Galápagos Islands – Part 1

The Galápagos Islands were positioned firmly at the top of places we wanted to visit in our lifetime. Being the birthplace of Darwins theory of evolution, and with the sheer quantity of endemic species on the numerous volcanic islands, it was somewhere that we had dreamed of going to for quite some time. We had saved for an extra year in order to include it on our trip, and having heard friends and other travellers talk about it as the best place they've ever visited, we certainly had high expectations. Planning for such an experience, especially last minute as we'd been advised to do to keep the cost down, did not come without a little stress. We spent a few days downtime in the small beach town of Mancora in Northern Peru to plan and research the things we wanted to see and do to maximise our time and money.

Due to our flexibility with dates and times, we managed to find a cheap flight a month in advance (almost half the price by using an app called Hopper) from Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador located in the South. Our flights gave us a total of 12 days to explore the islands, allowing us enough time for both a 5 day cruise and to organise our own day trips and dives from the main island, Santa Cruz. There was obviously a catch to our cheap flight – an uncomfortable 9 hour layover and sleep on the airport floor in Quito – before getting our second flight to the islands.

We arrived at Baltra Airport at 8am on a small island off the northern tip of Santa Cruz. It took us around an hour to get to the main town of Puerto Ayora (two buses and a short ferry ride) and once we had arrived we scoped out a few hostels for a cheap room. We'd read that there was no need to book accommodation before arrival, and it would be cheaper not to, so were relieved to find a nice private room with a fan at Liori del Mar hostel in the centre of town for around $15 each per night.

Puerto Ayora

After arriving in Puerto Ayora and getting a room our first port of call was to head to the bank to pick up some dollars (the currency used in Ecuador). By the time we'd got money out, we had already bumped into a few sea lions, seen many marine iguanas, red Sally light foot crabs and a couple of turtles had even popped their heads out of the water in the harbour. Continuing through the town we stumbled across a small fish market where sea lions and pelicans were gathered around the stand trying to catch the scraps thrown by the local ladies. We had expected to see lots of wildlife during our time in the Galápagos islands, but having seen around 4 different types animals without even trying we knew we had arrived somewhere extremely special.

That evening we grabbed a beer and headed to the main pier to watch the sun set. Much to our delight the benches had been taken over by sea lions, and so we sat next to them as the sun descended into the horizon. As it went dark, the underwater pier lights turned on, illuminating the abundant marine life below. Among them were hundreds of baby black-tip reef sharks, sea lions darting around the pier pillars and even a large eagle ray surfaced briefly showing us its amazing spotted patterns. It was pretty much like being in an aquarium!

After an hour or so watching life on the pier, we started to get hungry and so headed to the centre of town for some dinner. We had been told to avoid the ‘gringo’ restaurants on the main strip, and so a few streets back found Charles Binford Street (which we named ‘Cheap Street’) where the prices were a lot lower and the food was far more rustic. On arrival we found rows of small fish restaurants with tables that spilled out filling the entire street. We wandered down to have a look, and picked one that took our fancy. Most of the places served fresh dishes for $5-$10, which was great value for the Galapagos. We ordered some grilled fish, rice and potatoes and a large beer, and enjoyed the bustling ambience of the street.

Darwin Centre

We had heard that the Charles Darwin Research Station, located right next to the town, was a little underwhelming, but we wanted to visit anyway to make our own minds up and see what was there. The following day we headed down the dusty path and arrived at a series of buildings that made up the centre. The reserve had been home to the late ‘Lonesome George’, the last remaining giant tortoise of his sub-species from Pinta island, the rarest species on earth. He was a symbol of the importance of preservation of endangered species, but despite breeding efforts George sadly died in 2010, marking the end of the Pinta Island tortoise. We learnt that during the 18th and 19th century pirates had kept the giant tortoise’s aboard their ships for food (as they lived for months), killing more than 200,000 by the late 1900s, and was ultimately one of the main reasons for the loss of the Pinta Island tortoise.

After leaving the main building we headed up a short path to the tortoise reserve where a breeding program had been set up for various endangered species. On arrival we spotted a small walled enclosure where 3-4 Giant tortoises were feeding on lettuce leaves. It was great to see the giant tortoises for the first time but, but we had heard it was much more special seeing them in the wild in the central highlands of Santa Cruz, and so didn’t spend too much time there. We wandered around for a few more minutes to see the rare yellow Galapagos Land Iguana, before heading back into town via the small but picturesque sandy beaches on the way.

Tortuga Bay

Visiting some of the Galápagos many beautiful beaches was something we had been eager to do since arriving, and being in walking distance from the town, Tortuga Bay was the obvious choice. After picking up some empanadas for lunch we set off on the 40 minute walk along the path laid over a sea of cactus plants and vicious looking volcanic rock toward the beach. At first the walk seemed fairly uninteresting, but as we looked closer we noticed many varieties of cactus finches, ground finches and tree finches in the surrounding branches. Although the birds looked fairly uninteresting, knowing that these birds and their beaks sparked the theory of evolution made them really interesting to spot.

After over half an hour of walking in the heat we finally arrived at a breathtaking stretch white sand, with turquoise water, crashing waves and black volcanic boulders dotted along the beach. As we strolled along the perfect soft white sand with the blue reflection of the sky over the wet sand, we both agreed it was probably the most beautiful beach we'd ever seen. We were in paradise! After an hour or so exploring the wildlife around the beach, from birds to marine iguanas we waded through the clear, cool water towards the right side of the beach.

To the right side of the beach we came across a small pool of water that had been trapped by the outgoing tide, and looking closer we noticed it was filled with many juvenile tropical fish. It was the perfect snorkelling spot! 

