The Galapagos Islands

My son, Jordan, asked if he should come home for Thanksgiving or should we go on an adventure. After suggesting several destinations, he chose The Galapagos Islands. Since it has long been on my bucket list, I was all in. Andrew, my other son, decided to go also. Jeff, my husband, stayed home to represent our family at the annual Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws home.

The Galapagos Islands were discovered in 1535 but no humans lived there until the 1800s. During the 1920s Europeans and North Americans began to arrive as well as Ecuadorians who came to farm and fish. In the 1960s tourism and fisheries brought in more settlers.

Having more endemic species than any other island cluster in the world, The Galapagos Islands were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. Tourists come to see the unique species half of which do not exist anywhere else in the world. Beginning with 1,000 tourists in 1960, the ecotourism industry has grown to an estimated 170,000 tourists annually.

The Galapagos Islands located six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador are one of twenty-four republics of Ecuador. Located on the Equator the islands have twelve hours of day and equal number hours of night throughout the year. The archipelago consists of thirteen major islands and six smaller islands. The four islands that are inhabited, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana have a combined total population of 30,000 people. As of the last survey, 81% describe themselves as Mestizo, 7% native Indian, 7% Caucasian, and 4% African-Ecuadorian. The official language is Spanish.

The Galapagos National Park was established in 1959. Of the total area of the archipelago 97% is in the national park. There are seventy land visitor sites and roughly the same protected marine sites on the archipelago. All visitors on cruises or day tours must be accompanied by a registered national park guide. Some of the national park rules are: follow the marked trail, do not touch the wildlife, do not take souvenirs, no smoking, no littering, don’t bring food and fishing is prohibited.

Researching packaged tours I found that cruises are for a minimum of 4 days and go up to 9 or more days. Prices start at approximately $2000 per person and go upwards to $10,000 depending on boat size and length of cruise.

Without enough time for a cruise, we decided to visit one of the inhabited islands, San Cristobal, the capital of the Galapagos. It is the easternmost island with an area of 215 miles making it the fifth largest. Most of the 5,400 residents have jobs in the government, tourism or fishing.

Flights from Quito to one of the two airports located on Santa Cruz or San Cristobal are three and a half hours with a short stop in Guayaquil or direct flights from Guayaquil are one and a half hours.

Jordan flying from NYC and Andrew and I flying from Miami, met at our hotel, Quinta Carlota, near the airport in Quito. Eduardo, the driver for the hotel, provided transportation to and from the airport. We had two large upstairs rooms with a shared bath.

Jordan having arrived at 5 pm had dinner with a couple from The Netherlands. Andrew and I arrived around 9 pm and the cook prepared chicken, fish and vegetables for us. Two rooms for one night with dinner for three people was $100.

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The following morning at the Quito airport we purchased our $20 per person transit control card before our departure to San Cristobal.

Arriving in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of San Cristobal Island, we cleared immigration and paid the $100 per person national park entrance fee. Customs searched our bags for any opened food items.

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Our hotel was a short five-minute taxi drive from the airport. Taxis cost as little as $1 but I always gave our drivers in town $5. Ecuador uses the US dollar so there is no need to exchange money.

At Los Algarrobos, Francisco, the owner’s son, allowed us to pick our rooms.  For $36 per night including breakfast, we each had a large, clean and air-conditioned room.

Asking Francisco for a restaurant recommendation, we walked a few blocks to a seafood restaurant called Descanso Marinero. We ordered ceviche, grilled shrimp, tostones and french fries. Tostones are flattened fried plantains and can be found on most Ecuadorian restaurant menus. The seafood was fresh and the prices were about what you would pay in the US.

Wanting to book a boating tour for the following day, we walked to Avenida Charles Darwin, the main street along the waterfront, where several tour companies are located. After talking with a few tour company representatives, we chose 360 Degree Tours and paid $130 per person which included rented wetsuits and flippers.

Late that afternoon we took a ten minute taxi ride to a local beach called, La Loberia. We walked along a sandy trail to the beach where a colony of sea lions live. There were only a few people on the beach and one person in a wetsuit was in the water. Several sea lions grouped together were lying on the beach and a few were in the water. A barking sea lion pup looking for its mother waddled up to an adult. The adult raising its head, barked at the pup and it wandered off. Hiking on the uneven volcanic rocks along the shoreline, we saw many marine iguanas sunning on lava rocks.

We were the last people leaving the beach as the sun was setting. Even though he knew the national park rule for humans not to touch the wildlife, Andrew stated that he was going to touch an adult sea lion. With us warning him not to, he approached an adult from behind and touched its rear end. The sea lion raised its head and barked loudly. Andrew ran away!

Our taxi driver failed to return at the arranged time, so it took us thirty minutes to walk back to town. Walking along Avenida Charles Darwin we stopped for dinner at the Casa Blanca. After dining on empanadas, chicken wings and grilled fish, we stopped for ice cream as we walked back to our hotel.

The following morning after an early breakfast at a downtown cafe, we arrived at the dock at 7 am for our 360 tour. We brought a dry sack with our rented gear and our own masks and snorkels. Our group of ten people included an Ecuadorian husband and wife, their three children and their sister-in-law, a single woman from Colorado who was close to my age and the three of us.

It was a beautiful warm day as we left port. A pod of dolphins joined us for a bow ride as we proceeded into open waters. Our boat captain slowed down so we could enjoy the display of their jumps in the wild.

It took forty-five minutes to reach our first stop, Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido in Spanish). One of the most famous landmarks in the Galapagos, the 500 foot sheer wall volcanic tuff cone has been eroded in half with a narrow channel in between.

Our guide, Fabricio, briefed us on what we might see, sharks, rays, fish, sea turtles, and sea lions. He organized us into two groups, one needing to use a floating device and the other included us with the stronger swimmers. Wearing our wetsuits, fins and masks, we were helped by our crewman into the cold Pacific Ocean.

Fabricio lead our group into the channel. Looking down initially took my breath away. (Later I learned the depth of the channel is 114 feet.) The current was strong as we swam through the channel and we had to avoid being pushed into the rock cliff. Jordan used his GoPro to take underwater video. It took forty minutes to swim through the channel and around the cone back to the boat. During that time we saw many schools of colorful fish, sharks and sea turtles.

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At Punta Pitt, our next stop, we walked over rough volcanic rocks with low vegetation and large cactus. The water was an amazing blue-green color. After a fifteen minute walk we approached a pair of blue footed boobies perched on a volcanic rock. Fabricio instructed us to walk quietly and stay two meters, or six feet away from the birds.

Back in the boat, we motored to Manglecito Beach. Before disembarking, we were served a lunch of grilled fish, rice and salad.  Afterwards we waded through crystalline water and walked on a secluded beach with mangroves. I wrote a Christmas message in the fine white sand.

Jordan and the other adults in our group swam with sharks in a secluded cove. Andrew and I chose to explore the area.

After the shark swim we all walked to the other side of the cove where our boat was waiting for us.

During our nine-hour boat tour around San Cristobal Island we saw many dramatic and beautiful landscapes and seascapes.

Returning to port along the east side of the island the water became very rough because we were going against the Humboldt Current. The adults were uncomfortable every time the boat landed with a hard jolt, but the nine-year old Ecuadorian girl just laughed. None of us got sea sick, which was a miracle.

Fabricio announced that we would be stopping in an area where fishing is allowed. Our crewman threw out a baited line and we slowly trolled for a fish. Once the line went taut, the captain took over the process of reeling in the fish. It seemed to be a large fish by the strength the captain was exerting. Everyone was very excited when a large wahoo was finally in the boat. Again the hook was baited and the process started all over. It didn’t take long before we had two five foot long wahoos on board. When we asked if we could have some, each group received a large chunk of fish.

That night we took our fish to the restaurant Descanso Marinero. Showing our waitress our wahoo, we said if they would prepare grilled and fried filets of wahoo for us they could have the rest. We were served wahoo and sides of tostones, french fries, rice and beans for $10 per person. The fish was delicate, cooked perfectly and of course very fresh. We discovered a bakery near the restaurant and stopped for cookies and other sweets.

The next morning after breakfast at the Tonga Reef, we took a short taxi ride to the Interpretation Museum. We learned about the history and geology of the island and development and current environmental issues.

For lunch we ate at an open air Ecuadorian restaurant called Rosita. Frequented by locals it seemed many people had just come from Sunday church. We enjoyed ceviche, tostones, seafood soup and empanadas.

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After lunch we hired a taxi driver to take us to the northern part of the island. After a forty-five minute drive we arrived at our first stop, Laguna del Junco. The 984 feet wide fresh water lake in a collapsed caldera is home to wading birds, frigates, mockingbirds and seven species of finches. Walking up steep steps we reached the top at 2,296 feet above sea level.

Stopping at La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a tortoise reserve on thirty acres, we saw giant tortoises. The Galapagos Islands were named for the shape of the giant tortoise shell which is similar to a saddle which in old Spanish is called “galapago”. Baby tortoises live in elevated enclosures until they are five years old. They reach sexual maturity at age 25 years and are not fully grown until 100 years.

Walking on a long boardwalk at our last stop we reached Puerto Chino, a secluded beach where a colony of sea lions live. Being the only humans on the beach, we took fun pictures of ourselves and the sea lions. We paid our driver, Eduardo, $60 for our five-hour tour.

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That evening we had dinner at La Playa, a seafood restaurant which was empty except for the owners and us. We enjoyed ceviche, shrimp and pizza. Walking downtown after several inquiries at tour companies, we booked a tour to Los Lobos, Sea Lion Island,for $80 per person for the next afternoon.

After a good night’s sleep, we had a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, rolls, eggs and bacon at our hotel. Walking around town we stopped to take photos.

On our way to lunch, Andrew collapsed on the sidewalk after a sharp pain shot through his back. We suspected that his back was hurt during our 360 boat tour. He went back to the hotel to rest while Jordan and I went to lunch at a vegetarian restaurant.

Meeting our tour group of ten Germans and our guide, Louis, at the dock, at 1 pm, we boarded our boat for our four-hour afternoon tour.

Leaving the harbor we passed the spot where Charles Darwin’s boat, HMS Beagle moored in September, 18, 1835. Darwin was in The Galapagos for five weeks and it was the wildlife he saw that inspired his theory of natural selection. A statue of him is located on a hilltop called Cerro Tijeretas, or Frigatebird Hill.

Our first stop was Sea Lion Island. We saw many pups and adult sea lions on the island and in the water.

Walking over uneven volcanic rocks for about a half mile, we reached a pair of blue footed boobies with a three-day old chick. Having no fear of humans, the birds were calm as we quietly passed them. Walking further, we saw many frigatebirds circling in the sky. Approaching a large nest, we saw a male frigatebird with his inflated red throat trying to attract a female.

Back on board the boat, we motored to a site where we stopped to snorkel. The water was shallow and the visibility wasn’t great, but we saw sea turtles, sea lions, and many varieties of fish. We finished with a walk on a secluded white sand beach called Ochoa Beach.

After returning from our afternoon cruise Jordan and I brought in pizza for dinner in Andrew’s room. We gave Andrew back pain medication which we had purchased at the pharmacy after explaining to the pharmacist in Spanish what Andrew’s symptoms were.

Andrew was feeling much better the next morning as we packed our bags for our flight home. After breakfast our taxi driver (who was also our chef at the hotel) stopped downtown so we could take a picture with the St. Augustine Record. After submitting it to our local paper, it was finally published in late February 2018.The Record Photo

Here are some interesting facts we learned about the wildlife we saw:

SEA LION – The sea lion population in the Galapagos archipelago is about 50,000. The female sea lions live in a harem with one bull male. Adult males weighing up to 900 pounds are brown in color, females weighing up to 244 pounds are tan. Their streamlined body with powerful fins can dive to deep depths and can stay under forty minutes. Females have a single pup after an eleven month gestation period and identify each other by a unique call. A single female will often care for the pups while the other females feed. Average life span is twenty years.

