,

Ecuador – A day out at the playground

We pull up to the rustic wooden jetty, the noise of the engine receding giving way to the lively chatter of the forest. With the midday sun bouncing off the leaves, the bright colours of the rainforest were vibrant, showcasing the diversity of flora surrounding us. The chitter chatter of the birds was deafening broken only by the rustling of trees as the stealth like animals leaped between the branches.

‘Stop!’ I had barely got both feet onto the jetty when my guide Marco stopped me quickly. ‘Listen. What do you think that sound is?’ I aimlessly shuffled a Filofax of wildlife through my brain whilst silently believing the sound was akin to Crocodile Dundee’s signature bull-roarer moment from the mountain top. ‘Howler monkeys.. that is the dominant male’. He imitates the deep bellied grunting that was bellowing across the jungle ‘they are not far away!’

I walk a short distance to board a smaller canoe that sits further down the jetty. ‘This is just the changeover point. We can only use the very small canoes to access the lodge…this is where the real adventure starts!’. He beams across at me, holding my arm as I precariously navigate into the back seat of the new canoe.

We set off shortly with two local men silently paddling us into the overgrown darkened jungle- a waterway channel that was leading us deeper into the rainforest. The trees are still dripping from an earlier downpour, these trees protected from the sunshine by the crowded canopy above. ‘Keep watch. There is wildlife everywhere – the more eyes looking the better our chances!’

 

The channel was leasing deeper into the Yasuni National Park and to Napo Wildlife Centre Ecolodge where we would spend the night. Yasuni I am later told is the most biodiverse place on the planet comparative to its size with the location of the park nurturing the abundance of flora and fauna. It is ecologically rich, full of mammals, amphibians, birds and insects and with a year round climate of long sunlight hours, warmth and consistent moisture- nature’s perfect greenhouse.

Eyes peeled, we all look from side to side keen to be the helpful spotter. Thick tangled trees and twisted branches made it feel impossible to spot anything- the deep green colours dominating every angle. Suddenly our lead paddler raised his arm in the air and signalled to the paddler to the rear of the canoe in calm motions to show that we were to go back. A few words were exchanged in local tongue followed by Marco silently signalling upwards into the canopy.

The view was dominated by thick foliage making my efforts resort to the assisted zoom of the long lens. With a wry smile, Marco sees our feigned attempts and points into the trees from which a small laser signals the area of the elusive animal. An outline that I had mistaken for a branch hung motionlessly – a sloth.

We watched, marvelling at the beautiful creature hanging in the treeline, zooming closer to see the markings difficult to distinguish with the naked eye. Slowly she raised her face that had been tucked tight, her dark black eyes gazing across at us with interest. It was an incredible feeling- a jumbled mixture of nerves and excitement with the knowing realisation that shortly this moment would shortly be gone.

The treasures of the Yasuni National Park continued to follow in force throughout my journey deeper into the park. Having travelled into other parts of the Amazon I was prepared that wildlife here is easier heard than seen, with the dense tropical rainforest concealing much from view. At Yasuni however it felt like a visit to the kids playground of the Amazon. Each animal more lively and making more of a racket whilst they charge about their daily business. From Capuchin and squirrel monkeys dashing from branch to branch to the masses of colourful parrots that eagerly gather at clay-licks, each day was full of excitement.

Conservation in the Amazon

Sadly, as with many of the most precious places on the planet, there is vulnerability to the Yasuni National Park. Still struggling to hold its place as an ecological destination, tourism continues to play second fiddle to the rewards of exploiting its natural resources . It continues to be under threat from the oil industry that- in conjunction with the Ecuadorian government- still value the industry rich resources above the preservation of this precious environment. A subject that is not masked to travellers but at the forefront of each conversation with guides or the local communities who are keen to enforce change before it is too late. Marco grew up in a local community and has spent his adult life living and working in the Ecuadorian Amazon. “I have worked in other areas of the Amazon and believe me, this place is special. You will not see any more wildlife anywhere else in Amazon. It needs to be protected”.

