Patagonia, part two: El Chaltén

El Calafate had been about the Perito Moreno Glacier, pretty much.  El Chaltén is about hiking, and about Fitz Roy – a particularly famously picturesque and – for climbers – difficult mountain in the southern Andes.  (It may also have been a bit about cheap sugary pastry things from the bakeries, and about the DVDs of live rock concerts favoured by our host at our excellent hostel, Albergue Aylen-Aike.)

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Hiking is a big deal in Patagonia.  Trekkers come from far flung places, armed with The North Face this, Kathmandu that and Colombia the other, bearing tents and sleeping bags and walking poles and sturdy boots, and sporting more layers of clothing than I have pairs of socks.  (I saw one couple pause in the sunshine to shed some of their skins at one point:  they each took off two jackets, a tshirt and then a long-sleeved tshirt, to get down to their innermost tshirt, before putting one of the jackets back on.  I was wearing a thin woollen tshirt at the time, and had only just stopped sweating from the climb up the hill.  I have no idea how they weren’t drowning in a sea of their own perspiration.  Seriously, someone from some deodorant company needs to get in touch with these guys and sign them up as advertising models.)

We weren’t quite so thoroughly outfitted as many of the travellers around us.  (Including one Eastern European group who’d also been on our Big Ice tour in El Calafate, and whom I took great pleasure in naming the “Poles with poles,” in a joke that was apparently much funnier to me than to anybody else.)  In particular, we weren’t set up to do any camping, so absent a strong desire to go hire a whole bunch of stuff to allow us to sleep less comfortably than we otherwise would in, y’know, a bed, we were restricted to the day hikes.  No five-day ‘the W’ Torres del Paine trek out of El Calafate for us, nor the two-day trek to Laguna Torre out of El Chaltén.  (Though in fairness, we confidently assured ourselves that we probably could have quick-marched the latter in a single day had we anticipated seeing anything particularly interesting at the other end of it.)

But nonetheless, El Chaltén offers a fair number of day hikes, and some beautiful scenery for them, so having lazily used up a whole day for the three hour bus ride from El Calafate (it’s alright, the weather was shit that day anyway), we set about planning how much of the area we could traverse in the time we had available.

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Nearly all the treks in the area focus on getting a good view of Fitz Roy and/or its glaciers.  The problem with this is that Fitz Roy is, like Everest, quite often entombed in cloud.  Thankfully, Sebastian, the ever-helpful rock-DVD-loving owner of our hostel, was armed with weather forecasts and excellent advice.  Don’t do the Laguna de los Tres hike first, he said (this is the hike that is most specifically pointed to a front-and-centre prime viewing of Fitz Roy), do the Piedras Blancas one instead (a hike that ends over a lot of large boulders – the piedras blancas, or white rocks – to a nearby glacier, Glacier Fitz Roy East, aka Glacier Piedras Blancas).  The weather’s supposed to clear up in the afternoon, so if it looks clear once you’re done, then you can whip up to Laguna de los Tres.  And if it doesn’t, you can do that tomorrow, when the weather’s better.  Anyway, almost no one goes to Piedras Blancas, which is a pity, coz it’s cool.

So Piedras Blancas it was.  And it was cool.  First, we got to climb over big rocks.  And because we’re apparently about nine years old on the inside, that was fun just by itself.

In front of Glacier Piedras Blancas

Look, ma! Check out this picture of me on this big rock I climbed!

And second, the glacier was really awesome.  It’s on a rocky mountainside, and so rather than just being a big wide flat sheet of white, it’s carved out in a more interesting shape by the protrusions of the rock beneath.  And more than that, it has waterfalls.  There were several, but the most impressive was a huge cascade running down the right hand side of the glacier.  I don’t know why, but to me the fact of a glacier having a huge gushing waterfall is in itself very cool.  But cool was not sufficient.  This waterfall was alive.  Every ten or fifteen minutes we’d hear crashes and quickly look up to the waterfall.  Sometimes you’d just see a little more water pouring out, or watch as the waterfall changed course slightly, reminding you just how dynamic a glacier really is.  But sometimes you’d look up to see a cavalcade of ice tumbling down, the waterfall doubling or tripling in size and ferocity, sending large chunks of previously immovable glacier down into the lake as well as a torrent of water.  You’d see the waterfall seek out new, additional courses downwards, as the normal route filled and overflowed around the frozen barrier under which it normally fitted just fine.  And you’d sit and watch as everything slowly returned to normal, waiting for the next several tonnes of ice to break off a little later, just as thunderously, leaving just as little visible impact on the imposing façade that remained behind.

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

It was impressive stuff.  And Sebastian was right – almost no one else ventures out to Piedras Blancas (at least, not the whole way out – quite a few turn back once the boulder-bashing begins), and so we had the whole spectacle to ourselves.

The weather forecast was right, too.  The cloud cleared up some in the mid-afternoon, so by the time we were heading back from our glacier-watching, Fitz Roy was clear, and the climb up to Laguna de los Tres would be worthwhile.  Excellent.

Admittedly, it was an energy-sapping climb:  normally I’m the annoying git eagerly suggesting that whatever random direction has a bit more uphill is probably the more entertaining option, but this one had my legs a little tired, especially after the boulders at Piedras Blancas and the scramble up the ridge thereafter.  But while it might have been steep and long, it was also straightforward, and we made it to the top in about an hour.  Which meant were there for some good photos before and after the sun disappeared behind a mountain at 6.15pm.

The view from Laguna de los Tres

The view from Laguna de los Tres

Laguna de los Tres is apparently thusly named with ‘los Tres’ referring to the three peaks in front of you at the top:  Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Saint-Exupéry.  We got our fill of viewing those before we started our descent and turned for home (finally leaving the trail by the light of a brilliant full moon, just after the sun had set).  It had been a good day, all up – 36km walked, in about ten or eleven hours – and we felt satisfyingly tired.  We also felt not a lot like making many decisions for dinner.  So we went back to the same place as the previous night – La Brasería – and I enjoyed exactly the same meal I’d had roughly 23h earlier:  an awesome steak, topped with bacon, and with a side of eggs fried/poached in half a capsicum.  (Don’t worry Mum, there was a hearty salad in there too, as well as the plate of French fries.)

The next day we had a bit of a rest:  only 16km of hiking, to the two lookouts named Los Condores and Las Águilas, plus a waterfall a bit north of town (Chorrillo del Salto).  Nice and easy walks, although there was nothing particularly fascinating about them (we saw neither condors nor eagles at the lookouts, although you’ll be pleased to know that we did indeed see a waterfall at the waterfall).

Chorrillo del Salto

Chorrillo del Salto

On our final full day, we had another long hike:  this time out to Mirador Loma del Pleigue Tumbado.  This is the go-to panorama site for a view of all of Fitz Roy and its surrounds.  Pleasantly, this one delivered at least one condor.

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains near El Chaltén

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains, seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, looking towards Mount Fitz Roy (which is out of the shot to the right of the photo)

And it was a very pretty hike through the woods to get there, too, and a rewarding vista at the end.

Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A view we were getting used to: Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

After that hike, all that was left was to head back and try another recommended local restaurant.  And to try a bit more of the local wine – including a sample of the local Tetrapak-encased fare, ‘Termidor’.  A sample which had us wanting our £3 back.  We were particularly unimpressed to discover that Sebastian had been very accurate in describing it as uncannily like gasoline.  Thank god we had back-ups:  a couple of much more palatable bottles of the local good stuff.

Then, although we had a couple of days to spare before we flew out of Patagonia, it was back to El Calafate:  the internet is better there, and we had millions of photos to sort through and back up.  That and a few pairs of very smelly socks to wash.

Patagonia, part one: El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

Arriving from La Paz into Argentina, we spent all of one night in Buenos Aires before catching an overnight flight down to Rio Gallegos, way down south.  I say ‘overnight’, but actually we arrived by 1.50am, and most of the night was in fact spent waiting, reading, napping, waiting and reading in the airport (we figured it was likely to be slightly nicer there than the bus station).  Eventually the sun came up and we headed off and get on a bus to our actual destination, El Calafate.

Argentina is richer than Bolivia.  Hell, most countries are richer than Bolivia.  El Calafate, in Patagonia, is better off than your average Argentinian town, too.  The contrast with Bolivia was, well, stark.  The bus that got us there was capable of speeds over 60km/h, for a start, and not only that but the roads were good enough to mean that that wouldn’t be an “adventure”.  And we didn’t even have to worry about whether our driver was about to fall off the road.

Where Bolivia had me thinking back to our time in the poorer parts of South-East Asia, El Calafate – which is very much a tourist town, its one real claim to fame being the beautiful Perito Moreno Glacier – reminded me of the South Island of New Zealand:  it’s basically half Wanaka, half Queenstown.  But with Argentine steakhouses galore.

As nice as it is, as I say, El Calafate is kind of a one-horse town.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is somewhat world-famous (as far as glaciers go, anyway), and that’s what everyone comes to see.  It’s slightly hard to explain exactly why it’s famous, to be perfectly honest:  I gather it’s a combination of things.  First, for a giant hunk of ice, it’s remarkably easy for tourists to get to:  you just bus out of town, without having to hike your way through snow fields or anything like that.  You don’t even have to climb up anywhere:  it’s only about 250m above sea level.  Second, like many glaciers, its face forms the edge of a lake (Lago Argentino) – but in a stroke of good luck, the part of the lake it abuts is close enough to the other side for a fantastic view from the shore just at the end of your one-hour bus trip out from town.  Third, it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that’s not receding – it’s in equilibrium, staying roughly put from one year to the next.  Fourth, although it’s in equilibrium, that’s not to say that the ice doesn’t move:  it does, and fast.  About 2m per day in the middle.  So there’s plenty of ice heading on down the valley to then melt or fall off into the lake.

