Once we were done with the Uyuni tour, we headed to La Paz for a few days of rest and then planned to move on to Peru via Copacabana.
We took a bus from La Paz to Copacabana which was supposed to take 4 hours but took close to 6 hours. It was my dream to visit Lake Titicaca, the highest navigatable lake in the world, and it finally came true in Copacabana. In fact, there is a point where everyone has to cross a small section of Lake Titicaca on a boat, there is no road. We took the boat across while the bus got on a slow barge.
The cost of the bus was 30 Bolivianos per person, USD 4, which was comparitively expensive but we got told the prices were high due to the fiesta starting the day after. “A fiesta” we thought “that should be cool”. For the first 2 hours in Copacabana it was anything but cool!
We entered Copacabana without a hotel reservation. That never seemed to be a problem, we usually got to places and then went looking around for a place to stay. But due to the fiesta we walked from hotels to hostels with no relief. All of the places could only let us stay 1 night and then we would have to check out for the subsequent night. We offered to pay more but to no avail. We finally decided to take a room for the night, leave our bags and go hostel hunting in rest of the town.
Hostal Inka Roka was in a small alley away from the main square. Normally, we wouldn’t have even noticed it but we were desperate and had asked over 30 hotels already. The little lady walked out of her room and said she had a room for the next night. The cost was 50 Bolivianos per person, USD 7, which was a real bargain given the conditions. We reserved it and breathed a sigh of relief. We had initially planned on staying 3 nights but that wasn’t to be. We changed our bus ticket to leave Copacabana one day earlier.
Sunset over Lake Titicaca
After the pain of walking around trying to find a hotel, we walked along the shores of Lake Titicaca with some peace of mind. All the restaurants on the waters edge were offering happy hour all day and night long so we sat down and chilled while watching the sun go down at a lake at 3900 meters. Paradise!
Isla Del Sol Tour
One of the highlights of Copacabana is the Isla Del Sol and Isla De La Luna. The islands of Sun and Moon are important in the Aymara and Inca traditions. To this day, people still follow the traditions and give offerings on these islands.
We paid 50 Bolivianos for both of us, USD 7, which was a bargain and got on the ferry by 7:30am. The ride was slow but picturesque and we started with the north of Sun Island first. There was an added charge of 10 Bolivianos per person for a guided tour. As we ascended the island, we could clearly see the Cordillera Real range in the distance. What a sight!
After hiking for 1 hour, we arrived at the Puma Rock which is very important to Inca and Aymara cultures. The guide showed us the rock carvings of Condor, Puma’s head and Serpent which are the symbols of Sky, Earth and Underneath the Earth. We all made a wish in this place and then moved on to the mesa or the table.
The mesa was where the Incas and Aymaras gave offerings to the Gods or even sacrificed animals. A shaman there explained the history and would be blessing people if they wished. We chose not to do it.
The next stop were the Ruins of a Temple overlooking Lake Titicaca. It was a beautuful sight and the temple was somewhat of a maze. We took a few shots and then descended to the pier.
The southern part of the Island was a bit less interesting. For one, it was a steep hill only metres from the pier and we couldn’t see any ruins. Instead of walking uphill, we took photos of llamas and donkeys whose job it was to carry the luggage upstairs. The only highlight of the South end of the island was the mountains were even closer here and it again made for great images.
Now that we had a room, we could enjoy the fiesta. As we returned from the island, the fiesta was in full swing. Shruti took shots of grandmothers dancing, men drinking and dancing, people drinking in the street and dancers with the most immaculate outfits as well as masks. That night the fiesta parade went on til 7pm but we could hear drums and music till 2am. People say Bolivians are a quiet inward people but give them a fiesta and watch them become friendly.
Being brown, we didn’t have this experience but we heard many white people say that the grandmas and gradmas yelled “Gringo!!!” while drunk and made them drink. The next morning the story was no different except Inka Roka had a whole troop of dancers staying there. The entire army had to shower and then practice their songs. We heard every bit of it!
As we went out at 9am for breakfast, we realised that the party had moved higher up the town. We followed the noise and sure as hell people were drunk and dancing at 10am. The parade was in a different part of town and we saw lots of people participating in the parade with their suits, outfits and masks. They were singing songs that were anti-society and waving their noise making tool. We were really lucky to witness this event!
Copacabana Fiesta Video
Virgin on the Hill
The Virgin of Copacabana resides on top of a hill and is never moved from there. We decided to take a break from the parade and climb the hill. As we were halfway, we noticed that there were shamans for hire making offerings for people. That was a bit strange at a Christian site.
As we reached above, the view was breathtaking, Lake Titicaca could be seen to the end of the horizon. At the highest point on the hill was the Virgin of Copacabana who is very famous in the region.
To take in the view, we sat on a rock, bought a beer and decided to relax before heading down. Words cannot desribe the beauty of the place and it will be a memory forever seeing Copacabana beach from the top.
Yet again, we saw shamans doing offerings with beer and small models of wishes like car, house, baby etc. We concluded that as with many other sites in Bolivia this was a pre-Christian site and the people somehow mixed religions when they converted.
Copacabana is a small town but very touristy. This means that there is variety of food but it didn’t feel very Bolivia. Luckily, due to the fiesta, lots of people brought out their food carts and I managed to try some of them. It was a great experience!
We took the 6pm Lake Titicaca bus to Puno, Peru. The border process was pretty straightforward and we had no issues whatsoever. The only issue was where to change the money. Copacabana town was a bad place with 2.35 Boliviano for every Sole. I managed to bargain down a guy at the border who gave me 2.20 for a Sole. On the Peruvian side, it was slightly better at 2.16-2.18 depending on your bargaining. That ended our trip in Bolivia for the exciting Peru!
If you Google must visit places in Bolivia, or for that matter, in the world, Salar de Uyuni will definitely be on the list. Our plan to visit Bolivia was simply for the salt flats. Who doesn’t want to check off a must visit destination, especially when you are in the neighbourhood!
We had only just got off the bus when a lady approached us regarding Uyuni tour. We had inquired about the tour in La Paz and from there it costed about 800 Bolivianos, ~ USD 116. The tour itinerary was almost the same as we had heard about earlier and it costed 750 Bolivianos, ~ USD 109, each. The only bonus was she offered us a cheap hotel room for the night, just 100 Bolivianos, USD 15. At least we didn’t have to go looking for a place to sleep. We rested that night and were ready for our pick up from our hostel the next day.
We were picked up from our hostel Sajama at around 10:30 am. As we boarded the 4×4, we met a few other companions on the tour. A few minutes later, the four wheel drive was full with people. There was Ettore and Lina, an Italian-Spanish couple, Swantje and Eerie, two German girls, Iris, Dutch girl, our guide, cook and driver, Quentin and us. It was a multi-national group but somehow we got along very well, very quickly.
