Galapagos Islands – a truly unforgettable experience

I can still feel the fuzzy carpet beneath me as I sit cross legged on the floor in front of the big box television. I’m 7 years old and my dad and older brothers are sitting on the couches behind me after they had claimed age-rank for the superior seats. David Attenborough’s voice fills the living room and we all marvel at the footage of strange and beautiful creatures and landscapes on the nature documentary Our World. Visiting the Galapagos Islands was like bringing this moment of childhood wonder into reality.

My tour of these fantastic islands began with a trek to Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island. I walked along a red dirt path through giant cacti plants with plasticky looking wooden trunks and fleshy green ends. At the end of the trek an idyllic sandy beach stretched out before me. The beach was empty aside from a large sea iguana who sauntered across the sand towards me. The iguana stopped in front of me to pose for photos, and we shared a moment of mutual curiosity. He showed no fear, and I was about to discover this was the same for most of the creatures of these Islands. I continued to make my way around to the bay, stopping to snorkel in a lagoon full of bright fish where the sea iguanas would wiggle passed me swimming back to shore.

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That evening some friends and I decided to check out Puerto Ayora’s buzzing little restaurant strip the Kioskas. It was a pedestrian street decorated with fairy lights that had picnic tables running down the middle. Kiosks lined either side serving up the days catch of fish or lobsters for about $15. There were also yummy more budget “menu del dia” options for around $4-$6.

The following day I rented a bicycle to check out the famous labs, libraries and giant-tortoise breeding centre at the Charles Darwin research station. The giant tortoises are a sight to behold and later I found they are not only in enclosed areas, but roaming freely on every island I visited.

The giant tortoises are rumoured to be able to see people’s intentions – they don’t hold back on giving you a “once over”.
The giant tortoise mating rituals can last for days. Not surprising, I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure he is facing the wrong way!!

After a few days on Santa Cruz Island some friends and I ventured by boat to the second largest island, San Isabela. On arrival we watched sea lions playing at the pier and penguins happily diving off rocks into the water. Snorkelling here was free and good for hours of entertainment. The sealions would swim at you at speed and then swiftly change direction up to the surface within centimetres of your face. Or check out their whiskers in the reflection of your mask.

After we hung up the snorkels it was time for Caña shots and Cuba libres at Beach Bar. The bar played great music while tourists and locals attempted the slack line and beach volley ball. After an exquisite sunset the bonfire was lit and the party went on into the night.

  

    

The next morning we shook off the Caña shots by climbing one of  San Isabela’s many volcanoes. After a small hike we repelled through the ferny mouth of the volcano. We then lowered ourselves 150 meters via rope one at a time through a narrow hole into crater. It was a nerve racking experience as on my way down I had to swing left and right on the vertical rock wall to avoid loosened boulders from those waiting at the top. I made it to the bottom in one piece and explored the lower portion of the crated with the light from my headlamp.

In the afternoon we rented bikes and made our way around San Isabela’s coast. It was lined with beach after white sandy beach and they were virtually empty. Here we found lookouts, walking-trails and wildlife including flamingos. We visited the wall of tears which is an eerie structure built by prisoners from when San Isabela was a penal colony. The wall is named this as it served no purpose other than to keep prisoners busy and there were many casualties during its construction.

snapped snapping pictures covered in mud from the volcano
Wall of Tears

 

The highlight of San Isabela for me was Los Tunelles snorkelling tour. We were taken by boat with our enthusiastic first mate “the sealion” and encountered devil rays that spanned 3 meters. First the boat slowed its engine and we made our way around the maze of lava tunnels, rock formations caused by volcanic activity over the years. Amidst the tunnels we found nesting blue footed boobies.


 The next part of the tour we jumped in the water and Sealion guided us snorkelling around the rock tunnels, I was soon distracted by a sea turtle the size of a picnic table inviting me to glide along with him. Rejoining the group we found groups of golden rays, spotted eagle rays, and my dream encounter – sharks! Sealion called me over at one point and literally pushed me under water into a cave and I was face to face with a shark. Later I found some sharks in action and enjoyed the thrill of snorkelling around with them.

The encounter with the Sharks had been amazing but only gave me a new aspiration – to find their creepy cousins the hammerheads. I’d been told I was unlikely to find them as they are normally too deep for snorkellers or in the more advanced diving locations. I thought I’d try my luck anyway and organised another snorkelling tour for the following day at kicker rock off San Cristobal Island.

On the journey an albatross glided in to land a few meters from the boat to check us out.

Kicker Rock – can you see the lion?

  

  

My adventure buddies Kent and David

Within seconds of getting in the water at Kicker Rock we encountered beautiful large eagle rays and sharks. Then swimming through the channel between the rocks was insane. The water so clear you could see 12 meters down to the bottom and watch the sea traffic, condensed in layers passing through. Sharks and sea turtles near the bottom, schools of large fish and rays through the middle and smaller fish and twirling sealions showing off at the top. Once I had come out the other side of the channel I was looking down and watched a shape passing a few meters below me that was unmistakable. I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing this and the guide grabbed me and yelled excitedly “hammer head, hammer head!”. Almost choking on the water in excitement I dove back under and followed this amazing creature through the water.  It was absolutely surreal and I felt incredibly lucky to get so close. 

