Monthly Archives: December 2012

Buenos Aires – protest and passion

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Buenos Aires, Argentina

28-31 December 2012

Quiet Sunday afternoon in glorious Plaza del Congreso

Quiet Sunday afternoon in glorious Plaza del Congreso

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city. Nowhere I have been so far has matched the vibe, the colour, the nightlife, and the pizazz of the Argentinean capital.

Argentines seem to have developed a reputation for being rude to foreigners, and while you could sense them throwing their hands up in the air every time something seemed slightly too difficult. But as I found, this represented only a minority of Argentines. With the exception of a few merchants, the people I encountered on the street are not like this, they were helpful, patient with my poor español, and most of all, friendly.

I stayed right in the centre of the city, half a block from Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world. The main artery through the city, it is up to 18 lanes wide in parts.

Just another day in the life of a few porteñitas

Just another day in the life of a few porteñitas

The porteños, as the locals are known, have taken a very Mediterranean approach to life. Many restaurants do not open for dinner until 9pm, and really don’t get busy until shortly before midnight. Nightclubs don’t tend to get busy until 2am in the morning, and locals tend to have an evening nap before heading out on the town. I really don’t understand why they operate this way, don’t they value their sleep?

Having said that, being the middle of summer I am enjoying the 8:30pm sunsets and the long days of exploration this permits.

On my first day there, I visited the neighbourhood of Palermo and undertook a Foto Ruta tour, where in groups of a couple of people we went out and got a nudge in the right direction of where to capture some fascinating street scenes. It is also when we discovered that the porteños are not at all camera shy, with most happy to pose for the camera when asked in our broken language. A few examples of the photos that the group took can be seen here.

Buenos Aires, city of contrast

Buenos Aires, city of contrast

To get out to the barrios, I made large use of the local metro, known as the Subte, short for subterranean. One (so far) unique thing about the Subte amongst metros I have travelled upon, is there seems to be a quite literal underground economy on the trains. Every couple of stops, a merchant will walk around placing an item for sale on the lap of all the seated passengers, all with a green sticker marked with the price. After you had a moment to analyse the product on offer, he would walk back down the carriage. If you didn’t want it, you simply returned the item, but if you did, you simply paid the advertised price. I couldn’t work out if this was all sanctioned by the transport authority or not, but there was a scary uniformity in the way this system operated. I was variously offered children’s books, chocolate bars, city maps, reading night lights and little plastic ticket sleeves, among many other products, all dispensed in exactly the same way, with exactly the same little green price stickers.

Larger than life graves

Larger than life graves

I visited the Recoleta Cemetery, a surreal landscape of larger-than-life burial plots. It seems that each wealthy deceased inhabitant has tried to out do every other wealthy deceased inhabitant by constructing an even larger edifice than the last. As a result, you walk around and can’t help but feel overwhelmed by death. One such tomb belongs to Argentina’s favourite woman, Eva Perón. The porteños affectionately prefer to call her Evita, making good use of the Spanish grammatical method of adding -ito (for men) or -ita (for women) to the end of any given noun to make it seem smaller and cuter. Regardless, I still haven’t worked out why she is so popular. Perhaps it is something I will never understand.

Thankfully, the feeling of death ends as soon as you walk out the door, so on the recommendation of a fellow traveller on the previous days photography tour, I went to the zoological gardens. But instead, I found a protest by some vegetablists, complaining about the treatment of zoo animals.

Protesters intimidate, zoo-goers go on

Protesters intimidate, zoo-goers go on

In the dark of night they had vandalised the zoo entrance, ripping down signs and spray painting the walls with various messages. And during the day, they were all outside with placards trying to intimidate prospective zoo-goers into not visiting the zoo. Oh how wrong they were, I was more determined than ever to visit. If it was as bad as they made out, I wanted to be outrage. I want to see this mistreatment for myself, pay 60 pesos ($13) for the privilege  and then join the screaming chorus outside. So I battled my way through the crowds, paid the entrance fee and went in.

Disappointingly (for me, not for the animals), it was much like every other zoo. I found the giraffes, admired them for a bit, walked around the rest, and left.

This meant I got to spend the remainder of the afternoon relaxing and just simply enjoying the atmosphere.  The weather was just beautiful. 28 degrees, low humidity, and on Sunday, not a cloud in the sky. It was muy tranquilo. I just felt my time here was too short, and before long I was on the move again. I will definitely be back.

