South America Post 11 To the End of the Word

A flurry of posts because of 5 days without wifi, and no chance to upload pictures!From Buenos Aires we flew via Santiago, to Punta Arenas, at the southernmost part of mainland Chile. On the flight we got great views of the Chilean Volcanoes.

Out came the thermals, hats and gloves we had lugged with us!

We had an overnight stay here in a charming air bnb, prior to boarding the Stella Australis ship for our 4 day expedition through the Patagonian and Tierra del Fuego fjords, known locally as the End of the World. It certainly felt like it!

We thought of Punta Arenas as ‘just a stopover’, but we were very wrong! It is a really remote frontier town, with many low, functional buildings designed to withstand ferocious winter winds and cold. However it has some real hidden gems! Two museums display the history of the region, from the original tribes through it’s many roles in the fishing industry, security, oil and gas exploration and even a gold rush.

Today, tourism is a vital component of the economy, and the population is growing! Just outside town is an amazing museum, the Nao Victoria. In a hidden shipyard, dedicated carpenters work on ship reconstructions, all carefully reproduced in 1:1 scale, and related to this part of the world. Their star is the Victoria, Magellans ship on which he discovered the Straits of Magellan in 1520 and on whose shoreline we were standing. At 350 miles long, this was a sheltered shortcut avoiding notorious Cape Horn.

Beware of Spanish soldiers…

Then they have reconstructed the Beagle, captained by Fitzroy, who discovered the Beagle channel in 1830, and who later brought Charles Darwin here, a nice link with our Galapagos visit.

Finally the little lifeboat, the James Caird, which, against impossible odds, carried Shackleton safely from Elephant Island across the worst seas in the world to South Georgia. There he arranged rescue for the men he had to leave behind, 24 months after they set sail for Antarctica.

Their rescue ship, the Ancud, is also reproduced here.

Walking in town, a real highlight is the beautiful wall art.

And did we mention the food? We ate at La Yegua Loca, a newish restaurant highlighting local produce. It was wonderful, and we were grateful for the log burning stoves!!

Then, on Sunday lunchtime everything was closed, until we stumbled upon the Parilla los Ganaderos, or Grill of the Gauchos, full of local families. It was fabulous, and we sat next to the traditional bbq where whole lambs are cooked vertically around the flames.

Next, to our ship, a 100 cabin expedition ship.

We were excited and apprehensive at the same time. Weather forecast was poor, and we were stuck in a sardine tin with lots of other people for 4 days!

We needn’t have worried. Our cabin, and all the public rooms were lovely, and then we were greeted with cocktails and canapes for our briefing!

We would sail through the southern most routes of the continent; the Straits of Magellen and the Beagle channel, into fjords and out into the Pacific.

This was an expedition, not a cruise, so no long dresses were required.. much to Chris’ relief!! However the food seemed worthy of a much grander trip, with three delicious meals a day, and a constantly available buffet of cakes, biscuits, tea coffee.

Oh.. and the fully inclusive bar where I discovered the Pisco Sours and Calafate Sours! We were lucky to share our table with Meghan and Scott from New York. A young couple on their belated honeymoon! They were married last year, and it turned out we had the same Wedding Anniversary. They were delightful, and much fun was had.

Most staff were Chilean, and so friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Each day was a combination of interesting talks, and trips in the Zodiac ribs.

Our route is shown on this map.

After leaving port, we saw just one other ship, and 2 buildings in 4 days! This is a wild and remote place. A hostile environment in which to survive, due to extreme cold, bitter, strong, unpredictable winds, and precipitation. Vegetation struggles too, and wildlife is limited to sea birds, seals, some fish and a few mammals. However there is evidence that early tribes settled here up to 10,000 years ago. Needless to say the Spanish, British and others tried to ‘civilise’ the tribes, but diseases like smallpox, and persecution almost wiped them out. The Yamaga tribe were most remarkable. Each family lived in an open canoe, with a fire in it which the children kept alight. They were no clothes at all, even in winter with temperatures of -25, using seal fat on their skin to keep warm!

Our first excursion was to Ainsworth Bay which provided a stunning backdrop to a very informative nature walk, learning about the sub Antarctic forest.

Amazing mosses and lichens grow here.

Many parasitic plants too, like this false mistletoe,

and this innocent looking plant which can destroy a shrub in a season.

It is rough but absorbent, and the local tribes used it as toilet paper!

This plant is known as the everlasting plant, because during storms it’s habitat can be flooded with seawater, but it just regrows!

This is the Devil’s Trouble, and is apparently a powerful laxative!

We saw fur seals swimming, and birds.

Introduced species are problematic, especially the beaver which is destroying the environment.

In the afternoon we anchored at Tuckers Islets and bounced across the waves on the zodiacs to see Magellanic penguins. So adorable.

We also saw Caracara and an Imperial cormorant colony.

Next day was cloudy, but we visited the incredible Pia Glacier, one of the few which is advancing rather than retreating.

We hiked uphill for a panoramic view. The glacier was constantly creaking and groaning, and we witnessed several calvings as ice broke off and thundered into the water below.

The zodiac ride was like Dodgems with ice cubes!!

Our ship then sailed down Glacier Alley, past 5 huge glaciers named after European countries.

The waiters appeared with drinks and nibbles for each country as we passed! Then great excitement as some Orcas swam past, and then dolphins.

Our foray out into the Pacific was decidedly bouncy, but during our penultimate night we sailed right out to Cape Horn. We knew the weather forecast was bad, and just before dawn we were told that it was too dangerous to get close or attempt a landing, as winds were Force 10, gusting Force 11! Chris and I went on deck while in the lee of the island. The wind was howling, and the rain lashing down, but we saw Cape Horn in the dim light. Somehow it seemed more fitting to experience it like this, rather than on a calm sunny day.

