A Travellerspoint blog

Quito

Churches, birds and volcanoes around Ecuador’s capital


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After spending nine days on the Galapagos Islands, we had only four days left to explore the mainland of Ecuador. For this, we based ourselves in Quito, the capital of the country. Quito is located just 25 kilometers South of the equator, but because of its altitude of 2’850 meters it is not a very hot place. The average daytime temperature is around 10 to 17 °C. We spent some time exploring the well preserved old town of Quito, which was the first city inscribed into the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site list. Quito is famous for its churches, decorated in an elaborate baroque style. We visited two churches inside. The first one was La Compañía de Jesús which is said to be the most beautiful church in the entire South America. Everything inside this impressive church is covered with gold leaves, including the walls and ceiling. The second church we visited was Basílica del Voto Nacional, which is the largest neo-Gothic cathedral in the Western hemisphere. Some of its architectural elements resemble the famous Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. However, instead of the gargoyles, one can spot native Ecuadorian armadillos, iguanas and Galapagos tortoises on the facade.

Main square and presidential palace in Quito

Main square and presidential palace in Quito

Street in the center of Quito with the Basílica del Voto Nacional in the distance

Street in the center of Quito with the Basílica del Voto Nacional in the distance

Quito seen through the two main towers of the Basílica del Voto Nacional

Quito seen through the two main towers of the Basílica del Voto Nacional

Evening light in San Blas neighborhood of Quito

Evening light in San Blas neighborhood of Quito

For one day, we travelled to the nearby town of Mindo, which is known for its cloud forest and exceptional biodiversity. We hired a local bird watching guide to walk with us through the forest and help us spot birds. The cloud forest around Mindo is home to over 500 species of birds, making it one of the world’s top spots for bird watching. From our recent experiences on the Galapagos Islands, we assumed that this was going to be easy. However, we are not sure if we had spotted a single bird that day without our guide. Somehow, he spotted small birds sitting motionless on a tree 50 meters away behind other trees and quickly pointed his telescope so we could see them too. Thanks to our guide, we were able to see toucans and many different species of the colorful tanagers.

Mindo cloud forest

Mindo cloud forest

Chairlift through the Mindo cloud forest

Chairlift through the Mindo cloud forest

Crimson-rumped toucanet in Mindo, photographed through a telescope

Crimson-rumped toucanet in Mindo, photographed through a telescope

Choco toucan in Mindo, photographed through a telescope

Choco toucan in Mindo, photographed through a telescope

Pale-mandibled aracari in Mindo, photographed through a telescope

Pale-mandibled aracari in Mindo, photographed through a telescope

Our day trip to Cotopaxi was less successful than the one to Mindo. It took more than three hours to reach the carpark at 4’600 meter above the sea, from where we started hiking up. It was raining heavily and it was impossible to see anything of the 5’897 meters high volcano. After hiking half-way to the viewpoint, our guide correctly concluded that it does not make any sense to continue and we went back down and drove back to Quito. Unfortunately, this was our last day in Ecuador and it felt very much wasted. The next day we left for Colombia early in the morning.

Cotopaxi in the clouds

Cotopaxi in the clouds

Posted by samandmarta 08:57 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

The Galapagos Islands - Part 2

Outstanding wildlife watching on Isabela, Fernandina and Santa Cruz Islands


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On the fourth day of our cruise, we woke up on the Northern end of the Galapagos’ largest island. Isabela Island was created by the merger of six volcanoes, which gave it a distinct seahorse shape. Most of the Galapagos Islands lie South of the equator, but Genovesa and the Northern tip of Isabela are on the Northern hemisphere. Our first activity for the day was a ride in our two small dinghies along the cliffs of Punta Vicente Roca. Besides lots of birds like boobies and pelicans, we also found a sunfish in the water. Sunfish are among the largest bony fishes in the world. They are round and flat like a plate and can span about 2 meters in diameter.

Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Everyone is trying to get a good look at the sunfish

Everyone is trying to get a good look at the sunfish

Pelican at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Pelican at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Next we went snorkeling at the same spot. Given the location of the Galapagos at the equator, one might assume that the water here is very warm. Unfortunately, the Humboldt current brings cold waters from the Arctic up to the Galapagos. In our previous snorkeling spots, the water was around 23 °C, but here in the West of Isabela Island, a strong upwelling brings the temperature down to only about 20 °C. While this is not bad for a quick swim, after an hour of snorkeling we were feeling pretty cold. Despite the cold, it was absolutely worth it. The highlight of the snorkeling were once again the sea lions, who just loved to swim around us and show off their agility in the water.

Galapagos sea lion at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Galapagos sea lion at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Galapagos sea lion at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Galapagos sea lion at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

School of fish at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

School of fish at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

On the way to our next stop, the boat’s bell once again rang to get us on deck. This time, a whale shark had been sighted and our guide rushed us to get our snorkeling gear on as fast as possible. With the dinghy, we went closer and jumped in. The whale shark was about seven meters long, although the visibility did not allow to see the entire animal at once. He must have not liked our presence, as he swam out of our sight after only about 20 seconds. Despite being so large, whale sharks eat only plankton. Back on the boat, they sighted another sunfish and we tried to snorkel with him as well. Unfortunately, these fish are very shy and he was gone before we could orient ourselves underwater.

In the afternoon, The Beagle anchored in Tagus Cove and we went ashore on Isabela Island for the first time. If you came to Galapagos expecting a classic tropical paradise, you would probably feel disappointed. While there are a couple of nice beaches, especially the younger islands like Isabela and Fernandina are mostly volcanic rock with only minimal vegetation. On our hike through this landscape, we saw lots of finches, the small birds that helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution. There are about 15 different species of finches on the Galapagos islands. They differ mostly in their size and the shapes of their beak, which are adapted to different food sources and habitats.

The Beagle anchoring in Tagus Cove, Isabela Island

The Beagle anchoring in Tagus Cove, Isabela Island

Ground finch near Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Ground finch near Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Warbler finch on Santa Cruz Island

Warbler finch on Santa Cruz Island

We spent the night in a calm bay in front of Fernandina Island, the youngest island of the Galapagos. In the morning, we went on land for a fantastic nature walk. Just in the first ten minutes, we saw a sea lion hunting for fish and a Galapagos hawk catching a baby marine iguana. We have seen marine iguanas at nearly every spot, but never as many as during this walk. Sometimes there were hundreds of them piled up in one spot. They don’t move a lot and they are as black as the volcanic rock on which they sit, so we had to be really careful not to step on one by accident. While they are not particularly handsome, marine iguanas are fascinating animals. They are endemic to the Galapagos islands and the only lizards that forage underwater, where they feed on green algae. They can dive as deep as 30 meters and stay underwater for up to one hour. When there is a shortage of food, they can shrink their body size so they need less energy.

Galapagos sea lion with a fish in his mouth on Fernandina Island

Galapagos sea lion with a fish in his mouth on Fernandina Island

Galapagos hawk with a baby marine iguana in its claws on Fernandina Island

Galapagos hawk with a baby marine iguana in its claws on Fernandina Island

Marine iguana on Santa Cruz Island

Marine iguana on Santa Cruz Island

Marine iguana sitting on a tree on Fernandina Island

Marine iguana sitting on a tree on Fernandina Island

Large group of marine iguanas warming up on Fernandina Island

Large group of marine iguanas warming up on Fernandina Island

Part of a marine iguana skeleton on Fernandina Island

Part of a marine iguana skeleton on Fernandina Island

Lava flows with cacti on Fernandina Island

Lava flows with cacti on Fernandina Island

After the walk, we went snorkeling in front of Fernandina Island and it was the best snorkeling we have ever done. Right after jumping in the water, a Galapagos penguin dove in next to us and swam around us for a bit. Next, we encountered a group of at least ten sea turtles feeding on algae. They were the largest sea turtles we have ever seen, probably close to two meters long. We are supposed to keep two meters distance from animals, but it was really hard since the waves were strong and the turtles were everywhere around us. While watching the turtles, a group of sea lions approached us and swam around us. They are so incredibly fast! In the end, we also saw marine iguanas swimming and eating algae.