Day 1 – Graveyard of Trains
Uyuni has a train line which was supposed to continue until the coast of Chile. For some reason, the line was abandoned and so were the trains. As all groups from Uyuni start the tour at 10:30am, and the graveyard is the first stop, the site was full of tourists! Nevertheless, the sight of the trains in the middle of the desert was beautiful. We jumped on top of an engine and clicked some photos of us and surroundings.
Day 1 – Entry to the salar
After leaving the train graveyard, we headed towards the Salar. From the highway heading to the salt pans, we could see the distant white plains shinning in the sun creating a mirage. We headed into a salt mining village with touristy salt rooms and salt llamas while the villagers sold cheap woolen clothes.
Next, we drove to the edge of the salar with little ponds of salt and small mounds of salt. The villagers harvest these mounds of salt for commercial salt. We didn’t really understand how the process works but the mounds on the salar made for some great shots.
Day 1 – Salar de Uyuni
As we drove from the edge, our driver told us that the salt was few metres thick in some places. The landscape was white as far the eye could see with reddish brown mountains and hills in the distance. We could see other tour cars in the far distance doing exactly the same thing we were. Despite there being plenty of 4×4 drives, we could only see a handful which indicates how huge the Salar is.
Shruti and I had been contemplating how to best photograph ourselves in the Salar as the perspective changes due to the background. We spent some good time trying to get our perfect shots.
We enjoyed our lunch from the back of our 4×4 drive, outside the Salt Hotel near the Dakar Rally Memorial. Once done, Shruti suggested we take some group shots as well. After trying to figure out what we would do, we ended up with these! Definitely fun day at a go.
Our next stop was Isla de Pescado, a green hill island with cactus rising out of the salt. The cost to climb was 30 Bolivianos per person and as a group we decided it wasn’t worth it and walked around the island instead.
It was free, beautiful and an unique experience. We had visited Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India, but it was nothing like this. That was at a much smaller scale and no cactus. We were walking around as if walking down the road on salt crystals. In my case, I was occasionally snacking on the natural salt too.
We kept going on the Salar until around 4pm when we eventually headed towards the mountains and our accommodation for the night. Though it only makes up 3-4 hours of the entire journey, Salar de Uyuni leaves a great mark on you. A must do bucket item!
Day 1 – Salt hotel
Our hotel for the night was ‘The Salt Hotel’ in the village of San Juan. The whole thing was made of brick and then salt added over it. The bed and dinner table were made of salt and concrete. It was an interesting experience for sure!
As it gets really cold at night in this area, the group decided to get a couple of wine bottles to go with the dinner. It ended up being a great night with new friends and the conversations and laughs went long in the night.
Note: Due to the cold and having to pay for hot showers, it is entirely possible to not shower for a day.
Day 2 – 3 Lagunas
The first part of the day started with seeing incredible scenery on the way to the lagoons. As we drove in the middle of no where, we were surrounded by high mountains all around us. As the car kept driving, the cameras were clicking in all directions.
We stopped at a volcanic rocks area for a short break. It was a very picturesque landscape but most of us could only think, ‘behind which rock do we pee?’
Upon driving another hour we reached Laguna Cañapa. It was incredible. There were flamingos and mountains on all sides of the lake. It was very cold and windy but we managed through it.
The next lake was Laguna Edionda which means stinky lake. The name was a bit strange as the lake was stunning. There were flamingos enjoying their meal.
Walking a bit towards the car park we realised there were few shops. Turns out, there were toilets and and internet. Yes, in the middle of no where. We enjoyed a nice meal prepared by our driver Quentin overlooking the best location for lunch.
After lunch, we were heading towards another lake. On the way, we encountered a wild Andean fox, same as the one we saw at Volcan Chimborazo. The guys from the other tourist car threw some chicken bones at it. It was the wrong thing to do feeding a wild animal but we were happy to get a shot of it with breathtaking surroundings.
As we reached the next lake, no one was in the mood to feel the cold and everyone took photos from the car. The driver was a little surprised and told us that the next stop is a couple of hours away. That didn’t bother us, we didn’t get out!
Day 2 – Laguna Colorada
If you Google Uyuni Tour, most times a photo of pink lagoon comes up. That lagoon is called Laguna Colorada and is part of the National Park. The entry fee for the foreigners is 150 Bolivianos, USD 22, and it is not included in the tour cost. That is a bit steep but I hope the cost goes to conserving the natural environment. Plus, we got a stamp on the passport :P
We checked into our dormitory type hostel where the whole group had to sleep in one room on single beds. Luckily we got along and was not a problem for anyone. Once settled and before sundown, we headed towards to the Laguna Colorada Mirador (view point). It was ridiculously cold and we had to wear all our winter gear. Having said that, the view was totally worth it. The national park had constructed the mirador like glass room with 180 degree view. It really made the 45 minute walk worth it.
We had been warned that the second night is incredibly cold. The group discussed this the first night and agreed that we needed some alcohol for the second night. A bottle of Bacardi was bought to help us handle it. After dinner the group did a big salud to each other and the trip. As it was an early morning the next day, other groups went to sleep early. We stayed long into the night, got abused by other groups, had a lot of fun and were still first out the door. Take that boring people!
Day 3 – Thermal Springs
We drove out at 4:30am with everyone except the driver asleep. We reached the thermal springs while it was dark. It took us a good half an hour to muster the courage and dress down to swimmers. It was extremely cold but a great feeling getting in the naturally hot water. Moreover, no one in the group had showered since the start of the trip so it was a hygienic feeling as well.
Day 3 – Laguna Verde
Our next stop was Laguna Verde. Our guide/driver told us that it appears green due to the sediments. We were all excited to see it but what amazed us even more was the landscape on the way to the lake.
Upon arriving at the lake, we were stunned. We had been on the road for 4 hours now and it was turning out to be the best day. Laguna Verde with the volcano behind it was picture perfect. Additionally, there was a Laguna Blanca just adjacent and it looked breathtaking as well.
Day 3 – Chilean border
Our trip would end back in Uyuni as we weren’t crossing over to Chile unlike 3 of of our group members. It was only a short drive to the border and as with everywhere around it the scenery was stunning. We said our goodbyes to Ettore, Nina and Iris and headed back towards Uyuni. At least we saw Chile!
Day 3 – Drive back to Uyuni
The drive back to Uyuni went through some not so stunning landscapes when compared it what we saw in last 3 days. However, it was still beautiful and our lunch spot was incredible on a beautiful stream with llamas in the distance.
Señor Quentin was our guide/chef/driver for 3 days. He was a rotund quiet Bolivian man who concentrated on his job. We were never late anywhere and he served amazing lunches and dinners. We are very thankful to him for keep us safe and sound during the trip.
Things to understand
The Salar de Uyuni trip is actually Salar on the first day (last if you start in Argentina or Chile). There is very little walking involved and most of the trip is in the car. It is an incredibly cold area with mountains and glaciers everywhere. The area is very high in altitude and being in Southern Hemisphere, it starts to get very cold from May till August. Also, the mirror reflection only happens during the rainy season.
