Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands by Bridget Keevil

Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands

Days 1 & 2
December 31st 2017/January 1st 2018

As usual, we went to where we wanted to go in a roundabout way to make good use of the Avios points. So, we set off from Heathrow at 12.55pm to head to Mexico City, a flight of just under 12 hours – therefore spending the first of our New Year’s Eves in the air. A very subdued affair – apart from being handed a glass of champagne at just about midnight you couldn’t hear a thing. I thought the least they could do would be to have Big Ben’s bongs over the tannoy!

We arrived into Terminal 1 in Mexico City, and had a six hour layover. My suggestions were a) to book a city tour so we weren’t stuck in the airport, I was advised against that as it was New Year’s Eve – we didn’t really want to miss the connection, or b) to book an airport hotel so we could have a few hours sleep. We went with c), which was to do nothing. We took the Aero train to Terminal 2 – a journey of about twenty minutes, and then spent the second time seeing in the New Year in an airport lounge in a very uncomfortable chair, extremely tired (our body clocks were now 6am) wishing that we had gone with either a or b!

Quote of the day from Paul – “They all look Mexican here”. Errrm…..yes

Eventually the six hours elapsed, and we caught the AeroMexico flight to Quito at the ungodly hour of 1.30am. The only direct flight, so it was either that, or spending extra hours at a civilised time getting to the same place via somewhere else. The flight was just over four hours, but seemed longer!
We arrived into Quito to a cold and extremely wet New Year’s Day. This was always going to be the coldest part of our journey, as although we are almost right on the equator, Quito is situated at 2850 metres above sea level in the Andean Highlands. It was a very smooth entrance into Ecuador – no queues, polite English speaking officials, and a very quick transit through the airport. We met our guide for the first part of our trip, Gloria, who informed us it hadn’t really stopped raining since Christmas Day. Great! So much for a short sharp shower in the late afternoon. Our driver, Paul (won’t forget that name…) met us just at the door, so we didn’t have to get wet. I somehow think that might change over the next few days!

Arriving into Ecuador at 8am in the morning meant that we could either a) go to the hotel and not have a room for the morning (the night before was sold out as it was New Year’s Eve) or b) book a tour that bring us back to hotel for early afternoon. Bearing in mind Paul doesn’t appreciate my “boot camp” holidays I went with option a) hoping that we could get an early check in. I do remember him saying he would “put up” with the overnight flight if he didn’t have to do anything as soon as he got there. Definitely needed to go with option a) then! We arrived at the hotel – La Casona de la Ronda – about forty five minutes later after a very scenic transfer through the mountains, and it had almost stopped raining. The hotel had arranged breakfast for us, which was a nice gesture.

This is a small boutique hotel in the historic centre of Quito, converted from what was an original residence on a pedestrianised street. We are in and out of Quito more times than a game of hockey cokey this trip – and we are trying a different hotel each time, so I will let you know my favourite at the end.

Several people were leaving, so instead of going on a little jaunt and coming back to the room we decided to relax in the lounge. So we relaxed, and relaxed, and relaxed. By almost 1pm we still didn’t have our room – we should have gone with option a)! It was very cold in the hotel – a clue would have been the receptionist wearing a puffa jacket – and they didn’t seem to have any form of heating. The room was ready quite quickly after that, and after a hot shower the world seemed right again. The room had a lovely little outdoor courtyard with a table and chairs and plants – and lots of rain! One of us had a little nap (not saying who) and then the rain stopped and it was time to go out for a few hours and explore.

To say Quito is built on the mountains is an understatement – everywhere you look there are roads that pale Nob Hill in San Francisco into insignificance, without the twists and turns. The historic part is absolutely beautiful – so much better without the rain. We walked and walked, got a bit lost, and then found ourselves again. There were so many people out on the streets now – when we arrived earlier this morning it was like a ghost town. Although I suppose everyone had a late night (burning effigies apparently, according to our guide, of anyone from politicians to neighbours to Donald Trump).

Gloria had also recommended a restaurant that was close to our hotel called the House of the Geraniums, so we thought we would give that a go for dinner – and it was a superb choice (although we didn’t go for the young goat or the guinea pig). And all under $40 including beer and campari. Bargain. Then back to the hotel for an early night to catch up on not having a nights sleep last night!

Day 3 – January 2nd 2018

After a really good night’s sleep all thoughts of jet lag and being tired had disappeared – thank goodness for that! We had an early breakfast at the hotel – egg station and all! It was pretty basic apart from that, but perfectly acceptable for what we needed. We had discovered that the toilet in our room leaked – thinking it was the shower yesterday was proved wrong by water all over the floor this morning. Duly reported before our 8am departure for our day trip today, it will hopefully be fixed by the time we get back.

Gloria and Paul (the driver) met us again today, and we set off in fairly good weather – although the weather app did point quite strongly to it being cloudy, thunderstorms and cold. I am on holiday, so I travelled in a t-shirt, crop trousers and sandals. I am British! And the rain jacket was in the bag. One of the first things Gloria asked was if we felt the earthquake the day before. She said we would have felt it whilst we were eating breakfast, about half an hour after she left us. No, we said, not a thing. The epicentre was, apparently, fairly close and was 3.5 on the Richter Scale. She said it was felt all over Quito. No, the earth did not move for us!

One of the first stops was at a viewpoint just north of Quito, which gave a good view of the Andes. There was snow on the top – Gloria commented that it was very unusual to have snow on those tips. It had been extremely cold the last couple of days, and the snow had been falling on the lower peaks. We walked a short way around a corner to get a view of the other side of the Andes (we were in a valley going through the middle) and the peak straight in front of us was covered in snow. Her face was a picture. She said she had lived here all her life, and had never seen snow on that peak. Wouldn’t like to put an age on her, but think she is not far off our age – that is a long while to live somewhere to see something you have never seen before! There is a whole “Avenue of Volcanoes” that goes from Colombia all the way through Ecuador to Peru, with Cotapaxi being the most active in Ecuador. We had a good view of that one – luckily the clouds were clearing, there was no rain and not a thunderstorm in sight. Yet. And we will be going back to the Cotapaxi National Park on one of our frequent repeat visits to Quito this trip.

Our next stop was at the original “Middle of the World” spot in Quitsato where the equator cuts across the road. Well, it was until the modern day GPS came along and they realised it was about 200 metres further down the road. We stopped at this original one, a globe with a line, and plenty of sleeping stray dogs. Thought it would be a good idea to get a picture of them – they obviously did not appreciate their photo being taken as they started barking in a most unfriendly way and gave chase. Great. Paul (the husband) decided to get the rabies jab whilst I decided not to. Just call me Usain Bolt – they didn’t catch me! (They gave up – I didn’t outrun them…) So I didn’t need the rabies jab after all….

Paul had his obligatory picture taken with one foot in each hemisphere, whilst all I could think of was how tame this equator crossing was compared to the last two I had. We walked down the road to the “proper” one – and this one was $2 to get in. They had made a huge sundial around the equator line, and we had an excellent explanation of how, what and where for our money.

The sun decided to come out just at that moment, so we could see the sundial in action. Got a good $2 worth there then! They had actually used the real equator line to get measurements of various solstice spots, and then subsequently they had found archaeological sites that had predated where they thought the original equator line was. So, hundreds of years ago before GPS the people knew how to use GPS. Mind blowing.

We went on further, and then had a superb view of Laguna de Cuicocha where we stopped to take a few more photos. And it was still not raining. We went ten minutes further and arrived into Otavalo, the market town that is now a city apparently.

The market was extremely colourful, and packed with stalls selling all things alpaca, sheep and traditional handicrafts. There were very few tourists around, and it was a delight just browsing the wares. There was no real hard sell, and only a few people that approached us to look at their goods. If I hadn’t had to pack for three and a half weeks into what is really a weekend case and keep it under 20kg I might have partook in a few souvenirs. As it was, we went into a delightful little coffee shop and tried some chocolate covered bananas with our coffee.

We then went a few miles to a village called Peguche to a local weaver’s house. The lady in question learned her trade from her grandmother, and gave demonstrations on how the wool was spun, coloured and woven on various different looms. It certainly looked like hard work – and not a five minute job to get a finished product either.

We looked around her shop, and I bought a small hanging woven Christmas thing, that will probably be put in the box with the Christmas tree baubles we couldn’t find this year, and may be some years before it comes out again!

We then headed off to Cotacachi, which was described by Gloria as a retirement village. Apparently, lots of Americans and Canadians as well as Ecuadorians come her to retire because of the microclimate, the hot springs and the cost of living. It was a delightful little village, well known also for its leather shops. Paul bought a belt, and decided to wear it. Just like a child that buys a pair of new shoes – the old one went in the bag!

We then headed off to Hacienda Pinsaqui for a late lunch – a beautiful hacienda built in the 1790’s and now offering a restaurant and a few rooms. We had typical Ecuadorian food, and enjoyed a couple of hours with Gloria and Paul (the driver), before taking a quick walk around the grounds and then heading back to Quito.

I did ask Paul (the driver) if there were any horse racing circuits in Quito (for Archers fans) and apparently there are not – but there may be one in Guayaquil. So, Matt may have had a good idea after all as there appears to be a hole in the market………..

Just after leaving the Hacienda, the clouds became very dark and the rain started. The tops of the mountains disappeared under swathes of water being emptied from above. We went through some of it, but the worst bypassed us. There are several different microclimates in this area, with the weather patterns being very different to each other with only a few miles apart. Driving along the roads that had been hewn out of the mountains (this may be a good option for the next Travel Trade Crusade – spectacular scenery!) you could see how different volcanic eruptions had occurred at various points in history, and how bad they were. One valley was lush and green, with the next one being very dry with only an odd cactus growing.

We arrived back into Quito in the rush hour, so it took a little while to get through the traffic. But we were entertained with jugglers and food sellers (makes a change from window washers) at traffic lights. One food that was offered looked like a hamburger, but was apparently figs cooked in brown sugar, cheese and sandwiched in bread. Bet a few people get a shock when they bite into that one!

We arrived back at the hotel, and needless to say the toilet had leaked over the bathroom floor again. Have to give the hotel a black mark there – apart from that the room has been very adequate. But on the plus side, the t shirt, crop trousers and sandals were the perfect apparel for the day!

Day 4 – January 3rd 2018

An earlier start today, as we are heading up to the Cloud Forest. We had a 6.15am pick up by the Bellvista Lodge, and they were expecting us for breakfast. There were three other people from our hotel who were just going for the day, and the driver said there was another two to collect. Even though we had all passengers by 6.30am the drive out of Quito was fairly slow – a very early rush hour! The roads were quite packed, and it took probably an hour to get out of the city and onto a more scenic expressway. The further we got, the more scenic the view got. As usual, everything was either driving up or driving down. There is nothing like driving on the level here.

As we got nearer to our destination, the density of the forest got thicker and thicker. We turned off the road, and on to a gravel track. This road was reminiscent of the roads we had on safari. We were at the back of the mini bus, so got the bumps larger than anyone else. Paul was heard to be muttering about Mercedes and having words with his travel agent – I chose to look out of the window and keep quiet. When in Rome…..

