Monthly Archives: September 2013

Hiking the Inca Trail

Before sharing the toils and triumphs of our Inca Trail hike, here’s me getting the cast cut off my foot just two days before our hike began.


Hiking The Inca Trail

(Inca Trail / Machu Picchu – 18-23 September, 2013) Let’s get one thing straight from the onset, hiking the Inca Trail is no walk in the park (with or without an injury). It is a formidable challenge. Obviously doable… since thousands of people accomplish the marathon-sized trek each year. However, romanticized notions of the actual hiking experience itself should be set aside; the hike is grueling– long, steep uphill muscle-numbing climbs are followed by never ending descents that pound the knees into aching submission. It’s tough.

As immensely difficult as it is, the unique experience of hiking the Inca Trail is most definitely worth every step.

Jessica and I signed up for the classic 4 day/3 night Inca Trail hike, which begins at Kilometer 82 (yes, that’s literally the name of the town) and ends in Machu Picchu. At 44 kilometers (26 miles) in length, it is literally a marathon.

Day 1, Excited to Be Hitting the Trail

Our spirits soared as the day began. We’d reserved our spot on the Inca Trail hike 7 months prior and now (finally) our day of departure was here. Excitement, apprehension, and eagerness rose out of bed with us at 4:45 AM the day of our hike. A shuttle bus picked us up from our hostel a bit later and we were officially underway.

Our guide introduced himself as David, a well-educated Peruvian guy of about 30 years old. He spoke English well despite having grown up in a tiny farming village in rural Peru. His father sent him to school in Cusco at a young age where he eventually got his university degree in Tourism and History. David spent the first few minutes in the center-front of the bus introducing himself and describing what our morning would look like: First, we’d continue our bus ride for an hour and 40 minutes through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to Ollantaytambo. There we would make a brief stop for breakfast. Then an additional 30 minutes of rocky-roaded bus travel was needed before arriving to Kilometer 82, our starting point for the Inca Trail.

Getting organized at Kilometer 82.


There were a total of 12 people in our group, five couples plus two guys that had been friends since their days together in the Air Force. Here we are at the trail head, all fresh and full of energy.


And so we began walking. That first day was mostly easy slopes up followed by gentle descents. For the better part of the day, we hugged the Urubamba river, a picturesque flow of rumbling glacier-melt that rushed through the valley as if late to an important event. The river’s song became our soundtrack and even when a turn in the trail prompted us to say good-bye to the Urubamba, we still followed one of its tributaries so that the sound of tumbling water was ever-present.

We stopped for lunch midway through our trek and then hiked another few hours to the first campsite. Along the way, we paused several times while David filled us in on some of the more interesting plants the Inca’s used as medicines. We also got our first real introduction to the porters or “chaskis” that accompanied us the entire hike. Chaski is a Quechua word that means fleet-footed runner, and they certainly were. Meaning, they didn’t actually accompany us on the trail as much as they ran past us carrying food, cooking equipment, and our tents. Our group of 12 was assisted by….get this… a total of 18 chaskis.

Our guide (David) sharing his knowlegde. Chaskis hauling their huge packs up the trail. Campsite #1.

Chaskis Make the Trek

Before you scoff and chortle at the proportion (or disproportion) of chaskis to tourists and conclude that our hike must have therefore been a cake-walk, I warn you, don’t even go there! What the chaskis did for us was to make our hike of the Inca Trail many times more enjoyable that it otherwise might have been. However, I assure you…they did not carry us on their backs (nor did they even carry our personal backpacks).

To fully appreciate the role of the chaskis and the greater chaski culture one must first know a bit about their history. Prior to 2002 tourists and tour companies for the Inca Trail hired chaskis to carry the camping equipment without any controls or guidelines. This led to the severe chaskis-abuse. Chaskis come to work on the Inca Trail from poor farming communities throughout the Andean region of Peru. They are typically not highly educated, but of strong physical stock. Trekking companies would routinely take advantage of them by requiring that they carry packs of 60, 70, 80 or more pounds, and then not provide them with adequate food or sleeping conditions.

That’s when the Peruvian government stepped in to regulate. Now (by law), chaskis are not allowed to carry more than 18 kilos each (about 40 lbs). At the start of the trail they go through a weigh-in procedure (just like long-haul truckers) to ensure no packs exceed the limit and also that weights are distributed fairly among the chaskis. Further requirements are that chaskis be provided a sleeping bag, shelter, and food equivalent in amount to what is cooked for the tourists they serve.

Chaskis at the weigh station (next to the rushing Urubamba river).


These government regulations revolutionized (and humanized) the Inca Trail “industry.” I didn’t hear specifically how much the chaskis are paid, but our guide said that (when tips are included) they can earn an amount equivalent to what a first year teacher would make in the states (adjusted for cost-of-living differences, of course). They work hard for it, but compared to what they could earn working on the farm, it’s good money.

Day 2, The Hardest Day

We were warned the second day of our trek would be the most difficult. We had to hike up and over a 13,677 (4200 m) foot pass in order to climb out of one valley and into the next. The trail itself is constructed of small and large stones planted individually with thought and care. Its width averages about 4 1/2 feet wide, but varies from 2 feet wide in places to 5 or 6 feet. The height and depth of the steps is mostly what kills you…and then of course, the sheer number of them. The Inca people were not tall, but they sure as heck made some tall steps.

I haven’t even mentioned the high altitude. Maybe that’s the most challenging aspect of it. Ascend too many steps too quickly and you’ll feel your heart thumping furiously in your chest. Ascend too slowly and people will pass you up and make you feel like a chump. (I’m not sure which is worse.)

The morning portion of day two was heavy on the uphill, but nothing compared to what we faced in the afternoon. If you look closely deep into the photo below, you will see the camp where we ate lunch. The uphill climb from there was steep and relentless, especially the final rise to the pass. Jessica and I both used the walking sticks we’d rented to leverage our way up step by agonizing step. I reached the high-pass first and snapped Jessica’s final push to the summit.


Clouds enveloped us from time to time creating a mystical scene.

Our afternoon hike began at the base of the V far below.



