Is Galapagos Worth It ?

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What to expect when visiting Galapagos especially if you are sailing there on your private yacht? What are some of the fees, regulations, restrictions and options? What are some of the animals you will see and which are the best places to visit? And ultimately, is it worth it going there at all?

  • Overview
  • The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of some 130 volcanic rocks, islets and islands over 500 nautical miles west of continental Ecuador, of which they are a part. 97% of the land area of the Galápagos Islands have been designated a national park since 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only 3% of the total area – Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana and Isabela islands – is inhabited by over 25,000 permanent residents, with Spanish the official language, and these are the only islands cruisers can visit.

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  • Darwin’s Evolution
  • Isolated far from the South American continent, the islands have sprung a population of unique endemic species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. In 1835, during the voyage of the survey ship the Beagle, the young naturalist Charles Darwin collected and studied specimens of wildlife which led to his theory of evolution by natural selection, noting that the finches and the giant land tortoises have developed and adapted differently to the different islands and habitats.

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  • Popular Destination
  • Thanks to their extraordinary fauna and history the Galapagos Islands they have earned a status of a precious and fragile Natural Heritage for Humanity protected by the Park Service. The abundance of wildlife and its unique character has also transformed the area into a popular and very attractive tourist destination with ever-growing number of visitors in recent years, as well as ever-growing permanent population due to the booming economy and influx of tourist dollars.

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  • World’s Most Expensive Sailing Destination
  • This increasing popularity is endangering the local ecosystem and is leading to incessant national and international conservation efforts. Consequently, the Ecuadorian government has imposed a multitude of restrictions and fees to be observed and paid by those visiting and living in Galapagos, making it one of the world’s most expensive and at the same time most restricted places. As a result, the Galapagos Islands have become a privileged somewhat overrated tourist destination, affordable only for the rich, mostly elderly first-world tourists. Backpackers and budget travelers, as well as cruisers with limited means are not so welcome.

    We considered not going to Galapagos because of the high fees and the difficult and long process for obtaining permission, but we were fortunate. Thanks to the help of a few generous individuals who supported us, we managed to raise funds and cover part of the fees.

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  • A Strategic Stopover
  • Galapagos lies directly on the path of sailing boats between Panama and the Marquesas, which for sailors is the longest open-water passage in the world. It is a strategic point- the last land before the ocean- ideal for dropping anchor, getting fuel, provisions and water, and resting for a couple of days after 5-600NM of sailing from Panama or Ecuador (which in the doldrums can take over a week), before the long non-stop passage west. But unfortunately, there is no legal option to land in Galapagos even for a day without being charged amazing entry fees. We have heard from a few different sources, that the Ecuadorian and the Galapagos governments are NOT trying to attract and accommodate cruiser; on the contrary- they “don’t need us” on their territory. Which is a shame considering that the islands are far from mainland and should naturally act as welcoming refuge for boaters. Maybe this has been the case years ago, but today the situation has changes and is getting worse and worse. Most fellow cruisers we spoke to are similarly disappointed from this situation.

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  • Fees, Procedures, Options
  • There are a two option when sailing to Galapagos:
    1. Emergency Stopover – you can visit only one port with your boat for 72 hours up to 21 days for which you don’t need an official permission (Autografo). In this case, you cannot visit Isabela Island (which is the most beautiful one) because it is not an official port of entry. You can only arrive and remain in San Cristobal or Sanata Cruz.
    2. Multiple islands– You can sail to 2-4 different islands (lately is only 3- San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela), but you have to apply for Autografo with an agent 6-8 weeks before arrival.

    The following information is from www.noonsite.com where you can find more details about Galapagos procedures and fees:

    Various fees need to be paid and do vary from port to port and agent to agent. The most expensive port appears to be Santa Cruz. All official expenses have to be paid in “cash” on the islands, paying with a Credit Card is not an option.

    As a summary:-
    For a 1 Island visit – Expect to pay around $600 to $700 for a yacht with 2 persons on board. Each additional person on board will incur an additional $100 National Parks permit fee.[Will be increased to $200 in 2017]
    For a 2-5 island visit – this requires an Autographo which only your agent can obtain. Total cost, including agent fees, should be approx. $1,200-$1,500 for a 2 person boat (excluding zarpe fees). Each additional person will cost $100 for the National Parks permit. Normally an Autographo is obtained via e-mail well in advance of your arrival.
    In addition, there is a fee of $30 per boat (‘migration fee’) for moving between ports. This does not apply to a 1 island visit.
    Break down of Clearance Fees
    These are approximate, they do tend to vary a little depending on which agent you use:
    Port Captain Fee: US$12.50 per gross tonnage
    Clearance in and out: is US$25.00 each way [every time you leave one port to go another]
    Galapagos Migratory Cards: US$20 per person
    Quarantine/Introduce Species (ABG) inspection: US$100
    Diver for hull inspection: US$100
    Copies and transport for authorities: $50.
    Garbage disposal: $30.
    Immigration Fees
    A personal immigration card per person costs $15 and there are no costs for clearing out.
    Agent Fees
    The choice of which agent you use is entirely yours to make. The fees for the agent are not fixed.
    For a one-port stop (including port captain and Immigration, taxis and copies of passports), US$200-250 is the normal asking price for an average size yacht.
    Agent fees for an autographo are between $450 – $650.
    It is not uncommon to get fees reduced if you negotiate. If the fees asked for are unacceptable you may ask for another agent. Ask for a clear breakdown of which fees your agent is including in his total cost.
    National Park Fees
    There is an admission fee to the Galapagos National Park area of $100 per person ($50 per child under 12) and must be paid by anyone visiting the Park area. Ensure that your agent obtains your park pass and gives it to you to keep on board. [ This $100 fee per person is expected to double even triple in 2017]
    National Park Cruising Fees
    This is $200 per person, per day. You will hear this high dollar figure quoted occasionally. This daily fee DOES NOT apply to the average cruiser who is moving from island to island, anchoring in the major ports. It only applies to (typically) larger luxury yachts who want to actually cruise the park areas outside the major ports.
    These boats are also required to take on a licensed guide who will cost $350 or more per day for this service.
    Fumigation
    A fumigation fee of $70 may be charged on boats that stay longer than 72 hours. If yachts arrive without a fumigation certificate, the fee to obtain one in the Galapagos is $4 per metre of the yacht’s length.
    Other Fees
    Overtime must be paid if checking in outside office hours, 08:00-17:00 Monday to Friday. The overtime fees are almost double the normal fee. Request that your agent complete clearing DURING office hours.
    There are also municipal fees occasionally collected in the main ports and always collected from incoming passengers at one of the two airports.
    All fees quoted here are in US$ and are subject to change by the Ecuadorian government without notice.
    Last updated December 2015. (From http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Galapagos )

    It doesn’t end with these fees. Even though there are many places on the islands you can visit for free, the most beautiful ones are usually off limits unless you join an expensive guided tour (or if you are on a special scientific expedition). For us, as for many other people, visiting Galapagos has been a dream-come-true. But it also was a bit of a disappointment due to all these fees, formalities, restrictions as well as the whole tourist aspect of it.

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  • A Difficult Choice
  • Unfortunately, many cruisers are faced with a tough choice to make when sailing west of Panama and Ecuador. On one hand, you have a rather large amount of cash in entry fees; on the other- the possibility to visit (maybe only once in your lifetime) this unique archipelago teaming with wildlife. Which one would you sacrifice?

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  • Galapagos Animals
  • The marine iguanas are so famously homely, even Charles Darwin piled on, describing them as “hideous-looking” and “most disgusting, clumsy lizards.” It’s true, they’re not pretty, with their wide-set eyes, smashed-in faces, spiky dorsal scales, and knotty, salt-encrusted heads. But what these unusual creatures lack in looks they make up for with their amazing and unique ecological adaptations. Scientists figure that land-dwelling iguanas from South America must have drifted out to sea millions of years ago on logs or other debris, eventually landing on the Galápagos. From that species emerged marine iguanas, which spread to nearly all the islands of the archipelago. Each island hosts marine iguanas of unique size, shape and color.
    They look fierce, but are actually gentle herbivores, surviving exclusively on underwater algae and seaweed. Their short, blunt snouts and small, razor-sharp teeth help them scrape the algae off rocks, and their laterally flattened tails let them move crocodile-like through the water. Their claws are long and sharp for clinging to rocks on shore or underwater in heavy currents. They have dark gray coloring to better absorb sunlight after their forays into the frigid Galápagos waters. And they even have special glands that clean their blood of extra salt, which they ingest while feeding.
    Their population is not well known, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands. They are under constant pressure from non-native predators like rats, feral cats, and dogs, who feed on their eggs and young. They are protected throughout the archipelago and are considered vulnerable to extinction. (from www.nationalgeographic.com)

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    The Galápagos penguin is endemic to the Galápagos Islands. It is the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild thanks to the cool temperatures of the Humboldt Current and cool waters from great depths brought up by the Cromwell Current. They average 49 cm long and 2.5 kg in weight. It is the second smallest species of penguin after the little penguin. The Galápagos penguin is found primarily on Fernandina Island and the west coast of Isabela Island, but small populations are scattered on other islands in the Galápagos archipelago. The northern tip of Isabela crosses the equator, meaning that some Galápagos penguins live in the northern hemisphere.
    They eat small schooling fish, mainly mullet, sardines, and sometimes crustaceans, searching for food only during the day and normally within a few kilometers of their breeding site. They depend on the cold nutrient-rich currents to bring them food. It is endangered and the rarest of the penguin species. Because of the Galápagos penguin’s smaller size, it has many predators. On land, the penguins are preyed upon by crabs, snakes, rice rats, cats, hawks, and owls. While in the water they are preyed upon by sharks, fur seals, and sea lions. They face many hazards due to humans, as well as the hazards of unreliable food resources and volcanic activity. Illegal fishermen may interrupt the penguins’ nesting, and they are often caught in fishing nets by mistake. (from www.wikipedia.com)

