Galapagos and Peru – travels without my bicycle

As usual, sorry for the delay in posting and consequent length – there’s a lot to catch up on!

So after much deliberation, I’d decided to visit Galapagos after all. I’d been in a quandary as I’d read that the best way to experience the islands is on a cruise (albeit they have small boats that take as few as 16 passengers). Even last minute, the prices are jaw-dropping. And as a solo traveler, unless you pay double the price, they won’t guarantee you a cabin to yourself. The thought of being on a boat with a bunch of people on a very different trip to mine, let alone the possibility of sharing with someone who might snore or have other unsavoury habits, filled me with dread. I opted to go without the cruise and take trips from the islands.

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Seeing the sea lions, pelicans, and turtles everywhere was really good fun.

Whilst I have a diving license, I took my course a long time ago, so I took a couple of snorkel tours where I got to swim with sharks and turtles, which was awesome. To be honest, I think I enjoyed it more than I would have done a scuba dive, and it was easy to just hold my breath and dive down when there was anything particularly interesting.

Unfortunately the towns on the main islands are pretty shabby (with half-finished houses, tacky shops, bad hotels and mediocre but expensive restaurants in abundance). The people I met weren’t particularly friendly either. The most fun part was seeing the animals, and their complete lack of fear of humans, particularly whilst scrounging for scraps at the market.

It felt like they just didn’t really want tourists in the places I visited. I spoke with some people who’d been on cruises and really enjoyed them, but for me Galapagos wasn’t quite the amazing trip I’d imagined. Luxury problems, I know, and I’m absolutely not complaining. Having seen some of the cruise groups being led on their ‘land excursions’ I don’t think I’d have enjoyed that much either. Maybe I was just unlucky with the experience I had, but I decided to leave after just four days, instead of the planned eight.

I returned to Cuenca (which is the opposite when it comes to hotels, restaurants, and the people) and took a week at Spanish school to brush up and correct a few mistakes. It was funny to find out the things I’ve been saying wrong for the last few months, but everyone’s been too polite to correct me! In Cuenca it was great to just enjoy the vibe and the friendly people, as well as (as usual) wander round, camera in hand.

Having looked at my route, it was Peru that was going to be the big stretch that I needed to forego in order to make it to Patagonia by their summer (essential due to extreme seasons), i.e. Jan to March. Not only is Peru huge, but it was also the only country I’d read consistent reports of cyclists being robbed. That said, I did want to see Machu Picchu as well as some of Lima, so I broke the coach trip into two parts – one of 29 hours (Guayaquil to Lima), and one of 21 hours (Lima to Tacna). The country is vast. The buses in much of South America work like the rail system in Europe, with a huge network criss-crossing the continent. Some are luxurious, and by western standards, incredibly cheap for the service they offer. I was amazed at how comfortable a 29 hour bus journey can be, with seats that are more akin to airline business class. So I scrounged a box from a local bike shop, boxed up the bike, and made my way to the bus station.

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Within a short time of arriving in Lima, I realised how incredibly friendly the Peruvians are. Whether in Miraflores (the ‘posh’ part of Lima) or downtown, I met only warm  and welcoming people. This continued throughout my whole time in Peru, and I found myself wishing I’d had longer to enjoy the country.

I had read great reviews for a boat trip from Lima harbour to an island to ‘swim with sea lions’. The many many reviews were unequivocal, so I booked up. What a great decision – it was awesome. The sea lions are curious (they have no need to swim with you, and are not fed or otherwise encouraged). Quite a few times they would come close, then create a mighty spash before swimming away.

I was also lucky to catch the street party for the 144th birthday party of the Barranco district. The costumes were beautiful, and the dancing accomplished, even the kids. It was also great to see the special needs community completely included in the festivities.

Another thing I noticed throughout my time in Peru, was the pride in the country and the flag. I loved the enthusiasm of these kids at the parade whilst waving their flag.

