From England to Ecuador and beyond

From England to Ecuador and beyond

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Santa Cruz

Written Sunday 27 April

Being talked at by an old man who insisted I had German blood coursing through my veins and proceeded to heil Hitler in the middle of the plaza wasn't exactly what I had in mind for today - but at least I'm mingling with the locals? Other than mooching round the markets, soaking up the evening sun and avoiding any further inappropriate reminders of the past, achieved very little this afternoon. Has been nice!
Getting v.fed up with the shoddy computers and internet though - one of the 5 machines in the lobby actually works, and even that's missing one of the buttons! Couldn't log onto my account to edit my blog for ages and to load photos on FB had to hold the camera cable in a fixed position for the duration - looong. Everything seems to be broken or incredibly slow here, like when the group goes out for dinner together it can take half an hour or more between the first and last person receiving their meals. Finding this aspect hard to adjust to, especially when tired and hungry after a long stint of travelling or when I have multiple blogs to load after several days without internet. Blah. 18 hour train journey tomorrow + what could be several hours crossing the Brazilian border + a 5 hour transfer to the Pantanal. Oh.dear.god. Spending tomorrow morning stockpiling food, magazines and deet!

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Sucre - day 1 and 2

Written Friday 25 and Saturday 26 April

"Glistening in the Andean sun, the white city of Sucre is the birthplace of the nation and a must-see for any visitor to Bolivia.

"Visitors to Sucre invariably fall in love with the place." Lonely Planet, 2013.

With its white-washed buildings, lush green patios and friendly people, Sucre has a very Mediterranean feel to it. The most beautiful urban area of the country I've seen so far, I think LP is right to call it a "real showpiece of Bolivia" - a truth also cemented by its Unesco World Heritage Status.

Sometimes I find the best way to get a feel for a new city is to take it easy and do very little. Sacked off the included historical walking tour and went round the centre with Jana at our own pace, soaking up the sunshine, European vibe and relaxed way of life. A long leisurely lunch in the sun was probably the most impressive thing we achieved today but tbh it was so nice to chill rather than rush to see everything before hopping on a bus to the next city. 

Super pretty, wonderfully welcoming and year-round good weather? Could definitely spend a good amount of time here...


Saturday = spa day :) got a back, neck and face massage, a manicure and a Minion pedicure - pleased as punch with the latter although definitely found the inspiration behind the design in the kids' section... All of this cost 190 Bolivianos (BS!) which is just 16 English pounds (can't find the pound sign on the keyboard, not just being weird).

Nothing else to report really, although bit pissed off with G adventures because they failed to mention light-coloured clothes on the packing list for the jungle... 2 lovely New Zealanders from our group (Mo and Dan) met a couple of people today who had just come back from the Pantanal and said anyone who wore black or dark-coloured clothing attracted mosquitos in their hundreds - as in literally covered in them. Guess what colour all my trousers are...argh! This could be interesting.

Flying into Santa Cruz (Bolivia still) late morning tomorrow and should have internet for the next 24 hours - then could well be without for the next 4 days while we get our jungle on!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Ciao ciao! Things I really don't miss

While some things have been a struggle to live without, there are also things I don't miss at all, some of which surprised me...

-Rain. This one didn't come as a huge surprise since my travels are as much about chasing the sun as seeking out unique landscapes and wildlife, but I'd forgotten how nice it is (and how much of a difference it makes to my mood) to open the curtains/unzip the tent to blue skies and the promise of a warm sunny day. England is SO depressing in comparison.

-Reception and wi-fi. Despite having tried to tag myself in my blog photos, I am pleased to report that Facebook withdrawal symptoms have been minimal. Most places do have coverage and wi-fi (although it can be very slow) but when there's no possible way to be in contact with anyone, it's actually quite liberating. Being disconnected from home is all part of the experience and adds to the sense of independent travel. 

-Wardrobes. Most of the hostels do have them but when you're only stopping off for one night, there's not really much point unpacking. Having said that, living out of a backpack incurs much frustration - can't even count the number of panics I've had after 'losing' my iPod. 

-Make up. Cannot stress how nice it is to ditch the mascara and not give a shit about what you look like. No one looks their best on the road and we've all seen each other at our worst - ill, tired, grumpy, after no access to a shower for 3 days etc. Although walking out with just a smudge of foundation on (make-up wise!) is refreshing, I am glad I brought my whole kit along - it's amazing how much better whacking on some eyeliner and pulling on a pair of jeans can make you feel after travelling through the desert for 3 days bare faced and in a pair of unflattering and progressively dusty hiking trousers.

-Pringles. And cookies. Judging by the amount they stock in the corner shops here, you'd be forgiven for thinking that these constitute a key part of the Latin American diet.

