Monday, 31 May 2010

South America Review

It's been just over 100 days since we arrived into South America. It was the first time that I had been to the continent (apart for a short stint in Guyana during the last cricket world cup), and we have seen and experienced quite a bit. So as I sink back in my seat on the flight from Quito to panama and then on to Mexico, I have been reflecting on some concluding thoughts about the vast continent and our time there.

I guess the first thing to say is exactly that - the continent is huge!!! We flew down to Ushuaia which is right at the very tip of South America, and from there I travelled by bus right up to Quito, Ecuador. Non stop this would take me about a week. That's a long time!!! The continent straddles the equator and there is just a variation in the natural environment as you progress up.

Although the distances maybe vast to my mind the variation in the cultures was not as immense or marked. Sure there are variations on the main themes, but across the large tract of Spanish speaking South America I was struck by how similar culturally the countries felt to me. Also (and comparisons are notoriously dangerous) not only did the cultural variations seem slight but the culture it self was a little same same. Ancient cultures (that by Asian standards were not ancient), succeeded by Spanish colonialism and then modern independence. And then what...? I know this is a controversial opinion but, I am just saying what I felt! Of course having essentially one language across most of the land mass and a common colonial past helps to bring the cultures together, and also gives rise to a little bit of this same same feeling.

Where I might have been a tad underwhelmed by the culture texture of South America, one cannot help but be blown away by its natural richness. On the natural beauty front this place rocks. You have Patagonia in the south, with mind blowing glaciers, wilderness walking and mountains with forms that you can't comprehend. Then there is the lake l
District belt, all leafy, flowers everywhere and glistening lakes aplenty. The Andes range may not be as high as the Himalayas, or host the royal family of tall mountains (all 102 of them) but they are dramatic, challenging and home to an amazing range of tribes and mountain people.

By far the most famous natural superstars in South America are the Amazon river and the surrounding rain forests. Nature is what sets South America apart from the rest of the pack. It is another world, trekking through the sticky noisy rainforest, just seeing life teem all around you; it is really mind blowing how much life surrounds you there. The variety and dramatic vistas constantly amazed us. How nature has constructed such beauty in so many ways in truly inspiring and I haven't even mentioned the Galapagos or Antarctica yet!!!

Nature - South America rocks!!!!

Related to the richness of nature is the wealth of outdoor pursuits you can enjoy here. Of course places like New Zealand are well known for the abundance of outdoors excitement, but South America easily rivals any place on earth I can think of. World class trekking, glacier walking, river pursuits, diving, mountain climbing - anything you can think of.

South America was an awesome traveler’s destination. The countries felt to me a little same same but different, but it is full of fun, fantastic sounds and colours. People are friendly and welcoming and we enjoyed it hugely. Urvi found a special niche in Buenos Aires and I have no doubt she will be back there sometime. We will return to South America to do justice to Peru and Bolivia as of course, as ever, we have just scratched the surface of this fascinating continent.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Climbing Cotopaxi, for me it’s more than the top of a mountain

20100520_072741_DIG_ECU_RTW_9999_A200_Cotopaxi Summit Climb

We started on this mammoth trip of ours with a whole bunch of dreams and ambitions, some of which we knew we would complete, some that we hoped we would, and some that at the time I think were pure pipedreams. One of the goals that falls into the last category for me was, climb a mountain. This meant climbing a real mountain and making it to the top! In my physical and mental condition back in may 2009, this was a complete fantasy; there was no way that I was going to the top of anything. However over the time we have travelled, my physical stamina has improved and more importantly my mental toughness has increased. So much so that when we visited Cotopaxi and trekked up to the base camp Refugio at 4800m, I knew that I wanted to climb this mountain and touch the summit.

The view of the top was just mouth watering, Cotopaxi is pretty much a perfect mountain shape, and looks just like you would imagine a volcano. The snow cap undulates like the ice cream dripping over a cone and the snow itself is brilliant white in the sun. It’s made even more startling when the rich blue sky is cloudless behind. It was truly awesome, and I knew I wanted to mark my achievement on this mountain.

