A Travellerspoint blog

Welcome to the jungle

[Grab a brew, it's a long 'un]

30 °C

Effing bloody Quito. Here you are again for a fourth time!!!

We had to return because our night bus left the city at 11pm to Lago Agrio, where we were picking up our tour to Amazonia. This left us with 10 hours to kill in La Mariscal before the bus trip. Joy. It was also a Sunday again so the place felt pretty dead.

With bags in tow, we moved from bar to bar drinking tea and juices all day, feeling like a couple of hobos.

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The canned square of La Mariscal that we just can't get enough of

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How happy are you to be leaving Quito Cookie?

Lago Agrio is not considered a safe place for tourists and this did make us think twice about booking on the trip. It's very close to the Columbian border and as a result the town is associated with drug trafficking and guerrilla activity. The wiki travel page doesn't make for great reading:

'Be careful in this area. The long running conflict in Colombia creates spillover along the northern border of Ecuador.
Drug trafficking activities and general lawlessness in this area create plenty of opportunities for a tourist to find trouble.
If you want to go alone, you should advise the embassy or somebody not travelling with you of your travel plans and return date.'

To be fair, on arrival all the gringos get off the bus, jump straight into taxis and are taken to the hotel pick up point for the tours, so risks are minimised but it does make you feel uneasy all the same.

The 6.5 hour night bus journey (our first) was uneventful and we slept better than we were expecting to, despite the fact that our immediate neighbours looked like just the sort to rob us whilst we slept (all the guidebooks frequently warn you that robberies are more common on night buses). Ah paranoia, our old friend.

We arrived at 5.30am and had a four hour wait until we were picked up. This was followed by a two hour bus journey and a further three hours in a motorised canoe. You could say it's quite a commitment getting to the jungle.

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The part of Amazonia we visited was the Cuaybeno reserve, a tributory of a tributory to the Amazon, and a primary rainforest region. It would take 20 days winding through the flooded forest to reach the Amazon itself, which then continues for 4,000km to the Atlantic Ocean. Pretty staggering.

Our guide showed us some fabulous stuff along the way including five species of monkey, tonnes of birds, bats, an anaconda and the highlight for me - a three-toed pale throated sloth.

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Hard to see but he's dead centre in the pic

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Hoatzin - or 'stinky turkey bird' because the meat smells bad when cooked

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Green anaconda - a juvenile, the adults get to 8m!!

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Our lodge was on a small spit of land situated next to a large lagoon. It has to be the most remote place we've been so far. It was basic but nice enough - there was even a five inch cockroach in our bathroom as a welcome party!

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Our group of 17 were a big mix of nationalities... Dutch, Swiss, German, Austrian, Greek, Canadian, American - we were the only Brits.

We were taken to the lagoon to watch the sunset, it was so peaceful and still.

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The next day they took us deeper into the jungle on motorised canoes to visit a small village of indiginous people. We witnessed a type of flat bread being made from a root vegetable which Ant helped to pull out of the ground, and I volunteered to make one of the breads over the very hot plate.

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'Noisy nocturnal monkeys' we spotted along the way - or the Furby of the primate world

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We also got to try some 'jungle juice' - we had the tiniest of sips as they warned us our stomachs may not take it. There were two home brews; Chicha made from the root vegetable used to make the flat bread, and one made from cacao. Potent stuff and not particularly pleasant either, but the guide wolfed it back so clearly it's an acquired taste...

We had a go at using a blow pipe, followed by a meet with the village's Shaman. It was fascinating to learn about his role in the community, and he talked in length about 'yaje' - a hallucenagenic drink which is widely taken (from as young as 9 years old!) to enable the participant to have visions. As their use of this drink is 'mastered' they start to see 'elegant beings' - above and beyond things like colourful flowers, butterflies and animals. Once they've achieved this - taking some 15 years - they can become a Shaman, effectively the medicine man in the village. Coming from the west, it was hard for us to get our heads around, but once they have seen the 'elegant beings' they can use yaje to diagnose illness in others.

If you have the time or inclination, this website is an interesting read.

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As the afternoon progressed I started feeling unwell, which was soon followed by vomiting in the trees. Oh dear... must have been the jungle juice. It continued on the way home and I was being sick out the side of the canoe. Nice! One of the other girls started up too, and by the time we were back at the lodge, Ant and I were desperately taking turns to use the bathroom.

We skipped dinner altogether and later in the evening one of the guides came to see me. I had my eyes closed lying on the bed. He proceeded to rub my head, face and feet with a round object and started saying that I had a bad ear and it was that which was causing the sickness. I heard a cracking sound and he confirmed again... ah yes, you have a bad ear. I thought, is that an egg he's using to diagnose me?! Sure enough it was. Hmmm... I was too out of it to argue but wanted to say it's not my ear it's food poisoning!

Unfortunately it persisted all night, Ant suffering from diarrhoea and me with sickness. The next morning it transpired that 11 of the 17 in our group had been unwell during the night, but as some didn't have the jungle juice we were never entirely sure what caused it.

The following day's activities were severely hampered as a result, we couldn't face breakfast and only managed a few forkfuls for lunch. But other than very sore stomachs, we were more human by the evening and everyone in the group was reunited for dinner.

The next activity after recovering was a two hour paddle in very rickety canoes, and unfortunately at the same time the heavens opened for a serious downpour. And it's that 'thick' tropical rain... none of that fine mizzle we get in the UK. Despite heavy duty ponchos we still got pretty soaked and I have to say it wasn't a whole lot of fun.

But before the rain came our guide caught a piranha (second attempt too so God knows how many of them were down there). Unfortunately it bit the end of the hook off which got caught in its mouth. Due to its sharp gnashers he couldn't remove it with his fingers so he had to kill it, and once he had, he filleted it and put small pieces into fresh lemon juice for half an hour. The flesh turned white and three brave souls tried it. No way on earth after just feeling better from the dodgy stomach! Bleurgh!

