Popayán and Salento

After a rather long-winded journey and border crossing from Ecuador, we had finally made it to Colombia! We were planning on reaching a pretty colonial city called Popayán by the following morning, but before that we wanted to visit 'Las Lajas Sanctuary', a basilica church just outside the border town of Ipilaes. We caught a cab to the bus station and bought tickets for the night bus that would leave around 9pm. After a twenty minute taxi ride we were dropped at the top of a hill (unfortunately with all of our bags) and made our way down the steps to the canyon of the Guáitara River where we were met by this spectacular church.

Bridging across a river gorge with it's intricate grey and white Neo-gothic decoration, it was an impressive and somewhat unusual sight for a small South American border town. We spent an hour or so taking it in from the various view points before grabbing a quick beer and watching the sun go down. Once it got dark the church was lit up in various different colours that faded from one to the other, showcasing the churches impressive form in fairytale style.

We then slowly made our way back up the hill with all our bags and eventually managed to share a cab with two Colombian ladies and headed to the bus station. After a hilarious 'lost in translation' moment which left them thinking Stef was the daughter of tennis player Steffi Graf, we said goodbye, boarded the night bus and vowed to try harder at learning Spanish! The bus was not as comfortable as previous ones, so without much sleep we pulled into Popayán at 4.30am and wearily headed to the station cafe to kill some time before the hostels opened.


We took a cab to Hostel Caracol, which had good reviews and luckily for us 2 beds that were available at a good price. We only had a day to explore Popayán so once rested we set off, excited to experience our first full day in Colombia. Popayán, also known as 'The White City', is known for being one of the prettiest cities in the country. We wandered around the quiet colonial streets, taking in the many white stone buildings and churches. It was easy to see how the city got it's nickname.

After a while it began to rain pretty heavily, so we headed into La Cosecha Parillada Centro keen to try some traditional Colombian food. We had noticed by now that no one spoke English so we welcomed the chance to test out our (not so great) Spanish skills. We ordered the Bandeja Paisa, a national dish containing eggs, beans, avocado, pork crackling, pulled pork, steak and roast potatoes. It was like a combination between a full english breakfast and a burrito and was very tasty, not to mention incredibly filling!

Once the rain has passed we decided to work off our enormous lunch and see a bit more of the city. We walked through the square past some craft stalls and headed up the hill towards the Iglesia de Belen Santuario de Belen. After taking in the view from the top we headed back to the square and explored more of the old cobbled streets and buildings. We opted for a light dinner near our hostel and settled in for a decent nights sleep ready for another full day of travel ahead. 

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast from a small cafe opposite our hostel and made our way back to the station by cab to get a bus to our next destination: Salento, a small colonial town located just north of Armenia in the heart of the Colombian Coffee region. There was no direct bus route from Popayán, so after 5 hours of bus travel we caught a 2 hour minibus from Armenia to reach Salento itself.


Salento is a bustling colonial town with brightly painted houses, great craft markets and restaurants and a great launchpad to explore the surrounding national parks. After getting dropped off by the minibus it was a short walk to Hostel El Zorzal, a peaceful hostel on the outskirts of town with lovely little bungalow rooms and friendly staff. After checking in we grabbed a beer in the pretty surrounding garden, teaming with colourful birds.

We set out to explore the small town and spent a wonderful hour or so taking photos of the colourful and picturesque buildings and walking amongst the gift shops selling beautiful gifts, jewellery, bags and clothing. We then made our way up the steps at the end of the main street and ascended to the look out point, with one side giving a view of the town, and the other side a fantastic view of the lush mountains of the surrounding coffee region. 

By chance our lovely friends Amanda and Daniel (follow their amazing journey on Vivalavida) who we had travelled with in Peru had also arrived in Salento that day. After meeting them and catching up with their news we decided to try our hand at the traditional Colombian game of Tejo. Known as the national sport of Colombia, Tejo is a similar game to boules where the aim is to throw iron weights into a central iron ring set into a small clay pit. Small packets of gunpowder are positioned on the ring and explode on impact, gaining the player extra points. Intrigued and excited by this we couldn't turn down the chance to play!

Amanda (with her now perfect Spanish) had asked around and heard that the best place to play was at Los Amigos, a ranch style bar in the centre of town. For 10,000 pesos (£3) you got a beer and unlimited time to play, which was a fantastic deal! We were led into a barn type space where locals where hurling weighted balls across the length of the room and with sounds of splatting clay, exploding gunpowder and cheers. It was definitely one of the strangest games we'd played but we embraced the tradition and got fully stuck in. We played for about an hour (to varying degrees of success!) and then headed to the very pretty main square, soaked up the busy Friday atmosphere and sampled the local food trucks.

Trekking the Cocora Valley

One of the highlights of visiting Salento is a trip to the Cocora Valley, famous for the worlds tallest wax palms set amongst stunning green hills. After a great breakfast at our hostel we met with Amanda and Daniel in the main square and found a spot on one of the many colourful jeeps that shuttled visitors to the valley. After a fun (but cramped!) 30 minute jeep ride we were dropped at the entrance to the national park and set off along the trail in our wellies, waded across streams and headed into more dense forest with rickety wooden bridges and rushing water beneath us.

After crossing many bridges and walking up lots of slippery stone steps we ended up at our first stop, the Acaime Humming Bird sanctuary. We each gave a small contribution to the owners, and in return were given a hot drink and a snack. We stayed for an hour or so to marvel at the lush garden around us and tried to capture shots of the hundreds of colourful hummingbirds birds that had made this place their home.  

We set off back down the hill and found the path that led us to a look out point. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and watched the clouds rolling past us through the valley below. We then continued through a forest of huge pine trees, yet another type of terrain, until we made it to a clearing where we got our first glimpse of a some of the impressive Quindío wax palms, the national tree of Colombia.

As walked a little further we spotted a huge, bright blue wasp dragging a tarantula through the grass. We all got pretty close to get a good look and take pictures, but it wasn't until later when we looked it up that we realised it was a tarantula hawk wasp, an insect that gives the second most painful sting in the world. It paralyses a tarantula, drags it back to its nest and lays an egg on its back. The wasp lava then eats the tarantula from the inside out - it was like something from a horror film! We might not have got so close if we had known but we're excited to have witnessed it. 