-Alcohol. The self-imposed ban is going very well. Last drink (bar a few sips of Pisco Sour in Peru which I'm not counting) was 29 March - almost a month! With my famously hideous hangovers, it's just not worth it - don't want to miss a second of what this trip has to offer. Plus drinking at high altitude when you're as much of a lightweight as I am is just not clever; don't want to ruin my good track record of feeling okay at 3/4000 metres. Also...drank far too much in the last few weeks leading up to my travels so I want to detox in that sense and shift the wine weight - although the daily cookie overdose is probably counteracting any effect the limited booze intake is having. Whoops!

-Quiet roads. And orderly roads, at that. Beeping seems to be a favourite pastime here and is the first port of call when stuck in a short traffic queue, to scare a llama out of the road or simply because nobody's honked their horn for a few seconds and they feel a pressing need to fill the lovely silence. 

Between the things I do and don't miss, there's a pretty equal balance. Basically, as long as I can find black tea every few days, life will be perfect! :)

Withdrawal symptoms central - what I've missed while travelling

Travelling is awesome, without the shadow of a doubt. However, living out of a backpack in strange countries does mean giving up some beloved home comforts. After being away for almost a month, here's what I've missed the most on the road so far:

-Tea. Normal black teabags are few and far between in this part of the world, where they seem to prefer herbal teas instead - yeuch! It's bad but my mood noticeably improves when I have a mug of tea to hand - even if I've spent the day soaking up epic landscapes and wildlife. Was in heaven when I found a place in La Paz that served PG Tips!

-Bedsocks. I don't care how granny it makes me sound, I miss having something soft and fluffy to wiggle my toes inside at night!

-Proper toilets. I know roughing it is all part of the experience, but when walking into a cubicle physically makes you's not the one. Narrow pipes means that loo paper goes in the bin rather than being flushed down the toilet, so it can get funky pretty quickly in public baños. I can also confirm that relieving oneself behind a rock in a windy desert is as tricky as it sounds!

-My shower gel. Left my lovely Imperial Leather body wash that smells like holidays at home and got practical with an all in one hair/body/laundry/washing up concoction from Millets instead :(

-Alone time. Don't get me wrong, travelling in a group is great; I've met some cool new people from all over the world (really lucked out with my roomies), you've got people to fall back on if something goes wrong and you don't have to endure sympathetic or weird looks when dining solo in the evenings. But...sometimes I miss having my own space.

-Fruit. I surprise myself - and others no doubt (Claire!) - with this one, but I miss being able to tuck into a plate of fruit or salad without fretting it'll give me the squits or an attack of the voms. With so many long car/bus/train journeys, it's just not worth the risk. Haven't been ill in that way yet (touch wood) but feeling quite unhealthy and REALLY miss cherry tomatoes!

-Oh yeah, and family & friends! Just a smidge...


Written Wednesday 23 and Thursday 24 April

Standing at a lofty 4,300 metres above sea level, Potosi is the highest city in the world. At first I was quite glad we're spending just one day in total here - kind of wishing time away so the jungle stay comes up more quickly - but I actually really like the city. A world away from La Paz, Potosi is a beautiful, lively place with camera ready colonial architecture (reminds me of Alcala, where I spent my year abroad), interesting things to see and do and very welcoming people. It certainly has a more Spanish/European feel to it which I was happy to soak up on my self guided tour (got SO lost despite having a map and asking for directions to the hotel twice).

Spent the evening watching a moving documentary on the silver mines here, where the dangerous working conditions have taken the lives of more than 8 million people. We've got the chance to go into the mines tomorrow morning before leaving for Sucre but after reading something about asbestos I've been completely put off! (Plus I'm not a huge fan of dark, cramped spaces.) Shame as I think it would be a memorable, eye-opening and one-off experience...but I'm sure I'll find alternatives to pass the time. Quite fancy buying a chain for a blue footed booby pendant I treated myself to in the Galapagos - that way I can see the miner's markets too. Bed time now...had PJs on by 9pm...all this travelling is really taking it out of me!


Walking on rooftops high above the city, almost getting abducted by a Bolivian who wanted to 'give me a lift' to the market 1 minute away (¡no gracias!) and getting pulled into a bear hug by a policeman dressed as some kind of fluffy animal - it's been a weird sort of a day.