Though our group celebrated heartily and took a good many photos, the day’s hike didn’t end at the high pass. What goes up must come down, doesn’t just apply to Frisbees. Though our legs were stressed and tired from muscling up the 200+ stories worth of stone steps to the ridge-line, several hundred more giant, narrow, uneven, Inca-stone down-steps awaited us on the other side. Hiking downhill may take slightly less brute exertion than going up, but not by much. Each step down applies compression forces to the joints that accumulate quickly into aches and pains. Especially when the steps are large, uneven, and slick from the messy rain that started falling on us as we carefully lowered ourselves down the mountain.

The arrow points to the passage over the ridge. From there, follow the trail as it plummets sharply into the next valley and our Day 2 campsite.


As I mentioned, Jessica and I had both been using our walking sticks all day. They really helped take a degree of pressure off our legs. We stopped to lengthened them a few inches for the downhill. Jessica, still burdened by a latent ski injury, took each step slow and careful. And the way I was treating my freshly sprained ankle was just asking for trouble, so I took it super-slow on the down strokes, too. Each of us shrieked more than a few times as occasionally our steps settled down at just the wrong angle for our injuries. But with patience and steady determination, we reached the campsite below, exhausted and thrilled the hardest day of our hike was over.

Day 3, Beware of the Gringo Killer

Our guide warned us that Day 2 was the hardest day, but let that record show that Day 3 (the longest day) was a helluva close runner-up. Ten miles of trail would be covered on the third day, three miles more than we had hiked on either of the first two days. Our rewards for the extra effort were spectacular views of soaring glacier peaks and lengthy green valleys partially filled by ghostly clouds of moisture. We caught sight of a shimmering rainbow just after a light rain, too. We also stopped to visit several Inca sites along the trail and had ample chance to marvel at their accomplishments.

Aside from the Incan Ruins and breathtaking views the trail delivers, the actual stone trail itself is quite a head-shaking achievement. It is more than just the sum total of hundreds of thousands of large stones being placed along a path. In many places, the Incans built-up the trail by several meters so that the path you walk on practically floats next to the mountainside, not on it. There are a couple of “Incan tunnels” where the trail dives behind a sliding rock face. Along parts of the trail, you’ll find slits- 4 inch wide “channels” -carved into the stone path to allow water to drain through the trail without eroding it. All in all, the Inca trail is a feat of engineering that rivals even the great pyramids.

Our group pauses for a “family” photo. (By day 3 we were like family)


The last couple of hours of our third day on the trail were perhaps the toughest of all. Our guide told us this section was affectionately known by the locals as the “gringo killer.” We would face 2,000 steps downward before arriving to the campsite for the night. It’s called the gringo killer because of the toll it takes on the knees. The tough downhill scramble we’d completed the previous day was only about 500 steps, now we’d have four times that many to overcome. And on this longest day of hiking, we had the additional threat of darkness to contend with. Yikes!


By the time Jessica and I made camp, it was indeed nightfall. The chaskis applauded our shaky-legged arrival into camp and handed us a welcoming cup of strawberry punch and a freshly-popped snack of warm popcorn.

Best Camping Food EVER!

Typical camping food is what? Maybe hot dogs, macaroni ‘n cheese and trail mix. If true, our meals were anything but typical. Our first day’s lunch was stuffed trout with a side of rice and veggies. Other meals included broiled chicken, ceviche, pasta salad, and even quiche. Almost every meal began with soup, but I’m talking really top-notch soup….like, four-star-restaurant quality soup! Many moments on the trail were quite chilly so the soups warmed our hands as well as our stomaches.

Check out the spread.


We even ate fancy pancakes for breakfast on two occasions. (They were “fancy” because of the little carmel syrup design they swirled around the edges.) Someone from our group commented, “I don’t know how they cooked 12 pancakes and served them all to us fresh and hot. Whenever I make pancakes on a camping trip, I have to cook them one at a time.”

Each main course was followed by an item of dessert, too. We had chocolate pudding, a fruit-cobbler-ish type of dish and even jello on one occasion. Don’t you need a refrigerator to make jello? Perhaps it was simply cold enough outside.

Day 4, Arriving to Machu Picchu

This final day of our Incan adventure started alarmingly early…as in 3:20 in the freakin’ AM. An early start was needed for several reasons; to eat breakfast, pack-up our gear, and still get a good spot in line at the Machu Picchu check-point. Also, because our team of chaskis was leaving us; their last act being a mad dash down the mountainside to the make the first train back towards Cusco.

The early morning light was slowly spilling over the mountains just as our group passed through the check-point at 5:30 AM. We marched dutifully behind our guide for close to an hour more, in this final push towards our Machu Picchu goal.

Most visitors to Machu Picchu arrive through its “main” entrance, but there are actually several routes to get there. The Inca Trail approaches the city through the Sun Gate, a separate, but connected Inca site located to the east of Machu Picchu city. The Sun Gate’s connection to Machu Picchu is both spiritual and astrological; on the morning of the fall equinox the sun’s rays will exactly beam through the Sun Gate and strike a particular “astronomy” building at the center of the city, thus marking the start of a new season. (Those Incas were geniuses!)

Our group took seats at the Sun Gate steps, still an hour’s hike away from Machu Picchu itself, and waited for the sun to rise over the mountains. Machu Picchu lay below us, but was totally obscured by clouds and fog. The sun was surely there on schedule (I think), but its rays could not penetrate the white mist…at first. The more patiently we waited, the more the scene began to change and clear. First we saw pieces of mountains across the way, then whole mountainsides. The fog thinned more quickly as the minutes passed. Then, there is was….the famed Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, slowly emerging through the parting clouds. It was the moment we’d be waiting for. A burst of claps and cheers erupted. Machu Picchu is truly a jewel on earth.


Just a bit more hiking down from the Sun Gate finally delivered us to Machu Picchu city. We had arrived. Once there, David shared with us his significant study of the site before saying his good-byes. We were then free to explore the place on our own, which we did in earnest.



After hiking so hard and for so long, reaching our Machu Picchu goal was satisfying, but not a pinnacle moment. It was the hike itself, THAT was what we had come for. Machu Picchu is a phenomenal place and I’d recommend everyone visit it at least once in their lifetime. But if you have the time, money and courage, I’d really recommend you hike the Inca Trail.

Animals on the trail…


Aguas Calientes Extra

I’ve heard a lot of people poo-poo Aguas Calientes, the small city that lies at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. Jessica and I stayed there one night before traveling back to Cusco by train. Yes, it’s touristy and a little overpriced compared to the rest of Peru, but it’s also a beautiful place. A river runs right through the middle of it before curling its way around the mountain. Several simple bridges cross the river and sidewalks line its edges. The whole town is surrounded by high mountain walls giving it a hidden treasure type of appeal.


