By Karen Rubin, with Laini Miranda and Dave E. Leiberman
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bears Ears National Monument-Cedar Mesa is the highlight (out of so many) of our Utah Adventure – hitting on all cylinders of stunning landscape, fascinating cultural heritage, and the opportunity to really explore, adventure and discover for ourselves on some of the most wonderful hikes (Kane Gulch!) anywhere.
Finally! I get to do wild camping that I have been so intrigued about ever since Dave and Laini spent much of a summer exploring the West in their Subaru Forester which they converted into a campervan.
Dave drives our rental Jeep down a dirt road into Arch Canyon until we find a spot we can claim for our own (it happens to be immediately adjacent to an Indian reservation, with a warning sign posted on a fence, “No trespassing.”). There are many other wild campers in this area in the spring and we get one of the last suitable spots. (But this is still so much more interesting than going further down the road to an actual campground where you need advance reservations for official campgrounds, recreation.gov, information at 435-587-1500 M-F, 8 am-noon. No reservation is required for any BLM land that does not clearly prohibit camping and the custom is to find a site that already has a stone circle for a fire pit.)
Where we set up is just a walk down a path that leads to the Arch Canyon trailhead and the Arch Canyon Ruins, where we get to explore cliff dwellings.
Indeed, Cedar Mesa is a network of canyons that are home to ancient archaeological ruins and rock art panels – the ultimate combination of spectacular scenery and fascinating cultural sites.
Streams carve into the banded yellow-gray and reddish-orange sandstone, creating fabulous formations and arches – Mother Nature’s sculpture. Cliffs are streaked with “desert varnish” – thin deposits of minerals including iron, manganese, magnetite and clay particles, combined with bacteria – which add to the painterly ambiance. And some of these have provided the overhang for dwellings.
What is truly special about Bears Ears National Monument-Cedar Mesa – and what draws Laini back time and again, are the remnants, artifacts and structures left by Ancestral Puebloans – ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni – who inhabited these canyons and cliffs between 700 and 2500 years ago. Arrowheads and other artifacts dating back 10,000 years have also been found in this region. Some of these sites are at once accessible yet also feel remote – so you feel you are the first archaeologist to discover, though obviously that can’t be since the BLM Rangers have left laminated info packets in metal cases in some of the dwellings. Still, we can pretend.
Our hikes bring us to these places that seem as if the occupants only recently vacated, leaving behind painted pottery shards, tiny corn husks, stone and bone tools, even their hand-prints, pictographs and petroglyphs that speak to us through time, as if to say, “We were here. We still are.”
Indeed, there are a mind-boggling 100,000 known archaeological sites protected within the Bears Ears National Monument, which spans 1.35 million acres. The buttes and surroundings have long been held as sacred or significant by a number of the region’s Native American tribes.
But it has not been without controversy.
Bears Ears National Monument was established in 2016 by President Barack Obama to preserve thousands of these indigenous cultural and archaeological sites. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, an alliance of five sovereign Tribal nations with ties to Bears Ears (the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni Tribe), was the driving force behind its designation and are partners in managing the monument along with the federal Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service.
In their proposal to have Bears Ears designated as a national monument, the Coalition described these canyonlands as ancestral land and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) described the Bears Ears as “the most significant unprotected cultural landscape in the U.S.”
But in 2017, catering to mining, fossil fuel and other extraction industry interests, Donald Trump drastically reduced the size of Bears Ears (by 85 percent) and Grand Staircase-Escalante (by half) – the single largest rollback of public lands protection in history. These changes exposed archaeological and paleontological sites to vandalism, looting and opened the door to drilling and mining. Moreover, Trump’s Interior Department, under Secretary Ryan Zinke (who left in 2019 in disgrace) offered meager plans for managing what remained of the monuments, leaving important cultural sites and wildlife habitat vulnerable.
Various groups brought lawsuits and President Joe Biden (who appointed Deb Haaland Interior Secretary, the first native American to hold the cabinet position and the first to lead the department which historically oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs) restored the territory under protection in October 2021. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and the federal government officially signed a cooperative agreement, unveiling the first monument boundary sign on June 18, 2022,
The monument is named Bears Ears for a pair of buttes that rise to elevations of 8,900 feet and 9,000 feet – more than 2,000 feet above Utah state routes 95 and 261. The monument includes the area around the Bears Ears formation and adjacent land to the southeast along the Comb Ridge formation, as well as Indian Creek Canyon to the northeast. The monument also includes the Valley of the Gods to the south, the western part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest’s Monticello unit, and the Dark Canyon Wilderness to the north and west.
Because these lands are sacred, all of us must be respectful of the dwellings and the archaeological artifacts that we come upon. And these sites truly feel sacred – precisely because of the artifacts, the pictographs and petroglyphs, you feel the presence of those who lived here. And because those of us who visit do show proper respect, these mud-and-stick (jacal) constructions delicate pictographs and petroglyphs etched into sandstone and artifacts, though incredibly fragile, are here for us to discover, as if we are among the first.
It’s fairly miraculous these sites have survived Mother Nature, let alone humans.
Indeed, we are able to see artifacts and sites that date back 1000 years, but it is mind-boggling to contemplate that this area has been inhabited since 12,000 BC to 6000 BC by the PaleoIndians; the Archaic (6000-2000 BC); Early Agriculture (2000-500 BC); Basketmaker II (500 BC to 500 AD); Basketmaker III (500-750 AD); Pueblo I (750-900 AD), Pueblo II (900-1150 AD-we see evidence of their kivas, plain gray pottery, black-on-white pottery); Pueblo III (1150-1290 AD, when the Four Corners Area was abandoned).
Arch Canyon Ruins
Each day of our Utah Adventure, which so far has taken us through Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, has been so different in highlights, experience and even theme. Today’s theme is cultural, as we go in search of cliff dwellings through these canyons.
We wake up in our “wild” campsite and after breakfast, stroll down Arch Canyon Road and soon come to the Arch Canyon Ruin.
Seeing these structures, how they were built high up in the rock overhangs, camouflaged in rock, you wonder whether they were designed for defense: Who or what were they defending against? The fact that the Navajo named the Ancestral Pueblo people who were there before them, Anasazi – “enemy ancestors” (as we learned at the Anasazi State Park Museum in Boulder) suggests that there were conflicts among tribes or clans. Were these groups afraid of being attacked for their food or water? Or were they built so far above the river because of flash floods?
A panel provides background about the Puebloan People and these cliff dwellings: Few people lived in Cedar Mesa from 700-1050 AD, but by 1050, there were many Pueblo communities throughout the mesa and its canyons. During this time, Cedar Mesa’s cultural landscapes were interconnected with those of Chaco Canyon to the southeast, Mesa Verde to the east and the kayenta region to the south. Later, smaller groups moved into Cedar Mesa’s canyons to occupy nearly inaccessible but defensible places such as cliff face alcoves and ledges. But by 1280 AD, a combination of social and environmental factors prompted the Puebloan people to migrate again from Cedar Mesa to lands to the south and east. Cedar Mesa’s descendant populations now reside among the Hopi of Arizona, the Zuni and Keres-speaking pueblos of New Mexico and the Tanoan peoples along the Rio Grande.
I note the word “defensible” and wonder about who and what they were defending against.
In one of the structures, we see an innovation: shelves! We climb under boulders and see a pictograph of four hands.
We spend about two hours in this section, and then get the Jeep to go to the next destination. (You can hike between Arch Canyon and House on Fire, via Arch Canyon Road and Mule Canyon trail, 5.7 miles, or two hours, one way.)
We stop for a picnic lunch at Mule Canyon Ruin site along the road (almost a rest stop, complete with two bathrooms).
Laini leads us to a trail to one of the outstanding highlights of the Bears Ears National Monument: the House on Fire, one of the most photographed (spectacular) sites in the region.
If You Go….
Day hiking in Bears Ears National Monument requires a day hiking pass (there is no limit on the number of day hiking passes issued).
Bears Ears National Monument does not charge an entry fee where your America the Beautiful Pass would typically apply. However, activity fees called “Individual Special Recreation Permits” are charged for day hiking and backpacking (typically $2 at the trailhead). Because your America the Beautiful Pass does not cover Individual Special Recreation Permits, it does not apply toward your backpacking permit, Moon House permit, nor day hiking pass. Visit the permits page for more information.
Kane Gulch BLM Ranger Station, UT-261 36 miles west of Blanding. Open: March 1-June 15, September 1-October 31, 8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m., 7 days a week
Monticello Visitor Center, 216 S Main St., Hours: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Closes early at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, Phone: 435-587-3401
Blanding Visitor Center, 12 North Grayson Parkway, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., closed Sunday
Edited by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Wellness travel is among the leading travel trends for 2023, as it has been for several years. But when the very act of breaking away from daily irritants, giving oneself the opportunity to rest, renew, recharge, revitalize, isn’t all travel wellness? The trend refers to the fact that people are traveling with greater intention to improve their physical, mental, emotional, even spiritual well-being.
It could be a visit to a wellness retreat or spa. But it could also be a hiking, biking, rafting, camping trip that gets you out into nature, pure air, with some physical exertion. It can be an itinerary that is spiritually uplifting or intellectually fulfilling, of doing something you love or even finding love. It could be travel that brings family and friends together, forging bonds and lifelong memories that also contribute to wellness, or even making new friends to conquer loneliness or isolation. Travel, at its essential core, is inevitably about life-enhancing, even life-changing experience. What’s new is people intentionally seeking out such experiences – and that the industry, from tour companies to hotels, cruiselines to destinations, from festivals and events to attractions – are tailoring their offerings to cater to the quest for wellness.
Not only does wellness impact how, where and why people travel, but through lifestyle changes, wellness also impacts longevity and financial security – which when you think about it, expands the market for travel with time, money and physical ability.
These themes emerged in the Global Wellness Summit’s report, “12 Wellness Trends for 2023” with implications of how travel, hospitality, even urban design, workplace policies (vacations are essential to recharge), government planning are accommodating. Among the key findings, as reported by the researchers:
WELLNESS + TRAVEL: From Global Smorgasbord to Hyper-Indigenous
By Elaine Glusac
Wellness and wellness tourism have long resembled Disney’s “It’s a Small World”: buffets of global experiences typically divorced from place. Yoga, born in India, is ubiquitous worldwide; ayahuasca retreats have departed their Amazonian homelands; you can get a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage in Dubai.
But with a new critique of wellness as a profound cultural appropriator, a rising social justice movement, and greater emphasis on authenticity, travelers are now seeking much deeper cultural experiences and showing interest in going to the source of ancient healing and knowledge to learn how they care for the land and for themselves. Indigenous travel and going to the cultural source for wellness is our travel trend for 2023.
Community-led Indigenous travel offerings are surging—from the boreal forests of Canada to the Australian Outback—and speak deeply to travelers seeking inclusive, sustainable and regenerative travel experiences. The fast-mounting interest in original cultures includes Indigenous wellness practices, from purification ceremonies to food and nutrition.
Concurrently, culturally-rooted wellness experiences are booming globally and inspiring travelers to go to the original wellspring for authenticity. In Japan, traditional ryokans, or hot springs inns, are having an incredible renaissance as nature-based experiences that shift with the seasons. Resorts are exploring new menus of from-the-source wellness, whether traditional Arabic and Islamic medicine in the Middle East or Druidry in England. India, which gave the wellness world yoga, is poised to lure travelers back to the source with an upcoming center for traditional medicine partnered by the World Health Organization.
[Canada has really taken the lead to support tourism enterprises among its indigenous populations, under the umbrella of Indigenous Tourism Association (ITAC). In British Columbia, where there are 204 indigenous communities, a tourism development organization IndigenousBC.com is an excellent website to plan visits. Many of the Canadian indigenous communities offer wellness programs.
Also Ponant Cruises has introduced a series of programs that feature encounters with indigenous people, including the Inuit in Greenland, the Emberas in panama, Papuans in Papua New Guinea, us.ponant.com]
WELLNESS + SPORTS: New Business Models for Hospitality
By Lisa Starr
Savvy hospitality brands are responding to demands from wellness-focused clients looking beyond the basement gym, in search of pro-athlete-level equipment, fitness classes and wellness programming, whenever and wherever they travel. Some hotel brands are even creating facilities that cater to entire amateur or professional sports teams, expanding the function of the hotel and ensuring professional quality for the rest of us. We predict businesses that support this trend will become the go-to brands for future generations.
