Friday, 25 October 2013

Worth a PERUsal

Well we have now been in Peru for about 2 weeks and so far it has been a time of completely contrasting geographies and landscapes and we still have more to come.

So crossing the border between Ecuador and Peru was yet another experience of simplicity; I have no idea why people moan about the border crossings in Central and South America as so far it has been nothing but a basic exercise in filling out a form and getting stamped out and in. Seriously, we got into Peru without them even checking our bags which were stored in the bus; we could’ve brought anything with us, including Madeline McCann.
Still, too soon?

It is no exaggeration that once into Peru there was a stark contrast between the country we had left behind and the one we had now entered, both in terms of look and feel. Ecuador was lush, green and clean whereas Peru was dry, dusty, underdeveloped and dirty. Looking out of the bus window at all of the pot holed roads and litter we both could’ve been mistaken for thinking that we were back in India.

Another thing about Peru that became apparent was that we would need to get used to long bus journeys again. Whereas Ecuador is about the same size as the UK, Peru is about 5 times the size and our ride from the border to our first stop took us about 12 hours in total from the south of Ecuador. It was a very long day especially when the only entertainment is watching 3 Nicolas Cage films in a row in badly dubbed Spanish.

Our first Peruvian stop was the city of Piura which typically acts as a one night stopover for those traveling north or south but having had such a long trip we decided to stay for a couple of days and we were really happy that we did because we actually had a good time.
With our time in Piura we got to taste the best Ceviche yet, even after the locals promised us that it was and so far Peru had served up the tastiest seafood.
I also managed to finally replace my camera and even managed in Spanish to negotiate a discount for cash. I am now onto my 3rd camera in 9 months on this trip so as much as I would love for this camera to last the distance until next June, frankly I am not hopeful.
However, the absolute highlight of Piura was going to the circus!!
We had no idea about what to expect from a circus in the sandy north of Peru but it didn’t let us down in terms of entertainment. The stereotype of the circus was prevalent from the very beginning when I bought the tickets and the carni at the counter tried to short change me and showed no embarrassment at all when I asked for the rest of the change.
Just to make one fact clear, this was an animal free circus as all circuses now should be.

I can’t remember the last time that I went to the circus but it must’ve been over 20 years ago so as we walked through the entrance into the big top I was quite excited. I could tell that we were in a country where health and safety is a foreign concept from the audience seating arrangement – wooden planks. The front was already busy so we had to literally step from one plank to the next which were set a good 2 feet apart as we looked down to the grass below which at first was fine, but once we got to about 10 feet off the ground we got a little nervy.
10 minutes sitting on a plank did nothing for the feeling in my arse but it was all forgotten as the lights went out and show began.
How can something not be great when it begins with an amateur dance troop performing to a Spanish version of Fame?
From that point on the circus steadily built to an acrobatic crescendo. In truth it was all a bit amateur but that added to the charm of it – there were the dancers, there were the trampolining kids including a toddler who should’ve been in bed, who performed various stunts with equal success and failure. It was all a bit odd when they got some kids out of the crowd to have a go on the trampoline and do forward rolls!
There was also the contortionist who definitely could have pleased himself like no other (if you get my meaning) and as for the clowns they were hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Their act depended on a number of computer generated sound affects but all of it was mistimed and out of sync so we laughed at points when the locals did not, and vice versa, we were at a loss at some of the gags.
By the time the guys on the high wire had performed some very nervy manoeuvres we along with our dead arses were ready to call it a night.
That was Piura and our first Peruvian town – a success.

We had designs to visit a number of places in northern Peru but reading about the travel times involved, the difficulty in getting there and the fact that we have the Inca Trail deadline to meet meant that we decided to travel south and to instead explore some other unexpected places.

As we left the dust behind and entered a less arid landscape we stopped over in the really pleasant town of Chiclayo and spent quite an interesting afternoon exploring it.
As is always the case, everything revolves around the central plaza and it was here in this relatively large plaza that we got to taste some more Peruvian specialities. This time we sampled the soft drinks, namely Chicha Morada and Inca Kola.
Chica Morada is a raspberry flavoured drink that tastes like something from childhood that we cannot quite put our fingers on and Inca Kola is a luminous yellow fizzy drink similar in taste to Tizer, but not as good.
You will not be surprised to hear that Inca Kola, advertised absolutely everywhere in Peru is part of the Coca Cola family so even though you would hope that another company had captured some part of the market it is not so – Coca Cola, like McD rules! Boooo!

In Chiclayo we also visited the huge open-aired market and in particular the Witches Market – a string of stalls selling all sorts of herbal remedies and black magic solutions that clearly are never going to work but I am sure that I saw one mature westerner buying a love potion / Viagra.
I am not sure why but there were also an unnerving amount of skunk skins decorating the stalls although I have no idea what magical properties they may have?

Next up was Huanchaco and another change in scenery at this very relaxed little surf town famed for its good waves, cigar shaped fishing boats called Caballitos (small horses) and its proximity to a number of pre-Inca ruins.

Who's boat? My boat!

We really enjoyed our time here and the pace of life suited us quite nicely before we moved onto more energetic pursuits.
Of course we couldn’t pass by the opportunity to visit yet another ancient site (that’s 10 and counting now) and the city of Chan-Chan was well worth the visit. The city was built over 700 years ago and was once the largest pre-Chris Columbian city (we are mates I can call him Chris) in the Americas containing about 10,000 mud brick structures.
We caught the local bus out to the edge of the city and then walked for over 20 minutes through the ruins of this once grand city to one of the royal palaces. I can only describe the look of the majority of the city to that of the scenes of Egypt when Indiana Jones and the Nazi’s are both searching and digging for the Lost Ark – so obviously I was into it.
We visited one of the 9 palaces dotted around Chan-Chan, the tradition being that once the king died he was mummified and buried within the palace and the next king would be required to build and brand new and generally better palace. Seems a little crazy really; why not just bury the body and save the effort?

At the entrance to the city we were approached by 2 fellow backpackers to see if we wanted to split the cost of a guided tour of the city and I am happy that we took up the offer because listening to the guide speak in broken English was fun as well as informative.
At one point the guide showed us a model of the palace, protected under a Perspex dome and talked about the roof structures that used to exist, “but not like this”, pointing at the Perspex as if we would actually think that they were so advanced as to be able to form a palace sized dome or they existed in the make believe world of The Simpson’s movie.
The palace was pretty big but the most impressive features were the natural oases dotted about that looked even more luscious and green set amongst the golden sandy and mud remains.

As if Peru were trying to show off its diversity we were now heading inland and into the heart of the Andes Mountains to the city of Huaraz, our base camp before embarking upon the Santa Cruz trek.
The only option of travel from Huanchaco to Huaraz was to take a night bus from nearby city of Trujillo, so with an entire day to kill we decided to head to Trujillo in the early afternoon to dump our bags at the bus terminal and have a look around.
Trujillo was ok, nothing special but its vast central Plaza De Armas was probably one of the best yet and being a Sunday it was packed with families enjoying the sunny day.
We also saw the famous hairless dogs of this area that are used as body warmers by arthritis sufferers.

We also ran into an Irish couple who we had met in Ecuador who we may well run into once we get to Cusco as well as meeting a Bulgarian couple who we will almost definitely see again in Cusco as they start the Inca Trail the same day as we do.
If we had any doubts about taking a night bus in Peru they were most definitely eradicated as soon as we stepped aboard. Due to a lack of space we booked 1st class seats and I know for sure that nothing less than 1st class will ever be accepted by Arancha again.
Our 1st class seats were in fact deep set comfy leather camas (Spanish for bed) which reclined to enable us to lie at 160 degrees. The bus even came with a hostess who served us biscuits and a drink before bed time!!
Our bed for the night was so comfortable that the hostess had to wake us in the morning to inform us that we had arrived and that everyone was already off the bus.
I can’t wait to travel around Peru now; given that we are saving on accommodation costs we will be traveling by 1st class night bus from now on so who cares about the crazy distances?

