Friday, November 28, 2014

Cruising the Galapagos Islands

Here are a few pictures from a three-day cruise in the Galapagos Islands. This was my 7th or 8th time there. I just love the desert landscapes and wildlife.

Tall opuntia cactus on Santa Fe Island. Many of the islands have variations of this species of Opuntia echios.

Opuntia echios (var.) Found on Santa Fe Island.

Many of the islands also have endemic iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus). You cna read more about them here.

I think these are the most interesting of the many animals to be seen in Galapagos.

This one was observed on North Seymour Island.

They are up to 5 feet long and can weigh up to twenty five pounds (depending on what island species is encountered).

I have already forgotten the name of this red footed gull but they are quite beautiful.

South Plaza Island cactus.

The islands were erupted on top of a volcanic hot spot and the oldest emergent island is Santa Fe at 3.9 million years. However, some submarine seamounts were once likely emergent and are much older.

The red color is from a succulent plant much similar to ice plant.

A marine iguana basking on the warm volcanic rocks. Highly specialized to swim and forage in the sea, these are endemic only to the Galapagos.

The whitish crust on their snout is where they blow salt out of a specialized gland that processes drinking water out of the sea.

Male Frigate birds puffing out their red throat pouch hoping to attract females.

They bat their tongues on the inside of the pouch and make a drumming sound whenever a female flies over.

Fearless of humans

Blue-footed boobies.

Young and adult blue-footed boobies next to the Palo santo tree, related to other Bursera plants and frankincense and myrrh.

The Sally Lightfoot crab.

Shore scene.

Flamingos in a brackish water lagoon.

The white pelican.

A Great blue heron was a successful hunter on the water's edge.

Sunset in the Galapagos. I will be home on Saturday!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Climbing to the Top of Wayna Picchu, Peru

One of the extra-ordinary activities to undertake while visiting the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu is to take the trail to the top of the very obvious "sugarloaf" mountain that is usually framed behind the ruins. I had pre-arranged to obtain a permit to make this trek. I'm so glad I did - the weather was ideal if not a bit steamy and the views were spectacular.

The main gate opens at 6 AM and by that time at least 300 people were waiting to enter the sanctuary (as they call Machu Picchu). An unexpected treat was seeing the site virtually devoid of people in the early morning light.

Machu Picchu entrance gate is at an elevation of 7,972 ft. asl and Wayna Picchu in the middle distance is at 8,835 ft. asl. Where in the world can a trail be located? It is within the shadowed left hand side of the mountain.

I got to walk through Machu Picchu alone for 30 minutes on my way to the trailhead.

Fantastic light and quiet. They now only allow 2,500 people a day to enter the site. Visitation has skyrocketed since it was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, although a reading of the provided link will show that the methods used to determine these sites was decidedly unscientific and subject to intense national manipulation.

Looking toward the residential area of Machu Picchu.

More residences, obviously lacking the thatched roofs.

The movement and precise carving of the very large stones never ceases to amaze. See some ideas here although perusing the web on this topic may make your head spin.

Some llama's were out frolicking on the grounds.

They are very curious and were the only draft animals that the Inca had.

This photo was taken at about 6:45 AM. I had never known that a great glaciated mountain named Nevado Salcantay was present to the west of Machu Picchu. But I was up before the clouds covered it and this is only the beginning of the rainy season.

Inca residences framing Machu Picchu Mountain (background).

A wonderful day to explore.

Finally, 7 AM arrived and those with the special tickets for Wayna Picchu huddled at the gate. The extra fee is $25 US and only 200 are made available at 7 with another 200 at 10 AM.

Disheartening to some, the trail starts out going downhill to a saddle about 150 feet. But the views are fantastic - this one to the east with the Urubamba river 1,300 feet below, carving its canyon toward the Amazon basin.

And then it is up. And up. The trail is steep but not undoable for those in good shape or with big hearts (lungs). It is steps most of the way.

Only a few areas had steps chiseled into the granite, formed when liquid magma cooled in the earth about 277 million years ago. This rock is part of the Vilcabamba batholith.

This was the way down (there is a loop trail at the top) but it is unbelievably steep. I was actually scared coming down it with a less than perfect knee. The treads were only about 6 inches wide and the risers were in some cases 18 inches. No rails, no handholds.

Machu Picchu from the top of Wayna Picchu! In 2006 Japanese researchers proposed that Machu Picchu was at great risk from a catastrophic landslide. The low spot where the site is located has been mapped as a graben with two faults passing on either side of it. Others questioned the sensationalism of the Japanese findings but landslides in this rugged and deeply dissected terrain are common.

Close-up of the site from Wayne Picchu.

View to the east. What a great way to start the day - the only thing missing in this picture is the lovely Helen!

Sign at the top.

Although I look pretty beat in this photo, it was a great hike and peanuts compared to Mt. Kilimanjaro!

A house with a view! One of the guards here told me that the workers that built Machu Picchu for Pachacuti lived on Wayne Picchu. No matter who lived here, they had a great view. The Urubamba River downstream can be seen below.

A last look. Travelers to Machu Picchu should consider a trip to Wayna Picchu.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Inca Ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru

I just had one of my best days ever at Machu Picchu, Peru. Sunshine in the morning on the train ride from Urubamba, a developing cell of moisture signaling the beginning of the rainy season, and clearing by evening. But I get ahead of myself.

There is a reason that the highway ends at Ollantaytambo. The Urubamba River flows past the softer sedimentary and volcanic rocks of its upper valley and then encounters resistant granite belonging to the Vicabamba batholith. Quite suddenly, the riverside fields of corn and quinoa give way to massive depsosits of river debris, now being dissected by the huge runoff that occurs here in the rainy season. House size boulders tumble from the walls of these deposits and make the Urubamba one angry stream.

Looking back upstream from the train near the head of the gorge. Note the cliff face of loose, unconsolidated river debris now being dissected by the river. This debris chokes the channel and makes the river fall with great force. The Urubamba is a large tributary of the Amazon River and is here about 8,000 feet above sea level.

I have been here in the heart of the rainy season and seen the river filled bank to bank with runoff. At this time of year at the start of the season, it is but a semblance of its potential glory.

This looks like a fairly recent cut on the left bank, exposing some huge boulders that are now on their way to the Amazon Basin.

Note the vegetation here of cactus and scrub.

But in a few miles - literally, the Amazon forest creeps up into the gorge from lower elevations.

Nearing the end of the train ride.

The batholith is well exposed as we begin the bus ride up to the ruins - 2,000 feet above the river in fourteen cliff-hanging switchbacks. The granite was intruded into the South American crust about 277 million years ago, in the Permian. (Coincidentally, this makes this granite the same age as the Schnebly Hill Formation in Sedona).

Here is a view of the switchbacks (from a previous trip) from the river to the ruins, located on a slope of Machu Picchu Mountain.

Our group! Wonderful travel mates and friends of the Smithsonian.

Clouds began to build across the way but the ruins are still in the sun.

Some of the gabled roof residences of the former inhabitants.

The Inca were masters at controlling their water use and carved ornate pathways for water to run through their complexes.

Looking out from a reconstructed habitation site. Machu Picchu was built around 1450 by Pachacuti.

Carved bedrock beneath the Temple of the Sun.

Bedrock infilled with cut stones.

View of the Temple of the Sun with Huyna Picchu behind.

The ornate doorway used by Pachacuti between the temple and his residence.

Temple of the Sun.

The rain begins. I wil have more from Machu Picchu tomorrow and thanks for reading.