The ubiquity of the wellness-focused lifestyles of elite and professional athletes are fueling this trend and increasing demand for pro-level wellness at hotels and resorts. Hospitality brands like Kerzner International Holdings, owner of the Atlantis Resort and One&Only Resorts, are responding to the public preoccupation with sports with new concepts like the immersive global lifestyle brand SIRO, a “fitness and recovery hotel.” Zulal Wellness Resort by Chiva-Som in Qatar, the Middle East’s first full-immersion wellness resort, offers TAIM (traditional Arabic and Islamic medicine) treatments and hosted the German World Cup soccer team in 2022.
The global sports market is predicted to hit $20 billion by 2027, and we’re going to see new, creative, profitable intersections between sports and wellness. Sports of all types are being seen as a strategy to attract and connect with wellness-oriented consumers and travelers—and this timely business trend shows no sign of stopping.
WELLNESS + WATER: Blue, Hot and Wild
By Jane Kitchen
The pandemic spurred a hunger for in-nature experiences that shows no signs of abating. But when we talk about the nature surge, we usually remain on terra firma. In 2023, people will jump into the world’s wild waters for some “blue wellness”— with an unprecedented global surge in new-look hot springs destinations and wild and cross-country swimming going global. (The film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” likely helped.)
At the steamy end of the temperature spectrum, hot springs are now poised to be the next big thing in wellness. There are an unprecedented number of new and in-the-pipeline global destinations and new life is being breathed into long-forgotten facilities–from Australia to the US (where about 50 new projects are underway). A whole new social era in hot springs has arrived, where developers are combining live entertainment, watery wellness classes, restaurants and bars with traditional soaking. At Peninsula Hot Springs in Australia, take in live bands from its hot springs amphitheaters and do some hot springs yoga; at Sky Lagoon in Reykjavik, you soak in the midnight sun while sipping prosecco from a swim-up bar; you’ll soon be able to watch a baseball game while soaking in hot springs at Hokkaidos’ ESCON Field. This is social, affordable wellness and it’s pulling in a younger, diverse crowd.
On the cold side of the trend, there is surging interest in wild, cold and cross-country swimming, once the domains of serious athletes. Wild swimming groups like the Bluetits Chill Swimmers offer inclusive group swims that foster connection, and more global resorts are offering guided wild swimming programs—whether the Hotel J in Sweden or New York’s Mohonk Mountain House. Cross-country swimming is starting to take off, epic adventures where hiking and wild swimming are combined. People are even building wild swimming ponds instead of the old concrete swimming pools.
The future of wellness and nature immersion? Blue, hot, cold and wild.
WELLNESS + CITIES: Urban Infrastructure Just Might Save Cities
By Robbie Hammond and Omar Toro-Vacay
The role of the city has been reimagined countless times over the centuries (they’ve been trading posts, political and artistic centers, and, recently, concrete jungles of retail and offices). But the pandemic served as a wake-up call for just how unwell our cities are—sparking a new recognition of the inextricable relationship between the health of the cities and the health of city dwellers. Global cities are now at another historical inflection point where they are rebuilding themselves around the wellness needs of their citizens. “Urban wellness infrastructure” is no longer perceived as a luxury—it’s a necessity.
Urban wellness infrastructure—the melding of capital improvements and business opportunities that holistically address social, mental and physical health—is being embraced around the world as a solution for accelerating growth, fueling post-pandemic recovery and cultivating healthier, happier citizens.
There are so many powerful examples. Developed 20 years ago on an abandoned railway line in the heart of Manhattan, the Highline is a pioneering example of this trend—a wellness destination in its own right where people exercise, socialize and take in natural beauty in the heart of the city, which has become one of the most popular tourist sites in the city. The Highline has inspired over 60 such projects across America. The 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, DC, a new public space project that connects neighborhoods and helps cross racial and economic divides, is an example of the new community-building urban wellness infrastructure.
In Singapore, the government is striving to become an “urban wellness haven,” creating a whole slate of programs and initiatives that showcase the city’s unique natural and wellness resources. In Monterrey, Mexico, a successful collaboration between private and public organizations, DistritoTec, is creating a thriving new community with wellness at its core—a model Mexico plans to replicate.
To remain vital in the next century, cities must become places not to survive but to thrive. That’s only possible with a new wellness infrastructure.
[Indeed, cities are making a comeback as top destinations for travelers in 2023 after the pandemic steered people to wide-open spaces. But much of the adaptations that worked so well to keep people well during the pandemic – like advance purchase timed-ticket admissions to museums and attractions to control capacity – are being kept in place.]
WELLNESS + SENSES: Multisensory Integration
By Ari Peralta
Advances in neuroscience and neuroaesthetics confirm that, when combined, the senses elevate our human experience. Nature is multisensory and it turns out, so are we. The senses have always been present in wellness. In fact, we subconsciously associate many wellness activities with one sense or another… spa is touch, wellness music is sound, chromotherapy is color, healthy food is taste and thermal is temperature. This siloed approach is quickly changing in remarkable ways.
Now brands are accessing multiple senses simultaneously to better support wellbeing outcomes, amplify wellness experience and influence behavioral change—think using multiple sensory cues in a harmonious way to deepen meditation. With a better grasp on evidence, wellness brands are using multisensory integration as an approach to deepen and amplify felt experiences. From wellness brands to spas to retailers, they are experimenting with playful combinations of light and sound, light and taste, etc., to build connection and more meaningful moments.
Some examples: In Saudi Arabia, the AIUIa Wellness Festival has curated a 360-degree multisensory event allowing visitors to stimulate and elevate all five senses amidst ancient and stunning surroundings; while Six Senses has teamed with mycoocoon to create synesthetic dining experiences, enabling guests to “taste” color and sound, while, in the metaverse, digital sense is becoming a reality, adding scent and touch to sight and sound.
WELLNESS + GATHERING: Wellness Comes for the Loneliness Epidemic
By Beth McGroarty
We “know” loneliness is skyrocketing, that it kills and that the #1 predictor of health and happiness is relationships. But somehow, the recent uber-capitalist wellness market has led with two things: a sea of keep-them-spending “me time” products and “digital wellness”—both lonely journeys of “self-care.” The pandemic has proven to be the breaking point. The biggest wellness trend is the development of new spaces and experiences that bring people together in real life—creatively and with intention—where social connection is the burning center of the concept.
Social wellness clubs with different vibes and price-points will surge, where group bonding comes first and the (sometimes dizzying menus of) wellness experiences serve as social icebreakers—from pioneer Remedy Place to social bathhouse Othership to Six Senses Place. With remote work, people need everyday places to be and belong—and younger gens, who are ditching booze and bars, seek healthier social spaces. With human “communication” having devolved into emojis, the wellness world is now teaching us how to connect and empathize more deeply. Peoplehood, the group conversation concept from SoulCycle’s founders, nixes the bikes to teach “relational fitness” through active listening. “Empatho-delics/actives” (that drive human openness) will rise: psilocybin, MDMA (in clinical trials), and ancient botanical “social elixirs,” such as kanna and kava.
Tackling loneliness is a huge trend beyond the wellness space. Startups are bringing connection to those who need it most, whether it’s the elderly or black men. New social apps/platforms are actually social, creating dinner parties for strangers or bonding apartment dwellers. More governments are fighting loneliness with new policies, and there’s even a new “social medicine.” The future of wellness? A move from lonely to social self-care, from buying to belonging, from URL to IRL, from ego to empathy, from Goop to group.
[Travel is the antidote to loneliness, promoting social interactions. And while solo travel is one of the biggest new trends for 2023, but there are even apps that cater to solo travelers and that match people with travel buddies.]
Wellness + Workplace: Workplace Wellness Finally Starts to Mean Something
by Skyler Hubler and Cecelia Girr
From protected time off and prioritizing vacation time to finally acknowledging women’s health needs, employee wellness is getting a much-needed rethink. Employers have been casually tossing around the word “wellness” since the 1980s. But four decades later, we have little to show for it. Worldwide, 70% of knowledge workers have experienced burnout in the past year, and a recent global study found that 38% of workers hate their jobs so much that they wouldn’t wish it on their worst enemy. Clearly, all those “workplace wellness” initiatives haven’t been working for us. But with the pandemic dramatically accelerating shifts in work models and the mental health crisis—and employees newly empowered—things are changing
Superficial wellness at work schemes are being replaced with more meaningful solutions. Better balance is being achieved through movements such as extended, company-wide vacations and the “right to disconnect” from emails after hours; employers making in-person time count with memorable offsites and gatherings at wellness resorts and social wellness clubs (meetings held in ice baths are officially a thing). The workplace wellness reform is well underway and it’s set to change everything, from how we connect with coworkers to what we look for in a job.
[Indeed, there is every indication that some variation of remote work will remain, and people will claim their opportunity to be nomadic workers.]
WELLNESS + GOVERNMENTS: The Case for Coming Together
By Thierry Malleret
Wellness policies have been years in the making, but in 2023 and beyond, they will evolve, multiply and strengthen. Governments “know” the crippling economic and societal costs that come when people don’t feel mentally and physically well. They “know” that unwellness shrinks the labor force while simultaneously hurting productivity—the worst possible combo for long-term economic growth. They “know” that preventative wellness saves public money because it always costs less than cure.
Now more governments are moving from knowing to action, pursuing diversified policies aimed at, pursuing policies—aimed at improving physical, mental, work, environmental, and even financial wellbeing—from healthy eating campaigns to funding regenerative agriculture and biodiversity protection.
Wellness policies will become far more prominent on the political agendas of national, regional and local governments. We predict they will be: (1) more expansive, by encompassing adjacent policies that contribute to our planetary, societal and individual wellbeing; (2) more “muscular,” toughening regulations and fighting vested interests; and (3) more local, because the greatest policy-success stories happen when you empower communities at the local level.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Machu Picchu, Peru’s jewel, along with the Galapagos, Ecuador’s treasure, are both national parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites. And both are models for the risks of overtourism and the rewards of responsible tourism.
Without tourism, Ecuador would not have the funds to protect the animals or the habitat of the Galapagos.
Without tourism to Machu Picchu, there would not be a Machu Picchu to visit, nor any of the other Incan sites along the Inca Trail, resurrected from 400 years of overgrowth. Without tourism, these porters who come from mountain villages would not have the income to supplement subsistence farming to provide a better life for their family. That was clear during the COVID pandemic lockdown.
Both Galapagos and Machu Picchu limit the numbers of visitors, require visitors to visit with a licensed tour company and be guided (otherwise they muck up the place) and, similarly, put constraints on the tour companies, as well as development. In the Galapagos, ships are limited to 100 passengers; in Machu Picchu, trekking companies are limited to groups with a maximum of 16 trekkers, two guides and 22 porters, with each porter carrying a maximum of 25 kilos.
The reality of the benefits of tourism is harshly apparent when it is taken away – as during the COVID pandemic lockdowns, or conflict, or natural disaster – when so many lose their livelihoods and agencies and organizations lose the capital to maintain and preserve the historic, heritage and natural sites.
Tourism goes even further than that. I believe tourism the greatest force for peace, understanding , cooperation and progress that humanity has ever devised. Tourism has provided the funding – and the demand – to unearth these Incan sites, and in the process, sparked a renewed desire for Peruvians to appreciate their heritage.
But yes, tourism has to be kept in balance, to avoid exploitation and the negative impacts overtourism can have. That is what Sustainable, Responsible Tourism is about.
Many travelers these days have Responsible Travel in mind when they choose destinations, experiences and travel companies – down to the airlines, cruiselines, hotels and tour operators. Indeed, Alpaca Expeditions highlights its Sustainability bona fides at its website (alpacaexpeditions.com).
And on this four-day, three-day Inca Trail trek, I could really assess how well Alpaca Expeditions’ fulfilled its lofty promise of being a “sustainable and responsible” tour company, with a “unique service philosophy dedicated to our porter welfare equally to our client services, fair and kind travel, equal employer with a focus on women’s rights in tourism.”
In fact, all of these promises were confirmed during our visit. Alpaca Expeditions can stand as a model of the importance of responsible, sustainable tourism – both in preserving Machu Picchu and the historic sites along the Inca Trail and as a model for other travel enterprises. You can see it in the comparative prosperity of Cuzco, once the capital of the Incan Empire and the epicenter of the Incan world.
So, on the third day of the four-day Inca Trail trek – in the morning before we head out and again this evening – our Alpaca Expeditions guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, creates opportunities for us to get to know who our porters, chefs and staff are who are making this experience possible, and they to know us. This is what Responsible Tourism is all about – a connection, appreciation and an opportunity to improve the lives of the local community, and, similarly, an appreciation for the guests whose tourism dollars provide them a better quality of life as well as the funds to preserve and protect their heritage.
The porters, chefs and guides – 22 of them to 15 of us (there is actually one fellow who is the “sanitation engineer” charged with maintaining the private portable potty; two of the porters are brothers, aged 62 and 68, and one is a woman, which is still unusual) – come mostly from the same mountain village and leave their families for weeks on end in order to do these treks, but at least they have the camaraderie of their friends.
