10 things I wish I knew before we left home

1.You will spend much more money in the first 4 weeks than you budgeted for. This is mostly due to the ‘We’re on holiday, yeah let’s do it!’ effect. After a reality wake-up call – on looking at the bank balance – you will adjust from ‘holiday mode’ to ‘traveler mode’.

2. You will put your hand into a dirty toilet bowl to retrieve paper placed there in error more times than you can count, before getting used to putting it in the bin. The horror fades with time and practice.

3. A 3-night stay is insufficient time if you have traveled hard to get there. You will spend the first full day recovering and doing necessary jobs, leaving only 1 day to actually see something of the place.

4. Make good use of fast internet when you have it. Don’t assume that you can download or upload anything at your next destination – even if it’s in the middle of a capital city.

5. Book at least 5 days, preferably 7, on Isla Isabela in the Galapagos. It is a paradise on earth and everyone will blame you bitterly when when we have to leave after 3 days.

6. Create a daily routine for the kids that involves journal writing from the start. Otherwise they will never do it.

7. Pack a universal plug. You will not see a kitchen or bathroom plug again for months, which makes doing dishes or hand-washing far more difficult than it should be.

8. Your 45 year old body will cope well without the creature comforts of home, like your comfy bed and pillow. You will usually be too tired to notice or care if a bed is hard or a pillow lumpy.

9. You should steal the little sachets of salt, pepper, jam etc. from hotel breakfasts EVERY SINGLE CHANCE you get. Backpacking life involves far too few hotels.

10. Have faith that the kids will cope with life on the road. Of course they will miss their friends, but they will rise to the challenges and generally go with the flow.

My family and other animals in the Galapagos

What makes this place so special? Why were we so keen to go there and what was it that blew us away when we did? The short answer is: the beauty and the beasts.

The Galapagos Islands, situated on the equator in a lonely part of the Pacific, were not inhabited by humans until the 1800s. Like Antarctica, its wildlife didn’t evolve in response to the presence of humans and don’t behave like animals elsewhere. A short history of human intervention means there is a greater diversity and abundance of animals on both the land and in the water. It’s a rare glimpse of a paradise lost to us elsewhere.

Sea lions are waiting to greet you at every port and beach, preferring to snooze while they wait.
The sea lions and the monkey.
The giant tortoises are equally unfazed by humans, going about their business with complete unconcern.
So long as you don’t get in between a marine iguana and its destination you’ll be OK.
Three for the price of one!
Every time I saw the big and beautiful crabs I remembered the delicious crab risotto in Guayaquil – no wonder it was more crab than rice!
Blue-footed booby showing off its best asset.
Feeding frenzy involving Blue-footed boobies, penguins and pelicans. And fish.
Galapagos penguins are the second smallest in the world after Fairy penguins. Not surprising, given they hang out on the equator where you would think it was just a tad too warm.
OK enough about animals, I want to show you the amazing beaches!

At the end of a hot and sweaty 2.5km walk from Puerto Ayorta on Santa Cruz Island you reach your reward: Tortuga Bay. Not one, but two gorgeous beaches, with a sensational small snorkeling spot in between. This place really has something for everyone.

The surf beach at Tortuga Bay.
Wading in the shallows we spotted baby reef sharks and other 2-3ft long fish.
Surf beach in background, snorkel spot in foreground.
The lagoon at Tortuga Bay.
The lagoon and its trees are a great place to hang out.
Getting there early one morning meant we were able to follow a group of Manta rays swimming along next to the sand (and no it didn’t rain despite the clouds).

The animal encounters were continuous at Tortuga Bay. Some of my favorites: swimming with 7 marine iguanas in the snorkel spot, being dazzled by at least five different species of fish swimming by me in schools, and feeling my heart beat faster on spotting a triangular fin cruising around an oblivious tourist in the lagoon (only a baby reef shark).

Concha la Perla: a sensational snorkeling spot on Isla Isabela.

Despite the allures of Tortuga Bay, our second island – Isla Isabela – was actually our favorite. We could have stayed here for far longer than three days and the whole family has been making plans to go back.

We did a fabulous snorkeling trip on Isla Isabela, where we saw a staggering variety of marine life, but actually most of these animals could be seen for free at Concha la Perla. Again my favorite experience involved a shark: snorkeling by myself above an underwater canyon a 2m reef shark casually cruised by below me and into a dark cave. And my heart jumped into my throat. But I’m looking forward to the prospect of more snorkeling with sharks in Belize!

The town beach on Isla Isabela.

Finding the Machu Picchu magic

Hiking the Short (2 day) Inca Trail Trek with Llama Path.

This is Machu Picchu! Apparently…

OK, so our group could afford to take a light hearted attitude to the morning mist shrouding Machu Picchu. Unlike most of the many, many people waiting hopefully for the cloud to rise, we’d already had our first views of this official wonder of the world.

The conversation that morning was all about how lucky we were to have arrived at Machu Picchu, via an ancient Incan path, to find it almost deserted and glowing like the lost city in the brochures…

After our experience of trekking 10kms up the old Inca path from the valley, climbing through other Incan ruins, past waterfalls and through cloud forest to the Sun Gate, it was quite a shock to return the next morning via a convoy of buses carrying literally thousands of people.

