Visiting the Galapagos Islands

It was a Monday morning shortly after sunrise and I was balancing on some slippery rocks in shallow water trying to keep myself upright. Clutching Matty’s hand, I attempted to move my left foot forward onto the next rock but then something soft, solid and slippery hit me, sending me off balance, causing me to slip waist-deep into the water.

“I just got head-butted by a sea lion,” I squealed, watching the pups swim around me and through my legs, before making their way to Matty to try their tricks on him.

There were about five of them playing in the water together, swimming, jumping and diving like dolphins through the waves. The day before we had watched them surf together – we sat for what felt like hours, mesmerised by their playfulness, as they waited for a big wave to come from behind before swimming with it, letting it carry them to the shore before diving over the surf as it broke in the more shallow waters.

Over the last eight days we have watched the pups take some of their first confused steps, swum and played with them underwater, observed how they sleep and live in their colonies and giggled at their quite human-like behaviours.

It was basically torture not being able to stroke this sandy beast's neck.

It was basically torture not being able to stroke this sandy beast’s neck.

This little beauty was stumbling all over his mamma.

This little beauty was stumbling all over his mamma.

We sunbathed with them...

We sunbathed with them…

And drank beers with them.

And drank beers with them.

I might have tried to take one home.

I might have tried to take one home.

It's impossible to take a bad photo of a baby sea lion.

It’s impossible to take a bad photo of a baby sea lion.

Even if Matty jumps in the photo with one.

Even if Matty jumps in the photo with one.

But it is not just the sea lions and fur seals that allow you a wonderfully close and personal insight into their splendid lives on the Galapagos – in fact there is not one species that does not seem to welcome you with open arms, or at least lazily open one eye to you.

When the Galapagos islands were discovered by accident in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, who drifted off course when sailing from Panama to Peru, he reported that the islands’ birds were “so stupid that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand.”

And 500 years later it appears little has changed. They seem to regard humans as nothing more than a sometimes inconvenient shield from the sun as we peer down at them, blocking the sun’s rays as they sunbathe. Rest assured we did not ‘catch’ or touch the animals – we had a wonderful guide who ensured we were always two metres from the animals, as is the national park’s rules, but it was fascinating to be within an arm’s reach of some of the world’s most treasured and unique species.

It was only appropriate that the first animal we saw on the first day of our 8-day cruise in the islands was the giant Galapagos Tortoise, which gave the islands their name. Roaming the highlands of the islands, these huge tortoises dwarf everything around them. I stared at their huge, wrinkly legs and long, weathered necks as they slowly grazed their way across the land, and was struck by how pre-historic they appeared, as if lost creatures from a few Millennia ago. I giggled as one approached another causing it to hiss and tuck its head into its shell in a fairly defenceless manner.

Just hanging out, munching some grass.

Just hanging out, munching some grass.


Behind bars…

It was about half-way through the trip that I realised with some horror I was probably going to spend the rest of my years as a ‘twitcher’. Suddenly, I couldn’t believe I had thought it was acceptable to travel without a pair of binoculars and a bird book and made a mental note to add these to my travel kit at the earliest possible opportunity.

It started with the penguins. And they were marvellous. Sitting proudly on the rocks, our little dinghy floated right up to them and they barely gave us a sideways glance as they ruffled their feathers. But then came the boobies and the frigates; some of the most iconic creatures of the islands – I hadn’t dared hope that I might see them close up. But then we visited North Seymour Island, home to vast colonies of both birds, and my dreams were to be realised.

They didn’t even flinch as we approached them. The male frigates were blowing our their impressive red chests, which looked like gigantic balloons that could lift them into the air and carry them away. They made a fantastic sound as they drummed their beaks on the tops of their chests and sang loudly to attract the ladies. Meanwhile the boobies danced on their big, blue feet and nuzzled their white fluffy chicks, completely unfazed by our arrival.

For the next hour I had to remind myself to keep breathing as I snapped away, just a couple of metres away from the most beautiful birds I have ever seen. Not for the first time in the Galapagos, I felt like a fly on the wall – a fly on the wall of the most beautiful room in the world.

