Archives for category: Travel

San Cipriano is a tiny village nestled in the lush jungle of the Colombian Pacific with a relaxed vibe and not much to do for visitors but enjoy a lazy day or two on the river. However, it’s also one of few places I know worth visiting just to get there.

One does not simply walk into San Cipriano. You’ve got to take the brujita (‘little witch’ in Spanish) – the bastard lovechild of a motorcycle, wooden pallet and railway bogie.

Single track. Blind corners. High speed. Woefully inadequate brakes. Driver texting 80% of the time.

This’d be a memorable ride anyway were it not for the huge freight trains chugging up from the port at Buenaventura in the opposite direction.

When I visited, we heard the train a’comin’ just as we screeched to a halt in San Cipriano. Granted, they don’t roll along at top speed but nevertheless, a hasty scramble ensued to evacuate the brujita and get it clear of the tracks quick-sharp.

Truly, a locomotive experience.

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This will be the first of a short series of photo-oriented posts showcasing some of the amazing sights I was lucky enough to see over the past 12 months. I’ll try to keep my commentary mercifully brief and the visuals beautiful.

Marine iguana welcoming visitors to Galápagos National Park

Marine iguana welcoming visitors to the National Park

Where are the Galápagos Islands?

The Galápagos Islands straddle the Equator roughly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The volcanic origins of the archipelago make for some spectacular landscapes, however the real draw is the wildlife.

Volcanic landscape of the Galápagos

Volcanic landscape of the Galápagos

Rugged topography of the Galápagos

Rugged topography of the Galápagos

Cacti and cerulean Galápagos waters

Cacti and cerulean Galápagos waters

Galápagos wildlife

Over millennia, oceanic currents  have deposited an awesome variety of animal species on the islands’ shores from as far afield as Antarctica.

Since these currents all converge on the islands, anything arriving by sea was effectively marooned with no possibility of escape. Fast forward many thousands of years and we can see animal species, in some cases endemic to just one or two islands, perfectly evolved to suit their habitat. The exact demands of habitat vary from island to island: fine-tuned adaptation of the islands’ fauna famously set Charles Darwin down the path of natural selection after his visit in the 1830s.

Galápagos tortoise – tortoise tortoise

The island’s most iconic residents are indubitably the giant Galápagos tortoises. They lent the islands their name (galápago means “tortoise” in Spanish) and were almost exterminated for their meat and oil. They’re enormous, weighing in at up to 400kg, and have mind-boggling lifespans if left alone by hungry pirates – one captive Galápagos tortoise lived for 170 years.

The breastplate roasted… with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.

Charles Darwin: forefather of evolutionary biology; amateur food critic

We were lucky enough to see Lonesome George – the last of his subspecies of galápago and hence the rarest creature on Earth – just a few months before his death in June 2012. He was over 100-years old, but was still sprightly enough to be having his methodical, reptilian way with another male tortoise when we visited. And they wonder why he never had offspring of his own?

Giant Galápagos tortoise rears its head

Giant Galápagos tortoise rears its head

Bird life

The Galápagos’ skies at night are incredible. A mesmerizing blanket of stars and meteorites that I fell asleep under a few times. During the day, I saw more birds than I could put a name to. Thieving frigatebirds, pelicans, blue-footed boobies, vibrantly coloured Darwin finches… A feast for the binos. Their flightless friends, the little Galápagos penguins, were great fun to watch too.

Galápagos pelican drying its wings

Galápagos pelican drying its wings

Flamingo reflection - Galápagos

Flamingo and its reflection

Pair of blue-footed boobies

A pair of blue-footed boobies

Frigatebird twilight silhouette

Frigatebird twilight silhouette

Darwin finch

Tiny colourful Darwin finch

Lava heron stalking its prey

Lava heron stalking its prey

Squabbling Galápagos penguins

Squabbling Galápagos penguins

Birds being chased by sea lion pup

Birds being chased by sea lion pup

Land and sea life

Too many great things to mention here, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking. What might not be obvious from the photos is the animals’ lack of fear of humans. I didn’t need a zoom lens to take many of these photos, because the animals would not be fazed in the slightest by my approach. I even had to step over an intransigent iguana or two. That tells you a lot about the successful conservation and protection work done by the park rangers.

Putting aside thoughts of the hordes of sharks ominously circling the boat some days, the few occasions I snorkeled off the islands were breathtaking. Playing with a big group of sea-lion pups was unforgettable – they’re boisterous and very fast in the water: at one point I had 4-5 pups circling around me and playing with my exhaled bubbles as I dived down to join them. Turtles and rays abound. I’ll definitely come back and SCUBA dive here one day when I have the funds for a trip on a live-aboard.