We were just 595 miles from the Antarctic islands, and have now visited the southern most points in Americas, Africa and Australasia.

Later that day, we went ashore and hiked at Wulaia bay, where Darwin landed and first met natives.

It was also home to the barrel post office. Mariners would leave letters for family at home, and when another ship came by it would take letters addressed to places it was heading to. We popped in a postcard, and took one to deliver!

When Magellan first came, he found huge footprints in the sand. They believed the natives must be giants and named the land Patagonia from the old Portuguese words Pata Guan meaning big foot! Finally we sailed to remote Ushuaia in Argentina.

The whole trip was amazing. My travel pills were exceptional, and after rolling around at Cape Horn in Force 11 gusts, I polished off a hearty breakfast!!

The sense of wilderness and isolation here was immense, and we felt a huge respect for early sailors navigating these unforgiving waters.

South America Post 10 Beautiful Buenos Aires

Landing in Buenos Aires in the early evening, on our taxi ride to the hotel we were instantly impressed by the abundance of parks and attractive balconied buildings. It had a more European feel than anywhere else we had been, although the music emanating from shops, cars and parks was decidedly Latin American!! Our small hotel, the Grand Petit Casa would have been right at home in Paris. Tall, narrow and with a tiny, ornate lift that must have been 90 years old!

Invaluable as we were on the 3rd floor. It was in Recoleta, a central and safe district.

Buenos Aires is on the huge River Plate Estuary, and was founded in 1540. It expanded in the 18th century due to successful cattle farming, and in 1816 gained independence from Spain. It has always been a city of immigrants, and is very multicultural. By the early 1900s it was a booming city, with a great love for European art and design, so many buildings have a marked influence from Art Nouveau, Art deco, often in a French style.

Britain built their first metro line, with very ‘London underground’ tiling! Beautiful French style coffee shops abound, with elegant style, stained glass, and amazing cakes! One even had it’s own tango theatre!

We just had to sample them… for research purposes of course!

Having only a few nights in Argentina, I wanted to make sure we had sampled the ‘Best Steak in the World’ claims from every angle, so tonight we were booked into Don Julio’s Parilla, apparently quite renowned, as you have to book months ahead or queue outside. When we arrived at 7pm, there was already a queue, even though the restaurant wasn’t yet open! They eat late in BA. Some don’t open until 8 or even 9 PM!

I had booked to sit at The Bar, which meant you watched them cooking the steaks. Oh my! Sourced from grass grazed Hereford and Angus cattle, these steaks were incredible.

Huge in both length, width and height, they also looked delicious. Our waiter thoughtfully suggested we share, as each steak weighed over 16oz!! They tasted Amazing!

Next morning I had booked Elisa, a local guide who promised to take us to see some ‘hidden treasures’ of the city, rather than the usual tourist trail like the Casa Rosado where Eva Peron addressed the crowds!

First we wanted to visit Recoleta cemetery, famous for it’s ornate mausoleum, created as the 19th century, wealthy families vied to outdo each other, even in death!

Eva Peron is the most famous inhabitant, finally buried here as Eva Duarte, in her family vault. After her death from cancer, aged just 33, in 1952, her body was embalmed and lay in state, but after the military coup, her body disappeared. In 1971, it was eventually traced to Milan, where it had been buried. It was returned to her husband, in exile in Madrid, and eventually back to Argentina and buried, 5 metres below ground, to prevent ‘interference’!

This poignant tomb is of a young woman who died on her honeymoon in Austria. The mausoleum is a recreation of her bedroom, with the girl in her Wedding dress outside with her dog.

Sadder still, are the memorials dotted all over Buenos Aires to the 30,000 people who ‘disappeared’ in the dirty war, during US backed military rule between 1974-1983.

Elisa was true to her word. We visited El Ateno, a beautiful bookshop in an old theatre;

A huge Victorian gothic building in the heart of the city, that we assumed was a museum, or the town hall, but which turned out to be a hugely extravagant building to house the waterworks! These pictures show what the inside was like, and the grand exterior!

Then the stunningly beautiful church, Basílica María Auxiliadora y San Carlos, built in 1906, and where the current Pope, Francis, was baptised.

It is unusual because the stained glass windows are all floral, bearing a striking resemblance to William Morris designs!

It is also where a certain Carlos Gardel sang in the choir. Unknown to us, he is a legend in Buenos Aires. Tango music had it’s roots in the immigrant and poorer sections of BA society. Not just music, but songs with powerful, sad, or sometimes amusing lyrics are a huge part of society here, and Carlos was one of the most loved singers. His picture is everywhere!

Tango was banned during the military years, seen as subversive. Now it is back, with dance halls, outfitters and classes everywhere, appealing to young and old.

We went to a rather edgy steampunk style hall, where a lesson was taking place. We watched in awe, but I only filmed a snippet!

They had an interesting line in chairs too!

The streets in this neighbourhood, San Telmo, also have a decorative style of decorating their houses called fileteado!

Theatre Ciego has a new lease of life as a theatre for the blind. Each performance is in darkness, encouraging the audience to use their other senses.

This street has some interesting benches.

We were completely fooled by these, completely baffled as to why you would leave fabric seats outside. Until we felt them! They were solid! Brilliant.

Then Tango lessons on the pavement!!

We visited a buzzing market, one of many, where really fresh produce mingles with the delicious aroma of hundreds of freshly baked empanadas!

