Archive for May, 2011

Quito and the Galapagos – Dogged by Darwin

After La Paz, our primary mode of transport changed.  We had travelled all the way from Ushuaia by road: a journey we guess to be about 3-4,000 miles.   But the remaining places we were keen to see were more spread out, so it made sense to travel by air.  In particular, we had decided to skip Peru, as that was the one S American country we had already visited, on a tour back in 2003.

So on May 12 we flew from La Paz to Lima, changed planes and flew straight on to Quito, the capital of Ecuador.  We stayed two nights in the centre of the Old Town.  Since Quito is on the equator, we were expecting good weather, but we were disappointed.  The weather was grey and surprisingly cool.  One day it rained consistently, which made it a good day to do ‘indoor visiting’.  We saw several colonial churches, some highly decorated, but most closed or unwelcoming.  It was a different story when we visited the Presidential palace: it was free to go in, and we were taken round by a helpful guide who encouraged us to take photos whenever we wanted.  He thanked us ‘in the name of the President’ for visiting, and presented us with a photo of ourselves taken on the stairs of the palace – also free of charge!

Plaza Grande in Quito

Inside the Presidential Palace

The next day the weather was at least fine, and we visited two spots offering good views of the city.  One was a church, but completely different to the ones we had already seen (more English Gothic in style) and very interesting.  We saw the burial vaults and the church itself before climbing the towers, to get a close-up of the rose window and views over the city.  We had more views from El Panecillo, a hill topped by a 40-metre statue of the Virgin of Quito, with a chained dragon at her feet. She seems to be dancing on the dragon, and has been nicknamed ‘The Dancer’ (La Bailarena).

Seabird gargoyles on the Basilica de Vota Nacional

View from Basilica, looking towards Panecillo Hill

Mary dancing on the dragon

One of the highlights of our visit to Ecuador was to be a week’s cruise in the Galapagos Islands, a place forever associated with the name and work of Charles Darwin.  We felt that we had been following in Darwin’s footsteps throughout our South American travels.  In Rio, one of the carnival parades had had Darwin as its theme, and had included large groups of dancers, each representing different types of fish, birds and animals, before an enormous float featuring the head and shoulders of the man himself. From Ushuaia we had sailed on the Beagle Channel, the route taken by Darwin’s ship. And several of the places we had subsequently visited (e.g. the Niebla fort near Valdivia) had plaques recording a visit by Darwin, and quoting what he had said about the area.  In Santiago, we visited the ‘Darwin Garden’ on the St Lucia Hill.  And now, finally, we were going to the Galapagos…..

Because we are poor sailors, we had picked an upmarket cruise in a relatively stable catamaran with roomy cabins. Ours even had a small balcony. The stability (and our seasickness prevention tablets) were tested the first two nights when the boat sailed from island to island, pitching and rocking in the waves – but we escaped being seasick or tossed out of bed. On board there were 16 passengers and a crew of ten, who looked after us very well and kept us well fed with three full meals a day – rather more than we are used to. After dinner on May 19, they presented Ian with an enormous birthday cake, and everyone sang before it was cut up and distributed.

Our cruise boat, Queen Beatriz

To get from the catamaran to shore we had to travel in two small inflatable dinghies, with two kinds of landing – wet and dry. In a dry landing you can step directly ashore on to dry land, but in a wet landing you need to wade ashore and put your shoes on afterwards. We were always accompanied by our guide/naturalist Walter, who led us and kept us well-informed about the islands. There are strict rules about where you can walk on the islands, and no wandering from the set path. On a typical day we went ashore twice for short walks – one early morning and one late afternoon.  Inbetween a lot of time was allowed for snorkelling, which we do not do, so the time passed rather slowly.

A wet landing

We visited a variety of islands and saw an amazing amount of wildlife. In the air were frigate birds, as well as pelicans diving for fish. We also saw boobies, blue-footed and masked, albatross, hawks and Darwin’s finches, not to mention flamingos, yellow warblers and mocking birds. Mating was in the air, and we saw blue-footed boobies and albatrosses doing their courtship dances, and male frigate birds with their red chest balloons inflated to attract females.

A lava heron catching a fish

Blue-footed boobies doing their courtship dance

Galapagos hawk in flight

An oyster catcher searches for food

A male frigate bird puffs out his red throat sac to attract females

A Wave Albatross

Cactus finch

On land we saw the giant Galapagos tortoises, each about 100 years old. We visited a centre where they are breeding young ones to repopulate the islands, eventually. On the rocks we saw marine iguanas, both large red and small black types, raising their temperatures in the sun before going swimming.  On ‘Dragon Hill’ we met a number of large orange land iguana basking in the sun on the footpath. There were also many crabs on every rock, from large red ones to the little ‘Sally Lightfoot’ variety.