We were now back at 3,000+ metres altitude and excited to be planning our 4 day trek into what is allegedly the most beautiful and jaw dropping area of the Andes mountain range and given that we are now back and I am writing about it, I can concur with this sentence and claim that it was f*cking awesome. F*ck yeah!!

Huaraz itself sits just below the range and from our favourite eatery, The Andino Café, we could sit in the bright sunshine (although it rained for 2 days before we left but is fine now) on the terrace sipping good coffee looking out towards those mystical snowy peaks. The look and feel of the town is very Nepalese and given that it is the base town for trekkers and climbers hoping to take their own piece of the Andes away with them we were very comfortable and happy here and be reminded of our favourite country.
We spent 2 days in Huaraz before we left for the trek and this was spent getting organised because this was raw and real trekking ie. there would be no lodgings along the way to spend the night; we would need to carry camping gear and all of our food.
Fortunately there was no shortage of camping / trekking shops in Huaraz so we were able to hire our tent, gas stove and cooking gear for the measly sum of $5 per day. As for our food we decided to go gourmet – bread, cheese, eggs, pasta and chocolate. Once again; f*ck yeah!
Whilst here we also sampled the local teas – Coca leaf tea (good for altitude) and Shara Shara (good for altitude and a bad stomach) and decided that we should take the former with us just in case with got a little crook.
The last things on the 'to do' list was to buy bus tickets to the starting point of the walk at Vaqueria and permits for the National Park.
We ran into a little difficulty at the permit office because they refused to sell us a ticket saying that it was impossible to do the trek without a certified guide. Everything that we had read told us otherwise and whilst on the trek the very few people that we did encounter were all walking unaided.
We had no intention of being babysat because apart from the excessive and unnecessary cost we wanted to experience this on our own, just the two of us. It is very rare to be able to spend time in just your own company and away from absolutely everything and I did not want a guide ruining that opportunity of serenity.
So in the end I just lied.
I returned the next day with a hat on to hide the hair (incognito) and used the camping equipment rental receipt as fake proof that we had a guide. Sorted!

Early the next day we took a hair raising 4 hour bus ride through the mountains along one of Peru’s many ‘death roads’ which saw Arancha turning away from the window in fear as we sped along at high speed around hairpin turns with 1,000 metre drops below us.
If the views during the drive to Vaqueria were anything to go by then we were in for a good time. Obviously the string of 6,000+ metre mountains were giving me an erection but passing the glacial lakes that positively glowed a luminescent blue were simply beautiful.

So here we go; The Santa Cruz Trek:

Day 1: You are not as fit as you think!
Eager to make the most of what was left of the day we set off on our walk as soon as we exited the bus. It was approx 11am, the sun was shining and 4 days in the wilderness of the Andes lay ahead of us; you could say I was a little excited by this prospect of this trek.
The first hour of the walk was very pleasant, a flat to sloping gradient downhill through farmland and over gushing rivers with the odd hungry dog trailing us in hope of a feed for company. It was all very nice but not quite trekking rock 'n' roll if you get my meaning?
Soon we reached the first and last piece of civilisation for 4 days as we walked through a small village which capitalised on its position in the tourist trekking route by advertising its various home grown industries such as bee-keeping and a guinea pig factory – remember in Peru a guinea pig is ‘for dinner and not just for Christmas’; but more on that later.
It was during this time that the route started on an upward trend and already being at an altitude of around 3,900 metres above sea level we began to tire quickly under the heat of the midday sun. Frankly, we made a p*ss poor effort of our first day.
Having trekked all over the world and in some pretty cool places we should have been used to this but I think the fact that we had to carry tents, camping equipment, adequate water and food for the first time added that extra weight that we were not used to carrying and let’s face it, 8 days of pampering in the Galapagos Islands is no way to harden yourselves to the reality of DIY trekking.

Saying that, it wasn’t all bad. Yes we were tired but the scenery was beginning to change in a much more favourable way ie. the land began to rise quite dramatically around us and in the distance we could see those bad boy razor like peaks standing like frozen sentients daring us to challenge them.

Once again we really hadn’t done much research - we really must to better. We had read that this walk was the most stunning in the Andes so we decided to do it – that was it. We didn’t even have a map because we were told that the route was easy to follow, so we had a little leaflet given to us by the rental shop which had a rough route printed onto it with campsite indicators. There were no distances and no altitude points given – ha ha, what were we thinking?
This fact, combined with our fast wilting energy and apparent complete lack of fitness meant that we didn’t make it to the official campsite that day. Instead we decided to live it up for the night by the side of the river on a little green surrounded by trees just off the trekking path. It actually suited us just fine, granted that there were only 6 other walkers that we saw over the entire time on our route but who wants to share an area with them when you have the opportunity to be completely secluded from the entire world?
Under the darkening skies of an encroaching storm we set up camp and got dinner on the go, even though it was only 4:30pm!!
Yes we were knackered but recovery is fast and we were soon revelling in our solitary existence. Arancha cooked us up some pasta and for hot drinks we had Coca leaf tea which always left her with a very dry mouth and constantly smacking her lips (remember, Coca leaves are used to make cocaine, but in our case Mum, for combatting altitude). Whilst I went down to the river to wash the pots she then got dessert ready, by taking 2 chocolate bars from the top of my bag.
This is living it up, right?
Washing the pots
Tea time


Yep, it was as basic as it gets but I can’t explain how satisfying it all was to be on our own and self-sufficient. I know we weren’t exactly farming and growing our own food but walking over to the river to wash up and fill up our bottles for drinking water I did look back at the tent and feel a little like Pa Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie. I think this is why he was always smiling, or maybe that's because Michael Langdon was Touched By An Angel.
By the way, in South America the programme is called The Ingalls Family.
Film titles are funny here, the Spanish titles of Hollywood films are literal translations of the plot; where is the fun in that?
For example, Sleepy Hollow is The Horseman without a head and Warm Bodies is My boyfriend is a Zombie.
I digress.
By now it was all getting a little late and time for bed – it was 6pm! Our latest night on the entire trek was 7:30pm – woooooh!
We settled down to sleep when all of a sudden a loud crack of thunder could be heard overhead and the first drops of rain tap tappedy tapped on the canvass.
I turned to Arancha for peace of mind and stated that “the tent is waterproof isn’t it; because it is a rental?”
She told me to stop being stupid.
20 minutes later I wasn’t feeling very stupid because I was getting wet!! Actually, we both were.
We were in the middle of f*cking nowhere, nobody was about and the tent was leaking. As much as I like to live my life in the great outdoors I am from the city and I was conditioned for city life, so as the tent was leaking and the rains kept pouring I got a little anxious; what if the rain is so bad that the river rises and takes us? What if the rain keeps coming and the water pours off the cliffs that tower around us and washes us into the river? Why did we camp near the god damn river??

I was a little more manly than that. Firstly I whined that “this is bullsh*t” followed by “for f*cks sake” and then “Aaaaggghhhh” by which time I got it together and headed out into the rain to see what could be done, if anything. It turns out that anything could be done because we hadn’t quite put the tent up correctly! Long story short, we corrected the issue, the tent did still let in some water (so it wasn’t completely us being spazos) but it was all good in the end. Phew!

