Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

26 July 2011

Galapagos Islands: The day I saw true love

Day 3: Isla Espanola and Punta Suarez

Overnight, we sail away from Isla Santa Cruz and anchor in Gardner Bay off Isla Espanola. From the boat, I can tell we are in for a treat. Pale blue water and pure white sand littered with sea lions and pups. 

It's a glorious morning to stroll along the beach and watch the mums tend to their young. They are the sweetest things ever. 

A pup sits at the water’s edge crying out for his mum. Moments later, an equally distraught mother spots her baby. They run desperately to each other, lovingly dive into the water together and there is a collective sigh from the audience.

*sob*

Reluctantly, we leave our paradise and sail to a new spot for our first snorkel. The water is a frigid 17 degrees and visibility isn’t great either. It's clear enough to see baby sea lions swimming playfully around Meg. A pup swims right up to my face before dashing away.

Madness.

I’m so in love with the beauty of this place that I don’t notice the water is freezing or that everyone is calling me in for hot soup. 

Several hours of sunbaking later and we arrive at Punta Suarez. This island is a bird sanctuary and it’s the breeding season. We haven’t yet stepped off the boat when Darwin steers us a different way because a sea lion has just given birth on the dock. We gingerly make our way past the exhausted pair, scrambling over razor sharp volcanic rocks so as not to disturb them. The pup looks desperately small and fragile.

On land it’s a wildlife haven. Partially blocking the path is a cluster of perhaps 50 black land iguanas all stacked on top of each like beanbags and snorting salt water out of their nostrils.


Beyond the iguanas sits a blue-footed booby watching us with beady eyes. I can’t stop staring at his bright blue feet.

 
There is an abundance of birdlife here. Blue, red and grey-footed boobies, albatrosses and their chicks, and frigate birds with their bright red, puffed out chins.

Darwin tells us about the albatrosses – how they fly to New Zealand to feed before returning to Galapagos to nest, how they mate for life, how the live for 50 years - and how they always find their way back to their mate. 

A wandering albatross swoops in towards us, its enormous wings spread wide, landing on unsteady feet. Darwin believes it’s been at sea for a while. The bird makes its way past the hundreds of nests before approaching a female. They dance shyly around each other and he realises she isn’t the one. He moves on. We watch as he wanders through the crowd looking lost. 

Eventually he spots a lone bird on the other side of the breeding ground. Darwin motions for us to silently sit and watch. What unfolds before us is the most romantic, precious thing in the world. 

An albatross finding his mate. 

The wild surf crashing over the rocks in the background adds to the drama. But the stage belongs to this loving pair who clack beaks in perfect unison, wail, duck and weave around each other, dance, bow, curtsey and kiss, for what seems like forever. 

It’s too precious to photograph. Geezer tries.

video

As we solemnly make our way back to the boat, I notice that Darwin has a delightful spring in his step. I love it when a guide is so passionate.

We arrive back on the boat hours late. The crew don’t seem to mind and absorb our energy. 

What a magical day. Beers and bed!

11 July 2011

Galapagos Islands: Days 1 and 2


Day 1: Isla Baltra and Isla Santa Cruz

We arrive at Isla Baltra on South Seymour Island amidst chaos – tour guides screaming for lost tourists and the baggage claim area looking more like a luggage disposal unit. You can tell we’re still in South America.

I step outside away from the mayhem to watch it from afar.

A guide from a different company tells us to board his bus and everyone looks confused. Eventually though, we arrive at our yacht – an older style 30 odd foot boat with plenty of character. 


Cachalote. It’s our home for the next eight days. I like it. 

Darwin, our guide (yep that’s his real name), greets us on board and we are shown to our cabins. The bunks fit snugly in the cabin and if you breathe in you can edge your way into the bathroom. 

I score the top bunk with my very own porthole. 

Happy.

There are ten others in our group: an Indian father and son, who are serious photography enthusiasts; a family of Ecuadorians with the grumpiest teenage son in the world; a quiet young Canadian couple; 3 older Germans and us. Everyone sits in complete silence.

Up comes the anchor and our first stop is Isla Plaza where we are panga’ed off the yacht onto a strange, arid, volcanic rock beach. We get our first glimpse of land and aquatic iguanas, sea lions and bright red crabs that contrast heavily against the black rock. 


Darwin is knowledgeable, enthusiastic and extremely passionate about the islands.

My first glimpse of Galapagos. Weird and so wonderful. 

When we board our boat, the silence amongst the group has now been broken. We set sail for Isla Santa Cruz where we can go into town. But we opt to stay in and lie on the deck with beers staring skyward, watching frigate birds swoop around the mast. 


On the water, I feel truly content. And, that night, for the first time in ages I sleep like a baby with the gentle rocking of the boat.

Day 2: Isla Santa Cruz

At 7am sharp we are woken by a bell for breakfast. Having survived on a backpacker breakfast of bread and ham for seven months, I’m dying for some fruit and eggs. 

