Chile & Peru: In the Wake of Humboldt & Darwin

2016 Chile & Peru Field Report

Ingrid Nixon|June 2, 2016|Field Report

Saturday, March 26, 2016 - Puerto Montt, Chile / Embark Sea Adventurer

“I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

Migrating from the four corners of the planet, we came together in this southern Chilean port city aboard the Sea Adventurer to start our journey up the west coast of South America. In the coming days we would be traveling through country that stirred the imaginations of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, two great scientists and thinkers who changed the way we see the world. The inviting, warm evening breeze drew us out on deck as we sailed in the soft pastel pink light of evening. The three volcanoes of Orsono, Calbuco, and Puntiagudo, visible in the distance. Let the adventure begin.

Sunday, March 27 - Valdivia

“There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid . . .” ~ Charles Darwin, on the Valdivian Earthquake of March 20, 1835

The Valdivia waterfront market offered a vibrant glimpse of local life when we stopped by during our tour of the city. Fish, smoked clams, seeds, and kelp were among the offerings from the various stands. Obviously well-fed sea lions and vultures lurked nearby for scraps. But first, we explored Niebla Fort high above Coral Bay, where we could clearly see how an extensive network of garrisons would guard against and prove challenging for seafaring pirates. The Mauricio Van de Maele Historical Anthropological Museum taught us about the indigenous Mapuches, who didn’t take kindly to the Spanish attempts to take over their homeland. Battles with the indigenous people were ongoing for much of the city’s history, but the city finally fell to Chilean independence fighters who attacked by land in 1802.

Monday, March 28 - Isla Mocha

“But when on shore, and wandering in the sublime forests, surrounded by views more gorgeous than even Claude ever imagined, I enjoy a delight which none but those who have experienced it can understand. If it is to be done, it must be by studying Humboldt.” ~ Charles Darwin

Our Zodiac operation was high entertainment for the locals and their dogs, who crowded the cement jetty to get a good view. Heading ashore just after dawn, we had to carefully time our landings between the sets of large, crashing breakers. We had just managed to get everyone ashore when the authorities ordered the ship to cease operations until the waves calmed down. That was no problem, as we headed off for birding, island touring via horse-drawn carts, and long and longer walks. Once the home of Mapuche people and a haven for pirates, this arid island still harbors a protected patch of Valdivian rainforest, alive with the buzz of hummingbirds and the dream-like call of the huet huet. We returned to the Sea Adventurer with no drama, and swapped stories over cocktails and dinner hosted by our captain, Denis Radja.

Tuesday & Wednesday, March 29 & 30 - At Sea / Isla Pajaros

“People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once . . . But can you really forbid a man from harboring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

We are sailing with the Humboldt (also called “Peru”) Current, cold water that moves north along the coast of South America with a surface current of up to three knots. Yes, Alexander was the first to measure and recognize the temperature differential during his South American travels, from 1799 to 1804. Cold water is nutrient-rich water, which makes this one of the more fruitful areas for sea life in the world. Our day at sea afforded us the opportunity to rest up, take in lectures, and enjoy sea birds and distant whale spouts from the deck.

From this ship, Isla Pajaros didn’t look like much. But the small granitic island teemed with life—and the pungent smell of guano. In the waters around the island, gangs of roving, curious South American sea lions and fur seals took occasional breaks from their graceful barrel rolls to eye us in the boats. Ashore, seals of all ages and sizes burped and bawled, slithered and crawled over and around one another. We had great looks at Peruvian boobies with ready-to-fledge chicks on the ledges above the churning surf; the birds, joined by Peruvian pelicans, also plunged headlong into the waters around us. Here and there among the onshore melee stood a few molting adult Humboldt penguins, patiently waiting for their new feathers to come in.

Thursday, March 31 - Isla Pan De Azúcar

“Collaboration operates through a process in which the successful intellectual achievements of one person arouse the intellectual passions and enthusiasms of others.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

Mid-morning, expedition leader Mike Messick’s voice came over the intercom with the understatement of the day: “We’ve spotted some dolphins ahead of the ship . . .” Some turned into a megapod that surrounded the ship, too numerous to count. They were herding a school of fish, which at times we could see teeming in the waters just in front of the dolphin frontline. We estimated at least 500 dusky dolphins, with a few fur seals and sea lions swimming along to take advantage of the teamwork. A sighting of this magnitude could only be matched by a sighting of rarity: marine otters, which we spotted from Zodiacs along the shore of Isla Pan De Azúcar that afternoon. About the size of housecats, the otters were catching crabs and fish in the intertidal zone, hauling them up onshore and chewing with gusto.

Friday & Saturday, April 1 & 2 - Mejillones / San Pedro Atacama / Iquique

“But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent upon the moisture.” ~ Charles Darwin

Standing high atop the dune at Valley of the Moon, we watched the sun sink below the horizon washing the surrounding landscape in pink. We had started the day in Mejillones, a port 50 miles to the north of Antofagasta, our original port that was closed by authorities due to ocean swell. Aboard our luxury buses, we wound up into the mountains, grateful to be headed toward the Atacama Desert. Lunch at Gatsby’s in the Chilean mall in Calama was memorable in its quirkiness. Fortified, we made it to San Pedro De Atacama in time to explore the ruins of the Atacamenian fortress Pukara de Quitor, dating from pre-Inca times, as well as the rock formation called the Three Marias, before sunset. The entire desert surface glittered as large salt crystals caught the fading light.