We would have been happy to stay in Aguas Calientes several more days, but we are also certain more hidden gems await us in other parts of the world. Onward we travel…

Forced Slow-Down In Peru

Just 10 days before our date with the Inca Trail, I busted my ankle. This ain’t good, my friends. I’m gonna need that ankle! Hiking the Inca Trail is not a trivial pursuit. It’s four straight days of hiking on the steep and rocky mountain passageways once traveled by the Inca people. For three of our nights we will sleep in tents on mountain clearings beneath the same stars the Incas once worshipped. At the end of our hike we will see the sun rise on Machu Picchu.

At least, that’s the plan. For Pachacuti’s sake, I need that ankle!

30 Hours to Lima by Bus

The third stop of our round the world trip is Peru, the next country south from Ecuador. To get there we decided to forego the speed and luxury of flying and try out a 30 hour bus ride. Jessica was VERY apprehensive about this prospect. Totally understandable, after all, this would be the 20th bus ride of our trip (so far). Some of those 20 bus rides weren’t so bad, but a few of them were downright painful.

We’d heard from several fellow travelers that Cruz del Sur is the bus company to go with. Furthermore, it was recommended that we spend the extra money to upgrade to VIP service. VIP? That’s gotta be for us. The regular bus ticket from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Lima, Peru was about $60. Just $30 more would give us that upgrade we so richly deserved. Compared to the $500 (each) plane ride either price seemed like chump change.

As we entered the bus and walked down the aisle to our seats, I kept an eye on Jessica’s face. Would she hate it? But just then a shaft of light beamed down upon us and a heavenly choir took to song. Jessica slid into her seat, practically a Laz-e-Boy recliner, and smiled. The bus was fabulous! This 30 hour ride wouldn’t be bad at all…and it wasn’t. In a very real way, it forced us to slow down a bit and enjoy being still for a change.

A Little Help From Our New Friends

Sometimes the best part of traveling has little to do with the place you are visiting and everything to do with the people you meet while there. So it was for us in Lima. We want to give the highest of thanks to the Gutierrez-Leon family, our wonderful hosts for our time in Lima. They picked us up from the bus terminal and introduced us to historic Lima during the drive to their home in the eastern suburbs of Lima proper. That was just for starters. They had no idea what they’d signed up for.

We’d arrived to Lima on Saturday. Just as I do upon arriving in any new city, I immediately scouted the area for Ultimate. To my delight, the local Ultimate team held their weekly practices the following day (Sunday)…and not too far from where we were staying. I touched base with (Fred Burke) one of the organizers and he enthusiastically invited me to join. It would be my first time to play Ultimate since beginning our travels, so obviously I was super stoked!

The team welcomed me warmly and practice commenced, led by a American/Canadian named Sean Harkins. We ran through a few good drills and then started playing a game of 5 on 5. The outdoor field was artificial turf and remarkably great to play on. A small chunk of the field was being used by a couple of soccer teams so our field was not full-size, but nearly so.



I was feeling great, having tons of fun, and playing my usual awesome game when it all went to the crapper in one faulty step. I was defending a deep throw and just about to leap up to make a smokin’ D, when my jump-foot planted on top of the receiver’s causing my foot to roll completely onto its side. I felt the disgusting wrench of tendons and ligaments being stretched beyond their limits. Immediately I knew this was no minor injury. My first thought, “I’m done.” The pain was sharp. I winced and rolled on the ground for a few minutes before getting some help off the field.

The story of my injury is not all bad. Jessica was videoing the play with her camera and caught the whole thing. How great is that?!

There Is A Doctor in the House

Turns out that my extreme misfortune was encased in a whole lot of good fortune. Luz Gutierrez, the mom of our host family, is not just a helluva nice woman, but also a family doctor. After the game, we kept to our standing plan of eating ceviche and drinking Pisco Sours with the family at one of their favorite restaurants. My busted ankle surely felt better once my belly was full of classic Peruvian ceviche and my head vaguely imbued with Peru’s national drink. (The ice applied to my ankle and the ibuprofen I took probably helped, too.)

By the time dinner wrapped up evening was upon us. The family showed us around Peru’s historic district by foot (the main plaza and the president’s residence, etc) and took us for a stroll through one of the downtown parks. It was Sunday night, but it was a street party, too. Throngs of people swirled through the space, stopping to watch street entertainers, or posing for photos. And eating, eating, eating. Every few feet there was a vendor selling everything from rice pudding to cuy (guinea pig) to “picarones” -Lima’s version of the funnel cake.

During our walk I was limping along but mostly able to keep up with everyone else. Though stepping up or down curbs was especially difficult. It was becoming clear that I should probably get my ankle x-rayed.

Midnight in a Strange Place

What I had was probably just a severe sprain, but if there was a break or tear somewhere beneath the swollen skin’s surface, and it went untreated…it could seriously jeopardize so much of our travel plans.

Early in her career, my Peruvian mom worked at a particular medical clinic close to the center of Lima. She knew their service would be relatively good and reasonably fast so it was to this clinic that they took me even though by this time it was about 10:30 pm. So weird to find myself sitting in a wheelchair inside a Peruvian medical clinic on a Sunday night. I’m looking around the place thinking, how the hell did I get here?!

I got x-rayed right away but it took about an hour and a half for me to see a doctor. He was an older gent who didn’t seem phased in the least at finding a bum-footed gringo in his clinic that Sunday just as the clock was calling for midnight. He’d already seen it all, I suppose. Almost reflexively, his recommendation was to throw a cast on it. And not one of those cool, air-pump, walking casts. No, he was old-school all the way. His assistant appeared with a tub of water and rolls of plaster-infused fabric. The doctor gently dipped a roll into the water and then proceeded to wrap my foot and ankle like a grade school art-project. One wet roll of plaster circled on, then a second. In just 5 minutes it was dry and I was encased.


By the time Ramiro (the dad) and Luz carted Jessica and me back to their home it was close to 1:30 in the morning. They both worked the next day. My goodness, they were doing so much for us hapless gringos; all with splendid good humor and grace.