I left my boxed bike at the hotel in Lima and flew to Cusco, the old Inca capital and the gateway to the Sacred Valley. I had expected Cusco to be another town where I might again meet indifference amongst the locals, due to guaranteed tourists for Machu Picchu. Nothing could be further from the truth and I couldn’t help comparing to my Galapagos experience when I encountered nothing but warmth and hospitality in Cusco.

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I took a couple of days to acclimatise to altitude again (despite having been at over 4000m in previous weeks, I still got a splitting headache at Cusco’s 3500m). Then I headed to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. This journey was by train, through the spectacular valley, which you could really enjoy due to the glass-roofed coaches.

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The next day, setting out at 4.30am, I hiked up to Machu Picchu (why make things easy and take the bus?). Climbing 500m in altitude pretty much all by steps hewn into the rock was taxing to say the least. I started off in the dark, putting my snazzy headtorch to good use. As day broke, it became clear that Machu Picchu would be in the clouds, but this added to the mystery of the place. No matter how often you’ve seen it in pictures, and despite the masses of visitors, it is quite something to see this incredible town built at altitude some 500 years ago. Apparently the only reason it wasn’t destroyed when the Spanish invaded was that they didn’t know it was there!

I had already bought a ticket to climb higher up the mountain too, so headed up another 500 metres, again mainly steps. When I got to the top I could see absolutely nothing – it was completely in cloud, with no sign of it clearing. Ho hum; you can’t be lucky all the time. I still enjoyed the challenge of climbing and descending a total 1000 metres of altitude by stairs in a day. I couldn’t walk properly for a good couple of days afterwards though!

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Once back in the town, I made my way to the station to take the train to Ollantaytambo, another town with well-preserved Inca remains, arriving in the evening. The next day I saw the ruins, which were just as spectacular as Machu Picchu, just in a different way. The craftsmanship is breathtaking. The enormous stones were laid together in a perfect jigsaw; no mortar, no gaps.

In the town square there was a public health event going on. They had mobile doctor and dentist trucks parked up, and there were many people in traditional dress in the square, who were happy to chat or have their photos taken.

I also visited the salt flats on the way back to Cusco. Natural saline spring water flows from the volcano and channeled into over 450 different ‘pits’, where the water evaporates to leave mountain salt. The pits belong to different families, who work in a collective to market and sell the salt. A remarkable place.

So after a thoroughly enjoyable few days in the Sacred Valley it was back to Lima. I had time to explore the spectacular colonial city centre before my bus trip to the city at the Chilean border the following day.

I visited a beautiful old café in the centre. Not only did it have a wonderful old-world atmosphere, it also had the most incredible Gaggia coffee machine. Apparently it’s 80 years old, and still in daily use. If in Europe, I suspect it would have long since been in a museum.

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The 21 hour bus ride to the border was just as comfortable as the ride to Lima. I got to Tacna refreshed. Once the bike was put back together, I was ready for the ride into the desert to reach Chile…..

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Love to all who are still reading,

Stuart

38 thoughts on “Galapagos and Peru – travels without my bicycle

    1. Hi Ihr Beiden! Ja, es ist wunderschön hier. Auch wenn ich kein Wort verstehe – ein lustiges Spanisch. Aber zum Glück verstehen sie mich, auch wenn nicht umgekehrt! Noch bin ich im Norden, in der Wüste und auf Höhe. Aber nicht mehr lange und dann kann ich in Mendoza mich eine Weile entspannen…. Liebe Grüße nach Berlin, X

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    1. Thanks Paul. The last few days have been tough, riding in insane heat, in the desert, and at altitude – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s going to make the wines in Mendoza taste all the sweeter 😉 Much love to you all, Stuart

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  1. Hi Stu. Sorry I haven’t been in touch. My dream trip has always been Galapagos. I’m going to have to rethink it. Loved the pictures of the street party c

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    1. Hi Fi. No worries at all, hope you’re ok. Don’t rethink it on basis of my experiences, but just do a lot of research. Whichever way you do it, it needs careful planning. For me, swimming with sea lions in Lima was as good as anything I experienced in Galapagos! At least if you went on a cruise, and they put you in a cabin with another woman, you wouldn’t have to worry about the snoring. Hopefully 😉 Sending you lots of love, S x

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  2. Sorry to hear about the Galápagos Islands. Problem of being on the ecotourism trail and too many Attenborough films! Glad you got there though.

