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Ecuador Island Guide – The Best Galápagos Islands to Visit!

January 15, 2018

Recently, we returned from the most incredible trip through the Galápagos Islands.  Before our cruise though, we considered many different itineraries whilst on the hunt to find the ‘best’ Galápagos Islands to visit.  Which islands were must-sees?  Was a cruise really the best way to get around?  We’ll share more about why a cruise is absolutely the best way to see the archipelago in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, join us as we share what makes each of the islands we visited tick.

Located 1,000km off of Ecuador’s coast, this volcanic archipelago hosts a diverse and unique collection of both plant and animal species.  Famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the ideas that he introduced (and the animals that he studied), are clearly seen throughout the islands.

The Galápagos Islands are widely considered amongst the best locations in the world to view wildlife in their natural habitat (if not the best).  Don’t ask me why, but it’s as if the local animals missed the memo – they’re really fearless when it comes to human visitors, making observations (and potential interactions) all the more interesting.

Beyond the ecological benefits of the Galápagos though, there’s a real sense of magic that just can’t be pinned down and certainly can’t be put effectively into words – though we promise, we’ll do our best!

How We Decided Upon Our Galápagos Itinerary

We intentionally chose to join Ecoventura on their Itinerary B – Western/ Northern Route.  They promised to take us off the standard day-trip route and out into parts of the region that many people miss out on seeing.

We can now say unequivocally that this was the right choice.

With 13 main islands (and a further 7 smaller ones) though, the million dollar question must be asked; which are the best Galápagos Islands to visit?

If you’re looking to plan your Galápagos itinerary, we suggest you use the following guide to decide which islands you’d like to pay a visit to.  Or even better, book yourself a spot onboard the MV Origin and see the best of the islands, the way they’re meant to be seen.


San Cristobal

Population:  Approximately 6000, making it the second most populated island (behind Santa Cruz)

Geography:  Area of 558km2, maximum altitude of 730m.  San Cristobal is the most fertile island within the Galápagos and home to the oldest permanent settlement, found where Darwin first went ashore in 1835.  Its one source of fresh water, a small lake called El Junco, was the main reason it was initially settled.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  Sea lions playing on the shore and marine iguana sunning themselves, all right in the middle of town!  Up in the highlands, you’ll also find the Centro de Crianza Jacinto Gordillo, an opportunity to see a Galápagos tortoise breeding programme in action.

San Cristobal is the point of departure for many cruises and also serves a large number of day trip visitors.  Though it wasn’t exactly what we imagined when we thought about the Galápagos, it had a lovely charm about it and worked well as a base.


Genovesa

Population:  0

Geography:  Area of 12km2, maximum altitude of 64m.  The island is a volcanic caldera; this formation has created Great Darwin Bay which is surrounded by cliffs.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  Known for its dense population of seabirds, Genovesa is a bird-watchers paradise.  There you’ll find boobies galore (both the Nazca and red-footed boobies on mass), along with frigatebirds, the red-billed tropic bird and lava gulls.  Keep your eyes peeled as you may even spot the evasive Galápagos short-eared owl – the only owl that you’ll find hunting on the islands during the day.

Take to the water and you’ll spot a surprising array of tropical fish along with the stunning Sally Lightfoot crab, reef sharks and of course, playful sea lions.


Santa Cruz

Population: The most populated island with 12,000+ residents.

Geography:  The second largest island in the Galápagos; area of 986km2, maximum altitude of 864m.  Home to the largest port, Puerto Ayora, the island also supports the greatest variety of tourism-related businesses (hotels, restaurants etc.); don’t be fooled into believing that Santa Cruz is ruled by people though.  On the right trip, there are still plenty of opportunities to discover parts of the island that are practically untouched by humans.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  The island of Santa Cruz offers a great deal of diversity thanks to its relatively large size.  The highlands are home to lush foliage and an incredibly large population of wild giant tortoises (the islands are one of only two places in the world that they can be seen, the other being the Seychelles) whilst nearer the shore, flowering cacti, marine iguanas and land iguanas can be found.


