In Quest of Boobies and the Ancient Incas

Picture the continent of South America for a moment, with the ribbon of the Equator wrapped snugly around its shoulder. Then picture the Galapagos Islands and legendary Machu Picchu, as well as the Inca Trail, Lake Titicaca and the Nasca Lines. All these unique names and places come to mind as one conjures up images of exotic sun-drenched locales seen mainly through the colourful lenses of National Geographic. In order to fully experience it for ourselves some of us have always had a great yearning to set foot in paradise. But for far too long and for far too many, that dream has sadly remained but a fantasy.

Our fantasies certainly came true this year however when our ‘Roamers Group’ travel club invited us to “Cruise the Galapagos & Follow the Inca’s Trail.” As usual in preparation for our much anticipated trips, our e-mails were filled with many voluminous newsletters containing valuable information from our trip organizers. This went back and forth for months until our eventual October departure date. No stone was left unturned in readying us for an adventure of a lifetime; and what an adventure it turned out to be. There were thirty four of us intrepid adventurers comprised of my wife Margaret and I. We were mainly Canadians, with a good number of new faces included. But we also extended a friendly hand across the border in inviting four of our dear American friends to join us.

Saturday October 15th. came at long last. We all gathered early and gleefully greeted one another at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport while awaiting our Continental Airlines 1:44pm. flight bound for Newark New Jersey. This being one of the smaller commuter planes, our group practically took up most of the seating on the short flight. Later that afternoon at around five o’clock we connected to our other Continental Airlines flight, this time bound for Quito Ecuador via Panama. Our group soon became lost amoung the many Latino passengers on board. It also marked the beginning of our two-week crash course in rudimentary Spanish, seeing as how our flight information from then on would not exclusively be announced in English.

The autumn sun was setting rapidly as we winged our way due south. And from my window I glimpsed the New York skyline, with the distinctive Empire State Building towering high over Manhattan far off in the hazy distance. It was soon twilight as we inched our way off the South Eastern shore of the United States, and with the full expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean beneath us, it seemed as though the pilot then and there cranked up the engines into overdrive for the long haul down to South America.

From time to time the odd Caribbean island came into view highlighted by scattered lights outlining its varied contours. Looking out my right wing window towards the Western sky, the distinctive white sparkle of the planet Venus could not be easily missed. I watched in wonder as it followed us for hours while we crossed the dark Caribbean Sea, only to be lost in the clouds on our eventual approach to the coast of Central America.

It was a rainy Saturday night in Panama City on our arrival several hours later. However on our approach through the raindclouds, I could clearly see the outline of the busy Panama Canal, with dozens of cargo and cruise ships all awaiting their turn to traverse the long isthmus. It seemed like the majority of Latino passengers were Panama bound, since after the maintenance crew quickly cleaned the plane, our group practically had the aircraft to ourselves for the rest of the journey.

We gained an hour in time on the last leg of our flight, not due to a tailwind, but really because of the time difference in Ecuador. It was about 11:40pm. local time when after many twists and turns we made our final descent into Quito’s international airport. The main runway seemed so close to the urban community that for a minute I thought we were in danger of clipping some rooftops when we hurriedly zoomed in for a hard, but safe landing.

For months we were warned about altitude sickness, but I had no idea what it really felt like until it immediately engulfed us upon disembarking from the plane. Making our way up the steep ramp into the terminal building, it felt as if Margaret and I had just climbed a mountain, the way we were panting for breath. Our breathlessness continued during our patient wait in line at Immigration, and afterwards while retrieving our luggage.

Then it was off to the parking lot where we met our local guide Jorge as well as our American traveling companions who had just arrived on an earlier flight. Apart from heavy breathing in the thin air, it also was a chilly night which greeted us as we wearily piled into our waiting bus. And after our bags were loaded on, we made our way for the short ride across town to our home for the next few days, that of the Café’Cultura Hotel. This former mansion once served as the French embassy before its present life as a refurbished white-coloured stucco hotel. It was there where on entrance; we were greeted with a cool tropical fruit drink before finally bedding down for the night to enjoy a well deserved sleep.

Sunday morning in Quito came early for us fatigued adventurers. It was a hurried continental breakfast; briefings of the day’s activities by our accompanying national guide Don Forster in the hotel’s ornate common room; and then on the bus by 9:30am. The streets were mainly empty when we made our way out of town and climbed the steep mountain roads that surrounded the metropolis in the valley. It became sunnier by the time we joined the main highway on route to Otavalo. And as we traversed through towns with strange sounding names such as Calderon, Cotacachi, Cuicocha Lagoon and San Antonio de Ibarra, the low-lying fog was noticeably diminishing.

I was just getting acclimatized to our new surroundings,…sometimes arid and dusty while other times heavily vegetated particularly around the farming areas, … when unexpectedly our bus abruptly pulled over. On stepping out we were given the pleasant news by Jorge that we were now standing in the center of the world, at zero longitude and zero latitude. To mark the spot, there was a green-painted pillar, that stood waist-high with a moderately large charcoal coloured globe of the world erected in that location. A short distance behind and connecting the two monuments was a long red line drawn down the middle of the tiled surface, dividing the hemispheres.

Imagine our childish joy as we all jostled for photo positions while stepping one time across the line into the northern hemisphere, and then just as easily back into the southern hemisphere. It was a fun thing for some of us to straddle the Equator, while other romantic couples lovingly held hands across the world for the first time. As expected there were local merchants nearby with erected stalls laden down with colourful scarves, tablecloths and artifacts. They were eagerly awaiting the excited shoppers in our group … of course one of whom I know very well.

Our next stop was a few miles down the highway, where we patronized the local merchant by buying handsome home-made Panama straw hats. Some stepped out of the shop looking quite smart wearing the ones with the attractive multicoloured hatbands. There was also a lookout point at that location from where we were treated to a panoramic view of the nearby active Imbabura volcano, temporarily under cloud at the time. From there one could see where the mountain gracefully sloped down to the adjacent Lake Quicocha, making for a picture perfect scene. Therefore many a photo was taken before we again headed up the road to the North Country.

We were on the highway about two hours by then, when we swung off and navigated our big bus down the narrow streets of the quaint rural town of Otavalo. Here we had our first real glimpse of the authentic culture and lifestyle of small-town Ecuador. The diversity of their rich culture became more apparent as we dispersed and meandered our way through the large, colourful and vibrant Otavalo handicraft Market.

