Goodbye South America and hello North America

ecuadorflagWe said our fond farewells to South America, our last stop being Guayaquil (which we still can not pronounce correctly) in Ecuador. The last night was in the Holiday Inn at the airport, so there was quiet aircon, very good international food, soft beds and even an outdoor swimming pool. All very nice.

The LAN flight to New York was an hour late taking off, very bumpy, screaming kids, not much to see outside on the way up and a lot of people coughing without any care to cover their mouths. All not very nice. JFK airport then decided have no toilets working until after customs, which normally wouldn’t be a much of a problem, but when no-one could go to the loo an hour before landing because of turbulance and it takes an hour and a half to deliver bags to the designated place, there were some seriously worried faces and much pacing up and down. And remember, the screaming kids were still screaming and the coughers were still coughing. Welcome to America everyone!

Finally, we left we airport over 2 hours after landing and everything started to improve. Taxi was available and roads were very clear. We booked the Opera House hotel in the Bronx, party because of the location, partly because of the hotel itself that had performers including Harry Houdini and the Marx Brothers in its past life as the entertainment centre in the Bronx. And it was less than half the price of something similar in Manhatten. Really lovely hotel, but in what seems to be a reasonable shady neighbourhood.

nyc1The next day we had a quick trip down to Brooklyn Bridge where we wandered over to get the iconic view of lower Manhatten, the statue of liberty and across the water to Brooklyn itself.

 

 

 

 

nyc3Then, back to the Bronx for the main event, Major League Baseball at the Yankee Stadium. Arriving fashionably late (it seems, hardly anyone gets to games at the start), the Yankees were already 1-0 down to the Los Angeles Angels. A recovery at the bottom of the 3rd and in a blink of an eye – well, actually 10 minutes – it was 3-1 with the help of a controversial “baulking” call that I’m pleased to report confused not just us, but the locals too.

 

 

nyc2The Angels raised their game and it was 3-3 and it all to play for. Yankees then won it – although we didn’t know it at the time – with one of the Yankees scoring his first ever home run. Not the one with the bandy leg stance unfortunately. We enjoyed the baseball and a short walk to collect our washing and we were home before darkness fell.

 

9,000 miles of ocean

pulpoThe South American part of our trip comes to a close with five nights on the Ecuador coast. Puerto Lopez is a fishing town now taking advantage of increasing tourism by opening a bunch of beachside hotels. Ours is Mandala. It’s comprised of about twenty cabanas, lots of garden and a restaurant/bar – perfect for doing nothing.

This will be a short post – we’ve not done much – but there are a few items worthy of mention.

All of the cabins are named after animals – Penguin, Sea Lion, Tortoise etc. This is cute but, when ordering drinks, a bit of a struggle for tourists’ slowed-down brains to grapple with what the Spanish is for their room. Ours was the Octopus room, or “eeerrrrr” (with upside-down hand wiggle).

davidbattyThere’s a Northern Ghost Bat living in our patio roof. His name is David Batty (apparently). Once we established that he wasn’t a huge insect, pupating Atlas moth or a dead mouse, it turns out that he was rather cute. Look at his little eyes… aaaahhh.

We were woken up by a three foot iguana crawling over our roof – long, stripy tail and all. They’re not rare. They’re not cute. But it’s not an everyday occurrence, so we thought we’d flag it up.

Considering how many insect-gobbling beasties there are here, there are still an awful lot of insects. We’ve been bitten more here than the rest of our trip combined – so we’re glad of the ‘Off!’ and the Larium.

milesLooking out due west, over the Pacific, there’s not a jot of land between us and the Solomon Islands, over 9,000 miles away. Bear in mind that we’re only 5,800 miles from London. Apart from a wet beach landing in the Galapagos, when her mind was on other things, Chloe had her first proper paddle in the Pacific Ocean. Exciting.

We share this hotel with five huge dogs – all various ratios of great dane and labrador. They’re very Scooby Doo and they’re mostly harmless, but drool a lot. Come evening, the bar terrace is a big pile of oozing dog flesh. Nice.