Lizandro’s own story is illustrative. On our first day of the four-day Inca Trail trek, as we walk through one of the mountain villages, he tells us that village was where he grew up – his family is among 96 who still live there. He used to lead a pack horse on the trail since he was 4.
“In my community there was no school. My parents sent me for education –I stayed with an uncle for three years until my parents couldn’t pay for school. I met a chef and became a porter at 18 years old, 15 years ago.“ He learned English from the trekkers . His first word, he tells us, was “baby spoon” when he was 18.
“Fifteen years ago, porters were exploited by companies – they hired fewer to make more profit,” Lizandro tells us. “Then, they carried 40-45 kilos; companies didn’t provide uniforms, equipment, back support, not even food. They had to carry their own blanket and did not have a tent. Salaries were 50 Soles for a four-day hike – not even $15.
“My first hike was so difficult, a porter made me take coca leaves. I got 50 Soles for a tip. 15 years ago in Peru, 50 Soles was a lot – 1 sole could buy 20 breads, now it only buys 2 breads.”
Then, 15 years ago, the porters organized with the help of the Cuzco government, and got regulations to provide better conditions. Now the porters carry a maximum of 28 Kilos (the first 2 days are still heavier because they are carrying food supplies, and the packs are heavier when it rains, but lighten as we consume food) and guests are restricted to bringing 7 kilos including a sleeping bag in the duffel which is supplied.
“It’s difficult for porters (from mountain village) to be away from family for these periods of time, but typically they come from the same community so have friends. Some commute six hours by bus/train and then 2-3 hours walk back to home, so many prefer to do 5-6 groups and then go home for 5-6 days, do some farming and then come back to hike. Normally, they do 6-7 trips a month.”
When the COVID pandemic forced a lockdown and there were no tourists coming (one Japanese tourist actually had to stay in Peru a full year before he could go back to Japan, which was closed to the outside, and was the first visitor back to Machu Picchu), Lizandro had to go back to his village and do farming.
The government has yet to restore the full numbers of visitors to Machu Picchu after reopening from the pandemic – before, 7,000 were allowed per day; the number had just been increased to 5,000 from 4,000 (only 200 trekkers per day on the Inca Trail). “We thought it would take a couple of years but recovery has been quick,” he said.
Now, even though the porters are protected, some companies still make them carry heavier packs and do not provide hiking boots; some porters still hike in sandals instead of boots, Lizandro says.
Raul Ccolque who founded Alpaca Expeditions, grew up in a small town in the Sacred Valley and while he was studying tourism, worked as a porter (from 2000-2003) and later as a tour guide. Ccolque witnessed firsthand how companies exploited their porters – not only were they poorly paid, but they would also be badly bruised or injured due to carrying heavier loads than necessary, without proper hiking boots or uniforms, sleeping bags. They even had to supply their own food.
Raul set out to create a company that would remedy this inhumane situation.
“Most of our porters live in a village outside of Cusco – typically 2 to 4 hours away. We cover all entrance fees (45 soles – $15 US per porter) and transportation to and from the trek for our porters, separate from their salary,” the website says. “They are paid directly after the trek, which prevents them from traveling back to Cusco before heading home. Unfortunately, this is an uncommon practice. They receive better wages, health insurance [not a given in Peru] and all of their equipment for free. This includes hiking boots, pants, jerseys, fleeces, jackets, hats, flashlights, sleeping bags, and amazing food to eat. We make sure they have a comfortable bed in a lovely room to sleep before (and after if needed) the trek instead of crashing on a floor like others.” Alpaca Expeditions built Porters House where they stay between trips.
“While the government allows each porter to carry up to 25kg, we keep our limit at 20kg. Each porter will carry up to 15kg from the company and 5kg of their own personal stuff. This is why it’s so important to keep your personal duffel within weight restrictions and not exceed our allowed 7kg. You will see other companies carrying more than the allotted weight, but we will not allow our porters to carry this burden. Every year Alpaca Expeditions provides new sleeping bags and sleeping pads for each porter. We provide them all the gear they need along the hike, our jackets, for example, are all lined and warm, and our boots are all waterproof. Our porters eat the same food as the guests; the chef cooks enough for all the trekkers and porters [that’s why our platters are so enormous and there are so many dishes made]. Of course, the porters are carrying the food supplies, so with each day, at least that load gets lighter.”
Also, “In keeping with the Andean concept of ‘ayni’, or giving back to the community, Alpaca Expeditions has numerous social projects,” the company states. “Our pride and joy has been ‘adopting’ the highland villages where our porters’ families have lived for centuries as subsistence farmers. Several times a year we go to these villages to help supply their schools with books, computers and basic hygiene supplies. We have even provided the funds necessary to employ a teacher. We have also started a tree planting project that reintroduced 3,000 of the indigenous, but rapidly disappearing Queuña tree. Alpaca Expeditions is dedicated to improving our community and sharing these social projects.” The company is also working with a local clinic in Cusco to provide dental care and skin examinations for the children of each of its porters’ villages.
Lizandro tells us that most of the porters, even though they have done the trek umptium times, along with their families in the mountain villages, have never actually visited Machu Picchu themselves – the porters leave our group early on the last morning to make a 6 am train back to Ollantaytambo. But among the programs that Alpaca Expeditions offers is an opportunity for the porters to visit Machu Picchu with their families.
The company says it has bought land in Cusco to build dormitories, classrooms and teaching kitchens for its team. “We will have English classes, computer classes and cooking classes here for any member of our team and their family to use, free of charge. This is a huge project for us that we are really excited about.”
People used to be able to do the Inca Trail trek on their own, doing their own camping. But they left such a mess, the government now requires every person going to Machu Picchu to obtain a permit and go with a licensed tour company. Still, Alpaca Expeditions has found the need to extend its “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” values beyond its own staff and guests. “Not only do we clean up after ourselves, but we even have campaigns where our staff cleans up the messes others have left behind. There is a key concept in the Andean cosmovision known as ‘ayni’. It means ‘reciprocity’ – that as you take, you must give back. We are dedicated to treating our beautiful Mother Earth, known as Pachamama in Peru, with respect and honor in exchange for all the abundance she gives to us.”
When it comes to my turn to introduce myself, I can’t help but reveal that I turned 71 this day, and this “trip of a lifetime” could only be possible because of them. (Later that evening, the chef presents me with the most magnificent, decorated birthday cake, which took three hours to prepare with the camping-style equipment he uses.)
At the evening gathering, the night before we will reach Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, Lizandro suggests that if there is anything that we would leave behind, that we donate it to the porters. Sarah and Eric compile a bunch of their stuff (the Inca Trail trek was the grand finale to six months of their travel odyssey) and bring it to the Alpaca Expeditions office the next day when we are back in Cuzco.
Alpaca Expeditions is clearly on the same page in appreciating the importance of responsible, sustainable tourism. But I would suggest there is still more to do, and perhaps Alpaca Expeditions, because it has become such a leader, could persuade the government to make some changes.
The trekking companies used to only hire uneducated men from the mountain villages – just as Lizandro was – whose opportunities were limited (considering how smart and articulate he is – basically learning English from the trekkers, one can only imagine all the opportunities he might have had if public education was available to him growing up). But not that long ago, the government made public education universal. And as a result, fewer are coming forward to be the porters because other opportunities are open to them. Now I wonder, whether a shortage of porters will inhibit the increase in tourism and trekking, which provides most of the dollars necessary to support the preservation and conservation, and the economic activity and jobs. In fact, all of us trekkers are not just appreciative of the porters, but feel somewhat guilty as we make way for them to pass us (!!) on the trail, thanking them as they go by.
So here’s an idea: the government, which already has campsites with public restrooms, and facilities for the Park Rangers, that they build storage sheds at the campsites so the operators can store the tents, tables and infrastructure for the season. In this way, they can reduce the loads that the porters have to carry. Then, more young people would probably sign up for the experience – if not a career – and in this way, the companies would have enough porters to support the number of trekkers, whose dollars fuel this virtuous cycle. That’s human ecology.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
This is the day that many of us have had on a bucket list, and for some of us, represents the fulfillment of a “trip of a lifetime”: Machu Picchu.
We are awakened at 3 am when the Alpaca Expeditions staff bring hot coffee to our tents. We have everything ready for leaving the Wiñaywayna campsite by 3:15 am (I had packed everything the night before and only kept out what I would be taking on the trail), and set out, our bagged breakfast in hand, wearing our headlamps in the dark for the surprisingly short distance walk to the check-in point for Machu Picchu where we wait until it opens at 5:30 am.
Our guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman wants us to get up so early to be first on line (he claims to have a 98% success rate) and also to get to the Sun Gate as the sun rises (and before it gets overwhelmed with photo-snappers), and to Machu Picchu in time for the first rays to illuminate the scene. In fact, there is only a group of six ahead of us and something like 200 behind us, checking our passport against the list of permits granted for the day.
Somehow, I wind up leading our pack of 15 trekkers and I surprise myself at the pace I set for the one-hour hike on this mostly flat portion of the trail to the Sun Gate. I am in the lead until we get to what Lizandro calls the “Gringo killer”- 50 of the steepest steps – more like a rock climbing wall – where you need to use your hands to crawl up like cat.
Lizandro has prepared us for the fact that the sun only comes through the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise on the solstice. But from here, we get our first view of Machu Picchu in the distance (it’s still an hour’s hike away).
One of the many nice aspects of our guides, Lizandro and Georgio, is that they have been patiently taking individual and group photos of us with our phones and cameras at each of the key spots along the trail, and so we stop at the Sun Gate to take our turn posing for those shots. (Everyone wants to be at this small point for the sunrise, which is why Lizandro wanted us first.)
And then we continue (downhill!) from the Sun Gate at 8,956 ft. elevation, an hour more to Machu Picchu, descending to 7,873 elevation over the course of three miles from the Wiñaywayna campsite. At the same time, the temperature which had been cold at the highest elevations, becomes warm, even balmy, so we are actually sweating (need sunscreen and hat!) at the site.
This part of the Inca trail gives us views that show how Machu Picchu is positioned – we see the entirety of the Lost City (I can only imagine what it was like before it was excavated) and how it is etched amid the contours of the mountain peaks – which is how it was kept hidden from the Spanish when they invaded in 1538 and for 400 years.
Literally 10 seconds after I pass a scenic overlook, the sun pokes out. (These views and so much more, are why we take the Inca Trail trek.)
At about 7:40 am, we walk in what seems to be a back entrance into the city, where we are perched on high terraces and the views are the iconic ones of magazines and postcards (and I suspect are not available to the day-trippers who come in from the bottom entrance for the tour). How lucky we are because the sun breaks through, highlighting the structures, for exquisite scenes.
We actually walk down and out of Machu Picchu site to wait for our ticketed time to re-enter (you can only stay 2 ½ hours and can only come in with a guide). While we wait, we have to use the bathroom before we reenter and check bigger backpacks and hiking poles.
Our scheduled time to enter Machu Picchu to begin our 2 hour private guided tour with Lizandro is 8:30 am, who leads us on Circuit #4 (there are four different circuits to control crowds) to the highlights: the terraces, Sun Temple, Royal Mausoleum, Palace, Plaza, Sacred Rock.
Machu means “old,” “ancient,” “big”). Picchu means “peak,” so Machu Picchu actually means “Ancient Mountain,” but that is not its indigenous name.
Lizandro tells us that Machu Picchu was built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, the 9th Inca king but its first emperor and the “Alexander the Great” , the Empire Builder, of the Inca. Beginning in 1438, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui began a far-reaching expansion that brought much of the modern-day territory of Peru under the ruling Inca family control. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo as well as Machu Picchu. He built Machu Picchu up in the mountains instead of the valley to be closer to the sun, to connect the sky and the earth in one place, as well as for protection. “Mountains were gods that protected the villages and the animals,” he relates. Almost all of the construction faces east to catch the sunrise – the Inca rulers claimed to be the children of Inti, the Sun God.
Over the next 100 years, the Empire ultimately expanded to what are today six South American countries, connected by 25,000 miles of roads, suspension bridges and trails, and controlling a population as many as 18 million.
The Sun Gate was built as a check point to enter Machu Picchu, but positioned so that on December 22, the summer solstice, the sun beam would come through gate; and on June 21, it comes through the other window.
Machu Picchu is built in two sections – an urban sector has some 200 units of which 172 were homes, and the rest were temples, and a sun dial.
There would have been 700-800 people living here full time – 60% were nobles, the rest were farmers and workers.
