Monthly Archives: December 2013

Into The Wild: Colombia

Nick Says: After the dreamy paradise of the Galapagos Islands, it was time to get back to reality. Luckily for us, our current reality is backpacking round some of the most exciting environments on the planet. Phew… But thanks to illness and extended time playing with sea lions, we were now distinctly behind schedule. We had to be in Cartagena for Christmas, and to make it there in time plus fit in some of Colombia we decided to fly. Or rather fly 4 times in 2 days, including Friday 13th! First up we bade goodbye to island life, and hopped on a flight back to the mainland. After a brief stop in our beloved Guayaquil (not allowed out for a Sweet & Coffee sadly) we then flew on to Quito.

d3616cf4638511e388c40a7c01487bce_8

We’d heard much about Quito. Sadly none of it was good. However, we’d also heard a lot of bad things about Venezuela and that turned out pretty well for us. We never got the opportunity to see for ourselves as the brand new Quito airport is about 40km away from the city, with no real road yet completed there. We heard horror stories about it taking hours in traffic to travel there and back, and not fancying either the $50 round trip fare or the possibility we’d miss our 6am flight the next day, we made use of what seems to be the only hotel nearby, the Quito Airport suites. Run by a young couple, it seemed a bit of an undiscovered gem. They picked us up and dropped us off hideously early, made us a delicious home-cooked chicken meal, and basically provided us with everything we needed (including a TV that was playing Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift) for our brief one night stop at a cheaper price than travelling into Quito and back.

Early the next day we boarded a flight to the final stop in our South America adventure, Colombia. I’d been most excited about visiting here out of all of South America, and couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to the hype every other backpacker we’d met and who’s been gave it. Landing in Bogota, we were stamped through with one of the stranger border crossing questions I’ve had (‘Are you from Miami?’) and then it was time for a leisurely breakfast. With our flight to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast at 11.05am we had HOURS. More than enough time to slowly eat decadent scones and stroll around. Until we noticed there was no flight to Santa Marta at 11.05am. There was however one at 10.05am. Which was in about 20 minutes… Cue our panicked run through the airport, hurried rush through check-in, a comical lining up in the wrong boarding queue, before finally getting the right gate. And finding our flight was delayed until 11.05am. Of course.

726c6d2a659911e3a99f0e0d44d6167e_8

The first thing we noticed upon landing in Santa Marta was the muggy tropical heat. We hadn’t felt this since Venezuela and Brazil, and within minutes we were sweating those scones off. The second thing we noticed was a tiny bemused looking dog on the luggage carousel, endlessly travelling round and round awaiting collection, her tiny pink bow wilting in the heat. After a break-neck paced ride to the hostel (I think drivers only have one mode of driving in South America, and that’s basically ‘F*ck you other drivers!´… plus maybe this guy had watched Fast & Furious the night before too?) we were able to unwind after our two days of crossing from islands in the Pacific, to the Caribbean Coast. After our months of slowly inching around the map by buses and cars, it felt like some sort of magic we’d stumbled across and harnessed. Then I cracked open a beer and sat by the pool. Santa Marta, little did we know, is home to the worlds best (says us) Christmas lights, so we spent alot of time wandering around them. Our favourite was the giant light-up whale. So festive!

c55074726a9a11e3aa05126f1c99ab93_8

The next day we set off for the nearby town of Minca. If you’re ever in this part of the world, I highly recommend a visit. Up in the hills of the Sierra Nevada, it’s slightly cooler than the coast and super chilled out. We travelled with a lovely Belgian family (the daughter lived in Medellin, and her parents were visiting for Christmas. Quite a turnaround from their initial statement that she would only go to Colombia over ‘their dead bodies‘) and spent time swimming in cool river spots, driving through scenery familiar to fans of Romancing the Stone (which the Dad delighted in re-enacting scenes from for us), and finally taking a tour of a coffee farm called La Victoria. The place was amazing. Built originally by a British company in the 1890s and named after our then Queen, it still uses the original machinery to sort and produce the very best coffee beans. It was liking stepping into a timewarp where the industrial revolution was still a living memory. I half expected it all to be steam-powered, but hydro-electricity had been harnessed in this forgotten mountain corner of Colombia. Our 21 year old guide was super enthusiastic about showing us the run of the farm and factory, and as always you never appreciate just how much effort goes into something as simple as a cup of joe. However, like most of South America it was quite difficult to actually get nice coffee in Colombia – they seem to prefer instant. At least at the farm we found out a reason for this dearth. The best beans are only sold to Europe – the locals just get all the lesser standard stuff. However, they did save some of their best for a tasting at the end, and it was some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.

78411c186a9a11e3a50b1293d14edd3b_8

274318de6a9a11e3816f0eceecffb26d_8

Bee Says: From Santa Marta we got a heaving ramshackle bus our to Palomino, where the only spare seat meant that I had half of my leg stuck out the broken rear door for part of the journey… oh and a huge piece of meat (that belonged to another passanger) wedged beneath my feet. This was also the same bus where a man got on carrying a SWORD. He seemed like a nice enough fellow… but still. Weapons are big news in Colombia, mostly farmers with machetes and policia with guns, but we drove past plenty of military casually aiming rifles at the road. I think this is one thing I will never get used to, and being in such close proximity to all of these items brings me out in an insteant sweat sheen. No one else seems fussed though, so we just have to accept it and be muy tranquilo. Palomino is described in the Lonely Planet as being one of the undiscovered gems of the Caribbean coast, where you can stumble across fishermen grilling their catch on the beachfront. It certainly isn’t that rustic anymore (the signs for yoga and surf lessons are a sure sign that the Gringo trail has reached this sleepy resort); but it still had a lovely remote vibe, with only a handful of hotels and hammock huts, and 3 restaurants to choose from. For our first two nights we treated ourself to a Cabana, a traditional palm-thatch building with an outside bathroom… Check out the view from our morning shower!

