Four day hike in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru

Heading up to Punta Rondoy

As we arrived at the campsite on day one of the Huayhuash trek, the rain started. Putting up a tent in the pouring rain is absolutely no fun, I can tell you. The rain continued all night and the next morning Abraham, our guide, pointed out fresh snow on the mountains and advised against continuing up the pass. Conditions could be treacherous, he explained, due to snow melt.

Around the first campsite

I’ve experienced a lot of rain this trip as the El Niño phenomenon has been dramatically affecting the continent. The Sierra in Colombia and Ecuador experienced five times the average rainfall in March and April. A few months ago many parts of Peru were devastated by floods with roads and bridges washed away and many casualties. Luckily, I’d planned to arrive in the Peruvian mountains to do some trekking in the middle of May, the beginning of the dry season. Except it wasn’t. Abraham told me he hadn’t seen rain at this time of year for twenty years.

A moody start to day three

The city of Huaraz sits in a valley with the white peaks of the Cordillera Blanca looming above, including Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán. I’d originally planned to do the four day Santa Cruz trek, the most popular and busiest. The Cordillera Huayhuash, further to the south, looked more remote and enticing, but the trek demanded ten nights. But when I went into the agency, Monttrek, they told me they had a four day trek to Huayhuash leaving the next day. Despite not being fully acclimatised, I leapt at the chance.

Crossing Punta Rondoy

Unfortunately, several things worked against my enjoyment of the trip, not just the rain. The trek was badly and cheaply organised, with just one person looking after five of us. His priorities seemed to be taking care of the mules rather than guiding and we rarely saw him on the trail. Despite all that, however, the scenery was staggeringly impressive.

Pocpa

Day one began unpromisingly when it turned out that, instead of private transport, we were being put on local buses to the trailhead at Pocpa. Having been picked up at my hostal at 4.30am, I was too tired to argue. By late morning we were walking along a dirt track for three hours to the first campsite at Rondoy. Due to the heavy rains, we ended up staying there for the whole of the next day. There were a few breaks in the rain, which allowed me to do some short walks and acclimatise to the altitude. 

The descent to Laguna Solteracocha

On day three we began the long ascent up to the pass of Punta Rondoy at 4750m. The clouds and mist swirled around us as we set off at dawn, but luckily the sun came out later, giving us astonishing views of the mountains. We descended past the brilliant blue Laguna Solteracocha where we had lunch, then continued to the camp at Laguna Yahuacocha.

Admiring the view at Laguna Solteracocha

The last day involved getting up at 4am and beginning the trek in the dark, since we had to get a bus from Llamac at 11am. This made things a little stressful. The path led us over another high pass at 4300m followed by a knee-busting descent into the valley. We saw condors and humming-birds. 

Parade at Carhuaz

I decided to have a rest day in Huaraz and then took a day trip to the Lagunas Llanganuco. In the first village of Carhuaz, we witnessed a religious parade with school kids. Then we moved onto Yungay to visit the site of Campo Santo, the place where the original village of Yungay existed before it was totally destroyed by an earthquake and an avalanche from Mt Huascarán which towers over it. More than 25,000 people lost their lives on that day in 1970.

Huascarán seen from Campo Santo

The last stop was Laguna Chinancocha high up in a gap between the mountains with amazing shades of blue. Luckily, the sun shone all day, but, at this altitude, the wind can be quite chilly. The rains have passed now, but I’m heading to Lima on the coast, where it’s the beginning of winter and the notorious cloud cover envelops the coast blocking out the sun. At some point soon, I hope, I’ll be in the right place for the best weather.

Laguna Chinancocha

From Zumba to Chachapoyas – the exciting route into Peru and the land of the People of the Clouds

Llamas at Kuélap

Of the three border crossings from Ecuador to Peru, I was embarking on the least travelled and most dramatic route. I spent my last night in Ecuador in the small attractive town of Zumba. My destination the next day was Chachapoyas, once home to the Chachapoya, or People of the Clouds. They are aptly named, for the bumpy unpaved roads lead high into mountain passes and cloud forests, while mist swirls atmospherically in the valleys below. 

A ranchera

It was an all day journey involving at least 6 different modes of transport. The most charming was the local ranchera, an open sided bus with bench seats, which left Zumba at 8am. It trundled down to the frontier village of La Balsa, which is really just a few huts. After an easy exit from Ecuador and an equally easy queue-free entry into Peru, I was then in a shared taxi to the nearest town of San Ignacio. From there I had to take a sequence of three more minivans via Jaen and Bagua Grande, but thankfully they all linked together perfectly with very little waiting.