But let me get back to the beginning. You may think that a 4 day trek up muddy mountain paths in the rainy season, camping in basic tents and using smelly squat toilets, is not attractive. We agree. On the other hand, arriving at Machu Picchu via a bus and missing out altogether on the beauty and challenges of the Inca trail was not attractive either. The 2-day trek is a happy alternative for those who don’t have the funds, time or commitment for the real deal.

We joined four other travelers and our guide Will at 5.00am in Cusco and drove around 1 1/2 hours through the Sacred Valley to the train station at Ollantaytambo. The train winds it way along the valley floor to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly known as Aguas Calientes). It is a spectacular trip past snow-capped peaks and through a gradually changing landscape that becomes more and more jungle-like. Machu Picchu is essentially located at the start of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. But we didn’t travel that far – we got off the train early at stop no.104 to begin our hike.

Bye-bye train, hello Inca trail

For the most part the trail winds gradually up, but with sections of more challenging stairs. Along the way Will guided us through two partially reconstructed Incan sites, including the impressive Winay Wayna.

Looking back down at the valley floor from the trail
This set of stairs is so steep the safest way to climb them is using hands as well as feet
Taking a break at the bottom of Winay Wayna, before tackling the 300 stairs to the top
The Incans managed to cut these stone blocks so that they could fit them together using no mortar – and without leaving gaps!
Winay Wayna from above
Past the Sun Gate and the goal is in sight!

The 2-day Inca trail trek is a bit of a misnomer. It actually involves one long day of trekking – either 10km to Machu Picchu, from where you can take a bus the rest of the way – or 16km all the way to Machu Picchu Pueblo. The last 6km includes almost 5kms of steps – all going down. This trek was a new challenge for Eliane and Maille: the longest trek they have done in one day. 10kms was quite enough for Maille, on arrival at Machu Picchu she was keen to take the bus. But Eliane was equally keen to continue for the full 16kms. She achieved this with no problems whatsoever – even giving up her hiking pole on the way down to a fellow trekker whose legs were giving way beneath him.

Bridge to Machu Picchu Pueblo

After a delicious celebratory dinner with our friendly group, which included some other novice trekkers relieved to have made it all the way, and a great night’s sleep in our very comfortable hotel, it was another early start.

The second day of the tour/trek involves a 3 hour guided tour of Machu Picchu. We learnt so much from Will about not just the site and its history, but the beliefs and culture of the Quechua people. For instance, the word Inca refers to the Quechuan rulers – the King and Queen – although it’s now commonly used to refer to the pre-colonial Quechuan empire and its people. Will was passionate and very knowledgeable on his subject, having studied the history of his country at University. He identified strongly with the Quechuan spiritual beliefs and world view and I was impressed – again – by how intact the Quechuan indigenous culture appears to be.

Will lecturing in front of a slowly emerging view of Machu Picchu
Finally revealed in all its glory, Machu Picchu is truly impressive

These pictures don’t show it, but there are hordes of people visiting Machu Picchu at any one time and it’s easy to get stuck in a slowly moving conga line of people, snaking its way around the site, before being spat out at the exit.

In our view the 2-day Inca Trail Trek was well worth the money. It enabled us to experience the magic of discovering Machu Picchu through our own efforts, following in the footsteps of the Incas.

Two nights in Nazca

What was I thinking?! Putting all my eggs into one tiny little tinny aeroplane basket (so to speak). I have always been quite nervous of small planes and it felt like a ridiculous risk to fly in one with my nearest and dearest. However, this perspective wasn’t shared by the rest of the family – who were keen to see the Nazca Lines from the air – so I put a brave face on and crossed all my fingers and toes…

Maille’s part

The Nazca lines were cool and looked amazing. But I didn’t have a good time because I felt sick. The flight was 30 mins, but I felt sick before half way. I saw the monkey, a part of the tree and the spiral.

The Condor
Viewing tower and 3 geoglyphs

For those wondering what the story behind the lines is: they were constructed by the Nazca people between 2,000-1,200 years ago and are thought to have formed a key part of religious ceremonies. Contrary to popular opinion they can be seen from the ground (in some places). They are very cleverly constructed so that you can walk along the lines from one end to the other without having to double back and it’s thought that the Nazca people walked along the lines during their ceremonies.

The Nazca culture was an important one in southern Peru. They farmed the fertile river valleys – in the middle of one of the driest places on earth – and built aqueducts to access the ground water that are still working today.

There is water at the bottom of this spiral aqueduct. Behind the mountains is the world’s tallest sand dune: Cerro Blanco

But it wasn’t all fun and games. One of the less attractive habits of the Nazca was their propensity to behead their enemies and drill holes through their skulls so that they could hang them by a rope around their belts. I noticed that most of the victims in the museum were women. Don’t know if there were women warriors or if they were just easier to catch than the men!

We were lucky to find our own oasis in the Nazca desert: El Jardin (The Garden). Being able to retreat from the heat, dust and dirt and relax in a beautiful, cool space was amazing.