The Flight Home

Well, this is it- after 291 days of travel we are on the flight back home. It’s quite a mix of emotion about heading back, but mostly, we are excited. We spent part of yesterday going through photos from the previous 10 months. Sometimes its hard to believe we saw & did so many things. It’s funny to think that the inspiration photos we’ve been staring at for years, we have seen with our own eyes.

Even now, when I look at the pictures from early on the trip, I sometimes can’t beleive that it was me that took that picture. We’ve been very blessed to have this opportunity and it has changed my view on the world as I suspected it might. I think it’s easy to have an opinion about something, be relatively informed about it and be dead wrong. I have a deeper appreciation for how much my upbringing and experiences have impacted my view of the world. It will be my continued challenge to keep an open mind about things, be compassionate about the individual people that are impacted by situations, and try not to pass judgement.

We met some amazing people on the trip, smart, hard-working & caring people, many of whom lived in less-than-ideal conditions, all of whom inspired me not to let conditions define the outcome. I hope I remember this as I start to re-calibrate what is normal in my own reality.

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Now back home, to plan a wedding, look for work & see my dearly missed family / friends.

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Quito & Galapagos: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandia & Floreana

We had been looking forward to Galapagos from the start of the trip. It’s something we both remember learning about in school and studying about Darwin & evolution (John – and the BBC series, oh, and Master and Commander when they stop on the islands!) and we were excited to see some of the amazing creatures and landscapes that inspired him.

We flew from Quito to Santa Cruz island as it’s the most populated island and best place to base ourselves for the 2 weeks we had planned. Of course, nothing is ever that straight forward- the airport is actually on Baltra which is a small island north of Santa Cruz so the journey in after our 3 hr flight was a bus ride to edge of island to catch a 10 minute ferry to Santa Cruz (north), finally a 50 minute bus ride to the town on the south side of the island.

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Santa Cruz was a great place for us to base ourselves – it’s pretty cute (as much as a modern concrete town in South America could be), right on the water with animals everywhere. The sea lions just lay around and people work around them. Pelicans and sea lions hang out around fishermans wharf for the regular scrap as the fishermen sell their catch. The locals are friendly and casual – the men gather every evening at 4:30 to play a very serious game of volleyball in the town centre, the rest of the town gathers to watch. It’s very safe with practically no crime, unlike the rest of Ecuador. There are several restaurants, tour agencies, a supermarket and a couple parks. The buildings are the usual cement block with structural rods protruding through the top. Most people don’t have cars but use taxis which are white pick up trucks. Any journey in town costs $1. The currency here is USD CASH – not many places take credit card as we found when we tried to pay for our boat cruise. Luckily, after several trips to the ATM and hitting the daily limit on 3 cards, we gathered enough to pay for it.

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Our 5 day/4 night boat trip was aboard the Archipell with 14 other travellers, mostly Europeans, and had an itinerary focused around Isabela. Isabela island is the biggest island in the group so day tours can’t reach the western coast. The wildlife we got to see was really special – not only for its uniqueness but for its abundance. My favorite encounters were with sea lions as they are so playful, and the giant tortoises because they are so huge, legendary and ancient. Amongst the islands you can see the differences in the tortoises (shell primarily). This visual represntation of evolution is pretty cool. We also visited the tortoise breeding centre on Isabela where we could see the long-term efforts needed to hatch many tortoises from eggs and look after them for 5 years before they could be released into the wild. Unfortunately we were too late for the famous Lonesome George – the last survivor of his subspecies – who died just a few months earlier (he was at least 100 years old, but this is not particularly old for a Galapagos tortoise).

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This sea lion greeted us after exiting the boat- he blocked the path so we walked around. Lots of the time we were stepping over Sea Lions and Marine Iguanas when landing on different islands.

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Acting friendly towards a sea lion so it’ll let us get past:

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The iguanas were also cool to see as they were an image I had in my mind from school. There were hundreds of them ranging in size up to just over a meter long. They appear to be pretty lazy and don’t seem bothered by people, I had to really watch my step whilst taking photos to make sure I didn’t step on any!