Birders had their own bus for explorations, but at one point or another we all ended up at Lake Chaxa, just outside of town, to observe flamingos. Large but shallow, the lake’s salty water was the perfect habitat for brine shrimp, which made it great habitat for flamingos and other birds. We had close looks at all three species—pink-kneed Chilean, yellow-legged Andean, and pink-legged Puna. Like wind-up toys, Baird’s sandpipers poked and prodded the water at our feet. Andean avocets remained at a distance, their heads tucked beneath wings. The mirror-like lake surface doubled the number of our bird sightings and doubled the beauty.

Before returning to San Pedro to start our long drive to the ship in Iquique, we stopped at the village of Tocanao. Dating from the 1600s, its church and bell tower featured cardon cactus trim. The line of willows and tamarugos along the edge of town announced the remarkable presence of running water. It drove home the point that in the Atacama, where there’s water, there’s life, and where there’s life, there’s water.

Sunday, April 3 - Arica / Lauca National Park

“Mere communion with nature, mere contact with the free air, exercise a soothing yet comforting and strengthening influence on the wearied mind, calm the storm of passion, and soften the heart when shaken by sorrow to its inmost depths.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

Just a short time after leaving the ship, we were already a mile high in elevation. Before the day was done we would top out at over 15,000 feet. We were headed to Lauca National Park, home to guanaco-like vicuña and rabbit-like viscachas, plus a number of hard-to-see birds, including the diademed sandpiper-plover. On the dry, scrub-covered hillsides, we could see old terraces and stone corrals used by indigenous people years, decades, or perhaps centuries ago. In the thin air, we all moved slowly. For the science of it, Dr. Sam Crimmin used a finger monitor to check our blood oxygen levels from time to time throughout the day. At peak elevation, all who tested indicated abysmal blood-oxygen levels; however, our local guides maintained normal levels, indicating acclimatization. Our turnaround point, Lake Chungará, is very close to the Bolivian border and surrounded by snowcapped volcanoes. While taking in the birds along the lakeshore, we heard a sudden growl of thunder followed by a brief hailstorm. It suddenly felt like a privilege to be present in the high desert as precious, life-giving moisture fell from the sky.

Monday & Tuesday, April 4 & 5 - At Sea / Pisco, Peru / Isla Ballestas / Nazca Lines

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” ~ Charles Darwin

Sperm whales have a distinctive blow that goes off to the left side, making the lone whale ahead of the ship easy to identify. It made the second, third, and fourth whales easy to identify, too. As well as the fifth, sixth, and so on. Suddenly, we were surrounded by no fewer than 25 sperm whales, adults and calves breathing at the surface. When sperm whales dive, they tend to go down to around 5,000 feet and stay down for about an hour. Thus, when they return to the surface—often directly above where they were underwater—they remain at the surface for about 15 minutes, breathing to re-oxygenate their blood. We obviously caught them at this key moment. As sperm whales were once hunted extensively for their ambergris and spermaceti, to see one in the wide expanse of the ocean would be a lucky sighting. To see so many was a gift.

While still well out at sea, we could make out the Paracas Candelabra, an almost 600-foot geoglyph carved on the hillside outside Pisco, Peru. But to see the Nazca Lines required taking to the skies, as many chose to do. The desert is crisscrossed with myriad lines, some ancient and some modern. But sharp eyes and good light made it possible to pick out the more famous geoglyphs, like those of the hummingbird, dog, monkey, astronaut, and thunderbird; shapes created by simply turning over desert stones, to reveal the side of the stone not covered by desert varnish.

While some were flying, others took in the wildlife by sea and by land, visiting the bird-rich cliffs of Isla Ballestas and the coastal Paracas National Reserve.

Wednesday, April 6 - Lima

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” ~ Charles Darwin

Music and voices from the ongoing mass echoed throughout the Monastery of San Francisco as we toured both above and below ground. The paintings, courtyards, and floors worn by the feet of thousands of devotees through the centuries had a faded beauty. However, the bones of upwards of 25,000 people interred in the crypts below the church commanded a certain fascination. With vents to the top floor so the dead could continue to hear the church services, the bones were sorted by type and length; and some were arranged in macabre geometric shapes. Bones and artifacts of the long dead were also displayed at the Rafael Larco Herrera Museum, a private museum housed in an 18th-century mansion built over a 7th-century pre-Columbian pyramid. The museum is also renowned for its connection of pre-Columbian pottery and, at least for our group, its fabulous Pisco sours and hors d’oeuvre, which we enjoyed in the garden.

