland in their head to take out the salt from their body. Then, they sneeze it all out!

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Enlarge this picture to see them better- they blocked off the path so we had to go around them!
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This brave iguana took the plunge! Go! Don't let the sea lions find you little guy!

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Imagine not being able to breathe while eating!
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this guy was eating off Santiago Island
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I really love this picture! Animals live in harmony here in Galapagos.
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It's getting close to mating season, so the males get green colouration on their head and back to look more attractive to the females.

Here is a short video of an iguana eating underwater: http://youtu.be/Z7AymhFdzAU

Kaia

Its all about boobies in the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands are renowned for their unusual birds.  The Islands’ birds have evolved independently of mainland species, and have evolved to adapt to the unusual geographic conditions.  And like other land and water species, most of these birds have no predators, so they are indifferent to human and other animal proximity.  Scientists are not positive how the evolutionary ancestors of these birds first arrived on the islands.  Perhaps blown way off course from the mainland.  Perhaps floated for weeks on debris washed out in flooding mainland rivers.
The first stop on our cruise was Genovesa Island which is the furthest to the NE in the grouping.  First views when coming up on deck after sleeping during the sailing was that of red-footed boobies dive bombing into the water beak-first for fish … in droves – hundreds at a time.  Our first shore excursion was all about birds.  Birds were EVERYWHERE!  Sitting on the ground, sitting in bushes, sitting on rocks.  They would not even flinch as we walked by.

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aptly named red-footed booby

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red-footed boobies nest in trees, because their feet can wrap on branches. The other two species of booby nest on the ground.

Genovesa Island is also home to thousands of Nasca boobies.  These fishing birds are perhaps less dramatic looking, except for the chicks that appear as big cotton balls.

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immature nasca booby
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nasca booby chick
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Kaia & I spotted this blue-footed booby on Santa Cruz Island

Mixed amongst the boobies were Galapagos lava gulls and night herons –  all equally indifferent to us gawkers.

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Galapagos lava gull

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Galapagos night heron

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After snorkeling in the afternoon, we went by zodiac across the bay (Genovesa Island is a volcanic crater – the crater forms the bay, with an opening to the sea) and scampered up some stairs built into the cliff to explore more bird habitat.

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Even more boobies here.  You literally had to walk around them, and had to be careful not to back up onto one.  We walked from the inner part of the crater to the outside on the open ocean where we saw a Galapagos short-eared owls were hunting Galapagos petrels (you might notice a trend here ….  we realized it is pretty easy to name/identify the birds – just put “Galapagos” in front of whatever … because they are all endemic here)

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I'm having a moment with a nasca booby

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males and females take care of egg-sitting ...and fledgling sitting!
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Victor knows a lot things about a lot of birds. The island appears very grey and "dead" at this time in the dry season. It roars back to green when the rains return.
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looking for the elusive owls ...
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found one! wow, now that's camouflage!

Other days took us to other islands that hosted other birds.  “Darwin’s Finches” are well known.  Darwin collected specimens when on the islands in 1835, and while sailing back to England he noted how identical looking brown finches from different islands had markedly different beaks.  Similarly with mockingbirds from different isles. This is one of the things that got him thinking about the concept of “adaptation” and evolution.  Each island had different vegetation and seeds, so beaks were specialized.

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mockingbird on the red sand of Rabida island
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note that this mockingbird from Isabella island has a more straight beak
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in absence of predators, this finch just nests in the sand

Frigate birds also have a significant presence in the Galapagos, but are found elsewhere too.  These birds catch fish, but are unable to swim or take off after being in the water (they die if they end up in the water).  Sailors of years gone by always welcomed the sight of frigate birds because it meant they were getting close to land (the birds have to stay reasonable close to shore).  We saw frigate birds on land, but were most impressed with their inclination to fly with our boat when we were under way.  They would fly about 3 ft off the side of the ship … sometimes 5 or 6 at a time … and were so close that we could actually have touched them if we’d have tried.  It reminds me of dolphins liking to swim just off the bow of a moving boat.

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immature frigate bird
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adult male frigate bird. When courting, the males puff the red pouches out into very large balloons.
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frigate bird on Genovesa Island
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this was a common sight while we sailed
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Jake already talked about the Galapagos penguins. We'd occasionally see them standing on rocks at waters' edge.