At the end of the main beach we walked a little further to find a smaller lagoon which was equally as picture perfect, a calmer expanse of water surrounded by mangroves. After finding a quite spot to for lunch (and being hounded by greedy finches!) we spent an hour or so snorkelling around the mangroves. Unfortunately the visibility was pretty murky and therefore difficult to see anything, but once we got in the shallows we saw a baby black reef tip shark approach the shore, and even spotted a baby sting ray as it fed in the shallow water. As the sun began to set we headed back toward town and picked up some beers and headed back to our favourite spot at the pier once more.

Diving in the Galápagos

The Galapagos is known to have some of the best diving sites in the world, and so we felt we had to include at least 1 or 2 dives during our time there. The most special dive sites, Wolf and Darwin island are accessed only by 7 day dive trips, and well out of budget, but the sites around Santa Cruz are still considered to have fantastic diving. We wandered around a few of the dive outfits in town to find out the best deals and spots, and settled on visiting Seymour Norte & Mosquera, just north of Santa Cruz.

We left around 7am in a jeep to get the the docks in the north of Santa Cruz, before setting off on our dive boat with 8 others. After being briefed by the dive master and kitting up, we jumped off the boat and began our dive. Within minutes we were surrounded by schools of colourful tropical fish, and once at the bottom we saw many white tip reef sharks in the area. The visibility was pretty good, but unfortunately our camera couldn't pick up the main sightings of the dive - spotted rays and around 6 hammerhead sharks!

Our second day of diving was at Gordon’s rocks, a dive famous for its large shoals of hammerhead sharks. After seeing them on our last dive it was far too tempting to try and see them again in their masses. After another early start and a 40 minute boat ride we reached the two large rocky islands and were briefed about the topography of the dive. The current was pretty strong (apparently it was to do with the full moon) but the visibility was slightly better then the previous dives. During the dive we saw more huge spotted eagle rays, sting rays, sea lions, turtles, lots of fish and one hammerhead. It was slightly disappointing to not experience the large school of hammerheads, however, with such abundance of marine life it was still a really memorable experience.

Pinzon island

Pinzon is a popular island for snorkelling, reachable by boat about 3 hours wast of Puerto Ayora. After speaking with a few agencies in town, we booked up a day tour and met with a group of others by the main docks. We boarded a small speed boat and headed towards the island, passing interesting rock formations as we went. About half way through the journey, the guide and crew shouted and pointed to the fishing rods, as apparently there were fish to be caught in the area.

The crew cast out two thick sea rods with large lures, and chugged the boat along slowly to keep the bait at the right depth. About 5 minutes later, the line started to fly out of the reel with a loud whizzing sound, and one crew member asked who wanted to take the fish in! A broad Argentinian guy who was apparently a keen fisherman looked up to the task, and grabbed the rod, was strapped in with a waist belt and proceeded to tire out the fish. The rod was bending massively under the strain of the fish, meaning something big must be on the end!

After 10 minutes of heaving in the rod and feeding the line back on the reel, the fish finally emerged near the surface with a bright flash of colour - it was a huge yellow-fin tuna! A crew member grabbed the gaf and skillfully hooked the mouth of the huge fish, and pulled it up to the side of the boat. They quickly put the fish out of its struggle with a knife in the head, and after a few minutes they were able to pull it onto the deck. It must have been at least 60 pounds! By chance there were a group of Japanese guys on our boat who were kitted out with seaweed rolls and soy source, and so after the crew masterfully sliced and filleted the fish they brought out a plate of immaculately fresh sashimi for us to share. It was absolutely delicious, and definitely the freshest fish we'd ever eaten.

We then moved on to a snorkelling spot that was renowned for penguins and turtles. The water was much calmer and shallower, meaning the visibility was perfect. Once we jumped in we realised there unfortunately weren't any penguins there, but were many turtles swimming around, and we managed to get really close up to them without them wanting to swim away. There were also a number of sea lions who would playfully circle around us and blow bubbles. It was a great snorkelling spot, and allowed us to get some great footage.

We ended the tour at a small secluded beach called Las Palmas, where we were able to lap up some sun and chill for a while after an action-packed day. Walking to the left of the beach we stumbled across a tree filled with nesting pelicans. It must have been a prime spot for them as there were at least 10 in the same tree, and we spotted couples taking it in turns to collect fish and bring it back for their young. After an hour on the small beach we boarded the boat for the last time and headed back to Santa Cruz.

Academy Bay and Las Grietas

We had one last day to fill before our cruise, and so we decided to take a tour close to Puerto Ayora visiting Las Greitas and Academy bay. As we pulled out of the harbour we spotted many sea lions lounging on the boats, but once we reached the 'Sea Lion Island' there was not one to be seen! (they must have all been fishing!). We then left and came to spot where some Galapagos sharks were lurking in the water, and as we peered over the side of the boat we could see their large brownish shadows passing under the boat. After stopping at a spot close to the cliffs we then put on our snorkels and jumped in. There were a number of brightly coloured fish around, but the real highlight was coming across a giant turtle in the clear and shallow water. He was, as most creatures here, completely unphased by us and we spent over an hour swimming and diving down with her which was a really incredible experience.

