Tag Archives: Ecuador

Thoughts on my second year of full-time travel

I wasn’t going to write a summary post for my second year of full-time travel, but re-reading my summary from last year I realise that a lot has happened, and my life has taken some unexpected turns!   So I changed my mind 馃檪

Here is where I ended up going over the past year (you can click and drag the map, best view is with Africa in the middle):

The Silk Road

The year started out with an overland trip across the Silk Road with Madventure: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran.

I have to admit that I found this trip quite challenging.  “Overlanding” is about covering distance rather than really exploring a place, and this contrasts completely with how I usually travel.  To deal with the frustration I felt around this, I had to change my thinking to make it all about the journey, not the destinations.  I placed myself on a “mechanical camel” traversing the Silk Road as they did in the old days, scouting locations that I wanted to return to and explore more fully at a later date.

Staring out the window - Turkmenistan

Me in my “mechanical camel” traveling the Silk Road

And where would that be?  Definitely Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and probably Tajikistan.  Loved these countries!  They were very different to other places I’d traveled (well, except Mongolia many years ago), and there are plenty of hiking and trekking opportunities as well 馃槈

Other highlights:

  • The weirdness of Turkmenistan
  • Crossing the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan (I love being on boats)
  • The Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.  It is more impressive than you can possibly imagine 
Registan at night - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

[click and drag to see full panorama]

Greenland

What can I say!  After 20 years of dreaming of visiting this incredible country, I finally went.  I should not have waited so long!  I absolutely LOVE Greenland!  I will return this year for a month and am already working on trying to arrange an extended stay in 2019.

The view across the Nuuk Fjord to an iconic mountain from near Caf茅 Inuk in Nuuk, Greenland

You only have to talk to me for about 10 minutes before I’ll bring Greenland up in conversation, and the most common question is “why are you so into this place”?

This is a very difficult thing for me to answer, but here are a few thoughts…

It is a fascinating place.  The way life works in Greenland is dictated by its isolation and the logistical difficulties faced when access to and within the country is so restricted by ice.  It has European tendencies (it is part of Denmark), but there is a whole other aspect as well, with hunting and dog sledding (in winter) and other elements of traditional life still present.  I find the dual-nature of Greenland intriguing.

Greenlandic sled dogs in Kulusuk - East Greenland

Greenlandic sled dogs are still a part of life in much of Greenland

It is surprisingly accessible.  Getting around Greenland (in summer at least) is actually quite easy, though definitely not cheap!  Air Greenland flies regularly to most of the larger towns, and boat transfers operate as the main mode of transportation within a local area.  In addition, although Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) is the official language, almost all Greenlanders speak Danish and most of the younger ones also speak extremely good English.  The latter was an unexpected but welcome surprise that allowed me to gain a little insight into Greenlandic life.

Flying or boating are the main methods used to get around Greenland

Flying (aeroplanes and helicopters) or boating are the main methods used to get around Greenland

It is beautiful.  Did you know that there are no trees in Greenland, but a surprising number of wildflowers in the summer?  I only explored part of the South and East of Greenland last year and they were very different to each other.  South Greenland (in the Narsaq/Narsarsuaq area) is basically sheep country – quite green in summer with lots of rolling hills.  East Greenland is much more remote and dramatic, with spectacular craggy mountains and ice-filled fjords.  Both have their charms, though I admit I was more drawn to the mountains of East Greenland.  

Images showing the contrast between South Greenland and East Greenland

The landscapes in South Greenland (top) and East Greenland (bottom) are very different!

There is no-one there.  The world’s largest island has a population of only 56,000 people and hosted 86,000 tourists in 2017, so you don’t have to go far before you are surrounded by wilderness and completely alone.  Land is not privately owned in Greenland and you can wander and camp wherever you wish – unfettered freedom to explore, enjoy the outdoors, and disconnect from the world.  I’ve already talked about how the silence is one of the reasons I love long-distance trekking so much, though it is very difficult to explain its impact unless you have experienced it for yourself.  Silence and being present in nature abounds in Greenland and is another reason I love it there. 

Panorama of the Tasilap Kua valley in East Greenland

[click and drag to see full panorama]

I re-found me.  The person I was while working as an astronomer in Chile was very different to the person I became while working in Melbourne.  It took almost 2 years of travel, but I finally re-claimed the person I want to be while in East Greenland last year.  Would I have found her somewhere else?  Quite possibly.  But the fact that this coincided with my stay in Greenland is part of the reason why this place is so special to me.

Me with my copy of Nanook's Ataasiusutut Misigissuseq CD

Ecuador

After traveling across the Silk Road, fulfilling my dream of visiting Greenland, and visiting great friends in Portugal (with a side trip to the Azores), my plan was always to live in one place for several months in South America and figure out how I was going to continue to fund this lifestyle of a full-time traveler.  I chose Ecuador as my base, as Chile (my home in South America) has become too expensive and I have always loved Quito. 

Panoramic View of the Historic Center of Quito from the Basilica

[click and drag to see full panorama]

I have to admit, the first 6 weeks were pretty rough!  I had a hard time making the transition from travelling around without a care in the world, to staying put and trying to sort my life.  Plus, my head and heart were still in Greenland.

However, after making some great friends through a Spanish conversation group and figuring out that I really liked living in the area just east of Parque La Carolina, I ended up loving my 6 months in Ecuador.  I didn’t do a lot of touristy things (though I did get out for a few hikes), I simply test-run what it was like to live there.  In the end, it was remarkably difficult to leave and, if I decide to go back and live in South America full-time, it will almost certainly be in Ecuador.

View Laguna Caricocha from the summit of Fuya Fuya near Otavalo, Ecuador

Laguna Caricocha and the Cayambe volcano (just to the right of the lake) from my perch at the summit of Fuya Fuya.

Patagonia

It was not part of my plan for the year to end up in Patagonia for a 7th time.  However, one of the joys of full-time travel is that you can decide things as you go, and when my friend Mathilde (who I’d met in East Greenland) said she was going to be there in February – I thought “why not”.