All keen and raring to go, I took the guides advice and undertook some acclimatisation workouts. These included the Quilotoa loop and also climbing up to the 4800m Refugio of the mountain. I had also spent some time in Bolivia at altitude so I was pretty confident about dealing with the thinner air. What I was worried about was the pure challenge of the climb itself. Did I have the guts to do it? did I have the will power to keep trudging when things were tough? I guess this was really a question I can ask myself about life in general. My life has been pretty straightforward so far and I have been pretty fortunate in all aspects, but when the challenges have come my way I have been adept at dodging them. What I don’t have to do doesn’t usually get done. This mountain was a test for me of doing something that I had a choice to do but that was also tough. Would I chicken out, would I walk away from the challenge?

We climbed up to 4800m during the afternoon of day 1. There we had lunch and practised the use of ice crampons, and the ice pick. The level of safety briefing by our experienced guide was really good, and it certainly made me feel a bit better. Nonetheless, the first steps in the crampons really gave me a wake up call for what I could expect only a few hours later! It was tough, but at the time of the real thing we would be cold and in the dark…

When climbing like this, all climbers are roped together, this is to allow the guide leader to assess if anyone has fallen, and of course to ensure they don’t tumble through the ice or down the mountain. This is all good, but the flip side of the safety rope is that you all have to essentially climb at the same rate, and without stopping. This can be really tough, especially for me! (I would want a break all the time). It also added a new layer of tension to the whole thing, as I was now not only responsible for my own achieving of the summit, but also the other climber who I was with. In this case the other climber was Andres, from Belgium. Andres was a fit and likable 23yr old, who like me really wanted to get to the top. We got on well form our first meeting, and as we sat outside in the late afternoon staring out at the beautiful sight of the Cotopaxi summit, we both talked about if we would make it. I assured him that we would, and the words of the guide also helped… ‘Climbing a mountain is not a race, it’s about being a team and working for each other’. With these words ringing comfortingly in my ears, I finished up my dinner at 6pm, and went to sleep in the freezing dorm, ready to be awoken at 11pm for breakfast and to start climbing at 12am.

The moon was out and the sky seemed clear, unfortunately that meant cold cold conditions for climbing, and what we didn’t see for the fog rolling in above the snow layer of the mountain. The first 2 hours were the climb up to the glacier face. This was slow going and tough in the dark. I was struggling a little with the cold but spirits were fine. The moment we hit the snow layer it became apparent that things would get frosty and colder – the snow started to fall and the wind whipped up. Amelio, our guide basically said that the snow and fog would be with us from here on in. We would not likely see the crater, or the beautiful blue white scenes we had dreamt of.

We all agreed that go on we must, for us all getting to the top was the most important goal. We walked, climbed, clambered trudged. The going was tough and the pace determined. By the 4th hour, both Andres and I wanted to stop after 10 steps it seemed, but we kept going. All I could thing about was the feeling of failure, and how I did not want to go back to Urvi with the story of nearly making. How I didn’t want to add this to my list of compromised targets, my list of second bests. I wanted this climb, on that day, to be the start of my list of achievements. We kept going.

Breathing become tough and the snow was sticking everywhere making it hard for me to see in my glasses, but as the weak sun rose and peered through the think fog, the snow capped peaks and cuts became evident. On 6hrs we reached the final climb, one of the steepest of the whole endeavour, and one of the toughest to push ourselves for. We huffed and puffed our way over the top and just over 6.5hrs after setting out we reached the summit. Despite the grey underwhelming physical sight that greeted us, I was beaming with pride. The mental sight was that I had made it to the top pf a mountain. I had set myself a tough challenge and completed it. This felt good, it felt great. I sank into the snow, said a little prayer, thanked a few people and just sucked in the cold summit air. There was total and deafening silence. Not a sound, even the wind seemed to make no noise. I will remember this silence for ever.

