April 10, 2015 by Guest Author
Filed under Accommodation, Beaches and swimming, Cruise, Eating and drinking, Ecuador, featured, Guest post, Leisure, Misc, Nature, Photography, Sightseeing, South America, Walking
In this article, our guest author, Kate Convissor, shares an unforgettable week in the Galapagos, with pristine beaches, aquamarine seas and of course the birds, seals and other wildlife.
Most people travel through Quito in Ecuador, heading for the Galapagos Islands as their main destination. My experience was the opposite. I was already traveling through Ecuador and planned to spend several days in lovely Quito. The city was UNESCO’s first cultural World Heritage Site, so it’s very historic and photogenic. Since I was already so close, my trip had to include the Galapagos and when my sister learned of my plans, she decided to join me.
Still, my expectations were, well, non-existent. Other than cute sea lions and birds with funny names, I had no idea what to expect from an 8-day cruise through one of the most precious and unique places on the planet.
I must say, my first sight of the Galapagos through the windows of the tiny Baltra airport was underwhelming. It looked like a dry, shrubby, rocky moonscape with heat that would melt your eyeballs.
On board the San Jose
But things improved once onboard the breezy deck of the San Jose, the ship that would be our home for the next eight days. Once we found our cabin, which was more comfortable and spacious than I had expected, with twin beds (not bunks) and a nice-sized bathroom and a big window (not to mention blessed air-conditioning for those blistering afternoons), I began to feel the excitement build and the tension drain away.
A ship at sea! What could be more delightful?
And indeed, once we were underway, slicing through an impossibly blue ocean with a far horizon melting into a similarly blue sky and the wind rushing off the bow of the ship, I began to catch the magic of the Galapagos.
The amazing animal culture
Our first landing that afternoon was on the tiny islet of Mosquera, which was little more than a lump of sand with sea lions lazily scattered about and a handful of other creatures I’d read about, like Sally-lightfoot crabs and tiny lava lizards. At this point, I was completely smitten.
This would be a great week.
Almost every day we woke to sun, sea, maybe another boat or two at anchor, a satisfying breakfast, and new wonders to explore. Days were filled with activity, which usually involved one or two hikes and/or one or two snorkeling adventures, and maybe a panga ride to some interesting cove. We usually visited two different sites each day, but the boat motored during mealtimes or at night, so we weren’t twiddling our thumbs en route to the next place.
The hikes, while sometimes very hot, were always interesting and sometimes entrancing. And, of course, there was always the blue ocean to cool off in.
Snorkeling is almost de rigueur in the Galapagos since the water is teeming with all sorts of life, from sea turtles to small sharks to schools of colorful fish. The color and variety is fascinating.
I am not an avid swimmer, but I was determined not to miss this opportunity, so I grit my teeth and wore a life jacket for the first snorkel. It was fantastic! The water was warm and so bouyant that staying afloat was effortless and all that aquatic life under the surface of the ocean was worth enduring any momentary discomfort.
One of the more delightful hikes was at Punta Suarez on Espanola Island. Since it was high tide with waves crashing against the rock, our “dry” landing was a little tricky. (This is where you want experienced guys driving your panga – the little boats that takes you from your cruise ship to the shore.) We walked across a tide-flooded inlet guarded by a big bull sea lion who was jealous of his girls. (This is where you want an experienced naturalist-guide who knows the ways of macho sea lions.)
Birds, birds, birds
Espanola is a nesting condo for Nazca boobies and other birds I’ve forgotten the names of. The rocks are dripping with whitewash, and fluffy juveniles are waiting patiently (or not) for a snack, while their beleaguered parents are trying to oblige (by regurgitating the fish they’ve worked hard to find). Bird families were strewn haphazardly across the relatively flat and somewhat rocky clifftop. An occasional blue-footed booby broke the monotony.
We clambered over rocks snapping photos like crazed tourists, while the birds couldn’t have cared less. The trail wound among the nesting birds and along a cliff edge until we all settled cliff-side to watch the waves crash on the black volcanic rock and send plumes of mist and water through a blowhole. All of which formed a dramatic foreground as the sun slowly rode down the western sky.
Now, I ask you, where else in the world can you sit with 16 people with this kind of natural wonder playing out around you? (Okay, there was another small tour group waiting to take our place on the rocks, but that doesn’t change the overall picture.)
