The Great American Road Trip

A much awaited part of our world trip, our longest road trip (yet!), was finally around the corner – 21 days in the Southwest of US starting in California on 13th (that’s the family’s lucky number!) Jun 2016. Certainly called for a pit stop after Yellowstone and what better than friends, food and fun to get us all set! Manish’s long-time friend Chandra, a classmate from school going back some 36 years and his wife Arundhati graciously hosted us at their San Jose home. A visit to the wine district of Napa Valley and wine tasting at the Castello de Amorosa, a meet-up and dinner with Manish and Chandra’s schoolmate Sujit & his family who were visiting the US (ironically we never met in India in all these years!) at SFO, and a visit to the haloed institution Stanford University were all part of the package.

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Chandra takes us to Napa Valley, that’s one more off the bucket list!
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A view of the vineyards of Castella de Amorosa, Napa Valley
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With buddies it is always Beer – Manish, Chandra & Sujit get-together in SFO after nearly 30 years

We met and caught up with our college friend Radhika & her lovely family after 24 long years. And in the process got invaluable inputs on some beautiful additions to our itinerary.

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Meeting after 24 years! A lifetime to catch up on with our college buddy Radhika Madhavan

On the morning of 13th Jun we set out to the Yosemite National Park located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite has the distinction of being the first instance of land set aside by the US government to be preserved and for public use through the Yosemite Grant in 1864 and setting the precedent for the establishment of Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872. Yosemite itself acquired National Park status in 1890 ensuring the natural beauty and wilderness of this area is preserved for us and the generations to come to enjoy, thanks to the concerted and tireless efforts of selfless people like Galen Clark, John Muir and Frederick Olmsted.

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Yosemite National Park’s Arch Rock Entrance

The granite arch entrance is an apt gateway to Yosemite’s world of granite and water. The landscape as we see it here is the result of millions of years of geological and glacial activity that sculpted the granite rock into amazing formations, gave birth to deep canyons, multiple streams, cascades, waterfalls and lush meadows.

After a stop for a picnic lunch by the Merced river under tall cedar trees, we headed to the core and most visited area of the park, the Yosemite Valley. We were not quite prepared for the traffic jam we found ourselves in, so decided to park at the nearest possible spot and walked to the Visitor Center. Great decision as it gave us the time we needed to browse the exhibits and watch the documentary on Yosemite. We came to highly value the (usually) 20 minute capsules in all the National Parks which are an excellent brief on the history and geology of the park. We then headed off to check-in to our tented cabin accommodation in the Half Dome Village, until recently known as the Curry Village.

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Our tented accommodation in Yosemite at the Half Dome Village

That night (and the next 2) turned out like being in a freezer! It was so cold despite the month of June and we sorely missed heating in the tent. Needless to say we were up early the next morning and quick to walk across to the warmth of the coffee shop! Could not but wonder why we were paying so much for non-heated tents with shared shower and restroom facilities, no coffee or breakfast and housekeeping limited to change of towels 🙁

We set out to explore the sights of the Yosemite Valley using the park’s hybrid shuttle, an eco-friendly transport option with value-added commentary by the knowledgeable drivers. First stop for us was the Yosemite Falls with a short hike to the lower falls. With spray blown in multiple directions and bright sunshine it was a wonderful sight that inspired Mihika to try and capture the beauty on paper. As we walked further we started seeing the upper and mid-sections of the waterfall that were hidden from view earlier and could appreciate how tall it is.

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The Yosemite Falls inspire the young artist in Mihika
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The Yosemite Falls consisting of three parts, the Upper Falls, Middle Cascades and Lower Falls, is considered to be the highest waterfall in North America
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A brightly coloured Western Tanager perched near the Yosemite Falls

Next stop with a change of shuttle was El Capitan, one of the two most famous granite formations in Yosemite, the other being the Half Dome located next to our place of stay. We first admired the two Sentinels that stand across from the El Capitan before walking through the grassy meadows to get a view of the gigantic El Capitan.

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The majestic Sentinels of Yosemite
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The awe-inspiring El Capitan, a 3000-foot tall monolith, a dream to scale for many rock climbers
Winged Beauties - a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan
Winged Beauties – a couple of Swallow Tailed Butterflies in the meadows near El Capitan

The afternoon was spent on two activities. The first was a Ranger-led walk and talk on the Black Bears of Yosemite. It was quite shocking to know that 37 bears, a little over 10% of the park’s population of ~350 bears, had been hit by vehicles on the park roads in 2015. And in 2016 there had already been half-a-dozen accidents even before the peak traffic & tourist season of Jul-Aug. The second activity was an exploration of the traditional Ahwahnechee village exhibit at the Visitor Centre. In a recurring pattern across the national parks we had visited so far, we learnt that native American tribes inhabited the Yosemite Valley for thousands of years, living in harmony with and an initimate understanding of the complex ecosystem that supported them, before European settlers discovered the place and ultimately displaced them. The evening saw us watching a documentary on the life and work of John Muir besides catching up on social media with the limited internet connectivity at the village reception.

The next morning we started early to drive up to the Glacier Point that offers panoramic views of the Half Dome, canyons, waterfalls and the valley. A couple of stops along the way at the Tunnel View point for its photo opportunities of the valley.

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Amazing vista from the Glacier Point with the Half Dome in the centre, Tenaya Canyon on the left and Liberty Cap, Nevada & Vernal Falls on the right
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A Stellar’s Jay enjoys the sunshine at Glacier Point

On the way down, we stopped by the Bridal Veil Falls vista point to see this fascinating waterfall up close and could see why it was given its name.

