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March 30, 2017

Quirky Travel Photo: a blue-footed booby in the Galapagos Islands

Quirky Travel Photo: a blue-footed booby in the Galapagos Islands

Blue-footed Booby on Espanola Island Galapagos Ecuador - photo zoe dawes

Razor-sharp beak pointing towards the sky, the blue-footed booby flaps its wings in a couple of wide-angled swooshes, then returns to preening its brown and white feathers. Its bright blue feet seem to be suckered onto the rock, never slipping as it grooms and turns about, having a good wash. Beside it, flopped out as if totally exhausted, lies a young chick, all white, fluffy down and head akimbo.

I’m realising a life-long ambition to see one of these very quirky birds in their island home of the Galapagos Islands. Actually, it was initially my Mum’s dream to see them. She loved birds, especially the blue-footed booby with its blue beak and feet. We were probably watching a David Attenborough documentary the first time she showed me one, laughing at its comical appearance and hilarious name. Sadly, she never got to see them in the wild, but I am remembering her as I take photos of this one with its young.

Blue-footed booby and chick on Espanola Island Galapagos Islands Ecuador - photo zoe dawes

I’m in Ecuador on a trip with Metropolitan Touring, specialists in South America travel. We’ve already seen the historic sights of Quito, the first UNESCO World Heritage Site and spent a few days in the cloud forest at Mashpi Eco Lodge. But the highlight of this life-enhancing trip is a four day cruise on Yacht La Pinta to see the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. On the first day we visited San Cristobal Island and the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Centre, where the highly-endangered giant tortoises are bred. Day 2 took us to Punta Pitt with its large colony of bachelor sea -lions; one of the main highlights was swimming with sea lions, something I’ll never forget. On the third day I finally got to see the blue-footed booby and many other birds, including rare waved albatrosses, red-footed and nazca boobies and thousands of red and black marine iguanas. Our final day was spent at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, to see the giant tortoises, reared here to be released onto the islands in a unique breeding programme.

The Blue Footed Booby and Galapagos wildlife on video

The blue-footed booby settles down on the rock beside its chick, takes a brief look at the English woman grinning at it, sticks its beak in its feathers and goes to sleep. My dream is realised; and reality is a thousand times better than the dream. Hope Mum’s getting a look too …

NB: The name booby apparently comes from the Spanish word bobo (“stupid”, “fool”, or “clown”) because the blue-footed booby is, like other seabirds, clumsy on land. They are also regarded as foolish for their apparent fearlessness of humans. (In that case all the creatures in the Galapagos Islands must be foolish becuasue none of they seem to fear humans!)

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Blue-footed booby and marine iguanas Galapagos Islands - image Zoe Dawes

Want to find out more about the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador? Click links

No Place on Earth like the Galapagos Islands

Swimming with Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands

The Culture, History and People of Quito, Ecuador

Mashpi Lodge and the Heavenly Hummingbirds of Ecuador

More Quirky Travel Photos here

October 16, 2015

The Equator Obelisk in Ecuador – Quirky Travel Photo

The Equator Obelisk in Ecuador – Quirky Travel Photo
Equator obelisk Ecuador - photo zoedawes

Equator obelisk

Looking up at the Equator Obelisk in Calacalí, a short drive from Quito, Ecuador, it’s very confusing as a relatively short distance down the road is a huge complex which touts itself as the ‘Mitad del Mundo’. So if this is the REAL centre of the earth, why aren’t there more tourists? Well, as you can read here on the ‘Real Equator Line‘ hoax, there a number of places in Ecuador that make this claim!

Ecuador and the Equator

In the 18th c there was a big debate as to whether the whether the circumference of the Earth was greater around the Equator or around the poles. A number of French expeditions were organised to find out; one went to Lapland and and in 1735 the other went to Ecuador, then called the ‘The Territory of Quito’ by Spain. Bouguer, La Condamine, Godin and their colleagues measured arcs of the Earth’s curvature on the Equator from the plains near Quito to the southern city of Cuenca. These measurements enabled the first accurate determination of the size of the Earth, eventually leading to the establishment of the international metric system of measurement. ‘Wikipedia. Ecuador was then renamed so its name is forever synonymous with ‘the Equator’.

