Month: October 2014

Day fourteen/fifteen: Cycling around Isabela



We’ve extended! We’re going to stay five nights not four. The luxury of time really hits home this week. We see people coming and going all the time, the turnover is fast, people stay for one night, two nights, then they’re off on a cruise, off on tour. It seems most people stay in the Galápagos for less than a week.

Because we have the luxury of time, we decide not to fill the days manically and instead play on the beach, sit by a pool, hire bikes, write, read, do school work and enjoy time together as a family.

Before we started this South American trip we were lucky enough to spend a month in Bali and a month in the UK together – today Andy worked out that to reach the same number of hours spent as a full family of five, it would have taken TWO YEARS given his work commitments. THAT, is reason enough to do this trip.


Ok, so enough of the Life Is Too Short wisdom….. back to our antics….

We hire bikes for two days in a row and explore the island: here’s a video of us touring Isabela by bike. On one of the days, the cycle trip goes for 12km to see the wall of tears.

IMG_7856It’s an important historical site so named because of the number of deaths it caused to the prisoners who built it. However its significance is not appreciated by all – today I shall borrow an extract from our eldest son’s journal: “It was rubbish”.

Here’s a little video of us taken at the Iguana Beach Bar.


Day twelve/thirteen: Isabela, Galápagos


Arriving by boat to Isabela island is a bit like playing a game of wildlife bingo. After a two hour boat ride with some serious mind-over-matter-horizon-concentration, we arrive in a gorgeous turquoise bay.

Over the side of the boat a turtle swims by, blue footed boobies are on the rocks, penguins are ducking in and out of the water by the dock (hooray: check), sea lions are sunbathing on benches, pelicans dive for fish, we step over large black sea iguanas on the pathway… and to top it all off (I kid you not) three pink flamingos fly over head. We’re just laughing – you seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s incredible.

First impressions: we like Isabela.

It’s much more chilled out than Santa Cruz and we struck a great deal at a pretty empty hotel that looks like it’s being refurbished. We’re all squeezed into one room, but it’s a nice room and feels luxurious compared to recent places we’ve stayed.


The Tunnels, Isabela.

During the four days we’re booked to stay here, we plan on just one organised tour – and we chose a trip out to the Tunnels to see some amazing lava formations, more snorkelling and blue footed boobies nesting.


Our tour guide.

There’s no question – this was BY FAR the best tour we had done. We see sharks, sea wolves (we now know we’ve been calling sea lions by the wrong name), turtles, golden rays, other rays, penguins. The only thing we fail to spot from their promised list were seahorses. We look quite hard, but no luck. (Have you seen our snorkelling highlights video?)

So instead of seahorses, the guide swaps them out and replaces them with… humpback whales. Hahahahahaha. They are not usually in the waters here, but he had spotted some the day before, so he returns to the same place – and there they were. MASSIVE and blowing big jets of water from their spouts. Incredible.


Blue footed boobies.

We stopped to watch a colony of blue footed boobies with their day old hatchlings – about 30cm away in some instances. The boat had taken us into the ‘tunnels’, strange lava formations both above and below the water that have created a series of networked pools. The water is still and clear so you can see a long way down. We saw several fish and a beautiful turtle. It’s not possible to snorkel here and the boat had to cut its motor in places to approach slowly and quietly.

Here’s a quick and dirty video of them:

Back on land and at the Iguana Beach Bar we bump into two Dutch brothers we’d met on the boat – they are also on a South American tour, but they’re trying to couch surf most of the way. They join us for dinner and later as we head home to bed, they go back to the Iguana bar for more – they are 22 and 24 after all!

Here’s a little video of us taken at the Iguana Beach Bar.



– There are NO ATMs on Isabela – bring cash.

– Restaurants will charge you an additional 22% if you pay by card – so bring cash!

Day eleven: Daphne and Pinzon, Galápagos


  • Sickness tablets: check
  • Snorkel gear: check
  • Wet suits: check
  • More wrong guesses on which two of the children are twins: check

An early start today – we’re off on a boat trip to the islands of Pinzon and Daphne plus a small bay north on Santa Cruz. We drive up to Baltra Crossing (a small channel of water between the islands of Santa Cruz and Baltra) and are loaded onto the small taxi boat to take us to the main boat. Adults are given life jackets… none for the children… none of them match… and Andy’s doesn’t even do up. Alarm bells start ringing.

