The (very long) Road to Rio: Part 2 – Argentina

Following on from my last post about the final weeks of my Latin American journey, I thought I’d quickly follow on from Chile to Argentina.

Many travellers rave about Argentina, they talk about the passion of the place and how much a backpacker can enjoy Argentina on a budget. Well right now, it isn’t. Let’s get that out the way straight away. As you may have seen in the news, Argentina is currently battling the onset of another financial crisis. Recently there have been strikers, protests, the nationalisation of a major oil company and a ban on the withdrawal of US Dollars from ATMs. Throw in some more fuss about the Falklands to try and dilute the bad news and you’re there or thereabouts.

As a backpacker, the main impact on us was the rate to withdraw pesos being artificially high and increasing the cost of everything to us. Anyone reading this before visiting Argentina might like to know that you can get more bang for your buck if you take in cash and exchange it on the black market for a 50% premium.

Like this blog, I didn’t warm immediately to Argentina either following a rather scenic final trip back over the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza – the next time I do a trip like this I want a car or a motorbike to take advantage of journeys like that. Alas, upon arriving at the bus station in Mendoza I set about task number one, find cash! With some spare Chilean Pesos, the tourist information kiosk seemed a sensible option to ask about a currency exchange. The result was a grumpy look from the woman behind it, a grunt followed by her returning to staring into space. Ho hum.

Next to search for an ATM which after a very long queue decided not to work with any of my bank cards. Great. Katrina however did manage to elicit some money from it, in huge denominations, which left us wanting some smaller change for the cab journey into town. Attempting to do this by purchasing something of low value like a Coke was utterly useless, one shopkeeper slamming on the counter, shouting something I couldn’t understand and putting the item back in the cooler. By this point I just assumed I’d got out the wrong side of the bed that morning. A feeling only reinforced by almost all the hotels and hostels in town having no vacancies.

Mendoza’s major attraction to backpackers is wine. Having decided to skip a wine tour it would have been rude not to do one in Argentina, especially being a country whose wine I knew virtually nothing about.

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I probably learnt more Spanish than I did about wine on our tour, with it being taken almost exclusively by domestic tourists from Buenos Aires. Any tour was going to have a hard job living up to my last wine tasting experience in South Africa and that’s perhaps why I didn’t get into this one as much. Compared to Chilean reds I found Argentinian Malbecs less appetising, some of them even vinegary. Our final tour stop was situated next to an enormous oil refinery, now I’m not a sommelier but I think that impacts the terrior. Mmm….sulphur.

Moving on from Mendoza to Buenos Aires on board a rather plush yet ludicrously expensive bus. They seriously need to get Megabus out here when bus fares, albeit for 13 hours approach £100 each way. In the UK journeys of that length can be had from £1 up to about £50. Despite the comfy bus I still didn’t sleep thanks to a man who snored like a hippo with a cold. The relief upon reaching Buenos Aires was immeasurable.

Buenos Aires is a soulful city, something that I always talk about loving. There’s a kind of grungy, faded, hipster type scene to much of the city against a backdrop of European style architecture. It’s a port city with rougher, working class suburbs as well as wealthier areas like Palermo that have prospered from the trade. I liked it, another city to wander and take it  all in.

The spirit of Evita still lives on in BA with a large iron cladding on a skyscraper looming over the massive main boulevard through the city, as well as her tomb at the impressive cemetery in leafy Palermo. Much of the time in the city I was whistling “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”.

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This all completely contrasts with the areas of San Telmo and La Boca, more traditionally down to earth and working class neighbourhoods. With a cafe culture (albeit heavily tailored towards tourists), some cool antique markets and an interesting back drop makes for a really interesting place to explore. We took in some tango dancing in a square, some fairly mediocre and some incredible to watch. Despite being a bit of a cop out when it comes to dancing I kind of wanted to have a go, were it not for my ankle.

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Moving into La Boca, a more working class neighbourhood than San Telmo (read rougher round the edges), my first thoughts were to head for La Bombonera – home of Boca Juniors. It really has the feel of an old fashioned football ground in the heartland of its supporters and had me wanting to go to a game but I’ll get to that.