Knowing that the roof terrace offers cool panoramic views of the city, I went to the Convent of San Francisco without realising you could only explore as part of a guided tour. Of religious paintings. In Spanish. To make matters worse, I was the only person on the tour, so I not only had to pretend I was interested and engaged the entire time (tricky when you don't have the foggiest what the guide is talking about) but I was also obliged to answer the questions she kept asking me throughout about aforementioned yawn worthy paintings (difficult when you've switched off/don't realise you're being asked a question - cue VERY awkward moment). After what felt like an eternity, got to the roof terrace... Almost had a heart attack shuffling along walkways with rails on only one side but got my panoramic views:

Scuttled off to the safety of the plaza and markets where I found a silver chain (for less than £12!) and had a wander.

Nice morning and now 4 hour bumpy bus ride to Sucre. On a side note, the bathroom door in our Potosi hotel actually closed! A little bit too well...after almost pulling the door off its hinges to get back into the bedroom, we just decided to leave it ajar - argh! Maybe Sucre will prove to be the magical (mythical?) city of closing doors as well as one of Bolivia's more beautiful urban offerings - fingers crossed! 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Salt flats & desert - day 3

Written Tuesday 22 April

13 hours in a 4x4 (otherwise known as the sweat box) after a 5am start in the freezing cold, I think gruelling is an accurate description of the day. Have just been out for a huge pizza with the gang to celebrate having sat in a car scoffing biscuits for 3 days! Found black tea on the menu much to my relief and succumbed to my withdrawal symptoms by downing 3 mugs in half an hour (got my third free!) and bought a small supply from behind the bar for future occasions when I'm faced with a miserable choice between chamomile and some other hideous herbal concoction. Was SO happy, tea seriously works absolute wonders.

So does wildlife in its natural habitat - seeing hundreds of flamingoes (3 different species) in the red lagoon - algae transforms the colour during certain hours of the day - was incredible and broke up the monotony of dusty desert driving.

Managed to get quite close and even saw a baby flamingo - had no idea they were grey before turning hot pink/pale pink/white depending on the species.

Also stopped to see geysers (where we reached 5000 metres) and hot springs on the way back, although the day consisted mainly of driving. Next stop, Potosi!

Salt flats & desert - day 2

Written Monday 21 April

Woke up feeling shitty today but luckily it wore off after a couple of hours. Was FREEZING this morning so wrapped up in 4 layers plus hat and scarf - almost all of which was peeled off a couple of hours later when the sun decided to shine and emit heat at the same time. Almost all of which went straight back on the following hour when the winds were up. The climate here is crazy - bone chillingly cold early in the morning and the second the sun sets and then blisteringly hot during the day - until the winds have their wicked way. 

Travelled by 4x4 to a small island where cacti vastly outnumber inhabitants (three families in total!) and climbed to the top to be rewarded with gorgeous panoramic views of the Uyuni salt flat.

Stopped on the flats for the second and last time for some more snaps...

...then spent the remainder of the day driving to our hostel - a small and incredibly remote collection of buildings quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Fecking FREEZING (in bed right now wearing leggings, PJ bottoms, socks, t-shirt, hoodie, fleece, scarf & hat - plus a sleeping bag and four blankets). Cool views on the plus side - dusty orange mountains providing a spectacular backdrop for the lagoon dotted with hundreds of hot pink flamingoes. Nice! The silhouettes in the early eve were pretty sweet too...

...or as our guide would say, un-Bolivia-ble. LOL. Lots of South America punnage flying around - I particularly enjoy "I'm alpaca-ing my things for tomorrow" and many more to come I'm sure. 

Not feeling too good again, think I've caught a cold/cough from one of my 4x4 buddies, booo :( We're all quite excited to be heading to lower altitude (and warmer climes!) in a couple of days, although tomorrow should be good - lagoons, flamingoes and hot springs...and most importantly, a hot shower and nice hotel! Although even there the doors don't shut properly. Building doors which are too big for their frames seems to be a continent-wide affliction - interesting when you're sharing a dorm with 5 people you met 3 days ago and the bathroom door doesn't close! In the earth-shattering event that a door and frame form part of a matching set, there's often a fairly wide gap between the edge of the door and the frame, which isn't terribly helpful in a situation where privacy is generally appreciated...! Anyway, all part of the experience I suppose! Over.and.out.

Salt flats - day 1

Written Sunday 20 April

An unimaginably vast expanse of shimmering white in whichever direction you choose to look, the Uyuni salt flats emphasise just how tiny a part of this enormous world you really are.

Turn away from the 4x4s, walk a few paces and it's just you, a piercingly blue sky and millions upon millions of salt crystals sparkling in the afternoon sun. Despite having seen countless pictures, it felt like I was setting eyes upon this beautiful and incredibly peaceful landscape for the very first time. This is what I'm talking about; this is why I joined this tour - the amazing natural landscapes that are an entire world away from little old England. It's one of those places where time seems to stop - you could spend hours marvelling at the vastness, colours and textures and not even realise. We didn't stop for long but we're spending the next 2 days travelling through the various salt flats and deserts to see lagoons, hot springs, flamingoes and more - epic. Pretty sure this will be the highlight of the whole Bolivia Discovery part of this trip :)

Took a few must-do perspective snaps too but it's a harder skill to master than it looks!

