Papua New Guinea — taking a trip back in time

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Welcome to the Sepik. Please set your watches back 900 years.


Greg Stathakis, a retired Santa Barbara high school teacher, has led groups to Papua New Guinea for each of the past 28 years. My older son, Billy, and I joined him in May ’07 for the trip of a lifetime.

A bit of history


PNG occupies the eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, located 100 miles north of Australia. It’s a relatively new country, gaining independence in 1975.

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Clownfish on the house reef at Loloata Dive Resort.


Although English is the official language (Pidgin is the second), over 800 languages are spoken in this country that is only slightly larger than California.

PNG is remote. There are daily flights to and from Australia but not many other ways to get into the country easily.

Europeans discovered a thriving interior culture only in 1933. The Japanese occupied the coastal areas during World War II, and Allied forces retook the country in 1944. The outside world has paid little attention since.

That’s surprising because of what PNG offers visitors. Its coral reefs support more species than the entire Caribbean. The tropical mountain forests are home to a dozen species of birds of paradise and an array of orchids found nowhere else. The tribes of the Highlands offer glimpses of wildly different cultures, and, for the shopper, PNG is ground zero for primitive art.

Easing in


Greg visited PNG in 1978, and he raised questions with the tour agents about how they did things. They challenged him to do better and he’s been doing so ever since.

Late one night I discovered his website (www.pngtravel.com) and e-mailed him a few questions. He responded within minutes and we talked for over an hour. I sent in my deposit the next day for the 11-night tour, which cost $7,450 per person including all meals and in-country air.

Billy and I flew from Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia, connecting to PNG’s capital city of Port Moresby. A van met us curbside and took us to an old dock outside of town. There we caught a launch for the 15-minute ride to Loloata Island.

Loloata Island Resort is a 22-cabin dive resort that is normally full on weekends with locals escaping the oppressive heat of the capital. During much of our stay, though, we were the only guests.

We spent our first morning with a dreadlocked divemaster, a missionary on his way home and a school of 100 toothy barracuda. On later dives we watched half-inch pygmy seahorses hang between the branches of sea fans and observed rare scorpionfish devour their prey. It was good diving.

The Highlands


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Huli warrior in the Southern Highlands.


After a few days we returned to the capital, where we met Greg and an interesting group consisting mostly of American retirees who had stories from nearly every country in the world. Then we flew an hour north on Air Niugini to Mt. Hagen in the Western Highlands.

Elections were scheduled for the end of the month, so hotel security advised we not leave the grounds unescorted because of volatile crowds. It was probably good advice; several people were killed that weekend in election violence.

But we experienced only full-faced smiles — and not just from people at the hotel who were paid to be nice to guests. At the central market, vendors clamored to have their pictures taken and then laughed at their images on the digital cameras. At a middle school where we took some supplies, students mobbed Billy and had him autograph their caps.

Greg built our trip around the Tumbuna Sing Sing, an annual festival of tribal dancing. Such gatherings offer often-warring tribes a chance to meet on neutral ground. Participants included batmen, skeleton people and warriors clad in feathered headdresses and beaded loincloths. Each took a turn singing, chanting and dancing (or, in the case of the fierce Asaro mudmen, glaring). Then they staked out their own spots and continued to perform, often drowning out a competing clan.

Watching the audience was almost as interesting; it consisted of 40 “expats,” a word locals use to refer to anyone from outside PNG, and several hundred “nationals” (not “natives”).

Village visits


The East Sepik Province is a 45-minute flight and a world away from the Highlands.

It is almost scarily remote. There are no roads nor electricity. It is hot, steamy and malarial. And it offers spectacular art.

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A child from Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands


We landed on a grass airstrip and transferred to the Sepik Spirit, a 40-foot vessel that served as a comfortable base camp for our next few nights. We rested in air-conditioned cabins and during the day visited villages in a speedboat that was better able to navigate narrow river channels.

Missionaries have a long history in the region. In Timbunke we met Father Carlos, a young priest from Paraguay.

Traditional spirit worship seemed to thrive in the Catholic villages, and Father Carlos’ church is designed like a spirit house, each of its supporting posts carved by parishioners from a different village.

In what Greg called the Village at the End of the World, we saw Mass celebrated next to a magnificent spirit house in which young teens undergo a year of initiation into manhood. Those rites culminate with each boy’s back being sliced with bamboo slivers and packed with mud to produce a scarring that resembles the revered crocodile.

In another village, the influence of the missionaries seemed less benign. There the spirit house had fallen into disrepair, the dancing had stopped, and the carving had been redirected from masks and figures said to house spirits to dolls for the tourist trade featuring outsized genitals.

The missionaries had a role in curtailing headhunting — and not so long ago. Our guide, Chris, said his grandfather had seven heads to his credit.

Rare visits


There aren’t many tourists on the Sepik River. In four days we saw only one craft (a supply boat) that wasn’t a dugout canoe. Our captain said that fewer than 50 foreign travelers had been on the river since January, which was understandable given the complete absence of a tourist infrastructure, despite the wealth of art for which the region is noted.

The pieces in the New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University are all from the Middle Sepik Region. In Mindimbit, we met one of the master carvers who had visited Stanford in 1994. Vendors there were accustomed to visitors and were vocal about the need for them to buy local crafts.

In contrast, another settlement we visited sees no more than two groups of travelers per year. Greg struck up a friendship in the late ’70s with the chief, so he is one of the only foreigners whom they see on a regular basis.

At the riverbank, children surrounded us, giggling and hiding behind their mothers. Masked dancers led us through the village, and we were admitted to the upper floor of the spirit house typically restricted for initiation rites.

Back on land

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John and Billy with the Skeleton People at the Tumbuna Sing Sing.


We left the Sepik for Ambua Lodge in the Southern Highlands near the Tari Gap. At 7,000 feet, the lodge is well above the malaria line, and morning treks spotting birds of paradise were exhilarating. It’s a glorious place, the recipient of multiple awards for environmental and cultural sensitivity before “going green” became trendy.

The Highlands are the home of the Huli people, PNG’s most aggressive clan, we were told. Even today, the chief job of Huli men is preparing for, engaging in and negotiating settlements of tribal warfare. Fights are over prestige, measured in land, pigs and women (in decreasing order of value).

It’s not a woman’s world. Our guide, Paulus, paid 30 pigs for each of his two wives. He chose them on their willingness to work hard and bear children.