Cucharas, Nerviosos and Guacamole

One evening after dinner with the Gutierrez-Leon family, Jessica suggested a friendly game of Spoons. You know, the card game where spoons are placed in the middle of the table, one of which will be grabbed by whomever gathers four-of-a-kind first. Once one spoon is taken, it’s a free-for-all grab of all remaining spoons. Since the game is started with one less spoon than the number of players, someone gets the boot each round. We played a couple of games of spoons and laughed and smiled throughout. Jessica (of course) ended up the Spoons champ.

It was then our turn to learn a new card game. Nerviosos, it’s called (best translation: Nervous Ones). It’s a simple game, but a bit challenging to describe. Suffice it to say that you have to be quick, but not so anxious about being quick that you jump-the-gun; that will cost you as much as being the slowest. It’s a fun family game we can’t wait to bring back to the states.


Our last night with the family, Jessica and I insisted on cooking the family meal. We attempted enchiladas, but fell a bit short regarding the sauce (just not that tasty). We did manage to score a big success with our guacamole. Who knew avocados, onions, tomatoes, lime juice, and salt & pepper could impress so throughly?

For dessert, Jessica made her delicious crustless apple pie and served it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. BAM! Another big hit was scored!

Wrecked Ankle Wrecks Plans

Aside from food and games with the family, not much happened during our days in Lima. I was laid up with my foot elevated and Jessica was pressed into take-care-of-Gary mode. Canceled were the next two major stops on the Peru portion of our journey- Arequipa and Lake Titicaca. Postponed, really. We hope to still make those destinations, but it will now have to come after Machu Picchu, not before.

Among the changes we attempted to make was a postponement of our hike of the Inca Trail. It was coming up in just 10 days. I needed more time to heal before tackling such grueling hike. No can do, we learned… changes were NOT POSSIBLE under any circumstances. Everything about the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is strictly and tightly controlled by the government. When the tour companies say they can’t do anything, it is truly because they can’t.

Ready or not, we had to hike it as scheduled. After 5 days of bumbling around (and breaking stuff) in Lima, we thanked our host family as profusely as possible and then boarded a flight to Cusco– gateway city to Machu Pichu. The doctor prescribed that my cast stay on for a minimum of 20 days. For me to hike, it would have to come off in 9. Hopefully, the 9 day rest would be sufficient for proper healing to take hold.

Cusco, Navel of the World

We love Cusco! It’s a vibrant city with such a happy vibe. Still with the cast on my foot, our ability to get around Cusco was sorely compromised. Though, we did manage a city tour on one of those open-decked buses. That was cool. We also visited the Inca Museum. Interesting, but lacking in many key ways, like only half of the exhibits had placards in both Spanish and English. Some exhibits had neither. Anyway, we were happy to be out and doing as much as we could with me on crutches.



Jessica stands with Chief Pachacuti, the 9th Incan leader and the one for whom Machu Picchu was built.


Cusco is really an amazing place. The streets, sidewalks and public plazas are perpetually filled with people and more people. Many are locals, or course, but it’s obvious that thousands are foreigners from all over the world. The name Cusco is derived from the Chechwa word Qosqo, which means navel. So named by the Incas because it was the center of their empire. Prophetic, it seems to me, since Cusco has become such a lively gathering place for people from all parts of the world….collecting themselves in Cusco like lint in a belly button.

A random and colorful parade crossed our path so Jessica snapped a couple of photos.


Since arriving in Cusco, both Jessica and I have experienced a bit of altitude sickness. Not surprising since we’re hovering at around 12,000 feet. Need air, please! Nothing to worry about and good to go through it and survive before starting our hike of the Inca Trail. Now, let’s just hope my ankle and Jessica’s knee can survive, too.

I am publishing this post on the even of our Inca Trail hike. My cast came off yesterday. Honestly, my ankle didn’t look so hot. And walking on it was more difficult than I expected…especially at first. But the more I walked on it the more flexible and less painful it became. I think I can do it. I will tape it up tight and wear an ankle brace. Jessica will be wearing her knee brace, too.

Wish us both luck, friends. My next post will report if we made it or not. Don’t go away.

Galapagos The Unexpected

(Galápagos Islands, Ecuador – 4 September, 2013) One of the mostly highly prized destinations in all the world is the Galápagos Islands….and we were there. Of all the places we plan to travel this year Galápagos sat high on our most-treasured places list. Now we’ve been there and done that. So, in addition to sharing some stories of what we saw and what we did, I will give you the unvarnished truth about Galápagos- the good, the bad, and the snuggly.


“Not What I Pictured”

We landed on Baltra Island, just one of the 18 islands of significant size that make up the Galápagos Islands (officially named the Archipelago of Colon.) Additionally, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tiny islets and rock outcroppings that make up the entire chain of islands. Most people coming to Galápagos land on Baltra Island because it sits close to the middle of all the major islands and is the nearest runway to where the most people are– the city of Puerta Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz.

You may have a notion that very few people actually live on the Galápagos Islands…like maybe it’s just the Park Rangers, a few volunteers, plus a couple of research scientists. Not true. Puerta Ayora alone is a town of more than 20,000 people. They have schools and grocery stores and laundry mats and hospitals, etc. Thousands more live in little towns spread all over the islands, though no other concentration of people is nearly as large as Puerta Ayora.

The islands of Baltra (where we landed) and Santa Cruz (where we stayed) are almost one island; only a narrow strip of water separates the two. It’s close enough to swim, but better to take the ferry for $1 if you want to keep your luggage dry. Baltra, the airport, the ferry, that’s all happening on the north end of Santa Cruz. Puerta Ayora is all south side, bro. To traverse the island, all comers must either take the 1 hour bus ride or slightly faster taxi. (Personal/private cars are not allowed.) Walking the length of the island would surely be a rewarding experience, too, but that’s an all-day affair and probably not the best use of your time.

The highway from the ferry on the north side of Santa Cruz to Puerta Ayora on the south side cuts directly through the island’s middle. Climatologists would surely find the journey interesting because of how much the ambient changes when crossing from one end of the island to the other. The northern half is almost desert, not the Arizona (roadrunner and coyote) type, but very reminiscent of far west Texas. The entrance to Big Bend National Park on Galápagos? Yep! Now you’ve got it.

