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!

Galápagos Islands, part three: Santa Cruz

This is part three of a series of posts about our time in the Galápagos Islands.  If you haven’t seen them yet, here are the posts describing our time on Isabela and San Cristóbal.

If San Cristóbal was about sea lions, then Santa Cruz was about tortoises.

A giant tortoise strikes a pose, at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

A giant tortoise strikes a pose, at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

Turning up to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, to experience our final island in our twelve-day Galápagos adventure, the place actually felt fairly familiar.  Although the first two posts in this series were about Isabela and San Cristóbal, that’s because I’m slightly cheating for greater blogging convenience:  by now we’d actually spent a bit of time in Puerto Ayora already.  Our first day and a half was spent there after we flew in, and we’d used some of that to visit the tortoises in the Charles Darwin Research Centre, even though I’m only getting around to telling you about that below.  And adding to the familiarity, we’d had a good few hours layover in Puerto Ayora (spent in cafés, of course) while getting from Isabela to San Cristóbal, since there aren’t any direct boat transfers.

So it felt pretty much like coming back to our Galápagos home – almost literally, gladly staying again at the aptly-named, very friendly and comfortable Galápagos Best Home Stay.  And we arrived with more than a little relief, given that our transfer from San Cristóbal had been a tad more eventful than would have been ideal:  our original boat died about twenty minutes into the theoretically two-hour journey, and we’d had to limp back to port at San Cristóbal and switch over to another, slower and less comfortable, boat.  (But one which was taking on less water…)

Still, we got there, and this time, no one was even seasick – in contrast to our previous two early morning boat transfers, each of which had concluded, for at least a couple of other passengers, that eating breakfast just before a boat trip is not the best idea.  (Thankfully seasickness is not a problem for me or Chris.  I spent the whole trip with my head down staring at my phone, watching DVD rips of a BBC Galápagos documentary that my parents had given me for Christmas.)

And the fact that we had been here before meant that we already knew exactly where to go for a late breakfast – the excellent Il Giardino.  Off to a good start.

But speaking of starts, I said Santa Cruz was about tortoises, and really, instead of rambling about transfers and breakfasts, I should actually begin with the first point of interest in Puerto Ayora, which, as I say, we’d actually been through on day two:  the Charles Darwin Research Centre, and more specifically its giant tortoise sanctuary and breeding program…

Baby tortoises in the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

Baby tortoises in the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora. I can only assume that the numbers painted onto the shell of each baby tortoise are in order to facility juvenile tortoise-racing. Go number 58, go!

Unfortunately we were about eight months too late for the Centre’s most famous attraction:  Lonesome George, last of his particular species, had died in June 2012.  (There are many different species of Galápagos giant tortoises – pretty much one per island.  This is why they were – in fact, are – so important to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection:  the tortoises on each island have evolved noticeably differently in response to the unique environment of their respective particular homelands.)

Instead we had Super Diego – the tortoise equivalent of Hugh Hefner, sans prophylactics, named for the San Diego zoo from which he was repatriated in order to assist – heroically, as it turns out – in the repopulation of his species.  For slow-moving, apparently lazy animals, giant tortoises sure do seem to get about a lot.  Super Diego himself has literally over a thousand children.  This despite his apparent confusion as to how the process of acquiring said children works:  as we passed the area in which he and his veritable harem live, he was doing his very darndest to impregnate completely the wrong end of one of his unfortunate companions.

He wasn’t the only randy reptile, though:  the tortoise sanctuary we visited on Isabela featured similarly, err, active examples – although at least those ones were proceeding in a manner more amenable to actual procreative success.

Super Diego unsuccessfully attempts to add to his impressive count of children

Super Diego: A+ for effort, I suppose. It’s not particularly obvious in this photo, but his partner in crime is facing away from the photographer. I.e. not in a position which allows Super Diego to achieve his stated goals.

The Charles Darwin Research Centre isn’t entirely about tortoises, it has to be said.  There are also land iguanas – and this was actually the only place we saw them, despite seeing their marine cousins pretty much covering the ground in many other a location.

One of the Charles Darwin Research Centre’s less celebrated occupants:  land iguanas

One of the Charles Darwin Research Centre’s less celebrated occupants: land iguanas

But when it comes to it, land iguanas are much less cool than giant tortoises.  So really, let’s move on.

Actually, our “moving on” didn’t involve giant tortoises either – nor any other form of local wildlife, except the human kind.  When we got back to Santa Cruz after the two other islands, we had a spare afternoon to kill, and so lazily headed out to Las Grietas, a sort of canyon thing filled half full with water (it’s apparently connected to the sea, although despite our best efforts it wasn’t really possible to follow it right out to shore – too much fallen rock in the way).  It’s where the local kids like to go dick about cliff-jumping and just swimming around to escape the heat of the midday sun.

Chris prepares for a graceful swandive at Las Grietas

Chris prepares for a graceful swandive at Las Grietas

So we had a nice relaxing afternoon swimming about in some nice clear calm water, seeing what there was to see.  (Which was not much, but hey – it was nice.)

Anyway, what else was there to do, now that we were back on our final island…

Having missed out on seeing any hammerhead sharks on our dives at Kicker Rock near San Cristóbal, we figured that, well, we might as well try again.  Especially since the dives were not too expensive.  So we headed out to what the consensus seemed to rate as the best dive trip available from Santa Cruz:  Gordon Rocks.

And this time, we got hammerheads.

A hammerhead shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A hammerhead shark (The photos taken during our dives were generously taken and given to us by our dive guides from Eagleray Dives – thanks, guys!)

In fact, we saw a whole school of them – somewhere between twenty and thirty, we think.  All of ten to fifteen metres away.  And we hardly even had to look:  they swam past shortly after we got into the water for our first dive!

