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Southern Chile (Dec 2000)

posted Nov 19, 2008, 8:07 PM by Gerick Bergsma

In planning my trip through Chile, I had arranged my entire schedule around the ferry trip through Chile's southern island and fjords.  The cruise, touted in all the guidebooks and highly recommended by my cousin, who had taken it two years before, was to be the focal point of my Chilean experience, and the primary reason my aunt and uncle had come down to Chile.  It was therefore one of the few parts of the trip that I had reserved and planned ahead of time.  My aunt and uncle had done me the favor of reserving our tickets, and when still in Peru, I had nearly missed my trip to Machu Picchu rushing about trying to get faxes of my passport and student ID card so that they could process my reservation.  They demanded full payment beforehand to secure a reservation, and so we thought it must be a pretty well organized company.  We even paid the exorbitant price to get a private cabin on the upper deck, splurging to assure we would maximize the cruise experience.  We, therefore, took cautious measures to be sure that we would arrive with plenty of time to meet our 12:00 check-in and 6:00 departure.


A short bus ride from Valdivia, and Julie and I arrived in Puerto Montt.  An industrial town with a busy port, it was where we were to start our three-day cruise through the southern islands and fjords.  My aunt, uncle, Julie and I were booked for the ferry passage to Puerto Natales aboard the Puerto Eden.  Julie and I arrived just in time for our 12:00 check in time, where we were also to meet Auntiekiki and Uncle Paul.  Navimag, the company that operates the Puerto Eden, has an office at the port, and so we made our way there so that we could leave our bags until our 6:00 departure.  We arrived at the main office, but my aunt and uncle were nowhere to be seen (we later learned that a restaurant experience similar to the one in Santiago prevented them from arriving on time), so Julie and decided just to check ourselves in.  I approached the lady at the front desk, and gave her our reservation number.


She typed the number into a computer, and asked, "Are you in the economy class?"  Undoubtedly observing two backpackers, she assumed we would be in the shared bunks surrounding the engine room.  I explained to her that we had a reserved cabin on the upper deck, to which she responded, "You must be in "C" class.  Where are your tickets?"


"All I have are the reservation numbers."


"I'm sorry," she responded, "I can only check you in if you have your tickets."


I explained to her that we had purchased the tickets from the United States and that we had been told that all we would need were the reservation numbers to check in.  I also related the fact that my aunt and uncle may have already checked in, and that they might have our tickets.  She told me to wait a moment.  She picked up the phone, and had a brief conversation with an agent in their Santiago office.


"The tickets are on the way," she told me, hanging up the phone, "They are printed in Santiago, and are on a bus coming here right now.  They should arrive about 4:00, and you can check in then."  She then added, "The boat is also arriving late, so we won't be departing until 9:00."


Having spent almost 15 hours on busses trying to get from Santiago to Puerto Montt, I wasn't exactly impressed by their efficiency, but resigned myself to the wait.  Not wanting to lug our packs around for four more hours, I asked her if we could at least leave our luggage.  She thought for a moment, and then said that we could, but had to take our bags to the luggage service area in the passenger waiting area.


We exited the office to go to the waiting area, where we proceeded to the luggage service.  We placed our packs on the counter.  The man behind the counter asked, "Are you in the economy class?"


"No, we have a private cabin."  I replied.


"May I see your tickets?"


"We don't have them yet."


"You can't check your luggage until you have your tickets, you'll have to talk to the people at the check in counter," he said, pointing to another counter in the waiting area.


We went to the check in counter, where we were again asked for our tickets.  Explaining that they were on a bus arriving from Santiago and telling the lady behind the counter that the lady in the main office had said we could leave our luggage, she asked for our names.  She then asked if we were in the economy class (backpackers should just wear a big sign that reads, "I'm cheap."), and after explaining our situation, she finally called over to the luggage handlers and told them to accept our bags.  We left a note for my aunt and uncle, and departed to find something to do until our 4:00 check-in.  On our way out, we noticed that the sign on which the departure time was written had now been changed to 10:00pm.


Julie and I spent the next several hours trying to locate a restaurant that served something other than overpriced fried meats, and walking along the waterfront.  We returned to the Navimag office at 4:00 to find a long line extending out the door of the main office.  "The tickets must be here," I thought seeing the long queue, so we joined the wait.  Soon after we got into line, my aunt and uncle appeared, having gotten the same story about getting our tickets at 4:00.  We continued to wait in the long line, finally getting to the front of the line.  My aunt had been to the office several times, and had already attained a considerable rapport with the woman at the counter, as she greeted her warmly.  Apparently, the story I had been told about the tickets arriving by bus had been fabricated, as the woman had told my aunt earlier that the tickets are usually printed in Santiago, and then faxed to the Puerto Montt office.  She informed us now that the faxes still had not come through, and that she had been calling the Santiago office repeatedly to request that they be sent.  We would have to continue to wait.


By this time, the Puerto Eden had arrived, and we watched as the steady stream of passengers disembarked.  The cargo would be offloaded next, after which the cargo that would accompany us to Puerto Natales would be loaded.  The departure time was still set for 10:00 that night.  We talked to some of the arriving passengers, asking them about the boat.  It was primarily a cargo ship, but that the passenger area was large and comfortable.  The food was adequate, but the snacks and drinks onboard were pricey.  We decided that we should stock up on food and drink, so while my aunt waited for our tickets to arrive, my Uncle Paul, Julie and I went to a nearby grocery store to pick up supplies.


By 6:00, the tickets finally arrived via fax, and we were allowed to check in.  Once I was armed with my ticket for my AA cabin, the service suddenly improved, and our luggage was taken onboard to await our arrival.  Unfortunately, we were notified that they were having problems with the cargo handling system, that we could not board until 9:00, and that our departure would likely be postponed until 11:00.  We decided to go out for dinner.  We found a nearby restaurant, had a couple of burgers, bought some more water for our journey, and then found an internet cafe to let the folks back home know we were about to depart.


Back at 9:00 to load onto the ship, we waited until 10:00 before they made another announcement, they would not be able to repair the cargo system until later that night, and that we would not be departing until 6:00 the next morning.  Not to worry, everyone would be allowed to spend the night on the ship, and by morning, we would be ready to sail.  We boarded the ship, passing the truckloads of live cattle, sheep and horses that were the cargo waiting to be unloaded.  We were treated to our first meal onboard, settled into our cabin, and spent our first night on the Puerto Eden.


Next morning, we were up bright and early only to find the sheep and cattle pitifully staring towards us.  The cargo elevator was still broken, and we were told we would not be leaving until sometime shortly after noon.  Alejandro, the crewman assigned to keep the passengers happy, notified us that we would not be allowed off the ship, but after considerable murmurings of discontent, the crew finally handed out shore leave passes.  We would be allowed to get off and back on the ship once, but had to return by 2:00 so that the ship could depart.  Julie and I immediately jumped ship, and spent a few hours wandering about the town and sitting by the waterfront.  We returned at 2:00 to find that the elevator had finally been fixed, and the poor animals being unloaded after having spent more than four days locked in their trailers.  Back onboard, we spent the afternoon exploring the ship, and getting to know some of the other prisoners, I mean passengers.  By this time, none of the crew was willing to give us a departure time, but Alejandro finally confided to me that he thought we would be ready to go by about six that evening.  We had our second dinner on board, and I spent he evening watching birds from deck.  Six o'clock passed, and we still had not left.  At about 7:30, a small boat came out and began to untie some of our ropes, soon after, a tugboat steamed towards us, hovering near us as our engines fired up.  "Soon," I thought.  We passed 9:00 before we finally pulled away from port, only a little over 27 hours late.


Despite our retarded departure, the remaining three days of the voyage went smoothly.  Life onboard was pretty relaxed, a combination of sleeping, eating, sitting inside to warm up and going outside to battle wind, rain and cold.  The first night and most of the first day we steamed in the calm waters inand of the large island of Chiloe, and the broken island to its south.  Despite the cloudy, rainy weather, the landscape was spectacular, with the steely waters lapping against the gray-green shores outlined in the mist.  By the evening of the first day, we exited the shelter of the islands, exposing ourselves to the open Pacific.  As we entered the open ocean, the winds immediately picked up, soon topping gale forces.  The 40 nautical-mile-per-hour winds we beat into soon piled formidable waves in our path, and as we began to pitch, Julie and my aunt sucked down some Dramamine to help them through the night.  I, the seasoned sailor, figured I would be all right, and instead enjoyed the ships increasing roller coaster ride.  That night, the dining hall was a little empty.  Julie was feeling a little off, and opted to stay out on deck, so I brought her some food.  Several greenish looking people hung their heads over the side of the boat, and Julie said that a lot of the people on board were getting sick.  I returned to the dining hall to eat my dinner.


Although dinner was quite good, something about being inside as the ship pitched wildly made me feel a little sick, so I returned to the outer deck to join Julie.  I spent the rest of the evening outside, enjoying the fresh air, and battling a slight feeling of nausea.  As the day's light waned, I finally decided to retire, and hurried through the ship, knowing that once I was able to lie down, I would be all right.  I entered the cabin, and stood there a moment, suddenly realizing that I wasn't going to make it to bed in time.  My aunt asked me a question, to which I simply replied, "I'm going to be sick."


I lurched for the bathroom door, barely making it in time to vomit mostly into the garbage can.  My aunt, not realizing what I was doing, got up to look, laughing hysterically when she saw me.  Perhaps because she is usually the one to get seasick on our family sailing trips, she found it terribly humorous that I became sick on this voyage, but she continued to laugh as I embarrassedly found Alejandro to get someone to come and help me clean my mess.  The janitor that came to assist looked about as sick as I had, and nearly threw-up himself before running from our room, leaving me to clean up after myself.  My aunt only found this more humorous, unable to stop laughing.  Julie arrived, joining in the mock seasick Gerick session (although I think she was laughing at my aunt's laughter as much as she was laughing at me) as my uncle defended my right not to be ridiculed for getting sick (Thank you Uncle Paul).


Overnight, the wind worsened, slowing our progress dramatically.  The time it took to cross the stretch of open ocean nearly doubled, meaning that we were just past halfway across by the time we woke up, instead of completely across as we had been told the night before.  By morning, I felt much better, and fortunately, the seas had calmed considerable from the night before.  We passed a point and entered the Golfo de Penas (gulf of regrets).  As the ship's pitching changed into the ship's rolling, I decided that I would spend most of the day on deck.


Once we passed behind the chain of island that extends to Chile's southern tip, the trip went much more smoothly.  Although the skies never cleared, the rain stopped, and I spent much of my time out on deck, or in the bridge, which the captain kept open to anyone who wished to visit.  I met many people on board, and spent most of one day on a marine mammal hunt, as they wanted to see whales.  We never saw any, but I kept myself very entertained seeing lots of birds, sea lions, seals and even the occasional porpoise.  There were albatross everywhere, mostly black-browed, and petrels, cormorants, penguins, terns and gulls abounded.  Sea lions and seals popped up everywhere, and one particularly huge one struck me as possibly being a Southern Elephant Seal (Raf, if George ever gets that big, my god!).


On the evening of the second day, the dining hall and common area were turned into a huge disco party.  A group of Peace Corps volunteers, Julie and I were hanging out, as we had been told that we might pass an area full of icebergs, and wanted to be ready to see them, and were dismayed that most of the senior officers were partying with the passengers rather than out on iceberg watch.  Figuring that they knew what they were doing, we decided to just enjoy the party.  Somehow, I got the idea that I wanted to see Julie dance with the crew, so I started conversing with the Second Officer, convincing him that he wanted to dance with her.  They danced (apparently with him getting a little too close at times), and she returned to me telling me that she wanted to dance with another officer that was also out on the dance floor.  She said that he looked like he would be fun to dance with, and she went off to make friends.  She returned a dance later saying that what had looked like good dancing was actually the officer's drunken attempts to stay standing as he danced.  Having been disappointed by the officers' dancing abilities, she relegated herself to sitting the rest of the dance out.  Then, the crowd parted, and the captain walked in.  Her eyes met his, and as she ran to his embrace, she knew that she would never be lonely again.  O K., perhaps that is not exactly how it happened, but the captain did ask her to dance (who was by her admission the best dancer of the crew, he didn't earn those stripes for nothing), and when we left the party, the highest ranking officers on the ship were all putty in her hands.


Day three, the channel narrowed considerably, allowing us wonderful looks at the islands we were passing through.  The snowline dropped below the cloud line, enhancing the view, and the myriad of waterfalls cascading the steep slopes added to the panorama.  We passed several extremely narrow passages, and on our closest approaches to shore, I got great looks at a number of birds, including kelp geese, steamer ducks, pintails, oystercatchers, and on one steep point, a pair of nesting Andean Condors.  The landscape kept becoming more and more spectacular, and although the skies never cleared, the gray added a cold austerity to the steely waters and brooding mountains that surrounded us.


We landed that afternoon in Puerto Natales.  As we left the boat, we were immediately surrounded by people encouraging us to stay with them.  A young girl finally convinced us to follow her to her home, where her mother rented out several rooms above the travel agency she ran.  We moved into a couple of rooms, and made friends with Liliana, the owner, as we discussed some of the tours she offered locally.


The main attraction in Puerto Natales is the close by Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, whose centerpiece, the towering Cuernos del Paine, are one of Chile's most photographed natural wonders.  Julie had decided that she wanted to take a multiple day trek with some of the folks we had met on the boat, and my aunt and uncle wanted to spend a couple of days in the park, and then head south to Tierra del Fuego.  As Tierra del Fuego was one of my main reasons for coming to southern Chile, I joined my aunt and uncle, but spent most of the next day helping Julie arrange her trek. 


Before we could plan too definitely, Julie and I had to make arrangements on how to get back to Santiago to catch our flights home.  In talking to Liliana, we learned that three airlines flew from Punta Arenas, the nearest large city, to Santiago, LAN Chile, Avant, and Aero Continente.  Although most of the travel agents represented either LAN Chile or Avant, and refused to sell us tickets on Aero Continente, Liliana confided in us that Aero Continente usually had the lowest fares.  She repeatedly tried to contact Aero Continente, but was never being able to get through.  Meanwhile, we decided to check with other travel agencies to see if perhaps they could arrange a ticket with Aero Continente.


One of the first agencies we tried was an agency operated out of Navimag's main office in Puerto Natales.  The agents warmly greeted us as we entered the office, seating us down at one of the desks.  The man who smiled at us from behind the desk asked us what we wanted.  We told him that we were looking for flights from Punta Arenas to Santiago.  He asked us what dates we wanted to travel, and he turned to his computer, typing in a few commands.  He wrote a fare on a piece of paper, and handed it to us.  The fare was identical to the fares we had received at all the other offices for LAN Chile, but we still asked, "What airline is this for?"


"Lan Chile."


"Can you check the other airlines for us?"


"There is only one other airlines, Avant, and their prices are the same."


"Can you check it, because we were told they might have lower fares?"


The agent frowned, but typed another command into the computer.  He told us the price for Avant, which, although similar, was slightly cheaper.  We then asked him if he could check the price for Aero Continente.


"They are sold out on the day you want to fly," came his abrupt reply, realizing that we didn't quite buy his 'there is only one other airline' bit.


"Well, we are pretty flexible with our travel dates, could you at least get us a fare?"


"I can't access them on the computer, and their fares are the same as everyone else's."


"Can you please call them?"


"Their office is closed, you'll have to come back tomorrow."


Realizing that he really didn't want to help us any longer, Julie and I got up and left.  At first angered by his refusal to help us, we at least figured that if their office was closed that might be why Liliana couldn't get through.  We guessed that maybe he told us to come back tomorrow so that he would not have to help us, meaning we would get somebody else who might be more helpful.  We went back to where we were staying, where Liliana told us that she was unable to get through to Aero Continente, but that she would keep trying tomorrow.


The next day, we returned to the Navimag travel agency, and again were warmly greeted by the agent on duty.  He sat us down, and again we explained that wanted to travel on the 14th of December and wanted fares for Aero Continente.  He smiled, turned to his computer and looked up some fares.  I thought, "See, this guy is already being more helpful.  The other agent claimed that he couldn't get Aero Continente fares on the computer."  He handed me the fare he had looked up.  It was identical to the fare for LAN Chile.  I immediately became suspicious.


I asked the agent, "Can you give us the fare for Aero Continente?"


Still smiling, he told me, "That is the fare."


"I thought that you couldn't look up Aero Continente fares on your computer?"


He quit smiling, argumentatively retorting, "Their fares are the same."


Julie, sensing the man's less than honest nature, motioned for us to leave, but I wanted to at least make this guy go through the motions of helping us.  I asked if he could call and double-check the fare.  Obviously a little perturbed, he said that they never answer the phone.  I asked him to try anyway.  He picked up the phone, and dialed a number he obviously knew by heart.  The party on the other line picked up almost immediately.  He began to whisper to the person on the phone, chuckling softly, and avoiding eye contact with Julie and I.  After an extended length of pleasantries, I finally heard him ask, "Do you have any tickets left for the 11th?"


Hearing the wrong dates, I immediately stared at him.  Startled that I had heard him, he quickly looked up to me, and raising his voice to be sure I heard him added, "oh, and on the 14th."  He turned his chair so that he was facing the opposite direction from us, and began talking even quieter.  It became obvious that he was not on the phone with Aero Continente.  I commented to Julie, who agreed, again saying that we should just leave, but I wanted to see how far he would take his deception.  He returned to his computer, turning the monitor so that we could not see it (although I still swear I saw the game minesweeper come onto the screen before he turned it), and typed a few things in.


After a few more whispered comments, he turned to us, and wrote down another fare, almost identical to the LAN Chile fare.  "That is the Aero Continente fare, but they are full on the day you want to fly."


"That is alright," I told him, "We are flexible, can you check the 15th?"


"They don't have a flight on the 15th."


"How about the 16th?"


Realizing his folly in even making the flight a reasonable alternative in his fantasy world, and also realizing that I had mentioned that we were both trying to catch flights on the 18th, he said, "They are completely booked for two weeks afterwards."


Not to be outdone, I said, "We can also fly to Puerto Montt.  Can you find out fares for that flight?"


A few more hushed comments over the phone, and he wrote down another fare, this one almost a hundred dollars higher than LAN Chile's fare for the same flight.  It was clear that he was not going to make the same mistake in reformulating his lies.  Looking in retrospect, I should have asked him to book the flight just to call his bluff, but realizing that there was no possibility of us being helped, Julie finally convinced me to leave.  We left, the agent still quietly laughing to his pseudo Aero Continente representative on the telephone, wishing that the mines on his computer screen were real.


We never discovered what the travel agents in town had against Aero Continente, because none of them were willing to look up Aero Continente fares.  We finally returned to Liliana, and I bought tickets on Avant through her.  Ironically, the next day she was able to get through to Aero Continente, checking on a different ticket for Julie, but they were sold out.


Having secured our plans for returning to Santiago, Julie and I spent the next morning buying supplies she would need for her trek.  My aunt, uncle and I had arranged for a bus tour to the park followed by a day on a zodiac cruising the rivers and fjords back to town, so after we boarded Julie on her bus to the park, we made our own preparations.  Liliana had told us that we would be spending a night in one of the refuges in the park, so we rented sleeping bags, and early the next morning, a van picked us up to take us to the park.


The ride to the park was beautiful.  The weather looked like it was finally clearing up, and we cruised through the grasslands separating Puerto Natales from the park.  We made a brief stop at a cave in which the fossils of a giant sloth had been found.  Not wanting to pay the entrance fee for the cave, my aunt, uncle and I opted to go bird watching as the others in the van entered the cave.  The scrub and grass stretched into the distance, blending into the rocky scarps and mountains to our east, while to the west, it met the placid waters of the bay that reflected the snowy peaks on the other side.  The bird life was spectacular, with black-necked swans gracing the bay, and upland and ashy-headed geese gathering in the grasslands.  Rufous-collared sparrows darted through the underbrush, and Crested Caracaras glided low over the waist-high scrub.


As our ride to the park continued, the landscape became more dramatic, with steep cliffs rising from the grasslands, and longs chains of snowy precipices peaking out of the threatening clouds the increasing wind brought.  As we neared one steeply sloping hillside, we stopped to watch nearly two-dozen Andean Condors circling to catch the updrafts the hill created.  Their slow, graceful arcs brought them directly overhead, as they effortlessly caught every gust of wind.  We entered the park winding through low grassy hills, witnessing the spectacular chain of mountains separating Chile from Argentina.  A large herd of Guanaco, a wild relative of the Llama similar to the Vicuna, greeted us, and we paused to watch them frolic.  We also passed a group of enormous Rhea, who eyed us suspiciously as we stopped to photograph them.


We turned and followed a road that twisted around the hills and lakes at the base of the monolithic Cuernos de Paine.  The massive granite precipices reached into the churning clouds, the obscured peaks defying the force of the biting winds that whistled through their heights, while the stunning lakes at its base rippled and frothed in the chilling gale.  Each of the icy lakes possessed a different color depending on which glacier's water filled its shores, adding color to the raw beauty of the ochre hillsides and black peaks surrounding them.  We passed innumerable Guanaco, and condor could occasionally be scene patrolling the dramatic scene.  Our guide, seeing our interest in birds, stopped to show us a Great Horned Owl whose haunts he was familiar with.


We stopped for a short walk to a waterfall that connected two of the lakes, and then stopped at a small hotel located on an island in one of the lakes for lunch.  From there we followed a road that curved around the lake towards another lake that flanked the Cuernos on the west side.  One stretch of the road became particular rocky, and one of the tires went flat.  We paused to change the tire, and then continued to Lago Grey, at the base of the massive Glacier Grey.  We hiked in to see the lake.  Crossing a narrow suspension bridge across the Rio Grey, we followed a beautiful trail to the lake's shore.  The pebbly beach that filled the valley between two long rock escarpments had been left by the huge glacier as it slowly receded into the distance.  The lake stretched to the glacier, and was filled with incandescent blue icebergs that had calved off the sheet of ice.  My aunt, uncle and I walked along the beach for a ways, admiring the drifting mountains of ice.  I crossed the pebbly beach, and climbed the escarpment on the other side, walking out to a point jutting into the lake to take pictures of the icebergs.  As I did, the skies over the glacier cleared, bathing the glacier in blinding light, and giving me a brief glimpse of one of the looming Cuernos.


Following our hike, our guide drove us to what we thought was the refuge where we were going to stay.  The story becomes a little drawn out to relate here, but the guide actually took us to a rather expensive hotel in the park (the fact that we could not distinguish the hotel from a refuge should tell you about the relative luxury of the hotel), but we did not realize the mix up until after we received the bill.  Anyways, the guide probably got a cut from the hotel owners, and after spending ALL of the money we had brought, we were a bit irate.


Anyhow, we spent that evening walking around and enjoying the gorgeous park.  We followed a short trail along a small pond, that lead us to another small pond, filled with birds.  On our evening walk, we saw siskins, sparrows, wrens, rayaditos, coots, another Great Horned Owl, spectacled ducks, speckled teal, pintail, lapwing, steamer duck, snipe, oystercatchers, caracaras and a variety of geese.


Up early the next morning, a van came and picked us up to take us to the zodiac.  We picked up a few more passengers, and headed towards the river we would be cruising down.  As we arrived at the river, the skies finally cleared enough for us to see the Cuernos.  After snapping a couple of pictures of the secretive peaks, we put on our raingear and life vests and loaded onto the small boat.  We cruised down the river, through magnificent forests with mountains rising behind them.  The Cuernos peeked at us occasionally, as we turned and maneuvered to avoid the rapid areas in the stream.  We came to a small waterfall in the river, and had to land, hike and short ways, and get in another zodiac on the other side.  We continued down the river, passing near the largest glacier in Chile, the southernmost in a series of glaciers collectively known as the Campo de Hielo (Ice Fields).  Together they form a stretch of almost solid ice extending several hundred kilometers.


We continued to follow the snaking river until we came upon a small estancia, where we had some coffee and met an old vacero who still raised cattle in the rugged mountains between the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, which we were exiting, and Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgens, which we were entering.  Farther down, the river joined one of the fantastic fjords carved into the rugged mountains, and our zodiac rafted onto a small ferry docked at a small pier.  We went ashore, and followed a trail to a glacier steeply dropping from the mountain on which it rested.  Similar to Glacier Grey, a lake had formed at the glacier's base, filled with icebergs.  We hiked to the base of the glacier, marveling at the beautiful wildflowers and the bright orange ball-shaped fungus, known as Indian Bread, that grew on the surrounding trees.  Because of the steep slope it was descending, the glacier was broken up, with deep crevasses extending deep into the ice.  We were not allowed to walk on the glacier, but stood near enough to appreciate its immense bulk.  After returning to the pier, we boarded the ferry, and took a short cruise to another nearby glacier, whose precipitous drop was even more remarkable than the last.  Its ice dropped directly into the fjord, and we circled about for a while, staring up at the suspended ice hanging above.  The ferry then cruised down the fjord back to Puerto Natales, through steep mountains dotted with innumerable cascades and waterfalls.


We docked at Puerto Natales that afternoon.  After a mix up with the company that ran the zodiac, and having to wait several hours for our luggage to arrive, we finally boarded a late bus to Punta Arenas.  We arrived a little after 11:00 in the evening, and unsure of where we should stay, asked a taxi driver to take us to a hostel whose flier had been given to us.  The taxi driver, whose rotund shape, talkative nature, and thick glasses reminded me of Newman from Seinfeld, chatted incessantly as he drove.  We stopped at the hostel, only to find that it was full.  Our corpulent chauffeur suggested another hostel, and we agreed to let him take us there.


It was midnight by the time we arrived at Ely's residence.  Ely, the owner of the hostel, greeted us warmly, and showed us the only private room she had available.  My aunt and uncle took it, and I moved in with three Chilean meteorologists on their way to Antarctica.  Ely asked me if I was hungry, and despite the hour, prepared me a meal of noodles and chicken.  My aunt and uncle retired, but I stayed up talking to a group of Americans that were staying there, finally going to sleep.