Cotopaxi hid itself from our eyes, but for me I saw more than I thought I would, I saw what effort can achieve, I saw what taking the right path, the tough path can get you, and as I stumbled and slid and struggled down due to pure exhaustion I kept smiling and knew that this was more than a mountain for me. Cotopaxi showed me that I can achieve things if I tried and made the effort. It was a special feeling that I pray I can hold on to and replicate over again.

Ps we were the first of the climbing groups to make it to the summit that day…

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Keep Left In Quilatoa

One of the most popular and beautiful treks in Ecuador is a trek called the Quilotoa loop. This is a 3 day trek that takes you between some pretty villages and through some of the most awesome green vistas you can imagine. There are rolling hills, small farms and patchwork fields all around you and you really feel totally in old world Ecuador, its just lovely. The highlight of this trek is a loop within a loop – this is the 14km walk around the crater of the Quilotoa volcano. This is a really stunning walk where you traverse the crater rim; it’s pretty up and down and is actually suggested as a prep hike for climbing Cotopaxi. We had originally decided to undertake the full 3 day loop but since the time I decided to climb Cotopaxi, we cut the plans short and decided only to trek the crater rim.

So full enthusiasm to hand we jumped on a bus and then a pickup truck to take the 2 hour trip to the village of Quilotoa. The pan was to do the crater rim, stay overnight at the local hotel and then return to Latacunga the next morning, all good! Unfortunately Urvi twisted her ankle again, and was not in shape to do the whole walk, so Claire and I decided to tramp the crater together and meet Urvi back at the hostel. At this point I should introduce Claire. We met in Latacunga and travelled to Cotopaxi together. Claire is a Pharmacist from Ireland. It seems that Ireland is full of really nice Claires! As our friend from Antarctica is also called Claire from Ireland!! Anyways Claire and I embarked anticlockwise around the trek that should really have taken only 4 hours. However we hadn’t account for the sudden descent of some pretty dangerous freezing fog. We had seen the fog on the other side of the crater, but were not too worried about it. But when the whole crater and the surrounding village were covered I a mist that brought the visibility down to 5m we started to get seriously worried. The path was precarious in any case, but when you couldn’t see either side of the gravel things started to get tough. We also got seriously lost at least 4 times. When I mean seriously, I mean that we had no bearing of where we were and where we were heading. A few times we lost the path totally and could have walked into nothingness!

This was a trek where we both had to help each other, keep each other going and concentrate. Funnily (now that we were safe and sound!) we coined the term ‘when in doubt, keep left!’ this was because I kept trying to follow the path and often lost it! So the rule on Quilotoa is KEEP LEFT!! (When doing the trek anticlockwise!)

The trek was a real test of our resolve and was a lesson in trying to keep your spirits high. As the sun was slowly setting and we were seriously facing the prospect of maybe having to sleep out in the open for the night, we had 3 major bits of good fortune that surely showed that someone was looking out for us. The 1st was when we seriously seriously lost the trail once. At that time I stopped and tried to relocate our steps, it was only after ½ hour of scrambling that we finally found the trial. The 2nd bit of good luck was that we crossed a farmer, who had come from the village of Quilotoa; this perked our spirits up a lot. The final and biggest bit of luck was right at the end, when we had done what seemed like major circles circles circles, the fog lifted a bit and we saw the lake below! We saw the path and most importantly we saw how far we had to go! It was a real thank God moment.

We arrived back to the hostel completely soaking wet, and freezing. It took us 5.5hrs, which in the grand scheme of the nightmare, wasn’t too bad. However I reckon for at least 4.5hrs Urvi was panicking and really worried. She had got to the stage where some guys from the hostel were going to start out and search for us. I think she was much more nervous than even we were!