We meet two lovely women from Germany and are unexpectedly reunited with Yoran, the 71 year old fast walker from Sweden. We were all promised an English speaking guide and lifejackets (our ill-fitting ones were given back to the taxi boat).

We find out there are no life jackets and our guide (loosest sense of the word) only speaks Spanish. Between the five adults we gather enough words and our itinerary is confirmed. We’ll go snorkelling… we’ll go around an island… and we’ll get off at a beach… we’ll fish for our lunch.

A laminated card is held up to help identity the fish we’re likely to see. Penguins have gone from you will see… to… maybe/possibly. Saying all that, the boat is clean, the lunch smells lovely and in its heyday (c. 1976) the boat would have been quite a luxurious vessel. Of course, more importantly, the kids don’t see any of the negatives, we find three loosely fitting, knackered looking life jackets in the back of a cupboard and HEY! We’re on a boat! It’s sunny! And we’re fishing! All is well.

We catch a shark – by accident – but *we* catch a shark. As it was reeled in, we saw what it was, just as it bites through the line, eats the metal fish bait and swims away. Gone.

Fishing is over and the boat speeds up. I’m still not convinced by the life jackets, so I remind the kids to roll onto their backs if they fall in.

I notice that we’re heading in the wrong direction – it looks like we’re going back to the start. We learn that we’re heading back to the harbour to collect four more people, from the same place we left over an hour ago, who have just been booked on the same tour. Remember those alarm bells?

Finally we’re back on track. The snorkelling is great and the wetsuits work well. Today we all swim with sharks, turtles, manta-rays, more fish and sea lions (no penguins, of course). Some of the footage is included in this video.

IMG_7660In the end it turns out to be a great day, with just a small pinch of annoyance. We give feedback to the tour company and are reminded of the simple life lesson: You get what you pay for.

Day nine/ten: Darwin, Santa Cruz, Galápagos


We plan in a couple of quiet days on Santa Cruz, allowing for home learning catch up, general downtime and some battery recharging. One day the children work on a project about tortoises and turtles with the finale being a tortoise race (using our empty backpacks, two ten sided dice, some simple subtraction and a very long tiled lounge floor as the race track).


Another time they watch a DVD on Darwin (still counts as home learning, right?) and another time they research and create a PowerPoint presentation on The Galápagos Islands and present it to us, while we are instructed to sit on one of the lined up dining chairs.

IMG_7580We find a better version of a fruit and vegetable market for some supplies and buy eggs in bags (who sells eggs in bags?). A precarious $1 taxi journey later and the eggs make it back safely.

DSC_4872We walk over to the Charles Darwin Research Station to see their tortoise breeding programme. We are few years too late to meet Solitario Jorge/Lonesome George unfortunately – but it’s a nice place and would have been significantly more impressive if we hadn’t been to the giant tortoise ranch yesterday. Medium sized tortoises now all seem a bit… well… a bit… meh. Second week and we’re already spoilt.


What was impressive was a group of over 20 large black sea iguanas crossing the road on their way back from a day’s feeding session, just outside the institution gates – unexpected and amazing.

We decide to do a second trip out to Tortuga Bay and give ourselves enough time to walk the extra distance to a beautiful calm bay, set back a little from the ocean. We walk between eight and nine kilometres today; – more pelicans and more large black sea iguanas – clearly they’re becoming the norm as we’re now just stepping over them.

IMG_7599At the bay, we bump into a young German couple we’d met on the Santa Fe boat trip yesterday – apparently they have been contemplating our ages in the last 24 hours and calculating at what age they too should have children. They put us both at less than forty. Happy.

Incidentally, after all the talk of Darwin and the theory of evolution, it took exactly two days for our son, L, to come and ask what was invented first; the theory of evolution or God? And was God invented in the way that Darwin says things were invented…. That one took a little while.


– 1 sock, probably didn’t make it back from the launderette.

Day eight: Santa Fe, Galápagos


Today was a truly great day. No home-school (it’s the weekend) and we took a boat trip to Santa Fe, another island about an hour away. We were promised swimming with sea lions, sharks, turtles and blue-footed boobies. The water was freezing and we hadn’t thought to organise wetsuits, but despite each snorkelling trip being short and sweet – we saw them all.