This marketplace occupies several square blocks of the downtown area, and is a shopper’s paradise. For those who appreciate the artistry of finely woven cloths, ponchos, sweaters, pottery and other artifacts, this is the place to shop. Although they weren’t overbearing, we were r constantly cajoled however by the friendly vendors standing besides their stalls, while we made our way down the narrow isles. The air in this lower altitude location was much more breathable for us, and was made further endurable by the sweet smell of incense which emanated from various merchants’ stalls.

Throughout the market, we were constantly regaled by the melodic sounds of Inca Indian music blaring from various loudspeakers, and of course CDs were always at the ready for sale. While we walked around, we observed with delight the many indigenous women vendors dressed in their beautiful native attire. They fetched a handsome picture in their multi-layered knee-length petticoats, as well as colourfully embroidered tops and resplendent straw Panama or brown Bowler hats, which served to compliment their ensemble. A number of them comfortably transported their young babies while bundled up in makeshift cloth sacks tied around their shoulders and hanging down their backs. The men on the other hand were just as striking, in Panama hats with their hair combed in pony tails. While many others wore multi-coloured ponchos draped over matching pants and boots.

Getting on the bus again, it seemed like I was one of the few who weren’t laden down with bags of merchandise. By then it was approaching lunchtime and as you know shopping takes a lot of energy out of you, even for me … a perpetual onlooker. We soon arrived with open appetites for a sumptuous luncheon at the three hundred year old hacienda Pinsaqui, which is located along the nearby Pan American Highway in the valley of the majestic Imbabura volcano.

From the time we disembarked, we were met at the gate and serenaded through the spacious grounds by a band of local musicians. They were dressed in dazzling white cotton pants and shirts, and as they played their flutes and drums, we hungry tourists were made to feel very welcomed. We were then led further along the flowered garden path and past the large fountain spewing plumes of water that shimmered in the bright midday sun. We next entered the main door of this ornate Spanish colonial-styled building and were greeted by smiling staff who then ushered us into the impressive hacienda.

Through the hallowed halls we followed; after which we were soon seated in a moderately sized dining room with large cathedral windows, which overlooked the splendid rear gardens that framed a large pond. Lunch was a gastronomic delight, with course after delicious course satiating our grateful palates. The genteel ambiance of the hacienda only added to the charming meal, as we lingered for a while longer at our tables. After lunch some of us took our ‘walks’ amid the palm trees, and further explored the rest of this grand estate; one in which a horse stables and private chapel was situated adjacent to the great house. We learned historically that many a distinguished guest had been hosted here, in the likes of General Simon Bolivar,… the liberator of South America. And furthermore, a major treaty between Columbia and Ecuador was also signed at this renowned hacienda.

The return drive to Quito was a rather quiet one, with a brief stop in a dusty town along the way to view the local weavers at their cottage industry. Afterwards a number of us weary ones seized the opportunity to catch up on our sleep, for we only had a four hour grace period before our welcome dinner that evening. We then met in the lobby all spruced up, with the ladies in particular looking quite outstanding. Then all hopped into a number of available taxis which whisked us a few blocks across town to a popular restaurant for dinner that night. On entering, we were seated in a section reserved for our group, as was the case with other tourist groups. And before our delicious four course meal could be fully consumed, we were being entertained on the floor by another local flute and drum-playing band, just as the desert was being served.

There were beautiful dancing girls dressed in an assortment of colourful native costumes, accompanied by dancing boys portraying a variety of Ecuadorian folkloric sketches performed to live music. As much as we were delighted by the dinner and show, it by then had been another long day for us, and the altitude sickness was taking our breath away. And so into the taxis and off to bed we hurriedly went, hopeful of sweet dreams of wonderful days to come.

Our group was quickly getting used to becoming early risers, since after another hurried breakfast we were headed to the airport that Monday morning for our 9:00am. flight on TAM airlines. We were initially concerned about the weight of our individual luggage, seeing as how regional domestic airlines were less generous with accepting similar weight limits as the international carriers. Thanks to the resourcefulness of our able Guide Don forster who checked us in as a group, thus alleviating the individual over weight problem.

A definite air of excitement permeated our group, seeing as how our Galapagos Island odyssey was just about to begin. And boarding our flight, we first winged our way to San Cristobal Island via a brief in transit stop on the major cargo shipping island of Guyaquil. Much to our surprise on this short flight we were treated to quite a substantial meal served by cheerful flight attendants, who offered a choice of complimentary red or white wines...A far cry from similar flights back home, where one is lucky to get pretzels and a soda.

The closer we got to the sixteen Galapagos Island chain the sunnier the weather became. And soon the tiny island of San Cristobal came into sight. First discovered by the Spaniards in 1555, they named the islands Galapagos after viewing the hard shell of the land Tortoises, which they thought resembled horse riding saddles on which to gallop. Our plane then made a steep right turn followed by a rapid descent, resulting in another speedy hard landing. At the pace at which we went down the runway, I was concerned whether we would eventually run out of tarmac. And as the planeload of us tourists unhurriedly filed out into the warm sunshine, looking around I had to speculate that these scary hard landings were probably necessary due to the high altitude conditions on these ancient ten million year old volcanic islands.

It was here that each visitor is required to pay $100.00 USD cash, to enter the Galapagos Park system. So after making our deposit and having our passports inspected and stamped by the officials, we were summoned by representatives of the local tour company onto our buses for our short drive to the seaport. Some Port! … Instead of the customary cruise ship docked at a wharf as I expected, on disembarking the bus we were each supplied an orange coloured lifejacket and told to stand in line for our transportation to our cruise ship.

Looking out to sea I saw nothing resembling our big cruise ship amoung the many small yachts and fishing boats anchored in the harbour. On the decks of some of those fishing boats laid groups of black and brown coloured Sea Lions. Much to our amusement, many were playfully fussing amoung themselves; some diving off the boats and chasing after each other, while others remained on deck catching the afternoon sun. Our attention was suddenly distracted however when to our surprise, here came a large grey rubber zodiac piloted by a life jacketed seaman, rounding the corner near the hidden bend in the coast. He looked official enough, dressed in blue overalls as he sat at the rear operating the outboard motor. But we soon learned that our ship was anchored some two miles offshore and the only way for us to get to it, was by risking our lives in this rubber dingy.

