A Travellerspoint blog

Exploring the Amaz'in Bolivia

Our first fortnight exploring Bolivia

Before we arrived in Bolivia we'd heard a wide variety of opinions - the third world aspects of a country which has limited internet and hot water, as well as the positive aspects: the amazingly cheap cost of travel, the natural beauty, and the undeveloped country.

Our first stop was the original Copacabana (the one in Brazil was named after this one) on the shore of Lake Titikaka. Customs was an absolute breeze and the money changers gave us a better rate than Google suggested for about the third border in a row (are these notes fake? How do these guys make money?). Copacabana was nice, with the shoreline covered in stalls and we had a pleasant afternoon wandering along the waterfront.

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We visited the cathedral which managed to impress us - not an easy achievement given the number of cathedrals we have seen at this point in our trip, and climbed a nice lookout where we watched the sunset. The weather was perfect and still where we were but there was a fantastic thunderstorm on the other side of the lake so the sunset was obscured by clouds but we did get to see some great lightning.

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The next day we were off early on a boat to the northern end of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), where according to Inca legends the sun god was born. As soon as we arrived, Peter and Laura had a swim in the freezing lake and then Laura discovered she had left behind her nicely prepared bag of clothes to change into!!! The island had some beautiful scenery and we walked to the southern end of the island during the day. We were pretty exhausted after our day and treated ourselves to a lovely dinner and wine as we sat and enjoyed the sunset once again (this time we saw it sans thunderstorm).

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We left the next morning and got a packed ferry back to Copacabana. While the town was nice and pretty, there wasn't a lot to do so we picked up our bags and headed on to La Paz. This bus ride was interesting as we had to cross part of Lake Titicaca. We boarded a passenger ferry while the bus went on a barge. We arrived in La Paz that afternoon which I failed to warm to during our time there. The city was large, dirty, and poor without much atmosphere. The next day was a bit of an admin day, sorting out washing, visiting the witches market (dried baby llamas, anyone?), and of course booking a trip on the infamous Death Road for the next day!!! We did manage to visit the crater of the moon, an interesting landscape which has been formed by erosion.

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Death road used to be open to cars and trucks and was the most dangerous road in the world with around 300 people killed annually, although a recent list put skippers canyon as more dangerous. Anyhow, it is all downhill and cycling it had become a major tourist attraction in Bolivia. We got picked up from our hostel just before 7 and met the rest of our group, which consisted of 8 Norwegian girls who had just finished high school - lucky the boys could keep their eyes on the road!!! We drove up to a height of 4,600m and did the first 12ish kms on a normal sealed road. Unfortunately the visibility was terrible and the wind and rain started up. My hands were so numb I started worrying about whether I could brake properly and (confession) couldn't wait for it to be over.

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This section took a bit over half an hour and then we were on to the real death road! This was more like it, partly because it was warmer as we had descended almost 1km vertically but also as we had to go a lot slower on the gravel road. The fog cleared after a bit and after defrosting we could finally enjoy the spectacular views and fun bike ride. The ride didn't feel particularly dangerous, as the road can accommodate 1.5ish lanes of traffic along its entire length, but I wouldn't have wanted to drive it in a large vehicle, especially not with oncoming traffic. There was a large landslide from the day before which we had to walk our bikes over which was illustrative of the road quality. We descended a total of over 3,000m and the changing climate was really noticeable.

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Instead of returning to La Paz with the rest of the tour group, we stayed at Coroico, as here we were already part way towards the part of the Amazon jungle near the northern Bolivian town of Rurrenabaque. On our day in Coroico we took a look at three waterfalls. The first falls were alongside a fresh landslide. Our taxi driver waited for the stones to stop falling before crossing its path as if nothing had happened. That night Coroico had a town party with brass band, beer and lots of Bolivian dancing.

The next afternoon we experienced what I now think of as the ride of death, the most terrifying ride yet in a Toyota spacio which had been converted to fit an extra 3 people. I used to think that we were veterans of questionable roads and driving after nearly six months traveling in this part of the world but this really was another level up. The road had a cliff upwards on the right side which had collapsed in places (but had been partially cleared) and a vertical drop of about 20m to the river on the left side. The gravel corners in this stretch are so sharp that they change to drive on the left-hand side of the road so the drivers have a better angle to see around corners. The road was full of potholes and occasional waterfalls crossing the road but none of this deterred our rally car driving maniac.