Sea turtle feeding in the waters of Fernandina Island

Sea turtle feeding in the waters of Fernandina Island

Sea turtle in the waters of Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Sea turtle in the waters of Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Marine iguana feeding on algae in the waters of Fernandina Island

Marine iguana feeding on algae in the waters of Fernandina Island

For our afternoon stop we went to Urbina Bay, back on Isabela Island. There, we saw the famous Galapagos tortoise in the wild for the first time. They are so iconic for the archipelago that the Galapagos islands are actually named after the giant tortoises, not the other way around. So “Galapagos Islands” really means “Islands of the tortoises” It was great to see them slowly walking their way, with the composure of an animal who knows it is going to live another hundred years. We also found a few land iguanas in this area. Unlike their marine relatives, they are nicely colored, though Darwin still described them as “ugly”.

Galapagos tortoise walking in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Galapagos tortoise walking in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Galapagos mockingbird sitting on top of a Galapagos tortoise in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Galapagos mockingbird sitting on top of a Galapagos tortoise in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Land iguana in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Land iguana in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Land iguana in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Land iguana in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Land iguana hiding in the bushes in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Land iguana hiding in the bushes in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

Moving South along the West coast of Isabela Island, we made our next stop at Elizabeth Bay, where we explored the coast with the dinghy early in the morning. Elizabeth Bay has the largest concentration of the endemic Galapagos penguins and we saw many that morning. Around half a meter tall, they are among the smallest penguins in the world and the only ones that can be found North of the equator (on the Northern tip of Isabela Island). Unlike other penguins, they don’t live in colonies, but are mostly solitary. Sadly, they are a threatened species with only around 2’000 individuals left. Another endemic bird we saw that morning was the flightless cormorant. Due to the abundance of food in the ocean here, they have lost their ability to fly and instead catch food by diving underwater. Later, we went snorkeling for the last time on the cruise and unsuccessfully tried to find seahorses hiding in the algae.

Galapagos penguin in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island

Galapagos penguin in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island

Group of six Galapagos penguins swimming in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island

Group of six Galapagos penguins swimming in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island

Flightless cormorant in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island

Flightless cormorant in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island

The second stop of the day was at Punta Moreno, where we walked over relatively new lava flows to a lagoon which had a couple of American flamingos in it. The American flamingo is the most colorful of all the flamingo species.

American flamingo in a lagoon at Punta Moreno, Isabela Island

American flamingo in a lagoon at Punta Moreno, Isabela Island

Three American flamingos in a lagoon at Punta Moreno, Isabela Island

Three American flamingos in a lagoon at Punta Moreno, Isabela Island

In the afternoon, we did not have any more excursions as we were sailing around the Southwestern tip of Isabela Island. Just as we thought that this day was the least exciting day of the cruise so far, the bell rang to get our attention on deck. We could hardly believe our luck, when a blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed, showed up next to the Beagle. The whale was at least 20 meters long, almost as large as our boat. We followed the blue whale around for nearly an hour and he sometimes came very close to our boat. They were once abundant in the oceans, but were hunted nearly to extinction until the 1970s. Nowadays, there are around 20’000 blue whales spread around the globe, which makes it quite rare to encounter one.

Everyone is very excited about the blue whale surfacing close to our boat

Everyone is very excited about the blue whale surfacing close to our boat

Dorsal fin and flipper of a blue whale in the West of Isabela Island

Dorsal fin and flipper of a blue whale in the West of Isabela Island

The back of a blue whale in the West of Isabela Island

The back of a blue whale in the West of Isabela Island

We started the next day in the harbor of Puerto Villamil, the only inhabited place on Isabela Island that is home to around 2’000 people. The first activity was a hike to the caldera of the Sierra Negra volcano, where we were extremely lucky to spot the rare vermillion flycatcher. Unfortunately, the weather was so misty that we hardly saw anything of the caldera. Sierra Negra is one of five active volcanoes on Isabela Island and the most recent one to erupt just one year ago. After the hike, we visited the tortoise breeding center. There were once an estimated quarter million Galapagos tortoises in the archipelago, but sadly they were a very convenient food source for sailors. They were very easy to catch and could be stored alive in the hull of the ships for up to a year, providing fresh meat during long journeys. Nowadays, they also face trouble from many introduced species and are considered threatened, which is why they are actively bred in captivity and released back into the wild only when old enough to survive (usually when they are 10 to 12 years old).