,

My Guilty Secret

Standing on the board walk feeling the stifling humidity of the YasunÍ National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest, I am chatting to a lady who is a guest of a nearby jungle lodge. I ask where she is staying and if she is enjoying the accommodation – which she is and she returns my probing questions.  “Anakonda” I reply. “Oh. Is that that THE boat? I think we passed it, it looks very nice.” “Yes” I say hoping she doesn’t press me further. Then she leans in towards me so no one hears and whispers “Tell me one thing. Do you have A/C?” “Yes we do” I whisper back. She rolls her eyes a little and mops her brow again. “It’s just so hot” she breathes. I refrain from mentioning the outdoor Jacuzzi.

We step off the plane at Coca and we all exhale sharply. “Welcome to the heat” our guide says with a wry smile. The temperature in the Amazon averages at about 25 degrees and 80% humidity. We all start fanning ourselves as we wait in baggage claim which consists of no more than a bench where our bags are casually dumped for our collection. We take a short bus ride to the dock and observe the impact of the oil exploration on this town; a subject that continues to dominate over the next few days. Once a village with just 275 inhabitants some 50’000 reside today.  We board a motorised canoe and head down stream as dusk starts to fall.  I’m taken aback by the sheer scale of the oil production along the banks of the Napo River since I last visited this region. As we make our way downstream we see a flame from a small refinery leaping high into the night sky while passenger boats and barges carrying large tankers are racing back and forth.

About an hour and half later we have left the busy river behind and enter calmer waters as we approach our accommodation for the next three nights. The tethered Anakonda boat is a welcoming glow on the dark river.

Sleek and modern the Anakonda is impressive. Three decks high and 45 metres long she is dynamic and elegant.  The Anakonda is only the third tourism boat in Ecuadorian Amazon, but the first of her kind. We are shown to our cabins.  2014-10-07 13_29_27-OpenImmaculately presented my spacious double bed looks out to the river though sliding panoramic windows.  My en suite bathroom is glistening and my power shower stands proudly in the corner.

We spend the next few days navigating further downstream disembarking for expeditions into the rainforest by day and night. We visit local communities. Many women of local ethnic groups have started their own projects involving tourism in order to protect their tribal land from the ever enquiring government officials and oil companies. We see caiman, a plethora of birds and a troop of spider monkeys- even a pigmy marmoset and the endangered Scarlett macaws.  We watch the sunset from the top of a canopy tower with breath taking views to Sumaco volcano in the distance. We paddle slowly though narrow waterways by moonlight listening to a symphony of frogs. We get muddy traipsing through the forest at night in search of nocturnal delights as fire flies dart across our path, but at the end of every day we come back to a hot shower and close the door on the jungle and everything in it.

, , ,

Ecuador and Galapagos: The Land that Time Forgot

No glossy travel brochure, no TV documentary, not even the fulsome description of friends’ visits, can prepare you for the extraordinary and emotional experience of the Galapagos Islands.

The uniqueness and drama of the animal and plant species, and our accessibility to them is the differentiator from any other experience, including safaris. The fact that man is not (now) a predator to these bizarre and colourful creatures, means that we can walk among them without them shying away, keeping only a deferential “personal space” between us and them. And I use the word “deferential” purposely, because the Galapagos Islands instil a sense of open-mouthed wonder of being somewhere very special and important on our planet.

Sally Light Foot Crab | Galapagos

Just about everyone knows of the good fortune that Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands, putting both on the map, so to speak, This happy encounter advanced mankind’s understanding of our world, albeit at the expense of the creationist doctrines of the Church. While we may now have a better comprehension of the origin of species everywhere, we must surely pay closer attention to the alarming peril of extinction of hundreds of species of animals and plants globally. Many of these endangered species are unique to the Galapagos only 12,000 or so pairs of waved albatross, and precariously small populations of Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Petrel, Galapagos Fur Seal, Galapagos Sea Lion, Marine Iguana, Land Iguana, Leatherback Turtle, and the Flightless Cormorant. The Giant Tortoise, famed for the recent extinction of the Pinta Island sub-species with the death of its one survivor, Lonesome George, is also native to the Seychelles and so not endemic. These animals can survive without food or water for six months or more through fat deposits and a water bladder next to the lungs, and this made them targets for the whaling ships of yesteryear for live meat on extended voyages. The species is still threatened, and successful breeding programmes for the Giant Tortoise and Land Iguana, among others, are recovering the population to an upward trend.

These Islands may appear idyllic and abundant with wildlife, but the environment is extremely hostile. Ironically, this hostility has emphasised natural selection in progress across the many isolated and environmentally different Islands, with many intermediate sub-species dying off in the harsh conditions, leaving the now unrelated extremes of new species.

