Nature overload: eight magical days in the Galapagos

Visiting the Galapagos has always been one of those big bucket list items for me. In fact, our whole trip was built around three must-dos: Rio Carnaval, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. Suffice to say, expectations were high. Sky high.

I could have set my expectations at the moon, and I still would have been blown away.

Our home for the eight days was the Yate Guantanamera, a tourist-class (read: pretty budget) ship that we booked via Oasis Overland. Most of the other people on board booked last minute in Puerto Ayora (one couple even booked on the day of departure!), so that is a very viable option for anyone looking to do ‘budget’ Galapagos. But we had limited time and wanted a guaranteed sailing date, so we planned ahead!

Even for a budget ship, Guantanamera provided everything we needed: snorkelling equipment and wet suits (it was the “cold” season in Galapagos, so swimming was more comfortable in a short wetsuit), clean (if very cramped) cabins and surprisingly excellent food. Plus, the itinerary was amazing. Over the course of eight days/seven nights, we sailed: Baltra-Bartolome-Genovesa-Isabela-Fernandino-Santiago-Rabida – the North/West islands.

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What surprised me the most about the Galapagos was the variety of landscape. I don’t know what I pictured in my head before, but I wasn’t expecting the mixture of beach paradises, lush forests, ancient calderas and barren lava fields that we came across. Each island is so different, and it makes me wonder what I missed out on from the places we didn’t see! Oh well, an excuse to go back…

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Then, of course, the wildlife. We felt so lucky to see so much, but maybe it wasn’t luck – maybe it’s just the Galapagos? Still, on land, in the air and under the sea, we saw such variety of wildlife that it was pretty overwhelming, and sometimes even easy to get jaded. Oh, swimming with another turtle? Yawn. Was that a reef shark? Who cares. Is that a rare red-foot booby? Yes, but where are the blue foot? Haha, okay, we weren’t quite that bad, but it did feel like we kept upping the ante with every island we visited. For example, on Genovesa, we were told we had the chance to see a short-eared owl – quite rare, and normally only visible through binoculars on the rocky coast. We showed up, and there was one sitting on the bridge, just waiting for us. No big deal.

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A short-eared owl

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A pacific green sea turtle

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A white-tip reef shark

The coolest animals for me were the iguanas – both marine and land. We actually got a chance to swim with the marine iguanas, so that was pretty epic!

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A male land iguana

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Swimming with a marine iguana

But we saw SO much. Galapagos hawks within touching distance. Frigate birds with giant red inflatable pouches under their beaks. Galapagos sharks circling the boat. Hammerhead sharks (these were amazing – we swam with three). Eagle rays. Sting rays. Mobula rays in a school of hundreds. Sea lions lounging on park benches. Common dolphins leaping out of the water. Humpback whales. Giant tortoise. Thousands of varieties of fish – from puffer fish to king angelfish to neon-bright parrot fish. Three different types of boobies. Darwin finches (including the terrifying-sounding vampire finch). Flightless cormorants with useless, stubby wings. Lava lizards. Galapagos racers (snakes). Even penguins!

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A red foot booby

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Blue foot boobies fishing

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Photographing flightless cormorants

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Eagle ray

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Giant tortoise

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Hola! from a sea lion

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A great frigatebird

This was nothing like our Amazon or Pantanal experience, where we were only able to see a few animals. This was a safari on steroids. A feast for our eyes. And what was also amazing was the proximity you could get. Official rules state that you are only allowed to approach the animals at a distance of 2 metres, but the problem wasn’t us approaching the animals – but the animals approaching us!

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Hello mister sea lion

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Hello mister Galapagos hawk

All in all, a week was not enough. Top tip if you did have more time – our boat was offering discount prices if you stayed on board another week, so if you had the budget and the extra week, you could really see a lot.

I think if we went back, we’d try to get some diving in as well. We unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity and I have a feeling the diving would be incredible.

Last photo… A lava lizard perched on top of a smiling marine iguana, lying on a beach in the sunshine. It doesn’t get more Galapagos than that.

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Potosi and Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia – bold, beautiful and strange

Leaving Argentina and Chile was bitter sweet – waving goodbye to great steak, great wine and huge, sweeping vistas. Almost immediately Bolivia felt different – and it wasn’t just the cholitas carrying bundles of baby llamas over the border. Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador have a totally different feel to their Southern neighbours, and they require a different style of travel. But you know what? This is the kind of travel I absolutely love… and they did not disappoint.

We only had a short week in Bolivia but – wow – what a place. It was more than long enough to make me fall absolutely in love with the country, and definitely wanting to go back for more.

This is going to be a picture-heavy post, because even my best words can’t quite convey the weird and wonderful scenery that we encountered here. It often felt like visiting another planet – perfect, of course, for this sci-fi lover.