Before we began the death ride, and after we had waited for two hours for the vehicle to leave, we discovered that they were only waiting on one more person. With seats a grand total of about $6 we paid for the last seat so we could finally get going. Our driver seemed to want to make up for lost time. He skidded around about 1/3 of the corners while chewing on coca leaves. The coca leaf chewing is normal but what made me nervous was him looking down to pick out the best ones. After about an hour his screeching around corners caught up with us and we got a flat tire. Just another day at the office, he had it changed in about three minutes on the side of the drop off to the river. The journey took about 2.5 hours which is actually longer than the 2 hours it was supposed to take - I can only think that the roads must be much better during the dry season.

We joined a bus which had come from La Paz and which was continuing overnight into the Amazon jungle. 12 hours" this bus would get us to the northern Bolivian town of Rurrenabaque, not too far from the border with Brazil. The bus there has a terrible reputation as the roads were supposedly similar to those we had just driven - we were grateful that this would be in the dark so we wouldn't see anything!!

Thankfully we had no problems aside from our sleepy confusion when we were told to get off at 4am. It turns out we had arrived 4 hours early!! We sat dozily at the bus station until it was light enough to head to town and made friends with the only other tourist on the bus, Bronte, an Aussie girl who also wanted to do the same jungle tours as us.

The first thing we did was to check into a hostel and sleep for a few hours. Once we had caught up on sleep we booked a 6 day Amazon jungle tour, 3 days camping in the jungle and 3 days of a more leisurely tour of the swamps and lowlands. That afternoon we noticed that the entire town seemed closed and learnt that today was their main town festival! We found everyone wearing their best clothes and enjoying a bull baiting spectacle, which included a number of young men who jumped from the crowd into the ring. We watched a few bulls come out, a couple knocked some of the men over but luckily no one seemed hurt. We didn't stay long as we had to get ready for our 6 day tour and as none of us enjoyed watching it much anyway.

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Our tour started with a 3 hour boat ride up a river to get deep into the Amazon and away from civilisation. And so began three days and three nights camping in the jungle with our cook Vicky and our guide Jose. Jose really was 'the man'. He'd grown up in the jungle and his grandfather sent him on a 30 day lone survivor mission when he was 11 to prove he was ready to leave the village.

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The first afternoon it bucketed with rain, reminding us we were in the rainforest during rainy season, so we kept our gear at the base camp and hiked to see a local "village" consisting of three families. They all spoke an indigenous language and only one man spoke Spanish. They traded bananas by boating them down the river to Rurrenabaque, and the kids attended a school in the jungle which the government has set up recently. It was a totally different life to anything I could imagine, with the eight family members all sleeping and living under one roof with no walls They were fans of the current president who is indigenous and is the first leader to look after the indigenous people (some 80% of Bolivians). Bolivia are having a national referendum next week to change their constitution again to allow the president to have yet another extra term (he is already in his third and would like to do a fourth). He seems like a popular leader but each term is 5 years so it could be a interesting vote.

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The first afternoon it bucketed with rain, reminding us we were in the rainforest during rainy season, so we kept our gear at the base camp and hiked to see a local "village" consisting of three families. They all spoke an indigenous language and only one man spoke Spanish. They traded bananas by boating them down the river to Rurrenabaque, and the kids attended a school in the jungle which the government has set up recently. It was a totally different life to anything I could imagine, with the eight family members all sleeping and living under one roof with no walls They were fans of the current president who is indigenous and is the first leader to look after the indigenous people (some 80% of Bolivians). Bolivia are having a national referendum tomorrow to change their constitution again to allow the president to have yet another extra term (he is already in his third and would like to do a fourth). He seems like a popular leader, especially in the countryside, but in the cities they are generally anti him extending anther 5 years so it could be a interesting vote.

On the second and third days with Jose we went deeper into the jungle, and camped out here on our middle night. Somehow, with just an open fire and simple ingredients, Vicky continued to astound us with incredible cooking - stewed beef with beetroot, beans, fried oregano (a type of non-sweet banana that is everywhere) and rice! Each night we went out on a night walk as many odd the animals are nocturnal so the odds of finding them are better.

