Tag Archives: Island

Volcán Concepción, Nicaragua

The towering cone of Volcán Concepción on Isla Ometepe looks imposing when crossing Lake Nicaragua towards it. The closer the perspective, the more intimidating the peak, which usually has a cap of cloud atop it…

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But on the rare occasion when the clouds do disappear the full cone is visible in all it’s splendour. This was how it was the day before we were due to climb it.

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When looking to climb one of the two volcanos on Isla de Ometepe, I’d decided on Volcán Maderas, Volcán Concepción’s little sister. I was told that both volcanoes take the same amount of time to climb, but Volcán Maderas was muddier and less fun. So, eight of us from the hostel booked Volcán Concepción instead. We hoped for another beautifully clear day but we were to have no such luck.

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We met our guide during breakfast in the town of Moyogalpa and caught a chicken bus for 20 minutes to the trailhead where we began walking along the trail strewn with rocks and sand.

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We followed the track for 30 minutes, stopping to peer up at a group of Howler Monkey’s in the trees. It’s amazing how much noise these small monkeys actually make.

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The trail abruptly became steeper and our climb began. The trail began fairly steeply through the trees on roots and dirt steps. While the climb wasn’t overly hard, it seemed harder because of the humidity. We stopped regularly for 5-minute breaks, although there were no views available through the trees.

The only forewarning we had of coming to the tree line was the cool wind, a godsend in the humidity. When we did break the tree line we emerged into the clouds which again obscured our view. We stopped in a windy spot to decide our next course of action and managed to get a cloudy shot of the island below us.

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Then came the difficult decision: continue climbing to the top covered in cloud the entire time with no visibility or head down to a more scenic viewpoint. We decided to climb a little further but after ten minutes and being battered by cold winds in the dense clouds we turned back, deciding to take the scenic path instead. This upset two of the climbers, both of whom wanted to get to the top no matter what.

We followed a thin trail around the side of the volcano and dropped below the cloud line to a point where we could finally get some decent photographs of the island below and the lake around it.

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We continued climbing around to a large crack running down the volcano where lava had flowed years earlier. We took a break on the hardened lava.

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The lower we climbed, the more the mainland of Nicaragua could be seen on the other side of the lake and beyond that in the distance, the Pacific Ocean.

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As we neared the bottom, we looked back up the great crack in the side of the mountain.

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And because we hadn’t come back down the same way we’d climbed, we had to walk ninety minutes back across the island to Moyogalpa.

Overall, the hike was not as difficult as expected, although it may have grown more so had we pushed on through the clouds to the top. I’m not unhappy to not have made it to the top, as without pictures it would have been an empty victory.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua – Adventures by Scooter

Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua) is the 19th largest lake in the world taking up about 7% of the country’s land mass.

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Easily visible from the lake’s western shore, the largest island on the lake, Isla de Ometepe, is home to two volcanic cones, Concepción and Maderas. It’s these two volcanoes that bring much of the tourism to the island.

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There are several ways to get around this 31km long island: by bus, bicycle, scooter, dirt bike or quad bike. While the bus doesn’t go very often, the bicycles can be rough on the hills, the dirt bike requires a prior riding history and the quad bikes were expensive, my friend from the hostel and I chose the scooters.

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After picking up the scooters we decided to ride to the end of every paved road on the island before going to any of the attractions. It’s exhilarating riding down hills at a top speed of 90km/h with the wind flowing madly past, then screaming to halt at the many speed humps across the island, some taking us by surprise as they were unpainted. With the threat of having to pay for any damages, including scratches, we were overly careful.

As we rounded the island we stopped to take in the view of Volcán Maderas still covered in clouds.

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It took only 90 minutes to ride all of the paved roads. The first of the island’s attractions was windblown Santo Domingo Beach with a kite surfer and a cloud drowned Volcán Concepción in the background.

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Next we stopped for a swim at Ojo de Agua – Eye of Water, a natural spring pool on the flat area between the two volcanoes. While the water wasn’t as warm as expected, it wasn’t too cold either. Great for a swim on a warm day!

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As we rode, the clouds cleared completely from the volcanos for the first time in 2 months. Volcán Maderas which last erupted more than 3000 years ago…

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And Volcán Concepción, erupting last in 1986…

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On the way back to town we stopped at the Conservation Park ‘Charco Verde’, and climbed a hill to get a view of Laguna Charco Verde, the largest lake on the island on the lake.

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Then as we walked around the laguna we came across a family of monkeys high in the trees…

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Lastly, we found our way to Punta Jesus Maria for a relaxing beer at the end of a great day.

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After an hour at the beachside, we drove back to town, dropped off the bikes and headed to the hostel for another beer.

There were more places on the island we could have visited, but most were inaccessible to our scooters. These included other beaches, a waterfall, and several other towns. But even though we missed them, we still had a full day and enjoyed the experience.

Next, we climb the cone of Volcán Concepción.

The World Wanderer

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – Impressions

Thirty kilometres north of the Costa Rican border on the Pacific Coast is the beach town of San Juan del Sur (San Juan of the South). The town is known to tourists as San Juan del Surf because of its proximity to several good surf beaches.

