San Cristobal & Isla Lobos – Galapagos Islands

Hello!

The first day of our 8 day sailing adventure around the Galapagos islands. We booked our tour with Happy Gringos travel agency in Quito last minute with a 40% discount. There are a myriad of boats to choose from ranging from basic to luxury, 14 to 100 passengers, routes sailing around the East or West of the archipelago and a couple of days to a couple of weeks. We chose the mid-range Eden yacht, a 78ft boat accommodating 16 passengers, with an 8 day route taking us West across the archipelago. The route was the selling point for us as we got to visit such a variety of islands and in turn, the unique wildlife found there.

Here was our route:

Sailing route around the Galapagos

Day 1: San Cristobal Island & Isla Lobos

We got up at 4am in Quito in order to make it to the airport for our early flight to San Cristobal. We went through the airport smoothly paying our $20 transit fee and then $100 Galapagos park entrance fee on the other side. We arrived at 10:00am and had anticipated having to wait around until at least midday for other passengers on the next flight from Quito however we were pleasantly surprised when our guide Fabian showed up to collect us. We waited by the pier for the little zodiac boat to take us to the yacht in the marina and we saw our first sea lion completely unfazed by us sunbathing at the dock. The boat we chose was the Eden Yacht that holds 16 passengers, 7 crew and the Galapagos guide. We soon discovered however, that there were only 5 other passengers! We were shown to our cabin and we were a little disheartened to find bunk beds and our room being on the top deck. We had specifically requested a twin cabin on the lower deck so as to avoid sea sickness as we were both still scarred from the boats we had to take in Fiji! After unpacking, turns out there was a mix up and we did have a twin room lower down. We were so relieved as the motion is so much less down there, neither of us had to be on a bunk with no railing and we had so much more space to store our clothes/bags. We were happy campers as we met the rest of the people on board and settled down to lunch.

After a short 40 minute sail, we anchored by Isla Lobos. Lobos in Spanish is sea lion! Sea lions are easy to distinguish from seals as they have cute little ears. We got in to our wet suits ready for our first Galapagos experience of snorkelling. When we thought about going to the Galapagos, we never considered we would be wearing wetsuits throughout but the water temperature was cold, ranging between 18-21 degrees. That didn’t matter though because it was absolutely incredible and we got to swim with loads of sea lions! They were so playful, pirouetting in the water and blowing bubbles around us. We could not believe how close they were coming to us. It was such a magical experience. Out of nowhere, two giant sea turtles appeared too! Whilst we snorkelled, Frigate birds circled us over head and Sally Light foot crabs scattered along the rocks where we saw our first Blue footed Booby. We climbed back in to the little zodiac boat and as we drove back to the Yacht, we saw the crew trying to usher a sea lion off the back of our boat!

After an hour we had a quick change on the boat before heading back out to explore the island on foot. As we pulled up in the little dinghy, we couldn’t actually use the island’s steps as sea lions were sleeping there so we jumped along the side. As the island is made of volcanic rock, the surface was extremely uneven so we concentrated a lot on not rolling our ankles. We saw so many sea lions, quite a lot with their pups! We even saw one that our guide estimated was only 4 weeks old! The guide estimated that there were 250 just in the short stretch of rock and sand we were on! We also saw our first land iguanas, much darker in colour than the ones we’d seen in Guayaquil. Again we were lucky enough to spot a really small iguana who was only about 10 months old! All around the island, we saw Frigate birds floating in wind pockets in the sky barely moving at all. We also saw many of them nesting in tree branches. We saw many more females (white and black) than males who have a red neck. We were SO lucky to see one male Frigate bird doing the iconic puffed out red neck as a mating ritual. December is towards the very end of the mating season thus this was such a rare sight. Unfortunately it was a bit too far for a good photograph but we did see it with the naked eye. We got to see a few Blue footed boobies up close and personal too! The males are the ones that nurture the chicks and we saw one with a 3 week old chick! Apparently they did an experiment on the main land giving one bird the same Galapagos fish diet and the other bird a different diet. Only the Galapagos fish diet turned the feet blue, though it is also a sign of maturity as only the adults have the blue feet. The young are just fluff balls and honestly look like cuddly toys! As we walked along the island back towards our boat to head back for dinner, I turned to Dave and said that this might possibly be the best day of my life.

Join us next time for day 2 of the cruise!

Sophie & Dave

 

 

 

Ep.27 – Ecuador

Hello

Our video from Ecuador where we saw the wild iguanas in the middle of the largest city, Guayaquil and climbed the 444 steps to the top of Las Peñas. We then moved to the capital Quito, one of the oldest world heritage sites in the world. Finally we spent a few days birdwatching in the Cloud Forest where there are over 15 species of hummingbirds, some who even ate out of our hands!

Thanks for watching and don’t forget to set to 1080p!

Sophie & Dave

Cloud Forest – Ecuador

Hello!

