South America

Day thirty: Sun Gate, Machu Pichu


Our alarm goes off at 4am – our intention is to get up early and hike to the Sun Gate to watch sunrise over Machu Pichu.

It’s 4am, it’s dark and it’s absolutely pouring with rain – as it has been all through the night. It takes us about 2 seconds to cancel that plan and roll over back to sleep. To be fair, the three large pisco sours we had the night before may also have influenced our change of heart.

At breakfast we discover the first technology glitch of our trip. Some film clips from the Galápagos are not showing up in the draft films we had built. One clip was particularly special – it captured a seal playing in the water near us as we swam and then you see him snapping his teeth at us…. all a little too close for comfort.

Our hard drive was getting full and we conclude that my *emptying the trash* the night before must be the culprit. Bugger. We panic – buy some trash retrieval software – and try and locate the files. The short version of this story is that after several hours of trying… we fail to retrieve most of the missing film clips.

A big lesson is learnt and we promise to buy ourselves a larger backup drive on arrival in Santiago. Our drop box backup strategy was simply not working – we had underestimated the size of our daily backups plus the poor connection speeds we’d be getting.

Hoping that our day gets better, we head off on our second trip to Machu Pichu – still with the goal of reaching the Sun Gate.

While we’re in the valley, it starts to rain. We realise we’ve forgotten Mia’s coat… so we head back. Got the coat. We head off to Machu Pichu.

We get to the bus. We realise we’ve left the bus tickets behind… so we head back. Got the tickets. We head off to Machu Pichu.

We get half way to the bus. We realise we’ve left the GoPro in the restaurant where we had lunch. (I’m considering giving up on the day and just heading to the bar. Pisco Sours suddenly seem the way forward.) Got the GoPro. Thank you, thank you, thank you lovely restaurant staff. We head off to Machu Pichu.

It’s now so late in the day, the bus crowds are gone and we have our own personal bus ride all the way to the top. 

Onwards and upwards to the Sun Gate! The trail is mostly in the shade, uneven, narrow in places with several steep drops off to the side.

While we’re catching our breath half way up we spot two bears crossing the path just behind us. Albeit exciting, I’m desperately trying to recall the ‘bear rules’ we learnt over 15 years ago in Canada. Luckily they’re not interested in us and they head off into the bushes.


With a whole lot of cheerleading, several water stops, some bribery for one particular member of the team, (Bruno Mars playing on my iPhone and the promise of ice cream at the bottom), we finally make it to the top. 

Many other hikers had overtaken us on the way and many had been privy to our need for motivational speeches, bribery and coercion. When we finally reach the Sun Gate we are welcomed with a round of applause and several “bravos” from the other hikers who are now sat, taking in the view.

Ours were the only children we saw on the hike up to the Sun Gate and several guides come and give them commendation for their achievement.

We see the Inca trail from the other side of Sun Gate and watch as several hikers near the end of their much tougher, four day hike. The weather is kind to them and they are welcomed with a totally clear and stunning view out over Machu Pichu City – I watch as a couple of them crack open a beer.

Down is much easier, particularly as everyone is on a high from their achievement. We stop off at Machu Pichu City for a few more photos at dusk. The archaeologists have left for the day, their endless repair work on the walls paused for another day and we hear the wardens blow their whistles. It’s time to make our way out.

Back down the valley to Aguas Calientes where we’re welcomed back with a downpour and a rainbow.

Take a look at our Machu Pichu film.


– You don’t need to pre-book a tour guide. There are several English speaking guides by the entrance gates waiting to be hired.

– You need your passport to get into Machu Pichu City. 

– You can stamp your passport with a Machu Pichu stamp on the way out. 

– Remember sun cream, raincoats and bug spray.

Day twenty nine: Machu Pichu


Today is Machu Pichu day and we are all excited. The anticipation of seeing the iconic city of Machu Pichu is high as it’s expected to be one of the highlights of our South American trip. For one of us, this is their second time in Machu Pichu – this time around perhaps made even more special as they share the experience with their children.

We start the day here just outside Ollantaytambu. We’re on the vistadome, a gorgeous train with big windows, glass ceilings and breathtaking views.

We travel from the Andean highlands to the beginnings of the jungle before finally arriving at the town of Aguas Calientes – an odd little town. The train follows the path of a river almost all the way and we see rapids, boulders, mountains, snow, villages, churches, but most breathtaking are the pure, simple, untouched landscapes. The weather is clear and the whole experience is impressive and the service seamless.


Today’s school task is simply… write an interesting list of all the things you can see out of the window. Even our reluctant writer writes reams of notes and ends up with a comprehensive list of over fifty things.

Just under two hours later we are met at the station, ditch our bags and are taken straight away to the gates of Machu Pichu. Today ‘Jimmy’ is our tour guide and we only have two others in our group (bizarrely, one is from Kingston, only a few miles from our home town).