Day 2: Tears of pain and then joy
We must’ve been tired because we slept for 11 hours that night. We awoke to more rain but by the time we roused ourselves for breakfast and began to pack up it had ceased and once more all was good with world and even better, we didn't get washed away by a swollen river.
By the time we got back on the road it was 8am and although ready we were completely unprepared for what was to come.
We knew today that we would be climbing to the pass at 4,970 metres but we didn’t know where we were or at what altitude we currently stood at – it’s all good fun isn’t it?
20 minutes later we actually got to the campsite we should have stayed in and it was deserted. This raised 2 points:
1.       The pass would be a challenge. People leave early to get this sort of bitch done and dusted before lunchtime
2.       At least we would have it all to ourselves
The bonus was that we were feeling strong after a good night’s sleep. In truth we were never really bothered about the backpack situation because it always takes a day or 2 to get used to it again and by day 3 we were buzzing. (Not quite)

For those of you who are not familiar with what a pass is, it is a point between 2 mountains that you can pass through the range onto the other side and it typically involves a lot of pain getting there but the views from the top are very much worth it.

Our rough map showed that we needed to navigate around the side of a mountain before we could begin our final ascent to the pass so we obviously thought that this would be a couple of hours and that would be that. I forgot how big mountains are. It took us 3 hours just to walk around the mountain before we then saw what lay ahead of us – a literal 500 metre climb straight up. (At altitude it typically takes us 1 hour of climbing for every 300 metres - and that is without a big pack)
It took us about 2 hours to make this climb and it was f*cking hard. There were times when we just looked at each other and words were not needed to portray our feelings – and then there was a hail storm.
I cannot trek in anything other than shorts and a t-shirt unless it is really really cold, so for me a hail storm was not pleasant and it is amazing how many hail stones my big hair could capture.
On the plus side, whilst visibility was not fantastic the views back across where we had walked from were impressive. We looked over a deep gorge filled with lakes with one side rising up above us to form a string of glacier covered mountains that we could not see the top of through the low lying cloud. It was all a bit spooky.

After losing the trail and taking AJ too close to the edge of the abyss, quite literally, one slip and I wouldn’t be writing this now, we made it to a set of rock formed steps like something out of The Lord of the Rings that led up to the promised land and the much needed downward path.
The tears of pain that threatened to escape did as I set foot through the pass and saw what lay out in front of me.
From 4,970 metres we were able to look right across to a huge glacier making its way down via multiple waterfalls from the peaks of the 6,000+ metre mountains to form a cobalt blue glacial lake. From here the mountains stretched out into the distance for as far as we could see to form a razor edged canyon, whilst the overflow of the lake formed a river that ran for a few kilometres along the canyon floor before forming another icy sapphire lake that twinkled in the newly reborn sun.
It was a panorama that took the breath away and moistened the eyes but I will let the pictures do the talking.
Conquering the pass
The effort is worth it

Far below us we could see the campsite with some tents already set up meaning that we really had made a late start. Judging the distance we knew we were about 2 hours from camp so we set about getting down as quickly as we could but not so quickly so as to not take in every inch of this view that we had very much earned.

We set up camp and although it was all part of the same canyon from our viewpoint it seemed as though we were sat in the centre of a triangle of 3 separate mountains ranges.
We followed what would become our nightly ritual of AJ cooking and me washing and as the sun set and the clouds ascended up the valley to encompass us in their icy embrace we lied back and fell asleep almost instantaneously and very happy and satisfied with where our efforts had now taken us.
It would have been immediate if not for the wild horses frolicking in the pitch black of night where the sounds and vibrations of their hooves striking the earth could be felt by us as they seemingly ran by just outside of our tent. 2 nights in the outdoors and 2 nights of nerves! Sort it out Lamby!
Actually, it was all very exciting.

There's always room for thermals on trek

Day 3: Mountain perfection?
Day 3 – what a day. I stuck my head out of the tent to see a world that I hadn’t really seen the day before. I knew it was pretty damn sexy out there but in the clear pale blue and cloudless sky of early morning we could see for miles and see the details of each and every one of those peaks in high definition. Awesome is a word that is used a lot but in the true sense of the word these mountains were.
Not wanting to waste such a beautiful day we got ourselves sorted and set off.
Today we would be making a detour to a look out in the mountains before returning to canyon to head south towards the end of the route the following day.

To get to the look-out we had to first walk along the edge of the foothills before heading into the heart of the range itself which opened up into the most beautiful environment which was completely alive. We are talking about thick green fields, flowers awash with insects, wild horses, donkeys and cows grazing, waterfalls and streams fed from above by the melt water of the glaciers and then there are of course the mountains soaring way up beyond us. Everybody needs to see this once in their lifetime.
That is one thing that can be said about this part of the Andes – water and life. I have never seen so much water as I have done here. Everywhere we looked there was a waterfall toppling hundreds of metres down the side of the cliffs, rivers and streams making their aged old ways through the land and the lakes forming natural resevoirs for the abundant animals and birds to drink and bathe. If you found yourself lost in the Andes it would be thirst that would kill you, that’s for sure.

The route to the look-out took us to the base camp that is used by climbers in season and what a place to hang out. We were surrounded by a 300 degree ring of ice-mountains and the environment just made us want to jump with joy – as you can see below.

To get to the look-out itself we would need to climb a short but steep 100 metre trail so we decided to hide the bags and to make life easier and make our way up. It we ever doubted whether we should’ve made the effort to come out of our way to see this we soon rescinded all notions of this when we looked out in front of us.
Searing blue glacial lake, huge glacier feeding it leading down from a curve of mountains – wow!
Just to top it all off the glacier shifted and cracked and an avalanche poured down into the lake.
All in all just another day in the office for us.

With that annoyance out of the way (yawn) we headed back to the canyon where we were then faced with a 2 hour hike through the sands of a long dried out riverbed. I won’t lie, this was hard work. Trudging through the sand under an open sky without shade was tough but we made sure that we still had lots of fun and once we reached the banks of the second lake for that day we were truly taken aback by it colour and clarity.
The Everest Range and Himalayas come first because of the power they emenate whilst still being surrounded with the calming energy and spiritual flow of Bhuddism, but I don’t think it can compete in terms of the sheer beauty of the Santa Cruz region of the Andes.
If we take our camp that night for example, we sat on our own by the river safely protected on each side by the canyon walls with a view off to infinity in front of us and behind us, and as for sunset, well, you can see that below as well.

Day 4: Reduced to nothing
We were now on the our final morning of the trek and with a little apprehension we packed up the tent and set off towards the village of Cashapampa.
We only needed to cover 12.9km to reach the village which is about 2 hours walking but it was ridiculous how the canyon and land changed so dramatically over such a short distance. We began close to the lake with the snowy mountain tops not too far behind us but from here the land began to drop away quite steeply and soon we had descended 500 metres into different world of vine covered trees and sandy riverside banks. It was all so different and quite unbelievable how a slight reduction in altitude can bring about such changes in the environment.

It was quite obvious where the end of the route was because as we neared the end, so did the canyon. The thousand metre tall walls we were walking amongst and looking up to the tops of mountains that blew through the 6,000 metre height literally descended into nothing as though we stepped through a gate and into civilisation. It was bizarre.

The trek was over and it was a shame.
It wasn’t a 2 to 3 week epic like we have enjoyed in the past but what we got to see and witness over 4 days will always be with us and will be one of those ‘remember that’ places and Arancha has assured me that this was the last ever time she will carry her bag!