4478c0ee6a6c11e3a38b0e4771a9e3b5_8

 

6ff11f3a6a9b11e3b19d12b91ad31f42_8

It was shaping up to be an idyllic night of beer, star gazing and after a slap up meal of fresh-caught fish, we walked hand-in-hand back to our cabana. After time in the Andes and Galapagos, we’ve had a welcome break from mozzie bites. However, in Palomino, they were back with a bitey vengeance and makes us irritated. For this reason, before we left for dinner, I had slung up my sacred mozzie net and spent ages pedantically making sure there wasnt a single gap between bed and net, so no pesky mozzies could get trapped inside. Upon our return, Nick got straight into bed. Then I got into bed and spent another protracted 5 minutes messing with the edges of the net and smoothing it down, all the while my big tropics-hair getting caught in the net and generally faffing around. Eventually I settled down, lifted my head, and at eye level was a SCORPION. On the INSIDE of the mosquito net. Yep! I have never seen one in real life and was frozen with fear… watching it with its tail reared, dangling procariously next to my bare body! Nick, who is so  cool as a cucumber in all deadly situations (and we are racking them up on this trip!) suggested helpfully that it might be an earwig? to try and calm me down! Luckily we both rolled gently out of bed without getting jabbed, we sprayed the spikey guy with DEET and then shovelled it into the toilet. I love it when my northern-ness rubs off on Nick and was so proud to hear him exclaim “he’s a hard bastard!” when the scorpion was still alive in the loo. We still have NO idea why the scorpion got inside our mozzie net, and never will, but we have since found a hole where he must have chomped his way in. Anyway we are so lucky that we spotted him… or it could have been a real fright in the night! Safe to say we didn’t sleep so well in our luxury cabana and had that constant “oh my gosh something is crawling on me” feeling and kept setting each other off with the creeps. To get in and out of our cabana we also had to run a gauntlet of sprinklers, which were all pointing at different directions, making merely leaving our room like a challenge from Crystal Maze… where one of us always got drenched.

cfecdd1e6a6b11e385160e143fb0ebac_8

9625ba6c6a9b11e3a43a0acef2407122_8

We spent our next three nights slumming it in a dorm, but deciding people were a preferable sleep companion than creatures. We had a gorgeous few days of lazing on the beach, drinking cold beer, exploring the local area (and drinking in the beautiful view of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains) whilst enjoying the mini safari of less-deadly animals that visited us: huge bats, bright green lizards, mocking birds and my favourite; hummingbirds that gathered at every flower like butterflies. I also got to do my first Yoga of the trip (why was there such a lack of it everywhere else?!) and started off with a nice easy Hatha Yoga class, split into stretches, breathing and meditiation all whilst sat listening to the lapping waves of the sea. I felt fantastic afterwards and signed up for a class the next morning. As I appraoched the class… something was different. There was only two people there and it was a different teacher. All the same she welcomed me over and mentioned something in spanish about Hatha Yoga, but I now realise she said HIGHER yoga. Uh-oh. Queue the most intense hour of my life, where any position I couldn’t get in (most) she man-handled me in and out of!  There was NO meditation, just more and more advanced body-tangling mind-melting stretches. All the while, I was being seriously glared at by the other pupil (tanned Spanish boy with dreads and nose-ring) as I think he had been hoping for a 1-on-1 session with the very beautiful and supple instructor! I crawled back to Nick afterwards and spent the next few days with a distinct hobble. Hardly zen! That night was our last in Palomino paradise, and also happened to be a full moon, so we gatecrashed a beach bonfire and sat for hours staring wideyed at the beautiful night sky. This had certainly been a trip-highlight, and despite Scorpion attacks and loco yoga, we felt like we had just had an absolute taste of tropical movie-tyle beach perfection.

S6301333

Nick Says: What to do after spending four days on a beach paradise? Go to another one I guess, except more remote. And so it was that we found ourselves on a bus (spookily the exact same one we caught from Santa Marta to Palomino. We recognised the drivers assistant who had a tendancy to hop out of the moving bus, then return in lightening-quick speed with weirder and more extravagant purchases, water, coconut, ice cream sundae!) 50 minutes down the road about to check out the legendary Parque Nacional Tayrona. I’d been wanting to visit here since I was about 18. I’d read about how it was a undiscovered travel gem, then a top backpacker pick for Colombia, until it’s current status as one of Colombia’s tourism mainstays. It’s one of those places I’d read about countless times, dreamed about visiting, and now was in a state of almost disbelief that I was on its doorstep. We hopped off the bus at the main entrance of El Zaino, and promptly celebrated by eating an ice-cream and eating chill-cheese Dorito’s (perhaps their finest ever flavour). Then it was time to enter the park. After getting our wristbands, we hopped on a taxi-bus for the 10 minute drive to the main ‘town’ of Canaveral. From there we set off on our hour long jungle hike to Arrecifes, where we hoped to find some cheap lodging. Picking up a new travel buddy en-route, a German girl named Anne, we clambered up over rocky paths, though vines, and over beaches as we caught glimpses of the incredible scenery that awaited us. A monkey high above us gently lapped at a coconut, dripping agua de coco over us. It seemed as if we venturing into the complete unknown, until we rounded a corner and met a guy selling ice-creams.

875ac5b26a9c11e383211279b7ee3b6f_8

Tayrona is built for exploring. It’s easy enough to find paths and locations, but big and wild enough to take a few turnings and get totally lost. While Bee spent the day swimming and diving for treasure at la piscina (literally translates to swimming pool as its the only swimmable part of coastline in Tayrona) me and Anne decided to see if we could make it to a jungle location known as Pueblito. After a quick swim in the gold-flecked waters that lapped Tayrona, we left Bee on her beach towel and set off. Still early, we pretty much had the park to ourselves and made it quickly to the main tourist spot of Cabo. While an undeniably beautiful spot, it felt maybe a bit too touristy for our Robinson Crusoe fantasies and so we quickly left. However, we also unwittingly left behind the path to Pueblito. Venturing onto yet another white sanded beach, the crowds began to thin. Wanting to check if we were going the right way, me and Anne approached a sun-bather to ask, and realised we would be addressing our question to his hairy bum and balls. Yep, we’d walked onto the nudist beach. Back into the jungle it was, where apart from occasionally stepping onto the beach to get some light, the air was thick and heavy, and termite nests swayed in the branches above us. Meeting some friendly Colombians, who spent each Christmas visiting the park, we found out that Pueblo was still another 2 hours away, and maybe could be reached on this path, Figuring that Bee might think I’d been eaten by monkeys, who had undoubtedly grown tired of coconuts by now, I headed back, once again at Cabo, Anne turned into the jungle barefoot to conquer Pueblo. Hours later she emerged at our campsite, to tell us Pueblito was just a few huts, and a tough muddy scramble up almost vertical paths. I felt smug drinking a beer at that point.