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The Bridal Veil Fall that sends spray in different directions

In the afternoon we decided to brave the Yosemite Valley traffic to drive to the Tuolomne Grove off Tioga Road and not on the shuttle route. The attraction here were the ancient Giant Sequoia trees that are endemic to the region and found in 3 groves in Yosemite. The main and most visited Sequoia grove, Mariposa, is closed for restoration until 2017. Giant Sequoias are amongst the oldest living trees in the world, outlived only by the Bristlecone Pines, and many of them have lived through the most significant milestones in recorded human history! Here is another example of a tree that has adapted to its natural environment prone to forest fires – like the Lodgepole pines in Yellowstone, the Giant Sequoias also have cones that are opened up by fire to release seeds. The 1.6 mile walk to the grove was easy being downhill, the groans of uphill walk back were all but forgotten on sighting an Acorn Woodpecker that was tirelessly pecking away at the bark of a mammoth tree!

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The tall trees dwarf us
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The Old Red – Amongst the most mature trees in the grove
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The Dead Giant – a dead Giant Sequoia with a stagecoach passage carved through as a tourist attraction in the 1800s
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An Acorn Woodpecker catches our attention with its persistent pecking that made a distinctive noise

The third morning at Yosemite saw us departing the park (happy to escape the cold nights!) through the scenic Tioga Road, the last road to be cleared of snow for the Tioga Pass to be opened up to traffic in the summer. We stopped by the Olmsted Point to take a look at the “lunar” landscape, a peek down the deep Tenaya canyon and a glimpse of the Tenaya lake that lay further ahead. Another stop at Tenaya lake to admire the serene blue waters with its mirror-like reflection of the surrounding mountains and snow caps and we were on our way out of Yosemite and soon looking at the expansive Mono Lake as we neared the town of Lee Vining.

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Tenaya lake in the distance seen from Olmsted Point
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A Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel in the Lunar Landscape of Olmsted Point
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The serene blue waters of Tenaya Lake provide an ideal setting to reflect
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Mono Lake comes into view as we leave the Tioga Road and Yosemite

The places of interest for the day (4th of the trip) after leaving Yosemite were the Bodie State Historic Park and the Mono Lake. We drove along the Mono lake to Bodie, an abandoned mining town from the Californian gold rush era. It started as a mining camp in 1859 with the discovery of gold here by a group of prospectors including W.S. Bodey after whom the town is named. It grew and witnessed its peak between 1877 – 1880 before its decline in the late 1910s and eventual abandonment. It was fascinating to walk through the streets of this ghost town which has preserved the houses, shops and community hall in the state they were left in, including some furnishings and contents. The small museum contains family photographs of residents, tools used by the miners and payroll registers of some of the mining companies with beautifully handwritten (almost calligraphic!) lists of the names & roles of workers among other artefacts. The town witnessed a fair share of violence we learnt with brawls, shootings and murders not being uncommon!

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The short-lived ghost town of Bodie
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Walking the streets of Bodie
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Interior of a house in Bodie
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A truck of the gold rush era
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Seen inside a shop in Bodie – chocolate is an all-time favourite!
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The gas station in Bodie – note the bullet holes in the “Shell” sign

We then descended down the Bodie hills and stopped by Mono lake, a huge saline soda lake to admire the hundreds of California Gulls along its shoreline and the curious formations of limestone called tufas. The tufas started emerging when water levels in the lake reduced following diversion of water to serve the needs of Los Angeles! The fall in water levels has adversely affected the ecosystem supported by the lake, in particular the migratory birds that nest here. Fortunately the Mono Lake Committee, an environmental organisation has taken up the cause of preservation of the lake and made significant progress over the last couple of decades.

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Mono Lake with the Sierra Nevada peaks in the background
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Tufas, limestone formations, visible in Mono Lake
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California Gulls by the Mono Lake

Driving along Hwy 395, we headed to our destination for that night’s halt – June Lake village. The next morning we enjoyed the views and calm of the picturesque Gull and June lakes before heading off to the Earthquake Fault in the Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes. We spotted a mule deer on the highway, the first one with antlers that we had seen. He quickly retreated into the forest.

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The Gull lake, Mono County
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Mama duck with her little ducklings enjoying the morning in Gull lake
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The beautiful June Lake
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A stroll along the “beach” at June Lake turns out to be more chilly than we thought!
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A beautiful mule deer sporting antlers in the Inyo National Forest

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The fissure believed to have resulted from a system of fractures a series of strong quakes centuries ago. The native Americans are known to have used this for food storage at times when it had ice trapped in!

Next up on the itinerary was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a detour from the town of Big Pine, added last minute as it was too tempting to pass by without looking at the oldest known living organisms dating over 4000 years in age.

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An old Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone pine trees do not grow very tall, unlike what is normally expected especially after knowing about the Giant Sequoias, but they thrive in higher elevations under harsh conditions where other plants cannot grow. They have shallow and highly branched roots and extremely durable wood that is highly resistant to rot and insects. The exposed wood of Bristlecones, on living and dead trees, erodes like stone due to wind, rain, and freezing, which creates unusual forms and shapes.

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Sculpted appearance of a Bristlecone resulting from weathering action of the elements

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A squirrel peeps out from a fallen Bristlecone Pine

Leaving the windy slopes of the White Mountains where life has adapted to harsh climate, we descended down to the valley to visit a place where humans were forced to adapt to harsh climatic conditions during World War II. The Manzanar National Historic Site located between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine on Hwy 395 represents a little known part of American history. It is one of ten camps setup following the attack at Pearl Harbour where over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry along the Pacific coast were incarcerated for stated reasons of suspicion but with no evidence ever found against any of them it is natural to wonder if it was just the face of racism showing itself. Acknowledging the wrongs and preserving the site with its story narrated candidly in the documentary screened every half-hour are great steps forward indeed.

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The Manzanar site located in Owens Valley, harsh sandy winds blow through most of the year in this barren land

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In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed into law The Civil Liberties Act which acknowledged the injustice and granted reparations to the Japanese Americans interned by the US Government during World War II

After the dusty scorching winds and admiring the spirit of the Japanese community that had during its stay here altered it from barren land to little gardens and fruit orchards, we were ready to call it a day. We headed to the town of Ollancha with a tiny detour into Alabama Hills near Lone Pine to catch a glimpse of the locale that has seen the making of many an old Western movie.