The next part of the tour was to visit the marine iguanas, but knowing we were about to see thousands on our tour we decided to stay with the captain and try and swim with the few sea lions that were about. We swam up to the little white sandy beach where we saw a mother sea lion basking in the sun. We then turned around and saw her pup swimming towards us so we slowly approached the water, knelt down, and she playfully popped her head out of the water right in front of us! She turned back to the deeper water and we spent an incredible 10 minutes snorkelling with her as she twisted and turned around us - it was total magic, and an experience we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Our boat then took us to another pier, where after a short walk past some salt flats we arrived at the popular swimming spot, Las Grietas. Las Grietas is a deep, narrow canyon filled with crystal clear water, and a perfect place for a refreshing dip. After diving in and cooling off we had a lot of fun messing around with the GoPro in the incredible blue water, and we even spotted a few colourful fish as we dived down into the surreal sun-lit water. By 6pm the guides said it was time to leave, and so we headed back to the boat and watched the sea lions jumping out of the water around us we headed back to the town. 

Giant Tortoises in the Highlands

Next on our list was to see the giant Galápagos tortoises in the wild. The iconic species live in the Santa Cruz highlands, right in the middle of the island where the weather is wetter and with more vegetation. We took a 4x4 collectivo (shared taxi) with two other couples to reduce the cost, and headed to the 'Rancho Primitas', the reserve for giant tortoises located about a 25 minute drive from town. The temperature and landscape changed quite drastically as we ascended to the highlands, with dense cloud covering overhead and lush green trees and tropical plants becoming thicker with each kilometre.

On arrival our taxi driver explained that he would give us a free guided tour of the reserve, which we were happy to take! It was amazing seeing these giant, primitive beasts in the wild, and as expected they were absolutely massive! We watched them slowly strolling around in their natural habitat and had fun taking pictures with them as they feed on leaves from the surrounding bushes. We then approached a big pond where there must have been at least thirty tortoises wallowing near the waters edge, and we could hear them gargling and grunting as they shuffled around to find the perfect spot for a mud bath.

Our taxi driver (and guide) then walked us to some huge lava tunnels not far from the pond. The tunnels were very dark and it was very cool walking through them knowing that they were once flowing with liquid magma from volcanoes that erupted thousands of years ago. We ended our visit trying on some of the tortoise shells in the cafe. Getting inside them really highlighted how giant these tortoises are, and the shells themselves were a lot heavier than we expected! 

Our first glimpse of the Galápagos islands were as beautiful and nature-filled and as we had hoped for, and after only 5 days we had already been completely blown away. Although the tours from Santa Cruz were fantastic, we were really looking forward to seeing the other side of the Galápagos Islands, away from the reach of day tours, where the more remote and secluded parts of the islands where even more removed from human contact. Our boat had arrived in Santa Cruz that morning so by 6pm it was time for us to join the cruise. Excitedly we made our way to the harbour for our 5 day adventure around the islands of Isabella, Fernandina and Rabida on the western side of the Galápagos Islands.

Lake Titicaca

Our final stop in Bolivia was Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world set at 3,800 meters above sea level. Home to a number of beautiful islands with breathtaking scenery, trekking opportunities and a chance to meet the local communities inhabiting them, it was a place we were very much looking forward to exploring. From La Paz we took a ‘Collectivo’ (a cheap minivan that takes groups of around 12) that wound through the mountains of northern Bolivia, and after a short ferry crossing we arrived at the lakeside city of Copacabana.

Copacabana

Copacabana is a small, picturesque city situated on the south of Lake Titicaca, nestled amongst two mountains and with a long, thin beach lining the waters edge. It is also the main city from which to explore the beautiful Isla Del Sol, or Island of the Sun. We arrived late afternoon and settled into Hostal Florencia, which was fairly basic but good value, and boasted a great view of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana. 

We decided to visit the famous Cerro Calvario hilltop to get the best view of Copacabana. Feeling adventurous we took the 'off road' path which, retrospectively, wasn't a wise choice as we weren't feeling 100% due to the altitude. Although short, the hike was steep and challenging, but after a lot of panting and feeling faint we finally reached the top. We were greeted with an amazing view of the entire city; it was definitely worth the effort. It was great to get an idea of the sheer size of Lake Titicaca from above, a mass of water that spans over 8,000km.

We spent half an hour or so at the top to catch our breath before taking the much easier and gentler route down via the stone steps on the other side, leading us back down to the city square. We then visited the main landmark of city, the ‘Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana’. We’d seen quite a few colonial churches whilst travelling South America, but this one stood out with a strikingly colourful ceiling inside, painted in reds, blues and yellows (quite rare for a catholic church!). After walking around the courtyard and taking in the beautiful interior we headed back to our hostel for a rest after an altitude-intense day!

We had read great reviews about the food at Hostal La Cúpula, so that evening decided to pay it a visit. As it was so popular, we had to wait a while on their outside terrace for a table, and although it was pretty chilly out we loved taking the interesting architecture and bespoke design features. We ordered the freshly grilled trout (famous in Lake Titicaca) with native vegetables, which was delicious. By chance we saw a Welsh couple that we had previously met in La Paz, so once finished they invited us to their table and we spent the evening exchanging tales and swapping travel tips. We took their advice and booked into a hot tub next to the restaurant, and spent an hour watching the stars from our own private hill top pool.

Isla del Sol

The next morning we were up early to pack our light day bags, and boarded the 8.30am ferry to the north side of our first island visit in Lake Titicaca: Isla del Sol. The journey was slower that we were initially told (taking around 3 hours) which was a bit tedious, but on board was a girl we had previously met in Florianopolis, so we passed the time catching up on our travels since we had left Brazil. The weather was perfect for hiking, and as we pulled into the docks we started to see the beautiful rugged landscapes of Isla del Sol.

After landing and buying an entrance ticket we set off with a small group of others to trek from the north to the south side of the island. Along the way we were treated to views of crystal clear waters, green mountains and beautiful white beaches. The air temperature and water were colder than it looked due to the altitude, but once we got going it was perfect hiking weather. 

