A Travellerspoint blog

Discovering the Galapagos Islands

12 Days of Natural Wonders

semi-overcast 26 °C

We have been so fortunate to visit some places that have been lifelong dreams like Machu Picchu, and this was another. The Galapagos Islands are very unique. They are world-famous for their unusual and fearless wildlife. This is the result of the archipelago´s isolated location, lying some 1000kms of the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos archipelago is made up of 13 main islands, 6 smaller islands and many tiny unnamed islands. Four are inhabited by humans. Along with its isolation, the late discovery by humans and the historical lack of predators are all contributing factors into the phenomena that is the Galapagos Islands.

On the islands we learnt about the current conservation projects and education efforts. The importance of breeding programs, minimising the impact of human presence on the islands, and reducing the numbers of introduced animals and plants that can both have devastating effects on native species. The first settlers introduced animals like goats, pigs, cattle, burros, cats, while animals like ants and rats accidentally arrived on ships. All of which still cause problems today for the natural ecosystem.

We arrived at the airport on Baltra Island and along with everyone else on our flight, took the short ferry across to Santa Cruz island which would serve as our base for the first few days. We had hoped to pickup a last minute cruise deal along with spending time seeing parts independently. We ended up not finding a cruise to suit our time frame, budget or interest. We are happy it did work out this way as we saved heaps of money and thoroughly enjoyed doing day trips along with seeing some of the sights for free ourselves. Over the 12 days on the archipelago we based ourselves on 3 islands; 4 nights on Santa Cruz, 3 on Isabela, and 4 on San Cristobal. Along with exploring these 3 islands we also partook in day tours from Santa Cruz to Floreana and to Santa Fe islands. There were surprisingly few other tourists around, likely because the vast majority do the 5 or 8 day cruises so it was nice to be off exploring often completely on our own (apart from the wildlife of course).

Isla Santa Cruz

On arrival to the island`s sole town, Puerto Ayora, we were instantly greeted with wildlife: sea lions all around the port, many Galapagos brown pelicans and some marine iguanas. After feeling slightly overwhelmed at a few tour companies we made our way to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. On the brief 10 minute walk we passed a tiny outdoor fish market where a sea lion was begging the vendors for fish much like a dog would beg, along with dozens of pelicans. Over the course of our time in Santa Cruz we walked past the fish market on quite a few occasions and Sammy (as we started calling him) was always there eating fish scraps and basking in the attention from the tourists... Well we assumed it was always the same sea lion. The Darwin Centre was once home to the famous tortoise, Lonesome George, who only recently passed away there after decades of unsuccessfully trying to find him a mate. Sadly he was the last of his species of giant Galapagos Tortoise. This place houses Santa Cruz´s tortoise breeding centre, where we could view different sectioned off areas with little tortoises by their age. There was not much information at the Darwin Research Centre and it did feel a bit like a zoo but lucky for us we saw some in the wild and received much better information on the Galapagos later on in our trip.

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On our second day we went to Tortuga (Turtle) Bay. This involved a 45 minute walk through scrub and along a beach to eventually reach the wonderfully sheltered bay; white sand, turquoise water, and surrounded by mangrove trees. While relaxing on the shore of the bay we had very close encounters with several of the famous Galapagos Finches who showed no fear, hopping all over us in an attempt to rifle through our snacks. If we had tried, we probably could have caught them quite easily in our hands. Currenty there are 13 different species of finches on the archipelago which Darwin famously hypothesised to have come from 1 common ancester. Then through chance and due to isolation, different climates and natural circumstances, the finches evolved from 1 into 13 species. This was the basis for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The finches all have different beak sizes depending on the seeds they consume and depending on food availability the females today mate with a male who has a desirable characteristic (beak size) to ensure the success of her offspring. Also on this trip to Tortuga Bay we got very close to many large marine iguanas at the end of the beach, all laying under mangrove trees. Their were plenty of little Galapagos lava lizards on the walk in the bush and we were followed by several mocking birds.

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That evening we walked up the pier to see the pretty lights of the boats and hotels but the highlight was looking at the port lights that shone into the water. We watched about 10 or so little sharks swimming as schools of fish darted out of their way. A sea lion also swam amongst them all.

The following 2 days were spent on day tours from Santa Cruz to Floreana and Santa Fe Islands respectively.

Isla Floreana (Santa Maria)

Floreana Island is located at the far southern part of the archipelago. It is the smallest of the four inhabited islands and the only one of the four where tourists cannot stay the night. We took a tour from Santa Cruz to the island on an hour and a half very rough boat ride resulting in the boat crew running back and forward to the bin with bags of vomit. We didn`t get seasick but were very happy to arrive to the port of Floreana! On the way we did slow down for a few minutes to watch the dolphins. On arrival we all cheered up immediately as we were met by many sea lions. From the port we took a short trip in the back of a truck to the start of the highland trek. We learnt about different plant and animal species along with the history of this island. The main area of interest was interacting with the giant Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat. Our guide told us the biggest weigh around 250kgs!!! This is the only place in the whole of the Galapagos that humans can interact so closely. We were entertained by one male harassing the females. We didn't know they were capable of moving that fast!

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The tour guide led us through interesting lava rock formations that had deep engraved patterns on them thought to have been made by the first inhabitants. We also saw a giant head that had been carved out of this stone. Our guide provided incite into the first settlers, pirates and history of this island. We visited the only fresh water spring across all of the archipelago, along with some huge healing rock.

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After lunch the boat took us further around the island to a snorkelling spot, where we jumped in from the side of the boat. This was our first of many snorkels in the Galapagos. We swam with playful sea lions, fish of varying sizes and colours such as anglefish, barberfish and surgeonfish, and sea anemones. This was actually one of our favourite snorkels as although we swam with sea lions a few times, on this occasion they were extremely playful and would swim directly at us at a rate of knots before darting off in another direction at the last second. The young ones loved to swim upside down, do somersaults and generally show off in front of us. The sea lions are quite comical on land and have poor vision out of the water so seeing them in their element in the water was fantastic. They probably thought we looked equally as comical in the water as we thought they did out of it.

