Can tourism in the Galapagos be sustainable?

So, how can tourism be a force for good in the Galapagos? And at what point will tourism destroy the very essence of what makes tourists visit the Galapagos in the first place?

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My Return to the Galapagos

My return to the Galapagos has been preceded by the return of the Galapagos Island’s most famous prodigal son, Lonesome George. The world’s last remaining Pinta Island tortoise died in 2012 and following his death, the decision was made to have his body preserved. There followed two years of skillful taxidermy, undertaken by George Dante, founder of Wildlife Preservations based in New Jersey. From 2014, Lonesome George became the reptilian darling of museum lovers in New York, before he finally made his journey of repatriation to Ecuador on February 16th, 2017. After landing in Guayaquil and being declared the “illustrious son of our islands”, George made his way across the Pacific to Santa Cruz Island where he was greeted with the emotive cry of “Bienvenido, Solitario”. His final resting place is the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre where he has his own room, entitled the “Symbol of Hope”.

But does Lonesome George really represent hope? The sad story of an animal that outlived his own breed to become the last of his kind, strikes me as being more a symbol of despair. His death from old age in 2012 was an unwelcome reminder of the impotency of science and conservation in the face of extinction. Inevitably, his death attracted the vultures to their laptops, writing headlines such as ‘Paradise in Peril’ and ‘Paradise on the Brink’. This notion of ‘paradise’ is a burden that weighs heavy on the islands. It is an unfortunate truth that if a place is portrayed as paradise on earth than any piece of bad news, no matter how trivial, can be spun as proof of a paradise in decline.

On my return to the Galapagos I want to ignore the hyperbole to see if there really is cause for hope on the Enchanted Islands. It was 14 years ago that I last visited the islands and much has changed during this time. One of the major developments is in the growth of land based tourism in the Galapagos, especially on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Many see this as a negative development but is it possible that this is a good thing? I want to keep an open mind, ask questions but see with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions. The question I am eager to answer as impartially as I can, is whether tourism on the islands can be a force for good? The Galapagos Islands provide a yardstick against which the impact of sustainable travel as a whole should be measured. If tourism has a role to play in conservation then it has to succeed in the Galapagos where the spotlight shines most bright and the stakes are at their highest. I am both excited and nervous at the prospect of what I will find.

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Steppes Big 5: Latin America Carnivals

Carnival Season, Brazil

It is carnival season in Latin America and with the residents of Rio preparing to drum, mambo and shimmy their way through the streets of the city this coming weekend, we thought we would share our favourite carnivals with you. Joyful processions, music and masquerade are not just the reserve of Brazil…

1. Brazil

Aside from the world-famous Rio Carnival, here are two others that we feel are well worth considering:

Olinda is a beautifully preserved colonial town and its annual festivities are known as the ‘carnival of participation’ during which people of all ages are encouraged to make their own costumes and join in with the street celebrations. Notable for the huge papier mache puppets, known as ‘bonecos’ which are carried aloft amidst the colourful parades and rousing music.

Probably best known as the first carnival to feature an electric parade float the colourful carnival of Salvador de Bahia is the second largest after Rio and nowadays features a huge truck decked out in some serious lighting and topped by a live band which forms the centrepiece of the celebrations.

2. Argentina

A carnival with the devil at its centre, the festivities at Quebrada de Humahuaca begin with the unearthing of Satan – a large devil shaped doll, buried at the end of the previous year’s festivities.  Mixing traditional indigenous and catholic celebrations, Satan is let out to play during 9 days of partying before being buried for another year.

3. Bolivia

Located amidst the Andean highlands at 3,710 metres above sea level, Oruru Carnival is the highest located carnival in the world and celebrates the traditional dress, cultures and dance from all corners of Bolivia. Recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the centrepiece of this 10-day festival is the ‘Dance of the Devils’ featuring hundreds of devils dressed in suitably scary costumes. The aim is to appease the devil through offerings, dance, music and costume. The festivities end with a huge water bomb fight.

 4. Mexico

Nicknamed the most joyful carnival in the world, the 9 day Veracruz carnival is the largest in Mexico. Opening with a huge bonfire to burn away bad moods the festivities feature numerous competitions for the best group based on anything from their costumes to their dancing and even their joyfulness.
The carnival ends with the burial of Juan Carnaval, a mock funeral and an amusing reading of his will.