We learn all about the lost city from our guide and are advised how to hike up to higher ground to get ‘the money shot’. Jimmy gives us the history and a tour around the old buildings and then we’re left to our own devices to explore the city ourselves. The gates close at 4.30pm and we’re told a whistle will be blown to tell us when to make our way out.


Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu (official name) is truly stunning, however I find the mountains opposite the city equally as stunning. They are green, lush and thick with trees all the way to the top with little sign of snow or rocky terrain – we are at 2,430 metres above sea level.


We’re allowed to walk amongst the ruins, touch them, lean on them, sit on them, we’re even invited to try and move them. I think back to Stonehenge in the UK and how it is now roped off, out of reach. I recall stories from my mum’s childhood and of her being able to run between the stones and touch them. Surely the day will come when the Machu Pichu ruins will be roped off too? For now…. we continue to enjoy them, up close and personal.


We have a wonderful day up there and try to ditch the reliance on cameras and take it all in – consciously trying to engrain this view into our memories.

When it’s time to leave, we catch the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We stay here and later that evening share Pisco Sours with our new friends we met in Cusco. A little worse for wear, we make arrangements to meet up again in a couple of days time… the boys are ecstatic!


– The amount of luggage you can bring into Machu Pichu via the train is restricted, so you may need to take a subset of your luggage with you. They advise one small backpack per person.

– Try to book tickets on the left hand side (direction of travel) of the vistadome as it has a better view than the right – as you are immediately next to the river.

Day twenty-seven/twenty-eight: Cusco and Sacred Valley


This morning we spot children in the hotel! Actual children. Blonde haired, English speaking children the same age as ours! Hallelujah! I’m sure my reaction was something akin to the child catcher (poor kids) as I bellowed “CHILDREN!” at them.

Luckily I didn’t scare them off and they all bonded over ‘friv’ on the lobby computers, chess and entertaining each other with funny accents… and before you know it a football match is scheduled for later in the day. Hmmm, just the small issue of a flat football and the lack of a pump to overcome.


Today we take a city tour of Cusco. We make it to about half way through before being asked “Why does this man think walls are so interesting?” We are stood looking at our fifth wall. If you’ve ever been to Peru or studied the Incas, you’ll know their walls and building methods are a very important part of their history. But to this seven year old, we have touched, looked at, walked by and climbed on enough walls to last her lifetime.

Being accompanied by a rainstorm and a child without a raincoat for most of this cement-less wall experience made it all the more enjoyable.


Let’s just say we ‘get through’ the trip to all the local historical monuments… the Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral, the Koricancha Temple, the ruins of the Kenko Amphitheater, Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, and my personal favourite…. Sacsayhuaman (pron. sexy-woman). 

We fail to find a football pump, so the children continue with funny accents and doing impressions with their new friends, they play chess and take turns on the lobby computers. We discover that no one (in the whole country) can be served alcohol as there’s a general election tomorrow.

That’s a new phenomenon to us – what does that tell you about a country? And what uproar would that cause if implemented in the UK? I try to put my case that I am not in fact voting, but alas no one will bend the rules. Perfect. Finally, the rainy-no-wine-wall-day comes to an end. Tomorrow’s another day…


Today we’re off to the Sacred Valley. We have the same guide as yesterday, Puma, so we hear some of the same patter and enjoy his stories as he proudly talks about “my people”.

DSC_8882Blue skies today so we can actually see out of the windows and can see Sacsayhuaman (although still being reminded of Rod Stewart each time he says it). We drive to a little farm with llamas and alpacas and of course we stop off at a couple of obligatory artisan gift shops, a market and a silver shop on the way to our final destination today… Ollantaytambo.

IMG_8923Unfortunately we are joined for the second time by a family we had the displeasure of meeting yesterday. They consist of a grown man and his two parents from Europe (not the UK) and they are rude, gruff, shout, smoke, smell, they snort, they grunt, have miserable faces and are always late. Unfortunately they have chosen to do *all that* (minus the smoking) in the seats directly in front of us.

My heart sank when I saw them again this morning. We’re at the start of a six day tour and it dawned on me that we may have to listen to their bodily functions for the duration.

We’re all wearing small wireless earphones linked to Puma’s microphone to hear him as we walk through the ruins. This also means we have the pleasure of hearing the gruff family each time they complain to him. It also means we all hear Puma when he forgets his mic is on and complains about them to another guest. From the top of a ruin I start to jump and wave at Puma to alert him to turn his mic off, but he keeps going and keeps going.

Really really fortunately, the gruff family have chosen to not wear their earphones today.


Several stunning, albeit wall-based archaeological sites later…. including the very beautiful Ollantaytambo… plus the obligatory 30p a piece photographs with locals in traditional dress holding llamas and lambs (right before they head home to pull on a pair of jeans) and we arrive at our hotel.


We’re staying in a kind of canyon and the scenery is stunning. A late night campfire keeps the children entertained before bed… tomorrow we catch the vista dome train (not the nine hour one) to Machu Pichu. I am beyond excited!


