Tuesday, September 13, 2016

South America (Galapagos, Ecuador) Day 144: Yolita II day 1 - Puerto Ayora

It seems we have a habit of catching flights at the very last minute. We got up at 7:30 aiming to leave at 9, but I'd not realised that the airport was almost an hour away and given our flight was 10:40, it left us very little margin of error for checking in. After a quick shower, Felix put pedal to metal and we screamed along the freeway. It was looking like we might have a comfortable window until we missed a turning and then got stuck in traffic. With forty minutes to go before the flight, we arrived at the airport, said hurried but very grateful goodbyes to Felix, and headed to the luggage drop only to find we had to go to another desk to pay a Galapagos tax we hadn't banked on. Forty dollars later, we were checked in and running to the gate via a hasty stop for extortionately priced water (we had to get used to paying $3 minimum for 500ml it seemed, water giving alcohol a run for its money per milliletre). Somehow, we'd made the flight.

Two hours late we touched down. More fees ensued, including the $100 per person park entry, and a ludicrous $10 return bus ticket which is apparently free for other airlines...not TAME though! At the airport we were met by Padi, a guy who our upcoming couchsurfing host Andrés had pointed in our direction. He was offering a tour through his company for a very attractive price for 15 days. A little too attractive, it seemed. After some prodding, we found out he worked for Iguana Tours who I'd heard nothing but bad things about on the internet. After asking where his office was, he became incredibly evasive saying that everyone in town knew him - bars, hotels, restaurants - like he was some sort of mafioso. Then he said he was rarely at the office and that we should communicate via WhatsApp. The final straw was when he couldn't tell us what the grade of the guide he supplied was. This is important: all guides in Galapagos are registered with the government and graded from 1 to 3, with the lowest being competent but inexperienced, and the highest being very experienced. First he said his guides change each day so he didn't know what grade we'd get, then the story changed and we were assured our guide would have at least thirty years' experience. At that point we politely told him it was time to catch the bus, and beat a hasty retreat. Then it was onto a ferry, then another bus, before finally arriving in Puerto Ayora.

What followed was one of the most crazily stressful periods of my entire travelling history, which I'm sure Gilly will attest to. We'd not booked anything in Galapagos at all: day trips, cruises, even accommodation had been left to the last minute. This was deliberate, since we'd read (and been told by people like Richard and Sara who'd experienced it first-hand) that you can make serious savings by showing up and being flexible. The hotel was easiest. We got off the transfer bus and a woman offered to show us a room nearby in Costa del Sol Suites which ticked all of our boxes for forty dollars, pretty much a bargain on the island. That done, it was food time. We found a cheap eatery on "restaurant street" for $5 for a huge plate, and wolfed down grilled fish, chicken and carbs. Then it was time to find a cruise. We'd originally planned to island hop ourselves, and while you can certainly visit some of them on day tours and stay there if you like (Isabela and Cristobal), the outlying islands are only reachable on longer cruises. We started with Mockingbird Tours, where a guy called Sergio bombarded us with more information than we could process, with ever-changing itineraries and prices which we were simply unable to follow.

You see, on each of the Galapagos islands there are only certain spaces for boats to visit each day so itineraries circulate between boats; one week a boat might visit the southern islands including Floreana and then the following week head north or west. As such, you are left to choose from whichever boats are going to the places you want to visit at any given time. Furthermore, there are three classes of boat - tourist superior, first class and luxury. The comfort levels and the price increase in a mutually inclusive manner, so if you have an itinerary in mind but don't want to shell out five grand, you may well have to change your plans. We visited a couple of other agencies including Moonrise (run by an efficient lady who was big on boat knowledge but small on itinerary detail) and an agency near Mockingbird run by a guy called Jorge who only had a tiny boat which didn't hit the spots we wanted. Back with Sergio, we were on the brink of booking an 11-day excursion made up of the tail end of a 3-day cruise and a full 8-day cruise. The problem was that they wanted cash. This is something you probably won't read about: if you don't have thousands of dollars in hard currency and want to pay by card, you're looking at paying up to 21% extra in fees. It's absolutely crazy.

