South American hospitality

You’re going to South America for a year on your own? You’re crazy!
You went to South America? Was it dangerous?
You’ve been to Colombia? Isn’t it really dangerous there?

Many of us have heard all this nonsense before, but for some, this is how Latin America is blindly perceived, hopefully this post will shed some light on the real South America. I did spend one year there and it was by far the best year I have ever had in my life. Below are ten short examples of the finest hospitality, which, no word of a lie, I was treated to year-round.

1. Victor, Ecuador
I met Victor through my mate Jake who had been living in Ecuador for about two years, we went to visit Victor’s organic farm on a small town to celebrate his birthday. The night I met Victor he treated us all to a wonderful, wholly organic home cooked meal and a solid night of partying on the farm. Victor was an incredible host and we bonded instantly, he offered me work on his farm for as long as I wanted. I instantly took up the offer, and after a week on the coast I returned to the farm and spent a month there, with Victor and his family, learning to work a farm, be on the land, in the sun all day, using my hands and my body. It was excellent. I started to study Spanish there, had my own room, ate with Victor and his family at every meal, as I was part of their family. It was one of my first big experiences,in South America and one of the most fulfilling. I had been received with the warmest, most welcoming arms and felt completely at home in an Andean mountain town in the Chimborazo province. We all wound up on the coast for a blinder new year, and I went back to the farm for a weeks in the new year. I have made a friend, a brother for life with Victor.

2. Eliana, Colombia
A few friends and I met Eliana on the coast of Ecuador, and we stayed in touch as she knew I would visit her country. The moment I arrived in beautiful Popayan Eliana was on the case. She went out of her way to make sure we met up, ate, assisted me with learning Spanish and communicating with the hostel staff, showed me around the city, took me to her faculty at the university (we both study architecture) and many other landmarks, I went out with her friends, she even took me to her dad’s photography studio where her dad happily cleaned my lens, as well as to her family’s house before going out one night, where her mum and brother were just as friendly and patient with my early and terrible Spanish. This reception was the start of a long standing love affair with Colombia and it’s people.

3. Poliana, Raquel and family, Colombia
Two mates of mine had met Poliana when she worked at the Media Luna hostel in Cartagena the year before, and had suggested I check in with her when I got to Colombia as she was ‘on our level’. To keep a long story short, we ended up travelling together for about a month and finished at Bogota, where I stayed with her step-sister Raquel and her dad Jesus. ”You can stay here as long as you want”. This wound up being such a typically South American line. Need anything? Ask us. Wanna go somewhere? Ask. It was as if they were there to make sure you had the 100% best and most fulfilling time. Poliana had to get back to the coast. I stayed about a week in the capital and got to hang out plenty with Raquel, who took me all over Bogota, showed me buildings, museums, places to eat, graffiti, helped me with my Spanish, I could go on but I will keep it relatively short. Again I was blown away but such warm, caring hospitality. I even met their mum who as you would imagine, was another wonderful human being. By this point I had been in Colombia almost four months and was completely infatuated by the country and the inhabitants. Funny, I told Jake and Victor I would be ”back in a month” when I left Ecuador. But hey, that is Colombia for you.

4. Eduardo, Galapagos Islands
I was lost on my bicycle trying to make my way inland to one of the craters when I asked a local man near the town of Santa Rosa for directions. We got talking and apart from giving me the directions to where I was trying to go, Eduardo remarked that he had wanted to host an Australian in his house, and instantly offered his home to me for a few days. The man was all smiles and incredibly pleased to have an Australian on enjoying the islands. Sadly I had to get back to another island the following day, so in this case it wasn’t to be, but the heart was all there. Eduardo knew I was super grateful that he had wanted to have me over for, once again, however long I would have wanted.

5. David, Chile (Easter Island)
He was one of the first Chileans I ever met. I had pitched my tent near his when I arrived at Easter Island and he was, of course, friendly as. We got talking and David was working for the head chef at the hostel before heading back to work in Spain for a few months. Within minutes he got me stoned and was sharing food from the kitchen: We had a blast across the week I was there, he was always generous and willing to help in any way, we laughed our asses off and had a pretty swell time around Minihoa. He left me all his details as he would be back in Santiago for a few weeks to visit family, and said to get in touch if I was there at the same time. He told me in Spanish that I could stay with him and his family, and begged me to visit some of his favourite places in wonderful Chile. Otherwise, catch him in Spain – same deal!

6. Rosa Marie and Rene, Chile
I had just arrived in Chile proper, having spent about two days busing from Lima. Exhausted, I hauled myself off the bus and started looking for campsites. I found one and there were a lot of Chileans lying about, hungover, still partying – whatever (they party). I noticed Rosa Marie and Rene cause Rosa Marie has the most hideous cough. No one was in their tents (it was about 9am) and everyone was drinking wine. They called me over and we got talking. They showered me with food, I mean a lot of food as they were leaving, gave me a pocket knife and bottle opener to keep, Rene gave me the last of his weed. A bag of fruit. Vino? Hah! You can’t turn down Chileans when they offer you anything. And they will offer you everything. I wound up having quite a few glasses of wine with them and talking for ages. They left me their details and said I could check in and stay with them any time, should I pass through Calama again. The last thing they gave me was a magnetic travellers charm and a Bolivian coin that stuck to it, even though tried to refuse their excessively overwhelming and endless generosity. I will travel with that thing until I die.