  • Ethan’s coat (left on the bus back in Cusco)


  • Ethan’s coat (thankfully located and returned by the tour company 24 hours later)

Day twenty-six: Puerto Maldonado to Cusco

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It’s our eldest son’s 9th birthday today. What do you get a nine year old in the jungle, with an already full backpack? 

We chose… a baseball cap, a new crisp clean t-shirt, a packet of haribos and an Amazonian keyring. The simplest set of gifts he has ever received. He also receives handmade birthday cards and a card from grandparents that we’ve been carrying around with us since we left the UK. 

The manager of the hotel delivered a personalised birthday cake to him at dinner last night, along with a Spanish rendition of Happy Birthday and this morning one of the guides is taking him on his own personal tour of the jungle – which he has decided to invite his siblings to. Hopefully making this one of his more memorable birthdays!

His birthday jungle tour was a success; more spiders, monkeys and macaws on secret jungle trails they hadn’t been on before.

It’s our last day in the jungle as we’re travelling to Cusco and onto the Sacred Valley and Machu Pichu next. So, back in the canoe, back along the river and back to the butterfly house. EVERYONE gets out a phone at the butterfly house as soon as they hit the wifi signal and you can hear a groan when the transfer to the airport is ready, no one appears to want to disconnect.

We then enter Puerto Maldonado airport… the HOTTEST AIRPORT IN THE WORLD. An airport which has also RUN OUT OF BOTTLED WATER!

It seems the only place where the air conditioning is working is the mens toilet, don’t ask me why. So far this is our worst airport experience and it was about to get worse.

As we go through the x-ray machines, an over zealous security guard decides to put a pin in the boys’ football to deflate it. This ball has travelled, successfully, inflated, from London to Miami, on four flights all over Ecuador, two flights already in Peru, even on the same carrier as his employer – twice. Nine flights under our belt with the same exact ball tells me that it is not about to explode onboard.

But at this crappy little airport, with no water and no air conditioning, where we are about to board one of our shortest flights is where we have our first ‘scene’ of the trip.

You see… the children don’t have much to play with and our boys play with that football every day…. and we don’t have a football pump and I’m pretty sure we’re going to struggle to find one in Machu Pichu amongst all the alpaca jumpers.

The boys are absolutely devastated. There are tears, there is shouting, there is blame, there was very nearly swearing and name calling, but as they do ultimately have the power to refuse access to the plane we calm down a bit. There was finally an apology, followed by a non-acceptance of that apology and the promise to the boys of the purchase of a pump as soon as humanly possible. I know they are allowed to do it – my point is, they didn’t *need* to do it, especially on his birthday.

So… Cusco….


Cusco is at high altitude and we’ve booked two nights instead of one to help the family acclimatise before we travel onwards to Machu Pichu. The place is lovely and warm and we’re met at the airport by Mateo. We ask his help to rectify the football situation, hoping he might know where we can buy a pump. He doesn’t.


We’re offered coca candy and told that the hotel will give us coca leaf tea and we should all have it – including the children. On the transfer we see school children in big jumpers, woollen tights and boots. I look at what we’re wearing and four of us are in shorts, and all of us are wearing flip flops.

Mateo takes us through the itinerary for the next few days. I find out that we will be spending over nine hours on a train in about a weeks’ time. NINE HOURS. Apparently it’s a very nice train, but that had totally passed me by… I make a note to pay more attention when we book stuff.


– air

Day twenty-four: Amazon Jungle, Peru (2)


This morning Checa takes the children on a jungle treasure hunt. They are taken through the jungle’s trail system to accomplish several tasks, earning them each a prize at the end.

We watch them as they knock lemons from a tree with a big stick and turn them into fresh lemonade for us all to drink… the best lemonade we’ve ever had.


They eat termites… well, one of them does… props to you, Mia. They make bracelets from seeds and other jungle treasures.


They have bow and arrow lessons, make fresh pizzas with the hotel chef (ahem… a genuine native Amazonian tradition, I’m sure), discover Macaws in the jungle and feed the resort’s pet spider monkey (saved when it was young as it had been abandoned by its mother).


It was an incredible experience for them all and they arrive at lunch buzzing with stories to share.

Next we are taken in one of their motorised canoes to Gamitana creek. Checa guides us through the Gamitana Model Farm and all their fruit trees and crops. He uses his machete to help pick and peel all the fresh fruit for us to try – we taste fresh limes, lemons, bananas, grapefruits, kiwi and star fruit. Most were lovely – the star fruit and the bananas were not!


We were shown around the farm’s banana house where the bananas are taken to help them ripen and sweeten. We also see the glass houses where peeled bananas are dried to supply local hotels for their breakfast buffets.


At the huge sugarcane plants we’re told to stand back as snakes are usually hiding in the bottom. He cuts down one of the canes and chops it up for us all to taste. 


We’ve never tried fresh sugar cane before – it is gorgeous. It’s like a sweet drink and it comes at just the right time as we were all flagging in the humidity – a sugar lift is exactly what we needed.

