Sunday, 20 January 2013

San Blas and Machu Picchu. Report no 59.

Written by Stein in January 2013.
For corresponding photographs, go to Album No 59
(the number before each picture caption is the date; year-month-date)

Back to Shelter Bay, Panama
 Oct 3rd 2012:  'God bless this driver' underneath the Panamanian flags on our way to Shelter Bay Marina

My mother Eli was granted a period of 6 weeks  at  Liertun nursing home from the end of February 2012, and Diana and I could again go to sea  in our good ship White Admiral.  In October 2011 (see Report 58) we had only lived and worked on her for 9 days while she remained on land in the marina in Panama, so when she was again afloat on March 1st, nearly a year had lapsed since she last touched the briny 

Morpho Butterfly
Our few days before sailing off always involves a lot of work and preparation, but we always manage a pre-breakfast walk in the rain forest next door to Shelter Bay Marina. I usually bring a camera and one morning I manage to get a slightly blurred picture of a morpho butterfly fluttering by. Not a prize-winner, but hopefully gives you an idea of the amazing, iridescent, blue colour and the excitement we experience when these large insects fly near us. (The colour is not actually due to pigment, but to light reflection from tiny scales on their wings. )

 Failing Instruments and Head-wind
As we motored out of Shelter Bay, the depth sounder instrument gave a ‘puff’ and became blank and then we found that the autopilot also did not work properly. That is not good news when you are a crew of two! The seas  were rough and the strong easterly trade-wind outside the breakwater blew straight from Isla Grande, the island we have to round before getting more favourable wind towards San Blas, about 65 n.miles away. Catamarans are not much better than gaff-riggers like our old Red Admiral when it comes to beating to windward, and for many uncomfortable hours we worried that we might not make it in time to meet our guests in Carti two days later. The airstrip in Porvenir was being repaired, so at the moment visitors mostly come by the one and only road to the mainland near the Carti islands.

Hand steering into wind, rough seas and sleeping in 
intervals of about one hour made the night a long affair, but once we got further out from the coast the seas moderated, we were going faster, and we also got a little help from the current. So more or less as planned we could clear in with Alex, the Port Captain at Porvenir the next day. (When anchoring we determined the depth used our Eagle back-up depth sounder with a transducer on a stick. We also have an old-fashioned lead weight on a string if all electronics fail.)

Friends from Norway
The jetty and beach at the Carti mainland were incredibly busy when we anchored just of the beach the next day. A lot of cars with passengers, mostly Kunas, were coming and going. Thanks to text messages (sms) we knew our three friends had left in a 4WD with Felix, a driver from the city, but in the Darien rain forest the connection is lost, so it was great to see them arrive and have them safely aboard. Else-Berit and Mads Velken live in Kristiansand, where Diana and I lived for 26 years, and Rigmor Larsen lives in Flekkerøy, a large island just south of the same town. They have all sailed with us before, Rigmor in Los Roques and Venezuela (report  no 33 ), the Velkens in Dutch Antilles and Los Aves (report no 37) . They could only have 8 days with us, a bit short considering the distance traveled, but we managed to fit in most of the local attractions seen from a sailor’s point of view: The snorkeling, the walking, the white beaches, the local villages, the molas and the socializing with other yachties. Even had a barbecue lunch on our ’68 Palm Island near Salardup.

Swedish Mads on Da Capo
In Nargana we had an enjoyable bird-watching dinghy trip up the Rio Diablo. We saw lots of birds, but no caymans this time. In Nargano Mads from Da Capo came aboard. This 70 year old Swedish ex-journalist has started life anew in Colombia, and with his wife and little boy Mateo does charter for backpackers between Cartagena and San Blas. His Colombian wife and son often accompany him. Often he is in minor crises due to engine problems. This time his dinghy had disappeared and he thought stolen. And for a yachtie in San Blas, where anchoring is the only option for parking your boat, you cannot function.  But after a day of frantic bartering to hire a small boat from a local Kuna, his dinghy was found miles away among the reeds with a worn-out rope! Just in time before picking up his next guests! (We first met Mads in Isla Margarita east in Venezuela in 2005.)

“Attacked” by Jelly-fish
We were anchored at Isla Elefanta on March 10th when I had my morning swim in strong wind and not very clear water when I suddenly felt a burning pain in my right leg. I was back aboard within minutes, but already a bright red whelk  was forming. Obviously I had got too close to a Blue-bottle, a nasty jelly-fish also known as Portuguese Man-of-war. Mads carefully pulled off a long, blue ribbon-like tentacle from the back of my leg. I also had a lump of smaller tentacles on my right foot.

Alcohol denatures the stinging cells of the jelly-fish, but the methylated spirits did not seem to help much, the damage was already done. Strong pain-killers helped, but the pain was so intense for a couple of hours that I just had to go and lie down. But by afternoon we did manage to sail over to Porvenir and take a dinghy-trip to Whichubwala. At night our guests took us to Hotel Porvenir, a dear old rustic place where we eat under a thatched roof and have had a few very basic, but enjoyable meals in a romantic setting. And as usual we ended up buying mola-decorated shirts from Harancio, the waiter (and laundry-man and general janitor).

