Exploring Yasuni National Park – Ecuadorian Amazon

Exploring Yasuni National Park - Ecuadorian Amazon

Ecuador is perhaps not the first country that comes to mind when thinking about a visit to the Amazon, but on a recent trip I discovered a region that is quite possibly the most pristine biologically diverse on earth. The Yasuni National Park is situated in the middle-eastern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon between the Napo and Curaray rivers. Over 2,450,000 acres, over 173 mammal species, 567 bird species, 83 reptile species, 97 amphibian species and 249 fish species can be found. The ecology is largely influenced by the extensive tributaries, both white-water and blackwater of the Napo River.

A short 45-minute flight crossing north over the equator and Andes before heading back south again took me to the city of Coca. Unlike Quito, which sits at over 2700 meters above sea level, Coca lies at only 300 metres and is the main gateway to visit this part of the world.  A short road journey took myself and fellow passengers to the banks of the Napo River and it was here we boarded a speed boat for a 90-minute journey downstream to meet the Anakonda. This fine vessel was to become a haven of luxury in amongst the raw wilderness that is the Amazon.

After a fabulous lunch and a couple of hours of navigation it was time to venture into the rainforest. Booted up, the anticipation amongst us was palpable as we stepped away from the river and into the forest. Walking along narrow trails you soon had the sense that you are truly in one of the worlds remote spots. Macaws, toucans and many native birds circled our path, each bird adding volume to the otherwise relative silence. Shortly after sunset the sounds of the forest change, it is the turn of the nocturnal wildlife to be heard. Using torch light, the night safari was underway. Over the coming hour or so, millipedes, frogs, tarantulas, ants, stick insects and many other inhabitants are given the spotlight treatment.  It was at this point I realised how lucky I was, to then return to the luxury of the Anakonda where fine dining, a warm shower, well styled air-conditioned cabins were waiting.  It is the ultimate combination of raw experience and high-end grandeur.

Mornings are not a time to lie in.  At six o’clock in the morning there is every reason to get up. After another fabulous breakfast it was time to transfer to our motorised canoes and enter one of the channels that lead off the main river. It is not long before our guide halts the boat to point out some monkeys.  On closer inspection we see there is a sloth hanging restfully from one of the branches. Once again, I am reminded of the habitat I am in, a variety of wildlife everywhere. Throughout the day we got the chance to kayak through the mangroves and trek through the forest. Inevitably, as the name suggests, in the rain-forest, it rains. And when it does, it does so in style. If ever a poncho had a purpose it is at this time.  However, when it abates it is incredible how quickly the skies turn from grey to blue and the sun once again bears down bringing bright light to the forest.

On our third day, breakfast was abruptly interrupted by the excitement of the crew. Inviting us to put breakfast to one side it was soon clear why we should investigate. Not one but three pink dolphins were swimming alongside our boat. Over the next ten minutes we were treated to the spectacle of these dolphins seemingly hunting for fish. We were told this was a particularly good spot for them and indeed they seemed to be making the most of it.

During the day we were treated to watching hundreds of macaws feeding at a clay lick.  We visited a school to learn how local projects are benefiting the native communities and in the afternoon, we kayaked deep into the mangroves. A kilometre of trekking followed by a forty-minute kayak and then another twenty-minute walk brought us to, well, the middle of nowhere, but on second glance we were standing at the foot of a canopy tower. Two hundred and two steps later I arrived at the summit and was presented with breath-taking views and a whole new perspective of the Amazon. Once again, our guide was able to identify several birds and mammals that shared our new elevated position. It had been a fascinating three days and to toast, a glass of champagne was very fitting.

Exploring the Yasuni National Park had been an unforgettable wildlife experience and one that will be treasured for years to come. A true Amazon adventure on board a most luxurious boat.

 

An Adventurer’s Insight – Q & A with Liz Bonnin

Liz Bonnin is a biochemist, wild animal biologist and television presenter.  She presented the spectacular three-part BBC One series Galapagos that aired earlier this year. Her other recent presenting credits include Wild Alaska Live and Stargazing Live. She is an ambassador for the Galapagos Conservation Trust and will be leading our Galapagos Islands Cruise wildlife group tour 9th December 2018.

What was the highlight of your most recent trip to the Galápagos?

Working on the Alucia, a state of the art research vessel, surrounded by the scientists who are studying these enchanted islands, made the entire trip a highlight for me as a biologist. I have always wanted to visit Galápagos, ever since I was a child reading about Darwin’s journey on the Beagle, but to learn about this unique place by following the cutting-edge research taking place there was beyond my wildest dreams. And thanks to the submersibles, helicopter and technology on board the Alucia we were able to explore even the most remote parts of the island chain – from 1000 meters beneath the waves in the Bolívar Canal to the highest caldera on Isabela Island.

Why do you feel so passionately about the Galápagos?

Because of its remote geographical position and the confluence of vital nutrient-carrying cold currents, the sheer wealth and diversity of wildlife in Galapagos is staggering. It’s often been described as a mini earth, a living laboratory for scientists to study and apply their findings to the conservation of the whole of the planet. In Galápagos you walk amongst nature as if you are truly a part of it, not a mere spectator of it, and that experience changes you. These islands give you a glimpse of what the natural world may have once looked like across the globe, and that is incredibly humbling. It’s a very, very special place. To think that the archipelago is now bowing under the pressure of the modern world and that many of its endemic species are endangered makes me want to do everything I can to protect it.

What do you think should be done to help preserve the Galápagos Islands?

Every ecosystem in the planet is inextricably linked, which means that what we do here at home affects the health of Galápagos, and if its health falters our own health will inevitably fail. We are living in an age where the effects our actions and behaviours exert are more apparent around the world than ever before and even remote, seemingly pristine places like Galápagos are no longer immune to the impact of our human footprint. So we all need to step up and show the planet that we can be responsible custodians of all the precious wild places that are ours to protect and cherish, no matter where they are. We need to change our habits and live more sustainably, use fewer resources, recycle responsibly and consume less. What does it say about us if we let the beautiful wildlife of Galápagos diminish on our watch?

Do you have a favourite Galápagos animal?

I think the marine iguanas of Galápagos are fascinating reptiles. Not only have they adapted to become swimming, diving animals that deal with all the salt they ingest while feeding on algae by snorting it out in an unbecoming but highly effective manner, but recent research has shown that when food is scarce they can actually shrink their bones to become smaller, and therefore consume less food, and when the marine algae recovers, they can grow bigger again, all within a year or so! Nature is truly astounding, and we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to our knowledge of what animals are capable of.

Why do you think tourism is important to the future of the Galápagos?

Responsible ecotourism is a very effective way of getting people to care about the planet. There is nothing like immersing yourself in nature, wherever and whenever we can. It’s good for our physical and mental health but it also puts into perspective the grandeur of the natural world and our place in it. Through experiencing nature in all its glory, we can become inspired to protect it. The Galápagos Islands rely not only on tourism for livelihoods but on us all to help to protect their precious wildlife. We need to learn to live alongside, visit and appreciate our wild places without destroying them. It’s possible, as long as we don’t let greed or financial gain get in the way of caring for nature.

What excites you about the prospect of returning to the Galápagos with Steppes Travel?

I’m excited to return and simply soak in the majesty of the place and the stunning variety of fascinating and almost improbable species that will meander past as they go about their lives. I think this will be my last time in Galápagos – part of caring for the place as individuals I think is not returning too often so that the number of visitors can be kept to manageable numbers. So it will be an extra special pleasure to share my knowledge of the place, and perhaps pass on my thoughts about what it means to care for Galápagos, as one of its privileged visitors, long after we’ve returned home and unpacked our bags – what each of us can do to proudly take responsibility of caring for these islands with every small lifestyle change we make.

 

 

 

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Steppes Big 5 Reasons Why 2018 Is The Year To Visit The Galapagos

Galapagos-Sea-lions

Having recently returned from the Galapagos I was reminded of the pure beauty and unique nature of these islands, home to animals and plants found no where else on earth. Standing as one of the most significant wildlife destinations in the world, here are my top 5 reasons why the Galapagos Islands remains one of the most in demand destinations that should be on your travel wish list.

1) Curious creatures

I have been fortunate to have many close wildlife encounters throughout the world but the striking feature of the Galapagos Islands is undoubtedly the fearless nature of the animals. Wildlife that holds no fear of humans is a rare beauty and it does not take long to witness this truly unique aspect.

On my first arrival to the Galapagos, I was greeted by the surreal scene of tangled iguanas and sea lions basking in the sunshine whilst families and beach goers frolicked nearby. Moving occasionally to allow the sea lions to pass in and out of the waters I watched as the locals, clearly at ease, were just meters from these grand creatures. Lying on a quiet section of beach it was not long until I had my first up close encounter as a warm breath tickled my knee – a curious sea lion checking on the latest arrival. Although unnerving at first you soon realise that this is the Galapagos way. Landing on the Islands, you find yourself meandering through wildlife, within just meters of some of the most precious species in the world from the albatross to the giant tortoise and colourful blue footed boobies. This is undoubtedly a completely remarkable experience for any nature lover.

2) Life beneath the waves

My personal highlight of the Galapagos is the marine world. Teeming with wildlife a trip for me is not complete without exploring the hidden treasures beneath the water. Within the clear waters you find yourself surrounded by spectacular marine species from turtles to manta rays set against a vibrant backdrop of multicoloured coral feeders. Dipping into this natural aquarium I could swim within schools of fish, that were equally comfortable in my presence with turtles feeing on the coral. Swimming is completely tranquil with only the occasional distraction of a curious sea lion coming to play.
For those less confident in the water, do not be put off. Opting for a cruise with a glass bottom boat is a great way to explore this tropical underworld and even snorkelling in the shallows off one of the beaches there is more than plenty to see.

3) Landscape variety

The diversity of the Galapagos is nearly as striking as the wildlife with each island having its own personality and history. One day you will be walking on a sweeping white beach and the next exploring the black lava fields. With the young dramatic islands to the west boasting impressive volcanic craters through to the lush forest highlands and the shallow rocky eastern islands there is plenty to explore. Here you can see the full geological evolution of the islands and this wonderful diversity makes the longer cruise itineraries extremely rewarding.

4) Family fun

Exploring nature can be one of the most rewarding experiences for families and the Galapagos offers one of the best locations for your children’s first wildlife encounters. The variety of species will keep the young ones captivated and the close encounters are the experiences that your children will hold sacred for years to come. The variety of the tours makes sure that children are kept busy all day long and with the option to combine a boat based and land based programme, there is the flexibility to keep the young ones interested.

5) Galapagos by land

For those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground, there are a selection of wonderful land based options that offer a chance to explore the Galapagos Islands at your own pace. With a handful of inspired properties that are perfectly placed to fully maximise the spectacular surroundings, spend each day touring the nearby islands with the added flexibility offered from top diving locations to secret coves. With African inspired safari tents to modernist feature properties the level of service and accommodation is extremely high and the programmes are innovative to fit with the individual whether your passion is art, bird watching or you simply need to keep the children busy!

Talk to our Galapagos Holiday and Cruise Experts to start your privately guided tour, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Where Jaguars Roam

We have been bumbling along the dusty, red-earth tracks in Brazil’s Southern Pantanal for the last hour. Since we left the lodge I have been searching the horizon.  Searching every tree branch, blade of grass and river bank, hoping for the slightest glimmer of a jaguar or any other wildlife for that matter. As we trundle along I am beginning to think I am considerably out of luck. Caiman Ecological Refuge boast a 95%  jaguar sighting rate. Our vehicle changes direction and I accept defeat as we head back towards reception.

A Small Victory

As I  ponder what type of cocktail I will have from the lodges sun-downer menu we travel along a raised track which is sandwiched between thick forests and open flood plain. We slow a little as the distant sound of a barking capybara gains clarity. We spot the large male capybara half-baked in a sticky bog. It’s difficult not to laugh at an oversized guinea pig barking, but I celebrate a little wildlife victory. My guide turns to me and explains that the capybara is barking for one of two reasons. He is either gearing up for a seasonal mating ritual OR – most exciting of all – he has spotted a jaguar and is sending his warning signal.

We jump up from our seats and scan the horizon. From the corner of my eye I notice that the capybara is scrambling away from us.  I’m too occupied to take proper notice knowing that a jaguar could be nearby. Sure enough, 50 metres away from where we are standing, a jaguar announces its arrival with the cool slinking of it’s tail above the reeds of grass.

Felino and Nusa

Not just one, but two jaguars emerge from the grass. My guide recognises Felino and Nusa (a male and female) by their familiar markings. The two of them settle down in plain view, oblivious to us staring at them with wide eyes. I watch on astonished, as mother nature begins to take course and Felino looks to expand his family tree.

The two of them lay for a while, playing in the dusky light as we continue to watch in silence. As the darkness of night begins to creep in, I watch them head off across the flood plain in search of their next meal. I only hope that our barking capybara has managed to make a bit of headway as Felino and Nusa march towards the rainforest.

 

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Brand Bolivia

Brand Bolivia

The immigration officer smiled welcomingly, stamped my passport and waved me into his country, more interested in the music which was blaring out of his phone. This low key and unassuming start to my short stay in Bolivia in no way prepared me for the heights that I was to scale.

Bolivia is a rougher place to travel than its southern neighbor Chile, but offers the most authentic South American experience, with the highest proportion of indigenous people, a strong traditional culture and defies its stereotype of being a high Andean nation – sixty per cent of Bolivia is in the Amazon.

Having just crossed from northern Chile – Chile and Bolivia have maintained only consular relations since 1978, when territorial negotiations failed and Bolivia decided to sever diplomatic relations with Chile – I was not in the Amazon but what are known as the southern deserts of Bolivia. In particular, the mind-blowing Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. It is breathtaking, in part due to the altitude – the air is that much thinner at 4,500 metres – but in large part to the scenery. It is stunning, whether the sheer size and scale of the landscape or the texture of the colours, the subtle and variegated hues – nature at its finest.

A palette of colours as the yellow of the tufty paja brava grass, growing in clumps shaped like oversized burrs, and the bright green of llareta contrasted with the softer hues of yellow, ochre, brown, red and pink dramatically offset by the white of the snow and the intense dazzling blue of the sky. It is a panoramic paradise whichever way you turn and I am hugely thankful for digital photography as I ask to stop, the pumice clinks underfoot and I take yet another brilliant image.

Dali desert is well-named with its surreal rocks dotting a huge mountain of sand. Arbol de Piedra, an intriguing forest of stones eroded by the elements over millennia into bizarre shapes and structures. Laguna Colorada is out of this world with its vivid red contrasting so brilliantly with the white of the baurex. In spite of its sulphurous smells, Laguna Hediendo is delightful with its shrill whistling flamingoes as they tiptoe through the mud.

Sol de maňana is rustic and natural with no tourist hordes or boards, except for one sign warning not to go to close to the fumaroles. Bewitched by the colours and the bubbling of the mud, I step too close in search of that perfect image and my left foot sinks into soft boiling mud. I extract it hastily with a squelch the mud caking my shoe in a grey gloop and scalding my foot in the process.