It was pretty cloudy at this point, and so we couldn't see into the valley but were able to marvel at the height of the palms above us, some standing over 45 meters tall. The clouds continued to roll passed and suddenly the valley became visible, and we got a full glimpse of the wax palms dotted around the stunning green landscape. We wound our way through the impressive, prehistoric scenery and back to the starting point where we had to wait a while to get one of the jeeps back to Salento. The trek had definitely stood out as one of the most memorable of our trip.

Horse Riding & Waterfalls

The following morning Amanda had arranged for us to go horse riding to one of the nearby waterfalls through their hostel La Eliana (which also has a great restaurant). Following another tranquil garden breakfast at our hostel we met in the town and headed to some stables where the locals set us up with our horses. After some brief instructions we were on our way and rode out of the town and into the lush landscapes that surrounded Salento. 

The weather that day was perfect for riding, and being just the four of us and our local guide made for a really memorable experience. We trotted and cantered whenever we got the chance, and after an hour or so we reached a spot to tie up the horses and made the short walk to a waterfall.

We changed into our swimwear and even though the water was pretty chilly it was very refreshing after our ride, and set in an idillic spot. After swimming as long as we could we got out and noticed hundreds of butterflies basking in the sun all around us. We managed to get some quick shots of them before mounting back on our horses and continuing on our rather steep and muddy ride back up to Salento.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the picturesque town, soaking up the atmosphere and milling amongst the craft shops and cafes. As it was Stef's Birthday the following day we all decided that it would be nice to ditch the backpacker budget for a change and get dinner from a highly recommended restaurant called Cafe Bernabe. We went for a very tasty steak with a blackberry sauce followed by birthday cake, and had a lovely evening enjoying the great food and company. Amanda and Daniel even offered to pick up the bill as a birthday treat!

Stef's Birthday 

We woke the next morning to a spectacular sunrise from our hostel terrace, and Stef caught up with friends and family sending her Birthday wishes before checking out of our Hostel. Life on the road could be pretty fast at times so it was great to dedicate some time to catch up with loved ones properly. We then headed to Brunch de Salento to try the legendary peanut butter brownie. We both agreed it's only OK to have brownie for breakfast on your birthday! We then wandered over to Cafe Jesus Martin for an ice coffee and juice.

It was then time for the birthday surprise, and we headed up the hill and stopped outside the gates of the boutique hotel El Mirador del Cocora! We had the most beautiful double room with a balcony and our own jacuzzi overlooking the amazing Cocora valley. After opening a surprise pile of gifts (treats from Otavalo market and Salento) we spent the afternoon relaxing in the hot tub, listening to music and drinking wine. Birthdays don't get much better than that! We then headed out for dinner and cocktails in the town to to top off the day.

Our time spent in Salento was magic, and became one of our favourite destinations of the trip. From colourful buildings and bustling atmosphere of the town, to the incredible treks and horse rides through the stunning Cocora Valley, it had been an amazing mix of experiences. We had heard so many great things about Colombia from fellow travellers, and even after 5 days we were completely blown away. It was a perfect introduction to an amazing country, and we couldn't wait to explore more.

Montañita via Guayaquil

After an incredible 12 days exploring the Galápagos Islands, we wanted to have some down time to relax and reflect on our experience, and plan our next movements further north. We decided to skim through Ecuador as we were keen to get to Colombia, but we had heard good things about Montañita, a small surf town 4 hours west of Guayaquil, and so decided to stop there for a few days. After getting our flight back from Baltra airport to Guayaquil, we had an afternoon to kill before getting our bus to Montañita, and so we jumped in a taxi and headed into the centre of Ecuador's largest city.

An Afternoon in Guayaquil

Our first stop was the Parque de las Iguanas, a small square located in the Seminar Park in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Guayaquil and surrounded by grand buildings. As the name suggested the park was teaming with large green iguanas, as well as terrapins bathing in various pools. Many iguanas were hanging in the trees, and so we had to be careful not to get hit by iguana poop as we wandered around! It was great being able to get so close to them, take a few snaps, and watch the locals feeding them with lettuce leaves and bananas.

We then wandered through the city centre towards the waterfront of the Rio Guayas, and headed towards Las Penas, the colourful, artistic district of the city. To get there we wandered along the river front passing through various parks with water features and tropical plants. Once we arrived we headed up the steep roads past brightly painted walls, rustic doors and shutters (and many armed guards!) until we reached the lighthouse at the top of Cerro Santa Ana. At the top we started chatting to two local guys from the city called Juan and Julio, who were really friendly and kindly offered to give us a short tour of a few key spots around the city centre.

We spent a few fun hours getting to know Juan and Julio, and visited their favourite local juice bar, a historic clock tower, handicraft markets and a cheap but decent spot to try traditional Ecuadorian food. In return, they quizzed us about lots of English words, as the were keen to learn 'English English', rather than 'American English'. We had heard that Guayaquil wasn't the safest city to visit, so were surprised to find such generous hospitality. That being said, we were glad to have a local show us through the more edgy parts of the city, pointing out when to be wary of pick pockets. After an interesting afternoon of exploring Guayaquil it was time to move on, and so we headed back to the bus station around 6, and took the 3-hour bus west to the costal town of Montañita.


After arriving at the bus station we jumped in a cab and headed a few kilometres up the coast to Kamala, a lively hostel run by Anna and James, an Aussie and a Brit who'd met on their travels and decided to run the place together. There was a large bar area where they served chilled beers and home cooked food, a huge pool and a friendly vibe, so as we settled in we looked forward to spending a few days there to chill and enjoy some down time.

The beach was literally 20 meters away from the hostel, making it ideal to go for a quick swim (when the waves weren't too big!), or stroll down the coast along the sand to get to the town. The following morning, after a hearty breakfast of fruit and pancakes, we wandered down the coast to the centre of town to suss it out. Our fist impression of Montañita was that it felt a little tacky, but it definitely had a fun atmosphere and seemed like a great place to have a big night out. We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant and ordered the 'menu de dia' to keep things cheap.