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    Giant tortoises are the longest-lived of all vertebrates, averaging over 100 years. The oldest on record lived to be 152. They are also the world’s largest tortoises, with some specimens exceeding 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and reaching 550 pounds (250 kilograms). There are now only 11 types of giant tortoises left in the Galápagos, down from 15 when Darwin arrived. Hunted as food by pirates, whalers, and merchantmen during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, more than 100,000 tortoises are estimated to have been killed off. Nonnative species such as feral pigs, dogs, cats, rats, goats, and cattle are a continuing threat to their food supply and eggs. Today, only about 15,000 remain.
    The tortoises are now listed as endangered and have been strictly protected by the Ecuadorian government since 1970. Captive breeding efforts by the Charles Darwin Research Station are also having positive effects.
    Galápagos tortoises lead an uncomplicated life, grazing on grass, leaves, and cactus, basking in the sun, and napping nearly 16 hours per day. A slow metabolism and large internal stores of water mean they can survive up to a year without eating or drinking. Spanish sailors who discovered the archipelago in 1535 actually named it after the abundant tortoises; the Spanish word for tortoise is galápago. (from www.nationalgeographic.com)

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    Darwin’s finches are a group of about fourteen species of passerine birds. They were first collected by Charles Darwin on the Galápagos Islands during the second voyage of the Beagle. The birds vary in size from 10 to 20 cm and weigh between 8 and 38 grams. The smallest are the warbler-finches and the largest is the vegetarian finch. The most important differences between species are in the size and shape of their beaks, and the beaks are highly adapted to different food sources- a fact that played an important part in the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
    The males of most species of finches are jet black; and the females (with perhaps one or two exceptions) are brown. With these beaks, males are able to feed differently on their favorite cactus, the prickly pear Opuntia. Those with long beaks are able to punch holes in the cactus fruit and eat the fleshy aril pulp, which surrounds the seeds, whereas those with shorter beaks tear apart the cactus base and eat the pulp and any insect larvae and pupae. ( from www.wikipedia.com)

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    The Galápagos lava lizard is a species of lava lizard endemic to the Galápagos Islands, where it occurs on several islands in the western archipelago. Adult Galápagos lava lizards range from around 50 to 100 mm long. Males are on average larger than females, being twice to three times as heavy. In addition to size, there are significant color and morphological differences between sexes, although color varies across islands. Galápagos lava lizards feed on insects, spiders, and other arthropods. Around human settlements they will also consume bread crumbs, meat scraps and other litter.
    Galápagos lava lizards are active during the day, emerging around sunrise, withdrawing during the heat of midday, and resuming activity in the afternoon. At night they burrow under soil or leaf-litter, submerged up to 12 mm (1.5 inches), often returning to the same resting area each night. Males are territorial, with home ranges averaging around 22 meters in diameter, and defend their ranges against other males with threat displays and fighting. Females have smaller home ranges of around 13 meters diameter, and a single male’s home range may overlap with the ranges of several females. (from www.wikipedia.com)

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    The Galápagos sea lion is a species of sea lion that exclusively breeds on the Galápagos Islands. Being fairly social, and one of the most numerous species in the Galápagos archipelago, they are often spotted sun-bathing on sandy shores or rock groups or gliding gracefully through the surf. Their loud bark, playful nature, and graceful agility in water make them the “welcoming party” of the islands.
    Galápagos sea lions range from 150 to 250 cm (59 to 98 in) in length and weigh between 50 to 250 kg (110 to 550 lb), with the males averaging larger than females. Both male and female sea lions have a pointy, whiskered nose and somewhat long, narrow muzzle. The young pups are almost dog-like in profile. Another characteristic that defines the sea lion are their external ear-like pinnae flaps which distinguish them from their close relative with which they are often confused, the seal.
    Feeding mostly on sardines, Galápagos sea lions sometimes travel 10 to 15 kilometers from the coast over the span of days to hunt for their prey. This is when they come into contact with their biggest predators: sharks and killer whales. Injuries and scars from attacks are often visible. To avoid overheating during the day, sea lions will take refuge from the sun under vegetation, rocks, and cliffs.
    On land, sea lions form colonies at their hauling-out areas. Not only are sea lions social, they are also quite vocal. Adult males often bark in long, loud and distinctive repeated sequences. Females and juveniles do not produce this repetitive bark, but both sexes the younger pups will growl. From birth, a mother sea lion recognizes her pup’s distinct bark and can pinpoint it from a crowd of 30 or more barking sea lions.

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  • Places of Interest
  • La Loberia Beach on San Cristobal is a long 40-50 min hike from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on a paved road under the heat of the sun, so bring water and snacks. This is one of the best spot to see colonies of marine iguanas sunbathing on the black volcanic rocks near the shore. You can swim and snorkel here and it is possible to avoid the tourist crowds and visit the place without a guide and for free.

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    The Interpretation Station on San Cristobal is also within a walking distance from the town and port. It is a museum explaining the significant natural, human and geological events of San Cristóbal Island and the surrounding archipelago. The hike is pleasant on rocky paths and boardwalks among lava flows and arid vegetation and the museum itself is most informative and interesting. Free of charge.

    La Galapaguera on San Cristobal is a breeding center for giant tortoises located in the northeast part of San Cristobal Island, about one hour by car from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Here in a protected area, giant tortoises live and breed in captivity. The admission is free but to get there is tricky. Most tourists join a tour or hire a 60-dollar taxi but there is a much cheaper option- once a week a bus goes to Galapaguera and back for about $5 per person (Ask a local which day, what time and where the bus stops. Ask another local the same questions, as you might get two very different answers). And if you want to check out the near-by white sand beach Puerto Chino (too crowded for our taste), you might miss the bus on the way back, but you can hitch a ride, as we did.

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    Kicker Rock is considered the local highlight, off the coast of San Cristobal, where you can dive and maybe see hammerhead sharks as well as many other species of sharks and marine creatures. But you can only snorkel or dive there on an organized diving tour in the company of a guide and a group of tourists. The tour costs over $200 per person, the water is extremely cold because of the Humboldt Current, the visibility is not always good and there are no guarantees that you will see hammerheads. If you do, they might be specks in the distance. Don’t think that what you see in the brochures will be what you see on the tour. We skipped it.

    The Lava Tunnels on Santa Cruz were once again within a walking distance from the anchorage and free of charge. As the outer layer of molten lava solidified, the liquid magma inside continued flowing, leaving behind these mysterious dark caves and the best part is- you can walk inside!

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    Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz is a beautiful white sand beach at the end of a 2.5 km walking path surrounded by great cactus trees. The entrance is about 20-minute walk from the main dock in Puerto Ayora. It is open for visitors from six in the morning to six in the evening. Visitors must sign in and out at the start of the path with the Galapagos Park Service office. Admission is free.

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    The Wall of Tears on Isabela is another access-free must-see place in Galapagos 5 kilometers from Puerto Amistad. On the way there we met free-ranging giant Galapagos tortoises. You can hire bikes or walk for an hour until you reach a massive wall built with heavy volcanic rocks. Between 1946 and 1952 there was a penal colony on this spot and the inmates were forced to build this wall under the burning equatorial sun. The only purpose of the Wall of Tears was to reform the prisoners and keep them occupied. A punishment for the strong, a death sentence for the weak.

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    The Giant Tortoises Breeding Centre on Isabela (on the edge of the town; free admission) is full with miniature giant tortoises as well as with giant giant tortoises- all sizes giant tortoises- lots of fun to watch. There is a boardwalk starting from the breeding center passing along couple of swamps- home of pink flamingoes. A short excursion which we really enjoyed.

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    Sierra Negra on Isabela is an active volcano rising at 1100 m above the sea. It has last erupted in 2005. The crater is enormous, filled with black solidified lava. Restricted to organized guided tours only. Cost $30.00 per person. We joined a group of about 20 tourists, some out of shape and unfit to hike. At the very beginning of the trail more groups showed up and merged into a human traffic jam up and down the trail. Not worth it.

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    Los Tuneles on Isabela is probably the most beautiful place in Galapagos accessible for tourists– an area of calm water behind the ocean breakers where broken lava tubes form natural bridges and underwater stone tunnels- home of thousands of sea birds and ocean creatures. In April, was the blue footed boobies mating period and we could watch the birds from up close dancing and singing in pairs. In the underwater caves, we snorkeled with sharks, sea turtles and penguins. The place is strictly off limits, unless you join an 80-dollar per person guided tour. Unfortunately, the rest of the tourist who joined the same tour were 90-years-old Europeans who didn’t understand the guide’s instructions, disturbed the sand and ruined the visibility of the water, could not keep up with the group and we had to wait for them constantly losing our time. They managed to appear in the background and foreground in almost all of our photos and videos. The experience was so utterly spoiled, we promised to ourselves never to join any guided tours anymore.

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  • So Is It Worth It?
  • If you are passionate about Nature and Wildlife, especially- marine and underwater animals (who isn’t?) – then you should probably visit Galapagos, just to check it off your list, even though you will still feel the pain when it comes to paying the exaggerated entry fees and tour prices and you might still ask yourself at the end: Was it worth it?

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    Let’s say money is not an issue for you and you don’t care about the prices. But if you imagine roaming alone on secluded beaches and frozen lava flows taking pictures of unique animals, or diving in coral gardens and underwater tunnels teaming with life, you might still be disappointed. Yes, you can take a walk on the beach or visit a volcano, but in most cases you will have to join an expensive tour and a bunch of elderly tourists will be all around you all day long. The most beautiful places on the four islands which you are allowed to visit are off limits unless you pay for a tour. Yes, you will take some pictures of unique animals, but in most frames there will be pink human legs in the background. Yes, you can dive in coral gardens and underwater tunnels, but ONLY if you join a guided tour and yes, the cold water will be teaming with life- mostly other tourists.

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    We were excited to meet the marine iguanas- “hideous-looking” yet gentle vegetarians, sitting in groups on the rocky shores motionless, spitting saltwater through their noses. We observed with amazement the giant land tortoises – ancient creatures slowly dragging their thick shells with the most serious expressions on their wrinkled faces. We were fascinated by the incredible agility of the little Galapagos penguins gracefully flying underwater, the enormous sea turtles, the many different species of reef fish and sharks. We fell forever in love with the adorable lazy and stinky sea lions and it was heartbreaking when the time came to sail away and leave them behind. But besides the animals, there were the humans with their greed and rules and this spoiled the entire experience to the point of almost regretting stopping in Galapagos. There are many other places on the planet where you can enjoy nature’s beauty and abundance of wildlife much cheaper, without the crowds, without the guides and the hustle, where cruisers are welcome. We kept sailing west. In the Polynesian atolls of the Tuamotus we went diving with hundreds of sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and the most beautiful tropical fishes abundant in the warm waters of the Pacific- we didn’t need permissions or guides and we could snorkel and dive in the clearest warm waters as many times as we liked free of charge. In New Zealand we met once again sea lions and penguins, boobies and many other animals and birds which were not surrounded by tourists with photo cameras.

