We had one “free day” worked into the schedule while we were on Santa Cruz, and like before, that didn’t mean “do nothing day”. My aunt had a whole list of things that we could see on the island without a tour, so we plotted a route and headed out for another very long day.

Here’s the location of Santa Cruz in relation to the other Galapagos Islands! It’s the second largest island, about 20mi/32km wide x 25mi/40km long.

Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos archipelago and is a “shield volcano”, like many of the other Galapagos islands. This means that there wasn’t an explosive eruption that formed it (exactly what it sounds like/what you likely imagine when you think “volcanic eruption”). Instead, there was an “effusive eruption” which means that low-viscosity lava flowed steadily for a period of time. Since the lava is extra “flowy”, it spreads out farther and results in a land mass with a much more gradual slope than would result from an explosive eruption. So lava steadily accumulates in layers, building a short and flat-ish island, called a “shield volcano” because it has a similar shape to a round shield lying on the ground.

It’s a very ecologically diverse island, the only one in the Galapagos with six different vegetation zones. I was amazed once again by the difference between the coastal areas and the highlands, but we’ll get to that later. Anyway…

On the way to our first official stop of the day… Puerto Ayora had some very thematic Christmas decorations. I guess the reindeer get a little help from the locals when delivering presents to the islands!
Also, I know that I wasn’t at the birth of baby Jesus, but I don’t know about this rendition… Sea lions, frigatebirds, tortoises, and blue-footed boobies? (Also, the green and brown stuff on the ground is broken glass. There’s a lot of interesting recycling happening on the islands.)

Our first stop was the local fish market. This is where the fishermen bring in their catches, and there are big, concrete tables where they’re sorted and prepared for sale. If you like fresh fish or lobster, this is the place to be. I personally don’t like fish, fresh or otherwise, but I do always enjoy watching people at work (in a totally non-creepy way), skillfully going about their business. The major tourist draw is the photo op, of course. The fish attract all kinds of critters hoping for scraps… sea lions and an assortment of birds that hang around and, if they’re feeling especially cheeky, try to snatch fish right off the tables. The fish attract the birds, the birds attract the people, and you’ve got yourself a crowd!

Lobsters! Lobster fishing is strictly regulated in the Galapagos. The season lasts from September 1 – December 31 each year. These are red spiny lobsters and are the variety most commonly found in the Galapagos.
Taking pictures of tourists taking pictures of this lady doing her job.
Sea lion trying to get some pity scraps. This lady isn’t buying it.
Breaking the two-meter rule (only once, I promise!)
Blue heron near the fish market
So pretty!
I liked his reflection
This pelican was loitering as well

We weren’t there at prime time, so things were pretty quiet. That was fine with me! When everyone was ready to move on to the next adventure, we headed for the dock. Our destination was “Las Grietas”, or “the cracks”, which is a deep crevice that was created when the lava forming the island cooled and contracted. This particular crack falls at the junction of an underground river and the sea, so it’s filled with brackish water (mix between fresh and saltwater). There isn’t a large, clear passage to the ocean, but there is enough space for water and fish to trickle in. No sharks, though!

We passed this funky house on the way to the dock!
No clue what this kid was doing, but apparently we were all entertained by it (pic by my uncle)

The only way for a human to get to Las Grietas is through a boat ride/walking combination. You can’t drive there. You can’t walk the entire way. You can’t boat the entire way. You take a water taxi from the main dock in Puerto Ayora, cross the harbor, and walk about 30 minutes from there. You can also take a boat a liiittle farther and save yourself maybe 15 minutes of walking, but then you still have to walk the final stretch.

We passed these salt mines along the way! Saltwater comes in with the tide and fills the area, and after the water evaporates, people harvest the salt that gets left behind (you can see the white rings of salt around the pools in the picture).
With my aunt and cousins and some pretty flowers we passed on the walk (pic by my uncle)
Las Grietas! (The first pool)

Las Grietas is about 330ft/100m long and consists of three “pools”. As I researched, it seemed like everyone (everyone who seemed even mildly adventurous, that is) agreed that you should absolutely go all the way to the third pool. My uncle, cousin, and I geared up in our fins and snorkels and headed down a set of wooden stairs to the first pool. This is the biggest one (at least in my estimation), and it’s crowded because that’s as far as most people go. Not us! There’s not much to see in the first pool, so we swam to the end pretty quickly. From there, we climbed over a section of slippery rocks (only falling once… eh, maybe twice… but always very gracefully, of course) into the small, rocky, shallow second puddle (it’s way too small and shallow to be called a pool, so I’m amending the name). If I didn’t know better, I would have thought we’d reached the end. But no.

To reach the third pool, you can either climb over some large boulders or swim about 5 feet through an underwater “tunnel” beneath them. The tunnel route is way easier, but at the time, we didn’t know that was an option. (I think it’s semi-common knowledge, so I’ll take the blame for that intelligence failure.) We only found it by chance. At the rocky transition from the first pool into the second, I tossed my fins ahead so that I could use my hands as I crossed over the rocks… and when I reached the puddle, one of them had vanished. Uh oh. They’re bright orange floating fins, so I knew it had to be on the surface, but then why couldn’t I see it?? After some minor panicking and intense searching, I found it wedged between two rocks. There was clearly a current that carried it there, and a quick peek underwater revealed the tunnel! So, it was two exciting discoveries in one. I got my fin back, and we found an easier route into the third pool! My uncle had already scaled the boulders to get there… whoops! But at least the return trip was easier.

Well, it was quite the journey, but we finally made it to the third pool. It’s slightly smaller than the first, but we had it all to ourselves. It was awesome. The water was incredibly clear and calm, all the way to the bottom, maybe 10-15ft (3-5m) down. As soon as we passed that last boulder wall, it was like the world around us ceased to exist. Underwater, the silence was the ear equivalent of being in a pitch-black room. And then the fish! Everyone said that there’s not much to see underwater, but I disagree. Sure, there were no sharks or turtles, but there were a few schools of BIG fish cruising around… like at least a foot long (30cm), and many of them were probably bigger than that. The best part was that they were almost completely unfazed by us. I dove down and swam along next to them. They looked surreal… like they were mechanical fish or were too three-dimensional to be real. And just the general ambiance… I don’t know exactly how to explain the feeling, but from now on, if I need to imagine a place where I feel completely at peace, I’m going to be there, suspended on the surface of the clearest, quietest water with hyper-realistic fish gliding by.

We had the pool to ourselves for a while, and it was glorious. By the time another group showed up (and completely shattered the serenity), we were about ready to go anyway. We made our way back under the boulder, through the puddle, over the slippery rocks, across the first pool, and up the stairs (which were now about a million degrees after baking in the sun… and I had no shoes at the bottom so that was really great planning on my part).

Me with my bright, floating fins
Loving life. I didn’t bother taking my waterproof case-equipped phone, so all of these pictures were taken by my uncle or cousin
GIANT fish hiding in the rocks along the edges of the third pool. I glimpsed something light as I swam by and got in closer to investigate. I’m a terrible estimator, but he MUST have been more than 2 feet long (60cm). I think. And I know I said that I didn’t take any pictures, but for this one, I borrowed my cousin’s camera and got right up in this fish’s face because it was too dark to see it very well at the time, and I really wanted to know what he looked like.
Just looking at this picture is making me all sorts of calm
Okay just one more picture (also because I have practically no pictures of me from this entire trip, so here are 90% of them in one go, all with me looking especially cool in my snorkel)

From there, we walked to the water taxi stop and then boated back to town. The water taxis, by the way, are hilarious. The ride back to town went something like: get on water taxi, stop by a boat anchored in the harbor, pick up empty water jugs, drive to another boat, pick up person, drive to another boat, drop off empty water jugs and pick up bag, drive to another boat, drop off person, drive to dock, give bag to person waiting on dock, let off passengers. I never understood what was going on, but I was always entertained.

After a quick stop at our hotel, we headed back out in search of a (regular) taxi to take us to the highlands. On Santa Cruz, people generally go to see two things in the highlands: a tortoise sanctuary (of course) and a pair of craters called Los Gemelos. Fredy, our taxi driver, suggested that we visit Los Gemelos first, and I figured he knew better than any of us since he’s probably taken people to both places a million times.

Los Gemelos, or “the twins”, are two craters formed by collapsed magma chambers. What are those? When lava is flowing, it flows fastest at the middle. The lava at the top and edges cools and hardens more quickly while the lava beneath continues to flow. Eventually, the eruption stops, halting the supply of lava and leaving behind empty space beneath the hardened lava. This can take the form of a tube-like cavity (lava tubes) or, in the case of the craters, large, open chambers. At Los Gemelos, through a combination of erosion and seismic activity, the unsupported lava above the chambers became unstable and collapsed, forming the twin “craters” that you can visit today.

This sign by the craters roughly shows their shapes/relative sizes. I read somewhere that the larger one (I assume?) is about 1 mile in diameter (1.6km) and 920 feet deep (280m).
In the surrounding forest (pic by my uncle)

None of us really knew what to expect from Los Gemelos, but they were really cool! It’s like being in another universe because they’re in the middle of the largest Scalesia forest in the Galapagos. This is an important habitat for tropical flowers like bromeliads and orchids as well as mosses, lichens (a fungus/algae mashup), and birds. It feels like you’re in the middle of the rainforest! Since the craters collapsed a long time ago, they’ve filled in with plants as well.

Impossible to fit the entire crater into one picture without a wide-angle lens or a panoramic photo
It’s super cool looking!
And then this forest… can you believe this is the same island where those barren salt mines were??
The tree to the right of the path in this picture reminded me of a giant spider. Eek! But the moss hanging off of those branches is the craziest thing!!
Pretty flowers in the forest
Framed fog
The density of the fog changed pretty quickly, but there were times when it was hard to even see the opposite side of the craters

After our hike around the craters, we loaded back into the taxi and headed to El Chato, one of the private tortoise reserves on Santa Cruz. It used to be a ranch, but for the last 20 years or so, they’ve been working to restore native vegetation and create a natural habitat for the tortoises (more about that in the next post!). Tortoises aside, they also have some lava tubes that you can walk through! It’s kind of creepy to think that you’re walking through a giant pipe where hot-enough-to-vaporize-you lava used to flow! But also… how cool!?

Lava tube entrance
Walking down…
This is weird. There’s a lower tunnel area where you can see my cousin walking ahead, and then there’s a layer of cooled lava and ANOTHER cavity above that. Very confusing looking.
The light at the end of the lava tube
I loved looking at the shapes of the walls!

Next time, we’ll talk about the tortoises at El Chato and some final Santa Cruz adventures!

Related Posts

San Cristobal Highlands – compare the Scalesia forest and lava craters of Santa Cruz to the highlands and crater lake of San Cristobal!

Kicker Rock – snorkel in the open ocean surrounded by some very NOT clear water (and probably over a bunch of sharks… eek!)

North Seymour Island – check out the weird bird life and barren landscape of North Seymour Island, just north of Santa Cruz

Following our two days of full-day tours, we “took it easy” with a “free” day that ended up being one of the most exhausting of all. We didn’t have an official tour scheduled, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have any plans. We hired a taxi driver to drive us around the island, doing the classic “highlands tour” circuit that goes from end-to-end on the island’s one major road.