We reached the look out point to get some photos of the view, and visited the Palacio del Inca ruins, a maze of stone walls also known as the Labyrinth. We also saw the Titi Qala, or Mountain Cat Stone, a large outcrop with a crag where at sun rise the sun shines right through. The Incas believed that this was the birthplace of the sun, hence the name Isla del Sol, and was therefore a frequent pilgrimage destination for the Incas. We then continued onwards uphill towards the south side of the island.

Our travel companions we're catching the 4pm ferry home, so once we reached the south side, they had to race down to try and catch the boat before it left. Luckily we had decided to spend the night on the island, and so checked into a hostel that we had researched the day before. The hostel was very quiet, and there was a lovely Cholita host who led us up to the top floor room that boasted amazing views over the lake. 

We wanted to finish the hike so we headed down the steep steps (Escalera del Inca) towards the harbour, walking past the gently flowing Inca stream and taking in the small southern village of Yumani. We then shared a cheap lunch on a water-side restaurant watching the local girls loading up donkeys with supplies. 

As our hostel had an amazing location situated at the top of the island it mean we had to take the steep path back up to the top, which was pretty tiring after a full day of trekking. There were no roads or cars on Isla del Sol, only cobbled paths, and as we continued we started to get out of breath it became clear how vital the donkeys were for carrying produce up and down the steep hills. 

We reached our hostel just before sunset, wrapped ourselves up in a warm blanket and watched the sun set over the amazing Lake Titicaca. It was that moment we fell in love with the island; there was barely a sound apart from the occasional disgruntled Mule, and there was not a person in sight as we watched the sky turn orange over the tranquil turquoise water. 

We were keen to visit the best restaurant on the island, Las Velas (the candels), which was hidden in the nearby forest. After getting completely lost in the dark for over 20 minutes, we eventually found the small homestyle restaurant nestled amongst the trees. It was wonderfully rustic, and as the name suggested, was only lit by candle light with two 'gourmet chefs' in their simple domestic kitchen.

After ordering we were given card games to play while we waited for our food, and we sampled a bottle of the local Bolivian wine, which was surprisingly good. We ordered the pizza and trout, which were both great, and as we were last to leave we enjoyed chatting to our cook afterwards. We headed back through the forest to our hostel under an amazingly starry sky with total silence around us.

Puno

After a final night in Copacabana we took a cheap bus across the Peruvian border, aided by a lovely bus conductor who advised us to change our Bolivianos at the border for a very reasonable rate! We passed by green and gold fields and more stunning blue lake as we approached Puno, the first Peruvian city of our trip. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived in Puno and checked into a hostel we realised that the food (we suspect the trout!) at the lovely Las Velas restaurant had given us dodgy stomachs, and so we had to spend a couple of days recovering, watching films and eating chicken noodle soup. We actually welcomed the down time, as it had been quite intense travel over the past few weeks.

Puno itself isn't known for its sights, and is mainly used as a launch pad from which to visit the nearby islands, and so we were surprised to find a pretty square with a nice church. After scouting out various island tours we decided on the one offered by our hostel, and once everything was sorted we took the chance to relax for a few hours. That evening we went to Mojsa Restaurant, arguably one of the best in Puno, and got a balcony table overlooking the main square. We had excellently prepared Chimichurri steak and (fresh!) grilled trout with native vegetables, and after feeling well fed we headed back to the hostel to get a good nights rest before our trip to the islands.

Uros Floating Islands

We were picked up from our hostel around 8am and headed in a cab to the docks to board our tour boat. Within half an hour of setting off we were surrounded by the intriguing floating islands of Uros. The islands themselves were constructed from the native totora reeds and were originally built so that they could be moved when under attack, mainly during the Spanish colonisation. Now-a-days there are 42 islands, all of which are still constructed in the traditional way. However, not all residents live permanently on these islands, and many of the locals use them as means of making money through tourism, making them feel a little less authentic than we originally thought. 

As we boarded the first floating island, it was very cool to feel the movement of the ground beneath our feet, and the traditional huts looked very quaint amongst the reeds. Our group were given a short but informative presentation on the construction of the islands, which we learnt was made by lashing together 2-meter-thick blocks of khili roots with eucalyptus rods, and placing criss-crossed layers of totora reeds on top. 

We were then split into small groups and taken into the little reeds huts owned by the locals. We asked the locals some questions about their life on Uros, although we realised the main purpose of entering the huts was to be sold textiles and other trinkets they had made. We decided not to buy anything, but offered a small tip to the locals instead.

We then boarded a traditional reed boat (or ‘Mercedes Benz’ as the locals called them) for an extra few Soles, and sailed to the neighbouring island about 15 minutes away. The local kids began to sing different European songs to us for tips (a little gimmicky!) but it was fun to experience an age-old mode of transport none the less. As we reached the larger floating island we found there were small restaurants, reed archways, many trinket sellers, and even a very small trout farm in the centre. 

After exploring the second floating island we returned to the boat, and continued on our tour to the next stop, Amantaní island. We left feeling like Uros was a bit of 'tourist show', and it would have been nice to also see the current, more authentic lifestyle of the locals on the islands, regardless of what traditions had been lost. Overall the floating islands was an interesting experience for us, and we loved seeing the traditional methods used to make the boats, handicrafts and the islands themselves.

Amantaní Island

Our next stop was Amantani island, a 2 hour boat ride from Uros. We pulled up to the island where a group of around 20 traditionally-dressed local women were waiting to take us to our separate home stays. After most of the groups were selected, we were introduced to a young girl called Seneda, who was only 14 years old. We assumed she was the daughter of our host, but after she led us up the hill to a humble but cosy house we realised she was going to be taking care of us for the next 2 days!

