Friday, January 20, 2012

Trekking Mad in Peru

After volunteering, my travels took me down the coast of Peru, with a week-long stop in a little coastal town called Huanchaco.  Huanchaco is a surfer enclave characterised by friendly stray dogs and more reggae music than you can shake a dreadlock at.  There´s one main pub, which all the locals head to nightly, and one road running along the beach and off into the hazy distance.  There´s much talk of waves, vibes, and energy, and by the time I had the secret Huanchaco handshake down, it was well past time to be on my way.

Next up was Cusco to aclimatise to the dizzying heights of the Andes and take in a bit of the oul' Machu Picchu.  It could have been the altitude, but Cusco took my breath away.  The dignified brown brick buildings - the finest examples of colonial architecture in Peru - interlace elegantly with perfectly crafted Incan stone walls.  A wander down a narrow cobbled alley could take you up to Plaza San Blas to hang with the hippies playing music and selling bracelets, or to the main market bulging with fruits, meats, and a whole row each dedicated to chocolate and potatoes (my kind of market).  Every day there seemed to be some kind of festival or parade in the main Plaza de Armas, and the nightlife was a force to be reckoned with (more reggae, of course, but here it was mostly live).  Cusco is definitely a place I could see myself getting stuck into for a while.

But I was a girl with a mission, and so after a few days living the high life, I was off on a 4-day Salkantay trek, destination: Machu Picchu.  Now, I can understand the logical problems some people may have with trekking: "I´d like to go to Point A please.  But I want to be left dozens of miles away, spend days walking there, and pay you to do so."  But to those with this line of thinking, I offer the following counterargument:

Some of this:

Oh, and maybe a bit of this:

And this, my friends, is why I adore trekking.  We started in the valley at the base of the sacred Salkantay volcano, and climbed 1000 metres in the first 3 hours (no small feat with small feet).  Once we reached 4,600 metres, we crossed through the Pass and made our way down through the valley.  By the end of the day we were at the cusp of the jungle, having crossed from glacier to high grassland.  That didn´t mean it was any warmer camping that night; we awoke to a tent encrusted with ice in the morning.  Well, they do say camping is in-tents....
The next day we trekked 8 hours along the Salkantay River, through jungle, and finished up the evening with a dip in the Santa Teresa hot springs and a good old-fashioned bonfire at the campsite.  Spirits were high among the trekkers, but revelling had to be somewhat curtailed, as the next morning we were up early for another 7 hours of trekking.  This brought us into the park of Machu Picchu, and after lunch we followed the railroad tracks that lead up to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to the ruins.  It was as though we were sneaking in the back door, seeing a side of the mountain that no one else gets to see (well, except for all the other people doing the Salkantay trek I suppose...).  As we marched ever forward and the imposing mountain of Machu Picchu itself towered above us, I have to say I got a bit misty-eyed; it was easy to see why the Incas chose this location as the site of their religious procedures.

That evening was spent in Aguas Calientes, a purpose-built town in constant anticipation of seeing one of the wonders of the world the following morning.  It was Peruvian Independence Day while we were there, but there was little revelry amongst the hikers preparing for the early rise the next morning, so after a quiet toast with some Cusqueña we headed back to the hostel for some kip.  

4:30 the next morning found us queuing, very much bleary-eyed, with the hordes of other trekkers waiting to board the buses, and then again at the gates of Machu Picchu (the one downside of the Salkantay is you don't get to hike into the site in the morning like you do on the Inca Trail, but then again I also saved a few hundred quid and didn't have to book it half a year in advance).  We bustled our way in, rounded the corner, and there it was: the quintessential Machu Picchu shot of the ruins with Huana Picchu in the background, fuzzy around the edges in the sunrise loam.  

It was a bit surreal, just sitting there all ruiny, the Machu Picchu, the one in all the pictures, the one that we had been hiking for the last three days to reach, the name that had been on the tip every tongue we met so that it had become almost a mantra, and the trek almost a pilgrimage; here it was right in front of us, all around us, just our little group of four, our guide, and the majestic remains of one of the most powerful empires in human history...and the thousands of tourists that were rapidly flooding in behind us.  With this in mind, our guide whisked us around the major sites as fast as he could, leading us up the steps, down the steps, left and right and through crevasses before the place filled up and became unnavigable.  It got a bit whirlwind and the most impressive sites more like boxes to be ticked than marvels to be admired, but at least we got to see them before the swarms covered them up.