Young Galapagos tortoise on his back at the tortoise breeding center in Puerto Villamil

Young Galapagos tortoise on his back at the tortoise breeding center in Puerto Villamil

"And this, my child, is how the baby tortoises are made" (tortoise breeding center in Puerto Villamil)

"And this, my child, is how the baby tortoises are made" (tortoise breeding center in Puerto Villamil)

From Puerto Villamil, we sailed back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. This was the most rocky part of our cruise and we were grateful for having packed seasickness pills. On Santa Cruz we did a last nature walk before having to say goodbye to our guide and our cruise-mates. During the walk, we again saw lots of birds like finches or the endemic Galapagos mockingbird.

The Beagle in rough waters between Isabela and Santa Cruz Island

The Beagle in rough waters between Isabela and Santa Cruz Island

Galapagos mockingbird near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island

Galapagos mockingbird near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island

Galapagos mockingbird on Santiago Island

Galapagos mockingbird on Santiago Island

Our seven-day Galapagos cruise trip exceeded our expectations on every scale. The boat, the guide, the fellow travelers, the food and most importantly, the wildlife were all amazing. We both agreed that although it was the most expensive week of our round-the-world trip, it was also the best one. We spent another two days in Puerto Ayora at a more relaxed pace. We visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and a couple of beaches around the town and still saw lots of wildlife, though nothing we have not already seen on the cruise. The Galapagos Islands are a true paradise on the Earth and we hope to come back one day!

Bay of Puerto Ayora

Bay of Puerto Ayora

Beach near the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora

Beach near the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora

Two Galapagos sea lions resting on a bench at the Puerto Ayora pier

Two Galapagos sea lions resting on a bench at the Puerto Ayora pier

Posted by samandmarta 13:00 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

The Galapagos Islands - Part 1

Outstanding wildlife watching on Santa Cruz, Genovesa and Santiago Islands


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From Iguazú Falls to Lima, we have travelled exclusively by bus, but for our last month of travel we changed to airplanes as our primary mode of transportation. Since we will be focusing on the highlights of Ecuador and Colombia only, distances are simply too large to travel by bus. Our first stop in Ecuador was Guayaquil, a large port city in the South of Ecuador, but we spent only an afternoon and a night there. In this time, we met two of Marta’s friends from her PhD for dinner and they showed us around the nice riverfront area of the city. The next morning, we continued to the Galapagos Islands.

We have thought hard about how we want to explore the Galapagos Islands, but ultimately settled on booking a seven-day cruise trip aboard a small motor-sailing boat. This cruise is by far the most expensive thing we have done in this year of travelling, but we concluded that going with a cruise will allow us to see the more remote islands of the archipelago, where the wildlife is more plentiful and less shy and where there are fewer other tourists. Also, a cruise has the advantage that you don’t loose time going back and forth between your accommodation since the boat can move over night to the next destination, thus providing more opportunities to explore the islands. We chose a North-Western itinerary, which includes visits to three of the four most pristine islands, Genovesa, Fernandina and Isabela.

Route map of our North-Western itinerary

Route map of our North-Western itinerary

Upon arrival we were picked up by Diego, our naturalist guide for the cruise, and brought to our boat. Our home for the next seven days was called «The Beagle», named after the «HMS Beagle», which brought Charles Darwin to the Galapagos in 1835. It is a 32-meter, two-masted sailing boat, but it was motoring for most of our journey. We especially enjoyed the large outdoor dining table and the many lounging opportunities on deck. Our room was very spacious and comfortable for a boat, with a private bathroom including a hot shower with good water-pressure. More importantly, we were lucky to share this trip with ten fun, friendly and well-travelled co-passengers.