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The oddity of the name is apparent when you realise that San Juan del Norte (San Juan of the North) – situated on the Caribbean Sea, is actually further south.

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For over 130 years San Juan del Sur was a little backwater town in southern Nicaragua, then in 1992 a tsunami destroyed a large portion of the town. Its recovery was helped greatly by the ‘gringo’ invasion, with many migrants arriving from the US, Britain and Canada. Scattered throughout the surrounding hills are many mansions and resorts…

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At the northern end of the cove is the statue of Jesus de la Misericordia – Christ of Mercy.

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It’s one of 17 giant statues of Christ throughout the world. The most famous being Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. La Paz, Bolivia has the tallest at 34m, while San Juan del Sur’s Jesus de la Misericordia is the 9th tallest at 26 metres tall.

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Climbing the hill to the statue is fairly easy, a cobbled road weaves it’s way to the top. While it’s steep at points, it’s not too strenuous and gives great views of the cove and township.

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Beyond surfing and swimming, the nightlife is the other main focus of the town as there are many beachfront restaurants and bars. As a large portion of the tourists visiting are in their 20’s, there are plenty of party hostels with raucous parties raging on until the wee hours most nights. But don’t let that put off the older traveller…

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Overall, the beach town of San Juan del Sur is a great way to spend a couple of days, the surf town vibe is relaxing and fun.

Next, I head to Isla Ometepe, an island made up of twin volcanos in on Lake Nicaragua.

The World Wanderer

Volcán Barú, Panama

Barely 37km from the border of Costa Rica is Panama’s tallest mountain, Volcán Barú. At just under 3,500m, it’s still considered high altitude but is really just a molehill compared to 6,000m tall mountains of Andes. Volcán Barú is commonly climbed for the rare possibility of seeing both the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean sea to the north. It’s rare because the view to the Caribbean is often blocked by a layer of clouds.

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There’s two ways to the top of Volcán Barú, either taking a 4×4 vehicle tour or to hike. The hike is difficult and long at 13km from the trailhead to the peak (with a 1,750 climb in altitude) before 13km back again. What makes it a challenge is most people begin climbing at midnight, aiming to see the sunrise from the summit after walking 6 hours in the dark. Hiking 26km makes for a long day at the best of times, but beginning at midnight makes it just nasty. I even tried to nap in the afternoon, but only managed an hour, which was nowhere near enough.

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Getting to the trail head is fairly easy, with one of the hostels offering transport for US$5. Then after a very short briefing, we were pointed off along a wide track and told to just keep climbing no matter what forks in the trail we see. Except for 3 short descents, the 13km was a steady climb along the wide rocky trail. When you’re hiking at night all you have is your head torch and the ground directly ahead of you to look at.

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We were lucky to be walking under the full moon, so it wasn’t always necessary to use the head lamps. But even in daylight there would be little to see, as there are trees along both sides of the trail. We did come to several locations where we looked down upon the township of Boquete. The lights were beautiful but fleeting and too distant for good photos.

Getting to the summit for sunrise was not my aim, so I took is more slowly. When sunrise did hit, I was still half a kilometre from the summit but was able to watch it, seeing the same view as I would have from the top.

Unfortunately it was around this point where altitude sickness struck. It felt like someone had split my head in half and prodded at the insides with their fingers. As I climbed the last of the trail to the radio tower buildings at the top it grew worse and I started to feel ill.

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The last 500 metres was steeper than the rest and when I made it to the top I found the howling wind rough. I found a secluded spot and put on some warm clothing. When dressed, I looked around the buildings and took photos of the surrounds.

To the south was the city of David and the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui beyond.

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To the west, Costa Rica.

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On the other side, I discovered the buildings were not at the absolute summit, as there was a rocky outcrop that climbed perhaps 30m higher. To get to the top was a rocky scramble, but with the state of my head and stomach I decided against it. The cross on top is the highest point in the country.

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From the northern side of the summit I was out of luck with seeing the Caribbean sea but instead clouds fading away into the distance.

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While I sat huddled out of the wind, one of the girls from my hostel found me and sat with me while I brewed a cup of tea using my hiking stove.

The walk down was very long but straightforward. The trail descends for most of its length except for three points where it climbs. Half way up the first and longest of the three climbs, my tiredness gave out and I lay down on a large rock for a power nap, letting my friend walk on alone. I woke forty minutes later slightly refreshed and no longer feeling the altitude.

The rest of the walk was more of a stagger although I did manage to catch my friend again. We discovered there were many wild flowers growing along the trail but was too exhausted to take photos beyond this one…

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We passed some of the lookouts and caught daylight glimpse of Boquete…

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We eventually made it to the end of the trail and exhausted, booked a taxi through the ranger before being whisked away back to the hostel for a shower and a well deserved sleep.

Overall, the hike up Volcán Barú was okay. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t suffered altitude sickness at the end and if we’d started at a more reasonable time. While walking at night was fine – it’s cooler out of the sun and there isn’t much to see anyway – the main difficulty is the length. To make the hike more enjoyable, I would make it a two-day hike, camping just below the summit, climbing to see the sunrise early on morning two before the long walk back again.