I greet everyone and get a lame response. Tough crowd.

We are briefed on the day’s events – a morning trip to the Darwin Research Centre, where they have an extensive breeding program for the Galapagos tortoises, and an afternoon excursion to see some massive volcanic sink holes, 20 metre high lava tunnels and tortoises in their natural habitat.

We are anchored in the most beautiful bay – turquoise water, loads of fish and pelicans flocking to a crowd of fisherman gutting fish on the dock.


At the research centre, amongst thousands of tortoises in the breeding program, sits Lonesome George, the last of his kind and a conservation icon. It’s thought he is at least 100 years old and scientists have been frantically looking for a mate. 


The babies bred here must learn to roll off their backs before they are released into the wild. I love staring at these pre-historic looking creatures. Their noisy, raspy slow breath and their desperately slow movements make them seem wonderfully ancient. 

In town we stock up for Hunter’s birthday. It’s slim pickings but we find enough party gear and booze to make a fuss.

We’re waiting for our ride back when we hear a familiar Australian voice. It’s Tom, a guy we met on our Antarctic cruise who we have bumped into randomly throughout South America – at a football match in Buenos Aires, at a parade in Cusco and El Chalten.

We are back on the boat for aperitifs and dinner, and it’s barely 8pm when I climb into bed. 

Knackered but happy.

9 July 2011

Ticking one off the bucket list: Galapagos

28 July 2010

If there’s one thing that South America lacks, it’s wildlife. Apart from the llamas and alpacas, there isn’t much to see unless you hike for days into the jungle. 

Until you get to Galapagos.


1000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador and famous for their part in forming Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the Galapagos Islands are barren but incredibly beautiful. The islands are also smack bang on one of earth’s hottest volcanic spots and activity as recent as two years ago has helped shape their dramatic landscapes. 


To be honest, I was a bit nervous about going to the islands. Galapagos has been at the top of my bucket list for a long time and I didn't want it to disappoint. 

It definitely did not.

We'd selected an itinerary of eight days of sailing around the northern Galapagos Islands. It should cover the animals we want to see – blue, red and grey footed boobies, albatross sanctuaries, sea lion colonies, whales, giant Galapagos tortoises, and the land and aquatic iguanas.

  
We board our flight to Isla Baltra in Quito and I can barely contain my excitement.

Ecuador and a travel low

Ecuador: 24 July 2010

Guayaquil. Definitely not my cup of tea. At the risk of sounding like a spoilt brat, I’m already missing the beach. And the shabbiness of Ecuador's largest city is just not doing it for me. 

The street food is weird and bland, and the hostels are grubby, basic and expensive. 


There is a festival on this weekend in Guayaquil but no one knows, or wants to tell us, about it.

Guayaquil and Quito are the places to book Galapagos but, here, it is hard to imagine this would be the case. 

There must be more to it than this?

Lacking the passion to stay and find out, we head north to Riobamba. We discover that the original train where you ride on the roof (and one of its drawcards) has been replaced by a nasty touristy tram and it appeals to none of us. 

We sack it off.

And we move on. Again. To Banos. 

That night I feel unsettled. We’ve moved quickly through several towns because on the surface they’ve looked shabby, a bit boring or just plain dodgy. I question whether I'm feeling this way because Mancora was too luxurious.

I also wonder if it's time for a rethink. 

To be honest, so far Ecuador has disappointed me. I don’t know if we’d just been trying too hard to get the Galapagos Islands and skipped the best parts of the country but I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps I’ve just been on the road too long. 

I lie awake fretting about it.

My spirit is lifted when we arrive in Banos... and then crushed when we discover that most of it is shut down because of the threat of a volcanic eruption and horrendous weather. The hot pools are open but the queue stretches from one side of town to the other. And it's bucketing down.

I feel completely disheartened and wracked with guilt. I’m in a travel low. 

I take some time out on my own to write and to snap myself out of it. I know that the Galapagos Islands will be amazing. But what about everything before and after Galapagos? 

I know that good times are ahead. I just need to get my mojo back.

2 July 2011

Beach time

Mancora, Peru: 19 July 2010

Exhausted from so many overnight bus journeys, I’ve barely closed my eyes for a catnap when an uber-excited Meg and Hunter bounce into our room. It's only been a few days since we saw them but I’ve missed them.

They take us to their favourite beachfront cafe, Green Eggs and Ham, and we eat the best food we’ve had in months on the deck. I’m still chewing the last mouthful when I decide a swim can’t wait any longer.


I am so content.

Later that day, we take a tuk tuk into town. I’m so busy watching the street go by that I barely notice a tuk tuk coming in the opposite direction which smashes into ours and swipes the door off barely an inch away from my arm. An ugly fight erupts between the drivers, and when Meg and Hunter pull up behind us we dive into their car and get the hell out of there.

After a spectacular sunset on the beach, I leave my friends on the balcony and lie in bed listening to the ocean.