Galapagos hawks were the top land predators.  We’d see them circling around above when we went ashore.  They eat mostly lava lizards, snakes and especially marine iguanas.

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Pelicans were also a common sight, and were great fun to watch as they dive bombed for fish

On our second last day we visited Punta Espinosa on Fernadina Island where we encountered the flightless cormorant.  These guys made their way to the Galapagos Islands via flight, but food was so readily available in the water (fish!) that they have evolved to become swimmers, not flyers.  Their wings are now tiny, and useless, though they still like to dry them in the wind like cormorants elsewhere with “real” wings.

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yes, rather sad looking wings ...
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cormorants nest in the open, building nest with sand, seaweed and "guano" (poop)
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sorry ... no cuteness prize for this baby cormorant!
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A rare blue-chested booby was sighted at the Baltra airport, in front of the post box.

Cam

Galapagos History 101

“A hell on earth”.  “A place where God threw rocks at the Earth”.  These were among the first recorded descriptions of the Galapagos Islands.  That was back in 1535 by the Panamanian bishop who, on his way to Peru, was plagued by boat trouble and got carried by the current 1000km to the unknown islands.  It is easy to understand his negative first impression.  Barely any plants grow on the volcanic rock, there is hardly any fresh water, and many of the animals that are able to survive there look like monsters.  The bishop and his men suffered terribly but did manage to fix their boat and eventually made it to their destination.  This, according to our wonderful guide, Victor Hugo Mendia, was the first of many disastrous events that were to affect the Galapagos Islands.  Once the islands were on the map, people started coming and inadvertently upsetting a fragile ecological balance.  Of course, the islands have been there for millennia, being created over a volcanic hotspot and slowly moving on a tectonic conveyor belt, but there are no native people to the islands and no clear information of whether any humans had ever set foot there before the Panamanian bishop and his crew.

Whalers started coming to find the giants of the sea.  Pirates and sailors followed and began visiting the islands in search of water and fresh meat.  They found little water, but delighted in catching animals that had absolutely no fear of humans.  I was really struck by this lack of fear as we visited Genovesa, the first island on our tour.  Victor had told us that a strict national park rule is that visitors must stay 2m away from any wildlife.  However, staying 2m away from one bird meant I would be within 2m of another.  They simply did not care that we were walking past them! 

Pirates enjoyed the relative safety of the Galapagos Islands since the Spaniards believed them to be haunted.  They were able to mount their attacks on the Spanish fleet moving up and down the coast of South America.

The sailors harvested thousands of giant tortoises to fill their ship-board pantries.  Tortoises are immobile when flipped on their backs, require no refrigeration, and can live for up to a year with no food or water (which may explain how they ended up on the islands in the first place — being washed away on floating debris after a violent storm, and floating along at the mercy of the currents, much like the bishop).  Turtle soup became a common form of fresh meat on board ships.  Unfortunately, some populations of giant tortoise were wiped out due to over-harvesting, and the sailors introduced new species to the islands such as goats (purposely — to create another form of fresh meat that could be picked up en route), and rats (inadvertently).  These animals, as well as feral cats, pigs, and dogs, have wreaked havoc on the delicate balance of life on the islands.  Goats have practically wiped out the vegetation that tortoises depend on, and rats, dogs and pigs destroy the nests or eat hatchlings.  It was becoming a very serious problem.  The Galapagos National Park decided to take action through an ambitious eradication program some years ago.  They set out to exterminate all the goats on the unpopulated islands and did this in an  interesting way that Victor described to us:  a handful of female goats were rounded up, sterilized, injected with hormones to make them especially attractive to the males, embedded with a chip that was trackable by GPS, and then had their horns spray-painted fluorescent pink.  These females (the “Judas goats”) were re-released onto their island, where they promptly attracted hordes of males.  From helicopters, snipers shot every single goat around them, but always spared the one one with the pink horns.  She continued to attract more males, which were duly killed until, on a few islands, the goat population has been completely eradicated.  Tortoise populations are stabilizing, growing, and beginning to expand their territory.  A success story for the park.  It is much more difficult to eradicate introduced plant species or insects such as ants.