Also there were sea turtles and other sharks …

A sea turtle and a white-tipped Galápagos shark cross paths (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A sea turtle and a white-tipped Galápagos shark cross paths (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more hammerheads, some off by themselves …

Another hammerhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Another hammerhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and rays …

A sting ray, up close and personal (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A sting ray, up close and personal (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and playful sea lions – even moreso than they had been at Kicker Rock, since these ones actually hung around and played with each other and with us as we were diving …

Chris says hi to a sea lion (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Chris says hi to a sea lion (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more rays …

An eagle ray (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

An eagle ray (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… including a whole school of them swimming about in formation …

A school of eagle rays “fly” overhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A school of eagle rays “fly” overhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more sharks …

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

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

… and stonefish …

A stonefish (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A stonefish (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and even eels …

A garden eel – Chris and I didn’t actually see one of these, because we were snorkelling along chasing hammerheads instead of doing the third dive.  But hey, this is the sort of shit you can see… (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A garden eel – Chris and I didn’t actually see one of these, because we were snorkelling along chasing hammerheads instead of doing the third dive. But hey, this is the sort of shit you can see… (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Put all that together and the dives were amazing – far and away the best diving I’ve ever done, certainly!

We didn’t even do all three dives:  we only paid for two, while the rest of the party did three.  The marginal extra cost for the third dive didn’t seem worth it to us, so we just grabbed our masks and snorkels and swam around while the rest of the group did the third dive.

And to be honest, I think we made the right call.  While the dive group had a good dive and saw a few cool things – more stonefish, and a garden eel – we spent our time chasing after the school of hammerheads.  And found them!  More than once, in fact.  So we were able to see them again, gracefully swimming past (them, not us – we weren’t graceful at all, we were trying desperately to keep up!) – this time from above.

Without wanting to sound all wilty-at-the-knees, it was a pretty magical day in the water.

Riding a tortoise (shell) at Rancho Primicias.  Apparently sitting on a shell is hard work, because I appear to be covered in sweat.  Ewww.

Riding a tortoise (shell) at Rancho Primicias. Apparently sitting on a shell is hard work, because I appear to be covered in sweat. Ewww.

But as exciting as all that diving stuff was, I did say before that Santa Cruz was all about tortoises.  So I feel obliged to revisit that aspect.  The day after our dive, we headed on up inland, to Rancho Primicias, an in-the-wild tortoise sanctuary, where we could wander about amongst the trees and streams and grasses in search of tortoises.  (Not that the searching was difficult:  they leave huge trails of flattened grass and undergrowth behind as they move around.  This is how pirates used to find them a hundred or so odd years ago, when they were searching out tortoises as a source of meat that could be kept alive in their holds – despite not being fed or watered – on long sea journeys.)

A truly giant giant tortoise at Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz

A truly giant giant tortoise at Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz. This guy weighs in 270kg and is 180 years old. He likes piña coladas and walks in the rain. His passions include eating and farting. No, seriously, he absolutely dropped his guts as we were standing around taking photographs. Like, thunderously. If we’d been less mature about it, we would have absolutely pissed ourselves laughing. We totally didn’t though. It was really inappropriate of him, and quite frankly I think we can all agree that he should know better. Dirty old bastard. No manners. Not funny at all.

So, after we’d seen the tortoises, what else was there left to do?

Well, for starters, there was Tortuga Bay.  It doesn’t have tortoises (well, not that we saw), but at least it’s named after them, so I can feel good about keeping my overall theme going here.  (How about that, mister middle-school English teacher?!)

What it does have, though, is an absolutely beautiful beach.

An iguana on the rocks on the beautiful beach at Tortuga Bay

An iguana on the rocks on the beautiful beach at Tortuga Bay

And, we were told, some quite reasonable snorkelling in nearby Finch Bay.  That sounded great to us, because one of the few remaining things on our to-do list was to try to find a marine iguana actually in the water, swimming around.  So we grabbed our snorkelling gear and headed off in search of one.

And, wouldn’t you know it:  success!

A marine iguana swimming towards the mangroves, in Finch Bay

Finally, a marine iguana (bottom right) actually being all marine and swimming in the water!

So we quickly ticked that off our list.  (Actually, not so quickly:  we had a great time swimming around, chasing iguanas and finding sting rays in the bay – it was a beautiful day, again, and damned if we were going to waste it just because we’d found our objective early on in the piece!)  And then we proceeded along the beach, around Tortuga Bay – where we discovered that just beyond the end of the beach, there’s another, more protected inlet, with yet another stunning beach.  Fantastic.

On the beach in the little inlet just beyond Tortuga Bay

On the beach in the little inlet just beyond Tortuga Bay

It would be a lie to say we were running out of things to do with our time in the Galápagos.  Had we had three times our twelve days, we would easily have found plenty to keep us occupied, and probably still wanted more time before leaving.  But at the end of our time in Puerto Ayora, once we’d finally managed to find those marine iguanas actually in the water, we were nonetheless satisfied and, I suppose, as ready as we were going to be to leave.

We’d been lucky enough to see pretty much everything we’d ever hoped to, and we’d had a stunning, amazing time while we did it.  Everything else can wait until next time.

Galápagos Islands, part two: San Cristóbal

This is part two of a series of posts about our time in the Galápagos Islands.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s part one.

Basically, San Cristóbal is about sea lions.

Sea lions happily occupying the park benches in the rotunda next to the pier

Sea lions happily occupying the park benches in the rotunda next to the pier. Silly humans, you thought these were for you, didn’t you!

It has some other notable features:  it’s home to one of the Galápagos’s two airports;  it’s where Charles Darwin first set foot on the islands;  and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, its town, is the capital of the Galápagos Province of Ecuador.

But when you arrive at the port in the afternoon on a boat transfer from Puerto Ayora, it’s the sea lions that you’ll notice.  Everywhere.