Mirror reflection or not, 3 days Salar de Uyuni tour is a must do trip in Bolivia. The scenery is some of the best in the world and if you are lucky, plenty of chances to see llamas, vicunas, fox and rabbits in their natural habitat!
After spending a few days relaxing in Cochabamba, we decided to head to Potosi. We agreed to skip Sucre, the capital of Bolivia, as it was more of a city with a national park nearby that had dinosaur footprint. That didn’t wow us much. Instead, Potosi is known for the mines and is on the way to Uyuni, our main destination in Bolivia.
Getting to Potosi from Cochabamba was a challenge. There were no day buses when we arrived at the terminal at 8am. Therfore, we took a bus to Oruro from Potosi which took around 4 hours to reach there. Oruro’s terminal was like a village terminal in India with people carrying huge cartons of luggage everywhere.
We bought a bus ticket for the next bus at 3pm for a 4 hour bus journey. Before this, we had heard about Bolivians protesting all big and small things by blocking roads. However, this time there was talk in the terminal that the main road was blocked. The bus would go from a longer route through the desert.
The bus journey took 8 hours but the bus went through some incredible landscapes. We saw lakes, mountains, small salt flats, sand dunes, llamas, vicuñas and quinoa fields. We reached the hostel at 10:30pm and were a bit groggy the next morning.
Hot Showers At Last
Hostel Casa Blanca Potosi was one of the more expensive hostels in Potosi to stay at. However, our hostel in Cochabamba had a suicide shower (you have the choice of showering cold or getting electricuted while showering warm) and we chose cold showers for a few days.
While the hostel was great with a kitchen, breakfast, bar and a great chilling area, we loved the hot showers the most. It was probably the first time we have been picky over something like this. We didn’t regret it and had the longest showers during our time in South America!
A long time ago I saw a documentary or a news piece about mines of Potosi. Each day, tourists go into the mines to see and understand about the lives and work of miners who have been mining the Cerro Rico mountain for over 500 years. It sounds touristy and adventurous but it’s a must do in South America to understand the hardship miners have gone through.
To benefit the miners, we decided to use a tour company whose guides were ex miners themselves. We signed up with Big Deal Tours on the morning of the tour and met other tourists. Though the tour was 50 Bolivianos per person, just over USD 7, more than other tour companies, it allowed us access to the minerals refinery as well as having the tour legitimate and safe.
Our first stop was the miners market where we bought gifts for miners. As we are entering their domain, its best to respect their work and help them out with some juice and coca leaves.
The next step was to get the equipment for safety including waterproof overalls, rubber boots and helmets with lights as well as a waterproof bag for our gifts. We weren’t meant to carry anything on us though I carried my phone and wallet in my pants, under the plastic pants. We set off from the equipment house to the mineral refinery. The refinery looked over Cerro Rico, the main minerals site of Potosi.
Our guide, Wilson gave us the lowdown on the mountain and the mining in Potosi. Cerro Rico has been mined for over 500 years starting with the Spanish. Once they discovered silver in the mountain, they brought African slaves to work in the mines. However, the Africans couldn’t survive at 4000 meters and eventually the Spaniards enslaved native Quechuas who lived in the region. Their story is quite sad as they were fed poorly and given coca leaves which are a hunger and thirst suppressant. This continued until the Spanish rule and also until the silver ran out. Millions died mining for the Spanish and Bolivia never received any benefits. Bolivia tried a nationalized company for mining but it didn’t work out. Today there are many cooperatives for whom the miners work.
The refinery crushed the rocks full of minerals and made it into a paste of minerals for export to China. The amazing thing was that Bolivia is mineral rich but industrially poor. It sends its minerals to China and other countries and then buys back the goods for use. After spending some time at the refinery, we headed towards the mines. Along the way, we took some selfies and photos with the beautiful mountain with a sad story.
As we headed into the mines, the smell of dynamite and chemicals was everywhere. Wilson warned that when we heard him yelling about wagon, we had to stick to the wall of the mine in case a flying wagon killed us. The entrance of the mine was full of water on the ground and smell of chemicals.
As we went in deeper, the mine became darker and the air thicker. We could only see with our headlights. Occasionaly, a wagon being pushed by miners would come and we would all stick to the wall.
During our journey deeper into the mountain, we would see miners heading back to change coca. This meant they had been working for 4 hours and it was time to rest. Wilson would talk to these miners and ask questions and then translate aspects of their lives for us and we would give them the gifts we brought along.
At one point, he sat us down on rocks and explained the cooperatives and the plight of the miners. Cooperatives had several layers of miners. New miners had to work for 3 years to be made full-fledged and could then work the mineral veins which ran through the mountain. These mineral veins could be thick or thin, could be full of minerals or simply rubbish. It all depended on luck and how well you got along with other miners. A new miner who had a fight could be kicked out and an experienced miner who had a fight could be elected out. Wilson had been a miner for 24 years, he had gone up the ranks but his mineral vein had ran out twice making him poor and vulnerable. He told us only a funny miner could survive for long as he would hide his pain and not fight. This explained his funny attitude.
After this we walked from one mine to the other using 3 ladders. We basically escalated levels in the mountains. In a confided space where we could hardly stand up straight, climbing a vertical ladder was a bit of relief. Except we couldn’t watch where we were going, unless we wanted dust and sand in our eyes.
We mainly did this to see El Tio Benito and also to cross the mountain and meet our bus. The miners have a mix of Catholic and indegenous beliefs. El Tio is the God of the mountain and his idol, though a bit odd, is in several places in the mountain. The miners believe that he keeps them alive and gives them luck (fertilises) for minerals. They give him offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves. More importantly, they drink a litre of pure 96% alcohol on Fridays to please him.
On a sad note, we all had a sip of pure alcohol (which tasted horrible) and started to exit the mountain. Along the way, we went through an abandoned mine which is now full of beautiful stalagtites and stalagmites.
The final stretch was the toughest, it was all very short so we had to walk squatting. 10 minutes of this and our legs were smashed. Finally, we were out of the mountain with a greater respect for miners than we had before. A must do in Potosi!
Convento San Fransisco
Another highlight of Potosi was the 16th Century Convent of San Fransico. We took a tour of it for 15 Bolivianos per person, just over USD 2. Our first stop were the catacombs which we saw after the Cathedral of Cuenca. However, these were much older with skulls and bones still on display. It was a little scary and we were happy to get out of there.
Our next stop was the main reason for which we had come to the convent. The tour takes you to the roof of the convent. The domes and spires are tiled and the story goes that the natives who didn’t want to die in the mines came to the convent and worked and lived here. While the domes were beautiful, the best thing was the view of the city and the mountain. The tour is worth for this alone!
We then saw the church with its 12 brick domes representing Jesus and the Apostles. It was one of the first times in Latin America that we saw a Brown Jesus with black hair. This along with some paintings by native artists made us love this convent. The native artists painted all the negative characters in the bible as Spanish. A perfect example of protest in art.