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MARINE IGUANA – The only sea going lizard in the world, it lives on land but feeds on seaweed in the ocean. Consuming a great deal of salt solution while feeding, it is excreted from a nasal gland by sneezing. Quickly losing body heat in the cold water, it must sun itself on the volcanic rocks. The average size is: male – 2.5 feet, female – 2 feet. During nesting season from January to April the female lays 2 -3 eggs which hatch 2 1/2 to 4 months later. The population is estimated to be 200,000 to 300,000. It can live up to 60 years.

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BLUE FOOTED BOOBIE – It is a marine bird 30 – 32 inches in length and is an excellent diver for fish, hitting the water at up to 60 mph with its streamlined body. The name boobie comes from the spanish word “bobo” meaning foolish or clown because of their clumsy movement on land. Pigment from carotenoids in the fish it eats is concentrated in the feet, hence the blue color. Famous for its mating dance, the male parades around a nest site raising his blue feet for the female to see. Some mating pairs remain together for years. Both the male and female care for the young chicks. The population estimate is 20,000 pairs in the archipelago.

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FRIGATEBIRD – A large dark marine bird with a distinctive “W” shape which allows it to soar with little effort. Most of the day is spent looking for food such as squid, fish, jellyfish and crabs, although it is known to steal food from other birds. The male has a thin, red sac in the throat which when inflated with air during mating season is used to attract a female. A breeding pair will build a nest of a few twigs in low shrubbery near the shore and the female will lay a single egg. The hatchling is cared for 3 months by the male then the female continues care for nine months. It is the longest known parental care in the bird world.

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GIANT TORTOISE – Slow moving cold-blooded reptiles, the average resting period is sixteen hours a day. The diet consists of cactus pads, grasses and native fruits. They can grow up to 5 feet tall and weigh up to 500 pounds. When drinking a lot of water, excess can be stored in the bladder. Mating season is primarily January through May. A female can lay 1 – 4  nests, digging a hole with its hind feet and laying its eggs. The incubation period is 120 – 140 days. It is estimated there are 20,000 to 25,000 wild giant tortoises today.

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STINGRAY –  Grey in color with a flat body and long narrow tail with a nasty stinger at the end, it resides in shallow beach areas and deeper sandy bottoms.

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SALLY LIGHTFOOT CRAB –  Measuring 3 – 5 inches across with red-colored shells the crab lives on rocky beaches and eats practically anything. It feeds mainly during low tide moving with remarkable agility giving them the name, “Sally Lightfoot.”

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PELICAN – The adult is four feet long with a 6.5 foot wingspan and is brown in color with a white and chestnut head. It is an excellent glider and flies in a squadron like formation with other pelicans. During feeding it dives in shallow water scooping up to 2.5 gallons of water in its pouch then shallows trapped fish.

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The main threats to the unique and delicate environment of the Galapagos are; invasive species, increased tourism, population growth and illegal fishing.

To keep the Galapagos Islands pristine, many measures have been implemented; organic waste is composted, glass products are recycled and used in paving stones, solar panels and wind turbines provide power, tour operations and commercial fishing are strictly regulated, population growth is restricted, and invasive species are guarded against and removed when necessary.

The local community knows that it is the guardian of an irreplaceable heritage. With the help of conservationists, it is determined to protect the fragile beauty and endemic species that exist in the Galapagos archipelago. Their goal is to preserve the beauty of the crystalline water, pristine beaches and unique wildlife for future generations to enjoy.

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Visit to Nova Scotia

My friend, Donna, asked if I wanted to go with her to Nova Scotia. Of course I said yes. We read the “Doers and Dreamers Travel Guide to Nova Scotia” and watched YouTube videos to plan our itinerary. We asked Ken, a friend who is Canadian, to review our plans. His advice allowed us to see the highlights in seven days.

Our Air Canada flight from Orlando to Halifax with a short layover in Montreal arrived at 6:30 PM September 18, 2017. We picked up our rental car and drove to our B&B in the residential neighborhood of Bedford. The two-story home was built for an Iranian family who turned it into a B&B three years ago. Our huge second floor suite included two bedrooms, one bath, a large dining table, a sitting area with a TV and a foosball table!

For dinner we drove to the Bicycle Thief, an upscale restaurant on the waterfront in downtown Halifax. We had a delicious dinner of halibut, tuna tartar, and salad. Our waiter, Matthew, suggested a place for lunch the next day.

The following morning we had a continental breakfast served in the huge professional kitchen of our B&B. As we loaded the car for our first day of sightseeing, we noticed a sign in the neighbor’s yard stating that a B&B was illegal in the neighborhood!

Arriving back at the Halifax Harbor, we walked along the boardwalk with many eclectic shops, galleries and some of the city’s best restaurants. In the summer it is very crowded with tourists but on this rainy Tuesday morning there weren’t many people.

Visiting the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, we saw exhibits about the sinking of the Titanic, the 1917 Halifax Harbor Explosion, and the maritime history of Nova Scotia from small craft boat building to World War II Convoys. A film about the sinking of the Titanic explained its impact on the community of Halifax.

We drove to Dartmouth, a community on the eastern shore of Halifax Harbor. We stopped for lunch at The Canteen, the restaurant recommended by our waiter the night before.  The lobster crab roll on a homemade bun is what we came for and it was yummy!

Our next stop was the Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Locating where to enter the cemetery was confusing until we met a local couple walking their dog. They showed us where to enter the cemetery and which sections to visit.

On April 5, 1912, when the Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland, rescue ships were sent from Halifax because it was the nearest port city with rail connections. One hundred twenty-one Titanic victims are buried in three sections of the cemetery. Most grave sites are marked with small gray granite stones with the name and date of birth. Some families paid for larger markers with more inscriptions.

Leaving Halifax, we drove 26 miles southwest of downtown Halifax to Peggy’s Cove, a small fishing village with only 45 residents. The famous Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, established 1868, sits on a massive slab of granite. Signs warn visitors to not walk on the black rocks. Due to the force of the tide many who did not heed the warning  have been swept out to sea.

After a five-minute drive further along the South Shore, we stopped at the Swiss Air 111 Memorial. A short walking trail lead us to the memorial site which honors the 229 people who died on September 2, 1998 when the flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean five miles offshore of Halifax.

I wanted to visit the memorial to pay my respects to my friend, Suzanne Bittenbinder, who was a passenger on that flight. She was a flight attendant for United Airlines and we flew together often on flights from Miami to Brazil. As a child, Suzanne and her missionary parents lived in Brazil and she was fluent in Portuguese. Her other job, seminar coordinator, was the reason she was flying to Geneva, Switzerland. I along with many of Suzanne’s fellow crew members attended her memorial service in South Florida to mourn the loss of a beautiful, sweet, and hard-working young woman.

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Continuing our drive for another hour and a half, we arrived in Lunenburg, the largest of the South Shore fishing villages. Founded in 1753, it was settled by Germans, Swiss, and Protestant French.  Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995, it is considered the best example of a British colonial settlement in the region. Tourism is the main industry for the 2,263 residents.

After a couple wrong turns we located our charming B&B, Atlantic Sojourn. We were welcomed by Michelle, the owner’s daughter. The Edwardian-era home was built in 1905 by W.C. Smith, a prosperous local sea captain. Our upstairs bedroom with twin beds and a private bath was very comfortable. After storing our luggage we went to dinner at the Grand Banker Bar. We both had delicious seafood chowder.

Linda, the owner of the Atlantic Sojourn, and Michelle served a home cooked breakfast the next morning. We dined with the other guests at the B&B, two Canadian couples, and a Japanese daughter and mother, Toka and Toyo Yamada. Toka is working in Canada for four years as a policewoman in a reciprocal program between Japan and Canada. Her mother who lives near Tokyo was visiting her for a month.

On our drive out of Lunenburg we stopped to take photos of the famous three churches and a local shop ready for Halloween.

A thirty minute drive north took us to Oak Island, a 140 acre privately owned island located in Mahone Bay. On January 5, 2014, the history channel began a series called The Curse of Oak Island. For more than a century and a half, there have been treasure hunts, investigations and excavations on Oak Island. Because my son, Andrew, really enjoys the series, Donna and I visited the interpretation center where I bought him a T-shirt.  Leaving the shop I tried to take a picture of a film crew and was  warned by a guard that photography was not allowed.

Driving north for an hour and a half  through the scenic Annapolis Valley, an agricultural area with dairy farms and apple orchards, we stopped to buy a bag of local apples and strawberries from a man who was selling them from the back of his truck. In recent years grape vineyards have been established and there are several wineries in the area.

We stopped for lunch at the Crush Pad Bistro at the Luckett Winery. The owner, Pete Luckett, whose company Pete’s Fine Foods was one of Canada’s best known brands, was a TV personality for 14 years promoting the flavors and health benefits of exotic fruits and vegetables.

From the open air dining area we had beautiful views of the vineyard. I had a glass of pinot noir and Donna chose a sparkling white wine. We shared a cheese board with a dozen fine cheeses and a delicious kale salad “massaged” with a mango vinaigrette dressing. For dessert we enjoyed chocolate truffles.

Pete, who is from Great Britain, had a British phone booth installed in the middle of his vineyard. The guests are allowed to make a phone call anywhere in the world. Donna called her son, Greg, and I called my husband, Jeff. We enjoyed talking with our wait staff, Cael and Regan.

Driving thirty minutes we arrived at Halls Harbour Lobster Pound located on the Bay of Fundy. Having the highest tidal range in the world, we walked along the bay at low tide. Talking with the waitress, we were told that dinner was served until 8 pm. Checking the tide chart in the restaurant we planned to return for dinner and high tide later that evening. Driving to our hotel, The Old Orchard Inn, we checked in and relaxed for a couple of hours.

Arriving back at the restaurant at 7:30 pm the tide was not in and the lobster pots were turned off! Reminding the waitress about our afternoon conversation she had the kitchen staff turn the pots back on to cook our lobsters. We really enjoyed our delicious dinner and our conversation with our waitresses, Barbara and her niece Louise.

 

After a good night’s sleep, we drove thirty minutes to Wolfville. With a population of 7,000, half of them students, it is the home of Acadia University. We had breakfast at a coffee shop called Just Us.

Grand Pre, on the outskirts of Wolfville, is a small English-speaking town now. But from 1682 to 1755 the French-speaking settlers built dikes to hold back the tides in the marshland which created rich pastures for their animals and fertile fields for their crops. Grand Pre became the bread basket of Acadia.

In 1755 the British began deportation of the Acadians because they would not pledge their allegiance to the new British government. Many of their villages were burned to the ground. By 1763 more than 12,000 had been deported. Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline”, published in 1847, told the story of the expulsion of the French-speaking settlers.

Stopping at The Grand Pre National Historic Site which commemorates the Acadia settlement, we saw displays of how the dikes were built and the fields cultivated. A dramatic film about the deportation by the British was shown in the auditorium.

Walking through beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, we passed a statue of Evangeline on a path leading to a picturesque church.

Starting our long drive to Prince Edward island, we stopped after one and a half hours in Truro for lunch at a cute restaurant called The Nook and Cranny. We had fish tacos and french fries.

Continuing our drive for another two and a half hours we reached the eight mile long Confederation Bridge, the longest in the world covering ice-covered water. Crossing the  Northumberland Strait, we saw the red sand beaches along the shoreline of Prince Edward Island.

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Stopping at the visitor’s center, we got ice cream at the famous PEI creamery called Cows.  We learned that the $70 toll would be collected when we departed the island.