The highest point on Santa Cruz island is its center. Meaning, the bus ride took us directly up-and-over its raised middle. As we approached “the highlands” (around 1600 ft), we were leaving the desert climate behind; blue skies mixed to gray and the vegetation thickened. From there we practically rolled downhill all the way into Puerta Ayora where we stayed for 5 nights.

I’d seen enough pictures of the Galápagos Islands before coming here to know what to expect, but Jessica had not. I imagine her idea of Galapagos is typical– lush green forested islands surrounded by beautiful translucent turquoise waters. The gorgeous water part is spot on, but “lush green” it is generally not. Galápagos has two seasons, wet and dry, each lasting about half the year. Apparently, however much rain the islands get, it’s not enough to result in greenery typical of tropical islands. The Galápagos Islands are amazing and abundantly beautiful, just not necessarily in the way one might expect.

Here I am with a cactus tree. It is a cactus, but grows up tall like a tree. Check out its unusual bark.


Darwin’s Wild Life

The Galápagos Islands are known the world over primarily for two (intertwining) reasons, the unique wildlife and the hugely important contribution the study of that wildlife made to the scientific community, with special regard to the biological origins of life. While in his early twenties, Charles Darwin spent just five weeks in the Galápagos Islands and only landed upon four of them. But what he observed on those islands in that short period of time contributed to him solving one of the greatest puzzles of science- how and why new species are created.

In case you don’t know the story, here’s the gist. Since the islands were so remote and relatively young geologically, Darwin’s first question to ponder was how did the animals get there? Regarding only the finches, (since they were perhaps the biggest players in Darwin’s story), it was assumed that a few of them must have somehow arrived to one of the Galapagos Islands from the mainland. After all, they were similar enough to the mainland finches. Perhaps they got caught up in a storm or wound up stranded on some driftwood that floated over from the mainland. Who knows? The point is that those first few early birds reproduced successfully enough to eventually populate their island.


From there a few adventuresome birds wound up on a second island and populated it. And then to a third island, and then a fourth, etc. The key was that the finches on each island were slightly different- especially their beaks. And they were each different in ways that better suited them for survival on their particular island. So, if they were all descendants from the first arrivals, how did they become differentiated? Darwin’s ground-breaking answer was: Natural selection.

Did Jessica and I see these finches? You got that right! They are immanently cute and very friendly, especially when there was food to be had.

He comes close….closer….oops, too close! …Ah what the heck.

Tortuga Bay

One of our first explorations of Santa Cruz Island was a memorable trek to Tortuga Bay. Just a few blocks away from our hostel began a nicely constructed stone path we strolled down for about 45 minutes before it delivered us to a beautiful powder-sand beach. Another 15 minutes of walking the length of the beach lead us through a colony of marine iguanas to our Tortuga Bay destination.

Once there we rented a kayak and began exploring the waters by paddle. We’d brought snorkeling gear with us, too, if we chose to look for life underwater. The small bay was protected by mangroves on two sides and a beach on the near end. The side that opened to the ocean was guarded by volcanic rocks leaving the waters of Tortuga Bay forever calm. We were told we might find white tip sharks if we hugged the line of mangroves on the left so we paddled there first. It didn’t take long before Jessica spotted our first shark of the day. About four feet long and sporting a little white color on its dorsal fin, this happy hunter slithered by us like he hadn’t a care. We gave chase in our kayak trying to capture a photo, but this shark wasn’t cooperating. Moments later he was lost to the glare shining on top the water.

Not to worry, apparently we were paddling on the white-tipped shark highway because it wasn’t long before we spotted another. Soon after, a third. None posed for a photo-op, but we managed at least one decent snap.


Eager to try out the snorkeling, I dipped slowly from the kayak into the chilly, “shark-infested” waters. Saw some fish, but no sharks. Once back in the boat, we paddled towards the other side of the bay where they said turtles could be found. Sure enough, Jessica spotted a sea turtle at some distance just coming up to the surface for a breather. We paddled over to snatch a photo, but he submerged himself shyly just as Jessica was lifting the camera. Hey, it ain’t easy to paddle a kayak and operate a camera at the same time. You try it.

More turtle searching lead us to spot some sea birds on the far bank. We paddled closer to find a pelican and several slightly smaller birds with pretty blue feet. We’d found the famous blue-footed boobies! We kayaked closer and fumbled with our cameras. This time, however, there was no need to rush. That’s one thing about much of the wildlife on Galápagos, they don’t have a natural fear of man. We floated right up upon them and they scarcely batted an eye.


Los Kioskos

During our very first bus ride on the island (the one from the ferry to Puerta Ayora), I was last to board and wound up seated next to the bus driver. I learned he was a born and raised 20130911-143851.jpgon Santa Cruz Island so I took advantage of the moment and asked him where he likes to eat in Puerta Ayora. His smiling response, “En mi casa.” Say what?! Okay, turns out our bus driver was also a comedian. After giving him the laugh he deserved, I pressed him for a real answer and he offered, “Los Kioskos.”

Was this the name of a restaurant? A street? Turns out neither. It was simply a term the locals use for a section of a street that food vendors crowd with tables and chairs each evening around dinner time. Hungry diners soon fill the seats. Since Los Kioskos was only a block away from our hostel (and cheap and good), we ate there three or four times including one of our splurge-nights when we decided to share a fresh-caught lobster. It was dee-ee-licious!


Day Trippers

We booked all five of our nights in Puerta Ayora on Santa Cruz Island with the plan of going on day-trips from there. It’s a great hub, but admittedly committing to 5 nights in one location didn’t give us the flexibility to stay over on another island if that is what we wanted to do. It all worked out, but if we had it to do over again, we might have paid for just one or two nights at a time.

The two excursions we chose were a land and sea guided tour of Santa Cruz Island, and a guided tour of Isabella Island which lies 2 1/2 hours to the west of Santa Cruz by boat. On these tours we got up-close and personal with the famous Galápagos giant tortoises, and oodles of sea lions we were warned not to touch, though the urge to scratch their heads like you would a dog was extremely strong in me. Time for snorkeling was included in both our tours giving us additional chances to snap the coveted sea turtle pic we’d missed earlier. We also followed a cool manta ray for a while and got him to strike a pose.


The tours took us to several cool spots we might never have seen on our own. The Muro de Lagrimas (Wall of Tears), for example. It’s a designated international historic site on the island of Isabella, which was used as a penal colony in the late 1940’s. (Ecuador’s version of Alcatraz.) One of the most interesting facts about the prison was that it had no walls. Prisoners could run around the island all they wanted. However, they could never venture too far because the island has no natural sources of drinking water. Their very lives depended on the desalinated water dispensed by the prison guards.