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Isla Santa Fé (Barrington Island)

Santa Fe island is uninhabited by humans and geologically it is one of the oldest. The island is very arid and its landscape is characterised by volcanic rock and dry vegetation such as palo santo trees, bush and the large treelike prickly pear cactus. This island has an endemic species and one endemic subspecies unique to it; the Barrington Land Iguana and the Santa Fe Rice Rat. We took a walk across the island observing these species along with mocking birds, frigate birds, finches, galapagos pigeons and lava lizards. We learnt that the reason the majority of plants on the Galapagos produced yellow flowers and some white was due to an adaptation caused by the yellow Galapaos bee having a preference for yellow flowers (we saw so many of these bees across the islands).

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On the two short stretches of beach on the island were a vast number of sea lions. Probably about 50 or 60 all in a line. From one of these beaches we watched 3 white-tipped reef sharks hunting the baby sea lions who fled for the beach screaming for their mothers. The boat took us out to a turquoise bay; another snorkelling spot. This snorkel was as exciting as the last. We saw many more fish and also a white-tipped reef shark and a sea turtle, both so close to us! At one point the sea turtle and shark passed only a few metres away from each other but neither were fazed. At the time we thought the sea turtle was huge but as we found out on our next snorkle, it was probably an adolescent. The shark was around 1.5m. Most sharks we saw in the Galapagos were about the same size.

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On our last morning in Santa Cruz before catching a ferry to Isabella island, we made our way to Las Grietas, a volcanic rock formation that looks like a steep gorge with water in the middle. On the walk to this area we passed Finch Bay, a salt mine and some luxury hotels. We both snorkeled in the 3 sections up this gorge but only in the last did we see some fish although none were as interesting as those in the ocean. With beautiful weather on this day we spent the time we had before the ferry departed basking on the white sand beside clear waters and mangrove trees at Finch Bay. We watched a baby marine iguana make a run for it out of his original shady spot and ending up under Georgie's legs for a few minutes, enough time to grab some photos of the little creature, before racing to Scott and finally under a mangrove tree.

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Isla Isabela

Isabela is the largest island on the archipelago and is known as the island of volcanoes. Puerto Villamil is the port town on the island where we stayed. It`s advantage over Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) and Puerto Baquerizo Mareno (San Cristobal) is its brilliant sandy beach right by the town instead of a rocky shore. It has several other beautiful beaches in close proximity to the town filled with wildlife.

Our first two nights on the island were part of a tour which started late on the first afternoon visiting one sight. The tour included 2 nights accommodation in a very nice hotel, large gourmet meals and a 12 hour day of sightseeing on the second day. We stayed an extra night to have a full day to ourselves to explore. After arriving on the small, rough ferry we started the tour late afternoon visiting a lagoon just outside Puerto Villamil. Here we observed pink flamingos unique to the Galapagos, solely living on the islands, not migrating. The adults were a much brighter pink and taller than any of the Chilean, Bolivian, or Peruvian flamingos we had encountered in our travels. During the El Niño in the early 90's, 95% of them disappeared leaving only 500 of this species. Unfortunately there has not been an increase in their population since.

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With a packed lunch in hand we set off with the tour group at 7:30am the next day to hike in the highlands to Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico, a total distance of 16kms. It was very foggy so we were unable to see much off the path. We walked past Sierra Negra to Volcan Chico but we could not make out much of the crater. On arrival to Volcan Chico the fog began to clear so we were able to photograph the deselic landscape made up of the different lava formations. A vast black moonscape section was the reminder of the last eruption from this still active volcano a couple of decades ago. The last photo stop before we walked back was a 360 viewpoint of Volcan Chico, being able to see out to Elizabeth Bay in the distance. Sierra Negra is supposedly the second largest volcanic crater in the world, with a 10km diameter. On the way back, fog still covered the majority of this crater but we could get an idea of it size.

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That afternoon we visited Las Tintoreras, which is a small group of islands off the coast of Isabela that form a series of sea channels. A short boat ride around the islands allowed us to see sea lions and pelicans living in old boats, and penguins and blue-footed boobies perched on the rocky edges of the islands. It was quite funny slowly going by these old boats to see a curious sea lion waddle out of the cabin to see who was making the noise. We snorkelled in the clear waters viewing many types of fish and were shocked to see a couple of sea turtles about 4 times bigger than the one we had seen a few days earlier. We had no idea they got so big. They would have weighed around 100kgs. We followed three of them for about 10 minutes observing them eating, moving around and coming up for air. They seemed as chilled out as the one off Finding Nemo. Such beautiful placid creatures. We also caught a glimpes of a stingray from the boats edge just after we climbed in. The last activity was a walk around one of the small unnamed islands. This island was very arid and its surface covered with volcanic rocks, so lycan is the only vegetation that survives on its centre. In the sea channels were dozens of white-tipped reef sharks who spend their daytimes resting in the shallow water before heading out into the ocean to hunt at night. Close to the tunnel we saw hundreds of baby marine iguanas in their nursery area while their parents were in scattered groups across the rest of the island, basking in the last rays of sun. Sea lions played on the shore as we watched the sunset.

