After Machu Picchu we traveled to the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin during his voyage on The Beagle. There are no indigenous mammals there, just reptiles, birds and a great diversity of marine wildlife. The reptiles and sea lions have no innate fear or aversion to humans, although at times it was clear we were straining their patience. But otherwise you could walk right up to them and just look and observe (touching was strictly verboten). On two different occasions while snorkeling a sea lion decided to spook the living bejeezus out of me by launching himself from a rocky outcropping into the water just a few feet away from my head. Which if I were a sea lion I would do all the time.
Below is a photo of a small colony of sea lions, the younger one suckling from his very disinterested mother.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to the Galapagos was to see the the evolutionary differentiation within species, something I find fascinating. The eyes and fur of the sea lions who hunt at night rather than the day evolved to better accommodate the colder temperatures and absence of light. The land tortoises' shells changed shape compared to their marine brethren as the source and location of their food changed. The seafaring iguana developed a mechanism to filter salt out of seawater, and then expel it by snorting it periodically (and with impressive velocity) out its nose.
The Galapagos still have active volcanoes, and one day we hiked along the rim of one, and then actually onto the cooled lava flow. The photo below was taken of one that had erupted in the mid 2000's (most of the volcano is actually off to the left, but I thought the juxtaposition of the lava against the surrounding vegetation was interesting).
After the Galapagos we returned to mainland Ecuador and then traveled to Cuenca (CWEN-ka) to visit Sara Coppler and her wife Kathy. Sara's parents are my godparents, and by a small quirk of fate her Dad is now my uncle (her Mom has since passed away). And growing up Sara used to babysit me. We had a great time, capped off by Sara hosting a large group of friends and cooking several pots of authentic Coppler chili, and then the next day with a four hour hike up to the Giron waterfalls (photo below). It was a surprisingly difficult: slippery, muddy and with dense vegetation along the trail, but the falls were just beautiful and solitary.