Look at the chest on that...

Just look at the chest on that…

"But I'm the Booby"

“But I’m the Booby”

The frigate mid-flight

The frigate mid-flight

Showing off his big red chest...

Showing off his big red chest…

Boob on boob

Boob on boob

And just a little too photogenic to ignore...

And just a little too photogenic to ignore…

But this one might just have the best name of all: The Galapagos Vermilion Fly-Catcher.

But this one might just have the best name of all: The Galapagos Vermilion Fly-Catcher.

In the Galapagos it is not just about seeing the creatures – but studying them – observing how they live, eat, sleep and mate. When we stumbled across the huge yellow land iguanas (that despite looking relatively menacing seemed as passive as a mouse) we watched in fascination as one rolled the fruit from the cactus in the ground with its feet to remove the spikes before swallowing it whole. Meanwhile, the marine iguanas, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, were a delight to watch at sunset as they bobbed in the shallow water for food before sunbathing on the rocks to dry off.

Not half as menacing as he looks...

Not half as menacing as he looks…

Although if you are a cactus fruit you will not be spared.

Although if you are a cactus fruit you will not be spared.

Pretty in yellow

Pretty in yellow

Hanging out with the marine iguanas for a spot of sea lion spotting

Hanging out with the marine iguanas for a spot of sea lion spotting

The techni-coloured dream coat of the marine iguana

The techni-coloured dream coat of the marine iguana

With no underwater camera, I was unable to capture the wonders that we saw below sea level. The Galapagos is blessed with abundant shoals of tropical fish, which we followed for as long as possible with our masks and snorkels. We were lucky enough to swim with the sea lions and even followed white-tipped sharks a number of times. But best yet was following the sea turtles that seemed to fly through the water with the ease of the birds in the sky.

What we did try to capture with our camera, was the impressive and varied landscape of the islands. I think the perception is the islands are tropical castaway islands with gorgeous beaches but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The islands are volcanic – they were created by huge volcanoes that erupted from the Earth’s core millions of years ago. We crossed black, hardened lava rivers, gazed into huge craters, walked across desert-like landscapes scattered with cactuses and of course, also strolled the beautiful beaches that were postcard-perfect.

The dry, mystical lands of the Galapagos

The green, mystical lands of the Galapagos

Winding paths to the highlands.

Winding paths to the highlands.

Us modelling the white sandy beach.

Us modelling the white sandy beach.

After eight long days of observing the landscape, the mammals, the birds and marine world, I felt ready to join the real world once more. I had enjoyed being rocked to sleep on the boat each night but was looking forward to having a hot shower in a proper bathroom and finding out the results of the Scottish referendum. But after we said goodbye to our wonderful guide Leo and took a seat on the bright red plastic seats of the departure lounge at the Galapagos Airport it suddenly hit me what I was saying goodbye to. I watched “Darwin’s finches”, as the little birds are known as, scavenge for food in the brightly-lit food court of the airport and felt my eyes well up.

I would no longer be waking up and playing with sea lions, I would no longer feel like the greatest bird photographer (as the birds in the rest of the world fly off when they hear my clumsy foot break a twig a mile away), and I would no longer watch the birds feed at sunset or watch the sun rise over the equator every morning.

This is a world where sea lions hog benches like the drunk old men of the west and where it is easier to trip over a camouflaged marine iguana than it is to stumble on a rock. And I realised I would never really be ready to leave it.

As I grumpily stomped around the airport, which is decorated in “I love boobies’ t-shirts, I glanced up at another t-shirt with a Charles Darwin quote on it: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”.

It was here, of course, that Darwin made his great theories about evolution after studying (and eating) the giant tortoises and other abundant wildlife. And as I stared at the slogan on the t-shirt I realised the message is also true for travelling. Every trip I have taken since I was 21 has changed the way I look at the world and adapted who I am – some countries more than others. But perhaps nowhere has had such a significant impact on me as the Galapagos. I’m not sure I can even explain what has shifted – but something inside me has been stirred and I have fallen in love with nature in a way I never knew possible. And I realise I am really very lucky to have uttered the words “I just got head-butted by a sea lion.”