The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Bocas del Toro, Panama – Impressions

Not far from the Costa Rican border on the north-west Caribbean coast of Panama is Bocas del Toro. Meaning ‘Mouths of the Bull’ in spanish Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s primary holiday destinations for both locals and travellers alike.

Bocas del Toro refers to many places: first the province, then the archipelago within the province and the provincial capital on Islá Colón, which is also known as Bocas Town. The island is named after Cristóbal Colón, the spanish name for Christopher Colombus, who visited the islands in 1502 looking for a way through to the Pacific.

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Getting to Islá Colón is easy, either catch a 30-minute water taxi across the bay from the town of Almirante or fly in from the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. You can’t miss Bocas Town when crossing the bay as most of the shoreline around the town is utilised by hostels, bars and tour operators.

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The town itself feels very much like you’re in a surfing town. January being high season, the town is bloated with tourists, most of them early to mid-twenties, surfboard clad and heavily tanned.

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I call Panama the 51st state of the US, not only because there are so many americans here or that the US dollar is the currency, but because most people speak english, in a U.S. accent. Bocas del Toro is no different, with its upmarket hostels, shops and eating places, including a fantastic indian restaurant that I just had to visit twice.

While on Islá Colón, one of the easiest way to see the islands is via a sailing tour. They take a group out on a pair of catamarans to several choice spots around the islands.

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This included two different snorkelling spots, which would give me the opportunity to test out my new underwater camera. The first part of our mini cruise was to a bay they have nicknamed Dolphin Bay because of the dolphins that come to play around the boats.

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Then it’s off to the first snorkelling spot. Flippers aren’t really needed as the water is not deep and you float around a coral reef surrounding a mangrove island in a place they call Starfish Bay.

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While there I swam with a pair of jellyfish. Cool to look at under the water, but I wasn’t letting them get too close.

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The water was not the clearest, but at our second spot, there were more coloured fish and I got some shots of the brightly coloured coral.

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There are several beaches on the islands that are well visited by tourists, but at an expensive US$5 to get to the sand, I decided against going.

For the three days I spent on the island, I managed to stay in three different hostels. On arrival, I discovered the hostel I wanted to stay at was full (you can’t prebook online), so I booked in for the next two days and went searching for another hostel. The following day I discovered my booking was no longer there. This time they located another hostel for me and ensured I would get a bed the following night. On the third day I finally got the bed I wanted and spent the day just relaxing on the side of the channel.

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During the midday hours it gets rather hot in Bocas del Toro, even in winter, but all you need do is roll out of the hammock and into the sea to cool down. Then in the evening they set up a band and we rocked out to the sounds of Sublime, Blink 182 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Next, I head back to David for the night, then up to the town of Boquete, a tourist town in the mountains.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 3 – Northern South America

Peru

As I left Bolivia I made my way around Lake Titicaca and along the Andes to Cusco, capital city of the Inca Empire more than 600 hundred years ago. Cusco was built in the image of the Puma, a holy symbol of the Incas.

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Cusco’s a popular tourist destination because of it’s closeness to Machu Picchu. To get to the ruins many people walk one of the expensive hikes in the region: the infamous Inca Trail, The Salkantay Trek or The Jungle Trek. While these hikes are said to be amazing, the expense and length of time needed to prebook put me off. Instead I caught the train to Aguas Caliente, the township at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, and climbed the near 2000 steps to the ruins. At altitude, these steps are still hard going. The ruins felt like Disneyland because of the huge number of tourists but it was still beautiful to behold…

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After Cusco, I travelled to the city of Arequipa, the southernmost city of Peru. Near Arequipa is the county’s third most popular destination, Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is one of the largest canyon’s in the world, twice as deep as The Grand Canyon. The hiking there is very cheap and doesn’t require a guide. I explored the canyon for three days, including the final climb, a kilometre straight up.

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After Arequipa I headed down from the Andes for a time, stopping at Huacachina, a small town near the ocean renown for its massive sand dunes. I spent an afternoon sand boarding down the slopes.

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Next was a visit to the capital, Lima. I stayed in the tourist zone of Miraflores which felt like I was in the centre of any other city in the world. I then moved to the historical centre and this was more to my liking with great architecture and a distinct lack of tourists.

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I continued north and back into the Andes to the city of Huaraz nestled between the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. From Huaraz a group of us hiked the four-day Santa Cruz trek, with one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever completed.

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From Huaraz, I made my way to the far northern coast and the country’s second most visited destination, Mancora. Mancora is a beach town where I stayed for four days in a cabaña 20 metres from the Pacific Ocean. After the Santa Cruz hike, it was great to just sit and enjoy the beach for a few days.

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Ecuador

I left Peru and headed across the border to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, where I made plans to visit the Galapagos Islands. Two days later I was on a plane – my first since arriving in South America – and a few hours later landed on the famous archipelago. After booking a four-day cruise around the islands, I made friends with a Uruguayan guy at the hostel and spent the days prior to the cruise exploring Santa Cruz island with him, including a great swimming hole and the Giant Tortoise sanctuary.

