The long road to Machu Picchu

Before we went to the Galapagos, we actually had four days in Quito. We had previously thought that we may stay one night, then head off to the jungle, or a river, or another town somewhere, getting the most out of our Ecuador experience. What actually happened, was that we found a friendly and comfortable hostel in the city and suddenly realised we were exhausted. The two month blast through Central America had really taken it out of us, so we decided to just stay in Quito for a few days and recharge the batteries.

Now, I know it sounds very ‘woe is me’ to be complaining of tiredness on what is effectively a year long holiday, and I should probably avoid writing about it because it doesn’t make for a very good story, but this blog is supposed to be a reflection of our experience, and I would be lying if I told you that this trip has all been plain sailing. I may elaborate on this in a separate post, but for now, let me summarise by saying that we were, after nine months on the road, beginning to feel a keen sense of missing home, of wanting to spend time with people who we actually know, of not having to begin every conversation with our life story, of wanting to follow through on budding friendships, sleep in our own bed, speak our own language, of wanting some freedom to drive ourselves somewhere, to cook, to eat, to go to work even! I never thought I’d write that!

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The impressive double towered frontage of the basilica.   We climbed up to the top to enjoy panoramic views of the city.

Enough said – we needed some down time, and we took it in Quito, a city that challenges you with altitude, making even the slightest of hills seem mountainous, and there are plenty enough hills to come across. I will confess, the first night we made it as far as the local Chinese restaurant, before coming back to the hostel and digging into the extensive DVD collection, watching Jurassic World followed by The Grand Budapest Hotel. Because that’s what you do when you’re tired, you chill out in front of a movie. Or, well, two movies!

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The inside of the Church of the Society of Jesus is a dazzling spectacle of gold, gold and more gold!

We did explore Quito of course, actually going on two fabulous walking tours run by Community Hostel. We weren’t staying there, but that doesn’t matter because the tours are open to anyone, and we’d highly recommend both. The first was a free city walking tour, taking in the main architectural and historical sights. Our guide Opi introduced himself briefly before saying, ‘How many of you have been on a free walking tour before?’ We raised our hands along with most of the rest of the group (we’d done one in Sydney). Opi then continued, ‘OK, good. So what do all you guys know about free walking tours?’ ‘They’re not free!’ came the reply in chorus from the majority of the group. His point, of course, was that the tours can only run if people give a tip at the end. It was a fair point, he didn’t labour on it, and as it was a really good tour we were happy to oblige.

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The ‘hole in the wall’ sweet shop – Confiteria el Gato.

We visited the main sights in the city, which involved numerous plazas and even more numerous churches, but our favourite bits were the more local touches. Opi showed us to a traditional sweet shop where Helena bought some peanut brittle and some sesame snaps – don’t know if that’s what they’re called, but it sounds good to me! He also took us around the Mercado Central, giving tips for where to find the most authentic breakfasts, lunches and snacks. We tried Morocho, which is a warm corn based drink with cinnamon that tastes a bit like rice pudding; and Mori berry juice which is a sort of blackberry but mixed with a healthy serving of sugar. The Ecuadorians love their sugar!

 

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Opi explains the menu at the first local food stop.

The second tour was even better – a Friday night stroll around some of the most authentic local food sellers. Now, Helena and I are big foodies, and we love trying loads of different things so we were pretty much in heaven at this point. We ate various dishes including seco de chivo (goat curry), a kind of roasted pork and vegetables dish, and a huge cheese empanada (with sugar on the top).

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Sausage, served with sausage, with a side of, well, sausage.   Topped with a banana!

My favourite were the pinchos though which are basically three different types of sausages on a stick. Perfect!

Setting our sights on Cusco
Our trip to the fabled lost city of the Incas felt like it began in Quito. We’d completed our Galapagos tour and enjoyed a final meal with the Irish ladies and Becky before retiring for one more night of luxury in the Hilton. We had had to do some serious logistical planning prior to leaving Quito because we only had three days before we had to be in Cusco to begin preparing for our trek. ‘I’m sure we can get an overnight bus…’ I’d said nonchalantly when booking the hike (we were in Nicaragua at the time). Once in Quito, we realised a few things: 1 – there is no direct bus from Quito to Cusco; 2 – even if there was, it would take significantly more than one ‘overnight’ as it’s a cool 2928 km (roughly the same distance as our entire Australian road trip); 3 – we could fly, but it would cost almost $1000 each; 4 – we really hadn’t thought this through!

After a huge amount of logistical wrangling, Hels and I both arrived at the same flight + bus + bus combo, with overnights in Guayaquil and Lima that would get us to Cusco just in time to start acclimatising. The first of the two overnight buses produced a rather interesting blog that you can read now if you missed it: 28 hours on a bus. Against the odds, it actually worked out and we made it to Cusco with no problems.

Massage, señor?
There is a booming industry in massages in Cusco, soothing the legs of all the weary hikers returning from the Inca Trail. We hadn’t done our hike yet but having endured the last 22 hours from Lima, winding our way up nauseatingly into the mountains, I was sorely tempted. The altitude is even more of an issue here too – where Quito sits at a energy-sapping 2850 metres above sea level, Cusco nestles quietly at a lung-busting 3400m. To give you some perspective, Ben Nevis tops out at an earth-shatteringly meagre 1344m…(!)

Managing to avoid the massages, we began preparing for our trek, which effectively meant purchasing more batteries for our head torches and a bag of coca leaves. This natural plant is ubiquitous to both the region and the culture, offering sufferers much needed respite from the effects of altitude sickness. Yes, coca leaf is the main ingredient of South America’s top narcotic export, cocaine, and yes, chewing the leaves may have a similar if somewhat milder effect to snorting it’s illegal counterpart … but it really does work!

The Green Machine
Thanks to a recommendation from our friends Tony and Becky, we were spared the task of wrangling through the hundreds of companies in Cusco offering treks to Machu Picchu. We took their tip to go with Alpaca Expeditions and they were beyond excellent! Clad all in green and known as ‘The Green Machine’, the team led by our guide Julio César, was made up entirely of locals. They spoke very highly of Alpaca as a company; it was started by a Peruvian guy called Raul who used to be a porter on the Inca Trail. He worked his way up, eventually starting his own local company that secures good working conditions for his staff, and ensures all of the money remains in the local economy.

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The Green Machine team and us at the start of the trek.   You should be able to spot the chef…!

We were not going to be doing the Inca Trail, however. We decided to go for the alternative Salkantay Trek which although not as hard, was longer than the classic Inca and took in the impressive Salkantay pass at 4600m. This would be the highest we had ever been since Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, which stands at 4095m.

