Summit #10: Pisco (18,982 FT)

After a perfect day climbing Vallunaraju, I couldn’t wait to conquer Pisco…easily the most popular climb in the Cordillera Blanca because of its supposedly spectacular views of the surrounding peaks from the summit. Unfortunately our luck with the weather on Vallunaraju didn’t carry over for our Pisco climb, but we still made it to the top and it was certainly an adventure. 


Just getting to the trailhead was a bit of a mess the first day. A portion of the road up the mountain was closed for construction so we ended up ditching our colectivo bus, walking across the construction zone, and then taking another taxi the remainder of the way. We arrived at the trailhead mid-day and then lugged our heavy packs up the 3-hour steep trail to the refugio hut. The clouds rolled in as we got closer the hut and then it began to rain/snow. When we arrived at the hut I was completely amazed by how nice of a place it was. More of a little mountain lodge than a refugio hut, the dining room was nice and warm with a fireplace, lots of tables, and a couch. The sleeping quarters were more similar to the huts I’ve stayed in before…simple bunk beds with blankets and no heat. 

I changed into dry clothes and we spent the next few hours relaxing and prepping for the big night. We drank tea, ate a nice dinner, and then went upstairs to get some sleep before our 1 AM wake up. Typical of most summit nights, it felt like the alarm went off as soon as I had fallen asleep. I brushed my teeth, got dressed, and lugged my gear downstairs. While I was eating a quick breakfast, Percy and another mountain guide (leading a group of Italians who would also be climbing that morning) went outside to check the conditions. They came back in to inform us that it was snowing and we’d be delaying our start time until the weather cleared up a bit. We waited and waited but things didn’t seem to be improving. After writing some postcards, I decided I’d head back to bed. I had a feeling we weren’t going to be climbing that night after all. I fell asleep as soon as I laid back down. I woke up a few minutes later to Percy calling my name and checked my watch, 3 AM. He said the weather had cleared up enough for us to leave the hut. Everyone geared up again and we were out the door.

There was a light, misty rain and very low visibility the entire 3-hour approach to the glacier (which involved a series of steep climbs, a sketchy descent down a fixed chain, lots of scrambling, and boulder hopping). I was thoroughly exhausted, drenched, and cold by the time we arrived at the entrance to the glacier. We strapped on our crampons as the darkness began to fade and the sun (buried deep within the clouds) lit up the glacier enough that we no longer needed our headlamps. The visibility was extremely low though and, as Percy and I began walking up the snow, I couldn’t see much other than his figure and the rope in front of me.


The next several hours are a bit of a blur (literally). It was whiteout conditions the majority of the climb and the misty rain transformed into a painful, icy snowstorm. The wind was blowing the icy snow at us from the side and within minutes I couldn’t feel the whole right side of my face. I kept pulling up my buff to try and cover any inch of exposed burning skin. I focused on my steps and my rhythm, one at a time, to try and distract me from how bitterly cold it was, but I wanted to cry. I was also getting so fatigued. The snow was soft and deep, requiring a significant more amount of energy with every step. My breath was erratic and I was panting, unable to suck in the amount of oxygen my lungs were demanding. 

Eventually I looked up and saw a small patch of blue sky. The sun looked like it was desperately trying to push through the clouds. The snow lightened up and the wind was slightly less intense. I looked behind me and could make out some of the mountains surrounding us. My spirits were lifted. For the fist time that morning, I felt confident that I would make it to the summit. 


Eventually we saw the Italians beginning their descent (they were crazy fast) so I knew we were getting close. We reached the summit around 10 AM but Percy had to turn around and tell me that we were there because I had no clue. The visibility had become so poor and we were in a whiteout again. I was just so relieved to be there. My calves were on fire and so were my lungs. The last bit of the climb had taken the every last bit of energy I had. We snapped our summit photos…a white wall of cloud all you can see behind us. After a quick snack we began making our descent. 


I was so tired and my legs were jell-o making for a difficult descent down the glacier. The snow was super soft and my crampons were getting full of snow every few minutes which only made matters worse. At one point I sunk deep into the snow, my leg completely trapped up to my waist. Not the first time this has happened, I tried digging my leg out with my axe but I was using so much energy and not getting anywhere. Percy climbed back up to help me dig myself out and then we were making our way down again. We reached the moraine a couple hours later and then began the long and tricky hike back to the refuge. We passed by a beautiful aqua colored glacier lake and took a quick break before pushing on. I was dreading climbing up the steep scree using the fixed chain…I had such little energy left. Percy belayed me as I climbed up and then we only had a half hour descent down to the hut. We made it down in no time and I was thrilled to take off my boots and plop down. We ate french fries, drank some tea, and relaxed until dinner time. After a much-needed warm meal, I climbed into my sleeping bag and slept for 10+ hours. 


The next morning, the sun was shining and the skies were blue (with some scattered clouds). I went outside to enjoy the incredible views of Pisco and Huandoy behind the hut. A part of me wished we had just waited it out another day to climb and that I was up at the summit in that moment. It was amazing to look back at the beast of a mountain we had just conquered though. 


After a quick breakfast, Percy and I packed up and made our way back down to the valley where we would catch a taxi back to Yungay. We feasted in Yungay and enjoyed a well-deserved toast at a beautiful restaurant with rose gardens all around us. Another successful summit!


MGG

Summit #9: Vallunaraju (18,744 FT)

The perfect summit.


I’m still quite new to the sport of mountaineering but it hasn’t taken long to learn that summit days rarely go as planned. There are so many factors in play (weather, temperature, snow conditions, visibility, physical health, etc.) that can put a damper on the summit day or prevent you from reaching the summit at all. Over the past few months I’ve climbed nine mountains, and every one of those times there was some sort of hiccup or challenge during the summit push. There were multiple delayed starts because of snow storms, unforgiving altitude sickness and fatigue, unfavorable deep soft snow conditions, and an injury that left me crawling to the top of Chimborazo on one crampon. 
Vallunaraju was not a typical summit day. Despite the relentless snow/hail storm the previous afternoon that cut our practice day on the glacier short and left about half a foot of snow on top of my tent, we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect morning for our summit. Percy (my guide) woke me up at 2 AM and the skies were clear. I got dressed, organized my gear, drank some coffee, and then we were off scrambling our way up the moraine to the glacier. There were two other rope teams that were climbing that morning: a couple from the U.K. and a group from Germany. We all arrived at the glacier around 3 AM to rope up and put our crampons on. 

The next six hours or so went perfectly smooth. I never felt fatigued or unbearably cold. No pain anywhere. The starlit sky above us was incredible. When the first bit of light revealed the summit, the amazing glacier formations, and the surrounding peaks I was awestruck. The sunrise was absolutely breathtaking. The sky was transforming colors every few minutes and rays of light shot up from the horizon. I couldn’t stop snapping photos. 




We reached a saddle between the two summits and stopped for a rest. The sun was now in full force and we were getting very warm. We had one last bit to go…the toughest part of the climb. The very steep grade had me breathing hard but I could see the summit just ahead of me and was determined to get there. Soon enough we were high-fiving the Germans and snapping our summit photos. We could see absolutely everything around us…the commanding peaks in every direction, Huaraz, and some glacier lakes below. This is what this sport is all about. I felt like I was on top of the world…and so completely alive. And finally a summit photo where I’m not standing in the middle of a cloud! 