After being shown our room, Seneda set about preparing our lunch, and we soon realised that she was more than capable of looking after two travellers by herself. Having never been in a 'home-stay' before we felt a little awkward being catered for, and so went down to the kitchen to offer to help. Our communication wasn't great (our Spanish is still rusty!) so she set us to work peeling potatoes to keep us busy. Without a peeler we were pretty slow, and after her laughing at our attempts she showed us her amazingly efficient knife-peeling technique.

It was a simple but tasty lunch of soup, potatoes, veg and cheese, and after we had eaten all we could we were introduced to Senadas two younger brothers. The youngest, who was 3, was the happiest child we had ever met, and we spent a fun hour drawing, terrorising the guinea pigs (him not us!), playing ball and swinging him around. It was great to be able to meet such a fun little character during our stay, especially as the language barrier wasn't an issue!

Senada then led us up to the main path of the village to meet with the rest of the group and hike to the Centro Ceremonial Pachatata ruins to watch the sunset. As we waited for the other members of our group we watched the herds of sheep pass, shepherded by the local girls, and once all assembled we started to hike to the highest point of the island. 

It was an easy-going trek that snaked up an old stone path, passing inca-style terracing and farmland, and by the time we reached the top we bought a lovely alpaca wool scarf from a local woman, found a comfortable spot and waited for the sun to go down. Lake Titicaca is sometimes referred to as the 'silver lake' due to the metallic sheen effect created by the sun, and from the hilltop we understood why it got its name. It was another beautiful sunset and great view showing off the ever impressive expanse of water. 

Once it started to get dark we headed back down to our little home for dinner, and were told we needed to get changed into traditional clothing for a small party that evening! It was fun being dressed in their hats and ponchos, even though we felt a bit ridiculous, but as we walked in the pitch black to the local village hall, thankfully we realised all the other tourists were dressed the same. We then spent a slightly awkward hour attempting to follow the Peruvian dance moves to a very repetitive local band. Fortunately the dancing didn't last long and after a little while of chatting to other travellers in colourful hats, frocks and ponchos we headed back for bed.

The following day Senada was up early to make us breakfast, and by the time we were up and ready her grandmother and mother had arrived at the house. After meeting her mother we were really pleased that Senada had been our host, as we doubt we would have had as much fun if her mother had been looking after us. After our goodbyes, and big hugs from Senada’s youngest brother we were led back to the harbour and waited for the boat to pick us up. 

Taquille Island

After leaving Amantani we headed to our final stop, Taquille Island. On the journey there our guide explained the differences in the clothing between the island's residents; on Taquille the women wore black dresses with colourful embroidery, and the men wore colourful hats with pom moms (the larger pom moms indicated a single man, smaller pom pom indicated married). Our guide also explained how the men of the island wore intricately hand-woven belts by their wives, with embroidery communicating the story of how they met, and actual hair of the woman interwoven into the fabric. On arrival we started to see the locals in their traditional clothing dotted around the island, and after a short hike to the top of the hill we wandered around the market stalls in the main square.

We then continued to a small hillside restaurant where we were given a short demonstration of the how the locals extracted soap from the native plants, and used it to turn brown alpaca fibres used in many of their textiles to a brilliant white. After the demonstration we ordered from the lunch menu, chatted to the other tour members and basked in the sun until it was time to leave. Once we got back in the boat we dozed off during the 3 hour journey. We were woken abruptly about 10 minutes from Puno as the steering of the boat had broken, resulting in us crashing into the side of a floating island! It took a little while to correct our positioning, and the captain had to use long poles to push us away from the bank, before using the back rudder to steer us safely back to Puno. 

The scenery, traditions and local people of Lake Titicaca were pretty much unknown to us before we set off on our trip, but after visiting both the Bolivian and Peruvian sides of the lake we were so glad we had included it in our itinerary. From hiking through the peaceful Isla del Sol to floating on the reeds of Uros, making ourselves at home with a local family on Anamtani island to seeing the traditional clothing of the locals on Taquille, our visit was both varied and rewarding in terms of landscapes and culture. Our next stop was Cusco, and it was satisfying to leave Puno with an initial understanding of Peruvian culture before our trip to the ever popular Machu Picchu. 

Bolivia — Uyuni Salt Flats

The 3 day Jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni was, for us, one of the things we had been looking forward to most during our trip around South America. After a few days in San Pedro de Atacama we finally decided on a tour company (there are loads to chose from, we went with Atacama Mistica). We had heard plenty of horror stories about drunk drivers, and therefore did a lot of research and asked around to make sure that it was going to be safe. The night before we bought some final provisions for the trip, including snacks and 6 litres of water each, and settled in for a much needed sleep before the adventures ahead.

Day 1

We were picked up from our hostel by our tour bus at 7.30am, and made our way to the border. Only 20 minutes into the trip we were met with complications: it had snowed heavily near the boarder crossing due to the storm the night before, and so we had to wait 2 hours for the snow to be cleared. Because of this we had breakfast early, and took the chance to chat with other members of the group before we were split into 2 separate Toyota Land Cruisers, with our packs and water on top of the roof in tarpaulins. After being introduced to our driver we were finally ready to set off on our 3 day adventure.

After driving through the snow-covered mountains we arrived at the first stop on the tour, Laguna Verde and Lagna Blanco, two beautiful mineral-filled lakes named after their green and white colour. As the lakes were pretty exposed it was quite cold and windy, so we only stopped for about 10 minutes to get a few snaps and continued on our way.