It’s going to be hard to leave, but leave we must. The delights of DC in spring, proper curry and New York charm await.

 

Galapagos days 5 to 8 – Here be sea lions, Jim lad!

day58_1It took only three hours to forceably remove Chloe and Allan from the Treasure of the Galapagos. It should be the work of but a few minutes to fill the gashes in the deck left by their clawing nails and to rinse the tear stains from the carpets.

Well, that’s how it felt. In reality, an early breakfast, a quick zodiac ride to the harbour, and we were left high and dry in the town of Puerto Moreno. Luckily, the Galapagos had one final surprise for Chloe when a massive sea lion glided out of the sea and straight onto the dock, landing next to her rucksack. Finally, a close encounter of her very own!

We elected to stay an extra few nights in Puerto Moreno, essentially because we could. It’s a small, sleepy place, although it’s the second largest in the Galapagos and its capital. While it’s very hot and very humid, being less than a degree from the equator, sea breezes keep things bearable. All there is to do is wander around, stop for lunch, browse the souvenir shops for carved boobies and visit the town’s main attraction – the Galapagos Interpretation Centre.

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This we dutifully do. It’s largely there to impart knowledge about the history of the islands and the importance of sustainability, so we learn some interesting things about the various attempts to colonise the islands over the years, offers made to purchase them by the UK, French and US governments, the devastation wrought by early business interests in sugar and whaling, and the use of prison labour by an exploitative governor (ultimately murdered by the inmates).

Best (or worst) of all, one of the earlier pioneers of the exploitation of the Galapagos was one William Ambrose Cowley – explorer, businessman and, frankly, pirate. Always thought Allan had the eyes of a salty sea dog. Why are some of the best pirates called Cowley? Because they aaaarrrrr.

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We also take the opportunity to see more sea lions, pelicans, crabs, frigates and marine iguanas from the comfort of the quayside. The sea lions bark into the night as we sit and eat dinner, competing with likes of Bonnie Tyler and Heart at the soft rock obsessed pizza parlour.

day58_8In a final salute, as we are killing an hour between check in and take off (the airport is minutes from the town centre), one last sighting of our favourite animal of the trip – the magnificent, ridiculous, grave blue-footed boobie.

Galapagos Day 4 – Extreme Galapagos

Not many words this time, as this was a mind blowing day during which we saw almost everything that the Galapagos could throw at us – except sharks. Instead we offer plenty of photos. They tell a far better story of our last full day on the Treasure of the Galapagos. Let’s put it this way, our flabber was well and truly gasted, time and time again.

The morning was spent on South Plaza Island, home to many breeding pairs of swallow-tailed gulls with their red-ringed eyes, cliff-climbing sea lions, pelicans, marine iguanas, land iguanas, lava lizards prickly pear cactus trees and bright red weedy plants resembling something out of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds.

The afternoon was a zodiac trip around Cerro Brujo (Wizard’s Hill), with caves carved out of the rock, pelicans, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, furry seals, huge turtles and frigate birds, followed by a landing on the small island. Then snorkelling and a walk along the beach, and another highlight of the trip – Allan, at the end of his slightly disappointing snorkelling, was floating near the shore when a friendly sea lion decided to swim nearby and float around for ten minutes, barely a metre away. There are photos of the afternoon, but on the underwater camera and we can’t transfer them, so you are spared.

The evening brought a fantastic sunset, with pearly skies turning fiery red over a dramatic rock formation. Finally, as night fell, we parked for the night in the harbour at our final destination of San Cristobal.

Anyway, onto the photos. Excuse the number of them!

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Galapagos Day 3 – Sea Lions, lizards and sharks, oh my!

Day 3 of our Galapagos adventure started after breakfast with another short zodiac trip to the uninhabited (by humans at least) island of North Seymour.

