A Travellerspoint blog

January 2014

Gallivanting around the Galapagos

A truly magical experience.

sunny 26 °C

A 3.50am start is never fun but it is made a little easier when it’s because you are about to do an eight day tour of the Galapagos Islands!

We got our flight from Quito to Baltra. Our tour guide met us at the airport and led us to the jetty where we had to wait for a dingy to take us to our boat ‘Daphne’ – home for the next 8 nights.
Our Galapagos experience began almost immediately, as we waited to board the dingy we saw a land iguana, a marine iguana, sea lions, pelicans, sally lightfoot crabs and frigate birds.
Lunch was served not long after we arrived on the boat as we headed towards the location for our first guided walk and snorkel.
Almost immediately our guide, Omar, was pointing out the blue footed boobies and an abundance of Sally Lightfoot crabs just sitting around enjoying the sunshine.
We stood and watched pelicans diving into the water, surfacing with their catch and then swallowing it.
Marine iguanas were warming themselves on the rocks in every direction and the best bit about it all was that they didn’t care at all that we were only feet away from them!
We went snorkelling off Bachas Beach and saw an eagle ray and lots of huge brightly coloured parrot fish as well as many other fish in various shapes, sizes and colours.
After our early start and action packed afternoon we all headed off to bed after dinner despite the fact it was only 8.30pm!

Day 2 on the boat. We went to North Seymour for our first activity of the day – a guided walk. As soon as we came ashore we saw blue footed boobies and this had us all reaching for our cameras and clicking away at the birds with the amazing bright blue feet. It was really interesting seeing a pair of them as it made the difference between the male and female very clear. The female’s feet are a pale turquoise whereas the male’s feet in comparison are quite a dark blue.
Apparently the female is always attracted to the male with the darkest feet. As we continued our walk around island we saw the masses of frigate birds nesting in the low trees in every direction. Many of the males had their red chests inflated in the hope of attracting a female to the nest they had built. It was incredible to see how many frigates there were, males, females, juveniles and tiny little chicks.
We watched chicks begging their parents for food and then sticking their heads down their parent’s throat to retrieve the regurgitated food!
As well as birds we also saw many land iguanas up close and personal, lots of other smaller lizards and sea lions including a tiny, inquisitive cub.
The second activity of the day was a snorkel – we were in the water for less than an hour but still managed to see a white tip reef shark, sting ray, trigger fish, parrot fish and sea lions swimming gracefully along.
After lunch we moved onto Bartolome Island. The entire way there frigates followed us, landing on the boat just feet away from our heads, they were mesmerising to watch as they glided above our heads doing some kind of aerial choreography.
At one point a couple of dolphins followed in our wake leaping out of the water every few seconds and the highlight for me (although it was a little too far away and too quick to photograph) was seeing manta rays leaping out of the water, twirling and somersaulting over and over again.
Once we finally arrived at Bartolome we climbed the 365 steps that lead up to the summit of the island. Along the way Omar explained the geology to us, there was lots of evidence of the volcanic activity that created the island, scoria, lava bombs, ash, lava tubes……
The view from the top was very impressive and we stood and watched the sunset behind the neighbouring island.
Whilst we were waiting for dinner we occupied ourselves by watching a shark continually circling our boat! Once again the whole tour group were exhausted and as soon as dinner was over we all headed off to our cabins and went straight to sleep! We were not sure that a day like this could ever be beaten!

Day 3 – Having sailed through most of the night we awoke to the view of Santiago island and as soon as breakfast was over we got into the dingy for our first guided walk of the day at Egas Port. Egas Port is a black sand beach teeming with sea lions and fur sea lions, marine iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs, turtle nests, a whole variety of birds and some interesting lava structures.
We spent quite a long time walking around the track and learning about the animals and how the features such as the lava bridge had formed. After the long hike in the burning sun we were all quite keen to get into the water for some more snorkelling. We went in off the beach but the visibility was not that great so I decided to get out after a while and take some more photos of the extremely cute sea lions cubs swimming in rock pools and dozing in the sun. Gerald persevered and did manage to see another shark and a ray of some sort!
The afternoon activities involved us sailing round to another part of the island – Espumilla Bay. We had a short guided walk on a beach well known for its’ turtle nests.
As we approached in the dingy we could see a large turtle on the beach and it wasn’t long before we could spot more heads surfacing just beyond the shoreline.
After the guided walk we went back on board and headed off in the dingy to do some more snorkelling. The visibility was still not great but we did see lots of fish and a sea lion gracefully swam around us. We also snorkelled into a cave once we were in we turned around to be greeted with the sun shining onto the turquoise water and hundreds of little fish silhouetted against it. Activities were all over by 3pm as we had a long journey ahead to the next island and the journey also involved us crossing the equator. We were all invited up to the bridge to watch the GPS count down to 000. Unfortunately it often counted down in 2’s and typically we never got to see it show 000 latitude!!!!