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

Which brings us to the most special thing about the glacier:  the spectacular calving off of giant chunks of ice at its face.  The fact that it’s so close to the opposite shore of the lake means that every so often, it actually makes it across to the other side and forms a natural frozen dam, blocking off the lake’s access to the Santa Cruz River.  When this happens, the lake rises (up to 30m, apparently!) and the pressure slowly erodes away the glacier, leading eventually to a massive crash as it gives way.  Ice and water go everywhere, in a grand cacophony of H2O.  Apparently it’s quite the event.  Perito Moreno would probably be a famous tourist attraction anyway, but this much-anticipated natural extravaganza brings TV crews and spectators from all over, ensuring real worldwide fame every time it happens.

Anyway, we didn’t see any of that – there’s no ice bridge at the moment;  the last one crashed into oblivion early last year.  Nor did the glacier oblige us with one of its more frequent and regular calvings-off of big hunks of the ice face (the last one of them had happened about eight weeks ago, we were told).  So we simply had to admire the largely static face of the ice, and the creakings and groanings that promised that things were still progressing inside, even if they weren’t to come to a head during our visit.  We did hear and see a couple of ice blocks fall, and saw the power of the waves they created, so I guess we could get by with just imagining the rest.  And admiring the ice wasn’t exactly difficult in any case:  it makes for a pretty spectacular vista, even when it’s not doing anything exciting.

From there, it was over to the glacier itself:  we’d booked a ‘Big Ice’ trek, which meant we wandered up the side of the valley a bit, donned crampons, and trekked out over the ice into the middle of the glacier for a few hours.  This was a cool excursion.  We wandered along the ridges, admiring the variety of terrain around us:  the lagoons (all of which were a particularly beautiful blue), the crevasses (some of them tens of metres deep, others shallow but growing;  some of them full of water, some of them just hollow and begging to have rocks thrown down them to test their depth), the streams, the caves, etc.

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

The fact of walking in crampons was entertaining – even if one of mine broke on the way back and had to be repaired, once I’d half-hopped, half-slid my way along to catch back up to the group first.  It was easier than I’d expected (and I presume the same was true for most:  I overheard a few people asking before they booked the same trek whether the guides thought they’d physically be able to cope OK).  So I guess that’s one more experience I can tick off the list as having achieved on this trip:  trekking across a glacier in crampons.

At the end of the day, though, all you’re doing is walking across ice, and so once we’d got used to the crampons it became just another wander around a picturesque locale in search of pretty views and good photos.

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of the ‘Big Ice’ trek across the ice

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of our trek across the ice. Note the cool blue-ish tinge to a lot of the ice.

And once we’d done that, it was back to the bus, back to the hostel, and a second shot at the all-you-can-eat meatfest of a BBQ that our accommodation put on for Ar$100 per person.  Mmmm, food…

We were in El Calafate for two full days, not including the somewhat written-off first day in after our stupid-early morning flight into Río Gallegos.  So having glaciered on the first day, we struck around for things to occupy the second.

There’s a decent-looking hill nearby town, and it seemed like it’d have good views.  And on our first night in town, we’d run into a group who’d climbed it and confirmed its suitability for scenery-admiration purposes.  So we thought we’d do that.

The hill next to El Calafate – a good climb for a good view, but, err, slightly tricky in parts

The hill we climbed next to town. We climbed up the side that’s facing towards the left of the photo. Looks nice and gentle at the bottom, no? Yeah, about that… You want to go with the side right over to the right of the photo.

We queried our new friends for more detailed information on how to get up there, and utterly failed to follow their advice.  Result being that instead of a slightly-difficult climb with some scrappy bits, we spent two and a half hours scrabbling up a substantially more vertical than necessary hillside.  After a good fistful of effort, a hearty pinch of whingeing about the wind, and only a very restrained dabble of swearing, we made it to the top.  At which point we let loose with some more whingeing about the wind.  Because by jeebus was there a whole lot of air buffeting its way over that ridge.  Enough to nearly blow you sideways, if you weren’t paying careful attention.  I was grateful that it at least had the courtesy to be blowing you away from the edge.

We admired the scenery:  you can get a great view of the lake and the town from up there, although admittedly neither is particularly featureful.  And then we scouted about for a way down that looked less shit than the way up.

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

Eventually we found one, and we powered on down the hill, slapping ourselves on the back and noting condescendingly how easy it would all have been had we only come up this way.  And six hours or so after we’d set off, we returned to the hostel, heading for the beer fridge, and congratulated ourselves on an effort well expended, if not well planned.

Then, next day, to El Chaltén, where hopefully we would have the sense to follow the established trails rather than walk straight up the bloody side of shit.

Bolivia travel advice

Another of those random straight-from-the-unsorted-chaos-of-my-memory-to-the-unsorted-chaos-of-the-intertubes advice/tips-and-tricks posts.  Feel free to skip if you don’t have a trip to Bolivia potentially pushing its way into your not-too-distant future, especially since there aren’t even any pretty pictures to distract you with.


Most of Bolivia is high.  (Insert inevitable drug reference here.)  There are bits of it that are at, shall we say, normal altitudes (below two thousand metres) – in fact, Wikipedia tells me that two-thirds of the country is lowlands, and the lowest point is a delightfully oxygen-rich 90m above sea level.  But except for the areas you might visit to see the Amazon jungle, the bits you’re likely to encounter are all at three thousand metres or higher.

La Paz is the world’s most up-there (de facto / administrative) capital city, at 3650m, and when you fly in, you actually land at El Alto, La Paz’s higher next-door neighbour, so that you’re touching down at 4060m.  We came to Bolivia from Cusco and Machu Picchu, so had acclimatised to altitude a little – and our previous experiences with oxygen-deprivation in Nepal gave us confidence that we wouldn’t have too much trouble dealing with the thinness of air.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t expect still to be puffing and panting our way around, and we were definitely on the money with that assessment.

Other likely destinations in Bolivia are not going to offer much respite:  sure, Sucre is lower, at 2750m, but at 3840m, Copacabana is even higher than La Paz, and the Uyuni salt flats are La Paz’s equal, at 3650m.  (The 4WD tours you do from Uyuni will have you sleeping above 4000m, and visiting as high as 4800m, so you want to be coping well with the elevation by the time you embark on one of those bastards.)  While we didn’t go there, you could get a bit of relief in Cochabamba (2570m), but don’t expect any such kindness while visiting the silver mines of Potosí, which at 4090m is one of the world’s highest cities.

So come to Bolivia expecting that altitude will affect pretty much everything you do:  walking up hills will be hard, and won’t be made any easier by the polluted air from the bus/truck thing that is having just as much difficulty ascending as you are.  Hell, even taking a hot shower will leave you short of breath by the time all the steamy goodness of a well-enjoyed hot water service takes over half of your lungs.

Long story short:  be prepared for shortness of breath, and make sure you know a bit about altitude sickness.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to have some Diamox with you, just in case, and you should definitely be willing to change your travel plans and seek out some low-lying rest stops if you start suffering the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness.

Cross-country transport

I get the impression that this has improved markedly in the last couple of years, but be aware that buses in Bolivia are, well, crashy.

Stories of drunk or drugged-up bus drivers abound – one girl we met on our tour of the Uyuni salt flats seemed remarkably sanguine about having just survived an overnight bus trip which included a group of other passengers having to force their way into the driver’s compartment at 4am when the driving became erratic, to discover that the driver had pissed himself, vomited, and more or less passed out behind the wheel.  It all ended well, with a replacement driver installed and the original shoved unceremoniously into the baggage compartment for a not-so-well-deserved nap.  But it’s one of those stories I’d rather hear than experience nonetheless.

If you’re bussing between La Paz and Uyuni, the Todo Turismo bus – while expensive by Bolivian standards, at Bs 230 (£22 / $US33) per person – is basically the only acceptable option.  It’s a perfectly comfortable trip, and nothing to worry about.  The alternatives, not so much.  Todo Turismo’s offices are at Avenida Uruguay #102, in a blue building basically across the road (and down a little) from the Terminal de Buses in central La Paz (not the one in El Alto, which Google Maps will happily direct you to if you’re not careful to distinguish).

After our salt flats tour, we took an overnight tourist bus from Uyuni to Sucre – there are a number of operators on this route, and we just went with the one that our salt flats tour company booked for us (6 de Octubre, I think it was).  Probably should have researched that a little more beforehand, but it was fine, and I get the impression that that route isn’t typically a problem.

We ended up flying from Sucre back to La Paz – partly to avoid yet another overnighter with little sleep, and partly because the research I’d done suggested that the buses on that route are historically more problematic.  If you’re going to bus it, there’s a few recommendations on this Lonely Planet thread (check out comment #10 in particular).  With little more to go on than appearance, I’d back the suggestions there:  of the bus fleets we saw, El Dorado and Bolivar did look to have the nicest buses.