PEI is one of the three maritime provinces of eastern Canada and consists of the main island and 231 minor islands. The backbone of the economy is farming. It produces 25% of Canada’s potatoes. Around the world it is best known for being the site of “Ann of Green Gables” written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Charlottetown, the capital with a population of 36,094, hosted the conference in 1864 which spurred Canada’s birth. The area has many Victorian-era homes and buildings and the downtown section has lovely shops and restaurants.

Arriving at our B&B, the Dundee Arms, we were greeted by, Mahala, who was very helpful answering our questions about where to eat and what to see. We checked into our large room with twin beds and private bath.

We walked to the restaurant, Lobster on the Wharf, and were served a lobster tail and seafood chowder by David, our waiter, who spends three months every year in a condo in Ft. Myers, FL!

After a very comfortable night’s sleep, we walked to Victoria Park and to St. Dunstan’s Basilica. We stopped for a coffee and hot chocolate at Starbuck’s. We said goodby to lovely Mahala who we gifted with some of our apples and strawberries that we had purchased in the Annapolis Valley.

Our next stop was Cavendish, the hometown of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of “Ann of Green Gables.” We visited the House of Green Gables and then walked through the Haunted Woods to the original site of Lucy Maud’s home where the foundation of her home is all that remains.

Arriving at Wood Islands, we paid the $70 toll to take the Northumberland Ferry to Caribou, NS. While waiting for the ferry to load we got to meet some horses that were going to race that night in Pictou. During the 75 minute ferry we reviewed our driving directions to Cheticamp, our next stay.

It was late afternoon, so we stopped for an early dinner at the Stone Soup Café in Pictou, a town of 3,186 people. We had the best seafood chowder during our trip.

The drive to Cheticamp was 166 miles which took us about three hours. We called our motel to let them know we would be arriving late. Reaching the town of about 4,000 residents, we had to call a second time to ask where they were located.

Finally arriving at the Cornerstone Motel on the outskirts of town, we were greeted by Gary and his wife, the owners. They had bought the motel three years previously knowing that it needed a lot of work. They had done a great job of updating the property.

After telling Gary about our plan to drive the Cabot Trail the next day, he marked the most scenic sights on our map. Thanks to him we were able to see the most beautiful spots in just one day. Two places, Meat Cove and White Point, we wouldn’t have seen without his recommendation.

After a breakfast of local bakery items the next morning, we drove to Cape Breton Highlands National Park where we checked in as visitors. We got a Discovery Pass in Halifax which allowed us to visit all the national sites for free because of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada. The National Park has camp sites, hiking trails, kayaking, fishing, and whale watching and is very busy during the summer months.

The Cabot Trail which is touted as being one of the most scenic drives on the planet is a 185 mile loop around Cape Breton Island. It was a perfect day with clear blue skies and mild temperature. We stopped to take pictures at many breathtaking spots.

Meat Cove was reached by a long winding drive on an unpaved road. There was a protected fishing cove with fishing boats and lobster traps.

Driving further southwest we parked our car on an unpaved section of road. Walking through a rugged windswept landscape along the Atlantic Ocean, we passed a memorial to lost sailors, a cross, and finally arrived at the tip called White Point. What a spectacular view we were rewarded with at the end of our thirty minute walk.

Continuing our drive to Sydney, we stopped for an ice cream and both chose maple flavored ice cream, a real Canadian treat.

Checking in to our hotel, Cambridge Suites, we made reservations at a restaurant called Flavours. Walking ten minutes along the waterfront we arrived for dinner and sat at a table by the water. Our waitress, Amber, was very friendly. Talking about politics, we told her how much we like Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

She left quickly to get her cell phone to show us a picture of her with PM Trudeau. He had been at a meeting that was held in the building where the restaurant was located. Walking out of the meeting, he apologized to her and a co-worker because the restaurant had to be closed during the meeting. She said he was charming and handsome.

The following morning we drove to the National Historic Site, Fortress Louisbourg. Construction on the original fort was started in 1719. During the 18th century the possession of the fortress changed several times between the French and the British.

In 1961 the Canadian government began a historical reconstruction of one-quarter of the town and fortress as it was in the mid 18th century. During our tour we learned from reenactors what life was like during that time. A guard explained the hierarchy that existed within the military personnel. A maid demonstrated some of the kitchen devices which existed at that time. Hot chocolate made from a recipe of the time was served to us in the kitchen.

We toured the site on our own, walking into many of the buildings which were replicas of those during the 18th century.

Leaving the Fortress, we drove through Louisbourg which today is one of the busiest crab and lobster fishing villages in the Canadian Maritimes. Arriving at Lighthouse Point, we saw the fourth structure built on this site which is an active lighthouse.

It was an hour and a half drive to our last sightseeing stop, the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Museum in Baddeck. It is a ten-acre property overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes located across the bay from Bell’s estate, Beinn Bhreagh.

The museum contains the actual artifacts and documents from Bell’s years of experimental work while staying at his estate. Inventions include the Silver Dart, the airplane that achieved Canada’s first powered flight, the world’s fastest boat at the time, advanced recording devices, giant kites and the telephone.

It was dark in Halifax after our three and a half hour drive from Baddeck. We finally realized the bridge our GPS was routing us to was closed. Stopping to ask how to get to downtown Halifax, we were told to take the ferry from Dartmouth. Parking at the ferry terminal, we bought a round trip ticket.

On the ferry we met Monique, who moved to Halifax six months ago and works as an accountant. She was going home after an evening of listening to her favorite band at a pub in Dartmouth. She walked with us to Salty’s, the restaurant where we planned to have dinner. We enjoyed our last lobster roll and of course french fries.

Arriving at the Holiday Inn near the Halifax airport around 11 pm, we took showers and fell into bed. We were happy to sleep late the following morning before our flight back to the US.

Nova Scotia which means “New Scotland” is two-thirds the size of Scotland. Driving fourteen hundred miles in seven days we saw many highlights of the area. We learned about the history of Nova Scotia, dined on delicious fresh seafood and saw gorgeous landscapes. We enjoyed meeting many interesting, friendly, helpful and well-mannered Canadians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Trip to Cuba

Living in Miami from 1969 until 2003, our family had Cuban-American co-workers, neighbors, friends, and classmates. We heard many stories about how their families arrived in the US after the Cuban revolution in 1959. News articles kept us informed of changes in US and Cuban government policies and how they impacted the lives of those still in Cuba and those now living in the US.  We were well aware of the divide within the Cuban-American community between the hardliners who insisted the American embargo continue until Cuba was free of its dictator and those who wanted to end the embargo to help eliminate the hardships which the Cuban people experience on a daily basis.

As an airline pilot based in Miami, once in the 1990’s I got to see Cuba from the air. My flights to and from South America were at night so I only saw the lights of Cuba as we flew over in the dark. On a delayed flight to Miami, we flew over the island during daylight hours. My first thought was how big the island looked. The countryside was lush with green vegetation. The northern shoreline was lined with beautiful white beaches and clear turquoise water. I hoped to be able to see Cuba from the ground someday.

Since the US embargo in 1962, Americans were not permitted to travel directly to Cuba. In 2015 when President Obama renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Americans soon would be allowed to travel there without prior permission from the government.

Jordan, our older son, went to Cuba last summer with CubaOne, a foundation which helps a new generation of Cubans and Cuban Americans build relationships. Jordan’s friend, Daniel Jimenez, who started CubaOne asked him to document a trip. Finding Cuba fascinating, Jordan encouraged us to travel there.

The rule since 2016 requires that a US citizen’s visit to Cuba fall within one of 12 approved categories: family visits; official business of the US government; journalistic activity; professional research; educational activities; religious activities; public performances; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundation; exportation of information; and certain authorized export transactions.

Reading travel books, blogs and watching many YouTube videos, I decided where to go and what to see. My friend Rebecca, who had traveled to Cuba, suggested that I read “Havana Real”, by Yoani Sanchez. One of the first bloggers in Cuba, her book is a collection of her posts from 2007 until 2011. It reveals the hardships of life in Cuba.

Here are some facts about Cuba

  • Size – Largest island in the Caribbean, slightly smaller than Pennsylvania
  • Population – 11.4 million (2017), 19.1% live in Havana
  • Ethnic groups – 51% mulatto, 37% white, 11% black, 1% Chinese
  • Life expectancy – 78 years, median age of population – 39.5 years
  • Literacy rate – 99.7%
  • Low birthrate – 1.6 births per woman (2016)
  • Maternity leave – Women who have public sector jobs receive 60 per cent of their salary monthly
  • Free education, free health care, food subsidies
  • Home ownership – 85%, no homeless
  • Industries the government owns – sugar, tobacco, coffee, construction, nickel, steel, cement, agricultural machinery, pharmaceutical, petroleum
  • The government controls banking, communications, transportation, land, buildings, education, hospitals, natural resources, electricity, water, food production
  • 72% of workforce are in government jobs, 28% in private enterprise
  • Monthly salary of government employees – $25
  • 200 categories of private enterprise allowed since 2008
  • 535,000 Cubans work in private sector
  • 4,000 paladares (private owned restaurants)
  • 28,000 rooms in private owned casa particulares
  • 4 million tourists in 2016
  • Less than 5% of Cubans have access to the Internet
  • El paquete semanal – ( The weekly package) One terabyte of digital material weekly via the black market. Can get TV series, soap operas, music and films. Since 2015 main source of entertainment for millions of Cubans for CUC$1
  • CUC – peso convertible, currency used by tourists, 1 CUC = 1 USD
  • CUP – moneda nacional, currency used by Cubans, 25 CUPs = 1 CUC

In 1994 to help a weak economy after the Soviets left, the two currency system was implemented. The government opened dollar stores to sell luxury goods to tourists. More and more goods were priced in US dollars. In 2004 the US dollar was removed from circulation and replaced by the convertible peso or CUC. Tourists exchange foreign currency into CUCs at Cadecas or Cuban banks. There is a 3% charge for major currencies except the US dollar for which there is an extra 10% charge.

Jordan suggested that we stay in either Habana Vieja (Old Havana) or Vedado. After many online searches for casa particulares and Airbnb listings in both areas, I chose  Apartamento Plaez with two bedrooms and two baths in Vedado. The cost was $534 USD for 7 nights, June 8 through June 15.

After making reservations on American Airlines for my younger son, Andrew, and I, Cuba Travel Services contacted me. I was told how to obtain and fill out our Cuban Visas and where to check in at the Miami Airport. Upon receipt of the visas via FedEx, I filled in the blank stating that the purpose of our trip was “support for the Cuban people.”

Upon arrival at the Miami airport we exchanged our US dollars into Canadian dollars to avoid the 10% charge for US dollars in Cuba. Checking in at the Cuba desk at American Airlines, we showed our Cuba Visas. With only carry-on bags we proceeded to the boarding gate. Once on board our full flight we were delayed for an hour due to thunderstorms in the area.

After a 46 minute flight, we arrived at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Proceeding to immigration, we showed our US passports and Cuba Visas to the officer. She instructed us not to smile as she took our picture. We walked to the exit and were waved through by a female custom inspector. We went upstairs to exchange our Canadian dollars into convertible pesos (CUCs).

Once outside we hailed a Cubataxi. Because taxis don’t have meters, it is necessary to negotiate a fare before you get in. We agreed on 25$CUCs for the 25 minute ride to our apartment in Vedado.

Upon arrival at the apartment, we were met by Enrique and Raiza who showed us around the apartment.

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Andrew, Enrique, Susan and Raiza

A wrought iron fence surrounded the sidewalk leading to a tiled front porch with two rocking chairs.  Inside the apartment was a sitting area with a wall mounted TV which opened to a fully equipped kitchen. Off the hallway was a large bedroom, then one bathroom, and finally a bedroom and bath suite. There were wall unit air conditioners in each bedroom. If you wanted breakfast it was served in the main house for CUCs$5 per person. The apartment was located on Calle 23 which is a main thoroughfare, so it was easy to get a taxi whenever we needed a ride.

