Published: May 9th 2012May 9th 2012
Well it's been a while amigos, but I figured it was time I finally got started on another travel blog. Since we last spoke I've been on a rather mad dash through South America and now sit in an internet cafe in San Pedro de Atacama, in the driest desert in the world in Chile. I have had some rather amazing adventures en route and could write for hours, but I'm promising myself I really will keep this entry a little more succinct...
So when I left you last I was in Caye Caulker, Belize, which frankly feels like a lifetime ago. After spending a few more days relaxing in Caye Caulker I went and stayed for a night in Belize City before my flight to Ecuador...what an absolute hole! I would never recommend anyone go there by choice. I stayed in a horrible hostel that I forget the name of, owned by an abusive alcoholic who regularly hit his dog and screamed at his staff. At one point when I was sitting on the hostel computer he was having a particularly heated drunken argument with the lady who ran the hostel for him. Upon her suggestion that they shouldn't argue in front of the guests, he turned and looked at me before screaming "I don't give a fuck about the guests." What a charming fellow. So I was delighted to escape Belize City and after a straight forward flight via San Jose and Bogota I arrived in Quito, Ecuador. This was my first taste of real altitude (which I have since discovered that I don't deal with well...) as Quito sits at about 3400m above sea level. I stayed in a stunning hostel called "Secret Garden", set over 4 floors with a rooftoop terrace offering incredible views over the whole city. The only down side was that the 4 floors meant walking up and down endless staircases, and by the time I reached my room I was practically on my hands and knees crawling into bed. It's hard to explain high altitude, it feels like no matter how deeply you breathe, no oxygen enters your body, and my heart must have been at a fairly consistent 150bpm for my entire stay!
On my first full day in Quito I booked to do some moutain biking on a volcano nearby called Cotopaxi. This involved taking a 4x4 up to the hightest point on the volcano reachable by vehicle, at about 4800m, and supposedly flying back down on a bike. However, by the time I had reached the top I had turned into a gibbering wreck in the back of the van, shivering and feeling like I was going to vomit with a pounding headache, so unfortunately I had to stay in the back of said van and sleep all the way back down, which was a pretty sizeable disappointment. To this day I'm still not sure if the altitude got to me or I just picked up a bug of some sort, as the next day I was absolutely right as rain again. Very odd.
The next day I ventured into the centre of Quito called "La Mariscal" and started snooping around some travel agencies, looking at Galapagos tours more out of interest than actually expecting to purchase one. However after a quick skype with the parents and some convincing words, I had booked a last minute 5 day cruise of the Galapagos leaving in a few days, and was as excited as I can ever remember being!
The rest of my time in Quito was spent watching the procession that takes place on Good Friday, which really is a spectacle. These people take their religion very seriously! Thousands of people dress up in what I'm afraid I can only explain as purple KKK outfits, with the signature cone hats, and walk a few miles through the street causing varying degrees of pain to themselves. Some people were carrying crosses made out of what I think must have been railway sleepers, so large that they could only drag them a few paces before having to rest. Others had crosses made of cactus strapped to their backs, were being whipped with nettles and walked with enormous metal shackles around their ankles. All were covered in what I'm hoping was fake blood, but sometimes it was genuinely hard to tell.
So after that excitement I was off to the Galapagos. I really am almost reluctant to write about my trip there as I know that no words I say can do it justice, just as my photos can't even begin to depict the sights I saw, but I shall try nonetheless. I arrived on the main populated island of Santa Cruz a day before my cruise was due to begin, so had the afternoon to explore for myself. I chose to take the two hour walk to nearby Tortuga Bay (Turtle Bay) and was instantly blown away. I had heard that what made the Galapagos so special was that the wildlife was completely fearless, but I was in no way prepared for how little the animals cared about human presence. On the trek there I saw hundreds of lizards, enormous butterflies, so many beautiful birds that weren't even remotely startled when I put the lens of my camera practically on their beaks, and upon arriving at the beach was confronted by jet black marine iguanas genuinely the size of small dogs. They are amazing creatures that look hilariously unnatural gliding through the water effortlessly, and also give you a hell of a shock when you see one right by your head when snorkelling! I spent some time at the beach paddling, and had two giant herons fishing from the ocean no further than two metres in front of me. I could have stayed there all day, but unfortunately the tide was incredibly high and was starting to cut off my route back, so I reluctantly headed back to the main town called Puerto Ayora. Once there I sat on a bench for bit of a rest and watched the Blue Footed Boobies (amazing birds, with the most obscure bright blue feet) dive bombing into the ocean, when a sea lion flopped right at my feet and lay like a dog would looking for my attention. Then two more herons fluttered over a few feet away and sat looking at me, before I noticed there was an enormous iguana a few feet from my shoulder...as I say, the wildlife is totally fearless. Apologies, I'm already rambling and I haven't even told you about the cruise yet!