A second charming story we were told about the prison involved a brutal warden that decided his prisoners needed to build a wall around their compound. He demanded the construction of the wall be such that it could not be scaled without triggering an avalanche of the heavy lava rocks from which it was made. Its dimensions were 22 feet high and 22 feet wide at the base. Only a relatively small portion of the wall was ever finished. Nevertheless, many prisoners died from injury or exhaustion (or were outright killed by the guards) during its construction.


To me the wall looked like it would be easy to climb, but our guide told us that a couple of years ago two college-aged visitors tried to scale it for a photo-op. One ended up with a broken leg when the wall did what it was designed to do….crumble on top of would-be escapees (and knuckleheaded tourists).

In, on, and all around the boat dock on Isabella Island were dozens of sea lions. They lazed on top of the streets and sidewalks like stray dogs. Again, so snugly cute, but our guide was clear that we not touch them. (But… “They’re so fluffy!”) Among the not-so-fluffy on Isabella were the largest sub-species of marine iguana; yellow-ish fellows with Freddie Kruger claws. Some say they see a wry smile in each of those little iguana faces, but I have trouble finding it.

Two Views of Galapagos

Most people that visit the Galápagos Islands do so very differently then we did. To stay within our modest travel budget, we spent our nights in a hostel on one of the islands and sought out day-trips from there. The more expensive alternative would have been to choose a cruise package. Cruises can be as short as 4 days/3 nights, or as long as two weeks. When you choose to cruise, you sleep on the boat each night and eat most of your meals there, too. Travel between the islands is done overnight while you sleep (or party) so that each morning you wake up parked smartly in front a new island.

Cruise ship accommodations will range from budget to luxury as will the size of your boat- from smaller and more intimate to larger and more stable, all depending on your preference. Day-trips to the islands from the cruise ships are always lead by a knowledgable (and probably English-speaking) guide. The cost per person per night will start at around $150 and go up from there. Awfully pricey for us, but the advantages of seeing the Galápagos Islands in this way are considerable. You will probably see more of what you came to the islands to see by cruise ship than you could any other way.

However, by cruising you would miss many of the great experiences we had (even through gaining others). For example, I rented a bicycle one afternoon and paid a taxi driver $10 to take me (and the bike) to the highlands of Santa Cruz island. From there I visited two exotic looking craters called Los Gemelos (The Twins), saw roadside tortoises in their natural habitat, and hiked through a very cool half-mile long lava tunnel. I then stopped off at a the tiniest of tiendas for a Coke and to eat my lunch– a homemade tuna sandwich I’d packed for my trip. Afterwards, I rolled back down to Puerta Ayora and rejoined Jessica who had spent her day strolling through the shops and relaxing in a hammock. It was the kind of great day a cruise ship package couldn’t possibly include.

Sad to Leave, But Happy to Whale

Jessica and I both experienced a wave of sadness on the day we departed the islands. Who knows if we will ever go there again? We certainly would like to, but on a cruise ship next time… to get that second view of the islands we didn’t experience this time around.

After leaving Galápagos, we flew to the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil where we caught a 4 1/2 hour bus ride to Puerto Lopez, our final destination in Ecuador. We were heading to this coastal fishing town with one goal in mind… to see some whales! The write-up for the hostel we stayed in said we might even see whales from our couch! We did not, but I have no doubt it’s been done before. The hostel was a little apartment and sure enough we could see a big swath of the sea right through the living room window, but I guess no whales were crossing when we were looking.

We had much better luck once we signed up for a whale-watching excursion. It’s hard to describe the level of excitement one experiences when seeing a whale swimming in the wild. It’s intensely thrilling so say the least; makes you want to take a deep breath and hold it…as if that will freeze the moment a little longer.

The first sighting was of two whales who swam together like a couple out for a stroll. At first they looked like massive black dolphins, their shiny smooth backs and dorsal fins rolling through the water’s surface. But when their massive tales rose high out of the water, they were exclusively and clearly whales; humpback whales, to be specific. One of them lifted his tale and then smacked it down four times in a row before diving out of sight. I think he wanted to make sure nobody missed taking his photo.

We heard our boat’s captain talking on his cell phone. He was checking with his other whale watching boat captain buddies to find out where we might find some more. Moments later we were skimming quickly over the high seas to another (I guess, not so randomly chosen) spot in the ocean. Ahoy, matey! Two more whales were soon spotted. This duo gave us even more of a show than the first couple. As they swam lazily through the surf, one lifted its huge 15 feet long pectoral fin into the air and smacked it down upon the water’s surface. Smack to the left! Then a smack to the right! The whale was practically rolling over onto its back as it splashed those big flippers around. It is called pec slapping. Experts think it’s done to dislodge barnacles and sea lice that will build up on the whale’s skin if they don’t smack it off periodically.

After the pec slapping, the whales momentarily disappeared. I then heard the boat’s driver say, “Mira. Va a saltar.” He was saying, Keep watching, he’s going to jump. Sure enough, one of the whales rocketed out of the water and crashed back down upon the waves in spectacular fashion. Seeing a whale breach the water like that is the pinnacle event for a whale watcher. It is what you hope to witness, and, if you’re lucky, take a picture of. But really, what are the chances? In our case, chances were excellent. Are we good, or what!? (By “we” I mean Jessica. She took the photo and video.)

Whale tale with music…

Our experiences in Galápagos and on the whale watch were priceless. Ecuador as a whole was a great country to visit, too. We are so glad we came. The downside is that now we know there are even more places in Ecuador we’d like to visit. Aaaargh! I guess we’ll have to come back to Ecuador some day. But next is a 30 hour bus ride to Lima, Peru.

Surprises await, I assure you.

Ups and Downs in Tena

(Tena, Ecuador – 29 August, 2013) Amazing highs and terrifying lows were our themes in Tena. Much of our roller coaster ride was powered by the weather. We were in Tena just two full days, plus a couple of half days when you count the coming and going. The weather alternated perfectly between rain and shine as if Mother Nature had programmed it that way.