We started in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, then visited the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado (tortoise reserve and breeding center), Puerto Chino (one of the many “world’s most beautiful” beaches), Laguna El Junco (lake), and finally stopped at the island’s oldest ceiba tree/treehouse before heading back to town where we had some other adventures on foot. Like I said, it was quite the day.

To give you some context…
We started at the blue house at the western end of the island, then we went to the Galapaguera (green), Puerto Chino (red), Laguna El Junco (blue), and the ceiba tree (yellow). After getting back to town, we walked up to the Interpretation Center and Cerro Tijeretas (purple).

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though! Our first stop was the Galapaguera, a tortoise reserve that was opened in 2003 to help rebuild the island’s tortoise population. There were originally 15 subspecies of Galapagos tortoise. Four of those are extinct, and all of them are endangered, mostly due to human activities. During the pirating/whaling days, it’s estimated that 100,000-200,000 tortoises were taken and killed for their meat and oil. In addition, non-native species were introduced that hindered repopulation. Rats, pigs, snakes, and army ants eat eggs and threaten hatchlings (as do some of the native birds). Goats and other large mammals compete with them for food.

Tiniest lil baby tortoises!! These could easily fit in your hand, maybe like 5″ (13cm) max in length.
Slightly bigger little babies
And these are big enough that you could ride around on their backs.

One of the things that saved many of these tortoise subspecies is their longevity. They live an average of 100 years with the oldest recorded living to 152! This meant that even with the many repopulation challenges, only a few tortoises needed to survive to make conservation efforts possible. Many of the islands now have tortoise reserves and breeding centers which aim to grow the tortoise populations by giving them safe places to mate and grow and eventually releasing many of them into the wild.

In the breeding centers, park rangers collect the tortoise eggs and simulate normal conditions while also protecting them from predators. They incubate the eggs, and after the tortoises hatch, they are kept in growing pens for their first few years of life to further protect them while their shells are still soft. After this vulnerable period, there are virtually no predator risks for the tortoises, and survival is just a matter of finding enough food. The amazing thing, though, is that they can survive for up to a year without eating or drinking! They have a slow metabolism, and they spend more time resting when there isn’t enough food. They also can store water internally for long periods, so they’ll drink a lot when they have access to fresh water and save it for later. (This is actually part of the reason why they were so desirable on ships because they could survive in the ship’s hold without needing food or water, allowing the sailors to have fresh meat at sea with little effort.)

This is where the smallest tortoises are kept until their shells get hard enough. I think they said the first 4 years? Or at least the first two. The fencing on top is to keep out predators, and at night, another cover with even smaller holes is closed as well to protect them even further. (pic by my uncle)
These tortoises were around 5 years old, I think. They’re maybe 1.5′ long (0.5m). Maybe.
This guy was a little freaked out by us. When they get scared, they pull their heads into their shells and use their arms to shield the opening.

We were lucky to arrive at the reserve just in time for feeding! The tortoises are fed twice each week, and the rest of the time, they fend for themselves by eating plants around the sanctuary. Usually, the tortoises are wandering around and you may or may not see many of them, but since it was feeding time, we saw them all! It was really interesting to watch them interact with one another.

This video shows a tortoise “fight”. The dominant tortoise is generally the one that can stretch out its head to be tallest, and you can see that happen in this interaction. Tortoises generally don’t make noise, so it’s just a silent challenge, silent fight, and silent retreat (well, aside from my uncle’s narration hehehe).

Enthusiastically eating that stalk
‘Get out of my way!” Mr. Tortoise says as he steps over his fellow tortoises.

While we’re at it, here’s one more video showing a tiny tortoise stuck on its back. Some of his friends tried to give him a hand, but ultimately, one of the employees came and flipped him back over.

After we were satisfied, we loaded back into the taxi and headed for Puerto Chino. It’s another SUPER BEAUTIFUL beach, supposedly one of the most beautiful in the islands, but I don’t know. They’re all kind of the same and all very pretty. We weren’t planning to go swimming, so I spent my time practicing taking pictures of sea lions, lava lizards, and this pretty yellow bird that kept flitting around.

Path to Puerto Chino. It’s very nice and paved, but hopefully you don’t need any shade along the way…
Cool as a cactus.
You’re supposed to keep 6 feet between you and any animals… but the sea lions do NOT make it easy.
We considered eating lunch at this picnic table, and then a sea lion came and plopped himself right on top.
Puerto Chino. What do you think about the beauty of this beach vs. the others we’ve seen so far?
I’m obsessed with the lava lizard facial expressions
This one is adorable
An American yellow warbler
He’s super cute too
And we’re definitely friends
Sea lion striking a pose at Puerto Chino

From there, we headed to Laguna El Junco, a volcanic crater lake that’s one of the only permanent freshwater supplies in the islands. Now, this goes back to what I mentioned in a previous post about the crazy diversity of landscapes on a single island. The lake is at 700m above sea level, putting it in the “highlands” category which means it’s green and damp and can be foggy while the coasts are simultaneously clear and dry. So even though the weather was beautiful in town, it was VERY foggy at the lake. Even so, we hiked up to see what we could make out through the fog.

At first, nothing. We couldn’t even see across to the other side! But the wind kept the fog moving, and we were lucky to get a few moments of decent visibility. The lake is about 300m wide, and it’s filled by rainwater. Birds like to swoop around and use the water to clean the salt out of their feathers. It felt like we’d stepped into another world! I was happy enough with being able to see the opposite side of the lake, but on a clear day, they say you can see nearly the entire island as you walk around the rim of the crater!

Path leading up to the edge of the crater
Looking back towards the parking lot. Look at the solid layer of fog at the top of the picture!
Plants around the edge of the crater lake
Little flowers by the lake
Frigatebirds!
Soaring around the lake
So cool!
Panoramic picture of the lake during the few seconds that the view was kind of clear
Cousins! (pic by my uncle)

We made one last stop on the way back to town, in the tiny settlement of El Progreso. This is the oldest surviving settlement in the Galapagos, and if you recall from the history post, it has a horrible past. It was a penal colony, and eventually, this guy named Manuel Cobos turned it into a sugar mill. He started treating the workers like slaves, and they ultimately killed him for his cruelty. Now, about 500 people live in town, and it’s also the home of the islands’ oldest ceiba tree! Ceiba trees aren’t native to the islands, but it’s assumed that this one was planted by some of the earliest visitors. It’s said to be ~300 years old which is possible but maybe unlikely because the first settlement attempt wasn’t until the 1830s. But who knows? It is monstrous: 131 ft tall (40m) with a 61ft circumference (19m).

There’s a bridge leading up to the treehouse

The tree is interesting enough just in itself, but it also features a treehouse! And it’s not your average built-by-a-kid treehouse. You can actually rent it overnight, and there’s electricity and wifi (the two most important things, of course), a loft with two beds, a kitchen, and a functioning bathroom (including a shower!). Craziness. And underneath the tree, there’s an underground room where I lasted about a minute before I started thinking about the fact that we were underneath a tree, and if the room collapsed, we’d be dead. So that wasn’t exactly my favorite part, but it was still cool.

Inside the treehouse. The beds are up in the loft, and the kitchen is straight ahead.
Check out that beautiful tree!
My cousin coming up from the underground cave
Not claustrophobic at all…
This is the garden outside of the treehouse. So pretty! (The treehouse is behind me to the right. You can see some of the tree branches sticking into the picture.)

That was the end of the highlands tour, but like I said, it wasn’t the end of our day! After the taxi driver dropped us off back in town, we walked to the Interpretation Center which has a bunch of information about the islands: how they were formed, their human history, the ecosystems and flora and fauna. It’s actually where I got nearly all of the content for my Galapagos History post.

Pelican!
Fishing. Wait for it…
…nom nom nom!
Admiring the pelican (pic by my uncle)
Sea lion baby!

From there, we walked up a nearby hill, Cerro Tijeretas, where you can get nice views of the town and other parts of the island. You can even see Kicker Rock from there! It overlooks a pretty snorkeling spot, and there are a lot of frigatebirds flying around because there’s a colony that nests nearby.

View from Cerro Tijeretas
Looking back towards Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
Frigatebirds from Cerro Tijeretas

This is supposed to be a really great snorkeling spot
Do you see Kicker Rock out there in the distance??

We also popped into a couple of beaches along the way, Playa Punta Carola and Playa Mann. They were fairly crowded because they’re public beaches close to town (especially Playa Mann). I guess if you’re looking for a beach vacation, that’s where you’d go? But I don’t think I’d recommend going to the Galapagos if you’re interested in just chilling on a beach. Save that for a less interesting place.

Playa Punta Carola (pic by my uncle)
I guess this beach is kind of pretty too

I was ready to collapse at this point, but my uncle really wanted to go to ANOTHER beach, Playa Lobería, to watch the sunset. We grabbed a taxi and got there only a few minutes before the beach closed, but that was enough time to look at some adorable little sea lion babies and take a few pictures of the sunset. After THAT, I really was toast. We got some dinner before heading back to our apartment, and I feel confident in saying that everyone slept like a rock that night.

Sunset!
Look at those clouds!
I understand why this beach is named after the sea lions
The tiniest little baby sea lion!!!! The mom sea lions go out to hunt and then come back and reunite with their babies by making sounds at each other. Even though you know they haven’t been abandoned, it tugs on your heartstrings to see such tiny babies crying out for their moms!
I suppose the sunset was worth the exhaustion
On the way out of the park
I’ll leave you with this…
The sea lions literally just go wherever the heck they want. This one was camped out waiting for the tourist information center to open.

Related Posts

Kicker Rock – experience another side of San Cristobal and snorkel in the open ocean!

Lake Bosomtwe – visit a crater lake in Ghana, the country’s largest natural lake

Zakopane – while we’re talking about lakes, go for a hike in Zakopane, Poland to one of the prettiest lakes I’ve ever seen!

In my mind, there are two types of vacations: the “lounging and relaxing” type (not worth going too far from home because you can lounge equally well anywhere), and the “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation” type (anytime you go somewhere new and interesting). A Galapagos vacation clearly fits into the latter category, and my goodness. By day two, I already felt ready for my recovery vacation!

We had another full-day tour, this time sticking a bit closer to “home” and exploring other parts of San Cristobal rather than visiting another island. We were staying in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the largest town on San Cristobal and the capital of the Galapagos. It’s at the western end of the island, and for this tour, we sailed up to explore the northern coast. This boat ride was MUCH smoother than the previous day’s since we stayed near the island rather than crossing open ocean, and I don’t think anyone was upset about that.

For context, this is San Cristobal
We started at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, went up to some spots along the coast south of the circle, and then went to Kicker Rock (in the red circle).
Our first glimpse of Kicker Rock as we headed past on the way to our first stop (warning: this is the first of MANY pictures of this rock)
You didn’t have to wait long for another picture of it… Spot Kicker Rock!
Those are some nice volcano rocks.
We also had a surprise on the way… DOLPHINS!!!! Excuse these terrible pictures but I was caught unprepared and tried my best
Not great, I know.
But DOLPHINS!