We spent some time enjoying the views, having a snack, and chatting with one of the Germans while he put on his skis to ride down. The other couple arrived a few minutes later and we all congratulated each other before Percy and I began our descent.



We arrived back at the moraine camp a few hours later and the familiar storm clouds came rolling in. Perfect timing. Armando (our amazing porter/cook) prepared some soup and tea for us and we relaxed for a bit before packing up camp. A few minutes later it began to snow. We quickly packed up and, by the time we started making our way back down to the steep trail to our transport, giant balls of hail were dumping out of the sky. The descent down to the road quickly became incredibly dodgy. All of us were slipping and sliding all over the place. We had to cross a waterfall at one point that required us to slide down a slick rock and I was sure I was going to go tumbling down. We finally made it down to the taxi, completely drenched, and were on our way back to Huaraz for a post-summit feast.

“You have to find the place that brings out the human in you, the soul in you, the love in you.” -R.M. Drake

Cheers,
MGG

Cordillera Blanca: Santa Cruz Trek

My four day Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca was full of spectacular mountain views, crystal lakes, beautiful valleys, rushing rivers, epic campsites, lots of rain, and new friends from around the world. 


Day one began with a brutally long seven hour bumpy drive up into the mountains along one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen. I was squeezed in the back row of the van next to Sarah, my German roommate from the hostel, and Maruja “la caballera,” an adorable indigenous woman and our cook for the trek. My face remained glued to the window for most of the ride as we passed crystal blue lakes and the commanding high peaks came into view: Huascarán (6,768 m), Huandoy (6,395 m), Pisco (5,752 m), Chacraraju (6,112 m), and Chopicalqui (6,354 m). 


We finally began hiking around 2 PM from a village called Vaqueria. Along our way to our first campsite we passed through small villages set within the lush green valley. A young girl named Rosa and her two sisters were walking home from school and when I began chatting with her she handed me a freshly picked sugar cane root. She giggled as I struggled to peel off the outer layers to get to the sweet inside. In exchange I offered her and her sisters some cookies. 


Rosa asked me to wait outside her house as she changed out of her school uniform and then we all walked to a big soccer field which was also on the way to my campsite. The field was packed with kids of all ages, adults barbecuing, and lots of dogs running around. Next to the soccer field there was also a volleyball court with a bunch of older kids and adults playing. The rest of my group was long gone but I was so tempted to join in on the fun. I stayed for just a few minutes to watch a group of Italian guys playing soccer. One of the villagers told me they were actually living in the village for a few months. I caught up with Sarah and we chatted the rest of the way to the campsite while enjoying the views of the mountains all around us. A storm rolled in just as we arrived at camp so we all huddled in the tent, drank tea, and ate a warm meal before heading to bed.

Day two started off chilly and rainy. The clouds hovered over the peaks creating an ominous but beautiful scene as I began the long climb up to Punta Unión, a mountain pass at an elevation of 4,750 meters, and the highest point of the trek. It rained off and on throughout the climb and I hiked in and out of multiple clouds on the way up making it very difficult at times to find the trail and see where I was going. When I finally made it up to the pass I was delighted that I could not only see, but the view of the turquoise lagoon and valley below was incredible. It was only clear enough to see the bottom of the Taulliraju Glacier but its presence was powerful nonetheless, with a peak of 5,830 meters.

It began pouring on my way down the steep, rocky trail from the pass to our next campsite and I slipped on a rock, banging up my elbow and scraping my hand while trying to break the fall. The throbbing pain in my elbow, stinging palm, and wet cold rain chilling me to the bone made for an unpleasant end to the hike. I needed to get dry so I hustled to the campsite as fast as I could. After a much needed hot tea while huddled next to Maruja in the warm kitchen tent, the sun miraculously emerged from the clouds. I went outside to feel the warmth of the sun on my face and looked up to witness the clouds clear up revealing yet another set of amazing high peaks all around me: Rinrijirca, Artesonraju, and stunning Alpamayo.

Maruja surprised us all with taquitos and, as we sat around outside enjoying the sunshine, a double rainbow emerged over the riverbed. It was turning out to be a perfect afternoon hanging around the campsite. Our guide, Ricardo, proposed that we walk back toward the bend in the valley for a clear view of Taulliraju. In that moment I couldn’t have been more appreciative of the breathtaking views all around me, especially after such a long and exhausting hike in the cold rain.

My alarm went off at 4:30 AM on day three. I peaked outside the tent to check the weather…a few clouds but no rain. Sarah (my tent mate) and I, along with some of the others in the group, decided to wake up early to do an additional hike to a glacier lake at the base of Alpamayo. As the sun came up, the mountains peaked out of the clouds making for a beautiful start to the day. Artesonraju, also known as “Paramount Mountain” (the inspiration for Paramount Pictures) was completely visible and I had the pleasre of seeing it from multiple angles as I continued along the trail to Alpamayo base camp.

I also got a clear view of Alpamayo from afar, but unfortunately as we got close to base camp it began to rain and by the time we reached the lake the mountain was completely engulfed in the clouds. Despite the rain and clouds, Laguna Arhuaycocha’s turquoise glow was beautifully mystical. Sarah and I hiked up the surrounding boulders for an excellent viewpoint overlooking the lake. While hiking back to the main trail the sun came out again but we had an ominous storm cloud chasing us all the way to our next campsite. We hiked across the sandy bottom of a wide valley, passing through a field of bright purple Taulli flowers (what Taulliraju is named after). 

The trail then wrapped around a big beautiful lake and through grassy farmland before ultimately reaching our next campsite. Starving after such a long day, we opted for an early dinner. It started to pour while we were eating and a few of us were dreading going back to our tents and getting wet so we stayed for awhile chatting and drinking tea. Eventually I decided to make the run for it and of course it stopped raining as soon as I zipped up my tent.

Day four, the last day of the trek, involved a long descent down the valley to the village of Cashapama, our exit point. The clouds were sunken low in the valley as we hiked along the white water river down the valley, passing multiple waterfalls. I arrived in Cashapampa just before noon and bought some tuna and crackers from one of the villagers to snack on before getting in the van for our journey back to Huaraz. 

Many more adventures to come in by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in this world.

MGG

Northern Peru: a long journey to reach spectacular treasures

“Discovering this idyllic place, we find ourselves filled with a yearning to linger here, where time stands still and beauty overwhelms.” – anonymous


My first week in Peru was a nonstop marathon. After an exhausting 18-hour journey from Vilcabamba to Chachapoyas, I woke up bright and early the next morning for a full day trip to the ruins of Kuélap, a pre-Incan walled city that sits atop a mountain and took over 1,000 years to build (6th century AD). After a two hour bus ride, we arrived at the entrance to the brand new teleférico (gondola) that would carry us to the top of the mountain. We enjoyed spectacular views of endless green mountains in every direction from the teleférico. The ruins of Kuélap were equally impressive. After walking around the exterior city walls, we entered through a steep, narrow doorway and up a set of stone steps to the top level. The city was built upon three distinct levels and contains about 400 cylindrical dwellings. With a length of 600 meters and massive 19 meter walls, archaeologists believe the city may have been built to defend against other tribes. 

