I’m going to break up the Galápagos Islands into several posts, to make it (hopefully) easier to follow, and so that it’s not just a wall of pictures. I have another post all about logistics, which isn’t terribly exciting, but might be useful to anybody planning a trip. We booked a one-week trip aboard the M.Y. Darwin, which took us to most of the islands, in a mostly stress-free manner. Our first day started with a flight from Guayaquil to Baltra, where we were picked up and rushed to the boat, which was waiting for us to leave.
After a quick lunch and a seminar on what to do if the boat started to sink, we reached Mosquera. This small sandy islet is mostly populated by sea lions and colourful Sally Lightfoot crabs. These are ridiculously common everywhere in the Galápagos, but it’s exciting to see them for the first time. It’s a bit like seeing zebras on safari: the first day we were fascinated, but then they become part of the scenery.
Juvenile Sally Lightfoot crabs are black, to blend in with the volcanic rocks. Adults are bright orange and red, and may be big or agile enough to be safe from predators despite being so visible. The Galápagos Sally Lightfoots apparently groom dead skin and parasites from marine iguanas, as well as scavenging.
Hello there. We're now in Mexico, and I'm still writing up our week in the Galápagos. I wanted to break radio silence quickly, though, to warn anybody who might be thinking about it not to trust Travelocity to book a rental car. Last weekend I used them to reserve a car at Budget, but when I arrived to pick up the car on Monday morning, they told me that they didn't have any cars available, and that Travelocity is notorious for making reservations without checking. There was also the small matter of the Budget location opening 90 minutes late, and then the customer service people directing me to another Budget location that also didn't have any cars, but at least the guy there phoned up a completely different rental agency that did have (very expensive) cars available, so it wasn't a complete disaster.
While I'm complaining, I should also warn you about kiwi.com, who seemed to offer a nice service for booking complicated air journeys across multiple airlines. We used them to fly from Quito to Medellín, but then discovered that they'd booked us on an airline that charges $15 to print out a boarding pass at the airport, and hadn't sent us the boarding passes for us to print out.
Thankfully, we eventually got refunds for both of these. Travelocity promptly refunded the deposit they'd taken. Kiwi took quite some persuading that we weren't trying to scam them somehow, but after several emails back and forth they eventually agreed to give us back the $30 we'd had to cough up in order to board in Quito.
Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, and also its commercial capital. We had originally thought that we'd take longer than two weeks to get here from Lima, and so would only have a day or so before heading off to the Galápagos, but we made good enough time to spend four nights in town.
The weather is tropical - it rained most afternoons - and the city isn't terribly exciting, but it is a good base for tedious logistics. We bought UV-proof rashguards for snorkelling, and trekked out to a dive shop to see whether they could rent or sell a dive mask with prescription optics, as our agent for the Galápagos had apparently never heard of such a thing. Alas, they're only available by special order from the USA, so we spent an afternoon tracking down an optician and negotiating the purchase of some contact lenses instead.
Parque Seminario is full of iguanas.
The best thing about going to Guayaquil was actually the journey there. From Cuenca, there are two bus routes. The shorter one (about 3.5 hours) goes through El Cajas National Park, climbing to a pass with spectacular views at 4,100m before descending through rain forest to sea level.
Logistics: we had no trouble finding taxis in Guayaquil. Prices around $3-5 depending on distance. Meters don't seem to be a thing, so ask your driver how much it is before you set off.
Food: nothing terribly special. Susan had a powerful urge for KFC one day, but it was sadly unimpressive. I thought that half the point of these chains was that they're completely consistent all around the world. We had a decent hole-in-the-wall chifa for lunch one day. The servings were absolutely enormous: two main courses would have easily fed three hungry people.
After the long journey from Peru into Ecuador, we stopped off in Cuenca for a week. This is a rather lovely town back up in the Andes, at around 2,500m above sea level - so we had to acclimatise yet again after spending the previous couple of weeks lower down. I spent most of the first couple of days in bed with a cold - five long bus journeys adding up to over 1500 km of road over the last ten days had clearly caught up with me.
Of all of the places we'd been since Lima, Cuenca was definitely the best to be stuck in bed in, though. It's high enough up to be sunny but not too hot, and not high enough to make it too hard to climb stairs. There are apparently a lot of retired expatriates living there, taking advantage of the good climate and the low cost of living.
The museums were rather disappointing after Peru, although the Museo de Sombrero was quite fun. It's much more of a shop than an actual museum, but it does have a bit of an explanation of the process of making a sombrero de toquilla (please don't call it a Panama hat when you're in Ecuador!), a lot of old machinery for blocking hats, and an extensive selection for sale. There's a special room for fino and superfino hats, which start at around $150 each and go up to several times that for some truly exquisite headwear.
On Valentine's Day the streets were overrun with people selling balloons and stuffed animals. The flower sellers by the cathedral didn't seem to make a big thing of it, strangely.