Travel Tips

We went on an eight-day cruise in the Galapagos with King of the Seas, which is an ‘economy’ boat. There are four different classes of boats and this is one of the cheapest ones – but it did not find it cut corners on the stuff that mattered. Yes the cabins are tiny and the electricity cuts out regularly, but the food was absolutely delicious (and plenty of it), the crew and captain were wonderful, friendly and helpful and our guide Leo was top notch. It attracted like-minded people and we had a superb group of travellers on board with us.


Our lovely group... jumping off the boat.

Our lovely group… jumping off the boat.

Deciding how to travel the Galapagos is tricky. We were told by a number of people that those who travel it overland (eg taking day trips from an island base) don’t see as much as people on the cruises and I think that this is probably true.

We woke up in a new location every day so wasted no time travelling as this was always done as we slept – we snorkelled twice a day most days and visited at least two locations a day on foot. We got into the nooks and crannies of the island with an expert guide, which would be impossible to do alone.

How much does it cost to go to the Galapagos?

It is not cheap. We struggled to justify it and almost didn’t go at one point because of the cost. One week in the Galapagos cost us what we normally budget for one month travelling (£1,000) but it was worth every penny and we were rewarded with an experience that I have never had in a whole month of travelling elsewhere. It costs about $500 before you have even got to the Galapagos – return flights from Ecuador are about $400 and then you need to pay an island tax of $100 when you land. Then comes the cost of the cruise… We got a last minute deal for King of the Seas for $1,200. (Snorkelling gear and wet suits hire is often not included on the cheaper cruises and we paid another $50 each for this when we boarded the ship). We booked the trip about three weeks beforehand at a great agent in Quito (Ole Expeditions in the Old Town) – we met a couple that booked it the day before, directly with the cruise liner to avoid agent fees – they got it for $1,050 – so we didn’t do too badly. The final cost to add into the equation is tipping – and any drinks you want on board. We were told to tip 10% of the cruise cost or $10 per person per day. Drinks on the boats are naturally expensive ($30 for a rubbish bottle of wine so take lots of your own booze on board!) Those considering to do it ‘over land’ should bear in mind that day cruises can cost anything from $80-150 per day per person – and food and accommodation is expensive on the island.

How long should your cruise in the Galapagos be?

Cruises tend to be four, five or eight days long. We initially planned to do a four day cruise but decided to go on a cheaper boat for eight days in the end. While everyone will have different feelings about what is the ‘right amount of time’ I loved that we finally decided to do eight days because it meant that we saw every single species I had hoped to see. If we had left after four days I wouldn’t have seen fur seals or swum with turtles and sea lions and if I had just done the last four days of the cruise I wouldn’t have seen frigates, giant tortoises or land iguanas. Eight days almost guarantees you’ll see it all – or at least it did for us!

What is the best time of year to visit the Galapagos?

We were in the Galapagos in September which is winter for the islands. Of course we are talking about winter on the equator so it was a bit like a British summer – gloriously warm and sunny most days, but sometimes cloudy, and chilly in the evenings. It was dry but the water was quite cold and we definitely appreciated having wet suits for the snorkelling. The hottest months are January to March, but this is also the rainy season. We have been told April to June are nice months to visit, and July and August are apparently the ‘peak season’ where the islands are much busier and you are more likely to have tourists in the background of your photos.

The Swing at the End of the World, Ecuador

I know you should never say never but… I never plan to jump out of a plane or do a bungee jump. Never. It’s just not my cup of tea. And talking about tea, that’s exactly where I’d rather be – with two feet on the ground below drinking a good cuppa tea watching the crazies fall from the sky.

But a swing? What could be so dangerous about a swing,  I asked myself as we made our way to the Swing of the End of the World near Banos, in Ecuador. Even with its slightly disarming name, it was not something I actually thought I could be scared of.