For our afternoon experience we must express gratitude for the sharp eyes of the devoted birders and wildlife watchers out on deck. They spotted a tall whale blow in the distance and discerned that a blow that tall could only mean one thing: a blue whale. We diverted the ship toward shore and soon were alongside one of the largest animals on earth. Its skin was, indeed, blue. Its spout, towering. And when it made even a shallow dive we watched a long, smooth back roll through the water before eventually seeing its small dorsal fin and finally the flukes, which did not rise above the surface. Their numbers decimated by whaling, no one knows how many of these animals remain in the world’s oceans; estimates are between 5,000 – 12,000 individuals. We had the privilege of watching one whale move slowly along for sometime before it dove and we moved on. Columnar blows in the distance hinted there were more blues in the vicinity—a magical and comforting thought.

Thursday, April 7 - Salaverry / Chan Chán

“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” ~ Alexander von Humbodt

Strolling the sprawling, sunbaked ruins of Chan Chán, one couldn’t help but try to imagine what life must have been like for royalty of the Chimú Empire who lived here during its heyday, 1000-1470 AD. The adobe walls of courtyard upon courtyard were decorated with carefully carved images of fishes, pelicans, and squirrels, as well as triangular patterns representing fishing nets. Elaborate royal burials on the site included the bodies of upwards of 50 domestic workers to serve the royal person in the afterlife. Water reservoirs, like miracles in this desert climate, made life possible in this expansive city, which must have supported a significant number of people. But one question: did they have ice cream bars? We did upon purchasing just about everything but the cart from a strategically placed vendor at the site entrance.

In contrast to the monochromatic walls of Chan Chán, the Temple of the Moon were florid. Elaborate frescoes covered the walls: grimacing faces, intricate designs, figures performing a variety of tasks. The Mural of Myths was a storyboard of characters interacting with one another. A character known as the “Decapitator” figured prominently in the murals, indicating that human sacrifice was likely prevalent for these people. This pyramid, and another called Temple of the Sun, were built by the Moche people, who seemed to thrive here between 100 and 700 AD. Archaeologists speculate climate change may have brought about their downfall; that a long period of drought brought about by an extended El Nino may have led to ecological collapse.

Friday, April 8 - Islas Lobos de Afuera / Islas Lobos de Tierra

“Insight into universal nature provides an intellectual delight and sense of freedom that no blows of fate and no evil can destroy.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

Today we looked forward to landing on two guano islands—one far from the mainland, the other close to it. The abandoned infrastructure of guano mining operations littered both locations. Yet, both proved to be treasure troves of wildlife.

For the birders, the trek to find the few Nazca boobies on Lobos de Afuera was so-o worth it. However, for many, the South American sea lions we visited after a hike on the island stole the show. In the Zodiacs, we were able to bob just off shore to take in the drama. They were in the thick of the breeding season, as evident of the big bulls holding territories. The much smaller females were either ashore feeding their young or out at sea feeding themselves, leaving the little ones to get into their own mischief. A cacophony of calls, blatts, and cries filled the air. Curious animals approached the boats from behind until we turned and noticed them; then, found out, they disappeared with a splash.

In the afternoon, we landed at Islas Lobos de Tierra. As we took off our lifejackets and gathered for walks, two blue-footed boobies performed their courtship rituals nearby—showing their splendid feet to one another, partially opening their wings, leaning forward, and pointing their beaks and wingtips up at the sky. On our walks across the island, we found boobies displaying all behaviors—courting, nesting, and with chicks of all ages. Those who hiked along the shoreline could see green turtles swimming in the water and found telltale signs of their nests ashore. We returned to the ship by Zodiac, sunbaked but smiling in time to prepare for the Captain’s Farewell festivities. Really? So soon?

Saturday, April 9 - Paita / Piura

“Our imagination is struck only by what is great; but the lover of natural philosophy should reflect equally on little things.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt

The pelicans barely moved aside as our ship tied up at the pier at Paita. They stood shoulder to shoulder all along the edge. One would occasionally plunge into the water for a meal before returning to its spot in the lineup. Our last stop in Peru was not a big tourist attraction, but rather a chance for us to get a true slice of local life. About an hour through the desert by bus, Piura was a small city with an archaeological museum in which they took great pride. We stopped at nearby Catacaos to take in the handicraft market and lovely town square, crowded with locals. We returned to the ship and the pelicans, and set sail. Time to pack.

Sunday & Monday, April 10 and 11 - Salinas, Ecuador / Disembark / Guayaquíl

“A man's friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.” ~ Charles Darwin

With passports in hand, we donned our life vests for a one-way trip ashore. Alas, it was our last Zodiac transfer, and here we were getting so good at it! We boarded buses and headed for Guayaquíl. The verdant hillsides were almost a visual overload after our many days in brown desert country.

We found the Seminary Park crowded with families and hucksters, and crawling with iguanas—little wonder that it is more commonly known as “Iguana Park.” The common/green iguana is one of the largest lizards in the Americas and can grow to be six feet in length. We saw many good-sized ones eating lettuce sold to passersby by street vendors, as a way to ensure the iguanas are fed food that is relatively good for them. After a visit to the Metropolitan Cathedral, we headed to lunch at the hotel.

That night we gathered for one last dinner at our hotel before scattering on our various flights. The experiences we have had and the friendships we have forged have left us the richer.  Let’s meet again on another expedition . . . soon. Safe travels.



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