Mathilde and I at the Mirador Cerro Fitz Roy - El Chalt茅n - Argentina

Mathilde and I at the Mirador Cerro Fitz Roy

I had a fantastic 5 weeks (mostly in Argentinean Patagonia) hiking and hanging out in one of my favourite parts of the world.  I crossed the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition off my bucketlist – undertaking this remote and incredible journey with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia, and really enjoyed hanging out with old friends as well as news ones that I made along the way.

[click and drag to see full panorama]

What did I discover

The general things that I talked about last year under this heading are still very valid.  But in addition:

  • I finally cemented in my mind that outdoor adventure (particularly long-distance trekking) is my thing.  My two favourite experiences from this year were the Unplugged Wilderness Trek in East Greenland with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides, and the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia.
  • That maybe, just maybe, I can make a living as a travel photographer and writer!  This has always been my dream and I have had some early success this year in offering photography/writing services in exchange for experiences with different companies.  I’m focusing on this much more now and seeing where it could ultimately lead.  Very exciting!
  • That I really love living in South America 馃檪  I knew this from when I lived in Chile, but spending 6 months living in Ecuador this year has re-confirmed it for me.
  • That I really want to go live in Greenland for a year – to experience the full change of the seasons and more of the culture and place.
  • That I don’t want to live in Australia at the minute.  As much as I have loved coming home and visiting my family and friends, I actually don’t want to live here right now.  The cost of living, the nanny-state restrictions on what you can and cannot do (most of which should just be common sense), and the parochial outlook of many Australians really struck me this trip home.  I love Australia and have no doubt that I will return one day.  But it is not my place right now.

What’s next

I’ve been home for 2 months now, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, and getting myself sorted for more adventure.   The next 6 months has me visiting friends in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, then trekking pretty solidly for several months through Iceland, Greenland, Nepal and Kenya.

More from the road soon!

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Hiking Ecuador – Volc谩n Ilal贸

A quick half-day hike just outside of Quito is to the cross on Volc谩n Ilal贸.  And, unlike most of the hikes in this hiking mecca of a country, you can actually get to the trail-head on public transport!

However, it turns out that I didn鈥檛 need to worry about that as my friends Suzi and Marcelo were also interested in climbing to the viewpoint.  They picked me and two more of their friends up at around 8am and off we set to the Chapel in San Pedro del Tingo – the starting point for the hike.

Already from the Chapel, you have nice views over parts of Quito and out to the surrounding mountains.

Vista from the start of the trail up Volc谩n Ilal贸

The vista from the start of the trail up Volc谩n Ilal贸

But if you are keen 鈥 you can also do the climb.  

I have to admit, this was the least interesting hike I鈥檝e done in Ecuador ☹ 

Because it is so close to Quito and so easy to get to, it is extremely popular.   The trail is very obvious, but is in really bad shape, mostly I suspect due to the off-road motorcyclists who also attempt to do the climb while trying to avoid hikers.   On this day, there was a group of 4 of them catch up to us, which was really frustrating because of the noise and also the fact that they kept blocking the path (they were having a lot of trouble getting the bikes up the trail and resorted on several occasions to using ropes to pull the bikes up).

Partially destroyed hiking trail up Volc谩n Ilal贸

Its no wonder the trail looks like this when off-road motorcyclists also attempt the climb

The hike is surprisingly steep 鈥 a 30-ish degree grade that doesn鈥檛 let up for about 2 hours!  And this is one of the easier hikes in Ecuador! 

A less-steep part of the trail up Volc谩n Ilal贸

This is actually one of the less-steep sections, quite close to the end of the trail

There are several small crosses along the way,  but unfortunately I couldn鈥檛 find any information about why they are there.

Cross overlooking the outskirts of Quito on the trail up A less-steep part of the trail up Volc谩n Ilal贸

One of the many small crosses that lined the path up Volc谩n Ilal贸

And the main event 鈥 the big cross – which is not actually at the summit of the volcano, that鈥檚 another 40 minute hike away.

The Cruz de Ilal贸

The Cruz de Ilal贸

But the views from here were lovely, and would be truly spectacular if it were completely clear, as Volc谩n Cotopaxi would loom large on the horizon.

View from the The Cruz de Ilal贸

View from the The Cruz de Ilal贸

Recommendation

If you don鈥檛 have a lot of time and would like to do a relatively 鈥渆asy鈥 hike around Quito, Volc谩n Ilal贸 might be a good option 鈥 especially if you are starting your acclimatization for hikes at greater altitude.   Personally, I鈥檇 recommend going to Otavalo and doing the Laguna Cuicocha rim hike as a much more beautiful option, but it depends on your timing and route.

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San Crist贸bal Island – Galapagos

San Crist贸bal was the last of the islands I visited on this trip to the Galapagos and, for chilling out, it is by far the best.  There are numerous and different eating options in town (I can highly recommend eating breakfast at the small caf茅 outside the Hostal Galapagos, and the Sabor Cuencano Bakery on Av. Alsacio Northia), and it鈥檚 a nice level of activity vs chilled-ness.  In fact, it was kind of hard to move from the Hostal Galapagos caf茅 each day… 

Given that I was still trying to get over my seeming-never-ending illness, I didn鈥檛 actually get up to that much on my three days on the island, but I did do a little exploring.