Evita shines over the world's widest avenue

Evita shines over the world’s widest avenue

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Don’t go chasing waterfalls

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Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil and Puerto Iguazú, Argentina

26-28 December 2012

Falls from the Brazilian side

Falls from the Brazilian side

So I came to this tri-national frontier to seek out a waterfall, and I leave moderately disappointed. I did get to see a waterfall and in terms of beauty, it is quite nice, but it didn’t quite have that X factor I was hoping for. I guess after the Galapagos Islands and the Inca Trail I have come to expect more from my wonders.

A highlight did come from a ‘safari’ that I undertook on the Brazilian side. The ‘safari’ involved a three kilometre journey via a much-promoted electric vehicle, followed by a 600 metre hike in the rainforest. This all seemed like padding for the main event, which was jumping in an inflatable dinghy powered by two 150 horsepower motors, and giving for a trip up the Rio Iguassu, and then consequently becoming absolutely drenched as we drove into a waterfall.

Artists impression of boat ride

Artists impression of boat ride

But it didn’t really matter, as for the entire half an hour or so I was sitting in the boat, and only this time, the boat was engulfed in a torrential rain storm. Needless to say, I was saturated, and it was quite enjoyable.

The statistics should have made it seem impressive, something like 1,746 cubic metres a second pass over the waterfall every second on average, with peak flow rates being much more. This is enough to fill Wivenhoe Dam to the brim 21 times a year. The destination just lacked the sense of achievement and just general all-round awesomeness of the Galapagos. It wasn’t helped that the towns constructed to support the tourism seem only to serve this purpose.

Falls from the Argentine side

Falls from the Argentine side

A tale of two Peru’s

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Puno and Lima, Peru

23-26 December 2012

The Andean Explorer

The Andean Explorer

I returned from the Inca Trail on the 22nd, and the next day after not nearly enough sleep, in my semi-delirious state powered by the previous night’s room service lasagne, I clambered aboard Perurail’s Andean Explorer to a small city beside Lake Titicaca named Puno. Luckily, it is a luxury train established by the Orient Express company, which means the level of service was actually quite good. I settled in for a breakfast as I watched the landscape unfold outside the window. The train did it’s best to dampen the blows of the terrible jointed track it ran across at about 50km/h, as buses zipped by us at much greater speeds on the parallel carretera.

The journey started quite expectedly, with the train quickly passing through the city of Santa Lucia. The place looked much like any other Peruvian place I had experienced so far. Orderly, busy, and full of VW Beetles and little mototaxis.

What seems like a shanty town from the outset

What seems like a shanty town from the outset

The Andean Explorer quite rapidly ascended to the highest point I have ever been on land. Passing through the Andes, the train reached a touch over 4,300 metres altitude, where we made a stop at a siding called La Raya – partly to provide the local artisans with some customers to sell their wares to, but mostly so we could get a photo with a sign that said we had been here.

Between here and the next major city Juliaca, however, is where I got to see a side of Peru that I had not previously seen. Towns with unpaved streets, houses completely fabricated of homemade mudbricks and many, many people with poor teeth. They did not share the same strong tendency to dress very well, presumably because they could not afford to. Children would ride their bikes to the passing loops, obviously quite familiar with the schedule, and hang around the train begging for us to throw any spare change we had down to them. These were the poor parts of the country, well of what I had seen anyway. Overland transport like this really makes you appreciate not only the stark inequality that still exists in countries like Peru, but also what the creature comforts you have at home.

The islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca

The floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca

When we hit Juliaca, it was not much better. As the below video shows, while the city is built up, the whole place seems little better, with rubbish strewn everywhere, markets taking up what little space the railway corridor left. I did not expect to be confronted with scenes of sheer tardiness such as this, it is closer to what I expected from a country like India. Cusco had obviously deceived me into thinking the whole country was full of beautiful colonial-style buildings, and a moderate well off population riding the mineral and tourism boom.

Once arriving in Puno, I took a trip out to onto Lake Titacaca to visit more peruanos who live a very different lifestyle, the two-thousand odd residents of the floating islands of Uros. And when I mean floating, they are literally living in straw houses on a bed of reeds. There was little between them and a certain watery doom. For the discerning tourist, they even offered a hospedaje to stay at overnight, and a restaurant for to indulge in the local cuisine. The islands had all the necessities, including police service and a school for the children. I had two questions, neither of which I dared ask, so they remain unanswered. Firstly, what happens with all the toilet waste, does it simply go directly into the lake? Secondly, simply why, when there is plenty of perfectly good land?

