Thursday, 30 September 2010


Saying farewell to my dear family, I was on the ``alone`` road again.
My time in Ecuador went by very fast, and so this post would probably sound as a run-through, even though each day was a regular one (just a bit closer to the equator).
Guayaquil to Quito:
Buying a bus ticket in Ecuador is quite funny, all fair prices are set by the hour of the ride.
The bus ride from Guayaquil to Quito is said to be an 8 hour ride - and so, one would pay 8$US for it. Before doing so, I checked the bus, and was happy to find out that it has a toilet - good news! After 4 hours on the bus, I really needed to pee. Trying to accomplish my goal, I found out the toilet was locked (electronically! in Ecuador!), and so went to ask the driver`s assistant if I could, please, use the toilet. No (he replies). The toilet is just for the ladies. Next absurd request was that he would stop the bus so I could quickly empty my waters. Lucky you (he says), we`re just about to stop! Andean style, we stopped only an hour later, and still I had to beg in order for the bus to wait for me those 2 minutes. FYI, the bus ride itself was 11 hours, and not 8.
In one word ``scary``. In another ``horrifying``. I got to the capital at night and took a cab to a hostel I checked out on the web. The owner warned me non-stop, to not walk around alone after sunset. The streets of Quito, magically, empty totally from 18:00. Doors shut, windows close, and guns are fired. To complete the picture, I met a girl in my hostel that was robbed in broad daylight, in a main plaza, threatened by a knife! I chose to walk my day tour in Quito in mid-day, and with nothing on me - there for, no pictures - sorry. I also decided to run away from Quito as fast as I can.
Just 2 hours (once you manage reaching the northern bus terminal of Quito) away from the Ecuadorian capital, lies Otavalo market. On an everyday basis, there`s a regular South-American touristic market in the main plaza. But on Saturday, all the streets around the same plaza become a market. Touristic & local together. Chickens and pigs are being sold, fruits and vegetables, weird local dishes and more! Do I have to explain what the touristic side looks like?
Volcan Pichincha:
Back in Quito (sadly), I met a German guy named Dennis in my hostel. We both heard together about climbing volcano Pichincha, and how close and easy it is. So we joined forces and went together the next day. Dennis & I had really good fun (no thanks to the clouds who just did not move from the pick, there for - we were climbing in the middle of the clouds), and connected really good. Dennis then agreed to follow me to my next stop - the Quilotoa Loop.
Quilotoa Loop:
Knowing we both haven`t got the time to walk all the way around (like one should!), we shortened our way and took a bus strait to the village of Quilotoa. The famous lake is located inside a crater, an awesome view (from top or from inside).
We saw the crater the day we arrived to the village, and were attempting to walk our way to the village of Chugchilan the following day. We asked for directions from a couple arriving to the village that same day from Chugchilan.
After walking all day on the dirt-road between the villages, we understood that we got pretty bad directions (there`s a walking trail somewhere...). The views were still spectacular, and we got to meet some very good ``finger`` photographers on the way.
Arriving early to Chugchilan, we just didn`t have the power to leave the hostel (once finding one...), and we just read our books until dinner. In our hostel, we met two Quito friends of Dennis, a Dutch couple (in their late 40`s?), They were both really good story tellers, and had lots of around the world adventures to tell about.
The next morning, we took a ride on the milk truck (the only morning ``public-transportation``). This was a unique experience for all tourists (an Irish & 2 Australians were also on the truck) riding it! The milk-men would pick-up buckets of fresh milk from locals waiting on the road, and give them back milk for their usage (apparently processed). The milk truck took us to a bigger and less remote village, where we could wait for a bus to the big town of Latacunga.
The touristic town of Baños is the smallest noisy town you could find. It is a vacation town for Ecuadorians, who happened to have a holiday just on the same weekend we were there.
The bible said the bike ride is nice, and so we rented bikes and rode down hill towards Puyo.
Dennis doesn`t really know how to ride a bike - and so he almost got himself killed.
Turns out - it`s a waterfall route! Every 500 meters or so, there was a cable-car, crossing to the other side of the river, and closer to the waterfalls.
Locals were going crazy! Back and forth on the cables!
We decided to check what all the fuss was about, and crossed to see a very high and impressive waterfall from up close. When trying to reach the pool underneath it, we were asked to pay another 50 cents. We refused. Instead, we found a trail leading up above the waterfall. It was a nice short walk, but then we were asked to pay another 50 cents to see the top of the waterfall from up close - guess what?
The way back from the top of the waterfall was free, and we just walked on the road back to our bikes.

