Monday, 28 January 2008

Floating Islands and stone arches

Five minutes of haggling by the dockside with the captain of the boat brought the price of our day trip to the islands of lake Titicaca down to a more reasonable 25 Soles ($8) per person. Having completed the negotiations the five crew members disappeared onto the quay only to return laden with fruit, vegetables,rice and an assortment of freeriding islanders toting their various handicafts. As the rain abated we made our way to the roof of the boat where we were finally able to see something of the lake.

Our first stop of the day was at the Islas de Ouros, an archipelago of floating islands. Each island plays host to an assortment of families that subsist from the lake and earn money from the passing tourist trade. Each island is made entirely from the reeds that grow on the lake. A floating base of reed roots are cut into squares about a metre across and then stitched together with twine. On top of this base they put down multiple layers of freshly cut reeds to bring the level of the island some 50cms or so above water level. On top of this they build huts out of the reeds as a shelter from the weather and reed boats to fish and travels round the other islands of the archipelago. The men spend most of their time fishing, hunting wildfowl and maintaining the island. The women and children make handicrafts to sell to the ever present stream of visitors from the mainland.

The whole visit to the islands was clearly a well choreographed routine. As we disembarked we were instantly assaulted by a stream of women and children pedaling their wares. Meanwhile, the men trotted of to fetch a board and some props for their demonstration in Spanish. A baby heron, used for night fishing like the cormorant fisherman of South China, squawked incessantly in the entrance to a nearby hut. After a fluent monologue about the island we were shepherded onto a waiting reed boat for a short trip to a nearby island. As we were about to leave, four young children jumped onto the boat and began working their way through their repartee of songs in French, English, Spanish and Quechua. Having exhausted their catalogue they arose with a chorus of One Sole and thrust forward their grubby little hands. You can’t blame the modern day islanders for taking advantage of an an opportunity to supplement their incomes but you do get the impression that this is fundamentally changing the culture of the islanders.

Our next stop on our tour of the Peruvian Islands of Titicaca was a small, but precipitous island called Tequille. This island, the home of our coca chewing crew is around four kilometres long and 500m wide. Rising steeply from the water, the island is terraced all over and plays host to 1800 people with a strong indigenous culture. All the men and women dress in traditional wool clothing: the men wearing black trousers, a voluminous white shirt, a woven cummerbund and a wee-willy-winky style hat; the women wear multiple layered skirts, a white shirt, a waistcoat and a black shawl that they use to cover their heads or carry goods on their back. Each man on the island wears either a fully red hat to denote that they are married, or a red hat with a white tail to denote that they are single. Each man is required to knit his own hat as a rite of passage. You often see them sitting on walls in the sun, intently focused on the task at hand, dexterously knitting their intricate patterns. The island itself looks much like what I would imagine a Mediterranean island to have been at the turn of the century. Small terraces take up every available piece of land to cultivate beans, potatoes and vegetables. Domestic livestock wander freely around the buildings and a small harbour is teeming with small fishing boats. As one walks up the steep steps to the village on top of the island one passes through ancient arches decorated with animal representations. Each archway frames a view across the shimmering lake back towards Puno on the mainland. As we made our way back to our base at Puno the skies began to threaten.

To the south, black clouds began to flash with lightening and the air on the lake took on a definite chill. The rainy season seems to have more relevance in this par of Peru and suggests that our time to come in Bolivia will be cold and wet, adding an additional challenge as transport becomes less reliable. However, today we head back to Arequipa for a planned visit to the Colca Canyon. We will be back in four or five days though, hopefully things will start to clear up or our journey through Bolivia will be the most challenging to date.

The Andean Orient Express

To our right a small flock of sheep are grazing on the scrubby grass against the backdrop of a wall daubed with advertising for a local beer. To our left a pair of dogs are chasing each other in circles around lean-tos, draped with blue tarpaulins. As we roll through the industrial town of Juliaca, en route to our final destination of Puno, the leaden skies threaten to break again. Over he last seven hours we have climbed from the green valleys surrounding Cusco to the flat Altiplano of South Eastern Peru. The boggy plain give way to low hills in the middle distance and ultimately to snow capped peaks on the horizon. The high plains play host to herds of Alpaca and Llama, their shepherds living in single story adobe buildings with corrugated iron roofs. As we climb in Altitude to over 4300m the plains become dusted with snow and the standing water is crusted with surface ice.

