AI in the Dominican Republic

This all started a year ago when the government posted a travel warning for the Playa area of Mexico where we had booked a week at an all inclusive resort. Not wanting to take any chances we decided to switch to a cruise at the last minute and book a different resort. This resulted in us booking at the Cofresi Palms in Puerto Plata.

However, coming on the heels of two very long vacations I needed to make this something of a working vacation to make sure the materials for the AC201 course were as good as possible.

The Good

A couple of mornings I worked in our room, which was a really nice two bedroom suite with wonderful views of the beach. But then we discovered these covered beds right on the beach, big enough for all of us to hang out together and in the shade, with good enough WiFi for everything except video conferencing. So I switched — can you blame me?

My office

Traveling with our friends Brian and Holly is always super relaxing. Whether its hanging at the pool bar or playing cards at the beach we always have a great time. We planned absolutely no activities for this week so it was really all about reading, and lounging, which made it easy for me to mix in some work too.

This was our first ever experience at an all inclusive resort, so we had very little in the way of expectations. And mostly they were met.

A few things were a nice surprise. Our room, a “penthouse suite” was very nice. We had a living and kitchen area on the first floor with a fridge full of water, soda and beer. We also really liked the coffee pot in the room. The bedrooms upstairs were huge, each with its own deck and spectacular view of the resort and ocean. Our bathroom was fine, but in serious need of updating and new grout.

The Mexican and the Indian restaurant. We should have eaten all our meals at these two.

The Bad

We had read about the “men in the hats” before we arrived. A small army of high pressure sales people that will try anything to get you into a sales pitch situation, and invest in the timeshare. “Tours”, better breakfasts, free golf cart rides, tokens for upgrades your next time back… They really try to get you the first day, and then came at us again hard towards the end. Dodging them became a kind of sport for us.

The bands. Everyone has to wear a wristband. These identify you and your level. Lots of places are for VIPs only, so if you don’t have the right colored band you are not welcome. We were not VIPs. See the previous paragraph for another part of their sales tactics.

The cups. All of our drinks came in these tiny plastic cups. Brian referred to the beers that came in them as “beer shots”. There was one kind of beer - El Presidenté, All of the drinks were watered down, but hey what they lack in quality they made up for in quantity.

The service. I feel bad writing such negative stuff, but the staff at the restaurants was really apathetic. Sometimes we were so rushed that we could hardly enjoy our food. Other times the service was so slow that we mostly had lost interest by the time it was served. We did learn that a $1 tip could get you a lot of good will and even a smile.

The smell. Running through the middle of the resort is a cement canal with a big sewage pipe suspended in the canal. The pipe leaked. The smell permeated everything downwind, which included one of the largest pool areas in the complex.

But we still had fun

Although I’ve listed a lot of negatives, and that may be because I’m a snob. But in the end we still had a lot of fun, and spent some great time reading and relaxing. I would do an all inclusive again sometime, maybe, but it won’t be this one, and I think I have a lot of other places and things on my list.

Welcome Back to Minneapolis

Well it was bound to happen, and as we like to say, it could have been worse. Landed at MSP just before 9:00 this morning. It was 1 degree Fahrenheit (-17 C) and the snow was just starting to Fall.

The Galapagos cruise was unlike any other we have been on. High on the active scale, high on the learning new things every day scale, and with the small ship very high on the meet interesting people scale. As the hotel manager John Flynn told us, they are very well aware that this cruise is a bucket list trip for most passengers, and they really do their best to make it memorable. And that was just one component of this trip!

  • Amazon Rainforest

  • Machu Picchu and Inca trail hike

  • Cusco and the Sacred Valley

  • The Galápagos Islands

Jane and I have had so many interesting experiences on this trip that it seems like we have been gone for months, not just the three weeks.

We left Quito early this morning (12:30AM) and arrived in Atlanta by 5:30. Getting through customs and making the transfer to the domestic gates was a breeze thanks to our Global Entry passes. But neither of us ended up sleeping on that flight and we just dozed a little on the flight to Minneapolis, so we were both beat by the time we got out of the Uber in downtown Minneapolis.

In an attempt to wake up a bit, I went down to use the elliptical in our workout room. As the minutes ticked away I watched the Wells Fargo building and IDS Tower disappear into the increasingly heavy snowfall. We are supposed to get more than four inches today, and you can see that even this afternoon it is still coming down pretty heavily.

