Simmons in South America

The following is a submission from CRR Dan Simmons about the recent trip he and his wife took to the Galapagos Islands and Peru. In his own words…

photo of Dan Simmons in the Galapagos

Dan Simmons beside uplifted corral on Isabela Island in the Galapagos

Sue and I splurged and took the trip of a lifetime in Jan-Feb. We flew to Guayaquil, Ecuador, for three days and then joined a National Geographic Expedition to the Galapagos. First we flew to Baltra and immediately got on their Islander catamaran. This boat has a capacity of 46 passengers, so it was medium-sized and yet small enough to get to know most people after a week. We started our expedition right away by sailing to North Seymour island, where we landed and saw an immensity of wildlife, including red crabs, sea lions, iguanas, pelicans, the magnificent frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, and more.

Each day was marked by three to four expeditions, including kayaking, snorkeling, zodiac trips, beach trips, and hikes. Wildlife was abundant everywhere we went. We would travel from island to island at night, dock and begin our day’s expeditions early in the morning before it got too hot (it’s hard to think of hot in this [winter] weather, I know). In all, we visited nine islands, each one unique with its own native wildlife. The similarity and diversity of wildlife from island to island are what led Darwin to his theory on the evolution of species. Four naturalists were on board, all good to excellent. Ecuador requires that all visitors be accompanied by a naturalist, and the size of the group is limited to 16 people. Ninety-six percent of the species that were around when Darwin visited the islands are still there. This is a credit to the Ecuadorian government, which has imposed strict rules on the limits of human visitations.

photo of sea turtle

Simmons gets up close and personal with a sea turtle in the Galapagos

Snorkeling was particularly good, especially close to Rabida. The water had a plentitude of turtles (some coming within inches of me), sea lions, penguins, and colorful fish. It was an amazing experience. I could see marine iguanas feeding on the bottom green algae (they only eat green). There wasn’t the corral we had seen at the Great Barrier Reef [see Simmons Down Under], but the underwater life was amazing! Snorkeling by Rabida was cut a bit short because we took longer to get there, due to the spotting of dolphins and orcas on the way. They said this was unusual.

All meals were served on board, and they were excellent. The crew was very professional and very safety-conscious. Our cabin was comfortable and had more space than I had expected. We had the option of staying busy most of the time (which we did) or relax some of the time. Two of our guides are also National Geographic photographers, and we got four excellent lectures on how to take expert pictures (the advice only partially rubbed off on me). They also helped us download and view our pictures if necessary. Overall, it was an amazing experience.

photo of native Peruvians

Peruvians in the Sacred Valley

After a full week of basking in the beauty of the islands, we flew back to Guayaquil and began our second trip to Peru. First, we flew to Lima and the next morning to Cusco. Cusco sits at 11,200 ft. and we felt the altitude right away. National Geographic “spared” us by taking us lower in the Sacred Valley. We spent two days in Urubamba, which is only at 9400 ft. There we visited an amazing Inca ruin called Ollantaytambo. “Tambo” is the Quechua word for resting place, and Ollantay was a famous warrior who was decorated by the emperor with this site. The Incas were expert stone carvers, making each stone in a custom manner to fit with the stones below, to the sides, and above. They used no grout, and yet the stones sit so close to one another and are so carefully cut that you cannot put a razor blade between them. National Geographic grantee and expert Peter Frost was our guide at this site and gave us two other lectures on how the Incas carved and carried their stones, some weighing in the hundreds of tons.

photo of Dan and Sue Simmons at Machu Picchu

Dan and Sue Simmons among the clouds at Machu Picchu

We then took the train to the star attraction—Machu Picchu. I knew it was going to be impressive, but nothing matches seeing it firsthand. It is actually a town that sustained 1,000 to 2,000 people, and it is truly a work of art. In fact, it got so big over the decades that the Incas had to build suburbs in the neighboring mountains. You probably can’t appreciate how difficult this is until you see the site. The town was built on the side of a mountain, and the mountains are very steep, much steeper than we’re used to seeing in North America and Europe. Because Peru is close to the equator and because this place is actually a cloud forest, all of the mountain sides are green, even slopes that are at 85 degrees. It looks whacky and contrary to expectations. The Incas built terraces for agricultural purposes, homes, temples, and underground water tunnels. It’s truly an architectural wonder.

After one night in Machu Picchu, we went back to Cusco to visit the city. By that time, we were more acclimated to the altitude. We spent some time in the cathedral there and saw interesting blends of Christianity and Inca religions. The painting of The Last Supper, for instance, shows Christ and his disciples as Inca, except for Judas, who is shown as a Spaniard and looking directly at us, unlike the others. The main meal at the center of the table is a typical Peruvian dish, grilled guinea pig. In other paintings, Mary is depicted as “Mother Earth,” one of the four Inca gods. The last night was spent in the huge city of Lima, where again we were treated to first-class service. I’ll ignore the trip back to Philly because it was quite unpleasant.

Peru is a beautiful country. We learned a lot about the various cultures that existed there prior to the arrival of the Incas in about 1,000 A.D. The weaving, sewing, the arts, and music were also stressed on our tour, and that was very educational. The mountains, as I said, are particulary impressive and the natives are dressed in very colorful, decorative garb. But the Galapagos were really special, and the experience is going to stay with us a long time. This trip is going to be hard to top.

I only ran twice on our whole trip. The first was in Guayaquil, where it was very difficult to find a place to run from our hotel. I finally found a little park; I tracked back and forth a few times and got soaked on the way back. Of course, running on the Galapagos Islands was impossible. There was a treadmill on board, which people claimed to be challenging, given the swaying of the boat. The second run was in Machu Picchu. On the second day there, I ran down the mountain on this dirt road with numerous rocks and puddles. Of course, I felt pretty good going downhill, but after about two miles, I thought I better start going back up and wisely so, because the uphill return was very tough, given the altitude. No Machu Picchu 5K though!


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