Friday, 31 May 2013

Galapagos Islands: Planning and Booking Last minute

This is such an amazing place that I think everyone who can should make their way to Galapagos. Here's a rough  guide to help you plan your own awesome trip.

5 or 8 days?
Originally I wanted to spend 8 days on a cruise but we couldn't find a suitable boat and itinerary. We then settled for a 5 day cruise but were to arrive two days early so we could add a one day Isabella Island day tour beforehand. I think this worked out perfectly, it allowed us to get on the island and organise ourselves before we got on the boat and gave us just enough time on Galapagos without getting too repetitive. Some people on our boat were doing the full 8 days AND had 4 more days on land afterwards and were looking to change their flights so they could leave after the cruise. Please note that the last day of the cruise is just a travelling day as most flights leave about midday so a 5 day cruise ends up actually being only 4 full days.

Which Itinerary?

The Galapagos Islands is made up of a handful of different, smaller islands and it really depends on the season what you will see on each island. May is breeding season for a lot of birds and animals so its the best time for wildlife. This is also the beginning of the dry season which means sunny days but colder water temperatures to snorkel in and slightly poorer snorkelling visibility. We picked May because we didn't want it to rain too much and its just before the peak season, to improve our chances of getting a last minute cruise. We particularly wanted to see waved albatross which can only be seen on Espanola Island for certain months and were breeding at the time, whereas most other animals can be seen on most of the islands. So we specified the itinerary to include Espanola. The other winner was a visit to Kicker rock near San Cristobal Island, which is one of the best snorkelling places in Galapagos. Most cruise boats eather do the North west or South east and ours covered the South East Islands. Most itinearies will cover 2 really good islands though and the top islands according to our guide are Espanola, Fernandina, Genovesa and North Seymour. Here is an outline of our itinerary:
Baltra, North Seymour
San Cristobal: Leon Dormido, cerro Brujo, Isla Lobos
Espanola: Gardner Bay, Punta Suarez, Islets Osborn & Gardner
Santa Fe, Plazas
Santa Cruz: Tortoise Breeding Centre, Baltra

Which ever way you go about it, Galapagos is expensive. Its true that you can save 30-50% by booking last minute, usually from Guayaquil, Quito or on Galapagos itself but after speaking to different people on our boat, we all paid the same no matter which Ecuadorian city we came from. Overall, for 2 people the main costs added to $3484. Here's the breakdown:

Galapagos Per Person
5 day cruise 1100
1 day Isabella tour 120
Flights 490
Hotel Flamingo (2 nights) 32
Isabella entrance 20
Galapagos transit card 10
Galapagos entrance fee 100
Snorkeling equipment 30
Tip 40
Taxi to and from airport 36

We flew with Aerogal from Guayaquil into Galapagos and then Galapagos into Quito. We had a $1000 ATM cash withdrawal limit so we prepared by taking out money every day before booking it so we had $4000 to hand over straight away when we found the right cruise. You can pay by credit card but its a big surcharge you end up paying, eating away at your discount. We saved overall $1000 off the online price but it looked like everyone else paid the same on our boat as they all booked last minute too. 

Which Travel Agent?
Guayaquil, unlike Quito doesn't really have a central tourist area so you had to wanter around a lot to find agencies and get quotes and check availabilities. This is a tiring and time consuming process of people calling up boats as there is no online system for checking or booking. The larger, flashier offices were a waste of time. They are too busy to check numerous boats so always just give you one or two expensive options they don't really suit your needs. You really needed a smaller place that JUST did last minute Galapagos tours as their primary business. One other frustration was that we started looking on Sunday but nothing was open so this was a day wasted. The only place we found that catered to our needs was Travel Galapagos located in the Hostal Suites Madrid. Chris was really helpful in finding out exactly what we wanted and spent a lot of his time with us explaining things and calling up a lot of different boats. He was very peristant in looking, what you need when spots get snapped up from under you. He also offered us a fair price. A lot of people, us included, found that even an hour delay thinking about options and researching them could mean you lose it and then have to start all over again. My advice, know what you want and book it when you see it! We also had a public holiday in the dates we wanted which made things more booked out.
We were tired, hungry and frustrated when Chris finally found us the Guantanamera and we snatched it up after doing a 2 minute online boat check. Luckily we did as the couple who booked it last had to be split up into single sex rooms but they too had run out of options at that point and just sucked it up and took it.