This street reminds me of New Farm near the Powerhouse

This street reminds me of New Farm near the Powerhouse

The day after I flew to Peru’s capital Lima, in particular, the Miraflores district where I stayed. It could not be any more different than what I have just described.

Miraflores is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Set a top a short cliff face overlooking the Oceano Pacifico, the municipality is full of parks, shops and is buzzing with people all day and night, despite the low season, and is accompanied by an aura of wealth I have not seen anywhere on my trip so far. The streets are clean, smooth and safe, and the food was absolutely amazing. Lima has developed a reputation as the gastronomic capital of South America, and it did not fail to live up to it’s reputation. It honestly felt like any European city.

Traditionally in Latin America, Christmas Eve is the night of the big feast, in lieu of our traditional Christmas lunch. It is a good time to drink and be merry, and allow the children to stay up until a tick after midnight to be able to open their gifts. I was incredibly heartened to watch people from many walks of life, including taxi drivers, holiday makers and your typical local residents walking the streets on the night of Christmas Eve, handing out gifts to the homeless people on the streets.

A shrine to capitalism, the expansive Larcomar shopping centre built into the cliff face

The expansive Larcomar shopping centre nestled in the cliff face

But the stark contrast between the pervasive wealth of Miraflores to the enshrined poverty of the eastern city of Juliaca was incredible. The juxtaposition was unavoidable. Walking through the streets of a typical suburban street you encounter houses not dissimilar to that you would find in the affluent parts of Brisbane’s New Farm, with cars to match. The citizens were out and about in force, enjoying the blissfully mild summer day, and enjoying the café’s and trattorias the city has to offer. And shrines to capitalism, such as the sprawling Larcomar shopping centre hidden within Miraflores’ cliffs were full of enthusiastic patrons buying up big in the post-Christmas sales. A far cry from the young children chasing the train begging for change I witnessed just a couple of days earlier.

Linear parks occupy the median strip of many avenues

Linear parks occupy the median strip of many avenues

The last team to arrive, may be eliminated

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Inca Waterfall Trail and Machu Picchu, Peru

18-21 December 2012

It all begins on a chilly Tuesday morning in Cuzco’s Plaza Regocijo. We met at some ungodly hour of the night (I later found out it was 4:30am), and boarded the bus to our impending doom. After a hearty breakfast at Ollantaytambo with some sketchy tasting milk, we continued our drive to the location known only as Kilometre 82, literally a railway milepost with an Inca Trail control point attached.

The previous night, I had determined that I was not the only one to have timed this trip with the End of the World, which was quite the non-event. Shortly after booking, I realised I had gotten my ancient civilisations mixed up and kicked myself. However, I was comforted by being told that being at the sacred Inca site of Machu Picchu on the day of doom, I would be safe.

We assembled ourselves in the queue to get our tickets and passports checked, and it quickly felt like I had entered The Amazing Race, except a lot more effort, no flights and over a significantly lesser geographic area (perhaps it was actually more like I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here). Being on the Race is something I’ve always dreamt of, just not in this way.

In our tour, there were five teams of two:

  • Adam and Abby from Denver, USA – Dating
  • Lorena and Rachel from Tauranga, New Zealand – Best Friends
  • Nigel from Washington DC, USA and Katherine from London, UK – Father and Daughter
  • Adaira and Jeff from New York, USA – Dating
  • Michael from Tucson, USA and me – The two loners
Spirits high at the start

Spirits high at the start

As our main guide Flavio (who incidentally looks nothing like Phil Keoghan or Grant Bowler) threw out his arm to signal the start of the trail, we were off and racing, scrambling across a precarious timber and rope suspension bridge littered with donkey and llama excrement. One slip (followed by a consequent stumble and a failure of the handrail and netting) would have seen us fall to the unforgiving rapid river flowing below. We made it across alive – 100 metres complete, 44900 metres to go.

The first day was called the ‘Inca flats’ where the better part of the day hovered around the same elevation, before a sharp 300m vertical ascent to the first campsite at 3300m elevation. Unfortunately, ‘flats’ are not really flat in the traditional sense. As reflected upon by a friend on Facebook the day before, ‘flats’ really just mean that there are an equal number of uphills and downhills. I found this to be true.

