Tag Archives: Galapagos

The Dollar Challenge: What will a buck get you in every Latin American country?

Bee Says: Before we went travelling, we got a few nice farewell gifts. For example, Nick’s dad gave us two identical emergency blankets, which luckily we could return to him unused at the end of our trip. Meg got me a nifty pink Leatherman and a super strength head torch. My favourite gift of all was from my good friend (and now member of Team Bridesmaid) Kerry. She works in a bureau de change, and knows ever-y-thing about currency and foreign moneys. She had the genius idea of presenting us with 15 dollar notes before we left; one for each country we would be visiting and she set us the great dollar challenge. We were to report back on what we felt was the best purchase we made for a dollar in each country. Not only was this just a really interesting project to keep us out of trouble, but it also really helps to highlight the strength of the dollar in different countries and the comparative wealth between them. So thank you Kerry for being such a smart cookie – check out her lovely Leeds foodie blog here, and we hope you (and everyone else) enjoy the results.

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1. VENEZUELA – GUARAPITA OVERLOAD

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Bee Says: Ah Venezuela, the first country we visited and which remains right in the top spots of our all-time favourite destinations. Whilst we were there, the exchange rate wobbled massively in our favour and meant it was the richest we were in any country. While the official rate was 10 bolivars to the pound, and 7 to the dollar, the black market had exploded and gave us rates of 50 bolivars to the pound and 35 to the dollar. To put this in context, a beloved bottle Polar beer cost around 30p! But our first winner for the great Dollar Challenge had to be our discovery of guarapita. Whilst flicking nervously through our South America on a Shoestring guide book on the flight to Caracas, my magpie eyes spotted a recommendation for a local Venezuelan cocktail; a combination of rum with passion fruit. On our last night in Puerto Colombia, we decided we had to go seek out this mysterious drink and see what all the fuss was about. I marched up to a van selling booze on the street and ordered two guarapitas (in my fumbling just-off-the-flight Spanish) and the guy behind the bar lifted out TWO huge litre bottles of orange stuff. Realising my mistake I quickly explained I only wanted two CUPS of guarapita. This was still misunderstood as I was passed a litre bottle with two empty plastic beakers! I was about to explain further, when the chap told me the price and the litre bottle cost… yup! About 75cents.

As you can see from the very legitimate old Russian Vodka bottle it came in, guarapita is brewed in someone’s back garden and certainly tasted as you’d expect. Heavy on the rum, less so on the fruit. We sat on a low wall next to the harbour, watching the sunset and the birds swoop and the locals coming out to dance on the street to music that an old car was playing from a huge sound system. One glassful had our cheeks rosey. Two glassfuls had our hearts thudding and by glass number three we both swore we could feel our hangovers already creeping in; so we donated the rest to some people next to us and staggered back to our hostel.

2. BRAZIL – HOT SAUCE SAVIOUR

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Nick Says: While the World Cup may be coming to an end, it’s been great to see images of Brazil on TV and all over the place for the last few weeks. Particularly Manaus, where we got to spend a week or so whilst waiting for our boat down the mighty Amazon. But we found Brazil a fair bit more expensive than Venezuela, thanks to the fact it isn’t in such dire economic and political turmoil as its neighbour… However, most things were a bit more than a dollar here, until we shopped for last minute supplies for the boat ride at a supermarket  (Carrefour!) and found some bargain hot sauce. While the 4 day boat trip through the Amazon was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire trip for us, it was the hot sauce that got us through it. A meal of bland beans, rice, and either chicken or beef twice a day quickly becomes tiresome, unless you just happen to have a bottle of fiery pepper sauce lying around. Then you suddenly become everybody’s best friend – which isn’t a bad thing on a boat where robbery isn’t entirely unknown… But 4 days of hot sauce changed me as a man. Before I was a bit bemused to watch Bee slather every meal with it. Now I’m right there with her, drowning any carefully prepared culinary delight in hot sauce (habanero preferably).