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The Rustic Oasis Motel, Ollancha – a comfy rustic experience complete with rabbits hopping around the garden!

The dawn of day 6 on the road saw us witnessing one of the most beautiful sunrises at just past 5 am as we woke up to get going to the Death Valley National Park.

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Fire in the sky – what a sunrise!

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A couple of black-tailed jackrabbits (aka American desert hares) sprinted across the road as we drove in as if to prove the abundance of life in the desert. Pretty soon we were looking at such beautiful shades on the mountain sides, it got us wondering if this was painted or real!

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Is it a painting or a real mountain side?

First stop was the Mosaic Canyon with a short walk into the canyon to see the beautiful marble like polished surfaces. It was difficult to imagine water flowing through the canyon in the heat though it was just about 8 in the morning!

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Too tired to walk at 8 am!
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The Mosaic Canyon

As we drove down getting lower in elevation, the temperature reading continued to steadily inch up. We were soon at the point where we were at sea level and set to continue below sea level as we proceeded to Furnace Creek.

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The Mesquite Sand Dunes from a distance

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The mesmerising Mesquite sand dunes with a perfectly formed crescent!
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Bothered by the heat or worried about rattlesnakes?
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The temperature continues to soar quickly!
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Quite an appropriate name!

Next stop was at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre for our intro and orientation on the park’s history and ecology. The documentary in its honest style included an emotional narration by an elderly lady of the native Timbisha Shoshone tribe saying they believed (like native Americans all across) they had been put in that particular place by the creator to look after and care for the land and how strange it was to be allocated a “reservation” to live on in their own land was theirs.

The landscape as we see it today is the result of a whole host of geological activities over millions of years, the last of which was a stretching of the Earth’s crust creating the slanted rock layers of the mountain ranges (that look very different from the fold or uplift mountains we are more familiar with) and the valley in between. The valley is starved of rainfall being in the “shadow” of three mountain ranges on the west which result in depletion of the moisture content of air as it crosses the mountains. And so we have the driest and hottest place here in the continent.

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The Golden Canyon
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Having learnt about the desert ecosystem and importance of preservation, Mika takes her oath as a Junior Ranger to do her bit to protect and preserve wilderness

The much awaited highlight for the day was the fact that we could look at the highest & lowest points in contiguous US within an hour of being at the lowest point! At Badwater Basin we stood at the lowest at 282 feet below sea level with extensive “salt flats” stretching out and water vapour visible over the shimmering white surface in the distance.

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So bright, hot and windy, cannot look up or let go of cap! At the lowest and hottest point in mainland USA, 282 feet below sea-level
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Braving the heat of 43 deg C! The Salt Flats of the Badwater Basin where water evaporates leaving behind salt cyrstals
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There still was some water flowing through in the Badwater Basin despite the burning heat

And then it was time to head up to Dante’s View after a brief colourful journey through Artist Drive and taking in the amazing vistas from Zabriskie Point both of which give one the feeling of being in a gigantic 3D canvas.

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In the Artist Drive, it is a delightful palette of colours come alive in 3D paintings!
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In black & white – the mountains sketched & shaded across the landscape!
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Mika excited at seeing “Badlands“, the namesake of a locale a favourite singer of hers grew up around!
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Stunning formations seen at Zabriskie Point
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Another view from Zabriskie Point

From Dante’s View point one can see the lowest (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) and highest points (Mount Whitney, 14505 feet above sea level) of US on a clear day. Relieved at the perceptibly cooler temperatures here we spent some time walking around and admiring the views from different angles, spotting lizards and some birds before departing the park.

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Panorama from Dante’s View – of the lowest point in the US!

Day 7 – time to head to Las Vegas for a relaxed couple of days, especially considering that we had just entered a heat wave gripping parts of California, Nevada and Arizona for 4 days. ‘Finding Dory’ at the legendary Brendan theatre and the cool environs of some of the famed casinos of Vegas like Bellagio were the perfect getaway from the heat outside, but we did need to steel ourselves to go and see the Hoover Dam on day 9.

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The Bellagio, Las Vegas
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Sights and sounds on the Vegas strip

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The Colorado river at Hoover Dam

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View of Hoover Dam from the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

Day 10 was a long day with an early start as we had a lot of ground to cover before catching the sunset at the Grand Canyon. Our first destination situated in the state of Utah was an addition to our original itinerary based on our friend Radhika’s strong recommendation.

IMG_6961The Zion National Park is an amazingly beautiful place, it looks like a series of sandstone temples chiseled by a master sculptor! We learnt that water in the form of the Virgin river, a tributary of the Colorado river, working its way through the Colorado plateau after its near vertical uplift millions of years ago is that accomplished sculptor.

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Fascinating striated sandstone formations that define Zion

A shuttle bus tour through the Zion scenic drive saw us deciding to come back here to walk through the Narrows some day. We headed out onto the Zion – Mt. Carmel Highway to enjoy the scenic drive and saw some of the most spectacular formations including the Great Arch, the East Temple and the Chequered Mesa.

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The Great Arch, Zion National Park
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The East Temple stands tall behind the beautiful red sandstone
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The Chequered Mesa is a marvel of nature with its array of colours and perfect chequers

The drive outside the park heading towards the town of Page in Arizona continued to be scenic through canyon country with landscape alternating between the colourful hill formations of Death Valley and red sandstone formations of Zion.

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Sandstone formations on the drive along Lake Powell

Crossing Lake Powell we continued past Page and as it was past 4:30 pm we knew we were too late for a tour of the mesmerising Antelope Canyon. So we drove straight to the Horseshoe Bend trailhead. We walked through the sandy stretch of 1.2 km to arrive at one of the most beautiful sights we have ever beheld, created by the meandering Colorado river.

