Thursday, May 30, 2013

One More Time . . .

I just had to post one more time.  A burst of color, from South Beach, Miami.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Three Weeks of 'Wows'

I left  Ecuador, ‘The Republic of the Equator’, yesterday.  And I’m at South Beach, Miami, now for a three-night stay.  But that doesn’t mean I’m done talking about the Galapagos; I think I’ll be doing that for quite awhile.

No question, those islands have some of the strangest wildlife on the planet.  It seems like there’s something amazing about every animal there.  I want to tell you about two creatures that are not the prettiest.  In fact, they both look kind of dark, and maybe even sinister.  But the story of their adaptation is truly fascinating.

It’s believed that iguanas were originally only on land.  But today, black-colored marine iguanas swim and dive to feed on marine algae.   And they stay underwater for extended periods of time.  They’re crusty with salt, and expel it from their noses.  And dark-feathered flightless cormorant birds gave up flying to become swimmers and divers.   They feed on sea life, and have under-developed wings that are only used for balance.

What a great time we had during our seven days afloat.  We snorkeled every day except one.  We also hiked the islands, and viewed them from the water, cruising the shoreline in inflatable dinghies.  Our 88-foot power catamaran, the Archipell II, was fairly basic, but comfortable.  There were 12 of us, and a crew of nine.  The food was excellent, and our barman – Fabricio – was there to greet us when we returned to the boat, offering snacks and ice tea.  He even surprised us with hot chocolate after one snorkeling outing, when the water turned a bit cold.

At our last dinner together we talked about the ‘wows’ of our three-week trip.  Everyone had a favorite.  From the Andes and Machu Picchu  .  .  .  to the Amazon rain forest  .  .  .  and, finally, the ‘enchanted isles’ of the Galapagos.  It was three adventures in one trip, visiting three absolute wonders.  And the wows never stopped!

Monday, May 27, 2013

LIFE in the Galapagos

I told you that the animals here are like cartoon characters.  None more so than the blue-footed boobie.  Sure, they really do have big blue feet.  But who came up with that name?  Then you watch them, and you are amazed, as they hover high together and go for fish, knifing into the water like synchronized Olympic divers.  And we also saw them do their goofy courtship dance.

Turtles and tortoises just belong in cartoons.  Penguins are both ridiculous and adorable.  How about crabs?  We even saw flamingoes.  And I wish I could show you what’s under the sea, but my camera doesn’t go there.  In one day’s dive I had giant turtles, a flightless cormorant and a sea lion swimming with me, all at the same time.  I was laughing through my snorkel.  And that was a few minutes after I had underwater time with a darting and spinning penguin!

Then there’s the scenery.  It’s all ‘full saturation’ color without my even enhancing photos on my computer.  The black lava coastlines and white sand beaches contrast with blue sky.  Water is the same deep aquamarine blue that you see in the Caribbean.  And green comes in the form of cactus and mangrove and algae.

It isn’t just the active volcanoes here.  This whole place is erupting with life!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Galapagos: Iguanas, Tortoises, Sea Lions, Penguins, Boobies, Finches and More

Friends had told me that the Galapagos were amazing and indescribable, and I now understand why.  Our naturalist guide, Jose, has so much good information to provide.  But the scenery and the wildlife are so visually stimulating that I can’t take my eyes off of them to concentrate on what he’s saying.

What an odd and wonderful assortment of wildlife resides here, from iguanas, tortoises, sea lions and penguins to boobies, finches and frigates.   They’re characters befitting a Disney cartoon world.  And they’re fearless of humans and curious about us, too.  They stay within feet of us, often acting as if they’re posing for our cameras. 

Turns out that these islands have the same volcanic origins as the Hawaiian island chain.  But it’s very dry.  So instead of palm trees, the most common vegetation here is cactus.  We hike and snorkel every day, and my first time underwater I saw a shark, a ray and a sea turtle.  Playful sea lions swam within inches of me, wanting to interact, and there are colorful fish everywhere you look. 