I awoke at five the next morning when one of the meteorologists, getting off of the top bunk he was sleeping in, smashed into the chandelier as he crashed to the floor.  I fell back asleep as they got ready and left for their flight, but awoke again soon after, and greeted my aunt and uncle at the breakfast table, who were talking to Ely's small daughter.  We breakfasted, and as my uncle had not slept well that night, he returned to bed.  My aunt and I spent the morning walking about town, and arranging for a tour of one of the nearby penguin colonies.


That evening we boarded the Melinka, a small ferry that normally runs between Punta Arenas and Porvenir.  In the evenings, she moonlights as a tour boat, taking tourists to the large colony of Magellanic Penguins on the nearby Isla Magdalena.  On the hour and a half trip out, my aunt and I braved the cold winds and rain, spotting penguins, albatross, petrels, diving petrels, terns, skuas and gulls.  Eventually we arrived at the small island, beaching on the downwind side of the island.  Park rangers greeted us, and guided us on the small trail up the island's leeward slope to a lighthouse on top.  The island was covered with penguins.  The 120,000 penguin strong colony encompassed the entire island, and the grassy slopes were dotted with the black and white birds.  Each wave lapping at the island's shore brought more penguins with it.   They scrambled up rocks, waddling over to pause and watch the line of gawkers file up the slope.  Once we had passed, they would continue their scramble to their nesting holes.  The penguins were everywhere, peeking out from their holes as we passed.  At one point, a group of penguins was about to cross the footpath.  My aunt and uncle sat very still to watch them.  One daring penguin decided to investigate, and walked right up to my aunt, gently pecking at her in curiosity.  Kelp Gull also nested on the island, and one poor gull that built its nest on the footpath kept diving at us as we walked by her abandoned nest.  Great Skuas hovered menacingly nearby, ready to make a meal of any eggs or young left alone too long.  After wandering to the lighthouse, I hurried back, so that I would have a few moments to explore the intertidal before getting back aboard the Melinka.  The tide was not very far out, but I did get to see a number of large limpets, the remnants of some large crabs, and a rock that appeared to have some sort of fossil in it.


I spent the trip back seeing the same birds I had seen on the way out, and we arrived back at Punta Arenas to find our Newman-like taxi driver waiting at the dock.  Recognizing us, he offered to take us back to Ely's house, and then offered to drive my aunt and I to the grocery store free of charge afterwards.  We spent another night at Ely's, and departed early the next morning on a bus bound for Argentina.


Central Chile (Dec 2000)

posted Nov 19, 2008, 7:08 PM by Gerick Bergsma

When I arrived in Santiago, my immediate plan was to pick up my friend, Julie, my aunt and my uncle, and then to get out of town so that we could enjoy Chile's south.  My aunt and uncle arrived a couple days after Julie, so by necessity I had several days to enjoy what was to be the most cosmopolitan city on my trip.  From their ultramodern airport (which I became intimately acquainted with) to their efficient public transport, Santiago was my reintroduction to modern western culture, and my introduction to the countries historic and scenic wealth.


The day following Julie's arrival, she and I explored the city, visiting the public markets around the city, and revisiting some of the bookshops I had ventured into the day before with Martin, this time looking for a travel guidebook, as I had left my trusty Lonely Planet in my parents' bag when they returned to the states from Bolivia.  The markets were wonderful, although in the main market, people trying to get us to eat in their restaurants accosted us.  To get to the second market, an artisan's market called Los Dominicos just outside of the city, we had to take one of the subway lines to the last stop and then catch a bus headed to one of the suburbs.  Unknown to us, "Los Dominicos" was also the name of the neighborhood beyond the artisan's market, so we were reaffirmed when the bus driver assured us that he would let us know when we got to the stop we wanted.  We boarded the bus, anticipating a short ride by the description in our guidebook.  In its short description, the guidebook described the market as being located in an old monastery.  I, therefore, was quite sure that we had arrived when I saw a building that I thought resembled a monastery.  We were waiting for the driver's word when the bus turned onto a side street, away from the monastery.  We were a little concerned, thinking the driver had forgotten about us, but were then relieved to see a large roadside showing Los Dominicos straight ahead.  I relaxed a bit, and Julie and I began to be a bit more attentive, watching each group of building as they passed, waiting for the stop.  After an hour on the bus, though, weaving through the residential suburbs of the city, we seriously doubted that we were heading in the right direction.  Rereading the account in our guidebook, it became clear that we had long ago passed the stop for the market, and so I stood to walk up to the driver and see if he had forgotten, or if the market still lay ahead.  As soon as I stood, the driver looked in his rearview mirror, and indicated to me that the next stop is where we wanted to get off.  We hopped off the bus, and seeing a large complex up the street, I asked him if that was Los Dominicos.  He nodded in affirmation, and then quickly drove off.  As we approached the complex, it became increasingly clear that we were not at the market.  A large college campus stretched before us, and when we reached the guard shack, the guards were more than friendly in telling us that we were a long way off.  So far off, in fact, that none of them had any clue as how to get there.  Our driver, apparently in his embarrassment in having forgotten to tell us where to get off or in confusion as to where we meant when we told him "Los Dominicos" had left us in an obscure neighborhood that was his last stop before returning into town.  One of the guards explained to us how he thought you might get to the market, telling us to walk down the street we had been dropped off on until you reach a streetlight, and then the market should be right there.  It did not sound too difficult, so we began our trek.


Another hour later, we were still walking down the street, and had yet to see the fabled streetlight.  We had passed a large roundabout, which we assumed was what he meant by the streetlight (I don't know the Spanish word for roundabout, and perhaps it is the same as the word for streetlight, which is often interchangeably used to mean intersection), and had somehow ended up on a road that our bus had driven up, giving us some hope of getting back.  Several busses had passed us already, so we decided to get back on the bus, and try again.  We boarded the next bus that rambled by, and after asking the driver to let us know when we reached "Los Dominicos," he asked me if I meant the artisans' village.  I affirmed that it was, and after a seemingly short ride, we arrived back at the building that several hours earlier I had thought might be the monastery.  He pointed to the church, and told us that it was the artisan's market.  Having spent the day searching for the market, we arrived shortly before the market closed, but had just enough time to browse a few of the shops before walking (by this time we were tired of the bus system) back to the metro stop.


That night we decided to celebrate Julie's arrival, eating at a fairly nice restaurant, and then going to a couple of bars.  We had a great time, and Julie told me all about her adventures in Costa Rica, but it affirmed something I had often been told, Chile is EXPENSIVE (at least compared to the three countries I had just visited).


The next day, after sleeping through most of the morning, we decided we needed a bit more relaxing of a day than the daylong hike we had planned.  Instead, we opted to visit one of assortment of famous Chilean wineries.  There are several wineries within Santiago itself, but we decided to visit the country's largest winery, Vina Concha y Toro in the nearby town of Pirque.  Boarding another metro to the end of the line, and catching a bus out of town, we soon arrived in the small town of Pirque.  We located the winery, which pretty much was the town, and took a tour of the grounds.  The sprawling vineyards and well-kept gardens were beautiful, and the guide explained the intricate details of the wine making process.  We even visited the Casillero del Diablo, Cellar of the Devil, where the founder of the estate, Don Manchor, dressed in a red cape to startle thieves, starting a legend that the cellar was inhabited by the devil.  We saw no demons, but the winery was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.


Early the next day, I was at the airport again, this time to pick up my aunt Vicky (a.k.a. Auntiekiki) and my uncle Paul, who were also to accompany me south.  We decided that we would leave that night on an all night bus to Temuco, a large city at the doorstep of Chile's beautiful Lake District.  My aunt and uncle wanted to explore Santiago a bit, and I needed to use the Internet, so we split up, agreeing to meet at a restaurant that evening.  The day passed relatively uneventfully, so I was quite glad to finally tear away from the computer, and make my way to the evening meeting point.  I arrived, meeting my aunt, uncle and Julie, and browsed through the expansive menu of the restaurant we had elected.  The restaurant was full, and lone waiter was extremely busy, so we spent several minutes studying the fare offered.  My aunt and uncle, wearied by a night's travel and a day's explorations, recounted their exploits to Julie and me, until the waiter arrived, asking if we wanted any drinks.


"I'll take a Fanta," I told him, ordering what had become my default beverage in South America.


"We don't have any Fanta," the waiter informed me.


"Do you have any Coca Cola?" I queried.


"No." he responded.


A little taken aback by the lack of Coca Cola, I asked him, "What do you



"We have ginger ale, or anything from the bar."


My aunt, uncle and I all ordered a ginger ale, but Julie said that she would prefer water.


"Can you also give us a non-carbonated water?"


"All we have is carbonated water."


"Can we have tap water?" I asked, to which he responded with the faint hint of a frown followed by a reserved affirmation.


The waiter left to get our drinks, and we returned to studying the menus.  After a few minutes, the waiter returned with our drinks and a bit of bread, but quickly left before we could order our food.  After another wait, he finally returned to take our food orders.  The menu delighted my family and me, all connoisseurs of foreign foods, and my aunt quickly ordered the lamb.


"We don't have the lamb today," we were told.


Another moment to review the menu, and she quickly decided on the beef tongue, which they didn't have either.  She took another moment to review the menu.  Meanwhile, I attempted to order one of the chicken dishes, which was also out of stock, and my uncle an Alpaca steak, which only prompted the waiter to roll his eyes, and to quickly point to four items on my aunt's menu, declaring, "What we have today is this, this, this and this."  He immediately turned and walked off to attend another table.


Unfortunately, in his haste, my aunt had caught none of the items that he had pointed at, and the rest of us were left not knowing what was available to order.  My aunt tried her best to explain to us what she thought the waiter might have pointed at, and after deciding what we wanted, the waiter returned.  My uncle tried to order another dish, which they didn't have, and again the waiter pointed to the four items we were allowed to order and stormed off.  This time we caught three out of four, one being rabbit and the other two being steak options.  Julie does not eat red meat, making us wonder what the fourth option was, and what sort of side items she could order, so when the waiter returned the third time, we simply asked, "Do you have any chicken?"


Without saying a word, the waiter walked out the front door of the restaurant, leaving us all a little befuddled.  While he was away, my aunt, uncle and I decided we would just opt for the steak and rabbit dishes, and Julie said that she would be fine just ordering a couple of side dishes.  We waited for the waiter's return.  After a long wait, he returned to the restaurant.  Walking to our table, he stated, "There is absolutely no chicken tonight."  I can only imagine that he walked to the nearest store to see if he could buy chicken.


Although a little startled by the lack of menu items, we told him that was fine, that we would take two steaks, the rabbit, and some side items for Julie.  He wrote down the meal orders, and then asked Julie what side items she wanted.


"Can I have some eggs," she asked.


"How would you like those prepared?"




"I'm afraid that we don't have scrambled eggs, would you like them fried?"


In absolute shock that they could not scramble an egg, I laughed, "You can fry an egg, but can't scramble it?"


A little put off by what he perceived to be an insult, the waiter looked at me and replied, "I'll ask the chef."


Julie continued, "I'll also take some mashed potatoes."


"We only have fried potatoes," the waiter responded, "or we can boil a potato for you."


Unable to contain myself at the hilarity of the situation, and a little unimpressed with the chef's abilities, I again laughed, "If you can boil a potato, can't you just mash it?"


This time, the waiter stood adamant that they could not prepare mashed potatoes.  Julie opted to have them fried.  She finished by asking if they had any fresh vegetables.  A searching glance into a glass doored cooler standing at the back of the restaurant, and he replied, "Only tomatoes."


"Fine, I'll take a tomato salad."


He nodded and turned to the kitchen, our ordering ordeal finally over.  We continued to talk, wondering how a place with almost nothing to offer attracted so many people.  We noticed that we were the only people in the entire restaurant eating, most apparently came simply for the bar.  We finished a pair of rounds of ginger ale, and began to grow a bit impatient as we waited for our food.  Finally our food arrived, greasy heaps of mediocre cuisine.  My rabbit reminded me a bit of Cuy, though, and Julie's egg, fried and then cut into small pieces to simulate scrambling, seemed to go well with her small plate of tomato slices.  Dinner complete, we retrieved our belongings from the hotel, and boarded our overnight bus to Temuco.


We arrived in Temuco early the next morning, refreshed by another long overnight bus ride.  The station was empty, and lacking the usual line of people hawking places to stay, we were forced to stop a moment and figure out where we wanted to stay.  My aunt and uncle decided they wanted to stay in the historic Hotel Continental, whose rooms hosted such Chilean figures and Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and even former president Allende.  Julie and I, however, settled on a slightly more obscure residence near the edge of town.  After settling into our place and resting a bit, Julie and I decided to walk over and see what my aunt and uncle were doing.  We walked into town, explored the town's market, and then stopped in the plaza to snack on some fruit we had bought.  As we sat, a hungry looking man stopped to ask us for money.  I offered him half of the nectarine I was eating instead, which he gratefully accepted.  Having finished our fruit, Julie and I continued across the plaza to my aunt and uncle's hotel.


While crossing the plaza, a nicely dressed (or perhaps I should say overly dressed) lady approached me.  She smiled, and confidently commanded, "You are going to give me some money so that I can buy milk for my child."


Having been accosted by innumerable beggars in the past, and not appreciating her particularly smug manner as she stood there obviously expecting payment, I rather demeaningly replied, "Actually, no I'm not," being certain not to brush too closely to the could-be pickpocket when I walked past.


Not wanting to let her gullible foreigner get away that quickly, she turned to walk with me asking, "What are you, a horrible man?"


Without stopping or even looking at her, I retorted, "Yes, that is exactly what I am."


"Yes, you are.  You are a horrible man."


"Yes, I am."


She stopped, and raising her voice in an obvious attempt to attract attention, began yelling, "You horrible man!"  Julie and I continued to walk off amidst a few undecipherable insults, laughing at the lady's brazen assault.


We picked up my aunt and uncle, and walked about town a bit, exploring the market and the busy streets around the plaza.  As they day wore on, we began to get hungry, so we stopped at some fruit stands and a bakery, buying tidbits for lunch.  With food in hand, we returned to the plaza to eat and enjoy the noontime bustle.  We sat under a tree, and sliced the avocado we were making sandwiches out of when another beggar approached us.  Having already had a couple of run ins with the beggars of the plaza, I tried to ignore her, but my aunt finally offered her a plum, which she took several bites out of before leaving it in a sticky heap on the sidewalk. 


Another lady, seeing our generosity, approached me (they always seem to be attracted to me, maybe I just look like I am an easy target or something.  Matt and Lucy, you saw it in action in Peru, and it was certainly in full effect on this day).  She was dressed similarly to the lady that had accosted Julie and I earlier, and she approached with the same seething arrogance that had made me so abrupt with the last lady.  The exchange with her went just as my exchange with the previous lady had gone, her demanding money, and me pretty much telling her straight out that she would get nothing from me.  As her barrage of insults began, I saw the lady that had attacked me earlier walk by, coldly staring at me as she passed.  When she was through putting the deplorable (and whatever else she might have called me, I sort of tuned her out) man in his place, she stormed off, joining briefly with the first lady, obviously to tell her friend of my evils.  They parted, obviously off to menace other innocent passers by.


That afternoon, my uncle, Julie and I decided to take a walk in a nearby park.  We walked out of town to the park, and hiked the forested hillsides of the park to a small viewpoint on top.  It was a pleasant walk in the warm afternoon air, and the viewpoint gave us a wonderful view of the city.  We wandered about at the top of the hill near a small visitor's center/restaurant, and watched some hovering Caracaras for a while, before descending back into town.  We met my aunt back in the hotel and talked for a while before I headed out to find bus information for our departure the next day.


That evening, Julie and I returned to our hotel, both ready for a good night's rest.  As she prepared for bed, I began to chat with two people also staying there.  I introduced myself to Rohan, a Stanford student studying in Santiago, who offered me some of the roasted chicken and Pisco they were enjoying as a late night snack.  Ginger, his friend, also a Stanford student in Santiago, was busy talking to her boyfriend in the United States.  As I sat to join them, the owner of the residence, seeing Ginger on the phone, asked her where she was calling.  When she told him that she was talking to the United States, he grew noticeably upset, lecturing how she should not make calls from the phone there.  In broken Spanish, she was attempting to tell him that she had used a calling card, but he clearly did not understand.  I translated for her, and the owner, still not wanting her to use the phone said that next time she should ask before using the phone.  We agreed, and he went off to bed.


 We talked for over an hour, discussing our fields of study (Ginger was an Earth Systems major and Rohan was in Biology, so we had lots in common), and various places worth visiting in Chile.  Their snack complete, they offered me some tea, which I gladly accepted.  We exited the main part of the house to go to the kitchen, located across a small courtyard, to warm some water for the tea.  Ginger and I sat down, shuffling some cards for a quick game, as Rohan ran back to the house to pick up the glasses we had left.  As we began to deal, Rohan's voice came through the kitchen door, "Guys, I think we are locked out."


It turned out that the door into the main house, the only door out of the walled courtyard, had no handle, and required a key to open.  We had shut the door, locking ourselves out of the house.  We quickly tried to open the windows into the house, but all were also secured.  We retreated to the kitchen to figure out what to do.  Our first thought was that we would have to wake the owner to have him let us in, but after his anger over Ginger's phone usage, we hesitated to startle him at one in the morning, evoking his wrath.  Our other option was to wake Julie up, the only other person sleeping in the house, but with our room farther than the owners, we weren't certain how to wake her without also waking the owner.  We surveyed the courtyard again, hoping there might be some way for us to exit the courtyard to the street in front of the house, but he only way out, other than going through the house, was to climb over the house.  I then recalled that there was a skylight in our room, and thought that maybe we could climb onto the roof and knock on the skylight to wake Julie.  Rohan, Ginger and I exited to examine the metal roof on the house.  In the shadows, I thought I saw a ladder hanging on a wall near the owner's bedroom.  I reached to lift it down, bending the nail on which it was hanging, dropping it on some bottles stored at the base of the wall.  Several bottles shattered.  We ran into the kitchen to hide.  Fortunately, nobody woke up.


Unfortunately, what I thought had been a ladder was a hand truck, making climbing on the roof a little tricky.  I hoisted him onto the roof, and guided him to the skylight over our room.  He quietly knocked on the skylight.  Nothing.  He knocked a little louder, calling out Julie's name.  There was still no response.


I began to think, even if the knock woke Julie up, she may not realize its significance, or may even be afraid to respond.  She had not spoken much with Rohan, so his voice may not do much other than frighten her.  I decided I needed to somehow signal her if she was awake.  I found a window across from our room's door, and began to try to crack it open so that I could call in to her.  The window did not want to open, but finally, I forced it open just enough that I could whisper in to her.  Despite Rohan's knocking and my whispering, Julie never woke up.  After he nearly fell off the room once, I helped Rohan off the roof, barely avoiding ripping the gutters off the house.


At this point, we should have probably just given in and woken the owner, but at this point it had become a challenge to get through this without waking the owner, so we focused on the window I had budged.  Rohan and I both tried to force the window open, only prying it a little farther.  If we were to get in, we would have to get it a lot wider.  It appeared through the darkness of the house, that it was a couch pushed up against the wall that was preventing the window from opening.  If we could somehow move the couch, we would be able to crawl through the window.  We continued to push on the window, but it would not move.  Fearing that we would torque the window and break the glass we finally gave up this approach, thinking of other ways we might be able to move the couch.  After unsuccessfully trying to shove our hands through the small opening we had created, we found a mop handle that we could fit through the window crack to try to pry the couch with.  We fit the stick through, and started to pry the couch away from the wall.  Careful not to break the glass, we pried against the window's base, and slowly, the couch began to move.  With the force we had to apply, at first we thought the couch was very heavy, but then, noticed nails protruding from the back of the couch.  It was nailed to the wall.  While we had successfully pulled the nails out of the wall near the window opening, the nails farther away were beginning to twist, and would likely require a greater force, that would then tear the wall open.  Not wanting to cause more damage than we had already inflicted, we decided to abort this approach. 


At this point, Ginger informed us that she really needed to use the bathroom.  Noticing a small out building near the kitchen, I thought it might be a bathroom, and decided to see if we could get in.  Of course, that door was locked, too, but when I tried a small window, it easily opened.  In the dark, I could not make anything out inside, so I moved a small potted plant on a metal stand out of the way, and crawled through the window.  I turned on the light, and was surprised to find the outbuilding was a small apartment, with a tiny kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.  Fortunately, nobody was home to witness my felony (my first since the lobster incident), so I unlocked the door, and called to Ginger.  In her haste, she knocked over the plant I had moved, and while the pot did not break, the metal stand made a lot of noise as it toppled.  We all hid again.  Nobody woke up.  As Ginger relieved herself, Rohan and I explored the small kitchen/bedroom.  Somebody was clearly occupying the apartment, but, as we were well into the wee hours of the morning, did not appear to be there that night.  The kitchen area was extremely cluttered and messy, and posters and pictures hung over the bed.  Ginger joined our explorations, and we examined the pictures on the wall trying to figure out who might be the resident of the apartment we had broken into.  Finally, she ventured to say what we had all been thinking, "Why don't we just stay here?"


The bed was large enough for two, and near the closet, I found a sleeping bag.  Rohan and Ginger took the bed, and I spread the bag on the small space of floor.  We set the alarm early, and planned to simply wake the owner in the morning, when it would be less offensive.  We turned off the lights, and were about to go to sleep when, through the window, I saw the house's light turn on.  I jumped up, hoping to catch whoever was up, and ran through the apartment door.  I ran out to find a man and woman laughing as they exited the house into the courtyard.


I can't say that I know what went through Alexander's mind when he saw a complete stranger coming running out of his apartment, but his face quickly turned from smiling laughter to one of disbelieving startle.  Both he and his girlfriend stopped dead in their tracks, staring at me as I stood in the dark.  Finally realizing who these people were, I broke the deathly silence, stammering, "Please forgive me," and hastily trying to explain why three strangers were sleeping in his apartment.  Ginger and Rohan, hearing my pleading story, emerged from the apartment, adding some credence to what I was telling them.


Alexander's startled look again changed into a smile, and he and his girlfriend began to laugh at our story.  We all introduced ourselves, and Alexander invited us back into his apartment.  He and his girlfriend had been out dancing with some friends and were just returning from the club.  We talked for a while, and then Alexander let us back into the house that we had been locked out of several hours before.  I immediately went to close the window that we had tried to pry open, and noticed that the nails that we thought were from the couch were really from a board nailed to the wall to cover the window's sill plate.  We had almost completely ripped the board off, so I quickly shoved in back into place as best I could, and moved the couch back into place to cover the still slightly protruding nails.  Since Ginger and Rohan were leaving early the next morning (and by this time I knew I would want to sleep in), we said our goodbyes, and I was finally able to go to bed - now being careful not to wake Julie up. 


The next day, Julie and I went to meet my aunt and uncle.  After a bit of general ridicule over the night's exploits, we packed up and headed to catch a bus to Pucon.  Pucon is a welcoming city nestled between the beautiful Lake Villarica and the magnificent volcano of the same name.  Mt. Villarica is the town's showpiece.  Its nearly perfect conical form dominates the vista, its brilliantly smooth coat of snow giving it a most tranquil look.  The stunning landscape is enhanced further by a picturesque chain of mountains to the east, and lakes and rivers in all directions.  Forests blanket the mountains, and the bright sunlight caused shadows to dance across Villarica's snowy hood as bulbous clouds scurried across the blue sky.


We found a pair of residences next door to the bus station, and pretty much spent the rest of the day lazing around.  We walked around town a bit, and decided that since we had a kitchen in the small apartment we had rented, we should make dinner.  We shopped around for ingredients for a soup, so that my Uncle Paul could work his culinary magic.  Julie decided she wanted to rent a bike and explore the nearby lakes, so my aunt, uncle and I returned to the apartment to prepare our meal.


That evening, my uncle became ill, leaving soup preparation to my Auntiekiki and me.  We prepared all the ingredients, and then tried to start the stove, only to discover that the stove would not start.  After much coaxing and prodding, we finally got one of the burners to start, though it would only burn at a low setting, and would frequently blow out.  After exhausting nearly our entire match supply, and spending several hours waiting for the soup to reach a boil, we finally decided to ask the owner of the residence if something was wrong.  After analyzing our situation, he said that the gas was low, and that he would call the gas company for some more, but that until then, we could use his kitchen in the main house.  I carried our pot of tepid chicken soup into his kitchen, where it simmered over a much more vigorous flame.  I returned to the apartment, where we waited for our gas supply to be replenished and the pilot light in our water heater to be reignited.  Julie had returned, and we began talking, allowing considerable time to pass before we remembered that I had left the soup on the stove.  I returned to find the pot fervently boiling, soup spilling all over the owner's stove and dripping onto his floor.  I removed the pot to continue cooking under our surveillance in our kitchen, and left the kitchen to the owner who had offered to clean up my mess.  After nearly four hours of preparation and cooking, we finally got to enjoy our soup.  It turned out quite good. 


The following day, Julie and I decided to take a hike in the nearby Parque Nacional Huerquehue.  We got up early and caught a bus that took us to the park entrance.  We had limited time in the park, so we chose a short, yet strenuous hike to the top of a nearby ridge from which we would get beautiful views of the surrounding mountain ranges.  The hike was gorgeous.  The trail started along the quiet waters of the Lago Verde, through dense shrubs and secondary forest growing through the remains of what looked like salvage logging after a fire.  We continued to climb, finally reaching the beautifully open primary forest above.  As we ascended, the trees again changed to primarily shorter araucaria (monkey-puzzle) before opening into a grassy area at the top of the ridge.  From atop the ridge, a stunning panorama encircled us.  Snow still covered the southeastern side of the ridge we stood on, extending into the forests below.  The northwestern side of the ridge provided views of Lago Verde, and a series of cascades on the opposing slope.  To the north, the ridge joined the icy crags of one rugged range, and to our east, a second range paralleled ours.  Several remarkable volcanoes joined Villarica to punctuate the scene.  Villarica, to the south, was closely flanked by the squat Volcan Quetrupillan; the majestic Volcan Osorno towered in the distance.  Two other volcanoes graced our eastern view, rising to regally preside over the snow capped range.  Julie and I rested in the grass, picnicking on the tuna, bananas and juice we had hurriedly gathered as we left.


