Cruising the Galapagos

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Boarding a ship in the Galapagos puts you in a different world. Your cabin is compact, the windows and decks reveal water everywhere, the ship rolls, and you rapidly become accustomed to constant movement underfoot. I didn’t get seasick, and enjoyed most of the motion. Being surrounded by water was a pleasure. Any free time we had could be spent staring at the sea, waiting for a dolphin to jump or a turtle’s head to emerge for a moment. In the distance whales spouted. While we were having lunch looking out over the water, a huge manta ray leapt into the air, somersaulted and slapped back into the water. I couldn’t believe it.

The biggest plus to our visit was having two of our children and one’s partner, along. They made it much more fun, and it was a pleasure to have time to sit together and chat. We tended to stick with the kids, wanting to soak up as much time with them as possible, so we may not have been as sociable as we should have. Other people on the trip all had interesting stories and I was always impressed when I got talking to one of the other passengers. Everyone had traveled different places, had interesting careers or hobbies. It was an excellent group.

We cruised the Gapalagos on a relatively large ship the Lindblad/National Geographic Islander, with room for 48 passengers. Perhaps because of the season, the boat only carried 29 passengers, so there was always extra space in the dining room, the lounge, and on deck. It was the best possible cruising arrangement. Larger ships like ours are able to travel further, and as a result we managed to visit both Isabela and Fernandina Islands, a trip that would take too long for a land based group to reach and might be too rough for a smaller vessel. In addition, we stopped at N. Seymour, Rabida, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal. We did not stop at Floreana, however, the island with the famous mail box (You leave a letter and perhaps take one going to a destination near you to deliver/mail).

By far the best way to see the Galapagos is by cruise ship. Not only can you see more of the islands but you don’t have to pack and unpack every day or two. All your visits are already scheduled, permissions applied for, fees paid. These are significant advantages. With all the advantages we had, I still have to say that I don’t enjoy organized tours. Sometimes it’s the best way, or the only way, but overall it’s not my favorite mode of travel. I am not a cooperator. I dislike mandatory timetables, even when I benefit from them. That is, there were two or three time slots for activity each day. Often the early slot was a walk, which I usually skipped to sleep in. Each of the other time slots offered two activities, one in the water and the other a hike or boat ride. There was always something for those who didn’t want to get wet. Scheduling all this meant that people had to wake up and have breakfast at specific times. Some announcements over the ships PA system could be muted, but many were mandatory and broadcast in all cabins and public areas. I found it difficult to accept that these were necessary.

Our cabin was the best on the ship, large and comfortable, the best bed we’ve had away from home that I remember. We had great views over the bow of the ship and off to the starboard side, as well as seating areas and a desk. We had a real shower in our bathroom, not the mini shower that wets the entire bathroom. Staff straightened up three times a day! They left us chocolates every night–it was fabulous.

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The pictures of our room show how good we had it. Though the other cabins were much smaller, the public spaces were very nice, and with a smaller than average number of passengers, there was plenty of space for people to spread out and avoid spending time in their cabins during the day.

In addition to snorkeling and bird-watching, I went stand-up paddleboarding and looked at a animals at the same time. Another day I went kayaking along the coast and saw graffiti that has been left behind over the years. (It’s not permitted today.) Add snorkeling and boat rides and we were busy all the time and we knew what to do, very important in the Galapagos. There are lots of rules, one of which is that you cannot visit most places outside the towns without a guide. Each tour receives permission to visit specific places at specific dates and times. There is no pulling in to a pretty white sand beach to explore, as large areas of the Galapagos are closed to anyone without a specific research permit. It’s limiting, but also protective. No plastic is allowed, even on cruise ships. I appreciated the effectiveness of the Galapagos rules and regulations on the beaches where there was no trash at all. Not any. In a full week I found one tiny knot of nylon rope (1/2″ clump), Jimmy found a Gatorade bottle, and we saw a floating apple core and two halves of an orange. That was it. I have not been on such clean shores in many years.

We had guides who were qualified at the highest level, all Ecuadoreans who speak English. One had a background as a biologist, the others completed a training course for Galapagos guides. I would have preferred that all our guides had a background in science, and I regretted that our ship didn’t have a guide interested in birds, but that wasn’t promised. Our entire staff, guides, crew and captain were Ecuadorean–not a single American or Brit apart from the passengers. Now and then passengers filled in a word when the guide couldn’t come up with the correct one, but they got the job done.

The staff was well trained and rapidly instructed us on how to do what was required. This included wearing life-jackets, how to board and disembark from small boats, where to clean swimming gear, how to make onboard purchases.

Although we had a wonderful trip, why don’t I want to go on another cruise, ever? Most are built-in aspects of cruising that I would prefer to avoid if I have a choice.