Iguana | Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands are 500 miles west of the coast of Ecuador, above a volcanic hot-spot which continually forms new Islands to the west, as the whole archipelago drifts with the tectonic plates 7cm per annum to the east. Apart from this fiery creation, what makes the flora and fauna unique is the location of the Islands at the confluence of three deep-water ocean currents: the Cromwell Current from Asia eastwards towards South America, the South Equatorial Current from South America westwards towards Asia, and the Humboldt Current from the Antarctic northwards up the west coast of South America. This tenuous balance of temperatures that gives the Islands a climate to encourage their flora and fauna, can be destroyed by that unfortunate misnomer, El Niño, the Christ-Child. This warm water system from Central America periodically exerts itself to increase the water temperatures around the Islands. Together with other factors, the indications are that 2014-15 could be the most destructive El Niño year of our lifetime, and the potential is there for the archipelago ocean temperatures to rise higher than 80 degrees F. The dying-off of marine plants, plankton, and coral at these temperatures devastates the food of many species. If this is a bad El Niño year, 60%-80% of sea-lions, seals, and marine iguanas could be wiped out in a single year.

Our ship was the M.V. Eclipse, an explorer ship turned very successfully to the cruise market with 24 cabins and a crew and team of naturalist guides of the highest professional standard. They also knew how to have fun! This was a very efficiently-run operation, with Panga boats (RIBS) scuttling back and forth to the Islands for wet-landings, dry-landings, and deep-water snorkel dives with twelve passengers and a guide each. The 7-day cruise took us to Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela, Santa Cruz, and Espanola among others, with a couple of landings and dives on each of these very different volcanic Islands.

We were fortunate to have the naturalist, geologist, and photographer, Jonathan Green, on our cruise as a guide and photography coach. A charming and inspirational man with a very constructive and encouraging manner with our snap-happy crowd. If my photographs have improved over my last travelogue, you know who to credit! I have quite a few photos to sort through (think a couple of thousand!) which I will whittle down to a few dozen that I can share with you all later. In the meantime, I am whetting your appetites in this travelogue with a few photos representing this extraordinary fauna.Frigate | Galapagos

Jonathan is a leading member of the Galapagos Whale-Shark Project, which is tagging these peaceful, threatened, 17 metre giants to learn more of their life-cycle and devise ways to protect them. Current sightings around the north of the Galapagos archipelago comprise over 99% females and may seem to indicate that they journey there to give birth. Their journey around the world is an enigma, with tracking suggesting a route that follows the junction of the tectonic plates, before an unexplained disappearance of the majority off the coast of Peru with their satellite tracking devices attachment cables severed.

These awesome creatures need our protection, but the Galapagos Whale-Shark Project is so seriously under-funded that it cannot even afford to host an all important informational website. Many of the naturalists and scientists like Jonathan end up working for part-pay just to keep the research going. The satellite-tracking devices which cost several thousand dollars each for an all-in cost of equipment, tagging dives, satellite rental time and so on. Please take a look at this article by Jonathan from the Huffington Post and, if you feel moved to do so, I encourage you to consider a donation to this important project at www.whalesharkappeal.co.uk. Whatever the amount, it will make a huge difference in this all important potential El Niño year when there is the opportunity to gather significant new data.

A client’s perspective following a holiday to the Galapagos Islands with Steppes Travel.
Written by Robin Barrett.

, , , , , , , , , ,

An Inspirational Evening with Jimmy Nelson

“There was no denying his passion for travel, endeavouring to document the beauty of largely unknown people at their most proud.”

As part of our 25th Anniversary celebration it was an honour and a privilege to have Jimmy Nelson talk about his latest project Before They Pass Away.

Having heard about the project last Autumn, the excitement in the company to see him live grew rapidly. Watching various online and TV interviews – CNN, Al Jazeera and his own TEDx talk to name a few – we were certainly very lucky to have him join us for the evening!

With a shared passion for travel, learning and an enthusiasm to share experiences, hundreds joined us at the Royal Geographical Society, London last week.

From the Kazakh women who, inspite of religious and cultural boundaries, helped save his life, to the beautiful yet fierce nature of the Samburu tribe in Kenya, guests were treated to a heartwarming insight into travel that is truly beyond the ordinary.

