Confidenciales

Love Seats (Known as Confidenciales) on Mérida’s Plaza de la independencia

Mérida is a city full of little surprises. At first, one is conscious of the heat and humidity, followed by all that goes into making up a tropical city. Then, after a little while, one notices surprising little things that give the city its own charming uniqueness. Ever since the 17th century, the city’s parks have been dotted with concrete love seats called confidenciales. Rarely does one not encounter (during daylight hours anyhow) young Maya couples seated on them and whispering into each other’s ears.

The Courtyard of the Macay Museum of Contemporary Art

In a tropical climate, nothing is more welcome than cool shade. And it’s not too difficult to find it. When I visited the Macay Museum of Contemporary Art, I was so enthralled by the courtyard, that I sat down on a bench and meditated for upwards of an hour. The building that houses the museum used to be the Archbishop’s Palace.

If I owned a house, I would like one that presents nothing but a wall and a door to the street—with no front lawn requiring frequent maintenance. I’d much rather have a courtyard, invisible from the street with cozy benches and a fountain.

Colonnade by the Plaza de la Independencia, Built in 1821

Finally, I loved all the colonnades. like the one above which is two centuries old. It’s good to get out of the sun when it is hot, and there were always shops in the colonnade where you can get a cold beer or some tropical-fruit-flavored ice cream.

Perhaps all these things speak to me of comfort and relaxation, which is always a good thing when one is on vacation. Wherever I went, I found time to relax in the main plaza or a lovely courtyard or a welcoming colonnade. I always made sure that there was some relaxation time wherever I went. I saw a lot of wonderful places, and I had a good rest.

Places: South Iceland 2001 and 2013

Looking South from the Island of Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar

These are my oldest image files. They were converted from my Kodachrome slides from a trip I took to Iceland in 2001. Before I went to Iceland, there were parts of Europe that fascinated me. After Iceland, I was fascinated only by Iceland. Was it that I have an inborn need for wastelands like Patagonia or the Southwestern Deserts of the United States or the Peruvian Altiplano? I think so.

With the above photo, I was trying to see if I could find Surtsey, the island that was created by a recent volcanic upheaval beneath the sea. (The island still exists, but it is gradually getting smaller.)

The Ice in Iceland

The Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon Near Skaftafell

One of the most incredible sights in South Iceland is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon visible from the Ring Road on the way to Höfn in Hornstrandir. On one side of the road are these incredible chunks broken off from the giant glacier Vatnajökull; on the other, is a black sand beach dotted with tiny chunks of transparent ice like diamonds in a black satin setting.

The lagoon and beach are so spectacular that it is almost impossible to just pass on by. Even the bus to and from Höfn stops for a half hour or so. It’s not long enough for a boat ride on the lagoon—but it makes you want to come back, as I did in 2013.

Ice like Diamonds on a Black Sand Beach (Breiðamerkursandur) 2013

Why I Want To Return

My two visits to Iceland have merely whetted my appetite. I have read all the major Medieval Icelandic sagas, most of the novels of Iceland’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Halldor Laxness), and the superb books by Jesse L. Byock on Medieval Iceland. Plus there are parts of Iceland I have not seen, such as the Eastfjords, the stretch between Bru and Akureyri, Siglufjörður, and the Sprengisandur route through the middle of the island.

Places: Puerto Montt, Chile 2015

Puerto Montt in the Fog

This is the beginning of a new series based on places I have visited since 2001 and always illustrated by my own photographs. In common with all the places I decide to feature is my desire to go back and spend more time in the vicinity. I visited Puerto Montt briefly in 2015 on a trip I started in Buenos Aires, going on to Iguazu Falls (on the Argentina side), San Carlos de Bariloche, Puerto Varas, Valparaíso, and Santiago.

In her book Among the Cities, Jan Morris describes Puerto Montt as the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway. Actually, it continues on the Island of Chiloé across Reloncavi Sound as far as the town of Quellón, from which one could travel by ferry to Chaitén. The port was named after Manuel Montt, who was President of Chile from 1851 to 1861.