Isabela

Population:  Approximately 1,800.

Geography:  Area of 4,640km2, maximum altitude of 1,707m.  The largest island in the archipelago, it is almost four times bigger than Santa Cruz, the second largest.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  Isabela is home to a massive population of sea turtles and though there’s plenty else to be seen, the turtles really are impressive beyond compare!  Though we thought we’d swam with a reasonable number of these beauties in the past, we soon found it didn’t even come close to our experience on the north-western coast of Isabela.

In the water, we also found a number of mola mola (known as the sunfish) and the little endemic penguin.  Only in the Galápagos will you find penguins in the company of more tropical creatures – absolutely incredible!

Also on the island, visitors will find sea lions and marine iguanas sunning themselves high on the rocks, giant tortoises and land iguanas, finches and mockingbirds and the quirky flightless cormorant with their incredible, piercing blue eyes.


Fernandina

Population:  0

Geography:  Area of 642km2, maximum altitude of 1,476m.  The third largest island in the Galápagos is also the youngest.  Formed by the Galápagos hotspot , this volcanic island is still active and has been erupting since 2009.  Unsurprisingly, this volcanic island is rugged and inhospitable, but surprisingly enough, life still thrives there.

Flora and Fauna:  The volcanic shores of Fernandina are a favourite amongst the local marine iguanas.  Hundreds, if not thousands of these interesting lizards litter the ground – to the point that I very almost walked on one when I wasn’t paying attention!

If you have the opportunity to snorkel off Fernandina, take it with both hands.  You’ll be rewarded with countless encounters with feeding marine iguanas and marble rays bigger than you’ll see anywhere else.

In addition, young sea lions can be found playing in the shallow pools, honing their abilities through play – we sat for what felt like an age admiring their strength and agility – whilst the endemic hawks hunt amongst the volcanic rock and lava cactus.


Rabida

Population:  0

Geography:  Area of 5km2, maximum altitude of 367m.  Easily recognisable due to its dark red sand beach (due to the exceptionally high iron content of the island’s volcanic rock) and brackish lagoon, Rabida provides excellent views along its shoreline.

Flora and Fauna:  On a good day, greater flamingos can be seen in the lagoon (though we didn’t have any such luck personally)… on an even better day though, a friendly sea lion will swim with you for half an hour, playing and nibbling at your flippers (true story!)  Without a doubt, our sea lion encounter was the most memorable of all our time in the Galápagos and I would say of all time.

Even if you don’t take up every opportunity to snorkel, if you see an inquisitive sea lion, be prepared to dive on in!

In addition, Rabida is home to a unique ecosystem.  The combination of shallow, sheltered waters and a host of mangrove trees makes for the perfect natural nursery; protecting baby sharks, rays and turtles on mass.  Guides turn the panga (zodiac) engines off to ensure the little ones aren’t scared away and together, you’ll float through the mangroves, spotting a vast array of marine animals.


The Galápagos Islands are unlike anywhere else on earth.  Never before have we experienced such an incredible variety of animals, plants and geological sites within such a small, accessible area.

The only question is which islands you’ll choose to visit.

By the way, the answer is all of them!


If you found this post useful, please pin it so others can find it too…


Thank you to Ecoventura for welcoming us on the MV Origin.  Though we’ve had many amazing travel experiences, our time in the Galápagos genuinely topped everything!  As always, all thoughts are our own.

Colombia Ecuador Itineraries Monthly Round-Up South America

Five Months on the Road in South America – Ecuador & Colombia

January 7, 2018

Our penultimate month in South America (that’s right, five down, only one to go!) was a welcome change from the backpacking we’ve been enjoying for the majority of our trip.  We returned to our Abu Dhabi roots and soaked in the more luxurious side of Ecuador – after all, nobody has the budget for five-star hotels for six months at a time but everyone loves a good treat every now and then!  For those of you operating on more of a budget though, don’t worry, there’s something in here to suit you too.