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    It’s hard to say if Galapagos is definitely worth it or not. It is definitely overrated. We enjoyed much of our time on the islands and we are glad we did go, but we left if with mixed feelings, and somewhat disappointed- a place which is now off our list of Return Destinations.

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    People Along The way

    Unexpected meeting with other cruisers S/V Cheers in Nazca, Peru.

    Unexpected meeting with other cruisers S/V Cheers in Nazca, Peru.

    We spent almost two months backpacking in South America while our boat Fata Morgana waited for us at anchor in Bahia de Caraquez. From Ecuador to Chile, Bolivia, Peru and back, we hitchhiked, couchsurfed and took countless bus rides to many of the continent’s most thrilling destinations: the Atacama Desert, the Uyuni Salt Flats, the Oruro’s Festival, the ruins of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco, Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, Chachapoyas, Cajamarca, Vilcabamba, Chimborazo, Banos and more. We joined a steady flow of tourists from around the world visiting these popular ancient historical and architectural sites of tremendous natural beauty and ruins of lost civilizations. We tasted many strange new foods and learned much about the Latin-American culture, history and traditions. But what made this voyage unique were the people we met along the way, the time we spent and the memories we shared with fellow travelers, as well as locals and ex-pats who welcomed us in their homes, cars and hearts.

    With Atanas Shopov in his apartment in Chiclayo, Peru

    With Atanas Shopov in his apartment in Chiclayo, Peru

    We don’t remember the names of most of those who pulled over and picked us up on the side of dusty roads but we remember them and their kindness- the hotel manager who gave us a ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama in Chile, the couple who took us from Valle de la Luna to La Paz in Bolivia, the truck driver who stopped in Nazca and drove us almost all the way to Lima in Peru, the nice couple who picked us up in Loja on our way to Riobamba, the young guys who took us up to the first base on Chimborazo and the family who made space for the three of us in their car from Chimborzo back to Riobamba, the girl working as doctor in the military who drove us from Banos to Quito and a few other shorter rides in Ecuador by a policeman, a priest, a farmer and a retired couple.
    There are nice people everywhere you go who will stop and give you a ride in their cars if you stay long enough with your thumb up on the side of the road, but in some cultures and some countries, hitchhiking is more practiced, safer and more widely accepted compared to others. From our experience in South America, we can say that in Bolivia hitchhiking is difficult, because people are poor and there are not many cars on the roads between towns so the cheap bus is your best option. In Peru it can take a while before someone pulls over, and you have to be careful- in the big cities even taxi drivers may rob you. Ecuador is by far the best place for hitchhiking. There, we didn’t have to wait long for someone to stop and give us a ride, we hardly spent any money on bus fares hitchhiking safely and comfortably 90% of the time, even though we are a family of three.

    With Diego and his family in Loja, Ecuador

    With Diego and his family in Loja, Ecuador

    Another great way to meet locals and save money while traveling is CouchSurfing. CouchSurfing is a huge social network of hosts who offer free accommodation to travelers in their homes throughout the world. People with an extra couch, a spare bed or an empty room in their dwellings who like to help travelers, to learn about different cultures, to make friends and share stories and experiences have the chance to connect through CouchSurfing with likeminded individuals, based on similar interests. Thus, travelers of limited means have the opportunity to stay in the homes of local people and learn firsthand of their culture, traditions, way of life, as well as the best places to visit and things to do in their hometown. I don’t know who came up with the CouchSurfing idea and when, but I think this is one of the best ideas of all times!

    With Juanka at his house in Banos, Ecuador

    With Juanka at his house in Banos, Ecuador

    Thanks to CouchSurfing we met John- an interesting Peruvian guy with an English name and stayed in his big colonial home in Cajamarca, where he took us on a tour of the city and revealed some of its secrets. Diego and his family shared their tiny apartment with us in Loja, and in Vilcabamba we met Mahanidhi Das- an Ecuadorian Dharma Yogi who offered to share his humble dwelling with us, enlightened us with meditation and Buddhist knowledge. He took me to the Loja jailhouse to assist in one of his weekly yoga classes for the prison’s women. In Riobamba we stayed with Hugo and Carolina at their apartment and shared some Bulgarian style meals, as well as great stories of travel, exotic cultures and scientific research. Hugo is a professor who used to study the food qualities of insects consumed in some local tribes throughout the world. He has been in more countries than us, in some remote corners of unknown jungles tasting bugs! In Banos, our host Juan Karlos opened his big house for us. We met his family and learned how to make tortillas, and in his free time he showed Maya how to play a few things on the guitar. And finally in Quito, we were Marcel’s guests for a couple of days. Thus, we never had to pay for a hostel while in Ecuador and we got to cook our own food in the kitchens of the people who hosted us, saving a lot of money on this final stretch of our trip. CouchSurfing spiced up our journey offering us the most authentic experiences while in South America.

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    With Mahanidhi Das in Vilcabamaba

    In Lima and Chiclayo we had the pleasure and the privilege to stay with a few other awesome people –fellow Bulgarians who invited us to stay in their homes. We found them not through CouchSurfing but through the Facebook group Bulgros in Peru- Bulgarians in Peru. Kristina was our first host in Lima. She lives there with her Peruvian husband and has developed her own business installing and maintaining healthy foods vending machines in schools, offices and other public spaces. Her idea to replace the chocolate bars, chips and Coca-Cola with fresh fruits and organic juice in vending machines has grown into a successful business and a great cause for promoting healthier lifestyle.

    With Kristina and her husband in Lima, Peru

    With Kristina and her husband in Lima, Peru

    In another neighborhood in Lima we stayed a few more days with Fani, her Peruvian husband Saul and their genius kid Amaru born in May 2014. They have inspired us with their alternative ways of raising and educating their child using such methods of infant education as attachment parenting-an approach to childrearing that encourages practices like ‘the family bed’, ‘prolonged breastfeeding’, and ‘carrying your baby close in a sling’, the Montessori prepared environment, baby-led weaning, Elimination communication (EC) from birth (a practice in which a caregiver uses timing, signals, cues, and intuition to address an infant’s need to eliminate waste), Valdorf (natural and recycled homemade toys and furniture avoiding plastic toys and modern children aids), Emmi Pikler (free movement from childbirth). At age two, Amaru is a happy and healthy vegetarian, never vaccinated, who speaks two languages- Spanish and Bulgarian and can handle all sorts of tools, knives, and instruments. He doesn’t watch TV and has traveled extensively in three continents. We have never met a more intelligent, mature and advanced for his age kid.

    With Amaru and his parents in Lima, Peru

    With Amaru and his parents in Lima, Peru

    We were also super happy to spend time with Atanas Shopov, another successful fellow-Bulgarian living in Peru who hosted us in his Peruvian home in Chiclayo and showed us around this sunny coastal town. Atanas Shopov ‘Nasko’ is the coach of the National Team of Peru for heavy weights lifting. His team of young athletes has won many national and international heavy weight lifting competitions participating in sports events throughout the world, including the Olympic Games. Meeting Nasko- a talented and passionate individual coaching the National team of Peru- and assisting to one of his training sessions at the local sports arena was the proudest moment of our whole trip!

    Visiting the ostrich farm with Atanas Shopov i Chiclayo, Peru

    Visiting the ostrich farm with Atanas Shopov i Chiclayo, Peru

    We met many interesting locals, ex pats and fellow travelers while visiting Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and we made a few good friends. A man with a big hat in Bolivia predicting the future using coca leaves scattered on a small table, a woman in Bolivia with a small top hat and a pink dress selling dried llama fetuses, a tour guide in Peru who believes in aliens, a New Zealander in Ecuador who organizes horseback riding tours in the evergreen mountains of Vilcabamba among many others.

    Horseback riding in Vilcabamaba

    Horseback riding in Vilcabamaba

    But the most memorable, thrilling and fantastic unexpected meeting remains the one in the heart of the Atacama Desert where we accidently bumped into a group of twenty Bulgarian travelers members of the Adventure Club on an organized tour of South America. I mean, what are the chances!?

    With the Bulgarian Adventurers in Atacama Desert, Chile

    With the Bulgarian Adventurers in Atacama Desert, Chile

    It has been a tremendously awesome journey, these two months in South America, and the people along the way- those who helped us, advised us, hosted us, inspired us- made it unique. We are forever grateful to each and every one of them. We will never forget you!

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    Adventures in Baños

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    The ultimate adventure destination in Ecuador is without doubt Baños de Aguas Santas– a city in the central part of the country. ‘The Gateway to the Amazon’, Baños is the last big mountain town right at the edge of the Amazon jungle and a major tourist center.

    Banos

    Banos

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    paintings of local disasters and accidents are found inside the church

    paintings of local disasters and accidents are found inside the church

    Ecuadorian woman in traditional clothing in Banos

    Ecuadorian woman in traditional clothing in Banos

    Guinea pigs for lunch!

    Guinea pigs for lunch!

    Backpackers, adventure-seekers, and adrenalin- junkies from around the world poor here daily attracted by the immense natural beauty of the area- green mountains, rivers and waterfalls, as well as by all the extreme sports and adventures this terrain provides. Mountain biking, river rafting, bungee jumping, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, canyoning, jungle expeditions, thermal springs, and zip lines- right at the foothills of the active Tangurahua volcano and for the cheapest imaginable prices. We are so there!

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    A day before our arrival in Baños, February 27th 2016, Tangurahua erupted shooting a tall column of grey ashes 5 kilometers into the air. Fine ashes, like sky-dust, started falling down on us in Riobamba- a city about 80 kilometers away. The volcano kept erupting, puffing like an old smoker every few hours for the entire time we were in the area. The first time we saw the strange thin cloud coming out of the mountain in the distance, we asked a random man on the street: “Is the volcano erupting right now???” He just looked at us without stopping, smiled and said: “Bienvenidos en Ecuador” (Welcome to Ecuador).

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    After the second day, we just stopped paying any attention to Tangurahua’s spewing lava and ash, and went about our business, like all the locals did and have been doing for ages.

    Tangurahua– “Throat of Fire” is an active stratovolcano in the Cordillera Oriental of Ecuador, which entered an eruptive phase in 2000, with major eruption in 2006, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and now, causing a few evacuations, a number of roads and houses destroyed and people killed by pyroclastic flows.

