Adventures in South America
30.09.2014 - 04.10.2014 15 °C
Quito is great. Where Santiago feels trapped between Europe and South America, Quito was more like I expected South America to be. Quito is at quite high altitude (2800m) and at 0' 00' latitude, and the city is very rugged in the way it has been formed in and around the mountains with narrow streets, where the delineation between footpath and road is often hard to tell given how close the buses run to the footpath.
I took the hop-on hop-off bus from the hotel into the colonial part of town, jumping off at the Basilica, before continuing on foot to the town square. The cobbled narrow streets are great to just wander and get a feel for local life in Quito. There are a lot of (mostly) women selling fruit, nuts, some kind of cream desert they serve in a cone, and often dressed in traditional clothing. Business men and women wander the city in polyester suits that must be terribly uncomfortable in the heat.
After a coffee made by a lovely gentleman just off the Main Street, I jumped back on the bus and took the ride up to the top of Cerro Panecillo where the statue of the Virgin de Quito stands over looking the city. The views were spectacular and gives an idea as to the sprawl of the city among the mountains.
The next morning was an early start (departed the hotel with our group at 4:30am) to get our flight to Baltra Island in the Galapagos. As I've discovered, time is a fluid concept in South America, and our flight was an hour late leaving, no explanation provided.
From Baltra we had a short ferry ride to Santa Cruz island, where we went for lunch (excellent BBQ chicken and beef at a local ranch) and got up close with some Giant Tortoises. We then explored a lava cave briefly, before having time for a couple of beers in the village before joining our boat, the Daphne, which would be home for the next three nights.
The first island stop was Floreana, where we went for a short walk along the island and then a snorkel in off the beach. There was a lot of fish (as you would expect) in the water around the rocks, but the best part was the sea turtles which were awesome to swim so close with. The afternoon was more snorkeling, this time floating on the strong current through and then around the 'Devils Crown', again with more fish and some of the group saw some rays and a shark. Unfortunately I missed both of these, but the snorkeling was still great.
That night we sailed to Espanola island. The morning we did a walk along the volcanic rocks of the island, coming across countless birds, sea iguanas and sea lions. The wildlife is very tame and not spooked by humans, to the point where the whole place is like being in some kind of giant zoo where the animals are so easy to come by, and you have to be careful not to step on any of the iguanas that sleep along the path. It is breeding season for a lot of the wildlife here, so we got to see baby sea lions, albatross chicks and a Blue Footed Booby chick as well. The highlight of the walk was the sea cliffs and blow hole, but then seeing orcas feed off the coast line also. Simply amazing.
After lunch we moved to a Gardners Bay for some more snorkelling, this time with sea lions, and as we were leaving more orcas were feeding just near where we were moored, so we got a closer look at these awesome animals in their natural environment. Finally we spent some time in the afternoon at the beach hanging out with more sea lions, in an area that is still pretty much untouched by humans, with only footprints to show we had been there.
The final morning we had an early snorkel activity around 'Kicker Rock', where we were promised this is the best spot in the Galápagos to spot sharks, which are mostly reef sharks, but also the hammerhead sharks hang out here too. Jumping in the water at 6:15, I was no longer half asleep, and now trying to spot some sharks. Whilst I did manage to see one decent size shark, it passed a few metres below me and visibility wasn't great, so I wasn't able to snap a photo. However, there were some very playful sea lions that swam with us. One in particular kept coming really close to me and jumping in and around where I was, which was so much fun seeing him cruise in and around, somersault and stare me straight in the eye. The best! Something I will remember for a long time.
Whilst the wildlife and scenery were simply amazing, and the photos and certainly my words cannot do it justice, one the most remarkable thing for me about the Galapagos was the landscape and vegetation, or lack thereof. I had pictured lush green islands, yet the majority of the islands we visited were almost arid type landscapes with dead looking trees and bushes, that at times looked like some kind of waste land. When the rain hits, we are told these trees will again come to life, but for now it was dry and desolate with the exception of the higher points on Santa Cruz, where it was jungle like in the misty rain.
Departing the Daphne on San Cristobal island, we had an hour to wander the village before heading for our departure flight back to Quito. Or so we thought. Our flight was delayed by five hours, which we now had to fill in. This isn't easy in a village you can wander in less than an hour, and when just about every shop closes between 1-3/4 for afternoon siesta. As luck had it, there was a fiesta on in the highlands that day. So following our lunch, we jumped into a cab (all 9 of us: 4 in front and 5 in the back of the ute) and headed up to the fiesta. This was great, hanging out with locals watching a futbol game, a horse show, a cow milking contest, drinking beer and Candelaso (a sweet cinnamon hot drink) and eating BBQ meat. Simply awesome, if not a little bit random. This is what travel is about for me, the best adventures are the unplanned ones.
Been sufficiently entertained for the afternoon, we finally got our flight back to Quito, arriving late in the evening. After a few hours sleep, I am now en route to Lima to start the Peruvian leg of my journey.
27.09.2014 - 29.09.2014 16 °C
First impressions of Santiago was that it was smaller and quieter than I expected. However, I did arrive over the weekend, which I am told the city is dead over weekends. It certainly was more lively this morning as I wandered around. The city is run down and showing signs of years of neglect, with lots of graffiti, but is relatively clean. There is a lot of construction and restoration work underway.
Saturday afternoon, I met up with Jose (via couch surfing) who showed me around Plaza de Armas and took me to grab some coffee and a burger, Chilean style as it came with fried plantain on top of the beef. From there, we headed to The Clinic bar to try out some local drinks.
It was here I was introduced to the terramoto which translated from Spanish means earthquake. It is a sweet white wine, with some kind of bitter spirit added, and a scoop of mango ice cream. It packs a punch, but fortunately I found it too sweet for my liking, so didn't run the risk of being hit by the earthquake after several terramoto's. I also tried the Chilean pisco sour, which was similar to a Japanese sour plum wine I have had, but stronger. As a lack of sleep and jet lag was setting in, I bid Jose farewell after the couple if drinks and called it a night.
The next morning I was up early as I had arranged with Andrés (another couch surfer) to do a trek to Alto des Narajos with a local Chilean group Trekkeros Chile. The trek was amazing. A tough 6km hike rising about 800m along what can best be described as a goat track at some points. The effort was worth it though as the views of the Andes and Santiago were stunning, though somewhat limited by the haze/smog that gets trapped in the city with the Andes rising behind it.
After the full day hike, I was exhausted, and in desperate need for some dinner. With options limited on a Sunday evening around my hotel, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a guy selling meat skewers cooked over coals in a shopping trolley. They were superb, a mix of pork, beef, and sausage, so 4 of these was my dinner sorted for the night.
My final morning in Santiago I wandered back into the Plaza de Armas, which unfortunately due to construction the area was pretty closed off so the experience was not what it may have been with it fully opened up with the cathedral standing over it. I headed up to the Mercado Central, the local fish market and eatery. I had a snack of empanadas (most excellent) and then jumped on the hop-on hop-off bus to try and see as much of the city as possible before heading off to Quito in the afternoon. Needless to say, this was one of the lamer hop-on hop-off bus tours I had done, with only the start and finish parts of the loop of any interest to see. If I had my time again, I would have skipped the his and spent some time hanging out in the Bellavista district, which looks quite funky. It also has access to San Christobel hill, which on a clear day (which this was not) would be great to go up to the top to see the city.
And that's all I had time for in Santiago, it's now off to Quito to start the first of the tours I have booked, this one is the Galápagos leg of the journey. Adios amigos.