Whilst walking through the town we noticed how many birds were perched on the electricity cables - literally thousands - meaning you had to be careful not to get showered when walking underneath, and many of the locals walked around with umbrellas as a precaution! That afternoon there was a pirate party kicking off at Kamala hostel, and so after a few beers and shots of rum we all headed out into town for some cheap cocktails. We had heard that the best club to visit was 'Lost Beach Club', and we all ended up there and danced into the early hours.

Searching for Mantas

During our stay at Kamala the owner Anna had spoken to us a lot about the Manta Rays that were visiting the area, and having not seen them herself was very keen to arrange a diving trip. The odds of spotting them were apparently very good, and having always wanted to dive with Mantas we were easily persuaded to sign up. After waiting for a few days for the right conditions we were up early and drove about half an hour south to the small town of Ayangue where we met up with her friends who worked at Ray Aguila dive outfit. We visited two dive sites that morning and whilst we did see lots of fish, sharks and corals, as well as hearing humpback whales underwater, unfortunately we did NOT spot the ever elusive Mantas! 

Isla de la Plata

One of the most popular places to visit from Montañita is Isla de la Plata (also known as the 'Poor mans Galápagos') situated off the coast of Puerto Lopez, a town not far north from our hostel. Having just been to the Galápagos Islands we felt it might be a bit of a disappointment, but we had been told it was humpback whale season and spotting them was pretty certain on the journey there and back. By chance we bumped into the lovely Swiss couple who were also on our Galapagos cruise, Flo and Margot. As neither of us had seen whales during our cruise we were all excited to have another chance, and so they headed to Kamala hostel (who had organised the trip for us) and joined our group.

After an hours drive we arrived at the small seaside town of Puerto Lopez. The docks were filled with fishing boats, attracting many pelicans, and after being introduced by our guide we all piled into a boat and set off from the port towards Isla de la Plata. We were told by our guide to keep an eye out for whales on the way, and so our group were fixated on the deep water with cameras at the ready as we headed towards the island. After about half an hour we spotted our first whale on the horizon, but unfortunately it was too far away to see properly. We spotted a few others again in the distance but they all seemed to disperse, and our captain explained that we'd have a better chance on our way back.

We arrived on the Island around 11am, and were organised into 2 separate groups. After a bit of waiting around our guide led us up the path to the top of the hill, and began to explain about dry climate and conditions on the island, and how it affected the vegetation and wildlife. Once we got to the top we spotted a series of nests belonging to the Blue Footed Booby, birds we had seen a lot of on the Galápagos. The novelty of their brightly coloured feet still hadn't worn off for us, and we enjoyed watching each couple perform their typical mating dance accompanied by whistles and squarks.

We continued further to the edge of the island and stopped at a huge cliff face that looked out over the ocean. There were many birds nesting and flying around the cliffs, including tropic birds, Nazca boobies and frigates. Our guide explained the meaning behind the name of the island - Isla de la Plata - meaning Silver Island. This was due to the colour of the ground covered by thousands of bird droppings. This created the illusion of a shimmering silver island for boats looking from a distance. We were also told that the fertile soil created from the droppings was incredibly sacred and valuable during inca times, and trespassing in these areas could be punishable by death!

After walking back to the boat we were told we had some snorkelling time, and so we headed a little way up the coast to a spot which we were told had beautiful corals. Unfortunately once we entered the water we realised the visibility was really poor, and so found it hard to spot anything in the silt-filled water. We did managed to spot a sea turtle, a small Ray and some tropical fish, although most of the footage wasn't clear enough to make out. We then got back into the boat and had a quick sandwich and banana before making our way back.

The journey back was our last shot at seeing humpbacks, and our guide told us we would be better prepared to find them this time. After half an hour of travel the captain signalled that there were whales in the area, and so we kept our eyes peeled looking for any activity in the expansive blue ocean. We started to notice large shadows moving beneath us, and some whales started to rise above the water level showing their tails and dorsal fins. There must have been about 6 in total, and we kept a look out, doing our best to capture the incredible animals on our cameras.

Then suddenly not far from the boat a huge whale breached right in front of us, making a dramatic splash of white water as it landed. It was incredible to witness one of the largest mammals on earth at such close range, and in such numbers. After about half an hour of watching the whales jump around our boat we headed back to the mainland and ended our tour.

We found that Montañita was the perfect place to help us mentally recharge, research and plan the next stint of our travels. We met some great people at Kamala Hostel and took advantage of the parties in and around the town, but also welcomed the down time by the pool sunbathing (and nursing hangovers!). We were also able to witness some fantastic wildlife, and seeing humpback whales so close was definitely something to tick off our bucket list. After 5 days by the beach we were excited to be heading onwards to Quito and within the week, arriving in the much anticipated Colombia.

Galápagos Islands – Part 2

Having already spent an incredible 6 days in and around Santa Cruz island, we had already seen our fair share of wildlife and beautiful Galápagos landscapes. However, a cruise was the thing that we were most looking forward to, as we had heard it’s the best way to experience what the islands have to offer. Due to the high prices of Galápagos cruises, and not being a place you visit very often, there was a bit of pressure to get it right first time. In order to do this we spent a good few days visiting different tour agencies to discuss last minute deals and routes before committing to anything.

Choosing a Boat & Itinerary

Unless you have the luxury of going on a 16 day cruise to see it all, most people have to make the tough decision of visiting either the Western islands of Isabela and Fernandina or the Northern and Southern Islands of Genovesa and Española. Both routes offer the chance to see different endemic species so it ultimately came down to what we wanted to see and experience. We found the decision making a little stressful, especially when you are about to part with a huge chunk of travel budget, but we knew it would be more than worth it. We decided to visit the Western islands, as they were more remote and would offer more varied terrain as well as the chance to see flamingoes, flightless cormorants, marine and land iguanas, turtles, sharks and potentially whales and penguins as in parts the water was much colder. 

Once we were set on a route we looked for boats that offered our preferred itinerary at the best price. However, if you chose a very budget boat you often get a budget guide and itinerary, so we were advised not to go for the cheapest option to avoid disappointment. After much deliberation and with various options ranging in price, itinerary and class, we decided to book with Moonrise Travel (a very helpful agency based on Charles Darwin Avenue) and opted for the Eden yacht: a ‘tourist superior’ class boat that sleeps 16 people. The boat had 8 double rooms, an onboard chef, a bar, a sun deck, and even hot showers, so we couldn't have asked for much more for the price. Another bonus was that the Eden offered us a 5 day/5 night cruise, meaning we would board the night before giving us more time.