7. Nat, Kelly, Lorena and Carolina.
I met Nat and Kelly in Vicuña and us and a few more Chileans who I am still in touch with had an absolute ball for several days, it got a bit wild at times, all that cheap and nice quality wine, weed, pisco. Endless. Nat and Kelly set me up with two of their friends, who had me over when I got to Valparaiso for eight days. They gave me a couch, fed me, had me perpetually stoned, took me out, gave me a key and said do as you please, our house is yours. And they mean this when they say it. Not only do they mean it, they show it. I had a kicking time in Valparaiso and it was all cause of my Chilean hosts.

8. Daniel, Chile
I met Daniel and his girlfriend in Vicuña too. They pitched their tent next to mine and we got talking. They loved that I loved Chile, that I was learning to speak Spanish. Daniel immediately offered me a canister of gas he did not need any more. We hung out for a few days and I had to go, but Daniel insisted that when I come to Santiago, I stay with him. He put me up in his apartment with great views, again gave me a key, my own room, food, drink, you know how it is. Showed me Santiago, the gardens, a few bars, even took me to an antique fair and lunch at his grandparents place where I had wonderful Chilean food and talked football and travel with him and his grandparents.

9. Anita, Chile
Anni and I met on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. We shared the same dorm and got talking. She was from a place I had never heard of before, Pucon in Chile. Although she left the next day she was interested in my travellers and had been a few places I was going to visit, so we kept in touch – I was also going to pass through Pucon most likely. By the time I got down there she gave me a couch for again, as long as I want. Another key. More food. Wine. Use of her bike. Whatever. The moment I got in the door we smoked a joint and went out around the lakes (it was about 9am). Later we went to one of the national parks with a friend of hers. She invited to me to a friends party, we saw a bit of Pucon, she minded my gear while I disappeared for days in the Huerquehue national park and generally had a great time. She was one of the best friends I made there. Pucon was beautiful. I went back and stayed with her for a few more days after wrapping up Patagonia entirely. Chilean hosts. Epic.

10. Juan Carlos, Chile
I took the Navimag boat from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales to get to the Torres del Paine national park. Feeling on top of the world, and endless creativity, I was on the top deck before we set off when an older male saw me drawing and approached me. Juan Carlos was a comic and landscape artist from Punta Arenas. We got talking of all things. Showed each other drawings, photos we’d taken. In short, we got close, and Juan Carlos instructed me that when I got to Punta Arenas, I was to contact him and he would have a room for me with his family. I stayed with them for a week, and again I was treating more like a son than a traveller. His mum reminded me of my grandmothers – her kindness was simply infinite. She fed me the most amazing Chilean food every day, washed my disgusting load of hiking gear, even knitted me a home made Region XII flag (Chilean Patagonia and Antarctic territory). I spent my days relaxing, photo editing, drawing a lot with Juan Carlos. It was great. He had mates over quite a few times and they wanted to hear all my stories, and I equally wanted theirs. All these older Chilean mad cats, wild characters, brimming with the raw pulse of life. It was the farthest south I have ever been in the world, and I had a damn swell time.

11. Fernando, Argentina
I had spent about 11 hours on a 300km hitch hike. It was one of those days where the going was slow but numerous Chileans and Argentinians had helped me along my way and given me their stories and I say in the passenger seats of an off duty taxi, a delivery truck and two cars while soaking in the immensity that is the Patagonian steppe. I wound up crossing the border into Argentina really late, at about 9PM. This did not go to plan, but that didn’t matter, all the best experiences has been unplanned and in the precise moment that is life. Two friendly Chileans had helped me across the border, they were heading into Argentina briefly, as Chilean border folk do, for cheap cigarettes and cheap fuel. So there I was, in a city I had never been to, at 9PM, in the rain, with nowhere to stay. I walked around looking for places. Nothing. Rio Turbio is not a huge place. I was about to spend the night in a half constructed house near the bus terminal so I could hitch hike out in the morning when I decided I should ask one local about cheap places for backpackers. I asked a sprite man who was passing by on the street, who, upon being asked if he knew of any cheap hostels or guest houses, promptly replied ”come with me, I have a room and mattress at the back of my restaurant, you can stay with me, welcome!” So, it was one of those times where my western conditioning got the better of me. Why was he being so nice? Is he gay? Am I going to be robbed? I quickly silenced my conscience. In the end, I spent two great nights with Fernando and his girlfriend. They fed me the best restaurant food, every day and night. Introduced me to all the staff, friends and family. Refused to take my money. Threw beer and wine at me. On my second night I had dinner with Fernando’s entire family. He said I gotta come back and visit one day, so I can properly see the Rio Turbio and around. And here I was worrying about him, after I almost slept in an abandoned house. Idiot.

12. Mauro, Sebastian and Marian, Argentina.
I had spent my second day at the Perito Moreno glacier after about six weeks of a lot of hitching around the south of Patagonia, and I had to get a ride back into town. There was a beautifully painted Kombi van outside the entry to the glacier. I hung around, liking my chances, knowing that soon a few hippies or travellers would appear. A gaucho like Argentine guy showed up, bearded, scruffy looking, like me really. I asked if the van was his, and when he said yes I asked if I could hitch a ride back into town. Of course! Once my cousin and friend get here. Not only did I get a ride back to El Calafate, but I wound up travelling with these guys twice. They had spent two months seeing their country and had picked up a few travellers, loved that I spoke Spanish, they kept doing Spanish Godfather impersonations. They gave me whisky, pipe tobacco, fed me constantly. Top blokes, I had the best time with them. We stayed in touch in order to catch up back in Buenos Aires. The van was sick. They loved singing ACDC. We saw Esquel, El Chalten and a bit of El Calafate together. I got to travel with thee legendary local boys throughout Patagonia in a Kombi. I’d thank thank them for dinner or something and they would roll their eyes, as if I was paining them, and it was their duty to cater for a guest in their country. Nooo! Por favor! Por nada! Noooo, please! Thanks for what! Love ’em.