Day 1 – all about the altitude
We woke at 04:00 am and were soon going through some bleary eyed greetings on the minibus, before promptly falling back to sleep as we were driven to our start point. Breakfast on the side of the mountain was a hundred times better than the bread and jam offering in the hostel, and with a cup of coffee in one hand, and a coca tea in the other, we had a much more productive round of introductions. We were to be a team of six: Canadian Richard, Brazilian Marcela, Scottish Matt, Aussie Jess, Helena and myself. I can’t remember all the names of the porters, but the most important guy was Casillas – he was the chef!

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Helena was a huge fan of her green poncho!

Pulling no punches, we began the hike. Day one was to be an ‘up and over’, going straight up to our maximum altitude before descending to our campsite on the other side of the mountain.

Julio gave us a very important piece of advice for walking at altitude: ‘Go at your own pace, but don’t stop. Taking it slowly is fine, just keep moving.’ It was advice well worth heeding as our starting altitude at Soraypampa was already 3922m.

Since the porters had to carry all the food and equipment for the whole trek, they had two horse men for the first day and a half while the load was the heaviest. We became quite accustomed to seeing small herds of slim horses, packed up and making seemingly light work of the uneven trail.

The porters are also well accustomed to the altitude though; as we’re taking baby steps, just chipping away at the altitude, they suddenly come hiking past at speed, joking and laughing their way along the trek, overtaking us in order to be ready to give us lunch when we finally managed to drag ourselves up to the first stop.

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The food was a costant source of amazement to us on the trek; plentiful and delicious.

I must say a little something about the food here. The breakfast experience – abundant fruit, traditional bread, pancakes, eggs, tea, coffee – was only the beginning. When we got hiking, Casillas really got to work. The first lunch stop, we were presented with a beautiful soup accompanied with garlic ciabatta and hot drinks. It was the perfect lunch for that moment (as it was wet and windy outside the tent) and we all commented on how tasty it was. But the soup was just a starter. The table was cleared and we were presented with huge platters of rice, halved avocados stuffed with vegetables and cheese, fried potatoes, fish in some kind of tomato based sauce, corn topped with cheese, and an incredible spicy salsa. We were stunned. He and the team had managed to prepare all of this from fresh at 4500m in a small tent on the side of a windswept mountain.  The superb lunch fuelled us for the pass and we all made it down to the camp site safely.

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The Salkantay Pass: 4600 metres above sea level.  Unfortunately, the clouds were shrouding the mountains so we didn’t get any views from here.

Arriving at the campsite, we were treated to a three course dinner. We reflected on our achievements of the day, and took stock of our condition. Canadian Richard was beginning to suffer from an altitude induced headache and so began drinking coca tea made from fistfuls of leaves. Julio gave us his briefing for the next day which involved what was to become a standard kit list: ‘You will need rain jacket, rain poncho, sunglasses, hat of the cold, hat of the sun, gloves…’ The weather was very changeable, he was saying. Right now, all we were thinking about was the cold, but then, the porters arrived with the best present possible…actual, genuine, hot water bottles. The relief on Helena’s face in particular was tangible!

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The Green Machine on the march with one of the horses.

Day 2 – the longest day
The 18km hike on day two was to be the furthest we’d go in one day. Looking at it, it should have been easy as it was all downhill, but persistently walking down takes its toll on your knees after a while. Descending throughout the day, the humidity increased, the terrain changed from bare mountain to mosquito abundant jungle, and we started our war against the bites; a fight that we were doomed to lose of course!

By the time we neared our end point at the town of Playa, we were all beginning to feel pretty sore. ‘How far to go,’ asked Marcela. ‘Twenty minutes,’ replied Julio, and we trekked on.

Twenty minutes later, the end was not in sight. We kept on walking, and Marcela asked again. ‘Julio!’ she said, pronouncing the ‘J’ in his name for comic effect, ‘I thought you said it was twenty minutes?’
‘Yes,’ he said, with a glint in his eye, ‘A tourist twenty minutes.’ ‘So how far is it now?’ Marcela asked, to which Julio replied, of course, ‘Twenty minutes.’

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The mist was pretty persistent, but occasionally a break in the clouds cast light across the valley.

We did eventually make it and were treated to another exceptional set of meals, and even a cake at the end of the day. I let slip that it was going to be Helena’s birthday on day 3 so she got the pleasure of cutting the cake, although Julio was upset we hadn’t told him before, ‘We could have done something special!’ he said.

Day 3 – Up and over
18th October, Helena’s birthday, and I pulled out a little surprise proposal. I would like to say I made it down onto one knee but I was hampered slightly by the sleeping bag! Despite this, it was a pretty special moment, and Helena protests that she had no idea it was coming. I’d left her for the afternoon in Cusco so that I could go and buy a ring; I thought it was pretty obvious what I was up to. ‘No, honestly,’ she said, ‘I thought I was getting a cardigan!’

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The lads surpassed themselves on Helena’s birthday.  We hadn’t even told them until the night before, and they still produced a cake … with piped icing!   Where they got a piping bag from, we will never know!

As excited as we were, we didn’t tell any of the other people on the trek as we wanted to have a bit of time for it to be just ours. We kept catching snippets of time where we could talk about it together on the hike, ‘It would have made the rest of this hike a bit awkward if I’d have said no!’ joked Helena. ‘Not to mention the rest of the trip around South America…’ I reminded her!

This day was exciting as well because we ended it with an incredible panoramic of the mountains view from our campsite, which included our first glimpse of Machu Picchu across the valley. We sat and watched as the sun went down and I took and re-took the panorama over and over as the clouds shifted and the light changed, constantly repainting the landscape.

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The mesmerising Andes.   Machu Picchu is tiny, across the valley in the very centre of this photo.

Day 4 – Arriving in Aguas Calientes
This day was all about getting to Aguas – after a pretty steep descent into the valley, we followed the train line all the way from Hidroelectrica up to our final pre-Machu Picchu destination. This is the biggest difference between the classic Inca Trail, and any of the alternative treks: only on the Inca Trail do you get to arrive from the famous Sun Gate, viewing Machu Picchu for the first time from above, on the final morning of the trek. Every other trail ends up in Aguas, from where you can catch the bus!

Having been on our feet for so long though, and as tempting as it was to hop on the bus up the steep climb to the city, we made a unanimous decision that we wanted to finish the trek on foot. Over a final dinner and after a few celebratory Cusqueña (which is incidentally the best beer in the whole of South America), we bade farewell to the Casillas and the porters for the final time.