Where the hell is the regular cruise ship ‘tender’ I wondered? And like the others, I also didn’t feel too secure jumping from the landing onto the craft while carefully timing my leap to match the bobbing waves. Luckily my wife Margaret also made it safely, as she joined the dozen or so of us in the dancing dingy. Holding onto the safety ropes on the sides for dear life while positioned sitting facing opposite each other, we then slowly made our way out to the windy open seas. Of course our other grave concern was how would this rubber tub take the ‘roller coaster’ ride over the big waves awaiting us out there?

We soon found out as wave after oncoming wave suddenly hurled us up in the air, and on re-entry caused big splashes with torrents of salty spray to repeatedly splatter all over us. Looking around I saw frozen smiles on the faces of many of my fellow passengers. But in my bravado I of course was valiantly trying to let out a nervous laugh with every frightening splash. Quickly crossing my mind were haunting thoughts of how deep is this Ocean, and how many hungry sharks await us at the bottom?

The Galapagos Legend soon came into view sitting anchored way off on the horizon with its white painted hull glistening in the afternoon sun. As advertised in its brochure .. “Its best suited for the Galapagos archipelago; since this 300 ft. five deck vessel with 2,746 GRTs, offers all the amenities of a larger cruise liner with its spacious public areas, elegantly appointed cabins and suites. But it’s small enough for that intimate experience with nature that truly brings visitors to the Galapagos. Its crew of fifty-five, as well as six multilingual naturalist guides also makes life on board a memorable adventure”….

As our zodiac neared the portside of the ship, much to our chagrin it was obvious that without any stable landing, platform or steps, we’d definitely have to do our aquatic acrobatic jump again. Somehow nowhere in the volumes of information received did I see any mention of this precarious exercise. The procedure is that two strong crew members stand guard at the ship’s door holding onto secured ropes for support. Then there’s a short metal ladder attached and secured to the side, which passengers are to climb onto, aided by the trusted clasped-arms of the ship’s crew at the door. It was quite the relief afterwards to be welcomed onboard by the friendly multilingual crew, and then shown to our spacious cabins.

A quick snack after settling in and we were on the bobbing zodiac again. This time heading to shore for an excursion to the highest point of San Cristobal Island. It was here that we viewed the flora, fauna and giant land turtles that inhabit that part of the island. Interestingly enough, the temperature dropped increasingly as we climbed higher in the mountainous regions, and correspondingly the vegetation also changed from tropical to almost alpine.

We had to do the necessary zodiac shuffle again on our way back to the ship later that afternoon. But this time it seemed less threatening and somewhat romantic, as accompanying us was the beautiful orange rays of the setting sun with its fading light shimmering off the bouncing waves. It was almost dark as we hopped onboard ship, ready for a splendid dinner followed by a cozy bed … thus ending this first night of our three day cruise.

Day four- Tuesday October 18th, breakfast on board was served buffet style and worth every morsel. All hundred or so passengers on the ship, … who hailed from a variety of countries, … were then divided into six smaller groups identified by the names of some of the popular birds of the Galapagos. On hearing over the public address system the announced names of our group such as – ‘Boobies’ or ‘Frigates’ for instance, passengers were instructed to descend to the departure level, don their lifejackets and disembark onto the bobbing zodiacs.

We were visiting Genovesa Island – El Barranco that morning, which was best known as the “Island of Birds.” And it certainly lived up to its name as we slowly cruised along its towering bird-nested cliffs in our zodiac. It was admirable to see the symbiotic relationships that exist between the various species as well as the ‘Sea Lions’ lounging on the lower rocks. We then made a ‘dry landing’ at El Barranco (Prince Philip’s Steps), and what a climb it was. One had to be rather able-bodied to manage those slippery and precarious vertical steps. But the reward was the splendid view of the vast Pacific Ocean with our ship anchored offshore.

For the next hour or so, armed with walking sticks and accompanied by our most knowledgeable Naturalist Guide, we made a trek across this rugged lava terrain. Along the way, could be seen a startling variety of rear birds nesting such as the ‘nesting Red Footed Boobies’, ‘Nasca Boobies’, red inflated bosomed ‘Frigates’ and ‘short ear Owls.’ In the protected areas of the island, it was so humid that we had to strip down to our t-shirt and shorts. But a short distance away in the open areas, our jackets and parkers were hurriedly needed as we braced the sudden drop in temperature and light drizzle off the ocean. Many photos and videos were taken, with us posing as close to the nonchalant birds in their natural habitat as tolerable.

After returning to the ship for lunch, there was no siesta time allowed, since our adventure that afternoon was to visit Darwin Bay. This island required our first ‘wet landing.’ And since the zodiac could only get so far up the beach, we had to jump out and wade in while getting splashed with the oncoming waves. Thoughts of hungry shoreline swimming sharks only served to hurry our bare feet towards the beach, where sharp stones and treacherous pretty sea shells awaited our every tender step.

In the brilliant afternoon sunshine we made our way in small groups with our Naturalist Guides who gave a running commentary on the customs and behaviour of the various species of island inhabitants. We felt no threat from the docile ‘Sea Lions’ except for the nursing mothers becoming a bit anxious if we passed too close to their offspring. Everywhere we looked could be seen more ‘Red-Footed Boobies’, ‘Frigates’, ‘Lava Gulls’ and ‘Night Herons.’ To conclude our visit, some of the more adventurous amoung us braved the waves and enjoyed a quick splash, while others snorkeled a bit in the shallow Bay.

It was an exhausted bunch of Galapagos adventurers who returned to the ship by the end of that day. But it was the nighttime that I most looked forward to. Soon after dinner as we sailed out to sea, I made my way to the upper deck and from that vantage point it was stargazing heaven for me. I was enthralled with the rear close-up of planets Mars raising its pink face in the east; And then I turned my head to face the brilliant white light of Venus, sitting in stark contrast amid the fading crimson sunset in the west. In the pitch blackness of the Pacific night sky, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia constellations reigned supreme along the outstretched band of the Milky Way, with a clarity seldom seen in polluted North American skies. But where was that coveted Southern Cross I wondered? Perhaps another night it might show its face.