We arrived at the Bella Vista Lodge after approximately two hours, and our room and breakfast was ready.

And what a room with a view – one wall was completely window and it overlooked the valley in front. We quickly went up to have breakfast, which was appreciated after the journey.

The Bella Vista Lodge is in the middle of the cloud forest, and it feels as if there is no other life around. The lodge has just seventeen rooms, and it is completely quiet except for the noise of the birds. Just as you walk in, there is a row of humming bird feeders, and they were packed with several different species of humming bird.

Could have stood and watched them for hours, but our guide, Juan Carlos, was ready to take us on our first hike. There are many different trails around the lodge, and he took us two and another lady on an “easy” trail to warm us up. Easy for him maybe! It was a three hour trek, and like everywhere else we had been so far, there was a lot of ups and downs.
Juan Carlos pointed out various different birds on the way including toucans and fly catchers (not being a keen birder I have no idea what they were – small ones and big ones with the occasional fat one!). We also had insight into the plant life – and there was a lot of it. The trail we went on was only about a foot wide, with a sheer drop down one side. It didn’t look like a sheer drop because of all the ferns and trees – but it was! Luckily I had Paul to haul me up the steep bits – not sure I would have made it if not. I think I will be suggesting we stick to the easy trails for the next one.

We got to a viewpoint where we could see over the whole valley, and just spot the lodge in the midst of the forest. It was beautiful – and so far it hadn’t rained. But we could see the clouds rolling in. It was amazing how quickly the sky went from being comparatively clear to the cloud lowering and covering most of the tops of the trees. We set off back on a slightly longer route, but not as steep – nobody complained at that! We got back to the lodge just as lunch was being served – a three course affair again overlooking the valley. The food is fairly basic, but good. I believe all the vegetables are organic, and the trout was from a trout stream not far from the lodge. Not sure how organic the chocolate pudding was though! Did I need chocolate pudding for lunch? No. Did I eat it? Yes. No surprise there then.

We were joined for lunch by Richard, the owner of the lodge. He was explaining how the lodge had been there for some twenty years, and was the first in the area. He showed me around several of the different rooms (most being on the top floor, and all having their own stairs) and we finished just before the next hike was due to take place. I ran down to get my coat, and found that the other two had bailed and I was the only one. Oh well – private guide! Juan Carlos said we would go on a flat trail this afternoon – ha! There is nothing flat around here. He asked if I enjoyed the lunch – I told him I had eaten too much. He said everyone here eats too much, to which I asked why he was not fat then. “Genes” he said. “So it doesn’t matter what I eat, I will always be fat” I replied. “Yes” he said. OK, so now I know where I stand.

We travelled for about an hour on the “flat” trail, and saw flocks of toucans high in the trees. The clouds had come right down, and made the trails fairly dark. It was wet in the air without actually raining, but I was sweating. He was walking slowly, but it was still an effort to keep up. I stopped to take photos every now and then – no idea what I was taking, but at least I could get my breath! We didn’t see an awful lot more than the morning, and that was better with the sun shining. We turned around when the mosquitoes started landing with regularity – apparently the rain makes them come out. Juan Carlos thought it was going to rain – I hoped we didn’t have to jog the last bit. We didn’t – we got back in the relative dry, although it could have been raining as there was sweat pouring down my face. A couple of hours to relax before dinner then – unlike some who had been relaxing all afternoon!

We had a fairly basic dinner in very good company – Mary, who we travelled from Quito with this morning and an American lady called Pru who had been at the lodge for a couple of days already, and was doing a very good job of selling a “Cock of the Rock” tour that she went on today to Mary for tomorrow. The dinner may be basic, but it is very adequate for what is needed. A fairly early night because of a fairly early morning tomorrow!

Day 5 – January 4th 2018

The alarm went off at just before 6am for a 6.15am early morning hike. The sun was almost up, and it looked as if it was going to be a glorious day. There was meant to be coffee available, but I think it had been forgotten to be put out. Water sufficed!

We spent the first hour or so around the office and parking area – there were many birds just hanging around there.

The air was full of the beautiful noise of early morning bird song – and as the sun peaked over the mountains it made for a wonderful start to the day. We walked a short way up a trail and to a viewpoint over the whole of the valley. It was a different view from yesterday with the darker clouds – there was even some clear blue sky to be seen.

We made our way back to the lodge for breakfast – the same as we had yesterday. Mary was missing – she was on her Cock of the Rock tour! We had another couple join us – arriving on the transfer from Quito as we had done yesterday. They were here for the day only.

At 9.30am we set off for the morning hike with Juan Carlos and the four of us. We went back to the viewpoint we had been to this morning (the other couple had not seen this) before starting on a moderate to difficult trail. Oh dear….I felt at this point I ought to apologise to the others for being slow right at the start. Might as well let them know that they are going to have to wait for me most of the time. The trail was very pleasant – apart from the unpleasant parts – but there was very little bird life. It was as if they had all gone somewhere else for a day out! There were a few sightings, but fairly far away and to my unknowledgeable eye plain black or brown little ones.

I think Juan Carlos knew this was going to happen, because he was carrying a rather large scope on a tripod with him. When he spotted one, he set it up and then we could all see what he was looking at. Hmm. It took over two hours to get up the to the top of the trail when he said “no more up”. Thank goodness for that – I was at the point of being a red tomato, sweating profusely and breathing as if there was no tomorrow. I really must get fitter – or have I said that before….?

We then started going down, which is not quite so bad as going up, but when there are steep downs and it absolutely bucketed down last night as we were having dinner, could be a bit tricky too. Oh well – I’ve done worse. I did manage to get back to the road without falling over or breaking anything – thanks to my considerate husband helping at the critical points. Unlike the husband of the other couple, who let his wife get on her knees several times to make it. Perhaps he’s not so bad after all.

We got back to the viewpoint, and it seems there were three groups of people here all at the same time. This now puts a different perspective on things. It was rather crowded here, and when a bird did decide to put in an appearance it took a bit of jockeying for position. Needless to say I stayed out of it. If the lodge was full (which it apparently is not very often) and there are day trippers too, it could give a completely different experience. When we got back to the lodge (after three and a half hours – my feet and other bits of my body were beginning to ask questions of my sanity) there was a minibus there full of young birders. Even more people!

I spotted Mary and Pru in the dining room (on the alcohol table, as it had been christened) so went in to see how their morning had been. Mary, who had left the lodge at just before 5am (and had also been promised coffee but none materialised) had a 50/50 experience. The actual Cock of the Rock part was amazing (a la David Attenborough on one of his programmes) but the rest was “fill in” to make up the money. For one person it was $183, which included breakfast – which didn’t materialise until 10am. With not even a coffee before this, it was a long while to wait. I think a little more thought needs to go into tours like this – especially costing that amount of money.

With lunch done – again basic but adequate – it was time to set off back to Quito. If I summed up the stay at Bellavista, it would be to say that it is an amazing experience if you are happy to go with moderate. The lodge, whilst being totally adequate, is very rustic with no luxuries. No TV, internet or phone signal – just pure nature. You may be lucky with the wildlife – or you may not as our two different days showed. If you were there for a day trip, you have one go at it only. If there are lots of people there, the experience is not going to be as good as if there are only a few. Until you get there, you are not going to know. If you can fit it into your itinerary, it is worth going.

The same minibus took us back to Quito, along with the day trip couple and Juan Carlos who was then on his days off. Paul had a word with the driver and bagged the front seat – he didn’t want another journey in the back the same as when we arrived. I, on the other hand, was in the same seat! On the way down we saw a female Cock of the Rock sitting on her nest on a precipice of rock – we stopped to get a quick photo – nil dollars!

After leaving the gravel track, we turned onto the main road and into a traffic jam. Great! But we only sat there for fifteen or so minutes – thinking it was a horrible accident on the very winding and dangerous road up the mountain, we passed a bull dozer clearing up some mud or something on the road. Must have just been a bit of a landslide. I must admit I was a bit of a dozer on the way back – hated to miss all that lovely scenery, but when your eyes have to close they have to close. We got to the outskirts of Quito in just over an hour and a half – and to the Swissotel to drop off the other couple three quarters of an hour after that. The traffic was horrendous. It took another three quarters of an hour to get to the old town, and the Casa Gangotena which was our all too brief hotel for the night.

What a beautiful hotel! It was an old converted home again, but this one was stunning. We walked through a beautiful little courtyard to the entrance, where we were met and escorted through a little lounge where afternoon tea was being served. We had a welcome drink, a hot towel, and was shown to a room with a view onto the main square. A lovely plate of exotic fruit was on the table, together with a menu of what they are. How thoughtful! Two doors opened onto a Juliet balcony, where you could take in the view – and all the traffic. As soon as the doors were closed though, there was no noise at all.

Unfortunately we have less than twelve hours here – we are being collected at 4.30am for our flight to the Galapagos tomorrow. We were invited down to afternoon tea – complimentary for guests, which of course we had to do. An array of sweet and savoury bites arrived, and were soon consumed. As you have to do. This is certainly my sort of hotel – as soon as we arrived the welcome was amazing. I could (and probably should) have chosen an airport hotel, but then I would have missed this little gem.

We went up to the roof top, where there are tables and chairs and you can have drink watching the sun go down. An amazing view over the old town – and also a huge construction site in the main square. But that is how it is – and it won’t be there forever. However, this hotel will be, and as of now is my favourite in Quito!

Day 6 – January 5th 2018

I really don’t want to leave this hotel – especially when the alarm went off at 4am. The bed was so comfortable, and the bathroom was something else – even the bin that you have to put the toilet paper in (every hotel has been the same so far) is electronic and shuts the lid itself. But, go we had to. Paul (the driver) was picking us up at 4.30pm to take us to the airport to get our flight over to the Galapagos Islands – and, of course, he was on time. We had a breakfast box from the hotel to take with us – and what a difference travelling at that time of the morning was. There was hardly any traffic on the roads, and we got to the airport in just over half an hour. Slightly different to when we drove to the hotel last night.

We checked in for the flight – all passengers luggage going to the Galapagos has to be specially screened and tagged, and a tourist card purchased – which was totally pain free. The flight left about thirty minutes late, and went via Guayaquil, arriving on Baltra Island about two and a half hours later. The time in the Galapagos is one hour behind mainland Ecuador, so it was just about 10am when we landed.

We found the guide fairly quickly, and the other people who were all going to be on the Beluga. There are a total of eight cabins on the boat, so a total of sixteen people. We gave the luggage to people that were going to take it straight to the boat, whilst we were going to have a “day out”.
The airport is on a small island, and you have to get on an airport bus right outside the terminal to take you ten minutes or so through an extremely barren landscape to a little ferry. Not at all what I was expecting. The ferry is a foot ferry only (although all the luggage is thrown on the roof – reminded me a bit of the ferry I took going across from the Gambia to Senegal). It takes only a couple of minutes to cross the small stretch to get to Santa Cruz Island – a stretch of crystal clear aquamarine blue water. Beautiful. We then had our own minibus that drove thirty minutes or so to a ranch for giant tortoises. Our guide’s name is Darwin – hardly going to forget that one – and he walked us around and gave us information on the giant tortoises.

