Week 30; Mindo, Riobamba, Bogota, Guatape. Ecuador & Colombia

Mindo was my last stop in Ecuador. It is a mountainous region with a subtropical climate famous for butterfly and bird watching. I met a couple who recommended to go to a place called Pacha Quindi near Mindo to see humming birds. I got off the bus early thinking I could walk the rest, turns out it was a 6 hour hike up a mountain. I figured I  could grab a taxi (no such luck). I walked for an hour in the heat with my backpack and eventually I managed to hitchhike to the hidden bird sanctuary.

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Bird Watching in Mindo
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A rare sighting of a Tayra animal

The bird sanctuary experience wasn’t exactly what I expected. It turns out it’s run by an American guy from Mississippi and a German woman. The only way to get into this place is to hike down this trail there is no sign so you have to find a local who knows the way. This place has the most species of humming birds in all of Ecuador (a total of 42). The National Geographic and BBC visit the place every year to document the unique species. It was incredible and I’ve never seen anything like it. Bird watching sounds boring but it’s the opposite. I was addicted from the minute I arrived. It is really hard to take photos because they are so sensitive to movement. Tony the owner was saying he goes through 18,000 bananas a year just for the birds! He was an eccentric character. We spent hours chatting mainly about his previous drug addictions and his experiences with being homeless for years and how he turned his life around and became a very successful bird watcher. I think he is fairly famous in the bird watching community (such a thing exists!). The conversation soon turned from birds to talking about jehovah’s witness’s and the bible (just my cup of tea). I ended up hitching a ride back to Quito with their house keeper delira not to have to tackle the 6 hour hike!

 

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Humming birds love the rain
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This was one of my favourites
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Humming bird in Pachu Quindi near Mindo
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Tony filling up the banana supply during a rain storm
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Feeding off bananas

My original travel plan keeps changing but I had considered going to Brazil after Ecuador but after meeting Nils (the German) on the Galapagos Islands he begged me to go to Colombia with him. So with a change of plan, I booked a last-minute flight to Bogota to meet him. I keep saying it but having no plan is the best plan of all I love not knowing where I’m going to end up. We are planning on travelling together for a couple of weeks around Colombia. The poor divil has no idea what he has let himself in for. I’m looking forward to having a travelling partner for a while especially in Colombia. An organized German is just what the Doctor ordered and hopefully my disastrous travel stories will be kept at bay for a while anyway….

My last day in Ecuador was a stressful one.  A very long story but I ended up complaining to Doite the tent company in Chile about their dreadful tents and explained in detail about my disastrous experiences of sleeping on mountains and in caves etc…. In short, they said they would send me a brand new tent and inflatable mattress as an apology! Happy fecking days. The only issues was it arriving on time…. The  agenda of the day was to go to Riobamba to pick it up which was a 5 hour journey (I was getting it sent to a random lad’s house I met in a restaurant a few weeks earlier).  When I arrived to collect it they said it was actually in a different region in Ecuador (at the other side of the country). Fedex said I would have to pay 80$ to release it and it would take 3 days.

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Riobamba

It was all looking a bit grim but after about 50 Spanish e-mails and numerous phone calls I managed to get Fedex to agree to get a private courier to ship it to Quito. It arrived in a random bus terminal 1 hour before my flight left. Chuffed with my new house and very excited for some new camping adventures. I then made my way to the airport to stock up on free chocie and perfume samples.

Lots of people I met decided to skip Ecuador.  It is a tiny country for South American standards but offers so much and I loved my time here. An obvious highlight was the Galapagos Islands which is a place I will never forget. Food was also pretty good and I’m still salivating over Ibarra’s famous ice creams and Otavalo’s maize and cheese delights. Also I can’t forget the really special people I met along the way.

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Special people

I met Nils at the airport laden down with a mountain of stuff (including 2 tents and a mattress!). He was also picking up 4 of his Austrian friends who he traveled with for a few weeks. We all decided to go to Bogota’s famous techno club Baum where we managed to survive the party until 8am. Very Berlin feel to this place there is a huge tree in the middle of the dance floor and a glass roof so you can see the stars. V cool. Feeling v rough the next day we did a cycling tour of the city.  It was fairly heavy on the history and politics bit (not my strongest suit on the best of days). I had a bit of shut-eye for this part but perked up for the second half of the tour where the freebies were introduced. This included Colombia’s famous Arepa (a disgusting flatbread made out of maize),  juices and ice creams made out of exotic fruits. So that perked me up a bit. After some hummus and flatbreads myself and Nils caught a bus to Guatape and we said goodbye to the Austrians.