aa5698f26a9c11e3ad2a120ba9972426_8

Bee Says: I think 7 years of living in London has lit a desire in both Nick and I to find the most inaccessable places to visit. Tayrona is certainly up there, as once you are ensconsed in jungle you can relax in the knowledge that you are hours of hiking away from roads, cars and crowds. We arrived to Arrifices and the first campsite was mega$$$. The classic tip to never stay at the first place you find, massively paid off. Admittedly to find Don Pedro we got lost 3 times, had to hike through 3 rivers and then follow a dirt track into seemingly nowhere for 20 minutes until suddenly! There it was! Don Pedro was an oasis in the middle of the dense green, ok so it was basic but it had everything you need to cosey up to your fellow Tayrona travellers: Cold tins of beer, long tables where basic criollo dishes are served up at night, and hut showers. We had been planning to stay in hammocks, but it was only $2 more to have the luxury of a tent (bite protection is always best) so we made our home in the tent (photo above) which was perfectly comfortable even if it did get alot of night visitors snuffling out food. One night my foot was even nuzzled from the outside by what I think, from the silhoutte, was an armadillo! My favourite thing to do was once the sun had set, head out to the wilds with my head torch on. I’ve never seen anything like the HUNDREDS of eyes gleaming back at me from the dark, relected in my light. The seemingly pitch black wilderness was suddenly glowing with night dwellers. One night, after Nick, Anne and I watched the sunset on the beach, we walked back only to be swooped at  by a vast black creature with blood red eyes! None of us could get a torch on it quick enough to identify the species of our attacker, but it was the stuff of nightmares. Luckily it took one whiff of our stinky hiking selves and bogged off into the black. Of course, like everywhere in South America, there was no cars, no electricity and no wifi… yet somehow there was cable TV (served from a noisy generator) where the campsite crew would huddle to watch cartoons.

c94089fe6a9b11e3add91207bb9c8442_8

S6301336

Not being a natural adventurer, the one thing that tempted me into this remote jungle was the TRAVEL LEGEND that somewhere… deep beneath the canopies… was apparently the best pan au chocolate in South America. It’s hinted at in Lonely Planet and people who have visited Tayrona whisper hished directions to the bakery as they pass in hostels and bars. We ended up hitting jackpot with our campsite, as it was a mere 2 minute stroll (follow the irrisitable smell that starts wafting to your tent at 4.30am!) to pick up these giant chocolate loafy beauties, which fill you up all day for hiking and swimming. You could easily walk past the small shack serving up these  unexpected delights, and it seems totally surreal that they existed so far from all other home comforts. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these is my happy place!

S6301338

fa20c6e26a9b11e3a04212b20ca0275e_8

234adc4c6a9c11e3838a1219189c01ee_8

We actually didn’t want to leave Tayrona. We had so much fun in our jungle existance, and were also enjoying witnessing a blossoming Romeo and Juliet romance between the camp site manager Raphael and our adopted hija Anne. Luckily for us, as he tried to woo her, we benefitted with the occasional free treat from the tuck shop! His seduction techniques paid off when he left a piping hot pan au chocolate outside her tent one morning – surely the way to any ladies heart! By the time we left we had got a bit hike cocky, so trying to get back to Canaveral we took a wrong turn and ended up lost on the horse and mule path! This scenic route took us up and over boulders, clambering cliffs to avoid muddy hoof-trodden bogs and at one point, over a long plank of rickety rotten wood… where if you fell off one side was a spider the size of a dinner plate… the other was a stinky pool of stagnent water. Safe to say, we all made it over in double quick speed. We spent most of the walk alone but every once in a while we’d hear a yell and have to leap to the side, as horses carrying cargo and  food galloped past! Finally we reached Canaveral and from here it was a swift jeep back to the main entrance, then a mini bus, and back to Santa Marta. We felt like different people to the ones who had entered a few days earlier.  The dense jungle, the white sand beaches and the water that literally glitters with gold mineral flecks… it left us in awe.

Nick Says: And so it was we returned to Santa Marta feeling almost like we were going home. In our last time there we had enjoyed the home comforts of an air conditioned mall, watched The Hunger Games at the cinema, and gone to such exotic locales as a supermarket. After a week spent on the less developed coast of Palomino and Tayrona, we returned stinking, dirty and beardy (Bee had let herself go). So perhaps it was no wonder that security guards followed us round any shop we stopped in at… But that didn’t really matter, as we were back in civilisation for one reason – date night at the cinema to watch The Hobbit. Despite having no idea what the elves and orcs were saying (Spanish subtitles), I felt wrapped up in almost a sense of December normalcy, watching an epic on the big screen. However, the next day we would be off to Cartagena for Christmas, and pushing ever closer to Central America, which we hoped to reach by a slightly more adventurous route than the usual plane or sailboat… TBC…

South America Awards: 3 Month Review

    • Time: Three Months
    • Countries Visited: Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador & Colombia
    • Distance Travelled (total from UK): 25,781 km
    • Distance Travelled (in South America): 18,289 km
    • Time Spent On Buses: 7 Days
    • Time Spent On Boats: 10.5 Days
    • Time Spent On Aeroplanes: 1.5 Days
    • Items Lost/Broken/Stolen (Bee): The saddest was a beautiful “guiding star” brooch my sister gave me got pinched when I stupidly left it pinned to a hoody that got packed off for a rare laundry. I also lost my sunglasses (that lasted 10 weeks!) in Galapagos, replaced them, and lost the replacement pair within a day. I also somehow lost a pair of bikini bottoms, a pair of hiking socks and my conditioner.
    • Items Lost/Broken/Stolen (Nick): Still my poor watch, but I’ve also destroyed a second pair of sunglasses. Luckily a man walked up to me in the street in Cusco the following day and sold me a pair of genuine Ray-Bans at an unbelievable price. What do you mean they’re not real? He swore they were… Other than that pretty good so far, just the usual shampoos and shower gels left in hostels.
    • Injuries/Illnesses: 1 long Peru/Poo-ru fest of a nasty sickness that seemed never ending, ruining Nick’s birthday and ending with Bee in A&E in Ecuador. It turns out that everyone we have met since who has been to Peru got poorly at some point there so we are in good company.
    • Changes to Itinerary: 3 – Seeing Chile, taking the plunge and doing the Galapagos and then cutting down our time in Colombia from a month to 2 weeks due to sickness slowing us down.