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Our last day on Isabela was a free day for us to explore some of the other recommended sights. We visited the marine iguana crossing, a piece of rope across the road which the iguanas all walk across to get from the mangroves to the beach. Funny enough they all actually follow it! The Concha de Perla, a boardwalk, took us through mangroves and swamp water to dryer forests filled with little birds. At the end of this walk we unexpectedly reached the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre on Isabela. The setup was similar to that on Santa Cruz but on a lot larger scale with many sections for tortoises at different sizes up to 5 years. They have to be kept in cages so introduced rats can`t get in. It's incredible to think how these little ones, just a few months old can reach such a huge size, but we suppose after 200 years of consistant growth they would get pretty big. Giant Tortoises only live on the Galapagos islands and in the Seychelles, as there is no competition with mammals. Presently 12 species survive worldwide, 11 of which are on the Galapagos. Another 3 are now extinct including Lonesome George`s species. 5 of the remaining are native to Isabela. At the Centre on Isabela they breed tortoises from the south of the island which are the most endangered. We were entertained for a while watching a few of them fighting over an applecore, biting each others necks and crawling on one another.

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After the breeding centre we walked up the beaches and rocky shore from the edge of the town. Pelicans, boobies, and gulls dove into the water like torpedoes when they spotted a fish or were found resting on the rocks. Red crabs scattered along the beach and inbetween rocks, while marine iguanas basked in the sun. We reached an area recommended to us by the hotel for a snorkel but today the water was murky and we could not even see our feet in it. We had planned to walk further into the highlands to the Wall of Tears, a huge rock wall constructed by convicts who were commanded to build this to give them something to do. As we were tired and heard that it wasn't that great we opted for some down time on the beach instead. We went in for a swim and discovered a shark fin close by hunting the fish.

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From Isabela our last island was San Cristobal but as there are no direct ferries between the two, we had to go via Santa Cruz with a 6 hour wait. In between ferries we went to Playa de la Estacion, a small beach with shallow water and rocky areas in the water where we could see many tropical fish, sea anemones, sea cucumbers and coral by just walking around in the water.

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San Cristobal Island

San Cristobal is the easternmost island and one of the oldest geologically. We arrived at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno late afternoon after yet another rough ferry trip. We were so glad not to have to take another one of those. The sea lions on San Cristobal were even more at home than on the other islands. Park benches, sidewalks and playgrounds were often occupied by them. We had a list of things we wanted to see over the 3 full days we had here, the main one being a trip out to Kicker Rock (León Dormido). It didn't take us long to book an excellent day tour to this sight which included visiting 2 other places. We also found another day tour that covered everything else on our list plus more.

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On our first full day in San Cristobal we had a day to ourselves to check out a few sights, the first being the Interpretation Centre. It is renowned to be the most informative and sophisticated centre in the Galapagos, dedicated to natural interpretion of the Islands. It went into much detail about the volcanic formation of the island, the evolution of species, to the disputing history of the earliest human settlement. Starting with Fray Tomas de Berlanga discovering the archipelago in 1535, to the Spanish, English, French and many others who all wanted a piece of the land. Also about the convict colony setup on Floreana, once Ecuador had ownership of the islands. In was sad to learn of the killing of 100,000`s of tortoises for lamp oil, and sea lions for their fur even centuries after Darwin´s visit. The final room in the centre explained current conservation projects on the island to ensure this unique and valuable ecosystem is preserved and not destroyed.

That afternoon was spent visiting Las Tijeretas, a snorkelling spot and a series of lookouts to see frigate birds. Our snorkel was short lived as the water was the coldest yet. A mother and a baby sea lion playfully swam around us coming only a few centimetres away from our faces, looking straight onto our eyes. On the return of the hike we visited Punta Carola, a surf beach covered with yet more sea lions, so yes more photos of them were taken.

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The Kicker Rock tour was a full day focused on going to different snorkelling spots. First stop was La Loberia, a shallow bay with good surf behind. We observed dry vegetation such as salt bush, green stick and muyuyo close by. On the beach we were greeted by sea lions and a small sea turtle (the only one we saw on land). We were glad to have hired a wetsuit for today as the water was fresh. We saw enormous sea turtles, fish and sea anemones.

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We then took a half hour boat ride from the port to arrive at Kicker Rock. It was even more impressive that we could have imagined. The boat took us for a full loop around it, we looked up its sheer cliffs, mesmerised by the birds circling about. These cliffs were home to nasca and blue footed boobies, frigate birds and gulls. Kicker Rock has a recognisable gap of a few metres separating an end piece off. The sun shone on the rock face when we swam over giving us nearly full viability to the sea floor 20 metres below but as soon as we swam up the gap this was lost. We spent the majority of the snorkel in this gap as we were rewarded by seeing dozens of reef sharks and galapagos sharks often coming so close and circling straight below. We saw 5 spotted eagle ray swim straight under us too. As usual the water was filled with fish. On the cliff wall just under the water we saw a yellow spotted starfish. Swimming along the outside of the rock we found a huge coral wall, not tropical coral, dark and black in colour but still full of life. We were so lucky to see so many sharks but at the same time quite disappointed we had missed seeing a hammerhead which some others saw. We had one final snorkel in a bay on the way back before arriving to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

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On our final full day on the islands we went on a Highlands tour, which was more like a taxi service for just us and a friendly Ecuadorian guy, dropping us at sights to let us explore them ourselves. It was a cloudy and drizzly day meaning that our experience at some of the sights was limited. Our first stop was La Galapaguera, a tortoise reproduction centre set in a semi-natural habitat. We walked along a track through the bush for 20 minutes spotting 5 or 6 giant tortoises. At the end we visited a small enclosure for the very young tortoises.

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Second stop, Puerto Chino. Here we were meant to snorkel but the water was rough and it was too cold so we opted to spent time with the sea lions on the beach and climb up a rocky lookout point to take photos. We could see a sea turtle swimming in the water from up there.

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Third sight, Laguna El Junco, the largest fresh water lake in the archipelago located in a crater. We were meant to be able to observe a large variety of birds here and admire this water span but due to the fog and light rain we could only see a couple of metres in front of us.