En route to Chachapoyas

One of the great pleasures of travelling in South America is the chance to visit old archaeological sites and learn about cultures which had often disappeared well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. With no writing or historical records, we only have the remains of their towns and cities to give us some insight into their civilisation. It’s amazing to consider how many great cultures were flourishing here in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

Main square in Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas is capital of the Amazonas region which occupies the eastern slopes of the Andes and stretches down to the great river. The Chachapoya were a warrior like race and inhabited this area for about a thousand years until the late 15th century when they were conquered by the Incas. Of course, it was only another 30 years or so, before the Incas were themselves overthrown by the Spanish. 

Cable car to Kuélap

Kuélap is a huge Chachapoya site and is now relatively easy to visit with a tour company, especially since a new cable car was opened just a few months ago. It’s not as dramatic as Machu Picchu, but it’s still a fascinating day out. The setting is superb and the llamas, as always, are photogenic.

En route to Cajamarca

My next destination was Cajamarca, south-west across the Andes. Most buses travel at night, which I hate, particularly since you miss the scenery. However, I found one company, Rojas, which runs a minibus leaving at 5.30am. The road was one of the most spectacular so far, with incredible views. The route clings to the side of mountains and climbs up and down valleys. If you saw these hairpin bends first, there’s no way you’d want to do this journey at night!
Cajamarca

Cajamarca has a sad and tragic history. It was here that Francisco Pizarro arrived in the highlands and where he met the last Inca King, Atahualpa, in 1532. The latter came peacefully to meet the Spanish invaders, but Pizarro and his men turned on them, captured Atahualpa and brutally murdered 7000 local people in the name of Christianity, the King of Spain and imperialism. Yes, 7000! And that was just one day of the Conquest. 

Cajamarca

The story continues with Atahualpa promising to fill a room with gold and silver in return for his release. Over the next few months wealth arrived from all over the Inca empire, but the perfidious Spaniards still executed Atahualpa. You can visit an Incan building which may be where Atahualpa was imprisoned or where he deposited the treasures. The next day I took a tour to Cumbemayo, a site of pre-Incan water channels which were carved out in this rocky, dramatic landscape over 2000 years ago. 

Cumbemayo

So far in Peru I’ve noticed far more people in traditional dress, in particular the women who wear the most extraordinary high hats. Sadly, I’ve also noticed more poverty and all the beggars on the streets are indigenous people. The Spanish conquered this continent through force, but also a lot of luck, since their arrival coincided with a civil war between the Incas. It’s fascinating to think how different things might look if the Spanish had lost and never colonised South America. There could be an Inca Kingdom still in place today. 

Local woman, Cajamarca

Cuenca and the scenically stunning but alarming road south to Peru via Zumba

High above the valley en route to Zumba

The bus slowed down as we approached another 180 degree bend high up in the mountains in southern Ecuador. I heard the gears crunch and glanced out the window. And then down. The wheels were centimetres away from the edge. There had been a lot of rain and, although it was now nice and sunny, several parts of the unpaved road had been washed away. I caught my breath as I saw the muddy track crumbling under the tyres and cascading to the valley below.

The road to Zumba

It was my last day in Ecuador and I was heading south on what is described as the less travelled route to Peru. There are three border crossings: the Panamerican along the coast, the road through Macará which is less hassle and this one via the remote town of Zumba. The lush green scenery more than compensated for the hair-raising sections. It was the first time I felt compelled to take out my camera on a bus this trip. The scenery is sure to get even more dramatic as I move further into the Peruvian high plains, the altiplano. 

Cuenca

Even though the heat and humidity in the Galápagos had sometimes left me drained, I told myself I’d miss the sun once I was back in the mountains. And, sure enough, as soon as I arrived in Cuenca on the bus from Guayaquil, the temperature dropped and the drizzle and clouds moved in. 

Casa del Sombrero

Cuenca is Ecuador’s third city and gets rave write-ups for its colonial architecture. I found it a little underwhelming, to be honest, although I really liked that it’s not just a tourist town, but a real working city. There are some distinctive churches and the usual attractive streets, but it was the curious hat museum which really caught my attention. Panama hats are made all over this area and the Museu Municipal Casa del Sombrero provides some history and insight into the process.