Bussing between La Paz and Copacabana doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of a problem as other destinations:  it’s a shorter trip (three to four hours), and the buses run during the day.  We did have one nervous nitwit on our bus tearfully imploring the bus driver to slow down, citing fearfulness due to an overturned bus he’d come across elsewhere in Bolivia (he even had a photo on his camera to show the bus driver), but actually the driving was perfectly safe and reasonable.  We went with Diana’s Tours (getting there) and Tur Bus (coming back) – but basically any of the tourist buses would be fine, I’m sure.  I can’t vouch for the collectivos going from the cemetery area, but plenty of people out there on the interwebs do recommend them as a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

4WD tours of the Uyuni salt flats

Again, do your research to avoid drunken and drugged-up drivers.  There are plenty of horror stories out there:  crashes, drivers drinking while driving, drivers too hungover to drive the next morning, drivers too drunk to bother preparing meals, cars constantly breaking down, wheels falling off, etc.

Chris came prepared with a list of four of the more reputable companies:  Red Planet, Quechua, Cordillera, and Empexsa.  They all have their fair share of atrocious reviews, but they seemed to have fewer than the rest…

We ended up going with Empexsa, since we were hunting around on the morning we got to Uyuni and wanted to leave that day.  We were incredibly lucky:  we not only had a very safe, sober and reliable driver (Johnny – thanks, mate!) but we also had a great group of people in the other four passengers (a big thanks to you lot, too!).

So I can recommend Empexsa, especially if you have Johnny as your driver.

But one final word of warning:  even being selective about the company you book with might not be enough.  Companies will regularly offload their passengers into another agency’s car when they don’t have the right number of passengers to fill a car themselves – so the car you actually end up in might not belong to the agency you booked with.  Not really sure what you can do about that, other than book at the last minute, like we did, with an agency that’s looking to fill the last few spots in their car.


Bolivia has terrible internet access.  A fair number of restaurants and cafés do have the wi-fis, and almost all accommodation will too, but speed and reliability are nowhere to be found.

There’s enough that you’ll be able to touch base every so often and do a little bit of online research when you need it, but good luck trying to get a Skype call going.  And if you happen to be the narcissistic sort and have a travel blog, good luck getting new posts up – especially if they involve pictures.  (Sigh.)  Similarly, your legions of Facebook friends may have to wait until you make it to Chile or Argentina or Peru or wherever else you happen to be going next to see yet another picture of perspective feats and weirdness with giant toy dinosaurs on the Uyuni salt flats.

When you’re doing your normal research for accommodation, it’s worth seeing what the reviews say about the wifi.  And when you’re planning your trip, it’s worth saving information offline (on your phone – say with Pocket and/or Evernote and/or emails to yourself – or on your laptop) for future reference.  Don’t rely on being able to get it back out of the cloud when you get there.

Copacabana and Isla del Sol

Copacabana (Bolivia), featuring the cathedral which put the city on the map (bottom left)

Copacabana (Bolivia), featuring the cathedral which put the city on the map (bottom left)

After Sucre, we didn’t have a lot of plans until our upcoming flight to Argentina to start exploring the eastern side of the South American continent.  But we did have some extra time in Bolivia, since we’d allowed plenty of buffer for potentially difficult transport issues and delays and hadn’t needed any of it.  It seemed silly to spend it all in La Paz – there wasn’t a lot else that we wanted to do there.  So even though it’s normally visited as a pitstop on the bus from Peru into Bolivia before proceeding on to La Paz, we headed down to Copacabana.

No, by the way, it’s not that Copacabana – the world-famous beach in Rio de Janeiro.  Interestingly, though, the one in Rio is actually named after this town (or, more specifically, the cathedral in this town, which is historically important – and architecturally so as well, I’m told), so there’s that…

Copacabana is a tourist town on the side of Lake Titicaca, so at the very least, the trip would give us the opportunity to make juvenile jokes about the name “Titicaca”.  At the risk of continuing an already not ecstatically enthusiastic set of blog posts about Bolivia, though (except for Uyuni), it just isn’t a very interesting town.  Cheap, yes.  Pretty, reasonably.  Full of hippies who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their time there, tick.  But nothing particularly setting off my fun-o-meter, I’m afraid.

Copacabana (Bolivia), seen from the hill just beside town

Copacabana (Bolivia), seen from the hill just beside town

One of the must-dos from Copacabana is a boat trip across to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), one of the oldest holy sites of the ancient Incas.  Unfortunately, that too was a bit boring:  the ruins are really not much to look at at all, and I really didn’t feel that the fact that they were older than many other sites made up for their lack of, well, content.

This hole in the rock (centre) is supposed to look like a puma.  It’s one of the main features on Isla del Sol.  Exciting stuff, no?

This hole in the rock (centre) is supposed to look like a puma. It’s one of the main features on Isla del Sol. Exciting stuff, no?

The main set of ruins on Isla del Sol (top left)

The main set of ruins on Isla del Sol (top left). Unfortunately not really worth the trip, I’m afraid.

And that’s about it, really, sorry to say.  Copacabana gets a thumbs-down from me:  unless you really want to see the cathedral, find somewhere else to spend your time and money.


In hindsight, visiting Sucre was a mistake, really.  It’s not that it’s not a nice city.  But when we booked our tour of the Uyuni salt flats, we needed to tell the travel agent which bus we wanted her to book for us for when we returned, and it was either off to Sucre or back to La Paz.  We didn’t really know much about Sucre, but we hadn’t been there yet, whereas we’d been to La Paz (and were going to be back there again), so why not something different?

It was a mistake, though, because contrary to the picture I had in my mind, Sucre is actually not in any way on the way back to La Paz, and so for all the upside of visiting yet another random city, it actually meant more hassle than it was really worth figuring out how to get back to La Paz.  (We ended up flying – easy enough, but more costly than we would otherwise have bothered with.  Let’s be realistic, this is Bolivia, so we’re not exactly talking piles of cash here.  But still…  It was a bit of a waste.)

That said, just because it wasn’t worth it, doesn’t mean that it was terrible.  In fact, Sucre is a lovely city – cleaner and prettier (and lower!) than La Paz, and with a nicer collection of restaurants and cafés.  Actually, it’s a city that a lot of tourists find themselves spending a lot of time in:  if you’re looking to find a nice (and cheap) city to just relax in for a bit, or maybe for somewhere to learn Spanish, or maybe to find a place to volunteer, then Sucre would be a great spot.

It’s just that if you’re coming through in the hope of finding interesting attractions to go visit or unique experiences to be had, well… there are better alternatives.

One of the higher-rated attractions, for example, is the 15m model Eiffel Tower in Simon Bolivar Park.  Which is not particularly attractive, and doesn’t much look like the Eiffel Tower (albeit that it was in fact designed by Gustav Eiffel and shipped over from France).

Not the Eiffel Tower

Not the Eiffel Tower

Sucre is a hilly city, like most others in Bolivia, and so a decent lookout – in this case La Recoleta – provides a nice panorama.  But in the end it’s just a city.  (Albeit one that strangely reminds me of Sarajevo, of all places.  Not quite sure why…)

Sucre, as seen from La Recoleta

Sucre, as seen from La Recoleta

But actually the thing I will most fondly remember from Sucre is the pedestrian crossings in the main plaza, Plaza 25 de Mayo.  We first saw them after we’d sat in the plaza on the Sunday morning of our arrival, waiting for something to open that could serve me some form of bacon and eggs.  (Our bus from Uyuni was an overnighter that arrived at 3am – it parked on the side of the road once we got there and they let passengers sleep on the bus until 6, but then we had to find our own place to plonk our behinds, so we taxi’d to and sat in the square for a few hours reading while we waited for the city to come to life.)  They were people in zebra costumes, policing the zebra crossings.  (Well, traffic and pedestrian lights, but you get the point.)  And they were loving it.  Prancing and dancing, gesticulating madly at cars to stop and go, and escorting pedestrians across the street.  Somehow, it was actually a quite mesmerising scene.

Zebras at the zebra crossing

Zebras at the zebra crossing

So, good work Sucre.  (Although we later saw the exact same thing in La Paz, where it was just as entertaining.  So actually, good work Bolivia.)

Even better, we could all this from our favourite location in Sucre:  Abis Café, on Plaza 25 de Mayo, where we spent far too much time drinking their coffee and milkshakes, and eating their fantastic breakfasts and salads.

Other than that, we spent our time relaxing and figuring out what else to do in Bolivia, and our only other particularly entertaining experience was the process of buying a plane ticket out of there.  It was just like the olden days:  you go into the airline’s office in town, talk to the nice friendly gentleman behind the counter, and buy your ticket for tomorrow, paying a fixed price (no extra “but you talked to a real live person” charges), and watching the dude use an old-fashioned slidey-style credit card imprint machine, etc.  It sounds silly, and it was, but that was actually a highlight for us, given how often we buy plane tickets, and how much time we spend hunting around online to find the best price, and the airline which will charge you the least baggage fees, credit card surcharges, etc., and whose prices will vary the least between when you first look for it and when you actually book.  It was a strikingly simple process, and we boarded our plane the next day reflecting on how different airline travel typically is these days.

Touring Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni salt flats)

Any farmer will tell you – I presume;  it occurs to me while writing this sentence that I don’t actually really know many farmers all that well, come to think of it – that a large amount of salt is one of the most thorough ways to render a tract of land completely useless.  And yet the Uyuni salt flats in southern Bolivia are one of the country’s biggest money-earners.  It would be a little harsh to claim that as emblematic of Bolivia’s position in the world:  that the country’s best (tourist attraction) is other countries’ worst (threats to sustainability, etc.).  But there you have it…

The Uyuni salt flats

The Uyuni salt flats. Not the most riveting photo, I’ll agree – but it’s basically a big sheet of white. What did you expect to see?!

