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March 2016

Week eleven: halfway holiday

Exactly half way through my South American sojourn, I decided I had earned the right to do nothing for a while; a holiday from my holiday, if you will. Thus I am still staying with Tam in Santiago.

However, I did still manage to maintain some level of touristing, rather than just sinking into Santiago studentism.

I began the week with a full day of exploring; as Tam heads off to university, Charlie and I (the graduate layabouts) are left daily to our own devices. We began with a climb up the particularly glamorous Cerro Santa Lucia. ‘A big hill’ by any other name, but complete with an entrance that wouldn’t look out of place in a Vegas hotel and a turreted mirador at its peak. The view over Santiago is somewhat less glamorous- 1970s high rise blocks, shrouded in smog- but the busker playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ for those who reached the summit made the gruelling ten minute climb worth getting out of bed for!

Back down at ground level, the GAM (the arts and culture centre; the Chilean Barbican) had an underwhelming exhibition of photographs from the local, equally underwhelming zoo. The Plaza de Armas, ubiquitous in all Latino cities, was decked out with more benches and palm trees than many other plazas I’ve come across- you win this round Santiago- and lying on its periphery was the National History museum. An exhibition of ‘men’ in general offered little insight, followed by a ‘state the obvious’ laden journey through Chilean history as a whole; conveniently this ended in 1973- Pinochet who?!

Feeling pretty well-achieved after this one busy afternoon, it was time to escape the city for an Easter weekend mini break. And of course no backpacker’s trip would be complete without hitchhiking at some point, thus this was my chance! After hopping a metro to the outskirts of town, it took us less than ten seconds to flag down a willing trucker; I think he just wanted the company of some idle small talk!

Thus we arrived in Valparaiso, the edgiest city in Chile, in the most hipster fashion possible. Valpo (to us local types) is a labyrinth of steep hills and spectacular street art. As with all gritty, grubby towns, Valparaiso is an arts hub, buzzing with buskers serenading the city itself.

For those of us too lazy to scale the decorated stairs and steep hills, rickety funiculars will drag you steeply up (or treacherously down) for a mere 30 pence. Once up high, the vista over the bay is industrially intruded upon by the major port, but this only adds to the mix and match vibe. Beyond the visual and musical arts here, Pablo Neruda chose this city to sit and write poetry, from his wonderfully kooky, Art Deco house on the hill. Complete with collections of his own random toot, touring this house was far more up our street than the mansion-cum-museum we also frequented in Valpo.

Whilst we did enjoy some artisanal bevs in some very trendy, poster-laden bars and basements, the main party was to be found on the street of an evening. And when the police rained on the parade of the drumming, dancing revellers, we were welcomed just the other side of the fence into a front garden barbecue, rendering our street party totally legal!

A mere ten minute bus ride from Valpo lies the much flatter, more civilised city of Viña del Mar. As it was the Easter Bank Holiday, we explored the museum exhibition here pertaining to Easter Island. Apparently the world famous Moai heads were modelled on the penises of two men searching for their muse (and finding it in their trousers, of course!)

Other than these enlightening exhibition snippets, Viña claimed its main attraction to be a giant clock made of flowers. You may well be as skeptical as we were upon first hearing this, but as we walked past the ‘Reloj de Flores’, crowds of colourful characters flocked to take full-on photo shoots! Take or leave the clock itself, but if you enjoy people watching, there is categorically no better spot; we stayed and stared for almost two full, florally-measured hours!

Other bizarre treats to be enjoyed on a day trip to Viña include the rental of quadcycles along the seafront promenade. Unfortunately there is but a single carriageway for all, thus our journey held up a lot of disgruntled car drivers and we were similarly blocked in by a busking clown and his swarming audience!

As is the custom on a bank holiday in England, we drank copiously, but in an abundance of different, equally kooky settings, and spent Easter Day itself achieving nothing more than two square meals. N.B. Chileans put cream cheese in all of their sushi… And occasionally cooked chicken. I guess the country is westernised to the point of offering easy access to world cuisines, but still trapped in the Latin American bubble, thus stubbornly adding their own twist.

We hitched a lift back to real life and resumed our lethargy, wiling away the afternoon in the Literary Cafe in the park. The perfect spot for reclining and reading, or pretentiously posing whilst secretly people watching.

I’ll resume hardcore travelling soon, but for now, I’m living the lazy man’s dream.