Traditional Mexican Bunting

5. Colombia

Set in the colonial town of Barranquilla, this 4-day carnival has strong European, African and Indian traditions and is the largest carnival outside of Brazil. Another carnival that has been recognised by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the festivities stem from a mix of catholic and pagan celebrations. Beginning with a six-hour parade of flowers the festivities feature much drum and wind based music and many dances with strong African links having originated from the Congo.

If you would like to plan a holiday to Latin America to coincide with any of the above carnivals. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Fernando de Noronha – My New Favourite Place

Fernando de Noronha has become my favourite spot in Brazil after only one day. I have been lucky enough to visit much of Brazil but the laid back island lifestyle, natural beauty above and below the ocean does it for me.

Fernando de Noronha is one of the most beautiful in all of South America, an exclusive island with less than 500 visitors allowed per day. It is located off the north east coast of Brazil, reached by a one hour flight from Recife. It is an archipelago of 21 islands and islets offering fine scuba diving and snorkelling, in fact 70% of this archipelago is a marine national park. It also has superb beaches with no fewer than 16 to choose from.

Lions Beach, Fernando de NoronhaI decided to hit Conceicao Beach for some late afternoon sunshine. Snorkelling was my aim and it was fantastic. As the only person snorkelling in this beautiful bay, I was privileged to be amongst thousands of colourful fish before a sea turtle swam up to the surface a few metres from me. All the while I had to watch out for missile-shaped masked-boobies diving for sardines. I followed the turtle into the rocky shallows for a few minutes before spotting three more. Quite an amazing experience.

Sancho Beach, Fernando de NoronhaConceicao Beach is the only one on the island with a bar on the sand, my top tip is to take a beer or caipirinha whilst watching the sunset, the surfers and locals playing volley foot. This bar reputedly has the coldest beer on the island, I’m pretty certain they do.Conceicao Beach, Fernando de Noronha

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Pre-Inca Civilisations with Hugh Thomson

Kuelap, Fortress Chachapoyya civilization

In a most engaging talk by Hugh Thomson last night, I learned so much about Peru and in particular its ancient civilisations. More than I have from any guidebook. That is the beauty and benefit of knowledge, of real insight. But more than just that, of real expertise clearly and concisely explained. Of a picture beautifully painted and importantly, well framed.

Hugh’s enthusiasm for his subject was palpable as he told us that there are more pyramids in Peru than in Egypt. That Peruvian history has so many layers that archaeologists and historians are still unpeeling some of the mysteries of Peru. Yes he introduced us to the familiar and iconic Machu Picchu but it was the way that he used an image of the Inca citadel shrouded in mist as a metaphor of all that remains hidden, of what we do not know, of what we are yet to discover. This, he said, is the charm of Peru, the allure that draws you back.

Hugh paid homage to Hiram Bingham but did so not just out of deference but also reference – to frame his work and expeditions in the region. The sites that he uncovered in and around Machu Picchu made us see the main site in a different light, from different angles. It also made me appreciate how much more there is in the environs of Machu Picchu but importantly what little we do know. As Hugh said, the key is not discovering something new – no mean feat in itself – but rather working out what it was used for and what it represented. Such are the beguiling mysteries of Peru.

But it was the pre-Inca civilisations of the north that really fired my imagination. It was here that civilisations came and went not because of dynastic rivalries but rather because of the weather. He left us with powerful images of drug-fuelled shamans blowing sea shells as they battled with the demons of the weather. Perhaps the most striking images were of the Moche masks and some of their jewellery – they were much better jewellers than the later Incas. “You won’t see an exhibition of Peruvian art or archaeology in London (unlike pre-Columbian Mexico) – you have to go and see it in situ,” Hugh finished. It was too much for most in the audience, they were already buying their tickets.

Join Hugh Thomson on our group tour to Peru, in search of pre-Inca civilisations, departing in June 2018. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Tree Planting in Peru

Tree planting target
Steppes Travel are the proud owners of a miniature rain forest in the Peruvian Andes, consisting of 2,000 native trees. The charity ECOAN planted some 76,000 native trees throughout the Peruvian Andes in 2016, with an ambitious goal to plant 100,000 trees during the coming season. This collaborative effort, with a number of native villages will help restore an endangered habitat in the high Andes of Peru. The first weekend of planting in early December saw hundreds of people from the local community joining together armed with picks and shovels to help plant 52,100 trees.