We barely saw another car the whole day. Bolivia has a population of ten million and thus with an area of one million square kilometres – five times the size of the UK – it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. That was so apparent in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve where we saw no sign of human habitation. Only a few hardy creatures eking out an existence that looked like characters from Alice in Wonderland – curious and befitting of the otherworldly nature of this bewitching landscape.

A terrified viscacha, a large rabbit-like rodent with a long tail that and fabulously flamboyant whiskers. Pouting llamas with ribbons tied to their ears. By the road, herds of vicunas, dainty camelids with elongated necks, browse unperturbed, their coats of a fur so fine and soft that would provide the chic of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with a $25,000 coat of their own.

I have never seen landscapes that made me feel more keenly aware of the geography, geology and beauty of the planet.

Brand Bolivia Blog

In comparison I felt a little underwhelmed by my initial impression of one of South America’s undoubted highlights, Salar de Uyuni. This was in no small part due to the town of Uyuni, a downtrodden town of neglected brick buildings, that has bequeathed its name to the world’s largest salt flats that sit at a lofty 3,653 metres and blanket an amazing 10,000 square kilometres. The flats were part of a prehistoric salt-lake, which once covered most of southwest Bolivia. When it dried up, it left a couple of seasonal puddles and several salt pans, including the Salar de Uyuni. It is covered by a few metres of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with an average elevation of only one metre over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium, containing 60% of the world’s known lithium reserves.

However, any sense of anticlimax was quickly dispelled once on the flats. Speeding across the lake at 70mph without the slightest bump was invigorating. The scene before me – an unbroken line of the horizon, a minimalist canvas of white and blue – was astonishingly beautiful. The exceptional flatness of the surface, the limitlessness of the panorama and the intensity of the light gave the surreal illusion, the dreamlike quality of driving over the sky.

In one sense the brightness, the whiteness, the shimmering were relentless and mesmerizing. In another, the difficulty of getting a feel for distance and the lack of sense of perspective were soporific. And that was before being fed.

Brand Bolivia Brand Bolivia

Lunch was a whacky event. Dozens of 4x4s parked around Incahuasi, a remote stony desert island filled with cacti as opposed to palm trees, each setting out their stall of tables and umbrellas.  The multi- coloured beach parasols providing their lunch patrons with much needed shade from the dazzle of the salt. My lunch was a conjured-up feast of quinoa, salad and roast llama. It was a suitably zany menu for the setting, although – and this is no lie – it could have done with a bit of salt, and Don Simon, my usually dependable driver, did not have any.

Salar de Uyuni is said to contain around 10 billion tons of salt, of which only 25,000 tons are extracted each year. It is back-breaking work for not much reward as witnessed by a desolate figure carving bricks from the salt which he sells for construction for 1 USD each. Or in the small town of Colchani, where cholita, Bolivian women dressed in local garb of pleated skirts, colourful aprons, battered bowler hats and long black plaits, sell small bags of salt for virtually nothing – 25kg of salt costs US$1.

After lunch we drove to the charming small stone village of Chentani on the edge of the lake. Picturesquely set under a volcano with a delightfully pretty campanile, Chentani gave me a sense of perspective staring back at the salt flats, the sense that I was overlooking a white, calm sea. On the far shore, I could just make out the dark silhouette of the Andes.

In the flattering light of the late afternoon sun, I step out Don Simon’s 4×4 and wander out onto the flats. The silence and stillness were uplifting but this pales into insignificance with the shimmering brilliance of the reflected light. It was bizarre and wonderful and I had the impression that I was floating on air, in some form of heavenly dream.

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Become an Amazon Scientist in Peru

Seven hours by boat from Puerto Maldonado, located deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, is the Tambopata Research Centre, the most remote lodge in the Amazon. Because there is such a small human presence in this area, sightings of monkeys, macaws and other large species, such as jaguars, are more frequent, making this the perfect base for studying the huge number of species that call the jungle home. The Tambopata Research Centre is owned by a Peruvian ecotourism company that has been in operation since 1989.

 

Macaws and parrots - Mike Ritters, Peruvian AmazonIn 2015, Rainforest Expeditions launched Wired Amazon at the Tambopata Research Centre and Refugio Amazonas. Wired Amazon is an initiative that aims to engage visitors on a new level and provide an experience that can’t be found anywhere else. Working together with Zooniverse.org, Wired Amazon is a collection of citizen science projects that invite citizen scientists from all around the world to help the lodge researchers identify flora and fauna and from the comfort of their computer at home.

Canopy tower Peruvian AmazonThere are currently two excellent projects that citizen scientists can participate in via Zooniverse. The first is Aerobotany, in which volunteers examine high-resolution aerial images of the Amazon rainforest and record observations of flowering crowns, leafless crowns and other distinct tree crowns.

 

squirrel-monkey. Peru AmazonThe second project is the AmazonCam Tambopata, in which over 100 remote cameras have been set up to monitor the Amazon forest area surrounding the Tambopata Research Centre. Citizen Scientists are able to view the videos from these cameras and identify and study the populations of large mammals like jaguars, spider monkeys, tapir and peccaries.

 

When you visit the Tambopata Research Centre or Refugio Amazonas, you are invited to take part in other Wired Amazon citizen science projects. One of the most popular projects is “Discover a New Species.” As part of this activity, insects are drawn to a light trap at night and you are given the opportunity to collect them. Species can also be collected when you participate in collection walks with scientists. Later, the species are analysed for their appearance, life stage, sex, sexual reproduction and other characteristics. If the specimen is thought to be a new species, it is submitted to the International Barcode of Life (IBoL), an initiative that is currently building a DNA barcode library of all the living organisms on earth. If IBoL finds that one of the submitted specimens is a new species, you are given the opportunity to name that species.

 

Butterflies; Moths - Thomas Marrent, PeruOn average, Wired Amazon discovers one new species a month. In 2016, eight new species were identified, some by guests. Discover a New Species is one of the most popular Wired Amazon projects because of the excitement to contribute your name to science. However, other projects have yielded incredible findings as well, including rare images of a short-eared jungle dog carrying her pups, a jaguarondi with cubs and a dwarf porcupine – something that was not known to be present around Tambopata.

 

Tambopata River, Peru AmazonThe Tambopata Research Centre was built using low-impact native architecture and materials that help to enhance the jungle experience without compromising the integrity of the research centre as an eco-lodge. All bedrooms open out to the surrounding rainforests and include eco-friendly toiletries, a hammock, electricity, hot showers, mosquito netting and WiFi. So when you aren’t participating in Wired Amazon projects, there are all the necessary comforts to relax and enjoy the diverse jungle ecosystem.

 

Tambopata Research CentreFor those who want to truly immerse themselves in the jungle and be a part of something greater than just tourism, a stay at the Tambopata Research Centre or Refugio Amazonas is the way to go. With access to the Amazon Wired projects, macaw clay licks, a 30-metre canopy tower, five distinct habitats and more, Wired Amazon aims to educate travellers and properly introduce them to the wonders of the jungle.

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The quiet side of the Sacred Valley

‘Oh I’m sorry, we’ve come on a busy day’ said my guide Carlos cheekily, entering the Pumamarca Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley. Walking amongst the hill top ruins with their tall perfectly formed walls, symmetrical windows and commanding position at the fork of the valley, I noticed one other person.

Having visited the Sacred Valley 10 years ago, the feeling I remember was of being whisked along with other tourists going to all the must-see sites. This time I did things differently, I still went to many of the highlights in the valley but just timed my visits well to avoid the busy times, had a private guide giving the flexibility to stop when wanted and travelled at times on foot and by bike.

We spent three hours walking an Inca trail along terraced farm land, through native forest stunted in growth from the altitude, dripping with lichen and bromeliads and offering jaw dropping views. During this time, the only company, apart from my guide, was a tumbling glacial stream dancing over boulders as the path wove higher up the valley. A curious cow and a fleeting glimpse of a grey tailed Andean deer were seen but we didn’t pass any people for the entire time. It is incredible to think we were less than 20 miles from a more familiar Inca trail that leads to world renowned Inca ruins, where restrictions are in place to limit the number of daily walkers to 500.

My visit to the Inca site of Moray, with its decreasing concentric stone circles carpeted with grass, was by mountain bike, a slow way to travel but giving more time to admire the surroundings. Moray is a sight that is still unclear as to its purpose, the most common theory being it was an Inca cultivation sight with each terrace having its own micro climate. Cycling on a dirt track with no roads, cars or buildings for as far as the eye could see made me feel privileged to have this scenery all to myself. Rural life stretched out around like a tapestry woven with every shade of green. To say it was relaxing would not be completely truthful, every slight incline in the path was a reminder of the altitude as I puffed for much needed oxygen, but with a back-up vehicle on call I could go as little or far as I wanted.

Close to Moray I had the experience to meet with a Shaman and have a traditional ceremony giving offerings to Pachamama – Mother Earth. I was slightly sceptical as to whether it would feel staged and set up for tourists but in fact it was a special moment in a busy trip. I sat in the sun surrounded by 5,000 metre mountains as the Shaman chanted in Quechuan, an indigenous language of the Andes, to all four corners of the earth and gave offerings of coca leaves and flowers. A musician played traditional instruments of bells and various pipes and flutes during the ceremony. Many people in Peru still make regular offerings to Pachamama to ask for blessings for new homes, health for loved ones, or success in business. The experience made me stop, look around and appreciate where I was and to think about family at home.

My new memories of the Sacred Valley and Peru are now about the beauty of the scenery, the space and serenity, the variety and richness of experiences and the warmth of the people, a contrast to my previous trip. By stepping a short distance from the well-worn path it is easy to find your own piece of Andean life. I feel privileged to have had so much of the place to myself.

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The Problems of Overcapacity

I recently attended an excellent adventure travel conference in which I and my fellow tour operators were asked for our thoughts on four key issues facing the industry: currency, terrorism, Trump and over capacity. We were asked to list them in order of the threat we felt they posed to our respective businesses. I was surprised when currency was voted as the greatest concern to their businesses followed closely by terrorism and Trump. I was horrified by the fact that overcapacity was at the bottom of the list, especially as 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

For me the first three are temporary and not as fundamental as the last — sadly my travel colleagues did not see it this way. Whilst I am not cavalier with my clients’ safety, I am at the mercy of the vagaries of currency fluctuations and am certainly not an advocate of Trump. The dangers of overcapacity are the greatest threat to travel not least for the permanent damage they affect.

With any luck Trump will not be in power in four years’ time and hopefully currencies and regimes will be more stable  —they are issues but short-term ones. The same cannot be said of overcapacity and the harm done to the environment. According to figures of the United Nations, there were nearly 1.2 billion international travellers in 2015, up from 674 million in 2000. This figure is expected to grow to 1.8 billion people by 2030. The travel industry, governments and world bodies are well aware of this increase but is not doing enough to tackle this demand and problem of overcapacity. More specifically if you were to look at the Galápagos, one of the most fragile environments on Earth, the inaction of the Ecuadorian government is poor at best.

The Galápagos is one of the fastest-growing economies in South America with a per capita income higher than anywhere else in Ecuador. Nearly 40,000 people have made their home in the Galápagos, drawn by tourism. With them have come hundreds of introduced species, invasive plants and an infrastructure that simply can’t cope. Yet the authorities do little about this and the entrance fee to the Galápagos has changed by only US$20 in the last 15 years (from US$100 to US$120). Compare this to positive action. In the same fifteen-year time period, the cost for a one-hour gorilla permit in Rwanda and Uganda has increased from US$220 to US$750. Such a large rise has not only increased the revenue from gorilla permits – and hence the money that gets put back into conservation – but also the importance of gorillas to the respective governments and hence the determination of both governments to look after these assets. As a result gorilla welfare and numbers have increased. At Steppes Travel, we try to take positive action. Being responsible in our travels and operations both locally and globally is engrained in all that we do at Steppes.

Each time you travel with us, we donate £5 to a local charity in the UK and £10 to an international charity. Each time we travel, we offset our carbon emissions with the World Land Trust. If you can, we urge you to do the same.

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Can tourism in the Galapagos be sustainable?

So, how can tourism be a force for good in the Galapagos? And at what point will tourism destroy the very essence of what makes tourists visit the Galapagos in the first place?

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My Return to the Galapagos

Gapalgos - Pinker Charter - Galapagos Penguin

My return to the Galapagos has been preceded by the return of the Galapagos Island’s most famous prodigal son, Lonesome George. The world’s last remaining Pinta Island tortoise died in 2012 and following his death, the decision was made to have his body preserved. There followed two years of skillful taxidermy, undertaken by George Dante, founder of Wildlife Preservations based in New Jersey. From 2014, Lonesome George became the reptilian darling of museum lovers in New York, before he finally made his journey of repatriation to Ecuador on February 16th, 2017. After landing in Guayaquil and being declared the “illustrious son of our islands”, George made his way across the Pacific to Santa Cruz Island where he was greeted with the emotive cry of “Bienvenido, Solitario”. His final resting place is the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre where he has his own room, entitled the “Symbol of Hope”.

 

But does Lonesome George really represent hope? The sad story of an animal that outlived his own breed to become the last of his kind, strikes me as being more a symbol of despair. His death from old age in 2012 was an unwelcome reminder of the impotency of science and conservation in the face of extinction. Inevitably, his death attracted the vultures to their laptops, writing headlines such as ‘Paradise in Peril’ and ‘Paradise on the Brink’. This notion of ‘paradise’ is a burden that weighs heavy on the islands. It is an unfortunate truth that if a place is portrayed as paradise on earth than any piece of bad news, no matter how trivial, can be spun as proof of a paradise in decline.

On my return to the Galapagos I want to ignore the hyperbole to see if there really is cause for hope on the Enchanted Islands. It was 14 years ago that I last visited the islands and much has changed during this time. One of the major developments is in the growth of land based tourism in the Galapagos, especially on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Many see this as a negative development but is it possible that this is a good thing? I want to keep an open mind, ask questions but see with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions. The question I am eager to answer as impartially as I can, is whether tourism on the islands can be a force for good? The Galapagos Islands provide a yardstick against which the impact of sustainable travel as a whole should be measured. If tourism has a role to play in conservation then it has to succeed in the Galapagos where the spotlight shines most bright and the stakes are at their highest. I am both excited and nervous at the prospect of what I will find.

Steppes Big 5: Latin America Carnivals

Carnival Season, Brazil

It is carnival season in Latin America and with the residents of Rio preparing to drum, mambo and shimmy their way through the streets of the city this coming weekend, we thought we would share our favourite carnivals with you. Joyful processions, music and masquerade are not just the reserve of Brazil…

1. Brazil

Aside from the world-famous Rio Carnival, here are two others that we feel are well worth considering:

Olinda is a beautifully preserved colonial town and its annual festivities are known as the ‘carnival of participation’ during which people of all ages are encouraged to make their own costumes and join in with the street celebrations. Notable for the huge papier mache puppets, known as ‘bonecos’ which are carried aloft amidst the colourful parades and rousing music.