The next day I decided to hike to a waterfall called Gocta. Gocta is a huge two-part waterfall that has been known to local villagers for centuries but was only made known to the outside world in 2005. The hike was beautiful. I started in a small village and hiked for three hours up and down the highest portion of the rainforest…known as the “ceja de selva” or “eyebrow.” I walked between rows of wild coffee bean plants, lemon trees, and various other jungle foliage. It was hot and humid and I was dreaming about drenching myself in the cool water as the falls came closer and closer into view. As soon as I arrived, however, the combination of the ice cold misty spray and the strong winds had me shivering and throwing on my rain jacket within minutes. Climbing back up to the village was even hotter than the way down so I dunked my head in a spring to cool off and ate a big lunch in the village when I got done. After a very quick shower back in town, I packed up my bags and headed to the bus station for my first long, overnight bus. I would be traveling to Trujillo (a city on the northern coast)…en route to Huaraz, my ultimate destination. 



The bus ride was a brutally long 15 hours and when I arrived in Trujillo around noon, starving and sleep deprived, I found out that the next bus to Huaraz wasn’t leaving until 10 PM. A guy I had met on my bus from England also had a long layover so we decided to waste some time together. We took a bus to Huanchaco, a beach town just outside Trujillo hoping to relax on the beach for a few hours and have a look at the caballitos de totora, “little horses,” the famous long and narrow fishing boats in Trujillo woven from totora reed. Unfortunately however, the beach was not suitable for swimming or even relaxing as the tide was so high and the water frigid. We took advantage of being on the coast and enjoyed some ceviche and fresh fish and wandered up the boardwalk. We stumbled upon a beautiful Olympic sized swimming pool and, after finding out that it was open to the public, decided to go for a swim. I can’t remember the last time I swam laps but it was the perfect activity after such a long and stuffy bus ride. After, we caught the bus back into town and wandered around the beautiful historic center around Trujillo’s main square, Plaza de Armas. We sat in a cafe for awhile to relax and I indulged in the most delicious hot chocolate and plantain cake, which tastes like a cross between carrot cake and banana bread. After a quick bite to eat for dinner, we grabbed a taxi back to the bus station and went our separate ways. Being that it was my second night bus in a row, I splurged and bought a luxury seat this time around. I didn’t sleep much but the big reclining leather chair was certainly a pleasant upgrade. I was finally en route to Huaraz!

Huaraz, located high in the Andes in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra mountain ranges, is one of the most premier trekking and climbing destinations in the world. Part of the Callejón de Huaylas valley, which ranges in altitude from 5,900 ft to 13,380 ft, and rates as one of the finest areas in all of South America for its superb mountain vistas. The Cordillera Blanca is home to 29 glaciers above 6,000 meters (the most outside of the Himalayas), including Huascarán (6,768 meters), the highest peak in the Peruvian Andes, and Alpamayo, considered to be the most beautiful mountain in the world. There was obviously no doubt I was going to miss this place!



I was startled awake at 6 AM when the lights came on and everyone started exiting the bus. I gathered my things and got off, only to find a crowd of people shouting at me about accommodations, tours, treks, and so on. I grabbed my luggage and tried to escape the madness but one of the shouting men followed me out of the terminal. When he found out I hadn’t booked a hostel yet, he insisted on carrying my bags for me to a nice place right in the center of town. Exhausted and still half asleep, I agreed to see the place if it meant not having to carry my heavy bags. The hostel seemed nice enough and close to the city center so I decided to check in. The agent who had walked me there handed me a brochure full of pictures of various lagoons, glaciers, and treks with descriptions of the various tours they offer. I mentioned to him that I was interested in the Santa Cruz trek (a supposedly beautiful four day trek I had read about in my hiking book) and when he told me he had a group leaving the next day, I decided to book it. I was originally planning to just do the trek on my own, but after two nights of no sleep, the thought of having all of the complicated logistics worked out for me seemed so much easier.

After a hot shower, I was doing a load of laundry and met an Argentinian girl who said she was leaving to go on a day hike to Laguna Churup, a glacial lake below Nevado Churup. I had also read about this hike and asked if I could join her. We grabbed a taxi and the driver dropped us as far as he was willing to go on the rough road up toward the beginning of the hike. We started walking from a village called Llupa, about an hour below the trailhead. After paying our entrance to the national park, Huascarán, I bought some bread and fruits from one of the villagers as I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since I got off the bus. We began the steep ascent toward the glacier, up many stone steps and then a steep, rocky trail that required the use of chains at various points. The turquoise lake set perfectly beneath the glacier looked like a painting. We sat for awhile admiring the view which only became more impressive as the clouds began to disperse revealing the reflection of the snowy glacier atop the surface of the lake. We hustled back down to the trailhead to catch the 3 PM colectivo heading back to town and then grabbed some dinner in the square near our hostel.



Late that evening I was informed that my Santa Cruz trek was being pushed back a day because some of the group members had gotten altitude sickness. The agency offered to give me a free day tour the next day instead so I chose to go to Pastoruri Glacier. I got on the bus early the next morning to discover I would be visiting the glacier with a group of local high school students on a field trip to learn about climate change. I had the pleasure of sitting next to their teacher, an extremely kind and friendly old man with a mustache. It was amazing to see how much respect the students have for this man, jotting down notes as he spoke and always asking him questions. He taught me all about the devastating effects that climate change is having in the Cordillera Blanca. Pastoruri is a haunting representation of it all. The glacier is retreating very quickly; it has lost 22% of its size and 15.5% of its ice mass in the past 30-35 years.

Along our way to Pastoruri we stopped at a place full of Puya Raimondi plants, the largest member of the bromeliad family. The strikingly tall and beautiful plants grow up to 50 ft tall and are an extremely rare species, considered to be one of the oldest in the world. We continued on to the trailhead to Pastoruri Glacier and, at 5,250 meters (17,200 ft), I could feel the familiar altitude effects coming on as soon as I started walking. The view of the glacier, surrounding snow-capped peaks, and glacial lake was absolutely stunning. Within minutes of arriving at the glacier I witnessed multiple giant ice falls. I couldn’t believe just how quickly this beautifully precious glacier was retreating right before my eyes. For anyone that could possibly still doubt the reality of climate change should pay a visit to the Cordillera Blanca, where it’s devastating effects are simply undeniable.

Love from the Peruvian Andes,
MGG

✌🏻❤️🏔

Farewell Ecuador, Hello Peru!

Saying goodbye to Ecuador after three months was very bittersweet. Three months is the longest I’ve ever traveled/lived in a foreign country and I couldn’t be more thankful for the welcoming locals, expats, and fellow backpackers throughout my journey who made Ecuador a home away from home. I’m excited about the adventures awaiting me in Peru, but I can’t help but feel sad about leaving this incredible country that’s left me with countless memories, lasting friendships, a newfound confidence, and a deeper hunger to discover the beauty that our world has to offer. From baking breads at Finca Sommerwind in Ibarra, climbing the highest peaks throughout the Avenue of Volcanos, losing my way in the foothills of Cotopaxi, floating alongside pink dolphins and caiman deep within the Amazon, hiking through picturesque villages of the Andean countryside, learning to surf on the coast, swimming alongside giant sea turtles and sharks in the Galápagos, strolling the cobblestone streets of Cuenca, and finally horseback riding with a crazy Kiwi (just to name a few)…it’s truly been a wild ride. The days were jam-packed and sleep was minimal but I’m leaving with the satisfaction that I spent these past three months living life to the fullest and doing what I love. There will always be more mountains to climb, sights to see, and new people to meet…I can’t wait to come back for more someday!