S6301026

Q&A With Bee

Three Months In, How Do You Feel? By this point of the trip I have the best of both worlds. I have hit my stride with the travelling, the language and the accumulated confidence that I can do this and surprise myself with how far I can push my comfort zone. I don’t have any of the anxiety jitters that I still suffered a month in, mainly because we are travelling cautiously and so far have had pretty much entirely positive experiences in every country. It also feels like there is so much left to see, and I definitely am not getting jaded or overloaded by new experiences. Instead I wake up every morning with my mind whirring at what incredible things I will see or do or eat or drink! I guess the only change as we shift from having more time ahead, to more time behind us (sniff!) is that I can’t help but start to cast my mind forwards to how life will change once I get home. Travelling has given me such a precious opportunity to look at how I lived previously with a ton of distance and perspective. I feel like my brain has undergone a major re-shuffle and that I’ll now live differently and with slightly altered goals once I am back in the UK and plunging into the big bad what next. I also have a huge list in my notebook of ideas and plans and projects I hope to embark on once I am back. I think travelling gives you a giddy sense of grabbing the world with both hands and really shaking life up, which in turn makes me believe (whether its true or not) that once I am home... I can have more of an impact in life rather than just living day to day in a rat racey haze. The main concern is how will I cope when I don’t get to hang out with my best friend 24/7?

Biggest Lessons Learnt: That there are pigeons in every country and that more often than not, if you are told a hostel has Aguas Caliente (hot water) it will be an absolute lie. I think hostel owners know its a buzz-word with tourists and bound to lure you in, they then act super surprised when the hose with electric cables stuck to it doesn’t run warm. This happens to us ALL the time!

Best New Skills Aquired: Snorkelling… and the ultimate skill any backpacker needs: how to fit massive objects into tiny packages. Mozzie nets, sleep sheets etc all become huge when unrolled and then somehow need to be fitted back into a bag the size of a postage stamp.

Best Moment: This is such an impossible questions, so I don’t know why I’ve just written it. I will probably go with the snorkelling with a turtle experience. It’s closely rivalled by the hot springs on the salt flats, the amazon boat thunderstorm and crossing the equator on the Galapagos.

ed9a6182638c11e3adce12d47fd231ef_8

Worst Moment: I think it says alot about the Ecudorian healthcare system that it wasn’t being in A&E! My worst moment was definitely our boat crossing back from Isla Isabela to Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos. The trip over to Isabela had been reasonably choppy (when they hand out sick bags to everyone, including locals, before you set off… it’s never a good sign) but I coped okay and managed to keep my breakfast in my belly. The return journey made the previous trip look like a jaunt on the swans at Alton Towers! From the second we hit the water, the waves were black and crashing over the sides of the boat. As we got deeper out to sea, the ocean only grew fiercer and I have never seen water look so hateful… churning and swirling and tipping our little boat side to side so much that the windows kissed the foam. By halfway, everyone except Nick who has the sea-legs of a pirate, was green. Then the puking started. Then the moaning. Every time the boat was spat out and slapped back down onto the waves, I felt my spine cracking. The only glimmer of good was when a huge wave crashed over the back, taking with it two huge sharks who avoided landing in our laps and leapt over. It was two hours that felt like two days. Back on dry land, I had to take a moment to kiss the ground. On the bright side, we had heard the Galapagos crossings can get choppy, as so many currents meet there, and maybe we wouldn’t have had quite the full experience if we hadn’t braved it for ourselves!

Best Place Stayed: For me it was Hostel Manaus. The atmosphere was just the right amount of boozy, social, inclusive and helpful. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was here we would meet some of the best friends of our trip and people on the most fascinating journeys. We met Eduard, a wonderful Dutch man who’d relocated from setting up a successful business in Rotterdam to move to the middle of the Amazon jungle and build a farm and eco hostel from scratch. We also met Gareth, who was making a documentary about kayaking 9000km around Brazil. We met a French journalist who was in Manuas to cover the progress of the world cup stadium (and whom I imagine life has just got very chaotic for given this weeks tragedy).  Everyone, without exception, was so friendly that all our evenings naturally followed the same routine: a huge cook-out in the communal kitchen with everyone offering up ingredients, followed by a rowdy roam down the road to share giant beers and travel tales. Something that I love about hostel life, and happened in Manaus, is that you can slope up somewhere in the morning, sleepy and unsure what to expect. By nightfall you can be socialising with 2 Brazilians, a French, Dutch, German and Canadian, making friends for life.

Worst Place Stayed: The shed in Galapagos that has no name. We were given the recommendation by our cruise guide when we mentioned we wanted a cheap night somewhere central. We wandered up to a garden gate, with a scrap of paper and the name of a woman. We don’t think we ever actually found her… but ended up sleeping in a shed, with no roof (but a huge plasma tv that didnt work…) that absolutely stank of pickles. Skyler fondly named it “the big mac shack” for us. The weirdest part was that there was an en suite bathroom, but every item such as the mirror, sink and toothbrush holder was CELLOTAPED to the wall. Oh and there were two guard dogs that took an instant dislike to us and terrorised us everytime we attempted to leave or arrive.

Best “Travelator” Moment: We don’t often mock fellow travellers but you do meet the odd person who has fallen down a black hole of dreadlocks, henna tattoos, happy pants and chatting a lot of guff about energy. The KING of the travelators was a man who was staying in Huanchaco at the same time as us. He had all the usual trappings, but also insisted on constantly carrying round a giant conch shell at ALL times… occasionally petting it as if it were a baby. It took a day or so for us both to click that he wasn’t just moving it the conch from one place to another, but that it was a permanent feature. At night he would join a gang of people jamming around a bonfire, and we liked to imagine that he played along on his mournful conch.