We boarded the boat at 8pm, and after meeting the rest of our fellow cruise members we sat down for our first delicious meal prepared by the chef. Our guide David then gave us a full brief of the next days itinerary, including what wildlife we were likely to see, so we felt well prepared as to what to expect before heading to bed. Our cabins were a decent size, with twin beds, a separate bathroom and plenty of storage. The only down side of our room was that it was positioned right next to the engine! Luckily our travel earplugs came to the rescue, and so we still got a decent nights sleep.

Day 1: Puerto Villamil

After navigating at night we work up in Puerto Villamil, a small coastal village located in the south of Isabela Island. Following an amazing breakfast of fresh fruit and pancakes we prepared our day packs and our group set off to the town in 2 small dinghies. Our first stop was the wetlands, a short shuttle bus ride to the west of the town. We were led by our guide David through mangrove forests and small sandy beaches where marine iguanas were basking in the sun. We were then shown a series of lava tunnels, and it was fascinating to hear how they had been created by a flow of hot lava that passed underneath the cooler crust during volcanic eruptions around a million years ago.

We then headed back to the port and walked along a short boardwalk to Concha de Perla, a great snorkelling spot nearby. After side stepping iguanas and sleeping sea lion pups we reached the small sheltered bay. The pool was ideally located for marine life to feed at high tide, meaning we could spot rays, sea lions, marine iguanas and various tropical fish with ease. After an hour or so of snorkelling we headed back to the boat for a hearty spaghetti bolognese prepared by the onboard chef.

Next on the agenda was a trip to the Arnaldo Tupiza tortoise sanctuary, so after taking the dingy to shore we got back on the shuttle bus and headed north of the port. Having already visited the Darwin centre on Santa Cruz we weren’t sure if we were going to see anything different. However, with David as our guide we learnt far more then we expected, and saw the interesting growth stages of the tortoises in small bottles, as well as the eggs and incubation processes. We even managed to see a couple of dominant male tortoises fight it out and try to roll each others shells over!

A short walk from the tortoise sanctuary was a small lake where we caught our first glimpse of the Galapagos flamingo. After seeing the James and Chilean flamingoes in Bolivia it was very interesting to see how much longer the Galapagos’ flamingos neck were, and how much brighter pink in colour they were. We stayed watching the flock for around half and hour as they fed on the tiny crustaceans that gives them their colour.

The day ended back at the beach in Puerto Vilamil. We swam, lazed with the sea lions and iguanas and grabbed a beer with just enough time to watch the sun go down with our fellow ship mates. It was the perfect end to our first day on our Galapagos cruise, and after boarding the boat we spent the evening eating, drinking and discussing the itinerary for the following day.

Day 2: Moreno Point & Elizabeth Bay

We woke in the morning to find ourselves in Moreno Point, a remote spot to the west of Elizabeth bay now far away from civilisation. After another hearty breakfast we boarded the dinghy and within a few minutes were dropped on the edge of a huge lava field. The black, rippled texture was like nothing we had walked on before, and David explained how the entire area was created by the volcanic lava that spread out for miles from Volcanoes in the distance. After walking carefully along the fragile rock we arrived at a series of small pools surrounded by grasses. The pools were connected to the sea through lava tunnels, and we were lucky enough to spot a turtle and a white tipped reef shark swimming in the clear shallow pools, trapped by the outgoing tide.

After an interesting hour exploring the lava fields we got back on the boat for a quick snack before heading off to our first official snorkelling destination of the cruise, just off Moreno Point. The water was much colder than in Santa Cruz or Puerto Villamil, and so we were glad to have wetsuits. The visibility wasn’t fantastic due to the silt and strong currents, but the marine life was incredible. At one point we were surrounded by as many as seven friendly green sea turtles feeding on seaweed!

After exploring the cold water for as long as we could, we got back on the boat and headed to the front sundeck to warm up in the sun. We started chatting to Angelina and Marco, a lovely swiss couple on a similar trip to ours. After about 5 minutes of chatting about the snorkelling they revealed that Marco had just proposed under water using a slate! After much excitement, hugs and congratulations we headed to the bar to order a round of piña coladas and spent a fun hour celebrating the exciting news. 

We cruised for another few hours over lunch, and pulled up around mid afternoon to our next spot, Elizabeth Bay. We boarded the dinghy and made our way there, stopping at various spots on the way to see wildlife. We spotted a sea lion dozing on the rocks, who gave us a big yawn and then clumsily made his way down to the water. He then swam beneath our boat, clearly showing off his aquatic skills in the glistening water!

As we edged around the rock further we spotted a lone Galapagos penguin, a bird we had been eager to see. We learnt that it is the only wild penguin to live North of the equator due to the cold Humboldt current that flows from Antartica, making a perfect environment for them. As we journeyed to deeper waters we spotted a whole group of penguins leaping out the sea! It was an amazing thing to witness, and we sped along side them for a while before they darted off in different directions.

We then spotted a flightless cormorant basking in the sun, totally unphased by our boat, so we were able to get some great pictures. We had learnt that due to the lack of natural predators on the Galapagos, the flightless cormorants wings had evolved to become smaller due to its lack of necessity to fly. This also makes them more streamlined in water when fishing. As it was one of the unique Galapagos species we had read lots about we were really pleased that we got to see one so close. 

We finally arrived at Elizabeth Bay, and as we slowly approached the sheltered waters surrounded by mangroves we spotted many turtles popping their heads up for air right next to the boat. We approached a narrow, shallow inlet, and our guide David said we needed to keep our eyes on the water and after a short wile we spotted a shoal of juvenile golden rays glimmering near the surface! They slowly drifted underneath our boat, and we managed to lower the GoPro into the water to get a better view. It was mesmerising to watch, and probably one of our favourite moments of our cruise.