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Spot the truck! Bushcamping on a river bed in southern Bolivia

Our first stop in Bolivia was the mining town of Potosi, once the biggest and richest city in all the Americas. The reason? Cero Ricco or ‘rich mountain’ – a mountain that basically funded the Spanish empire with the wealth of silver buried within its rocky depths. A really informative mint museum in the centre of Potosi put it into context – the Potosi symbol (a jumbled PTSI) stamped on silver pieces of eight became the dollar sign we all know today $. Unfortunately, the mountain has been so over-mined there’s almost no silver left and the mountain is collapsing from the top down. Even so, miners continue to work there every day, in treacherous conditions. As tourists, we were able to go and visit the mines and witness their way of life. It was an experience that made me deeply uncomfortable – both claustrophobic (which is rare for me, but I really felt the weight of the mountain) and to see the hardship that the men and women there endure. We were able to bring in soda and coca leaves for the workers, but I still left feeling shaken.

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View of Potosi from Cerro Rico

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Entering the mines

From Potosi, we travelled to Uyuni, the launching point of tours to the Salar de Uyuni or Uyuni salt flats – probably Bolivia’s most famous tourist destination. This was always destined to be a highlight of our trip but it REALLY lived up to our expectations! In this case, it was all because of our awesome guide, Luis. He was an absolute pro at helping us take epic perspective photos and gave us some real insight into the history of the salt flats.

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Contorting into strange positions to take the photos

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Of course I had to take a picture with The Potion Diaries!

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Probably the coolest thing for me was Cactus Island, an awesome ‘oasis’ in the middle of the salt flats that clearly demonstrate its once underwater origins. We were essentially clambering over an ancient coral reef – with evidence of the coral all around. Of course, the thousands of cacti everywhere made for a totally unique landscape and great photos!

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Our last stop was a train graveyard as the sun was setting. So cool!

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Exploring Patagonia – Argentina & Chile

The W-trek (see previous post!) was our baptism of fire into Patagonia, and over the course of the two weeks we’ve really come to know this region well. We’ve criss-crossed the Chilean-Argentinian borders more times than I can count, with each destination offering something new and beautiful to explore.

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Take the Perito Moreno glacier, which we visited from El Calafate. This enormous valley glacier is renowned for giving visitors great spectacles of ‘calvings’ – where the ice crumbles from the front of the glacier. I’d seen a version of this already in Antarctica, but I was looking forward to seeing it from even closer up. We’d actually missed the biggest calving (where an entire ice bridge collapses and the glaciers starts receding again for a bit) by only a week – bad timing that seemed to haunt us all the way to Pucon.

Luckily, Perito Moreno didn’t disappoint. We started out with a boat trip, which enabled us to get really up close and personal with the ice. We saw a couple of small calvings from the boat, but what was most impressive was how blue the ice was. I’m not sure that we expected such a rich colour.

Off the boat, we walked some of the catwalks on land that offered several view points of the glacier. We stood and watched in anticipation, our eyes scanning the huge wall of ice. It’s not enough to wait until you hear the thunderous ice cracking – by then, it’s too late. But after a few minutes, there was a little crumble of ice that seemed to open up a waterfall – like the glacier had sprung a leak. We trained our cameras on the place: something was definitely afoot. The ice creaked and groaned. Then, finally, a piece the equivalent to a three storey-building broke off and plunged into the water, directly in front of us. Epic, epic, epic.

From El Calafate, we moved to El Chalten, home of Mount Fitzroy at the top of Los Glaciares National Park. This was where we could get even closer to the ice, but unfortunately for me, my knee was playing up after the W-trek and I didn’t want to aggravate it any further. Still, Lofty got to go ice-climbing on Argentina’s largest glacier – Viedma – abseiling down into crevasses and picking his way out. Me? I wasn’t jealous at all. Of course not.

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Lofty climbing a crevasse in Viedma glacier

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I mean, please don’t feel too bad for me. While in El Chalten, I did a small walk to a viewpoint of Mount Fitzroy, ate an enormous banana-and-chocolate covered waffle and spent two hours in an amazing spa having four different types of treatments. Not too shabby whatsoever!

Mt Fitzroy viewpoint

 

 

 

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Doing the W – Torres Del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Let me preface this blog post by saying that I am not a hiker, and neither is the other intrepid #alwardsontour, Lofty. But still, there was something about tackling three days of the world-renowned W-trek really appealed to us both, even though it meant diving in at the deep end: carrying our tents, food and clothes on our backs for over 60km. Call us crazy but it ended up being a great experience, and a real accomplishment to boot.