Probably best known as the first carnival to feature an electric parade float the colourful carnival of Salvador de Bahia is the second largest after Rio and nowadays features a huge truck decked out in some serious lighting and topped by a live band which forms the centrepiece of the celebrations.

2. Argentina

A carnival with the devil at its centre, the festivities at Quebrada de Humahuaca begin with the unearthing of Satan – a large devil shaped doll, buried at the end of the previous year’s festivities.  Mixing traditional indigenous and catholic celebrations, Satan is let out to play during nine days of partying before being buried for another year.

3. Bolivia

Located amidst the Andean highlands at 3,710 metres above sea level, Oruru Carnival is the highest located carnival in the world and celebrates the traditional dress, cultures and dance from all corners of Bolivia. Recognized by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the centrepiece of this 10-day festival is the ‘Dance of the Devils’ featuring hundreds of devils dressed in suitably scary costumes. The aim is to appease the devil through offerings, dance, music and costume. The festivities end with a huge water bomb fight.

 4. Mexico

Nicknamed the most joyful carnival in the world, the nine day Veracruz carnival is the largest in Mexico. Opening with a huge bonfire to burn away bad moods the festivities feature numerous competitions for the best group based on anything from their costumes to their dancing and even their joyfulness.
The carnival ends with the burial of Juan Carnaval, a mock funeral and an amusing reading of his will.

5. Colombia

Set in the colonial town of Barranquilla, this 4-day carnival has strong European, African and Indian traditions and is the largest carnival outside of Brazil. Another carnival that has been recognised by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” the festivities stem from a mix of Catholic and Pagan celebrations. Beginning with a six-hour parade of flowers the festivities feature much drum and wind based music and many dances with strong African links having originated from the Congo.

If you would like to plan a holiday to Latin America to coincide with any of the above carnivals. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Fernando de Noronha – My New Favourite Place

Fernando de Noronha has become my favourite spot in Brazil after only one day. I have been lucky enough to visit much of Brazil but the laid back island lifestyle, natural beauty above and below the ocean does it for me.

Fernando de Noronha is one of the most beautiful in all of South America, an exclusive island with less than 500 visitors allowed per day. It is located off the north east coast of Brazil, reached by a one hour flight from Recife. It is an archipelago of 21 islands and islets offering fine scuba diving and snorkelling, in fact 70% of this archipelago is a marine national park. It also has superb beaches with no fewer than 16 to choose from.

I decided to hit Conceicao Beach for some late afternoon sunshine. Snorkelling was my aim and it was fantastic. As the only person snorkelling in this beautiful bay, I was privileged to be amongst thousands of colourful fish before a sea turtle swam up to the surface a few metres from me. All the while I had to watch out for missile-shaped masked-boobies diving for sardines. I followed the turtle into the rocky shallows for a few minutes before spotting three more. Quite an amazing experience.

Conceicao Beach is the only one on the island with a bar on the sand, my top tip is to take a beer or caipirinha whilst watching the sunset, the surfers and locals playing volley foot. This bar reputedly has the coldest beer on the island, I’m pretty certain they do.

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Pre-Inca Civilisations with Hugh Thomson

Kuelap, Fortress Chachapoyya civilization

In a most engaging talk by Hugh Thomson last night, I learned so much about Peru and in particular its ancient civilisations. More than I have from any guidebook. That is the beauty and benefit of knowledge, of real insight. But more than just that, of real expertise clearly and concisely explained. Of a picture beautifully painted and importantly, well framed.

Hugh’s enthusiasm for his subject was palpable as he told us that there are more pyramids in Peru than in Egypt. That Peruvian history has so many layers that archaeologists and historians are still unpeeling some of the mysteries of Peru. Yes he introduced us to the familiar and iconic Machu Picchu but it was the way that he used an image of the Inca citadel shrouded in mist as a metaphor of all that remains hidden, of what we do not know, of what we are yet to discover. This, he said, is the charm of Peru, the allure that draws you back.

Hugh paid homage to Hiram Bingham but did so not just out of deference but also reference – to frame his work and expeditions in the region. The sites that he uncovered in and around Machu Picchu made us see the main site in a different light, from different angles. It also made me appreciate how much more there is in the environs of Machu Picchu but importantly what little we do know. As Hugh said, the key is not discovering something new – no mean feat in itself – but rather working out what it was used for and what it represented. Such are the beguiling mysteries of Peru.

But it was the pre-Inca civilisations of the north that really fired my imagination. It was here that civilisations came and went not because of dynastic rivalries but rather because of the weather. He left us with powerful images of drug-fuelled shamans blowing sea shells as they battled with the demons of the weather. Perhaps the most striking images were of the Moche masks and some of their jewellery – they were much better jewellers than the later Incas. “You won’t see an exhibition of Peruvian art or archaeology in London (unlike pre-Columbian Mexico) – you have to go and see it in situ,” Hugh finished. It was too much for most in the audience, they were already buying their tickets.

Join Hugh Thomson on our group tour to Peru, in search of pre-Inca civilisations, departing in June 2018. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Tree Planting in Peru

Tree planting target
Steppes Travel are the proud owners of a miniature rain forest in the Peruvian Andes, consisting of 2,000 native trees. The charity ECOAN planted some 76,000 native trees throughout the Peruvian Andes in 2016, with an ambitious goal to plant 100,000 trees during the coming season. This collaborative effort, with a number of native villages will help restore an endangered habitat in the high Andes of Peru. The first weekend of planting in early December saw hundreds of people from the local community joining together armed with picks and shovels to help plant 52,100 trees.

 

Dining out in Argentina – Meat and Two Veg

Tango Street Dancer, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Now I have travelled in Argentina several times so should have known better but on my recent trip I made the mistake of ordering steak. Argentina is renowned for its steak so this is a great idea but please do remember they like big portions and vegetables are a side dish. The steak that arrived was two thirds the size of my dinner plate and was accompanied by two green beans. Technically that is meat and two veg.

For a foodie Argentina is a great place to travel with plenty of meat options and great wines. The classic Parrilla is steakhouse restaurant where the meat is prepared on a grill, the most common way for beef, lamb or even guanaco to be cooked. You will find a wide range of them throughout all of Argentina. This is not to be confused with an Asado which is more of a social gathering and an event rather than just a meal out. Many estancias will have an Asado night.

Tango may sound like a rather touristy event but in Buenos Aires this is still very popular and a night out at one of the good shows will provide you not only with a fantastic meal but also a great view of the show. Pay the extra for the VIP service and you will get the best food and seats in the house, equivalent of the upper circle giving a great view down onto the stage. Even if you are not interested in dancing it is hard not to get swept up by the emotion of it all. I visited one of the oldest shows the Carlos Gardel which can be busy but the show changes to keep it fresh and the dancers are phenomenal, you will also learn some of the history of the dance.

For a more intimate eating experience then try dinner with a local family. I spent a wonderful evening at the Posada las Juncos with Sofia, Lucas and their daughter Olivia. They invited me in as a friend, unfortunately the weather was not so good so the outdoor Asado was not an option but I chatted to them in the kitchen while the food was cooking, then sat in the bar trying the appetisers and local (very strong) aperitifs. We sat down for dinner as a family and chatted about everything from pop music to politics and everything in between. The amazing slow roast lamb dinner was accompanied by great wine and it would have been churlish of me to turn down a tasting of the local brewed whisky La Alazana, particular as my guide, who had joined us, was a local bagpipe player and very proud of his Scottish ancestry.

The ”Argentina Experience” is an evening of light-hearted learning, eating and quite a lot of drinking.  A welcome cocktail sets you up for the evening ahead. You will then learn how to create a number of wine cocktails before making the one of your choice. You then adjourn to the restaurant to learn how to make empanadas and partake in a three course meal with a selection of local wine. Ending the night with the quintessentially Argentinean mate, a communal “cuppa” not too dissimilar to lapsang souchong and definitely an acquired taste. You will also learn a few of the traditions and cultural nuances of Porteno life.

Get in touch to learn more about our holidays to Argentina. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Argentina – Nature’s Superstructures

Viewing platform of Perito Moreno

‘It’s falling’ someone shouted, as I turned to see a sizeable chunk of the front of the glacier breaking and crumbling into the lake below. Quite a sight to watch as huge lumps of ice fell creating large waves across the lake below. Oh to be quicker with one’s camera but I was not disappointed, it was great to have witnessed this, a memory that won’t be forgotten.

A three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires lies the small town of El Calafate. This southerly point, home to around 20,000 people, is the gateway to view unspoilt scenery at its very best. There are few towns in the world further south and upon arrival you feel a rewarding sense of discovery of a landscape far away.

Facts and appreciation of the scale of the area are key to understanding what a unique place you are in. Remarkably for a lake fed by such massive glaciers, Lake Argentina sits at only 187 metres above sea level. On my visit to the most famous of glaciers, Perito Moreno, the answer is offered as to how at this altitude it is  possible for such impressive glaciers to form.  It’s the Andes, plain and simple, the geographical wall that straddles virtually the entire Chilean – Argentine border that are fully responsible. As warm air currents flow east across the pacific, the humidity is dramatically absorbed by the mountain range. Only the coldest air is able to filter across, where it meets the arid Patagonian steppe on the Argentine side, is where snow regularly falls. Over a number of years this snowfall has formed some massive glaciers that totally dominate the landscape.

At over 3 miles in width and boasting heights over 70 metres, as well as an impressive 170 metres below the waterline, the Perito Moreno glacier is really quite a spectacle. With a surface area of 96 square miles it is larger than the city of Buenos Aires and holds the third largest mass of fresh water in the world. Photos cannot do this area and the glaciers justice, in such vast mountainous spaces it is not until you get close that you begin to realise just how impressive they are.

The western base of the glacier is where I equipped myself with crampons ready to walk across a tiny section of this vast glacier. From here it looked like a smooth wall of ice, with the edges meeting the water with a completely vertical face. On top of the glacier you can see jagged peaks and bottomless crevices with an astonishing shade of deep sapphire blue. Walking on the snow the sound of the crampons crunching underfoot was strangely satisfying, whilst the creeks and groans of the slowly advancing glacier were not so. You do have to put your trust in the knowledge of the guides and thickness of the ice. What can only be described as the sound of an army letting off cannons would occasionally echo all around, a stark reminder that this glacier is constantly in motion. As the trek came to an end a well-positioned table, clearly a permanent fixture, came into view towards the edge of the glacier. This incongruous table was where I was rewarded by my guide with whiskey served over chunks of glacial ice thousands of years old. Without a doubt my most memorable place for a whiskey.

As I sailed away from the glacier I looked back and saw people still trekking on the glacier. It was a perfect illustration of the scale of the scenery, so small they looked against the backdrop of one of nature’s superstructures.

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The Wonders and Wilderness of Chile

As welcome signs go they don’t come much bigger or more impressive than the Andes Mountains, appearing out of nowhere, rugged and gnarly as though they have been squeezed out of the flat Pampas surrounding them.

Although I have been lucky enough to visit Chile before, the sight of the Andes never fails to excite. Exploring new places is always inspiring; this trip was to bring a mix of the well-known Torres del Paine, to the remote wilderness of the Carretera Austral in the Aysen region.

The Carretera Austral is Chile’s 770 mile Route 7 in northern Patagonia, running from the Chilean Lake district of Puerto Montt, to the small village of Villa O’Higgins at the foot of the southern Patagonian ice fields. From the small town of Balmaceda, which houses the region’s main airport, I travelled south to the stilted coastal village of Tortel, only accessible by air or boat until 2003 when the road was built. The Carretera Austral itself is a gravel road which winds through stunning scenery, small villages and remote settlements. With every turn the scenery changes, from tree shrouded valleys to rocky, snow-capped mountains; from emerald rivers to turquoise glacial fed braided streams. Crystal clear lakes reflect the surrounding mountains, amplifying the magnificence of the scenery. It’s a true adventure driving down the seemingly endless Carretera without a car in sight, just the tell-tale sign of dust in the distance to let you know
that humanity is still out there. The area receives few tourists each year so you will enjoy the stunning scenery pretty much to yourself. Travelling in this area is easy with a hire car, and with one road, the only thing to get lost are your thoughts.

Whilst the scenery is raw and untouched the level of accommodation is far from this. With wonderful lodges all within their own beautiful setting, they offer a dusty and happy traveller a welcome place to stay each night. Not only is the accommodation of a high standard offering great local food and wine, the owners are incredibly friendly and are proud to share their knowledge of the area.

After the remote beauty of northern Patagonia, I was unsure whether the much lauded Torres del Paine would live up to my expectations. Setting off from Punta Arenas on a smoother, straighter and extremely windy road to Torres del Paine National Park, the excitement and anticipation started to build. The scenery changed from the flat open expanse of the Patagonia Steppe, with hills and mountains appearing and then as we rounded the corner and looked to the distance, there was the iconic Torres del Paine Massif, standing alone, mighty and proud.

Not only does the National Park contain the granite massif but also meandering rivers, lakes and glaciers with endless hiking opportunities. There are vantage points from which to photograph and view the varied scenery the park has to offer all linked by a good road network. It doesn’t matter where you are in the park, your eye is always drawn back to the incredible Torres del Paine mountain sculpture, you find yourself staring at them, yet again, in wonderment as your camera shoots off another dozen photos.

If you want to see some of the last true wilderness areas without having to rough it, travelling through Chile on the Carretera has much to offer. Despite being a renowned tourist site, Torres del Paine has maintained its sense of majesty and remoteness and should be on everyone’s ‘places to visit’ list.

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Ecuador – A day out at the playground

We pull up to the rustic wooden jetty, the noise of the engine receding giving way to the lively chatter of the forest. With the midday sun bouncing off the leaves, the bright colours of the rainforest were vibrant, showcasing the diversity of flora surrounding us. The chitter chatter of the birds was deafening broken only by the rustling of trees as the stealth like animals leaped between the branches.

‘Stop!’ I had barely got both feet onto the jetty when my guide Marco stopped me quickly. ‘Listen. What do you think that sound is?’ I aimlessly shuffled a Filofax of wildlife through my brain whilst silently believing the sound was akin to Crocodile Dundee’s signature bull-roarer moment from the mountain top. ‘Howler monkeys.. that is the dominant male’. He imitates the deep bellied grunting that was bellowing across the jungle ‘they are not far away!’

I walk a short distance to board a smaller canoe that sits further down the jetty. ‘This is just the changeover point. We can only use the very small canoes to access the lodge…this is where the real adventure starts!’. He beams across at me, holding my arm as I precariously navigate into the back seat of the new canoe.