We also met Israel, the son of the owner, Pilar. According to him, the original single family mansion was built in 1911. After the revolution, it was divided it into three homes which were assigned to loyal party members. Starting in 1997 when casa particulares were allowed, Cubans could rent a portion of their home to tourists or friends. In 2011 the government allowed Cubans to purchase residential property. After Pilar purchased the building it was remodeled. Her family lives in the main two-story portion and the ground floor apartments are rented to tourists.

We took with us large packages of chewing gum, Oreos, Goldfish, granola bars, and dog bones. We also brought coloring books, crayons, pencils, glow sticks, toothbrushes, combs, make-up, battery operated fans and rawhide chews for dogs. We filled plastic bags with treats to give to every Cuban we met. Andrew brought a laptop to give away.

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Habana Vieja (Old Havana)

In 1982 Unesco named Havana Vieja a world heritage site. In an area of 4.5 square miles there are 900 buildings that are historically important. Five hundred were built in the 19th century, 200 in the 18th century, and 144 built in the 16th and 17th century. Only 101 were built in the 20th century. Architectural styles include colonial, Baroque, art nouveau, Art Deco and neoclassical buildings. Some have stately balconies, limestone columns, and wrought iron gates.

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959 the government seized all businesses and buildings. Some buildings were converted into government offices. Some mansions of wealthy Cubans and Americans were subdivided for multiple family housing. All Cubans were assessed and housing was assigned according to family size and loyalty to the government.

A goal of the socialist revolution in 1959 was economic equality for everyone. Most of its efforts were concentrated in rural areas. Little money was allocated for building maintenance and infrastructure in Havana. With the harsh tropical climate and lack of maintenance, many buildings began decaying. After the US embargo began in 1962, building supplies were hard to get.

In 1979, Eusebio Leal Spengler, the head of the Office of Historian Authority, began a decades long plan to renovate  the most important buildings. By 1981, eleven million had been spent to renovate 30 buildings. In 1993 during the “Special Period”, after the end of Soviet subsidies, Castro allowed Spengler to set up a tourist-management company called Habaguanex. It now owns 20 hotels, 40 restaurants, 50 bars, cafes and dozen of stores. Its revenues in 2012 were $119 million with $23 million in profits. From these revenues, one-third is used for further renovations and one-third is used for social programs. Since 1979 four hundred buildings have been restored. We saw some buildings that are being restored and many more in need of restoration.

 

Sightseeing in Habana Vieja

Plaza de Armas In colonial times the square was the site of military parades, musical concerts and formal evening promenades. It maintained its political and administrative role until the mid 20th century. It is a shady park surrounded by many important buildings, El Templete, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Santa Isabel Hotel and Castillo de la Real Fuerza. A statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, father of the nation is in the center of the park.

 

Plaza Vieja – The original plaza was laid out in 1559 and was used for markets, festivals, processions, bullfights and executions. It is surrounded by important colonial buildings which have been restored to house commercial establishments on the ground floors and housing on the upper floors. At the center is a replica of an 18th century fountain that was torn down when the plaza was used as a parking lot for most of the last half of the 20th century. Both tourists and locals enjoy the plaza.

Plaza de San Francisco – It was the third plaza laid out in Havana. First used as a marketplace in the 1500s. The Basilica de San Francisco de Assisi was built in 1608. Across the street on the waterfront is the Sierra Maestra cruise ship terminal. The Stock Exchange and banks are on the northern side. Points of interest – The Lion’s fountain carved in 1836 by Giuseppe Gaggini, the bronze sculpture, La Conversacion by French artist, Etienne, The Gentleman from Paris, a statue of a boy with Francis de Assisi, and Chopin seated on a bench.

Plaza de la Catedral – This cobblestone square is surrounded by colonial era buildings and palaces. The Havana Cathedral was built in 1727 in the Baroque style. The interior is neoclassical with white and black marble floors. There are three naves, massive stone pillars, and eight side chapels. The bell towers are lit up at night.

El Malecon– The five-mile promenade and seawall which begins in Havana Vieja, runs along the north side of Centro Habana and ends in Vedado. Designed as a seawall to protect the city, construction began in 1901 and finished in the 1930s. It is where Cuban families and couples stroll or hang out on a hot night. It is considered Havana’s “outdoor lounge.”

Museo de Arte Colonial – The museum is housed in a 17th century mansion in Plaza de la Catedral. There is a large inner courtyard surrounded by galleries containing a wide variety of colonial art, furnishings, glass work, and porcelain. The upstairs bedrooms are furnished with period pieces. Admission – CUC$3

Parque Central – The park was completed in 1877. The statue of Jose Marti in Carrara white marble was added in 1905. It is surrounded by 28 palm trees representing his birthdate, January 28. Trees, fountains and sculptures were added to the park after 1959. Significant buildings surrounding the park are El Gran Teatro de la Habana, the Inglaterra Hotel and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The hot corner, esquina caliente, is where baseball is passionately discussed.  A fountain, trees and grass were added after 1959.

El Capitolio– Modeled after the US Capitol although slightly bigger, it has been closed for restoration since 2010. The entrance hall has a replica of a 25-carat diamond embedded in the floor from which all highway distances from Havana are measured. The Statue of the Republic, a 56 foot tall Roman goddess, is covered in gold leaf. The dome is 302 feet high.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza – Built in the 16th century, it is the oldest fort in the hemisphere. The medieval style walls are 18 feet wide and 30 feet tall. It was too small and too far away from the harbor entrance to be very effective. Tourists enter a courtyard filled with cannons, then cross a drawbridge to enter the stone battlements. Exhibits feature items found in shipwrecks. Admission – CUC$5

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – Housed in two buildings, the one we visited has a large central courtyard on the first floor which gives the building a lot of light. On the second floor are works of art from the 1950s to the 1990s. On the third floor there are 16th – 19th century colonial religious paintings, portraits, street scenes and landscapes. In two rooms there are modern artists starting from 1927. Admission – CUC$5

Museo de la Revolucion – The exhibits start with the 1953 barracks attacks in Santiago and continue through the Fidel Castro 1959 revolution. The glass enclosed Granma, the boat that brought Fidel, Che and 80 fighters from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, is next door surrounded by rockets, a tank, an airplane, and the eternal flame.  Admission – CUC$8

The Hall of Cretins in Museo de la Revolucion – left to right – Batista, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush

Museo Numismatico – It has approximately 50 million dollars in value of medals, coins and banknotes from around the world. There is a 20 peso coin, the only one of ten that were produced. The museum is housed in the former Banco Mendoza built in the early 20th century. This was Andrew’s favorite museum. Admission – Free

Museo Armeria – On April 9, 1958, the Gunsmith Company store was raided by the organizers of the July 26 movement to overthrow Batista. Four young revolutionaries were killed. After the Revolution in January 1959, this store was declared a National Historic Site. In 1971 it opened as a museum and in 1993 it became a part of the office of the Historian of the City. Among the collection are the M2 carbine used by Che Guevara and a pistol used by Fidel Castro. Admission – Free, donations are requested

Michelle Obama’s Present to the Cuban People – In a park at the Martinez Villena public library in Plaza las Armas is a bench that was dedicated to the Cuban people by Michelle Obama after she and the President visited Cuba in March, 2016.
La Forteleza de San Carlos de la Cabana – Built between 1764 and 1774 this fort is a miniature city perched on a hill overlooking the harbor and Havana Vieja. It has several exhibition halls, restaurants and shops. There is a room where Che Guevara set up a command post after the 1959 revolution. An honor guard in 18th century dress parades from the fort to ceremoniously fire a cannon precisely at 9 pm every night. Admission CUC$6, CUC$8 with a guide

Calle Obispo – Originally the street was laid out in 1519 to protect people from the sun. Now this pedestrian street is a great place for the locals and tourists to stroll. It’s lined with shops selling handicrafts, art, and books, plus there are many bars and restaurants.

Our ride in a vintage car – Most tourists hire a driver of an antique car for a ride through the city. We rode in Roberto’s beautiful 1946 Chevrolet convertible from the Museo de Revolucion to our apartment in Vedado. Riding along El Malecon with beautiful views of the Straits of Florida off our right and the wind blowing through our hair was a Havana highlight for us! CUC$20

Vintage Cars – Havana is known as a city living in a time capsule. Many wealthy Cubans had American cars. Since the Revolution in 1959, these cars have been lovingly maintained without the benefit of American parts due to the US embargo. Many of these cars are parked outside the museums and hotels waiting for tourists who want to ride around Habana Vieja.

 

Paseo del Prado – This one half mile long tree-lined boulevard runs from the harbor to Parque Central. Starting in 1772 it was Havana’s most important boulevard. Beautiful mansions were built along the boulevard. It was remodeled to its present form in 1929. It has an elevated central walkway with marble benches and eight bronze lions strategically placed. We saw children being taught art alfresco.

Habana Vieja Paladares – Since the fall of 2010 when Raul Castro permitted greater self employment, many private restaurants called paladares have opened. When I received the June issue of Food and Wine, I was thrilled to read an article called “The Ultimate Eater’s Guide to Havana.” We ate in several paladares mentioned in the article.

Dona Eutimia – Callejon del Chorro 60, an alleyway off the Cathedral Plaza We ate there twice because it was our favorite restaurant. For lunch Andrew had ropa vieja made with lamb and I had seafood kebob (plachon de pescado) and beans and rice. We had flan and a brownie for dessert. The frozen mojito was the best I had in Cuba. For dinner two nights later, I had the seafood kabob, Andrew had the breaded pork. We also had beans, rice and fried plantains. I gave Ricardo, the maitre d’, the Food and Wine Magazine with the article about the restaurant. In the picture below is Ricardo on the left with his staff. Lunch – CUC$40, Dinner – CUC$60

Cafe O’Reilly – 304 O’Reilly – This small restaurant had four tables downstairs, seating for 5 at the bar, and one table upstairs. I had a delicious mango mojito. We had empanadas and shrimp grilled in garlic.  CUC$27

Mama Ines – Calle Obrapia 60 – The chef used to cook for Fidel. For lunch we had eggplant lasagna, croquetas, and homemade bread. CUC$33

Ivan Chef Justo – Calle Aguacate 9 – For dinner I had a vegetable plate and Andrew had the suckling pig. We also had beans, rice, tostones, a pina colada and a lemonade frappe. CUC$56

Factoria – On the corner of Plaza Vieja – A large restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. There was usually a band playing outside. It is a brewery serving tall carafes of beer and food. I had a dark beer and Andrew had a frozen lemonade. CUC$7

Hotel Ambos Mundos – Calle Obispo 153 – The hotel where Ernest Hemingway started and finished several books. You can visit room 511 which is where he wrote parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls. We had drinks in the piano bar. CUC$8

Sia Kara Cafe – 502 Calle Industria near El Capitolo – Laritza, the owner, made the best pina colada I’ve ever had. It was so good I had to have another. Andrew had a lemonade frappe. It became his favorite drink. For lunch we had french fries and empanadas. In the picture below is the owner, Laritza, second from the left, with her staff. Her husband Gerald, who is French, is not in the picture. CUC$28

 

Churros – Our favorite churros were from a stand near Plaza Vieja. CUC$1

La Imprenta, Calle Mercaderes 208 – The restaurant was restored on top of the ruins of a printing house from the 19th century. For dinner we both had pasta with shrimp. CUC$21

Vedado – A large, mostly residential neighborhood a few miles west of Old Havana. It was a closed military defense during colonization by the Spanish, hence the name; “Vedado”  “forbidden”. Residential development began in the mid-1850’s with a grid system where the streets are numbered and lettered. After Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish-American War, many American investors and wealthy Cubans built mansions in Vedado.

Famous hotels are the Hotel Nacional, the Capri, and the Riviera. In the 1950s, U.S. mobsters ran the casinos where many celebrities, socialites and American tourists came to gamble and enjoy the many nightclubs.