Aka Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats are just that:  large expanses of salt – as far as the eye can see.  They’re up in the Atacama desert, in Bolivia’s south-western highlands.  And are the highlands ever high:  our four-day tour had us sleeping above 4000m every night, and cresting 5000m on a couple of the days.  My lasting memory of which is going to be the observation that there’s a lot more high altitude snoring that goes on when unacclimatised.  (Not that I’m claiming that I was magically unaffected by this, of course.)

Touring the salt flats is a little bit surreal, to be honest.  Basically, you’re being driven around the desert for several days so that you can see (a) some salt, (b) some rocks, and (c) some lakes.  Still, they’re all much-vaunted features of the Bolivian landscape, and so it seemed silly not to go see them.  And they were very pretty.

We got to Uyuni on an overnight bus, and spent the morning shopping around the various tour agencies for a tour which satisfied our two primary criteria:  first, was it leaving today;  second, was there a high likelihood that we would return alive and uninjured.  (Bolivia does not exactly have a reputation for great driving conditions – nor for great drivers – and many a salt flat tour has ended very unhappily for those who have chosen their provider poorly.  See upcoming post for recommendations on avoiding that fate yourself.)  Finally we found one and set off, discovering as we did that not only did it seem like we’d picked the tour operator well, but also that we’d been particularly fortunate in the travelling companions who’d chosen similarly – the four others in our 4WD were fantastic company for the time we spent with them.

Actually only one of the days of the tour is about the salt flats.  Probably a good thing, too – as fun as it is taking fancy photos playing clever tricks with perspective, it’s an activity which I imagine you’d tire of pretty quickly if you tried more than a couple of hours of it.

Perspective tricks on the Uyuni salt flats  (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Not sure which of these two girls is the angel on my shoulder and which the devil… (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Because of course part of the point of the salt flats is that they’re so surreal, so unusual, so uniform, that you lose all sense of perspective.  Which means you can play fun tricks.

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

So, once we’d done that, what else was there to do with our three days?  Well, there was a train graveyard, there were flamingo-filled lakes, there were beautiful sunsets, there were colourful lakes with mirror finishes beautifully reflecting mountains in the background, there were cool-shaped rocks in the desert, there were…

Well, there were lots of pretty things.  Which I guess means they’re better looked at than described.  Uyuni – and all of southern Bolivia – is most definitely a visual sort of area.

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake in southern Bolivia

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise in southern Bolivia

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise

A great spot for a hot spring bath in southern Bolivia

A great spot for a hot spring bath

Driving through the desert in southern Bolivia

Driving through the desert

La Paz and the Death Road

Bolivia is an interesting place.  Unlike most of the rest of South America, it has a predominantly native population throughout – most of the rest of South America has a much higher proportion of Latinos (European ancestry) and mestizos (mixed European and native ancestry) than does Bolivia.  I’m sure I’ve been told several times that it’s the only country in South America with a non-Latino head of state, too – though I can’t claim I actually know whether that’s true.  Through most of South America, the Latinos and mestizos tend to be better-off, and more centred in urban areas, and the natives tend to be poor and rural.  This is very much the case in Peru, for example, with a very obvious ethnic divide between Lima and, say, Iquitos or Cusco.

Perhaps Bolivia is where this difference is most clearly illustrated at a country level:  as a country-wide generalisation, it’s overwhelmingly populated by people who are both native and poor.  It’s perhaps South America’s least developed country.  For the tourist, this means two things:  it’s cheap (yay!) and it’s harder to get around safely and reliably (boo!).

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

We came to Bolivia after our Machu Picchu trip, and really our only major plan was to see the famous Uyuni salt flats.  (Bolivia’s other main tourism drawcard is the Amazon jungle, but we’d already done that in Iquitos, Peru, so we weren’t so interested in going to the effort of doing it again here, as fantastic as it had been the first time around.)  We allowed ourselves a couple of weeks, knowing that there was a significant possibility of transport delays (aka less than trustworthy buses), and wanting to make sure that we minimised the risk of missing our flight to Argentina on March 20.

We started and ended our Bolivian travels in La Paz – and having left ourselves that buffer time and in the end not needed it, we actually had a decent amount of time to kill there.

La Paz’s claim to fame is that it’s the highest capital city in the world.  It’s kind of a bullshit claim to fame, because although it’s where most of Bolivia’s government is, actually La Paz is not legally the capital of Bolivia:  Sucre is.  Hence the weasel words when La Paz is described as the world’s highest “administrative capital” or the world’s highest “de facto capital”.

Still, the point is it’s pretty high.  Its airport, technically in the neighbouring city of El Alto, is even higher.  Entertainingly, at over 4,100m, El Alto is actually higher than the effective altitude of normal cabin pressure on a passenger jet.  This is most entertaining when you fly out:  the 2L water bottle I carried onto the plane kept imploding from take-off until we reached our cruising altitude at around 12,000m, since after take-off the plane will actually be increasing the cabin pressure to reach normal levels.  (Landing in Lima the difference was noticeable too.  After spending two weeks in Bolivia – all of it in the highlands – breathing felt like drinking oxygen soup.  Very invigorating!)

Anyway, La Paz…

As I say, we spent a decent chunk of time there, but to be honest, we didn’t do all that much with it.  Recent travel had been hectic, and we appreciated some time not doing a whole heap.  We caught up on sleep and washing.  We enjoyed good food – fairly easy to do when even the budget Western traveller can take their pick of some of the country’s pricier restaurants.  And we spent some time figuring out what the hell we were going to do once we got to Argentina.

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

As far as, y’know, actually doing something in the place we’d expended money and effort to get to goes, our main goal was to cycle the Death Road – aka El Camino de la Muerte.  It’s a winding cliff-sided road down through the mountains near La Paz, and it’s famous for the number of fatalities it used to cause when it was the main route between its source and destination.  (They built a safer bypass years ago, so now although the road is still in use by the few locals who live along it, its primary users these days are tourists like us.)

Before it became a tourist attraction, it had turned out that having trucks and buses passing with only centimetres of clearance on a poorly-maintained road with a vertical drop-off on one side was not as conducive to road safety as would be ideal – hence the road’s reputation.

More of the Death Road

More of the Death Road

Even now, it’s still a regular – if much less frequent – cause of tourist casualties.  But at this point I should quickly get in a “don’t worry, Mum”:  while it’s true that a number of tourists have still died while cycling down it in recent years, a bit of asking around quickly leads to the conclusion that in every case, this was a result of someone doing something stupid and riding well beyond their ability.

In any case, the ride starts early and high – very very high, at around 5000m above sea level, if I remember rightly.  At that time of day, there was a tonne of cloud about, making for some beautiful scenes of the road disappearing off into the mist.  As you slowly – or quickly, depending on your levels of confidence and recklessness – make your way down (your altitude by the end is only about 1500m above sea level, so there’s quite the drop in store!), the mist lifts, and the cold makes way for sweaty, humid heat.  But the views down the valley remain beautiful throughout, and the dirt and gravel road remains entertaining to ride the whole way.  The roadside waterfalls help with the heat, too:  especially on those occasions when they’re not so much “roadside” as “water falling onto the road”.

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

On a recommendation from a traveller we’d befriended earlier in our travels, we found a reputable and not unreasonably-priced tour company, hired our mountain bikes, and thoroughly enjoyed our ride down the hill, arriving unhurt with neither Chris nor I having had any incidents.

With only four people in our group (we were very lucky:  the previous day had been a busy one for our guides, with thirty-odd people doing that same thing with the same company!), it was a fantastic day.  Fun mountain-biking, picturesque views, and a nice leisurely beer or three at the bottom.

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

(For anyone wanting to cycle the Death Road themselves, we went with Barracuda Biking.  I’ve recommended them to several others since, and had satisfactory reports back from those who have been trusting enough to take my word for it.  Your main concern evaluating an outfit is obviously the quality of their bikes – Barracuda’s are not new, but instead are good condition hand-me-downs from their much more expensive sister company.  The bikes are only a couple of years old, and most importantly, they’re well maintained.  Regardless of who you’re with, though, you want to have a very careful look at the brakes of whatever bike you end up on.  It’s all downhill, so if your gears aren’t perfect, that’s not a problem – you’ll hardly be doing any pedalling anyway.  But you’ll be using a lot of brakes, sometimes pretty hard, so you need ones that can take a bit of punishment.)

Besides that bike trip, though, there wasn’t much about La Paz to really get our pulses racing.

And it has to be said that a lot of the time La Paz isn’t necessarily a hugely pleasant city.  I don’t have a problem with the fact that it’s a poor city in a poor country – Bolivia is another data point bolstering the apparent correlation between poor countries and friendly, outgoing locals.  But that said, the level of substance abuse amongst those on the street was a particularly ugly side to the poverty:  wandering out to dinner at 8pm on a Sunday night, it did look remarkably like the national drink might be some kind of industrial solvent (admittedly it was St Patrick’s Day, although somehow I doubt that was the inspiration).

Aside from the Death Road, the other two noted tourist attractions are the Witches’ Market and the San Pedro prison.

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

The Witches’ Market is your run-of-the-mill street market, but includes a few slightly more bizarre products in most of the stalls:  embalmed llama foetuses, primarily.  That’s a bit odd, definitely.  Apparently they’re there because of an old superstition that has them ceremonially buried for good luck when christening (well, obviously not ‘christening’, but you know what I mean) a new building.  Though for all I know, they’re there because snap-happy tourists find them entertaining.