Isla Elefanta
Our friends returned on Felix’s  4WD from the jetty at Carti the next day, and Diana and I had three full days on our own preparing for a trip to Peru and after that for new guests. We spent these anchored at Isla Elefanta, socializing with other yachties, many of them anchored in this lagoon  for long periods at a time, and doing jobs aboard. The echo-sounder was working again after re-wiring, although a bit difficult to read. Even the autopilot was fine after changing its compass. Thank goodness we still have a lot of spares aboard from the original owner, Friedhelm Hechler.
There is virtually no theft or crime in San Blas, the Kunas really are a peaceful ethnic group, so we decided to trust in this amazing record and left our uninsured White Admiral in Isla Elefanta on two anchors. Susan on “Wooden Shoe” said she would keep an eye on her. On march 15th. we were off to MachuPicchu!

With Friends to Peru
This trip to Peru’s and probably South America’s greatest attraction, was an old dream come true for Diana and I, and to share it with us were Günter Voss, Anne Kollandsrud and Knut Nilsen. Günter is a professional violinist, and although originally German is a Swedish citizen (married to Gun, see report 58) living in Kristiansand.  He is part of our “Vandregjengen” (walking gang).  Anne and Knut are the same faithful friends from Arendal that have have sailed with us four times before. Diana and I met them in Panama as they came off the plane from Amsterdam and then we flew together to Lima, Peru. After a good night’s sleep it was off to Cusco on Tasca airline the next morning.
Cusco is a at 3300 m elevation, so before starting the hike of the Inca Trail, it was good to have two nights to acclimatize. Cusco is the old Inca capital and has a lot of fascinating sights. But one has to tolerate a lot of street vendors everywhere. So eating at an outdoor restaurant we only did once!  The locals are very productive and produce amazing handwork. A lot of the products are made  from the soft and fine alpaca wool.

Above the city, about two km away lies Saqsaywaman at an altitude of 3.700 m. Together with the city of Cusco and Machu Picchu it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983.The best-known zone of Saqsaywaman (known to tourists as Sexy Woman) includes a great grass-covered plaza and adjacent three massive terrace walls dedicated to the sacred animals of the Incas; the puma, the serpent and the condor. It was originally a huge fortress and cultural center with tall walls, large windows and numerous rooms, many underground

The polished stones used in the construction of these terraces are among the largest used in any building in pre-hispanic America and display a precision of fitting that is unmatched in the Americas. Following the siege of Cusco, the Spaniards began to use the site as a source of stones for building Spanish Cusco, and within a few years much of the complex was demolished block-by-block to build new governmental and religious buildings in the city, as well as the houses of the wealthiest Spaniards. How about  that for a total cultural disregard! Only the largest stones they could not move  are left. The biggest are about 150 tons! The way they are fitted in interlocking, irregular shapes make them tolerate the local earthquakes, something the Spanish reconstructions in Cusco do not.  Both the big cathedrals have been rebuilt after earthquakes, while the ancient puma, serpent and condor of Saqsaywaman lie there unchanged, overlooking the destruction and stupidity of it all…

SAS Travel
On March 18th we joined our two guides, Soul and Herlein, and 15 fellow expedition members for the bus ride to Ollantaytambo. We had already met at the SAS office for information about the four days’ hike ahead. SAS has nothing to do with Scandinavian Airways or British combat soldiers, but is an experienced Cusco-based South American travel agency. Their office was just a few doors away from our hotel. (Our hotel was a converted monastery with lots of beautiful, old stone- and wood-work and owned by SAS.)
The bus stopped for breakfast at a café on the way. Among walking sticks and rain protection gear were various products based on coca. We had already got used to coca tea – it is served everywhere and is hardly more stimulating than ordinary tea and coffee – but here were many other coca products, including coca candy!

Start of the Inca Trail
Finally, at about 10 am, we were ready for a group photo and the trail itself. But there was quite a queue initially to get past the national park gate with its check-point and over the bridge of Urobamba river. About 500 people do this hike daily, 200 are tourists and 300 are Peruvian porters, cooks and guides. The porters are known as Chaskis in honour of the ancient tradition of Inca runners. Most of us had rented space with the Chaskis so that they carried about 3 kg and a small mattress for each of us. We still had what seemed quite a load in our ruck-sacks in the thin air on steep trails.
Our hike was divided in four days of hiking and three nights sleeping  in tents en route. The camp sites for over-nighting have running water from a stream and  permanent toilets, but everything else  needed was carried by the Chaskis, including tents, stools, food, cookers and gas. The distances covered these days were 14, 12, 16 and 7 km.

