Traveling With Ellen And Mary Lou...Life At The Center Of The Earth

By Lynne Phillips

A trip to Ecuador and Peru by Ellen Simmons and Mary Lou Harris could be summed up in a few words, according to Simmons, “The trip of a lifetime,” she told the audience.

“The majority of our time was spent in Peru at Machu Pichu. We were also in a city for a day and spent four days in the Galapagos.

“The Galapagos is an archipelago of 200 islands, mostly uninhabited. It is where Charles Darwin traveled on the second voyage of the ship HMS Beagle.” according to island information, “He spent spent five weeks there and the Galapagos are well known for the species collections of Darwin.”

Also on the Galapagos Islands, is the tortoise complex which has the largest living species of tortoises. They can weigh up to 550 pounds with some species exceeding five feet in length.

The oldest Galapagos tortoise, Harriet, whose age is estimated to have been 175 years old, according to island information, died in an Australian zoo in 2006.

“Part of the reason tortoises live so long is due to their slow metabolism. They can withdraw their head, neck and fore legs into its shell for protection. Their legs are stumpy, with dry, scaly skin and hard scales. Their front legs have five claws and back legs have four. Tortoises are herbivores, eating a diet of cacti, grasses, leaves, lichens, berries, melons, oranges and milkweed.

“The islands are very different, some are very dry, some more tropical depending on the season of the year,” according to Simmons.

Tortoises dwell on land and turtles live the water part of the time.

“Tortoises have legs and feet, turtles have fins and terrapins can be in or out of the water,” Harris commented. “We have terrapins around here. A snapping turtle is considered a terrapin and they have claws.

“Each environment produces a different kind of tortoise,” she stated. “They may have a different shell and the DNA is different. We saw two different kinds of tortoises while there, the domed back, which is a smaller tortoise and a saddle back. The saddle backs are the largest of the tortoises. We were told they were in the wild, but we saw them on a ranch and were able to get very close to them. One came right up to us on the path.” Measuring with her hand Harris demonstrated the tortoise was about three feet tall.

Simmons said, the saddle backs were at the Charles Darwin Reservation where they are bred. She added, “One saddle back does all the breeding and breeds over 800 eggs each year. The eggs are gathered from out in the wild and brought back to the compound to hatch.”

That particular tortoise was found in a San Diego zoo, according to Harris. “It had such similar DNA they said it was probably taken from the (the island) area a long time ago. It was brought back to the Galapagos to the Darwin Reserve and it is continuing to perpetuate this species.” Simmons noted, there are several species of tortoises that have become extinct. She added, “The adult tortoises have no natural predators, but the eggs do. Man has brought things like cats onto the islands that have turned out to be predators to things that are there by nature.”

“The Spaniards brought cats,” Harris shared. “Many things have been eradicated that were brought by the Spaniards such as goats and they are trying to get rid of the cats. We saw a cat, which is very rare. They are very sly.” Describing the cats, she said they are very large and thin and look like a feral cat. “When I saw it I thought it was jaguar or something.” Simmons said they look like a house cat except they are so huge. “They have adapted to the islands in size.” According to Harris, one of the guides said years ago all of the guides carried guns and if they saw a cat they would shoot them.”

Harris told audience members when the Spaniards originally came to the Galapagos, tortoises were used as a food source. They put them on their boats knowing the tortoises could live for a year without food or water. “They were stored on the ships upside down,” Simmons commented.

The Galapagos is so named because that is the name the Spaniards gave to the saddle backs, galloping turtles. Galapagos is the Spanish word for gallop, Harris stated. Today there about 30,000 tortoises.

Simmons said. “We saw hundreds of sea lions. They were just fascinating.” One of the guides told the visitors that the people as predators didn’t really exist to them. “They didn’t see us as predators and they would get right in your path, they weren’t afraid of you.” Harris said, “I thought the sea lions were impressive.” Describing a walk she said she was walking and actually jumped and screamed when she ran into what she initially thought was a rock. “It was a sea lion. They just don’t move.”

Harris shared her favorite of the aimals was a bird, the Blue Footed Boobie. “We saw all kinds of flocks of birds including flamingos,” Simmons commented. “We also saw hawks and albatrosses.”

Visiting the Galapagos isn’t just a simple trip, according to Simmons. “You can’t just go there. You have to have a permit and when you leave you have to prove you are leaving. There is no place with restroom facilities on the island. If you have to go, you must leave the island. You get into a Zodiac and taken back to the ship. People are not allowed to pick up anything on the island. Not a rock, feather or a grain of sand. They are doing their best to make it like it was 500 years ago.”

Machu Pichu was the main point of interest in Peru. “It is a 600 year old Incan town,” Simmons told club members. “It was abandoned when the Spanish came to South America. In fact all of the towns were abandoned at that time.

“Machu Pichu was covered by the jungle. It wasn’t that people didn’t know it was there. Those who lived in the area knew it was there, but some Englishmen in 1908, discovered it and since then it has been cleaned up and parts that had fallen down are being repaired. It is a fascinating place,” she said.

A guide is required to go to Machu Pichu. The second trip is allowed without a guide as long as visitors can produce their ticket or stamp verifying they have already been there.

They were dropped off at the bottom of a stairwell where their goal was to get to the guardhouse. “We couldn’t go there the first day. You could only go on a subsequent visit.” Simmons said at that point they were at an elevation of 8,000 feet.

Arriving at a landing, which was the guardhouse, the first thing visitors see in the sun rising. Harris said the first thing they saw were sunspots. “These big golden spots on the mountains. As the sun comes over the mountains it is panoramic and when the sun hit the settlement it was golden. It looked like it was lit in gold. It was the most gorgeous thing and well worth getting up at 4:30 to see it.”

The pair was also able to visit a native village while in Peru. There was group of houses and the people were dressed in their native clothing and we had a meal there, Simmons explained. They raise is a lot of corn and 3,000 different varieties of potatoes. Also there a lot fava beans grown there. It was a special part of the trip, Simmons said with a smile.

She showed a “baby alpaca” blanket, explaining that “baby” wasn’t really a baby alpaca, but the first shearing of the wool from an adult alpaca.

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