Fourth stop, El Ceibo in El Progreso, a treehouse, underground playground and cafe made of recycled objects. Ceibo is actually the name of a tree, there are only 3 species across the Galapagos and this particular tree is the oldest and largest on the Galapagos being over 300 years old. The treehouse can be rented out for $20p/n, which we wish we had known about before as it would have been a bit of an experience. To reach the treehouse you walk across a rickety, wooden bridge from the entrance gate and it is fully set up with a kitchen, bedroom and living room. From the ground we climbed through a hole between 2 massive roots and straight down to a small room, the underground play room. The whole interior of the treehouse is very retro in design. We saw several exit or entrance ways which had now been closed off - a fire pole, foot pegs build into the side of a tree, and a climbing rope. There was also a swinging role which Scott had some fun on. Next to the tree was the cafe/bar made of recycled bits and pieces. 22,000 bottles made up the walls leaving a gap for the word 'Welcome'. A funky retro bar was also made out of bottles and mirrors, and there were recycled sculptures. The kitchen wall was made of milk crates and other bits.

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We caught a flight late morning to Quito the following day. The Galapagos Islands were certainly an experience of a lifetime and we are glad we forked out the extra money to make this side trip. Although very expensive compared to our travels on the mainland, it was worth every penny, and by doing the islands independently it worked out about half the price of doing a cruise. Our only regret was not hiring an under water camera!

Posted by Scott-Georgie 10:51 Archived in Ecuador Comments (5)

From the Peruvian Highlands to the Ecuadorian Coast

From Lima, we set of for Huaraz on a night bus with our new travel buddies Jade, Paul, Nicola and Harry. It was nice to be travelling with a group now so we could all moan about the night busses together. This one was a real stinker and we had to put up with the directors commentry of Glee or something similar on high volume while we were all desperate to get some sleep. Soon after we finally did get to sleep we awoke to find the bus had become a furnace as they had the heating on full blast. We got into our hostel at 6am and luckily we were all about to check in straight away and get some more sleep in our rooms. We spent that first day exploring the town of Huaraz. While the guide books are quick to talk up the stunning countryside surrounding Huaraz, they neglect to mention that the city itself is basically a dump. Probably the dirtiest and least appealing city we have seen in South America.

We had done lots of hiking in Peru up until this point and didn't really fancy another multi-day camping adventure so we decided to do a few unguided one day hikes. First up we tackled the most recommended day hike in the region, Laguna 69 and the six of us set off early the next morning. Half of the 'fun' was getting to the trail head. It took almost 3 hours after catching a taxi followed by 2 crammed collectivos (mini van) and another taxi. The hike itself was spectacular, making our way up a mainly rocky path for 2.5 hours through the second highest mountain range in the world, the Cordilleras Blancas. It was more taxing than we expected but the payoff was reaching the beautiful turquoise laguna 69 at the base of one of the mountains. The route back down was far less strenuous but the collectivo back from Yungay to Huaraz was terrible with about 5 too many people packed in.

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Our next two days were spoilt by a nasty bug which we are sure we caught in the back of the collectivo which Paul later dubbed 'the Huaraz Horrors' after they caught it too. We were violently ill for a day but luckily we were staying in a comfortable private room as opposed to a dorm and we recovered pretty quickly. We were glad to get out of Huaraz and took another night bus with Nicola and Harry to Trujillo while Jade and Paul stayed back to take on a 4 day hike. On arrival we caught a short taxi to the nearby coastal town of Huanchaco which is considered a nicer place to spend a few nights than Trujillo and checked into our cheapest private room thus far, $6 each a night. We lazed around for the first day (as we tend to do after a night bus) and wandered around the sleepy surfing town. The beach wasn't particularly nice and it wasn't as hot as we had hoped but it was good to be back on the coast nonetheless. The seafood here was the highlight - unbelievable cheap and fresh and the restaurant ocean views weren't too shabby.

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We had two more days in Huanchaco to check out two important archeological sites in Trujillo, the first being the largest pre-columbian city in South America, Chan Chan. It is also the largest adobe city in the world and was constructed around 850AD. It was used up until the 1400's when the Incas conquered and excavation of the site began in 1969. They have still not finished excavating it. Only one citidel of nine is currently open to the public and the sheer size of the site was astounding. We were surprised to receive a tour in English and the lady explained the intricate details on the walls and told us what different sections were used for like ceremonial rooms and burial chambers. We also checked out the museum and went to two temples, Huaca del Dragon and Huaca del Esmerelda.

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The next day just the 2 of us set off for Huaca del Sol y Luna adobe temple built by the Moche civilization. It was less impressive than Chan Chan and the tour seemed very rushed but it was still interesting. This site still has a lot of excavation work to be done. Each temple we visited in Trujillo seemed to home some Peruvian hairless dogs which would be up there for contenders in a world's most ugliest dog competition. They have no hair apart from a small tuft on their heads resembling a mohawk. After some quick research we found they are sacred dogs in Peru and all archeological sites are required to have at least two of them. Apartently they are worth a fair bit of money.

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Next stop was somewhere we all had been looking forward to and talking about for some time, Mancora, Peru's most popular beach town. Our fifth overnight bus in about 2 weeks was probably the worst yet with no leg room and a witch sounding old lady next to us who spent the entire night gurgling and spitting into a plastic bag.

We checked into Kimbas Bungalows with Harry and Nicola for 5 nights, a step up in luxury from our normal hostels with our own private hammocks outside our small bungalow with palm trees, shaded grassy areas, a great sunny deck and a pool. It had a very Balinese feel to it. Needless to say, most of our five days here were spent rotating between pool time and beach time with a cold beverage never too far away. The beach wasn't naturally as nice as the beaches in Brasil or Uruguay but Mancora made up for it with fresh seafood, cheap beers, constant sun, balmy evenings and a chilled vibe. Being out of peak season meant that Mancora didn't live up to its reputation of a pumping nightlife but as we were travelling in a group this wasn't really missed and meant everything was dirt cheap, ie. longnecks of beer at a beach bar for $1 and two-course seafood lunches with the obligatory ceviche entre for $3. We realised Mancora must be particularly popular with Aussies as the locals on the streets would always pick us and give us the ol' 'oi mate' and 'bloody hell mate' in their best bogan Aussie accents, which were actually pretty accurate. Ellen and Harman were also in Mancora while we were there and they were staying just around the corner from us so it was great catching up with them a few more times before they head off in a different path to us on an epic journey east through the Amazon to Brasil.