The next morning I met with the cruise (I was catching the last 5 days of an existing 8 day cruise) for an amazing all you can eat breakfast, then headed off to the Darwin Reserve to see some giant tortoises, including Lonesome George. He really is an incredible beast, big enough that I'm fairly sure I could ride him like a pony, and look very regal doing so. We were lucky that he wasn't hiding in a bush as he sometimes does, and actually seemed to be playing up for the cameras, giving us plenty of opportunity for great snaps. We then saw some other breeds of giant tortoise and some of the obligatory tortoise humping that always seems to occur when there are cameras and tortoises involved, then headed back to the boat for more great food. The rest of the trip is a slight blur, and I'm not so certain of the order we did things after all this time, so I'll just tell you about my highlights.
The most amazing thing about the Galapagos for me was the snorkelling, which completely blew any diving I have done on my trip out of the water (excuse the pun!). The amount of marine life was mindblowing: when I've snorkelled before I have seen parrot fish etc as fairly solitary creatures, floating about on their own...here there was shoals of hundreds of them, perfectly happy for you to dive down and swim among them. There were enormous turtles lying on the sea floor and swimming around, content to pose with you for photos. I saw shoals of rays (I didn't even know they travelled together?!) including manta rays, sting rays, eagle rays, golden rays, marble rays, and I'm sure plenty of other rays that I can't name. At one point I dove down to look under a ridge of coral and scared out a white tipped reef shark longer than me, which happily swam with me for a while. We were also incredibly lucky to snorkel with the Galapagos Penguins, which move at a remarkable speed when fishing underwater, and to see sea lions flying past. On one of the days before I had arrived, the rest of my group snorkelled with a group of sea lions so playful they were nibbling on their fins and swimming in circles around them, and had also seen hammerhead sharks. As much as I wish I had been there, it gives me a good reason to go back!
Another memorable aquatic experience came when I was fooling around flipping off the back of the boat and one of the crew spotted a Galapagos shark that was about 9 feet long. He assured me that it wasn't dangerous, and only attacked humans at night (which was a little unnerving), so I grabbed my snorkel and jumped back in. After floating around for a few minutes the shark found me and started circling...this was all very amusing until it had circled me 7, 8, 9 times and I started to get a little worried. Thankfully I made as loud a noise as I could underwater and it vanished, leaving me with all my limbs and an absolutely amazing memory. (N.B I have just looked on Wikipedia and found this: "Galapagos sharks are bold and have behaved aggressively towards humans, and are thus regarded as dangerous"...)
Other highlights include: a trip on the dinghy through the mangroves where we saw countless incredible birds, so many turtles and sharks, and a shoal of about 50 golden rays swimming next to the boat; trips to rock outcrops where there were blue footed boobies as far as the eye could see, completely nonplussed by our presence a few feet away; a trip to a lagoon where we saw flamingos...to be honest the whole trip was just one big highlight for me.
I'm rambling again, so I shall just say that the cruise was perfectly organised. The food was amazing, the crew were friendly, our guide was incredible and his passion for conserving the Galapagos was contagious. He would even dive deeper than I have ever seen anyone dive to retrieve rubbish from the ocean floor, or go far out of our way in the dinghy to pick up a stray plastic bag. We would sail overnight as we slept to wake on a new island with new animals to see, and sleeping quarters were comfortable if a little cramped. All in all, just in case you haven't got the message, you MUST go to the Galapagos if you ever get the chance. It's expensive, but worth every penny and more, and I definitely plan to return for a longer cruise, hopefully with my parents in tow.
This is getting very long again, so I'm going to fly through the rest! I returned from the Galapagos to Guayaquil in the south of Ecuador, which is an oppressively hot and fairly unpleasant place. I wasn't planning to stay long but due to bus complications ended up stranded there a few days, so used the time to get the worlds worst hair cut and take a trip to the cinema. Thankfully there was some really cool people in my hostel so as usual we had a night out and I ended up enjoying my stay. From there I took a very uncomfortable 50 hour bus ride to Cusco in Peru where I was due to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Cusco is a beautiful place, and definitely one of my favourite cities on my stop so far. Cobbled streets lined by nice shops and an attractive main square with some good places to eat made it a very comfortable place to stay. I stayed in "Hostel Pariwana" which was very pleasant indeed, with a good bar and a nice atmosphere. I stayed in Cusco a few days before starting the Inca Trail in an attempt to acclimatize to the altitude, and spent one of those days mountain biking on the famous Megavalanche course, which was expensive and INCREDIBLE. Ridiculously muddy and wet, ridiculously steep and dangerous, and most of all ridiculously enjoyable. After this I met some friends from university and some friends of friends, and was surprised how comforting it was to see some familiar faces. By chance they had booked to do the Inca Trail on the same day as me, so it was great to have some friendly faces to hang out with for a few days.
