Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Galapagos Islands

Day 1
At 10.10pm at the end of Day 1 I’m sitting below deck in the Sagitta, the place entirely to myself gathering my thoughts from our first day. The seas are reasonably choppy, sufficiently so for everyone to have scrambled for cover in bed immediately after dinner. Our ship’s beautiful - a technical description would be beyond me but it’s a three-masted sailing ship. All 10 rooms have air-con, private bathrooms and there's a library on the bottom deck. Right now we’re cutting through the water through engine rather than wind power. Today began at the airport waiting for the group to form, sitting around trying to predict what the average age of the group would be (it’s about 50) and picking out faces from the crowds swarming around wondering if we’d be sharing space with them on the seas for 6 days. Our tour company seem to have their shit together and quickly they’d rounded us up and shepherded us to a turtle conservation centre where we walked around in a field filled with giant turtles and learned, amongst other things, that they‘re still sexually active after 100 years - well for some.
Our group’s predominantly made up of Americans - think overstatements like “This is so once in a liftetime” - and a smattering of Europeans - think understatements like “Well I just happened to be in Ecuador so…”. First days in a group are the worst, figuring out who to talk to and who to avoid but in true Big Brother fashion, by the second or third day the picture will become a lot clearer. During dinner tonight I sat beside a guy from Washington DC whose day job is to serve as an environmental attorney and whose remit is to find ways to get bills enacted into laws in spite of the best attempts of the Republicans. He’s an amateur ornithologist and literally has a list of must see birds - Darwin’s finches are at the top of his list - which he hopes to accomplish before this trip is out. He’s very serious about his birds and so I fight back the Father Dougal-esque urge to ask him if he’s excited about seeing some boobies. This place is eerily quiet tonight - think the Marie Celeste - and we have an early start in the morning.

Day 2
It’s a 7am start for breakfast and then we’re aboard a dinghy and in the water. Almost as a sign of things to come, we’ve scarcely left the side of the ship when four dolphins surface nearby and we watch them from a distance. Our first landing is a dry one but before we make land we spot our first blue-footed boobies with their comically bright blue feet doing their funny little blue-footed shuffle in order to attract a mate. Right beside them is a flightless cormorant, unique to the Galapagos. We land and explore the vast lava fields of Isabela. There are 5 volcanoes on Isabela, all of them active. Our guide tells us of a team of 8 Ecuadorian marines who in the early 1980’s decided to cross 40km of this same terrain as part of a training exercise. 7 of them made it, albeit just about, their boots torn to shreds and the one who’d decided to turn back died from dehydration. Beautiful as this landscape is, it is a brutal place and, as Darwin noted, only the fittest survive here.
Of course studying the people on the cruise can be just as fascinating - we are all animals after all. Our American Democrat representative is almost unhealthily obsessed by birds - at one stage he runs across the island with his binoculars in hand like he’s just been told that Monica Lewinksky is going down on Sarah Palin on newly formed lava rock. He’s a bright guy though and can just as easily tell you how many vowels are in the Hawaiian alphabet or how many types of finches there are in the Galapagos as he could tell you what day it is today.
In the afternoon we hit the dinghies again for another visit on to the shores of Isabela. It’s incredible what you see all around you, all the time - dive-bombing blue-footed boobies searching for food, turtles swimming past the dinghy peeking their heads above the surface occasionally for air, flightless cormorants nesting beside solitary penguins, sea lions catching 40 winks in the branches of mangroves, manta rays gliding just below the surface, marine iguanas basking in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and scavenging frigate birds circling above at all times watching the ocean and the ship below. And that’s just in the space of a few minutes. It’s a never-ending cornucopia of wildlife, one species momentarily disappears and another one quickly pops up to take its place. We go snorkelling and swim beside gigantic marine turtles their elegance underwater in complete contrast to their lumbering forms on land. As first days on the water go, it’s been pretty much flawless.