After the Revolution all the hotels, nightclubs, and homes of the wealthy were seized by the government. Some mansions were subdivided into multiple family housing, others were turned into office space for government entities. Some of these mansions have been beautifully restored, others are in disrepair or have even collapsed.

Sightseeing in Vedado

Cementerio de Cristobal Colon – Located on 140 acres, it was established in 1876. It contains one million graves and more than 500 major mausoleums, many made of Carrera marble. One is a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta which was built in the 1950s by a wealthy family. It was never used because they fled Cuba after Castro came to power in 1959.

 

Parque John Lennon – Fidel dedicated the bronze statue of John Lennon seated on a bench in 2000. A music concert is held there on December 8th, the day he was killed. His sunglasses have been stolen so many times, a government employee is in charge of them.

Fabrica de Arte Cubano – It is a unique art museum with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and DJs housed in an old electrical company. When you enter you receive a card on which your purchases are listed and you pay when you leave. Admission CUC$2

Restaurants in Vedado

King’s Bar and Restaurant Calle 23 between D and E – It was a 10 minute walk from our apartment to this bar and grill. We ordered grilled pork, grilled fish, beans, rice, a mojito and water. CUC$30

Vampirito – Calle 6 between 19 and 21 – Only a five minute walk from our apartment, it was located downstairs in a residential building. The menu had  breakfast items, sandwiches, and burgers. Andrew had a pork sandwich and I had an omelet and toast. The young staff and waiters were very friendly. CUC$10

El Cocinero – Calle 26, between 11 and 13 – Located beneath a brick chimney which once was a vegetable oil factory, the bar and restaurant are up three flights of stairs. We had grilled pork, grilled fish, empanadas, a mojito and water. CUC$34

Atelier – Paseo Y 2 – ( no picture) This paladar was once a large mansion located near El Malecon. We had asparagus with cheese, chicken and beef fajitas, grilled shrimp, beans and rice. CUC$32

Decameron – Corner of Linea and Paseo – It is one of the oldest paladares in the city. We sat in a small room filled with antique clocks. For dinner we had tostones, penne with shrimp, homemade bread, shrimp with pineapple and ginger sauce, and lemon pie. CUC$50

French Bakery – It is located on the ground floor of a large mansion across the street from Lennon Park. Once we found it we bought croissants, lemon tarts and chocolate eclairs almost daily.

Vintage Cars we saw in Vedado

Our Day Trip to Vinales –  We hired Alexander to take us to Vinales, a rural town in the heart of tobacco growing region in western Cuba. It was a 3 hour drive each way in his 1946 Plymouth. There wasn’t much traffic once we were out of Havana. We bounced along due to the many potholes in the highway.

Before we reached the town we visited a small tobacco farm and toured the barn where the leaves are dried. We purchased a bundle of 10 cigars made from their tobacco. We drove past groves of mango trees loaded with fruit. Alexander stopped to buy some. They were juicy and sweet.

Vinales, founded in 1875, has a population of 27,000 peopleIt is in the center of a flat valley surrounded by karst hill formations locally called mogotes. The wide main street was lined with arcades painted in different colors. We ate at an open air cafe where grilled chicken was the specialty. We had grilled tuna, grilled chicken, beans, rice and fruit salad. CUCs$150 for the day drive, CUCS$43 lunch for 3 people

Locals we met in Cuba – We spoke Spanish or English with as many people as we could during our trip. We wanted to know what it is like living in Cuba.

Clara – (no picture) – A waitress who told us she had moved from Santa Clara to work in Havana. She complained that she wasn’t being paid fairly for the number of hours she works. Each week she takes a two-hour bus trip to Mantanzas where she is studying sociology in college. Because commuting is difficult she isn’t sure she can continue her studies.

Juan – (no picture) He was our waiter at a restaurant near our apartment. He has relatives living in FL, TX, and NY. He makes CUC$150 a month as a waiter and tour guide. He offered to take Andrew and I to Vinales for CUC$400! His wife works at a bank and makes CUC$45 a month. She is pregnant with their first child. According to Juan her job will be held until she returns to work when their child is two to three years old. His family gets “el paquete” every week. He loves living in Havana.

Enrique – He is an English teacher and also helps Pilar’s guests with any requests they might have. He made certain that we had everything we needed during our stay. Andrew gave him the laptop computer. Enrique said it would be very helpful when teaching his students.

Raiza – Working as a maid at the apartments where we stayed, Raiza kept our apartment very clean and well provisioned. She is very sweet and has a dog named Chulo.

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Israel –  (no photo) He is the son of Pilar, the owner of Apartamento Plaez. Graduating soon from medical school, he lives with his grandmother, Magalys, in the two story portion of the building.  His mother is a lawyer working in Honduras. She travels home often.

Alexander – He was our driver for our trip to Vinales and to the airport on our departure. His grandfather immigrated to Cuba from Jamaica. Married to a lawyer, they have a 9-year-old daughter and are expecting their second child soon.

Margarita – We met her in the Plaza de Armas where she goes every afternoon to care for five street dogs. The dogs are sterilized, vaccinated, and tagged. The day we met her she had chicken, rice, and water for her dogs named Vladimir, Canela, Aparicio, Leon and Carinoso.  We gave her two big bags of dog bones and money to help her care for more street dogs.

Luis, Barbara, Rachel and Jorge – We met them one night when we walked to El Malecon. They were celebrating Jorge’s 9th birthday. We gave them packages of glow sticks and showed them how to wear them as bracelets. The mother was very excited and wanted to be the first to wear one.

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Beatriz – She was our guide at the fort. After our tour, we gave her CUC$10, which she said was equal to half of her monthly government salary.

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Andres – Our waiter at Factoria in Plaza Vieja. He is also a baseball umpire. Married to a woman in San Francisco, CA, he wants to move to the US and work as a baseball umpire.

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Two female guides – They welcomed us as we reached the second floor of the Museo de Arte Colonial. One guide asked us furtively in Spanish for something for her child. We gave them money, Oreos, and chewing gum.

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Carlos – We met him at the Cadeca in the Hotel Nacional. He had applied for a US visa and was hoping to receive it soon.

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Julio- (no picture) He was the owner of the tobacco farm that we visited in Vinales.  He showed us his commercial driver’s license from Texas where he worked for seven years. He moved back to live on his tobacco farm with his wife.

Roberto – The owner of the beautiful yellow convertible that we rode in from Havana Vieja to our apartment. He lives in Vedado near our apartment and has a daughter in the US. IMG_0470

Omar – Our taxi driver from our apartment to the restaurant, El Cocinero in Vedado. His car was a 1954 Ford with a diesel engine. (on left below)

Orestes – Our taxi driver from our apartment to the Museo de Revolucion – He has a wife and four children. (on right below)

Tourists we met in Cuba

Marjorie, her niece Mecca, and friends, Adrienne and Lauren –  They were staying in the apartment next to us. The day we met they went going to the beach in Varadero to celebrate Marjorie’s birthday. The last time she was in Cuba was 2000 when she had lunch with Fidel Castro! I got to see the picture of her with Fidel. Marjorie is a lawyer, a civil rights activist, a writer and presently working in government. Adrienne is a managing partner in a media group. Mecca is studying film in college. Picture on right – left to right – Marjorie, Adrianne, Lauren, Mecca

Jessica and Iggy  – Jessica is a marketing consultant and works with Major League Soccer. Iggy, her boyfriend, played baseball in college and now works for NYU. His parents are Cuban-American so he wanted to visit the island. We sat next to them during dinner at the rooftop restaurant and bar, El Cocinero. During a torrential rain we huddled under awnings trying to stay dry. We saw them later that night at Fabrica de Arte Cubano.

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Hector  – We met him at Fabrica de Arte Cubano. His family is from the Dominican Republic. Working as a financial analyst at Nine West, he lives in NYC. He loves to travel and recently visited Japan. Friends traveled to Cuba with him for the weekend.

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Ryan – We dined next to him at La Imprenta. It was his first visit to Havana. Born in Hong Kong, he now lives in Miami where he works for Royal Caribbean. He graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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Margaret – Her parents are Cuban-American and this was her first visit to Cuba. She lives in San Francisco and is a manager for a vascular medical device company. Bringing three suitcases of medical equipment to Cuba, she planned to deliver them to hospitals.

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During our trip we could see how changes in Cuban government policies are affecting the economic welfare of some Cubans.

Three quarters of Cuba’s workforce are still making $25 a month in government jobs. Even with free medical care, education, housing and weekly rationed goods, they struggle to provide for their families.

Since 2008 when Raul Castro approved 200 private enterprise jobs, over a half million Cubans are now self-employed. The estimate is that a self-employed person is making eight times what a government employee makes.

Cubans working in the tourist industry as waiters, waitresses, taxi drivers, tour guides, paladares and casa particulares owners receive CUCs as payment for services and tips from tourists. Since the buying power of one CUC equals 25 CUPs they can afford to buy what were once considered luxury items such as TVs, cell phones, computers, microwaves and home appliances.

The goal of the Cuban revolution in 1959 was to create a classless society with everyone making the same salary regardless of their profession. That isn’t the reality now as more and more Cubans working in the private sector, especially in tourism, are making more money than the government employees.

According to a government statement, “We will keep control of banking, communications, and transportation. We will continue promoting co-operatives more than private businesses. We don’t want to permit people to get rich.

The government pledges to continue protecting Cubans even though some policies are being changed. “We will make all these changes but no one will be unprotected. Socialism is irreversible in this country and we have to guarantee the revolution’s victories – health, education and social support.”

We are fortunate to have been able to travel to Cuba. The Cuban people were friendly, welcoming and helpful. During times of hardship they have thrived because they are resilient and resourceful. When we asked people if life is improving for them, the answer usually was “poco a poco,” little by little.

President Trump’s announcement about possible changes affecting travel to Cuba was made the day after we returned home. We hope there won’t be a change in US government policy making it difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba. There are economic benefits to the Cuban people as more tourists visit their beautiful island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SACRED VALLEY & MACHU PICCHU

Jordan, Jeff, Jane Clark, and I went to Peru in March 2017.

