Tag Archives: Galapagos

Penn Alumni Travel: Unforgettable Galapagos

Author: Liz Drayer, C’83

Darwin and blue-footed boobies.  That’s what I thought when I heard Galapagos, before we signed on for this September adventure.  Then our copies of Origin of Species arrived in the mail, courtesy of Penn Alumni Travel.  Wow, I thought I’ve never cracked this historic volume.  Now’s the time.  I made it through Chapter One before resorting to Evolution for Dummies.  But no problem – Professor Michael Weisberg filled in the blanks once we arrived.

The fun began when we boarded the National Geographic Endeavor, with its first-rate facilities and staff who catered to our every need.  How many times had I tried to win this exact trip on the Jeopardy sweepstakes?  With less than seventy guests, we were able to get to know everyone during the course of the week.  You can’t help but make friends nestled “cheek to cheek” in the Zodiacs, the motorized rafts deployed daily to ferry us to the islands.

Each morning began with a wakeup from Carlos, the ship’s master of ceremonies and naturalist extraordinaire.  Then it was off to explore the island du jour, each with unique topography and endemic species of animals and plants.  We practically tripped over iguanas, nursing sea lions and glittering Sally Lightfoot crabs, all oblivious to our comings and goings.  The naturalists’ encyclopedic knowledge deepened our appreciation for all we saw, and we marveled at Brian, our videographer/stunt man, who scaled precipices barefoot to nab the perfect shot.

“Scaly” is not a four-letter word.

“Scaly” is not a four-letter word.

Our shipmates made the trip special – a diverse group of all ages and backgrounds.  The wide-ranging activities offered something for everyone.  Snorkeling with sharks and sea turtles.  Scaling volcanic formations.  Kayaking and glass bottom boats.  Magnificent vistas and sugar cane farms.  And my personal favorite, the Galapagos Tortoise, those plodding kings that once thrived on the islands, now bred by researchers hoping to restore their prior glory.

America’s next top model.

America’s next top model.

We wound down each day in the cozy library, sipping cocktails and watching the cottony clouds waft across the horizon.  Evenings featured local cuisine and music, barbeques and crossing-the-equator parties.  A highlight of the trip was the excellent lecture series featuring Penn’s Professor Weisberg, that left me craving the classrooms of Bennett Hall.

These island getaways are exhausting.

These island getaways are exhausting.

We capped off the week with a day in Guayaquil, fraternizing with reptiles that hang from the trees in Iguana Park.  We marveled at yellow-jerseyed fans streaming into the soccer stadium, arriving at ten for a four o’clock game.  Ecuadorians take their football seriously….

Huge thanks to Alyssa D’Alconzo, Director of Alumni Education, Travel, and Career Networking, for organizing this fabulous trip.  Nothing sums up our nine days like Carlos’ favorite superlative:  Fantastic!

*Liz Drayer is an attorney and writer in Clearwater, Florida.  Her most recent short story, Crashers, appears in the June 2014 issue of Prick of the Spindle literary magazine.  Her email is edrayer@tampabay.rr.com.

[If this blog has inspired you to travel with Penn Alumni Travel, visit our full 2015 schedule here. We will be returning to the Galapagos in 2015 with the tour Machu Picchu to the Galapagos, December 1-15, 2015.]

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Penn Museum Lecture Series

Author: Emilie C. K. LaRosa

One of my favorite things about working for Penn is the access to world-renowned scholars. At Penn Alumni Travel, we find that that is also one of our travelers’ favorite things about touring with us: access to a Penn faculty host during the trip. With over 4,400 standing and associated faculty at the school, it’s difficult to narrow down our list of travel host prospects. Luckily, there are many ways to hear from and learn about a Professor’s work and research. The Penn Museum’s annual lecture series in one such way.

Every year, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology holds a thematic lecture series that takes place every first Wednesday of the month during the academic year. This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about this lecture series (see my February 2013 post) and, over a year later, I’m still a fan. This year’s theme is “Great Voyages: Travels, Triumphs, and Tragedies.” (Last year’s theme was “Great Battles: Moments in Time that Changed History. I’m excited to find out what next year’s theme will be!)

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The lectures take place in beautiful Harrison Auditorium and span such topics as Ferdinand Magellan, the detours of Ibn Battuta, and Gilgamesh. They are an excellent opportunity to learn about something new and hear from some of our best Penn professors in the fields of archaeology, history, and classical studies.

