Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Tortuga Bay, Surfing Iguanas and Swimming with Sharks

Tortuga, or Turtle Bay, on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos may be the most spectacular beach I have ever seen in my life. There is something so secret and magical about it, an untouched haven for the worlds most unique wildlife.

The journey to Tortuga Bay is special in itself. Starting in the capital town Puerto Ayora you stroll (or take a taxi) to the west side of the town where you arrive at some towering lava formed cliffs, their black bolderous forms hung with green foliage like a natural hanging gardens of Babylon and topped by a green forest crown. There is a steep winding stairway up the cliffs and as you rise it has the feeling of scaling Tepui Mountain in Amazonic Venezuela, a flat top mountain that is home to the 'Lost World' of dinosaurs in the 1960 film of the same name.

Once the stairs are scaled in the blistering 35 degree heat you arrive at a small hut. The top floor is a simple lookout (for dinosaurs?) and the ground floor is a small office at which you have to sign in so they know you are going to the beach. This is partially to stop anyone camping there, and to make sure everyone comes back ok, due to the seclusion of the bay. This hut marks the beginning a trail through a mysterious cactus forest. The path is narrow with two short walls flanking either side, and to the left and the right is dense cactus forest. The cactus' here are the only species in the world that actually have trunks and are enormous. Noises crack and rustle from the cactus trees, is something lurking or is it just the breeze? The path runs more or less straight, however the rise and fall of small hills means you can't see very far. As time goes by, you don't see anyone else, the paths keeps going, small but colourful lizards scuttle along the path and disappear again, you are sweating from the heat of Equatorial sun, even in the shade of the forest. It's too late to turn back, but it doesn't seem to end, keep following the yellow brick road, right?

Over half an hour later, you think you are lost in Jurassic Park but suddenly you here the sound of waves, is that..? Over the next rise of the hill suddenly a panorama of glittering blue Pacific Ocean comes into view, then a stretch of the most golden sand. Welcome to Paradise, Tortuga Bay.

The path comes out onto the East end of the beach, you look West, the beach seems to go on forever. Immediately on a stretch of black volcanic rocks we see a couple of different crab species scuttling around, one red (the Galapagos crab) and one purple. We wander on, encountering an enormous black Marine Iguana lumbering across the sand, and further on we see little crabs dashing in and out of holes in the beach, leaving tiny balls of sand as they go. At the Western end of the beach sits a peninsula and as the mangrove starts we see a couple of other explorers in the water, we join them. We first notice the black iguanas, they are covering the beach here, but even stranger still some of them are surfing. Yes, surfing! Not on surf boards but on their bellies. I have never seen anything like it, later we find out that these Galapagos Iguanas are the only lizard species in the world able to live and forage in the sea. They also spit a lot, we thought they were doing this because they didn't like us, but apparently it's normal to eject salty seawater from their noses!

Crab Balls
Crab hole

These Iguanas were in Love. Cute.
There were a couple of other guys in the sea in this part of the bay, the first people we'd seen since we'd started our adventure. The signalled to us to join them in the water. As we waded through up to waist level we notices thousands of tiny, no more than a cm long, sharks. We had stumbled across a shark nursery! We waded a bit further out looking through the crystal clear water in amazement, but within a few minutes our eyes grew even wider, as white tip reef sharks, several feet long were swimming around our knees, sleek and elegant and unfazed by our presence, I didn't even think to run and grab my camera from the shore. Luckily these little fellows weren't interested in nibbling us, and I was actually more afraid of the enormous pelicans diving into the water catching baby sharks for breakfast.

On the other side of the peninsula is a small, protected beach with a large bay of turquoise water. Here we swam and relaxed, until I was bitten by what I can only describe as a giant horsefly, which left actual bleeding fang marks in my leg. There are things in the Galapagos that want to eat you!

The journey back felt even longer than the journey to the secluded Tortuga Bay but well worth the trip. This place is quiet as it's not the easiest to get to and looks to be avoided by the bus loads of tourists that visit the island by cruise, as there is no where to dock a boat either. Anyone slightly more adventurous should not be missing it though, definitely a highlight of my stay in the Galapagos Islands!

Tortuga Bay:

When to go: December - May, the sunniest seasons (although it's never cold here)

How to get there: Find the path at the west end of Puerto Ayora, get a taxi driver to take you for $1 if you think you might get lost.

What you can see: Galapagos crabs, lots of different types of bird, white tip reef sharks, tiger sharks, turtles (although rarer), marine iguanas.

Don't do: Swim on the main beach, rip tides can be dangerous, and it's prohibited. We paddled by the mangroves but that was it.

Do: Swim in the second part of the bay on the other side of the peninsula where the water is calm and safe.

Make sure: To sign in AND back out past the hut at the entrance. They sell ice creams too.