Playa Mann

This is just on the outskirts of town and a good place for watching the sunset surrounded by lots of sea lions!  I came out here my first night and loved watching all the small sea lion pups playing what looked to be 鈥渃hase鈥 in the water.   You鈥檇 see them rolling and diving in the water, then they鈥檇 flop out onto the sand and chase each other up the beach, before returning to the water to do it all over again.   Really magical!   Great pinchos (meat on a stick) just across the road after sunset for US$2.50 as well 😊

Sea lions on Playa Mann - San Crist贸bal Island - Galapagos

Sea lions on Playa Mann. The young ones really don’t mind getting very, very sandy

La Lober铆a

One of the few independent longer excursions you can do on the Island is a visit to La Lober铆a beach 鈥 a breeding ground for sea lions.  It鈥檚 only about a 3km walk along 2-sides of the un-fenced airport

San Crist贸bal airport - Galapagos

Yes – you see that correctly. It is a gate without any fences on either side of it

before you get to a fairly small beach with some sea lions.  The day I went, there were far fewer sea lions than what I saw at Playa Mann, but that was probably just unlucky.  I did get great views of some of the Galapagos Finches though 馃檪

Galapagos Finches at La Lober铆a - Isla San Crist贸bal - Galapagos

Galapagos Finches are not shy at La Lober铆a

Not being an ocean/beach person, I have to admit that the highlight for me was actually walking out to the cliffs a little further along from the beach.  

Cliffs near La Lober铆a - Isla San Crist贸bal - Galapagos

There you can sit and watch the birds come and go from their cliff-homes while catching a nice cool breeze from the ocean.   The majority of the birds seemed to be a kind of petrel, but there were also some Swallow-Tailed Gulls, a few Blue-footed Boobies, and I even got to see a red-billed tropic bird 鈥 a beautiful white bird with a long tail.

Birds nesting on the cliffs near La Lober铆a - Isla San Crist贸bal - Galapagos

Birds and a marine iguana nesting on the cliffs near La Lober铆a

My favourite moment was when a group of 10 Frigatebirds appeared.  They came right up to where I sat as they soared around the cliff face.  So graceful, even if a little menacing in my mind.  I suspect it is the shape of the wings that make me think this, as they remind me of a vampire for some reason??!!   Unfortunately, they moved on pretty quickly, but I enjoyed another 1.5 hours of solitude and silence watching the other birds.

My focus was on the marine iguanas on my walk back to the beach.  They do this weird head-bobbing thing and then expel salt from their nostrils to clear their system.  I remember this from my first visit to the Galapagos, and it really is bizarre to watch.

Tijeretas

This is a short walk from town through the Interpretation Centre.   There is a path leading to a lookout which has fantastic views over Tijeretas Bay, and it is a great spot to watch the Frigatebirds for which it is named (the spanish name for a Frigatebird is Tijeras).

Path up to the viewpoint of Tijeretas (top) and Tijeretas Bay (bottom) - Isla San Crist贸bal - Galapagos

Path up to the viewpoint of Tijeretas (top) and Tijeretas Bay (bottom)

The Bay itself was a fantastic place to snorkel independently, and again, I just followed the Green Sea Turtles for ages, watching them go about their business.

On the way back to town, I made a loop via Playa Punta Carola, which is another fantastic place to watch the sunset and the sea lions.  I actually liked it more than Playa Mann as it felt like you were more in nature and was less crowded with people.  It’s amazing how the young sea lion pups insist on sleeping with their head on a rock.

Sea lion pups resting their head on a rock at Playa Punta Carola - Isla San Crist贸bal - Galapagos

How can they sleep like this?

There were quite a few nursing while I was in the Galapagos this time.

Sea lion pups nursing at Playa Punta Carola - Isla San Crist贸bal - Galapagos

Recommendation

If you want to chill out – San Crist贸bal is definitely the best island for it.  There are handful of independent excursions you can do, but a lot of others as well if you are prepared to fork over the cash.

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Hiking Galapagos – Sierra Negra and Volc谩n Chico – Isabela Island

Having survived the snorkeling trip to Los T煤neles without a relapse in my illness, for Christmas Day I headed out on the second tour I鈥檇 organized for Isabela Island 鈥 a hiking tour to Sierra Negra and Volc谩n Chico.

Once again, the day began overcast and, as we bused to the starting point of the trail, we ascended into fog.   We stood in light drizzle as our guide explained it would be a 16km hike, and I almost had to laugh at the enormous groan that went up from the other 12 people in the group.   My reaction was 鈥淥K 鈥 let鈥檚 go鈥, even with lungs full of fluid from the flu, but clearly I鈥檓 starting from a different hiking baseline than the majority of people.

Sign at the start of the Sierra Negra trail - Galapagos

We hiked the first 3km in fog.  It was nice and cool and very enjoyable chatting with a couple of my fellow hiking companions. 

Fellow hikers heading into fog on the Sierra Negra trail on Isla Isabela - Galapagos

I hope it improves!

What wasn’t so nice was that when we got to the first of the viewpoints, we could see absolutely nothing.

Caldera completely obscured by fog

See anything?

Our guide explained that this was common at this time of year when the ocean currents and winds push cloud up against the southern side of the mountain.  He suggested we continue to the next viewpoint and perhaps we’d have better luck there… 

Ummmmm鈥. Nope.  I didn’t even bother to take a photo.  On to the third viewpoint鈥

Fortunately, here the fog was starting to clear and we could see part of the second-largest caldera in the world (the largest is Mauna Loa in Hawaii).

Fog lifting over the Sierra Negra caldera - Galapagos

This is looking better

The caldera of Sierra Negra is about 10km wide, and looking out across such an enormous  expanse of flat, black, cooled lava is incredible.   

Panorama of the caldera of Sierra Negra - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Different patterns in the lava of the floor of the caldera told the story of its formation – if only I could have interpreted it.  I keep coming back to the idea that I should have continued my studies in Geology…

Patterns in the solidified lava of the floor of the Sierra Negra caldera - Galapagos

We spent about 20 minutes admiring the view, then hiked a further 2km to Volc谩n Chico

Approaching Volc谩n Chico - Sierra Negra hiking trail - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Approaching Volc谩n Chico across the lava field

With the fog gone, the equatorial sun beat down savagely and this last part of the hike quickly became very hot.  To distract us, our guide highlighted the features of the volcanic landscape we were walking through (until this point we鈥檇 been walking along what was effectively a road).  He pointed out lava tunnels and areas where small explosions had occurred, and explained the differences between a’a and pahoehoe lava.