As with all good trips, we learned a lot, came to appreciate new cultures, old histories, and new parts of the globe. It’s great to get away and get a new perspective on the business of everyday life, and to evaluate one’s priorities. But as the saying goes, there is no place like home. We are happy to be back, and already looking forward to an exciting weekend of activities including a play at the Guthrie and a broadway series performance!

Darwin Research Center

We started our day today with a visit to the Darwin Research Center. One of the main projects at this center is the preservation of the many different species of tortoises on the islands. Many of which were hunted to near extinction by whalers or pushed out of their habitat by goats, dogs and cats. The tortoise in the image below is a saddle back! A close genetic relative of “Lonesome George” that last true Saddleback that died a few years back. You can see that they have very long necks which is an adaptation for eating the cacti on the desert islands of the Galapagos.

And of course we saw many of the Galapagos Tortoise both at the Darwin center and later on in the wild.

Another highlight of the day was our chance to participate in Celebrity Cruise Lines reforestation project. Many of the native Escalesa trees were choked out by the blackberries that were imported by the settlers on the islands. With a lot of work the blackberries have been culled, but now Celebrity is working to replant many many acres of forrest with native Escalesa trees. To date Celebrity and their guests have planted nearly 40,000 trees, and I’m happy that we got to participate.

As an added bonus we all got to wear the super stylish rubber boots!

I 💙 Boobies

By this time of the trip the routine was well established. Breakfast in the morning, then off to the zodiacs for an adventure / hike on shore. Back to the ship for lunch and a rest during the worst heat of the day, then a late afternoon zodiac to another destination for another hike. This is definitely an adventure not a vacation! This afternoons hike was billed as the most difficult of the trip, because it involved a little rock scrabbling! As usual a few people joined that really shouldn’t have, you would think people would learn their limitations by this time. Anyway, after the rock scrabbling we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the beach.

Along the way we saw a lot of Blue Footed Boobies, we had to leave the trail to keep our distance from them several times as they just sit in the middle of the path looking at us. It was definitely worthwhile as this is probably one of my favorite photos of this whole adventure!

The blue footed boobies take turns on the nest, if you can call it that. It’s barely even a hole in the ground. Further, they don’t really even sit on the eggs, they kind of cradle them with their feet. Here’s a picture of the “changing of the guard”

The reds are not nearly as interesting as the blues. They are arboreal and so you rarely see them on the ground. Their feet are red, but not bright red like the bright blue.

On the beach where we landed to start the hike was a small colony of sea lions.

Galápagos Day 4 — Santa Cruz

The activity of the morning was a “long” walk around Dragon hill on Santa Cruz. The main objective was to see the Land Iguanas. These creatures have been restored to the island after they were endangered by feral dogs and goats that humans brought to the island. Santa Cruz is one of the few islands that is actually inhabited.

The cover picture for this post is actually of a marine iguana that was near the shore by a brackish pool.

green marine

You can see a very clear difference in coloration and shape between the marine variety — which can swim using their tails for propulsion — and the land iguanas pictured below.

At one point they moved many of the Land Iguanas to an alternative island without any human habitation for them to come back, while they started a program to eradicate all of the goats and feral dogs. We actually saw a goat along the way, and the guides, who are also park rangers when they are on land, had to call it in so that the goat could be tracked down and captured.

the walk started at 8:00 and already it was really hot. We began the walk on the beach and quickly passed by this beautiful brackish water pool.

The path was very muddy from rain the previous night, and a few people from the group ahead of us called it quits and headed back to the beach. But we kept going, eyes peeled for our first siteing. The first Land Iguana we met was pretty hard to miss as he was right on the trail!

Once we spotted the first one we started to see quite a few of them. Some close to the path, some sitting right outside their burrows, some “lounge lizards” hanging out on a log.

The scenery on the island was also very beautiful and couldn’t have been more different than our hike up the volcano from the day before.

Afternoon Snorkel

In the afternoon we had a beach snorkeling stop. The water was pretty wavy and as a result the visibility was not very good. I was right next to a big sea turtle and I could easily have grabbed onto the shell to go for a ride. But you don’t touch the wild animals so I just followed it and admired it s grace.