Casa De La Moneda
Casa De La Moneda were the mints set up by the Spanish around Latin America to press coins. Potosi was the most famous of them all as the quality of silver was meant to be the best in the world. We arrived for an English tour to find out that there was none at that time. As we were leaving that day, we refused to come back later. After a long wait, a lady came to give us the tour.
From the start she wasn’t happy to give us a tour as it was only for 2 people. Moreover, The fact that I can speak some Spanish ticked her off even more. Anyway, she showed us the original coins minted here and told us about their value. The most interesting thing was that the letter PTSI were used on top of one another for Potosi coins. Their reputation was so high that to this day, SI on top of one another is used as the dollar symbol.
We saw many more rooms which had printing presses, foundaries, silver presses, silver wares, minerals from the mountain and modern Bolivian coins. The best example of outsourcing? Bolivian coins are made in Chile and Canada as its too expensive to mint them in Bolivia. An informative museum at 40 Bolivianos per person, under USD 7, but certainly an expensive one.
Bus to Uyuni
We took a 1:00pm bus to Uyuni which was meant to be the 12:30pm bus but this is Bolivia and no one complained. As the bus left Potosi, the view became breathtaking. There were mountains and valleys with llamas grazing in the distance. Shruti even managed to photograph a llama crossing sign.
It was only a 4 hour ride but it seemed much longer in good way as we went over canyons, hills and mountain passes. As the bus climbed the final hill before Uyuni, the vast high desert with a city in the middle appeared out of nowhere. It was a lovely sight. If we looked in the distance, we could see world’s biggest salt flats. We were near Salar de Uyuni.
We met only two kinds of travelers on the road – ones who wished they were going to Galapagos Islands and ones who visited Galapagos Islands. While it is expensive, we found out it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg! We enjoyed the archipelago nevertheless.
A little intro
The Galápagos Archipelago are a group of volcanic islands lying in the Pacific Ocean about 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador. The archipelago is surrounded by the ocean currents which have made its flora and fauna some of the most unique in the world. It is also famous for being one of main places which inspired Charles Darwin’s Evolution Theory.
Galapagos Islands are an Ecuadorian Province and in 1959 were made into a National Park. It is isolation from the mainland and as it is the primary tourist destination in Ecuador, it is expensive. However, we learnt that the money spent in Galapagos is well-spent.
We took a flight from Guayaquil instead of Quito. This saved us around USD 100 on the tickets. There are two airports in Galapagos Islands – Baltra and San Cristobal. As an advice, we would say its best to get to Baltra and from there to Santa Cruz. San Cristobal is on the eastern end of the archipelago while Santa Cruz is more central. It’s easier to see more islands from Santa Cruz.
At Guayaquil airport, our luggage was scanned and we had to pay USD 20 per person tourist fee. Once we got to Baltra airport, we had to pay USD 100 per person as National Park fee for entering Galapagos Islands. In addition, there was a cost of USD 10 per person for to and fro bus journey from the airport to Baltra channel. That was the end of the official costs.
The journey from Baltra airport to Santa Cruz takes around an hour fifteen minutes – 15 min bus ride to the channel, a 90 seconds ferry across to Santa Cruz and a 45 minutes bus ride to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. The ferry was USD 1 per person while the bus was USD 2 per person. We stayed at Hotel Francis Drake for USD 30 a night for a room without aircon.
Shopping for tours
There are several ways to explore Galapagos Islands. You have the options of doing a cruise around islands or staying on inhabited island and doing day trips. Option 1 was too expensive for us even with the last minute prices. The cheapest and best cruise we found while at Galapagos was for USD 1550 per person for 8 days. Though this cruise had the best itinerary for the price, we couldn’t afford it as we are backpacking. We had to go with option 2.
We visited around 5 tour agencies to check prices for day trips and picked day trips on different islands. We even managed to spend 2 days and 1 night on Isabela island!
The day trips from Santa Cruz ranged from USD 90 to USD 200 depending on the distance. We highly recommend getting to Galapagos and dedicating a day to shop and plan your activities. Booking from overseas or even mainland Ecuador is way expensive.
Seymour – Diving
We dived with Albatross Diving in Santa Cruz. They provided us with full length wet suits, diving shoes and all other equipment diving related. We reached the dive shop at 6:50am from where we took a car to Baltra channel and a half an hour boat ride to Seymour Island. The island itself is a mecca for birds and we were able to see blue footed boobies and frigate birds on the cliffs of the island.
The tour group included some casual divers as well as seasoned divers and beginners like me. The casual divers went first and we snorkeled around in the meantime. This was our first time in the water in the Galapagos and we were able to see a sea turtle, sharks and a ton of fish. That topped more than anything I had seen before in the water.
The first dive was no less exciting. The visibility was 8-10 meters and the sea was full of life. We saw huge manta rays, large fish, sharks (white and black pointers) amongst other things. We were all following the guide when he went down to the floor and started watching into the distance. He made a sign of hammerhead and I was nervously looking in the distance but we never saw it. The guide was a little nervous and we spent a long time waiting doing nothing.
After a wait of 45 minutes, we went down again for the second dive in Mosquera Island. The depth was deeper than the previous dive and we saw many of the same animals. However, the cherry was a school of around 12 eagle rays going right past us. It was an unreal feeling just observing such beautiful but dangerous animals just gliding past us.
While the animals were great, we can’t say the same for the guides. We had a limit of 70 bar (air) to return to surface but both guides ignored this and kept going. The second guide was even worse and told me and another fairly beginner girl to ascend by ourselves. It was lucky that her boyfriend was a serious diver and went with us to make sure we don’t end up sick. Moreover, in the second dive Shruti’s air had reached its limit but the guide tried to give her his air and keep going. Not only should he have started ascending before this but the move didn’t work and Shruti was forced to ascend up blowing out. It was very dangerous and it could have been worse. Seeing animals is not worth putting your life at risk like that.
Finally, should you do diving in the Galapagos Islands? If you are an experienced diver who is keen to see hammerhead sharks that exist in specific regions. All other animals are easy to spot by snorkeling.
Santa Cruz Island
Sea Lions, Giant Marine Iguanas, Giant Tortoises and Cactus Trees
Sea lions in the Galápagos are like street dogs in India. You can find them sleeping all along the coast in the day. On our first evening in Galapagos, we visited the main pier and were amazed to see Sea Lions sleeping on benches, pier, floor and tourists were all around them taking pictures.
Marine Iguanas are an unique animal. Apart from being the only iguana species that swims, it is also the only reptile in the world which eats algae from the sea. We saw marine iguanas nesting close to Puerto Ayora while they take in the sun during the day and swim back at night. They are black, scaly and look a little like Godzilla. It takes a while but eventually you get use to seeing them around and liking them.