The first snorkelling location had lovely clear water and a family of seals played in front of us and with us, less than one metre away. In a second snorkelling spot, Andy and our eldest son, saw an eight foot black tip shark swimming just underneath them. Despite knowing they’re not man-eaters, basic instincts kick in and it was still pretty terrifying.

Watch our snorkelling highlights here.

On board, we met Yoran, a fast walking, 71 year old, man from Sweden, who offered to show us the right way to Tortuga Bay once the day trip was over. We now know that yesterday, we were just one road off!


The trail is 2.5km long and it’s clear we can’t keep up with his pace, so we say goodbye and off he goes.


Tortuga bay is beautiful and well worth the long walk. The local surf instructors keep the boys entertained with their keepy-uppy-football-skills (sic) and we play in the water. The bay is part of the national park so everyone needs to sign in and out at the start of the hike so we are all accounted for.


Fresh langoustine and tuna for dinner in ‘fish street’ – where each family-owned-booth will grill or barbecue today’s catch right in front of you.

A great day.

Day seven: Santa Cruz, Galápagos


A sea-lion and several lazy pelicans entertained us at the fish market last night stealing off-cuts from the fisherwomen. We were also entertained by the local fashions and the various blue footed boobie merchandise – clearly hilarious if you’re a seven year old boy.


This morning we borrowed some ill-fitting wellies and went off to see giant tortoises and explore lava tunnels on Santa Cruz island. We were driven just past Santa Clara to a lush green farm called Rancho Primicias where there are hundreds of giant tortoises roaming on their land. We simply weren’t prepared for the size of them – they ARE GIANT, some over one hundred years old, and they are literally dotted all over the place.

Next stop: we walk down some steps under the ground, through giant lava tunnels directly underneath the ranch, created hundreds? thousands? (sorry I wasn’t really listening by then) of years ago.

Here’s our video of the lava tunnels.

Later that afternoon we head off on foot to find Tortuga Bay – no map, we just follow our noses. How hard can it be, it’s walkable, westward and just along the coast?

Fail. We hit a dead end and don’t find Tortuga Bay. Instead we stumble across a mangrove lagoon and learn about red and white mangroves, salt and fresh water lagoon ecosystems and how young fish and sharks hide in the water with mangrove roots to avoid predators.

Tired and hungry, we head home with a small detour to a little shop to get totally ripped off on some just-about-within-their-edible-life-vegetables and wander back to do some creative cooking.

Excited about tomorrow – we have a snorkelling trip to Santa Fe booked.

Day six: The Galapagos Islands


We had our photo taken on the plane today. All five of us sat in a row and all happened to be using technology. One of us was creating a movie, one editing photos, two were reading books and one was building a hotel in Minecraft.

Seat-24A-lady reclined her chair as far as it could go, lent through the gap to try and quietly take a photo but the shutter-noise gave her away. Protective of our family, I gave her a look and in broken English said she was interested that we were all using technology and would I mind a photo. So, now a total stranger has a photo of our family. I find that odd.

Incidentally, the children gave our choice of Quito guest house a two or three out of ten. A bit harsh, but matching sheets and our own bathroom might have increased the score.

Today we travel to The Galapagos. We decided against a pre-booked cruise or land tour (to lower costs and increase our length of stay) and instead opted to go solo. We booked flights via Skyscanner and accommodation via Airbnb. We bought one way tickets and 7 nights accommodation has been secured in Santa Cruz. Our next commitment is a flight from Quito to Lima in 15 days time, so we just need to meander our way back in time for that.

A relatively short flight from Quito via Guayaquil and we land in Baltra, one of the islands north of Santa Cruz to be met by ‘Freddy’ a contact picked up at the ‘two or three out of ten guest house’. On exit we clearly don’t fit the usual demographic. The airport is full of backpackers in their twenties as they all watch our family walk by – seeing children outside of term time is clearly a curiosity.

They are strict on what we bring onto the islands to help preserve the national park. The plane cabin is sprayed, our hand luggage is x-rayed for contaminates on arrival and we walk through a more tasteful version of the council swimming pool foot bath – black wet rubber mats, so discrete, you may not even notice.