The real highlight of the snorkeling trip was the Pelicans. After coming back to shore there were about 3 brown pelicans that decided it was feeding time. They are “shallow plungers” so they swoop up into the air about 15 to 20 feet and then plunge awkwardly into the water to capture a fish! They were definitely not deterred by all of the humans in the water as several swooped right next to people! The pelicans were fine, but the people were a bit shocked!

Galápagos Day 3 — Pinnacle Rock

If you google Galápagos Islands you will almost certainly see this picture:

You will likely see even better photos than the one above as we were there at the wrong time of day for optimal photo lighting.

The hike was mostly just climbing the 366 old wooden stairs and many boardwalks to the top of the volcano where there is a great viewing and picture taking spot. Along the way we stopped to learn a bit about volcanology, spatter cones, calderas, and craters.

The naturalists on board are all great and really knowledgeable. Most, if not all, of them were born on the islands and you can tell they all really love it.

Galápagos Day 2

Looking out the window in the morning we couldn’t see anything. Had our luck changed? Were we going to have a rainy day after all? I went up on deck to investigate and was happy to see that it was just a dense fog. Caused by the cold water currents running up against the Galapagos ridge. It would burn off. All credit to Ann who insisted that we take the 10:00 excursion rather than the 8:00 excursion. This is what the fog looked like just before we boarded our zodiac at 10.

We later learned that it was so foggy during the 8:00 trip that one of the zodiacs took a wrong turn in all of the mangrove and got lost for a bit. Apparently everyone was taking it in stride and singing the theme song to Gillian’s island (except for one passenger who was not amused). I almost wish I was on that boat so I could tell the story in more detail. Here you can just barely make out our ship in the fog from a distance.

We were headed into a huge lagoon protected by mangroves but on the way we got some good sitings of a few of the marine birds. Below is the famous Blue Footed Boobie. Yes, I kind of giggle inside like a seventh grader every time I say that. The reality is that the name comes from the fact that they act like clowns during their mating dance. Kicking their legs up and flapping their wings and acting like fools.

We also got very close to a few brown pelicans.

And we saw the Galapagos Penguin! The second smallest penguin in the world.

They look kind of dopey and slow when they are out of the water but when they are in the water they swim fast and graceful.

We saw turtles all over the place poking their heads out of the water, but it was not until the afternoon when we did our deep water snorkel that we really got to have a great view of the turtles.

Toward the end of the trip we were way back amongst the mangroves and we saw a sea lion sleeping on a branch just a few feet above the water. We also had a very close encounter with a Great Blue Heron

We were also lucky enough to see some golden rays swimming just beneath us. Too bad that we were not able to capture them on camera.

Hike at Tagus Bay

The afternoon was in Tagus bay where we started with a drift snorkel. It was great, we saw a lot of sea turtles, and fish, but the most amazing was when I got to watch one of the penguins swimming underwater.

After we dried off from the snorkel trip we headed out for the “fitness hike” This was billed as a faster paced walk with fewer stops but the same great scenery. With people of all different ages on the cruise the walks tend to go at the pace of the slowest person in the group so we thought this would be a good option. And it was.

We climbed 150 stairs and then walked a bit to have a great view of the bay and this highly salty inland lake.

After a mile we came to the end of the trail where we could see the difference between the two sides of the volcano we were climbing. We were climbing the wet side and were suddenly treated to a huge vista of the dry side. You could images that you had just landed on mars!

We took another short zodiac ride to view the geology of the volcano and some of the wildlife. Here you can see the layers where the older layers have oxidized!

After we got back on the ship we had time to relax with a happy hour drink and enjoy the amazing sunset.

Up next was a delicious dinner where we watched one of our exhausted fellow passengers fall asleep right at her table with conversation and laughter going on all around her.

After dinner there was a small party to celebrate crossing the equator on our way around the north end of Isabella island. We were all encouraged to do the limbo and imitate one of our favorite Galapagos animals. As a group we did the blue footed boobie dance, and narrowly lost the contest to a couple imitating sea lions.

Galápagos Islands!!

Iguanas fighting over territory, thousands of crabs, two species of sea lions, lizards galore, birds and even a snake; this is what we saw on our first day in the Galápagos!

Today was a good practice day as we all learned about “wet landings” and “dry landings” in the Zodiacs we use to transfer from the ship to the shore. We go in groups of up to sixteen people along with a naturalist that will take us on our hike once on shore. It’s a bit of a process this first day to get off the zodiac in the water, then change shoes in the hot sand, but we are getting the hang of it.

