Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

Galapagos, Ecuador

Posted: August 7, 2013 in Ecuador, South America
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This post, much like Antarctica many months ago, is the easiest and hardest post to write.  It is easy because of the sheer quantity of incredible moments packed in to the 12 days spent in a naturalist’s heaven, and hard for the very same reason.  No matter what prose I put down in the next few paragraphs, it will never be able to encapsulate the wonder that is the Galapagos Islands.  With that being said, let me give it my best go!

Like all visitors to the Galapagos, our journey started with a flight.  We flew from Quito to Guayaquil, and then on to Baltra, the main airport of the island chain.

First Glimpse

First Glimpse

Galapagos!

Galapagos!

Upon landing, you pay the National Park fee, which entitles you to all park sites on the island.  It is a brilliant concept, as you do not need to pay for any nature visits for the rest of your trip, and makes life very easy, well done Galapagos administrators.  The journey to town is awesome, you board a bus from the airport down to the edge of the small island of Baltra, and then take a ferry across to the main island of Santa Cruz.  On the ferry we saw a variety of bird life, and our first Galapagos Sea Lion!  You then transfer to a bus or taxi for a one hour ride across the island to town, incredibly scenic.

Once we got to town, we transferred to a local ferry that would take us to our first destination, the island of Isabella.  Located in the west of the island chain, we were keen to get out and hike to the second largest crater in the world (largest is Ngorongoro in Tanzania), Sierra Negra.  Little did we know that it was full moon, and full moon means incredibly rough seas.  Our small fibra got smashed for two hours by huge waves, and it was a rough crossing to say the least!

Once on dry land, we hiked in to Puerto Villamil, the small town on the south-east of Isabella.

We made it!

We made it!

We found amazing accommodation right on the beach, and had a great dinner, all ready for the big hike tomorrow.

Sierra Negra proved to be as good a day hike as we have done all trip, as we walked up in thick fog to the edge of the crater. Our guide told us that we may not be able to see the crater at all, as he hiked the day before and saw nothing.  Of course, the guide did not reckon on the power of Mirella, and her seemingly indefatigable ability to ensure good weather conditions all around the world. The fog cleared to the view below.

Crater

Crater

It was an incredible view, and would have been worth the walk, and there was more to come!  We went past the crater and entered the most enigmatic, awe-inspiring, moon-like landscape I have ever seen.

Moon

Moon

The colours, the textures, the ‘un-earthliness’ all contributing to an incredible experience.

Moon

Moon

We also were lucky enough to see our first of (many) Iguana’s, the Galapagos Land Iguana.

Land Iguana

Land Iguana

After an exhausting and exhilarating day, it was back to the beach for a beer or two, and a relaxing evening.

The next day we took a short tour in the morning to a small island nearby, and walked along shark alley!

Shark!

Shark!

Galapagos is famous among the diving fraternity for some of the best underwater action in the world, and this was a great introduction while on dry land.  We also saw Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Marine Iguanas.

Marine Iguana

Marine Iguana

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Our new favourite animal though had to be the Blue Footed Booby!

Booby

Booby

We spent the afternoon checking out another local, the Galapagos Tortoise.

Tortoise

Tortoise

Isabella was amazing, and a great start to our exploration of one of the world’s truly great wilderness areas.  Although not excited, we boarded the same fibra to take us back to Santa Cruz, and from there another fibra across to the third main island in Galapgos, San Cristobal.  Whilst the full moon had passed, the seas were still rough, and for four hours we were constantly hurled in to the air as the fibra skipped over the two to three metre swell, arrgghhhh!  Of course, in between the two rides, we found time to go to a beautiful beach, and snorkel in a natural channel carved by volcanic forces, so it was not all bad….

Once on Cristobal, we found another great hotel, and booked in for a boat cruise that turned out to be the single greatest day trip in the six months to date!

We booked to do Isla Lobos and Kicker Rock.  Isla Lobos translates to Sea Lion island, and Kicker Rock is renowned for attracting huge schools of sharks!

Hammerhead Alley!

Hammerhead Alley!

The day was magnificent, not a cloud in the sky, a great boat (much better than the fibras!), and still seas.  We headed straight to Sea Lion Island, and spent two hours swimming with Sea Lions.  Hard to put into words how amazing the experience was, the Sea Lions love company, and the level of interaction with a wild animal is unparalleled in my travelling days.