Plenty of time for more successful second attempts tomorrow. No energy to start churning out the creative juices now though, so tired. We're staying in a little hotel right on the edge of the Uyuni salt flat (awesome views). I'm in a 6 bed dorm which is made entirely of salt! Warmer than I thought too which is great - have heard horror stories about the cold & our guide told us the temp once dropped to -38C while she was supervising a tour! Timed it quite well I think; the rainy season is pretty much over which means we can travel across the flats fairly easily, and winter is far enough away for us not to be freezing our arses off. Score!

Just about to go for dinner...which is llama. Hmm! Filled up on crackers just in case and have emergency cookies if it all goes disastrously wrong. Eating far too many biscuits here - was actually served Oreos for breakfast on the night bus! Snack wise, it's hard to find anything that isn't bread, biscuits or crisps. I'm actually craving fruit which is a peculiar feeling. Would do anything for a plate of watermelon and M&S cherry tomatoes right now. Anyone? I'm just a short flight away...

La Paz - day THREE

Written Saturday 19 April

Yes, we had a 'surprise' extra day in La Paz today - YAY. Naaat. Turns out we're getting a 10 hour overnight bus to Uyuni tonight (the town through which the salt flats is most accessible). Fun! Did everything possible in my limited power to make time pass more quickly - wandering around the plaza I've already seen 5 times before for an extra 15 minutes, walking a bit slower than usual (have been walking behind the locals to teach myself how to amble rather than adopting my usual powerwalk at high altitude) and drinking 4 cups of coca tea instead of a more sensible 1 or 2 in the hotel lobby. Time dragged, but it passed, as it usually does, and eventually we made it to the night bus for another 10 hours of thrills and spills. Turns out La Paz is everyone in the group's least favourite city so far - anyone planning to travel to Bolivia, take my advice and avoid! It's not actually the capital either; while all the government shiz and big decisions happen here, Sucre is the country's officially recognised capital & from the pics I've seen, way prettier. Will make a solid judgement when we head there next week! Anyway...salt flats tomorrow for sure, wooo!

Friday, 18 April 2014

La Paz - day 2

Friday 18 April

So, totally forgot it was Good Friday today...happy long weekend everyone! While it being a holy day and all meant there were parades and other celebrations going on around the city, it also meant that almost everything was closed, including most restaurants. Ended up in Burger King for lunch purely due to lack of other options - cultural!

Went on the best free city walking tour I've been on to date with my roomie (Jana) - our guides were hilarious and I learnt so much about the city in 3 and a half hours of awesomeness. Still not sure I like it though...will certainly not be sad to swap La Paz for the salt flats tomorrow. Very excited to go although we're going to be travelling ALL day to get there. Charging up Mr iPod in preparation...

View of the city from the 15th floor of a hotel:

Nice views etc but do feel like I've sort 'done' this kind of scenery in Quito and Cusco (although the snowcapped mountain is a gorj backdrop to any city). Definitely more of a natural landscapes/wildlife kind of person than a city girl. People I've spoken to since I left home are often surprised when they find out I'm only spending a day or 2 in a particular city, but honestly that's generally enough for me - especially since I'm not drinking which means I don't have to budget for hangover days!

Everyone travels in their own way and for me, express is best - I'd get restless otherwise! Plus I have to keep some cash back for Europe and Asia so can't afford to stay in one place for too long. Asia might be different though...thinking of volunteering there for a while (basically trying to eke out my travels for as long as possible before snapping back to reality!).

Just about to meet my tour group for the next 3 and a half weeks...will blog in a few days after the salt flats!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

La Paz - day 1

Written Thursday 17 April

A chaotic spattering of run down homes and markets, the air saturated with the blasts of car horns and the bellow of Bolivians desperate to sell their wares, whoever gave La Paz its name had a wicked sense of irony; El Ruido would be far more suitable.

Was completely underwhelmed with the city during the taxi ride in (looks similar to Cusco but spread over a vaster area) and utterly overwhelmed after taking my first step out of the hotel. I was greeted by swarms of locals buzzing round fruit and handicraft-covered rugs that usurped the pavement to such an extent that pedestrians were forced to get from A to B on the roads - which, with crazy drivers who are seemingly averse to signalling and a lack of general order, are not exactly the safest places to be. Crossing the road is an intricate operation which requires a great deal of courage, an excellent ability to weave in and out of buses/cars/mopeds and, most importantly, faith that aforementioned crazy drivers will stop rather than plough you down in the all too likely event that your attempt is ill-timed.