After an incredible but exhausting couple of weeks on the Galápagos Islands, I flew back to the mainland to meet up with an Irish guy named Brian who I had met in Olón. A big storm rolled through while we were in the air and our plane wasn’t able to safely land in Guayaquil so we were re-routed to Quito to refuel and wait out the storm. I had no way of connecting with Brian to inform him of the situation so I just hoped that he would still be waiting for me at the bus station when I finally arrived. After many hours on the plane and a taxi ride to the bus station in Guayaquil, I was so relieved when I heard Brian shout my name amidst the giant, hectic terminal. We didn’t board the bus until 9 PM (a bit of a mess up because of the change in time zones) and we still had a four hour ride to Cuenca, our next destination. 

Cuenca was the most beautiful city I visited in Ecuador. Quaint cobblestone streets lined with colorful colonial houses, shops, and cafés almost made me forget I was still in South America but rather in a small town in Spain. That is until I found myself in the central market where the familiar rows of colorful fruits, vegetables, stinky meat, fish, fresh-squeezed juices, clothing, and shoes assured me that I was certainly still in Ecuador. The hardworking indigenous women rushing through the streets in their vibrant velvet skirts, long braids, and panama hats lugging big bags of fruits, grains, or alpaca textiles were also a constant reminder that I was back in the Andean highlands. Four rivers run through the city, the main one Río Tomebamba separates the historical city center (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with the more bustling modern part of the city. This river, which feeds from the mountains of nearby Cajas National Park, is also the main water source for this part of the country and, up until a couple of years ago, was the main water source for the majority of Ecuador. 


Multiple story colonial houses, hotels, museums, and restaurants built into the cliffs above the river make up the area called Barranco (cliff) because of the way the buildings hover over the river. It’s the perfect city to just go for a stroll or a run along the river, pop into small artsy cafés and shops, and try on every style of intricately-woven panama hat. The world-famous panama hat (mistakenly named) originated in Cuenca and is still one of the most famous exports of the country. The panama hat or toquilla-straw hat dates back to the 1800s when the Spanish began exporting the hats via Panama. The hats are made from toquilla palm fiber, grown in the inland regions of the central Ecuadorian coast, and the production process is lengthy and laborious. The density of the weave determines the price which can range between $15-500.


I spent a week in and around this lovely city and a part of me didn’t want to leave. Cuenca draws many expats and retirees from Europe and the U.S. because of its charm, livability, perfect weather, and scenic mountain vistas. The city is a melting pot of very traditional indigenous people, mestizos, and gringos which has created a very interesting and appealing mix of cultures. During my week there I spent time wandering the streets admiring the beautiful murals and paintings found on the sides of many of the buildings. I explored lots of cute boutiques and craft shops. Brian and I visited the panama hat museum where we learned about the entire production process and tried on many of the hats. We visited the amazing Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción in the main square, climbing the tower to the top for panoramic views of the historical city. We checked out a very interesting gothic art museum called “Prohibited Museum of Extreme Art” containing interesting gothic paintings, sculptures, and artifacts. We indulged in delicious food, walked along the river, and caught a perfect sunset from a mirador overlooking the entire city. 


The mountains surrounding Cuenca have some of the best rock climbing areas in the country so I knew I wanted to climb while I was there. I had heard about a gym in town so I spent one morning bouldering there with a group of young boys and their trainers. My new friend Sole, who Aiden put me in touch with when I needed a shipping address for my new GoPro, helped set me up with a group of climbers who would be climbing in the mountains one of the days I was in town. Pao, Sole’s friend, invited me to join her and five other climbers for a day of climbing at a place about an hour outside of Cuenca. We hiked a narrow trail up a mountain to an area with a bunch of routes overlooking the rolling green hills and a small town set within the valley. I had so much fun pushing my lead climbing limits to the next level. I successfully completed my hardest outdoor lead to date (5.11). My fear of falling almost got the best of me multiple times but I was able to push through it with the help and encouragement of everyone there. That same day I also completed my hardest outdoor climb overall, a 5.12! The people I was climbing with are such skilled and brave climbers…I was thoroughly enjoying watching them, completely in awe by their fearlessness in jumping for holds that seemed impossible to grasp and taking massive falls (without helmets!) After a very long day of climbing, we hiked back down to the truck while the sun was setting and then headed into the nearby town for some pizza. 


Following a day of rest in the city, Brian and I went on an adventure to Cajas National Park, only about a 45 minute bus ride from Cuenca. With over two thousand lakes, Cajas is a beautiful park set high in the Andean páramo. After talking to one of the rangers at the ranger station, we decided on two different hikes that would take us all day. The first hike climbed up a narrow, steep trail to the top of one of the volcanoes. The 360-degree views from the summit of the many lakes below and surrounding volcanoes were well worth the climb. We made our way down and continued on to the other trail which took us through the lower wetland areas of the park. 


First we wound through this enchanted mossy Polylepis forest with beautiful spiraled trees that I monkeyed around on for awhile. Polylepis grow at the highest altitude of any trees in the world. We stopped for lunch on a big rock perched above more lakes and a rushing river. We then continued on the trail alongside the river and eventually crossed over a bridge to the other side. At some point we ended up on a different trail which took us around a swampy area and then up a hill. Upon realizing that we had lost our trail, we climbed up to a higher vantage point to assess where we needed to go. 


There was a valley between the hill we were on and the road we were trying to eventually end up at. A lake set in the valley was feeding a rushing river. We started making our way down to figure out whether we would try to walk around the lake or find a way to cross the river. After seeing the width of the white water river (and virtually no logical way to cross) I had decided it would be best to try making our way around the lake. Brian, however, was eager to try climbing up a branch that stretched halfway over the river and met another branch that reached to the other side. I was extremely hesitant about this plan but soon enough he was inching his way across, limbs wrapped around the tree branch. After watching him complete this daring act, I of course had to give it a shot. I tossed him my bag and inched my way across the terrifyingly limp branches. Indeed it was a thrilling end to an otherwise very tranquil hike. We made it back to the road, hiking in the direction toward Cuenca to flag down the next bus that drove by. When the bus failed to stop for us, we decided to hitchhike. A very nice guy in a big Ford pickup coming from Guayaquil agreed to give us a lift back to town. That evening we met up with Brian’s friend from back home, another Irish lad named Brian (Murphy), for dinner and drinks.


After another relaxing day in the city and an evening trip to some nearby thermal baths with Brian and Murphy, it was time to move on to my final destination in Ecuador: Vilcabamba. Following a dramatic morning that involved a fight with the hostel owners about a sudden change in the price and an unfortunate incident with the neighbor’s dog which left me with a nice bite mark on my bum, I was happy that Brian decided to make the journey with me to Vilcabamba that afternoon. I had first learned about Vilcabamba from Andy back in Ibarra who raved about the place. After hearing such interesting things about the “Valley of Longevity,” I decided I needed to discover it for myself. Famous for having many residents over a century old, the beautiful stress-free valley with perfect year-round weather attracts many expats and retirees. 