In the Huli world, women are feared because, as the givers of life, they are also thought to be able to take it away. In the most traditional villages, men are in touch with women only for procreation; they otherwise eat, sleep and live in men’s houses.
Worth a visit

PNG has its issues. Raskols (street thugs) effectively close Port Moresby to nighttime activity. The subsistence economy of the villages does not translate well into the cities, where AIDS is prevalent. The loyalty to clan over country makes curbing the exploitation of rich natural resources even more difficult than in many developing countries.

Yet it’s a fascinating place, closer to my childhood recollection of National Geographic images than any place I’ve seen. Almost to a person, nationals asked us to write to them when we got home or to tell friends to visit. It’s well worth a look, even by the most jaded of travelers.

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The conquistadores arrived in South America early in the 16th century. They came hungry for land and hungry for gold. With them came priests and monks intent on spreading the Catholic faith among the many Indian groups.


One of the religious groups was the Jesuits, founded in 1540 by a Spaniard, Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits were a very structured and disciplined multinational order concerned not only with their own spiritual growth but with active proselytizing.

They carried their organizational skills and their desire to make conversions to the New World and, in the course of 158 years, worked to create a utopia among the Guaraní Indians of the Rio de la Plata area of southern South America.

The Jesuits arrived in Paraguay from Brazil in 1578. In 1607 they created the Jesuit “province” of Paraguay, based in Asunción, covering the vast area of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and parts of Brazil. Here they set about building missions, called reducciones, the first of which, San Ignacio Guazú, was constructed in 1609.

Growth of the missions

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Interior of San Ignacio Mini church.


Over the next century and a half, 30 missions were built — 15 in Argentina, eight in Paraguay and seven in Brazil. At their height, at the beginning of the 18th century, there were an estimated 140,000 Guaraní Indians living in the missions, an average of about 4,700 in each of the 30 missions.

The Jesuits offered the Guaranís protection from marauding bands of bandeirantes, the slave hunters who periodically raided Guaraní settlements taking captives.

The Jesuits also taught the Indians valuable skills — carpentry, masonry, woodworking, blacksmithing and sculpting — that were put to use building the missions. In addition, fields were planted, orchards cultivated and cattle bred and raised. Each mission, though in contact with other Guaraní-Jesuit missions, strove to be as completely self-sufficient as possible.

This all ended in 1767 when King Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from all territories of the Spanish empire. The reason was partially envy. The Spaniards in colonial South America resented the organizational skills that had created missions that were, in most cases, superior to colonial towns.

But there was also fear of growing Jesuit power. After 1767, some missions were given to other religious orders and some were sold or auctioned off, while others fell into ruin or were deliberately destroyed.

What remains, however, is impressive. My husband, Paul, and I visited three missions in ARGENTINA located close to each other about 150 miles southwest of Iguaçu Falls, one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, straddling the border between Argentina and Brazil.

Mission layout


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Model of San Ignacio Mini mission.


Each mission followed a similar layout. A large central plaza was surrounded on three sides by numerous long rectangular stone houses, each house divided into units to house individual families. On the fourth side stood a large stone church with a school and workshops on one side and a cemetery and a cotiguazú, a house for widows and orphans, on the other.

Close to the church was a residence for the Jesuit priests — usually only two or three — who ministered to the needs of the mission.

Beyond the church and its surrounding buildings were vegetable gardens and, beyond these, fields planted with crops like cotton, maize, sugar, sweet potato, tobacco and, most important of all, yerba mate, whose leaves could be dried to be used as tea.

This layout varied among the missions but not much.

San Ignacio Mini


The first Argentinian mission we visited was San Ignacio Mini, a good choice, we felt, since it is the most complete of the three missions, making it easy to visualize its original layout.

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Remnant of church doorway with “Guaraní Baroque” carving — San Ignacio Mini.


Built in 1610, San Ignacio Mini was moved several times because of bandeirantes’ attacks until its final relocation in 1696 near the Argentinian town of Posadas. San Ignacio Mini is a 2½-hour drive southwest of Iguaçu Falls.

From the entrance, an avenue runs past stone houses that were Guaraní homes 300 years ago. Stone columns, remnants of an arcade, stand a few feet in front of these buildings. They once provided protection from the weather and perhaps space for women to set up their looms or do household chores outdoors.

At the end of this avenue was a large plaza with the mission church at its southern end. This church must have been spectacular because, though now in ruins, it is still impressive. It is immense — 243 feet by 79 feet — with three aisles divided by a double row of stone columns.

The carvings remaining on the church doorways and walls and the freestanding sculptures are magnificent. Carved in what has been called “Guaraní Baroque” or “Hispanic Baroque” style, the decoration features flowers, plants and birds native to this part of South America. There are also angels, some of which combine sinuous serpentine bodies with wings, making them look mildly sinister.

To the left of this church was a patio surrounded by schoolrooms, with a wide paved terrace and a beautiful stone balustrade in front. Next to this was another patio surrounded by workshops. To the right of the church was the cemetery and at one corner, the hospital, convenient but not exactly inspiring optimism among the sick.

Santa Ana


Santa Ana Mission is only a 20-minute drive from San Ignacio Mini. It was originally founded in 1633 but moved several times.

Santa Ana is in a much more ruinous state than San Ignacio Mini, although it is still possible to trace the outlines of the principal buildings: the church, colegio, or school, workshops and the many Guaraní houses that once sheltered a population of close to 4,400. Many stone walls remain although propped up by wooden supports to keep them from toppling.

What is especially moving about Santa Ana is its cemetery with many relatively recent burials. Even though Santa Ana, along with the other Guaraní-Jesuit missions, was drastically affected by the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 and most Guaraní living there left, some of their descendants are still buried next to the old church where their ancestors once worshiped.

Loreto


Nuestra Señora de Loreto Mission is another short 20-minute drive away from Santa Ana. Loreto, like San Ignacio Mini and Santa Ana, had a founding (1610) and several refoundings (1631 and 1686).

It is fortunate that we visited San Ignacio Mini first because if we hadn’t it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to decipher the layout of Loreto from what is left. It is almost totally in ruins, with much covered by tall trees and grass.

It’s very romantic to clamber up moss-covered steps and over stone walls with protruding tree roots, but it’s hard to distinguish what a particular building might have been unless you’ve been to San Ignacio Mini or studied the scale model of Loreto at the entrance to this mission.

Seven remaining Guaraní-Jesuit missions in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The three we visited are all on the list.

If you go. . .