After about an hour, we made our first stop. The boat dropped anchor off the coast of the island, and we took a dinghy to the shore because the water was too shallow. There, we did our first “wet landing” which means that we had to get our feet wet, hopping out of the dinghy into the waves and walking up through knee-deep water onto the beach.

On the dinghy headed for shore. Are these not the most insane blues??
Site of our wet landing
I liked the color layers in this lava

One of the many cool things about the islands of the Galapagos is that even though they aren’t very big, they have some incredibly diverse landscapes. San Cristobal is less than 200mi2 (500km2), and sometimes it’s a beach, sometimes it’s like a rainforest, and sometimes it’s like the moon (official terminology). This was a moon stop. That is, if the moon was made of lava that flowed and then cooled and still looks like it could have been flowing five seconds ago. Seriously, it’s crazy! It’s not hard to look at the wavy lava formations and imagine it as molten lava because it looks like it was frozen in action. There are also these fantastic cracks in the ground which are almost exactly like how it looks in a cartoon when there’s an earthquake and you think “that’s so unrealistic”.

What the heck is happening with that lava?? It’s so cool. And so weird.
Panorama of the moon
Cartoon cracks
Don’t fall in!

I think the lava shapes are super awesome, and I was also in awe of the colors! There’s iron in the lava, and it oxidizes (like rust) and makes it turn shades of red/orange! Generally, the landscape is pretty barren, and I found it kind of eerie. It’s like looking back in time to a prehistoric age. Or like the moon (basically the same thing). And it was creepy quiet when no one was talking, aside from the sound of the wind and loose lava pieces clinking across the ground anytime someone accidentally kicked one. It sounds almost like if you tapped two pieces of porcelain together. Besides the lava, we saw a few birds and some cacti, but it wasn’t exactly a hot spot for wildlife.

Cacti with some SERIOUS spines
San Cristobal mockingbirds
They’re endemic to (only found on) San Cristobal Island!
Funky lava sculpture
Such cool textures!
These clouds are also fabulous
Lava lizard. He’s maybe about the length of a hand (well, my hand), and different varieties of these little dudes can be found running around most of the islands.
We cruised past these blue-footed boobies on our way to shore! Check out how crazy bright its feet are. They get brighter during mating season.
Cactus with weird red cactus fruits?
I believe that’s a frigatebird
Try to tell me that doesn’t look like the moon

For our next stop, the boat headed west (back in the direction we came) for a few minutes, and then we did the whole dinghy/wet landing deal at a beach, Cerro Brujo or “Witch’s Hill”, named for a craggy ash mountain at the end of the beach that I guess someone thought looked witchy? The guide said it’s one of the best/most beautiful beaches in the world… and then we also heard that said about at least five other beaches in the Galapagos alone. I’m no beach expert, but it seems like a tough call when every beach has the same deep blue waters and powdery white sand. But hey, I’m not complaining!

Wet landing at Cerro Brujo (pic by my uncle)
What do you think? Most beautiful beach in the world? I don’t know…
This feels like a painting

Beach views. And Kicker-Rock-from-a-distance views.

I spent our free time at the beach walking along the shore and admiring the birds. There wasn’t anything new, but we saw more oystercatchers which was exciting (I felt like such a birder because I knew exactly what they were), plus the usual iguanas and sea lions.

American oystercatcher!
Oystercatcher friends
Snoozing

Marine iguana, wiggling its way along the beach

It’s very entertaining to watch the marine iguanas walking. Plus, when they’re feeling defensive, they do this weird head-shake thing.

Sea lions aren’t the most land-graceful creatures
I guess it’s kind of pretty…
Scoping out my next shot (pic by my uncle)
Iguana!
Another lava lizard

Our final activity of the day was snorkeling at Kicker Rock, aka León Dormido, a formation about three miles (5km) off the coast of San Cristobal. Here’s the extent of my understanding about its formation: hot magma escaped from the sea floor, and when it collided with the cold ocean water, it caused an explosion. This formed a volcanic “tuff cone” (a cone of compacted volcanic ash) that was then eroded for thousands and thousands of years by the sea. Today, there’s a two-peak formation, about 500ft (~150m) tall from the ocean floor with a channel between the two visible rocks that’s about 60ft (19m) deep.

Kicker Rock. You can see the channel super clearly from this angle.
It doesn’t look nearly as intimidating in the sun!

The names are things that people think the rocks look like. Kicker Rock is because someone thought it looks like a boot, and León Dormido, or “Sleeping Lion”, is because someone thought it looks like a sleeping sea lion. I think these “someones” were a little kooky. (Also, there was a beach near where I lived in Peru called León Dormido, and that mountain/rock also looked nothing like a sleeping sea lion. My conclusion is that this is just a default Spanish name for rocks near the sea.)

León Dormido
and León Dormido? I guess I can kind of see it, but no.

Kicker Rock is known for hosting a great diversity of sea life: tropical fish, rays, sea turtles, sometimes sea lions and marine iguanas, and a few varieties of sharks including hammerheads. So, why is this location such a hotspot? It’s a combination of things… the strong currents + the ocean depth + a big, solid structure in the middle of the ocean = a disruption in normal water movement and the stirring up of nutrients that are usually found in the deep sea. The deep-sea nutrients end up closer to the surface and attract sea life.

This provides an especially cool opportunity for snorkelers because it puts some deep-sea diversity within reach and makes it feasible to snorkel somewhat in the open ocean. I was mostly excited about this… but I was also mildly terrified. Okay, confession time. I have an irrational fear of sharks. I mean, it’s semi-rational because yes, sharks can be dangerous, but it’s irrational because I don’t like going in the ocean AT ALL unless the water is clear. And that’s so that I can get myself out of the water ASAP if there’s a shark in sight (yes, in my mind, I can outswim a shark). The concept of WANTING to see a shark while being IN the water is not one that my fear can comprehend. The tour guide said that there are always sharks there, but whether you see them or not depends on the water clarity. I assume other people were excited by the high probability of a shark sighting. I was just anxious, and almost paralyzingly so. But I didn’t want to miss out on something because I was scared, so I told myself that I had to get over it. Did I? Well… get over it? No. Persevere through it? Yes.

Unfortunately for us, the currents were kind of strong, and the water wasn’t especially clear. The boat dropped us near Kicker Rock, and we swam our way around the formation. Visibility was decent for maybe 10 feet, and most of my energy was spent trying to move forward, not get pushed into the rocks, and not get pulled too far away from them. I’m a good swimmer, but it was a lot, especially if you’re also trying to look at things as you go!

Sea turtle!

I didn’t handle the currents nearly as gracefully as this sea turtle…

Since the visibility wasn’t great, I mostly spent my time looking at the little fish and plants and stuff (clearly I’m no marine biologist) that were on the rock. The colors were amazing, and I imagined I was swimming past little fish neighborhoods. I also saw a couple of sea turtles and a faint shadow beneath me that looked like a ray. The worst thing was that there were TONS of tiny jellyfish. I’m 99% sure that the guide told us they didn’t sting, but that was NOT true. It wasn’t super painful, but I kept feeling sharp pinpricks on my face and arms. Wonderful. It also was a little disconcerting to not be able to see the bottom of the ocean (personally not a fan), and it absolutely didn’t help with my shark fear. Focusing on the rock helped me to keep my bearings and feel slightly less adrift.

Jellyfish! These were not very big… maybe about 3″ long (8cm)
Turtles are friends.
Oh to have an underwater camera! (I had my phone in a waterproof case. And I was also nervous that I was going to drop it to the bottom of the deep blue sea, never to be seen again. Even though it was attached to me by a lanyard. And my hand’s death grip.)

Here’s some footage of the fish neighborhoods!

These look like they’re just bubbles, but I’m almost positive that they were little fish. I called them bubble fish. (I’m a GREAT namer, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Not super clear, but these were my favorite little fish. Not the one that’s most obvious in this picture, but if you go up a little, you’ll see a smaller fish with similar-ish coloring (blue head to yellow, orange, and a pink tail).

When we were nearly all the way around the formation, the guide delivered the “good news” that the currents weren’t too strong to keep us from swimming through the channel. Oh, goody. Did I mention? The channel is where the sharks like to hang out. Thought stream: “EEEE! Deep breath. Stay with the group. No sharks want to eat you. Go for the eyes and gills. You can swim faster than most of these people. You’re okay. Don’t think don’t think don’t think.” I did it. It was not great. I couldn’t see anything which made it infinitely worse because there were almost definitely sharks, they almost definitely knew where I was, and I had no clue where they were. Nope nope nope. Not my favorite experience. The good news is that I didn’t get attacked by a shark, so at least my irrational fear took a slight hit (it likes to tell me that if there is a shark in the area, it WILL attack me. Now we’re down to “it MIGHT attack me”).

Anyway, after we swam through the channel, the boat picked us up on the other side. My nerves were about spent by that point, and I couldn’t get out of the water fast enough. Plus, I was tired of getting zapped by jellyfish. And just tired. Everyone seemed to be on the same page because we rode back to town in near silence, and after we got back, I sat around like a potato until deciding on an early bedtime.

With our guide after getting back (pic by my uncle)

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Travel day! Travel days are always kind of the worst, but the ACTUAL worst is when they start with a pre-6AM wake-up. People aren’t supposed to wake up that early! And you can never get to sleep early enough the night before to offset those lost morning hours because of last-minute packing. Our alarm went off at 4AM. DEAD. That’s how I felt when I opened my eyes. Mom and Dad had an 8AM flight (WHY), so we planned to leave the hotel at 4:45 to get to the airport three hours before. It always feels like overkill, but at the Lima airport, sometimes you really do need it. It turned out that the airport wasn’t busy, but there was a taxi mix-up that thankfully wasn’t disastrous thanks to our time cushion.

At the airport, I said a half-asleep goodbye to Mom and Dad, they headed off to the States. and I spent a few drowsy hours in the airport food court until I could check in for my flight to Ecuador! My final destination was the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific that’s known for its wildlife, but my trip there was a multi-day journey. The plan was to fly to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, explore the city for an afternoon, spend the night, meet up with my cousins and aunt and uncle the next morning, and then fly the rest of the way to island #1, San Cristobal!

I guess there’s no hiding that these pictures are from around Christmas…

Guayaquil doesn’t have the best of reputations. I planned my flights to have at least a few hours to wander around the city, and while I was looking for things to do and see, all sorts of articles with titles like “Why You Shouldn’t Visit Guayaquil” came up. Okay, not terribly encouraging. There were also plenty of articles with tips on how to not get robbed or scammed. After reading enough of them to feel like I had a handle on things but not so many that I was totally freaked out, I concluded that I’d be fine as long as I took official taxis to and from the airport (which you should always do anyway), left my valuables behind while walking around, stayed in the tourist parts of town during the day, and maintained a general awareness of my surroundings. Aka be smart. I wasn’t worried.

I don’t have a ton of pictures of the city, unfortunately, because I was a little extra cautious about how much I had my phone out. So we’ll just have to make do with the ones I did take.