Jimmy also touched upon the wild and raw nature of Papua New Guinea, offering a unique and diverse travel experience, with so many different cultures and languages to learn about; “beyond the senses of what we are used to”.

For Jimmy, photography simply isn’t just about the photo created, but the relationship that is built in taking that photo. In fact the picture is just the catalyst for something much greater. Creating a bond, despite barriers, that unites and allows us to share between one and another, to learn from one and another.

As Justin Wateridge commented, Jimmy indeed encapsulates what we believe travel to be: “Understanding and appreciating the great diversity of the world around us…all with a sense of fun and laughter”.

We hope you are as inspired as we are to continue to travel and explore. You can watch the highlights of the event or listen to the talk in full on our podcast below.

,

Another visit to Quito

I arrive in Quito after a long but seamless journey bleary eyed but excited to be back in the capital after 9 years. The sun is just setting as we drive towards the city. The new airport has been built to the north with longer runways allowing for larger jets to operate. Ecuador is growing.

We approach the East side and through the spotless panoramic windows of the minivan I can see the sun setting behind the snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi volcano in the distance. The traffic can be terrible and the journey can take up to an hour and half in rush hour, but luck is on our side and we weave our way unhindered up to the capital. Quito stands at 2,800m and we can see through a gap in the mountains the built up city and packed mountainside communities as we climb. Almost as soon as we hit the old town the traffic is at a standstill. In order to make some headway my driver takes a less conventional route allowing perhaps more of an insight into the backstreets of the city than would have otherwise been offered.

The old town, awarded its heritage status by UNESCO, is almost unrecognisable since my last visit. So many buildings have been renovated keeping the original facades and even new buildings are being demolished now to really consolidate this colonial area. Churches are lit up like torches and the Jesuit church of la Copania sends hues of purple and green into the night sky. The streets are bustling, although its 7.30pm trade is still in full swing, music blares from small stalls, families chatter, and cars honk horns, while whistles of the traffic police fill the air. I’m pleasantly surprised by my surroundings and the positivity of the regeneration. Quito has come a long way.

After a fantastic dinner organised by my hosts of fire-roasted octopus & Ecuadorian shrimp; I am defeated by an outrageous chocolate marquise and a glass of silky merlot that sends the effects of my sleep deprivation of the last 24hrs into overdrive. I return to my hotel and crawl between the crisps sheets at the delightful Casa Gangotena that stands in all its splendour overlooking the San Franscico Plaza. Tomorrow I leave for the Amazon.

,

Horse Riding in the Andes

Ecuador Day 1

This evening I feel thoroughly worn out in the nicest possible way. In the land of the chagras (an Ecuadorean brand of cowboy), I just spent a fantastic afternoon horse riding through the Andes in the region of Cotopaxi, gently plodding along smelling roses, mint and eucalyptus and using my height advantage to gaze at the rolling green hills and breathtaking volcanoes.

Mostly walking, interspersed with the occasional exhilarating gallop, it was perfect for my intermediate riding level. The area caters for all standards; there are immensely docile and well behaved horses for beginners along with superbly responsive ones for experts. This particular hacienda has a lot of teenagers and families visiting to ride for anything between an hour and a month! I’m positive my inexperienced and thus bruised posterior could not withstand a month, despite the sheepskin lined saddles, but for horse lovers I’m convinced this would be a dream come true. I’m desperate to send my sister out here, a true horsey girl; she’d be in her element!

Retuning home (that’s how it feels staying in one of these traditional haciendas) I enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal, glass of wine and soaked my tired muscles in the hot tub; utter bliss!

Having had a busy day before my ride watching the cows being milked and then winding up the two gorgeous eight week old sheepdog puppies who live here, I think it’s time to go to sleep in my cosy fire-lit room so I can wake up refreshed to my spectacular view of the mountains in the morning. Not a bad first day in Ecuador!

Keeping an eye out to read more about Sarah’s amazing South American journey, or contact the team for advice on taking a holiday to South America for yourself on 01285 880 980.

, , , , , ,

Happy 12th Birthday Steppes Latin America

Steppes Latin America celebrates their 12th anniversary today. We started from humble beginnings on the 1 February 2000 in a small office in Clapham joining the Steppes Africa team making a total of 5 in the office.

Head office has always been close to Cirencester and since 2001 based in the centre of Cirencester. I remember on my first day, Denise the Accountant, drove up to London from Cirencester, she always got lost trying to find the office in Clapham; and inevitably ended up stopping a cab driver and paying to follow it!