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Week ten: snap back to reality (of sorts)

Following our trip through the desert, we finally arrived in Chile… In the desert.
San Pedro de Atacama is a quaint border town, akin to travelling back in time to the Wild West. Sandy streets and not a single cloud in the sky.

Despite this somewhat backwards setting, Chile instantly marked itself out as much more westernised than the rest of South America so far. Set lunch menus came with an actually written menu, several choices and customer-pleasing service; a far cry from the ‘you’ll eat what you’re given, and it will be soup’ system in Bolivia. Our cravings for the fresh fruit juices we had become accustomed to were sadly not allayed with anything more than a strange iced tea, filled with floating wheat and an uninvited peach pip. And prices, whilst still obviously cheaper than life back in London, distinctly hiked skyward between Bolivianos and Chilean pesos.

Other than copious red wine drinking, the activities in San Pedro revolve around exploring the majestic surrounding landscape. Cleverly, we (myself and the French cohort) decided to rent bikes and run our own tour into the desert. The ‘Garganta del Diablo’- or Devil’s throat- is an impressive canyon to wind through and marvel at. Just a short ride from town, with no obstacles worse than a few river crossings, we were feeling invincible. Unfortunately, this led to our pursuit of a supposedly charming church ‘just twenty more minutes’ away. As the midday sun rose, the sand became increasingly too deep to plough through and my hangover really began to rear its ugly head, we inevitably got lost. Turns out, the desert is not as easy place to navigate; especially not when infinite hills block your view in every direction, even if that view is only of more sand.

We eventually found our way to the world’s most underwhelming church and back onto the road to civilisation. My cycling career is certainly on hold for the near future.

After just a short sojourn in San Pedro, I needed to get a wriggle on down to Santiago. Bizarrely however, buses were half the price if I went slightly later, so I was treated to a couple more hours in town, culminating in a DJ set in the main plaza, from the local fire brigade. Apparently they have nothing better to do than set up a full rig to play music, into a town where an old-fashioned law forbidding dancing still stands!

All pumped up from the surreal public party, I boarded my bus and, within a mere 24hours of vast, cactus-strewn wastelands from the window, I arrived in downtown, gridlocked Santiago.

Reunited with my best mate from home and a little slice of English life, it was time to do what we English do best: music festivals.

Lollapalooza presented several hurdles for us: 1) Tam had accidentally only purchased a one day ticket, so I was left to my own devices for the Saturday, 2) we were ferried around between different queues and vendors as we hadn’t printed our tickets, and 3) after fathoming out the ‘you can only pay with tokens, not real money’ system, I discovered there was nowhere to buy beer! A whole festival and no alcohol- rather alien to my Glastonbury-weathered soul.

Another slightly odd festival-planning decision came in the fact that, owing to the proximity of the two main stages (which faced each other), no two bands could play at the same time; thus there was a mass exodus at the end of each set, as the entire crowd fluctuated between the two sites.

Jungle played some upbeat fun; Of Monsters and Men could use cheering up at points, but were ultimately good; Tame Impala were a nice surprise, as I didn’t know I loved them; and I gave Jack Ü a necessary swerve, as his set was a hideous combination of Skrillex and Capital FM.

The main event of the day (in fact, of the weekend as a whole) was Eminem’s headline set. As most of the crowd mindlessly cheered in response to his repartee (in English, at a Spanish speaking crowd) I found myself a spot amongst some die hard fans who rapped, sung, or generally just sounded out almost every lyric- despite also not speaking English themselves! If you’ve ever thought that crowds back home were guilty of standing still, videoing and missing the moment itself, Chilean’s are substantially worse. Luckily for me however, most Latinos a quite small, so my vantage point was aimed directly over their heads and cameras alike.

Buzzing from the excitement and adrenaline of Eminem’s entire back catalogue, I managed to navigate my way back home and get some sleep for day two.

Sunday finally allowed Tam, Charlie and I to festival en mass. Having learnt from the day before, we came prepared with trendy Paisley attire, concealing lots of rum.

First band of the day: Bad Religion, who had a diehard fan base. Amusingly however, the hardcore mosh pit was very regimented, as everyone moved at the same speed in the same direction- I guess the Chilean dictatorship lives on in some aspects of their society!

Following this, the crowd jumped and screamed as Brandon Flowers played some of his unknown solo songs, that just sounded like obscure Killers’ album tracks. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds were the set of the day for me, complete with an offbeat, edgy rendition of Wonderwall. Mumford and Sons are always a big crowd pleaser, followed by Florence and the Machine, who’s bemusing insanity got the crowd jumping.