Food notes: Cuenca convinced us to stop ordering Ecuadorean ceviche. We had had an interesting, almost Bloody Mary-like ceviche variant at Riscomar in Loja (our best meal there by far, and actually quite good in an absolute sense), but every other one we tried in Ecuador was a sad disappointment, even in otherwise good restaurants. We were always given pre-cooked fish sitting damply in a bland sauce with barely a hint of citrus or spice - completely different to the delicate, well-seasoned dishes we'd been so used to getting everywhere in Peru. The Riscomar one also used cooked fish, but there was enough heat and acid to make up for the lack of texture.
Inside the Seminario San Luiz, just next to the new cathedral, both El Confesionario and Le Bistro are excellent places for lunch or a coffee. We had good, reasonably priced, dinners at Sofy's Glocal and Mangiare Benne. A Pedir de Boca has mostly great reviews but must have been having a really off day when we went: a "thai noodles" and a "tuscan pasta" came out barely distinguishable, and both were inedibly spicy. We left most of the food and had a hot dog on the way home to fill up.
Lima is almost 4,000 km south of Venezuela on the Pan-American Highway, but all the way up through Peru and into Ecuador, next to the usual sellers of bread, snacks, fruit, and vegetables, there were a lot of Venezuelans quietly begging for help, with signs and sometimes babies in their hands.
Another sad thing is the amount of rubbish. Everywhere has signs imploring you not to leave trash, and everywhere has piles of crap piled by the roadside. Several times, we saw people literally throwing things out of car windows while stopped at junctions or tollbooths.
It seemed as though the general standard of buses declined as we went north. The bus to Pucón in Chile was pretty luxurious; the one from Lima to Trujillo was good; and then everything went downhill. Admittedly, the first two were night buses where big reclining seats must sell well, but the non-VIP buses gradually got dirtier and more cramped as we went further. In Ecuador, it seemed as though every long distance bus (and, for all we know, the local ones as well) came with a designated orator who would shout at you for the first twenty minutes before getting off. It wasn't clear to me whether they were asking for money or giving some sort of religious or political speech - but a total refusal to make eye contact worked well for me.
Different countries have different rules for their buses, too. In Chile, you hand your luggage to the conductor who puts it in the bowels of the bus and gives you a ticket. In Peru, the bus stations had a small check-in desk that took luggage for all departures (and gave you a ticket). In Ecuador, there was always a gate charging you ten cents to go to the departure area, but no fixed rules about how to get your luggage there, and nobody to check you weren't stealing other people's bags when you took them off the bus. It all seemed to work pretty well in the end, though.
We had heard bad things about the big border crossing into Ecuador at Huaquillas, and good things about Cuenca and the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, so we decided it would be sensible to cross the border at Macara and go up into the hills rather than skirting the coast and heading directly to Guayaquil.
This was mostly a success, in that we avoided a crowded border crossing and saw first-hand how the landscape and climate changes just around the border from desert to tropical jungle. Sadly, the border crossing at Macara was painfully slow, and we had to spend a lot of time queueing up in the rain: first to be stamped out of Peru, then to be given a form to fill in to get into Ecuador, and then a third time to hand over the form and get stamped into Ecuador. Still, we were relatively lucky: a Venezuelan couple were denied entrance to Ecuador, apparently because they couldn't produce documentation proving that they didn't have criminal records. We last saw them deep in discussion at the Ecuadorean border post after having taken their luggage off the bus. I hope that, at least, they were allowed back in to Peru rather than having to stay on a rainy bridge forever.
Sadly, Loja itself is a bit of a hole. It has a ridiculous city gate - a 1990s "reconstruction" of one apparently built by conquistadores, by way of Disneyland. It also has literally dozens of 24-hour pharmacies, and a few rather sad fast food joints. Nothing else is open on Saturday night or after lunchtime on Sunday, so we didn't wait around on Monday to see whether there were better options but got straight back on a bus, heading to Cuenca.
There’s a long, and fascinating, tradition of textile production in Peru. Despite the fragility of natural fibres, a remarkable number of pieces of fabric have been preserved, mostly in tombs in the coastal deserts.
Everybody (rightly) makes a big deal of all of the pre-Columbian jewellery in gold, silver, turquoise, and spondylus shell, but I think the sheer investment of time and effort in a lot of these textiles is perhaps more amazing. It’s worth noting that, when the Conquistadors arrived, they were given gifts of textiles, not metal.
The richest fabrics are incredibly finely woven, with up to 300 wefts per inch (so maybe a modern 500 thread count, or higher). This translates into an incredible amount of yarn to be spun: many thousands of yards of a single garment. If we consider that the Sapa Inca wore only the finest clothes, and that they were burned after having been worn once, then there must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people working full time just to produce his clothes.
Eve Fisher, here and here, estimates that a medieval shirt, woven at 25 wefts per inch, would take over 500 person-hours to make, most of which is spinning the thread. If we assume that the Sapa Inca’s clothes took ten times this amount of thread, that gives us no less than two-and-a-half person years per outfit - so over 900 people working full time to produce an outfit per day.
