Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Devil´s Nose

Traintop Passengers

This past Sunday I went on one of Ecuador´s most famous tourist attractions, the train ride down the valley of El Nariz del Diablo, the Devil´s Nose. The fun thing about this trip is that passengers are obliged to ride on top of the train. I got to the station at 5:30 AM to get a place, with two rented cushions to sit on. Luckily there are bars on top of the train, so you don´t slide off...although some passengers who arrived later wound up sitting on the cars without rails. The train left at 7 AM, and we spent the next 7 hours enjoying the countryside, waving at the farmers, women doing their washing in the river, and the many little kids who ran up to the train to wave at us and collect the lollipops and candies that some passengers threw down to them. The highlight of the ride is the trip down into the valley of the Nariz del Diablo, where the train descends in zigzags, and the tracks are switched to allow the train to go back and forth down the valley. The tracks were built early in the 20th century and sometimes the train felt that old, especially with its jolting starts and stops, causing the snack-and-drink vendors walking up and down on top of the train to grab onto the nearest passenger´s head to keep from falling.

Now I´m back in Quito, heading off to the rainforest this weekend, to check out the piranhas and monkeys, and I´ll be back in town in time for my dad´s arrival on Wednesday.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Galapagos

Marine Iguana

It´s hard to know where to begin to describe the amazing week I spent in the Galapagos. The whole experience was fun, beautiful, luxurious, relaxing, and fascinating.

Let´s start with luxurious, relaxing and fun. I booked my 8-day cruise on the Diamante, a 112-foot sailing yacht. We were 11 passengers, 1 guide and 5 crew members: captain, first mate, chef, engineer, and, er, another guy. Despite me wondering at the outset if I would be among a shipful of retired couples, we were almost entirely backpacker-types, in total of five different nationalities, and we all got along really well. The youngest was 19, a college student from Oregon, and the oldest was her grandfather. The ship was beautiful, with tiny little cabins for two, each with a private bathroom; a main "salon" for eating or hanging out and watching movies; and a sun deck. Unfortunately, the sun didn´t make too many appearances, but the few times it did come out we were all to be found lounging around with books or cards or music. Aside from the sometimes violent rocking during our long nighttime sails (three passengers were ill--thankfully I was fine, although it took me two nights sleeping on land to stop feeling the phantom rocking of the bed) we didn´t have to worry about a thing: the guide and crew took care of all the scheduling, cleaning and logistics and left us to do nothing but watch the sea and the quick but beautiful equatorial sunsets. And eat and eat and eat. The most luxurious part of it all was the food. I can´t even tell you how great it was. The chef, José, worked miracles in a tiny little kitchen, coming out with multi-course gourmet meals all the time: fresh fish or meat, salads, typical Ecuadorian dishes of fried bananas or corn or potatoes with lots of vegetables, casseroles and yummy desserts, and fresh fruit all the time...delicious and healthy food with lots of variety. I weighed myself at the airport on my way out, and found out that, unsurprisingly, I had gained about 3 pounds in one week. We started each day with absolutely huge breakfasts, came back from our morning activity to a three-course lunch and finished off the day with a big dinner. My mouth waters just thinking about it. Mmmmmm.

Now onto beautiful and fascinating. And fun. Our schedule worked like this: every day we had breakfast at 7 (did I mention how good the breakfasts were?) and went off at 8 for our first nature walk. Usually we´d come back on board to change for snorkeling, then back for lunch (yum...) and out for another nature walk, and back to freshen up for dinner (mmmmm). I confirmed to myself on this trip that I don´t have a brain which is particularly interested in retaining information about animals, and the extent to which I am fascinated with birds is, well, let´s just say limited. And somehow I had the idea that the animals would just be all over the place, landing on your shoulder, running across your feet, coming up to give you high-fives, etc. It´s not actually like that: the animals are less numerous that I imagined and mostly quite sedentery, so sometimes, I´ll admit, I got a little bored. (Although clearly amateur naturalists, not to mention professionals like Darwin, would understandably have a hard time controlling their excitement over the unusual species of finches, frigates, warblers, gulls etc.) But overall the animal life is extremely fascinating and quirky: iguanas spitting salt residue out their noses, noisy sea lions barking on the beach like sick dogs, colorful birds--including of course the idiotic and hilarious blue-footed booby--performing mating rituals and sitting on their eggs. The landscape, especially at this time of year (dry season) is brown and severe, and several islands we visited are made up mostly of hard black lava, but amongst the forbidding territory you find all kinds of creatures. Surprisingly, the animals we saw the least of were the famous Galapagos land tortoises...we only saw a few and those only in a turtle sanctuary.

