The Bells take South America

by Cole Dittmer
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Supplied photos courtesy of Pat Bell 

 Pat Bell atop the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. 

From the lowland tributaries of the Amazon River to the highland areas around Machu Picchu, a two and a one-half week excursion through Ecuador and Peru provided a wealth of scenery for local world travelers Bill and Pat Bell. 

Preparing and packing for the trip was no easy task with temperature changes from freezing in the highlands to near 100 degrees in the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador. 

Pat Bell said she and her husband also had to plan for a range of diseases like malaria, yellow fever and altitude sickness. 

Traveling with a group of 12 others from around the world through the Road Scholar educational travel organization, the first threat of altitude sickness came on the initial leg of the trip around the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, which lies 9,350 feet above sea level. Having experienced the condition before while visiting Tibet, the Bells knew to take altitude sickness pills but said it was interesting to see how the people of highlands Ecuador and Peru live with the high altitude. 

“The hotels even have oxygen tanks you can wheel into your room,” Pat Bell said. “And then there is the local remedy, which is coca tea — the same plant you get cocaine from. Every hotel has that, it is on every menu and particularly in Cuzco … you can buy coca tea bags.”

While in the highlands of Ecuador, the Bells were able to tour a rose farm, which is one of the major exports for the country, because it is one of the only places in the world where roses grow straight up toward the equatorial sun. 

Following the Ecuadorian highlands leg of their journey was a multi-day trip down one of the tributaries of the Amazon River in Ecuador. Bill Bell said the riverboat was roughly the same size as the Henrietta, and it was the only riverboat to navigate that particular stretch of the river. 

It was while cruising in the main river and off on the day trips in smaller canoes that Pat Bell said they encountered something they did not expect. 

“We saw a lot less of the animal life that one would normally expect in that area, because they have discovered huge reserves of oil underneath the ground there,” she said. “It is a very interesting dynamic because the government doesn’t want to bad mouth the oil companies … but they also want to keep the area for ecological tourism at the same time.”

The inability to build pipelines to the remote oil fields to remove the natural gas that sits on top of the oil reservoirs leaves the oil companies to burn off the natural gas, she said. 

“They burn it off to get to the oil and these gigantic fires burn 24 hours a day,” Bell said. “Into those fires fly millions of insects every night, which feed all of the turtles, frogs, birds and other animals.”

Despite the somewhat diminished amount of fauna observed in the rainforest, the Bells were able to experience other natural life on the river in the indigenous villages the canoes would travel to on day trips.

A former travel editor for Gourmet magazine, Bell said she and the rest of the group were treated to Amazonian delicacies like banana leaf-wrapped fish, yucca, roasted plantains and skewered larvae at one of the villages. 

“The best part was the larvae,” she said. “They had these things that looked like fat, wormy snails without a shell and our guide picked up one that was alive, ripped off its head and ate it.”

From lunch in an indigenous village to learning to cook traditional Peruvian dishes like causa in Lima, Bell said the staples of potatoes, yuccas and plantains prevailed throughout the region. 

While on the Peruvian leg of their journey, the Bells visited what was the highlight for both, the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. Set in the mountains of Peru, Bell said the site was worth the trek to get there. 

“Fortunately it is very hard to get there still, so it hasn’t been totally trampled like the pyramids or the Great Wall of China and even when we were there the road to get up there was washed out,” she said. “We had to take a bus halfway up, get out, and walk on this rickety wooden stairway that you had to climb up to get to another bus.”

Built by the Incans around 1450, Bell said the spiritual nature of Machu Picchu still resonates today.

“Machu Picchu is pretty much a tourist cliché these days, but it really is magical,” Bell said. “There is something about it that just grabs you. It was designed centuries ago as a spiritual center and there is something there, and it is really interesting.”

While the Bells did not bring back many South American souvenirs, Bill  Bell said they did bring back a newfound interest in Peruvian cuisine and a deep appreciation for Machu Picchu.

“Machu Picchu is an incredible accomplishment by man and a phenomenal setting by God,” he said. “There are other great places in the world but none of them have the setting this one does.”


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