Heading further into La Boca I was taken by the colourfully painted houses and the local pride in their area, something not so common in places like that in the UK. Past that and we came to another touristy area with more cafes, shops and tango before hitting the old harbour and checking out the Transporter Bridge, a bit like the one back home in Middlesbrough.

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There is such a difference between the Palermo area of Buenos Aires compared to La Boca, and hence part of the reason for the big football rivalry. But the next day we felt like going posh again to take in one of Argentina’s most famous sports, Polo. Tally ho!

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Wealthy British expats brought Polo to Buenos Aires in the late 19th Century and the game is still played today by wealthy Argentinians at the same members clubs as set up by the British. We took in a match at the Hurlingham Tournament, one of the big 3 events of the year at the club of the same name. Despite now understanding the rules, it was a fun new sport to watch with a rather different sort of person in attendance in comparison to anything else we’d see on our entire trip. High scoring, fast paced, with regular intervals it seemed something ice hockey or football fans could enjoy, albeit while rather well dressed and soaking in the gorgeous grounds of the club. Catching the commuter train back into BA afterwards did feel like a bit of a come down.

That said, Argentina does have the perfect evening pick me up. Steak. Really, really good steak! Whether it’s the quality of how the cows are raised, how the meat hung to mature or the way it’s cooked, I’m not really sure. What I do know is every time I had steak throughout Argentina it was incredible. Just a little tip for those like me who enjoy a nice bloody steak, you’ll need to emphasise ‘azul’ or ‘con sangre’ to the waiter, Argentinians often like a steak well cooked through. Sadly, I haven’t got a clue for the name of the place we liked best in BA – but it’s in San Telmo and you’ll get an huge steak with some delicious sides to compliment.

After wandering around La Boca a few days earlier and admiring La Bonbonera, the home of Boca Juniors, I wanted to catch a game. Football withdrawal symptoms were kicking in having only seen only match in months, back in Medellin.

There’s lots of stuff out there about watching a Boca Juniors game, which I read before we started our ticket mission. To cut a long story short, football violence in Argentina historically has been shocking and government efforts to curb this require clubs to control who can attend games. In the case of Boca, this has landed with their ‘football mafia’ – a collection of armed, wealthy and aggressive gangs who control ticketing, security and allegedly with threaten their own players and families should they perform poorly while receiving a cut of their salaries.

When it comes to actually purchasing the ticket for Boca, you can’t directly without a membership. This leaves two options as a tourist, pay an eyewateringly high fee of around $100 each to a tourist agency to attend in a group or purchase a ticket from a tout. So many conflicting things are said about these tickets so feeling a bit nervy we set off to the stadium early. A look around showed a few touts circling the stadium and after a little checking and negotiation picked up 2 tickets at a much lower cost than the tour. To confirm their authenticity, we even gave them to one of the mafia stewards to confirm and all seemed well.

Until we started waiting and waiting, to discover kick off to be two hours later than advertised. As the queue started to be allowed through the first security checkpoint, Katrina filtered through the shorter entrance for ladies with no issues. As I reached the front of my queue the steward took my ticket, mumbled ‘No’ and refused to acknowledge my presence no matter what I said. To the confusion of another steward who pointed out Katrina entered, the steward desired her ticket, took that too and no matter what was said I couldn’t get a word out of him. Irritated, we gave in, and can only speculate that the tickets many felt were authentic were fakes or the ‘mafia’ have a preference for tourists to be managed within authorised groups.

At this point, I just wanted to see a game and having bought an Arsenal di Sarandi shirt a few days previously back in Mendoza decided to take in their game at a nearby suburb. Arsenal in fact were the champions for the first half of the local season despite coming from relatively humble backgrounds and taking on title challengers for the second half of the season, Velez Sarsfield, also from Buenos Aires giving us a local derby.

The atmosphere couldn’t have been anymore different to Boca. The suburb of Sarandi is similarly working class but without any feeling of being on edge. Purchasing tickets here proved to be incredibly simple, seating or standing choice and girls go half price. Great idea!