Then… to help purify our insides (or something) we drink sap from a dragon blood tree.

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We trek through the narrow jungle trails towards Sanipanga to an awaiting canoe for us to paddle back down the creek. It is a beautiful and almost silent journey, with only birds and the occasional fish interrupting us. 


On the left hand side we see two people standing in the river up to their necks next to some heavy machinery dredging the river… it looks like a giant wash-board. They smile and wave…. but it’s a really odd sight. “Gold mining” says Checa. They are illegally dredging the banks of the river for gold. It causes erosion to the river banks, changes the course of the river and pollutes the water as they use high volumes of mercury. We’re told the police do all they can to control it but as it’s so lucrative mines continue to pop up all over the place.

We continue down the main river, heading back to the resort. The sun is going down and the river is absolutely beautiful.

Day twenty-five: Amazon Jungle, Peru (3)


Last night was our first jungle night walk. In the blurb, there are words about – how biological activity differs between night and day, and the mystery of the animal activity that awakens in the rainforest after dark…. but actually, I think it’s all just a test of a person’s level of scaredy-cat-ness.

DSC_7283 DSC_7320

It appears that mine is quite high. We see two tarantulas, a scorpion (who btw jump), a funnel web spider (second deadliest spider in the world), lots of leaf cutter ants, insects and some beautifully peaceful sleeping dragonflies and butterflies.


Happy when it’s all over, I find myself batting away imaginary creepy crawlies from my head for the next hour.

Today, right after discovering a frog by my shoes, we take a thirty minute boat ride to Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata National Reserve. It’s a 3km walk to reach the lake. It’s a beautiful secondary jungle and there are animal and bird noises everywhere. We’re learning to stop when we hear a branch snap to assess what it could be – a monkey, a macaw or a jaguar (only kidding). Our guide Checa has the most extraordinary ability to spot things, tiny things, amazing things, camouflaged things…. things we absolutely would have walked right past.

We see huge termite nests, butterflies, sleeping bats, monkeys, birds, caterpillars, beautiful macaws, he even entices a tarantula from its nest with a sharp blade of grass. Our most spectacular experience was being caught in the middle of three different groups of Red Howling Monkeys in a territorial howl off. They were in battle, but not one where they are in combat, this battle is won or lost on the volume of their howl. Whichever group loses… will simply retreat back to their territory.

It was incredible and really loud.


Lake Sandoval itself is beautifully calm and peppered with fairytale-worthy-lily-pads. We are in wooden canoes and paddle out to watch giant river otters fishing for their young.

It’s beautiful and calm. All until… a small toilet emergency is required in the middle of the lake. Not ideal when you’re sat with other guests and have heard one too many stories about penis fish…. so creatively we find a new use for the Katmandu dry bag we’ve been carrying around for weeks.


Back at our jungle base camp (ahem… I mean our swish resort) armed police arrive by boat just as we’re off on our final trip of the day. The leader asks to see the manager while some remain in the boat to man the jetty. Earlier that morning we had heard a big explosion and we’d assumed it was gold mine related. It was, but it wasn’t the gold miners doing the exploding… it was the police. They had discovered the mine we saw yesterday and blew up the equipment. Apparently the owner of the equipment will be jailed and fined and the workers will also receive a custodial sentence…. but first they have to catch them. They’ve been tipped off that they might be hiding on Inkaterra’s land and have come to search the place. These police are from the ‘hard-as-nails’ variety and however hard we try, we only manage to get one of them to smile (and show us his gun).


We finish the day on top of the jungle…. literally. We walk through the treetops of the giant Amazon basin, across hanging bridges…. only two at a time. They are more difficult (and higher) than they look.

Day twenty-three: Amazon jungle, Peru (1)


Our hearts sink. It’s the next morning in Lima and the same ultra efficient tour guide is waiting for us in the lobby to take us back to the airport. It’s only the airport. And it’s only a domestic flight! We haven’t done ‘tours’ like this before, but the realisation that we must have paid for her in some way dawns on us and that some people must genuinely need help to navigate airports.

Thankfully Andy feigns a massive headache and asks her to be quiet for the journey to help the tablets take effect. We try saying goodbye to her outside the airport building, but she’s having none of it. She comes with us to explain how to check in and takes the boarding passes from the check in staff first before passing them to us and escorting us to security. I’m not sure how much of Andy’s sarcasm landed with her but she may have twigged that he was lying when he said he didn’t know how to board a plane.

We part company with the tour guide, make a couple of discrete purchases for an upcoming birthday and board the plane… successfully… all by ourselves. Today we go into the jungle.

Our flight takes us to Puerto Maldonaldo, where we’re taken by van to a holding area at the rather lovely Inkaterra Butterfly House (did you know Peru is home to 3,800 species of butterflies?).

It’s at the butterfly house that we are told that this is the last wifi access for five days as there won’t be any at the resort. Of course! It’s a jungle! It makes total sense! But had this possibility dawned on us before now? Nope. Not at all. Andy even has a Skype call scheduled within the next 48 hours. Apologies and reschedule requests are promptly sent and we ‘power off’ all our devices.