Felt quite unsafe here in the first couple of hours - money belt saw the light of day for the first time on this trip so far - although should be better tomorrow now I know what to expect. Just the one incident today that sparked a mild freakout - a grandad grabbed me by the arm as we passed on the street and wouldn't let go! Wasn't sure whether to be irked that a stranger thinks it's okay to do that or impressed by his super strength for someone of that age! Although from what I've seen so far, people in this part of the world have this physical strength that you just don't see at home; in Cusco I saw numerous old ladies heaving huge heavy sacks up the steep hills I struggled to climb with just my day pack!

Not quite sure what to do tomorrow... You'd think a capital city would have lots to offer but Lonely Planet has listed the airport as one of the top 20 things to see - along with the museum of musical instruments. Hmm, bring on the tour I say!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Machu Picchu - wonder of the world

Written Wednesday 16 April

Well, well, well. I've never considered myself a mountain kind of girl - the fear of heights doesn't help - but I think it's physically impossible not to be astonished by the majestic landscape proudly displayed by the incredible Machu Picchu. All of my concerns about feeling like I'd already 'seen' it (myraid Facebook photos and sitting through around 500 snaps this time last year when mum trekked the Inca Trail) vanished the instant the cloud lifted to disclose the ruins in their full glory. Sat there just looking in awe for a good 40 minutes, completely missing the beginning of the tour I'd booked onto - but was so worth it. 

The ruins looked spectacular in the sun, as did the surrounding mountainscape...

...but glad I got there at 6am before the heat and the crowds. Ascending towards the sun gate with vast white clouds swallowing sections of the mountains as if to keep them a secret from the prying eyes of tourists, the serenity was on an equal footing with the tranquillity.

On the mumma's recommendation, also walked to the Inca Bridge, which was an interesting experience! With terror-inducing vertical cliffs to my right and a thin piece of rope attached to the wall on my left, I feared for my life on numerous occasions during the 5 minute stretch - but felt strangely exhilerated at the same time. The bridge is closed off to the public and for good reason - it consists of 4 or 5 logs laid across an ominously long drop and then an incredibly steep set of stairs scaling the mountain on the other side. Cool - but glad I'm not an Inca!

All in all, Machu Picchu - success!

Machu Picchu pueblo

Written Tuesday 15 April

I thought I'd have to fight off sleep on the train journey from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu town (7km away from the ruins) but the dramatic landscape startled me right out of my weary state and kept my eyes wide open for the full hour and a half. We rolled through towering mountains carpeted from top to bottom with lush green vegetation, peaks alternating between snowcapped and cloud covered and gushing rivers (and some brave souls in the distance doing the full trek - very glad I decided against it in the end, don't think even travelling the world will shock the lazy gene out of my system).

Made up of narrow cobbled streets framed by vast mountains looming overhead, this pint sized pueblo could easily be dwarfed out of existence. However, being the gateway to a wonder of the world it's swarming with tourists (which I actually find quite comforting) and buzzing with life - and people asking me if I want a freaking massage!

Perfect photography fodder which I took full advantage of, then got myself a Swedish/hot stone massage on the cheap - it was either succumbing to the inevitability or continuing to decline politely every 10 paces before eventually yelling that NO, I don't want a maldito masaje in some poor sod's face. 

Sitting in the hostel lobby at the mo listening to the rain...reminds me of the crazy storm in Cusco yesterday afternoon where it pelted it down so hard I thought the restaurant roof was going to cave in! Water leaking from the ceiling and through the light bulbs...standard. Took it in turns to stand in the doorway and watch in wonder as nature threw all it had to give at this now very soggy city.

P.S. Anyone thinking of travelling to South America, brush up on your Spanish! I've used it every single day - and not often out of choice. A lot of people don't even have a basic command of English, including hotel staff, so it's worth getting to grips with the basics. Quite embarrassed at how bad my Spanish is actually, I was sat next to a 50-something year old man on the train who struck up a conversation with me about an hour in and I couldn't for the life of me remember the 'vosotros' form of ANY verb, wah! Had to decide whether to go with what I know or refuse to ask him any questions whatsoever, so ended up calling him 'tu' for the rest of the journey. Don't think he minded but so not cool...

