Eastern Islands, Galapagos, Ecuador

Greedy to experience as much of Galapagos as possible we booked for a second boat cruise right after our first. This time aboard the Santa Cruz, a larger boat holding 90 guests for 5 days. This would take us out to the older islands on the eastern side of Galapagos.

Me, after the buffet breakfast

Our 5 day itinerary aboard the Santa Cruz

The islands on the east of Galapagos are the oldest. The volcanoes have stopped erupting, the landscape is showing more advanced signs of erosion and the animals are well established. 

We were able to land on Rabida, an interesting red island that we had only seen from the ocean while aboard the Angelito. Then Santiago, Genovesa and finally San Cristobal where we had changed our flight to leave from. The only island we would not see in Galapagos would be Espanola.

Genovesa is an amazing island covered with bird life. Here we saw our first red footed boobies and finally got to see frigate birds with their large red bills inflated. They use them as pillows to rest their heads on when not attracting a mate and look like they could pop them with their beaks during a sneeze.

The frigate birds puff a bright red pouch of skin full of air to attract a female to their nest. Shannan gave some of the less endowed birds an inferiority complex by remarking (loud enough for them to hear) that they would never attract anything. The ones that did put on an amazing courtship display involving wings wide and dancing with their red puffs bouncing around. Their warble was similar to a turkey gobble.

The feet of the red footed boobies is coloured by the food they eat. The red footed boobies, a distinct species from the blue footed variety, nest inland and commute each day to distant food sources. These birds are very large and have some disturbing social habits where murder and rape are common place.

Once again, snorkelling provided eyeopening experiences. This side of the archipelago the sharks seemed bigger and more numerous. One expedition ended early when Shannan declared shed had enough after twice being sandwiched between a huge galpapos shark and a large pack of yellow eagle rays. It is a bit unnerving when something much larger than you sidles up alongside, no matter how well fed and disinterested it looks!

Back aboard the Santa Cruz we had an assortment of activities as we moved to our next location. The top deck had areas for sun tanning (good for Shan who is frantically tying to even out unfortunate sock and bather lines in time for Rasha and Bens wedding!) and a bar with shade and ice water (good for me). Books were read with the tropical islands floating past. The Santa Cruz also had a jacuzzi which I made a point of getting into at 10pm on our last night when I realised we hadn't even looked at it yet.

Our Captain treated us to a night of singing. La Bamba finale!

Our captain treated us to a night of latin american classics. Que Ses Quie Sas and La Bamba being highlights. I was conscripted at some point in the night to play the part of a boobie on stage, much to Shannan's delight.

We befriended some Australians who were also traveling around the continent and spent one night shining their torch over the side of the boat to illuminate the fish. Life just teems in Galapagos, absolutely everywhere. It really is amazing. Just over the side were sharks, sea lions, flying fish (delta winged!) and sea turtles. Unfortunately we may have ruined the night for a poor flying fish when it suddenly found itself well lit and a nearby sea lion gave chase. Oops.

Giant Tortoise eating breakfast at the bus terminal on the way to board the Santa Cruz. A normal day in Galapagos.

Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador

Landing in Baltra we made our way to the town of Puerto Ayora, a mere bus trip, boat trip and 45 minute second bus trip away from the airport. From the boat we could see birds diving into the water hunting for fish. The dock on the Santa Cruz side of the boat trip had a young sea lion lying across the walkway making everyone step over it. Once we arrived in town we saw our first Sally lightfoot crabs and some baby marine iguanas. Also a family of sea lions and about 15 pelicans waiting around the fisherman's docks for a feed. There's certainly an air of 'unique' about Galapagos from the moment you set foot on the land.

Marine Iguanas lounging at Tortuga Bay

In Puerto Ayora there are a number of things to do and visit:

The Charles Darwin Research Center has breeding programs to repopulate both the Giant Tortoise populations of a number of islands as well as the Land Iguana populations. Both are on the rebound however there is a lot of work yet to be done. A giant tortoise only reaches breeding age around 30 years old. You can see the whole range at the breeding centre from yearlings to breeding age tortoises.

The fish docks were not only great to see while the fishermen sold their catch, some nights there was a small restaurant set up using the fish directly, about as fresh as is possible. I had a local lobster, grilled with garlic. Absolutely delicious.