Destination South America was our original name and we produced a leaflet brochure rather than our beautiful coloured brochures we have today. This first year we organised for 22 people to depart on a holiday to South America, covering many of its countries. The office then moved to our home in Cirencester, Gloucestershire – at the time I had no idea where this was! The idea of some good bracing country air for my three young children sounded fantastic and we decided to make the move, we just had to work out where Cirencester was and find ourselves a house! In fact I swanned off to South America for 6 weeks to set up contacts, see hotels and establish ground handlers in each country, while the small task of a move across the country was left to my wife. Twelve years on we are still in the same beautiful Cotswold House, just 7 minutes drive to the office, surrounded by fields and typical honey coloured stone walls.

After 3 years we had a name change from Destination South America to Steppes Latin America, as we expanded into Central America due to rising demand. Over the years we have steadily built up the business and new staff have joined the team that is now made up of seven experts. Each has incredible product knowledge on their specialist countries and between them they cover all of the countries in South and Central America. Sales have grown steadily over the years and we continue to discover new places, which we know our clients will wish to visit and enjoy. Our travels have included conquering fears of deep water in the Galapagos Islands, sampling mouth watering Argentinean beef, spotting jaguar in the Pantanal and discovered a passion for reggae music in Jamaica to name but a few!

Argentina is our most popular destination and we pride ourselves on our expertise and service that we offer to our clients. You can be sure we continue to seek out those hidden gems that can make your holiday extra special and can help you experience that ‘Wow’ factor in Latin America. I hope the next few years will be as rewarding as the past decade.

Happy Birthday Steppes Latin America! Thank you to all our past clients that have made my job such fun and to all our future clients we would like to help introduce to the amazing sights, people and wonders Latin America.

, ,

The Galapagos home to Pirates of the Sky, Wrestling Dragons and Giants of the Ocean

When packing my things at home I couldn’t quite believe I was going to be stepping foot on these strange and fascinating islands and having a large fear of the sea I was nervous and even a little panicky. However, I decided this was the real trip to face my fears and to go alone and brave the waters to see what would come forward from the depths of the ocean.

28 hours later I arrived late in the night at Quito, I was exhausted and noted no client should ever have to do this journey with two stops in Colombia! In the new boutique hotel ‘Casa Gangotena’ which overlooks the San Francisco square, I woke up to see Quito had cleaned up well and I couldn’t wait to see more of the city.

Having read about Quito for the past year I was very much looking forward to seeing the city and the walk around the cobbled streets didn’t disappoint. It seemed every corner I turned there was a church, cathedral or prominent historic governmental building. Walking into the Compania de Jesus church was like stepping into a Buddhist temple in Thailand as it was dripping from the ceiling with gold leaf. It was very grand and drastically different to the Cathedral just around the corner where I learnt a little more about the Spanish Inquisition’s cunning tricks to convert the indigenous people of Ecuador to Catholicism; one tactic involved painting a guinea pig in the painting of the last supper (Ecuador’s national dish)! All in all I could have spent a few days walking around the city which is segmented into the old city and modern city, personally I prefer the old part as the character here is so rich.

Up and out of the hotel by 7am the following morning, I was in that hum of drowsy excitement – I was going to the Galapagos Islands!! I still couldn’t quite believe my luck as we were boarding the plane and before I knew it we were at Baltra airport, but I was brought back down to reality and waited for what seemed like an eternity to get through customs, pen and paper still seemed to be the system for this process.

A short bus ride away we climbed aboard the Panga boat (a dingy with a motor!) and reached the Eclipse which is a beautiful boat. Sitting eating lunch and looking through the window seeing the Galapagos Islands, I wondered what I might see in the next five days (trying hard to push the Jaws theme tune out of my head). Later on in the afternoon we reached Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz island, stepping onto the white sands I took my flip flops off straight away and looked up to see Blue Footed Boobies standing on the rocky black edge. We walked on the black hardened lava ground which was rough and rather painful on my bare feet, I could see why the spiky lava ground was called AA lava!

