Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

Ecuador and Galapagos


My Ecuadorian story starts in the capital, Quito which is the world's second highest at 2,820 metres. Which means that it has mild or cold weather all year round, also due to the altitude and the equatorial sun it means that you can get sunburnt almost any day of the year too, even when it is cold.

I arrived straight from Colombia to Quito in the late afternoon and spent the next day taking it easy, having a look around and not much more. That evening my parents arrived from London and it was nice to see them as I had not for six months. I was also pleased to see them for the goodies they had brought me from home, almost entirely of an edible nature. So, imagine my distress to learn that their luggage had not made the connection with them and was at that time missing. We spent a couple of hours catching up by which time it was quite late so I went to my cheap hotel whilst they stayed at the Hilton. The following morning we waited expectantly for the luggage to turn up which it finally did to a collective sigh of relief, as I had Twiglets, Skips and Marmite in there, amongst other goodies.

Once this had been dealt with we hired a cab and went off to the small town of Otavalo, famous for its market of primarily indigenous goods. We did a fair amount of shopping there, enjoying a bit of bargaining and then went on a little further to Cotacachi another market town, this one famous for its leather goods, where we did a bit more shopping. It was also nice to see the locals in both places and en route in their traditional outfits, particularly the women. My parents were impressed by the quality and quantity of food we could get for very little money when we had lunch. We then headed back to Quito through some lovely countryside crossed the equator again into the southern hemisphere in time for a siesta and to prepare things for our trip the following day to the Galapagos Islands.

The following morning we were off early to the airport to go to the Galapagos. The tour agency that was dealing with the whole thing took control of everyone as though they were incompetent children. Many of whom may well have been in their second childhood. The average age appeared to be somewhere in the sixties or seventies which did not bode well for a ship board romance for me. We all finally boarded the plane without anyone getting too confused and headed via Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, for the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands are most famous for their range of endemic species and the fact that a young Charles Darwin on seeing their special adaptation used many of his findings there to write his "Origin of Species" and "The Descent of Man". The "Origin of Species" is widely regarded as one of the most important and controversial books in history, probably second only to the bible. Darwin was not the first to expound a theory of evolution, he was the first to find plenty of supporting evidence and make it credible and as such created a paradigm shift not only in Biology but in the collective consciousness. Much of this was from his discoveries of unique species in the Galapagos Islands. A voyage he left on when he was twenty-two years old.


When Darwin visited the islands they were inhabited only by the occasional whaling ship or pirates and the ecosystem was largely unmolested so could easily be seen to be peculiarly different to the rest of the worlds systems. Today there are problems with some introduced species, most damaging are the goats which are currently being exterminated although this is a costly and time consuming endeavour.

Anyway, on with the nice bits. When we got to the Galapagos we were ferried (no apologies for the pun) on to the M/N Santa Cruz our home for the next few days. En route we could see a number of sealions lounging on the dinghies and landing stages of the boats in the harbour. We arrived to find an amply luxurious vessel, one that I would never have chosen myself and only through the generosity of my parents happened to be on (I would have been content in a hammock on a skiff). The passengers were divided into seven different groups each headed by a naturalist, my parents and my group were fortunate to be lead by the chief naturalist, a Belgian called Etienne. On that first afternoon we went for a tour and were shown some great and magnificent frigate-birds, blue footed boobies, one of the endemic species and also a plethora of sealions. One of the remarkable things about the Galapagos is the majority of the local species complete lack of fear as there is no real predation. As a result one can get extremely close to many of the animals and at times one is actually almost tripping over them. We had some time to snorkel and laze on the beach. Some sealions were lounging on the beach in amongst the tourists, completely unperplexed. When I went out for a snorkel I saw that a sealion was swimming around a couple of other snorkellers so headed out there. The sealion a young female was being extremely playful and when I free dove down a few metres towards it, it would spiral around me and was close enough to touch much of the time. At times it would come straight at me, just missing me at the last moment. Only one of the other snorkellers joined in with this as the others preferred to hover around spectating. The sealion however only wanted to play with someone who would dive down a bit and play with it. After a fair amount of exhausting diving I headed back to the beach to tell my parents and convince my dad to come and have a go. He didn't feel like it and when I looked back the group had all come back to the beach so probably the sealion had left anyway. Whilst discoursing with my folks about it Brendan a South African came over to compliment me on my diving and we got chatting with his wife Faith as well and as they are of similar age to me, we easily became firm friends and would generally hang around together and have a laugh. The two of them have actually been living in London for a number of years so we had more in common than simply common circumstances and as they were also in our group we would generally be the rambunctious ones.

