Monday, October 26, 2009

Thursday 24 September

The day started early (OK -  it seemed early at the time, but now 6:30 seems positively lethargic) with a visit to Canberra Airport to pick up a hire car and go home to get our luggage, the small dog and Frances. All achieved!
The second stage was to drop small dog off with friends in Aranda who are going to look after her. This is such a great offer (it absolves us of the guilt that would come if she was in kennels for the 3 weeks) that I hope the small beast recognises this. Of course this is traded off, psychologically, by the potential fear that she will not recognise the alternative and we will have generous friends terrorised by a small pooch for 3 weeks. [Note from the future: all went well, to the extent that I think we are now seen by the small dog as far inferior hosts.]

Having done that we headed off to Sydney. That was basically a drive: the interesting item was how readily the car (a Toyota Camry) changed down to 3rd gear when it met a small hill. This must do bad things for economy, although my subsequent calculations were that it still achieved at least the same mileage as our Subaru.
Having then booked into the hotel at Sydney Airport we used our status as officially old people in NSW by getting cheap train tickets - although the 'airport line" charges more than others - and heading off to (more or less) the CBD. The action there was:

  • Art Gallery of NSW (Ikats of Central Asia; excellent indigenous art);

  • Botanic Gardens (many brilliant flower beds; a tree “waratah”; hundreds, if not thousands, of fruit bats); and lots of birds harassing visitors!

  • Chinatown for a nice meal. The menu price was $18 but we got a special deal of $16. We thought: everywhere in Dixon St was offering the same deal.
But it was a very nice way to start the trip!

Friday 25 September

The longest (calendar) day. Thanks to the International Date line we leave Sydney, heading for Santiago at 9:45 am on this date and arrive there at about noon on this date. Then try to stay awake until at least dark!

The update of this page was written at 4:45 pm on the 25th of September, Santiago time. Subjectively it was 8am on 26th, and I had not slept for something like 26 hours so what follows may be even less reliable than my usual stuff.

The flight from Sydney to Auckland was unremarkable. On arrival we had to get off the plane (with all our carry on kit) and go through security to get back into the waiting area. I suppose something has to be done to find work for security people. They were even kind enough to run me through the explosives swab rubbish! I noted that all the guards were pakeha: presumably all the Maori have jobs in Sydney. On getting to the departure gates I was impressed by the garbage bins: presumably the language on the signs reflects the target audience.

The flight on to Santiago was basically a long flight. Service was good and only bumpy for about 90 minutes in the middle. There were a good lot of games to play, and about 50 films. I enjoyed watching (again) Shrek and Madagascar but found the latest Terminator boring – basically a series of explosions not connected by a plot.

On arrival the only stupidity was the Chileans hiding their “reciprocity fee” counter so that we got to the front of the immigration queue and then had to go back to pay. This is apparently a well known problem - at least by regular visitors – but has thus far proven resistant to the application of common sense. No other problems and we found the recommended taxi folks. They did a good job of getting us to the Hotel (including taking us along a river - probably the Rio Mapoche - which meant I had several birds on my Chile list, including 3 lifers, before getting to the pub).

A minor problem was that the simplest route into the Hotel Vegas was blocked by a semi-erected marquee. As it turned out that the marquee was for a wine show (and the taxi fare was not increased by the 2km detour) I cut them a little slack

After checking in we went for a stroll around the town trying to find the Tourist Information Centrre. This included a visit to the Plaza del Arrmes (aka Plaza Meior) and the Cathedral. This was a baroque masterpiece worthy of any European city, and free to enter (cf Cusco in a few days time). They also had some info about a forthcoming parade for Carmen of the Snows. I have tried to find out more about this person but neither Google nor Wikipedia have been forthcoming.

Our foray included the Central Market, which wasn’t that good a market. However it did include a very nice cafĂ© which dealt out a nice seafood lunch together with litres of Cristal (beer). Eventually we found the Information Centre – small and not that helpful – and wandered back towards the hotel.

It was interesting that there were lots of buskers all round the city. Some of these were jugglers at traffic lights – much more worthy of support than windscreen washers – or the usual acrobats but a pair of clown mimes were very clever. They involved passing pedestrians (or occasionally security guards) in their act and had a crowd of some hundreds, spread over an area about 100m long, watching their act.

I suspect we hit the pit about 6pm.

Saturday 26 September

We actually lasted until 6pm on the first day, and then took an antihistamine to make sure we slept well despite the jetlag. It worked! Frances woke at about 3am but then went back to sleep while I slept more or less solidly until 7:15. There were a few bursts of people talking but otherwise very quiet.