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The cruise was amazing, I enjoyed snorkelling through the icy waters and swimming with penguins, fur seals, sea lions and sea turtles. On land there were many bird species including Blue Footed Boobies, the smaller water iguanas and the large land Iguanas.

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Back in Quito, I met some friends at the hostel and explored the city with them, including some amazing architecture, the original site of the equator and the newer more technologically accurate equatorial site. I had also prearranged with some locals to hang out with and spent a week enjoyed their company.

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With my friends from the hostel, I headed north for a weekend to the adventure town Minca buried in the rainforest, where we hung out with Hummingbirds, zip lined ourselves crazy and generally enjoyed our stay.

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Next, two of us travelled south to the city of Riobamba where we hiked to the amazing crater lake of a collapsed volcano called El Altar. Most hiking in Ecuador must be done with a guide, but the two of us enjoyed the three-day hike without one.

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Then we headed south to the southern city of Cuenca where my friend headed into Peru and I explored Ingapirca, the ruins of an Incan Fortress.

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Colombia

Then it was back to Quito for a last few days before I headed north into Colombia, to the city of Cali where I stayed for three days. I explored the city via a walking tour, learning its history, and climbed one of the hills to the local statue of Christ.

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From Cali I headed north via a very winding mountain road where the bus driver thought he was formula one driver. After the humidity in Cali, Bogota was cold. I’d prearranged to meet some people in Colombia’s capital and they were so friendly I stayed for three weeks to spend more time with them, including attending a huge Pop Culture Festival…S.O.F.A.

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Bogota is not well set up as a tourist destination but during my stay I caught a cable car up to a temple of the hill giving awesome views across the city.

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Then with general sadness at having to leave my friends in Bogota, I headed north to Medellin, a more popular city for tourists and home town of the late Pablo Escobar. I hung out at a New Zealand owned hostel and between a couple of nights partying I took a walking tour, both with a group and a separate one with a couple of guys from the hostel.

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Next I headed to Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean Sea where I hung out for a few days in the extreme humidity. Cartagena’s Old Town has a great stone wall around it that once protected it from pirate attacks 500 years ago. The entire old town is a world heritage site.

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Further along the coast is a small beach town of Taganga where I stayed for a few of days. It was a quiet little town away from the bustle of the larger Colombian cities.

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From Taganga I booked and walked the four-day jungle trek to find the Lost City, an amazing ruins of the local tribes that had been abandoned 500 years earlier. The trek was humid and sweaty, and this made the long climbs up clay trails more difficult. Swimming in the icy rivers were highlights of the sweaty days.

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After a couple of recovery days in Taganga, I headed back to Cartagena to say farewell to South America. After 9 and a half months of amazing adventure, it was sad to say farewell to the continent, although my travels were not yet at a conclusion. In Cartagena, I booked a cruise on a yacht with 11 others to make my way through the Caribbean Sea to Panama, and the beginning of my Central American adventures.

This will be an adventure I will never forget.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 2 – Central South America

After a 20 hour bus ride from Patagonia, I arrived in Mendoza, Central Argentina. Mendoza is a wine region and boasts some of the best red wines in the world. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of red wine before, after my time in the city I was a Malbec convert. One of the fun things I did while in the City of Steak and Red Wine was to spend the day enjoying some aguas calientes, a set of hot pools near the city. While this might seem strange for a desert city, it was amazing and included a huge buffet lunch.

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Around Mendoza are several wine areas and the best way to see them is via bicycle tours. The wine was delicious and cycling around the area after many glasses of wine was both crazy and fun at the same time.

Beyond the vineyards, the tallest mountain of the Andes, Aconcagua.

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Next I caught a bus across Argentina to Cordoba, the country’s second largest city. While staying in the city I got out-of-town to Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito – Condor Gorge National Park – for a long day walk in the heat.

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Next I headed to the Buenos Aires and stayed in a different area of the capital from the beginning of my trip. As I knew I was heading back to the city, I made contact with a friend of a friend and organised to hang out with him and his friends while I was in the city. They were very friendly and I stayed in the city over two weeks to spend time with them.

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During my stay in Buenos Aires, I caught a ferry across the river to the Uruguayan city of Colonia. While I could have stayed in Uruguay longer I was happy to see the more expensive country for the day and get the stamp in my passport. I enjoyed learning about the city and the country in a guided tour.

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I then bused headed north for my final Argentinian destination, Puerto Iguazú. While the township was very touristy, it had good reason, Iguazú Falls is one of the more popularly visited places in the region. While it had been raining the day I visited the Argentinean side of the falls they were still like nothing I’d seen before. I even took a boat to get right up close to the spraying water.

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The following day, I took a bus across the border to the Brazilian side – Iguaçu Falls. While it’s the same set of falls, it’s a totally different sight and you get closer to the Devil’s Throat, a formation of rock that water pours into from three sides. Both Argentinian and Brazilian sides are a must see if travelling to this end of the world. It was then back across the border to Argentina for a final night before booking a bus to Rio de Janiero.