Finally, in a quiet neighbourhood, a tiny barbers shop, run by a 4th generation family. They have preserved the barber shop as it would have been 60 years ago, including equipment and products!

This device once gave you a perm… how I am not sure!!Barber shops were centres for singing, and every week locals gather here to listen to some old tango singers from another era. We were the only tourists, and were made very welcome. It was a lovely atmosphere and a privilege to see.

Chris resisted the pressure to shave off his beard… in the old fashioned way!!

Our last night in BA was spent in Restaurant Roux, named after the sauce, not the famous chefs! We had a wonderful meal, in a restaurant full of regular patrons, judging by the hugging and kissing that was happening as each one arrived. Despite their horrendous inflation, (prices have increased by 50% in a year), the pound is still strong, so our wonderful meal was about the same as a 2 course pub meal at home.

We loved Buenos Aires. A slightly edgy, vibrant, elegant city.

South America Post 7 The Cloud Forest and Farewell.

Warning….lots of photos, many birds!

Ecuador is one of the geographically most diverse countries on earth! From Volcanoes, and high Andes peaks, to Jungle, coastal lowlands, and the Cloud Forest. The vast number of species here is due in part to it never having had an ice age.

The Cloud forest is a belt of mountainous land between 1000 and 2,800 metres above sea level, where cloud is frequently trapped. High rainfall and moisture mean flush semi-tropical vegetation, and masses of wildlife, particularly birds.

After our very long journey, we arrived late to a lodge, Las Terrazas de Dana, and were shown to our cabin up a very long flight of steps. The owners organised dinner for us on the veranda, and although it was too dark to see much, we sensed we were somewhere special, although the insect visitors were a bit alarming!

Despite our long day travelling, we couldn’t waste any time… although when the alarm clock woke us at 5am I did momentarily doubt the wisdom of booking the early morning bird walk!! We went down at 6.00 to meet Julia, our guide, and left in the dark to climb up the hill. As it got light, Julia came to life, planting her telescope down and calling ‘Hurry hurry, Look look, special bird’ as she pointed out lots of new and magical birds. 3 species of Toucan, Laughing hawks, brightly coloured Tanagers, Parrots, and many more.

59 new species to be precise, and an alarming wasp nest!

Julia came back to the lodge with us at 10.00am… where we found breakfast was waiting!

This was the first time we could see the lodge in daylight, and we were in beautiful tropical gardens, with views of the cloud forest all around.

Amazingly, the gardens were full of hummingbirds.

We sat and watched them for ages, before returning to our room to plan the afternoon….. and promptly fell asleep!!

Later we walked down into the local town, Mindo. It is an unspoiled Ecuadorian town, and although many of the houses were very basic, and there were people who obviously had very little, they were happy, friendly, and never once were we asked for money or help. Birds and colour seem to be a big part of their life. Murals adorn many walls, including the football ground!

We found the delightful Food Studio, a Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant run by a charming Ecuadorian couple. We had an unusual but delicious supper there, and loved the fact that if you weren’t fully embracing the Green life, for $4 extra, you could add a piece of beef, Chicken, Fish or cheese! A cunning way to broaden your customer base, and cater for groups with mixed eating needs!

The highlight of the meal was vegan icecream made from Plantain juice and Flowers. The Hibiscus was divine.

Passionfruit and Basil sounded odd, but was gorgeous, and the others were fruits we had never heard of, but equally yummy!

Back to the lodge to discover that the bird tour we had booked for the next day required us to be ready at 05.20 am. Gulp… early to bed then!

The 4.30 alarm was harsh.. this had better be good. The lodge gave us muffins and bananas to keep us going and we set off with a jolly taxi driver who spoke no English. Our Spanish lessons mean I can manage a little bit of conversation, but only the basics. All the roads here are packed earth, and very twisty and bumpy, so it was an interesting 45 minutes. We pulled up behind a few other vans, just as it was getting light. We were introduced to Angel, one of 2 brothers who own the land at La Paz des Aves. We were in serious company. Mostly men carrying expensive cameras with huge lenses, and top of the range binoculars. We had come to see a rare and iconic bird, the Cock of the Rock. Very elusive, if we were lucky, they would gather here for a short while at dawn.

A gate was unlocked, and we were led down a twisty, narrow path to a hide.

We were lucky. About 12 birds gathered in the trees. Never coming really close, and in poor light, but giving us a great view through our binoculars. A really stunning bird.

We felt somewhat inadequate.. Chris with his little Lumix camera, and me with my phone, so these are the best pics we got.

We didn’t realise this was only the start. We climbed back up the hill, into the taxi and Vans and set off to another spot, where Angel and his brother disappeared into the forest, whistling and cooing. Suddenly, Angel appeared, and called us all over. At the edge of the woods he put a banana and cooed gently. Suddenly 2 birds appeared and pecked at the banana, keeping a wary eye on us. This was the Great Ant Pitta. A very very rare bird.

The whole morning was spent with the brothers who called almost magically call these wild birds. Their land is a world renowned refuge, and they have spent years creating a safe haven here, and building up relationships with the totally wild birds.Finally, we were taken to a shack, where breakfast had been prepared for us (at 11.00am). It was surrounded by stunning views and Humming bird feeders . So many birds visited while we were there. Here are some photos. What a morning!

Some of the birders were a bit intense, and we struck up a friendship with a Netherlands couple. She had a wicked sense of humour, and she and I did have some very non serious giggly moments!! Here are Chris and I looking like proper birders!

Back to the lodge. In the afternoon we walked into town again. Several hostels have sidelined to bring in a few extra dollars. One had an amazing garden of Orchids. There are over 4000 species of orchid in Ecuador, and some of these were miniature, which perfect flowers just 1 or 2 mms across.