We set off shortly with two local men silently paddling us into the overgrown darkened jungle — a waterway channel that was leading us deeper into the rainforest. The trees are still dripping from an earlier downpour, these trees protected from the sunshine by the crowded canopy above. ‘Keep watch. There is wildlife everywhere — the more eyes looking the better our chances!’

The channel was leading us deeper into the Yasuni National Park and to Napo Wildlife Centre Ecolodge where we would spend the night. Yasuni I am later told is the most biodiverse place on the planet comparative to its size with the location of the park nurturing the abundance of flora and fauna. It is ecologically rich, full of mammals, amphibians, birds and insects and with a year round climate of long sunlight hours, warmth and consistent moisture — nature’s perfect greenhouse.

Eyes peeled, we all look from side to side keen to be the helpful spotter. Thick tangled trees and twisted branches made it feel impossible to spot anything — the deep green colours dominating every angle. Suddenly our lead paddler raised his arm in the air and signalled to the paddler to the rear of the canoe in calm motions to show that we were to go back. A few words were exchanged in local tongue followed by Marco silently signalling upwards into the canopy.

The view was dominated by thick foliage making my efforts resort to the assisted zoom of the long lens. With a wry smile, Marco sees our feigned attempts and points into the trees from which a small laser signals the area of the elusive animal. An outline that I had mistaken for a branch hung motionlessly  a sloth.

We watched, marvelling at the beautiful creature hanging in the treeline, zooming closer to see the markings difficult to distinguish with the naked eye. Slowly she raised her face that had been tucked tight, her dark black eyes gazing across at us with interest. It was an incredible feeling — a jumbled mixture of nerves and excitement with the knowing realisation that shortly this moment would shortly be gone.

The treasures of the Yasuni National Park continued to follow in force throughout my journey deeper into the park. Having travelled into other parts of the Amazon I was prepared that wildlife here is easier heard than seen, with the dense tropical rainforest concealing much from view. At Yasuni however it felt like a visit to the kids playground of the Amazon. Each animal more lively and making more of a racket whilst they charge about their daily business. From Capuchin and squirrel monkeys dashing from branch to branch to the masses of colourful parrots that eagerly gather at clay-licks, each day was full of excitement.

Conservation in the Amazon

Sadly, as with many of the most precious places on the planet, there is vulnerability to the Yasuni National Park. Still struggling to hold its place as an ecological destination, tourism continues to play second fiddle to the rewards of exploiting its natural resources . It continues to be under threat from the oil industry that  — in conjunction with the Ecuadorian government — still value the industry rich resources above the preservation of this precious environment. A subject that is not masked to travellers but at the forefront of each conversation with guides or the local communities who are keen to enforce change before it is too late. Marco grew up in a local community and has spent his adult life living and working in the Ecuadorian Amazon. “I have worked in other areas of the Amazon and believe me, this place is special. You will not see any more wildlife anywhere else in Amazon. It needs to be protected”.

Walking the Americas

Levison Wood returns to our screens with a new series on Sun 08 Jan, 8pm. This time Levison is trekking 1800 miles from Mexico to Colombia, initially exploring the diverse range of landscapes found in Central America before attempting to cross the Darien Gap into Colombia and South America.

Along the way Levison meets a fascinating array of people from Mennonite farmers, shamans and pilgrims to the Bribri tribe in Costa Rica. Catch all the action of this new series on Channel 4.

If you are interesting in following in some of his foot steps, check out our Colombia – Darien Gap, Caribbean Coast and Medellin holiday.

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A Peru holiday with a difference: Discovering Northern Peru

Having experienced the classic southern route of Peru, the “Gringo Trail” if you will, I was interested to experience the much, lesser visited north. For the first time in my life I feel like I’m one of the privileged few to have experienced a really special place before it booms. I’ve spent the last few days doing brilliant things like visiting 4500 year old Moche pyramids, hiking to cliff side Chachapoya tombs and looking around world class museums, and not once have I seen even one other tourist. It’s been one private viewing after another, which couldn’t be more different from the south of the country, where hundreds of people flock to the top sights daily on their routine Peru holiday.

Being in the back of beyond, I didn’t expect the museums to be much cop, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed museums as much as I have on this trip. The Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum is an absolute treasure trove – it’s full of incredibly well preserved artifacts found in the Sipan Tombs; burial places of some of the most important people in the ancient Moche culture. Having seen the actual tombs earlier in the day, it was fantastic to see their even more incredible contents. I can’t even begin to imagine the excitement of the archaeologists upon discovering all that ancient history, piece by piece; the intricacy of these artifacts is mind blowing, as is their state of preservation. I bounced around the museum like a child in a sweet shop, wanting to look at, and wishing I could touch, everything. The mysteries of this culture and their beliefs are so enthralling it’s almost frustrating, as so little is known, but it’s so, so exciting to examine the things they valued enough to put into graves and ponder over their meanings and importance. For instance, owl necklaces seemed to be on every neck, but no one knows why.

The most accurate word I can find to describe the scenery around Chachapoyas is enchanting. If we’d stopped everywhere I wanted to take pictures of something beautiful, interesting or sweet, we’d still be miles from here. Instead, I hiked for two hours to the Revash painted tombs built into the cliff face. This was hard going but hugely rewarding. After that I visited a couple of family run lodges, each with just a few rooms and delightful owners. I spotted, and managed to photograph, a big sword-billed hummingbird that sounded like a lawnmower at one of these. Then, another outstanding museum, containing over 200 mummies found in another cliff side Chachapoya tomb about a 10 hour walk from the museum.

I spent the next day visiting Kuelap – a remote mountain ridge-top citadel – just as impressive as Machu Picchu, if not more. It has the same ethereal, atmospheric quality as some of the overgrown temples in Cambodia’s Angkor complex. Again – my guide and I had the place entirely to ourselves, with the exception of two dogs and a puppy who followed us around, and the few llamas employed to mow the lawn.  In the afternoon we squeezed in a hike to see the amazing karajia, statues on a cliff face housing bodies. Walking around a corner and looking up to see them perched on the cliff face, as they have been for hundreds of years, was an incredible thrill.

There’s so much more to see in the north that I’ve not had time for on this trip, so I will certainly be coming back. Hopefully as soon as possible!

I’ve now come down to Huaraz, in Central Peru, to sample some of the stunning hikes in the Cordilleras Negra and Blanca. Then onto the south and into the Amazon. This is set to be a Peru holiday of epic proportions and one I can’t wait to start offering to our clients.

Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Peru, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Why should you travel to Peru with us?

A note from our Peruvian partners on why you should travel to Peru with Steppes Travel

Whisper it quietly but beyond Machu Picchu lies another Peru. One that our Peruvian ground agent love to discover and share.

Yes Machu Picchu is worth flying across the globe to see. Yes Machu Picchu really is a wonder of the world. But what many forget is that Peru is so much more than just Machu Picchu. In the same way that England is more than Buckingham Palace, San Francisco is more than a bridge and Wales is more than the Millennium Stadium.

What really excites us, what we spend our free time doing, is finding new places to visit and finding new ways to get to the places that everyone visits.   And to do this you need to get off the bus. We use self-powered travel, to get to the heart of rural Peru, a Peru beyond the crowds, beyond the car parks, a Peru beyond Machu Picchu. Yet you do not have to go on a big trip to get there. The real Peru begins right on our doorstep, closer than you think. And all it requires to get there is a little effort and a little knowledge.

Twenty minutes walking or ten minutes biking from the crowds of buses visiting the main Cusco ruins,  lie Inca sites few from Cusco, let alone tourists, have ever explored. An Inca prison and rounded colonial bread kilns that we discovered long ago whilst out mountain biking. A hand-built Inca canal, which appeared to be just another small stream until running a new trail we were forced to wade across. Only there, stood in the stream as the cool water lapped our ankles was the Inca stonework revealed.

Moray and Maras are just another two sights on a long list, unless you get out of the bus and link them by foot, horse or bike. If you dare to do so, you will meet locals working their fields, tending their sheep, or shading under a tree with a glass of chicha. Even Pisac ruins- visited by hundreds of tourist each day, has secrets to offer if you just walk away from the bus. Ten minutes past the end of the tourist circuit, lives a whole community of people.

So yes, come to Peru to see Machu Picchu. But think carefully about what kind of Peru you want to see. Is it the same Peru that most companies will show you? Where you pull up in a bus with hundreds of others? Where the only locals you meet are the ones selling souvenirs? Or is it rural Peru, real Peru, a Peru beyond Machu Picchu – where you need a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of effort?

We will provide the knowledge if you provide the effort.

P.S. I am writing just half an hour outside Cusco. Hills fill the horizon; wind rustles through the ruins where an Inca was born; a kestrel glares from a post above; and a pair of oxen have just run into the garden chased by a man from whose wooden plough they have escaped. That to me is Peru.
Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Peru, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Colombian Gold

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Wherefore art thou jaguar – searching for jaguar in the Pantanal

Gliding up and down the Cuiaba river, eyes desperately searching along the banks and into the vegetation beyond, just to catch the glimpse of a tail or a whisker, or better still the sleek silhouette of a Jaguar. No such luck. The clouds came out of nowhere, the wind picked up and suddenly our boat was turning around and heading back towards the pier at Porto Jofre.

My heart sank as I realised that, despite a generous handful of sightings the day before, I was not going to see one of the elegant cats with my own eyes.

My experience of the Northern Pantanal last year was wonderful, and the icing on the cake would have been a Jaguar sighting, but of course it is never guaranteed and with only one day on the water searching for the famed feline, my chances were already reduced. Throw in some unusually bad weather and the likeliness of cat spotting was pretty minuscule.

A fortuitous trip to the Southern Pantanal has provided me with a second chance to explore the area and whilst the distances are large to get to the best lodges, the reward is vast expanses of farm land belonging to each fazenda where wildlife is plentiful and can be explored by horseback, boats and jeeps. By a happy coincidence, the lodge that I am staying at, Barra Mansa, is the same fazenda that Michael Palin chose for his BBC series on Brazil.

This morning we set off on horseback as the sun was rising, passing lakes full of capybara, South America‘s enormous rodent, and riding through clusters of bacuri palms with a scattering of colourful macaws and toucans. I didn’t even dare to hope that we would have a cat sighting but suddenly my guide Joao pointed underneath a tree about 10 metres ahead of us where a magnificent puma was resting. No time to take a photo, I could only enjoy the moment as I looked it in the eye, then, just as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished, leaving only its tracks behind.

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Exploring Secret Patagonia – Tagua Tagua Park

Tagua Tagua Park

Tagua Tagua Park lies just three hours’ drive south east of Puerto Varas, in the Chilean Lake District. It is a Private Protected Area (APP) that opened to the public just three years ago. Last year less than 850 people visited Tagua Tagua Park, so this is virgin tourism territory.

Exploring this wilderness of ancient forest, lagoon, rivers, waterfalls and rugged mountains felt like a real privilege and that I had stumbled upon a secret part of Patagonia. The journey itself to Tagua Tagua Park is spectacular. I drove along the edge of Lake Llanquihue, past cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and forests golden with autumn colours. Near to our destination we followed a bumpy dirt road that trails the Tagua Tagua River, (home to some of the best trout in the world), before reaching the end of the road at the head of Tagua Tagua lake. There are no vehicles in the park itself, the steep sided mountainous terrain does not allow for it, so I left the car and the last trace of civilisation behind and took a short 20 minute boat ride to the entrance of the park.

The entrance to Tagua Tagua Park is dramatically and noisily marked by the Rio el Salto plummeting 60 metres into the lake below. Here I met Diego, the park guide, and we headed off. After a short scramble we reached the official start of the park, the visitors lodge, a simple wooden cabin with the most magnificent views. The trail we walked took us along well maintained wooden walkways and bridges, through thick fern like jungle, under huge native alerce (larch) trees and in forests of lenga (southern beech).

Travelling at the end of the season I virtually had the park to myself and walking with Diego allowed me a unique and personal experience of Tagua Tagua Park. He shared his passion for the park, the wildlife that lives here and the incredible environment that is being protected. It is hoped that Tagua Tagua Park will join with Hornopirien National Park, to create a corridor for wildlife, particularly puma, foxes, huemel deer (national animal of Chile), huillin (river otter) and condors.

There are two basic refuges that allow 28 people to sleep within the park itself or across the Tagua Tagua Lake is the Mitico Puelo Lodge, a former fishing lodge. The lodge is surrounded by grass and woodlands, a perfect playground in nature, with swimming pool and wood fed hot tub, the perfect place to relax after a day of adventure.

The opportunity to really be part of nature, get away from any phone signal and enthuse with nature is rare, but Tagua Tagua Park offers that opportunity.

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Steppes Big 5 reasons to visit the Sacred Valley before heading to Machu Picchu

Inca Women Peru

The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is a place that draws people from all over the world. It is a truly spectacular sight deep within the Andes Mountains that has fascinated many since its discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Although photographs have daubed many international travel magazines and much has been written, nothing can fully prepare you for just how spectacular, awe inspiring and mythical this place really is. It is not surprising that when presented with the opportunity to return I was delighted and eager to marvel this great wonder once again. On this trip I spent some days within the Sacred Valley before reaching Machu Picchu. What I discovered in doing so was an absolute treat and highlighted just how much a visit to the area can offer.

1. Inca Sites

Although Machu Picchu remained undiscovered for centuries after the fall of the Incan Empire, many sites were discovered much earlier. Since Spanish colonisation many of these sites have been damaged but nonetheless remain sites of huge historical interest.

Travelling through the Sacred Valley it soon became apparent that there are Inca sites everywhere. With the benefit of a good guide I realised that the valley is in fact one massive outdoor museum, covered with archaeological places that each help to form an understanding of the workings of this intriguing empire.

One such place I visited was Moray, an Incan agricultural laboratory that was likely used to cultivate resistant and hearty varieties of plants high in the Andes. It straddles the mountainside and has been restored to reveal a fascinating side to Incan farming. Another extraordinary place I discovered is the small village of Maras. High in the Andes where natural sources of salt seem impossible, the area was cultivated by the Incas to form salt ponds from a natural spring. Using skilled techniques farmers continue to cultivate the area to extract salt to this day. Other fascinating sites include Qoricancha, Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Chinchero and many more, all in their own way providing an important insight into the life and culture of the Incas.

2. Location

The Sacred Valley stretches for approximately 60 kilometres and encompasses areas of fertile farmland and colonial villages scattered alongside the Urubamba River. It is this expanse of land between Cusco and Machu Picchu that formed the heart of the once magnificent Incan Empire.

Machu Picchu actually sits at a relatively modest altitude of 2430 meters above sea level, by contrast Cusco sits at 3400. Thus the huge appeal of a stay within the Sacred Valley immediately becomes both obvious and appealing; the chance to acclimatise. Many visitors will arrive into Cusco and head to a city hotel, whereas a relatively short drive into the Sacred Valley enables you to rest at a more modest altitude and unwind in beautiful surroundings.