I had been fairly blasé about the Inca Trail, thinking I was a fairly fit guy and people must have been exaggerating it's difficulty...how wrong I was. I realised as soon as we arrived at the start that I was the world's least prepared hiker, in my jean shorts and vest, hiking with a Nike backpack, no hiking poles and boots that were very far from broken in. What I also hadn't anticipated was carrying my own sleeping bag and roll mat, meaning I had one hanging from either strap of my bag by caribenas, bashing against my legs as I walked. Combined with the weight of my bag causing cramps in me shoulders before we had even begun, it wasn't the greatest start. However, I set off for day one attempting to adopt a positive mindset, and was actually rewarded with a pretty gentle start, some incredible views and amazing service. Perhaps one of the most amazing things about the Inca Trail is the porters...they run the whole thing, carrying back packs bigger than themselves stuffed with food, tents, chairs tables etc. Some of them are so old they look like they shouldn't even be walking, and yet they leap along the whole trail like gazelles. There is apparently a race every year for professional athletes and porters, and a porter has the record time of 3 hours and 36 minutes to run a trail that it takes us 4 days to walk... Anyway the result of all this hard work from the porters was that at every meal we had a large tent set up with a dining table inside, amazing food considering the utensils they were cooking with, had our tents for sleeping set up before we arrived at each camp site, were woken each morning with a cup of coca tea, and were all round taken care of ridiculously well.
So after the gentle incline of day one I was feeling very positive, and thinking I had been right to think everyone had been exaggerating. We reached the camp site for the first night and made the collective decision that we were going to do the trail a day faster than we were supposed to, arriving at Machu Picchu on day three instead of day four, spending the third night a nearby town called Aguas Calientes, then getting the first bus up at 5 on the morning of the 4th day to be the first in Machu Picchu. We figured after the first day had been so easy, we could happily do the trail faster than everyone else! However, day two was an entirely different matter. I spent all of the first night in cold sweats and shivering, barely slept, and awoke on the morning of the second day feeling like I had an awful case of the flu (I think I must just take altitude like a massive nancy!). So after barely managing to force down any breakfast we set off for what is notoriously the hardest day, hiking up "Dead Woman's Pass", which is essentially an absurdly steep, uneven rock stair case that ascends for hours and hours at incredibly high altitude. Sure enough after a couple of hours, me legs had completely turned to jelly and every few paces I was having to rest and try my best not to vomit, but going back isn't really an option so I carried on at an incredibly slow pace. By the time I reached the top, I was a broken man...and we still had to go down the other side...and this was all before lunch, we essentially had to do the same after. When we eventually reached our lunch spot (with me wondering why on earth I had paid $500 to put myself through intense pain), which due to our speedy plan was actually where we were supposed to camp for the second night, our guide tried to convince us to stay there for the day and revert to the original schedule. Apparently the last time he had seen someone in my state and they had carried on, they had died. However, I had a bit of a nap, ate a bit of lunch, and seeing as we were at slightly lower altitude now, actually started to feel a little better. I had been very worried before the trip that some overweight person would slow us all down, and it turned out I was that guy, so determined not to slow the rest of the group I managed to convince them that I was fairly sure I wouldn't die, and we set off for the afternoon of treking. This really was no improvement on the morning, and by the end of the day I was reconsidering whether I might die, but thankfully we were at lower altitude and after a good night sleep I awoke on the third day feeling back to my normal chirpy self and apologising to all for my poor performance.
The third day comparatively was an absolutely breeze as I practically jumped laughing from rock to rock all day rejoicing at what a difference a day makes! The views were beautiful, the Inca ruins we saw en route were stunning, and we arrived at the "Sun Gate" for our first view of Machu Picchu at about 3pm. However, the clouds had conspired against us and we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Then one of those wonderful life afirming moments occurred, as the clouds suddenly cleared, the sun shone and for just a few seconds we had our first glimpse of the old Incan city, nestled atop it's mountain, and suddenly it was all worth it.
