As usual I had decided to take the bus across the border to Ecuador, being of course the cheapest way to get there. A few days before I was due to leave Colombia I was googling the best route to Ecuador and came across the smart traveler website saying that the borders between Colombia and Ecuador was a high alert area, meaning you should reconsider travel here. That was the first I had heard of it, and was quite surprising as I had I asked the locals and they assured me that it was very safe. After packing up I left my hostel at 9am and boarded a collectivo for the larger town nearby, from there I organised another bus to Pasto where I would stay for the night. Half way through I was changed on to a smaller older bus, and as we started to descend the mountain the paved road gave way to gravel and I started getting nervous. The road was terrible and it was late in the day, a disturbing fact as I knew it inadvisable to travel through this area in the dark as the paramilitary group FARC still hand strong holds in the area. We wound through gravel roads high in the mountains with a sheer drop to my left making it necessary to pull in to the ditch to let other vans pass in some places. After closing my eyes through 90% of the ride we eventually started to descend, finally pulling in to Pasto around 8.30pm starving and exhausted. The next morning I had another early start to make my way down to the border crossing through to Ecuador. I caught my first local bus in Ecuador, finally arriving in my first stop of Otavalo around 5.30pm, It took me two full days to get there.
I had come to Otavalo for the huge market they have on Saturday, and it seemed to finally break my rule of not buying any souvenirs for myself. Otavalo was also one of the bigger towns that celebrate Carnaval, however it is much more tame than the one in Rio with the locals chasing each other around with foam cans whilst also spraying whatever gringos happened to be walking past. When I arrived in Quito the following day I was chased down the street by a small child laughing maniacally trying to get me.
As I arrived to the capital during Carnaval most of the shops were closed, however the walking tour was still running so I orientated myself in Quito wandering through the beautiful avenues marveling at gothic churches that have local animals like ant eaters and turtles as gargoyles.
After Quito I made my way to Banos, a small town located in a valley surrounded by looming Andean mountains in Ecuador’s south, a town mostly known for its adventure sports. In continuing doing things I would never do back home I decided to go white water rafting; as I stood shivering in the rain listening to instructions on how not to fall in I wondered what I was doing there. However as soon as we got in the fast moving and swollen river I was laughing like a crazy person as we were battered around being splashed with freezing cold water.
Unfortunately the rain continued for the following days so my new friend Britt and I decided to pamper ourselves and went to the local thermal pools followed by a massage. Britt and I had decided that we would do the Quilotoa loop hike together, but before leaving Banos she and I visited her friend in a nearby town where she was volunteering at a local animal sanctuary. I felt very privileged to receive a private tour through the refuge and to see animals I hadn’t seen or in some cases even heard of before before such as Tapirs, Puma, Jaguars, Capybara and a Kinkajou. For our final night in Banos we amped our selves up to try the local delicacy Cuy, or better known as Guinea Pig. It was surprisingly delicious and tasted quite similar to duck! It is also a popular dish in Peru so I will have to compare flavours when I get there.
The following day we packed up for our journey to start the Quilotoa loop, a hiking route walking between villages in the Ecuadorian countryside. We left our large bags in a nearby town taking only our small day packs and caught the bus to the tiny town of Quilotoa. Quilotoa is a very small town with only a few shops and hostels but is remarkable as the starting point of the hike with the path tracing around the gorgeous Quilotoa crater lake before descending down the countryside deep in to a canyon. On the first day we stopped in a town half way hoping to get lunch but to our chagrin found that the town was so small it had no restaurants, so after a lunch of a snickers and a granola bar we continued on for another few hours. We arrived at our second small charming hostel to find a very comfortable fire place burning away in our new cosy room. We spent the next few days wandering through the countryside constantly in awe of the natural beauty whilst also being challenged by the continuous climbing up and down of mountain after mountain. By the third day we rolled in to the final town of Sigchos exhausted but exalted, we caught a bus back to Latacunga where we had left our bags and immediately devoured a huge fried rice with a million sides. In total we hiked 40km over three days, staying in small quant hostels in towns with no more than a 100 people and in the last hostel two llamas. It was an incredibly challenging hike as we started at just under 4000m altitude, with no day being easier than the last, but in the end the Quilotoa loop ended up being one of the highlights of my trip, at least until the Galapagos! I have really found my hiking feet and feel quite confident undertaking self guided hikes, which I can’t wait to put to use back home!
After four nights in the Andes Britt and I returned to Quito for the final few days before we went to the Galapagos. I had some personal admin to do (including filing a new police report as I got a bunch of cash stolen at my final hostel in the Andes) so spent some down time in Quito, but still found the time to go on a food walking tour chowing down on fried tripe among other things.