There are many day trips possible from Puerto Ayora. We only managed to fit one in even with all our time here. We went to South Plazas island. This island contains a huge number of land iguanas on an interesting terrain of red plants and cactus. It is also home to a sea lion colony. When we landed we saw the baby sea lions being tended to by a few of the mothers, the rest out fishing. The large male sea lions were patrolling to keep the sharks away from the frolicking baby sea lions. After visiting the island we had our first Galapagos snorkelling experience, amazingly clear water teeming with fish. 

A number of beaches are accessible from Puerto Ayora. One of our favourites was Tortuga Bay, a decent walk from town across the Great Wall of Galapagos. Along the way we saw ghost crabs, marine iguanas, sea lions and a shark swimming in the mangroves. Another great swimming hole is Las Gretas, a crack in the lava wide enough to form a good sized lap pool. It's very deep and many people jump from the rocks along the top.

Another day we hired bicycles and took a taxi up into the hills. Cycling back we visited the Tunel de amor lava tunnels. No idea why they're called that but the lava tunnels were interesting to see. We had them all to ourselves as we walked the kilometre or so. The tunnels are formed when the lava that is in contact with the air cools faster than the lava underneath. This cool lava forms a wall which insulates the lava inside allowing it to keep flowing down hill. Eventually the volcano stops and the last of the lava flows through leaving empty tunnels behind. Continuing our cycling we stopped in at a small village for some ceviche, an Ecuadorian specialty. This was some of the best we had.

While fitting in all this activity we found time to visit the Galapagos Deli enough that the staff started setting their watches by us. Tasty fish and chips paired with delicious maracuya juice meant both Shan and I couldn't resist.

We also scoured the various agents for some last minute cruises. We were fairly disappointed in what we found and generally found better deals emailing the boats directly. In the end we found not one but two!

Villarrica Traverse, Pucon, Chile

A hike of challenges

With only 10 days remaining before having to be in Santiago for a flight to Ecuador, we were met with a dilemma; to remain in the Argentinian lakes district or cross the border to Chile to wander among her volcanoes. Somewhat frozen by indecision we squandered two days in the pretty but very commercial towns of Bariloche and San Martin in Argentina. We soon realised that one achieves very little in our allocated timeframe without a car in this area.

Our view from the Chili Kiwi Hostel in Pucon

So, filing it in 'places to return to' we decided to push on to Pucon just over the border in Chile where THE thing to do is climb to the top of the Villarrica volcano, which silhouettes the town. It sounded interesting but what we really wanted was a multiday hike with not too many people. A bit of last minute research turned up the Villarrica traverse, a 3-6 day hike, depending on starting point, through the volcanoes of the Chilean Andes. We decided on the 6 days and set about working out logistics. 

Day One

Villarricca Volcano, this way.

The hike begins at the same location as the volcano climb, so our hostel arranged transport there with a rowdy tour group of day trekkers, leaving at the dark and cold hour of 6.30am.  A miscalculation of people meant we were lucky enough to be shunted off to a ute of one of the mountain guides who happily offered advice and last minute safety tips for watching the weather and navigating in the area. Armed with a excerpt from a hiking guide, the CONAF map and a few images of elevation profiles on the iPhone, we thought we knew what lay ahead. The hike would soon show us otherwise.

The path started at 1550m crossing undulating lava fields, a novel experience for us. It was early still and the sun was just beginning to bite. After several km we were relieved when the path lead us into a forest of wuilllyumbtumumum pines which we shall refer to as dinosaur trees (see picture). Here little green lizards zipped everywhere around us and Magellenic Woodpeckers made their characteristic knocking sounds as they burrowed for insects meters above us. After lunch the path became a little more challenging with many steep undulations into dry river beds. While crossing one of these river beds we noticed water coming downhill, this grew quickly into a stream of water while watched, glad to be on the other side.  Then a final accent through more forest to open out onto a recent lava flow area referred to as the Valle del Fuego. Here the guidebook assured us we would find a glacial melt stream and sheltered campsites.

A PhD and an engineer, we devised a 'gravity filtration system' to convert our solid-grey water into the more drinkable kind of grey water.

You might imagine our slight shock to find our water source was actually a rushing river of grey silt. It seems the heat of the day and the late hour had combined to provide us with perfectly undrinkable water. Nevertheless, a bit of engineering and scientific analysis determined a successful method of water purifying. Thusly done by collecting the least silty water from the slow parts of the river using one of the water proof sacks we thankfully had and letting it hang from a tree. An hour or so later the top water could be scooped off, a drinkable shade of grey. Water crisis averted we settled into our camp among great black rolls of hardened lava and a clear view of their source,puffing away high above us. Having previously been assured that it was very unlikely to erupt any time soon, we still felt compelled to keep a watchful eye, anxious of any apparent change in its plume.