As always, we’re all about those ‘bucket list adventures’!

If you’re new around here, we suggest you check out our first, second, third and fourth months on the road in South America before starting on month five.

The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The highlight of our entire South America trip (and there have been lots of highlights so that’s not an easy feat) and potentially of our travelling career, our time in the Galápagos was incredible.  We’re not going to go into a tonne of detail here as there will be plenty to come, but you should know that it’s worth scrimping, saving and bending over backwards to make a cruise around this incredible islands work!

Accommodation:  7 nights aboard the MV OriginEcoventura‘s luxury ship.  Followed by 2 nights at Casa de Jeimy in a private room @ USD22.40 each/night (NZD31.55) on San Cristobal.

Activities:  Incredible animals and nature galore!  If there’s one place in the world where you can see a massive range of animals in their natural habitat, the Galápagos is it.  We swam with sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, reef sharks and marble rays.  We also got up close and personal with massive land iguanas, tortoises, whales, hummingbirds and my favourite, the beautiful boobies, all whilst relaxing on a luxury vessel with the most fabulous guests and staff.

We also intentionally checked out a day trip (as lots of the backpackers we’ve met along the way have talked about them as a cheaper alternative).  To be frank though, it didn’t compare, even remotely.  If you’re able to, we really would recommend saving more and getting yourself aboard a ship to see the outer islands.

Onwards travel to Quito:  Flying TAME from San Cristobal (SCY) to Quito (UIO) for USD193.30 each (NZD269.75).  It’s important to note that Ecuadorian’s get a discount on flights – don’t tick this box unless you’re eligible for the discount, otherwise you will be denied boarding.

Quito, Ecuador

The capital city of Ecuador sprawls out from North to South but it’s the historic town centre where you’ll want to spend most of your time.  Though the traffic is, at times, a real nightmare, we enjoyed spending a few days in the city.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Casa Gangotena.  Absolutely old-school charm, this hotel is a must in the city if you’re looking to splurge.

Activities:  A guided tour that took us through a local neighbourhood within Quito, showing us a side of the city that few visitors get to experience.  It was followed by a visit to the most iconic spots in the historic centre and the most fabulous museum.  If you’re in Quito, we highly recommend this alternative walking tour, ‘Live Quito like a local‘.

Onwards travel to Mashpi:  Organised by Mashpi Lodge – we joined a mini-bus of other guests, stopping at a local museum on the way.

Mashpi, Ecuador

Having already immersed ourselves into the jungle in Peru, we knew we wanted another experience along the same line.  Masphi offered the opportunity to do exactly that, but this time in the lap of absolute luxury in the cloud forest.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mashpi Lodge – a National Geographic “Unique Lodge of the World”.  As you’d expect, it was absolutely incredible!

Activities:  Night cloud forest walks, a ride on their very own cable car (known as the ‘dragonfly’) and their skybike, along with hikes to cascading waterfalls, hummingbird spotting, toucan sightings and more.

Onwards travel to Baños:  Mashpi Lodge took us back to Quito and from there, we boarded a bus to Baños for USD4.40 each (NZD6.15).  We got our ticket at the Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe and jumped on the next available bus – they run frequently, all day.

Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

The adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños was always a must-see in Ecuador as far as we were concerned.  We loved it so much that we spent a full week there checking out all this vibrant little town had to offer.

Accommodation:  7 nights in a private room at Hostal Princesa Maria @ USD10.50 each/night (NZD14.80).  A quiet hostel, as long as you ask for a room upstairs.  Victor was an incredibly friendly host!  He didn’t speak a great deal of English but was happy to go out of his way to help.

Activities:  Our hostel organised for us to go whitewater rafting (USD20/NZD27.90 each) and canyoning (USD25/NZD34.90 each) with Expediciones Amazónicas – both were great fun and excellent value for money.  The team also had high-quality gear and well-trained, English speaking guides.

We also took local buses around town – we went up to Casa Del Arbol where we swung at the end of the world and also visited Pailon del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron – a stunning waterfall).