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The weather picked up for a pleasant afternoon boat cruise around the waterways and lagoons. Sadly we didn't see much wildlife but our guide did spot a Hoatzin nest and we got a really close up view of two baby birds which he reckoned had hatched no more than two days ago.

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A night walk provided some gruesome spider sightings, a tiny poison dart frog and a particular ant which the guide made quite a fuss about. The Conga ant was about an inch long and apparently its bite is worse than a scorpion sting - even the people of the jungle fear it. Oh, and there's the Brazilian wandering spider (or banana spider) - the world's most poisonous spider which can be found in the tropics of SA. One bite and it's curtains. Apparently the poison immediately causes necrosis. Happy walking!

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Wolf spider

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Scorpion spider - check out how crazy long the second two legs are

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You're probably not going to get this from the photos as they look like we had an amazing time (hey, I always pick the best ones for the blog!), but after four nights in the jungle the whole experience was 'just ok'. To be fair the first three hour boat ride getting there and the visit to the village were pretty special, but we certainly felt like we were done with the jungle the day before we were due to leave.

The biggest disappointment was being ill which wiped out 24 hours, and it left us delicate for the rest of the stay. The only mode of transport was the motorised canoe so this featured in every activity which started to feel a bit same same - and the lifejackets and ponchos stunk to high heaven!

It rained a lot. Not that this came as any surprise, but it meant everything started to feel damp. There's so much moisture in the air nothing dries in the jungle, so our wet clothes started to seriously honk.

The cabins were very dark and dingy, and started to become oppressive. Even in daylight little light got into the room and with only a dim bedside light available from 6-10pm, it became infuriating to find anything. I was surprised how much it got to us but it was like being deprived of one of man's most basic needs.

Perhaps our expectations were set too high, but it did seem like we went off on an exploration many times to see particular creatures and didn't. Our group our 17 were split between two guides, and the guide with the other group to us was infintely better at spotting things in the trees, so they got to see a lot more wildlife than we did. It was great for them but obviously frustrating for us.

All things considered we were happy to be moving on, but with our jungle stripes earned!

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Our smaller group

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Leaving the jungle

Posted by Galavantie 18:41 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Not your average birthday - Otavalo market day

24 °C

So leaving Mindo meant, yup... back to Quito. This place is starting to have a vice-like grip on us. The problem being it's central to everything and we have to keep returning there to take onward travel to the next place. We look forward to the day we can finally leave this city behind!

We didn't feel like doing anything touristy, plus it was chucking it down, so we wound up in a bar doing two cuba libres for $6.

I found myself feeling a bit down. Lately we've been spending so much time planning, researching and chatting through our next steps that it's beginning to get a bit wearing. Constantly coming back to a city neither of us enjoy being in was also taking its toll. It was probably the half-glass measures of rum but when Dorset came up into the conversation I started getting tearful.

There's no doubt that South America is much harder work than anywhere else we've been. One of the most frustrating things is we seem to have a 1 in 2 success rate getting our credit cards to work at ATMs. We've had a few nail-biting scenarios trying to get cash because there aren't always many machines about. Ant's card was also helpfully blocked by the provider because he'd tried three different cash machines with no success, meaning long phone calls to resolve. My debit card hasn't worked full stop in South America.

So, in the pouring rain, in a dingy feeling city drinking strong rum, the thought of home was a bit overwhelming. I guess it was inevitable at some point. Travelling isn't always easy and despite not having to go to work, it isn't always a holiday. Some days it's hard work.

The one positive about Quito part III was our colourul B&B (La Casa Amarillo). We've stayed somewhere different each time and our third place was very homely and by far the nicest of our Quito bases. The owner, Jenny, was so sweet and helpful - plus we were in a residential area and not in the dreaded La Mariscal. We sat around one large table at breakfast with four other guests, all South American, and enjoyed chat in English and Spanish.

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Our next stop was Otavalo, two hours north of Quito by bus. It's famous for its Saturday market which is the largest indiginous market in South America - a great place to pick up some souvenirs and watch the locals in action.

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Our accommodation nestled in the hills - an idyllic setting but the room was a bit pants and very musty

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View looking down into Otavalo

Market day is a big deal for the locals (their equivalent to our big Saturday shop in Sainsburys), and many arrive in town from surrounding areas all dressed in their national dress. There's a strong sense of the communities coming together and you can see just how important it is to their way of life. There is a market every day, but Saturday's is the big one.

We started off at the animal market where they trade their livestock whilst a smattering of gringos (we saw just three others) wander around taking pics. It was amazing! We've never seen anything like it.

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Where's Gringo?

Bulls, cows, calves, sheep, goat, pigs and llamas were all being sold, along with smaller pens housing a menagerie of creatures. One had guinea-pigs, kittens, rabbits and pigeons all in together... and it was the pigeons who were giving the kittens a bit of grief! The pens are obviously not how we'd go about things in the UK but the animals on the whole looked healthy and in good condition.

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It was absolutely fascinating to watch the scenes before us, and I took discreet photos where I could of people in their traditional dress and the trading taking place.

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"Bag of chickens please love"

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We had a chuckle about the fact that vendors were selling rope to transport your squealing pig/bull/llama home, and that one gave a helpful demonstration of the rope to a potential customer by flicking it on the floor

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We stumbled across a food market which was probably the best example we've seen on our travels. So much produce all displayed neatly and very orderly - a potato row, a fruit section, a chicken aisle, flours, pastas and rice all together and so on. It was great to see a food court where all the locals pulled up a stool to various hot food counters and sat eating their chicken broths or pulled pork.