P.P.S. Always wear shoes in the hostel bathrooms. Judging by the state of mine tonight I think their approach to cleaning here involves standing in the doorway with a hose and giving anything in firing range a good soaking. Wet socks in a humid environment is not the one - nor is feeling like you've discovered the Amazon basin in your bathroom. Half expecting to find a crocodile frolicking in the shower tomorrow morning... 4am start for Machu Picchu tomorrow, dear god. Hope it's worth it!

Cusco - day 2

Monday 14 April

People sometimes say that it doesn't matter where you go as long as you've got good company. Today I decided to go on a 'free' walking tour ("Nothing comes for free guys") where I met Eddie, a Canadian travelling through the country who I ended up hanging out with until the early hours :) Didn't do much, just wandered, sampled local dishes and introduced ourselves to the famous Pisco Sour cocktail which was yummers. (This is a non-negotiable rite of passage for anyone visiting Peru so as far as I'm concerned I'm still good on the not drinking front!). 

Feel ten times better than yesterday, think all I needed was some company. Eddie's trip sounds amazing - 3 whole months just in Peru including a decent stint in the jungle, although having seen the pics think Cusco was the right decision after all - jungle seems to be mostly insects (spiders!) and giant guinea pigs (like dog size, maybe even bigger). Still quite keen to go on the off chance of seeing a jaguar and to photograph parrots and macaws in their natural environment. We'll see what happens - going to see how much jungle action I get on this Bolivia to Brazil tour and then decide whether to hop down to Belize or Mexico instead of flying home!

Anyway, Cusco will do for's quite pretty really, especially if you get some height.

My first and last full day in Cusco, but tbh the city's so small I feel like I've seen all the main attractions (square, cathedral...Starbucks?) at least a dozen times. Even my taxi driver from the airport said 4 days is plenty to do Cusco and Machu Picchu. Not long to go til I'm there now!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Crappy Cusco - day 1

Written Sunday 13 April

It's been a shitty day to be brutally honest. Said my goodbyes last night to the absolutely lovely people I met on the Galapagos tour and the equally lovely hotel staff - shout out to the gorj receptionist Gabriel who let me use the front desk PC for blogging as soon as his manager left for the night :)

Woke up at 4 for a 5am taxi to the airport but got stuck in accident traffic for an HOUR on the bridge - luckily I'm really anal about plane/train times so made it okay... 5 hours of travelling later and bienvenido a Cusco. I was already doubting my choice (think would have preferred an Amazon jungle trip instead) and today didn't shine a great light on Cusco to be honest. Where to start...

-The room I've booked for tomorrow night might not actually be available, marvellous!

-In the 5 minutes it took to watch a flag ceremony in the main square about 10 people shoved their crappy jewellery and other tat in my face asking for money. Feck off already!

-A creepy old man started following and talking to me even though I made it clear I 'don't speak Spanish' (or English!). Very persistent so had to abort exploring mission and turn back the way I came which was annoying...obviously I don't mind chatting to normos (generally waiters, hotel staff, shop owners & taxi drivers) but it always seems to be the creepy ones

-An issue from home cropped up again today which cast a dark cloud over the rest of the afternoon. Before it felt like I'd been away for months but this snapped me straight back to reality, now it really feels like the short 11 days it's been. Blah

-2 of the people (foreign) in my 4 bed dorm barely said hello as they walked in and then proceeded to talk only to each other...nice. Now it appears they're sharing the bed right above mine, which can only mean one thing - will be sleeping with my headphones in tonight...!

-It's FREEZING! Am wearing leggings, PJs, a fleece and have a duvet and a blanket (plus a spare jumper on standby). Crazy to think it was so hot in the Galapagos just 2 days ago that I didn't even want to wear my bikini!

Redeeming factors of the day include free wifi in the rooms and an amazing hot chocolate from the Starbucks I found among the row of shops/cafés/hostels framing the main square. Gotta love home comforts on days like these :)

Feeling pretty low and wishing I was with someone from home. It's only 9pm but just want this day to be over. Tomorrow is another day I guess and things can only get better from here, I hope...

Saturday, 12 April 2014

I'm on top of the world!

Well, in the middle of it at least! Went to the 'geographically calculated' middle of the world (la mitad del mundo)...

...and did a few experiments at the museum to prove it - water going straight down the plug hole rather than swirling (anti)clockwise and failing spectacularly at walking in a straight line along the equator - almost fell flat on my face after approximately 3 steps! However, I am pleased to say that today I officially became an 'egg master' which involves successfully balancing an egg on top of the head of a nail on the equator line. Little things!

We stopped off somewhere on the way where vast clouds formed by water vapour released by the Cotopaxi Volcano swathed the mountains in a blanket of white, making for incredible viewing.