Cusco airport

Our Itinerary:

  1. 3/17/17 – Arrived in Lima, Peru
  2. 3/18/17 – 3-20/17 – Cusco, Peru
  3. 3/20/17 – Hired taxi to Ollantaytambo, Peru
  4. 3/21/17 – 3/24/17 – Jordan and Susan trekked to Machu Picchu
  5. 3/21/17 – 3/24/17 – Jeff and Jane, Aguas Calientes
  6. 3/24/17 – Reunited at Machu Picchu, took train to Ollantaytambo, bus to Cusco
  7. 3/25/17 – Flew to Lima, toured the city, and celebrated Susan and Jeff’s 70th birthdays at La Mar, a Gaston Acurio restaurant
  8. 3/26/17 – Arrived in the US

Inca Civilization Facts

  • 16 Inca Emperors from about 1250 AD – 1533 AD
  • Pachacutec, who ruled from 1438 – 1471 AD, founded the Inca Empire with conquests in the Cusco Valley and beyond
  • The Inca Empire stretched from the border of Ecuador and Columbia to 50 miles south of modern day Santiago, Chile
  • 10 – 12 million people lived under the Imperial government which exercised political, religious, and administrative control
  • The Sacred Valley, the heartland of the Inca Empire, runs west to east along the Urubamba River from Cusco to Machu Picchu
  • Agricultural terraces were built up hillsides flanking the valley floor
  • Cusco became the imperial city of the Empire under Pachacutec
  • Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco, was the exact center of the Empire and surrounded by Inca palaces
  • The Temple of the Sun with gold plates on the interior walls was the most important place of worship in the Empire
  • Inti, the Sun God, was worshipped
  • Expert metalworkers made beautiful objects of gold and silver which were used by the upper class of priests, lords, and the Emperor
  • Maize, a prestige crop, was used to make chicha, a fermented drink consumed in large quantities at ceremonial feasts and religious festivals
  • Spoken language, Quechua
  • No written language

Inca Society

  • Sapa Inca – the Emperor
  • Noble families of pure Inca blood – 500 males, 1800 people total
  • Nobles held the government, military, and religious positions
  • Panacas, Royal household which protected the Emperor’s mummy and wealth after his death
  • Hahua Incas, adopted from neighboring cultures
  • Provincial nobility, ethnic Lords put in place by Incas
  • Hatun Runa, “Big Men”, head of households
  • The Hatun Runa paid taxes to the imperial government with labor service
  • Each year a household owed 3 months of labor service
  • Extra food and supplies provided by laborers were stored by the government
  • Food and supplies were distributed to the people when needed
  • The government provided chicha (maize beer) during festivals and ritual food for feasts
  • Every person was fed and clothed by the government

Inca Religion

  • Viracocha, the great creator of the Andean people
  • Inti, the Son God was the Inca patron
  • Major Gods included Illap, God of thunder; Pachamama, the Earth Mother; Mamacocha, the Sea Goddess; and Mama Quilla, the Moon Goddess
  • Haucas, objects that represent something that is revered such as a mountain peaks

Spanish Conquest – 1532 – 1572 AD

Francisco Pizarro lead an army of 180 men up the Andes Mountains arriving in the Inca town of Cajamarca on November 15, 1532. Atahuallpa, the 13th Inca Emperor, was invited by Pizarro to attend a feast in his honor. The Emperor was given a Bible and asked  to accept the sovereignty of Emperor Charles V and Christianity. He flung the bible to the ground. Pizarro ordered an immediate attack. Thousands of Incas were killed and Atahuallpa was taken prisoner. A ransom of 24 tons of gold and silver were offered for his release. After receiving the treasure, instead of being freed, Atahuallpa was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die. On August 29, 1533, the Inca Emperor was choked to death with an iron collar.

In November 1533, Pizarro marched on Cusco and the capital fell without a fight. Pizarro became the Spanish governor of the Inca Empire. Manco Capac was installed as a puppet ruler. In 1536, he escaped from Spanish supervision and led an unsuccessful uprising that was quickly crushed. That marked the end of Inca resistance against Spanish rule.

Cusco

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  • Oldest continually inhabited city in The Americas
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Elevation – 11,152 feet
  • Population – 348,935 (2005 census)
  • In the 15th century it became the capital of the Tawantinsuyu Inca Empire
  • The Inca urban compound contained religious, administrative functions and housing for the rulers with areas for agriculture, artisan, and industrial functions
  • Stone construction technology was used by Incas in building Temple of the Sun and other buildings
  • After the Spanish conquest, the urban design was maintained but baroque churches, monasteries and manor houses were built over the Inca structures
  • It became one of the most important centers of religious art creation on the continent

Sights we saw in Cusco

Plaza de Armas – When it was center of the Inca Empire, the Plaza was surrounded by palaces and gold filled temples. After the Spanish conquest it remained an important spot where historical events took place. Now balconied buildings filled with restaurants and shops surround the plaza. A statue of Pachacutec is in the center of the fountain.

Fountain

Pachacutec

Sacsayhuaman -The Incan military fortress overlooking Cusco was built by thousands of workers over seven decades. It had a double wall, made of massive stones weighing up to 125 tons. It once had enough rooms to house a garrison of 5000 soldiers. Only 20% of the original complex is left because the conquering Spanish used the fortress stones to build over the Inca sites in Cusco.

Entryway at Sacsawayman

Sacsayhuaman

Cathedral

Cusco Cathedral

Cusco Cathedral – Started in 1559 and completed in 1669. It was built in the Renaissance style with 3 aisle nave and 14 massive pillars. The solid silver altar weighs 881 pounds. It has a famous painting by Marcus Zapata of the Last Supper with the Disciples and Christ dining on guinea pig.

San Miguel Market – A local market with vendors selling meats, vegetables, grains, flowers, coffee, textiles, and souvenirs.

Jane's pictures 2

San Miguel Market

Hatunrumiyoc – A 700 year old twelve angled stone set in the middle of an Incan wall on a narrow cobbled stone street near the Plaza de Armas. The Incas are known for their stone masonry without the use of mortar.

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Hatunrumiyoc

Museo Casa Concha – A Spanish colonial mansion which houses the largest collection of Machu Picchu artifacts in the world. The museum quality items were returned from Yale University in 2011, one hundred years after Hiram Bingham took them when he “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911. The 360 artifacts are skeletal remains, ceramic objects, metal tools, stone objects, etc.

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Pachacutec Statue – It is located in the center of the fountain at the Plaza de Armas. Ruling from 1438 – 1471 AD, Pachacutec was responsible for building the Inca Empire which stretched 2500 miles from Ecuador to Chile.

Cusco Artisan Association Parade – A once monthly gathering of local artisans who parade through the Plaza de Armas while being reviewed by the local officials.

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Artisan Parade

Locals dressed in traditional clothing – We took pictures with the locals who come to the Plaza to make money by offering tourists photo opportunities.

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Traditional Dress

 

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Pachacutec

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inca Sites that we visited during our drive from Cusco to Ollantaytambo

Moray – Ancient circular terraced depressions with an irrigation system located 31 miles northwest of Cusco on a high plateau at 11,500 ft. Speculation is that it was an agricultural experiment station used during the time of the Inca Empire.

Terraces

Moray

Salineras de Maras – Salt has been mined since pre Inca times. Highly salty water emerges from a subterranean spring that flows into tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto several hundred ancient terraced ponds. A pond keeper allows the water to evaporate and then carefully scrapes the salt from the sides and the bottom.

Salt Mines

Salinas de Maras

 

Ollantaytambo

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Ollantaytambo

  • Elevation – 9,160 feet
  • Population – 9,828 (2005 census)
  • Dates from the 15th century
  • Contains some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America
  • Orthogonal layout with 4 longitudinal streets crossed by 7 parallel streets
  • In the mid 15th century, Pachacutec conquered and razed the town and nearby region and then incorporated it into his personal estate
  • Site of a major battle against the Spanish conquistadors

Sights we saw in Ollantaytambo

Plaza de Armas – The main plaza is surrounded by colonial and republican buildings

Pinkuylluna – Storehouses made of stone and built on the hillsides were used during the time of the Inca Empire. High altitudes with lower temperatures kept the food from decaying. Grain would be poured into the windows on the uphill side of the mountain and emptied from the windows on the downhill side window.

Storehouses

The Fortress of Ollantaytambo – It was originally built as a religious site. A steep stairway enters the group of buildings leading to the unfinished Temple of the Sun. It was the site of an important battle in January 1537 between the forces of Manco Inca and the Spanish conquistadors who were lead by Hernando Pizarro.

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Fortress Ruins at Ollantaytambo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aguas Calientes

  • Elevation – 6,690 feet
  • Population – 1600
  • 1901 – Settled by farmers
  • 1920s to 1931 – Became a railway worker’s camp during the building of the railroad to Cusco
  • Buses run every 20 minutes up to Machu Picchu which is 3.7 miles away
  • Hotels, restaurants for tourists visiting Machu Picchu
  • Hot spring baths for locals and tourists

Peruvian Cuisine

The World Travel Awards have selected Peru as the World’s Leading Culinary Destination for the last 5 years. The cuisine is a combination of indigenous, European, Asian, and African influences. Gaston Acurio, the chef who is credited with the Peruvian food revolution which began in the early 1990s, says, “Peruvians are either eating or talking about eating.” Some of the local dishes we ate were ceviche, causa, quinoa, patatas purpuras, empanadas, tiradito, pescado de trucha, lomo saltado, cuy, churros, and suspire a la Limena. We drank many pico sours and cups of coca tea.

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Jane and Jeff’s Journey to Machu Picchu as told to Susan

After Jordan and Susan left Ollantaytambo, we toured the fortress ruins and purchased some souvenirs at the local market. We took the scenic Vistadome Train for a 3 hour trip to Aguas Calientes. Arriving at the station, we walked through the market, across the orange bridge, and up to our hotel. We went to a restaurant recommended by the concierge. We played cards before going to bed.

The next morning we went sightseeing. We walked to the Plaza Manco Capac and to the hot springs on the highest hill in town. We had dinner at a French bakery at the bus station where we bought tickets for the ride up to Machu Picchu.

Even though it was foggy the following morning, we took the bus to Machu Picchu to hike to the Sun Gate. By the time we arrived at the Sun Gate, the fog had lifted, revealing Machu Picchu below. In the afternoon, we shopped for souvenirs at the market. I searched the internet to find the best restaurant in Aguas Calinetes. That night we dined at The Tree House. It was delicious especially the apple pie with vanilla ice cream. We played cards again before bedtime.

Because of torrential rain the next morning, we cancelled our plans to meet Jordan and Susan at Machu Picchu at 7:30 am. In order to get the bus we would have had to stand in the rain for at least an hour. We waited until the rain stopped and arrived at Machu Picchu around 11 am. While searching for them, their guide, Jaime, recognized us from pictures Susan had shown them. We were told where to find them. Susan was sitting on a bench in the shade. We waited with her until Jordan finished his climb. The 4 of us toured Machu Picchu together. Returning to Aguas Calientes, we had lunch at The Tree House. We had arranged to keep our room so Jordan and Susan could shower before our trip back to Cusco.

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Machu Picchu

 

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Trek to Sun Gate

 

Aguas Calientes

Plaza Manco Capac

 

 

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Machu Picchu in the Fog

Jordan and Susan’s Trek to Machu Picchu

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  • 2 guides, Jaime and Fletcher, 23 porters, and 1 chef from Alpaca Expeditions
  • 16 trekkers from Australia, Canada, China, and America, all 20 and 30 year olds except Susan
  • 27 miles total trekking starting at KM 82
  • 4 days, 3 nights

Day 1

  • Distance – 8.7 miles
  • Time – 6 – 7 hours
  • Starting elevation – 8,923 ft.
  • Ending elevation – 10,829 ft.
  • Difficulty – Moderate
  • Weather – Sunny, cool in morning, warm in the afternoon

We were the last two trekkers to be picked up from our hotel in Ollantaytambo at 6:45 am. The 45 minute bus ride took us to our starting point at KM 82. We ate breakfast, which was prepared by our porters. Jaime used each of our cameras to take a group photo at the first Inca Trail checkpoint. Showing our passports, we proceeded through the gate to begin our trek. We crossed over the river on a cable bridge. It was a gentle stroll for the first hour. We saw the ruins of Llactapata, which was an important rest stop on the Inca trail and a checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu.

First Incan ruins

Llactapata

Crossing the Vilcanota River the trail climbed steeply up from the river. We passed through a small village where we could see the hillfort ruins of Huillca Raccay. Ruins

We followed the path along the left bank of the river for another 2 hours until we stopped for lunch at Hatanchaca at 9,612 feet. We continued climbing for another 2.5 hours until we reached our camp site at Ayapata, 10,829 feet.IMG_9246 - Copy - Copy

Jordan was with the fast group lead by Jaime and I brought up the rear with Fletcher.Fletcher and Susan Our porters cheered as each trekker reached the campsite. A tent for Jordan and I had been set up on a sloping hillside with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. A plastic tub of hot water, liquid soap, and a towel was outside our tent for us to wash up. Two portable toilets which our porters carried up the mountain were available for our use. After resting for an hour, we had hot tea and a snack in the dining tent.

mess tent

Dining tent

 

View from our campsite

View from our campsite

Around 7:30 pm we were served a delicious dinner including an appetizer, bread, soup, entrée, several side dishes, and a birthday cake for our fellow trekker, Jenna’s 30th birthday. All of our special dietary needs for our group including vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, and coriander free were met with specialized dishes. After dinner we prepared for our first night in our tent. Jordan and I placed our new sleeping bags on top of plastic air mattresses which were placed on top of a mat. We each had an inflatable pillow which we covered with a pillowcase. Jordan read using his miner’s light. I fell asleep.