Onwards travel to Latacunga:  Again, buses are easy to organise on the day.  We caught the bus from Baños to the turn-off (a big roundabout) of Latacunga – just be sure to let the attendant know that you want to get off at Latacunga and he’ll point it out to you.  From there, taxi’s will take you into town (no more than USD4).  Unfortunately, I lost our receipt but the bus Quito-Latacunga was only a couple of US dollars each.

Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

Though we weren’t planning on hiking in Ecuador, we decided to make a move to the Quilotoa Loop for Christmas, rather than spend another week in Baños (though we did love it there!)

We caught a local bus in the morning from Latacunga to Sigchos (USD2.30/NZD3.20) each and from there, hiked to our next stop for the following three days.

At the conclusion of the hike, we made the decision not to stay in Quilotoa (though it looked like a great little spot on top of the mountain), instead catching a ride with in ute back to Zumbahua (USD2 per person) and then a bus to Latacunga (another few dollars).

Accommodation:  3 nights in total across the loop in the following spots:

Activities:  Hiking, hiking and more hiking!  We hiked from each location to the next, always with the fabulous new friends we made on the loop.  Compared to the scenery we’ve seen on other hikes (and let’s face it, we’ve been spoilt by Patagonia and Peru), it wasn’t as spectacular but the people we met really made the trip!

Onwards travel to Bogata:  We were planning to catch a bus (all 34 hours of it!) but when it sold out, some of our new friends very kindly came to the rescue and helped us by letting us fly standby with them.  The flights are expensive normally so if you’re planning on taking one, definitely book in advance.  Alternatively, if you do plan on catching the bus, Cruz del Sur will take you all the way through (which was our preference to save on accommodation and lugging our gear from bus to bus), or you can take a combination of local buses (which would be cheaper but would take much longer).

Bogota, Colombia

After five months of travelling, all we’ve ever heard people do it rave about Colombia!  After a night in Bogota, I must admit, we were starting to wonder why.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the city (in fact it was nice to get back to the bright lights again), but it just didn’t wow us.  Rio?  You bet!  Lima?  What a pleasant surprise.  Bogota?  Aside from the gorgeous street art, it didn’t do a lot for us.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 5-bed mixed dorm at Hostel Casa 32 DC @ USD7 each/night (NZD9.75).  The beds were comfortable but the bathrooms and kitchen were an absolute mess (and I’m not the cleanest person in the world, so that’s saying something!).  The people were lovely so it’s a pity that we can’t really recommend this hostel.  On the upside though, it was cheap!

Activities:  We joined the Bogota Graffiti Tour which was a fabulous way to see the more authentic side of Colombia’s capital city – it’s a tips only tour and certainly something we’d recommend doing whilst in town (just book online ahead of time if possible).

Onwards travel to Salento:  We caught a local mini-bus from Bogota to Armenia and then on to Salento.  It was straightforward but we learnt a few lessons on the way.  If you’re making the journey, we have full instructions for you here.

Salento, Colombia

A colourful little colonial town, buzzing with New Years excitement, wax palm trees reaching high into the sky, coffee plantations and hummingbirds buzzing around – what’s not to love about beautiful Salento?

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at Walker’s House Hostel.

Activities:  We hiked the Cocora Valley, completing the full loop (starting at the fish farm, taking in the hummingbirds and finishing with the palms).  It was a full day and relatively challenging due to the massive amount of rain they got the night before (and unbelievably muddy conditions) but it was well worth it.  Rides out to the Valley (and back) are COP3,800 each way (USD 1.30/NZD1.80 per person), the fish farm is COP3,000 each (USD 1.05/NZD1.45 including a bag of food), entrance to the park itself is COP2,000 (USD0.70/NZD0.95) and the hummingbirds are COP5,000 each (USD1.70/NZD2.50 which includes a drink).  Food and drinks are available at a few different points on the walk but we packed sandwiches and drinks to take with us, making for a reasonably cheap day out!