The whole afternoon - a 2 hour round trip in the taxi and the museum - cost $24!! Everything is so much cheaper here, haircuts for $3, pizza for $5 and long bus journeys for $0.50. Great last day in Quito, and indeed Ecuador. Having heard rave reviews, I quite want to visit Baños but I haven't left myself enough time for impromptu visits unfortunately... On the plus side, off to Cuzco tomorrow for 4 days. Had a mild panic this morning that I might have to miss my flight; the laundrette said to collect my clothes at half 9 but when I went it was closed...still closed at half 10 and at half 11! Eeeek, luckily it opened at like midday but it was a very stressful morning, the thought of continuing my travels with a pair of jeans, a top and one pair of pants does not bear thinking about!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Culture shock?

Written Friday 11 April

There's no disputing that the people here are really friendly; strangers say 'hola' as you pass on the street (okay, mostly hombres but in a nice way, not pervy) and they try to suppress their smiles as you muddle your way through the simplest sentences in Spanish. One of the waiters in Isabela felt so bad about not understanding my (quite frankly awful) description of a watermelon that he gave me a whole plate of it for free!

However...and I don't know if this is just a cultural thing like an extension of the helpfulness or because I'm travelling solo, but some can be a little bit toooo friendly, like a random man following me down the street asking persistently whether I wanted help with my bag of dirty laundry and not taking no for an answer. About an hour later an over-enthusiastic waiter asked whether he could join me for dinner when he realised I was dining solo in his empty restaurant (probably a bad move on my part). Uh, how bout no? He was speaking crazy fast in Spanish too which didn't help - that's the other thing, people get far too excited when you carefully explain that you speak 'un poquito' (very little) Spanish and start chatting to you like you've been speaking the language for years. Yes, I KNOW...but even I don't know how I got a degree in it! In general though, people are super nice and very willing to help out - not sure what I was ever nervous about really!

Galapagos day 6 - Santa Cruz

Written Thursday 10 April

As many of my family and friends will attest to, I am not a morning person, but getting up mad early is ten times easier when you're on a tropical island!

Saw dolphins on the early crossing from Isabela, but that wasn't the only thing that made today a wildlife as well as a beach day. The islands threw a very welcome surprise at us when 3 baby black tip sharks swam right up to shore at Tortuga Bay and stayed in the vicinity all afternoon.

I'd been roused from my slumber in the sun by a little kid shouting 'tiburon, tiburon' (shark, shark!) but thought he was just kidding around at first so completely ignored it. Suspicions raised when everyone on the beach gravitated towards the same place...I don't think I've ever moved so fast, was dying to see them and it was an incredible experience. I only ran away screaming twice too, which is pretty good going tbh - and one of those was when I put my foot like a metre away from its face to capture on camera how close I was. Shouldn't have been that surprised when it took a little bit too much interest!

Paddling just centimetres away from sharks - equally epic as snorkelling with them and tbh we didn't even need snorkels as they swam right into the shallows where the water was crystal clear anyway. AMAZING!

Tortuga Bay itself was beautiful, soft white sand - the kind that you want to scrunch your toes into - and bright blue ocean.

Had a lovely, relaxing day then an hour long stroll to the hostel during which we passed a fish market with a twist - sea lions queuing up like people waiting to be fed! Stood right up on their flippers peering over the edge of the counter, they were so cute.

Another amazing, unique day in the Galapagos - and sadly my last, boooo. Can't believe it's the end of my trip to this idyllic paradise which has been my absolute dream destination for years. Galapagos, this isn't the end. Nos vemos...

Galapagos day 5 - Isabela

Written Wednesday 9 April

4 hour hike uphill in 30C heat? No, ta. Sacked off the 'free' trek up Sierra Negra, one of the island's volcanoes, and instead opted for a morning on the beach. Hadn't foreseen the overcast skies however, which proved a slight hindrance regarding operation tan. Went for a 2 hour stroll along the sand and managed to get a few close-ups of the resident wildlife (including an iguana skeleton).

Spent 2 hours and $5 unsuccessfully attempting to load photos for the blog, then headed for the afternoon activity, Las Tintoreras. The boat ride there was awesome; the sun came out giving the water an irresistible sparkle and we saw a blue footed booby standing proud among a fairly sizeable group of penguins. 

Got very excited (obvs) but the best was yet to come - on the return journey we floated past an entire flock of bfbs chilling on the rocks which was quite a sight.