We visited the three missions in Argentina on a day trip from Iguaçu Falls, where we spent three nights on our 5-week-long trip to Buenos Aires in August 2007. The flight from Buenos Aires to Iguaçu Falls took about 90 minutes.

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Our hotel was the Sheraton Iguaçu Resort, the place to stay on the Argentinian side of the falls. Our room had a long-distance view of the most spectacular of the falls, la Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). Best of all, we could do the three major walks to the falls — Lower Circuit, Upper Circuit and Devil’s Throat — from the hotel.


Room rates vary but during our visit started at about $300, including buffet breakfast. Reserve through Starwood Hotels (800/325-3535, www.starwoodhotels.com).

The Sheraton tour desk arranged the car and driver for our visit to the three missions. You really don’t need a guide because of the excellent plans and/or models at each site. The Sheraton gift shop sells a good booklet about the missions.

The cost of the car and driver for about nine hours — five hours’ driving time and four hours’ exploring the mission ruins — was $233 plus an additional $8 for admission charges for two people.

Bring along sturdy walking shoes, insect repellent, sunscreen, a head covering and lunch or snacks. Don’t forget bottled water.

B.A. apartment


For our stay in Buenos Aires we rented an apartment from Buenos Aires Habitat. It was a 10th-floor penthouse in Recoleta, our favorite area in the city and full of cafés, restaurants and boutiques.

The apartment had two bedrooms, 2½ bathrooms, a sunroom, a kitchen with washing machine, and a light-filled living/dining room with an adjacent terrace. The rental cost $1,800 a month (that’s an amazing $60 per night) but can also be rented by the week for $755 — a bargain, we thought. Twice-weekly maid service is even included.

Buenos Aires Habitat (Rodriguez Peña, P.B. “B,” Buenos Aires CP 1021, Argentina; phone 54-11-4815-8662, fax 1-815-642-1318 or visit www.buenosaireshabitat.com. . . or phone their Miami office at 305/735-2223) offers an excellent selection of apartments in other choice areas of the city as well.

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Cruising Scotland’s Caledonian Canal

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008 marked our 50th wedding anniversary, and we decided it would be a good year to celebrate with our family. Since we are longtime devotees of river cruising, we chartered a barge for our family of seven for a one-week trip in August ’08 through the Highlands of Scotland on the Caledonian Canal.


First impressions


So there we were: a pair of septuagenarians, three 40-somethings, a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old. Having flown from Newark to Glasgow, we were transported to Fort William by a charming driver, Harry Furay of Travel Confidential (Paisley, Scotland; phone +44 [0] 7828 113 233, www.travelconfidential.co.uk), at a cost of $200, being entertained by snippets of Scottish history on the way.

Since we were in Scotland, we were not surprised to find that it was raining, though the scenery still managed to be impressive.

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We were delivered to the Lime Tree Hotel (phone 01397 701806, www.limetreefortwilliam.co.uk), where the children promptly curled up on couches and went to sleep while the rest of us enjoyed an excellent lunch in the dining room overlooking Loch Linnhe. At midafternoon the barge captain, Dan, drove us to the village of Banavie, where we boarded the Scottish Highlander, an 8-passenger barge that would be our home for the next six days. The four bedrooms, each named after a Scottish clan (Cameron, Macpherson, Fraser and Macintosh) and decorated in the appropriate tartans, were well appointed, roomy and comfortable.


The common area — a combination parlor and dining room — offered a table seating eight, elegant leather-upholstered chairs and couches, and windows on both sides. A bookcase was well supplied with reading material and games. The bar, equally well supplied, was at our disposal. A coffee machine, a bowl of fresh fruit and a selection of cookies were available at all times, and dishes of candy tempted us in the bedrooms and the common area.

Champagne and hors d’oeuvres, including plenty of smoked salmon, welcomed us, preparing us for what would be a succession of exquisitely prepared and succulent dinners. Through the week, we dined on local specialties: lamb, beef filet, venison and broiled salmon — all delicious.

Lunches were eclectic, featuring many different types of salad, excellent soups (including that curiously named Cullen skink, found only in Scotland) and even some Asian and Mexican dishes, followed by a selection of local cheeses. Sticky toffee and bread-and-butter puddings were family favorites for dessert.

The chef cum first mate, Mark, had checked with the children on their likes and dislikes and regularly prepared special dinners and lunches for them, including spaghetti and even pizza. Kayleigh, the third member of the crew, served as waitress, sommelier (two wines were offered with both lunch and dinner) and steward.

Since no one had slept very much on the flight over, we opted for an early night. Waking the next morning, we greeted a beautiful day, bright sunshine gilding the water and sparkling on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, one of which was Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest at more than 4,000 feet.

Touring the land


After the first of our full English breakfasts — porridge, eggs any style, bacon, sausage, fried tomatoes and mushrooms and cold cereals — we met the fourth member of our staff, Marus, known as Moshy, who would drive us in an 8-passenger van for the land excursions.

We drove through charming small villages and gorgeous countryside to Glencoe, a national park and wildlife preserve owned and operated by the National Trust of Scotland. Along with its natural beauty, Glencoe enters history as the site of the infamous massacre of Clan MacDonald members by their longtime foes, the Campbells. In 1692, under the pretext of a truce, the Campbells visited the Macdonalds and, after dining, turned on their hosts, slaying everyone in the clan under the age of 70.

The visitor center presented a film reenactment along with the recitation of a poem chronicling the massacre. The visitor center also presented the geologic and cultural history of the region, from its formation at the close of the Ice Age through its early years of Celtic settlement and up to the present.

We traveled on to the Ben Nevis Distillery. Established in 1825, it is one of the oldest of the many licensed distilleries in Scotland producing uisge beatha, “water of life.”

The visit began with a film, “The Legend of the Dew,” which recounted the legendary invention of Scotch whisky by a genial giant. This was followed by a guided tour that explained how Scotland’s most famous export is transformed from barley and water cooked over a peat fire into what many people consider ambrosia.

The guide informed us that the best way to savor whisky is with water to your taste, never ice. Naturally, a tasting followed.

On the canal

During the afternoon, we began our transit of the Caledonian Canal, which connects four lochs (Lochy, Oich, Ness and Dochfour) on the way from Fort William to Inverness, a distance of about 60 miles. Started in 1803 and completed 19 years later, the canal was built to provide a route between the Atlantic and the North Sea, bypassing the long and hazardous voyage around Cape Wrath.