Onwards travel to Medellín:  Again, we bused but this time on a direct service which made life so much easier!  COP47,000 (USD15.75/NZD22.15) was all it cost us and full instructions can be found in our guide.

Medellín, Colombia

Ah, beautiful Medellín!  Colombia’s second largest city really is a world away from Bogota and an easy place to spend a fair amount of time in!

Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed dorm at the Samarian Hostel @ COP23,300 each/night (USD7.95/NZD11.20) with lovely travellers (but small rooms and cold showers!) before moving into a 5-bed dorm at BlackPine Hostel @ COP33,300each/night (USD11.35/NZD16) for 7 nights.  We loved BlackPine – a great location, clean and tidy, comfortable beds and awesome staff.

Activities:  Paragliding with DragonFLY (normally COP130,000) – absolutely amazing!  We also toured both Comuna 13 and La Sierra in what were memorable and interesting visits (COP70,000 each, all inclusive).

Finally, we headed out to Guatape with VIT Escobar Paintball and though we wanted to love our day, practically everything that could go wrong, did!  I’m sure a normal tour with them is great, but when things go wrong, they really do and for this reason, I’m not sure we could recommend them (more on this soon).  Guatape is lovely though and well worth a visit, either with another company or independently on the bus.

Onwards travel to Cartagena:  Flight with VivaColombia from Medellín to Cartagena.  Though we’re flying with a discount carrier, we have a fair few bags now (those llama blankets were too hard to ignore) so we’ve paid COP260,291 (USD89.60/NZD125.05) each.  This will be our last flight before leaving South America behind!

… and that’s all for another month!

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Always preload maps onto your phone.  I generally do but occasionally I forget.  We got a reality check in Quito though where we had no choice but to get into an unmarked, unregistered taxi.  Initially, the driver said he knew where he was going but 1/3 of the way into the trip he kept asking if we did (even though he had working sat nav).  We realised at that point in time, how vulnerable we were – for all we knew, he was driving us in the opposite direction in the dead of the night (as he continually said ‘two people, two people’ on the phone in Spanish…  I was terrified we were about to be mugged!  Had we had our maps loaded, we’d have been able to follow along on our phones and the ride would have been much more pleasant.
  • Long-term travel is tiring!  I’m not sure if it’s just because the end is near or because we’ve picked up the speed of our travel but we’re pretty tired now.  We’re making sure to allow ourselves some ‘down days’ where we just vege out because at this stage, we need them!

It’s hard to believe our time here is coming to an end.  With a month to go, we’re starting to think about jobs, housing and life back in New Zealand but the fun’s not over just yet… stay tuned for the rest of our Colombian itinerary along with San Francisco and Hawaii in the US.

Check out our Recent Posts

How to Get to the Swing at the End of the World: Baños, Ecuador

Salento Travel Guide: Buses to/from Medellín and Bogota

Comuna 13: Touring What Was Medellín’s Most Dangerous District

Our Previous Months on the Road

A Month on the Road in South America – Chile & Argentina

Two Months on the Road in South America – Chile, Argentina & Brazil

Three Months on the Road in South America – Brazil, Bolivia, Chile & Peru

Four Months on the Road in South America – Peru & Ecuador

Activities Adventure Baños de Agua Santa Ecuador South America

How to Get to the Swing at the End of the World: Baños, Ecuador

December 23, 2017

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen carefree travellers flinging themselves off what appears to be a swing perched precariously on the top of a mountain – feet danging right off the end of the world, so to speak.

In reality, the swings are nowhere near as dangerous as they might appear.  They’re also easily accessible from Baños de Agua Santa (more often simply referred to as Baños) and make for a cheap day out in Ecuador.

So, what are you waiting for?  Grab your camera and get ready to swing your way to that perfect Instagram shot!