    Fire on the mountain: Tungurahua on February 27, 2016. PHOTOGRAPH BY JUAN CEVALLOS, AFP, GETTY IMAGES  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160304-ecuador-volcano-tungurahua-erupts-lava-ash-pictures/#/01_tungurahua.ngsversion.1457104257445.jpg

    Fire on the mountain: Tungurahua on February 27, 2016.
    PHOTOGRAPH BY JUAN CEVALLOS, AFP, GETTY IMAGES
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160304-ecuador-volcano-tungurahua-erupts-lava-ash-pictures/#/01_tungurahua.ngsversion.1457104257445.jpg

    We arrive in this extremely beautiful extremely extreme environment, ready for action. Our CouchSurfing host Juan-Karlos or ‘Juanka’ is the most awesome guy in Baños, possibly in Ecuador, probably in the world, and we are the luckiest family to have the pleasure of staying at his place and getting to know him and his family. His house is huge, clean and beautiful, and we get a nice room with two big beds on the second floor.

    Juanka teaching Maya to play the guitar

    Juanka teaching Maya to play the guitar

    Juanka has an extensive experience working in the tourist industry. He is organizing ‘Free Bike Tours’ – a few hours or all day, different terrains guided mountain biking tours for tips. For more details, check out his web page: Free Biking Tours Ecuador. But he also is the owner of a local bar and during our few-day stay at his place he was busy most of the time, so we didn’t get a chance to bike with him, unfortunately.

    With Juanka at his house

    With Juanka at his house

    Instead, we rent bikes for 10$ for a day, and ride without a guide. We take a map of the 18 kilometer long ‘Waterfall Rout’ with 12 waterfalls along the way, going mostly downhill parallel to a river, mostly on the main road with cars passing all the time, across bridges, through tunnels, villages and side roads. The ride is long but easy and the scenery is spectacular. Canyons with zip lines every now and then, waterfalls, bridges over the river, where you can bungee jump for 20$ or less. We stop regularly to marvel at the view or watch the zip-lines.

    Maya

    Maya

    As we reach one of the final waterfalls, we eat delicious lunch at a small Persian restaurant in the village and take “the bus” back to Baños in the afternoon. It’s 18 km uphill, so 99% of the tourists, including us, pay 2$ per person to ride in the back of a truck instead of paddling with the bikes.

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    The next day it’s raining so we decide to get wet anyway. We sign up for a white water rafting adventure in one of the few agencies in town. Together with a few other tourists and guides, we pile up on a mini-van with an inflatable raft on a trailer behind us and drive down the road to a place on the Pastaza river, where, after short instructions, we launch the rafts and off we go down class 3 and 4 rapids.

    instructions

    instructions

    going downriver!

    going downriver!

    This means- crazy big water, the raft disappearing completely, then jumping in the air, everyone screaming, people falling off the raft into the river- it’s absolute madness!

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    Maya loves it so much, she decides to sit in the middle, right at the front of the raft and gets the most of the splashes.

    Maya is in the front

    Maya is in the front

    We lose her and have to fish her back out of the water a couple of times.

    Mira

    Mira

    We stop after almost an hour. If we don’t stop at this spot, our guide explains, we will float down to the Amazon River and reach Brazil!

    The raft crew

    The raft crew

    On the way back, we stop for lunch- included in the rafting tour package, and Maya declares she wants to be a river-rafting guide one day and do this for a living…

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    Watch our short YouTube video- Two Months in the Andes With Maya

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    Chimborazo- The Icethrone of God

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    Which mountain is on the equator but is covered in permanent ice?

    Which mountain is 2.5 km lower than Everest but is 2 km further than the center of the Earth than Everest?

    Chimborazo.

    After the few unforgettable days horseback riding in the green mountains of Vilcabamba it’s time for a more serious, much colder and much more extreme hike. Next on our adventure list is Chimborazo. In the ancient indigenous language of the people who inhabited these lands, Chimborazo means ‘The Mountain of Ice’ or ‘The Icethrone of God’.

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    Chimborazo, standing at 6,263m above sea level is an ice-capped inactive stratovolcano covered with glaciers within the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes, in Ecuador. It’s 150km south of Quito and 30 km northwest of the town of Riobamba, at the end of the Ecuadorian Volcanic Arc known as the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’.

    It’s location- only one degree south of the equator on the equatorial bulge where the Earth’s diameter is greater than at the latitude of Everest, makes it 2 km taller than Everest, if you measure the distance from the two peaks to the center of the planet! For the same reason, Chimborazo is also the closest point on Earth to the Sun.

    In the past, it was believed that Chimorazo is in fact the tallest mountain on Earth, even from sea level, and this reputation led to many failed attempts on its summit during the 17th and 18th centuries. It wasn’t until 4 of January 1880, when the English climber Edward Whymper became the first man to reach the summit of Chimborazo.

    Even today climbing Chimborazo is not an easy business. It’s dangerous due to glaciers, risk of avalanches, and severe weather conditions. Climbers usually start at night in order to reach the summit before sunrise when the snow melts increasing the chance of avalanche and rockfall. The easiest most popular route is El Castillo form December to February and June to September on the west side of the volcano, starting at Whymper hut. The climb itself demands skill and is often on black ice.

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    Our intentions are to visit Chimborazo, not to climb the summit, for which we are not prepared at all. Getting to the second base- the Whymper hut, is relatively easy and doesn’t require skill or preparation. The serious climb begins there, but for us it will be the end of the road. We take the bus from Riobamba to the village near the park’s entrance and the driver drops us off right at the door. The best thing about Ecuador, besides its friendly people, is that ALL National Parks are free for locals and tourists alike. So going to Chimborazo doesn’t cost us much more than the bus tickets in one direction (we hitchhike on the way back). The park’s entrance is at 4,386 meters and it’s already extremely cold. We have trouble breathing at this altitude. We are not used to altitude and cold anymore, after three years in the tropics, at sea-level…We have our hats, pants, NorthFace jackets and all our warm clothes on, but I am freezing. So I go to the park’s public toilets and wrap my legs with toilet paper. This should act as isolation keeping the heat between my body and my pants. Works great. Not the first time I am doing this.

    Chimborazo- Park's Entrance

    Chimborazo- Park’s Entrance

    Fog, clouds and cold. The mountain is damp, lifeless and hostile- red soil and rocks, few low shrubs. Yet we spot life. A herd of about 20 small gentle wild vicuñas (a type of Andean lama) live in the protected ecosystem of the National Park. Shy, they keep a distance when we try to approach them.

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    We start walking slowly up a wide rocky road. We have 8 kilometers to go. It’s not a steep or difficult hike, but it’s harder than it looks just because of the cold and the altitude. We walk slowly. A car is heading up to the first refuge, and it stops right away to pick us up. Did I mention that people of Ecuador are the best? We have been hitchhiking 99% of the time and it never takes long for someone to pull over. And they never asked us for money. We met quite a lot of great Ecuadorians thanks to hitchhiking and we are forever grateful to all of them! The two young guys who took us all the way up to the first refuge saved us at least 3 hours of painful walking.

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    From the first refuge at 4,850m, there is no road accessible by vehicles anymore. A path leads up to the second refuge. Here we already see snow. We are excited. It has been a long time without snow and we are happy to step in it, touch it, make snowballs, and play. Nothing like good old snow! Don’t forget, we are Canadians too!

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    Any young healthy person can hike to the second refuge- Whymper Hut, but for people with heart problems, elderly or out of shape, it is not recommended. If you are suffering from altitude sickness, even if you are young and healthy, you will have to turn back, unfortunately.

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    We are not feeling too good, but we keep going very slowly, one step at a time. It’s getting colder and colder and for a view we have damp red rocky mountains hidden in grey clouds. A small Andean wolf is roaming about and comes incredibly close to us, shivering.

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    As we reach the Whymper hut, I am done. I barely breathe. We rest inside and soon Ivo and Maya are ready to go even higher. There is a crater lagoon at 5,100m not too far from the hut, but for me this is too much. I pass. Thus, the highest point I have ever reached remains 5,000 meters. Maya went to 5,100m, and Ivo- jumped to 5,100 meters and 75 cm!

    Maya at 5,100 meters

    Maya at 5,100 meters

    Ivo at 5,100 meters and 75 centimeters!

    Ivo at 5,100 meters and 75 centimeters!

    In August 1976, SAETA Flight 232 carrying 55 passengers and four crew members aboard a Vickers Viscount from Quito to Cuenca disappeared en route. In February 2003, after 27 years, the aircraft was found with the bodies of its 59 occupants at 5,400 meters elevation on Chimborazo by Ecuadorian climbers on the rarely used eastern route Integral.

    Graves of people who died on Chimborazo

    Graves of people who died on Chimborazo

    On November 10, 1993 three parties of climbers, one ascending and two descending, were caught in an avalanche on the steep slopes below the Veintimilla summit. The avalanche buried ten climbers: six French, two Ecuadorans, one Swiss, and one Chilean, in a crevasse at 5,700 m. It took twenty people and ten days to find their bodies- the worst climbing accident in Ecuador to date.

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    Horses Made Us Happy in Vilcabamba Ecuador

    Horses make you happy.

    – Gavin Moor

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    Ivo, Mira and Maya in Vilcabamaba

    In the greenest part of the Mandango mountains, where the sky meets the forest and the clouds crawl down the rolling hills to spread their mist over the valleys below, we reach a small refuge. A tiny log cabin with a pointy tin roof- perfect for amplifying the inevitable raindrop songs at night. It rains a lot in the end of February in this part of Ecuador, so we know we will get some wet weather for sure. We are OK with it. Rain is part of Nature; it’s good for the land, for the green stuff. Plus, we have jackets, we have hats (not some regular hats, but real leather cowboy hats) and we have a tin roof. And fire under the tin roof. Burritos made on the fire, sweet lemonade, which Gavin prepares with lemons, passion fruit and a hard brown block of cane sugar- the one the horses really love. He grinds the cane sugar and mixes everything with water. We can add rum.

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    Hotel-Restaurant International GAVILAN

    Gavin is our guide, the guy who organizes horseback riding adventures in the mountains of Vilcabamba. A skinny serious looking cowboy, he doesn’t talk much but listens a lot- the Ecuadorian Clint Eastwood, we call him.