Day Two

The elevation profile seemed harmless enough, what appeared to be small undulations with only a few bigger climbs and a final long decent into a river valley to our next camp, 16.5km away. The guidebook promised great views and many different types of lava flows. After a slow start, we continued our journey through the Valle del Fuego. It soon became apparent that lava fields are not all created equal, however for the most part, lava fields are bloody hard to walk through. For a start there are no trees, the burny liquid rock took care of that long ago, so it's full sun all day. Also, lava does not flow in nice flat and uniform patterns but rather creates great obstacle courses to wind your way through. Sometimes the lava flows are scoria, which is essentially like walking through a pile of discarded pumice stones, other times these rocks are mixed with ash and sand so it's like crossing a rocky desert. Being so porous and loosely packed, these desert areas are prone to erosion which means as water from the snow and glaciers above makes its way down, hundreds of creeks and rivers are created. For hikers traversing the mountain, this means the amazing views of far off valleys and mountains were paid for bitterly with continual crossings of deep, sandy, valleys. Pleasant ridge top traverses were too often rudely interrupted. By the 6km mark we were already exhausted. Hot from the lack of shade and beating sun and low on water we decided to stop for an early lunch at a cool, but grey, river. Employing our filtering technique we dipped our feet into the cooling water and waded across while we waited. Reluctant to leave the cool of the river but wary of the time and our lack of progress we pushed on through similar terrain. All the while looking longingly down at the tree line wishing for their cooling shade. After several km we approached yet another river valley but this time flowing with clear water. After a day of grey and brown rivers of silt  we excitedly rushed down and emptied our water bottle to exchange for this vastly superior option, taking on a bit more than usual, just incase.  [Andrew: I remember Shannan exclaiming in an accusatory tone, 'that water's clear!'] Further excitement was had when we approached the first trees of the day. A small group of dinosaur trees above the usual tree line. We savoured their shade for as long as we dared before begrudgingly returning to the sun drenched path.

A bit shell shocked by the difficulty and heat of the day and with the glorious views gone, the final few km looping around deep valleys seemed torturous. The black gravel reflected shimmering heat waves and intercepted what little breeze there was, corrupting it with its heat. Finally we reached the forested decent, and although Chilean style (an impossibly steep path, causing several slips and one fall) we were relieved for the day to end. Approaching the river we were disappointed to find grey silty water again but the prettiness of the river valley and promise of soup, curry and chocolate heartened us. [Andrew: To our surprise and delight, this stream was clear in the morning. We think it's related to the afternoon melt water flowing through underground, porous rock sections and picking up the silt along the way.]

Day Three

My tree disguise fails me at this altitude.

We knew before we started the hike that this would be the most difficult day. In total we were faced with 1100m (vertical) accent and 700m descent over 16.5 km, tough by anyone's standards. We started the day early and actually rather enjoyed the first few km, on the practice hill 200m up and 250m down along a rough 4WD track in the shade of tall trees. The more popular route for the Villarrica hike is a shorter three day option which starts 5km from our campsite at a ranger hut. Once we reached this outpost we knew our task; Sitting at the bottom of a deep valley the only way was up. I'm too embarrassed to admit how long it took us to up climb those 900m. It was hot, so very, very hot. With little breeze and often full sun we were drenched in sweat and totally sapped of energy. Nevertheless using the the great hikers tricks of counting, humming a well paced song, taking timed breaks and swearing at the hill we got there and Wowzers what a view. We had been warned that clouds often interrupt the vista but it was our one compensation for such a warm day that we had a cloudless sky. Volcanoes surrounded us and lush green valleys rolled down their sides. Several condors flew overhead and a whiff of breeze gave us welcome relief. The next few hours sent us over a steeply undulating ridge. Tired from the day and out of water, we were a tad concerned when it reached 7pm and we were still not at our planned campsite. After spotting a landmark about 2.5km from the camp we picked up the pace and made it there by 7.30pm but our woes were not over. As we approached I became concerned that I could not hear the familiar sound of running water that one is usually greeted by at the end of the day. Our hearts sunk when we spotted the rocky bed and stagnant pools of our promised water source. Faced with a setting sun we decided that I would stay to make camp and begin boiling the water from these pools while Andy, armed with containers would scout ahead 15 minutes to see if water was to be found. In our first bit of luck for the day, he found a clear flowing creek right on the edge of the time limit, we were saved. That night the stars came out for us. Totally isolated and in perfect darkness we were spoilt with amazing clarity of galaxies, gas clouds and meteors. As we finally climbed into bed after over 11 hours of hiking not even an erupting volcano could have woken us. [Andrew: An absolutely amazing night sky. I have never seen it so impressive before!]