How To Get To the Swing At the End of the World

  • Local bus.  Our preferred method, buses in Baños are reliable and easy to use.  For only USD0.50 you’ll be dropped at the entrance to the original swing at the end of the world, La Casa Del Arbol (The Treehouse), which is approximately 40 minutes from the centre of town.  Buses depart at 5.45am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 4pm from Baños (on the corner of Pastaza and Rocafuerte).  If you ask the driver, they will happily point out the correct stop for you up the top and advise you of the return times.
  • Hike.  There are two main trails that will take you to the swings but neither are particularly direct.  Choose to hike towards either Mirador Virgen and on to Runtun or towards Bellavista (before again turning off to Runtun).  Regardless of the path you choose, you’ll then continue the hike along the same path to your destination.  Allow approximately 5 hours to hike up and back.
  • Taxi.  Official taxis are available from Baños but be sure to negotiate a price before you leave town (or insist your driver turns the meter on).  Also, decide whether you’d like the driver to wait for you at the top or if you’ll find your own way back down.
  • Hitchhike.  Though we don’t normally hitch rides, we started walking back down and a lovely couple kindly offered us a lift.  If you’re keen, there will be people going both up and down in private cars.
  • Guided tour.  Tours are available from town but there’s really no need to book yourself on one as the area is safe and the other transport options work so well.

How Much Does the Swing Cost?

There are a number of swings sitting above Baños but La Casa Del Arbol is probably the one you’ll want to make a beeline too.  They charge a very reasonable USD1 per person which will give you access to two sets of swings (one more scenic than the other) and a relatively small zip line.

What Should I Expect?

First of all, the swings really aren’t as bad as they look!  Nathan’s not a fan of heights but was more than happy swinging away.

During the peak season, we’ve been told each visitor gets a couple of swings and is the ushered off for the next person to jump on.  The beauty of being there in the low season meant we actually got a proper chance to swing (and multiple times at that).

It’s worth noting that the back of the swings are a little high – this makes it hard to get momentum up as you would on a normal swing but the concrete ramp below helps with that.  Be sure to take shoes with good grip so you can get yourself to the top of the ramp.

There’s also a belt which keeps you relatively secure so you can swing without a care in the world!

That’s it – no excuses now!

Looking To Up the Excitement Factor?

Alternatively, there is a larger swing (that accommodates up to three people at a time) on the same mountain.  Just start the walk back to town and after approximately 2km, turn left… follow that road for 800m (there are plenty of signs) and you’ll find the massive structure that you’ll easily see lit up at night from town.

This monster is less playground-swing and more fun-fair ride so we’d still suggest riding the bus up to the original swing first and then walking down should you want more of an adrenaline rush.  Don’t pick this one over the classic.

Apologies – we can’t remember the name of the larger swing but you can’t miss it.  If you do make it there yourself, we’d love an update please!

Baños – More Than Just a Swingers Paradise

Though Baños de Agua Santa originally came to our attention because of the ‘swing at the end of the world’, we soon realised there’s so much more to this buzzing little city!

Whitewater rafting, canyoning, zip lining, paragliding – there’s lots on offer in the region and all at unbelievably affordable prices.

It was incredibly easy to spend a week in Baños, the perfect mix of small-town relaxation and world-class adventure.  Make sure to include a stop in this part of Ecuador when you’re planning your trip to this diverse little country!

Whilst in Baños, we recommend staying at Hostal Princesa María.  The team there offers some of the friendliest service around and will happily point you in the right direction for the bus and anything else you’d like to do in the city.

Ecuador Itineraries Monthly Round-Up Peru South America

Four Months on the Road in South America – Peru & Ecuador

December 17, 2017

A little over four months in and a little less than two months to go on this massive, diverse continent!  It’s hard to really comprehend just how much we’ve seen but at the same time, the more we speak to other travellers, the more we realise there is to see.

With flights home booked though, all good things must come to an end, so you can bet we’re making the most of the next couple of months.

As always, this post is designed to give you practical tips for your travels through Peru (and the Galapagos) – information regarding costings, transport, accommodation and activities – it’s all in there.

Isn’t it time you began planning your adventure through South America?