All in all, a very unfamiliar festival experience, with no camping, no beers and no mud, but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless!

Other than that, life in Santiago has been very subdued so far; I’ve been rather relishing the opportunity to live in reality, rather than the traveller hostel bubble.

A national strike provoked our involvement in a huge march against all the corruption and false promises that plague this country still; but swarms of army-grade police put a stop to any excitement pretty sharpish. Thus we headed instead to the trendy neighbourhood for burgers and street beers- like the cool kids do, because I’m a local (for now.)

Week nine (and a bit): beautiful and bizarre Bolivia

I began the week in Sucre, the proudly UNESCO named ‘White City’ because of all the looming colonial architecture still standing. This world heritage beauty however is largely confined to the main plaza, whilst the rest of the city buzzes with all the chaos, crowds and colour one might be more accustomed to in South America. Especially the market, where we could be found filling up on fresh fruit juices, daily.

Being a little saturated with ‘nice church’ tourism, I was lucky to find a group of people headed off to the more surreal sights. Amidst the grandeur of the main square, we waited for the ‘look at us stupid gringos’ bus to arrive; this glorified tin can took several laps of the square (presumably to gain enough momentum for the hills ahead, or perhaps just to allow more pointing and laughing time for the public) before heading to the outskirts of town and Sucre’s answer to Jurassic park!

A giant limestone wall, now standing vertical after millions of years of tectonic movement, played host to a plethora of dino-footprints. Much smaller than I ever expected, the T-Rex left little birdy tiptoes behind, whilst the Diplodocus left less glamorous circular splodges. One might assume that the world’s largest collection of footprints might require some serious preservation; but, being Bolivia, this site still doubles as a quarry, requiring visitors to duck and dive around tractors and dust clouds!

To accompany the footprints is a wonderfully tacky and ridiculous area of plastic lifesize replicas and a cafe selling particularly underwhelming dino-burgers. A bit of history and a lot of kitsch- the perfect combination for any tourist!

Other than that, Sucre has several museums- housing plenty of rocks, skulls and artwork. As much of the modern art museum (once they moved on from gaudy religious imagery) was politically angled towards the mining industry in Potosi, that was my next stop.

Potosi, the highest city in the world and once the richest, sprawls across narrow winding streets, like a high altitude, slightly grubbier version of Cartagena.

Despite the moral qualms about the intrusion of the tourist industry, I thought it important to see the silver mines of the ‘Rich Mountain’ that had provoked the exploitation boom here since 1545. Not a particularly comfortable experience, and certainly not for the faint-hearted.

All decked out in our mining finest, and after a trip to the miner’s market to buy some coca leaves, dynamite and much needed rehydration, we entered the tunnels through a cramped hole in the mountainside and were forced to run in order to escape the approaching booming that signalled a two tonne wagon was flying your way. Difficult to breathe at this altitude at the best of times, the dust, low ceilings and stench of explosive ammonia certainly didn’t aid things.

We were escorted to some of the private areas that workers rent from the cooperatives (the mines stopped being nationalised after a market crash in 1986) to see how they survive amongst the darkness for 8-18 hours a day. Some men prefer to work alone, quietly excavating the highest quality minerals they can find; whilst others form a team, with ‘staff rooms’ set up from old car seats, carnival decorations and piles of discarded beer cans and coca leaves. The group we visited showed us how they prepare dynamite explosions, and despite it being the thing we were waiting for, the crash caught me completely off-guard every time!

Via a couple of small shrines to the mining God (a phallic-centric representation of the devil, as he rules all that is underground) we headed towards the light at the end of the tunnel. After just two hours in the mine, I was struck by how time had stagnated there; the processes in place can’t have changed much since colonial times and over 60% of the city’s male population are unable to escape this inevitable career path.

On a somewhat less morbid note, Potosi has a hive of other activities to offer. A trip to the museum at the former Royal Mint may sound a little dry, but provided a rich insight into the city’s historical importance and into Bolivian life as a whole, both then and now, thanks to our overly chatty guide!

The Santa Teresa convent and attached church also had a colourful story to tell, combining an abundance of glamorous clothes and jewels (all for the parade dolls of the Virgin) with a miserable tale of life trapped behind four walls, unable even to enter the church to which the sister’s dedicated themselves, unless behind a separating screen.