The magical city
So, at 04:30, we met once more in the lobby of our hostel, and began the final hike to Machu Picchu.

It was a pretty steep 1.7 km trail, full of flights of steps and with a healthy scattering of switchbacks. Impressively, we all made it to the top before the first bus arrived, which meant we had the chance to take some relatively crowd-free photos of the city as the sun came up over the mountains.

It was a pretty spectacular sight, and a felt like a reward for all of the effort of the last five days. Julio explained a lot of the history of the city, its architecture and ideas about its original inhabitants, its loss and its rediscovery. He proudly told us that despite the extensive Spanish colonisation of the region, they never found Machu Picchu!

And that was it! We’ll leave you with a few shots from our final day exploring the lost city of the Incas, and another recommendation for Alpaca Expeditions. If you’re thinking of doing the Inca Trail or any of the other treks in the region, you should definitely go with the Green Machine!

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The light on the city at sunrise was beautiful.
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A city full of nooks and crannies.
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The awe-inspiring terraces provide both structural support and space for farming.
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The sun temple.
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Polished to a perfect fit.
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Team photo at the end of the trek.
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Me with our super guide, Julio!
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The best guacamole in the whole of Peru!

 

 

 

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Look at those boobies!!

Call me childish, but I couldn’t help sniggering as our guide Pedro exclaimed with glee, ‘Look, Blue-footed Boobies!’ as we walked carefully around the paths of Isla Lobos on our first island stop. And the amusement didn’t fade despite us seeing boobies regularly over the next four days. ‘If you see any boobies in a tree, they are red-footed boobies,’ he was saying, but all I could do was nudge Margaret, one of the Irish ladies on our trip and whisper, ‘God I’d love to see some boobies in a tree!’ delighted with myself and my high-classed wit.

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This amazing shot of a booby mid-mating ritual was captured by the super-talented, Helen Black.

I suppose I should try and keep the boobie based humour to a minimum from here on in. I’ll do my best but I’m making no promises!

We were in the Galápagos of course – islands made famous by Charles Darwin as the location for his studies which led to his theory of natural selection as proposed in his famous, On The Origin of Species. I’d actually studied this work as part of my Masters in Victorian Literature so was very keen to see the lands that bore some of the most important scientific and philosophical ideas of recent history.

Our planning for this part of our trip had involved a few emails to our friend at STA travel back in March. We’d decided to go for a G Adventures package trip which involved daily activities led by a naturalist guide – ours was Pedro – and four nights aboard a boat, cruising to various locations in the Southern and Central Galápagos Islands. A tour is arguably not the absolute cheapest way to visit the archipelago, but now that we have done the trip, I can happily say it was money well spent. The sheer prevalence and diversity of wildlife we got to see, the variety of locations, the quality of the information Pedro was giving us, the food, the company, the transfers, the complete lack of hassle – everything added up to make it a fantastic experience.

And we got to stay two nights in the Hilton Hotel in Quito – what an absolute luxury! Hot showers, fluffy towels and not a bunkbed in sight!

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I have no idea how or why they evolved with blue feet, but aren’t they just fantastic?!

So there we were: we’d been picked up from the airport on San Cristobal, transferred to our boat, the Estrella Del Mar, shown to our cabins, been run through an emergency drill, had lunch fed to us, and then, after a short cruise, been transferred to Isla Lobos to be greeted by Galápagos Sealions, bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Magnificent Frigate Birds and of course, the delightfully comical Boobies.

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We didn’t realise at the time that this slumbering sealion was to be the first of many.

Pedro had had a bit of a job getting us on to the boat initially as we were all transfixed by the nonchalant sealions lying all over the place at the dock: sealions on the pavement, sealions under the ramp that led down to the floating pontoon, more sealions on that pontoon, sealions on the boats moored in the harbour … you get the idea! ‘Come on, please. You will see lots of sealions,’ Pedro was saying as we were taking it in turns to pose with the first one we saw. ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ I was thinking, ‘but right now I want a picture with this one!’ Poor guy; he’d picked up a rather excitable, rather contrary group it seemed.

The excitement mainly came in the form of the three fabulous Irish friends, Helen, Angela and Margaret who had come for a month long exploration of Peru and Ecuador. It was so much fun getting to know these guys as they joked around, bringing banter and laughter to every situation (particularly when improvising comical scripts to accompany the behaviour of the animals we were watching). The rest of the group was also excellent though: Mother and daughter Julie and Emma from England, Kristina and Becky who were both travelling solo, Canadian couple Nelson and Christina, Judy and Angelo, and finally the two Australian friends Sue and Sally.

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Team photo.  The guys in the boats behind wanted to be in it too it seems.

Sally deserves a special mention, mainly because she essentially made Pedro’s life so comically difficult. There are pretty specific rules about what you can and can’t do on the Galapagos, which are there to protect the environment and the wildlife. One of the main ones is: ‘Stay on the path’. There are black and white sticks that mark the edges of the trails and you are not supposed to go beyond them. We lost count of the number of times the phrase, ‘Sally, you are off the path. Again…’ was uttered, in increasing tones of frustration. I felt for Pedro though; often he was explaining some features of a particular animal or species, and we’d all be standing, looking and listening intently, except for Sally… who you’d find half way up the beach somewhere, camera in hand feverishly photographing something entirely different.  She was the same while snorkelling – despite Pedro’s best efforts to keep the group together, Sally’s fiercely independent streak saw her exploring whatever she could find wherever her legs would kick her.  At least she was wearing her swimming costume though; it transpired she’d bought it especially for this trip as apparently it wouldn’t have been appropriate to do what she would usually do, and would have preferred, which was to go in the nude.  I think that would have pushed Pedro completely over the edge!

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Basking  Sealions on the beach; a taste of things to come.

The main thing I didn’t realise about the Galápagos was that they are volcanic islands. It’s obvious now I think about it, but I had this image in my head of an archipelago completely covered in luscious rainforest, teeming with life. It is not so; in fact, topographically, the islands themselves are quite bare, with only minimal elevation gains, very few plants of any real size and almost exclusively sandy rock underfoot. This is actually a huge bonus when it comes to wildlife watching, however, as there are no trees to get in the way of your view. I know that sounds rather counter intuitive, but actually spotting wildlife in the forests is always a mission in searching it out, often while craning your neck and employing massive zoom on your camera; our sloth spotting experience from Costa Rica would be a key example of this!

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Boobies nest on the groud due in part to a simple lack of predation.   Though when I say ‘nest’, what I really mean is they sit enshrined in a circle of their own poop.