The Cathedral of Puerto Montt, Built Entirely of Native Alerce Wood

The Sea Creatures of Puerto Montt

The highlight of my visit to Puerto Montt was the incredible fish market, which Jan Morris described very picturesquely back in 1961:

And wettest, strangest, most southern, most remote, more alien than any melon-flower are the sea creatures of Puerto Montt, dredged through the rain out of the Pacific. There are heavy eels with muscular flanks, big flat fish like slabs of fat, giant clams, crinkled oysters by the million, mountains of spiky urchins, glistening and globular.

If I weren’t on a bus tour, I would have loved to stay for a giant seafood dinner, but I was scheduled to take an all-night TurBus sleeper to Valparaíso.

Unfinished Business

I would dearly love to go back to Puerto Montt for that seafood dinner, and then head across the sound to the Island of Chiloé, which is famous for its UNESCO-recognized wooden churches and wet forests. The Chilotes dispute with the Peruvians the development of the potato, which grows extensively on the island, and which is served with seafood in a local stew known as curanto.

Reliving a Transcendent Moment

There It Was: Mount Chimborazo

This post originally appeared on November 12, 2016, shortly after I returned to Los Angeles from Ecuador.

The text is from Matthew 18:22: “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” It refers to how many times one must forgive transgressors. That inspired the Swedish author, Lars Görling, wrote a novel entitled 491, which was made into a film by Vilgot Sjöman.

This is a very roundabout way of remembering the route Dan and I took as we emerged from the twisted warren of unmarked streets which is Ambato, one of Ecuador’s largest cities. We were looking for the E-35, which is the Pan-American Highway. Instead we were on E-491, which took us through a number of towns and villages which were not on my map of the country. Nor, for that matter, was E-491.

Then, as we rounded a hill, quite suddenly, we saw the volcano Chimborazo dead ahead of us. The clouds had moved aside, allowing us to see the glaciers on Ecuador’s tallest mountain. If you measure altitude from the center of the earth rather than sea level, it is the tallest mountain on earth, looming in splendid isolation from the rest of the Andes.

A Herd of Wild Vicuñas

As we drew closer to the mountain, we espied a large herd of wild vicuñas on both sides of the road. Dan and I stopped to take pictures in the rarefied air, which must have been 15,000 feet altitude.

Throughout its length, E-491 was spectacular. Even the Indian villages along the route were more interesting. And then, as we approached the city of Riobamba, we crossed the Pan-American Highway. We spent the night in a spare, but scrupulously clean hotel near the railroad station. By then, we were on the “wrong” side of Chimborazo, which was now covered in clouds.

That was the end of our getting lost: The next day, we easily made our way to Cuenca in about five hours.

The Equatorial Bulge

Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador (19,347 Feet or 5,897 Meters)

The Earth is by no means a perfect sphere. If you are standing at either the North or South Pole, you are some 21 km nearer to the center of the planet than if you were near the Equator. The reason for this is that the rotation of the planet exerts a centrifugal force that makes of the Earth more of an oblate ellipsoid. The illustration below exaggerates this phenomenon, but gives you the general idea:

Earth as an Oblate Ellipsoid

One upshot of this phenomenon is that some of the mountains nearer the Equator are actually higher than any of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest. The so-called Equatorial Bulge calls for a more accurate measure of a mountain’s altitude than distance above sea level—especially as the bulge means that sea level is correspondingly higher. A more accurate measure is distance from the center of the Earth.

Using this measure, Mount Everest just barely makes the top ten list:

The Highest Mountains on Earth Measured by Distance from the Earth’s Center

According to this chart, the highest mountain is a virtual tie between Chimborazo in Ecuador and the South Summit of Huascarán in Peru. In fact, by this measure eight of the ten highest mountains in the world are in the Andes, the only exceptions being Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Everest in Nepal.