Some of them certainly were huge – and some of them were in water. Didn’t know they did that!

We had lunch at the ranch, and then he took us through some lava caves that had been made many years ago when the islands were being formed. There was an owl down one of them – but as you had to climb up the wall to see it I passed. Too much lead in my backside! We then drove to the main town, where Darwin led us to the Tortoise breeding station. At this point I will say that it was very hot. Much different to Quito – the sun was in a clear sky, that was beating down on us with very little shade. The walk to the breeding station was a kilometre or so (we passed quite a few iguanas sunning themselves on the way) and I will go so far as to say it was really not worth it. Not that I do not agree that they are doing a really good job, and it is work that is needed to be done to keep the tortoises from being endangered. But Darwin did tend to go rather a lot – why say twenty words when five hundred will do. I did not come to the Galapagos to walk around a zoo – which is what this felt like. There were species of tortoise from all of the islands – even a mummified one that was extinct (Lonesome George!). And he talked and walked for a couple of hours – Darwin that is, not Lonesome George! Too long in that heat – especially when we had all been up at 4am or before to catch the flight.

Darwin then gave us another hour to walk to where we were picking up the boat, which was a mile or so away. I must admit, I was not impressed with the first day. On the way back we decided to have a beer and a campari – that did take the edge off a little! We walked to the pier, and everyone was there waiting for the “panga” (a zodiac type boat) to take us over to the Beluga. We shared the pier with several sea lions that had made their way up the ramps and were laying on or under the benches.

We donned the lifejackets, got into the boat and set off across the bay. We arrived on the Beluga only to be told that shoes have to stay outside in a box – Paul was not impressed. The boat did look a little tired, and perhaps not quite what he was expecting. I knew it would not be luxurious, but even I was a little disappointed with what I saw. Hopefully the Galapagos will far outweigh our underwhelming home for the next week.

We had a quick shower – the bathroom bizarrely has a whirlpool bathtub as well, but no taps – and then it was time for dinner. School dinners. Perhaps I am being a little harsh. It was all laid on the table, and by the time we had sat down it was virtually cold. No choice apart from take it or leave it – tuna and vegetables. No starters, but strawberries and a type of ice cream for pudding. Not exactly what I was expecting knowing how much these cruises cost. Or is it that I am tired, and I have just left the Casa Gangotena…?

We had a safety briefing about what to do if the boat sinks (don’t give me any ideas) and then a briefing about what we are going to do tomorrow. Time for bed – and hopefully a far better day than today!

Day 7 – January 6th 2018

So, breakfast is at 7am. I naturally woke at 6am – not hard when there is twenty or so people on a small boat….have I been here before…? We had been sailing from 1am to around 5am to anchor at Cormorant Point on Floreana Island. Paul had felt every turn of the engine – I think it is very close to our room. It isn’t often that we are put in the bowels of a ship, but this time we well and truly have been. Along with another four cabins, that are very similar to ours. There are two cabins on the deck that we eat on at the back of the boat that have windows rather than a 1” round port hole (that is a slight exaggeration) and one cabin on the top sun deck. We are where we are. Even by this morning I am getting used to it – I have had worse… Although Paul seems to think this is comparative to the Clipper experience – not even close!

Breakfast was not bad – fresh scrambled eggs, meats and cheeses along with fresh fruit and yoghurt. Can’t complain at that. We had the pangas ready for departure at 8am to take us ashore. Our allotted time at this part of the island was between 8am and 12pm – there are limited numbers allowed on shore at any one time. As we numbered only fourteen people (one cabin had not turned up) there were three other boats anchored in the same spot. To be fair, they all looked of a similar standard, so I don’t think we have got too raw of a deal. There were turtles and sea lions swimming around us – crabs on the rocks and a blue footed boobie. We arrived on shore with a “wet” landing – we had to jump off the boat into the shallow water. The Keens I had for Clipper came in very handy – didn’t think I would ever use those again. I bought Paul a pair for Christmas, and he thought they were good too. We walked a little inshore – all the flora and fauna looked dead. The rains are apparently on the way, and when they come everything will spring back into life. Along with all the little bitey things and mosquitoes, so there is a trade off there to decide what time of the year you come. We went up a little hill and overlooked an inland water hole that used to be full of flamingos – there was one. They all left a few years ago, but can’t remember why.

We walked over the brow of a hill – there were groups going up and down, and it did seem a little like a production line, but then we arrived onto this beautiful beach. We stayed there an hour or so, and didn’t see another soul. Perfect! There were turtles all around, some having laid eggs and then making their way back into the water. There were sting rays in the shallows, that if you weren’t careful you would stand on if you paddled. The crabs were the most vivid colour you have ever seen.

This is why I have come to the Galapagos. Birds were diving into the water catching fish – I could have stayed there all morning. But, we had to leave and go back to the boat.

Our next little outing was for snorkelling. We moved the boat a little, and then went out on the pangas to snorkel around a rock with sharks. It is a long time since I have snorkelled – and surprisingly the water was really cold so we had to wear wetsuits. Not sure whether it was the best place for the first snorkel – there was a very strong current, and it made it difficult for the group to stay together. I think I prefer diving – at least you can stay out of the way and still keep an eye on everyone. Every time I looked up the rest of the group was way ahead – Darwin seemed set on swimming against the tide and I ended up going nowhere. Paul thought I was an odd person from another boat at one stage.

I did see golden rays, and loads of other fish. At the point I heard Darwin shout “shark” the current decided to take me the opposite way, and I narrowly missed reversing into a mountain of coral. Having been trying to get to where everyone else was, I decided at this point to give up, and raised my hand for the panga to come and pick me up. Two people were already in the boat – so I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t keep up with the “Man from Atlantis”. My muscles were certainly shaking a little with exertion when I very unceremoniously got in the boat! It wasn’t long before someone else joined, and then they all got out. Didn’t feel quite so bad, apart from missing the shark. Hopefully another day…

We went back to the boat, and it was time for lunch. Which was rather nice – the food is never going to be Michelin star, but it is on the good side of adequate. There was an option after lunch to do some kayaking – I took the opportunity to sit on the sun deck with my book. I somehow don’t think there is going to be many of these opportunities, so best to take them when they present themselves.

When the others got back, we then moved around to Post Office Bay. Just as we were leaving the boat a sea lion decided to jump up onto the back platform of the Beluga. Perhaps he wanted to hitch a ride! When we got onto the beach, we walked twenty or so yards back, and there was a barrel full of postcards. No stamps, just cards. Whenever anyone lands here, they go through the cards to see if there is any for their home town, and if there is, they take them home with them and hand deliver them. Several of our group took some – there were some for delivery in Ipswich, but they were dated yesterday so we decided to leave them. Apparently this was started years and years ago by mariners who did not know when they were going to be home.

We had another hour or so here – some had brought the snorkel gear and wetsuits, I had not. Just my camera. I walked along the beach and took some shots of little plovers playing at the waters edge, a sea lion, and birds fishing. Very pleasant. Paul had taken his snorkel gear – and later regaled me with tales of how that was the best snorkelling ever. Turtles, penguins, fish etc etc. Wish I had brought the gear now. Hey ho.

We had a “Captain’s cocktail party” before dinner, where all of the crew were introduced to us. There were eight of them including Darwin – not quite sure where they hide out all day. Apart from driving the pangas and the chef, I’m not sure where they all go. After a very tasty dinner – I must definitely be getting used to the food – we had our briefing for tomorrow. Must be time for bed then!

Day 8 – January 7th 2018

Up for breakfast at 7.15am for an 8.15am departure from the boat. Everything is worked out with military precision, as the Galapagos National Park Authority have very strict rules about where you can land and for how long. If you miss your slot, you’ve had it.

We had a normal dry landing this morning on Isabela Island at the town of Puerto Villamil. As we were getting off the pangas there were some baby sea lions playing in the water – jumping out and really having fun. This is the biggest town on this island – it might actually be the only town? – but is very small really. A few restaurants and bars – not exactly a town as we know it. We got in an open air bus – open everything bus really – you had to climb up the sides to get in and it was not particularly well sprung. A bit bumpy in other words. We went around half an hour upwards, to the bottom of a trail that was going to take us up to the caldera of the Sierra Negra volcano. It was three and a half kilometres each way, and when we got off the bus at the bottom the whole trail was shrouded in mist. Didn’t bode well for being able to see anything at the top, but we went anyway. It was quite a gentle trail up, but I still managed to be the back marker. We saw some pretty little birds on the way up – one bright red one was probably the prettiest one I have ever seen. By the time I got the camera out of the bag it had flown off.

We arrived at the top, and the sun had managed to burn all the mist away so we had a superb view over the whole of the 10km circumference. One part of the volcano is still steaming – the part we were looking down on last sent up eruptions not so many years ago.

Amazing how one minute it can be black and still, and the next red and boiling! We made our way back down to the bottom of the trail, back on the bus, and back onto the Beluga for lunch.

After lunch we had half an hour down time (bonus) before getting on the pangas to go back to the wetlands. These consisted of muddy water holes (depending on how much rain there has been) that housed flamingos and various other water birds – along with a good few marine iguanas. There have been wooden walkways built around the lakes, so it makes it comfortable to be able to see everything without getting stuck in the mud. And the sun was still out – so far so good!

Some then went off on a bike ride – I chose to sit and have a drink in a restaurant by the beach. Whilst they were doing their sixteen kilometres, I was catching up with home on their “wiffey”. No Wifi on the boat or anywhere else, so it is a bit like having your right arm cut off. It was 6pm when we caught the bus back to the pier, and we arrived at the Beluga just as the sun was going down. Very pretty over the harbour. Dinner and briefing and bed! But, we started motoring almost as soon as we hit the cabins, so the noise of the engines kept some of us awake.

Day 9 – January 8th 2018

This morning I got up early – I could hear some doors already opening and closing so decided to go and take a look. At the front of the boat between the land and us was a huge pool of birds – a mixture of pelicans, boobies and frigates. There must have been a large shoal of fish underneath, as it was a bit of a feeding frenzy. Pelicans were coming in from all angles and diving into the water to get their breakfast. The whole group moved first to the left, and then to the right and nearer to the boat. More and more were coming all the time – it was mesmerising to watch. There were splashes and fish were jumping out of the water – the birds seemed to have them surrounded. And all this before our breakfast!

After breakfast – eggs and bacon today – we all got kitted out for the panga ride to a dry landing to the west side of the island of Isabela. On the way in we saw fifteen or so penguins all swimming with us. Then some pelicans, and a cormorant sitting on the nest.

So much to see. We hopped off onto a bank of lava. The whole area was lava fields as far as the eye could see. As we walked further in, there were large pools of water that had made its way through the lava tunnels and which transported fish of all sorts – and turtles. We were spotting all sorts of small fish, when we came upon a small reef shark. The other fish soon moved out of the way. Then we came upon a pool with a couple of turtles. They must be able to find their way backwards and forwards quite easily.