Once back to the real world I celebrated the fact that I no longer needed to eat pasta or dinner by indulging in a Peruvian delicacy, the guinea pig. It was actually very tasty but there just wasn't enough meat on it to warrant ordering it again. The best thing about it was that it looked like I was eating a guinea pig - head, claws and eyes!!!

However, I am still dreaming on living in the big, wide wilderness!!
I think it suits me; don't you??


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Darwin, Lamby and Joulsy woz 'ere 1835 / 2013

This post follows on swiftly from the last one, probably because there is so much to tell that I didn’t want it hanging over my head and thought that it should all be told ASAP. Therefore, you may want to make yourself a cup of tea before beginning because it is a long one!

We left Ecuador’s second city of Guayaquil on the early morning AeroGal flight to the Galapagos Islands, specifically the Island of Baltra where the original airport was built by the Americans during WWII as a base from which to launch their attacks on the Japanese. Fact.
As the plane took to the air my excitement was bordering that of a teenage girl at a One Direction concert – sheer lunacy!! I was finally going to visit the Galapagos Islands.

Let’s put all of this excitement into context. The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands located 575 miles off the western coast of Ecuador and are famous for their vast number of endemic species (found only there) that were famously studied by Charles Darwin and contributed to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Whereas I do not fully subscribe to Darwinism I am an evolutionist and believe whole heartedly in the fact that life originated from natural causes and biology and not by the hand of some mystic being / thing which billions refer to as ‘god’.
With the proof of evolution taking place in a very visual and accessible way on the Galapagos you could say that this was my pilgrimage and I was buzzing. True dat!

With all this is in mind I had put a lot of pressure on ourselves to ensure that we got the absolute most out of this once (maybe twice) in a lifetime trip. However, landing into Baltra we were pretty much clueless – we had done no research whatsoever on the islands that we wanted to visit, how long we should go for and would there even be any space on a boat?
Also, looking about at our fellow tourists how would we fare on a boat where a rough trip could result in a string of hip or knee replacement surgeries and how would we cope with the constant smell of mouldy p*ss, such was demographic. The average age of the tourists visiting the islands was challenging that of the infamous Galapagos Tortoises that are reckoned to live for as long as 300 years!!
With the sensible pensioners having already booked their cruises (probably 10 years in advance) it was left to us, a fellow backpacker we had met previously on our trip and the locals to make our way across the island to the main port of Puerto Ayora to find a hotel and then fingers crossed, a trip.

I had had a good feeling that it would all work out based upon the need to balance energy and karma – remember, we had in the previous 2 weeks been robbed of an i-pad and a camera and usually our travel luck is tip-top.
Well, as we sat on the ferry that transported us between the islands from the airport to catch a bus to the main town, an American lady who is resident here sat herself next to us and completely out of the blue offered us her invaluable help and advice. She told us the best islands to visit, what we should be looking for in terms of a cruise and gave us the name of an Australian lady working here who would give us some open and honest information about booking our trip.
Feeing much more positive about our chances we found a cheap as chips room in the form of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel within 5 minutes of looking and so set off immediately to fulfil our naturistic destiny.

I don’t think we really needed to worry about finding a trip as there were signs outside of every agency and dive shop advertising last minute trips. To get an idea of price we ventured into the first agency that we came across and were pleasantly surprised about what was on offer. If the guy had been a little more enthusiastic about the trip we might have booked with him there and then but he just didn’t quite complete seal the deal with his sales pitch. I couldn’t really blame him though, it was now nearing the end of the season and he had probably already made enough dollar from this year’s peak season.
Now having an idea of the boats and the prices on offer we headed to the dive shop where the American lady on the boat had recommended us visit and 10 minutes later we were booked!!
To say that we had fallen on our feet would be an understatement; so here are the details:

·         The standard of the cruise boats range from Economy, Tourist, First Class and Luxury – we initially thought that we would aim for tourist but we would now be traveling first class. Nice one!
·         The capacity of the boats range from 8 – 100 people. Why you would want to travel to a special place like the Galapagos and share it with 100 other people is beyond me – we would be a party of 16 people. Sweet!
·         There was 1 cabin left on the boat and it would set sail the next day. Perfect!
·         Cruises can last anywhere between 4,5, 8 and 14 days – 8 days is recommended as the minimum to get a good overview of the islands and this trip was for 8 days . Booyaka!
·         Online, this boat and trip for our dates is advertised as $3,650 per person – after negotiations we boarded for $1,690 per person. Who’s your f*cking daddy??

We had initially given ourselves a $3,000 budget to see the Galapagos Islands but after flights we would now be spending about $4,300. Whilst I was calculating our next 9 months of travel in my head to see if this price was a viable one Arancha had already stepped in and agreed on my behalf and was filling out the paperwork.
Still, given what an experience we had I am glad that Arancha completely ignored me; yet again!

The rest of that first afternoon wasn’t exactly a relaxing one. In order to avoid a hefty card payment fee we set about withdrawing as much cash as we could from our various cards as well as having to visit the bank twice and make phone calls to Australia to confirm and collect cash advances.
In the end we handed over the thickest wad of dollars (a very difficult task for me – I felt a little like Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Ghost where she has to hand over the cheque for $4m to the nun and won’t let it go) and the deal was done.
We celebrated that evening along with Martina (the only other backpacker on our plane) and ate dinner at a street restaurant whilst speculating what each of our trips would bring over the coming days.

So here we go – Lamby and Joulsy do the Galapagos:

Day 1 – Meet & greet, Dragon Hill
The only bum part of our trip was that we had to make our way back across the island to meet up with the group at the airport. It wasn’t that it was difficult it is just that it took 90 mins, involved a taxi, a ferry, a bus and a push and shove match with the locals. (Arancha bullied a father and his little girl during this stretch of the journey – she is so mean)
As prompt as ever we got the airport a little too early and proceeded to sit around for the next 2.5 hours, but we didn’t mind because we were on an adventure and it began immediately with the local birds raiding our breakfast plates to feed with no consideration for the fact that we were still eating.
Being early we also got to meet our guide and complete legend around these parts, Juan The Man. Born on the Galapagos Islands and a naturalist guide for over 25 years who speaks 5 languages, what else could we ask for?  He was also so small that you could put him in your pocket or carry him around on your shoulders for fun.
We also got to the moment of truth when he ticked our names off the list. Who were our fellow passengers? Where were they from? And more importantly, could they chew their own food or would we be sucking it up through a straw?
A quick look down the list confirmed that on the face of it, it would be a good trip even though there were 6 Yanks!!! (Love you ladies)
Soon enough the various flights had landed and the group was united. The passengers of the Beluga Yacht were:
·         The backpackers – us
·         The Danes – Lasse and Maja
·         The honeymooners #1 – Gary (England) & Justina (Ireland)
·         The honeymooners #2 – Steve & Georgie (England)
·         The Aussies – Mike & Xanthe
·         The Yanks (our own version of the Golden Girls) – Bernie, Angie, Patrice, Suzy, Terry and everybody’s favourite livewire, Vicky. She might’ve been the oldest bird on the boat but she was always the first to chase a shark

I can honestly say that there wasn’t one dickhead amongst them, which is rare on these trips and in part our trip was so brilliant because of these people and the time we spent in each other’s company.

The first task of the day was to catch the pangas (little dinghys) over to the Beluga, our beautiful maritime home for the next week and to be allocated our cabins, all of which were ensuite and a damn site better than nearly all of the places we have stayed in thus far.

The Beluga
Not wanting to tire us all out too quickly lunch was next and for us, having eaten a lot of rice and beans in the previous few months, being served 3 coursed meals, each day a different choice and all cooked superbly by our chef you will not be surprised to learn that we are now on a strict diet.