The final ascent to camp amid dwindling light was tantamount to torture – we were wrecked. After we made it, we never thought we would make it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4200m altitude. Apparently, the donkey ambulance only provides service on the trail covered in the first day, which compounded our concerns, and I began noting potential helicopter landing sites as we walked.

Overview of the task at hand

Overview of the task at hand

Climbing the 285 metres up Townsville’s Castle Hill, which was my Inca trail practice, while much steeper, is nothing like climbing a similar distance vertically in the Andes. The difference is oxygen. At sea level, air pressure is typically around 1013hPa. At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, the air pressure is closer to 620hPa, or about 40% less oxygen.

When we arrived at camp, we felt almost instantly refreshed. Luckily, most of our belongings were carried by the super-fit porters, so we were left with only the small day-pack with what we needed during the actual hiking. The tents were set up by the porters before we arrived with our sleeping bags rolled out. A tub of hot water and liquid soap was available at the front door of my tent. Copious amounts of coca tea and popcorn were available in the dining tent for ‘happy hour’. And of course, we got to enjoy the incredible view we had earned over the valley we had just climbed up. Oh, and there was the Peruvian woman selling Cusqueña cervezas for 8 soles ($3.20) – high by Peruvian standards, but then again so was the altitude.

A typical lunch spread

A typical lunch spread

The food we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner was delicious. In fact I brought along way too many snacks. They fed us incredibly well, and there was not a meal that was not immensely satisfying.

There were many characters we encountered along the way, to many of whom we appropriated pseudonyms. One such group were the people who became known as ‘Team Singapore’, three young men from the island nation who were somewhat lacking in the equipment department. One of them commenced the trek with a footwear stocktake totalling a pair of thongs and a pair of new sneakers. Unfortunately for him, his sneakers were not only not worn in, but they were also purchased as fakes from a market – and therefore fell to pieces on the first use. Luckily though, the porters worked through the night to hand stitch the sole back on to his counterfeit shoe, which made it through the rest of the trip.

Day 2 was always going to be the big one, the day everyone dreads. A 900 metre ascent up Dead Woman’s Pass, 600 metres of constant stairs downhill before a late lunch, then heading 400 metres up and down the second pass (4000m altitude) to our camping site.

The trail towards Dead Woman's Pass

The trail towards Dead Woman’s Pass

And when I mention distances here, I mean vertically.

Make no mistake, Dead Woman’s Pass was quite tough, but it was not insurmountable. We had a 63-year-old scientist on the trip, so if he could do it, most should be able to get through it – fitness should not be an obstacle to undertaking the Inca Trail, and I should know. Slow and steady was definitely the name of the game. Short minute long breaks after every few minutes at a good cadence got me through it. It was a very long morning repeating this for the full 900 metre ascent.

As the mountain pass appeared closer and closer, my confidence grew, and amid a great burst of adrenalin, I started sprinting up the final fifty steps to the top. It all began so well, I was jumping quickly, sometimes two steps at a time, the end was in sight. Disappointingly, I could not replicate my successful former daily routine on the QUT Kelvin Grove steps from the busway platform to the quadrangle some six stories uphill. I collapsed in a heap about twenty steps short, and spent the next four minutes or so catching my breath.

When I did make it to the top, I felt accomplished to have done something I have never pushed myself to do, and that I was glad that the hardest was behind me.

By this stage, I wished I had taken up the offer

By this stage, I wished I had taken up the offer

After lunch just as we were embarking on the afternoons hiking, right on cue, it started to sprinkle. Then pour. Then hail. There was nowhere to take shelter, turning back was not an option, and the precipitation did not stop for two hours. Until placed in that situation, you have no idea how motivating a torrential downpour can be – I developed super-human strength and ascended the second pass in record time with barely a break on the way. I was so very proud of myself, but also quite wet, as I had discovered on the way that my pants and boots were not as waterproof as first thought.

I secretly hoped the valley on the other side would be dry, but it was not. The trail itself, mostly a staircase paved with rocks, turned into a waterfall. Some joked that the torrent was fast and steep enough to raft down. Nevertheless, armed with my two walking sticks, I descended the mountain at a blistering pace, overtaking many slower people on the way, and made it to camp saturated, but in the lead pack. That night our clothes didn’t dry, and there was little that could be done. We just had to trudge on.

Fountain of youth, near Wiñay Wayna

Fountain of youth, near Wiñay Wayna

By this stage, there was a loosely established order to the way we hiked. Adam and Abby were first, always, and were more often than not closely followed by Michael. They were then followed by the rest of us in a fairly consistent and repeatable order roughly corresponding to our fitness levels.