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The Colorado river takes a 270 degree turn at the Horseshoe Bend
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Stunning colours of the Glen Canyon at the Horseshoe Bend
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Contemplating the vastness

A most satisfied lot, we were on our way to the Grand Canyon National Park with our fingers crossed to make it there in time to catch the sunset. And we made it to the South Rim of the canyon in time to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen while trying to fathom the width and depth of the Grand Canyon! At its widest the canyon stretches 29 km and just over 6 km at the its narrowest!! And it is 1.6 km deep.
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Sunset over the Grand Canyon, 24 Jun 2016

As darkness fell we drove into the heart of the park towards Yavapai Lodge where we were to stay and on the way were delighted to stop to let an elk cross the road with her little calf. The next morning we made our way to the Visitor Center and from there hiked the stretch along the canyon rim to the Geology Museum. We stopped at various places to admire the sheer grandeur, immense size and seemingly infinite stretch of red monuments. I must say we were disappointed at the haze hanging around which as we learnt soon enough, is not uncommon here due to air pollutants carried by the winds from the nearby urban centers and industries.

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The Grand Canyon is not a single but a multitude of gorges & canyons carved by the Colorado and its tributaries

At the Geology Museum we learnt about how the canyon is a geologist’s dream with its visible historical record of the earth’s layers of rocks, the oldest (called Vishnu Schist) of which date from nearly 2 billions years ago and the youngest 200 million years. It was fascinating and frankly quite mind boggling to try and comprehend the formation of this landscape which has been a shallow sea at some points in time and a swamp at others, the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages and all that have resulted in what we see today. It is so much more than just erosion by the Colorado.

We used the South Rim shuttle service to visit various vista points like the Mohave, Hopi and Powell points, sometimes walking through the trails connecting them. We admired the “Battleship” formation which we learnt had caves that were a favoured nesting place for some of the California Condors in the park and caught glimpses of the Colorado river flowing deep down in the canyon. Later that afternoon we attended a ranger-led talk on the critically endangered California Condors. These huge scavenger birds had come to the brink of extinction with only 27 surviving birds in the 1980s. Fortunately their numbers are now slightly healthier at over 425 after an intensive recovery program and the Grand Canyon has around 80 of them in the wild.

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The Battleship formation on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
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Mihika participates in a Ranger-led talk on the California Condor

After the talk we took the shuttle to get to the Abyss and Pima points to look at the canyon colours come alive in the rays of the setting sun.

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The rays at sunset reveal the rich hues of the canyon at Pima Point

Day 12 – we start out early to catch the sunrise at Yaki Point and walk down the canyon on the South Kaibab trail to see it from a little deeper. It gave us an opportunity to see the Kaibab limestone walls up close and an intermediate view of the canyon.

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Hiking down the South Kaibab trail
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On top of the world at Ooh Aah Point on the South Kaibab trail!

The hike was a good way to wrap-up our canyon experience and we headed out to Sedona, a desert town that features red sandstone formations and regarded as one of the energy vortex locations. My interest in spirituality was the reason for visiting Sedona. The town’s most unique feature, besides the sandstone formations, are its numerous roundabouts, something we associate with the UK and Europe but not the US. We visited three of the four main vortexes that evening – the Cathedral Rock, the Bell Rock and the Airport Mesa, the last being a common vantage point to watch colourful sunsets.

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Red sandstone formations at Sedona
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The Cathedral Rock group at Sedona
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The Bell Rock and Energy Vortex
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Sunset view point at the Airport Mesa

Day 13 was a relaxed start (maybe the calming effect of the energy of the place!) with a mid-morning visit to the fourth vortex at Boynton Canyon. On our way we met a gentleman who greeted us and offered each of us a heart-shaped stone to carry home the energy with us. We felt blessed!

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The Boynton Canyon at Sedona
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At the foothill of the location of the energy vortexes at Boynton Canyon

The agenda was the rest of the day was a drive through the historic Route 66, one of the oldest highways of the US, and an overnight halt at the old city of Needles before heading to our next destination the Joshua Tree National Park.

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In the town of Williams on historic Route 66

The Joshua Tree National Park would mark the culmination of Manish’s “U2 pilgrimage” starting at the ghost town of Bodie and through Death Valley in homage to their bestselling album “The Joshua Tree“. We were now going to see one of the largest congregations of the perennial Yucca that adorns the sleeve of the album in its natural habitat.

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The Joshua Tree – a fascinating member of the Yucca family that thrive in the deserts of southwest to central US

The Joshua Tree National Park is a transition zone between two different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado and has features of both and supports a diverse ecosystem. There are two main varieties of the Yucca seen in the park, one ofcourse is the Joshua Tree and the other is the Mojave Yucca, a very beautiful looking plant.

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Mojave Yucca
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Yuccas of all kinds and sharp bends!
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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For …
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Bright colours in this transitional area between the Mojave and Colorado deserts

We walked the Hidden Valley trail which is said to have been completely isolated for centuries and hence had distinctly evolved plant & animal species until one of the rocks concealing it was blasted through by cattle herders and the micro-habitat more or less destroyed by grazing and introduction of exotic / invasive species. It was very hot though it was still the morning and so the walk seemed longer than the one mile (1.6 km) it actually is. In the afternoon of day 14 we were en-route to San Diego on the Pacific coast and looking forward to the cooler days and nights ahead.

A major attraction for us in San Diego was the USS Midway, the longest serving aircraft carrier of the US (from 1945 to 1992) that has been converted into a museum. Docked in the Navy Pier at the San Diego harbour, this huge ship is extremely educational and carries many helicopters and aircraft used in the years of the Cold War and subsequent missions including rescue and relief. There are veterans who served on the ship at various points to explain the ship’s operations, aircraft launch and retrieval mechanisms on the seas using the extremely small airstrip, as well as the internal workings and a day in their life.

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The USS Midway Museum, San Diego
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The upper deck of the USS Midway with a huge collection of aircraft used through its life
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Trying to get a feel for the navigational controls of the huge ship
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Checking out the interiors and some controls on a helicopter
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The closest yet to being in command of a fighter jet
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Resting after a few hours of exploring and learning walking through the 3 levels and numerous passageways of the massive USS Midway

From the harbour we headed to the historic Gaslamp Quarter and onto the panoramic Coronado Bridge to cross over the San Diego bay to Coronado, the residence of many retired officers of the US Navy. Last stop for the day was at the Mission Beach before calling it a day.