As you can see from this map there are a number of markers – read more about the Equator Monuments here.

Equator Monument Map Ecuador - from sangay.com

Equator Monument Map – image c/o sangay.com

Well, we only visited this one and it makes for a fun photo. At some point in the vicinity we definitely did cross the Equator a number of times on our way to Mashpi Cloud Forest!

Equator Obelisk Ecuador - photo zoedawes

I travelled to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with Metropolitan Touring. Read about Mashpi Eco Lodge here and the amazing equatorial birds including the beautiful hummingbirds that live in the beautiful Ecuadorian Cloud Forest.

April 29, 2015

Top 10 places to visit in South America

Top 10 places to visit in South America

South America’s such a massive continent that many travellers panic when people ask them what they’ll be seeing. Should they spend all their time in Argentina, or Peru? Maybe Ecuador is their best bet? Brazil? Help!

South America map

We’ve scoured the internet and found the top ten most exciting, overwhelming sights in South America that you can’t miss. Even if you can only manage two or three, these are definitely experiences that should pop on your bucket list.

1. Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls Argentina

Iguazu Falls – image Rod Waddington

Pride comes before a fall, but the Iguazu Falls bucks the trend – you’ll be feeling rather haughty after you experience the 275 waterfalls that make up one of the biggest falls in the world. It’s so massive, it actually straddles three countries of South America; depending on where you visit, you’ll be in Argentina, Brazil or Paraguay..

2. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Cuernos_del_Paine_from_Lake_Pehoe Miguel Vieira

Cuernos del Paine from Lake Pehoe – image Miguel Vieira

This is the place to experience the Andes in all their spectacular glory, but the much-loved Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia isn’t a one-hit wonder. Don’t miss the azure lakes, hiking trails, fragile-looking bridges that cross churning rivers and and the showstopping blue glacier. The snow-capped mountains are especially lovely; however, watch out for the unpredictable weather. If you’re camping, bring decent wet weather clothes and footwear and a synthetic sleeping bag.

3. Montevideo, Uruguay

Playa Pocitos Montevideo - image Elemaki

Playa Pocitos Montevideo – image Elemaki

Want to make the most of Montevideo in Uruguay? Take in the sunset at the seafront, then, if you’re lacking protein, grab a steak sandwich with eggs and vegetables, and chow down. It’s called a chivito, and your arteries will suffer afterwards, but it’s really, really good. The weather here is normally fantastic, but watch out for sleet.

4. Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu Peru - image David Stanley

Machu Picchu – image David Stanley

Machu Picchu is popular ‘tourist trap’ and is open all year, but never bank on a lack of rain or thin crowds – you’ll be disappointed. You can climb to the top of Machu Picchu, and many people do, but a head for heights is essential requirement, and if it’s a cloudy day, your view might be restricted. You’ll need a separate ticket to climb Huayna Picchu, and you need to book in advance; there are a limited number available. Don’t be put off by the expense and the time it takes to organise this trip; the view looking down on the Inca ruins is spectacular.

5. Huacachina, Peru

Huacachina Decembre 2006 - Panorama by Martin St-Amant

Huacachina – Panorama by Martin St-Amant

Built in an oasis in the middle of the desert, Huacachina, a relatively new city in Peru, will surprise and delight – even though it hasn’t been built exclusively for tourists in mind. Sporty types can sandboard and take dune buggy rides, and rumour has it that a mermaid still lives in the lagoon. Legend has it that a princess was apprehended bathing young hunter; she fled into the lagoon, and she’s still there now. That’ll be the longest bath ever, then …

6. Praia Vermelha, Brazil

Praia Vermelha (Red Beach) Brazil - image Msadp06

Praia Vermelha Brazil – image Msadp06

Don’t be fooled – Praia Vermelha (Red Beach) may be Copacabana’s lesser-known sibling, but it still has loads to offer. This is the place to visit to get a spectacular view of Sugar Loaf mountain (yes, this is where Bond and Jaws had a rather tense stand off in Moonraker) and maybe take the cable car up the mountain – they run every 30 minutes throughout the day. Visitors are undecided about the beach – many say it’s welcoming and clean, and others choose not to bathe there – but it’s definitely a place to watch the sunset with your friends or a partner and a few cold beers.

