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South America Magazine

Following on from previous magazines of our travels, I have created a South America Travel Magazine out of this blog. I hope that you like it.

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Santiago and Valparaíso

En route from Ecuador to New Zealand we stopped in Santiago for four nights. We stayed at a funky hostel in the Barrio Brasil area called Don Santiago. It felt just like staying at someones home and we had a fantastic bbq with the other guests on Halloween.

Day 1

We walked into town and climbed Cerro Santa Lucia for fantastic views of the city. From there we wondered around the Artesan market and finally bought ourselves two maté cups and bombillas (silver straws). We walked down to the River and across to Recoleta. Being a Saturday it was full of interesting clothing stalls. We walked onto Bellavista which is full of bars and restaurants. There was some cool grafitti en route.



Day 2

We visited the Museo de Arte de Pre-Columbia, which is free on Sundays. The museum houses the best ceramic display we have seen in South America, encompassing Central America and the west coast of South America from Ecuador to Chile. We spent the day shopping and wondered down from Plaza de Armas to the Central Market.



Day 3

We decided to go on a day trip to Valparaíso on our third day. It is an easy and cheap bus ride from Alameda. Valparíso is a port town and has enough to amuse you for a day. We caught one of the dozen funiculars still working up Cerro Conception (originally there were 33). The hills are full of colourful buildings, some of which house shops and cafes. There is also great views around the city. We caught another funicular, Asendor El Peral back down the hill after exploring a bit and had a set menu at one of the fish restaurants. We slowly wondered back to the bus station via the shops and headed back to Santiago in the late afternoon.





Day 4

For our final day in South America we made sure we relaxed, sleeping in and eating the tasty breakfast at the hostel before going shopping.

In the afternoon we caught the metro out to Viña Concha y Toro, the 10th largest winery in the World. We wanted to visit this winery as they produce the Casillero del Diablo range that we used to drink in London.

The winery was very fancy, with an English garden, large summer residence and vineyards. The tour also included walking into the Casillero del Diablo (Devil’s Cellar). The original owner of the vineyard placed his best bottles in this cellar to mature. After a while he noticed that the wine was going missing. He suspected the local workers were stealing it, and knowing how superstitious they were he spread a rumour that the devil lived in the cellar. The ruse worked and noone stole any bottles any further.



Concha y Toro

Quito

Mariscal / New Town

We based ourselves in the Mariscal district of Quito, also known as Gringolandia. We stayed in four different hotels during our time here as we bounced around to Mindo and Galapogos and back. The best budget accommodation was the Backpackers Inn, best treat yourself option was Casa Sol.

There is not too much in the way of sites in the new town, but people base themselves their because it is safer, and has plenty of accommodation and eating options.

We wandered down to the artesean market, which was largely full of lame tat and overly expensive. There were a few good finds though.

Across the park from the market is the Museo de Banco Centro in the Casa de Cultura. The museum houses an impressive room of pre-Columbian ceramics from around Ecuador. Unfortunately the gold room was closed, but their prize piece, a large headband was still on display.

Bellavista

Bellavista is further out in the new town up on a hill (hence the name). We caught the bus out and trudged up the hill to the Museo Guayasamin, Ecuador´s premier modern artist. Guayasamin was born in 1919 and despite his parent´s dreams of him becoming a doctor he chose to paint.

The museum is housed in his former home, a lovely spralling Spanish villa. The collection includes pre-Columbian ceramics and funerary pieces as well as his artwork. His paintings were influenced by his travels, struggles of indeginous people, early death of his mother and world politics. He travelled far and had influencial friends around the world including Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao.

Further up the hill is the Capilla del Hombre (Temple of Man) which realised Guayasim´s dream of a new spirituality focusing on people. The temple is full of Guaysamin´s paintings and sculpture. Guayasamin is buried under and tree overlooking the temple and Quito.

Guayasamin´s artwork is very emotive, focusing of skeletal figures with large eyes and hands. The pieces are very large and powerful.











Old Town

Quito has the largest old town in South America, and it looks very much like a European old town. There are plenty of stories about the old town being unsafe. It felt fine to us during the day but there were a few over protective locals telling us to watch our bags and where it was unsafe to walk while we were there.

One of the highlights of the old town is the basilica, which is on a hill overlooking the old town. The basilica is neo-gothic in style with galapogos animals instead of gargoyles. The interior is bright with new stained glass windows but is unremarkable otherwise. You can climb to the top of the belfry for $2 for good views.




At the bottom of the old town is a nice artesean streat called Calle de Ronda with cobble stones and restored mansions.

Up the road is the Iglesia Compañia de Jesus, a Jesuit church which our Rough Guide describes as “opulence gone mad”. The small church contains seven tonnes of gold. Every surface is painting or gilded with golden scroll work.