The second entrance we payed for, was the highlight of the waterfalls! Pailon del Diablo is an amazing contrast between the black rock and the white water rushing though it. The face of the devil shows in the rocks - giving the place it`s name.
Our second day in Baños was passed by a short walk to ``Bellavista`` (the beautiful-view), it wasn`t.
From Baños, I continued alone. Dennis drove back to Quito to pick up Niels (his German friend) from the airport.
Never believe French people - that`s what I always say. Well, this time they were speaking the truth. The train from Riobamba was closed.
Parque Nacional Cajas:
Heard about it by mistake, from Eshel (my friend in Israel). The best way to describe this wonderful park would be ``a high Patagonia``. Covered with green marshes, interesting hidden lakes appear behind each hill. small creatures & flowers are spread, shy to the strange person walking around looking for them. Last ans most important - I haven`t met a human being ever since stepping into the park in the morning and until leaving it, early afternoon.
Vilcabamba (The Sacred Valley):
Located in the perfect location on earth, the villagers of this quiet town are proud of living in the only place in earth were climate doesn`t change all year round! I got here late at night (with mud from Cajas still on my shoes), and took a day off just to relax in this wondrous place. Somehow, it was still vacation time in Ecuador - and locals were everywhere! Unlike Baños, in Vilcabamba you don`t feel the load of people`s presents.
The next day I went up Cerro Mandango (the sleeping god) with Cora from Ireland, I met on the bus from Loja to Vilcabamba. The mountain actually cliffs of ``conglomerate`` and from it we could see the whole valley beneath us. On the way down we tried finding our way through the dangerous ridges - adventure!
On my last day in Vilcabamba I took a horse ride into National Park Podocarpus. I fell in love with my energetic horse ``Media-Noche`` (mid-night), who liked nothing but running!
Goodbye Ecuador, hello Peru.

Tips for Ecuador:
- Quito - If you, like me, don`t like big cities. You wouldn`t like Quito. Just try and stay away from it.
- PN Cajas - One of my favorite places in Ecuador. Don`t miss its wonders. If you`re going, arrive before it opens (07:30), and you`ll save the 10$US entrance fee.
- Vilcabamba - Renè from La Tasca Tours is a very nice & informative person who would love to help. He also owns the best horses in town.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Islas Galàpagos

*Note: knowing the difficulty of writing this next post - I`ll try not to use the saying ``WOW`` too often.

Before flying to the wonderful islands, we had no choice but to stay one night in Guayaquil. Guayaquil in 2 words: Tel-Aviv, and in a bad way. It`s hot, humid, crowded, and the taxi drivers will take advantage of you. Lets not talk about this horrible place any more.

In order to enter the islands one must pass through strict nature preserving stages:
1. Scan your big-bag at the Guayaquil airport for any kind of organism.
2. Pay the 10$US entrance fee to I don`t know who...
3. The air-crew will spray your handbag on the plane to kill any other organisms.
4. Pay the 100$US entrance fee to the National Park.
5. If you plan on crossing between the islands alone - another inspection on every island.

Landing on Baltra island, the friendly-chubby looking guide awaits the group: 8 loud Italians, a couple from the Czech-Republic, and us (a loud 6 person Israeli family). 16 per. in total.
We all drove off to the closest pier where we got to meet our boat (Guantanamera) and crew. Waiting for the rubber-boat to transfer us we already got to see wildlife in action! Blue-Footed-Boobies dive arrow-like dives into the water, Brown-Pelicans scouting for pray on the dock & boats, and Magnificent-Frigates just hover around the sky waiting for the weaker birds to make a mistake and catch something.