7. The River of Five Colours, Colombia

Cano Cristales - River of Five Colours, Columbia - image www.canocristales.co

Cano Cristales ‘River of Five Colours’ – image www.canocristales.co

Not named after a McFly song, although we see where you’re going with that, this very special river in Columbia is also known as Caño Cristales. From July through to November, the river bed turns many glorious shades of red due to the riverweed Macarenia clavigera flourishing. The River of Five Colours appear anywhere from magenta to a bright red, and its brilliance causes the colours that appear alongside it to ‘pop’.

8. Octavio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, Brazil

Octavio Frias de Oliveira Bridge - photo marcosleal

Octavio Frias de Oliveira Bridge – photo marcosleal

If you are a bridge enthusiast, take note – the Octavio Frias de Oliveira Bridge really is worth a visit. This is the only bridge in the world which has two curved tracks supported by a single concrete mast. Renowned for its beauty, the bridge is loved worldwide – however, take care if you’re visiting on food, as it doesn’t have a pavement. Sadly, it’s also a magnet for thieves; in recent years, they’ve targeted the wire, and the lights. If you visit at the end of December, you’re in for a treat – lights are strung along the cables, and the bridge resembles a giant Christmas tree.

9. Asuncion, Paraguay

Gran_Asuncion_Paraguay-by_Felipe_Mendez

Gran Asuncion –  image Felipe Mendez

The capital of Paraguay, Asuncion is beautiful without being showy; original colonial and beaux arts buildings sit easily alongside the international cuisine on offer, the shady plazas and the friendly people (they’re really good with tourists.) Most of the city can be explored by foot – the glam shopping malls and trendy nightclubs are a great place to people-watch. If you’re asthmatic, steer clear of the city centre when it’s busy; there are lots of fumes from all the traffic.

10. Valparai­so, Chile

Cerro Concepcion Valpariaso Chile - image

Valparaiso – Cerro Concepcion – image chile.travel.com

This isn’t the most popular city in Chile; that accolade belongs to Santiago, which is about two hours from Valparaiso. This stunning South American port city is a great place to spend a few days relaxing; pretty, well-kept homes line the hillside and there are plenty of boutique hotels and lush restaurants to enjoy. However, don’t be fooled – the city has an edge. Poets, painters and would-be philosophers have always been attracted to this unusual city, and they mix well with the sailors, dockworkers and prostitutes which frequent the port. This is the city where anything goes, so be spontaneous, and make the most of the devil-may-care atmosphere.

This article was written by Vicky Anscombe for Columbus Direct.

PS I have to add one more to Vicky’s excellent list of places to see in South America and that’s the Galapagos Islands. It’s taken top position as my favourite place in the world 🙂  ZD

Sea lion Gardner Bay Galapagos Islands Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Sea lion Gardner Bay – image Zoe Dawes

April 12, 2015

The culture, history and people of ancient Quito in Ecuador

The culture, history and people of ancient Quito in Ecuador

When you finally achieve a life-long ambition, there is the danger that it will not live up to expectations. Dreams become reality and illusions take on a definite shape and form that may not be one you want to see. So finally visiting Ecuador had an element of risk, having never been to South America before.

Street art in Quito, Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Street art in Quito

I had a vague idea of what it would be like but was worried that I might be disappointed. So many places around the world are becoming homogenised, carbon copies of some branded, bland view of an international destination. Not only did Ecuador not disappoint, it exceeded my expectations.