The Beagle anchoring in front of Isabela Island

The Beagle anchoring in front of Isabela Island

The Beagle

The Beagle

Our cabin on The Beagle

Our cabin on The Beagle

On deck of The Beagle at sunset

On deck of The Beagle at sunset

On the afternoon of our arrival, we already had the first stop of our trip at a beach on Santa Cruz Island called Las Bachas. On our walk along the beach, we already saw lots of interesting animals. Right after landing on the beach, we were greeted by the ubiquitous Sally Lightfoot crab. A large and intensely colored crab that we found nearly at every stop. We also saw many birds like black-necked stilts, great blue herons or yellow warblers. After the walk, we jumped in the water for a first short swim in the Galapagos.

Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island in evening light

Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island in evening light

Sally lightfoot crab at Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island

Sally lightfoot crab at Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island

Sally lightfoot crab on Santa Cruz Island

Sally lightfoot crab on Santa Cruz Island

Sally lightfoot crab on Santiago Island

Sally lightfoot crab on Santiago Island

Black-necked stilt in a small lagoon on Santa Cruz Island

Black-necked stilt in a small lagoon on Santa Cruz Island

Great blue heron on Santiago Island

Great blue heron on Santiago Island

Yellow warbler on Santa Cruz Island

Yellow warbler on Santa Cruz Island

Overnight, we moved all the way to Genovesa Island in the far Northeast of the archipelago. The sea was quite calm and we had a good first night on the boat. After breakfast, we landed at a spot called Prince Philip’s Steps from where we walked along a path on top of the cliffs. This place was a nesting area for countless frigatebirds, Nazca boobies and red-footed boobies. It is hard to describe how many birds there were around us and they completely ignored us like we have never seen it before. We felt a bit like ghosts walking through those birds who were mating, building nests, feeding their chicks and in general went along with their daily business just meters away from us. Of the three booby species that live in the Galapagos islands, two are nesting on Genovesa. We did not visit any nesting areas of the iconic blue-footed booby, but we did occasionally see them flying around or dive-bombing into the sea to catch fish.

Red-footed booby in the mangroves on Genovesa Island

Red-footed booby in the mangroves on Genovesa Island

Red-footed booby with chick on Genovesa Island

Red-footed booby with chick on Genovesa Island

Red-footed booby on Genovesa Island

Red-footed booby on Genovesa Island

Adult Nazca booby on Genovesa Island

Adult Nazca booby on Genovesa Island

Juvenile Nazca booby on Genovesa Island

Juvenile Nazca booby on Genovesa Island

Blue-footed booby on a rock in front of Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island

Blue-footed booby on a rock in front of Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island

Blue-footed booby in the air near Isabela Island

Blue-footed booby in the air near Isabela Island

Our next activity was snorkeling along the cliffs of Darwin Bay. This was quite tricky because the water was very choppy. The visibility underwater was very low due to the high nutrient content of the water, which makes the Galapagos such a wildlife paradise. We did still manage to see a hammerhead shark though, which was very exciting. After lunch, we went for kayaking along the cliffs where we saw more birds like the red-billed tropicbird and storm petrels and some fur seals resting in the shade. Later, we did another landing, this time at the beach in the middle of Darwin Bay. This was again a large nesting area for birds like frigatebirds or swallow-tailed gulls. The latter is breeding almost exclusively in the Galapagos and is the only fully nocturnal seabird in the world. The frigatebirds are amongst the largest and most fascinating birds on the islands. Their wings can span up to 2.3 meters and they are known to harass smaller birds midflight to steal their catch, something we witnesses ourselves on Genovesa Island. While they are mostly black, the males have a large red gular pouch, which serves no other purpose than to attract females during the breeding season.