We were impressed by the level of control that the Galapagos National Park exerts over its tens of thousands of visitors.  No one can enter the park without a certified guide and each guide can only be in charge of a maximum of 16 people.  We could only go ashore at a few very specific locations on each island, and could not step off the trail.  No bathroom breaks allowed on land!  As I mentioned earlier, we were supposed to stay 2m away from the animals, although this was hard to do since the animals, especially the young sea lions, were curious observers of us humans.  

The most famous person to ever visit the islands was Justin Bieber.  Just kidding — it was, of course, Charles Darwin!  He arrived 300 years after the Panamanian bishop and had a somewhat similar first impression.  We saw several of the varieties of finches, each with its own unique beak shape, that inspired Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution.  One type, known as the “vampire finch”, actually sucks blood from the blue-footed boobies to meet its need for hydration when water is scarce!  We didn’t witness that particular event but Victor told us that it doesn’t seem to bother the boobies at all.

So, since being discovered almost 500 years ago, the Galapagos Islands have gone from hellish to haunted to enchanted to endangered.  Now, the Ecuadorian government is working hard to enlist the help of scientists, residents, tourists and tour operators to return the islands to a healthy balance.  A mammoth and worthwhile task.

Yvonne

Galapagos: a hidden underwater world

We arrived back in Cusco last night from our Ausangate trek (starts 2.5 hrs from Cusco). 1st day was great, and we camped at the base of the mountain, in full view of the main glacier. Kaia started feeling bad at dinner though, and was really sick in the morning – she had the symptoms of altitude sickness. I was really so-so. But we camped at 4300m, and were to go to 5200m that day, so we decided to skip the circuit, and instead hiked beside the mountain and came back at the end of day 2. Kaia and my dad are pretty sick today so it’s a good thing we turned back.

now, back to the Galapagos Islands …

When we first arrived at the airport on Baltra Island, I was surprised.  I imagined the Galapagos islands to be lush and green with plenty of animals everywhere.  But what we first saw was practically a desert.  It was flat, dry, the only green vegetation were a few cacti, and there was not an animal in sight.  We took a 10 minute bus across to the channel between Baltra and Santa Cruz islands, took a short ferry across the channel, then a hour-long bus to Porto Ayora on the southern side of Santa Cruz.  About halfway across, the green trees started to reappear, and by the end of the ride we had already seen 3 giant tortoises by the side of the road, but I was surprised that so many tourists from all around the world came to see this.

Then I went SCUBA diving.

We knew that the dive boats left early in the morning and that we had to be well rested, so my mom and I went looking for a company soon after we arrived and found a hostel in Porto Ayora.  We booked one that went to Seymour Norte and Daphne Menor islets, which turn out to be right near Baltra Island, where we came from.  We tried on wetsuits and flippers, and got everything ready for the next day.  The boat left from Porto Ayora, and went around the east side of the island to the first dive site of Seymour Norte.  It took about an hour and a half, but it gave us the chance to learn the hand signals for marine life.  There was one for shark, sea turtle, hammerhead, moray eel and many more.  We also got to meet our fellow divers, including a couple from Australia who would be on the same cruise that we would be boarding the next day.  There were 8 divers and 2 divemasters, but since I’m only 12, I’m only allowed to dive to 12 metres (40 feet), so that’s all my mom got certified for.  And, it was our first dive since getting certified in Costa Rica, so we got our own divemaster because the others were going with the other divemaster down to 18 metres (60 feet).  My mom and I started worrying that we couldn’t remember in what order we had to attach our stuff to other stuff, like the regulator to the BCD, the regulator to the tank, making sure the pressure gauge worked, and so on.  But the divemasters and the helper on the boat got everything ready for us.  I guess it was just for the certification that we had to do everything ready ourselves.  All we had to do this time was sit on the edge of the boat, let them put on your BCD and flippers, put your mask on, regulator in, and fall into the water backwards.

Let me tell you, the underwater part of the Galapagos is completely different from on land.  It really seemed like an underwater jungle.  First, we saw a huge “garden” of Galapagos garden eels.  They get their name because they live in a little hole, with their heads poking out.  We watched the other divers swim over them.  When they got close, the eels stuck their heads in to their holes until they passed by (we couldn’t go deep enough to pass right above them).  We swam along a bit, then found ourselves above a enormous school of manta rays.  There were hundreds, all about a metre long.

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Then, we went to a shallower place, and got to see white-tipped reef sharks up close.  They were between 1 and 2 metres long, but weren’t dangerous at all.