We drove onwards passing the Desierto Salvador Dalí, and arrived at Laguna Polques, a natural hot springs at an altitude of 4400m. We parked up with the rest of the Jeeps, quickly put our bathers on (the air temperature was pretty chilly!) and sank into the amazing hot water that had been warmed by the earths core. With guanaco and flamingos wandering in the lake beyond it was a really special experience. It was difficult to leave the water once we’d got used to the temperature, but after half an hour or so we finally dragged ourselves out and got changed speedily before continuing our journey.

Next on the route were the Sol de Mañana Geysers, natural pillars of steam that shot out of gaps in the earths crust. The entire area was surrounded by warm bubbling potholes of yellow, orange and grey clay; neither of us had ever seen anything like it before! The smell from the geysers was pretty unpleasant (kind of an eggy sulphur), but it was fascinating to be in an area that was so impacted by the incredible activity from the earths molten core.

We continued on our journey until we reached the final stop of the day; Laguna Colorada (or the red lake), a stunning expanse of salt water home to flocks of three types of pink flamingo: the James, the Chilean and the Andean. Seeing such majestic birds up close in the wild was made even more special due to the beautiful surroundings. After about an hour of walking around the lake and taking pictures we headed back to the Jeep and drove to our first nights accommodation, passing a few more wild guanacos on the way. 

We were told that the first nights accommodation would be basic and very cold due to the altitude and remote location. On arrival we found the description pretty accurate as we were guided to our concrete-based beds. Electricity was only on for a few hours, so after our three course meal of soup, spaghetti and peaches (which was tasty considering!) we took advantage of the lights by playing cards and drinking rum with our tour companions (one being a professional poker player!)

Day 2

After sleeping better then expected despite the high altitude and below freezing temperatures (thank you rum blanket) we woke early for breakfast and set off in the Jeeps for our second day of adventure. Our first stop was to the Siloli desert where the famous Stone Tree rock formation is found. It stood amongst various other interesting rock formations in an expanse of dusty, exposed desert, and as we were battered by the winds and sand it was easy to understand how after thousands of years of erosion these amazing natural rock sculptures could have been formed.

We then made our way along the bumpy road into the Inca Canyon where we spotted a viscacha (a large rabbit-like animal) hidden amongst the canyon wall, as well as a group of vicuña and a few llamas crossing the road. With snow topped mountains in the distance contrasting with the dry, rocky desert, it made for a very picturesque drive.

After 2 hours of driving we arrived at two lakes, Laguna Honda and Laguna Hedionda. With crystal clear waters, white sands, pink flamingoes and snow topped mountains all around us, it was a total treat for the eyes. We stopped for lunch with the other tour groups at a small, basic shelter not far from the lake. Again the food was pretty basic, but was hot and filled us up enough for the afternoon.

Once finished we got back into the Jeep and headed past more stunning lakes with even more flamingo's and snowy mountains in the distance. With Pink Floyd's Dark side of the Moon playing from our iPod it made for a pretty epic drive as we continued past Volcano Ollagüe and stopped at the mirador. We noticed a dramatic change in the landscape - it was completely covered in volcanic rock. We pictured how thousands of years ago the lava had flown through the land and finally cooled before being battered by the weather to create such fascinating rock formations. 

After half an hour or so it was time to head onwards to our second nights accommodation. This hostel was a bit different however: it was mostly made of Salt! The circular structure consisted of salt rock bricks, a salt floor and salt rock furniture finished in traditional Bolivian textiles. It was a great little space to socialise, drink beer and enjoy talking about the amazing sights we’d seen so far. After another evening of nice hot food, wine, rum and cards we headed to our private rooms for some sleep before our 4.30am start the next day.

Day 3

Getting up at 4.30am was made a lot easier knowing that we were about to visit the main highlight of the tour: the Salar de Uyuni. We piled into the jeep in the dark, still feeling a little sleepy, and drove for around an hour until we started to see the ground beneath us turn white. It was surreal driving in an area so removed from scenery and landscapes, and the ground seemed to go on infinitely, with only the clouds and tiny mountains in the distance marking the end of vast white canvas.

As the sun rose we were treated to a beautiful pink and orange sky surrounded by vast salt desert. It was a magical way to see the salt flats for the first time. As far as the eye could see was brilliant white salt with beautiful hexagonal patterning. We waited for the sun to rise fully, and our cold feet and hands began to regain some feeling as we continued our journey to our next stop, Isla Incahuasi.

After half an hour or so of driving, Isla Incahuasi came into view, an island located right in the middle of the salt flats. Surrounded by giant cacti, we began to climb the stone steps to the look out point. We were told that this entire island had once been under water, and as we walked to the top we spotted amazing fossilised coral and caves that had once been totally submerged by the sea around 40,000 years ago. 

We then walked to the mirador to take in the view and get some pictures. At the top we were surrounded by thousands of huge cacti and had a fantastic 360° view, with only a few tiny cars in the distance revealing the scale of the worlds biggest salt flats.

We then descended back down to the bottom and met our fellow tour members at the ’shoreline’ of the island for some breakfast, consisting of tea and an enormous slice of sponge cake! We spotted an Alpaca (who looked like he needed to be hugged!) and then got back in the Jeep and set off once again into the salt flats. 

We drove for a little while and parked up without a car or person in sight, and were told we had time to take some of the novelty photos everyone takes when on the salt flats. Embracing the cliché we spent an hour messing around with our scale and practising kung-foo moves against the surreal white back-drop.

After a quick visit to the salt museum and the Dakar rally sculpture we headed to the final stop of the tour: the Train Cemetery. We learnt that the town of Uyuni was once a distribution hub for many trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean ports, but became obsolete after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s, leaving the old trains to rust. We spent a fun half an hour or so playing train bandits and climbing up the rusty old carriages before heading into Uyuni. 