The day ended well, with a great meal and a lovely log fire in the hostel. Claire and I were able to recount the drama of the day and Urvi was finally able to relax. This experience just goes to show that you should never take nature for granted, or it can take you.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Cuenca Vs Quito – Cuenca wins hands down

20100513_072465_DIG_CUE_RTW_9999_A200_Cuenca City Ecuador

On returning to the mainland from the Galapagos, we headed to Cuenca. Cuenca is a pretty colonial town in the southern area of Ecuador, with wonderful examples of colonial architecture - picture perfect churches, squares and streets. Interestingly there is a competition between Cuenca and Quito’s old town, as to which is most pretty and more authentic. My vote would undoubtedly be Cuenca. The whole city has a friendly feel to it, and there is just so much character all over. Quito was a city that actually became less attractive to us as time went on. This is unusual for most places that we have been to, but with Ecuador’s capital city we came in with major expectations and as time went on the expectations were dashed!! Cuenca was the opposite, it really grew on us. The main square was a lovely mix of people walking about, flower sellers, the church in the background and beautiful green trees swaying in the wind. I would go as far as to say that if other people were to come to Ecuador, minimise the time you want to spend in Quito. Just fly in and get out!

Cuenca you have 2 solid votes for prettiest city in Ecuador…

Friday, 7 May 2010

How we visited the Galapagos

I wanted to write a short post about how we went about enjoying the Galapagos Islands. Simply put, at this time of year there seemed to be plenty of last minute deals available, so we DIDN’T book ahead of time. Urvi booked our flight tickets to the Islands from Quito (Tame, Aerogal are the main airlines to get out to the Galapagos). We flew to Baltra Airport, which is on Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz was the base point for most cruises, or at least the half way stopping point for the 8 day cruises. This means that it was easy to get last minute deals of boats leaving from the island.

The first thing to decide is whether you want to do a cruise at all!! I mean that you could do a land based tour, from Santa Cruz, combined with day trips to a few islands (not all are accessible on day trips) and an overnight to Isabella. We decided to do a cruise, because it would enable us to get to islands early, see them late in the day and also not have to ‘commute’ all the time.

The islands are broadly split up into a North, South and Western cluster, and the second thing we had to decide was how long we wanted to cruise for. The options were essentially 4, 5 or 8 days. With the 4 or 5 days you would not be able to all 3 of the clusters and essentially you would need to decide one of the clusters. The 8 day cruises would enable you to pretty much get to all the islands. We chose a 4 day cruise, simply because of budget and time availability. This worked for us.

The third thing to decide is the area you wanted to cruise, so of course if on 8 days, then you can get everywhere, but if on a shorter tour then you would need to decide. We opted for the north sector tour. This would enable us to get Genovese, which is a distant island that is rarely reached and that we wanted to get to. In hindsight we might have wanted to do the south sector, and this would have included Espanola. Espanola is absolutely one of the big hitters of the Galapagos. The bird life is outstanding and the island is jut beautiful.

Once these ponderables were resolved, the final thing to decide was the boat to go on. We were not too bothered about getting on a boat akin to the QM2, but we did want to be safe and have a good guide. It is tough tough tough to find out about the boats at the time of booking. The boats are in generally 4 broad categories - Tourist, Superior, First Class and Executive. Let’s ignore the last one because these boats are well above the budget of most backpackers. We went for the Eden which was a first class boat, but to be honest, the route, the duration and then the guide were more important to us. The boat was awesome though, so we lucked out in any case!!

The Galapagos Islands are not tough to visit, the budget traveller will still need to budget $150 per person per day for a cruise (excluding park entry fee, and flights), but deals are to be had. More important to this is the fact that visiting the Galapagos is truly an amazing experience and for most most is once in a lifetime, spend the money and enjoy it!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Galapagos Islands, where the animals are wild and the skies filled with birds

20100507_071823_DIG_GAL_RTW_9999_A200_Galapagos Islands Tour Santiago

When you think of nature and the best places in the world to witness the awe of nature there are many locations that come to mind. It could be a safari in Africa or rain forests of Borneo, or the Great Barrier Reef. However there is no place better than the Galapagos Islands for witnessing nature at its most untouched. For believers of evolution (the theory that all organisms have developed from common ancestors, over millions of years, through a process called natural selection – where natures best survive and pass on successful traits to their offspring) the Galapagos Islands are where the English biologist Charles Darwin came and studied birds called finches, and developed his theories of evolution. It’s a pretty special place!