The bleak exterior is a far cry from our plush transport. As the railways of South America gradually disappear, we have taken the opportunity to make a trip on one of the few remaining passenger services to make our way to Lake Titicaca. The Andean Explorer is a luxurious three car train with all the trappings of a bygone age. Our carriage is wood paneled throughout with brass luggage racks and freestanding armchairs. The table on which I am writing this is covered in fresh linen with a brass lamp providing extra light in the late afternoon dusk. Waiters in crisp white shirts and sharply pressed trousers silently glide down the aisle, unobtrusively removing glasses and delivering frothy Pisco Sours.
We feel a little out of place amongst our well heeled fellow travellers, delivered and collected by their personal fixers at each end. Bar a few 'flashpackers', like ourselves, the majority of the guests are approaching retirement and talk revolves around their plans for travel during their retirement.

Ever since reading Paul Theroux's 'Old Patagonian Express' I have wanted to travel by train in South America. This trip, although outrageous in it's luxury, has sated an itch. Tomorrow we will be back to reality, but today we have been on the Andean Orient Express.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Machu Picchu...I presume!

Our hopes for a clear morning for our final canter into Machu Picchu were dashed as the persistent low level rain continued. After a swift breakfast we were corralled into groups to await the opening of the day 4 checkpoint. As the trail opened at 5.30am the groups set off on their forced march to the Sun Gate, our first view point for Machu Picchu. An hour and a half of speed walking got us to the Sun Gate at just before 7am. Unfortunately, the anti-climax was confirmed as low cloud obscured our view of the sanctuary. Even after half an hour of walking to reach the classic view point, the visibility was only 50m at best.

Tired and wet, it was hard to get motivated for a couple of hours of guided walking around the site itself. In addition to the several hundred fellow trekkers, a hoard of day-trippers were awaiting entry as we checked our bags at the left luggage area. Over the following couple of hours the cloud began to break and tantalising views of the remains, finally observable in the context of their surroundings, added drama to the tour. The history of the site is mostly understood through the early archaeological work of Hiram Bingham. However, more recent work has begun to challenge the orthodoxy and points towards the uniqueness of the ‘sacred geography’ of the site. Its unique position in relation to the surrounding peaks and the meandering curves of the Urubamba river, suggest that it was unparalleled in its religious significance to the Inca civilisation. The domestic buildings, terracing and temples are second to none and the sheer drama of the setting is unsurpassed.

Despite the weather, the experience of seeing Machu Picchu at first hand was a real privilege. Being able to put it within the context of the pilgrimage that is the Inca Trail, helped to heighten the adventure. The insight into the Inca civilisation that we had received over the last few days has spurned a deeper interest in finding out more about this enigmatic period of history. Hopefully we will find out more as we head to Titicaca.

Dropping into the cloudforest

After the heavy rains of yesterday we woke with the forlorn hope of a drier day to come. Day three promised to be the most varied of the trek with high passes, multiple inca remains and a descent into the cloud forest. The heavy rains of yesterday had lessened to a drizzle but still required a full complement of waterproof clothing. The initial climb to the second pass at 4000m was much the same gradient as the previous day’s climb to ‘dead woman’s pass’ but with the brief respite of a visit to the ruins of an Incan staging post. The view from the ruins back over the valley was spectacular as the clouds billowed up the valley from the Urubamba river below.

As we waited at the top of the pass for the last of our party to catch up we could see large hummingbirds, almost the size of sparrows flitting from one plant to another in search of nectar. Dropping down into the next valley the visibility worsened. Within 300m of descent we were back into the opaque mist that allowed us visibility of the path and our immediate surroundings, but no points of reference height or exposure. Having passed through rough cut Inca tunnels and traversed small wooden bridges we approached further archaeological sites, grander and more imposing than before, but still shrouded in cloud.

After another astounding lunch we made our way to the final pass and the steep descent known locally as the ‘gringo killer’. An hour of steep descending on often slick steps brought us into a more humid and warmer environment. Bamboos and bromeliads became more abundant, moss draped from branches of the trees and epiphytic orchids began to appear on the trunks of trees. Lining the path were tall begonias with candelabra sprays of white and pink flowers, large fuschias positively dripping with conical flowers, their petals splayed back to reveal long stamens reaching for the floor. As the orchids became more spectacular, I began to fall behind the rest of the group taking photos and marveling over the super abundance. By now we had broached the lower limit of the cloud and the spectacularly steep, wooded hillsides of the Urubamba river were clear to see.