One last stop (and something that was disappointingly missing from my Rough Guide) is the thermal lagoon just twenty minutes out of town- though the drastic shift in scenery suggests a much greater distance. A natural infinity pool of volcanic activity, this 30 degree water is too high and too relaxing to warrant swimming, thus floating and lounging, amidst the sweeping colours of the mineral-rich mountains, is a perfect way to spend an afternoon before tackling the hectic bus station.

Our (that is me and my new French right arm, Julien) journey back to civilisation was interrupted by road closures and excitement, all owing to a Saint’s day carnival taking place in the main square. Glamorous and sexy attire for the women, men in ridiculous dragon-esque outfits, brass marching bands in full suits and daytime fireworks exploded with colour and fun; and it all felt very English, as the whole fiesta took place despite the pouring rain!

Having been in the middle of nowhere for the last few days, I’m forced to cover just over a week of busyness all in one blog post; thus our next stop was to the desolate ghost town of Uyuni, a necessary checkpoint on our way to the salt flats.

Having booked last minute onto a three day tour, with a suitably dodgy ‘don’t tell anyone what you paid’ tour provider, we squeezed our knees into the back of a jeep full of vibrant, vigorously dancing Brazilians and we were off!

First stop was the train cemetery, a shout out to Uyuni’s past as a useful transport hub. I questioned whether perhaps attempting to reuse this abundance of scrap metal may have been more prudent, but certainly less fun, as this site was essentially a grown-up playground, perfect for climbing and exploring (although I got a little ahead of myself at times and Julien had to lift me down from the roof- not so James Bond after all.)

Just beyond lay the edge of the salt flats; akin to snow when it gets dirty and slushy a couple of days after fresh fall, the impure salt here allowed pockets of the bubbling water from below to surface and prove that we were in fact standing on a giant, crusty lake! Further into the centre of the Salar, everything becomes cleaner and totally perfect. Aside from the odd conical piles of salt and an abundance of Japanese tourists around the Hotel de Sal, there is nothing, as far as the eye can see, until your gaze settles on the distant mountains. Having brainstormed in the jeep, now was the perfect time to run around taking ridiculous perspective pictures and generally regressing to a childlike state.

On the other periphery of the Salar, just a couple of inches of water created the most magical mirror effect. Other than our awkward ‘keep my socks dry’ waddle, it was like walking on clouds. Without doubt, one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.

We slept a night in a hostel, made of salt of course, and marvelled at the uninterrupted views of the stars, before an early morning start for a variety of landscapes, each one far from the salty desert of the day before. Lagoon after lagoon got increasingly more impressive, culminating in a red lake, almost entirely covered in grazing flamingoes. Briefly resting my eyes in the jeep (not sleeping, thanks to the infuriatingly repetitive music our driver insisted upon) transported me from views of volcanoes to totally arid desert, where we ate lunch, probably the furthest from civilisation that I’ve ever had a meal. But my highlights of the day were the volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes which provided yet more adventurous places to clamber and explore, determined to find the best vantage points and the best ‘guess where I sat and played my ukulele’ spots for Julien to claim.

Our final day began under the blanket of stars, at 4am. Totally freezing, we had a brief stop at some geysers in order to warm our hands and to generally bask in the smell of sulphuric eggs, before heading to our final lagoon. Hidden amongst a mist of fog, an occasional flamingo wandered past as we took refuge in the tiny inlet of thermal volcanic activity. Sitting in a warm bath, whilst others froze their toes off around us, watching the sunrise through the fog, was one of those perfect moments, tinged too with total smugness!

A journey across the last stretch of desert (bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Salvador Dali painting, for which it is named) and we reached the border with Chile. Much fewer security measures than one would usually expect at an international border, but I guess the vastness of the desert is enough of a deterrent for any potential trouble makers. We bid goodbye to our new Brazilian buddies (with whom we had bridged the language barrier with card games and dancing) and it was time for the European contingent to change countries.

Week eight: altitude and adrenaline

A mere three flights (and countless plane meals) from Galápagos, I was far from the sweaty sea-level island life as I landed in La Paz.

La Paz buzzes with activity. Whilst the streets are permanently gridlocked and everything looks a little run down, there’s a hive of busyness to soak in. That is if you can bare the breathless uphill walk in every direction!

Saying that, I buggered off out of the city, on a day trip to cycle Death Road.