We hiked for about 90 minutes and saw a lot of amazing animals…

baby sealion

When we first came ashore, we saw this baby sea lion just hanging out on the rock. Very cute.


The next thing we noticed was the lizards. They were everywhere and you had to be careful as you were walking so that you didn’t step on them! They are cold blooded so at this time of the morning they were all out on the warm sand bringing up their body temperatures.


Of course the Galapagos are home to many many birds, and they have no fear of humans, very few of the animals on the islands do! But this one takes the cake as it landed on Ann’s hat. The guide told us that they really like cameras with big lenses and that they will use them like a mirror to admire themselves.

After hiking the inland part of the trail we started to walk the shoreline. Our first site was the sealions. They are nocturnal, so they were just floating in the cool waters and resting during the day. Looks like a pretty good life to me.

The shoreline was just full of these red crabs, called “sally light foot crabs”. Here you can also see one of the many iguanas looking at them. The iguanas eat algae so its not hunting them. The Oyster catcher birds, do hunt the crabs, and we saw some of those as well.

And here is the king of the iguanas! Looks like he is in charge to me!

Rabida Island

In the afternoon we headed to Rabida island for some more hiking and snorkeling. Here we are in all of our orange splendor.

The hike was hot but really beautiful.

I just loved how the prickly pear cacti just grow right out of the lava rock on this island.

This is a brackish lake. Much of the water comes from rain and runoff from the hill behind, but at high tide, some water can flow over the mangrove berm and into the lake as well.

And this is the frigate bird. They are amazing in that they steal food from other birds right out of the air! They also love to float and glide alongside and above the ship as we slowly reposition ourselves.

At the Equator

It turns out that Ecuador is a great place to study the equator. It’s not in the middle of a jungle, but runs close to Quito with lots of varying terrain. They thought that they had the equator nailed, but then along came GPS and they found out there were off by about 200 meters. Now at the new and improved site we got to explore some of the common, cool things you hear about our hemispheres.

We did the water test. Yes, when the sink is directly on the equator the water goes straight down the drain. Moving it ten feet to the south the water makes a vortex going clockwise. When you move the sink 10 feet to the north the water drains counterclockwise! This is supposed to demonstrate the Coriolis effect, but I’m skeptical (and so are lots of other folks) that the effect would really be that different just a few feet either side of the equator.

We balanced an egg on the head of a nail. It was a bit windy and tricky to get right, but in the end both Jane and I accomplished the task.

We saw the sundial telling us the “true time”. It was about 20 minutes off from my watch.

And we did a strength test. This seems to be the most controversial and unexplained of all of the equator tests we did. Standing a few feet off the equator you can resist quite well someone pulling down on your arms. But standing directly on the equator line you seem to lose all your strength. Other than psychological explanations for this I haven’t found a physics based reason for why this is true.

In the moment it doesn’t matter whether any of these things are true or not, it was a good and fun way to spend our afternoon.

Cusco Cooking!

After a morning with Chef Jose you will definitely believe that Peru is the center of the culinary universe, and has been for thousands of years. Did you know…

  • All tomatoes in the world originated in Peru?

  • All potatoes in the world originated in Peru?

  • Peru has been the top culinary destination in the world for several years running?

  • There are thousands of varieties of potatoes?

  • There are at least 3 different varieties of passion fruit?

Chef Jose picked us up at our hotel, and walked us the few blocks to his restaurant/culinary school. We started out with a fruit quiz. We actually got the first 4 of nine correct. Jose said we did way better than most.

After the quiz we tasted each of the fruits. Yes, me, I tasted all of them. Truthfully I liked most of them, except the one that looked and had the same texture as an avocado! The quiz didn’t include any banana or plantain as I had already told the chef I couldn’t eat them.

In the meantime, every few minutes someone would come in with a new appetizer for us to taste. Crunchy bruschetta and shrimp with Peruvian cheese melted on top. Delicious.

After the fruit tasting we went into the next room where we were introduced to many different ingredients used in Peruvian cooking. We learned about many different types of Quinoa, which has become so popular around the world that Peruvians have had to look for alternatives because its become so expensive in Peru!