As the camp site approached we made a final detour to a set of Incan terraces used to grow maize and potatoes. Thirty eight terraces, cut into the hillside and irrigated from a spring a the top, dropped down towards the river. Wildflowers grew from the intricate Inca stone work and orchids grew out of the irrigation channel.
Our final camp was the most luxurious of all with a fully stocked bar and showers to boot. After waiting in line for the rare commodity of hot water we retired to the mess tent for our final dinner and to say our good byes to the porters who had supported us so well.

The ascent of Dead Woman's Pass

We awoke on day two to the amplified sound of light rain on the dome of the tent. The star filled evening had transformed into a dull grey blanket of cloud, delivering a constant stream of precipitation. We donned our waterproofs and devoured a breakfast, before starting the long climb to the pass at 4200m. After an hour of climbing the steep path in the warmth and humidity of the forest, we were as wet under our waterproofs as they were on the outside. Water was starting to pool on the inside of my Goretex mitts and my hood had become useless as the sweat streamed down my face.

Over the next two hours the paths became increasingly precipitous and the altitude began to take its toll. As we broached the first false summit, the size of the granite steps increased and we were reduced to a zig-zagging method to appease our oxygen starved lungs. By now, the porters were beginning to pass us with their onerous loads. Bent double under the hefty weight with plastic ponchos draped over their loads they seemed to glide up the hill, chatting or listening to their portable radios.

As we passed the second staging post the rain began to abate. The long, snaking trail of brightly coloured ponchos came into view and the final crux of the pass became clear. The next hour to the pass taxed our bodies. The steps seemed to get steeper and the intervals between stops increased. It seemed that no-one was spared the pain; even the porters appeared to be struggling for the first time. The final ridge of the pass brought into view a sweeping panorama down to the campsite in the far distance. The inevitable updraft reduced the temperature and chilled our hands and faces. A short stop for photographs and food was long enough to begin the shivers.

Within five minutes of the descent, Sarah's hands had gone numb to the point that they were causing real pain. We stopped a few minutes so that we could warm them and dig out some gloves.
The closer we got to the camp the warmer we got. The sun broke through the cloud to warm our backs and dry our sopping waterproofs. With twenty minutes of walking remaining, we were able to remove our waterproof shells and dry our sodden base layers. Tired and still damp, we traipsed into the campsite to the warm smiles of the porters, effervescent as ever.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

First steps on the trail

The persistent pitter patter of the rain on the dome of our tent and the hoods of our jackets was to become the soundtrack to our Incan Odyssey. Over four days we covered 45km, along lush green valleys, up impossibly steep steps, past cascading waterfalls and cloud forest vegetation. Our ultimate destination was the eponymous Machu Picchu, the religious centre of the Incan civilisation. However, as with all treks, the destination was only the culmination of an incredible journey.

The first day's trekking flattered to deceive. Bathed in sunshine, with hard dusty trails underfoot, the going was good. After two hours of undulating trekking we stopped in a shaded valley, by a babbling brook for lunch. My experience of trekking food is squashed cheese, crackers and the odd chocolate bar by the side of the trail. This lunch, and all the meals to follow, were a world away from that. A large mess tent with canvas stools and linen table cloths became our culinary retreat after long hours on the trail. Three course meals of fresh fruit, meat and vegetables, prepared by an industrious cohort of chefs and porters, were as good as we've eaten on our trip so far.

Around 4pm we reached our camp for the night. Located at the foot of the valley that leads up to Dead Woman's Pass and directly below a set of Incan remains, our tents were ready and waiting for us on arrival. After a brief cup of Coca tea and a change of clothes, we headed up to the village to watch the porters playing football. To one side of the pitch, amongst the remains, a small group of local children were playing football and climbing on the walls. What was a site of cultural interest to the many trekkers, was the local playground for the kids. The next hour or so was spent playing football with the kids and showing them photos and video of themselves. Unlike the kids in the cities there was no ulterior motive in their playfulness; no "one photo, one Sole" or "one caramello Meester", just the infectious giggles from seeing themselves on video.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Inca heartland