IMG_7478I cannot describe this place. Our eyes are in sensory overload. The terrain is like nothing I’ve ever come across before. Red earth, grey grass, bright green cactus plants, turquoise sea, crisp blue sky, black rocks, red rocks, white trees, orange and black iguanas. Then you reach the towns – much less exciting. The bus stops abruptly to let a huge iguana cross the road (I swear, I’m not making this up). Then a further quick swerve to avoid three cows. Within our first thirty minutes we have seen stunning vibrant landscapes, crabs, iguanas, cows, several brightly coloured small birds, herons, pelicans. I’m already wondering how the rest of the trip can top this. As first impressions go, this is pretty impressive.


  • You will need to pay $100 + $10 entry fee (each adult, $60 for children) on arrival. They only take cash.
  • It can go from burning hot sun to rain within an hour. Wear sunblock and pack a rain coat every day.
  • Definitely bring rain covers for your backpacks – they are usually thrown in the back of open trucks and on top of boats – they will get wet.
  • Try to get hold of the arrival forms (two types) before arrival as they take forever to complete.

Items lost:

  • Kids refillable water bottle – probably left in the taxi in Quito.

Day five: Equator, Ecuador


Today we head to Mitad del Mundo – Middle of the World – The Equator. There are two equators here, the original one and a second more accurate one (since the invention of GPS). Rather than real and not-so-real one, they prefer to be called old and new. We head to see both.

Mitad del Mundo

Mitad del Mundo

At the new equator (red line), the tour includes Ecuadorian culture and traditions – we learn how men in amazon tribes tie their bits up high with string to help avoid penis fish swimming up their urethra, how they shrink the heads of their enemies, how their spears have one end for animals and one end for humans (still used today in some parts of the Amazon where they are fighting with miners and poachers), how there are two doors in all Amazonian huts, one to come in and one to go out, to help keep bad spirits away, how the tribe wives were buried alive (dosed with sedative) alongside their husband on the male’s death.



The most alarming thing I learnt today was that the tradition of shrinking heads is still carried out today – but today it is practiced in order to fulfil international collector’s desires rather than because of any cultural tradition. Rather than wait for someone to die of natural causes and then cut the head off, remove the skull and shrink the skin, they will still choose to kill someone that has wronged them in order to fulfil the order. The middle man profits the most – heads are sold within Ecuador for $25,000 and then for more than triple around the world. The tribes, apparently, get very little. (We were told not to worry, we wouldn’t be targeted as the collectors want strong Amazonian facial features for authenticity.)

Shrunken head (right), shrunken guinea pig (left)

Shrunken head (right)

The tour includes several experiments that take place both on and around the equator. The tour guide was full of facts and the experiments were brilliant. It’s safe to say today’s trip pretty much nailed science for the kids this week. They learnt all of the following with no dramas, no negotiating, no bribery and no planning or research on our part:

  • What are northern v southern hemispheres.
  • The effect of the Earth’s rotation on the direction of wind and storms in both hemispheres.
  • The position of the sun and its effect on the depth of shadows at the equator. (In two weeks time, if we returned at midday and stood on the equator we would actually have no shadow at all.)
  • How tornados and cyclones spin in different directions as one is in the northern and one is in the southern hemisphere.
  • Forces – how it is only possible to balance a raw egg on a nail if you are exactly on the equator as it’s the only place where the force is entirely downwards with no sideways pull.
  • How easy it is to pull down a person’s raised arms when they are on the equator compared to if they stand either north or south of the equator, where they are able to resist.
  • How the equator in Ecuador is the highest point on the equator around the world.
  • How Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador is 2.1 kilometres further from the earth’s core than Mount Everest.

And then… there was the sink experiment! Does the water spiral down the plug hole in different directions if you are a) on the equator, b) in the northern hemisphere, and c) in the southern hemisphere. Watch this videoyou could probably win bets with this.

Oh and here is the video of our ‘balancing an egg on a nail’ experiment.

On the way back we hiked down into Pululahua Volcano, which is now green fields, inhabited and farmed! Well… when I say hiked, what I really mean is skidded down on a lot of loose stones, desperately hoping that no one took a tumble as I had forgotten to bring any form of first aid supplies. It appears that Clarks girl’s velcro trainers and two sets of Nike’s football/astroturf boots may be an inadequate choice to hike down a volcano. To top it off, as we hiked back up, trying to cope with the effects of being altitude novices, a lady who lives down in the valley literally sprinted past us on the same rumble we’d been skidding all over twenty minutes earlier.

Later at Notavalo Market (Cuicocha Lake) we met this gorgeous couple selling pots:


Gorgeous couple we met at the market.