If this is the first monthly round-up you’ve read, you may like to check out itinerary and costings for the first, second and third months we spent in South America first.

Puerto Maldanado (the Gateway to the Amazon), Peru

An easy overnight bus (or short flight) from Cusco, Puerto Maldanado is the closest jumping-off point to the Peruvian Amazon.  A visit to the Amazon was always a ‘must-do’ in our eyes and as we made new friends and explored the jungle, there was no doubt we made the right choice in visiting.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private bungalow at Amazon Planet.  We joined them for the ‘Native Program’ but they have a range of options available – all including food, basic drinks, a guide and activities.  The accommodation itself was comfortable (but not lux) – exactly what you’d hope for in the Amazon.

Activities:  Night jungle treks, boat floats, a visit to a local tribe and plenty of hammock-time, the activities at Amazon Planet were varied and interesting whilst still providing enough downtime in the heat of the day.  Read about our first Amazon experience here.

Onwards travel to Cusco:  Another night, another bus.  This time we paid PEN40 (USD12.35/NZD17.85) each for a salon cama seat (the equivalent of business class on a plane) on Superciva but weren’t quite as impressed.  The toilets were smelly from the moment we stepped aboard and the snacks were very basic.  If Excluciva is running that night, you can definitely expect a much improved service for only PEN10 more – with that said though, there’s not much to do in the centre of Puerto Maldanado so we wouldn’t consider staying an extra night to catch the nicer bus.

Cusco, Peru

With Macchu Pichu behind us, we had a few last activities and hikes to tick off in Cusco before moving on.  A uniquely beautiful city, and one that we came to know fairly well, it was a pleasure spending more time in the cultural capital of Peru.

Accommodation:  Though we enjoyed the first hostel we stayed in, Magic Cusco, it was a little out of town, so upon our return we decided to check another option out – Magicpacker Hostel.  They’ve got a great range of bed configurations available and it’s another example of a perfect social-but-not-party hostel – just what you need after a long day of trekking.  4-bed mixed dorm @ PEN35 each/night (USD10.80/NZD15.60) – fabulous hot showers and the biggest TV you’ve ever seen (running Netflix) included!  Don’t miss their PEN10 optional dinners too – it was one of the best meals we had in Cusco and not much more than USD3.

Activities:

Via Ferrata and Zipline

High above the Sacred Valley you’ll find the Skylodge Adventure Suites.  These infamous glass pods are attached to the cliff, providing brave guests with a chance to sleep under the stars in one of the most unique locations imaginable… unfortunately for us though, we weren’t the only ones that thought this sounded like a good idea – the pods were booked solid for months!

If, like us, you’re unable to spend an evening in the pod, there’s a great alternative available in the form of a day trip.  Geared up, you’ll climb over 400 metres, above the glass lodge and then zipline your way down through 6 different exciting lines; if you’re in reasonable shape it’s easily achievable (and the via ferrata can be substituted for a hike up should you prefer).

Humantay Lagoon Hike

A relatively easy hike, Humantay is one not to be missed!  For those not keen on the uphill hike, horses are available for a reasonable cost.

Rainbow Mountain Hike (Take One)

Before visiting, we’d heard a lot about the hike to Rainbow Mountain – some saying it was a must-see from Cusco whilst others said the colours are nothing like the over-saturated ones you’ll see floating around the city as touts try to book travellers on tours.

Keen to find out for ourselves (but not so keen to experience the altitude sickness we’d heard so much about) we’d initially joined the alternative trek which gets hikers much, much closer to the top of an different mountain in the same range.  Hikers here only have to walk for 45 minutes up (and 20 down) and have the space practically to themselves.

Unfortunately for us though, the mountains saw one of their first snows of the season which meant our private tour couldn’t even make it to the carpark, let alone to the infamous rainbow.  Instead, we spent the day checking out local historical sites and an awe-inspiring canyon.  Sure, it wasn’t what we went to see, but the canyon did go a way towards making up for that.