After ten minutes following the golden rays we headed up into another shallow inlet where we found another group of rays, this time baby spotted eagle rays, calmly floating in the crystal clear water. We followed the shoal for a while, bumping into many turtles and sea lions fishing amongst the mangroves. With the sheer abundance of marine life around us we were completely blown away by Elizabeth Bay. What made it more special was that we were the only group there, and we were really pleased we'd chosen to explore this side of the Galapagos. 

After an unforgettable few hours we headed back to the boat where one of our fellow cruise members, Raj, treated the group to a bottle of champagne to toast Angelina and Marco’s engagement. We settled in to another delicious dinner, and chatted about the amazing wildlife we'd been so lucky to see throughout the day. We were then briefed by David on Day 3 of our cruise, which sounded equally exciting.

Day 3: Tagus Cove & Espinoza Point

The next morning we woke up in Tagus cove, a small bay famed for Pirate moorings due to it's sheltered location. On landing, we spotted graffiti on a large rock, but on closer inspection we noticed that they were old name carvings from sailors/pirates, some dating back to 1836, adding more intrigue to the history of the island. As we were jumping off the dinghies we noticed that a couple of flightless cormorants had nested in the middle of the walk way. They seemed completely comfortable with all the groups having to side step around their carefully guarded eggs, and we did our best not to disturb them as we passed.

The surrounding landscape of Tagus Cove was very dry and baron, and felt quite different to the other parts of the island we'd visited. After a small trek up the hill we reached the look out point where we were treated to a gorgeous view of a blue-green crater lake. We had learnt that all the Galápagos Islands had been created by volcanic eruptions from under the sea millions of years ago. Now many had either sunk entirely or were in the process of sinking, and it was great to see a prime example of this process first-hand.

We then made our way back to the boat and changed back into our wetsuits for another snorkelling session in the cove. Again the water was pretty cold but with large puffer fish and flightless cormorants swimming amongst us we were glad we had braved it. We got back on board for some lunch and the Eden then navigated towards Espinoza Point on Fernandina island. Fernandina is the third largest, and youngest, island of the Galápagos Islands and with it’s remote location was another perfect spot for both land and marine wildlife. 

Not long after we landed and had made our way onto the beach we spotted another of the endemic species - the Galapagos hawk, perched on top of a low tree so we got a really good view. As the island is teaming with marine iguanas and small snakes the hawk had a good food supply on tap. As we wondered across the beach towards the lava fields we spotted clusters of the unusual looking lava Cactus with a beautiful island backdrop.


As we wondered further we noticed that there were a number of skeletons bleached white against the black lava. Having watched the David Attenborough series recently, we had learnt that during the El Niño weather system, the right type of seaweed fails to grow meaning that many iguanas die, particularly the large ones. Although it was sad to witness this, there was an abundance of them all over the islands, and very interesting to see the natural selection process at work here on these infamous islands. 


We then got back on to the boat and settled in with a few beers on the sundeck. We had been told by our crew that we were passing the equator line, marking the middle of the earth, so along with our cruise mates we went to watch the GPS navigator hit 0.00.000 and counted down as if it was New Years eve (amusing at the time!). It was a little bit of an anti-climax, but on the plus side we get to say that we've sailed over the half way mark of the world. We then settled down for dinner and briefing before heading to bed for an early night.

Day 4: Santiago & Rábida Islands

The next morning we had arrived in Egas Port on the Western side of Santiago Island. After a short dingy ride we arrived on a black sand beach and made our way over to a spot that was famed for sighting the Galápagos fur seal. Both the fur seals and sea lions are from the ‘eared seal’ family, however we were told that the noticeable differences of fur seals include thicker fur, larger ear flaps, different head proportions as well as being much smaller. After a 5 minute walk across the rocks we spotted about five fur seals dosing or trying to find themselves a good spot. They seemed far more docile than the sea lions and their thicker fur and large eyes made them seem more like friendly puppies! 

After half hour or so we headed back to the beach and grabbed our snorkels. We had left the colder currents behind and didn’t need a wetsuit, so we eagerly jumped on in. As there was no sand the water visibility was great, revealing shoals of tropical fish including parrotfish, puffer fish and we even had a white tipped shark swim less than a meter past us! After 45 minutes of snorkelling we headed back to the beach and basked in the sun before heading back to the Eden for our mid morning snack.

Our next stop was Rabida, an island known for it’s striking red-coloured sand. After lunch we moored up close to the shore and took dinghies to the beach where we spotted a group of sea lions resting on the red sand. The island was deserted apart from our group, so after taking a stroll along the beautiful beach to see the sea lions we cut inland and wandered past a small turquoise salt-lake and uphill to get a view of the tranquil island from above. It didn’t take long before we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the unusual red, white and green landscape covered in cacti. 


We spent a final hour or so sun bathing on the beach until it was time for us to head back and set sail to our final destination. As we cruised onwards we heard the crew shout excitedly, as apparently they had spotted a huge sunfish. We all peered over the side of the boat to get a glimpse at the oceans largest bony fish; we just wished we had been able to get a better look! After the excitement we grabbed a beer and watched the sun slowly descend over the volcano in the distance then congregated near the bar and made a toast to our fantastic crew and guide for an amazing 5 days. As it was our last night of the cruise we stayed up drinking beers and chatting with the other guys for as long as we could.

Day 5: North Seymour Island

Our final morning was an early one, as the best bird activity was at sunrise so around 5.30am we sleepily huddled onto the dingy and headed for North Seymour Island. Even before landing the noise of the birds was amazing. After getting on land we noticed the sheer number of different birds in the area, including the iconic blue footed booby, a bird which was top of our list to see on the Galapagos. There were hundreds of couples nesting, and it was great to witness them performing their typical blue-footed dance and whistling to each other.

We wondered further around the coast, taking in the various birds all around us including lava gulls, with vibrant red-ringed eyes, and magnificent frigate birds with their iconic inflated necks. Their red throats were simply amazing, and the noise they made as they banged their beaks against them echoed across the shore. Their were also lots of chicks dotted around and being fed by their parents; it was a real privilege to be on such a vast nesting site with these beautiful birds. After taking pictures and watching for a short wile we were reluctantly directed back to the dingy, marking the end of our incredible 5 day cruise.