Swimming with Sea Lions

Swimming with Sea Lions

We then moved on to Kicker Rock, as pictured above, a wild spot.  We snorkeled through the gap in the rocks, and were met with huge Spotted Eagle Rays, White and Black tip Reef Sharks, and unbelievably, schools of Hammerhead Sharks!  Never seen so many sharks in my life, was the best snorkel ever!

We returned to Cristobal after a great day, and crashed ready for more the next day.

Up early, we headed for a hike on the outskirts of town, and for another snorkel with Sea Lions!

Awesome!

Awesome!

We also saw the Magnificent Frigate Bird.

Frigate

Frigate

Special mention has to be made of the main town in San Cristobal, Puerto Moreno.  The town is literally teeming with Sea Lions on the main street, it is a unique experience to share your day with these amazing sea creatures.

Homeless Sea Lion

Homeless Sea Lion

Slide time

Slide time

Wow!

Wow!

The trip changed pace at this point, as we hopped on our luxury Catamaran, the Treasure of the Galapagos.

Treasure

Treasure

Talk about a holiday within a holiday!  The ship was immaculate, with all the modern trimmings, and the cabins were amazing.  We spent five days on board, cruising through Espanola, Floreana and Santa Fe Islands, seeing all manner of birds, reptiles and sea creatures in five-star comfort.  The snorkelling was easily some of the best in the world, the day treks allowed us close contact with all manner of animals, and the company on board could not have been better, as we spent time with some other great travellers from around the world.

Please do have a look at the Galapagos photo post to see all of the wonders, Galapagos was one of the highlights of our travelling lives, and I will leave this post with one last photo, how often do you get to high-five a Sea Lion?

High Five!

High Five!

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After an incredible adventure in the Amazon rainforest, we flew on two short connecting flights from Iquitos back to Lima, and spent the night in Miraflores, the tourist district in Lima.  We spent the day sightseeing and organising ourselves for the next leg of our journey, Ecuador.  We headed back to the airport for our flight to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador.  Due to my desire to spend as little time as possible in airports waiting for the flight, we almost missed check-in!  We flew with TAME, the Ecuadorian carrier, and it was surprisingly good (as was everything in Ecuador!).   We were delayed though, and arrived very late (or very early depending on how you look at it!).  Thankfully I had pre-booked accommodation, and after a long taxi ride (the airport moved this year from the centre of Quito to 50 odd kilometres out-of-town), we arrived in the most amazing four star hotel in central Quito.  Clearly we had come in low season, as the price for the 300 year old stone built mansion was cheaper than many crappy 2 star hotels we had stayed in throughout South America!

We spent our first day in Quito doing what many backpackers and flashpackers do, organising our trip to Galapagos.  It is one of the most anticipated highlights on a journey of many highlights, and we were keen to find a great ship to take us out to some of the more isolated islands in the archipelago.  We eventually found an agency that owned a magnificent catamaran called the “Treasure of the Galapagos”, and booked for a 5 night journey.  We also planned to do a week independently, more on that in a future post!

So we found ourselves with a week to fill before we flew out to Galapagos, and we decided to go to two small towns, both a short bus ride from Quito, called Mindo and Otavalo.

Otavalo is famous for having one of the biggest (and best) Saturday markets in South America.  After having done Pisac in Peru, we were excited to see the market, and what great things we could purchase and send home….

We headed to Otavalo on Friday afternoon, enjoyed a very comfortable and modern bus (with large flat screen tv playing movies in English), stayed at a beautiful hotel right in the centre of town, and had the most amazing meal for dinner, a perfect day of travelling!

The market is by far the best one we encountered in South America (and is a very close second for me to Chatuchak in Bangkok).  The range of goods was remarkable, and we went crazy buying Alpaca blankets, incredible hand-woven hammocks and great quality clothing at obscenely cheap prices….my only regret after six hours of shopping is that we did not buy more!