The San Pedro prison is famous not just as a really particularly corrupt version of corrupt third-world prisons (it was one with a fully functioning internal economy, where prisoners had to buy their rooms – which weren’t really cells – etc), but as one which a certain Westerner imprisoned there used to exhibit (by bribing guards, etc) by guiding tourists through.  You used to be able to pay him money to stay overnight in the prison, in his room.  If you want to, you can read his story about it in Marching Powder, a book which I saw gestured to on many an ereader during my conversations with other tourists in and near Bolivia.  (I subsequently read it, although I was perhaps a little less shocked by its content than I expected to be, given other people’s reactions to it.  Gee golly, it turns out there’s a lot of corruption in a prison in a very poor country, and that that corruption means that the prison functions very differently from those in more, err, well-regulated countries.  Who’da thought?)

Anyway, we didn’t bother to visit the prison – the tours a la the book no longer exist, and while others have sprung up, they’re not exactly a great idea (tour-takers who spend a night within the prison walls these days are typically doing it not of their own free will:  there have been a few kidnappings and other unpleasantnesses reported in the last few years).

Kind of an anti-climax to end on for La Paz there:  something that we didn’t do.  (Woohoo, great blog you’ve got here, Sam!  Real fascinating.)  Oh well.  The fun stuff in Bolivia was always going to be the Uyuni Salt Flats, and you’ll have to wait for the next post to get to that.  And the anti-climax kinda sums up La Paz a bit for me anyway, so, really, I’m gonna call it even.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu.  As seen shortly after you enter, with Huayna Picchu on the right

Machu Picchu. As seen shortly after you enter, with Huayna Picchu on the right

Machu Picchu is one of those destinations.  An iconic fixture of bucket list itineraries the world over.

And yet, this isn’t going to be a post about the historic details of the site itself…

The buildings are famed for the precision of their stonework:  apparently the perfectly fitting interlocking masonry (sans mortar) exhibited in some of the temples is an incredible display of workmanship not frequently seen elsewhere in the world.  But to me it looked more like evidence of patience rather than technology – and I couldn’t help but laugh to overhear a nearby tour guide claim that modern-day stoneworkers are not capable of such feats, when surely what he actually meant is that modern-day stoneworkers have better things to do, given that there have been a couple of advances in construction techniques in the last few centuries that have rendered such approaches somewhat pointless.  So the actual manner of construction of the site didn’t interest me much.

The terraced agriculture is well-known and much-vaunted, too.  And I’m sure that’s very interesting to a subset of visitors not including me:  for the possibility that Machu Picchu was a testing ground for new agricultural techniques and approaches to crop management, as well as for the more mundane earth-moving stability of the terraces and the effectiveness of the underground drainage mechanisms.

As for any other fascinating insights to be gleaned from a detailed examination of the ruins:  well, no one really knows much about Machu Picchu – why it was built, what purpose it served, whether it was even important to the Incans – so it’s kind of hard to get carried away with thousands of words of explanation of its historic significance.

Instead, Machu Picchu was cool for me because it’s pretty.  So I’m going to show you some pictures.

And because it’s a destination that’s special to a lot of globetrotters – one of the ‘must sees’ of the world traveller’s itinerary – I’m going to mix together a predictably incohesive account of what we did in our time in the area, and some mundane details that might help someone looking for some advice on doing it themselves.

(You’d think the internet would’ve covered the Machu Picchu advice category fairly thoroughly by now, but actually it took me a while to piece together the info we were after before we travelled.  So you can think of this as my half-arsed attempt at a slightly more one-stop shop type of how-to affair, deliberately-ish written in somewhat more rambling style so I can pretend there’s some sort of almost narrative.)

And because it’s me, well, that’s going to take a few thousand words.  Sorry about that.  Complaints to

The ‘back’ of Machu Picchu – a little less crowded with buildings (and people, for that matter)

The ‘back’ of Machu Picchu – a little less crowded with buildings (and people, for that matter)

To get it out of the way, let me start by saying that we decided not to do the Inca Trail, or for that matter any of the other treks in the area:  partly it seemed overly touristy (it doesn’t strike me as a good sign that they’ve had to close the pub at the final campsite on the Inca Trail because people were too busy getting shitfaced on the third night of the trek to allow anyone else to have a reasonable sleep before their pre-sunrise start for the Sun Gate), partly it would have been expensive, partly it would have meant delaying other parts of our trip a little more and rushing through Bolivia (the Inca Trail is closed all of February, and we would therefore have had to push our plans back a crucial few days), and partly because we already did Everest Base Camp on this trip last year, so already had some creditworthy trekking under our (now slightly looser-fitting) belts.  And on top of all that, we were visiting at the end of the rainy season, and were a little paranoid that our probably-not-to-be-repeated trip might be rained out.  So we traded off time getting to Machu Picchu against time actually spent there, and bought site tickets for two days, separated by a gap day in the middle.  With any luck we wouldn’t have rain three days in a row.  (As it turned out, we were actually very lucky with the weather – it rained only on our gap day, saturating us nonetheless, but not in any sense ruining our trip.)

Since we skipped the Inca Trail – and similarly any of the other hikes in to the area, such as the very cool sounding Salkantay and Choquequirao treks (I’d have loved to do that last one, actually, but oh well) – I can’t tell you anything of use about any of the other Incan ruins to be seen along the way into Machu Picchu.  (I’ve heard they’re pretty cool.)  And of course you’re free to argue that having not done the Trail, we didn’t do Machu Picchu “properly”, and so I can’t tell you anything of use at all.  Hell, we didn’t even hike the train tracks in like real backpackers – we caught the damn tourist train!  Good for you.  Pat on the back.  Feel free to move on.

(That said, for all of the people we’ve run into insinuating that they did it properly because they did the Inca Trail, we haven’t run into anyone else who’s climbed Machu Picchu Mountain or Putucusi Mountain, barring the ones we passed on the way up and down each.  And there weren’t an awful lot of people we saw climbing up or down the hill between Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, either.  (It’s a nice climb, by the way – about forty minutes up if quick-marched, and thirty minutes down.  Be prepared to be drenched in sweat by the time you make the top, though.)  So I guess we’ll have to square off our hardcoreness-of-visit credentials and just put that all to one side as we proceed…)

So anyway, many lengthy paragraphs of prefacing aside, let’s have a look at Machu Picchu, shall we?

Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu in the background, seen from the top part of the village

Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu in the background, seen from the top part of the village

It’s interesting to reflect on why it is that Machu Picchu is so revered by intrepid would-be modern explorer types.  (Including myself – I’m not being pejorative here.  Not yet, anyway.)  After all, it’s not actually very big.  Nor is it historically crucial in the sense of some major function it played in Incan culture:  it can’t be, because, as intimated earlier, no one knows exactly what function it played at all.  For all we know these days, it was just another unremarkable little Incan village on a hill.

Its location is certainly spectacular:  it’s beautifully situated on a ridge between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, at an altitude which means that it’s frequently just on the edge of the clouds.  So there’s that.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu seen from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu seen from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain

But the real reason that Machu Picchu is special is that it’s the only complete Incan site left:  the only one the Spanish never happened across, and therefore the only one they didn’t destroy.  It’s almost certainly not the Lost City of the Incas (which is what its ‘discoverer’ Hiram Bingham was actually looking for when he mounted his expedition to Peru).  But it might as well be.

Obliquely because of all of the above, you have to be careful with your expectations of Machu Picchu.  Obviously, you’ll hear and read much about it (if you care to – far be it from me to insist that you research the life out of anywhere you travel before experiencing it in the flesh).  On your way through South America, you’ll encounter many breathless tourists eager to know whether you’ve been already (it’s kind of assumed that if you haven’t been yet, it’s because you’re still on your way there), and equally eager to impress upon you how ‘blown away’ you’ll be when you finally experience it.

This may leave you with the distinctly false impression that Machu Picchu is large and overwhelmingly awe-inspiring:  it’s not.  Nor is visiting it even a particularly varied experience – especially since modern historians know so little about it, to the point that they can’t even tell you much about the different areas of the site.  (Apparently this is quite amusing for many Peruvians, who thereby realise just how much of what some of the tour guides tell their avid listeners is completely and utterly made up.)

In fact, touring the whole site – excluding Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain – only takes maybe a couple of hours, which explains why so many people do it as a train-in, train-out visit, arriving from Cusco in the morning, seeing the site, and catching the train back to Cusco again that night, without needing to spend any time in not-so-appealing Aguas Calientes (the town in the valley below).

That’s very handy, as it turns out, although not because I’d recommend doing that yourself.  It’s very handy because the big tour groups tend to turn up mid-morning and be gone again shortly after lunch time.  (Amazingly, that seems at least in some instances to be the case because having come to a once-in-a-lifetime breathless wonder, they walk around for a bit then leave because they’re vaguely hungry, so they decide it’s lunch time, and don’t come back.  Seriously, WTF?  You begged out of part of your bucket list visit because you were a tad peckish?!)