We began our journey at 4700m altitude, with a ceremony to ask Pachamama (Mother Earth) to keep us safe. A sip of 96% alcohol for her and a sip for each of us; it must have worked, because the first hour or so of our journey was in total whiteout, rain soaked through all my layers, but I survived to tell the tale!

Luckily, as the terrain became more treacherous, the clouds began to lift and the view over the valley was pretty breathtaking. (Not that we were allowed to look at the view, for fear that our handlebars would follow our eyeline and we might plummet over the picturesque cliff that lay to our left!)

The further you wind down Death Road, the more invincible you feel you become; I had several near misses with some potholes and one unintentional dunk in a river. We certainly experienced the ‘extreme’ tour, as there were three route-altering avalanches caused by the rain that had blinded me earlier in the day. But as long as you stood up over the particularly rocky sections, then the saddle couldn’t cause too much irreparable damage!

To end our adrenaline-fuelled day trip, I flew head first across some ziplines (for a better view of where we’d been) and then our mini-bus back to La Paz became something of a party bus; six of us sat up front, encroaching on the driver’s personal space, fighting for DJ rights and chugging ready-mixed bottles of Cuba Libre. Not a bad day at all.

Other than that, I spent much of my time in La Paz wandering around markets. The witches market, for love potions and llama foetuses; the artisanal market, because you can never have too many trendy traveller jumpers; the food markets, don’t really need to justify those; and finally, the sprawling flea market at El Alto.

A satellite city of La Paz, easily accessed by cable car, with a spectacular view of the city and the not so distant snow capped mountains, El Alto played host to the biggest market I’ve ever come across. Whatever street you turned down, there was no escaping the piles of used car parts, military fatigues and inexplicable abundance of shoelaces, amongst other useful items and far more useless and bizarre ones.

El Alto isn’t just about the markets though, it also proudly presents the Wrestling Cholitas. Clearly a kitsch tourist trap, as we struggled to get directions from any locals, but well worth checking out (if you happen to find yourself in El Alto on a Thursday or Sunday evening.)

The warm up show was provided by some lycra-clad men, more akin to traditional Mexican wrestling, who seriously needed to work on their timings; one should not fall over and writhe in agony up to ten seconds after being “hit”. However, this totally forced, clearly under-rehearsed farce made it all the more surreal and entertaining.

The main event was somewhat more skilfully executed, all whilst dressed in traditional Cholita clothing- i.e. twenty-odd petticoats, a preppy cardigan and an ill-fitting bowler hat. These buxom Bolivian women made aggressive use of their overt sexuality, as they hurled the smaller, more gymnastic girls across the ring and smothered them under their petticoats. It was one of the most bizarre spectacles I’ve had the pleasure to witness, and I don’t think I stopped laughing with disbelief throughout.

Sadly I was too battered and bruised from Death Road (and ultimately too lazy) thus I had to skip the chance to rappel down a 70m building dressed as Spider-Man (a big attraction in La Paz, because, why not?!) However, other than that, I had pretty much enjoyed all the weird wonders on offer, thus headed off in the direction of Copacabana- Bolivia, not Rio just yet.

A tiny town on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the main sight is the incredibly gaudy church. Geometric patterns, in primary colours, adorn the ceiling, totally at odds with the overload of gold surrounding the alter and the rooms full of creepy giant dolls that lie behind.

On weekends, the square outside this giant, unexpectedly Turkish looking church is lined with cars seeking blessings from the Virgin. Each car is covered in flowers, garlands and sometimes even little hats; it could easily be mistaken for a wedding procession were it not for the stench of pure ethanol and the dangerous abundance of exploding firecrackers! Whole families line up for photos with their newly blessed cars, ready to tackle the Bolivian roads (they need all the luck they can get!)

Just offshore from this sleepy fisherman’s town is the sacred Isla del Sol. In accordance with its name (Island of the Sun- where the Inca’s believed the sun was created) it’s the perfect place to lounge on the beach or hike up the hill for a spectacular sunset in some Incan ruins.

Due to the sprawling oceanic size of Lake Titicaca, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a land locked country at incredibly high altitude. That is until you see the clouds floating particularly low around you, your lips are permanently chapped and the sun burns you much more easily (n.b. bring Vaseline and Aftersun!) However, being closer than usual to the night sky lights up evenings spent on the beach with a blanket of twinkles. Team that with a lot of juggling, guitar-playing hippies, a stomach full of trucha (trout) fresh from the lake and nothing but shacks selling cold beers, and you’ve got yourself a pretty wonderful weekend break.

