Archive for November, 2008

Machu Picchu is Stunning

November 26th, 2008 at 6:27 am (AST) by Jake Richter

I don’t have a lot of time as I need to head off on a morning hike to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu with Bas. The girls are sleeping in.

We arrived at Machu Picchu yesterday afternoon and spent a few hours touring the ruins. Amazing what the Incas managed to build – and all without ever having discovered the wheel!

We’re staying at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge – the only hotel within easy walking distance of the entrance of the archeological site. Very nice property. And they even have Internet access!

Below is evidence of our presence at Machu Picchu.

The Traveling Richters at Machu Picchu

The Traveling Richters at Machu Picchu

 

We Leave the Galapagos, With Killer Whales As An Escort

November 23rd, 2008 at 1:25 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Our week in the Galapagos Islands went by almost too quickly. Every day seemed like it was the best day yet, and then the next day would be even better.

Along the way we’ve experienced marine iguanas grazing on algae underwater, a pod of over a hundred dolphins bow riding with the National Geographic Polaris (our home for the week), a baby Galapagos penguin being fed by its mother, snorkeled with white tip sharks, witnessed the mating rituals of blue footed boobies, and seen all sorts of other amazing acts and existence of nature. And perhaps the most amazing thing was how close we could get to the wildlife – the birds, sea lions, lizards, and iguanas cared not a whit that we were nearby. Made us feel part of nature as opposed to interlopers.

But yesterday (Friday), our last day of exploration, was definitely beyond expectation as a ship-wide call went out on the public address system that a pod of orcas (killer whales) had been sited nearby and that anyone who wanted a closer look had to be in the reception area within 5 minutes. I roused Linda and Krystyana from a mid-afternoon nap and we all made it down to the Zodiac launching point at Reception just in time. Bas was just not able to wake up enough to come along, sadly.

We spent the next twenty minutes in a Zodiac chasing orcas as they fed on a seal and a green turtle. It was a small pod – only three whales, but enough to keep us completely captivated. And thanks to the scraps their feeding left behind we had the added bonus of a huge flock of frigate birds chasing the pod to help tell us where the orcas were at any time.

A killer whale (orca) grabbed our attention off the coast of Santiago, Galapagos

A killer whale (orca) grabbed our attention off the coast of Santiago, Galapagos

We ended the day with an hour and half walk around part of Santiago island, learning more about fur seals (which are actually a species of sea lion), geology, lava tubes, and marine iguanas, ending the exploration with the best sunset of the week long trip.

This morning (Saturday), we parted ways with Lindblad’s Polaris and all the great memories of the trip, the excellent service we received while on board, and the phenomenal depth of knowledge of all the naturalists whom we had the pleasure to go on expeditions with. We took with us the nearly 4,000 pictures we shot during the past week (sorted down to about 1,000 that we think are pretty good but still need to tag and label).

Jake studies up on Peru, sharing a bench with a Galapagos resident

Jake studies up on Peru, sharing a bench with a Galapagos resident

We are now in Lima, Peru, departing early in the morning for Cuzco, and then the Sacred Valley of the Incas for a couple of days before making our way to overnight at Machu Picchu.

 

The Galapagos Are… Wow!

November 17th, 2008 at 4:35 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We made it to the Galapagos safe and sound on Saturday, and spent Saturday afternoon exploring the island of North Seymour, observing frigate birds and blue footed boobies nesting. Yesterday was spent around the island of Espanola – below the water and on land – getting cozy with sea lions, waved albatross, and iguanas, among other critters.

The wildlife here is remarkably lacking in timidity and you can get within a couple of feet of most creatures (as long as you stay on the clearly marked path) – much like a zoo without fences or aggressive creatures.

The photo opportunities have been phenomenal, and after only two days we have close to 1500 pictures. But while the accommodations here on the Lindblad National Geographic Polaris are great, as is the food and service, the Internet connection leaves a bit to be desired – it’s expensive and slow, but certainly better than not having a connection at all. But it will drastically limit our ability to upload lots of photos until we get someplace with a better connection in a week or two.

As such, here’s a single picture to share at the moment to give you a taste of our explorations in the Galapagos. Hope you enjoy it! See below.