Day 3
Perhaps we should get off the boat now because it’ll be pretty difficult to top today. This place is teeming with life and all creatures great and small revealed themselves during the course of the day. We began with a land walk on the western coast of Isabela in search of land iguanas. This being the Galapagos, creatures are anything but elusive and before long we’d spotted some monstrous types. Best of all though, we stumbled across two males pumped up with aggression and facing off in a territorial battle. Xavier, our guide, told us that this was an extremely rare event to witness so we watched at close quarters as the two creatures lumbered towards each other in slow motion, made some weird head and tail movements and proceeded to butt each other with their heads. As the drama unfolded I watched it all silently, like everyone else in the group, save for the David Attenborough voiceover in my mind which narrated each blow. I’ve been hearing a lot of those in the Galapagos. The standoff lasted about ten minutes without a punch being thrown and so we wandered off leaving them to renew hostilities after our departure.
We’d no sooner arrived back on the ship for lunch when a humpback whale began breaching to the side of the boat - Christ don‘t these creatures realise we have to eat. Truly, it’s never-ending here. In the afternoon we snorkelled in a bay filled with marine turtles - huge, elegant creatures - underwater at least - seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were 16 pasty tourists swimming on their patch. I’m fascinated by the turtles and the fact that they allow you to swim within touching distance. Another land trek took us Fernandina Island, the youngest in the archipelago and home to a vast population of marine iguanas. There they lie piled on top of each other perfectly blending with the rocks upon which they spend their day. Fernandina is also home to a healthy population of sea lions, again utterly immune to human presence and who lay sprawled on the sand bothered only by the flies which occasionally caused them to flee to the water.
There’s an easiness amongst the group now that wasn’t there on Days 1 or 2. Star of the show is Tim - American, gay as hell and possessing enough one-liners to rival Tommy Cooper. Tim’s everybody’s friend and his main goal in life now is to adopt a seal pup. Birdwatching Democrat Brett is already becoming a parody of himself, asking everyone for silence when he’s filming his birdie videos and impatiently requesting that we rotate those who sit at the front of the boat so that he can get better shots. It’s not as if his fucking lens isn’t big enough. It’s a good group though and the boat’s bloody wonderful so life is great. Quite how we’ll manage to continue to be amazed after today is something to look forward to I guess.

Day 4
It isn’t every day that you wake up in the southern hemisphere and go to sleep in the northern hemisphere but that’s the case today. Winter at dawn and summer by dusk. We crossed the equatorial divide at around 5pm and the occasion was marked with glasses of champagne - I have quickly accustomed myself to such things on this ship, accepting the champagne with the air of a man who would normally be having a glass at this time of the afternoon anyway. Today was an inevitable and predictable comedown after the highs of yesterday and yet any day in which you spot a blue whale surfacing - albeit from a distance - could scarcely been considered unremarkable. There’s also the fact that just one hour before we crossed the equator, we’d been snorkelling with penguins. Yes, penguins on the equator - who knew?
Each night on the ship we receive our briefing for the following day’s activities just after dinner. Tonight Xavier has informed us - somewhat cryptically - that tomorrow’s planned activities are slightly up in the air because of a warning issued to them by the marine authorities. He was a little vague with regard to what this means but explained that in case of high seas, for example, it may be impossible to disembark from the boat. Because of the lack of clarity this has led to inevitable speculation as to what this might mean - severe storm, tsunami etc. I have exactly 3 days of travel left in my trip and I’d rather not spend a third of that time stuck on a boat in stomach-churning seas within sight of the wildlife which is everywhere on this place.

Day 5
Well, no tsunami this morning then and, puzzlingly enough, no big swell either. Last night’s mystery announcement regarding this morning’s activities remained just that - a mystery. No waves but no activities this morning either and so we sailed around the coast of Santiago on to our snorkelling site at China Hat. With perfect visibility and a multitude of indifferent (to our presence that is) fish, an hour here passed in a blur. We also spotted a white-tipped shark, a couple of panicked and fast moving penguins and - bizarrely - what seemed like a chicken skeleton in our time there. Snorkelling’s been absolute highlight here - a slow moving 3-D cartoon, a smorgasbord of aquatic delights. The real world seems acutely pale once you’ve spent an hour peering into the depths around the Galapagos.
It’s hard to believe that it all ends tomorrow. I’d fretted a little in advance that the cruise might sniff of retirement home outing but everyone’s been fantastic. Tim continues to entertain though, organising classroom games - he’s a teacher - as much to give free rein his competitive side as to help the evenings on the boat to pass a little quicker. In the morning we visit North Seymour at 6am and then it’ll be over. Life on the road will come to an end. Christ. Am I ready for that?