On the Galápagos, it is not so. There is a massive amount of wildlife and it just sits right in front of you, often paying you no attention whatsoever. In fact, one of Pedro’s other major rules is that you have to remain at least two metres away from the animals at all times. This actually involves the park re-routing paths on occasion as the Blue-Footed Boobies have a penchant for nesting on the ground which has been nicely smoothed over for them by all the visitors.

The two metre-rule is probably a good one when it comes to sealions, especially the mothers. They lie on the beaches looking peaceful while their cubs plod around them, nuzzling in search of a nipple, but if you get too close you’ll get barked at very loudly.

It’s harder to maintain a two metre gap in the water though, especially as far as the sealions are concerned. Swimming and diving around with the cubs was an incredible experience. Before leaving home, Hels and I had never swam with turtles, and when we got the opportunity in the Gili Islands, we instantly fell in love with their beauty and serenity. Now, however… the sealions may have trumped the turtles for the ‘favourite marine animal’ crown.

They are just so fast! Where a turtle will kind of meander around, nibbling the occasional bit of coral or sea grass, paying you little or no attention, the sealions come right up to you, look you in the eye and say, ‘Come on, come on, come on! Let’s play!’ Then off they go, whirling, spinning, spiralling at a phenomenal speed, coming right up close before zipping off again, diving, surfacing for air, twisting, turning, playing, playing, playing. They are sublime.

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Just … so … weary!

The contrast between the sealions on land and in the water couldn’t be more stark; on land, they lump themselves around, walking on their front flippers while half-walking, half-dragging their rear flippers around behind them. This is clearly a massive effort as they never go very far or very fast. The cubs, particularly, seem to have a very limited amount of energy when it comes to walking, taking one, two, three, four … five steps … and then just collapsing, face in the sand, unable to go on. Then, a minute later, another five steps before being laid out flat once more. It’s pretty much the cutest thing you’re ever likely to see.

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Just another day in paradise!

It’s very easy to get completely caught up in the wildlife on the Galapagos, but there are also some stunning landscapes. The beaches especially are fantastic; huge long sweeping stretches of white sand, pierced occasionally by black volcanic rock, but with a very pleasing, and very significant lack of development. No bars, or huts, or houses; just the natural landscape, being preserved exactly as it is meant to be.

Underwater was where we had our most fun though. The tour included numerous opportunities to go snorkelling, occasionally off the beach but more regularly in deep water. There were two significant locations that we loved; the first was ‘Kicker Rock’, so called because it resembled a football boot.

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This beautiful creature is a Spotted Eagle Ray.  I had the GoPro on still photo mode for this one.

We jumped in and braced ourselves as the water was a little chilly, but two minutes later we were happily snorkelling along as a flight of Spotted Eagle Rays glided directly below us, ‘flying’ under the water in perfect formation. Hels and I had hoped to spot these rays in Asia, and then again in Belize but to no avail. But now, here they were, looking absolutely majestic. Once we’d got over the excitement, we carried on and were treated to views of turtles, sharks and a huge variety of fish.

The second location, though, ‘Devil’s Crown’, was even more special. The rocky remains of this volcanic cone stand alone in relatively deep water, providing ample snorkelling around both sides and in the middle. The amount of marine life here was simply staggering, with massive shoals and schools of fish (there is a difference, believe it or not!) providing a backdrop to some of the larger animals, not least sealions, turtles, sharks and yet more Spotted Eagle Rays. Hels and I were in freediving heaven, with just enough depth to make things interesting but not too challenging, and a never ending catalogue of fabulous creatures to observe.

But then came the real treat. We had to jump back into the pangas (the small launches they use to transport you to and from the big boat) because there is a strong current at the Devil’s Crown, so the guys would pick us up and transport us back to the other side of the rocks so we could drift past again. The first time I got out, I was saying, ‘Oh wow, that’s just incredible. The fish are amazing, and there were sharks, and sealions…’ Then Becky, the American, said, ‘Did you see the penguins?’

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We were so lucky to see these little guys; very small, very fast!

‘I’m sorry, what? Penguins? Are you kidding me? You’re joking, right? Right?’

It was no joke, and luckily, a few minutes later, Hels and I were in the water as these small, dart-like Galápagos Penguins started flitting around us, putting even the sealions to shame for their speed and agility. Squawking away, they too seemed to be quite playful, taking the chance to show off their skills for the camera. I was so grateful I had the GoPro in hand. So now our only problem was what to look at: do we watch the mesmerising Galápagos Penguins dancing around us, or the Spotted Eagle Rays ten metres down, or the White Tipped Reef Sharks that were cruising menacingly below, or the sealion that has just turned up to join in the party? It was just mind-blowing.

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Small animal, big picture.   I think it deserves it!

That sense of being absolutely overwhelmed by the experience never dimmed for our entire trip, and I feel like I’ve only given you a glimpse of a snapshot here, a mere glimmer of the actual menagerie of sights, sounds and smells. There’s been no mention, for example, of the extravagant mating displays we saw by the male Frigate Birds, or the wonderful walk of the Albatrosses that waggle their heads from side to side, looking like they’re wading into a Friday night bar fight. Nothing about the Marine Iguanas, that swim around in the surf holding their heads out of the water, before coming back on land and huddling together for warmth. I haven’t even described Darwin’s finches … although, to be honest, despite being the source of his groundbreaking scientific theories, they’re not the most interesting creatures on the islands! I have skipped over the Flamingoes, the superb sunsets, the Humpback Whales, the Red-billed Tropic Birds, the ever-present Pelicans, the cliff-dwelling Nazca Boobies, and the fantastically comical Swallow-tailed Gulls who regularly and repeatedly stand and stare at their own feet for no apparent reason. And, AND, Hels and I didn’t even get to see a Giant Tortoise as that particular island wasn’t part of our cruise.

I suppose there’s only one thing for it, we’ll have to go back!

If you’re thinking of going to the Galápagos, stop thinking and go. It is simply one of the most special places we have ever seen.

Oh, one last thing – we have a video of the infamous Blue-footed Boobie mating dance to share with you when we get home. You can of course see an example online if you like but I’d advise exercising caution if you’re planning on googling ‘dancing boobies’!!

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I have no idea how Helen knew where to point the camera for this one!
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‘Come on fellas, I’ve had enough of posing for photos.   Let’s go for a pint.’
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Bright and beautiful – Sally Lightfoot Crabs.

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Another nesting booby; you can see its egg poking out between its blue feet.
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I absolutely love this shot that Helena took of a Pelican soaring above the ocean, searching for food.