This is The Swing at the End of the World

Swings are for children after all. I still remember my childhood swing with great fondness; it had a big plastic red seat and hung from what looked like a giant metal structure (to my child-sized eyes anyway) that was nailed into the grass in the back garden. I remember having pre-pubescent tantrums about only being allowed one chocolate Penguin bar a day and burning off my steam and fury on that swing. Back and forth I would go…. Up and legs out, down and legs tucked under my seat, with almighty gusto to get me higher and higher. I wanted to get the bird’s-eye view into the tallest nests in the trees, I wanted to swing right over the metal bar at the top of the swing so my dad would have to use huge ladders to unravel it, I wanted to touch the clouds. But despite my very best and most earnest efforts I never quite sailed over the clouds.

So when my friends Coggleito and Marcito, who we are currently travelling with, told me about the Swing at the End of the World my eyes naturally lit up.

“I can swing as high as the clouds? Over the trees, as high as the birds?” I cried in the most high-pitched voice that I could manage (to anyone who doesn’t know me I often have a fairly ‘husky’ voice).

Either way, I was excited. Not scared. Or at least I wasn’t initially.

We drove from Banos, snaking up a mountain where the Swing at the End of the World sits. When the taxi came to a halt we climbed up a small hill and through a little wooded area. As we emerged from the trees we were greeted with a spectacular view over the forested valley below and, hanging from a treehouse, sat the Swing at the End of the World. It was swinging from a huge pole that went through the roof of the tree house. The long, long ropes, ended with a plank of wood for a seat and a man stood beside it grinning. He was the Swing at End of the World Pusher – and what a job title that is.

There were a few more tourists than we expected  – apparently word had got out – and we noticed a queue of sorts for swing, which we joined. (Well I say we – Coggleito and myself got in the queue while the boys got in position with the cameras).

I watched the girl at the front of the queue strap herself into the swing (and felt a sense of relief to see there was a small rope and clip that also goes around your front) and watched as the the Swing at the End of the World Pusher pulled her back high, higher than his shoulders as he leaned forward and gripped into the ground with his toes to steady himself. Then he raised her even higher before throwing his entire body weight against the swing and throwing her into the distance. She squealed as she swung over the valley below, before returning to the Pusher who sent her out into the valley even further with his next push.

My palms were sweaty and my stomach was churning as I asked Coggleito what “just a little push” and “stop” were in Spanish.

There was a fairly liberal queuing system going on, and as a large woman pushed to the front for the second time to put her two small children under the age of five on again (who looked like they were going to slide right off and down into the valley below) my nerves got the better of me and I shouted something in completely incomprehensible Spanglish whilst simultaneously tutting and shaking my head. My dear friend The Mongoose, who once declared, ‘the queue is the great leveller of society,’ would not have coped well.

The next girl to push in front of me placed herself on the swing backwards, so she was facing us and not the valley as she swung out. I looked at her face and saw to my horror that she was actually crying. Eventually the Pusher pulled her to a stop and she stepped off the swing shaking.

I looked around, trying desperately to find someone else to jump in front of me. But there was no one. The Pusher smiled at me and motioned for me to come forward. I gave him my manic-frozen grin that I reserve especially for these situations. It was my turn.

I placed myself firmly on the seat, clipped myself on and retained my manic grin.

“Ok?” asked the pusher.

“Si, si,” I managed to reply. I forgot to ask for a small push, as I was pulled back, I forgot what the words were for ‘stop,’ ‘I don’t like it’’ or ‘get me the hell of here’ and before I knew it I was flying forward over the valley beneath.

Here I am being pulled back by the Pusher before flying over the wilderness

Here I am being pulled back by the Pusher before flying over the wilderness

As I flew over the valley and tried to touch the clouds with my outstretched legs, I screamed, ‘Si, si’ and wished I knew the words for ‘faster, faster’. It was exhilarating and everything I had hoped my childhood swing would one day deliver.