Giant tortoises are unique to Galapagos too. They can live for several hundred years, weigh upto 300 kilos and are threatened by humans and introduced animals. Charles Darwin Centre in Santa Cruz takes the eggs from the laying areas and raises the young until they are old enough to protect themselves, i.e., their shell gets hard. While we saw several huge tortoise in the centre, it was in a tour to the highland farms that we saw them upclose.
The giant tortoises spend two months in the farms, eat fruits and grass, poop everywhere and chill in small ponds. It is an unique sign of human-tortoise friendship. The farm owners like the tortoises as they clean up and fertile the farm and tourists pay to see them while the tortoises get to eat fallen fruits and mate in a controlled environment. It is amazing to see that such huge animals are scared of us so easily. The cost for the highland tour was USD 45 per person and an additional USD 3 per person at the farm to freely walk around the tortoises. The farm provides rubber boots to prevent ant bites.
The volcanic nature of the islands was included in the same highlands tour. There was a large magma chamber which we didn’t quite understand but we thought neither did the guide. It looked like a mini Blue Mountains.
In addition, we visited a lava cave which was a natural tunnel of 400 metres. The lava passed through this tunnel and the only way the farmers found out about it was when their cows went missing. Apparently, there is very little top soil in the Galapagos and most of the islands have solid volcanic rock underneath. It was a great lesson on the geography of the place.
While in Santa Cruz, we indulged in free activities like Tortuga Bay and Las Grietas. The 45 mins walk to Tortuga Bay was tough as we had to walk in the hot sun but there were amazing flora and fauna on display. Giant cactus trees are native to Santa Cruz island. They look like trees with a bark and have mickey mouse ears. In addition, we saw Darwin’s finches which are different on each island. They are one of the main reasons that Charles Darwin was able to create his theory of evolution. Finches on each island have a common parent but have evolved according to the environment on each island.
Tortuga Bay was a small and bay great for swimming. The beach was beautiful as well but not good for swimming due to the currents.
Las Grietas was about 20 mins walk away from the pier. To get to Grietas, we took a water taxi across the channel for 80 cents and then walked. Upon reaching the location we were completely stunned! A beautiful water channel between two cliffs was definitely the best place to swim! We even indulged in a few jumps, check out the video.
Santa Fe Island
Swimming with the Sea Lions
It was one of Shruti’s dreams to swim with the Sea Lions and I must admit I was curious about it too. We took a day trip to Santa Fe island famous for sea lions and a unique land iguana. Our guide, a small old man, met us and another 7 people at the pier. We took a water taxi to the boat where we realised how small the boat was. This was going to be a fun ride!
As we neared Santa Fe, we found out that we wouldn’t be going on the land – just the water. That worked for Shruti who hates iguanas and lizards. Our first stop was a bay for snorkeling. We saw lots of fish and even an eagle ray. Since there wasn’t a lot to see in this place, the guide got us back in the boat for the next place. On the way, we saw blue footed boobies and other birds sitting on the cliffs.
Our next snorkel area had many large boats already parked. As soon as we got in the water, we realized why this was the case. We were in a bay full of sea lions – all age groups combined! We were snorkeling near the grandfather sea lion who was huge and so old that he didn’t bother moving.
We were watching him for a while till the “kids” showed up and started swimming around us. They went around us and came very close sometimes. We swam with them for a good 30-40 minutes. At one point, I got very close to one only realising that there was a mum and baby. I had to be very careful in case the mum’s maternal instincts kicked in and she attacked me!
It had to be the most fun we have had in travel except maybe Alaska. Sometimes the cheeky sea lions would bite the fins or swim upside down around us. Another time, I had a sea lion come really close to my face and pretend to bite me like a dog might. While they were hungry and have a liking for fish, they never really threatened us. It was an amazing experience which words cannot describe.
On the return journey, the captain and the guide started fishing by putting a line out and simply steering the boat. They caught a tuna and a wahu. Both were huge fish and they hardly had to try at all. It was the first time Shruti and I saw someone fishing and killing the fish. They were also lucky as a big sea lion was after the tuna and nearly grabbed it.
To finish off the day, we snorkeled at a beach on the opposite side of Santa Cruz island. While the visibility was low, we saw a huge sea turtle. Not bad for a day trip which cost only USD 90 per person.
A million year old island with penguins and baby animals
Bartoleme was the other day trip we took from Santa Cruz. In this case, the boat was quite big and luxurious. The distance between most islands in Galapagos is 1-2 hours. Bartolome was around 2 hours and we got to see Daphne Volcano on the way. I also had great sleep sleeping in front of the boat while Shruti took pictures.
Once we reached Bartolome, we realised we were amongst stunning scenery. The volcanic island was dry and desolate but the pohoehoe lava reflected some amazing colors. As we landed on the island, our guide told us we’d we walking up a 104 metre summit in the harsh sun. At every rest point, our guide explained us about the island with signs, animation and dances. He mostly used Spanish so I and some others had to translate for the rest.
The top of the summit though was incredible because the view was picture perfect. The view from the top is actually used as a postcard picture.
The next thing was to snorkel around the most famous site. We were to swim around the torre which is a large rock. The history of this rock is as amazing as itself. Before World War 2, there were two of these rocks. However, American soldiers practised target shots and ended up blowing one of them Anyway, the wildlife was kind of amazing around this rock. We saw lots of big fish, sea lions sleeping on the rock and swimming in the water around us, shark relaxing on sea bed and a ray close by too. For a flash moment, I even saw a penguin swimming around. We were primarily here for the penguins. Alas, that was the last we saw of them or so we thought!
After the snorkeling, our guide was keen on seeing the penguins. He informed us that they sub bathe in the middle of the day and we may be lucky. We took the motor canoe close to the rocks and sure enough, two penguins were sunbathing like they were hot blonde girls with bikinis on a beach. For Shruti, this was a defining moment as she had always wanted to see penguins in the wild.
We though we were done with the animals but no, Galapagos sprang a surprise again. On the beach at Bartoleme, while waiting for lunch to be prepared, we saw a baby ray and many different baby sharks. It was a great end to a great day. After this, we went back to Santa Cruz with a smile! This trip costed us USD 145 per person.
Island has it all
Unlike other islands, we didn’t do a day trip to Isabela. Everyone we met on Galapagos told us we had to go live in Isabela and so we did. Our day started early and we took the ferry at 7am to Isabela. The cost for ferries between habituated islands is USD 30 and we bought our tickets a few days before. The ferry ride was generally boring with some beautiful parts as we saw small islands appear and disappear out of nowhere. An amazing thing in many islands of Galapagos is that the piers are not dredged and therefore boats have to stop at some distance while a water taxi takes you to the pier. Isabela was unique in the area was so shallow and so full of life that we saw sea turtles right next to the pier. We paid USD 5 each to enter Isabela.
Our first stop in Isabela was the Concha Y Perla lagoon. It’s right next to the pier and we hired the snorkeling equipment from the only shop there. The lagoon was beautiful with a wooden walkway over the surrounding mangroves.