Next, we’re taken by a motorised canoe for an about an hour further into the jungle. As we are travelling lightly we are allowed to take all of our luggage. Others have to leave some behind at the butterfly house to collect later.


Trailfinders have booked us into the Inkaterra Amazon resort. It is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. The photos and blurb that we’d signed up to didn’t do it justice and we are happy that for the next 4 nights we will be in total jungle luxury (minus the wifi).


Each group are given their own jungle guide and our family have been allocated Checa who later that evening takes us through all the tours and activities available to us over the next few days. He has grown up in the jungle and has an incredible amount of knowledge and the children warm to him instantly.


We take the twighlight river cruise with Checa and his huge spotlight and search for nightjars, owls, capybaras and caimans. We’re successful with the caiman, all quite small and identified by the glare from the torch in their eyes. We also see capybaras but no owls or nightjars this time.

Items gifted:

– five Inkaterra branded refillable water bottles!!!!!

Day twenty-one/twenty-two: Miraflores, Lima


The day starts in Quito with a painfully early gift of ‘breakfast in a bag’ (no one eats it). The owner of the guest house drives us back to the airport as today we leave Ecuador and head to Peru.

Thankful for the lack of any headrest screens onboard, we take the opportunity to do some school work on the flight to Lima (reading and journal writing today).


Mia now features in seat-24A-lady’s journal. It was the sweetest moment as she lent over to tell Mia that she’d been inspired to get her journal out and start writing too. A journal she’d had since she was a young girl. She shared with Mia the importance of a journal and some of the pages from when she was a child.

I didn’t catch her name – she’s an American college student from North Carolina who had just visited her boyfriend in Quito and was on her way to visit her mum – who was starting a second career helping women in business – just outside of Lima. Her Spanish was impeccable.

We arrive at Lima airport… and a dog ate my apples. Well not quite, but I’d bought three apples at Quito airport to keep the kids going and they were sniffed out, confiscated, never to be eaten again. I felt like a trafficker… a criminal! Sorry Peru, I genuinely didn’t realise.

We’re collected by an overly efficient tour guide from the tour company. This is the only section of our trip that we’ve fully pre-booked from the UK. Trying to wing-it around Cusco, Machu Pichu, the Sacred Valley, the jungle, posh trains, small planes and Lake Titicaca didn’t feel like fun and offers so much room for error. This is a section we really wanted to get right.


There’s only our family being collected, yet our overly efficient guide continues to hold our name board up high in the air (with the name still facing us) as she walks us the 300 yards through the pretty empty car park to the van.

We’re not good at being herded, it brings out the worst in us, and Andy and I flash each other several looks of annoyance on the way. It’s only a 20 minute journey but we each have a headache by the end of the transfer to the hotel – she didn’t shut up, her favourite phrase being “All roads lead to Rome”… *eye-roll*.

We are staying in the Miraflores neighborhood. It looks quite bohemian as we drive through, several coffee shops, bike repair shops, cool looking bars and restaurants. We’re told it’s well policed and an area that tourists will be safe in. The hotel is nice and we have massive rooms, but I am MOST excited by the sight of a big white bath! With a plug! HOORAY!

We ditch our bags and have lunch at a street cafe overlooking Parque Central de Miraflores – the five of us sit in a row, facing outwards, Paris style, with Andy and I like bookends.

The children need a good post lunch run around and initially we’re disappointed to find out that Parque Central is a ‘look-nice’ park rather than a ‘climb-on-stuff’ park, so we find ourselves inventing silly races for them to burn off their energy. An hour of obstacle jumping, hopping, forward rolling, dressing up, walking backwards and other silly antics later… and we’re done. Energy: burnt.


We have one afternoon in Lima and decide to take a taxi to see the old town for a bit of historical building gazing and culture. We arrive to see the cathedral, the palace and the beautiful town square. We also happen upon a huddle of riot police hiding just around the corner – always a comforting sight.


We take a walk a couple of streets beyond the square and stumble across a very impressive convent. Inside we find ourselves needing to explain the long line of confessional cupboards (sorry, I’m sure they’re not called that), as the children hadn’t seen them before. Several graphic images of Jesus on the cross help to lighten the mood and trigger some interesting conversations.

Sushi (and pisco sours) for dinner. Tomorrow we head to the jungle! 

Items lost:

  • two refillable water bottles, but only lost for 3 minutes (left on the plane and then retrieved)

Items bought:

  • replacement socks
  • local sim

Day twenty: Guayaquil to Quito


It’s our last morning at the Eco Lodge… just as we’re getting used to the rain on the tin roof. I won’t lie… we are happy to move on and get away from the damp. We have our last breakfast with Mercedes and George and strike up a conversation about the design of the eco lodges. George uses bamboo in his designs, so we share some photos from our recent trip to Bali; images of the Green School and Green Village. “Guggenheim in bamboo” he suggests.