-The tour companies exaggerate, even Lindblad/Nat Geo. You’d think they wouldn’t need to. Our trip was billed as ten days and it lasted seven. They count every minute of travel as part of the tour, and it’s not.

-On the final day of the tour, the seventh actual day, we were awakened at 6 am, told to have our luggage outside our doors at 6:15, given breakfast at 7 am and required to completely vacate our rooms at 8 am. Our flight back to Guayaquil didn’t leave until after 11 am. Why were we given the shove? Another tour was arriving on the plane we were taking back to the mainland and they needed time to spruce the place up. Wait! We were still guests! (No, by then we were nothing but outgoing flotsam). The final hour was spent in the lounge where a long loop of Lindblad cruise ads played. This was a tour day? Seriously?

-The tour was very expensive. Yes, we got the best cabin, but even the least expensive cabin was costly. Yet every evening during the 30 minutes before dinner there was a “recap” that never reviewed the day. Rather, someone spent 20 minutes telling us about how much our donations to Lindblad/Nat Geo organizations are needed. We had to sit through this to get to the final ten minutes before dinner, when they told us the details of the next day’s events. These are not provided in advance, so that you don’t forget, and so that you attend the briefing. It was a frustrating experience. We weren’t the only ones with a newspaper or crossword.

-Tipping. I hate the common practices of cruise tipping. I’ll leave it at that.

-Begging. We were all asked to donate at least $500 to the Lindblad/Nat Geo good works funds.

-Food. My husband is a fabulous cook and I am utterly spoiled. Only rarely are meals out better than what I get at home.

Ending on the bright side, here are some of my favorite photos from the trip.

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Bloobies, Roobies and Nazoobies

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The High-Noon Birding Society held a meeting as we looked toward the skies from lounge chairs on the upper deck of our cruise ship in the Galapagos.  We glanced upward and realized we were being shadowed by magnificent frigate birds. (That’s their official name “Magnificent Frigate birds”). Frigate birds float over the ocean and are incapable of diving into the water (their feathers aren’t waterproof), meaning they steal most of their food from other birds, or skim it off the surface. They look like a cross between a bat and a bird skeleton, and show the close relation of birds and dinosaurs by resembling pterodactyls of the dinosaur era. They attract females by inflating a pouch under their beaks and squawking pathetically. Go figure.

Our first excursion off the ship took us to N. Seymour Island to see nests of frigate birds. The chicks are very cute, the youngest looking like stuffed toys, the slightly older ones rather regal sitting on their pile of sticks.

Here we met our first bloobies (blue footed boobies). Our guides had mentioned three species of birds and we discovered that Bloobies are blue-footed boobies, Roobies are red-footed boobies and Nazoobies are Nazca Boobies (in guide-speak).

Later in the trip, we visited an area where all three species of booby nest in the same area. We have seen Nazoobis, or Nazca boobies, on the coast of Peru, but not the Roobies, Red-footed booby, a tropical species that likes islands. Weird fact, red footed booby feet bend, while the blue footed booby’s feet don’t. Reds nest in trees, blues on the ground.

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Other birds of note include the Galapagos Flightless Cormorant, such a good swimmer that its wings no longer have much purpose and are small and stunted. The other is everyone’s favorite Humboldt penguin, an unbelievably fast swimmer. In the Galapagos, their motto is “so many fish, so little time.”

What surprised me was that on our tour there was very little discussion of Galapagos finches. These are Darwin’s finches, the ones that adapted from a single original species to the conditions on each island in ways that resulted in their beaks ranging from very thin and pointed (picking insects out of cracks) to very strong and wide (cracking large seeds). There’s even one nicknamed “the vampire finch” because it dive bombs the booby’s tail and sips a bit of blood from it. The speciation of finches is one of Darwin’s observations that led him to consider the question of how evolution occurs. They are very important historically and scientifically.

However. Finches are small and mostly dark colors. They are difficult to see even with binoculars and most people didn’t bring binocs. We realized that Darwin made his observations while sketching specimens that had been killed. Dead birds don’t fly away, and you can measure their beaks carefully. It was a different era, when collecting specimens was more acceptable than it is today.

I was searching for a bird that Amanda was pointing out…..and finally found it.

 

 

 

Wonders of the Galapagos

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What makes the Galapagos strange is not the variety of birds and animals. Most are familiar. Pelicans, cormorants, and other seabirds are in the air, sea lions and iguanas on the beach, turtles in the water. We’ve seen these before, on beaches and in documentaries about the Galapagos. It’s their indifference to us. We ride by sea lions in the zodiacs, and we swim with them. Young sea lions are curious about us and circle as we snorkel, they dive and approach, they hang upside down, even blowing bubbles in the faces of some lucky swimmers. The sea lions flop around in the surf while we stand in the water only a few feet away, they loaf on the rocks as we hike along the beach trails.