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The icoinc gas lamps of the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego
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End of day 15 of our road trip – at the Mission Beach, San Diego

Day 16 was reserved for a visit to the San Diego zoo (and this possibly was our last visit to any zoo) that is celebrating its centennial this year and doing some pioneering work with various organizations across the world on saving species from extinction.

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A Giant Panda resting at the San Diego zoo
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A Pink Flamingo feeds its chick

The next evening we visited the La Jolla Cove to admire the congregation of sea lions, cormorants, sea gulls and pelicans who were basking in the warmth of the setting sun. And to watch a bunch of surfers riding / attempting to ride the waves.

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Cormorants by the scores on the cliff sides at the La Jolla Cove
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Well fed sea lions (judging by their size) snooze on the rocky shores

Day 18 was our departure from San Diego and arrival at Santa Clarita, our base for the Hollywood city Los Angeles. Thanks to inputs from an old friend of Manish, we made a very meaningful stop at the immensely peaceful Meditation Gardens of the Encinitas Retreat of the Self-Realization Fellowship established by Paramahansa Yoganada.

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View of the Pacific Ocean from the mediation garden at the Encinitas Retreat

Next stop was at the beautiful city of Laguna Beach in Orange County for a meet-up with my sister Thara and her family who had just arrived here for a road-trip vacation. Coincidentally they had planned to cover the same spots as we had done but in the reverse direction!

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Sisters meet across the globe!
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Sisters enjoying their little time together as only sisters can!

We were then on our way, negotiating the immense traffic of LA and making the most of the Carpool / HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane reserved for use by vehicles with two or more passengers.

The reason for us staying in Santa Clarita rather than LA was the Six Flags Magic Mountain, a theme-park whose roller coasters were a must-do for Mihika.

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At the Six Flags Magic Mountain Mihika is all smiles

Day 20 was dedicated to LA starting with the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a look at the Chinese Theatre.

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Where dreams are made!
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Many a star adorns this Walk of Fame

We used public transport (buses & the metro) to get to LA and around LA. It was a Saturday and hence the frequency of the trains and buses probably was lower than weekdays but that meant a lot of waiting in between for us. Took us a while to get to Sunset Boulevard for another homage destination of Manish’s – the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the quintessential rock/metal hangout for rockstars and their groupies. It continued to fascinate by appearing in Guns N Roses classic videos including November Rain, Estranged and Don’t cry.

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A street made iconic by many a legend
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Finally here!!
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A dream to be standing here

Lemmy, the Motörhead frontman, was a daily fixture here when the band was not on tour. Rainbow, one of Manish’s favourite bands was named after this venue. Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, GNR, Poison, WASP, Ringo Starr, John Lennon – all were regulars here.

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Standing next to Lemmy!

With the celebrity salutations done, it was time for a visit to the California Science Center, with interesting and interactive exhibits that we all found very engaging and instructive. We could have gone on but closing time was upon us and so we strolled out to the rose garden admiring the blooms before heading back to the metro station. Our last place to visit for the day was the Griffith Observatory to peek through the telescopes for a glimpse of the wonders of the universe. On the shuttle to the observatory we came too know of extremely slow traffic on the way up due to a Ringo Starr concert in the Greek Theatre. As we inched along wondering when we would make it, Manish gauged that we would not be able to make it back in time for the last bus back to Santa Clarita and so took the call to leave the bus and head back. The right decision it turned out to be in hindsight an hence ended our day in LA.

And the 21st day arrived and we were finally on our way to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway or Hwy 1 as it is popularly known. We joined this state highway that runs across most of the Pacific coastline of California at the city of San Luis Obispo. It was a cloudy day and our stop at Morro Bay for breakfast wasn’t giving us too warm a feeling. But that was more than compensated by the sight of hundreds of elephant seals at a designated viewing area. They were stretched out on the beach sand, mostly asleep, but some of them making loud bellowing noises and a few frolicking in the cold waters. We learnt that these mammals had nearly disappeared from the Californian coasts following extensive hunting for their blubber and so it is heartening for environmentalists that their population has now reached a healthy level.

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Elephant Seals cover the sands on the Pacific coastline
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A younger one joins the group

We drove along the winding road as it wound its way along the unique coastline of cliffs and narrow rocky beaches. Little rock formations and isles were visible at many places not too far from the coast. We stopped at a number of vista points and admired the mystical look of fog hanging on the cliff sides with some flowers just beginning to bloom on the lower parts of the cliffs. The views especially around the area called Big Sur were simply beautiful!

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Fog hugs the cliffs as waves kiss the shores on the Pacific Coast Highway
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Cliffs & coast make this journey a memorable one
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A dramatic coastline

Eventually the road moved a little inland after the town of Monterey and we continued on it until the approach to Santa Cruz and then branched off towards Saratoga. We were happy to get back to our friends Jagdeep and Vipin and Mihika delighted to be back with Riya and Saachi. It was the evening of 3rd July. We had arrived in good time to rest and ready to enjoy the 4th of July celebrations of the Saratoga community.

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Riya, Saachi and Mihika accompanied by Vipin, get to learn some trivia from John and Abigail Adams
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Wearing the colours of the day!

A bright morning on the lawns of the Kevin Moran park with enthusiastic citizens, some dressed as eminent characters of independent USA and sharing snippets of history with the kids, a band playing and a choir singing, it was just the celebration we needed after 21 days on the road!

This has been an extra long blog post as we decided to keep this entire experience as one cohesive piece. If you have read this far, thank you for staying with us!

Incas, Machu Picchu, Amazon & more: The unforgettable Peruvian Odyssey

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13.05.2016 & 14.05.2016

After a breathtaking 10 days in Galapagos Islands with sea lions, penguins, sharks, marine iguanas, land iguanas, blue-footed boobies and more, we embarked on our Peruvian journey with Machu Picchu and Amazon rainforest as the main bucket list items. 3 flights (Galapagos-Guayaquil, Guayaquil-Lima & Lima-Cusco) and 20 hours later, we landed in Cusco, the gateway to Inca ruins in Peru. We got a lovely glimpse of the Andean mountains from the plane.

