I admit to having had some reservations before I ventured to Ecuador. Reports from travellers on the road were somewhat mixed and I was leaving behind one of my favourite all time cities of Medellin in Colombia. By pure luck though, I found myself in a hostel in Quito called the Secret Garden and settled in for 3 days. I soon discovered that the Secret Garden has a sister hostel, located about an hour and a half drive away and located in a rural setting adjacent to Cotopaxi National Park and with views across to Cotopaxi, an active volcano that last erupted enormously in the late 1800’s.




 What awaited me totally blew my mind. The Secret Garden at Cotopaxi is located on a hillside with direct views to several volcanos, snow capped Cotopaxi as well as Pasachoa and Runinahui, both extinct but stunning volcanos.

                                                       View from the Jacuzzi !!!!


                                                                 Shower view


 The hostel arranges hikes of varying difficulty to the various volcanos plus treks to the high level refuge of Cotopaxi at 4,850 metres. The super adventurous will be disappointed to hear that the hikes to Cotopaxis summit have been cancelled due to the recent volcanic activity. As with other high altitude summits around the world, climate change is also reaping its now familiar havoc with the glaciers on the mountain that have decreased by 40% since 1976. Yet another obvious scientific fact to keep the climate change deniers busy.

 Another fabulous trip is a visually stupendous horse riding trek through the surrounding National Park. True to form though, on the morning of the horse trek, the grey clouds rolled in and the 4 hour trek was interrupted by rain storms and a particularly unwelcome hail storm at one point. The rain meant that the camera had to stay hidden away in my dry bag and the stunning vistas could not be photographed. For anyone planning a visit though, the horse trek is definitely not to be missed. Some of the photos below will give an inkling of the scenery.

                                                               Lunch views


Afternoons and nights at the Secret Garden are spent lazing away the hours in the welcoming warm Jacuzzi with views across to the volcanos or by playing several versions of cards while enjoying the cheap beers and wine. Food is tasty and abundant and included in the cost of the basic packages that are best booked from the Quito operation.



All in all, the secret Garden at Cotopaxi is one of the best kept secrets in Ecuador and should be a must see for anyone planning a trip to this part of the big wide world.

Galapagos !!!!!!

What to say about the Galapagos !!!! Mesmerising, majestic, wild, raw, windswept and totally unique. The volcanic archipelago off the Eucadorean coast is easily reached by plane from either Quito or Guayaquil. I had done very little research as to the actual logistics of visiting the islands beforehand but it was a bucket list item for me and only the details needed to sorted out. That I would visit was a given.

I had arrived at the exceptionally well run Secret garden Hostel in Quito and quickly noticed that an independent travel agency called Carpdm was located just downstairs. My initial enquiry very quickly developed into a solid booking, along with flights for an 8 day cruise, departuring in only 3 days. I was astounded that it could be arranged so quickly but it seems that the vast majority of bookings are done at the last minute. In fact on the boat trip I arranged, only 2 others had booked in advance ( and paid a premium for the privilege ). The other 10 people had all booked with the previous 2 weeks.

 The informative and genial guy behind the Carpdm desk explained in detail the range of options. They are basically divided into 3 types ( excluding all inclusive liveaboard dive trips which are much more expensive but I am sure incredible ), firstly the cheapest option is a basic backpacker type boats that are in the $ 1,200 USD range for a 6 day cruise. The next level ( which suited me best ), was a mid range boat that was in the vicinity of $ 1,800 USD. The last options are the high end boats that resemble a Pacific cruise liner, not really my cup of tea.

 The boat I selected was the Nemo 2, a large catamaran that certainly looked quite nice in the marketing blurb. The plane ride from Quito took around 4 hours and landed on Santa Cruz early on Day 1. My first glimpse of the Nemo 2 confirmed that I had made the right decision. It made the Santana ( the Cat I rode from Panama to Colombia ) look like a dinghy. !! Day 1 consisted of getting stowed on board, running through the details of the trip and heading off for an afternoon snorkel and walk on the southern side of Santa Cruz.

 Without boring you all to death with the intimate details of every island, the route selected took in the north western islands, these are much newer and diverse than the older islands of the Southern route ( I was reliably told by our guide ). The Galapagos were formed by underwater volcanic eruptions, emanating from a tectonic hotspot in the Pacific Ocean. Over the millennia the islands move slowly east at a rate of about 3 inches per year. They then gradually erode and become lower and lower.

 The days on board basically consisted of snorkeling and walking trips, usually two per day. In between the daily adventures, the crew on board delivered an amazing and huge assortment of delicious meals. The following days plan was explained in detail before dinner each night and the whole operation worked like clockwork.

 Our guide Osvaldo accompanied us on all trips and passionately explained the finer details of the amazing wildlife and geology of the islands.