Red crab in close-up

Marine iguana

What do you mean, I look like ET?

Giant Galapagos tortoise

A land iguana reaches up to feed on a cactus

In the sea, and basking on the beaches, we encountered a large number of sea lions. Although we didn’t go snorkelling like most of our fellow-passengers, we did see some big sharks near the boat, as well as several green sea turtles on various dinghy trips. On day we saw a whole school of golden rays swimming along near the surface, like a moving army of carpet tiles. We also saw the small Galapagos penguins, sitting on the rocks or swimming in the sea.

A school of golden rays

Sea lions in the surf

Galapagos penguins

One of the most amazing things about the Galapagos is that the birds and animals are completely unfazed by the presence of humans.  It is therefore possible to get up very close to them (on footpaths you have to be careful not to tread on the iguanas!) and easy to get good photos.

Galapagos hawk in close-up

Close-up of land iguana

The scenery in the Galapagos is largely volcanic, but a lot greener than we expected. We did walk on a vast expanse of black lava on Santiago Island, spewed out by the volcanic eruption in 1897. There are a number of good beaches, including one with unusual red sand. From the top of Bartolome Island we got an extensive view over that island and Santiago, and the channel between. We also saw some splendid sunsets from the boat as we cruised from island to island.

Landscape on Floreana Island

Sea cliffs on Espanola Island

Sunset at sea

View from the top of Bartolome Island

Red beach on Rabida Island

The Galapagos is a unique part of the world, with creatures found nowhere else and a special place in the history of science. To experience it you have to put up with a number of restrictions on where you can land, and be confined to a small boat for several hours a day (unless you are a keen and competent snorkeller). But our cruise has produced lasting memories, as well as thousands of photos.


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Bolivian Cities: Potosi, Sucre and La Paz

Our three-day ‘jeep adventure’ across the altiplano ended in the Bolivian town of Uyuni.  The next day we took the bus to Potosi, the first of three Bolivian cities we planned to visit.  Forget what we said in the last blog about South American buses – Bolivian buses are something else!  Our journey (4.5 hours) cost very little, but the bus was nothing like the luxurious vehicles we’ve travelled on in Argentina and Chile.  It had no loo, no seatbelts and not much space.  It was crammed with backpackers and local people, many of whom had large packs on their back (some containing babies).  We remembered reading about ‘chicken buses’, so-called because passengers sometimes have their chickens with them.  We didn’t actually see any chickens, but you get the idea. At one point a passenger requested a loo stop, and several people got off the bus, each clutching toilet paper, and looking for their own personal tree.

On the road from Uyuni to Potosi

Potosi is the highest city in the world (4090 metres) and owes its existence to the vast reserves of precious metals (mainly silver) in the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) which towers over the city. Historically the conditions in the mine have been appalling and thousands have died there. These days the conditions are apparently still bad – you can do a tour of the mine, but we didn’t feel it was for us.

The Cerro Rico at Potosi

One of the most important buildings in Potosi is La Moneda (the Mint), built by the Spaniards to turn the silver coming out of the mountain into coins. It’s a vast place, built like a fortress; we did a tour and were shown all the old machinery which was used over the centuries to turn out money, until 1951. It was fascinating to think that much of the Spanish ‘wealth of the Indies’, celebrated in pirate stories and tales of naval heroes like Drake, was created there.

The courtyard of La Moneda

Ancient mule-powered machinery for minting silver coins at La Moneda

The most interesting painting in the art gallery in La Moneda, the work of an anonymous native artist, shows the Virgin Mary in the form of the Cerro Rico, celebrating both the riches found there and the local history of the mountain.

Painting in La Moneda of the Virgin Mary as the Cerro Rico

While in Potosi we saw a procession of hundreds of children of all ages, and were told they were celebrating the anniversary of their school, named after Pope John Paul II.

School procession in Potosi

From Potosi we took a two-and-a-half-hour taxi ride, through some impressive scenery, to Sucre. (This may seem wildly extravagant, but it cost about £15, and although the bus would have been cheaper still, it was nice to have door-to-door transport with all our luggage.) Sucre is the ancient capital of Bolivia, and is still claimed to be the ‘constitutional capital’, though all the government and political power is in La Paz. It is also reckoned to be the most beautiful city in Bolivia, with some of the finest Spanish colonial architecture in South America. Certainly it has an attractive main square and several white-painted colonial churches; we were disappointed that the latter were almost all shut and had locked gates, making photography difficult.