 

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Dining out in Argentina – Meat and Two Veg

Tango Street Dancer, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Now I have travelled in Argentina several times so should have known better but on my recent trip I made the mistake of ordering steak. Argentina is renowned for its steak so this is a great idea but please do remember they like big portions and vegetables are a side dish. The steak that arrived was two thirds the size of my dinner plate and was accompanied by two green beans. Technically that is meat and two veg.

meat and 2 veg

For a foodie Argentina is a great place to travel with plenty of meat options and great wines. The classic Parrilla is steakhouse restaurant where the meat is prepared on a grill, the most common way for beef, lamb or even guanaco to be cooked. You will find a wide range of them throughout all of Argentina. This is not to be confused with an Asado which is more of a social gathering and an event rather than just a meal out. Many estancias will have an Asado night.

Tango may sound like a rather touristy event but in Buenos Aires this is still very popular and a night out at one of the good shows will provide you not only with a fantastic meal but also a great view of the show. Pay the extra for the VIP service and you will get the best food and seats in the house, equivalent of the upper circle giving a great view down onto the stage. Even if you are not interested in dancing it is hard not to get swept up by the emotion of it all. I visited one of the oldest shows the Carlos Gardel which can be busy but the show changes to keep it fresh and the dancers are phenomenal, you will also learn some of the history of the dance.

For a more intimate eating experience then try dinner with a local family. I spent a wonderful evening at the Posada las Juncos with Sofia, Lucas and their daughter Olivia. They invited me in as a friend, unfortunately the weather was not so good so the outdoor Asado was not an option but I chatted to them in the kitchen while the food was cooking, then sat in the bar trying the appetisers and local (very strong) aperitifs. We sat down for dinner as a family and chatted about everything from pop music to politics and everything in between. The amazing slow roast lamb dinner was accompanied by great wine and it would have been churlish of me to turn down a tasting of the local brewed whisky La Alazana, particular as my guide, who had joined us, was a local bag pipe player and very proud of his Scottish ancestry.

Los Juncos kitchen meal with a family

The ”Argentina Experience” is an evening of light-hearted learning, eating and quite a lot of drinking.  A welcome cocktail sets you up for the evening ahead. You will then learn how to create a number of wine cocktails before making the one of your choice. You then adjourn to the restaurant to learn how to make empanadas and partake in a three course meal with a selection of local wine. Ending the night with the quintessentially Argentinean mate, a communal “cuppa” not too dissimilar to lapsang souchong and definitely an acquired taste. You will also learn a few of the traditions and cultural nuances of Porteno life.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Argentina. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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The Wonders and Wilderness of Chile

As welcome signs go they don’t come much bigger or more impressive than the Andes Mountains, appearing out of nowhere, rugged and gnarly as though they have been squeezed out of the flat Pampas surrounding them.

Although I have been lucky enough to visit Chile before, the sight of the Andes never fails to excite. Exploring new places is always inspiring; this trip was to bring a mix of the well-known Torres del Paine, to the remote wilderness of the Carretera Austral in the Aysen region.

The Carretera Austral is Chile’s 770 mile Route 7 in northern Patagonia, running from the Chilean Lake district of Puerto Montt, to the small village of Villa O’Higgins at the foot of the southern Patagonian ice fields. From the small town of Balmaceda, which houses the region’s main airport, I travelled south to the stilted coastal village of Tortel, only accessible by air or boat until 2003 when the road was built. The Carretera Austral itself is a gravel road which winds through stunning scenery, small villages and remote settlements. With every turn the scenery changes, from tree shrouded valleys to rocky, snow-capped mountains; from emerald rivers to turquoise glacial fed braided streams. Crystal clear lakes reflect the surrounding mountains, amplifying the magnificence of the scenery. It’s a true adventure driving down the seemingly endless Carretera without a car in sight, just the tell-tale sign of dust in the distance to let you know
that humanity is still out there. The area receives few tourists each year so you will enjoy the stunning scenery pretty much to yourself. Travelling in this area is easy with a hire car, and with one road, the only thing to get lost are your thoughts.