Over the course of 300 years the Inca civilisation made an indelible mark on the culture and landscape of Peru. As we emerged on the crest of the hill above the village of Pisac the tiers of terracing came into view, dropping several hundred metres towards the valley below. Each terrace, perfectly flat and approximately 5 metres wide, was faced with a retaining wall made with boulders the size of a basketball. The curve of each terrace follows the contour of the hillside, in the shape of a scimitar, ending below a group of ruined buildings that formed a part of the cemetery complex. As we made our way around the hillside above the terraces we passed through a trapezoid doorway that marked the entrance to the sacred area. The religious buildings in this part of the complex are easily recognisable by the exquisite masonry work, reserved for the most important sites. Huge stones, the size of a small car, fit perfectly to the contours of the bedrock on which it is built. Each stone fits exactly to the next, with multiple fascia, cut to such tight tolerances that even a credit card wouldn't fit between them.

As we made our way from one site to the next, with our guide William (Guillermo), the flood plain of the Urubamba river cut through steep sided mountains, scarred at various angles by ancient pathways that gave access to high pasture. Every so often we would get a glimpse of glacier capped mountains as the moisture laden clouds parted. Wav
es of light rain processed up the valley, giving ample warning to don our rain jackets. If this day was anything to go by, the next four days of hiking on the Inca Trail will be an unforgettable experience.  The prospect of reaching the Sun Gate at Macchu Picchu at sunrise is thrilling and I am sure that it will be an unforgettable experience.

We have been in Cusco for four days now, acclimatising and preparing for our trek. The town itself is probably the most beautiful we have seen and certainly the most heavily geared towards the tourist train. This is certainly the epicentre of the Gringo trail. The Plaza de Armas, the central square, is teeming with visitors and Cusquenans hawking their wares. Elderly, well heeled, American tourists rub shoulders with grungy backpackers. As we make our way through the narrow cobblestone streets the separate our hostel from the city centre we hear all manner of languages and dialects, a veritable tower of Babel. 

The closer you get to the main Plazas the more often you are approached by hawkers: "one postcard, one Sole Meester"; "Massagee? Massagee? later Senor?...after treking?". The strangest of all are the local indigenous ladies with their daughters, dressed elaborately in their finery, towing their prettiest Alpaca or cradling their most photogenic lamb. "One Sole?", is the standard refrain, often delivered in unison.

Despite the comforts of Cusco and the fantastic restaurants I will be glad to get on the trail to Macchu Picchu. The prospect of stunning panoramas and a feast of interesting flowers (we are in prime orchid flowering season), all topped-off with the promise of one of the finest sights in South America, is hugely appealing.

I have posted some pictures from our first week in Peru in the Peru gallery and will do the same for the Inca trail pictures when we get a rest day next Tuesday. As it stands, we plan to leave Cusco on Wednesday by train to Puno (the gateway to Lake Titicaca). From there, we plan to make our way out to the islands for a few days before heading into Bolivia. Our visit to Peru will be short but sweet, leaving ample opportunity to return for the areas we have left untouched.   

Sunday, 13 January 2008

A little culture and an early nght

After a light breakfast we made our way across town to the Convento de San Fransisco, a Franciscan monastery dating back to the early 17th century and surviving pretty much in tact. The three things that stand out in this beautiful building are: the original c.17th Sevillian tile work that surrounds the cloisters (decorated in shades of yellow and blue and in a geometric style similar to that in the Alhambra); a carved, cedar, domed ceiling (again in a geometric Moorish style); and, the catacombs beneath the church (complete with bones and skulls, artfully arranged in the crypts). If ever you find yourself in Lima, I can highly recommend a visit.

After our visit to the monastery we made our way to the Museo de Larco, a stunning white colonial building that houses the extensive private collection of Don Rafael Larco Hoyle. The collection is predominantly focused on pre-Columbian pottery, lithic carving and textiles but also includes a fabulous collection of silver and gold ceremonial wear. By 1.30pm I had exhausted Sarah's capacity for pre-Columbian archeology so we headed back to Miraflores for some lunch and a wander.

Tomorrow we head off to Cusco on the 5.30am flight (that means a very early wake up call. We are both excited to be heading to Cusco as we have heard that it is a fantastic place to while away a few days of acclimatisation before beginning the Inka trail on Friday. We have no firm plans for the next few days but plan on working it out tomorrow.