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We swam through schools of colourful fish and saw starfish and stingrays on the bottom.  It was so cool!

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After about 30 minutes, we were getting low on air and had to come up.  The other group finished just before us.  On the boat, we had a snack as we went to the second dive site, the islet of Daphne Menor.  There were blue-footed boobies and sea lions on the rocks, but unfortunately, they didn’t feel like coming swimming with us.

Again, everything was ready for our second dive.  We got new tanks so we could dive for the same amount of time as the first.  On that dive, The thing we wanted to see the most was a sea turtle.  We were seeing lots of fish and starfish and sharks, until we got all excited because our divemaster Byron did the hand gesture for sea turtle.  It was lying on the bottom, then it started swimming.  It did a big circle around us.  Just as we thought it would swim out of sight, it turned a bit and we could see it vaguely.

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We saw many more sea turtles in the next few minutes, a few of them together.  We saw 2 metre long Galapagos sharks swimming near the surface.  A few eagle rays swam right under us at the end of the dive too.  It was such an awesome day!

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I wore a thick wetsuit on the first dive. The water was pretty cold, even on the equator! It's because of the current coming from the south.

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Me getting ready for the second dive.

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A morae eel.
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A spotted eagle ray swimming over garden eels. Note that the eels close to the ray are further into their holes.

So, that was my first dive, Galapagos.  Next up: Fiji……….Vanuatu maybe………….Great barrier reef in Australia………… I think I’m off to a good start!

The next time we explored the underwater world of the Galapagos was on our cruise.  Every day, we’d go snorkeling usually twice.  I liked what we saw on land.  The birds, the giant tortoises, they were all cool.  But I loved what we saw in the water.  There were sharks, small stingrays, and countless types of fish.  I identified many of them from the movie Finding Nemo

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A school of razor surgeonfish.
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A king angelfish.
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A parrotfish, about 50cm long
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A damselfish. They're the most common fish we saw.
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Kinda hard to tell, but this is an octopus, about 20cm long. When they move along the bottom, it looks so weird, like they're walking on 8 legs!
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A hogfish, about 50cm long.
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A little seahorse, only 5cm long!
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Even the vegetation underwater is colourful and beautiful!
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This is actually a shark! Full grown, but less than a metre.

The fish were amazing!  They were so colourful and abundant, and were hardly scared of us.  I could have caught one with my bare hands if I really tried!  But there was much more than fish underwater.  There were the sea turtles.  On the SCUBA dive,  I only saw them for a few seconds.  But at Punta Espinosa, in the Bolivar Strait between Fernandina and Isabela islands, they were everywhere!  I probably saw about 30 that day.  We snorkeled twice that day.  First, on the Fernandina side, I saw about 10.  Some were alone, but I saw a group of 4 at one point.

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This one is a male, because of the long tail.

Then, we went to the Isabela side of the strait.  We went snorkeling again upon arrival in Darwin Bay.  This time, our guide Victor guaranteed we’d see sea turtles.  The visibility was incredible, and it was very shallow.  I think I might have seen more sea turtles than fish that time!

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Kaia and I with a couple of turtles. We liked to dive down as I'm doing in this photo to get a better look at them.

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Sea turtles like to eat the green algae, so stay on the bottom unless they're swimming to better algae, or coming up to breathe.

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Here’s a short video of us swimming with the turtles: http://youtu.be/X2gcJDRzhnw

At a certain point, we wouldn’t even stop to look at them anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, they were really awesome, swimming so slowly and seemed so laid back, but once you’ve seen about 5 in the last 30 seconds, they start getting a bit boring. Who would’ve guessed that sea turtles would ever get boring! I once was swimming along when I saw everyone gathered and looking down at the bottom.  All excited, I came up to the surface and called: “What do you see?”.  Someone called back: “A sea turtle”.  “Oh”, I said, disappointed.  Just a sea turtle.  Same old.  There was more exciting stuff to see than that.