Our days on the Beluga followed a fixed routine that was also appreciated given that we have had to make all of the decisions and work it all out ourselves since last January. It was little like having our arses wiped for us, but who cares for 8 days!
Our days panned out as follows:
7am – Breakfast
8am – 10am – Island visit number 1
10am – Drink and a snack back on board
10:30am – 11:30am – Snorkel
11:30am – 12pm – Shower
12pm – Lunch
1pm – 2:30pm / 4pm (it varied) – Lounge on the sun deck or take a nana nap if you were gay (we weren’t)
2:30pm – 4:30pm / 4pm – 6pm – Island visit number 2
4:30pm / 6pm – Drink and snack back on board
Before dinner – Sunset drinks
7pm – Dinner
8pm – Wildlife checklist and tomorrows orders, sorry, I mean plan
8:30pm – Advised to go to bed like good little children
9pm – More than likely in bed; like good little children
Galapagos sunset
We were proper spoon-fed but we actually loved it – for 8 days only! Still, when you are paying a few grand for the pleasure you expect most things to be done for you don’t you?

Not wasting anytime we partook in an afternoon island visit that day by visiting Dragon Hill on the central island of Santa Cruz and were immediately face to face with the wildlife. During our 2 hour stroll around the marked out route (we were also told where we could and couldn’t step and I once got told off for literally stepping over the line!) we came into contact with Sea Lions, Land Iguanas, Sally Light-foot Crabs, the official bird mascot of the islands the Blue-footed Boobie (yep, it has the most amazing blue coloured feet), Lava Lizards, Brown Pelicans and many other interesting looking birds.
Land Iguana
Good old Sally
The sheer level of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’ happening in front of you smacks you right in the face and I have no idea how believers in a god cannot notice it or take it in? And what do they think about it all?
Many of the animals are called the Galapagos such and such because they are only found in this part of the world and on many islands they are called the ‘island name’ such and such because the animals evolved completely separately even though they exist only a few miles apart on the different islands.
The most interesting thing I took from this first walk was Juan alerting us to the cacti. In the Galapagos there are many types of cactus and no one island contains the same species – each has developed the way and shape it grows, disperses its seeds and protects itself based upon which animals live on each island and feed upon it. Nature truly is remarkable and I was already in Galapagos awe!

Cowboy cactus

By the way, you may be wondering how the land animals in particular got here; I know I was. Well pretty much everything caught a lift on the Humboldt Current, which can transport an animal, whether it be on a log, leaf, or even on its back with regards to the Tortoise (true) in 2 weeks from the mainland. It appears as though this is what happened thousands of years ago and it was here that the animals thrived in their very individual habitats until the humans came along a couple of hundred years ago and ruined it.   

As for dinner times it could quite easily have formed into the Yanks and the Europeans plus Aus given that there were two 8-seater dining tables, but I give the Americans massive credit in that they mixed it up from night one and at each meal the table took on a new dimension as we all played musical chairs.
We were also officially welcomed aboard by the crew with a complimentary cocktail and had to do a round-the-table intro.
I especially liked it that the Captain introduced himself as El Capitan – The Captain. No names, just, “I am the captain.”
Our favourite crew member was Abel, a young lad who served our food, drinks, made our beds and cleaned our toilets – a true hero. We speculated that back in Darwin’s time he would’ve been the cabin boy and everybody else’s sex bitch and he could very well have been on this particular boat, who knows?
I had read that life at sea obviously messes with your mind, so we were suffering to come up with such theories so soon!!!

After dinner came what developed into a 2 pronged nightly ritual:
1.       All sitting down to tick off the animals and birds seen that day as well as go over the next day’s orders. Sh*t, I mean plans. I must stop this
2.       Watching out of the corner of one eye to see how long it would take for Terri to fall asleep. It happened almost every night and her excuse was that it was all too much like school

Incidentally, whilst having one of many random chats about all sorts of stuff – we had a lot of dead time – Terri, who works in the medical world on the cardiac side of things (that right isn’t it Terri??) has previously visited the Glenfield Hospital in my home city of Leicester for work reasons. The hospital is about 10 mins drive from my parent’s house and Terri is from Wisconsin in the north central part of the US. I just found this quite remarkable that someone outside of England has actually visited Leicester; even though for some unknown reason Arancha did it on her UK road trip back in 1997!! Bizarre.

Day 2 – Isla Santa Fe and Isla Plazas
The great thing about this trip is that the boat would travel to each new destination through the night so that when we awoke we were able to disembark and take the pangas over to shore first thing in the morning.
The not so great thing was that the engine sounded as though it was directly underneath our cabin so at approx 2am each night we awoke to the racket it created. It wasn’t too much of an issue as we are now getting older so need to get up for a wee at that time anyway.

Landing onto Santa Fe Island also brought another fascinating fact to our attention about the Galapagos Islands – no one island is the same. I am not just talking the odd variation in vegetation, I mean that they are completely individual; almost like each one was picked from a different part of the planet and put into the one location as an experiment. (Whoa, maybe there is a god?)
Some are desert like, others covered in thick vegetation, there are flats ones and thin ones whilst others rise from the ocean to form high cliffs and then there are the volcanic islands where some are still active and others long since dormant that now appear other worldly like.
Seriously, this part of the world is like one humungous wet dream for people into nature and the natural world which is why I am really dehydrated right now.

Santa Fe is home to a sea lion colony and 2 things hit me:
1.       The animals do not give a sh*t about you. If you are stood in their way, they will step right over you and if they are having a kip you are quite welcome to spoon them
2.       They stink


We walked along the beach snapping away with our cameras like a Japanese tourist in, well, frankly any place. I think it was during this walk that we all slowly realised that this trip would be very special in terms of how we would be able to interact with the animals and how close they would allow us to get to them. So remote has the Galapagos been and for quite a while has now been very well protected from the destructive touch of man that the exotic animals, birds and marine life have no fear of humans and you can’t really put the realisation of that into words when you come from a city in the middle of England. It’s brilliant.
Take the elegant Galapagos Hawk as an example that didn’t move an inch as we all approached to within a couple of metres at eye level to take photos.


During this walk we also came into contact with that very abundant species in these parts, the homosapien pensioner. The Beluga did everything right in that we always landed before the large cruise liners or at separate locations in order to maximise our time with the animals when it would just be 16 of us and not 116.
The pensioners were very amusing in their own way but if I was on a boat with them I would have lost the plot:
·         The tortoises move faster
·         Every one of them looks as though Steve Irwin has thrown up on them, I have never seen so much khaki
·         There is no place in this part of the world, or frankly this era to wear a ‘great white hunter hat’. You are not in Africa and hunting is not clever
·         No lie, one group had a bag left on the beach labelled ‘Port-A-Brace’
·         During this first walk we saw one old lady lying against a tree spewing up her breakfast – clearly the gentle amble was all too much for her. However, she is forgiven if she blames it on the stench of those Sea Lions

Sticking to the theme of pensioners and cruise liners, there was the National Geographic liner that as well as sporting a rainbow flag had a largely all female contingent. We all made speculative jokes about this but one un-named member of our party declared that “it was good that they have all got somewhere that they can go!”
Ha ha, I found that really funny.

Next up was our first Galapagos snorkel session and these would become my most anticipated hour of the day.
We had hired full wetsuits from the agency where we booked the trip and I am so glad that we did as the water at times was really cold and the others were at a disadvantage in that the boat only offered spring wetsuits.
Having the opportunity to snorkel everyday meant that I got into a sort of routine in order to keep warm to enable me to enjoy my full hour. My revolutionary tactic was the wee over myself – just like every one of those of pensioners on board the National Geographic.
I was so good that I timed it for the 20th and 40th minutes and it really worked a treat. At first I felt ashamed with myself but once the wee crept up to my chest to warm my cockles I basked in my yellow glory and laughed an evil lordly laugh at the rest of them with their blue lips!
I did regret my actions towards the end of the week when I realised that I hadn’t done a great job at washing my pants and they now stunk like, erm, every cabin on the National Geographic?