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And last but not least was the 'tourist' market - an array of mostly textiles such as scarves, tablecloths, table runners, tapestries and blankets. We filled our boots (or should that be rucksacks) as it was too good an opportunity to miss - the quality was amazing for the price.

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Local dress

A really nice part of the day was when we took a breather for a drink, wandered into a crowded bar and bumped into Jenny - our last Quito B&B owner - plus one of her guests that we'd met. It was like bumping into an old friend, big hugs and exclamations in the middle of the room! They invited us to join their table, and seeing as it was my birthday, it was really nice to enjoy some company and feel like we had some friends in Otavalo.

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Around the town...

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Off for a birthday meal...

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This ranked as our best day in mainland South America so far - quite fitting for a day to add another year on the clock!

Posted by Galavantie 08:18 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Quito (the return) and Mindo

overcast 24 °C

Neither of us were relishing the thought of heading back to Quito, but we had little choice to stay there as our flight back from the Galapagos landed late afternoon.

So we resigned ourselves to another night in the noisy new part of town. This time it was a Saturday and the area had a better, more upbeat feel to it. There was a buzz, lots of people milling around and a small market in the square. The downside was it meant the following day was a Sunday when virtually everything closes up. Therefore our plan to make a quick exit from the city the next day was scuppered, meaning we spent two more nights in Quito.

However, it did mean we were able to get to the absolutely fascinating Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man) and Guayasamín's house and museum.

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I've never experienced the feeling of a painting making me want to cry before, but Oswaldo Guayasamín's work was extremely evocative. He is Ecuador's most famous artist, who died in 1999 aged 79. His large-scale paintings depict the horrors of war crimes, torture, enslavement and general misery throughout the history of man. The images portray the Jewish holocaust and European cruelty, the mistreatment of people in Bolivian silver mines, the death of his good friend and poet Pablo Neruda under Pinochet's rule, starvation in Africa and Asia's torrid history.

Now, I'll admit, having just described his work, it doesn't much sound like a fun day out. But they conveyed so much pain and suffering, it was hard not to be moved by what was on show. Amongst the paintings were also scenes of human tenderness and protection, such as the love between mother and child, and the local landscape.

His style was influenced by cubism and surrealism but he had a very distinct style of his own. Human hands and haunted eyes are a particularly prominent feature and were quite mesmerising. We ended up buying three of his prints which Ant is now lovingly storing in his rucksack.

Photos weren't allowed in the gallery so these are taken from billboard posters displayed outside. If you're interested in seeing more of his work, check out this link.

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We did capture this writing inside which translates to:
“I cried because I did not have shoes until I saw a child that did not have feet”
Oswaldo Guayasamín

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Mindo Cloud Forest

Two hours from Quito, and at a lower elevation, is Mindo, and it couldn't be further removed from the sprawling mass of the city.

It was a nice feeling to leave Quito behind. We watched the urbanisation begin to disappear and the views were replaced with deep cut valleys and endless tree-clad hills.

Our wood panelled room with a cosy balcony overlooking the river was a welcome retreat. After a wander around the small town and booking a few tours, we relaxed with a beer whilst watching hummingbirds feed.

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One of the main attractions in Mindo is bird watching. The cloud forests boast around 400 different species of birds, including toucans, birds of prey, vultures, woodpeckers and a host of other colourful birds.

We're by no means avid 'twitchers' but enjoy all manner of wildlife, so we booked ourselves on an early morning birdwatching tour at 6am! The walk took us through the outskirts of the town, where the rural life was very apparent. Our guide was excellent at spotting birds from miles away. Considering how far away some of them were, we got some reasonably good results from taking pics through the telescope.

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The highlight was seeing three different species of toucan - stunning birds and the archetypal image of forest life in Ecuador.

The remainder of our stay was chilled and centred around the wildlife. We went to an evening 'frog concert' (bom bom bom, aye-ee-ah) to see and hear lots of different species, and a butterfly farm.

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We watched this one emerge from its pupa - amazing!

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We also did a night walk in the forest. I'm not a huge lover of bugs, especially flying ones, so walking around an Ecuadorian forest with a light attached to my head probably wasn't one of my finest decisions. Large moths kept flying into my face as we helpfully provided the brightest light around for miles...

The walk's focus was on nocturnal mammals but for the first time since the guide has been doing the walks, no mammals showed. We did see some hideous looking spiders, some insects and a few frogs but that was it. Strangely enough our guide came from Leeds, he had a very monotone Yorkshire accent (a bored Sean Bean) and all-in-all the walk was a bit of a disappointment.

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A scorpion spider... shudder

One of the most enjoyable things we did was a chocolate tour which was much more interesting than we were expecting. We learnt about the history of chocolate making and the various processes involved, with the all important tastings at the end. Of course Ecuador is a world-famous producer of cacao, and the end product emphasis here is on dark chocolate. It's bloody good!

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Cocoa beans drying

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One of the flavourings

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Posted by Galavantie 18:55 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

You know you're a traveller when you...