A rarer thing we saw though were Galapagos penguins.  When you think of penguins, you think of Antarctica, right?  Well guess what?  There are penguins in the Galapagos, which happen to straddle the equator!  The cold current coming north from Chile allows them to live here.  In fact, this is the entire reason why there is so much marine biodiversity in the Galapagos.  The warm current coming south from Central America collides with the cold Chilean current, allowing both warm-water animals like sea turtles and cold-water animals like penguins to live in the same place.  We had seen them from the boat a few times, hopping along the rocky shoreline, and into their little lava cave houses, which were formed many years ago by flowing lava after an eruption. but a few times, a small group of them swam right by us while we were snorkeling. Unlike sea turtles though, penguins eat fish, not algae, so need to be a lot faster, more agile swimmers to catch their food.  When we saw penguins swimming, they were just passing by and were only curious about us for a few seconds before swimming away.  But they were not scared of us at all.  As my dad was filming them with our GoPro camera out on a stick, one of them swam up and tapped the camera with it’s beak!
Here’s a little video of that: http://youtu.be/TkR9k1qVjnM

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Galapagos penguins are only about 30cm long!
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Oops! That's not a fish.
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When penguins swim, it looks like they're flying underwater!

There is so much to see and do in the Galapagos.  It is a one-of-a-kind place on earth where life lies in a perfect balance on land and in water, with very few natural predators.  But if you’re ever in the Galapagos, thinking the experience wasn’t worth the money, you probably haven’t seen the islands from the underwater point of view yet.

Jake

Listos para Machu Picchu

We’re sitting at a table overlooking the river in Aguas Caliente, at the base of Machu Picchu in Peru.  We arrived in Cusco 5 days ago.  2 days ago we started a 3 day trek to here, and mountain biked down 2300m vertical of spectacular mountain scenery, then jumped into rafts for 90 minutes of fun.  Yesterday we trekked about 20km along the river and into the mountains towards Machu Picchu, finishing in a fantastic riverside hot spring.  Today started with 2 hours of zip lining back and forth across the valley, then 3 hours of walking to where we are now.  We will be up at 4:30AM tomorrow to be ready to get to the entrance of Machu Picchu when it opens at 6AM.

We’ll head back to Cusco tomorrow evening, and next day (Sunday) we’ll be up early to start our next trek.  This one is a biggie.  We’re doing a 4 day very high altitude trek on the Mt. Ausangate circuit.  Sleeping at 4700m, and doing several very high passes – one at 5200m (17200ft).  This will be very challenging, and we know that many groups turn back.  We have altitude medicine and will buy some “oxy-shots” for dealing with panicky shortness of breath.  We have a local guide and a horse wrangler – one horse for our gear, and one “backup” horse in case one of us needs to do an emergency exit.  We’ll use our own tent but have rented down sleeping bags as we’ve been told to expect -15 deg C temperatures at night.  Scenery is supposed to be stunning … if we can see anything for the clouds.  We expect snow storms in the afternoons.  As always …we’ll update you on the blog later!

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This is on the Ausangate circuit. Hopefully we'll see some of this sunshine!

Here are a few thoughts from us today:

I never thought my first white water rafting would happen during a thunderstorm in the twilight” (Kaia)

Today’s zip lining was the best of the trip so far.  Some of the lines were more than 200m above the ground” (Jake)

The hot springs felt great after a 7 hour hike and soothed my dozens of black fly bites” (Yvonne)

Aguas Caliente is surreal.  A bustling tourist town squished into a tiny spot in a valley surrounded in every direction by towering, vertical mountains.  Surprisingly quaint, considering 3000 people arrive every day to prepare for Machu Picchu experience.” (Cam)

