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Ecuador

Cuenca ends our Ecuador adventure

semi-overcast 17 °C

Cuenca was absolutely beautiful, and we'd go so far as to say it's the most beautiful city we've been to on this trip yet.

It was a long 8 hour bus ride to get there from Baños, but this time we had the opportunity to go by day, which was safer and gave us the chance to see more of the Ecuardorian countryside. What a very beautiful country this is. It was a spellbinding journey through the highlands with unbelievable views around every bend. I was snapping away like a good 'un!

Most were taken quickly through the bus window so they're not the best of shots, but they give you some idea of the fabulous scenery Ecuador has to offer.

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Ecuador's highest volcano, Chimborazo - a perfect cone-shaped snow-capped volcano

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An example of many out in the sticks houses/shops we saw along the way

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Much of the time we were higher than the mountain clouds!

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We were pretty tired when the bus rolled in to Cuenca, but our hotel proved to be an absolute treat when we checked in. It had only opened 2 months ago and we guessed that's why it was still priced within our budget, because oh lordy... the place was gorgeous. By far the nicest hotel on our travels, really attentive staff, crisp white linen, a stunning exterior and lobby... and a knock on the door each evening with a small dessert and hot water bottle. Can you believe all for £34 a night! It's also the first place we've seen on booking.com with a 10/10 score.

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The windows of our room

To do Cuenca any justice it's all about the photos, so this is a picture heavy blog... but I'll tell a couple of stories in between.

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The new cathedral - completed in 1975 with work having started in 1885 - is the focal point of Cuenca's main plaza

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The interior of the cathedral is already peeling away

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The massive sky-blue domes of the cathedral

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Walking around Cuenca was such a pleasure. We stumbled across impressive church after church, tucked away cafes and bars, ornate buildings and jasmine-filled squares. It was hard not to fall in love with the place. It was like wandering around a European city without the crowds.

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Men crowded around an electrical shop to watch the World Cup

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Cuenca is Ecuador's third largest city, but compared to Quito and Guayaquil it certainly doesn't feel like it. The Spanish founded Cuenca in 1557 and to this day it retains the atmosphere of a traditional Andean town. It was recognised by UNESCO as a World Hertitage Site in 1996.

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Just a few streets away from the main sights and not all the buildings look so smart

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Some of the detail on the buildings was simply stunning

We whiled away a couple of hours in one of Cuenca's main museums - Museo Pumapungo. A large part of the museum is dedicated to recreating dwellings from a number of Ecuador's indiginous cultures.

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The most notable exhibit was a few shrunken human heads - a practice once carried out by the Shuar people of the jungle but is now illegal under Ecuardian law (they can still do it to sloths apparently).

I'm not sure what I expected - perhaps something very shrivelled and bearing little resemblance to a human - but it was quite shocking to see how perfect they were. The detail preserved was amazing - they would have been recognisable for anyone who once knew the 'head owner' - just roughly a quarter of the size of a usual human head. Their mouths had been sewn up to prevent evil words from passing their lips... and the tiny decapitated heads were displayed on sticks. It was all a bit macabre... but utterly fascinating. I was peering at one for ages, almost willing it to open an eye!

I couldn't help but think it was a really whack way to end up... to have your head shrunk, stuck on a stick and preserved forever and a day behind glass, for us normal-headed beings to gawp at.

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Traditional and modern dress

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One of Cuenca's cute olde-worlde shops

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Getting a trim in the barber's... at least he didn't leave as a meat pie!

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I'm not sure what was more alarming - the barber's chair or the suggested hairstyles on the wall

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Cuencos have a very sweet tooth - there's a plethlora of bakeries and cake shops. Another reason to love Cuenca!

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Barranco - Cuenca's famous retailer of Panama hats, which actually originate from Ecuador. I bought the one second from the right, third row :)

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Cuenca's modern art gallery was a strange experience. It had obviously been a convent or monastry in a former life due to its layout and, as a result, it felt a bit like wandering around an institution of sorts. The art wasn't up to much but it was an interesting place to visit all the same.

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A binary corridor - I loved this!

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Another huge plus for Cuenca is that it's considered very safe for tourists - there's a large North American expat community here. We have no idea if the presence of the expat community makes it safer or whether it was always safe which is what attracted the gringos here in the first place. Either way, it was great to enjoy the city at night without feeling on edge or paranoid - something which can't be said of Quito.