Despite the rough journey to Isabella overnight we did manage to sleep very well (maybe the sea bands and sea sickness tablets did what they are supposed to do!).
The first activity today was a guided walk at Tagus Cove. We climbed many steps and then followed the rocky trail to the caldera lake at the top. The day was a little overcast so the lake was not looking as turquoise as we knew it would have been if the sun was shining but it was still a lovely view.
Along the way we saw many Darwin finches and little lizards but the island was nowhere near as populated with animals as some of the others we had visited. Once the trail was complete we had a dingy ride along the coastline. This is when we got to spot penguins for the first time! We also got to see flightless cormorants and marine iguanas with their babies!!!
Next up was another snorkelling session. We saw more turtles, thousands of huge starfish carpeting the seabed, bright green sea urchins and best of all, penguins swimming around us! Unfortunately they swim so fast we didn’t manage to get any photos of them. The visibility was better than the day before but the water seemed a bit chillier (maybe because the sun wasn’t shining?).
After lunch we headed to Fernandina Island, the youngest of all the islands at 700,000 years old. Stepping onto this island was like going back in time as it is nearly completely covered in marine iguanas. They are everywhere you look! The rule in the Galapagos National Park is that you should never get closer than 2m to any creature and that you should always stay on the track. It is completely impossible to stick to the rules on this island as the iguanas laze around in the sun anywhere and everywhere! They are really well camouflaged so you really have to watch where you step as you go along.
As well as the marine iguanas there were flightless cormorants, blue footed boobies, plenty of crabs and sea lions. We watched some sea lions frolic in a huge rock pool, they were leaping out of the water and putting on a great performance for us.
As we headed back we saw the skeleton of a Brydes whale that had got stranded about ten year ago. Many of the bones had disintegrated but the main spine was still there.
Just as we were about to get back into the dingy the cutest and tiniest sea lion cub that we had seen so far popped out of the water to say hello. Its’ mum soon called him and he flopped back into the water and swam off but not before I got a few photos!
The last activity of the day was another snorkel. As soon as we got in a cormorant swam right beneath me. He was so streamlined and sleek and before you could even point a camera he was gone! The vis got worse soon after that as the tide was coming in so I decided to get out and enjoy the sun on the boat. Gerald carried on for a while and saw more turtles, there were loads in the area. Another great day in the Galapagos!

Day 5 on the boat had a lazier morning, we had a dingy ride around Elizabeth Bay on Isabela. On the way to the bay we watched blue footed boobies diving into the water to catch sardines.
There were so many of them and the fish were flinging themselves around in an attempt to get away meaning that we kept seeing them flip out of the water. For a large portion of the journey we cut the engine and the guide paddled us around. It was amazing how very quiet it was and we suddenly all felt compelled to whisper if we wanted to share something! Elizabeth Bay is very shallow and also sheltered by a huge number of mangroves. It has become a kind of safe nursery as the water is too shallow for birds such as boobies to dive into. As the water is shallow you could clearly see to the bottom and that meant you could also see all the tiny fish living in there. The water was also full of turtles, apparently they go there because the calm water makes it much easier to mate.
Almost every mangrove tree had a resident pelican sitting and preening itself or sleeping precariously perched in the branches.
As well as all the fish we saw a little sting ray gliding along the bottom. The cutest thing we saw was a group of sixteen penguins who had clearly eaten their fill and were now just paddling along in their little cluster right beside our dingy. It was so nice to see them like this as usually you blink and you have missed them they are so fast!
I decided to give the day’s snorkel a miss as it began to rain and was really quite cloudy. I suspected that the visibility would not be that great. Apparently I was wrong! The visibility was not too bad but everyone agreed it was the coldest it had been. All the usual suspects were seen and this time Gerald did actually manage to capture a sealion, penguin and cormorant in the same bit of video.
In the afternoon we took a trip to see a flamingo pool in Moreno Point, an area that was still showing evidence of fairly recent eruptions. On the way there we did see an eagle ray and a whole group of mustard rays swimming in formation.
The weather was fairly awful from the moment we stepped on shore so we were soon soaking wet and the cameras went away. When we spotted a lone flamingo we quickly took a shot (not very good!) before packing it safely away again!
The crossing that night was the roughest yet and quite a few people were in bed by 7.30pm in the hope of sleeping through it.

