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Published: October 27th 2007
Firstly, thanks for all your messages and emails and apologies to those of you I haven´t been able to reply to yet.
I´ve just returned from an amazing few days in the Galapagos Islands, but I've got over 2 weeks to catch up with so this could be a long one...
Having survived the bus-hitting-cow incident, we spent a couple of days in a town called Oaxaca in southern Mexico, which I can safely say is the most unfriendly place I´ve been to so far. In fact, I think Mexico is the unfriendliest country I´ve been to far! A couple of times I found myself in a cafe or restaurant where I was the only person there, and the waitress could barely bring herself to serve me. Maybe that´s why I was the only person there!
Oaxaca is a big city with a large main square with a cathedral on one side, although I found the city uglier than some of the others I´ve been to. Also, despite wandering around for ages, I had a lot of trouble finding any decent restaurants and ended up eating in average, overpriced restaurants around the square. At this
point of the trip, my mood was quite low, largely due to lack of sleep, and I found myself needing my own space quite a bit.
On Thu 11th we took a bus to Puebla, which our guide Chimi said was one of the few places he could see himself settling down eventually. Driving from the bus station to the hotel, I couldn´t understand why he thought this, as the outskirts of the city were run-down and grafiti-ridden, but as we approached the historic old part of town, it soon became clear, as it was one of the nicest cities we've been to. Pity we are only here for one night. That´s the trouble with these tours - we spend two nights in a dump like Oaxaca, then only get a short time somewhere lovely like Puebla.
Puebla was the second most important city during the Spanish colonial period, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a lovely main square, which is a featrure of pretty much every city we've visited, and contains some lovely Spanish colonial buildings, as well as 365 churches. I spent the afternoon wanderng around for hours taking photos, and then
we had a big night out clubbing. Chimi had arranged for some of his female friends to join us (I think he realised that us guys were in need of some female company), but just as I thought I was getting on with one of them, Claudia, she made a beeline for my roommate Ariel! Typical! Still, we had a great night (it was the first night of the tour that Matt had a drink, and he made up for lost time), and we all finally rolled into the hotel at around 4am (thankfully, Ariel was not with Claudia!).
On Friday we left for Mexico City, rather hungover! Luckily, it was only an hour´s bus ride away, at least until we hit the traffic, which added about an hour to the journey.
Mexico City is one of those places you either love or hate (and I haven't decided which applies to me yet!). It´s the second largest city in the world (after Tokyo), the traffic is gridlocked for about 20 hours a day, and it´s smoggy, dirty and overcrowded. And that´s on a good day. Also, it´s located at an altitude of 2,240 metres, although I wouldn't have
known this as I didn't feel any altitude sickness.
However, it's not all bad. It has the second largest square in the world (behind Moscow's Red Square), which was very impressive, and I didn't find it as dangerous as the guidebooks made out. Actually, Mexico City reminds me of home in many respects: the pavements are covered in spit, people would rather walk through you than around you, and hardly anyone smiles. One notable feature of the streets were the bootleggers, selling everything from fake perfume and watches, to hard core porn dvds. I'm not sure how they get away with it, but they do!
On Saturday, we visited some amazing Aztec ruins called Teotihuacán. We had a bit of an altercation with our driver, as he insisted on charging us quite a lot more than the cost of the tour we booked, although when we got back to the hotel and told Chimi what happened, he phoned the driver and told him that GAP (the tour company) would not be using his services again. The reason for the extra charge was that we were taken to some other sites as well, few of which were of interest
and most of which were geared to getting us to buy tacky souveniers.
The ruins were among the most impressive I´ve seen so far, consisting of a number of pyramids (including the third largest pyramid in the world ) separated by a long avenue lined by smaller monuments. The climb to the top of the Temple of the Sun was strenuous, especially given the heat and the altitude, but was worth it for the amazing views.
Sunday was spent wandering around the city, and on Monday 15th it was time for me to leave Central America and begin the next leg of my trip in South America. I arrived at the airport ridiculously early (3 a.m. is about the only time in Mexico City that there is no traffic), and had a hassle-free check-in, although I think I found the most expensive cafe in Mexico, as the 5 pounds I had left in Mexican money wouldn´t even by me an orange juice and some cereal.
I had to change planes at San Jose, Costa Rica, before flying on to Quito, which was quite an experience, as the airport is located right in the city, so the approach
was pretty spectacular. The whole journey went very smoothly and I found myself in a very plush hotel at around 5pm (I even had my own bath, which is a rare luxury). The hotel was located in an area geared towards travellers, as every other building seemed to be either an internet cafe, bar or restaurant, but it wasn't a particularly attractive part of town. After doing some much-needed laundry, I had a traditional Ecuadorian meal of Chicken Madras and a long soak in the bath.
On Tuesday I took a taxi to the old town, and I think so far this is my favourite city. Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, at 2,850 metres, and is surrounded by volcanoes. It has a lovely town square flanked by a Cathedral and the President's Palace, and some lovely colonial buildings. Apparently, the city can be quite rough after dark, but I didn't experience anything bad. When I was walking round the square, I saw what must be the Ecuadorian equivalent of Candid Camera being filmed. Firstly, a pretty girl dressed as a nun kept asking passers by for directions, and then pinched them when they weren't
looking. As the victims recoiled in shock, the nun got them to smile and wave at a hidden camera. Then another girl dressed as a nun was walking around holding the hand of a guy dressed as a monk. I'm sure it will be funnier when it's shown on TV.