Another hostel had created a hummingbird garden and a terrace. We sat there for ages watching 10 or 11 different species performing aerial acrobatics. Finally, to an artisan Chocolate cooperative, where we were shown all the steps to making natural chocolate, which, if made from pure cacao, is very good for you!! We had lots of tastings at the end which were yummy.

Our last dinner back at the lodge, and then packing for our flights the next day.

We were lulled to sleep by rain, and then rudely awakened (well I was…. Chris snored on!!) by thunderous rain which lasted for hours. The cloud forest was living up to it’s name!

Next day, en route to the airport we stopped at Mitad del Mundo, literally The middle of the World. Ecuador is the only country to be named after a geographical feature.. Equator. And we were on it…. well, nearly on it. They built a big monument on it, but when GPS came along, they found it was a few hundred metres down the road, so the Intinan museum opened there. We visited that which is tacky but fun. On the equator line they do experiments like pouring water down a plug hole. On the equator, straight down, no spin. Northern hemisphere, it whirled anti clockwise, southern hemisphere, it span clockwise. We also tried to walk along the equator with our eyes closed despite being 11am, Chris looks as though he is quite drunk! (He really wasn’t! Honest!).

Quite how this all works, we aren’t sure because new scientific measurement suggests the real equator might be another few hundred metres away! Anyway, it was fun, and we had a kiss across the equator, one in each hemisphere!

We are sad to say goodbye to Ecuador. A diverse, friendly, beautiful and wildlife rich country with great food! The world’s largest producer of bananas, home to 1600 species of bird, and of the Panama hat (yes really), two of Unescos first World Heritage sites, the World’s largest active volcano, and the first country in the World to abolish slavery.

Quite a place. Ecuador, we will miss you.

South America Post 6 The Amazon Rainforest.

(Please allow time for photos to load!!)

‘Amazon Rainforest’ evokes wonderful images of a huge, fast flowing, muddy river surrounded by towering, dense rainforest teeming with life. We knew we had to visit. Although the fact that the teeming life includes a vast array of insects, spiders and snakes was slightly disconcerting.

The Amazon basin is vast, covering an area nearly equal to the whole USA. It extends into 8 countries. The Amazon river is formed from several main rivers and many small tributaries, all originating in the Andes.

There is some dispute as to which is the longest river in the world between the Amazon, Nile and Mississipi. The Amazon is over 4000 miles long. What is not disputed is that in terms of volume of water, the Amazon wins hands down. It’s estuary is 205 miles wide, and it discharges over 200,000 cubic metres of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean PER SECOND!!

Our easiest access point was in Ecuador. Easy being a relative term.

We took a local flight over the Andes to Coca. There we were met by the wonderful staff from La Selva eco lodge. It was Carnaval fiesta day. The locals were enjoying themselves, spraying foam and water everywhere!

For us, the next 4 days were to be some of the most amazing travelling we have done.

Firstly, 50 miles down the huge, brown, fast running Napo river in an open sided motorised canoe dodging sandbanks and floating trees!

Then a walk through jungle to a still and silent chocolate brown creek, where paddle canoes waited to take us on a mystical 20 minute ride into a huge lagoon.

Our lodge was at the far end. This is the only way here. No roads. Everything, supplies, water, fuel, laundry is transported by boat, 3.5 hours to Coca.

I will confess that after reading horror stories of people waking up with tarantulas on their pillows in the budget rainforest accommodation, I did go for something a bit more comfortable, but didn’t realise how super La Selva would be.

All staff were Ecuadorian, and many were from the local community. Our room (and loo!) had no windows… just mesh to let air in and keep bugs out. Temperature is between 75 and 95 degrees F all year round. Humidity is 80% plus.

The food was amazing, and locally sourced. Everything was quietly organised like a well oiled machine. We were issued rubber boots which hardly left our feet for the next 3 days.

The high humidity meant we got used to a permanent damp feel to both us and all our clothes!

The solitude and silence were immense. Especially at night. It was almost overwhelming. Then it would be broken by bird song or the eerie sound of the Howler monkeys, or warring Caymans in the lake.

Every day, and night, we were taken out in our small group of just 7. Us, and 5 lovely people from Massachusetts, USA. Hello ladies!!

We had Edwin, a Naturalist, plus Medardo, an unbelievably eagle eyed native guide, with us all the time.

They pointed out things we would never have seen, and constantly explained fascinating details about the wildlife, and also the plants and trees, and their uses, especially in natural medicine. This fungus is peeled apart to reveal a cool gel used to treat burns.

This black sap heals wounds.

This seed case is a comb, and the leaf below can be folded and twisted without it breaking. One use is to wrap food before cooking.

This is a place for people who can be ‘Wowed’ by tiny things and details. There are relatively few mammals, many of which are highly reclusive, so sightings are unlikely.But the tiny things are incredible. Tiny frogs and toads with amazing leaf coloured camouflage….

Then turn them over and WOW!!

We loved the fact that nothing was stage managed. There was no point where we felt that we saw something because it was enticed by food. Medardo would swiftly pounce and suddenly be holding a frog, but never harmed them at all. Everything was wild and natural. The guides were as excited as we were when something was spotted.

I had to curb my natural desire to jump up and down and squeal with excitement!!

We started in at the deep end with a night walk. Head torches and bug spray on, we set off.

Our photos often don’t convey size, but believe me, some of the insects were HUGE… just as many frogs were tiny.

These bugs were 4 inches long!

This was the weirdest Caterpillar ever!!!