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After a 24 hour bus ride to Rio de Janeiro – the longest trip in a bus I would take – I found the city to be dirtier than expected. It also gave me a sense of danger I hadn’t experienced in either Argentina or Chile. I’d booked a cheap hostel near the location of Carnival and it turned out to be the smallest hostel I’ve ever stayed in, squeezing 18 people into the space most hostels would fit 6. It also only had one bathroom.

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The hostel aside, the natural wonders of Rio were amazing. I visited Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain and took a bicycle ride along both Ipanema and Copacobana beaches.

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I then took my second 24 hour bus ride to a city called Campo Grande in western Brazil for an overnight tour through Brazil’s Pantanal. The Pantanal is a vast swampy area south of the Amazon. It’s similar to the jungle in many ways, just without the trees. We spent the night on the border of Brazil and Paraguay (the closest I would get to the landlocked country). On arrival we ate Piranha, the mean looking faces leering up at us from the pot. The next morning, we took a boat trip along the river to fish for more Piranha…

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…and to see Caimans, smaller cousins of Alligators.

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Then it was over the border and into Bolivia. As soon as you enter it’s obvious that Bolivia is the poorest country on the continent. The roads are bad, the towns are dirty and the buses are owner operated family affairs and include the kids running up and down the aisles while badly dubbed Steven Segal movies are blasted very loudly. My first stop was the city of Santa Cruz, where I stayed at a brand new hostel for a couple of days before heading on to La Paz.

La Paz is a bustling city high in the Andes and when I arrived my head was exploding from the altitude. It only took a good night’s sleep to recover, thankfully. While the entirety of La Paz is terracotta in colour it grows on you as you explore the city centre and beyond. The lights at night are amazing up the walls of the bowl the city is built in.

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Using La Paz as a base, I had many adventures in Bolivia. For a start, you can’t come to the city without hearing about or doing Death Road. Death Road is a crazy stretch of dirt road 65km long and famous for the cliffs on one side with no barriers. It gets its name from the people who have plummeted to their deaths from it. Riding down it on a bike is one of the most thrilling and fun things I’ve done on this trip.

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Next I hiked along an alternative route to Death Road called El Choro, through cloud forests and past my first Incan ruins. During the hike I climbed to the highest I have ever hiked, 4900m, and at that altitude the climb was intense and difficult. It was a great hike and also my first with a guide. Not something I relish, preferring to carry all of my own gear and cook my own meals.

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Then I caught a bus to Uyuni for a 3 day tour around the Salt Flats and along the Andean High Plains to the three-way border of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The Salt Flats are like an inland sea without the water.

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There were so many different terrains on the high plains and many stunning views. We visited some very interesting places, like the lodge made entirely from blocks of salt where we stayed on the first night. Views across Lago Roja – Red Lake.

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Then it was back to La Paz where I managed to suffer from food poisoning, an illness everyone seems to get in Bolivia. Don’t trust the street food! For my final days in Bolivia, I caught the bus up to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. After a day tour to Isla del Sol, I booked a bus into Peru…

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Next, Part 3 of my Look Back Series where I complete my time in South America by working my way to Colombia.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 1 – Patagonia, South America

Patagonia is at the southern end of South America and is an area that is jointly owned by both Chile and Argentina. Patagonia contains the tail end of the Andes mountains, the second largest ice field in the world and is predominantly set up for tourism with is brilliant mountains, amazing lakes and so many hikes you could walk around it forever. Thankfully, that was the primary reason I came to Patagonia.

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I arrived in Usuhaia, Argentina in the last days of summer and was stunned by the beauty of the mountains and the seas near the most southern city in the world.

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With Autumn came low season and a slowing down of the tourism industry. This didn’t mean there was a lack of people, just not as many. And, if anything, it was a good thing because the numbers in high season can be overbearing. In Ushuaia, as I waited for a boat to Antarctica I did several hikes in and around the Martial Mountains.

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After a 12 day trip to the White Continent…

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I left Ushuaia for a 12 hour bus trip to Punta Arena, the southern most city in Chile, for a two day stop of before heading to Puerto Natales, another 5 hour bus ride north.

Puerto Natales has a large tourism industry set around two places, the southern fiords of Chile and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile’s most popular and most expensive national park. I spent a couple of days in Puerto Natales preparing for my hike before heading to the national park where I spent 9 days hiking around the Torres del Paine Massif. A fantastic hike.

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Back in Puerto Natales, I made the decision to catch the Navimag Ferry though the patagonian fiords, but I also wanted to head into Argentina to hike around Mt Fitz Roy. So I decided to do both. I booked the five day ferry trip and with several days before it departed, I caught a 5 hour bus across the border to El Calafate in Argentina.

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There is a famous glacier near El Calafate in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares called Perito Merino. But after coming back from 9 days hiking, and having seen plentiful glaciers in Antarctica, I decided to just rest in El Calafate for 3 days before heading north to El Chaltén. In El Calafate I had, perhaps, the best Asado – BBQ – I’ve had in South America.

El Chaltén is 3 hours by bus from El Calafate and is set at the north end of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The town principally supports hiking around Mt Fitz Roy, which is another name for Chaltén. For three days, I walked what I call the Fitz Roy Triangle around the mountains to see some wondrous peaks and lakes.