3. BOLIVIA – MICRO 4, THE ENDLESS BUS RIDE TO DINOSAURS

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Bee Says: Bolivia took us from Sugar, to Salt, to Stars and then up to the witch markets of La Paz and the epic Incan terrain of Isla del Sol. Our money certainly went furthest in Bolivia, and we reached the end of our month in the country under budget. It occasionally felt like it was actually hard to spend money, and this is probably demonstrated best by our adventure on the micro 4! Before we left for our travels we had been given a few “Top things to see before you die”, “50 Best bits of the world” type travel books and it was in one of these that we learnt we could walk with dinosaurs in Sucre, Bolivia at El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) In most of Bolivia one mode of transport is a “micro” – a small mini bus that drives a circuit of the town but that can drop passengers at other spots on route for a few extra Boliviano. The micro’s are varying in quality, we saw one with a hole in the floor through which you could watch the road zoom underfoot (!) but they are generally a cheap, safe(ish) and easy way to navigate the city. We knew the number 4 micro would take us to the Dinos, so hopped on and asked the driver, who nodded. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to a millitary zone and it was clear this was the end of the line. The driver waved us off up a dirt path with no dinosaurs in sight. Eventually we stumbled across a beautiful palace like building, and as we entered we were told we were at The Castillo de la Glorieta. NO DINOSAURS HERE! I think maybe the driver had different ideas about the Bolivian culture we should be soaking up so had basically forced us to his favourite tourist spot? Either way we had a look around, meeting a group of school kids in there who ALL wanted their photos taken with the weird muy blanco foreigners! But, we really wanted dinosaurs, so we walked back to where our driver had dumped us and were told that yes, the parque was on the micro 4 route, but the opposite end of the line! We boarded a new 4 and 45 minutes later we had basically seen the whole of Sucre for about 60p and were finally at our desired destination.

4. CHILE – HAIRY LITTLE LLAMA MAGNET

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Nick Says: Chile has stated aspirations to be a ‘first world country’ in the next few years. It already feels like it’s there to be honest. It is the strongest economy in South America, and easily felt the most prosperous of all the places we visited. But as a result, it was also the most expensive of all the Latin American nations we went to. Making it even more expensive was the fact we had pitched up in San Pedro de Atacama – the major tourist destination in all of Chile. So while we managed to live as cheaply as possible (street food served in cage, delicious red wine from origin) it was pretty tricky trying to find something that matched the dollar challenge. But then we saw it, eyeing us up inside a tourist tat/artisan craft shop. It wanted to be bought. And it got its wish, and now lives on our fridge – becoming the Chile instalment of our other challenge, buying a fridge magnet from every country we visited.

5. PERU – HUANCHACO PIER (DAY OFF FROM BEING SICK…)

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Bee Says: Whilst we had some of our trip high points at Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, Peru wasn’t great to us for many reasons particularly Puno and the fact it will always be remembered as Poo-ru rather than Peru. When we weren’t frantically tag-teaming a toilet, we struggled to find much to write home about that cost less than a dollar. Tourism has hit Peru in a big way (its basically the new Thailand) and as such, prices reflect this. We had a nice day out in the sunshine in Huanchaco though, and we handed over a dollar for both of us to stroll around the creaky wooden pier. From here we stood for hours watching local lads fishing with bits of wire glued to a square of wood; which seemed to be working well for them judging from the splish-splashing buckets full of fish we saw.

 6. ECUADOR – PINK CATERPILLAR RIDE OF JOY (THE WINNER!!!!)

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Nick Says: We’d just taken a last minute decision to fly out to the Galapagos Islands, paid out a not-insubstantial amount of money to a tour agency (which we had no idea would be legit or not – but turned out to be amazing) for a 7 night cruise around the islands, and were now sitting eating a slice of pizza and drinking a beer while trying to get our heads round the fact we no longer had the money. Was it a good idea or not? Had we made a mistake? One beer led to another, and then we heard a rumbling along the road. Not much traffic goes past on the Galapagos, so we were pretty curious. But this curiosity turned to first disbelief, then incredible excitement once we saw the source of the rumbling –  a giant motorised pink caterpillar on massive wheels came zooming past. We looked at each other and nodded. We quickly grabbed our stuff and shouted, ‘let’s chase it!’ Which wasn’t the best plan as it was really quick. Finally we caught up with it as the next bunch of excited people (mainly children if I’m being honest) got on-board. We leapt on, ready to hand over any amount of money to ride the pink caterpillar (a phrase I never thought I’d write) and laughed with joy as the man asked for a dollar each for the privilege. We knew we had a winner before the ride even started, but the journey confirmed it. Putting peddle to the metal, we roared off on a whistle stop tour of Puerto Ayora. No stopping for you pedestrian! Out of my way giant tortoise! We rode on for what seemed to be miles, careering around corners like a bat out of hell. But then came the surprise ending. Pulling up at what we thought to be the finish, the driver then proceeded to doughnut the pink caterpillar in high-speed circles. We whooped at him to keep going. He obliged. What a dollar. A few days later as our cruise stopped by Puerto Ayora we talked most of our fellow passengers to hop and ride with us again. They loved it.