Sea lion pups play in the surf on the island of Espanola in the Galapagos

Sea lion pups play in the surf on the island of Espanola in the Galapagos

 

How To Eat A Guinea Pig in Ecuador

November 13th, 2008 at 11:49 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We arrived in Quito as scheduled, mid-morning on Tuesday. We took it easy our first day – eating, napping, and acclimating to the high altitude here. Yesterday we spent the day with a private guide and driver exploring local crafts markets and offerings in Otavalo as well as using my camera’s GPS to get us to the exact equator – 0 degrees latitude. Krystyana should be writing all that up in the next day or so, so let me focus on today’s activities, which started with a visit to the Museo Nacional de Banco Central del Ecuador where we learned about how man first came to Ecuador many thousands of years and how culture evolved here until Ecuador’s independence from Spain in 1822. Very interesting museum and well worth the three or so hours we spent there.

But the most unusual thing I did today (with Linda and Krystyana trying a nibble) was to dine on Guinea pig.

Warning: If you’re squeamish about eating unusual foods and creatures, especially cute and cuddly ones, please stop reading here, and especially don’t look at any of the pictures below.

Guinea Pigs in Ecuadoran Cuisine
Guinea pigs, in the time before beef cattle were introduced to the country, were the main staple meat among Ecuadoran indigenous peoples. However, beef, pork, and other meats did not completely displace Guinea pigs from the Ecuadoran diet, and “cuy” (as Guinea pigs are known in Ecuador) are still a widely eaten delicacy. It is claimed that they are very low in cholesterol – I have no way to confirm or deny that, but based on all I’ve been reading of late, high cholesterol foods don’t actually appreciably affect the cholesterol that clogs one’s arteries (blame sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup for that).

In terms of preparation, from what I’ve read, Guinea pigs used to be grilled on spits over open fires, but nowadays are either cooked on a rotisserie or deep fried. Below, for example, is a photo of a rotisserie with several Guinea pigs being cooked, found on our travels out to Otavalo yesterday.

Guinea pigs on rotisserie spits alongside the road outside Quito

We always try to sample local cuisine, and one of our missions in Ecuador and Peru was to try Guinea pig – all but Bas because he just cannot get himself to eat anything he deems to be cute and lap or hand-sized. Bas’ criteria for cuteness encompasses rabbit, ducks (but not chickens), and, of course, Guinea pigs. And, honestly, Linda and Krystyana weren’t too wild about the idea either. Okay, so it was really just me that wanted to try and eat this traditional meat.

The Cover of Mama Clorinda's Menu

Our guide for Otavalo, Luisa, recommended a place in Quito called Mama Clorinda’s as the place to have traditional Ecuadoran food, so after our museum visit this morning we made our way there – about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Mama Clorinda’s was a tiny restaurant with low ceilings (ouch) and about a dozen tables, with lots of locals dining there. As we reviewed the menu we were serenaded by two musicians playing Ecuadoran music. We liked the music, but didn’t appreciate the fact that the musicians were next to our table – it made it too loud for us to talk. Had they been outside the restaurant it would have been more pleasant.

Cuy - Guinea Pig - on the menu of Mama Clorinda's

In any event, we finally ordered our meals, with Bas positioning himself in such a way that he would not be able to see my meal when it arrived. He ordered fried chicken with baked beans, and Linda and Krystyana ordered deep fried pork chunks known as “fritados”. I ordered a whole Guinea pig, but unlike the menu description shown above, I asked for mine to be fried without breading. After all, other than the non-low-carbness of breaded Guinea pig, it’s highly unlikely that Guinea pig was breaded back in the days before cattle – and I wanted as authentic an experience as possible.

When my Guinea pig finally arrived, it was not whole as I had expected. Instead the kitchen had split it into six parts: the head in two parts with the lower jaw separated from the upper jaw and skull, and the body cut into four pieces as seen in the photos below.

The guinea pig is served in many pieces - the head in parts, the torso in four

Here are the guinea pig's teeth in the separated lower jaw

Barely discernable, this is the top of the guinea pig's head - ears at right

The teeth on the jaws were still clearly visible, and if I studied the skull enough I could see where the eyes were (or used to be) and also see the ears sticking up. Each of the four body parts featured a small, crispy paw.