As we tried to work out how we could withdraw enough money on our two remaining cards when the limit per day combined was $800, we went back to the hostel to see if we could move our room booking to when we returned. The woman refused, and I couldn't really blame her. I'd stupidly paid up front rather than at checkout, so I'd basically just chucked away $40 for them to mind our bags for a few hours. She did point us in the direction of another agency across the road though, run by a lady called Yoconda. She seemed lovely, ran through all the itineraries we wanted but said the space that Sergio said was available actually wasn't. It seems that there are enterprising resellers of boat seats that buy rooms in bulk from the owners and then sell them back to agencies for a profit. So when we confronted Sergio about this, he was trying to get hold of the guy that had bought the seats that were supposedly going to be ours. However, he couldn't get through. It meant that we could definitely have seats for the first three days of the trip, but he was reliant on a) getting through to the reseller and b) being able to buy them off him.

The entire situation was farcical. It felt like I was in some sort of tropical Wall Street, with agency staff on phones all over the place buying and selling, haggling and pleading. We simply couldn't take the risk that Sergio would get us the room for the remaining trip, not least because he was leaving the following day to go on holiday for a month. Back at Yoconda's, she offered us a four-day trip leaving two hours later that night on a first class cruise - Yolita II - in a matrimonial room, with a potential option for moving to the Guantanamera if she could secure the seats before our end date, and if not, a free tour to the highlands. Tired, hot, and drained from all of the negotiations, we accepted. We forked out $600 each, I made a pit-stop at a pharmacy for sea-sickness tablets, cash from an ATM, and some postcards, then headed to the dock where there were two sea lions just sprawled out asleep on a bench, because why not?


Gilly told me that while I was away, Yoconda had told her we'd have two beds in our room, not the double we'd paid for. Surely she wouldn't have lied about that to us? We got on a zodiac to shuttle us to the Yolita, and found out that yes, she had lied. It wasn't the end of the world, since we just pushed the beds together, but I was furious at the deception. It seems that finding an honest agent in Puerto Ayora is near impossible. Yoconda was due to meet us when we docked near the airport at the end the four days, so I resolved to have a chat with her about ethics at that point. Until then, we were introduced to Briandy and Mani who were part of the serving crew, and who made us feel right at home, before collapsing into the (actually very comfortable) beds.


Unfortunately for Gilly, the motion of the waves proved too much, and I awoke a few hours later to her being violently ill in the bathroom. Somehow the sea didn't affect me, which was unusual as I normally feel at least a little queasy. Consequently, Gilly was exhausted from lack of sleep the next morning. Not the best start to a dream excursion, but thankfully this was as bad as it got for the rest of our stay on the islands.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

South America (Ecuador) Day 142 - 143: Guayaquil

Eighteen hours on a bus sounds like a lot, but when you're sleeping for eight and you have TV and films to watch as well as photos to sort out, it goes by pretty quickly. The worst part was just before we actually got to the border and had to disembark - the heat was unbelievable, at least 30 degrees. It was necessary to invest our remaining soles in cold things: ice creams, cold water and even colder beer (of course). Unfortunately the bus' air conditioning couldn't cope, so the remaining three hours were a sweltering mess, I was down to just shorts (leather seats are not conducive to sweat, as it turns out), and we were very happy to reach the cool climate of the huge bus terminal. Our Couchsurfing host was Felix who lived in Daule, forty minutes away from Guayaquil centre. He had kindly offered to collect us from the terminal along with his friend Jorge. While Felix spoke excellent English, Jorge barely spoke any so it was good practice for all concerned. Felix took us to a funky little resto-bar called Frutabar where we had a very good caipirinha and an excellent sandwich. After watching Brazil somehow come back from two goals down to equalise against Paraguay in injury time, we dropped off Jorge and Felix took us back to his house where we had a beer and after shooting the breeze for an hour, fell asleep almost immediately after.

As Felix was working the following day, he dropped us off at the bus station en route after a breakfast of eggs and fried plantain. Locals eat plantain with fresh cheese, but the flavours didn't really mix for me, so I ate them separately while Gilly devoured everything regardless. Felix had recommended visiting Parque Histórico, so after navigating the labyrinthine terminal and grabbing a cheap bus ride, we were at the park twenty minutes later. It was an excellent recommendation, consisting of a wildlife zone, historical zone and farming/urban zone, all free. The wildlife zone in particular was fantastic, filed with naturally acclimatised birds, reptiles and mammals, including a wonderful macaw which was happy to reply "Hola!" on request.