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Then I was back on a bus to El Calafate for the night before then heading back to Puerto Natales once more.

The following night I was on the Navimag Ferry and was preparing for the trip. The ferry left Puerto Natales at 4am the following morning and wended its way south west to pass through a thin gap before heading north. That was when the rain started and it stayed with us for the rest of the trip. It was a shame because we missed a lot of the mountain views due to the low clouds. So the only thing to do was to stay inside and get to know some of the travellers.

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I arrived in Puerto Montt at the end of the journey and made my way to my Hospedaje, a home stay style hostel. Compared to the small relaxed towns of lower Patagonia, Puerto Montt felt like a bustling atrocity set beneath a might volcano.

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I guess it was just the more people all in one place. After a couple of days around town, I headed 2 hours north by bus to Osorno with the intention of hiking the Puyehue National Park and climbing a small volcano. I hitch-hiked out to the parque to find it had been closed because of a missing hiker. So I stayed the night in a cabin before flagging down a bus heading to Osorno.

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Three hours north of Osorno, again by bus, is the town of Pucón. Pucón is a beautiful little town on a lake and below a large active volcano. Every tourist seems to climb the volcano, so instead I’d planned a 6 day hike around the base of both it and the one behind it. All I needed was a nice space of fine weather, but after a fortnight the break in the weather never come. The time wasn’t wasted, I spent much of the time writing. Before leaving Pucón, I caved and climbed the volcano…

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A day or so later, I said a final goodbye to Chile as I crossed the border back into Argentina to the city of Bariloche in the Lakes Region. In Bariloche, I decided to take a 2 week Spanish course,  But on the weekend prior I climbed to Refugio Lopez near the top of Cerro Lopez to look down upon the lakes that give this region its name.

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A week later, during my weekend off study, I climbed Cerro Catedral and stayed at Refugio Frey next to a frozen mountain lake.

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After my second week of study, I travelled a 100km south to the small not very hippie-like, hippie town of El Bolson. It would have been nice to have hiked in the mountains there, but due to the time of year, it turned out to be a rather uninspiring visit.

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After two nights, I was back to Bariloche for my final days in Patagonia before heading north by bus for 19.5 hours to the warmer wine regions of Argentina – Mendoza.

My trip to Patagonia was wondrous trip through the southern portion of South America, reminding me very much of the South Island of my home country, New Zealand. And being such a vast place, you just can’t see all of it. Perhaps one day I will come back and explore more of it…

Next, I head around northern Argentina and then through Central South America…

The World Wanderer

Colombia to Panama Cruise via San Blas Islands

 

After nine and a half months in South America it’s time to make my way north into Central America. I’ve mainly travelled by bus around the continent, but as the border between Colombia and Panama is said to be controlled by guerrilla groups and dangerous – whether true or not – I decided to look for other options. Because I’m carrying excess baggage I avoid flying so I decided on a 5-day cruise through the Caribbean Sea via the San Blas Islands instead.

The San Blas Islands are to the east of the Panama Canal and of the approximately 378 palm covered, golden sand islands, 49 are inhabited.

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The boat I booked was the Luka, a 56’ yacht that has been converted into a cruise vessel. For the 12 passengers and 2 crew there are few rooms and most are crammed. Because I’m a solo traveller I drew the short straw of sleeping in the saloon. While it’s not ideal, the couch like seats are longer than the berths in the rooms, and as I’m 189cm (6’3”) a longer bed is better.

Day 0
We all arrived at the dock at 8pm and were ferried out to the yacht where we waited in the calm of the harbour. We were due to leave at 10pm but it was closer to midnight before we set off. Eventually we set sail under motor which caused many of the rooms to be rather hot overnight, even with their built-in fans.

Cartagena Harbour at night…

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Day 1
No-one slept well and two of our number suffered major seasickness overnight, spending the night on the deck throwing up. I woke very hot and tired after 9 hours sleep. With the motion of the sea and the heat of the cabin, I couldn’t stomach breakfast. Standing up also caused me to feel sick, so I went back to sleep until the early afternoon. When I awoke I also couldn’t stomach lunch so went on deck where the cool wind made me feel a lot better. There wasn’t much to see though, no sea birds or land, only the waters of the Caribbean sea and the very occasional dolphin – too quick for the cameras.

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I stayed on the deck for much of the rest of the day enjoying the sun and the cool of the wind. While it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and I’m told it’s snowing in parts of the US, I’m spending most of my time in just shorts, even late into the evening. And though I slept for most of the day, without anything else to do I was ready for bed at 10pm. With the flashes of lightning on the horizon we prepared for a rainy night.

Day 2
It did rain overnight, while not heavy it meant we had to close the hatches which increased the heat of the rooms below deck. I woke early, not surprisingly, and just hung out in the galley until breakfast was served. After breakfast I went on the deck and enjoyed the breeze on the overcast day. Along one side we could make out the mainland as the San Blas islands came into view.

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The smaller San Blas islands reminded me of the islands of the Pacific – beautiful golden beaches, palm trees and not much else, all surrounded by reefs that keep out the heavy seas. We were ferried across to one of the islands, known as Turtle Island because sea turtles are known to lay eggs here in September.