Espanola Island greeted us bright and early the next morning. Travelling in our ‘bird named’ groups again, we zodiaced to another ‘dry landing’ at Suarez Point amoung the swimming ‘Sea Lions’ and ‘Iguanas.’ To traverse the lava terrain of this island took us about a half hour, and in some parts it was hard going against the brisk wind. One had to be watchful as to where one stepped for there nesting could be ‘Hooded Mocking birds,’ ‘Red Billed Tropic birds,’ ‘lava Lizards’ or fearsome looking black and red coloured ‘Marine Iguanas.’ The delight for me was observing a colony of ‘Waved Albatrosses.’ These long yellow-beaked birds with the white feathers are known to mate for life, and are rather fawning and attentive to one another particularly when performing their ritualistic but clumsy looking mating dance.

On our return along the rugged coastal trail, we were delighted to witness off the treacherous cliffs the repeatedly fierce crashing of foamy waves onto the rocky shore cavities way below. This natural action from time to time is known to create a massive blowhole, some 75ft. in height at times. It took some careful timing to be able to capture the geyser at its zenith, but with patience and a quick trigger finger on the camera, I managed to get some beautiful shots.

As was becoming the pattern, we had a quick lunch on ship then boarded our bobbing dingy again after sailing off to Santa Cruz Island. It was a long and rough ride this time, as the sea currents were certainly active that afternoon. Once safely disembarking we boarded a bus and made our way into Puerto Ayora to visit the famous Darwin Research Station. Charles Darwin the naturalist, was attracted to these islands in 1835, from where he developed his theory of natural selection, based on his observation of the various species of wildlife in that habitat.

His important work continues today at this station by teams of international scientists conducting research on biological and conservation projects. Some of those projects are the cultivation of giant land tortoises, which we observed at different stages of development from baby hatchlings to octogenarians. There is one famous resident Tortoise by the name of ‘George’ I believe, whom the research staff have been trying for years to find a suitable mate. Now a senior citizen, it’s their wish that he would sire a new generation before he becomes a centurion, or at worse … impotent! But to date, the old guy seems destined to remain celibate.

After leaving the station, our small group dispersed and wandered the streets of Santa Cruz. Some were browsing in tourist shops, shopping of course, and observing the carefree lifestyle of the locals on the busy streets late that afternoon. Soon it was time to leave this attractive island and head back to the ship. So into the zodiacs we embarked encased in our customary life jackets for the long bumpy ride out to sea again.

But this time the seas were particularly rough, causing our rubber craft to almost do cartwheels with each oncoming wave. Many a time our driver had to decrease the throttle and slow down to almost a crawl in order to avoid capsizing. And in the fading light our fearful hearts were figuratively in our hands as we inched our way closer to our bobbing ship, which we could view on the near horizon.

By the time we arrived alongside our ship, I was in grave doubt as to how we could safely transfer in these high seas. At times our anchored ship was seen swaying greatly from side to side as would a rocking cradle, while at the same time wave upon wave was heaving our zodiac sometimes as high up as several feet above the port door, and just as quickly plunged it down just as far. This made for a very dangerous maneuver which would require steady heads, good timing and strong arms to extract all of us frightened passengers from the jaws of a potential watery grave.

With great effort, repeated attempts and no doubt divine intervention, we all managed to get back on board ship safely but quite shaken. We spent the rest of the night enduring the rocking and rolling of the ship as it heaved precariously from side to side while forging ahead in the turbulent seas. Talk about battering down the hatches, this was certainly the case as objects went tumbling off night tables and rolling from one corner of our cabin to the other … all night long.

We weathered the stormy night to be rewarded with a brilliant Thursday morning anchored in the calm waters off Isla Lobos. This was the last day of our Galapagos Island hopping, and as such we gladly made our way by zodiac into the tranquil lagoon to observe the local aquatic habitat. Leisurely maneuvering among the mangroves we came upon several white-tipped sharks. Mud-brown in colour, these ghostly figures calmly went about their business just below the clear-green surface seemingly undisturbed by our presence. They appeared so docile, that for a mad moment I almost thought of reaching out and touching.

After shutting off the outboard motor, our driver then gingerly paddled us through the inner lagoon, where as if on the stalk, we encountered a group of about seven light-brown Manta Rays. These oval-shaped creatures with trailing whip-like tails were gradually gliding in orderly formation as if in an aquatic ballet. They were no doubt accompanied it seemed, by the music of their natural surroundings, in a rhythm that was lost to us but known only to them.

For a while we all sat in silent wonder at the beauty of Mother Nature’s serene and pristine environment. A gentle breeze then came up and caressed the smiles on our contented faces. And with the sweet sound of a chorus of colourful birds singing in the swaying branches nearby, just for a moment … we actually glimpse a little piece of paradise. Needless to say, it was the sudden harsh sound of our clicking cameras that abruptly brought us back to reality.

On our way out, as other zodiacs approached with their noisy engines shattering the serenity, we rounded a bend and came upon a giant brown Sea Turtle surfacing for a breath of air. Before swimming past our boat he took a peek as if to welcome us, then just as quickly disappeared into the green depths of the lagoon, never to be seen again.

It was with great reluctance that we had to leave this aquatic paradise and return to our ship. This being only the first entrée’ to our wonderful two week South American adventure, we therefore had a plane to catch back to the mainland where the enchanting city of Quito awaited us. However, before leaving most of us took the opportunity to have our passports stamped with the commemorative seal of the Galapagos Islands as a memento of our visit.

Friday October 21st, after overnighting in Quito, we took a half-day city tour, which included a ride on the newly opened cable car. Through the haze from some twelve thousand feet above sea level, we viewed the bustling city below and its surrounding snow-capped mountains, most of which were under cloud. From there, we were glad to return to lower levels, since our breathing was still quite laboured, despite gallons of Coca tea consumed.

Our tour afterwards took us to the second, but more official Equatorial Line Monument. It was here that several group photos were taken at this much more impressive signpost depicting the centre of the earth. Again, we were privileged to cross the Equator several times by simply stepping over the line. Similarly, as part of our cruise on the Galapagos Legend, all passengers were awarded with a certificate indicating that we had also crossed the Equator a number of times.