Sandwiched between these amazing encounters was Las Tintoreras, an expanse of water home to an abundance of marine life. Freaked out a little bit as per but was simultaneously mesmerised (can't decide whether the tranquility of the underwater world is incredibly peaceful or slightly unsettling). Saw fish, sea turtles, starfish, marine iguanas and a massive ray gliding gracefully through the water. Strolled down Shark Alley where the narrow stretch of crystal clear water revealed 3 white tip sharks snoozing at the bottom. Was great to add them to my growing list of wildlife witnessed on these epic islands, but it would have been even more awesome to snorkel with them. There was an optional trip on San Cristobal where the others snorkelled with sharks but it cost $80! Damn budget travelling - though can't complain as have seen everything else I wanted to and then some :)

4.30 start tomorrow to sail back to Santa Cruz but other than that should be a perfect day provided the sun shines - heading to Tortuga Bay for a beach day. Soaking up the sun is what I do best, although might use sunscreen this time...have been shedding frazzled skin like a snake since yesterday. Pleasant!

Galapagos day 4 - Santa Cruz and Isabela

Written Tuesday 8 April

Lonesome George's widows, Galapagos penguins and baby turtles were probably the highlight today - David Attenborough eat your heart out! Hit the breeding centre in both Santa Cruz and Isabela where they breed tortoises and release them into the wild to boost numbers; and in Isabela we saw a teeny tiny baby turtle which was too cute:

N'aww! Learned today that these tortoises - which move between 600 and 800 metres a day - were described by an explorer way back when as the ugliest creatures he had ever seen with a back like a galapago (old Spanish for saddle). The islands became known as the Islands of galapagos, which for commercial purposes are now called the Galapagos Islands. In fact, the proper name is the Archipelago de Colon. Also saw two of the 'widows' of Lonesome George and found out his shell is currently in the Natural History Museum in NYC, so I'll get to see it in May! Saw a few pink iguanas which was cool also:

After spending the morning in Santa Cruz, we took a (calmer) water taxi to Isabela, which is without a shadow of a doubt the most beautiful island of the three. The shimmering, shallow turquoise waters are teeming with life; within the first five minutes we'd already spotted a sea turtle, 3 tiny Galapagos penguins bobbing on the water like ducks and some cheeky sea lions chilling on the empty boat of an unwitting owner. It's a hard life...

We also stopped off to see flamingoes...

...before strolling back to the hotel. Hotel! No more damp, insect-ridden tents for a little while! As soon as we'd dumped our bags, Daria and I changed into bikinis pronto and made a beeline for the ocean. Waded straight in, no messing around - it was so warm it was like taking a giant bath. The silhouettes of the palm trees set against the deep orange sunset made swimming in the Galapagos all the more exotic. Gorgeous evening although can barely keep my eyes open now (it's only 10.45pm!). Sleep time!

Side note: Wasn't sure where to fit this in but apparently there are actually more red-footed than blue-footed boobys, but the former live in the more northern and less visited fact of the day!

Galapagos day 3 - Santa Cruz

Written Monday 7 April

One 2 hour boat trip later and we're in Santa Cruz, the next big island along. The journey was a living hell, almost barfed like 10 times. Our tiny 20-person boat was batling ginormous waves for the entire trip and the boom as the boat hit the water after being hoisted upwards by the force of the ocean was incredible. Stomach was very much in panic mode and then two poor little girls started chundering right across from me - BLEURGH. Not ideal but managed to make it to the pier without vomming, just. The gleaming turquoise water made the journey totally worth it though, and as we strolled along the waterfront we saw iguanas chilling on the rocks - another one of my big five!

Hopped on a sort of bus which took us up to the highlands where we'll be camping tonight (I know, I know...but I have 3 bloody weeks of it in the States, not too sure why I thought this was a good idea at the time...).

The reserve is beautiful though, very green and we're completely immersed in nature, which is an important concept here: Galapagos, modelo de armonia entre seres humanos y con la naturaleza - or Galapagos, a model of harmony between mankind and nature. And it's so true, all of the wildlife here is unbelievably tame, mainly because many of the animals have no natural predators so they have nothing to be afraid of.

After lunching (homecooked spag bol!) and chilling in the hammocks, we visted a tortoise reserve to observe them in the wild. Will be honest, they weren't as big as I thought they would be so was a little disappointed, but got some decent photos at least - and another one of the big five ticked off! Some were as much as 100 years old, pretty crazy.

Next we hit the lava tunnels which consisted of fumbling over jagged rocks in the dark and crawling through a gap in the rocks just half a metre high to reach the other side...interesting experience although probably not one I'd have chosen to do! Back to the farm and currently swaying in a hammock listening to Bastille as I write, life is good. Kind of wish we'd bought some wine for the evening but I'm trying to detox while travelling, at least where alcohol is concerned - we'll see how long that lasts! So, suspended in a hammock listening to a (very) loud chorus of insects on an organic farm and campsite in the Galapagos Islands, over and out!