Shortly after leaving Banavie, we entered our first lock, a fairly deep one leading into Loch Lochy. At our next port, Gairlochy, the five younger members of our party took advantage of the bicycles provided on the barge, and the two youngest later indulged in some (unsuccessful) fishing. We were blessed with another glorious, sunshiny day, perfect for our planned trip up a mountain. On the way, we stopped at the village of Spean Bridge, where commandos trained for their hazardous duties in World War II. A monument outside the village commemorates those men, who represented many countries.

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We also had some time to shop at Spean Bridge, where Scottish woolens, traditional foods and, naturally, whisky were offered.


From there we traveled on to Aonoch Mòr, a more-than-3,000-foot-high mountain that we ascended by gondola. It was an awe-inspiring journey. The gondola carried us above the trees, providing splendid views.

The view from the landing spot, about three-quarters of the way up the mountain, was truly spectacular: a verdant glen surrounded by impressive peaks, including Ben Nevis. Lakes glistened in the sunlight and the Great Glen spread out below.

As we leisurely cruised through lochs Lochy and Oich during the afternoon, the children had fun steering the barge under the watchful eye of Captain Dan. The older members of our group napped or relaxed on the small deck as the lovely countryside drifted by.

Loch Ness


The next day the rains came again. The barge moored at Fort Augustus above the 5-step lock that leads to Loch Ness. Scottish rains, like those in Ireland, can vary within minutes from torrential to gentle to mere mists. It was just a little more than a mist as we walked through the village and dropped in at the small museum devoted to the building of the Caledonian Canal. The afternoon began with a long drive through the rain to Eilean Donan Castle. Along the way, Moshy made a stop on a bluff overlooking Loch Garry, whose shoreline appears to form a map of Scotland — a great place for photos.

Eilean Donan is positioned at the meeting point of three sea lochs. Although the site has been fortified for almost 800 years, the present building dates largely from the 20th century. It is privately owned but open to the public.

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The setting, on the island of Donan, is spectacular, with wraparound views of the Highlands and the Isle of Skye visible to the west. It is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles.


Our crew had the evening off and dinner had been arranged for us at The Boathouse, a restaurant on the banks of Loch Ness. Thousands of rabbits cavorted on the grounds of what had been the original Fort Augustus. Converted to an abbey and later a private school, it is now being transformed into a hotel.

Farm fair


The rain had cleared the air, and the next day dawned bright and sunny. We started off with a cruise through five connected locks — from one end of Fort Augustus to the other — a distance of about 200 yards. Another long ride took us through mountains to the town of Beauly, where we were to attend the Black Isle Show 2008, an annual agricultural fair celebrating its 171st year. Dan had arranged this outing, since our visit coincided with the one day the fair was to be held.

We watched the judging of horses, ponies (led by little girls in full riding gear) and sheep being handled by youngsters between eight and 12 years old. We saw flower arrangements and fruits and vegetables, including onions the size of cabbages. Farmers in Wellington boots and tweed jackets were everywhere. Large, russet, hairy Highland cattle placidly chewed their cud as they waited to be judged.

The tent labeled Fur and Feathers was tremendously interesting. It featured rabbits twice the size of those we are familiar with plus a splendid variety of chickens, several looking as though they had been meticulously painted.


The children were delighted to partake of a carnival-type ride, perhaps compensation for being without television, Game Boys and text messaging for a week.

Leaving the fair, Moshy found us a roadside picnic table where we enjoyed the lunch which Mark had prepared for us that morning, complete with wine.

Castle stops


Our next stop was Castle Urquhart, situated on a rocky peninsula overlooking Loch Ness. Fortifications have stood there since the Iron Age. The ruins we visited dated from the 16th century.

An excellent film told the castle’s story, from its earliest incarnation to the 18th century. (It had been blown up by its last owners to prevent its being taken by the Jacobites.) The film ended with curtains being drawn back to give a panoramic view of the ruin. While traveling to and from the fair the previous day, we had exclaimed many times at the beauty of the mountains covered with heather. The ever-attendant Moshy drove us up a slope called Suidhe, where we found ourselves surrounded by truly “purple mountain majesties” and looking down into crystal-clear tarns.

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Back on the boat, we enjoyed another excellent dinner followed by an all-chocolate cake honoring our daughter’s birthday. (In our composite family journal of the trip, she pronounced this her “best birthday ever.”)


Friday morning dawned bright and sunny. We cruised through Loch Ness and photographed Castle Urquhart from the water.

We reached port at Dochgarroch, and Moshy transported us to Cawdor Castle, home to Angelika, The Dowager Countess Cawdor, who opens her elegant home to visitors while she’s on holiday for the summer. The castle was begun in 1454, evolving to the 17th century with many additions.

Descriptions of the rooms were written by the sixth Earl in a charming, witty style, including comments like “Mind your head, unless you’re a Papuan Pygmy” and “…portraits interesting rather than good.” The entire guidebook to the castle is written in this same chatty style; we recommend that anyone visiting buy and enjoy it. The extensive gardens were a delight to photograph.

Last night aboard


Next was the site of the Battle of Culloden, where the Jacobites, under “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” were defeated on April 16, 1746, by British forces led by the Duke of Cumberland, essentially ending the Stuart claim to the throne of Scotland.

A huge visitors’ center with interactive displays tells the history of the Jacobite rebellion in several languages (including Gaelic). Visitors enter a room surrounded by movie screens that put them in the midst of the battle, complete with severed limbs and general mayhem — an altogether impressive experience.

Our last night on the barge was highlighted by the Captain’s Dinner. We dressed accordingly and gathered on the pier to be serenaded by “Scotland’s finest piper,” who, our captain assured us, had been chosen by Madonna to perform at her wedding. Other boaters nearby also enjoyed the concert.

Dan joined us for dinner and we had the obligatory haggis, a very tasty one, plus filet of beef and bread-and-butter pudding. Another charming surprise was the presentation of a traditional wedding cake in honor of our 50th anniversary.

To cap off a lovely evening, the captain brought out his accordion and played Scottish songs for us. Mark and Kayleigh joined us as we said farewell to our wonderful crew.

Coming to a close


The next morning Dan chauffeured us to the railway station in Inverness. Our son, daughter-in-law and their children would be going on to Edinburgh to begin their second week of vacation, continuing down to London.

Our daughter and we went to Glasgow, where we were taken to Mar Hall Hotel (phone +44 [0] 141 812 9999, www.marhall.com) to spend the night before returning to the US. The hotel turned out to be a palatial edifice with vaulted ceilings and mullioned windows, oriental rugs decorating the parquet floors. Our rooms were large, well appointed and comfortable, and dinner was delicious — not a bad way to end what will stand as one of the best vacations of our lives.