Anyway, like I said, Guayaquil (wai-ah-keel) is Ecuador’s largest city. It’s located on the banks of the Guayas River, about 40 miles (64km) upstream from the Gulf of Guayaquil/Pacific Ocean and is the primary port city of Ecuador. According to legend, the name comes from an indigenous chief, Guayas, and his wife, Quil, who lived back when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1530s. They both fought valiantly but were captured. Guayas tricked the Spanish by promising to lead them to great riches if they were released, and instead, he used the opportunity to kill Quil and then himself, preferring death to imprisonment. When the city was first established, it was given the full name of “Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de Guayaquil”, the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of Guayaquil, named after Guayas and Quil as well as St. James (Santiago).

Throughout the colonial years, the city was attacked many times by pirates and privateers (which, to my understanding, are basically gentleman pirates… They did the same things as pirates but were commissioned by different governments to attack and plunder their enemies. So, French and English privateers would have attacked Spanish colonies, etc.), and you can still visit a fort at the top of Cerro Santa Ana, a hill in town, and see the cannons that were used to defend the city.

Cerro Santa Ana, a hill that you can climb up for a nice view… if you don’t mind walking up 444 stairs. At the top, there’s a tower that you can climb (just a few more stairs) for a panoramic view of the city and the fort/cannons that I mentioned.

In 1820, Guayaquil declared independence from Spain and operated as an independent province until 1822 when it was forced to join the newly formed Colombia. In 1830, the southern part of Colombia split off to form Ecuador, taking Guayaquil with it. Today, it’s Ecuador’s largest and most important city economically. Most of the country’s international imports and exports pass through its port, and its rapid industrial development has attracted people from rural areas in search of work.

This is part of a monument outside of City Hall that commemorates the secret meetings that let to Guayaquil’s independence. Also, totally unrelated, but the City Hall is called the “Muy Ilustre Municipalidad de Guayaquil” aka the “Most Illustrious Municipality of Guayaquil”. I’m telling you, they really know how to name things in the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of Guayaquil.

In recent years, city leadership has prioritized urban renewal and infrastructure projects, working to grow Guayaquil’s commercial districts, tourism to the city, and international business. There have been massive improvements to the roadways, a large pedestrian bridge project to promote tourism to Santay Island (an island on the Guayas River where over a hundred species of birds have been recorded!), updates to public transit, and various projects meant to create a safer and more welcoming downtown area. One such project, lauded as a great success in urban revitalization, is the Malecón 2000, a 1.6-mile-long (2.5km) river walk featuring monuments, river views, playgrounds, gardens, and more.

Malecón views
What. A. Tree.

I landed in Guayaquil around 1PM, took an official taxi to my hostel, and enjoyed a minute of A/C before heading back out into the million-degree heat. I was in “blend” mode, so despite feeling like all of my skin was going to melt off, I wore pants and jammed my phone, room key, and a couple of dollars into the waistband to avoid having to carry a purse. I was on high alert for pickpockets, but everywhere I walked was in the tourist center, there are cops all over, and I didn’t feel unsafe for even a second.

The Malecón is really well-done. I started with a walk through the Malecón Gardens, and it was a bit jarring to see how different the flora is from Lima. It seems like it should be similar… two cities on the Pacific coast, not too far from one another. But Lima is a subtropical desert, and Guayaquil is a tropical savanna which means that for at least part of the year, there’s a lot of rain (the “wet” season in Lima is mostly just misty).

Sometimes I look at things like this and think I should have studied landscape architecture.
I can’t deal with this color explosion. What cool plants!!!
Duck pond in the gardens

After all of the negative “don’t go there/it’s not worth it” articles I found, I was pleasantly surprised by how many things there are to do in the city. I actually regretted only having a few hours there because I had to contain my sightseeing to a small area, but I have a long list of things to see if I ever find myself there again.

I stuck to the center of town, and another major “must-see” is a plaza called Parque Seminario. It features a statue of Simón Bolívar, one of the main liberators of South America. He and José de San Martín (who, if you recall from our walk through Lima, is one of the liberators celebrated in Peru) had a famous meeting in Guayaquil in 1822 to discuss the future of independent South America… but it sounds like, while they had great respect for one another, they didn’t agree on much beyond liberation. I’m actually not quite sure what the meeting accomplished except for maybe a conclusion of “let’s agree to disagree”.

Simón Bolívar
Parque Seminario

Anyway, Bolívar has the honor of watching over the famous iguanas of Parque Seminario. Yes, that’s right. Iguanas. They’re native to the area, so while it seems like a weird low-budget zoo, they weren’t brought in for the sake of amusement. That’s just where they live. My gosh, though. It is WEIRD to see a bunch of giant iguanas in the middle of the city. The biggest ones are up to 5’ (1.5m) long!

It seems like a perfectly innocent city plaza until…
… BAM! Iguana!
Iguana!
Iguana!
“Giddy up, Mr. Iguana!” – Mr. Pigeon
I couldn’t quite figure out the relationship between the birds and iguanas. They seem like they just ignore each other completely, even while standing on each other.
I felt like this guy and I had a connection
Look at his little dinosaur face

I took a video of one of them because I think they’re such funny creatures:

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Guayaquil is also on the square, and while I would have loved to go inside, there was a massive crowd out front… I think there was a wedding going on.

It was getting late when I left the park, so I grabbed some dinner and went back to my hostel to relax and prepare myself for the busy week and a half ahead! Next time, off to the Galapagos!!!

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Last time, we left off on the side of the road after being released from the world’s craziest colectivo. (This time, get ready for a long post and lots of pictures!) The driver dropped us off across the street from our next destination, Q’enko (ken-koh), a large and formerly important rock. “A rock?” you ask. Well, yes, but this is no ordinary boulder. It is limestone and is what’s known as a “karst” landscape, or an area of soluble rock that has dissolved over time to create an irregular formation. Or so I’m told.

Q’enko in all of its karst glory.
Q’enko is the rock on the right, above the grass, and Cusco is in the distance.
Sikllakancha. Nope, I don’t know what it is. But those are some nice rocks, amirite?

Q’enko is not the original Incan name for the site, rather it’s the Quechua name (Quechua is an indigenous language commonly spoken in the Peruvian Andes). That’s the case for many of these sites, with the original names either lost or in disuse. Anyway, the Quechua name, meaning labyrinth, twisted, or zig-zag, has been around since the 1800s. There is, as you can probably guess, an abundance of theories about Q’enko’s use, but they all consider it an important religious ceremonial site. Part of the challenge of understanding the Incan culture results from the Spanish campaign to destroy anything that had to do with pagan religions. Idols made of precious metals were stolen; rocks carved for religious purposes were destroyed. There’s limited information to work with, but at least they didn’t find some way to destroy the whole site.

Dad coming through the rock.
A very strange place.

There are still carvings visible on top of the rock, along with some zig-zagging channels that liquid could flow down. Theories for what liquid may have been used: corn beer. Or maybe animal blood. Basically the same, right? An interior chamber was used for sacrifices (human sacrifices were NOT typical in Incan society, in case you were wondering). There’s some other stuff on top that was probably used for charting the sun. Lots of things happening in/on/around this rock!

The way into the sacrifice chamber
The sacrifice chamber beneath the rock. That’s maybe the altar on the left?
I liked this little guy… kind of looks like a Nittany Lion!

The group started grumbling about being hungry when we arrived at Q’enko and nearly staged a mutiny when I said it wasn’t lunchtime yet. Geez! Traveling with a group is such a pain! I’m kidding, I’m kidding! But it wasn’t even noon yet, and I only had the most perfect picnic spot picked out and had been waiting for two years to use it. No way was that getting taken away from me. Patience, people!

Q’enko rocks!
The path from Q’enko to Q’enko Chico, our lunch spot.
Q’enko Chico, Cusco, and the eucalyptus forest
I just love those mountains.
Headed to Q’enko Chico (little Q’enko), probably used for religious purposes as well.

After everyone moaned and groaned their way through Q’enko and down the path to our lunch spot (with a sprinkling of accusations that I was trying to kill them), we finally arrived. WELL. The group’s attitude transformed. Everyone told me that it was worth waiting for, that the view was great and the rocks were nice to sit on. I KNOW. That’s why I picked it! Moral of the story is, trust me!

Q’enko Chico with a neighboring eucalyptus tree forest. These trees aren’t native to Peru. They came from Australia and were originally planted to be used for firewood.
Again, I wonder what this used to look like. I’m sure those walls weren’t always crumbling!
That’s one big rock! And a bonus pup.
Lunch spot views!
Eucalyptus forest

The bad news was that the sky grew increasingly threatening as we ate, and I crossed my fingers that the rain would hold out just a little longer, through our last stop at Saqsayhuaman (sak-say-WAH-man), the most expansive set of ruins. We walked there, got directions from the park rangers, and within minutes, it started POURING. Welp. So much for crossing my fingers!

The weather radar showed the storm passing in an hour, and the group started discussing staying vs. heading back to town. I really wanted everyone to see the last site, but we weren’t going to wait out in the open, and there’s nowhere to take cover… except… we spotted two roofed areas among the ruins. Our only hope. Benjamin and I looked at each other and made a beeline for them while everyone else followed behind.

Well, if only the route there was direct! We had to go up a few levels which meant finding stairs while pretending that we knew exactly where we were going to avoid losing the confidence of the group. Finally, we reached the right level! The end was in view! Anddd we stopped in our tracks in front of a sign strung up across the path. “No pasa”. Soul crushing. Dad caught up with us, looked at the sign, said “heck no”, and stepped over the rope without hesitation. It was hilarious. And that was all the encouragement we needed to follow suit.

Hehehe do you see the rain, streaking across the picture?
Dad, Mom, and Jocelyn looking happy to be under cover.
Doing some random internet fact read-alouds to entertain the group.

This ended up being the best decision we made all day (thanks, Dad!). Our hideout wasn’t particularly comfortable… we were all contorted and had to stay quiet to keep from attracting the attention of the park rangers who were just out of sight under the adjacent roof. But we were dry, and no way did we want to get booted out into the rain!

Zig-zag walls! Spot our heroic shelter. We were under the top left corner of the right roof. The park rangers were underneath the left roof, all the way on the left side.

Finally, about 45 minutes later, the rain slowed, and we decided it was time to make moves. As we climbed out, one of the rangers under the other roof started blowing his whistle (which is what they do when people are doing something they shouldn’t), and we kept moving, with no hesitation or glance back. Benjamin said he thought it was directed at someone else, but either way, I have no regrets.

Back in legal territory, we took a quick spin around the ruins. Saqsayhuaman is considered one of the most impressive Incan sites. Machu Picchu is so famous and popular mostly because of its location, not as much because of its construction. Saqsayhuaman, on the other hand, is an incredible architectural feat. The name is, of course, Quechua, but the meaning is debated with the most likely options being “marbled falcon” or “marbled head”. It is said that the city of Cusco looks like a puma/cougar/mountain lion, and Saqsayhuaman forms its (marbled?) head.