I could go on, but I’ve kept it at twelve. This happened throughout the entire year, in every country, some more than others, but all in all, Latin American hospitality is the finest I have ever experienced. How could I possibly get home sick? The continent and it’s people showed me a lot of love, I mean a lot, and in turn, they changed how I saw the world and the people in it, they evidently taught an already generous and good natured person even more about generosity and kindness. The showed me how you should treat guests, treat anyone, with endless friendship. It was a truly profound and joyous experience from start to finish. Forget what you think you know about South America.

I am still in touch with most of the people, and I know I will see many of them again one day, either here in Australia, or in South America, or somewhere in the world, that’s the kind of friends they are. My travel diary is littered with contacts and addresses of people who gave me the ”when you come to xxx call me and you can stay with me/use, come have dinner with my family” etc. What a time, what great people.

Enough for now, I have been offline for too long and forgot how long it takes to put up a blog post. But there will be more from me from now on. In short: go experience South America – it fucking rocks.

One year is not enough…

Not in a place like this. A place so rich in everything, right down to suffering and poverty and perfectly less comfortable than the life of luxury I led back in Australia (it was too comfortable for me – that is one reason why I left). South America will captivate you in ways unimaginable. Unexplainable. I’ve been travelling for ten months now and have got to see Colombia, Ecuador and Chile very well. I just spent a month in Argentina. Summer in Chile was the best in my life. My main aim was Patagonia and I spent just over two months in what you could call greater Patagonia, from Pucon as far south as Punta Arenas, Chile and from Rio Turbio up to Bariloche in Argentina. It was an amazing, beautiful, challenging time.

Ever since I left Patagonia I’ve felt a bit lost. It started after Torres del Paine. I haven’t known where to go, what to do, with time running short my life of slow travel is coming to an end. With all the things I’ve done I’ve still not been to the Amazon, have only been to Lima in Peru and have not visited Bolivia. I miss those big, mad, Andean cities: the noise, the chaos, the food, the indigenous, the rawness, the bit of danger, the soul. So kicking and thriving.

I’ve even considered going back to Colombia. I want to experience that brilliant country now that I can speak (I am still learning) Spanish. One of my best mates just moved there. A girl I love is there. Colombia was one of the first places in South America that really helped me wake up, grow, realise what is important in life. Changed me for better. Forever. An amazing land full of amazing people. But I could say that about every country I’ve been to. South America has something we don’t have in the west. I can’t explain it, can’t put it into words. If you’ve been and you’re reading this then you know what I mean. If you’re wondering, don’t wonder any more – go.

Twenty minutes ago my Peruvian friend Julio sent me this brilliant video on Peru, it goes for two and half minutes, watch it here.

It almost made me cry. Nostalgia from the last ten months and my journey slapped me hard in my face. It took me back to my early days in Ecuador. In Quito. In Riobamba. It blew my mind. I realised I had missed a great land (Peru). Then I realised, I have two months, and this video is a few weeks in Peru. Chance moment? I think I’m going to Peru and Bolivia. Call it fate or something, call it whatever. But I think I am going to travel fast for once and spend a few weeks in these countries.

So a year, it’s been wild, crazy, fun, scary, challenging, demanding, loving, up, down and around again. Two would have been ideal, even a year and a half. I’ve never felt so alive as I have here in South America. So what is it about this place? I’ll go home soon, but I will be back. I love South America – it has shown me so much love and I will show it back, wherever I am in the world, and to whoever is in my company.

Thanks a lot Julio, it was timely, and touching.

After three days of waiting I’m going to get my bus across to Mendoza from Santiago. Paz.

The lower end of backpacking… long buses and borders

It’s not all amazing mountains, wild animals, raw nature and beautiful Pacific sunsets. If you’ve been following my activity on Facebook you probably only see my photos and rarely hear of the delays, long bus rides, being seated next to stinking toilets, people trying to scam you at borders, forgetting toilet paper (that’s breaking the number one rule :p ).

When I left Ecuador for Peru back in January, I said goodbye to one of my best mates, Jake, after a blinder new year and a lot of fun in Quito, Riobamba, Alausi, the coast. I got on a bus from Quito to Guayaquil at about 1pm. I plowed through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a few hours and listened to music, failing to drain out sellout Hollywood movies dubbed in Spanish and an Indian man who was singing loudly. I got to Guayaquil at about 10pm and had to take a taxi for two minutes to the terminal. The woman drove an absolute bomb of an 80s Charade or similar and tried to rip me off at $3. I had to do something between charm, beg and bargain with my poor Spanish to get her to lower the price. I got into the terminal and bought a ticket to my next bus off a suspicious character with a solid moustache. The bus was bound for Huaquillas, near the Peruvian border, where I would cross into Tumbes and then take another, long bus, to Lima. It was late, I was already tired, and had a long way to go. The bus was full of suss cunts, as we say in Sydney, or rather suspect people – all men, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, no woman. Lots of rats tails, mullets, men old and one, and young gringo. Me. There was an empty seat next to an old man with a crooked smile at the back of the bus, there was one more row behind, and an old man sat with his shirt covering his face to mask the shit and piss smell eeking out of the toilet. There were people standing, but the seat was vacant? I wondered if it was defective or covered in shit or something absurd. A young guy offered me the seat and I took it. Five hours next to a toilet. Nice. After some bullshitting about we left, I got some crappy sleep, clutching my backpack, hiking boots and other assorted items in another bag above me (I was carrying too much at this point). I was hugely suspect of the crossing  and have heard some stories. Jake advised me of this route, but before I left his mate from Otavalo had turned up and was laughing saying it was no better at this time especially. Jake. Haha.