As much as we were looking forward to exploring a new country, the prospect of a 24 hour bus ride is never really appealing. The Ormeño ‘Royal Class’ bus was truly luxurious in comparison to the other buses we have had the pleasure of using in Ecuador. A double decker bus with waiter service sounds luxurious, but when the leather is so cracked that it looks like crazy paving and lunch consists of beef (think shoe sole) rice and noodles the experience begins to lose its luster. Our fellow passengers were an odd assortment of Ecuadorian and Peruvian tourists, nuns and missionaries, with a couple of fellow backpackers thrown in for good measure. We happened to be sat next to a pair of young nuns, in full habit, for the duration of the journey. Not knowing the protocol on conversing with nuns, I restrained my curiosity to strike up a conversation and constrained my self to respectful nods and smiles.

As we made our way out of Guayaquil the landscape began to change. To the east, the foothills of the Andes were a constant companion rising steeply from the flat plains to over 1500m. Between the hills and the sea was a flat expanse of fertile land, at first cultivated with rice but later giving way to huge banana and cocoa plantations. Between the hacienda plantations were small subsistence farms growing fruit for sale by the side of the roads. The houses, often built on stilts, were ramshackle, single room, boarded affairs topped with mismatching corrugated iron roofs. As we approached a river you would find men, women and children selling bundles of purple crabs tightly bound together with string.As we approached the border we passed what looked like an abandoned refugee camp. I can only assume that this either housed refugees from some form of conflict or natural disaster or was a seasonal camp for migratory workers. The temporary shelters were still standing but not a soul was to be seen.

The border itself consists of an Ecuadorian exit control and a Peruvian entry control separated by a nomansland of several kilometers. Over this short distance a noticeable transition occurs. The omnipresent political posters and daubed slogans change, shops appear selling household goods and the streets become filled with strange three wheeled taxis. Like the ubiquitous tuk-tuk in Thailand, these trikes have a seating area for two people enclosed in a dome, however, the driver does not sit on a bench seat behind a windsreen but on the motorbike itself.

As the sun went down the constant chatter of the spanish language, pirated DVDs became louder in the bus. Thankfully, the extremely loud Latin American farce was replaced by a terrible copy of a Braveheart (amazingly, Mel Gibson has an even worse accent in Spanish). As I fell to sleep, Braveheart was being replaced by a Jean Claude Van Damme movie.

I awoke to an altogether different landscape outside. The lush fields had been replaced by a desolate desert landscape. The mountains were still present to the East but were now barren and rocky with sand blown into large dunes at the base. Where irrigation was possible, small fields of carrots with fine, feathery foliage blew in the wind. However, the main staple of the Peruvian coast appeared to be fishing, mining and large industrial plants. Far to the east we could see the snow capped peaks of the high Andes but that was the only sign of precipitation in an arid desert.

After 28 hours on the road we began to roll through through the suburbs of Lima. The traffic and pollution here seems worse than Quito. We had heard that Lima was a dangerous city and to be on our guard and consequently our expectations for the city were low. However, the area we are staying in Miraflores seems very sedate and the evidence of expats and diplomats is obvious in the side streets around our hostel. After a marathon bus trip we decided to indulge ourselves in the shopping mall at the waterfront. After a coffee in Starbucks and a wander round the shops, we went to see a movie in English. We are only here for a day or so, so we made the most of what was on offer.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Cobbled streets and tiled roofs

Relatively free from the constraints of Quito and Guayaquil, Cuenca has all the colonial charm without the pollution, barrio slums and frenetic pace of commercial development. As you walk the cobbled streets of the city the first thing that strikes you is the beauty of the buildings. Colour washed walls with architectural mouldings and small balconies overlook the streets. The red clay tiles of the roofs give texture and vibrancy to the cityscape, punctuated with the tiled cupolas of the numerous whitewashed churches. The main cathedral on the Plaza Calderon is a relatively recent addition in the c.19th and demonstrates the ambition of the time. The walls are made from red brick and soar above the surrounding buildings. The domes of the cupolas are tiled in azure blue, topped with ornate ironwork crucifixes.

The relaxed charm of the city is all pervading. The shops demonstrate the relative wealth of the inhabitants as they tout their electronic goods, quad bikes and mobile phones. The native Cuencans seem to be more fashion conscious than other cities and the restaurants and bars are certainly more stylish. The juxtaposition between Cuenca and a small town like Latacunga is stark; both represent the country but from very different angles.