Sea lions lined up sleeping on the steps at the pier

Sea lions lined up sleeping on the steps at the pier

One of the more amusing scenes from our time in every botanist’s favourite archipelago was just after we arrived in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  As we took a short wander around the port and harbour area, looking over the fishing and tourist boats, I spotted a sea lion swim up to and flop over the gunwale of a currently crewless small fishing charter, plonk itself about through the boat a little poking its nose here and there (presumably looking for fish), and then give up and abandon ship.  Then it popped up on the boat next door to repeat the process, and then again, before giving up for good and flitting off out of the harbour entirely.

Clearly the sea lions are not particularly intimidated by the presence of humans and their various effects.

Sea lions playing and resting at the pier

Sea lions playing and resting at the pier

Of course, there’s other wildlife on San Cristóbal, too.  A hike out past La Lobería (a sea lion colony) will take you to a point where you’ll find a reasonable inhabitation of all kinds of birds – especially frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies and red-footed <something not as funny as ‘boobies’>.

A soaring frigatebird against a featureful sky

A soaring frigatebird against a featureful sky

I can only presume that they were able to edge out the sea lions because their stretch of shoreline is a nice sheer cliff.

Pretty coastline on San Cristóbal, hiking out past La Lobería

Pretty coastline on San Cristóbal, hiking out past La Lobería

In the process, the hike out to the birds will of course take you past a small colony of sea lions.  Hence the name ‘La Lobería’:  sea lions are ‘lobos marinos’ in Español.  It will also get you absolutely drenched, if you pick a nice rainy afternoon like we did.  Oh well.  What else were we going to do?  Stay inside?!

A frigatebird flies above the coastline of San Cristóbal

A frigatebird flies above the coastline of San Cristóbal

But that birdwatching expedition was really the only other wildlife-spotting we did from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, in truth.  And actually, the sameness of all the various different locations in which to see sea lions made San Cristóbal probably a little less exciting than the other two islands we visited, at least in my eyes.  (Of course, my saying that is kind of like asking someone who grew up in the sixties who’s their least favourite Beatle – all of the islands were great.)

Sea lions on the beach in the early morning

Sea lions on the beach in the early morning

But that said, San Cristóbal was also the first time we went diving in the Galápagos, so really I’m cheating by not yet having mentioned the off-island underwater stuff we got up to.

We hadn’t actually really expected to do any diving in the Galápagos.  Yes, the islands are famous for having some of the world’s most awesome scuba destinations.  But the best ones – Darwin and Wolf – are way off in the north of the archipelago, and only accessible on a week-long dive cruise.  So we’d kind of assumed that we’d just be snorkelling around when we wanted to check out what the sea might have to offer.

Wandering around town comparing prices of various day trip options, though, we found that there were plenty of dive shops offering trips which you could either snorkel or dive – and the diving was not much pricier ($140 for a two-dive trip versus $70 for snorkelling).  Combine that with reports that in recent days, divers had been consistently spotting hammerhead sharks at a couple of the sites (snorkelers too, to be sure, but if you’re going to see them, wouldn’t it be so much better to be down there with them?!), and we ended up pulling out our PADI licences and dive logs after all, for a trip out to Kicker Rock.

Kicker Rock (aka León Dormido)

Kicker Rock (aka León Dormido)

And we were glad we did!

In fairness, the day started off with some great snorkelling, not diving:  they take you first to Isla Lobos to do a pre-dive “equipment and buoyancy check” (in quotes because I’m sure as much as anything they’re checking that you can complete a very basic dive as much as that your buoyancy is right and that your equipment functions to spec).  That done, and weight belt and BCD unceremoniously dumped back on the boat, we kept the mask and snorkel on and paddled about for a while.  Pretty much straight off the bat we came across a sting ray which we proceeded to stalk around the area for a while (at a safe distance, obviously – just because I’m Australian doesn’t mean I’m looking to Steve Irwin myself).  But that wasn’t the entertaining bit:  the entertaining bit was the very thing I was claiming to be bored of above – the sea lions.

They may be a little lacklustre and tedious on the shore, having a nap.  But in the water, they’re something else:  the most playful – and agile – creatures you could imagine.  Snorkelling with them is somehow inspiring, as they zip around you, swimming in circles, doing loop the loops, alternately playing with you and with their own friends.  Twisting and turning, swimming upside down, playing chicken as they dart at your face and then flick off elsewhere and then return.

A sea lion underwater

A sea lion underwater. (Photo is actually from one of our dives, and is courtesy of Planet Ocean dive shop. Thanks to the dive guides for taking photos and giving them to us – but please direct all complaints re the photo being out of focus elsewhere!)

And that was all before the diving started.

We didn’t actually spot any hammerheads, in the end.  (Although our dive guide claims that there was one on our first dive that none of us saw because we didn’t follow him closely enough so weren’t around when it turned up.  So stay closer next time, OK?)  Still, there were black-tipped Galápagos sharks on both dives, as well as white-tipped ones on our second dive, so weren’t entirely sharkless.  And there were plenty of fish, some in large schools which we could swim right through without much disturbing – loads of fun.

And, on the second dive, another sea lion.  One which absolutely flew past only a couple of metres away as we were swimmingly calmly along about 20m underwater, casting its beady eye over us but apparently not giving us a second thought.

The channel between the rocks of Kicker Rock

The channel between the rocks of Kicker Rock

After the second dive, we said goodbye to Kicker Rock, and it was back to a nice sandy beach on San Cristóbal for some more snorkelling and general dicking about.  Which, given how much fun it was, for Chris and me meant playing with more sea lions.  This time there were some young ’uns to frolick with (cautiously, obviously, making sure not to agitate their nearby parents any, since an underwater fight with an over-protective mummy sea lion is not one I’m likely to come out on the winning side of).  So we spent our time mimicking the pups, discovering that if you twist and turn and barrel-roll underwater like they do, they respond in kind and become even more fun to be around.

All up, the day certainly had us appreciating the little guys’ inquisitive manner.  And even if it was the only thing of note we did on San Cristóbal, it was still definitely enough to be glad we went.