How did they build Machu Picchu without slaves, without animals to carry, without a wheel, iron tools, or written language? Consider that China’s Great Wall and the Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor, draft animals, a wheel, iron tools and written language.
What they had was a culture and a labor system based on principles: Ani – reciprocity – one for all, all for one; Minka – community benefit – care for vulnerable – collectivity (how the Peruvians got through Covid despite a poor health care system); and Mita – paying taxes by work, labor (not cash) to benefit the whole.
It took 50-60 years to build Machu Picchu for Emperor Pachacuti, who ruled from 1432-1472, but it was never finished. I can’t help but wonder how many men were impressed to build this enormous complex of structures in that amount of time.
When the Spanish invaded in 1538, Machu Picchu was abandoned before it was finished and the Incan forces fell back to arm Vilcabamba, the Inca’s last stronghold. “They promised to come back but didn’t,” Lizandro says.
It is mindboggling to contemplate that as complex a construction as what we see, the scale, and the fact that more than 60% is still unexcavated, buried under 400 years of overgrowth.
The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest.
“He set up tents at base, met a local to ask where Vilcabamba might be. The man didn’t know, but on July 24 1911, with machete in hand, Bingham had a big surprise: the sight of Machu Picchu took his breath away. Two families were living here, cultivating the terraces two years before Bingham arrived. They were running away from paying taxes to the government.” [Off the grid?]
Bingham returned for a second, then a third expedition. He uncovered eight Inca trails (the Inca destroyed many of the trails to prevent the Spanish from reaching Machu Picchu) and took away artifacts, he claimed, for two years. “More than 100 years later, Yale still has the artifacts and is requiring Peru to build a museum to hold artifacts near Machu Picchu. But Peru wants it by the river. In 2015, the United States sent 11 percent of the artifacts back – but not all were real, some were replicas that they returned. The Peru government wants all of it back.”
The photos Bingham published brought international attention to Machu Picchu, the “Lost City of the Inca” – and tourists. The first tourist following the Inca trail came in 1954 and this Incan Citadel has become the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. The site was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
We trekkers follow Circuit 4 (there are four circuits, to spread out the crowds): starting at the Main Gate (where we must present our passports and permit), to the Sun Temple, House of the Inka, the water foundation; Granitic Chaos; Sacred Plaza; Intiwatana Pyramid; Sacred Rock; Three Gates; Water Mirrors; and Condor Temple.
We climb the steep stone steps and come to the Sun Temple. It was built as a royal tomb to contain the mummified remains of the king. Lizandro points to how a temple would have the highest quality building stones and most precise placement and its architecture emphasizes the “harmony between people and nature. They always incorporate the natural bedrock. The windows are aligned for summer and winter solstice – a solar observatory. There are three steps – the Inca triology. The mummified body was placed in the tomb in fetal position.” There are no mummies left in the tomb, but there would have been mummies of the 12 Inca kings (others were buried). On the day of Ayamaki, the mummies would have been paraded from the mausoleum.
Lizandro notes that the word ‘jerky” – the dehydrated meat snack – comes from the indigenous Quechua word, “jakky charky” (related to mummification).
We come to the Royal Inca Palace, where we can see that instead of windows (too cold), there would have been shelves for idols. “Bingham got here in time to see some.”
How would they have set the weighty keystone in place? With ramps, aloe vera to make it slick, he says. The enormous stone building blocks, weighing tons, are trapezoid shape and set at a slight incline angle, for stability against earthquakes. Indeed, Peru suffered two big earthquakes – in 1650 and 1950 – when the colonial buildings collapsed, the great cathedral in Cuzco collapsed, but these structures remained (in fact, the 1950 earthquake in Cuzco unearthed Incan structures). We see under one massive block a roller-shaped stone – a precursor to the wheel.
You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps. The straight lines and perfect angles, the precision, the sheer size and bulk of the stones, and how this entire city is nestled on a plateau amid these sheer mountain peaks.
There is a large open area, like a field, which would have been used for festivals, activities, an amphitheater. And in the middle, is what would have been a sundial. In 1978, the then president invited the Spanish King and Queen to visit, and their helicopter landing in the field, broke the sundial. (I find it ironic that the Spanish were still destroying Incan heritage.)
In this small plaza, Lizandro points out a huge section of bedrock cut to mimic the shape of the mountain behind – mountains were considered sacred.
He explains a bit of the Incan society hierarchy – the Inca were the royal family and nobles – perhaps 20,000 who ruled over a population of dozens of different tribes totaling as many as 18 million across much of South America. Professionals could become nobles (rise to that privileged class) because of their expertise, skill and function. Teenagers could show a talent and go into a profession.
We sit around for a bit of a rest, and Lizandro explains some of the contemporary politics. Apparently, in the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori [a fixture in Peru’s politics from 1990 to 2003] wanted to privatize Machu Picchu – selling it off to Chilean investors, drawing an outcry of protests from the people. “The president did well his first five years – investing in industrial farming – but after he was reelected, he sold off or privatized without people knowing.” Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, wound up being investigated for corruption. He tried to flee to Japan and was captured enroute in Santiago with eight suitcases of cash. He was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.”
Lizandro says the Peruvian constitution (which I subsequently read has been rewritten and set aside multiple times since the country’s independence, while the government has undergone a series of coups back and forth from dictatorship to democracy, socialism to capitalism) favors foreign companies (they don’t pay tax). Because 50 percent of Peru’s population lives in Lima, he tells us, the people who live in rural areas, in the mountains, have little say.
Several of our group have obtained permits in advance to climb Huayna Picchu – that famous nub of a mountain, like an overlord, in the iconic Machu Picchu images – and Sarah has obtained one, while the rest of us continue touring Machu Picchu with Lizandro.
Sarah reports back that the 45-minute hike is extremely arduous – much harder than the Inca Trail hike – almost straight up to a tiny perch at the top, at 8,835 ft., 850 ft. higher than Machu Picchu, where everyone has to take turns for the photo, but you get a famous view of Machu Picchu. The trail was built by the Inca who also built temples and terraces at the top. “I would definitely recommend it to fitter hikers looking for one last challenge. It’s not super long and being able to see the scale of Machu Picchu from above was really impressive.”
We finally come back down to the entrance/exit to Machu Picchu and Lizandro hands us a ticket for the bus that takes us down an extremely winding road to the village of Aguas Calientes. We meet for a last lunch together in a local restaurant – kind of a celebratory meal ( optional and not included). Lizandro gives us our train ticket, departing Aguas Calientes 3:20 pm (you need to take seriously the notice to be on the platform at least 30 minutes ahead of time, which is when the train loads) to Ollantaytambo.
The train is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the two-hour trip (which for some reason takes us much longer). At Ollantaytambo, we are met by the Alpaca Expeditions bus for the two-hour drive back to Cuzco and drop off back at our hotel.
Candidly, I had been so obsessed about getting passed Day 2, Machu Picchu was more of an end-goal of a quest than the prime attraction – being here means I had gotten over the Dead Woman’s Pass, completed the 26 miles, going as high as nearly 14,000 feet – much as it would have been for the pilgrims who undertook this journey of a lifetime. It is personal.
For me, it is not just a trip of a lifetime but a now or never proposition.
I am not the only one celebrating an important milestone. Indeed, this is the sort of bucket-list trip that warrants a milestone – Peter timed reaching Machu Picchu for his 35th birthday; a couple had just gotten engaged at the start of the hike; another 30-something couple (he’s Italian, she’s Dutch) is on their honeymoon .That’s how special this trek is, embodying physical, spiritual – just as it did for the Inca, a triumph of will and willpower. A test of character then as now.
You are at the same time amazed by the ability of these people to construct these sites at all, but then wonder at the level of control exerted, the role of religion in maintaining that control and how authoritarians throughout human history use religion (the divine right). No surprise: the Inca kings claimed to be the son of the Sun God, Inti. And yet, you can’t help but marvel at the accomplishment of that government capable of building the 25,000 miles of roads, in producing the amount of food to sustain the population, and unifying a population of 18 million into a society.
You appreciate the social structure that produced these extraordinary mountain villages in a society that did not have slaves nor currency, did not have the wheel or beasts of burden, did not have compass, ruler, alphabet or written language.
Most astonishing, these structures were built within 20, 40 or 60 years’ time – apparently, each chief would select a project to be completed within his own lifetime.
Photos do not do justice, you have to stand next to the rock walls, trace how the boulders link to perfectly together, see the curve at the edge, the inclined angle (for stability against earthquake) with such exquisite precision, hoist yourself up the steep stone steps, look beyond to the distance these boulders would have had to be transported from their quarry.
You stand perched on these terraced structures built into the side of a mountain and simply cannot fathom what it took to build.
All these thoughts come to me as I step, climb, step, climb the trail.
At each site, Lizandro tells us more of the story of the Inca and the society they created – but unlike the sturdy bedrock that these sites were built on, the Inca’s hold on the people was really not that strong because it was not a bond. At a certain point, their hold was by force. “The Inca weren’t very nice people,” he says softly.
What was unexpected was to come away with an understanding of the limits of authoritarian control. Indeed, the Inca ruled for less than 400 years, but the empire existed only for a century before it was toppled, too weak and lacking support of the people, to withstand the Spanish invaders. There are lessons for day. And as we learn, Peru is still going through these cycles of economic struggle, political ping-pong between dictatorship and democracy, socialism and capitalism, since becoming independent from Spain in 1821. The more things change, the more they stay the same, may well be the lasting lesson.
What makes a “trip of a lifetime” – one that is truly life-enhancing, even life-changing? It is the doing.
Alpaca Expeditions offers many ways to get to experience Machu Picchu – the trek is its own experience, and when you think about it, is very inexpensive (from $650); it’s not even that difficult or expensive an airfare to reach (at this stage, you fly through Lima or Quito to Cuzco, but a new international airport is being built closer to Cuzco). The tour company also offers many different programs – like the Sacred Valley excursions – to different areas.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
On our third morning on the Inca Trail, we are wakened at 5 am at our tents in the Chaquiccocha campsite to be packed up, have breakfast at 5:30 am and out by 6:30 am to begin what is generally considered the most relaxed day of the four-day trek, when our Alpaca Expeditions group will hike 6.2 miles mostly downhill, and visit two Inca sites, Phuyupatamarka (‘Town in the Clouds”) and Intipata (“Terraces of the Sun”), before reaching the campsite, where, we are told, a special activity awaits.
I’m still on a high from surviving Day 2 and the dual challenges of Dead Woman’s Pass and Runcuraccay Pass, so I feel I can handle anything (and not just on this trek).
It’s a foggy morning and before setting out, our guide Lizandro organizes all of us in a great circle with the porters and staff and guests (Giorgio calls us “family” and Lizandro calls us “team” and both are true in the way we have bonded) so we meet each other. We learn that the porters all come from one mountain village, that two are brothers, 62 and 68 years old, that one of the porters is a woman (very unusual, but Alpaca Expeditions has made an effort to recruit women).
We trekkers introduce ourselves, also, and I mention that today is my 71st birthday – mentioning it because I am pretty pleased with the achievement (and our guide, Giorgio, at one point guessed I was 55 – perhaps just being polite) – to emphasize that they have made this experience of a lifetime possible for me.
We hike for 2 hours along what they call “Inca flat” (gradual inclines) and begin to enter the jungle, known as the Cloud Forest. As we walk, we have the opportunity to see Salkantay, the second highest snow-capped mountain in the Sacred Valley, and get glimpses of a fantastic panoramic view of the Vilcabamba mountain range through mist and clouds.
We make our way up to the last peak and our third pass, Phuyupatamarka (“Temple Above the Clouds”) at 12,073 ft. from where we have great views overlooking the Urubamba River. Down the valley, we get our first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, but the famous “Lost City” itself is still hidden from view.
From Phuyupatamarka it´s a 3-hour walk down a flight of stone steps to our last campsite and the grand finale for this day, exploring the Incan site of Wiñaywayna (“Forever Young”).
On the descent, we stop in a small cave, and just as the pilgrims did 600 years ago as they came closer to Machu Picchu, the religious center, Lizandro uses this site, the Temple Above the Clouds, to discuss religious beliefs and practices at the time of the Inca.
This would have been one of the religious sites where pilgrims 600 years ago would be able to show their devotion and purify themselves before they reached the sacred Machu Picchu. It would have been a place of offerings, a ritual shower, of sacrifice.
At the time of the Inca and thousands of years before, the many different tribes were polytheists, worshipping many gods mostly associated with Nature. They believed that nature, man and the Pachamama (Mother Earth), lived in harmony and perpetual interrelationship. The Inca state promoted the worship of a Creator God (Wiracocha), Sun God (Inti), Moon Goddess (Mamaquilla), Thunder God (Illapa) and Earth Mother (Pachamama), and a host of other supernatural entities. But the ruling Inca established Inti, the sun god, as the most important (the first Inca king declared himself to be the son of Inti, to establish his divine power and authority).