Wheeee, wheee, I screamed (inS pansih of course)

Wheeee, wheee, I screamed (in  Spanish of course)

The Pusher, sensing my enjoyment from my hearty cackles, sent me spinning on the next push, so I was turning on the ropes as I went hurtling through the air. On my return swing, now facing the waiting crowd instead of the valley, I nearly sent the Pusher to the ground with my feet – but like a Boomerang, I quickly swang back out over the valley.

That's me - the tiny dot - over the abyss below

That’s me – the tiny dot – over the abyss below

I NEVER wanted it to end

I NEVER wanted it to end

At some point, which in reality was probably just a few seconds after the fun had begun, I sensed myself slowing down and eventually the Pusher gripped my seat and pulled me to a hault.

I stepped off shaking and grinning, looking just as manic as when I had stepped on – but shaking with exhilaration. I may not be the next in line for a parachute jump or a bungee jump but anyone who says swings are for sissies need to get themselves to the end of the world before they make such claims.

We did it - we conquered the Swing at the End of the World!

We did it – we conquered the Swing at the End of the World!

Walking the Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

Once upon a time (16 months ago to be precise) four good friends exchanged some hearty hugs, some slaps on the back(pack), and wished each other Bon Voyage. For the four friends were going in two very different ways – two (who we shall now call Marcito and Coggleito) were bound for a South American journey while Matty and the Monk (that’s me – I’m now talking about myself in the third person – awkward) were embarking on our Silk Road journey.

But all four carried something in common as they trotted in different directions across the globe. For in the depths of their backpacks each had a small sandstone rock, swaddled layers of cling-film and buried in clothes. The rocks ‘may’ have come from behind the urinal of their favourite Nottingham pub, which is built into the sandstone caves of Nottingham. It may just have been removed by one of the four friends who, armed with his Swiss Army knife, cut it from the wall before being breaking it into four mis-shaped pieces, already crumbling in his pockets, to give to his three friends before they went their separate ways. That might be where the rocks came from, but obviously I can’t be sure, nor can I be held to any account regarding any of the rocks’ complicated and ambiguous history.

As they hugged and put their heads together, the rock-cutter cried: “This is not goodbye, the rocks will soon be together again.” Matty and the Monk went east. Marcito and Coggleito went west.

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

Proof that the rocks went East: Matty and I on the highest highway in the world; the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

—————————————————————–Fast forward 16 months-———————————————————

After many eastern adventures and a hard summer of working in Europe, Matty and I finally made it west. Specifically Ecuador. And we were not alone. Our much-anticipated reunion with Marcito and Coggleito had been a frantic one as Matty and I rushed to the airport to surprise them (cursing at the local bus as it slowly chugged up the high altitude hills of Quito as if oblivious to our imminent reunion) but also an emotional one as we caught them at an ATM machine at arrivals.

A couple of days later of sampling the local beer, route planning and squealing, and we were on the road; headed for what is known as the Quilotoa Loop – named after the beautiful high-altitude Quilotoa Lake.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We got off the bus to this view and wondered if we had perhaps peaked too soon.

We walked for about an hour or so around the lake in an anti-clockwise direction before somewhat begrudgingly leaving the beautiful view and entering what felt like an isolated sand-dune scene looking down into the valley below. The wind picked up and Coggleito, who had chosen the exact same moment to run down the sand dune, found her legs being carried by the wind until she found a grassy patch to slow down.


The Coggleito pre-sand storm

We spent the next two days climbing down into valleys and up out of canyons, passing dusty small Andes villages and doe-eyed cows as we trekked over green, luscious hills, crossing snaking springs and gushing rivers. It was one of the most varied landscapes I’ve ever encountered and made all the more pleasant by our much awaited reunion with Marcito and Coggleito (who are actually called Marc and Gemma by the way, but when in Rome…)

The boys being turist... ahem.

The boys being turist… ahem.


Another beautiful valley only marred slightly by knowing we had to cross it.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Sublime scenery with some smashing faces.

Coggleito and me hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito and I hiding in the aloe vera

Coggleito's 'camel pack' was much appreciated by the locals

Coggleito’s ‘camel pack’ was much appreciated by the locals


And when I said crossing rivers, I meant walking across precariously high logs.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Pole dancing, I mean sign dancing, and all.