Day 2

  • Distance – 9.94 miles
  • Time – 8.5 hours
  • Difficulty – Difficult
  • Starting Elevation – 10,829 ft.
  • Ending Elevation – 11,800 ft.
  • Cross Dead Woman’s Pass – 13,779 ft.
  • Cross Runkuracay at 13,123 ft.
  • Weather – Misty, cool in the morning, sunny and warmer later in the day

At 5:45 am our guide, Jaime, brought us a hot cup of coca tea. We were served a healthy breakfast of quinoa porridge, toast, fruit, tea, hot chocolate, coffee. After stretching exercises, we asked Jaime to do 10 push ups, which he proudly performed.  We left camp to begin the most difficult day. The first leg was expected to be at least 4 hours to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,779 feet. The uneven rock step path going up required constant attention. IMG_9325 Overlooking a steep drop off on our right, we saw the fog covered valley. IMG_9317The trail had many switchbacks. Breathing was very difficult, so I would walk 20 steps, then stop to catch my breath. Walking poles were absolutely necessary to climb up the steep trail. I decided not to look up to see how much higher the trail went. I just concentrated on moving up one more step. Jordan was in the front with all the other trekkers and Jaime. In the back again it was Fletcher and I. When Jordan reached the top of the pass, he came back down to take my backpack which helped me move a little faster. IMG_9310At the top of Dead Woman’s pass, we had a short rest.

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Dead Woman’s Pass – 13,779 ft.

Then we started descending for 1.5 hours to the next valley, Pacaymayu. We stopped for lunch and to refill our water bottles. After 2 more hours we reached the second pass at Runkuracay at 13,123 ft.

semi circle ruins

Runkuracay Ruins

 

Continuing downhill for another hour, we arrived at Sayacmarca, an Inca ruin. We had a tour and a quick rest. After 20 minutes we finally reached our campsite at Choquicocha at 11,800 ft. Our tents were placed a level above where the toilets and dining tent were. I had to use my walking sticks to go down the rock steps. I was exhausted. I felt like I was coming down with a cold. I got in my sleeping bag and went to sleep. I didn’t feel like going to tea time or dinner, so Jordan brought me a bowl of soup for dinner.

Day 3

  • Distance – 6.2 miles
  • Starting altitude – 11,800 ft.
  • Ending altitude – 8,792 ft.
  • Difficulty – Easy
  • Weather – Sunny and warm

Our guide, Jaime, delivered a hot cup of coca tea at 6 am. After a nutritious breakfast of an omelet, fruit, toast, beverages, we packed up for an easier day. After stretching exercises, we demanded 20 push ups from Jaime but he got off easy and gave us only 10.  Before we left our campsite, we posed for a group shot. IMG_9373

We trekked for 2 hours along the Inca flats (gradual inclines) and soon reached the cloud forest.IMG_9378 We saw the snow-capped peak of Salkantay and panoramic views of the Vilcabamba mountain range. We climbed to the last peak at Phuyupatamarka at 12,073 ft. IMG_9392Enroute we visited Intipata, Terraces of the Sun.Intipata It was then a 3 hour descent down a flight of rock steps to our last campsite near Winay Wayna.  Arriving around 2 pm, we were served lunch. I took a cold shower and rested until dinner. Jordan joined the other trekkers for a tour of Winay Wayna. For dinner we had asparagus soup, entrée, side dishes, and a celebration cake. After dinner we presented our communal tips to our porters and chef. Most of the porters are farmers who hire on with trekking companies a few times a year. Jessica read a speech in Spanish thanking them for their hard work and saying how much we all loved their beautiful country and history. Our tents were set up on a narrow ledge with only about 5 feet to the edge. As we all settled in for a short night of rest, it started raining, eventually becoming torrential with thunder and lightning. It was not a rain you could sleep through. During the night I suddenly felt the percussion of rain drops on my legs. Being half asleep, I thought I was dreaming. I finally awoke enough to sit up and turned on my miner’s light. To my surprise, I saw that from the knee down my sleeping bag and I were outside the tent! I had not zipped the bottom of the enclosure and my body had gradually slid down the hill and out of the tent!

Day 4

  • Distance 3.1 miles
  • Time – 2 hours
  • Starting elevation – 8.792 ft.
  • Ending elevation – 7,873 ft.
  • Difficulty – Easy, except the “Gringo Killer” steps

Jaime woke us at 3 am. He had told us the night before that the first trekkers ready would leave with him to reserve a spot at the checkpoint gates to enter the final trail to Machu Picchu. Jordan and I left with Fletcher and the rest of our group. We sat on wooden benches under a metal awning in the rain.Day 4 waiting for final trek While we waited our porters served us coca tea and a bagged breakfast which included sandwiches, cookies, and a granola bar. At 5:30 am the checkpoint opened and we proceeded in the dark to Machu Picchu.

The trail took us through the rain forest. We walked for about 20 minutes before it was light enough to turn off our miner’s lights.Sun rising day 4 I also took off my poncho because now it was only a light mist. The left side of the trail was heavy vegetation up the mountainside and on our right was a steep descent down to the valley and the muddy Urubamba River far below. Urubamba RiverThe mountains surrounded us as we continued. One final challenge was the “Gringo Killer” steps. Fletcher told me as I approached the vertical wall of 50 large rocks to give him my walking poles. I did and he said, “climb it like a monkey.” Reaching Intipunku, the Sun Gate, we saw Machu Picchu laid out below us like a jewel in the sun. It was a breathtakingly beautiful sight! Descending for another 45 minutes we arrived at the ruins of Machu Picchu. After taking group photos, Jaime took us on an 2 hour tour. The entire time we were looking for Jeff and Jane because we had planned to meet at 7:30 am at the entrance to the ruins. Jordan was scheduled to climb Huayna Picchu at 10 am. I rested on a bench waiting for him to return around 11:30 am. I had my eyes closed since we had gotten up at 3 am. Suddenly, I opened my eyes to see Jane Clark in the midst of a crowd of people. I yelled, “Jane Clark”! Jeff was nearby, so after 4 days three of us were reunited. In 30 minutes, Jordan arrived. The four of us were together again after 2 different journeys in Peru.

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Arrival at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu (Old Peak) – 8038 feet, UNESCO World Heritage Site

  • Believed to be the royal estate of the Inca Emperor, Pachacutec
  • Lies 13 degrees south of the Equator, dry season May-August, rainy season, October – March
  • Appropriate site to worship the mountains spirits
  • Surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River, a major huaca (something revered)
  • Construction began in 1450 AD
  • Estimate of 5000 people needed to build it
  • Numerous quarries of granite from landslides and rock falls provided the tons of granite for building
    Quarry
    Quarry
  • Workers used bronze and stone tools including levers, chisels, points, axes, hammers, and knives
  • Slides were used by the workers to move large stones downhill and incline planes to move them uphill
  • 18 different stone wall types range from finest carving to roughest type in terrace area
  • 300 permanent residents, 1000 when Emperor in residence
  • Built, occupied, and abandoned in less than 100 years
  • The ruins show that the Incas had advanced understanding of urban planning, hydrology, hydraulics, drainage, durable construction methods
  • A series of 16 fountains parallel a long stairway
  • 100 sets of stairs, some consisting of over 100 steps
  • Divided into 2 sections, urban and agricultural
  • The Sacred Plaza divides western and eastern urban area
  • Urban area covers 21 acres with 172 buildings
  • 12 acres of agricultural terraces are formed by stone walls with thick topsoil and engineered drainage
  • The Sacred Gate gave visitors a framed view of the holy Huayna Picchu (New Peak)
  • The Temple of the Three Windows overlooks the Sacred Plaza
  • The Intiwatana, “the hitching post of the sun”, served as an altar and also measured time from the sun’s rays
  • Temple of the Sun was used for ceremonies to honor the Sun. On the Summer Solstice, the sun entering the window forms a perfect square on the floor.
  • Sacred Rock – A shrine where the Incas carried out special rituals which is in the shape of the Yanantin Mountain behind it.

 

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Temple of the Sun

 

Temple of 3 windows
Temple of 3 Windows
Intiwatana Stone

Intiwatana

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Principle Temple, 3-walled building with immense foundation rocks and beautiful cut stones
  • Temple of the Condor, example of use of natural rock formations used as part of the building where walls were made to resemble a large condor wing
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    Principle Temple
Temple of the Condor

Temple of the Condor

 

 

 

 

 

Closing Thoughts

Susan – Since I was usually the last trekker to arrive at each waypoint, I got to spend 4 days speaking Spanish with our guide, Fletcher. I found him to be like all the other Peruvians we met, hard working, kind, helpful, funny, and proud of their Inca and Spanish heritage.

In preparing for this trip, I had read, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams twice, “Lost City of the Incas” by Hiram Bingham, “The Last Days of the Incas” by Kim MacQuarrie, and “Machu Picchu: a civil engineering marvel” by Kenneth Wright three time. After all my readings, I felt fortunate to see the breathtaking beauty of the Andes for myself. I found the trek to Machu Picchu to be difficult because of the steepness of the trail. When we arrived at the Sun Gate early in the morning on the 4th day of our trek after a torrential rain the night before, the sky was a bright blue and below us lay the ruins of Machu Picchu. Like so many others before me I was amazed by the beauty of an ancient city built in such a remote and physically challenging site. Sharing this bucket list trip with Jeff, Jordan, and Jane made it very special.

Jane Clark – What a gift to hear and see the story of the Inca civilization from descendants who honored their heritage. From the ruins of great fortresses, stone homes and businesses, leveled gardens to the worn cobblestone streets in Cusco, Ollantaytambo, and Aguas Calientes, each view of the landscape painted a picture of a people who observed and focused their culture to include the importance of nature in all aspects of their lives from worship to building communities, art, architecture, and agriculture.

The lessons of influence of invasion by the Spanish, the constant warring that             ensued not only between the Spanish explores searching for great riches in gold and silver but also among the Inca peoples themselves in a struggle for power within their own culture: the remnants of a once peaceful people living nestled between the high peaks of mountains.

To be able to experience the treasures of Machu Picchu with friends of 50 years ago and their son, made the journey even more memorable.

Jordan – Hyperbole isn’t really possible when it comes to describing the Inca Trail between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Words won’t do the journey justice and even panoramic photos end up looking like a thumbnail sketch of the real thing. The trail is formidable, the vistas are majestic, and the Inca architecture is unfathomable. On the trail, I was perpetually thinking about the level of ingenuity and perseverance required to build a civilization that once ran half the length of the Andes and straddled mountain peaks and river valleys. I would look at a single step carved into the side of a mountain, or a single stone taller and wider than my body, and think about how many thousands, millions of other stones like it were transported across a landscape so mountainous that we found it daunting to cross with just a backpack. In short, the trip was mind- blowing, and trekking to Machu Picchu with my Mom made it very special.

Jeff – I survived!

Whoops!

Whoops!

 

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Reunited at Machu Picchu

Sacred Rock

The Sacred Rock

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Jeff’s Shot of Machu Picchu

 

 

 

The DONNA HALF MARATHON – 2/12/17

The 10th anniversary of The Donna Marathon to End Breast Cancer included a 5k, 10k, half marathon, and full marathon races with 10,000 people participating during the weekend events. Two weeks before the race, I invited my friend, Debby, to join me for the half marathon race on Sunday, February 12, 2017.