Would we recommend the alternative Rainbow Mountain trip?  As long as the weather is clear, absolutely!  At this point in time though, there is no way for tour providers to check the conditions up the top of the mountain – this means that some guests will find themselves on a long car ride (at a relatively high price compared with the original Rainbow Mountain) that results in a distinct lack of rainbow at the end of it all.

Rainbow Mountain (Take Two!)

Returning to Rainbow Mountain, but this time the original version, I had another crack at making it to the top and this time was successful!  With the help of a horse (for PEN60/USD18.20/NZD26) and a bit of trekking, I summited in time to soak in the incredible views.

Though some rave about Rainbow Mountain, the valley that it sits within really is just as incredible and well worth a visit.  Glaciers hang not far from the summit, the Red Valley peeks out from around the corner and, of course, the rainbow coloured mountainside takes pride of place.

Onwards travel to Arequipa:  Rejoining Peru Hop we travelled overnight, leaving Cusco late and arriving into Arequipa in the early hours.  Our Peru Hop tickets were organised ahead of time in a package so none of our travel with them had a standalone price.  If this is your first time in South America or you’re just looking for an extra touch of safety, comfort and convenience (sounds good, doesn’t it?), they’re the way to go.

Don’t take our word for it – Find out what another traveller thought of the Peru Hop experience too.

Arequipa, Peru

With our plans to hike the Colca Canyon dashed thanks to a couple of head colds that we just couldn’t shake, for us, Arequipa became a place for some serious R&R.

The town itself is gorgeous and a significant departure from the hustle and bustle of Cusco so it ended up being a great place to spend some time.  They have plenty of pubs and little restaurants serving up great food at reasonable prices and some beautiful old architecture, so it’s definitely a spot that deserves more time than the quick connection some give it.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a six-bed mixed dorm at Flying Dog Arequipa @ PEN26 each/night (USD7.80/NZD11.30)

Activities:  Known for it’s relative proximity to the Colca Canyon and for affordable and fun rafting, there’s plenty of reasons to stop for a few nights in the city – both to enjoy the outdoors and the lovely township of Arequipa.

Onwards travel to Huacachina, Ica:  Peru Hop once again.

Huacachina, Peru

A mega-touristy little town, built around South America’s only natural oasis, we didn’t really know what to expect upon our arrival.  We’d been warned off staying there over the weekend due to the all-consuming noise that emanates from a few of the bars so intentionally planned our stay to avoid Friday and Saturday night.  In doing so, we found Huazachina to be a surprisingly charming place to spend a night – yes it’s set up for tourists but sometimes there’s no harm in that.

Accommodation:  1 night in a 10-bed mixed dorm at the Wild Olive Guest House @ PEN29.65 each/night (USD9/NZD12.85).  A great hostel with comfortable beds, clean bathrooms, great showers and a massive Netflix-playing television – our favourite hostel in Peru.

Activites:  After relaxing around the oasis, we hit the desert for some serious dune bashing and sandboarding fun (booked through Peru Hop at PEN50/USD15/NZD21.45 each).

Onwards travel to Paracas (via Nazca):  Good ol’ Peru Hop to the rescue again – this was a long day on the bus but thankfully it was broken up with a few strategic stops (lunch with a view and a quick look at some of the Nazca Lines).

Though we didn’t take to the air, we’ve heard great things about jumping on a Nazca fight to see the Nazca Lines in all their glory!  If you have the time and the money, it sounds like it would be a great addition to your itinerary.

Paracas, Peru

A quiet little seaside town, Paracas is home to a national park and is one of the best place to break the long journey from Huacachina to Lima.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm (one of which we were alone and the other there were four of us) at Los Frayles @ PEN30 each/night (USD9.10/NZD13).  Though we didn’t use it, the property has a lovely pool and Peru Hop’s passenger discount means you get a much nicer hotel for the price of a hostel.

Activites:  Quad bike tours of the national park are available, as is paragliding off of the sand dunes.  We relaxed for a couple of days choosing only to join Peru Hop’s free tour out to the park.

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