That evening I met some of the people who I will be visiting the Galapagos Islands with. There were only 5 others in my group (as some people hadn't yet arrived in Quito whilst others had already spent a few days on the boat), and a few of us went out for a meal afterwards. I immediately clicked with Waisum, a girl from New York of Hong Kong origin, and Karen, also originally from Hong Kong but who now lives in Vancouver.
On Wednesday, we had an early start for our flight to the Galapagos Islands, which took about 90 minutes but involved a quick stopover at another Ecuadorian airport called Guayaquil. After landing at Baltra airport, we took a short bus ride and boat trip to the island of Santa Cruz, followed by a drive to the the port of Puerto Ayora on the south of the
island where we picked up our boat which was to be home for the next 8 days. The boat was called the Pelikano and could hold 16 people plus crew, with each cabin containing a bunk bed. The boat was very comfortable, with a dining room and bar, and each cabin had a sea view. My roommate was a Belgian guy called Sven, who had already been on the boat for 4 days and luckily had already taken the top bunk.
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed around the equator, 965 kilometres west of Ecuador. The group consists of 13 main islands, 6 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. Now, I could go into lots of detail of everything I saw and did there, but it would take me a week to write. I´ll let the photos do the talking and pick out some highlights:
1. We snorkelled pretty much every day, and each experience was different. Sometimes there were hardly any fish, but all of a sudden a sealion would jump in and play with us, or a turtle would swim past gracefully, and other times we would see an amazing variety
of fish, as well as white-tipped reef sharks and sting rays. The only dissapointment was that we didn´t see any penguins in the water.
2. The wildlife of course was incredible, and here are some of the things we saw: blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies (including some blue-footed boobies doing their mating dance); frigate birds, which constantly flew alongside our boat, and on one island we saw the males with their red pouches inflated to try and attract females; colourful crabs; hundreds of sealions, with boistrous bulls and ridiculously cute pups suckling their mother; land and sea iguanas, so tame that you had to watch where you stepped in case you trod on one; pelicans diving in the water looking for fish; mockingbirds, finches, albatrosses, hawks, doves and many other birds, and of course the giant tortoises that give the islands their name.
3. The scenery was stunning, with each island having a different landscape and vegetation. My personal favourite was Santa Fe, with its giant cacti and red plants.
4. The crew were amazing and very friendly. I could swear that my bed was made in the morning before I even got out of it, they
were so efficient.
We had 2 dinghys which ferried us from boat to land. Sometimes it was a dry landing (onto rocks) and other times it was a wet landing, which meant wading through the water onto the beach. We were briefed every evening so that we knew what to expect the following day, and our guide, Walter, really knew his stuff. It was an incredible few days and lived up to all my expectations. After 4 days, some people left the boat and a new group joined, although I found that I gelled more with the first group.
Sadly on Wed 24th it was time to leave the island. We had a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, which I was really looking forward to as I´m keen to learn about the conservation work that is done there, but unfortunately, we were rushed through in less than an hour by a guide who spoke terrible English, so that was quite a disappointment. Back in Quito, a few of us went to a fancy restaurant with a great view over the city. The food was great, although the service was painfully slow and we ended up taking
3 hours over the meal, and I really wanted to get back to the hotel and go to sleep!
On Thursday, Waisum and I visited 'El Mitad del Mundo', or 'The middle of the world', i.e. the equator. We had a great guide who showed us round a traditional indigenous house before showing us some experiments to prove we were on the equator. Now, I don´t know if these were gimmicks, although they seemed pretty real to me, but they were great fun. He demonstrated how water flows straight down a plug hole on the equator, but move a couple of metres either side and it flows either clockwise or anticlockwise. He also balanced a raw egg on the head of a nail, which apparently can only be done on the equator. I managed to do it as well and got a certificate to prove it, which will take pride of place next to my grade 7 piano certificate! We then went to visit the equator monument, which actually stands a few hundred metres away from the equator, but don´t tell anyone. I got the obligatory photo of me straddling the equator line. It was a really enjoyable day,
but then it was time to say an emotional goodbye to Waisum, who I had become quite close with over the past few days and who was heading for another town. I then went to the shopping mall to replace a few of the things I´d lost along the way (torch, hat, memory card reader), bought some ridiculously cheap bootleg dvds and had a very average and over-priced Thai meal.
Yesterday, I had to change hotels as my next tour (143 days around South America!) starts tonight. Having been spoilt in a 5-star hotel, I was shocked and rather depressed to find that the new hotel is an absolute dump in a horrible part of town. I decided to visit the old town again to cheer myself up, and finished another lovely day with another curry. Today has been spent writing this and uploading my photos, which has taken bloody ages!
Not sure when I'll next be able to write, but hopefully it won't be too long as I can't face writing another long update like this one!
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