So, back to the actual snorkelling. Apart from seeing a sh*tload of fish (there is an appendix of the animal life that we saw at the end of this post if you can be arsed to read it) the absolute mind-blowing highlight of this session was to swim with the Sea Lions.
On 5 separate occasions various Sea Lions swam in and around us and would inquisitively check out us weird creatures that obviously didn’t belong in this environment and would demonstrate this by gracefully swimming about and showing off.
My favourite moment was floating face to face with a female for 5 minutes whilst she looked us over and over with seemingly as much interest as we had for her.
My scariest moment was Juan shouting for us to move away ASAP because the huge bull (dominant male) did not want us anywhere near to him and was warning us to do one, or else.
A couple of Green Turtles also swam by but were quickly out of our range – but our turtle experiences would come later in the week.

After lunch whilst we made our way to the next island a few of us, who were not nana napping, were talking at the dining table when Arancha spotted a dolphin leap out of the water.
I must just add that we really had our wildlife spotting eyes on during this week – I think between the two of us we saw every single animal on offer and usually spotted it first in the water, so much so that some of the others would insist on sticking with us.
Our travel karma was strong young wildlife padawans.
We all ran to the bow of the boat and leaned as far as we dared over the side to look at the 5 or so huge Bottle-nosed Dolphins that were easily 2 metres long, racing ahead of the boat and jumping out.
It was only halfway through our first full day and we had already seen so much.

Plazas Island was special in that is acted as a breeding ground for Sea Lions and the Swallow-tailed Gull, a bird that looked like it was wearing bright red eye-liner.
To prove it was a nursery there were a few mummified Sea Lion baby corpses littered about as well as sun bleached bones.

Swallow-tailed Gulls - shagging

Again the vegetation of the island was completely unique and was red, orange and green in colour which made for some pretty cool pictures in the fading light of the day.
However, this all paled into significance when I spotted a shark patrolling the shoreline for its evening meal. Unfortunately we were too far away to get a good look at it (remember that we had to follow the trail) but you could clearly see its fin and tail gliding through the water and Juan informed us that it was a Galapagos Shark – of course it was a GALAPAGOS Shark we all replied.

Day 3 – Isla San Cristobal
Day 3 was quite a special day for me as our first landing was at Cerro Brujo on the very point that Charles Darwin had landed in September 1835; 178 years ago to the month.
I was stood in the exact spot where a lot of what I hold to be true was first formulated – now that is a bit of a head f*ck.
Looking at all the Sea Lions sprawled out along the beach it did also cross my mind how many of them and other animals were slaughtered for both food and research by those very first explorers?
I imagine it numbers thousands.
The walk along the beach was pleasant enough and it was good to see more turtles and our first Stingrays of the trip.
We finished off that particular trip by taking a very refreshing dip in the icy blue sea.


The snorkelling took place out at sea at a place called Kicker Rock, where we could circumnavigate a huge rock formation and swim through a natural causeway between the rocks that rose 50 metres above our heads.
We were here specifically to try and spot sharks which combined with the fact that we were swimming in open ocean at a depth of 12 metres freaked a few people out. The visibility was not good and it was quite daunting to look down into a dark nothing and not know if there were sharks a few feet beneath us or not which is why a few of the party were in and out within a couple of minutes.
There was a massive Sea Lion swimming about who took up a lot of our attention and whilst Mike was busy watching it I swore that I saw a fin pop right up behind him, literally right behind him, before quickly disappearing back beneath the murky waters.
It was also never going to be my favourite location because a Jellyfish stung me across the top and bottom lip – not very pleasant but fortunately the sting only lasted a quarter of an hour.
A group of us circumnavigated the rock a couple of times and were rewarded with our persistence by seeing a Choco-chip Starfish (we all insisted on saying we saw a chocolate starfish) and a superb close up with a feeding Green Turtle which really was not phased at all that we were within touching distance watching him take lunch.

The afternoon walk was around a volcanic lake situated a short drive from the town of Puerto Baquerizo, the political capital of the Galapagos. This walk was crap and the worst part of the trip solely because it was so misty that we circumnavigated the crater and saw nothing further than what was 2 metres in front of us – we never saw the lake.
The best bit was Suzy slipping over on the boardwalk.

We had some time to look about the ‘capital’ but it was a run down and dilapidated place –no idea where all of the tourist dollars are going because it isn’t here!
The best thing about the town was that the Sea Lions had really made themselves at home – they slept on the benches, park slides and wherever else they cared to lay their heads. They were like a bunch of vagabonds.
We all ended up sitting around having a beer and getting to know each other a little better, apart from Mike and Xanthe who decided to lord it up and sit above us on the balcony!

Day 4 – Isla Espanola
Every day at the Galapagos was special but I think Day 4 just shades it as my favourite overall day.
First up was another early morning stroll along the beach at Gardner Bay and here amongst the now standard Sea Lions, Sally-Lightfoot Crabs and Green Turtles floating in bay just beyond the breaking waves we got to meet the Marine Iguanas for the first time.
I don’t think that I need to explain the difference between a Marine Iguana and a Land Iguana but just to avoid any confusion; Land Iguanas live on land whilst Marine Iguanas are able to survive on both land and sea and can often been seen swimming between islands.
They are a lot smaller than their land dwelling cousins but what I liked best about them was the fact that they spent all of their time on land lying around and warming up in the sun and spitting (to rid themselves of the excess salt collected from the sea water) – they were sort of like English teenagers during their summer holidays; lazy and obnoxious.

The snorkelling wasn’t anything to write home about as the visibility was very poor but we did still manage to create a little excitement between ourselves when the current began to pull us into a cliff-side cave and we had to kick very hard to feel as though we were back in a safe place.

The afternoon activity was a walk around the cliff tops of Puerta Suarez which served as a breeding ground and nursery for thousands upon thousands of birds; most notably the Blue-footed Boobie and a very special bird that has long been on the list, the Albatross.
I wouldn’t exactly call myself an avid bird spotter but you would have to be pretty much a complete knob not to be taken aback by the sights, sounds and activities along these cliff tops.
Everywhere we walked we had to be careful not to step too close to courting or mating birds, we had to be mindful of eggs, nests and babies (the Albatross chicks seemingly larger than the parents) and you felt a constant need to duck and dive away from all of the birds flying overhead – it was pure aviation mayhem.
I love Boobies!

The Blue-footed Boobies always grab the attention of the tourists and it is understandable with those bright blue feet, a colour that you do not see anywhere else in nature but my highlight was the Albatross ‘airport’ as Juan called it.
Albatrosses are very special birds, they have a wing span of up to 3.5 metres and once the baby finally takes that leap of faith from the side of a the cliff (there is no other way to first take flight) they do not return to dry land for another 5 years!!
The ‘airport’ was fascinating because due to their huge wing span the Albatross couldn’t just fly in and land, no, the one I watched had to circle round 5 times over the ‘runway’ making 4 false landings before it felt that it was coming in at the correct angle and speed before it sort of crash landed into the ground.
We had shifts when it came to the camera, AJ took the mornings and I had the afternoons and for this trip I went to town and I reckon I took about 60 photos of an Albatross in flight, of which about 4 were any good.
If this wasn’t all enough we also were able to take photos of the birds gliding past us with a huge blowhole spouting off in the background; and it was being produced under such forces that you could hear the rumble all over the island.