7. COLOMBIA – SECRET JUNGLE PAN AU CHOCOLAT

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234adc4c6a9c11e3838a1219189c01ee_8Bee Says: From our Galapagos adventuring where we spotted giant tortoises, swam with sharks and scampered about with blue footed boobys  (and pink caterpillars..!) next we hiked into the wilds of Colombia, spending some time camping in Tayrona National Park before celebrating Christmas in  40 degree hot hot hot Cartagena. 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, so to find them we had to follow the eau de chocolat with our nose; cartoon style. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these was my number 1 happy place!

8. PANAMA – SOAP AT LAST

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Bee Says: By the time we hit Peru, our supplies of British shower gel had well and truly run out. We weren’t worried; after all we had managed to stock up on sun cream, shampoo and pretty much every other essential we needed whilst on the road. However, shower gel and soap were another matter entirely. For three long countries trekking, we just could not find anything! The odd shower gel we stumbled over would be imported from USA and cost about $20 a pop, so we had to sadly return it to the shelf and carry on our stinky sticky way. Panama was almost a dollar challenge bust; firstly because after our real-life-horror-story crossing the Darian gap, and Nick’s nasty back injury, we spent the majority of our time in a hotel room where nothing cost less than a dollar! Then one night I snuck out to purchase a few make-your-own-mini-bar snacks from a shop over the road and on the shelves were… SOAP! A real life bar of soap! And better yet, it cost $1. This beaut gave us a great deal of joy and lasted us all the way to Mexico, even if by then it was a scraggly slither of joy rather than in its original glorious form.

 9. COSTA RICA – SWEATY BORDER CROSSING COCONUTS

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Bee Says: Costa Rica heralded sloths, snakes, night hikes, the best Mexican food we would ever eat and… the WORST border crossing of the entire trip. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our bags (and cheekily pulled out some of my underwear!) before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. After a breezy hour or so, we were finally let out of Panama and allowed to queue up for Costa Rica entry/searches/waiting around for no real reason. That wait went on… and on… and on… and in total the border crossing took over 4 excruciating hours of standing around. As Nick said in our original post about Costa Rica: For those of you thinking backpacking is all beers on the beach, try standing around a sweaty border crossing for a few hours while men with guns ask you questions! When we had finally been allowed to enter Costa Rica officially, we were both feeling weary, wiped and woeful. And just then, a man approached us selling coconuts… 2 for a dollar! Suddenly travel life was on the up again.

10. NICARAGUA – BASEBALL ON BIG CORN

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Nick Says: Ah Nicaragua. Probably our favourite country on the entire trip. Whether it’s a visit to the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, going to the world’s weirdest museum in Leon, riding on a boat with pigs and meeting the incredible Ike on Big Corn, and of course getting engaged on the tropical island paradise Little Corn, this was a country full of adventures and stories. It was also fertile ground for the dollar challenge. Beer was a buck, lobster not much more, bus rides and museums were a dollar, but the winner had to be the baseball game we went to on Big Corn. One tiny island, four competitive teams all battling it out for the championship. Saturday night was baseball night. The standard is high – one Big Corn local had made it to the Major League in recent years. The atmosphere was amazing, all beers and reggae music blasting out. We paid our dollar equivalent entry and walked in. We saw 5 balls before the tropical storm that had plagued us for days strike one last time, and rain off the whole thing. Days later, once we were back from Little Corn and catching up with Ike once again, he told us about the rearranged game the night before – and that he had tried to get hold of us over on Little Corn in order to ship us back, put us up for free at his, and take us to the game as he knew how much we wanted to see it! What a guy. But luck was on our side, as the last game of the championship had been brought forward. I could go. Sadly for Bee she was laid low with illness (/engagement boozing hangover), so I dashed across the airfield, got into the stadium, grabbed some fried chicken and watched a classic. My team (North End) may have been beaten in the last innings, but the game had it all. The crowd had even more. Sign me up to next year’s games.