Over the following days we visited a number of islands and saw more of the wildlife and did some more snorkelling, although nothing as much fun as that first one. What we saw on the islands were: masked, red footed and blue footed boobies (named so for their stupidity and curiosity making them easy prey for hunters), great and magnificent frigate birds (with their red balloon courtship displays), lava herons, Darwin’s finches, yellow warbler finches, pelicans, Galapagos penguins (the furthest north one can find penguins) sealions (of the Californian type), Galapagos fur sealions (even cuter), marine iguanas (particularly unique and interesting to watch swim and feed underwater, they really look like dragons), land iguanas (more rusty looking than their marine cousins), giant tortoises (some of which are supposedly hundreds of years old, including the famous “Lonesome George” who would apparently have been around when Darwin visited). That is more than enough I think for the land and air based fauna. Anyway, we went from island to island, which often had quite a different look to it and supported its own uniquely endemic species.

As it was invariably an early start every morning and because of the decrepit nature of most of the passengers there was no nightlife on the boat, but for some reason Brendan, Faith and I always appeared to be the last to go to our cabins. The food was extremely good and copious (lunch and dinner were generally each five courses) so no-one starved. The few (five or six) other younger passengers generally did not appear to know how to be sociable although a number of the older generation were very affable and it was all quite amiable. On the final day after we visited the Darwin Research station where they are breeding giant tortoises for reintroduction to the wild the majority of the group left, including my parents (who went off back to the mainland and then straight onto Peru). I was staying in the biggest town in the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora for a few days and so found my lodgings and then managed to blag a nice lunch with those staying on for the longer tour.

My only reason for staying for more time was that I wanted to do some diving in the Galapagos as there are some great sites with excellent opportunities to see otherwise hard to find marine life. The diving there, though is not cheap and after some negotiations and having spoken to just about every dive outfit in the place I managed to settle on an outfit to go with.

I won’t describe every dive, or exactly what I saw as I think it would bore the pants off anyone who isn’t already. Suffice to say that I had some excellent dives and saw some lovely stuff. Amongst these there were friendly sealions and schooling tuna and other fish. What I went diving to see specifically were hammerhead sharks and manta rays. On the second days dives we saw several hammerheads below us and in the blue a little way off, then a couple came back behind us a few metres away. This was nice and to some extent fulfilled a large part of why I had gone diving there. A bit later on in the dive I saw my first Galapagos shark which was nice and there were also a number of turtles around. On the next dive as we descended there were two hammerheads right below us, then as we progressed on the dive which was with a strong current but good visibility we reached an open area where the rest of the group went to the far side, against a wall to make it easier than fighting the current. At this point we noticed some hammerheads heading towards us and I found a rock in the middle of the open space to hide behind. Hammerheads are quite timid, often disturbed by divers and their bubbles. As I was behind a small rock and not exhaling much I seemed not to bother them though as between ten or fifteen of them came right close by me. Within arms reach on either side of me at the same time and overhead and all around me. They were close enough I could see down their throats and see their impressively sharp teeth. When I turned to Fernando the DiveMaster, I could see the grin behind his regulator and despite his having dived these waters many times, it was still a particularly special dive. After this bit we came to a bit where white tip reef sharks often congregate and there were twenty or thirty of them there when we got there. We spent a little while there and got very close to some of them.

On subsequent dives I saw more hammerheads, though never as close as that special dive. Also the visibility the following day was much poorer and the current much stronger. Towards the end of my final dive we spotted a manta ray a little way off, not a particularly large one, but the first time I had seen one whilst diving, as we were ascending I spotted another one and went charging off to have a closer look and got within a couple of metres of it. This one was a bit bigger than the previous one, the first was probably one and a half metres (five feet) and the second was probably two and a half (eight feet). Amongst the other nice stuff I saw whilst diving were: spotted eagle rays (always nice to see), diamond stingrays, blowfish, porcupinefish, moray eels, sailfin blennies, wrasse, sea slugs and much, much more. The people I was diving with were also generally very pleasant and we shared several laughs together.

The nightlife in Puerto Ayora though nothing spectacular was fun enough and once I had a reasonable circle of friends and acquaintances it was generally pleasant although rarely lively. One night I met David who is a Canadian Chef, based in Quito who also played the live music at one of the drinking holes. He cooked me dinner a couple of times and we even did a couple of duets when he was doing the live music, which apparently was not as scary as most would presume. David was there with his Australian daughter Holly and her mother. All very pleasant and we spent a lot of time together.