Next up was a bit of mixology. We learned how to make the traditional Pisco Sour and another drink called a Chilcano. It was too sweet for both of us, so we decided to stick with the Pisco Sour. Which we took with us into the kitchen where we started on our first dish of the day. Ceviche — “Made with Love”. We learned not to trust any ceviche that is made and allowed to sit more than a few minutes before serving. Of course this means you need to make certain that your fish is absolutely fresh and perfect before you start.

Our ceviche was served with crunchy corn kernels and small cubes of sweet potato. Peruvian chefs love to play with combinations of flavors and textures and this combination definitely allowed for that! It was great, sweet potatoes are even tolerable if you have enough ceviche sauce on them!

After enjoying our ceviche and a little of our Pisco Sour we moved on to our second dish. A classic in Peru, called Lomo Saltado. It combines the wok cooking that influenced Peruvian chefs years ago with crunchy French fries and the rice that is so prevalent in Peruvian cooking. Like many Asian dishes this one cooks very quickly in a very hot wok once you get everything prepped.

When we finished the dish we took it outside and ate it all under an umbrella along with our Pisco Sour drinks. It was great and definitely something I’ll try to replicate back home.

This was a great culinary experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Cusco and looking to learn a bit more about Peruvian history and culture through the food!

Saqsay Waman

OK, if you say the above title out loud a few times you will know that I had to include that in this post. — Not getting it? Then think Sexy Woman. No, its not a risqué statue in the middle of Cusco it is another huge Incan structure on one of the many hills surrounding Cusco.

The walk around the Saqsay Waman site was also our first chance to get up close to a Llama (pronounced Yama by the locals)

Machu Picchu

It rained hard all night long, and it was still very cloudy when we got up for breakfast. But, by the time Fernando picked us up to go to the bus, the sun was shining and it looked like we were going to have great weather for our visit.

After seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate I wasn’t sure what was left. Plenty, as it turns out. It was just amazing to walk with our guide through this huge complex and marvel at the design and engineering. For everything you see above ground there is also underground engineering work to create the drainage system that has kept Machu Picchu stable all of these years.

One of the biggest threats to Machu Picchu is the number of humans that visit each year. It wasn’t designed to handle that kind of traffic!

Machu Picchu was never finished, due to the Spanish invasion, but nevertheless many people lived there over the five generations it took to get it to what we see. During that time there was even much rebuilding as priests died and new priests took their place and wanted to change or move the various temples.

You can see several different levels of workmanship. From the super high quality at some of the lower layers and in the places where the important people lived to the lesser quality near the top as they rushed to finish, or simply didn’t care to do the same quality of workmanship for the new Spanish conquerors.

After a morning of wandering around, we had a delicious lunch at the restaurant right in the national park. Then headed down to Agua Caliente where it started to pour rain again. We hung out in the market for a while then headed to the hotel, where we met up with Bob and Bonni and sat by the fire until it was time to board our train to take us back to Cusco.

You never know who you will meet on the Inca Trail

I woke up around 3:30AM when I heard a few splatters of rain against the roof of our Casita. The alarm was set to go off at 5AM, groaning internally I rolled over and listened to the rain turn from splatters to a steady stream. Our goal for the day was to do the 7.5 mile Inca Trail hike to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. I really was not looking forward to doing that in the rain!

After much tossing and turning 5:00 finally came and we headed up for an early breakfast. We were meeting our guide and driver at 6:00 to head to the train for the trip to our drop off point. At breakfast we met Bob and Bonni who were taking the same train, but going all the way to Agua Caliente and visiting Machu Picchu from there.

When we arrived at the lobby to meet our guide, Bonni was on the phone with their guide. It seems that there was a big accident on the way from Cusco and that their driver was going to be at last 30 minutes late, which would cause them to miss the train. We volunteered to ask our guide to see if they could ride with us rather than riding in the taxi and everything worked out great.

About halfway to the drop off point the rain stopped! By the time we were ready to hit the trail we could actually see a few patches of blue sky peeking through the clouds. This was looking like a good day for hiking after all!

The one day hike has three main parts. The first half is up hill where we gained over 1500 feet of elevation. The next section is billed as being pretty flat, but that’s a lie. It’s flat until the end where you have to climb up to the Sun gate. From the Sun gate its all downhill, but that is maybe the last 1/8 of the 7.5 mile hike.