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Margaret, Helen and Angela – absolute legends.   Huge thanks to Helen for letting me share some of her photos with you.
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School or shoal…?
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‘This is tower to gold leader.   You are cleared for take off.’
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Perfectly timed Pelicans – another one of Helen’s.
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The sun sets on our time in the Galapagos.

 

 

Cloud forests, canals and the last of Central America

Costa Rica is famous for a number of things, but notably its coffee, its natural landscape and its wildlife. Also, interestingly, it is one of the very few countries in the world that doesn’t have an army, choosing instead to spend its entire defence budget on education. Controversial, eh! Coming from San Juan in Nicaragua, we were following our usual plan of just heading into the country and assuming we’d make it to our destination somehow. It had worked crossing into Guatemala, and again going into Nicaragua from Honduras. This time, we were aiming for Monteverde for a chance to visit the ‘cloud forest’. Unfortunately for us, however, it was third time unlucky…

Desperately seeking Monteverde

The details of this trip make for a rather tedious story, so i’ll summarise by saying that we didn’t make it to Monteverde, resorting to Cañas for accommodation – a pleasant little place from where we would apparently be able to get to Monteverde the following day via Tilarán. However, we bumped into a ‘helpful’ guy in the Cañas bus station who told us that the only bus from Tilarán to Monteverde left at 07:30 and if we wanted to catch it, we’d have to get the 6am bus from Cañas to make the connection. This, of course, turned out to be total rubbish! There was only one bus to Monteverde, I’ll give him that, but it left at 12:30, not 07:30. So there we were, in yet another town we weren’t intending to visit, with a number of hours to kill. And would you look at that, I’ve pretty much told the story anyway!

A typical English sauce ... apparently!
A typical English sauce … apparently!

We did have an amusing breakfast, though, as we seemed to be a bit of an attraction (Tilarán doesn’t see that many travellers it seems). Having ordered a breakfast of huevos y arroz con frijoles (eggs and rice with beans) the guy in the café was very keen for me to try the ‘Salsa Tipo Inglesa’. ‘It’s sauce from England,’ he said, in English, ‘It’s what English people like to put on their beans.’ ‘Is that so?’ I replied, ‘Well I never…!’

The bus from Tilarán to Monteverde was a three and a half hour jaunt on increasingly deteriorating roads into the clouds, and consequently, the rain! When we finally finally finally made it to Monteverde, we realised it had taken us almost 30 hours to get there. It can’t always be that hard to get around Costa Rica, surely?

We decided to chill out in our hostel that night, even resorting to cooking our own food (quite a rare occurrence) as the restaurants in the town were prohibitively expensive; catering for a clientele of mainly American middle class tourists with a budget much more substantial than ours. It was fun though; I love to cook – even if it is just sausages with pasta, sauce and cheese on top!

Sitting around the hostel kitchen table, we met Wynn and Emily, a couple from New Zealand who had bought a little Mazda in Canada and driven it all the way down – what a journey! The climb to Monteverde had unfortunately been the last gasp for their clutch, though, so it was off getting fixed by a helpful local. We each shared stories and experiences of our travels over dinner and various card games, Hels and I feeling a mix of envy and inspiration at them having their own transport! Any future travel plans will almost certainly involve a purchase – or at the very least, a hire – of a vehicle!

The beautiful suspension bridge in the cloud forest.
The beautiful suspension bridge in the cloud forest.

Into the cloud forest

The next morning, managing to avoid the many enticing offers of zip-lining, bungee-jumping and Tarzan-swinging – apparently the things you ‘do’ in Monteverde – we just wanted to get to the national park and immerse ourselves in a bit of the lush cloud forest environment with our feet firmly on the ground. We’d spotted a bus that would run us up there at 9:30, so off we went to the bus stop, and waited. And waited. And waited. And at 10:30, we walked back to the hostel where we found that the bus we were waiting for had never existed and the next one wasn’t until 2:30 pm.

Obviously, I was very calm about all of this. ‘Hey, it’s just one of those things,’ I remember saying, ‘let’s just find a solution, yeah?’ I’m almost certain that’s how I reacted, although Helena may recount the story differently …

In the end, we just decided to walk there. It was only about 5km from the town; who needs a bus anyway? So off we went, enjoying the brisk walk through the Costa Rican countryside on the way to the national park.

It's poncho time!
It’s poncho time!

Due to our much delayed arrival time, the afternoon clouds were already beginning to roll in ominously as we entered the park’s trails, and any hopes we had of views across the valleys were pretty much dashed. As the drizzle began and swiftly turned into persistent rain, our chances of seeing much wildlife seemed to plummet as well, as everything retreated out of the rain. And yet, somehow we still felt charmed by the place and the experience – it is an ecosystem that relies on regular and heavy rain after all – and it felt good to just wander around watching the world being beautiful. We enjoyed a couple of hours walking the trails and taking photos of the forest as the water in the atmosphere made everything glisten. We even managed to catch the bus back to town – the first one in Costa Rica that had actually turned up at the expected place and time! Things were looking up.image

We supplemented our Monteverde experience with a coffee and chocolate tour the following day – coffee and chocolate, what’s not to love! – but soon had to get back on the road. On Wynn and Emily’s recommendation, we decided to head across the country to the Atlantic Coast to check out the relaxed vibes of Cahuita and hopefully spot some sloths.

Sloth spotting

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This little lizard guy decided to pose for Helena!

We seemed to have shaken our bus woes and made it to Cahuita with no issues. It was a quiet little place on the coast with a main street of bars and restaurants, and not a great deal else, apart from a small national park that ran along the coastline. This was where we were supposed to be able to spot sloths.

Our five hour expedition the following day into the land of the sloths almost proved fruitless. The big problem being that sloths are not that easy to spot. They aren’t that big, they don’t move around much, and they often just curl up on a branch somewhere perfectly camouflaged from view. You find yourself staring up into the trees for ages: is that a sloth? Nope, it’s a bird’s nest. Maybe this is a sloth? No, it’s just a slightly misshapen branch. That sort of thing. That one, surely? I think that’s a sleeping monkey…

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Can you see it…?

That’s not to say that we didn’t see wildlife; we saw plenty of monkeys, lizards, insects, interesting birds (including woodpeckers), and even raccoons. But no sloths.

Then, just before we gave up and headed home, we stumbled upon a guide who was pointing enthusiastically high up into a tree, and sure enough, nestled in amongst some leaves, there was a ball of fur. We couldn’t see its head, or any distinguishing features, but we were assured that this indeed was a sloth. Success, of a sort.

These dudes were hopping around all over the place.
These dudes were hopping around all over the place.