I wonder if it's wrong to have skipped through the north of Peru to get here. Surely if it gives me this much peace, it's a good thing.

The next few days are a haze of beer, beach and late night on the balcony. One night we sit up until dawn, watching the sunrise, drinking and talking shit. Despite having spent the last two months solid with each other, the conversation between the four of us is so easy. We bare our souls.

Reluctantly, eventually, we leave our paradise and leave Peru. We have spent six weeks in this glorious country so rich in culture and dotted with landscapes that have literally made my jaw drop.



But it's time to move on.

So we cross the border into Ecuador, eager to organise our next adventure. Sailing around the Galapagos Islands for Hunter’s 30th birthday.

Craving the coast

Peru: 13 July 2010

At this point in our travels, we’ve been land-locked for months and, being an ocean loving gal, I am craving water. We’ve also been at high altitude on and off for the better part of two months and it’s hard work. I know we’ll get there eventually but the thought of more mountains makes me on edge.

We’ve also had a record number of ridiculously early starts so I cherish the chance to catch up on sleep and a monster breakfast at Jack’s Cafe in Cusco. 
We then board a bus for 22 hours to Lima.It’s amazing that after seven months of travelling, a 22 hour bus ride no longer fazes me. In fact, given that my ipod is loaded up with episodes of the latest Underbelly series, the driver hasn’t even finished pulling in before I’ve swooped into my seat, whipped my sleeping bag out and hit play.

We arrive in Lima at lunchtime the next day, dump our backpacks in a window-less dorm and wander off to meet Meg and Hunter. We spot them walking towards us, leap out from behind a car to surprise them and they laugh at our childish gag.

We have two hours together till their bus to Mancora on the coast of Peru. In those two hours we down an insane number of beers before waving them off dangerously close to the departure time of their bus. I secretly wish that we are going with them but am still kind of keen to see the places we’d tagged.


As Hunter leaves, he hands me his headband that I had been admiring. “I think this looks better on you, Kirst” he says and once again I’m reminded of how much I love these guys. They are the most generous people. Ever.

Annoyingly Geezer and I get stuck in Lima because buses are booked up for several days. So I make the most of some time off the road – blogging, emailing, tweeting and sending two boxes – 10 kg! – containing all our winter clothes, home. My pack is insanely light. Bliss!

Two days later we arrive in Huaraz. The bus takes us up a windy coast road, past amazing sand dunes before winding back inland and up towards the mountains. A quick dash in to the main square makes us realise that we probably won’t stay here too long. We don’t have enough time or the energy to trek the Cordillera Blanca in the incredible Peruvian Andes. All I can think about is beach and an email from Meg saying ‘Guys, get here quick. We’ve found paradise!’.

The next day, after another icy-cold shower, we board a bus to Chiclayo and make our way up to the Wilcacocha lookout. The view over the Andes is stunning. 


Wandering through the laneways of Chiclayo, we find a place for lunch and are approached by a man selling Peruvian rugs. He is a kind old man, a gentle soul who talks to us for a while and attempts to sell us some rugs. Geezer gently refuses and the man smiles before walking off.

After lunch, we decide that the call of the ocean is too strong and board an overnight bus to Trujillo. Our bus arrives at 6am and I am completely dismayed at the sight before me. We madly flick through our guide book wondering if we have got off at the wrong town. Nope right town... Trujillo looks... well... dodgy, dirty and the men are overtly leery. I feel uncomfortable. And the next bus out to Mancora isn’t till the evening.

So we hightail it to a nearby beach village, Huanchaco, and rent a hostel room for the day to shower and sleep. We’re soon tempted out by the smell of freshly baked bread – a rarity in South America.

Thank god for Huanchaco. The weather is crap but the beach is glorious. A real surf beach. The water is freezing. I don’t care. I am up to my knees in a flash. Geezer looks at me like I’m mad. 

We are walking back from the beach when a familiar face walks past. It's the local who had been trying to sell us rugs. He warmly shakes our hands and tells us that he has travelled overnight, as we have, because sales were too slow in Chiclayo. Let's face it... the rugs are pretty awful so Geezer slips him some money and he is so grateful that he prays to the sky. He is nearly weeping with joy. We reluctantly bid him goodbye.

I had started to feel guilty at being a bit over Peru. But reaching the ocean calms me and we find a wicked little cafe on the beach playing the Rolling Stones. We sink beers and watch the massive surf rolling in. I feel like I’m in heaven!

We board yet another overnight bus to Mancora and are kept awake all night by screaming babies, gringos with verbal diarrhoea and a dysfunctional toilet. I plug my ears and nose and pointlessly try to sleep.

It is pitch black when we arrive in Mancora at 5am. But Meg and Hunter have found the most incredible pad right on the beach. We walk into our room to find a balcony overlooking the ocean as the sun is rising. Something inside me sings. This *is* paradise. 


Despite being on the road for seven months, when we reach Mancora, I feel for the first time that I’m on holiday. 
I put my laptop away and completely relax.