As we make our way to Guayaquil today and then on to Lima tomorrow I have been reflecting on our time in Ecuador. The main theme that I keep returning to is diversity. Ecologically, demographically and ethnographically diverse this country has so much to offer. High mountains, desolate paramo, abundant jungle and sweeping beaches all in South America's second smallest country. I think that we have done justice to Ecuador over the last few weeks, but I leave with the niggling regret of having missed the jungle. However, you have to leave something to come back for.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Reflections on Darwin's Islands

As the bowsprit rises and falls the ocean is parted as we make our way back across the open ocean towards Baltra, our final destination. Our week aboard the Beagle has exceeded my expectations in every way. I was expecting to see wildlife and to be able to enjoy the sunshine on deck but the experience has run deeper than that. The Galapagos is a truly special place, unique in its flora and fauna and yet only accessible to a few. Each island is distinct and offers something that cannot be experienced anywhere else on earth. Common themes run through the islands: the tinder dry grass; the eponymous Palo Santo; the scurrying lava lizards and the itinerant marine birds; but, in each case, something is transformed. The islands and sea team with life and nothing 
is suspicious of human interaction.

As we stood atop the small island of Bartholome yesterday evening we could see flashes of silver dotted around the ocean as Eagle Rays were breaching the surface in an ostentatious and spectacular mating ritual. As they emerged from the ocean they would rotate onto their belly, flashing silver, before tumbling back into the ocean. These displays are typical of the daily spectacle in the Galapagos. Whatever time of year you are here there is something unique to see and each day brings something new and unexpected. Over the last three days we have seen a boobie chick emerging from it’s egg, mating penguins and giant tortoises and hunting herons. We have come to expect the unexpected as that is the only constant on these islands.

Life on the open sea has been an entirely new experience for both Sarah and me. At the beginning of the trip we had misgivings about sleeping aboard and the threat of motion sickness. As it happens, Sarah has only been laid low once and I seem to have escaped pretty much unscathed. Life aboard a yacht has a fantastically self-contained and harmonious feel. The sight and sound of the sea becomes second nature and begins to lull you into deeper and deeper states of relaxation. When time is short again, I can imagine that holidays aboard a charter would be instantly relaxing and yet engaging enough to not get bored.

The other element of the vacation that has surprised us is how much we have enjoyed the snorkeling. Sarah was particularly worried about the prospect of snorkeling but has taken to it like the proverbial fish to water. The sight of tropical fish and even sharks has not put her off so the next step will be to take a scuba diving course when we are back in the UK.

Tomorrow we head back to the mainland to begin our journey South to Peru. Our next fixed date is the Inca Trail in late January and we will need to be in Cusco to acclimatise a few days in advance. As such, we plan to make our way down to Cuenca in Southern Ecuador on Wednesday and then Towards Lima on Thursday by long-distance bus. In the meantime I leave you with a few photos from our week in Las Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Isles). Like Odysseus I was seduced by the Siren calls of the islands. I suspect that this won’t be our last trip to the Galapagos.

The price of conservation

Our day on Santa Cruz brought home the inherent tension that exists in the Galapagos between the needs of a human population and the need to protect the fragile endemic ecosystem. Human habitation has fundamentally changed the ecosystems of the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Floreana. Human habitation and the desire to domesticate livestock and cultivate introduced species has the inevitable side effect of leaching into the endemic ecosystem. Many to the introduced species are able to out compete the endemic species and can lead to a fundamental and often irreversible imbalance in the ecosystem. On some islands, the feral goat populations have over grazed the low hanging plants that are critical to the survival of the giant tortoise, to the extent that sub-species have become extinct. Turtle nests have been raided by black rats and feral cats have feasted on nesting sea birds.

The Charles Darwin Research centre plays a critical role in managing the environment of the park with active eradication programs for feral animals and invasive non-endemic plant species. In addition, they have an active breeding and rehabilitation program underway for the giant tortoise. Each island has it’s own sub-species, adapted to the specific conditions of the island in question. On Española, where the endemic tortoise population was approaching collapse, the CDRC has successfully stabilised the population and continues to reinforce the gene pool to ensure a healthy future.