That evening at 8:30 we left Quito for the last time and flew out on LAN Airlines bound for Lima Peru, some two hours away. According to our itinerary it was meant to be a brief stopover, almost in transit it seemed, where for a short time we overnighted at the Casa Andina Hotel. By 5:00am the following morning we weary travelers were on our way back to the airport for our LAN Airline 7:00am flight to Cusco. Within that hour’s flight we traversed the rugged but breathtaking snow-capped Andean Mountains, which from the air gave the wonderful appearance of a massive scalloped chocolate cake randomly crowned with white icing on its many peaks.

After arriving in the ancient city of Cusco, our buses managed to maneuver the crowed but narrow streets to within a block of our Hotel Novotel situated in the central area. From there we were required to walk through a gauntlet of pestering street venders all competing for our attention. It was with a sense of relief that we entered the fortified but ornate courtyard of our hotel, and after a few complimentary cups of hot Coca tea, it was off to bed for some of us tired adventurers.

Our respite was short-lived however because by 2:00pm, we were summoned for our walking tour of Cusco. So armed with a few more cups of Coca tea under our belts to combat the dreaded altitude sickness, we headed off to visit Plaza de Armas, La compania and Calle Palacio which houses the museum of religious art. A sudden late afternoon downpour signaling the start of the rainy season, soon had us happily scurrying back to our hotel amoung the ever present pandering street venders. We were able to rest for a while afterwards, before our welcome dinner in the midst of local Inca musical accompaniment in the candle-lit courtyard that evening. It was an early night for all however, with the promise of many busy days ahead.

By 8:30 that Sunday morning of October 23rd. our intrepid group of thirty-four were on our buses again and heading out of town. This day our destination was through the picturesque Sacred Valley to the town of Pisaq for a guided tour followed by lunch. But in route we stopped for a walking tour of the Fortress of Sacsayhuaman, overlooking the brown stoned city of Cusco. On leaving, Margaret and I took photos in the company of the local peasants with their Llamas in hand. Even Margaret looked giant-like standing next to the diminutive family.

It was a pleasant drive afterwards along the scenic highway that wound through this highly revered Sacred Valley. With our cameras clicking away, we couldn’t help but admire its massive mountains displaying contrasting stone faces that delighted us as we ventured further on. Some of the higher snow-capped ones teasingly peeped out at us as we rounded steep bends in the road, while other lower altitude ones dressed in all varieties of verdant vegetation, confronted us at times head on at road level.

We also stopped a few times for photo opportunities, which were much appreciated. One of these stops was adjacent to a river that ran through the valley on whose banks a herd of combating Bulls were vying for supremacy. We watched with amused interest as the dominant Bull eventually won the day … and probably the favours of the many cute cows. Further down the highway we made an impromptu stop at a farm which breeds South American ‘Camelids’ for woolen rugs and apparel.

There we were walking amoung the various ‘Llama’ and ‘Alpaca’ cattle, feeding them green vines which they ate with relish from our outstretched hands. These South American cousins to our smaller Sheep and Goats come in all sizes and colours. And they are highly prized for the quality of their woolen hair, which sell for great prices on the world textile market. There was even one nonchalantly grazing on the nearby hill that was identified as the ‘Rasta Llama’ due to his abundantly thick grey hair which almost cascaded down to the ground. Although they appeared docile, we were cautioned that they’re known to spit when provoked. We also saw local Inca weavers in costume situated under makeshift huts creating highly colourful and intricate patterned rugs. Of course many of us ended up in the farm’s gift shop where some expensive purchases were made.

According to our itinerary, we were scheduled to visit Ollantayambo, an attractive little town built on top of the original Inca foundations and located at the western end of the Sacred Valley. However, by mutual agreement as well as the late hour of the day, it was decided to do so early the following morning. Instead we checked into the Casa Andina Private Collection Hotel in Sacred Valley. What a sight for sore eyes, as we viewed our ‘home’ for the night.

These cabana-style two storied rust-coloured buildings were designed in such a way that they’re spread across a vast and attractively landscaped courtyard. Such an open-concept, with its strategically placed plants and large red clay pots leaves one with a great sense of space and freedom, while moving around the attractive compound. And of course it certainly enhanced my star gazing at night, with only the surrounding mountains to curtail my view of the open heavens. In my view, this was to date the ritziest hotel in which we stayed on our entire tour.

We were up early again as was the necessary custom on this trip,… known as 6,7,8, and sometimes 5,6,7.o’clock…. And after another delicious breakfast we were on the buses and heading out to visit the ruins of Ollantayambo. In preparation for our climb of Machu Picchu, Margaret and I as well as others in our party purchased walking sticks with colourful embroidered handles from the local vendors. These came in handy however as some of us panted our way to the top of the pyramidal mountain of Ollantayambo with our knowledgeable guide encouraging us all the way. From there we were able to enjoy a panoramic view of the grandeur of these Inca ruins.

My anxiety was rising by the minute, as I’m sure was the case with others, when we again boarded our buses for the short ride to the nearby train station. After filtering through yet another gauntlet of noisy venders hawking their wares, we were soon all aboard our Vista Domed first-class carriage which was situated just behind the powerful diesel engine.

This is an impressive looking train handsomely dressed in its bright blue coat of paint and complimented by yellow stripes situated under the windows and down along the side. From our seats we had clear site of the surrounding countryside through our large windows, and also from there we could look up through the clear bubble canopy to enjoy the view of the magnificent mountains along the Urumbamba valley. Much to our surprise, we were treated to an airline-style complimentary lunch, served by their most hospitable and efficient crew.

With the sharp tooting of the whistle and a puff of diesel smoke, down the track we went with our train snaking its way around succeeding bends parallel to the forcefully flowing Urumbamba River. At times we observed trekkers making their way along the nearby Inca Trail, … one of the most spectacular walks in the Americas. It’s understood that over 25,000 hikers from all over the world,… including our Australian born guide Don Forster who had climbed it some thirteen times, … walk the 23 Km. stone-paved trail yearly. This trail which was build by the Incas in route to Machu Picchu, is located 130 Km from the city of Cusco. But unlike them, we’re trekking today in luxury, seated in the comfort of this magnificent train as we ride through the legendary and picturesque Urumbamba valley.

There was also a noticeable drop in altitude the further we traversed down the rails, and it was reflected in the changing vegetation from sparse Alpine to more dense tropical. At one point our train slowed down almost to a crawl when we neared the scene of a recent landslide. This apparently is a regular occurrence, which caused great havoc the week before our arrival. Fortunately for us, the main damage was repaired, allowing our train free passage.