I woke confused and stumbled off the bus at between 4 and 5am glad to be in fresh air, but was presented with a small and mostly deserted border town. I was tired. I was fucked really. A fat Peruvian changed my USD for Soles (at a shitty rate, I was half asleep and my sensible was too), I had forgotten to get my Soles out of my large backpack and wasn’t going to attempt to do so here. His mate, another Peruvian character was being super friendly saying he could take me to immigration and across the border. The other people on the bus had disappeared, there were no connected buses to get to the border. What was going on? In a haze, I agreed, and he took me into a gated property into a nice, almost new Honda. Wait, what the fuck am I doing? Why did I agree to this? The guy was friendly but I was in semi panic mode and started to wonder where I would end up. We got to the border, I took all my bags into customs with me cause I was not giving him the chance to drive off with everything, he said I could leave, but I deflated the situation saying my passport was in my big backpack. He had been asking me all these questions about money, cards, how I travel etc on the way in, so I felt hugely stupid for the situation I put myself in and massively suspect of him.

The border was full of sleepy travellers and families, and immigration officers who did not give a fuck about anything and didn’t even say hello or thanks. A sharp contract from the reception in Colombia. Anyway whatever. Signed out of Ecuador and into Peru. Buses full of smart people that had taken one single bus turned up, filtered through customs and left. Why did I not do this?

The driver had agreed to take me to Tumbes, where I could get a colectivo to Mancora and then a bus to Lima. When we got to the car he wanted $20USD. I got into an argument with him, took him back to a tariff notice at customs where he tried to mask the price at $20 per colectivo meaning $5 per passenger, in front of a Peruvian cop, who I asked what the price was – he wanted nothing to do with me, didn’t say a word and perpetuated the rip the gringo show. Fuck these people.

To be fair the cabbie had waited a while, but that’s the way it goes at borders. We had the shits at each other, I wanted to get to Tumbes and leave, so I offered $10 and no more. He took me to Tumbes and we sat in silence. To be honest I was super pissed too, after months in Colombia where everyone was so honest, my patience for this was slim. We got to Tumbes, I took my bags and bailed. He added more USD to his ever growing stash of paper and took off. Not a word was spoken. Dickhead.

It was now between 5 and 6am and I was in a dive Peruvian border town. A man was mixing some kind of drink for people on the street. There were a lot of construction workers eating at a street-stall. It was all typically South American. I had a while to go. I paid for my next colectivo. A black woman with several kids vomited rapid Spanish in my face but I asked her to slow down as I was learning. She was from Tumbes. She said there were too many mal gente around, bad people, and that I should be careful. We took off to Mancora. I was retarded from lack of sleep. The sun had come up and was blazing. I was in a large van rammed with Peruvians. I love the road but this journey was just total ass.

I was woken by the family in the back, who told me we were at Mancora. What?! I got off and took my bags. This is Mancora? It’s a small, very small, mainly one street town on the northern coast of Peru, popular for surfing. The place seemed full of people who also did not give a flying fuck about anything, locals, and travellers too. All I saw were waster gringos, drifter hippies and surf types bumming about. There was nothing going on. I spent hours trying to get a bus ticket to Lima while everyone tried to rip me off. The power in the town had gone out and all the booking systems were down. Goddamnit. Never before had I wanted to leave a place like I had in Mancora. Hours passed, hours and hours, I bummed around town tired and frustrated. I decided I would not commit to staying here a night and had to get out. Eventually I got a ticket at a reasonable price and the owners let me bum out on their couch until the bus came at 5pm. Power came back on at about 3. I had killed about 7 hours here and finally got a bus. Never before had the road seemed so appealing…

Though, I had an 18 hour journey to Lima ahead of me, and once again, I was seated next to the toilet. 18 hours. Not 5. 18 hours of people pissing and shitting in this thing. Damn man. I sat next to a filthy but friendly construction worker from Lima who kept waffling about things beyond my Spanish comprehension at the time. This time I had remembered to bring my Valium on board, so I ate something like 3 or 4 tablets intending to hit a state of heavenly bliss before drugging out to sleep for hopefully a huge distance. Fucking buses. Toilets. The smell of urine. Mancora. Border hounds fixated with hoarding USD and shafting gringos.

I had no idea the desert was so huge in Peru. The coast is littered with tiny fishing towns and many smaller towns a little further in land with no electricity, very basic, basic, sometimes only stick-housing or stick and board housing. The things I saw on that bus ride were crazy. People living like that. Among all the crap, it was incredible to see. Jake had said it would blow my mind. The desert, and its inhabitants up there really did. The sunset was ace too. I had to leave the window open all night to help ease the toilet smell but late on the air was damn cold. And loud. But I’ll take that over 18 hours of toilet smell.

