Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos & Peru 2002

Myself, Reed Boat, Lake Titicaca


After a successful  month in Brazil in 2001 I decided to return to South America and initially planned to explore Chile. Then I thought, what the hell, if I've gone that far I might as well go to the Galapagos Islands  As I would be away for a month I decided to see a bit of the Peruvian Andes as well. Being a National Park, and access strictly controlled, the Galapagos part had to be done on a package deal, but the Peruvian part could be done independently. With a wantonSea Lion Pup, Galapagos Islands "The Sagitta", Galapagos Islandsdisregard for cost, I did some research on the web, chose a Quito-based tour operator, and ended up with an 8 day cruise on the "Sagitta", a rather plush 115 foot, three-masted sailing ship, my own cabin and my own port-hole.

I flew out from Glasgow to Quito, via Miami on the first of September. Despite what I had heard I was not met at Quito Airport by a gang of Ecuadorian Gringo-Bashers waiting to machete me to death, in fact the place seemed very civilised. I booked into a three star hotel room for three days, and was even taken there in a courtesy taxi. Not bad for US$20 a night.

The next morning I checked out that my tour agency actually existed, and collected my tickets. This left me with three days in Quito.

Lowering the Boat, Galapagos IslandsOn my first day I visited "La Mitad del Munda" (the middle of the world), a rather squat and austere monument located directly on The Equator. This is one of those compulsory visits on the tourist circuit, if for no other reason but to get a photo of yourself straddling the equator, which was painted on the pavement. Inside was a fairly touristy exhibition ofPreparing to Land, Galapagos Islands indigenous native life but a good view of Quito from the top.

So which way does water drain down a plug hole on the Equator? I was told it goes clockwise in the North and anti-clockwise in the South. Having promised my brother-in-law to conduct a field experiment I spent half an hour skulking about public toilets, emptying wash-hand  basins in both hemispheres, to discover that the water had no particular inclination; it would go in either direction and could be change with a quick swirl of the water with your hand. Having spent hundreds of pounds, and travelled a third of the way round the globe, to answer this world-shaking question I suppose I could have returned home; mission accomplished. However I still had the Galapagos first.

I spent my net couple of days exploring the City using the modern, cheap and effective over-ground tram system (US$0.20) and became quite familiar with the Spanish Colonial Old Town, including the National Library where I persuaded a curator to show me their collection of antique books on the history of the Galapagos Islands.

I flew out to the Islands on a Boeing 727 at dawn on day three. I was met at the airport and our party was bussed to the docks at Baltra from were we took aDon't Step on the Wildlife! Galapagos Islands Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islandsdinghy out to the "Sagitta", anchored in the bay. There were eleven passengers, a crew of eight and Fabio, our Ecuadorian Naturalist.

Our first port of call was to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Isla Santa Cruz at Academy Bay where we saw the giant tortoise breeding-pens, and afterwards walked to the only proper town on the Islands, Puerto Ayora, where I was able to send a final e-mail home..

I was pleased to find that as promised I had my own small cabin, even with my own small en-suite bathroom. That night we sailed for Isla Espanola and after an excellent breakfast at around 06.00hrs we set out by dinghy for our first landing.

There are no landing stages on the Galapagos outside Baltra and Puerto Ayora, so landings come in to varieties; "wet" and "dry". Wet landings involved jumpingSand Crab, Galapagos Islands Myself and Amorous Sea Lion, Galapagos Islands knee or waist deep into the sea, and wading onto the beach. Dry landings involved jumping  onto the black basalt rocks which are extremely young by geological standards (only a few million years)  and very sharp. Most of the trails we had to negotiate were over these basalt lava trails which was precarious and a bit of a pain.

 We went snorkelling and diving amongst shoals of sea lions; on one occasion  I could see a couple of Galapagos sharks swimming in the background. Back on shore I was surprised by a bull sea-lion which broke out of the water, flopped across the beach and kissed me on the lips! Yuk! And we're warned not to interfere with the wildlife.

Over the next week we landed on most of the main islands and saw, hundred of marine iguanas, seals, sea-lions, turtles and lots more. The iguanas (some overSunset on the Galapagos Our Party Ashore, Galapagos Islandsthree feet long, were fearless, sometimes piled up on top of each other on the paths, so you had to step over them. The birdlife was also phenomenal; diving boobies, soaring frigate birds, pelicans, Galapagos Penguins and a lot more. The food on the ship was excellent and apart from a slightly twisted ankle, courtesy of an over-zealous dry landing,  which grounded me for a day, everything went smoothly. Every day we were out walking, cruising in dinghies, kayaks, swimming and snorkelling On day five we were all invited up to the bridge for champagne as we "crossed the line".

This place was a wildlife photographer's paradise, even the birds stayed still. I spent hours photographing everything I could, ocean panoramas, close ups of sea lion pups, burrowing crabs mug-shots of iguanas from six inches etc, etc.

On day eight we returned and berthed back at Baltra and were bussed back to the airport. While I was sad to leave the islands it had been worth every penny and I'll probably go back in a few years. Back in Quito I booked back into my previous hotel, andThe Sacred Valley made my plans for Peru. Spanish Colonial Palace, Cusco

Next morning I went down to a travel agents and bought tickets to Cusco in the Peruvian Andes via Lima. With usual airline logic, it was cheaper buying a return ticket going, Quito-Lima-Cusco-Lima-Quito than just a single to Cusco..

With a day left in Quito I  made the trip up to the statue of "La Virgen de Quito" on top of the hill above the Old Town. I'd been warned that the walk up could be dangerous for tourists some who had recently been robbed by armed gangs. Anyway it was roasting hot, so I took a taxi up with a French couple I'd bumped into. The statue was fairly impressive with good views over the city.