At a Penn Museum lecture earlier this winter.

At a Penn Museum lecture earlier this winter.

There are two lectures left this year: “Searching for the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts” with Professor C. Brian Rose and “Darwin’s Beagle Voyage” with Professor Michael Weisberg. Both professors are also hosting Penn Alumni Travel trips this fall. Professor Rose is traveling with our group to Turkey and Professor Weisberg with our group to the Galapagos.

If you have some free time tonight or on June 4th, consider spending it at the Penn Museum. I think you’ll find it was worth the effort to come to campus and return home a little later than usual. And, at $5/person, these talks are a great deal.  Click here to register for either Penn Museum lecture.

 

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Penn Alumni Travel: Machu Picchu to the Galapagos 1

Author: Professor Peter Dodson, Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences

This November 16-30, I led a Penn Alumni Travel trip with 14 Penn alumni and friends. Four of us went on a pre-trip excursion to the Amazon, leaving from Iquitos, northeastern Peru, the largest city in the world accessible neither by road or by rail. Here the highway is the mighty Amazon itself and its tributaries. We stayed at Ceiba Tops Ecological Lodge and reveled in the treasures of the rainforest–the colorful birds and insects, the inquisitive tapir, the riotous tropical plants. We also visited two indigenous villages, one of which still maintains its pre-colonial lifestyle.

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Back to Lima, we met the full contingent of Alumni Travelers along with our Odyssey guide for Peru, Marco Ayala. Marco was friendly, knowledgeable and witty, a great companion who anticipated our every need and was on top of every situation. After a quiet morning we spent the afternoon exploring a bit of Lima, including early Spanish churches in the city center and a visit to the splendid Larco Museum of pre-Columbian art. This was our introduction to the pre-European history of Peru. The following morning was an early departure from the hotel for our one-hour flight to Cuzco in the Andes, the capital city of the Incas.

Cuzco, the capital city of the Incas.

Cuzco, the capital city of the Incas.

Here we met our local guide, Anna Marie, who is highly knowledgeable about all things Incan. As Cuzco is 11,000 feet above sea level, it is deemed wise to begin the visit in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which is a mere 9,000 feet high. The beautiful Casa Andina served as our base for two days as we explored the Sacred Valley and saw many Incan walls and terraces. The Incas were master engineers and stone masons, and we witnessed their impact throughout the landscape.

Llama and alpaca woolen blankets.

Llama and alpaca woolen blankets.

We also viewed current agricultural practices as the land was being prepared for planting of corn, potatoes and other crops as the rainy season was soon to begin in December. We could see in plots side-by-side a field plowed by hand with a team of oxen and a field plowed by modern John Deere tractor. We visited a village where native women spun llama and alpaca fleece into wool, dyed it brilliant natural colors, then wrought the wool into beautiful native consumer goods. A highlight was a visit to the Incan fortress of Ollantaytambo on the Urubamba River.

A field plowed by a team of oxen.

A field plowed by a team of oxen.

The Penn group at Ollantaytambo.

The Penn group at Ollantaytambo.

The next day we took the train down the Sacred Valley as the Urubamba River dropped 2000 feet into tropical cloud forest to Aquas Calientes. Then we took the most breathtaking imaginable bus ride up through 13 switchbacks on shear side of the mountain to arrive at Machu Picchu Ecological Lodge, where we spent the night. This exquisite boutique hotel is the only guest accommodation on site. We had the privilege of tranquil time at the site without the press of crowds. We had two guided tours of the vast and stunning site, which is truly a city in the clouds — its shear cliffs remind me of a Yosemite in the tropics. The intrepid among us even participated in a rather taxing climb of Wayna Picchu, the smaller mountain that overlooks the back of the site.

Hiking Machu Picchu.

Hiking Machu Picchu.

Penn alumni in the Andes!

Penn alumni in the Andes!

Machu Picchu is everything that I had imagined and more. As Anna Marie made clear, the Incans showed every bit of the skill of the Egyptians in moving large blocks and fitting them together flawlessly without mortar. They also understood water perfectly. A significant overnight rain failed to make any impact on the site. Reluctantly we descended the mountain and took the train back to Cuzco. We stayed in a truly original hotel, El Monasterio, a Franciscan monastery whose construction began in 1595. The guest rooms were palatial and the hospitality exquisite — as close to five star as I am ever likely to experience.