In the water with our snorkeling gear, penguins come in for a dip, though they zoom by so fast most people don’t see them. Cormorants and boobies dive for fish just a few feet away. One day we swam in an area where sea turtles were stacked four deep, just hanging in the water. The largest tropical fish I’ve ever seen swim around and below the turtles and sea lions. Some move like flocks of underwater sheep, grazing  across the bottom, lazily waving their bright yellow triangular tails. Visitors may not touch any of the animals, but animals may brush against visitors and that’s a bit unnerving. What happens when a turtle wipes their shell on your chest, or kicks you? Do we want to swim along with marine iguanas? The iguanas don’t dog paddle with their tiny claws, but propel themselves along with their tail, like a snake. On shore, they pile up against one another in huge clusters.

The water is breathtakingly cold and an hour is as much as anyone can take. Snorkelers put up a hand to be collected by the boatman. We swim toward the zodiac, the ladder is lowered. We hand in our fins and climb out of the water, get a towel and sit on the black rubber surface, enjoying the heat it has absorbed from the sun. We may sip from our metal water bottle as we wait for the others. When everyone is back on board and our life jackets are on, we head to the ship where we disembark one at a time, wearing our mesh bags of gear so that our hands are free to grab a hand or railing and haul ourselves onto the ship. On a side deck we begin to shed layers of protective gear, rinsing mask, snorkel, fins, wet suit, and then hanging it all up. More flights of stairs to our room to shed the rest of our layers in the hot shower. Once dried and dressed, the wet gear goes back down to the spinner to squeeze out as much water as possible. There may be more snorkeling in the afternoon and we want it to be as dry as possible. Once all the gear is settled, we go for the drinks and snacks set out near our entry point to the ship. The process has taken a while, giving each person time to contemplate what they’ve seen as they transition from sea to land.

For me, snorkeling is a high point, and also the most taxing activity. I wear all the layers I have available: bathing suit, leggings, full body thin wet suit, shorty neoprene wet suit, dive socks, headcover. I wish I had gloves–a complete water ninja. As soon as I get in the water, I make fists and tuck them under my arms to keep my fingers warm as long as possible. I move with my fins and keep my hands tucked in, taking in the view without uncoiling my arms, trying to keep warm as long as I can. Even with all my layers, a wet suit can only keep me warm for about thirty minutes. After that, I either grit my teeth and keep swimming, or I raise my hand and head back. I don’t mind waiting for the others, it is comfortable bobbing with the zodiac, watching for penguins and turtles. I can barely believe I am in the Galapagos Islands, as seen on TV. This week, my life could be narrated by David Attenborough. A segment of his documentary of the islands is shown each evening.

Lonesome George wannabe sticking out his long neck.

Even on land, this trip is a bit surreal—we are really here in the land of the giant tortoises. We walked by two of them on a hike and they blandly watched us as we stared at them, then turned and crept into the bushes when they’d had enough. At the Charles Darwin Research Center, we saw tortoises born this year, just a few inches across, and groups of larger and larger sizes. Tortoises are not released into the wild until they are around 25 years old. Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island giant tortoise, has a place of honor at the center. Since his death in 2012 at the ripe old age of 100+ he is a taxidermied specimen, posed with his long neck extended as though nibbling at leaves on a bush. He left no offspring, but don’t worry. Another tortoise, SuperDiego, has 1000 offspring and counting. We visited tortoises in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, where they roam very, very slowly around cattle pastures, or what look like pastures. Some have numbers that were carved into their shells years ago, before the development of RFID tagging used now. They ignore us as they munch methodically on grass, leaves, and branches. We tried not to step on them or trip over them. The land iguanas were not troubled by our group of visitors at all, and sat unmoving in the center of the path.  We tiptoed around them and continued on our way, circling the next one, the next one, and the next. The lack of fear in creatures, and the multitudes of them, is what makes the Galapagos remarkable. Birds, iguanas, sea lions, sea turtles, and tortoises permit us in their environment rather than hiding from us or running away. Anywhere else, they would be rare or extinct. In the Galapagos, the animals turn their cold eyes on humans and are unimpressed.

Ballenita, our base in Ecuador

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During our two weeks on the Santa Elena Peninsula, Ecuador, we rented a house in Ballenita. There were beds for many more than the two of us and we loved the huge outdoor area with a view of the ocean. Yes, there were container ships parked offshore, but we got used to it.

The indoor living room was also spacious and comfortable and there was an ocean view.