Small luxuries combine with pleasant company
After every activity, our long-suffering steward, Jackson, met us with his broad smile and a juice drink and snacks. Every evening we passengers gathered for a beer to chat and swap notes about the birds or fish we’d seen. And every night we fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the boat as it steamed toward our next magical destination.
Our naturalist-guide, Carlos, was an energetic, informed and personable 26-year-old. He, like many other guides, had grown up on the islands and that native knowledge was honed by the compulsory training all the guides receive.
My sister and I were also lucky in that all the passengers on our small boat were wonderful to travel with for a week, from the 86-year-old lawyer and his wife (Please, God, may I be like them when I am old) to the young brother and sister who came with their mom.
I think our group was so compatible, in part, because we all opted for a small, less luxurious boat (but make no mistake, the San Jose was very clean and comfortable) so that we could focus on experiencing the islands and not staying comfy and entertained on board the ship. Some of the luxury cruise liners carry 100 passengers and can’t get to as many islands as the smaller boats.
“If you want a bigger cabin and more amenities, you should choose a luxury cruise. If you want to really experience the islands, you can have a very good time on a smaller boat,” said Evelyn, my agent at Happy Gringo, through whom I booked our cruise.
True in every way. Cruising in the Galapagos Islands was a fantastic experience, and a longer cruise on a smaller boat like the San Jose was, for me, the best way to do it.
About our guest author: Many thanks for this story to Kate Convissor who has been traveling more or less continually since she sold her house in 2010 and trailered around North America. Kate blogs semi-regularly at Wandering Not Lost. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter
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Ecuador is one of the countries that you’ve heard a lot about, but maybe would never consider visiting. Why go to Ecuador on holiday, when there are the exciting destinations of Colombia, with its rich jungles and famous beaches, and Peru, with its Inca history and Andes culture, both nearby?
One fabulous destination that Ecuador does offer, and one that you have probably seen countless times on TV documentaries and in wildlife, travel and photography magazines, is the Galapagos Islands. The islands will forever have their position in history due to their astounding array of endemic wildlife species and their connection with Charles Darwin and his infamous work on evolution following his trip to the islands on the Voyage of the Beagle.
However Ecuador has so much more to offer the discerning tourist than these islands, and the many tourists that fly in to Ecuador, transfer to the islands for a tour or cruise then immediately fly home, are missing out on so much! Having had the pleasure of travelling through Ecuador and experiencing the delights that this country has to offer, over and above the Galapagos Islands, I realised that many people are missing out. Here’s my brief guide as to the best of the rest of the fabulous country of Ecuador:
Quito is one of two main stopover points for international tourists travelling to and from the Galapagos Islands (the other being Guayaquil), but is potentially a destination in itself. If you ever get the chance to visit Quito (and you should give yourself the opportunity!) then try and stay in a hotel in the old-town city centre rather than in the new modern region – it might cost a little more but you won’t regret it.
This region of the city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, due to its outstandingly well-preserved, ancient and beautiful central region. To explore this area is like stepping back to colonial-era South America – labyrinthine cobbled streets wind through white-painted buildings, leafy plazas, and ancient churches and religious buildings. You can get lost here for days, exploring, and soaking up the history. Make sure to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional, if only for the adventurous climb through the rickety old roof for fabulous views of the city from a viewing platform on top near one of the spires.
Also worth visiting, although a little touristy (but good for a laugh!) is the equator visitor centre, only a few kilometres from Quito – stand on top of a painted line on the earth for a memorable, if a little corny, photo. Just don’t tell your friends and family that this isn’t “technically” the equator (they built the site in the wrong place – the true equator is a few hundred metres away!). Finally, for those that have fully acclimatised (don’t visit this if you’ve only just arrived), Quito’s “TelefériQo”, a giant gondola that travels from Quito, at 3117m above sea level, to the top of one of the valleys, at 3945m above sea level, offers excellent views of the city stretching away from you far below.
Okay, so this may be a metropolis, and quite a large one at that, but if you’re going to pass through a destination (many international flights and connections to Galapagos use Guayaquil Airport), then it would be a shame not to visit the best of this city. Maybe not worth visiting for more than a couple of nights, but in that extra day or so you will be able to experience modern Ecuador – how Ecuadorian people see it and live it. Head down to the “Malecon 2000”, the walkway overlooking the Guayas River, built in 2000, lovely in the evenings.