... have to think twice about which country you're in before remembering if you can throw paper down the toilet
... regularly wake up thinking 'where the hell am I?'
... learn to say 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you' and 'sorry' in at least 5 languages
... say 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you' or 'sorry' in a different language to the country you're in (and not in your mother tongue)
... have a need to go commando once in a while...
... always sniff your laundry after collecting to see how fresh it smells... and are often disappointed that it doesn't
... go to pay for something and pull out three different currencies from your pocket
... go out for dinner purely for functional reasons, and it isn't a recreational affair with three courses, wine and convivial chat
... go out for dinner in trainers on a Saturday night
... only know it's Friday or Monday because of Facebook
... bizarrely miss that Friday feeling (but definitely not the Sunday night blues... or Monday mornings)
... can't quite imagine how returning to your 'old life' will be, and that nothing will have changed
... are not sure how you can ever rejoin the rat-race again
... miss the simple things in life you usually take for granted - a cup of tea, a cosy night in with a bottle of wine and a movie, a fridge full of food
... get itchy feet after being somewhere for more than 3 days
... are always on your guard not to get ripped off
... can spot other travellers a mile off, and depending on where you are it's sometimes a relief to see them
... know that half your wardrobe will be binned the moment you get home
... develop impressive skills in hand gestering in order to be understood
... start your research on a place after you've rocked up there
... have to put an enormous amount of trust in complete strangers
... rarely reminisce about the places you've been to because you're always thinking ahead to the next one
... try to be 'in the moment', continually reminding yourself just how amazing the experience is, knowing that the true extent of just how amazing it is probably won't hit you until the trip is over
... always have emergency toilet paper in one of your pockets
... have a romantic thought that you'll never quite be the same after your travels, and to some degree you probably won't be
... eat way more crap 'on the road' than you would ever do back home
... worry that a two week holiday in the sun is never going to feel the same again
... have already started daydreaming about which countries you'd put on your next trip (and then quickly remember how much this one is costing... sigh)
... can completely relate to 'the more you travel, the more you want to travel'

Just some of the things that have occurred to us in our 8 months away. Feel free to comment if you have more!

Posted by Galavantie 19:06 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Galapagos. The most incredible place on the planet? Discuss.

semi-overcast 29 °C

Well it has our vote.

Before we set off on our big trip, we both took a blank sheet of paper and separately wrote down our wish list of countries and places to visit. We had a number of paradise islands to consider and, in a nutshell, none of them beat the Galapagos to make it to our final list of destinations. So we crossed off the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tahiti and Easter Island, because we figured the Galaps would be the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After two blissful weeks here, I can honestly say they are worthy of every superlative imaginable. If you only remotely like wildlife, you will still be blown away by the abundance and variety here. We were continually in awe of the huge frigate birds soaring high, the blue-footed boobies which are so cute with their Chaplin-esque dance, small penguins, playful sea lions, turtles, manta rays, sharks... it's like no other place in the world.

The islands are far more inhabited than the carefully filmed BBC documentaries would lead you to believe. We were very surprised to learn that the populated islands have a total of around 30,000 inhabitants, and two of the main islands are more built up than you may imagine. Some offer the full facilities of a resort - we rented a one-bed apartment for our first week, which we didn't even think would be possible before we started any research.

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Puerto Ayora - the resort on Santa Cruz

It's also easier than you would think to do the islands on a budget. We were originally looking at cruises around the islands which would have meant kissing goodbye to around £1,500 each. For one week! That's our budget each for one month. We always knew it would be expensive but were pleasantly surprised how much we could organise ourselves and therefore avoid any expensive travel agency fees.

Our apartment (Torre Mar) in Santa Cruz for our first week cost £455. We then booked three different boat trips to visit the islands of Bartolome, North Seymour and Santa Fe. These trips cost £470 (still not cheap, but they were full days and included lunch). The rest we did independently, so a £20 taxi ride to see the giant tortoises in the wild, a walk to the Charles Darwin Research Station which cost us nothing, and another day was spent enjoying the beach, again buckshee. With food, drinks and our flight from mainland Ecuador, our first week cost sub £700 each all in, with the second week cheaper still. It was still double our budget but a significant improvement on quadrupling it which the cruise would have done. It was also pretty nice to sleep on terra firma and we had some great accommodation. To be fair, we could have gone cheaper still with where we stayed, but we chose a bit of comfort - those on a really tight budget can stay in hostels for as little as US $18 a night.

The biggest downside to not doing a cruise is that you're limited to which islands you can visit with the daily tours, and the best guides are usually on the most expensive cruises. But we saw such a variety of wildlife on each trip and mixed it up with some chill days to enjoy the beaches, that we felt we got a rounded Galapagos experience for a fraction of the price. And paying less also meant we could afford to stay longer to enjoy this paradise!

We ended up staying on three different islands - Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal, and each had their own distinct flavour. Santa Cruz is the most developed, with Isabela the least - San Cristobal, the capital, is somewhere inbetween. Isabela is great from a get-away-from-it-all perspective, and we had a fabulous casita right on the beach.

However, the boat transfers to each island were fairly arduous. Although only two hours, and we normally love being on boats, the sea between the islands is frequently rough. The journeys on small speedboats were a pretty unpleasant spine shattering experience. Our best advice is to do the earlier ones as the 6am transfer was infinitely better than the 2pm one. You can fly but this is costly by comparison.

I feel so grateful for this chance to come here. Other than a few more details to accompany some of the pics, I'll let the photos speak for themselves (oops, there's tonnes). It is, afterall, all about the creatures that can be found in this small, extraordinary corner of Earth.

We've been struggling with one definitive answer to the much asked question "what's been your favourite place?". Now we have one.

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The birds

Frigates, pelicans, penguins, mockingbirds, boobies... all wonderful. And so unpeturbed by the presence of us humans - a legacy of no natural predators. They all obligingly stay put (and still) for photo opportunities. Witnessing the dance and whistle of the blue-footed boobies will stay with us forever. Adorable things.

Pelicans...

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Nothing to see here, just a pelican out for a stroll in the rain

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One with a large fish head crammed into its mouth

Amazing frigate birds... also nicknamed pirate birds as they steal everything

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Boobies!

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Penguins... the second smallest penguins in the world after the little blue ones in New Zealand

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Large billed flycatcher

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Lava heron

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The mammals

This bit is pretty much the reserve of the sea lions. Snorkelling with them was an utter joy, they sped around us like fighter jets in the sky, and showed way more curiosity and playfulness towards us than we've encountered with any dolphins.