The impressive engineering skills of the Incas on display.

The impressive engineering skills of the Incas on display.

El Monasterio courtyard.

El Monasterio courtyard.

My first talk took place in a gorgeous ornate high ceilinged chapel–and oh, sweet irony–it was my Darwin talk! Some think Darwin and Christianity are incompatible, but I know differently. After exploring Cuzco, we said good bye to Marco and flew on to Quito via Lima, and were greeted by our Odyssey guide for Ecuador, Roberto Peralta. Roberto too was excellent, helpful, solicitous, knowledgeable, cheerful, and proud of is country.

Darwin in the baroque chapel at El Monasterio.

Darwin in the baroque chapel at El Monasterio.

We flew on to the Galapagos via Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. At Baltra Airport we were met by our local naturalist, the high-spirited Dora Ulloa. We rode by bus from the airport, ferried across a canal (where the air was alive with seabirds flying to and fro), and southward across Santa Cruz Island towards Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos. In about 20 minutes we found ourselves in surprisingly lush vegetation at an altitude of about 2500 feet. Soon we were down at sea level again in Puerto Ayora. Here at the town dock we were met by two zodiac inflatable boats, locally called pangas, and whisked out to the Coral II, our beautiful 110 foot boat that was to be our home for the next three days.

Off on the zodiacs!

Off on the zodiacs!

We were met by the uniformed crew with the “Galapagos Greeting,” a firm forearm-to-forearm embrace that facilitates safe transfer from panga to ship or panga to shore. We settled into our staterooms, enjoyed a nice lunch, and then went ashore with Dora and Roberto to visit the tortoise breeding facility of the Darwin Research Center. Here we saw many Galapagos tortoises of varying sizes and shapes, many destined to be returned to their native islands. We also saw Darwin’s finches and mockingbirds moving about. Later we returned to the Coral II, enjoyed an excellent dinner and eventually repaired to our cabins.

The ship sailed during the night, and walking with a cup of coffee during breakfast was a challenging. Shortly later we anchored near a tranquil lagoon, and our first shore excursion was highly rewarding. We were greeted on the beach by welcoming sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs and land iguanas. Later we snorkeled in the lagoon, swimming over a white-tipped reef shark and a green sea turtle, and we observed shoals of colorful reef fishes. In the afternoon we landed on beautiful South Plaza Island, whose rocky shores were guarded by sea lions and whose air space was thick with sea birds, including boobies, petrels, shearwaters, gulls and pelicans.

Sea lions on the shore.

Sea lions on the shore.

A land iguana.

A land iguana.

Transferring from the Coral II to one of the islands.

Transferring from the Coral II to one of the islands.

The following day we toured a boobie and frigate bird rookery on North Seymour Island. In the afternoon we walked a sandy beach, saw a flamingo, and snorkeled along the reef off the beach. Finally we made a long crossing to San Cristobal, visited the Galapagos Interpretive Center, and regretfully returned to Quito. Good things still remained. We spent a day at Antisana Preserve along volcano alley where we viewed 19,000 foot snow-covered volcanic cones (Antisana, Cotopaxi) and majestic Andean condors from a distance.

A lone flamingo.

A lone flamingo.

Our final day involved historic churches in Quito, a trip to the Middle of the Earth — the Equator where we stood with one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and the other foot in the Northern Hemisphere. We ate lunch at the elegant and dramatic El Crater on the very rim of an ancient caldera with Ecuadorian cloud forest falling away beneath our feet.

And so it ended. What a splendid trip filled with natural and cultural wonders. Penn Alumni Travel is absolutely first class all the way. It is an absolutely worry-free way to travel and learn about other cultures and habitats. There is something for everyone everyday. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

[To learn more about Penn Alumni Travel and our 2014 schedule, click here.]

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Penn Alumni Travel: MP to the Galapagos 2

Author: Professor Larry Silver, Department of Art History

This fabulous “trip of a lifetime” with Penn Alumni Travel really lived up to its billing, and its two parts were like completely new chapters, each totally absorbing and totally different from the other.

Our journey began in Lima, where our local Odysseys host showed us the colonial square and the adjoining narrow streets with their charming wooden balconies.  She also gave us an hour-long introduction to pre-Spanish art and culture in the private museum, Larco Herrera, which spanned the entirety of native cultures from ten centuries BCE to the 1532 Spanish conquest.  Among treasures that we saw there were fabulous weavings from the Paracas culture of the south coast of Peru and stunning portrait vases from the later Moche culture of the north coast.