Quito from Casa Gangotena roof, Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Quito from Casa Gangotena roof

Equatorial Quito, founded on the ruins of ancient Inca site, is the world’s highest ‘official’ capital city. In the Andes at 9,350 ft, its rarefied mountain air gives it a crisp, clear, literally breathtaking appeal. It was the very first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, designated in 1978, and its numerous monasteries,  convents, churches and shrines are testimony to Quito’s rich and often tumultuous religious history.

Monks - San Francisco Church Quito - image Zoe Dawes

Monks – San Francisco Church

My first proper view of the city was on Sunday morning, having arrived in darkness the previous night. From my hotel bedroom in luxurious Casa Gangotena, I saw a huge square with a splendid church on the left hand side, a built-up hillside, people milling about and children chasing pigeons. This was the Plaza San Francisco; the beautiful 16th c church after which the city was originally named, is also its oldest. You can see this scene for yourself by clicking the ‘watch’ button.

The Spanish influence was immediately clear in this part of the city. Old Quito is a labyrinth of narrow streets, impressive municipal buildings and attractive squares. However, it was the people who fascinated me and gave this vibrant, colourful place its joyful, welcoming character.

Smiling people of Quito Ecuador

I was given a guided tour of the Quito with Metropolitan Touring with Gonzalo and Dom, who shared their detailed knowledge and places to see with humour and insight. Being Sunday the locals were out in force, and the sound of laughter mingled with church bells and street vendors shouting out to attract buyers.

Art seller in Quito, Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Art seller in Quito

After a bit of haggling, I bought a colourfully quirky painting made by this woman, who lives up in the mountains. (My painting, on the far left, has a llama, a few villagers out for a walk, a volcano and a condor flying overhead – Ecuador in miniature!)

Street Painter in Quito, Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Painter in Quito

This artist was painting one of those kaleidoscopic gems, using not only brushes but his fingers to spread the paints over the wooden board. Like every city in the world, street performers have taken over. There was a trumpet player tootling out some funky jazz, a silver giant moving whenever anyone put a few coins in his hat and in the Main Square, break dancers and acrobats delighted the crowds with their twirling antics.

Children break-dancing in Main Square Quito, Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Children break-dancing in Main Square Quito

The Government Palace fronts onto this square and is guarded by soldiers in red and blue uniforms, looking like characters from a fairy story. Their pikes are made from what looks like bamboo with a spike on the end and the Ecuador flag co-ordinating nicely with their outfits.

Guards outside Government Palace Quito Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Guards outside Government Palace

En route to Quito Market on the ‘Live Quito Like a Local‘ tour we stopped off a tiny shop open to the street, where a wiry man was swirling a huge metal bowl around. He spoke no English, but our local guide explained he was making sweets in a traditional manner.

The maker of sweets Quito Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

The maker of sweets

As the midday sun heated up the pavement we walked higher up to the Municipal Market, a place I’d never have gone to had it not been for our guide. From the outside it looks just what it is, a place of trade for the people who live and work in this city, not some fancy ‘tourist market’ tarted up with ‘artisan stalls’ and expensive knick-knacks.

Mother and son in Quito Market - image Zoe Dawes

Mother and son in Quito Market

Herbalist Rosa Mercedes demonstrated how ‘lympia’ works, using bunches of herbs and greens to cleanse the body of impurities and sickness.

Herbalist Rosa Mercedes remedies Quito Market Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Herbalist Rosa Mercedes remedies

Each person I met reinforced what a vibrant culture this city has and how it is managing its journey into the 21st century whilst retaining some of its quirky allure and ancient traditions.

Nun stocking up on religious supplies in Convent Shop, Quito Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Nun stocking up on religious supplies in Convent Shop

I travelled to Ecuador with LAN Airlines and explored a little of the area, including Quito, the Andean cloudforest at Mashpi Lodge and wonderful Galapagos Islands with Metropolitan Touring. They provided a unique and fascinating view of this beautiful country.