The barge, operated by European Waterways (Middlesex, England; phone, in the US, 800/394-8630 or, in Canada, 888/342-1917, www.gobarging.com), was chartered through Abercrombie & Kent with the assistance of Destinations Travel of Vero Beach, Florida. The cost was $26,300 and included the crew, all meals and shore excursions. Tips for the crew as well as round-trip air from Newark to Glasgow were extra. The cost for two rooms at Mar Hall was £390 ($650).

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A private tour of Italy — Touring Lazio and Campania

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Ask tour guide Marie Rizziello to sum up Italy in a few words and you’re bound to hear, “It’s the center of the universe.”


While you may or may not agree with her (not that Marie particularly cares, as she states this as fact, not opinion), it is this absolute passion for the country she now calls home that makes traveling with her such an interesting experience.

I first traveled with Marie to northern Italy for my birthday in 1999, and I was captivated by her casual, traveling-with-a-friend style of touring. So I was thrilled when I was invited to be a guest of Treasures of Italy — the company she and her husband, Bill Horn, run from their home in Asti — for a September ’08 tour of the Lazio and Campania regions.

Beginning in Rome


While this was my fourth trip to Italy, I had never before made it to Rome. As we drove into the city at night in the pouring rain, I was jet-lagged and half asleep when I glimpsed a beautiful marble sculpture of a hulking Roman god dramatically lit from underneath. Then there was another and another. It seemed everywhere I looked there was a colossal statue, a sky-soaring column, an ornately carved façade — all accented by raindrops glittering in the city lights. I was now wide awake.

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Our hotel for the first four nights was less monumental in scale, its discreet entrance blending in with the shops and restaurants lining the Via del Corso, but the location of Hotel Regno (www.hotelregno.com) was fantastic.


We would spend our time in Rome without the Mercedes van that would serve as our means of transportation on the rest of the tour, having parked it at the hotel’s sister property a bit outside of the center of the city. The Regno’s proximity to the major sites — less than a 5-minute walk in one direction to the Pantheon and, in the other direction, the Trevi Fountain — made it easy to explore the city on foot.

My room was pleasant, with plenty of storage, but the highlight was its terrace. It was wonderful, after a full day of sightseeing, to sit outside and drink in the incredible view of the rooftops of Rome.

The staff there was another huge plus. They realize that their boutique hotel might not compare to some of the more lavish (and expensive) properties in the city, but they pride themselves on the personal attention they give to their guests. Staying there felt more like staying with friends.

City sights


Rome is chock-full of marvels and masterpieces, and our schedule successfully included most of the highlights. Our group was small (just Marie, myself and the husband and wife for whom this tour was designed), so the itinerary was somewhat flexible, but we packed in as much as was comfortable to make the most of our time there.What I found fascinating about this ancient city was the sheer number of things there are to see. History rears its head in every street and alleyway.

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Exiting the hotel and rounding the corner, one of the first things we stumbled upon was an amazing colonnade, the remains of the second-century Temple of Hadrian, now part of the building that houses the Stock Exchange and the Chamber of Commerce.


Continuing down a side street, we came to the church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola and its brilliantly colorful Baroque ceiling, the painted figures seeming to tumble from the sky. A few blocks more and — Bang! — the Pantheon.

If that weren’t enough to make my art-history-loving heart burst, we continued up the next block to behold Bernini’s “Pulcino della Minerva,” a striking sculpture of an elephant supporting one of the 11 Egyptian obelisks that dot the city.

We’d been out for less than a half hour and I could have stopped there and been fulfilled, but there was so much more to see.

After three full days in Rome, I felt like I’d completed an entire 2-week tour. Three hundred photos later, I made a final visit to the Trevi Fountain. Standing with my back to the water, right hand over left shoulder, I threw in the coin that I hope will bring me back one day to this remarkable place.

Pompeii and Herculaneum


Before leaving Oregon for Italy, I talked with a woman in the airport who had recently returned from an extended stay. When she found out I was going to be visiting Pompeii, she suggested I skip it if I could, describing it as “just a pile of rubble.” I’m glad I stuck to the schedule.
Yes, most of the buildings open to visitors are in ruins. There are a few, like the town brothel, that have been reconstructed, but it was the site as a whole that impressed me most.

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The streets, paved with the original cobbles that still bear the indentations of wear from chariot wheels, are lined with the remains of building after building, all coming together to form the suggestion of a city that was much larger than I had expected. Our excellent local guide, Enrico, helped to stimulate the imagination, providing a picture of day-to-day life in Pompeii.


Nearby Herculaneum (Ercolano) was an interesting contrast. While Pompeii was covered in ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, most of the ancient city of Herculaneum was buried by volcanic mud, which effectively provided an airtight seal over the city. Thus this site, while much smaller than Pompeii, is better preserved, not to mention much less crowded with visitors.

In the modern city of Pompei, we spent the night at Hotel Amleto (www.hotelamleto.it), another nice choice of accommodation, located in the town center. My room, a junior suite, was absolutely lovely, and the hotel’s rooftop terrace looked like a wonderful place to spend a summer evening. (By the time of our visit, it was closed for the season.)

The town itself was charming and quiet, with a number of shops — many carrying quality coral and cameo pieces for which the area is known — plus bakeries featuring display cases filled with delectable sweets.

The Amalfi Coast

Often associated with the rich and famous, our next stop, the Amalfi Coast, was another surprising experience. I found visits to Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano and the island of Capri to be enjoyable, albeit full of tourists and shopping venues, but I absolutely fell in love with what would be our home for the next three nights, the small fishing village of Marina del Cantone.


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It is the kind of place where everyone knows or is related to everyone else. It’s a laid-back beach town where the tiny local shop sells colorful towels, flip-flops and leather sandals made to order. It also happens to be home to a first-class restaurant and hotel, Taverna del Capitano (www.tavernadelcapitano.it).


This beautiful hotel on the bay is family run, with sister Mariella serving as host and adviser and brother Alfonso as the talented and innovative chef. Following a meal that is spectacularly presented and prepared, often with a bit of whimsy (be careful when ordering “the small”; it’s not!), what could be better than falling asleep to the soothing sound of water lapping the shore just outside the balcony? I did not want to leave.