I can't tell you much about Machu Picchu that you won't know already after seeing it in pictures on on television, but it really is pretty awe inspiring in real life. We had a wonder around then spent the third night in Aguas Calientes as planned drinking a few well earned beers, returning to Machu Picchu at dusk on day four for our actual oraganised tour. A truly breathtaking place. So am I glad I hiked the Inca Trail? Definitely. Would I do it again? Not a chance!
We spent the rest of day four soaking our poor legs in the hot springs that Aguas Calientes are named after, then headed back to Cusco for the luxury of a hot shower and a nice bed. I spent the next day relaxing in Cusco with my friends, one of whom had unfortunately dislocated her knee on the Inca Trail but had still been able to complete it, then organised to go to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia with two friends, while the other two went their separate ways.
After an overnight bus we arrived in Copacabana, which is a nice place, but honestly fairly uninspiring. We took a ferry for a couple of hours over to nearby Isla del Sol, the home of some Inca ruins, after having it highly recommended by friends and the Lonely Planet, but again were far from blown away. Due to the aforementioned dislocated knee we were unable to take the 5 hour trek from the north to the south of the island as planned, but honestly I think we were all a little too tired to do it anyway. We had a nice time, and it was certainly a welcome break to do something a little more relaxing, but while Lake Titicaca itself was beautiful, I certainly wouldn't say that Copacabana and Isla del Sol are must see locations. I think perhaps the floating islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca are a better trip, but unfortunately I haven't had the time to visit.
From Copacabana we took a three hour bus to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, and stayed in "Loki's", a hostel renowned for being the place to party. On our first night we found out the hard way that alcohol (and hangovers) hit you ten times as hard at altitude, and spent most of our second day comatose in bed, just about managing to make it to the cinema in the evening. We spent the next few days exploring La Paz, and checking out travel agencies for a trip to the Amazon Basin in Bolivia. Jade and I booked to go while Sophia stayed in La Paz unfortunately due to a lack of funds, and we set off in a little 12 seater plane for a flight which I would have paid good money for even if it wasn't part of the trip! It didn't so much fly over the mountains as through the mountains, with enormous snow capped peaks looming on either side of us. We arrived in Rurrenabaque, had the steak that I had been yearning for daily, then set off the following day in a 4x4 to the river Beni, where upon arrival we instantly saw pink river dolphins and I got pretty excited. We jumped in a small speed boat and set off down the river for a few hours en route to our hostel, seeing amazing birds, alligators, black caimans, spider and howler monkeys en route. At once stage we pulled over to where a few other boats were looking at some spider monkeys in some low foliage, and with the tempation of the bananas that were being handed out they essentially swarmed our boats.
After we arrived at the hostel we headed to a nearby "Sunset Bar" to, as the name suggests, drink beer and watch the sun go down. As soon as the last sliver of sun had dropped below the horizon, something quite amazing happened: what had been a peaceful and tranquil scene was instantaneously transformed into a frenzy of flapping and flailing limbs as the air literally became thick with mosquitos. And not your every day, run of the mill mosquitos, oh no, these were radioactive, causing pretty sharp pains when they bit and having no problems biting through two layers of clothing and mutilating my derrière. So we made a mad dash back to the hostel in our boat, with mosquitos squasing on our foreheads as we went, wolfed down some food and put on several layers of clothes for a night expedition to see the reflective eyes of the alligators and caimans. Unfortunately neither Jade or I had a torch, but on the occasions when we borrowed one from the others in our boat, the strange flashes of orange and purple made by the animals eyes were pretty eerie.
The following day, after feeding some howler monkeys that had ventured into the trees nearby, we went on a pretty unpleasant trip to the wetlands to try and see anacondas, which essentially consisted of trudging through swamps in leaky wellies in blistering heat, getting eaten alive by more radioactive mosquitos, and not actually seeing any anacondas. However, we were soon happy again after an afternoon of relaxing in the sun at the hostel in the hammocks, then headed off pirhana fishing for a few hours. Unfortunately Jade and I seemed to be spectacularly untalented at this, as our guide and another guy on our boat pulled in piranha after piranha, while we threw in hooks with chunks of meat on, and pulled out empty hooks with no fish or meat. We went back to the hostel for dinner, with about ten piranhas caught by everyone on the boat except us, but I have no idea what the chef did to them. He must have fried them for about an hour, as they came back looking like the dried up fish you see that have been beached for a week, and upon cutting them open we found the tiniest strip of flavourless meat running along the spine and that was it. I had imagined lovely tasty piranha fillets, but c'est la vie. After some time spent watching the black caiman that seemed to have set up camp at our hostel, we headed to bed, ready to rise early to watch the sun rise.