A boat, a bus, a boat and two more buses away from Isla del Sol lies Sucre, Bolivia’s capital (who knew?!) where I’ve just arrived. I was surprised to witness such sweeping flat plains as I traversed such a mountainous country; I was even more surprised and delighted that the further south you head, the better the roads become. Now it’s time to see what this white-washed city has to offer…

Week seven: more like Galapa-GREAT

From a very young age, when perhaps a Cinderella dress would have been more becoming, I lived day in, day out, in an oversized t-shirt (a gift from my Godfather) with a Galápagos Frigate bird plastered across the front. For some time I thought that ‘Galápagos’ was just the name of the bird, so imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered it was actually a group of islands that (for a semi-exorbitant fee) I could see for myself!

Well this week, this long term dream came to fruition. I landed on the totally deserted Isla Baltra and the fun kicked off from there. If you’re willing to throw money at your problems (averaging around £100 a day- eeshk) then here are some of the spectacular delights that await on these volcanic wonders in the Pacific:

Day one: After a bus, a boat, a bus and a cab to get from the airport to my hostel, my day was already cut short. But with not a moment to lose, I convinced a German girl from my hostel, Margrit, to accompany me to Tortuga bay. A half hour walk from any other civilisation (aided by one of the fantastic local fresh fruit ice creams) it was one of the most idyllic and deserted beaches I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The sand was like walking on a Tempur mattress. Whilst the calmer waters of the second bay welcomed swimmers, splashers and waders, the first bay played host almost exclusively to swarms of marine iguanas. Easy to spot as they sprawled, baking on the sand; less easy when amongst the similarly black rocks- I nearly stepped on a fair few!

A perfectly relaxed start to island life, I finished my first day with a gourmet meal upon bumping into some girls I had met in Colombia. Small world indeed.

Day two: Having booked the night before (a trip to the travel agent became a daily evening activity) I was up early for a scuba diving trip to the waters around North Seymour island. Almost immediately upon our descent we spotted a group of white tipped reef sharks. Seemingly menacing, these creatures were surprisingly docile and totally non-plussed by our presence. Other highlights included the electric blue of some starfish and of the King Angel fish. Less glamorous specimens included the rather dowdy giant eel and the creepy sea snakes, that I thought were grass until they peeped in and out of the ground!

Our second dive was slightly less successful; the visibility was appalling and for a while we had to rely solely on the sounds our dive master was making. Not so great for wildlife spotting, but certainly an experience within itself! An abundance of starfish were the stars of this show. Unfortunately we were back in the dingy mere moments before a baby hammerhead swam right past! Can’t have it all I guess!

Inspired by seeing such an abundance of sea life, my Galápagos buddy, Margrit, and I headed out to eat some seafood, in the buzzing (because of its comparative cheapness) pedestrianised street of restaurants set back from the main drag; as they all fight for your business, it becomes the Brick Lane of Santa Cruz.

Day three: An early morning ferry took a boatload of sleeping passengers across to Isla Isabela- the largest by far of the archipelago.
We had mere moments to revel in our posh private cabaña (complete with a new friend, who we allowed to crash in our attic) before being off on a trip to Las Tunneles.

Our speedboat captain was something of a boy racer type: flying over breaking waves and slamming on the brakes when he spotted something exciting. Namely hammerheads and, what I thought were the dorsal fins of yet more sharks turned out to be the flailing tips of a Manta Ray’s wings; at around 5 metres wide, this ray cast an impressive shadow that I wish I could’ve been swimming alongside rather than seeing from above.

The landscape of the lava tunnels was a beautiful sight within itself; yet the highlight of this trip was the snorkelling. Two different sites- rocky crevices followed by mangroves- played host to an enormous variety of exciting swimming buddies.

There was a lot of excitement over some sleeping seahorses, but for me, the curious sea lions made me day; flaccid sausage-like animals on land, once in the water they become balletic and almost teasing as they whizz around you. Some overly casual (particularly huge) sea turtles swam by, Galápagos penguins plunged in from the rocks and thrashed around, reef sharks hid in an underwater cave and Golden rays and, their more glamorously adorned cousins, Eagle rays swam in synchronised troops of around twenty. You couldn’t see more variety of you swam into an aquarium tank.