Lizandro points to a trinity that organizes the belief system: “The Inca thought three lives (past, present and future) ran parallel – one underneath (past), one above (future). They divided the world in three dimensions, three stages of life, which they depicted with animals – the condor (the heavens), the puma (the middle world of earth), and the snake (the underworld).
The snake represents knowledge, wisdom; because everything known is from past; the puma represents strength, energy; the condor connects this world to next world because it could touch heaven and carry heavy things, he says.
“The Inca saw life as a circle, not a line, so life never ends. They believed life is reborn and when they were buried, they were placed in the fetal position pointing to the sun and mountains; rulers were mummified and their mummified remains taken and paraded around one day a year. Children didn’t inherit property – people were buried with their belongings (for the next life). Machu Picchu, a sacred place, would have taken more than a lifetime to build, but though Emperor Pachacuti believed he wouldn’t enjoy it in this world, he would in the next.”
And the linchpin to it all, the basis for the Inca emperor’s power and authority, was religious faith.
So, while the Inca did not have slaves, they had a system of labor, whereby the men would give two to three months of service to the rulers (the first Inca Emperor, Pachacútec, the Alexander the Great of the Inca, had them build Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the various palaces and temples), and gave 50 percent of what they harvested to the nobles and the priests out of religious devotion. And the people were kept ignorant – only the nobles and priests were educated – so they could be controlled with the use superstition and miracles.
He says there would have been six water fountains here – so people could take a ritual shower “to purify mind and body before going to Machu Picchu.” He also points to a sacrificial rock.
There appears to be an altar carved into the bedrock facing sunrise.
We have about 45 minutes of a steep downward hike before it levels off again.
We come to an Inca site, Intipata (Terraces of the Sun) that interestingly, overlooks our final campsite waaaay down the mountain. Lizandro points out what would have been a platform for sacrifice. “Not for human. That would be rare” indicating that it would take place only in extreme circumstances, like a famine and would be mainly girls 11 and 13 years old who belonged to Cuzco noble families, who were told they were born to be sacrificed as offerings to stop a national disaster. He describes one instance when the king sacrificed his daughter. (I’ll bet it was a period of famine, because they needed to reduce population to keep in balance.) The sacrificed were given fresh vegetable hallucinogenic flower to eat. “They offered them not death, but life.”
More typically, it was a llama that would be sacrificed. “The llama represents spiritual life and the black llama, a symbol of material life, would be sacrificed.”
The Inca did not have a written alphabet, yet they had to figure ways to communicate across distances – to alert the villages along the Inca Trail when the king was coming, when enemies approached. They did it using runners – sometimes in relays (they could do the 26 mile distance we do in four days in four hours), using conch trumpets. Also, the patterns and colors of their clothing would identify who they were, what tribe, and so, whether friend or foe.
But they also had a system of colored strings and knots, called quipu, that recorded and relayed information, which he shows us as an example. Lizandro says (not disguising his resentment) that only a few quipu have survived but many have been taken to foreign museums (in fact, most of what the archeologists have taken from the Inca sites have yet to be returned).
(I imagine that the quipu could be read like Morse code and while they did not have an alphabet, the code was probably based on mathematics, so perhaps a computer could decipher?)
At the end of this relatively short and easy third day’s hike, we get into camp at 1 pm (it doesn’t feel like five hours!) and Lizandro tells us to look forward to a special “activity”. This turns out to be a cooking class, where Chef Mario shows us how to cook a popular Peruvian dish, lomas latudo. We get chef’s hats and aprons and the platters of ingredients – beef, red pepper, tomatoes, onions, yellow pepper, ginger, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, pepper, cilantro, oil to fry potato (served with French fries and rice) – which we learn how to properly cut, dice, stir and sauté – before enjoying our handiwork for lunch.
Later in the afternoon, after time to relax, we walk a surprisingly short distance (less than 10 minutes) along a trail from our campsite to one of the most impressive Incan villages of all, Wiñaywayna, and (unlike when we go to Machu Picchu the next day) we have it almost to ourselves to explore.
Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu and the most popular campsite because of its proximity to Machu Picchu.
Wiñaywayna was discovered by a local archeologist in 1942 who was excavating a different site, Chamchabamba, and found it hidden under dense vegetation and cloud forest. Amazingly, they found orchid flowers growing on the wall. Lizandro explains that Peru has 435 species orchids, but they mostly bloom early or at the end rainy season, some bloom only every 4-5 years or for only one day year, opening at sunrise and dying at sunset. But the orchids found here bloom year round, which is why they named the site, Wiñaywayna – Forever Young – for the orchid. (If Dead Woman’s Pass, thankfully, did not prove prescient for me, perhaps Forever Young on this, my birthday?)
We explore the site, climbing up and down the steep stone steps, walking through the corridors, really getting into the architecture and engineering, the logistics, as if the people left only yesterday. You realize these ruins were buried under overgrowth for 400 years and can only marvel at what was involved in its excavation so that we can appreciate it today.
Most of the Inca sites have yet to be uncovered and are still buried, and the ones that we do see have only been partially excavated. Indeed, only about 40 percent of Machu Picchu has been excavated.
We go through a room with three walls and big windows which, Lizandro tells us, means it was a storage room – the windows provided ventilation for better preservation, while homes had no windows because it would be too cold; instead, there are spaces in the walls where they would put idols for decoration.
We see what would have been a watch tower. There would have been guards with weapons at the ready to protect Machu Picchu – like sling shots (a rope of wool with a bag in the middle with rocks), arrows, lances, spears, hatchets – fine for use against another tribe, but fairly useless against the weapons the Spanish invaders wielded. The guard would have been able to recognize if someone coming was friend or foe by the colors and design of their clothes.
The temple here has three different architectural styles, which Lizandro says shows it was built by different generations and different engineers. A wall of this temple has seven windows that look out to the peak, arranged in a curve. The round shape was to reflect the sun, to provide different places to observe sun, like a sun dial. The seven windows are homage to the Seven Sister stars of the Pleiades.
The terraces here at Wiñaywayna were Incan agricultural laboratories – narrow and concave to follow the curves of the mountain, every seven levels a different ecology, granite and quartz used to absorb heat from the sun to keep plants from freezing overnight. “The Inca realized that elevations produced better potato and corn adapted to altitude.”
This site, along with the others, were purposely abandoned in 1538 with the Spanish conquest.
The first Spanish expedition, in 1532, had only 167. “They were invaders, not explorers. They came to destroy the culture, the civilization. They took gold and silver and brought disease,” Lizandro says. The population at the time of the Inca was as high as 18 million before the Spanish.
Machu Picchu and the other sites were built in the mid 1400s, over a period of about 60 years. Less than 100 years later, the population started decreasing– the human ecologist in me can’t help but wonder if the massive building projects and empire building didn’t take its toll on the population.
“European diseases came even before the Spaniards came. Cortez brought disease to the Mayans, and the Mayans, trying to flee the Spaniards by going south, carried the diseases along the same network of roads the Inca used to conquer and unify its empire. The 12th Incan king, Huayna Cápac (it is believed) died in 1525 from smallpox and there was no king to follow.”
He says that it is wrong to think of an Incan civilization, rather than an Incan ruler and ruling family of perhaps 20,000 who dominated a population that ranged in size from 10 to 20 million. “When he passed away, he was mummified to continue guiding.” Because the Inca ruler could have as many concubines as he wanted, Huayna Cápac likely had 500 children throughout the kingdom, but only three who were sons of the Queen, were in line to be king. Two of the brothers were fighting a civil war for control at the time the Spanish came to Cuzco in 1533,” another reason the Spanish were successful with their conquest.
“The Spaniards saw amazing gold, silver – a city of gold – buildings covered in gold, a temple that had life-sized animals of gold. The Spaniards melted them to make coins. Then the Spanish king sent more soldiers.”
The Incan kingdom, weakened by civil war and not exactly supported by the masses they had subjugated for a century, abandoned this place to protect Machu Picchu, which was holy to them, like the Vatican. Machu Picchu was hidden amid the mountain peaks. To protect it from the Spanish invaders, the Inca destroyed the trails that led to Machu Picchu, and ultimately, abandoned Machu Picchu as well, making a last stand at Vilcabamba.
“The Inca weren’t the nicest to build such a civilization. For 100 years, they had to kill to control, so not all people were happy, so they didn’t help the Inca against the Spanish,” Lizandro says.
None of these grand projects were ever finished, which is more understandable than if they were completed.
We have as much time as we want to explore until darkness begins to fall because we can just stroll back to the campsite.
When we sit down to dinner, Chef Mario presents me with the most amazing birthday cake I have ever had in my life – completely decorated. It took him three hours to prepare it with the camping equipment he cooks with. I share the cake with Peter who timed his bucketlist Machu Picchu ascent for his 35th birthday the next morning.
Lizandro then asks us what time we would like to wake up in order to get to the check point to Machu Picchu before the other 200 trekkers who will be on line: “3 am? No? Then 3:01,” he says, noting that he has a 98% success rate in being first in line for the checkpoint when it opens at 5:30 am. The check point is only about 10 minutes walk from the campsite. Why so important to be first? Well, to get to the Sun Gate by sunrise, and before the small space gets jammed crammed with people all elbowing to get the best views and photos.
Tomorrow is the day we will reach the goal of our trek: Machu Picchu.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
For me, the first day of the four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu is a test – like throwing down the gauntlet. It is the second hardest (Day 2 is the day I have been dreading), when we will hike 8.7 miles, climbing 1,866 feet to an altitude of 10,829 feet where our campsite will be. My strategy is that if I find it too difficult, I will simply walk back the way I came, rather than continue on to Day 2. Having an out is the security blanket I need.
The day actually begins the evening before, when our group meets at 6 pm (we arrive late from our Sacred Valley day tour) at the Alpaca Expeditions offices in Cuzco for an orientation and to pick up the duffle bags (we are limited to 7 kg which includes the sleeping bag, so only about 4 kg of stuff), as well as a rain cover for our day packs, a rain poncho and hiking poles that we have rented. (We will leave the rest of our luggage at the hotel or can store it with Alpaca). A team of porters will carry not only our duffels (they carry 3 plus their own!), but the camping gear (tents, sleeping bags and mats), a dining tent and stools, cooking stuff, our food, and even a private potty tent.
Our adventure starts with a pick up at our hotel, Amaru Inca, in Cuzco’s historic district at 4 am. We pick up the other participants at various locations (didn’t realize we could have overnighted at Ollantaytambo!) and are taken to Piskachucho, Porters House, where we enjoy a marvelous and energizing breakfast. This is a bunkhouse where the porters – who come from mountain villages hours away – stay between expeditions.
We stop off for a bathroom break at a fantastic shop where I purchase a treasure: the most marvelous alpaca wool knee-high socks for $4 which I adore to keep me comfy cozy on the cold nights in the tent.
We drive to Km 82, and go through the first Inca Trail checkpoint to begin our trek. We have to present our passport and be checked off against the list of permits, which are limited to 200 trekkers a day (which is why you have to book this trip sometimes months in advance). Machu Picchu became a national sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. There is a small museum there and our lead guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, uses this opportunity to gather us all together to reintroduce ourselves (after the orientation meeting the night before), and give us a little intro and pep talk.
We are a group of 15: a couple on their honeymoon (he from Italy, she from Netherlands), a couple from New York (actually he comes from my hometown and she from Miami) who just got engaged; a couple from Norway living in Guyana; a couple (she from New Zealand, he from Ukraine) doing remote work in Lima; a group of six ladies organized by one who actually did not know each other until the trip, but were friends or friends of friends, who come from NY, Kentucky, California; and Eric and Sarah who are finishing up six-month travel odyssey with this grand finale and me. Every one is well traveled and adventurous (also between 25 and 35 years younger than me. (On the trail, I find a family taking a private tour where the parents are in their mid-60s, so I believe I am the oldest trekker on the trail at this point.)
What we call the Inca Trail was part of an immense network built Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s. These roads linked the main cities of the empire with Cusco, the capital, and Machu Picchu. During the time of the Inca, the trail was the only way to get to Machu Picchu.
Our guide, Lizandro, tells us about the animals we may encounter: puma and condor (not surprisingly, they are also sacred animals that appear in architecture), speckle bear (a herbivore), and birds like fly catcher and hummingbirds (32 species).
We head out and cross a bridge over a rushing river after scouts tell us the trail has been reopened. It had been closed down for a month after a rock slide killed two porters. We are the first group of trekkers on the trail – which saves about an hour.