 Those who read my occasional blog posts will know that wildlife really floats my boat and the unique and unbelievably close access to the various creatures just blew my mind. Snorkeling trips varied from place to place but a quick summary of what I encountered underwater would read something like this : Galapagos sea lions, Fur sea lions, Green & Olive Ridley turtles, plummeting Boobies fishing, White tip, Black tip and Galapagos sharks, a Penguin hoovering up a shoal of striped Salemis literally within touching distance, then surfacing and looking at me with a fish it its mouth, all of 2 feet away, all manor of Stingrays, Spotted Eagle Rays, a vibrant array of reef fish, moray eels, Wahoo, Barracouta and last but not least, a migrating Humpback Whale that gave us a nice display from the boat as the sun went down one afternoon. While I would loved to have been able to dive in this underwater paradise, snorkeling had to suffice this time.

 Land based walking trips to the various islands took in vast lava fields, intimate bays that have harboured boats from pirate days right through to present day yachts. In days gone by, boats would spray paint their names on the rocks around the bays, the oldest I saw was from the late 1800s. As far as wildlife is concerned, the close proximity to the birds and lizards is just amazing, a summary would be : Blue footed boobies, Red footed boobies, Masked boobies ( and no, I didn’t buy the “ I love Boobies “ t-shirt ), displaying Frigate birds with their nests and chicks, Galapagos short eared owls, Swallowtails, Tropical birds, all manor of Finches, Hawks, Mockingbirds, Giant tortoises, Land iguanas, Marine iguanas and the usual plethora of totally unconcerned Sea lions. I am sure I have missed a few but the above gives you an idea of what is there to be appreciated in the islands.

                                  Giant Domebacked Tortoises blocking the road


Marine iguanas, the catalyst for Darwins Theory of Evolution


                                     Young Galapagos sea Lion resting on a red sand beach



 I really loved the story of Diego as explained by Oswaldo. Diego is arguably the most famous Giant tortoise still living. Of course the most famous was Lonesome George, the last surviving member of the Pinta island subspecies. George passed away in 2012 and with him the last of his species. Lonesome George was a Saddleback Tortoise ( the other being the more plentiful Dome backed ) and after the massacre of his species by raiding pirates, they were especially affected by the introduction of goats. Being low browsers, the Tortoises food supply was decimated by the introduced goats. I was happy to hear that the $ 100 USD entry fee helped fund an eradication program that has now removed the goats and tortoises are being slowly reintroduced.

                              A poor long distance shot but this is the legendary Diego


                                        One of Diegos ladies is pleased with his efforts


                                                                         Happy ladies


 The remaining 11 subspecies from the different islands still exist in differing numbers. The story of Diego starts with a conservation effort to save the subspecies of a neighbouring island to Pinta. Scientists conducting a survey discovered only 15 remaining tortoises, 12 females and 3 males. Of the 3 males, only two were of breeding age, the other was too old. The 15 tortoises were relocated to the Charles Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz in an attempt to repopulate the island. Unfortunately the two males of breeding age were just not up to the job, being totally disinterested in the ladies. To the frustration of the scientists, it looked as though this subspecies would soon follow the way of Lonesome Georges lot. An enterprising person decided to go online and ask around the world zoo populations to see if by chance any Tortoise from the island had somehow made it into captivity. An e-mail from a US zoo arrived in due course and after a DNA comparison, it was discovered that this Tortoise, to be named Diego was indeed from the actual island. Diego was soon relocated to the Research Centre and to the delight of the scientists, soon proved himself to be a raging shagaholic !!!! Not only did he begin siring progeny from the ladies, his magnificent prowess on the job also provoked the other two males into action. The result is that now 200 Giant Tortoises have been relocated to their original island. Diego singlehandedly saved his species, Go Diego !!!!! An inspiration to blokes everywhere !!!

                                                                       Red footed Boobies



                                                                       Masked Boobies


                                                                              Land Iguana



Flightless Cormorant drying its evolved wings, they are now land based and have no need for wings.


                                                              Sally Lightfoot Crab


                       Darwin Lake where the Beagle moored and Darwin came ashore


             This guy suffered the effects of the current El Nino inspired drought conditions


                               Iguanas are forced to seek food anywhere they can find it


                                                     Young Frigate bird testing its wings


                                                                        Marine Iguana


                                                              Lazing Galapagos sea Lions



                                                            Swimming Marine Iguana


                               The Nemo 2 at rest, a floating home away from home

                                                                      galapagos-263Happy to see me !!


                                                       Tropic bird ( I think )


                      My Icelandic mate Siggy showing the scale of a Giant Tortoise

                                         galapagos-50Frigate birds riding the draft from the sails 


                                       What is the collective noun for Marine Iguanas ?????


                                                                   Sunset on the Nemo 2.


                                                                 Young Blue Footed Boobies


                                                     Galapagos Sea Lion showing off


A rare Olive Ridley Turtle, you can see some Green Turtles also. There must have been 30 turtles in this inlet.


                                               Its the end of the road for this lava flow


To give an idea of the proximity to the animals, consider that I only have a 24 -70 lens with me. To get any kind of decent shot I have to be within a meter or so. The animals are basically within touching distance.

I could seriously write forever about these amazing islands but at the risk of producing a novel, it is suffice to say that the Galapagos won my heart and was right up there with the best trips I have done. I would certainly recommend anyone considering a trip there to look at the mid range boat trips, they combine just enough intimacy and comfort. The 8 day trip was also the perfect length.

My only remaining advice is …. JUST GO !!!!!!!