I feel fondly for Mercedes, she is a good spirit, although of course I’m happy that our time walking in mud and wearing flip flops on wet rocks has come to an end. I’m really hoping the next place will be drier. I just want a hot bath in a clean, white bathtub, that has a plug and is all ours.

Today is the first of three travel days in a row, the most extensive travel for our family so far. Our journey starts at the bus stop in Montanita and again we don’t match to any other demographic present. The bus is pretty full yet we manage to get five seats close together.

Today’s journey has us slowing down for cows to pass (no farmer) – no iguanas or stray dogs this time. The police flag down the coach and check the driver’s papers, and this prompts him to put on a DVD. Mercedes had warned that they are often not appropriate for children, but I see this one features Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore – so it must be ok. The kids watch it, in Spanish, for the whole duration.

The film ends (with applause) exactly at the moment we pull into Guayaquil bus station. From the outside the bus station feels like a mall, so we go in, do a quick assessment and then head straight for the exit again – why are big city bus stations such unpleasant places? We catch a short taxi ride to the airport and check in (incredibly early) for our flight back to Quito.

Great news! We’re put on an earlier flight! Saving us at least two hours of airport woes, a more generous time to settle at the other end plus Andy will have more time for a conference call he has scheduled that evening. Bonus.

We have 35 minutes before the flight leaves. A quick run to the coffee shop and four nutrient-free sandwiches and a quiche later, we board the plane. The compromise for moving flights is that we are not sat together. We were allocated five middle seats all in different rows. And so… the language dance starts again. We score two seat moves meaning we now have two sets of two together with the fifth seat in the row ahead. Our eldest son volunteers to take the sole seat – his seventh flight this trip and he’s now a pro. 

Later, Andy shares with me that during the ‘seat dance’ I had said “buenas noches” as part of my gushing thanks to one of the passengers who had moved. HA! I am a such a natural, it’s untrue.

We’re reminded of the Galapagos taxi driver who was practicing his English with us and had genuinely yawned, outstretched his arms above his head and said in his best English, “Oooh I’m hungry”.

It’s our second time arriving at Quito airport and experience counts for a lot. We’re no longer on such high alert, it’s daylight, we feel safe(r) and have the added benefit of knowing exactly where to get a taxi, helping us avoid looking like lost tourists.

Learning from past mistakes, we arrive with a screen shot of the hotel booking clearing showing its name and address. Our next achievement is to find a taxi driver who can actually see the screen – this one squints, pulls the phone out and in, out and in, but no, he can’t see it. Luckily the name is easy and from us repeating it over we establish he knows it and off we go.


This time around, we opt to stay close to the airport as our flight leaves early in the morning. We found a gorgeous little place called Casa Puembo – all white interiors, tasteful, almost Scandinavian style interiors, warm showers, a football pitch, a playground, freshly cooked suppers AND the fastest internet connection we’ve had since Miami.

Items lost:

  • Mia’s pink watch (left at the Eco Lodge)

Day nineteen: Puerto López, Ecuador


We decide on a day trip to Puerto López – the main harbour servicing the whale watching trips nearby. We realise we’ve just missed the whale watching season, but given we have the choice of a damp unfinished shed, or repeating a trip to Montanita, we decide to get a taxi and head over to hang out at the fishing village for the day, stopping on the way to buy bus tickets for our trip back to Guayaquil tomorrow.

Puerto López is about 45 minutes away in a taxi (we’ve missed that day’s bus), again there’s no rear seat belts and today there’s just the three crosses hanging from the rear view mirror… oh, and dashboard carpet… what is the deal with that?

There are numerous street dogs along the route (alive I should add) which makes our journey all a bit slow and swervy. The street dogs choose to play there, sleep (yes, sleep) there, stand there and they really won’t move for a car. This is the main coastal road in Ecuador and the street dogs, on this section at least, own the road. The journey reminds us of parts of Bali, pretty poor, a bit muddy, a bit knackered and lush, lush green.

We arrive in Puerto López…


If anyone ever suggests that you go to Puerto López on the coast of Ecuador. PLEASE DON’T. Unless of course you arrive within 20 minutes of your whale watching boat departure time and you have a car waiting to collect you from the boat afterwards. It is an absolute sh!thole.


We walk amongst the fishermen, admire their catch (kind of), watch them restring their nets, shoo away about 15 street dogs, take in the number of boats emblazoned with either home-made Nike or Umbro logos (Nike won) and pondered why Adidas or Puma don’t have the same global aspirational qualities to make Ecuadorian fishermen reproduce bad copies of their logo on the side of their boats.


In total we last about an hour and a half, and that includes some pretty extensive time wasting antics AND lunch before we can’t take anymore – we are back on the dog highway on a mission to find a bar in Montanita.

This time our taxi is a beaten up old Nissan covered in Ferrari stickers and this driver means business. He is not stopping for any street dogs…. but does slow down to beep his horn for any attractive women on the street. Nice.