That evening, the heavens opened, and we sheltered in the hostel until the worst of the rain had passed at which point, we headed out into the town in search of pizza and beer. The rain had caused puddles to form on the sides of the roads which were teeming with very noisy and large frogs, which entertained us on our walk, and then, as we turned the corner onto the street with the pizza place, Helena said, ‘You have got to be kidding!’

I didn’t initially understand what she was referring to, but she pointed a power line that was strung across the road between two telegraph poles, in the middle of which was hanging something that looked suspiciously sloth-like. ‘Surely not?’ I said, thinking it was some piece of clothing that a child had thrown up there and got stuck or something, but as we got closer it was indeed a sloth. A very wet, very dopey sloth!

He was soaked!
He was soaked!

‘Have you got a camera?’ Hels asked. ‘No, you?’ came my reply. ‘No, I left it at the hostel! Bloody typical.’ So we stood and watched for a while, taking in the crazy creature before deciding to head to the restaurant. Sitting scanning the menu I offered to go and retrieve the camera. ‘Do you think it’s worth it?’ asked Hels. ‘It’s a sloth, it’s not going anywhere fast,’ I said, and so I headed back to grab the camera. In the fifteen or so minutes it took me to get to the hostel and back again, the sloth made it about three metres along the line. That’s one blessing of these useless creatures I suppose; once you have found them, they give you lots of opportunity to photograph. It’s certainly not like trying to grab a snap of a hummingbird!

Off to Panama

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The beautiful Playa de Estrella on Bocas del Toro, Panama.

So that was it for our brief stay in Costa Rica, just two locations but both of which we enjoyed. Crossing the border into Panama we were convinced to take a minivan transfer to the small town of Almirante from where we could get a water taxi to Bocas del Toro, a picturesque archipelago where we hoped to have one last chance to freedive before heading into the behemoth of a continent that is South America. The van turned out to be a shocking choice as part way into the journey the windscreen wipers broke. You might have thought that the driver might stop, or slow down at least … but no, he just carried on driving through the pelting rain with next to no visibility. Needless to say, when we arrived at the dock and they tried to usher us into their mate’s water taxi, we headed in the opposite direction entirely to the much more professional looking Taxi 25 outfit a little further up the dock.

A 40 minute blast over the Atlantic landed us on Bocas where we found just that little bit more life than we had in Cahuita. There were enough people around for the place to feel lively but not crowded and enough bars and restaurants to keep your tastebuds entertained. Booking into a hostel dorm, we met the South African Ryan, whose opening question to me was, ‘Are you into rugby?’ Realising from his accent he was South African, I replied, ‘Yeah – didn’t you guys just get beaten by Japan?’ And so began our acquaintance! He was livid about the defeat by the Japanese, but he got his own back a couple of days later when we sat in a bar and watched South Africa beat Samoa, followed by Wales beating England. ‘Hard luck mate,’ he said, with a glint in his eye, ‘I actually thought your boys played quite well…’ Yeah, yeah – whatever!

Starfish!
Starfish!

Unfortunately for Helena and I, the freediving instructor had just left Bocas a few days before we arrived, so we resorted to exploring the island and its beaches for a few days instead, enjoying the chance to have some time to chill out. Hiring a couple of cruisers – which are heavy, single speed bikes that are horrible to ride – we headed off around the island only to find that the bikes became even more useless when the tarmac surface ended. We also took a bus to the other end of the island with Ryan to relax on the Playa de Estrella where we did very little for most of the afternoon, apart from the occasional bit of starfish spotting. In all honesty, we suspect that the diving would have been rather suboptimal in Bocas because the visibility was very limited in the water due to the silt from nearby rivers, so we were pretty happy with some beach time. It just served to emphasise how spoilt we have been with our diving conditions on this trip so far!

Final destination

And then it was off to the big smoke, Panama City, our final stop in Central America. We went as a three along with Ryan, booking into the same hostel when we arrived. Panama City immediately felt very different to every other capital we had visited in Central America: high rise buildings, clean streets, open public spaces being used by city residents for exercise and leisure. There was none of the rough and ready feel of Guatemala City or San Salvador. It was actually a bit of a relief, and we enjoyed going running along the park that lines the large bay between the new city and the old town, Casco Viejo.

We took the opportunity to visit the world famous canal on the same morning that we arrived. The fact that Panama had a canal was about the only thing I knew about the country before I arrived there. I didn’t know quite what an impact it has had on the country’s economy, nor did I know much about the history of the canal itself. It is almost exclusively down to the multiple billions of dollars that the canal brings to the Panamanian economy that sets the country apart from the rest of Central America, and the effect is very noticeable.

I’m not sure why I was so excited to visit the canal, but I’d been looking forward to it for some time. Maybe because it was something unique? Whatever the reason, we were not disappointed – the canal is a very impressive piece of engineering, and its sheer scale is staggering. We arrived in a break in the traffic, so initially we were just looking at the empty Miraflores Locks; they were a superb scene nonetheless.

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A panorama of the placid Miraflores Locks.

A stroll through the visitor centre revealed all kinds of amazing statistics and information, not least that the canal was actually started by the French in 1882, who were planning to excavate a sea-level canal, but they were hampered by engineering difficulties and epidemics including yellow fever that dessimated their workforce. The Americans came in to finish the project, re-engineering the original French ideas to include a series of locks and a massive, dammed inland lake, and managed to complete the canal and open it for passage in 1914. It is such an impressive piece of engineering to have been completed at that time in history.

Before we had got a chance to see any ships passing through, it was unfortunately time to go, so we made our way back to our van. When we got there, however, the guy asked, ‘Did you see some ships go through?’ Since we replied in the negative, he offered us the chance to go back, saying he’d send someone back to get us later. We jumped at the chance and went back in.

This is an oil tanker, squeezing its way into the Miraflores Lock.
This is an oil tanker, squeezing its way into the Miraflores Lock.

And it was so worth it. Yes, the locks are impressive on their own, but they really come to life when the ships start passing through. We watched in awe as an oil tanker approached from the north and was attached to three trains each side that would guide it into the lock, making sure it didn’t touch either the sides or the lock gates. It edged its way in, with only a few feet each side, and was soon sat in the lock securely, and ready to descend.

While this was happening, however, there was a second ship being brought in to the other lane. The view was initially obscured by the tanker, but as it came in, it grew in size, revealing its gargantuan proportions, eventually dwarfing the little tanker as it descended into the lock. This was a ‘Panamax’ vessel; the largest size of ship that could traverse the canal. In fact, ship builders around the world have, for decades, built ships with the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks in mind. This thing, carrying up to 4500 shipping containers, would be using every available inch. It was amazing to see it being brought in, and even more amazing to watch the tiny little trains straining at their cables trying to slow it down as it just inched slowly, but very persistently it seemed, forwards. What an incredible feat of engineering; and our transfer guy was right, it was something very special to stand and watch the canal in action.

