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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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!

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.

Arequipa and Colca Canyon

After exploring both Machu Picchu and the Peruvian jungle, the next natural step for our travels took us to Arequipa, about 500km south of Cusco. One of the main reasons to visit Arequipa is to trek the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world and a great place to spot giant Andean condors. Arequipa itself is known for it's beautiful white volcanic-stone architecture, so we were excited to spend a few days there before our trek.

Arequipa

Being the second largest city in Peru, we were surprised to find that the city centre of Arequipa was quite peaceful, with many small streets leading to beautiful old buildings and not too much traffic. We had arrived by night bus from Cusco which had taken around 10 hours, and after a busy week were feeling pretty tired, so we checked into a reasonably priced hostel (La Posada Del Kuraka) and crashed. The hostel had a great roof terrace giving a great view of the city and the perfectly cone-shaped volcano Misti in the distance.

On our first day we took a walk through the Plaza San Fransisco to the pretty main square Plaza de Armes, taking in the white stone architecture such as the Basilica Catedral church and the many arches surrounding the square. As the sun was shining, we decided to grab an ice cream and found a bench to people-watch in the square. We then spent an hour or two wandering around the beautiful cobbled streets, peering into textile shops and exploring the quiet alleyways of the historic centre.

After watching the sunset from our rooftop we noticed that the Basilica Cathedral was beautifully lit, so we headed to the square once more for a closer look. At night it was just as busy as it was in the day, and there was even a classical music concert drawing in a small crowd. For dinner we went to Hatunpa, where they served dishes with varieties of Andean potatoes as the main ingredient with a choice of toppings. It was cheap and the service was excellent, and we even got to sample some Peruvian craft ales.

On our last day we had a lazy morning, and after lunch decided to go to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, an old yet still functioning 20,000 square-meter monastery for nuns in Arequipa. We had to pay a rather steep 40 soles each for entry, but as its quite a big place we were told it was worth the money. On entrance we were greeted with a beautiful courtyard with many painted arches, plants and intricate tiles. As we wandered through the maze of passageways it started to feel like we'd wondered back in time, and we really enjoyed exploring the Mudejar-style architecture, with walls painted red, blue and orange to define the various sections. It felt more like a small town than a monastery!

The monastery was comprised of many rooms including kitchens, bedrooms, prayer rooms and chapels, all surrounded by very well kept gardens and water fountains. It seemed surprisingly quaint and comfortable considering nuns lived there, and was quite unusual compared to typically minimal religions dwellings. After an hour or so the monastery was about to close, and so we headed back to the hostel just in time to watch the sun set from our hostel roof terrace, having really enjoyed Santa Catalinas rustic charm and tranquil ambiance.

We had been recommended Sonccollay on our travels, a restaurant in Arequipa that was known for it’s ‘pre-inca’ cuisine, an ancient style of cooking that used no oil or butter to prepare traditional andean ingredients. Curious by this, we decided to pay it a visit while we were there. The restaurant was situated on the main square overlooking the cathedral, and we arrived with high expectations and empty stomachs. On entering, we noticed that the restaurant actually wasn’t that busy, with only a few other people there. We sat outside (which was a little chilly), and ordered our food. The menu was surprisingly pricey, but we assumed it would be worth it once it came.

To our disappointment we ended up waiting for over an hour for the food, with one dish arriving 20 minutes before the other. On top of this portions were less than generous, and we were a bit annoyed to leave feeling hungry, despite it being the most expensive meal we'd had in Peru so far. On the plus side, the food was really tasty, and the charcoal-grilled duck was beautifully cooked, as was the river lobster ceviche cured in passionfruit. It was also nice to meet the chef and see his rustic kitchen and traditional cooking techniques. However, we probably wouldn’t recommend the place unless you come in a group (so you can try more of the dishes), don't mind a long wait and are prepared to splash out! 

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon is the most popular place to visit from Arequipa, and being the second deepest canyon in the world (more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona) and with stunning scenery it's not hard to see why. We had met a couple of travellers at our hostel the day before who had told us the 2 day trek was pretty intense and that it was much better to do the 3 day option, so taking their advice we booked the slightly longer trek from our hostel. The tour agency was called Oasis Palmeras Travel Tour, and having read good reviews online and with a time-efficient itinerary for a decent price, we felt confident we would enjoy our trek.