The lava was mostly sharp rock, but some was a smooth “lava lake” and other lava sausage shape. Some of the lava had gorges through the middle, so you had to jump over – some had become loose and was like coal that you got out of the fire the morning after. We played a game of jenga with slabs of lava – the loser buying the beer. Guess who was the loser! It was now getting extremely hot – there were very few clouds in the sky to help with the sun, and apart from a few cactus’s no shade at all. That was a very hot couple of hours.

We had to get down quite a steep bank of lava to get back into the panga – luckily everyone making it without falling in. It only takes one….

We then got changed into wetsuits, and headed off in the pangas to another bay for snorkelling. Darwin had warned us it was going to be cold – and it was! Quite a shock when you first got in, but with my secondary built in wetsuit I coped better than some of the thinner ones. Being fat has to have its uses once in a while! I think the temperature was around 16 degrees Celsius – much colder than we are used to. It was very good snorkelling though – puffa fish, sea horses, turtles, large shoals of other fish and a sea lion came to play with us. Amazing. But we did have a little boat envy. Another boat – I think the Petrel – anchored a short way away from us, and they sent a couple of pangas of snorkellers over to the bay too. In lovely new looking pangas, and the people in them had lovely new looking wetsuits on, unlike ours which have bits hanging off everywhere.

We then went back to the boat for lunch, and a well deserved couple of hours off whilst we motored up to Elisabeth Bay. The weather seemed to change quite dramatically – the skies became very dark and the sea became choppy with white horses. No matter – our afternoon excursion in the panga around the bay was going to go ahead. It was a little tricky getting in, but we did and set off. There were rocks protruding from the ocean in all directions – and every rock had some sort of wildlife on. The first we saw were blue footed boobies – intermingled with penguins and cormorants.

Then a juvenile sea lion decided to give us a show – he flipped in and out of the water, backwards and forwards, waving and having fun. What an act! Then we saw a baby boobie that had fell from its nest and was on the bottom of the rock line. This one, maybe, will not be able to survive where it is.

We then went very slowly across the ocean to the mangrove inlets, and it was like another world. No rough seas, no wind, just pure serenity. A pelican came around and dived into the water to get a fish just in front of our boat – missed and then came around and tried again.

The wildlife does not seem to be intimidated by humans at all. We then found one of Darwin’s “tree lions” – a sea lion that sleeps on a log. Looks wrong!

The rain had luckily gone the other way, and we had another day where we did not get wet – well not drenched. There was a couple of stray waves that made their way inside the panga – but I have had worse! That was a perfect way to spend a couple of hours, just watching the wildlife watching us.

We had another decent dinner – the food, whereas if you are fussy would be maybe not to your taste, but if you eat most things you would find it fine. The briefing afterward told us what we needed to do and when tomorrow – and the best thing was that we were not moving until 5am so the engines would stay quiet until then! Oh – and there had been another earthquake of about six on the Richter scale just 100 miles from where we were. We didn’t fell a thing this time either!

Day 10 – January 9th 2018

Early start this morning as we will be parked next to a 100 passenger National Geographic Ship and Darwin wants to do the landing before they do. So, breakfast at 6.30am for a 7.30am departure – complete with snorkel gear for after the walk.

After the short panga ride, and the wet landing, we left the snorkel gear on the rocks before National Geographic even had their alarms go off.

We set off on the trail, and came across a few iguanas, plenty of bees and hermit crabs and then we found a Galapagos Hawk – the top of the food chain on the islands. It was only a juvenile, but it was a lovely bird high up in the tree. The National Geographic had started to land then, so we moved on. It was a fairly short walk around the trail, so we came back to the beach got on the snorkel gear and headed into the ocean.

The first thing was a sea lion came to play – literally. He swam amongst us, doing rolls and blowing bubbles. Very playful little fella. It was good visibility and the rocks and coral held so many fish. Shoals of them – and hundreds in each shoal. There was a couple of turtles, one huge one, that was quite happily chomping on the growth on the coral, and not perturbed at all by us. I seemed to lose most of the group, but was quite happy floating around on my own. I had three sightings of a black tip shark – only a little one, and not sure if there were three or I saw the same one three times. We spent a good hour in the water – and it wasn’t as cold as yesterday.

Just as we were getting in the pangas, the National Geographic passengers arrived back at the beach – no snorkel gear for them although some did jump in the water. Different sort of a holiday I think. We set off back to the Beluga, and in no time at all had upped anchor and were on our way.

Half an hour or so into our journey the ship did a bit of a donut – there was a pod of about thirty bottle nosed dolphins all around us, and stayed with us a good twenty minutes performing back flips and belly flops for our entertainment.

They swam under the boat, around the boat, backwards and forwards, and then just all disappeared.

They probably heard it was lunch time on board, and didn’t want to keep us from our food!

After lunch we went on a hike up to the rim of the caldera. This involved a dry landing, and walking up several steps – wooden steps for the first part that had been made for the trail. There were a couple of the flightless cormorants doing some sort of mating dance in the sea at the bottom – magical. Dino Tonioli would have given them a ten! We got to the top (or so I thought) and we could see an inner caldera. This volcano had erupted in the middle of an older volcano – the water inside this one was the most amazing blue.

Was this the end of the walk – no! We then went on and walked around the rim, and then up another side of a volcano so that we could see right across the island – many, many, mounds that had been made from various eruptions. You can definitely see that these islands were formed from volcanos. We walked all the way back down to the Beluga – and then straight back out again for snorkelling. No time to rest here! The water was very cold again – and all the usual suspects were present. Loads of turtles, fish, a shark or two, etc etc. I think we are being spoiled!

Going back to the boat on the panga we saw some splashing in front of us – a huge shoal of tuna was making its way into the cove. Not sure if they were being chased by the shark – but they turned and made their way back out again.

Dinner was spaghetti bolognaise – adequate, and quite tasty. Nothing special, but good wholesome food. Briefing for tomorrow, and then bed!

Day 11 – January 10th 2018

Leisurely breakfast today – not until 7am! It was rather overcast this morning, and very windy. We had a couple of smaller boats anchored near to us, but when we left on the pangas there was no activity on them. Perhaps they were in real holiday mode…..

Today we were landing on Fernandina Island – the island where David Attenborough filmed the famous documentary about the baby iguanas trying to outrun the snakes. We landed at a little man made pier, and after walking through a few yards of mangroves, came out to lava rocks and beach. All around us. And they were covered with iguanas. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Big ones, small ones, green ones, black ones, some all piled on top of one another.

You had to watch where you stepped, or you would have taken one out. They were clinging to the rocks, even when a wave came in and covered it with water. When the water drained away, there was the iguana still clinging to the rock. And lots of sea lions – families playing in the rock pools. The little ones were using shells as balls, and flinging them up in the air and catching them. They were having such fun, whilst the mother was at the side keeping a watchful eye.

We must have just watched life going on in its own little way for a couple of hours – the other boats started to make landings, and we ran into a couple of other groups, but it wasn’t a problem. There were pelicans and cormorants intermingled with crabs and iguanas – everyone just let the other be. None of the famous iguana fighting that does go on. Just not today. There was even a huge spine of a beached whale that came in with an extra high tide and then could not get back out. Poor thing.

The water was really choppy on the way back – I was in the front of the panga and got a rather soggy bottom. After a quick coffee it was snorkelling – which I bailed on. I did not fancy getting water constantly down my snorkel. I also thought the visibility may be a little bad if the wind was whipping up the waves and disturbing the bottom. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!

As soon as the snorkellers returned to the boat we pulled up the anchor and set off for our next stop – Punta Vicente Roca back on Isabela Island. We had a few minutes before lunch, so were on whale watch duty. Paul spotted one in the distance, so the captain turned around the boat and headed for it. Apart from a couple or so more spoutings we didn’t see it again. Sad. Could have done with an orca performance to go with all the others we have had. We did see a couple of Sunfish though – although it would be more accurate to say a couple of Sunfish dorsal fins – a few inches out of the sea.

We motored to Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island. It was a vast smoothish face of a cliff that looked barren of all wildlife. Until you got close. We took a panga to have a closer look, and the cliff was alive with birds, iguanas and sea lions. In every nook and cranny there was life of some sort. There was an opening to a cave, that we went right in to. The water so clear – you could see through the aquamarine to the bottom. And see very clearly the turtles and fish that were swimming quite happily. The roof looked as if we were looking at a map of the planets. Bizarre.

When we had explored every part of the cliff face, we got back to the Beluga and was having an early dinner. The explanation was not so forthcoming – very vague – until we set off to the next spot just after dinner. There was one more whale sighting – but only a couple of people saw it, and only the body. It became somewhat rocky to say the least. Several began to look a little green – Paul said he was fine. Until he wasn’t. Mind over matter, until matter took over! It will all be over by morning!!

Day 12 – January 11th 2018

We were up for an early breakfast this morning – 6am. Even I am beginning to wilt with constantly being on the go. 7am we were on the pangas and heading to Santiago Island, Puerto Egas or James Bay.

It was a wet landing on a black beach with eroded rock formations in the background. We left snorkelling gear on the rocks as we headed inland slightly. There was a lighthouse on the point – the first one I have seen in these islands.

Walking along we came across a Galapagos Hawk – another juvenile. He was so tame – he let us get very close to take pictures.

There were sea lions giving birth around this time, and apparently they like the placenta. Lovely! We walked over the lava and rock pools, and just marvelled at all the wildlife that to us is mind blowing – but here it is just another day. Pelicans diving into the water to fish, sea lions playing with iguanas tails, oyster catchers screeching when you get too near to their “back yard” and baby sea lions suckling from their mothers.

It is hard to put into words all that you can see, and each visit is never long enough.

We got back to the beach hot and sweaty – so what better way to cool off than to jump in the freezing cold water. With a wetsuit of course. Darwin spotted the wing of a manta ray just beyond a rock, so off went a few in search of that. I just snorkelled at my own pace, where I wanted. No-one got in my way, and I didn’t get in anyone else’s. The snorkelling here probably matched any dive that I have ever done. The fish were amazing – and so many of them. And the obligatory turtle. Paul saw an octopus, and Manu saw the manta ray. It never disappoints.

Back to the Beluga, and then motor for about three hours on to Bartholomew Island. Paul noticed that there were a dozen or more birds just floating on our air stream along side the boat as we were travelling. Not flapping their wings or making any effort – just gliding along. They did that for ages.

After lunch there was another snorkel. I bailed (and wished I hadn’t as I seemed to have got a little sunburned) but Paul saw a six foot white tipped shark. Another reason I wish I hadn’t!

We then all got on the pangas and set off for four hundred or so steps up the side of a volcano to get a good view from the top. It was so windy – all the way up, but at the top the pieces of grit were whipping around your legs and really stinging. A couple of people lost their hats – but they were spotted again on the way down so Darwin hopped over the rail and scuppered up the side of the volcano to retrieve it. He brought one down which wasn’t the one that was lost – binoculars found the offending hat, and up he went again for it. I think he is working hard for his tip this week!