After the flat, monotonous scenery of the Chilean/Argentinian Steppe, driving into Torres del Paine was something of a shock to the eyes and the system. We drove past stunning glacial lakes, milky blue in colour, and huge granite peaks that seemed to pierce the sky.

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We only had two-and-a-half days to do the W-trek, which most people do in four. While a few very hardcore members of our group managed to get around the entire thing, the group I was walking with made the executive decision to cut back on one arm of the ‘W’ – so I suppose technically we did a cursive ‘U’ shape! We missed the trek to Glacier Grey as we knew we were going to see some very impressive glaciers later on in El Calafate and El Chalten.

The first stop was to pick up all our gear in Puerto Natales. We decided to rent a two-man tent (possibly the smallest tent known to mankind), a stove (which we shared with another couple), a cooking set (small pot, forks, spoons and bowls) and waterproof trousers. We also carried our sleeping bags, thermarests and lots of food and snacks! As for clothes, we brought one set for hiking and one for sleeping (a tiny bit gross, but hey – we were glad not to carry any extra weight! Underwear being the exception, of course!) We would pick up water along the way from glacial streams and otherwise camp at designated stops along the way. Tuna and rice would provide the mainstay of our meals – not the most exciting, but definitely nutritious.

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The ferry dropped us off on the evening of our first day at 7pm. We set up camp for the night – and truly found out just how small our tent was – and treated ourselves to our only cooked meal of the hike at Refugio Paines Grande. Already the scenery blew us away – as did the wind. The wind howled all night, threatening to blow us away in our teeny tiny tent! Not the greatest sleep start to the hike, but somehow we managed to get up in the morning bright and early with big smiles on our faces, ready to start our big adventure!

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Hiking with heavy packs is hard. Especially when you don’t wear the packs correctly! I hiked the first hour with my shoulders burning – once I readjusted my pack so that the majority of the weight sat on my hips, the shoulder pain instantly disappeared. Magic. Thankfully it was only 2.5 hours to the next stop, Campo Italiano, where we could dump our main bags and just take lunch up to the top of the middle arm of the ‘W’ – the Frances Valley.

The Frances Valley was definitely the most beautiful hike of them all, and if anyone else out there is short on time in the W, I would suggest doing this over Glacier Grey. For us, it was the most interesting hike – taking us through thick forests, past hanging glaciers that occasionally carved – creating miniature avalanches that thundered through the valley, and all the way up to a stunning view point called Mirador Britannico. We ate salami and cheese in front of huge granite cliffs, under a bright blue sky.

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We then had to hike back, to the unwelcome sight of our big packs. Although we’d already been walking for a little over 6 hours, we still had 2 hours to go until we could rest. Those last two uphill hours were definitely the hardest! We’d done over 20 miles (according to my Withings watch) and, having not done that much exercise for a long time, I was drained and emotional and in pain by the end. Arriving at Refugio Los Cuernos was a revelation, and a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling mix later, I was one happy girl once again.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a stunning blue glacier lake. We really lucked out with the weather.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike with full packs to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a long glacier lake.

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Our reward for finishing the first part of the hike was a picnic lunch by the Hotel Torres, a posh hotel that would be our final destination the next day. We had made really good time so there was even a chance to grab a power nap in the sunshine on the grass. All I can say is that it was so necessary before the next part of the hike, which was undoubtedly the hardest: a 2 hour straight uphill scramble, with packs, to the Refugio Chileano.

And we still were not done. From Refugio Chileano, we had 3km to Campo Torres, our campsite for the night. That may have been the longest 3km of my life! Carrying packs all the way, for 23km, after having hiked far more than that the day before, was almost too much. The scenery on this part of the hike was also a lot less interesting than the Frances Valley.

However, there was going to be a pay-off… we just had to get to Campo Torres. From there, we ate dinner and hit the hay early, ready for the MAIN EVENT the next morning: sunrise at the Mirador Las Torres.

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Scrambling up rocks in the dark, in the cold, is not the most fun, but this was the event we had all been waiting for. We huddled together on our thermarests, waiting for the sun to hit the Torres and turn them fiery red (p.s. if you’re doing this, I thoroughly recommend bringing a sleeping bag up too! It gets reallllllly cold up there!). At first, it looked like we had the weather on our side. We had bright stars and a cloudless sky, and gradually that sky lightened to reveal the Torres. But as soon as the sun came up over the horizon, our luck changed. Thick bands of cloud remained stubbornly fixed on said horizon, blocking the rays, and then a fog descended over the Torres themselves, so that when it came for us to take a group selfie they were almost totally obscured! Boo. Still, we couldn’t control the weather: we could only control the fact that we’d made it up there in time to have a chance to see it, and we were proud of ourselves for accomplishing that. Maybe next time!