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This behemoth however, dwarfing the oil tanker … is a PANAMAX!!

Interestingly, despite the Panamax seeming large, it is not the largest ship on the ocean, not by a long stretch. The really big ships the days can hold up to 13000 containers, but there’s no way they can pass through the canal, which means their journeys are limited. In fact, they still use Panama’s location, but they dock at one side and unload all of the containers which are then transported overland on trains to be re-loaded onto a different vessel on the other side. Panama is now, however, constructing a series of new, much bigger locks, that will allow not only an increased number of vessels to pass through, but also a much larger size of vessel too.

And so there we were. After bidding Ryan farewell, off on a flight to Columbia, we enjoyed wandering around both the new and the old parts of Panama City, taking the time to reflect briefly on the past two months. It had been a bit of a race at times, especially towards the end, but since we landed in Belize, we’d visited seven countries in two months, taken countless bus trips and boat trips, crossed and re-crossed borders, visited off-shore and inland islands, climbed volcanoes, explored jungles, had surf lessons, learned to ride a motorbike, free dived in the ocean and even learned a bit of Spanish along the way. So what can we say now other than ‘¡Hasta Luego, América Central! Fue fabuloso!’

Just one of many pretty buildings in the old town, Casco Viejo.
Just one of many pretty buildings in the old town, Casco
Viejo.
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I really like the juxtaposition of old and new here.
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One last view of the Caribbean vibe!
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Superb biodiversity in the cloud forest.

Making waves in Nicaragua

Leaving Honduras for Nicaragua was another exercise in, ‘Let’s just keep going and see how far we can get’. We were aiming for Somoto, a small town in the north of the country that apparently had an exciting canyon close by. The problem with not knowing where you’re going to end up, is that you can’t prepare anything: accommodation, activity, nothing. You have to play it by ear and do it all if and when you arrive. Thankfully, our 6am start from Honduras paid off and we made it to the border via two buses, and two more got us all the way to Somoto where we bumped into (were approached by) an English speaking guy who had a hostel. Sorted.

The hostel was a bit rough and ready to say the least, but it was cheap (very) and it also organised tours to the canyon, so rather than shop around, we decided to just go with it and book through them for the following day. Sometimes saving time and hassle is more important than saving one or two dollars.

Somoto Canyon
The canyon trip was a lot of fun. There was just four of us from the hostel in the group with our guide and we didn’t see anybody else apart from the occasional local all day who were either washing clothes in the river or driving cattle.

At the start of the canyon - it doesn't look like much yet, does it?
At the start of the canyon – it doesn’t look like much yet, does it?

So, onwards, into the canyon. ‘Canyoning’ effectively involves travelling the length of a given canyon by hiking, wading, floating, swimming and jumping – the latter being my favourite of course. I love jumping from things into water, be it boats, docks or, in this case, rocks. We’d had a little taste at the Rio Cangrejal as part of the rafting trip, leaping from a six metre rock into the river below. The briefing for this trip had involved a description of a variety of jumps we were to do, with one in particular being a ‘variable height’ jump ranging anywhere from one metre to eighteen. ‘I’ll be going off the very top, clearly,’ said a little voice in my head … but I luckily kept that little piece of bravado to myself.

We began steadily from the top of the canyon, wading and hiking as the walls of rock around us ever so steadily grew in height and narrowed in width. Before long we found ourselves navigating narrow sections where the only option was to jump in fully and float downstream. There was nothing too high to jump from though. Not yet, anyway.

Chilling on a rock at a break in the canyon.
Chilling on a rock at a break in the canyon.

After a couple of hours, we came to a break in the rock where a second river joined the one we were following. We paused here for a short rest, before heading down into the canyon proper. Soon we were climbing up the rocky side walls only to leap into the deep water below from seemingly ever increasing heights. I was all good until we reached an eight metre jump that, from the top, just looked crazy. The walls of the canyon were sheer and very close together, meaning that the water was deep but your margin for error in terms of where you landed was disconcertingly small. Still, after some deliberation with myself, I managed to jump it. (Helena had done it with relatively little fuss; it was only me who was beginning to find this a challenge it seemed).

But then we reached the bit I’d been waiting for, the 18 metre jumping spot. It was a reasonably climb-able rock face that had different spots from where you could leap into the water below. The problem with the very top, was that if you climbed up to that point, it was nigh on impossible to climb back down. The only way down was to jump off. By this point, however, this was of no concern to me as there was no way on the planet I was going up that far. I was going to attempt the jump from ten, but even that looked insanely high.

I managed to get this screen grab from the video...
I managed to get this screen grab from the video…

I had the GoPro with me, and I have a full sixty second video that I took at the top that shows me psyching myself up and repeatedly bottling it, before finally leaping off. I then yell out as I fall through the air for a couple of seconds before hitting the water. Smooth, very smooth!  It was awesome though and the video is an amusing little insight into the psychology of fear.

The only way to get through here is by getting wet!
The only way to get through here is by getting wet!

Before long, we were nearing the end of the canyon. The walls receded to reveal a beautiful valley, from where we only had a short walk until our lunch stop. Then it was back to Somoto to figure out our onward travel.

Granada was supposed to be a picturesque city worth a visit; the Isla de Ometepe – an island formed of two connected volcanoes in the middle of the giant Lake Nicaragua – was also a must-see place; and then the coastal town of San Juan del Sur would offer us the chance to do a bit of surfing.

Granada's picture postcard churches are very impressive.
Granada’s picture postcard churches are very impressive.

Granada
Granada was indeed a very aesthetically pleasing place, with its miriad of churches and plazas, interspersed with cute coffee shops and chic cafes. It’s certainly an easy place to hang around for a few days if you’re visiting Nicaragua. We met a nice crowd of people in the hostel and enjoyed the occasional dinner and coffee with them. For us, though, we were beginning to exhaust our energy for wandering the streets of colonial towns and cities (we’d spent a long time on this in Antigua, Guatemala) and were keen for something new. So once we’d visited the main plaza, climbed the famous bell tower to see views across the city, and had a wander around the local cemetery, it was time to go.

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This was actually the boat from the return trip – there are altogether far too many motorcycles strapped to the top of that thing!