We took it at a good pace and enjoyed most of the climb. The scenery got better and better as we climbed higher. We were mostly alone on the trail. There was another pair of hikers that started just a bit before we did, and every so often we could catch sight of a larger group of 9 ahead of us on the trail.

Soon we were high enough to look down on the trains as they passed with passengers heading to Agua Caliente.

One of the sites we got to see along our hike was the amazing Wiñay Wayra terraces. It was beautiful to see from the distance.

We thought it looked close, but somehow we kept walking and it never seemed to get any closer. Finally we came down a few stairs then up a few stairs and stopped for a rest at the base of a waterfall. This was our time to gather our energy for the climb through Wiñay Wayra. When we arrived the group of nine was just leaving, so we felt like we were doing a good job of keeping the pace.

It looks a lot more daunting in person than it does in this photo. And when we finally got to the base I started counting stairs. We were able to do about 60 at a time then we would have to stop and rest and catch our breath.

The altitude definitely makes it harder work! After 375 stairs we finally arrived at the terrace about 2/3 of the way up where we were able to go across and exit. This was an amazing place for a picture.

This was basically the end of the uphill part. Both of us were extremely happy about that. The next couple of hours were pretty easy and we made good time. At some point along the way we even passed the larger group, saying our cheerful hellos as we passed.

The first big surprise of the afternoon came when I came around a corner and in the middle of the bridge ahead of me was a Spectacle Bear! It saw me and quickly headed the other direction, while I fumbled to try to unclip my camera. It moved off the path but Fernando advised us to just be quiet and wait. Soon we saw it again climbing across the limb of the tree.

Our guide had told us about the bear earlier, and we knew that it is one of two bears in the world that are vegetarian. He also said that this was only the second time in 25 years that he had seen one up close like this.

A bit further along we arrived at the first part of the trail where we started to climb toward the Sun Gate. Then we walked some more and came to the second part of the ascent, and then we arrived at the really hard part. You can get a good idea of how steep this was and a view of my best side.

We thought we would be there but we still had 10 more minutes of walking and another bunch of stairs yet! But when we finally got to the end it was so worth it! And we had the view all to ourselves.

After taking in the view, we moved off to the side where we could site on a nice ledge and have a snack and continue to enjoy the view. At this point the group of nine, that we had passed at some point during the day, came through the Sun Gate as well. We exchanged greetings and discovered that the group was from Minnesota and Iowa. This led to what part of Minnesota, what part of Iowa questions etc. When I said that we had recently moved to Minneapolis from Decorah, I heard a voice say “Brad!?” And this was the second big surprise of the day. Sure enough two of the People in this group were Kurt and Paula Meyer, fellow Luther alumnus and Paula had also been chair of the board of Regents when I served as faculty representative! Amazing!! Four Luther alums on the Inca Trail arriving at the Sun Gate within minutes of each other. What are the chances? Sounds like a data science question.

We discovered that we were staying at the same hotel that night, so we said our temporary good byes and we all headed down the final part of the trail. Along the way down we had our third big surprise. Jane was using her hiking poles and poked a viper. Our guide advised us to hurry on by and not pause to take any pictures of the poison snake. So we did.

When we arrived at the bottom we still had to take a bus further down the mountain to Agua Caliente and then a short walk to our hotel, the Inkaterra. At checkin we had the option of the 6:00 or the 8:00 seating for dinner. We thought that maybe a dip in the hot springs (Agua Caliente) would be a good way to relax and rest up for the 8:00 dinner. But by the time we had our complimentary Pisco Sour and chatted about our day with bob and Bonni, we decided that we didn’t have the energy to make it until 8:00. So we switched to the 6:00 seating and we are so glad we did. We were so tired and sore from our day of hiking that we were laying in bed reading by 8:00!

Tomorrow we go back to Machu Picchu to get an up close look!

Into the Sacred Valley

The flight from Puerto Moldenado was blissfully short. It was almost comical how many first time fliers seemed to be on our plane. When we left the runway there were gasps of joy and cheers all over the plane. There were also a lot of children making a lot of noise. Jeez I sound like some cranky old man! But we had barely leveled off before we were getting ready to land again. It was a 40 minute flight but according to Maps a 9 hour drive!