The bedroom was comfortable and had its own bathroom. The only down side to the house was the kitchen. A woman is available to cook and clean and apparently most visitors take advantage of this service. At $25 a day, it would be very attractive for a visiting group. As a result, visitors aren’t expected to use the kitchen, where we found an antique toaster oven, a stove with one burner that wouldn’t light and a toaster that toasts only one side of bread at a time. No dishwasher, naturally. Jonathan made do as best he could–which was pretty great. We ate shrimp almost every day.

Fishing and Fishermen

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Artisanal fishing, where one or more individuals push a boat out into the ocean and spend the day fishing, then land and sell their catch, is a grueling existence. The sea can be dangerous, and yet there’s no pay if there are no fish. Fishing communities in Ecuador, like those in Peru, tend to be pretty humble places. We drove through the town of Valdivia on a Saturday and the boats had just come in, for there were fish on cutting tables right beside the street and people would pull up, roll down their window and buy fish on the spot.

There are huge fishing fleets. The smallest boats we saw were in Valdivia and Ancon, with larger boats in Anconito. All of these are the very smallest of the fishing fleets. Boats under repair are parked anywhere space can be found, including in the plaza by the museum in Valdivia. There’s not much room for boats to be parked among the fishermen’s houses along the shore.We went to the regional fish market in La Libertad, closer to us in Ballenita than driving to Valdivia and hoping the boats were in. This is among the largest fish markets we’ve been in, rivaling the fish on the Rialto in Venice (I’m sure it’s bigger). Sunday is the busiest day, and there were lobster in addition to all the fish and shellfish we saw on visits during the week. About ten varieties of shrimp are sold here, from huge tiger prawns to tiny peeled shrimp. In addition are octopus and a range of clams, mussels and scallops, along with a species that I’ve seen beachcombing, but never eaten. There are huge fish, too, mahi mahi and tuna that can be six feet long. All these fish are cleaned, scaled, skinned, filleted or cut into steaks according to the buyer’s requests. The floor is wet from the water used to sluice off the countertops.Outside the fish market is the market for fruits, vegetables and household goods. We were there around 9 am on Sunday, and found that lots of people visit the market and stop for a breakfast of fried fish. Smoke from the open fires used for grilling drifts out over the alley.We were impressed by the quantity of shrimp at the market and found that Ecuador is one of the world’s largest exporters of shrimp along with Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Shrimp farms cover low ground near the ocean all along the coast. We found a vantage point near Playa Santa Rosa where we could see the ponds fanning out across the horizon. The good result for consumers is that at the market, shrimp cost $3-$6 a pound. More good news is that to compete internationally, Ecuadorean shrimp farms are phasing out all chemicals. This gives their product an edge over Asian growers, at least for now.  We ate shrimp for dinner almost every night.

Santa Elena Peninsula, Ecuador

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We chose a peculiar area for this trip, based on our archaeology backgrounds. We wanted to visit the sites we’d heard of for so long. Neither of us looked at the region on GoogleEarth, for example, where it appears as a gray patch on the otherwise bright green surface of Ecuador. At this time of year, the Santa Elena peninsula is very dry and tends to be overcast, which we discovered when we drove north to visit the Valdivia museum and the sun was out. On the days we’ve driven north, the sun has appeared as soon as we get about 10 miles up the road.

We discovered the charms of the region right away. We walked down the beach in front of our house and found a man playing a romantic Latin tune on the trumpet while the rest of his family swam and played on the beach.

On another day, we drove to the part of Ecuador that juts furthest into the Pacific Ocean, Salinas point. It was Saturday and there were lots of visitors. The ocean extended as far as anyone could see.

We had wonderful beach combing in many places. Playa Rosada is a place that many people recommend. I didn’t find the sand particularly pink, but perhaps the sun needs to be out. One of my favorite beaches is the stretch north of Valdivia and San Pablo and south of Montanita. We found a couple of very old pieces of beach glass, one colored lavender from the sun (these mostly date prior to 1915), the neck of a glass jug and the base of an old spirits bottle.

On the way home, we stopped for a look at the “Antiquities” store and saw old radios, fishing tackle, chandeliers, even electric typewriters, though I doubt they still work.

On our last day of beach combing, I found a piece of spondylus shell. It’s not much to look at, a piece from the center of a spondylus calcifer, but it’s the only fragment we’ve seen. A little research shows that there are spondylus species in all the world’s temperate oceans, so the shell that ends up in jewelry in Peru, where it is very popular with tourists (it was used by the Inca), probably is all imported from Asia. There certainly isn’t much left in Ecuador.

We visited beaches that host nesting turtles earlier in the year. There are even covers that are used to mark turtle nests, though wouldn’t it be better leave them anonymous? We also saw this sign, that I don’t think sends the correct message. It says: KEEP THE BEACHES CLEAN SO THAT MORE TOURISTS COME.