Which Class of Boat?
The order of boat quality goes from economy, tourist class, first class and cruise ship. There are also motor boats and catamarans. Our lower budget meant they we were only aiming for tourist class and first class boats. The Guantanamera is a tourist class, motor boat so our cabins were small and basic but clean and comfortable. We had air conditioning (which we didn't need to use), hot water showers and great food on board. Actually, considering some of the hostels we stayed out, this was an improvement and we were happy with it. The smaller boat size does mean you feel the boat rok more and I am really prone to motion sickness. But I found that if I took some tablets and napped when we were sailing I could sleep the nausea off and am proud to say I didn't throw up once on that boat. Also, judging from the other groups we saw, it looked like the nicer the boat, the older the clientele. So think carefully who you would want to hang out with the whole time. We had a good range of people from 20-30 years old with one older lady who was nice but a lot pickier. 

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Galapagos Islands - A World of Wonder

Every now and then, this trip offers me a life-affirming moment. A beautiful sunet over the Atacama desert or arriving at Machu Picchu through the sun gate. But on Galapagos, it feels like every moment gives you something unique to be cherished. From the moment I stepped of the plane, I felt a rush of excitment, giddy with undefined anticipation. 

We frolicked with sea lions in crystal clear blue waters. Grinning through our snorkel masks as they flew through the water right at us, coming so close that you got a feeling they were going to crash and then diving under at the very last second. Psych! Sea lions are so cheeky. Then watching a school of black tipped reef sharks gracefully pass under us and hoped that they weren't too hungry. Heart-pounding as I looked right into its beady shark eyes. I so wanted to high five sea tutles as they blobbed by me and go 'duuuude' just like in Finding Nemo. And then trying to swim frantically to keep up with eagle rays, the birds of the sea. And when there was nothing, there was something. The turquoise water, so clear and beautiful with bursts of sunlight coming through. 

And after all this, lying on the pristine beaches was exactly the R&R I needed after a tiring morning of snorkeling. Yep, life sure is hard on Galapagos. 

We got close to Galapagos penguins, frigate birds with their red pouches puffed out, blue-footed boobies doing their adorable mating dance, waved albatross gracefully flying above with their large wing spans and sunbaking marine iguanas, the only diving iguanas in the world. Knowing these unique animals only exist in this one place gives you a great appreciation in spotting them. Even if its the 1000th booby you've seen. The combination of the spectacular wildlife, great boat and food, and lovely peole we met on it has made this tour the highlight of the trip and I can now say that I went to Galapagos and it was freaking amazing!

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Peru - The Land of Abundance

I am officially in love with Peru.  Unlike Bolivia who hated me from the start, Peru and I just get along. And it's not just about Machu Picchu. Sure Machu Picchu is pretty spectactular in its own right but we had fun everywhere we went. Starting with roaming the beautiful streets of Cusco, whom everyone I speak agrees its an amazing city. There's heaps of tourists there and just walking around is fun and very safe. Even late at night. You can eat Japanese, or Indian or good old Peruvian food which as I mentioned previously, is pretty damn good in itself. You can get Alpaca jackets or colourful sneakers. Or go to the market and buy some interesting fruit or sugarcane to chew on. Yum! I love sugarcane.

The chocolate museum tour was super fun too and our guide made it so much better by making us sing whilst stirring our hot chocolate made with milk, cloves and cinnamon. I sang the Australian anthem, lame I know. It was suspicious when she said that she need a volunteer for the extra ingredient traditionally used by the Myans. Tama, our New Zealander buddy from the Inca trail volunteered and was hilariously shocked that she needed a few drops of blood and we all waited in nervous anticipation as she went to get the pricking needle and then proceeded to approach Tama's tongue with it. Errr, does this comply with OH&S folks?? But luckily for Tama, it was just a joke and we had our delicious hot chocolate minus his bodily fluid. The chocolate we made was out of this world too!

See! That's just Cusco. Onto Lima, my least favourite city in Peru but still pretty good. There's honestly not much to do here but luckily there is a lot to eat. Amazing Nikkei restaurants and so many cevicherias I could barely contain my glee. I'm pretty sure I had Ceviche at least twice a day which is quite a feat I must say. Exploring the city involved a walk through Parque Kennedy where unlike most other cities in South American, the favourite stray animal was the cat. There were a lot of nice looking cats just wandering around the park. A lot of them I noticed were undesexed...likely all of them. Hmmm. If only I had some ketamine and a scalpel. They seemed nice enough and were being fed by someone as there were biscuits all around the park. 

Five hours south of Lima is the town of Ica. A hectic town full of taxis and beeping. But just 10 minutes out of Ica is the picturesque oasis town of Huacachina. It was tiny but very cool as I've never been to an oasis before. But the reason why (mostly young) tourists come to Huacachina is for the sandboarding. Sounds innocent enough. But this is a crazy ass tour! Firstly you get in this dune buggy and the guy makes sure your seat belt is secure. Why? Because then he races off at 100km/hr zooming up the sides of massive dunes and over the edge of steep sand canyons. It's probably dangerous but like a rollercoaster, uber fun. The craziest part was when our driver stopped JUST on the edge of a super steep precipice which was to be our first boarding hill. I admit, I was scared! Going down head first on a snowboard over the side of a steep mountain was not something I had thought would be a life fulfuilling experience but the guy gave me a helpful push and I then found myself to be zooming down, wind in my hair, sand in my mouth, screaming in exhilirated glee. Definitely glad that I did it! And then there were two more to go down, each one steeper than the last.