3. Superb Hotels & Spas

Within the valley I discovered several delightful properties dotted across this vast mountainous floor. Owing to the idyllic surroundings nearly every room of each hotel can boast spectacular uninterrupted views. Anyone in search of total rest and relaxation will instantly feel rewarded by a stay here, an excellent area to unwind and switch off.  A vast range of treatments are on offer at many resorts providing the perfect opportunity to spoil yourself. Additionally I found the quality of the hotel restaurants to be of a high standard, so many taking huge pride in offering the very best in Peruvian and international cuisine.

4. Adventure

For those who would prefer a more adventurous stay there are a wide range of activities to enjoy here. I had the opportunity to whitewater raft, horse ride, trek along the many Inca trails and zip wire. I opted this time for a biking tour. Quite simply a fantastic experience, the trips are great for all levels of fitness and can be organised with minimal uphill cycling. Cycle across the many pathways, meandering through the valley taking in the stunning scenery.

5. Markets

One of the biggest draws to Peru and to the Sacred Valley in particular is the wonderful display of handcrafted clothing, jewellery and ceramics on offer at several of the village markets. The most renowned of these is the market within the village of Pisac. Here I found the cobbled streets are lined with artisan creations that are often extremely colourful and superbly made. Well worth leaving some space in your luggage for.

The big draw to this beautiful part of Peru will always remain Machu Picchu but to spend a day or two in the valley itself is fun, relaxing and incredibly rewarding.

Get in touch to learn more about our Peru holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Malbec in Mendoza

Vines, Mendoza

Mendoza is located on the border between Argentina and Chile, at the base of the highest mountain in the Americas, Aconcagua at an altitude of 6,962m. The views are stunning; from the lines of grape covered vines, the tall swaying poplar trees there to protect the vines to the stunning back drop of the snow-capped Andes. Where better to visit the wineries, many dating back over a hundred years, to sample many different grape varieties, particularly Malbec.

Fine Dining in Mendoza

The wine is famous in the Mendoza region and particularly the new world grapes from the Uco Valley. You can stay in places like The Vines, where you can visit the winery, which produces over 200 different bottled varieties, and you can eat in one of the finest restaurants; Siete Fuegos, with food inspired by the chef Francia Mallmann. After all the mouth-watering food and wine, stroll the 100 metres to your individual 2 bedroom villa, set amongst the vines and laze in your pool, sipping a glass of Malbec watching the sun dip behind the golden Andes.

Relaxing in Mendoza

Argentina is a huge country and offers many great places to explore and discover, however the beaches are quite desolate and the sea cold. Therefore when travelling throughout Argentina, the region of Mendoza offers the relaxing element at the end of a trip, where rather than sitting on a beach, you can relax in the warm surroundings of a vineyard and indulge in great food and wine.

Mendoza has now really come of age and is now the gastronomic and wine capital and one of the places you must visit in Argentina, along with the capital Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and Patagonia.

Get in touch to learn more about how we operate in Argentina. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Leading Ladies: One of our own – Q & A with Sue Flood

Sue Flood was an Associate Producer on the award winning BBC series ‘The Blue Planet’ and is a photographer, author, wildlife filmmaker and conservationist. Her travel and photography highlights include diving with humpback whales in the South Pacific, face to face encounters with leopard seals in the Antarctic, filming of polar bears in the Arctic and on safari in Zambia. Sue has led many of our photographic wildlife group tours and will be joining our cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands with Monty Halls and Telegraph Tours departing next January.

We asked Sue to share her thoughts on who inspired her to become a photographer, which place she is happiest, her best travel advice and more…

What was your earliest or childhood ambition?

At school I wanted to work on wildlife films with David Attenborough, so to get to do that for 11 years was truly a dream come true!

What ambitions do you still have?

To be a better photographer and get fitter!

Ambition or talent: Which matters more?

They’re both important. And you make your own luck, to some extent. Whenever people tell me I’m lucky, I always reply that the harder I work, the luckier I get!

If your 20-year old self could see you know, what would he/she think?

I think she’d be pleasantly surprised at how happy I am, doing a job that I love, and very happily married to a childhood friend who I met when I was 9!  I also think she’d be amazed to find out I was invited to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace as a result of my photography. 

If you had to rate your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

It goes up to 11, like the amps in Spinal Tap.

In what place are you happiest?

Home is where the heart is. Though an emperor penguin colony is the place I’m happiest in the field!

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Of course I do. I wish it were possible to do my job without getting on a plane.

How often do you travel?

Several long-haul trips a year.

The one essential you travel with?

My camera, of course!

Your best piece of travel advice?

Save your airmiles!  Saving my points with Virgin Airlines allowed me to get married on the beach on Necker Island last year (and Richard Branson was our witness!).

What advice would you give to young ladies wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Work hard, and don’t ever think of doing this job unless you want to do it more than anything else in the world!

What motivates you to do what you do?

Getting people interested in the natural world, whether through still or moving images.

Who has inspired you to do what you do?

No prizes for guessing it’s David Attenborough!

If you could do it all over again, is there anything you would change?

No – most of my career has been wonderful, and the bits that haven’t have taught me something, so I wouldn’t change a thing.

Travel with Sue on one of our wildlife group tours below or get in touch with our experts for more information on an exclusive Galapagos charter in 2017 led by her. Call us on 01285 601 791 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Brazil Holiday: Discovering the Pantanal

If, like me, you love wilderness and open spaces then the loneliness and vastness of the Pantanal will move you deeply. Yet there is far more to the Pantanal than openness – it is the world’s largest tropical wetland area hosting a number of ecosystems and covers up to an estimated 75,000 square miles. Importantly this means that it’s the best place in the Americas for wildlife – its open spaces make wildlife far more visible than in the Amazon rainforest.

Thus it is no surprise that the Pantanal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it a must visit whilst on your Brazil holiday.

Dotted with lakes, lagoons and rivers, rainforest and riverine forest – throughout its expanses the wildlife viewing is incredible. Populated with hundreds of bird species such as kingfishers, parakeets, toucans, the purple/blue Hyacinth Macaw, the lanky Jabiru Stork and the rare Pygmy Kingfisher. Not forgetting the mammals and reptiles that include herds of the guinea pig-like capybara, Giant Otter, tapir, Giant Anteater, monkeys, ocelot, the maned wolf, anaconda and millions of caiman. And of course, the poster boy of the Pantanal, the elusive jaguar.

Simply, the Pantanal is divided between the north and the south. Each area providing you with a very different holiday experience. First, I flew to the more accessible north, with the Transpantaneira only one and a half hours by road from the city of Cuiaba.  I was struck by the flatness of the region – making it prone to flooding – and the more aquatic form of flora and fauna, with many migratory birds. The accommodation was simple yet comfortable and on my daily excursions – whether by day or night, whether riding or walking – I was blown away by the variety.

The highlight of the North for me was the Cuiaba River. I took boat trips up the smaller tributaries and experienced the region’s beauty and variety and got a real sense of it being South America’s Wild West. In the dry season, the only water is in the rivers and thus the animals are drawn to their banks to drink and hunt.  Between August and September, there is a high probability of sighting Jaguar, making it one of the foremost places in the world to see this elusive cat. Unfortunately, I travelled in June and did not see a jaguar but any disappointment was more than made up by seeing Giant Otters.

Next I travelled to the Southern Pantanal via Campo Grande and a long but engrossing three hour drive. This region is best visited by plane creating a fantastic flying safari holiday. I loved the southern Pantanal for its greater variation of topography with small mountain ranges, allowing for greater concentrations of wildlife on the high ground during the flooded season.

I stayed in farms that are huge cattle ranches that are also open up to tourism, therefore you experience the Pantaneiro cowboy culture as well as the amazing wildlife. The remote lodges gave me a more intimate and less touristy experience – I was staying with the owner’s family and experienced and shared in their day to day way of life.

For me, a highlight was Caiman Ecological Refuge. They run the Oncafari jaguar project, where you can observe Jaguar in the wild that have become habituated to vehicles.

I am not a writer and do not feel that I have done the Pantanal justice. Simply put it is the world’s largest wetlands and is a magnet for wildlife lovers and a must see for any wildlife enthusiast. Call me and I will try and enthuse you further.

Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Brazil, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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A Gastronomic Mendoza Holiday

The Argentinians take their meat seriously; so too their wine. Given that Mendoza is the gastronomic and wine capital of the country, my expectations were high. My Mendoza holiday did not disappoint.

Flying into Mendoza, I was immediately struck by the views – from the lines of grape-covered vines, the tall swaying poplar trees to protect the vines, to the stunning back drop of the snow-capped Andes. Mendoza is located on the border between Argentina and Chile, at the base of the highest mountain in the Americas, Aconcagua at an altitude of 6,962m

With over three hundred days of sunshine, it is ideal for visitors – so too the terroir – and wine tourism is on a roll. Mendoza now boasts almost a thousand wineries. The experience is more than just sampling the wines. You can picnic among the vineyards, you can cycle between them or you can even fly over them in a hot air balloon.

There is a wealth of new accommodation from rustic lodges to high concept places like The Vines, one of my favourites. Here I loved the winery, which produces over 200 different bottled varieties, and the  restaurant Siete Fuegos, or ‘seven fires’, with food inspired by the chef Francis Mallmann. The open-flame cooking techniques, inspired by Argentine gauchos, were enthralling and the rustic, fiery flavours of the nine hour slow-grilled rib eye were outstanding.

My last night at The Vines began by the pool, sipping a glass of Malbec watching the sun dip behind the golden Andes. It was a night that got better and better and, uncharacteristically, I did not make it up first thing the next morning to go horse riding in the Andes and watch the sunrise. I am now a devotee to Dionysus and an advocate of Epicurean travel.

Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Argentina, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Steppes Big 5: Gastro Experiences in Latin America

5-gastro-experiences-of-Latin-America

Latin American food is as expansive and contrasting as it is flavourful and robust. Its colourful history and diverse culture all culminates in a wonderfully rich and exuberant cuisine. Here are a few areas of interest to whet your appetites and perhaps ignite a desire to travel muy pronto!

1. Mexico

Mexico is renowned for its cuisine and whether you are up for a taco street tour or prefer to embark on a traditional Oaxacan cookery course, the gastronomy here is out of this world. However, worth mentioning is the new culinary era that has emerged in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende. World famous Chef, Enrique Olvera, is cooking up a feast of contemporary Mexican food at the poolside restaurant Moxi. Frequented by San Miguel de Allende’s elite, the 7 course taster menu draws crowds and the chocolate mousse with mandarin and mescal is not to be missed.


2. Peru

Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores District of Lima is located on a pre-Inca archaeological site. It is a spectacular setting, especially at night when the site is lit. The gastronomic experience is phenomenal. Traditional Peruvian dishes including ceviche, guinea pig, beef heart, and fantastic array of use wild vegetables grown across the country in the different microclimates. They also make a mean Pisco Sour.

3. Argentina

Siete Fuegos Restaurant at the Vines Resort & Spa is making headlines. Cooking beef here has become an art form, and most recently our own celebrity chef John Torode visited Siete Fuegos in BBC documentary ‘John Torode’s Argentina’ to learn a thing or two. With an open –flame cooking techniques and 9 hour cooking times, there is no question that the Siete Fuegos is serving up some of Argentina’s finest beef (and fish) and paired with exceptional wines, creating one of Argentina’s culinary highlights.

4. Cuba

Progressive Dining by Vintage Car. If you just can’t decide on where to eat, then this is the answer. Have a different course in a different restaurant. And so you don’t have to pace the streets, we’ll chauffeur you in a vintage car. Begin with cocktails at the famous Hotel Nacional or the Rooftop bar at the Saratoga. Your vintage car will then take you on for starters at Dona Eutemia by the San Cristobal Cathedral before main course at the incredible La Guarida – a sensational paladar, now with a roof top rum bar. If you like sharing, the Cuatro Leches desert at Chef Ivan Justo is a fun way to round things off which is presented in the original can of condensed milk – and 2 spoons! If the night is still young, the after dinner options are endless – it is Cuba after all.

5. Colombia

Bogota is fast being recognised worldwide as a fantastic international city with a growing social scene and some great dining experiences. Most notably Club Colombia is one of the best known upscale restaurants attended by the city’s movers and shakers. Enjoy the taster menus or a contemporary twist on the traditional dishes such as Ajiaco, which is a potato soup typical of the Bogota region, livened up with chicken, corn and capers. However, if you want to sample the real thing, Colombian street food is delicious. Go to restaurant El Solar for the best Bandeja Paisa – it’s a heart attack on a plate but if you have a 15 hour day in the fields ahead of you – it is just the ticket. (At least the half an avocado on the side is ‘good fat’). Arepas are baked dough with cheese inside; warming and filling and served with almost every meal. But when you are feeling peckish you can buy them from a vendor on the street for just up a $1.

Start your gastro adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.
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Steppes Big 5: Estancias in Argentina

When I think of Argentina it is the Estancias that immediately spring to mind. Before a career in travel, I was lucky enough to work in Argentina as a fly-fishing guide on one of the largest Estancias in South America. It was the size of a small country, like Suriname in fact. 400,000 acres of achingly beautiful country. Every day I was overwhelmed by the extreme beauty of Argentina’s Patagonian landscape. Farming is a way of life, the Gauchos are a unique people, the Criollo horses are thrilling to ride and the fishing is out of this world. Due to the sheer size of Argentina, many Estancias cover tens of thousands of acres of land. They cross continental divides; boast snow-capped mountains and represent quite simply, raw wilderness.

Whatever your interest, an estancia stay is a must on any visit to Argentina. Share a maté with the gauchos, try a traditional asado, ride across open country; round up cattle; fly-fish for the finest brown and rainbow trout, or simply read a book and enjoy the views.

Our experts can talk you through them all, but below, in no particular order, are our Top 5.

1.Estancia Los Potreros

Estancia Los Potreros located in the hills of the Sierra de Cordoba is an upscale authentic Estancia. Covering over 6000 acres, it is a working cattle farm that provides fantastic riding opportunities for novice and experienced riders alike. Their magnificent collection of Criollo horses will take you out on trails, riverside picnics, or a sunset hack after a leisurely lunch back at the Estancia. Polo lessons can also be arranged. If riding is not your thing, don’t be put off. The beautiful gardens and tranquil valleys lend themselves perfectly for self-guided walks and the swimming pool is an inviting location to simply soak up the surroundings.

2. Huechahue

One of our favourites, Estancia Huechahue is located in the picturesque region of San Martin de Los Andes in the foothills of the Andes mountain range. It is an authentic working Estancia, family owned for four generations, offering some of Argentina’s finest riding and fishing. Guests can fully immerse themselves in 15,000 acres of Argentine life. Learn to lasso like a gaucho, observe majestic condors, or go with your guide and fly-fish world-class trout rivers.

3. Estancia El Colibri

Close to Cordoba is Estancia El Colibri. French owned and built in the style of the old twentieth century estancias, El Colibri provides charm combined with 5* European accommodation. Whether you wish to ride, fish, mountain bike or dove shoot, it can all be arranged. El Colibri is great for kids too. Aside from the riding, children can help around the farm fruit picking, milking the cows, shearing the sheep or try some cookery lessons.