Boats out of the water on the sand in the early morning

Boats out of the water on the sand in the early morning

Galápagos Islands, part one: Isabela

An iguana on the beach on Isabela

An iguana on the beach on Isabela

The Galápagos Islands have been the single best part of my trip so far.  They were spectacular, as I hope the ridiculously photo-heavy next three posts will demonstrate.

Of all the awesome places we’ve been over the last year so far, the Galápagos is the place I most look forward to going back to.  And it’s the place I recommend to people – to everyone – the most.  Even to those who have never heard of it.  Perhaps especially to those who have never heard of it.

It’s cheaper to visit than you might expect, too, given its reputation as one of those far-off exotic places that you only see when the BBC or National Geographic wants to win some more cinematography awards for one of their spectacular nature documentaries.  Thank god once we’d got to South America and were planning our next few months, we figured out (in large part thanks to a few useful posts I found on the interwebs – thanks, helpful internet posters!) that it was actually much more accessible than we might have guessed.

But more about the costs and tedious details in a few posts’ time…  (I’ve got an upcoming post with all the boring day-to-day nuts and bolts of exactly what we did and exactly what it cost us.  So if you’re interested in going – hopefully you will be by the time you’re done reading – and want to know how, or how much, that post’s for you.  Check back shortly.)

In the meantime, we had twelve incredible days in the Galápagos, spending a few days on each of the three inhabited islands (Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal).

After a rest day when we arrived (exhausted from an inconvenient but cheap flight combination that had us overnighting in the terminal at Quito airport), and a day two which was largely spent transferring between islands and finding ourselves accommodation, our Galápagos experience didn’t really get into gear until day three on Isabela…

Ghost crabs on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Ghost crabs on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Isabela is the most picturesque of the islands.  It also has, right next to Puerto Villamil (the one and only town), the best beach we visited in the whole of South America.

Throughout our time in South America, we got a lot of people (locals and other travellers) telling us how great various beaches were.  Largely, you end up responding that, well, thanks for the advice, but we’re Australian.  It takes a pretty damn good beach to beat the ones that we’re used to from back home.  Puerto Villamil, though, has an Australian-quality beach.  Long and wide, with beautiful fine yellow and white sand.

But that aside, there was another, perhaps more important reason it was the best beach we visited:  it has an expansive inhabitation of ghost crabs, all busily scurrying away into their hidey-holes when you approach them.  And I had a brand spanking new camera.  We spent maybe an hour chasing crabs and taking photos.  Seriously, if you ever need any photos of ghost crabs, let me know.  I have a good thirty or forty of them.  And those are the ones I haven’t deleted yet.

You can imagine that it was a spectacular experience.  The sun was shining.  The sea was blue.  The fine white sand was blowing gently between my toes.  The crabs were jumping in and out of their homes like some sort of environmentally-friendly (clubless) version of whack-a-mole.  It was fantastic, and I spent the whole afternoon with a stupid grin plastered all over my face.

Another ghost crab on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Another ghost crab on the beach near Puerto Villamil

(Hot nature photography tip:  if you have two of you, you can get a good close-up on a crab by having the both of you walk up to it, so it retreats into its hole, then having the other heavily stomp away.  It’ll take the vibrations as meaning that you’ve both wandered off.  If you perch near its hole and stay vewy vewy quiet, you can get some great photos when it pokes its head back into the world.  Their vision and/or threat assessment seems to be highly motion-based, so if you don’t move, it’ll happily go about its business with you there peering at it or snapping away at your shutter button.)

Our purpose in walking along the beach had been to hike out to the Wall of Tears (El Muro de las Lágrimas) once we reached the sand’s end.  It turns out the path out there was closed, so we had to make do with the large colony of nesting marine iguanas at El Espero – the black volcanic rock outcropping at which the beach terminates.

So we traded running around taking photos of ghost crabs on the sand for running around taking photos of marine iguanas and various other crabs on the rocks.

An inquisitive marine iguana surveys the area near its latest underground foray in the nesting around at the end of the beach at Puerto Villamil

An inquisitive marine iguana surveys the area near its latest underground foray in the nesting around at the end of the beach at Puerto Villamil

Taking photos of the iguanas wasn’t hard, either.  We were running around giddily, sure, but there was no actual chasing involved here:  the iguanas are just everywhere.  In fact, being a similar colour to the grey-black rock, they’re often there when you don’t even realise it.  A couple of times I spotted Chris focussing his attention on how best to get the right angle for a photo of an iguana or crab he found interesting say five metres off, and I had to point out that by the way, was he aware that there was a massive iguana sitting nonchalantly right next to him, maybe an arm’s length away?

A marine iguana (right) contemplates the foaming sea from its perch on the rocks near its nesting ground

A marine iguana (right) contemplates the foaming sea from its perch on the rocks near its nesting ground

After a leisurely stroll back in to town along the beach, we grabbed some snorkelling gear and headed to the port area for an afternoon dip at an area called Concha de Perla (‘Pearl Shell’).  It was a fairly indicative introduction to swimming in the Galápagos:  on the boardwalk through the mangroves, we had to walk around a sea lion which had chosen the walkway as an excellent spot to relax for the afternoon, and within minutes of getting in the water we swam pretty much right over the top of a large manta ray gliding majestically past not five metres out of reach.

A sea lion having a quiet nap on the boardwalk to Concha de Perla

A sea lion having a quiet nap on the boardwalk to Concha de Perla

Most of our snorkelling was in and around the mangroves, and we were fascinated to observe the crabs which were sitting around on the exposed roots of the trees, even out in a sort-of mangrove island out off the shore.  This was the Galápagos we’d hoped for:  nearly everywhere we looked, it seemed there was some beautiful product of evolution looking blithely straight back at us.  (For those who don’t know, the Galápagos Islands are famous not just because they’re beautiful and because their wildlife is so carefree in its attitude to humans, but also because they were Charles Darwin’s inspiration for his theory of natural selection.)