After taking a moment to pinch myself I continued the adventure and found a school of dark fish so large and condensed that it was like its own ocean within an ocean. I swam into the middle of the school and watched in awe at the darkness around me sparkling as the thousands of fish simultaneously opened and closed their mouths to reveal bright silver. 

Our tour was nearly over and as we headed back to the boat I felt content having had this experience. And then to my absolute delight there were shouts from people in the water behind me “hammer heads, hammer heads!” I plunged down into the water just in time as 4 large hammerheads swam through the ocean in front of me. I looked behind me to see another 3,  I was surrounded by them. For a moment I panicked but I need not have, the hammer heads had no interest in me and soon out swam me.

  

On a complete high after the days encounters it was off to Santa Cruz Islands Bongo Bar for sushi followed by cocktails and dancing. The staff working here were awesome too.

 I met a lot of people travelling South America who decided not to visit the Galapagos Islands as it’s too expensive. I felt the same way until I did some research. The Lonely Planet guide book suggests the only way to do the Islands justice is to spend several thousand on a cruise but this was absolutely not the case. I planned my self guided trip with a budget of around $1,000 and found this was sufficient for a low season visit (March-May, Sept-Oct).

See below for cost summary (USD): 

  • Flights from Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador – $320-$400
  • National Park entry $110
  • Budget accommodation $10-$15 per night
  • Activities and inter Island transport $400
  • Food, drinks and incidentals $100

Bonita Bolivia and Conquering 6,000m

A lot of people I’ve met didn’t like Bolivia. I can see why, many spend a good chunk of their visit in the bathroom or in hospital due to food poisoning from the lack of hygiene, or altitude sickness. It’s the poorest country in South America so you can expect a lot of crime, poverty and streets filled with smelly rubbish. Plus locals can seem unfriendly as they’re not good with eye-contact. My experience? This country has the most uniquely beautiful landscapes I found in all of South America. People are also really friendly once you get past their shyness and there are some world-class opportunities for adventure seekers as well as more tranquil sightseeing and some yummy food if you dare!

My first stop was in Bolivia’s own Copacabana on lake Titicaca. The town was pretty with a very tranquil feel and I enjoyed a visit to Isla del Sol, a short boat ride from the town to see some Inca structures. Copacabana was full of great restaurants and plenty of vegetarian food. Everything here was very cheap too. I got a private room with en suite in a nice hostel in town for about $7 US and you could get a really nice 3 course dinner and drinks for 2 people for about the same.

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Leaving Copacabana I enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over lake Titicaca. Snapping photos all the way to La Paz.IMG_2086 IMG_2084

La Paz is a lively blend of more awe-inspiring mountains, kooky music and chaotic traffic. The cars here look like they’ve been collected from the bottom of a cliff. I was twice in the back seat of cabs who jammed into traffic scraping the sides of other cars and neither driver cared.

By now I’d had dozens of encounters with locals. Sometimes if asked a question, people would just turn their eyes down and tell me “No”. Arranging my Huayna Potosì mountain climb (quite expensive by Bolivian standards) was no exception. I visited a few agencies and was surprised by one who did not try at all to sell me their package and both women behind the desk were unsmiling and barely looked at me. They just handed me the prices. For some reason I decided to give them a shot and after a little time found them to be incredibly helpful. They even went so far as to lend me a backpack and thermal clothing free of charge. Then they patiently walked me around town to help me find other things I needed and sincerely wished me a pleasant journey. Their goodheartedness was unmistakable and proved my theory about Bolivians cultural traits to be misunderstood. I also met some locals who had overcome their shy social barriers and found them to be some of the most heartwarming sweet people I’ve ever met.

The Huayna Potosì climb I’d booked would be 2 nights and 3 days with one day of training at base camp. This training day was also hugely important for acclimatization as it was not recommended to attempt the climb without at least a week or two in altitude. I’d had about 4/5 days around 3,500m so I was just on the cusp. The Huayna Potosi summit is 6,063m which to put things in perspective:

Mt cook 3,754m
Kilimanjaro 5,895m
Everest 8,848m (base camp 5,300m)

Amazingly, the cost for this climb was only around $140 USD.

With my climb booked I decided to have a few beers with some friends. That night got away from me after meeting a group of crazy travellers and letting the altitude-alcohol combo take the reins. I woke up in time the next morning to meet my mountain guide but was definitely still a little drunk. Not the best start. After a nauseating 2 hour drive we finally reached a small house at the base of Huayna Potosi and I struggled through some lunch. Then we put on many layers of clothing and climbing gear and trekked up the mountain to begin our climbing training on a small glacier. The altitude was deadly already, I felt I could not get enough oxygen no matter how deeply I tried to inhale and I had a nasty headache.

Donning crampons and learning to climb up and down slippery walls of ice and rock was a good distraction though! I was training with a Japanese girl Kaori who described the experience well, “I was like a shaking baby animal”. And for good reason, we were high up on steep and narrow ice shelves with no safety ropes. Not a chance you could do this kind of thing as an inexperienced climber in NZ!