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The day was spent hanging out in hammocks on the beach, swimming, eating and drinking. What else is there to do on a virtually deserted island in the Caribbean sea?

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In the evening, we cooked beef skewers over an open fire as we continued to take in the surroundings. After dinner, the weather turned against us and it began to rain. After the first shower, several of us headed back to the yacht. We’d only just made it when the clouds opened and it poured, drenching those still on the island.

Day 3
In the morning, the captain went to pick up the three passengers that had chosen to stay on the island for the night. While there was a hut where the locals lived, it was not the best in rain, so the three slept little as they shivered in the cold and wet.

After breakfast, we set sail for the next group of islands. While we were told it was only 45 minutes away, it took us nearly 2 and a half hours to get there in the heavy cross winds. When we arrived, most of us couldn’t wait to get over the side and into the clear warm water.
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Then after lunch, we were dropped off at one of the islands and left to our own devices. While it had been gorgeous weather when we’d arrived, it turned sour after an hour or so, so we headed back to the boat where we hung out for the afternoon swimming between showers.

While we were on the island, the captain had brought a bucket of Lobsters to the boat that was to be our dinner. This was to be our only taste of seafood on the trip.

Day 4
In the morning we sailed for another set of islands. These islands were actually only 45 minutes from where we had anchored the previous day. We were ferried to one of the larger islands and hung out on the beach drinking beer in the sun while a bronzed blonde girl kite-surfed back and forth along the beach.

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After midday we were ferried back to the boat for lunch before many of us swum out to a small desert island not far from the boat. I made it to the island without issue, but because of an old sports injury, on the return trip my shoulder locked up and I had to be collected by the crew. A little embarrassing, but you get that.

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In the afternoon the captain changed his plan and instead of sailing overnight for Portobelo harbour, our end point, we set sail at 3pm instead. Most of us slept through the rocky 8-hour journey as it was difficult to sit on deck. We were woken for an early dinner, then it was back to sleep again until morning.

Day 5
We woke on our last day to the dirty brown waters of Portobelo harbour and waited while the captain took our passports to immigration.

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Panama has recently passed a law requiring travellers to show proof of onward travel out of Panama or suffer a US$105 tax. Onward travel must be in the form of airline tickets. This has resulted in most travellers creating false flight tickets to avoid this absurd tax. While the rest of my boat mates had copies of real or fake tickets, I did not. As it turns out it didn’t matter and we finally got to land without any further fees.

A Not So Good Cruise
While I’ve painted a fairly positive picture of this cruise, it wasn’t all happy travels. Beyond the rough seas, rainy afternoons and the chap who was sea sick for the entire 5 days – none of which could be helped – the cruise was particularly badly organised. The Owner didn’t come with us on this cruise, so the two Panamanian crew had free rein. The captain spoke english well but the chef did not. Briefings were non-existent, so for the most part we had no idea what we were doing each day unless we pestered the captain, who gave us information that changed regularly. Sure, trying to estimate travel times when winds go against you is hit and miss, but the different between 45 minutes and 2.5 hours is vast even for an experienced captain in the region. Then dumping us on an island and disappearing while the locals on the island hound us for the US$2 per person entry fee is poor form.

The cruise was not cheap, but having hot dogs for meals 4 times was not acceptable. In fact, beyond the BBQ Crayfish and the beef skewers on the beach (which we made ourselves), most of the meals were sub par, including stale breakfast cereals, stale bread and potato slush.

Overall, the trip was an experience and while the location was great with the beautiful islands, pristine beaches and seas, the cruise itself was a great let down.

Next I explore Panama City…

The World Wanderer

Galapagos Islands Cruise

The Galapagos Islands are an amazing set of volcanic islands just under 1000km from mainland Ecuador. There are several ways to see the islands each with benefits and drawbacks:

  • Pre-booked cruises are the most popular means to see the Islands and are commonly booked from the mainland. They are perfect for those with only a short vacation time but can also be the most expensive.
  • Booking a Last Minute cruise when you arrive on the islands is more suitable for long term travellers or those with plenty of available time. The cruises are up to half the price of a pre-booked cruise but there may be some wait before departure day.
  • Island hopping is possibly the cheapest means of seeing the islands and can be tailored to however long you have available. They take more work to organise and you can’t get to some of the more distant islands the cruises can take you to.

For my trip to the Galapagos, I simply flew to the Islands and booked a Last Minute 4-day cruise. The cruise started several days after I booked it, giving me time to explore parts of Isla Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora.

Day 1
The day began early with myself and my Uraguayan friend leaving the hostel at 7a.m., having a quick breakfast in town before catching a taxi to the bus terminal. After a 90-minute mixed bus and ferry ride we arrived at the airport where we met our tour guide and some of the other passengers. We were taken to the boat, the Estrella del Mar – Star of the Sea. The boat’s passenger capacity was 16 and my friend and I were the oldest of the group.

