Monthly Archives: June 2012

Hola South America

This entry was supposed to be written by Katy, but she decided that she couldn’t be bothered. So instead I am left to pick up the pieces and try and write an insightful and witty piece for readers all over the world to enjoy. I haven’t even had time to come up with a tabloid style headline, but here goes…

The flight to Ecuador was fairly uneventful, which is generally how I like flights to be. The only fly in the ointment was our stopover in Houston, Texas. As we were in transit with our bags automatically being forwarded on, I expected us to stroll through to the departure lounge and enjoy the three hour break from flying; maybe a cocktail and a bite to eat. Instead we stood in a queue for three hours being scanned, searched and questioned before being sent to the departure lounge as the final call for our flight was announced. I know we all have a reason to be precautious at airports nowadays, but as we had just landed and weren’t even entering the country, it was a bit over the top.

We arrived in Quito excited about seeing a new country and a new culture; so much so that within ten minutes of getting to our hostel we were asleep. In fairness the long flight and the huge time difference really got to us (we’re now five hours behind GMT after being eight hours ahead in Japan). To add to the strain Quito is located high in the Andes, 2900m above sea level.

Quito old town

Quito old town

The next morning though when we opened our curtains and took in the amazing views of the city, our tiredness was forgotten. Sandwiched between the rolling peaks of the Andes, Quito is a striking city. After being in SE Asia for so long, it is also quite a culture shock. Even trying to order breakfast via my trustee Spanish phrase book was an experience. So far in almost nine months of travelling, China has been the only country that English wasn’t spoken throughout. Even in countries like Myanmar, English was spoken almost as if it were a first language. That isn’t going to be the case in South America, but it is a good excuse for me to learn Spanish; something I have wanted to do for years, mainly due to my Spanish roots.

Iglesia de San Francisco

Iglesia de San Francisco

We spent most of our time just wondering around the city and taking it all in. It’s a fairly easy place to walk around, with lots to see along the way. It’s a city split between the historic colonial buildings of the old town, and the more modern restaurant and bar area of the new town. People in Quito are fairly friendly, but there is a definite edge to the city after dark. But other than a failed pick-pocket attempt, nothing untoward occurred. We visited some of the cathedrals in the city, but after the amount of amazing temple complexes we’ve seen in SE Asia (namely Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia), they don’t really compare.

Plaza de la Independencia

Plaza de la Independencia

One thing we did do whilst in Quito was visit the centre of the world. Thankfully this didn’t involve burrowing a huge hole hundreds of mile deep to the core of the earth. Instead we got a one hour bus outside of the city to the equator. It was a bit of a funny place that was almost deserted. Supposedly it gets very busy on the weekends, but we got to enjoy it without the crowds. What does make it slightly fascicle is that we found out that the line that marks the equator is not actually the real equator line. The actual line is about 300m parallel to their line…very bizarre.

Whilst in Quito we also booked our trip to the Galapagos. This trip is something we had been looking forward to for a long time, and had heard so many good things about. It’s a very expensive place to visit, so we did shop around a lot to try and get a good deal. We were very tempted on a last minute deal on a luxury catamaran, but we finally decided to go for the budget option of a four night land based trip for a cool £1400.

For those that don’t know, the islands are famous for the huge number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin. These studies contributed to the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

After a three hour flight about 1000km west of Ecuador, we arrived in the Galapagos on Santa Cruz Island. We were supposed to get a boat straight to another island, but our flight was delayed. So instead we checked into our hotel and headed out to Charles Darwin Station. Here we got our first glimpse of the Galapagos giant tortoise. Young tortoises are kept here to ensure they are healthy before being let out into the wild. They are quite strange animals really, and living to over 150 years old in some cases.

Giant tortoise

Giant tortoise

Santa Cruz has a small town near the port with various bars and restaurants to keep you entertained in the evening. Most people on the islands are here just for the tours, but it is clear that this would be a nice place to just visit for a week or two. The islands sit right on the equator, so the weather is usually good, and there are plenty of things to do on each island without having to do a tour. If we had known we would have just turned up on the island and booked the tour there, but we still got a fairly good deal.