Bright orangey-red Sally Light footed crabs suddenly appeared around the corner and against the black ground they looked even more vivid and striking. Our guide walked along with us explaining how these funny looking crabs were actually cannibals. I was starting to see the islands were a hard place to survive on. Approaching a small lagoon we came across a sun bathing Marine Iguana and a Pink Flamingo sifting for tiny crustaceans in the water. The flamingo’s pink colour is caused from eating these little shrimps which are rich in the pigments called carotenoids.

Back onboard I felt ready to collapse into bed, what a great introduction to the islands. There was a snorkelling trip the next day and I was hoping I would have the courage to brave the waters.

We woke up to see Puerto Egas, Santiago Island, and on the panga ride out to the island we passed by a feeding pod of dolphins! I had never seen wild dolphins so close up before, their speed was impressive as they kept up with us. On the island we were greeted by lots of sea lions who were lazing about on the beach. We walked around seeing Galapagos mocking birds and Fur Seals with their pups which were so sweet and playful. Whilst watching the seals a Galapagos Hawk swooped down just in front of us, I had been hoping to see one and then moments later a second hawk joined him. On the way back some people went for a snorkel trip but with the Bull Sealion patrolling the beach I decided to hold back this time.

Later in the afternoon we reached Bartolmé Island, this was my chance to go snorkelling! Writing about it even now still gets my adrenaline going. We boarded the panga boats kitted out in our wetsuits and went out towards the Pinnacle Rock. The guide and driver started to get excited and then I realised it was because there were sharks around us. I was so scared I started feeling sick- what was I doing? Why was I here?! The driver explained calmly that the sharks lived in this bay so I could get off round the corner to join the others if I’d prefer – in my bizarre panic stricken logic this made sense – yes the sharks would stay in the bay!

So round the corner we went and counting down three, two, one we plunged into the cool waters. Whilst bobbing around in the sea trying to get used to the snorkel mask my guide appeared next to me holding my arm to say, ‘Jen just stay calm… there is a shark underneath you’. Out of sight, out of mind was my immediate reaction – again panic logic! I kept my head above the water and clinging onto my new friend asked how big it was, she replied to say I think you’ll be ok… so with every ounce of courage in me I lowered my head into the water. A two meter long black-tipped reef shark was resting in the shallows, it turned in an almost cat like elegant motion and swam off into the ocean.

Ha! Haahaa! I did it, but I couldn’t breath properly, sea water coming into my snorkel and I couldn’t let go of my friend, but I did it! The rest of the snorkelling trip was actually one of the best I had on the trip, I saw shawls of fish pass us by – Parrot Fish, Angel Fish, Puffa Fish and a huge Chocolate Chip Starfish. An hour in the water felt like only minutes and then we were heading back to the boat. I had really surprised myself maybe I liked the water after all, no that was going too far! I did however brave the waters every day I was there.

Every island was so different and I could go on for a long time about how amazing it was, but instead l will just leave you with stories of my last days snorkel trip. On the Wednesday afternoon we realised this was the last time we may ever see the Galapagos Islands.

Around Punta Vicente Roca off Isabela Island to our amazement we saw a group of the rare Mola Mola fish (also known as Sun Fish) pass by the boat and quickly getting into our wet suits hoped we might see some in the water! Unfortunately the water was too murky but we found a spot in the sun light which was teeming with Pacific Green Turtles, there were so many there I had to be careful to hover in the water so as not to touch them. Some of the braver members of our group went off to explore a nearby cave, I started to swim along but in the shadowy water I couldn’t see anything so I stayed with the others to watch the turtles and penguins which were zipping passed with effortless speed and flightless cormorants diving down to fish. I was so lucky to be there. We looked up to see our group were quite far away so we decided to catch them up. Swimming close together felt safer in the murky waters, this was the ocean after all – anything could come out of those dark deep waters.

Our guide called us back on the boat and then she called us again a little more forcefully, ‘guys get back on the panga there’s an Orca coming!’ What!?! I practically ran out of the water with my flippers on! We all got back on quickly and turned the panga round and moved a little closer to where the Orca had been spotted, waiting and holding our breath, the Orca broke the water’s surface and brought its head out of the water right next to us in the little Panga boat! It then moved on to the same place we were in moments ago with the turtles. I caught myself repeating ‘this is so amazing…’ as we crept along following the Orca around the rocks.

I can honestly say that I have never been to such an exhilarating place which is brimming over with wildlife both on land and in the waters. I would suggest the Galapagos Islands to everyone and as long as you are fit and steady on your feet there is no reason not to go.