After our hasty tour, I had to leg it over to the entrance of Huana Picchu, the mountain always lumbering in the background of photos of the ruins.  The amount of people allowed to climb this each day was always limited, but due to recent legislation entrance is even more restricted: only 200 pre-booked tickets are released for the morning, and 200 for the afternoon.  This restriction meant that it was a lot less chaotic as I scrambled up the thousands of steps to the top, and I was able to catch a few solitary moments observing Machu Picchu from above.

Four days, many miles, and several blisters, and oh so very worth it.

Of course, never one to be sensible about things, the day after I arrived back in Cusco I was on my way to Arequipa and off on another trek, this time to the bottom of Colca Canyon and back up again.  I guess some of us never learn...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Coasting One´s Way Through Ecuador

My third and final position with Ecuador Eco Volunteering brought me to the (not so) sunny Ecuadorian coast for a few weeks, to Agua Blanca,  a small community of 52 families living in the middle of the Machalilla National Park on the coast of Ecuador.  The village gets its name from the white film that once covered the sulfurous lagoon that is fed from a natural sulfur spring in the forest.

Their claim to fame: their tenacious spirit and exemplary organisational skills.  When the Machalilla region was designated a national reserve in 1979, all the inhabitants were ordered to leave and find homes elsewhere.  The people of Agua Blanca fought for their right to maintain their land and way of life, but things were not looking good until a very fortunate discovery was made: the community rests on land completely crawling in the archaeological remains of the Manteñas, the ancestors of Agua Blanca´s modern inhabitants.  With the help of Colin McEwan, a Scottish archaeologist currently curator of the Latin American Department of the British Museum, the community created their own museum using the artefacts found on their land, then trained their own guides and opened to the public as a community tourism project.  The guides lead tours through the museum, explaining the significance of the artefacts found on their own land by their own people, then take visitors through the dry forest for a spot of bird watching, and finish up with a swim in the sulfur lagoon and a mud bath.

"Community tourism" is a bit of a buzzword in Ecuador at the moment.  Over the past few years it has thrust itself full-force into carving a place for itself on the global playing field, and has seen tourism as the means to do this.  As a result, every university has a thriving tourism course, and guides, operators, and tours have popped up like worms after a spring deluge (my similes are off, I know, but it's late).  For small indigenous groups looking to keep their way of life and still earn an income, community tourism has been the answer: inviting tourists in to experience first-hand how they live.  In Nizag, the last community I worked in, this endeavor was only beginning; the group involved in community tourism is excited and asiduous, but they´re still just feeling their way along.  In Agua Blanca, however, the project has been developing for the past 30 years, and they are a fine example to other communities hoping to do the same.  That they started out on the right path is evident: the community is clean and rubbish-free, the type of tourism they offer is non-invasive and celebrates their history, and financially it completely works.  Over 75% of the income of the community comes from the tourism, directly through the tours and also from artesania sales.  Unlike the people from many other groups I spoke with in Ecuador, who inevitably had a sister, brother, child, or parent working abroad to send money home because there isn´t enough work here, only one person had left Agua Blanca to work in the US, and that was because he had married one of the archeologists who had come to study the ruins.

Life in Agua Blanca is tranquil.  The guide-work is split between 26 men who work in three groups on a monthly rotating basis, so that each guide gets a chance to work equally throughout the month.  This serves to spread the wealth tourism brings to the community (to make the profits go further, as a rule only one guide is allowed per nuclear family) and allows the guides to tend to their crops/animals/other work during the rest of the month.  After a few shy days of sitting on the front porch of the museum in relative silence, the first group of guides warmed to us and pretty soon the other two volunteers and I were referred to as "Mi reina" any time we were addressed.  When tourists would arrive to the museum in cars or the little motorcycle taxis that fill the streets of nearby Puerto Viejo, the guides would take turns leading them through the artefacts of the museum, stop by their own little Ripley´s Believe It or Not of poisonous snakes, two-headed chickens, and massive millipedes, and then carry on to the archaeological site and sulfur pool.  Our job was to follow the tour and learn the schpeal, then give a tour to any tourists who spoke English but not Spanish.  Unfortunately I was only utilised twice for this purpose, but nevertheless I too have been an official guide in an Ecuadorian National Park.  Shiny sticker, please.