Day 6
Last but not least North Seymour. We had less than an hour on the island due to the need to get us all to the airport on time but in its own way Seymour was one of the most spectacular islands we've visited. Each time we land on an island you're guaranteed to be greeted ashore by a posse of sea lions, mostly pups, waiting for their mothers to return with some fish from the sea. Before we'd even landed on Seymour this morning we saw a Galapagos shark swimming by the boat. North Seymour is home to an incredible variety of birds. As we walked we watched the strange blue-footed booby mating ritual. She honks and he whistles, shuffles off to do a dance and returns - repeat several times. We walked right beside some blue-footed booby females standing guard over their chicks and to our right was the only time we saw a male frigate bird with its incredible inflated pouch. Normally this is inflated only during mating season - April - but here was a frigate bird, pouch fully inflated, enormous wings fully extended (over 2 metres) squawking at passing females in the hope of getting laid.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

And finally......The Galapagos

So this is where it will end then. 13 months of travel have led me to the Galapagos Islands, a destination I wasn’t sure that I could afford to visit but those nights spent in shitty overnight buses, overcrowded Indian trains, that hideous Malian cuisine, the strange nuclear bunker I stayed in when in Burkina Faso amongst others have all helped to fund this visit. It took 27 hours in a bus from Lima to Guayaquil although this time I travelled with Cruz Del Sur which meant a little extra leg room, blankets and pillows, wi-fi (!) three meals and an overworked attendant keeping everyone happy by changing the DVD selection from one moronic Disney movie to the next. Still, it made a change from fucking Roxette.
It's a little ironic that my worst border crossing of all has been reserved till last as Ecuadorian border officials (the Peruvians were quick to have us on our way again) display Keystone Cops' incompetence at passing us through. Their computer system is down and there they sit pulling faces behind each other - no really - as they take calls whilst we stand for an hour in the heat waiting for someone to remember to plug the fucking computer in. On arrival in Baltra airport on Santa Cruz the officials are thorough but swift in checking that we're not bringing anything in here that may harm the fragile ecosystem.
Getting to the Galapagos is easy, choosing who you’ll do a cruise with is the hard part. For the past 6 weeks I’ve been sending emails enquiring as to prices/itineraries etc for a 6 or 8 day cruise and some of the agencies have been like a dog in heat constantly sniffing around my arse ever since. I lost count of the number of times the agent I was corresponding with told me that “I’ve just returned from a cruise on the Princess and it was magnificent.” Don’t these people work? Anyway, skirting around the bullshit is a challenge but you can generally see through most of the spin and then you just need to choose a ship which has an itinerary you like the sound of, is reasonably affordable (nothing’s cheap here but I‘m disposing of whatever money I have left before I return and have the Irish government do it for me) and which looks sufficiently buoyant for 6 days on the water. There are many different classes of boat to choose from - Economy, Tourist, Tourist Superior, First and Luxury - it all depends on how much you wish to splurge. Economy boats are a case of getting what you pay for i.e. fuck all. I paid $1,600 for a 6 day/5 night cruise on the Sagitta - a First Class sailing boat - but bearing in mind that this included return air fare from Ecuador ($400), all meals on board, a top class guide and an awesome itinerary alleviated the pain somewhat. All a far cry from DVT inducing rides in dust-filled 4WDs to Timbuktu. Travelling isn’t always about the pain.
Puerto Ayora is my base before the cruise begins on Monday (8th) and there are endless opportunities to explore some of the outlying islands on day tours and so I head off to neighbouring Isabela where we're promised sightings of penguins, sea lions, marine iguanas (they're everywhere), white-tipped sharks and flamingos. And this being The Galapagos, we see each and every one of them. We go snorkelling and get up close and personal with a fearless penguin and are joined for a swim by a sea lion - all apparently par for the course in these parts. As an introduction to life on the islands here it's wonderful. On our ramble across one of the islands we reach a sign which alerts us to the fact that white-tipped sharks may be resting nearby and there they are - exactly where the sign suggests they might well be found, about 8 of them. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Urban Peru: Cuzco to Lima