First stop for the boat was Bachas Beach. A good start. The rubber boat landed us on a sandy beach, and not long past before we saw the big, black Marine-Iguanas. Lots of Crabs nest on the black rocks near the water as well. I say it`s good because you get to see bit by bit, and can get used to the fact that wildlife in the islands - is just not scared, and very up close.

South Plaza Island was an improvement! The best place to witness the great Land Iguanas. These creatures resemble small dinosaurs. they are up to a meter long and have a greenish color to their peeling away skin. Their favorite food is the huge Cacti (leaves, fruits, everything!) which they wonder around looking for all day. We also got to see colonies of Sea-Lions, cute and make you want to hug them. But what really caught our eye - was the exotic Red-Billed-Tropicbird, long tailed and just pretty.

Last stop of the day - Isla Santa-Fè. A sandy beach filled with Sea-Lions resting & cuddling welcome us into this paradise. Mocking-Birds, Lava-Lizards & the Galàpagos-Dove were the new animals we got to meet on this island. We even got to see Blue-Footed-Boobies - well, we thought it was up close just then...

At night, the boat would sail the long distances - So every morning we would wake up to a new scenery. Morning of day number 2 brought of to Isla Española. On this trip, the animals were all sitting & posing on the trail. making us (the tourists) circle around them, or try and not step on them - in the case of the Marine-Iguanas. These black creatures appeared in bigger and bigger groups each time, cuddling in order to maintain their body heat. The Blue-Footed-Boobies were dancing, the white Nazca-Boobies were flying all around, but then...we reached animal heaven.
The Waved-Albatrosses are AMAZING! At first we didn't know how much. They were just sitting there, nesting. Then we saw them walk around - and do their special mating dance (if it doesn`t fit - you`re not it!). And then - they flew! With a wingspan of 2.25 meters they just look like F-15s in the sky. They can`t really lift themselves up, so they always nest next to cliffs - that way they just have to jump. Amazing! or did I say that already??

The next day was not supposed to be anything special. Punta Cormorant, on Isla Floreana is a dead (without animals) beach, but what we witness was really unique. A female turtle, was late to return to sea - and was in the middle of digging her way out of her hole. All we had to do - was to wait for her to get out, and just watch the show.She was really scared of all the tourists waiting for her outside of her hole (almost circling her), she almost regretted ever coming out of her hole - but then took all the courage she could grasp - and ``ran`` her way back to sea. She was really slow on the sand, but once her body touched the water - she was gone.

The next stop of the day was also on Isla Floreana. Post-Office-Bay is know mostly for it`s weird tradition - There is a Postcard-Barrel on the beach, and ever since pirate times, people leave and pick-up post-cards & letters and have them delivered to their addresses. So we left our own - and took some as well (from Israel!). Apart from that - we went to see a Lava-Tunnel, and witnessed the football match tradition played by the crew members of the boats.

4th day, and we thought we saw everything. Santa Cruz island is the most populated one. Puerto-Ayora is the biggest ``city`` on the Galàpagos islands, and it`s the most touristic as well. probably 90% of the income of this town is tourism. Who can blame them?
On the Santa Cruz island is the famous Charles-Darwin-Research-Station, where people come to see the giant Land Tortoises, and the celebrity ``Lonesome George``. You can also take a tour deeper into the island and witness the giant tortoises in the ``wild`` (it`s still a preservation park).

After civilization, we got back to reality. Isla Rabida invites us back to nature with Cacti without spikes! No Land-Iguanas on this island made it possible for these strange trees to develope.
The Pinnacle on Isla Barthalome, leaves you breathless of the world`s creation. On Barthalome, we climbed a volcano, saw a smaller one from the top, lifted some very ``heavy`` rocks, and got to see where Darwin slept ;)

On an everyday basis, we would go on snorkeling dives. The water was cold, but there`s a whole other world underneath the waves. Sea-Lions would make you wonder who`s the tourist - as curios as a two year old, they would swim around us, getting near our faces with their mustaches and then swimming away. Chewing our yellow fins. Barthalome was the best dive for most of us. Dad & Inbal got to see a race between a penguin & a shark! Penguins swim like torpedoes in the water, and you get to see them just for a glimpse of a second.