During the day Guayaquil can be a sweaty and humid affair, but as dusk begins to set and the temperature falls this modern river-side getaway stretches for a few kilometres along the river-front, and contains many monuments, mini parks, restaurants, art displays and plenty of space for a relaxing stroll. At one end of the Malecon there is the fabulous district of “Las Penas”, which is a regenerated area of the city, full of many mini streets built up the sides of a hill, complete with perfect little art galleries, salsa bars and restaurants, and other delights abound – explore to your heart’s content! A walk along the streets of Las Penas will eventually lead up towards the hill at Cerro Santa Ana – there are fabulous views of the city below and a lighthouse at the top of the hill.
Unspoiled Beaches of Ecuador
There are many fabulous areas of South America that are not that well known by the English-speaking world. Take the beaches of Uruguay for example – very popular with Argentinians, and with Spanish wanting to escape the humdrum of Europe in the height of summer, but not really on the radar of other Europeans. The same could be said for Ecuador’s beaches, and it was tempting to not even mention the beaches on this list for fear of increasing their popularity – some places are best kept secret! The benefit of Ecuador’s beach regions, compared to many of their equivalents in the Mediterranean or other similar locations, is their relative quietness without the crowds and without high-rise hotels of purpose built resorts.
Of course, there are exceptions, with the city of Salinas being one example (a resort-town if ever there was one)… however a journey north from Salinas up Ecuador’s beautiful coastline (simply a delight at sunset) will take you past endless fishing villages, all sitting atop beautiful sandy beaches – just take your pick. Montañita, once a well-kept secret complete with lovely sandy beaches and fishing shacks serving up cold beers, has over recent years started to grow in popularity (the secret got out!), but is still worth visiting for those seeking a surfing style holiday, cheap beach-side villas, and glorious sun. As you head further north, travel along the “E15” road and either stop wherever takes your fancy – try Mompiche, Cojimies, or countless others.
Cotopaxi National Park
There are many national parks in Ecuador, and all are probably worth a visit if you have the inclination, and time. Cotopaxi is probably the most well-known of the mainland parks, because of Cotopaxi stratovolcano that sits within the park and gives the park its name. The volcano features the beautiful symmetrical cone shape that is synonymous with volcanoes in general, and sits majestically on the Andean plateau (resembling that other equally beautiful volcano – Mount Fuji in Japan). Visitors to the national park are greeted by stunning Andean landscapes – rough tundra shrubbery, grazing llamas, indigenous farmers, sporadic farming buildings offering limited shelter – all with the sight of the giant conical volcano on the horizon. This is a landscape unlike anywhere else. The best way to experience this area is to get up close and personal with the region, and go on a horse-trekking adventure through the lands. For the brave, the volcano can be climbed on a guided climbing excursion, worth it to experience the awe-inspiring views from the top.
Stay in a Hacienda
Not really a destination, but more of a way of life, haciendas were, and still are, large self-sufficient estates situated across much of the Ecuador mainland, around Quito and the surrounding area. Although their traditional ways have started to disappear, many of these haciendas have adapted and provide exceptional, and unique, tourism opportunities. Many excellent haciendas are close-by to Quito, so can easily be visited, and they provide an excellent way of experiencing what life might have been like for colonial people in Ecuador hundreds of years ago. The centre-piece of these large estates is usually the central mansion, some of which contain ancient Inca walls that were used in the construction of the mansions when built by the land-owners, and these mansions have been converted into wonderful and delightfully decorated accommodation.
Many thanks for this article to Jonathan, who spent time living in South America throughout 2008 and 2009, and who has travelled extensively in Ecuador. Since returning home to the UK, Jonathan has taken up photography after being inspired by the fabulous landscapes of the Andes, and works for Go Andes, a specialist holiday company that offers cruises and tours to the Galapagos Islands, as well as many other destinations through South America.
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While Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail in Peru are on everyone’s bucket list, our guest author Jonathan from Go Andes discovered alternative trails that are just as stunning and rewarding, as well as far less crowded.
Peru is one of those destinations that is synonymous with travel, and I have always had a passion for a travel, and a desire to travel to Peru. This started when I was a young boy and I had been stupefied by a TV documentary showing the wonder of Machu Picchu. At the time, around about 13 years of age, I don’t think I could admit that I knew where Machu Picchu was, only that it was some mystical ruin in some faraway place!
Fast forward 15 years or so, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Peru, so I jumped at the chance and included plans to visit Machu Picchu during the trip by trekking on the infamous Inca Trail.