The next day was a 6.30am start as we had a busy morning on Isabela…first up we did a short guided walk to see Las Tintoreras a place well known for the white tip reef sharks to rest and bask in the sun but as it was low tide they had not yet entered so we didn’t see any. We did see a very cute little sea lion cub that came rushing over to greet us and was not much more than a foot away from us posing nicely for his photo to be taken!
After that we headed straight to the bus to get to the start of the Sierra Negra Volcano trail. It took us about an hour to climb to the crater rim but the cloud was so low we saw nothing but whiteness!!!
On the way back to ‘Daphne’ we had to wait on a little pier and all we could see were sea lions lazing on the back off boats. They seem to find every available space to doze in the sun, even park benches.
Our afternoon activity was a bus ride into town to go to the Arnaldo Tupiza giant tortoise breeding centre, we got to see tortoises of all different ages from a very cute 15 days old to 100+ years. We learnt all about the breeding program – a very long term project as tortoises do not become sexually active until aged 25 or more and then the babies have to stay at the centre until they are old and big enough to be safe from predators. This means they do not get released until they are at least 8 years old.
We continued from there to a short wetlands walk where we found a geocache hidden but not much in the way of wildlife!
After that it was a bit of relaxing time on the beach eating an ice cream before returning to the boat.

Our last full day on the boat seemed to come around so quickly. The morning started with a guided walk up Dragon’s Hill on Santa Cruz. The main reason for this walk was to see land iguanas and their nesting ground. We saw several as we did our loop around part of the island and one of them kindly chose to sit right on our trail so we got to take some nice photos.
We also got to see a few more flamingos and this time the sun was shining.
After the walk it was back on board as we were moving to another location on Santa Cruz for the afternoon so we all piled on the top deck to enjoy the sunshine and views.
Our afternoon stop was at Punta Carrion – a shallow, protected cove. Typically the sun went in as we approached but it still didn’t spoil our final snorkel. There was plenty going on below the water, we saw white tip sharks, trumpet fish, trigger fish, parrotfish, starfish, marble rays and a sting ray, tuna and much more!
Our very last activity for the Galapagos was an early morning visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre to see the other breeds of giant tortoise that live in the Galapagos. We got to see the saddleback tortoise that has evolved a long neck and legs so that it can reach the tall cactus plants.
The research centre is also the place where Lonesome George used to live, the last tortoise of his kind. Despite the centres quest to find him a mate, searching zoos all over the world and even looking at DNA to find tortoises with similar DNA to George their quest was unsuccessful. Sadly Lonesome George died almost 2 years ago so now his species is extinct. As soon as our visit was over we began the long journey back to Quito.

Our trip to the Galapagos Islands was an amazing experience and despite our fears about staying on a boat for eight days (both Gerald and I are not great travellers and get sea sick!) we are so glad we chose the boat option and not the hotel/day trip option. Being on a boat means you get to go so much further and see islands not possible if you are only doing day trips. It also means you get a lot more time on the islands because most travel is done overnight so as soon as breakfast is over you can begin your next adventure on a new island. Despite a few rough crossings, with the use of sea bands round our wrists and a couple of tablets after dinner before setting sail, neither of us became ill or even queasy. We travelled with a lovely group of people – we had a good mix of family, friends, couples and ages ranging from early 20’s to 60’s. It made for some interesting dinner conversations. Gerald and I have been lucky enough to have had several ‘holiday of a lifetime’s but this has been truly magical.