    Always a cowboy, Gavin Moore has not always been Ecuadorian. Born in New Zealand, he traveled all over the world and lived in a bunch of different countries, before he moved to Vilcabamba for good, I am not sure how many years ago. And here, in the greenest part of the Mandango mountains, where the sky meets the forest and the clouds crawl down the rolling hills to spread their mist over the valley below, he built the small refuge right at the edge of a National Park, in the heart of a lush cloud forest, where he is taking tourists on a two- or three-day horseback riding trips.

    This time, we are the tourists. With us is also a young backpacker from Belgium and Gavin’s 12-year-old daughter Isabel, who came especially to spend time with Maya. They became instant good friends and still keep in touch.

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    Gavin and his daughter Isabel

    Our horse adventure- the highlight of our travels in Ecuador, started in the village of Vilcabamba early one morning.

    Vilcabamba

    Vilcabamba, a village in the southern region of Ecuador in the province of Loja, is a popular tourist destination as well as a popular retreat for retired ex-pats looking for peaceful life in a healthy evergreen scenic countryside. It is most popular with the extreme longevity of its inhabitants, where it is said that many have reached 120, even up to 135 years of age thanks to the remarkable medicinal qualities of the local plants, the mineral rich water, the steady mountain climate (eternal spring) and the healthy lifestyle of the locals in general. A few clever people have become billionaires selling healthy products all over the world made with plants, fruits and water from Vilcabamaba. The area is known as ‘The Valley of Longevity’, with the oldest inhabitants in the world.

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    Tobacco – probably one of the ‘medicinal plants’

    This sounds very interesting and hopeful, but is totally not true. In 1971 a Harvard Medical School researcher went to investigate the longevity rumors. He met a local guy, who told him he was 122-years-old. Three years later, the same guy told him, he was 134. In fact he was not even 100. Scientists then determined that the average age of those Vilcabamabans claiming to be over 100 years was actually 86, and the oldest person was 96. “Individual longevity in Vilcabamba is little, if any, different from that found throughout the rest of the world. Life expectancy at all ages in Vilcabamba is in fact less than in the U.S.”, the researchers concluded.

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    The Valley of Longevity

    The brightest example of age exaggeration in Vilcabamaba is that of Miguel Carpio Mendieta. In 1944 he was 61, but told everyone he was 70. Five years later he said he was 80 and at the age of 87, he had a reputation of a 121-year-old man. In 1974, at age 91, he was “127”! But why are the Vilcabamaba’s elderly lying about their age? Turned out, some of the old folks of Vilcabamaba are tricksters who love to gain prestige in the local community as well as international publicity, which still attracts not only many visitors, but also rich retired foreigners who come here to buy property and hopefully live longer in the miracle ‘Valley of Longevity’.

    House in Vilcabamba

    Anyway. We love the place, longevity or no longevity. It’s a beautiful clean village surrounded by green mountains, with colorful old and new houses, balconies, a nice little town square with a fountain and the inevitable church. Lots of hostels, shops and restaurants where we see as many gringos as locals, if not more, and there is no telling if the gringos are visitors or locals themselves.  Very relaxed atmosphere mixed with fresh mountain air and the smell of empanadas.

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    Street in Vilcabamaba

    Caballos Gavilan

    Here, we ask a random person for ‘the New Zealander cowboy’ and are immediately referred to a small shop- Caballos Gavilan. Everyone knows him. There we meet our Ecuadorian Clint Eastwood. In fact, he really acted in a film- a Bulgarian production- something about the conquistadors, filmed a few years ago around his hut. So we are not the first Bulgarians he takes there.

    Gavin is also a poet and a publish author of 10 books. You can check him out on Amazon @Gavin Moore.

    The next day, we are each assigned a horse. Ivo gets an old black stallion named Tornado who will be the leader, Maya’s horse is gentle grey and as big and experienced as Ivo’s horse. Mine is a small black-and-white young and very stubborn creature, named Apache who has been up the mountain only one time and has to stay at the back of the line and keep up. I can tell he doesn’t like me much, even though I try to be gentle and loving with him. It just doesn’t click. But we manage to stick together with no incidents the entire time.

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    Maya and her horse

    We ride. Slowly, the horses walk on a narrow path through the forest, always up, across a shallow river and then up a steep muddy hill, always up. At places we walk next to the horses- it’s too vertical, to muddy and too heavy for the animals to carry us and all our bags with food and stuff for two days.

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    The green valley of Vilcabamba is now lying at our feet surrounded by forested mountains under blue skies.

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    We start at 1,480 meters. We ride and hike for about 4-5 hours before we reach the refuge at 2,500 meters. After a quick belated lunch, we leave the girls to play with their little plastic toy-animals in the hut and we start on foot for the cloud forest, Gavin, the Belgian girl, Ivo and I. But the cloud forest soon turns to a rain forest and we hurry back down, wet and cold. We surround the fireplace with our soaked shoes, socks and clothes and we spend the rest of the afternoon preparing our sleeping quarters, which are in another wooden tin-roofed building next door, and watching Gavin making burritos and guacamole. He wouldn’t let us help with the cooking no matter what. We eat dinner on candle light.

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    The horses are peacefully grazing outside the hut. We can hear them in the dark, walking, eating grass, snorting, neighing. We realize with amazement that this is a completely different world away from civilization and technology, a world of hundreds of years ago, where we can be really close to nature. With sweet nostalgia, we share the immense beauty and tranquility of these fleeting moments with our gentle companions- the horses.

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     Horse Facts

    • Horses make you happy
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    • Horses can sleep standing up
    • Horses live 20-25 years
    • Horses have the biggest eyes of any other land mammal
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    • Horses can see almost 360 degrees
    • Most of the time, wherever a horse’s ear is pointing is where the horse is looking with the eye on the same side. If the ears are pointing in different directions, the horse is looking at two different things at the same time
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    • Horses make you happy
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    • Horses use their ears, eyes and nostrils to express their mood. They also communicate their feelings through facial expressions .
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    • Horses can not vomit.
    • Horses produce approximately 10 gallons of saliva a day
    • Horses drink at least 25 gallons of water a day
    • Horses are social animals and will get lonely if kept alone, and they will mourn the passing of a companion
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    • Horses are undeniably clever animals. Beyond being proficient at relatively simple learning tasks, they are also recognized as having the capacity to solve advanced cognitive challenges involving categorization learning and a degree of concept formation.
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    • The horse is one of the 12 Chinese signs of the zodiac. Anyone born in the year of the horse is seen to embody the characteristics of the animal, namely intelligence, independence and a free-spirit.
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    • Horses can fly without wings

    Caballos Gavilan @Calle Sucre 10-30 C, Vilcabamba, (593) 07 0981332806

    Facebook @ Caballos Gavilan

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    Watch our short YouTube video- Two Months in the Andes With Maya

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    Nazca, Cajamarca and Chachapoyas- 2000 years back in time

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    Ivo, Mira and Maya at Ventanillas de Otuzco

    After the floating Uru Islands and Isla Taquile on Lake Titicaca, after Cuzco and Machu Picchu, we continue exploring Peru’s many wonders, before heading to Ecuador. Fascinated by the rich history and exotic culture of this vast South American country, curious about some of its greatest mysteries left unsolved on the face of the Earth by civilizations much older than the Incas, we visit a few more ancient archeological and historical sites which have left modern scientists puzzled with riddles: Nazca, Cajmarca and Chachapoyas.

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    The Nazca Lines

    The Nazca Lines

    The  Nazca Lines  are series of ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru created by the Nazca culture between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D.- a thousand years before the rule of the Incas. Scattered in the dry desert over 500 square kilometers are hundreds of simple lines and elaborate individual figures of people, animals and plants of grand proportions- the biggest some 270 m across. They can only be observed from a high vantage point- from the surrounding hills, or even better- from the sky. So we prepare to fly.

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    The Nomadiks will fly

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    Map of the Nazca Lines

    We arrive in Nazca early in the morning and immediately after exiting the bus station, we are greeted by a sleepy guy who offers small airplane excursions over the lines. We go to his office and bargain for the best possible last-minute price (the plane flies in 20 minutes and they still have space)- US$80 per person, while the regular price is at least US$100. A minivan takes us to the local airport and from there we take off. Everything is happening in a hurry. Our plane is tiny. A French couple, our family of three and the two pilots barely fit in. The plane lifts off and heads to the wrinkled dry red desert. We feel weightless, dizzy, excited and happy circling over the world-famous Nazca Lines. We have headphones in which we can hear the pilot pointing at and explaining the shapes.

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    Inside the airplane

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    Maya is happy to fly over the Nazca Lines

    A hummingbird, a spider, a monkey, a shark, an orca, a lizard, a jaguar, a condor, a man, a woman, a tree, a flower- giant very precise drawings etched on the desert’s skin by the Nazca people. With simple tools, they methodically removed the top layer of red pebbles, uncovering the lighter grey ground beneath, creating these stylized figures of lifeforms, as well as simple lines.

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    The monkey

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    The spider

    Seen from above, by gods or any other creatures living in the skies or visiting our planet from a distant world, the Nazca Lines would seem like a picture encyclopedia of the creatures populating our planet Earth. Why the ancient Nazca People spent day after day removing rocks in the hot waterless desert, making giant drawings? Was their intention to record their world and inform those who ruled the sun and controlled their faith about life on Earth? Archaeologists, historians, and mathematicians have all tried and failed to determine the purpose of the mysterious Nazca Lines.

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    View from above

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    The hummingbird

    Maybe they are a way to communicate with extraterrestrials, who probably have already met the Nazca people? One of the most famous Nazca geoglyphs is an astronaut waiving a friendly hand to the sky.

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    The astronaut

    Cajamarca

    Another strange site in Peru is near the historical town of Cajamarca. It is a humble not very famous archeological site in the town of Otuzco named Ventanillas de Otuzco, which consists of small “windows” carved in the face of the rocky hills in the countryside, very much resembling bee hives, used as a funerary building- an ancient necropolis.

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    Ventanillas de Otuzco

    There are 337 square and rectangular niches used to house the dead, carved with amazing precision some 2,000 years ago. This City of the Dead, built by the Cajamarca people long before the Incas moved in, is another archeological wonder of which very little is known.

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    We are fascinated by the Ventanillas de Otuzco, the hot thermal Baños del Inca used by Atahualpa as a spa not far from Otuzco, and by the town of Cajamarca itself.