Images of volcanic lava features on the hike to Volc谩n Chico - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Different lava features including a small lava tunnel (middle), pahoehoe lava (bottom left) and a’a lava (bottom right)

The views from Volc谩n Chico (not actually a separate volcano, simply the most active part of Sierra Negra) were fantastic, and would have been really incredible on a clearer day. Again 鈥 being able to see the vast, barren lava plains of Isabela Island is amazing.  I think it is the flatness and the complete lack of vegetation that makes it really capture my attention.  

Volc谩n Chico details - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Volc谩n Chico is very colourful (top and middle) with an incredible view over the lava fields of Isla Isabela (bottom)

We spent about 陆 hour at Volc谩n Chico before starting the return journey. The final viewpoint of the caldera was even clearer this time and I managed to steal about 10 minutes there by myself just admiring the view and relishing the silence.

Sierra Negra caldera from the third viewpoint - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Finally, a clear view of the entire caldera of Sierra Negra

I walked most of the way back by myself noticing the different types of flowers that grew every now and then along the side of the road (I was too busy talking to notice them on the way up).  As the fog closed in around me offering some cool relief, I was a very happy camper having had the opportunity to see the caldera. 

Recommendation

This is a great day trip on Isabela Island if you are prepared to walk 16km.  It is not a difficult hike, though the sun can be very strong and hot, making it feel more difficult.  Bring loads of sun protection (hat, sunscreen, sunglasses) even if the day looks like it is going to be rubbish.

Time: About 7 hours in total

Cost:  $30 includes transport, boxed lunch, guide

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Los T煤neles – Isabela Island – Galapagos

The Galapagos is a mecca for snorkeling and diving.  And while I haven’t taken up the latter (I already have waaaaaay too many expensive hobbies), one of my favourite memories of my last trip here was snorkeling with the Green Sea turtles.  I knew I wanted to do at least one snorkeling excursion while in the Galapagos, and opted for one of the longer trips – Los T煤neles – on Isabela Island.

I had spent the entire day before in bed with flu symptoms and, on the morning of the trip, still felt like crap at 4am.   However, it’s amazing what your subconscious and mind-over-matter can do for you, and when I awoke again at 6am I actually didn’t feel too bad!  During that 2 hours of sleep, my body seemed to have convinced itself that it wasn’t sick after all, and that I shouldn’t miss the excursion. 

Cold and flu tablets

I was feeling so terrible, I even resorted to heading to the pharmacy for some medicine

When I booked the trip, I was told we would meet at the office at 7:15am.  I was there early (as usual), and promptly laid down on a bench to conserve energy and wait for the actual departure – this is Latin America after all. We finally left at about 7:45am and headed to the dock and our open-sided boat.

Our boat to Los T煤neles was an open-sided affair

Our boat to Los T煤neles was an open-sided affair

On the 45 minute boat ride to Cabo Rosa, we swung by Roca Uni贸n – a large rock in the middle of nowhere with Nazcar boobies and sea lions perched just out of reach of the pounding waves.

Views Roca Uni贸n with Nazcar boobies and sea lions

Roca Uni贸n sits alone off the shore of Isla Isabela and was host to plenty of Nazcar boobies and sea lions on the day we passed by

When we arrived at our snorkeling spot, our guide was very excited because the level of the tide was such that it might be possible to see seahorses.   To avoid stirring up the silty bottom and reducing visibility, he instructed us to not use our fins and just float, but it is surprising how many people either a) don鈥檛 listen, b) ignore or forget instructions as soon as they are given, and/or c) simply have no idea of where their body is!

Yes we found the seahorses 鈥 and they were quite big actually!   Probably about 25cm long.  But unfortunately I only got murky views due to the fact that everyone else had kicked up the bottom with their fins鈥   *sigh*

From there, we followed our guide through the shallow rocky area looking for whatever else we could see.  There were only 10 of us plus the guide, but it is amazing how pushy and inconsiderate people are in these circumstances 鈥 there were times when it felt like an all-in-brawl!   We spotted some octopus, a tiger snake eel (it is actually an eel, not a snake), some stingrays, and white tip sharks sleeping in the caves formed in the lava. 

But, once again, the highlight for me was snorkeling with the Green Sea turtles.   It was a standout memory from my last trip to the Galapagos, and did not disappoint this time either. These creatures are very large (at least 2m across), and just so placid and graceful.   And curious!   If you stay still and float (as the guide suggested), they come right up to you to say hello, and then narrowly miss you as they make their way to wherever they鈥檝e decided to head.  I LOVE LOVE LOVE snorkeling with the Green Sea Turtles!  It was one of the main reasons I wanted to return to the Galapagos.

The only problem with snorkeling in the Galapagos (at least at this time of year) is that the water is cold!  Even with an (admittedly ill-fitting) wetsuit, I was shivering and numb by the time we finished snorkeling about 1.5hrs later.  If the guide hadn鈥檛 headed back to the boat when he did, I would have had to have headed back myself 鈥 I was so cold!

Once everyone was back on board, we motored around to the area of Los T煤neles itself 鈥 a maze of volcanic outcrops.  Given that it is a key breeding ground for the Green Sea turtles, access to this area is very restricted with only 5 boats of 10 visitors allowed during the morning and another 5 boats during the afternoon.  Only the local fishermen have permits to enter the area and, fortunately, our captain was one of them!

Approaching Los T煤neles

Approaching Los T煤neles

This place was amazingly beautiful (the photos don鈥檛 do it justice) and it was seriously impressive to watch the captain of our boat maneuver through the very narrow passages to arrive at a point where we could disembark.

Our boat docked in the middle of the lava labyrinth that is Los T煤neles

Our boat driver negotiated passages only millimetres wider than the boat itself to arrive at the point for us to disembark at Los T煤neles

We spent about 45 minutes exploring a fairly small area 鈥 but the colours and structures were amazing.

Views of Los T煤neles

Los T煤neles is absolutely gorgeous and a fascinating place to explore. It is also a breeding ground for Green Sea Turtles, which you can see swimming in the super-clear water.