Larry Silver with alumni travelers in Peru.

Larry Silver with alumni travelers in Peru.

Soon we were winging our way to the highlands of the Incas, passing through Cuzco, their ancient capital, where we stopped to see the Koricancha, Temple of the Sun, before passing over high mountain passes into the Sacred Valley, watered by the river Urubamba.  Our next several days were spent in excursions all around the Sacred Valley, punctuated by views of sacred sites on the high plains (altiplano).  One highlight featured a morning with native weavers in Conchierro, who showed us not only their techniques but also the natural plants from which they made their dyes.  Some of us took home their exquisite traditional weavings.  In addition, one of the evenings in our Sacred Valley hotel featured (appropriately) a local shaman, whose blessings for the group in his native Quechua were translated by our regional guide and concluded with a ritual fire of the magical elements he had used in his incantations.  We had mixed reactions to the ceremony, but certainly whatever he invoked worked for the remainder of the trip, for we had remarkably trouble-free travels.

Traveling in the Sacred Valley.

Traveling in the Sacred Valley.

Learning from Peruvian weavers.

Learning from Peruvian weavers.

From Olaytatambo, a fortress town that resisted Spanish conquest (some of us hiked up to the peak of the citadel with its characteristic large, fitted Inca stone), we took one of the world’s great train rides down to Machu Picchu (still at over 8000 feet), but we noticed the greater tropical flora and birds as we descended.  Then came the climax at Machu Picchu, which sits in an overwhelming setting high above an oxbow bend of the River Urubamba on a saddle setting between two towering mountain peaks.  We there had the advantage of our great guide Julian to explain the history of the site as well as to itemize the original functions of the varied buildings, otherwise quite similar in form, except for distinctions in the stonework of their construction.

Astounding Machu Picchu.

Astounding Machu Picchu.

That location, the “Camp David” of the grand Inca Pachakuti in the later 15th century, was probably built in a mere decade but became a major shrine and outpost of the Inca even after the Spanish conquest; it was only rediscovered a century ago when an adventurer from Yale followed farmers’ tips and uncovered the place from its overgrowth.  Our two-day stay there took us over almost all of the remaining struc- tures, and we had the great advantage of a fabulous hotel location, just steps from the entrance gate, so some folks took good advantage of the early morning opening for extra activity with smaller crowds.  Some of us sat and contemplated the setting from above the ruins, while others hiked up to the segment where the Inca Trail descends finally to Machu Picchu itself.  Stunning views everywhere—and what was different from even the finest photos of the site is how its mountain peaks and gorges simply envelop the visitor in a breathtaking 3-D way no image can capture.

The view from above.

The view from above.

Penn alumni and friends stop for a photo-op.

Penn alumni and friends stop for a photo-op.

Our marvelous afternoon train ride all the way back to Cuzco included a fashion show, distracting to some but a shopping bonanza for others.   Cuzco itself is a splendid city, and our morning tour included visits to a few of the richly decorated main churches (the Spanish put in far too many churches for any short visit; they were determined to Christianize the Inca pagans, just as they built their Dominican church atop the splendid foundations of the Koricancha Sun Temple).  One of our rare bouts of wind and rain dampened the visit to the great citadel Sacsahuaman above the city, though it afforded yet another chance for a group photo and a sight of some of the most massive building stones this side of the pyramids of Egypt.  No wonder the Spanish dismantled all the building blocks that they could move; these were the inextinguishable markers of Inca engineering and power.

The group stops for another picture in front of the massive building stones.

The group stops for another picture in front of the massive building stones.

For some, the local host lunches that followed were another way to make real contact with the Peruvians, not to mention their most distinctive local dish, guinea pig.  Our Cuzco hotel, the Monasterio, was a fabulous base for free exploration of the city; its authentic colonial paintings in the main chapel and throughout the building provided a further opportunity for immersion in the religious life of the Spanish city. Almost all of us found memorable dining experiences on our own in the evening.