At some point I fell asleep, waking up like an utter cripple about ten hours later. Not bad, about 8 to go and this ridiculous journey would end (I had to get to Lima to get my flight to Easter Island and I had fucked about having the time of my life in Colombia and Ecuador for six months haha, this is why I was rushing). Eventually, we approached Lima. Insane poverty and shack housing on the fringed of this incredibly massive city, huge, huge, huge, on the coast, surrounded by red desert. Chaotic street scenes, mental South American traffic. What a buzz. Buildings got bigger and more dense and we came further into the centre.

Feeling like a new man I got off the bus, having now travelled about two full days and spent  something like 36 hours in buses and colectivos. I played the rip the gringo game once more with a cabbie (I rarely take cabs, I usually walk or save money by using buses or whatever) as I was not getting on a packed Lima bus in a post-Valium haze and having to watch all my stuff when my guard was still so low. Finally I got to Che Lagarto. I was able to wash days of bus and scum and sweat off me and relax for a day before going to Easter Island. I met up with my friend Nicolle who showed me around Miraflores and took me to a see an excellent Afro Peruvian band play. Peruvians are a solid bunch. Lima was cool but my time was short.

Lesson? Get a bus that does all the crossing for you – not three or four buses and ridiculous AM border crossing when you’re a total zombie. That’s just stupid. I was lucky, sort of.

When I came back from Easter Island I took another lengthy journey – from Lima to Tacna on the Peruvian border with Chile, in order to cross to Arica and get to Atacama to meet Poliana from Colombia in the Atacama desert.

I didn’t have to sit next to the toilets but I almost missed my bus from Lima cause the girl at the hostel got the terminal wrong. I took a fucking wild, wild cab ride to the terminal with a cabbie wanted to hear about Colombia and especially its women. He drove like mad. But he got me there just in time. He tried to rip me but I laughed at him and told him I was not an ordinary gringo and paid him the normal fee plus a tip for his fine driving which got me onto my 20 (!!) hour bus to Arica. The woman I sat next to lived in Tacna, she was super nice, dug that I was learning Spanish and left me her number in case I needed anything. She said I could crash and eat with her family at the border but I wanted to move on and get to Atacama, get stoned and stare at the stars and not think of the smell of urine and of crossing borders, people trying to rip me, lengthy bus rides. At Tacna, she assisted me in getting a colective to the border. The drive was a woman who was also obsessed with USD. Fucking money.

I crossed into Chile. another full day behind me. From Arica I had to wait from about 11am to 8pm for my 8 hour bus to Calama. I spent the day trying as much Chilean beer as I could, remained on a bar stool for the entire time bottle after bottle talking to a bunch of friendly Chilean characters as best I could. The bar staff were awesome too. I’d heard Chilean empanadas were best and it was true. Anticipating another bus ride I hoarfed a Xanax before I got on. By the time I went to board I had a cigarette and was a floppy mess. I got on the bus and my head started spinning from all the beer. I almost yakked. Soon the Xanax kicked in and I blissed out and woke up at the freezing mining town of Calama in northern Chile. There were a lot of happy, friendly dogs at the terminal. After about 1.5 hours I got a two hour bus to Atacama and arrived at around 9am. It was quiet, cold, eerie. But I was finally in Atacama and could stay put for a while. More on Atacama later.

I am currently in Santiago, having come from Pucon (10 hours) yesterday, arriving at 8am, and having to wait to 9pm to get a bus back into Mendoza in Argentina (all this is actually cheaper than a bus from Bariloche to Mendoza). I crossed from Bariloche to Osorno (almost got caught with 5g of weed at customs – another story for another time) then took a bus to Pucon to get my USB and check in with my wonderful friend Anita for two days. Last night, after killing a day in Santiago I was told the border was closed due to snow. I checked into a hostel for the night. At 4pm I find out if the border is open.

In the end, none of this matters. I should have been a little more careful crossing into Peru, but it worked out. The road, as always, remains one of the most electric and exciting parts of the whole journey. Getting on a stinking bus full of crazies, Indians, even a chicken or whatever, and just going. All that really matters is that which is ahead. Whether I am on a bus, in a Kombie, hitched with a truckie in the south of Argentina or Chile, the road is always one of my favourite places. That point in-between destinations where I am taken back to my childhood, eagerly staring out the window and admiring everything around me, everything new, places I’ve never been before. Ten months in and I still love the transit phase. I always will.

I thought I would share a bit on the not so glamorous side of backpacking. The year thus far has been full of things like this. From the northern coast of Colombia to Punta Arenas in the far south of Chile, I traversed one entire side of the continent all by road. It’s been immense.

Galapagos Islands overall – good, bad & ugly

Should you go? Will you like it? Why would you go? What are the pros and cons? What are the bad things about Galapagos? Things I loved, hated and was shocked about. This is my last post on the islands, I hope everything has helped you out if you are reading this blog.

Good

The abundance of animal, plant and marine life and the proximity of them to humans. I don’t think you can get like this with animals and marine creatures anywhere else in the world and they are not scared of us at all, we are on the their turf. This makes Galapagos a completely unique place. Something very special.

You can visit the islands in many ways, if I had my tent and hammock with me it again would have changed everything. But it is a place that can definitely be done cheap. The main key to this is having a kitchen, being able to cook food. Eating out is expensive.

There is a huge range of tours, for backpackers, catering up to people who are filthy rich. So there is good diversity not only in the land and life but in what you can do and how you can do it.