Reaching Tena

I wouldn’t say Tena itself is a “pretty” town, but it certainly is located in a beautiful part of Ecuador. It sits on the western edge of the grand Amazon about 4 1/2 hours to the east and south of Quito. To get there from our hostel in midtown Quito, we first took a taxi to the bus terminal in the south….only to retrace our route back northward again by bus so we could exit the Quito valley from its northeast corner. But I said Tena lies to the south of Quito. (Glad you’re following along, Magellan!) That meant our northward direction was eventually followed by double-reverse back south again. No doubt these highways were not built by crows.

It was all slow-going, too. I swear we were two hours into our bus ride and we had still not fully escaped Quito’s orbit. Better progress could have been made if the driver hadn’t been moving at school zone speeds and stopping every three feet to let more passengers on….turning a 4 1/2 hour trip into a 6 hour slog. Making matters worse was the parade of vendors who boarded the bus periodically to sell everything from fruit cups to handmade jewelry to religion. At least they did distract us from the on-board movie offering– The Mechanic, a Jason Statham bomb with precious few redeeming qualities.

By the time we reached Tena, rain was falling at a nice clip; not pouring, but hard enough to make us hustle through the streets to a place where we could catch a cab to the hostel. It took us a soaked eternity to find a vacant cab. When the rains come down, the cabs fill up.

Travel days are rarely fun, but this one was among the worst.

Eco and Friendly

All was good once we reached the hostel, the Pakay Ecolodge. It’s run by a young-ish couple, Inga from Germany and her Ecuadorian husband, Tony. I didn’t get the story of how these two met, unfortunately. From what I could tell, Pakay Ecolodge’s primary eco-friendly feature was a “dry” toilet. The concept makes a lot of sense, starting with not using fresh water to wash away our waste. In so many parts of the world, fresh, drinkable water is a scarcity. Using it in our toilets is so obviously wasteful when you think about it. Especially when a dry (albeit odiferous) alternative exists.


Basically, you do your business in a trashcan placed in a cabinet underneath the toilet seat. The can is filled with sawdust so don’t wait for a splash. After each use, you add additional sawdust on top. [Doesn’t seem a whole lot different from a cat using a litter box, really.] Every couple of days you dump the contents of the trashcan into a compost bin. In short order, you’ve got some grade-A fertilizer ready for use in your garden.

You might need some extra candles in the bathroom, if you ever decide to go dry yourself.

White Water Under Blue Skies

A beautiful sunny day greeted us the next morning. We’d signed up for a whitewater rafting trip so the brilliant weather was making us feel great about our timing. Rafting one day after a rain meant we’d find the rapids very entertaining, too.


Jessica and I loaded ourselves into a shuttle-truck with three others from our hostel, Andy, Chris and Daniel, and down to the river we went. Andy (another traveler from Germany) had the challenge of an unsettled stomach that morning and wasn’t sure if he’d make it all the way. Chris and Daniel were second cousins from North Carolina and Tennessee, respectively. Skip the dueling banjo music, neither one of them had southern accents.

Our rafting guide’s name was Diego and he was easy to like from the start– good English, a sense of humor with just the right amount of bite, and 11 years of whitewater experience. After a brief but thorough review of the equipment and safety procedures, we loaded onto the raft and eagerly shoved ourselves away from the bank. Always nearby were two additional single-seaters manned by Diego’s assistants. One was a blue kayak piloted by a 15 year old Ecuadorian hot-shot named Brian, and the other was a yellow sea kayak they all referred to as the “ducky.” Jonathan, a rare tall Ecuadorian with a Castro-esque beard, manned it.

Andy and I volunteered for the front row seats, Chris and Daniel sat in the center and Jessica took up a seat in the third partition…. next to a cooler containing our lunch. We would all switch around to different spots on the raft throughout the journey, that’s simply how we began. Diego sat in the very back to steer while shouting out his commands: “Forward!” “Stop,” And the final command we hoped would never be needed, “Inside!!!” If we heard Diego shout that last one, it meant throwing ourselves into the center of the raft for maximum safety.


The first set of rapids came to us fast and furious. KA-SNAPS! That first splash of snow-melt sure shocked me like a taser. Now I know how those winning coaches feel when their players dump a cooler of gatorade on their backs…only that Andy and I took a direct hit to the front. No time to ponder, more rapids were ahead and Diego was screaming excitedly, “Forward! Forward!” We continued plowing headlong into the teeth of the rapids until finally emerging to a calmer stretch of river. Exclamations of “Wow!” “Oh my God!” and “What just happened?” filled the boat. We all talked at once, instantly recounting what it was like for us to slay our first dragon. Click here to see a video I uploaded to Youtube.

Jessica and I, along with Mallorie, too (Jessica’s daughter), had done whitewater rafting once before in Moab, Utah. Those were class 1 or 2 rapids. Here in Tena, Ecuador, on the Jatunyaku River, we were getting rolled by vicious class 3 and 4 sized rapids. Big diff, I’m here to report. Officially, they were class 3, but as Diego quipped, “I can make them a class 4, if you want.” And he did.

Rapids come in all shapes and sizes. They churn, tumble, swirl and roar. And when the riverbed conditions are just so, they create standing mountain peaks of water; together forming mini-mountain ranges for our raft to plow over and through. Typically, the highest mound of water sits near the entrance to each set of rapids. That’s where Diego was sure to aim our warship every single time with his urgent battle cries of FORWARD! FORWARD MY TEAM!!!


Riding first position delivered the greatest fear factor. As each mound of water was conquered the next towered high overhead ready for its turn to soak you or flip you, whichever was its whim. Imagine looking up and seeing a 10 ft tall linebacker of water in your face and having no choice but to take it on. It was exhilarating!

Not all of my time was spent in the raft. I took a few turns in the ducky, too. (See me in the photo collage, above) This was perhaps even more of an adrenaline rush than the raft. Theoretically, Diego should only let his clients ride the smaller rapids in the ducky, but there didn’t seem to be any smaller rapids on our day. During one particularly turbulent stretch I went charging in with my ducky, paddle whipping furiously from side to side in an effort to keep my nose pointed straight. That’s the secret, too. ‘Cause once you get hit from the side, you are out of the ducky and soaked. This did happen to me once.