We got back to the Beluga and motored for a couple of hours to what I thought our stop for the night was going to be – but apparently there is something wrong with the generator so we have had to stop off somewhere for parts. Our final “Captain’s Cocktails” had two crew members missing who were hard at work. It was a nice last evening – seemed to have gone very quickly.

Day 13 – January 12th 2018

Our last day in the Galapagos – but are we having a late breakfast and catching the flight – no! We are leaving the Beluga at 6am for a final visit to the island of North Seymour, coming back for breakfast, and then leaving the ship at 8.15am to get the flight. They know how to pack it in!

So, some of us got off the boat at 6am….. It was a short panga ride to the shore, and a dry landing onto rocks. We had to come early to see the boobies dancing – a mating ritual that only happens early in the morning. And we were not disappointed. The blue footed boobies were dancing around as if they had flippers on their feet and doing a granddad dance. Funny! We were told there are red footed boobies on this island, but those we did not see.

Then we saw the male frigate birds blow up their necks so that it looked like a balloon. Also to do with mating I believe…. It was huge, and looked so uncomfortable. It takes about twenty minutes to blow up, and then it could be like that for a couple of hours. There were lots of females sitting on their nests with young chicks, so it looks as if it worked at some point.

There were also sea lions here, laying in the early morning sun.
So peaceful and so natural. We headed back to the Beluga, had our last breakfast whilst moving to the port on Baltra Island (about twenty minutes) and then our final panga trip to dry land. The airport bus was there to take us to the airport, where we had an hour to wait for the flight and back via Guayaquil to Quito.

So, to sum up the week in the Galapagos. The wildlife and the experience you have is second to none. On a small boat like the Beluga your fellow guests make up a big part of your enjoyment, and in this instance we were lucky. We had a couple from South Africa (although one was Italian), a couple from Sweden (although one was from Denmark), a family of four from Australia (although they were originally from South Africa), a couple from the USA and a couple from England. And we all got on extremely well. They were friendly, funny, and generally good company. The crew were excellent – they gave good service all the week. The guide was average – although some in the group thought he was excellent. Obviously personal taste – or they haven’t had guides as good as we have in the past. The boat was average. The cabins were all different, but all very small with no hint of luxury. The food was average, but we never went hungry. By the end of the week, we had accepted what it was and didn’t really notice. Would I come back again – a definitive yes. On a different boat though, so that I could gauge if this was one of the best you could expect. I think you need to choose your boat carefully – most had chosen this boat because of the small number of guests. The larger (perhaps slightly more luxurious boats) had 100 or so guests onboard, and had wifi and other things that this one didn’t – but unless you have travelled on both I cannot say which would be preferable to me.

We arrived into Quito early afternoon (we lost an hour on the way back) and stayed at the San Jose Garden Hotel near the airport – another flight in the morning to the Amazon!

It was a nice enough hotel – around fifteen minutes from the airport, and they actually have a car service rather than a shuttle service. But it is a conference type hotel, so fairly large and impersonal, but loads of grounds and gardens with llamas nibbling grass so no need for a lawn mower. The dinner was reasonable – both in cost and quality.

Day 14 – January 13th 2018

No early morning – hoorah! A leisurely breakfast – but fairly awful. The fruit was the only bit that was edible. Good for the diet. We got the car service back to the airport at 11am, to meet up with the rep from Sacha Lodge and check in for our TAME flight to Coca. Just twenty five minutes away from Quito – but it could be half way around the world. Totally different.

We got off the plane to 30 degrees Celsius, and it was fairly humid. The airport at Coca was rather basic – one room. There were roller shutter doors that opened, a tractor pulled up, and two men unloaded the luggage into the room. No need for complicated baggage carousels here! The staff from Sacha Lodge were there directing us to put our luggage on the back of a lorry, and then to make our way onto a school bus for a five minute journey to their office. There were twenty or so of us – quite a large group were all together and then a few odds and sods (us being in the latter). We sat in a little courtyard, and they provided sandwiches, drinks, fruit and chocolate biscuits before the two and a half hour trip to Sacha.

This was no normal trip – it started with everyone being allocated life jackets, and then walking a couple of minutes down to the river and getting in a fair sized motorised canoe. It was quite comfortable actually – the bench seats had a mattress type bottom and a back, so it wasn’t as if you were sitting on the floor.

Good job really – this first bit was just shy of two hours down the river. We left in magnificent sunshine, but an hour or so into the journey I could see some darker clouds ahead. I decided to put on my rain jacket – the first time I have had to use it. A couple of minutes later it went very dark and the heavens opened. We were issued with ponchos, but my rain jacket did the trick. There was the most beautiful rainbow ahead that stretched from one side of the river to the other, and then had the reflection in the water.

A bit difficult to get a photo though, as I had a man in front of me that seemed to take up most the width of the boat.

It stopped almost as soon as it started – I think this is going to be the pattern down here in the rainforest. The clue is in the name! We passed a bit of traffic coming the other way up the river, and many large ferry type boats that actually had lorries on them. I presume this is a shortcut of some sort for the carriage of goods. When we arrived at our stop, we then had about twenty minutes walk through the rainforest to get to another little station where we picked up a canoe that you rowed. Well, not me. There was “staff” in the front and back to do that. About another twenty minutes upriver, then we came to a lake that had Sacha Lodge on the far side. Pristine rainforest. Wow!

We pulled up at the area where breakfast and lunch is served, overlooking the lake. And then it thundered and started to rain again – no problem, we were having our welcome drink under cover. We, and four others, (Les & Hil from the UK and Mark & Nancy from Canada) have a guide that will be with us for the three nights that we are here. As we were meeting him and hearing what we have in store (Paul looked a little aghast at the 5am wake up calls…) there was a six foot caiman that came swimming in front of the bar. Just having a look…..

There is a part of the lake that has been meshed off so that swimming can take place in there. Knowing there are piranha and other dodgy things in the lake, I might give swimming a miss!

We were then shown to our little huts – all wood, with a wooden balcony with a couple of hammocks on. It looks over the rainforest, and the noise is quite deafening with all the little animals and birds competing to be heard.

Especially as the sun goes down and all those little bitey things come out to play…… Dinner was at 7.30pm – very civilised. The main dining room is waiter service apart from salads and puddings, and there is a choice – not just take it or leave it! At 8.15pm we went out on our first “exploration”. We took to the canoe with our guide (Christian) and a native (Fernando, everyone gets a local as well, someone who has grown up in the rainforest). It was pitch black, and we paddled across the lake – no lifejackets, no lights, and caiman in the water! Well, we were actually looking for caiman. When Christian shone his torch along the edge of the lake the eyes of the caiman will light up. And there they were. And then they were gone. We went down little tributaries looking for the blessed things – it reminded me of going on the Ghost Train at the fair. You hadn’t a clue what was going to tickle your neck next. Long trails off the overhead trees, grasses touching your hands – knowing what was out there it made you jump when something made contact. Anyway, we saw three pairs of eyes (one caiman three times or three different ones, who knows) and as soon as the light was on them they disappeared. So would I if I had a light shining in my eyes. Back to the lodge empty handed, so to speak. Let’s get to bed ready for the 5am wake up call in the morning!

Day 15 – January 14th 2018

It was actually 5.15am when we got the knock on the door – breakfast was at 5.30 am overlooking the lake. Beautiful. Serene. And there was an egg station! Things are looking up.

By 6am we were in the canoe and ready for the next adventure. We had a quick look for the caiman, to no avail. They were well and truly hiding now. We paddled around forty five minutes to “The Kapok Tower”. After a short walk after getting out of the canoe, we arrived at an enormous kapok tree with a forty foot tower at the top. Up the steps we went – deftly missing the spiders in their webs on the way up. And there was quite a few of them. Apparently none will kill you. That’s the good news. The bad news is they hurt if they bite you. Incentive enough to avoid them if you can.

At the top of the tower we were overlooking the main canopy of the rainforest. The birds were flying – there was even a sloth in a tree about 400 yards away that Fernando (the local) spotted. Just a bit too far to get a good photo! It was so peaceful up there – there was even a tarantula poking his feet out waiting for his next prey. Hopefully not me….

The birds were so fast it was quite difficult to get a good shot – unlike in the Galapagos where you were tripping over the wildlife and it was so close. It was a good experience though. On the way back we saw a heron and some monkeys and other bits and pieces. And it started to rain again. Fernando had the ponchos to hand so no one got wet.

It was quite pleasant when it rained – the humidity here is very high. Paul took off his poncho and there was a very pretty black and white spider on it – no idea how long that had been there!

There were drinks and snacks at the lake bar, and then a buffet lunch was served there. Some of the more serious bird watchers kept getting up to take pictures of various birds during lunch – it was too hot. I couldn’t be bothered!

We went walking for our next expedition – to the back of the lodge. It was now so hot and humid my clothes were wet and sweat was poring off me. We first went to a little butterfly farm that they have here at the lodge, where they encourage seven species of enormous butterflies to grow and flourish. It was even hotter in there!

We then had a three hour walk through the rainforest – and no rain at all. Fernando gave us a couple of demonstrations on how the locals use palm leaves and what they do with them, and how they use them for medicine. We saw more spiders, and monkeys, and got thoroughly wet through with sweat. Nothing here dries either – you hang up a wet towel and it is still wet when you go to use it again. Hmm – seem to have been there before. But the good news is there are little or no mosquitoes here – so not a malarial area. There are not many rainforest areas that can say that – but that isn’t to say you don’t have to keep the bug spray ready to use, because there are still lots of things that bite.

The cold shower has never been so welcome – except as soon as you step outside you are drenched in sweat again. Can’t be helped. If you want to see things like the rainforest you have to put up with the weather. There was a “party night” on at the lake bar – dinner this evening was a barbeque with all the guides and staff. Not a late one – 5am start in the morning again tomorrow!

Day 16 – January 15th 2018

The knock came on the door at 5am sharp – and nobody wanted to move. This is meant to be a holiday? The sun had not even risen when we made out way to breakfast, it was just coming up over the lake. Beautiful. We were off to see a Parrot Lick this morning – had no idea what one of those was, but now I do. .Apparently parrots need clay in their diet, and there is an exposed clay riverbank about half an hour down the Napo River on the edge of the Yasuni National Park. This happens early in the morning as long as it is sunny and dry. So we started with the reverse of what we did to get here – on a canoe for twenty minutes, walk twenty minutes, and then a motorised canoe.

The motorised canoe took a little persuading to start – there were thirteen of us this morning and three guides. It did eventually start, so we had a very interesting (and lovely and breezy) journey down the Napo to the Parrot Claylick. You could hear them before we even got to it. They were making a huge racket. They were all seemingly perched on the clay, with hundreds more in the surrounding trees waiting in line. Every now and then they would get spooked (maybe a snake or another predator) and they would all fly off for a few seconds, and then all come back on again.

Shame we were fifty or so yards away – it was too far to get a decent picture.

We then went back and up a little creek to a local community project – the Shipati Warmi project of the Providencia Community of Yasuni. On the way there we saw an anaconda snake – it was apparently only a baby one, although there was too much of it to see it all. It was under and through leaves on the river bank. Must have been able to tell with the thickness of the body I suppose – unless it is a plastic one that has been put there for the tourists!