Faking smiles… just kidding. We were actually happy because we survived the storm without getting drenched. Jocelyn is totally rocking that poncho (jokes aside, she was the most prepared and probably the driest. And the most fashionable, clearly).
What a beautiful place for a city!

Construction began in the 15th century, led by one of the most famous Inkas (kings), Pachakutec. He was responsible for many of the great Incan building projects, and this one took 50 years. You may be wondering – how did they have the manpower for a project like this? The Incas didn’t have slaves, and records claim that 20,000 men worked on the project. Since there was no money in their society, taxes to the government were paid in either labor or goods. This “labor tax” is what made so many of these grand, labor-intensive monuments feasible.

I’m telling you, the stonework here is some of the best.
Like seriously. I still don’t understand how they did this.
They say that the Spanish were so impressed by the construction quality that they thought the Incas must be in cahoots with the devil because there’s no way that mere mortals could build like this.
With the shoddy stonework that the Spanish were used to (re: all colonial buildings in Cusco. Yuck), no wonder they thought this level of skill and precision was above the capabilities of mankind.
Mom and Dad looking nice and dry(ish).

While Saqsayhuaman is often called a “fortress”, it is believed that its primary function was religious and it was well-defended due to this religious importance, not because it was meant as a fortification. However, it did have its moment when it was used as a stronghold in the 16th century during the Spanish invasion. Following the Incas defeat, the Spanish disassembled and buried the site to keep it from being used for that purpose again. Over time, many smaller stones were taken and used for other buildings in colonial Cusco, including the Cathedral. Even into the 20th century, people could pay to use the site as a quarry for their own personal building projects. At the base, three imposing wall layers remain largely intact, thanks to the massive scale of the stones (one is nearly 30 feet tall and weighs 150 tons!). At the top, there used to be three towers, and only the foundations of those remain.

Check out those big rocks!
The base of one of the towers. One tower was round in shape, and the other two were rectangular.
Mildly obsessed with this view.
More foundations at Saqsayhuaman that make you wonder what used to be there.
Three layers of zig-zag walls.
I mean, come on. Those mountains are fab.
Standing on top of the zig-zag walls and looking across at another maybe-sacred, giant stone that’s part of the Saqsayhuaman complex.

Pachakutec also created Inti Raymi in 1412, a festival dedicated to the sun god Inti and the celebration of the Inca New Year. It was held on the winter solstice until pagan religious celebrations were banned by the Spanish in 1535. In 1944, the festival was revived and is celebrated at Saqsayhuaman each year on June 24th, featuring a theatrical representation of the Inca ceremony and festivities.

Even though everyone was feeling pretty drained after the rain, I did want to make sure we got the full experience… including my favorite part, the rock slides! (Admire my avoidance of the bottom-of-the-slide puddle.)

Rock slides!

And my second favorite part, the weird tunnels!

The entrance to the tunnels… well, that’s not true. This is the exit, but we walked through the wrong way (whoops).
Headed into the darkness
The short tunnel
…and the long tunnel
See the church just above the tree/bush/grass line? Okay, now look for the other church on the same square, a little to the left of there. That’s the Cathedral with its stolen stones, sitting on the Plaza Mayor, the main plaza in town (and also sitting on the foundations of an Inca temple that was destroyed to build it).

And here are other various pictures from around the ruins.

Something.
Some rocks that were probably important for something. Actually, this front circle area was definitely important because, as you can see, the stones are much more precisely cut than those other stone walls in the background (I think those are actually restored walls, but either way, the following statement is still valid). The Incas put more effort into more important buildings which is part of how you can tell that Saqsayhuaman was a very important place… so many of the rocks have those important-building-tight joints.
An amphitheater-like area that was used for something ceremonial and religious and important. Probably. Or maybe this is where they had the Inca version of gladiator fights (not a real thing).
I don’t know for sure, but I would assume that the bottom stones are original (the ones that fit together perfectly) and the ones above were rebuilt during restoration. This is a common thing to do during restoration because you want to rebuild enough to show what used to be there/make sure that it’s structurally sound, but you don’t want people to be unsure about what is original and what is not.
Another thing that shows a structure’s importance is these “pillow” stones. Instead of the stone faces being mostly flat, they are rounded. This is much harder to do, and so it is reserved for the most important buildings.
I’m not going to guarantee this statement, but a lot of times, when there are bumps on some of the stone faces, like on the bottom of that big stone near the front, they were used to connect sheets of precious metals to the walls, like what I talked about at Qorikancha. So maybe these stones also had some gold sheets on them. Or maybe I’m totally wrong.

Okay, THEN we’d had enough ruins for one day. I planned for us to walk back down to town from Saqsayhuaman, not remembering that the path isn’t exactly ideal… downhill with uneven and slippery rocks. We made slow progress until the end of the rocky part and breathed a collective sigh of relief when we hit a normal street.

We initially walked past a guy standing at the bottom offering taxi rides, but then I looked at my parents and changed my mind. Jocelyn and I conferenced to determine a reasonable taxi price, and I asked him how much to the central plaza. 10 soles. I said okay… and by the way, we have five people. He tried to raise the price, but we rejected that and got in the car telling him we’d pay 10.

I thought we’d have to squeeze with 5 people, but it turned out that his little car had two back rows. Perfect! As we rode back into town, he asked about our other plans and listed some other places he could take us. Hm… I already had our schedule planned out, but we actually DID need to hire a taxi. I asked if he was free the following day and how much he would charge for my itinerary. It was in line with the price I was expecting, so we accepted! It kind of felt like fate with his perfectly-sized car and open schedule. And it was a huge relief to get that settled!

The rest of the night was low-key. Back at the hotel, we got ourselves organized. We were leaving in the morning for an overnight trip, and thankfully, the hotel was letting us leave some bags there which meant we could travel lighter… but we did need to repack everything and pull out the stuff we wanted to take with us. We took a break to get some alpaca burgers for dinner and then headed back to the hotel to finish getting ready for the next day’s adventures with our new BFF, Amerigo the taxi man!

I had all sorts of plans for our full day in Cusco. Essentially, I wanted to follow the same schedule as my first time in Cusco because I thought that it was a good intro to Incan ruins. There are four major sites within about 20 minutes, driving, from the center of Cusco. Last time, I tromped all over the city searching for a public bus to drop me at the farthest one and then worked my way back from there. This time, the lady at the hotel convinced me it wasn’t worth the pain to take the bus when a taxi was only 20 soles ($6), or 40 for the two we needed. The group seemed to agree which I guess is what happens when you travel while actually having an income. Weird, I don’t know what that’s like.

I asked her to schedule them for a couple of hours later (and I was really proud of myself… this all happened in Spanish. The woman’s daughters speak English, and she was going to call them to help with our conversation until I told her I wanted to try. She was really nice about it and spoke clearly and gave me a big confidence boost. Good way to start the day!), and she gave us directions to a grocery store so we could buy supplies for lunch on the go. On the way, we stopped at the famous 12-sided stone, another example of Incan stoneworking excellence, though after the 14-angled stone from Qorikancha the day before, it’s just another rock. Kidding! I still think it’s awesome. Seriously, Incan stonework is a detail-oriented, precise, engineering-minded person’s dream.

With the 12-sided stone. Count the sides and check out those tight seams! It’s pretty darn amazing, isn’t it?
Mom and Dad insisted on a picture with this keystone-shaped stone (because Pennsylvania).
The alleyway. The lower part of the wall on the right is an Incan masterpiece (it’s the wall containing the 12-sided stone and the keystone), and the upper part is the laaame Spanish colonial structure that they built on top. Sorry, that was probably rude. The upper part is the perfectly adequate but disappointingly boring Spanish colonial structure that they built on top. Was that better?
The Plaza Mayor (the central plaza in town)
The courtyard at the hotel. It’s all VERY decorated for the winter holidays, including these incredibly annoying music boxes that played constantly until Dad went and unplugged them because we could hear them from our room hahaha. But it’s also such a nice escape from the city!

We also picked up our tourist tickets along the way. They’re good for something like 12 different sites across Cusco and the Sacred Valley (technically the “Sacred Valley of the Incas” which is the valley at the heart of the Incan empire and has a ton of significant sites), and four of those were the ones we were planning to visit that day. From there, we rushed back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, and were reconvening in the hotel courtyard just as the taxi guys arrived.

Most actual tours of these ruins start in Cusco and work their way out from the city. Since the official Lara-guided tour goes in reverse, there was practically no one around when we got dropped off at our first stop, Tambomachay. Also, part of that might have been due to the weather. It was drizzling when we got there, and the rain continued off and on, in varying intensities, for the rest of the day.

Tambomachay was a place of rest and relaxation for the Inkas (the kings – from now on, I’m going to use “Inca” to describe the people group and “Inka” for the kings. This is just for my sanity. In reality, both are acceptable spellings for both). “Tambo” means that it is a lodge, or a place where travelers can receive food and lodgings, and “machay” means that it is a resting place. It is believed to have been used by the Inkas as a base while hunting and was also a sacred place.

The niches in the wall were likely used for golden idols and maybe even mummies. There are a few fountains, still operational, fed by an unknown source and brought to the site through underground channels. Some claim that the water has certain mystical qualities that grant the drinker eternal youth or fertility (one specifically promises to give you twins).

You can see the fountains on the right side. A park ranger we met at the site told us that the two fountains at the bottom are the ones for having twins, since the water stream splits into two, and the one on top is for eternal youth.
The niches were probably possibly maybe used for golden idols. I’m picturing giant, human-sized, golden corn cobs in all of them (that’s not historically accurate, it’s just for my own personal enjoyment).
Spot the alpaca herd!
Rounding up the stragglers
You can see some terracing continuing out from the main part of the site… it makes me wonder what this used to look like in its former glory. Like we see these few fountains and a couple of walls now, but there’s no way that this was all there was to it back in the day.
The crew, slowly perfecting our selfie game.

Across from the main fountains, there are the foundations of a destroyed watchtower. According to a park ranger we met at the ruins, it was part of a tower network used to spot enemies and communicate with surrounding towers. From the Tambomachay tower, they would have communicated with the people at Puka-Pukara, the site across the street and the next stop on our tour. Like so many other things, the Spanish destroyed it when they invaded. He told us that it was 30m high (100ft)! That seems amazingly tall for the time and technology, but it’s gone now so who knows? And it’s not like the Incas didn’t accomplish other seemingly impossible feats.

A good view of the whole site, with the main fountain area to the right and the tower foundations to the left.
The foundations of the maybe-30-meter-tall watchtower.
This is from Puka-Pukara looking towards Tambomachay. If you see the road, then that parking lot with the building with the red roof, and then go straight back from there, that’s about where the watchtower would have been.

Puka-Pukara, which means “red fortress” in Quechua, was more of an observation post than an actual defensive fortress. The stones used in its construction have a red hue to them, and it’s located on a natural high point with a clear view of the approaching valley. It was meant to protect the sacred Tambomachay and was also a lodge for travelers, offering shelter and food. Well, all of that is the speculated use, at least. It also was maybe a storage area and maybe a barracks and maybe a checkpoint for travelers. But whatever it is, it inarguably does have a great view of the valley.