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Thankfully the way back was downhill, downhill, downhill, all the way to a hot lunch and a cocktail. It was hard on the knees (one knee in particular is still suffering a bit!) but a 30-minute leg massage sorted my muscles right out.

We’d done it! 2.5 days, over 60km, boom.

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Carnaval, Cariocas, Caipirinhas, Copacabana and Coconuts – our first couple of days in Rio de Janeiro

How do a million dancing, singing, happy people hide within a city block?

That’s what Gabby and I kept asking ourselves as we searched through the streets of Rio for the notorious Bloco Cordao da Bola Preta in the Central district. Where is the Bloco? We tried to follow the hordes of cariocas (the name given to people from Rio) and tourists alike in fancy dress, but they kept peeling off in different directions. Bloco? We asked one policeman. That way. Bloco? We asked a street vendor. He pointed the other way.

Then we turned a corner and heard it before we saw it: the rhythm of drums, the cheers from the crowd. Our eyes quickly caught up with our ears as we spotted a huge bus surrounded by a mass of humanity in brightly coloured costumes, feathers and headdresses, glitter and confetti everywhere. We squeezed our way through until we were right next to the samba school, dancing and drumming in time to the enthusiastic conducting of a woman on top of the bus. We samba-ed in our own gringo way in a slow march through the streets… laughing and cheering alongside a crowd who knew all the words to every song. Now this was the Carnaval we’d been looking for.

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We found a Bloco! Multibloco in Lapa

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Only it wasn’t. We hadn’t found Cordau da Bola Preta at all but stumbled into Multibloco in the Lapa district. Oh well, who cares! We had a blast and this is Rio baby. There’s plenty of partying to come.

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From the moment we landed in Rio, one thing was clear: we were not in Disney World anymore. Our hotel, the Riazor, leaves a little to be desired… especially when you’re coming out of some pretty nice 5-star accommodation! But the rooms are clean and safe, the beds comfy, and the air-con and wifi both work – so what more can you ask for?

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Beautiful Copacabana beach

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Our first misty view of Cristo from the streets of Copacabana

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Thank god for these water tracks… they made walking on the beach bearable!

I wanted to get right into the spirit, so our first stop was Copacabana beach. Luckily the bonus of our hotel is that it is right by a metro station, so getting around the city is simple and safe. When we arrived, we had a traditional Brazilian lunch, which involved loading up as much food as possible onto a plate and paying by the weight – delicious. It was then only a short walk down to the beach. And what a beach. The sun was blazing and, despite it being a Thursday afternoon, the beach was packed. Thank god for the people who water the sand so it can be walked on – otherwise I might have burned the soles of my feet to a crisp!

After baptising our trip with a mandatory toe in the South Atlantic, we kicked back at a beach bar with a couple of Caipirihinas and a delicious agua de coco – although, admittedly, I probably drank too much too quickly. Combined with the exhaustion of the flight and the heat of the day, I was knackered and feeling a bit ill by the time we were ready to go out for dinner. Me, too unwell to eat? Almost unheard of. But it turned out a good night’s sleep was what I needed.

The next morning we were up bright and early for our tour of Rio. It was a great way to get oriented around the city and check off some of the major sights! And Rio did not disappoint at all. Our first stop was the Cristo Redentor (do what we did: get there early to avoid long lines at the bottom and monstrous crowds at the top!) and it was truly breathtaking.

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Cristo Redentor

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The crowds by Cristo, overlooking Sugar Loaf mountain

The tour also took us past a favela, into the district of Santa Teresa and to the main Metropolitan Cathedral, which was unlike any cathedral I’ve ever been in! It can hold 20,000 people at capacity, which is kind of mind-blowing.

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One of the most photographed favelas in Rio

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Inside the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao

Finally, we went up Sugar Loaf mountain in the cable cars to get absolutely stunning 360 views of Rio. What a town.

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On Sugarloaf mountain, with a view of Copacabana

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Inside the cable car

Thank goodness we had a good experience of Carnaval on Saturday morning, because Friday night can only be summed up as mildly disastrous. Owing to some misinformation from our Rio tour guide, we ended up arriving late to not one, but two blocos – arriving after the party only to find the masses of post-party drunk people still wandering the streets. Yes, there was still a bit of music but nothing like the fun, happy atmosphere we imagined.

As much as many blogs and articles I’ve read suggest simply ‘wandering the streets’ until you find a party, a little bit of pre-planning would have helped us have a much better night!

So far, Rio has been pretty amazing – even though I’m glad that this blog and my books give me an excuse to come home in the middle of the day to escape the heat and rest for the evening… Sambadrome is tomorrow, and I’m going to need all the energy my body can muster if I’m to survive the night!

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Typical tourist pose at Cristo – kind of has to be done!

 

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