Surviving the toughest night of our sailing life (we had to cross the equator some how!), we were happy to reach Isla Genovesa. North-East of all the islands, this is the only place to see the Red-Footed-Boobies & Great Frigates. The Red-Footed-Boobies are unique and nest on trees. the also have red legs and blue bills. When in juvenile stage, they have a white body which all together resembles the American flag. The Boobies and the Frigates are both sworn enemies. Even so - they nest on the same tree, and usually - on ``neighbor-branches``. Frigates destroy the Boobie`s nests, rebuild them - and live there - and vice-versa.
Genovesa itself is a volcano. The boat`s harbor is the crater, and the land is the underwater mountain`s perimeter. The most special animal on this island in my opinion is the Galàpagos Owl. Not like any other owl - this one prays during the day! It is very hard to spot due to it`s magnificent camouflage.

North Seymour was the last island in the cruise. Here we finished of our ``check-list`` by seeing the Magnificent-Frigates with their inflated red sacks. They inflate their sacks only during mating season, and due to the fact that on North Seymour, the Frigates nest all year long - it`s most likely to see them inflate their red sack on this island.

The end of the cruise means the end of Galàpagos, or does it?
My family decided we`re going to live this once in a lifetime experience just a bit more...
The boat left us where it picked us up on the first day: The airport of Baltra island. From there, we had to take a bus, a ferry, another bus and a speedboat in order to reach Isla Isabela. On the first two days, we were obligated to a tour we booked for seeing the island. Included in the tour, was an evening tour (not worth you reading time), a walk up to see Volcan Sierra-Negra - the world`s second largest crater, which erupted on 2005. And a snorkeling dive near the island.
The climb to the volcano wasn`t as hard as we thought it would be. The so common open sided truck took us almost all the way up, from there it was a 3 hour ascent (not to steep) and a 2 hour descent on the way back. The crater itself is amazingly black.

The snorkeling afternoon also got to be great fun. We found a very pleasant turtle which didn`t mind us petting it and swimming next to it for almost half and hour. I saw my first spotted ray!

We heard about Campo-Duro by mistake, and did not know what to expect from it. Turns out it`s the personal little heaven of the crazy-briliant-minded owner. He took management of the place with a vision of turning it to an ecological farm for the use of tourists and tortoises alike. The national park lets him raise about 20 juvenile tortoises. If you`ll be nice - he`ll also let you in to their farm. He built ecological showers for the use of the campers, and invented his own ``egg tree``.

The day after that (our last active day on the Galàpagos), we took a walk to see ``Muro de las Lagrimas`` (The Wall of Tears). This wall was erected by convicts in the first half of this century when this area served as a penal colony. Many prisoners died during the work of the construction, giving it its name.
On the way to the wall, there are beauty spots with explanations about the fauna, flora and geology. There`s also another tortoise research station on the way, which experts in the unique species living on Isabela island.

The next day was a crazy transport day. Speed-boat, private-taxi, ferry, bus, plane & another taxi is the list used in order to get in one piece from Isabela island to Guayaquil. Not easy.
That night was the last of me and my family together (until my return home...), and so we celebrated in a very good meat-stake dinner. Thank You!

Tips for Islas Galàpagos:
- Española & Genovesa were my favorite islands. If you have to pick - pick at least one of them.
- Bring some snacks with you - after 4 of 8 days, you really get sick of the chicken/fish with your rise.
- Try and bargain your snorkelong gear into the bargain. We added a lot of money after knowing the deal was already ``all included``.
- If you`ve got the extra time, staying on one of the islands is not as expenssive as the cruises. Isla Isabela and Campo-Duro are recommended.

The Nazca Lines & Dunes of Huacachina

Clean, finally. We were on our way to witness the odd but unique Nazca Lines. The Lines were
made by an ancient culture. No one really knows why and how they were created. Some even
believe it was aliens! The size of each formation is so big, you can only see the whole picture from
a flying aircraft.