Galapagos – the Enchanted Islands

The Galapagos Islands have a mythic, even iconic reputation.   Growing up, I’d heard stories of bizarre, prehistoric animals that were not afraid of humans, living on stark volcanic islands.  And the significance of the islands in spurring on Darwin’s ideas of evolution are well known.  But beyond that, I really had little idea why these islands drew in so many visitors.  But now I understand.  I am writing this at 6AM on day 6 of our cruise of the islands – then sun just came up, and poured light onto the top of the huge volcano that is Fernandina Island.  Across the channel is the largest of the islands – Isabella – that is home to no less than 5 large volcanoes.  Their peaks soar to 1600m, which is impressive considering the size of the island.  Until this morning, the peaks of volcanoes have been shrouded in cloud, but this morning they are all in full view.  Wow.
There is much to recount of our time here – it is hard to know where to start.  Instead of sharing a day by day account of our activities and discoveries, we will instead share by theme – the land, water creatures, land creatures, birds etc.  We will also describe the challenges faced by the islands in terms of introduced species and growing pressures of tourism.  In this post I will just set the stage by describing our first day on the islands, and a bit of human history here.
We had no troubles convincing Kaia and Jake to get out on the morning of flight departure from coastal city Guayaquil.  The airport is spacious and modern.  The 1st stop, before checking in, is the inspection station, where they x-ray packs and look in anything suspicious for plants/animals/fruit that could be considered “introduced” species.  Next stop was to the ATM, which proceeded to deny us access to cash, but upon inspection of our bank account a few minutes later (thank goodness for airport WiFi!) we learned that the $300 we’d asked for had indeed been deducted from our account!  A flurry of internet/skyping left us virtually no further ahead.  We have our bank working on that one and will have to sort it out later …
The flight was packed … and it appeared that the competing airline flight that landed 30 minutes after us was also packed.  That adds up about right, because the islands receive on average about 160 tourists per day – 60000 a year!!   That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you’ve been on the islands and see the very limited infrastructure for handling that number.  We got some great sneak peaks out the windows, including a tiny island that Jake and Yvonne would dive at the next day.

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we've been looking forward to setting foot on the Galapagos Islands since well before departing Peterborough.
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Daphne menor is the closer of the two islands - Jake and Yvonne SCUBA dove at the base of the cliffs

The first order of business upon arrival at the airport on Baltra Island is to pay US $100 National Park fee.  Pretty steep.  But clearly it is not a deterrent to tourism, and the Park has their hands full in their introduced species eradication and marine monitoring programs, so if the money is being used wisely, no problem.  The largest center in the Galapagos Islands is Puerto Ayora (pop. 12,000) which is at the southern end of Santa Cruz island. 

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The airport is at the northern end of Baltra Island (remember you can enlarge any image by clicking on it).  By the time we drove across Baltra, took the short ferry to Santa Cruz then drove the 50 minute bus to Puerto Ayora, I got to wondering why the airport could not have been located on Santa Cruz, close to Puerto Ayora, because the island is relatively flat near the coast.  But it turns out that the US built a military airport on Baltra to help watch the Pacific during WWII, and this facility morphed into the existing civilian facility.

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short ferry ride across the Itabaca channel between Baltra and Santa Cruz islands.
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Santa Cruz island en route to Puerto Ayora. It appeared flat as we drove, but when my ears started popping, I checked the GPS altimeter and learned that we'd climbed over 600m. This, and all other islands are shield volcanoes means the runny lava flows quickly from the crater, building up a gently sloping cone shape.

Puerto Ayora is basic, with a rapidly expanded population, but the waterfront is nicely developed and tourism planning facilities abound. Yvonne and Jake quickly got to work booking their SCUBA dive the next day, while Kaia and I lined up a double kayak to explore in.
We had a quick introduction to wildlife in the Galapagos when we saw a half dozen sea lions lounging on the town wharf.  Oblivious to gawking tourists.  And not 30ft away a group of equally indifferent marine iguanas.  We would be seeing lots more of these guys in the days to come!

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Yvonne and Jake had 2 great dives on sites just north of Santa Cruz.  This was their very 1st dive (since certifying) so they had their own dive assistant which gave them confidence.  As a 12 yr old Jake is certified to only 40 ft (as opposed to adult 60ft) so they stayed within those bounds.  But still saw tons …. white tip reef sharks, school of manta rays, green sea turtles, and tons of colourful fish.

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Yvonne 40ft down, wearing a single glove to hang on to rocks during the 'drift' dive.
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Jake just before falling backwards in.
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Jake
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White tipped reef shark - about 5 ft long. Not aggressive.
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eagle rays
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green sea turtle

Meanwhile, Kaia and I set out in our kayak with snorkels.

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He had a great laugh as we paddled out of the harbour and saw how crafty the sea lions were in staking out comfortable lounge positions.

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look at ledge on back of boat

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This guy wins the prize. I can't figure out for the life of me how he got up there! (there was netting all across the lower back end of the boat)

Moments later we see our 1st swimming marine iguana.

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We paddled across some bays and through some interesting coves and saw lots of the Galapagos birds, including our first blue footed boobie.  These guys are probably the most famous wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, and you can imagine how much fun the t-shirt and post card designers have with the “boobie” spin-off jokes.