A dry landing, we arrive at a flight of five steps to get to the island and, Houston, we have a problem. Several sea lions are blocking our way and you don’t really argue with animals that weigh as much as much as 250kg. Harry our guide came to the rescue by gently clapping at them and they very reluctantly departed further inland or back into the sea. They seem to be acting as guard-dogs to the island and the similarity continues with them barking away at everyone who gets too close, but they seem genuinely inquisitive with us. And, just like Buenos Aires pavements, we need to be careful to avoid the sea lion poo on the rough track through the island. And my, do they smell, bad.

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When we’d finally got past all the sea lions, an aviary adventure awaited Allan, and Chloe of course. First up were the frigate birds. During our journey so far, the frigates have been all around us, but always floating effortlessly on thermals or trying to nick stuff from boats or the fish market. This island is their breeding ground: 7-foot wing-spanned males sitting on the ground trying to impress the ladies with their huge red puffed-up (stop sniggering at the back) chests, loud constant warbling and nest-making abilities; juveniles and chicks sitting and waiting for food to come back. They are everywhere. You really do have to mind your step here, not just because the trail is made up of big orange lava stones (follow the orange lava stone road?) so pretty rough, but, there may be also birds who have decided that the pathway is a good place to nest.

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Next were the boobies (again, what did I say? stop sniggering at the back…). Blue footed boobies. Again, these are nesting at ground level, so watch your feet everyone. We watched in awe of these magnificent creatures, which Chloe thought looked like grave Georgian gentlemen decked out in bright blue stockings and brown silk coats. It was pure BBC Attenborough documentary and it went something like this. Boy boobie attracts girl by loud whistling, boy dances with girl by lifting one foot at a time in slow motion for prolonged period, boy and girl exchange beak taps, boy then raises neck and wings and whistles again. Girl impressed with this half hour display? We both were, but she wasn’t and on this occasion, she decided to fly off.

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Whilst watching sea lions, frigates and boobies, we also saw stunningly big iguanas and bright crabs. A stunning morning’s worth of extreme Galapagos.

 

The afternoon trip was swimming and snorkelling on Mosquera Island. To call this an island makes it sound quite grand, what maybe it should be called is “a strip of white sand with very little vegetation and barely 20m wide”. A wet landing this time, which Allan decided to make it a little wetter by catching a wave when getting out of the Zodiac. Luckily the camera was in the waterproof bag. The 14 of us who made the trip were greeted by a large number of sea lions including a very young pup. We left our bags on the beach and had a wander to the end of the island (it took about five minutes of very slow walking) where there were some whale bones and got back to find that the sea lions were lying right next to our bags.

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Some of our group went swimming and that’s when the fun really began. Those on the shore suddenly said “there’s a dead sea lion over there near the shore”, “oh, there’s something attacking that sea lion”, “OMG, that’s a shark attacking it”.  Everyone got out of the water fast, except one of our fellow passengers, Brendan from Ireland, who ended up swimming right next to the six foot shark, despite our shouts. Pleased to report that both Brendan and the previously thought dead sea lion emerged from the water without any further bother, with a fantastic tale to be told many times later by Sharky, as he is now known. In true fisherman “the one that got away” style, the shark is now probably over 20 feet long and was probably a great white instead of the (fairly) harmless Galapagos white-tip reef shark. No-one got back in the water afterwards mind you, six feet or not.

 

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The last thing, before yet another top meal from Chef, was to watch the sunset over the soon-to-be-completed windmills of South Seymour (Baltra) island from our balcony. A stunning end to a stunning Galapagos day.

 

Galapagos Day 2 – Lava fields and 365 steps

day2_1We woke up very early at 5.30am after a good night’s sleep on the boat. Maybe it was the engines starting or was it just that we were too excited about the day ahead? Staring out into the distance – we did that a lot in four days – were three other boats, all waiting their turn to start the journey to our next destination. Two hours’ sailing and another short zodiac hop and we were on Santiago Island. This was a dry landing, which meant stepping straight onto some sort of land. There are also wet landings which would land us on beaches, but more of that later.

day2_6Immediately, we saw why were were here. We had stepped onto a huge expanse of black rock that was liquid magma barely 100 years ago. The Galapagos was very volcanic in these parts and remain so, with active volcanos in the easterly islands of Isabela and Fernandina, because they lie above a volcanic “hotspot” – there are only 50 or so of these in the whole world.