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City Hall

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Travelling is all about new experiences eh? So we decided to do something a bit different for our last night. Once a week (and only on Saturdays) an expat father and son open up their home as a restaurant called Joe's Secret Garden. It's not the best secret seeing as it's rated #3 on TripAdvisor, but we loved the concept and thought it might be quite memorable. Unfortunately it did mean we missed the second half of England's first World Cup game.

Having watched the first half we thought we might be turning up a bit late but, to steal Ant's line, we were roughly 20 years too early. We arrived to a roomful of retired North Americans (and probably a few Canadians thrown in too), most of whom seemed to know each other. Talk about sore thumbs. But we found our situation quite funny and decided it would definitely be something different. As it turns out we had a pleasant enough evening, we were seated on a table of 6 and sat next to an interesting couple who made for good conversation. Turns out their daughter lives in the UK so we had some common ground to break the ice.

They also told us a story about our hosts, Joe and Joseph. Back in the day, Joseph decided to help out a lesbian couple by donating his sperm so they could have a child. When the child was old enough, he wanted to find his father. Joe and Joseph hit it off instantly and became very close, so much so that Joe left the States to join his father in Ecuador, and between them they now run this 'secret' restaurant for 100-odd diners every weekend.

We must have been cause for a certain amount of novelty as, whilst waiting for a cab at the end of the night, a half-sozzled expat said "so, young people, what brings you here?"... and after a quick reply, we were then mistaken for being Australians (as is often the case with Americans, although I've never understood why, sport).

It was a funny old night, we're glad we tried it... it wasn't amazing but it wasn't a car crash of an evening either.

All in all Cuenca was a brilliant way to end our time in Ecuador. If you come to this country Cuenca should definitely not be missed, it was a real highlight of our time here.

Posted by Galavantie 15:31 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Ah Baños, just the tonic we needed

19 °C

The town of Baños (not to be confused with baños - the Spanish word for toilet) was a gorgeous little place in a stunning setting, nestled deep within looming hills and volcanoes. The nearby towering Tungurahua (meaning throat of fire) is Ecuador's most active volcano and, in fact, spewed a 10km high ash cloud as recently as 4 April this year!

But being in Baños itself isn't particularly risky as the crater is on the other side of the volcano, facing away from the town. The volcano supplies the hot springs to the town which it's famed for, and hence the close name to "toilet"!

Unfortunately we only got a tantalisingly quick glance of the 5,000m+ snow capped summit, as it was shrouded in cloud for the majority of our visit.

There's no denying Baños is very touristy, but after our robbery (see previous blog), we were very happy to be somewhere which was safe and full of gringos.

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We probably didn't make the most of all that Baños has to offer... hiking, canyoning, rafting... but we got exactly what we wanted from it... some much needed R&R.

We wandered around the town trying different cafes and bars, we enjoyed the very good selection of restaurants, we had long lie-ins and enjoyed being in our accommodation (La Casa Verde) which was probably one of the nicest rooms we've had in SA. I caught up on some blogging and we basically had a very leisurely stay. When there's always new things to see and do, sometimes it's easy to forget the importance of doing nothing!

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The view from our room - green, lush and mountainous

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Ant wrestling with his bag again

I booked a massage and facial at our accommodation but it wasn't quite as relaxing as I would've liked. The massage was very firm so I was squirming quite a bit on the table as her thumbs found tender spots. After the massage I was thinking, do I really want a facial from this woman? And it turns out I was right. Silly me for thinking a woman's touch is as light as a feather. This woman went to the School of Facials for builders.

Imagine saying to a builder, "right, in order to do a facial you need an exfoliant. So go and lay your hands on some grit, and when you get back you have to rub it into their face as hard as you can. No really, they love it."

The facial was conducted with no finesse whatsover. I had thumbs in the eye and after an hour, emerged red faced and red raw. Admittedly my skin did feel smooth, but that's largely down to losing the top five layers. If I don't start getting asked for ID I'll be gutted.

One of the days we did manage something a little more active. We hired mountain bikes and rode the 'ruta de las cascadas' - waterfalls to you and me. It was a bit of a grey, dull day but the scenery was wonderful and we enjoyed taking our time on the 22km route.