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We saw a group of a hundred wild boars, and one night we got within 15m of a jaguar but none of us distinguished it from the branches by torchlight except for Jose before it walked away. We saw two types of monkeys, caymans (similar to alligators) a squirrel, birds, crazy huge insects, a billion mosquitoes (which bit us - especially Peter - through our clothes despite putting on repellent UNDER our clothes), and many strange trees (Viagra, paracetamol, poisons, stinky trees, trees with drinkable water inside, trees that live in harmony with parasitic vines or insects, and Tarzan vines for swinging on). We walked for hours each day, and in the evenings we camped under a tarpaulin, swam in the river, helped make a fire, and fished unsuccessfully for piranhas in a tributary to the river about 200m from where we had swum!!!!

After another night at base camp, we returned at dawn on the river to Rurrenabaque for a quick turnaround to start our second 3 day tour. We were joined by five others, but we had requested Jose and Vicky another time.

This "Pampas" tour was far less rugged, and was very relaxed. We were largely on a boat, exploring the rivers and wetlands. Here the animals were obvious and it felt more like a zoo.  We saw the differences between alligators, crocodiles and caymans, saw three types of playful monkeys, fished (unsuccessfully) for piranhas, swam twice with the strange pink dolphins of the Amazon, saw many birds including some specialists which could swim underwater for 20 minutes at a time. We also saw some decent sunsets and a sunrise, and explored a marsh looking for anacondas or other snakes. Jose saw a cobra, but didn't manage to keep it in one place for us to see anything more than the grass move. We also played lots of cards and volleyball with our new friends from the Netherlands and Switzerland and learnt a few new games. For the three days we again enjoyed Vicky's cooking and slept at a "lodge" which was a huge step up from the jungle, with four walls and even cold showers which seemed like the ultimate luxury!!!

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When we returned to Rurrenabaque we found that the buses couldn't get all the way to La Paz for the moment due to both protests and landslides blocking the road. We walked across the road from the bus station to the airport and discovered that a 40 minute flight left in 2 hours and was about $150 NZ. This was a no-brainer, so we ended up getting a flight in the 19-seater plane. This saves us the minimum 18 hour bus ride, assuming all roads had magically opened by the time we got there.

Seeing the Amazon jungle was a really special experience which I'm really glad we had. It was extremely hot (32-36 degree highs) and there were a LOT of mosquitos but it was definitely a highlight of Bolivia. Plus it was so cheap - we spent under $250 each for the entire six day tour.

Posted by nzdora 06:04 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

The trek to Machu Picchu

Salcantay trek

Our last day in Cusco before heading off on our hike was largely administrative, although we managed to fit in a fair bit of card games too.

The next morning we were ready to go at 5am for the Salcantay trek, which is an alternative to the traditional Inca trail to Machu Picchu. We drove to a nice spot for what we expected to be our last decent meal before the 5 day hike. Our group was 9 people, consisting of the 5 of us plus four others who didn't know each other. It was a bit of a stranger dynamic, but it worked. Our guide was really nice and spoke good English. We decided that he has been our best guide of the entire trip as he wasn't blatantly sexist and waited patiently for people at the back. The first walk was along a beautiful valley, following an aqueduct which supplies water to the nearby towns. There had been a good storm the night before so we had to make a detour for one of our river crossings.
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We arrived at our campsite just in time for lunch and were ridiculously impressed. Our tents had already been set up, and lunch was a 3 course meal!!! After lunch we headed on a side trip to see a beautiful lake. Unfortunately we only had intermittent views of the mountain behind but it was beautiful. A few of the guys went swimming in the freezing lake and one guy in a different group slipped and cut his foot so deeply that David had to help carry him back down to camp on the rain and he couldn't finish the walk (although we did see him later at Machu Picchu on crutches)!!!
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That night we had an amazing dinner and played some cards. We were totally spent after our early start and active day so were all asleep just after 9!!

The next morning we were woken at 5:30 with a hot cup of coca tea, which is supposed to help with altitude sickness. Our walk that day took us over a pass which was 4,600m high. No one had any major issues with the altitude although we were quite short of breath at times. We were really lucky and the clouds mostly cleared while we were at the top of the pass which gave us some stunning views of the mountain.
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That afternoon the rain came in and we slugged it out, descending over 1,600m to reach our next nights' accommodation. We had walked over 22km and the bravest (or stupidest) of us including yours truly took an ice cold "inca shower".