After the gluttony of Otavalo we headed back to Quito, stayed the night, and then went on to Mindo the next day.  Mindo’s claim to fame is being one of the great birding spots on the planet.  We would certainly not be categorised as birders (although Mirella is well on her way to being a fully fledged twitcher!), the opportunity to go hiking for a few days in cloud forest was too great to resist, it is one of my favourite forest types (as you can see from the photo below, awesome)!

Mindo magic

Mindo magic

We spent the next few days hiking in and around the town.  Whilst it was very wet (as cloud forests tend to be), we saw some amazing sights.  The first day was a butterfly park, and again, not usually our first choice of things to do, it was a great visit.

DSC06776 DSC06770 DSC06766

We then went for a huge hike into the middle of the cloud forest, there were some great views.

Rope pulley across a gully!

Rope pulley across a gully!

All in all, a great week in Ecuador, a country we are sure to return to, as it also has great beaches, more Amazon and historical sights, and of course, Galapagos!

Mindo in Pictures

Posted: August 7, 2013 in Ecuador, Photos, South America
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The Amazon Jungle

Posted: July 2, 2013 in Peru, South America

After our arrival in Lima, capital of Peru, we spent a couple of days seeing the sights of this World Heritage city.  Whilst there was some spectacular architecture and good food, it is a hard city to warm to, or at least it was our interpretation.  That is not to say it did not look good!

DSC06555 DSC06557

Whilst not in our original plan when we left Australia, I have always been strongly drawn to the idea of traipsing into the Amazon Jungle.  As Peru is host to a huge tract of the great river and a big tangle of jungle, it seemed silly to pass up the opportunity whilst we were so close.

So, on to a very cheap flight to Iquitos, the place that lays claim to the largest city in the world with no road access.  Iquitos can only be reached by boat or plane, and has over half a million inhabitants.  The flight in was interesting, as our small plane was buffeted by storms, and our safe arrival was well received by the two of us!

This was our first glimpse upon arrival in the city.

The Jungle!

The Jungle!

We spent ten nights in a jungle lodge deep in the Amazon primary forest, after a stellar three-hour boat ride up the Amazon River.  The lodge was perched on a large tributary of the Amazon, the Tahuayo River.

Our amazing home in the Jungle

Our amazing home in the Jungle

It was drawing to the end of the wet season, so our stilted accommodation slowly dried out below us over the coming days.  We had a guide assigned to us for the journey, a local man named Orlando, who had been guiding in the region for 11 years, and had spent his life living in a village a few kilometres away.  To say he knew the jungle would be an understatement!

So it came as no surprise on a hike in the jungle when Orlando yelled “Snake!”, that he would naturally run after the snake and catch it by the tail.  The snake seemed less than impressed, and as it was a 2.5 metre Tiger Rat snake, it did seem an odd decision…

Tiger Rat Snake

Tiger Rat Snake

Look what I found!

Look what I found!

We spent an incredible ten days in the Jungle, with 5 days in the main lodge, then a night out camping in the middle of nowhere (very cool!), and a few nights out at a research lodge where scientists continue to study the flora and fauna of the huge ecosystem.  SOme of the highlights were zip-lining through the trees,  paddling in a dugout canoe and finding monkeys and tarantulas, camping in the middle of the jungle, seeing sloths and otters……….

The list goes on and on, so glad we got out to the Amazon proper, a true bucket list experience.  The photo’s in the post below show some of the highlights mentioned and many more….

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa

After the adventures in Colca Canyon, we headed to Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa, also known as the White City, due to the majority of the World Heritage historical centre being built out of white volcanic rock.  As you can see from the photo above, it makes for some amazing architecture, and we spent a couple of days enjoying not only the buildings, also the volcanoes that surround the city and add an amazing backdrop.  It reminded me of Antigua in Guatemala, albeit a bigger city…

One of the highlights of the city (other than eating in some of the most beautiful restaurants of the entire trip (and our lives) due to the use of the 15th and 16th century white lava constructed buildings) is the Convent of Santa Catalina.  We spent a few hours wandering the “city within a city”.  Built in 1579, it is an amazing piece of work, and has been preserved brilliantly, I will let the photo’s below tell the story.

With a great couple of days done in Arequipa, time for another (and perhaps the last!) South American overnight bus ride to the capital of Peru, Lima!