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    Banos del Inca thermal pools complex

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    The public pool at the complex

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    Clay Cajamarca figurines at the museum in the complex

    Cajamarca became our favorite Peruvian destination, with stunning colonial architecture, cool mountain climate, beautiful surrounding nature with many rivers and lakes, and friendly welcoming people. Our only regret is that we didn’t spend more time there.

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    Typical Cajamarca hat

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    Saturday washing at the river

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    An important mountain settlement ruled by Tupac Inca’s father Pachacuti during the Inca Empire, Cajamarca is the site of a famous battle which took place in 1532, when conquistadors Francisco Pizarro and Hernando De Soto defeated the Inca army and captured its leader Atahualpa- the Last Inca. They held him in a room in the main temple and promised to let him free in exchange of a ransom- the room of the captive Inca General had to be filled with gold. Within two months, the room was filled with gold offerings, yet Atahualpa was executed. This marked the end of the Inca Empire and the beginning of Spanish colonial rule.

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    Cathedral in Cajamarca

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    Street in Cajamarca

    Thanks to the CouchSurfing community, we meet John Alcalde, our host in Cajamarca and spend a couple of nights in his awesome medieval-looking house. It’s a century-old big colonial building, where we sleep in a room on the second floor. John takes us around the city and tells us about its particular architecture, its many cathedrals, its festivals, people and nature. We visit the famous Ransom Room, where Atahualpa spent the last days of his life, and an old empty church. There, in the church transformed into a museum with no visitors but us, John sings a sad area from a famous opera with majestic acoustic. In the evening, we drink beers in front of the big fireplace in John’s house, and watch a film on his home cinema system.

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    With John Alcalde in Cajamarca

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    Atahualpa “ransom room”

    Chachapoyas

    We also travel to Chachapoyas in the Amazon Andes – a region in northern Peru covered by dense tropical forest and pretty remote and isolated form other regions of the country. Here we visit another monumental archeological site similar in proportions and beauty to Machu Picchu, but much less accessible and still not very popular.

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    Great fortress of Kuelap

    The fortress of Kuelap (“The Machu Picchu of the North”) is a walled city of great proportions (600 meters long and 110meters wide) built in 6th century AD consisting of over 400 buildings within massive exterior stone walls. Built on a ridge 3000 meters above sea level overlooking the Utcubamba Valley, visiting Kuelap can be an adventure.

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    Instead of joining an expensive guided tour starting from the town of Chachapoyas and riding in the tourist minibus almost to the entrance of the ruins, we decide to hike. First, we take a local bus to El Tingo which brings us to 1800m above sea level and from there we take the horse trail up along the left bank of Tingo river. The hike is not difficult, but is long and going steep up with some muddy sections and a small mountain village not far from the ruins. It takes us over 4 hours to reach the summit of the mountain where the heavy stone walls of Kuelup rise on a barren hill.

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    The horse path to the fortress is muddy!

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    Maya found a funny bug

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    Maya found yummy berries

    It’s already afternoon and all other tourists have left! We are the only visitors and the entire site is deserted.

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    Round houses at Kuelap

    The massive exterior stone walls of the great fortress of Kuélap reach upwards of 20 meters (60 feet) in height and possibly served to defend the city. The 400 individual houses are all made with cylindrical stone constructions as well as raised platforms built on slopes.

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    The Chachapoyas civilization, also called the Warriors of the Clouds, was a culture of Andean people living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas Region of present-day Peru. The Incas conquered them shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in Peru. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Chachapoyas were one of the many nations ruled by the Inca Empire. Much of what we do know about the Chachapoyas culture is based on archaeological evidence from ruins, pottery, tombs and other artifacts. Only an estimated 5% of the Chachapoyas sites have been excavated according to a BBC documentary from January 2013.

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    The treacherous bus-rides on winding dirt roads, the four-hour hike up and three-hour hike down the steep mountain is absolutely worth it. Joining a guided tour form Chachapoyas would also be worth it, whatever the price, as Kuelap is not a site to miss when visiting Peru. Besides Kelap, there are a few more unique places not far from the town, like the second highest waterfall in the world or the Carajía sarcophagi, so spending a few days in Chachapoyas is a must.

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    Chachapoyas

    Carajía is an archaeological site in the Utcubamba Valley, located 48 km northeast of the city of Chachapoyas, where eight Chachapoyan mummies (only seven left today) were discovered on the cliffside, referred to by local residents as the “ancient wise men”.

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    carajia sarcophagi

    Dated to the 15th century, the seven sarcophagi with their mummies still inside stand up high on a vertical cliff facing east, an inaccessible and unexplored cave behind them. They are about 2.5 meters tall, constructed of clay, sticks and grasses, with exaggerated jawlines and with human skulls sitting atop their heads, which makes them unique. Their inaccessible location high above a river gorge has preserved them from destruction by looters.

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    This time we do join a guided tour, as there is no public transportation to the site, and we don’t regret it. Not only we share this journey with a really awesome young Swedish couple, but our guide turns out to be a great very knowledgeable person, as well as a believer in the Ancient Aliens Theory, who tells us many interesting facts, legends and rumors about the Chachapoyas people and their mummies.

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    Our group- friends from Sweden and the guide

    We feel like Indiana Jones; privileged and forever grateful to be able to behold these majestic and mysterious ancient sites: the Nazca lines visible only from the sky, the 2000-years old necropolis of Otuzco near the one of the most beautiful colonial towns of Peru- Cajamarca, the majestic fortress of Kuelap with its round stone houses and tall walls and the eerie sarcophagi occupied by real mummies standing on a cliff near Chachapoyas.

    Watch our short YouTube video- Two Months in the Andes With Maya

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    Cuzco and Machu Picchu

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    The Nomadik Family in Machu Picchu

    Every traveler’s dream is someday to reach the top of the Inca World and marvel at its majestic proportions and ancient mysteries. It’s our Number One Peruvian destination too, and after Lake Titicaca it’s time to go to Machu Picchu. There are a few ways to get to the site once you arrive in Cuzco, and the journey to The Lost City of the Incas is in itself an extraordinary experience of epic proportions, especially if you choose the cheapest option, which does not include a train.

    Cuzco

    We arrive in Cuzco after another painful overnight bus ride from Puno, and are lucky to find an extremely clean and very cheap hostel room with two double beds and a private bathroom with hot water for $15.00 per night (for three people). If you are looking for a nice place owned by a humble welcoming family, and are willing to walk about 20-30 minutes to the historical downtown part of the city, where you will never find such a clean hostel at such price, then remember this one: Hostal Luve, not far from the bus terminal.

    From the hostel, we walk on the main street, past a few money exchange bureaus where we buy Sols- the Peruvian currency, and past the large indoors crafts market, where, after an impressive bargaining episode with a few chubby ladies, we buy Peruvian hats and a poncho for Maya.

    It’s raining and it’s very cold, grey clouds hanging over the city. It has been raining almost everywhere we go since La Paz and our biggest concern is that when we finally arrive in Machu Picchu we will have this miserable un-photogenic cold weather.

    We spend a few hours roaming the narrow streets of Cuzco, the Archeological Capital of the Americas standing at 3400 m. This city does not compare to any other place we’ve ever visited on our journey so far. Cuzco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Crowned Emperor of historical capitals in the New World- unique and unrivaled.

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    Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

    Peru’s Tourism Capital and Cultural Heritage of the Nation, Cuzco stands on layers of cultures, with the old Inca Empire built on the structures of the Killke pre-Inca people who occupied the region from 900 to 1200, and the Spanish partially destroying and replacing indigenous temples with Catholic churches and palaces standing on the ruins of Inca temples.

    Carefully planned and constructed according a definite plan in which two rivers were channeled around the city during the rule of Inca Pachacuti, the Kingdom of Cuzco became the capital of the vast Inca empire of Tawantisuyu from 13th to 16th century. After the Spanish conquest, the city became the colonial center of the colonizers.

    How Cuzco was built, how its large stones were shaped and transported to the site by the Incas remains undetermined. In the historic neighborhood Barrio de San Blas housing local artisans and craft shops, we walk up and down steep narrow streets with old houses built by the Spanish over heavy Inca foundations. Everywhere we turn, there are Gothic and Baroque churches and cathedrals.

    The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces and used the remaining walls as foundations for the construction of new churches, cathedrals and convents. St Dominic monastery stands on the ruins of the House of the Sun, the palace of Inca Roca was converted to the Archbishop’s residence and so on.

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    Convento de Santo Domingo and Intipanpa

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    Mira, Old City, Cuzco

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    Maya at Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

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    Convento de Santo Domingo and Intipanpa

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    In one of the buildings surrounding the main square Plaza de Armas we walk in one of the many tourist agencies where we buy tickets for a mini-bus ride to Hidroelectrica and back. Now, those of you, who are planning a visit to Machu Picchu and want to save some $$$ pay attention!

    Journey to Machu Picchu

    The cheapest mini-bus two-ways ride cost $16.00 to $20.00 per person. The epic journey to the top of the Inca World begins with this mini-bus. It has about 12 seats and leaves in the morning from Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, at 08h00 a.m. Our driver is a small funny guy and his taste in music concerns us a lot, as the ride is about 6-8 hours with the radio blasting at max volume. Luckily- and strangely- this particular driver is not into the awful Latino-crap we are constantly bombarded with in other busses- he likes 80s and 90s music, oldies and evergreens. He also blasts some awesome techno while driving madly on a crazy mountain road with steep cliffs and dangerous curves. Maybe he is just trying to please the tourists (successfully), which in our particular bus are young backpackers from different countries- two annoying college girls from the USA, a very fit British guy and his charming Serbian girlfriend, a French couple and a German couple, and a few Chilean students, of course.

    As soon as we leave the city, we are among glacier-covered mountains and deep canyons carved by the mighty Urubamba River flowing the wrong way. We pass through an area of eternal fog, as we descend from higher to lower altitudes, where the cold temperatures of the high plateau collide with the heat of the tropical lowlands, creating patches of thick permanent mist- not our driver’s favorite part of the road.

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    The scenic road is narrow, winding through mountains and passing directly over streams of water where our driver happily splashes the mini-bus at high speed, DJ Tiesto as a background. The road leads us down, from 3400m to 2400 m. The weather gets hot and the Andean cool mountain climate gives way to hot moist tropical weather.