The next day we had to detour along a road rather than a path as there had apparently been a few landslides due to the rain. This road was a nice easy walk and we had reached our lunch spot by 11 the next day.
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I think this was the best lunch yet, with quinoa and potato soup, then an amazing spread including avocados in a delicious sauce, cheese and sausages, a roast vegetable salad, chicken drumsticks, tuna, potato and rice. After stuffing myself stupid we got a bus to a tiny town nearby. That afternoon we opted to go to the natural hot pools which were amazing! 5 crystal clear natural pools set into a beautiful valley, and about $2 to enter. Thoroughly relaxed we had a nice night sitting around the fire trying to dry some of our clothes.
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The next morning we had elected to skip the trek along the road and go ziplining instead! It was heaps of fun and the scenery was fantastic.
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We had lunch at hidroelectrica and then walked the last 11km along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the hill where Machu Picchu is located. As we walked we had a view of the backside of Machu Picchu mountain, towering above the river gorge which the train tracks followed.
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The next morning we got up at 4am to walk to Machu Picchu. We walked a few kms along the road and then waited outside the bridge for them to open the gates. Just after 5 the gates opened and we smashed the climb to the top in about 45 mins, arriving just before the first bus. We were among the first 10-20 people in when the park opened at 6am and raced to a viewpoint. Our first view of the ruins took the little breath we had left away.
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About 5 minutes later the clouds rolled back in so Rolando took us through the ruins, explaining the history, construction techniques and astrological side of Machu Picchu. The 2 hour tour flew by, and just after 8 we decided we needed to have a rest, and some food and drinks. We explored a bit more of the ruins, including the amazing Inca bridge but unfortunately David and I missed out on climbing Wynapicchu, a mountain overlooking Machu Picchu which we had booked and paid for but we had left our tickets in Morgan and Michael's bag. Luckily Peter scaled it for us and showed us pictures of what we missed.

We walked back down (slower than we ascended) and had a lazy afternoon waiting for our train. The train ride was quite cool, it is the most expensive train in the world (per km) as no roads go to Aguas Calientes so they have a monopoly unless you walk. We arrived back in Cusco at about 11 and were relieved to shower and change into some fresh clothes.

The next day was another admin day, returning our hired gear, getting our clothes washed etc. We went to Jack's cafe for a third time (the food is really amazing) and said a sad goodbye to Michael and Morgan who have been amazing, fun travel companions for the past few weeks.

The next morning the three of us remaining took a 9 hour bus to Puno, a town in lake Titicaca in the south of Peru for our final Peruvian adventure before we move on to Bolivia - Lake Titicaca. We booked a 2 day tour of the lake which started at the Uros floating islands. The villagers gave us a demonstration about how the reed islands are constructed and we were shown inside the villagers houses. After that we were shown their merchandise, much of which was exactly the same as the wares on offer at the markets in town.
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Then we had a 3 hour boat ride to the island of Amantani - the boat was only doing around 6km/hr so it was a really slow ride. When we arrived we were introduced to a local family, who we were staying with for the night. The food they cooked was very simple, with minimal processed ingredients and no meat but extremely tasty. The lifestyle of the villagers is very simple, with most of their income coming from tourism, with some farming and fishing also carried out on the islands. There are 10 villages on the island and they take turns to host the tourists so that the income is shared fairly between them. It is a really interesting idea which I can't imagine happening in many parts of the world.
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That afternoon we hiked to the two temples up on the top of the islands which had spectacular views. That night our families lent us traditional clothes and we went to a 'traditional' dance. The next morning we were up early to head to the next island, Taquila. This island was largely underwhelming but we had a nice lunch of trout with a beautiful view of the lake.
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That night we headed back to Puno, where we ended up staying for two nights as David managed to catch something. Peter and I climbed the hill in Puno which had a fantastic view of the town and explored the market but there wasn't really a whole lot to do in Puno.
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Tomorrow we are off to the "original" Copocabana in Bolivia.

Posted by nzdora 12:43 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Peru

The day we arrived in Peru we had left our hostel in Galapagos at 6am and arrived in Tumbes after 10pm. It turned out to be the town's anniversary which meant a big party in turn but we weren't remotely up to enjoying it, although the music playing in the square as we searched for an ATM was rather nice. We got offered a discount of about 40% on our accommodation if we paid cash and left by 7:30 the next morning - a classic example of the way things work here!