Crabs on the mangrove roots off shore

Crabs on the mangrove roots off shore

Day four was two organised tours with Carlos, the owner of our hotel.  I say organised tours, but the tour group was just Chris, myself, and a Canadian couple who’d flown in the previous night.  So still a fairly private experience surrounded by nature and not by a busload of noisy natterers with a forest of flashing DSLRs.

The caldera of Volcano Sierra Negra

The caldera of Volcano Sierra Negra

Our morning trip was up to two of Isabela’s five volcanos:  Volcano Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico (the latter is a parasite volcano on the side of the former).  Sierra Negra is one of the largest calderas in the world.  (I’m sure Carlos told us it was the largest, but I’m quite certain Yellowstone is bigger, and we spent a while debating amongst ourselves whether Santorini looked bigger as well, so who knows by what criterion anyone’s making that claim.)  Regardless, the volcano is still active – it last erupted in 1995, and there’s a lot of solidified lava flow around from that eruption, which is cool.  And the walk up to and partially around its rim was quite pleasant.  Carlos spent that time busily pointing out plenty of stultifying flora that I’m sure I would have found much more interesting if I were a botanist.  But I also recall musing that if I were a botanist, I would probably be even less interesting myself.  I guess there’s a trade-off.  I was happy to make do admiring the volcanic landscape and enjoying the stroll.

Volcanic rock and cacti

Volcanic rock and cacti

Once we got to Volcán Chico, that landscape suddenly became substantially more fascinating.  Bleak and barren but for handfuls of cacti.  A few holes in the volcanic rock, often filled with ferns.  A nice view from the volcano’s sides out over the flatter areas of Isabela, too, and all the way out to Fernandina (one of the islands we unfortunately couldn’t get to – it’s only accessible on a week-long cruise).  But really, as great a view as we had from the volcano, the dirt and rocks of the Mars-like landscape were not what we were in the Galápagos to see.

Colourful craters on Volcán Chico

Colourful craters on Volcán Chico

Back more towards the purpose of our visit, our afternoon activity was snorkelling at Las Tintoreras, a smallish group of tiny volcanic island outcrops near the port.

Before actually getting wet, we took a walk around the islets, which are home to a huge nesting colony of marine iguanas – literally thousands of them.

Literally a pile of marine iguanas

Literally a pile of marine iguanas

They’re home to just as many colourful crabs, too, as well as to a good handful or so of sea lions.  There was a lot to photograph in a short period of time!

A colourful crab on Las Tintoreras

A colourful crab on Las Tintoreras

Sea lions and marine iguanas

Sea lions and marine iguanas

A marine iguana who perhaps stuffed himself a little full at the buffet.  (Actually, they spit to get rid of excess salt.  It’s as charming as it sounds.)

A marine iguana who perhaps stuffed himself a little full at the buffet. (Actually, they spit to get rid of excess salt. It’s as charming as it sounds.)

And all that was before we got in the water.

Once we had our flippers on, there was even more to see – even if I don’t have photographs.  (Next time I’m in the Galápagos, I’ll definitely be investing in an underwater camera housing!)  First up there were the sea turtles.  Plural.  There were quite a number of them, in various different areas around the islets.  All of them fairly large and all entirely uncaring at our presence.  They happily swam around us, without a worry in the world.  In the way that you do, I suppose, when your life expectancy is over 150 years, you have few natural predators, and your plan for the next century or so is mostly to flit about elegantly under the waves, occasionally pecking at some of the more delicious-looking patches of algae, interspersed with the occasional spot of steamy turtle love-making while floating up on the surface.  (We were evidently there at breeding time, because we saw a fair bit of that going on as well.)

There were fish aplenty, too, some colourful, some not – in the latter category we saw plenty of pufferfish, though, so they were interesting even if not radiant.  Then there were the two sting rays.  I only saw one of them, but made up for missing the other by being chased by the one I did see for a bit, until I backed up enough to convince it that I wasn’t a threat.

I didn’t see the white-tipped Galápagos shark that others did, either, unfortunately.  Not to worry, there’d be other snorkelling opportunities over the next week or so!

On the way back from Las Tintoreras as the sun starts to go down.  Although you can’t really see it, that’s a penguin in the middle.

On the way back from Las Tintoreras as the sun starts to go down. Although you can’t really see it, that’s a penguin in the middle.

Flamingo Lake, by Puerto Villamil, at sunset that evening

Flamingo Lake, by Puerto Villamil, at sunset that evening

Opportunities like the very next morning, for example – day five now – at Los Tuneles (‘The Tunnels’).

The tunnels are lava bridges formed when volcanic eruptions met the sea, creating under- and over-water swimthroughs near the shore.  The result is a series of interconnected lagoons which are home to a wide variety of marine wildlife, amidst some of the clearest, calmest sea water you’ve ever seen.

Beautifully clear water at Los Tuneles

Beautifully clear water at Los Tuneles

Initially our tour guide was wary of letting us go exploring – when he wasn’t literally towing the Italian woman who couldn’t swim (it was a bit weird – she kept accidentally rolling over, face up, snorkel down, which is not the ideal water-viewing and, y’know, air-breathing position), he seemed to be spending quite a lot of his time telling us to come back to the rest of the group.  Much to our chagrin, since swimming with the rest of the group is a great way to see a whole lot of murky water full of kicked-up sand and seaweed, and not much non-human life.  But eventually he realised that we were fine off on our own, and stopped objecting when we routinely adventured over yonder in the distance.