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Fernandina island is a small, uninhabited island off the west coast of Isabela. It’s the youngest of the Galapagos Islands (which were all formed by volcanoes – those on Isabela and Fernandina are still active). Fernandina really stands out for the number of sea lions and iguanas roaming around on the beach – bright white coral sand on black lava rock, dazzling under the intense Equatorial sun.

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The lava landscapes we saw both on Fernandina and Isabela were new to us – huge areas of lava flows from a few hundred thousand years to just a few years old, with fissures and cracked lava rock strewn everywhere – often bleak without much life at first sight – but on closer inspection you find cacti, lava lizards, and in some places big pools in collapsed sink holes, which can contain fish, more plant life – and even flamingos.

Much of the landscape of Isabela is volcanic like this:

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One of the largest sinkholes we found in the lava field – an oasis of life, including 3 flamingos!

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We also did an afternoon in the dingy boats and saw loads of turtles, flightless cormorants and many penguins. The penguins were super fast so pictures were difficult but it was fun to watch them on the surface (looking more like ducks) then dive under the water and swim so fast I couldn’t track them! They hang out in pairs and mate for life.

We also got to celebrate John’s birthday on board! The crew decorated the boat and made a cake while we were on Fernandina:) It was a great place to celebrate!

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We spent a lot of time going from the main boat to shore on the dingy’s- about half the time we drove by big rocks with birds, sea lions and iguanas sunning. This picture is one of my favorites with several penguins in front and of course, the blue-footed boobies!!

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On the last morning of the boat trip we were up at dawn to go to Bachas Beach – where we saw some more flamingos. What an unusual but beautiful bird – made pink from their diet of shrimp.

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We saw many other kinds of animals on our boat trip – too many to picture here – including Nazca Boobies, Red-footed Boobies, Galapagos Hawks, Frigate Birds, Tropical Birds, Pelicans, Marbled Rays, Stingrays, White-tip Sharks, many turtles, lava lizards etc. Definitely the best place in the world if you like a wide variety of interesting animals! And the best thing is – most of them don’t have natural fear of humans – so you can get very close to most animals there.

After the boat trip we arranged some day activities from Santa Cruz including a tour to Floreana and a day of diving! The day trip was pretty good and included a load of snorkelling (with wetsuits of course as it wasn’t warm and the water is about 18C – although a 3mm shortie proved to be insufficient). The island of Floreana was the first to be inhabited as it contains a source of fresh water in the highlands which was protected by pirates who built caves up there. We visited the row of caves where they lived, saw the spring and moai-like statue. On the hike up we also saw more giant tortoises but they are imported from another island. The native Floreana tortoises lost their lives to hungry sailors in the late 1800′s.

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The primary objective of diving – Hammerhead sharks!! After doing some research, we selected Gordon Rocks as the location we wanted to dive. We had to be flexible on days because the national park grants permits to the dive companies by location and day of week – so the dive company we liked dived Gordon Rock on Wed and Sat. This is nice because you don’t end up with crowds of divers! In fact, it was just the two of us diving with our DM and the owner/manager, Jan Silberstein.

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We had great wetsuits – full 7mm with hood and boots but we were still cold in that 18C water! On the first dive, we saw 3 hammerheads, turtles and fish but we were most excited about some playful sea lions who swam with us on and off for half the dive. They surfaced and returned to us a number of times. On the second dive, they swam with us again! So fun, they twirled and swam in circles around us, surfaced, came back down and showed off some more. John’s thinks they are compensating for thier awkwardness on land :)

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Unfortunately we didn’t get any great underwater pictures – the visibility wasn’t great, so we only saw the hammerheads for a few seconds at a time. The light level was low, and the water was so cold that we got some fogging in our camera dive case. Whilst we’d read that the diving here was “like a washing machine”, we didn’t find it too challenging – not as bad as the currents we’d dealt with in Indonesia and Rangiroa. The new thing for us was a really long-wave surge which was strong even at depths of 20-30m – and with a cycle period of about 30 seconds, it was more like a cyclic current than a surge (we’re more used to 5-8 second surge cycle on a reef at 5m). It just required a little patience and figuring out how to predict it. For us the main issue was just the discomfort of the cold and so much wetsuit and weight on us – so less agility than our normal 2/3mm plus 2kg setup. We’d love to go back to do some more diving in Galapagos in the future – but we think we’ll have to reserve that for an expensive dive boat and when we’ve got custom-fitted super-thick wetsuits and enough of our own gear to enable us to be more comfortable in 18C water!