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    1. Hi Dave. No need to be sorry – first world problems, after all! It was a funny old experience really, and maybe I was just unlucky. As a fellow snapper, you’ll know that my enthusiasm can be measured by number of pics I took. Not many on Galapagos, but there’s thousands from everywhere else. I’m going to be spending a lot of time sorting out once finally back! Talking of which, about time you sent me some more of yours again, no?! All the best, Stuart

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  3. Still with you Stuart and thoroughly enjoying reading about your trip. You’re definitely creating memories. Safe travels dear chap. .

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    1. Hi Paul. Good to know you’re still joining me in the adventure! I’m still pinching myself at some of the things I’m seeing, so good job that I’m able to record them for later years. I’m currently in the desert (literally) in Northern Chile. A different journey again. All the best to you over there, Stuart

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  4. Stuart,

    Fantastic stuff! My sister-in-law is Peruvian and is in hosipital recovering from a leg op. Will send her your blog to cheer her up.

    Stay safe.

    Roger

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    1. Cheers Roger, and good to hear from you. In which case, please pass my good wishes to your sister-in-law. You can tell her that I was absolutely charmed by Peru and the Peruvians. The hospitality and warmth I encountered was on a par with Colombia, which had been my highlight until now. Warmest to you, Stuart

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  5. Awesome post and pics, Stuart! I couldn’t help but wonder: Who took the shots of you in the water with the sea lions, and were you all on your lonesome atop Machu Picchu after your early morning trek?

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    1. Hi J, that’s praise indeed, coming from you. Thanks! The sea lion pics were taken by a poor english guy who got seasick, so couldn’t swim. And the captain of the boat took the video. A great day. And no, Machu Picchu was pretty crowded, but still awesome. The top of the actual mountain less so, but still a few people. Not many walked the whole way though, so I was happy with my entitlement to a ‘smug t-shirt’ 😉 Best, Stuart

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  6. we are following all your updates with maike going “ohh” and “ahh” all the time, remembering her own youth in peru.
    the last few weeks were busy moving house back from the hague and you are more than welcome once you return. you will return, won’t you ? 🇩🇪

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    1. Hi there you two. Glad Maike is enjoying, I’m sure her experiences were as good as mine – super country. Congratulations on returning to ‘the mother ship’. Not easy after the freedome of the last few years, I’m sure. But sure they’re glad to have you back. I look forward to seeing you when back. And yes, I’ll be back. But probably won’t be long before the next adventure either! Mach’s gut mein Lieber, Stuart

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  7. Hi, I also studied Spanish in Cuenca for a summer and have remained quite close to the 2 teachers I had: one actually visited me in the US. I want to return there. Which school did you attend? How did it compare to Medellin? Recommendations would be appreciated.

    I also went on a cruise to Galapagos and had the same experience that you had. I called it a zoo with ancient animals and enjoyed Cuenca more than the Galapagos.

    More questions: Couldn’t you take a bus from Cuenca to Cuzco? I want to return there and also go to Macchu Pichu. Did you go up there with a hiking group and if you did, would you recommend them?

    Thanks for recommendations. I’m really enjoying your posts!
    Shira

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    1. Hi Shira. I went to the Simon Bolivar school. Only experienced the one teacher, as I had 1-1. It’s much much smaller than Colombia Immersion, so can’t really compare the two. But I was very happy with my lessons. Interesting that you had the same experience as I did in Galapagos. Reckon it’s probably one of the few places that’s much trickier to enjoy if you’re on a solo gig. Re buses, I very much doubt there’s one that goes Cuenca to Cusco. Even Cuenca to Lima wasn’t straightforward. Some people said there was a bus, others said no, but certainly it wasn’t served by any of the major companies. So I bussed Cuenca to Guayaquil, and then Guayaquil to Lima. From Lima I flew to Cusco. And no, I did all the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu stuff independently. Think a group would have driven me a bit nuts. The only tricky part was gettting tickets for Machu Picchu itself, as the official government website is temperamental to say the least. Trains are easy to organise. I can wholeheartedly recommend catching a train to Ollantaytambo after Machu Pichu, and giving yourself at least a morning there. It’s equally impressive to MP. Hope that helps, Stuart