We saw capuchin monkeys, too fast to photograph!
The highlight was 2 Tarantulas. The bigger one scuttled into it’s hole, but this one was more obliging!

At about 5 inches across, I mentally thanked myself for booking the better accommodation. Phew!

The next few days were spent doing various jungle walks and canoe rides. Here are pictures of some of the creatures we saw.

This is a Howatzin, a large and very unique bird. No links to any other species, they eat semi toxic leaves, and therefore exude a terrible smell! They can dive underwater to escape predators, and young birds have hooks on their wings so they can climb around in trees!

The great Tinamou is very elusive. This one was asleep…with eyes open.

These were Howler monkeys, hanging on with long prehensile tails. Their eerie calls could be heard echoing around the forest.

The Great Potoo…

A spectacled owl!

The jungle is a place of survival. Camouflage is one defence. This is a toad!

Large numbers and team work are another. These ants worked as a team to carry this insect leg.

Some ants were huge. The bullet ant is feared. It is an inch long.

This Is a huge Owls eye butterfly…. confusing to predators

Or Maybe have viciously sharp spines….

Or enough poison to put a human in hospital, although you are less than 1cm long….

Or Just be horribly sneaky… this fungus seeps in through the insects pores, grows inside it, reaches it’s brain and turns it into a sort of zombie. The insect then walks to the sort of location which is ideal for the fungus to grow, and dies. 😱

Or just walk away! This is the walking tree. It apparently searches for light by casting fast growing roots in the direction of the light. It then loses the roots on the darker side and literally ‘walks’, possibly up to 8 metres in a year.

The lodge has a tree top tower which was so much higher than I expected, and every step and landing was metal that allowed you to see down.

My vertigo screamed NO!However I used NLP and somehow got up all 120 feet of it. We still weren’t at the top of the canopy but it was sensational.

There was a beautiful double toothed kite building a nest in the Kapok tree we had climbed, and we saw lots of birds around us! Magical. Getting down was accomplished by following Chris and singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ to myself! My mantra song!

When rain or land slips occur, they sometimes expose mineral rich seams in the clay riverbank. These ‘Clay licks’ are then frequented by hundreds of parrots, who use the minerals to counter digestive disturbances brought on by consuming certain seeds and fruits.

We were lucky enough to witness this, and also stunning Macaws visiting a freshwater spring. Beautiful but unbelievably noisy and argumentative!!

We also visited the local community, and amongst other things, tried blowpipe blowing!

Our lodge leases land from them and supports their education and health programmes. Many of the lodge staff are from the village.

Our final night included a canoe paddle in pitch darkness to see night fishing bats and the Caymans, …or at least see their eyes reflecting back in the torch beam. The largest can grow to 9 feet long and they hunt at night. Rotten picture but you can see the body outline and the eyes!!

The lake also contains Pirhanas. We tried fishing for them, with beef as bait! Despite lots of nibbles, and a nearly catch for Chris, I have to show you the one caught by our guide! Eek! Those teeth!

Now we are being paddled silently along the chocolate creek for the last time.

Everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, genuinely sad to leave this magical, faraway place.

(Our remoteness was brought home to us when, after nearly 4 hours boating upstream, we arrived in Coca to find our flight back to Quito was cancelled due to storms. Edwin organised a bus, and within 30 minutes we embarked on a 6 hour road trip across the Andes!!

Our transfer to our next destination, in the cloud Forest, had waited at the airport, and then drove us through torrential rain and lightening for 2.5 hours. We arrived at 9pm after 14 hours of adventure!!! )

South America Post 5 The Galapagos Islands

Leaving Cuba, we had a stopover in Bogota, Colombia where we sampled some traditional food and beer!

Then, off to the Galapagos Islands……. What can I say? Well, being me, lots, of course!!

Our desire to visit was mainly fuelled by awesome documentaries, and impossibly close up photos of unique birds and animals made famous by Charles Darwin among others. There are really just 2 ways to visit. Water based on a cruise, or land based. Anyone who knows me will know that, despite having the best travel sickness pills ever, 9 days on board a very small boat (many have just 8 or 10 small cabins), in notoriously rough seas, 24/7, is a step too far! Water based tours also start at about double the price of land based, so it was an easy choice. We chose a smaĺl, locally based company – Guiding Galapagos and together planned an itinerary mixing geography, local culture and of course wildlife.

We were based on 2 different islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela, a 2 hour high speed ferry ride apart. The ferries are somewhat cramped,

On transfer day we had 2 sudden tropical cloud bursts. One as we were going to the boat on Santa Cruz, and one as we arrived on Isabela island. Everyone, and their luggage, were drenched both times!

We were shown to our new hotel room as the staff were mopping up a large pool of water from the floor, smiling and saying “The rain sometimes comes in!!” Trying to dry our clothes was tricky in 80% humidity, and we were a bit fed up, until we saw this sign in the beach bar.

So true, and it put a few wet clothes back into perspective.

Our accommodation was in small locally run hotels, both clean and comfortable. On Isabela it was the Volcano hotel, almost on the beach, renowned for sunsets. It did not disappoint!

The Galapagos archipelago comprises 21 islands, mostly uninhabited, which straddle the equator, so tropical insects can be a problem. There were actually very few! Another invasion of minuscule ants in true Tom and Jerry style lines was passed off by our hosts with… ‘Don’t worry, they are not offensive’. Well, true, they weren’t hurling abuse at us, but we didn’t want them in our bags, so we used our Boots non deet eco friendly insect repellent at the entry point which seemed to deter them!! We also had the tiniest in room gecko on patrol. Spot the gecko!!