Brian and I arrived in Vilcabamba late that evening and, after wandering around looking for a hostel, we decided to grab a beer at one of the local establishments called Charlito’s. It became apparent almost immediately that this town was full of crazy gringo characters. The owner of the bar, Charlie, is an American who married an Ecuadorian woman and decided to settle down in Vilcabamba. As with most of the folks who have chosen to reside in this town, Charlie is a hippie conspiracy theorist who loves to discuss corruption, politics, and of course North Korea. We chatted with him for awhile and as we were getting up to leave an adorable woman came running up to us with a big basket of bread. Suzanna wanted us to come stay at her casa down by the river and, after a bit of hesitation, we decided to just go with it. We took a taxi through a thick forest over a very bumpy road to Suzanna’s. Her place was so lovely. We had a whole floor to ourself, including a big kitchen, dining room, and balcony. Suzanna baked us delicious bread and made us feel so welcome in her home. 


The next morning I woke up to go for a hike to the top of Cerro Mandango, famous for its knife-edge trail that drops off on both sides for a nice adrenaline rush…my favorite type of hike! The dramatic peak can be seen from nearly every part of the valley. The hike was beautiful with sweeping views of the green valley, surrounding mountains, and nearby Podocarpus National Park. When I reached the top, I saw that the trail continued along the ridge line for awhile so I ventured on, the views becoming more impressive as I progressed. The trail also became increasingly narrow as I went on and I actually did experience a bit of vertigo when I looked down. I plopped down to eat my lunch of home-made organic peanut butter that I discovered at one of the bakeries in town and couldn’t have been happier. After lunch, I continued walking along the ridge line but eventually it became a bit too dodgy trying to navigate around the giant prickly pear cacti with deathly cliff edges on either side. I forged my way down a steep animal trail through the thick grass and shrubbery until it eventually converged with an actual trail that led me through a forest back down the mountain. 


After a delicious breakfast the following day consisting of Suzanna’s homemade bread, fresh-squeezed OJ from oranges picked in the garden, eggs, and coffee, Brian and I went for a short hike along the river right outside of Suzanna’s. We ended up on a trail that dead ended at a gate to someone’s property. A white dog and an adorable puppy came running to the gate to greet us. We headed back down the trail to the river, surprised to find that the pups had made the great escape and were running to catch up to us. After trying to shoo them back to their home and failing, I couldn’t resist playing with them and letting them join along for awhile. We found a nice grassy field with grazing horses and a beautiful view of the valley so we decided to stop for a picnic lunch. 


The next morning was the start of Brian and I’s wild two-day horseback adventure up the mountain with Mr. Gavino: the kiwi cowboy, rum drinking, unofficial town sheriff. Gavino holds the title of the craziest character I’ve met on this journey. He’s lived in Vilcabamba long enough that everyone in town knows him. They know to steer clear if he’s had too much to drink, especially if he gets started talking about North Korea. They also hold an immense amount of respect for him, for it is an undisputed fact that he is by far the most knowledgeable and experienced horseman in the valley.

We arrived at his office early that morning and Gavino, sporting his cowboy hat and sheriff badge, and Ramón, his right-hand man, helped us pack our saddle bags. We walked across town to pick up our horses and were on our way. We trotted up the dirt road out of town to our first river crossing and then continued onto the mountain trail that quickly narrowed as we rode higher up. Ramón, in front, hacked away at the thick brush and overhanging branches blocking our path with his machete. He occasionally had to dismount to clear enough path for us to pass since at points the trail was no longer even visible because it was so overgrown. What I hadn’t realized was that this was Gavin’s first trip up the mountain this year. His cabin (our destination) sits way up on the mountain on the border of Podocarpus National Park, a very remote and nearly inaccessible part of the cloud forest. Over the years Gavin has constructed trails in the surrounding area around his cabin for tourists who want to ride up to the cabin and go for hikes in the cloud forest.


As we rode higher, the views began opening up and all around us were green rolling hills and the bright blue sky above. We then descended back down into the forest because we had to cross the river. We scoped out multiple sections of the river in order to find the safest way across. I began losing hope that we would make it across as each section we came to appeared higher, faster, and more treacherous than the last. We gave the horses a breather and Gavin warned us that it wasn’t looking good. There was one more section to scout but if we couldn’t cross there then we would have to turn back. We arrived at the final spot and it looked just as bad as everywhere else. Before I knew it, Ramón was knee deep in the river checking how fast the current was and looking for any possible way for the horses to cross. He mounted his horse and gave it a go. The horse was very hesitant to enter the water but eventually Ramón was on the other side of the river. Brian turned back to me and asked if I was ready to attempt this and, despite the alarms going off in my head, I told him we were making it across. Ramón helped lead his horse across and then it was my turn. As soon as my horse stepped into the river it came to a halt. My heart was pounding as I watched the white water rush by just below me. I gave my horse a small kick and then we were moving again. We eventually made it across and I could breathe again.


Gavin had the toughest time…his horse didn’t want to enter the water at all and kept trying to turn back. Ramón had to get back in and pull them across and,soon enough, we were all safe. I don’t know what we would have done without that man. Now we just had to pray that the river wouldn’t rise any higher overnight.


After the river crossing, we began our incredibly steep ascent back up a grassy hill and with every switchback, the expanding views became more impressive. When we reached the top we rode aside a big area of farmland which Gavin informed us was Suzanna’s brothers property. It started to rain and quickly became very, very cold. The trail became so overgrown which only made matters worse. The wet leaves brushing against us left us drenched and we were now stopping every couple of minutes for Ramón and Gavin to clear the path. When we finally made it to the cabin I was so relieved. As I scurried to change into dry clothes the rain finally stopped and we all sat in front of the cabin to eat some lunch and take in the magnificent view of the mountains and valley below. 


Gavin’s cabin is an adorable triangular wooden structure with a wood burning stove and a ladder leading up to a small loft. There’s no electricity and there’s a water pump that feeds from a natural spring up the mountain. There’s a guest cabin off to the side with two big rooms, lots of wooden beds, and a porch with hammocks. It’s the kind of simple mountain cabin I hope to own someday. Gavino and Ramón cooked us a delicious candlelit dinner of burritos and fresh maracuya juice (with rum of course). We chatted for awhile and then went to bed.


The next morning Gavino and I went for a short hike through the cloud forest while Brian did some meditation and Ramón rounded up the horses that were now scattered across the mountain. While bushwhacking our way through the forest with the machete, Gavino pointed out tons of different wild plants to me. There were countless herbal and medicinal plants, beautiful wild orchids, cacti type species, and even gourmet mushrooms. He pointed out plants that had been eaten or destroyed by the Andean spectacled bear. We made it back to the cabin and packed up before our long journey back to town. Without the rain I was able to really enjoy the ride down. The views from the steep switchback portion were absolutely breathtaking and it was a bit of an adrenaline rush navigating my horse down the treacherous terrain. The river seemed like a piece of cake this time around, none of our horses struggling to cross. Once we made it back to the road leading toward town we all kicked into high gear, galloping the rest of the way. One last wild adventure seemed like the perfect way to top off this crazy ride through Ecuador.


…and it’s only fitting that my journey across the border was anything short of a mad, chaotic adventure as well. I chose to take the unconventional route from Ecuador to Peru (through the mountains as opposed to the coast), so I expected to have an interesting experience when I woke up that morning at 5 AM. Just my luck, the taxi that I had arranged to pick me up from Suzanna’s to take me to the bus stop didn’t show up by 5:45 AM which left me no choice but to speed walk (lugging my giant bags) in the dark, across a rocky trail up the river and into town to try and catch the 6 AM bus. The 1.5 mile walk took me about 20 minutes but luckily the bus was nearly a half hour late. After a very scenic eight hour bus ride up and down rough, winding mountain roads, I reached the Peruvian border, La Balsa. I then walked a short way across the river to enter Peru, but with my heavy bags and in a million degree heat I entered Peru a hot and sweaty mess. 