We therefore had another early start the next day and arrived in the beautiful beach town of Mancora before 10. We spent a very enjoyable couple of days relaxing and enjoying the beach and the amazing food in this town. On our first day we went to a quiet local kitchen which had the most amazing fresh ceviche! It was so good we went back again the next day - fresh fish, lime, chili, onion and some crunchy Peruvian beans which really added to the texture.
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After lunch we bought a few beers and relaxed on the beach. The water was surprisingly cold, compared to the warm temperatures in Ecuador but we still went for a swim.
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We had a good life admin day the next day, getting washing done, finding a sim card for Peru, booking a bus to Lima for that night and squeezing in a nice long walk along the beach. There were a lot of pelicans around the fishing boats which David loved to see.
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That night we had a 20 hour bus ride to Lima, leaving at 6pm. Within ten minutes of the bus leaving a toddler in the seats next to us threw up all over her mum, not an auspicious start.... Fortunately it was all uphill from there, as the seats were reasonably comfortable and the drive smooth and we were reasonably refreshed when we arrived in Lima.

We found our AirBnB accommodation and looked around the neighborhood. That night we went to the airport to meet our friends Michael and Morgan who would be with us for the next 3 weeks. The next day we went to Miraflores, the touristy area of town which was really pretty. We went shopping at a traditional market, and spent the afternoon at a park playing Frisbee and the first of what would be many games of 500.
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That evening we met Peter at the airport and then headed to a park with some amazing water and lights.
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The next day we explored the city centre which had an impressive square with *sigh* the usual grand old government buildings and churches - maybe we have been traveling too long!!!
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We also did a tour of the San Francisco monastery which had a lot of extremely intracate artwork. Apparently the church is also famous for the many pigeons living outside, which David and Peter tried unsuccessfully to chase.
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That night we flew to Arequipa, which is about 2,400m above sea level. We had a great hostel which was right by the centre of town. The first morning David and I managed to go for our first run of the year - what altitude sickness?!?!?
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That morning we discovered an amazing crepe cafe and then went white water rafting. The rapids were a fair bit smaller than the ones we had rafted in Ecuador but I enjoyed myself more because we had the entire tour to ourselves and were with old friends for the first time in a long while.

The next morning we got picked up at 3am for our 2 day hike in the Colca canyon. The morning was rough, but we revived a bit after breakfast and stopped at a condor viewing point. The canyon is one of the largest in the world and the native people have lived there since before the Aztecs, and have cut terraces into the steep sides of the canyon. The lookout was impressive, and David saw a condor while I used the bathroom!! Luckily 2 more flew below us about half an hour later so we all got to see them.
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We started our trek with our guide Jose, and 3 Chileans. We descended from about 3,300m to 2,200m and had lunch which a cute old lady at a small village in the valley cooked for us. The views were spectacular, but we were a little worried as we would have to walk back up the next day!! That afternoon we walked along the canyon to our hostel, in the very aptly named 'Oasis'. It had a much appreciated pool which was fantastic after our big day of walking.
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The next morning we left at 5am and climbed straight up the hill we had descended the day before. The Chileans in our group has really struggled the day before so they elected to ride mules up but our group was made of tougher stuff!! It was hard work and the altitude and temperature both fought against us more and more the higher we got! Unfortunately David got an upset stomach but there was really nothing we could do for him so he just pushed on through. We made it to the top just before 9 - did I mention how good the views were?
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We had a much needed breakfast and then headed back to Arequipa, stopping along the way a few times for lookouts and some hot pools to relax our already sore muscles. That night we jumped straight on a night bus to Cusco.

We arrived in Cusco at 7am and had a hearty meal at a nice cafe. By then David had come right enough to order the big breakfast! We found some accommodation and had a lazy day looking around, catching up on our sleep deficit and taking it easy, as Cusco is about 3,400m above sea level.