All quiet on the Agua Blanca front.
Before beginning the placement, a group of 8 other volunteers and myself went on a weekend roadtrip of sorts to enjoy some of the sights that Ecuador´s coast has to offer.  A 9 hour overnight car ride later - complete with blaring rap music and a drunk Welshman - found us in Montañita, an infamous party town legendary for its hippie artesanias and full moon parties.  We came, we revelled in the street of $2.50 cocktails, we left hungover.  The next day we headed to Isla de la Plata, nicknamed "The poor man´s Galapagos", for whalewatching, frigates, and more blue-footed boobies than you could shake a stick at (this isn´t advisable).  The boat ride was less than the best thing ever, what with a mixture of the aftermath of the aforementioned celebrations the night before and seasickness.  But after a hike around the island to see the birds and a brief snorkel, things were much peachier than earlier. 

Oooh, whales...
Oooh, boobies...
Oooh, frigates...
During our next weekend, myself and the two Mormon girls I was volunteering with decided to head up to Canoa, a little surfing town further north.  We were hoping for some sun, which apparently is a bit much to ask from the Ecuadorian coast this time of year.  Weather aside, I kind of fell in love with this tranquil little hippie enclave, no more than a street and a half large, with one main bar and no bank or post office.  As soon as I walked into the hostel, an Irish barman greeted me and told me he could get me a job doing the same.  Visions of a year making cocktails on the beach to fire-juggling revellers danced through my head.  But no, I must persevere, I had stuff ta do, stuff ta do...sigh.

False advertising - everything was not in fact a dollar.

My time has come to say goodbye to Ecuador and head on to more Peruvian pastures.  I´ve spent a little over 2 months here; I´ve worked with a shaman in the jungle, lived in an indigenous community in the Andes, played archeological guide on the coast, jumped off bridges, swum with sharks, and eaten more rice and street food than I care to think about.  Ecuador is a fascinating country; its small size makes it a traveller´s dream - the nightmarish long bus journeys of other South American countries are non-existant here, and you can travel from Orient to Andes to coast in a few hours.  Its investment in development in recent times has it entering the global community with a leap, but it remains to be seen how strategic their efforts have been.  Putting all their development eggs in the volatile and unsustainable tourism basket without investing in other necessary professional fields is courting future difficulty, both for the economy and for the overall wellbeing of the country.  But it remains to be seen if more strategic development is to come.  For the sake of a beautiful land and rich, diverse culture, I hope so.

Next, offwards and downwards to Peru, land of all things Peruvian.

More photos of adventures on the Ecuadorian coast can be found here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

In the Big Rock Andes Mountains

It`s difficult, when speaking of Nizag, to avoid waxing idyllic, so you`ll have to indulge me for a few minutes.  Nestled amongst the towering peaks of the Andes, perched on a cliff that tumbles down into the Rio de Plata and onward to where the Nariz del Diablo train cuts into the mountainside, Nizag feels like the village that time forgot.  Because it sits in a valley, it enjoys a microclimate of dry, bright days that get fairly hot due to the proximity of the sun.  But nearly every day in the afternoon, the clouds roll up from the valley, covering the town in a thick, chilly fog.  It`s pretty much the Andean answer to Brigadoon (I`ve had very little success with this reference in the past few weeks, so for those of you who have no idea what I`m talking about, see here).

It`s an indigenous community, so the first language is Quichwa.  Most of the younger people speak Spanish as well, but the older generation often confuses the two languages, leading to an all-but-incomprehensible melange we liked to call ´Spechwa`.  Although the men have lost their traditional white trousers and poncho as they made their way into mainstream society for work, the women still don the vibrant skirts and embroidered sashes, shawls, and hairwraps.  At first I just thought they looked nice, but I soon discovered how seriously useful their clothes are.  The sashes become utility belts to hold machetes, hand sythes, and the dyed cactus fibres the women are constantly hand-spinning to sew into little bags, shigras, which have come to epitomise the artesanian work of the village; and the shawls are tied in an intricate system of knots to hold melons, children, and everything in between.  Everyone in the village is under 5 feet, so for the first time in my life I was classified as tall.  I also, by Nizaggian standards, was over the hill; in a town where the average marriage age is about 17, I was definitely past my prime.  One of the first questions you`ll be asked upon arriving to the village is, ´Estás casada?´ - ´Are you married?`  (On the first day as I travelled in the back of a pickup truck down the switchbacks to the community, I misheard the question over the noise of the engine as `Estás cansada?`- ´Are you tired?`  My response of, ´Not much, just a little` brought great amusement to the entire truckful of locals and it took me a few minutes to realise my faux pas.)  Once I answered in the negative I was asked my age, and after my answer, they would cluck sympathetically and move on to my younger companions.  There apparently was little hope for me.