A life changing challenge
The Inca Trail did live up to all expectations: it somehow managed to be amazing and life changing, whilst simultaneously being very tough-going and painful all at the same time! The Inca Trail starts at Ollantaytambo, and is a 4 day trek through rolling hills, that eventually ends up at Machu Picchu early on the morning of the 4th day, just in time to watch the sun rise over the splendid ruin – undoubtedly the best way to experience the site. What a lot of people don’t know (I certainly didn’t, at least before doing the trek) is that the route of the Inca Trail allows you to visit 3 or 4 other impressive Inca ruins that are situated along the route of the trek that can only be visited by doing the trek itself. This alone makes the Inca Trail a very viable option.
Of course, Machu Picchu is a world famous UNESCO Heritage Site, and the most visited tourist destination in South America, which inevitably means that it is very busy. The Inca Trail is also one of the most famous treks on the planet, and one of the problems I had with the trek was simply the sheer number of people that were doing the walk with me. Every day, except February when the trail is closed for repairs, 500 people start the trek, which means there are up to 2000 people per day at some point of the trail. Although the trail was amazing, and an experience I would do again and recommend to others, after I completed the trial I started to wish that I had had the experience “to myself” a little more, to experience trekking in Peru for real, with a little more isolation. I started to research other options for trekking either to Machu Picchu or in and around Cusco and Ollantaytambo in particular.
A few years after completing the Inca Trail I returned to Peru with the aim of doing some more trekking, and I eventually chose to do two of the “alternative” treks to Machu Picchu: the Lares Trek and the Salkantay Trek. I was successful in finding very good alternative options to the Inca Trail, so I want to share my findings with you here.
More solitary treks to try
Both the Lares and the Salkantay treks start in Cusco, which is the best place in the area to get a good hotel (and a good nights sleep!) ahead of a hard trek at altitude. I did the Lares trek first and immediately realised that this was exactly what was missing from my Inca Trail experience – there was only a small group of us doing the trek (around 8, including guide and porter) and we hardly saw any other people for the whole of the trip! The route took us through rolling valleys and slowly increased in altitude towards some frightening mountain peaks in the distance.
The first night was the best, as the trek stops near an traditional village, so if you want you can head into the village to see a real Andean indigenous community, meet them, try and talk to them, and learn a little about where they live, what they farm, what they wear – I found the whole experience empowering and felt very privileged to have met these wonderful people. The hardest part of the trek was trying to get a good nights sleep, as the campsites on both the first and second nights were at altitude (around 3800 – 4000m), but the views made up for the lack of sleep.
The Salkantay Trek is a little longer, with 4 full days of trekking against 3 days for the Lares option, and, although longer, I actually found this trek a little easier and more enjoyable. With the exception of the first night of camping, which is at a high altitude of around 3800m, the remaining nights were all lower altitude so I found it easier to sleep which made the trekking experience a whole load more enjoyable. The best thing about the Salkantay trek is the outstanding views along the route – this trek heads deeper into the Vilcabamba mountain range and has some stunning views of snow-capped mountains stretching into the sky over 6000m high (including the famous Mount Salkantay). Although we didn’t get the opportunity to stop at a village for some time and meet people, as I had done on the Lares trek, this route does pass many farming communities and indigenous people so offers opportunities to see how traditional people still live and work in this challenging environment. Probably the best thing about the trip was also being able to visit the Inca ruin of Llactapata on day 4, which I stunning both from afar and close-up.
Although there is only one official “Inca Trail”, what I discovered through my love of Peru is that there are more options available. If you want to tick the “Inca Trail” off your travel check-list, then clearly you will need to do the official trek (so make sure when you book that you are on the Camino Inca – as some Peruvian trekking agencies have been known to mislead tourists with alternative treks), but if you only want to experience trekking in Peru but aren’t bothered about the route and want to visit Machu Picchu but don’t care about the official trek, then one of these options is a good idea as it will give you more of an education on the traditional way of life in this part of the world, has similar or arguably better scenery, and will avoid the crowds of people that start the Inca Trail every day.
Next on my list of treks…? The trek to Choquequirao, the Inca ruin that some people think rivals Machu Picchu – I can’t wait!
My thanks for this guest article to Jonathan who works for the travel company Go Andes. Jonathan has travelled extensively, and lived and travelled throughout most of Peru in 2008 and 2009. Since returning back to normality Jonathan likes nothing more than a bowl of ceviche and a bottle of Peruvian beer to remind him of his travelling days!
More trekking tales
This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here
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