The next day we did a tour of the sacred valley. I had managed to catch whatever David had and felt rubbish that day but it was still a really good tour, although it included the usual annoyances - we got dropped at a market, silver shop, and weaving town where people try to sell you everything under the sun. This is part of the sales pitch ("traditional markets, explanation of silver processing and traditional weaving") but is really a chance for a select few shops to get a busload of tourists dumped in their shop for 20 minutes if they give a 5 minute presentation. We also saw three Inca ruins and our guide was really knowledgeable, with stories about the religious beliefs, Spanish influence, and the purpose of the original settlement.

Peter, Morgan and Michael being touristy.
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The next day we went to a chocolate museum in Cusco. We did a tour and learnt about the process to make chocolate. Afterwards we enjoyed the delicious treats at the cafe, including the Mayan hot chocolate with chili and honey.
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After that David, Morgan, Michael and I did a cooking class! We made pisco sours, a Peruvian cocktail with pisco liquor (a fortified wine), lime juice, sugar syrup, and raw egg whites. I actually found it a bit too sour for my taste, but Michael made his with passionfruit rather than lime and his was delicious.

We also made Aji de Gallino, chicken in a creamy, garlicky chili curry which was delicious. The cooking school was really well run and we had a great time.
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Posted by nzdora 20:09 Comments (0)

Galapagos - Charles Dar for the Win

I'll admit that on our flight to Galapagos we were nervous: would the visit hit our wallets too hard, was arriving on New Year's Eve with no cruise or accommodation booked a good move, and would we even experience the 'real Galapagos' at all?

We needn't have worried. Our experience was magical - the animals were friendly and we saw such variety so quickly that we probably didn't need a whole week. However, we enjoyed every minute we were there. AND we did it all on a budget. Here's what we got up to...

We arrived on New Year's Eve at the island of San Cristobal, a less-touristic island covered in snoozing sealions. We quickly found a place to sleep on the short walk into town from the airport, negotiating a price cheaper than anything we'd found online.

We took an afternoon hike to a lookout, Las Tijeretas. On the way we saw many birds and lizards and we also stopped at an informative free museum on Galapagos history and wildlife, Centro de Interpretacion.

From the hill we could see frigates - a bird that swells up a red pouch on its neck when looking for mates. Unfortunately we didn't see any puff up during our whole week but we did see them a few times. We then snorkeled in a rocky bay below the lookout with fish and a turtle. A few sealions swam past us too!
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We walked home past a few more viewpoints and a postcard beach and watched as the sun set on 2015.
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After we celebrated with a shared plate of prawns and chicken, we looked out from the balcony at the locals gearing up for a party. The energetic music (and fireworks - destroying the cartoon-like paper maché effigies representing 2015) lasted until 6am!! We rose at 7am for a tour we had booked the day before and there were still many people dancing in the streets and the body parts from the effigies which hadn't fully burnt were lying around which looked rather macabre.

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The New Year's Day cleanup

On our one full day on San Cristobal we packed in a lot by way of a day tour with a friendly guide / taxi, Moses. First up we met our first giant tortoises at the jacinto gordillo reserve. As well as adult tortoises from 60-180 years old, they have had a breeding programme for ten years now so we saw little giant tortoises too.
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"My neck is longer than your neck"

At our next stop we saw the strange blue-footed boobies at the picturesque beach Puerto Chino, together with iguanas and sealions.
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We visited a crater lake at the highest point on the island, but all we could see was fog. We saw out the day at the beach La Loberia, which was full of swimming sealions. Here we snorkeled with fish, turtles and a playful sealion pup (and its protective mother). On the beach we saw marine iguanas and the island’s local variety of Darwin's finches. The birds happily hopped around right next to us, including landing on our bags and even on Laura's feet.
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Early the next morning we took the choppy 2 hour speed boat to the most populous island and centre of the tourist scene, Santa Cruz. We had a brief search for last minute cruises, but our dates proved too limiting. It was encouraging (for next time!) that every travel agent had availability on a different cruise itinerary, but we hadn't really left ourselves enough time to take advantage of the options the agents had available. Instead we booked a day trip for the next day and searched for the best accommodation deals.

That afternoon we visited the disappointing Charles Darwin Research Institute - we expected more information and more animals after our fantastic experiences on San Cristobal. We did see some different tortoises and yellow iguanas on display in a zoo-like format.