1db0e4b6610511e389b50ed9ed7febb2_8

Best Purchase: My alpaca wool jumper in Cusco that has marching alpaca knitted around the collar.

Best Beer: Bogota Brewery Craft Beer: Honey Ale Flavour

Best Pizza: Bodega164 in Cusco. It was blue cheese, mushroom and bacon; and after months of disappointing pizza experiences it was completely mindblowing. Also, Nick chose this night to drink a beer at altitude and have a funny sick moment mid pizza, so I got all his slices too. What a champ!

Best Book Read: The Devil in The White City – Erik Larson (I cannot recommend enough, and instantly downloaded everything else he has written to my kindle and Nick & I have both consumed them at a crazy pace and enjoyed nattering about them after. He is such a talent and writes in a truly unique style)

Soundtrack to the trip: It’s funny how one song becomes a stand out. For me its “Wasting My Young Years” by London Grammar. This song blurs from my old life into the trip, as in my previous job the company I worked for was doing the visual effects on the video and its where I first heard to track. It’s a song that seems to come on my ipod at every big travel moment: arriving on the alien salt flats, flying over the Andes, rocking side to side during a night on the Galapagos cruise or zooming through Colombian coastline at 100km p h. Also, the lyrics are more than a little relevant:

I’m wasting my young years
It doesn’t matter
I’m chasing old ideas
It doesn’t matter

Don’t you know that it’s only fear
I wouldn’t worry, you have all your life
I’ve heard it takes some time to get it right

Things I Miss The Most: Baths, peanut butter, cups of tea, clean clothes, knitting by the TV… wow I sound like a little old lady, so I better add in getting drunk on happy hour with my friends in Soho.

S6301118

Q&A With Nick

Best Journey: We’ve taken some truly amazing once-in-a-lifetime trips while we’ve been here, and while sailing across the Equator, busing over the Andes, and hiking through the jungles of Tayrona would win at any other time, for me it’s still the 4-day Amazon river-boat. If someone ever offered the chance to do it again I’d accept in a heartbeat.

Friendliest Local: We’ve had amazing fortune with all the people we’ve met so far. In fact, I’ve only being randomly sworn at once, by a bus driver in Peru. But the king of the friendly locals was the owner of our hostel on Isabela (in the Galapagos), who was completely convinced we could understand his hyper-fast lisping Spanish, and whose answer to any of our queries (including ‘is there a safe?’) was to tell us not to worry, and relax.

Best Beer: I’ve heroically sampled the local beer in every country so far, one of my favourite things about backpacking. All have merits, but for the perfect refreshment to taste ratio, it will have to be Venezuela’s Polar.

S6301328

Best Ice-Cream: I’ve also been trying to put back all the weight I lost during my illness by eating ice-cream every day. Although I was doing that before, so not sure what my future excuse will be. Bee likes to say to me she’s finally seeing my unrestrained eating habits. For awhile the pick of the ice-cream litter was the Oreo sundae from Bolivia, but now Colombia has provided the reigning champ – a Mars Bar flavoured scoop covered in dark chocolate sauce (which also fills the cone underneath providing you with a frenzied eating mission at the end to stop it pouring over you).

Worst Meal: We’ve had a few shockers in our time here, but the worst surely has to be sopa del res from Santa Elena’s hungry street. Translating as soup of the beast, it was a disgusting broth of stomach lining and other mystery parts (maybe some sort of jelly marrow?) washed down with a horrible juice. Ugh.

Three Months in? I always think travelling for an extended period distorts time. I feel like the last three months have lasted forever, and happened instantly. We’ve done so much, and are in the middle of doing so much that I have yet to comprehend it all and mentally sort through it. It’s been tough at times definitely, but no more than the other times I’ve been away. On top of that though is the knowledge that me & Bee will probably never get to spend this much extended time in each other’s exclusive company, and that makes every moment really special. Even when I have to ask her to wash her socks in the sink as they’re so disgustingly smelly I can’t even be in the same room as them.

S6301267

LIST THE COUNTRIES YOU’VE VISITED IN ORDER OF PREFERENCE! DO IT NOW!!! Ok, ok… It’s a tough one, and with the caveat that we’ve still got a fair bit of Colombia to do, and our Ecuador time was spent mostly on one of the most magical places on Earth… Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile………………………………….Peru.

Bee Says:

My order of preference is a tiny bit different:

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile…….. Peru too.

Galapagos: How NOT to Break the Bank

Nick Says: The very first thing to say here is, don`t think you can`t afford to visit the Galapagos. Sure, it’s going to be more expensive than most of your trip, but unless you’re on the most ultra-budget trip, an excursion here is affordable and probably one of the best things you can do in your life. I would go far as to say 2 weeks here is worth a month elsewhere, which is most likely the compromise you’ll have to make. But for one of the most unique adventures I’ve ever had, I’d do it all again without question. Where else can you swim with turtles and sea-lions, hike over volcanic rock, watch marine iguanas butt heads, and witness giant tortoises roam the wild – all within the same afternoon?

The only way to get to the Galapagos Islands is by flying. Choose LAN or TAM and you should be able to pick up a flight for $150 each way. You’ll also have to pay $10 at the departure airport (either Quito or Guayaquil) for your tourist visa to the park (which you must register for online first). Once you arrive you’ll also have to pay $100 to enter the Galapagos. While this seems steep, it’s actually incredible value and has been the same cost since 2000. However, from next year there is a plan to raise the entrance fee to $200, unless you stay for 10 days at least, in which case it will be $128.

There are two ways to visit the islands. The obvious and easiest is by arranging a boat cruise. This is also the more expensive option, but you can keep costs down for sure. The other way is by getting there yourself, and island hopping 4 of the islands and arranging independent day tours once there. We did both in our time there, and gained something unique and different from them each, which we will detail below.