The Inca Trailers arrive at the Sun Gate at sunrise, so the site is busy-ish (and occasionally slightly whiffy and more than a little self-congratulatory) most of the morning, even before the Cusco crowd rolls in.  (Despite that, if you can, I’d still recommend getting there when it opens at 6am – if you’re bussing up, this will require getting on the 5.30am bus from Aguas Calientes, for which you will want to be in line by 5.15am.)  But if you hang around for the afternoon you’ll be rewarded, as we were, with a comparatively empty set of ruins to explore.  You can even wait everyone out while sitting in the actually quite reasonable open café next to (and just down from) the entrance turnstiles before heading back into the site once you’ve seen big hunks of tired-looking lazy people exit.  They’ll let you back in until 4pm (the site closes at 5), so there’s plenty of time for you patient folks after the early afternoon exodus.

(By the way, there is an exception to the morning deluge of smelly hikers, I should mention:  the Inca Trail is closed for the whole of February.  This meant that when we first turned up to the Sun Gate at about 7am on March 3rd, there was no one yet completing the four-day hike, so we had it to ourselves – and, because we got there before the guards who are typically stationed there to prevent you doing exactly this, we were able to go for a stroll down the Inca Trail the wrong way for a bit.  Not that there was much to see there.  But I guess we can always claim that we finished the Inca Trail.)

Anyway, the point is, the site isn’t very big, and doesn’t take very long.

Machu Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background, seen from Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background, seen from Huayna Picchu

What does take a little longer is climbing the mountains.  There are two:  the famous Huayna Picchu (which has its own set of ruins on it), and the not-so-famous Machu Picchu Mountain (which doesn’t – it’s just a big hill with a good view).  As I mentioned earlier, we’d bought tickets for two separate days, to guard against the possibility of a downpour ruining our visit, so as a happy side-effect, we had time to climb both mountains:  you can’t do them both on the same day.  Partly that’s because you’d be expending a lot of effort, but mostly it’s because you have to buy separate tickets.

By the way, this is important, and much of the information out there on the interwebs is out of date in this respect.  It used to be the case that a desire to climb Huayna Picchu required you to be one of the first into Machu Picchu on your chosen day, and then to race across the site to line up next to the might-be-sacred-rock (another one of those things they don’t really know about the place – was this rock actually religiously significant, or is it just a big flat bit of stone?) to be one of the first four hundred in line to be let up.  Sometime in 2011 (I think), someone realised how utterly stupid that was, and the system changed:  when buying your Machu Picchu ticket online (see later), you have to specify that you want a ticket that gets you access to Huayna Picchu as well, and you’ll pay a little more for the privilege.  Sometime after that (I think sometime in 2012?), they decided that money-extraction is fun, and so they’d quite like to do that for Machu Picchu Mountain too.

So now there’s 2500 tickets available for Machu Picchu, of which up to 400 can be tickets that will allow you to Huayna Picchu as well (in two 200-person groups, one entering between 8am and 9am, and another between 10am and 11am).  A further up-to-400 of those 2500 tickets can be ones which let you up Machu Picchu Mountain.  The Huayna Picchu ones usually sell out reasonably in advance (a week or so, earlier in peak times).  The Machu Picchu Mountain ones don’t (although don’t take my word for it – keep an eye on the website linked below to see how many are left for the dates you want).  Anyway, the point is:  you can only go up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain if you specifically bought tickets to do so in the first place.  We overhead a couple of groups in the days before we went up talking about how important it was to get to the site early to go line up for Huayna Picchu, and we also saw others disappointedly being denied entry to Machu Picchu Mountain (even though on the day we climbed it, only twenty-odd other people did, out of the potential allocation of 400).  So, y’know, get your shit together and get the right tickets.

Oh yeah, speaking of which:  getting tickets.  Also a bit of a hassle.  You buy them online at the official Machu Picchu site.  In theory, you can pay for them with a credit card.  In practice, you can’t.  (Well, not with a non-Peruvian credit card, anyway.)  What you can do instead is buy them in person at an appropriate government office in Cusco or Aguas Calientes.  Which is great, if you’re going to be in either of those places long enough before you reach Machu Picchu that you’re confident that there’ll still be tickets left.  Otherwise:  make a reservation online, print it out, and go stand in line with it outside a Banco de la Nación in Peru somewhere.  Like, say, in Lima, as we did.  Boring, and somewhat time-consuming.  But effective.  (A couple of well-meaning people that I generally trust, interestingly, told us that trying to pay at a branch outside the Cusco department of Peru wouldn’t work.  They turned out to be mistaken:  paying at a branch in Miraflores, Lima, worked for us just fine.)

(I should probably note for completeness that it is also possible to buy your tickets through a travel agency.  This is basically what happens when you buy them through a company organising your Inca Trail trek, if you’re doing one.  So far as I understand it, what actually happens then is that the travel agency gets someone to go buy them in person in Cusco and post them out.  Which is of course fine, but finding a travel agent who’ll do that for you obviously requires a bit of time and effort, and will cost you a bit on top.)

So, where was I before getting side-tracked on all that…

The wrong end of a llama at Machu Picchu:  the llamas are used to keep the grass down

The wrong end of a llama at Machu Picchu: the llamas are used to keep the grass down

That’s right:  we bought tickets for two separate days, with a gap day in the middle.  Meaning we caught the train up from Cusco and stayed three nights in Aguas Calientes.  Not the most interesting town in the world – every bit as much a tourist trap town as its reputation would have it – but we found some good accommodation at Pirwa Hostels, and we managed to find a couple of good restaurants in Chullpi and Toto’s House.  (TripAdvisor also recommended Inka Wasi for pizza – unfortunately that was crap, so I suggest you don’t go there.)

And the climbs up Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu were definitely worth it.  Machu Picchu Mountain has great views:  in particular, with the right weather, Machu Picchu really is a city up in the clouds, and we spent a good half hour just watching the wispy mist wafting around and forming and disappearing and reforming over the ruins – surprisingly quickly, too.  Huayna Picchu is just as interesting as the rest of Machu Picchu’s ruins, so without climbing it, you’re missing out on some of what makes the place special.  But I suppose it’s only fair to mention that both are occasionally tricky (and, in the heat of the sun, and with high humidity, somewhat exhausting) climbs.

Huayna Picchu, seen from the bottom, after the climb

Huayna Picchu, seen from the bottom, after the climb

(Oh, one other thing:  for Huayna Picchu, if you want to do the whole circuit and go right round the back to the Great Cavern, be aware that they close off the path from the top at 11am – so you need to go in the first batch of people up the hill.  So far as I can tell, they don’t tell you this anywhere, which is slightly annoying.  We found out when we asked the guards why they were telling us we shouldn’t be going round that way.  Or you need to ignore the guard calling out to you to stop going that way (we didn’t ignore him, though in hindsight we should have).  Or you need to go back to the bit where the Great Cavern trail comes back around towards the exit, rejoining the main path, and be very nice and smiley to the guard there, and explain that you promise to walk/run very quickly and be back – exhausted – at the exit by 1pm, when they close the Huayna Picchu section of the site.  We did that.  Not that the Great Cavern was very interesting.  But hey, might as well do it all, right?)

Of course, most people won’t do it all, at least in the sense that if you’re only planning on one day at Machu Picchu, then you have to pick between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain.  I honestly don’t know which to recommend to you there.  Probably Huayna Picchu, I suppose, because there’s a lot more there.  It’s certainly the more popular option.  But Machu Picchu Mountain has better views – especially given that those views are the classic ones with Huayna Picchu in the background.  I guess it depends what you want.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, seen from the Sun Gate

Speaking of which, at the very least you should get a distance view of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu behind it from the Sun Gate. I get the impression that many people don’t even venture out that far; you really do want to.

And aside from all that, there’s one other view of Machu Picchu you should consider getting:  the one from Putucusi Mountain, across the river.  It’s not technically open at the moment:  to wander up, you follow along the train tracks out of town (towards Machu Picchu) until you see the stairs going up the hill.  When we were there, they were pretty easy to find:  they were the ones with the “Accesso Restringido” sign in front of them.  Suffering a convenient momentary lapse in Spanish comprehension, we climbed up past the sign, and followed the steps up a slippery jungle trail towards a newly-constructed – but not yet in use – ticket booth and open gate.  (I have no idea whether it was all empty and with no one to stop us because it’s generally like that, or because it was fortuitously a Sunday.  Your mileage may vary.)  Anyway, beyond that there’s some nice big ladders up a stone wall.

Ladders on the climb up some rock faces on the trail up Putucusi Mountain

Ladders on the climb up some rock faces on the trail up Putucusi Mountain

Once up the ladders, there’s a few other vaguely tricky bits, then there’s the bit where the sky opens up in a torrential downpour just as you reach the top.  But even so, there’s a good view of Machu Picchu.  Unless the downpour also includes clouds obscuring your view.  Which mostly it did, on this particular occasion.

Machu Picchu literally in the clouds, seen from Putucusi Mountain

Machu Picchu literally in the clouds, seen from Putucusi Mountain

But still, it was a pretty view, and a fun climb.  If I’m honest, the rain made it even moreso – especially as we stood at the top, huddling under a tree, popping out for photos every so often when the deluge eased, and marvelling at our amazing luck that the bad weather was only rolling in for our day off, and not affecting our time actually at Machu Picchu.

So that, I think, is basically it for my story and my advice for Machu Picchu.  Congratulations on making it through that many words.  For those of you who did, a helpful summary:  essentially, if you have the time, check it out from every angle:  up any mountain you can manage to climb, across from the Sun Gate, and of course all over right up close from within the site itself.

Costa Rica

I have mixed feelings about Costa Rica.  It’s hard to put my finger on, but it felt to me vaguely like the geographical equivalent of the sort of person who’s at ease talking about absolutely anything, comfortably keeping a basically enjoyable conversation going for hours on end, but who, when you think about it, never actually had anything really to say.