Our journey time is almost halved and we’re back in the salvation of a lovely Montanita bar playing Uno, buying knock-off sunglasses, eating nachos with wine and wifi.

I take back all I said yesterday Montanita, in comparison to Puerto López, you are an absolute jewel in the Ecuadorian coastline.


We retrace our steps from last night to see if we can find Mia’s jumper. Success! Mia’s jumper was at the little swimming costume shop we’d been to the day before. As luck would have it, Andy bumped into Mercedes just outside so she was able to help us ask.

On the way back to the taxi rank, we get the arm fist for not buying ceviche from a guy on the corner of the street. I don’t think he wasn’t expecting me to turn back around and see. I offered a very British nod of the head, a “thanks a lot”, a harsh stare and turned back. Bloody cold-fish-soup-selling-a.hole-in-a-pikey-hat. Sorry Montanita, my ‘jewel’ comment is revoked.

Tonight is our last night in the Eco Lodge… tomorrow we hit the road again.

Items found:

  • Mia’s jumper

Day eighteen: Montanita, Ecuador


It’s our first morning waking up in the Eco Lodge. Well, I say Eco Lodge, but this morning it feels more like an unfinished (albeit quite stylish) wooden shed.

We have all had a terrible night – it rained constantly with the noise on the tin roof keeping most of us awake. That, plus the design of the building has several gaps (let’s call them windows) which let both the rain and the damp in. Today may be a slow day.


We head back down to the main house to see Mercedes, the owner, now following the instructions she shared yesterday to keep to the path (my pretties) as the grass contains difficult-to-get-off-bugs. We have a lovely cooked breakfast in what can only be described as a bamboo workshop with art paper as our table cloth.

There are two students from France staying for a while to study with George (the Eco Lodge architect) to help create a furniture line using similar methods and materials to that of his Eco Lodges. They are very sweet and help serve the breakfast, most of which is home or at least locally made. The rain continues and we use the time for home schooling in the bamboo workshop (maths, reading and creative writing today).

Late morning and we find ourselves sat with a decent coffee in a Montanita cafe… people watching. It’s clear that Montanita is home to an eclectic mix of people… backpackers, locals, foreigners who look like they arrived a long time ago and chose to stay, some hippie-types, surfers, long term travellers, some wearing shoes and some choosing not to.

Montanita is a surfing, party town and – not for the first time – we don’t see anybody who looks like us…. a British family of five! It’s 11am and the town is just waking up from the aftermath of whatever happened last night, with some people already back on the beer. 


We take a walk along the beach and it’s giving us an unfair first impression. Many beach resorts look pretty miserable in the rain and Montanita is no exception. I’m sure it looks better with people on it, with surfers hanging out, with cafes open and sunshine reflecting on the waves.


Today though…. it’s all a bit dull and grey. We walk the coastline for a while, stumble across a dead turtle (just to add to the general ambiance), lots of jellyfish and some pretty cool green stones washed up by the sea. 


We do long jump competitions, find some swing ropes to play on and another slack-line for the children to have a go on. Today is all a very gentle amble and we decide to add ‘film night’, ‘pop corn buying’ and ‘finding Mia a new swimsuit’ to the list of things we must do today. We succeed with two and fail on one (popcorn).


We finish our Montanita visit with a marathon session of Uno, accompanied by happy-hour-gin-and-tonic while sitting on wooden pallet furniture in a Mexican restaurant. Happy days.

Items lost: 

  • Mia’s (only) jumper

Items bought:

  • New swimming costume

Day seventeen: Guayaquil and Montanita


Today is a travelling day. A harder day. A dull day. A meal management day. A home learning day. Everyone’s mood changes for the worse when we’re hungry and generally our patience levels are low. We need to get from Santa Cruz (taxi) to Baltra (ferry and bus) to Guayaquil (aeroplane) to just outside Montanita (car).

The plane journey is relatively short, made all the more exciting by one child refusing to do any school work – cleverly choosing a confined public space to exercise his refusal. Rewards are revoked, patience is tested and I sit wishing the plane journey to end. That. Or a large glass of wine to arrive (it’s 10am).

We land – the small child is intact. We’ve been told to be extra alert in Guayaquil as it has ‘an-edge’. The children all get their hands held pretty tightly through the airport and we’re met by a man mountain known as Jofre.


We exit the airport through glass doors with NO GUNS and NO DOGS stickers reversed out. Assuming that’s a message for anyone entering the airport, I now figure we’re entering a world of guns and big dogs – excellent.

Disappointingly for his size, Jofre has a surprisingly small car. We spend two and a half hours squeezed in the back with no air conditioning. Guayaquil appears to have the same high-speed-lane-hopping behaviour as Qatar, with the added bonus of no seat belts in the back. I get the children to lie down and take a nap… hold onto them tight… make a wish… and focus on the dangly cross hanging from Jofre’s rear view mirror. Whatever it takes – right?

The place is manic. At the first traffic lights we’re offered strawberries, loom bands, windmills, avocados and a street-dance (!) – all for money and mostly through the window. Jofre is very clear it’s a ‘no’.