It is amazing how something so tiny can make so much noise!

The islands are in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 1000 km east of mainland Ecuador. They are heavily influenced by prevailing sea currents. The cold Humbolt current coming from Antarctica brings many fish, and this encourages the birds etc. El Nino years are disastrous here, because it prevents the cold current reaching the islands, so there are many less fish, birds cannot breed, and the food chain is in trouble.

There is no drinkable freshwater on Galapagos at all, which is probably why it was not really settled until the 19th Century, despite being ‘discovered’ in 1535. All water here is either bottled or purified.

Darwin came in 1835, and his observations that the animals and birds were unique, and appeared to have adapted and evolved according to their island environment, led to him proposing the theory of evolution, and writing The Origin of the Species. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The islands are now a National Park, full of wonders. Not always the most colourful or dramatic creatures on earth, but definitely unique. For example 15 species of little Darwin finches, each adapted to have a different food source and habitat to ensure survival. This is the nest of a cactus finch.

There are few natural predators here, so many creatures are fearless. We were standing within a few feet of many of the birds and animals we photographed.

The biggest predators were, and are, man himself and his introduced creatures… rats, dogs, cats etc. 35,000 people live on the islands, and balancing their needs with the protected National Park status is tricky and at times, controversial. For example local people are resentful that they are no longer allowed to fish from their own islands due to the protected status, so must pay high prices in the shops.

The wildlife are the stars. Giant tortoises are incredible.

He is eating apples!! Some live to be 150 years old. However they have a managed breeding programme, because in the wild less than 1% of eggs will reach maturity, mainly due to the predators I mentioned. Amazingly, eggs incubated at 28°C will be Male. 29.5°C, female!! Large Male tortoises can be 4ft long, weigh up to 350 kg, and walk several km a day!

The Galapagos islands are volcanic, and are moving eastwards by 5cms a year, as the Nazca plate drifts. Some Volcanoes are active. We climbed to the rim of Sierra Negra, the 2nd largest Caldera in the world. It erupted just last year, for 54 days, and fumaroles were smoking on our visit.

We visited 6 islands, using boats every day. Sea lions are everywhere, literally!!

We also did some hikes, and kayaking, with sea turtles popping up around us!

Amazingly, my vintage 1990’s swimsuits were worn almost every day, and I gradually became more adept at snorkelling. I jumped off the side of boats and RIBS, and paddled around in deep, open seawater, with big waves! I even swam around an island…. with a life jacket on! The fish were lovely.

but we also snorkelled with huge Sea Turtles, 1.5 m sharks, Rays, Sea lions, and even saw an incredibly well camouflaged Sea horse. It was fantastic.

This is a trench where sharks come to rest during the day!!

Some of the most astonishing creatures are the Iguanas. Living dinosaurs. Marine Iguanas blend in with the black lava rock, or grey stones.

They sleep a lot, often in bunches! They sound as if they are hissing at you, but in fact they must regularly sneeze out salt!

Land Iguanas are golden yellow. They frequently shed their skin, so look rather threadbare, but I thought they were stunning.

They have no predators as adults, but are prone to dehydration…. this one literally dried out in the heat. 30°C most days.

There are some gorgeous beaches – Tortuga and Bachas were our favourites, complete with fresh turtle tracks, and newly hatched eggs.

Crabs abound and are a food source for the super seabirds.

One of the most unlikely is the unique Galapagos penguin which has adapted to live, not in Antarctica, but on the equator!

There is also a Galapagos flamingo. Both sexes of bird have the amazing capability of producing milk to feed their young.

We never tired of watching Brown Pelicans, Blue footed Boobies, Noddies and Terns diving into the sea a few metres away.

On Isabela island, we visited Los Tuneles, an other world landscape of hollow marine lava tunnels and cacti!

There we encountered a female blue footed Booby a few feet from the path. She was singing for a mate.

Amazingly, a Male arrived and did his courtship dance right in front of us! It obviously wasn’t good enough, because she didn’t respond, so he flew away dejectedly (we assume!!).

The next day, this encounter was topped. North Seymour island is home to the Great and Magnificent Frigate birds. Last season’s young were everywhere, being fed by parents who regurgitate food for them.

It was breeding season. The males spend 2 hours inflating a huge red neck pouch, and boom with it to attract a mate. It is exhausting!

They were everywhere, and remarkably were within feet of us. Breathtaking!!

Our visit to Galapagos was wonderful. We had good food, (especially fish), met some lovely people from many countries (hardly any fellow Brits!), and were blown away by the wildlife. There were some quirky things… the in car phone for example!

I even managed to take a Turner-esque sunrise shot!

One word for Galapagos… Incredible!

South America Post 4 Cienfuegos, Trinidad and time to leave!

Our night was spent in Cienfuegos, a city in south central Cuba, founded by Fench families in the 18th Century. It has a beautiful waterfront, and on arrival we were taken on a slightly bumpy ‘bicycle made for 2’ taxi ride around the city.

The buildings in the centre are architecturally very different to the Spanish style in Havana, and although the city has many rather tired buildings, they are working hard here to attempt to restore the centre.

Many of the most stylish buildings are now Hotels or Clubs, which only tourists, or wealthy Cubans can afford. And that is the paradox here. It is a communist country, but we could see that there are some people making a lot of money here, while some of their countrymen are very very poor. Equal shares for all? I don’t think so.

We constantly observed shortages. In one town, there was no fuel, in another, no bread, in another no cooking oil.