It seemed like a nice enough country.  It’s politically stable and safe and traveller-friendly.  It has beautiful rainforests and cloud forests – definitely some stunning scenery – and though we only had a few days there and didn’t get to any of the beach half of the country, I hear that side of it is great too.  All of those are great reasons for tourists to flock there.  And they do.  Which made it a bit harder for me to enjoy…

The natural beauty of Costa Rica:  in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

The natural beauty of Costa Rica: in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Partly I think I’ve just become crotchety at the present of large numbers of other tourists around me – viz my hatred of tour groups generally, my tendency to prefer avoiding attractions that sound only OK but are likely to have great flocks of other people in attendance, etc.  But in Costa Rica’s case, there was something more specific than that.

I wonder how I can put this delicately…

It’s fun to criticise Americans for not travelling enough.  (Yes, to some extent that criticism is overblown.  But I’m from Australia – if anything, people keep telling me that we should travel less, please.  So I still have fun light-heartedly getting stuck in.  And of course, I have met many fantastic Americans while travelling – all of whom have been incredibly friendly and intelligent and open-minded, etc., often even moreso than friends from other, more travel-renowned, countries.  Still, you’ve gotta make fun of someone, right?)

And so for all that criticism, it’s good to see travellers from the States getting out and about.  That way I can meet them and make my stupid jokes straight to their face.

But the problem is that precisely because Costa Rica is safe and has beautiful scenery, and obviously because it’s close to the US and that safety feature puts it in stark contrast to the vast majority of other countries nearby… when the less-travelled breed of Americans do head overseas, they all seem to pick the one spot.  Again, that’s not something I can legitimately complain about:  great to see people getting out and travelling, and who am I to complain if they all agree on a destination?

What it does mean, though, is that, demand and supply working as they do, Costa Rica is set up to cater for people not like me.  For people who want package tours.  For people with a slightly less adventurous definition of ‘adventure’ activities;  with a less extreme definition of ‘extreme’ sports.

The tourism industry in Costa Rica is incredibly well developed.  The tour companies there are reputable, have great customer service, and have clearly invested a lot of effort in getting to know their customers and what they want.  But their customers are typically remarkably homogenous, and I’m an outlier for that particular data set.  So I guess a lot of it just didn’t excite me the way it did the other people on our tours.

I liked our whitewater rafting expedition – especially the bit where I got to splash water liberally in everyone’s faces with my paddle as we flew on past down the river.  (Most of the others on the dozen or so rafts in our group were a school group.  I managed to get one of their teachers square in the face with one particular water-slap.  I didn’t see it directly, because I was innocently facing the other way, whistling some innocuous tune and paddling merrily along as soon as my paddle had done its job flicking water in the direction of her rosy visage.  But apparently the look on her face was a priceless mix of surprise, confusion, and surrender to the inevitability that white-water rafting with a group of juveniles – apparently including me – is going to get you somewhat wet.)

Lake Arenal, seen from the Sky Tram up to the ziplining

Lake Arenal, seen from the Sky Tram up to the ziplining

I enjoyed our ziplining trip as well.  But the best part of it was the views of Lake Arenal that you get as you’re coasting along the longer lines.  The actual thrill of the activity itself for me just evidently wasn’t as exhilarating as for most of the rest of the group, who excitedly described it as the most amazing and terrifying thing they’d ever done in their lives.

Arenal Volcano, seen from the café at bottom of the Sky Trek ziplining course

Arenal Volcano, seen from the café at bottom of the Sky Trek ziplining course

I had fun with the bungee-jumping as well (I’d never done it before, and it’s been on the list to tick off for a while) – but I got the distinct impression that that too was supposed to be a life-affirming, self-actualising experience, which I’m afraid just doesn’t describe the slot that it fits into in my life.  Entertaining, yes.  A pivotal life moment?  No.

Bungee-jumping in Arenal

Bungee-jumping in Arenal

We spent most of a day hiking every single one of the trails in Monteverde Cloud Forest, and that was fantastic.  But part of the thing that made that hike great for us was the absence of pretty much anyone else bothering to walk the longer, more distant trails.

Sunlight streams through the steamy air between the trees Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Sunlight streams through the steamy air between the trees Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

A coati (a member of the racoon family) runs across the hiking trail in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

A coati (a member of the racoon family) runs across the hiking trail in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

While the guided night walk that we did in Monteverde was nice as well, it lacked the same natural feel when we were surrounded by the murmur not so much of wildlife but of other tourists, some of whom you’d think had never seen any sort of mammal in a tree before.

A tarantula on the guided night walk in Monteverde

For all that whining, the tarantulas on the night walk were definitely cool, though

And unfortunately we didn’t enjoy the mountain-biking transfer we did from Arenal to Monteverde nearly as much as we’d hoped:  the ride was fun, but much shorter and less challenging than we’d been led to expect.  (Partly also the lack of enjoyment was due to a screwup which has us waiting around on the side of a lake for an hour or so until our transfer turned up.  And in fairness, Desafio, the company with did both the rafting and mountain-biking with very quickly agreed to give us a refund, without complaint, and apologised profusely when we mentioned this all to them afterwards – so I’d still wholeheartedly recommend them for any activities you’re planning in Costa Rica.)

So in the end, Costa Rica was nice.  It just wasn’t as great for me as for its intended audience.  Maybe it’s best left at that.  After all, it was always just a pit-stop because in the bizarre logic of cheap airline flights it fitted nicely between our trips to the Galápagos and to Machu Picchu.  And I guess it was always going to suffer by comparison.

Galápagos Islands: advice and costs

tl;dr:  We spent twelve days in the Galápagos for less than $US2000 per person including flights from mainland Ecuador – and about a quarter of that was my prodigious eating efforts, so you can definitely do it cheaper, especially if you’re not a glutton.  It’s not spare change, obviously, but it’s not as prohibitively expensive as you might guess.  And it’s worth every cent.

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

This one’s a nuts and bolts post for those of you potentially planning a trip to the Galápagos – now or sometime in the future;  if that’s not you, you might want to skip it.  It’s not exactly intriguing, and it’s not even funny, I’m afraid…  If you haven’t seen them, you might want to have a look at my posts about actually being in the Galápagos, instead:  one, two and three.  (If you haven’t read them yet, hopefully those posts might help you decide that yes, you do definitely want to plan a trip there, too.  Then you can come back and figure out how.)

So, if you are even vaguely interested in travelling to the Galápagos – even if you think it’s out of reach – then you might be titillated to discover that it’s possible on a more limited budget than you might expect.  It turns out that, while definitely awesome and impressive, the Galápagos doesn’t actually exist in a fairyland bubble of expensive perfection, and is just another destination much like many others.  One which can be travelled in all sorts of different ways, on all sorts of budgets.

To cruise, or not to cruise?

On the advice front, your biggest decision is whether to DIY like we did – staying in accommodation on the islands, in Puerto Ayora (on Santa Cruz), Puerto Villamil (on Isabela) and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (on San Cristóbal), and basing your activities from there, organising individual day trips and activities through agents and dive/snorkel shops on the islands – or to book yourself on a three-, five-, eight- or sixteen-day cruise.  (Or obviously you can also do some combination of the two, if you’ve got the time.)

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

The cruises are typically the more expensive way to do it, but not necessarily by a tonne, if you can get a good deal.  We ran into one guy who’d bought himself a spot on an upcoming eight-day cruise for $1300 – that was booked a few days in advance, while already in the Galápagos (so bear in mind that it didn’t include his flight costs).  Walking past travel agents in Puerto Ayora, we saw other signs promoting five-day cruises from as little as $550 (in the cheapest class, up to around $1100 for the luxury class).  Booking on the internet before getting here, or through a travel agent in your home country or in Quito, you could expect to pay twice those prices:  the last minute deals on the islands are definitely much cheaper.  That said, I’m told the best cruises all sell out months in advance, so the last minute option won’t actually be available for them anyway.  You can easily spend up to $5000 for good, luxury eight-day cruise booked well in advance before it sells out.  Expect the price tag for the good sixteen-day cruises to have five digits.

For the extra money you pay on a cruise, you get:

  • better food – from what I hear, the food on the cruise boats is generally fantastic
  • a guaranteed variety of sites and activities
  • someone else planning everything for you, with an itinerary that is bound to fit together neatly – no sitting around in Puerto Ayora all morning because your transfer from Isabela arrived at 8am but your follow-on to San Cristóbal doesn’t leave til 2pm
  • a guide for everything, even for those places where Park rules don’t specifically require that you have one
  • the ability to visit some places which just aren’t possible on a day trip:  for example, you can’t get to the island of Fernandina (off the west coast of Isabela) except as part of a cruise
A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Having said that, if you’re on a cruise and it’s not a dive cruise, then you won’t be able to decide that you’d like to go scuba diving tomorrow, please.  Nor will you be able to plan the last few days of your trip specifically to maximise your chances of seeing the things that you happen not to have encountered in the earlier part of your trip.  That sort of thing may or may not matter to you – we were quite glad, for example, that we could decide in the last few days to snorkel on Santa Cruz in areas where there were likely to be marine iguanas actually swimming in the water, since we hadn’t seen any of them leave the land yet by day ten.