Then came the really brutal portion of the trip…a series of colectivos (shared taxis) to my final destination, Chachapoyas. First, a 1.5 hour colectivo from the border to a town called San Ignacio along another beautiful, but terrifying, mountain road where rock slides appeared around just about every corner. Then, after a half hour of begging another colectivo driver in San Ignacio to accept my US dollars, a two hour ride to a town called Jaen…while squished in between the driver and another guy in the passenger seat. After a mototaxi ride across town, I hopped in a third colectivo to another town just outside of Jaen and then a fourth colectivo (two more hours) to Chachapoyas. After a total of 18 hours in transit, I finally arrived at a hostel around midnight for some much needed rest before my day trip to the ruins of Keulap the next morning.


Let the Peruvian journey commence!

MGG

Galápagos Islands: Part 3

I’m sitting on the dock at Las Grietas, sweat dripping from my forehead, blood oozing from the tip of my big toe, and the painful burning and throbbing sensation quickly becoming unbearable. I slip off the dock and let the rush of refreshingly cold water envelop me. At first, the sting of the salty water entering my wound makes me want to scream but then I relax and let the cold sensation slowly numb my toe and then feel the pain start to slip away. 

After an amazing but hectic trip to Isabela, I woke up the next morning ready to spend a relaxing hour or so at Las Grietas (the deep water-filled crevasse Adid had taken me to on my second day) before leaving on my three-day cruise that afternoon. On the short hike there, I met a German girl who was also traveling alone. It was her first day on the island so I was happy to have her join me for the swim. Unfortunately, while hiking up the rocks, I stubbed my toe on one of the sharp volcanic rocks. It immediately began gushing blood…just my luck. We were about a minute away from the gorge and when the ranger saw my foot he advised me to get in the water to help ease the pain and stop the bleeding. We took it slow, especially over the sections where you have to scramble over the slick mossy rocks, but had a lovely time exploring the crystal clear waters, the tall canyon walls towering above us. We swam all the way to the end where there were no other tourists and dove deep into the crevasse to get a closer look at the big tropical fish. 

After the journey back to town, I parted ways with Arlena to grab my bags and head to the agency. A big group of gringos were moseying into the office and the agent informed us that we needed to wait for the bus that would take us up to the highlands for our afternoon excursion. Despite my bit of frustration at not having been informed that we would be doing a land-based trip the first day instead of getting on the boat, I was actually excited to have a second visit to the giant tortoise ranch. I had lost all of my photos from that day and it was certainly a highlight of the trip thus far. The bus showed up about two hours late (surprise surprise) and then we were on our way. Our guide took us first to Los Gemelos (the twin sink holes), then to the tortoise ranch (which was equally as exciting the second time around), and finally to the lava tubes. After riding back to town, we grabbed our bags to catch a water taxi that would take us to our cruise ship, Aida Maria. 


We were welcomed aboard by our guide, Cristian, and the head crew member, Luis. The ship was lovely. With a capacity for just 16 guests, it was small but very nice. The dining room was perfectly set and the cabins, although incredibly tiny, seemed clean and inviting. I was paired with a Polish girl named Isabela who lives in Zurich. We all sat in the dining room for dinner and got to know each other. Everyone was extremely friendly. I was so lucky to have such a great group to hang out with during the trip.

We woke up the next morning anchored off the coast of Floreana Island, a beautiful island with a tragic, but very interesting history. After breakfast, we hopped into the pangas (small motor boats) to get a closer look at some of the wildlife on the small islets offshore. We saw blue-footed boobies and their incredibly precise fishing technique. We also saw lots of baby sea lions sprawled over the rocks…the shallow waters surrounding the islets keep the babies safe from sharks while the mothers are out fishing for days at a time. After, we landed onshore for a visit to Post Office Bay, originally a functioning mailbox for American and British whalers dating back to the 18th century. Now tourists leave postcards hoping they will find their way. Visitors take postcards that they find addressed to folks near their hometown in order to hand deliver them when they return. Next we climbed down into another lava tube. The cave sloped downwards and just a short ways in the ground dropped under water. Our guide informed us that no one has ever attempted to swim all the way through. We walked back to the beach and jumped into the refreshing water for a swim and some snorkeling. The water was clear as could be and we found tons of sea turtles and sharks.


After snorkeling and a delicious lunch, we rode to a place a few hundred meters off the coast of Floreana called Devil’s Crown. Devil’s crown, a semicircle of rocks protruding from the water, is one of the most outstanding Marine spots in the Galápagos. An abundance of bright tropical fish, sharks, and rays can be found in the deep blue waters surrounding the rocks. The current was extremely strong and it briskly swept us around to the other side of the rocks from where we started. Once on the other side, however, we were swimming against the current. Despite kicking my feet at hard as I could, I was still being pulled backwards. It was amusing to watch the schools of fish below me, also being pulled back and forth by the currents.

That evening, we made a wet landing at Punta Cormorant and hiked over an isthmus to a beautiful beach on Floreana that is a popular nesting area for baby sea turtles. On the way we walked through a forest of Palo Santo (Holy wood) trees, whose aromatic wood is used as a type of incense especially in Catholic Churches. We also passed a laguna with many flamingos. Although we never actually spotted any baby sea turtles, we saw lots of rays riding the waves just off the beach and hundreds of bright Sally Lightfoot Crabs scattered over every inch of rock. We also watched herons searching for baby sea turtles in the sand. Every few minutes they would dive their beaks into the sand, each time coming up unsuccessful. On our hike back to the beach where the pangas would pick us up, the sun began setting and the reds, yellows, and oranges reflecting off the laguna and the Pacific were marvelous…another perfect sunset in paradise! The mosquitoes came out in full force on the beach while we waited for the pangas though and I couldn’t wait to be back onboard. After dinner we began the long voyage to our next destination. Just a few minutes into the journey I began feeling a bit seasick…I was turning ghostly white and had to lay down. I felt dizzy and nauseous as if I had been drinking all night. One of the crew members gave me some medicine and soon enough I was passed out in my cabin.

The next morning we woke up on Española Island, which quickly became my favorite island for the abundance of amazing wildlife and breathtaking vistas from the high cliffs. Española is the most southerly island of the archipelago. We went for a long hike in the morning on the island. We watched sea lions playing on the rocks, babies squealing, and big fat ones cuddled together on the beach. The adorable habits of these quirky animals could seriously keep me entertained for hours. The sea lions cuddle together, not for warmth, but simply because they enjoy being close together and prefer the close contact of one another to being alone. The marine iguanas were perched on every other rock, warming themselves under the scorching equatorial sun. It’s mating season for these incredible creatures and the males were flaunting their beautifully transformed skin, a mixture of deep reds and bright turquoise. We even caught some of them in the act! We continued our walk up along the high cliffs of the small but drastically impressive island through colonies of blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies (grey feet). A few minutes later we came upon a waved albatross, one of the most spectacular birds I’ve ever encountered. Most of the world’s albatross population comes here to breed at this time of year. The large birds with their pure white heads/necks, long yellow beaks, black feathers, and big black eyes are so lovely to watch. I felt so luckily to be able to witness multiple couples performing their unique courtship dance. In addition to the plethora of wildlife, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the views of the wave-battered cliffs and perfectly blue waters. There was a blow hole in the rocks that, every few minutes, would shoot water high into the air like a geyser.