We were met by our friendly guide Fernando who will be with us for our time around Cusco. He had water waiting for us — Hydration is important at altitude as well as a nice hot cup of Coca tea. Also good for helping you get acclimated. Today we were just going to see a bit of the Sacred Valley, a local market and have a bite to eat before checking in to our hotel — Luna y Sol.

The picture below shows the spectacular view of one of the many valleys we saw. The whole base of the valley is filled with CORN FIELDS. They have a huge variety of corn, purple, yellow, red, white and other colors, and the kernels are the size of marbles. It a very important part of the local environment, and they even brew beer with it called Chicha. We have yet to try Chicha, I think it is mostly for the locals.

We did a little shopping at the local market where Jane bought a hand made silver necklace, and we enjoyed a delicious meal… It seems there is no avoiding chicken and rice in Peru. Thankfully they cook it in many different ways! We checked in to the hotel and were immediately captivated by the Jacuzzi!

Our schedule for the next day was for our guide to pick us up at the very reasonable hour of 8AM! This day we had three amazing stops. First was a textile demonstration at a women’s cooperative in Chinchero. It was fascinating to see the hand weaving and how much work goes into making blankets, and belts, and sweaters, and yes ponchos. it may not have been the smartest purchase I ever made, but if you see me wearing it around the cabin or the city you will know that I am wearing a hand made, waterproof, Alpaca poncho. Don’t worry, I didn’t buy the hat!

Brad Poncho

Our next stop was the terraces of Moray. I was not prepared for this at all!

Moray Terraces

Were they made by Aliens? What were these for? Who made them? According to our guide these were constructed by the Inca people between 1000 and 1400. Research indicates that these terraces were actually agricultural laboratories! By studying the DNA in the soil they have found that they were learning how to grow many different varieties of potatoes at different altitudes!

It blows me away sometimes to think about the knowledge that we have lost over time. When the Spanish conquered the Inca king and subdued the people and stopped their work, think of the progress and the knowledge that was lost. I’ve had this same thought in many parts of the world such as Pompeii. It makes me appreciate Google’s mission to organize the worlds information and make it universally accessible and useful. It also makes me wonder what could cause the loss of all of the information stored in the Google database? What could cause a similar collapse of a technological empire such as the world we live in today?

We learned that Inca is not really the proper term for the people, the Incas were the rulers the people were Quechua. Our guide explained that it would be like calling all of the Egyptians Pharos. I’m sure we will learn a lot more of their history when we visit Machu Picchu.

From the terraces we continued on to the Maras salt pans. Here we saw 5000 small salt pans where people make salt that comes from a salty spring. Deep in the Andes there is a giant salt deposit that this water works its way through, it then flows down this valley and through the many pans that people have created over the years to make salt. Nowadays they actually make more money from tourism than salt, but I can’t help but think that is a short term setback until some marketer comes along and makes Peruvian Pink salt the next hot commodity for home gourmets.

By the time we finished with all of this it was time for a late Peruvian lunch (2pm) which we enjoyed in the company of our guide and driver all the while just looking at the mountains that surrounded us on all sides. It really is beautiful here in the Sacred Valley!

Misty Valley

patchwork farms


Amazon Observations

When is a vacation not a vacation? When you are on your third day in a row getting up between 4 and 5 AM. It turns out that the animals are on a little different schedule than we humans.

Our first morning at Tambopata we had to be in the boat at 4:30 to head to the island where we were going to observe the Colorado Clay lick. We were literally up before the birds in order to watch the birds have their breakfast. It turns out that the best theory for why the birds in this area lick the clay is that it is like a vitamin supplement, providing additional sodium and other minerals in their environment that they do not get from the other stuff that they eat.

We set up our viewing point across a narrow branch of the river from the clay and settled in on our stools before the sun came up. We had a bit of coffee to keep comfortable (and awake) as we listened to mostly the silence and waited. Soon the sun started to rise and we spotted a pair of Capibaras swimming in the channel, soon the the silence was broken by a few bird calls which continued to build and build until it was a raucous cacophony of Parrot and Macaw sounds! We saw thousands of Parrots and small green Macaws, we also saw many of the large reds and the blue and greens.