Ingapirca

I saw pretty much everything I wanted to on the first day, so on the second day I caught the bus for the long 4/5 hour round trip to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s only real Inca site. It’s certainly no Machu Picchu, but the setting is nice and it whetted my appetite for the bigger glories to come in Peru. Around the site you can see the beautiful flowers called angel’s trumpet which are in fact poisonous. They are also being used in scams and attacks. If inhaled or ingested, it can disable the victims and render them helpless and susceptible. Our guide told us of someone he knew who’d been robbed of $7000.

The deadly angel’s trumpet

Loja was my next stop. It’s another colonial town and probably missable in favour of nearby Vilcabamba. But I’d been there before and this time decided to stay in Loja. I ended up staying three nights, as I came down with the usual travellers’ sickness. It turned out well, however, because I did nothing and ate nothing, thus saving a bit. My Galápagos trip had severely damaged my funds, to the extent I needed to rob a bank. Or worse, get a job. But a few days’ rest did the trick instead.

En route to Zumba

I caught a 9am bus to Zumba which was supposed to take 5 or 5 1/2 hours depending on whom you ask. It took almost 7. But I wasn’t complaining, because the view out of the window was so exhilarating. We climbed up and down valleys along a twisting, vertiginous road. The highest point took us through the Podocarpus National Park, where visibility was reduced to almost nothing in thick rain clouds. But on the other side the sun came out to reveal small towns and farmlands thick with fruit trees, papayas, lychees, guanábana (soursop) and bananas.

Scenery en route to Zumba

I decided to break the journey and stay in Zumba for a night. When you’re constantly on the road, you don’t always realise how tired you can become, especially if, like me, you try to be doing something every day. But my enforced rest in Loja had also reinvigorated me mentally. When I boarded the bus to Zumba and the sun came out, I felt a new lease of life and excitement as Peru and a new country awaited.

The Galápagos – Part 3 – San Cristóbal – my last stop

Sea lion at La Loberia

In many cities and towns around the world public spaces are overrun with pigeons. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristóbal it’s sea lions. Swimming in the shallow waters by the port, basking in the sun on benches and snorting and grunting as they heave themselves onto land. Just a few kilometres out of the town, you can also swim with them, which was a hugely privileged experience.

Sea lions in the harbour

San Cristóbal is east of Santa Cruz and another two hour boat ride away. The main town is a bit more developed than Puerto Villamil, but still quiet and relaxing and you can walk everywhere. It’s still hugely expensive, though, and there weren’t so many cheaper places to eat that I’d found elsewhere. There are several attractions close to the port itself, as well as boat trips further afield. Again, I had to make a choice of what to do according to my limited budget. I spent day 9 of my trip heading back to Santa Cruz and overnighting there before moving onto San Cristóbal on the afternoon ferry of day 10. 

View from Cerro Tijeretas

Day 11. A short walk out of town takes you to an Interpretation Centre which has some displays on the islands. Behind the centre I walked along the trails up to Cerro Tijeretas with wonderful views, then wandered down to the bay and watched sea lions swimming and pelicans fishing. The sea lions are incredibly tame and curious and one came right out of the water and onto the steps where I was sitting. In the late afternoon I walked in the opposite direction out of town to a dramatic beach, La Loberia, with huge breaking waves and a colony of sea lions. Cost = Free.

Giant tortoise at La Galapaguera

Day 12. I caught a taxi to take me up to the highlands in the interior. It was my first opportunity to see giant tortoises in the semi wild at La Galapaguera. On the way back I stopped at a lagoon, Laguna El Junco, which, due to its altitude was misty and refreshingly cool. There a short trail I took which goes all the way round. Cost = $40.

Snorkelling through these narrow gaps at Leon Dormido was not easy

Day 13. My big splurge here was a boat trip to Leon Dormido, a huge rocky outcrop an hour away. Snorkelling was not easy here, as we were in the deep ocean which meant large swells and cold water. I’d recommend hiring a wet suit. It was worth it, however, because we saw Galápagos sharks and more turtles. Blue-footed boobies nest high up in the rocks. After lunch on the boat we had some free time on a beautiful beach, Cerro Brujo. Cost = $100.

Playa Cerro Brujo

Day 14. My last day in the Galápagos I returned to Cerro Tijeretas and La Loberia this time with a mask to snorkel with the sea lions. One sea lion played for ages with me and two others and when I dived down it also dived and spun around, a lot more gracefully than I could manage. Cost = Free, but mask hire was $3.