White church in Sucre

Near Sucre is the ‘Parque Cretacio’, an old quarry where hundreds of dinosaur footprints have been found. It’s now been turned into a very modern museum/theme park, with loads of massive dinosaur models as well as an opportunity to view the footprints in a sloping rock wall, from a distance. We waited till midday, when the sun slants across the surface and the dinosaur tracks are easier to see.

Look out behind you!

68 million-year-old dinosaur tracks

Also in Sucre we visited the ‘Casa de la Libertad’, where the independence of Bolivia from Spain was signed in 1825. It also has a lot of memorabilia of Simon Bolivar, after whom the new country was named (against his wishes). There are portraits of some of their 65 presidents since then, most of whom seem to have been generals of some sort, and many of whom didn’t last very long.

La Casa de Libertad in Sucre

Giant bust of Bolivar

While in Sucre we went to a folk dance show one evening. It was really good, with lively music, colourful costumes, and dances of different types from across Bolivia.

Origenes dance show (photo from the Web)

From Sucre we had an 11-hour overnight bus journey to La Paz. This was a smarter bus than the one from Potosi, with fully reclining ‘cama’ seats. However, there were a couple of problems. One was with ‘unofficial’ passengers coming and squatting near while we were trying to sleep, till we managed to chase them away. Another was the amazingly rough condition of the roads, which meant you also got a vibro-massage while you travelled. We must be adapting, however, because we managed to sleep most of the time.

La Paz is the highest capital city in the world (3660 metres), assuming you ignore the claim of Sucre to be the capital still. It has the feel of a big, if rather scruffy, city – crowded, noisy, hectic. It is circled by mountains, and many of the suburbs are on the hills around the city. One night we ate in a restaurant at the top of a tall hotel, and got a good view of the lights on the hills all around.

La Paz by day

La Paz by night

We did an afternoon tour to the nearby Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon – the third of these we’ve seen so far). This is really spectacular, with acres of eroded pinnacles. We walked through for about an hour, and took lots of photos. On the same tour we got an overview of the city from a high hill, and also visited the main square with the cathedral, presidential palace, congress, and lots of pigeons.

Valle de la Luna

Plaza Murillo, with pigeons

Another day trip we took was to the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku, about 70 kms out of the city. This was an Andean civilisation which lasted for about 3,000 years, just before the Incas and then the Spanish took over. It has a pyramid and two temples, and we were able to explore them all, though Ian was annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to film there. The site was interesting, though not as spectacular as some others we’ve been to.

The pyramid at Tiwanaku

Wall with stone faces

Monolithic stone figure

Exploring Bolivian cities (and riding on Bolivian buses!) has made it obvious that we are in a very different country.  Chile and Argentina are quite westernized, but Bolivia has a more ‘third world’ feel.  For travellers, it has the advantage of being much cheaper.  The indigenous women have their black hair in waist-length plaits, and many still wear the traditional dress (very full skirt, coloured woollen stockings, bowler-style hat) even when doing non-traditional jobs (for example, many of the road sweepers and gardeners we saw were women).  In Sucre we bought a magazine called ‘Inti’, which turned out to be a juvenile version of the Big Issue.  From it we learned that Bolivian children attend school four hours a day, either morning or afternoon, and many work the rest of the day, cleaning shoes or selling sweets. The sale of ‘Inti’ helps support these working children and their families.

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Atacama to Bolivia – Across the Altiplano

After returning from Mendoza, we stayed overnight in Santiago and then took the bus to San Pedro de Atacama. This journey took 23 hours, but was not nearly as bad as that may sound.  We are getting accustomed to South American buses, and they really are good.  The seats are wide and well-padded, with plenty of space – much more comfortable than normal (economy) airline seats. Snack packs are delivered at intervals.   On this occasion we had upstairs seats right at the front, with great views of the scenery during the day.  We got a fair amount of sleep during the night.

San Pedro is a small place, which caters mainly for tourists. It is attractive and unusual, with dirt roads and adobe-style buildings.  The main street consists almost entirely of small shops, restaurants and tour companies offering excursions to local attractions. As we had an afternoon free after arriving, we explored out of the town to an ancient Atacaman fortress, the Pukara de Quittor, where we also found some interesting faces sculpted (more recently) into the rock.

The Pukara de Quittor ancient fort, outside San Pedro

Strange sculpture near San Pedro

We had booked in advance (via the Net) for a 5-day private tour across to Uyuni in Bolivia, with a company called Say Hueque.  Unfortunately, they let us down.  The first three nights were spent in San Pedro, and there were no problems with the hotel they had booked for us.  But it took us a while to track down the offices of their local agents, which proved to be locked up.  We were then told that a representative would call to see us, but he never appeared.  Finally we received a letter from them, announcing that they had booked us onto three tours with other companies: two excursions from San Pedro and a 3-day trip across to Uyuni.  Similar tours are run by many companies in San Pedro, and we could easily have booked them ourselves for half the price we had paid Say Hueque.