4. Nibepo Aike

On the shores of Lago Argentino is a charming family run estancia, near El Calafate, that has been passed down through the generations since the start of the 20th Century. Originally set up as a sheep farm with some bovine breeding, today this 12,000 hectare estate is a working estancia of mostly Hereford cattle. Visitors can choose to participate in rides from one hour to four of varying ability and landscape. Ride to hidden glaciers. Explore the dramatic scenery on foot, or spend the day in the corrals to help with cattle branding and milking and watching the gauchos demonstrate their skills and techniques.

5. Pueme Hue

In the beautiful Lake District of Northern Patagonia is Pueme Hue Estancia. Just 20 minutes from Bariloche in the Nahuel Huapi National Park Pueme Hue offers guests a whole range of resort activities amidst striking scenery. This is a great option for those that want more than just riding. Kayaking, trekking and fly fishing are all available, however due to its location, bird watching, dingy sailing and lake swimming can all be arranged too. The estancia also provides additional activities such as yoga and tai chi.

Begin your Argentinian adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Space Travel – A Puna Experience

For western travellers used to concrete and the clutter of consumerism, space is a commodity worth travelling for. The emptiness of a desert or a savannah reawakens a part of the brain that hundreds of years ago looked on such open spaces and thought “what if?”

I am travelling across the puna in North West Argentina in the region of Salta. The skies are big and blue and the horizons untouched by human intervention. The landscape is unlike anything I have ever seen.

Lava cones as black as stout float like mirages on vast oceans of salt; sedimentary ribbons of sandstone and quartz stretch out like giant rashers of bacon across the never ending horizon; sand glistens on top of gigantic stacks of granite like freshly fallen, alpine snow and ebony rocks of basalt sit like giant burnt croutons, dropped onto the puna floor. Pachamama has found her muse in the puna and has gone to work to produce a masterpiece of breath-taking beauty.

I try to convey my sense of wonderment to my guide Fabrizio but become tongue-tied. He laughs and says “You’re not the first to be lost for words and you won’t be the last – just wait until you see the pumice stone fields.” As we approach Campo de Piedra Pomez the vehicle falls silent as if in collective reverence to the sight that greets us. Ivory coloured pumice stones stand like giant pavlovas, whipped into elaborate shapes by the wind and toasted on top by an unrelenting sun. I climb on top of the flattest, highest rock I can see, being careful not to break the honeycomb structure and try to look beyond the heat haze for signs of life. The panorama is as remarkable for what isn’t visible as what is.

It is confounding that such a seemingly malevolent land can provide enough sustenance for living things to survive but underground springs called vegas give life to grasses and other vegetation, which in turn feed the hardy vicunas and guanacos.

 

Bonsai like bushes known locally as tola, bleached virgin white by the sun, provide fuel for the hardy human settlers who choose to make the puna their home. People like Dona Carina, a septuagenarian who lives alone on her simple estancia at Oasis Antofallita, 4200 metres above sea level. Remote takes on a whole new meaning in this part of the world but choosing to make the salt flats of Antofalla and Aricaro her only neighbours is by no means a sign of misanthropy. Far from it – when we turn up unannounced she chats, giggles and holds court gleefully and noticeably flirts with Fabrizzio, our guide. They laugh together without inhibition and with tangible affection he tells me the story of this remarkable woman. How she loves the land of her ancestors and takes strength from the solitude; how her brother built a small house on the oasis, next door to her but she chose not to speak to him; how she is making provision to secure a future for the small holding after her death; and how she has a younger man drop into her help her with the small holding – “he is her helper 360 degrees” he laughs, with a glint in his eye. Dona Carina shakes my hand and wishes me a safe journey. For Fabrizio, she opens her arms and gives him a warm embrace. As we climb out of the oasis in our 4x4s, Dona Carina’s estancia quickly becomes a dot in the distance, swamped by the magnitude of the surrounding terrain.

The landscape is harsh and the environment is hostile. The air is devoid of moisture and thin on oxygen while the dust stings and the wind bites hard. Yet in spite of this, the puna is soul touchingly beautiful and it would take a heart of granite not to feel moved by its simple splendour.

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My Guilty Secret

Standing on the board walk feeling the stifling humidity of the YasunÍ National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest, I am chatting to a lady who is a guest of a nearby jungle lodge. I ask where she is staying and if she is enjoying the accommodation – which she is and she returns my probing questions.  “Anakonda” I reply. “Oh. Is that that THE boat? I think we passed it, it looks very nice.” “Yes” I say hoping she doesn’t press me further. Then she leans in towards me so no one hears and whispers “Tell me one thing. Do you have A/C?” “Yes we do” I whisper back. She rolls her eyes a little and mops her brow again. “It’s just so hot” she breathes. I refrain from mentioning the outdoor Jacuzzi.

We step off the plane at Coca and we all exhale sharply. “Welcome to the heat” our guide says with a wry smile. The temperature in the Amazon averages at about 25 degrees and 80% humidity. We all start fanning ourselves as we wait in baggage claim which consists of no more than a bench where our bags are casually dumped for our collection. We take a short bus ride to the dock and observe the impact of the oil exploration on this town; a subject that continues to dominate over the next few days. Once a village with just 275 inhabitants some 50’000 reside today.  We board a motorised canoe and head down stream as dusk starts to fall.  I’m taken aback by the sheer scale of the oil production along the banks of the Napo River since I last visited this region. As we make our way downstream we see a flame from a small refinery leaping high into the night sky while passenger boats and barges carrying large tankers are racing back and forth.

About an hour and half later we have left the busy river behind and enter calmer waters as we approach our accommodation for the next three nights. The tethered Anakonda boat is a welcoming glow on the dark river.

Sleek and modern the Anakonda is impressive. Three decks high and 45 metres long she is dynamic and elegant.  The Anakonda is only the third tourism boat in Ecuadorian Amazon, but the first of her kind. We are shown to our cabins.  Immaculately presented my spacious double bed looks out to the river though sliding panoramic windows.  My en suite bathroom is glistening and my power shower stands proudly in the corner.

We spend the next few days navigating further downstream disembarking for expeditions into the rainforest by day and night. We visit local communities. Many women of local ethnic groups have started their own projects involving tourism in order to protect their tribal land from the ever enquiring government officials and oil companies. We see caiman, a plethora of birds and a troop of spider monkeys- even a pigmy marmoset and the endangered Scarlett macaws.  We watch the sunset from the top of a canopy tower with breath taking views to Sumaco volcano in the distance. We paddle slowly though narrow waterways by moonlight listening to a symphony of frogs. We get muddy traipsing through the forest at night in search of nocturnal delights as fire flies dart across our path, but at the end of every day we come back to a hot shower and close the door on the jungle and everything in it.

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Galapagos Islands – Eminently curious

The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention.
– Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches

I’m eating breakfast overlooking a small port. Sea lions are playing noisily in front of me; barking at each other, splashing on and off the pontoon. One of Darwin’s iconic finches keeps cheekily returning to my bowl to steal watermelon seeds and eat them defiantly at the table, staring me straight in the eye, one eyebrow raised.

I’m definitely back in The Galapagos Islands. Coolly confident wildlife of all shapes, colours and sizes within arm’s reach at every stage of my day.

I don a snorkel and mask for my favourite Galapagos activity. Bartolome, with its small caves and big rocks spotted with corals lends itself well for snorkelling. Before long I find myself floating above a family of sea lions swirling underneath and around me. One particular sea lion comes up to my level and has a good look at my face. He blows some bubbles and then swoops back down to dance with his friends. I’d like to think that he recognises me from when I visited last year.

Deeper in the ocean, beyond the sea lions are some slow moving parrot fish, sting rays resting on the seabed and a couple of large but placid Galapagos reef sharks. The wonders don’t cease when I lift my head to get my bearings and find myself looking at a reef rock, on which are perched Marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs, three penguins, a heron and two Blue-Footed Boobies, all completely unperturbed by my emergence.

I bob for a while watching more boobies and some pelicans diving for fish. With bright blue feet, a mating dance straight from the ministry of silly walks, and a name that derives from the Spanish for ‘clown’, it is little wonder that people find it hard to take the blue footed booby seriously. That being said, they’re a creature of fascination, you’ll be surprised how long you can gaze at them and their peculiar rituals.

All of a sudden two lightning quick penguins about the height of my forearm startled me. Having pushed their beaks inquisitively towards my head mounted GoPro, they retreat bemused and a little bashful, before continuing their drag race.

 

Despite Charles Darwin only spending 5 weeks in the Galapagos Islands, of the mammoth 248 week voyage of HMS Beagle, his experience on the islands unearthed a far greater significance than imagined. The Galapagos simply cannot disappoint. Its wildlife cannot disappoint. Galapagos wildlife is indeed ‘eminently curious’ and not only deserve, but they do in fact command your attention.

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Mount Roraima – The Lost World

The pilot turned casually to me and asked my weight. Unimpressed with both my Spanish and answer, he proceeded to reposition me and my four fellow passengers, taxied onto the small airstrip, took off and promptly began reading the newspaper. His nonchalance belied the extraordinary beauty and scenery of our flight.

Flying south from Ciudad Bolivar on the banks of the Orinoco in the heart of Venezuela we were headed for Santa Elena, the gateway to Mt Roraima and my chance to fulfil a childhood dream of reaching its summit. As a young boy I had been fascinated by the dashing exploits and adventures of Lord John Roxton and co, told so well in Conan Doyle’s, wonderful romp into prehistory, ‘The Lost World’. Now, flying over hundreds of miles of dense green carpet of jungle, I was fortunate enough to be following in their footsteps albeit somewhat more comfortably but certainly no less dramatically.

The geographic smorgasbord that unfolded below and around us – for many minutes we were flying alongside the imposing face of Ayuantepui from which Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, plunges to its fate nearly a kilometre below – was quite simply stunning. I have rarely seen such majestic scenery. The clouds seemed to pour off the striking flat-topped mountains or tepuis as they are locally known. The sheer faces stood, like medieval battlements, towering over the jungle below. The verdant green of the forest broken only by the inky darkness of rivers meandering their way through the entanglement of undergrowth to eventually feed the Orinoco and Amazon.

“Sorry I am late,” Eric apologised.

Eric prided himself on his punctuality and was exasperated that no message had been passed on to us as we were waiting by the airstrip.

“Hey, this is Latin America,” we said unphased by the delay and actually having enjoyed hanging around in the sun, watching the coming and going of this quiet corner of the world and listening to the swing of samba.

Eric needn’t have worried this was the only glitch throughout our whole stay. By way of introduction to the region he took us on a guided tour of Grand Sabana

We set off across the rolling savannah with Roraima in full view. No dramatic unveiling but rather its full majesty beckoning us forth. We marched eagerly toward it, crossing small streams, up and down over small hills, no sound except the rustling of grasses in the breeze and the occasional metallic clanking of a frog. Inexorably we drew closer to our goal.

We stopped at Rio Tek for a cooling swim beneath a small cascade that was looked upon by the towering presence of Kukenan, the tepui adjacent to Roraima. Afterwards it was heavenly to be lying on the rocks in the sun, feet cleansed and refreshed, a breeze massaging our tired bodies with wafts of the sun’s warm rays. The combination of the gurgling of the stream, the fluttering flight of butterflies and the splendour of Kukenan in the late afternoon sun was soothing and soporific. It was both unexpected and tranquil and as a result has stuck in my memory.

Day two we began climbing imperceptibly to base camp from where everything changed. From there on the climb became steep and unforgiving. Ferns, large fronds and moss-covered rocks replaced the grasses of the savannah. The trail was no longer open but had become hemmed in and surrounded by the entangled undergrowth of the forest, which greedily drank from the waters of Roraima. There was a smell of damp earth and musty, decaying vegetation.

After an hour and a half of trudging steadily upwards with the occasional glimpse through the trees of the plains far below, we eventually emerged onto the summit. We found ourselves in a surreal landscape of weird rock formations weathered by wind and rain over millennia. This island in the sky – Roraima is thirty four square kilometres in area – is one of the last frontiers, an exotic botanical paradise in which fragile plants thrive in the harsh environment.

We pitched our tents on a cliff top under one of the many overhangs. It was a magical spot. From our eyrie in the sky, bathed in the late afternoon sun, it was heavenly to watch the ever-changing weather patterns roll in before our very eyes. In the morning it was glorious and uplifting to peer out of the tent at the splendour of Kukenan and to watch the clouds pouring off its bleak surface onto the plains below.

The next day, we set off for triple point, so called as it is the meeting of three countries: Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Each step provided a different angle in which every rock and formation seemed to come alive in the shape of a bizarre caricature. A pig with floppy ears a few steps later becomes frog and in a few more a hippopotamus. This is nothing to do with rarefied air – we are just below three thousand metres – but solely to do with how the surface has been shaped by the elements. Photographs, well mine at least, cannot really do justice to this ethereal summit.

Life on the summit is fragile. The poor soil quality – any nutrients in the soil are quickly leached out by rain water and eroded by flash floods – has meant that the plant life has had to adapt. Most have had to evolve strategies for combating water loss and supplementing their diet, which has led to some becoming carnivorous by trapping and digesting small insects. Another problem is anchoring themselves on the rocky surface; thus in crevices and clefts plants cling precariously to life whilst in more exposed areas tight little cushions of plants huddle together like miniature Japanese gardens.

In this world of fog and rain, little or no insect activity is discernible, but given a moment’s sunshine, black butterflies start to flutter around and black dragonflies hawk back and forth through gullies in search of prey. Black is the colour of Roraima. Many of the animals are melanistic – dark brown to black in colour – giving them protection from the ultraviolet radiation and giving them camouflage against the dark rock surface.

One animal, the black frog, is an ancient species that has retained many of its primitive traits as the environment of the tepuis has not forced it to evolve radically. It can neither hop nor swim and but instead has unique toes to help it cling to the rock surface better. It is more alike an African species than any other frog on South America, suggesting that its origins date back to Gondwanaland, which began to break up over 150 million years ago. Of Conan Doyle and his ‘Lost World’.

Back in the late afternoon of the twenty-first century we set off to bathe in the romantically described ‘jacuzzi’. The reality is more prosaic. No bubbles, no hot water but a series of ‘jacuzzi-shaped’ pools that were refreshing and a godsend to weary feet.

We returned to or campsite as the sun was setting tingeing the clouds with gold. The clouds rolled ominously in, darkening the skies overhead and casting the rocks in an eerie silhouette. Black and sinister the starkness of our position on the roof of the world was revealed.

On our final morning we walked to the north-western corner of Roraima to what is poetically called ‘The Window’. It is no ordinary view that confronts one, but befitting of Roraima it is breathtaking. The sides of Roraima dropped vertiginously into the jungle which swept away into the distance. The precipitous drop was dizzying and I did not dare go too near the edge – there are no signs warning you of such a drop, no protective barriers. This is Venezuela and tourism is raw and nascent and I would advise you to go before it grows up.