The guinea pig's front paw - extra crispy

My commentary about the meal on my plate were not being well received by Bas, so I stopped my dialog and instead focused on trying the meat. I tried to use a knife and fork, but the Guinea pig parts were just too small for normal utensils so I had to resort to using my fingers. Peeling back the crunchy skin I found the color of the cooked meat was very similar to the dark meat of a chicken or a rabbit, and not surprisingly, very similar in taste. I found the meat to be quite salty, but that may have been the preparation more that the taste of the meat itself as all of the meats we were served were saltier than they should have been.

The flesh of the guinea pig is much like the dark meat of chicken

The fried Guinea pig skin was tasty and fatty, but not as crunchy as it first seemed – instead it was a bit chewy. The other thing I discovered was that Guinea pigs are quite bony, and not particularly meaty. The rump of the Guinea pig had noticeably more meat than the front half, and while I joked with Krystyana that the one benefit of Guinea pig over chicken was that the former had four drumsticks, there really wasn’t that much meat there. I suspect I burnt nearly as much energy picking bits of meat off the carcass as I consumed in the skin and meat that I managed to find to eat.

All in all it was an interesting experience, but probably not one I care to repeat as I prefer bigger pieces of meat which require less work to separate from the bone. And for those who were wondering, Krystyana and Linda did each try a small piece of Guinea pig, but only while Bas averted his gaze. Linda thought it tasted like dark meat from a chicken, while Krystyana was convinced it was more like rabbit.

While I did manage to strip the body of meat and edible skin, I was not able to get myself to search for any morsels of meat that might have been in the lower jaw or skull of the Guinea pig. I hope I did not miss out on anything fantastic, but instinct tells me my decision was a prudent one.

Even I wasn't brave enough to tackle the head of the guinea pig

In terms of Mama Clorinda’s itself, we found the service a bit spotty, and the other meats overcooked. We would seek other places for Ecuadoran cuisine if we had the desire to eat typical local food.

 

The Final Journey of the Year – Ecuador, Galapagos, Peru, Machu Picchu

November 10th, 2008 at 3:53 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We had been hoping to finish up a few more posts about New York, Costa Rica, and our time in Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago – especially about the great meals we had at Boston’s O Ya and L’Espalier – but that will have to wait until we have more time to write and post and review the thousands of photos we took in Canada and New England.

I ended up spending all of last week in Dallas on business, with no time for anything but the project I was there for. I got home to Bonaire two days ago in the early morning hours, and all of The Traveling Richters are due to be on a flight to Quito, Ecuador in the morning for the start of our final exploration of the year.

We will spend the rest of the week in and around Quito, exploring the colonial city, regional crafts and arts centers, and also will take typical tourist pictures of ourselves straddling the equator. On Saturday we start our time with Lindblad Expeditions with a flight to the Galapagos Islands, best known for where, approximately 175 years ago, Charles Darwin got his inspiration for the concept of natural selection as a key process in biological evolution. We will spend a week aboard a ship, exploring various islands, hoping to see Galapagos tortoises in their natural settings, marine iguanas, Darwin’s famous finches, large schools of sharks during our snorkels, and a plethora of other fauna. And maybe some flora too.

From the Galapagos, we fly back to the mainland, and then down to Lima, Peru, and from there to Cusco and by bus to the Sacred Valley of the Incas high in the Andes. A couple of days later we’ll be at the fabled Incan ruins of Machu Picchu – spending the night there. Then we’re down to Cusco for a couple of days before returning to Lima for a final night before parting ways with the folks from Lindblad Expeditions.

We’ll spend a morning being driven to Ica, the wine capital of Peru, spending the rest of the day and night there so that the following morning we can take a private plane over the mysterious Nazca Lines, before returning for a few days in Lima. To get back home we have to overnight in Quito and catch the direct flight back to Bonaire on KLM from there. We’ll be back home on December 4th. And I probably have to head back north for two weeks of consulting right after our return. Gotta love those frequent flyer miles.

At this point Linda and Bas are rather travel weary, so they will undoubtedly be glad when this final trip for the year is over. The only trip of any sort we have scheduled at this point for 2009 is a couple weeks in the southwest, centered around Tucson for the Renaissance Weekend conference, with a few days at a ski area in New Mexico at the end for the kids to enjoy (brr!!!) the snow. And we may head up to New Hampshire later in the year as well. But that’s it. For now.

Krystyana and I will attempt to post missives from our South American travels – hopefully the Spanish we learned in Costa Rica in September will be of use.