Puka-Pukara. I guess the stone does look kind of reddish?
We enjoyed the signage at the ruins IMMENSELY. These activities are forbidden and clearly translated into English:
DON’T HORSE RIDING
DON’T SOLD ON THE STREET
DON’T MOUNTAIN BIKING
Do you think they paid someone for this work??
Here we have:
DON’T ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES
DON’T FIRE
And, since they deserved to get at least one right,
DON’T THROW GARBAGE
Their greatest mistake was translating “PROHIBIDO” as “DON’T”. Whether you speak Spanish or not, I’ll leave you to work out what a better translation could have been.
The view from Puka-Pukara. Not bad!
Again, this is what we see now, and it just makes me wish that I could see what it used to look like!
I assume the view, at least, is about the same. Maybe? Well, either way, it’s fabulous.
I’m obsessed with these walls. I want every wall in the universe to be as satisfyingly exact as Inca walls… and this one isn’t even the most precise! This is their “eh, not so important” level of precision! Whatever happened to craftsmanship? They don’t build things like they used to, that’s for sure!
Yup, good spot for keeping an eye out for approaching armies. Or just enjoying the view. Do you think they did? The Incas, I mean. While they were up in their towers, keeping their empire safe, do you think they took a second to look around and be like, “Man, what a world!”
What. A. World.

The next part of our adventure was the only part that I was worried about. The walk between Puka-Pukara and Q’enko, our next destination, is fairly long and not especially exciting. I didn’t want to make my parents walk it if they didn’t have to. There was plenty of mandatory walking in our schedule, so no need to wear yourself out on something that you could do by car! My hope was that we would find a colectivo (public mini-bus) going in the right direction, but you never know when those will come along, plus it was a Sunday which makes “schedules” even more erratic.

Welp. I shouldn’t have worried. About half a second after we planted ourselves on the side of the road, a crazy colectivo came whipping around the corner, and we flagged it down. If you’ve ever seen/read Harry Potter, imagine the Knight Bus, though thankfully a mini-bus doesn’t have quite the same tipping potential. Every colectivo driver isn’t equally terrifying, but this one was absolutely on that level. Mom, Dad, and Benjamin found seats, and Jocelyn and I were left standing in the aisle. That was preferred, really, since we were the most experienced in uncomfortable public transit. It seemed like the driver was doing his best to knock us over, and he nearly succeeded a few times as we had to release our death grips on the seats to dig out some money – 1 sol (30 cents) each! Thankfully, we were only on there for about 5 minutes – enough to give my parents and Benjamin a taste of the colectivo experience but not long enough for permanent psychological damage.

Back on solid ground, we made our way across the street to the next site on our whirlwind tour, Q’enko. To be continued…

Next time, Q’enko and Saqsayhuaman!

Travel day! Our final morning in the rainforest was another leisurely one. After eating 7AM breakfast, we walked to a boat, boated to a bus, and bused back to the tour company’s office in Puerto Maldonado to pick up the bags we’d left there. We arrived at the airport about three hours before our flight. Checking in, checking our bags, and going through security took up about 5 minutes of that time. Exploring the entire terminal took maybe 1 minute. Great! Only 2 hours and 54 minutes left.

The Puerto Maldonado to Cusco flight is one of the best I’ve ever been on. You take off over the rainforest and get one last look at the rivers winding their way across the earth. Then, for the landing, you fly through breathtaking mountains, descending into the valley that is home to Cusco. It’s quite the welcome!

Mountain views!
These mountains just have such good texture to them, you know? I love them.
Almost on the ground…

Besides the dramatic change in landscape, we also experienced quite the change in climate! After three days of hot, humid rainforest air, eternally damp clothes, and sweaty, sticky skin, the crisp, cool air of the mountains was invigorating! Cusco also brought a fun change to our group dynamic. Jocelyn, my friend from Esperanza de Ana, and her brother Benjamin joined us for the Cusco/Machu Picchu portion of our trip! The more the merrier! Well, sometimes that’s not true, but I wasn’t worried about this group. Everyone was easygoing and happy to leave the planning to me. Since I had already been in Cusco (when I was in Peru in 2017), it wasn’t too hard to put together an itinerary of what I felt were the “must-dos”.

We made it to our hotel, said hi to Jocelyn and Benjamin, and took a little time to get settled before heading back out into the world to make the most of our day. This was also the first day of Tour Guide Lara, a title I qualified for by 1. Having a guidebook, 2. Knowing incrementally more about the things we were seeing than the rest of the group, and 3. Having previously visited most of the sites (throwback: you can check out my original post about Qorikancha. We’ve certainly made some photo-quality improvements since then).

The crew in front of Qorikancha

Our destination was Qorikancha, an Inca temple that was converted into a church and convent after the Spanish conquest. I love Qorikancha. It’s an incredible example of Inca construction, and since it was the most important temple in the empire, dedicated to their supreme deity, the sun god “Inti”, the craftsmanship is exceptional. Unlike many other Inca sites, there’s actually a decent amount known about its design and function in the Incan society.

On that note, there’s another important point to make, and it’s the fourth reason why the group was fine with having me as its tour guide: even real tour guides have a questionable quality of information, not because they’re bad guides but because there is so much that is unknown. This isn’t as true for Qorikancha because the Incas were still there when the Spanish arrived, and there are numerous written accounts of what it was like, but for places like Machu Picchu (which we’ll get into later) where everyone was gone by the time it was found, it feels like every “fact” carries a strong “maybe” disclaimer. If you want to know every theory about each stone, hole, etc. then it’s totally worth getting a real guide. If you are happy to know some vague details and have the time to walk around and appreciate the beauty of the site and its construction, you might be better suited to a Lara-guided tour.

Yay!

The general format is this: I read all sorts of information that I’ve gathered from here, there, and everywhere. Everyone gets to participate while we assign the information to what we’re seeing (“Maybe that is the stone they’re talking about?” “I think this is the rainbow temple?” etc.). It might be wrong, or it might be right, but does it really matter? In the end, you probably remember everything better because it’s an active discussion instead of a passive lecture. Sure, some of what you remember might not be right, but what is “right” when it’s 90% a mystery anyway? (This seems like another good time for a disclaimer that I try to make these posts factual but don’t guarantee anything.)

Satisfied customers.

Qorikancha is a fantastic example of the cultural tragedy that was the European conquest of the “new world”. As I said, it was the most important temple in the Incan Empire, and as such, the best of the best was put into its construction. The stone used in the temples is incredibly difficult to work with, and any stone that was less than perfect would not have been included. The sheer effort that went into its construction is a testament to both its importance in the Incan culture and the labor resources of the empire.

Cool shadows on the rainbow temple maybe? We’ll go with that. But look at how tight those joints are!

Even though you can still see the phenomenal stonework, today’s Qorikancha is but a shadow of its former self. Originally, there were hundreds of solid gold sheets mounted on the exterior stone and inside the sun temple. The temple literally would have shone. Inside, temples dedicated to the moon and stars were decorated with sheets of silver. Other interior walls featured other precious metals and stones. Golden corn, golden llamas, and golden babies were used in various rituals, and life-sized golden people and other figures filled the lawn. I can’t even begin to imagine how it must have looked, but it must have been an incredible sight! Then, the Spanish came. They melted down the gold, took the jewels, and destroyed what was left behind. Like I said, cultural tragedy.

This building, now the church, was built on the foundations of the sun temple. Look at how weak the Spanish stonework is in comparison to the crisp precision of the Inca temples.
Moon and stars temples. Imagine those walls covered in silver! This is also where you’ll find the famous 14-angled stone. It’s in the doorway at the bottom of the picture, covered in glass. It’s one stone with 14 edges that line up perfectly with the stones around it, just another example of their impressive stonework
Temples to thunder and the rainbow
What remains of the temple grounds. This is what was filled with golden figures. They also used to actually plant the golden corn during agricultural rituals.
Pretty flowers in the garden
So nice!

I read something that explained the difference in how the Spanish and the Incas viewed these riches. The Incas valued them highly for their beauty and thought they should be displayed for people to enjoy. They didn’t place a monetary value on these precious metals and stones, but since they were seen as valuable, they were used mostly in religious contexts. The Spanish, on the other hand, valued them monetarily which meant that they took the beautiful things and hid them away so that no one could steal them. That seems like a shame, doesn’t it? I wish we operated more on the Inca mindset than the Western one for this.

Serious landscaping
I do love a good courtyard.
There’s such satisfying symmetry.

Other random fun Qorikancha facts:

  • Mummies of the old incas (kings) were housed here and brought out each day to be “fed” via burnt food sacrifices.
  • The golden fountain in the middle of the courtyard used to be covered in 55kg of gold (which sounds like a lot, but I have no concept of how much gold weighs. Okay, I just looked it up, and 1kg gold brick is about the size of an iPhone 6. Geez).
Just imagine 55 solid-gold iPhones sitting right there in the middle. Magnificent! (hehehe)
  • Qorikancha means “golden courtyard” or “golden enclosure” in Quechua. It can also be spelled literally however you want, as long as you kind of end up with the same pronunciation. This is a typical problem with Quechua names as there’s no standard spelling, so you might also see it spelled Coricancha, Koricancha, or Qoricancha. Even “Inca” can be spelled “Inka”. (This irregularity bothers me, so I choose default spellings based on whichever one I like best.)
  • Qorikancha has survived multiple large earthquakes, as have many other Inca sites, thanks to their no-mortar construction technique. The lack of mortar allows the stones to move individually during earthquakes, and they’re so well-fitted that they settle back into place when it’s over.
Pretend the flowers are facing us. I didn’t want to disturb them just to get a better picture.

There’s also some stuff onsite to see that’s associated with the church, but I don’t have much to say about that. Lots of religious art that sometimes intriguingly combines aspects from pre-Spanish cultures with Christian images. To me, though, the building is the most interesting part.

The response when I told everyone to make cool shadows. Kind of weak, but we’ll give everyone a pass as it was our first day all together.
There are some changing art displays in the museum as well. This industrial-vibe nativity is a little offbeat but kind of fantastic.
The white buildings are the convent.
Terraced garden
Arches, arches, arches.

When we’d had enough, we stopped for dinner and then headed back to the hotel. Before going to sleep, Mom, Dad, and I hung up every piece of clothing that we had with us in the rainforest. Literally everything was damp because of the rainforest humidity. The rainforest was great, but I wasn’t upset about leaving its air behind!

Benjamin got an alpaca steak for dinner
Lomo saltado (beef stir fry), a Peruvian classic and one of the best meals at EA.

We got to “sleep in” on our second morning in the rainforest. Breakfast was at 7AM, and we left directly after for our morning excursion. The weather looked mildly threatening, but since it wasn’t raining, we decided to chance it and visit a lake about an hour’s walk away, Lake Condenado.