We gathered our garbage and prepared to leave.  I, in a brilliant flash of conservationism, decided I was going to crush the steel can that had carried our juice.  The steel proved too strong for my weight, so I jumped on the can, hoping to flatten the treacherous cylinder.  As I landed, full weight on my right foot, the can slipped, twisting my foot and mildly spraining my ankle.  I hobbled down the trail, being sprayed by a interesting carabid beetle I picked up along the way.  Fortunately, neither was serious, and was walking fairly normally and had cleaned the burning chemical off of my face - which had fortuitously missed my eyes - by the time we reached the end of the trail.  As the bus that arrived at the park would not arrive for several hours (which would have caused us to miss our bus from Pucon to the next town we would be going to), we had to walk to a nearby town to catch a bus back.  In my leisure at the top of the mountain, I had underestimated the time it would take to walk to the town.  As we hurried along the road, nervously wondering if we would make it in time, Julie waved down a truck, and two Germans gave us a ride to the small town.  We caught our bus to Pucon and our connection to Valdivia, where we were to meet my aunt and uncle.


Following our early start and strenuous hike, I slept much of the bus ride to Valdivia.  On the trip, we followed the shores of Lago Villarica to the town of Villarica.  Waking up at the station, I was unsure of where we were.  I turned to the lady across the aisle from me and asked, "What is the name of this town?"


She querulously looked towards me, indignantly replying, "This is not a town, it is a city."


After reformulating my question and ascertaining that it was not my stop, I went back to sleep.  I woke up again shortly before we arrived at Valdivia.  We drove through stretches of agricultural fields, which attracted large numbers of ibises, lapwings and herons, finally arriving at our destination. 


Valdivia is an attractive town nestled in the bend of tranquil river as it nears the sea.  We arrived in town and found a place to stay.  Julie and I then took a quick walk along the river, stopping to wade in the cool waters, and catching small fish that Julie, a fish biologist, identified for me.  We lazily passed the afternoon, meeting my aunt and uncle that evening in the main square to make plans for our trip to Puerto Montt in the morning.  My aunt and uncle had already purchased tickets on a bus that left at some ungodly hour of the morning, so Julie and I decided to take a later bus, and meet them at noon the next day.

Northern Chile (Nov. 2000)

posted Nov 16, 2008, 6:58 PM by Gerick Bergsma

After hours of driving through the desolate windswept wastes of Southern Bolivia, the land cruiser in which I was riding finally came to a dusty stop in an isolated outpost near the Chilean border.  After having driven hundreds of kilometers through nothing that even hinted at civilization, I was surprised to see how many people were at this outpost.  Mostly tourists, they had arrived for the same reason that I had, to catch the bus into Chile.  Two of my friends and I got out and collected our belongings from the roof of the land cruiser, said goodbye to those we were leaving, and stood among the people waiting to go across the border.  Soon, a small bus pulled up, and the crowd surged forward, quickly filling every available seat.  Not quite in a hurry to join the insufferable camaraderie forced by standing room only, I held back, waiting to see where the driver might place my luggage.  After having crammed into so many busses, it was quite surprising when the bus driver told me that the bus was full, and despite several open spots on the floor, I was forced to wait.  No worries, the same company, seeing the flux of people, quickly pulled a van up, and those of us remaining boarded the van and were soon on our way.


I suppose that the bus driver's respect for clear aisle ways and accessible emergency exits portended differences between Chile and the three countries I had already visited, but when I got to the border, I was still amazed.  The border crossing was an arid pass through the Andes, and as we bumped along the dirt road to the border, we stopped at the requisite Bolivian border control to get our exit stamps from the country.  We passed into Chile, whose lack of a border control seemed a bit odd after the over-formalized rituals I had become accustomed to, and witnessed an odd ribbon of black snaking through the hills of the desert landscape.  Pavement!  As soon as we crossed the border, the paved highway began, and as we rounded the first bend in the road, I saw what I think was the first speed limit sign that I had seen since leaving the United States!  As we smoothly cruised down the Andes into the Atacama Desert, I was entranced by the mileposts that whizzed by alongside the road – in certain sections graduated to each hundredth of a kilometer!


The international sampler pack of tourists that filled the van, at least those who had traveled through Bolivia, seemed equally impressed by pavement and street signs, and we soon were exchanging histories and travel adventures.  One group of patriotic Australians, with flag covered rugby ball in hand, had spent much of their time in Bolivia teaching locals how to play rugby.  They seemed disappointed to learn that I did not play rugby, but were quite pleased when one elderly Canadian Woman from Vancouver told them that her son played rugby back home, and now, after moving to Chile, had found a rugby club that he joined in Santiago.  The woman, who was visiting her son and was returning from a day trip into Bolivia, sat next to Martin, the French Canadian who called a small border town in Quebec home.  The Australians slipped into a lively banter with an Englishman about an upcoming rugby match, while Martin and the lady discussed differences in the educational systems in eastern and western Canada.  I, unable to join the subdued conversation being held next to me in German, opted for a silent reverie, staring at the desert sands quickly gliding past us.


After several hours whizzing through the desert, our final stop was San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis town right in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world.  Our first stop was the immigration and customs office, as we had not yet officially been allowed into the country.  I got my Chilean stamp in my passport, and was then told that everyone had to go through the department of agriculture's mandatory search.  The busload of people that had left us behind in Bolivia was just exiting the search as we arrived, and it seemed that the inspector was not in a terribly forgiving mood.  One of the girls in the bus, after having driven hours through the desert, had been dismayed to find that there were no toilet facilities in the immigration office, and had opted to relieve her distress behind the building.  The inspector, having apparently seen her, lectured her rather harshly about how inappropriate her actions had been, and then continued to thoroughly search her belongings, making her removed every item in her pack, and even going so far as to make her open all of her film canisters in front of him.  When we arrived, she was practically in tears as she hurriedly repacked her belongings and retreated from the building.  The van people shuffled in behind, and we lined up along the long table where the searches were held, being careful to open our bags exactly as we had been instructed.  I was about in the middle of the line up, and the folks in front of me were subject to relatively careful searches, being told to remove items from their bags, and having each pocket at least looked into.  The gentlemen next to me in the lineup, who spoke little Spanish or English, decided not to take any chances, and declared a number of items that he had purchased in Chile, but had transported into Bolivia and back.  When the inspector arrived, he tremulously presented the items.  The inspector confiscated some apples, and an open package of meat.  After carefully scrutinizing the labels on the remaining items, and verifying that they were indeed from Chile, he began his search of the gentleman's bags.  With his declaration that the remaining products were allowable as they were Chilean, I jokingly commented to him that we would only buy the best products, so they must be Chilean.  He smiled, and as he continued the search, told me about how many Bolivian products contain diseases and parasites not yet introduced into Chile.  The deserts and mountains, he told me, effectively isolate their agriculture, as Chileans enjoy some of the most disease-free produce in the world.  I told him that I understood, as in the United States, we also have fairly strict customs regulations to protect our agriculture.  He nodded, adding that the United States, their chief trade partner, would not allow products that were not disease-free into the country, prompting the strict regulations that Chile imposes.


He finished searching the gentleman's bag, and then moved in front of me.  Rather than begin a search of my bags, he stood there for several minutes, talking to me about international trade, preaching the virtues of Chilean agriculture, and warning me of the evils of Peruvian, Bolivian and Argentine products.  As the discourse winded down, he quickly put his hand in my bag, squeezed my bag of laundry, and then continued to the rest waiting in line, who got equally mild searches.  With the searching over, we reloaded the van, and proceeded into town.


When we arrived in San Pedro, I was already thinking about how to get to Santiago to meet my friends and family who would be traveling with me through southern Chile.  My first order of business upon arriving, then, was to find out how to get to Calama, the nearest large town with bus connections up and down the Pan American highway.  I got off the bus, and declaring my intentions, was joined by Martin, who also wanted to leave for Calama.  We walked to the offices of a couple bus companies, and soon learned that the next bus for Calama was leaving later that afternoon.  We bought our tickets, and then had lunch and explored the town a bit.  We had arrived the day before the town's anniversary celebrations, and everyone was getting ready.  The main road through town was blocked by a large stage erected in front of the main square, and the town's school band was marching up and down practicing for the next day's parade.  We watched the band for a while, and then visited the old church around which the town was built. 


After having seen most of the town, and having several hours yet to kill, Martin and I decided to visit the ethnographic museum in town.  We entered, and for a while were the only people in the entire museum.  The museum was well curated, with interesting and informative displays outlining the lives of Northern Chile's early civilizations.  By this time, I needed a bathroom, and after navigating several corridors filled with ancient artifacts and finding nothing, I began feeling the same distress as the girl in the customs office.  The museum was deserted, but fortunately, I found an archaeologist studying one of the glass cases.  I approached her from behind, and when I asked her if she could direct me to the nearest bathroom, she turned to face me, holding a human skull in her hand.  She smiled and told me that she would show me where it was, leading me to a boarded up hallway that was apparently still under construction.  With skull still in hand, she silently led me through an opening in the barrier, into an area that was clearly marked "no admittance," and down a dark hallway lined with fossils, artifacts and unused display cases.  At the end of the hallway, we encountered the reinforced door of a large vault.  As she stood at the doorway, she extended her arm, with the skull in her hand facing a small door on the wall adjacent to the vault.  "That is the bathroom," she told me, opening the vault door, and quickly disappearing behind it.  After using the facilities, I made my way back through the dark hallway to the exhibit area, and was stared at by several children when I emerged from behind the barrier.  I school group had arrived on a field trip to the museum, and kids were running around everywhere, yelling and screaming.  Martin and I finished our museum visit dodging the hyperactive children as they chased each other down the corridors, reading the messages they had etched into the sand of a recreation of a burial chamber, and wondering how this could possibly be educational for them if they were allowed to simply run rampant through the museum.


We left the museum, and caught our bus to Calama.  The bus crossed the beautiful desert scenery of the Atacama, arriving about six in the evening in Calama.  When we arrived, we immediately looked for busses to the coast.  My plan was to catch a bus to Antofogasta, a seaside city from where I could take busses to La Serena and then to Santiago.  Martin, however, had very limited time in Chile, and wanted to hurry south, going directly to La Serena.  After checking the schedules, and learning that there was a special price being offered to La Serena, we boarded the next bus undertaking the 18-hour journey.  I can say little for the journey, other than it was really, really long, and that early in the ride, we officially left the tropics.  We stopped briefly for a late night snack in Antofogasta (I had my first hotdog since the fateful one in Ecuador, this one without the ill effects), and then followed the coast through the night and the following morning to arrive at La Serena.  Starting with a 14-hour overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, immediately followed by three days of non-stop land cruiser travel through the Bolivian deserts, a three hour van ride into Chile, another two hours by bus into Calama, and now the marathon ride down the coast, I was quite tired of traveling, so Martin and I agreed to spend a couple of days in La Serena before continuing.


La Serena is a beautiful coastal town north of Santiago, with a wonderful Mediterranean climate, and all the modern amenities that I had not enjoyed since leaving the United States.  At the bus station, a nice lady offered Martin and me a room in her home.  We went with her to a pleasant house near the town center, and moved into our small room.  My first goal was to take a shower, as I had not had one since leaving La Paz, after which Martin and I had lunch at a restaurant with an overfriendly waiter whose accent I could barely understand and who seemed bent on convincing us to come back to his restaurant for dinner and again for lunch the following day.  We explored the town a bit, finally wondering down to the beach.


La Serena's beach was a beautiful strip of golden sand stretching several kilometers to the nearby town of Coquimbo.  A large lighthouse that appeared to be slowly sinking into the sand marked the beginning of a walkway that extended south along the beach following the row of condominiums and resorts that stretched into the distance.  The end of hotel row marked the beginning of Coquimbo, where the shore curved northwards forming a narrow bay and a point on which much of the smaller town was built.  Enjoying the beautiful weather, Martin and I walked along the walkway, stopping occasionally to admire the coast and watch the beach life.  We walked a long ways, stopped at a bar, where Martin gave me a brief tutorial on French (I can now say "Seagull" in French), and even picked up some churros before turning away from the beach to follow the Pan-American Highway back into La Serena.


All along the way, the scenery around La Serena had reminded me of Southern California.  The vegetation along the coast as we approached, the palm tree-lined boulevards, the beaches filled with sun worshipers, even the Pan-American Highway, the closest thing to a freeway I had seen in a while, could all have been taken right out of some coastal town near LA.  When I saw La Serena's shopping mall, though, I could have sworn that I had left South America altogether.  It looked like any ultra-trendy mall that you might find in the United States or Europe, but coming out of the deserts of northern Chile and the rainforests of Bolivia, it seemed that I had been transported to some distant land that remained as only a faint memory of a former life. 


The memory soon engulfed me.  Beginning with the gaudy Christmas decorations outside, I was instantly transported into an Alice in the Looking Glass world that, though real, was not quite reality.  The automatic doors parted, and from the isolated wastes of the Atacama, I entered the writhing winter wonderland within.  Immediately, I was fighting holiday crowds that surged from electronics boutiques and sporting goods stores, brandishing cellular phones and credit cards, while their offspring sat discontentedly on the mall Santa's lap.  I dodged a crazed holiday shopper, nearly toppling a painting being displayed near the escalator, and a mall security guard, dressed like the Canadian Mounties, began to eye me suspiciously.   I began to reel from the unanticipated shock of modern culture.  It seemed that everything was out of place.  I was supposed to be in some foreign land, yet it seemed I had arrived at exactly what I had though I had left.  It was changed, though, and now I was out of place.  I orbited in the twilight zone of a psychological paradox that put me, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, in an air-conditioned mall staring at a decorated Christmas tree and listening to Christmas carols.


I had visited malls in other countries I had visited, but without so much effect.  There, there were always reminders that I was not quite back home.  The crowds behaved differently, or perhaps the stores, despite their placement in a mall, were distinctly regional.   In Lima, I had laughed when a father had pointed to me in one of the few department stores in Peru, telling his children in reference to the escalator I was riding, "That is how you use it, you don't have to be afraid."  But here, the people knew how to use the mall, and with Bing Crosby crooning over the intercom, I half expected to leave the mall and find it snowing. 


Although at first it seemed a bit much, I was strangely drawn in, realizing that in some twisted way, I was reentering my element.  Perhaps if this really was what I was so accustomed to, then I could use my knowledge and familiarity to my advantage.  In a realization of epiphanal brilliance, I realized that this might finally be my chance to find a field guide to the birds of southern South America, a quest that had eluded me since northern Peru.  I quickly located the mall bookstore and asked one of the workers if they sold bird books.  She quickly looked it up on her computer, and led me to their nature section, where she pulled out several books.  The first, a book about canaries, didn't quite seem to suit my needs, nor did the picture book of world birds she showed me next.  I explained to her that I was looking for a field guide, and she smiled, pulling out another book.  She proudly held out a picture book of South American Parrots.  When I asked her if she had any books that covered the birds of Chile, she said that several of the birds in the book could be found in Chile.  Not quite what I was looking for.


Although disappointed that I still could not find the book I was looking for, it was a reassuring, though subtle reminder that I was indeed still in a foreign country.  I felt a certain bit of relief having found even the slightest flaw in this parallel universe.  The book brought a sense of realism back to my existence, and there was no Barnes & Noble for me to run to.  After learning that there was only one other bookstore in the city, and that it was not open weekends, I figured that I would just wait until I was in Santiago, where I was certain I could find the book I wanted.


After our long walk, Martin immediately lay down and fell asleep.  Being that it was only about five in the evening, I was not quite ready to hit the sack.  Instead, I befriended a several other travelers that were staying in the house with us.  I spent the afternoon talking to the two Dutchmen (whose names I can't remember, isn't that horrible?), Yada, from Sweden, and Francisca, from Switzerland, going with them that evening to a Blues Club we had seen earlier.  The club was excellent, with good music, a friendly waitress, and an off duty waiter that seemed to take an interest in my Dutch friends.  I joked around with the waitress until I got her apron, and took over her duties for a few minutes.  I was quickly removed from my new position when I tried to enter the kitchen to wash some dishes, but got wonderful service the rest of the evening.  The off duty waiter, seeing a group of foreigners, sat with us, quickly becoming very friendly with the two guys.  What began as friendly conversation ended with him bringing an endless supply of free beer for the two eagerly drinking gentlemen.  Yada, Francisca and I watched somewhat jealously, but were rather entertained that the two Dutch guys seemed quite oblivious to the fact that they were getting hit on.  The evening ended with their new friend taking us all to a nearby dance club.  After a while it became evident that Francisca and the two Dutchmen were intent on partying all night, so I, who had not slept much on the bus the night before, retired with Yada, leaving one of our Dutch friends on the DJ's microphone mumbling incoherencies to a non-English speaking audience, and Francisca on the dance floor in a Cumbia induced frenzy.


The next day, we all slept in, and Yada, Francisca and I were the first ones up (surprising, considering that Martin had fallen asleep so early the previous day).  We decided that we could all make dinner that night, so Yada and I went to the market to pick up some food.  Francisca headed to the beach for a day in the sun, and we agreed that we would meet her there after our grocery run.  We returned from the market to find that the Dutch guys and Martin had woken up, so we all walked down to the beach together.  While the others wanted to take it easy and soak some sun, I chose to walk the length of the beach and explore Coquimbo a bit.  It took me several pleasant hours to traversing the warm soft sand the distance to Coquimbo, a lively little town with an active waterfront.  I had lunch in the seafood market, watching the fishermen unloading their catches, and then walked about town a bit.  A massive cross, which I first saw from the lighthouse in La Serena, dominated the town's skyline, and I climbed to the top of the hill to get a better look.  It was called the Cross of the Third Millennium, and was built to commemorate the church's 2,000 year, and the Jubilee thereby incited.  I caught an elevator from the chapel at its base to the arms of the cross, where I was awarded a spectacular view of Coquimbo and La Serena across the bay.  I caught a bus back to La Serena where I joined the gang at dinner and said goodbyes as they left to catch a bus to Santiago.


Early the next morning, Martin and I caught a bus into Santiago.  We followed the coast south, through familiar scrub desert, finally turning inland towards the Chilean capitol.  We arrived midday, and as soon as we arrived, Martin bought his ticket to Pucon, a small town south of Santiago, where he wanted to scale one of the volcanoes.  Being that his bus did not leave until nine that night, he hung out with me all day, and we explored the massive urbanization in search of the elusive bird book I had been searching for since Peru.  Santiago has a nice subway system, a refreshing way to get around such a large city, and went around the city on our search.  Starting in northern Peru, I had been looking for a book covering the areas I intended to visit, and although the book of Colombian birds worked well in Ecuador, Northern Peru and Amazonian Bolivia, I knew that I would do well to get a new book to cover the Andes and the Southern Cone.  I did not expect to find one until I was in Lima or Cusco, but when searches there failed to yield results, bookstore owners assured me that I could find anything I wanted in Chile.  Even in Bolivia, after searching probably a dozen bookstores in La Paz, I figured I would probably have to wait until I reached Santiago before I could realize my goal.  The hunt was on, and Martin and I went from shop to shop looking for a book, any book, that covered the species of Chile and southern Argentina.  We searched several bookstores unsuccessfully, always asking where there might be other bookstores, and praying that a Barnes & Nobles would appear around the corner.  Our search included the reputed largest bookstore in Chile, but none of them had a field guide. Ironically, several stores tried to sell me the picture book of South American parrots, and one had a book on finches to augment the book on canaries that every store seemed to carry.  I don't think that there are too many recreational bird watchers down here.  Finally, in desperation, I emailed my aunt and uncle, who were about to fly down to visit me, to bring me one from the United States.


That evening, I said goodbye to Martin, accompanying him to the bus station before catching my own bus to the airport.  I arrived at the very modern Santiago airport, and picked up my friend Julie who had just spent several weeks in Costa Rica, and who was going to continue her travels with me in southern Chile.  It was wonderful seeing a friendly face among the legion of wearied travelers coming through customs, and after greeting one another, we went to our hotel and rested to attack the city the next day.

Bolivia (Nov. 2000)

posted Nov 16, 2008, 6:41 PM by Gerick Bergsma   [ updated Nov 16, 2008, 6:44 PM ]

Sometimes you don't realize what you don't have until you have it again. More strangely, sometimes you realize you don't really mind losing it only after you've lost it again. Such was the case with me and television. I have watched very little television on my trip, and apart from the occasional movie shown on a long distance bus, I never even had television access until I hit La Paz. When I checked into my small hotel, and saw the 6 inch black and white screen on the table near my bed, I thought, "Let’s see what Bolivians watch." I was a bit surprised to turn on the TV and see Arnold, Willis, Mr. Drummond and the "Different Strokes" gang up to their old tricks in flawless Spanish. Despite its new Spanish title, "Blanco y Negro," and poorly dubbed voices, Arnold's trademark, "De que hablas, Willis?" was still there, as was Mr. Drummond's sage advice and the always happy ending. Another thing that had not changed was the show's timeless tune. "The world doesn't turn to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you, may not be right for some . . ." Somehow, the words rang with a new accord. Different strokes move the world, and it's a peculiar beat in Bolivia. Here I was, in very modern La Paz watching American television ("Blanco y Negro" was followed by Hercules and the movie Batman) with a McDonald's down the street. A few days earlier I had been on an island on an alpine lake with no electricity or running water, lamenting the fried eggs and rice that I had had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I would soon be wrestling alligators in the piranha infested waters of the Amazon's tributaries, driving endless hours over plains of salt, and hiking up the tephra strewn slopes of an Andean volcano. The contrasts are incredible in a country best described by strings of superlatives. In a few days, I ranged in altitudes from only 200 to almost 5000 meters above sea level. I passed from sweltering pampas to the frozen lagunas on the southern volcanoes, from the lush rainforests of the Amazon basin to the completely barren salares in the Potosi region. Bolivia is an incredible country where one of the few things I could not find was enough time.

I began my Bolivian adventure following the shores of Lake Titicaca to Copacabana, a sleepy town on the southern shores of the lake near the Peruvian border. The border crossing was rather straightforward, but I did run into Sarah and Phillip, my friends from the Inca Trail, while waiting in line at the immigration office. We agreed to meet later that evening in the Plaza in town and make plans for possibly going to the Isla del Sol the next day. There was a bit of excitement when an Irish Couple was left by their tour bus as they battled with the new visa laws just imposed by Bolivia on Irish citizens. They hopped onto our bus, and we continued into the small town of Copacabana. The bus arrived in the late afternoon, and I found a room in the first hostel I encountered. Wanting to enjoy the beautifully warm afternoon, I immediately went down to the courtyard where the hotel served lunch. There I met Dave, Dave, Tim, Fiona, and Nicole, some of the folks that I had met on the Isla Amantani, when I was in Peru. We had lunch together, and they invited me to walk with them the next day to Yampupata, a nearby town, to catch a boat to the Isla del Sol. I told them that I had to meet friends later in the evening, and could not make plans until I had talked to them, but said that if we went to the Isla del Sol, we would likely go with them.

That afternoon, I wandered about town, and made my way to the top of a nearby hill with wonderful views of the town and lake. The peninsula we were on stretched far to the north, and beyond that I could make out the outline of the Isla del Sol, with the shadows of the cordillera real peaking out of the clouds behind. I sat on a wall and watched the sunset over Lake Titicaca. I waited until the brilliant pinks and warm oranges faded into the darkness of the altiplano night, before I descended back to Copacabana to find Phillip and Sarah. When I met Sarah and Phillip, I was surprised to find them talking to the Daves, Tim, Fiona and Nicole. Apparently, they knew each other from Peru, and had arranged to walk to the Isla del Sol together. We all agreed to start early the next day, and hike to Yampupata, and continue to the Isla del Sol.

The next day, I rose with the sun, and after quickly packing for the journey, joined the group for the hike. We left Copacabana at about 8:00 AM, and followed the road out of town following the water's edge towards Yampupata. The trek was gorgeous, starting in some agricultural areas near town, and then gently climbing through Eucalyptus forest along a lakeside bank. It was a beautifully clear day, and the blue waters of the lake stretched far before us. We continued following the road, until we reached a small stream, where we crossed, and followed a trail to an Incan road that climbed a large hill. The trail rejoined the road, which then descended to a small bay with a village clinging to the thin strip of land between it and the adjacent hillsides. From the village we climbed another large barren hill, and then finally descending to the peninsula on which Yampupata was built. The walk took us a little over four hours, and after a stop for some refreshments, we hired a small motor boat to take us across the narrow stretch of water that separated us from the Isla del Sol. The boat driver dropped us off on a small dock on the southern end of the island, near some Incan ruins, and as we clambered from the boat onto the high dock, Dave dropped his Leatherman into the water. He stripped down, and went for a swim to try to retrieve it, but he was so breathless in the ice-cold water that he could not dive down for it. Tim, a RAF pilot, jumped in, too, and dove down to get it. He was just climbing out when a hydrofoil full of German tourists cruised up to the dock, and got a wonderful reenactment of the first Inca emerging from the lake. We were the subject of rather odd stares as the swimmers redressed their shivering bodies, with the rest of us congratulating them at lake's edge.