Cliffs of Genovesa Island

Cliffs of Genovesa Island

Male frigatebird with inflated gular pouch on Genovesa Island

Male frigatebird with inflated gular pouch on Genovesa Island

Male frigatebird in the air on Genovesa Island

Male frigatebird in the air on Genovesa Island

Two swallow-tailed gulls on Genovesa Island

Two swallow-tailed gulls on Genovesa Island

Swallow-tailed gull on Genovesa Island

Swallow-tailed gull on Genovesa Island

On the way back to the beach, we saw a group of sea lions bask in the sun and cool off in the water. They can be very playful with humans which probably makes them the most beloved animals in the archipelago. The Galapagos sea lion is endemic to the islands and is the smallest species of sea lions, though they can still weight up to 250kg. We ended the day with a short snorkeling off the beach where some sea lions joined us. They look so clumsy on land but are extremely agile in the water. Other notable underwater sightings were an eagle ray and about half a dozen whitetip reef sharks.

Galapagos sea lions basking in the afternoon sun on Genovesa Island

Galapagos sea lions basking in the afternoon sun on Genovesa Island

Two Galapagos sea lions at the beach on Genovesa Island

Two Galapagos sea lions at the beach on Genovesa Island

Eagle ray in Darwin Bay

Eagle ray in Darwin Bay

Whitetip reef shark in Darwin Bay

Whitetip reef shark in Darwin Bay

We could not believe how much we were able to see on a single day at Genovesa Island. It was a very busy day full of activities, though we would soon learn that this was not an exception. Overnight, the Beagle cruised to a spot called Puerto Egas on Santiago Island, where we landed on a black sand beach for another great walk. There, we found the Galapagos fur seal, an endemic species which looks very similar to the Galapagos sea lions but is more shy. We were also very fortunate to witness Mobula rays close to the shore. These large rays were jumping a few meters out of the water while doing flips in the air. In some kind of mating behavior, they did this almost synchronously in groups of about five rays. Another endemic animal we saw was the colorful Galapagos lava lizard, though they can be seen on almost all the islands. To end the morning, we went snorkeling off the beach. Here, the water was a lot clearer and we saw lots of fish, as well as a sea lion who was swimming around us.

Black sand beach at Puerto Egas on Santiago Island

Black sand beach at Puerto Egas on Santiago Island

Marta walking over lava flows on Santiago Island

Marta walking over lava flows on Santiago Island

Galapagos fur seal on Santiago Island

Galapagos fur seal on Santiago Island

Sea lion playing in the water on Santiago Island

Sea lion playing in the water on Santiago Island

Galapagos lava lizard on Santiago Island

Galapagos lava lizard on Santiago Island

Galapagos lava lizard eating a locust on Fernandina Island

Galapagos lava lizard eating a locust on Fernandina Island

Giant Hawkfish in the waters around Santiago Island

Giant Hawkfish in the waters around Santiago Island

After lunch, we set sail for the North of Isabela Island. The Beagle actually put the sails up for the first time, though the motor was still running at the same time. On board, there was a loud bell, which was rung to gather us for meals, activities or when interesting animals have been sighted. On this day, the latter happened for the first time as one of the crew spotted a Bryde’s whale close to our ship. During a beautiful sunset we arrived to Isabella Island, by far the largest in the archipelago, where we anchored for the night.

Sunset seen from The Beagle

Sunset seen from The Beagle

Posted by samandmarta 08:12 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Coastal Peru

Nazca, Ica and Lima


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We left the heartland of the Incas with an overnight bus from Cusco to Nazca close to the Pacific coast. Nazca is known for the Nazca Lines, created by the culture of the same name. We took a short 40-minute flight to see the line drawings in the sand. The Nazca people have made these drawings most likely to indicate sources of water and positions of stars important for keeping track of the seasons. The figures are between 50 and 300 meters wide and therefore impossible to see from the ground. While the flight was interesting, it was definitely not enjoyable. The plane took such stomach-churning sharp turns to show us the lines, that despite taking motion sickness medicine beforehand, we both felt bad for the second half of the flight.