Los Tuneles

Los Tuneles

And so we saw a lot more.  We spent our time chasing sharks – Galápagos white-tipped and black-tipped sharks both – and swimming alongside sea turtles, as well as spotting a couple more rays, each about 50cm across, each nicely decorated in black with white polka dots, and each swimming happily around the various lagoons, largely oblivious to our presence.  We found a quiet area with some tiny transparent shrimp, and at the second swim site of the day, Chris managed to find a bright red crayfish.  Plus we were surrounded by the obligatory colourful parrot fish, a pufferfish or so, etc.  You know, standard sort of stuff.

A small Galápagos white-tipped shark

A small Galápagos white-tipped shark

A sea turtle at Los Tuneles

A sea turtle at Los Tuneles

There wasn’t really much more to it than that, I have to admit.  Not that there needed to be!

I managed a nice impressive (read bloody) cut on my heel when my overly-floaty flippers pulled my underly-in-the-right-place foot up into the ceiling of an underwater swimthrough, but I was bitterly disappointed to observe that the blood-letting wasn’t particularly effective in attracting more sharks for our viewing pleasure.

So after our swim, we (well, I) spent much of our time on the boat trip back making juvenile jokes about boobies.  And that was our stay on Isabela pretty much complete.

Blue-footed boobies.  Best-named bird ever.

Blue-footed boobies. Best-named bird ever.

Sights and sounds of the Amazon

In the Amazon

In the Amazon

A bit of a random post, this one.  But these are some fragments that stick in my mind – ways I’ll remember the sights and sounds of the Amazon rainforest after our five-day trip there from Iquitos.

  • the tranquil mirrorlike flatness of still black water
  • a menacingly furry tarantula
  • the lonely donkey-like braying of a camungo (jungle turkey)
  • the peppery bite of bright yellow ají
  • the triumphant hooting of monkeys overhead
  • the seeming ever-present sting of yet another mosquito bite (word to the wise:  skin in contact with a mosquito net renders said mosquito net remarkably ineffective – if you are tall and typically sleep in anything other than the foetal position, this will result in many an ankle bite overnight)
  • the burning and tingling of a fresh coating of DEET on the neck
  • the valiant struggling of little piranhas in the floor of the canoe
  • the dead-ant smell of crushed termites, smothered on hands as insect repellent
  • the fresh dirt taste of the water while swimming
  • the incessant buzzing, chirping, rustling of cicadas
  • the unfamiliar almost sing-song, nearly Brazilian accent to local Spanish
  • the blue and red flash of a passing macaw (guacamayo)
  • the acrid smell (and, unfortunately, taste) of DEET
  • the flashy rainbow sheen of the baby rainbow anaconda (anaconda arco iris)
  • flashing swings of Herman’s machete:  everything from path clearer to pencil sharpener
  • the peeking heads of river otter (lobo del rio)
  • the cool, refreshing lightness of a midday swim
  • the languorous floating in air of a mamavieja (‘old mama’ eagle)
  • the coiled danger of a lancehead snake (jergón)
  • the confused glare of the hypnotoad (la rana)
  • the fluttering azul of butterflies at the river’s edge
  • the cool misty humidity of the early morning
  • grey and rose dolphins, snorting as they surface, playfully swimming, infuriating to photograph
  • the oppressive heat and stickiness of a still afternoon
  • the comfortable laziness of an afternoon resting a-hammock
Comfortably a-hammock

Comfortably a-hammock

  • the puzzled concentration of misunderstood Spanish
  • languid paddling of the canoe’s oars
  • the dusky tastelessness of local instant coffee
  • the eager, energetic grin of Herman off to search out something new in the jungle
  • the jarring inappropriateness of counting new species of spider while squatting to answer the call of nature in the woods
  • the near-hollow echo of the jungle telephone tree roots
  • the ominous bellowing of distant thunder
  • the glorious freshness of an unexpected breeze
  • an early morning chainsaw as a local fashions new beams for his house
  • a subtle pinkish tinge to the clouds before darkness
  • the quiet boredom of another hour or so waiting, ‘relaxing’, for the next scheduled something of the day
  • the soaring grace of a condor/eagle/falcon
  • the satisfying squelch of the mud trail in gumboots in the jungle
  • the satisfying ‘swish’ of bats swooping through the campsite at night
  • the brown and black waters mixing as tributaries join just outside the national park (Marden calls it ‘cafe con leche’)

The Amazon, part 2

The highlight of our first (and only) full day out in the jungle proper – day three of our five-day adventure – was a three to four hour hike through the trees, wildlife-spotting.  Before that, though, we needed sustenance.

Yesterday, when we were off in search of anacondas, Rusber had set a fishing net near the other campsite.  Last night, when we’d gone frog-spotting, we’d checked it out in hopes of what would be this morning’s breakfast:  we found three piranhas, plus the front half of a fourth.  Presumably there was a fifth swimming around somewhere with a full stomach, feeling pretty happy with himself.  Plus there were two ‘walking fish’ and two catfish.

Breakfast piranha.  Tasty.

Breakfast piranha. Tasty.

When we arose this morning, these were already being prepared for our breakfast.  It was simple fare:  a thin oily, garlic-y soup with whole fish floating in it.  But it was remarkably good.  Eating piranha is much like eating other fish:  there’s not any particular special taste to it (or if there is, it was cunningly disguised by the garlic and oil).  But picking at the carcass, you do have to be careful of the teeth.  We followed our soup with some more incredibly fresh fruit salad, and we were ready to go.

Speaking of ready to go, we actually weren’t quite set to be off for our walk until right after a quick visit to the, err, jungle bathroom:  a short track out into the undergrowth, at the end of which you can pick whatever area looks least prickly/insect-ridden and squat and go about your business, as you watch the ants and spiders go about theirs.  One of the less restful restrooms I’ve been to, but I’ll grant that it did definitely add to the authenticity of the jungle experience.

Anyway, this was the highlight of the whole excursion.  (The jungle walk, not the making like the Pope.)  Much of the path we followed through the jungle had surely been taken by plenty of other tourists before us, but it was hardly a well-marked trail.  Many a time, forward progress required some eager machete-work on Herman’s part.  We might not have been trailbreaking pioneers, but we were very much immersed in the natural environment of the Amazon, about as far from civilisation as you’ll get without actually being lost.