The most incredible thing about Galapagos animal life is how little fear they have. They have lived almost entirely without predators (besides hawks and sharks and several critters who eat birds´ eggs) for so long that they live together quite peacefully. And after about 30 years´ experience amongst camera-wielding tourists who are strictly forbidden to touch, let alone hurt or kill, the animals, they have grown quite friendly and bold towards humans. Birds lay their eggs right in the path and iguanas and sea lions lie practically right under your feet. One little sea lion pup came right up to me to smell me and see if I was its mommy. But it was in the water that the animals were the most amazing. I heard we would snorkel with sea lions, but I didn´t realize they would come up and play with us. On the last day, I paddled around with a family of six sea lions, which would do little flips and circles in the water to impress me, then come up and take a look at me, and swim around, over and under me to play. Sometimes we´d all be surrounded by sea lions which would then swim off, leaving us to paddle around after the sea tortoises gliding through the water. Then off to the side one day we saw three penguins shoot past, and on the last day a white-tipped reef shark swam calmly through the (cold) waters below us. And that´s not to mention the beautiful, colorful fish of all colors we saw.

Anyway, the trip was really fantastic and highly recommendable. It´s not cheap, though, and after six months as a budget-conscious backpacker I hyperventilate when I think about how much I spent in those eight days--approximately five or six times what I spent in a month in Bolivia. But if you can afford it, like to snorkel and have at least a wavering interest in animal life, this was definitely a trip of a lifetime and something I wish everyone could do. And did I mention how good the food was?

Click on the booby for more photos:
Blue-Footed Booby

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

On the Equator

Equator Equator Equator Equator

The kicker is...this isn´t even the real Equator! This is the site where a French research team placed the Equator in the 1820s, and it turns out they were off by a few hundred yards. Not bad, considering they were using sextants and whatnot. However, eight years ago a thousand-year-old site was found on a nearby mountaintop, on the exact equatorial line.

But it was still fun to play around at the "Mitad del Mundo" park, although the highlight of the day was the museum just down the road on the the real Equator. There I saw alll kinds of tricks you can only do on the Equator, such as balance an egg and force somebody´s hands apart with much less force than it takes only a couple of paces to the north or south. The highlight, though, is the sink demonstration: On the Equator, water pours directly down the drain. Just a few feet to the north, it goes down counter-clockwise. Just a few feet to the south, it goes down clockwise. Really, it does. I swear.

Well, I am off to the Galápagos tomorrow, so I will be in wildlife paradise for a week. I´ll be back late next week with photos galore!

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Taking Care of Business

As if I hadn´t spent enough time on buses lately, after only one day in Vilcabamba I decided to leave to get to Quito. Vilcabamba was very pretty, but it is a place that people go to chill out for a few days or a week, to go horseback riding in the mountains or to trip for five days on hallucinogenic cactus. I wasn´t interested in any of those things, and besides, I had business to take care of: I needed to book my flight home, look into trips to the jungle, and finally, organize my Galapagos cruise. So last night I took another 13-hour night bus and here I am in the capital, as close to the Equator as I have ever been.

I´m glad I didn´t wait any longer, because when I got here I found out that space in the next five weeks in the Galapagos is extremely limited! I wound up reserving a last minute cruise leaving this Wednesday, and paying an arm and a leg for it...and an ear and a nose and another arm. And I haven´t even reserved the flight for it, or paid the $100 Galapagos National Park Fee. Whew! (I´ll officially have no limbs left once this is all through--which should make the snorkelling quite difficult).

So, that´s taken care of, and I also booked my flight home for August 16th. Time is officially running short! Of course, it did work out to be cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket, so I could be on my way back on September 19...

Friday, July 08, 2005

Adventures in Rural South America

The excursion in the Chachapoyas region was fun. We saw several sites built 1300 years ago by the Chachapoyan people which haven´t even been studied by archaeologists yet, and which are still buried deep in the woods. It seems that the wilderness in Peru could be filled with undiscovered ruins; they say that there is probably a site much bigger and more impressive than Machu Picchu lying buried in the woods somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.

But it was when I left the group in Tingo, Peru that my real adventure began. This was the route: Tingo to Chachapoyas to Pedro Ruiz to Bagua to Jaén (where I spent the night but left again at 6 AM) to San Ignacio to La Balsa (where I crossed the border on foot) to Zumba to Vilcabamba. I left on Wednesday at noon and arrived last night at nine. The road was unpaved for almost the entire way, very bumpy and sometimes extremely slow going--the 11 km from the border to Zumba (in a ranchero or open-sided truck with wooden benches) took an hour and a half! Once we had to stop so the men could dig out from a recent landslide to let the cars pass. However, the scenery, especially yesterday, was spectacular. We wound along cliffsides overlooking valleys of cloud forest, dense with green vegetation. The roads were speckled occasionally with tiny one-dirt-street villages or single houses, built out of mud bricks and large branches lashed together, with tin rooves weighed down with rocks. There is often no electricity in these hills, and at night I would see the houses lit up with candles or fires. On both the trek and this journey, I was offered brief glimpses at rural domestic scenes: little children playing in front of their houses or peering out of doorways, older ones walking to school, men working on their houses, and many many dogs, pigs and chickens running around all over the place. I was also interested in the many political signs painted on the buildings. I had seen these all over Peru (Alan Presidente 2006 being the most popular. Señor Alan seems to have highly active PR people) but in the north I also saw a lot of signs showing how to vote for particular issues or candidates. Each political party chooses a symbol (presumably so people who can´t read can tell who is who) and the people vote for that party by marking that symbol. So you might vote by putting an X through a map of Peru, a shovel, a water faucet, or a chicken.