The young couple I was volunteering with didn`t have it all that much easier in the end, though.  The women would constantly hound them with questions of when they were getting married, when they were going to have children, and how many they were going to have.  Being 19, they still had hope, but they were cutting it a bit close.  The villagers decided to help them along during our last week volunteering.  They were celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, during which they took the opportunity to show off some of their customs, such as traditional dancing and a game of real-life Capture the Chicken: well as finally marrying off the volunteer couple, if only symbolically.  Luckily, this meant we all got to dress up in traditional garb to play the part, the stand-in mother of the bride giddy with excitement.

Nizag is certainly unlike anywhere I`ve been before.  I harkens back to a time when everything was done by hand, when men worked hard and women worked harder, when people were completely a part of and defined by their culture.  Is it better?  Is it worse?  That`s not for me to say; I was only there to observe and to learn.  But what I did learn was of a vibrant community, fighting to hold on to its traditions in spite of globalised modernity, hidden away in the folds of the Andes.

More photos of Nizag here and here

Next up: my last and final volunteer placement in a community tourism project in Machalilla Nature Reserve, and then off to Peru...

Monday, June 6, 2011

This is Jungle Life

(Note: As I tried to reflect over the past three weeks living with a shaman to write this post, this song, although quite irrelevant, flooded my thoughts. Figured I´d share the wealth...)

As my first placement with the volunteer organisation I´m working for in Ecuador, I headed deep into the Amazon to live and work with a shaman and his family.  I decided to forego any preconceptions about this one, because anything I could think of would probably inevitably be wrong; this situation was a new one for the books.  That said, I was still a little surprised when I met Marco the first day and he was dressed in normal clothes, not a feather or talisman in sight.  We made our way by bus to Paraiso, his "eco-lodge" (which was really just his house with a tourist slant), and met his family.  That evening we went for a walk, ate chicken and rice, and headed to bed early.  All very normal, non-shamanistic type things to do, really.  During the three weeks, the odd shaman-esque thing would pop up: the baby armadillo in a jar I found on the shelf next to the cooking oil (when asked what something was, Marco´s typical response was, "Medicine."  When I pressed him further I found out baby armadillo juice is apparently good for respiratory problems: asthmatics take note), the gigantic boa skin on the wall (it had been hit by a truck), the jaguar head hanging on the stairs (this was killed out of necessity, Marco said, as the jaguar was skulking around with its eye on the younger children).  With regard to the volunteer work, we helped out with the small organic farm Marco keeps: pulling weeds in the corn fields, planting yuca plants (a tuber very similar in taste and texture to a potato, but a bit drier), hunting around for the eggs the duck left around the yard.  All things considered, the days were fairly ordinary in a a lot of ways. 

Except, of course, we´re in the middle of the jungle.  One thing this means is more insects than I´m accustomed to.  It took me a while to get used to the cockroaches, giant moths, mosquitos, and unidentified buzzing orbs scurrying around my room at night, as well as the mosquito net I was provided to protect against this insect army.  Now, I´d always had a fairly romantic view of mosquito nets, something between fairy princess canopy and crisp white cotton Emperial England in India á la the opening scenes of "The Secret Garden", but this was all before I actually tried sleeping under one.  My first night I most certainly did not have the hang of it, and whiled away the hours afraid to move under the pink gauzy pall that was mere centimeters from my face, imagining all sorts of terrors clinging to the other side of it.  The second night I discovered the mattress tuck method, and by my second week I was old hat at the whole business.  Unfortunately this didn´t ensure a peaceful night´s sleep; night-time meant roaming and quacking time for the nosy duck which had the run of the place, and this combined with the growls and yips of the puppies under the house and the rooster which began his crowing duties at 4 in the morning and continued every hour on the hour until 7 (at which time he increased to every twenty minutes or so) made for quite the moonlight sonata.  A million thanks to the inventors of earplugs.