The port of Puerto Ayura is more akin to a Greek or Turkish seaside town than anything I have seen in Ecuador to-date. Over 70% of the local population is supported directly by tourism and the rest seem to be closely linked into the supply chain. It seems that the average wage on Santa Cruz is significantly higher than the national average and therefore many mainland Ecuadorians have the desire to move to Galapagos, but most are refused entry. The T-shirt and souvenir shops of Puerto Ayura give way to plantations of banana and plantain and ultimately large mixed haciendas with cattle, fruit and even coffee. The commercial demands for fruit, vegetable and dairy products has fundamentally changed the ecosystem of Santa Cruz at the expense of the endemic species. Small scale tourist operations are increasingly giving way to larger operators with up to 100 passengers at a time. Although, on the one hand, this is positive as it brings hard currency into the economy, it must be having an effect on the environment and the potential sustainability of the ecosystem. Every tourist increases the demand for power, which ultimately results in the need for more diesel, and every new mouth to feed requires more land to be cultivated.

Despite the fantastic work of the Charles Darwin Research Centre this natural gem is under threat. Mass tourism is incompatible with this environment and the strain is already beginning to show. Although I would love to see more people get the opportunity to visit these Enchanted Isles I hope that the Ecuadorian government institutes quotas to preserve this special place for future generations.

Under sail to Espanola

As the stern of the Beagle swung around the bloated sails spilled their load, flapping lazily in the warm breeze. The schooner looked majestic under full sail in the late afternoon sunlight but barely sustained a knot and and half without motor assistance. The heavy steel hull and utilitarian rigging was made for durability, not speed. It was noticeable how much smoother the crossing was under sail. The Beagle fell into step with the natural rhythm of the swell and the dulcet gurgling of the wake attracted a small band of petrels flitting around the surface, skimming plankton disturbed by the keel as it carved through the ocean.

This morning found us in Española the most southerly and easterly island and therefore, geologically the oldest. The island is renowned for it’s bird life and the unusual marine iguanas. As we made our way from the flat northerly bay to the cliffs on the south coast we passed numerous blue footed boobie and nazca boobie nesting sites. In some cases we could see young chicks, still covered in snow white down, flapping furiously to attract the attention of their mothers.

A salt spray pervades the air, a consequence of the blow hole at the base of the cliff. As the swell sets drift in from the open ocean the pressure raises until a super-set causes the pressure to release as a massive cloud of sea spray, several hundred feet into the air. The tropic birds appear to enjoy soaring above the blow hole waiting for the spray to blow them closer to the cliffs. As we round the headland we come across the sole remaining waved albatross. During the months of August to December up to 12,000 albatross, the only tropical albatross in the world, colonise the island before heading off again on their solitary wanderings of the deep ocean.

As we make our way back to the landing site we pass a pair of Galapagos hawks silently perusing the undergrowth for lizards and iguanas. These silent predators seem oblivious to our intrusion in their environment unlike the mockingbirds that seem to follow us in the knowledge that many tourists will drop tidbits or give them an easy drink of water. As we reach the shoreline again we can have to step over the proudest and most colourful resident of the the island the marine iguana. Unlike the marine iguanas on other islands, this sub-species is a brightly coloured green and red caused by the diet of red sea pursulane.

Our evening crossing will deliver us to our first inhabited island, Santa Cruz. Tomorrow we will be heading to the Charles Darwin Research Centre to see something of the conservation work that is being done to maintain the ecological integrity of this fragile ecosystem.

Iguanas and seabirds

As I stand atop the cliffs of South Plaza Island the Shearwaters are darting in packs along the foaming waves, shifting direction in unison. The red-beaked tropic bird soar past on the updraft from the cliff their extraordinarily elongated tail feathers, like birds of paradise, trailing behind them. Flashes of black and red juxtapose against the purest white of their underbelly as the tuck their wings in to swoop lower into the breeze. To my left a large male sealion is basking on the basalt rock outcrop of the bachelor colony seemingly oblivious to the carcass of another being pick over by the sally light foot crabs. As I cast my gaze over to the other side of the cove I can see the black masked Nazca boobies cheek by jowl with dusk marine iguanas, warming themselves in the sun.

South Plaza is covered in prickly pear cactuses, the older ones visible by the fact tat they have bark covered trunks rather than needles. All of the cacti appear to be in flower, cadmium yellow and the diameter of an espresso cup. Finches flash from one flower to the next feasting on the nectar and inadvertently taking deposits of pollen from one to the next. The brightly coloured land iguanas move slowly from cactus to cactus looking for low hanging flowers to nibble. As we make our way down the path small lava lizards, the size of a pencil stop in their tracks, cock their head back and pump their legs. We stop to allow them to make their way and they oblige with a sharp scurry into the undergrowth.