We also got to see some more Blue-footed Boobies, including one with a 6-week old chick!

Images of a Blue-footed Boobie at Los T煤neles, and a fluffy chick

I can never get enough of the Blue-footed Boobies. Amazing to see how fluffy their chicks are as well!

What drove me insane here was yet another demonstration that people either a) don鈥檛 listen to instructions or b) purposefully ignore them. Time and time again, our guide reminded the group not to get too close to the animals.  But in their efforts to get a selfie with the Blue-footed Boobie, several of the passengers were sidling right up to the poor creature 鈥 and it was very, very clear that the bird was a little nervous about this.  

Now the incredible thing about the Galapagos is that you can get about 2m away from a bird and it really won’t be fussed.  This is the distance that the guides try to enforce, but so many visitors push the limit and just don’t seem to realise, or perhaps simply don’t care, that the bird is becoming distressed.  They just want that picture!   If I had been our guide, I would have been much more forceful about telling people to pull their head in about this.   In my opinion, they are not strict enough with their clients 馃檨 

On the way back to Puerto Villamil we passed a Green Sea turtle sunning itself on a rock, saw a huge Manta Ray on the surface of the ocean, and finally caught a glimpse of a Galapagos Penguin on the way into the harbor.

A Green Sea turtle sunning itself on a rock, and the fin of a sting ray - both seen on the way back to the harbour.

A Green Sea Turtle sunning itself on a rock (top) and the fin of a sting-ray

Recommendation

This is a great day trip and a good opportunity to see a variety of marine life.  Make sure you go with an operator who can enter into the labyrinth of Los T煤neles though!

Time:  5 hours

Cost:  I paid USD$100, though had been quoted $120 at other places for the same tour.  Price included the hire of a wetsuit, guide, transport, boxed lunch.

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Hiking Galapagos – Muro de las L谩grimas on Isabela Island

In order to protect the environment and the animals, the number of excursions you can undertake independently in the Galapagos is quite limited.  One of the longer ones is the ~15km return journey out to the Muro de las L谩grimas (Wall of Tears) on Isla Isabela.  

Sign explaining the Muro de las Lagrimas complex and route

Almost everyone does this on a bike (and that鈥檚 certainly what the tourist agencies encourage you to do), but I decided I鈥檇 hike it instead.

It鈥檚 a very easy hike 鈥 the main difficulties being the heat and, if you aren鈥檛 used to it, the distance.  However,  there are plenty of points along the way for small detours and rest stops.   For example, I was lucky enough to be passing 鈥淓l Estero鈥 at low tide 鈥 the only time possible to visit.  It was an interesting little detour with mangroves and even a few Blue-footed boobies in the distance!

Some of the stopping off points along the road to the Muro de las L

Some of the stopping off points along the road to the Muro de las L谩grimas – El Estero and a Blue-footed Boobie (top), lava tunnel (bottom left) and Los Tunos (bottom right)

Galapagos Giant Land Tortoises

One of the key highlights of this excursion is 鈥淭he Tortoise Way鈥 鈥 a section of road along which giant land tortoises are usually found.

Sign by side of road explaining not to touch the tortoises

The need for signs explaining not to touch the animals never ceases to amaze me. A sad indictment on the behaviour of a surprisingly large number of travelers

I got super-lucky and came across 8 of these amazing creatures within a 2km stretch!  I love their pigeon toes and wizened faces.

Closeup of the face and front legs of a Galapagos Giant Land Tortoise - hiking along the Tortoise Way in Isla Isabela

This tortoise was one of the shy ones. He stayed retracted into his shell for the duration of my visit

None of them was as big as I remember from last time I was in the Galapagos and, according to a sign, they were bred at the local tortoise centre.  They are the descendants of tortoises that used to live on the slopes of the Sierra Negra volcano, and were released into the wild once they were big enough to survive – so were most likely juveniles.

Front view of a giant land tortoise with neck extended, as well as details in the shell and the legs

The faces of the giant land tortoises are incredible – I would watch them all day! And the detail in the shell and their skin is fascinating

That being said – they were still enormous!  And it was a beautiful experience to come across so many of them in the wild.  On my last visit, there were very few outside of the Charles Darwin and other breeding centres. 

Cyclist passing a Galapagos giant land tortoise along the Tortoise Way on Isla Isabela

On my hike, I came across 8 tortoises enjoying the relative freedom of movement the edges of the road offered

They are fascinating creatures to watch, and I spent some time with pretty much all of them. I watched this guy eating for quite a long time 鈥 he didn鈥檛 seem to care.  But watching his struggle to strip the leaves of the small plants really makes you appreciate having hands and opposable thumbs!

This looks frustrating

And when they move, your heart really goes out to them. Every time, they would let out an 鈥渙ld-man-sigh鈥 from the effort involved.  Though I guess I would too if I had to carry around such a heavy shell!  If they only want to move a short distance, they tend to half-lift, half-scrape themselves across the ground 鈥 the effort seemingly too great to lift themselves all the way up.

This looks like hard work and a lot of effort!

They only bother if they really want to cover some ground.

The Muro de las L谩grimas

Leaving my tortoise friends, I climbed to the top of the first lookout at Mirador Cerro Orchilla to survey the dry scrubby surroundings,

The view from Mirador Cerro Orchilla

The dry scrub that makes up Isla Isabela and the brilliant blue ocean from Mirador Cerro Orchilla

and then finally made it to the Wall of Tears. 

Approaching the Muro de las L谩grimas

Approaching the Muro de las L谩grimas

This ~25m high construction was built by prisoners between 1946 And 1959 when Isabela Island was used as a penitentiary. An interpretive sign explains:

This futile construction is preserved in memory of those hardships endured by those forced to build it

Indeed it would have been a horrible labour under the strong equatorial sun!  And some locals believe it is haunted, with stories of wailing and moaning being heard at the site.