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

The next day we took a walk down to Tortuga Bay to an amazing beach. It was a 40 minute walk to the bay, but when we got there it was definitely worth it. One half of the beach has huge waves prefect for surfing, and the other is a calm secluded spot. In between the two were marine iguanas, and lots of them. Just as we were setting up our little spot on the beach, I noticed something move behind a tree just to our side. There was a sea lion there taking a nap in the shade. It was quite a weird experience being sat on the beach just one metre away from a sea lion who was taking no notice of us at all. Even when the frisbee made an appearance it didn’t budge. So after a couple of hours of sunning ourselves (or burning as the case may be), we headed back to town.

land iguana

land iguana

That afternoon we took a boat to another island called Isabella. The boat journey wasn’t the best, as the captain didn’t feel the need to slow down in the very choppy conditions. Instead he went ahead full throttle causing the boat to almost leave the water on a regular basis. I thought I was going to be sick, and Katy was stuck at the front of the boat desperately holding on. This went on for two hours, so when the boat finally arrived on Isabella, we were very happy to get off.

Flamingos

Flamingos

Isabella is a really nice place to visit, and probably our favourite island on the Galapagos. It’s the largest of the islands, and has several active volcanos. Here we got to see some very pink flamingos in one of the lagoons as soon as we arrived. It’s much quieter here than on Santa Cruz, and that evening we found a nice bar on the beach to enjoy a beer a watch the sun set.

Volcanic landscape

Volcanic landscape

The next day we had an early start for one of Katy’s favourite activities, trekking. Although slightly cloudy, it was a very hot day, but surprisingly the three hour trek to the volcano seemed to go quite well. The scenery and landscape around the volcano are not like anything I have seen, with black crystallised rock crunching underfoot. The first volcano we saw has the second largest crater in the world and last erupted in 2005, but the second volcano was the most impressive for me. So after a brief lunch break, we headed back to camp. But this time the trek wasn’t so easy. It may have had something to do with the heat or the extremely steep 200m climb back up to the rim of the first volcano, but either way we struggled on the way back. When we did arrive back in our hotel, we were pleased that we could relax and put our feet up…for five minutes anyway.

Marine iguana

Marine iguana

Next we were off on another island tour just to the south of Isabella. On the way we stopped in a small cove for some snorkelling. The water here is quite cold, and conditions weren’t the best for snorkelling, but we did see some huge sea turtles and box fish, along with some eagle rays.

Penguins

Penguins

After drying off, we were on our way again to the island where we were greeted by penguins. The island is quite small and could be walked around in about 20 minutes. It was a great place to see the hundreds of marine iguanas and also to get close up to more sea lions.

Sea lion

Sea lion

The next day we had a very early start to get 6am boat back to Santa Cruz. The journey was much nicer this time, and we even managed to get some sleep on the boat. Our plans were ruined though as we got back into port late, and missed our connecting boat to Floreana. We weren’t particularly happy about this, as it was one of the islands we really wanted to go to, but our tour rep didn’t seem too concerned. So instead we were treated to a bay tour just off of Santa Cruz. The tour itself was pretty poor…that was until we snorkelled with sea lions. It was a pretty incredible experience with these inquisitive animals so close to you.

Giant tortoise

Giant tortoise

In the afternoon we headed to the highlands to see some giant tortoises in the wild. It took us a while to find them in the long grass, and when we did they didn’t seem too pleased to be interrupted. After getting our fair share of pictures, we then headed into some lava tunnels. These are basically formed around free flowing lava, leaving a cave-like formation once it has cooled. After a brief look and a Katy tumble up the stairs, we headed back to our hotel to pack our bags ready to leave the Galapagos in the morning.

Today we flew back to Ecuador in Guayaquil. We were sad to be leaving the Galapagos so soon, as we had a really good time. But we have a lot to look forward to now, and we have already started to think about our next stop.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

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A shaky start to Tokyo

Midway through our night at Singapore airport, I decided that I am definitely too old to be sleeping on the floor…or trying to sleep as the case may be. There are worse airports to spend the night at, but that didn’t brighten my outlook or help my back the next morning. But as we sat on the flight to Tokyo, I was genuinely excited. It has been a while since I have felt like that when arriving somewhere, and Tokyo certainly didn’t disappoint.

Tokyo rail system maps

Tokyo rail system maps

The rail system is just ridiculous. It’s a vast sprawl of lines taking you to any crevice that you want to go within Tokyo and the surrounding areas. What it does mean is that there are always several ways to get to the same destination, so even getting on the wrong train isn’t the end of the world. Just looking at the map and trying to work out fares can be traumatic though, especially after a night lying on an airport floor followed by a seven hour flight.

It took us about two hours to get from the airport to the hotel, and it was a welcome sight when we finally found it. The room was small but very comfortable with everything we needed, with some added extras. The toilet had various contraptions attached that you wouldn’t get anywhere else in the world. I won’t go into details, but I can assure you that all were tested and I’m looking into getting them installed at home on our return to the UK.