Day Four

I assume someone else wanted a rest from the descent too.

Allowing ourselves a sleep in, we packed up and moved to the creek found the previous day to cook breakfast and refresh our water supplies. Relaxed by the prospect of an easier day we fairly strolled up the second mountain. Spotting a few remnant patches of snow Andy had the genius idea of making snow cones with the ice and some powdered cordial. We were so pleased with ourselves as we wandered back down the pass that we failed to notice the weather closing in. Looking back at the view we had just been admiring we saw a wave of cloud coming for us. As we descended we caught fleeting glimpses of the Lago Azure below. By the time we reached the lake for lunch the weather had arrived. Huddled in a group of trees protecting us from the freezing wind we laughed at the memory of how hot we had felt the day before.

Marching on after lunch through lava fields our visibility was reduced to a few metres. I gave a start as, through the fog, a caravan of horses appeared in front of me, the first people we had seen in 4 days. Pushing on through the now horizontal rain and the less than cheery afternoon, I had to laugh at poor Andy as he suffered a blow out of one of his thongs trying to fjord a swollen creek. After a few hours we began to look for our campsite. The guide book promised a small lagoon just off the path, assuring us that we would spot it from a viewpoint before descending to it. Well that proved to be impossible! When we arrived at the area we thought it might be there was no sign. Reluctant to stray too far off path in such low visibility we slowly marched on looking for clues of a side trail. After some time Andy remembered the offline GPS maps on his phone he had downloaded. Our campsite, it seemed, was a few km behind us. Here we made the fateful decision to keep trekking ahead until we found somewhere suitable, neglecting to fully comprehend that we would have to climb two mountain passes, one of which was the highest point of the trek at 1900m.

Cooking some soup to warm us up. Our initial concerns about cooking inside the tent from the very start of the holiday are now long gone.

Needless to say we didn't find a suitable campsite there! Walking at full speed we pushed on, racing the setting sun. My poor backside was numb from the wind and rain, our shoes sodden. We reached the second pass just before 7pm and the clouds parted to show a fabulous view of small lakes, lush green plants and dozens of waterfalls. We were now but 4km from the next days camp, having walked most of day 5 in our haste. As we descended further, a condor wove its way through the wind and landed on a cliff nearby. Still anxious of the time and not having found a campsite we charged on through swampy marsh. There was much relief when we arrived at a group of trees next to a small river with space enough for our tent. Freezing, we hastily erected the tent and jumped inside. It took most of an hour and a good serve of pumpkin soup to stop the shivering. We had to laugh though and wonder what else this trek could throw at us...

Day Five

Cows. That' s what.  

After 30 minutes walking from our makeshift camp we reached the lake we had failed to reach the day before. As we entered the clearing we spotted the cows. My heart sunk once again when I noticed the large bull standing directly on the path. He had his harem of cows and calves and was prepared to protect them. He spotted us early on and sent out the warning moo. As we crept closer he put his head down and stomped his foot. At this point I made a hasty retreat begging Andrew to follow me back to a safe distance to assess the situation. There was a small stream we had to cross with steep sides, thick spiky bushes all around and cows scattered far and wide. Mr. Bull continued to stare us down, stomping every now and then for good measure. We decided that a side berth might allow is to rejoin the path a little further on. As we started to traverse sideways a group of curious calves trotted towards us. This induced the ire of our bovine nemesis, at which point he ran towards us and the calves. Letting out a little whine I hid in the thick bush begging the calves to go away. We pushed further through the dense bush and arrived at the lake front. Assessing the situation we realised there was only one safe option; hike through the lake. We knew from the guide book that the campsite had paths to the sandy beach on the far side and we could rejoin it there. Mercifully it was warm and crystal clear though a little rocky. Free from danger and bemused by our situation we regrouped on the other side. Andrew vowed to eat a hamburger upon our return to civilization. The rest of the day was easy after that! Because it was the last day we had one final hurdle to jump, hitching a ride back to Pucon.

The hike ends at a gravel highway a few km from the Argentine border. We had been assured by locals that we could hitch a ride no problems. I think Andy's thumb must be broken because no one stopped for us...though the way we looked (and smelt) after 5 days hiking I can't say I blame them! We did eventually arrive at a ranger outpost where we were told to wait for a bus that may or may not come in two hours. Two and a half hours later we were very relieved when a clapped out little mini bus pulled up. A change of bus an hour later and we were back in Pukon and boy did that hamburger taste extra good.