Lizandro stops to point out an insect on cactus – cochinillia – which the Inca used for dying textile. The prickly pear on a cactus, he says, should be eaten before sundown or it will cause an upset stomach. He points to a kind of bean which is made into a powder as a base for aspirin.
The green agave was used to make string, while ichu grass was woven into rope, strong enough to haul the massive building stones and build suspension bridges (an Incan invention). Part of the bridge’s strength and reliability came from the fact that each cable was replaced every year by local villagers as part of their mit’a – their public service obligation.
Indeed, the Inca did not use currency, nor, apparently, have slave labor; their society was organized on a system of Anyi (reciprocity, like barter); Minka (communities work together) and Mita (a labor tax, where every man was obligated to do two to three months of service to the government or serve in the military each year). By combining their political authority with religious authority, the people who were impressed to build temples and palaces did it out of devotion.
The first morning’s hike takes us through a few mountain villages – now set up to sell drinks, snacks and items to the hikers.
At the last village we encounter before ascending into mountain wilderness, Lizandro tells us this is actually the village where he grew up and where 96 families still live. From the age of 5, he was leading a pack horse on the trail. There was no school in his community, so his parents sent him to live with an uncle for three years, until his parents couldn’t afford to send him. He met a chef for an expedition company and began as a porter at age 18 (one of the youngest) and spent two years as a porter, then a chef before becoming a guide, which is how he learned English. Our other guide, Georgio, lives in the Sacred Valley and joined Alpaca Expeditions this year.
The first 2 hours of the trek are relatively easy – a warm up – as we make our way to our first Inca site where there is also a stunning overlook.
Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike (each time, giving us time to refresh and acclimate to the altitude and recover energy to progress).
This site would have housed travelers and soldiers who manned the nearby “hill fort” of Willkaragay. It was also a shrine with rounded walls known as Pulpituyuq that had religious and ceremonial functions. Patallacta was burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, the last Incan emperor, who destroyed a number of settlements along the Inca road system during his retreat from Cuzco in 1536, to block pursuit from the Spanish conquistadors. This is one reason why the Spanish never discovered the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
“The culture that built these weren’t the only civilization,” Lizandro tells us. The peoples who lived here were one of the oldest cultures in the hemisphere: the Caral civilization of Peru dating back to 3200 BCE, is the oldest known civilization in the Americas and built pyramids before the Egyptians.
The Paracas performed skull surgery 2000 years ago. I learn that Inca was one of the first cultures that could do surgery; surgeons in ancient Peru commonly and successfully removed small portions of patients’ skulls to treat head injuries; the surgical procedure—known as trepanation —was most often performed on adult men, likely to treat injuries suffered during combat.
Besides the Paracas, there were the Nasca who were responsible for those mysterious lines etched into plains that could only be seen from high up in the shapes of monkey and toucan even though these animals didn’t live here (sometimes I think we imagine what the shapes represent); Chimu, believed to be the first civilization to practice human sacrifice (500 skeletons were found in one tomb near Lima); Tiajuanacas who were the first culture to domesticate animals – llama used to carry goods, alpaca for their fur and meat, and vincuna, all three in the camel family.
These civilizations and cultures all preceded the Inca but the Inca, a ruling family that imbued themselves with divine authority, were the first to conquer the Andes and establish such a vast empire. The Inca reigned from 1150 to 1533, but the history is mostly lost – eradicated by the Spanish – because the Inca did not develop a written language (that is that they know of).
How did they build such big monuments and conquer the Andes?
According to myth, Lizandro relates, around 1100, the first Incan king and queen emerged from Lake Titicaca floating islands, traveled north looking for good soil and came to Cuzco Valley which was already inhabited. They transformed the land – built homes, established religion putting the sun god, Inti, ahead of the other gods, and the Incan king anointing himself the son of the sun. They conquered the tribes around Cuzco and made Cuzco the center of their universe and the spiritual center of the Andes. Then they discovered (and conquered) the Sacred Valley – sacred because of its fertile production of corn.
Over the next 350 years, the Inca expanded their empire, built a road system (known as the Royal Road) that was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America – 25,000 miles of road stretching to Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile, connecting the coast, Andes and rainforest regions. It was also a communications system. They would send messages by relay runners who carried quipu – messages based on strings and knots (they did not have written alphabet). The runners – who might announce the impending arrival of a noble – could make it to Machu Picchu in four hours (we take four days).
Most of the sites we see were built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, the Incan “Alexander the Great”. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. These sites we encounter along the Incan Trail were built specifically as resting places for pilgrims and travelers headed to Machu Picchu, for religious purpose and for protection of Machu Picchu.
From Patallacta it’s another 2-hour hike to Hatunchaca, a kind of way station, where we have lunch, actually served in a small building, as fine as the best restaurant: avocado salad, a sensational pumpkin soup (the soups are so welcome, comfort food), garlic bread; trout (outstanding), rice, roasted potato, corn.
The next hour (for me, more like 1 hour 20 minutes) is all uphill, making me all the more anxious for Day 2’s hike, which will be the real challenge. I am imagining that tomorrow will be this times 10 – four hours of this just to get to Dead Woman’s Pass.
On this last stretch, we pass through two small communities where we can buy an energy drink, snacks, or essential items like batteries.
We come to a ranger station at Wayllabamba (9,842 ft elevation) where it begins to mist and we delight in seeing a rainbow (auspicious? Some indigenous people worshipped the rainbow, which they associated with fertility), then drizzle, then thunder, and as we get into the Ayapata campsite (10,829 ft elevation) , at 4:30 pm, it is a real downpour. But we get cozy inside our tents, where the sleeping bag (winter grade) and mat and our duffels are already placed (whew!).
Then it’s tea time! with snacks (popcorn!), and by 7:30 pm a marvelous dinner.
The rain clears out and the stars are amazing.
Lizandro points out the constellations so important to the Inca. The Inca believed the Milky Way to be a river, Mayu, the source of all water on earth. and that earth and sky are connected, sacred, alive and parts of one whole. The sky had special, even religious significance in managing this civilization and organizing daily life, especially food production. The Inca could identify the solstices, equinoxes, the changes of season in order to better identify when to sow and harvest. We see how the Incan sites were constructed to connect to the solstice – even Machu Picchu was constructed around the stars and the Sun Gate aligned with the solstice. In the magnificent Southern Hemisphere sky, away from all the artificial lighting, you can appreciate the wonder the sky evoked.
We hiked 8.7 miles this day and climbed from an altitude of 8,923 ft to 10,829 to the Ayapata campsite, the hike helping us to acclimate and get used to the Inca Trail. I’m feeling fine after today’s hike – at first feeling sensory deprived because I did not bring a book with me (too much weight) so I look over old tweets. I fall asleep anxious about what Day 2 will bring.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The day after we cross over Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,829 feet above sea level on the Inca Trail and the day before reaching Machu Picchu – the destination of this Alpaca Expeditions four-day/three-night trek – I celebrate my 71st birthday. I say this because I am not a habitual hiker or climber, am reasonably but not especially fit and live at sea level. So I had been really, really anxious for weeks about whether or not Dead Woman’s Pass, named for its shape, would take on literal meaning.
And while age would normally be a private matter, I say this because if I could do it, anyone who is determined (it is mostly about mind over matter) can do it too.
But my success (and yes, I do considerate it a major life accomplishment, if only to overcome fear and go outside my comfort zone to take on the challenge) has a lot to do with how well Alpaca Expeditions, the tour operator, runs this trip –all that our guides do to make the trek as comfortable and enjoyable as possible; how the porters (who are carrying our gear) all line up to applaud and cheer us when we come in from the hike; the quality of the camping and trekking equipment; the incredible food, snacks and teas (tea time!) that Chef Mario serves that are not only the quality of a fine restaurant but seem perfect for the task; providing basins of hot water and soap and delivering hot coca tea as our wake up call. (The private porto-potty tent, and an actual “sanitation engineer” assigned to keep it functioning, is also extremely appreciated.)
The hike itself – 26 miles with some fairly steep ups and downs – is actually considered moderate difficulty, along a trail of stones, albeit some high (especially for someone like me with short legs), some narrow, and some that can be slick.
The main problem comes from the altitude. And my great fear that inhabits my mind with each step as I try to prepare myself by walking up and down the steepest hill in my neighborhood for an hour (fortunately, it is on my corner) is Day 2, when we climb not one but two mountain passes – the first to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,779 ft., which will take four hours, and the second, Runkuracay, at 13020 ft, a total distance of 10 miles that involves 10 hours of hiking. I calculate the amount of sunlight in the day and am concerned it will take me 12 hours and I won’t get into camp before dark.
I console myself by giving myself an escape plan: I figure that if I have difficulty on Day 1 (the second toughest day) when the hike is 8.7 miles taking 7 hours to get to the campsite at 10,827 feet elevation, I can decide to simply walk back to the start. (I believe the tour operator also has this as a plan; in fact, we ask what happens if somebody is injured along the way and we are told that the porters, who carry huge loads, would carry the person on their back.) It is also a comfort to know the guides carry satellite phones which they can use for an emergency. I also pack my headlamp in my daypack. Just in case.
And I prepare myself for altitude sickness – not having any alcohol before the trek, taking Sorojchi pills (mainly aspirin and caffeine, sold over the counter in Cuzco) and drinking plenty of water (which works!). I also have Ibuprofin with me.
Our guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, cleverly stops at opportune times to talk to us about plants, insects (used for medicine as well as for dyes, cactus for rope for bridges and to haul stones), the tribal people who still inhabit the mountain villages where he grew up, the Incan sites along the trail, the history, culture and legacy of the Inca Empire. This not only enhances the experience as our imagination fills the images of what we see, but (cleverly) gives us time to rest and acclimate to the higher and higher altitudes, get back our legs and our fortitude, and get revitalized for the next stage.
And on Day 2, on one of these stops, Lizandro takes out a bag of coca leaves and shows us how to pack it into a cheek and let the juice mix with saliva to help avert altitude sickness. Then, before we are about to ascend the stage to Dead Woman’s Pass, he whips out a vial of an oil, like eucalyptus, which he puts into our palms, tells us to clap three times, then inhale the vapors to open our nasal passages and make our breathing more efficient. That really helps, too.
But we also go at our own pace – our guide, Georgio, typically stays in the back of the pack, so we can stop as often as we need, and admire the view, take a photo, take some extra breaths. (Which interestingly, is why they say older folks like me actually do better than the younger, eager beavers.)
I am surprised the trek is not as much about the landscape, scenery, or nature– the views of the pointed peaks with clouds and mist are beautiful, to be sure – as it is a conversation with the people who built the trail, laid the stones that line the entire trail, built the fortresses, enclaves, resting places for pilgrims and nobility on their way to Machu Picchu.
You feel a oneness with the pilgrims, as you walk in their footsteps. It all becomes a matter of personal challenge and self-discipline, mind over matter, just as it would have been for the pilgrims 600 years ago when these sites were built. Each step engages you with the human dimension in time, space and substance.
And I can’t stop thinking about the people who actually built all of this.
Our voyage in the Galapagos, where we had just traveled, was about natural selection, survival of the fittest and the ecosystems in the natural world. Here, trekking on the Inca Trail, going from site to site, we learn about the human ecology. I can only wonder as I plod up these trails, what was involved to hoist those multi-ton boulders and set them in place to build these structures, the amount of food production that must have been required to sustain a population with the numbers of laborers and soldiers to build, expand and secure the Empire, and the calorie count to create and sustain all of this, without the benefit of draft animals, the wheel, iron tools, written language.
So much surprises me about the Inca Trail trek, but most of all is the number of Inca sites – resting places along the pilgrimage route, defensive forts built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s in support of Machu Picchu, his most monumental project– that we encounter. Like Machu Picchu, they were reclaimed from the overgrowth after 400 years being abandoned to Nature. How meticulously they were restored (not rebuilt) by the government– so that we could better appreciate the society, the culture and the history in their context.
They were built to accommodate people making a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. This is once-in-a-lifetime for me, as well, or as I tell myself, “now or never” as the window of opportunity closes for me. So seize the day, which is my motto.
You read about these sites, see photographs of it (indeed, the photos archaeologist Hiram Bingham published of Machu Picchu, “The Lost City of the Inca”, is what inspired the excavations and spurred this multi-million dollar tourism industry that supports preservation and conservation). But it is only when you are physically here, climbing the steep stone steps, seeing how they are built into these mountains, the scale and the precision with which they were built 600 years ago, feeling the stone, that you can understand and can appreciate this achievement of human endeavor.
The story unfolds as we haul ourselves up the heights, over mountain passes and down onto plateaus.