Sea lion barking in the Galápagos

Sea lion barking

Sleepy sea lions

Sleepy sea lions

Milky-eyed sea lion pup

Milky-eyed sea lion pup

Leering land iguana

Leering land iguana

Sea turtle glides through the Galápagos mangrove forest

Sea turtle glides through the Galápagos mangrove forest

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Sea lion at sunset - Galápagos

Sea lion at sunset

Marine iguana in profile

Marine iguana in profile

Basking sea lion surrounded by Galápagos Sally Go-Lightly crabs

Basking sea lion surrounded by Sally Go-Lightly crabs

Practicalities

Getting there & staying there

Visiting the Galápagos Islands isn’t cheap! Flights from the mainland aren’t extortionate in themselves – the real costs lie elsewhere. There’s no accommodation (nor any other man-made structures) on most of the islands, and they’re too spread out to visit on day-trips from the main town, so the only way to visit them is by live-aboard boat.

Most visitors book a cruise to guide them around the islands, as we did aboard the MV Eclipse. I spotted a couple of hostels in Puerto Ayora and a budget tour ship at anchor, so there are certainly ways to visit on a restricted budget. Notwithstanding, on the uninhabited islands you must be accompanied by a qualified guide, which attracts an inevitable cost.

Weather in the Galápagos

The weather in the Galápagos varies with the ocean currents – the hot & rainy season runs from December to June – we visited in March and experienced perfect blue skies almost every day and temperatures up to 30C. The other half of the year is drier, cooler by a few degrees and generally more overcast.

In summary

Start putting money aside to visit the Galápagos now! It’ll cost you dear – especially if you’re visiting the islands from Europe or Asia (although I’d strongly recommend also visiting the continent next door while you’re here)  – but I guarantee that it’ll be worth every penny. A natural wonder without equal.

Sandy footprints on Galápagos beach

Abandon all hope

It’s been a while since I last updated the blog, albeit not for lack of material.

Since my last dispatches from Colombia I’ve passed through many countries on three continents. Now I find myself on the other side of the world from smoggy Bogotá (smoggy Bangkok) and I’ve accumulated several gigs of photos to illustrate what a busy 12 months it’s been – see my next update.

My way of life’s become increasingly vagabond since I was last in regular employment in South America almost nine months ago. My present overarching goal is to transform loose-footed poverty into a sustainable and more satisfying lifestyle while staying location-independent as far as possible.

Barring the eventual lottery win I’ve penciled in for mid-2014, this can only come about by working over the internet – this hasn’t proved easy so far, but recent developments have given me optimism that I can make it a reality.

Until then, southeast Asia is the sauce to my oyster. Confusing metaphors strictly my own.

Sixty four years ago today, and more or less to the minute, popular Liberal leader and presidential-hopeful Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated outside his offices by a lone gunman.

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The killing sparked several days of violent rioting in Bogotá that would eventually embroil the whole country.

Decades of internal conflict ensued. This began with a period of vicious, mostly rural fighting between various factions known as La Violencia that simmered down into prolonged, low-level asymmetric warfare that continues to this day.

The latter period spawned left-wing guerilla movements familiar to the outside world such as the FARC and ELN, as well as right-wing death squads and paramilitaries.

The toll exerted on the country by both non-state actors such as these, as well as by brutally unrestrained government forces, is hard to overstate. Thousands of innocent civilians have been massacred and millions displaced.

Amazing what one man with a gun can achieve.

These two sites have a decent overview of the significance of today’s anniversary: [1] and [2].

UPDATE

The team at SeeColombia.travel also covered this well – check out their article reflecting on the Bogotazo.

Bogotá falls short in sheer numbers of green, open spaces compared to other capital cities I’ve visited – neglected concrete plazas are a more familiar sight (where the developers haven’t got there first) – but it does a good job at compensating for variety with the grand scale of Parque Simón Bolívar.

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The rolling expanse of the Parque occupies 400 hectares due east of El Dorado International, around 6 km from the city centre. My only previous encounters with it had been various open-air concerts laid on free of charge by the Alcaldía de Bogotá, which means I’ve managed to see Calle 13, Daddy Yankee and the unforgettably named Willie Colón, but nothing else of the park beyond teeming music lovers and battalions of policía.

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This was a big oversight on my part in retrospect, because it’s great. If a park should be the lungs of a city, Parque Simón Bolívar is the rattly oxygen tank to an emphysematous, phlegm-spluttering Bogotá. Truly an island of fresh-aired respite and tranquility. (Low-flying aircraft excluded.)

Aside from the abundant greenery, there are boats to hire to potter around the lake, bike and jogging tracks, and probably ample dogging to be had in the more isolated shrubberies, I don’t know.

I’m most intrigued by the call of Ciclomisa – Cycle-Mass (the Catholic sort) – every Sunday morning. I’m envisioning priests on unicycles wafting incense and incantations towards the faithful. Who are presumably doing laps of penitence.

I thought I saw a waterborne confessional booth mounted on a pedalo out on the lake but it might have been a trick of the light.

I digress. Come to the park and chill out, it’s delightful.