We pulled into Uyuni at 3pm, sadly marking the end of our trip. We had lunch prepared for us while we wandered around the many stalls selling touristy trinkets, and then headed into the town. Despite all the money that tourism brings to the salt flats, the town of Uyuni sadly didn't look like it had benefited much, and seemed pretty run down and poverty-stricken in places. We decided to get a bus straight out of town that evening, and with a few guys from our tour group we boarded a cheap local bus and headed north to the city of Potosi.

Like many of the big sights of South America, theres a lot of hype surrounding them, adding often unrealistic expectations to travellers when visiting. We found the salt flats tour more than met our expectations, with fantastic scenery, interesting wildlife, an excellent driver and a fun group to travel with, making the 4 days a completely unique experience for us. Our highlights included seeing pink flamingoes, swimming in the hot springs and of course the incredible salt flat itself. It turned out to be one of our favourite tours we've had so far, and definitely one that will stand out when looking back on our trip around South America.

San Pedro de Atacama

After a week of exploring Salta and the Jujuy region it was time for us to move on to the desert. We took an early day bus from Purmamarca as we’d heard the scenery was particularly beautiful along the road to the Atacama. By chance we had front window seats giving us amazing cinemaesque view of the Andes as we cut through the towering mountains toward Chile, passing through salt flats, volcanoes and deserts. The boarder crossing was quick and painless, and after a basic lunch provided by the bus company we arrived in San Pedro, the gateway to the Atacama desert and the salt flats of Uyuni.

San Pedro is a small but touristy town due to it’s proximity to the Uyuni Salt Flats, making it a popular stop off for backpackers working their way up to Bolivia. There are also some highly recommended things to do around the town including star and planet gazing, the Luna Valley and trips to Volcanos and Geysers. Positioned in the heart of the Atacama desert, and surrounded by volcanoes and canyons, the town is comprised of single-level huts made from mud bricks, with a few bars, restaurants and numerous tour operators all selling pretty much the same tours.

We decided to stay in Hostel Rural, a hippy hostel that looked like something out of Burning Man festival. With hammocks, a bar and helpful staff giving advice on tours, it was a great place to stay while we prepared for our Salt flats trip. San Pedro is one of the best places in the world to see planets due to its high altitude and lack of ozone. Unfortunately, the day we arrived the moon was too bright, meaning the conditions weren’t suitable for star gazing that evening (which we were a bit gutted about). Instead, we booked the Luna Valley tour the following day, one of the main attractions in San Pedro. That evening we had a few beers with fellow travellers, and found a great sandwich shop offering lentil burgers and shredded beef sandwiches (we made more than one visit!).

The Luna Valley

Our tour to the Luna Valley started at 4pm in the afternoon, so we had time for a lazy lunch before setting off. We were picked up in a minivan with several others and driven about 30 minutes out of the town to the first stop on the tour. On arrival we had to pay a park entrance fee before were taken to Pedra do Coyote, an amazing mirador overlooking the Luna Valley. Our guide explained the geological history of the area, and how the valley had been created by rising tectonic plates and evaporating salt lakes.

We then jumped back on the minivan and were driven down into the huge expanse of orange and white mountains made out of rock salt. We could understand why the area had been named Luna Valley, as it definitely felt like another planet! We trekked along a steep, narrow path through the rock salt formations and into the Salt Cavern, where we needed torches to navigate the tight passageways and tunnels to get to the other side.

After the cave we got back in the minivan for a short drive to an interesting rock formation called The Three Marys, a group of rocks that looked like three women praying. One of the Marys had been knocked down by tourists over a decade ago, but the other remaining two still bared a resemblance at the right angle.

We then were taken to our final stop, the Great Dune, to watch the sun set over the central crater. We climbed our way up to a narrow ridge on top of the huge sand dune in order to get the best spot. There were already a number of people waiting at the top, but it didn’t detract from the incredible 360 view.

It was a fantastic sunset, with vibrant reds and oranges beaming through the clouds and turning the Andes behind us vivid pinks and purples. The panoramic views were spectacular and we spent half an hour watching the light fade away before we made our way back down the ridge to the minivan.

The Salt Lagoons

Much to our luck, the day we decided to go on the lagoons tour was overcast, and the temperature had dropped a lot. This meant that the pools were a bit on the chilly side, but that didn’t stop us from going along to experience swimming in the floating salt pools. We were picked up at 4pm, and with spirits still high made our way to the first lagoon.

On arrival we had to pay another park fee (which was pretty expensive!) before heading to the changing rooms not far from the lakes. The water was very cold - It reminded us of swimming on a ’summers day’ in England! It was, however, a lot of fun floating in the salt water, and was near impossible to swim due to our buoyancy! We stayed in until we started getting really cold, clambered out and made our way back to the bus feeling very salty!

After a 20 minute drive we reached the second pool, and by now most people were not feeling keen to jump in: the dramatic drop in temperature was not what they’d signed up for! Us being Brits, and having experienced colder water, couldn’t turn down the chance, so we led the way with big dives, much to public applause! It was pretty cold but as this pool was fresh water it got a lot of the salt of us.

We then made our way to the Salar de Atacama to watch the sun set. By now the weather had really started to kick off and a storm was taking place over the mountains with dramatic bolts of lighting every minute or so! We were given Pisco Sours and some snacks, and chatted with the other tour members whilst trying to get a photo of the lightening. 

Despite unusually cold weather during our stay (We’ll blame it on El Niño!), we found San Pedro to be a great place to relax, meet lots of new people and gather research and recommendations for our trip ahead. The Luna Valley tour was excellent, with stunning scenery and wild weather revealing the desert landscapes at their most colourful. San Pedro was, for us, a stop gap between the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, but we were really glad we stayed for an extra few nights to experience some of what the Atacama desert had to offer.