I’d rather have the beach kept clean because that’s good for everyone. When we walked on the beach we were reminded of the present state of the oceans. No matter where you are, there is lots of plastic on the shore. If you visit a clean beach, it’s because someone cleaned it before you arrived. There is no escaping ocean plastic, even on gorgeous beaches where it’s not immediately visible.

The Spondylus Route to archaeology, Ecuador

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Romantically named, the Ruta del Spondylus highway borders the the ocean in places, then dips inland around high hills, making its way from northern Peru to northern Ecuador. It is named after the spondylus shell, brilliant orange or deep purple species that were used to make beads and jewelry by the ancient people of both Ecuador and Peru. These mollusks are only found in warmer waters–no spondylus were harvested in the waters off Peru, but the bright colored shell was traded south from Ecuador into Peru by 3000 BC, or perhaps even earlier.

Over-harvesting resulted in a crash of spondylus and today it is in danger of extinction. The Ecuadorian government is supporting experiments in repopulating these species. We found no trace of spondylus in the many tourist souvenir stands along the roadway, though we found a local monument to these lovely shells. Jewelry made from spondylus shells is very popular among tourists visiting Peru, though the shell comes from all over the world. The romance of having something made from shell that was valuable to the Inca and their even earlier ancestors still captivates visitors.

In Ecuador, however, the greatest enchantment is in the beaches that line the route. There are well-known stops such as Playa Los Frailes or Playa Rosada (pinkish sand), and lesser known beaches that lack umbrellas and chairs for rent, but provide long stretches for a walk or a swim. We are visiting during the off season, the dark of winter to many Ecuadoreans because of the cloudy weather. It has not rained, but the sun has been out only two days of our first seven here. The Santa Elena peninsula, where we are located, is one of the driest places on the Ecuadorian coast. In GoogleEarth, it shows up as a grayish brown finger of land pointing out into the Pacific.

Part of the attraction to us is the deep history of the area. Ecuador was home to very early villages that formed by 3800 BC in places like Real Alto. We visited the museum at that site on one of our first days in the area and walked around. It’s a difficult sell for tourism, however, because there is nothing to see on the surface. The raised area where people built their houses is barely distinguishable from the surroundings, and even when the excavations were first being carried out, the astonishingly early remains consisted of the stones that formed the base of clusters of houses. There was never anything on the surface. You need a good imagination to  build a circle of oval thatched houses in the brush that covers the area today. We enjoyed chatting with the young woman excavating some test units as part of a thesis project at ESPOL (Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral).

Our next archaeology stop was the Museo des Amantes de Sumpa, just down the street from our house, in the town of Santa Elena. We wanted to see the famous skeletons of a young couple buried together in an embrace. What we found was an excellent local museum with information on the ancient people of the region that was never boring or preachy (as a lot of museum text seems to be). In addition to the archaeological exhibits there was a recreation of a local house from a century ago that showed the very simple possessions people are likely to have had. Having heard a lot about hat-making in Ecuador (home of “real” Panama hats), we were interested to see that the equipment for making straw hats is unchanged between today and the 19th century. It was a lovely visit–I only wished they had a gift shop! We were impressed by the entire museum, which is carefully tended. The exhibits are not complex or high tech, yet they are absorbing. The meeting room of the museum was in use during our visit with a training program (according to the guard). It is nice to see the public spaces of a museum in use.

Our next stop was the museum at Valdivia, site of the oldest pottery in the New World when it was originally reported in the 1970s. Jonathan and I studied archaeology when this site was the next big thing, and Betty and Clifford Meggers and their Ecuadorean colleague Emilio Estrada, proposed that Validivia showed a connection between Japan’s ancient Jomon culture and the earliest ceramic-makers, as early as 4000 BC. Today this seems like an unlikely proposal. The similarities between Jomon and Valdivia pottery are related to the fact that there are only so many ways you can decorate pottery that is made and decorated by hand with no tool more complex than a pointed stick.

The Valdivia Museum is run by the community and has almost no budget. There are volunteer docents who were pleasant and knowledgeable, but there was almost no labeling and many of their photographs had disappeared or disintegrated. We enjoyed our visit. I was astonished to hear that the museum is built right on the middle of the excavated site. The town has grown up on and around it, covering up the site entirely. We stared at a low dirt embankment in the parking lot as though potsherds would be lying there waiting for us. Since none appeared, we asked whether anyone sold replicas of ancient pottery and were referred to a house around the corner, the home and studio of Juan Orrala, master replica-maker. We chatted and looked at his work, all the copies stamped with “Replica-Juan Orrala” in the clay of the base. His contemporary work inspired by ancient designs is beautifully made, so we took home some of each. What you see below is the replica figurine we purchased (8 in long), a whalebone figurine in the museum (about 24 in long) and a monument outside the town of Valdivia (about 6 ft. high). The museum holds hundreds of fragments of smaller clay versions of the “goddess.”