When Christian spotted it we sort of went past it, so we reversed up and stalled. Oh dear…that engine did not want to start again. It took a good ten minutes of constantly pulling the thing that makes it start before it finally burst in to life.

There are several local communities all along the river where the local people live – the oil business brought quite a few people here several years ago, but has since declined so many of the men are out of work. This particular project was started and is run by the women of the tribe. There is a typical hut here, as well as a gift shop that has trinkets made by the women. We started by going into their “house” – just one room with a large fire up one end. They do not have separate rooms, just the one that does for everything.

They did not speak English, so all questions and answers had to be interpreted by Pablo (another guide) and Christian. This was not a tourist show at all – the ladies, Cynthia and Virginia, were very shy, but happy to speak about their lives. They had various foods cooking over the fire, but first told us how their day started at 3am by making a tea out of large leaves – not tea leaves as we know them. This supposedly gives you energy for the day – will have to try that when I get home with some leaves off the hedge! They also make a drink of Chicha – made with various vegetables but if left for a few days ferments and turns into alcohol. Cynthia demonstrated how they grate the vegetables with parts of the trunk of a spiky tree – everything they have and use is from the forest. Then came the fun part. On the grill was a kebab of beetle lava – they had a pot of live ones, which are apparently very good for you. Several in the group decided to go for the live ones – you had to bite the head off first so that it didn’t bite your tongue when it was in your mouth. Gross. I declined!

I also declined the cooked one – although Paul did try that one. He wasn’t impressed. I had a cooked cocoa bean – very brave. We then went on to blow pipes. It was explained how the pipes and darts were made, and how they are used to kill monkeys for food. Some had a go – only at a wooden parrot rather than a live monkey – but most missed. The darts are coated in the toxins of poisonous frogs (kept in a box and shaken to make them angry to produce the poison) that anaesthetizes the animals so they can be caught.

The last part of the visit was about river turtles. They have a system where they collect the eggs of the turtles before they can be eaten, and put into a hatchery to allow the eggs to become turtles. You can then pay them $5 to “adopt” one and release it into the river. Paul wanted to do that, but whilst the turtles were brought from the hut the rain started. Not just a trickle – an absolute downpour. We put the ponchos provided on, and took our little turtle down to the river.

It was like a river going down to the river – there was gallons of water cascading past us. The turtles were almost washed in rather than having to crawl. At least there were no birds about to pluck them out of the water for their lunch.

We all got in the canoe, pushed off…..and nothing. We slowly drifted backwards down the creek whilst the boat man tried to start the engine. Oh dear….we really were up the creek without a paddle. Not only were we drifting aimlessly (albeit in the right direction) the boat was beginning to fill with water. I’m not sure it was all rain – there may have been a small leak there too. After about half an hour, and the water getting over my boots, the guides started to bail out with their Wellington boots. The walkie talkie back to base didn’t seem to be working – beam me up Scottie! Was that a look of mild panic on Christian’s face – no, I don’t believe it. Then the engine started – woo hoo. Another boat came up the other way, but we didn’t need their help now. Until they had gone out of view and the engine stalled again. Pablo took a couple of seat backs off and tried to use them as a paddle and a rudder – I did start humming the tune of Hawaii Five O but no-one seemed to get the joke. Then the engine started again – hooray. We got to the end of the creek – now all we had to do was go a little way up the Napo and get to the other side. Easy peasy. Except for that sandbank that we seemed to have beached ourselves on. It was then a case of Pablo hopping out and everyone swinging from side to side in unison to get us back into deeper water. And then we were back. Quite a little adventure – absolutely soaked through, camera equipment dripping, boots full of water, but a fun morning! Except a few Americans weren’t happy. They had been scared. Ha! They don’t know what scared is!!

We then had the walk and the canoe back to the Lodge – Nancy took prime position as the front paddle, and I must say she did a good job. She apparently was a whiz with a canoe in Ontario – and it showed. The manager greeted us with a late lunch when we returned, and offered to collect all our wet gear and launder and dry it. Perfect – although I feel a few of our neighbours over the pond may have given him a hard time before we got there.

We only had about an hour before we needed to be ready to go out again. Even I am beginning to think this is a boot camp! This afternoon we hiked through the jungle to the Canopy Walk. Bearing in mind my boots had gone off to dry, I was in borrowed Wellington boots – about two sizes too big. It felt as if I was walking in flippers. All the trails had turned to mud or streams, so on one hand it was good to have wellies on, but on the other it was fairly difficult walking. Fernando spotted a couple of owls up in the tree – just looking down on us. Absolutely amazing. They looked of the Harry Potter type – and they were staring at us right in the eye. Christian set up the scope – what a perfect view. Mark took a picture with his iphone on the scope lens – great picture. It was far too dark for my camera to get anything decent. Because it was still raining of course.

We got to the canopy walk – three towers forty metres high with a three hundred metre suspension bridge between them. It was even harder going up the steps with the flippers on. But what an amazing view from the top – miles and miles of forest. And rain clouds, and thunder, and lightening. Unfortunately this meant that most of the wildlife was in the dry somewhere – unlike the humans up the tower.

We crossed the first bridge to the middle tower – Paul decided that the Indiana Jones music should accompany our crossing just in case there was a pygmy tribe with blow pipes about to cut the ties to the bridge. There wasn’t. We did spot some birds but they were a long way off.

We crossed the second suspension bridge, and then some decided rather than walk through the jungle underneath we would cross it back again. OK – I can do that. Some went down, we went across and all met at the bottom of the first tower. Then we had another thirty minutes or so trekking through the jungle to get back to the Lodge. In the rain. Oh what joy. It certainly has been a wet day today.

Quick shower and then it was dinner – we all had dinner together with Christian and the rest of the group tonight, and very nice it was too. Apart from the little bitey things that has also come into the dining room to get out of the rain for their dinner. And had a feast on those of us that forgot to put the bug spray on. Nearly made it without any bites. The 8.15pm nocturnal walk was cancelled due to lack of enthusiasm – it was still bucketing down and no one had any dry stuff left!

Day 17 – January 16th 2018

Lay in this morning – wake up knock wasn’t until 6am! We had to be packed and the luggage out of the room by 6.30pm, breakfast overlooking the lake for the last time, and then the canoe for our final paddle back to civilisation. Looking at Christian paddling in the front of the canoe (Fernando was back in his usual position at the rear) I think Nancy did a better job! The luggage had gone ahead of us in waterproof bags – I think they have this down to a t. It usually rains. It was raining again now. But, it is the rainforest.

They let us borrow the Wellington boots until we got to the motorised canoe on the Napo River – my boots had been taken to be dried out, but they were still damp inside. It didn’t rain too badly. We got on the canoe and the motor started first time. Whooppee.

The river was a lot higher than it had been previously – it must have rained an awful lot in the last twenty four hours. At least we had a roof on this boat – although no sides. It did stop once we got going. The boat driver had to work very hard – the river is absolutely full of sand banks (as demonstrated by Mark who had downloaded google maps on his iphone, and could use the gps to see where we were with no signal whatsoever). And I should imagine that they shift with varying amounts of water. We seemed to weave an awful lot more than we did coming up. And the amount of debris in the water was incredible – and I don’t mean just twigs, there were whole tree trunks dotted about all over the place. He did a good job.

Then Mark pointed at a rather large volcano looming up in the distance before us. It was huge – and one that I had completely missed on the way up. It was behind me I suppose – but still not sure how something that big could be invisible. Perhaps it was behind cloud….or perhaps I am just trying to find an excuse. We almost hit a sand bank – just a little shudder – not sure how that would have worked without seatbelts. I think perhaps a pile of people towards the front of the boat, if not forward of the front of the boat. And then there is the caiman…..

We got back to Coca in one piece – of course we did. With about an hour to spare, so we went back to their office and had a drink and a snack or two before going to the airport. Only an hour before the flight – not really big enough to handle passengers any earlier than that. Quick flight, on time, and arrived back to a sunny Quito. Paul (the driver) was at the airport to take us to the Patio Andaluz Hotel. Then we thought we would have a good chance to get to the top of the cable car as the weather was unusually good. By the time we had settled in, had lunch and a drink, got changed and out of the hotel it was raining and very cloudy. Missed opportunity. Maybe another day…

Day 18 – January 17th 2018

Late start today – our guide was not picking us up from the hotel until 8.30am. So, in our bizarre hotel room we had no idea what the weather was like. We have a duplex room, a downstairs with windows that look out onto the corridor around the courtyard, and an upstairs with another bedroom and bathroom, and another few steps on to a balcony – with a table and chairs that look over the same courtyard. Like being in an inside cabin on a cruise ship! The roof over the courtyard is glass, so you can see the colour of the sky over the little square. We had breakfast with no egg station – but a prawn station. All round bizarre.

Our guide – should have been Albertino but somehow has morphed into Luis – met us in reception and Paul (the driver) was waiting outside. Our first stop was Panecillo Hill – the hill where the Madonna statue stands. It looked pretty cloudy on the way up, so I was not sure that we were doing the right thing. We got there, and the statue was shrouded in mist. Apparently, the statue depicts a lady of the apocalypse – which can happen at any time. The sculptor struggled to find a model for his work, got drunk one night and thought the flamenco dancer in the bar he was in was perfect – so it was she that was the model. Her hands are positioned very similar to that of a flamenco dancer – hey ho. The clouds cleared and we had a good view of the city below and the statue.

And then the clouds came back, and then they went again. The moral of the story – you have no idea what the view is going to be like because it changes every ten minutes.

There were plenty of stray dogs around up here – who seemed to bark and chase every car that was going down the hill. It is a wonder that the road isn’t littered with run over dogs. They all seem to survive though – the drivers have no intention of slowing down so they must have got getting out of the way down to a fine art.

We went back down the hill and back to the old town, and were dropped off just outside the Casa Gargontena – my all time favourite hotel in Quito by a mile. We started the walking tour at the Plaza San Francisco, the home of the imposing San Francisco Church and Convent. We entered the convent – which is actually the home of the Franciscan Monks, started by St Francis of Assisi. The courtyard was lovely, full of birds and trees and flowers.

We walked up the stairs and into the choristers room that overlooked the church. Amazing gold leaf design – although no pictures allowed. We also spent a little time in the museum here – which showed pictures of a Good Friday march that happens every year following a statue of Jesus carrying the cross. Followed by lots of what looked like klu klux klan. The klu klux klan dress was apparently copied from these people. Bizarre.

We walked a couple of blocks to the Iglesia La Compania – the oldest Jesuit church in Quito. Paul’s eyes were starting to glaze over….. It is the country’s most ornate church, and probably the most beautiful. If we thought there was a lot of gold in the last one, this one had more. It was impressive, and incredibly intricate in every place you looked.

How much money goes into making religious icons – how much better would it be if it was spent on making the world a better place. Never going to happen. The bell tower has disappeared – two earthquakes in the 1800’s destroyed it, and the bells are silent in a room next to the main church. Enough churches said Paul.