Bad

$110 to enter the park for foreigners and $10 for locals? Come on. That’s it outrageous. And if they care so much about preservation and using the money to sustainably develop the islands then we all should be paying the same price. Ecuadorians also get cheap airfare so are able to travel to and from the islands very easily due to the governments fuel subsidiary.

The place is overpopulated for what it is. My guide-book, published in 2010 said the population in total was 20,000 people. Three years on and it is now in actual fact… 30,000. How far will this go? Still hard for me to imagine there are that many people and hordes of tourists passing through such a fragile place every year. It’s no secret we are the most destructive species on earth, intended or not. What will the population be in two or three more years as tourism continues to grow (Ecuador is one of the top ten destinations in the world now) and more locals flock to the islands for… mooooney.

UNESCO has labelled the Galapagos Islands as being in DANGER. So this is all serious business. What will prevail, preservation, meaningful, useful preservation and seriousness, or the dollar?

Ugly

The rubbish. How on earth can the Galapagos Islands be so untidy and polluted in some parts? Have we absolutely no respect for any environment at all? Even something as special as this? Do we need to fuck everything up before we learn? Anyway not going into detail, same shit, similar story across much of South America and much of the world but Galapagos? Baffled. Astonished.

Dumb ass westerners with no brains and too much money. They are everywhere. I am not sure everyone who visits the islands gives a shit about Darwin’s finches or sustainability, history, evolution or more. Galapagos should be a place of much learning and enlightenment, and it should be looked after, leading me to my last ugly point…

Full of shit people branding their company as being sustainable or eco-friendly but doing nothing beyond that – simply branding themselves so took look good, or like they actually give a shit about animals, plants, nature, the environment in total. It goes a lot further than making your company look green. And this is something that applies all over the world from food shops to boat companies to hiking business. Leave bullshit for Hollywood. They got it covered.

The above is a phenomenon I am so sick of seeing and really pisses me off. I see it back home in Australia, throughout South America, and even Galapagos. Come on. Pretending to be green isn’t going to solve anything, in fact, it’s only going to slow and already slow change that should be happening at a much faster pace and sadly is a global condition. Not a one-off.

So… Sure, you should go, but as my friend Lukas said, don’t go there looking for a cute animal experience where you can be all cuddly with seals and touch things that you would not normally touch, see or even be close to. Go there to learn, to experience, to respect and to widen your eyes and understanding of the world and something as raw and real as evolution and diversity which Ecuador is number one for, especially Galapagos. But be respectful, be mindful.

… And please, put your fucking rubbish where it belongs!

Free and inexpensive things to do on the Galapagos Islands

Hello. This is a list of all the free or quite inexpensive things to on the islands should you be looking to backpack around the islands for a few weeks, give or take, without spending a lot of money as I attempted to do (I stayed for ten days). I left all my maps and items at a hostel in Quito for someone else to take and/or use, so I may have left out a few places for each island, though I hope this gets you started.

San Cristobal

Playa Mann (free)
A great beach with few people and dozens and dozens of seals. Babies, females, dominant males, mothers breastfeeding their young. Free and a ten or fifteen minute walk from town depending on your pace. Great sunsets too. Many birds flying around at all times.

Centro de Interpretacion (free)
Also a short walk from town and highly informative, information in Spanish and/or English. A must see if you want to really understand the islands and their history.

Las Tijeretas (free)
This is behind the Interpretation Center, there are several paths leading to it where you can see much on land and in the water if you have snorkeling gear (rent it for the day, you can see sea turtles). The paths are nice to walk. There is also a good beach at Punto Carola. with more seals. Many bird species and masses of iguanas are visible too.

El Junco crater (free)
A lake in the crater of a now dormant volcano. You can take buses or taxis (very expensive) though I took a bike. I suggest renting a bike and allocating a day to get there, visit the site for a few hours and enjoy the downhill ride back. Its a few hours getting there, about 15km mostly uphill via the village El Progreso. Just hope the weather is good and that everything isn’t clouded over by mist and fog. Go to Planet Bike in town for a bicycle, see Luis, $10 for the day. Best price.

El Progreso (free)
A short bike ride or maybe 40 minute walk to this inland and very small town. See many species of Darwin’s Finches along the way as well as curious varieties of trees and very colourful plant and flower species. Nice to do, on your way to El Junco. Take a bike!

300 year old Ceibo tree and treehouse (El Progreso, free)
Ask for the house with the 300 year old Ceibo tree, which also houses a treehouse that you can stay in ($20 per night, sleeps up to three, had a double bed and one single, amazing little place). Owners have a large garden full of ducks and ducklings, geese and a few really cool dogs. They also run a restaurant. Call Maria Elena on 0994697733 for details or to book. The treehouse absolutely rocks. Apparently you can camo there for $5 so bring your tent! Don’t leave it at a friends in Quito as I did.

La Loberia (free)
Maybe 45 minute walk from town? A mostly rocky beach with some sand past the military base, with many seals and iguanas. Would have good sunsets too given its orientation.

Punto Chino (free)
A beach about 10km past El Junco if you have a bike and want to continue, or can afford the taxi. I did not get there so am sparse on details for this location.

Puerto Baquierzo Moreno (free)
The main town, its nice to explore, take photos, look at the plants and trees, see sunsets and sunrises, hang with the countless hilarious seals chilling out all over the main promenade and dock area. Talk to the locals. Get to know the island.

Playa de Oro (free)
Between town and Playa Mann, a smaller beach, with many people but also many seals too. A nice mix of life and a fun and close place to visit without having to go far at all.