We also bought a matching plate and bowl set that we are already using as serving ware.We are happy to have met the talented Sr. Orrala.

Visiting the Macaw Clay Licks

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We opted for a tour after finding it complicated to arrange an independent trip, choosing Birding Ecotours, a US based company that runs birding tours all over the world. An important starting point is to realize there are several clay licks. Make sure you know where you are going and what you may see. It’s also important to find a tour company that you believe will give you a good tour. I found Birding Ecotours through the website: Fatbirder.com that I’ve used to find birding spots on several occasions at places around the US and Europe.

Birding Ecotours home page

Travel

Visiting the clay licks involves a flight to Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Our group of six and a guide stayed overnight at the inexpensive Cabana Quinta. Our room was small but the AC and hot water worked. Dinner in the restaurant was fine. In the morning, we drove for about 40 minutes on a paved road and another 40 on a very rutted unpaved road that can be impassable in rain. We visited the area in August, the dry season (Wet season is approx. Nov.-May). A short boat ride took us from the end of the road to the lodge. We left Puerto Maldonado at 8:30 am, did some birdwatching and arrived at the lodge by about 2 pm.

Lodging

We stayed at Chuncho Lodge, slightly closer to the clay licks than other lodges. They have five cabins that sleep 1-3 persons each, and a cabin with two adjacent rooms of similar size. Beds have mosquito netting. Two more cabins were under construction during our visit, and construction noise began at breakfast and continued until late afternoon.

There is no wifi.

Phone service is limited to customers of Claro, and that can only be obtained at the top of the canopy observation tower that is 129 ft high and a 15 minute walk away from the lodge. A maximum of six persons can be at the top of the tower at one time. Despite this, guides and guests seemed to walk to the tower in the evenings (in the dark!) to make calls and admire the Milky Way.

Hot water and sometimes all water is only available when the power is on, 6 am-1 pm and 3:30-9 pm.

Weather

During the day the weather was very hot and very sticky with lots of insects. Bug spray was necessary and the day I forgot to shake all my clothes out in the morning before I got dressed I got a bunch of bites from a spider that seems to have climbed my pant leg. Consider tucking your pantlegs in your socks. The guides do.

Despite the lack of air conditioning and the fact that fans stop runnning at 9 pm when the power goes off, we had no trouble sleeping because of an unusual weather phenomenon, a “friaje.” In the past this occurred about twice a year at predictable times, this year it has occurred more than six times. Currents of cold air from further south toward the Antarctic are channeled up the river and chill the area at night resulting in temperatures much lower than normal. It can get to 10 degrees C. (50 F). Rather than tossing and turning in the sticky heat, we slept under all the available blankets. It was coldest on our first night at Chuncho Lodge but it was cool all three nights we were there, and it was easy to sleep.

Meals

All meals were provided. The food was very abundant but utterly uninspired. One birder who had been on the tour for three weeks before we arrived said he’d never look at another plantain after the tour ended. I was happy to have brought a few packets of starbucks instant coffee, cookies, peanuts and dried fruit. We ate it all.

Several different species of birds were in and out of this huge tree during our morning on the observation tower.

Tour

Our tour included everything but alcoholic beverages and tips. It was expensive for us, just over $1600 pp for four days but there were no hidden costs. Our guide, Eduardo Ormaeche, was excellent. He worked hard to make sure everyone saw what they wanted to see and more. There are both cheaper and more expensive ways to see the phenomenon of the macaw clay licks and we were content with this version. Our tour included lots of birding time in addition to the visit to the clay licks. We spent at least six hours a day birding in total. We went on a walk at night to see owls, and on a sunset boat ride to see owls, nighthawks, nightjars and a potoo. The trails near the lodge always yielded new birds. The morning we spent on the canopy tower was full of interesting birds seen from a new angle above the canopy of trees. We saw 106 different species of birds during our four-day visit.

Positives and Negatives

Positives

1) Experience of a lifetime.

2) It’s all organized. People met us at every stop or change of transport. Eduardo was on hand from Lima to Chuncho Lodge and back to Puerto Maldonado. There were no surprise expenses.

Negatives

1) The region is hot and humid, there’s lots of walking, mosquitos, spiders.

2) The lodgings are rustic.

3) Seeing birds involves early mornings. We left at 5 am for the clay lick and almost as early on the other mornings. There is time for napping at midday but it can be too hot to sleep.