Lizandro says, “Okay, team.” Giorgio calls us “Family” and we are off and in no time at all, we are a family as we set out on the Inca Trail.
Tips to prepare: Comfortable hiking boots are essential. Since so much of the four-day, 26-mile hike involves steep stone steps, I wanted a light boot with good grip and as comfortable as possible (hard for my hard-to-fit feet, I went through several different brands). After several trials and errors, I was exceedingly happy with the Altra lone peak all-weather mid (wide) hiking boots I bought at REI just before I came – as comfortable as sneakers, but great grip and ankle support. I broke them in (and tested them) on my daily “workout” going up/down the steepest hill in my neighborhood.
Hiking poles are essential (if you don’t bring your own, you can rent from Alpaca Expeditions). They provide the tents but you rent the sleeping bag, and mat (really recommended).
Bring a power bank to recharge your phone and camera batteries (no place to plug in for four days; bring extra, charged batteries for camera). Bring a light, compact camera, like a point-and-shoot, to hike with so you don’t carry any extra weight (I packed my Nikon Z5 in Sarah’s duffel but hiked with it the last (easiest) day into Machu Picchu).
Bring two water bottles (they provide boiled drinking water to fill). Bring layers and hats for cold and warm weather; expect rain or mist (you trek through the Cloud Forest). The first two nights camping are likely to be cold – the sleeping bags are excellent quality winter grade but I am thrilled with the warm knee-high alpaca wool socks I had bought for $4 at the shop just before starting the hike). A headlamp is a must – I love the Black Diamond Astro 300 lumens from REI)
Bring altitude sickness medicine (there is a prescription medicine, but I am happy with the Sorojchi Pills you can purchase over-the-counter in Cuzco), also people bring coca leaves or candy; have Ibuprofen on hand.
Definitely do what you can to prepare yourself physically (and mentally). As I was walking up/down the hill for an hour, I was contemplating doing this for 9 more hours and it wasn’t a pleasant thought. I resigned myself to feeling very uncomfortable for 12 hours, and that in itself was comforting.
The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (this amounts to 200 trekkers and 300 porters, guides and staff) and get booked up months in advance.
By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We have our longest, and roughest, sail over the second night of this three-night, four-day cruise aboard the 100-passenger Galapagos Legend. Our guide, naturalist Alejandro, tells us to keep doors closed so they don’t slam. Actually, it feels more like being rocked in a cradle during the night. (While the weather is temperate year round and the Galapagos is visited throughout the year, in this, the dry season, is when the seas tend to be rockier. In any case, we’ve prepared by taking a motion sickness pill and not drinking any alcohol-well, Karen abstained.)
We sail to Punta Pitt and Pitt Islet off San Cristobal Island, the easternmost island, closest to South America’s coast (600 miles away), the oldest island and oldest settlement in the Galapagos. Here we first have a marvelous, two-hour hike to the high point of a steep, eroded tuff cone. Here is the only opportunity to see all three booby species in the same place: the red-footed booby perched on small trees, the Nazcas which nest on the ground near the cliff edge and the blue-footed boobies inland. Frigatebirds fly around and the views are stunning. Notably, we see how hardy vegetation takes hold in such a volcanic barren land – saltbush, spiny shrubs, Palo Santo trees, cacti, and, because it is the dry season, we get to see stunning carpets of red Vesuvius.
While it seems that most of the time, the animals we see ignore us, as we walk the trail, a blue-footed booby (adolescent?) seems curious enough to just stand in the middle of the trail as we take photos, study us, and wait until we came back.
While the blue-footed booby lays up to three eggs and can get enough fish to feed two to three chicks, the red-footed booby only lays one egg, because it takes half day to fish so it can only feed one chick. It nests in large colonies, laying one chalky blue egg in a stick nest, which is incubated by both adults for 44–46 days. The nest is usually in a tree or bush and only rarely on the ground. It may be three months before the young first fly and five months before they make extensive flights. Red-footed booby pairs may remain together over several seasons. They perform elaborate greeting rituals, including harsh squawks and the male’s display of his blue throat, also including short dances. (See: https://www.santacruzgalapagoscruise.com/boobies-in-the-galapagos/)
At the high-point in the walk, there is a stunning view and the most vivid color. And for sure, Karen spots a red-footed booby flying back with a branch and watches as it maneuvers the branch to make a nest. We soon come upon another nest where the parent is feeding her chick.
We see a marine iguana nest. Our guide, naturalist Billy, says it’s a mystery why it lays its eggs so far from the ocean, and how the hatchling, without any parental help (because the parents don’t stick around), knows instinctively how to get to the ocean. He suggests the baby iguana can feel the vibration of the ocean waves; Karen has the hunch that the baby can smell the salt since we have learned that land iguana have glands which remove the salt from their blood and, as we have seen, expel the collected salt in forceful nose excretions which look like snorting or sneezing. (Karen says, “Hey, we’ve been in the Galapagos like five days, I have my two cents!)
Coming back down to the beach, we get to snorkel again, and this proves to be the most sensational experience of all – the sea lions actually play with us in the water. One uses a rock like a ball, tossing it up and grabbing it in its mouth, and when it drops into the sand, digs it out with its snout and plays some more. Sarah finds a sea turtle that we get to swim with.
In the afternoon, we sail to a different part of San Cristobal, Cerro Brujo, where there is an exquisite white-sand beach just loaded with sea lions. Our visit begins with a dinghy ride to explore the gorgeous rock formations and see the iconic scene of Kicker Rock through an opening.
We spend a relaxed afternoon on Cerro Brujo, which was one of the first sites visited by Darwin. The coral sand beach is so beautiful, we spend only a little time swimming or snorkeling because just walking (or jogging) along the beach is so special. The scenery is dramatic – the white sand, black lava, aquamarine water, the sweep of the horizon, the iconic Kicker Rock framed on the horizon, and the Galapagos Legend anchored.
There are black iguana, black crabs and bright-red crabs climbing the black lava rocks, some of us spot the last baby sea turtle trot from its nest into the ocean, and we get to watch a mother sea turtle making her way back into the sea. Walking to the far end of the lagoon to Sapho Bay (Puerto Grande), we look out for black-necked stilts, ruddy turnstones, whimbrels and white-cheeked pintails. And apparently, there are legends of buried treasure at Puerto Grande.
Laini sketches the sea lions from a distance of a few feet; Sarah is transfixed by a mother sea lion and pup, David and Eric run to the end of the lagoon.
It is a feeling of complete contentment that continues on during an Ice Cream Festival on board the Galapagos Legend, while sitting in the hot tub, and looking back as Kicker Rock fades into the distance, glowing a golden brown in the setting sun.
The next morning, we sail around to the Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town of San Cristobal and the capital of the Galapagos province and the second most populated after Puerto Ayero on Santa Cruz.
For our final excursion, we are taken by bus up to the highlands to visit the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve, a giant tortoise breeding center, established by the Galapagos National Park in 2003. We get to observe giant tortoises living in a semi-natural habitat, and learn about their origin, evolution, and threats from introduced animals. The reserve is one of four in the Galapagos dedicated to restoring the populations of tortoise, ultimately to return them to the wild.
Being a port town, a provincial capital city and having an international airport, San Cristobal is also a gateway for invasive, sometimes aggressive, species – like the black fly which came in 1990 and proved dangerous for humans and farm animals.
The town is just a short walk to the airport where Eric, Sarah and Karen fly on to our next destination, Quito, en route to Cuzco, Peru, and the four-day/three-night Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. It will be the grand finale to Eric and Sarah’s six-month odyssey.
The Galapagos Legend cruise is perfect for this bucket-list experience – the ideal mix of soft adventure, the wonder, thrill and delight of exploring and encountering truly unique sights, all in comfort, and sharing together.
Go Galapagos offers a selection of itineraries that basically cover the major islands – four 4 day/3 night itineraries (East, South, North, West) which can be combined to make longer itineraries.
The itineraries are wonderfully organized so that your days are filled and fulfilling with exploring, hiking, snorkeling, discovering, adventuring, each place so different and distinct in terms of wildlife and geology, and then time on board to enjoy truly sensational meals either in the comfortable Lonesome George dining room, or alfresco; relax in the hot tub (how fun to have an ice cream festival while soaking in the hot tub), pool or fitness room, or hang out in the charming lounge where you are likely to see Attenborough’s “Galapagos” series running or play board games that are on hand. They also have kayaks available for rent. (Another advantage of the East itinerary is that it let us start off with a few days on Santa Cruz island and the charming town of Puerto Ayora before meeting up at Baltra Airport for the cruise.)
The ship, with 52 ocean-view, air-conditioned cabins is large enough to feel very comfortable and have all the amenities you would want on a luxury cruise, but small enough to feel intimate.
There’s a reason they say Galapagos is a trip of a lifetime – the total experience is a constant wow, especially when shared with loved ones and have the memory to share with the next generation so is ideal for a family, especially multi-generational. That’s what this is about – a chain of life and living. (But note: you need to be mobile enough to get on/off the dinghy from the boat, onto the shore, and hike, so seize the opportunity and don’t put this bucket-list trip off). The Galapagos is also an ideal honeymoon for a couple who loves adventure but wants the luxury and romance of a cruise for their special journey starting out life together.
Just how special a Galapagos cruise is can be appreciated by the multiple milestone birthdays celebrated each night. (Indeed, Paul, a video game animator who was taking his third consecutive cruise aboard the Galapagos Legend, said he got tired of waiting for friends to join him, so just two days after celebrating his 40th birthday, he flew to the Galapagos on his own.)
Galápagos is wonder-full to visit any time of the year. Because of the Islands’ location on the Equator, the air and water temperatures remain relatively stable all year long. During peak seasons (mid-June through early September, and mid-December through mid-January), it is particularly important to make your travel arrangements well in advance.
Go Galapagos, an alliance of Kleintours and Gala Tours, is a cruise and tour operator with more than 34 years of experience, offering excellent price/quality value for 3, 4, 7 and -night inclusive cruises (two guaranteed weekly departures), You can also combine the cruise with land packages in the Galapagos, in Ecuador, and in Peru.
In addition to the Galapagos Legend, Go Galapagos also has two yacht-style ships, Coral I and Coral II.
By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
On the second day of the four-day cruise aboard the Galapagos Legend, we sail on to Santiago island. Early in the morning, after a talk about snorkeling and getting outfitted with our gear, we have a dry landing at Bartolome island just off Santiago.
We climb a long boardwalk, 372-steps, over a barren landscape that evokes a moonscape, up to the summit for an iconic view overlooking the famous Pinnacle Rock and Santiago Island. On the way up, we get to see sea lions frolicking (courting, perhaps?) with each other, and on the way down, one perches on a deck, perhaps putting on a show for us, until another literally pushes it off (wanting attention?).
When Darwin visited here on October 5, 1835, he encountered Spaniards who came to catch tortoises for food; he also found many land iguana which today are extinct. Goats, pigs and donkeys were released on the island in the 1800s, “causing havoc for the island ecosystem and many of its native species,” the Galapagos Conservancy, a US-based nonprofit, notes. “Goats destroy habitat, cause massive erosion, and compete with native herbivores, including the giant tortoise. Pigs dig up both giant tortoise and sea turtle nests and destroy both eggs and hatchlings, dig into Galapagos petrel nests in the highlands, and destroy other ground-nesting birds. Donkeys are particularly destructive to Opuntia cactus in the arid zones. The presence of these species on Santiago had created an ecosystem very different from the pristine condition.” (https://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/the-islands/)
Today there are programs to eradicate the goats, which have provoked ire from animal rights groups. “Which would you prefer,” our guide, Billy, challenges, “penguins or goats? Penguins or cats? Flightless cormorants or dogs? We are sorry for animal-loving people” but the Galapagos has made its choice.
Then we ride in the dinghy along the coast where we get a glimpse of the Galapagos penguin (one of 18 penguin species but the only one found this close to the Equator).
We are returned to a beach on Santiago Island to snorkel and explore for an hour. (Those who don’t want to snorkel can take a 12-passenger glass bottom boat to observe the marine life). Naturalist Alejandro, who is also a Galapagos National Park ranger, tells us to look for sea turtles, rays, maybe a small reef shark and the Galapagos penguin. (Karen is so happy with her Olympus Tough6 waterproof, shockproof camera, though David got excellent video with his cellphone in a waterproof pouch).
It is amazing to literally share the beach with sea lions. This also provides an opportunity to see the extraordinary Galapagos penguins; Sarah gets to swim with one. One of our group (we are Albatross; the other group is Booby) actually sees a white-tipped reef shark as he snorkels.