From the southern end of the lake, we continued our walk, walking another two and a half hours to the north end of the island. We passed several villages and Incan ruins on the way, enjoying the beautiful Grecian landscape and spectacular views of the Cordillera Real as the sun began to lower in the west. We had lunch in a town about halfway up the island, where it took nearly two hours for them to serve very bad food (when I asked for more sauce for my spaghetti, they handed me a bottle of ketchup). When we reached the northernmost town on the island, the sun was just beginning to set, and we found a place to spend the night. For dinner we went to the only restaurant in town, where the cook looked a little frightened when she saw the entire group enter. The town had no electricity, so we enjoyed our fried eggs and rice over the romantic glow of a candle.

Early the next morning, one of the Daves, Tim and I hiked an hour past town to the northern tip of the island, the location of the Rock of Titicaca. Titicaca means "Gray Puma" and the lake is named after the rock, that supposedly resembles a Puma. The rock was sacred to the Incas, who believed the Sun, the Moon, Manco Capac, the first Inca, and his wife, mama Oclo were all born here, rising from the lake onto the rock. The local Ayamara people still consider it a holy site, and several ruins remained of the temples constructed near the rock. From the northwest tip, we could also look back towards Copacabana, and see the islands of Amantani and Tequile far to the North.

We returned to the town, and prepared to depart. Phillip had not been feeling well, so Sarah and Phillip had stayed in a town about halfway up the island, and the rest of the group had to catch a bus from Copacabana, so they hired a boat back directly from the town. I set off alone, and hiked back down to the southern town on the island, admiring the spectacular geology, and doing a little bird watching on the way. Lake Titicaca was actually a great place for shorebirds and waterfowl, and the low vegetation on the island seemed to attract many birds of prey. I caught the late afternoon boat back to Copacabana, passing the Bolivian Armada along the way. It amazed me that a land locked country would bother to have a navy, and it seemed that the small sailboat, the row boat and the motorboat currently in dry-dock would do little to discourage an attack by water. I got back to town, and spent a night there before catching a bus to La Paz in the morning.

La Paz is spectacularly placed in a large canyon, with impressive snow capped peaks forming a picturesque backdrop for the massive city. I arrived in the city with the intention of relaxing a few days before meeting my parents and heading into the Bolivia's Amazon region, so I spent several days wandering aimlessly about the city, getting to know my way around the center, and researching hotels for my parents and I to stay in. On one of my wanderings, I was walking down the main street, a massive boulevard with throngs of people and towering skyscrapers (at least they seemed towering after not seeing many large buildings since I left southern Peru), when someone called my name. I turned to find Matthew and Lucy running up to greet me. Having last seen them in Cusco, it was great to meet someone I knew in this large city. I dined with them a couple of evenings before my parents arrived, and, as I learned they were going to the same jungle town that I was planning to go to, figured that I would probably see them again soon.

When my parents arrived, I had found a lovely hotel for them, and moved from my relatively squalid abode into the five star luxury of the Gran Hotel Paris. My television jumped from 6 inch B&W to 15 inch color, and the size of the room increased in even greater proportion. The sitting room in our suite alone was larger than most of the rooms that I had stayed in, and the bathroom had CONSISTENT hot water! The temporary bed that they set up for me was more comfortable than many of the beds I'd tolerated before, and when on one evening they brought up the complimentary tea service, I knew that sometimes it really is good to let your parents spoil you a bit. I greeted the doorman with a bit more of a smile that first evening, and laughed when the bellboy didn't seem quite sure whether or not to offer to carry my backpack to the room for me.

The first day that my parents arrived, they were rather tired, and spent much of the day resting and trying to get used to the altitude. I decided to let them rest, and as I walked down a street leading to the plaza where our hotel was located, I ran into Sarah. Phillip had returned home, but she had met a couple of other travelers, and they were headed to the Valle de la Luna that afternoon. I decided to join them, and soon we had caught a bus out of town. The Valle de la Luna is an area of oddly eroded formations that some believe resembles a moonscape. We hiked along a rather slippery trail through the odd shapes for a while, admiring the towers and arches formed in the rock, before catching a bus back.

My main goal while my parents were visiting me was to get to Rurrenebaque, a frontier town in the Amazonian lowlands from which you can access both tropical rainforests and pampas. Once my mom and dad arrived, we immediately arranged to fly from La Paz into the rainforest. As we added our names to the list of passengers aboard the military flight (TAM the military run airline was the only airline that flew to Rurrenebaque), I was delighted to see that we would be flying with Matthew and Lucy as well as Sophia and Jeanette, my friends from the Inca Trail! We arrived at the airport, and all decided that we would look for an agency where we could hire guides as a group.

From La Paz, we flew to the jungle town of Rurrenebaque. From the moment our Fokker F-27 first descended from the clouds to see the verdant forest spread like an unending carpet below us, I knew that we were in a pretty remote place. Our plane bumped and shook to a rough landing on a grassy field, and taxied to the small "terminal" where we hired a jeep to carry us into town. The lady who arranged our jeep transport represented "Incaland Tours," and after she helped us arrange our tickets back to La Paz (TAM would not sell a roundtrip ticket), we decided to use her agency for our tour of the rainforest and pampas. We went to her office, and hired guides and cooks for a five day tour, two days in the rainforest and three days in the pampas.

After a quick lunch, we grabbed our gear, and boarded a motorized dugout canoe to head upriver. We packed our stuff under a tarp, settled in with Mario, our Guide, Rosa, our cook and Chino, our boat driver, and began our three hour cruise into the tropical rainforest. The scenery was unbelievable; it felt like we had entered Jurassic Park. Huge cliffs rose over the steaming canopy, with the reddish brown water snaking its way through steep canyons and over lush, tree covered flatlands. We cruised up the River Beni for a couple of hours, passing small settlements and occasional clearings in the forest. As we continued upriver, it began to pour on us, and as we huddled under our ponchos and umbrellas, we experienced why the tropical humid forests are commonly called "rainforest." We turned onto the River Tuichi, a tributary of the Beni, and soon entered the Reserva Nacional de Madidi, leaving any form of civilization behind. The river narrowed slightly, and we entered more stands of primary and older secondary forest. On the clay banks of the river, we caught our first sight of Capybara, the cutest giant rodents you've ever seen, and could hear parrots and macaws squawking as they flew over the river. The banks of the river hosted a number of large waders, most notably egrets, herons and Jaribu, and a plethora of flycatchers hawked insects from trees overhanging the water. When the sky was clear enough to look into, vultures circled overhead, and numerous birds darted overhead across the river. The rain stopped, and we finally reached our campsite (and after three hours on a wooden plank, our backsides were certainly thankful). After transporting all of our gear and supplies up a very slippery bank, we settled into camp. The strange water-drip call of Orependulas returning to their nests at the edge of our camp and the calls of macaws flying far overhead marked the end of the avian day, and darkness soon overtook the forest. We, however, were not quite ready for the end of the day, so Mario led us into the nocturnal rainforest, where the chorus of insects let us know the forest was far from asleep. Our first stop was the banks of the river not far from our camp, where a quick look with our flashlights revealed several capybaras. We continued through the forest for a couple of hours, listening to the sounds all around us, and carefully navigating the nighttime foliage. Our walk continued until the batteries began to run out in my and my mother's flashlights (my father's flashlight had been given to Mario at the beginning of the walk as his had a burnt bulb). We returned with almost no light, tripping on the roots and fallen debris the whole way back. Upon return, we retreated to our mosquito nets and went to sleep.

The next morning, the sun shown brightly, with cicadas calling loudly from the treetops and butterflies filling the clearing in which we camped. The orependulas noisily left their nests, and after a cold breakfast, we prepared for a diurnal walk through the forest. My mother was not feeling well, so my parents remained in camp while Matthew, Lucy, Jeanette, Sophia and I followed Mario down the path that we had walked the night before. The brilliant sun lit the canopy above us, but the forest floor remained cool and comfortable as we walked. Mario explained to us various medicinal uses of plants and trees that we encountered along the way, and we sampled monkey eggs (a small fruit) and drank water from a vine. We encountered few animals in the forest, but did have sightings of a large red squirrel and a small deer. Such as was my experience in Ecuador, the arthropods were rulers of the forest, with spiders, grasshoppers, butterflies and throngs of other insects everywhere. One thing that was certainly not in shortage was ants! We saw a swarm of army ants, and long lines of leaf cutter ants busily harvesting the foliage, huge stinging ants that Mario said were extremely painful, and tiny ants that, despite their size, hurt enough when they bit. Every time we would stop, it would not be long before ants were crawling up our legs. I am not sure how many times we were bit, but we each got our share of formic acid on that walk.

Along the hike we encountered a small stream with some vines hanging over it. To cross it, we grabbed a vine and swung Tarzan-style over the water. After everyone was safely over the stream, we realized that this was a great photo opportunity and good place to play, so we spent a few minutes swinging back and forth over the water. It was great fun, and we continued to play until Jeanette lost her grip and fell knee-deep into the stream. We had to cross several other streams along the walk, as well, and each one we had to engineer a way to cross. A couple of them had fallen trees that we used to walk over, but they were often narrow and not terribly stable. Over one stretch of water we had to build a makeshift bridge using several logs we found, and a tree we felled as a hand hold.

After walking for five hours, we finally returned to camp for lunch. That evening we reboarded the canoe, and travelled a little farther up river to see an area where macaws nested. We landed on a muddy bank, and after a short walk came to a large bare cliff. As we arrived, the red heads of Greenwing (Red and Green) Macaws could be seen poking out of holes on the cliff face, with occasional birds noisily flying in and out of the holes. As the sun sank lower in the sky, birds returning to roost began flying in from all directions, and the trees surrounding the cliff were alive with the resounding calls of the massive birds. Flocks of beautiful red, green and blue Greenwings descended on the cliffs, along with smaller all-green Military Macaws. Large flocks of parrots also came to roost in the holes of the cliff, with their constant chattering mixing with the din from the macaws. We were there for several hours watching the magnificent birds. My parents and I, with a pair of pet macaws at home, were transfixed by the spectacle. Adding to the avian array, several large (black bodied?) woodpeckers hammered on nearby trees, with their bright red heads showing brightly in the afternoon sun.

We spent another night in the rainforest, and then rose early the next morning for our boat trip back to Rurrenabaque. Travel downstream was much quicker than going up, but the sunny day provided us a new perspective on the gorgeous scenery we passed on the first day. We arrived in Rurrenebaque, and were escorted to a hotel where we could take showers. We relaxed in the hotel for a short while before Joaquin, our new guide, and Mariluz, our new cook, arrived with a jeep to take us to the pampas. We drove two hours to a nearby town from which we would again travel by river to our campsite. On the drive we passed a lot of agricultural land, with herds of cattle grazing on the fields. As we drove by one herd, I noticed an odd shape, and realized that I was looking at a rhea, the South American equivalent of an emu! We stopped and watched the huge birds for a few minutes before continuing. At the end of the car ride, we had a quick lunch, and then boarded another motorized canoe, this time on the river Yacuma. In another odd coincidence, as we boarded our canoe, another canoe was getting ready to shove off, carrying Sarah, the Daves, Nicole and Fiona! I'm beginning to realize why they call the southern portions of Peru and northern Bolivia the "Gringo Trail."

The Yacuma was much smaller and slower moving than either the Beni or Tuichi, and its narrow flow put you right up close with the shore side animal life. The vegetation here was also much more open than in the forests we had just left, with large stretches of seasonally flooded grasslands (pampas) cut by the tree strewn riparian zone. As soon as we shoved off, we began seeing lots of wildlife. Large numbers of Alligator rested on the shores, or poked their eyes and nostrils out of the water before stealthily submerging when we approached. Large capybara lazily bathed in the mud and shallow water on the river's edge, scarcely giving us a glance as we passed. Much like insects ruled the rainforest, though, birds were the star attraction on the river (sorry Matthew, I know you liked the Capybara). There were heron and egret everywhere, with at least three species of each being rather common. Tyrannids filled the trees in some areas, and large guans (or perhaps curassows?) clumsily flew from tree to tree. Large Blackhawks commandeered the high snags, while skimmers cruised the waterways. Along the way I saw swallows, wrens, kingfishers, cardinals, trogons, finches, rails, storks, condors, vultures, parrots, macaw, sandpiper, plovers, tanagers, anis, cuckoo, doves, and geese. Later, when we arrived at the camp, I even saw two species of toucan and a Great Horned Owl! I was in birdwatchers paradise. As I watched two blue and gold macaws fly overhead and listened to the intricately timed calls of the Condor of the Pampas (King Vulture), I really felt like this is what I had come to South America to do.

The canoe ride to camp took us slowly through the serpentine river, and we got to see most of the animals pretty close. At one point, we saw a bunch of baby alligators scurrying up the bank into the trees. Joaquin ran the boat into shore, and he jumped out to catch one for us. We passed the tiny little reptile about, taking pictures with it before letting it join its brothers and sisters back on the bank. As we continued, parts of the

river were very shallow, with reeds blocking the passage. On one of these stretches, the boat got stuck in the reeds, and Joaquin and I had to jump into the water to push the canoe back out. Shortly after we had cleared the reeds, we saw a capybara wading in the shallow waters near shore. Joaquin aimed the boat at it so that we could get a close look. The capybara was noticeably unnerved by our approach, and when the canoe finally touched land, the capybara hurried onto shore, stepping on a resting alligator on the way. The alligator immediately lurched for the water, ramming into the side of our canoe, and soaking Lucy, Jeanette and Sophia as it thrashed about trying to dive under the boat. The now terribly frightened capybara ran into the river and swam off, while the startled occupants of the canoe sat dripping in disbelief. As we continued, we encountered more capybara and alligators, although most of the capybara seemed little more than disinterested whenever we approached. Later we even saw a bunch of monkeys that came down and ate bananas that we offered to them. We arrived in camp, and rested a bit. The pampas were terribly hot, and after spending several hours in the sun, we were all ready for a bit of a rest. Joaquin explained what we would be doing for the next couple of days, after which I wandered about a bit, discovering a nearby waterhole frequented by capybara.

The next couple of days we had several little adventures planned. First up was an Anaconda roundup. We loaded onto our trusty canoe, and rode upstream a short while to an area where we hiked across a large stretch of grassland to arrive at a small pond surrounded by marsh. The walk was long, and the shadeless grassland was extremely hot, but Joaquin kept us entertained with stories about the poisonous snakes that we might encounter in the tall grasses. We arrived at the welcome shade of the trees along the marsh, and Joaquin, another guide that had arrived with another couple, Matthew, Jeanette and I brazenly waded into the marsh in search of an anaconda, while the others waited in the shade of a nearby tree. We quietly sloshed through the deep mud and water of the marsh, searching for our quarry. The mud was so deep that Matthew's sandals broke as he tried to negotiate the side of the pond, and my rubber boots were soon completely filled with water. We had only been looking for about ten minutes when Joaquin called to us. We made our way to his location, and there, hidden in the vegetation, was an enormous snake. We all slowly approached the snake, getting ready to catch it when suddenly Joaquin turned and started yelling, "Get back! Run! Run!" Startled, I turned to Jeanette, and told her to run as Joaquin began to push me to run towards the pond. We sprinted (or as near as you can sprint in shin-deep mud) towards the pond, not knowing what was going on. As I was wondering if we were about to be eaten by a killer snake, Joaquin repeated, "Run! Bees!" He had spotted a swarm of africanized bees, and was apparently even stung by one, prompting our rapid retreat. Once we had run a short distance, fortunately without being attacked by bees, Joaquin and the other guide told us to wait while they retrieved the anaconda. A few minutes later, they returned with about a four meter constrictor wrapped around Joaquin's neck. Joaquin asked me if I wanted to carry it, and I returned to the waiting group with a snake triumphantly hung over my shoulders. We stood on the shore along the marsh taking pictures with the snake as Joaquin lectured us on the natural history of anacondas. As we prepared to release the snake, a large alligator surfaced in the marsh we had just waded through, and let out what I can only describe as a loud growl. After witnessing what we had been fortunate not to tread upon, the other guide volunteered to release the snake as we waited safely on dry land.

We returned to camp, and as the day became unbearably hot, we took a bit of a siesta after lunch, certain to seek the haven of our mosquito nets to shield us from the plague of mosquitos that inhabit the pampas. That afternoon, Joaquin asked if we wanted to go for a swim. Having seen so many alligators along the river's edge and in the marsh, we were dubious, but Joaquin assured us he knew of a safe spot. We all got back in the canoe, and travelled down river. We reached a slow bend in the river, and beached the canoe, when suddenly a large pink object slowly surfaced and then disappeared back into the chocolate brown water. Pink river dolphins were all around, slowly emerging for an occasional breath. The turbid water did not permit a very good look, but the occasional arch of back with a bit of a dorsal fin was our assurance that these waters were safe to swim in. "The dolphins chase away the alligators," Joaquin reassured us. With that, Matthew quickly hopped in, and I was quick to follow. We swam out to the middle oft he river, with the lethargic river dolphin surfacing all around us. Sophia, Jeanette and Lucy soon followed suit, and we swam about in the lukewarm water. After swimming for a bit, the girls got into the canoe to sun themselves a bit, and I clung to the edge of the canoe to rest a while. I was hanging off the canoe, with water up to my neck, when I felt a sharp pain on my chest; something had just bitten my breast! I jerked, giving a bit of a shriek, startling the people on the boat, telling them, "Something just bit me." They responded in disbelief. Another quick nibble on my shoulder was all I needed, and I was out of the water. Once on the canoe, I examined my chest to find my nipple bleeding, a nice ring of teeth marks all around. I told Joaquin that I had just been bitten, to which he replied, "Oh, those are sardines." As I applied pressure to my macerated mammary, I notified him that the sardines had drawn blood. He, too, responded in disbelief. When I showed him my tattered teat, he looked surprised, but reiterated the sardine story (I would later learn that it was most likely a piranha, though Joaquin would never admit it). When Matthew, who had remained in the water, started getting nibbled on (although without drawing any blood) my story started gaining support. I stayed out of the water for the rest of the time, and after a couple more people reported gentle nibbles, including a few on my feet as I dangled them in the water, we all just accepted the sardine story.

My wound was quick to heal, but my pride had to wait until the next day. When Joaquin asked us if we wanted to go fishing, I was quick to affirm that I wanted to give those damned "sardines" a bit of their own medicine. We grabbed a couple of steaks (the bait of choice in these waters) and some hooks and line, and were back on the canoe heading up river. When we arrived at what Joaquin deemed a good spot, we beached the canoe, hooked our bits of meat, and tossed them over the side. We quickly started getting nibbles, and before too long, I had pulled in a small catfish and Jeanette had caught a "sardine" - here is where I learned that Joaquin called anything that wasn't a piranha or a catfish a sardine. The sardines looked harmless enough, but before long, Joaquin and Jeanette had caught a couple of piranhas. They are small, but they sure look like mean little buggers, with a nasty set of choppers (with teeth spaced peculiarly similar to the teeth marks on my nipple). After several hours of having our bait stolen and not having caught enough fish for our lunch (the largest fish we caught were only a few centimeters long), we changed to a different location, where I climbed off the canoe, and scrambled along the steep bank to a shrub that extended over the river. I found a little hotspot, and quickly landed six piranhas in about ten minutes. Once we had caught our lunch, we returned to camp, and I relished avenging the piranha attack the day before (although the piranha still got more meat off me that what I got off those tiny little fish).

The rest of our time in the pampas was filled with nighttime canoe trips to spotlight alligators (we caught another small one for another photo op), jaunts to the grasslands to watch sunsets, and early morning sunrise/howler monkey expeditions. We saw all three races of Howler monkeys, along with Capuchin Monkeys and tons of birds. When not on the river searching for wildlife, we would be vainly attempting to battle the intolerable heat and hordes of mosquitoes. One lazy afternoon I decided to try to run down a capybara that I spotted near our camp, and learned that the lethargic looking beasts are quite quick when chased.

After our tour, we returned to Rurrenabaque, and caught our flight to La Paz. I spent a couple more days in La Paz, taking my parents back to the airport, and then spending a day with Matthew, Lucy, Sophia and Jeanette, trying to get a guard to give us a tour of the prison (he claimed that nobody was being let into the prison that day, as the prisoners were striking), ending up at the Coca museum instead. All my friends were heading to Mexico, so we said our goodbyes, and I caught an overnight bus to Uyuni, in southern Bolivia. When I arrived the next morning, I quickly arranged to join a tour of the nearby Salares and Lagunas that would leave me at the Chilean border. I climbed aboard the Toyota land cruiser that would be my transport for the next three days, and met the Bolivian, two French and two Swiss that I would be travelling with.

As soon as we left town, we hit the Salar de Uyuni, an immense salt flat that we spent the entire day driving across. The landscape was as barren as any I have witnessed. Endless miles of nothing but flat white salt. It looked like snow, but was hard as rock, and the land cruiser sped across the wide-open flats. After several hours of driving, we reached an "island" in the sea of salt. A rock rose high above the plain of white, and we stopped there to eat lunch and hike around the towering cacti that grew on the island. As we ate lunch, a hawk landed nearby. It was obviously quite used to seeing groups of tourists, and it sauntered up to us quite bravely looking for a handout. He must have known my fondness for birds, because he singled me out and perched himself at my side, eagerly glancing at the sandwich I was munching on. Not wanting to further spoil the bird, I quickly finished my meal, as I admired the creature. He was obviously not terribly happy to see that I was not going to feed him, so he came closer and began to tug on my sleeve. I tried to shoo him away, at which point he bit me! I suppose that my birds at home have made me impervious to avian attacks, because rather than run from the attack, I quickly scooped the bird up and tossed him aside. He quickly returned to my side, and began to eye me again, again pecking at my sleeve and at my camera bag. This time I put my hand out and picked him up. He perched, quite unperturbed, for several minutes on my hand and then on my shoulder, before we finally had to leave. I left my new friend still searching for scraps, as we continued to drive through miles of salt. Later we arrived at a Salt Hotel. A building in the middle of the bareness completely constructed of salt. We went inside where all the furniture and even much of the art was also made of salt. I suppose the meals were well seasoned, but otherwise, I think there would be little nightlife in a place with absolutely nothing around as far as the eye could see.

That evening we finally made it to the end of the salar, to a tiny village in the foothills beyond. The town was tiny, but as it was the only civilization anywhere around, several tour groups lodged here. Leticia, the Bolivian in the group, was dying to go dancing, and after learning that the town actually had a disco, our group went to check it out. The disco turned out to be a small cement building not far from our hostel, with a small bar, and a tape player for music. Leticia had brought along a CD to listen to, and after discovering that the disco could only accommodate tapes, our driver spent he evening going door to door, unsuccessfully trying to locate a CD player. While he searched, the rest of us sampled the various tapes that the disco had to offer. We were the only six there, so we pretty much listened to whatever we wanted to. Since I had not slept well on the bus the night before, I retired early, resting for the following day.

Day two on the trip, we drove south along the Bolivia-Chile border, among the densest array of volcanoes I have ever seen. At any one time, there were at least six volcanoes in sight, with one point where twelve perfectly formed cones surrounded us. We stopped at various interesting rock formations, usually old lava flows or eroded tuff, where we would hike about and chase the Viscachi (a jumbo sized cousin of the Chinchilla) around. We also made it to a couple of Lagunas, large lakes with saline waters. Each laguna, due to variations in the mineral contents of the water, was a different color, and usually named to correspond (ie. Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanco, Laguna rojo etc.). The laguna hosted all three species of flamingo found in the area, as well as various shorebirds that scurried along their banks. We spent the night in a refuge on the banks of one of the larger lagunas, a beautifully red lake with several volcanic cones along its edge. We arrived with several hours of daylight, so Dominique (one of the Frenchmen) and I decided to go for a bit of a hike. We decided to climb as high as we could on the nearest volcano, and were soon trudging our way up the soft tephra covered slopes. At about 4500 meters, with very soft substrate, the climb was actually somewhat difficult, but in a couple of hours we had climbed about halfway up the peak. The view was gorgeous, with the beautiful reds of the lake matching the pinkening western sky. We made our way back down the slope and walked along the edge of the lake back to the refuge. We arrived about an hour after dark, to find the rest of our group quite worried about our well being. Our driver had gone to the park rangers to tell them that two hikers were missing in the park, and had driven about searching for us after the sun set. They were all quite relieved to see us, and rewarmed the leftovers from dinner for us.

The next day we got up before dawn and drove to a nearby geyser field to watch the sunrise. The steaming vents and geysers provided an interesting foreground to a beautiful sunrise. We spent some time walking around the bubbling mud baths, before continuing to a nearby lake with hot springs at its edge. The freezing nights at this altitude had left a fairly thick layer of ice on the lake, but several folks quickly stripped and lounged in the delightfully hot water. Fearing a cold exit, I opted for wading, relaxing my feet in the stream that emerged from the rocks. We ate breakfast there at the hot springs before driving to another series of lagunas set among the spectacular cones that dot the area.

That afternoon, the land cruiser dropped me off in another small settlement where a bus would take me to Chile. The rest of the group was returning with the land cruiser to Uyuni, but I was headed south into my next country.

Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca (Oct. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 11:33 PM by Gerick Bergsma

Long ago, the universe was born.  It encompassed three parts.  The celestial part, the subterranean part, and the earth, the interface between the celestial and underground.  From the depths of Lake Titicaca was born Inti, the sun, and his wife the moon.  Together they ruled the celestial part, watching over their children the stars, and looking down upon the Pachamama, the mother earth.  Viscocha, the white, bearded god in human form also rose from the sacred lake of the gray puma, to watch over the humans who inhabited the earth.  Inti bore another son, again born from the depths of Lake Titicaca, named Manco Capac, the first Inca.   Manco Capac, and his sister/wife Mama Oclo, rose out of the lake onto the Isla del Sol.  They were instructed to travel to the northwest, to found their kingdom.  They were to walk until they reached a place where they could sink their walking sticks into ground, and there build the capital of the Inca Empire.  They found a valley, rich in vegetation, where their sticks sank deep into the soil, and there they founded Qosqo (Cusco), the heart of what would become a powerful empire.