Marco himself is a very interesting character (I mean, he is a shaman, after all...).  He comes from the Quichua tribe, which is the largest indigenous group in Ecuador.  Although Quichua is his first language, his wife is from a different indigenous group and doesn´t know how to speak it, so they speak Spanish at home.  Marco expressed his worries that his children don´t want to learn his language, how he´s afraid that they will know nothing of his culture because they have no interest in being a part of it.  He does his best to teach them when they listen, but it´s a struggle faced by people all over the world: how do you keep a culture alive for a new generation that´s drawn in by the allure of a modern, globalised mono-culture?  It reminded me a bit of the debate in Ireland regarding whether or not to keep Irish a mandatory subject in schools; are language, tradition, and culture things that should be forced, or should they be optional, kept alive only by those who really feel passionate about them?  Can they survive if the latter is the chosen route? 

Most of the time, however, Marco took his culture and shamanism in stride, mixing a bit of them in here and there.  One night he treated us to some traditional dancing lessons, and another rainy day as we helped make beaded necklaces out of seeds for his grandson´s school play he showed off his tigerwear.  He came down from his room decked out in a tiger vest, beaming as he stated, "This is my tiger clothes.  Do you like it?"  I was a bit unsure whether to laugh or act impressed; was he playing dress-up or showing me his shaman gear?  There were other moments like this, when it was difficult to know how to react.  Another rainy day (it rained a lot in the past three weeks) we were all playing a card game called Cuarenta Cartas around the kitchen table, and Marco constantly matched my cards.  He grinned and said, "Careful, I am reading your mind!"  I´ll be honest, this is an unsettling thing to hear from a shaman.  Are my thoughts that easy to read?  Do shamanic powers include mind-reading?  Does the shamanic code allow them to use their powers to beat gringos at card games?  I´ll have to work more on my Jedi mind tricks...

Havin´ a bit of a dance

He´s also in the process of learning English, and the titular phrase of this post was one of his favourites.  Throughout the day if one of us was startled by a blood-thirsty insect of some sort or was showing off our mosquito bites, he would laugh and say, "This is jungle life!"  Another day we had been discussing the bats he had seen the night before when he broke into English, "Why is he Bad-man if he is good?" 


The past few weekends have been no strangers to adventure either.  The first weekend a few of the volunteers went off on a horseriding trek around Chimborazo, the majestic snow-capped peak which resides over the city of Riobamba.  I´m not exactly a Butch Cassidy on a horse so five hours of riding for two days didn´t bode well for the aul derriére, but it turns out that wouldn´t be my biggest concern for the weekend.  I was assigned an aging white-haired little horse, and for the first half hour of riding he puffed, snorted, and wheezed so much that I thought he was going to give up the ghost right there with me on top of him.  But he found his stride, and turned out to be a noble steed in his own way; by the time the first hour was over he had already gained the affectionate title of Old Jim.  However, by the time the first hour was over another development of a more climatic nature had manifested itself: we rode right into the middle of a hail, thunder, and lightning storm.  At one point at the top of a mountain I scanned our surroundings, watching the lightning striking nearer, and noted warily that we were the tallest objects for miles in any direction.  Crouch down there a bit, Old Jim...

After a few hours of riding in the hail we were all soaked through and, we admitted to each other later, were all silently considering our survival options.  The most popular idea seemed to be to find some shelter and get the horses to lie down around us for heat until help arrived.  But we soldiered on, and four wet and shivery hours later we rode out of the storm.  The last hour was dry and beautiful; we made our way down to a verdant valley and followed a river all the way to the tiny village of Salinas, land of chocolate and cheese.

The next weekend another group of us headed to Baños, an adventure sport mecca two hours from Paraiso.  The first day I decided to fly my tourist flag high and jumped on a chiva, which is an open-sided truck that drives around blasting cheesy dance music and flashing disco lights.  After circling the main plaza 7 times (when we asked the driver he said this was the "city tour" part of the trip) we made our way to some of the local waterfalls that speckle the area.  