Despite our optimism that the rain would hold off until we got back, well… that didn’t happen. We were walking for maybe half an hour before it started sounding like the rains were coming. Have you ever been in a forest as a storm was approaching? It’s a little intimidating! You hear the leaves rustling and the rain pounding down in the distance, and it sounds like it will be on top of you in a second. I always feel this tension in the air, like a foreboding, and a voice in the back of my head is yelling, “Run! It’s coming!” It’s pointless, of course. There’s no outrunning a storm like that (at least not at my speed). So, we did the next best thing and took advantage of the warning by donning our rain gear. We’d all brought umbrellas, too, which ended up being the best idea of the day.

Mom in full rain gear. I used to think ponchos were nerdy. In a rainforest, ponchos are incredibly fashionable and also practical. Also, the entire path, as you can see, is a puddle. So yeah… waterproof boots were a must!
I thought this was a big tree until we saw some actual big trees later in the day… stay tuned!
These are the roots of a “walking palm” tree. The name is based on an unsubstantiated theory that the tree can move up to a few centimeters per year in order to position itself for the best sunlight. True or not, I would believe just about anything weird that you told me about this tree, including that it comes alive at night and walks around on those creepy stilt legs.
Speaking of weird roots… I don’t know if this is another variety of walking palm or something else, but it just looks like the tree has no idea what it’s supposed to be doing.

A couple of minutes later, the rain reached us, and from then on, it was pouring. POURING. I kept hoping it would let up a little… nope. We got the full rainforest experience. It was still going strong when we reached the lake.

I was surprised to hear that there are lakes in the rainforest. Maybe it’s just me, but “rainforest” puts a picture of rivers in my head rather than lakes. Well, the reason for the lakes is actually the rivers! Remember that picture of the winding river that I took from the plane? Here it is again, in case you don’t:

Look at those crazy bends. This is what causes lakes to form!

As the river turns, there are two things happening: the outside of the bend erodes and inside builds up deposits of silt. Eventually, enough erosion happens between two bends that a shortcut is formed, and silt keeps building up until the loop of the river between the two bends gets cut off. Water stops flowing through this original route, turning it into a lake, called an oxbow lake. These lakes create a completely new habitat within the rainforest. Enjoy a very helpful visual aid below:

Focus on those two bends where all of the arrows are pointing. On the insides of the curves, there are silt deposits (red arrows). On the outsides, there’s erosion (blue arrows). Eventually, those two erosion points meet, essentially short-circuiting the river and making the loopy original route unnecessary. After the silt deposits build up enough, the loop gets cut off from the river and becomes a lake (green oval). (Excuse this rudimentary visual aid. I tried.)

We loaded into a canoe at the lake, and Juvenal paddled us across while Dad bailed out the boat. And it kept on raining.

Calm, serene oxbow lake (actually though, that rain is no joke!), and another group.
Mom smiling because she’s dry under that poncho.
Dad taking a break from bailing (see bail bucket aka cut off milk jug to his left).

We unfortunately didn’t get the full lake experience because of the rain. Normally, these lakes are great places to see wildlife. Endangered giant river otters, the longest of all weasels (they grow up to 5’ long!), take advantage of the more sheltered habitat to raise their young. Caiman, including the 15-foot-long Black Caiman, and anaconda sightings are possible if you’re very lucky (or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint). Piranhas are guaranteed to be in attendance, and Juvenal brought bread to lure them up to the surface. Who knew that piranhas were such carb-lovers? We couldn’t see them, but we could see the pieces of bread bobbing up and down as they were eaten from below. Apparently, piranhas will jump out of the water when the weather is nice, but they don’t do that in the rain. Why not? Who knows? It’s not like they’re worried about getting wet!

(Here’s a terrible piranha video I took where I apparently got distracted partway through and let the bread drift out of frame even though it’s only 20 seconds long. My videography skills could use some work still…)

Speaking of animals getting wet in the rain… We saw some birds around, sitting in the trees around the lake. They looked just about how I felt: soggy and a little miserable. I hadn’t really thought before about the animals having to deal with the rain. In my mind, they all have nice, dry jungle houses to go to. But those birds were definitely not nice and dry. Maybe that doesn’t actually bother them at all, but they sure didn’t look very happy. As they say, misery loves company, and seeing them made me feel slightly better… and also thankful for my umbrella and waterproof clothes. At least I was dry!

Across the lake, we got out of the canoe and to visit a couple of trees. The best thing about trees is that there’s a 100% chance of them being there where you left them (except maybe, theoretically, in the case of the walking palm tree…), unlike any time you go to look for wildlife. The first was a huge tree with some serious buttress roots. I don’t remember what kind of tree it was, but maybe a ceiba (kapok tree in English)? That’s my unprofessional guess, based on other ceibas I’ve seen. We’ll just go with that unless any of you know any better, then feel free to burst my arborist ego.

We asked how old it was, and Juvenal said that there’s really no way to know for sure. Even if the tree was cut down, there are no rings to indicate its age! Each ring marks the beginning of a “growing season”, and in places with cold winters and hot summers, the result is one ring each year. In the tropics, the weather is relatively stable throughout the year which means that the trees have nothing telling them to stop growing. Their growing season is ongoing. So, we have to be content with the mystery.

This isn’t the ceiba. This is just a tree that I thought was pretty.
My first attempt to convey the magnitude of the ceiba.
It really doesn’t come through well in pictures.
I guess you’ll just have to trust me.
People shown for scale. Still not helpful, though.
Note: Despite how it may look in this picture, I’m not pregnant and also do not have a new beer belly (ditto for Dad). I put my backpack on my front/inside my rain jacket to protect my stuff because it’s much easier to keep a backpack dry with an umbrella when it’s in front of you! Otherwise, the umbrella runoff often falls right onto your bag.

The other “tree” was a parasite. You can see these growing all over the forest in varying levels of development. It’s quite the long process… the parasite tree grows around an existing tree. It looks like interconnected vines wrapping around the trunk, and eventually grows to about the height of the host tree. The parasite ultimately chokes out the host tree and kills it. Over time, the host decays and leaves the parasite standing on its own with a cavity in the middle where the original tree trunk used to be.

So, this particular parasite tree was at the point where the original tree was gone, and since it was so big, we could go inside! How weird. It was hard to take pictures with the rain and such, but I did my very best (and that will have to be enough).

Out in front.
Mom making her way into the parasite tree
Looking up through the parasite tree.
Family gathering inside!
It’s very strange.

The ride back across the lake was about the same as the way there. Juvenal paddled. Dad bailed. Mom and I sat and tried to stay dry (important work we were doing). From there, we headed back to the lodge, and the rain started to slow when we were nearly there. I was ready to turn around and give the lake another try! Thanks for nothing, rainforest weather! Though, I do have to point out that we were incredibly lucky/foresighted when we decided to visit the macaws the previous day and not risk hoping for better weather the next morning. That would have been a huge disappointment! The trees are there rain or shine, but the macaws aren’t.

A couple more rainy lake views…
It would probably be super nice on a sunny day.

We had some good relaxation time for the rest of the day. We made a quick trip across the river in the afternoon to check out some of the plants that people grow in the region, as there are people who live and farm in unprotected areas of the rainforest. There are also indigenous tribes who live in the protected parts of the forest (as many as 15 uncontacted tribes in the Peruvian Amazon alone), but they aren’t planting and growing cacao and sugar cane.

Star fruit
Cacao
Papaya

Did you know that a banana tree only produces one bunch of bananas before it dies? Well, the whole tree doesn’t die, but most of what you see does. The base of the tree remains, and after about nine more months, another tree will stand in its place and produce another bunch. Seems like a lot of work for a substandard fruit (sorry if you’re a banana-lover. I’m decidedly not).

By the river.
A pretty night after a not-so-pleasant morning.
A little too cloudy for a good sunset, but there are some hints of color!

Dinner was a lot of fun that night. There were so few people staying at the lodge that everyone started talking. It was like a weird extended-family dinner. I got to practice my Spanish with one lady who works as travel agent in Lima. She was visiting with her sister and niece to take pictures and assess the lodge for work. Pretty cool! She could speak English, but it was probably about the level of my Spanish… decent but tentative. We made good Spanglish conversation buddies!

After dinner, we had to pack up our stuff because we were headed to Cusco the next day! I was sad to be leaving the rainforest but excited about the possibility of sleeping past 6AM for once…

Our last time coming “home” to the lodge.

We’re back in Peru! I know, for a time when travel is all but impossible, we sure do seem to move around a lot. But that’s the joy of the internet! And memories. For me, it’s been fun to relive some past excitement while actually sitting in Pennsylvania, feeling like I’ve had my wings clipped.

So, we last left off in Peru as I headed to the airport from Esperanza de Ana, not to leave the country but rather to meet my parents and kick off our family Peruvian adventure! I had quite the crazy mix of feelings. I was sad to leave EA, happy to see my parents, sad to leave my friends, happy because Jocelyn and her brother were meeting up with us later in Cusco… and on top of my conflicting feelings, it was nearly the middle of the night which is never good for processing emotions or thinking clearly.

Seeing my parents walk out into the arrivals hall was surreal. I don’t think I realized how much I missed them until that moment! Between that and my excitement for the trip ahead, I didn’t have a chance to dwell too much on my feelings about leaving everything else behind.

Do we look like we’re wide awake?

OH! And I had one more thing to distract me… my new camera!!! I had been thinking about buying a real camera for years, and this seemed like as good a time as any to take the plunge. I bought one, shipped it to my parents in the States, and they brought it along with them! This is my first “real” camera, so bear with me… things started out a little rough as I tried to figure out what the heck I was doing, but you’ll see that over my month and a half of travels, my skills went from very rough to kind of okay! (I still used my phone a lot for pictures as well, but the camera was infinitely better for anything requiring a zoom.)

Anyway, after our bleary-eyed airport reunion, we headed to a hotel near the airport to get a few hours of sleep before our morning flight to Puerto Maldonado!

Coming into Puerto Maldonado
It’s a far cry from the brown desert climate of Lima!

One of the major places to visit in Peru, besides Machu Picchu, of course, is the Amazon Rainforest. Most of the rainforest (about 60%) is in Brazil, Peru has the second largest area (~13%), and seven other South American countries contain the remainder. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, containing more than half of its entire rainforested area.

The Peruvian Amazon covers more than half of Peru, but only about 5% of the population lives there. (The majority live along the coast, like in Lima and its suburbs, where it’s easier to find work.) The two major tourist gateways are Iquitos in the north, home to the famous pink river dolphins and the only place to actually cruise the Amazon River, and Puerto Maldonado in the south, sitting at the intersection of two Amazon tributary rivers, the Tambopata River and the Madre de Dios River.

Check out these river views. What a crazy route!
So cool to see them from above!

I chose Puerto Maldonado because it’s a much smaller city, there’s a ton of biodiversity in that part of the rainforest, and it’s way more accessible to/from the other places we were planning to visit (you can fly direct to/from Lima and Cusco). One of the EA directors recommended an eco-lodge that she had visited, and so, we had our first destination!

After a short flight from Lima, the company picked us up from the itty bitty Puerto Maldonado airport and drove us about 5 minutes to their office in town where we left any luggage that we didn’t need for the rainforest leg of our trip. From there, we had an hour-long bus ride to the Tambopata River followed by a 1.5-hour boat ride to the lodge.