Then we moved on to the really fun part, we got harnessed up and climbed a vertical ice face with our crampons and 2 ice axes. I had not been expecting this and loved it! It was quite scary as we were being supported only by a rope that our guide had hammered into the ice above. Using the sharp tips of the crampons we smashed our feet into the ice to gain footing then with our arms smashed the ice axes into the wall above our heads and hauled ourselves up step by step. It was physically demanding, especially with the altitude and an overhang at the top of the wall but both of us made it. My forearms and hands were on fire when I reached the bottom from clinging on for dear life to the ice axes!

A few extra climbers arrived at base camp that evening and we all went to bed early. I was still struggling to breathe and felt dizzy, I hoped my body could handle the next days climb to 5,100 meters. Especially if this was how I felt resting at 4,000. Morning came around and I felt the same and had no appetite despite needing precious calories for the days’ climb!

Day one was slow going. We carried 20kg backpacks with our snow gear which we would need for the peak and made our way up to Rock Camp which was a little over 5,100m. I felt I needed 3 deep gasps of air for each tiny slow step I took up and I had a throbbing headache. We made it to the camp early afternoon and guzzled some coca tea. After sleeping a few hours in the afternoon my headache was much stronger. Altitude effects everyone differently, I’m told altitude sickness is worse when you are resting as you naturally take in less oxygen.

We then went to bed after an early dinner to try to rest before starting our climb to the peak a little after midnight.

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Base camp pre climb
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the snowy summit in the background from base camp
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The summit covered in cloud from Rock camp

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Trying to sleep at 7pm was a bit of a non event. I think most of the group managed an hour or so before waking to cram down some carbs and coca tea before the climb to the summit.

Myself, Kaori and 2 guides set off at 1am with heavy clothes and boots with crampons for the sub zero temperatures and ice. We used headlamps to light our path in the snow and were very lucky as the weather was clear with a big full moon. I wasn’t feeling the altitude too much but the climb was very difficult and I was hot and sweaty under all my layers. We climbed a few hours and by 5,500 meters Kaori was not doing well. I watched her determined to continue but she was physically ill and her pace was a stumbling crawl. She could barely even speak but kept repeating she wanted to continue and trying to force her body to do the same. I was sad my Japanese comrade had to abandon the hike, but there was no way she’d have made it with at least another 4 hours to go and the mountain getting steeper.

So my guide Ramero and I continued up and the hike got steeper as it had looked. Ramero told me we would only be able to stop every 40 minutes, if we took too long we would have to turn around and go back as a few hours after sunrise the mountain is too dangerous with the hot sun creating deadly avalanches. I willed my increasingly tired legs to continue and tried not to ask for any breaks until Ramero stopped even though I was in agony and struggling for breath as we climbed higher. Finally we had a rest for a few minutes, we could not stop longer than a few minutes as the cold would rapidly creep through the numerous layers of clothing. I looked up at the huge mountain above me and the sinking moon. I hoped that meant we weren’t too far but Romero informed me we had about 3 hours to the summit at the slow pace we were walking.

Now as it was only me and the guide for the journey, I could say anything about the next few hours, but being a stickler for the truth I’ll give you what actually happened. Each step after 5,700m was torture and I couldn’t hide it. At this point I couldn’t breathe and doubled over every few steep steps gasping for air and begging Ramero for a rest. Unfortunately for Ramero my whingeing in Spanish was quite advanced! Climbers ahead were clearly struggling too, I saw little patches of vomit in the snow and watched a few more people give up and turn back. I didn’t think I could make it much further but I felt so weak that even pulling out seemed like it would be too much effort.

I couldn’t have continued without Ramero, he had been the most chilled comedian in the few days earlier but now he had his game face on. He gave me no sympathy when I pleaded with him to stop. I would stand still for a few seconds, physically unable to lift my legs another step and he would bark “vamos!” without looking back and we would continue. Another hour of this and he finally looked at me. Taking in my broken state he asked me if I wanted to go back. He had timed it well as we had just had a brief break and I felt a rare spark of determination. I told him I would try to keep going. He repeated that I was not allowed to keep stopping or the sun would rise and we would be in trouble.

The track became incredibly narrow and iced and some parts were so steep that I was terrified of falling off the mountain or down a crevice. Exhausted and dizzy, I would sometimes carelessly place my foot a little off the track and let out a scream as one leg lurched down the hill. Ramero told me not to scream as this would cause avalanches.

The sun began to rise which I could see was marvellous but didn’t have time to appreciate because I was in so much pain and didn’t want to look down as the height made me more dizzy. We were close to the top. There were some girls waiting at the bottom of the final monster peak. It was too much and they turned back. I felt the same, I sadly realised I did not have the strength either to make it up this last peak. Even though we were probably only 100m from the summit.

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Somehow when I explained to my guide that I could not go on it was lost in translation. We continued up.

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And I did it! My first mountain conquered. The feeling was indescribable and I’ll remember this moment with pride forever.

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After a days recovery I embarked on a 3 day tour of Uyuni and the Bolivian salt flats. The landscapes were magical!

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