Like a child who couldn’t wait for Christmas, I anxiously counted down the minutes and miles on our way to Machu Picchu. And after what seemed like an eternity, we finally came to the end of the line when we our train rolled into the station at the charming town of Aguas Calientes. From there as a group we all took the short leisurely walk to our Hatuchay Tower Hotel, situated along the main road across from the boulder-strewn rushing waters of the Urumbamba River.

By two o’clock that Monday afternoon of October 24th, our group boarded several local buses for our long awaited visit to the sacred citadel of Machu Picchu. My heart began beating faster as we wound our way up the narrow mountainous roadway for about twenty long minutes. In route we found ourselves dodging on-coming buses, trucks and Inca Peasants whom we encountered navigating this treacherous winding dirt road.

With our engine whining loudly under the strain, we continued to zigzag our way further up this steep thoroughfare. By then I could barely see the powerful but now distant Urumbamba River slowly sinking in the mist way down below. And it was pretty soon after lost to us under the low-laying clouds. Just at that moment turning skyward I happen to glimpse the majestic peak of Machu Picchu Mountain as it came into view, and from thereon the butterflies in my stomach started fluttering for real.

Only one final turn on the dusty road was needed for my long awaited dream to come true. And with the eventual arrival of our bus at the crowded parking lot of the Park, I felt that I had died and went to heaven. Stepping down, I was almost tempted to kiss the ground … I was so excited. But we had to keep together as a group and follow in the shadow of our local tour Guide. He then led us through the ticket takers at the main gate and eventually onto the crowded main trail leading into the Park.

While rounding the first corner along the narrow trail, in a state of excitement we dutifully followed in the well worn footsteps of the ancient Incas as well as the millions who had gone before us. It was then that my mind turned for a minute to Hiram Bingham the American explorer and professor of History. He is credited with rediscovering this city of the Incas in 1911, and although the jungle had reclaimed most of the citadel by the time he first saw it, his heart must have skipped as many beats as mine on first sight. In my euphoria I almost literally pinched myself in the realization that I was actually standing on the hallowed grounds of the legendary “old peak” known as Machu Picchu.

Prior to this special moment, for years this site had only been a photo in a periodical to me. And here we were today finally feasting our eyes first hand on its magnificence. As I prepared to make my own photo record of my discovery, my moistened eyes continued to gaze spellbound with admiration on this glorious site. It was indeed a proud and sacred moment for Margaret and me, as well as to the millions who have been privileged to come here through the years.

Here was the grey-stoned ‘Wayna Picchu’ Mountain standing protectively for millennia, as if sheltering the harsh elements away from the maze-like brown-hued Ruins situated at its feet. We were suddenly overcome with a sense of urgency, as Margaret and I took turns photographing ourselves with the historic city as our backdrop. It had something to do with capturing every nuance of this magic kingdom, before we woke up and realized it was perhaps only a fantasy.

We couldn’t dwell for too long under its magic spell for our guide was ushering us on to view the ‘Terraces’ of the agricultural sector, with the ‘Watchman’s Hut’ perched high on its peak. In the opposite direction lay the ‘Temple of the Three Windows,’ one of the fine examples of megalithic construction at Machu Picchu, where it’s speculated that religious ceremonies and animal sacrifices once took place.

Then it was on to the urban sector pass the ‘Principal Temple’ with its massive altar, and just beyond stood an irregular pyramid on which lies ‘Intiwatana’ …” the hitching post of the sun.” Legend has it that this granite-bodied carved stone is said to be located at the crossing points of a straight north-south line between the mountain peaks of ‘Wayna Picchu’ and ‘Salcantay,’ and the east-west line between ‘Wakay Willka’ and ‘San Miguel’. In that way it serves to hitch the sun in configuration with the mountains, particularly at the time of the winter solstice. We were told that ‘Intiwatana’ has magnetic energy, which could be felt by holding out one’s hands closely over the stone. I suspect that the energy level must’ve been used up by previous groups of tourists by the time I got there, because I didn’t feel a thing.

With the sun slowly fading and the tourist population diminishing as well, the tame ‘Llamas’ and ‘Alpacas’ soon regained most of their natural territory. They were previously seen grazing their time away around the ‘Principal Plaza’ with its lone standing tree. On our way out we made a brief stop at the ‘Temple of the Sun,’ the building considered to have the finest masonry finish in all of Machu Picchu.

Built on natural rock, this Temple gives shape on the lower part to a small carved mausoleum with trapezoidal niches. It’s constructed with three windows, two of which permit the sun’s rays to enter in a precise way during their summer solstice (Dec. 21st) and their winter solstice (June 21st). The third is called the Window of the Serpents, perhaps for obvious reasons. Furthermore, the exterior portions of the rock were carved at intervals representing the three sacred spaces of the Inca world; … the world of the dead, …the world of the living, and …the world of the Gods.

There were three organized tours offered to Machu Picchu the following morning. A 5:00am trek to the ‘Gate of the Sun,’ in order to greet the sunrise. Another at 8:30am, and a tour on the lower sections to the ‘Inca Bridge’ around 9:00am. I chose the second tour, preferring to see my way along the dangerous rocky precipices, while Margaret chose the lower lands. On entering the park this time, as a memento of our visit, and similar to the Galapagos Islands, I walked with our passports in order to have them stamped with the commemorative seal of Machu Picchu.

With my sturdy walking stick in hand, I joined my guide and group of ten, to make the long arduous trek twelve thousand feet above sea level along this portion of the Inca Trail. The fog was slowly lifting the higher we climbed in the sunshine, but with the increasing humidity and thinning atmosphere, we panted for our breaths all the more. Our guide kept saying we didn’t have too much further to go every time we repeatedly asked. He must’ve had a sadistic streak in him, seeing as how the people we encountered descending the narrow trail breathlessly gave us a different picture. But despite that, with laboured breathing we continued to carefully climb, mindful of the slippery stones as well as the possibility of falling down the precipice, never to be rescued.

Our guide was kind enough however to allow us a short rest period every so often, and we needed it indeed, especially for the less agile in our group. But what we all had in common was the determination to make it to the top. And that was made a lot easier when we looked back from time to time at the beautiful Ruins of Machu Picchu as it appeared more distant in our camera lenses.