There are several plazas in the old town. We were treated to festivities for Halloween, All Saints, Day of the Dead in Plaza San Francisco.


Mital del Mundo

We caught the bus from Ofelia bus terminal to Mital del Mundo (Middle of the World). There is a epic monument erected at the site that French scientists wrongly proclaimed the equator line. We opted not to go in and took a photo from outside.

Instead we walked another 280m to the Museo Intiñan (Sunpath). Do not be put off by first impressions as you get a guide included in the ticket price. Set among totem poles from around the Americas, your get to perform various cool experiments such as walking on the equator line with your eyes closed – you loose your balance fast. Other experiments are balancing a raw egg on the head of a nail and the classic water going down a drain. Worth a visit. If you do go, take your passport so you can get it stamped.







Galapogos Islands

We booked our Galapogos trip prior to leaving the United Kingdom with Gecko. Our tour included nights in Quito at the beginning and end of the boat trip, which is important to check so that you know how many nights your trip actually is. Our tour included the flight to Galapogos and four nights on a 16 person boat. Other people booked the same trip as we, only the day before the boat set sail for approximately the same value as we had so its up to you whether you book in advance or not.

A large part of the tour was snorkelling. We rented our snorkelling equipment for 10 us dollars for the whole trip. You could also rent wet suits but we found the water was warm enough to snorkel for up to 1.5 hours without.

Day 1 / Santa Cruz

We woke early, had a transfer to the airport and waited round for our flight. We were on the direct flight with Tame Airlines, approximately 2 hours to Baltra airport in Galapogos. At the airport in Quito you pay a $10 Galapogos transfer fee, then at Baltra a $100 entrance fee.

At Baltra, our guide picked us and our 15 person group up. We transfered to our boat and sailed across the channel to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the archepelego.

We stopped at a beach on the north western side of the island, away from the towns, for a snorkel and walk along the beach. The snorkelling as not that great with limited visibility due to the sandy water (better snorkelling was to come). The walk was good though with sea lions, marine iguanas, bright red crabs, frigate birds, grey heron, a Carribean flamingo, pelicans and blue foooted boobies flying overhead.


Day 2 / Santa Fe

We slept overnight on the boat in the Baltra Strait and then sailed after breakfast to the Plazas Islands. There are two islands, the northern is reserved for scientific research but you can explore the southern island.

We saw marine and land iguanas. You can tell the difference between the two species by colour and size. The marine iguanas are smaller and generally black while the land iguanas were yellow and green. The yellow colour comes from their new skin when the old layer has peeled off.

The iguanas live for 75 years and do not mate for life. They leave eggs in burrows for three months and leave the young to fend for themselves. The land iguanas live off cactus and go crazy for the yellow flowers. The marine iguanas eat algae.



There were also loads of sea lions and their gorgeous cubs. The sea lions have quite a distinctive bark and smell… We were lucky to arrive about 1/2 hour after one cub had been born. As part of natures way of dealing with the birth, birds came and cut the umbilical cord to the placenta. It was a bit grim but made sense.

The sea lions live to 40 years of age. There is always a dominant male in each group with a number of females. The male generally prefers younger virgin sea lions. The females have one cub at a time after a nine month pregnancy. Once the baby is born they stay with it for three days before going out to sea to search for food while the cubs play with their mates. After a year of milk they move onto solid foods and start to fend for themselves.


We walked around the island before heading back to the boat where we sailed to Sante Fe. During the sail we saw what may have been whales in the distance and a large manta ray jumping in the air. After lunch we wet snorkelling along the reef line and saw lots of different types of fish including Leather Bass, King Angelfish, Mullet, Parrot Fish and Giant Hawkfish.

The guide heard about sharks in the shallows so we hoped into the dingy and went shark hunting. Anna was confused about where the sharks were and was wondering why everyone was pointing at her…. Turns out the shark was below her and bigger than her…..EEEEEEK. Anna quickly snorkelled away and then did some good internal shrieking.

On the way back to the boat we first played with sea lions. We were told that they like to mimic what you do. If you twirl, they respond and they also like to blow bubbles and dive down deep. After this we continued swimming and saw our first TURTLE! At first it was resting by some rocks and then started to gracefully swim. We shadowed him for awhile and were transfixed by his movements. What an experience!

Day 3 / Española

This day was by far the best in terms of wildlife spotting. Española has no predators, with the goat having been eradicated in the 70´s. We sailed overnight from Sante Fe to Española and took sea sick pills to help us sleep. We arrived at Gardner Bay and had a wet landing on the beach.