Next morning I had to be up early (04.00hrs) for the flight to Lima. I had an overnight stop, so booked into a hotel in the city centre for the night. Unfortunately the window looked over the main street, and all night long I was kept awake, by dozens of road-raged morons at the traffic lights, revving their engines, shouting out their car windows, and banging their fists on their car roofs, until the lights changed. Then, with more revving, bawling and banging they would roar on for a Inca Terraceshundred metres or so to the next red light, before starting their infantile antics over again.Inca Masonry

Next day I was up early again for the dawn flight to Cusco and was installed in a reasonable hotel in Cusco city centre by noon. Having past experience of the joys of High Altitude Sickness I went to bed to rest for a few hours. The manager brought me a cup of tea; the leaves floating on the surface were clearly not of the Typhoo or PG Tips variety, and it was a very refreshing brew. After a couple of hours sleep I hadn't developed any altitude symptoms so decided to venture outside.

Cusco was all right I suppose, perhaps my expectations had been too high, or the altitude affected me in some subtle way, but I couldn't really get excited about the city. It could even have been a case of a surfeit of old South American colonial cities. I did a bit of sightseeing then returned to my hotel to arrange the next week. Given my limited time I had no option but to arrange a customised itinerary to the more accessible part of the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. Next day, once again at some un-Godly hour and off by coach to the Sacred Valley.Myself Above Machu PicchuFrom the Train to Machu Picchu

Today I have read extensively about Inca Civilisation, both the history and culture, and the not so black and white history of its conquest and downfall by the Spanish. Then my knowledge, although fairly extensive, was perhaps not detailed enough for the one day, whistle stop tour that was all I had time for. However it was still very enjoyable and I saw a good few locations that I knew about and it was fairly informative. However I had only a week left so I had decided that the only realistic way to see Lake Titicaca and get back in time was to take a three day tour, so I booked this from my hotel for the day after tomorrow.

The next day I had set aside for Machu Picchu. The train left at dawn, and as it was a good four hour journey each way I decided to take the expensive carriage with the panoramic viewing dome. This was a good choice if you could afford it as it gave an excellent view of some spectacular scenery on the way there, and the comfort to crash-out exhausted on the way back. The train went along the Urubamba River for part of the way, eventually stopping at Aguas Calientes, a rather depressing town which seemed to have railway tracks instead of streets. I knew quite a lot about Machu Picchu and had no intention of taking any guided tour, instead I walked up the side of the mountain to the ruins. This took about an hour or so, but itStop-Off on the Coach to Puno was worth it for the The High Andessense of achievement when I finally emerged above the city. I made sure I got a passing local to take some photos of me (one of which, suitably enlarged and framed, now has pride of place above my mantle-piece!) before descending into the city itself. Fortunately I was early enough to avoid most of the tourist throngs and had a brilliant few hours before descending again to the station and the train back to Cusco.

I got back from Machu Picchu late and after a few hours sleep I had to get up again at about five in the morning for the coach to Puna and Lake Titicaca. While I remember vividly the coach trip, on a modern, air-conditioned coach, the frequent stop-offs at spectacular locations in the Andes, for some reason I have no recollection, or for that matter photographs of Puno itself. Perhaps this is just as well, or perhaps it was some kind of altitude induced memory loss but as I have yet to see any visitor's account of Puno that doesn't lambaste it as a hell-hole it probably doesn't matter much. Anyway it wasn't Puno I had come to see but Lake Titicaca which more than lived up to expectation.

Once again it was an early start the next morning for a day out on the Lake. First stop was to the floating reed islands of Uros. These are rather amazing constructions, being made from woven mats of The Coach to Punoreeds, anchored to the bottom of the Lake. Walking Lake Titacacaon them was a bit like walking on a bouncy castle. Actually you really felt this was taking tourism to excesses, you really felt you were intruding on people whose lives had been transformed into a side-show for Western Tourists, although on the plus side (I suppose) without the tourist money these islands would have been abandoned years ago. After this it was back on board the boat again for a long trip to Tequile Island. A lot quieter, although it was a steep hike up to the top of the island with no turning back; the boat dropped us off then sailed round to the other side to pick us up later. I would have liked to have stayed the night; there are no hotels, you stay in an allocated local house but the tour and my ever-shortening time didn't allow this. By the time we got down to the boat everyone was knackered anyway - I don't think there was anyone left awake by the time we got back to Puno.

Next day we went back to Cusco on the coach. The following day I flew back to Lima.

I had only one full day left but decided to make a final effort and go and see the Nasca Lines or regret it forever. Presumably the change in altitude or just insanity Descending Taquile Islandhad overcome me but it had to be done. It was a six hour sleep on a luxury coach, leaving atAircraft Awaiting Take-Off, Nasca Lines a ridiculously early hour (I was getting used to this by now) to get there, and when I did, as expected, there was precious little see except scrubby desert from ground level. However it wasn't difficult to get a flight over the lines on a Cessna 130, single-prop airplane. This was fabulous, it was the first time I'd ever been up in a light aircraft and I took lots of photographs although for some reason managed to miss getting any of the actual geoglyphs in them. Actually there was so much glare from the desert floor that day, seeing them was difficult and the photography difficult in the cramped cockpit. However it was well worth the trip and the six hour coach journey back from Lima.

Next day I flew back to the UK. Not the best series of flights I had ever done as it involved a nine hour, all night stop over in Miami where I was too worried to sleep in case I failed to wake-up and missed my connection. By the time I got back to Glasgow I was shattered and felt in need of a holiday. However instead it was back to work the next day...

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