Day 4 was a rare day because we were back on the boat and setting sail by 4:30pm (usually it was much later) and so everybody was able to congregate on the top deck to have a few drinks and enjoy the Pacific sunset.
All of sudden a shout went out that more dolphins could be seen and as if in a cheesy Disney movie the dolphins all jumped out of the water directly in front of the setting orange and yellow sunset – it was perfect.
Myself and Arancha went down to the bow in hope of getting a better view but unfortunately we had had our dolphin show. What we didn’t bank on was a show of a different kind.
Whilst looking for the dolphins we noticed some movement in the far distance followed by a humungous splash; completely incredulous we looked at each other and shouted “Whale!” Unfortunately we never got close enough for a real good look but over the next 20 minutes we watched as the migrating Humpback Whales continually breached the ocean surface in the now fast fading light.
Everybody toasted the successful wildlife spotting day and myself, Steve and Lasse stayed up a little longer than the rest and it got a little debaucherous. Talk of rape (in a very comical sense) and borrowing the pangas (dinghys) sums it up!

There is a dolphin there!

Day 5 – Isla Santa Cruz (Tortoise day)
Very early in the morning we were walking around the Charles Darwin Research Centre on the island of Santa Cruz because of the 2 very selfish Aussies who had decided to only participate in the tour for 5 days. We were all very annoyed with them because the whole group had formed a tight bond over the previous few days and they were now breaking it.
Having to get up an hour earlier due to this also didn’t help!
The research centre was all about the conservation of the Galapagos’ most famous residents and their icon – the Tortoise.
As with each island in the Galapagos being completely individual so were its Tortoises. Their shells and bodies had evolved in completely different ways depending on the conditions and feeding environment that it found itself in – these Tortoises were one of the defining factors in proving Darwinism.
Originally there were 14 species of tortoise found on the islands and they numbered in their thousands but once we humans discovered the area and more importantly that the tortoises could last for up to 1 year without feeding they were either slaughtered where they stood or were taken aboard the ships to be slaughtered at a later date for their meat.
Now there are only 11 species left and fortunately the numbers are now recovering with the aid of the breeding programs.
Did you know that the scientists believe that these creatures can possibly live to the ripe of old of 300 years old? With that being the case it is quite possible that the tortoises that we saw could’ve quite conceivably met Charles Darwin!
At the centre we also saw the pen of Lonesome George, who died only last year. I was actually already aware of George from a David Attenborough documentary and his story is a sad one. It was believed that every tortoise on one of the Galapagos islands had been wiped out by man until one day George, the last of his kind was found wondering around on his own; literally the last of his dynasty. In a desperate attempt to save his species they moved him to the research centre with the hope that another of his bredrin might be located in some zoo or house somewhere in the world. Whilst the search continued they tried to breed him with other similar specimens and also had an intern give him a hand job for 4 days straight to try and extract some sperm for freezing!! Apparently she had very soft hands.
Until last year there were 12 species of Galapagos Tortoise but unfortunately all attempts to breed or w*nk off George failed and as of June 2012 there are now only 11.

At this point Mike and Xanthe also became dead to us as they headed off to the airport and before lunch we were given a couple of hours to explore the town.
The town in question was Puerto Ayora, where we had booked the trip and would be returning to after the cruise so we really didn’t want to look around the shops when we would need to kill time upon our return. Instead we first went to the fish market to watch the resident Sea Lion Pancho use his charm to get a free feed from the market traders and it was here that we also got to see the long coveted Spotted Eagle Ray gliding though the harbour waters (we were very happy chappies) and after that we went to the park and we embarrassingly told by a mother (you know the sort) that we were too big to play on the see-saw and should leave immediately.
Gary had taken a photo of a bird at the fish market and asked Juan what it was and unbelievably we had all been looking at a bird that only numbers 400 in the entire world.
Later in the week we saw 5 of them together = 0.125% of the entire population in one photo!

At lunch we were in introduced to our new shipmates, Jean-Pierre and Rita from New York (we just called them New York). They had a hard act to follow and they failed miserably in adding anything at all to the group dynamic.
They were rich; we knew and they definitely knew it.
They were telling us all about their dreadful journey to Galapagos from Bolivia that involved a transfer in Miami. A little perplexed I asked why they couldn’t have just traveled to Peru and made their way to Ecuador from there and Rita’s response like I was a complete moron was that she only likes to fly American Airlines so that she can get her upgrades!
If that is the case you blonde bimbo then do not complain about your self-induced ‘nightmare’ journey.
During the same conversation she also told us about their far flung trips to those hard to get to places like their honeymoon in a Buddhist monastery in Japan that “must start and end in a top hotel like the Tokyo Ritz because you need that don’t you?” and “we did about 3 days on (in the monastery) and a couple of days back in a western hotel before returning for a few more days”.
It was also a vegetarian place and she sneaked sausages back into the monastery because she couldn’t cope for 3 days without them.
I wasn't a massive fan, can you tell? But, then again maybe I should've made more of an effort.

Wednesday afternoon was like a walk around Jurassic Park / The Never Ending Story as we visited the wet and misty highlands of Santa Cruz and here we got to literally walk with the giants. This location was the forest-like natural habitat of the Giant Tortoise and as we walked over the breast of a hill the view from the top was an open luscious green area with a few trees and dozens of these beautiful beasts.
I think we all skipped along like kids as visited each one and took photos of the ancient and wise looking animals.
The Galapagos is also a hotbed of volcanic activity that has continuously shaped them over the millennia right up to the most recent eruption only 8 years ago and during this afternoon we got to explore a lava tunnel in search of owls that frankly took a distant second place to the tortoises in the wild and not in a pen.
Lava tunnel love

Juan The Man

Amongst the grounds of ‘Tortoise Ville’ was a little tea house where we were all treated to a tea or coffee topped off with a healthy shot of rum and a sing song from the multi-talented Juan. He donned his guitar and belted out a few sing-a-long classics with the help of his buddy behind the bar (queue the Stevie Wonderesque sway and closed eyes) and our very own Suzy who sung with a Julie Andrews type swagger. It was all a bit surreal but great fun.

Day 6 – Isla Sombrero Chino & Bartolome
The morning walk was ok but the excitement came from spotting the Galapagos Penguins and the levels of excitement hit a crescendo during the first of the days two snorkel sessions.
During the swim we came across 2 Diamond Rays and to give you an idea of how large these things are, I reckon you could lay them over the top of a hatchback car and you wouldn’t be able to see the car underneath, they were massive.
If that wasn’t enough we saw plenty of other sea life such as the ever present Sea Lions in the clearest ocean that I have ever swum but it was at the end of the session that a lucky few of us were content to leave and go home there and then because directly below us we caught our first glimpse of a shark, a White Tipped Reef Shark, and it was the definitely coolest thing I saw all trip. It just looked like he ruled his ghetto like all good pimps should.
Look at those wildlife specimens

Snorkelling part 2 wasn’t too bad either. We got to swim one on one with Green Turtles and really watch them as they fed and came up for air, which was quite odd watching them switch from their domain into ours and back again. They were so close that we could even touch them – even though we shouldn’t.
I say that we all saw the turtles but whilst some of us had our heads down viewing one particular turtle Gary, completely oblivious to what was below him, doggy paddled through the middle of us and over the head of the turtle. I don’t know why but it was just really comical and it escalated to a version of the truth that Gary was doing backstroke and was snorkelling in reverse ie. viewing the sky.
The running joke then became that whoever missed something in the ocean was doing a Gary and having a backstroke.
Steve, you did a Gary when you missed a Sea Lion swim right under your feet!!