Afternoon Tea with Roque Sevilla at Casa Gangotena, Quito, Ecuador

Afternoon Tea with Roque Sevilla at Casa Gangotena

January 7, 2015

Heavenly hummingbirds at Mashpi Cloud Forest in Ecuador

Hummingbirds of Mashpi Ecuador - poster
Hummingbirds in flight Mashpi rainforest Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Hummingbirds in flight

It’s the sound of whirring wings that you notice first. In front of the wooden observation shelter are pagoda-shaped ‘feeding stations’, filled with sugar water. Hundreds of jewel-feathered hummingbirds zoom off and onto the ledges to sip at this sweet treat. Mashpi rainforest bio-reserve has over 20 different species of these delightful birds and eco-expert guide Nestor reckoned we saw at least 14 different ones in the two hours we were there.

Trio of Hummingbirds Mashpi rainforest Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Trio of hummingbirds

The hummingbird is so called because of the ‘humming sound created by their beating wings which flap at high frequencies audible to humans. They hover in mid-air at rapid wing flapping rates, typically around 50 times per second, [but possibly as high as 200 times per second, allowing them also to fly at speeds exceeding 15 m/s (54 km/ 34 mph),backwards or upside down.’ (Wikipedia)

Hummingbirds in flight Mashpi rainforest Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Hummingbirds landing at feeder

Fellow travellers and avid photographers Julie Falconer and Tom Warburton had a bet as to who could get the best shot of one of these tiny flying gems hovering at the feeder and spent most of their time focusing, zooming, changing lenses and shooting off what was probably over a 1000 photos each. And yes, they got some superb shots, as good as any in National Geographic magazine!

Julie and Tom taking photos of hummingbirds Mashpi Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Photographers Julie and Tom

I also attempted to capture the birds on camera but with neither the skill nor a decent lens I didn’t do so nearly so well. But mainly I just enjoyed sitting watching them flitter to and fro with seemingly endless energy and whir. Amongst the smallest of birds in the world, (mostly between 3″-5″ their bills and tongues have evolved to feed in a variety of nectar-bearing flowers with a preference for red, orange and pink. Apparently they have to drink more than their own (admittedly tiny) weight in nectar every day, so are no doubt very grateful for the fast-food feeding stations that Mashpi provides.

Feeding hummingbirds Mashpi rainforest Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

Feeding hummingbirds

With their shimmering wings fluttering at a rate of knots they look like rainbow-hued fairies or lustrous angels, scraps of heaven on earth. A couple of my favourites were a long-tailed hummingbird and one with plumage in iridescent blues and purples. Another looked like a miniature woodpecker and one was so small it just seemed a blur of wings.

Colourful Hummingbirds at Mashpi rainforest - image Zoe Dawes

Colourful hummingbirds

In this poem, DH Lawrence uses a perfect phrase to describe a hummingbird: ‘this little bit chipped off  in brilliance’.

Humming-bird

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers, then
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

DH Lawrence (from Birds, Beasts and Flowers 1923)

Mashpi Lodge Ecuador cloudforest - image Zoe Dawes

Mashpi Lodge Ecuador

I stayed for 3 days at wonderful Mashpi Lodge, set slap bang in the middle of 3,200 acres of Ecuadorian cloudforest. This unique glass-walled structure fits into its verdant surroundings in an unobtrusive yet space-age kind of way.

Mashpi Lodge Dining Area Ecuador cloudforest - image Zoe Dawes

Mashpi Lodge Dining Area

‘The Lodge, built with the latest techniques in sustainable building and employing hydroelectric power in the near future, is designed to blend beautifully with its surroundings. It features contemporary, minimalist decor, mixing warm earth tones, notes of bright colour, clean lines and striking angles and vistas: a luxury cocoon amid the cloudforest with the natural world just beyond, ideal for contemplation and relaxation.’ This is not the usual hyperbole you read on a website but almost an understatement. Mashpi Lodge provides the ideal base from which to experience a very special environment in comfort and style.

Mashpi Eco-Lodge Ecuador

Mashpi Lodge is the brainchild of eco-entrepreneur Roque Sevilla. I was fortunate enough to meet Senor Sevilla at Casa Gangotena in Quito, where he talked about his passion for the natural world and saving this unique part of the Ecuadorian rainforest. You can read an interview with Roque Sevilla here. Many thanks to all the wonderful team at Mashpi Lodge, South American Lan Airlines and Metropolitan Touring (with whom I also visited the Galapagos Islands)  for enabling me to see the heavenly hummingbirds at Mashpi.