We hit the streets at about 9am and wandered past Cerro (ie hill) Santa Lucia, and across the Rio Mapoche (the river named after the local indigenous folk). This is thoroughly canalised and griffiti'd and the only birds present were Kelp Gulls.

We then found our way to the funicular up through Parq Municipal. This was quite a fun ride up into low cloud. We could still see the ground but the large statue of the Virgin was hard to spot in the mist.

It was relatively tasteful for something like that - possibly because it is a religious artefact (we were told that a Pope travelled in the funicular on a visit to the city) rather than a commercial one (eg Big Anything in Australia).

Obvious everywhere were dogs. They all look in OK condition whether with owners (wheher owners were employed or homeless) or strays. No-one seemed to fuss about them.

We checked out the Virgin (and a couple of additions to the bird list) and the bano (aka dunnies - not free but you did get get handed a chunk of paper for your 150 pesos). Next we went for a walk shown on a small map we were given. This turned out to be a load of cobblers since it gave totally bogus view of the hills on the road. However the fog had lifted enough for good views over the huge city (6+m people) nestled in the foothills of the Andes.

Getting back down to the river level we went looking for the Archaeological Museum. This was made difficult by half the streets on the ground not being on the maps and, in the case of the tourist maps, the logos for the museums blotting out the street names. This led to my first Chilean oxymoron: a helpful map. We eventually found he place after about 40 minutes of searching. We discovered that we had walked straight past it in our early search - it looked like a courtyard for a restaurant.

It was joined with the Fine Arts Museum and while small the shows were quite good. It was a pleasure to find that people aged 60 were admitted free – and the staff didn't even check our passports - possibly a little rude for two well preserved seniors. Most of the Archaeological stuff was relatively recent, but rather well presented. The key works in the fine arts parts were drawings in pencil (lapiz) or ink (tinta)by Valentina Cruz. Interestingly it was open until 6pm rather than the 2pm stated in the Lonely Planet book.

We then went for lunch at an Italian joint which dealt out excellent pasta and vino tinto. It was a very busy place and justifiably so. We were only helped out once by a diner when our language didn't match that of the server. The place was opposite a bottiglia which subsequently served us a nice bottle of 2006 Merlot for about $6.50.

Next stop was the Belles Arts Museum, also open until 6pm so we went in for a squizz. Frances spotted a “no photos” sign which we observed until it became clear we were the only ones doing so. So the second Chilean oxymoron is an unused digital camera. There was a permanent display of Chilean art, which was OK, and a display of rather modern work by some guy who had moved to, an died in, Berlin. This was OK but not memorable. The oxymoron was evident in the behaviour of other punters.

The last sentence was a temporary condition when we met the special exhibition of works by Mario Irarrazzardi. He did things in bronze and copper. His two styles were basically works involving lots of figurines on a flat base or body parts on a large scale. They were very interesting and many photos were were taken.

After this Frances headed back to the hotel to crash while I went to find out why Avenida Bernardo O'Higgins was devoid of traffic. It turned out to be a political rally by (I think) the Gay Party: the signs on their truck were aboout 'diversity' but the flags were rainbow - see later references in Cusco - more flamboyant members of the crowd were certainly reminiscent of characters in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (and I am not referring to the bus). As well as the supporters of the party, and a good crop of rubberneckers, there were plenty of cops present but there was no grief – possibly because of oxymoron 2. Some of the activity by the crowd would certainly not have been permitted under some relatively recent regimes in Chile!

Sunday 27 September

Day 3 in Santiago

My computer told me while typing this in the Vegas that a wireless network is in range. As further investigation gave the server as partisocialistchile I decided not to pursue the matter and to continue to use the free service available in the lobby.
We had a rotten night's sleep for some reason. Frances recalls that we used to experience this for several nights when flying to New York. So tonight will be antihistamine revisited! When we did get to sleep it was for a reasonable time so we didn't wake until 8:45. Still in time for breakfast, where most of the other guests seem to be liable to be accused of being French.

The first part of the day was prowling the streets behind the Hotel as we kept seeing interesting things. The first of these was a distant church that looked quite impressive, but became less so as we got closer and the broken glass became evident. Inside it was relatively unadorned, and had a service happening so we didn't hang around.

The next thing spotted was an avenue of fountains with statuary at the end. This turned out to run through the offices of the public service agencies (including the Statistics Office). The avenue began at the site of the previous night's rally which made it in incongruous that the main merchandise on offer in the shops under the offices (at least at the end near the Treasury building) were armaments of nasty types. An example which has stuck in my mind was something that looked like an AK47 for Peso 190,000 which is about $US300! Long live the revolution?