Posted by bumblebum 14:56 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

A little trip to South America

Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu and Quito

semi-overcast 22 °C

Time zones are funny things. We left New Zealand at 4.15pm on Jan 8th and landed in Lima at 4.25pm on…..Jan 8th. If only it had taken 10mins instead of well over 10 hours!

Lima was an unplanned stopover – our flight got cancelled and the airline put us up in a hotel free of charge. By the time we had checked in at the hotel it was early evening, we decided to go for a quick wander round the local area but the sun soon started to set and we decided to head back and order room service.

The next morning we had to be up at 5am for a flight to Cusco. Once we arrived we checked in at the JW Marriott. The hotel was very impressive and our room was lovely. We decided to explore Quito and combine it with some geocaching – there was a multi cache which took us to some very beautiful sites around the UNESCO town, at each spot we had to solve a clue to give us the numbers for the final location. This just happened to be a spot that overlooked the whole town, obviously meaning we had to go uphill a lot. This wouldn’t normally bother us but Cusco is already at a very high altitude and altitude sickness did kick in a little. I developed a horrid headache and every step up hill was ridiculously difficult. My heart was pounding and it felt hard to breathe. We bought some coca sweets and walked at a slow pace with lots of stops and water drinking which really helped. The view did make it all worth while though!
Luckily our room had oxygen pumped into it so after our exploration we headed back there for a bit of recuperation. We had dinner in a very small, quaint restaurant just down the road from the hotel before heading to bed for an early night in preparation for yet another 5am start to get to Aguas Calientes. Being as we were very tight for time we decided to book our Machu Picchu trip through Sun Gate Tours whilst we were back in NZ. We were met at our hotel by a tour rep who took us to the station.

We were supposed to get a train all the way from Cusco to AC but a landslide meant the line was covered in huge rocks and we ended up having to get a coach to a train station further down the line. We spent about 3 hours on the train and fortunately had been seated on the left hand side which meant that we had great views the whole way. The railway line follows the river at the bottom of the valley. The train had glass windows in the roof so you could see the impressive mountain tops as we travelled along. Once we arrived at AC we were met by another rep to take us to Machu Picchu. This should have involved getting a bus all the way to the entrance but a theme had developed – another landslide! This one had happened during the night, the road up to Machu Picchu is long and very windy and the landslide had started pretty high up taking out several sections of the road with huge piles of boulders. The bus could only take us half way up meaning we had to walk the rest! Machu Picchu is not as high as Aguas Calientes so altitude sickness was not a problem but the walk up was still hard work. It involved a long, steep climb up many, many steps – some of which were pretty high. With regular water stops we made it to the top nice and sweaty!
Part of our tour included a delicious buffet lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge before having a guide show us round the ancient city. Unfortunately as we ate lunch it began to rain. We entered Machu Picchu and were greeted with the breathtaking view despite the clouds and rain. Llamas were roaming around and climbing up and down the steps.
Our guide had exceptional English and told us so much about the ruins and how they demonstrate the importance of the sun to the Incas. We learnt so much as we were shown around. Unfortunately the rain got harder and the clouds got lower so we gave up with the photo taking and packed our cameras away for fear of them breaking. Soaked to the skin we made the descent down all those many, and now very muddy, steps. We got the bus down the last half of the mountain and then made the short walk to our hotel, El Mapi.
It was bliss to get to our lovely room, have a hot shower and get into dry clothes before having a delicious dinner. Thankfully our room had a heater so we were able to dry all our bags and clothes.

The next morning I was woken by a cockerel at 5.30am! I looked out of the window and was greeted with a blue sky.
We decided to get up, have breakfast and head back to Machu Picchu. We went to the bus stop only to find out that with all the rain there had been more land slides and now the buses were not running at all!!! We met a girl at the bus stop who we got chatting to and the 3 of us decided to make the journey back up to the top.
After a hard 1 ½ hour climb we reached the top and it was worth every drop of sweat because the view that greeted us this time was a hundred times more impressive then the day before! The views in every direction were just amazing. We spent a few hours walking around and taking all the photos we hadn’t been able to do the day before.
As it was such a nice day we decided to attempt some of the geocaches that were nearby too. After we had absorbed all the beauty we made the long journey back down, many people were still heading up – some of them not looking too good! I guess many of the people doing the climb, like us, had never expected to have to walk but having come all that way couldn’t miss out on seeing the wonder of Machu Picchu.
We arrived back at the hotel, had a buffet lunch that was included in our tour and then explored the town of Aguas Calientes before heading back to the train station. Every train had been delayed by an hour (no idea why!) so the station was packed with hundreds of people. We finally arrived back at the Marriott around 10pm, showered, packed, headed out for dinner and then crashed ready for yet another 5am start!