October 19, 2014

The joy of swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands

Sea lions on Gardner beach, Espanola, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador - image Zoe Dawes

A large sea lion galumphs his way across the sand, his nose pointing disdainfully to the sky, seemingly oblivious to the delighted visitors to his domain.

Sea lion on San Cristobal, Galapagos Island - image Zoe Dawes

Sea lion on San Cristobal

Finning away from him, clad in wetsuit with snorkel and mask clamped firmly in place, I gaze down into cool, clear rippling water.  Vibrant blue and yellow fish zig-zag around jaggy rocks. A shoal of silvery fish flickers past and in the distance a ray wafts its elegant way across the ocean floor.  I’m swimming at Punta Pitt on San Cristobal, one of the biggest of the Galapagos Islands, 1000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador.

Punta Pitt beach San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands - image Zoe Dawes

Punta Pitt beach

Suddenly, staring up at me are two huge brown eyes, beneath which are pair of very fine whiskers and what, to my idealistic mind, is a benevolent grin. As soon as we make eye-contact, the sea lion twirls underneath me. I twist quickly round and there he is again, staring at me just inches away. He rolls over on his back and swims underneath me upside down. Again I twist and again he’s there, most definitely waiting, enticing me to play.

Sea lion swimming, Gardner beach, Espanola, Galapagos Islands - image Zoe Dawes

Sea Lion at Gardner Beach, Espanola Island

He sinuously swoops in an arc and I try to keep up with him. He does a barrel roll but now I’m ready for him and we both twirl about, my clumsy turns a poor imitation of his balletic grace. He zooms up to the surface for air but he’s soon back, tumbling and swirling, always no more than a few feet away. When he surfaces we are in tandem, rising out of the water and splashing back under together. For what seems like forever, but is probably no more than ten minutes, we dance to the music of time, til I’m exhausted with the aquatic whirling and laughing with sheer, unadulterated joy. Getting a mouth full of water I surface, gasping, pulling off my snorkel and mask. By the time I’ve refitted it and look down again, my playmate has vanished.

Sea lion swimming in Gardner Bay, Espanola, Galapagos Islands - image Zoe Dawes

Sea lion swimming in Gardner Bay, Espanola Island

With a feeling of sadness but also delight at having had such a treat, I pootle off towards the rocks by the cliff side. And then, in a serendipitous repetition of earlier, my sea lion playmate is back, again staring up at me, only this time he has another young male with him. They separate on either side and as I turn round, they dive in perfect unison down to the sea bed and then twist around each other in supple harmony. They swirl back up to me, give an undulating flap of their flippers and curve off into the deeper waters of the open sea. I slowly fin back to the shore uplifted by that magical experience …

Everywhere, sea lions of all ages lollop about, laze in the sun, honk and collapse all around us, totally unfazed by zoom lenses, click of many cameras and gasps of delight from their admirers. They seem to get on well with the thousands of sea birds, including the delightful Boobies, albatrosses, frigates and pelicans and the equally prolific iguanas.

Sea Lion with Marine Iguana on Espanola, Galapagos Islands - image Zoe Dawes

Sea Lion with Marine Iguana on Espanola

My excellent guide book, Bradt’s ‘Galapagos Wildlife’ says’ “Probably the strongest memory of any visitor to the islands is the delight felt when swimming and interacting with these two intelligent animals.” The book is referring to the two species of sea lions, the Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus wollebacki – quirky name) and Galapagos Fur Seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) but I’m also applying it to my two underwater playmates. On San Cristobal and Espanola, which we visit the following day, are hundreds of these endearing sea lions. At times we have to edge carefully past them while at others an inquisitive seal pup will galumph up to us to check if we’re its mother, who’s probably off swimming in the turquoise ocean.