Debby-  “I started running at age 50 in 2006, using the Galloway run/walk method. I was signed up to do the Donna half marathon in 2010. I was having some issues with my right leg and discovered that I had a hard lump in my abdomen. It turned out to be a solitary fibrous tumor which was the size of a medium long sweet potato. I had the tumor removed at Moffitt Cancer Center, May, 2010, and started running the next spring and have not stopped since. Running this race was not on my radar. Because I run 4-5 miles three times a week, I thought it was something I could do.”

Susan – “I started running at age 27 in 1974. Over the years I have run many 5ks, 10ks, 2 half marathons, and attempted 1 marathon last year. I started training  for this race in October, 2016. Since I had been running 6 miles every other day all year, I just added one long run a week until I was up to a 10 mile run and then worked my way back down to 6 miles. I had scheduled my plastic surgery for January 10, 2017, so I anticipated taking 3 weeks off from running while I recovered. Even though I had healed faster than normal, my surgeon advised me to walk not run the race.”

We left at 5:45 am for our 45 minute drive to the race starting point in Ponte Vedra. It was 55 degrees and foggy when we lined up for our last potty break at 7 am.last-toilet-before-race

The first wave for the marathon and half marathon started at 7:30 am. We lined up at the sign for 3:30 hours which was our estimate of how long it would take us to finish.

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As each wave took off, we moved closer.start-line

As we crossed the start line our chip automatically started our time. We had installed the racejoy app which gave us our time and allowed other people to follow our progress. Debby started running and that was the last time I saw her until the end of the race.

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At mile 1, the sun was up, but it was still a little foggy and cool enough for a jacket. The route went north on A1A. mile-3

By mile 3 it had warmed up so a jacket wasn’t necessary. The long sleeve official Donna shirt was warm enough.  The best thing about the race were the spectators encouraging runners with signs, decorations, horns, and music. They also offered drinks, food, and picture opportunities.

photo-op-during-the-race       debby-at-donna        neighborhood-banddecorations-along-the-route

With the help of the entertainment the miles went by quickly. The route eventually turned south along A1A until we reached the ramp up onto the J.T.Butler expressway.on-the-jtb Proceeding west  we passed the inspirational banners that had been signed by racers during the Expo event prior to the race.empower-banner-on-bridge

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after-the-raceA total of 864 marathoners and 3,842 half marathoners completed the race. Debby finished in 3:09:53, 59 out of 159 women in her age group. Susan finished in 3:52:16, 52 out of 79 women in her age group.

Debby –  “I was pleasantly surprised at the wonderful experience I had at the Donna half marathon. The race was an interesting and easy course and I was able to do it without a lot of stress. I thought I was going to walk, but when we arrived at the start line, I ran. I did a 1:30 minute run / 30 second walk the entire race.”

Susan – “The Donna is the most fun race I have ever experienced. I was disappointed to not run the half marathon this year. However, after failing to complete the full marathon last year, I was thrilled to finally get a Donna Medal!”

We plan to use the Galloway run/walk method for The Donna Half Marathon, which will be the second week in February, 2018. We want to encourage all our family and friends to join us. You can walk, run, or run/walk. It is a fun race for a worthy cause and you get this big beautiful medal!

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OUR ICELANDIC SAGA

My friend, Donna, asked if I wanted to go with her to Iceland. Iceland would become the 61st country that I have visited, so of course I said, “Yes!”

The “Land of Fire and Ice” sits atop the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates and has more than 20 active volcanoes and 11% is covered by glaciers. One million tourists a year visit this geological wonderland of volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields, waterfalls, geothermal pools, and glaciers.

Here are some interesting facts about Iceland :

  • History – Settled by Nordic Vikings in 874 AD
  • Size – 40,000 square miles, about the size of the US state of Kentucky
  • Government – Democracy with a President, Prime Minister and a Parliament
  • Population – 323,002 (2013), most sparsely populated country in Europe
  • Capital Reykjavik, population, 119,289 (2012)
  • Religion – 74% Lutheran, 3.6% Catholic
  • Language – Icelandic is the official language but English is widely spoken
  • Median Age – 36.4 years, average lifespan – 83 years
  • GDP per capita -$50,855  (2015), ranked 10th in the world
  • Taxes – Graduated scale per income from 37.3% – 46.24%
  • Currency – Icelandic krona
  • Socialized medicine, free education
  • Industry – Fishing, fish processing, agriculture, tourism (1.1 million visitors per year)
  • Energy – Geothermal and hydropower provide inexpensive hot water, heating, and electricity
  • Temperature – Located near the Arctic Circle but warmed by the Gulf Stream so average high in September is 52 and the average low 43 degrees Fahrenheit
  • No army, navy, or air force, only a coast guard
  • Murders –  .3/100,000 inhabitants. Policemen do not carry guns, only special forces are armed.  Ninety thousand Icelanders own guns but must take a medical exam and pass a written test
  • #1 Feminist society in the world – For 6 years ranked first out of 130 countries by the World Economic Forum in political empowerment, education, and equality between men and women

Donna and I flew on separate flights from JFK to Keflavik International Airport the second week of September. We reserved a car for our trip around Iceland on Route 1, a 828 mile road which circumnavigates Iceland. Since there were many sites reachable only by 4 wheel drive vehicles, we knew our sightseeing would be limited to areas accessed by good roads.

My Icelandair flight was cancelled due to a mechanical so I arrived a day after Donna. Her flight also had a mechanical but Delta had a replacement airplane for their passengers so she arrived only a few hours late. We were able to share our travel woes via texts.

Day 1 for Donna – Reykjavik – Vik – 2.5 hours – Saxa Guesthouse – After arriving at Keflavik Airport at 8 am, Donna picked up a Toyota Corolla from Budget. She was warned not to drive any F roads (gravel mountain roads in the interior).  Driving 45 minutes to Rekyavik, she spent the morning sightseeing. In the afternoon, she drove to Vik, 110 miles southeast of Rekyavik.  Arriving at 5 p.m., she learned that our reserved hotel was a 3 hour drive from Vik! She finally found an available room in a farm house.

The next morning waiting for me to arrive, Donna drove 30 minutes back toward Reykjavik to the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. The 200 foot waterfall is unique because you can walk behind it. It was overcast and rainy as she walked to the top of the falls.

Day 1 for me – After landing at 6 am, I took the Flybus from Keflavik to the main bus station, BSI,  in Rekyavik. Then I had to take a taxi to Mjodd bus stop to catch a bus to Vik. It was $50 for the three hour trip with many stops before finally arriving at Vik.

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Susan and Donna at Vik

Donna was waiting for me at the bus stop, the gas station. I was very happy to finally join her! She had received my text about my estimated arrival time. She had confirmed at the gas station that the Reykjavik bus would arrive around noon. As in most small towns in Iceland, the gas station was a coffee shop, a restaurant, a retail store, and a community gathering place. It was a very busy place for a town of only 291 residents!

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Vik Church

We decided to have lunch there. I ordered a fried fish sandwich and Donna had lamb stew, a traditional Icelandic meal. After lunch we drove to the Vik church built in 1934 which sits on the highest hill in town. We saw Reynisfjara Beach with black sand and basalt sea stacks off shore called, Reynisdrangur.

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Reynisdrangur

Preparing for our drive, we had learned that the speed limit is 90 km (55 mph) outside of populated areas, 50 km (31 mph) inside populated areas and 80 km (50 mph) on gravel roads. There are many one way bridges and the rule is whichever driver is closest goes first. Outside of Reykjavik there is very little traffic, very few traffic lights and road signs. The greatest hazard is sheep crossing the road. Roundabouts exist to allow traffic to move onto different routes.

Day 2 – Vik – Hofn -3 hours – Hvammur Guesthouse

It was overcast and rainy as we departed Vik at 2 pm. Donna drove since I was tired and jet lagged. Continuing east on Route 1, the landscape was wide open with mountains in the distance. The scenery reminded us of the US west. We saw a few isolated farms with sheep and horses.

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Panoramic view of Iceland

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Vatnajokull Glacier

In the distance we could see the Vatnajokull Glacier which is the largest glacier in Iceland and the largest ice cap in Europe. The National Park of Vatnojokull covers 14% of Iceland. Hiking, ice climbing, dog sledding, snowmobiling, and ice cave exploring are some of the activities in the park in the winter.

Continuing our drive to Hofn, we passed the Skaftafell National Park. The area is popular due to its sunny days in the summer. There is a birch wood forest and many species of birds and artic foxes.
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We stopped and walked to a beautiful waterfall. Sheep were grazing in a nearby meadow.

As we drove onto the Skeioara Bridge, a 1/2 mile long one-way bridge crossing sand flats created by glacial runs, the car in front of us stopped. We had read about tourists often stopping on the road to take pictures, but we couldn’t imagine that happening on a one lane bridge. The driver got out of his car with binoculars looking across the bridge. We got out to ask him what he could see. He was a local and he told us there was an accident. As we talked several cars of tourists drove around us and proceeded across the bridge. Eventually the police arrived and continued to the sight of the wreck. First the cars nearest the accident were cleared.
sheep-grazing-on-cliffside-enroute-from-hofn-to-egilstaddirThen all the drivers in front of us had to back up to clear our end of the bridge. It took an hour to clear all the cars and move the 2 wrecked vehicles.

Further on we stopped at Jokulsarion, which is the largest glacial lagoon in Iceland. We walked about 20 minutes right up to the edge of the lagoon to take pictures of the many small icebergs. The colors of the ice changed from deep blue to white, to black. The small icebergs formed many interesting shapes. Continuing on the Ring Road, we crossed over the Glacial River Bridge where the lagoon spills into the Atlantic Ocean. A beautiful black sand beach is located there.

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Jokulsarion Glacial Lagoon

Eighty percent of Iceland is unoccupied so it is wise to have a full tank of gas when starting a trip. We hadn’t filled up in Vik, and were now getting low on gas. I asked Donna to stop at the first building we saw. It was a guest house and I was told that 18 miles further there would be a self-serve gas pump. All you need for these 24/7 gas facilities is a credit card with a pin number. We filled up!

We entered Hofn, a fishing town known for lobster with a population of 2,167 people. We stopped at a gas station to get directions to our guesthouse. We were given a map of the town with all the tourist accommodations marked on the map. We bought some fruit, Icelandic yogurt called Skyr, beverages, and muffins for our breakfast the next morning. We also got a bag of Bingo Balls which I had read about in the Icelandic inflight magazine. These liquorice balls with caramel are covered in milk chocolate. They quickly became our favorite driving snack.

Arriving at the Guesthouse Hvammur across the street from the harbor, we checked in. We were taken to a small modern house that contained three bedrooms, a large living room, kitchen, and two bathrooms. Our small upstairs bedroom had twin beds and a low sloping ceiling.

It was rainy and getting dark as we walked across the street to a small cozy restaurant that smelled delicious when we walked in. I ordered a beer, Donna wine, and we shared a lobster pizza, and a salad. Dinner was $55. We returned to our room and were in bed by 9 pm.

In the morning while having our breakfast in the kitchen, we met the couple who had slept downstairs. They were from Sicily and were driving Route 1 clockwise instead of our counterclockwise routing. They told us that there would be an unpaved section on our drive from Hofn to Egilsstadir.

It was still overcast and rainy as we  walked across the street to the Tourist Office to get a map of the area. We were told there were 2 ways to get to Egilsstadir, a longer route around the fjords which would be scenic or a shorter inland road.

Hofn to Egilsstadir – 3 hours – Vinland Guesthousecliffside-waterfall-at-black-beach-off-route-1-enroute-from-hofn-to-egilstaddir

I drove out of Hofn for about an hour along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. We stopped at a scenic lookout where tourists were taking pictures. It was rainy and windy as we walked along the cliffs. A waterfall cascaded over a cliff onto a black sand beach as waves crashed along the shoreline. A little further we spotted a Lighthouse out on a point. We drove onto a pothole filled muddy road trying to get as close as possible to the Lighthouse.