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Myself and the lads
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Powering through the cycling tour

Guatape is a stunning place built entirely on an artificial lake. It is home to lots of Pablo Escobar’s estates (he had a total of 500 houses). We walked up to the famous piedra where you have stunning views of the lake. That afternoon we rented paddle boats. A wild night with Nils in bed at 4pm still recovering from the party! I practiced my Spanish with a few Colombians and a smelly French Man who was stinking up our dorm room.

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Paddle boating on the river
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The famous piedra rock in Guatape
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Guatape
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Top of the rock

The next day we did a really interesting tour to one of Pablo Escobar’s holiday homes. Interestingly all of the house keepers inherited Pablo’s estate when he died. We met the owner of the property who spoke to us in Spanish about Pablo. He started working with him when he was 12 and worked for him for a total of 27 years. Initially he was Pablo’s house keeper and then became head of security of the property. We finished our trip with Colombia’s famous dished called Bandeja paisa which is OK. The food in Colombia is renowned for being fairly bland. This dish is definitely not on the light side and consists of fried pork, chorizo, bacon powder, plantain, egg, beans, avocado and of course the god awful arepas. It’s alright to taste once but you defo wouldn’t be craving this feed.

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Pablo’s watch tower
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Nils’s at Pablo’s pool
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Outside Pablo’s house
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Guatape’s cathedral
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Colourful town of Guatape

We made our way to Medellin and checked into our hostel (The Garden of Blues) in the hip area of Pueblito which has really cool cafes and bars. We did an amazing free walking tour of the communa 13 area. This place has such a sad history and its only recently that this place is safe for tourists to visit. Unfortunately, the guide who lives there told us that there are still random shootings in this area. While we were there having a few beers we saw the locals do amazing street dancing and rapping. We stayed too long and ended up walking home in the dark which felt scary. It was definitely my favourite place in Medellin.

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Communa 13
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Communa 13

That night we went to a compulsory salsa bar El Eslabon Prendido which is famous with the locals on a Tuesday night for its live music. It was amazing but needless to say we stood out like sore thumbs trying to master the moves. The colombians are ridiculously good at dancing. After a few shots of aquadiente with some random Indians we picked up on the street we were ready for round two of dancing. Aquadiente is a disgusting liquor similar to sambuca that the Colombian’s go wild for! They only drink it straight!!!

Medellin has so much to offer and we planned 5 days there but you could easily spend more. A popular activity is paragliding over the city. An amazing experience! It’s really chilled and so relaxing. We couldn’t have picked a better time to be in Colombia and the locals are going crazy for the world cup. Literally every street corner is selling jerseys and flags so we obviously jumped on the band wagon and bought all of the merch in anticipation for the first match.

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Paragliding
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Myself and Bruno watching the paragliders
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Getting ready for the match
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Bruno also getting ready for the world cup!

I chose the salsa bar so Nils got to chose the next club and opted for an open bar night club. When we arrived the ques were out the door which is always a good sign until you realise they are 15 years old. Anyway Nils adamant to try the free bar and insisted to go in. Thankfully it was ladies night so I paid 20,000 still a rip off and Nils paid a whopper 40,000. The ‘open bar’ was not opened when we went in and turned out the free bar consisted of all you can drink bottles of  the undrinkable aquadiente and some diluted beer. It was interesting to be part of a Colombian teenage disco and was definitely reminiscent of our days in Wez (minus the blaring regatone)!! I endured an hour of the aquadiente hoping it would ease the situation. We moved on and I choose the next club an excellent salsa bar with amazing music and dance with no entry charge!!!

The next few days were spent drinking in gorgeous coffee shops, visiting the stunning nearby parks, taking the cable car and doing the free walking tour (one of the best I have ever done). Medellin was amazing and I will be back. Next stop Cartagena.