Whilst the scenery is raw and untouched the level of accommodation is far from this. With wonderful lodges all within their own beautiful setting, they offer a dusty and happy traveller a welcome place to stay each night. Not only is the accommodation of a high standard offering great local food and wine, the owners are incredibly friendly and are proud to share their knowledge of the area.

After the remote beauty of northern Patagonia, I was unsure whether the much lauded Torres del Paine would live up to my expectations. Setting off from Punta Arenas on a smoother, straighter and extremely windy road to Torres del Paine National Park, the excitement and anticipation started to build. The scenery changed from the flat open expanse of the Patagonia Steppe, with hills and mountains appearing and then as we rounded the corner and looked to the distance, there was the iconic Torres del Paine Massif, standing alone, mighty and proud.

Not only does the National Park contain the granite massif but also meandering rivers, lakes and glaciers with endless hiking opportunities. There are vantage points from which to photograph and view the varied scenery the park has to offer all linked by a good road network. It doesn’t matter where you are in the park, your eye is always drawn back to the incredible Torres del Paine mountain sculpture, you find yourself staring at them, yet again, in wonderment as your camera shoots off another dozen photos.

If you want to see some of the last true wilderness areas without having to rough it, travelling through Chile on the Carretera has much to offer. Despite being a renowned tourist site, Torres del Paine has maintained its sense of majesty and remoteness and should be on everyone’s ‘places to visit’ list.

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Argentina – nature’s superstructures

Viewing platform of Perito Moreno

‘It’s falling’ someone shouted, as I turned to see a sizeable chunk of the front of the glacier breaking and crumbling into the lake below. Quite a site to watch as huge lumps of ice fell creating large waves across the lake below. Oh to be quicker with one’s camera but I was not disappointed, it was great to have witnessed this, a memory that won’t be forgotten.

Perito Moreno glacier iceberg

A three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires lies the small town of El Calafate. This southerly point, home to around 20,000 people, is the gateway to view unspoilt scenery at its very best. There are few towns in the world further south and upon arrival you feel a rewarding sense of discovery of a landscape far away.

Facts and appreciation of the scale of the area are key to understanding what a unique place you are in. Remarkably for a lake fed by such massive glaciers, Lake Argentina sits at only 187 metres above sea level. On my visit to the most famous of glaciers, Perito Moreno, the answer is offered as to how at this altitude it is  possible for such impressive glaciers to form.  It’s the Andes, plain and simple, the geographical wall that straddles virtually the entire Chilean – Argentine border that are fully responsible. As warm air currents flow east across the pacific, the humidity is dramatically absorbed by the mountain range. Only the coldest air is able to filter across, where it meets the arid Patagonian steppe on the Argentine side, is where snow regularly falls. Over a number of years this snowfall has formed some massive glaciers that totally dominate the landscape.

distant view of perito moreno glacier

At over 3 miles in width and boasting heights over 70 metres, as well as an impressive 170 metres below the waterline, the Perito Moreno glacier is really quite a spectacle. With a surface area of 96 square miles it is larger than the city of Buenos Aires and holds the third largest mass of fresh water in the world. Photos cannot do this area and the glaciers justice, in such vast mountainous spaces it is not until you get close that you begin to realise just how impressive they are.

The western base of the glacier is where I equipped myself with crampons ready to walk across a tiny section of this vast glacier. From here it looked like a smooth wall of ice, with the edges meeting the water with a completely vertical face. On top of the glacier you can see jagged peaks and bottomless crevices with an astonishing shade of deep sapphire blue. Walking on the snow the sound of the crampons crunching underfoot was strangely satisfying, whilst the creeks and groans of the slowly advancing glacier were not so. You do have to put your trust in the knowledge of the guides and thickness of the ice. What can only be described as the sound of an army letting off cannons would occasionally echo all around, a stark reminder that this glacier is constantly in motion. As the trek came to an end a well-positioned table, clearly a permanent fixture, came into view towards the edge of the glacier. This incongruous table was where I was rewarded by my guide with whiskey served over chunks of glacial ice thousands of years old. Without a doubt my most memorable place for a whiskey.

walkers on Perito glacier

As I sailed away from the glacier I looked back and saw people still trekking on the glacier. It was a perfect illustration of the scale of the scenery, so small they looked against the backdrop of one of nature’s superstructures.

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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”.