 

 

day2_3Anyhow, back to the black rock. Some areas were smooth as glass, some looked like rope, some shining with rainbow colours where the lava had hit sea water, blowholes in the rock that were clearly where hot lava had bubbled from (called ‘hornitos’), there were half metre wide cracks formed when the lava had cooled that were red, yellow and brown and we could walk right over all of it. It seemed slightly wrong to trample over this fantastic piece of history, but tourists are only allowed over certain parts so, hopefully, this will be still in one piece for many generations to come.

day2_5There was enough to keep cameras clicking and people ‘wow’-ing for the two hour trek from the water’s edge to a kilometre inland to see how far the lava managed to reach and then back again. This is an uninhabited island, so the only noise came from of 12 pairs of walking shoes making the rocks squeak.

Who’d have thought that black rock would keep everyone who came on this trip interested for so long? But it did and ended up being one of the highlights of our whole trip.

 

Next up was snorkelling off a beach. Or it was meant to be. The waves got a little big and the captain and guide suggested that it probably wasn’t worth trying to land the zodiacs on the beach and we could snorkel directly off them instead. We declined, eyeing the crashing waves, and those who did said visibility was pretty poor.

Lunch was served whilst we made the short 30 minute hop to Bartholomé Island. Mr S, please note the “B”.

day2_8 day2_7What is there to do on Bartholomé Island?  How about a spectacular walk up some steps to see a great view of all the surrounding islands? 365 steps? No problem, said Allan, we’re not at altitude anymore. A dry landing for my boat but after the second zodiac took four attempts to land eight people, getting quite a few slightly wet, others may disagree with the phrase “dry landing”.

day2_9 day2_10The island itself is stunningly wild. Without any human habitation, the place looks like it probably has throughout history, except for the volcanic creations, the 365 steps and lighthouse at the top. A German guy on the tour said that the steps are pretty recent, it used to be a bit of a scramble to get to the top – he was pleasantly relieved! On the way up, our guide pointed out the very hardy vegetation living on the island, lava tunnels and massive hornitos. I’m sure he talked more, but our concentration was purely on making it up to the top. It was fairly hard work in the mid afternoon sun, as you may see from the big red face in the photo, but there were indeed stunning views at the top, including islands over 40km away, the white sand beaches and shimmering waters below.

Dinner was where we started to get to know our fellow passengers and there was an introduction to the crew over cocktails. We got to bed early at 9.30pm reflecting on a fantastic day and to dream of black rocks.

You may have noticed, no mention of any wildlife for this day. OK then, here goes: there were sea lions swimming under our boat, hundreds of crabs scuttling out of the way when we made landings, pelicans flying over and around the islands, frigate birds constantly gliding around, blue-footed boobies fishing, herons just hanging around on rocks, lava lizards on the way up to the top of the hill and penguins (yes, the Galapagos has penguins!) in the far distance on rocks. That is all.

Galapagos Day 1 – Zodiac Mindwarp

lifeonearthWhen she was younger, Chloe was given a book. It was David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’, based on the BBC TV series of the same name. It was a weighty hardback with thick, silky pages and the most wonderful colour photographs of strange creatures from around the world. And it’s the reason why today’s plane ride of terror was worth every white-knuckle second.

We landed on a barren, rocky island called Baltra, which hosts nothing but the airport. Its other name is South Seymour and it’s one of the Galapagos Islands. We can hardly believe we’re here. The dry landscape, humid atmosphere and stifling heat are less than promising. However, the thick, blue disinfectant soaked carpet that we are made to walk across and the security search for seeds, fruit or other potential biohazards, with a frenzy usually reserved for explosives or drugs, promise that there must be something amazing past this point.