View from the Government Metropolitan Building

View from the Government Metropolitan Building

That night as we slept, we were woken in a fairly strange way. At first I thought Katy was jumping on the bed, and it took us a while to understand what was going on. The whole room was shaking, with various items clattering to the floor. We were experiencing our first earthquake. It didn’t last too long, and almost immediately afterwards we were back asleep without a second thought; mainly due to lack of sleep. The next morning we checked the local news and confirmed that it was measured at 5.3 on the Richter Scale. There was no major damage or injuries, and although fairly common in Japan it was the first in Tokyo this year. It was a surreal experience which thankfully wasn’t too serious.

Downtown Tokyo

Downtown Tokyo

So we began to explore Tokyo and it really is a great city. It is by far the cleanest place I have ever been, and I don’t actually think I have seen one bit of rubbish on the floor all week. Although most people cannot speak English, everyone is very polite and respectful. The people we have spoken to are interested in what we are doing and where we are visiting, while recommending places for us to go. It’s a place that if you have the time and the money, you can do pretty much anything; and money is the operative word here. Tokyo is expensive.

Budget tips

Budget tips

Being on a traveller’s budget for the last eight months, we’ve gotten used to tightening our belts (unfortunately not literally) and finding ways to reduce costs. Nowhere has it been so important though. Beers average out at about £10 pint, although you can find it cheaper if you know where to go. Food can be tricky as most restaurants don’t have English menus, so trying to work out what things cost can be…err…tricky. Our room had a kettle, so we saved money by eating Ramen (or pot noodles). We did find something that we have had very little of in the past eight months, cheese and red wine. Both were cheap from the 7Eleven, and even though we sat in our small room drinking out of tumblers, it felt like a treat. And with a bottle of wine for £4, we treated ourselves several times throughout the week.

We have walked around most of the main districts of Tokyo this week, and a few places have stood out from the rest. Asakusa was probably our favourite area of the city, with a mix of very traditional buildings and ultra-modern. It has the oldest temple in Tokyo which was built in 628AD, and it’s just a lovely place to take in and watch people.

Karaoke booth

Karaoke booth

The best place in town for a night out has to be Roppongi, in Tokyo midtown. Here you can find any sort of bar for any budget. The bar that fitted in with our rather meagre budget was Gas Panic. It was recommended as one of the cheap trend bars of the moment, and was basically a hip-hop bar for young Japanese people looking for a good time. It did look like they were having a good time too. With cheap drinks and some great tunes blaring out of the sound-system, I thought it was a pretty good choice. That was until the DJ had a change of heart and began his Rihanna medley. As Katy took to the dance floor, I grabbed another beer.

After we were sufficiently lubricated we had planned to go out for a nice meal, but instead we had a McDonald’s and headed to a karaoke bar. We rented a private booth for an hour and we let rip. I’ve never heard such noises come out of Katy…luckily the booth was sound-proofed. We had a great time, and it is something that I think everyone who visits Tokyo should do during their time here.

We have also managed to squeeze in some really nice sushi meals while we’ve been here. It’s more expensive than I thought it would be, after all we are in the birthplace of sushi. The hardest thing is not to keep on taking more as they come around on the conveyor belt.

Sensoji Temple area, Asakusa

Sensoji Temple area, Asakusa

We’ve seen quite a lot of Tokyo in a week, but most of it has just been walking around the different areas of the city. We had a quick look at Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world. We spent some time looking around some of the big arcades, and I couldn’t resist having a go on a few of the machines. Some of them actually look quite scary, and the locals definitely take their gaming seriously. In Ginza and Akihabara we had a look at some of the electronic gadgets, but there wasn’t really anything too cutting edge. I was picturing robots ice-skating or something like that, but unfortunately I was disappointed.

Harajuka girls

Harajuka girls

Today we went to Yoyogi Park in Shibuya to see if we could find the Harajuka girls. If you’ve not heard of them, they are basically teenage girls bedecked Japanese character outfits (such as Hello Kitty and Manga), goth makeup or punk kimono outfits. We had seen a few throughout the week, but this is the area that they congregate on the weekends. Well in fact we only saw about ten girls dressed up, and they weren’t too happy about getting their picture taken. It was great weather though, and an interesting walk through the park.

So tonight we are back in our room with a bottle of red wine, writing this blog. We fly to Ecuador tomorrow to start the second leg of our trip in South America. We have really enjoyed SE Asia, but we are definitely ready to move on now and experience different cultures and food. I will enjoy eating my bowl of noodles tonight, knowing it will be the last one for some time.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

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