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To avoid a potential sickness due to Cusco’s height, we immediately took a taxi and descended to Ollantaytambo (2 hour ride from Cusco airport), a picturesque town situated in the sacred valley of the Incas. With a four day local Quechua festivities of dance and music in full-swing we truly lucked out. Ollanta (as the locals call it), is where the Incas retreated to after the Spanish conquered Cusco. It has a lovely small town relaxed feel with a cute town square, narrow cobble-stoned streets, lovely view of Inca ruins, street food and gorgeously dressed Quechua people.

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The relaxed atmosphere just sucked us in so we decided to take it easy today and simply watched the festivities and enjoyed local food and beer at the town square. Oh, and Mika enjoyed the Choco museum where we learnt the fascinating process of how Chocolate products are made from.

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15.05.2016

The morning was spent in exploring the beautiful ruins of Ollantaytambo. This is where Manco Inca, the valiant native leader who lead the resistance against Spanish conquistadors, defeated the Spanish by building high terraces and flooding the plains. We were reminded of our Rajasthani fortresses from where the valiant Rajputs fought the Mughals.

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In the afternoon, we did a VERY steep but rewarding hike to Pinkuylunna, where the Incas built some remarkable storehouses. This hike is not for the faint-hearted and in the end we were rewarded with some breathtaking views of the Ollanta town and the valley as well as a fascinating meeting with a German couple (with 3 small children!) who were also on a 1-year world trip, just like us !! Our resolve grew stronger after meeting them – if they can do it with 3 SMALL ones, we surely can pull it off with a TEENAGER!

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By evening, the anticipation of visiting Machu Picchu the next day was building up and we spent our time calming ourselves down, praying to God for a sunny weather and requested our hotel owner for a breakfast takeaway at 5 am.

16.05.2016

The 4:30 am alarm reminded us that the BIG day has arrived. After picking up our breakfast bags, we began our stroll to the Ollantaytambo train station at 5 am.

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Getting to Machu Picchu is an logistical adventure in itself. First you have to take this train from Ollanta – this is a very busy gateway to Machu Picchu and train tickets are usually sold out months in advance. We had booked ours 4 months earlier so it was an easy boarding at 5:30 am in a VERY IMPRESSIVE compartment offering beautiful views over a short 90 minute journey. Wait a minute, you have only reached the foothill town called Aguas Callintes. We boarded a 30 minute bus from here to one of the top modern wonders of the world. The excitement of entering the monument means you are willing to forgive basic tourist facilities (water refill stations, toilets WITHIN the complex – there is one at the entrance only and eating options – there is ONLY ONE very expensive restaurant).

9:30 am: We had seen the picture post card view of Machu Picchu ruins against the Huayna Picchu backdrop, a million times but nothing prepared us for the first breathtaking view. As suggested (wrongly) by other bloggers we took a million useless pictures in the first 5 minutes (there were better pictures to come from higher viewpoints) but what the heck – this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip! As you walk to higher terraces, the views start to get exponentially better. Meha’s prayers had been answered as we had been rewarded with an embarrassingly gorgeous day 🙂 We spent most of our time sitting at various vantage points and gawking at the ruins (the best views are from the top) as well as analyzing and concluding that its the dramatic backdrop of Huyana Picchu mountains which gives Machu Picchu its awe-inspiring view, not the ruins itself. Mika loved playing with the llamas.

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As the scorching sun blazed, our bodies and energy started drooping around noon. We were glad that we had spent most of our time at the higher view points, since coming down to the ACTUAL ruins can be bit of an anti climax as the views are not as gorgeous. We pulled ourselves to see the Inca architecture including the sun temple and it was all over by 2 pm.

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Voraciously hungry (I could have killed and eaten a Llama), we immediately departed the complex and took the bus down to the foothills. Mika’s favorite pesto pasta was ordered and cold coca cola has never tasted better – I kid not. We utilized the free wifi and then argued with the restaurant over the astronomical 20% service charge which was immediately brought down to 10! It was difficult to believe that it was time to board the 6 pm train back for a day that we had been dreaming for years. The real adventure was yet to come. The train was delayed by 3 hours with a huge collateral advantage of befriending a bunch of Brazilians and Russians with whom we had animated discussions on politics, state of our nations, why we all are still underdeveloped nations and so on. Everyone was amazed that we as Indians had taken a year off to travel and we grinned. What fun. Anyway, we arrived back to Ollanta at 11:30 pm thanks to Peru Rail, and crashed.

In hindsight it sounds incredible that Machu Picchu went undiscovered till 20th century (till an intrepid American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it). So cool, otherwise the marauding Spanish conquistadors would have destroyed it. What makes Machu Picchu so special is how they chose the perfect site and built a city so high up amidst the mountains ???

17.05.2016

We bid good bye to the Sacred Valley and headed to Cusco, a 2 hour taxi ride. Our first stop was the salt mines of Maras . The Incas built hundreds of salt pans and harvested salt from spring water. It is quite a sight. Mika tasted and found the salt a tad too salty for her liking!

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We then headed off to Moray where the Inca’s Agricultural laboratory is situated. They built concentric circles and planted different seeds at different levels in different micro-climates to evaluate the right developmental conditions of plants. Ahead of its times.

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We decided to have our lunch in Chinchero which truly was a ghost town with everything being shut, today being a holiday. We managed to find a Sukhsagar-style local eatery which offered us the best Peruvian local food of the trip at a princely sum of $7 for the three of us. With our tummies full, we wandered through the beautiful town of Chinchero – the streets, ruins, weaving ladies and an old church being the highlights.

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We reached Cuzco around 4 pm and called it a day. I also had to face Meha’s wrath as the hotel was the tiniest of the trip, our misery exacerbated by lack of windows and having to carry our suitcases over 2 floors.