We wondered past basking sea lions, curious mocking birds (watch out for your water bottle), to watch six turtles feeding in the shallows. After this we went for a snorkel and were treated to a couple of sting rays buried in the sand. We saw reef cornet fish, trigger fish, cardinal fish, hog fish and long fin half beak.




We went back on the boat and out to Gardner Island for more snorkelling. This is where the funniest incident of the trip happened. Japhet, an Australian guy, was playing with a sea lion for a bit. He then took a break and stood on a rock. Sam and I were watching as the sea lion came up from behind him and bit him on his bottom! It was so hilarious we forgot we were under water and laughed so hard we started taking on salt water! The sea lion was really playful with everyone, and bit Sam´s flipper.

After lunch we sailed around to Punta Suarez. We did a dry landing and a three hour walk around the island. Along the walk we saw many marine iguanas which were a molted red, green and black. Due to the way in which they dive they talk on a lot of water and then spit it out back on dry land. Watch out.




Next we came across the Blue Footed Boobies nesting. Sam also spotted the boobies doing their famous mating dance. The dance consists of each boobie taking turns to lift their little blue foot, alternating one foot at a time in a circular motion (think white man two step shuffle). They also have a distinct call, different between the males and females. After this we also saw some eggs and some very white fluffy chicks.





We carried up the island to the albatross airport. There were a number of albatross chicks waiting for their parents to bring back food. We were treated to one chick being fed by his father, who was not much larger than he. The chick was very demanding and clattered his beak on his fathers. The Galapogas Albatross has a wing span of 2.5 metres.


We went to a view point to wait and see if any chicks were going to take their first plunge and hopefully fly. Alas there were none but there were plenty of other birds to entertain us. These included the tropical bird, frigates, and boobies. We could also see a giant blow hole where the surf pounds in and spurts up 30 metres.

From the cliffs we walked through the masked boobie nesting area and back to the blue footed boobies. We saw more mating dances, chicks and eggs. All through the walk there were many mocking birds, Galapogas doves and finches.

Day 4 / Floreana

We landed at post office bay at 7.45am and went to collect and post postcards. As the tradition goes you put your postcard into the box (without a stamp) and leave it there for someone from your country to collect and post when they return home. You also grab any that need delivering. Sadly there were none for us but we had a fantastic snorkel afterwards with three turtles.


Further along the island we visted a beach where a number of sting rays were feeding in the shallows at ankle depth. There were also a number of flamingos in a nearby lagoon.

The highlight of the morning was sail en route to the visit to Devils Crown (Corona del diablo) for snorkelling. We saw a huge pod of dolphins that completely surrounded the boat. The dolphins danced at the bow of the boat jumping up to two metres in the air. There was also a whale further out.



The snorkel was more challenging due to the currents. We were treated with seeing a reef shark, puffer fish, star fish and golden rays. The rays were beautiful to watch until they turned around and started swimming towards us. We high tailed it back to the boat.

That afternoon we sailed back to Santa Cruz and had our last night on the boat. We also went into ´town´ for a few drinks.

Day 5 / Charles Darwin Centre

We woke early and transfered to the land to visit the Charles Darwin Centre. At the centre they had a breeding programme for tortoises and iguanas and provide support for international and student researchers. They also monitor the islands via GIS mapping and work to preserve the ecology on the islands.

We visited a number of different areas with a number of different size tortoises from newly hatched to females in their forties and males in their eighties. They do not know how old they live to but believe it is about 150 years.

We saw lonesome George they last saddle tortoise from Pinta Island. Luckily George is not so lonesome anymore and has two lucky ladies to keep him company. They are hoping that some little Georges hatch in the near future. After this we caught a bus to the airport and flew back to Quito.

Although the Galapogas tour is very expensive, it is well worth extending your budget to make it. It is easily the highlight, and some may say the only reason to visit, Ecuador.




Around Quito

Quito, the capital of Ecuador is the central base for tourism in Ecuador. We arrived in Quito from Baños and eventually found a rather bad hostel in the new town to crash called Crossroads. The room was nice and large, but the common areas were not very clean and it was very noisy at night due to the neighbouring bars.

Otavalo

Our reason for charging into Ecuador and not taking our time in the south was to get to the Saturday market in Otavalo. The Saturday market is the largest handicraft market in South America.

Otavalo is a two hour bus ride ($2) north of Quito, although it takes a bit of effort just to get to the right bus station. We first caught a bus to Ofelia bus station, then a $2 taxi ride to the right bus station. Otherwise it is a $6 taxi ride from the New Town.

We jumped off the bus early in the north of the city, and followed the locals into town through the fruit and vegetable market. It was neat walking through this section that most gringos ignore. There was so much produce. We feasted on sweat pineapple to fuel the shopping.