Day 3, by comparison, was easy. Some more ‘flats’ for the first couple of hours (this time, ‘flats’ were a relief more so than a curse), and then a 1000 metre descent. I could feel the air getting fresher (and denser) as we went down the hill, it was exhilarating. We made it to the bottom by lunch and enjoyed a nap, before getting to explore the Inca ruins of Wiñay Wayna and dipping into the so-called nearby Fountain of Youth, a waterfall that is said to stop the aging process where the water touches the skin. Though I suspect it is an attempt by the tour guides to get the ladies out of their clothing. I stood under the waterfall in a poncho and jacket, but some water dripped down my neck underneath my clothing, so when I am 50, I expect to have streaks of supple skin separating vertical stripes of wrinkles.

For a hard earned thirst, you need a big cold beer

For a hard earned thirst, you need a big cold beer

Sickness was a constant concern, but no one went down and out. We almost had a casualty on the first day, when one person succumbed to a stomach bug, but persevered and made it to camp before sleeping it off. Others suffered headaches and shortness of breath from altitude sickness, or early signs of the flu, while yours truly woke up one cold morning with a painfully sore throat that threatened to turn into tonsillitis. Luckily, it passed within a couple of hours.

By Day 4, however, we were no longer acting as pairs, we formed a unified team. Our mission, was to wake up early, pack up early, eat breakfast early and then hurry up and wait. We were successful, as a group, we were not far from the front of the queue for the final control point when we arrived at 4:15am, and we only then had to wait until 5:30am for the point to open. Our goal then was to make it quickly to the Sun Gate before the sun came up over the mountains and started shining on the spectacular Machu Picchu. Despite being made harder by it being Summer Solstice, we made it with only a couple of minutes to spare.

Flavio explaining the intricate masonry

Flavio explaining the intricate masonry

Machu Picchu was quite incredible, the architecture was incredibly aesthetic, they knew how to make the lay of the land work for them. The masonry was incredible given the primitive tools and resources at their disposal. The fact it has withstood countless earthquakes is proof of the craftsmanship. And then of course there was the scale, it was grand, and it’s location on a hill with a vista from every window was a testament to this. It was simply breathtaking, and even light rain failed to spoil the moment.

We developed quite the antipathy for the lazy day-trippers who would cheat and catch the train and bus to get there, because by that stage we had lived and breathed it for three and a half days. They didn’t deserve to be there. We were now Incas; this place was ours.

That was until about 1pm. At that time, we caught the bus down to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (literally ‘hot waters’), ate an overpriced lunch at a restaurant that the tour company was obviously getting a kickback from, and strolled up to the hot springs after which the town was named where I was reacquainted with this magical, multi-purpose solution called shampoo. It was liquid bliss.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Is there anyone out there, ‘cos it’s getting harder and harder to breathe?

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Cuzco, Peru

15-17 December 2012

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas

When I arrived in Cuzco on Saturday 15th, I was:

  • dizzy – I didn’t think the jump from 2800m to 3400m altitude would rattle me as much as I did, but I felt lethargic, not speaking normally, not responding to questions, and struggled to make it through my meal.
  • wet – my LAN Airbus A319 failed at its first attempt at landing in Cuzco and had to try again. It was quite unnerving hearing the engines fire up to full throttle at the last minute before the expected landing, in the middle of a cloud, when you are flying through the Andes, which incidentally is littered with mountain peaks 3000m higher than the airport we were attempting to land at. That should give some indication of the weather in Cusco.
  • cold – largely because of the wet
  • tired – I had barely slept the night before, largely thanks to a usually noisy ground floor hotel room, coupled with a Friday night party in the lobby which rocked until just after midnight. Then there was the 4am alarm for the 4:30am taxi to the airport. And the three flights that followed.
  • lonely – I had just spent the last eight days with social interaction on tap, suddenly I was thrown into the cold, dark unknown. Thanks to the above-mentioned factors, I was not in a state to socialise.
  • homesick – thanks to all of the above, and a picture a friend threw up on Facebook of a beautiful Queensland beach, I felt for the first time this trip, a jolly big bout of homesickness.
  • worried – if I remained in this state, how would I ever be able to commence the Inca Trail on Tuesday?

So I checked in, watched some Community, went to bed, and slept for a very long time. Thankfully, all these adjectives failed to apply to me when I woke the next morning.