Day 1

We got picked up from our hostel at 4am to get the 3 hour minibus to the Colca Canyon with a few other trekkers. After driving for a couple of hours the sun rose and we began to see the incredible scenery that led to the canyon, with green hills, Inca-style terracing and the impressive mountains that made up the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reservation. We stopped for a quick and basic breakfast at a small cafe before continuing to our first stop, Cruz del Condor.

Cruz del Condor is a popular tourist spot on the way to the Colca Canyon where you can see giant Andean condors, a huge bird with a wing span of up to 3 meters and an important icon of South American culture. When we got there we found swarms of tourists already there, but luckily the condors didn't seem phased, and silently glided all around us in their numbers, often flying right overhead.

After getting a few photos we got back in the minibus and were driven to the starting point of the trek. We met our guide and introduced ourselves to our fellow trekkers, including a French couple and a group of elderly guys from Holland. Before we set off our guide explained the reason behind the name 'Colca', originating from a combination of the Inca settlements Collagua and Cabana (hence Col-Ca). He also explained that a Colca is a kind of Inca food store built into the mountains. We the set off in our small group down the steep canyon path, edging deeper each step we took, taking in the incredible scenery as we went.

About 2 hours later we approached the bottom where we arrived at a river crossing, and took a much needed break from the heat in the shelter of a shaded hut. After we got our breath back we crossed the bridge and headed up a short but very steep path. At the top we took another break amongst bunny ear cacti and from there it was only a 20 minute walk through farmland along flat terrain (much to our relief) to our lodging.

We finally arrived at our accommodation, a farmhouse settlement with a few rooms and a small restaurant. We had a lunch of soup and Lomo Saltado (fried steak and peppers with rice) and chatted to the other Trekkers. We then went for a short siesta, finding that our rooms were basic but cosy, and only lit by candle light. After a relaxing afternoon we grabbed a few beers and watched the incredibly clear starry sky before dinner and bed.

Day 2

On the second day we woke around 7am and had a great pancake breakfast before we started our trek. To our relief we were told that the days trek would be much less steep as we were now deep inside the canyon itself. Our guide led us along the stony path, pointing out some interesting landmarks such as the '5 warriors', a series of statue like rock formations and an ancient Inca waterway carved into the vertical cliffside. It was a lot hotter lower down the canyon, and as the heat of the day approached the trek became a little more tiring, despite being less challenging in terms of terrain.

We took a rest at a small family farm, and got a much needed cold drink and some snacks to keep our energy levels up. The lady who worked there offered us some cactus fruit, which was really tasty if you could avoid the spines! Shortly after an excited little Peruvian boy, who was spending his holidays on the farm, showed us the various animals that lived there including ducks, chickens and a lot of Guinea pigs (or cuy) stored in a series of hutches - all of them clearly would end up on the menu! 

After exploring the farm and saying our farewells to the family, we set off once again through the canyon, passing through small towns along the way. The scenery was spectacular and the sheer size of the canyon walls never seemed to grow old. We continued along the canyon path where we gradually started ascending and descending up and down the dusty path.

As we approached 3 hours of walking we started to see the green Oasis de Sangalle nestled in the bottom of the canyon. We could see waterfalls leading to a river that flowed right through the middle, with tropical plants and palm trees surrounding them. With this very inviting view in sight we descended quite quickly, keen to take off our shoes and relax after a day of walking in the heat.

Finally we arrived at the Oasis de Sangalle, and wandered past a few other hostels and hotels before finding ours, the Paraiso las Palmeras Lodge. It was absolute paradise, with our own small private hut and a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees in the most idillic setting. Taking advantage of the sun we quickly changed into our swimming gear, grabbed a beer and dived into the refreshing pool to cool off.

The sun set fairly quickly in the canyon (around 4pm) due to the surrounding mountains, and so once the pool became shaded we got changed and headed to the bar for a few drinks with the other trekkers. This led straight into a typical Peruvian dinner (soup, rice and meat) which filled the gap. Feeling tired after this we headed to bed early before our final day and the big ascent.

Day 3

After an early night and chilled afternoon the 4am start wasn't too painful, but the temperature had dropped substantially over night so it still wasn't that pleasant. We followed our guide upwards, using our torches to navigate the stony pathway in the dark. After an hour the sun started to rise making it a bit warmer making for ideal trekking conditions. The higher we'de climb, and the further we walked from Sangalle Oasis we really began to appreciate how isolated it was. 

Spreading the trek over three days meant we were well rested and with the help of some snickers we powered up in a time of 2:15 mins, even with multiple stops for photos on the way which we felt was quite an achievement for us! More impressively though, was that one of the guys in our group (aged 70!) also made it to the top which was really inspiring to see.