We went into a supermarket in Cienfuegos. There were just 4 aisles. One aisle had just toilet paper. Another, rows and rows of tinned tomatoes, ketchup and a basic tomato sauce, plus some packets of beans. Another row was cereal and water. Another was locally made colas and pickles.

There was some very expensive meat in a freezer.. and a good selection of alcohol, which was surprisingly cheap. Suddenly we realise how we take the vast array of choice in our shops for granted. Speaking to some local people on the waterfront, they told us they buy most of their meat, cheese etc on the black market as it is cheaper and better.

Our accommodation, Casa Oriente, was lovely. The family made us so welcome and cooked us a gorgeous dinner of prawns with coconut.

The next day, after exploring the city with Tony, we headed for the hills! We had brought colouring pencils, shampoos and toothpastes from home which we gave out in the poorer mountain villages. People seemed so grateful it was embarrassing. We wished we had brought more. These things can be obtained here, but are expensive and poor quality, so people don’t. Toothpaste is £8 a tube, and a cheap toothbrush £6.

Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall, El Nicho, where a local guide led us on a walk explaining all the plants and birds. The air plants covering trees were particularly impressive!

And a weird lizard!

Then on to Trinidad, an old town that was so isolated that the first road to reach it didn’t arrive until 1953. Most of the streets are still cobbled. The architecture is amazing.

All 17th and 18th century. Very colourful, with huge windows that have floor to ceiling, ornate iron screens over them, which keep people out but let the breeze in.

The oldest buildings have wooden screens.

We loved it here, exploring the Cathedral and old family houses. The main square buzzes with music and people, and we joined the crowd, having a Mojito and a Daiquiri!

Wifi is mainly available in public squares like this. You must buy a Government card and use it to log on.

Our accommodation was in Hostal Gisela y Wilfredo. They were so friendly, and cooked us a super lobster dinner which we ate on their roof terrace, with our own salamanders keeping the bugs down!

Next morning, we visited a pottery, and sampled another Cuban rum based drink… La Canchanchara – at 10.30 am! This was necessary to relax our inhibitions enough for a 1 hour salsa lesson. Suffice it to say, thanks to our super teacher, we did well learning the steps, but the required wiggling and shimmying needs a lot of work! We won’t be on Strictly Come Dancing anytime soon!

An afternoon visit to the lovely beach at Playa Ancon was followed by watching the sunset from the roof terrace and a leisurely evening amble.

No supper, we are too full! Dominoes is widely played with a passion!

An early start for our return to Havana, via some old steam trains for Chris to play in

(Health and Safety is an unknown concept here!!), and an old sugar cane plantation village where we tried sugar cane juice. Then Santa Clara, an inland city which was a key victory in the Revolution.

The rebels had been moving westward. Santa Clara was their biggest objective. Che Guevara was leading this rebel group. Battista’s government sent an armoured train containing weapons and engineers to Santa Clara, to move east towards the rebels. Che’s men destroyed the railway line 1km east of the city. As the train moved east towards this point, rebels inside the city lifted the track there with a Caterpillar bulldozer! The train saw the track was gone and reversed back to reach the city, hitting the blockage and derailing. All were captured.Some carriages remain as a museum.

It was a huge victory and Che Guevara has Super hero status. A huge mausoleum and statue overlook the town.

Che was a socialist who grew unhappy with Russian communist influence in Cuba, and in 1965, left to go to fight with rebels in Bolivia, only to be killed there soon after. His body was found in the 1990s and brought to Cuba.

Finally, back to Havana for a night, before our flight tomorrow. Tonight we have an ‘in room gecko’ for mosi control.

A long walk, watching cruise ships arriving and departing. Tourism is the lifeblood of Cuba. It has felt very safe here. They need and love tourists, but if you come, please try and use locally run businesses rather than Government owned or international ones. We spoke to some people at a restaurant who told us that the Army control 70% of the tour companies here. Finally, a last Mojito at the Art Nouveau Hotel Inglaterra, soaking up the sights and sounds of this bustling, musical mixed up country.

Motorways can be empty…but full of potholes.

Our accommodation was always clean, but often with a 1960’s feel! Here is our guide Tony outside our Hostal in Trinidad.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, each one had air con! Everyone was friendly, the food was better than we expected, the buildings were a mix of ornate splendour, simple dwellings, and ghastly, Russian built blocks of flats.

I was tickled by the rows and rows of washing lines we saw, full of vibrant colourful clothes!

It sums up Cuba – vibrant and colourful!

(With our guide Tony, we have been trying to follow the news anxiously due to the Venezuela situation. Tony because the Cuban Government are asking people to sign a paper to say they support Venezuela’s current PM, and could potentially be called upon to fight there. Us as we fly to Ecuador via Colombia which seems to feature centrally in the USA’s aid plans!)

South America Post 3 Cuba – Vinales and Bay of Pigs.

Leaving Havana we drove along the Malecon, the sweeping Atlantic seafront that once was home to the best hotels.

We stopped at Fusterdoria, a suburb where the Cuban artist Jose Fister decided to create a tribute to Anton Gaudi as a way to rejuvenate his impoverished village. The result is a Gaudiesque mosaic art park, and also, all the front walls of his neighbours properties are decorated by him too!

Driving west, the lack of cars became increasingly noticeable, even on the highways. Bikes, and ponies pulling carts were common sights. As were hitchhiker’s… loads of them. Whole families sometimes with no other way to get from A to B. Bizarrely, on the highway, there were spots where a sign suddenly reduced the speed limit from 100 kph to 60, often at bridges where hitchhiker’s waited in the shade. Frequently police lurked here, giving speeding tickets. At other spots, there were fake inspectors, trying to scam a fine from unsuspecting tourists.

