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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

On to Ecuador

My lingering memory of Peru, as I rode the train back to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, will be the weird music. “El Cóndor Pasa” is on more or less constant rotation. You hear a lot of breathy flutes in an unknown time signature, and then there’s a Muzak version of Abba. 

T. was eager to get out of Peru. Nothing against Peru; it's just that she’d been sick with one thing or another ever since we left Cuba (though she did, at least, get to see the notorious Machu Picchu). I was not in the mood right after my trek, but first thing the next morning, we flew to the coastal Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, via Lima. There was some questioning at the Cuzco airport about our lack of an onward ticket out of Ecuador, but as usual, immigration officials did not ask about this at all when we actually got there.
If you ever have occasion to fly Avianca, which flies throughout the Americas, I highly recommend it. This was our second trip with this airline and we were impressed. Note that what impresses nowadays used to be standard inclusions for an airline: drinks; a meal; checked luggage; and roomy, comfy seats (for a plane). 

Guayaquil is the largest port on the west coast of South America, and does not like playing second city of Ecuador to the more famous capital, Quito. What Guayaquil may lack in visitor attractions, it made up for with a very comfortable (and huge!) apartment, which we shared with some five other guests; our amenable English-speaking host; and, most importantly, a washing machine.

Our first morning, our host told us he’d come about 8:30 and cook us oatmeal for breakfast. He showed up about two hours later, but this is Latin America! He also brought lots of fresh fruit: bananas, papaya, strawberries, peaches. All Airbnbs are definitely not equal. It was the most poor T. had eaten in more than two weeks.

Chatting with him and our flatmates, we learned that though we’re south of the equator here, the seasons are completely different from non-tropical regions. This time of year, which is hotter and wetter, is called invierno (“winter”). The other time of the year, drier and relatively cooler, is “summer.” We also had some interesting conversation about the respective presidents of Ecuador and the United States, both of whom had disappointed the citizens present. Our host said that although he’d voted for his president twice, things were not working out for Ecuador. In fact, he told us, he’d been to an appointment at a government office, only to find a sign reading “Closed because of corruption”!

Since the year 2000, Ecuador has used the U.S. dollar as its currency. This made costs easily comprehensible to us, although sometimes surprising; a returnable glass bottle of Coke, for example, cost 25¢. Ecuador mints its own coins, but they’re the same size and shape as U.S. coins, and interchangeable with them.
I remember what a big deal it was when the Susan B. Anthony dollar came out. They never minted them again.
We were staying in the suburb of Urdesa, but as with Lima, downtown Guayaquil is fine during the day. There’s a Gothic cathedral, but the real attraction is the park across the road.

Since T. was still not herself and there didn’t seem to be a convenient bus in Urdesa, we thought, why not spend four or five dollars for a taxi? I asked the driver for Parque Seminario, also known as Parque Bolívar, but he just said “Parque de las Iguanas?” Because that is what the park is known for.
Land iguanas pretty much own this park. They are similar to the species of land iguanas that live on some of the Galápagos Islands.
A naturalist told us that the land iguanas of Galápagos are descended from some like these from the mainland, which somehow drifted over to the islands on a raft, Kon-Tiki like. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge to Galápagos that I can sell you.
When we could finally tear ourselves away, we did visit the cathedral. We could not help noticing that someone sat outside selling bingo tickets. Isn’t this like the moneychangers Jesus drove away from the Temple?
"You are the Christ, the son of the living God." --Peter in the Gospel
Then we hit the Municipal Museum which, like other museums I’ve seen in the Andean countries, is free. It’s a real mixed bag, but you get what you pay for. Every city seems to have had its Great Fire and this was the museum’s representation of Guayaquil’s, in 1896.

There were also some interesting figurines from the oldest civilization in Ecuador: the Valdivia (3,200 B.C.) But truth be told, I was just glad to be out with T. and see her finally getting her appetite back. In a tropical climate, ice cream goes down a treat.
Besides the ecstasy of getting my dirty, wet clothes all clean and dry, we also found time to walk Guayaquil’s proudly revamped waterfront, Malecón 2000. Only 60 km long, the Río Guayas is the widest river on the Pacific side of the Americas. And like any good millennial project, the Malecón has a Ferris wheel.

The main street is named 9 de octubre, after the date of Guayaquil’s (not Ecuador’s) independence from Spain in 1820.