‘Astronaut’ figure of the Nazca Lines

‘Astronaut’ figure of the Nazca Lines

‘Monkey’ figure of the Nazca Lines

‘Monkey’ figure of the Nazca Lines

‘Hummingbird’ figure of the Nazca Lines

‘Hummingbird’ figure of the Nazca Lines

‘Spider’ figure of the Nazca lines

‘Spider’ figure of the Nazca lines

‘Tree’ and ‘Hands’ figures of the Nazca lines, see cars for scale

‘Tree’ and ‘Hands’ figures of the Nazca lines, see cars for scale

Nazca town does not have anything to offer besides the lines and is in general not a pleasant place, so we quickly moved on by bus to Ica. Ica is the main region for the production of Peru’s signature spirit, Pisco. We went to visit the Tacama winery there, which claims to be South Americas first winery. Besides wine, they also produce Pisco of course. Our wine and Pisco tasting was held by a sommelier in the most sophisticated tasting room we have ever seen. Unfortunately, the wine was not as good as what we tried in Chile and Argentina, but at least the Pisco was very tasty.

Marta in the wine tasting room in Ica

Marta in the wine tasting room in Ica

Tower of the Tacama winery in Ica

Tower of the Tacama winery in Ica

Vineyards of the Tacama winery in Ica

Vineyards of the Tacama winery in Ica

Barrels at the Tacama winery in Ica

Barrels at the Tacama winery in Ica

Nearby Ica is the small village of Huacachina, surrounding a small oasis in the middle of the desert. We took a tour on the huge sand dunes with a special sand buggy. The tour also involved sandboarding, which is basically sliding down the dunes lying on a wooden board.

Sand dunes near Huacachina

Sand dunes near Huacachina

Sand dunes near Huacachina

Sand dunes near Huacachina

Sunset over the sand dunes near Huacachina

Sunset over the sand dunes near Huacachina

Marta on our dune buggy

Marta on our dune buggy

Huacachina

Huacachina

After two nights in Ica, we took the bus to Lima, the capital of Peru. Even though Lima is much closer to the equator than Rio de Janeiro, it is not a great place for a beach vacation at this time of the year. Thanks to the Humboldt current, the waters of the Pacific are below 20 °C here in May and there is an almost constant fog over the city. In fact, we haven’t seen a ray of sunshine in four days in Lima. We spent some time exploring the old town, but were not particularly impressed by it. Our highlight of Lima was the food. The city is home to some of the world’s best restaurants and we made sure to visit some of them, although the top spots were of course booked out for months.

Plaza Mayor in Lima

Plaza Mayor in Lima

Presidential palace in Lima

Presidential palace in Lima

San Francisco monastery

San Francisco monastery

Pacific coast from the Miraflores neighborhood in Lima

Pacific coast from the Miraflores neighborhood in Lima

Another high point of our time in Lima was the visit to Museo Larco. The museum did a great job showing the dozens of different cultures that have lived throughout Peru and how they influenced each other. Although the Incas get all the fame, they actually ruled for only a bit over one hundred years, while the history of Peruvian civilizations goes back for 5’000 years.

Vase in Museo Larco

Vase in Museo Larco

Golden funerary ornaments in Museo Larco

Golden funerary ornaments in Museo Larco

Overall, we enjoyed our time in Peru a lot and there were some more places we would have liked to see if time had allowed. Peru has, in our opinion, the most spectacular part of the Andes and we enjoyed our time at Lake Titicaca and the area around Cusco a lot. The coastal area, however, we found less interesting, as it is mostly desert with the occasional rusty town.

Posted by samandmarta 12:04 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Machu Picchu

Visiting South America’s most famous archaeological site, twice


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After six great days in Cusco, we took the train to the highlight of the area and probably the country, Machu Picchu. To be precise, the train went to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town in the valley below the Inca citadel. Conveniently for the train companies, there is no road to Aguas Calientes, so the only way to get there is by a four-day hike or using one of the very expensive train services. The famous Inca Trail was of course booked out many months in advance and we were not so keen to spend so much time on one of the less popular routes. We booked the Vistadome train from PeruRail which has panoramic windows. While the views were nice along the way, more or less every train ride in the Swiss Alps is more spectacular and costs significantly less.