Sea lion at La Loberia

I’d spent a lot of my time during the trip wondering if it was worth the outrageous expense, and on the whole I think the Galápagos are overpriced for what you get. There are many places around the world where you can snorkel with exotic marine life and spot other types of wildlife. But swimming with these sea lions on my last day made me realise how special these islands are. Are they worth the money? No. Are they worth visiting anyway? Yes, absolutely. 

Sunset at La Loberia

The Galápagos – Part 2 – Isabela, my favourite island

Marine iguanas, Isabela

You know you’ve arrived in yet another special place when the church in the main town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela has stained glass windows of pelicans and blue-footed boobies. And behind the altar there is a painting of Christ hovering over this Galápagos island, with sealions, tortoises and iguanas at his feet. It’s all far removed from the usual depictions of suffering. The only suffering you’re likely to experience here is in your wallet.

Isabela

After four nights on Santa Cruz, I caught a ferry to Isabela. Actually, ferry is not the right word. They’re basically speedboats and charge you a whopping $30 for an unpleasant 2 hour ride. They’re tightly packed with inadequate seating. You can choose between suffocating heat inside or being at the mercy of the sun and sea-spray outside. Either way seasickness is not uncommon. 

Flamingo, Isabela

Isabela lies to the west and, although it’s the largest island, is in fact one of the least developed. No planes arrive here from the mainland and no cruises start from here, so it’s a lot more chilled. Puerto Villamil has sandy streets and the main square is just a block from a beautiful stretch of beach. 

Church stained-glass window

I stayed in an Airbnb place with a kitchen, so I could try and save money by cooking, but the shops are severely lacking in food. The restaurants on the square serve set lunches and dinners for $7 and the dishes are a bit more creative than the usual fare, but portions are small. If you’re on a budget, you can forget any luxuries. One cafe was asking $6 for a brownie!

Baby tortoise

Day Five. After checking into my hotel and a quick lunch, I strolled along the boardwalk to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. Along the way there are several small lagoons with flamingos. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to these birds. Each of the main islands has its own tortoise centre and conservation of these amazing creatures is a huge project. You can see some cute baby tortoises which are raised here before slowly being released into the wild. It’s quite moving when you consider the age which giant tortoises can reach – over a hundred years. This means that the dedicated workers here won’t live to see their tortoises gain full maturity. It’s an impressive commitment to the future which is sadly lacking in politicians all over the world today. Cost = Free

Blue-footed booby

Day Six. There are two main snorkelling trips you can do from Puerto Villamil, Los Túneles and Las Tintoreras. The first costs $120, the second $40. I asked a travel agent what the difference was and appreciated her honesty. She told me the only things you’ll see extra at Los Túneles are sea horses. Well, to save $80, I was happy to skip the sea horses. And I don’t regret it, as this turned out to be my favourite trip. It was only a half day and the islands are right there in the bay, so the less time spent travelling means you have more time to spot wildlife which was abundant. I saw the Galápagos penguin, sealions and a blue-footed booby. An added bonus was when two mating turtles passed close to our boat. The trip also included a guided walk around an island. Cost = $40

Turtles at Las Tintoreras

Galápagos penguin

Day Seven. Another trip through an agency, but this time without a focus on wildlife. I signed up for a guided hike up the Sierra Negra Volcano. It’s about a five hour round trip, but not difficult as the ascent is not steep. At the top you can see the second biggest crater in the world at over 10 kilometres in diameter. The trail continues to another volcano, Volcán Chico, where there are inspiring views of Elizabeth Bay and across to the neighbouring island of Fernandina. Cost = $35

Sierra Negra crater

Day Eight. After two paid excursions it was time for me head off independently. I walked along the beach and then the trail to Muro de las Lágrimas, or Wall of Tears. It’s the remains of a prison built under horrendous conditions by the prisoners themselves and it’s really just a wall, but the journey there is great, if extremely hot, past lagoons and secluded beaches. At Playa del Amor I saw some of the biggest marine iguanas so far. Cost = Free. You can hire a bike for $15 a day. 

On the trail to Muro de las Lagrimas

I was quite sorry to leave Isabela, but I had a boat to catch the next day back to Santa Cruz and from there another boat to my last stop, San Cristóbal. 

Sunset at Puerto Villamil

The Galápagos Part 1 – Santa Cruz – Is it possible to visit on a budget?