Just to note, these photos have been lifted straight off my iphone, it really is this beautiful and much more so.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Galapagos - Arriving in Puerto Ayora

There isn't a way I can describe the Galapagos Islands, the most famous Islands in the world, whilst do them true justice. Potentially the most amazing place I have been on earth, spectacular, mind blowing.

Flying to the Islands was easy, straight from Quito to Guayaquil then Guayaquil to Baltra Island. Baltra is a tiny, uninhabited, ex US military Island just off the north coast of Santa Cruz, the second largest and most populated of the Islands (although at larger than the Isle of Wight but with a population of just 12,000 it doesn't feel bustling by any means!). Flying into the Islands is an exciting moment, you've spent several hours on a small plane and well and truly left the tropical mainland shores and a far out in the pacific ocean when some small landmasses emerge from the azure sea. As the aircraft circles around it feels like your'e being dropped off on Isla Sorna (the Island in the second Jurassic Park movie where dinosaurs have been allowed to roam free). A lost world where animals not found anywhere else on the planet can be found.

When you get off the plane you notice the heat, it was a little cloudy when we arrived yet the full force of tropical temperatures hit us the moment when we stepped off the plane, amplified by the eery lava formed Baltra Island, thats landscape sits flat and dry punctuated by tall cacti. In the distance you can see the rising mass of Santa Cruz's tropical forests.

Upon arrival at Baltra you must pay $100 to then gain entry to the Islands (cheaper if you are Ecuadorean or free if you are a resident) as a Kind of park conservation fee. Following this you catch a free airport bus down to the ferry dock and catch a 5 minute ferry for a dollar fifty which takes you too a car park on the other side, where you will find a barrage of buses and taxis ready to take you into Puerto Ayora, on the other side of the Island. Bus, $2, taxi $20 ish. On the Islands you end up paying out for everything, but being one of the remotest places on earth centred around the tourism business I say fair enough.

There are loads of hotels and hostels to choose from in Puerto Ayora, we pre booked (advisable for such a popular place) but one of the cheaper options. Lots of the tourists here have much larger budgets than we did so many of the hotels are upmarket and very expensive. We went with Galapagos Best Home Stay, at $20 a night per person in a 4 bed shared room it was good value, and Kevin who owns it is possibly one of the friendliest guys on the planet and happy to help you out with anything you need. The open lounge/reception area is fine, with use of a computer all day and night (although there is wifi). You can have clean towels every day, there is hot water and air con in the rooms and a constant supply of fresh drinking water (the water out here is not fit for drinking, it also makes your hair a little dry). The rooms have perfectly comfy beds and each has a small kitchen area, perfect for morning coffee or making something too eat if you were on a tighter budget than even us! The only complaint people have is that it's a bit further from the centre of town than other hostels. I personally wouldn't call a 10 minute walk far.

By the time we'd flown to the Islands, travelled to Puerto Ayora and checked into the hostel it was early afternoon so we headed out to the nearby Charles Darwin Research Station. Named after worlds most famous naturalist and geologist who did extensive research on the Islands, the Station is not only the workplace of over 100 scientific professionals from all over the world but also a park open to the public which houses a number of rare species to aid conservation, and a turtle nursery. The station includes mangroves, a small beach and cactus forests. It's great as an introduction to the Galapagos, with plenty of information dotted around the centre about Galapagos wildlife. This was once also the home of Lonesome George, celebrity turtle who was sadly the last of his species, the Pinta Island tortoise.

Later in the evening after the station we went for a little look around town. Puerto Ayora is naturally very touristy, however in quite a nice way and remains quite charming. What I did not expect was just how abundant the Galapagos wildlife would be. Even in the middle of town flocks of giant pelicans rest in the trees, seals pester the vendors at the local fishmarket for scraps, Iguanas sunbathe and bright red and orange crabs scuttle over sea walls. I can honestly say i've never seen a town like it and it certainly provides a bit more interest than the seagulls eyeing up my fish and chips in my home town!

Following a drink and a bite to eat we went back to to the hostel, and after a chat with our lovely new Chilean roomie Priscilla, we dropped of to sleep pretty sharpish ready for the next days activities!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Cowes 101

With summer well and truly here in Britain I thought i'd start my 101 posts with a place very close to my heart, what I believe to be one of the best places in the UK to spend a summer and my beautiful home town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Cowes is a town swamped in history, royal, naval, industrial and everywhere inbetween. So called cowes due to the two large sandbanks on the East side and West sides of the Medina river that supposedly (in the 1400's) looked like cows. A small town of less than 10,000 people, the population can more than double during the summer months as some of the worlds most famous sailing regattas call Cowes their home.

When to go: 
Cowes week! The worlds earliest sailing regatta brings huge crowds to Cowes and sends the town into a frenzy, including pop up bars, night clubs and restaurants, live music and an atmosphere second to none. The town becomes a party mecca and is frequented by celebrities.
Cowes Week 2014 is the 2nd until the 9th of August.
The summer in general is pretty good though, I can't say that the winter is buzzing to be brutally honest.