Vistadome train to Machu Picchu

Vistadome train to Machu Picchu

While many tourists visit Machu Picchu on a long day trip from Cusco, taking the train there in the morning and back in the evening, we decided to spend two nights in Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu twice. Since we came so far to see this place, we wanted to increase our chances of good weather. It would be very disappointing to spend the day in the fog or heavy rain, so we booked tickets for two days. Also, when staying in Aguas Calientes, one can visit the Inca site in the early morning or late afternoon when it is significantly less crowded. Our first visit was in the afternoon of the day we arrived by train and the sky was completely overcast. Not the worst that could happen, but not optimal. We were much luckier on our second visit early on the following morning, when we were able to enjoy Machu Picchu with perfectly clear skies. Therefore, most of the photos here will be from the second visit.

Machu Picchu in the morning

Machu Picchu in the morning

Sam and Marta in front of Machu Picchu

Sam and Marta in front of Machu Picchu

What distinguishes Machu Picchu from other impressive Inca sites like Saqsaywaman is its spectacular surrounding and how well it is preserved. Machu Picchu is one of very few places that were not discovered by the Spanish and therefore it was never willfully destroyed. Only in 1911 was the site rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham. The steep mountains and valleys around Machu Picchu make it a spectacular place to see.

Machu Picchu ruins

Machu Picchu ruins

Stone wall with windows in front of Intihuatana pyramid in Machu Picchu

Stone wall with windows in front of Intihuatana pyramid in Machu Picchu

Llama in Machu Picchu

Llama in Machu Picchu

Viscacha In Machu Picchu

Viscacha In Machu Picchu

For our second visit (the one with the good weather), we had also booked a spot to hike Montaña Machupicchu, one of the two mountains around Machu Picchu. It was a strenuous morning exercise to climb to the peak, which was about 600 meters above the ruins. The entire hike consisted of steep stairs and there was hardly any flat part along the way. The view from the top was worth it though, as not only Machu Picchu could be seen, but also many snow-capped mountains around.

Sam on top of Montaña Machupicchu (3061m)

Sam on top of Montaña Machupicchu (3061m)

Marta on top of Montaña Machupicchu (3061m), looking down on the Machu Picchu ruins

Marta on top of Montaña Machupicchu (3061m), looking down on the Machu Picchu ruins

Marta on the steep way down from Montaña Machupicchu (3061m)

Marta on the steep way down from Montaña Machupicchu (3061m)

We left Aguas Calientes again by train, but this time we did not go all the way back to Cusco, but disembarked in Ollantaytambo. In Ollantaytambo, we visited Inca ruins for one last time. The Ollantaytambo ruins were thankfully not visited as heavily as Machu Picchu, which made it a relaxing visit for us. The most distinguishing feature of this site was the elaborate water distribution system. There were many fountains around the site, which still work to this day, simply by taking advantage of gravity. Some water channels were even running underground.

Marta standing in a door at the Ollantaytambo ruins

Marta standing in a door at the Ollantaytambo ruins

Ollantaytambo town with mountain behind, seen from the Ollantaytambo ruins

Ollantaytambo town with mountain behind, seen from the Ollantaytambo ruins

Inca-built water channel at the Ollantaytambo ruins

Inca-built water channel at the Ollantaytambo ruins

After Ollantaytambo, we had seen enough ruins for a while. Instead, we booked one night in a very nice spa hotel in Urubamba to relax after an intensive week of hiking and sightseeing. Before leaving for our next destination, we still went to see one small sight though. The Salinas de Maras is a salt production site built before the Incas and still operating today. Naturally occurring salty water is collected in small ponds where the water is evaporated by the sun until only the salt remains.

Salinas de Maras

Salinas de Maras

Close-up of Salinas de Maras

Close-up of Salinas de Maras

Posted by samandmarta 11:27 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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