The afternoon wasn’t about wildlife, it was about geology as we explored a 110 year old lava flow. Cooled lava forms the strangest landscape, shapes and patterns giving it an otherworldly appearance like the surface of the Moon or Mars.
The walk was very interesting and as well as viewing the Lava Cactus and the Lava Lizards we also got to lie on a ribbed shaped lava bed for a well-earned massage under the setting sun.

Massage time

Massage with my homey Vic - happy endings!

Day 7 – Isla Genovesa
Day 7 began about 1am. Never before have I sailed in any seas other than those that can be described as very calm, but these seas were full on. Everybody was awake throughout the night as the boat lurched from one side to the other and we rocked and rolled the hours away desperately clinging onto our mattresses to avoid hitting the floor.
Somehow I managed to get a little shut-eye but Arancha was awake throughout and was awarded for her endurance by looking out of the porthole and seeing the ocean alight with the glow of bioluminescence.
This was also a treat of 2am toilet breaks – weeing into the bowl and seeing it all light up with flecks of green and yellow as it hit the seawater. The first time it happened I was worried that I had some internal issues!
It was definitely an out of the ordinary night because the dining room of the boat was covered in broken crockery and glass the next morning.

In hindsight we were lucky. Once we were back on dry land after the trip the American’s met a group of people at their hotel whose boat had hit a rock at 1am and sunk in the middle of the ocean. They were currently wearing all that they owned as the rest had sunk with the ship!

A rough night or not, when you awake to the fact that you are moored in a bay that is in the crater of a sunken volcano, it ain’t all that bad!
The day followed the pattern of every other day but it was the birds that once again took centre stage.
On this day we got to see the 3 types of boobie all living in unison – the Blue-footed, the Red-footed and the Nazca. Evolution is so cool that they all evolved to live in one place but in a different way, so therefore not competing with the other. The Blue-footed on the ground, the Red-footed in the trees and the Nazca on the cliffs – or something like that.
We also got to meet the Vampire Finch – and yeah, it actually is a vampire. It targets the Nazca Boobie and by using its super sharp beak it pierces under the Nazca’s wing when it spreads them to aerate itself. Nice.

Nazca Boobies
Red-footed Boobie

Before we knew it we had somehow reached the final night of the trip and it was with some trepidation that we enjoyed our final drinks aboard the Beluga with our friends. We received a toast and a few songs from the crew but that was it and due to the return journey promising to be as rough as the outward one many people retired to bed earlier than I would’ve liked.

Myself, Steve, Georgie and Lasse stayed up for a few more drinks and we had to because at approximately 10:30pm we would be crossing the equator and I wanted a photo of the real Lat 0’0’0’, not the fake French one in Quito.
Along with Suzy and New York we got our photo and then got to bed ASAP as it was getting a little rough on the open ocean.
The real equator

Day 8 – Isla Santa Cruz
One final treat awaited us before we disembarked and went our separate ways.
We took the pangas over to the mangrove area of the island and were gobsmacked when we looked down into the clear and shallow waters to see it teeming with Sharks. This area served as a Shark nursery as well as a great area to spot yet more Turtles and the completely clear view of those sexy Spotted Eagle Rays.
Spotted Eagle Ray
White Tipped Reef Shark

And so we come to the end of the Galapagos adventures of the Beluga and its crew, Sep 27th – Oct 4th2013.
The goodbyes were all a little rushed as our bus from the airport to the ferry was awaiting us but it didn’t matter. I think I can speak on behalf of everybody on that boat that this trip will probably be the best thing we ever do or see (apart from New York, they probably were desperate for the Ritz or the Hilton) – it was just a very special place; pure and simple.

We still had a couple days on Santa Cruz to kill and did nothing of note. We went back to the fish market for a little last wildlife interaction with Pancho, the Brown Pelicans and quite unexpectedly a Blue-footed Boobie and we went for a farewell drink with the American’s, who I really hope we will see again one day, whether it be in Europe, Australia or the States.
Shipmates minus Lasse -as planned
With that Ecuador was pretty much done. On our way to Peru we stopped over in one of the nicest, most chilled cities I have been to in the form of Cuenca and we really enjoyed our brief 2 day lay over.
One thing we didn’t enjoy though was a guy asking us what was wrong with his soup and taking offence that we hadn’t eaten it.
When he said it was beef soup we expected some meat, not a lump of pure fat that was so big it took up 60% of the bowl! Arancha was nearly gagging at the table and I took a few spoonfuls of the soapy white fat laden soup just to be polite. Yuk!

Overall Ecuador has been a great country to visit. Yes we had our issues with theft but sh*t happens. We visited Ecuador’s top 3 cities, we trekked the Quilotoa Loop, saw Volcan Cotopaxi up close, enjoyed the markets of Otavalo, met some lifelong friends and partied like never before at the Mama Negra Festival; but I think you can tell from just reading this mammoth blog post that the greatest gift Ecuador gave to me was the Galapagos Islands.
For me it was the same as a Muslim making a pilgrimage to Mecca, a Christian to Bethlehem or a Buddhist to Bodh Gaya, it was sort of as profound as that and it was real and based on fact!!!
I might just have to go home now as surely nothing will top this?

Hmm, let me just try out Peru and see…..

Ps. Below is the list of everything we saw in Galapagos:



Land Birds

Espanola Lava Lizard

Galapagos Snake

Giant Tortoise

Land Iguana

Lava Lizard

Marine Iguana

Santa Fe Land Iguana

Galapagos Sea Lion

Galapagos Fur Seal


Espanola Mockingbird

Galapagos Dove

Galapagos Hawk

Galapagos Mockingbird

Large-billed Flycatcher

San Cristobal Mockingbird

Yellow Warbler

Shore Birds

Sea Birds

Darwin’s Finches

Galapagos Oystercatcher

Cattle Egret

Common Egret

Great Blue Heron

Lava Heron

Ruddy Turnstone

Semi-palmated Plover

Wandering Tattler


White-cheeked Pintail

Yellow-crowned Night Heron


Galapagos Shearwater

Blue-footed Boobie

Brown Pelican

Brown Noddi Tern

Elliot’s Storm Petrel

Galapagos Penguin

Galapagos Storm Petrel

Great Frigatebird

Lava Gull

Magnificent Frigatebird

Nazca Boobie

Red-billed Tropicbird

Red-footed Boobie

Shallow-tailed Gull

Waved Albetross

Cactus Finch

Large Cactus Finch

Large Ground Finch

Medium Ground Finch

Sharp-billed Ground Finch

Small Ground Finch

Warbler Finch


Marine Species 1

Marine Species 2

Marine Species 3

Sally-lightfoot Crab

Ghost Crab

Galapagos Hermit Crab

Green Sea Urchin

Green Sea Turtle

Bottle-nosed Dolphin

Common Dolphin

Guinea Fowl Puffer

Yellow-phace Starfish

Moorish Idol

Damsel Fish

Reef Cornetfish

Humpback Whale

Diamond Stingray

Spotted Eagle Ray


White-tipped Reef Shark

Black-tipped Reff Shark

Yellow-tailed Mullet

Pencil Sea Urchin

Yellow Surgeon Fish

King Angel Fish

Black-tailed Mullet


Blue-chin Parrot Fish

Mexican Streamer Fish

Creole Gringo Fish

Hyrogliphic Hogfish

Choc-chip Starfish

Pyramid Starfish


White-band Blenny

Galapagos Four-eyed Blenny

Cortez Rainbow Raz

Jellyfish – across my face!!