After waiting for other members of our party to arrive on different flights, we are poured onto a hot bus and ferried to a small jetty to wait, again, until the small zodiac dinghy can take us to our ship. Not much to do then but look out into the little harbour. Hang on, is that a sea lion basking on that rock not twenty feet away?

day1_13Which is when the Galapagos springs to life.

A school of brightly coloured fish dart into the shade of the jetty. Another sea lion rises in triumph to the surface with a huge parrot fish between its teeth. A pelican that’s been hanging out on the rocks tries to nab the fish, but fails. The sea lion legs it with its lunch. A huge, black frigate seems to hang in mid-air, using the breeze to hold its position behind a large refuelling boat. The first sea lion sleeps on.

We didn’t even get our cameras out of our bags.

Soon the zodiac turns up and we’re bundled into lifejackets. As we zoom across the bay, a large sea turtle swims lazily within a few feet of us. Our expectations, which we have worked hard to keep in check up until now, explode into technicolour and we haven’t even set foot on our ship yet.

day1_7The Treasure of the Galapagos sleeps sixteen guests, plus a crew of about a dozen. We’re pleasantly surprised by the size of our room, which has a large window and its own balcony. It’s a lovely ship but there’s no time to admire it as we’re off to Santa Cruz island for our first stop – the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora.

Another transfer to land in the zodiac and we’re soon driving up and over the island, from the arid lowlands and through the ‘sunflower forest’ (not sunflowers but trees with wide, flat canopies).

The Darwin Station comprises a biological research centre, running breeding programmes for various species, and a visitor trail that gives newly arrived tourists a chance to meet some of the wildlife we’ll encounter.

day1_9On our way in, a bevy of sinister-looking marine iguanas bask on a concrete slipway, their beady eyes and scaly black and cream crests reminding us of Gremlins. We meet their land-bound cousins too, slower, rust-coloured, peaceful vegetarians. We see a number of Darwin’s finches – the group of birds whose beaks held the key to his theories on evolution – and the only cacti in the world that grow like trees, with thick, woody trunks. We stop to smell the bark of the Holy Stick tree, which looks mostly dead but gives off a resiny incense aroma (they are burned in churches hereabouts).

day1_8One of the totemic animals of the Galapagos, the giant tortoise for whom the islands were named (‘galapagos’ being Spanish for a kind of saddle), is far bigger than the individuals we saw in Singapore. Ponderous, huge and jurassic, their feet are elephantine and the size of dinner plates. It’s hard not to imagine we’re watching a CGI-ed recreation of some long-extinct creature.

Once our tour is over, we have an hour or two to wander around Puerto Ayora. It’s a typical seaside town, but the largest in the Galapagos and our last chance to buy any essentials before we haul anchor. Our guide, Harry, suggests we take the sea road back to the main square. There’s an interesting little fish market on the way.

Clever Harry. There certainly is an ‘interesting little fish market’, but not for the reasons we expected.

Two concrete counters – one for preparing the fresh catch, one for selling it – sit under an awning. Locals turn up to buy their dinner or supplies for their restaurants. Does that really warrant the amount of tourist attention it seems to be getting? Yes, when you realise that there’s another whole customer base for this stall, but unfortunately they don’t pay cash.

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A sea lion poses within throwing distance of the counter, letting out a quick bark when cameras come too near. A posse of pelicans are lined up on the other side, behind the fishmongers, like a gaggle of schoolchildren. One particularly clever one takes up position underneath the counter itself. And most breathtaking of all, a large frigate bird uses the nearly non-existent breeze to hover barely a few feet above the counter, hoping to snatch his supper.

To be clear, no one appeared to be feeding these animals – the only fish we saw taken was in a lucky drop by one of the fishmongers, quickly wrestled back by a customer.

day1_14A stroll down to the furthest pier offered us sightings of a heron, more marine iguanas and dozens of Sally Lightfoot crabs, ruby bright against the black volcanic rocks.