That afternoon, the pangas dropped us off at another great snorkeling area off the coast of Española. We were again swimming around a rocky island in deep water. I saw lots of unique looking fish, starfish, and black sea urchins. One of the crew members swimming nearby called me over. “Tiburón grande”! (Big shark!) I quickly swam over and spotted the dark and ominous white-tipped shark below me. I took a big gulp of air and dove down to get a closer look. It was moving fast but in my fins I was able to keep up until I had to come up for air. I was again shocked (and a bit concerned) about my newfound fearlessness. The crew member called me over again…this time he found a ray. I dove down to take a look at it buried beneath the sand. I was thankful that the crew member was having such great luck spotting the wildlife for me to enjoy! I began making my way towards the beach nearby, Gardner Bay. I could see the giant row of sea lions laying on the beach. I was hoping I’d catch some swimming close to shore but it appeared to be their siesta time. It was amazing to see just how many of them were lined up along the beach for their afternoon nap.

After snorkeling, we began our voyage to San Cristóbal Island. San Cristóbal is the fifth largest island in the Galápagos with the second biggest city, Baquerizo Moreno. While en route, our guide Cristian went over the remainder of our itinerary. Yet again, I was completely lied to by my travel agent about the cruise itinerary…as were many of the other passengers it turned out. This made for a dramatic evening. When I first realized that the boat would not, in fact, be returning to Santa Cruz but rather would be leaving us on Cristóbal I was completely in shock. Back when I had booked the cruise, my returning flight was scheduled to leave the same day that the cruise dropped us off. I was a bit hesitant about this but of course the agent was completely confident that I would have absolutely no trouble making it to the airport in time. Cristian informed us that the boat would be dropping us off at the pier at 9 AM the following morning, meaning the next ferry to Santa Cruz that I could catch was at 2:30 PM, arriving at 5 PM. My fight was originally scheduled for 12:30 PM! How in the world would I have made it in time?!? The agent had no idea that I had luckily rescheduled my flight otherwise I would have been completely screwed. On top of that, Cristian informed us that we would not be snorkeling at Kicker Rock the next morning as all of us had been told which was a complete bummer. Kicker Rock is THE snorkeling/diving destination on the Galápagos because its one of the only places you can find an abundance of Hammer Head Sharks. Instead we would be doing a hike at Isla Lobos Island (no snorkeling) just a short boat ride away from Cristóbal.

That evening, a group of us took the pangas into town to grab a drink after dinner. When Cristian showed up, a few of the passengers started complaining to him about the fact that we wouldn’t be going to Kicker Rock. Rather than apologizing for the error on the website that indicated we would be going there, he acted like a complete jerk, blatantly ignoring us and walking away from the table. Ironically this all took place right after he had given out envelopes with a “suggested tip” amount. It was clearly not an issue to him that he would likely be losing a significant amount in tips because of his behavior. The rest of us enjoyed the remainder of the evening, discussing possible ideas for the group of us that decided to stay an extra day on Cristóbal before heading back to Santa Cruz.

The following morning we went for an early hike around the tiny island of Isla Lobos, an hour away from San Cristóbal by boat. The highlight for me was witnessing many couples of blue-footed boobies performing their courtship song/dance up close. After breakfast, we packed up while the boat headed back to the pier. The familiar sickening feeling was surfacing as I was being thrown around in my cabin. I quickly threw everything in my bag and ran upstairs. I went out on the dock thinking I was going to be sick but was relieved to see us pulling into the pier. 

I spent the rest of the day and the following morning with a group from the cruise: two French guys, a Swiss girl and her Russian-Swiss friend, and a couple from Germany. We found a hostel in town, dropped off our bags, rented snorkels, and hiked a ways to an amazing snorkeling spot called Las Tijeretas Bay. We jumped off the dock into the clear turquoise waters. Within seconds I was swimming alongside sea lions, chasing them around the rocks and into the caves on the edges of the bay. Between the massive schools of blue and yellow fish, silver sardines, small orange minnows, sea urchins, countless giant green sea turtles, and pelicans hovering above, I was loving every minute of this Finding Nemo dream come true. After snorkeling, we headed back to town for a big lunch. A few people decided to go all out, ordering the ultimate chocolate lover’s dessert, the Chocolate Lava Volcano…chocolate cake filled with warm chocolate sauce and a scoop of chocolate ice cream to top it all off. I couldn’t sit by and watch so I decided to order one myself and slowly devoured the entire thing. Inevitably, I felt a bit sick when we jumped in the water for a second round of snorkeling, this time at La Lobería, a nearby beach. This day turned out to be one of the best snorkeling days during my entire trip. Despite the big waves and strong current off the beach, I swam with many sea turtles and a family of eagle rays! The sunset on the walk home followed by cocktails at the pier made a perfect end to the day.

The next morning, after breakfast, we decided to head back to Las Tijeretas for a second round of snorkeling, which was just as exciting the second time around. Afterward, we stopped at another beach nearby called Punta Carola for another swim. I headed back to the hostel to pack up my things and, after a quick lunch with the group, caught the afternoon ferry back to Santa Cruz. I was walking around with Fernando that evening when I got back and we bumped into Kevin, one of the French guys from my cruise. We had a nice dinner followed by delicious helados and Kevin was kind enough to share his Airbnb with me that night. We woke up at 5 AM the next morning to jog to Tortuga Bay to catch the sunrise. Seeing the sunrise over the beach, the sky transforming from pinkish-blue to bright orange, before any other tourists had arrived was the perfect end to my Galápagos adventure. Of course we forced ourselves to hop in the water after for one last swim with the sharks. The plentiful Blacktips were scurrying around us in the shallow waters. Despite the few hiccups during my trip, I felt overwhelmed with joy while walking back to the trail as I thought about the past two weeks and all of the amazing people I’d met and countless lifelong memories I’d made. That is until I realized someone had stolen my running shoes and I would be spending the next hour tip-toeing back to the Airbnb on the blazing hot stones and concrete road. Really?! 

The Galápagos took my camera, my shoes, and part of my big toe but I will always have a special place in my heart for this very magical place. This planet and its precious ecosystems are so incredibly special. 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” -Darwin

Thanks for the memories,

MGG

Galápagos Islands: Part 2

A precursor to this blog post: for anyone planning to visit the Galápagos at some point, please take this bit of advice. Be extremely cautious when choosing your travel agency/cruise. Do your homework, check TripAdvisor and Facebook reviews, know exactly what you’re paying for, and have the company document every little detail…especially if you wait until you arrive on the islands to book something. The Galápagos are unfortunately notorious for having many unprofessional agencies, cheap cruises with undereducated guides, and greedy businesses looking to rip off every gringo who strolls into town. Despite having read a bit about this, my excitement trumped my diligence and I ended up choosing a travel agent who at first seemed extremely knowledgeable and honest but turned out to be a complete scammer, squeezing every last penny out of me and under-delivering on nearly every task that I was paying him to perform. Constantly fighting and bickering with my travel agent about issues took some time that I could have spent out seeing and enjoying the magical place. That being said, my trip to the Galápagos was an unforgettable experience and I hope I can share a bit more of that with you here.