After a quick choripan (sausage sandwich) we entered the stadium where fanaticos were dancing on banners hung upon the standing barriers. From the full to capacity Velez end came a mighty roar giving this a real football feeling. Arsenal fans took a more laid back approach, probably an effect of the intensive odour of marijuana filling the vicinity! That was probably for the best as during the game, despite their team playing the nicer football, suffered catastrophically in defence as they crumbled to a 5-1 home defeat. With the goalkeeping, defending, manager being sent to the stands and louder away support it was much like their more famous namesakes in London!

And that pretty much brought BA to a close for us before heading north towards Iguacu Falls with stops along the way into Uruguay and Paraguay but more on those next time.

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The (very long) Road to Rio: Part 1 – Chile

Rio was never part of the plan, but I’m so glad it changed thanks to some extra time, being under budget and a very cheap flight home from there. This gave us time to take in some of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil over the space of the last 4 weeks of the trip.

Exiting Bolivia on the top of the Andes after a 3 day trip across remote salt flats and lagoons we were in need of a warm shower. As we sat in the bus down the mountains from the border into the town of San Pedro de Atacama we realised how much we were going to miss Bolivia. Driving down the Chiliean highway we could have been back in Europe, it all looked too sterile. The desire to return to Bolivia was reinforced further upon discovering the prices of basics like food and accommodation in Chile. A decent room for 2 in Bolivia would typically cost $15, in Chile a rough room approached triple that price! Our budget was in for a kicking over the following weeks.

At this point, I wasn’t too impressed with Chile – I’m northern. Now that doesn’t mean I’m cheap, I just like value for money! We decided not to spend too much time in Chile and hopped on a bus to Antofagasta the following day. After catching a movie and gorging on some fast food, there wasn’t too much more to keep us occupied in this company town and with a big gulp boarded a 21 hour bus to Valparaiso. Yes, 21 hours. I can barely do a 7 hour flight so can you imagine the moaning on a 21 hour budget bus? Feel very sorry for Kat.

Arriving in Valparaiso late the next day felt like an achievement (surprising considering all we’d done was sit on our backsides for nearly a day)! Valpa was one of those cities I’d always wanted to see and it really didn’t disappoint. Built on steep slopes overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the city grew exponentially through shipping and the attractiveness to European immigrants through the 19th Century. Were it not for the Panama Canal I’m sure Valparaiso would have continued to grow and rival places like San Francisco.

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The buildings in Valpa reflect the European history of the place alongside a sizable British influence including a British Arch and handy funiculars to take people up the steep slopes. They’re not actually that tough to walk up but I suppose that was typically British for the time. Add to this some of the best chips I’ve ever eaten as part of local dish, chorrillana, topped with steak, sausage, onions, eggs as well as chilli and ketchup. Ideal for a carbohydrate binge! To top it off, we could also get proper, tasty, dark beer. Just the change we needed.

I’m a bit of a wanderer and can happily kill time getting aimlessly lost in a city, watching the world go by. Valparaiso was the perfect city for that. Away from the colonial architecture, Valparaiso is brightened up by vibrant street art and an edgy side that gives the seaside city a real soul.

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Which is more than can be said for our next and final destination in Chile, Santiago. From the soul and attitude of Valparaiso, Santiago isn’t so fun. Writing this a few weeks after being there I’m actually struggling what to say about the place but for one thing that springs to mind…..coffee.

It’s not the quality, it’s not local sources, it’s about where it’s served. The world over you will see the typical Starbucks sign where you will be served a perfectly adequate cup of coffee (or other tasty beverage) in a homogeneous setting. I say that as a fan of Starbucks. You can do this in Santiago if you like, or you can go to a ‘legs cafe’.

In a legs cafe, found all over the downtown area, your coffee will be served short, black and with a glass of water, by a lady wearing a very short skirt and a rather big smile (enough to make even the British leave a tip)! I don’t know why we don’t haves these in the City of London.

And that was a quick blast through Chile. I’d love to return one day and see more but we had to move on, to Argentina! To be continued….

As Seen on TV

When travelling we all love to find those cool little hidden things in any place that people don’t necessarily know about. Sadly this isn’t always the case and when visiting a new place you need a little nudge in the right direction.