In the historical (or Malecón 1900) zone, there are some colonial houses which were rescued from Guayaquil centre and beautifully restored from dilapidation. Finally, a goat took a liking to my arm in the farming area, which was flattering, I guess. The park is shaded for the most part which is very handy when the mercury is as high as it was: pushing 35 degrees and uncomfortably humid. It's definitely worth a few hours walking around.




We retreated to the air-conditioned bliss of NOE Sushi for lunch to scoff some delicious rolls and a trio of desserts before getting a taxi to Malecón 2000. This is a relatively new pedestrianised park/green space, designed to improve the image of Guayaquil which was historically considered to be a dirty, unsafe city. We arrived too late to go to the museums but we were able to see an impressive replica of Henry Morgan's pirate ship and climbed a tower to take in the view of the area. Since we were going to the Galapagos the following day, we'd been advised to stock up on dry food since the prices on the islands were around three times the price of anything in the Ecuador mainland. We hit a supermarket and bought pasta, snacks and oil, before going to another branch of Frutabar for a happy hour cocktail whilst waiting for Felix to finish work.










He met us with his friend Consuela and we took a walk to Las Peñas which is one of the oldest districts in the city, filled with art galleries and bars. We stopped at two galleries to chat to the owners and look at their work before walking up the 444 steps to the still functioning lighthouse at the top of the district. The humidity was intense, so an air-conditioned bar was very welcome. Felix had a word with the bar staff, and the music switched to salsa; before we knew it, he and Consuela were teaching us how to dance the salsa in a tiny bar, with far more success than our brief attempt in Sucre. Apparently Gilly is a natural Latina. I'm more of a work-in-progress, which is an accolade far higher than I was expecting.


It was getting late and we were all hungry, so Felix drove us all around the area to try and find some food, not helped by a blackout which had knocked the power out in all of the blocks with likely restaurant choices. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon a Shawarma joint which was still open and served amazing crunchy falafel wraps. Couchsurfing, and in particular the hosts, never fail to impress. Everyone we've met had been genuinely wonderful, and we're really looking forward to opening our house to people in return when we get back to the UK. I couldn't keep my eyes open on the journey back home, but once there we packed as best we could (with help from Felix's two crazy cats Mars and Cairo) ahead of a 10:40am flight to the Galapagos the next day.


It had been a short stay in Guayaquil and we'd have loved to stay longer and explore more, but time wasn't on our side. Still, Felix had looked after us like a gentleman for the entire time and we were incredibly grateful for our two days there.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

South America (Peru) - Day 139 - 141: Trujillo

We didn't realise that there was a Línea bus office in town; Google had pointed us to a random part of a street which looked entirely unlike any sort of bus stop, but we took it on trust. Bit of a mistake - after a casual breakfast at California Café, we sauntered over to the location to find zero buses and ten minutes left until departure. A somewhat frantic search led us to the office five minutes walk further down the road, but thankfully we got our tickets and boarded without issue. The leather seats were the most comfortable we'd had on our trip to date, and the journey allowed us to watch a few shows and do a bit of reading with an hour break for a lunch at a Chinese fast food place in a mall. We arrived at Residencial Munay Wasi late afternoon, and were greeted effusively by a lovely lady named Carmella who immediately gave us more information about Trujillo than we'd ever use in our two and a half days in the city. The Easter period scuppered any plans we had to do laundry, leaving us no option but to hand wash our essentials in a throwback to our days in Thailand before we discovered cheap launderettes.

We set off to the university once it got dark to see the largest mural in South America adorning its surrounding walls. It was supposed to be beautifully lit up at night, but it seems that the administration had decided not to replace the lightbulbs embedded in the pavement, so all we saw of the potentially magnificent mural were shapes in different shades of orange. We decided to give up and head to dinner, specifically a steak place called Coco Torete. Here, a very patient waiter tried to help us choose a suitable cut of meat from a Spanish menu, and despite me almost ordering entrails by mistake, we ended up with a perfectly cooked piece of baby beef and a bottle of Argentinean malbec. After walking it off around the main plaza and watching an inordinately popular street performer do an odd drag act, we ended up with cocktails at club Insomnia before the bizarre music sent us home just after midnight.