1460312_10153548475345284_533212826_n

1. CRUISING: When you arrange a cruise before going, the agency will also sort your flight and pick you up from the airport on arrival. We though, had bought our own flight and so had no-one to meet us. Nobody wanted us. We’d decided to risk it all, fly to the islands and try and arrange a last minute cruise direct at the source. It was a risky strategy, but one well worth considering if you want to snag the best bargains of all. After making the bus-boat-bus journey to Puerto Ayora (the main town in the Galapagos, located on Santa Cruz), we found ourselves some cheapish accommodation with a lady named Marysol. Mary had cunningly called her hostel Mar y Sol (sea and sun in Spanish) and as she pointed out several times, it was also her name. Marysol was pretty well known around the islands, and whenever we mentioned we had stayed with her, the locals delighted in telling her name was Marysol, just like mar y sol, and did we understand? After the 60th time, yes we did.

After a visit to the incredibly helpful Ministry of Tourism who gave us a thick book of maps, information and wildlife spot checklists, we then set out about on a tour of the agencies trying to find ourselves a bargain. We had already been offered an 8 day cruise for $750 each at the airport, so we had an idea of what to expect. There are four classes of boat, economy, tourist, first class, and VIP. The costs go up a lot by each class, but so does the experience. We saw more than a few floating rust-buckets with hose showers in the harbour. If you don’t mind roughing it though, then you’ll get a serious bargain. We met one Aussie guy who’d snagged himself a 3 day cruise for $100.

After several no-go’s we stolled into a pretty non-descript agency called Espanola. Not on the toursit map, or recommended in any guide books, it none-the-less promised us an amazing deal. Tito, the agent, made great use of a whiteboard marker to draw out an exotic route of the Western Islands (which we didn’t realise at the time were quite rarely visited on cruises), and show us photos of the boat, the Treasure of Galapagos. Quite simply,. it looked incredible. Better than any house I’ve lived in since I was a kld. After a bit of tough negotiating, we figured we had a great value deal. If you want more details on our route, we did a combination of Cruise B & C listed on this site. When you travel first-class, another major perk is an English speaking guide. On other classes, your guide will be Spanish speaking only. For us, having the otherwordly wildlife, history and landscape explained on a daily basis made the extra money well worthwhile. By going in at the very last minute, we managed to bag ourselves a cabin for about 25% of what we would have paid if we arranged it from home. However, it was a large amount of money for us and we were both literally shaking at the thought of handing it over.

e5173a285bab11e3959312bdf480f3ba_8

Bee Says: One essential piece of information for the Galapagos is that 90% of tour agencies don’t accept payments by credit or debit card. Or if they do, they charge a 10% fee, which can mean hundreds of extra dollars, which you will really want to save for buying tacky classy “I love Boobies” souveniers. Therefore arrange with your bank in advance that you will need to exceed your daily ATM limit or you will need permission to withdraw a large sum from the local bank in Puerto Ayora. The bank here is very used to frantic looking tourists bowling in and needing a wad of cash, and we successfully managed to withdraw the mega $$$ needed for our cruise which we then had to carry (wrapped in a rubber band, drug dealer style) down the road. After handing this over to the agency, we had a nervous 24 hours of fully expecting to end up on some sort of Galapagos edition of Crimewatch. We had just blindly given the largest chunk of cash we’d ever seen in our lives, over to a virtual stranger. Our shredded nerves weren’t helped by the fact the agency rep wasnt there to meet us at the agreed time on the morning of our cruise departure. In fact, the whole office was shut up and this meant we had to drag our bags to the pier and desperately ask locals where our boat (Treasure of Galapagos) departed from. Or yknow… if it even existed! Eventually Nick managed to get a phone call to our rep and I think his use of “God Dammit!!!” in Spanish (which he learnt from watching Dantes Peak with subtitles) convinced them we were pretty mad and the rep turned up and whisked us off on a boat-taxi to our awaiting catamaran. Finally, we could relax…

1462998_10153548478155284_975097579_n

Or so I thought. Lets take a moment to take about sea sickness. If you are planning a trip to the Galapagos, you need to be pretty confident in your sea legs. If you do suffer sickness, you need to see your GP in advance and get some heavy duty medication, as for me – over the counter stuff didn’t stand a chance against the Galapagos tides. Even when the boat is docked in a harbour, the fact that the Galapagos oceans are home to the meeting of many different currents, means that the water is perma-choppy and just varies from pretty choppy to what the locals gleefully call “mini monsoon!”. For me, I didn’t really know if I got sea sick. I have grown up in the most land-locked city in England and my only experience of sailing is listening to The Decemberists alot. It became evident that I am not a natural born sailor when I had thrown up 4 times within the first 2 hours onboard, and had to miss my Welcome Cocktail, opting instead to just sit alone on the deck staring psychotically at the horizon. Luckily for me, a lovely American girl on our cruise clled Kelley had a spare patch which you put behind your ear and it slow releases some sort of mega strength anti-sickness medication over the course of a week. On day 2 I woke up feeling better than ever and stuffed my face with breakfast buffet and never felt the dreaded rolling tummy/wobbly legs again. A very close shave, she really saved my skin there!

Nick Says: Our 7 day voyage of dreams followed the same basic pattern every day. We would be called for breakfast at 7am every morning (by a little ringing bell) where we would eat copius amounts of fresh fruit before heading off on our first outing of the day at 8am. Attached to the boat were two little zodiac craft, little rubber launches with motor engines which could pilot into the shallow waters and get up close and personal to the wildlife. Then we would come back around 10am ready to go out and snorkel (in the very cold water. Our old 3mm wet suits which we had to hire weren’t really up to the job) in a spot picked out by our guide. Then we would come back for a midday lunch (two courses, and some of the most delicious food we’ve eaten on the trip) before heading out again for our afternoon landing at 3pm and a couple of hours of hiking. Then it was back to the boat for a briefing on what we would see the next day, before dinner and then usually an early night! The landings would either be ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. Wet meant that the zodiac would get near the beach, and then we would have to jump into the water and wade ashore, while dry meant we could get close enough to rocks to leap ashore dramatically. Considering the average age of people on these cruises would be considered elderly, it was pretty tough going.