Over centuries, the Inca and his people conquered the surrounding regions, forming an expansive kingdom encompassing most of the Andes.  Then the Spanish arrived.  At first confused as emissaries from Viscocha, and taking advantage of a civil war between two half brothers fighting to become Inca, a small band of Spanish conquistadors were able to overcome the powerful kingdom of the Incas.  They decimated the city, building Catholic churches over Incan palaces and temples, and destroying many of the buildings to use the precisely carved rock for their own houses.  The once important city of Cusco became a sleepy colonial town, as it remained for several centuries more.


Then came the second conquest.  Armed with cameras and traveler’s cheques, tourists have descended upon Cusco with a vengeance.  With the relatively recently rediscovered ruins of Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and the reminders of Incan architecture in and around the city of itself, Cusco has again reclaimed its place of importance for the region.  I have reached the heart of South American tourism.  The beautiful colonial backdrop of Cusco is ground zero for most people's visits to South America, and as you walk through the cobbled walkways of the central Plaza, you are acutely aware of your position as a tourist surrounded by more history than may be comprehensible.  Gorgeous 16th century churches loom over small alleyways leading away from the square, each built on a different Incan temple or palace.  Precisely aligned Incan stonework wall the storefronts of the myriad of travel agents and restaurants catering to the tourists who have come to explore the longest inhabited city in the Americas, and the network of ruins scattered around it.


As the Spanish forever changed the face of Cusco, so have the tourists.  One can barely imagine the city without the multitude of foreign voices slaughtering local place names, or the eternal cry of a salesman proclaiming, "This poncho is handmade alpaca.  For you, amigo, a special price!"  It doesn't take long, however, to leave the claustrophobic tourist trap feeling behind and entire the awe of the city's splendor.  Once you get over the hassle of being asked if you want to purchase postcards (the same boy asked me eight times in one afternoon) or your shoes shined (my friend Matthew was asked 17 times in a matter of hours by various shoeshine boys), Cusco is a beautiful city with a tremendous amount to offer.


I began my tour of Cusco in my usual manner, by simply wandering about the city getting to know its streets and trying to figure out what was worth seeing.  During my walk, I wandered past a small museum, and decided to stop in.  The museum, built under the ruins of an Incan bath that now is the basement for a large church, was not terribly impressive, but I acquired a Cusco Tourist Ticket, that allowed me entrance into a number of nearby ruins and churches.  I wandered around a bit more, and made plans to walk to some of the nearby ruins the next day.


The next day, I spent the morning trying to find a bus that would take me to Tambomachay, a ruin about 8 kilometers out of Cusco.  Once I found the bus, and arrived at the ruins, I started the walk back, with visits to four Incan sites along the way.  Tambomachay is an Incan bath, with running water still trickling into its pools.  Beautifully set in a green valley along the river that supplied the water, it was fun climbing the hills, and following trails to Pukapukara, the next ruin.  Along the way, the trail led through several small communities, where two little girls tried to sell me pages ripped out of a newspaper, and where I saw several people digging mud and hand packing it into the adobe bricks that would become the newest building in the community.  The trail descended through a sparse forest to Pukapukara, a well preserved Incan homestead on a small hill alongside the road to Cusco.  I wandered about the ruin for a while, enjoying the quiet solemnity of the site.  The beautiful sunny morning began to cloud over, so I hurried down the road to Q'enqo, the next site on the road to Cusco.  Along the way, I met three Scottish girls who had become lost and were also headed to Q'enqo.  We travelled together to the site, an impressive rock, with several walkways and seating areas carved inside.  A large school group visiting the site made this a rather noisy visit, and while climbing atop the rock, it began to hail on us.  A bit cold and wet, the Scots and I walked on to Sacsayhuaman, the largest and most famous of the ruins near Cusco.  The Incas believed that Cusco was in the shape of a Puma, and Sacsayhuaman was envisioned to be the puma's head.  Huge zigzag walls represent the teeth, and proved to be imposing embattlements when the Spanish and Incas fought one of the bloodiest battles of the conquest here.  While only about 20% of the fortress remains, it is still an impressive site, high on a hill overlooking Cusco.  We walked about for a while, admiring the impressive stonework and magnificent views of the city, then descended down the steep path into the city.  We had lunch, and then I spent much of the afternoon translating as they attempted to change the date of their flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney (they were heading around the world), so that they could spend some extra time in South America.  Afterwards, we visited the Cathedral, where the highlight was a painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and his disciples were feasting on Cuy.  I stand with holy vindication in my decision to eat rodents!  That night I met Matthew, Lucy, and Gwen, who had just arrived in town, and we made plans to look for a group to head to the Inca Trail with the following evening.


The next day I took an excursion to Pisac, a town about an hour away from Cusco by the same bus that I took to the ruins the previous day.  Pisac is an enchanting town with a vibrant little market and a friendly population.  As soon as I arrived, I discovered a bakery where I enjoyed delicious empanadas fresh out of a giant clay oven, and wandered through the market for a short while looking at the colorful array of souvenirs presented.  I had arrived at Pisac, however, to visit the ruins with the same name.  Starting by the nearly fallen church by the square, I climbed an extremely steep trail up the mountain to the ruins high above the village.  The hike was about an hour and a half straight up, with spectacular views of the town and the lush vegetation of the Sacred Valley, following the River Urobamba far below.  Incan terraces covered all the hillsides, and the mountains formed a breathtaking backdrop to the beautifully winding valley.  The ruins were magnificent, the best that I have visited yet.  With all respect to Machu Picchu, which is also a magnificent site, I think the fact that I had the ruins completely to myself for most of the day made my visit to Pisac the most enjoyable of any of the ruins I have been to.  The ruins are spread over a large spur reaching from the mountains towards the town.  From the town, all that can be seen are the watch towers located on the first peak of the spur.  A large number of stone houses are located along the flanks of the first peak, and the major religious site of the ruins is located between the first and the second peaks.  A narrow trail leads from the religious center to another residential area behind the third peak, after which a large agricultural area spreads along the hillside to the last of the communities composing the ruins.  Across a small valley from the third peak, the cliffs are riddled with Incan tombs, and baths tap water from the stream separating the tombs from the residential area.  The whole spread of ruins was magnificently set, and I spent the entire day wandering and exploring the various parts of the ruins.  A road that leads to the ruins allows tourists who wish to take a tour bus access to the ruins, and the central religious portion is heavily crowded, but the rest of the ruins I had completely to myself.  I climbed a ladder that had been left by some workers onto the top of the highest ruins on the third peak, and from there was able to climb to the top of the third peak.  From there, I was able to follow the summit ridge to the tops of all three peaks where there were some magnificent views of the entire valley and the layout of all the ruins.  When I reached the top of the highest peak, overlooking the religious center, I had to follow a very steep and narrow trail back down.  It ended with a staircase that seemed to end in a cliff.  As I precariously stood on the last step, a very narrow cave descended at a 90 degree angle to the staircase to a rock face I had to descend.  As I barely fit sideways into the cave, it was a rather interesting descent back to the main part of the ruins.


I returned down to the town of Pisac, and caught a bus back to Cusco.  I met up with Matthew, Lucy and Gwen and we found a company with a group starting the trek to Machu Picchu in two days.  I spent the next day hiking back up to Sacsayhuaman to take some pictures and enjoy the ruins a bit more, and wandering about Cusco buying supplies that I would need for the Inca Trail.


The hostel in which I was staying is located on a pedestrian street leading to the main plaza.  The street is full of restaurants, and each evening as the dining hour approaches, menu wielding touters line up to assault the casual pedestrian with descriptions of their restaurants specials and the free food and drink you can expect with their excellent service.  After spending several days in Cusco, I had become adept at running the restaurant gauntlet, and with minimal eye contact, I could maneuver past most of the throng.  The night before I left for the Inca Trail, I stopped to watch a couple of foreigners try to manage the onslaught of menu pushers, and had to laugh as two girls, each representing Mexican restaurants, one on either side of my hostel, got into an argument over them.  After the foreigners continued on, I commented to one of the girls, "It's a war on this street."


She chuckled, and then, realizing I had walked by without looking at her menu, asked if I wanted to eat at her restaurant.  This, of course, was followed by the requisite, "Where are you from."  When I responded that I was American, she responded with disbelief, demanding to know where I was really from.  My transformation continues.


At times I really feel as though I am losing my American identity, or perhaps I am simply gaining an international one.  Who is Gerick Bergsma?  Who is (to steal a phrase from one of my favorite movies) this international man of mystery?  It was one thing to trick a Peruvian to think that I might be a local.  It is quite another to be unable to convince an American that I, too, am an American.  But that is exactly what happened on day two of the four day trek along the Inca Trail.  True to the trail's form, the tourists outnumbered the locals, and as I trudged up the narrow trail, some of the members of my group and I found ourselves behind a couple of Americans.  Hearing a familiar accent, I thought I might start into some friendly conversation.  I climbed beside one of them and asked, "Where are you from?"


"The United States," she disinterestedly replied.


"Really?, So am I, " I responded, hoping for some sort of compatricial amiability.


"Doesn't sound like it," came the cynical reply.


A little put off, and not quite understanding the coldness I was recieving, I attempted one last attempt at conversation, "So what part are you from?"


"Colorado," the one word answer seemed intent on letting me know that she was still not buying the 'I am an American, too' story.


Mustering up my best West Coast US accent, I said, "Wow, well I'm from Seattle."  With that she looked my way, but I pushed ahead, leaving her puffing her American self up the rest of the trail.


As many of you who have travelled with me know (particularly those who have been with me to English speaking countries), I like to try to adopt the local accent.  Being that I have been hanging out with a lot of European, and particularly English, tourists lately, I have begun to utilize my English vocabulary and accent.  Coupled with the frequency with which I am switching between English and Spanish, I can begin to understand how at first I might not be seen as an American.  Still, to try to have to convince someone I was American is something new entirely.


At least to the rest of my group, I was THE American (although the three dutch along seemed to like my declaration of "Ich ben Fris!" after I told them my last name, to which they jokingly replied, "Kinet," which apperently means, "that goes," in dutch and "that does not go," in Fris, go figure).  The five English, Mathew, Lucy, Gwen, Alan and Sara; three Dutch, Stan, Jeanette and Phillip; two Swedes, Jeanette and Sofia; and the Italian, Carlitos, that joined me were great.  We all bonded immediately, and along with our guide Julio, had a great time hiking the ancient trail to Machu Picchu.


The first day of the trail, we hiked along the Rio Urubamba, following the sacred valley for a couple of hours.  Reaching a set of ruins, we then ascended to a small town.  Climbing a about an hour above the town, we reached our first camp site, from which we could see the menacing height of Dead Woman's Pass, our goal for the next day.  We chatted into the night in our dining tent, and I quickly established myself as the group naturalist, with my excitement as first several scarab beetles and then a giant moth (Saturnidae? Similar but smaller than Columbid moths we get in the Northwest) flew into our tent.  Carlitos, my tent mate, and I settled into a much too short night's rest listening to a Japanese broadcast on his shortwave radio.


Day two was definitely the most trying, but also yielded some of the most spectacular views.  Our first task of the day was to ascend nearly 2000 meters to the top of Dead Woman's Pass, at an altitude of 4,200 meters.  The long climb followed a narrow path, filled with other hikers.  We started the climb walking through beautiful forest.  We had apparently come during the pupating period of one particular moth species, as they rained from the trees, and covered the low vegetation, drying their wings before filling the air with their yellow and black flutterings.  There were also several species of hummingbirds, some a beautiful copper color, others the more traditional green with black and vibrantly colored throat patches.  I even caught sight of one bringing a bit of moss to its nest.  As we continued to climb, we exited the forest into the scrub of the high altitude.  The wind whipped up the slope, and several Caracaras glided on the updrafts.  Despite it being the beginning of the rainy season, we were blessed with beautifully sunny weather, and the breeze was quite refreshing as we trudged our way to the top of the first pass.  We rested atop the first pass, and then sharply dropped into the valley on the otherside.  We dropped into another green valley, where we ate lunch, and then, as most of the other groups pitched their tents for the night, we proceeded up the next pass (3,900m).  This pass was steeper, climbing hundreds of Incan steps, although much shorter.  We paused for a while at some ruins we passed along the way, and then continued up past some beautiful alpine lakes to the second summit.  We again rested atop the summit, where I saw some birds that looked very similar to Mountain Bluebirds.  We dropped again, past more beautiful lakes back into the dense cloud forest.  We camped alongside a small creek, near another set of ruins.  After a quick and cold, bath in the stream, I went to my incense filled tent (Carlitos was practicing Yoga), and rested a bit before the evening meal.  That night, I asked Julio if we could go to the ruins, and he excitedly agreed.  He had never been to the ruins at night, and after he blew his whistle, "to wake the gods," and whispered a short prayer, we climbed up.  When we arrived at the top, the ruins were shrouded in fog, providing a rather surreal setting as Julio recounted us several Incan legends.  The lone candle he had lit wavered and flickered, oddly shadowing his face in the misty night.  After a while, the clouds blew off, and the sky was filled with twinkling stars.  The Pliades was just rising, and Jupiter glowed brightly in the Eastern sky, and the crescent moon just setting over the distant mountains.  We wandered about the ruins in the star lit night, and marveled at the heavenly array of light.


Since we had hiked farther than most groups on day two, we were allowed to sleep in on day three.  We woke to another beautiful sunny day, with the cloud forest stretching to the mountains far in the distance.  Our first task, following breakfast, was to climb back to the ruins for a proper daylight tour.  Not quite as mystical as they had seemed the night before, the ruins were much easier to navigate by daylight, with magnificent views of the valley before us.  The rest of the day was spent hiking through the cloud forest towards the last camp site.  We walked for hours through the spectacularly vibrant forest.  We saw several species of orchids, tree ferns, and trees beautifully covered in moss.  A short ways into the hike, Sofia and I, who were leading the group, encountered a tarantula in the middle of the path.  Back when we were in Trujillo, and again in Nazca, Matthew had admitted to me that he was horribly afraid of tarantulas, and that if he encountered one he would immediately leave Peru.  I, of course, caught it, and took it for him to see.  I will mention at this point that, despite how obvious it is on a specimen of this size, making the labidognath-orthognath distinction is much easier in lab than with a live spider.  Matthew was duly impressed, but I am pleased to say that he did not rapidly depart the country.  We continued the hike, passing a couple of rescue workers carrying a stretcher in the opposite direction, dropping down to the final camp site.


Unlike the previous nights, where we had had private camp sites and felt wonderfully secluded, everyone camps in the same place on the last night so that they can reach the sungate by dawn.  There is even a bar there, and after the magical solitude of the previous nights, the camp site seemed oppressively crowded.  Despite the crowds, we took a short afternoon excursion to some ruins next to the bar.  Remarkably, they were deserted.  We spent hours climbing the empty site.  None of the other groups seemed to know the ruins were there.  The jungle encroached upon the site, and there were birds everywhere.  Wrens guarded the ceremonial baths, and swallows nested in the rockwork.  A flock of parrots flew noisily overhead (Michael, I caught sight of a bit of color, they might have been Red-Lored Amazons!).  That night we ate our dinner in the bar, and Sofia and Jeanette taught me a Swedish drinking song.  In exchange, I taught them the real words to La Bamba, a truly international exchange.   Despite the crowds, the parade of moths continued, with a visit from a beautiful Sphingidae.


Day four, we were up bright and early to reach our ultimate goal, Machu Picchu.  Up before dawn, we shared our last breakfast before the two hour hike to Intipuntu, the sun gate.  The walk was gorgeous, through the lush cloud forest, listening to the early morning chorus of tropical birds.   We walked briskly, trying to overtake as many of the throngs of hikers that now cluttered the trail.  We arrived at the sun gate, and sat to await the sunrise over the sacred city of Machu Picchu.  Perched atop the ancient ruins, we greeted the rising sun, and were treated with a glorious view of fog.  The ruins were completely clouded over, and we could see nothing but the increasingly bright silver-grey mist that enshrouded the city.  Every cloud may have a silver lining, but his one's kept us from viewing the city from the sungate.


After vainly waiting for the cloud to lift, we descended the last part of the trail towards the city.  As we reached the watch tower, the most famous view of the city, the clouds finally lifted, and we were afforded a few minutes with a glorious view of the city with Huina Picchu in the background.  As we watched, the clouds reenveloped the city, and while most of us waited, hoping for it to clear again, Julio and Carlitos went ahead to acquire our tickets.  A minute later, Julio came running back yelling, "Gerick, come and look at a snake!"  I, the ever valiant naturalist, bolted down the mountain to look, with most of the group following behind.  When I arrived, Carlitos had pinned the small snake with his walking stick.  The stick obscured the snake's head, so I picked it up to get a better view.  As some of the other trekkers started taking pictures of the insane zoologist, the snake opened its mouth, and I got my first view of some lovely hinged fangs!  I quickly decided that the grass was a far better place for this viper than my hands, and as I mentally reprimanded myself for my haste in picking it up before assessing the risk, the rest of the group seemed rather impressed that I would pick up a venomous snake.


The rest of my visit to Machu Picchu was not quite so life threatening.  The fog finally lifted as we entered the city, and we enjoyed lovely weather as we toured the complex.  The site is spectacular, with an amazing amount of marvelous stonework preserved through the centuries.  The backdrop of mountains adds to the mystical feeling of the site, with steep slopes dropping to the River Urobamba far below.  After our tour of the complex, several of us decided to climb Huina Picchu, the mountain behind the city.  It was an hour's climb straight up, but after the hike we had just completed, it seemed rather short.  The views were spectacular, with some of the best views of the city's layout far below.  We sat atop the boulder strewn summit, and marveled at the mountains surrounding us.  Swifts and swallows darted over the rocky precipice, and I even heard and saw the whistling dive of a falcon attempting to catch a swallow in midair.  We finally descended, and then continued down the steep path to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu, and the site of the train station back.


Aguas Calientes is a beautifully set town, with cliffs rising on all sides, and verdant forest surrounding the town and filling the river valley.  Flocks of parrots squawked high in the trees as we walked into town, and the rushing river alongside gave the town the feel of a village somewhere in the Amazon.  The streets were lined with vendors, and the town is centered on the rail line, its only connection with the civilized world.  Although I never visited the hot springs for which the town is named, its vibrant air was a stark change from the serenity we encountered along most of the trail.  We ate dinner as Julio purchased our tickets for the train ride back to Cusco.  Rail Peru has recently enacted a rule stating that foreigners can no longer use the local train, but instead must use the "tourist Train."  The practical translation of this is that instead of the 10 sol local rate (about $3), tourists were forced to pay the $50 tourist rate.  Of course there was a lot of protest, so Rail Peru added the "economical" Backpacker class to its tourist trains, meaning that we now pay the low, low rate of only $25.  The practical translation of this is that backpackers are now paying eight times as much for a seat on the local train that everyone else pays only $3 for.  There is little one can do against governmentally subsidized robbery, so I paid my $25, just being glad that I was assured a seat, and a restful ride back to Cusco.


Too soon, it was time to depart, and I clutched my ticket as I fought the living mass that surged towards the train at the rail station.  Most of the group was located in car C, but I had been given a ticket in a different car, so I departed the group in search of my seat.  I located my car, and climbed aboard.  My ticket was for seat 69, so I made my way to the back of the car.  I was a little surprised, though, when the seats ended at number 60.  I walked to the front of the car and back again to be sure I had not made some sort of mistake, but there was no seat 69.  I called the conductor, who directed me to a man on the station platform, who directed me to the station manager, who was hurrying about yelling into his handheld radio.  I, and the other eight people without a seat in my car, ran about searching each of the other cars for vacant seats.  Unfortunately, the train was completely full.  So much for my $25 guaranteed seat and my restful trip back to Cusco.  Somewhat frustrated, and not wanting the train to leave without me, I asked if I could stand in the car where the rest of my friends rode.  The station manager agreed, and I climbed onto their car to find that two of them were also without seats.  In a gesture of defiance (and to a certain degree exhaustion) Carlitos and I climbed onto the luggage racks and laid there for the trip back to Cusco.


Any illusions I had of a restful trip back from Machu Picchu (that had not been shattered by the fact that I was now curled up atop of a metal luggage rack) was soon destroyed by a school group that shared the car we were riding in.  It started with about three of them singing a popular Cumbia, and soon grew into most of the car shouting their favorite songs.  Carlitos and I soon joined as the percussion section, pounding on the metal racks we sat upon, and with a little cajoling, I convinced a girl from the school group to dance with a reluctant Phillip.  At about that time, the conductor came through the car, and kicked Carlitos and I off of our comfortable metal racks, so we joined the dancing and singing.  The group, after entertaining us with their songs, demanded that we sing for them, so Sofia, Jeanette, Phillip and I sang the Swedish drinking song that Sofia and Jeanette had taught us.  We quickly became the celebrities of the train car, and everyone wanted to take pictures with us.  I asked the group to sing us the Peruvian national anthem, which they gladly sang, after which they wanted to hear our national anthems.  Sarah and Alan sang "God Save the Queen," and Jeanette and Sofia sang the Swedish national anthem.  As the sole American on the train, I gave a soulful solo of the "Star Spangled Banner," which apparently went over very well, because the Peruvians immediately wanted a translation of what it meant.  The Europeans aboard were also quite impressed, as they all complimented my singing, and one old lady even pulled me aside later as I stopped for a drink of water, and said that I had a very good voice.  This, of course, only prompted more singing, with me leading lively versions of "I Will Survive" (I would like to thank Sylvia, Joy, Jody and the rest of the late-night China Pearl FHL gang without whose drunken renditions I would have never learned the words) and "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie" (Robin, what can I say other than, I had my chance, and I made those people dance, although nobody knew more than the first verse!  You taught me too well).  The Peruvians, not to be outdone, serenaded us with a couple of popular salsas and cumbias, and we all joined together for an international ensemble of "La Bamba."  I don't know if any of you have ever tried to dance in the aisle of a moving train, but I think I bruised my hips a bit.  Carlitos became the dance star when he learned to dance "El Pollito" (the chicken), which, when I tried to dance it, only caused me to fall on top of several of the Peruvians (who seemed to rather enjoy being sat upon by an American).  The train party made the trip go by extremely quickly, and I don't think I have shaken as many hands as I did as I tried to get off the train.


The next day, I slept in LATE.  I think I finally got up around one in the afternoon or so.  I spent the rest of the day lazing around, and that evening, most of the group that I'd done the trail with met at a bar.  It was a rather entertaining evening watching Sofia and Jeanette get drunk, and start to sing more of their drinking songs (it must be really fun in a Swedish bar).  Meanwhile, Phillip and Sarah seemed to be getting increasingly close, and Matthew and Lucy were their merry selves.  Carlitos had brought a female friend along that he had met, so later that evening, Carlitos and his friend, Alan, Sarah, Jeanette, Sofia and I went to a disco.  True to my form, I pooped out quickly (despite my sleep in, I was still quite sleepy), but not after Phillip and Sarah disappeared to their corner, Carlitos and Friend disappeared to another corner, and Jeanette and Sofia had been surrounded by foreigner loving Peruvians.  The following morning I awoke to find Jeanette and Sofia (who were staying in the same hostel) both terribly sick, Sofia with a terrible stomach condition and Jeanette with a fever and sore throat.  I spent much of the day running to the pharmacy and collecting fruits and juices with which to nurse them back to health.  While running around I ran into Darren and Claire (my friends from Pisco, Nazca, Arequipa and Colca Canyon) who had just arrived from their jaunt around Lake Titicaca, so that night they, Matthew, Lucy, Phillip and Carlitos got together one final time before my early departure the next morning for Puno.


Another bit of a bus ride, and I found myself in Puno.  Puno is a quaint town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, but my main goal was to get out on the lake, so I immediately made arrangements for a boat ride to some of the nearby islands.  The next morning, I was off with a boatful of people headed to the islands of the Uros, Amantani and Tequile.  After motoring for about an hour, we arrived at the islands of the Uros, the famed floating reed islands.  The Uros people, wishing to separate themselves from the Incas and the Collas Indians, began a floating existence, building islands out of the Tortora reeds that they also used to build boats.  The spongy island are little more than large reed platforms, and the residents have certainly capitalized on their popularity with tourists.  Each of the islands boasts an impressive array of handicrafts for sale, and for only $1 you can get aboard one of the large reed boats and get a quick ride to another island.  A bit different from the single person caballitos I rode in Huachaco, we fit about 16 passengers aboard one of the monstrous reed boats to travel to one of the neighboring islands.


After our stop, we continued to the seldom visited island of Amantani.   It is actually one of the larger island in the lake, and boasts the highest point on Lake Titicaca, at 4,200 meters.  The island is absolutely gorgeous, and reminded me of the Greek Isles; a dry golden-brown landscape, replete with goats, surrounded by the most beautiful blue waters comparable only to the crystal waters of the Adriatic or the Aegean.  The only difference is that at this altitude, we would be looking down upon the gods of Mt. Olympus.  We got off at one of the eight small communities on the island, and were met by a host of locals.  Those of us who wanted to spend the night were paired with a local family who would host us for the night.  I shared my family with Lek, a visitor from Singapore, and we climbed to the house where we were to stay.  The family cooked us a filling lunch of rice, french fries and fried eggs (the three staples of Peru, once you are past Cuy and Ceviche), and then we hiked up to the temple of the Pachatata (father earth) to watch the sunset.  The hike up was wonderful.  At this point, I would like to ask any of my geophysicist or geologist friends to entertain me with theories about the origins of Lake Titicaca.  As I hiked up, the rock definitely appeared to me to be volcanic in origin, consistent with most of my knowledge of the area.  In fact, our guide had been telling us that the lake had been formed by a number of volcanic events.  At the same time, however, my hosts showed me (in fact gave me one, after I showed so much interest) several trilobite fossils that he'd found on the island.  It strikes me that at 4,000+ meters it would take an awful lot of uplift for marine fossils to get up here, and with the amount of volcanism that is evident, it amazes me that the fossils would survive.  Can anyone elucidate for me?