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The reptiles

The iconic marine iguanas. Plentiful, godzilla-like and hard to photograph against their favourite perch of black lava rocks!

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On the voddie again

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Their land cousins...

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The little fellas...

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I just love how his feet are so camouflaged that it's only the shadows which make them stand out

And not forgetting the grand old giant tortoises...

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Just 4 months old!

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Ridiculous!

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RIP Lonesome George

The marine life

One standout moment was when our boat docked at North Seymour island and, very quickly, several sharks appeared and were circling the boat! They were fairly small, maybe 1m long but there were 4-5 of them at one point. When we arrived back to the tiny port of Baltra, one much larger shark appeared by the side of the boat - around 2-2.5m long. Even though we knew it was harmless it still managed to send a shudder down our spine!

Sally Lightfoot crabs... such a pop of orange against the black rocks

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Fish...

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Turtle!

Probably the icing on the cake for us was being in the water with turtles, a first for both of us. It was mesmerising to watch them effortlessly glide through the water.

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The plant life

A tiny selection, it was hard to get excited about the flora when the fauna was so distracting!

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The landscapes

Naturally, a lot of the lava landscape of the Galapagos is barren, dry and stark, and it still amazes us how much wildlife this environment can support.

Bartolome - great for sweeping vistas and views of Pinnacle Rock, one of the most famous landmarks in the Galapagos

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North Seymour - great for getting really close to frigates, blue-footed boobies and the land iguanas

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Santa Cruz - great for catching day trips to other islands, pelicans, giant tortoises, tourist facilities and knock-out beaches

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Santa Fe - great for snorkelling with sea lions

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Isabela - great for chilled out beach bars, turtles, penguins and not many souls about

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Los Tuneles - an awesome and unique landscape created by past volcanic eruptions

San Cristobal - great for large sea lion colonies and the gateway to Kicker Rock, one of the best snorkelling/dive sites

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Kicker Rock

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Up in the misty highlands

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Rickety walkway up to a treehouse in a mahousive tree!

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Ant climbing down into the tree... a first he said

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The human element

The islands have a very Carribean feel and similarly, many of the buildings are unfinished (probably to avoid taxes) and there's a ramshackle feel to much of the towns. Arguably Puerto Ayora is a bit too developed for how you would want the Galapagos to be, but it has to support the community, and of course a sizable transient tourist population.

You can also see from the 4th photo down that humans and the animal life happily co-exist, this was particularly true of the sea lions who seemed to have as much right to the paths, steps, walkways and benches as people did!

Overall, restaurants were of a very good standard, not always that cheap, but we ate well in lovely surroundings. We also cooked a couple of nights, getting our fresh produce from this locals market. Fish and seafood dishes were excellent.

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Ant chose the fresh fruit and veg...

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And I just fooled about with it back at the apartment...

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The most disappointing sight was a land train in Puerto Ayora, which plies up and down the front with gaudy animal carriages lit up like a bleedin' Christmas tree. Whoever was responsible for that should be locked up, it's not Disneyworld! There was also a tortoise-mobile pootling around the town... oh dear...

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Thankfully, apparently just 3% of the Galapagos is accessible to tourists, meaning the vast majority of the archipelego is untouched, unspoilt and left to the wildlife - as it should be.

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Thanks for having us, we had a ball!

Posted by Galavantie 20:38 Archived in Ecuador Comments (4)

Quito, Quito, Quito!

rain 19 °C

For the first time on our travels we had a flight delay, which was far from ideal taking into account where we were flying into and the time of the flight. It meant we landed in Quito just before midnight and got to our city centre B&B at 1am.

I think we might stop reading our Rough Guide as it scares the bejaysus out of us. Whilst in the air we read that the main tourist area, La Mariscal, is sadly now the most common place for tourists to be mugged. The advice was to take a taxi everywhere at night no matter how close to your accommodation (really?), oh and it's least safe on a Sunday when many police are not on duty. Great. It was a Sunday.

I think I bit at least one hand's worth of fingernails off before we landed...

But all was fine with a door-to-door taxi drop off, and the streets were completely deserted when we arrived (we couldn't decide if this was good or bad!).

As far as visitors are concerned, there are two main areas to Quito - the new town where most tourists stay, the aforementioned La Mariscal, and the old town where all the historic sights are located.

The new town was pretty horrid actually. It spread out from an incredibly canned main square full of burger joints, loud bars and karaoke (god, they go mad for karaoke here... it starts up late afternoon). It felt like being in the Costa del Sol and we quickly tired of walking around trying to find decent places to eat. It seems to be a challenge to find healthy food too as so much is deep fried. But despite all this, it's the place where most tourists stay due to the facilities on offer, and it's still regarded as safe compared to other parts of the city (we were advised to leave the old town no later than 6pm by our B&B hosts).

By contrast the old town is pretty special, and of course is the reason you come to visit in the first place. Quito was the first city to be granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO in 1978, and is considered to be one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centres in the Americas.

It's got a couple of other claim to fames. It's officially the highest capital city in the world at an elevation of 2,800m (La Paz in Bolivia is higher but that's the de facto capital, Sucre being the official capital), and at just 16 miles - it's also the nearest capital city to the equator.

We found the altitude ok, but did notice a feeling of not quite getting a full lungful of air despite a deep intake, and sometimes steps or walking at a reasonable pace made us a bit breathless.

The old town is packed with beautiful squares, spectacular churches and attractive buildings just about everywhere you look. We spent a couple of days wandering around the streets and Baroque churches, and visited the best museum in Ecuador - the Museo del Banco Central, the highlight of which was the 'Gold Room' housing an array of gold Inca jewellery and a sun-mask. The collection must be priceless.

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Church of La Compañía de Jesús...