It was no surprise that for most of the trip I was jammed into tightly-packed vehicles. In one 3-hour minivan ride I scrunched into a seat over the back wheel which gave me about half as much personal space as your typical airline seat, and in one station wagon I shared the front seat with an old man; in the far back my backpack shared space with three crates of peeping chicks (not the first time) and in the backseat were four adults, a 3-year-old boy and a rooster. Sometimes I talked to the people next to me, usually answering the normal stream of questions I have been asked, always in the same order, all over Peru: "Where are you from?" "Is this your first time in Peru?" "How do you like it?" "Are you travelling alone?" "Are you married?" "How old are you?" (You bet I love the order of those two) and then optionally, "How many siblings do you have?" "Where do your parents live?" But I shared one ride with a particularly curious couple of people. Unfortunately, it was Wednesday night, I had been up at 5 that morning for the sunrise at Kuélap ruins, I was exhausted and squished, and I was attempting not to be terrified by the driver´s penchant for driving on the wrong side of the road and passing large trucks on tight curves, otherwise I might have found the conversation charming instead of irritating. I tried to keep my eyes on the road for signs I should assume crash position, but once they learned my name, they were not afraid to use it to get my attention: "Jessica! How many people live in the United States?" "How many countries are there in the world?" "Jessica! It´s cold in the United States, isn´t it?" "Are there mines in the United States?" "Is it morning now in your country?" "Jessica! Are you really 29? I thought you were 16!" "How old are Americans when they get married?" "Do you use donkeys to carry things?" I didn´t know the answer to many of their questions (are there mines in the US?) but gathered that they don´t meet many foreigners--mine was the only white skin I saw in the entire trip--and I hope that I was some little help in satisfying their curiosity.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

More Photo Links

I have uploaded more photos; click here for all my pictures from my hike in the Cordillera Blanca or from my visit to Trujillo.

Into the Wilderness Again

Tomorrow I´m heading out for a four-day excursion (by car, foot, horse, foot and car again) to visit some remote areas of Northern Peru, including some ruins practically no tourists go to see. This time I´m going with a group, and there´s some controversy about the price. Apparently one of the four in the group is paying significantly more than the rest of us, and the organizer asked me to please lie to her if she asks me how much I paid. I told him I wouldn´t do that, and that he should instead give her some of her money back. This sent him into quite a flurry of insecurity, during which time he actually tried to negotiate with me about what price he should give her (I haven´t even met her yet). We´ll see how it turns out. When I get back I embark on a day-long journey to the Ecuadorian border. I´m hoping to be able to go part of the way on the back of a truck, preferably a fruit or vegetable truck...I´ll keep you posted.

By the way, as soon as I got here (at 5 this morning!), I could tell there was no malaria risk. It´s quite cold (the mosquitoes would definitely die at night) and the landscape is very dry. I asked some locals and they said "malaria? no! we haven´t had a case in 10 years!" It just goes to show how little those big-city coastal folks know about the countryside. It does actually underline the differences I noticed in my quick trip up the coast, spending one day each in the cities of Trujillo and Chiclayo, on the way up here. Those places are much more modern, with lots of shopping, movie theaters, interesting restaurants (fantastic fruit-and-yogurt shops in both places!) and hardly one person to be found wearing traditional clothing. Chachapoyas itself is also relatively modern, but small, and things definitely run at a different pace up here in the mountains. Tonight I joined the locals for the evening stroll around the main square. I think the entire town population is out there, though mostly young people, just wandering around and chatting. It´s a very nice and cozy way to end the day.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Itchy & Scratchy

That´s me today, both itchy and scratchy. At the end of my hike the other day I was eaten alive by small black flies, and the bites have come out with a vengeance all over my ankles and lower legs. Argh! And this morning I discovered some more bites, small ones, in a line, on my wrist and back. Small bites, in a line, can only mean one thing: bedbugs! Yuck! I don´t know where they came from, but I have several ideas. Actually, last night´s horrible saggy bed would be the most suspicious, but I think it´s too soon for the bites to show up. Anyway, I´ll live, but it´ll be an itchy couple of days.

Speaking of biting insects, I started taking malaria medication today, for the first time on my trip. I´m headed up to Chachapoyas, to visit what my guidebook calls a "jungle fortress" at Kuélap. The word "jungle" got me suspicious. I checked online and it seems to be somewhere between Low and Medium risk areas. That didn´t convince me, so I started asking around in various pharmacies. The verdict was unanimous, I should take malaria pills, although surprisingly the pharmacists really didn´t seem too informed about malaria--I knew much more about the various prevention medications than they did. I suspect that most tourists who go there don´t take anything, but after giving it some thought I decided I´d rather take the pills than freak out every time I see a mosquito. However, I did decide to buy different meds than the ones I came with--everyone here warns me about the possible psychotic side effects of the pills I brought, so I decided to get simpler, non-nightmare-or-possibly-suicide-inducing ones. And since they´re so much cheaper here and available without a prescription (as are many things, from birth control to Valium and Xanax) I decided I could afford the $7 for peace of mind. But of course, they only prevent me from getting sick. They can do nothing about the itching...