After a very beautiful sun rise we had some quick brekkie then headed to swim with the pink river dolphins. In reality, they are fairly unnattractive creatures, when compared to their beautiful bottlenose cousins, but are remarkable nonetheless. I was lucky enough to have some dolphins swim straight into my feet and rise for air on either side of me, but they were apparently in a shy mood that day. The guide assured us that normally people can hug them! So after a few hours on the boat back to the 4x4, our trip was unfortunately over, but a very enjoyable trip it was.
After another flight we arrived back in La Paz, where I incredibly foolishly left my wallet in the back of a taxi, which as you can imagine has caused me some SERIOUS problems. I had to cancel my card, but then after the help of an incredibly friendly Moroccan in our hostel and two days of private detective style investigations, I was able to recover the wallet, obviously sans the 1000 Bolivianos and 50 Australian dollars that were in there. However the card can't be reactivated so I've been left with no access to any money. Thankfully due to the kindness of my friends and a well placed Western Union, I haven't yet died a hungry death, and will pick up a new card in Australia.
For our last meal in La Paz we had the most remarkable steak I have ever eaten, then unfortunately it was time to part ways with my friends and face the big bad world on my own once more. I took an overnight bus to Uyuni in the south of Bolivia, which is the base for tours of the Salar de Uyuni, known as the Bolivian Salt Flats to you and me. Unfortunately here I had the familiar experience of being royally screwed by a tour agency, as seems to be the way in Latin America. I chose to use a company called Estrella del Sur as they were the top recommended in the Lonely Planet. The prices were a little higher but I figured that would be reflected with good service. I was also happy as the agent showed me the people who were in my group, and they were all English speaking. However, upon arriving at the office to leave on the tour, my entire group was sent in one 4x4 as I was sent to a different truck, run by a completely different company. As it turned out, I was actually in a van with 5 Brazilians who spoke only a little English, and all of whom had paid 150 Bolivianos less than me for their tour. While they were incredibly friendly and made an enormous effort to include me, which I am very grateful for, it just wasn't quite the same as it would have been with people from my own country.
The salt flats themselves were every bit as impressive as I was expecting, with brilliant white stretching out in all directions as far as the eye can see. We spent some time playing around with perspective and actually taking some pretty good snaps, and on the drive to the salt hotel in which we spent the night, passed through some areas where the slat flats are covered by a thin layer of water. This has the effect of turning the ground into the world's biggest mirror, perfectly reflecting the sky and the surrounding mountains and giving the odd impression that mountains are floating in the air. The following day we visited 4 lagoons that were supposedly all of different colours, although by far the most impressive was the red lagoon, which really was blood red in colour. Huge flocks of flamingos resided in each lagoon, which combined with the surrounding landscapes made the lakes rather beautiful to look at. On the final day, we were scheduled to rise at 5 to watch the sun rise, then head to geysers followed by hot springs for a soak and a number of other sights. However, after waking at 5, our tour guide finally showed up at half 7 seeming very hungover, meaning we spent about 2 minutes at the geysers, stopped for a photo of the hot springs with no chance to swim, and just drove past all the other planned stops of the day to make it to the Chilean border on time for our transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. All in all I was severely underwhelmed with the service on the tour, and pretty angry that I had paid more than everybody else, and this all detracted from me enjoyment, which was a shame. What really rubbed salt in the wound (again excuse the pun) was that all the way I kept bumping into the group I had originally been told I was with, and they were having so much fun, loved their guide, and were all round having the time of their lives. Upon arriving in San Pedro I went to the office of Estrella del Sur and essentially threw a hissy fit until they gave me some money back...only 10 pounds, but it was the principal that mattered.
And that just about updates you for now! In a few days I fly to Australia then on to New Zealand for a tour of both islands, which I couldn't be more excited about. While I have absolutely loved my time in South America, it certainly isn't easy to travel through and I think from here on things will require significantly less effort. The though of being in an English speaking country is just such a luxury!
So thoughts on travelling so far? Ridiculous, incredible, and utterly unbelievable. I've lost track of the number of times I have found myself with a ridiculous grin on my face when I realise that I'm on top of a volcano in Guatemala, or snorkelling with sea lions in the Galapagos, or any number of other outrageous adventures, when only a few months ago I was sitting in an office or lazing around at home. And I still have 4 months to go...