Anyways, the sunset was beautiful, and as darkness fell, we returned back to town for dinner.  After dinner, the town put on a bit of a tourist spectacle.  An Andean band played while colorfully dressed locals encouraged tourists to dance the only dance that they seem to dance to Andean music.  I watched and listened for about an hour, before retreating outside to enjoy the starry night.  Orion, one of the few constellations I recognize in the southern skies, loomed brightly overhead, and a distant electrical storm lit the mountain tops far to the east.  A couple of shooting stars and a slow moving satelite completed the celestial light show.


Then it was today.  I rose early this morning, ate an extremely filling breakfast, and caught a morning boat to the island of Taquile.  Plying the beautiful blue waters from Amantani to Taquile only reinforced the feelings of being on the Greek Islands, and we soon found ourselves on the equally gorgeous island of Taquile.  From the port, we climbed a steep path with wonderful views of the lake to a small town, where we watched locals making handicrafts.  I swear, every single person on this island was weaving!  We ate lunch in town, and then descended an even steeper path to another harbor where we boarded boats back to Puno.  One last night here in Peru, and with luck, tomorrow I will be on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.


Southern Peru (Oct. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 8:48 PM by Gerick Bergsma

As many of you know, one of the reasons I chose to travel to South America was to brush up on my Spanish.  In that regard, I think I have been afforded one of the best compliments I have ever received.  It began with a typical bus ride along the Peruvian coast.  As I arrived, fresh out of Lima, in the small seaside village of Pisco, I was accosted by the usual gang of tour agency representatives, taxi drivers and hostel owners, all trying to convince me that I was in desperate need of their services.  As anyone who has traveled knows, one of the first questions anyone asks you is, "Where are you from?" undoubtedly to best gauge the amount they can attempt to cheat you out of, and true to form, as the agents lined up in front of me, the first words out of the first one's mouth was, "Where are you from?" 


Having answered that question on countless occasions, each time knowing full well that a truthful answer only meant being charged ten times the actual rate, and having just gotten off of another eight hour bus ride, I really was not in the mood to repeatedly hear the same routine about how my hostel is more comfortable or how my tour agency will give you the best rate, and quickly replied, "where do you think I am from?" 


Immediately, the agent rolled his eyes, and declared, "Oh, you are Peruvian," where upon the rest of the pack immediately turned their attentions to the other wearied tourists coming off of the bus.  I paused for a moment, thinking that I had somehow just been insulted, and then realized that I had just accomplished what many travelers only dream of.   Somehow the bright yellow North Face pack on my back and the Tamrac camera bag slung over my shoulder had not marked me as a foreigner.  I was blending in!  I had had hints of my transformation all along the way.   Several people had thought I was Colombian while I traveled in Ecuador, and in the Galapagos one person even thought I might be from mainland Ecuador.  Through much of northern Peru, people had asked me if my family was from Costa Rica, Spain or even Ecuador, but never had anyone assumed that I was a local - a Latin-American tourist, yes, but not an honest to goodness paisano, the holy grail of tourists and language students worldwide.  Now, for the first time, I had been mistaken for a local, and the tables had turned.  Tour operators beware, I was now working covertly.   I had arrived, and basked in the glow of my small triumph for several seconds before, realizing that a Peruvian client was better than no client at all, the horde of tour operators and hostel owners again surrounded me, handing me the little photocopied pamphlets advertising their wares.


It is difficult to say when you reach a moment when your life truly changes.  It is constantly molding and flowing, and abrupt changes are rare, but I can say that after that day, I have definitely handled myself a little differently.  To truly appreciate the new, Latinized Gerick, though, one must follow my journey through Peru, and witness the birth and growth of someone who, possibly, could be a local.  My journey through Peru has been decidedly different from my travels in Ecuador.  In Ecuador, I spent most of my time with locals, avoided heavily touristed areas as much as possible, and really met few foreigners.  Having heard about the dangers of Peru, however, I decided to stick to the trail more followed, and as such have come across many more fellow tourists.  Starting with Josh in northern Peru, and continuing throughout, I have been hanging out more with the tourists, and as such have taken the role of translator and group leader more often.  When surrounded with nothing but locals, the differences are bound to stand out more, but being associated with other foreigners, perhaps being seen as a translator or guide, I have been able to finally transcend my foreign roots and become, at least in the eyes of one tour agency representative, just another Peruvian.


On that fateful bus to Pisco, I had sat next to an English Archeologist.  He spoke Spanish well, but with a strong Spain accent, his father coming from Madrid.  He told me about some of the ruins in Peru, comparing them to many of the sites in Greece and the Middle East.  He was an interesting bloke, but had an odd inspiration for traveling.  He was going to places he had heard of on a board game he played in his youth.  He was friendly, and we talked about the places we wanted to visit while in Pisco.  Upon arrival, though, after I was declared a Peruvian, he became the focus of the agents' attention, and they viscously descended upon him.  In the frenzied attack, I only saw a pack slung over a shoulder, perhaps a hand reaching out of the multilingual fury, and then the backs of the horde as they shuffled him out of the station, leaving only scattered brochures fluttering in their wake.  Another soul devoured by the pack.  As he was dragged off to one hostel, and as some of the glaring agents' eyes began to turning to me, I quickly befriended another English couple, Darren and Claire, who were intently warding off the swarm of touters as they hastily looked for a place to stay in their travel guide.  They found one that sounded nice, and I followed them to the pleasant courtyard of the hostel where we stayed, all the while listening to the appeals of a travel agency representative trying to sell me his tour package.  We arrived at our rooms and relaxed for a moment, recovering from the bus arrival frenzy that with which I had become all too familiar.


The main reason to come to Pisco is to visit the seabird nesting colonies on the Islas Ballesta, and to visit the Paracas National Reserve nearby.   To get there, you have to go on an organized tour, so, despite my distaste for the propaganda I was about to subject myself to, I went out in search of a tour agency that could get me a ride out to the islands.  It just so happened that the same tour operator that had mistaken me for a Peruvian coming off of the bus had been the one trying to talk me into a tour the entire way to the hotel.  When I descended to the lobby, he was still waiting there, so I asked him about the tours to the islands.  We talked for a bit, and I ended up purchasing a combined Islas Ballesta and Paracas Reserve tour, and I am proud to say, for a bit less than most of the other tourists paid on that tour.  That night, I shared a room with another Englishman, a bird watcher who spent six months out of each year bird watching around the world.  Of course we hit it off immediately, and we talked well into the night about bird watching and ecological problems around the world.


Bright and early the next morning, I prepared for the tour.  Claire and Darren had also purchased the same tour, so we boarded the microbus that took us to the docks for our tour of the islands.  We picked up a few more tourists, arrived at the docks, and boarded the speedboat that took us out to the islands.  On the way out we viewed the Candelabra, a large design similar to the Nazca Lines, carved into the hillside by the Paracas civilization.  We then continued to the islands, a short ways out.


The islands were spectacular.  Thousands of Peruvian Boobies, Guanay Cormorants, Inca Terns, Brown Pelicans and various gulls were perched along the islands' cliffs.  The beaches were covered with thousands of sea lions, and Humboldt penguins could be seen hopping along the waterside boulders.  The islands are also important for guano harvest.  Every four years, the excrement of the thousands of seabirds is collected and sold as fertilizer.  This was apparently a harvest year, as dozens of workers could be seen scraping the guano off of the rocks, and piling bags of the nitrate and phosphate rich guano onto barges.  Not exactly my dream job, but at $100 per bag, the harvest is an important part of the local economy.  For an hour, we cruised around the island, darting into coves, and around magnificent arches and caves eroded into the rocks.  One cave, inside of which hundreds of sea lions barked, also housed bats that reputedly fed on sea lion blood.  We returned to port, and then boarded the microbus for our tour of the Paracas reserve.


About the only word that can accurately describe the Paracas reserve is desolate.  Miles and miles of nothing but sand.  Desert followed by more desert with dunes extending beyond the horizon.  Barely any sign of life anywhere, barren, dusty and dry.  One at first wonders why this area would be declared a reserve, until you arrive at the seashore.  The reserve extends well offshore, protecting a spectacular array of marine life.  Our first stop was a small bay where Chilean flamingos could be seen in the distance.  We continued to a sandy beach where we walked to a rocky intertidal, and what miracles should I behold but rocks covered in chitons!  The species I was not familiar with, genus Chiton I believe, but their beautiful octet shells dotted the shore.  We don't have any common chitons of the genus Chiton in the Pacific Northwest, so it was rather exciting for me.  There was lots of other stuff there as well, tons of grapsus crabs, megabalanus barnacles, anemones, and even some cucumbers that lived beneath the sand and extended their tentacles out to feed (similar to cucamaria, but with dark purple tentacles).  There were also many Littorines (yes, Robin and Julie, they rule the high intertidal even down here), Tegula and various cowrie shells all along the rocks and beach.  Behind the beach, cliffs displaying gorgeous lamination patterns rose to the desert above.


Our tour concluded, and a pair of Italian flight attendants, Manuela and Sara, invited me and an Australian lawyer that was also on the tour, Alex, out for a drink.  We all went out, befriended another Italian, Mauro, and spent the evening talking about international popular culture and teasing me (the waitress seemed to have a fondness for Americans, and Mauro a particular distaste for American pop culture and country music).  The next day, as I arrived to board the bus for Nazca, I was delighted to find that Darren, Claire, Manuela, Sara, Alex and Mauro were all on the same bus, along with Matthew and Lucy, the English couple I had befriended in Trujillo, who had now been joined by Lucy's mother, Gwen.  The ten of us traveled to Nazca, where again we were immediately assaulted by the horde of agents awaiting every bus.


When I had departed Pisco, the hostel owner had given me a recommendation for a hostel and a travel agency in Nazca.  What I didn't know was that he had then called his friend at the travel agency, and told him that I would be arriving.  It was therefore quite a surprise to me when out of the swarm of agents, one came up to me and asked, "Are you Jerry?"  I have pretty much given in to the fact that as long as I am in a Spanish speaking country, my name will be Jerry, but Oscar, as the agent introduced himself to me as, said that he would take me to the recommended hotel, and even give me a discount.  I invited my friends along, and as they had already planned to go to the same place, the ten of us walked to the nearby hostel.  Another tour operator, seeing us leave as a group, saw the opportunity to attract a lot of business, and assuming me to be the group leader, talked my ear off the entire way about tours and about a competing hostel that he represented.  I pretty much ignored him, but he continued to follow anyways.  Oscar, hearing the other agent try to sell me a tour immediately began to pitch his own tours, telling me how we could work out a group rate.  Both of them kept describing their tours, all the while saying that the other was just trying to scam me and arguing over who represented the better hostel.  Both of them, assuming me to be the leader of the group, seemed intent on convincing me to arrange a tour with their agency.


We arrived at the hostel, where the owner informed us that they were full, and could not accommodate our group.  Oscar immediately recommended another hostel, and said that he would take us there.  Already fed up with all the lines I had been fed by so many travel agency reps, I demanded to know why he had brought us to a hostel if it was full, and was not about to walk across town to another hostel nobody knew about but him.  He told me that he would even arrange a good price, ten soles (about $3) per person in triple rooms.  At this point I was a little frustrated, and seeing the other agent that had followed our group outside the door, I immediately went to him and asked him to describe the hostel he represented.  The other man said that he would also give us a ten sol rate, but that he would include breakfast.  Not to be outdone, Oscar immediately said that he could drop the rate, and that the rooms would all have private baths with hot water.  Something clicked in me at that moment, perhaps a throw back to the glory of being considered a Peruvian, or perhaps a brewing sense that I was about to retaliate for all the tourists these two men had scammed in the past, but I suddenly felt empowered.  Both agencies were intent on winning my "tour group's" business, and I finally had power over them.  With both of them there fighting over me, I ended up brokering a deal in which Oscar paid for taxis to take us to the hostel where I and all of my friends got an 8 sol a night rate for private rooms, all with private bath and hot water (not bad around here).


I know that part of the reason that I was awarded the Bonderman was because I was not going to travel in organized groups or follow the preplanned itineraries of most tourists.  Somehow, though, I don't think that gathering my own group, organizing and leading a tour really falls into the same category, so I don't feel too bad about what happened next.  Oscar and the other tour operator both assumed that I was somehow the leader of the group, and as such offered group rates for flights over the Nazca lines and tours to surrounding areas.  All of my friends had expressed interest in the flights over the Nazca lines, and so, suddenly, we transformed into a tour group in which I had become the default leader.   I told the rest of the group that they could do whatever they wanted for the rest of the afternoon, as I, their guide, was going to organize the flight and tours for the next day.  I really don't know what came over me.  I can only think that after being subject to the whims of so many tourist scamming operators that the power I suddenly wielded as a tour guide made me a little giddy.  I set out to find a good deal for my group, and to strike fear into the hearts of all travel agents operating in Nazca.  I should mention at this juncture that the going rate for a flight over the Nazca lines is about $50, plus transportation to and from the airport and a $2 airport tax , tours to the nearby pre-Incan cemetary is about $10 plus $1 entry fee, and tours to the nearby aqueducts another $10 per person.  I don't think that normally the agencies in Nazca are terribly hungry for tourists, but upon entering the off season, a group of ten people was something well sought after.  I entered agency after agency first asking prices, and then explaining that I was representing a tour group.  I had soon narrowed the field down to just a couple of agencies, and then the games really began.  My Spanish was on, I was bartering and maneuvering like never before (Mike and Auntiekiki, think Chichicastanango on a grander scale), and the agents knew I was playing their game.  I really felt like I had entered the dark underworld of Nazcan tourism, and they all knew me by name (well, at least by Jerry).  I had agencies calling me at the hotel and sending taxis to pick me up, or coming to the hotel where they would wait in the lobby until I allowed them to present their latest offer.  I would enter their offices, and they would take me into back rooms and pitch me offers and counter offers.  One, somewhat seedy tour operator sat me down in a room above his normal office and said to me quite frankly, "do you want a good rate for your group or for you," after which he offered to give me my tour free if the group paid a good, but not quite spectacular rate.  When I assured him that I wanted a good rate for the whole group, he looked somewhat surprised, and after complimenting my negotiating abilities, offered me one of the best prices yet.  I went back and forth from agencies, each time upping the stakes.  By the end, I had been offered flights for $22, and each of the two other tours for $3.  The best overall offer ended up being $29 for the flight, both tours, all transportation, entrance fees and taxes, but because the agency wouldn't

accept credit cards, we ended up opting for a $33 deal that included all tours, tariffs and taxes, plus breakfast.  I had conquered for the sake of all foreigners.  For weeks to come, travel agencies in Nazca will fear the name Jerry.


So, the next morning, after spending a wonderful night in my private room and after a nice warm shower in my private bath, the group from Jerry Tours [very] Limited were picked up and taken to the airport, where we enjoyed a spectacular flight to view the Nazca lines.  I, the tour guide, got to ride up front with the pilot of our small Cessna as we flew from one line to the next.  They were magnificent, with figures and lines etched over an impressive area.  The pilot would bank sharply, circling each of the major figures, affording us excellent views of the ancient works.  We returned to the airport, where we were picked up and transported back to the hotel for breakfast.  Our tours began that afternoon, starting with the cemetery.  The tombs, stretching over an expansive bit of desert, had once been filled with the mummies and burial artifacts of the Nazca culture.  Grave robbers, searching for the gold artifacts often buried with the mummies, had excavated all the tombs, destroying many of the artifacts, and leaving the desert littered with mummies and non-gold artifacts.  Archeologists had attempted to recover some of the mummies, and have reconstructed twelve of the tombs, complete with cotton stuffed mummies and ceramic burial artifacts.  It was odd to see bits of cotton, fabric, ceramic and human bone stretching to the horizon, the scattered remains of the grave robbers' greed.  After the cemetery, we visited the aqueducts, impressive excavations that the Nazca used to get water and irrigate the barren desert.  The aqueducts are still used, and the stone walls still funneled the precious water to the nearby fields.  Also included in the tours were stops at a nearby Nazca/Incan ruin, and visits to an artesian ceramics factory and gold processing plant.  The gold processing plant was very interesting, and I even helped with some of the gold extraction.  I climbed on top of a board attached to a rock that I would rock back and forth, grinding the ore into Mercury that would bind with the gold.  As interesting as it was, it is admittedly a bit unnerving knowing that I was splashing about 2 kilos of mercury (can we say megafund cleanup site in the US), that would later be hand strained and finally distilled to extract the gold.


Tours complete, our tour group disbanded, ending the short but brilliant career of Jerry Tours Limited (although anyone interested in international travel, I can recommend an excellent guide).  I said goodbye to Manuela, Sara, Mauro and Alex, who took a separate bus, and Claire, Darren, Matthew, Lucy, Gwen and I took an overnight bus to Arequipa, a beautiful city on the ascent to the highlands around Cuzco and Lake Titicaca.  We arrived the next morning, where we were greeted by the beautiful cone of the volcano Misti.  We spent the day relaxing and enjoying Arequipa's European charm (Connie, Mike and Rob, you will be happy to know that I have felt quite at home here in Peru, making withdrawals from Banco Santander, battling the evils of Telefonica, and have even heard rumors that there might be a Corte Ingles around).


The six of us arranged a two day tour into the nearby Colca Canyon (without the spectacle of the Nazca tour arrangements), and the next morning we were up at daybreak to start the expedition.  We were joined by six Israelis, and headed up the dirt road that lead from Arequipa to Chivay, where we were to spend the night.  The road up was spectacular, as we ascended to a 5000 meter pass, and then descended into the Colca valley.  Along the way we saw herds of Vicuna, and caracaras and falcons hunting over the high plains.  We arrived in Chivay, a town at the foot of the volcano Mismi, the source of the Amazon River, and had lunch.  We spent that afternoon hiking to some nearby hot springs.  The hike was gorgeous, following the ridge of the valley, and descending to a modern, but still high and very narrow suspension bridge.  As we crossed the bridge, a local Sheppard decided to come across the bridge in the opposite direction.  I squeezed along one side of the bridge as first about a dozen donkeys made their way across, followed by a large flock of sheep, and finally four cows.  We continued to follow the river until we reached a stone bridge where we crossed over to the springs.  I was a little disappointed to find that the hot springs had been converted into a cement swimming pool, and opted for a lovely walk along the Colca River instead of swimming.  After hiking up to another nearby town, we then returned to Chivay for the night.  That evening, we went to a local tourist restaurant, where we were entertained by an Andean band and traditional dances.  During one of the songs, the dancers came into the audience to recruit dancers.  When one of the dancers began to haul me up front, I said that I didn't want to dance, but that I would go up if I could play with the band.  The next thing I knew, I was manning the percussion section.  I can now say that I have realized my dream to play with an Andean band (although their drummer didn't seem exactly impressed with my skill).  Auntikiki, we'll have to have a jam session when I return.


The next morning we were up with the dawn to visit the deepest part of the canyon and to hopefully see Andean Condors.  We followed the river as it entered a deep canyon (supposedly one of the deepest in the world - if you measure from the snowcapped peak along one of its sides, it is over 3000 meters deep), to the area known as Cruz de Condor.  There were gorgeous views of the canyon and the terraced farms on the steeps slopes lining the river valley all along the way, with the winding Colca River far below.  When we arrived, there were a ton of tourists already there, but when the condors made their appearance, it was all worthwhile.  It started with two or three condors, barely visible along a distant ridge, trying to catch the first thermals of the day.  As the rocks continued to warm in the beautiful Andean sun, more condors began to appear from the depths of the canyon, steadily gliding back and forth below us, slowly gaining altitude.  Soon, they were at our level, effortlessly cruising past the silent crowd of tourists, casting sidelong glances at the throngs taking pictures of them.  They were spectacular, with massive bodies and wingspans easily greater than six feet.  We must have seen about 16 or 18 condors, many of which cruised no farther than twenty feet from where we stood.  They continued to ascend with the thermals, and soared and circled in the skies above us.  After watching them for about two hours, they had gained enough height, and dispersed over the hills, searching for food.  We drove back towards Chivay, stopping several times along the way to view the river valley and the terraced landscape.  There were birds of prey all over the place, and I saw kestrels and falcons, hawks and even an Andean Eagle.  At our last stop, we hiked about an hour into the hills to see the ruins of a pre-Incan village.  The natives had built all the terraces that are still used today, and lived in rather impressive stone houses.  Following the Incan conquest, their lives changed little, but when the Spaniards arrived, they forced the indigenous people to live in towns where they could exploit the native labor in silver mines.  To chase the locals from their homes, the Spanish would burn their homes.  The roofless walls we wandered through are known as "The City of Ash" is remembrance of the Spanish conquest.  Today, the stone walls that are left are still in remarkably good condition.  Tour groups don't usually visit the ruins (it was actually by special request that our guide allowed us to hike up to the ruins rather than visit another hot spring), and it was magnificent to wander alone through the impressive structures high in the Andean hills.  Walking around, I could still find pieces of pottery and now green bits of copper and chips of obsidian, testaments to the cultural and geologic wealth of the region.  We located some of the old burial sites, and our guide explained the mummification and burial processes of the period.  Following the hike, we drove back to Arequipa, during which our van began to have electrical problems.  The engine stopped a couple of times, and we all had to get out and push the van to restart it.  About half an hour out of Arequipa we finally made it to a service station where we waited for about an hour while Lucho, our driver, tried to fix it.


Safely back in Arequipa, we returned to our hostel, and I spent the next two days lazing around with Claire and Darren in the warm sun.  After my little break, I bid farewell to Darren and Claire (I will likely meet Matthew, Lucy and Gwen in Cuzco), and took the overnight bus to Cuzco.   After a 14 hour bus trip, I arrived in Cuzco, and spent the day researching the local attractions.  I will likely spend several days in Cuzco, and at some point hope to venture to many of the nearby ruins, including Machu Picchu.  We are entering the rainy season here, though, so I hope the weather holds out.



Northern Peru (Oct. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 8:15 PM by Gerick Bergsma

Since I do not exactly recall what I covered in my last update, I will start with what I know is a bit of a backtrack.  My last stop in Ecuador was the small town of Vilcabamba, a lovely village in the Andean foothills near the Parque Nacional Podocarpus.  My original plans to trek for several days into the national park and the nearby Reserva de Las Palmas (home of the spectacled bear and lots of birds) was thwarted by a bad hotdog, and instead I spent several days nursing several gastro-intestinal maladies.  As I mentioned in the previous message, I spent the down time enjoying the warm sun on a hammock on the veranda of my cabana, relaxed by the gurgling of the river Yambala and the distant braying of donkeys.  I was fortunate to befriend several people during my stay.  Charlie, the expatriate American who owned and ran the Cabanas Rio Yambala, where I was staying, provided countless stories of Incan gold hidden in the mountains near town, while his young son seemed to have limitless imagination as he told me of the time he had stolen a charging bull's horns.  The lady who ran the restaurant took pity on me, and provided me with copious amounts of mint tea (she said it was good for the stomach) as I watched her serve delicous looking meals to the other guests.  One night, when I was feeling a bit better, she even made me a miniature pizza so I would not feel left out as everyone else ate their larger versions.  Sergio, the neighbor, part-time guide, and fill-in-receptionist when nobody else was about, told me all the things I would have seen in the park had I gone on the trek as he stretched the hides over the drums he made to sell to tourists, and even played "El Condor Pasa" (one of my favorite tunes) on a flute that he had made (Auntikiki, I know you are picking up the harp, but don't give up the pan flute).


It was at the Cabanas Rio Yambala where I also met Joshua, the San Diegan biologist who had been travelling South America for seven months, and was preparing to return home.  As I began to recuperate, Josh and I took several small hikes in the hills around the cabanas and down into town.  The hikes were quite enjoyable, and we were subject to wonderful views of the valleys and mountains surrounding Vilcabamba, and enjoyed breathtaking sunsets and rainbows from the nearby ridges.  Josh and I had a lot in common, and spent hours talking about things ranging from graduate programs in biology and surf breaks in La Jolla to places to go in South America and various hallucinogenic plants to avoid (or in his case experience) while there.  When I discovered that he was heading south to Peru to catch his flight home from Lima, I decided to travel with him.


I was feeling much better (although a bit of Imodium added to my self confidence), so we started the long bus journey from Vilcabamba to Loja to Macara where we crossed the border to Peru and continued to Piura, where we spent the night.  The border crossing was remarkably easy, and the road filled with pilgrims as we cruised the Peruvian night.  We arrived in Piura, and after the taxi took us to a dark alley where we changed some dollars into soles, we stayed at the Hostel California.  Josh and I claimed the last room, where we were warmly greeted by several of the resident roaches.


Piura is a nice town, and although we only spent a couple of hours exploring it the following morning, I got a good walking tour of the center of town.  One of the several bridges across the river through town had been washed out, so a steady line of people waded through its brown waters to cross into the main business district.  After coming out of a series of somewhat remote Ecuadorian villages, it also seemed remarkably modern.  The attractions of Piura were not enough to warrant a long stay, though, so we boarded a bus bound for Trujillo, a coastal city several hours south.  We arrived late that evening, and after a taxi ride, we found ourselves in Huachaca, a seaside suburb of Trujillo.


We stayed at the Hostal Nylamp, a pleasant little hotel/campground across the street from the beach, right at the edge of town.  Sandro, the Italian who along with his French wife operated the hotel, greeted us, and prepared us a wonderful italian dinner (Arianna, Che Cazzo!  I had to come to Peru to get good homemade Gnocchi!).  At the hostal Nylamp Josh and I met an English couple, Mathew and Lucy, who we quickly befriended, and made plans to explore some nearby ruins with.