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A sad looking football pitch

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We took a cable car across one of the ravines to get a closer look at the waterfalls. Well Ant got a closer look, I stood at the back clutching the rails for dear life with my knees literally knocking! It was fun to do even if I did find it a bit terrifying and many swear words were uttered.

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The bike ride culminated with the most spectacular waterfall of all - El Pailón del Diablo (The Devil's Cauldron). Wow, it really was impressive! A thundering mass of water dropping from vertical cliffs into a basin, frothing and steaming exactly like a cauldron. It was fantastic to see and get so close to. You could even crawl through a narrow space in the rock to walk behind the waterfall - very cool!

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So beautiful eh

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We left Baños excited for our final destination in Ecuador, Cuenca - the third largest, and considered the most beautiful, city in the country.

Posted by Galavantie 19:12 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

The night we got robbed

A cautionary tale

Before I recount what happened to us I just wanted to say that some of it may seem implausible, but I can assure you that the following is a true story.

In our 8.5 months away, it was only our second night bus journey, leaving Lago Agrio at 20:50 for Baños (via Ambato). We had a long 11 hour ride ahead of us.

All of the jungle tour group were long gone, catching much earlier buses to Quito, so we had several hours to kill before our bus left. When we got to the station we were the only gringos there so I was keen to just get on the bus and go.

Just before we got on the bus, a large friendly guy exchanged a few pleasantries. His English was reasonable and it was apparent he was on the same bus as us. We are always wary of strangers engaging us in conversation but we also don't want to assume everyone has ulterior motives else we'd never speak to anyone!

He asked us where we were from and then discussed the recent Ecuador v England friendly for the World Cup. Then he asked where we were going. Hmmm I thought, but still potentially a harmless question. Baños we say, and he confirmed we'd be there for 8am. We all stowed our luggage in the hold, boarded the bus and that was the extent of our conversation.

The bus was not a great experience. We had the first two seats right next to the TV screen which played two shit movies back to back until past midnight. It was loud and bright so impossible to get any shuteye.

I dropped off then awoke in the early hours to find a guy in a hoodie standing in front of us facing the rest of the bus. Ant was wide-eyed and looking furtive! Pretty much after that neither of us slept well.

Around 5am, and whilst it was still dark, the bus stopped at Ambato and everyone got off. We weren't sure if we were meant to stay on the bus to continue to Baños, or change buses - we hadn't been told when booking and it was unclear what we had to do. Concerned for our luggage in the now open hold, and that we were the last to get off the bus, we went to collect our bags. Immediately we could just see one lonely bag left in the stow - mine. Anthony's had gone.

It's one of the things you fear most, obviously other than for your own personal safety. Everything he owned other than valuables in his small rucksack had been stolen. It was gutting and my heart wrenched for him - it's the one thing I was dreading on our travels.

We stood in the bus with the driver, the conductor and a new bus driver trying to discuss and mutually understand what had happened and what our next steps were. We were pretty cross with them because each bag stowed is given a sticker which you are then given a matching ticket for. So in theory your bag can only be collected by you.

They were quick to confirm that it was a fat man who took the bag and that we were travelling as "tres personas". No, no, no - "dos personas", gestering to just the two of us, "no amigo". We could see that the penny then dropped. It transpired that because the driver had seen the three of us chatting before alighting, he thought we were all friends. It was clear this was all part of the thief's game plan, as when the fat guy got off the bus in the middle of the night he apparently said we had stayed with him in Lago Agrio and he was collecting our bag. So, without insisting on the production of the matching ticket, the young conductor gave him Anthony's bag. Bloody idiot.

We kept mentioning the police and that we needed to report it for our insurance. They said that they knew where the guy had got off and therefore where our bag was as they had a record of every passenger's destination. It was a town on the edges of Quito.

The driver gestured we would go to Quito with him so we could find our bag. Noooooo... not Quito again! We're meant to be going the other way - to Baños! We really couldn't see the sense in this, we had no hope of relocating the bag - it could be anywhere by now, as the guy had left the bus 2 hours earlier. We just wanted to find the police. On hindsight they seemed to do everything they could not to involve them.

So with the light now breaking, we found ourselves standing at the side of the road with the bus driver, waiting for his car to come and pick us up from Baños. We had no idea who was going to be in this car, it was one of those occasions where you put complete trust in someone you've only just met. I was pretty upset, one for Anthony because of his stuff and our souvenirs, and two because I didn't have a clue what was going on and we were vunerable.