Tortuga bay is a lovely beach on the island of Santa Cruz, just a half hour walk in the scorching sun through the national park to get there. When there it is a real picture postcard beach though very wide with turquoise water and marine iguanas basking in the sun. Another good thing is that the most people I saw on it at any one time was about twenty, which spread over a mile and a half of sand did not make it feel too crowded. Actually almost everyone was in one spot in the shade of the mangroves at one end. I managed to get a bit too much sun when there (the equatorial sun is particularly strong) but I survived.

After all this fun I went back to Quito, which is a couple of hours flight, on the latter part there were some great views of the mountains out of the windows, at times we appeared to be about level with their peaks and hopefully I got some nice photos, we’ll have to wait and see.

Quito has a pleasant old colonial town that I spent some time walking around and also a very impressive park (where there is all sorts of exercise equipment, running tracks, mass aerobics, horses, football, tennis, volleyball, basketball, motor cross, etc. all for free). Otherwise though Quito is not a particularly fascinating place though and the few days I spent there were plenty.

Whilst there I needed to do some administration, particularly changing my flights back to the UK which I managed to do without too much stress (I am now returning to the UK at the end of June as opposed to March which it previously was, February previously was to that). This done I went to the American Express offices to lengthen my travel insurance which involved a call to the UK, connected to India, then back to the UK, thankfully they were paying for it. Got that sorted and happy with my productive day went to the cinema. When walking back from the cinema a couple of guard dogs started barking at me, but I wasn’t bothered by them as they were behind a fence. However, when putting my hat on, my elbow was close enough to the fence that one of the dogs had a chomp on it, which was a little surprising. There were three punctures from the one bite and one of them did not stop bleeding for hours, but I cleaned them thoroughly and will survive.

If you ever end up in Quito, one of its most redeeming features in my opinion is the availability of cheap decent Indian food, something I took great advantage of before heading south to Banos and the volcanoes. Banos is actually pronounced Banyos but the ñ is unlikely to come out on most peoples computers.

En route down to Banos met Robert a Dane. I noticed that he had put his little bag under his seat and thought it a bit silly, but did not want to stick my nose in. A little while later he moved seat next to mine and shortly after that he found that his digital camera, water and overbag had been robbed. It actually took very little divination to work out who had taken it, it was two lads sat behind him and a girl with a tattoo of two fish kissing on her bum. Not too much consolation for him though, although he was lucky enough that he had saved all the pictures from the camera on to disk just a few days earlier.

So the first order of business after having found accommodation was to report the theft, I went along to assist as a witness and also as my Spanish is better than his. The policeman was very helpful and completely unsurprised. When I asked him if this happened a lot he shrugged that it happened all the time. In the next few days I met several other people who had been robbed on the same route. I had heard for some time that Ecuador was getting worse and worse in this respect with more robberies taking place in Quito than Bogotá, but everyone was more worried about me going to Colombia.

That evening I coincidentally bumped into David whom I had first met in the Galapagos and he invited me to join him and the others to go up to a viewpoint to see the nearby volcano spewing forth. So early the next morning off we went way up a mountain opposite to watch Tungurahua. Tungurahua has been very active since 1999 but before that was dormant for a long time. Whilst we were watching it the clouds parted and from time to time a plume of smoke and ash would erupt from the crater and then ten seconds later a big rumble would reach us on the other side of the valley.

After our volcano watching we had breakfast and then went to the towns church which was pleasant and also visited the museum there, which has a completely random selection of things to see. Including old typewriters, lots of clothes, various pickled animals (including a two faced pig foetus, a pig foetus with elephant ears and a trunk) a two headed snake and a selection of very badly stuffed animals with some of the worst English translations possible. Good fun then.

Out in the streets of Banos one can see them making toffee. This is done by wrapping a huge glutinous mass of the toffee over a wooden spike on the wall and then dragged down and then rewrapped around the spike, this is repeated incessantly until the toffee is then dragged and twisted into strips and broken off into appropriate lengths. It is generally extremely sickly stuff and there is no need to buy it anyway as, when one is walking around the toffers (as I have decided to call them) offer samples of their product and a sample was always enough of a sugar fix for me anyway.

Another interesting culinary treat to see in Banos is the roasting Cuy. Cuy are wild guinea pigs and to see them whilst they are being barbecued they looked as though they were scared to death. I did not get round to trying one, it didn’t smell great anyway.