Logistics of leaving Peru for Ecuador occupied most of the next day, further complicated by the fact that the lovely, but largely empty, new airport of Quito has not yet been complemented by a proper roadway to get there.   We got to cross a deep gorge over a “temporary” bridge built for the oil industry, which is a major export of Ecuador out of its Amazonian basin.  Eventually, after a night in Quito, we flew to the Galapagos and met our lively naturalist Rial, plus the enigmatically named and hunky Victor Hugo.  They were our constant companions on and off the Coral I, a boat whose food was tasty, whose crew was experienced and friendly, and whose steadiness on the open ocean waters was a comforting way to visit the islands.  We grew pretty fond of the men who piloted our dinghy and the informed guides who found the full range of animals and then explained their ways to us.

The Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands.

What an amazing set of islands!  Stark, whether dry scrub or lava-covered, they hosted all of those amazing creatures we had come to see—and we were not disappointed.  Penguins not only leaped in clusters after schools of fish as we made our way along the coast in the rafts, but one of them entertained us at the stern one morning as he breakfasted among a cluster of sardines swimming in circles.  Some of us even saw penguins while snorkeling, one of the great delights of the Galapagos sojourn. Sea lions of several species were everywhere, on shore and in the water, also sometimes on view while snorkeling.  Pelicans might have been familiar, but to see them and the unfamiliar, rare blue-footed Boobies crash diving into the surf was an unforgettable spectacle.  We had a rare, calm view of a Galapagos Hawk in a tree, as well as other unfamiliar creatures, such as the Oyster-Catcher on her nest.  And who can forget the Frigate Birds, hovering like pterodactyls above the boat or following its wake, gliding gracefully above us.

Sea lions on shore.

Sea lions on shore.

Finding a pelican.

Finding a pelican.

Of course, the signature creatures of the Galapagos remains the giant Tortoise, and we saw slightly different versions on every island, not least at the Santa Cruz sanctuary on the last day, when a mudbath occupied as many as a dozen of the animals.  They were perhaps the only really shy animals we saw, pulling in and hissing when we had to share the same trail, but for the most part these placid reptiles relaxed and set a great example for travel mellowness.

Giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises.

No one who saw them, especially on Fernandina’s lava flows, will forget the Marine Iguana colony, and then later on Isabel (one of three different stops on that large island) we finally saw the yellow Land Iguana.  It was like a Jules Verne dinosaur movie to move amidst those creatures, seemingly without their having a care for us as threats—though their spit-like ejections of salt were anything but welcoming.  Even the major recent flows of lava, broken only occasionally by the intrusion of lava cactus, were a sight—really without comparison except at a few other places, such as the Big Island of Hawaii, were a spectacle to remember.  Victor Hugo gave a great talk on the boat about tectonic plates that move across the earth and about hot spots, such as the Galapagos or Hawaii, where the newest islands are on one end of the archipelago and the older, smaller, more verdant islands have drifted away, though still showing their calderas or their shield volcanoes.  We really got a great geology lesson in the Galapagos to complement our archaeology from Peru!

Plant life in the lava flows.

Plant life in the lava flows.

A final flight back to Quito resulted in a last-day tour of that capital.  We had a great morning, over-brief between sights and shopping, in the colonial city, whose gilded Jesuit church was a climax of opulent conversion technique, and we enjoyed the main square with its Franciscan church surrounded by jewelry, panama hats, local chocolate, and other goodies.  The morning ended with a most memorable view of the Ecuadorian President and the changing of the guard.  Afternoon outside the city showed a bit more of the volcanic uplands, not to mention a blustery final group shot straddling the Equator (plus a bi-hemispheric smooch photo).  And then LOTS of airport stays as we dispersed to our respective homes, armed with slides, new friends, and lots of memories.

Penn alumni and friends at the equator.

Penn alumni and friends at the equator.

This was an amazing combination of sights and sites, of archaeology and geology, not to mention zoology.  Odysseys took good care of us throughout, so that almost everything ran on time and without any cares on our part.  Their itinerary was diverse and well-planned.

Thanks to all who participated—good sports and hardy travelers who tried everything from climbing ancient steps to snorkeling in unglamorous wetsuits.  Penn can be proud of such a diverse and interesting, not to mention congenial, group of alumni (and groupies in some cases).  I hope that our paths will cross again soon, whether on another trip (with Penn Alumni Travel) or with continued personal contact.  Happy holidays to all—let’s share those great photos and email messages in the meantime and stay in touch!

[Join us as we visit the Galapagos again in 2014! Click here for more information.]

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