We offer trips on a range of vessels and also hotel and camp options on the islands, so if my trip there inspires you for a holiday to the Galapagos we would be more than happy to discuss different options with you.

, , , , , , ,

Volvo Classics Adventure: The Pan American Highway

100 classic Volvos and 200 participants have arrived in Buenos Aires for an epic journey through Argentina, up South America along the Pan American highway and all the way to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia.

Organised by the Dutch Volvo Classics association, this incredible drive sets off from Buenos Aires on 10th December, heading south to the ‘End of the World’ in Ushuaia and driving through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and ending in Cartagena on 14th January.

The cars will make 10 border crossings and travel over 15,500 kilometres, passing some of the most spectacular landscapes on the continent. From the towering granite peaks of Las Torres Del Paine and the glaciers of Argentine Patagonia to the snow-capped volcanoes of the Chilean Lake District and shimmering Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia; not forgetting the incredible history of Cusco and Machu Picchu, before heading north to the historic cities of Lima, Quito and Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

Why not follow the Pan American Highway as part of your own epic South America holiday?! Steppes Travel’s Latin America specialists can put together an incredible holiday to South America, completely tailored to your personal travel requirements. We have first-hand knowledge of Latin America and know the region intimately after our work travels and our own holidays.

,

Ecuador – The Coast Less Travelled

My last holiday to Ecuador took me to some new areas, not often on the list of many people travelling to Ecuador. I travelled along the Central coast, an area with natural beauty, ancient archeology, small sleepy fishing villages, beautiful long empty beaches, surfing, whale watching and very good food. What more could you want?

My journey took me from the beach resort town of Salinas, very popular during the summer months and weekends with Guayaquilenos. As soon as you are out of this busy town the pace of life slows, the beaches empty and the buildings shrink. You come to small towns each specialising in a different craft. For example, one town produces wooden furniture and toys, another carves the Tagua nut (known as vegetable ivory), one makes beautiful traditional style ceramics and another processes the palms used to weave Panama hats.

All the people in these villages are very friendly, they welcome you into their homes and workshops to proudly show off their skills, they do this
for your interest and not as a hard sales pitch. All the coastal towns along this stretch are very simple and laid back and many rely on fishing as an income. If you go down to the beaches early in the morning you will see the fishermen bringing their boats back laden with fish, if you are willing you can help push the colourful boats back onto the beach, a really great experience. Watch out though as there are many birds circling overhead waiting for an opportune moment to swoop down for breakfast!

Mid way along the coastal stretch, I visited the Machalilla National Park. It is a beautiful national park on the coast, with fantastic marine and wildlife; a diverse area and a real unexpected treat. It is a special area as it is the meeting of two currents, Humbolt from the South bringing food and El Nino from the North bringing the species. If you want to stay dry, take a boat trip to the nearby island of Isla de la Plata or for those happy to get wet, jump in and do some snorkelling or diving.

Species that can be found here are Hammer Head Sharks, various rays, sea lions and whales. Along the coast I saw many bird species too, often associated with the Galapagos Islands, including Nazca, blue and red footed boobies, Waved Albatross and Frigate birds. It is a lovely area for walking too, very varied landscapes in either the tropical dry forest, tropical moist forest or the cloud forest, the later two areas are the best places for seeing Howler and Capuchin monkeys, jaguar, ocelot, sloths, deers and anteaters.

If nature and wildlife isn’t your thing then the National Park also has some incredible archaeology, with ruins and ceramics dating back to the Manteno civilization, the Pre-Incan Cultures (AD800 – 1530).

Having driven along a short, dusty road I reached the small, friendly settlement of Agua Blanca within the National Park. A number of ruins have been excavated already, the people are very proud of the artifacts found here and have worked hard as a community to preserve them. I went with my guide to view some of these and looked around the fascinating local community museum, the ceramics on show are beautiful but the incredible thing is the area has not been fully been excavated but surveying of the ground has shown many sites are still hidden.

I found this stretch of coast to be very peaceful, incredibly friendly and hugely diverse. If you are looking to experience an area off the main tourist radar then I would highly recommend the coast of Ecuador. It is easily accessible from both Quito and Guayaquil so can be combined with other areas on the country or the Galapagos Islands.

To discuss this, or any other holiday ideas to Ecuador please contact me, Lucy, on 01285 885 333.