4) On a tour, you take your traveling companion as they come. You may or may not make new friends.

Would I do it again? Heck, yes.

FYI: We were in the Amazon rainforest, where the humidity was usually at least 80% and the temperature over 80°F. Giant trees like the one we posed by are rare, most were logged over the past 20 years as the population of the region expanded and foreign desires for mahogany furniture overcame the scruples of people who had been farmers. One of the lodge staff members told us that his mother trained to be a nurse, but took a loan from an uncle and made a handsome living heading into the forest to commission (illegal) tree-cutting, until there were almost no large, desirable trees left. At that point, nature reserves and national parks were established. Everyone shrugged and became tour reps. There is still a lot to see and lots of birds in the forest even if it is recent regrowth. The occasional giant tree is a reminder of what is gone now.

 

When a Wish Comes True

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It was almost dawn, 5 am when we left the dock for an hour’s ride up the Tambopata River. Boatmen know their way around snags and shallow spots even in the dark. Our boat was long and narrow, the eight of us sitting on benches that faced each other, all of us leaning out to stare at the shore. They make no promises but many animals feed at dawn. Before long we saw three capybara (like 50 pound guinea pigs) grazing on the riverbank, then a caiman and then two more. A large heron stood by the shore, and turtles perched on logs. Looking at the river more than 100 yds wide and still hundreds of miles from emptying into the Amazon, it is difficult to comprehend the immense size of the Amazon Basin.

We came to see a special part of the Amazon, short clay cliffs that attract macaws and parrots. Since I first saw a picture, I have wanted to visit. If you watch TV, you may have seen images of large bright-colored macaws perching on the clay as the narrator explains that the clay provides minerals and helps the birds digest the fruits and insects they eat, counteracting toxins that are found in some of these.

It is a dream come true to be riding along the river. As we ride along, I consider my desire to see this in person and my expectations. I am thrilled to have gotten here and I’m not as tired as I thought I might be at 5 am. I can’t wait to see the birds. I’m apprehensive, too. I don’t want to be disappointed and we’ve been told there are some mornings when the birds don’t come down to the clay or are scared away. We stop at a ranger checkpost where one boat is just pulling out and another is right behind us. Each boat carries 4-8 tourists. Our local guide runs up the steps cut into the steep clay bank. He reappears a minute later and we cast off, hurrying upriver. Finally we pull up onto a gravel bar where two boats have already put in. The clay lick in on the other side of the river. We’ve arrived.

The cliffs are not as high as they look on TV because cameramen use telephoto lenses, but with binoculars you can see all the birds very clearly as we’re barely 100 yards away.

There is a pattern to the way the birds visit the clay lick. Smaller birds come first. Flocks of as many as 100 blue headed parrots shimmer blue and green as they fly by.

Smaller parrots at the clay lick (Photo: Andy Walker)

As they turn and tilt upward the color changes to the red of the feathers under their wings. Smaller numbers of other species are there, too, and our group gets busy identifying dusky headed parrots, yellow crowned amazons, white eyed parakeets, orange cheeked parakeets. There are even a few blue headed macaws in among the blue headed parrots. The crowd of smaller parrots flies onto the clay and we watch them cling to the surface as they gnaw bits of clay and scuffle, keeping up a constant chatter. The audience is largely silent, pointing and muttering descriptions and species names, focusing their binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras. Many visitors have 300-400 mm lenses to be able to capture the details of every bird. We are fortunate to be with them and see their spectacular images.

After an hour we’ve seen the small parrots flock on the clay. We’ve identified all the species present and we’ve seen the birds spooked by something and fly away in a mass of blue wingbeats. Slowly they return to the branches above the cliff and even more slowly a few fly onto the clay again and begin to nibble.

Meanwhile, the macaws sit high in the trees. They arrive in pairs, blue and gold, scarlet, red and green, and the smaller chestnut fronted macaws. After a while they come closer, moving in pairs. Eventually the scarlet macaws are sitting on the branches just over the clay, and then fly down to the clay surface and take over.

We see the process twice as we change sites. After the first hour our group returned to the boat for breakfast onboard though still in sight of the birds. We drank tea and coffee, ate rolls and butter, hard-boiled eggs and sipped juice boxes, then set off around the next bend to another spot where birds gather on the clay. The other boats moved as well and we all end up sitting on folding stools or standing quietly waiting for the birds. This time, a flock of scarlet macaws arrived two at a time to two trees above the clay. About 30 of these huge birds huddled together as they awaited some invisible signal. Little by little they began to fly onto the clay. Shutters snapped like it was a presidential news conference.