    We arrive in a small city- the last stop before hidroelectrica and the end of the paved road. There, we eat lunch, then the drive continues on a super narrow dirt road with space for one car only, with steep wall on one side and deep drop-off on the other- scary and dangerous. Everyone is freaking out! The Serbian girl wants to get off the bus and walk the rest of the road- she is next to the window and the drop-off of the cliff is just inches away.

    Happily, we don’t collide with any other vehicle coming against us and we don’t drop in the canyon. We arrive at the hidroelectrica at around 4 p.m., two hour before sunset. We have at least two hours and a half to walk to Aguas Calientes- the village at the foot of Machu Picchu, so we better hurry up. We start run-waking marathon style together with a hundred other tourists from dozens of other mini-buses, along the railroad tracks. Backpacker’s exodus.

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    Ivo and Maya walking on the railroad to Machu Picchu

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    Aguas Calientes

    We reach the town of Aguas Calientes always walking on the railroad tracks, soaked from the inevitable rain, waving a middle finger at the half-empty super-expensive train for rich tourists that passes us with a whistle. We find the cheapest possible hotel (US$ 20 per night, room for 3 people), take shower, eat dinner (US$ 10 for 3 people, fixed menu at a restaurant) and sleep. Here, near the main square, we meet a blond hairless Inca dog and we buy our Machu Picchu admission tickets ( total US$90 for the three of us). No matter where you buy your admission tickets, the price is the same, as long as you don’t get an all-inclusive guided tour, which is totally not worth it.

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    Entrance to Aguas Calientes

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    A blond hairless Inca dog

    Machu Picchu

    The next morning we walk across the Urubamba River and hike for about two hours up a steep mountain instead of taking the six-dollar bus that brings tourists right to the entrance of the Lost City. The hike is steep, the views are priceless. Ivo and Maya use the trail, but for me going vertically up proves more difficult, than  the dirt road for the buses. It’s longer, but easier on the heart.

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    Thousands and thousands of tourists from every corner of the world have invaded the green mountain, where the most famous Inca site is. It’s hard to see the ruins from so many tourists and so many staff strictly controlling the crowds. There is a mean uniformed guy monitoring every corner telling us which direction we are allowed or not allowed to walk, where we can step or not step, how to pose and how not to pose for a picture. All this commotion can really spoil the experience. Guided groups block paths and sites, older or overweight tourists slow down the human flow up and down stairs, domesticated photogenic llamas who are the place’s only permanent residents roam freely among the visitors, enjoying special privileges, allowed to graze in places, where no tourist have the right to set foot.

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    Mira with a llama, Machu Picchu

    Most people leave the site around noon, as they have to travel back to Cuzco the same day. We have reserved our hotel room in Aguas Calientes for one more night. Thus, we are able to stay on Machu Picchu until 4 p.m., when most visitors are gone. Only then we are able to appreciate and enjoy this magnificent archeological site bathed in golden afternoon light, almost deserted.

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    Machu Picchu

    Built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti around 1450, Machu Picchu features spectacular workmanship at a dramatic site. The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a stunning view down the Urubamba valley. Its architecture was adapted to its surroundings. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it were terraced, to provide more farmland to grow crops. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides and invasions. There are nearly 200 structures, of which the central most important ones were constructed using the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls called ashtar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. How the enormous stones were moved and placed up the steep mountains remains uncertain.

    The primary archeological treasures of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana ritual stone, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows, all three dedicated to the Inca’s supreme deity- the Sun God.

    Shortly after the Spanish invasion, the site was abandoned and almost completely forgotten, until 1911, when an American historian led by a local farmer, discovered the ruins and initiated their exploration, restoration and preservation.

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    Machu Picchu Interesting Facts

    • Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both cultural and natural, described as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”.
    • Since its discovery in 1911, growing numbers of tourists visit the site yearly, reaching 400,000 in 2000.
    • Machu Picchu is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Latin America, and the most visited in Peru.
    • In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants and a bridge to the site. Many people protested the plans, including Peruvians and foreign scientists, saying that more visitors would pose a physical burden on the ruins.
    • A no-fly zone exists above the area.
    • UNESCO is considering putting Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
    • In January 2010, heavy rain caused flooding buried or washed away roads and railways to Machu Picchu, trapping more than 2,000 locals and more than 2,000 tourists, later airlifted out. Machu Picchu was temporarily closed, reopening on 1 April 2010.
    • Nude tourism is a recent trend, to the dismay of Peruvian officials. In several incidents, tourists were detained for posing for nude pictures or streaking across the site. Peru’s Ministry of Culture denounced these acts for threatening Peru’s cultural heritage. Cusco’s Regional Director of Culture increased surveillance to end the practice.
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    We didn’t see any nude tourists on Machu Picchu, but w witnessed the increased surveillance and we still had the feeling of something very wrong happening there with so much influx of visitors. With the world population constantly increasing and tourism becoming faster and more affordable to people worldwide, this most popular Peruvian destination has become more crowded than Disney World during summer vacation. Hopefully the Peruvian government will come up with a better plan for preserving this fragile unique site for future generations, instead of trying to exploit it for profit.

    We leave Machu Picchu with mixed feelings.

    Machu Picchu Photos

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    Maya with her new poncho at Machu Picchu

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    Titicaca- The Lake From Our Dreams

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    Copacabana

    From La Paz, we take the bus to Copacabana- a touristy town on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Again we look for cheap accommodation, but all the hostels are full with backpackers mainly from Chile, as apparently the schools and university in Chile are on vacation in February and everyone is visiting neighboring affordable Bolivia. In the backyards of some hostels, backpackers have even organized small camping sites, but this time we don’t have our tent, so we keep looking for a cheap room. We finally find one in a dirty suspicious hostel- two beds, next to the common toilets, which is a disaster, but we take it for the night ($10.00 is too much for such a shitty place but we have no other option). We spend the afternoon looking around town: the massive white cathedral, the busy market, the beach on the lake. We can’t believe we are finally here. Lake Titicaca- the lake with the funny name with snowcapped mountains on the horizon, the lake from our childhood geography lessons, the lake from our dreams- is right at our feet, sparkling blue, peaceful, enchanted.

    Copacabana

    Copacabana

    The Cathedral

    The Cathedral

    With an average depth of 100 meters, reaching some 280 meters at the deepest parts, lake Titicaca is the deepest highest navigable lake in the world, with a surface elevation of 3,812 meters. It is the largest lake in South America located in the Andes Mountains on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Five major river systems and more than twenty other smaller streams feed into Lake Titicaca, and it has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated.

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    Isla del Sol

    The next morning, we take the ferry to Isla del Sol (The Sun Island). It’s raining and the sky is covered with grey clouds, but as soon as we reach the Island, the sky clears and the sun illuminates the most beautiful landscape: steep green hills and rocky shores, yellow-sand beaches and tiny stone houses- a fairytale land floating in an immense calm lake of blue water.

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    Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands on the lake where, it was believed, the sun god was born. Instead of streets, there are narrow paths covered with flat rocks and mud winding between the houses of approximately 800 families, up and down the slopes. The main economic activities are fishing and farming using agricultural terraces on the hills, with tourism picking up speed. There are over 180 ruins on the island, with the main attraction- a sacrificial table, where human blood was offered to the Sun God in the times of the Incas.

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    We hike to the sacrificial table and back (about 3 hours both directions) admiring the gentle white and purple flowers of the potatoes blooming on the hills, the tranquility of the land and the immensity of the lake, we eat avocado and egg sandwiches which two women are selling to tourist in front of their house, and we take the ferry back to Copacabana just in time to get on the evening bus to Puno- another city on the shores of the big lake, but on the Peruvian side of the border.

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    Sacrificial Table

    Sacrificial Table

    Floating Uros Islands

    We are back in Peru. In Puno, we find a new clean hostel- private shower with hot water, internet and two double beds for $10.00. We rest, and early in the morning we are off to the docks again. We find the ferry to the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile and once again we are exploring Lake Titicaca, this time from the Peruvian side.

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    The boat ride is spectacular. We are navigating through channels among swampy waters covered with tall sharp grass sticking out of the shallow lake, birds panicking as the boat approaches, flapping wings, screaming and running in all directions on the lake’s surface. Flamingos fly overhead. After a few hours we reach the Floating Uros Islands- a group of some 40 artificial islands made of floating totora reeds.

    Floating Uros Islands

    Floating Uros Islands

    The ancient Uros were the owners of the lake and water- people with black blood who did not feel the cold. They were the Sons of The Sun. In the times of the Inca invasions, the islanders would simply lift anchor and drift together with their homes to a safe corner of the lake. Yet, they were conquered and made slaves. Today, the remaining Uros people lost their languages but kept many of their traditional ways. They still build their boats and islands using bundles of dried totora reeds abundant in the shallows of the lake, adding solar panels for electricity. (Dry reeds are very flammable, and fire and diesel generators are not too practical anymore.) The dense roots of the plants keep growing after the construction of the islands and interweave to form a natural one-meter layer called Khili that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The lower layer of reeds rapidly rots away, so new reeds are added to the top every three months. The islands last about thirty years.

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    The place has become a major tourist attraction losing much of its authenticity due to the fact that the few hundred remaining locals have become businessmen relying more and more on the tourist dollar, waiting for the next tourist boat to arrive, organizing tours, demonstrations and craft markets. Yet, it is still a unique place worth the visit.

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    Isla Taquile

    Next, we continue to Isla Taquile, where the festivities for the February carnival are still under way and we witness another festival.

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    Taquile is a hilly island with an area of less than 6 square kilometers and was used as a prison during the Spanish Colony. In 1970 it became property of the Taquile people, who have inhabited the island ever since – around 2,200 people. The highest point of the island is 4,050 meters above sea level and the main village is at 3,950 m. Similarly to Isla del Sol in Bolivia, here are found some pre-Inca ruins, and agricultural terraces on the hillsides.

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    With no cars and hotels, life on Taquile is still largely unchanged by modern civilization and tourism, and the place is truly authentic and wonderful. Everyone wears traditional clothes. “Taquile and Its Textile Art” were proclaimed “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. Here knitting is big part of the culture and is done by the men ONLY, starting at a very early age. The women make yarn and weave.