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the very blue feet are so curious looking!

We donned our snorkelling gear and headed out on a reef, seeing some great fish.  Kaia is rather afraid of fish, so she clung pretty tight to my hand.  But as she got used to them, she was able to navigate solo through schools of them.  But nothing could have prepared us for the sight as we turned our heads to see a GIANT (5ft long) green sea turtle swimming right beside us – we could have reached out to touch it.  Actually, we had to swim away from it to prevent bumping into it.  Hard to explain what it’s like swimming next to these gentle giants.  I went ashore to get my GoPro camera (to learn it was out of battery 😦  )   and within another few minutes we either found another turtle or re-found our 1st guy, and swam for 5 minutes with him.  That pretty much made our day, so we headed back to town and felt like we had something to talk about when Jake and Yvonne got back and shared their diving adventure.

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Kaia liked the name of this cruising catamaran
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so we had to paddle under it

We had time after reassembling to hike the 2.5 km to Tortuga beach.  Beautiful clear water, white sand and great fun in the waves.
We visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and tortoise breeding station the next morning.  Galapagos’s famous giant tortoises are actually under great threat (more on that later), so they’ve resorted to collecting eggs and incubating and hatching them onsite.

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I guess you can guess who this guy is ....

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hard to tell from the photo, but this guy is not even a year old yet (about 10" long). But he already has all his wrinkles!
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This guy is full grown

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Many people know the story of "lonesome George". Each Galapagos Island has their own subspecies of locally-adapted tortoises. "George" was the only one found on northern Pinta Island even after an exhaustive search. He lived out his final (many!) years at the reserve here with a couple of girlfriends from the closest island (they hoped they'd mate, but no luck). He is buried on site and this is his memorial.
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These land iguanas are much more rare than the marine variety.

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I'm not sure whether these finches eating out of Kaia's hand and on Jake's head are doing so because they are fearless of humans (as so much wildlife here is) or whether they've just been tamed by crackers)

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We were excited to leave Puero Ayora before lunch because we were headed to meet our cruise boat – the Floreana.  It was waiting for us in the Itabaca channel (which we’d crossed a couple days back).

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Nice boat!  There are 5 classes of cruise boats for the Galapagos.  We were in the middle “tourist superior” class.  We were told by so many people and guide books that you get what you pay for in the Galapagos, and if you want a good itinerary, a good, English speaking guide (so important!), decent food, ventilated cabins, and not too much bouncing around at sea, you need to avoid the bottom class or two.  Yvonne’s mom Betty had hoped to join us for this part of our trip, but in the end decided that the going from ship to zodiac and ashore from zodiac and rough trails would be too much for her mobility.  But she instead helped us out financially with the Galapagos trip … we otherwise would likely have been in the economy boat.  Thanks, Betty!
Onboard we met our travel mates for the 8 days.  A middle age couple from Switzerland, a father and 20-something daughter from Germany, a couple of younger women also from Switzerland, a young couple from Australia, and a couple of VERY energetic, traveled, fit and game senior traveling companions  from Victoria, BC and Minnesota.  They both reminded me of my own mom.  We were 14 in total.  Ship had capacity of 16.

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here we are on our last day, with guide Victor lying in front of us.

We met our crew of 7 that evening at dinner.  Captain, mate, sailor, engineer, cook, purser/host/cook, and our guide Victor.  Victor had been guiding in the Galapagos for 21 years, spoke fabulous English, was enthusiastic about all our adventures and had a good sense of humour.  Rooms were small, with a bunk bed in each.  But dining area lovely, and great common lounge up top.
First trip outing was back to Santa Cruz island to visit the “El Chatos” Tortoise reserve.  Here you walk among the many many wild tortoises.  You can get as close as 2m to them … beyond which they do a little hiss then retreat into their shell.

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Before arriving here, I'd never paused to wonder how big tortoise poop is. I don't suppose many of you have either. Pretty substantial, thought!

The attraction at this site are the “lava tubes”.  When this part of the island was formed, lava had been running through underground tubes.  When the volcano/lava retreated, it left quite remarkable tunnels.

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Then back to our ship for a celebratory drink and dinner, then set sail for Genovesa Island in the north.  So all these adventures …and we hadn’t even started our cruise!  A good omen for things to come.

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server Luis offers up our first dinner.

Cam