We then wandered back to the Cathedral as there appeared to be a singalong mass on offer. There was a mass but no special singing seemed to happen so we took ourselves off to the Museum of PreColumbian Art which was very good. Far better than the Archaeological place we visited on the previous day. It basically covered every culture South of the Rio Grande and North of Antarctica from whenever to about 1491AD. They very kindly - and unusually -translated fair proportion of the signs into English. I doubt if this was much help to our fellow residents of the Vegas.

At some point during the day I noticed these dogs panhandling food from a passing cyclist. They appeared to be strays - they were there before the lady turned up - but as can be seen are in pretty good nick.

By the time we had finished there we were ready for a meal at the posh part of the market. This was very pleasant, after rejecting a hard sell by one lady we revisited a little guy (ie a typical Chilean) but who had told us yesterday that he had been to Australia three times. Frances had a seafood casserole, despite being told it was 'very heavy' which she interpreted as meaning too much for a woman. Indeed I had to assist, since I had finished my Gambeta or shrimps. Both very tasty, and washed down with half a bottle of Santa Rita Cabernet. We paid Ps1000 ($2.50) to the serenading musicians and when the bill was presented were advised clearly that it didn't include the waiter's tip. Fortunately for arithmetic Ps20k amounted to a tip very close to 10% and this seemed quite acceptable.

After a short walk along the river and back through a few streets we got to the Plaza del Armas (image left - note the banners on the front of the Cathedral) to watch the procession for Carmen of the Andes (who may or may not be a Saint, but is impossible to find out anything about on the net). It also involved references to Beata Laura Vicuna (see image below) and Santa Teresa de los Andes. (Who said this blog wasn't educational?) This turned out to be quite good fun watching a whole bunch of people and some brass bands get ready to march. I think they would have got off a lot sooner if the priest/archbishop(?) hadn't kept rabbiting on. After an hour there was still no sign of the icon of Carmen (see image at top) heading off, although the bands were doing little dance efforts and had shifted a few hundred metres by this time. As it was by now raining steadily we headed for the hotel.

Monday 28 September:

As this is the first day of the formal trip I start off with a quote from the Itinerary: "Day 3 in Santiago and transfer to Lima. Accommodation in comfortable hotel immediately adjacent to airport."
On looking through the material we had acquired from Lonely Planet an interesting exhibit appeared to be the Parc des Escultures. This was about 3km from the Vegas and looked to be an interesting stroll along the banks of the Rio Mapoche. This was in fact delivered.

As it was now a Monday the traffic was somewhat busier than it had been over the weekend and the streets were full of punters heading off to their variousjobs. We strolled on enjoyed the sights: one of these was the official church of the Carabinieri (who seem to be the national, paramilitary, police as distinct from the traffic cops etc. A result of the reduced traffic presence over the weekend was that Frances was able to spot the snow covered Andes as we walked along: what a magnificent sight. We heard somewhere aong the way that there are ski-resorts within 40kkm of the centre of Santiago.
On arrival at the Sculptire Park we found it very good. Some images of representative sculptures are in the vicinity of this comment. There was also an 'arboretum-style' collection of trees from all over the world. I obtained some birding entertainment by the activities of a pair of Andean Plovers swooping a lady who was sweeping a path beside the river. Looking down into the river bed it was apparent that the cause of the birds concern was a nest with three eggs in it: since the nest was about 1m from the edge of the water I'd suggest the birds should be more worried about a rise in the level of the rushing torrent than a lady 5m up the bank!

It was pleasing that many Chileans appeared to be enjoying the Park. A number of them were school groups, but all of them were rather short, causing us to recollect how Ingrid, at 14, towered over the masses of Yucatan!
I added a further 2 species of birds to my life list during this stroll.

We decided that it would be nice to get a view of the snows from the top of the funicular, but on getting there it turned out to be closed and we didn't feel like ascending a 250m high hill by the alternate, foot powered route. So we headed off to the lower hill of Cerro Santa Lucia. It is still a hill. By the time we got to the top the increasing warmth of the day, and the volume of traffic had largely blotted out the mountains, but we had at least seen them.

At the foot of the hill we found a cafe offering lunch and enjoyed a pleasant lunch. I can't remember what it was, but the place was clearly aimed at office workers rather than the working class cafes we had eaten at on the first two days (or the expensive place from Sunday).
As we wandered back towards the Vegas we took in a display of photographs of grass roots soccer at the National Archives which was very interesting. Somewhat less exciting were exhibitions of Japanese calligraphy and "Dawin in Chile" at the National Library.
Our final stop was at the Colonial Culture Museum alongside the Church of St Francis. This is right near the Hotel Vegas and the Museum used to be a Franciscan Monastery which owned the entire Barrio Paris-Londres. (The word 'barrio' is interesting as I had heard gringos translate it as meaning 'latino ghetto', but in Santiago at least it is much closer to 'suburb'.)

