Images by Phil... and June
Our Mega-trip to South America- 2015
by June's Views on January 23rd, 2017

     Phil and I were trying to decide where to travel in 2015 and we finally narrowed our choices down to three possibilities: Easter Island (Chile), Machu Picchu (Peru), or the Galapagos Islands (Equator).   In a moment of genius (or insanity) we decided – as all are on the west side of South America - to tackle the three, during one logistically giant (for us) trip!  We knew we would not be able to visit as much of each country on this trip as we would, were we seeing one country at a time, but we felt seeing all three iconic places on one journey would truly be memorable.  Spoiler alert: we had a wonderful trip! 
     The farthest from home, we visited Easter Island first.  Located 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile…considered the most isolated inhabited island in the world, actually closer to the Pitcairn Islands than the South American continent. This tiny island, so-called “Easter” because it was discovered by Dutch explorers on Easter Sunday in 1722, is only 14 by 7 miles.  The island’s original traditional name is Rapa Nui.  
     We had read that the Rapa Nui people (protesting against the Chilean government) sometimes block the entrance to the national parks and other sites.  What if we traveled all that way only to not be able to see the wonderful statutes?  In our case that concern turned out to be unfounded.  Everyone we met was most anxious we should enjoy our island time and experience it to the fullest.
     Three days after leaving Austin (we stayed overnight in Miami) we landed at 10 PM and were met by our B&B host, Ramon, who greeted us with traditional leis.  Two very tired tourists fell into bed.  I woke up, completely disoriented, and to my dismay, realized I hadn’t asked Ramon the local time.  I had no idea if I’d slept one hour or 5, or if we should be getting ready for breakfast…it doesn’t seem so much of a problem NOW, but in my jet-lagged mind, in the total darkness of a foreign country, I was very uneasy.  I walked out of our room into the compound to see if anyone else was out and about.  My first encounter was with a large, friendly, curious German shepherd.  A bit further I came upon an elderly, pleasant lady.  Attempts to ask the time were futile…her English was limited to “Hello, Ramon’s mom”.  I went back to our room.  Time drug by but finally I saw lights on in another building, which turned out to be the B&B kitchen and dining room.  Ramon was there and the time issue was solved. 
Note to self:  ALWAYS ask the local time upon arrival! 
After a delicious breakfast prepared by “Ramon’s mom” and meeting the other guests, our Rapa Nui guide Patricio arrived. 
     We visited the most important and evocative moai (stone statutes).  The Rano Rarakii Quarry, where the statutes were carved before being transported to the ahu’s (memorial or alter) was absolutely jaw-dropping! 
     Phil and I stared with amazement at the many statues, some completed, some still partially embedded in the volcanic stone.  One big fellow, still attached to his bed of rock, is estimated to weigh 210 tons!  Walking among them was a dream-like experience.  Today there are between 850 and 1,000 statutes at various spots on the island.  While all are large, some are 40 feet high and weigh as much as 75 to 80 TONS! 
    
     Other than the quarry, the most famous group of moai are at the Ahu Tongariki, where 15 mighty statutes greeted us in stony silence.  The largest statute is 30 feet high and weighs 87 tons!
 
     Some of the statutes sport a red “top knot” or hat.  The hats were carved at a different quarry than the statutes.  There are only 100 top-knots on the island today:  Six or 7 feet in diameter, weighing as much as 11 tons!  Some are on or near various moai and some are still in the quarry where they were carved.  Because of their cylindrical shape a number of them rolled out into the sea during tsunamis.
 
     On our second and third days on the island we rented a car and struck out on our own.  The island is easy to navigate, but car insurance is not available.   Our main concern was not other drivers or road conditions, but the many wild horses, left years ago by Spanish missionaries.  The beautiful horses have complete run of the island and do not hesitate to run across the road, ignoring the oncoming traffic.   We stayed vigilant, and drove the car for two days without incident. 
 
    In addition to visiting many of the moai sites and walking around the volcano at the Orango National Park; with a number of other tourists we enjoyed an exquisite sunset at Ahu Tahai; and returned to Ahu Tongariki for a hauntingly mysterious sunrise.  Surreal is the best descriptive word. 
     We ate at excellent restaurants and there’s any number of hostels, B&Bs, and hotels on the island.  Easter Island isn’t easy to get to, but if Stone Henge and the Egyptian pyramids interest you, Easter Island should be on your list.  The island’s history – both fact and legend – make fascinating reading.   What was the motivation of the Rapa Nui to build these giants?  Why build them so large, and HOW did they transport them?  Only the ancient Rapa Nui know for certain.   I had no idea we have the Japanese government to thank for some of the moai standing upright on their ahu today. 
     We flew back to Santiago Chile and on to Cusco Peru, at an elevation of 10,800 ft. We’d been concerned about the altitude at Machu Picchu, and we’d begun our anti-altitude sickness regimen a couple of days ago.  A prearranged driver picked us up and drove us to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, with a little better altitude of 9,150 ft. 
    