I met a German man at an information centre I visited to collect a city map. We got chatting about things, and then out of the blue, his French girlfriend said she was going to book a restaurant for the man’s celebratory birthday dinner the next night. They didn’t believe me when I said my birthday was the exact same day. So I got invited along to Café de la Paz for a delightful birthday dinner.

Surprise! A military parade appears out of nowhere.

Surprise! A military parade appears out of nowhere.

My trip to Cusco was unfortunately gobbled up with administrative drama with thanks in equal portions to:

  • Sunday – a day on which for some reason, many places close,
  • ATM’s with frustratingly low maximum withdrawal limits,
  • tourist attractions’ inability to accept two 100 soles notes for a 130 soles transaction,
  • LAN’s incompetence at communication (it wasn’t a language issue) and a lack of training on their own ticketing products, and
  • last minute purchases of important things for mountain ranges that we sub-tropical folk don’t normally concern ourselves with, like warm clothes.

It was probably the most unexciting time of the trip thus far. But it was livened up by a night in the hostel bar, where a passionate Californian was quickly drinking a lot of beer. He did so while watching a bunch of men from San Francisco dressed like either 1970’s news anchors or Kevin from Daria (pick your favourite metaphor) play a game of gridiron against another similarly robed bunch of men from somewhere else. The scary part was his sudden and unexplainable flipping from sitting in the corner being quiet as a mouse, to jumping up and down on the timber floorboards, running up and down through the bar screaming things like, “that’s what I’m talking about.” It gave me a little fright every time, because it was always so sudden and unexpected. He acted in unison, and no one quite understood what he was going about because like most American football games, whenever anyone veers their eyes towards the television, there is always an advertisement playing. If his attempt was to rally support, it was an abject failure, any Americans in the room who would otherwise be interested seemingly found him more entertaining than the game itself.

Beetles and cobblestones, a very common combination

Beetles and cobblestones, a very common combination

On the evening of the 17th, I went to the pre Inca trail briefing, where I met my fellow trekkers. After allaying my fears of soon becoming a rotting corpse on the side of the mountain, I dragged one of them, Michael, who was also starving to the aforementioned dinner. It was much enjoyable, and after the joy of purchasing some alpaca gloves in Ecuador just previously, this time I had the pleasure of eating one. ¡Muy delicioso!

I didn’t really give Cusco a fair run – my trip was rushed and full of errands, and while I enjoyed the sights and smells of San Pedro market and exploring the cobblestoned streets, I didn’t get to enjoy anywhere near all the city had to offer. But at the same time, it is a place overrun by tourists, and it shows. You cannot walk down a street without being invited on a tour or offered a massage for 20 soles ($8), I didn’t enquire about any optional happy endings. But Jack’s Café – best cappuccino in South America, by far.

The southside/northside debate

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Quito, Ecuador

12-15 December 2012

Three key events defined my trip to Quito. They are listed as follows:

1. The teleferico

Unless you are a gondola junkie, a bit of a waste of $8.50. It rises from about 1300 metres quite quickly, and in the what-should-not-have-been-a-surprise-but-was-rather-unexpected category, it was quite cold at the top. The ride itself was quite pleasant, with some pleasant views of Quito and some rapid transitions between vegetation zones. But at the top, on the cloudy day I was there, it was rubbish. Nothing to see. Nothing to do.

My body is in the south, but my soul haunts the north

My body is in the south, but my soul haunts the north

The whole operation reeked of failed tourist trap. At the base, there is a virtually abandoned theme park. It was operating, music was playing, workers were abound, but it was a ghost town. In our brisk stroll through the place, not a single ride was seen in operation. I was half expecting the zombies to jump out of the blue, ala Zombieland. At the summit, there was a church, a café, a souvenir shop, the empty shell of what used to be a handful of restaurants, and the option of a five kilometre hike towards the Pichincha Volcano that DFAT does not recommend.

2. The equator

This, however, was pretty cool. There are two comparatively successful tourist traps capitalising on Quito being a 40 minute taxi ride from the equator.

The first we visited was Museo de Sitio Intiñan. There were a few gimmicks, for they showed us some pet guinea pigs and then offered them to us, cooked, on a plate. They claim that the line they drew was determined using military-grade GPS. My phone GPS disagreed to the tune of 7 seconds of latitude (equivalent to about 180 metres), different datum perhaps?