We were glad to leave Quito on the penultimate day of their week long celebration of  independence. We booked on to a 3 day, 2 night tour with Happy Gringos to visit the Cloud Forest Reserve and stay at the Bellavista Lodge. On the evening before our departure, it was Noche de las plazas and given that we were staying right next to Plaza de Santa Domingo, it meant we were kept up by crazy loud performances and music going on until midnight when we had to get up at 5am. It was estimated that 70,000 people took to the streets that night to celebrate across 4 plazas in the city!

It was a short two hour drive from Quito with only 4 of us in the minivan. Along the way we crossed the equator several times as we meandered through the mountain range. For the last 15km of the drive, we turned off the main road down a bumpy, gravel path that led us deeper in to the cloud forest. We paused only to see a rare Andean Cock-of-the-Rock bird, a vibrant orangey/red colour, nesting near the road side. We pulled up to Bellavista and were instantly stunned by how beautiful it was. We were shown our room which was amazing and massive! We had only booked the ‘standard’, cheaper accommodation with the agency but there was a mix up and we were given a superior room with a spectacular mountain view looking out over the cloud forest. It was a very pleasant surprise as we were expecting it to be fairly basic and similar to the lodge we stayed in the Cambodian jungle where we had bucket showers!

After breakfast, we met our guide Luis ready for our first walk. We spent most of our time with just one other couple; Katherine & Philip from the Lake District who were lovely, knew much more about birdwatching than us and Katherine took the most amazing photographs! We later met another American couple, Dane and Libby, who had over 25 years of bird watching experience! When people are so passionate about something, it is infectious. Dave and I who could barely tell a pigeon from a sparrow were suddenly saying “oooh, what kind of Tanager is that?!”.

Anyway, this particular cloud forest rose over the Andes between 900 and 2500 meters above sea level. The subtropical rain forests contain extremely high biodiversity and Bellavista is renowned  for a huge presence of humming birds! We had been told that there are hummingbird feeders around the lodge but we were not prepared for what we actually saw. There were at least ten beautiful hummingbirds flitting around only a meter away from us, completely unfazed by our presence! We came to learn that Ecuador has the world’s highest number of hummingbird species at 132. The lodge has around 15 different species visiting daily. The wings of these birds beat incredibly fast, especially the Purple-throated Woodstar hummingbird we saw who sounded like a giant bumble bee! I could have literally stayed there for 3 consecutive days it was so fascinating.

The first walk was a slow one through the forest where we stopped to learn about different plant species and do some wildlife spotting. We saw butterflies, insects, frogs, a horned spider and a couple of birds from afar. We stopped at a lookout point where we had sweeping views of the dense forest whilst the clouds slowly crept across the mountaintops. We could visibly see the mist and clouds moving so quickly with the naked eye. We saw beautiful silver trees in the forest which were called cecropia and their colouring actually comes from a sort of spore coating on top of the naturally green leaves. The main purpose of the coating is to prevent the growth of epiphytes. Almost all of the other trees were covered with epiphytes, with some of the larger trees harbouring up to 200 different species of plants. From the lookout point, we were also able to spot two species of Tanagers in the distance.

We came back to a delicious three course lunch (something again we were not expecting) before heading back out again mid afternoon. We were able to hold the feeder containing the nectar that the hummingbirds drink in the palm of our hands. It was absolutely amazing and we were so amazed by how much more detail you could see when they were that little bit closer, not to mention feel the beat of their wings or the softness of the brush of their feathers. Dave filmed me whilst I had multiple hummingbirds on my hand and it’s so embarrassing to see my jaw literally dropped in sheer awe haha! We went for another walk through the forest before coming back for dinner.

The next two days followed a similar format, although we had the additional bonus of an early morning walk at 6.15am to catch the birds at their most active. The highlight for me was a bird that I (very proudly) spotted! It was called a Masked Trogon and had a really vibrant red breast and green back. We managed to see such a variety of bird species during our stay including Montane Woodcreepers, a Common Potoo and the most beautiful Turquoise Jay. One of my favourite photos was the Turquoise Jay eating a grass hopper! Dave’s favourite were the two different species of Toucans. The Plate-billed Mountain Toucan has the most colourful and gigantic beak, while its cousin the Toucan Barbet is much smaller both in size and the shape of the beak – both of these birds are range-restricted and can only be found in climates like this Cloud forest.

Aside from birds, one evening after dinner we were lucky enough to catch a brief glimpse of a rare mammal called an Olinguito. It looks a little like a cross between a monkey and a weasel but is part of the raccoon family. We did however see a Tayra weasel the following morning.

Join us next time as we head back to Quito briefly before flying out to our dream destination, the Galapagos Islands!

Thanks for reading,

Sophie & Dave

 

Guayaquil & Quito – Ecuador

Hello!