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The next bus trip into Ecuador was hopefully our last overnight bus for a month (yay for Ecuador being a small country). We had ideally wanted to head straight to Ecuador's premier beach resort, Montañita, but we had to sort out our flights to the Galapagos (which inconveniently cannot be purchased online without an Ecuadorian credit card) and we figured we should stop off at a bigger city with airline offices. We ended up following Nicola and Harry to Cuenca after reading some good things about it. Cuenca turned out to be a nice little two day stop with a very nice colonial centre and probably the best museum we have seen in South America. The highlight of the museum was an assortment of shrunken human heads from tribes in the Amazon which were used as trophies and later for trade purposes. We had one last night out with Harry and Nicola and bid a temporary farewell as we have plans to meet up again on the Colombian coast at the end of our trips.

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Unfortunately the next morning we woke up feeling far more hungover than we should have done. We suspect that the rum that was supposed to go in our mojitos had been substituted with some homemade moonshine. Our planned 8am departure from Cuenca was self delayed until noon and then we were off again to the coast. Montañita turned out to be more like what we were expecting of Mancora. The town was buzzing, the beach was packed and the water was warm. Again we were lucky as Jade and Paul had made up some time after their trek and arrived in Montañita the same day as us so we spent much of our time on the beach with them. We had a night out with them and never even made it into a bar. Instead we stuck to what is known as 'cocktail alley', a narrow street adjacent to the beach which is lined by about 30 to 40 street vendors each with a table, 4 chairs and a vast selection of surprising delicious fresh fruit cocktails for $2.50. We were a bit sad to leave Montañita after only two full days but the knowledge that the Galapagos Island were next on the agenda made us feel a bit better about things. We are now in the port city of Guayaquil just for the night as this is where we fly out from in the morning bound for Santa Cruz island.

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Keep an eye out for the next entry - it should be a good one!

Posted by Scott-Georgie 19:00 Comments (1)

Exploring Peru

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Since completing the Salkantay trek we spent one final day in Cusco before catching an overnight bus to Arequipa. We were both very excited to be heading to warmer places for a while. Arequipa has a very Spanish feel to it with quite a picturesque setting being surrounded by 3 snow-peaked volcanoes which you can see from its colonial centre. We spent 2 days here looking around the town, enjoying the food (including some tasty Ceviche at the central market) and spent some much needed time on the couch with the hostels massive TV and its extensive DVD range.

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We booked a 3 day trek of the Colca Canyon meaning we had to get up at 2:30am for a 3am pickup! After 3 hours of driving and attempting to sleep on the rough, freezing little bus we arrived in Chivay, our breakfast stop. After this we continued on until we reached the viewing point at ‘Cruz del Condor’. This viewpoint overlooks the canyon and as its name suggsts, it is where you can see many condors flying up and around the canyon for around an hour at the same time everyday. This was an incredible sight with so many of them gliding in very close proximity to us with their 1.5m wingspan. The bus then continued along the canyon top to the start point of the trek, Pampa San Miguel, and from this 3287 m.a.s.l. viewpoint we could see the path we would be taking down and the villages we would be staying in for the following 2 nights. The path down to the Colca river was steep with many loose stones making it quite slippery in places. We were glad to reach the bottom as the remainder of the walk to Cosñirhua was sheltered from the heat of the sun by many fruit trees and shrubs. After a bit under 4 hours of walking we arrived at Cosñirhua. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and got to know the other 4 people in our group. We had 2 Peruvian girls, a Canadian girl, and a Dutch guy, who were all really lovely. Once again we were lucky enough to get a good tour group.

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On the second morning we arose at a much more reasonable hour for our 7:45am breakfast before setting off along the canyon. The hike was just under 4 hours again, requiring us to climp up and down a path on the side of the canyon. We passed through 2 small villages and learnt about some native plants and practices. It was another hot day so we were relieved to reach the Oasis, its name a perfect depiction of this little location. From above we could see the Oasis was made up of several bungalow style mini resorts all consisting of a pool, beautiful grassed areas and shaded gardens. A little paradise! Here we had lunch, dinner and spent the afternoon making the most of our accommodations facilities. We definitely agreed with what people had told us prior - this tour was much more relaxing compared to the Salkantay trek as we had so much free time everyday.

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The final day we started walking at 5am, from 2130m.a.s.l. up 1100m along a 4km track to the top of the Canyon. We were happy to be starting this early to avoid the heat and were determined to make it up the top before it got too hot. Our guide said the average time was 3 hours to reach top but we powered it up in 2. The hike was a continuously steep and we would consistently be thinking that we were close to the top as we could not see much more mountain above us to then be suprised by another huge climb each time. After all of the group had arrived we walked another 20 minutes to a little village where we had breakfast, the eggs and bread never tasted so good. Inbetween here and Chivay, we had several stops to little villages to see quaint old churches, markets, and taste the ¨Colca Sour¨. This is a local variation of the famous Pisco Sour derived by swapping the lemon for cactus fruit. Was really yummy! We also stopped at some hot-spring pools which had a therapeutic temperature of 38 degrees. Just what our muscles were in need of. After lunch in Chivay we had 2 more stops on the way back to Arequipa, one at a viewpoint to see the volcanos, and another on to take photos of the llamas, alpacas and vicuñas. We arrived back in Arequipa late in the afternoon before catching a night bus to Ica.