Last stop, Paracas where you can visit the poor man's Galapagos Islands - the Islas Ballestas. We weren't actually planning on stopping by but a girl on our dune buggy tour told us about it and we thought since we were only an hour ago we should check it out. The tour itself was only 2 hours but in that time we saw thousands of animals - seals, penguins and a variety of birds. It was pretty cool for $15 per person. Luckily we got back on land just as I was getting sea sick. For a seaside town the ceviche there was terrible so I was glad to be heading back to Lima. Which there, we ate some more Ceviche, watched 'El Gran Gatsby' or 'The Great Gatsby' (luckily in English with Spanish subs) and got ready for the looooong bus ride to Guayaquil, Ecuador for our REAL Galapagos Island tour.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Best Eats in Peru

When you think of Peru the one thing that comes to mind is Machu Picchu. It's what we came into the country for, to hike the Inca Trail and visit the world famous ruins. However Peru is so much more, what with it's amazing cities like Cusco, which is beautiful and unlike any other city I've visited. And more importantly the totes amazeball foods it offers. Peruvian food hasn't made it as big as Thai or Mexican in Sydney but once the introduction has been made you will fall in love. It's fresh, it's flavourful and big bonus - there's lots of seafood involved. Here are my top 5 Peruvian eats.

1. Ceviche
It's raw fish 'cooked' in a lime juice with garlic and red onion and often with  calamari, octopus and prawns. It's all I can think about eating whilst in Peru. It is the national dish after all and can be found in most places though it's best eaten in coastal cities like Lima. What's not to like about it? You get a massive pile of seafood for $10. It's a bit tangy, salty and chilli. Sounds a bit Asian doesn't it? Peruvian food has a lot of Asian influence and this one is a definite winner. My two favourite were in Punto Azul in Miraflores and Canta Rana in Barrranco. Comes with roasted corn which is completely addictive and wash it down with Chicha, a sweet drink made from fermented purple corn.
Me and ceviche go well together, at Canta Rana.
Corn condiments and popular drink, Chicha.

Ceviche at Punto Azul, Lima. Just right.

Ceviche sampler at Alfresco, Lima. Overpriced.

2. Antichucos
This is cow heart skewers and before you get all squemish on me don't forget this is a third world country and hence it's important to make the most of an animal. It's tender, salty and more flavourful than a traditional steak. Often sold on streetside stalls as an after work snack, this tasty kebab like dish is easy and delicious.

Cow heart skewers

3. Alpaca
You see alapcas everywhere in Peru so it makes sense that you can both wear and eat alpaca here. We had an alpaca steak at a fancy restaurant in Cusco as well as in kebab style in a small town in Bolivia.I preffered the herb flavoured kebab as the steak was a bit gamey to me but at least it was super juicy. A must try, at least once whilst you're here just for the fun factor.

Alpaca kebab, juicy goodness.
Alpaca steak getting all fancy at Limo, Cusco.
4. Nikkei food
Even though I haven´t seen a lot of native Japanese people here in Peru there are a lot of decent Japanese restaurants here but the most interesting are the Nikkei restaurants which is a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian flavours. With the abdundance of fresh sushi grade fish around, it makes sense. The best was at Maido in Miraflores, Lima. Fine dining without the pretension. 

Awesome sashimi

Tacuchaufa - signature dish made from tender pork and peruvian sauce.

5. Cuy
Otherwise known as guinea pig. This is a delicacy in Peru and is either bake or fried pretty much whole. It can be sold on the streets or even Peking style in fancy restaurants. Sadly we have yet to try this as we didn't want to risk diarrhoea before the Inca Trail and it's been a bit hard to find here in Lima. I hope to find it in Ecuador, I hear it tastes like chicken. But with less meat and more bones. This baked version we saw on the street but it also comes deep fried. More on it soon hopefully.

Looks appetising right?
One quick honorable mention is that I found a legit Taiwanese bubble tea place in Miraflores, Lima. Holy smoke! I was so amazed. This place was popular among the locals and I tried the green milk tea with pearls. Ahh, tastes like home. Peru you never cease to amaze me.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Traveling Povo

Traveling long term means you gotta stretch what cashola you have out for as long as possible. We're going for at least 6 months and 3 of them in North America which ain´t going to be as cheap as South America. But there are some things that are worth spending money like trying out different foods e.g. ceviche in Lima and doing cool things e.g. Galapagos island tour. 