Different views of the Muro de las L谩grimas

The Muro de las L谩grimas – an enormous amount of work to build a pointless construction

Leaving this stark reminder of a darker period in the history of the Galapagos, I climbed to 鈥淭he Radar鈥 viewpoint – one of 3 old radar stations established in the Galapagos by the US.

The path up to El Radar and the concrete slab where the radar was positioned

The path up to El Radar. There’s not a lot left of the radar apart from a concrete slab

I stayed up here for about 1.5 hours enjoying the shade and the breeze, and soaking in the incredible view over the ocean and the island itself.   I didn’t see a single other person.

Viewpoint from El Radar on Isla Isabela - Galapagos Islands - Ecuador

El Radar has a wonderful view over Isla Isabela

I was constantly amazed on this excursion how those on bikes didn鈥檛 seem to stop off at any of the side-鈥渁ttractions鈥 along the way, including the two prominent viewpoints.   Why?  If you are going to make the excursion, make the whole excursion!

Galapagos Flamingos

Eventually, I re-traced my steps all the way back to Puerto Villamil, but decided to make a detour at the entrance to the town to visit the Flamingo estuary.  It didn鈥檛 take long to spot several flamingos 鈥 their bright pink feathers highlighting them against the dull shrubbery and green brackish water. 

Flamingos at the estuary just outside of town

Its not often you get this close to flamingos

It鈥檚 rare to be able to get so close to a flamingo, and fascinating to see how they filter feed.  Who knew they were such noisy eaters? 

Recommendation

The Muro de las L谩grimas is an amazing day (or 1/2-day on a bike) excursion on Isla Isabela.  I enjoyed hiking it so I could take my time and explore everything along the way.  Even if you rent a bike, I would still encourage you to take your time and do this, as there is a lot to be seen.

Cost:  Free, if you hike

Time:  I took about 7 hours to hike there and back.  However, I did take it VERY slowly, stopped off at every location, spent a lot of time with my tortoise friends, and spent a lot of time chilling out at the viewpoints.

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A Day Trip to North Seymour Island – Galapagos

When I arrived in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, a quick stroll down the main street showed me that all of the day-trips to the different islands were incredibly expensive.  While it may be a lot cheap-er to travel to the Galapagos independently rather than on a cruise, it is still certainly not cheap!   For this reason, I decided that I would only do one or two day-trips, and asked around which were the best islands for seeing the endemic wildlife.   Everybody recommended North Seymour Island, so I set about trying to find the best deal, preferably for the next day.

Of course, it was peak season in the Galapagos (mid-Dec – Feb) and almost everything was booked up until after New Year!   In the end, I had to spring for a slightly more expensive boat, but they gave me “mates rates” (it was the last place they had available) and didn’t charge me for the loan of a wetsuit, so it only turned out to be about $5 more 馃檪

I was picked up from my hotel at 8am and our group bused across the island to the main dock near the airport.  There we boarded a zodiac to take us out to the AltaMar, which was anchored a little further out.

Fellow passengers climbing onto the AltaMar boat from the zodiac transfer

There were 12 of us on the tour, so the zodiac had to do two trips

The AltaMar is one of the more luxurious boats that do these day-trips (hence why it was more expensive) and I quickly nabbed a perch on the very comfortable padded benches on the top level, with a perfect view in the direction of sail.

View from the upper deck of the Altamar boat heading to North Seymour Island, Galapagos

Oh how I love being on boats!  There is something really relaxing about it (assuming it isn’t too rough) and I can sit for hours just watching the landscape glide by.  Fortunately, I had plenty of time to do just that, as it took us about an hour to reach the landing place on North Seymour Island.

View of Daphne Major Island on the way to North Seymour Island, Galapagos

This is Daphne Major Island – a beautiful landscape feature on the cruise to North Seymour.

North Seymour Island

There, we were greeted by one of my favourite animals in all of the Galapagos – a Blue-footed Boobie 馃檪  Interestingly, although these birds are one of the main symbols of the Galapagos, they are not endemic to the Islands.  They can also found along the Pacific Coast of the Americas from California to Peru, but it is thought that more than half of the world’s population lives in the Galapagos. 

Blue-footed bobbie standing on a rock with the ocean in the background on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

I love these guys!

After everyone was ashore, we headed off on our 1.5 hour “hike” (more like very easy stroll) around the set path that has been established on North Seymour Island to try to protect the habitat as much as possible.   These paths were already in existence 14 years ago when I first visited, but have become even more critical with the growing popularity of the Islands as a tourist destination (almost 225,000 people visited the Galapagos in 2015 compared with 75,000 the year of my first visit!).

Landscape and vegetation from the hiking trail on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

North Seymour is very dry.

Everywhere I looked, there were Frigatebirds on their nests – both Majestic and Great – and our guide explained (and then gave us pop-quizzes) about the key differences between the males (red throat-sac), females (white chest) and juveniles (white/rust face and chest, white belly).  

Juvenile and female frigatebirds showing the difference between them, on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

We were lucky enough to see the red throat-sac on a few male Frigatebirds (uninflated, given it wasn’t breeding season)

Male frigatebirds showing the red sac, on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

It would be amazing to see these red sacs inflated during breeding season

and some very fluffy-looking chicks.  Frigatebird nests are always built in bushes or trees so that they are off the ground.

Frigatebird and chick sitting in the nest on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

We also saw Land Iguanas absolutely everywhere, and actually North Seymour Island is one of a few islands in the Galapagos where they can easily be seen in the wild.  They are much larger than the Marine Iguanas, have a rounder tail, and the males are yellow in colour. 

Male land iguana on the hike on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

My first visit to the Galapagos coincided with the breeding season of the Blue-footed Boobies, and my strongest memory from that trip was that there were so many Blue-footed Boobies that you had to really watch where you were walking.  They would sit in the middle of the path and squawk at you to make sure that you stepped over/around them rather than on them.  And the males would be doing their goofy dance in all corners, trying to attract a mate.   It is this goofy dance that so endears these birds to absolutely everyone – and if you get the chance to see it – you must 馃檪

Unfortunately, I wasn’t visiting during mating season this year so the boobies were pretty few and far between, and certainly, none were dancing.   Our guide was able to point out the difference between the juveniles and the adults though.  Can you spot the difference in the below?