We were dropped at the airport where we said our goodbyes to half of the group and then made our way back for our last day on Santa Cruz. After checking back into our hostel, we made plans with our cruise mates for the evening and by 7pm we were reunited again on 'cheap street' for the last dinner. We had made good friends with the other three couples, so it was great to share one final meal together. The next morning we headed off early to the airport barely able to believe what we had experienced over the past two weeks.

We had set high expectations for the Galápagos Islands, and with such big costs and planning needed it's easy to see why many might find visiting the islands too much during a longer trip. However, the six days we spent diving and exploring Santa Cruise by ourselves had been incredible, and the guided cruise had been everything we'd hoped and more. We came away feeling we had really made the most of our time there, and experienced things that we will remember for the rest of our lives. Our advice would be to believe the hype, save the cash and put the Galápagos Islands on your bucket list, you won’t be disappointed!

Puerto Maldonado – Into the Jungle

After visiting Machu Picchu we wanted to get our fix of wildlife during our time in Peru, so during our time in Cusco we visited various tour agencies to find a good deal. We decided on the Tambopata National Reserve, accessed through Puerto Maldonado, a dusty and slightly run down city in southeastern Peru. Getting there was much cheaper on land than by air, so after a fairly comfortable 12 hour night bus from Cusco we arrived at the bus terminal in city centre. During our 4 day tour at Monte Amazonico Lodge we were promised abundant wildlife including giant river otters, anacondas and macaws. Knowing wildlife can be very temperamental, we tried to manage our expectations on our journey there, but were excited for another chance to try and glimpse more of the South American wildlife none-the-less.

After arriving into Puerto Maldonado early morning we were picked up by our tour agency and driven to the office to finalise our itinerary and grab a quick bite to eat. Shortly after we met with the rest of our group, boarded a long boat and set off down the Madre de Dios River, and within thirty minutes we had pulled up to our jungle lodge situated right on the river bank. With a huge central common area complete with a pool and foosball table, kitchen and bar as well as double rooms set amongst a forest clearing, we were pretty impressed with the place! It was a great base to spend our adventures in the jungle for the next 4 days.

Day 1

First on the tour agenda was a forest walk with our guide, Tito, a local Peruvian who clearly had a lot of experience and knowledge of the jungle and its inhabitants. As we congregated outside the lodge we were greeted by a lively wild pig (a white-lipped peccary), who was very friendly and joined us on our walk. As we set off (admittedly not far from the lodge at first) Tito began to explain about the various plants that were native to the Peruvian jungle, and the way in which the locals used them for medicine and building materials, as well as the dangerous ones to avoid! We also learnt that the soil is actually very shallow and nutrient-poor in the jungle, and how the trees and plants overcame issues of stability and water collecting by having widespread roots, such as buttress roots.

One of the most interesting trees was the 'walking palm', a tree which literally moved as it grew new roots in search of nutrients. We realised very quickly that we had to be very careful where we put our hands, as many of the trees had spikes and toxins. Another really interesting three was the cecropia, found in a little clearing with no other plants around it. We learnt that it had a symbiotic relationship with the cecropia ants, and as soon Tito tapped the tree an army of ants came out of the trunk to attack, acting as a defence for both their home and the tree. Many of them actually ended up biting him, which although looked a bit painful, was difficult not to find a little bit funny! We then continued deeper into the jungle, spotting many interesting insects and spiders along the way, and even came across a giant millipede.

After an hour or so of walking through the jungle we arrived back in the lodge for a tasty three course lunch and had a quick swim in the pool. We then set off in the long boat across the river to the appropriately named Monkey Island. We weren't walking for long when we came across a family of capuchin monkeys in a clearing. As soon as they saw our group they came running towards us, clearly keen to see what food we had to offer. One took a great shining to Tom in particular (we believe it was to do with the colour of his hair!) and even climbed onto his shoulder! 

It was great to see the monkeys so close, but once the guides started feeding them they started to become more aggressive (much more so then in the Pampas where it is forbidden to feed them). Sensing the aggravation our guides said we had to leave, so after getting a few snaps we headed to the boat. However, the experience was over so quickly we couldn't help feeling a little bit short changed. On the plus side this meant we had to time to chill in the hammocks back at the lodge, play pool and have a few beers before our night boat ride.

Once night fell we headed by boat to the banks of Monkey Island in search of baby caiman. We came across them fairly quickly, and they were larger than the ones we'd seen in the Pampas. Tito (being fairly old school) jumped out of the boat onto the river bank, barefoot, and tried to catch them with his hands. Unsurprisingly the caiman didn't seem to appreciate this, but fortunately for them they escaped him every time! As we continued along the river, much to our delight, we spotted two adult capybaras with our torch lights, and after closer inspection we realised it was an entire family with two infants grazing amongst the grass. We turned off the engine and watched them quietly for a short while before turning back for a hearty dinner and much needed sleep. 

Day 2

The next morning we were up at 4.30am for an early breakfast before heading to Sandoval Lake. Sandoval Lake is a large lake situated in the middle of the rainforest which is notorious for spotting wildlife, including giant river otters and many types of birds. To get there it you need to take a boat and then walk for about an hour down a very muddy path, which was quite challenging due to the rain. The jungle was much cooler than we had thought, and Tito explained that cold winds from Patagonia were currently blowing through this area of the jungle. Apparently this meant that the wildlife would be less abundant, and so we set our expectations pretty low.

After walking for an hour we arrived at a small, shallow dock with a few boats waiting for us, and once aboard we slowly paddled down a narrow river. We passed underneath a group of howler monkeys, who made their presence known with the booming noise that gives them their name. We then arrived at the lake opening and were met with an impressive expanse of palm tree lined water. Almost immediately we spotted two giant river otters diving for fish, and even saw one munching contentedly on a piranha! We were so pleased to see this amazing animal in the wild as the are extremely rare, with only around 1,000-5,000 left in the world, and we sat and watched them until they disappeared into the mangroves. We then set off to explore the rest of the lake, amazed that we had the chance to see such a special animal in it's natural habitat.

We spent a good two hours or so quietly circling the lake, spotting beautiful herons, hoatzins and kingfishers darting amongst trees. We even got to see a group of sleeping bats clinging onto a tree trunk. Tom with his sharp eyes managed to spot of the eyes of a lurking black caiman from quite a distance, a species notorious in the area. The lake was really beautiful, and it was easy to understand why it was such a great place to watch the wildlife. It was also nice not to have the engine running, as it allowed us to hear the noises of the jungle all around us much more clearly.