The calm-flowing portions of the river were equally rewarding, mostly because it was a such a spectacularly gorgeous day. The scenery was one postcard after another. We stopped for a lunch of burritos, banana bread, and pineapple before continuing through more rapids to the take out point. By the way, Andy, the guy with the upset stomach, decided to catch a cab back to the hostel during our lunch break. I guess swirling rapids and a swirling stomach don’t mix. For the rest of us, it was a perfect day.


Wet Caves and Muddy Canyons

Clouds and rain took over the very next day. They even got a head-start on us by pushing in overnight. Perhaps our scheduled hikes would be canceled due to the inclement weather? Uh, not so fast, amigo. As Tony (owner of the hostel and our guide) explained, we were in a RAINforest. It would make no sense to cancel a hike due to rain. So, we were all out-fitted with rubber “fireman” boots and loaded into Tony’s 1981 Range Rover. You might recall that Tony was also the proprietor of the hostel we stayed in. He grew up in Tena and knew it inside out. No more knowledgable guide existed.

Our excursion was comprised of two parts, a cave hike first and later a steep trek down inside a scenic canyon to a secluded swimming hole. We were mostly the same team from yesterday’s rafting trip- Andy (now recovered from his stomach bug), Chris and Daniel -but also added was a german girl named Yana. Finally, Jessica was not the only girl on one of our excursions. The light but steady rains showed no signs of letting up so those who had rain gear wore it. Chris, who lost his rain jacket in an earlier part of his trip, went shirtless, a bold choice given the temperature.

The hike to the cave wasn’t long and Tony stopped a couple of times to talk about some of the unique plants and animals. He even showed us the ayahuasca vine, used by the local shaman in religious ceremonies. It’s hallucinogenic properties reportedly make many people see God. A lot of people vomit after drinking the ayahuasca potion, too.

The small mouth of the cave was down a scramble of large rocks and extremely well-hidden. It took a lot of ducking, weaving and contorting to slip inside, but once we were all in (and out of the rain) we could stand up without worry. Not everyone brought a headlamp (or other flashlight), so we alternated those with and without. Jessica and I had ours and we were happy we did. The cave was pitch black otherwise.


After walking single file just a short distance we came into a living room sized cavern. Small and obviously man-made mounds of rubble were strangely placed around the room. Tony explained that this was the place the Shaman holds his healing ceremonies with the ayahuasca. Looked like a great place for a bad trip to me. The hike continued deeper into the cave, around, over and under rock formations of all variety. Soon we could hear rushing water in the darkened distance. Louder and louder it echoed with each forward step until soon we were splashing through a subterranean stream. Droplets of water could soon be felt spitting at us from all sides as more channels of flowing water joined to our stream making it roar more loudly.

Finally we arrived to the place we would exit this underground world. Large jagged boulders stacked at all angles would have to be scaled if we wanted to see daylight again. The problem was that a torrential shower was battering the precise spot of our climb. Someone had mercifully left a knotted rope for us to grab and pull ourselves up with, but that lessened the challenge by only a small degree. Jessica went first and clawed her way up into the splattering shower. I followed and got the soaking cold shower treatment all over my head and back. It was exhilarating.

The picture below shows us crawling out of the cave.


Scary Moments on a Muddy Trail

They said that even on days without rain, the hiking trail through the canyon and down to the swimming hole is muddy. After all, it’s a rainforest and always quite moist and humid under the canopy of trees even when the sun is shining. That is why we were all issued rubber boots specifically for this hike. However, on rainy days like ours the mud-factor goes up by at least 20 points. Tony offered us two bamboo walking sticks in case anyone thought they might help. Seeing that no one appeared interested, Jessica ended up using both of them. They totally saved her life, too. With her injured left knee, the walking sticks provided the additional support she needed.

The trail down into the canyon was primitive to say the least. The closest thing we found to man-made help on the trail were a couple of crudely fashioned ladders made from tree limbs. Otherwise, it was slick-muddy stepping the whole way. Thank goodness for the exposed roots of trees that offered an occasional foothold. Going down was really rough on Jessica’s knee. She was wearing her brace, but it’s just slow-going any way you slice it. She fell on her butt once, then twice, and another time over to the side. In one particularly precarious down-step, she lost her footing, screamed, and swung out over the plummeting trail held aloft only by one of the walking sticks. I was on the trail just below her and she says she saw my eyes get really big. The whole episode lasted a split second, but was genuinely scary and could have resulted in a serious fall if she hadn’t caught herself.

Freaked out though she was, there was no turning back. We continued the hike slowly but slowly, descending to further depths on the mud-slick trail, crossing log bridges that hung over raging torrents, rock-hopping through running streams and easing our way down the shaky tree-limb ladders. We had a goal and it would be met…the swimming hole. I’m sure everyone had the same thought, this better be the best GD swimming hole in Ecuador.


The place of the swimming hole was really cool. Just one problem, there was too much swirling water in it for us to safely swim. It was as if all the rains from the entire area had funneled into this one spot. Water tumbled down from the high walls surrounding the space and drained furiously into the hole through an opening in a lower portion of the wall. Under normal conditions, we would have squeezed ourselves into that opening and explored the cave inside, but not on this day. Too much water water everywhere.

We ate lunch in the rain on the banks of the swimming hole. Tony pointed to a relatively calm area of the water and said it’d be okay to swim there if anyone wanted to. There were no takers. Our goal now reached (and lunch eaten) there was nothing left but to hike our way out of there; the rescue helicopter would not be coming for us. Jessica made this video in case she wasn’t able to make it back to civilization…

Transcript of video:

My last hours. It’s not funny, I’m really scared. This has been the most treacherous journey to this spot. I’ve fallen on my butt six times and almost rolled down the hill to my death. Now show ’em the place! Make sure you get ALL of it.

Winding Down Our Time in Tena

We were back to great weather on our final day in Tena. Good thing, too, for we needed the sun dry out our things from the previous day’s soaking. I had one more Tena adventure in me- a climb to the top of an observation tower built just higher than the forest canopy. It was located in a small national park about 45 minutes outside of Tena. I went with Chris and Daniel while Jessica relaxed the morning away in the hostel. After finding the tower, no small feat, we had to climb it. You can see from the photos just how tiny the structure was. Daniel and I both went up, but Chris (who is not a big fan of heights) decided this challenge wasn’t for him.


Tena, Ecuador had its highs and lows. We have no regrets for any of it. This year is ours for adventure and Tena gave us more than our share of thrills and spills.

Next stop, the Galápagos Islands.