The display was quite large and rather interesting, although quite heavily focussed on religious topics rather than political or social - of course in Chile the Church is pretty much woven into politics and society! The building was a splendid monastic edifice, with a great cloister full of shady trees. It used to have an orchard on the site where the Vegas (in Spanish "fertile plain') now stands. As a further aside I noticed than the doormat of the Vegas used to have 'Las' in front of 'Vegas' but that had been attempted to be scrubbed out!

Our cab to the airport appeared dead on time and whisked us away. We were surprised to find that it took about 1/3rd the time to get out there that it had to get in. There was a brief moment of panic when the cab pulled in to some dingy office building rather than the terminal, but it appeared to be something to do with picking up his instructions for the next job. Whatever. Within an hour of leaving the Vegas we were through all formalities and meeting with the rest of the group who were pleased to be approaching the end of their 8 hour holdover between flights.

The flight up to Lima was a little bumpy but the biggest problem was the arrogant nerk in front of me who slammed his seat right back as soon as the wheels left the ground. Presumably he was a macho dinosaur: there were no other examples of rudeness from anyone we encountered on the trip.
Arrival at Lima was without hassle for most of us. However our Australian leader, Ian, and his partner Lou found that QANTAS had lost their bags (and for some reason were going to take 3 days to get them on to the group: watch this blog for developments).

The itinerary was delivered as promised , although initial impressions of the hotel we were staying at - a Ramada - was not really good. It had the advantage of being very close to the airport (ie walk across a narrow service lane and you're there) but suffered from the noisiest lifts ever. The sound was rather like metal on metal every time the lift moved, which not only kept us awake but was also a matter of some concern about the maintenance of the elevators. After a visit from myself in dressing gown and a bad temper we were shifted at about 2am to a room where we couldn't hear the noise. I suspect we were unlucky - certainly their ticket price for rooms suggested that luxury should be the name of the game.

Tuesday 29 September:

Itinerary: Morning flight Lima to Cuzco. Transfer from Cuzco to hotel out of town in dramatic and interesting nearby Sacred Valley, at over 2800 metres above sea level in the Andes. These wonderful mountains tower over us for the next few days. Option of short afternoon introductory walk for local birds, plants, culture and history. Hotel accommodation.

After a fairly leisurely start to the morning we walked back across the road to the airport for our flight to Cusco. This was very interesting as by chance we had Juan, our local guide who had kindly come to Lima to meet the group, sitting next to us. He was able to explain a few things to us (eg the long rows of buildings in the valleys on the Western side of the Andes were chook farms). The flight was OK – we did a few circuits to get in, but this seemed to be due to traffic not bad weather.

We were greeted by an Andean band in the termnal (much more appropriate than in Grand Central of New York or the Duomo in Florence), and a brass band in the car park where we boarded a bus. It took a little while to get to the main square, which was not surprising when one realised that greater Cusco is now some 600,000 people. The traffic was reasonably chaotic and it was stressed that pedestrians have no rights. (While that advice was very sound,in fact it was not unusual for drivers to stop for people to cross.) While pausing in the square to change money we saw some of Peru's very pretty national flower - the Cantua.  Here is a legend about it from Wikipedia.

We had a great lunch at a restaurant owned by Juan's family, including our first taste of coca tea (purely to mitigate altitude sickness) then off towards the Sacred Valley.

We stopped en route at a cameloid farm where the owner had Llamas (pronounced yamas or jamas); alpacas, vicunas and guanocos. As evident from the photo (intended jut to be of Frances feedng an alpaca) they breed these animals. The place also sold local arts and crafts with the production facility visible on site.
Like most Peruvian houses this place had two ceramic bulls mounted on the roof to bring good luck. In some places the oners hedge their theistic luck by including a cross of some description. Had they not been likely to get broken over the trip we would certainly have acquired a pair of these.

This also provided an opportunity to get started on the Peruvian birds and I recorded 6 lifers at this stop.

We ended up driving through the dark on what seemed a narrow and twisty road. We finished going down a grotty track to a great hotel where we scored a very excellent room overlooking the river. A very tasty evening meal was presented and we were advised to be up at 6am for birding in the grounds.
Itinerary delivered - possibly overachieved - in every regard.