Random pretty jungle scenery

Random pretty jungle scenery

And we were thoroughly surrounded by the teeming life of the jungle.

If I sit here and write out a detailed catalogue of what we saw, though, we’re going to end up with a bullet-point list a mile long.  The jungle environment is so different from our normal everyday experiences that every moment of our walk was spent spotting new wonders to steal our attention from the ones we discovered (or had pointed out to us) minutes ago.  So for the most part we’ll go with some photos instead.

Climbing on the root system of a tree hundreds of years old

Climbing on the root system of a tree hundreds of years old. The jungle is a fascinating mix of old and new. While much of the undergrowth is young – constantly growing, dying and being reborn anew – some of the arboreal behemoths we saw were as much as five hundred years old. The above-ground root systems of many of the trees – young and old – had a glorious dishevelled look to them, twisting and turning their way around for no particular reason, like an organic game of snakes and ladders. The older ones were simply enormous at the base, spreading out to claim huge patches of earth beneath their impressive canopies.

A tent-like set of roots

Other trees had simpler strategies, just splaying their roots directly outwards in a tent-like sort of structure.

A procession of leaf-cutter ants on a fallen tree branch across the path

A procession of leaf-cutter ants on a fallen tree branch across the path. I knew that there were ants in the jungle, definitely. I’m sure I have vague memories of David Attenborough telling me so as I channel-surfed one bored night many a year ago. But I didn’t expect so damned many. They were everywhere! Often, our path would traverse unexplained bumps, and we’d look back and discover that the mound we’d just walked over was an enormous ant hill, literally four or five metres in diameter.

A termite nest on a tree, complete with Chris’s hand, covered in termites

A termite nest on a tree, complete with Chris’s hand, covered in termites. This functions as a natural insect repellent: let the termites crawl all over your hands, then rub your hands together vigorously, squishing the termites and spreading the resulting oily ooze over your skin. It’s less unpleasant than it sounds, and surprisingly effective. Similarly, if there’s a termite nest near your campsite, you can, it turns out, treat it as a jungle version of a citronella candle and just burn it of an evening to keep the bugs at bay. For some reason, Herman seemed to get a lot more enjoyment out of that type more than the smothered-over-hands type.

Cutting out the soft, fleshy heart of a palm tree

Cutting up a palm tree which Herman has just felled with his machete. The outer layers of the palm peel off to leave a soft, fleshy but fibrous heart which went straight into a nice fresh salad for lunch when we returned.

But the photos aren’t enough to capture everything.

Partly, that’s because there’s a huge variety of things we didn’t see, but which contributed to the experience as well.  We didn’t see any caiman (yet), for example, although we heard several, including one large one which we spent quite some time running around trying to track down.  There were two animals for which we only saw tracks, too:  a large tapir, whose size Herman guessed at about 300kg, and a giant (dog-sized) rodent whose name I can’t remember, but which we later saw in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary in Iquitos (there’s a picture of one in the post on Iquitos, if you want one).

Partly also it’s because much of the fun was in the overall experience rather than just the (admittedly captivating) visuals.  I have photos of me swinging Tarzan-style on a giant vine, for example.  But I just look like an idiot hanging there with a dumb grin, and the photos hardly convey the fun of dicking about in nature, just playing.  Nor would a photo have adequately captured us chasing after the sound and confusion of a troop of monkeys hooting through the branches about our heads, off to their next party location, even if we’d had the inclination to stop and take one.  And the ‘jungle telephone’ trees – elderly giants with large hollow roots – are stationary and plenty visible, sure, but the point of them is the thundering boom they make when you strike their root systems:  obviously something you can’t capture in a pretty picture.

And even more than all that, partly it’s because much of the jungle is caught only in fleeting glimpses.  We spotted a lot of frog’s homes (just shallow holes dug into the earth) as we wandered along, one or two with flashes of nervous-looking frogs inside.  And in one of them I’m pretty sure I spotted a new inhabitant – a spider, waiting to surprise whatever smaller prey might walk past after me.  But I can’t be sure – there wasn’t time to look twice before the movement was gone, let alone time for a Kodak moment.  Out of the corner of my eye I was constantly seeing small twitches of movement that revealed nothing by the time I turned to pay further attention.  It was a central part of the experience knowing that for every creature we saw, there were uncountable numbers just as close but staying just beyond the corners of our eyes.

A lancehead snake – difficult to see in shadow where the two fallen branches cross, coiled up and head at the ready

Hell, I wouldn’t even have seen the lancehead snake we came across had it not stayed put, coiled up hidden under the fork of two fallen branches lying across our path, for long enough for Herman to point it out and warn us away.

(Partly, also, the photos aren’t enough because my camera was by this stage starting to not much appreciate its third day in near-100% humidity, and it had started the two-day decline which ended with it refusing to take photos at all.  In related news, I no longer recommend the Canon Powershot S100 to people, and am the happy new owner of a Sony RX-100, which I heartily endorse.)

So I guess you’ll just have to make do with those few photos, and with my repeated insistence that the jungle really is another world, and that our hours of wandering around with Marden and Herman really were the best way I can possibly imagine to experience it.

Our time in the Amazon was the end of January, well into the wet season.  Not at the river’s highest – the waters peak around March, one to two metres higher than during our time there.  But already eight to ten metres above their lowest.  The huge changes in the volume of water are difficult to conceptualise, but the difference they make is enormous.  There just isn’t nearly as much land to explore in the wet part of the year – the rivers really take over.  And the distribution of the wildlife is markedly different.  (For a start, there are a lot fewer mosquitos in the dry times, I’m told!)  For tourists like us, that means there’s less to explore on foot.  So the walk we just took was the only one we’d take:  captivating as the stroll had been, the rest of our time was spent on the water, fishing for piranhas, with eyes peeled for caiman, otters, dolphins, and birds.