As a post script, Roraima is unrecognisable from Conan Doyle’s Lost World. It is no longer the preserve of intrepid explorers but now firmly on the tourist trail. Yet it remains enigmatic and enticing. Part of the alluring appeal of Roraima and the surrounding tepuis must be their dramatic geography: the sheer towering faces and the abrupt flatness of their summits which seem to defy the more subtle and gentle lines of Nature.

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Wild Guyana!

WILD? THEY WERE ABSOLUTELY LIVID !!!

“Let’s carry on along the trail to see what else they throw at us”. Kenneth, our Amerindian Makushi guide is highly excited at our close encounter with three Black Spider Monkeys. The forest canopy 50 feet above us is thrashing about like broccoli in a blender as our furry friends rampage through the tree tops gathering ammunition to send our way. A steady trickle of leaves is followed by a hail of twigs and then the ominous cracking and popping of splintering wood announces the arrival of the big guns. Branches as thick and long as an adult anaconda with indigestion crash down either side of the track. We scarper and the Spider monkeys swing off triumphantly to plan their next campaign. They have been known to also fling their faeces and so we considered ourselves lucky this time.

This is Surama, where the dark depths of pristine tropical rainforest yield to the light expanse of Guyana’s Rupununi Savannah. We emerge from our sub-canopy adventure blinking at this bright new world, having spent a thrilling few days skimming in skiffs along rivers where the water level rises between 20 and 30 feet twice a year. Ox-bow lakes are formed, 16,000 year old petroglyphs are submerged and revealed, cataracts become oily rivers and the wildlife is well and truly wild. This is not an easy place to get to, involving a tree-top skimming flight and bum-bruising drives in the back of an open sided old Bedford truck along the muddy and pitted track that links Georgetown in the north with the Brazilian border crossing in the South. However, the inaccessibility preserves a magical natural world and the effort one puts into getting here is highly rewarded.

Days are spent hiking through the twilight world under the canopy to hilltop lookout points that afford astonishing views across a sea of trees. Senses are assaulted by a barrage of sounds, sights and smells. Footsteps are carefully planned to avoid stepping on snakes and hours drift away in the study of Bullet Ants, Poison Dart Frogs, agoutis, Golden Orb Spiders and Kinkajous, to name just a few of the locals. My current favourite bird is the Screaming Piah, a small and fairly plain bird but with a haunting call that echoes through the forest.

Most of my fellow travellers are fully fledged birders and are never to be seen without binoculars and huge zoom lenses that Freud would have a lot to say about.

I enjoy a little bird watching but am now in danger of becoming a paid up member of the fraternity following the most extraordinary few hours spent staring at and snapping birdlife around the Atta Lodge Hanging Canopy Top Bridges and Platforms. Guides Leon and John are relentless in their ability to spot, name and describe our feathery, rainbow-plumed subjects. In fact Leon has just scooped Guyana’s top guide award. Urgent whispers and scope training within the cathedral of the rainforest canopy are replaced with a raucous evening of beer, rum and delicious local dishes as we dine family style that night and compare our bird tallies and lenses. There is a palpable envy in the air as Leon shows us the video footage from their camera traps of Pumas and Jaguars and the most extraordinary personal photos from a recent half hour encounter with two Jaguars on the main highway. These are creatures that have thus far eluded us. You don’t come here expecting a sighting but you cling to the slim hope that you might just get lucky.

The birdlife has been great but the icing on the cake was a stop at a spot that our guide knew which has been used as a nesting ground for the Guiana Cock of the Rock. Lo and behold, we were treated to half an hour of this strikingly orange coloured bird with its perfect semi-circle Combe showing off its psychedelic plumage in a private audience in Guyana’s back of beyond.

You may have to endure a little discomfort to get here but the highs are worth every sweaty second of the journey. Bring on the insanely colourful birds and attacking monkeys! I’m ready for round two.

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Sacred Valley

Sacred Valley Peru

“Traffic,” points out my guide.

A stocky woman with a dusty bowler hat and pig tails urges her flock of sheep off the road with a short length of rope. Road cleared, she stands to the side, adjusts her Keqpe Rina – the colourful wrap women wear around their shoulders to carry wool, snacks and even babies – and flashes us a twinkling smile.

I am in the Sacred Valley, so named after the Willkamayu River, which means the sacred river in Quechua, the still spokenlingua franca of the Inca Empire. The valley was appreciated by the Incas due to its special geographical and climatic qualities and was one of the empire’s main points for the extraction of natural wealth, as well as one of the most important areas for maize production. It encompasses the heartland of the Inca Empire and thus is steeped in history. Whilst the sites are impressive it is the tradition of everyday life that so caught my imagination.

Hemmed in by soaring 4,000 metre peaks, the valley is flat and bountiful, supporting over two hundred different types of potatoes. Moving out of the valley precise Inca terracing defines the hillside and then eventually gives way to a more pastoral way of life. An oxen plods along the road accompanied by a young boy carrying a wooden yoke. Further along two young girls, faces reddened by the altitude and elements, marshal their small flock of sheep.

“It is Saturday so no school, but the children still have responsibilities,” commented my guide.

It is a simple but hard existence at altitude, even in a valley that is sacred.

The brilliance of the local embroidery emblazoned with yellows, reds and pinks stands out against the dazzling blue of the sky. The crisp mountain air heightens the contrast. Colour, I am informed, is indicative of a woman’s marital status: if it is more colourful then she is single. If that is so, there are a lot of very flirtatious old women.

In contrast to the bright local garb of the women, the mud-brick adobe houses exude the rich warmth of terracotta. Although some are adorned with political graffiti promoting the dubious virtues of one candidate over another, they have not been polluted by the creaking of corrugated iron. Terracotta roof tiles lend a further rustic charm.

A team of men are working on the roof of one house. They are not employees but rather a group of mates come together to help out a friend. A touching example of ayni a Quechua word which can be best translated as reciprocity.

The houses are full of good luck symbols and symbolism. A Latin cross provides protection. A pitcher with an alcoholic drink made from maize bequeaths a plentiful supply. Two clay bulls, which decorate every roofs and represent the duality of day and light, bestow luck upon the household. Ladders leaning outside walls are not evidence of slack workmanship but more a symbol of progression, to do more.

Even the small towns have not lost their innocence. Women carry bundles of grass home; fodder for their guinea pigs. In a small courtyard a baker flips loaves of bread in a large fire oven. People come in to buy bread. The baker doesn’t stop to serve anyone but merely nods or grunts a greeting allowing them to pay and take what bread they need and importantly him to continue his work. Warming and reaffirming scenes.

A local woman chatters to me in Quechua. She has just bought her meal of potatoes, spinach and fava beans. All smiles, teeth and hand movements she tells me that although she doesn’t know what I eat in my country, what she has here is alright. She is not wrong.

The air might be thinner given the altitude but such scenes are invigorating, the oxygen of travel.

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Ecuador and Galapagos: The Land that Time Forgot

No glossy travel brochure, no TV documentary, not even the fulsome description of friends’ visits, can prepare you for the extraordinary and emotional experience of the Galapagos Islands.

The uniqueness and drama of the animal and plant species, and our accessibility to them is the differentiator from any other experience, including safaris. The fact that man is not (now) a predator to these bizarre and colourful creatures, means that we can walk among them without them shying away, keeping only a deferential “personal space” between us and them. And I use the word “deferential” purposely, because the Galapagos Islands instil a sense of open-mouthed wonder of being somewhere very special and important on our planet.

 

Just about everyone knows of the good fortune that Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands, putting both on the map, so to speak, This happy encounter advanced mankind’s understanding of our world, albeit at the expense of the creationist doctrines of the Church. While we may now have a better comprehension of the origin of species everywhere, we must surely pay closer attention to the alarming peril of extinction of hundreds of species of animals and plants globally. Many of these endangered species are unique to the Galapagos only 12,000 or so pairs of waved albatross, and precariously small populations of Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Petrel, Galapagos Fur Seal, Galapagos Sea Lion, Marine Iguana, Land Iguana, Leatherback Turtle, and the Flightless Cormorant. The Giant Tortoise, famed for the recent extinction of the Pinta Island sub-species with the death of its one survivor, Lonesome George, is also native to the Seychelles and so not endemic. These animals can survive without food or water for six months or more through fat deposits and a water bladder next to the lungs, and this made them targets for the whaling ships of yesteryear for live meat on extended voyages. The species is still threatened, and successful breeding programmes for the Giant Tortoise and Land Iguana, among others, are recovering the population to an upward trend.

These Islands may appear idyllic and abundant with wildlife, but the environment is extremely hostile. Ironically, this hostility has emphasised natural selection in progress across the many isolated and environmentally different Islands, with many intermediate sub-species dying off in the harsh conditions, leaving the now unrelated extremes of new species.

 

The Galapagos Islands are 500 miles west of the coast of Ecuador, above a volcanic hot-spot which continually forms new Islands to the west, as the whole archipelago drifts with the tectonic plates 7cm per annum to the east. Apart from this fiery creation, what makes the flora and fauna unique is the location of the Islands at the confluence of three deep-water ocean currents: the Cromwell Current from Asia eastwards towards South America, the South Equatorial Current from South America westwards towards Asia, and the Humboldt Current from the Antarctic northwards up the west coast of South America. This tenuous balance of temperatures that gives the Islands a climate to encourage their flora and fauna, can be destroyed by that unfortunate misnomer, El Niño, the Christ-Child. This warm water system from Central America periodically exerts itself to increase the water temperatures around the Islands. Together with other factors, the indications are that 2014-15 could be the most destructive El Niño year of our lifetime, and the potential is there for the archipelago ocean temperatures to rise higher than 80 degrees F. The dying-off of marine plants, plankton, and coral at these temperatures devastates the food of many species. If this is a bad El Niño year, 60%-80% of sea-lions, seals, and marine iguanas could be wiped out in a single year.

Our ship was the M.V. Eclipse, an explorer ship turned very successfully to the cruise market with 24 cabins and a crew and team of naturalist guides of the highest professional standard. They also knew how to have fun! This was a very efficiently-run operation, with Panga boats (RIBS) scuttling back and forth to the Islands for wet-landings, dry-landings, and deep-water snorkel dives with twelve passengers and a guide each. The 7-day cruise took us to Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela, Santa Cruz, and Espanola among others, with a couple of landings and dives on each of these very different volcanic Islands.

We were fortunate to have the naturalist, geologist, and photographer, Jonathan Green, on our cruise as a guide and photography coach. A charming and inspirational man with a very constructive and encouraging manner with our snap-happy crowd. If my photographs have improved over my last travelogue, you know who to credit! I have quite a few photos to sort through (think a couple of thousand!) which I will whittle down to a few dozen that I can share with you all later. In the meantime, I am whetting your appetites in this travelogue with a few photos representing this extraordinary fauna.

Jonathan is a leading member of the Galapagos Whale-Shark Project, which is tagging these peaceful, threatened, 17 metre giants to learn more of their life-cycle and devise ways to protect them. Current sightings around the north of the Galapagos archipelago comprise over 99% females and may seem to indicate that they journey there to give birth. Their journey around the world is an enigma, with tracking suggesting a route that follows the junction of the tectonic plates, before an unexplained disappearance of the majority off the coast of Peru with their satellite tracking devices attachment cables severed.

These awesome creatures need our protection, but the Galapagos Whale-Shark Project is so seriously under-funded that it cannot even afford to host an all important informational website. Many of the naturalists and scientists like Jonathan end up working for part-pay just to keep the research going. The satellite-tracking devices which cost several thousand dollars each for an all-in cost of equipment, tagging dives, satellite rental time and so on. Please take a look at this article by Jonathan from the Huffington Post and, if you feel moved to do so, I encourage you to consider a donation to this important project at www.whalesharkappeal.co.uk. Whatever the amount, it will make a huge difference in this all important potential El Niño year when there is the opportunity to gather significant new data.

A client’s perspective following a holiday to the Galapagos Islands with Steppes Travel.
Written by Robin Barrett.

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Exploring Manu Biosphere

“The girls must be picky,” was Andy’s typically understated and laconic description of a rufuos-crested coquette- a tiny bird, not dissimilar to a humming bird, with the most flamboyant crest in a flaming red.

The coquette is so indicative of the bizarre beauty of Nature – sometimes there is no explaining Nature’s multi-faceted talent for the extraordinary – and there is certainly no shortage of the unexpected in the rainforests of Manu Bio Sphere in south-east Peru. The researchers and volunteers have the formidable task of trying to ascertain just how exceptional the diversity is and Andy Whitworth is the scientific coordinator.

My journey had begun a few days earlier, climbing out of the Sacred Valley, leaving behind steep hillsides defined by precise Inca terracing for a more pastoral way of life. Trees and shrubs give way to alpine grassland. There are few inhabitants and no agricultural plots. We approach the top of the 3,650 metre pass and are confronted by a billowing white cloud bank that tells us in no uncertain terms that we are about to head down the perhumid eastern slope of the Andes.

It is a remarkable ecological transition from dusty and dry to dripping and wet in a mere several hundred metres. A normal day sees no sun as thick clouds bathe the slopes and an intermittent drizzle keeps the vegetation soaked in an enveloping Dickensian mist.

As we descend along a series of interminable switchbacks negotiating steeply plunging slopes, trees are cloaked in the thick wrappings of lichens, mosses, ferns and orchids. The cloud forest is a world unto itself, mysterious and intriguing, but almost unapproachable. As we walk along the road it is literally at our fingertips but entering it is not for the faint-hearted – it is a vertical landscape and one wrong foot would plunge you down the hillside into the spray of the streams and river trying to reach the plains in their turbulent haste.

I see capuchin monkeys and an aguti but birds are the real attraction – tanagers, hummingbirds and oropendolas – with the undisputed prize being the cock-of-the-rock. I am stunned by its iridescent flame orange plumage, it makes for a dazzling visual spectacle. The males gather in loose aggregations, known as leks, noisy hubs of activity as the males whine and call, bob up and down and fly from perch to perch.

We leave behind the confines of the canyon and enter a swampy plain where the soil is poor – millennia of rains having washed out all the fertility. The profusion of coca fields are a sad reflection that no other crop brings in a decent return. Half a kilo sells for about 8 Sol (approximately US$3). The unlikely proprietor of the farm that I stop alongside is Cesar, a charming, smiling 96 year old.

We arrive at Atalaya, a cluster of corrugated iron and the end of the road. It has that frontier feel to it, reminiscent of a Conradian trading post. I watch a nervous husband with two young daughters, wife and baby and wheelbarrow full of their worldly goods, pole slowly upriver. We head downstream enjoying the river to ourselves, the only traffic being the overhead flight of macaws, jays and parakeets.