In South America I’ve not been the biggest friend of the Lonely Planet, to be honest it’s an extra kilo I’d rather not bothered with. There have been some good travel blogs (sadly the best one, This Battered Suitcase, appears to be written by someone travelling a similar route to myself but always a place or two behind where we are). However one our most followed ways has been a couple of things we’ve seen on TV.

Before this trip we knew we’d be heading down through Peru and Bolivia. I used to love watching Michael Palin shows as a kid so Full Circle which took him to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca has always stuck in my head for this trip.

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It really didn’t disappoint, we marvelled at the beauty of the lost Inca city (more on that in my last blog). The scale of the place is incredible while the scenes of the ruins on the mountain top encircled by a river thousands of feet below are really did live up to my massive expectations. Of course Full Circle wasn’t the only way I knew of such a place but it was the clearest image in my head before out visit.

A week or so later at Lake Titicaca I was reminded of the boat called the Yavari – as seen on Full Circle, it was manufactured in the UK in pieces, then lugged up to the world’s highest navigable lake by llamas from the now Chilean coastline to be reassembled in Bolivia. Given walking a few hundred metres at a normal pace can leave you a little breathless at this altitude it really is amazing. Other boats like this were also taken up here but the Yavari has been loving restored and maintained via donations from tourists.

For a moderate fee we were shown all over the boat but kept coming back to admiring the logistics of getting it here. Well worth the short stop before heading to the floating islands. Yeah you read that right. Out in the lake are islands made of the local reeds, continuously replenished and anchored to the lake bed on which houses are built of the same material. Well you’ve got to see that haven’t you?!

Our second televisual travel inspiration came not quite from a travel program but the love or hate chaps from Top Gear. Personally I love them but I know many others have less kind words to say about it. I’ve previously been inspired to ride a motorbike over the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam that is to one of their Xmas Specials. On this trip we’ve watched their Bolivia episode which only served to make us more excited to visit the country.

They traversed this hugely varied country from the jungle in the east, up the treacherous Death Road, through La Paz and over the Andes into Chile. We didn’t have wheels for the trip (think bureaucracy and cost) but wanted to see what we looked at in awe on TV.

On a boat into the jungle it actually felt just like what we’d been watching. The butterflies as big as bats, fish jumping into the boat and weirdly coloured trees. Thankfully we didn’t freak out like Hammond with the insects!

Later in La Paz (following an incredible painful accident with my ankle) we took on Death Road – top to bottom by bicycle.

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So called due to the people who died building it, as well as having accidents on the perilously narrow unpaved road, this was probably pretty daft in the circumstances.

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From the breathlessly high start all was looking good. With a quick blast down a paved section to get used to the bikes we took on the gravel, stopping for the occasional photo and gawp down the sheer drops. Then ….

“BANG! OWW. FUCK!”

In no time approaching a bend the front wheel locked when not even touching the brake, I flew over the handlebars. With the only aim not to land on my ankle I walked off with just a few bruises and in a bit of pain. Much more careful now.

Despite that, just minutes later Katrina had gone down too in almost identical circumstances. Sadly for her this stopped her ride, her wrist was much worse and couldn’t grip the handlebars.

Thankfully I survived the rest if the ride on the spectacular road. And when receiving our t-shirts afterwords found we had both fallen on the part if the road called ‘the corners of death’. Phew.

In the days afterwords we heard of many more injuries, so lucky us.

The final spectacular attraction of Bolivia was to be the high Andes. We crossed via the Salar de Uyuni – a bit different to the programme and even more spectacular! A bit more of them later.

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The final personality to influence is an unlikely source – An Idiot Abroad – Karl Pilkington. Having changed our plans to end in Rio, I’d recalled I had his episode there on my laptop so we took a look.

It didn’t give us much more than we already knew about Rio – Karl mostly being there to be annoyed and see ‘the Jesus thing’ or Cristo Redentor towering over the city. He wasn’t too stunned by the sculpture, remarking on the chin/beard looking weird.

He was however given a chance to see the wonder by helicopter – something he enjoyed more than the sculpture itself. Ridiculous but funny travel programming at its best. And enough to make us want to take a flight.

Our first visit up the Corcovado mountain where the sculpture sits saw the cloud roll in at sunset, spoiling the view a little but providing an alternative atmosphere. It did however leave us wanting more.