There probably aren't many travellers who've made it their business to make their way across to Cuzco and decided to give Machu Picchu a miss but that's what's happened here. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to but a combination of time constraints and an aversion to the tourist scrum that would surely exist there especially now at the beginning of August given that it's the 100th anniversary of the 'discovery' of the place, it wasn't a place that I felt as if I had to see. Two days to see Cuzco then, itself a historical hotspot made me feel as if I wasn't completely turning my back on Inca culture. And yeah, Cuzco was fine - pretty, historic, truly impressive plaza, cobblestone streets, blah, blah, blah but at this stage most of this is washing over me in all honesty. Where I should be oohing and sighing, of late I've been looking at my watch a little too much, trying not to be but becoming someone who's making a mental checklist of what needs to be seen in a city, seeing what needs to be seen and then moving on. It makes for an emptier experience and Cuzco was pretty much that unfortunately.
Lima, by contrast to Cuzco is all hard edges. What the city needs more than anything though is a good press officer. Just a few days previous at the Cruz Del Condor I’d heard a loud American girl proclaim that Lima “was the most depressing fucking city I’ve ever been in.” I‘m assuming she's not a resident of Saint Louis. And she was merely the latest in a long line of travellers heading south from this nation's capital bearing tales of misery and woe from the streets of Lima. And as is often the case, it isn’t all that bad in reality though it does try. You know that sense of danger or menace you get around train stations in large cities? Well, Lima has that sense throughout the city, especially in and around the city centre. It's a city of two parts - there’s the historic centre with the Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin and there’s the more tourist ready region of Miraflores by the coast. Most travellers decamp to Miraflores to bed down only visiting the city centre to take some pictures by daylight before scurrying off to be lit up by Miraflores' magical McDonald's neon. I spend 3 days there - this is more out of necessity than choice as the earliest direct bus to Ecuador was some 3 days' wait - and not once during the 3 days is there even a beam of sunlight which doesn't exactly add to the feeling.
Peru is stuck in something of a musical timewarp though and who'd have guessed that it'd be a 1980's gay disco fixation. Erasure are everywhere here and for those of you who lost track of the band in the early 1990's, I can report that the band are alive and well and touring in Peru. And Andy Bell is still wearing that fucking white t-shirt and no doubt dances that very same way too. Ah, nostalgia. It doesn't end there either. There’s a Groundhog Day feeling to travelling by bus in Peru. Every single bus ride I take I hear 'It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette at least 4 times. This situation is compounded by the fact that I then have to endure the aforementioned in Spanish, a Eurovision-esque taste of Roxette, just what you need when there's still another 16 hours to go until Lima. The ups and downs of life on the road.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On To Peru - Arequipa

After two days lost in the Copacabana sideshow, Peru can’t come fast enough and, conveniently enough, the border is a mere 40 minute drive from the city. With two and a half weeks left I know that I can never do Peru justice and so I’ve decided to visit Arequipa, Cuzco and Lima on my way north to Ecuador. I’m going to Arequipa to climb a volcano, to Cuzco, well, because it’s Cuzco and to Lima - probably the most unpopular of all South American capitals - just because it’s the capital and because I can’t believe that it’s as bad as people say. Or it surely can’t be as bad as, say, Copacabana. Arequipa promises spectacular volcanoes, one of the deepest canyons in the world and Peru’s second largest city. The city is filled with beautiful colonial buildings built with volcanic rock. I’d half-expected the Peruvian equivalent of Dubrovnik, but a hundred years or so on from their construction, the glow from the rocks has dulled somewhat leaving the buildings looking a pasty grey rather than possessing a dazzling glow.
The city’s Plaza De Armas though is spectacular with its beautiful cathedral in the foreground and all 5,822m of El Misti to the background. It’s a classically shaped volcano and there are a harem - it’s the most appropriate collective noun - of tourist agencies around the city determined to sell you the opportunity to scale its peak. Most of the agencies have no idea what’s involved in climbing a volcano - few ask if I’m sufficiently acclimatised and one lady tells me that 2 litres of water will be more than enough for the two days it takes to climb to the top. In the end I decide to go with Vikinka Travel but they cancel on me the night before we’re due to climb. It proves impossible to find an agency with sufficient numbers to climb Misti, instead everyone wants to climb the nearby Chachani (6,075m) where you get dropped off at over 5,000m, climb to the top and come back having bagged an easy peak. And so I abandon the plan to climb the volcano and head out to Colca Canyon instead - at 3,191m, one of the world’s deepest.
There simply isn’t time enough to do an independent trek there and so I put my deeply held reservations to one side and join a trekking group for a 2 day/1 night tour to the canyon. The drive there is spectacular apparently but not that you’d notice as we drive by night to begin trekking in the early morning sun. We stop at a place called Cruz Del Condor where we join the throng to watch condors fly, unsurprisingly enough, around a cross at the top of the canyon. It’s a beautiful sight which is completely negated by the fact that you have to push or be pushed in order to find a prime spot from where to take photos. The canyon itself though is magnificent and our group of 8 begin a two hour descent to the bottom just as the day begins to warm up. As spectacular as it all is, I snap photos more out of habit than awe. We overnight in a hideous ‘village’ - constructed solely for tourists - at the bottom of the valley, the name of which translates as ‘Paradise Lost’. The following morning at 5.15am en punto and still under the cover of darkness, we begin the 1,100m climb back to the rim of the valley. It’s bloody hard work but it’s the best part of the entire trek. The road home passes though the altiplano where we spot llamas, alpacas and vicuñas aplenty and we drive over a 4,800m pass from where I can see perfect views of the volcano I didn’t get to climb.