The next stop was the Presidential Palace on the Plaza Grande – the working place of the President of Ecuador. We were allowed in and up to the balcony, which overlooked the Plaza. There were two guards at the entrance to the main building, and we just happened to be there at the changing of the guard. Only took a few minutes but it was interesting to watch. A lot of foot stomping and heel clicking. And then there were just two again.

The weather was behaving itself remarkably well so far, so we took the opportunity to go to the Teleferiqo of Quito – the cable car that “touches the sky”. The base of the cable car is located in the foothills of the Rucu Pichincha Volcano. It takes you from around 3,000 metres at the base to just over 4,000 metres at the top on an eighteen minute journey through the clouds. On the way up, the vegetation changes to go with the altitude.

There are amazing views of the whole of Quito from up there – and yes, at times in breaks in the clouds we could see it all. It clearly showed the Western Andes and the Eastern Andes with the valley and Quito in between. It is a banana shape going around the base of the volcano, and is not very wide but very long – about 22 kilometres. We walked a little way further up the hill – the trail actually goes for another eleven kilometres to the top of the volcano, but with the altitude I think eleven yards did me in.

During the journey back down the dark grey clouds seemed to be rolling in, so I think we did well in the short window we had. We had a bit of a two and eight with the guard at the bottom who would not allow Paul (the driver) back in to pick us up. We had to walk down the hill, catch a free bus for about five minutes and then he could pick us up. Bureaucracy! It took us ten minutes to get down the hill and back to the old town to finish the tour, so we went and had a coffee in a little shop off the Plaza Grande. Where we bumped into Les & Hil, and a couple that we met at Bellavista. Small world!

Day 19 – January 18th 2018

Earlyish start again today – Luis was in reception to collect us at 7.30am. We were in his car now – a Kia SUV instead of the ten seater minibus we had been in – much more comfortable and sensible.

We made our way out of the city, and headed south for the first time. Our first stop after a couple of hours drive was at the Rose Success Rose Farm in a town called Lasso. Ecuador is the worlds leading supplier of roses by quality.

If you buy an Ecuadorian rose (and look after it) it should last four weeks. Even if it is bought in the UK. It is something to do with the altitude in which they are grown – apparently around 2500 metres above sea level is good. We started with a look in two of their huge greenhouses – each greenhouse has rows and rows of rose bushes. This is only a small to medium rose producer, but in low season they cut 25,000 stems a day and in high season 50,000 stems a day. That is a lot of roses. And each one is cut by hand.

We watched the whole system – from the ladies and gents with the cutters dragging the carts, going up and down the rows, to the men dragging the bigger carts with the roses on the smaller carts having been transferred to them and then taking them to a large packing shed. There are people sorting and putting them in water, waiting for the next person to sort into colours and length of stems to give to the correct person for the next stage.

They then are carefully graded – anything on the rose that doesn’t make it perfect is sold in Ecuador, and all the perfect stems are sorted and moved along a grading shelf for the next stage. Then someone takes the perfect roses and packs twenty four in a cardboard package, puts on a production line to have the stems cut all the same length, and then they are moved into the chiller waiting for the lorry to come to take them away.

All by hand, not an electrical machine in sight. Beautiful roses – I know what I am going to look for in future!

The next stop, and only about half an hour away, was Saquisili Market. Paul rolled his eyes again – a bit like churches, once he has done one he has done them all. But boy oh boy was this different. It only happens once a week on a Thursday (lucky for us) and it is huge. People come from miles around both to buy and to sell their wares. We went to the livestock part first (we saw a van with a horse in the back on the way – someone happy with their purchase) but most of the animals had been sold by the time we got there. There were piles and piles of animal feed there – and the biggest pile of bananas that were being sold for animal consumption I have ever seen.

We made our way around another couple of roads, and came to the main market square. It was huge. I think we were the only tourists there – it was jam packed with local people. There seemed to be sections for different things – the first section we came to were guinea pigs and rabbits that were being sold for food.

Everything went from here live, so it was fresh. There were chickens in bags, strung up by their feet, in cages – all with no idea what was in store. There was even a kitten in one of the guinea pig cages – not sure where that was going! There was every type of vegetable, fish, DIY, clothing and even iron gates on show.

And everyone was buying. People were laden with their purchases. We even came across a few puppies sitting on a sack – they were going for about $10 each.

I have never seen anything like it in my life – even Paul was impressed. But – no purchases. Not sure anything there would have been allowed home on the plane!

The next very quick stop was at our hotel for tonight – the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo. We were meant to have lunch here, but as we had added the rose farm stop in we had changed it to a picnic lunch that we were going to take into the Cotapaxi National Park – our next stop.

It was pretty grey going up to the Park. We had the picnic lunch outside – as British people do – and got absolutely freezing. We were now around 3500 metres above sea level, and wind seemed to have got up. We had a lovely picnic – luckily under cover as it was now raining as well – and Paul had some Coca Tea. That is tea made with the leaves that is illegally processed into cocaine. He didn’t really like it. We went into the little gift shop next to the information centre and they kitted us out with hats and gloves – all for the grand sum of $14. Bargain.

Cotapaxi National Park houses the Cotapaxi volcano, which is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It is covered with snow all of the year round, and although the last eruption was in 1904 the last activity was in 2015 when a mudslide was caused from the activity at the top that was four metres in depth. Only a couple of years ago.

On the way up Luis noticed a Caracara Falcon just a few metres away from the road seemingly digging up the grass. There were a couple of lapwings not very happy with him, and making themselves known to him. Luis seemed to think he was looking for the lapwing eggs, and was probably close to the nest as the lapwings would not usually openly come close to the falcon.

Only with your own guide can you tell him to stop the car, wait whilst you change the lens on your camera, edge forward and follow that bird for the next twenty minutes. What a show they gave – the lapwings finally dive bombed the falcon so many times they drove him away. It was mesmerising to watch. We drove up to just under 4000 metres, parked the car, and went for a walk around a lake complete with our hats and gloves. Do not adjust your sets – yes, we are only a few miles from the equator, and yes, we do look as though we are going skiing.

We walked for a couple hours around the lake – very slowly at this altitude. I felt as though I had just completed a marathon. It didn’t take much of an uphill slope to make me out of breath. It was a really pleasant walk – the views of the volcano were amazing – even though the very top was blanketed in cloud the whole time, the rest of the scenery was so clear and even sunny at some points.

There were plenty of birds, rabbits, and ducks to keep our interest – and it only got cloudy and started to rain when we were ten yards from the car. I can’t believe how lucky we have been with the weather.

We then made our way back down to the Hacienda again, and could then really appreciate where we were. This Hacienda has been built on the site of and Inca Palace, one of the two most important Inca sites in Ecuador. Two of the original Inca rooms are still intact, and are the dining room and the chapel. It has been an Inca Fortress and Palace, an Augustinian Monastery and home to a French Scientific Project. A former President of Ecuador bought the Hacienda in 1921, was passed to his son, a famous bull fighter and is now owned by his grand daughter.

Our room is probably the most charismatic I have ever stayed in. There was a fire lit in the bedroom and the bathroom, and the walls were either stone or painted plaster.

The bathroom has a glass skylight and also a glass part of the floor that shows old stones. Not really sure what though. There were even two Ecuadorian ponchos there for our use – Paul tried one on and decided if he could whistle he would whistle the tune to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” but as he couldn’t he wouldn’t. Phew.

Dinner was in one of the Inca rooms, and was so atmospheric. The huge table had been laid just for us (we are the only guests tonight) and it looked fit for a king. Candles were lit, and we had servants just for us.

The food wasn’t bad either. We got back to our room – the fires had been made up, the bed had been turned down and we had hot water bottles in the bed. But will we have a good night’s sleep or will the inca ghosts keep us awake…..

Day 20 – January 19th 2018

Another easy start to the day – collection from the Hacienda was not until 8.30am. The fire in the room was still smoking and giving out heat, and it was not raining outside. Breakfast was in a different room – but again just the two of us. A lovely selection of cheeses and jams etc on the table, and a menu of eggs about twelve ways. I chose coddled eggs with butter and cream and chives – delicious.

Luis arrived and we set off again going south on the Pan American Highway. The Avenue of Volcanoes was again an avenue of East and West Andes – the highest peaks were still in the clouds. There were flashes of the sun, and in stretches the cloud was above us rather than us in it, and when that happened the views were incredible. Our first unscheduled stop was in the town of Salcedo – made famous for their ice lollies of all things. There were little shops all along the road where car after coach after lorry stopped to buy one. And it was still before 10am. Oh well, have to have one then. There was a person from each shop waving a wooden model of the lolly to try and get you to buy from them. It was quite nice – frozen fruit of vanilla, blackberry, something local and green and passion fruit. A bit different, and had to be done.

We then made a stop at the highest train station in Ecuador – Urvina, This station is 3700 metres above sea level, and the train comes through three times a week. Strictly for tourists – but the station is manned 24 hours a day. Perhaps the UK could learn a lesson here? There were a couple of llamas tied up next to rails – apparently for the tourists to have their pictures taken with when the train gets there. It was raining, so we didn’t stay long!

We then headed towards our main destination for today – the Chimborazo Volcano, which is the highest volcano in Ecuador and the glacier at the top goes through the equator. Technically, this peak is the nearest to the sun because of its location on the equator, beating even Everest. On the way up we stopped at another community project called Palacial Real for lunch. This is another project run by the ladies of the community to bring in money, and the restaurant only opens when tourists have prebooked – luckily for us there was a coach load of French that had booked (not often you can say that)! The lunch was soup and ……..llama. The only place in the whole of Ecuador that cooks and serves llama to customers. The people cook and eat it themselves, but it isn’t usually served to unsuspecting foreigners that have just taken pictures of the dear little animals. It wasn’t too bad – of course I had to eat it!

We then made our way up and up towards the peak. Still no sight of it – the rain had now turned to snow would you believe. And we are still only a few miles from the equator. Glad we bought the hats and gloves yesterday! It was shrouded in cloud as we moved up past the snow line – and saw the Ecuadorian vicuna – this is the only place in Ecuador that they live, and only in this high altitude where most of the green grazing has disappeared and there are only small tufts of tough grasses available. There were quite a few of them, so they must like it!

It was snowing quite heavily when we got up to 4800 metres – and didn’t it feel like we were at 4800 metres. Shortness of breath, light headedness, legs like jelly. And this is the base camp where the climbers start their climb up to the peak. Think I will give that one a miss for today. I slowly made my way around the information hut and there was a little humming bird flitting about – not sure if it was lost, but it certainly looked out of place here. Then Paul spotted a Andean Wolf – it walked along the trail and then spotted some vicuna. It couldn’t have been that hungry, because it just looked. The vicuna looked at it, and thought “This is my lucky day”. They both went in the opposite directions.

We picked up a young lady and took her down to the bottom of the park – she had walked all the way up. A French lady who is in Ecuador doing a volunteering project – by the time we let her out she was converted to having a visit to the Galapagos. We then made our way down, and there was a break in the clouds where we could see the lower part of the snow covered peak. Not the whole thing – getting to be a bit of a habit!