We are off!
The walking was at a modest tempo with one guide in front and one in the back. We had regular stops to gather the group, catch our breath, drink water, take pictures and listen to guides Soul and Herlein explaining about plants, wildlife, archeological sites and generally inform us about the rise and fall of the huge Inca Empire. They were both proud descendants of Incas, although hardly any pure Incas exist today. Or we would halt just to admire the scenery. We were often breathless and tired, but we had great scenery and good company and we got to know most of our fellow hikers in the group. Four young men were students from Germany; the other nine lived in USA although some were of Asian origin. Our group of five from Norway were by far the oldest, the others being in their 20’s and 30’s, but we were not the slowest!

Dead Woman’s Pass
The toughest part of the trail was the second day as we went over the Warmi-Wanusca Pass at 4.212 m elevation. At a distance the mountain here looks like a female breast and hence is better known as Dead Woman’s Pass. The trail down on the other side of the pass is so steep that it feels as hard as going up. 

Anne had been worried about this part especially as her left arm was still weak and sore after she broke it only 2 months earlier. But: no problema!

The cook and his helpers served us amazing, locally inspired meals three times daily. We ate in a large tent sitting on small stools and had smaller tents for the nights. Günter, Diana and I shared a tent for the three nights,  I was in the middle! We were pretty tired when we crawled into our sleeping-beds, but  I did not sleep well the first night being a bit affected by the cold and the altitude, which gave me a slight, dull headache. (The days were so exciting, I hardly noticed it!)The next two nights were better – we were at lower altitudes and also I learned to put on more clothes.

Through Intipunko
The last day was the big arrival day at Maccu Picchu. In order to see the sun shine its first rays through Intipunku (the Sun Gate), we got up at 4 am and had to walk the first kilometers in the dark with other groups of hikers. But the Chaskis had taken the camping gear and left us, so we were down to the 200 or so heading for the famous gate. The last road up behind the gate is very steep, sections like these are locally known as “Gringo Killers”.
We could not have been luckier with the weather. The sky was clear and the sun shone through the gate and lit up maybe the most amazing sight we have ever seen. People around us were partly ecstatic, partly in quiet awe, and everybody was taking pictures or filming.

The Wonder of Machu Picchu
As we hiked  the last two km to Machu Picchu proper, on a road cut along the hillside, the sun lit up more and more of the ancient city with its walls and terraces, houses and temples. Finally we could admire the incredible structures at close quarters. And to think that all this was made with tools of hard rocks over a period of about 80 years in the 1400’s. It probably was a center for religion, agriculture and astronomy, but was only at its functional peak for about 100 years due to the Spanish Conquest. It was abandoned in 1572 to stop the Spanish finding it, and legend claims that gold and other valuables were taken to another,  and to this date not yet discovered site in the Peruvian mountains. The first western person to rediscover Machu Picchu  was Hiram Bingham from Yale University in USA in 1911. 
Hiram Bingham from Yale University, USA  in 1911

Inthiuatawa and the boy who showed Bingham the site in 1911
He was really looking for the legendary Inca City of Gold and did not realize the importance of his find at first, but after new expeditions and a lot of archaeology the incredible size and importance of the site became apparent.  I hope the accompanying pictures and captions can tell some of the story better than words.  
Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.
By early afternoon we were saturated with impressions, and were taken by bus down to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, where we spent a relaxing evening visiting the hot springs and enjoying the comforts of a local hotel.

Return to Cusco
Next day we were passengers in the famous train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, admiring the peaks through the glass roof as we sipped coca tea, and for the last 2 hours back to our monastery hotel in Cusco we got a maxi taxi which we shared with and another couple.
We finished our Peru adventure with shopping for alpaca products, good meals, visiting museums and watching folk dancing as well as admiring the enormous statue of the  Inca chief Pachakutec. 
He was the most powerful Inca emperor and the one who ruled most of the time when Macchu Picchu was being constructed. Little did he know that only a few decades after his death in 1471, the Spanish would arrive, overrun the entire empire in their unquenchable thirst for gold, and in record time destroy most of it, partly by ruthless slaughter and partly by bringing diseases like measles and smallpox. In about 80 years the Inca population shrunk from about 20 million people to less than two million...

Final Visit to San Blas
Modern travel is amazing, everything worked as planned, we had breakfast in Cusco one day and lunch on White Admiral in Isla Elefanta the next afternoon. All was well aboard and together we had a week of sailing about in our favourite archipelago and visiting some great anchorages.  And daily snorkeling, of course. This time Master Mola maker Venancio with his brother Edelfonso visited us and more beautiful  molas found new owners. And we had Sunsanne and Hans from NautiBear for dinner one night.
We cleared out at Porvenir, got our zarpe for Colon, probably for the last time, and did an overnight sail back to Shelter Bay Marina. The trades were gentle and from the right direction, it was a magic, starry night and we passed the entrance to Colon April 1st in much gentler conditions than when Diana and I struggled out five weeks earlier.  Three days later White Admiral was stored safely on land and Günter, Anne, Knut, Diana and I were on our way back to Norway.

1 comment:

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