The next day was a wash-out (what did I expect in a place called Baños...), and so that night we did the only thing to be done and headed to the pubs.  Late enough into the night, some of the other volunteers got talking about their plan to go puenting the next morning.  Puenting is in the same family as bungee jumping: they tie a rope to a bridge, tie the other end to you, and off you go.  I had not planned on going puenting, nor did I have any desire to really.  However, a few merry pints in, and surrounded by young enthusiastic folk, it started to sound like a thing that maybe I would want to do.  The conversation inevitably came to the shake, the sealing of my fate; tomorrow, I was going to jump off a bridge, hurrah!  Sunday morning I felt a bit differently about the situation.  As the excitement became visible with the other volunteers, my breakfast got a little less comfortable in my stomach.  But everyone else was doing it, I couldn´t be the only one...When we got out of the car at the bridge and I saw how high it was, I very nearly got sick.  It was a good 150 meters, and the river I had affectionately thought of as frothy chocolate milk the previous day was now a raging, foaming deluge coursing its way through a ragged canyon.  The other volunteers dropped off the side one by one, and then it was my turn.  I was belted and buckled up, and climbed over the side of the bridge to the 1 foot by 2 feet dinner tray hanging on the other side.  The man behind me counted to three, grabbed my ankles, and off I went.  In the first two seconds or so I couldn´t feel the harness and I actually thought I was going to die.  If there was anything going through my mind at all, it was something along the lines of my logic throwing its hands up in the air with exhasperation and screaming, "Jumping off a bridge, seriously?!  Twenty four years of careful tutelage and you decide to jump off a bridge.  Great.  Well done."  and storming away.  But in the next second the rope started to tighten and once I realised today was not my day to go, I let out a hearty, terrified scream.  After that was a few minutes of the best swing ever, and then I was pulled onto the cliff and sent on my way.  And that, my friends, is the tale of how I jumped off a bridge just because everyone else was doing it.  And lived to tell the tale.

Tune in three weeks from now for stories from my time in an indigenous community in the Andes. There´ll be dancing, there´ll be farming. There may be llamas.

More photos of shamans, Baños, and horses here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Basilicas, Seals, and Dramamine: A Girl´s New Best Friend(s)

My South American adventure started on a high note; very high in fact: 2,800 meters/9,200 feet above sea level high. Following advice from guide books and medical professionals, I decided to take it handy my first day to allow myself to acclimate to the lack of oxygen in the air.  An easy day travelling around the museums and perhaps visiting La Basílica, which is one of the dominating features of the impressive Quito skyline, sounded like a safe bet.  However, most of the museums were closed for no reason that I could find, and the one I did manage to get into was a confusing mix of Precolumbian huts and dolls dressed as monks (I later realised that there was some kind of order to it, but my route led to an anachronistic and slightly perplexing impression of Ecuadorian history).  Mildly defeated, I puffed my way up Calle Venezuela to La Basílica.  Its imposing Gothic architecture belies its fairly recent construction (by Basilica standards anyway), as it was only built in the late 19th century.  That said, what La Basílica lacks in age, it makes up for in accessibility.  For $2, I was able to ramble throughout the majority of the sanctified innards of the building, which included gang-planking my way across the spine of the roof to a lookout point, and climbing all 115 meters to the top of the belfry hand over hand up increasingly smaller ladders.  So much for taking it handy.  The view, however, was well worth it.

The next day I took a tour arranged by the hostel where I was staying to Otavalo, which has been deemed one of the biggest artisan markets in South America.  "But...", you may say, "Why would you go to an artisan market on the second day of your four-month trip during which time you have to carry all of your possessions around on your back, á la Monsieur Snail?"  Why indeed, my estute friend, why indeed... Anyway, to the market I went, and artisanial objects I bought.  The market itself was interesting enough, tourist stands rubbing elbows with sizzling vats of fried pig and gold chains, but I was surprised to hear it´s in Lonely Planet´s Top 10 for South America.  If you´re planning to bypass a trip to Machu Picchu or Iguazu to get your shop on in Otavalo, don´t.  Unless fuzzy llama toys and gringo pants are your thing.