The lake

Marie had told me that she saved our last destination, Lago Bracciano, for the end of the tour, as all her guests swoon over the accommodation there. While, much of the time, a hotel is simply a hotel, a place to store your bags and rest your head at night, some properties are destinations in themselves. In this regard, Villa Clem­entina (www.hotelvillaclementina.it) did not disappoint.

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A secluded residence, again family owned, this was a delightful place that reminded me of the vine-covered cottages of California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. With only seven rooms, it had more of a guest house feel. But I think the reason so many fall in love with it is not because of the property, while lovely, but the proprietors.


Clementina, after whom the villa is named, is the epitome of classic Italian elegance, and her husband, Fausto, is a force of nature! Absolutely animated, charming and casually fluent in several languages, he’d whisk into a room — filling it with life — attend to each of his guests, put some John Lee Hooker on the CD player and float back out.

We were lucky enough to have Fausto accompany us on a tour of the nearby Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri. Fascinated with the Etruscan civilization, Fausto has done much research on the history of the people and was able to bring this city of the dead to life through his impassioned elucidation. Quite a memorable way to end our tour!

The company

Treasures of Italy offers private tours for up to eight passengers. Each is led by Marie, who has been running tours there since 1983. She and Bill relocated from California to the Piemonte region in 1995 and have established solid relationships with their vendors. Everywhere we went, she was greeted like family rather than a tour guide, which translates to more personal service for her guests. While Marie has a well-rounded comprehension of the areas visited, tours with Treasures of Italy are not necessarily laden with historical dates and facts. The real benefit of this type of tour is the ability to see what you want, when you want, in an unrushed fashion and with a huge dollop of local insight.

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Herself a chef, Marie takes food seriously, and I found the restaurants on this trip to be well selected, with special attention paid to the foods typical for each region. One meal, at La Situla in Pompei, featured dishes of pasta, fish and shellfish bathed in delicately seasoned sauces that went beyond being mere food. The multiple-course meal was, to borrow a phrase from Marie, “a gift from God.”


For Italians, food is an integral part of the culture, and Marie is familiar with the dos and don’ts of dining etiquette there. She tries hard to educate those unfamiliar with the customs to keep them from possibly embarrassing themselves or unwittingly insulting their hosts.

(For example, dipping your bread in olive oil poured onto a plate may be a signature of upscale restaurants in the US, but in Italy it is a sign of poor manners. On the other hand, sopping up the wonderful sauce left on your plate is perfectly acceptable if not encouraged.)

If you arrive with an open mind and a willingness to learn, you will be well rewarded. However, if you hold fast to Americanized stereotypes, be prepared for what might be a rude awakening.

Tour prices vary depending on the number of passengers and the destinations selected. The all-inclusive land price for this 11-day itinerary, based on four passengers, is €7,750 ($9,761) per couple. (Returning customers receive a 5% discount.) Per-person prices for singles may be slightly higher to account for higher room rates.

The price includes Marie’s personalized service, available 24 hours a day; airport transfers; accommodation; all ground transportation; all admissions to sites; local guides; all breakfasts; one lunch, with wine, and nine dinners, with wine.

For more information, contact Treasures of Italy (Via M. Prandone 24, 14100 Asti, Italia; phone [toll-free from the US] 800/409-4103, www.treasuresofitaly.com).

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Reflecting on the merits and disadvantages of cruising

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Historians will often point out that the reason we remember Columbus is that he was the last to discover the Americas. From A.D. 900 or so on, continental America was well known to the seafaring Vikings. There were settlements in Newfoundland and evidence of Viking life in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.


We followed the trail of the Vikings on a summer 2007 trip aboard Holland America Line’s Maasdam.

The voyage


Travelers on HAL’s “Voyage of the Vikings” get full exposure to the early history of the Viking’s New World travels. The voyage is much more than Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. One travels as well to Norway, the Netherlands, France and the British Isles. The highlights of our trip were the four stops in Iceland — a land of great beauty and, surprising to us, much greenery.

Choosing to cruise


Cruising is an easy way to go. One’s needs are taken care of and, with the right voyage, there can be much excitement. We don’t cruise that much; cruising, in many ways, is limited to port cities and their environs, so if one wants to see much of a country, cruising might not be the way to go.

Even with four stops in Iceland, we had a feeling of great limitation. Nevertheless, for sheer exposure to a lot of the world in a relatively brief span of time, cruising does have much to recommend it. Just be aware of what you are missing.

For example, we stopped in Le Havre and two of the offered tours involved a trip to Paris or the Normandy beaches. Looking at the timetable, I could see that on each of these 10-hour trips, seven hours was spent busing to and from the sites. That left about three hours for sightseeing — not much time in Paris or at the historic beaches.

Considering the costs

Moreover, shore excursions are not cheap. Even the 3-hour ventures started at $60 or so, and longer ones cost a couple hundred or more. The least expensive one we saw (and paid for) was a 45-dollar, 3-hour bus tour of the Faroe Islands. The most that we were charged was $200 for a 4-hour tour of Akureyri in Iceland. Those trips that involved air travel were even higher priced, of course.

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We usually do not take a lot of the optional excursions, preferring to either hire a cab, take a local bus or, better, walk around the villages and towns and have lunch at a plaza café. Sometimes this is not cheap, but it is more focused — and easy to do if one has read a bit about a place.

Our excursion costs for this trip totaled over $600. We took excursions in Reykjavík; Akureyri; the Faroes; Gouda, Holland; Dublin, and Port Sunlight Village, England. We also took two excursions in Newfoundland. There was a good tour offered in Oslo for $160, but we had been to Oslo and all of the stops on the tour so did not opt for it.

That brings me to another aspect of this critique. Nothing about cruising is cheap. (Holland America even charges $2 for a soft drink.) Wine costs for modest vintages are high, and if you bring your own wine there are corkage charges, which on some ships can be as high as $20 a bottle. Using the ship’s Internet comes at a high price, as well.

Some events on the ship are free, while others include a charge. We paid nearly $20 for a wine tasting for the two of us.

Dining, of course, is included — unless you choose to go to the special restaurants. On the Maasdam, reservations got us into the Pinnacle Grill, a small elite restaurant. It’s a nice place and the service was excellent. The fee for this adventure was listed as “nominal.” “Nominal,” in the parlance of Holland America, meant $30 per person.

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Tipping policies vary by cruise line. With Holland America, tipping of all but bar personnel and wine stewards is preimposed. There was a 15% pay-as-you-go tip charge for drinks. While we didn’t find the amounts out of line, we prefer to do our own tipping, not because it is cheaper for us — we usually pay more — but because we prefer to differentiate depending on the service we have received.