At the top of the canyon there were many people congratulating each other on making it up and taking victory photos. We took a much needed breather and got a few group shots ourselves before heading along the remaining flat path to a small town. We then walked to a little breakfast spot with a few other groups, and had eggs, bread and coca tea to refuel after our intense morning trek.

Once we'd finished breakfast we continued in the minivan on the road back to Arequipa, and stopped off at at the Apachetas of Chivay, a series of cairns thought to be made by the Incas, with an amazing mountain backdrop. The sheer number of them scaling the valley with a clear blue sky was an awesome sight. Additionally, and much to our surprise, we were shown the snowy peak of the Mismi mountain and were told that it is thought that it's glacial stream is the most distant source of the mighty Amazon River!

One thing we were really looking forward to on our trek was the Tambo hot springs. We made our way there, keen to soak our tired legs in the hot water. After walking down a short path and crossing a river we arrived at a series of pools. There were a few people in already, who warned that some of them were scorching! We decided to grab some cold victory beers while we dipped our toes into different pools to find the best temperature, and slowly lowered ourselves into one that felt as hot as we could manage.

After a few minutes we got used to the temperature, and relaxed for half an hour or so in the steaming natural spring water with our fellow trekkers. Our feet and legs felt almost fully rejuvenated as we made our way back to the bus and continued on our journey back to Arequipa, and was more than worth the 10 Soles entrance fee. While we were there we met with Amanda and Daniel, an Australian couple we had met during the trek, and enjoyed some beers together in one of the milder pools. 

Continuing onwards we were taken to the small town of Chivay for lunch. The whole group piled into the Los Portales de Chivay restaurant where a large buffet table was on display with various typical Peruvian foods. Luckily it was an all-you-can-eat menu, meaning we could go to town! While we ate a local band started playing in front of our table, singing traditional music with pan pipes and guitars.

Once finished we were then back in the mini bus and headed up towards our next look out of the nearby volcanoes. The air temperature was really cold as we had reached an altitude of 3,650 meters, and so we only spent a few minutes there to get some pictures, but it was great to see the smoking Volcan Hualca in the distance and the hundreds of small rock piles that had been carefully balanced. We then headed a little further to a Llama park where wild Llama and Guanaco were roaming in the green and yellow fields.

Our 4 days in Arequipa and Colca Canyon affirmed our decision to stop there during our trip. We loved the architecture, food and vibe of the city, and the Colca Canyon tour was probably one of our favourite treks of the trip since Patagonia. Having a well organised tour really did make a difference, and the incredible scenery and landscapes made the steep and often tiring stretches more than worth it. We were also lucky enough to have a friendly and like-minded group who helped make the three days even more enjoyable. The canyon oasis and hot springs were a luxurious surprise for us, and extremely welcome for our legs after the inclines. We left Arequipa feeling energised, keen for more exciting adventures ahead.

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. 

Rio Redemption — Part 2

Into the favelas

'Rochina,' Rio's largest favela

After visiting three of Rio's many favelas, including the largest (Rochina) and most well-known (Santa Marta) we were able to see the complexity of the political issues of Rio first-hand. Five star hotels and mansions often marked borders between the rich city-dwellers and the favela residents, offering a cruel social contrast both visually and emotionally within various neighbourhoods of the city. Our tour guides we're very informative about the political history of Rio, explaining in detail how the favelas came to be through both racial oppression and geographic circumstances. 

It's a common misconception that all favelas are dangerous, violent, drug-run places solely for the underprivileged. The favelas we visited we're 'pacified' - meaning that the police and governments had taken back control of the area - and were therefore 'safe' to visit. This didn't detract from the very visible problems that the people faced, such as drug abuse, open sewage and lack of other amenities. However, what was clear was the enormous sense of pride the community shared for their homes. Brightly painted walls have been commissioned by artists, colourful tiles and local artwork and hand-written signage filled the streets. We left feeling a sense of admiration for the people who lived there, who against all odds, had managed to build a strong and tightly knitted community both architecturally and socially.

Favela Santa Marta

It was noted by the guides that the pacification of these more popular favelas could be for visual effect, a mask that the government has provided to hide the real problems of less supported favelas in Rio; problems that lie much further afield from the rich southern neighbourhoods that seem all too convenient to 'fix'. Having only been in Rio for two weeks we could only hope to scrape the surface of understanding such complex issues, but walking around the favelas and speaking to locals we began to have a better understanding of what it's like to live inside a pacified favela in Rio.