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Street art communa 13
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Street art Medellin

 

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Nils in Medellin

 

 

 

 

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Week 29: The Galapagos Islands, Quilotoa Laguna. Ecuador

Week two on the Galapagos started off with my German friend Nils leaving for Quito. I was so lucky the guy he was couch surfing with, Robert said I could stay for free once he left. I ended up staying in the mother’s bed room (she was mia at the time). I decided  to spend a few more days on the Santa Cruz Island. I made great friends with the biggest legend on the Island, Vicky, a lovely girl from Venezuela. I used to camp out in the agency where she worked eating  sea food empanadas and ice creams doing the odd bit of English translation.

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Nils, Vicky and me on Santa Cruz

Robert, kindly gave me his bike one day so I decided to cycle to a nearby beach called Garietera (only 15km!!! away). Broke the bike en route so had to get a local to fix it and eventually reached the beach (drenched in sweat). It was pretty secluded so most people don’t bother coming here (unless by taxi). I immediately went swimming. This beach is more famous for its beauty rather than its snorkeling. However as always, I ended up swimming  far out and bumped into huge stingrays and a few sharks. I know most of the sharks in the Galapagos aren’t dangerous but when you bump into them alone without a group I kind of freaked out. Anyway after the initial shock I was delighted with my discovery. Back on the beach I went for a bit of shut-eye before the dreaded cycle home.

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Empty Garietera Beach
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One of the many birds on Garietera beach
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Pelican just having a moment

One of the other days I went to the Charles Darwin Centre which is one of the few free things to do on the Island. It’s really interesting and talks about the conservation of a lot of the endemic animals on the island especially the tortoises. Near here there are stunning beaches with amazing snorkeling.  I got chatting to a few locals who brought me quite far out to see sea turtles and lots of sea lions. The people on the Island are absolute gems and really friendly. Dinner that night was with the Americans in our usual spot consisting of an array of freshly grilled fish and a few lobsters for good measure. No expenses spared!

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Galapagos Tortoise
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Happy Sweaty Faces !

I wanted to explore another Island so I went to Isabella which is the largest on the Galapagos. You take a two-hour ferry (this time I had no issues with the police and brought only apples with me; guava and blackberries are the only illegal fruits). Isabella is stunning and has amazing sandy beaches. It is home to lots of flamingos and penguins. The penguins are unique to the Galapagos and found no where else in the world. I spent 3 days here where one of the days I cycled to the wall of tears which is the remains of an ancient prison on the island where they used to send slaves. During the cycle  there are stunning hidden beaches that you can stop off at. Idiot here forgot to bring her bikini  (to a beach!!!) but lucky me it was so quiet I almost got away with swimming in the nip. I wore this see through dress while snorkeling but didn’t realise my arse was completely on show. It was only when I got out  that I was greeted by an Italian photography club. They were there taking photos of pelicans at sunset and evidently my arse too. Mortified!! Anyway I picked up a few photography tips from the hard-core photographers and a free pack of stale oreos off their guide. Happy out I made my way home in my see through dress in time for a glorious sunset.

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Pelicans on Isabella
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Fishing for dinner
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Flamingos on Isabella Island
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Some of the views en route to the wall of tears
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Sunset on Isabella

The next day I went on  Los Túneles tour where I bumped into the legendary Rosemary once again (the 70-year-old backpacker with hairy legs). This was my favourite snorkeling of my entire trip. You snorkel through under water tunnels made out of lava and amazing coral. We  saw absolutely everything loads of sharks, sea turtles, gigantic sting rays, penguins and sea horses. This particular area is home to lots of the blue footed boobies ( amazing birds) definitely one of my favourite animals and I was dying to see  them up close.The blue footed boobie isn’t born with blue feet they only develop as they become older. They use their feet as a way of attracting the females. The bluer the feet the sexier the bird.

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Blue footed boobie
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Checking out who has bluer feet
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No better day to wear blue

The captain of the boat couldn’t get over how pale I was and thought I was from a different planet. This resulted in an invitation to sit with him on the roof of the boat for the entire journey. This was incredible. He even gave me his 300 dollar sun glasses so I could spot all of the amazing sea life underwater. If only he knew my track record with sunglasses but obviously I said nada (still a little petrified of breaking/losing the expensive glasses). En route home the boat abruptly stopped where the captain immediately told us all to jump in for a chance to see 2 metre wide sting rays this was the highlight of the day amazing!!!!! Hard to believe these animals even exist.