Patagonia — Vistas and Volcanoes

After the W trek we needed a few days to recover, launder clothes and plan the next stage of our journey. We had a lot of distance to cover and a few strategic points to visit in a relatively small window of time if we were to keep the trip on track. We'd researched the areas between Southern and Northern Patagonia, and knew there were some exciting things to do and see. Our route took us up the Andes, weaving in and out of Argentina and Chile, stopping at key cities and sights along the way.

El Chalten

Our first destination was the small town of El Chalten, 420km north of Puerto Natales, and home to the famous Fitz Roy mountain. There were no direct buses from Puerto Natales so after crossing the border into Argentina we had to make an over night stop back in El Calafate and catch an early bus to El Chalten. El Chalten’s mountains are visible from the town and so you instantaneously feel the rewards. With vast valleys, rivers, lakes, circling condors, autumn trees and towering mountains: it's Patagonia at it’s best.

Seeing as it was a beautiful day we dropped our bags off in our hostel and got our (still recovering) knees back into action. We’d arrived late afternoon so decided to do a short hike to the Fitz Roy Mirador before dark. We stopped off at various look-out points along the way and had great views of the surrounding landscapes. As we reached the look out for Fitz Roy, even though it was a clear day, a cloud had perched itself on top of the iconic peaks! Despite the obscured mountains, the setting was beautiful, and being so close to the town felt like a complete luxury. 

The following day we set off for another hike to Laguna Torre in hopes of seeing the iconic Torre massif. The hike was around 3 hours each way but it was relatively flat, and without heavy bags it felt easy in comparison to Torres del Paine. Unfortunately the clouds descended again as we arrived at the lagoon and the epic mountain view wasn't visible. As it started to rain we powered back to our hostel to have a quick shower and dinner before boarding the night bus to our next destination: Bariloche, Northern Patagonia. 

Bariloche

After a pretty uncomfortable 30 hour coach ride from El Chalten (with bumpy roads and very few breaks) we were relieved when we started to pass the amazing lakes and lush mountains of Bariloche. Feeling a little sleepy from the journey we slowly made our way up to our hostel, Penthouse 1001. The hostel was located in a converted 10th floor apartment block, giving great views of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the largest lake in Bariloche. We cooked up some much-needed roast vegetables for dinner and watched the sun set, excited to explore the area the next day.

Unfortunately it was raining the following morning, so we took the opportunity to catch up on our admin from the last few weeks in the comfort of the lovely hostel. By the afternoon the weather perked up so we caught the local bus to the base of the chairlift to see the famous 7 lakes view. From the top it was easy to understand why Bariloche was so highly rated; the blue lakes surrounded by tree-covered hills and jagged mountains, the dramatic scenery reminded us a bit of Rio! After taking in the views we headed back to our hostel to try out the industrial-style kitchen and cook up our favourite recipe, chicken a l'orange! We had a lovely evening drinking with fellow travellers in a hostel that had definitely positioned itself as one of our favourites. 

The following day brought rain once again, so we begrudgingly canceled our kayaking plan and explored the town instead. Bariloche itself is a lovely Swiss-style town with wooden alpine architecture, great restaurants, Saint Bernard dogs(!) but also amazing artisan chocolate shops! We felt it would be culturally irresponsible to not try out the local specialities, and we were not disappointed. The chocolate was ridiculously cheap and very good, and after stocking up, we made our way back to hostel to pack and devour our treats. 

Puerto Varas

The following morning we took a 6 hour bus from Bariloche, which included a very lengthy border crossing back into Chile, and arrived in the picturesque town of Puerto Varas mid afternoon. After checking into Casa Azul hostel we did a short self-guided walking tour of the town, walking past the Iglesia Sagrado Corazón church and the many protected traditional German-style wooden houses.

We ended up at the lake front at sunset where we could see the snow-topped Osorno Volcano in the distance, as well as Calbuco Volcano, the third most active in Chile. Not wanting to miss the opportunity we decided to book a tour to the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park for the following day where we could visit Osorno up close.

The following day we got picked up by our tour guide for a full day of exploring the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park. Half an hour into the drive we took a quick stop to feed some llamas at a local farm which was (according to one of us) the ‘best dollar ever spent!’. Needless to say the food was gone in seconds.

We continued along the lakeside road until we arrived at the Vicente Pérez Rosales park entrance. We walked past a few small lakes (and even spotted a baby southern river otter!) and then took a short catamaran ride around the Todos los Santos lake, taking in the beautiful scenery. We even docked the boat up to next a small waterfall where we could fill up our bottle with fresh spring water.

We then moved on to Petrohué Waterfalls, an incredible mass of water that had found it’s way through cracks in the volcanic rock after many large earthquakes. You could really start to see the effects that the volcanoes and tectonic activity had on the surrounding ash-covered landscape. We spent half an hour looking out over the walkways at the various viewpoints of the prehistoric waterway.

After the waterfall it was time to make our way up the Volcano Osorno. The best way to see the volcano is getting two separate chairlifts (used for skiing in the winter months) and then walking as far as you can go from there. It was a surreal experience being on a chairlift without snow, and seeing the ash-covered landscape with patches of red rock and cold mist rising from the sides of volcano. 

At the summit we were treated to breathtaking views of the lake and of the Andes mountain range that shot up around us. Walking further up the steep path we could feel the awesome energy and power of the sleeping volcano beneath our feet, and as clouds floated around us we both felt incredibly glad we'd made the effort to visit.