Where to stay:
Cowes is full of B&B's and a small number of hotels, a quick google search is all you need. It's also easy to rent houses or apartments. It's great if you stay in the town as it's so small it's very easy to stagger home from the pub! Nearby there are both Thorness bay and Gurnard Pines holiday park if your'e a caravan or chalet fan.

Where to lunch: 
Weather permitting I would say go get a Tiffins Baguette and sit on the beach. You can choose from their massive range of fillings for baguettes, sandwiches or salads, and they do a mean yoghurt shake. Baguette wise, brie and bacon is always a winner. If theres a bit more of a chill in the air I still recommend going to the beach but go and get fish and chips from Corries Cabin. Certain days of the week you'll even get it in Newspaper!

Where to dinner:
There are loads of great restaurants in Cowes and pubs doing good food, but a relative newcomer to the scene is The Coast. I've only had good experiences here, they have a full menu and they've got a pizza oven. What more does one need!? It can get busy here to booking for large groups or on weekends is recommended. It's got a cosy but modern feel and has some outdoor seating.

Where to get coffee:
Dr Bean's in the Pelham House Gallery, i'm not just saying this because the family who own it are friends of mine, but they do do the best coffee in Cowes. They've got a lovely little outdoor seating area and indoor seating in the gallery. Perfect for a catch up.
If you fancy a cosy corner for a cup of tea and a book try Joliffes at the other end of the high street. The Gallery/coffee shop in an Art nouveau building with original features. Customers and staff are always friendly.

Where to drink: 
If your'e looking for a tasty cocktail in a jam jar head to newcomer the Mess Canteen. This place is really cool and a good mix of vintage and modern without trying too hard. They have an in house band on a Thursday and also have a pretty good food menu. This place is tiny though and gets very busy, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. There is only one toilet though which can be a problem after necking some delicious cocktails but still the place to go.

Where to party:
In Cowes week you are presented with a number of opportunities, Banyan Beach tiki club and another pop up club over at Shepherds Wharf marina give you somewhere to dance the night away. Outside of Cowes Week go to the Anchor Pub of a Friday Night. They've got a big bar in the old stable behind the pub, have live music and it's great for a good dance. For the smokers they've also got an enormous covered outdoor seating area.

Banyan Beach

Where to shop:
Clothes shopping wise Cowes doesn't have any of your typical high street chains but is home to many sailing apparel stores. I did find a nice pink hat in Musto the other day I might need to buy.
Buff and Live Like This are brother and sister shops and are more akin to something you'd find in London or Brighton but they are super cool, and great if you need a card, new china, cool cookware, beautiful stationary or a great gift. The shops are also full of amazing things you never even knew you needed! The guys that run them too are super nice.

What to do:
This is why it's better in the Summer. Coastal Walks (up to Gurnard from Cowes is nice, quite short but theres a pub at the end), long lunches and large glasses of Pimms dominate my summers here. If your'e into sailing thats the obvious option but if your'e not a sailor theres all sorts of water sports and sailing courses you can enrol onto to try it out! If you fancy anything from windsurfing to kayaking, sailing to power boating check out both the IYWAC and UKSA websites. Courses range from a couple of days to a number of weeks.

How to get here: 
Take the Red Jet High speed ferry straight from Southampton, or the East Cowes car ferry and drive over the floating Bridge into West Cowes. The town is also easy to get to from any other destinations on the Island.
Alternatively bring your boat over and leave it in one of the many Marinas in the Medina Estuary and use the water taxi to get about.

Anything else you might want to know, give me a shout!

Monday, 7 July 2014

MontaƱita, sun, sea and party

So in my last post I mentioned that Montanita was a middle class, hippy version of Magaluf, and it's true, there is no other way to describe it. During my time in Ecuador I have immersed myself in local culture, living with an Ecuadorean family, working exclusively with Ecuadoreans and going to places off the traveller trail. Montanita is somewhat different but an equally amazing place. It is renowned by Ecuadoreans for being a place of debauchery, known for its all night beach parties, streets of nightclubs and bars, cheap hostels and all day sunbathing/hangover curing. I'm not sure why the Ecuadoreans frown upon this so much, to me it sounded IDEAL.

In Ecuador Montanita does have a reputation for being dangerous, and they are a very wary people, however I think us Europeans are made of something slightly more daring, weighing up any potential dangers against potential levels of fun and experience. In the end it all went smoothly and neither I, or anyone I met had encountered any problems. My personal view is don't make too many problems for yourself and you find have any problems. 

This post is coming in as rather a muddle as during my trip down the Route of the Sun I went to Montanita but without partying. I then ventured a second time for the party scene later on, after a trip to the Galapagos Islands which I will write about later.