The Colca Canyon

Posted: June 11, 2013 in Peru, South America

After a very comfortable overnight bus ride from Cusco to Arequipa, we bought a ticket to Cabanaconde, a tiny little town in the Colca Canyon, a Peruvian hot spot for Andean Condors and great hiking in the second deepest canyon in the world (for those that are wondering, the deepest is Cotahuasi, also in Peru).  We hopped on, excited to get to our final destination after 36 hours of travelling.  Little did we know how badly the next few hours would go!

The drive started off innocuously enough, with the driver cruising through the outskirts of Arequipa.  As we headed further from town, the Son of Satan (sorry, the bus driver) decided that it was important that we tested out all facets of the 20-year-old plus bus, and started to perform manoeuvres that I have also performed (albeit in a race ready, small car).  To make this more exciting, we were descending into one of the world’s deepest canyons, with the margin for error being unforgiving, to say the least.

After an exciting descent from 4,900+ metres to the largest town in the Canyon, the best it seemed was yet to come.  It was obvious that the Son of Satan had been given a large drink of Pisco, and instructions that a new land speed record needed to be set in the Canyon.  This was truly exciting, my highlight being when we came around a blind corner, with nothing but a 1000m plus drop off to our right hand side, and were faced with a slow-moving lorry coming in the other direction.  It is difficult to describe the feeling of a fully laden, old bus locking up all four wheels on loose gravel, and sliding toward inexorable death.  For those that have had the pleasure, I salute you, but at 37 years of age, it is just not fun anymore!

After surviving another 30 minutes or so, a new twist to the joy was added, as the Son of Satan accelerated(!) on to the dirt road(!).  Where did the asphalt go????

Another ten minutes of this (including a run through an unlit natural tunnel where any oncoming traffic would have had all 54 passengers dead), and I had decided that enough was perhaps enough.  We hopped off, after I let the Son of Satan know what I thought of his driving skills.  This was the view we were afforded:

Good to be alive!

Good to be alive!

A walk that we had planned to do in the next couple of days, from the most popular Condor viewing spot to Cabanaconde, was brought forward.  15km later, whilst enjoying a beautiful hike, we arrived 38 hours after leaving Puno to a beautiful little hotel in Cabanaconde.

We spent a pretty chilled next couple of days in and around town, I think my heart rate even dropped below 200bpm on day three….

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

Inspired scenery, a good cold beer, and great eats, made Cabanaconde well worth the excitement of approach.  We wrangled our way on to a tourist bus on the way back to Arequipa, normally against all my principles of travel, in this case welcomed as we eased out of the death trap 🙂  The views were astounding (and much better at less than 150km/hr).

Incan terraces

Incan terraces

Mirella even found a new friend on the way back to Arequipa.

Is there something on my hat?

What, is there something on my hat?

We ended the trip at the highest point we have ever been….

Volcano city...

Volcano city…

Who, me?

Who, me?

Not a bad view

Not a bad view

need more oxygen!

need more oxygen!

The Orient Express in Peru

Posted: June 11, 2013 in Peru, South America

We crossed back in to Peru, and stayed another night in Puno.  The reason for staying here was to catch an Orient Express owned train from Puno to Cusco.  Both of us have always loved train journeys, it is by far our most preferred method of travel.  Not often would an Orient Express journey fall into the Flashpacker budget, so we seized on this opportunity to enjoy 5 star luxury on a 12 hour journey over the high plains of eastern Peru.

Andean Explorer

Andean Explorer

An amazing experience, as we left early in the morning and slowly trundled around the western edge of Lake Titicaca.  As we moved further west, we left the lake and started to climb even higher into the Andes.  Whilst the scenery astounded, the service on board was equally good, as we were fed and watered constantly for 12 hours in true 5 star style.  It made one princess very happy…

Princess with Pisco Sour in hand...

Princess with Pisco Sour in hand…

The views just got better and better, and the viewing carriage allowed for shots like below.

Wide open spaces

Wide open spaces

All good things come to an end, as did our magnificent train journey through Peru.  We hopped off and headed for the bus station for an overnight ride to Arequipa, otherwise known as the white city, as it was built with white lava stone for hundreds of years…

Peruvian Rail in Photos

Posted: June 11, 2013 in Peru, Photos, South America