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Onboard the Estrella del Mar we were given a delicious lunch and as we sailed to our first destination, Isla Bartolomé, had a chance to get to know the other passengers. As we travelled the choppy seas and the rocking of the small boat caused me to feel a little sick, so I took some sea sickness pills I had left over from my Antarctic cruise.

We arrived into the calm waters of Bartolome Island in the early afternoon and donned our wetsuits. We were dropped off on the shore and snorkelled for an hour around the pinnacle – a large piece of weathered rock sticking up at the edge of the beach.

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While there wasn’t any coral, there were plenty of fish. As we swam we located several Galapagos Penguins hanging out on the rocks and the occasional Galapagos sea lion doing the same.

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There were also plenty of small colourful crabs climbing the rocks so I swum in for a closer look. As I got nearer to the shore, I went underwater and came face to face with a White Tip Reef shark sleeping in a small cave under the rocks. While they aren’t usually aggressive, I was still cautious for the few minutes I watched it. I did eventually get a shot of the colourful rock crab.

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After returning to the beach, we were taxied to the boat where we changed before being delivered to another part of the island, to hike to the top of a volcanic hill. There were great views and our guide was very knowledgable about the formation of the islands.

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After the hike, we returned to the boat for dinner while it headed north. At about 11p.m. we cross the equator.

Day 2
Our cabin was on the lower level at the front of the boat. So, while we were in motioned overnight, the cabin was very hot even with the air conditioning on.

In the early hours of the morning we arrived at Isla Genovesa, an extinct volcano where a massive sinkhole had filled with water to form a natural harbour. After a large breakfast, we were taken in the zodiacs to the beach, where we went for a short walk around the beach and a small patch of mangroves. This allowed us to see several nesting species of birds, black Marine Iguanas and fur seals, including this cub.

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We then changed into our wetsuits on the beach before heading into the water. We snorkelled for about an hour in the fairly murky water. We saw plenty of fish similar to yesterday, but little else. We were taken back to the boat briefly before being taken across the bay for more snorkelling. This is the only spot on our cruise where Hammerhead sharks are commonly seen but after an hour in the water we had no luck. I had fun swimming a little way down the shelf that drops off to a depth deeper than the ships sonar can see, making it more than 350m deep.

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Back on the boat, we had lunch and relaxed for a couple of hours. Many of us napped after a long morning of swimming. When we were ready, a small group of us were taken to third spot in the bay for yet more snorkelling. It was calmer and warmer in the water as the sun had broken through the clouds during lunch. We swam along the wall of the bay, the rocks climbing up about 20 metres. We were joined by a couple of sea lions, but they only played for a few minutes before heading back to their rocks. We snorkelled on, but saw little more.

Lastly, after heading back to the boat for a shower, we climbed to the top of the rocky wall and walked through the hardy trees to see more wildlife. We spied the Blue Footed Boobie, a Petrel, a rare sighting of a Galapagos Owl – which actually hunts during the day – and a lovely pair of boobies, Nazca Boobies that is…

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After the hike, we were taken back to the boat for dinner and an early night following a very busy day. During the night we headed back across the equator and it was again very rocky aboard.

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Day 3
Overnight the rocking of the boat caused me to feel very sick, but only in my cabin, so I forwent my usual evening movie and just went to sleep. And this was after having taken seasickness pills. I awoke in the morning to calm seas and felt much better.

After a hearty breakfast, we set about getting ready for our first activity, a short hike across South Plaza Island to see some wildlife.

We started on the beach where many fur seals were sleeping.

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We then walked along the rocky trail stopping for photo opportunities and discussions about the flora and fauna. Among the various species of birds we spied a land Iguana. This one is a metre long.

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Then it was back to the boat and off across the strait to Isla Santa Fé where we had lunch and prepared for another walk. We landed on the beach amidst plentiful napping sea lions…

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We walked along a rocky path seeing two species of lizard, the metre long yellow land Iguana…

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…and the 10cm long gecko.

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Then, it was back to the boat to change into our wetsuits in preparation for our final snorkelling session of the cruise. Swimming in the bay at Isla Santa Fé makes me want to buy an underwater camera. Firstly, there were playful sea lions and I finally found my first coral in the waters. It wasn’t very colourful, but some coral is better than no coral. Then, as we snorkelled across the small bay, we were joined by sea turtles and stingrays sucking at the sand on the bottom. All in all, an excellent snorkelling session for our final day.

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Back on the boat, we set sail for Puerto Ayora harbour where we dropped anchor for the evening.

Day 4
The final day on the cruise was a little disappointing. When booking the cruise, we enquired if they would be going to either the Giant Tortoise colony or to Charles Darwin Research Station, where they look after the young animals. We were told the cruise would finish at the Research station, so prior to the cruise, my Uraguayan friend and I headed up to see the Giant Tortoises. As it turned out, the group was taken to see the Giant Tortoises. But instead of seeing them again, we called an end to our trip and headed back to the hostel.

Summary
Overall, the cruise around the Galapagos Islands was great. While the islands don’t feel as tropical as other Pacific Islands, the diverse species of animals, especially the ones that are native to these islands were amazing. A most enjoyable cruise.

After a couple more days in the Galapagos Islands, I fly back to Quito.

The Trail Wanderer