The compromise comes when we're talking about accommodation and transport. Staying in hostels isn´t terrible, actually when you have a cool group of folks get together like we did in Buenos Aires it can be really fun hanging out. Like an episode of Friends. But then you can get some shockers as well that think it´s appropriate to put their shit all over the room, play loud clubbing music at all times of the night and then proceed to talk loudly as they stumble back into the room early in the morning. As what happenened last night to us. After we had a long 24 bus ride from Cusco to Lima. 

Which is why I´m awake at  7am in the morning writing a bitter blog post.

And all this because we decided to splash out on a four person dorm with a private room for $12 rather than an 8 person dorm with a shared bathroom for $8. We´re moving to the 8 person room soon. 

And with my car sickness I´m taking a phenergen every bus ride that is longer than 20 hours otherwise I´m sitting there for hours, eyes and fists clenched closed praying we get there before nausea turns into vomiting. We´ve spent more than 200 hours on buses alone on this trip which have varied widly from shitboxes on wheels in Bolivia and luxury cruise-mobiles in Argentina. I would have loved to fly more and one reason why I´m looking forward to North America is that we will be mostly be flying there as it is more affordable to take short plane trips there. 

Everyone has different levels of holidaying and I´m just glad that mine is low enough to travel more efficiently and though I have bundled up a few interesting hostel stories I will continue to stay in them because really, can you argue when a bed a night costs $10? Not likely. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Conquering the Inca Trail

Once in awhile you have to challenge yourself, push yourself in ways you didn´t think possible. Whether or not I would be able to trek the Inca trail was a big question mark. Especially considering how I crashed and burned in Boliva from altitude sickness just a week ago, I was nervous about how I was going to be able to deal with not only climbing up again to 4500m but doing it on foot.

But there´s no way I could or would have backed out. We had booked our places 8 months with G adventures in Sydney, not wanting to miss out as they limit the amount of people that can do the trek per day. Of course, we could have picked the easier Lares trek or even do a day tour where you catch a direct train to Machu Picchu but it would have felt like we would be cheating. After all, one of the seven wonders of the world and a UNESCO heritage site deserves a bit more respect than that I think.

So off we went, not really knowing what laid ahead. The first day was relaxed with a guided tour to Sacred Valley where we saw village women making alpaca goods from handspun wool and visited some old ruins where ancient folks were buried in holes in the cliff. Again, car sickness haunted me and I threw up in my fourth country of the trip. We stayed at a hotel that night and took a glorious last hot shower and prepared our whole 2.5kg of stuff before heading off in the Incan wilderness early the next morning.

We were we group of 14 and there was buzz of excitement as we reached the starting point and took the inaugural group shot under the sign. 42 km of steep rocky inclines and knee crunching steps lay ahead. Luckily, we had a group of 16 porters who were carrying our main bags, tents, food and sleeping bags. We all watched in astonishment as these stout Peruvian guys with massive 70L bags were running up the mountains while us gringos were panting and puffing up with just our daypacks and walking sticks.

Once we reached our first campsite after 7 hours of walking we were pleasantly suprised with our tents already set up and a hot bowl of water to wash our hands and faces. The toilets there were an unpleasant suprise, just a small hut with hole in the ground and a few gross looking logs to balance on. Plus there was no door so you had to go in pairs so you had a guard. There were no showers for the whole time which is kind of gross as you work up a good sweat climbing up moutains all day. The food made up for it it though and every meal we had on the trip had three courses and all was very hearty and tasted pretty good. There was even a special dining tent and napkins folded in swans. 

This trip had a lot of firsts for me. Everyone else in the group had hiking and camping experience and were kind of shocked when they found out this was our maiden voyage. "And of all things you decided to start with the INCA TRAIL??" one person asked me. Yep, we sure jumped into the deep end with this one. The second day was the worst as we climbed up 'dead woman´s pass', four hours up steep stairs. Then four hours down even steeper steps, by the end every step brought a painful twinge in my knee joints and I was so deliriously happy when I hobbled into our campsite. 

The steep track going all the way up from the valley.

Elation at reaching the peak of Dead Woman´s Pass.
But alas the third day brought on sore muscles and another charmingly named track 'The Gringo Killer'. I just kept thinking to myself as my mind, body and spirit was in constant strain "small steps make large feats" and onwards I went, just focusing on my next step and knowing that I was strong enough to keep going. I was so intent on not tripping over that  I had to rememeber to occassionally look up so I could appreciate some of the spectacular views on the way.

And at last, on the fourth day, after a 4am start we finally arrived at the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. It was amazingly beautiful and even more so for having earnt my place by hiking there. For me it´s so much more than just another touristic destination we visited, it´s one of my biggest accomplishments in life so far and I more than earnt my hot shower, KFC lunch and full body massage the following day.