The next day, Josh and I explored Huachaca.  The small town hugs the coast, and its heart and soul is the beach along the main street.  A small pier marks the center of town, and Josh and I started by trying our luck along with the local fisherman on the end of the pier.  Josh bought a small hand line with hooks, and bait was donated to me by some seasoned fishermen who thought it rather amusing that the two gringos wanted to fish.  Neither Josh nor I had any luck, but it was kind of fun to toss the handline, and it was rather interesting to watch the number of vendors who came by selling cake and snacks to the fishermen on the pier.  After a few casts I was distracted by a pair of fishermen nearby.  Their heavily weighted line had a large treble hook on the end which they apparently would drag through the sandy bottom and catch ghost shrimp.  Their skill was amply shown by the large basket full of shrimp.  I'd never seen shrimp caught with hooks and line before, but it obviously worked for them.


After our morning fish, we walked along the shore where the net fishermen were returning on their tortora reed "caballito" rafts.  It looked so peaceful rowing around on their caballitos, bobbing up and down on the surf.  One of the fishermen was repairing his net nearby, so I began to talk to him.  He told me how everyday he would row several hours out to sea and leave his nets.  Left overnight, he would then return the next morning to retrieve his catch.  When I asked him if I could borrow his caballito and try rowing around a little bit, he smirked, not even looking up from his net, and said, "It's dangerous."  Undaunted, and quite certain of my boating abilities, I told him that I was certain that I could handle a caballito, and that I did not intend to venture far from shore.  Still, he did not want to let me use his raft, saying that they were very unstable and that the currents were pretty treacherous.  When I asked him if I could rent his caballito from him, he suddenly looked up and smiled, and said that for ten soles (a little under $3) I could row around for half an hour.  I guess somehow the danger had suddenly disappeared, because afterwards, although I think he thought it a little odd that a gringo wanted to ride a caballito, he was now quite eager to send me off to the surf and current.  I was not dressed for a row, so we made arrangements to find him later at his home, and I went and changed. 


When Josh and I returned to find the fisherman, we met his son, who josh had met earlier that day.  His father had told him that we would come by, and he took us down to the beach where the family's three handmade caballitos were stored along the embankment.  The son explained to me that the newer caballitos were very unstable, and as such, for a beginner he recommended the older caballitos.  What he meant was that the older caballito was waterlogged, weighed a ton, and that he didn't mind having the gringo mess it up a bit.  It took all three of us to drag the caballito to the water, and as I straddled the reeds in the shallow water, I was handed the paddle, a five or six foot piece of bamboo split lengthwise.  They shoved me off into the sea, and I paddled valiantly into the oncoming surf.  I must admit, the waterlogged reeds were rather stable, I only nearly tipped over a dozen times or so, but the added weight meant that rowing was VERY slow.  I paddled and paddled and paddled, looking back to see how far I'd gone (not very far).  As I reached the surf break, the waves started crashing over the boat, nearly knocking me off each time, but the buoyant reeds just bobbed right up.  As I got farther from shore, I noticed the current carrying me down shore.  So as not to strand myself too far from my point of embarkation, I chose to head into the current, paddle as far as I wished and then have a nice relaxing drift back.  I turned into the wind with my little caballito lightly bounding over the waves; I dug my bamboo into the water for the push forward.  Ten minutes later I noticed an anchored float next to me that had been well behind me before.  I picked the pace up a little bit, pulling my little caballito with forcefull strokes of bamboo.  It was me against the elements, Gerick vs. the Pacific, and much like the ancient mariners before me, I continued to lose.  The anchored buoy continued to inch its way ahead of me, and the waves seemed to bat me about in mockery of my attempt.  I strained to match the current.  My hands began to ache as they clutched the strip of bamboo, and my feet, dangling in the cold water, began to grow numb.  I kept paddling and kept paddling, finally reaching a point where the anchored buoy no longer seemed to increase its lead.  I continued paddling, pretty much remaining in the same position, for the rest of my half hour row when I finally turned towards shore and a bit of rest.  The sea decided to reward my efforts, and as I crossed the surf break, my little caballito caught a wave, and I surfed the rest of the way into shore, where I had to laboriously haul the heavy caballito the several meters I had lost to the sea, back to where I had put into the water.


Josh, apparently quite impressed with my attempt, greeted me onshore.  The fisherman's son also greeted me, and soon had hauled out another caballito.  In a matter of minutes we watched him nimbly maneuver over the waves, and far out to sea (farther than I had gone in half an hour).  He then turned around, and came back in, playing in the surf, and even surfing one wave while doing a handstand on his caballito.  I still claim that it is because he used the newer raft, but I'll keep practicing.


After a lazy evening and a restful night, we arose the next morning and along with Matthew and Lucy, ventured to the Temples of the moon and sun, the massive adobe constructs of civilizations considerably older than the Incas.  The two temples, the two largest adobe constructions in the world, were massive, and we toured the excavations of the heavily deteriorated ruins.  Murals were still visible on some of the walls, and we saws the well preserved sacrificial platforms where countless victims had lost their lives in attempts to stop the rains (rain and a culture dependent on adobe don't mix) that eventually led to the end of the Chimu empire.  From there, we continued to the ruins of Chan Chan, the adobe city of the Moche, who followed the Chimu.  The city sprawls over an immense area, and for miles in each direction you see the eroding walls of the ancient city.  We toured the partially reconstructed complex that housed one of the important families, and could only imagine the throngs of people that must have once wandered the intricately carved alleyways of the adobe city. 


That evening, in an amazing bit of coincidence, we ran into two of Josh's friends from San Diego.  They had started their travels at the same time, and had tickets on the same flight back, but all three had gone their separate ways.  Now all three of them, fresh from their travels, met in one random evening as they returned to Lima for their flight home.  We spent the evening swapping travel stories, and the next morning we said our goodbyes as they proceeded to Lima, and I detoured to Huaraz.


Huaraz is a lovely town high in the Peruvian Andes.  After the all night bus ride, I was greeted with the morning sun glinting off of the snowcapped peaks surrounding the city.  After a brief rest in the room I rented from a local family, I decided to take a tour of the area north of Huaraz.  Our first stop was an ice-cream shop, an indication of the commercial nature that our tour would follow, after which we continued to Yungay, a town at the foot of Huascaran, the tallest mountain in Peru.  In 1970, the area was ravaged by a large earthquake.  Most of the city of Huaraz was destroyed, as were many nearby villages.  The earthquake triggered a lahar on Huascaran, and the rapidly flowing mud and rock buried the entire town, killing most of its approximately 18,000 inhabitants. Apart from the cemetary, located on a hill overlooking the former city, where the only survivors sought refuge, and the crumbled remains of the church tower, nothing is visible of the once quaint town.  A large statue now overlooks the site, and palm trees mark the location of the town's plaza.  Combined with the devastation wrought in surrounding areas, the earthquake claimed a total of about 30,000 lives.  In testament to the resiliency of human spirit, the town of New Yungay is now perched on the hill opposite the cemetery.  In testament to the human lack of forward thinking, the town's secondary school and several outlying communities are built on the flats left by the flow that turned an entire town into a mass grave.


The tour continued up to a canyon that separates Huascaran from another nearby peak.  Nestled in the canyon is a spectacular alpine lake, whose crystal blue waters reflected the glacier topped pinnacles towering on each side.  I spent several hours hiking alongside the lake and admiring the spectacular panorama.  We returned down, and stopped first at a candy shop and then at a souvenir shop, both part of our tour.  We got back to Huaraz late, and I dined with a gentleman (another San Diegan) that I met on the tour.  The next day I took another tour to Pasto Ruri, a large glacier south of Huaraz, and a popular destination for Peruvians visiting from Lima.  I was the only non Peruvian on the tour, and felt ill prepared with my rubber boots and fleece sweater compared to the snow suits and mountaineering boots that most of the other tourists had rented.  The bus climbed the steep dirt road to the 5000 meter glacier, stopping along the way to sample water from some natural springs and see the lovely countryside.  When we arrived most of the group charged up the paved trail to the main access area where many of the Peruvians had their first experience with snow.  I had heard that there were ice caves nearby, and asked our guide about them.  After telling me that they were off limits and that she could lose her license if she took me there, she told me how to get there, and I trekked of on my own in the crisp mountain air.  Having been at sea level two days before, the 5000 meter altitude took its toll.  I was huffing and puffing my whole way up, but when I reached the first of a set of alpine lakes, it was all worth while.  I followed a small stream through the desolate landscape, reaching the top of a ridge leading to the glacier, and turned around to see the entire mountain range spread before me.  As I turned around, the precipitous glacier loomed ahead, with an ice lake at its base.  Near the lake, the blue glow of the ice cave, and snowfields beyond.  I didn't venture too closely to the ice cave, but could certainly appreciate its size and the beautiful icicles that decorated its interior.  I hiked along the ice lake to some smaller caves, and continued along the snowfield for about an hour towards the area where the others had gone to frolic in the wintery playground.  I arrived at the paved trail just in time to wander back down to the parking area, enjoying the downhill climb the whole way.  Although I had felt well all day, upon reaching the van I began to get a terrible headache that I think was the result of high altitude.  We returned to Huaraz, and on the trip back, I swapped stories with Ivan and Franco, two Limeños who had just seen snow for the very first time. I boarded another overnight bus, and by morning arrived in Lima.


Everything I had heard about Lima before arriving was negative.  I had read and been told that the city was old, dirty, and crime ridden.  Every body I had spoken to had said how much they disliked the city, and the guidebooks warned of abhorrent crime and poverty.  Having heard so much about the city's dark side, I had purposefully planned to spend little time there.  I was actually shocked to find that I rather liked Lima.  The days that I was there, I spent mostly walking around the enormous city.  When I first arrived, my first order of business was to buy a belt, as after a month and a half on the road, my trousers were beginning to fit a bit loosely, but then I began just wandering around town.  I spent much of the first day wandering down the busy pedestrian street Jiron de la Union.  Lots of shops and restaurants lined the street giving it a distinctly European feel.  For lunch I had tamales sold out of a large garbage bag by nuns raising money for their monastery (you know me, anything to help them support their habit), and ate while listening to the enchanting music of two street musicians, one playing a flute made from PVC pipe.  I can't believe I spent an entire summer up to my armpits in PVC, and I never realized the possibilities!  I wandered down to a square where large banners and throngs of people protested president Fujimori, and continued to the central plaza where lines of police in full riot gear filled the alleys alongside the presidential palace.  Peru is currently in a bit of political unrest, with the recently reelected president Fujimori (who changed the constitution to be reelected) coming under severe attack for supposedly rigging the election.  He has consented to hold reelections in a month, in which he will not run, but many want him to leave office immediately.


I paused in front of the presidential palace for a short time, and admired the presidential guard, dressed in their colorful blue and red uniforms.  As I stood there, I witnessed a not so ceremonial changing of the guard; a far cry from pomp and crowds of Buckingham.  Two spear carrying guards followed a sword carrying officer, high stepping their way towards the main doors of the palace.  The two soldiers did not exactly march in unison, nor were they particularly intent on continuing the high step as several times they broke cadence and walked to catch up to the quickly walking officer.  The two spear carrying guards then walked up the stairs to where the two guards being relieved stood.  The guards being relieved were obviously quite glad to be relieved, because as soon as their replacements arrived, they both began a high stepping race down the stairs towards the officer at the base.  They walked ahead of the officer, who then said something to the soldiers, causing them to swing around and look at him.  The guard in the rear, shouldering his spear, swung around, and would have hit the officer in the head with his spear, had the officer not quickly ducked out of the way and grabbed the spear head with his hand.  After exchanging a few words, the two guards and officers then quickly walked away, forgetting the ceremonial high stepping, with the two relieved guards beginning to remove their uniforms before they even arrived at the guard's quarters.


That evening, Ivan and Franco, who had just arrived back from Huaraz, decided to show me around town.  We started by walking around the plazas near the congressional building, and then they decided to take me to Miraflores, a trendy neighborhood of Lima.  We caught a taxi, and soon arrived in an obviously posh section of town, replete with elite country clubs and overpriced bars and restaurants.  After a short walk, our first stop was a mall, housing restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and a Tony Roma's rib house.  Ivan and Franco wanted to take me to see the bowling alley, a game they had never played, where each game cost about $20.  We went to the end of the mall that overlooked the nearby beaches, and decided to walk down the bluffs to the rocky beaches below.  After a short nighttime walk on the beach, we returned to the central Lima, and I prepared to depart the next day.



Southern Ecuador and El Oriente (Sep. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 7:28 PM by Gerick Bergsma

I have begun to question modern medicine.  Sure it has lengthened our lifespan, and improved the quality of our lives immeasurably, but what has it really done?  Other than fatten the pockets of drug company owners and buy new lab coats for thousands of chemists in sterile labs nationwide, the little white pills we pop do little more than many natural products.  What if I told you that for less than a dollar, you could cure just about every ailment known to man?  I know, because I have been introduced to a new and wonderful product, Indian Cat Claw!  I boarded a bus leaving Quito, bound for Ambato, when a short mustached man climbed up the stairs, and forever changed my views on human health.  He introduced himself to the crowd of southbound bus passengers, and then entered into a 15 minute tirade touting the virtues of the miraculous cream that he peddled including demonstrations of many of its uses.  Made from the finest ingredients (I can only hope that "cat" didn't refer to tiger), this eucalypt smelling ointment could cure rheumatism, swelling, muscle pain, headache, sinus pressure, flu, chest pains, back pain, sore eyes, deafness, altitude sickness, sore throat, cough, indigestion and upset stomach (among many other diseases and sicknesses I couldn't quite understand).  Plus, as a special promotion from the lab that produces Indian Cat Claw, the passengers on the bus could enjoy all these healthful benefits for only 60 cents per tin, or get two for one dollar!  Of course, during his animated demonstrations, he waved the open canister in front of my face so many times that I had already inhaled a large dose of the aromatic mixture, and felt no need to purchase any more.  I have to admit, I have felt quite healthy ever since.  Move over snake oil.


My bus ride continued for several hours beyond the medicine man's preaching, and I was quite amused by the myriad of vendors that climbed aboard at each stop.  Most were vending snacks and drinks, and kept me well entertained well past Ambato to my final stop, Baños (Jeff, you are still El Jefe, Baños is awesome!).  Baños is a lovely town at the foot of Tungurahua, a volcano that had seen its most recent activity about a week before my arrival.  Unfortunately, the activity had ceased by the time I arrived, but the town was spectacularly set amidst lush mountains and numerous waterfalls.  As soon as I arrived, I set out across the river Postasi, up a small footpath into the surrounding hills.  I walked for hours, enjoying the lovely pastoral setting and watching the indigenous farmers descend by foot and burro-back into town with their wares.  I think that I walked a little farther than most tourists, though, as I also got a good look at the city's dump.  At first I noticed a delta shape leading from a cliff wall towards the river and thought it was a landslide, but then I saw the garbage trucks backing right up to the cliff, and dumping the trash directly into the river!  I returned to town with enough daylight left to climb to a statue and cross perched high atop another nearby hill, from which I was rewarded with beautiful views of the town, several waterfalls, and a lovely sunset.  That evening, I befriended Timoteo, a native Shuar who worked in the hotel.  I originally approached him to ask if he had any insight into any of the guided trips that were offered in town.  He knew nothing about the town or the mountains, but instead we spent the evening talking about the rainforest where he lived, and told me how I could reach the Amazon quite easily from nearby Puyo. As I sank into bed (quite literally, the next morning the mattress was in the shape of a V, but I guess I can't complain for $1.50 a night with private bath) I was already quite excited to continue my explorations the next day.


Morning came, and I made my way to the home of Angel Aldaz, a local guide who leads horseback trips into the mountains.  He was going to take me into the hills at the foot of Tungurahua, at the edge of the Parque Nacional Sangay, and hopefully to some good views of the volcano.  We saddled up, and started our way through town.  Mr. Aldaz, though, seemed quite fond of speed, and kept trying to get my horse to go faster and faster.  I know that I am the son of an equine veterinarian, and the brother of an award winning equestrian, but I honestly am a terrible rider.  I was holding on for dear life, trying to keep my feet from going through the stirrups.  We galloped out of town, through the nearby sugarcane fields, and up the first hill to a waterfall.  By this point my horse was extremely sweaty and tired, and we stopped at the falls to rest.   Mr. Aldaz seemed quite proud of the fact that we beat all of the other tourists to the falls, and watered the horses while I clamored up the rocks around the falls.  As soon as another group of tourists arrived, though, he was ready to be on the saddle and continue on our way.  We continued up a steep road into the surrounding countryside, with my horse complaining the whole way.  It apparently didn't like the weight it was carrying, and refused to go faster than a slow walk.  This, of course, only elicited continuous prompting from Mr. Aldaz to go faster.  At one point my horse stopped, turned to look at me as though it was saying "you have got to be joking," and refused to continue.  Mr. Aldaz then decided it was time to switch horses.  The other horse, much younger, and probably not so wise, started at a gallop up the steep incline, and soon tired itself out, and we settled for the walk up the rest of the mountain.  We stopped at a lookout high over the city, which, except for the cloud cover, would have yielded wonderful views of the volcano.  We rested until we saw another group of tourists passed us on the trail, at which point we again galloped up the mountain to pass them.  The views were spectacular despite the obscured volcano, and we descended another narrow and very steep trail back into town.  The rocks on the trail did not prove to be adequate traction for the horses, though, and several times my horse seemed to uncontrollably gain speed descending down the narrowly twisting path.  Eventually we would stop, followed by the horse looking at me much like the first horse had looked at me coming up the hill, and then it would only hesitantly continue after much prodding.


The next day I prepared for the jungle.  I bought some rubber boots, a poncho, toilet paper, and a liter of cooking oil, all the things that Timoteo had advised me to bring.  I was going to stay at his father's house, and Timoteo had given me explicit directions on how to get there, take the bus to Puyo, from puyo get on the bus going to Macas, and get off at Kilometer 48.  Armed with that knowledge, and a letter of introduction from Timoteo to his father, I hopped on the next bus bound for Puyo.  Now I know that every traveler has a story about public transportation (heck, I just related the story about the Cat Claw salesman), but the trip to Puyo warrants special attention.  It started normally enough.  The lady with the chickens was seated behind me, alongside a group of gossipy teens.  The two young men in front of me thought they were rock stars, singing along with all the American songs on the radio, usually in their own incoherent versions of the English lyrics.  The gentleman across the aisle from me was extremely annoying, simultaneously holding conversation with Aquavino, a man four rows up, arguing with the driver over his choice of radio stations, fighting with the gossipy girls behind him who he crushed when he reclined his seat, loudly stating his political views over the dollarization (more about that later), and arguing with my seatmate about having his window closed.  In his only act of consideration towards any of the other passengers, he did offer his suitcase (which he had placed right in the center aisle) as a seat to a boy who was standing in the aisle way.  The boy later decided that my knee would make a comfortable pillow, and fell asleep with his head on my lap.  Despite the characters seated around me, I was quickly absorbed in the beautiful countryside we were driving through.  The road to Puyo follows the river Postasi, descending through the river valley into the Oriente beyond.  Much of the time we were on narrow stretches of dirt road, occasionally interrupted by even narrower stretches with vertical cliffs up on one side and down on the other.  In many of these sections there was evidence of past rockslides, and we forded several streams along the way.  The best part came when we literally drove through a waterfall that cascaded onto the roadway.  I suppose it saved the driver a bus wash, but it made me seriously question the integrity of the roadbed.


I finally made it to Puyo, and boarded the bus to Macas.  Slightly less remarkable than the drive to Puyo, but I was a little apprehensive, as my only directions were to exit at Kilometer 48.  I told the driver, and the man seated in front of me (a tour guide who claimed to have hosted Neil Armstrong when he visited Ecuador), and both were very helpful. Fortunately, it happened that Domingo, one of Timoteo's brothers, was aboard, and I made it to Kilometer 48 with no difficulty.


At kilometer 48 stood a house, surrounded by miles of nothing.  Domingo and I walked through the fence and across the bare dirt into the kitchen building opposite the road.  Inside the kitchen building, I met Ernesto Vargas, Timoteo's father, who welcomed me to his home and introduced me to his three eldest sons, Domingo, whom I'd already met, Jaime and Jose.  He never introduced the women who sat behind him, chewing on roots and spitting them into a bucket, nor the several children that stared at me through various windows and doorways.  A guinea pig scurried across the room.  I gave Ernesto the letter from Domingo, who handed it to one of his sons to read to him.  They talked in their native language and laughed a little bit, and then I sat and talked with Ernesto and his sons for a while.  He explained to me that the 'community' consisted of Ernesto, his two wives, and most of his 20 children.  Timoteo, the oldest child, lived in Baños, and Jaime spent most of his time in Puyo, where he was studying to become a teacher.  The other children, ranging in age from 2 to 20, scurried about in various stages of dress doing their chores around the house.  The Shuars were originally known for their fierce warriors, and their practice of shrinking human heads, but now live a more sedentary life.  The community-family had been given a protectorship by the Ecuadorian government of over 14,000 hectares of pristine rainforest, where they mostly farmed and collected their food from the forest.   Ernesto was obviously quite proud of his expansive back yard, and told me about how he had built a school for his children, and had a German scientist that studied the local wildlife.  He appointed his son Jose as my guide, and sent me off for an afternoon walk through the forest.


Let me first say that although "rainforest" is a term loosely applied to many types of tropical humid forest, it certainly applied to the forest we were in.  We were no more than ten minutes into our walk when the downpour began.  I was soaked in a matter of minutes, but in the humid lowlands, it was actually rather refreshing.  I wish I could say my wallet (with my money and passport) could say the same.  No problems, though, I was wearing the rubber boots that Timoteo had advised me to bring, and my feet were dry, at least until I stepped into a mud thigh deep.  Despite the wet and very slippery terrain, the secondary forest that we walked through was lush gorgeous.  Jose pointed out all sorts of medicinal plants and plants for "visions about your future" which I politely declined.  He told me that I was the first American he had ever guided, and that in one of his own "visions" he had seen himself guiding an American and speaking fluent English.  He continued to demonstrate the English he knew, and we continued teaching each other bits of English and Shuar.  The goal of our walk was a viewpoint from where the Postasi River valley stretches before us with a background of faintly visible volcanoes.  The forest stretches for as far as I could see, without so much as a hint of any form of civilization.  Directly below us, the river's route had left a horseshoe lake, after which the unspoiled grandeur of the primary forest spread into infinity.


It continued to pour on us, so we retreated to the small school, and the residence of a German tourist staying in the area.  We then returned to the Vargas home, where I was served a VERY filling meal of two kinds of Platano (Plantain), Yucca (a starchy potato-like root) and Potato.  The Shuars apparently ate very starchy meals, and seemed to know only two methods of cooking, frying and boiling.  Later in the afternoon Jose took me to some nearby ponds where his brothers were fishing.  They caught several small fish, and they gave them so me to take back to the kitchen.  My first contact with the women of the family was to take the fish to them and tell them to cook them (which the brothers thought was very funny).  Our second meal that night consisted of some bits of fish, more platano and yucca.  I then settled under my mosquito net for a nice sleep.


Morning came, and I was greeted by a beautiful sunny day.  Jose was not up yet (he had gone to a cousin's birthday party in a nearby community and was quite hung over), so I spent the morning playing with the family's parrots that ran around loose in the front yard, and refused to leave anyone alone.  I also admired their collection of guinea pigs (for Cuy), chickens and ducks (for similar purposes).  They seemed rather amused when I told them that my family also owned chickens, but that we did not eat them.  Several of the older children were playing soccer and most of the younger children were staring at me when Ernesto approached me and offered me a large gourd full of Chiche, the drink that the women were preparing the night before by spitting chewed bits of root (something similar to Yucca they told me, but more bitter) into a pot.  He told me that this was fresh, and was often drunk before long trips into the jungle as a meal, but that usually it was allowed to ferment.  I tasted it, and almost coughed the luke-warm ooze back up-I really can not describe the taste-but with the entire community now staring at me, I felt obliged to slowly drink it all down.  Despite my dread at having to consume another bowlful, my drinking of the first bowl was apparently a sign that I liked it, and they continued to offer me prodigious amounts throughout my stay.  I would usually force down one bowl, and then politely decline.  After a couple of bowls, while I can not say I liked it, I grew tolerant of this very unique drink.


When Jose arose, we departed into the forest.  We were to hike into the jungle, and spend the night in a Cabana in the forest, then return the next day.  They told me that it was an easy hike, and that passage to the Cabana was only a two hour walk (to be read to the tune of Gilligan's island).  We started through some farmed areas the family kept behind the house, passed through some narrow stands of secondary forest, and soon entered the primary forest beyond: absolutely spectacular.  The trees towered around us, with vines descending into the understory around us.  Everything was lush and green, and the continuous sound of insects and birds gave brought the entire forest to life.  We really did not see much wildlife, other than an occasional bird, insect, or iguana or armadillo hole, but the scenery was gorgeous.  We continued up the path a little ways to a stream, where landslides had obscured the trail, so we walked along the stream for a ways.  We then climbed up the bank and descended a steep slope towards another stream.  We then climbed up another very steep hill, cutting our way through some dense underbrush.  This continued for another three hours, struggling up extremely steep slopes, and sliding down the other side, hacking our way through the jungle, and climbing over fallen trees and up river banks, before Jose finally told me that we had lost the trail.  Not a problem, though, he knew the jungle.  We had already snacked on some fruit that he had found on the way, collected sap from a tree that he could use to start a fire, smeared termites over ourselves as insect repellent (termites by the way can also be used to treat athletes foot), and had seen countless plants that could cure anything from machete wounds to menstrual cramps. We continued to wander the jungle, until eventually we found the trail.  This proved little better than wandering the trailless jungle, as the definition of a trail seemed to be any area where the mud was too deep for trees to grow.  We slipped and slid our way down the tractionless path, which was only made worse with the downpours that again began.  At one point, it began to rain so hard that Jose cut down a palm tree with his machete, cut off all the leaves, and constructed a make-shift shelter where we waited for several minutes.  We then continued through the soaking rain, and after five hours of walking, we finally made it to the Cabana.  While I tried to dry out under the small section of non-leaking roof, Jose ran into the forest and collected platano and heart of palm for dinner.  He then started a fire under the floor of the cabana, and we cooked and ate a delicious soup of palm, with fried platano (spiced with a VERY hot pepper that he found).  WE collected rain water for our tea, and used what sap remained after starting the fire to make a small torch for light.  We were truly living off the jungle.  Jose had brought nothing but a change of clothes, a blanket and a machete, and collected everything we ate and drank from the forest.  It therefore surprised me when he pulled out a GPS unit.  He handed it to me and said that it had been donated to the community by the German scientist, but that nobody knew how to use it.  He asked me if I could tell him how far we were from the house.  One of the waypoints already programmed into the unit was the house, so after finally getting a reading, I was shocked to discover that it had taken us five hours to traverse a three kilometer straight line distance!  It was still raining hard, so we settled under the small patch of dry roof, and he told me shuar legends into the night.  We slept on the bare wood floor, out of which crawled some of the largest cockroaches I have ever seen, with a chorus of insects and the sound of raindrops as our lullaby.