El Cañon & Tongo Reef (free)
I did not get here but these are both free and accessible from behind the airport and military zones. El Cañon is meant to be a good surf spot.

Jacinta Gordillo Breeding Center for Giant Turtles (free)

Santa Cruz

Puerto Ayora (free)
This is the most touristic and developed island, you can walk around and explore the town for a while, it’s really tourist heavy though. The docks and wharfs are nice, and the town center is lively at night, and on the outskirts you can see many animals in human habitats. Of course, there are always many seals about the main wharf and promenade.

Media Luna (free)
Take a bike and ride there (about an hour to and via the town Bellavista) – once you get to the foot of the hill it is about a two-hour hike and will give you fantastic panoramic views of the mountain.

Charles Darwin Research Centre (free)
Fifteen to twenty-minute walk at most from town, just ask how to get there, it’s very close. Great place to wander around for a few hours, there is a giant tortoise breeding centre and iguana breeding centre, you will see countless iguanas on the way, and several of Darwin’s finches in the gardens and on the trails. There is also information on Lonesome George, finches in general, evolution and two small galleries/museums. I really liked the garden with many natural types of local fauna from the islands.

Shark viewing at ship ports during the night (free)
I did not hang around long enough to see any but the sharks are attracted to light so go down with a spliff and hang there for a while! Bring your camera for some night photography if its your thing.

Bahia Torguga (free)
Large expanse of beach for surfing, currents are dangerous so be weary. It is a short walk from town to the entry where you walk along a path for about 30-40 minutes – you will see countless species of finches, iguanas, insects, I did this twice as it was excellent and swimming after is nice and refreshing. When you get to the surf beach go right for another 15-20 minutes and you will get to the bay, which is very still and tranquil as it is closed off from the ocean by rocks. You can see turtles, iguanas, flamingoes, blue footed boobies, finches, even, if you are lucky, harmless varieties of sharks in the bay. One of my favourite sports. You can spend a day between the beaches and walking back and forth from town.

El Chato Tortoise Reserve ($3, or free?)
The women let us in for free. Continue past and to the right of Bellavista on your bike when you get to the main road of the small town for about 40 minutes or an hour? Can’t remember. It is a bit of an uphill slug but makes the ride back nice and cruisy. You will see an abundance of turtles, possibly mating. There are many bird species too. From here you can also visit the lava tunnels.

Lava Tuneles ($3 or free?)
Covered with the price of the turtle reserve the tunnels are located on the same area of land, there are two or three that you can explore – bring a light, the lights went off when we were down there and you will be in complete darkness if this happens making it super difficult to get out. There are nice flower species along the way to the reserves, as well as very old trees and interesting scrub growing alongside and on them.

Garrapatero Beach (free)
An excellent beach for swimming, that you can also camp at if you ask for permission. Follow the signs from Bellavista, though head right when you get to the main road of the town. There are poison apple trees, many birds, mangroves. Might take around three hours on a bike and make sure you allocate time to get back in the evening, otherwise you may find yourself stuck in the dark with a difficult ride ahead… on loose dirt and gravel roads.

Pan de Chocolate (50c)
This is a must try. When you get to the main fork in the road at Bellavista, go right, a few stores ahead on your right (of the street) will be a small bakery.Try the chocolate bread, i is divine!

Isabela

Puerto Villamil (free)
Soon, this town is going to change from a dirt road, underdeveloped quiet town into a busy and more expensive tourist hotspot. If you get there soon, walk around and explore the whole town on foot. It has such a quiet peaceful ambience about it. There is an amazing Panaderia somewhere in the centre that has the best cheese empanadas I tried in South America with sugar on the bread – look for a newly built shop, totally decked out in nice wooden panelling and detail, you will know it when you see it. Take the hammocks, chill with the locals, soak in the beach and the palm trees on this big but remote and somewhat isolated island. It’s very different to Santa Cruz.

Beaches (free)
Just off the main part of town are huge huge expanses of white sand, palm and coco tree-lined beaches, you will most likely have a big stretch all to yourself. Enjoy.

Laguna Salinas and surrounding Pozos (free)
Flamingoes, iguanas, ducks and more everywhere, and the ponds are really beautiful especially in the light of the sun both during the day and at sunset!

El Muro de las Lagrimas (free)
A wall built by prisoners who first settled and worked on the islands Isabela.

Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre (free)
Just outside of town near the pozos. I skipped this but head there if you are not sick of giant turtles already!

Volcan Sierra Negra (free, if you ride there)
I was not able to get there as I had injured my knee and was not spending $20-30 on a tour obviously, but if you get there and hike you get mad views of the island.

Volcan Chico (free, with bike)
As above. An active volcano that last erupted in the 1970s!

Concha de Perla (free)
About a twenty-five minute walk from town, or, if you are at the wharf, about five minutes or even less. One of the most beautiful bays, closed off from the ocean but still connected. Amazing for swimming. Jump in and don’t stop for 80m until you get to the rock edge! You can also snorkel here, there are many seals and varieties of fish.

Mirador (free)
Can’t miss it, its situated on the main beach, a good spot for sunset and photography, and to look at countless iguanas loafing about on rocks and moving around lazily.