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The above is considered to be the most ornate church in Ecuador. Construction began in 1605 and it took 160 years to be built. Its style is one of the most complete examples of Baroque in the Americas and the gaudy gold interior was quite something, but sadly no photos were allowed inside.

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Church of San Francisco - this is the largest church in Ecuador, construction started in 1550

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Church of El Sagrario - Italian Renaissance style and was built in the late 17th century

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Church of San Augustin - this was probably my favourite because every interior surface was painted. No photos were allowed inside but I sneaked a quick one whilst no-one was looking... probably going straight to hell now...

The Basilica del Voto Nacional is the daddy in terms of sheer scale and position in the city. Its gothic features loom ominously over the city, especially on a day like ours with a dark grey forboding sky.

Instead of gargoyles, it has iguanas and tortoises protruding from its sides, as a nod to Ecuador's famed archipelago - the Galapagos. It also has the naffest instalment we've ever seen in a church - a figure of Christ flashing red on and off at the altar. A lift and subsequent steep steps (I stayed behind for the latter bit) provided fantastic views of the city, even though it was a bit dull and grey.

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Ant atop the vaulted ceiling!

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Virgin de Quito dominates the city's skyline, a 40m high statue atop a hill to the right hand side

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La Plaza Grande - a manicured square in the centre of the old town, great for people watching

We didn't have the best weather whilst here. It's coming into the rainy season and, pretty much like clockwork, the late afternoon skies would darken followed by a bucketing. Such is equatorial weather. We got caught out once and came back a little wet under the collar...

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Taken from our room moments before a hailstorm

We spent this time wisely and took Spanish lessons every day with our B&B host, Geraldo (a bargain at £4 an hour each!). Our vocab has come a long way and we found them a great help, although we can understand more than we can speak. We're certainly getting by in restaurants, museums, public places and so on. ¿Dónde está el baño por favor? (a key one for me!).

Siguiente, nosotros vamos a Galápagos mis amigos!

Posted by Galavantie 16:40 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Protests, parades and pidgin... all in a Santiago week

A soft (and hard) landing in South America

semi-overcast 19 °C

We arrived in Santiago on a late Sunday morning, the streets were quiet so it was hard to get an immediate sense of the city. We had been told it is one of South America's most westernised cities with a big American influence, good for us as it was probably an easier introduction to the continent.

One of the first things to strike me was the light. It was soft and hazy, almost as if we were looking at everything through a soft-focus lens. It was warm at 22c but the sunlight was weak - like a November day in eastern Europe. Santiago's air quality can be quite poor, especially in winter. It's nestled in Chile's central valley with the Andes as a backdrop - smog collects in the valley and further hills within the city itself effectively act as a windbreak, so pollution just hangs in the air.

We had a bit of a strange week in the city... it's fair to say it was a stay of two halves. I promise not all the SA blogs will be this long but there are so many contrasting experiences to talk about and I guess everything's still very much a novelty!

The first day was a bit of a write-off as we had slept so little on the 11 hour flight from New Zealand. We'd zipped back in time to the tune of 16 hours so we'd more than flipped our day/night. It was the worst jet lag we've ever experienced and our body clocks were totally screwed. It was nonetheless very amusing and weird for us to arrive in Santiago before we'd taken off in NZ - the longest day of our lives!

It took us more than half our time here to re-adjust and get over the jet lag... for the first 4 days we were mostly in a zombie-like daze! But our second day proved very entertaining. After a late and lazy start (due to PING! eyes wide open at 2am) we caught the metro to Plaza de Armas - the main square lined with impressive buildings. Unfortunately for us it was going through a refurb so the central plaza was boarded up, but we could still admire the surrounding buildings, including a look inside the beautifully ornate Catholic Catedral Metropolitana.

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A cute bar off a main street for a post sight-seeing pitstop, we were served by a Chilean Carol Vorderman

There were plenty of bars and eateries within walking distance of our B&B, we stumbled across lots of great places... including one doing 2-4-1 cocktails... cue Kir Royals for just £2 each! We found a buzzing bar/restaurant packed to the rafters (this was on a Monday night) and it wasn't long before the guy next to Ant struck up conversation (in English I should point out - our Spanish is miles away from entering conversational realms). As he left to go home to his wife, gesturing a cut throat if he didn't, he was instantly replaced by two Chilean guys who were just as happy to chat. One didn't stick around but Juan Carlos Sanchez (no I didn't make that up) chatted for another hour about Santiago life. We finally left the restaurant around 11.30pm having had a very unexpected and really fun evening. People seemed really friendly and we concluded that they were all keen to practice their English on us, plus we were also a bit of a novelty judging from the rest of the Chilean clientele.

We both awoke on Day 3 with an almighty hangover as a nice accompaniment to the jet lag. We had to write that whole day off... oops... but I think that's a first on the whole trip.

After our initial experiences we were excited about being in this vibrant city with its new sights, smells and sounds. Our 'travelling flames' had definitely been relit and our initial feelings of intrepidation were becoming alleviated.

Then it started to go a bit Pete Tong.

We decided to check out the central market and 'La Vega' - a vegetable market across the river. Our B&B host had said that the central market was very touristy and La Vega wasn't in a great area so we needed to be careful. The first market was a big disappointment. We were expecting locally made crafts and the chance for a souvenir of Chile, but it was predominantly made up of fish stalls (mmm Ant's favourite!), and empty cafes and restaurants (presumably to cater for all the tourists - who, incidentally, were very thin on the ground).

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The river we crossed to La Vega

Onto the vegetable market... we couldn't see any other tourists anywhere and with our host's warning ringing in our heads, we started to feel a bit uneasy. Then an older woman turned to me talking in Spanish and pointed at my camera. The only word we picked out was 'dangerous' but that was enough to know it was time to put it away.