Our advice to the cruise lines is to pay your out-of-sight service personnel adequately and let the passenger do the tipping otherwise. (Our conversations with stateroom stewards and dining room servers indicated that they had been “doing better” when tipping was left up to the individual.)

Entertainment


Onboard entertainment varies widely on cruise ships, both in kind and quality. All ships have an evening show, varying from stand-up comedians to jugglers, magicians, instrumentalists and vocalists. There also is usually an on-board cast of dancers and singers doing variety shows.

Lecturers are scheduled and these folks are always pretty good. On this trip, we had Professor Mendelsohn for a series of lectures about literature and he was excellent, as was Joe L’Episcopo, who briefed us each time on the cities we were going to visit. (“Brief” is probably not the right word. His lectures were nearly an hour long and frequently included slides and videos.)

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There were other lecturers as well, including chefs. Some were better than others, but all worked hard. And that would characterize all of the staff we met on the Maasdam: hard workers.

For those interested, there were trivia contests and athletic “events” plus daily concerts ranging from jazz to classical music in the various lounges. First-rate movies also were offered.

Wagerers could find much to do in the casino, which was open daily except when the ship was in port. And those who didn’t want to be caught up in a bunch of activities could retire to the library, a large place with ample books for lending.

Memorable moments

The trip itself was magical at times — icebergs and ice fields shining brightly on a blue ocean; seals and whales on display; puffins strolling through parts of Iceland, and street scenes in the marketplace of Stavanger, Norway. We also enjoyed sampling cheeses in Gouda; strolling the paths of St. Stephens Green in Dublin; quaffing some Guinness at an outside café in Cobh; walking with the “Vikings” at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and sailing through Greenland’s Prince Christian Sound.

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An especially interesting and beautiful spot was the large botanical garden in Akureyri, Iceland, inside the Arctic Circle.

Cruising may not be for everyone, but it can be, as it is for us, a nice diversion once in a while or, perhaps for some, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Just be aware that the sights are sometimes limited and the costs far exceed what is stated in the brochures that persuade you to come. Our total costs, including $1,530 for insurance, were nearly $23,000 on this 35-day cruise, which began and ended in Boston.

Is it worth it? Sure! As long as you know what you are getting into.

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Inca ruins and animal encounters in Ecuador

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Ecuador is a fascinating country of varied topography and climates. In the space of two hours, one can go from high volcanic mountains to lush jungle vegetation with winding rivers. And then, of course, there is the famous bird habitat of the Galápagos Islands.

I had been to Ecuador twice before, but when Nova Southeastern University professor Barry Barker, representing the Wild Spots Foundation (Fort Lauderdale, FL; 954/816-1974, www.wildspotsfoundation.org), proposed an inexpensive March ’08 trip that included an opportunity to interact with animals and visit some remote indigenous areas, I jumped at the chance.

The original trip was for seven days, departing from Miami for Quito, the capital, then continuing on to the San Martín suburb of Baños in the Amazonia Cloud Forest. After doing some research, I decided to do a 3-night pretrip extension to the ancient city of Cuenca, located close to the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. Another member of the tour group would join me.

Making arrangements

From Quito we took a short flight over the Andes to Cuenca, the “colonial jewel of the south.” Upon our arrival, a 15- to 20-minute taxi ride took us to the lovely, 3-star Hotel Santa Lucía (phone 593 72828 000, www.santaluciahotel.com), located in the town center.

The hotel, built in 1859, had a central open-air courtyard, typical of old Spanish-style buildings, that was used for a dining area as well as a meeting place.

The cost of a single room for three nights was a surprisingly low $270 to $304, including breakfast and taxes (which can be high). I was told there is a discount for booking online.

When making arrangements, speaking directly to people in Ecuador from the US can be very frustrating if you don’t speak Spanish, as most people there do not speak English. However, Internet communications also can be troublesome. In trying to arrange the extended portion of my trip, I sent several e-mails to different local agents that went unacknowledged. So we just winged much of that part of the trip. I don’t like to chance the hotel arrangements or the car rental, though, so I did that in advance.

Cuenca

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Bakery in Cuenca.

Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the second-largest Inca city, after Cusco in Peru. It’s very much like a European city, with cobblestone streets, whitewashed buildings, large plazas, churches and markets. Several of the old buildings have been converted to museums.

A walk around the town revealed some interesting sights, including the Plaza de San Francisco, the central square Parque Calderon, the blue-domed Catedral Nueva, the church of El Carmen de la Asunción, the Santuario Mariano and the flower market.

I had made reservations, before I left home, for dinner that night at the 3-star Villa Rosa Restaurant (phone 07 2837 944), situated in an old Cuencan home. Main courses cost $10-$14. Unfortunately, my meal was not as good as I expected for a 3-star restaurant. Sometimes it’s what you order, but I was disappointed.

Early the next morning, we picked up our Hertz car at the airport ($164 for three days) and headed out through the countryside to Ingapirca, the most northern of the Inca fortress-temple ruins that still remain. Ingapirca is about 60 miles northeast of Cuenca, high above the Cañar Valley at an altitude of 10,595 feet. The drive there was as interesting as the ruins. The mountainous areas were great for photos, and the scenery was spectacular. Taxis and buses also go to Ingapirca.

Seeing the sights

The ruin itself was enveloped in a light fog and later a drizzle. The focal point was the 15th-century site of the Temple of the Sun, built on an elliptical platform for ceremonial and religious purposes.

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Girl standing in the back of a truck munching on snacks, glimpsed on the drive to Ingapirca.

Entry to Ingapirca costs $6, which includes admission to a small museum. A restaurant/hotel is located a short drive away. There are signs that describe the structures, but you can ask a local person to go along for a small amount of money.

The site is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. That night we ate in the restaurant located in the courtyard of our hotel. The dinner, as well as our daily breakfast, was very good. For about $15, including service, I had porcini mushroom risotto, a dessert and mineral water.

On day three there were two alternatives: El Cajas National Park or village visits. Before our day’s excursion, we visited Cuenca’s multifloor market, Mercado 10 de Augusto. This was a fascinating indoor market that sold fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, household items, flowers, herbs, medicines and many other things. It was a great place to unobtrusively people-watch, but the people were shy when it came to photos.

Then we selected a few villages to visit, including Chordeleg and Gualaceo, because of their “handicraft” (pottery, weaving, etc.) designations on our tourist map of the area.