Over the two hours to lunch we cruise our way around to Santa Fe and find ourselves in small lagoon, sheltered from the oceanic swell that rolls in from the east. This small sandy lagoon plays host to a colony of sealions and an abundant array of tropical fish. After lunch we are dropped off close to the shoreline to make our way around the lagoon. Sarah and I paddle our way around, urgently pointing out dazzling fish as the pass in schools. Yellow tailed surgeon fish, the size of a small dinner plate, congregate in schools of fifty to a hundred. Every now and then we see the hulking body of a mexican hogfish with long tendrils trailing from their dorsal fins. As we cross the lagoon towards the opening to the open ocean we pass over a pair of black turtles lazily paddling their way from vegetation to vegetation grazing. The excitement of seeing the turtles is punctuated by a brown flash passing underneath us and contorting to change direction. This effortless flash is a sealion, toying with us, inspecting us to see whether we are worthy of attention. Food is obviously on its mind as it accelerates through the gap into the open ocean in search of some tasty morsels. As we make our way back to the boat we pass over a couple of ghostly rays fluently beating its wings, kicking up small vortices of sand from the bottom.

Tomorrow we are off to Española for more of the same. We are being deduced by the abundance of wildlife and the lazy pace of life onboard. Gorging ourselves on a diet of sunshine and wildlife is intoxicating and a real privilege.

Aboard the Beagle

Against the backdrop of a starlit sky I can see the silhouette of a magnificent frigate bird gliding along in the rigging of the 
Beagle. The shearwaters are darting playfully left and right just above the surface of the sea. The gentle lilt of the boat is accompanied by the soft hum of the engine as we make our way from our first anchorage on the Leeward shore of North Seymour to our overnight anchorage. The warm, moist breeze is tinged with salt and the cushions feel damp to the touch. It is a world away from my exertions on Cotopaxi and a perfect tonic after the hustle, bustle and pollution of Quito.

Our home for the next week is the Beagle, an English built schooner that plies the waters of the Galapagos. Having embarked at Baltra and received a briefing from our National Park guide Camillo, we were soon cruising North for our first ground excursion to North Seymour. After the cool equatorial highlands, the humidity and sunshine of the Galapagos is a pleasant change. Cumulus clouds hover above the far horizon seemingly motionless. The waters change from cobalt to azure blue as we approach the shore and the low shrub cover island play host to courting magnificent frigate birds (Fregata magnificens) and blue foot
ed boobies. The cliffs are peppered with glorious swallow tailed gulls, easily distinguishable with their ring of intense red around the eye and bright red feet.

The grey rigid inflatable shuttles us from the Beagle to the promontory, where we are carefully deposited on the shore. The red ochre volcanic rock covers the entire island, a slab of laval flow, uplifted by tectonic movement tend of thousands of years ago. The island of North Seymour now plays host to abundant small, shrubby Palo Santo trees and sweet smelling Daphne. As we approach the end of the dry season the trees are still bare of leaves leaving on the ghostly white trunk and branches where the Frigates nest. The male Frigates tilt back their head and inf
late their blood red throat to the size of a melon, opening their beaks and displaying their plumage. In addition to the magnificent frigate we come across a few great frigates, klepto-parasitic birds that chase other birds and force them to drop their catch. As they soar in the sky the look like pterodactyls scanning the sky for their next prey.

As we cross the island, descending the slab to the beach on the north shore we pass the circular nesting sites of blue-footed boobies. Like the frigates, the boobies are courting; the males hopping from one leg to the other and extending back their legs whilst opening a wing. As the females respond they come together and touch their beaks lightly. Female boobies sit in a self-marked circles incubating their eggs, intermittently rising and falling to keep the eggs from overheati
ng in the late afternoon sun. The eggs rest atop their turquoise feet as the vibrate the feathers on their throat and open their beaks wide to regulate their body temperature.

As we approach the beach on the north side of the island the Palo Santo trees give way to blanket swathes of red sea Pursulane, a low growing succulent that thrives on the saline spray. As we approach the volcanic rock debris we can hear the barking of sealions, the last of our hosts on the island. Basking in the weak sunlight of the early evening they intermittently reach forward with their tail fins to scratch their fur.

Judging by our first experience of life touring these abundant islands, we will have a mesmerising week ahead.