The Malecón intersects 9 de octubre at La Rotonda. The statue commemorates the one and only meeting, in 1822, between two heroes of South American independence: Simon Bolívar, heading south through “Gran Colombia,” and Juan San Martín heading north from Peru.

A couple of blocks over is the church of San Francisco, which was restored in this unusual style after the great fire. It reminded me of icing on a cake.

We made a number of trips to the nearby Mini Mart during T’s recovery—for Coca-Cola, mostly. We also got help from a pharmacist who didn’t speak any English, but could look things up when I wrote them down. We knew we were becoming friends with these people because they went from no facial expression at all to saying “Thank you” in English, day by day. The Mini Mart woman even reminded T. not to carry her camera around but put it in a bag, to avoid peligro (danger).

I read that Urdesa, our suburb, is the place to go for dining and nightlife. We would not know. We did, however, eventually go out for a meal; I wanted encocado (fish in coconut stew) but the restaurant was out of it. Instead, I was urged to partake of the house specialty. The place was called Cangrejal Manny’s, in other words, a crab shack.
Please remind me in future that crab is worth far less than the effort put into it, particularly by the crab. 

I was eager to see crabs and many other forms of wildlife in their natural, living state, and that is really why we’d come to Guayaquil: it’s the gateway to the Galápagos Islands. We had several days here because we weren’t sure what arrangements we’d be making for travel to Galápagos, and it’s just as well, because T. was still recovering. I confess I was climbing the walls a bit, though. There were lots of books in the apartment, but the only ones in English were a 1989 geography textbook from the U.S., which closely resembled textbooks I remember from school, and a novel about lonely hearts in 1970s County Derry. I tried the textbook and was struck by how it read like propaganda—as slanted as anything I’d seen in Cuba. So, it’s been misery in Ireland for me!

Our host told us that he’d been to Galápagos in 1970 (the first year it opened to tourism). At that time, getting to this far-flung bit of Ecuador involved a three-and-a-half-day journey by converted warship, and it sounded horrific. He described eight hours of plowing into plummeting waves, and everybody getting seasick. This was the result of the cooler Humboldt Current which comes up from the Peruvian direction. Like the Gulf Stream in the north Atlantic, the Humboldt Current makes possible the particular climate of the islands it affects. The Galápagos have the world’s only tropical penguins, who came up via the cold current. There’s also the world’s only flightless cormorant and, most commonly observed, the world’s only seagoing iguana—a completely different species from the land iguanas of Guayaquil.

It’s an hour-and-a-half flight nowadays, which is far less trouble than coming by ship (or raft if you're a land iguana). There’s a lot involved with traveling to Galápagos even though it’s the same country. The region has its own administration, which is very careful about letting anything in that may damage the unique environment (kind of like Tasmania). This is, after all, the islands’ selling point. We were told that no plastic bottles or bags were allowed, and indeed, I’ve seen no plastic bags, or straws, another plague of the sea and animals. The airport itself is unusually “green,” LEED-certified and with just some fans and an X-ray machine.

While waiting in line to pay for our tourist cards and national park fees, we started talking to a young U.S. Army officer, traveling here on much-needed leave from Iraq. He said that before the army had given him the opportunity to travel other parts of the world, he hadn’t realized what a “bubble” Americans live in (his words). His message to the folks back home was, “Can’t you guys be nice to each other?” I also heard him chatting to a couple of Canadians across the aisle, and opining that the embargo against Cuba, in this post-Fidel Castro time, is “the dumbest thing ever.” 

The Army did very well to get this guy, but other legacies of the U.S. armed forces are harder to appreciate. For one thing, the location of the airport on Isla Baltra. The military built this, as it built so many bases in the World War II era, but it makes no sense in regard to where anyone presently wants to go in the islands. To get from the airport to Puerto Ayora, the most populated town, you first have to take a bus to the ferry dock, then a ferry across to Isla Santa Cruz (less than half a kilometre), then another bus totally across the island straight through the interior. And then the bus dumped us somewhere and we had to flag down one of the taxis, which on Santa Cruz are all 4x4 pickup trucks, for reasons which would become clear. Needless to say, each leg of this journey charges in dollars. It took far longer than the flight itself!
Our backpacks are there somewhere. Photo courtesy of T.
But, it was all worth it when we arrived, and saw the Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttling over the rocks everywhere, instead of awaiting a hammer on a plate.
In his Journey of the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin wrote: “Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions, the sensation of delight which the mind experiences.” I have to agree with Darwin. Without even leaving the modest terrace of our modest hotel, we’d already seen brown pelicans, marine iguanas, and everyone’s favourite, sea lions. 