The villages with their various artisans provided some wonderful nontouristy local color.

By the time we got back I was very tired. My last dinner in town was at El Maiz (Calle Larga 1-279 y Calle de los Molinos Casilla 12-62), where I had a cheese empanada appetizer, beef with pepper sauce, the typical cold cooked vegetables and dessert for under $15.

I took a taxi there because it was a little far from the hotel and I did not want to drive. Sometimes it was difficult driving around the city due to traffic and narrow one-way streets.

Early the next morning we drove the rental car to the airport and flew back to Quito to join the rest of the group.

Guest house stay

Our charter bus left immediately for the 4-hour drive to the guest house that was to be our residence for the next six nights. It was located close to the San Martin Zoological Park near Baños. Road work was progressing near Baños so that repairs could be made to an area destroyed by a volcanic eruption not long before. We were assured that everything would be okay for the near future.

A delicious cooked breakfast was offered the next morning with fresh fruit, fresh-squeezed juices, homemade bread and coffee or tea. The meal was always an adventure; one day it was scrambled ostrich eggs.

Our typical day included having breakfast, visiting the zoo for the feeding of the animals plus photos, meeting for lunch in town (not included in the tour price), going for an afternoon excursion, then returning to our lodgings. Delicious dinners, as well as the breakfasts, were covered by the package. Some days included lectures on photography or area biodiversity.

Animals up close

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Toucan in the San Martin Zoo.

San Martin Zoological Park is a refuge for a variety of wounded animals that cannot be returned to the wild as well as animals brought in by the locals for protection. Their mission for the last 13 years has been to conserve and rehabilitate.

Because Dr. Barker’s organization provides assistance to them, we were afforded special privileges such as going into cages to feed birds and monkeys. The monkeys were a bit dirty and were jumping all over the visitors, so I passed on that.

One day another photographer, two attendants and I spent some quiet time with two ocelots in their large cage, which I really enjoyed. Pumas and jaguars roamed in a natural habitat within a caged area. I loved the jaguars the best, so I kept going back for better pictures. When one shot I was taking through the cage looked blurry I suddenly realized the animal had playfully put its paw on the front of my camera lens! I quickly jumped back from the bars. Needless to say, that was my last visit to the jaguar.

Among the birds we saw and sometimes joined in their cages were toucans, king vultures and green parrots. In the toucan cage, one group member was bitten on the arm, causing a slight bruising. So it is essential to know that care must be taken.

Excursion options

In the afternoons, it was left to each person to decide what to do, depending on his or her interests. We usually broke up into groups for sightseeing, hiking, horseback riding, “swing jumping” or visits to the various types of spas in the area.

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Market vendors in Cuenca.

I was told everyone who participated enjoyed the strenuous pursuits, but I opted for the more relaxing experiences. Baños (elevation over 5,000 feet) is close to four volcanoes (Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Altar and Carihuairazo), some of which produce heated water. Many mineral baths are available in both public and private facilities.

I visited Stay In Touch, located near the waterfall near the town center, for a massage. Treatments cost about $25. On another afternoon I took a taxi to one of the exclusive resorts in the area, Luna Runtun (phone +593 3 274 0882, www.lunaruntun.com), which offered a half-day package for about $65 that included an excellent full-course lunch and a spa treatment. I selected veal for lunch, then went for a honey body wrap.

There are also two nearby national parks — Sangay and Llanganates — but people in the area did not know much about gaining entry.

The local market in Baños was worth the visit for pictures and souvenirs. The town has several good places to eat and bars for music and dancing, and everything was reasonably priced.

Another day, three of visited two small villages and the city of Ambato (west of Baños) by taxi.

Salasaca, the first village, had locally woven items, wool, tapestries, textiles and beaded work for sale at the small daily market, which provided very good photo opportunities of the indigenous people in their local dress. The other, Quisapincha, had leather goods at reduced prices.

At Ambato, our intent was to visit the market, as I had done in 1968, but when we arrived we were advised that this was a dangerous place, so after a pizza lunch at a local restaurant we headed back to Baños. The Ambato market I had seen years ago was basically a field where they brought various animals for sale. Now, it seems, the market is indoors in a large building where thieves are present. Times change.

Puyo

On the next-to-the-last day we went to the small city of Puyo, an embarkation point for jungle trips. We visited the Jardín Botánico las Orquídeas, located 15 minutes south of Puyo on the road to Macas, then went to have lunch at a well-known restaurant in a local bed-and-breakfast, El Jardín Hostel (phone/fax 03 2887 770, www.eljardin.pastaza.net).

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A weaver in one of the villages on the road to Ingapirca.


The orchid garden was a fascinating place. The owner, Omar Tello (who does not speak English), has created a home for hundreds of species of orchids, many of which are becoming extinct.

We had a translator along to provide some assistance, but the group dispersed. Although the path is wide, one could get lost. Some areas are also difficult to negotiate due to small hills and streams.

The entry fee is $5, and the garden is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but you must call ahead to make arrangements (phone 03 2884855).

For lunch at El Jardín I had fresh ginger chicken, which was delicious and plentiful ($9). I immediately fell in love with the place and decided to stay overnight. Fortunately, I had anticipated this and packed an overnight bag just in case. There was so much food, I had to delay my chocolate dessert until later, after dinner. The excellent chef and co-owner is the wife of Omar.

My room cost $18 (usually about $30) for the night, including a wonderful breakfast of coffee, fresh fruit, bread, yogurt and granola. It was clean, modern and bug free (important near the jungle).

At my request, the owner/bar tender/waiter/tour organizer set up a visit to a monkey habitat the next morning. My taxi ride there from Puyo and the return to Baños cost $45. Entry to the Monkey House cost only $1.50 plus a tip to the guide.

The monkeys are not in cages but seem to hang around, so I imagine they are fed. We walked down a path with monkeys running alongside us, jumping into the trees and sometimes landing on our backs. I wanted to stay longer, but I had to get on the road.

My short time at El Jardín was not enough; three to four days would have been better. Puyo was really my favorite part of the trip, and I plan to return sometime so I can visit the indigenous communities along the river.

The cost of the 7-day tour, including accommodations, airfare from Miami, transfers and breakfasts and dinners in Baños, was $2,290. The Cuenca extension cost was on an individual basis, as previously described. Round-trip air from Quito to Cuenca on Aerolíneas Galápagos cost extra ($130 with taxes). I was able to book an e-ticket online at www.aerogal.com.ec.

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