Giant tortoises, Santa Cruz

You know you’ve arrived somewhere pretty special when the airport bus has to stop for a marine iguana in the road. In the UK a flock of sheep might block a country road. In India it’s usually a cow on the train tracks. But in the Galápagos it’ll be a giant lizard. Another surprise on arrival, and this time not a pleasant one, is the astronomical prices. 

Marine iguana

The Galápagos Islands are part of Ecuador and lie west in the Pacific a few hours away by plane from Quito or Guayaquil. They are a magnet for travellers from all over the world, drawn primarily by the extraordinary wildlife. Many species exist only on this island and have adapted and evolved in fascinating ways. Charles Darwin came here in 1835 and his discoveries led him to develop his theories on the Origin of Species. The world’s last Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George, lived here until his death a few years ago.

A pair of pelicans

Most people arrive as a part of a package tour and head straight out to multi-day boat tours. Booked in advance, these are eye-wateringly expensive. I’m also not keen on organised trips and, since I have time and flexibility, I decided to travel independently. My daily budget when travelling is around US$35. It would be more if the stupidities of Brexit hadn’t severely devalued sterling over the past year. Once on the islands, I quickly discovered that this barely covers basics like accommodation and food. Anything extra, like snacks, drinks and tours dramatically increase your spending.

Lizard

To get there I used the excellent app, Hopper, which monitors flights and costs. For months, flights to the Galápagos were around £330, then I got an alert showing they’d dropped to £250, so I quickly booked, just a few weeks before departure. At the airport in Guayaquil, I had to pay a $20 transit tax just to get on the plane to the Galápagos. On arrival at the airport in Baltra you have to pay another $100. So, I’d already overspent by four days before I’d even collected my luggage.

Pelican

I stayed on Santa Cruz for four nights. It’s the main island and there is a bewildering number of tour agencies, offering day trips and last-minute boat deals. The cheapest of these was $800 for four days. Day trips start around $100 for a basic six hour boat trip and can go up to $150 or higher. However,there are also many things you can do for free or at comparatively low cost.

Expensive day trip by boat

I heard one travel agent trying to cajole some young tourists into signing up for a multi-day boat tour by telling them their experience would all depend on how much wildlife they see. The more they see, the better the experience. I immediately reacted against this nonsense, and decided to go independently and maybe splash out on a few day trips. Here’s what I did in Santa Cruz.

Giant tortoise, Charles Darwin Research Centre

Day One. After I’d checked into my hotel in Puerto Ayora, the main town, I walked to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and got my first viewing of giant tortoises. I was surprised when an attendant asked me if I wanted to see Lonesome George, as they were just opening up the special room. Of course I wanted to, but didn’t he die in 2012? It turns out that Lonesome George has spent the past five years in the US being stuffed and preserved and only returned here just a few months ago. It was a slightly depressing experience, with a timed visit and selfie-stick wielding tourists jostling for position. Much more interesting was the opportunity to get close to real life tortoises. Cost = Free

Playa Tortuga

Day Two. I walked a trail to a beautiful beach, Playa Tortuga, where pelicans swoop down to fish in the ocean. Marine iguanas nest and relax in the shade. I even saw some baby sharks swimming in the shallows. On the way back I saw many of the famous Darwin’s Finches. It’s amazing how tame and unafraid so many of the birds and animals are here, and I sat for ten minutes as one finch hopped curiously around me. Cost = Free

Finch

Day Three. I caught a water taxi across the bay to visit Las Grietas, a fabulous canyon where you can snorkel and which also has great views over the bay. In the afternoon I walked on the small boardwalk around the Laguna de las Ninfas, past amazing mangroves. Cost = 80 cents each way for boat taxi. 

Pelican at Playa Tortuga

Day Four. This was my big excursion, a day trip to Isla Pinzon, and it turned out to be my least favourite day. We had three stops for snorkelling and we were promised a landing on a beach, but for some reason, that wasn’t possible. One of the snorkelling stops was great and we saw turtles and sharks, but at the others visibility was not good. Also, the guide was not very helpful and the fellow passengers were aloof and boring. I could only imagine what it would have been like trapped on a cruise with them for four days. Cost = $110

Snorkelling at Isla Pinzon
Food tip – if you’re looking to save money, ignore the exorbitant restaurants along the seafront where you’ll pay Manhattan or West End prices. Several local restaurants offer set lunches and dinners for around $5. They’re basic but filling. A couple of blocks back from the harbour Charles Binford street has some great and lively outdoor restaurants with more reasonably priced seafood dishes.

Next blog – Isabela Island