With some money towards the cost from my birthday. We took a flight from Sugar Loaf mountain over the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and around the mountain. And it didn’t disappoint, I loved the experience!

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The perspective provided by the flight is totally different to any other angle. Swooping around the statue I’m so happy with my photographs. And on a clear day I could admire the clean lines of an incredible piece of architecture. If you’ve got the money (or want a treat to end your trip) it’s well worth it.

I’m yet to see much of the Michael Palin series on Brazil, but I’m sure it will only add to my desire to return there very soon.

Machu Picchu by Train

I’ve not really been in for writing a guide type article on here but this was something I spent a lot of time researching and thought I would put together what I found.

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We decided to take the train instead of the Inca Trail for 2 reasons, firstly we seem to be under the weather a lot just before a physical activity (Climbing Volcanoes in Nicaragua) and we heard a lot of bad reviews from travellers saying the trail was expensive and overhyped.

This left the train to get to the ancient city (already an expensive day out with the entry ticket). A bit of shopping around on the internet and we’d found 3 companies with the most convenient trip being with the newest company, Machu Picchu Train, at $58 each way.

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Visitors to Machu Picchu are limited to 2,500 each day so to be safe we made our way to buy the ticket at the office in Cusco the day before. Once this was reserved we went to the train ticket office in Cusco on Avenida del Sol and found the tickets are cheaper booked there in cash at $50 each. US Dollars can be withdrawn from the cash machine a few doors down the street.

The train leaves from Ollantaytambo station around 11.30am, about 1hr by car or 90 minutes by bus from Cusco so plenty of time to get there. The bus is crowded, local and fun and leaves from a local bus station a couple of blocks behind the train office to Urubamba. It cost 6 soles each. From here you must change to a minibus or colectivo for around 5 soles each to reach Ollantaytambo.

A collectivo from central Cusco all the way to Ollantaytambo will cost around 15 to 20 soles each depending on your negotiation skills.

Our train was virtually empty, just 2 of us, 2 Japanese tourists and 4 staff! We were served a drink and sweet snack while watching the view of the valley. Really rather relaxed and a little bit colonial. The train should get you to Aguas Calientes, the modern town beneath Machu Picchu itself. Here you can buy all sorts of tourist stuff and get a quick but pricey meal.

There are regular buses up the mountain the the park entrance, at a pricey $16 return. However once you see where they go you will not begrudge it. You can walk the route, we heard of people doing it in an hour and some said two. I believe the latter more. If you take the train this will cut you short on time at the ruins.

By now you should have about 4 hours to see the site. It closes around 5.30 or 6pm. I suggest you head for the famous vista for the postcard shot by taking a path to your left soon after entering. At this time it should be quite quiet, especially in lower seasons away from summer holidaymakers. From here you can backtrack to the sun-gate where hikers enter the site or the Inca Bridge, one of the former residents entries and security measures.

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As you stroll around you can pick up tit bits from overhearing late running guided tours, though they often seem to tell different and contrasting tales that sound pretty made up to me. We didn’t bother with a guide and chose to enjoy the place with our existing knowledge and imagination. One tip all prospective guides will give you for free however is this – USE THE TOILET BEFORE ENTERING THE CITY! Machu Picchu has no public conveniences and instead nooks and crannies or alcoves (laugh if you’ve seen the movie In Bruges) will substitute. On hot days it can smell quite potent.

We wandered the city till closing time, by which there were just a few llamas and Peruvian school children to share it with. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) you’ll be harassed for photos with them – actually quite fun! On your way out don’t forget stamp your passport if you want a cheap memento of the trip.

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We decided to stay in Ollantaytambo for the night and caught the 7.15pm train back, a little busier this time with about 12 passengers. You could stay in one of the many hostels and hotels Aguas Calientes if you wished to revisit the city the next day to climb the mountain Huayna Picchu above it. Or you can catch a late return taxi to Cusco, if one is close to full you can share for a good price.

I recommend stopping in Ollantaytambo however for a chance to see a slightly less touristic town than Cusco. The hotels are clean, comfy and quite cheap. Below the ruins of the same name (access with Boleto Turistico) is an interesting a cheap souvenir market. We both bought a couple of cool ornaments to take home. Further away from the tourists is a fully functioning local town with connections back to the Incas and friendly local people. I didn’t spot many tourists exploring far off the beaten track.