When we reached three quarters of the way up the rock-strewn Inca Trail, we stopped to take another rest. And while looking around at the beautiful mountain scenery, my eyes were attracted to a massive grey stone boulder sitting on a large platform adjacent to the Trail. Its imposing body stood approximately two stories high and was contoured by a rough triangular peak. The more I marveled at its enormity, is the more I felt compelled to approach it.

So with the permission of our guide, I made my way up the short flight of stone steps towards its mammoth weather-beaten facade. Coming closer I couldn’t help noticing several remarkably long dark streaks descending as if in tears, down its somber grey face. These markings were no doubt patterned through the years, deep in its longitudinal cavities by dark coloured vegetation and accumulated debris. My steps quickened seeing as how I was being drawn even closer, until it eventually dwarfed me on arrival, under its overwhelming shadow.

Reaching the base, I felt the need to touch the rough face of this rock, and in so doing attempt to make contact with the true spirit embodied within. Later on as I left the altar of this sacred stone, I felt indeed grateful for having had this very special and exhilarating experience. It was one which left me with feelings of a connectedness with the ancient Incas; and at the same time, a greater appreciation of the fascination that the world holds for the wonders of Machu Picchu.

With my spirit rejuvenated, the remainder of the climb seemed so much easier when I eventually joined my group on the last leg to the top. On my way there, I learned from our guide that I was indeed in a sacred place at the boulder, … that of the burial site of a legendary Inca Princess.

The skies were sparkling overhead in sunny welcome, as our courageous group after a two hour climb, safely made it to the Ruins of the fabled ‘Gate of the Sun.’ A group photo was taken afterwards, with us standing like proud mountaineers on the summit of our own Mount Everest. And from there we were able to survey the magnificent Inca kingdom for as far as the eyes could see. It also provided a moment of quiet reflection for us. One which I truly savored sitting there basking in the warm sunshine, while counting my blessings for my good fortune.

The train ride back to Ollantaytambo was a quieter journey as many of us found ourselves lost in thoughts of the last two days. That night we enjoyed our last dinner in the beautiful confines of the Casa Andina Private Collection Sacred Valley, followed by a sound sleep with dreams of Machu Picchu resolutely in our hearts.

We were up with the sun and on the road again that Wednesday October 26th., this time in the direction of Cusco. But first we made a brief stop just down the road at an establishment where corn beer was being brewed locally. After sampling a taste of the frothy beverage we toured the premises to observe their Cuyi or Guinea Pigs. We learned that they were being reared for public consumption, this being their national dish. So there they were, about a hundred of the little Hamster-like rodents milling about their pen in an interesting blend of multicoloured furry bodies of brown and white. Some of us cringed at the thought of having a bar-be-qued one on our plate, … but that was yet to come.

A little further down the same road we made another stop, this time at a clay pottery enterprise. We were then given a conducted tour of the factory, and witnessed a demonstration of the making of pottery items from raw clay to the glazed finished product. Their gift shop did a brisk business before we left, with their fragile but unique merchandise in our hands.

We were Cusco bound again, but this time anxious to make one more stop of essential importance. Prior to our embarkation on this South American trip, our Peruvian hosts had requested donations of school supplies and other gifts from us, in aid of the construction of a new school being built in one of their native communities. As a result we ‘Roamers’ were only too glad to do our international civic duty, as we did for Kruger National Park in South Africa the year before.

Taking an extra suitcase with our gifts did initially present a weight problem as mentioned earlier. But with the method of pooling all our baggage together on a group check-in basis, that thankfully helped to alleviate the problem. Those who didn’t bring school supplies brought money or clothes. Margaret and I were able to donate not only school but dental hygiene supplies as well. But we felt most satisfaction when we presented the native children with stuffed white Reindeer dolls. These attractive dolls were all dressed in little red vests to match their little red antlers and cute red button of a nose.

Their community, akin to a reservation was situated about a mile off the main highway and placed in the middle of a wide open virtually barren plain. It took some careful driving for our bus driver to slowly navigate the rugged red-dirt terrain of a road that led us to their site. On our approach and eventual disembarkation from our two buses, we saw several curious children running towards us from all directions.

Not knowing if the children were informed of our pending arrival or the purpose of our visit, they shyly observed us first from a distance as if we were aliens stepped off a different planet. Before long however they were quickly warming up to the strangers in their midst. We were then escorted to their playground and soccer field, which was located adjacent to a large partially constructed brown brick building with an unfinished green-tiled roof. This, the local officials proudly informed us was the proposed community school for which our donations were intended.

We next noticed one large white and two dark green canvas tents pitched across the field from the school, outside of which were makeshift tables laden down with refreshments. While on the other side of the soccer field were erected two portable toilets for our convenience. With the children milling around and making fast friends with us, we continued to explore the facilities under a grey somber and threatening sky. Looking into the tents, we surprisingly found they contained long tables professionally laid with cutlery, glasses and napkins under red checkered table cloths.

There was an air of genuine welcome while we were hurriedly served red or white wines, beers and sodas by our smiling waiter. He was all smartly dressed up in his black pants, white shirt and black bow tie. After a few drinks, some of the athletes amoung us started up an impromptu soccer game on the dusty pitch with the energetic children, some of whom were still dressed in their school uniforms. While at the same time many of us avid photographers kept snapping photos of the happy scenes with our digital cameras. It was a joy to see the wonderment on the innocent faces of these children when we showed them their images in the picture windows of our cameras, … they couldn’t get enough of our magic machines.

While some of our group went off horse back riding at a nearby ranch, we spent nearly an hour socializing with the children in our halting Spanish, and their shy but watchful mothers who stood close at hand. These women were dressed in their multicoloured native attire, some with babies slung over their shoulders harness-style, while continuing to curiously observe our interactions with their excited children. Then it was time for lunch, and what an interesting lunch it turned out to be.

We were told that the meats, which comprised fish, chicken and some local wild meat were being cooked in the ground under hot stones. But prior to that course, bowls of hot Lettuce soup were served, followed by toss garden salad. Then came the main course consisting of the meats, vegetables, mixed rice and ground provisions such as sweet potatoes, all laid out buffet-style for our consumption.

Ironically, it was classy dining in the wilds of Peru while we ate our highly spiced meal seated across from each other in the crowded tents. Every now and then through the open entrance we observed some of the children hanging about and staring at us with longing faces. Their longing was short-lived however when it soon came time for us to distribute our gifts to these surprised children.