Dicing with death. Again!
Isla de Ometepe is fairly obviously only reachable by boat. When we arrived at the dock, the boat was apparently departing imminently, and so we were ushered aboard very quickly, told to drop our bags, and head downstairs. At the time, we were happy to have caught the boat, but getting on in such haste we didn’t notice a few key things: 1 – the boat was very small, very old, and very wooden; 2 – it had about ten motorbikes on top of it; 3 – it had about a hundred and fifty people stuffed into the bottom of it. We made it a hundred and fifty two as the crew member locked the door behind us.

Now, I’m generally not one to get nervous on public transport – we’d been on all sorts of crazy boats, bikes and buses before now – but there was something very bad about this trip. As we headed out onto the lake, it became immediately apparent that we were massively overloaded, and this was not going to be a short experience. We were moving depressingly slowly and the further away we got from the shore, the more the waves kicked up, rocking the boat in an ever increasing arc from left to right. And it showed no signs of getting better any time soon.

The Nicaraguans seemed to have some crazy notion that this wreck is still lake-worthy.
The Nicaraguans seemed to have some crazy notion that this wreck is still lake-worthy.

Then the water started coming in; and no, I’m not exaggerating. As the waves collided with the side of the hull, water would either splash through the windows (which were just holes in the side of the boat) or seep its way in between the no longer waterproof seals in the fabric of this vessel of doom.

‘That’s it, we’re all going to die,’ I said aloud, except I didn’t say it to Helena as we had ended up standing in different places (yes it was standing room only down there). This became the rather unfortunate conversation opener with a Canadian couple who ended up listening to my rambling nonsense all the way across the lake. ‘I’m not normally like this, honestly,’ I was saying, ‘It’s just that I can’t see any way this thing is going to stay afloat,’ and then proceeded to analyse in depth potential escape routes and viability of swimming back to shore. At which point would it be quicker to swim onwards to the island?

I’d like to say that it was one of those ‘mock fear’ moments, but it wasn’t. I was petrified.

Exploring Ometepe
With our feet back on dry land, and a resolve firmly put in place that we would not be returning to shore aboard the same boat, we ventured inland to find some accommodation.

Ometepe is mentioned as a ‘not to be missed’ highlight in the guide book, but I’m going to be honest here, we initially couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. Myogalpa, the main town, was a pleasant but not particularly exciting place and we were left wondering, if we weren’t going to climb the volcanoes – which neither of us were particularly keen to do – what were we going to do? The only option seemed to be to get hold of some wheels – it was motorbike time!

Myogalpa’s streets are lined with companies hiring scooters and motorbikes, so after a short shop around, we settled on one that looked to have good quality bikes. The thing about Ometepe is that to explore it fully, you really need an off-road bike (rather than a scooter) as only about half of the island’s roads are paved.

We love the freedom of a motorbike!
We love the freedom of a motorbike!

So there we were, outside the bike hire place. Helena was pointing at the scooter and I was stood looking excitedly (like a small child with a new toy) at the much larger, much faster, more versatile, more everything, off-road bike. Having convinced Helena that, ‘No, there’s no way we can manage on a scooter’ and ‘Yes, of course I know how to ride a motorbike with gears,’ I was left explaining to the bike hire man (in Spanglish) that I’d like the bike, but I’d also like a lesson…

‘No problem,’ he said, and off we went to the local baseball pitch where he explained and demonstrated the clutch and gears to me (also in Spanglish) before letting me have a go. It wasn’t that hard really – he said I was a very good student – and so, after returning to pick up Hels, we were off!

Ometepe's volcanoes are quite impressive to be fair.
Ometepe’s volcanoes are quite impressive to be fair.

We love it when we have our own transport; it just opens up a place to exploration. And that’s what we did, explore the various sights around Ometepe’s figure of eight shaped coastal road. The bottom half of the island was the most fun though, as the roads give way to rocky dirt tracks where the bike really came into its own. The afternoon flew past and suddenly we realised the sun was rapidly dropping out of the sky; it was time to head home. So the last bit of our exploration was spent racing the light to get the bike back in time. Despite my best efforts, the light beat us, but only just, and we dropped the bike back off in the dark.

After this 'comedy' selfie, we set off and the jokes ended!
After this ‘comedy’ selfie, we set off and the jokes ended!

The boat back!
I’m only going to write one short paragraph about this. We had resolved not to return on the same boat, but we had no choice. It was the only one going at the time we needed. So we reluctantly climbed aboard, took a few ‘Ooh look, isn’t this funny‘ selfies before departure, thinking that it couldn’t be worse than the trip over, surely?

But it was worse.  Much worse.

This time, the boat was listing to the right from the outset, so that out of the right windows you could see only lake, and out of the left, only sky. The wind and waves were coming from the left too, so the boat just kept tipping further and further towards the right side. I genuinely thought it was going to spin over. At one point, a big scream went up from the locals as the boat pitched terribly. You know you’re in trouble when the locals are scared. It was horrendous.

Surf’s up in San Juan
We did survive, though. Clearly. And perhaps I was being a bit melodramatic… But, there is one thing for sure – I will not be returning to Ometepe any time soon. San Juan del Sur was our post-traumatic stress reducing destination. Famed as a surf town, Helena and I were keen to have another go at surfing as our efforts in Bali had been miserable bordering on dangerous and we didn’t get the chance in Australia because it was too cold.

Action shot!
Action shot!

I’m happy to report – surfing was a great success! We got lessons – a critical factor in enjoying getting into surfing it seems – and spent a fabulous day at Playa Marsella messing about in the surf with our gigantic beginner boards. It’s so tiring though! From the beach, it just looks like a lot of sitting around on your surfboard, waiting for a particular sort of wave to come so that you can enjoy a few seconds of standing up before inevitably falling off again. In reality, there is a lot of paddling involved, a lot of getting smashed in the face by huge waves that you didn’t spot, and a lot of lying face down on the surfboard which leaves your abs feeling like they’ve been used as Rocky’s punchbag.

We did enjoy it though – we finally understood a little of the charm as both Hels and I managed to catch the occasional wave independently, and stand up, riding the surf like a pair of pros. We did our best to get some decent photos, but were obviously much too busy being amazing. Plus, the GoPro battery ran out.

So, that was Nicaragua – exciting, adventurous, culturally engaging and completely terrifying in equal measure. Wonderful!

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Helena hanging around by the bell tower.
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The floor of the canyon had an amazing array of coloured stones.
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Helena landing one of the early (smaller) jumps.
Would you look at the size of that bell!
Would you look at the size of that bell!
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You could stay for days just photographing stuff.
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Just a few of the passengers disembarking, happy to be alive.
Playa Marsella
Playa Marsella