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Boat ride to los Tunelos
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Bird watching on Isabella
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Lava Tunnels
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Spotting these loved up marine Iguanas on lovers  beach in Isabella
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Sea lion

Before catching the ferry home I squeezed in one final snorkel in a beautiful coral area in Concha de Perla  where I had a final dance with the playful sea lions. Very sad to be saying goodbye to these legends.

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I feel ya mate!
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This perfectly sums up life on Isabella
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Beefed

Back in Santa Cruz I went back to Robert’s Mothers house to see if I could stay another night before my flight home. But Robert had left the Island and instead I found a really hairy hippy in my bed so I decided to look else where. I  went back to the travel agency to catch up with Vicky. After some 1 dollar ice creams and cameron empanadas (2$), the most stunning food on the Island. The owner asked me if I fancied a job in her agency that she was looking for someone who liked talking to randomers and who had some basic Spanish. She even offered me free accommodation in her house, Seriously tempted I told her I’d be on to her in the future. Instead she said I could sleep in the agency that night on the couch after hearing about the hairy man in the bed!!Happy Days!

So the Galapagos was never on my agenda but what an amazing experience. I met some of the best people and experienced the most unique wildlife. It’s almost impossible to be sad on the Galapagos because in ever corner are exotic animals. Having no plan is the best plan of all ( Germany might not agree with me on this one) but I love the freedom of it and not knowing what is around the corner.  I will certainly be back and who knows maybe as an employee  I could think of worse places to work.

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Last night on the Galapagos

Arriving back to Quito was depressing to say the least and I was greeted to the most horrific storm. I had to make my way back to Hennessy’s house (the Venezuelan girl minding my backpack). I eventually negotiated the public transport to her neighborhood, an extremely dangerous part of Quito.  A group of women told me I shouldn’t  go there that robberies were rampant. A kind stranger eventually made contact with Hennessy and brought me directly to the house. I didn’t want to sleep there again because it was quite obviously a dangerous part of town but Hennessy  insisted on me staying. I bought a cake as a thank you but it almost resulted in a physical fight because there wasn’t enough cake to go around for the expanding crowd living in the house aka room (It was 16 that night including me).   Apparently, earlier that day there had been a shooting on the street . So the night was quite terrifying with people banging on their ‘windows’ which were made out of card board and constant sirens. I didn’t sleep a wink terrified of what might appear in the room. As per usual I was serenaded by the 8 Venezuelans snoring. On this occasion I had to share a bed with the one-legged man. A fairly rough night and quite the contrast from the Galapagos but a genuine insight into the lives of lots of Venezuelans at the moment. I really hope their situation improves soon and I would love to visit their country some day. The following morning Hennessy was up at the crack of down boiling pots of water for my ‘shower’ and making me chicken soup and sugary coffee. I eventually gathered my bits said goodbye and made my way to the Quilotoa Laguna looking like a wreck.

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En route to the Laguna
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Quilotoa Laguna
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Views on the crater of the Quilota Laguna
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Gorgeous vegetation in Quilotoa

The Quilotoa Laguna is one of Ecuador’s highlights. It is a collapsed volcano which is filled with water. You can walk around the entire crater or walk down into the volcano. The colour is incredible because of the high sulfate content. Lots of people do multiple day trekking around here but I decided to just go to the Laguna because the weather was fairly bad at the time. Making my way back to the bus I got chatting to a guy called Rodrigo who offered me a lift back to Quito as he was headed in that direction. We had a great chat and he invited me for a steak. 8$ for a filet mignon. It was sensational and my first steak in 3 months. I got a tour of Quito by night and Rodrigo kindly offered me a place to stay, an absolute gent. The next days plans was to go bird watching in Mindo.

 

Week 28: Quito & The Galapagos Islands. Ecoudor

So with last-minute flights booked to the Galapagos I had to make my way back to Quito. I ended up  missing the last bus because I was browsing the street food stalls for dinner and obviously got carried away.  I was told at the terminal if I wanted to make it to Quito that night I would have to go to the motor way to try to flag a bus down. A pain in the arse with my ever exploding backpack but at least it was an option. I ended up meeting a girl from Venezuela doing the same.