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We had read and heard from many travellers that Ica did not offer much to do and it could be quite dangerous so the place to stay was the Oasis town surrounded by sand dunes just 15 minuets away, Huacachina. This little town consisted soley of hostels, hotels, restaurants and bars built around a small lake. The main attraction here is the dunes. We booked straight into a sand boarding and dune bugging excursion for that afternoon. The dune buggy took us flying through the sand dunes up to the top of dunes for us to slide down from, the beauty of it was that we didn't have the walk back up the top after sliding down as the buggy could collect us and take us to the next dune.

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On our second day in Huacachina we visited the Regional Museum of Ica. The mummies, deformed skulls, story of brain surgery with exhibited skulls, trophy heads, wigs and hair pieces were highly fascinating. That afternoon we went on a Pisco distillery tour which took us to 2 bodegas for a tour and tastings. We tried plain Piscos, Pisco sour mixes, and fortified wines. The second distillery was interesting as it had collections of many antiques as Incan artefacts, artworks, old collectables, animals skins and much more. That afternoon we trekked up a huge sand dune that overlooked Huacachina and watched the sunset.

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The following day we caught a bus up the coast to Lima, the capital of Peru. We quickly confirmed what we had heard, that there is nothing much to do in Lima. However, Peruvian cuisine is considered to be in the top 5 worldwide and Lima is the culinary capital of the Americas with Ceviche being its specialty (something we have become quite fond of). We decided that while in Lima we would spend the vast majority of our daily budgets on sampling the best Ceviche in town. The last place we tried, La Mar, owned and run by Peru's best chef Gastón, topped with us consuming a degustation plate of different 5 ceviches, a mixto causas plate and a Pisco Sour accompanied with nibbles and sauces. 2 of these restaurants were the best we had been to in South America. A nice treat after the budget friendly backpacker meals we have become accustomed to. On our last evening in Lima we checked out the water fountain show with Harry and Nicola.

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We are now in Huaraz with Nicola, Harry, Jade and Paul who we met on our jungle tour and have been catching up with along the way since. We are all staying in a lovely little b&b together. Huaraz is renowned for its hiking trails so we are planning on a few short day hikes here.

Posted by Scott-Georgie 14:21 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

The 5 Day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

all seasons in one day 18 °C

Machu Picchu is widely considered to be South America´s number one drawcard and attraction. Some travellers take transport up to the site for the day from Cuzco but many backpackers opt for a multi-day hike to reach the mystical Inca site. The most popular and world famous route is the classic 4 day Inca trail but we had decided before leaving home that we would take on the 5 day Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu. The main reason for this is that the Inca trail requires booking at least 3 months in advance unlike the Salkantay which can be booked a few days in advance in Cuzco. Also, we liked the fact that the Salkantay is considered a more naturally scenic trail and has far less hikers and is also more challenging. The only downside is that we had to forego ruins that are found along the Inca trail but we figured we would see our fair share of ruins at Macchu Picchu on the final day. This trek would turn out to be the best thing we have done in South America despite having many 'why are we paying good money for this' moments along the way.

On arrival in Cuzco we went to about 10 of the hundreds of tour agencies in town. We were quite picky with who we booked with as we needed a company that could provide a porter for our big bags for us as we didn´t want to carry too much weight with our bad backs and we had to make sure they were a registered company through iPeru as many dodgy companies don´t give you what they promise. The trek didn´t get off to a great start when we found out that we had been put with a different company to the one we had booked with. We had a bit of a blue with our tour guide Jerry as he said some of the conditions we had been promised would not be fulfilled by their company but in the end everything worked out alright and we got along well with him. Our group had one porter and a horse and two cooks who somehow whipped up hearty meals for 14 people half way up in the middle of nowhere half way up cold mountains and woke us up every morning bringing coca tea into our tents.

The first day we hiked for 18kms in about 8 hours. Quite a bit of uphill which got progressively tougher as we rose in altitude and the air got thinner. Luckily we had a bag of coca leaves and apart from getting very out of breath, we didn´t suffer from any altitude sickness. This first day was very picturesque (as was the entire trek) with lush green hills and mountains, passing cattle and small villages. After we set off in the morning and after lunch we were amazed to see the porter and cooks with the group´s heavy bags race past us and have the tents all set up and ready by the time we arrived. We quickly became accustomed to this each day. As we approached our camp at the end of the first day we could see in the distance the snowy Willapampa mountain range including Salkantay (in Quechua means savage mountain) - the most spectacular peak of the region. That first night wasn´t really our idea of a good time, -5 degrees in a tent. After an early dinner we jumped straight into bed our shivered our way through the night despite being in many layers.

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Another early start at 5am on day 2 saw us climbing for 4 hours in the morning a 1000m to the high point of the trek, just over 4600m. This was said to be the longest and hardest day of the trek and it turned out to be 22kms in 10 hours. The going was very slow up the mountain and by noon we had reached the Salkantay pass with glorious views of the mountain. The next 3 hours down to lunch were more pleasant with the altitude dropping and the temperature rising with every step. Just as we set off after lunch the heavens opened and did not hold up all afternoon. Unfortunately for us this part of the path was not at all rocky and the dusty path turned into thick, wet, sloshy mud. Even more unfortunate was our decision to not take anyones advise and invest in some hiking shoes unlike the rest of the group. Scott particularly struggled in old hole ridden Dunlop Volleys and quickly found himself well behind the rest of the group trying the slide down the path in the completely submerged shoes. Our only saving grace was a walking stick we had bought at the start point of the trek which saved us from hitting the deck dozen of times. Despite the rain and mud this section of the trek was actually quite fun and the change of scenery was dramatic as we had now dropped well over 1000m and found ourselves in sub tropical rainforest. We reached our camp late in the afternoon. It was slightly warmer than the previous night but with no other footware and no showers we had another pretty unenjoyable night.