Tomorrow, I will repost a blog I wrote about my visit to Mount Chimborazo in 2016.

Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku: Gate of the Sun

I must think I’m going to live forever.Trapped in my apartment during the quarantine, I am thinking more and more about returning to Peru and including the altiplano of Bolivia. Here I am at age 76, thinking of a strenuous trip at high altitude to one of the most fascinating (albeit difficult) places on Earth.

In 2014, I spent some time on the western shore of Lake Titicaca, on the Peru side. I even took a tour on a launch to Isla Taquile and one of the Uros Isles, but as the boat left the dock, I discovered that I was beginning to suffer the effects of food poisoning. The former afternoon at Sillustani, I ate something in a farmer’s house that violently disagreed with me. What is more, I was hours away from a toilet. Under the circumstances, I was not able to appreciate the beauties of Lake Titicaca, and in fact I took no pictures that day.

Map of Lake Titicaca, Showing the Location of Tiwanaku at Lower Right

Just as I returned to Tierra Del Fuego after breaking my shoulder there in 2006, I plan on returning to the Peruvian side of the lake, and adding some parts of Bolivia to the mix. I find myself suddenly interested in the Aymara-speaking peoples of the Andes.

A funny thing happened to me in Puno during my last visit. It was a bitterly cold morning, as it frequently is at that altitude (12,000 feet or 3,700 meters). I had neglected to bring a scarf with me, and I badly needed one. Enter a poor Aymara woman laden down with hand-knitted handicrafts. I walked up to her and brought a beautiful scarf at a reasonable price. Apparently, I made that woman’s day. She broke into a big smile and was almost prepared to welcome me into her family.

Over a thousand years ago, there was an Aymara empire centered at Tiwanaku in modern-day Bolivia. It lasted until AD 1100 when a massive and persistent drought led to a drop in the level of Lake Titicaca, leaving the Aymara fields high and dry. Hundreds of years later, the Inca took over; but their empire was short-lived once the Spanish conquistadores began to move in.

Walls of the Kalasaya Complex at Tiwanaku

Since the eco-catastrophe that destroyed the Aymara empire a thousand years ago, the Aymara have become a scattered people indulging in subsistence agriculture and the herding of llamas and alpacas.

Cerro Rico

The Cerro Rico, or “Rich Hill,” in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia

One thinks of mines as delving deep into the earth. The silver mines at Cerro Rico in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia, are no exception—except for one little fact: The mines are at an altitude of 15,000 feet plus (4,700 meters), high enough that the miners must chew coca leaves so that they could work without the debilitating effects of soroche, acute mountain sickness.

In his book Valley of the Spirits: A Journey into the Lost Realm of the Aymara, Alan L. Kolata writes:

Silver was the prize that inspired unbridled lust in the Europeans who conquered the Andean world in the sixteenth century. The frenzy for veins of silver from the majestic Andes destroyed whole nations of Indians. After decades of warfare, pestilence and famine, the ravaged native populations were subjugated into slave labor in the hellish mines of Potosí in southern Bolivia. Desperate for laborers to work the fabulously rich deposits, Spanish overlords laid claim to the traditional laborers, the mit’a, that the Indian nations rendered to their native monarchs. More than one-seventh of the native population between Cuzco in southern Peru and Tarija in southern Bolivia were pressed into service in the mines of Potosí. Conditions in the mines were bestial. Even the Spanish dogs of war were treated with more compassion than the native conscripts who died in unremembered numbers.

“Conditions in the Mines Were [and Are] Bestial”

They still are bestial. The Cerro Rico is still being mined, though with diminishing rewards. Between the 16th and the 18th century, 80% of the world’s silver supply came from this mine. According to Wikipedia:

After centuries of extractive mining methods that severely damaged the local ecology the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions, such as a lack of protective equipment against the constant inhalation of dust, many of the miners contract silicosis and have a life expectancy of around 40 years. The mountain is still a significant contributor to the city’s economy, employing some 15,000 miners.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook for Bolivia, it is possible to tour the mines, though I seriously doubt the sanity of travelers who make the attempt.