After chatting to the gal from Venezuela named Hennessy she immediately invited me to her house in Quito to stay before my flight.  We were chatting for hours and it turns out Hennessy has been living in Quito for the past 6 months while her mother and 3 children are still in Venezuela,  where the situation is really volatile and dangerous at the moment with lots of the country fleeing for safety. She is trying to secure a permanent visa so that her children can come to live with her. Sadly her brother, a policeman, was killed last year. He was stabbed during a protest. Hennessy  was in Otavalo for the day helping a friend of hers (also from Venezuela ) to find a job. This poor man lost one of his legs last year also in a protest in Venezuela where a car ran over him. I couldn’t have felt more guilty about saying I was off to the Galapagos Islands the next day. We have no idea how lucky we are to be able leave our country yet alone travel. There are so many people here who will never have this opportunity and they want to do everything to help us.

When I arrived at Hennessy’s house there were 8 other Venezuelan men all sharing one tiny floor. The area was quite obviously dodgy and the taxi man was worried about letting us out of the car because there were some dangerous characters around. I was immediately treated to a Venezuelan delicacy of some flat breads and cold tuna pate. It was disgusting but the nicest gesture. The sleeping situation was a bit rough to say the least but I was so grateful to be there because I left all of my tent, sleeping bag etc…..so that I could travel to the Galapagos lightly. In the middle of the night I felt ants and spiders all over my body now I’m not sure if it was bed bugs (never experienced them) or potentially there is something dodgy living in my sleeping bag.  I was serenaded by 7 different Venezuelans snoring their heads off for the night but I didn’t care I was far too excited for the Islands. Everyday I appreciate how lucky I am it’s honestly only when you physically meet these humble people who have fled from their countries and families that you realise how blessed we are.

The following morning was a little stressful I wanted to give myself loads of time at the airport and contrary to normal I wanted to be organised. But Hennessy had other ideas she was up at 5am making more of these Venezuelan flat breads and boiling pots of water so that I could wash myself. I know I’ve been living rough but this was incredible. I insisted I could find a taxi alone but Hennessy was having none of it and wouldn’t let me go alone as a result I barely made the flight. This was partly caused by me getting v delayed at a FREE chocolate tasting en route to the terminal

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Flight to the Galapagos

On the flight I got chatting to my neighbor Wilson who is working in the Galapagos for the next 3 months.  We got on great and before I knew it he was offering me a couch to stay on with his friend Carlos. Free accommodation in the Galapagos is  a rarity so I was v v lucky. Security stopped me en route in as I accindently had a leaf in my backpack which is a big no no and they were not impressed. They are really strict about entry to the Island. Day 1 on the Islands I had no idea what to do/expect so lucky me I found a really organised German who I met on the plane who had itineraries coming out of his ears so  needless to sy I tagged along.

The Galapagos is one of the most unique places I have ever seen there is exotic wildlife wherever you turn with lots of the species only found on this Island.  It is notoriously expensive and a place I had never planned on going to but worth every penny.

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What a fish market should really look like
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Locals resting up at the fish market
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Local pelican

Myself and Germany on our first day did some gorgeous snorkelling in an enclosed cave called Las Grietas.  We finished the day by going to Tortuga bay a stunning beach where you see lots of marine Iguanas, an endemic species  that can only be found on the Galapagos. Swimming here we could also see lots of baby sharks. The government are extremely strict about conserving the nature in the Galpagos so all beaches close at 6pm.

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Marine Iguana
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Marine Iguana are seen everywhere in the Galapagos
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One of the many snorkeling spots

Santa Cruz Island has the most amazing  kiosk street with the freshest exotic fish you can imagine. Naturally they are all gagging for your business.  We ended up finding the best restuarant on the island and went there basically everynight. A group of American men recognised my loud voice from the plane and called us over claiming Irish ancestry which deserved a few celebratory beers. The sea food here is all freshly grilled for you and is out of this world and a whole grilled fish for 7$ is a steal (including salad, rice, plantains, coconut, chili and garlic sauce). The Americans were legends and we ended up having dinner with them most nights (mostly on the house, v v generous people). One night we had a random gathering of people including a opera singer who sang me  a personalised version of Ave Maria I almost chocked on my fish trying not to laugh.

On our first night together myself and Nils were starving even after finishing dinner. We were ease dropping on the couple next to us who didn’t finish their lobster. Gagging for a taste I asked the waiter could I finish their left overs.  A little taken aback he gave them to me. Myself and Nils sucked the leftover lobster dry. Divine. The Gallaghers would be proud especially my uncle Joe who wouldn’t waste a crumb. I have learned never to have any shame when it comes to good food and luckily Nils was on the same page.