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Salkantay Mountain Georgie_102.jpg

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High point of the trek Georgie_105.jpg

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On day 3 we all set of with our soaking wet muddy shoes for an easier day of 6 hours and 18kms on flatter terrain. Although the distance was much the same, the good path, easy descent and lower altitude made the going much faster than the previous 2 days and we were relieved to find our shoes dry by lunchtime. We hiked along a skinny path half way up a mountain following the seemingly endless valley with gushing white rapids below. By this stage our bodies were starting to get sore. Although the earlier uphill sections were hard on the lungs, the downhill was much tougher on the calves. We reached our camp by mid afternoon and got taken to the nearby hot springs which were not only an absolute godsend for our tight muscles but were probably the nicest hot springs we have ever been to. After 2 hours of soaking in the hot water we went back to camp for dinner and as the evening temperature was a good 15 degrees warmer than the previous nights we had a few beers and played some cards with the rest of the group. It had taken some time for the group to gel, but after the third night we started to all get along really well. We had a very international group of Germans, French, Italian and a bunch of Brazilians who spoke only Portuguese. It was a full male contingent apart from Georgie.

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The morning hike on day 4 was by far the least scenic walking along a dusty road for 3 hours with passing traffic. After lunch was much nicer trekking the final leg along the train tracks with Machu Picchu mountain and Wayna Picchu mountain on the horizon. We reached the small town of Aguas Calientes late in the arvo after another 23kms for the day. In Aguas Calientes we were put up in a hotel with a room over looking the river which was just what we needed after 3 nights of camping to be fresh in the morning for a day exploring Machu Picchu. We had our final dinner with the group and got an early nights sleep with our last 4am alarm set for the following morning.

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We had 2 options to reach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, a half hour bus or walk 20 minutes to the base of the mountain followed by around 3000 steps up it. We all decided that we'd walked this far already that we may as well walk the last little bit so out came the torches and we set off again. The one hour ascent up the mountain was grueling and we definately resented those who took the bus and reached the entrance just before us.

For our first hour and a half inside Machu Picchu, Jerry gave us a brief guided tour and it was difficult to concentrate on what he was saying as the site was so spectacular and we kept ducking off to take photos. The first few hours were nice and quiet as the day trippers from Cuzco would not arrive until after 8pm and even when they arrived the site was so spread out with many nooks and crannies to explore that it never seemed overly busy.

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Wayna Picchu in the background Georgie_250.jpg

After the tour we were free to explore the site and after a few hours of wandering around we made our way to the base of Wayna Picchu which we had booked to climb up at 10am. This was close to another hour of climbing with the steps becoming unbelievably steep and narrow the further we rose. When we reached the top we were rewarded with a glorious view of Machu Picchu, the surrounding valleys and the river below where we had started our climb in the morning. There were also plenty of ruins to explore at the top of the mountain which were mind blowing and we spent a good hour at the top discovering different view points.

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After climbing back down to the main site we made our way up to the famous view point to take the classic postcard pictures of Machu Picchu and checked out some other sites like the Inca bridge. By the time we walked back down the 3000 steps and back to Aguas Calientes we were truely knackered. We hadn't anticipated that we would be walking that much once we reached Machu Picchu but we realised we had been walking for 11 hours with barely a break to sit down. Back in Aguas Calientes we bumped into our Belgium friends who had just arrived so had a nice catch up with them before catching a train then bus back to Cuzco.

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We both agree that the Salkantay trek has been the best thing we have done thus far on the trip and Machu Picchu is the most impressive, fascinating and mystical place we have ever visited on our travels. The trek certainly wasn't easy but that has made it all the more memorable and it felt like a right of passage to view Machu Picchu on the final day. While the photos look amazing, they still don't come close to doing it justice.

We have now just arrived in Arequipa after an overnight bus from Cuzco where we are planning to do 2 or 3 days of hiking into the Colca Canyon. We may need a rest day or two before we embark on this next adventure.

Georgie & Scott x

Posted by Scott-Georgie 15:53 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Bolivia to Peru

Lake Titicaca to Cuzco

semi-overcast -16 °C

After Rurrenabaque we spent one final night in La Paz before heading to Peru. For all of those who have read the book "Marching Powder", the last afternoon we spent in La Paz we went to the famous corrupted San Pedro prison but only as far as the outside. We had been asking travellers throughout our trip if the illegal tours in the prison were running but it appears the police have cracked down on it especially since the book has been released. To our surprise the prison is located near the centre of town and only covers a small space, 1 block. The front gate looks out onto San Pedro square. We were lucky enough to be there at visitor time so watched a line of women and children going in. Crazy to think that they live in there, as detailed in the book. Georgie tried to take a sneaky shot over the guards heads but was told off. For those who have not read it, the prisoners have to make money inside the prison in order to survive - ie. opening a restaurant or running errands. The prisoners have to pay for everything including their prison star. The richest prisoners cells resemble studio apartments with flat screen tvs, internet kitchens, etc.

leaving La Paz we encountered some difficulties just to keep our trip exciting. On arrival back in La Paz we both needed to get cash out, long story short we tried 26 ATMs with our credit cards without success and being a Sunday afternoon no banks were open. We had read of a dodgy ATM in Rurrenabaque and thought our cards had been frozen. We resorted to using our Aussie debit card which comes with a large fee for international use but luckily it worked. Now with money, we booked a bus to Puno, Peru. Puno is a town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. We had wanted to visit the lake on the Bolivian side from Copacabana and doing a tour of Isla de Sol (Island of the sun). Unfortunately a strike had been going on for over a week with no end day insight blocking all roads to Copacabana.