Around mid day we then headed back to the lodge to relax once more in our hammocks, and waited until dark for our night walk. We set off in to the darkness of the jungle with torches, and it was very noticeable how much louder and alive the jungle had become. We began to realise the wildlife was far more active during these hours, although a lot harder to spot. We spent an hour creeping quietly through the trees, keeping our eyes peeled for the various insects, spiders and snakes that inhabited them. We spotted gigantic bullet ants in the trees (with the most painful sting in the world!), tarantulas, giant snails, butterflies and even a huge praying mantis!

Day 3

The next day we prepared for a day of activities including kayaking, fishing, and a canopy walk. First on the agenda was piranha fishing in a small creek not far from our lodge. After our failed attempts in the Pampas we were hoping for more success, but weren't holding out! Using very poorly made rods and thick line, it was no surprise that we were not successful, although our captain managed to catch a catfish. There were substantially less nibbles than our previously time so we'll put our luck down to much fewer fish!

We then headed back to the lodge, picked up the kayaks and headed up the river for a down-stream kayaking session. Just as we were pulling up to a spot we saw a huge caiman on the river bank, and so decided to head a little further up to avoid crossing paths! As with most of the activities during our tour the kayaking experience was short, and after around 10 minutes we found ourselves back at the lodge again. This was a little frustrating as we thought we'd have at least an hour or so, but it was still fun to paddle and get a bit of exercise none-the-less.

After lunch we were kitted out with harnesses and set off back into the jungle to begin our zip-lining and canopy walk. The platforms felt just about safe enough, and once at the top and strapped in we began flying amongst the jungle canopy. The zip lines were pretty fast, and so reaching the end was always a bit nerve-racking as it either resulted in smacking into the tree in front, or braking way too hard and ending up falling short and needing to be pulled up by our guide. Next we crossed over a very narrow wooden plank, and then a bridge taking in the amazing jungle canopy below.

Day 4

Our understanding of our last morning was that we would be up really early to head to the parrot clay lick, but due to a mix up from our agency, our guides didn't seem to think it was on the agenda. We were quite annoyed by this as it was something we were very much looking forward to, and so had to have a few awkward conversations in order to convince the guides to take us along anyway. Luckily for us another group was going at the same time, and agreed to sneak us onto the boat and drop us off at Puerto Maldonado on their way back, which we were very grateful for! 

At 3am the following morning we climbed into the long boat one last time and headed an hour upstream before pulling up next to the parrot clay lick. Our guides explained to us that the parrots arrive in the trees above in small groups, and then once they felt safe would descend onto the clay. It is thought that the reason they do this is because the mineral-rich clay counteracts the toxins found various jungle fruits and berries that they eat (basically parrot medicine!). It was also thought to be a chance for them to socialise with each other in large groups. One by one the blue headed parrots and chestnut macaws descended onto the licks in their hundreds, digging their beaks into the clay to access the minerals. We felt very privileged to see these incredible birds behave in such a way.

After an hour or so of watching the parrots, a hawk flew close and fairly quickly the flock began to fly back into the forest, marking the end of the spectacle. Just as we headed off, we noticed a boat in front of us had stopped and our guide explained that there was a sloth eating leaves in a very tall tree! It took our untrained eyes a while to spot it as it was very high up, but once we docked up on the river bank got a much better view directly below it, and watched for a while as it ate. Unfortunately, we didn't have a zoom lens and so found it very difficult to get a decent shot, but it was the first one we'd seen so we're happy regardless. We then headed back to Puerto Maldonado buzzing from our morning of wildlife and then not long after boarded our 10 hour bus back to Cusco.

Despite some of the activities being a bit short lived, overall, we had a brilliant time in Puerto Maldonado. We managed to see all the wildlife we could have hoped for, in particular the giant river otters in Lake Sandoval. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed learning about the trees and plants, and the symbiotic relationships they have with the wildlife. We found it fascinating just how competitive every form of life needed to be in order to survive in the jungle. The parrot clay lick, monkeys, tarantulas and capybara were also fantastic to see, and the canopy and zip-line provided us with a bit of an adrenaline fix. Our only regret is not having a decent zoom lens, as our photos didn't really capture the wildlife in the detail we would have liked. After being dropped back in the city we headed for a decent breakfast at Gustitos del Cura before getting our 12 hour bus back to Cusco. 

Bolivia — Wild Pampas Waterways

Travelling to Bolivia gave us our first opportunity to experience South American's Wildlife. With La Paz as our starting point we had 2 choices: visiting the Amazon basin or the pampas lowlands. Both sounded great, but only having a few days available we decided on the pampas, primarily as the wildlife is more accessible over a shorter time frame, and there was the opportunity to swim with pink river dolphins! We boarded the 45 minute flight on a tiny plane from El Alto (the worlds highest airport) and flew over incredible snow-topped mountains before descending into Rurrenebaque once we could see the lush green jungle and river below.


Situated in the North of Bolivia on the Beni river, Rurrenabaque is the launch pad town for the pampas. With quaint shacks, tropical weather and boats pulling into the harbour with fresh bananas, it was a town we instantly warmed to. The only other way to get to the town from La Paz (apart from by plane) is a cheap but dangerous 20 hour bus ride. After getting there in under an hour, we were glad we opted for the shorter and safer journey!

We had decided to get a taxi from the airport with another couple who recommended us to stay at Hotel Orient, right on the main square. It was a beautiful little hotel, with many tropical plants and hammocks, and as the rates were reasonable we quickly checked in to a double room and spent the afternoon chilling in the peaceful gardens surrounded by birds and greenery before our tour the following day.

Day 1


Early the next morning after the best nights sleep we'd had in weeks (being out of the altitude) we packed up small day bags, leaving our big packs at the hostel, and set off to the Indigena Tours travel agency who we'd booked with through Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz. The rest of our group's flight had been delayed so we killed time by having a delicious fresh juice at the local market with a free refill!