Hammocks (free)
Oddly, the only islands with hammocks (what?!), take to one and relax, catch some sun, read or whatever. You will feel amazing. It was like being back on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. ;)

Galapagos Islands: the money side of things

All things money:

Fixed costs
Flight with Aerogal, return to Quito via Guayaquil $450
Park entry fee and airport fee $110
9x nights accommodation (at $10 per night) $90
Inter-island transport (at $25 per boat, 4x boats) $100
Taxis across whole stay (I walk a lot) $5
Tips and skiff boat fees $5
Isabela entry fee $5
Total $760

Variables (San Cristobal)
Disposable underwater camera $18
Ecuadorian flag and Galapagos bag patches $4
Food Groceries $45
Bike hire for one day $10
Day tour with Chulo’s Tours $40
Internet $10
Total $127

Variables (Santa Cruz)
Beer and cigarettes $20
Food & Groceries $40
Bike hire (motorised) for one day $15
Internet $10
Total $85

Variables (Isabela)
Food & Groceries $15
Internet $2
Total $17

Total (all inclusive): approx $990 for 10 days on the Galapagos Islands.

A few things…

I left my tent on the mainland of Ecuador, I should have bought it, there are plenty of places to camp and I am sure people would let you camp for a small fee if you were to ask them to use your land. There are some areas that are off limits. I was only paying $10 accommodation per night, but it is nice to be outdoors, so maybe a tent is a good idea. If you have a hammock, that could be useful too, I also left mine on the mainland this time. Next time I will bring both. You can definitely be sneaky and camp in places where you are not meant to or squat for a night. :p

I am obsessed with ceviche and encebollado, I ate these a lot in the mornings, they cost more than normal, I also drink a lot of coffee, everyday, and I’ve become a bit addicted to glass bottled Coke since coming to South America, so I spent a bit more on these items. Everything is a bit more expensive on the islands. If you want to really save bring canned stuff that you can cook with from the mainland and buy pasta, vegetables and fruit when you arrive. You can’t bring any fresh food onto the islands.

I am a bit of an internet addict, I also realised I hadn’t backed up photos in a while so did this sometimes at night as nights were very chilled. It was also Christmas so I was on Skype a bit to people back home. Internet is generally slower and costs more than the mainland though there are some fast outlets.

I know of people who paid around $200 for their flights, non-Ecuadorians too, I thought I got a decent deal for $450, but there is definitely room to save money, book ahead, and try and get something really cheap. Aerogal was a decent Airline to fly with, no complaints from me. Note: you don’t exit the plane at the stopover in Guayaquil.

Try and stay for at least two weeks, I lost a lot of time in my ten days with flying in and out and then the speedboats inbetween islands. Two weeks would have been ideal for a budget visit of the islands and I could have bummed around Isabela even more. Though, I think, a month would be the best.

Hope this is of some use to other travellers. Thanks to Brian and Lukas for a lot of tips and help before and during my stay. If you have any questions or need more information on anything, please ask!

Back to San Cristobal & leaving the Galapagos Islands

Day 172, Isabela to Santa Cruz to San Cristobal, day 9:

Getting from Isabela to San Cristobal via Santa Cruz cost $50 today, I needed two boats, as they do not go from Isabela to San Cristobal direct. Got back into Santa Cruz at about 9AM, ate, had coffee, left my bags at Hostal Brattle for a few hours while I went online, called to confirm that the treehouse was available, which it was not, they had messed up the booking (these things happen in South America, best not to worry!) so it was one more night at Hostal San Francisco. I had to go to the Aerogal office too, to try and change my flight so I could exit at Guayaquil and not continue to Quito, as I was looking to get to Montanita on the pacific coast for new years eve. If you need to do this, its very easy, takes a few minutes and costs $10 – you just might have to wait a while for all the people in front of you. Bring music or a book.

Killed hours reading, writing, walking around and outside of town then took my last speedboat back to San Cristobal. Got in around 5PM, hurried to check in, leave my bags, head to the beach to swim and then catch the sunset. I had wanted to get to El Canon or Tongo Reef behind the military base, there is meant to be a hiking trail but the military, or navy or whatever don’t let you through for some reason. They say you are meant to go around the back of the airport but I could not find my way there either. Go figure. El Canon is meant to be a good surf spot, if you fancy that. After sunset I ate, and crashed like mad.

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Day 173, San Cristobal, day 10:

Slept through until about 4AM and knew I would sleep no more. Grabbed my music and camera and went outside, waiting for the sun. Tuned out to the stars, the moon and the sky while all the local roosters went mad in an early morning symphony as the sun started to come up, illuminating the clouds all these shades of pink and purple, while I’m watching Galapagos birds of all sorts float up in the sky, gliding blissfully and easily in front of my last morning sky here. So peaceful and beautiful, just sitting there soaking in nature and the world without a worry on my mind. I never did this at home, or it was rare (binge and stay up for days, that’s it). I had managed to kill a few hours so went back into town, got coffee, ate an encebollado, collected my gear, said goodbye to this amazingly beautiful and completely unique, special, magical place and went to the airport to catch my flight back to Guayaquil for new years madness with friends from all over the place.

IMG_6639My time on the islands, only ten days, which is not long given the way I like to travel ordinarily, was amazing – something really special, especially having gone there completely free and on my own, with just a return flight booked and no idea what would eventuate (the flow!). I know I will be back one day, a little more prepared and probably with a different sort of plan in mind, though backpacking budget styles was great fun, and I think I did a reasonable job. I will have one more post soon with information on budget (overall), a list of free or cheap things to do on the islands I visited and a general wrap up on all things, good, bad and perhaps ugly.

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