So we had booked a bus to Puno which included transfers from our accommodation to the border with a guide who would help us cross the border and both passport controls then to a Peruvian coach on the other side. After a massive line at the Bolivian Passport control we reached the desk to be escorted straight to another area. To our unbeknownst, unlike other countries that we had visited with a 90 day limit, Bolivia had just a 30 day limit. The officer calculated 19 days extra at a rate of 20BOB a day, 380BOB each. We were about 100BOB short each. We tried to explain that we did not know and showed that we didn't have enough Bolivianos to pay. We asked if there was an ATM anywhere and was told there were none in this town. We went outside to see if we could see our tour leader but him along with the group must have crossed into Peru. Eventually, the border official said he would just take all of the money we had and stamp us through. Classic Bolivia. We crossed the border and our guide found us and pushed into the line with the rest of the bus group for Passport control in Peru. When we got to the front of the line we experienced short delay as we had not filled in our arrival form that the Bolivian control had neglected to give us. This only delayed us behind the group by a max of 5 minutes. With our bags already in the coach we hurried to meet it but saw it drive off as we were running about 200 metres behind it. We chased it down the road believing it would realise we were not on-board and stop but on it went. With no money, no luggage, no jumper and no ATMs or credit cards that would work in a cold empty border town we felt a little stuck (not for the first time on this trip). There was no ticket office that we could ask to call the bus company to tell it to turn back, we had no money to make a call or buy another bus. We went to several hostels thinking they could help but they were abandoned. Looking as sad and desperate as possible we approached Puno bound bus who said we could catch a ride and withdraw money on arrival. On arrival the ATM in the bus station didn't work so we had to catch a taxi with a man who worked on the bus into town.. and success our cards decided to work again plus our luggage was at the terminal! We complained to the bus company and got a small amount back because we had paid for 2 busses. The Peruvian pisco sour went down very well that night with dinner.

We booked a 2 day island tour of Lake Titicaca from Puno the following morning. We travelled from the port for half an hour to the first stop that morning, the Uros Islands, a group of 80 plus artificial islands made of floating reeds . These islands are built by the native people by diving into icy water during the wet season and cutting clumps of reeds out. These reeds are only grown in shallow waters of around 2 metres in depth and the location of the islands is at waters of 17 plus metres. These people relocate these clumps and complete a series of processes in order join, anchor complete the little islands. The whole process takes a year to complete and an island will last for 25 years before it rots away. We got to visit one of the Uros Islas, have look inside a tiny reed house, meet some families and could buy their handicrafts. We also took a short slow trip on their traditional reed boat.

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Lake Titicaca is huge, in fact it is the largest high altitude lake in the world. Most of the time we felt like we were on the ocean. It took us another 3 hours (on a motored boat) to reach the island of Amantaní. Here we were separated into couples and assigned with a "Mama" to stay with on the island as the island has no tourist accommodation. Our Mama was Aleje and she took us back to her house and made us feel at home. We met her family, ate an amazing and generous home cooked lunch, dinner and breakfast. The locals on all the islands speak the native inca language of Quechua but they all learn Spanish in school so we could converse a little. We guessed later on that the family must have misunderstood us as Austrians as they asked a lot of questions about Europe. Late that afternoon we met with the group, were provided with information about these people's way of life and hiked up to the Pachamama (which in Peru means Mother Earth) shrine on the top of the island, where we watched the sunset with a 360 view of the lake around the island. These people's way of life is based around indigenous traditions and the term "ima??" (Mine today, yours tomorrow, one for all, all for one).

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That night after dinner our mama dressed us up in traditional clothing and took us to a welcome fiesta in the community hall along with the rest of our group and their mamas. We watched and danced to a panpipe band.

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After breakfast the following day we said farewell to our mamas and headed for the smaller island of Taquile. Here we climbed the top of the island where the little town sat. We visited a small market and leant about the weavings on this island, which are said to be the best in South America. We were informed about the different hats or shawls worn by single or married men and women. Also about the importance of weaving and that a man was not worthy to marry if he had not knitted a hat of good enough quality in his family patterns. No foreigner can buy land on this island, the only way a person can move to the island is via marring a local and they have to learn to weave in order to do so.

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Tourism is becoming important to these islands. The income gained by tourists buying their handicrafts or spending the night in their homes helps them to send their children to University in Puno and buy supplies in Puno, 3 hours away. These people still believe in Pachamama, the Mother Earth, and celebrate her in the hope for rain and crops. They still also practice natural medicines. Younger generations are now moving to the cities and not returning and the people are scared that there traditions and way of life will be lost. Tourism also helps to educate others of these traditions and bring money here so their children won't have to live away.

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After spending one more night in Puno we caught a bus to Cuzco. Cuzco is the archaeological capital of the America's. We have been staying in a newly opened guesthouse with the British couple we met on our jungle tour, Nicola and Harry. As it is not on many websites yet it has been quite nice having virtually the whole place to ourselves. Cuzco is one of the most beautiful cities we have seen in South America so far. The city centre is lined with cobble stone streets, huge Inca built walls, and colonial buildings that lead to impressive plazas. There are many architecturally appeasing cathedrals and houses, at a glance you would think you were in Europe.

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We have spent just under a week here exploring the streets along with much time in tour agencies trying to book the 5 day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. In Cuzco there are hundreds of tour agencies, some located in shops and others handing out flyers on the street. We read that you should do a check with the information centre to see if a company is registered, as there has been many issues where a fake companies hiring an office for a day, selling tours then disappearing. We found that several of the companies that had official offices were not registered when we checked. It took us two days to find a official company that offered what we wanted in our price range.

During our time here we have visited the Museo Inca, Chocomuseo (chocolate museum), Plaza de Armes and other Plazas, some markets, galleries, and climbed to the Christ statue (similar to the one in Rio) to be rewarded with a view of the city and of some Inca ruins. We also did a tour of Moray and Maras, located in the Sacred Valley. Moray is an inca site. Historians believe it was built as an agricultural laboratory that was most likely used to cultivate varieties of vegetables high in the Andes. Maras is made up of many salt mines or evaporation ponds also constructed by the Incas.

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Tomorrow we have an very early start and begin the gruelling 5 day trek to be rewarded with visiting Machu Picchu on the final day. We are very excited though a bit nervous about the prospect of 5 days straight of trekking.

Posted by Scott-Georgie 12:25 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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