Left with a week before beginning my 9-week volunteering placement, I decided to team up with a German girl I met in the hostel to do some exploring.  We were thinking of heading up to Colombia for the week, but given that we would have spent about half of our time on a bus and would have voided our Ecuadorian visitors visa (a point I only discovered later - future travellers take note of this point: you can´t leave Ecuador during the 90 days of your visa if you expect to get back in) we decided against it.  Something that had been niggling me since I´d arrived was the fact that everyone I met seemed to have gone to the Galapagos, and would practically plead with you when you stated that you´d already decided it was out of your budget and that you were going to bypass it.  The Galapagos aren´t cheap, and until fairly recently its shores were reserved for scientists and very rich tourists.  However, in the last few years it has grown as a travel destination for a younger crowd as well, and it´s not unlikely to see a scruffy backpacker wandering about the beaches these days.  So I weighed up the points that I will probably never be this close again, this is one of the best times of year to go because High Season isn´t in full swing yet so prices are cheaper while Low Season is pretty much over so the weather conditions are more favourable, and living off beans and tuna for a while wouldn´t be so bad really, and decided to go for it.  Booked flights, high fived, no turning back.

The enchantment started as soon as the airplane touched down in the tiny lean-to airport on the isle of Baltra.  As the airplane taxied down the runway, it was escorted by dozens of giant dragonflies, officious and determined in their duties.  Due to a lucky seat placement, my new German friend had made the acquaintance of a man who was visiting his family in Puerto Ayura, the main port of the Galapagos, and his nephew was happy to help us find a place to stay and offer adice.  The place in question ended up being the hotel where he worked and was a bit more than we´d hoped to pay, but it was called El Castillo and it actually was a castle.  Our room had a balcony, there was a guitar and a couple of hammocks ready for use, and the fresh juice for the morning breakfast came from the fruit trees in the garden.  Never one to turn down a jammy turn of events, we settled in for the night.

But when one talks of Galapagos, one doesn´t talk about lodgings, so enough of the Castle and on to the the real attraction of the islands: the animals.  Immortalised by Darwin´s 1835 scientific visit, the islands are most famous for the amazing fauna which exhibits little to no natural fear of man.  On our first day we strolled to the fish boat dock where a sea lion was basking in the sun and pelicans rested in the trees a mere meter or so from where we were standing.  When the fish came in they skulked around the corner, waiting for a chance to snatch an unattended fish.

We managed to get a last-minute package deal which had us on a tour ship for two nights, then over to Isabella, the biggest island, for volcano climbing and reef snorkelling.  The Naturalist guide on the tour was an interesting fellow: during the day he would lead tours around the islands spinning off descriptions of the animals and facts about the islands as he clutched a rubber hammerhead shark, obsessively rubbed antibacterial lotion on his hands, and then rubbed his hands on his face.  By night-time when he gave the itinerary for the next day he would be glossy-eyed and slurring slightly.  The last night that we were on the boat (it was an 8-day tour for the rest of the passengers but we were only there for the first 3) after he detailled the activities for the next day he unexpectedly launched into a speech about how tourism was what was keeping the islands going, but it was also killing them.  The money from tourists coming to gawk at the wildlife is vital for the protection programmes to continue running, but the money inevitably lines the wrong pockets and the ever-increasing traffic of visitors is damaging the delicate eco-system they´ve come to see.  At the end of a few minutes there was an uncomfortable silence and then one of the other passengers raised his hand.  "So, what time are you meeting us for lunch tomorrow again?"  His approach was strange, and his audience was perhaps ill-chosen, but his argument is valid and compelling, and isn´t unique to the Galapagos.  Any community which initiates tourism treads this fine line, of benefitting from the income tourism brings, but also suffering from the effects of turning their lifestyle into an attraction for outsiders to pay to observe.  There is a new wave of "sustainable" or "eco" tourism, which aims to mitigate the harmful effects of tourism as much as possible.  But it seems like it will always be a double-edged sword, and if a community relies entirely on tourism for its economy there will inevitably be comprimises.  

However, moral dilemmas aside, I did decide to be a tourist, and it is truly an enchanted place.  I spent about 20 minutes just swimming around with a giant sea turtle, and a good 10 minutes persuing a white-tipped shark.  It did dawn on me during this time that chasing a shark was an odd thing to do, but he didn´t seem to mind all that much.  We had a healthy dose of land and sea iguanas and plenty of seals, frigates, and even some penguins on the last day.  By the end of the trip, I returned to Quito sunburnt, still swaying from the high-speed ferry boats, and mesmerised by the natural magic of the Galapagos.

Next post: my three weeks living with a shaman and his family in the jungle.  There´s a perfectly normal sentence...

More photos of Quito here and more photos of Galapagos here.