Pieces from the Amano textile museum
Inca citizens all had to pay a tax, or mit’a, by working for the state. This could mean building or maintaining roads and bridges, producing raw wool or cotton, or weaving. Parenthetically, the Spaniards kept the same name for their system of forced labour, where every man had to work one year in seven, often in hideous conditions in the Potosí silver mine or the Huancavelica mercury mine. This paper looks at household income and children’s heights in modern Peru, and finds that districts within the mining mita’s catchment area are some 25% poorer today, and have a higher proportion of unusually short children.
All the guidebooks make it sound as though Piura is just a city that you’re forced to stop in on the way through northern Peru to Ecuador, but we were very pleasantly surprised. We only stayed for one night, and so decided to splash out on a nice hotel so we were rested for the long journey to Ecuador the next day.
Central Piura; hotel Los Portales; and Transportes Loja
We had a very good lunch at Snack Bar "El Romano" on Ayacucho, not far from the tamarind tree-shaded Plaza de Armas, then spent the afternoon wandering around the colonial centre before retreating to have a beer by the pool.
Logistics: we arrived by regular bus from Chiclayo. Most of the buses to Ecuador go to Guayaquil via Tumbes, but we were hoping to go to Loja, crossing at Macara. Transportes Loja don't seem to believe in the Internet, or really in publicising their services in any way, so we weren't certain that this would be possible, but the hotel concierge helped us to find their office at the back of the Ronco bus station on Av. Loreto. They used to do 9:30 am and 1:30 pm buses to Loja, but seem to have stopped running the morning one.
Peru is full of amazing archaeology, and also has an almost embarrassing quantity of remarkably good museums. Sadly, this made me into a hyper-critical observer of these museums. Is it acceptable for museums nowadays, especially ones with incredible collections, just to have rooms full of impressive pieces, with very little explanation or commentary? It’s also frustrating how little attention is paid to how non-elite people actually existed: all these amazing tombs and artefacts came from somewhere, so what happened to the people who made them, or who grew the food to feed the people who did?
In the last post, I complained about the Museo de Tumbas Reales in Lambayeque, which I suppose is a little unfair, given that the entire place is there to house an especially large collection of very shiny things, and how little is known about the Moche people themselves, as opposed to their elites. There is a stark contrast with the Museo Brüning just down the road, though: that has an interesting exhibit on a recent discovery of a tomb with seven female skeletons, and how this may mean that the traditional view of the Moche as a completely male-dominated culture could be completely wrong.
So, in no particular order, here are some museums of note that I may have forgotten to mention.
In Chile, Santiago’s Museo de Arte Precolumbino has organised a balanced overview of all of Middle and South America, as well as a room with an interesting collection devoted to Chile. Everything is well explained, and it’s also in a lovely building. Perhaps it's only possible to do this somewhere that isn't dominated by a single historical culture, as Cusco is by the Incas; Lambayeque by the Moche; and so on.
Museo de Arte Precolumbino: a llama, an extremely creepy statue of a man (or god?)
dressed in a monkey's skin, a quipu, and a Chancay vase
The Museo Larco in Lima has an astounding collection, and yet managed to leave me feeling rather annoyed with the curation. Nothing outside its walls is ever mentioned, even in passing; as though all you need to understand everything in the world is there. If you don’t have much time or want to save money, you can pretend to be going to the cafe and just sneak into the Erotic Pottery gallery without having to pay.
Museo Larco: a cheerful shark god, upbeat dog, decapitator god with severed head, and a jewelled neckpiece
The Amano Textile Museum in Lima is wonderful: it has a clear focus, displays quite amazing pieces, and explains a lot of what’s going on, both regarding the (incredibly complicated) weaving techniques and the various cultures that produced them. There’s also a small gallery of ceramics, some of which are more impressive than anything at the Larco. It does, however, commit the mortal sin of displaying a timeline using a pie chart.
Amano: worst pie chart ever, hand-woven gauzes and fabric, stripy Nazca pot
The National University of Trujillo Archaeological Museum has, unsurprisingly, quite a lot of Moche portrait vessels, but also some ceramics from other periods. There's also an absolutely horrific mummy on very public display that I won't post a picture of. It's a good example of how certain people modified the shape of their skulls by strapping planks to their children's heads, if you're into that kind of thing.
Trujillo: Moche portrait vessel, creepy child vase, Chimu owl, bird with severed head, Chancay bird
The Cusco Folk Art Museum is notable more for the museum itself than its contents, but is a good place to shelter from rainstorms in. I was particularly taken by the self-satisfied grin on every photo, bust, and statue (and there were several) of the founder, and a striking set of portraits of all of the board members had my interest for longer than most of the artwork.
The Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco has a lovely, although small, museum explaining how traditional textiles are still made and used, and often has women weaving. The (non-profit) organisation works with weaving communities to support Cusqueñan textile traditions and the indigenous people who create them.
In Ecuador, Cuenca has some of Ecuador’s best museums, according to the Lonely Planet. I hope this is just more inaccurate reporting, but what we saw wasn’t terribly impressive after coming from Peru. The Museo de Pumapungo has a refreshing section devoted to ethnic minorities in Ecuador, but it’s hard work if you don’t read Spanish. The section on shamans was impenetrable; and I’m not certain about the ethics of having actual shrunken heads in museums nowadays. The building itself is wonderfully Wes Anderson.