To prevent a mad scramble for the donations, the children, all thirty plus of them, were lined up in an orderly fashion. They were then individually summoned to us where out of large bags we handed them our various presents. It was as if Christmas had arrived early, to see the glee and gratitude portrayed on their beautiful faces. It warmed our hearts indeed to be able to bring these wonderful children such joy, and encouraged by their mothers, even some of the shyer ones returned for more gifts.

The late afternoon skies were finally clearing the rain clouds away, and thereby allowing the sun to just peep out. It was at the same time we reluctantly prepared to leave our new-found little friends. Looking back while slowly driving away, with each eager goodbye wave of their little hands, it was our hope and prayer in response that our brief presence in their young lives today would be a promise to continue shedding abundant educational sunshine on their many tomorrows.

It was nightfall by the time we wearily rolled back into the cool but windy city of Cusco. A quick change at our hotel after which we all assembled at a local restaurant in the vicinity of Plaza de Armas for our farewell dinner. There were only a few brave soles amoung us, excluding me, who dared to try the national dish… Guinea Pig. When its brown-roasted carcass was eventually served on a platter, complete with head and appendages, it was put under the scrutiny of our disapproving stares, followed by the flashing of cameras to record the special moment.

Our time was drawing near to leave the beautiful city of Cusco, with its maze of narrow streets, low-rise brown stone buildings, numerous public plazas and parks, and pesky but friendly street venders. At 7:45am. on Thursday October 27th. we all boarded our LAN Airline flight back to Lima. It was an uneventful take off on this our seventh flight to date. But somewhere between taking off and leveling off at our flying altitude, I suddenly felt as if I was experiencing altitude sickness again, and was panting for dear breath. Almost immediately, the trap doors above our heads suddenly flew open in concert, allowing our yellow oxygen masks to quickly drop down, dangling from their plastic cords in front of our faces.

It pays to give rapt attention to the familiar emergency flight instructions, for many of us found ourselves fumbling to strap on the device properly in order to receive the pure oxygen. Whatever the cause of this emergency we’ll never know, since there was no explanation to the benefit of us English speaking passengers. After about ten minutes we were told to take the masks off and breathe normally.

The rest of our short flight was routine, arriving in Lima within an hour. This being our last day in Peru, and with our Continental Airline flight to Houston not departing until midnight, we had the whole day to tour the large and vibrant metropolis that is Lima. Along the steep-cliffs of the Costa Verde seacoast we drove in the mist, with the ghosts of merchant ships barely visible on the foggy horizon. We soon found ourselves in a desert-like environment outside the city, where we came upon the Inca Sun Temple Ruins of Pachacamac, dating back from 1440 to 1533. From its dusty summit we were afforded a clear view of the Pan American Highway below, along with the vast expanse of the foggy Pacific Ocean.

Back in the city, we toured a number of interesting high-end neighbourhoods such as the ritzy Miraflores, as well as palm tree-lined boulevards along which many foreign national embassies are located. After a quick lunch in the commercial district, our group motored across this bustling city, pass the impressive looking Presidential Palace and other attractive Government buildings, to visit the beautiful San Francisco Church.

We dodged the legions of Pigeons fluttering about in the square, and then entered its large ornate wooden doors with the pale yellow façade. It was like stepping back in time to the days when the Church wielded equal power with the State in the lives of its subservient populace. We toured from the Organ loft, through the ancient library and on to the basement catacombs; where traversing the narrow dusty and dark corridors could be seen the skeletons and scattered bones of many a past priest and parishioner.

It was nice to escape to the flower gardens in the main courtyard, where a breath of fresh air was most welcomed. By then our time was fleeting far too quickly before we could gain a greater appreciation of this beautiful garden city of Lima. Our last supper was enjoyed that evening at a nearby convent. Entering the hallowed halls of the building, we were soon seated in the large dining room where several multiracial Nuns dressed in street clothing served our delicious meal.

There were ‘thank you’ speeches after dinner, especially by our contented and gracious American friends. Furthermore with the four course repast we had just enjoyed, there were many reasons for our thankfulness. Our dessert was served to the accompaniment of the talented Nuns singing the enchanting “Ave Maria.”, along with a few other international hymns. It made for a fitting goodbye to a splendid day spent in Lima, and signaling the end of our wonderful two week adventure. So on the bus we hopped again and off to the airport we went for the last time, to catch our overnight flight home via Houston Texas.

As usual I couldn’t sleep during the flight, only finding myself looking out the window at my marvelous stars on display, while counting my abundant blessings. “Cruise the Galapagos & follow the Inca’s Trail,” the information booklet said. We certainly did that, and did it to the fullest. And for those reasons time and time again I kept revisiting the many wonderful places we had set foot on. Then visualizing the friendly faces encountered on our journey, especially those of our beautiful adopted children on the native reservation, which only served to make me feel even more privileged.

I thought of if and when I would ever cross the Equator again, an act I did repeatedly with one step. And whether the Galapagos Islands could even remain unspoiled with the hordes of tourists who continue to visit? And then there’s Magnificent Machu Picchu, the kingdom close to the heavens where the Incas dwelled. Did I actually climb to the summit of the ‘Gate of the Sun’ and leave my footprints on the ancient stones of the Inca Trail to lead the way for countless others… I wondered?

There was the laughter we shared as a group over silly things. And who could forget Margaret’s glee when bargaining with the local merchants. And did she have a mishap again? .. Oh yeh!, …that thing with the bus. Thank heavens for Coca Tea to fight the dreaded altitude sickness. But there was also real fear that we all experienced the many times we risked our lives traversing the choppy Galapagos waters on those bobbing zodiacs. … And how about that Guinea Pig meal?.....

Just then the bright lights of Houston appeared on the horizon, and jolted me back to reality. Yes indeed, we have yet another plane to catch, but this time with the promise of a warm bed awaiting my weary bones, when I finally return to my …‘home sweet home.’

Ray Williams - Ray's Space

In Search of the Promised Land

“Aren’t you guys worried about going to places like Israel and Jordan?” concerned family and friends asked. “They’re always having wars and trouble over there.”“Not really,” my wife Margaret and I replied while packing our bags, “we’re going to look for the Promised Land.”... full story