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

Here were the things we would have liked to do while we were in the islands but didn’t – these are things that potentially doing organised cruises of one form or another might have helped us tick off:

  • see, and ideally snorkel with, penguins (we saw only one, on the rocks at Las Tintoreras) – we could probably have managed to get this one done on a day trip, though, if we’d been able to get one out to Bartolomé in the last few days of our trip (the only day trips out there from Puerto Ayora for those few days were full by the time we tried to book)
  • scuba dive at Darwin and Wolf – these are reputed to be two of the best dive sites in the world, especially for seeing big marine life, but they’re a fair way to the north, and only reachable on a liveaboard dive cruise
  • do a night dive – this would actually have been easily possible to organise, but unfortunately we’re not qualified for night diving, and I probably don’t have enough general experience that it’s a good idea to do without the qualification
  • visit Fernandina – apparently this is one of the iconic sights of the Galápagos, with marine iguanas, boobies and various other wildlife as far as the eye can see, but it’s only accessible on a cruise – and to be honest, we saw all the wildlife elsewhere anyway, just not necessarily all in one such iconic spot
A random seascape as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

It’s a bit hard to find an appropriate photo to represent the things we didn’t see, so here’s a random seascape, taken as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

But then, here are the things we wanted to do that we did:

  • scuba dive with hammerhead sharks, Galápagos sharks, eagle rays, sea lions, turtles and more
  • snorkel with sharks, turtles, sea lions, marine iguanas, crayfish, pufferfish, surgeon fish, etc.
  • swim through the underwater lava tunnels on the southwest of Isabela
  • see blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, pelicans, hawks, and other birds
  • see marine iguanas in the wild, including their nesting sites
  • play with crabs and marine iguanas up close and personal on the beach at Puerto Villamil
  • see giant tortoises “in the wild” on a reserve in the highlands of Santa Cruz, as well as seeing the breeding and research centres on Isabela and Santa Cruz
A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

  • see the volcanos, and the volcanic wasteland, of Isabela
  • enjoy the beautiful beaches near Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil
  • see the sea lions all over Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
  • see the flamingos at the flamingo lake near Puerto Villamil
  • explore a few mangrove sites
  • see a reasonable variety of different islands (albeit that we were only on the big three populated ones)

So, y’know, I feel like we achieved a bit during our visit.  It felt worthwhile – especially for what we spent…

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

For what it’s worth, if (when) I go back to the Galápagos, I think I’ll do a cruise – but largely that’s because it makes sense to do something different the second time around.  If I were doing it all over again for the first time, I’d probably do exactly the same again:  island-hopping and day trips.  So my advice for you if you haven’t been yet:  island-hop, like we did.

What we spent

All costs in $US, per person (I was travelling with Chris, so we were two people – maybe budget a little more on accommodation if you’re going solo, since a single room will probably be more than half a twin, and you might not be able to find hostel dorms all the time)

I didn’t keep exact track of what I spent on food and drinks, because, well, that seemed like a lot of boring effort for not a whole lot of return.  Also I was busy eating and ordering more tasty tasty food, not writing stuff down in a notebook.  But I know the price we paid for everything else, so…

  • grand total, excluding food and drinks:  $1420.60
  • grand total, including food and drinks:  somewhere between $1800 and $2000.
A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

And the breakdown…

Getting there – total $560

  • return flight from Guayaquil to Baltra, $450  (note:  we bought our flights as part of a Lima-Galápagos-Costa Rica-Lima round trip, for about £400 each, but the Guayaquil-Galápagos round trip is pretty consistently priced from $450 to $500, so that’s what I’m counting)
  • mandatory tourist card (paid at Guayaquil airport, before checkin), $10
  • Galápagos National Park entry fee (paid on arrival to the Galápagos), $100

Accommodation – total $275

  • night one:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20
  • nights two to five:  Isabela, Rincón de George ($50/night for a twin room), $25/night, $100 total
  • nights six to eight:  San Cristóbal, Hostal Casa de Laura ($40/night for a twin room), $20/night, $75 total
  • nights nine to twelve:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20/night, $80 total

Transport – total $142.60

  • day one:  ferry (60c),  bus ($1.80) and taxi ($1) from the airport (on Baltra) to our hostel in Puerto Ayora, $3.40 total
  • day one:  transfer from Santa Cruz to Isabela, $30, plus 50c water taxi at Puerto Ayora and another $1 water taxi at Puerto Villamil, $31.50 total
  • day six:  transfer from Isabela to Santa Cruz ($30) and on to San Cristóbal ($30 – although I think it’s actually possible to get this for $25), with a water taxi at Puerto Villamil ($1) and two more at Puerto Ayora (50c each), $62 total
  • day nine:  transfer from San Cristóbal to Santa Cruz ($25), plus water taxi at Puerto Ayora (50c), $25.50 total
  • day nine:  water taxi to Finch Bay to walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day eleven:  taxi to Rancho Primicias to see tortoises and lava tunnels, $30 shared between two, so $15
  • day twelve:  water taxi to Finch Bay to snorkel there and walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day thirteen:  taxi ($1), bus ($1.90) and ferry (60c) from Puerto Ayora to the airport, $3.50 total
A sight from one of our day trips:  a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

A sight from one of our day trips: a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

Day tours and activities – total $443

  • day four:  morning tour to Sierra Negra Volcano and Volcano Chico (on Isabela), $35
  • day four:  afternoon tour and snorkelling at Las Tintoreras (Isabela), $30
  • day five:  full day snorkelling at Los Túneles (Isabela), $65
  • day eight:  scuba diving at Kicker Rock (off San Cristóbal) with Planet Ocean, $140
  • day ten:  scuba diving at Gordon Rocks (off Santa Cruz) with Eagleray Dives, $140
  • day eleven:  entry to Rancho Primicias, $3

While I decided against the monetary equivalent of calorie counting, I can tell you roughly what prices we encountered…

Mmmm, food.  A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Mmmm, food. A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Example food costs:

  • you can get a cheap eggs, toast and coffee breakfast at a number of places for $5-8
  • you can get a decent menú del día (set course menu of the day) lunch for $8-12
  • if you eat where the locals eat, you can easily get dinner for $10-15
  • eating out at a really nice restaurant like the fantastic La Garrapata in Puerto Ayora, you can easily spend $20-30 on an appetiser, main and drinks (hey, in Latin America that’s pretty damned expensive!) – but you’ll get a pretty decent amount of very good food for that
  • a large beer is $2.50-3 from a store – although when you buy it, it’ll be more, and they’ll give you some back when you bring back the empty bottles
  • a large beer is generally closer to $3 in a pub or restaurant

Based on how much cash I brought with me, how much I took out from the ATMs in the Galápagos, and how much I had left when I flew out, my best guess is that I spent around $500 on food and drinks over the twelve/thirteen days on the islands, so around $45 per day.  But I eat a lot (most times we went for breakfast, I’d order two of them, for example), and we certainly weren’t being careful to eat cheaply.  Most people (ie normal people) would spend a lot less than that, and it’s certainly easily possible to eat for $20 a day or less if you want to – especially if you cook for yourselves, obviously (our rooms on Puerto Ayora and on San Cristóbal both had cooking facilities that we were too lazy to bother using).

Miscellaneous other advice

A crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

Miscellaneous other photo: a crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

  • There are ATMs in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  Beware, though, that they don’t always work well for international cards, often telling you that there’s insufficient balance available or that you’ve exceeded your daily limit.  After trying five or more different machines, I eventually managed to get my UK-based Visa debit card to give me cash out of one of the ATMs in Puerto Ayora (the rightmost one by the supermarket down by the port, for what it’s worth) – but that same machine had spurned me earlier.  Chris had an easier time with his Mastercard debit card, but he didn’t have a perfect track record either.  My advice is to bring a bit more cash than you expect to need, on the assumption that you may have difficulty getting money out.  Don’t expect to use credit cards much, either – most places won’t accept them.
  • If you think you might be susceptible to seasickness, be aware that the boat transfers from island to island can be a little bouncy.  We saw a few people emptying their stomachs into plastic bags or over the side, and while it was funny for us, they didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience quite so much.  If you think you might have a problem:  don’t eat before getting on the boat, that’s just stupid;  sit up the back, where the boat doesn’t bounce so much;  watch the horizon;  probably get hold of some seasickness tablets.  This public service announcement brought to you by Captain Obvious.
  • Tap water on the islands is not drinkable.  In other places around the world where that’s the case, I’ll generally brush my teeth with it regardless, but drink bottled water.  WikiVoyage suggests that the water is too iffy even for that in Puerto Ayora.  (Galápagos Best Home Stay – where we stayed in Puerto Ayora – provides free drinking water in the rooms, for what it’s worth.)
  • A lot of the cheaper accommodation on the islands isn’t listed online on Hostelworld or HostelBookers.  Often, you can just roll up and book.  But we did see a goodly handful of people being turned away by our accommodation on San Cristóbal, and the despondent looks on their faces tended to indicate that it wasn’t the first place they’d tried.  It turned out we’d booked the last available room in the hotel/hostel when we’d rung the night before, via a very dodgy Skype connection from our accommodation on the previous island.  Even if you’re organising things last minute, calling the night before to organise stuff is probably not a bad move.
  • Don’t expect good internet access.  Even in the paid internet cafés, net access anywhere on the islands is excruciatingly slow and frustratingly unreliable.
A giant tortoise couple, err, ‘participating’ in the breeding program on Isabela

And let’s finish on a positive note – here’s how we can be confident that the Galápagos Islands will still have a giant tortoise population for many generations to come. Good work, boys and girls, good work.

Any questions?  Ask me in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to give you a useful answer!