As usual, a sea lion was asleep in the sun on the entry to the lagoon. The snorkel around the lake was uneventful until we found a cave going outside the lagoon. We followed it and Shruti spotted an eel.
Later on, we spotted a sea turtle having its meal on the algae. Then a sea lion decided to swim around us and climb up on a rock.
Our next stop were the wetlands and the giant tortoise centre in Isabela. The walk through the wetlands was again tough in the sun but we loved seeing the flamingos standing and sleeping in the water. We had seen flamingos even in Gujarat, India but from afar. In Galapagos, we got to appreciate their beauty and god damn they were so pink and beautiful.
Moreover, while we had seen giant tortoises in Santa Cruz, the specialty on Isabela were the baby giant tortoises. They were sooooooo cute (Yes I lost my manhood) while they enjoyed the water and played with each other. A sight to behold!
At times, Galapagos seems like a zoo where we are the animals and the birds and mammals are there to check us out. As we swam in the beautiful beaches of Isabela that day, we saw so many birds flying over us and other birds diving for fish meters from us. They had no fear whatsoever! The town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela island is a little more than a village. We had a few meals here and they were surprisingly cheap. The accomodation was also relatively cheap at USD 20 per person.
The Tunneles Tour at Isabela
We booked a Tuneles tour from an agency in town for USD 85 per person. Tuneles is Spanish for “The Tunnels”. To be really honest, we had no idea what we would see but sharks and penguins were almost guaranteed. Our trip started in a funny manner. We had talked to another agency and they were USD 5 more expensive. We decided to save that money and guess what, we got driven to the same agency for the tour. Apparently, the agency we paid just cut a deal with the other guys. It would have been awkward but the lady we talked to wasn’t there. Phew!
The tour started with us getting all the equipment and meeting our guide. Gabriel was a seasoned guide and was incredibly knowledgeable. Our boat took us from the town to the far west of the island. Along the way, we stopped at a rock in the middle of the ocean. The main point of this stop was to alert us of the “punto caliente”, the lava opening under Galapagos. The islands in the archipelago were created east to west. The islands on the west are the youngest and Isabela has 5 active volcanoes and the island of Floreana which is basically a volcano. Anyway, the rock in the middle of the ocean was the closest point to earth’s magma point only 3km below from the surface. It didn’t bother the sea lions and nasca boobies who were chilling on top!
As we reached closer to the tuneles, Gabriel told us to watch the water on the sides and sit tight. Apparently, tuneles are a low volcanic rock area and the only way to get in or out was to surf the wave, on a boat. What the f##$! Well, it was too late to back out now. Gabriel pointed out how the captain slowed the engine to a stop before the break and then waits to surf on a big wave across. Well, the captain upped the music, ride the boat hard over and on the left we could see the wave breaking. We were surfing on a boat!!
As we made it across, we were even more impressed with the captain. The tuneles were old lava fields which had disintegrated over time and the sea had made its way in. It was incredibly hard to manouvre a boat in such shallow water. The captain parked the boat and we went on land to discover the lava, cactus species of Isabela and finally, seeing a “sea turtle highway”. We named the water in this area as such due to huge and beautiful turtles which would swim past every few minutes.
There were several “bridges” of lava which were unbelievable. With time, these beautiful work of nature will fall into the water.
Our snorkeling spot was away from this area and we had to ride the wave out. But before that we snorkeled for 30 minutes in shallow waters. We saw schools of fish and penguins sunbathing on a rock. It was an incredible sight to see even though we had seen them before. Shruti was excited yet again!
Our next spot was a little away and on the way there, the captain of boat spotted golden rays close to the surface. I thought what the hell is a golden ray? But too late for any thinking as a group of us got our gear on and jumped into the water. We swam as fast as possible and behold there were a huge number of golden rays swimming in a shape like attacking jets from world war 2. There were so many that we couldn’t count. Shruti lost count at 35. To top it off, we saw baby golden rays as well. To make it clear, golden rays are similar to eagle rays but have a different color and no patterns. They are rare to spot too!
We weren’t done yet. We snorkeled for 40 minutes in the next spot, saw the biggest sea turles, blue footed boobies up close, sharks sleeping in caves and even a sea horse. It’s impossible to relay the events step by step as it was a dream snorkel. Best snorkel of my life for sure!
What to say about Galapagos Islands? Its expensive, it’s a paradise but it’s different from any other islands. The geology of the place has made it the best place to see a huge number of sea animals in one place. After 5 days in Galapagos Islands, it seems like seeing sea turtles, sharks, iguanas, penguins and sea lions together is just a regular thing. However, it could take you a few dives just to see one of those animals in even the best places. In addition, it’s not the animals alone that are the most beautiful in Galápagos. Islands like Bartolome, Isabela, Floreana and even Santa Cruz when seen from the airport are stunning on their own. Therefore, while the tickets, entry and activities are expensive, Ecuador uses that money to preserve the islands so our future generations may enjoy it as well. A must do place in South America!
We were there from Sunday to Sunday, i.e., all activities done in 6 days. Here is our breakdown for Galapagos Islands.
Accommodation – USD 225 (7 nights)
Activities – USD 941 (includes 1 dive day, 2 full day tours and 2 half day tours)
Food – USD 133.50 (we mostly had breakfast & dinner at hostel while lunch was included with full day tours)
We had originally thought to visit Amazon in Ecuador but the plans changed when we added Brazil to our itinerary. After spending some time researching, we realised our original thoughts to visit Amazon in Ecuador would be the best thing to do. The two main reasons – cheaper and ecologically diverse and different. And so, we went ahead to shop for Amazon trip.
Shopping for Amazon Trip
While researching we also realised it was impossible to visit Amazon by yourself. We had to book a tour. So, we visited 3 tour agencies in Quito and received quotations between $290-$340 for similar 5 day itineraries. The price difference was usually due to the facilities within the lodges but the reviews consistently said that the quality of the guide would determine the success rate of the trip.
We read the reviews of the various lodges and decided on Guacamayo Lodge in the Cuyabano Reserve. It was comparatively cheaper and had great reviews. We paid $290 per person and $16.81 for a good torch for night walks, caiman spotting and walking around the lodge after 10pm.
Arriving in the Amazon
We took a bus from Quito for Lago Agrio for $12 per person. The bus ride was 7 hours and we slept most of the way on the night bus. There was an option of using a private bus from Mariscal area in Quito for $20 per person but we decided not take this as it was too expensive and we would have to wait in Mariscal till 11 pm.
The bus ride was comfortable except for the fact that the toilets in buses never work in Ecuador or are never open. Why have them in the first place? Also, it was our first experience seeing an Indian film on TV in the bus. Kites starring Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori was playing in Spanish. We had an early morning planned so we slept through it! We arrived at 6am sharp and left for the centre soon after.
Meeting the Guide
We had to get to Lago Agrio from Quito ourselves and were told that the lodge representative will meet us at Hotel D’mario. We arrived at the hotel at 7am for breakfast. After waiting for an hour, a uniformed guy approached us. Shruti spotted Guacamayo on his uniform and he introduced himself as Jairo. We were told we would wait till 9am for some others and eventually leave.