Llama llama duck

Llama llama duck

The best part was their demonstration of the Coriolis Effect. Lampooned many years ago in The Simpsons, this is the phenomena that differentiates cyclones from typhoons and hurricanes, and determines what way the water in your toilet spins. A sink full of water was placed over the equator. The plug was removed. More or less, the water fell straight down the plug hole into the bucket beneath with only the slightest hint of a spiral. They moved the demonstration literally two metres to the north and repeated the demonstration. The water very clearly spun down the hole clockwise. The test was repeated a similar distance to the south of the equator – counter-clockwise.

But it was a little bit too obvious, it had to be rigged! And I later found out it was, thanks mystery researcher from General Electric.

A monumental waste of time... get it?

A monumental waste of time… get it?

The second was the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, literally ‘middle of the world city’. Never mind the minor issue of not actually being on the equator, it is several hundred metres south, the main attraction is a rather large monument claiming that it is. Everything else around the monument is just value-adding. The place reminded me of the pricing structure in the game RollerCoaster Tycoon, a fee to enter the carpark, a fee to enter the ‘city’, a fee to enter the museum in the monument, and clusters of restaurants and souvenir shops begging to take your money. Not as cool.

3. The pre-mature birthday celebration

Depending on what time zone you use, it was between two and three days early. My dessert selection wasn’t exactly conducive to the effective use of burning candles.

Hot wax and icecream - a great combination

Hot wax and icecream – a great combination

The floor is made of lava

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Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

8-12 December 2012

Frigatebirds flying high above the boat

Frigatebirds flying high above the boat

No words can truly describe how incredible the experience of cruising the Galapagos Islands; phrases such as ‘truly phenomenal’ and ‘captivating beyond your wildest dreams’ simply do not do this place justice. As I type this introductory paragraph, I am terribly distracted by a pair of frigatebirds flying in formation with the boat, hitching a free ride as we sail to another island. It begins with two, and then slowly several more join in as we sail towards our next destination.

Having met up with Sam in Quito the previous night, we boarded our AeroGal flight to Baltra Airport on the Galapagos Islands on Saturday morning amid much excitement, and was bussed down to the pier shortly after. Two inflatable dinghies were there to transport us to the mother ship.

The amazing cabin on the MC Cormorant

The amazing cabin on the MC Cormorant

Our vessel was the MC Cormorant, a two-year-old catamaran catering for ourselves and fourteen other passengers. The crew certainly went out of their way to add those finer touches to make the cruise extra special, from the enthusiastic announcements of our boats’ naturalist and amateur DJ Harry Jimenez, the juice mocktails waiting for us every time we returned from an excursion, to the way the towels were decoratively folded each day while we were out and about.

On Saturday afternoon, we got our first taste of the adventure to come. Our first stop was Bachas Beach, so named due to the barges that landed here after the US were finished using the islands as an air force base during World War II; they simply cut the cord and let them drift away. After a wet landing, we quickly came into contact with a couple of green sea turtles casually having a splash in the shallows, three flamingos fishing in a lake, numerous boobies swiftly flying over the ocean and bomb diving to try and catch the prey it desires, as well as countless red rock crabs scuttling across the beach. I had never seen such an incredible amount of biodiversity in the one place, all so accessible, and all seemingly so nonchalant about the presence of a few homo sapiens.

Descending the hill on Bartholomew Island through the barren landscape

Descending the hill on Bartholomew Island through the barren landscape

Sunday morning saw us hiking up to the top of the remnants of an extinct volcano at Bartholomew Island. It was almost surreal, the terrain hadn’t sufficiently broken down enough to allow trees to grow, and the landscape in parts seemed quite barren, somewhat resembling what I would imagine Mars to be like. On the way there, we spotted our first sea lions, sunbaking on the jetty.

Shortly after was the first snorkelling expedition. I could swear that the fish, away from prying human eyes, indulge in modelling contests amongst themselves. I have never seen such an eclectic mixture of colours and patterns in my life, and everywhere I turned my head seemed more incredible than the last. Focus your eyes closely, and into your vision appear thousands of tiny jellyfish, each barely a centimetre in diameter. That’s not to mention my close encounters with stingrays, Galapagos penguins, and a shiver of whitetip reef sharks, nestled under a rock.

In a sea of lava

In a sea of lava

In the afternoon, we embarked on a walk across a field of lava, just a few hundred thousand years old. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, the lava extending as far as the eye could see. Despite it’s age, the only plants that had grown there resembled a few small weeds. Termed pioneer plants, these plants have highly acidic roots which very, very slowly breakdown the rock, eventually to a fertile soil.