  • The visitor experience at the new equator is significantly more impressive than at the old one. From our experience, people get their photo taken at the old one, but you actually learn stuff at the new one. They are very close so you can easily do both – both have entry fees.
  • Trips into the Amazon must be taken with a guide/company to avoid areas where miners, poachers and tribes are in conflict.
  • You can arrange to stay with one of the tribes – just be aware, you must wear the same dress as them.

Day four: Quito, Ecuador


9th September 2014.

We arrived in Quito last night. It was dark, late and we’d arranged to be met at the airport. We were advised that we’d need two cars to fit us all in. Quito has its safety problems and we’d also arrived pre-briefed about pickpockets, bag snatchers and kidnappers (wanting cash for the safe return of your kids). So for the first time in my life, I found myself sat on the plane contemplating a ‘kidnap-avoidance-taxi-planning-strategy’. Who should go with who? If I were a kidnapper what would be the most difficult combination that might make me not bother?

We collect our bags and have a quick pep talk on holding hands, keeping back packs on, no-one going to the toilet alone and no parent leaving the kids by the sinks while they’re in a cubicle. If we weren’t on high-alert already – we are now. We’re ready. We go through the doors. We’re almost the last out. There’s no smiling face with a name board. Bollocks.

We try to style it out and look in total control and that’s when we learn our second important lesson of the trip: If you do in fact save important ‘next step’ information outside of an email to avoid the no-wifi-issue, remember where the hell you put it. I’m all over my iPhone, the contact details are not in the notes section, not in my photos, there’s no wifi to check emails. (The next day, I find it written down on a piece of paper. A piece of PAPER!)

Andy does three laps of the arrivals hall to try to locate our transportation while I do a Jason-Bourn-style assessment of where (i.e. who) the risks are. At that moment, everyone in the arrivals hall is a potential kidnapper in my eyes (not all that helpful, I admit).

What seems like an eternity later, our airbnb host Irene scurries up to us and holds a piece of paper with my name on it. Safe! We head to the cars outside and I ditch my pre-conceived taxi configuration in the belief that I’m tempting fate, and we simply go with boys in one car and girls in the other.

Forty-five minutes later, we all arrive at our airbnb accommodation in La Mariscal. No-one was kidnapped.

First impressions are: it’s perfectly fine, not gorgeous, but perfectly fine. We’re all in the same room (positive: given my current kidnapping obsession), bathrooms are shared and down the hall (negative: two kids may get up in the night) and I would try my hardest to ignore the loud, vibrant, mismatching animal print sheets. We put our best cheerleader heads on and the kids were excited about the adventure.

A pretty broken sleep later, with many accompanied trips to the loo, we receive a great briefing from Irene the owner of the guest house on places to go and things to see. Without her realising, her advice turned into a day of curfews. We can walk through the park in the morning but in the afternoon we should walk around it. We can go to the Historic Old Town but make sure we’re out of there by 5pm…. and because it’s a weekday, when we go for dinner in La Mariscal make sure we have left by 10pm! She shares advice about bus travel; they will be very crowded, don’t have anything in any pockets and any backpacks are to be carried in front of you. Taxis are between $1-$4. It’s settled, we’re getting taxis.

We pick up a local sim card and explore the city, on foot to start. We head through Carolina park, the kids play on zip wires and climbing frames and then move onto the ‘Old Town’. We avoid shoe shining children in Plaza Independencia, watch a dance troop perform to many many Michael Jackson songs outside Palacia de Gobierno, chase pigeons in San Francisco Plaza and climb Quito’s Basilica.

Quito’s Basilica

This was today’s highlight – we climbed to the very top of the spire and inside the clock face. No health and safety regulation in the whole of Great Britain would have allowed us to have the same experience back home. It is steep, it was scary, there are no nets and not a whole load of protective fencing. The children received a lot of kudos from other travellers who stopped short of reaching the very stop – if they weren’t with us, I’m pretty sure I would have bailed after the second set of stairs too.

Quito’s Basilica: This is a video of our trip to the top.


  • Local currency is US dollars (there’s no alternatives).
  • It’s a requirement to carry your passport with you. A photocopy is fine – it’s also often needed to enter tourist attractions and we needed it to buy a sim card.
  • There are two entrances to the Basilica – one to climb to the top and one to go inside the church – both have separate entrance fees.