We spent some time in the water, too.  After we’d returned from our walk and lunched on more piranha (this time in pasta), Herman and Rusber took us upstream in the middle of the river for us to jump off for a leisurely and incredibly refreshing swim back down to the campsite.  Well, the swimming downstream was leisurely, anyway.  There was a reason they took us upstream before we jumped in:  swimming upstream against the current was… challenging.  Of course we had to try it.  I’m not a great swimmer, but I’m certainly competent.  I won’t be winning any races any time soon, but I have reasonable stamina, I have less surface area to present drag to the water than I used to, and my technique is not abominable.  In this part of the river, I found that swimming freestyle at full tilt, I could make one or maybe two metres progress per minute.  As in, the myriad ants we saw on shore would have been beating me.

We went for a swim the next day, too – this time downriver, after the point where the Yanayacu River joins the Pucate, downstream of Buenos Aires, with stronger current.  Full tilt here had me staying exactly put as massive volumes of water rushed on past.  It’s a humbling feeling putting your full energies into going that-a-way only to be entirely defeated by nothing more than the natural course of a placid-looking expanse of water slowly making its way on its thousand-odd-kilometre journey out to sea.  Especially knowing that there’s a lot more water, from hundreds of other tributaries, to join in and strengthen the flow before it gets there.

Much of the rest of our time in the Pacaya Samiria National Park was spent piranha fishing and searching for caiman.  These are two of the iconic Amazon River tourist experiences, I guess, so our guides were keen to make sure we ticked both boxes.  We spent so much time doing both, though, largely because we were so stunningly unsuccessful at them.

Piranha fishing.  Not pictured:  piranhas.

Piranha fishing. Not pictured: piranhas.

Our piranha-fishing expeditions, unsuccessful as they mostly were, were a lot of fun.  They started so promisingly:  Herman cast his homemade bamboo rod out first and very quickly caught a couple of bait fish, including one where he fortuitously (no doubt he’d tell you just ‘skilfully’) managed to land the baited hook right in the fish’s mouth and pull it straight back, having barely touched the surface of the water.  We were suitably impressed, and excited:  this was obviously going to be easy – surely we’d be returning to camp with a productive catch for dinner.  It wasn’t to be, though:  Chris managed a small catfish, Marden caught a small sardine-like something, Herman chipped in with another bait fish, and I adroitly caught me some vegetables.  We tried a few locations over a couple of days, all with pretty similar results.  Some spots were more promising than others:  those were the ones where at least we managed to entice some piranhas to eat our bait, even if they wouldn’t get on the damned hooks.  At least our lack of a catch was reassuring us that going for a swim in the murky water mid-river had been a not completely ludicrous activity.

Still, eventually, on our last outing, we caught a few:  Herman spotted a termite nest on a tree above the water, and gave it a good poke to break it up a bit and spill some contents into the water.  That enticed the little marine bastards to start feeding, and once they got going, and once we’d churned through a tonne more bait, we finally started getting results.

Eventual success:  a caught red piranha

Eventual success: a caught red piranha

Our search for caiman was a similar story.  After many a fruitless tour of the river, at one point, Herman became quite excited and insisted on squeezing the boat through the vegetation to get closer to the shore.  He promptly clambered over a tree and off into the jungle, disappearing for a good five minutes.  But he came back with a baby ’gator (well, caiman) and a broad grin.  We took a few photos and then plonked it on the boat (suitably restrained, of course) to take it back to camp:  Herman thought we should get some photos of it with a fish in its mouth (and all the fish we’d caught were in the canoe back at camp, not in the main boat that we were in at the time).  So we did that, then Herman gave the relieved animal a bit of a gentle shove and it raced off into the water.

Herman’s catch:  our little baby caiman, complete with fish, before it disappeared back off into the river

Herman’s catch: our little baby caiman, complete with fish, before it disappeared back off into the river

So, I guess with the piranha fishing and caiman spotting complete, that probably adequately describes the rest of our fantastic Amazon trip.

Except that there is one other story I want to tell…

On our way back to civilisation, we spent our last night in Buenos Aires village again, in Herman and Wilma’s home (a basic open-walled pole house on the edge of the town’s main playing field).  There’s a tree behind their house which is home to a couple of tarantulas, which Herman showed us with an almost familial pride.  Chris and I decided later in the evening that we wanted a second look, though, so we wandered back.  We were made to promise first that we’d be very careful, however:  tarantulas are quite poisonous, they said.

The tarantula out back of Herman and Wilma’s house

The tarantula out back of Herman and Wilma’s house

This intrigued me:  so far as I knew, tarantulas were actually fairly harmless.  So, when we got back, I asked (in what I hope was mostly intelligible Spanish).  Oh no, I was told, muy venenoso (‘very poisonous’).  Ok.  So, what does ‘very poisonous’ entail, exactly, then?  Oh, if you’re bitten, it will be bastante penoso (‘quite painful’), and you will need to be treated with medicine.  Within probably a few days.  Or you will get quite sick.

“Oh,” I explained:  “when we say ‘very poisonous’ in Australia, we mean something quite different.  We mean you’ll probably be dead in about fifteen minutes.”

There followed a very entertaining conversation describing Australian snakes and spiders.  (My Spanish didn’t extend to ‘box jellyfish’, unfortunately.)  The locals were suitably impressed, and Chris and I (once I sort-of translated the conversation) were suitably reassured that when we’d been warned off the lancehead snake we’d almost stumbled over the other day, we hadn’t actually been in any substantial mortal danger.

So there you have it.  The Amazon jungle:  a fantastic adventure, and not even particularly likely to kill you!

A final look upriver, deeper into the jungle, before we hopped on our boat to head back to Iquitos

A final look upriver, deeper into the jungle, before we hopped on our boat to head back to Iquitos