Arriving to Nazca, early in the morning. That fact, doesn`t bother at least 5 annoying ``company`` agents to hover over our backs as we lean to pick up our luggage. They didn`t wait one second, and offered us bottom line prices for the desired flight. As always, I tried to dispatch from them by saying the common ``No, Gracies`` - but nothing helped. It was the first time I ever yelled at a local in South America (hopefully the last). Someone should really remind them that it`s South America – and you`re supposed to wake up at 09:00, and not 04:00. Definitely not for harassing tourists!

After getting rid of most of them (some just wouldn`t give up and waited 10 meters away from
the crazy yelling Israeli), I slowly opened the wonderful ``Lonely Planet`` (AKA the Bible), and got to learn that in Nazca – an annoying crowd awaits the arriving (you don`t say!?). Oh, and don`t take any tour from the street agents. Apart from that – nothing useful – as always.

We took our shit and made our way to wait for a proper hour, when the companies (and bakeries!) are open. Mom, Inbal, Kobi & Igal were waiting (dying to pee!) in the main plaza, while Dad & I were searching for a good deal for the flight.

At last, after passing and bargaining our price through all the agencies in town (5). We made our
choice, and went to the just opened cafe next to the plaza, to wait for the time of the flight.

A van took us to the airport. Entering, we got to learn that all the agencies in town, are actually
one, and there is an annoying monopole over the whole business. We waited, watching the NG movie on the screens, and boarded the planes (two of them, 4 per. & 2 per.). The flight is short, and it is highly recommended to stay sharp for the whole 35 minutes given (the time includes take-off and landing).

The ride on a very small plane has its fun all by itself, adding the Beautiful Nazca-Lines underneath is even more exciting! I, personally, felt like a photographer of an army unit back in the times of WW1, taking secret photos in a too small plane. Passing over a Peruvian village brought me back to my army days and the hundred of photos of Palestinian villages I was responsible for. A Bolivian/Peruvian Village usually resembles a refuge camp

The weather was perfect, and the Lines showed themselves with all pride. Each passenger gets
a map showing the order of appearance of the formations. It`s like filling a Bingo-card. ``V on the Astronaut``, ``V on the Monkey!``. The pilot makes sure everyone (on both sides) of the plane saw the Lines as should, and goes on to the next. Over every drawing he ends up making the figure 8, and by the end of 14 figures, even the most experienced traveler gets sick. Good thing it`s just 35 minutes…

The Dunes of Huacachina

The same day, leaving Nazca in the afternoon, we all arrived safely to Ica. No one stays in Ica. We took a 5 minute taxi, and got to perfect-oasis, Huacachina.

Imagine a pool-shaped lake. Now surround that lake with a small town, no more than two blocks of houses in each direction, closing it from all sides. From the edge of the town line, dunes grow wild, 100 meters high, and climbing. Add some palm-trees to that and walla! Huacachina.

It was already dark, and so, we found ourselves a nice hostel, the taxi drivers were extremely
helpful. Knowing that`s what we came for, we made reservations for tomorrow`s dune tour.

The tour is operated by a ``Buggy`` vehicle. The driver first took us up and down the slopes as
fast as he possibly could, and then suddenly, he stops. We all are told to step out. He reveals
the sand-boards, waxes them with what looked like a cheap Sabbath-candle. Gives a short
explanation to each one (in turn), and Weeeeee……

In my original plan for our family trip, I thought this part would be mainly for my younger brothers Kobi & Igal. I was proven wrong. Everyone had fun! We made a little contest between ourselves, who got furthest each time. Inbal won by a mile.

The love for sandy areas always surprised me, because every child learns, after his first castle on
the beach, that he is bound to stay with certain amounts of sand on him for the next following
weeks. And still, you find people playing in the sand all the time! I admit, I too am drawn to it, but I just can`t explain why.

Tips for The Nazca Lines & Dunes of Huacachina:
- All the companies in Nazca are actually the same one. Just find the cheapest and you´ll be alright. 60$US is about the right price.
- Stay in Huacachina - not in Ica.
- Going through the hostel we stayed in to the dune tour turned out to be a good deal. Check out if you can close both the night and the tour in the same bargain.