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    Taquileans are also known for having created an innovative, community-controlled tourism model, offering home stays, transportation, and restaurants to tourists. Ever since tourism started coming to Taquile in the seventies the taquleans have slowly lost control over the mass day-tourism operated by non-Taquileans. The Taquileans have thus developed alternative tourism models, including lodging for groups, cultural activities and local guides, who have recently completed a 2-year training program. Furthermore, the local Travel Agency Munay Taquile has been established to regain control over tourism. (from Wikipedia)

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    This means, that your boat ride to the island and your guide will be locals from Taquile, and all the dollars you spend on your visit will go 100% straight to the local community- AWESOME! Here, we meet a local guy named Delfin, who can accommodate visitors in his home for an overnight visit and awesome local meals and provide a truly authentic experience, so if you are in the area- give him a call, he is a fine sweet and very reliable guy delfin18ani@hotmail.com

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    Many people later asked us if we had to choose one destination: Copacabana in Bolivia with Isla del Sol or Puno with the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile, which one would it be. We always tell them, that these two destinations are very different and are both worth the visit.

    Lake Titicaca

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    Puma Punku. The Greatest Mystery of All Times

    Our visit to Puma Punku is dedicated to our son Viktor, who is a great supporter of the Ancient Aliens theory

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    La Paz

    Bolivia’s capital La Paz is not the “crowded dirty and poor place up in the middle of nowhere” we expected it to be. To our surprise, we found a bustling modern city with tall buildings, traffic jams and busy people, like everywhere else. We check-in in a nice clean new hostel ‘La Perla Negra’ (The Black Pearl) near the bus terminal in the center of the city, no noise after 9:00 p.m., with stunning view from the upper terrace, where Ivo and Maya can play unlimited billiards and foosball. It’s $20.00 per night for the three of us, breakfast included. We love the place and recommend it.

    La Paz, Bolivia

    La Paz, Bolivia, view from the hostel

    It’s raining and it’s cold most of the time- it’s rainy season, so our options for exploring the town and its surroundings are limited. Plus, Ivo has terrible altitude sickness with high fever (La Paz stands at 4000m above sea level) and we skip the famous Camino de la Muerte bike ride, leaving it for the next time we are around.

    But we decide to check out another Valle de la Luna taking a bus to the outskirts of La Paz and hitchhiking back through some surprisingly rich area with multi-million dollar villas, which we didn’t expect to see in Bolivia at all.

    Valle de la Luna

    Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is situated about 10 kilometers from downtown La Paz. Tall spikes formed by erosion in the clay mountain cover a large area overlooking the capital.

    Valle de la Luna

    Valle de la Luna

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    We spend three days in La Paz: watching the carnival, walking around the market, and riding the Teleferico- a cable lift used as public transportation, like bus and metro in other cities, with affordable rates and spectacular view, passing directly over rooftops and backyards of people’s homes.

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    Puma Punku

    Not far from La Paz is a famous archeological site we don’t want to miss- Puma Punku. It is worth paying it a short visit while in the area, especially for those fascinated by ancient civilizations and their mysteries. Puma Punku is considered the greatest mystery of all times.

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    A small mini-bus with a few other tourists and a few locals takes us 72 km west of La Paz to the town of Tiahuanaco, a typical Bolivian town with dirt roads and houses made of red clay bricks among the naked brown hills and green pastures of the Bolivian dry highlands. Named after an important pre-Inca civilization, the ancient ruins of Tiahuanaco and the Puma Punku site represent one of the oldest and highest urban cities ever built- the main headquarters of a powerful empire, as well as a sacred center of the Andean region, where the indigenous people went on pilgrimage to worship the Gods.

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    The Tiwanaku community grew to 20,000 people between 600 and 800 AD but disappeared completely around AD 950 as a result of climate change and a great drought in the Titicaca basin. Rediscovered in 1546 the local descendants of the Tiwanaku people told the conquistadors that tall giants built this place, as the people of that time didn’t have the technology to transport and shape such large monoliths and complex interlocking granite stones with perfect sharp edges and unknown purpose, which to us look like parts of a complex machinery.

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    The Puma Punku ruins are one of four structures in the ancient city of Tiahuanaco. The others three are The Akapana Pyramid, the Kalasasaya Platform, and the Subterranean Temple.

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    The mystery remains today. Who built these structures? What are they? How were they built? And to what purpose?

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    These are probably the oldest and strangest ruins on the face of the Earth. The stones in Puma Punku are made up of giant granite and diorite, some hundreds of tons brought in from over 10 miles away, and the only thing that could have cut them is diamond, which means that the people who built this place did not use traditional stone cutting techniques of the ancient times. But they didn’t use diamond either. Even today it would be hard to cut such giant heavy interlocking blocks with the precision and sharpness achieved in Puma Punku many centuries ago.

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    So who did all this? One possibility is that a cataclysmic event such as a great flood wiped out the ancient peoples and their advanced technology (whatever it might have been) along with any records they may have kept. Another theory supported by the tale of ‘the tall giants’ suggests that only aliens visiting our planet could have done it.

    We still don’t know…

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    Heroes of The Pacific Ocean

    Heroes of The Pacific Ocean

    Crossing the Pacific Ocean between the Galapagos Islands and the Marquesas on a tiny sailing yacht- close to 3000 nautical miles; a month without land – is an epic adventure and a great achievement for any cruising family with limited navigational knowledge and little sailing experience, but it is NOT EXACTLY an act of heroism. Not heroes but dreamers and adventurers; not brave but daring, curious, and a little insane are those who have done it, and they are many. We salute you!

    In May of 2016, we- Ivo, Mira and 12-year-old Maya, sailed across the vastest interrupted stretch of water on Earth aboard our 38-foot Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana. It took us 23 days and nights of nothing-but-sea; 23 days and nights suspended in space and time, alone in the blue watery desert of the Pacific Ocean. But we were not alone, and this story is not about us. This story has much more protagonists than the three of us- many true heroes to whom we are forever grateful.

    During the long passage, the Auto Pilot, the Solar Installation and Watermaker, all the Electronics, and the Sails, became crew members with individual souls and personalities. We grew very fond of them, each day more and more. They are “the good guys” of this story.

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    The Auto-Pilot steered the boat on course day and night – a trusty invisible helmsman magically turning the wheel, relentlessly adjusting the course, mile upon mile, non-stop for over 500 hours, allowing us to rest and relax and just be lazy most of the time. What would we do without him? We later heard that a couple of boats crossing around the same time like us lost their auto-pilots and the crew had to constantly hand-steer for a month. What a disaster!

    Aboard with us were also the Solar Panels (a total of 1500 Watts) filing the electricity bank consisting of Lithium Batteries with enough electrical power for the GPS, Auto-Pilot and all other boat electronics to run non-stop, for the fridge and the Watermaker, as well as all lights, our TV and computers. We never had to turn on the engines to produce electricity- we had plenty. By 10 a.m. we were already maxed-up and all systems worked perfectly. The Watermaker produced water for a couple of hours every second day to make sure our 800 l water tanks are half-full (we didn’t keep them full to reduce weight on the front) with us taking daily freshwater showers, washing dishes and clothes. We missed for nothing. We felt spoiled.

    Our Sails are the original ones- as old as the boat, made 16 years ago. 16 years of gentle winds and sudden squalls. Every morning, we would inspect the Sails with tenderness and admiration- faded patched-up old rags on one of their final epic journeys. They should have been retired and replaced long time ago, but sails are expensive and we couldn’t afford it. Ripped in many places and mended many times, the Sails look like a complicated abstract art installation with small and large squares and rectangles patched up all over, which we sawed on ourselves with the SailRite sawing machine every time a hole opened up. We worried, especially for the Jib. We thought that he will not survive the long one-month passage, but he did! Wounded in many places and literally “out of shape”, our veteran of a jib gave the best of himself and once again performed selflessly, like a brave hero, till the end. He got ripped in two placed during a violent gale that hit us with 35-40 knots sustained for one hour in the middle of the passage, but we fixed him again and kept going. Besides the old Mainsail and Jib, we have a small underside second-hand used Spinnaker, which too served us well on this passage, and no other sails.

    The Auto-Pilot, Solar Installation, Electronics, Watermaker, and the Sails were the soldiers of a small army unit called Fata Morgana- “a vision” or “a mirage”- and she fought well. Fata Morgana never let us down. Even in that gale, when we couldn’t take it anymore, she took it. Heavy and overloaded, filled with domestic stuff and provisions, Fat Fata was our comfortable safe home and vehicle during our longest non-stop passage. We love her dearly and are extremely proud with her. Well done, Fata!

    And we haven’t forgotten a few other heroes- the IridiumGo satellite system and the people behind it. In the beginning of this trip, for the first couple of weeks, the satellite system glitched and we couldn’t send messages or access internet. We could only receive messages and download the weather forecast. Then, Ivo reset the system and suddenly the Sat started working properly again, just in time. The next day, when the bad weather hit, we were able to update our status and send our exact position to a couple of friends on land, in case of search and rescue. It is a great comfort to know that if the boat capsizes and you find yourself shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean (which is something I inevitably imagine during strong winds and huge waves), help will find us, thanks to this new technology of communication; thanks to Mel Ebstein and Kristina Barakova- Albu (Krisha)- both good friends and experienced sailors based in Australia. Miles away, they were constantly with us during the entire passage, sending weather up-dates and forecast, advising and cheering us up, monitoring our position and progress. Mel could somehow find our exact position using Marine Traffic even when we couldn’t send him messages and he would send us very detailed weather up-dates as well as some world-news. And thanks to Krisha we could up-date our Facebook page, so that all our friends and followers could read about our progress and status. Guys, you cannot imagine how much your help and support meant to us, especially in those scary times. Thank you Mel and Krisha, you are our true heroes!

    As for the three of us, we did good too. Ivo didn’t sleep for 23 day and nights, staying in the cockpit and keeping an eye on the boat, like those birds who sleep with half their brain at a time and one eye open, while the other eye keeps watch. He kept the boat steady during the squalls and took good care of all systems, making sure everything is ship-shape. My heroic acts were mainly performed in the galley, where I had to deal with 100 pounds of potatoes, 20 expired cake mixes, 120 eggs, and four tunas and dorados. Maya did school almost every day and finished the dreaded math manual with 23 tests at the end- one for each day of the passage. She worked hard on her upcoming book- short-stories about the fish and the sea, and never even once complained of being bored. But most importantly, she was really brave during the gale and never got scared. She even tried to cheer us up, telling us that nothing bad will happen. A brave little sailor, so proud with her!

     

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