Oh, and tons of fish in a glorious turquoise sea.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Machu Picchu: the finale

When we originally set out, I think Josie and Alasdair and I were slightly disappointed that we wouldn’t be hiking into Machu Picchu itself. We obviously couldn't take the Inca Trail right through the Sun Gate, but nor would we be walking uphill from Aguas Calientes, the last stop before Machu Picchu. Instead, we’d stay overnight in the village, then just take a bus in the morning like T. or any other (sensible) tourist. By day 4, however, we were all pretty glad not to be facing a fifth day of the trek.

The highest altitude of the Salkantay Trek is on day 2, at the pass, so that is supposed to be the hardest day. And it was undoubtedly easier to climb uphill on day 4 to Llaqtapata, which is only at 2,650 m. It was also cloud forest, a completely different environment from Salkantay Mountain.

Our goal was to get up to the lookout and, as I often reminded my fellow hikers, to get down. “The finish line is at the bottom,” some wise mountaineer said. The bottom, in this case, was the hydroelectric station, which does not sound like nearly as inspiring a goal as the top of a mountain. But we were promised lunch there—the last meal to be prepared by our outstanding chefs.

At these lower altitudes in the “jungle,” I was careful to apply bug repellant, even though we had a prescription for antimalarials. I had not thought about sunscreen on day 3 when, incredibly, I got enough sun to colour the backs of my hands. To be fair, I’d never have thought to put sunscreen there anyway. It was the position of my hands on my trekking poles.

It wasn’t raining this morning either, though there was enough mist I doubted we’d be able to see anything from the lookout. 

Our guide was around enough to point out a parrot to us, with bright yellow feathers. He and I also heard, and thanks to him I saw, a toucan. I didn’t get a good enough picture for you to make out its distinctive beak shape, unfortunately.

Four hours and 650 meters above La Playa campsite, we reached Llaqtapata.

Here, the guide waxed loquacious about Incas, showing us a series of strings that he said were a communication system, whose key we have lost. Something must have been lost in his communication, because there is no way that bunch of string was an original Inca artifact that he just happened to be carrying. I found my attention distracted by a butterfly that kept fluttering around, the likes of which I’d never seen before. Every time it flapped its wings, I saw it go from purple to gold.

In North America, we don't tend to associate cities with indigenous civilizations. But in South America, so-called “pre-Columbian” peoples really went to town, so to speak. Llaqtapata is an example of a way station all along the massive Inca system of roads. Every twenty miles, the guide told us, they built such an inn, because that was how far someone was expected to walk in a day. Oof.

When the Spaniards arrived, they of course thought the Incas were barbarians, because of the temples to sun and moon and all. The Spanish also brought the Inquisition with them, visiting persecution upon the New World as well as the Old. Not to be outdone in the human sacrifice department.

Anyway, enough of the mist cleared that we did get a view of Machu Picchu Mountain.

The greenery growing over the edges of the ruin made me imagine what Machu Picchu must have looked like when Hiram Bingham of the U.S.A. first saw it in 1911.
Bingham was guided in this enterprise by one Pablito, the 11-year-old son of the Alvarez family. Pablito Alvarez is the Tenzing Norgay to Bingham’s Edmund Hillary, but Bingham taking the credit is not the only aspect that still irks Peruvians. He told Peru’s government of the time that he was taking all the removable artifacts (read: loot) from Machu Picchu back to Yale University with him, as Peru didn’t have the technology to study them; but he promised to return them soon. Guess where they are? Not in Peru, which is why there is no museum at Machu Picchu, only the ruin itself which was too big for Hiram Bingham to carry off.

Having learned all this, I was still up at Llaqtapata. The descent to the hydro station (oh, joy) promised to take 2 hours.

It did not. In the wet season this is a muddy, endless descent. Every time I let my thoughts or gaze wander for an instant I would slip or trip, so it was extremely slow and tedious for me going down. I had to stop once in a while just to remind myself that I was in a remarkable part of the world.
Lunch came, and with it the obligatory (although they say not) tips to the departing staff. Can I just say, if you are ever on a trek like this make sure you take more soles than you think you’ll need. If you have chefs like ours you’ll want to tip them extra, and even if you don’t, it’s nice to treat yourself to a flush toilet every once in a while.