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Chuck, Nils and Jeff

The only way to see lots of the exotic animals on the Island is to take daily tours. This is obviously really pricey and tours range from 100-200$ just for a day trip. The next day Nils was doing a tour and I decided to rent a bike with 3 other guys to go explore the Island’s lava tunnels, volcanic craters and visit the tortoise reserve. This was an amazing day just hanging out with  giant tortoises, unique to the Island and the largest reptile on earth. They believe that up to 20,000 tortoises have been removed from the Island since the arrival of humans. Today only 10% of the original Galapagos tortoises remains. The tortoises feed off a local fruit tree called Guava which is delicious but the islands are having huge issues with this fruit (and blackberry) as they are spreading rapidly which is effecting the growth of other animals/ species. An interesting fact 1 pile of  Galapagos tortoise poo can contain thousands of seeds which is spreading the Guava all over the Island.

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His face kind of reminds me of Voldemort
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Local tortoise munching on some guava fruit
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Hanging out with these guys for hours
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Eating delicious Guava

One of the days myself and Nils went  snorkelling to a place called Pinzon which was absolutely incredible. We got to swim with loads of sea turtles, marine iguans, sharks, playful sea lions and lots of amazing exotic fish and star fish. I didn’t want it to end. Lunch was fresh tuna fish on the boat.

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Getting the boat to Pinzon Island
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One of the many sea turtles
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Getting up close with some white-tipped sharks
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A school of white-tipped sharks
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Star fish on Pinzon island
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School of fish on pinzon island

So when we got back to the Island we both decided we wanted to change our flights to stay longer. The first thing that happens when you arrive in the Galapagos is you get overwhelmed and want to do everything. There are lots of free things to do but if you want to reach some more remote places you need to go on a cruise or take the tours. The tours aren’t cheap so you have to be selective and really think about what you want to see and what you can afford. I was chatting to a chap who said you can change your flights for 16 dollars and it was v easy. When I went to the flight agency they told me that normally it is only 16 dollars but somehow I managed to book my flight as an Ecuadorian citizen so it would be 135 dollars. God only knows how I managed that. I didn’t need much convincing and decided it was worth the extra few dollars to extend my stay to 2 weeks on the Island.

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Totally worth it
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Kicker rock

Most people who come to the Galapagos split their stay between the 3 islands. So we set off for the ferry to San Cristobal ons of the days. The journey is renowned for pukers! Idiot here didn’t realise that I had Gauva fruit in my bag that I had picked on my cycle the previous day. Anyway carrying this fruit is taken very seriously because it is threatening species. The security on the boats took me aside saying it was illegal to transport this fruit. I asked them could I eat them before boarding not wanting to waste the delicious fruit.  Strangely enough they let me eat them but I then had to fill out an incident report, the fruit skins were weighed my passport was taken a big hulabilu. The security people thought my name was Irish Roisin. Loving my new name! Anyway after all the fuss the boat was waiting for me to leave we eventually got going and a pretty turbulent 2 hour trip. Luckily I was able to  keep the puking at bay if you will pardon the pun.

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Boat Journey

We were greeted by crowds of sea lions in San Cristobal they are definitely one of my favourite animals on the Island.  They love humans especially when you are snorkelling with them in the water. For the day we hiked to some lovely view points and went to a spot where there was free snorkelling where we saw more sea turtles. It was here that we met legendary Rosemary a 70-year-old Canadian who has been backpacking for the past 10 years since the death of her husband. She too extended her flights. We instantly bonded over having hairy legs and not caring although Rosemary may have taken it to the extreme.  Myself and Nils were starving and lucky for us Rosemary produced the goods; cucumber slices with mountains of salt all cut on her hairy thighs. We spend ages chatting about rosemarys fondness for smoking weed and how she has landed herself into more than a few hairy situations (if you will pardon the pun).  A legend to say the least.

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Rosemary!!!!
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Getting greeted by this little fella
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Sea lions on san criostobal
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Having a snooze
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Isla Rosa Blanca
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Me and Nils on Rosa Blanca (all made from volcanic rock)
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Rosa Blanca
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Kicker rock tour
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Sunset with the sea lions at San Cristobal