The islands are about 600 miles west of Ecuador and are famous for the variety of marine, land and bird life, not to mention the many many species of plants. The isolated nature of each island meant that they have developed totally unique populations of plants and in some cases animals, and despite the potential for rampant exploitation over the years many of the islands in the archipelago are untouched and uninhabited.

The basic approach to visiting the Galapagos is to arrive and jump on one of the many expedition cruises for a few days or week of amazing wildlife watching. I don’t want talk too much about that in this post because I want to address this in a separate more detailed post about how we organised our trip. However it is enough to say that we combined an island hopping cruise with some time on the main inhabited island, and some dives also.

The highlights of our trip were the animals and more notably the birds. Because the Galapagos Islands were untouched for so long, the wildlife is totally unaffected by humans, and the birds (many of whom nest on the ground) are literally all around you. The stars of the show were undoubtedly the Frigate Birds. I remember first seeing these amazing birds on the living planet documentaries with David Attenborough, which my dad recorded from the BBC in the mid 1980s. They are amazing birds that look very regal with a long pointed beak and swooping wings. However their most striking features are the huge inflatable red pouches on the chest of the males, that they inflate like a balloon when trying to attract females. The spectacle was amazing on the TV but in real life it is so awesome! Its crazy, when the living planet was on I don’t think that I would have ever dreamt of being 2 feet away from performing Frigate Birds on one of the Galapagos Islands! Now they were everywhere…

Even more amazing than the performance of the males however was the display of synchronised flying that we were treated to by 7-10 birds for about 1hr! Our guide told us that it is pretty common to see these birds following a boat and ‘riding’ on the wind currents it creates, but we had these birds fly literally 1 metre above our sun deck on the top of the boat. They were so so majestic and silent, and in perfect tune with the ship and us it seemed!! The birds would take it in turns to ride directly above us, in order to get the best drafts, and then they would fall back and let a few of the others take the prime location. They were so close that at times I could literally look into their eyes. I don’t know why but the hour that these birds spent with our boat as we travelled between two islands was totally dream like and the most amazing interaction I have ever had with any living animal. It was totally sublime.

Another once in a lifetime experience of nature we had was also a tale of the amazing and also tough side of life on the wild side. We had just finished an afternoons snorkelling (which in its self was amazing! Loads of fish and beautiful corals etc) off Bartolome Island, and as we were drying off and chilling out on the beach someone shouted out turtles!! There was some confusion for a moment as everyone looked out to the water and saw nothing, then we realised the turtles were hundreds of baby turtles that had just hatched up on the beach and were now going to make the dash for the water and potential safety. It was just a totally amazing sight of the babies, not more than 4cm long looking so cute flip flopping there way to the water. There were literally hundreds and the amazing thing was that normally the turtle hatch under the cover of night thus reducing the risk of predators catching them. Unfortunately for the turtles but fortunately for us, these guys woke up during the day. It was also very fortunate for the Frigate Birds who could spot the tiny babes from their cruising altitude a few hundred feet up in the air. The moment the hatchlings were out on the beach the sky was full of hungry birds, and they really tucked in. There was literally a turtle massacre right in front of us. It was just an awesome sight of the birds feasting on the newborns. It was tough to watch but a great display of nature at its wildest. Not more than 2 or 3% of the hatched turtles made it to the water and even then they weren’t safe, there would be fish, sharks and others all ready to welcome them. Maybe only 1% of all the turtles that hatched would survive. What a story! It made every fully grown turtle we saw a total miracle.

The final amazing experience that I wanted to talk about was the diving of North Seymour. In short it was just outstanding! We saw sharks, multiple types of fish, beautiful forms of coral and much more. Urvi wasn’t going to dive here, but I am glad that she decided to do so. She was really lucky and actually saw Hammerhead sharks on her first dive! So that’s pretty amazing. The Galapagos Islands are really special for diving because of the currents that flow around the islands, this make the area full of nutrients and therefore the seas full of animal life. The sharks were really special and on the second dive, although we really struggled with the currents (that were super strong), we saw plenty of black tipped and white tipped reef sharks. The fully grown sharks looked menacing, and it was so exciting for us to see these animals in the wild. Hurrah!!!