Lovely Peru- Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Puno- Lake Titicaca

Of course our primary reason for visiting Peru was to see Machu Picchu but we were pleasantly surprised by the other things Peru had to offer. We started our journey in Lima but only stayed one night on our way to Cusco. I had no expectation for Cusco but found an old, interesting city with some great restaurants, loads of shopping and the “hub” for most other destinations in the area.

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Cusco is at 3400m which is especially noticable after flying in from sea level. But we took it easy the first day, drank lots of coca tea, and felt pretty good the next day. Our objective for Cusco was to plan and book Machu Picchu which may sound straightforward, but if you’re not on a tour, is anything but. Everything is booked separately – from Cusco you must take a 20 min. taxi to the train depot, a 3 hr train into Aguas Callientes, then a 20 min. bus up to the ruins – and separately, you also need to purchase the national park ticket and all these things book up so we were lucky to get it coordinated for a next day departure (although we only got our second choice Macchu Picchu ticket). It’s pretty easy to just go to the ruins but we wanted to climb one of two mountains above the ruins: Huayna Picchu (1st choice) or Machu Picchu Mountain. A combined ticket for ruins + Machu Picchu Mountain was 148 soles in Peru (about $50).

I had heard some negative things about the town of Aguas Callientes and we thought about spending only one night there but we opted to chance it and stay for 2 nights and I’m glad we did. The town was enjoyable and except for the tourist food (bad and expensive), I enjoyed it.

We got up at 4am the next morning, queued up for the first set of buses which departed at 5:30am, arrived at the ruins before the doors opened at 6am. Getting up there early is definitely worth it. We took some great photos then headed to the mountain to start the climb before it got too hot. The mountain opened at 7am (although the door remained locked well beyond, so a bunch of us snuck around the gate to start the climb). We got to the top around 8:30am after a moderate climb. It was cloudy so we had to hang out at the top for awhile until the clouds finally cleared up around 9:30-10am. The view was stunning and gave context to the challenging location of the ruins.

Us with Machu Picchu in background after first entering the ruins around 6:05am:

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Arriving at the top of Machu Picchu mountain after a 90 minute hike:

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View from top of Machu Picchu mountain overlooking ruins – this is where John re-proposed:)

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After the mountain hike in the morning, we headed back down (China ring on finger) for lunch on the lawn overlooking the site, fighting off several banana-loving alpacas, then explored the ruins. It’s pretty open, with only the Intihuatana stone and center lawn roped off. We did our usual trick of downloading a guide on our iphones so we gave ourselves the tour as we walked around.

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Back in Aguas Calientes, we celebrated with a great dinner of alpaca steak then turned in early as John was feeling a chest cold settling in. We took the train toward Cusco but instead of going all the way, we stopped at Ollantaytambo to see some more amazing ruins. It’s a small town with a lot of character and a dearth of tourists (our favorite combination) so we walked around, enjoyed a coffee and lunch before heading out.

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We took a collectivo from here back to Cusco (about 90 minutes) for 10 soles ($3) each! We decided to treat ourselves and stay at a nice hotel for a couple nights near San Blas Cusco – easy walking distance from everything. Finally had some chicha morado with some very delicious alpaca burgers. Next day we planned our trip to Lake Titicaca staying in Puno.

Our choices for getting to Puno were – fly (too expensive), tourist bus (8-10 hrs) or public bus (6-8 hrs). We opted for tourist bus one way as it stopped throughout the journey at a few interesting places along the way. Then a one-way flight back to Lima. The drive was a great way to see the country side and parts of the country we otherwise would miss.