We then visited a couple of beaches, snorkeled a little (Laura saw little stingrays) and on land we saw marine iguanas, big crabs and a pelican up close for the first time. Pelicans were my favorite animal on the islands - somehow awkward and majestic simultaneously.
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Our splash out on a day trip to the island of Santa Fe, and a remote beach on Santa Cruz, was money well spent. The tour group was a relaxed bunch and the guide (“loco Richard”) was fun and knowledgeable. On our way to the two vibrant snorkel spots we sighted frigates, blue footed boobies, sealions, and a nocturnal gull with red eyes.
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In the clear water colorful fish were everywhere, as well as little sharks, rays and playful seal pups.
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We returned to a beautiful deserted beach on Santa Cruz, a great end to the day trip!

The next day we walked down a path filled with birds and lizards to Bahia Tortuga (“turtle bay”). The beach and adjacent lagoon were picturesque but devoid of the interesting wildlife we'd begin to expect - aside from huge numbers of marine iguanas. We were lucky enough to spot one coming ashore and its tadpole-like swimming technique was really interesting. The photo below shows the cool marks they left in the sand.
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That afternoon the weather packed in, but unperturbed we caught a water taxi across the harbour so that we could walk (in the rain) to see Las Grietas, an unusual swimming area created by fissures in rock formed by lava flow. We were already wet and a little cold so didn't swim there. On the walk we saw a blue and red billed duck, some asymmetrical crabs and a stork, all enjoying the rain. This was our only day of bad weather which was pretty lucky as we had managed to time our visit for the middle of the rainy season.

The next day was our last, so we again arranged a guide / taxi to see the highlands of this island. In the morning before the tour we visited a lagoon with some fish and mangroves, and then read our books on the waterfront. I got my fix of pelicans diving clumsily headfirst into the water, and I also managed to take a single photo featuring: crabs, (cuddling) iguanas, sealions, a divebombing pelican and Laura!
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The cuddling iguanas

On the way up to our highlands tour that afternoon we saw that the day before the rain (part of El Niño) had washed away the cycleway by the main road… Looks like they need better drainage engineering.
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There must be something unstable about the ground in Santa Cruz - the first site on our tour was a giant sinkhole / crater, near the highest point on the island. In fact, there are two “twin” craters there. With high expectation, we then visited the giant tortoises reserve on this island, El Chato.

There were also a few short lava caves here, as well as a giant unicorn.
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When we got home we decided we still wanted to go to one more beach, El Garrapatero. Foolishly we started to cycle there at this late hour, but ended up getting a taxi there and back (bikes too) when we realised that a 22km cycle each way with no lights and about 2 hours of daylight left wasn't a great idea. We were very glad we went because we saw flamingos at the nearby lagoon to top off our magical week! Flamingos!
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At the beach Laura went for her last swim on the island, we had another look at the flamingos and then we returned in time to have dinner with our German friends with whom we'd been to the equator with at Christmas. They are coming to New Zealand in February, so watch out!

Santa Cruz had the classic gag of “our airport is actually on a different island”, so we started at 6 the next morning for our 10am flight. Our day of travel consisted of: taxi-bus-boat-bus-plane-walk-bus-bordercross-taxi which took us back to Continental Ecuador and across the border to Peru!

Ecuador and in particular Galapagos exceeded expectations. It was more expensive than elsewhere but we're glad we went where we did and at for the special memories created.

Posted by nzdora 17:06 Comments (1)

Equatorial Ecuador

We had some fun getting into Ecuador - our colectivo (a taxi, but shared so it is dirt cheap, I think we paid about $0.40 each) drove straight through both borders and dropped us off just down the road. We figured we should make sure we got an entrance stamp from Ecuador so joined the massive lines. When we got to the front we got sent back to the Colombian side to get an exit stamp, 2 days before Christmas they had ONE person processing exit stamps so unsurprisingly it took rather a long time. After about 2 hours lining up and 30 seconds getting a passport stamped we were finally out of Colombia and into Ecuador. We were a bit suspicious when we got offered a money exchange for our remaining pesos at a rate about 20% better what it should have been (we had looked it up that morning). We checked the bills were genuine and it worked out great for us, although I have no idea how this guy makes money, unless he offers absolutely awful rates going the other way.