Compare my photo with Andy’s: Macaws on Clay Lick

Not all went as planned. We all expected the flock to descend to the clay but just as the first dozen birds began investigating the clay, a group of vultures coasted in over the trees, spooking the macaws. In an explosion of red wings the macaws dispersed, circling down the channel and up into the trees. Slowly the flock re-formed in the trees over the clay, mostly scarlet macaws but also red and green and chestnut fronted macaws. By this time it was 10:30 am and we’d been watching the clay and the birds for more than four hours. It was time to go. We were all tired but not entirely happy to leave. This scene repeats itself every day and we were walking away after only one long look. We motored back downriver, stopping to look at other birds and the now-sleeping capybara. I’ve just realized one of the great dreams of my life and all I can think of is a second cup of coffee and a nap.

Still, I’ll have the picture of macaws on clay in my head forever.

About Aruba

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We don’t consider ourselves to be on vacation, but we had a wonderful two weeks of vacation in Aruba–it’s too hot to call it anything else. Here’s my advice based on our visit.

Airbnb

We rented a house in Savaneta that was quirky but worked well for us. I didn’t think a pool was very important since we were so close to the ocean in Aruba, but I had no idea how hot and humid it is just sitting still. A pool lets you sit around outside for a while reading or writing or whatever you enjoy and when you feel really hot you can take a dip and feel refreshed without a hike to the beach or drive in a hot car. We swam at least twice a day.

The covered patio and pool were a highlight, especially since there were shaded spaces at either end of the pool so you could be in the shade morning or evening. There were colored lights you could turn on at night..and a tiki bar….Jonathan did almost all our cooking on the grill in the tiki bar/kitchen on the patio. Air conditioning is the essential ingredient for a happy stay in Aruba, “One Happy Island”, and ours worked well. Only one bath had hot water though that was rarely an issue.

Climate

If you have delicate skin you might consider another destination for your vacation. We all got as much sun in two weeks in Aruba as we might in an entire summer in the US. Most activities involve being outdoors or in the ocean, with breaks to jump in the pool. The temperature is at least 80°F all day and night. After a week we all felt like human potato chips. Between the salt and the sun, your skin dries out completely. Liberal application of sunscreen and lip balm can ward off burns and blisters, but it’s really impossible to avoid the sun entirely. On the other hand, why would you visit Aruba and plan to stay out of the sun?

Driving

Driving our rental car was no problem in Aruba, it’s just like the US. Roads are narrow and not always in good repair. Rental cars need to stay on reasonable surfaces, they are too low for the really bumpy unpaved roads. If you are going to be in Aruba for a week or more you might consider renting a jeep or other high-centered vehicle for a day or two to explore the Arikok National Park and the north/east coast of the island. There are wonderful small beaches and inlets to visit. The mighty power of the crashing waves is remarkable. We were able to visit much of the area, but barely made it over some of the rough spots in our rental car even with two experienced off-roaders in charge.

Money

Aruba has its own currency, the Aruba Florin (AFL). Change a $20 but don’t bother getting more. You’ll only use it for the occasional soft drink. Local people do all their shopping in florins, but prices aimed at foreigners (restaurants, supermarket, gift shops, even the flea market) are almost always in dollars—vendors don’t seem to want florins and often charge double the dollar price in florins. That is, a $10 item costs 20 florins. The problem is that a florin is worth about $ .75, meaning that you just paid $15 for a $10 item by using the local currency. Not worth it.

Language

Aruba is united by the local language, Papiamento. All local people speak it among themselves and it’s a quick guide to who is local and who is not. If you can understand someone, they’re tourists, or working with tourists. People from Aruba are Dutch citizens and school children learn Papiamento, Dutch and English. Many people also speak Spanish, especially if their family came to the island from Colombia or Venezuela. It’s pretty impressive to find your average person speaks at least three languages. People working with tourists often speak five or six. Be careful what you say!

Shopping

There is a lot of publicity about shopping in Aruba, but it’s shopping for items imported from other places. This part of the Dutch Caribbean is a desert island. Its industry is tourism–there isn’t much that is made in Aruba itself. There’s some local white rum, including Palmera, there’s locally brewed Balashi beer, some aloe products, and a very few local crafts. Everything else is made elsewhere, stamped Aruba and brought in by the container-load.

There are no markets like there are in Central and South America because there are no local food products. We found fresh fish but it took some effort. There’s only fresh fish when someone goes out fishing and fishermen don’t go out every day. Some of the best known fish restaurants serve frozen imported fish and shrimp most of the time.

Water

Aruba has no natural surface water, and all water comes from an impressively large desalination plant that serves the entire island. Everyone drinks the tap water and it is very pure. We drank the water and put ice in our drinks from our first day and had no stomach troubles. It saves a lot of plastic bottles.