View from the highest altitude of our drive: 4500m

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We arrived in Puno and explored the town, it’s pretty cute and about the same “feel” as Cusco although it’s a bit smaller. It’s hilly and centered around the lake bay. There are cute restaurants, vendors on the street and it’s bustling with more locals than tourists. We arrange a half day tour on the lake for the next day to visit Uros – a group of floating reed island villages.

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The pre-Incan Uru people have lived in isolation on these reed islands for centuries to escape fighting on the main land. They evolved from boats to islands which house up to 8 families. There are 44 islands which were designed to be mobile – and all house high watch tours used for communication amongst islands and for defense. They need constant maintenance and when walking on it, you sink a little- more in some parts!

Since the 1960′s the Uru people are dependent on tourism, after a presentation on how the islands are built and maintained, the women showed us their homes and their crafts. We bought this textile as a souvenir:

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Back in Puno town, we enjoyed a great dinner across from this square featuring two traditional Peruvian dishes- Papa Rellena- stuffed peppers with beef, olives, spices and Aji de Gallina – a chicken yellow curry with rice.

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The next day we flew from Juliaca (near Puno) to Lima to start our 3 days of flying to get to Galapagos!

Easter Island for fascinating history and iconic sites

Easter Island is something of a legendary travel destination – for its remoteness, its iconic Moai statues with legendary story of the Rapa Nui people, and the time/cost to travel there. It was possible for us to include it on our round-the-world ticket, so we jumped at the chance. It is possible to visit “on-a-budget” if you can tie it into a rtw trip, stay at a cheaper pension and eat at the snack restaurants (where a sandwich will still set you back $6-$8, but it’s better than $20-$25+ for most dinner options there).

Easter Island is 5-6 hrs flight from the nearest airports – about halfway between Papeete (Tahiti) and Santiago. We flew from Santiago before heading onto a Lima (a new convenient route offered by LAN). It was interesting to arrive on a huge trans-pacific aircraft, landing on a huge runway (some 3.5km long – apparently it used to be a designated emergency landing site for the NASA space shuttle) – and then disembark to a tiny terminal that only takes 9 flights a week.

We stayed at a very nice pension called Chez Jerome – about 30 minutes walk outside of town. It provided good quality ensuite rooms way better than hostal or campsite alternatives – for a very reasonable price by Easter Island standards (around $75 per night B&B). After our experience in French Polynesia this was relatively good value. Just across the road there were some caves with some interesting cave paintings.

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Chez Jerome was also conveniently located for the hike up to the Rano Kau crater and Orongo village archeological site, so we did that the first day. The hike involved a 300m climb from sea level but the views of the crater were worth it! Orongo village was also interesting – you can see the islands where they used to have the Bird Man competition in ancient Rapa Nui times – which would determine who ruled the island. There are also some stone houses and other remains to see in a stunning setting.

Rano Kau crater – filled with water and reeds. The water level of the crater is about 50m higher than the sea behind:

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The village of Orongo reminded us of Skellig Michael in Ireland. It featured several stone houses with a tiny door that people would have had to crawl through. They covered the stone roof with grass for additional protection from the elements.

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We spent most days doing self guided hikes to explore a few of the 20,000 archeological sites on the island. The first day we hiked to the volcano, the next day we did a 6 hour hike to visit some of the ahu north of the town, including the only maoi with eyes. Whilst at one point all the maoi had these eyes which are made from coral and shells, they were first to be destroyed and dissolved or buried in the sea. Only 3-4 had been recovered and only one statue re-built.

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Ahu is the Rapa Nui word for platform and all maoi statues were set on them for stability. Some ahu have many statues but a few have only one. The people believed that the maoi would look over and protect them so all of the statues face the village with their backs to the sea. The only exception is Ahu Akivi whose seven maoi face the sea but also overlooked the village as this is one of the only inland ahu.