18.05.2016 & 19.05.2016

After the laidback small town base of Ollanta, the big city feel of Cusco shocked and disappointed us. It was the capital of Inca empire from 13th to 16th centuries, so important enough to be explored. We visited the most famous inca ruin called Sacsaywaman (I know what you are thinking as all dirty minded folks do). Cusco was designed as the head of Puma with the Sacsaywaman being its head. The zigzag fortress walls of Sacsaywaman functions as Puma’s teeth. Very cool. Through readings and museums, we learnt that the Incas revered Puma. We were getting Inca overload by now, so we decided to skip Pisac.

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We also visited the cool and artistic San Blas area as well as the main square Plaza de Aramas which has a bunch of lovely cathedrals. A visit to the cultural centre yielded some great ethic dance performances.

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20.05.2016

To prep for our impending Amazonian jungle adventure, we decided to visit the famed Ccohahuasi Animal rescue center. We were fascinated by Condors, Macaws & Pumas to name a few.

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It’s time for our flight to Iquitos via Lima.

21.05.2016 & 22.05.2016

Iquitos is one of few cities in the world which can only be reached by plane or boat (no roads!). It’s the gateway to Peruvian Amazon. The city taught us the underbelly of the illegal trading of Amazonian animals, in the world (in)famous Belen market. We did not have the heart to see it so we skipped and focused on visiting 2 animal rescue centers – Manatee center and Pilpintuwasi Butterfly farm. It is heartwarming to witness some good samaritans spending their lifetime in educating the local population about the ill effects of animal trading and nurturing the rescued animals. The museum of the Native Amazonian taught us about their costumes and cultures. Wait… Indian autorickshaw-style “mototaxis” were literally everywhere !

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23.05.2016, 24.05.2016, 25.05.2016

Our Amazonian jungle adventure began with Geyner , the affable guide of Libertad Jungle Lodge, picking us up at Iquitos at 9 am. A taxi ride later (2 hours), we reach Nauta, a tiny village where we boarded our boat. 90 minutes on the Amazon, and we reach our lodge, a community run project run by the local villagers. This will be our home for the next 4 days while we explore the Amazon.

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Amazon was truly an unforgettable adventure with some experiences we had only read in books – getting wowed by pink and grey dolphins, exploring and holding a Caiman in the dark of the night, getting frightened by Tarantula spider, spotting Macaws in the wild, eating a worm on the jungle trek, catching Piranha and then eating them, watching Amazonian waterlily (world’s largest leaf) and much more. The boat and guide were at our disposal all the time. Meha had, ironically, the best and freshest vegetarian food of the whole trip so far, here in the middle of Amazon jungle. We made friends with the villagers and felt completely at home.

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Thanks for reading. We now head to San Francisco to meet dear friends Vipin, Jagdeep and their lovely children Riya and Sachi, for a much needed family down time. See you in YellowStone after a week.

In the Middle of the World!

Our maiden visit to South America had a very pleasant start at the Miami International Airport in the very comfortable lounge of Avianca, the oldest operating airline in the Americas and the second oldest in the world after KLM. We were welcomed by a very friendly lady from Colombia with the warmth of the hospitality services we are accustomed to in India and usually miss on our travels to the West. Rested and refreshed we were on our way to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, transiting through Bogota, the Colombian capital and hub of Avianca.

Ecuador literally means the Equator in Spanish, the official language of the country. We landed in the middle of the world in the middle of the night and were pleasantly surprised and happy to see that all the immigration officials, barring one, were women! I do not recollect having seen a single female immigration official in any of the airports in India and now I wonder why?

As we were being driven to our hotel from the airport, it felt like we were headed to a hill station. I didn’t realise then that Quito, at an altitude of 2,850 metres above sea level, is the highest of all national capitals. The next morning we could see just how many hills and valleys there were in this city.IMG_20160429_102845IMG_2033

We stayed in old Quito, the historic centre characterised by cobbled streets, monuments and colonial style buildings, that became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with Krakow). Our hotel was an old bungalow with a central courtyard, a common feature of traditional homes in many parts of India. The Presidential Palace of Quito features this too. I am sure you can guess which of the two courtyards below is our hotel’s and which is the Presidential Palace’s 🙂

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We spent the day exploring the
monuments and sights starting with the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia more commonly known as Plaza Grande, that is flanked by the Presidential Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Archbishop’s palaceof Quito.

IMG_20160429_104312It was a bustling square with vendors selling a variety of fare – handmade shawls, hats, eatables and so on. An interesting feature were the shoe-shine boys on one end of the square.

The Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
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View of the Plaza Grande from the Presidential Palace
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
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A street food vendor

Next we headed for a guided tour of the Presidential Palace that was possible since the President was not in residence on the day. We had to handover our passports and go through expected security checks to enter the building that had no external signs of opulence.

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We started with huge murals depicting the discovery and conquest of the Amazon by the Spanish and walked through lavish meeting and banquet halls before stepping into the radiant “Yellow Room”.

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The Yellow Room

IMG_1981All gifts received by the various Ecuadorian presidents from different countries were on display. Samples here are from Peru and Saudi Arabia.

IMG_20160429_114643IMG_20160429_114406We then strolled out onto the cobbled street and headed to La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (the Church of the Society of Jesus) known for its Baroque style architecture and ornate interiors with elaborate gold leaf decorations on its walls and high ceiling. The facade of the church bears no hint of the splendour inside.

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Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

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The next highlight was Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco (Church and Monastery of St. Francis) featuring twin bell towers. Notice the storm clouds gathering above the bell towers!

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Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco

As we walked through this pretty part of the city, we noticed how well the traffic was being managed through these narrow streets by very committed traffic-police, most of them being women! No wonder there are no traffic jams here.

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We walked on to the La Ronda street which looked picturesque and right out of a European town with eateries lining the pedestrian-only cobbled street.IMG_20160429_132035As the street comes alive in the evenings, we decided to come back there for dinner.

And there were women constables patrolling the streets.