Adult and juvenile Blue-footed Boobies showing the difference between the two. North Seymour hike, Galapagos

The juveniles don’t have blue feet!  The blue colour is caused by caratenoid pigments from their food, and acquired over time through their diet.  He also explained how, in contrast to the Frigatebirds, the Blue-footed Boobies make their nests on the ground, and you can tell where a Boobie nest was by the ring of white guano surrounding a relatively clean centre.  Yes, they just poo from where they are sitting.

Blue feet of the blue-footed boobie and a nest, on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

You can never get too much of blue feet

On the way back to the AltaMar we managed to spot a few Galapagos Sea Lions

Close up and distant view of Galapagos Sea Lions on North Seymour Island

as well as the Galapagos Brown Pelican (much smaller than an Australian Pelican) and a Swallow-tailed Gull with its characteristic red eye-ring.

Galapagos Brown Pelican and Swallow-tailed Gull on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

Las Bachas Beach – Santa Cruz Island

We had lunch back on board the AltaMar as we sailed around to Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island.   There, we went searching for flamingos, but unfortunately weren’t in luck on this day.

Lagoon with no flamingos under cloudy skies

Nobody home today at the lagoon

We did, however, manage to glimpse the sunken remains of the old US WWII barge for which the beach is named.  The US sank two barges here before leaving, and given that the locals were unfamiliar with the word “barge”, they called it Bachas.

The top of a single rib from the buried US WWII barge at Las Baches beach, Galapagos

Unfortunately we only got to see the top of one rib. It all depends on the tides as to how much you see of these sunken and buried barges

We also went snorkeling here for about an hour, though I have to admit the water was pretty murky and there wasn’t much to be seen beyond some Rainbow fish and a few smaller varieties.   I also realised that I probably should have tried out my fancy snorkel mask that I bought in Europe before wearing it for the first time, and definitely should have read the instruction manual of my cheaper-than-a-Go-Pro action camera before trying to use it.  

From there it was a 40 minute cruise back to the dock and another 45 minutes in the bus to arrive back at Puerto Ayora.

Recommendation

The day-trip to North Seymour Island from Santa Cruz is one of the best for spotting wildlife.   Though try to make your trip to the Galapagos coincide with Blue-Footed Boobie mating season – it really is something extraordinary to behold!

Time: 8 hours, including bus transfers, time on the boat and time on the islands.

Cost:  I paid USD$170, but it really depends on which boat you end up on.  The cheapest price I heard was USD$160.  

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Hiking Galapagos – Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz

Most people arrive to the Galapagos Islands via Baltra airport near the island of Santa Cruz.   When I first visited 14 years ago, we essentially went straight from the airport to our cruise boat (it was not possible to travel independently in the Galapagos at that time), and didn’t see anything of Santa Cruz beyond the dock.  This time I planned to spend 3 days on the island, with Tortuga Bay the first stop on the itinerary.

Welcome to Santa Cruz, Galapagos sign

Welcome to Santa Cruz Island!

Before setting out, I took a quick detour to the Laguna de las Ninfas 鈥 a small tidal lagoon with red and white mangroves (I learned all about mangroves in Nicaragua last year) and a nice little boardwalk.

Views of Laguna Ninfas, its boardwark and vegetation near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

I loved the different texts that were engraved on the boardwalk

Then started off on the 40 minute hike to Tortuga Bay.  They have built a very solid path all the way there, which takes you through the dry vegetation characteristic of the Galapagos Islands, and giant Opuntia cactus.   Although found on many of the Islands, Santa Cruz has the tallest specimens of this cactus, which are an important food source for iguanas, tortoises and cactus finches.

Path and vegetation that leads the way to Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

The hiking trail to Tortuga Bay is pretty obvious

I found it fascinating how the cactus evolves as it grows larger – something that is clearly seen on this hike. It starts off as discrete pads that stack end-on-end and perpendicular to each other (below left).  Then, as it grows larger, these seem to “fuse” into a more solid-looking trunk covered in spines, with new pads appearing at more random angles in the upper reaches (middle).  And finally, the trunk loses its spines and becomes quite solid and wood-like, with the new pads forming a haphazard jumble at the top (right).

3 stages of evolution of the trunk of an Opuntia cactus, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Evolution of a Galapagos Opuntia Cactus

The texture and patterns in these trunks are amazing!  I had expected it to feel like a paper-bark tree, but no. It is much more solid than that.

Close-up detail of a trunk of a large, mature Opuntia-cactus on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

The hiking path eventually deposits you on the long, white, sandy beach of Tortuga Bay.  It is a beautiful beach, but unfortunately not one they recommend you swim at.

Tortuga Bay beach on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Given that I don’t particularly like swimming anyway, that was fine with me, so I hiked along the beach, stopping to investigate the dark, volcanic rocks along the way. 

It was a thrill to see the Sally-Lightfoot Crabs again

Male and female Sally-Lightfoot Crabs on a rock at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

and the Marine Iguanas of course! The Galapagos Islands are the only place in the world where these iguanas are found, and there is something very special about being able to see these creatures in real life.

Galapagos Marine Iguana on a rock at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Especially in the water, where their flat tail helps them to swim.

Galapagos Marine Iguana swimming at Playa Mansa on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

I was lucky enough to find this guy actually eating something (they usually just lie there expelling salt from their nostrils)

Marine Iguana eating plant material from a rock in Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

And loved watching them walk along on the beach.

Galapagos Marine Iguana walking along the Tortuga Bay beach on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

In order to go swimming or snorkeling, you have to walk all the way to the end of Tortuga Bay and cross over to the far more sheltered Playa Mansa.  

Marina Iguana on Playa Mansa with people in the background - Santa Cruz, Galapagos

A Marine Iguana wondering whether to approach the people on Playa Mansa

Given I’m not much of a beach person, I actually preferred exploring the cliff at the end of the beach, with its volcanic rocks and tall Opuntia cacti.  