While waiting, Shruti spotted a stall making and selling a drink. We didn’t know what it was and were too shy to ask. Our guide also went up to have this drink and I decided to ask him. The drink wad made of Aloe Vera and Shruti and I both had one. Jairo joked that I should get some Amazonian herb put in as it would give me the libido for a great time in the jungle. We knew we had met a great guy!
Tripping to Amazon Reserve
The shuttle bus from Lago Agrio dropped us to the Cuyabeno bridge which was the starting point of our journey into the Amazon. Our luggage went in a motor boat while 8 of us went together in a different boat. On the boat we met our boatman for the trip, Fernando. He drove slow to give us a feel of the place. The river was brown and about 10-15 metres wide though it got narrower in places with fallen trees etc.
We saw our first wildlife within 10 minutes, a snake neck bird which dives in the water and pretends to be a snake when threatened. It was a beautiful bird and we were only getting started.
Jairo spotted something a few minutes later and it was a whole troop of squirrel monkeys. They were tiny things and were having a lunch of guaba fruit. They stay at the lowest end of the trees closer to the river and can sometimes become the lunch of anaconda’s and caiman’s. As we went along, we spotted flying monkeys, wooly monkeys and a lot of birds. The noise of wildlife was everywhere and we could feel that this was their home and we were the visitors. This was only day 1 OMG!
Our boat rider had seen an anaconda in the morning and decided to take us to the location to check if it was still there. After searching for about 5 mintues, Jairo spotted it on a low tree branch. It appeared to be fast asleep after a good meal from the previous night. Wow, this trip was just getting real!
Cuyabeno Reserve is about 600,000 hectares of protected Amazon Forest mostly on the River Cuyabeno. It contains the Igapo Eco System and is part of the headwaters of the Amazon river. The Cuyabeno River meets other rivers which eventually join the Amazon River. For 10 months of the year, the river is flooded and the width of the river can be in kilometers at certain points. This has led to the reserve having flora and fauna much different to the other parts of the Amazon.
You may think why we didn’t go to see the Amazon in Brazil? Well, we didn’t need to as the Amazon jungle is spread out over countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. Though Brazil has more of it, no country can claim to be the real Amazon as without the other countries, there wouldn’t be any Amazon!
Another plus about Cuyabeno Reserve was the Laguna Grande. This lake is formed by the rivers flowing and is a common path for boat transport. As such, there isn’t much vegetation around the center of the lake. Most evenings during sun down, Jairo would take us to the lake for swimming. Initially we thought he was just joking, but when he jumped in the water, we believed him. He convinced us that the caimans, anaconda, snakes and even piranhaes stick to the shallow water where there is enough vegetation. All we could hear was, we will be swimming with them! Definitely a story to tell.
Amazon is a mecca for birds. The mammals, i.e., jaguar, and big rodents like the capybara live deep inside the forest and is tough to spot them when the river is flooded. However, birds fly around by the hundreds every morning. This is also great for waking up in the morning to the most soothing natural sounds I have ever heard. What’s more amazing is that the Guacamayo Lodge has a 6 story bird watching tower. Every morning we would wake up between 6 and 7 to watch the birds flying past.
We regularly saw the macaws, tulcans, heron, woodpecker, arakara falcon, parrots, heron, oropendelo and many more. It was also mind blowing seeing Jairo and other guides in the lodge just tell us so many different birds sometimes without even using binoculars. Mind blasted!
Caiman Search at Night
This was by far the scariest thing we did in the Amazon. We had heard stories from Jairo about caiman attacking boats, people or taking limbs but as soon as the night fell upon the Amazon, Jairo would turn on his torch and started imitating caiman sounds around the shallow area of the lake. He managed to spot caiman’s eyes from distance away!
One time he spotted a young caiman. What did he decide to do? He leaned over the front of the boat, made caiman noises and eventually picked up the caiman right out of the water. We got some good shots but we were hoping he wouldn’t drop the caiman in the boat lest he tries to bite us.
Another time, we went looking for Caiman in an abandoned lodge. In the pitch black, an abandoned building and a bunch of tourists, it was a horror movie in the making. Finally, we saw a full grown caiman one night which another group was watching. Not to be left behind, Jairo made caiman sounds as we approached it. The caiman must have thought it was a friend and got closer to our boat! Its red eyes were scary and as it was fully grown, at least 3 meters long, it could easily kill a human being. Its nostrils were above water, as though it was ready to attack, and Jairo took this opportunity to wave his hand at him so he would jump. Errr, no thanks please! Un hombre loco – a crazy guy!
Walk in Jungle
One of the day’s itinerary was day trip to the jungle. We prepared by putting on a lots of insect repellent as well as wore rubber boots. Our journey on the boat had only started when Fernando our boatman spotted a sloth hanging on a tree. It was pretty clear viewing though the sloth was high up on the canopy and all we could see was a black blob! It was an incredible sight seeing another famous Amazon animal.
We entered the forest from the caiman’s territory right under the trees next to the water. Our first stop was the quinine tree. It is used to make the medicine for malaria saving millions of people all over the world. Jairo was as knowledgeable about the trees and shrubs in the jungle as he was about the animals and birds.
We saw a leaf whose sap oxidises when marked upon. This leaf could be used to write messages which would last a week. Similarly, we saw a variant of the rubber tree still used by the native community in the forest. We stopped every 5 minutes for Jairo to show us something incredible.
At one point, Jairo asked us to look for small red frog near some small trees. We couldn’t spot any though a member of the group thought he saw it – turns out it was a green frog. Eventually, Jairo returned with the small red frog on a leaf. It is one of the smallest creatures in the jungle, smaller than a human thumb, but had the capacity to kill a person in a few hours. An attractive cute beast – Red Ruby Poisonous Frog!
Another, interesting things were the vines and roots in the Amazon. Every tree is fighting for sunlight in a sea of trees. Therefore, vines rap around trees and try to reach for sunlight. In many cases, they get so strong that they kill the host tree. There were many fallen trees in the forest. To combat the struggle, some trees developed defense mechanism. There was a tree which covered itself in white coating to stop fungus from taking it over. While another plant called the devil’s tree killed everything around it making small clearings – a violent way to get more sunlight. Another type of tree literally walks towards sunlight! It moves about 10 cm per year in the direction of light.
Almost at the end of the walk, we had to cross a swamp. It was disgusting and tough pulling out our boots as they sunk in the mud. It was hard work but after 15 minutes we were clear and walked back to the water where Fernando was waiting for us.
Jungle Exploration at Night
We had another trip to the jungle at night looking for spiders and other creepy crawlies. We entered the jungle from the same location where we had in the morning. We hadn’t gone more than a few metres when Jairo began poking a dead tree trunk and out came a tarantula trying to attack the stick. It was one of the many scary moments that night.