At 9am we set off in a scruffy 4x4 Jeep along a straight but very bumpy and dusty road. We stopped for a quick lunch of soup, rice and alpaca in a small village where we found some ridiculous fluffy chickens! After 3 hours of driving and very numb bums we finally arrived at the starting point of our tour, the pampas waterways.

No sooner had we stepped out the jeep, pink river dolphins were in sight! We couldn't believe how quickly we saw them, and after we boarded the long boat and set off the dolphins started to follow us, much to our excitement. Within minutes we spotted our first caiman, hiding amongst the riverside grasses, and then shortly after we were inundated with various birds including cormorants, anhinga (snake birds), hoatzin's (punk chickens), turns, kingfishers, hawks, stalks and herons. We started to realise the abundance of wildlife in the pampas, and we were in for a treat.

After seeing more caiman and turtles, we parked up next to a group of thick trees where a family of squirrel monkeys were peeking through the branches. As it was against the park rules to feed the monkeys, it was nice to see how friendly they were without incentive; they even started to board the boat! As we continued we sat back and enjoyed spotting the wildlife, soaking up the sunshine, and cruised down the river whilst running into more pink river dolphins along the way.

Our boat pulled up to the basic but picturesque riverside lodge, and on arrival we were really excited to find a 6ft caiman chilling out under the hammock. We were able to get pretty close to it to get some photos. It was a great reminder of how protected the wild pampas grasslands really were; nature clearly ruled here. It did mean, however, that we were less than keen to take a swim in the water in front of our lodge!

We settled into our room and had time for a quick relax before we boarded the boat once again and headed to a small shack where various tours had congregated to drink beer and wait for the sun go down. We bumped into a couple of travellers we'd met in Patagonia, and had a great hour or so catching up on their journeys and adventures. The sunset over the river was beautiful, with oranges, pinks and yellows reflecting off the still, dark water.

After it got dark we headed back to the lodge for a dinner of rice and vegetables with our tour members. Once we’d finished we were told to put on plenty of mosquito repellant as we were about to set out for a nighttime boat ride! As the rains had just passed the day before there was not a cloud in the sky, giving a spectacular view of stars and Milky Way. Our guide turned off the boat motor and we drifted down the river, gazing in silence up at the most incredible night sky.

Our guide then told us to get out our torches as we were about to go caiman spotting. Finding them was relatively easy as their red eyes reflected off the torch light, but the real challenge was to spot baby caiman that had just hatched. We were shocked at how quickly our guide was able to spot them, as they were only about 20cm long. There was something even more exciting about finding the babies than seeing the adults, and after getting our snaps we headed back to the lodge for a decent nights sleep under a well made mosquito net, pleased with how much wildlife we'd seen on our first day.

Day 2

We awoke around 6am to the sounds of animals all around us, in particular the really loud howler monkeys who sounded more like King Kong than an average sized monkeys! We had a quick but filling breakfast (pancakes were on the menu!) before picking out some wellies as it was time to go anaconda spotting in the swampy grass land. We knew our chances were slim but set off with excitement none the less.

After 3 hours of wading through knee deep swampy water, and only managing to find some birds eggs, we realised an anaconda sighting was unfortunately not on the cards for us. We had given it our best shot and it was still exciting none the less. We headed back to the lodge for lunch to rest our legs and have a quick siesta; something we considered a huge luxury!

Feeling rested we headed off at 3pm for more wildlife spotting and piranha fishing. After many attempts with small chunks of steak and a rather large hook, we weren't successful, but one of the girls and our guide were able to catch two of the five species of piraña that live in the pampas (blue and gold), as well a dogfish. The fish were released quickly after being caught, and although we hadn’t got anything ourselves, the experience was still fun.

We then headed further into an open area of the waterways where there were taller, exposed trees, and we were able to get a glimpse of some capuchin monkeys and our first sighting of blue and yellow macaws. It was awesome to see these beautiful birds in the wild, and we could even see a couple that had paired for life, preening each other.

Many other birds started to fly over us, and as the sun began to set bats started to dart around the boat, eating as many mosquitos as they could; we learnt they can eat as many as 1000 per night! We were treated to a fantastic sun set on our way back to the lodge, and after being served up another simple but tasty dinner we headed off for an early night before another early start.

Day 3

After getting up early to watch the sun rise over the peaceful misty river, we had our final breakfast, and set off on the boat to swim with pink river dolphins. We reached a calm, wide section in the waterways, and almost instantly around 6 dolphins arrived. We had got there earlier than the other boats, and we're keen to get in before it got too crowded. It was a little unnerving at first as the water is completely brown (as well as infested with piraña and caiman) but we were assured that if the dolphins were around, nothing would harm us.

As we swam to the middle of the lagoon we started to see the dolphins move closer, and then one by one each of us would get brushed up against by them. They were very friendly, and we were even able to ‘surf’ on top of them, as well as swim at their side. They even nipped at our feet a few times, and we were glad the guide had told us to wear socks! Once the other boats arrived it got a bit noisy, which annoyingly seemed to disperse the dolphins, but we felt incredibly lucky to have had an intimate encounter with such an inquisitive wild animal. We only wish our footage captured just how amazing this experience was. 

After an hour or so of swimming our tour was unfortunately coming to an end, and we wound our way back through the network of waterways towards our original starting point. To our luck we spotted a capybara out in the open grazing on a patch of land, and were able to get really close to this fantastic creature and the largest rodent in the world. It was a great end to what had been an incredible, nature-filled tour.

Once we reached the end point we docked up for the last time and got into the 4x4 Jeep for the 3 hour bumpy ride back to Rurrenabaque. On arrival we checked back into Hotel Orient, and spent the remainder of the afternoon swinging in the hammocks and lapping up the heat. We had heard that there was a great little restaurant called Juliano’s close by, so after our basic jungle food we decided it was ok to pay it a visit. With a huge steak and a seafood paella followed by a creme brûlée, it was a perfect end to our stay. 

With fantastic weather, brilliant wildlife not to mention the unforgettable encounter with dolphins, the pampas trip reaffirmed our love for wildlife. It made us realise that being out in the wilderness and spotting animals was something that we truly enjoyed, and left us itching for more. Luckily for us we were travelling north, meaning there would be many more opportunities to explore South America's nature in the mighty Amazon rainforest.