11. EL SALVADOR – DESPERATE TIMES MCDONALDS

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Bee Says: There’s not much to say about El Salvador as sadly we were so squeezed for time that we only passed through San Salvador and the only money we spent was on… McDs! We tried to avoid the golden arches on the majority of our trip, but on this occasion we’d been in a bus since 3am for over 10 hours with no food, and being forced to watch a really weird almost-porno movie in a tiny sticky mini bus going over pot holes… we just could not bring ourselves to travel far to scavenge for food. McDonalds winked at us as we pulled into San Salvador and we were powerless to resist. Luckily it made for a handy (predictable) dollar challenge winner, as it turns out they have the pound-saver menu everywhere and our cheeseburgers were $1. Fun fact; in McDonalds in Latin America they put jalapenos in the burgers instead of pickles.

12. HONDURAS – MARKET PLACE EARRINGS

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Nick Says: My solo trip to Honduras was pretty eventful. When not scampering about Mayan ruins, or drinking delicious German beer in a micro-brewery, I was trying to dodge fiery protests  and bribery requests at the border. In between all that though, I was able to take time to do a little bit of shopping in Copan Ruinas. A beautiful, if somewhat heavily patrolled by soldiers, town the market offered loads of goods for great prices. I managed to pick up these earrings with a dollar after buying a few other pieces from the friendly market stall trader, and got to treat Bee with them on my return. I think she liked them!

13. GUATEMALA – ONLY A BLOOMIN’ ENGAGEMENT RING!

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Bee Says: After rocking my finest biro-bling for the journey to Guatemala, we thought it was time to upgrade to something a lil snazzier (but still unlikely to make me a target of crime). I found this beautiful hand-carved two tone wooden ring in a trinket treasure trove in Flores, and yep – it was $1 exactly. Obviously the real deal once we got back cost a wee bit more but if it hadn’t been for the fact that by the time we returned to England this wooden number was pretty much rotting off my finger and smelling pretty funky… I might not have been so hasty to upgrade to diamond and sapphires!

14. BELIZE – THE ORIGINAL CINNABON

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Nick Says: Caye Caulker was one of the most photogenic parts of the trip. A Caribbean getaway, we kicked back here for a week before heading onto Mexico and the end of our time in Latin America. The big thing in Belize was the food. We’d been a whole heap of different things ‘you just gotta try’, and they certainly lived up to the hype. Eating in restaurants may have been a bit pricey on the island, but street eats were plentiful and bargainous. We had cakes a-go-go from a big friendly chef guy, fried fish, breakfast burrittos to die for, and ice cold Belikin beer to wash it down. But the number one food we were told to try by everyone was cinnamon rolls from one specific bakery on the back-streets. Open only for a few hours twice a day, the cinnamon rolls would normally be sold out in about 30mins. So we turned up a dutiful 15 mins early, camped out by the door, and rushed through a soon as the sign was turned round to ‘open’. Did we want frosting on them? the baker asked. We sure did. I can still taste them now, simply some of the finest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten, and two of the for a dollar!

15. MEXICO – CHEESY CHURROS IS WRONG

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Nick Says: I can’t say we really saw a whole lot of Mexico, but we did see a mariachi band playing in a food court and drink tequila with Mexican businessmen in a hotel lobby. We also went to the mall a lot, and were tempted daily by churros – delicious deep fried doughnut treats loaded with chocolate, caramel, or cheese. Wait, what? Yep, who doesn’t want hot liquid cheese on the sugary snack? It looked wrong, and potentially illegal. And at $2 sadly out of the budget for the dollar challenge, so the cheesy tempter remained uneaten, and we satisfied ourselves with 2 regular churros for the same price – making them a dollar each.

The dollar really is the currency of the world, and it was amazing to see what  we could, and couldn’t, get with a buck. It added a fun game to the times when we had to tighten our budget, and I can’t thank Kerry enough for setting us up with the greenbacks. So, if you guys have found anything amazing for a dollar on your trips, please let us know!

 

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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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