Day 5 saw us saying goodbye to Peru and hello to Ecuador. We flew to Quito via Lima so by the time we checked into the Hilton in Quito we had racked up 5 flights, 5 hotel rooms in 4 different cities over 2 countries! Needless to say we were looking forward to our stay in Quito as it meant we had no set plans, no early mornings and the same hotel room for 3 nights!
We had some lunch and then wandered around the market across the road from our hotel. It was a total tourist trap with stall after stall of Ecuadorian souvenirs, none of which appealed to us! As it was starting to rain we headed back to our room. Once the rain stopped we decided to attempt some geocaches we knew were fairly close by. We jumped in a cab and headed to Metropolitano Park. In retrospect this was probably not the best idea I have ever had! The park was not what we were expecting, it was very ‘rural’ more like a forest at times. We soon had a few cache finds and ploughed on into the park that turned out to be way bigger than we had realised. As we were looking for our 6th cache (one that nobody had ever found before) the sun began to set, after a few minutes searching we found it, signed the log and decided to head home. This is when we realised just how big the park was! It started to get dark quite quickly, fog started to descend and there wasn’t a single street light in the park! Thank goodness our geocaching app has maps! We followed the tracks marked out which led us to a village.
Now everything we had read had said how it really isn’t safe to walk around Quito after dark, especially when you are away from the main centre so I will admit I started to get a little scared as we continued to find our way home and every time we saw a car heading towards us we hid behind trees in paranoia!!!! By the time we made it to a main road it was totally dark, as we passed a petrol station there was a little old man washing his taxi. We asked him if he could take us to our hotel and it seemed to make his day – it definitely made ours! We got home safely and he drove off with a huge smile on his face!

Day 6 was our first proper lie in of the ‘holiday’ so far. We made the most of the breakfast buffet before heading off to see what Quito had in store for us. We walked to Itchimbia Park as we knew it had a couple of caches hidden that promised a ‘panoramic view’ of Quito and they weren’t lying! Obviously to get that kind of view meant another big climb (my legs are really feeling it!) but as usual it was worth it and we did find the 2 caches hidden in the park.
After that we got a taxi to El Panecillo – a huge winged statue of Mary.
Once again we knew there was an unfound geocache hidden there, the cache owner had made it very clear that this area should only be visited by taxi or bus as the surrounding area is very unsafe so we followed their advice jumping back into a cab once we had taken photos of the views, found the cache and signed the log. Our final tourist spot for the day was a visit to the Basilica. The impressive build was started in 1892 and incredibly didn’t get finished until 1992! We climbed the many stairs to the belfry for yet another lot of impressive views of Quito, then crossed a platform above the ceiling, but under the roof, which led to two flights of steep steps up to the top of the spire. The climb up was a little scary but the views were incredible from the top.
We felt that enough exploring for the day and headed back to the hotel.

Today we decided to hire a taxi driver for a few hours….Our first stop was Intinan Museum where the equator lies. For $2 each we had our own guide show us around the museum and explain about some of the different tribes that have lived around the area over time including the headshrinkers. He gave a detailed explanation about how they shrunk the heads and why and we even got to see one.
The main reason for visiting here is to take part in all the experiments to prove you are on the equator like watching the water go out of a sink on the equator line and then a meter or two to each side of it. Incredibly the water really does go straight down at the equator and then opposite ways to the north and south. We also had a go at balancing eggs on a nail and I was awarded my diploma for succeeding!
After that we headed to the monument where the ‘fake equator’ is, because the earth is constantly shifting due to earthquakes etc the equator has actually moved over time meaning that the monument no longer stands on the equator – is it now about 170m away!
This afternoon we get to meet our tour group for the Galapagos Islands and it will be an early night for us as we have to leave for the airport at 4.30am!

Posted by bumblebum 16:54 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

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