The next morning, we again woke up to a beautiful sunny day.  As Jose prepared our breakfast of platano and squash, I wandered about the forest near the cabana admiring the fascinating array of insects.  Most of you know my fetish for birds, but even I have to admit that the arthropods were the stars of the show.  Beautiful butterflies, colorful locusts, giant cicadas, and some of the most interesting spiders that I had ever seen abounded.  I saw more different species of insects in that one morning walk than I think I had ever seen in my life!  After breakfast, we again departed for a short walk to a nearby waterfall.  We went down more slippery mud paths to a small stream that dropped into a narrow canyon with a beautiful pool at the bottom.  We waded along the stream a little ways, and then returned up more muddy paths to a nearby ridge, where we found a vine where we swung through the trees Tarzan style.  We stopped in a small clearing for a while for a nice snack of ants (they were actually quite refreshing, tasting a lot like lemon), and then descended to another, larger river with a large waterfall.  Our final descent to the large river followed the streambed of a small tributary, and ended with a small cascade of its own.  The only way down was to tie a rope to a tree, and use it to climb down the small cascade.  We repelled down the cascade to the bottom of the much larger waterfall, and bathed in the pool at its base.  It certainly provided the best water pressure I have had in South America, and the shower was quite refreshing.  Ironically I was as wet getting out of the river as I was getting in, but I felt much better having a cool shower under the waterfall in the humid heat.


From the falls, we climbed back up our rope, and started our hike back to the house, a much quicker trip than the hike out.  The forest has a much different character on a sunny day, and I enjoyed the scenery even more.  On the way back, Jose painted my face with a local plant (what is with natives and face painting around here?) whose color is most similar to an orange highlighter.  This time I did avoid consuming any of the myriad of hallucinogenic plants that Jose pointed out along the way, and did not try the small frog that he caught that he said was edible.


We returned to the house, and I stayed and had dinner with the family (a lot more Chiche, and more starch).  We then said our goodbyes, and I prepared to leave.  Jose decided to go to baños with me to see his brother, and reversing roles, I became his guide through the relative urbanization of Puyo and Baños.  He had been to baños once before, never any farther, and did not know where his brother worked, so we returned together, and I spent another night in Baños. 


From baños, I made my way to Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city, and one of its loveliest.  I stayed in a hostel across the street from the cathedral, and I spent my first day walking along the riverbank and exploring some Incan ruins and a museum nearby.  The ruins were not terribly expansive, but they were an interesting introduction to the archeological remnants I will undoubtedly find in Peru, and the museum was very good.  Later at the hotel, I discovered that the hotel owner had worked as an archeologist at the site I had visited, and he spent the evening describing the work, and telling me the significance of the various buildings.  The following day I explored the nearby towns of Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig.  All are pleasant towns in the mountains near Cuenca, although midweek, when I went, they are fairly quiet.  I enjoyed a nice riverside walk between Gualaceo and Chordeleg (where there are tons of gold and silver shops where local artisans use materials from the nearby mines), and spent most of the day just haplessly wandering about. 


Another night in Cuenca, and then I made the long journey to Vilcabamba, where I was going to explore the paramo of the Parque Nacional Podocarpus.  I stayed in a lovely place called Cabanas Rio Yambala, whose private reserve of Las Palmas is supposed to house several hundred species of birds.  I inquired about horseback excursions into the park, and spent a lovely night marveling at the fireflies twinkling all around the gurgling Rio Yambala outside the veranda of my cabana.  Unfortunately, the next day I was quite sick (I think the hotdog in the bus terminal the day before is the culprit), and spent the next several days chilling on a hammock on my veranda.  Quite a nice place to recuperate, admittedly, but I never made it to the national park.  The view from the cabana was lovely, though, and I still saw a number of birds.  I also went on a couple nearby hikes (never more than an hour or two from a bathroom) into the foothills around the cabanas and into town.  It was a gorgeous area, with lush hillsides and friendly people.  I fell in love with the town, and despite my illness, really enjoyed my stay there.  I also met Joshua, a San Diegan, who I am now traveling with into Peru.  Now that I am feeling a bit better, we have bussed from Vilcabamba to Loja, then across the border on a long bus ride to the Peruvian city of Piura.  We arrived in Peru already after dark, but the roads along the way were filled with people.  All pilgrims walking the enormous distance to a small border village, some from as far away as Lima!  We passed thousands of people in the night, and spent the night in Piura.  Today I hope to continue to Trujillo, and then the rest of Peru.

Galapagos (Sep. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 6:14 PM by Gerick Bergsma   [ updated Nov 19, 2008, 7:11 PM ]

It is sometimes interesting to stop and ponder the chain of events that lead to a particular moment in your life.  The millions of decisions you must make daily, the infinite events that are out of your control, all leading to a particular instant when you become aware of the pinball game we call life.  I found myself in such an instant, walking over an enormous lava flow on Santiago (aka James) Island in the Galapagos.  As I nimbly navigated the cracks and intricate folds of the Pahoehoe lava, I was talking to Rodrigo, a class III naturalist guide, and 26 year veteran of the islands.  Having read in my omniscient guidebook that all class III guides must have a biological degree and speak three languages, I was curious to hear his stories. 


"So Rodrigo, what is your degree in?"


"Literature," was the surprising response.


A little befuddled, I asked, "But I thought that Class III guides had to have a degree in biology?"


He replied, "Normally, yes, but since I have been guiding for 26 years, they let me take the level III test."


It certainly made no difference to me.  I was already in great respect for his biological knowledge, and had no idea that he did not have a degree in a biological field.  I was curious how a person versed in literature became a naturalist guide.


He explained, "Oh, I taught at a University for a while, but my ideas were a little revolutionary, and so I left.  I love the islands, and wanted to help improve my country.  Sometimes I wish I had a more useful degree for my field," and then added with a smile, "but I enjoy writing, and women LOVE poetry."


I certainly did not doubt him, I had personally seen him pick up three women at once a couple of nights before, but his mention of revolutionary ideas only piqued my interests more.  We stopped to watch some feral goats high on the volcano ahead of us, and turned around to a spectacular view of the cinder cones of Bartolome Island rising out of the bay and forming a lovely backdrop to the black plane we were traversing.  He continued to relate his story.  Growing up, he had never thought about working in tourism or studying literature.  He wanted to be a soldier.  He signed up for the army, and trained to be a commando for the very elite customs enforcement arm of the military.  He trained, and was, apparently, quite good at soldiering, for he made it to the final selection for the elite squad.  That is where one of those unavoidable and uncontrollable events altered his life.  He was eliminated from the final roster to make room for a general's son.  He was devastated.  Somewhat resentful, he was persuaded by a friend to join a militant anti-government group.  Rodrigo, a trained soldier, was now a revolutionary.  He was a little hazy in relating the details of what he did as a revolutionary, but it apparently was not looked favorable upon by the Ecuadorian government of the time.  The army hunted the group down, and his best friend (along with his entire family) was gunned down during a nighttime raid.  Having lost several friends in that manner, Rodrigo decided that perhaps being a soldier was not quite what he wanted to continue doing.


"All the great social movements," he explained to me, "were always championed by great writers."  So he decided that studying literature could help him promote the revolutionary cause.  The writings of Juan Leon Mera, he told me, were the principle cause for the upheaval that lead to the death of a former Ecuadorian president - a fine example of how the pen can truly be mightier than any sword ("my pen killed him," Mera would later write).  "The only problem is that all the great writers were exiled from their country, and when my mother told me 'don't do anything stupid' I decided to switch to poetry instead."


So now he finds himself on a century old lava plain, talking to an American student of zoology who feigns to know a thing or two about geophysics (I haven't picked up many women with that): two disparate paths leading to a singular moment.  I bent over to examine the glassine rock of a driblet cone, a bubble of lava frozen in time, a random, 100 year old event that added more to the depth of my experience.


I continued to ponder my own path and the paths of others later that evening as I skimmed across the oily midnight waters on the panga (dinghy).  The crew was taking me lobster fishing (poaching, rather, as I later learned), and as the celestial glow of the milkyway battled for my attention with the phosphorescent glow of the panga's wake, I wondered how each of the crew members had come to share this night with me.  Daniel, the captain, was regally posed on the bow, his strong features silhouted by the vault of stars, Chepo, the bartender, and Emilio, the engineer were jovially deriding Chino, the cook, whose lack of wetsuit and previous inability to catch lobster made him the center of much ridicule.  Finally there was Choclo, the dedicated panga driver.  I am not even sure he knew how to swim, as he never entered the water, but was quite adept at maneuvering around rocks in high surf even in the middle of the night.  They were joined by Napoleon, the first mate, and Juan Carlos, the cabin boy, who remained on the ship.  What an entertaining group that attended us onboard, and what stories they must also have to tell.


What I observed that night truly bordered on lunacy.  The divers, armed with nothing more than a mask, snorkel, and light dove into the churning waters, and darting around the many rocks foaming in the surf would dive down as deep as six meters to find their quarry.  When they caught one, they would shine their flashlight at the panga, and when we neared, they would throw the lobster into the boat.  My job that night was to catch the lobster and throw them into a bin on board.  About all I can say is that if you have never been hit by a flying lobster, try to avoid it, it rather hurts.  They swam, constantly diving, for over three hours.  As the night wore on, the wind picked up, and a light mist enveloped the island.  As the moon rose, I witnessed something incredible, a rainbow created by the moonlight!  It was beautiful, with subtle shades of silver-gray replacing the traditional array of colors.  With the increasing wind, however, came increasing surf, and the diving became even more treacherous.  Emilio was washed up on some rocks, and skinned his leg, and all of the divers had unfortunate run-ins with the poisonous black urchins.  Emilio and Chino came up with their arms riddled with black spines, and Chepo and Daniel had several spines on their head.  After returning to the boat, we spent an hour pulling out spines and burning the wounds with a candle (which supposedly eased the pain of the sting).  The suffering was apparently worthwhile, as we brought in over eighty lobsters that night.  As I administered Ibuprofen to the infirmed and listened to their accounts of reef sharks and manta rays encountered in the midnight sea, I again thought, what an odd chain of events that have lead each of us to this moment.


For me, the proximate path that lead to the islands involved a short flight from Quito, and an even shorter bus ride to Baltra Island's harbor, where I first caught site of the Sullivan, the 85 foot yacht that would be home for the next eight days.  I met the 15 other passengers that I would be living with, five Germans, four Dutch, two Swiss, a Norwegian, an Israeli, a French woman and finally Wes, the unspeaking American of Polish decent (five days in, we traded three Dutch, the Israeli, the French and the American for two more Dutch, three more Israelis, and a Belgian, effectively leaving me as the sole American).  Fortunately, they all spoke a little English, and some a little less Spanish, so when needed we could all communicate.  German, Dutch and Hebrew were most commonly spoken on board, and I never thought that I, speaking English and Spanish, would ever find myself in the minority in South American conversation.  They were a wonderful group, though, and I enjoyed getting to know them all.  More randomly converging paths; the passengers of the Sullivan were doctors, lawyers, reporters, translators, bank clerks, pharmacists, students, yet we all came together to share the islands, and explore one of nature's great wonders.


I quickly established myself as the ship's naturalist and translator.  I think that many had trouble understanding Rodrigo's accent, so they would often ask me their zoology, geology, or cultural questions (most of which I simply related to Rodrigo, who knew far more than I).  Being the most fluent in Spanish, I also quickly befriended the crew, whose stories and banter kept me very entertained.


For the sake of brevity, as well as to keep me from developing carpal tunnel syndrome too early into the trip, I will forgo the island by island recount.  In the eight days I was onboard, we visited Baltra, South Plaza, San Cristobal, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Bartolome, Santiago, and North Seymour Islands.  Each was unique and absolutely incredible.  On the islands, I saw innumerable sealions, dolphin, whale, frigatebirds, boobies, gulls, albatrosses, storm petrels, flamingos, penguins, herons, hawks, finches, iguanas, sea turtles, tortoises, lava lizards, snakes, crabs, giant centipedes, locusts, spiders and lots of other things.  I also went snorkeling at least twice a day, and say countless angelfish, parrotfish, pufferfish, surgeonfish, moorish idols, blennies, damselfish, triggerfish, coronet fish, bacalao, grunts, hawkfish, wrasse, scorpionfish, flounder, stingrays, golden rays, moray eels, octopus, conches, rock snails, cowries, cone snails (for the FHL folks, Conus brunneus and C. lucidus, Alan would be proud), littorines, oysters, mussels, barnacles, lobster, crabs, seastars, urchins, cucumbers, sand dollars, coral, jellies, sponges and the occasional sea turtle, penguin or marine iguana.  Basically, I was in heaven.  I must say, though, despite my sincerest attempt, I never saw a shark (they are supposed to be everywhere) while snorkeling.  Mr. Bernal, I think I have proven it was MY luck that prevented us from catching many sharks this summer (Although Heather, have you looked into adding four-eyed blennies to your study?  They are all over the rocks in some places here!  I think it might be a good collection site in addition to Australia.).  No chitons or foraminifera either (not that I was really looking for forams, sorry Peter), perhaps I should only study animals I don't wish to find later.


The cruise went wonderfully, though, and over the course of the eight days, I explored volcanic craters and lava tubes, coral beaches and spectacular reefs.  I was only too sad when we returned to Baltra Island, and I had to say goodbye to all of my new friends.  I returned to Santa Cruz, though, as I was going to stay a couple days in Puerto Ayora, the major city in the islands, and go scuba diving.  Most of the diving in the Galapagos is pretty technical, and due to my lack of experience, the dive shop recommended that I stay in Academy Bay, near the town.  I made two dives, both on a seamount called El Bajo.  Of the group I dove with, I was by far the least experienced.  One of the girls who dove with us, a local who worked at the dive shop, had only made about 15 dives, but had descended several times on El Bajo.  A Belgian lady who also came with us was nearing her 200th dive, and our French guide, Sevrik, was quite experienced with over 3000 logged dives.  Even his experience was usurped by the final member of our party, an American who owned a dive shop in Maui with well over 7000 logged dives.  Oddly, Jeff, the American, was originally from the San Juan Islands, and owns part of Spydel Island (the one with the African animals on it).  In fact, he told me he used to work at a dive shop in Friday Harbor (I'm not sure how many dive shops there are in Friday Harbor, but I suspect it is the one where you used to work, Cynthia), and told me how he worked putting in the pilings for the Edmond's ferry dock.  What a small world.  Anyways, the dives went wonderfully, and I saw tons of fish and inverts.  Sevrik was great at pointing out lots of interesting things, and we saw octopus, eels, rays, and the highlight for me, we got to swim with several sea turtles.  It was terrific.


The next day I met a biologist who told me that she would give me a tour of the labs at the Darwin Research Center.  I walked along with Rosemary, when she stopped at the fisherman's pier to talk to one of her colleagues.  It turned out that she was needed there to help monitor the fishermen's catches, and so I spent the morning with her sorting through that day's lobster harvest.  She explained the fishing regulations, and how locals were still allowed limited fishing within the marine reserve.  I refrained from comment as she mentioned that that the daily catch limit was 20 lobster, and actually felt quite self conscious when she showed me a map with a bright pink band, an area where fishing is restricted, right where I had been catching the lobster thrown at me a few nights before.  She was very friendly, though, and I learned a lot about the conservation efforts trying to maintain a sustainable fishery.  I assure all of my conservation minded friends at home that my poaching days are over, and I spent much of my afternoon picking garbage off of a beach near Puerto Ayora. 


After spending the rest of the day relaxing on the beach, my final adventure would come with trying to get back to the mainland.  It started with a visit to the TAME office, the only airline that services the Galapagos.  Run by the Ecuadorian military, TAME is the national airline, and a model for inefficiency.  I arrived at the office at 11:00 AM to reserve a seat for the flight back.  After waiting for an hour, I was notified that the office would be closing for lunch, and that we would have to return at 1.  No problem, I thought, I would come back at one.  One o'clock came, and after the office opened late, I was the first person in line.  The lady at the reservation desk was very helpful and told me that I had my spot reserved from the Galapagos through to Quito, but that I would have to pay a little extra for the Guayaquil-Quito leg of my trip.  No problem, I thought, as I handed her my credit card.  She then informed me that she could not accept payment, and that I would have to come back at two o'clock, when the ticket sales agent returned.  I returned later, and after waiting another hour in line, I finally paid for my ticket.  All I had to do was show up at the airport and have them issue me a boarding pass. 


Ten in the morning the day of my departure, I get on the bus that takes me to the ferry that takes me to the bus that takes me to the airport.  I arrive at the ferry to find that several bus loads of people were in line ahead of me and that only one small ferry was crossing to Baltra.  I had to wait another hour before I could cross the narrow channel and load onto the crowded bus that finally took me to the airport.  By noon, I was finally at the airport, waiting in line for my boarding pass and to check my luggage.  Lots of time for my one o'clock departure.  I get to the front of the line, and lady looks at my ticket.  "Where is your boarding pass?" she asks me, and when I informed her that the TAME office told me that I would be issued one at the airport, she points me to the ticket sales counter, and tells me that they will have to issue the pass.  I wait in line again.  I get to talk to the ticket sales lady who tells me that I have already purchased my ticket, and that I have to go back to the check-in counter and talk to a different agent than had originally helped me.  By this time I was ready to cut in line, but the guard carrying the machine gun gave me a rather stern look when I tried to advance to the counter.  I waited in line again.  Fifteen minutes to one and I finally get to the agent.  He looks at my ticket and then at his list, and tells me, "You don't have a reservation."  I assured him that I did, and that I had gone to the office in Puerto Ayora to be sure I had my reservation.  He looked at his list again, and told me to wait.  I waited until all the other passengers had checked in, after which, he finally issued me my boarding pass.  The flight was already boarding when I returned to the original agent, gave her my boarding pass and checked my baggage.  Rather frustrating, but I got onboard, and rather enjoyed the chicken nuggets and chicken wings they served as lunch on the plane ride back.


So now I am back in Quito, and will soon be heading south to Baños and Cuenca. 


Gerick Bergsma

Quito and Northern Ecuador (Sep. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 5:48 PM by Gerick Bergsma   [ updated Nov 19, 2008, 7:11 PM ]

I ate guinea pig today.  It is called Cuy around here, and it was described to me as "an animal like a rabbit," I imagine in an attempt to make it sound more appealing to the American palate.  I knew full well what it was, though, and ordered it anyway.  I guess I just didn’t expect it to come whole.  Something about seeing the little teeth sticking out through the sauce was a little unnerving, as it rested on its death bed of lettuce.  I admit it was quite tasty, aside from the little bits of hair that the chef couldn’t quite get off, and although it was heavily seasoned, it did indeed taste something like rabbit.


Cuy is just one of many typical dishes I have tried recently.  Ecuador seems full of unique meat dishes (those vegetarians out there might think twice before venturing into Ecuador), and my self appointed guides, Vaneza and Gabi, seem bent on having me try every one of them.  I can not say that I am unwilling, and they are certainly entertained by taking "pooh," as they call me, out to try the local specialties.  Vaneza and Gabi are the receptionist and the daughter of the owner of the hotel where I am staying, and are rather enthralled by the gringo staying at the Fer Reisen hotel.  Perhaps because, for a time, I was their only guest, they felt compelled to take me salsa dancing the first night I was here, and now to take me to every "typical" restaurant in Quito.


Quito is actually a very nice city, with lots of modern conveniences, and I have gotten to know parts of it quite well already.  My first day in town, I took a walking tour that lead me directly to the steps of El Panecillo, a large statue in the Southern end of town, where I recalled reading in several books that the steps of the Panecillo were the most dangerous part of town, and that tourists should never go there on foot.  I survived, and fled to a nearby market that I learned later was the second most dangerous spot in town.  The city is lovely, though, with a delightful historic center, and gorgeous views of Guagua Pichinche and Cotopaxi.


Ecuador’s true beauty lies in its wild areas, and I quickly learned that you do not have to venture far from Quito to see its splendor.  My first excursion took me to Pasochoa, an extinct volcano south of Quito.  I went with a groupof people I met through the South American Explorers Club, and I suppose it went about as well as you could expect an excursion with a poorly organized group with no leader could go.  We started off eating breakfast at a touristy coffee shop, and then 5 americans, 3 germans, 2 danes, a canadian and an englishman took taxis to the bus station where we were going to catch a bus to the town at the mountains base.  The station was pure chaos, and our first achievement was to leave one of the group members behind buying bananas as we scrambled to jump on hte already moving bus.  WE got to the town, and realized that I was the only person with enough knowlege of spanish to barter a truck driver to take us to the park entrance.  After bartering the driver toa bout half of his original price, I then got to sit up front with him and listen to his stories about how he got laid off and is barely making a living driving tourists up to the mountain while everyone else got to ride cattle style in the bed of the truck.  We got to the mountain, though, and the trail was gorgeous.  After an hour at 13,000 feet I was a little winded to keep up with the group that wanted to go to the sumit, so I slowed down and watched birds - absolutely spectacular.  The rest kept going, and by six that afternoon, our appointed meeting time to catch the truck back, most of the hikers had returned, not quite reaching the summit.  Three, however, had attempted to make the summit, and had not arrived.  We waited and waited, missing our bus back to Quito, and still they had not returned.  It was dark by the time we left and drove to another town to be able to catch the bus back to Quito.  We amassed back at the coffee shop to try to figure out what to do about the three lost hikers when they walked into the coffee shop.  Apparently, they decided to hike clear over the mountain, rather than return to where we started from, and walked to the next town where they caught a bus back.


The next day, not having had enough adventure the previous day, I decided to go to El Mitad del Mundo and visit the equator and Pululahua, a volcano to the north of Quito.  The monument at the equator was pretty cool, but that is where I met and hired Maricelo, my guide to Pululahua.  On the bus ride to the crater, he told me about how the volcano had not erupted for hundreds of years, and how they had had a magnitude 7 earthquake there about ten years before.  The earthquake was not all bad, he explained to me as the bus veered around a motorcycle carrying a family of five, it happened at night, and he got to see all the women in town in their night shirts as they evacuated their houses.  We got to Pululahua, and could not see a thing from the crater rim, as clouds obscured everything.  We decided to descend into the crater for a better view.  On the way down the steep trail, he pointed out various plants the native people used.  He picked some berries off of a vine, ate one, and gave one to me to eat.  They tasted something like blackberries, and he then told me that they were hallucinogenic.  Seeing the look that must have been on my face, he quickly assured me that it would take several berries for it to affect me, he then warned, if I ate about ten of them I would probably die.  He picked a couple more berries, and used them to paint my face and arm, signs that I was "a visitor," a tourist more likely.  We descended a little farther, until we had a spectacular view of the crater, and the farms of the 100 or so families that live on the crater floor.  They have lived there since before the conquests, Maricelo told me, and carry their produce on their shoulders up the crater to trade and sell their goods.  I could barely make it up the incline just carrying my daypack!


The next day I hired a driver to take me to Mindo, a town northeast of Quito, and about half way down the mountains to the coast.  We stopped several times along the way, hiking up to some waterfalls, and bird watching.  I saw some of the most incredible hummingbirds I have ever seen!  We started off on a nice highway, but on the advice of another birdwatcher, we diverted onto what could best be described as a poorly maintained logging road.  After reaching a small town (pop. 3, all elderly, but they had two stores in town), the road quickly deteriorated to nothing more than a very bumpy off-road adventure.  We eventually reached Mindo, and spent the night in a very nice Cabana, with my outdoor bed facing the nearby stream.  I fell asleep listening to the gurgle of the stream and a chorus of insects with the lantern bugs lighting up the trees like it were Christmas.


In the morning, we got up to a wonderful view of Guagua Pichinche from the opposite side as Quito, and after a breakfast of instant coffee and bananas, we drove up another very bumpy road to a trailhead that lead through the forest to a waterfall.  The forest was absolutely gorgeous, and the falls spectacular.  I had to climb down a rather precarious ladder made of branches to reach the bottom of the falls, and was so excited to get a picture of the falls, that I fell into the river.  No worries, though, I just made sure my camera was dry, and went swimming in the pools above the falls.  After drying in the sun, we returned to town where we hired another guide for an inner-tube ride down another river nearby.  Our guide didn’t seem to like to talk much, but I did learn that this was his first time as a guide just before we hit our first set of rapids.  My faith in his abilities was slightly encumbered by the fact that in that first set, he ran our lashed together inner-tube raft right into a large boulder - my head first.  Apart from a bit of a bump on my head, the rest of the river went smoothly, and I had a blast. 


From there we returned back to Quito, where I find myself now, waiting for my flight tomorrow morning to the Galapagos.  I will keep you all posted as to my whereabouts and activities as my trip continues.  As a postscript, I realize that my messages are often long, and if you would prefer not to receive these updates, please let me know.  Otherwise, you will probably hear from me every now and then, with equally long descriptions of my travels.




Gerick Bergsma

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