El Chalten - Mt Fitz Roy and Parque Nacional los Glaciers

Having left the southern ice fields and fjords behind in Chile we journeyed north through the pampas. With its wide open landscape, windmills and sheep it was easy to forget that we were not in Australia. Only the occasional herd of guanaco and odd gaucho astride a horse reminded us that we were now in Argentinian Patagonia. Our destination was El Chalten, a tiny town at the foot of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and the self proclaimed hiking capital of Argentina.

Hiking through the trees on the first day. The Fagus are just starting to turn colour in some areas.

The landscape here seems to contradict itself, the dry dusty ground offers little nutrients to the low and thorny scrub that covers the plains yet is periodically interrupted by large rushing veins of milky blue glacial melt water seemingly in a hurry to escape the mountains. As we drew closer to our destination the light was fading and through the pink haze of sunset the unmistakable peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre appeared to glow. The town itself is nestled in a valley at the foot of the mountains and is at the mercy of the winds they create.

This region forms the northern most reaches of the Patagonian ice sheet and the Parque Nacional los Glaciares. We were delighted to learn that in a rare gesture of generosity there is no park entrance fee and all camping is free. Having surveyed the hiking options in the area we decided on the classic triangle hike, which over three days allows good views of the mountains and their accompanying glaciers. That is, if the clouds threatening to hang around all week miraculously cleared. Nevertheless, kitted up we begin the first day's hike bouncing with comparatively light packs (see Torres del Paine). The path leads us up a steady but steep slope for about 6km and as the day heats up so do we. Reaching the first mirador we are disappointed with the cloudy sky and do not linger. Tired and a little dejected we stop briefly for lunch only to find its is but a short way further to the second mirador. Here we are delighted with our first cloudless view of the mountains. A crystal clear creek cascading down the slope and a view of the path winding down to the valley bellow lifts our moods. We are treated with spectacular views for the remainder of the walk to the campsite, arriving in the early afternoon just as clouds once again close in on the mountains above. From the campsite there is the option of two side trails, one climbs steeply to a mirador, the other promises a more leisurely walk to a nearby glacier and it's resultant lake.

'A pleasant 45min walk to the mirador overlooking the glacier'... *cough*

Given the cloudy vista and slight fatigue we opt for the second option, reassured by the 45 minute one way time estimate. What the map neglected to properly explain was there are in fact two hike options for the glacier and if one is to follow the sign posts on the path pointing to the lake rather than the glacier then they are in for a 3.5 hour hike requiring one to scale massive boulders, make ill advised leaps over large crevices and fjord fast flowing rivers. Guess which one we took. There were tears. Often in situations like this I will look back and say it was worth it. Not this time, by the time we got there the clouds were obscuring much of the glacier and the wind was blowing over the lake. We heard many loud rumbles of falling ice but only managed to see one small cascade. It was pretty but I was exhausted. On the plus side we slept really well that night!

The next day promised to be easier. After a lazy morning and a fortifying breakfast of porridge we set off for the Laguna Torre, situated at the base of the Cerro Torre and glacier. It was a pleasant hike through meadows and Fagus forests and finally down to the floor of the valley carved by the glacier we were heading to. Glacier valleys are interesting things, littered with enormous boulders spat out by the retreating ice. As one approaches the remaining ice mass the vegetation gives way to rocky scree fields scattered with multi veined frigid rivers, like a Martian landscape too hostile to support significant levels of plant life. It was here that we camped for the night in a newly sprouted group of Fagus trees at the base of the glacier. Once again clouds thwarted our views of the mountains yet made for fascinating viewing as they swirled, shifted and disappeared only to regenerate over the peaks.    

Our final day lead us back to El Chalten. As condors soared over the valley we frequently looked behind in the hope of a clear view. Finally about half way back we got our first clear view of Cerro Torre, a little late but better than never. At the last mirador we had great views over the whole range with both towers in view and a couple of condors thrown in for good measure. We arrived back in town in time for lunch just as the wind really picked up. There was just enough time to pitch our tent in a protected nook of the campground before it started to rain (horizontally). Perhaps our recent trekking endeavours have encouraged the hiking gods to look upon us favourably.

A pleasant hike to a nearby waterfall the next day left us feeling like we had done El Chalten, the capital of hiking, justice. As it turns out this was our last stop in Patagonia. For now.