As we were struggling for time we decided to skip northern Peru and fly direct from Lima to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We were hoping to book on to a last minute Galapagos cruise before the Christmas rush. We had heard from some friends that it is quite common to get up to 50% off the original price for cruises round the Galapagos, providing you are flexible, able to shop around and play the multiple tour companies against each other. Given Guayaquil is the largest and most populated city in Ecuador, and also the closest major city to the Galapagos, we thought it would be easy to track down some tour companies and do just that. Upon arriving in Guayaquil, we inquired with the hotel staff regarding nearby tour companies and were surprised at their response that they didn’t know of any. We immediately started to doubt our decision not to head straight to Quito but wondered if the staff were just particularly unhelpful. More online research (that we didn’t do beforehand – oops) and a walk around the city, seemed to confirm that virtually all of the tour company offices are based in Quito. The distance from Guayaquil to Quito is only around 400kms though it is an 8-10 hour bus ride.

We were still able to enjoy a couple of days in the port side town of Guayaquil before moving on. One of the top rated attractions in Guayaquil is the wild Iguana park, which was conveniently located just two blocks away from our hotel. We weren’t quite sure what to expect but as soon as we entered the square, we were met with about 20 wild iguanas lazing in the sun by the side of a pond. They were absolutely massive, very surreal to see these prehistoric looking creatures in the middle of a bustling city. It wasn’t until maybe half an hour later that we looked up at some of the larger trees and noticed loads of iguanas up there, sitting with pigeons in peaceful harmony. They seemed completely unfazed by the other’s presence and we even saw a pigeon sitting on top of an iguana!

The following day we went to the board walk along the riverbank through the Malecon area. This area was part of an urban renewal project in the millennium and is now home to several parks, restaurants and bars as well as museums and galleries. As we were there at the start of December there were loads of festive decorations, including a gigantic Christmas tree and Santa’s grotto. Along the way we passed a group of young school children on a day out and were amused to seem them enthralled by a few geese whilst paying absolutely zero attention to the multiple iguanas spread out four-legged across the walkway. So strange to think an iguana is the equivalent to something like a common English squirrel to them!

The end of the Malecon board walk signifies the start of the area Las Peñas. Las Peñas is situated on a hill and is a beautiful residential area where all the houses are painted in the most vibrant colours. It reminded us quite a lot of our trip to Valparaiso in Chile some months ago. There are 444 steps leading from the riverfront all the way to the top of the hill, which has a lighthouse at the top. We were quite unsettled by the number of armed police, quite possibly the biggest police presence we have ever seen in such a small vicinity – this later seemed to be a common theme throughout Ecuador. The views from the top were nice but it was a long climb given the scorching heat to get there.

Despite Guayaquil being the biggest city in Ecuador, we found good restaurants few and far between. We were also quite shocked with just how expensive Ecuador was in general compared to other countries we have visited in South America. This may partly be due to the fact that the economy has never fully recovered from the hyperinflation in 1999 (estimated to have been around 300% in one year alone) and the subsequent dollarisation a year later. It is bizarre seeing the US dollar used as the primary currency.

We decided to brave the bus to Quito early the next day as neither of us were particularly looking forward to a rough nights sleep on an overnight bus or the prospect of staying longer in Guayaquil. Unknowingly, we arrived in Quito at the beginning of their festival of independence. The Quito festival is a 6 day event, starting on the 1st of December and finishing on the 6th, the anniversary of the city’s founding in 1534. We had booked a hostel on the edge of the Santo Domingo plaza in the historic quarter which is one of the main places the festivities occur. As we arrived, preparation work seemed in full swing and a huge stage was being erected ready for the main performances later in the week.

Quito is the capital of Ecuador and is also known as la mitad del mundo (the middle of the world), due to the fact the edge of the city extends to within 1 kilometre of zero latitude. According to Inca legend, Cusco was the centre of the universe and Quito the centre of the world. How they knew that many centuries ago is mind boggling. It also has huge historical importance, with the old town one of the largest and best preserved in the Americas. This is partly due to the fact that, along with Kraków in Poland, it was declared the first World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.

We arrived in Quito late in the evening on Friday and had hoped to begin our search for a heavily discounted tour to the Galapagos the following morning. Unfortunately, our bad luck seemed to be continuing as the large majority are shut at weekends. We did however, manage to get quotes for two different 5 day cruises, although we had heard that in order to get to the more remote locations you needed at least 8 days. We decided to do some more online research so we were prepared on Monday morning to visit all of the tour companies. We spent the next couple of days meandering through the old town, admiring its beauty along with the beginnings of some of the festivities such as local dancing and brass bands. The weather had other ideas and it was amazing to see how quickly the main square emptied out as the downpours began.

On Monday, we spent virtually the whole day going between different tour companies over a 7 kilometre stretch. At first it was looking increasingly likely that we would have to settle for a 5 day cruise. However, the last two agencies we frequented both had 8 day cruises available and we decided to go with the latter through the agency Happy Gringos. We had under a week before the cruise began so we decided to book onto a jungle tour. Unfortunately, going deep in to the amazon seemed unlikely given our short timeframe so we opted to visit the Bellavista Cloud Forest instead for a 3 day, 2 nights tour, that is located a short 2 hour drive away from Quito.

Join us next time as we admire countless hummingbirds in the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve.

Thanks for reading,

Sophie & Dave