The first excursion from San Pedro was to two local scenic attractions: the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte), and the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna). At the first we got some great views over an eroded landscape of rocks and mountains. At the second, we walked down a gorge cut through salt, with some interesting shapes and formations. We also climbed a ridge to see the sunset, and watch the nearby volcanoes turning pink.

Valle de la Muerta

Canyon walls formed of salt crystals in the Valle de la Luna

Pink volcanoes at sunset

Our second excursion was to see the El Tatio geysers at 4,300 metres. It is said that the geysers perform best in the early morning, and it is a two-hour bus journey from San Pedro, so all the tours to El Tatio start at around 4.30 am.  It was of course very cold when we left the hotel, and the heating on the bus didn’t work, so we were already frozen when we arrived, and the temperature there was -11. We walked around the geysers in the dark, but despite all her layers Sandie was shivering badly, so we finally took refuge back on the bus (although that too was cold). When the sun came up it got warmer, and we finally managed to see the geysers in the light. There was also a hot pool there, which some people bathed in, but we passed on that.

Tatio geysers at sunrise

As we had more than enough time in San Pedro, we booked a third excursion, to see a village with an interesting church, and the local salt flats (Salar de Atacama) with a few flamingos feeding on a lagoon.

The Salar de Atacama

On Monday 2nd May we set off on the trip to Uyuni.  San Pedro is close to the Bolivian border, where we finally said goodbye to Chile and transferred into jeeps to travel across the Bolivian altiplano. On our tour there were 18 people, so we had three jeeps which each held six people and a driver, with luggage stored on top.  All the other travellers were half our age, or less.  We shared our jeep with four young backpackers who had to put up with a couple of old folk for three days.

Our driver Edgar loads up the jeep

The scenery on the trip was certainly impressive. We passed a number of volcanoes, and other mountains, some snow-capped and others a mixture of weird colours due to the minerals in them.  We visited a number of high-altitude lagoons. Some had salt or other minerals in them, while others just had water (usually frozen). One of the lagoons was a deep red/orange colour, while another was blue/green, due to minerals or algae.

Typical scenery - the White Lagoon

Coloured mountains

Red Lagoon

Most of the time we were travelling at altitudes between 4,000 and 5,000 metres. The weather was therefore generally cold: when the sun shone it warmed up considerably, but there was sometimes a wind chill factor to contend with, and at night the temperature dropped rapidly. On our first day we stopped at a thermal pool; the sun was shining at the time, so we braved stripping off and plunged in. The water was delightfully warm and relaxing.

Frolicking in the hot pool

As well as the volcanoes and lagoons, one of the features of the altiplano was weird eroded rock formations. We saw one which was called the ‘Stone Tree’, with other bizarre shapes round about. In another area, the ‘Valley of Rocks’, there were more fantastic eroded shapes, including one known as the Condor.

The Stone Tree

The Condor

We visited another set of geysers and hot mud pools on our way – fortunately the weather was warmer than at Tatio.

General view of the thermal area

Hot mud pool

We also saw a variety of wildlife on the altiplano. The vicuna is a wild relative of the llama, and we saw several groups of these on the way. In a narrow gorge we met some viscachas, a mammal a bit like a rabbit. Several of the lagoons were inhabited by flamingos, in three different varieties, filter feeding on algae and brine shrimps.



Flamingo feeding

Group of flamingos

We stayed in two places on the way. The first was a ‘mountain hut’, with shared rooms, at about 4,300 metres above sea level. It was seriously cold there at night, with no heating or hot water. Most people slept fully clothed, in sleeping bags with other bedding on top.  Our second night was in a very basic hostel in a village at 3,700 metres, still very cold at night. We had a double bedroom there, but spent most of the evening in the dining room, where there was a stove lit.

On our final day we visited the ‘Railway Graveyard’ just outside Uyuni, where there are rusting remains of trains from the 19th and 20th centuries which once hauled freight across Bolivia.

The Graveyard of Trains

Our final visit was to the Salar de Uyuni, a vast salt flat (120,000 square kilometres) which is the largest in the world. We drove across the blinding whiteness, saw the salt drying in cone-shaped heaps and visited the ‘salt museum’, formerly a hotel. The backpackers on our trip were keen to have photos in various silly poses, so Ian helped by being cameraman for our group.

Mounds of salt drying for extraction

Ian the cameraman

Team Edgar: with our driver and travelling companions

Our trip across the altiplano was challenging because of the altitude and the cold, but exciting because of the amazing scenery and wildlife we encountered.

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