The following morning we boarded a really nice dome car train to Aguas Calientes, then boarded the bus to our destination at an altitude of 8,040 ft.  We checked into our hotel, located right at the entrance to the site and took off for the ruins of Machu Picchu. 



Oh My Goodness:  What a specular sight! 
    
Spreading before us, built on a ridge with steep drop-offs on either side, between two mountains, were the mystical ruins of an ancient Inca city, built in the 1500’s.  We climbed a bit higher so we could see the grand design of this former royal retreat. 
    

     We marveled at the elegant agricultural terraces…the striking mountains…what an amazing setting! 
     After drinking in the overall view we followed the trail down, enjoying several unconcerned llamas along the way.  We walked up a magnificent granite stairway to observe different views.   We visited the various “temples” and saw two ceremonial stones.  One day is probably enough time at the ruins but the two half-days worked well for us.  We only visited the ruins – we did not climb either of the mountain peaks.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner at our hotel while we reflected on the incredible day we’d had.  Our thanks to Hiram Bingham, who, in 1911, located the ruins and began years of reclaiming the site from jungle overgrowth and neglect. 
 
     The following afternoon, after a few more hours at the ruins and lunch at the hotel, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo where we spent the night.  We were enjoying a day of leisure when the hotel staff told us there was going to be a valley-wide strike the following day (when we had arranged to leave)…no cars were to be allowed in or out of the valley!  After several calls to our transport company, it was agreed they’d pick us up at 4 AM the following morning (the strike was scheduled to begin at 6 AM).  So, much earlier than we’d planned, we were on our way back to Cusco, where we arrived 12 hours early for our flight to Ecuador.   The airport was something of a zoo, with many tourists arriving only to find out about the strike, and others like us, trying to leave.  We were among the lucky ones:  We DID get to see Machu Picchu: those just arriving with tight schedules did not.  We spent the day in the airline lounge, eating free food and reading.  
 
     We traveled overnight to the famous Galapagos Islands.  By the time we arrived and checked into our B&B on Santa Cruz Island we’d been awake about 34 hours and we felt it!
 
  In addition to Santa Cruz, we visited San Cristabol and Isabella Islands.  We enjoyed all three, with our favorite being San Cristabol: Santa Cruz was almost too touristy and Isabella was almost too primitive for us.  To get from one island to another we rode in high-speed ferries.  We quickly learned to grab a seat toward the middle of the little boats – sitting too far forward or to the rear meant a thorough butt-and-back bashing from the boat slapping the rough waves.  But we survived the four 2-hour trips. 
    
     We were impressed with the size of the giant tortoises and the huge numbers of almost-tame wild birds.  We saw lovely flamingos feeding.  Ugly Iguanas and colorful crabs were countless.  We visited a tree house where the bedroom was available for rent.  (No, we didn't.) One of our favorite spots was Terijis Bay on San Cristabol, where we saw our first blue-footed boobie up close.  We explored a lava tube and marveled at the green canopy over the trees.

  The antics of the many sea lions made us laugh    The mothers nursed their young under trucks or between the wheels of motorcycles...they climbed up on benches to nap.  We're visiting THEIR world.  Their numbers did create quite an aroma and we quickly learned to stay up-wind of them. 
     Although San Cristabol was our favorite island, our favorite DAY was spent on the small uninhabited island of North Seymour.  We took a day tour from Santa Cruz, and after a rough landing we were immediately treated to male frigate birds, fully displaying and advertising for the ladies!  We were thrilled!  We saw many nesting frigates and beautiful blue footed boobies, baby birds, countless iguanas and other birds – too many to list.  Our cameras worked overtime.  The day was very hot – our guide said 110 degrees.  Some of the larger birds were panting and waving their wings to cool off.   Ahh, the Galapagos! 

     Our fantastic 30-day trip came to an end.  We were very glad to return home but also very happy we took this mega, combo adventure!     

 
    


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