999226_10153548478100284_1030873294_n

1466229_10153548478115284_1222005215_n

As luck would have it though, our cruise was made up of people our own age. Assured by the crew that this was very unusual, it made for a really fun week and the chance to make some new friends. Following our three weeks of illness, we’d started to get a bit lonely, so it was great to chat and chat and chat again. And we had a lot to talk about – the Galapagos is an experience like none other, and one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. The sheer amount of wildlife is unequalled anywhere else. Both Bee, and an American couple called Skyler & Jordan had been on Safari, and compared it to that. Except while you would occasionally spot a lion or elephant there, here you would be seeing something every minute. It became almost a joke amongst us all that the animals would be doing something new and riveting each day to attract our attention. It wasn’t enough to just see a marine iguana, now they had to fight and swim. One turtle wasn’t enough, we had to see 16 swimming around. A sea-lion lazing on the rocks? Pah, give me two baby sea-lions chasing iguanas! And all these aninals were next to each other, on the same beach or rocks. I’ll never get over it.

1471832_10153548479200284_436314123_n

Swimming with the animals was also an unforgettable joy. While some would stare at you curiously, or ignore you and go on their way, others would decide to come and play. A juvenile sea-lion found us snorkelling one day, and then entertained himself and us by performing underwater acrobatics between us, diving down when we did, and swimming right up to our masks to have a good look. However, get too close to a big male sea-lion though and they would bark and even bite! We would return from each snorkelling session and compare tales. While I was swimming with a turtle, Jordan had seen sharks and a blue footed booby dive into the ocean next to him to fish. It was impossible not to get to get caught up in everyone’s enthusiasm, and the crew were obviously having a great time. When we asked if we could jump off the 10m high top deck into the water of Tagus Cove (where graffiti dating from 1836 can be found) the captain was all smiles, and the crew jumped into a zodiac to take pictures of us falling through the air.

509dd92c5f6311e3bf5812315a8677d6_8

Bee Says: Nick was not exagerating when he said that this is a life highlight, let alone a trip highlight. I can barely put into words how magical and mystical my two weeks on the Galapagos were, how you can never get used to the fact that everywhere you look, you will see something so incredible your brain can hardly process it! Every time on day in the Galapagos is beautiful, and on the cruise we were awake so much we could really make the most of it. The stunning sunrise, the baking hot days and then the nights where the stars were so dazzling that the cabins never got dark and we had a clear view of the milky way. Shooting stars, with perfect cartoon-like pointed edges, exploded like fireworks as we bobbed along through the night. A personal highlight was trying snorkelling for the first time. I have always wanted to have a go, and being half girl half mermaid, water sports are a huge draw but the UK isn’t exactly a hotspot for the type of clear oceans needed to snorkel. In our tour group we had plenty of avid snorkellers, who all said the Galapagos was amongst the best they had attempted in the world, so I think I picked a good time to start!

543961_10153548478950284_1538914296_n

1471378_10153548477045284_613413113_n

Once I had got past the psychological barrier of believeing that yes I can breathe underwater with this funny mask & pipe on, I was hooked. All I can compare the snorkelling to, is swimming in the best aquarium you have ever seen. I loved the fact that you are in a team – sharing the news when you spot something exotic and experiencing the amazing parts together. Yet, there is also something completely independent about unique moments in the deep blue. The best for me was when a giant turtle grazed past my belly and then swam beneath me for ten minutes. In those ten minutes I have never felt so fortunate, peaceful and awed by nature. Once I had got the hang of snorkelling, I was proud of myself to even spot some of the more rare sea-sights and share them with the group. I saw a HUGE stingray that was wider than if I held my arms out as wide as they will go and also an endemic chocolate chip starfish. Every inch of ocean was packed with parrot fish (the ones wearing lipstick!) and other Finding Nemo cast-members at every turn. At one point I found myself in the middle of a school of tiny silver slither fish that stretched as far as my eye could see in both directions. I swam amongst them until their journey took me into a freezing cold current, then it was time to wish them goodbye.

72b85ee25f6311e390220ea2e16bf06c_8

Whilst the ocean captured my heart, the rest of the landscapes of the Galapagos are just as stunning. On one morning we took a hike through the lava fields, where we staggered over lava that had exploded into the water then been pushed back up to land by the tectonic movements. There were huge crevices to clamber over and the island was a vast expanse of black molten masses. Evere five minutes our guide would repeat his helpful mantra of “whatever you do, dont fall over – falling on the lava is like falling on a THOUSANDS KNIVES” !! In the middle of these barren landscape we found a lush lagoon, surrounded by fresh green mangroves and home to a flock of neon pink flamingos! The flash of colours against the bare burnt land was hard to believe. Galapagos is full of these sort of surprises. Here we posed for photographs in front of what our guide assured us is the most active volcano in the world, and also the one that is most due for an eruption any day now. When we all, in unison, asked if these erruptions could be predicted in any way, he smiled, shrugged and said not really, as the eruptions are internal not explosive.

eb6e03be5f6311e3824c1222ecad2ed2_8

One night as the sunset, we sat on deck and something caught my eye in the water. I whipped out my binoculars and sure enough, that something was a fin cutting through the waves. As I focussed in, I counted nearly 50 sharks, all of whom were circling in a wild frantic manner as if I were Spielberg and they were auditioning as Jaws extras. It was a wonderful act of nature to watch (from the safety of the boat) but my lip started to tremor a little as I realised they were in the exact patch of water we would be snorkelling in a few hours time. It was ok though, our guide reassured us they were vegetarian… although I got the impression that was his go-to line about any of the wildlife we were worried about.

1476469_10153548474645284_436929251_n

I feel like I learnt so much on the cruise, every day I noted down facts and figures and amazing new lessons I had learnt. In some ways, doing no research on the Galapagos paid off, as everything was shiny, new and fascinating. One of these learnings was just the simple fact that along the equator, a line of fluffly clouds dots the line. These were visible from a few of our landing points and for some reason I just found this very magical (I dont even want to count how many times I have used this word in this post! Another word for magical anyone?). At 8pm on one of our last nights, we actually crossed the equator. We were invited to the bridge of the boat, crowded round to watch the monitor hit 0.00.000 and then celebrated with an aquamarine coloured cocktail. I noticed even the Captain indulged in one… and that night we hit the choppiest water where the windows of our cabin basically kissed the ocean all night long. Maybe he indulged in more than one! I should also mention that at the exact time we crossed the equator, Nick´s brother Joe and sister in law Mel welcomed his new neice, Ada Horton, into the world! We cant wait to show her this when she is old enough.