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  8. What great reading Stu! The photos of the dancers and their beautiful costumes were just fabulous! I am looking forward to hearing about Chile.
    Tickets to the UK booked. Arriving late August. Xo

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    1. Hi Sue – well done you, you can go back and save Blighty! You’ll certainly be going back at an interesting time. Northern Chile was interesting – that’ll be my next post. I’m now in Argentina, and will be heading back to Chile in a couple of weeks. The wine is definitely getting better 😉 Lots of love, Stuart

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  9. Stuart
    Your blog makes great reading – very envious- as I travel on the less comfortable crowded trains to work (remember work?)
    Keep the updates coming
    Cheers
    John

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    1. Hi John. Glad you’re enjoying. And yes, I certainly do remember work! It’s a cliché, but oh-so true; I don’t miss work, but I do miss so many of the people. But the days of the main office in Streatham certainly feel like a long time ago now, don’t they?! Look after yourself over there, Stuart

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  10. Hi Stu, still reading and look forward to your next posts!
    Love the photos, I hadn’t realised you had such an eye for photography.
    Enjoy – looks and sounds amazing.
    Kimx

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    1. Kimberly! Good to hear from you. Yes, photography and cycling are both hobbies I’ve enjoyed many years, hence why I’m in paradise on my current travels. Hope you and David both well? Lots of love, S x

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    1. Hi Jan! 6 1/2 kms to the pub ain’t bad either – and I’m jealous of the fact you were probably able to order a meal that didn’t have rice! I’m doing my best to stay safe, so worry not. When I get back, reckon it might be time for Valleys and Vineyards MkII, no? Lots of love, S x

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  11. Hi Stuart, I was really interested in your perspective about the Galapagos, good to hear you’re still relishing the trip as much as I’m enjoying reading your posts

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    1. Hi Damon. Yes, it was an interesting place. I’ve since met more travellers who’ve been, and it seems the place really polarises. Funnily enough, was talking about it with a couple over dinner tonight. But yes, still relishing every minute. And some of the riding of the last couple of weeks has been spectacular. Through the Atacama and now in Argentina, hitting wine country. Suspect the next couple of weeks are going to be fun too! Best to you and yours, Stuart

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  12. Hi my Dear just got back from a week in Switzerland I was not able to see it all on my iPhone so this morning I could enjoy it in full. Remarkable all what you see and experience. George must have given you a report from the places he has been a well not on a bike we know. Thanks for sharing it with us all. sending love from Berlin

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    1. Hi Gerda. Glad you’re back ok, and hope you had a good time. George has indeed told me a few things about his experiences. Look forward to sitting down with you both at some stage in the future and comparing notes! Lots of love back to Berlin, S x

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  13. Saludos de Boston. Me encantan las fotos y la experiencia en Macchupicchu, un lugar que he querido visitar desde mi juventud. No puedo esperar la llegada a Mendoza y compartir un vaso de vino argentino.

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    1. Hola Joe, me alegra recibir tu mensaje! Si, Machu Picchu fue increible, con una atmosfera mágico. Pero el desierto de Atacama fue una buena experiencia tambien. Y Mendoza, a ver, pero pienso voy disfrutar y tomar un or dos copas de vino 😉

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  14. Hi Stuart, just caught up on your last couple of posts. Great pictures and entertaining commentary as usual. Glad you managed to recover from the tarmac incident and that everything else has been going well since. Alan

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    1. Hi Al. Yes, the tarmac incident left no lasting scars apart from that I’m still picking bits off my panniers now and then! The pic in my boxer shorts will prob grace the toilet wall when I get back 😉 Hope you and the family are all well over there. Best, Stuart

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  15. I am with you in spirit ALL THE WAY….your resourcefulness with packing bike etc. is surely tested all the time. Warmest greetings, George

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