My second time in Montanita I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my beautiful friend Rosie. Getting there was even easier that I thought. There are no trains in Ecuador but there are buses to every possible location. We flew in to Guayaquil (Ecuador's second city) from Galapagos, and caught a taxi over to the coach station, which is the unmissable next door building from the airport. You then simply browse the kiosks selling coach tickets until you see a sign for your desired location (although there are loads of friendly people there willing to point out where that might be), buy a ticket, head to your departure gate and jump on the bus! 3 hours later you arrive in Montanita!

I'd booked beds in a Hostel beforehand using Hostelworld, they are a great site, it is quite easy to get beds when you arrive but i'm always worried about that kind of thing so I used hostelworld and found cheap beds ($8, literally the price of a large Starbucks in the UK) but with good reviews. From the website description I knew that the beds were in a room of 10, well an open air terrace with a roof and mosquito nets. Sounded like the back to basics I needed! When we arrived (after a helpful local pointed us in the right direction, luckily Montanita is very small and easy to navigate) it was just that. 10 low beds, mosquito nets, found by navigating a steep, creaky, wooden staircase through the hostel and covered by a banana leaf roof. I was in tropical paradise, Rosie on the other hand is much fonder of her home comforts and the idea of shared bathrooms and the basic set up didn't sit well with her. She did eventually come round though!

Downstairs in the hostel was a small kitchen area for guests to use, with a large covered terrace out the back with stools, cushioned benches and hammock chairs. The owner said we could smoke in any communal areas but this outside space was the only one where we could 'smoke anything else' (not that i'm in to that kind of thing!) We arrived about 7.30 in the evening and the hostel was pretty quiet but by 8 o'clock all the terrace was full as all the guests wandered down from the rooms after their pre going out naps! The thing I love about this sort of place is that you're not necessarily meeting locals, but there were people from all over the world there. America, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Turkey and so on and so on. The great thing about the travelling crowd is that they are all so friendly and are looking for a good time with any new people they encounter, your'e always guaranteed a good time when you'e on the traveller trail!

On our first night we heard about a street party so Rosie and I left the hostel to go and check it out, with another English guy. Boy did we make a good decision! It happened to be the yearly 'Festiva de Montanita', kind of carnival. The square, outside the church and slightly away from the main club strips were jam packed with locals. There was music and a giant pyre covered in coloured papers and wheels. I'm gutted I didn't take my phone to take photos! As festivities kicked off we got a cold beer from a corner shop and watched as fireworks were set off in the street and catherine wheels splayed sparks from the pyre! The best part was men with big paper-mache cow costumes on their backs ran in and out of the crowds and fireworks sprayed jets of sparks from them! It was a hilarious, terrifying spectacle and it was so funny watching groups of kids run towards the sparks, testing their daring. Following the street party we headed to a bar for a couple of cocktails and then met up with some others from our hostel in a nightclub, where we danced until the early hours.

The days in Montanita are mainly spent lying on deck chairs under parasols on the beach, nursing hangovers with a fresh coconuts and pizza slices. One great thing about the beach here is there there are scores of vendors wandering up and down the beach. You literally do not need to move from your deck chair (unless you need a wee). Beer? Food? Cigarettes? Hash brownies? Not a problem (Rosie made the brownie mistake, unawares and craving a normal browny she ended up in a mildly awkward situation after sprinting up the beach trying to buy one).

The second night took a chilled out start and Rosie and I went out for some early evening banancoladas. There were amazing and $5 (about £3) for 2. There is one street in particular known as 'Cocktail Alley', where there are tens of street vendors offering cocktails, blasting out all different kinds of music and offering plastic garden furniture to complete the lost boho feel. Following this we headed back to the hostel to play drinking games with the rest of the guests. We did a massive beer pong match, I feel like our american friends had one up on us and the rest of the Europeans looked as baffled as I did, i've only ever seen this on TV, but with a bit of beginners luck I made it to final! Playing with our host, a party boy Chilean, and Rosie played with a dashing Danish guy.

We carried on the night in good spirits dancing to a band and dance music in a nightclub by the beach with a sand dance floor, and we finished it chatting on the beach with new friends, and some beers and burritos bought from one of the many food vendors that line the streets at night.

Our last day in Montanita was spent lounging on the beach again nursing hangovers before taking our evening coach back to Guayaquil then back to Quito.

For me if your'e in Ecuador, Montanita is a must do. It may not be the most cultural, original experience on earth, but sure as hell you'll remember it. You'll get drunk, get a tan, eat all day and night, make new friends and not care about the outside world for the whole time your'e there.

If you're interesting we stayed in Iguana Backpackers. Basic, but a great price and a great time. Night security and lockers provided (you will need to take a padlock but that's a travelling must anyway).

Thanks to Rosie for some of these Photos!