The area was really run down and after a brisk walk around, neither of us were particularly enjoying the experience so we headed out. I would have liked to have taken some pics to show what it was like but I didn't want to get the camera out! We were getting a lot of stares and stuck out like a very large sore thumb. Perhaps our paranoia was on overdrive.

We'd only booked 3 nights at the B&B and decided to spend our remaining 4 nights in another district. Having found a cheap but lovely apartment, we gave the address to the B&B to call us a taxi. He commented that our new location was "a bit sketchy but you should be ok." Hmmm. The taxi driver spoke in Spanish to us the whole way despite us saying we didn't speak any, but with hand gestering and a limited knowledge of words we picked up a very key point. As he drove down our road, which wasn't looking appealing, he said "it's not safe to walk here after 6.30-7pm." Cripes!!! That news put us in a very solemn frame of mind.

Before we set off we said we'd never do anything that would significantly jeopardise our safety, so we made the only right decision and cancelled our booking. A valuable lesson learnt that our first priority in South America has to be location, location, location! Our second attempt was infinitely better and we secured a cosy apartment in Bellas Artes, close to the main sights. We slept well that night...

The next day was Labour Day, a public holiday when virtually everything shuts... including museums, galleries and the metro. It's never great to be a tourist on these days! In Chile, it's also a chance for a workers' union to hold their annual street protest and invite 150,000+ citizens to join in. We didn't know this when we set foot out the door. We were greeted with the empty shopping streets we were expecting and a significant armed forces, police and armoured vehicle presence we were not.

At first we were intrigued and excited by the commotion, drum noise and crowds on the main thoroughfare, but after seeing a smashed glass window of a bank and law enforcement running down the road holding riot shields, it was time to get the hell out! We noticed most windows had been boarded up and all shop front shutters were down - it was all a bit uninviting. We retreated to our base and googled what the heck was going on. Lordy, this city was dropping down our favourites list faster than the demise of Max Clifford.

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Quick shots I managed to get

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With the streets looking desolate the city took on a very different feel

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An example of a beautiful building in need of some tlc - a common sight

After what felt like three wasted days - hangover day, changeover day and Labour Day - we ended Santiago on a high.

We squeaked another wineries tour in (should our blog be renamed GlobalGalavino?) to the Maipo Valley wine region. It was grey and cold so it had a very different feel to our other vineyard visits, as indeed did the overall experience. The two wineries we went to - Santa Rita and Concha y Toro - were huge, by far the largest wine production we've seen. The cellars were vast, housing a staggering number of bottles, oh and the onsite factory can fill up to 12,000 bottles an hour, all ready for distribution. Blimey.

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You may recognise this Chile wine brand 'the devil's cellar' - from the Concha y Toro winery we visited

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Dusty vintage from 1991

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The devil's cellar

After a thick blanket of cloud for several days, the sun shone for our last day and we were up and at 'em to see more of the city. It was so different in the sunshine and we got to tick off some of the highlights. I'll let the pics do the talking - think I've done enough!

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The view from Santa Lucia hill towards the Andes and the tallest building in South America

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The city's smog clearly visible

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A pharmacy and a sex shop. A packet of aspirin and errrr... something for the weekend please

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A cuppa Santiago style - frothy milk with tea bag dipped in. Surprisingly delicious!

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A beautiful mosaic floor of a craft market

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We watched the changing of the guard which takes place every other morning outside La Moneda, the Presidential Palace. Fascinating to observe the pomp.

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And on our last night - a Saturday - our street erupted with a huge procession... loud, colourful and infectious. Amazeballs!

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Viva South America!

Posted by Galavantie 21:04 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Our NZ top 10

I've been procrastinating about this blog because there's SO many factors and experiences to consider, and I've not wanted to write war and peace - no good for me, no good for you! (Phrase learnt in Asia).

So, without further ado - here's our Top 10 (in no particular order other than no 1 is definitely no 1). In case it's useful for other travellers, I've also added a link to our individual blogs for the experiences mentioned.

1. The people

We learnt a lot about Kiwis, particularly in the North Island... mainly because we didn't meet many in the South! (Just a quarter of the 4m population call the South Island home.)

Kiwis say "arh yearh" an awful lot. They're also very laid back. They finish most sentences with "ay". "Sweet as" is a Kiwi mantra... in fact replace 'sweet' with just about any other descriptive word... funny, dark, hot, cold...

They're also a talented bunch. There seemed to be an abundance of arts and crafts, and we loved seeing many of the local artists work across the North Island.

Kiwi humour is closely aligned to British humour, in fact our two cultures are much more entwined than we fully appreciated before coming here.

Kiwi tv is lighthearted, unstuffy and fun (Aussie tv is that times 10, and throw in anything un-PC too... at Christmas there was breakfast tv chat about a black Santa being extra visible in the north pole... wtf???!). We preferred Kiwi tv...

Kiwis are pretty much the nicest people on the planet and we experienced unparalleled hospitality in more locations than I care to list.

2. Wine!

The Marlborough wine region is the most beautiful of all the wine regions we've visited on our round-the-world trip. It was something about the bright green vines against the orangey-brown Southern Alps mountain range, topped off by blue skies that made for a striking landscape. It was also so much fun hiring bikes to get around at our own leisure. If you like wine it's an absolute must-do.

I also need to throw in Hawke's Bay - not least because the wineries were very enjoyable, and they're located right next to the gorgeous art deco town (well, city really) of Napier.

Waiheke Island was more boutique, some wineries had a slightly pretentious feel (and you have to pay for tastings) but the overall experience was still very good, and the island had a very relaxed vibe to it. Catch the ferry from Auckland and let your worries melt away.