Views and vegetation from cliff at the end of Playa Mansa on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

and watching the Frigate birds flying above.

Frigate bird flying over Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

Note the forked tail on the Frigate bird. They are called Tijeras in Spanish because the tail looks like scissors.

On the hike back to Puerto Ayora, I spent lots of time chasing Galapagos Lava Lizards along the path in an effort to get a good photo, and then headed into town for an icecream – it was a warm walk 馃檪

Lava Lizard on a rock, clearly showing the bright orange neck and face. Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

Recommendation

This is the main hike that you can do from Puerto Ayora.  And best of all – it is free and you can do it independently.

Time:  I spent about 5 hours on this excursion, but depending on whether you wanted to go swimming/snorkeling at Playa Mansa – you could easily spend the whole day.

 

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Mitad del Mundo – Quito – Ecuador

Visiting the Mitad del Mundo (or middle of the world) is something that almost everyone who comes to Quito does.  When I first visited it 14 years ago, it was a massive monument and a yellow line that marked the Equator line (in theory).  Oh my – how it has changed!

The big monument is still there, and just as I remember it.

me at the Mitad del Mundo - Quito - Ecuador

As is the yellow line

 Mitad del Mundo - Quito - Ecuador

O stands for “oeste” or “west” in Spanish

But I remember this being in the middle of nowhere.  Now, it is surrounded by a whole complex of museums, souvenir shops (where you can get your passport stamped), and eateries.  Quite the tourist trap!

Which it really is.  Although it is remarkably simple to get there on public transport, it takes 3 x forever to do so.  Alternatively, you can take one of any number of tours offered by almost every hostel in Quito.  However, in my opinion, it really isn’t worth it.

The highlights for me were actually the colourful artworks scattered around the site

artwork at mitad del mundo - quito - ecuador

and this dance performance we happened to stumble upon.

 

Recommendation

To be honest – I don’t really 馃檨

Cost: USD $3.50 to be able to enter and just walk around the site, including taking pictures of the monument.  Of course this also allows you to visit the eateries and souvenir shops.  USD$7.50 if you want to visit the museums.   Public transport to get there is USD$0.50 – but bear in mind it is very slow.  I think every hostel in Quito offers a trip out here, usually combined with a trip up the TeleferiQo.

Time: If you just by the basic entrance ticket, an hour would be more than enough time at the site.

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Termas de Papallacta (Hot Springs) – Quito – Ecuador

If you are after relaxation, the Papallacta Hot Springs (Termas de Papallacta) are a very easy day-excursion from Quito, and a really lovely experience.

Investigating how to get there on public transport, I decided it would be simpler to head to the Quitumbe terminal to catch the bus, rather than trying to pick it up at La Scala in Cumbay谩, even though I’m very familiar with buses going past the Scala shopping mall.

What a mistake!

After catching the Ecov铆a and taking 45 minutes to get to Quitumbe, we caught the bus no worries.  But then I almost chewed my arm off in frustration as the driver went no faster than about 30km/hr and took 1.5 hours to get from there to La Scala!   Had I known exactly where the bus was going to go (and that it was going to go past La Scala, there wasn’t a different route it would take), I most definitely would have just caught it from La Scala!

I have absolutely no idea why we were going so slowly (suspect a problem with the bus, but we never did find out), but when we eventually left the outskirts of Cumbay谩 we finally picked up speed.  Of course, from there it was only 20 kilometers more…

The bus dropped us at the entrance to the town of Papallacta and we caught one of the taxis waiting there up to the thermal pools.  There are actually two parts to the complex, and we chose the Balneario over more expensive Spa.  Really, I don’t understand how the Spa could be better than the Balneario – it was amazing!

Balneario part of the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

There are a large number of impeccably clean pools that range in temperature from glacial (straight out of the river) to scalding.   There’s even one that has spa jets!

Balneario part of the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

What we didn’t realise was that there are actually 3 main parts to the Balneario.  Two of them (those that we visited) are very obvious once you walk in, but there is a third section to your left as you enter.  It pays to explore the whole site first!

There are undercover picnic tables

Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

Ra煤l and I soaking up the warmth. You can see the undercover picnic tables in the back.

Plenty of change-rooms

Change rooms - Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

The baskets are for your personal items. You can also rent lockers here to keep them safe.

and amazing views of the surrounding mountains.

Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

We lounged around soaking in the various pools for several hours before heading out and back down the road a little to have some lunch (about 1/2 the price of eating at the cafe/restaurant at the pools).  

Then we decided to hike up to the border of the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve where there were some lakes that Pedro has seen on the internet and thought would be really beautiful.

Although we never quite made it to the lakes (we were running out of daylight), the hike up the road was absolutely stunning.

Hiking to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

There were amazing views to the mountains further into the Reserve

Hiking to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

and behind us – what would be an incredible view of Volc谩n Antisana, if it weren’t for the cloud.

View to Volcan Antisana from Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

We managed to catch glimpses of the snow-covered peak of the Antisana Volcano, despite it being covered in clouds.

I am soooooo going to come back and do this again when next there is a clear day in Quito!

Recommendation

This was a surprisingly lovely day-trip that I highly recommend!   If you wanted to hike to see the lakes, I would suggest getting the taxi to take you all the way there first thing, then walk back down the road and enjoy the pools afterwards.

Cost:  The bus to Papallacta was around $3 each way.  The taxi to reach the pools was $1 each way.  Entrance to the Balneario was $8.50.  Though there is a cafe/restaurant on site, I recommend heading down the road a little to one of the several restaurants there, as they are about 1/2 the price.  Your ticket will allow you to re-enter.

Time:  Up to you really.   From La Scala it was about a 45 minute bus ride to get to Papallacta.  You could easily spend the whole day here relaxing and moving from pool to pool.   To hike to the lakes just before the entrance to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, I estimate it would take about 2-2.5 hours at a reasonable pace.

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