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All the statues standing upright have been re-set. When the first archeologists came to the island, none were standing. Now, only a fraction of the total number have been re-erected. One of the coolest things about hiking the island ourselves was discovering random carvings and statues that wouldn’t be on any tour. On our way to town, we noticed these in the sea:

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One day, we did a day tour with Jerome which was really informative and got us to the more distant parts of the island including Ranu Raranu, the quarrey where all the statues were carved. The statues were carved in the side of the volcano then after the front half was complete, they were separated from the volcano and slid down the side into a hole which had been prepared to receive the maoi in an upright position. Once standing, the back would be carved and finishing touches like ears would be carved. Only then would the long journey to its ahu begin. Here you can see the numerous maoi that were on their way down the side, awaiting final carving. Whilst the statues varied a lot in size, most were between 4-11m so much of them is underground.

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We also enjoyed hiking through the tunnels made from the lava during the formation of the island. The tunnels are everywhere and range in size. People lived in them and remains of beds and stoves can still be seen.

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Of course, one of the highlights was Ahu Tongoriki which has the 12 upright maoi on the edge of the sea, not far from Ranu Raranu.

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Early morning at Ahu Tangoriki with the statues, boat house and “travelling maoi” in view:

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I did manage to get myself up for sunrise here on the last day, it was beautiful to see the light come through the maoi.

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Of course, we had to get one dive in, despite the freezing water temperature! We had only one objective- underwater maoi which was made for a film and put about 18m in the water near the port as a diving attraction. Our dive guide was a french guy who was part of Jacques Cousteau’s expedition team.

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Random head on hike around the laval tunnels:

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Santiago

We spent 6 days in Santiago – much of it just to rest and get over the jet lag after the long flight from Auckland, and to plan the remaining part of our trip in South America. We explored the town a bit and did a day’s skiing at Valle Nevado and a wine tasting at Concha Y Toro. We liked Santiago more than most big cities, it’s pretty clean, full of interesting buildings, had big beautiful mountains in the distance and good food.

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The wine tasting at Concha y Toro was a little disappointing – we took the 2nd tier tour which included a tasting on their “Marques” label premium range of wines paired with cheeses. Unfortunately, as seems typical with winery wine-and-cheese tastings, the pairing was done quite badly (it is difficult to get really good cheese there too). Compounded by the fact that the Marques wines weren’t really very good, it added up to a disappointment from a wine-critique point of view. But the tour was interesting enough and we had a fun time.

The tour included a visit to the “Casillero del Diablo” cellars where they put on some spooky sound and light effects:

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Wine and cheese tasting spread:

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The trip to Valle Nevado was great in the end, but got off to an unpleasant start due to practically no sleep the night before because our hostel was so noisy (John – set a record for the trip of absolutely zero sleep on a non-travelling night). Secondly the ski bus & rental company we used – All2Ski – were very badly disorganised and we ended up waiting at the shop for over an hour for the bus to depart – which means we missed the best hour of the day’s skiing on the mountain – the morning after 6-8 inches of powder had been laid for us. However, once we finally got there, survived the hair-raising bus ride on slippery and windy mountain roads, and figured out the mess of the locker system at the ski center – we finally got our skis on and explored some really great slopes and excellent snow at up to 3650m (~12000ft) – with a backdrop of some really very high Andean mountains to keep us company. We hadn’t skied for a while and were very tired so we had to take it easy – but it was fantastic on fresh snow – until it warmed up too much in the mid afternoon.

Tres Puntas was the high point at around 3650m – and tough to get there on the longest drag lift I have ever used.

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But getting there rewarded us with pistes like this – only a few skiers had been down them even by midday and there was a good 10+ inches of fresh powder – my first powder skiing!:

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Clouds rolled in occasionally, which made for some beautiful and dramatic backdrops to our runs, until late afternoon when it closed in too much and became foggy (so we gave up – the snow was too soft anyway):

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Overally I’d look forward to a stopover in Santiago again and would definitely explore more of the skiing if I landed there in the winter. With more time we would have explored some of Patagonia and visited Mendoza (in Argentina, but closer to Santiago than most major Argentinian hubs) – but we’re on a schedule to get home now, so we had to move on.