IMG_20160429_130257It was great to see so many women in law enforcement roles, more so because traditionally there has been a disparity in women’s status in terms of education and economic status.

In the evening we strolled around to take in the evening lights & atmosphere and stopped by a small eatery to taste our first Humitas, a traditional steamed corn snack. We saw many signs of “Cafe con Humitas” suggesting it was something like “Chai with Samosa” for the locals. Corn and plantains are a big part of the daily diet here. We returned to La Ronda and found a place with a guitarist playing & singing as a nice way to wrap up the day. Given the lack of an English menu, vegetarian food and English speaking folks around, it took some effort to choose what we wanted. Just when we sat back to enjoy the music, Manish realised the backpack he had placed next to him was missing! A frantic search around the place ensued and quite soon it was clear the bag had been taken. The usherer at the door thought a guy who just left the place had taken our bag mistaking it for his own and ran out to find him. We found another backpack neatly tucked away a little further from our table, but given the place & manner in which it was kept it became apparent that it was not a mistake at all by the person who had taken, rather stolen our bag. As we stood on the street quite shaken thinking about what happened and asked to restaurant to call the police, we recollected the contents of the bag. To our utter relief, the bag didn’t contain our passports and any valuables. Thanks to Manish’s research on safety during travel and his habit of preparing for the worst, he had our passports, cash and cards all on his person. We figured we had lost our rain jackets, a portable mobile charger & phone cable, some medicines & first-aid and a water bottle. The police arrived immediately and they called for an English speaking officer who also turned up pretty quickly. On hearing the details, they apologised for our bad experience, duly recorded our complaint and gave us a copy of the report. The restaurant turned in the backpack left by the thief who for sure would have cursed his bad luck at getting nothing of value in return for the loss of his own backpack! Not in the script as Manish said, but a briefly nerve-wracking experience to reinforce the absolute need for alertness in cities.

The next day dawned, we put the previous evening firmly behind us and headed right to the middle of the world – latitude 0°! Interestingly, before the advent of GPS, the location of the Equator near Quito had been wrongly marked and the official monument Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) is situated about 200 metres south of latitude 0°. So instead of IMG_2092this we headed to the Intiñan Museum that is closer to the right spot. Here we heard some interesting facts about the native tribes of the region, saw totems representing Inti (the Sun) from different countries, witnessed experiments demonstrating the Coriolis effect, tried our hand (successfully) at balancing an egg on the head of a nail and walked on the red line representing the Equator.

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An ancient tribal ritual of creating a pendant from an enemy’s head!
A burial mound
Replica of a burial mound – the dead were placed in fetal position in a pot that denotes the womb – tribal belief of rebirth

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Balancing acts, each one trying to centre ourselves!

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The below pics of parent and child on the two hemispheres are symbolic of the differences that exist (and always will!) between generations, despite our attempts to be “cool” parents. We’ve decided to just “mind the gap” and Mika is happy we finally accept the “gap”!

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The demonstration of the Coriolis effect helped us understand the difference in the directions of weather systems north and south of the Equator – hurricanes & tornadoes that hit North America move in an anti-clockwise direction while typhoons in South America have a clockwise circulation.

The tribal handmade crafts on display were a colourful visual treat and we also witnessed a demo of a tribal dance.

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From here we headed further up the Andes towards Mindo for a rendevous with the clouds in the cloud forest and an opportunity to see some of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit them. Needless to say, some of the bird species are in danger of extinction.

In our journey of about an hour & a quarter, we came across some scenes reminiscent of home – what car would you say is the one overtaking the cattle carrier?

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In our Mindo hotel balcony we found ourselves at an arm’s distance from Hummingbirds of so many different types with their resplendent colourings shining in the sunlight that we remained excited, mesmerised and clicking away for a long time! It was unbelievable to see so many of these tiny birds feeding with their wings flapping rapidly at the feeder placed by the hotel staff. We got to see from close up the backward flight that we had heard and read about. And various kinds of colourful Tanagers were frequenting the guava tree next to our balcony, making us wonder at the colours and types of the birds residing in the forest where we would be heading to the next morning!

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Andean EmeraldRufous-tailed HummingbirdWhite-necked Jacobin - Female

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Palm Tanager

We strolled through the rather little main street in this quaint little town, more like a village actually. We loved the peaceful, laid-back atmosphere and had an enjoyable dinner of fresh handmade pizza at a local bakery. Mindo is not a typical family destination, it is a haven for backpackers and young travelers who are either nature lovers or adventure-seekers coming here for the thrills of rafting, tubing and canyoning.

It was an early start the next morning and a pleasant walk with our naturalist and guide Irman where he pointed out many Tanagers and small birds like Seedeaters quite early on. We were eager to see the bigger & brighter ones that are much harder to spot. We admired the streams and the view of the clouds touching the forest canopy on the way.

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Hearing the calls of toucans, our guide ushered us on. The first ones we got to see were the Crimson-rumped Toucanets, a smaller variety of the Toucan family and then the big Pale-mandibled Toucan. What a majestic sight!

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Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Then came a really beautiful call that got our guide all excited and soon enough we were rewarded with the sight of an amazing bird – the Masked Trogon, what a beauty & what a beautiful call!

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Masked Trogon

Another beauty that we saw a couple of was the Rufous Motmot.

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Rufous Motmot

We learnt that it is common practise for many of the residents to place food (bananas) in their backyards to feed birds. This attracts many colourful birds from the forest to come and feed, providing an easy opportunity to see them from close quarters. We did this at the end of our forest walk in one of the little farms and got to see the bright Red-headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet and Golden Tanager amongst many others.

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Amazed by the stunning colours and beauty, we spent many more hours admiring our own clicks of these wonders of nature and watching the thunderstorm of the late afternoon with the rain continuing through the night.

Having experienced the stunning diversity of mainland Ecuador, we were all keen to head out to the islands of Galapagos to see Evolution in action! Though part of our Ecuadorian Odyssey, Galapagos demands a separate post for it has way too much to offer and is truly a world apart.

Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!