A little while later, Jairo showed us a hybrid between a scorpion and a spider. It was not venomous and had very long legs. He asked for a volunteer from the group to have it put on their face and a German guy from the group agreed. It was a respite for us that it wasn’t us.
We saw a bird eating spider and an Amazonian lobster. It wasn’t related to the ocean lobster but looked a little similar.
At one point, Jairo asked us all to turn off our torches to feel the darkness. The darkness and the jungle noise was simply outstanding. It was so dark that I couldn’t even see Shruti who was less than an arm ahead. He even showed us a tree leaf which illuminates in the dark.
Before we left the jungle, we had a few more amazing things to see. A grasshopper had landed on a spider’s web and we all knew what was going to happen! It looked like a BBC or Discovery documentary. The grasshopper was hoping the spider would not notice it and played dead while 8 humans shined their light on it. Within seconds, the spider noticed the prey and had it wrapped up in web like lightning. Watch the video below for the footage!
As we walked forward, we heard some sounds from people ahead. It was a jungle rat, a rodent as big as a small pig. Shruti and I never saw it but it must have been a sight. We survived the jungle at night!
Interaction with the Native Community
Our Amazon trip involved interacting with the local Siona tribe who live in the Cuyabeno Reserve. We got on our boat early and Fernando drove the raft to the village. The community still lived traditionally though their outfits were modernised and sometimes their religion changed. As we got near the village, we realised that the houses were still the traditonal thatched roofs with fowls, dogs and kids running around. Jairo told us about the community, their customs and how things have changed for them.
Our main purpose of being there was working with the lady of the house to make a yuca bread for lunch. She was tiny, had 8 kids and was missing many teeth but she wasn’t soft and could use a machete like a butter knife. We went out to her garden where she could tell which flowering bud was a male or a female! She asked us to pull Yuca from the ground and it was my turn to do so. I squatted down and tried to pull it out like lifting a kettlebell. It took all my strength and some encouragement to pull it out clean from the ground.
Next, she used her machete to peel the yuca and wash them. Her kitchen had a earthen floor, some kitchen utensils made of wood or natural fibers and a corner for the open fire and stove. We helped grate the yuca which was tough and sticky like taro. After the grating, it was time to sift the grated yuca to remove any ungrated yuca or foreign objects.
The next step was to remove all the water from the yuca. For this, the lady had a traditional object made from natural fibers. It was like a manual juicer and she had to twist the fibres with yuca in it like twisting a towel. Finally, when all the juice was out, she started making the bread on metal plate with the fire. It reminded me of my grandmother.
We ate the bread with chancho (wild boar) and pescado (fish) and it was incredible. The bread was flat like roti but it’s texture was like millet bread. We thanked her for the food and gave her a few dollars which would hopefully go towards the well-being of her children.
Meeting a Shaman
Jairo knew lots of shamans in the reserve but took us to meet the best one. Olmedo was around his late thirties, wore a feather hat and a long green gown. After we were introduced to him, Jairo had a go at Olmedo’s blow gun and then each of us had a go at it as a healthy competition. The trick was to rap your mouth inside the blowing ring, aim and then blow out quite strongly. Shruti and I were so-so but one of the local ladies managed to get the feather aim on the ground.
We then had a Q & A session with the shaman. We asked him about his work, his accomplishments and also Ayahuasca. He could see our curiosity and gave us a sip to try. It tasted fowl at first but the aftertaste was good.
Following on, It was then the turn for the cleansing ritual. Jairo had brought a prickly branch from the Siona community for the shaman. First to go was Kirk, the shaman chanted some mantras in his language and rubbed Kirk’s naked back with a leafy branch and then the prickly branch. His back was full of little boils and we could tell he was hurting. At this point, I thought what the hell I am in the Amazon what better way to remember it by than a cleansing ceremony by a shaman. I had to take my shirt off and go through the same ritual. The prickly branch felt like a metal carpet brush being softly rubbed on my back. It was painful, I survived and I am not sure of any cleansing but I had a perfectly straight back for 2 days. We then said our goodbyes to Olmedo and headed back to the lodge.
Jairo promised us that he would fish for Piranha to show us the mighty fish. True to his word, he got some meat ready at the lodge pier to fish early in the morning. He tried for 15 minutes but to no avail. We all then got into the boat in our pajamas. Fernando steered the boat to the lake and then under trees for a second round.
After a few moments of wiggling the line, we had our piranha. To show us its sharp teeth, Jairo took a branch from the tree and waved it near the Piranha’s mouth. He took a bite and the rest of the branch fell off. Wow! It’s eyes were blood red and it was angry. We kept it out for 5-10 minutes but that was no problem as they can survive outside water for 25-30 minutes. Impressive!
While most of the group members left on 4th day, we had an extra day in the lodge. Jairo decided to take us canoeing to caiman lake which the local community is scared of as fishermen had been killed by the caimans or lost their limbs. An uplifting start! As the rest of the members left, we tagged along with our canoes tied to the boat and then split off closer to the lake. Shruti was in a canoe with Jairo and Christina while I was with Ben who could steer the canoe.
We spent the first 15 minutes going through a small narrow channel of the river. Ben and I weren’t the best yet and spent some time ducking and avoiding branches low trees. We then arrived at the infamous lake and saw little bats sleeping on the tree. Jairo knew the danger below us and we got out the lake as fast as we could. Eventually, I learnt the art of steering and sitting in the front, started alerting Ben when we had to steer away from branches. Definitely a good team!
As we were going back through another channel, Jairo noticed a troop of flying monkeys hanging on trees above. We spent some time just watching them. At one point, the monkeys started crossing the river using close tree branches. A baby with the troop was too scared to cross and his mummy came back and helped him cross. It was a real awwww moment – don’t forget to watch the footage in the video below. The rest of the journey was exciting but at the same time monotonous and hard. On one hand, we could literally feel the Amazon around us with its animals and noises but on the other hand, canoeing is hard work and we can’t imagine how it must have been like for the natives 50 years ago. A learning experience!
It is impossible to write how many animals we saw in the Amazon. There were some amazing animals like Pink Dolphin! One time we saw a mum and baby swimming together. Alas, no swimming with the dolphins but we still felt lucky.
The hoatzin was another amazing bird we saw regularly, it is meant to be related to dinosaurs and eats leaves. It’s name in Spanish translates to ‘stinky turkey’ as its stomach smells if you kill and try to eat it.
However, none of this would be possible without Jairo and Fernando who were absolutely amazing and knowledgeable at their jobs. They simply blew our mind and we will never forget this visit to Amazon.
As an epilogue, we were sitting at the Lago Agrio bus station waiting for a bus to Quito. It was hot, people were yelling all sorts of place names for buses and there was traffic noise. This is when it occurred to me what we had in the Amazon! The peace of the jungle with a flowing river, animal sounds and birds flying over despite the heat from the sun. Just peaceful and simple life – it is a must do for all!