By the end of the second day, we had already decided that five days simply was not enough time to spend here. An enquiry to the Cruise Director about extending the trip to eight days resulted in disappointment, as after making a call to head office, he advised that the catamaran was booked out. My wallet silently thanked him.

Monday gave us a double-whammy of snorkelling, which I was not displeased about in the slightest. In the morning, we hit South Plaza Island, but the best was saved for the afternoon when we snorkelled in a bay off Santa Fe island. It was incredible, no other way to describe it. We swam with more reef sharks, watched a massive stingray flapping it’s flaps, got brushed up by an inquisitive sea lion, and stalked numerous turtles. It was possibly the best oceanic adventure of my life. Nowhere else in the small portion of the world I have so far discovered, has there such interactive wildlife. Words don’t do it justice, nor do the pictures.

Hey baby, wanna come home with me?

Hey baby, wanna come home with me?

We also made landfall and went for a hike on Santa Fe island, where our naturalist got famously attacked by a fully grown male sea lion defending its territory. There’s a video flying around the place, and it was amusing to experience, if not momentarily terrifying.

On Tuesday, we landed at Witch Hill on San Cristobal Island to go for a casual stroll on the beach, weary of the ever-present sea lions, and trying not to get nipped by the ghost crabs, and discover the amazing variety of fauna living on the rocky outcrops. Over lunch, we dashed to Pitt Point where after a trek through a rocky hill pass, we arrived at the most easterly point of the Galapagos Islands, and discovered a flock of red and blue footed boobies. Finally, we made a dash back to Kicker Rock in an ill-fated attempt to catch the sunset between the rock. Unfortunately, it was cloudy, but it was still impressive. And sitting on the sun deck of the catamaran for three hours on our way there, cerveza in hand, was certainly relaxing.

Feeding time

Feeding time

Wednesday brought about a change of pace. After settling into a routine of island hopping, hikes and snorkelling, it was bizarre to make landfall at a port, with a town. Even more so was the strange sensation of getting on a bus. But we rapidly travelled from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno into the highlands, to a breeding centre where giant tortoises are being bred in captivity. We got to see them at all stages of the lifecycle, from fully grown to just a few months old. The babies I just wanted to pick up and take home with me, they were incredible. Luckily, Wednesday is a feeding day, so they were all congregated over a bed of thoughtfully selected plant matter for our viewing pleasure. Harry explained that the survival rate when bred in captivity was 90%, compared to less than half in the wild. This is because once the tortoises are fully grown, they don’t really have much in the way of natural predators, but babies can find themselves as the dinner of sharks and sea lions.

Unfortunately, it was then time to part ways, and we were deposited at San Cristobal Airport for our afternoon flight back to Quito. It was a sad moment, I really wanted to stay. I was willing to spend copious amounts of money in cruise fees, forfeited accommodation bookings and last minute flight changes to do so, but as I found out on Monday morning, the cruise was booked out.

Angry looking marine iguana

Fierce looking marine iguana

I may have laboured this point already, but the wildlife was spectacular. My only regret was not purchasing a Pokédex of sorts before I went (or whatever the real life equivalent is called), and ticking off the exotic animals I encounter along the way as I go. This post will have to serve that purpose, but there are numerous animals I’m sure I have missed. I can’t wait to return, this five day trip took us to a mere fraction of the Galapagos Islands, there are many more destinations I haven’t even been anywhere near, each with its own unique environmental microcosm.

I was quite pleased to note the number of strict rules in place to protect the islands, and promote responsible tourism, so the islands will remain as they are for many years to come. Boats have to jump through many hoops to be eligible to enter the marine reserve, boats all have guides accredited through the Parque Nacional, and visits to islands have clearly defined routes and limits.

The Galapagos Islands are absolutely unmissable. If you get anywhere near an opportunity to come here, no matter what the cost, take it. It will be a move you will not regret, I know I didn’t.

Look! It's a stingray!

Look! It’s a stingray!

A beautiful turtle meandering its way along the sea floor

A beautiful turtle meandering its way along the sea floor

Traversing the field of lava

Traversing the field of lava

Sea lions hogging the jetty

Sea lions hogging the jetty

The beautifully folded towels - themed to coincide with the days activities

The beautifully folded towels – themed to coincide with the days activities

Late night recreation - for the record, I won

Late night recreation – for the record, I won