A little way down the valley from Banos is the village of Rioverde and the “Pailon del Diablo” waterfall which is very nice and in an attractive setting. After going to visit that and the walk involved both down and then inevitably back up hill Robert and I then decide to take a walk around another area with of natural beauty and waterfalls. We then got a lift back across the valley (600 metres deep) in what was basically a home made cable car, with just a simple basket and one real cable holding it in place. The first half of the journey was gravity powered as we swung out to the middle of the valley and then the truck engine and the little cable below pulled us the remaining distance to the roadside again. It actually looked more frightening and scarier than it really was, it was actually surprisingly stable.

Apart from a bit of socialising the last noteworthy thing I did in Banos was to try for some night time viewing of Tungurahua. The night I picked was a cloudless and one could see a wonderfully star-filled sky, with the cone of the volcano silhouetted against it, with the caldera intermittently glowing red, with a red smoke billowing at times. A perfect night to watch the molten boulders flying out the crater and rolling and crashing down its slopes, except that the volcano was mostly quite peaceful so after an hour or so, we gave up and headed back to Banos.

From Banos I went to Riobamba a bigger town but with only one real attraction for the average tourist and that is the "Nariz del Diablo" (Devil’s nose) train ride. This involved getting up at dawn to climb on top of a train going through the mountains and villages until it gets to a place called the “Nariz del Diablo” where the train has to go pack and forth on switchbacks to get up the extremely steep cliff. Then it heads a bit back up the way and drops off its human cargo in the unattractive little town of Alausi.

The journey actually starts at seven in the morning, but in order to get a good spot on the roof you have to get there a bit earlier. At this time of day it is cold and it continues that way for the next few hours. The roof is corrugated and if it weren’t for the rented cushions, everyone would be in agony in minutes, as it were it took a couple of hours for the agony to set in. I was lucky to be sitting next to a fun Welsh couple which made the journey more pleasant. They unfortunately had dodgy stomachs due probably to something they had eaten and I had a terribly sore throat due to the smoke from a deliberately started forest fire in Banos a couple of days earlier.

Anyway off we went and the journey was generally pleasant enough, although unspectacular for anyone but a train enthusiast. There were some nice views though generally nothing too spectacular. The nicest part was that we got to go though the indigenous villages where people continue wearing the traditional clothing, also through farms and the like and as such could see rural life. In many places adults and particularly children would stop what they were doing to wave at the train and sometimes the kids would run alongside. In some parts though some of the stupider passengers would throw sweets to the children, creating a mad scramble as the children pushed each other out the way to grab the coveted candies. This particularly happened in spots where the train paused a short while for whatever reason. There were then vendors to supply sweets to throw for the children. At other spots people continued to throw sweets to unsuspecting children, often accompanied with a look of confusion. We could see before our eyes how these idiot tourists create child beggars in such a short time, as in no time the children who are currently bemused to have the sweets thrown to them, will soon expect it and then later demand it, as they did in some of the spots where we paused longer.

After the train journey everyone got on buses to wherever they were going. I went to Canar, where I left my backpack with a shopkeeper and went with a French Canadian girl to check out the ruins of Ingapirca. Ingapirca was the northern capital of the Inca empire up until the Spanish conquest. The ruins at the site are not the most impressive I have seen, although interesting and extremely well presented. The temple in the middle has the impressive block-work found in other Inca structures and has a good view across the surrounding valleys. The walk around the site was pleasant with Llamas to keep us company. However, towards the end of the walk on an uphill stretch my throat was so painful it felt like it had burning knives stuck in it and made even breathing uncomfortable. We got back to Canar, got my bag and got on a bus to Cuenca, the most attractive city in Ecuador.

Cuenca is undoubtedly the most attractive city in Ecuador, although it should be noted the competition is not stiff. There are a lot of pleasant colonial buildings and a couple of impressive cathedrals. In my opinion however, the most impressive thing there is the Museum at the Banco Central. There they have an impressive display of archaeological, numismatic and ethnographic exhibits. With a particularly impressive collection of shrunken heads and a good description of the reasons for shrinking a head. It is an excellently presented museum. In the grounds there is an archaeological complex that was apparently the administrative centre of the northern Inca empire. There are also attractive gardens and an aviary with local birds on display, many of which are particularly endangered. All in all an interesting visit.

Thankfully my throat has mostly healed now and from Cuenca I plan on heading down to Peru tomorrow, but not spending long there, but thinking of heading straight through to Bolivia where I hope to catch the carnival.



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