The silver mined at Potosí was sent by caravan to Lima, Peru, from where it was transshipped from the Port of Callao to Panama, portaged across the isthmus to Colón, and placed on Spanish treasure ships bound for Spain. Many of those ships never made it, being sunk by Atlantic storms and pirates.

And the upshot? For all the gold and silver went into financing Spain’s wars, which were generally mishandled. In the end, Spain was taken by Napoleon who put an end to the Spanish monarchy of the time.

Women of Adventure

Dame Freya Madeline Stark (1893-1993)

Some of the world’s most intrepid travelers were women. I am thinking particularly of Freya Stark, who tromped all through the Middle East and Afghanistan, in the processing writing a couple dozen excellent books, and died at the ripe age of 100. In her book Baghdad Sketches (1937), she wrote:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

In her book Valleys of the Assassins (1934), she added:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

This woman makes Ernest Hemingway look like a wussy boy in short pants.

And Freya Stark is not the only woman traveler who dared to go solo into the uncharted areas of the earth. There was also Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), who traveled extensively in Asia, and Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), whose destination was West Africa. In fact, Wikipedia compiled a list of female explorers which sets one to thinking. You can find it here.

The Golden Circle

Thingvellír on Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour

If you should be so lucky as to visit Iceland, I highly recommend taking the Golden Circle tour offered by several tour bus companies. It attempts—and successfully—to highlight the uniqueness of the country by visiting three or four major attractions within a short distance of the capital at Reykjavík.

Before it got gobbled up by Norway, Iceland was governed by an annual outdoor meeting at Thingvellír, where the laws were read out loud and cases were tried to resolve conflicts. It also is a significant site geologically, as the line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs right through it. You can see how much the plates have moved since the early days of the 9th century AD.

The Waterfall at Gullfoss

Not far from Thingvellír is the huge waterfall at Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) on the Hvitá River. The falls is in three “steps” before plunging 11 metres or 36 feet, and 21 metres or 69 feet as seen in the above picture. One of the most incredible things about Iceland is that, throughout the country, I saw hundreds of waterfalls of various sizes.

The Geyser Strokkur at the Original Geysir

The word geyser comes from the name of a famous erupting hot spring which, for many reasons, does not erupt any more. Not to worry: There are dozens of other geysers, especially Strokkur, which erupts several times an hour. There are numerous bubbling hot springs throughout Iceland, necessitating considerable care to avoid boiling your extremities as the result of a misstep.

Some of the Golden Circle tours also include sa visit to a geothermal power plant on the route back to Reykjavík. It was incredible to me that the whole city of Reykjavík has central heating: no coal, no oil, no gas—but steam as the result of drilling strategic holes in the earth’s crust near lava and sending water down the hole.

Iceland is one of the most eerily beautiful countries on earth, even if it isn’t very green.

Cruz del Cóndor

They’re Not the Prettiest Birds, But They Are HUGE!

Along the south rim of Peru’s Colca Canyon, midway between Chivay and Cabanaconde is a place called Cruz del Cóndor. We stopped there late one morning waiting for the thermals that bring that condors up from the canyon below. I had a hard time focusing on the birds when they were against a dark background, so I was not able to take the above picture. Below is the best of the ones I shot, up against a blue sky:

Condor at Colca Canyon

To be a good wildlife photographer, you have to be patient … and you have to have the right equipment. Unfortunately, I have only a digital rangefinder camera, and I wasn’t able to stay put and wait for the right shot to happen. So it didn’t.

Condor on the Dining Room Wall in Chivay

Here’s one condor I was able to photograph—at the restaurant where we ate lunch after viewing the condors. Then it was on to the high point of the trip—Patopampas at 15,000 feet (4,600 meters)—enroute to Puno and Lake Titicaca.