We go past a police check point and pathetically I smile and hope my face is saying ‘honestly we are happy to be in this car, we are not, in fact, being kidnapped’.

The high volume contrariness from today’s playful child continues and only on the realisation that pocket money was indeed being taken away, one pound at a time, immediately and visibly on the pocket money phone app, did the car become quiet. Finally.

Today’s destination is an eco lodge just outside of Montanita, on the coast of Ecuador. We drive past a mini Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Big Ben (!). A bit further we drive past pretty baron land with several precarious shacks that could come right out of the Three Little Pigs story book.

Eventually we reach the coast and Jofre takes a right along the coast road. Each ‘town’ we go through I’m sat quietly *hoping* this is not Montanita and breathing a sigh of relief as we exit the town on the otherside.


Finally we arrive at the Eco Lodge, we walk up to the top of a green field to find our home for the next three nights. We dump bags, agree on who is sleeping where and then go on the hunt for food for the evening. A $1.50 taxi ride takes us into Montanita – pizza and wine lift our spirits.

Dinner then bed. Quite simply… we survived the day.

Day sixteen: Sierra Negra Volcano

IMG_7845 2

There’s a team from REI staying at the hotel – they’re here to make a promotional video. They’ve brought a load of staff with them and are fully kitted up with cameras, GoPros, drones – the lot.


We befriend the creative team and they took the children out to the beach and help them to navigate and land their very first drone.

Here’s a film of them flying the drone.

They are a really lovely group and at the end of their trip we corner their guide and negotiate a private tour to the top of the Sierra Negra volcano the next day. It last erupted in 2005 and you can walk to the top and peer inside. It’s a 16km, pretty muddy hike – we’re warned that good walking shoes are important. Hmmm… the Clarks girl velcro trainers in green leopard skin, Adidas Absolados and F5 TRX Turf Juniors are going to be put to the test!

We get up early and are incredibly unlucky with the weather. It’s been a glorious clear week, yet today it’s overcast and drizzly. The visibility is terrible so we travel there knowing we won’t get the best experience, but our fingers are crossed that the fog may burn off as the morning develops. It doesn’t. Not really.


It does stop raining at least, so most of the hike is dry – and for about ten minutes the fog passes and we find ourselves at the top of a volcano peering in over the top. We can see the stark contrast of the green grass that we’re standing on and the black lava rocks inside – they’ve formed visible flow formations from the last eruption. Our eldest son takes great pleasure in the fact that it last erupted in the exact month he was born.


We don’t really get to see across to the other side of the crater, and before you know it the fog rolls back in and covers it all over again. Ready for another group… on another day.


Back to the hotel and we find ourselves cleaning thick sticky mud off all our trainers (they are caked) with free hotel soap and a complimentary airline toothbrush – believe me, there were several WTF moments.

IMG_7635Our time on Isabela has come to an end and we head back to Santa Cruz via a two-hour-three-boat-ride (joy) – our flight to Guayaquil leaves tomorrow morning.


– our second children’s refillable water bottle (it probably fell out the side pocket of a backpack when all the luggage was being thrown between the various taxi boats). Gutted.

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 one: London Heathrow


Sunday 7th September

We’ve spent the last few weeks editing, editing and re-editing the contents of our travelling kit to the real minimum – or at least the kind of ‘real minimum’ our family can cope with. (I won’t go into the contents of the ‘technology bag’ right now as you’d just laugh at what constitutes ‘minimum’ in our household.) As a result, we have random bags of ‘no longer required stuff’ at various relatives’ houses, storage lock ups and even the boot of our car – I am not looking forward to that kind of sort out at the end of all this.

As owners of some sparkly new backpacks (okay, I admit it, the adult ones also have wheels on… you may now be getting a better picture of what level of ‘travelling-family’ we are), we wake up early after staying with some wonderful friends for our final night in the UK and head for Heathrow.

The good news is that the children don’t tip over with the weight of their backpacks – the plan is that they carry everything they need on this trip in their own backpacks – at only 7, 7 & 8 years old that’s a big ask, but so far… no complaints. For any backpack enthusiasts(!) we went with the Osprey Escapist 25 (size: s/m) for the children and Osprey Sojourn 80 for us. So the children have about 25 litres and we have about 80 litres each.

At the weigh-in at Heathrow, the children’s bags were between 3.5kg and 4kg and ours were approximately 14kg each. That’s the lightest we have EVER travelled and we do lots of chest puffing proudness. Goodness only knows if we’ve packed what we actually need, but we have head torches, so are feeling pretty confident.

A quick trip to get some dollars, some technology things and the obligatory trip to Giraffe and that’s it… we are on our way! First stop Miami.

Items lost today*: 1

– Debit card left at Travelex, LHR

*I now realise this will become a regular feature.

Items bought today: 2

– USB/USA travel plug

– New SD card for the GoPro as I seem to have broken the existing one in the last 24 hours

Next stop Miami!

Next stop Miami!