We'd accepted Carmella's offer of a tour for the following day, so after a relaxed breakfast in the hostel we were picked up and driven to Huaca de la Luna where we met our guide Napoleon. It turned out that there were no other English-speaking tourists, so we'd have him as our private guide for the entire day! The temple of the moon was almost 2000 years old and had been home to the Moche culture for over 800 years. When archaeologists excavated, they found wall decorations complete with their original colours which were stunning to look at given their age. The temple was a pyramid which had been built upon over multiple generations, and the changes in the artwork could clearly be seen as the people adopted different cultures into their designs. Napo (as he preferred to be called) was a mine of knowledge, having been teaching and guiding for over forty years. He also had a series of canine friends, apparently one at each location, who eagerly awaited his arrival. I suspect this is mainly because he fed them a load of meat sandwiches, but I may be mistaken.



Huaca de la Luna is an adobe building set over multiple floors, and has numerous walls and murals which have somehow survived the ages with their paint intact. Some of the carvings are crazy, especially given the sheer height of the building. One mural in particular covers a staggering 200 feet, and represents animals, sacrifices, war and much more. Unlike its neighbouring Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun), you can walk around the Temple of the Moon unimpeded, and there are plenty of information boards dotted about.






We stopped for lunch at El Sombrero, which couldn't have been more tourist-oriented even if it had worn a funny hat, belted out traditional music, and screamed "CHEAP CHEAP FOR YOU!" as you wandered past. Actually two of those things did happen - but they consisted simply of traditional dance from guys that were wearing far more clothing than could have been comfortable in the heat.



We chewed on some slightly ropey ceviche which was woefully light on portion size despite the waiter's previous assurances, before moving on to Arco Iris, a big square adobe building that was previously a religious or administration centre. It was covered in dragon reliefs, but wasn't particularly interesting in itself - not least because it was tiny, and we covered the whole site in about ten minutes.

Chan Chan is Trujillo's jewel, a vast archaeological Chimú site with huge open-plan areas for government and royalty, which include burial chambers and intricate friezes. That said, I actually preferred Huaca de la Luna overall. It felt like it had a bit more character, although there is no denying the skill of the carvings at Chan Chan which make the site look like an alien landscape at times.

Our final stop with Napo was to the nearby seaside at Huanchaco where we pottered around the open air market, munched on some local wafery dessert thing, and enjoyed a magnificent sky before returning back to the hostel. We picked up some food from a nearby supermarket and enjoyed a rare homemade meal with wine.









Early next morning we took a trip into Trujillo centre to track down some headphones for both me and Gilly (mine were completely dead, hers were on the way out), and also peek into a couple of the free museums dotted about. One exhibit on stereographs was fascinating: a photographer had taken photos from the turn of the century onwards and made them 3D, Also, wearing 3D glasses make you look cool as everyone knows.

I took us on a jaunt to a restaurant named Squalo's which turned out to be a little fancier than we were expecting. Still, it was pretty much empty and our travellers garb didn't seem to draw too much attention, so we ate some ceviche that made up for the previous day's disappointment, and knocked back what would probably be our last Peruvian pisco sour. Ever.



From there we got a taxi to Casa Hacienda Palo Marino, where there was a show featuring the Peruvian Paso horses, a beast famous for its ability to "dance". We were two of about six people who turned up to see the four caballeros and a female dancer strut their stuff for the best part of forty minutes. It was more superior horse control than dressage, but I think that can be put down as a good thing because dressage is, well, weird. We got to feed the mares afterwards too, and one took a definite shine to Gilly.











For the rest of the afternoon we decided to revisit the mural we were unable to see on our first night in Trujillo. I can confirm categorically that it is absolutely worth visiting. Some of the murals, which are all made out of individual mosaic pieces, are simply astonishing, I took dozens of photos, but the murals covered history, nature, film, politics and more - you could spend half a day walking up and down the road alongside the university and still miss things. Trujillo probably isn't high on a traveller's map aside from being a base to move into Ecuador, but I'm glad we took the time to spend a couple of days here. Peruvian people are creative as well as lovely, and it was nice to be reminded of this as we left the country.








Finishing off our time in Peru with a meal at Casona Deza Café was a great idea. The pizza was wonderful and - even better - it was just around the corner. We were getting another night bus from Trujillo to Guayaquil in Ecuador. One more country down!