In the afternoon after a wonderful lunch, we have a dry landing off the dinghy and into the water at Sullivan Bay (Santiago Island) – a fascinating geologic site of a relatively “young” pa-hoe-hoe lava flow that came from 10 km away. It is like being dropped into a sculpture of black swirls and shapes – an absolutely stunning and dramatic landscape. Billy explains the black is because of oxidation but the layers underneath still have the original reddish-mustard color.
Billy says that when Darwin visited this very place, he estimated it formed only 200 years before and was spot on because scientists believe this land mass is a mere 350 years old. Now it seems virtually devoid of life – a moonscape – though when we look more carefully, we see the very beginnings of life taking hold: small mollugo plants beginning to grow out of fissures, a cactus, a locust flying by.
There is no organic soil, no water, the food chain is poor, but that locust eats the little bush and drinks its liquid and becomes food for lava lizards. This is like what Galapagos would have been at the beginning, just the top of volcano above the surface and nothing living, he says.
We are already witnessing the process of how the surface material will be broken down by lichens and eventually become soil.
Lichens are key to “terraforming” this barren landscape. “Look for moisture from steam coming out from fissures – that’s where lichens colonized.” The lichens crack the rock and turn it into organic soil that can support a plant or tree. Come back in 500 years, he says, and there will be life.
Billy tells us there used to be coal mining here, but after the National Park was established, the company was evicted. Today, the government has resisted permitting any kind of drilling, mining – for fresh water or for any of the valuable minerals that are likely in these islands, nor any of the resort or real estate development companies that would pay a small fortune for the rights to establish themselves here. The government has resisted all offers in order to preserve the Galapagos, “Nature’s Greatest Laboratory.”
“We know the Ecuador government has pressure to build resort hotels. But Galapagos has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1978 – even if a corrupt government would want to sell, it cannot. Politically and geographically, Galapagos belongs to Ecuador, but culturally, Galapagos belongs to world.” But a lot of celebrities and billionaires have been so moved by their experience, they deposit hefty checks on their way home. “Bill Gates wrote a check for $5 million and left it at one station.”
Sullivan Bay was made famous because “Master & Commander” was filmed here – but the images of the ship were all digitized because the only boats allowed in the Galapagos have to come from here. Also, all the wood that is used to build boardwalks has to be already cut down – no living trees can be cut.
Back on board, Alejandro gives a talk about how the weather and currents are responsible for the unique life found in the Galapagos, and why, only in the Galapagos, can you see sea lions, penguins, tuna with parrot fish, angel fish and flamingoes.
From December through May, the water temperature (avg. 76°F/25°C) and air temperature (avg. low/high 72-86°F/22-30°C) are slightly warmer. Seas tend to be calmer. Rainfalls are common for a short period of time each day, but the remainder of the day tends to be very sunny resulting in high humidity. Flowers come into bloom and vegetation is more colorful. This is a good time to observe birds mating or sea turtles nesting on the beaches.
From June through November, when we visit, the Humboldt Current brings colder water (avg. 72°F/22°C) and cooler land temperatures (avg. low/high 66-79°F/19-26°C) It also brings nutrient-rich water that attracts fish and sea birds: albatross arrive on Española and penguins are easier to encounter. This is the mating season for blue-footed boobies. During this time of year clouds fill the sky and a misty rain called Garua is common. Winds tend to be stronger and seas a bit rougher. The abundant marine life makes this the preferred time of year for experienced divers.
Alejandro tells us that the sunny, blue skies we have had are unusual for this time of year (late August).
Back on board the Galapagos Legend, we thoroughly enjoy relaxing on the deck, hanging out together – there are two hot tubs and a nice-sized pool, plus a fitness center, a library, a children’s playroom, and a gorgeous lounge where coffee, tea, hot chocolate and fresh fruit are always available.
The M/V Galapagos Legend has 52 ocean view, air-conditioned cabins plus 3 interior ones, each cabin which can accommodate a matrimonial, double, triple or quadruple option, accommodating 100 passengers. The Balcony suites have private balconies and panoramic windows. The Junior suites have three meters of panoramic windows. Housekeeping is provided twice daily. You can use US plugs, and US currency. Our cabins on the Earth deck are gorgeous and spacious and can easily accommodate a triple.
The ship is large enough to feel very comfortable and have all the amenities you would want in a luxury cruise, but small enough to feel intimate.
The cuisine on board is superb (we especially love the BBQ banquet served alfresco on deck), how we are greeted on the return from our excursions and snorkeling with hot chocolate or tea and a snack, and how coffee, tea and fresh fruit are always available.
There are special touches: we absolutely adore the electronic key-bracelets we wear throughout our stay (even snorkeling) so you never have to fish for a key; how they keep track that everyone is onboard with a computerized check-in. (You can purchase beer or wine packages; wet suits are $25 to rent; kayaks are $40 pp, and you can purchase access to wifi.)
By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Galapagos, an archipelago of some 200 islands spanning 8000 sq km just below the Equator and 600 miles from South America’s coast – has the most varied ecosystems and diversity in such a concentrated area on the planet.
You see animals and floral life that don’t exist anywhere else in the world – not even from one island to the next. It’s the only place in the world you can see sea lions, penguins and albacore tuna with parrot fish, angel fish and flamingoes.
We get so close because here, animals do not have a fear of humans because humans are no longer their predators. Most profound, is how vividly we can see the impacts of the environment on the evolution of a species, right down to their blue or red booby feet and the red sac that expands like a balloon on the male frigate bird’s neck. We see mating rituals, newborn chicks, adolescence and death. We get to swim with sea turtles and sea lions.
The best way to experience the Galapagos – a place that can only be described as “enchanting,” “mesmerizing,” “awe-inspiring” – is by ship. We book a four-day/three-night cruise on the 100-passenger MV Galapagos Legend, a gorgeous ship big enough to afford all the luxury amenities you could crave and small enough to be intimate. Go Galapagos, the operator, offers four itineraries (longer itineraries are available by combining sailings) and we choose the “East” which seems to afford less time sailing (in this time of year, we are concerned about rougher seas) and more time exploring islands, hiking, snorkeling and seeing a good portion of the wildlife that the Galapagos is most famous for.
Each of the destinations we visit is so different – in landscape, geology, wildlife, vegetation – that the experience we have changes drastically from morning to afternoon and day to day.
This Galapagos cruise proves to be the perfect combination of pure excitement and pure enjoyment. It is the very definition of “soft adventure” – giving us the ability to experience something really exotic, unique, remote and isolated, but in absolute comfort, adding the priceless dimension of being an experience that can be shared by a family, young and old.
After spending a couple of days on Santa Cruz island, we meet up with the rest of our cruise passengers for this sailing of the Galapagos Legend at the international airport on the adjacent island (a US Naval Base in World War II), and are taken by bus to a small marina where we are tendered by dinghy to the ship.
It is still morning when we go aboard for a “captain’s welcome” have an excellent orientation to the ship and the cruise, and then have lunch as the ship sails to the first island we explore. (A short, easy sail, it gives us time to acclimate.)
We have two naturalists on board, Alejandro and Billy, rangers who work for the Galapagos National Park. They not only guide us, but are responsible for making sure the strict rules that protect the ecosystems are enforced. (You can’t visit the islands on your own, and even the operators and cruise ships are limited in the number of people that can be anywhere at any one time.)
The Galapagos became Ecuador’s first national park in 1959 and began operations in 1968, with tourism really getting underway in the 1970s. In 1979, UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands a Natural Heritage for Humanity site, making the Park Service responsible for guarding and conserving the islands.
Alejandro tells us the rules that are in place to protect the animals, too many of which have been endangered by invasive species including rats, cats, dogs and most significantly, humans.
We are instructed to stay on the marked trails and not stray or go off on our own, not to bring any food (water is okay), not to use the camera flash (light is too strong and would stress the animal) or selfie stick. We must not take anything from the island, not a shell, not sand nor stone. “Keep it as natural as possible, with the least human impact, so we have this for future generations.” But the Galapagos already has clear examples of how fast human impact can set into motion the extinction of species.
The mystery is how these animals even came here to begin with. They are said to have evolved from animals that managed to get here from North and South America – but the most eastern island, San Cristobal, is still 600 miles from South America’s coast. They tell us how an iguana could have floated here on some sort of “raft”-like vehicle, which Karen comprehends about as well as the “Big Bang” theory of the universe exploding from a ball of matter that could fit in the palm of your hand.
(Think of it: an iguana would have to survive weeks at sea with swells and storms without food or water, arrive on an island and somehow meet a fertile animal of the opposite sex in a timely way in order to reproduce. It sounds about as credible as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden having two sons but being the progenitors of all humankind. After Billy later explains about teutonic plates that move 2 meters a year, west to east, and how these islands actually floated here, Karen is more inclined to think that these animals’ evolutionary ancestors were already onboard.)
The oldest islands are in the East (San Cristobal) and are 3 million years old; the youngest islands are in the west and are one million years old, and actually moving eastward at a rate of two meters a year. But, Billy tells us, an island would “disappear” before it reached South America’s coast (!!??). (Actually, Karen thinks the island would more likely disappear – and sooner – because of climate-caused sea-level rise, which makes her worry about the fate of these animals.)
Our first walkabout is that afternoon, on the island of North Seymour, a bird lover’s dream. The dinghy takes us to a “dry” landing which means we step onto slick rocks (they put down a towel to make it easier). We spend about two-hours (is it that long? Time flies by) walking a rocky – but easy – trail that makes us feel like we are strolling through Wonderland.
Because humans are not perceived as a threat, the animals pay us no attention. We can walk amazingly close to bird colonies, even to chicks still in the nest, as if we were invisible; they just continue doing what they will do. And yet, we later have experiences where it seems the sea lions do want to attract our attention, show off and even play with us, and on one occasion, a blue-footed booby (adolescent?) seems curious enough to just stand in the middle of the trail as we take photos, study us, and wait for us until we come back.
“Two things make Galapagos unique,” our guide, Billy, tells us. “Fear doesn’t exist and there is harmony – the hawk, boobies, iguana live in harmony [balance] because there is enough food to eat.” He tells us that the government gave fishermen an incentive to become guides, so there is less fishing and more for the animals. “Harmony and no fear.”
North Seymour is fantastic because we see several of the birds the Galapagos are so famous for– the blue-footed booby, the magnificent frigatebird (the largest colony in the Galapagos is here), swallow-tailed gulls; also land iguana (2500 are resident here). And we see them all! It is thrilling for us to see a blue-footed booby for real (the males use their webbed feet to attract a prospective mate, but when we go to San Cristobal, we see the red-footed booby, where red proved more enticing).
We also see boxes used to trap the rats (that came with humans) that were endangering the rest of the native species.
We get to see the great frigatebird males courting the females by clicking, bill-clapping shuddering and flapping their wings, while puffing up their bright red, gular pouch, as big as a balloon. Billy tells us it’s late in the season, so this is their last chance to mate.
We see frigatebird chicks in all stages of development. Billy tells us that the female lays only one at a time, and one of the two parents have to cover it or it will die from the heat, while the other goes fishing. When it hatches, if the parent doesn’t feed it, it will die. The parent is also responsible for cleaning the chick. “The very young need more protection than food, the older ones need more food than protection.”
We see a blue-footed booby chick in the nest. Billy tells us that the female lays 3 eggs, 12 days apart, so they hatch at different times after 28 days of incubation. The oldest is the largest and takes food first so has a 100 percent chance of survival; the second is smaller, so can’t outdo the eldest for food, and has a 50 percent chance; the third is the smallest, and has only a 25 percent chance of surviving. If there is enough food, all will survive. “In the nest, there is natural selection for the strongest and fittest.”
We also see death – a dead booby chick. Billy tells us that if he sees a booby chick fall out of the nest, the ranger isn’t allowed to help it and it will die. “It means the chick has a balance problem, and if it mates and reproduces, that trait will be inherited and would be the result of the ranger’s mistake. That individual should die before it reproduces. That’s natural selection.”
When you are here, you realize what an ecosystem is – the cooperation and competition that is required for survival.
We come upon a land iguana (they survived here but went extinct on Baltra), which is unfazed as groups of us stand over it. I’m fascinated by its delicately formed hands and feet that look so human, and yet, this isn’t just a different species but a different genus, reptilian.
There aren’t any hummingbirds here, Billy says, because there isn’t the kind of vegetation that hummingbirds require – a lesson that “Prey and predators have to colonize together or one or the other disappears.”
The humans who began arriving in the Galapagos in the 17th century were predators also, engaged in the fight for their own survival. Without food or fresh water, they relied on giant sea turtles and tortoises. “They could survive for 6 months with meat and water from a sea turtle –the turtle was their supermarket for hundreds of years.”