Lunch on the go! Chaufa (fried rice) in a banana leaf
Mom enjoying her chaufa

Along the way, we got our first glimpse of rainforest wildlife! One of the guides spotted three capybaras down by the water (the guides all have eagle eyes, it’s crazy), and we watched them climb their way up probably 15 meters of what seemed like an impossibly steep riverbank. It was extra incredible because capybaras are NOT the most agile-looking animals. They’re the largest rodents in the world and my best description is that they’re like large guinea pigs or maybe large, tailless rats? I would have a picture to show you… but they were too far away for my phone, and I was still in the “new electronics” overprotective mode with my camera (I was certain that I was going to drop it into the river… and I still had no idea how to use it).

Saying goodbye to our boat

Once we reached the “dock” near the lodge, we had a 20-minute walk through the forest with our guide for the rainforest portion of our trip, Juvenal (who-ven-ahl). He gave us some basic rules of the rainforest: Stay together, never put your hand somewhere without looking first (unless you want to risk touching a biting ant or worse), and walk quickly when you see Brazil nut pods on the ground or flowers from their trees. Okay, the first two seem like common sense… but the third one?

The stairs to/from the boat dock
Headed to the lodge

Brazil nut trees can grow to be VERY large: 160ft (50m) tall and with a 100ft (30m) diameter canopy. The nuts are contained in coconut-like pods that are usually around 3-7 inches (8-18cm) in diameter and can weigh more than 5 pounds (2+ kg)! Within each pod, there can be anywhere from 10-30 Brazil nuts. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The most important thing to know is that the pods fall from the trees whenever they’re good and ready, so unless you want a 5-pound coconut to whack you in the head after a 160ft fall, it’s best to minimize your time underneath the trees during the falling season. Juvenal showed us how some of them had embedded themselves into the ground after the fall. Eek! Don’t have to tell me twice! No, thank you to a dent like that in my skull!

Brazil nut pod (I was really taking my life into my hands by pausing to take this picture, so I hope you appreciate it… I was kind of operating on the “lightning never strikes the same place twice” principle, even though that’s a bunch of baloney even in regards to lightning and definitely doesn’t apply in this context).
This tree is funky… look at how weird and smooth it looks! I don’t remember the type of tree, but Juvenal explained that it sheds its bark every so often to get rid of anything that might be growing on it. Cool!
This tree should take some hints from the bark-shedding tree because there’s all sorts of stuff growing on this trunk.
The lodge! This is where the common spaces are, like the dining area, spa, and educational spaces.
If this isn’t the most picturesque place to get a massage…
They have nightly lectures about bugs and other similarly thrilling topics here (okay, that was rude. I’m sure the lectures were interesting… but it’s a fact that they were frequently about things like moths. MOTHS).
The walkway from the main lodge area to our room.
View of our room’s building from the walkway.

We had some downtime after we reached the lodge and used it to get settled. Mom wasn’t thrilled about the room… our rectangular room had only three walls, and even those barely qualified as such. They were made of bamboo and had “windows” (aka openings) just above head level between the room and the outdoor walkway/hallway. And the shower was a step up from floor level, so you could literally see people walking by while you were inside. It’s good that we went in the off-season because if there were people in every room, the lack of privacy/separation would have been more apparent.

The fourth “wall” was left open to the rainforest. Juvenal promised that we probably wouldn’t end up with a jaguar in our room. Heh. I’ll tell you now that we didn’t have any animal issues, but there are some LARGE rainforest bugs. Our beds had mosquito nets, at least. We gave Mom the bed farthest from the open wall, I slept in the middle, and we offered Dad up to the forest.

Yeah, there’s nothing covering that “window”.
Mom quickly claimed the right-most bed.
Turndown service, rainforest edition.
Camera practice. Not especially well-focused, but a cool flower nonetheless.
More flowers as seen from our room.
We saw these tamarin monkeys from our room as well!
How cool is that?
They had no interest in coming inside.
So that was good.
Unfortunately, the bugs didn’t have the same sense as the monkeys. I should have put something in this picture for scale, but this beetle was at least an inch and a half long. Mom wasn’t into it.

We had some time before dark and took advantage of the good weather by climbing the “canopy tower”, a tower that’s maybe 150 feet tall? Its top platform sits up above the tree canopies, and we spotted a few birds flying around and watched the sun start to set before heading back to the lodge. We headed down before it got too dark at the top, and by the time we reached the forest floor, it was juuust light enough to see our way back. The canopy-level and the ground-level are two totally different worlds!

The ground around the tower. I liked the colors.
No shortage of tall trees
Canopy tower.
Family picture at the top of the tower!
Quite a different perspective from the ground!
The viewing platform at the top of the tower
This tree is cool.
Dramatic skies from the top of the tower
Sunset!

Back at the lodge, we ate dinner, slipped into our mosquito-net-shielded beds, and passed out. Not only had it been a long day, but we had a painfully early start the next morning… 4:15AM! I wish I was kidding.

It’s our last day in Argentina, folks! Mike and I had an evening flight back to New York which gave us most of the day to do some last-minute sightseeing. I was excited because it was a Saturday, and Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, is open for tours on the weekends. I made reservations online for the 12:30PM English tour, giving us plenty of time to wake up, get ourselves organized and checked out, and walk over for the tour.

Casa Rosada. We got to make a grand entrance right through the front gate and archway.

We arrived a little early, found the line for our tour, and were chatting to pass the time when the guy in front of us struck up a conversation. This is one of the great joys of traveling – meeting new people in the most random of places. Sometimes you hit it off and become fast friends, and sometimes you leave the interaction scratching your head, but either way, it’s all part of the fun!

This situation was more of the latter. First, he asked us why we were in line for an English tour because, “You two look Argentinian!” I’ll admit, I was happy our chameleon skills were working in Argentina. But still, strange question. Second, he asked Mike to take a picture of him with his (Mike’s) wife… aka ME. I reacted, well, poorly. My face transformed into one of horror as I set the record straight, “He’s my BROTHER!” Anyway, we may not have ended up with a new friend this time, but in hindsight, it was kind of entertaining.

After that, they started filtering people through security, and we reconvened inside the building as we waited for our guide and for everyone to get checked in.

The ceiling of the entry area where we waited to meet our guide.

The Casa Rosada, or pink house, is only “home” to the presidential offices. The president’s actual house is outside of the city, about half an hour away in the suburbs. The fastest way to commute is by helicopter, so obviously that’s how it’s done because heaven forbid that the president should have to sit in traffic.

Anyway, the palace was built on the site of an old Spanish fort, used by the viceroys during the colonial days. After independence, it was chosen as the seat of the executive branch. You might be wondering why it’s pink… why, oxblood, of course! An oxblood/lime/who-knows-what-else mix was applied to the exterior for waterproofing purposes.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the two sides of the building aren’t symmetrical. This is because it started as two buildings, the Central Post Office on the right and the old Government Palace on the left. Tamburini, one of the original architects of the Teatro Colón, designed a central archway to join the two buildings together in 1890.

Please admire this floor. You know how I feel about fancy floors (and if you don’t know, I love them).
Spot the differences!

My personal opinion of the building itself was that it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. There are some cool elements, but the interior decor is erratic. It doesn’t feel like there’s a cohesive design, and maybe there actually isn’t. We learned that when a new president comes into power, they can redesign the interior spaces. They just can’t touch the facade. I don’t know. It just wasn’t my favorite.

A potential contributing factor to my opinion was that the tour itself was incredibly boring. It didn’t have to be, but the guide had no concept of storytelling or determining which facts are interesting and which are unnecessary. Mike entertained himself by pointing out terrible lighting and poorly hidden cabling and laughing at my reactions because he knows how much that stuff bothers me. It’s just… if you’re doing work to update a historic building, you can’t just run exposed cables all over the place! Come on, people! At least TRY to conceal them!

Here are some interior pictures. What do you think about the decor choices?

A meeting room. Looks like they could use a bigger TV. I mean, come on. What is that? A 50″?
I liked this wood detail around the tops of the walls.
A painting of Juan and Eva Perón.
This balcony, with its view out to the Plaza de Mayo, has been used for many famous speeches in Argentina’s history. Eva Perón made her final speech from here during a workers’ rally (she died a few months later).
The balcony has a pretty fab view of the Plaza de Mayo.
Another conference room. And seriously, that TV is way too small. Do people sit at that table with the chairs so close to one another?
Really, the whole building is just a bunch of huge rooms with tables and chairs. I guess it is basically just a palatial office building but like… how many conference rooms do you need? (Also, look at that ceiling!)
Stained glass along a corridor
Here’s a better view of that conference room ceiling. Fancy!
Honestly, this little courtyard was probably my favorite part of the whole building. It’s the only part that didn’t feel overdone.
And also, this hallway.
This is the White Hall where the president is sworn in. It’s also used for press conferences and other important events.
The ceiling paintings commemorate the May Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.
The room is pretty epic, but the lighting is so distracting that it makes it hard to really focus on the details. That chandelier has 456 lamps, and all of them are 100x brighter than they should be. My gosh. It’s like the sun… Don’t look straight at it or you might go blind.
Try to ignore the glarey lights and focus on some of the other details which, while completely overpowered by the lighting, are quite nice.
The floors are also fantastic in this room. It’s more Croatian wood (like the wood floors in the Teatro Colón).
This is one of the staircases, the “France” Stairway. The tapestry on the wall was a gift from the French government for the 100th anniversary of the May Revolution.
The Hall of Honor is full of busts of former presidents. It also has a very intense ceiling and very bright lighting.
This is the presidential elevator which seems like overkill for a 2-story building. Maybe it’s 3-stories in some parts? But the president’s office is on the second floor which means that there’s a ridiculously plush bench in that elevator so that you don’t have to stand for the 5-second ride up/down ONE floor.
One more picture of a nice hallway for good measure.

After the tour, Mike and I hopped onto a bus and headed for La Boca, a southern neighborhood of Buenos Aires famous for the brightly colored buildings on its most famous street, El Caminito. In the 19th century, there was an influx of Italian immigrants from Genoa who settled in La Boca. It was a shantytown, overcrowded and dirty, and came into its colorful existence when the residents used whatever paint they could find to brighten up their dwellings. Now, it’s taken on a more touristy vibe, but it still has a certain charm and is filled with vendors selling artwork and handcrafts.

On the approach. Lots of knick-knacks and souvenirs.
El Caminito
In one of the side shops. The colors were almost as blindingly bright as a Casa Rosada chandelier.
Bright! Bright! Bright!
Cool paintings

Even the school is in on the fun!
Walkway by the water
Already melting (but still delicious) ice cream.

We didn’t have a ton of time to spend exploring, but we managed to stroll El Caminito a few times, eat some ice cream, and walk around the neighboring streets. From there, we headed back to the hostel, picked up our bags, and took a cab to the airport.

Whew! Can you believe it? We’re finally finished talking about Argentina!

Coming up next… get ready for some more recent escapades! We’re headed right back to where we left off in Peru, with me on the way to the airport to meet my parents for 10 days of Peruvian adventures!