“The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention.” -Darwin 


My two day excursion to Isabela Island was a bit of a chaotic mess filled with adventure, amazing wildlife, and other-worldly vistas. Aiden and I arrived late in the afternoon and, because I had booked an all-inclusive package with my agent, I assumed there would be someone to collect me from the ferry and take me to my hotel. When there wasn’t, I asked around for help and a taxi driver was kind enough to call the agency for me and find out where my hotel was. While waiting to hear back, I hung out with the marine iguanas and sea lions scattered around the beach. There was a group of sea lions all cuddled up together in the sun and every few minutes one of them would get up and run into the water. Watching these animals waddle across the sand on their flippers is simply adorable. I went for a dip at Concha de Perla, a shallow bay just around the corner, and snorkeled with schools of tropical fish. When the taxi driver finally got ahold of the agency, he drove me to Hotel Tintoreras, a lovely hotel in the center of town where I would supposedly be spending the night. Unfortunately, the woman at the hotel informed me that they were completely full and my agent had made a mistake. She made some phone calls and I was soon thrown into another taxi to take me to a different hotel down by the beach. Luckily they had a room available, but I would be sharing with a guy from Wales who I happened to have met on my excursion to Bartolomé a few days earlier. I dropped off my bag and walked over to the beach to watch the sunset and try out the slack line outside of the local beach bar. 


The next morning, my roommate Rob and I went for a walk to the giant tortoise preserve and breeding center. We witnessed tortoises mating and saw hundreds of newborns. Afterwards we walked to a laguna where a group of flamingos were gathered. Looking over the green laguna filled with bright pink flamingos, I was once again awestruck. The vast array of exotic species on the Galápagos never ceased to amaze me. After our walk, we headed back to the hotel because we were both scheduled for a tour to Los Túneles, a series of unique geological rock arcs and tunnels above and beneath the water formed by a series of lava flows. No surprise, the woman working at the hotel had no idea if we would be picked up for the tour or if we needed to meet up with our tour group somewhere in town. After a series of phone calls, she informed us that we would be picked up at 11 AM. I began panicking when no one showed up to pick us up by 11:15, but soon enough a truck rolled up. We drove around town picking up the other tour members and then made our way to the pier. The rest of the day was absolutely amazing. On the boat ride up to Los Túneles we were told to keep our eyes peeled for whales…a family of orcas had been spotted a few days ago just off the coast. One of the tour members shouted that he saw something in the water and when the boat came to a halt, a giant manta ray came leaping out of the ocean beside our boat. I had to pick my jaw off the floor after witnessing the enormous beast emerge from the water. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes…we had a front row seat to the type of performance you only ever expect to witness on one of David Attenborough’s programs.


Our guide first took us to a place with great snorkeling close to Los Túneles. Within minutes I spotted a giant Green Sea Turtle! It was my first time ever swimming beside a sea turtle and I couldn’t have been more excited. The turtle was swimming fast and luckily I was wearing fins that day so I swam behind the beautiful fella for a good ten minutes. When I popped my head up, I realized I had swam very far away from my group. One of the crew members back on the boat was waving his arms at me to see if I was ok. I told him I was swimming with a turtle and he jumped in the water to join me. Afterward, he led me back to the rest of the group who were gathered in a shallow area full of sea turtles feeding on algae. The guide led us under a rock tunnel below the water and I caught the back of my leg on part of the rock while I was swimming through. The sharp volcanic rocks in the Galápagos are very unforgiving and I knew the cut was going to bleed but I’d wait until I was out of the water to deal with it. Our guide found a cave under the water with a family of White Tip Sharks and encouraged us to check it out. By this point I had somehow managed to swallow up my fear of sharks and I eagerly swam over to the cave. I took a deep breath and down I went. First I saw a big lobster and then, right in front of my face, a family of four white tips. The largest one must have been over two meters long, by far the biggest shark I’ve ever swam so close to. The journey back to the boat was tough. The water was very choppy and waves were carrying us closer and closer to the dangerously sharp rocks. I kicked as hard as I could and tried not to swallow the whole sea. I saw more sea turtles and was again mesmerized by their gracefully swift movements. Following them, I eventually made it back to the boat, completely exhausted.


After a very quick breather, we arrived at Los Túneles. Our guide had informed us there was very little wildlife to be found in the water but it was a nice, tranquil place for a swim. I jumped out of the boat and swam toward the rock formations. The land around me looked like completely different planet. The dark volcanic rock was sprawling with nothing but large cacti. The contrast of the tall, bright green plants on the black rock and crystal blue surrounding waters was magnificent. I enjoyed going off on my own and swimming through the tunnels, both above the surface and then finding underwater ones to dive down through. Soon enough, the guide was calling me back to the boat. We drove to the shore for a dry landing to scope out the Blue-Footed Boobies scattered all over the rocks. The beautiful birds and their bright blue feet are a delight to behold. The blue feet indicate that the bird is healthy and therefore, during the courtship process, the males flaunt their blue feet in front of the female.


Upon returning to our hotel, Rob and I were informed that we were being moved, yet again, to another hotel because the agency had only booked us for one night. We returned to Hotel Tintoreras which luckily now had a vacant room for us. The next morning, pretty much all of the guests at the hotel gathered for a quick breakfast and then hopped on the ranchero (open air bus with wooden benches) which would take us up to the highlands. We would be hiking Sierra Negra, one of the most active volcanoes on the Galápagos with the last eruption occurring in October 2005. Despite the ranchero being nearly full after everyone from our hotel piled in, we continued to stop and pick up more and more people on our way out of town. By the time we were finally on our way up to the volcano, we were packed in like sardines. The hike up the volcano was pretty neat. It started off cool and misty which was very pleasant. We reached the crater within a couple hours and I was dumbfounded by the sheer vastness of it. A diameter of six miles, the crater is the second largest in the world. When we arrived at the summit, the 360-degree vistas were out of this world. The expansive, desolate crater surrounded by lush green forest to one side and smaller volcanic peaks and craters backdropped by the big blue Pacific on the other. We enjoyed the views and took some photos before beginning the long and unbearably hot descent. 


We hopped back into the ranchero and rode back to the hotel to grab our bags before catching the afternoon ferry. When Rob and I arrived at the dock, we asked around for where the group for our boat was gathered. When we finally located the man who was organizing our ferry back, he asked for our names and then checked his list, only to inform us that we were not on it. The agency had once again screwed up. They had not actually booked us a return ferry. At this point the two of us were thoroughly frustrated. If I didn’t make it back to Santa Cruz that evening I would miss my cruise that left the following day. I asked the ferry organizer to call the agency for us but he refused. Eventually, I found two police officers at the pier and explained to them what was going on. They kindly offered to call the agency for us and, within a few minutes, we were told we could get on the boat. To top off the madness, the boat ride back to Santa Cruz took four hours instead of two. The sea was really rough and we were all being tossed around the back of the boat. Every few minutes, the boat would hit a massive wave launching us into the air. The passengers at the very rear were completely soaked. And yet, somehow through all the chaos, I managed to pass out halfway through the journey. I woke up to Rob clenching his life jacket beside me, knuckles white as snow. 

Another wild adventure for the books.

MGG