Our next stop was Las Terrazas Biosphere reserve, a vast area of forested hills created after the revolution to provide homes for poor hill farmers. After the revolution in 1959, **** trees were planted and homes built. It is now a wonderful place, and a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

This tree is called the tourist tree because it is red and peels!!

We visited an old coffee plantation and saw some beautiful birds, including the Trogon, Cuba’s national bird.

A great lunch at Buenavista cafetal was followed by locally grown coffee at El cafe de Maria, overlooking the village, watching Emerald humming birds to our right, while Turkey Vultures landed on the grass to our left to scavenge the chicken feed!

A visit to an artisan paper maker was followed by a stop at a beautiful Orchid garden.

We drove on, finally reaching Vinales, a pretty village in the heart of Karst scenery… large, and rare outcrops of limestone rock forming dramatic hills, just as we had seen in Vietnam.

We also discover that here, we are as far from southern South America is as we are from London.

And we chose not to go for a ride on the bull!!

Being a communist country, Cubans have had little access to world news until recently, and have obviously been told a lot of things about how great their country is. So we are frequently told that things are the biggest in the world, the first in the world, the finest in the world. We weren’t sure if Tony was a bit upset that we had seen Karst scenery somwhere else!

Staying at Nenita’s bnb, we had a good supper, then walked into town where the main street was cordoned off for Saturday night festivities. There was a definite theme to all the stalls!

Night times are interesting here. Loud conversations, often accompanied by music, can go on into the small hours. Dogs bark whenever anyone comes close to their patch, and ignite a chain of barking up and down the street. Nearly everyone has chickens, which start crowing around 4.00 am. The room fridge gurgles and rattles, and the aircon or fan whirrs and clicks. And of course, there is the tiny, but dreaded sound of the whining mosquito. Walls and windows are thin and sound carries. Oh where are noise cancelling headphones when you need them? Chris of course sleeps blissfully through most of it. However I am never a good sleeper, and in the 5 days we have been away, have already finished 4 books on the kindle! Luckily, I’m usually quite awake the next day, even after just 4 or 5 hours sleep!

On Sunday, we explored the area, starting with a boat trip in some dramatic caves – Cueva del Indio.

Then we visited El plaque de Los Cimarrones, caves where escaping slaves would go to hide. Then to a huge (120 metres x 180 metres) outdoor mural depicting prehistoric life, in honour of all the fossils and early remains that have been found in this area.

All the while seeing local farmers driving their horse drawn carts, and using oxen to plough the fields.

Another super lunch at a local restaurant, La Carreta, (we had been warned that the food was not great in Cuba.. we beg to differ!)

Then to an organic farm, which grows fruit, vegetables and tobacco. We were taken through the whole process of cigar making. 90% of their leaves go to government factories, but they keep 10% to make beautiful handmade cigars.

The wrapping leaves are marinaded in lemon and honey, and the mouth end of the cigar is dipped in honey before you smoke it. Chris smoked one… well a little… he will bring the rest home for special occasions! With that beard he just needs a green uniform and he could join Che Guevara’s rebels!

A last walk into town for a light snack of some tapas at Olivos cafe….well ‘light snack’ just doesn’t exist here! The diet is heavily centred around rice and black beans, but there is meat and fish and loads of fresh fruit and veg.

The weather has been great 27 – 30 degrees but with a breeze. Very few mosquitos, but we still used our amazing bed net as it only takes one to cause havoc!

Tomorrow we head to southern Cuba, where the mosi count will increase, preparing us for what lies ahead in South America.

So, a 400km drive to the South through farmland and plantations to our first stop at Playa Largo. Tony, our guide is excellent company, providing an entertaining commentary of explanations of the things we are seeing, and funny stories. He is very knowledgeable, and proud of his country.

We have left the Atlantic coast and are now on the Caribbean Sea coast. Our knowledge of Cuban history was very limited, so we were interested to hear the Cuban version of the Bay of Pigs incident. After the revolution, many wealthy Americans lost their homes on Cuba. Eisenhower ordered a force of mercenaries, some of whom were Cuban themselves, to invade Cuba, landing at the Bay of Pigs, a quiet, undefended area. However there was a spy amongst them who got word to Castro. He moved army units down in secret and was ready for them. He himself rode in a tank, and claims to have fired the shot that sank the ship. Every town here has huge signs claiming ‘This was the first time Americans were defeated in the Americas’, or ‘The invaders only reached this point’.

It was over in 72 hours, and there are memorials everywhere to the Cuban people who died.

Castro never let on that it was a military operation. He claimed it was just the Cuban people rising up to defend their land. Interestingly, Kennedy did not support the invasion.

However it was enough for Castro and Russia to decide to bolster Cuba’s defences…with nuclear missiles which precipitated the Cuban missile crisis, where the world literally teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

Nowadays this an area for recreation, with good diving, and a gorgeous natural pool, 70m deep and full of fish.

And of course, time for another lunch… this time with local crab and lobster! We are not splashing out .. the meals are all included in the tour.

Chris had his first sight of the Caribbean sea, and Anne paddled in the Bay of Pigs. They have mass crab migrations here in breeding season, blocking the roads. The crabs are black and orange. We saw one, which was too fast for a photo! Wild pigs used to congregate here to eat them, which is what gave the bay it’s name.

Our final stop was in the Zapata forest where we met Orlando. A local man who led us into the forest, and with eyes like a hawk spotted birds where you would swear there was nothing. It was wonderful. The greatest prize was seeing a bee humming bird. The smallest bird in the world. Just 5cm long.

My favourite was the ridiculously pretty Tody.

Another great day.