The artesan market runs from the central square most way back to the bus station along 10 blocks. There are many many stalls selling everything you could possibly want. We spent 5 hours wandering through and purchased some weavings, a giant hammock, Panama hats and gifts for home. We returned to our hostel in Quito happy, and ladden down.


Mindo

The following morning we relaxed in the New Town of Quito, visiting the disappointing Indian market and the cool art market.

In the afternoon we caught the bus to Mindo from Ofelia. Mindo is smaller than Baños, and set in a cloud forrest reserve. Cloud forrest is forrest that contains plants that get their water from the air, as it is at an altitude where clouds sit. As Baños is a small town, there is no ATM that accepts VISA or Mastercard (we had to catch a bus to nearby Los Bancos). Also there are no street signs so it can be hard to find your accommodation.

We stayed at the lovely Cabañas la Estancia. We were the only ones there, so it felt more like staying with a homestay as the family running the cabañas were lovely and inquisitive.

The next day we walked on the main road out of town up into the cloud forrest. Our goal was zip lining. There are two companies side by side offering the same experience. We went with Mindo Canopy Adventure for $15, who are the original company. The zip lining was an excellent experience. You go with two guides and can choose whether to fly across the the wires solo or with the guide. There is also the option to go upside down or in Superman pose with a guide.

On our last day we again trudged up the hill, another 2km past the zip lines to get to the waterfalls. Unfortunately we left our money back in the cabañas and the only way to get to the waterfalls is first by a $5 cable car. Rather annoyed withourselves we headed back into town and cheered ourselves up with the best pizza in South America before jumping on a bus back to Quito.





The road to Quito

We left Perú for Ecuador, aiming to get to Otavalo for the Saturday market.

Guayaquil

We booked the 9.30pm Cifa bus from Macora to Guyaquil, as these had full ´cama´ seats. Unfortunately we were told this bus had ´broken down´ so we were placed on the semi-cama 11pm bus with no refund. We think our bus was simply cancelled as not enough people had booked, there were just the five gringos there.

The border control into Ecuador is rather severe. Our bus was stopped and searched on three seperate occaisons. There was one black man on our bus, and he was picked on each time.

We arrived in Guyaquil rather tired after the bad bus at 6am. We booked an onward bus to Baños for 2pm later that day. We caught the metro bus into town for $0.50 and started to explore. Most tourists skip Guyaquil, but the city has gone through an extensive regeneration project over the past two decades, doing up the waterfront and Las Peñas areas.

We started with the waterfront, which has a funky boardwalk and lookout towers, botanical gardens, outdoor gym, IMAX and museum. There is currently an exhibition below the IMAX with minuture displays showing the history of Guyaquil from pre-incan to present with Spanish and English voice overs.

From the waterfront we climbed up to the colourful Las Peñas, situated on Santa Ana where the original Spanish fort lay. Las Peñas was a dangerous area until gentrification, and there are photos up showing what the buildings looked like befor restoration. It is now a very pretty area with great views over the rest of the city.

All the restaurants were closed in Las Peñas, so we had a tasty meal at Aroma Café along the waterfront before returning to the bus terminal.

When we arrived at the terminal we again we found our bus had broken down (again not enough people had bought seats) so we were bought tickets with another company. This company however did not go direct to Baños, so instead of a 6 hour ride, it took 8.5 hours. The conductor continuely lied to us about how long the bus was going to take.




Baños

Baños is a small mountain town in central Ecuador. The name means Baths, due to the various thermal springs. Personally I snigger, as when you want to find out where the toilet is in South America you ask ¿Donde esta el baño?

We stayed at the oddly named Plantos y Blanco (Plants and White), a very popular hostel. The hostel has a great roof terrace, with lovely views of the small town ringed by mountains. The breakfast is very tasty and good value. We stayed for two nights.

The most famous springs in Baños are the Virgen of the Waters. We visited in the evening for $2. The water is a murky yellow colour due to the sulphates. There are three pools, one freezing, one hot, one boiling. We stayed in the hot pool, occaissonally cooling down with a nearby cold shower. It was lovely and atmospheric sitting below a waterfall surrounded by locals.

Plantos y Blanco offer a steam bath for $2.75 and is certainly a different experience. You take the steam bath in the morning, and it is recommended to do this for three mornings though once was enough for us. You sit in a wooden box with just your head sticking out. Steam is pumped into the box making you sweat. You stay in the box for four minutes, then wash yourself down with a cold wet towel. This is repeated three times, then you sit in a cold bath and rub your stomach. Then after another steam box you get hosed down with cold water.


Quito

From Baños we caught a short 3 hour bus up to Quito.