The isolation of these islands is seen as the reason for so many endemic species; animals and plants that exist only here.  And this is where Charles Darwin developed his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection after observing how wildlife has adapted and survived.

The Galapagos are comprised of 19 islands and 42 ‘islets’ (small islands) that straddle the equator.  But only four are inhabited.    Today is our one day of ‘civilization’.  I’m in a cyber cafĂ© in the archipelago’s most populous city now, but I must go.  I’m anxious to return to nature  .  .  .

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Amazon: It IS a Rain Forest

Plant and animal species thrive in the wet, soggy conditions of the Amazon jungle.  And we were wet and soggy too, much of the time, as we sloshed and slid (and laughed!) in the slippery clay mud.  The Amazon basin, which surrounds the fabled river, is a tropical rain forest, after all.  So rain comes often, totaling 12 feet a year, and the steamy humidity is so high that nothing dries.

We were issued rain boots when we arrived at our jungle lodge, and ponchos when it rained.  And the boots were stored upside down on poles outside our cabins to keep the critters out between jungle visits.  I’m so glad that my friend Eva is now with us!  That’s her in the poncho on the far left. 

We saw giant Kapok trees; a wide variety of palms and ferns, and all kinds of other plants and trees, many of which have medicinal properties.  And there were colorful bromeliad flowers and lots of different crazy fungi.  Butterflies of all colors were flitting and gliding everywhere.  And we also saw frogs and turtles, and so many kinds of birds, including parrots and parakeets.  We didn’t see piranhas or anacondas, which was just fine with me!   I even had my own pet, a three-inch-long insect called a 'walking stick'.  He moved around in my bathroom, and was in a different place every time I returned to the cabin.   Nighttime was magical, with birds, frogs and insects orchestrating a cacophony of sounds.  And the clouds would break to reveal a star-filled sky. 

The Amazon is the river of all rivers, really, running through nine countries, for a total of 4,000 miles.  And it has the greatest water flow of any river in the world.  Our Amazon visit was in Ecuador on Rio Napo, a major tributary of the Amazon.  And, while we hated to leave all of that, we’re now headed for a second Ecuadorian adventure. Tomorrow we board an, eight-cabin catamaran for seven days of cruising this archipelago located 500 miles off the country’s western coast.  There won’t be internet access while we’re on the boat, but I’ll have a full report for you when we’re back ashore.  So, talk to you in a week  .  .  .

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

AWESOME Machu Picchu

I didn’t know a great deal about Machu Picchu before coming here.  But it turns out there’s a lot that nobody knows.  That’s part of the allure of this ‘City of the Incas’, with its precisely designed and crafted stone structures and terraces.  Here they sit, very remote and at 8,000 feet, nestled amongst spectacular mountains and clouds.  There are signature trapezoidal elements, and features perfectly aligned to track the rays of the sun for the winter and summer solstices.  And we do know that it was all built and abandoned in the span of just 100 years, beginning in the mid 1400s.

But why was it there?  Was it a sacred retreat?  A religious site?  A fortress?  We may never know.  And why did they leave?  To flee the Spaniards?  Drought or disease?  The death of their leader?

We do have answers for why it is so well preserved.  The isolated location saved it from the destructive path of the Spaniards.  Even today, to get there from Cusco, we took ground transport   .  .  .  then a train  .  .  .  and, finally, a bus that snaked up steep switchbacks in the cloud forest.  The settlement’s granite base provides a solid foundation that has saved it from earthquakes, and a sophisticated drainage system staves off erosion.

What is beyond question is the stunning natural beauty of the location.  Images of it serve as an icon of adventure and amazement known all around the world.  The Incas were all about harmony with nature, and I don’t think there is work of man anywhere that is more complementary to its surroundings.

Most people do this as a day trip.  But we stayed nearby overnight, and visited it both after the crowds the first afternoon, and before them the next morning.  The sight of it really holds you.  All you want to do is sit and stare.  After hiking stone-paved trails to two of its entries, I did exactly that.  In the most true sense of the very overused word, it is absolutely awesome!