We returned from the clay lick in time for breakfast and a short break before our morning hike to the river overlook. Before we left we were lucky enough to get to watch the Macaw researchers climb the tree containing two Macaw chicks. These are part of their preservation research and so every couple of days they take the chicks out of the nest, weigh and measure them to make sure they are thriving. Macaws are not worried about the humans touching their chicks! In fact part of their research has shown that they will willingly adopt the chicks of other Macaws that are unable to care for their babies. Occasionally the Macaws will have 3 or even 4 eggs, however they are only able to forage for enough food for two chicks. So the last to be born are ignored. These researchers obtained permission to transplant these third or fourth children to nests where there is only one or even zero babies. The researcher told us about a nest that was struck by lightning and both babies were killed. After a time they moved two chicks into the care of the bereaved parents and after some initial confusion on their part the parents started to care for the new chicks.

This next image is of the parents of the baby keeping a careful watch on the researcher who climbed up to the nest.

You never know what you are going to see on one of the jungle hikes, Today we saw a lot of butterflies and Macaws and spiders, some particularly rare bird that our guide was super excited about but didn’t seem that interesting to me. It was also super hot and really humid! It was all really interesting and once we got to the river we were treated to some great views.

We decided that we were going to rest during the shorter afternoon hike and conserve our energy for the night hike.

The jungle walk in the dark was very cool. We stopped at one spot that we had walked by many times on the way to and from the river to observe a tarantula nest! Yikes! I can’t believe we walked by there all those times. I think there are millions of things in the jungle that we walk by all the time without noticing.

We also saw some pretty cool insects and even a scorpion hiding in the bark of a tree.

After the night hike we had to get our bags packed and outside our door so the porters could have them loaded onto the boat for our 5:15 AM departure back to civilization the next morning.

The trip back down the river went much faster than the trip up the river — we were going with the current after all. We saw a beautiful sunrise and had a very relaxing ride.

We are really glad that we made the effort to visit and appreciate this amazing part of our planet.

Fun Fact

One of these trees served as the model for the trees in the movie Avatar, the other is inspired by the trees in Avatar. I’m sure you can guess which is which? We were lucky to see both of them in the span of two months.

Into the Amazon

We walked to the light rail station which took us to MSP, from there we flew to Atlanta and onward to Lima Peru. We spent a very short night in the airport hotel, just across the street from the airport. `After five hours of sleep we had a quick breakfast and headed back across the street where we flew to Cusco and then onward to Puerto Maldonado. We were met outside the gate by our guide where we took a short transfer to the boat and a few hours later we were in the rain forrest.

It rained for most of our boat ride to the lodge, but by the time we arrived it was clearing. This meant that we could do the hike to the observation tower. A 120 foot high tower that lets you observe all the different layers of the jungle canopy, including from high above where you can see for miles!

Canopy View

While we were enjoying our view we were joined by a clan of howler monkeys! It was amazing to watch them from above, climb through the trees and then finally up one of the support cables to the observation tower. We were a little worried they might start coming up the stairs but they kept right on moving and climbed down the wire on the other side.

Howler Monkeys

We at dinner as a group, along with our guide at 7:30 and by 8:45 we were in bed. We were tired from the travel and we had a 4AM wake up for the next morning to head out to the lake and then onward for another 5 hours up the river to the Tambopata Research Center.

If you have never heard howler monkeys its really quite a thing! About 5AM we heard a sound that was just like an approaching windstorm. That is the sound that howler monkeys make in the morning to mark their territory. Incredible.

After a short boat ride we had about a 30 minute hike to the ox bow lake where we would go in search of the Anaconda (Still looking), the Caiman (a Peruvian alligator - also still looking), many birds, and do some fishing.

Well, you may be wondering what do you fish for in the Amazon? Piraña of course!

Piraña Fishing

It looks a lot like a Sunfish at first glance. At least until you get a close up look at the teeth! Also, you do not typically use raw beef when fishing for Sunnies!

After our fishing excursion we were back on the river headed to our final destination for the day, which is the Tambopata Research Center. This is one of the only places in the national reserve that you can stay overnight and learn about the jungle. It is really an amazing experience.

Along the way we were keeping our eyes peeled for interesting wildlife sightings. We were richly rewarded when one of the crew spotted a Jaguar. Right out in the open sunning itself! It’s by far the best “big cat” siting we have ever had in all our travels, and I was thrilled to get some good shots.

Jaguar Sunning

Jaguar in shade

As a final treat for the day we saw a bunch of Macaws at the “clay lick”. More on clay licking tomorrow after we learn more!

Macaws at the Clay Lick