We travelled to the Galapagos, like most people, with a vision of natural history paradise, and in short we got exactly that. It was an amazing experience being this close to a range of wildlife. Again it was a privilege to be here in person and for me was another one of these childhood dreams accomplished.

Sunday, 2 May 2010


Well we did it! Despite some very significant downs and because of some really significant ups, we have come through the one year landmark. In a post like this you normally summarise the things we have seen, the people we have met etc etc, but I just want to concentrate on a few things that I have learnt/felt.

This first and most obvious is just how special the trip has been thus far. We have climbed, flown, dived, walked, laughed, cried, cycled, rode, photographed, written, eaten, eaten and then eaten a bit more!! We have done so much, so much that just 2 years ago I would not have thought I or Urvi would be able to do. Could I have imagined that I could trek as much as I have??? Could in have imagined that Urvi would dive the oceans of the world??? No and no! We have worked hard to be able to enjoy this trip and looking back so far we have done that hard work full justice.

The second thought is - If life throws you challenges you have to rise to them. Despite feeling often that things have been bizarrely easy for us (and in many ways a trip like this is easier than one may think) there have been challenges. Either self created or created by circumstance. I am learning that the trick is it rise up to the challenge and face it rather than to spend energy in finding a way around it. This has really bee proved on the trip. Conquer the summit rather than trying to find a way around the mountain. Besides the view is much better from the top!! Which leads me to my next discovery...

Actually doing something, actually achieving something is such a sweet feeling. I have spent alot of my life finding a way out of things. A year on and I am realising that doing and achieving things is so important and is so rewarding. Even the commencement of the trip is an example of this. We had a dream, we made plan, we worked hard, and we achieved it. This financial and time freedom that we now feel on the trip is a direct of this. Cheers to us.

Tell people who matter to you what you are feeling, it could be the last time they hear you. No need to say anything more on this one. I have lost 2 important people during this year. In both cases much was left unsaid and now the chance is lost.

The world is stunningly and bewilderingly beautiful - we have touched 5 of the 7 continents so far and will set foot in all 7 by the end. We have seen oceans, mountains, deserts, rainforests, glaciers and skies of all sorts. Each time we have seen something new and continually we are amazed by the beauty of nature. The variety of animal life has been outstanding and seeing God’s creatures in their own natural environment is really a precious thing to behold. I cannot imagine, for example, seeing a mother and calf humpback whale feeding in the stunning waters of Antarctica, just to be able to recall this is a treat!!

My final realization from this phase of the trip is that people are basically good and often can be angels in disguise. We have stayed in many many hostels and most of the time we have met interesting people who have stories to tell and are interested in our stories. It is an amazing experience hearing about the lives of such different people. Also the general public of the world - people just living life and in the main enjoying with what they have – are really amazing and must be learnt from. We get really caught up in a lot of nothing and I think in the future just recalling the villagers in Sa Pa, Vietnam or the farmers in Mongolia will really put my life into context.

Despite having a general tendency to trust people, I have be personally amazed at just how helpful, and sometimes life saving people have been.

The Chinese police officer in Zinning who sorted our Tibet permits out.
The guy in Siberia, who helped us to our hostel, when we were totally lost.
The whole campsite in New Zealand who came to our aid when our campervan tipped over
The Brazilian women who gave us so much help in Rio and then drove us to our hostel
The Hostel guys in Japan, who were like family to us throughout our stay

Thanks to them all, and everyone else who have made the year so so memorable!!!

We have less than a year left on this trip. The last months have been very tough for many reasons, but I can unreservedly say that this last year has taught me so much, made me realise many of my strengths and weaknesses, and most of all has been the most fun ever!!!!

  © Blogger template 'Isolation' by 2008

Back to TOP