We got a couple more buses and arrived late at Otavalo, a very traditional Ecuadorian town which is famous for its markets. The markets were surprisingly empty in the morning of the 24th of December and we bought an alpaca scarf and jersey, both for about half the first asking price just because there was no one else buying.
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We then got a bus to Quito. Despite being so close to the equator it wasn't too hot as the city is 2,800m above sea level. We visited the local produce market and went a bit crazy buying fresh berries, eggs, bread, sausages, and kiwifruit for a Christmas feast the next morning.
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Our hostel also put on a Christmas dinner and it was really nice to mingle with a substitute family for Christmas. David and I shared a bottle of wine and were both feeling quite giggly from it - I blame the altitude!!!
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On Christmas morning I made David a surprise treasure hunt with clues to find his present and he cooked an amazing Christmas breakfast!
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Then we headed to the equator with a nice German couple we had met the night before. The monument was put about 300m in the wrong place, although they emphatically told us that the equator zone is about 5km wide due to fluctuations in the earth's rotation. There was also a museum with some cool physical experiments and an observatory which was disappointing as it really focused on constellations rather than anything specific to Ecuador.
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The next morning we got up early to actually see some of the old city of Quito before we left. The basilica was impressive, and there were a lot of other nice plazas and old buildings. All of the churches had entrance fees which was a bit disappointing, and the old town was nice but I thought it was over-hyped. The old town was one of the first places in the world to be granted UNESCO cultural heritage status but maybe it hasn't been renovated and maintained as much as other places we have visited.

That afternoon we got a bus to a small town called Baños (named for its thermal baths, although Baños also means bathroom in Spanish) which was really cute.

On our first morning we took an easy (downhill) 18km bike ride past a number of waterfalls down a dramatic valley. We watched a lot of people ziplining and bungy jumping and really enjoyed the picturesque bike ride. At the end of the ride we went to an extremely impressive waterfall (this really means something as most waterfalls we have visited have disappointed compared to the ones we have in NZ). Then we got a colectivo home with our bikes, we aren't stupid enough to try going back uphill for 18km!!! Plus David's pedal fell off at the end of the bike so it would have been difficult.
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That evening we went to the hot pools the town originally was famous for before it became an adventure sports hot spot. They were really nice, and we both jumped in the cold pool a couple of times!
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The next day we did a river rafting trip which was really good. It was 100% in Spanish but the guide spoke clearly which was a real confidence boost (we are still getting used to y and ll being pronounced "j" rather than "y" as in central america). The rapids were a good level of difficulty, I had a great time and wouldn't have wanted them any bigger. One person fell out of our boat and David helped in the rescue operation of pulling him back into the boat.

That afternoon we went to the treehouse at the end of the world. Effectively it is a swing which overlooks a spectacular view of the valley. Unfortunately the low cloud which had been present for most if our time in Baños hadn't abated and we didn't see much.
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The next morning we left at just before 5am to make it to our next stop, Riobamba, before our bike tour started at 9. Thankfully for once the bus arrived on time so we got a nice breakfast before the tour started. We had gone up from 1800m to 2800m and I noticed the slight headache which I sometimes get with altitude, not a great start when our tour would take us over 5000m!!! I took a panadol and hoped for the best. Our tour group was really nice, we have noticed that at this time of year there are a lot more short term travelers with real jobs rather than the young people who don't know what they are doing with their lives we have met earlier in the year!

We got really lucky with the weather and had amazingly clear views of Mt Chimborazo. We drove to about 4900m and then walked up to over 5000m. Due to the bulge of the earth at the equator, we were actually at one of four spots further from the centre of the earth than the top of Mt Everest is!! I felt okay with the altitude, although definitely noticed a difference in my breathing. We drank coca tea, which is derived from the same plant as cocaine, and is legal in south america. It has a very low concentration of the active ingredient and is used for a variety of medicines, including for altitude sickness. I think it helped us at 5000m.

Then we biked down! It was great fun and the views were once again amazing. We got to the bottom about 4, and had a much needed lunch. We also saw alpacas which were pretty cute, from beind they look a lot like sheep!
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The next day we got a bus to Guayaquil, the largest town in Ecuador and the place where our flight to Galapagos would leave from the next day. We explored Guayaquil a bit that evening and thought it seemed like a nice city. Ecuadorians have a tradition where they make paper mache efigies which are lit on fire and burnt in new years eve and a lot of these were in display.
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Posted by nzdora 20:35 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

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