We then drove on to a large town called Riobamba where we are staying at the Hacienda Abraspungo for the night. Not as old as the Hacienda from last night, and several cars in the car park. Can’t have it all to ourselves then…. Not only that, there is an international football tournament being played in Riobamba at the moment, and the Ecuador ladies team were then getting on their coach. Might be a rowdy night if they win!

Day 21 – January 20th 2018

4.30am alarm this morning – this after fireworks last night, and all the comings and goings more than likely of the Ecuadorian Team and their supporters. Hmm. Think there may be a little napping in the car!

5.30am departure from here in Riobamba to get to Aluasi for a 8.00am train departure. On the way we stopped at the first Catholic Church built in Ecuador by one Franciso Pissaro, when the Spaniards were busy defeating most of Latin America. This was the first church in Quito – although it wasn’t. It was hastily erected, and the decreed to be in the village of Quito so that others who were on the way would not be able to conquer Quito before them. It obviously worked. Quito stayed where it is, as did the church, and never the twain shall meet!

The views as we made our way to Aluasi were stunning. We moved from being in the valley between the Eastern and Western Andes to travelling within the Western Andes. The clouds were like cotton wool looking down on small villages and larger towns – intermingled with the odd spot of rain, of course.

We arrived at the train station with twenty minutes to spare. The train was in the station, and whilst taking pictures went to the other side of the tracks, where there were people trying hard to clean off some graffiti that had been applied overnight. There was a Pink Panther on one of the carriages and some white paint on the engine. It had never happened before – not quite sure what people get out of ruining things like that.

We boarded the “Devil’s Nose” train, supposedly one of the ten most dangerous train journeys in the world, and got in our allocated seats – Luis gave us the thumbs up to say that we were on the correct side. This is just a short journey to show off the train tracks that go around the Devil’s Nose mountain. The views from the window were stunning – and yes, we were on the correct side.

Most of the way there was a sheer drop down the side of the mountain. It was due to go again at 11am – I had no doubts we were perfectly safe! The minor annoyance was that the window that opened was too high for me to get my camera out of – Paul could reach with his, but I was just too short. Story of my life! Will just have to sit and enjoy the views.
The first stop was at Sibambe – a tiny little station where we could all get off and get a really good view of the front of the Devil’s Nose mountain.

All the driver and backstage crew got off to have a smoke – don’t think they were bothered either. We got back on for a few minutes, and then got off at the main station where the train engine had to move from the back to the front. We were entertained with dancers and could sit and have a coffee in the little café.

The train makes a bit of a switchback along the mountain, as it is a very steep incline that it as to contend with, so going backwards and forwards is probably the only way around it. In no time it was time to get back on and make the journey back again.

At 10.30am we arrived back into Aluasi, where Luis was waiting to take us onwards. We stopped at a viewpoint, where they was a beautiful picture of the main street with the station at the end. As we were in Ecuador, it went from cloudy to rainy to sunny at least six times in the next hour, but the journey was so awe inspiring. Tiny little villages just nestled in the middle of a green valley – how on earth do they survive? We also managed to stop and look down onto the Devil’s Nose mountain, could see the switchback tracks very clearly, looked at our watches and realised the train was due any minute. The view clouded over several times whilst we were waiting, but was fairly clear by the time train came into view.

We decided to “go local” for lunch today as well, and stopped for some street food in a town called Zhud which is famous for the it’s “Pig Fritada”. A whole pig is strung up outside the little shacks, and during the day bits are cut off and fried to make the fritada.

We had three plates of food with the pig, white corn, fried corn, plaintain and potatoes for $5. Oh, and that included a drink. It wasn’t bad either – until Luis told us how they killed the pig and then we felt a bit guilty. You don’t want to know…..

We then travelled for another hour or so to a town called Ingapinca, where the biggest Inca ruins are in Ecuador. It was actually a mixture of Inca and Canari – the Canari being here first, and the Incas building on top of their original structures. There was actually part of the original Inca Trail still intact that went all the way from Quito to Cuzco.

Don’t think I will put my name down to trek that one! The ruins that were there didn’t have much height, apart from one room, and no roofs, but apart from that were in very good condition.

From here we took a short cut to get us back on the Pan American Highway to take us to Cuenca – that is apart from the cows and the sheep and the other animals that were in the road from time to time.

Oh, and the dead dog count is now up to three – surprised it isn’t a lot more considering how they are wandering about everywhere.

Once we hit the “main” road, we went through another town that cooks pig a different way – spearing it so it looks as if it is still standing up, and then cooking it with a blow torch. I think I might have had enough pig for one day.

It wasn’t long before we hit Cuenca, and made our way to the Mansion Alcazar for the night. A lovely old boutique hotel in the old part of town.

A beautiful room – and much needed after the rather early start!

Day 22 – January 21st 2018

Last full day in Ecuador – all we have to do today is get to Guayaquil Airport by 7.30pm tonight. Easy day. No – scrap that, let’s go full on as it is the last day!

8.15am we met Luis to start a walking tour of Cuenca. It was very quiet when we left the hotel – it is early on a Sunday morning after all. Most sensible people will be taking it easy this morning….. We were already staying in the old town, so we were already at the starting point. We started by going into a market – again, a market not quite like any other we have come across so far. This was undercover, and in sections. The meat section sold bits of animals that I had never seen before – and some that I didn’t know were sold, like cows legs that apparently make a very good cows leg soup!

There were the usual fruit and vegetables, and then a section that sold all the natural remedies for any illness that you may suffer. Even a smell that you put on to make yourself attractive to the opposite sex – I think they call that perfume where we come from! There were goods of all descriptions – sacks of grain that had a broom sticking out, because they sold grain and brooms. Weird. There was even an upper floor that had “fast food” – McDonalds eat your heart out.
We then went to a huge church – it was so big it had TV screens on all the pillars so all the congregation could have a good view no matter how far back you were. It was beautiful – as had been all the religious establishments we had been in. You never see a poor church. There was a flower market outside, where all sorts of lovely blooms were being sold. A table decoration similar to one I bought for Christmas this year for £40 was going for $3.50. Very good value.

We went to the edge of the new town, a river making the border between old and new. This is the town of four rivers – but we only had time for one! We were then off to the Hat Museum, to learn why Panama Hats should be called Ecuador Hats. We learned how the hat was originally made in Ecuador, but then when it became famous the main man who made the hats had made his way to Panama.

We saw the whole production (from when the weaved hat arrives from the weavers in the countryside) to the finished product. And of course Paul had to have one – looks far better than the last hat we bought in Ecuador!

We made our way back to the hotel, and packed the bags ready to start the journey to Guayaquil. But did we go directly – of course we didn’t. We had to take a little two hour hike around a lake that had conditions similar to that of our Himalayan trek.

We stopped off at the Cajas National Park – and immediately donned the hats and gloves. Wool rather than Panama. It was mighty chilly again – we were on around 3800 metres. Great altitude for a hike! It had been raining quite a bit, and the trail was somewhat muddy or had turned into running streams. My boots were waterproof – Paul’s shoes were not. I had nice dry socks – Paul’s were wet and squidgy. Excellent state of affairs to fly later today!

The terrain in this National Park was quite different to that we had seen before – it was very sparse and had lots and lots of water – including the lake we set off to circumnavigate. Once the path had been deemed “tricky” because of all the water, we were just going to do a “mini loopy”. I think we were loopy! You would think a stroll around a lake would be quite straightforward – no. This involved lots of ups and downs, mud, water and rocks. And all at nearly four thousand metres above sea level. Challenging, to say the least.

We were here with a few ducks, a few alpacas and llamas and a couple of birds. The clouds were quite low, and the wind was whistling. And the problem of getting over (or around) fast running streams that were meant to be trails. We made it – of course we did. And it was a lovely way to end our stay in Ecuador. Who wants to relax? Plenty of time to do that when we aren’t capable to hiking around lakes like this. And a very good sense of achievement when we reached back to the car, breathing heavy and near to collapse!

We went a few further miles, and got to a point on the top of this particular part of the Western Andes that was called the “continental divide”. At 4167 metres above sea level, if the rain fell one way it would drain into the pacific, and if it fell the other it would go to the atlantic. I think. I got our of the car and made it to the top of the rock. Paul stayed in the car and waved at me when I got there.

The next part of the journey was downhill – a long way. From the top of the mountain to sea level in one foul swoop. We got part of the way down, and then had an hour or so driving through thick cloud – which is always present apparently. Parts of the road suffered from subsidence, and parts had rocks from a landslide. Nothing out of the ordinary then – especially when you could only see a few feet in front of you. Once we got out of the cloud we could see the area to our left – and it was as flat as a pancake. All the way to the sea. Not a mountain in sight. How different. And now about 25 degrees – woolly hats to panama hats!

We drove through some busy little towns, and totally different landscapes with banana plantations, rice fields and cocoa bean plantations as far as the eye could see. We arrived into Guayaquil and to the airport in perfect time – and had to say goodbye to Luis. Who we found out was called Luis Alberto so was the guide we were supposed have all along. He has been an excellent guide, and one I would have no hesitation in recommending. Not sure what he thinks of us as customers though……..

Our flight to Quito was on time, and with just over half an hours flight, we had got the shuttle for the five minute journey to the Airport Wyndham Hotel. Much better than braving the traffic to get into the city, but we could have been anywhere. Ready for our early morning flight to Mexico City and then home.

Day 23 – January 22nd 2018

Last day – and another early morning. We were on the 7.30am shuttle from the Wyndham to the airport to catch the 9.30am flight to Mexico City. All has gone to plan so far………

The flight was on time, and landed at Mexico City Airport at approximately 1.15pm after we put the clocks back one hour. The last stop of our journey – the choices here were a) book a day room at a hotel for the six hour layover b) relax in lounge or c) book a tour. You’ve guessed it – I booked a tour. I thought I was getting a tour of Mexico City – never been so was looking forward to that. Lula met us at arrivals, and we followed her to the car park for our tour. Shortly into the journey she mentioned the ruins of Teotihuacan – Aztec ruins about 50 kilometres outside of Mexico City. Apparently on Paul’s bucket list, so the city tour was cancelled and the Aztec ruins was on.

It was rather hot – around 30 degrees. Not used to the heat! After an hour or so we got to the site – it was amazing. The Aztecs apparently found these ruins – they were from around 200bc so not officially Aztec. Of course, the Sun Temple was the big one, and you could climb to the top. In this heat. Of course we did. Very slowly – and the heavy breathing seemed to reappear. Heat has taken the place of altitude – or that’s my excuse. The view from the top was worth it. It was incredible.

There was a whole 360 degree panorama – overlooking a lot of the site including the Temple of the Moon. After descending a whole lot quicker than ascending, we ran the gauntlet of lots of Mexicans selling tut (there is a lot of people here who look like Mexicans…..) to walk up to the other temple. No time to go up this one – what a shame. We did have time to wander through what would have been the Royal Palace, and saw some of the original paintings.

Then, back to the airport. Only a quick visit, but a worthwhile one. There was an amazing sunset behind the mountains, which were covered with multicoloured houses all the way up. A lovely way to end the day, and the holiday. One more flight to go…….