I was somewhat relieved when what was clearly his family car arrived, with his wife at the wheel and two teenage boys in tow. The eldest boy, 19, could speak English which greatly aided both us and the bus driver to fully explain what was going to happen next.

The bus driver had a printed list of all passengers, down to names, ID, seat number and destination, so already he knew the fat man's name and that he'd got off at Sangolqui - the very first stop the bus made some 6 hours into the journey. This is where we were heading, 1.5 hours up the Pan-American highway. It was good to know that whatever happened with our bag, the police could at least trace and arrest him.

During the drive there were a lot of phone calls being made by both the bus driver and his wife. The son, Andres, explained that his mother knew someone in the police dept and from the name and ID, they were trying to locate him. We couldn't help but think it could all be a fruitless task as he could have easily given fake ID. It was turning into a one-family-vigilante hunt!

The poor bus driver was starving, bearing in mind he'd only just finished an 8 hour night drive and was now on a manhunt to help two gringos. We stopped at a cafe for breakfast and as we were starting to feel more comfortable with our situation and that the family appeared to be genuinely trying to help us, we bought them breakfast as a thank you. We had also since learnt from the son that, as luck would have it, his father was also one of the owners of the bus company. This started to make sense, as he probably felt quite responsible for their actions in freely handing over our bag, and he wanted to do right by us.

Over breakfast a call came in with an address and phone number of the thief. Great, the police can now go and pay him a visit! The son hushed us whilst his father then made a call. To the police right? No... only the bloody thief directly! Whaaaat! We have absolutely no idea what was said to the thief, other than he was asked if he was in possession of a tourist's bag. Apparently he had sounded somewhat surprised when asked the question. He was quick to say it had been a mistake but that yes, he did have the bag.

With his address and phone number known, he was clearly in a vunerable position, so when the bus driver said we were coming round to collect the bag, he insisted that he meet us on neutral ground at a service station.

We couldn't believe it! We were still on the edge of our nerves as we weren't sure he'd turn up at all, or worse still turn up with a few choice friends, but we also had safety in numbers being the six of us.

The thief duly pulled in and brought the bag over. I was seething. Anthony maintained composure and even accepted his handshake, whilst all the time he was insisting it was a mistake. That despite the fact the outer bag's zip had been forced open and he'd clearly rumaged through the entire contents.

We kept asking him why he'd forced the zip and gone through the bag if he'd picked it up by mistake. Funnily enough his English was suddenly not as good as it had been. We continued to shake our head throughout his pleas, I was so angry I dismissed him by sitting back in the car. I said I was tired of his bullshit and as he gave a last sorrowful look through the car window I gave him the most evils I could muster!

The mother didn't speak any English but we shared a disapproving shake of the head whilst Anthony, the father, son and thief had final words.

I guess you could say it was a win/win for everyone. We were reunited with all of Anthony's belongings - there was nothing in there of interest to a thief anyway. The thief avoided any dealings with the police, and the bus company avoided form-filling and a black record for safety.

The thief must have had the shock of his life - two dozing gringos he left hours ago now tracking him down, in his home town, with an adopted Ecuadorian family! One can only hope that the outcome will make him think twice about doing it to some other poor unsuspecting souls.

We had a 3 hour drive back to Baños, which was fortunately where the family lived, and we were able to relax and chat with our stresses melting away. They stopped several times along the way for icecreams, side-of-the-road fruit vendors and even at a market selling artisan crafts so we could have a browse... I bought myself a South America design alpaca jumper as a form of celebration. It had turned into a bit of a family outing.

They dropped us directly to our Baños accommodation and we all hugged, me and the mother quite tearfully. What truly beautiful people. We arrived about 3pm absolutely exhausted from the little sleep and adrenaline fuelled morning. When we recounted the tale to the B&B they said we were the first people they'd ever heard of to have a stolen bag returned, so we feel extremely blessed.

Methinks someone was looking out for us that day.

In summary...

1. The thief was stupid seeing as the bus company had ID records of every passenger
2. The thief lied like a hairy egg, a mistake my arse
3. The bus driver's family were the most wonderful, kind and helpful people we have met on our travels
4. We are never going to speak to anyone at a bus/train station again
5. Ant got his smalls back and it's made a great story for the blog ;)

Posted by Galavantie 06:07 Archived in Ecuador Comments (5)

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)

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