Not yet satiated with wildlife for the day, we went wandering to the giant tortoise breeding centre. Whilst the elders lounged, with particularly unattractive, scrotal necks, the youngsters had an unexpected level of energy! Just beyond lay several lagoons full of flamingoes. Incredibly hot pink (apart from one pathetically grey one, who I can only assume gets horrifically bullied.)

We managed to find the only genuinely cheap meal on the Galápagos (three courses for $7!) and were even lucky enough for the powercut to end in time for some sleepy air con.

Day four: It ceases to count as an ‘early start’ once it’s the same everyday- but this morning’s activity was a hike up the Volcano Sierra Negra.

Luxuriously flat for much of the way, we reached the peak, for views over the vast (6 mile diameter) active caldera. I personally couldn’t marvel at it all too intensely, as the lava forms an apparently moving optical illusion and induced rather a lot of queasiness!

On the other face of the volcano, far from the tropical verdancy we had become accustomed to, lay another world entirely. Lava fields as far as the eye could see, which were unexpectedly beautifully coloured: whilst the most recent eruption left flowing black swathes, the older the rocks, the redder they became. Not a bad view for lunch! (It even made up for the underwhelming sandwiches we were provided!)

A sweaty boat back to Santa Cruz main island and, with our new Isabela buddies in tow, we tested the waters of the Galápagos nightlife. A quiet seaside drink on a balcony escalated quickly when we looked behind us and the indoor area was a heaving dance floor! At first shocked by seeing a club on the island, it all became clear once I assimilated it to observing animal mating rituals; we’re just another species taking advantage of paradise!

Day five: Despite feeling a lot worse for wear, today was my biggest Galápagos day: a trip back to North Seymour, to see Frigates and Blue-footed Boobies!

The island itself is flat, deserted and arid; but the colour is provided by these magnificently bizarre birds.

Female Boobies rested on the rocks at the periphery, whilst males danced around them, showing off quite how blue their feet were, and sexily squawking!

The male frigates meanwhile, rather than making a fool of themselves on the dance floor, overinflated their red balloons and simply sat in a nest of their own making. They desperately made a show of themselves for every female who swooped overhead; but she sassily rejected them all, playing the long game! Whilst I’m not entirely sure why evolution has deemed these balloons a turn on, I can confirm that they are distinctly less attractive when un-inflated!

Washed off my hangover with some peaceful snorkelling and a lie down on a sea turtle nesting beach. The David Attenborough hangover cure.

Day six: Had a bargain basement day planned for the end of my Galápagos sojourn. We stayed on Santa Cruz and headed up into the highlands.

Two enormous craters, Los Gemelos (the twins), looked like something straight out of a film set. But beyond these glorified holes in the ground lay another giant tortoise sanctuary. Free to roam much further here, these famously lazy animals actually gained some serious momentum. We had to run away to avoid breaking the island’s two metre rule!

Beneath the tortoises lay the volcanic lava tunnels. Some were mere archways, slightly elongated caves, whilst another plunged us into pitch blackness and rained groundwater onto us from above.

After yet more of my favourite ice creams, Margrit and I finally parted ways and I headed for one last swim. This time my destination was the unbelievably deep volcanic fissure at Las Grietas. Unfortunately, it seemed that everyone else in the world had the same idea as me and, having become accustomed to blissful isolation amongst nature, the crowds really began to grate on me.

A brief water taxi back to the main port and the chance to watch some dubbed Spanish television- I fear The Simpsons loses a lot in translation, as did Leo DiCaprio’s Oscar acceptance speech! But an extended relaxing sit was necessary to prepare me for the mammoth trip to Bolivia that awaited the following day and to say goodbye to paradise.

I ended up spending over a month’s budget on a week in the Galápagos. Admittedly I could’ve saved money here and there: I didn’t need to drunkenly cover my friend’s drinks bill, I could’ve perhaps survived without a swanky private room on my last night and I certainly should’ve got up in time for the last $2 bus to the airport, instead of a $20 taxi! But hey ho, the whole trip was magical, other worldly, whilst also feeling like a comfortable, homely paradise pretty quickly; on such a small island, you can’t help but bump into everyone you know! Every other penny was well spent- especially in purchasing a new Galápagos t-shirt, in grown up size (this one has Blue-Footed Boobies on the front; I guess frigates were more popular in the 90s?!) Here’s to slumming it for the next few weeks in an attempt to redress the bank balance…

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