On Espanola in the Galapagos Islands - image Zoe Dawes

On Espanola Island

I’m with a group of travel bloggers, experiencing the very best that Ecuador has to offer – and that’s a lot. Having spent a few days wandering round the elegant capital, Quito whilst staying at the elegant Casa Gangotena and a fascinating time in the Andes’ cloudforest at Mashpi Lodge, we are now cruising the Galapagos Islands on a large, luxurious yacht called La Pinta. As images of Spanish Colonial churches, busy marketplaces, mist-shrouded treetops, whirring hummingbirds and tiny frogs flitter across my mind’s eye, I know that the sheer joy of swimming with sea lions will be the ultimate, everlasting memory of what has to be the best trip I have ever been on.

Four sea lions on Gardner Bay, Espanola Galapagos - image Zoe Dawes

Four sea lions on Gardner Bay beach, Espanola

Swimming with sea lions even beat swimming with dolphins in New Zealand, which is saying something! You can see more of the wonderful Galapagos Islands in this video.

If you’d like to experience the magic of Ecuador, travel with the experts, Metropolitan Touring in stylish luxury. Many thanks to LAN Airlines for flying us in comfort from the UK to beautiful Quito and the Galapagos Islands. I’d highly recommend cruising round the Galapagos Islands aboard the lovely yacht La Pinta; the friendly and knowledgeable crew add greatly to the adventure. All photographs and views in this article are my own.

Yacht 'La Pinta' Espanola, Galapagos Islands - image Zoe Dawes

Yacht ‘La Pinta’ off Espanola Island

 

June 27, 2012

The breathtaking Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru

The breathtaking Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru

The Inca Trail in Peru is one of the world’s most spectacular walks. In this World Travel Blogger series, share one hiker’s experience to the heady heights of Machu Picchu and back …

My breath was shallow in my chest.  The air up here in the Andes was thin, but the view was what was really taking my breath away.  There, ahead of me, my first glimpse of the Lost City of the Incas.  It had been my dream to hike the world famous Inca Trail, to this mysterious city of Machu Picchu, and now, there it was.

Inca Trail

This was my birthday present to me.  When I turned 35, I wanted to cross something big off my life’s list.  So, David (my partner) and I saved up and splurged on this incredible hike.  On our 10-day adventure, there were some sore feet, some incredible moments, and a magical feeling of utter joy.

After a night in a beautiful guesthouse in Lima, our first stop; Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Incan Empire.  Declared a World Heritage Site in 1983, the Inca believed Cuzco was the bellybutton of the world, the centre of their Universe. We spent a few days here to acclimatize to the high altitude before our hike began, staying at the Aranwa Cusco Hotel, a pretty 16th century Spanish townhouse.

Cuzco is stunning.  The best part was our beginner hike to the Incan ruins at Sacsayhuaman, where the Incan people lived a thousand years ago, and where view of the city and the valley ate up the first of my camera’s memory cards.

The next day, we began our hike up the world famous Inca Trail in style.  We met up with our porters, carried the camping equipment and supplies, and then together we made our way along the banks of the rushing Urubamba River.  At night, we set up at Llactapata, where we poked around some more ruins after the cook served an incredible dinner.  (I mentioned to David that he doesn’t cook like that when we camp back home, but he didn’t seem to hear me.)

Inca Trail Intipata

From there, it was up to the Cusichaca Valley, through a cloud forest and out into an incredible mountain field of emerald grass.

The hike was challenging, but not unmanageable.  The hardest day with the last day, and I appreciated the work that David and I had done hiking on weekends to get ready for the trip.  My favourite night was definitely the last night before arriving at Machu Picchu.  I was giddy with excitement, and the majesty of our campsite at the ruins at Phuyupatamarca was picture perfect. The Inca name means ‘the place above the clouds’, and when the sun set behind the mountain peaks, I wanted to keep the moment forever.

Machu Picchu

The whole train ride back to Cuzco, David and I were buzzing.  Laughing and telling stories with our group, and so excited that we still had two days together in Cuzco to re-acclimatize again, and to enjoy more time together with our new friends in this fabulous city.

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