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Marlborough wine blog

3. Heli-hiking on a glacier

Amazing! It was a splurge to do this but it was also one of the best days we had. We were so excited to get the chance to fly over and hike a glacier. A brilliant blue sky and crisp day definitely added to our experience and we were in awe of the glacier's formations and colours. A super fun morning. It's just sad to see how much the glaciers have retreated in recent years - it's phenomenally fast.

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Glaciers blog

4. Tongariro Alpine Crossing

A fabulous day's walk! You don't have to be super fit to do it (clearly not everyone was when we did the walk) but a good degree of fitness helps. It took us just short of 8 hours which included various stops for lunch, breathers and photo opportunities. On a clear day the views are spectacular.

Our only advice would be to start earlier than we did. We caught the 8am shuttle bus from the Ketetahi car park and we didn't start walking until 8.45am. It was very busy and we could see a caravan of people ahead and behind us.

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Tongariro blog

5. Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo

New Zealand's reputation for scenery is every bit as good as everyone says it is, and our first encounter with it was here. It was majestic, and the colour of the glacial lakes in this region need to be seen to be believed.

We were fortunate to see Mount Cook on a crystal clear day and were both blown away by the alpine skyline.

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Mount Cook blog

6. The Sounds - Doubtful & Milford

Fiordland is famous world-wide for towering steep peaks surrounding the deep inlets of the region's sounds. They are truly breathtaking and a boat trip down one or both is a must! Which is better? It's really hard to say as they offer something different.

Doubtful is quieter, bigger and more expensive to do but it had a remote, untouched quality which made it very special. Milford is arguably more majestic - the peaks taller, the rock faces steeper and the sound is narrower, so it feels far more mighty and impressive as you cruise along. We had a clearer day for Milford so as a day out it just clips it, but I was very taken with Doubtful.

It's also worth saying the road to Milford Sound is as wonderful as the sound itself - epic scenery!

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Doubtful Sound blog
Milford Sound blog

7. Northland

We only stayed in two places in Northland - the Bay of Islands and Whangarei Heads and we loved them both. There's no doubt the Bay of Islands is more touristy and for that reason we'd recommend avoiding Paihia... but it depends on personal tastes. We drove through it and didn't like it at all. Russell was picturesque and chilled out, and the bay itself is gorgeous with a sub-tropical climate.

The nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds were excellent and we came away with a better understanding of New Zealand's founding document.

Whangarei Heads is probably not on that many tourist itineraries as they motor straight through to the Bay of Islands, but it's very scenic and punches above its weight. The town of Whangarei itself isn't all that but the Heads are definitely worth a look for some great walks and looming headlands.

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Bay of Islands blog
Whangarei Heads blog

8. Waitomo glowworms

It's pretty impressive that a 3 hour tour out of 11 weeks makes it into our top 10, but it was absolutely magical. We've never seen glowworms before and were stunned by the sight of an entire cave ceiling lit up by these tiny creatures. Having seen them I think it should be on everyone's bucket list.

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Waitomo blog

9. The volcanic geothermal area

This bit was really fascinating and like no other landscape we've seen. Vivid, almost surreal colours of orange, pink, white and sulphur yellows created a dramatic palette. To imagine the powers beneath your feet was very belittling.

Rotorua doesn't have the nicest of smells it has to be said, but the locals are desensitised to it which is an essential requirement, else I just don't think you could live here.

Wai-O-Tapu and Orakei Korako are both really worth a visit.

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Rotorua blog

10. The weather

We're Brits, we have to talk about the weather! It's bloody good down here - especially in the North. We were a bit surprised just how cool the summer felt at times on the South Island. But to be fair, when we arrived in early February the general consensus was that New Zealand had had a rubbish summer. It improved no end and March through to April were glorious... a fantastic Indian summer which we could only dream about in the UK.

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It's only right to balance all this postivity with some downsides, right? We couldn't think of many but these are a few things we've come up with...

1. The weakness of our pound against their dollar!

2. It's no secret the countryside is staggering, but we found that many of the towns lacked character and the smaller ones especially just looked like carbon copies of each other. Also, being used to the UK, they were maybe just a bit too quiet?

3. The surf is great... if you're a surfer. Not so great for a cool down dip. A lot of the beaches we encountered, whilst very beautiful, had strong waves and rip tides so swimming was often out of the question. In our 2.5 months we only went in the sea once!

4. Sandflies! Urgh. These were a complete pest at times in the South Island. Hundreds of tiny black midgey type flies with a bite about 10 times itchier than anything a mossie can throw at you.

Getting around

There's one other thing to mention and that's the ways we travelled. A quick summary of campervanning vs car and B&Bs...

We did the South Island in a camper and the North Island in a car. Our route:

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Having a car was a completely different experience to the campervan, and it was better and not better in equal measures. For the first couple of weeks we really missed having a stop and a brew whenever we wanted, and the ability to have a 'naughty cupboard' of goodies! We also missed the handiness of a cold beer or water. But it was cheaper, way cheaper.

The campervan wasn't cheap to rent and we were shocked at how expensive some of the campsite fees were (up to $45). Petrol was dearer for the car though (the camper was diesel) and we needed more of it. We could get to more places in the car and we had more options with accommodation which was good, but there was no freedom camping. We also had to pack our stuff frequently with the car, but a downside of the camper is that all your worldly belongings are in it with you. Being in a car gave us the opportunity to use AirBnB and meet some fabulous people. Overall the places we stayed were of a high standard, and it was a very welcome break from campervan toilets and shower blocks. We did love the outdoor BBQ-ing mind!

All in all we loved both experiences. The South Island suits a campervan, the North suits a car, so we did well to get the combination right and it helped to make the most of our time in NZ.

We were very sad to leave as we have no idea when we'll ever be back. What a fabulous country. Could we live here? Oooh I think so...

Posted by Galavantie 20:10 Archived in New Zealand Comments (2)

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