Our guide book warned that dogs can give walkers a bit of trouble on the route and sure enough as we passed remote farm houses we were greeted with barking and aggressive looking dogs that sent us scrabbling in the dusty ground for rocks and sticks to arm ourselves. Apart from the time when Matty was growling on all fours brandishing his stick at a particularly ferocious look dog that had been following us, we emerged relatively unscathed.

After two long days of trekking we checked into a hostel that felt more akin to a luxurious ski chalet in the Alps than a backpackers pit-stop in the wilderness of Ecuador. Tired and weary after taking two wrong turns on the six hour walk, we climbed up the last mountain to reach the Llullu Llama hostel in the tiny village of Isinlivi. A friendly Swiss couple who were volunteering to run the place at the time, greeted us with  big grins and proudly pointed out the hostels’ namesakes – two happy-looking, fluffy llamas that were trimming the grass outside.

Our brief tour of the hostel revealed the cosy dorm room, which had beds set into the rafters of the roof; cosy, bright and clean double rooms; a sparkling clean bathroom boasting a hot shower and a log-cabin-like communal room with a burning fire and huge dining table from which we were to eat a delicious feast of mammoth proportions a few hours later.

But better yet, in the grounds of the hostel, which is perched on the side of the mountain we had just climbed up, was a spa fully equipped with a jacuzzi hot tub, sauna and steam room. We could not think of a finer way to relax our aching bones and immediately went for a pre-dinner soak (not before a scenic beer of course).

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.

And of course breath-taking beers with not-so-shabby-scenery to round off each day.


The next morning we woke, feeling refreshed and scrubbed clean, and set off for the last section of our walk, a 14km trek back to the village of Sigchos to catch a bus to Latacunga, where we had begun the journey three days earlier. As we scurried down dusty donkey trails and across green pastures, we continued to catch up on the last 16 months and exchange tales of travel and adventure.

As we paused on a  bridge to frolic for the camera, the rock-cutter cried: “Rocks reunited!” We all reached into our backpacks to pull out our cling-film wrapped nuggets of sandstone. Carefully unwrapping the stones, sand spilled from the wrappers, as if each grain had its own story – of another bump in the bag, another bus ride, another adventure.

We held up our somewhat shrunken rocks and were amazed they still fitted together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw. It was perhaps a little bit like the four travelling friends – yes, time had passed, stuff had changed, adventures had been had – but they were still all cut from the same rock, so to speak.



Travel Tips

The Quilotoa Loop is the name that is given to the villages and towns that loop around Quilotoa Lake in the Andes, Ecuador.

We started at Latacunga, where we stayed for a night and left our main backpacks. The next day we caught the bus to Quilatoa, which runs from 9am in the morning. and takes a couple of hours It is only a short walk to the lake from here (be warned, it’s extremely windy and cold up here as it’s at 3,914metres above sea level and very exposed). At the lake we walked anti-clockwise and followed the trail to Chugchilan, which took about four and a half hours – here we stayed at a lovely hostel called Cloud Forest, which cost $15 for a dorm bed with dinner and breakfast.

The following day we walked to Isinlivi and stayed at the wonderful Llullu Llama hostel ($21 for a double with dinner and breakfast per person or $18 for a dorm bed). It cost $7.50 to use the spa for an unlimited time and was worth every penny.

On our last day we trekked to Sigchos, which although was the furthest distance (14km) it was the shortest trek as there were more flat stretches. We left at 9am and then caught the 1.30pm bus to Latacunga to be reunited with our belongings and complete the circuit.

Most hostels offer packed lunch for the following day’s walk but we stocked up on tins of tuna and snacks in Latucunga and then bought the odd boiled egg and bread rolls from hostels.

The terrain is mixed an incredibly beautiful – wear decent walking shoes as there are plenty of steep uphill and downhill stretches. It’s quite easy to get lost on the route but most hostels have trekking instructions and maps available – don’t set off without these! Look out for the red marks on stones but we didn’t really notice these on the first leg of our journey.