Hopefully if you’ve stumbled on this little account it will be of use to you on your visit. If you’ve found something different, want to correct anything or add your own little account please do comment.

Otherwise, enjoy your trip!

The Variety of Peru

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time but call it laziness, having too much of a good time or lack of decent internet connections has deterred me for doing so. That and part writing on an iPad and netbook leads to things getting lost in the ‘cloud’. So I’m going to make this more of a photo blog and talk a little more about a couple of specific things in Peru later.

In short, I expected little of Peru, I’m not sure why but I just couldn’t feel very excited about it compared to other countries on this trip. Wrong. In this massively diverse country I chilled at the beach in Mancora and Huanchaco, got dizzy at dazzling high altitude blue lakes in Huaraz, celebrated my birthday in Lima, saw Penguins in Paracas, sandboarded in Huacachina, rotter my teeth with Inca Cola (an excellent Irn Bru substitute), flew over mystical ancient lines in Nazca, took the lazy route to Machu Picchu and followed in Palin’s footsteps on the floating island of Lake Titicaca. More on the latter two to come later.

I’ve picked some of my favourite photos of Peru and hope they’ll encourage you to visit such an amazing country!

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Ecuador without the Galapagos

Most people think about visiting Ecuador and head for the Galapagos Islands for animals galore. Sadly on our budget we left out a visit there for a time in later life and we’ll do it the luxury way. Despite that, our trip to Ecuador was incredible and my addiction to Instagram kicked in all over again!

If you’re thinking of a trip there then you’re in for a treat.

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First stop for us was Quito, one of the highest cities in the world and it showed! With a hostel up a very steep hill, we were pretty breathless whenever we returned back to our room. However, instead of taking it easy we decided to go higher, firstly by going up a very long cable car for a view of the city and later improving that by climbing to the top of a gothic church.

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If you’re ever in Quito, find the large gothic church and scale the ladders to the top – no health and safety rules to go with the holy view!

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From Quito we headed south to take in a bit of the countryside. Firstly by mountain biking down the side of Cotopaxi through stunning scenery and later by heading up to the incredible crater lake of Quilotoa. Upon reaching the edge, not only was I breathless from the altitude but by the the scenery too. I’m sure you’ll agree.

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The surrounding alpacas were pretty cool too.

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Our next stop was Banos, one of Ecuador’s most popular local tourism spots. The hot springs from where the town gets its name are an experience. Packed full of local families with a different idea of personal space and water predominantly a sludgy green colour we didn’t stay too long.

The highlight of Banos came from renting an off road buggy to drive down the valley past tens of waterfalls until we reached the crescendo of noise from the Pailon del Diablo. Not quite as good as a Honduran waterfall that you can walk under, although the approach right up to this one left me absolutely soaked through!

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Despite not visiting the Galapagos we wanted to see some wildlife so chose to visit the next best thing, Puerto Lopes, referred to as the Poor Man’s Galapagos. For just $20 we signed up to a whale watching tour on the way to Isla la Plata, home of the Blue Footed Boobies (feathered kind, not ladies with cold feet)!

The experience was incredible, for about an hour we saw several whales jumping right out of the water. Sadly each time I tried to snap a photo I seemed to miss. In the end it was almost better to watch, and thankfully Katrina got a great shot. Here’s my best effort.

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The whales may have been the highlight of the day but there was still great wildlife to come. We saw hundreds of boobies – incredibly strange birds with no fear of people walking within inches of them.

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To cap it off as we left green turtles circled the boat to see us off back to the mainland.

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After some time to chill out by the beach (literally – Puerto Lopes is hit by cold currents from Antarctica) we started to make our way to Peru via Guayaquil, the biggest city in Ecuador. Guayaquil was just a short stop but we couldn’t visit without seeing the so called Iguana Park – yes they have a whole park in the middle of the city filled with tame and curious Iguanas!

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In all we had an awesome time in Ecuador, and I could say so much more but these are my highlights and favourite Instagrams. Don’t just visit for the Galapagos, see a great country too!