The last hike of the afternoon was 10 km down the railroad track to the village, Aguas Calientes. We had seen signs for Machu Picchu so it seemed close.

We knew we’d be taking the train on our return journey the next day, so we shunned it and thought, how bad can three more hours be?

Let me tell you, this is a monotonous walk. While I was glad not to be going up and down hills anymore, the ground along the train tracks is gravelly and uneven, and frequently I found it easiest just to walk on the railroad ties. (These trains are slow and infrequent, so there was plenty of time to get off the track if one came along.) Often, the track would span the infamous river, which at this point looked like chocolate milk in a blender.

The guide had disappeared again. All of a sudden, having been alone almost the whole day, we were surrounded by other backpackers, every one of them slogging down the train tracks for access to Machu Picchu. The heavens opened again, and out came my poncho. Again. It was too warm to wear my rain jacket so I just soaked through, leaving the poncho to keep my backpack (sort of) dry. I knew that if I ever reached Aguas Calientes—“hot water” in Spanish—that is exactly what awaited me. An actual shower, a hotel, and a bed.

I arrived, sopping, to hear the guide yelling to me from a balcony. We went into the lobby of this rather nice hotel, Santuario, and proceeded to drip all over it. The staff must be used to this sort of thing.

At the time, I felt like what I’d done was harder than Kilimanjaro, though I’m sure Kili would have been harder had I actually reached the summit. I was shattered in foot and knee, heel to toe; I was tired of walking in the rain. But I wonder if the real exhaustion was because the trek had reached its climax on day 2. Our goal was Machu Picchu, but we would not be reaching that by foot. 

When we got up early the next morning and saw how long it took the bus to wind up a steep hill the whole way, we were grateful! Wouldn’t you know, this was the first day on which the rain came in the morning, instead of waiting till the afternoon. For the longest time we couldn’t see a blamed thing up there.

We did get some sunshine eventually. I still can’t get over that I’d gotten more sun on my face the day before, a day that, in my memory, was an endless, low-altitude slog through muck and rain. I don’t know if this is why Machu Picchu itself felt kind of like an anticlimax.

It’s huge, though its hugeness is more obvious when you can see the whole thing at once. We were treated to different bits as the cloud shifted. Kind of mysterious in its own way.

Here is something important that, to his credit, our guide did tell us, before his 3 1/2 hour tour around Machu Picchu. There are, understandably, no facilities inside the ruins. There is also no re-entry. So I don't know who these people are who spend all day inside there—remember, the young people I was with were British—but no way was I going to. The pinnacle of the day for me was finding my way out after we finally said goodbye, no easy task when the one-way system makes you walk all the way around. By this time of the morning, the crowds were such that I could understand. What must it be like in high season?
Starting to clear
Don’t get me wrong: Machu Picchu is impressive. I couldn’t possibly have missed going, but it did feel weirdly disconnected from our trek. Perhaps because coming back into the crowds the evening before had made for sensory overload. The fact that you can just train and bus it straight to the top meant that we were surrounded by people who’d had a completely different experience getting there from ours.

The pictures, though, speak for themselves.

Corner stone. Cool, huh?

When I emerged from Machu Picchu, I discovered that the bathroom there is so posh they charge 2 soles. And you get a receipt! Honest to goodness, a receipt for going to the bathroom. That just sums up how commercial we’re talking about.

What I loved most about Aguas Calientes was the Santuario Hotel. Not just because I didn’t have to put on squelching boots in the middle of the night! The folks there were friendly, served breakfast before 5:00 A.M., and let me spend the afternoon in the lobby when I was tired of being ripped off (oh, and the rain). I kept looking out at all these people trudging up the road, in the pouring rain, looking stunned with tiredness. I remembered how I'd felt after many bone-jarring hours of the same thing. And I was so glad we hadn’t done this last hike up to Machu Picchu.
“…we had slept in our clothes, where we could seldom or ever change them. We had halted among mud, waded through rivers, tumbled among snow, and for the last few days been sunned by heat. These are but the petty inconveniences of a traveler; which sink into insignificance, when compared with the pleasure of seeing new men and countries, strange manners and customs, and being able to temper the prejudices of one’s country, by observing those of other nations.” —Alexander Burns