When I was planning my tour through South America going to the Galapagos was a non negotiable, I simply had to do it regardless of cost. Thankfully as has happened so often on this trip I had met someone in Nicaragua who had told me how they had done the Galapagos on a budget by doing day trips to the islands instead of booking an expensive cruise ship. They also told me about a website they booked their flights through and so I managed to book flights for $220 return when they usually cost between $400 – $600. I arrived to Santa Cruz and met up with Britt and a couple of her friends and she told me about the day trips she had booked, and so I tacked on to the following day snorkelling trip with her. The next morning we started what would be our custom of rising at 6am every morning to catch a boat to a distant island. Unfortunately I didn’t deal well with the small boat being buffeted around on choppy waters and spent the hour long trip trying not to throw up, but was relieved when we pulled up to a beautiful cove and jumped in to the crystal clear water to start snorkelling. I swam around in the surprisingly chilly waters seeing beautiful tropical fish dart away beneath me. After an hour we jumped back on the boat and drove to another bay where I dove in to the aqua marine water to swim with sea lions up close. After a delicious lunch of ceviche on the boat we went to a remote beach to see if we could spot some sea turtles. Unfortunately the visibility was not great but I did see a sea turtle sized shadow swim underneath me. Eventually we packed up and were delivered back to Santa Cruz to find some whole fish to devour before
collapsing in bed, exhausted but happy from spending the day swimming in the sun.
The next morning we packed up and caught a ferry to the island of San Cristobal where we would spend a couple of days and thankfully after buying some sea sickness tablets I was able to enjoy the boat ride over. We dropped our stuff at the hotel and organised a day trip across the island taking in key spots across San Cristobal. Here I got my first glimpse of the giant tortoises that are endemic to the Galapagos, Britt and I lined up to take some photos and were told only after we brushed past a branch of a tree not to touch it as it was poisonous. This reminded me of a tree called arbol de la muerte (or tree of death) that I had read about on a science website. The tree grew small apples and was so toxic if you ate one of the apples you would die, I remembered it grew on the Galapagos and so asked our guide if he knew the tree. He sure did, it was the tree he just told us not to touch. Thankfully after scrubbing our arms vigorously we didn’t get sick, but would have been nice to be told before hand! The next day we went for a snorkel around kicker rock, a large formation that hosts a variety of sea life. Finally I got to see some sea turtles up close and an incredible array of multi coloured corals. After this we returned back to Santa Cruz on the ferry while watching large manta rays jump out of the water chasing fish.
Britt is a scuba instructor and she had convinced me that I should try scuba diving again. I had only tried it once before when I went on a shark dive at the Melbourne aquarium and had really disliked the equipment. So we took a boat out to Seymour rock located on the island of Baltra and I geared up and jumped in to the ocean to try my first scuba. Wow. I can’t think of a more incredible experience I have had, it felt like I was flying through the ocean, and on my very first scuba I saw multiple reef sharks, a school of eagle rays, and a hammerhead shark which is apparently very rare. I am surely hooked and want to learn scuba diving when I get back to Australia!
The following day we took another ferry to Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. As we got off the boat we were greeted by penguins swimming around the port, dozens of iguanas and seals lazing on the dock, and a lady offering us rooms on the beach for $25 dollars a night. We dropped our bags at our hotel that was covered with marine iguanas and jumped on a boat for a day trip to the tunnels that had been formed by lava three thousand years before. As we drove the boat out to we stopped to spot a few sharks and a manta ray the size of a car. To get to the tunnels we had to surf over large waves and through treacherous rocks before arriving at the most unique and one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Jagged black lava rocks rose out of the ocean and below tunnels formed big enough to drive a car through. We jumped off the boat and walked over the tunnels, looking down at the the crystal clear water below to see rays and turtles swimming through the formations. After some lunch we dove in to the crystal clear water and immediately saw a sea horse the size of my hand, apparently they are usually only the size of a pinky finger. We swam through tunnels seeing sharks, spotted eagle rays, a school of gorgeous golden rays and the biggest sea turtles I have ever seen. I decided right then and there I had to stay longer. When the boat trip was over and I arrived back to my hotel I called the airline to extend my trip by three days. The next day we had not tours booked and so having rose at 6am for a week straight we had a sleep in before walking through a lagoon right next to our hotel with flamingos in it. I had never seen flamingos up close before, they are such surreal looking birds like they are ripped straight from a cartoon. Afterwards we walked through a tunnel of arbol de la muertes before seeing more giant tortoises. We spent the rest of the afternoon kicking back on the beach tanning ourselves next to my favourite animal on the island the cheeky marine iguana, as well as snorkeling with playful seals that would swim right up to your face before blowing bubbles and darting off at the last minute.
After extending my trip by three days I now had time to visit the least populous island of floreana with less than than 200 inhabitants. I had an intense interest in this island after seeing a documentary at MIFF called when evil came to Eden about a group of naturalists who came to Floreana and ended in murder. I would highly recommend the documentary!
On my final day in the Galapagos I relished a sleep in before hopping on a water taxi to go swim in a natural waterway called Las Grietas, ending the evening with devouring my last delicious whole fish and wandering down to the wharf to watch swarms of golden rays feed with cheeky seals chasing them through the water.
Before I had been to the Galapagos I couldn’t say what my favourite part of this trip had been, but now hands down Galapagos is the highlight of both the trip as well as my now favourite place in the world I have ever visited. It really isn’t as expensive as I thought it would be, and if you have any interest in going let me know and I will tell you how you can visit the islands on a budget.
Now on to my final few weeks before I fly home visiting Peru, Bolivia and Chile.