2abeed225f6311e3813b120b4a53a54f_8

I also just wanted to mention that the staff on the cruise made every moment on board almost as “magical” as snorkelling the oceans and hiking the lands. One night, pooped from a day of exploration, we all huddled on the sofas in the lounge and watched the BBC Galapagos documentary! The cruise manager bought us our bowls of popcorn, and it was a slighty surreal to be watching the wilds that we had been tramping around on just hours earlier.

Nick Says: Of course, not everyone can afford to splash the cash on a bells & whistle cruise, nor does everyone want to do one. While I can’t reccommend doing one enough, and upgrading to the best boat you can, I understand those who can’t, or won’t go on one – it was only the fact we’d been given such a good deal by the agent that persuaded us to take the plunge. But have no fear though, for those who don’t the Galapagos Islands are surprisingly easy to visit totally independently, despite all the nay-saying of the guidebooks.

9f347e445bab11e3812a0e2c0ff80ffb_8

2. INDEPENDENT TRAVEL: If you don’t fancy spending several days at sea, then your best bet is still to head to Puerto Ayora. A busy metropolis by Galapagos standards, you can find countless tour agencies who can arrange day tours to many of the places visited on the boats, but for a much cheaper cost. You can also haggle any quoted prices down if you’re there in low season (the best low season is October-November). Its perfectly possible to stay here for $25 a night, although some of the accomdation is questionable (we stayed one night in a shed in someones garden that stank of pickles and was being patrolled by two hellhound dogs!) – after much trial and error, we highly recommend Hostel Los Amigos as the finest budget lodgings here. You can visit the Charles Darwin research centre, free of charge. Here you can see all the different species of giant tortoise, from baby ones to fully grown adults. You can also see the former home of the magnificent Lonesome George, or Solitario Jorge as he preferred to be known. The last of his kind, he refused to mate with his two wives, Georgette and Georgina, and eventually died age 96 of loneliness. Several islanders think he would have preferred a male tortoise companion, and that was the reason for his celibate and solitary existence. I now proudly sport a Lonesome George black memorial band (gone but not forgotten) and wept openly at the sight of a t-shirt declaring him to be the last of a dying race. RIP Solitario Jorge.

1450734_10153548476430284_1941117870_n

Puerto Ayora also has an amazing street we named Calle Hambre (Hungry Street) where at night it’s filled with open-air tables, food stalls, and a party atmosphere. Lobster for $15 is a good deal, and I ate my first ever one there. It was gooooooood. We also stopped by the fish market on Av. Darwin one evening, where the sellers had set up plastic tables and chairs and were frying up fresh fish for the customers. Persuading a shop-keeper across the road to stay open an extra 10 minutes, we loaded up on beers and ate some of the best sea-food of my life.

The jewel in Puerto Ayora’s crown is Tortuga Bay. The walk there and back is an hour each way, and takes you through endless woodland of silvery white trees. Bee kept exclaiming that she felt like we’d walked into a fairytale, as lizards trotted over our feet and an albatross swopped down over our heads. The bay itself is one of the most beautiful beaches Galapagos has to offer, and is home to nesting turtles and marine iguanas (the only swimming lizard in the world) that launch themselves off the craggy rocks and surf the tide.

1468742_10153548475145284_1038104419_n

When not stuffing our faces with fish or ice-cream, we also noted that Puerto Ayora enabled you to get to any of the other inhabited islands for $30 each way. The hustle and bustle of this town (population 5000) was too much. It was time to return to Isabela, the gorgeous island we had visited once on our cruise and loved it’s even sleepier atmosphere.

Bee Says: If you are travelling independently, I highly recommend a few nights on Isabela. Here you can expect to find: The best sunsets, the cheapest menu del dias (daily set meal offers, usually around $5 for a plate of meat, rice, beans and plantain plus a juice) and the easiest navigation to some hot tourist spots such as the mangrove coves, wall of tears and the estury where fresh and salt water meet (and sea lions lounge on all the benches). Oh and the amazing invention that is… COCO LOCO! A fresh coconut containing half coconut water… half the worlds strongest rum. If you are shoe-stringing like us you can just buy the coconut yourself and spike it with your own rum (about $3 in the local shop) for half the price of the beach bars.

5a1173e4610511e3a1d00ec1df5821cd_8

The lure of Isabela was so strong, that we talked our shiny new friends from the cruise, Skyler and Jordan, into moving their flight back in order to come to Isabela too. The airlines must be SO used to people falling in love with Galapagos and wanting to extend their trip, that it is actually free to move your flight times with all the local airlines. A good tip if you are uncertain of cruise dates etc! On Isabela we paid $25 a night again, in Posada Del Caminante, and spent our days walking around, lazing on the beach and bar crawling the ramshackle offering of booze serving beach huts. Our favourite was Bar Beta, which had the best sunset view tables and tiny lizards that would scoot up the table leg and lick condensation off your beer bottle! Casa Rosada (the pink house) also had a bargainous happy hour and a bonfire to huddle around as night fell. We became obsessed with a dish called Bolon in Isabela, a daily breakfast fix of mashed plantain, soft cheese and a fried egg. After the heady pace of our cruise, a few days of peace and quiet and beachlife was the perfect end to our Galapagos dream. What made this extra special was the time we spent getting to know Skyler and Jordan, two of the most fascinating, generous and insightful people you could wish to find in the world. They are on a year long adventure, spanning the whole globe, after simiarily quitting high pressure careers and taking the plunge like us. You can read all about their adventures in Africa, Europe, South East Asia and South America here at their blog 180degreeswest. We are already pining for our travel buddies, but at some point in the future we have a grand tour of southern America planned with them – mostly revolving around eating BBQ in Texas – and an invite to theirs for a proper family Thanksgiving! So we hope you´ll be reading about it right here one day.

1474594_10153548475260284_1030161134_n

From here we would break from our overlanding tradition and catch 4 flights in 2 days (one of these days being Friday 13th…) to make up for lost sick-time in Peru and make our way back to where we started, the Caribbean coast and our final country of South America: Colombia!

1467240_10153548475725284_1777513879_n