Wednesday 30 September:

Itinerary: Sacred Valley. Visit to Inka ruins at Pisac, and tour of Inka town and ruins of Ollantaytambo. Both places will also afford rich natural history pickings, including the first of numerous hummingbirds! Pisac has excellent craft markets, where those who wish may indulge themselves. Accommodation as for last night.

30 Sept
I recorded having a terrible nights sleep, although I cannot now remember how bad it was. At 6am I certainly felt awful and considered staying in the hotel all day. When I found the rest of the group birding in the grounds of the hotel I said how bad I felt and that I was considering pulling out of the Inca Trail walk the next day. This was because both I felt bad and if I couldn't complete the walk it would be extremely inconvenient for the others to have to evacuate me. Juan asked if I was taking drugs for altitude and on my answering 'no' he provided some, which I immediately started to take.

As a result of my later start I missed 3 species of hummingbird (hereafter hummers) but got Torrent ducks in the river and a few others.

After breakfast I felt better (when in doubt, take drugs?) and hopped in the bus. I was still dubious about the Inca trail next day. Our first stop was where the river ran beside the road and we added several birds to the trip list. I was feeling better (when in doubt take drugs and add birds to one's life list?).

The area is rather prone to graffiti of a political nature. Nearly all houses had been tagged with political slogans - candidates for Alcade (ie Mayor) were particular prominent. In addition most towns/villages had some sign or slogan scorched onto the hillside above them.

On down the road - with down being a key point - looking at various bits of evidence of the Inca civilisation beside the road. There are still many terraces evident: Juan explained that the Incas were great experimenters and by building terraces at various levels up the (very steep) hillsides were able to create a great range of microclimates, which they used to develop some 2,000 varieties of potatoes. They were also skilled hydraulic engineers and their aqueducts which stretched for many kilometres from the snow melt areas to their fields were still in some cases operational. We got to the living Inca village of Ollantaytambo to look around: this included visiting a residents allotment (spotting a couple more lifers). His digging tool was most impressive - a design going back several centuries. Most of the group went inside his house - a highlight here was seeing his guinea pigs running about indoors. My health continued to gradually improve. (When in doubt take drugs, add birds to one's life list and get down to a lower altitude?) A little later we saw that some people had advanced a bit beyond the wooden spade approach, but not to the tractor level.

The main attraction in this town was the site of a battle between the Incas and the Spaniards. The Incas won, by the nifty trick of breaking a dam up in the mountains and the resulting torrent sweeping the Spaniards away. Juan had a graphic description of the masses gathered around the rim of cliffs making a noise as the signal for the dam to be broken. However they never finished the building they were creating, as evidenced by stones that were left out of final position.

If I remember it correctly - and I should have taken notes - there are three types of stone walls.

The 'crudest' is more or less like European dry stone walling: very robust but not particularly tightly finished. This is visible in the image at the left.

The finest type fit together with hardly a visible join. What makes this really remarkable is that the stones come from a quarry several kilometres from the building site. They were carved in sequence at the quarry and dragged over to the building including down one mountain and up another using ramps. They are up to 3 cubic metes in size (at about 2.7 tonnes per cubic metre) and fit together perfectly so it is not a matter of shoving it over a cliff and letting gravity do the work. When moving the rocks lumps were left on the outside to attach the ropes for dragging, and polished off when positioned Where the stones were not finally positioned they have a mortise and tenon arrangement precarved so resist earthquakes. I find to my astonishment I don't have a photograph of this from this locale: fortunately I can blame altitude sickness rather than simple daftness.  Fortunately the image to the right  - taken at Coricancha in Cusco a few days later - shows the fineness of the fit.

This work would be impressive with modern equipment. The Incas did it using water, leather and dust as their grinding agents. This led the group to make comments such as
  • "What did you do with your life?"
  • "Oh I finished grinding out the rock which my grandfather started working on!"
Our lunch was at cafe by organised by a 72 year old British lady who does good works with the local disadvantaged people. My burrito was very tasty. More coca tea, although by this stage I was feeling rather good: the Inca Trail was definitely back on the agenda!

After lunch we went back to Pisac market to buy stuff. Frances got jewelry and a small bag and bargained for both (so we only paid about twice what we should rather than the 4 times they started at!. With the bag I took a picture of the stall holder's kid so gave back a sole for "el nino". It was a tad worrying, from a social policy view, that this time of year is peak tourist season but obviously some of the stall holders had not sold a single thing all day.

I ended up with 11 lifers for the day, which was pretty good. Interestingly when we got back to the hotel - a bit higher than Ollantytambo - I started feeling a bit ratty again, which proved to me that altitude was probably the issue.

As usual Itinerary was well satisified!