Soon it was time to catch the bus back to the dock, but even then the Galapagos wan’t done with us. As if to remind us that it’s not all about the glamour pin ups, every one of us (except Allan) was bitten to hell by horseflies and midges as we were waiting to board the zodiac. Our final spot of the evening was the sight of two pelicans using the zodiacs tethered to the back of the boat as fishing platforms.

What’s it going to be like when we actually get onto one of the human-free islands?

Welcome to Ecuador

Our last new country of this holiday has come and it is the land of oil, coffee, chocolate and of course, the Galapagos. Our first introduction to Ecuador is the city of Guayaquil that is madly busy, hot (it’s 31c at least when I’m writing this and it’s 6.30pm) and so humid that it feels like we’re back in the rainforest in Borneo – see here for memories of that particular trip, although we haven’t had the same amount of rain as one of the posts from there.

Looks like we chose well on the hotel again; clean, lovely family owned place, great breakfast and (touch wood) secure. From the photos below you may just see that the name is Hotel Macaw. One of the daughters of the owner did these murals and they look just fabulous.

Tomorrow morning we go to the Galapagos. We’re on a boat for the next 5 days, so don’t expect posts during that time. Surely there can’t be Internet on a boat in the middle of the ocean?

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Adios Peru – Hasta pronto

peruflagPeru was pretty special; the sunset over the streets of Lima on our first night was the start to seeing many superb old Inca sites, some spectacular scenery, eating some gastronomic delights, but it was so much more. There was something about this country that is shouting and screaming to us that we really must return one day and must tell everyone that they should go too. There is much we didn’t see either due to limited time or laziness on our part, so we have plenty to see on our next visit. There will be a photo album, but like Chile, it will take a lot of time to pick just 40 photos!

 

Goodnight Peru – we’ll hopefully see you soon.

 

Lima to Lima in 50 days

After a short 1.5 hour flight from Cusco, we’re back at sea level, well 75m according to my iPhone app, so hopefully the soroche is now gone until the next high altitude holiday. Lima is where our South American adventure started just over 7 weeks ago where you may remember we had great gourmet food and saw some old ruins. See here for a reminder.

This time we are staying in a very pleasant B&B in the district of Miraflores and there are definitely many flowers to look at in the gardens of this, the most posh of all neighbourhoods in Lima, if not South America. We could have been transported straight to Chelsea or South Kensington.

lima21 lima22We wanted to see Huaca Pucllana. This is a 2000 year old adobe and clay pyramid located right in the centre of Lima. It is meant to one of the sites to see and is made up of thousands and thousands of adobe bricks and all less than 5 minutes walk from our hotel.

 

Excellent, we just walk right to it and have a good explore. Or not. The whole site is closed on Tuesdays. And we leave our hotel at 6am on Wednesday to get to Ecuador. Oh bugger.

lima23Salvation came when one of the security guards said that the restaurant is open. Is that the same restaurant that is one of the best around here in the gourmet capital of South America? Yes, one and the same. A quick credit card check and you may hear our disappointment that, well, if the only way of seeing the ruins is eating flipping lovely food, then we have to go. The food itself was awesome, including juicy big prawns, the best octopus that either of us have ever eaten, quinoa crusted tender sea bass and lovely lamb all washed down with perfect Pisco Sours.

lima24Special mention, however, for the dessert that we somehow had room for. It was described as chocolate with honey and soil, we though that this was a translation error but when it came, it was in a plant pot of extreme chocolatey honey gorgeousness and indeed had chocolate “soil” and mint leaf on top – someone here has definitely been to the Fat Duck – click here for our memories a couple of years ago of Snr. Blumenthal’s place. Although compared to the Fat Duck, this was a lot cheaper.

 

Overall, probably one of the best meals we both have ever had, with only noise in the whole ruins being the sound of llamas braying, waiters attentively hovering, stomaches groaning and our credit card taking a battering.

 

So, this time in Lima we decided to well, errrm, have some great gourmet food and see some old ruins. Lima to Lima. Circle completed.