Arriving at the Manu Learning Centre, I am taken for a walk around their bio-garden. Ronnie, one of the guides, explains with evident pride not just the success of this garden but the 50 gardens that they have been asked to set up in local communities by the Indians. I am shown around the medicinal garden and the bewildering array of uses of many of the plants: quinine is obvious, the cat’s claw prevents cancer, a palm tree used to treat rheumatism, red ginger is used for toothache, barbasco used as a repellent (and also for fishing by the locals – it suffocates the fish and they die). The astonishing thing is that scientists understand about 1% of the properties of the forest.

Outside in the forest itself, my learning continues. I discover a palm that walks, a fig tree that strangles and a fire ant which lives in a holly tree protecting it from mosses and lichens. I adore the most ancient of gardeners of the tropical forest and watch a colony of leaf-cutter ants slice off portions of a leaf and then patiently carry the leaf bits in a procession back to their underground nests.

The canopy is equally as stunning as the floor and I am lucky enough to be taken to climb a Capirona tree (which incidentally is not just a tree for climbing but one which sheds its bark several times a year to avoid being overtaken by parasites). The views are invigorating as I look out over mile upon mile of tree-tops broken only by the glittering coils of the Madre de Dios River in the distance. It was thrilling watching the profusion of butterflies, being eye to eye with birds and contemplating the life of a monkey.

Early the next morning, an explosion of colour erupts as a large group of Blue headed and Chestnut fronted Macaws take to the air from the clay lick. The skies are not just alive with darting colour but constant sounds: the radio squawk of parakeets, the chatter of macaws, the guttural grunt of the prehistoric hoatzin.

With the notable exception of birds, I have not seen that much wildlife – the jungle is heard but unseen. However that has in no way diminished my experience having learned a huge amount about the symbiotic relationship of the forest, the need for balance, but above all about some of the smaller fauna. That is the joy of Manu Learning Centre and the unbridled enthusiasm of the team.

I came wanting to see Jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas which derives its name from the Indian word yaguar, meaning ‘he who kills at one leap’. Whilst I did not see one, my understanding of the rainforest has taken a big leap forward and I am all the richer for it.

Get in touch with us for more information if you would like to explore Manu with Charlie Hamilton-James, photojournalist and television presenter, on an exclusive rainforest photography tour in 2015.

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Water baby in Guyana

Steppes Travel’s “international man of intrigue” parachutes into the wilds of Guyana – Land of Many Waters – to better appreciate the liquid charms of this little-visited South American Republic.

Dennis, my taxi driver from the airport into Georgetown, would be equally at home driving yellow cabs in Manhattan. A frenzied conversation turns an hour into five minutes as he fills me in on Guyana history, politics, his Portuguese ancestry and the weather in a gruff Caribbean drawl. Oh, and Dennis, don’t keep apologising for your language -your creative swearing punctuated your arguments perfectly.

Turns out that while I’ve been sat in a tin can, some unseasonably heavy rain has flooded parts of the city, closed schools and caused general mischief. But this is Guyana, a country at ease with being wet and the clapperboard wooden houses, hotels and city parks (all below sea level and protected by the Dutch legacy of a sturdy sea wall) survive to be re-painted, trade and bloom another day.

I’m here during the November “cashew rains”, the little brother of the two rainy seasons that have created a land swathed in primary rainforest and savannahs, bisected by the Essequibo and Demerara rivers and all of their tributaries. Just the one unpaved red-dirt road affords a bone-jarring entry into the interior, which is best accessed by light aircraft. Getting into the centre of Guyana is a challenge, deterring many, and the incredibly rich flora and fauna thrives as a consequence.

Ronaldo, our Nicaraguan pilot, is showing us his best moves today and treats us to a neck-craning overfly of the Kaiteur Falls, Before setting us down on a jungle airstrip. We’re treated to a few impossibly orange flashes of Guyana’s signature bird; The Cock of the Rock, the comb of which takes me right back to those preserved-fruit semi-circle orange treats that granny always offered you at Christmas. Flippant observations are suddenly shamed by the no-nonsense, epic grandeur of a waterfall that simply sucks the breath from you. Legend suggests that the falls were named after Kai, an Amerindian chief who sacrificed himself by paddling over the edge of the falls in an appeal to the Great Spirit Makonaima to protect his tribe from the warring Caribs. 30,000 gallons of water a second tumble over the 400 foot wide horseshoe lip in a 741ft sheer drop, making this one of the world’s largest and most powerful single drop waterfalls – 5 times the size of Niagara. All this in the most wonderfully isolated rainforest location, affording the visitor a real “Lost World” moment. Our group of 8 were the only visitors. This water monster was ours for a few hours while we appreciated the falls from various viewpoints and crawled on our bellies to the edge of a rock that overhangs the drop to stare into the boiling cauldron of the plunge pool below.

We celebrated an incredibly memorable day with a crafty shot or two of El Dorado rum (another Guyanese liquid highlight), barely containing our excitement at heading into the interior in the morning to meet up with some of the feathered and furred residents of one of the world’s most extensive tracts of pristine rainforest…

 

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Journeying to Torres del Paine

Finally arrived in Patagonia after two flight delays and 40 hours! 5 hours after hitting the hay, I woke up to this superb view from my bed. This is why I’m back in Patagonia and it makes the journey totally worthwhile! I’m now aboard the d’Agostini boat to see the remote Serrano and Balmaceda Glaciers before taking a zodiac up river in to the Torres del Paine. A client called me a genius for including this trip in his Chile holiday, let’s hope it’s a good one-first time for me!

This has really turned out to be a very cool trip, seeing the glaciers was fantastic and whilst there were 50 of us it still felt like a very remote experience as we were the only boat to arrive today. Boarding the zodiac was when the real fun began, donning a bright orange knee-length jacket, speeding up the Rio Serrano we went. Each wave thrust us closer to the Torres del Paine, my favourite part of Chile and possibly anywhere on earth. I just love it here.

We got a little wet as we egged on the driver of the zodiac to twist and turn a la James Bond in the Thames! I was delighted to arrive and see the Cuernos or horns of Paine and finally arrive at the new Awasi hotel (their superb sister hotel is based in San Pedro de Atacama). Fine wines, delicious food and stunning rooms await. It sits on a hillside with incredible views of Azure blue Sarmiento Lake and the Torres themselves. Whilst is has been open for only one week there is some landscaping to be done, Awasi is a special spot.

I’m utterly convinced that the whole journey from home to Patagonia was definitely worthwhile despite the delay, and especially so once I had a glass of red and some delicious hare in my belly!

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The 5 Must-Dos of Peru

In a country proffering so much to travellers (varietous sceneries, wildlife, archaeology, architecture, history and gastronomy are just the standards you can expect) knowing where to start planning your first trip to Peru can seem an impossible task. So, to give you a hand, I’ve compile the list below of 5 unmissable Peruvian experiences.

1. See the Andean Condors in Colca Canyon.

First, spend the night star gazing from a natural hot spring bath or the candlelit patio of your casita at one of Colca Canyon’s fabulous lodges. Then, make the trip to viewpoint Cruz del Condor to see these magnificent birds soaring just a few feet over your head before a backdrop of impressive canyon and mountains. Patience and a fast shutter speed will get you some incredible photographs.

2. Do a homestay on Isla Taquile in Lake Titicaca.

The peaceful tranquillity of this protected island in the middle of Lake Titicaca is something you will always remember. These lovely, shy people will cook delicious trout from the lake for you in their simple homes, or you can DIY and camp under the stars. Exploring the little island searching for humming birds and watching the inhabitants go about their lives is a true privilege.

3. Hike to Machu Picchu (of course).

It is simply impossible to be underwhelmed by Machu Picchu. No matter if you’ve seen a thousand photographs of the place before you see it in real life- you will be astounded by the place. The feeling inspired by the view over the site from the top of the hill is truly indescribable; a sheer exhilarating joie de vivre. I love it when you get that honoured feeling;
“I am so lucky to be here”.

4. Spend a few days exploring Cusco.

Cusco is my favourite city in Peru. Aside from being the gateway to some of the country’s most exciting destinations, it’s a city full of fun, activity, tradition, history and beauty. There is so much to see and do here, as well as just walking around independently and taking it all in. Cusco by night is great fun, with a cornucopia of restaurants and bars in which to indulge.

5. Do an adventure sport/activity in the Sacred Valley.

Surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, the Sacred Valley of the Incas is the perfect place to go for adventure. Be it a gentle hike, enjoying the sounds, sights and smells, or a white water raft or downhill mountain bike; it depends on your preferred level of action. End an ambling, thoroughly enjoyable hike with a delicious meal at one of the gorgeous little market villages dotted around the valley.

With all this and so many more discovered and undiscovered delights awaiting you in Peru, what’s stopping you?!

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Sailing the Galapagos

Our yacht spent today moored off the island of Genovesa, the most northeastern island of the archipelago, while we took panga excursions to go and explore. I have to say, this has been my favourite island.

Snorkelling and kayaking in Darwin Bay was so exciting.The bay is a sunken caldera – perfectly round with a gap at one end, so you’re literally snorkelling along the inside wall of a volcano; mind blowing! Sea lions and fur seals were relaxing on the rocks, along with pelicans, iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs and birds. We kayaked first, getting close to the face of the wall, nearly bumping into a sealion dozing on a rock; needless to say he didn’t look too pleased.

Snorkelling next, with pelicans diving down just a few feet away from us as they fished, bobbing back up with mouths full of water and hopefully fish. It was fun trying to time yourself with their dives so that you move your view from over to under the water to see them make their catch. Also quite challenging because of their speedy freefall dives, but fun when it worked. I wished I had an under-water camera, not just for this but also for the myriad of colourful fish below me, as well as the ray and shark that we encountered.

With other snorkelling trips providing turtles and penguins to boot, there’s a lot going on to photograph in the Galapagos waters! We had a gentle hike in the afternoon starting with a wet landing on a white sandy coral beach with four sea lions relaxing, not at all bothered that we were close nearby. We continued over lava, through low bushes and past hoards of nesting frigate birds displaying their bizarre courting ritual, as well as gulls and red footed boobies. We walked up along a lagoon gently filling up with the incoming tide where we saw stingrays and mullet fish swimming around in the clear, shallow water. Up the hill to a beautiful viewpoint we could see the whole bay in the evening light. It was a lovely day, very active, but with enough time to relax. Definitely ready for some sleep, up early for another adventurous day tomorrow!

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Tree climbing in the Peruvian Jungle

“You just put your foot in the strap and stand up,” was Andy’s typically laconic description. “It’s quite straightforward really.”

I looked at him quizzically, McEnroe-esque thoughts running through my mind. What on earth could be straightforward about climbing thirty-five metres up a tree in the middle of the jungle in darkest Peru?

Paddington reference notwithstanding, we were in the rainforest in Peru, in Manu Biosphere Reserve, a remarkable area of rainforest in which Andy is the Scientific Coordinator at the Manu Learning Centre. We had just trekked for an hour and a half through the sauna-like humidity under the canopy, the only respite being the occasional pause for Andy to point something out.

“This is a pygmy forest gecko. This is an adult. When fully grown it will only be an inch and a half.” How he noticed the tiny reptile on the forest floor I will never know.

“Monkey comb,” he said drawing our attention to the bizarrely formed seed pod of an acacia.

“King toad. Highly poisonous,” he said casually picking it up.

“Here we are,” he finally announced. A sigh of relief that was all too
premature.

“This is the tree we’re going to climb. A Capirona. It’s a hardwood that sheds its bark several times a year to prevent parasites and strangler figs from overwhelming it; without parasites the tree stands a much better chance of growing tall, reaching the canopy and the all-important sunlight.”

It certainly reached the canopy alright. I gulped as I stared up to the sky as the Capirona towered straight above me.

I turned around to protest to Andy. Did I really need to climb the tree? Yes he had to retrieve his cameras but surely I would just get in the way. I opened my mouth to object only to find a harness thrust in my hands and before I know it I was all roped up.

What Andy had described as straightforward manifested in the spastic and uncoordinated jerks of my body. I simply could not get the hang of how to lever yourself up the rope. It was frustrating and embarrassing as again and again I would jerk helplessly with no visible increase in height. Another ungainly lurch up and yet again I remained in exactly the same position. I kicked out in exasperation and it clicked.

To say that I had mastered it would be an exaggeration and unkind to Andy’s seemingly effortless progress up above me. But I had worked it out and with each step, strain and haul I was going higher. Unfortunately so too were my pulse rate and body temperature. If I felt as though I had sweated lots walking under the canopy, it was nothing compared to now. Sweat was pouring off me.

“Not good for your sex life,” Andy called down to me referring to the constricting harness as opposed to the amount of sweat I was producing.

“My wife would be happy,” I muttered distractedly to myself.

I looked down to see how far I had come. I looked up to see how much further I had to go. No, really, I can’t still have that far too climb. I wished that I had not eaten so much for breakfast. It is hard work hauling yourself up thirty odd metres of tree when you are a little over your fighting weight.

And then amazingly, against all the odds I am at the top. It is breath-taking both literally and metaphorically. I just sit back in my harness and gaze out over the canopy. The views are invigorating as I look out over mile upon mile of tree-tops broken only by the glittering coils of the Madre de Dios River in the distance. Bizarrely all I want to do is laugh. Is it physical exhaustion or ecstasy? Possibly a combination of the two?

I could have stayed up there for hours watching butterflies, being eye to eye with birds, contemplating the life of a monkey but given the effort that it had taken me to get to the top it would not be long before the sweat bees got scent of my arrival.

And when they did they swarmed about me, getting in my eyes, finding their way into my ears, intruding into every orifice. There was only one thing to do and that was to beat a hasty retreat. Thankfully going down was easier than going up.

Simply put, it is exhilarating, uplifting to be so high in the canopy. And yes it is well worth the effort.

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Another visit to Quito

I arrive in Quito after a long but seamless journey bleary eyed but excited to be back in the capital after 9 years. The sun is just setting as we drive towards the city. The new airport has been built to the north with longer runways allowing for larger jets to operate. Ecuador is growing.

We approach the East side and through the spotless panoramic windows of the minivan I can see the sun setting behind the snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi volcano in the distance. The traffic can be terrible and the journey can take up to an hour and half in rush hour, but luck is on our side and we weave our way unhindered up to the capital. Quito stands at 2,800m and we can see through a gap in the mountains the built up city and packed mountainside communities as we climb. Almost as soon as we hit the old town the traffic is at a standstill. In order to make some headway my driver takes a less conventional route allowing perhaps more of an insight into the backstreets of the city than would have otherwise been offered.

The old town, awarded its heritage status by UNESCO, is almost unrecognisable since my last visit. So many buildings have been renovated keeping the original facades and even new buildings are being demolished now to really consolidate this colonial area. Churches are lit up like torches and the Jesuit church of la Copania sends hues of purple and green into the night sky. The streets are bustling, although its 7.30pm trade is still in full swing, music blares from small stalls, families chatter, and cars honk horns, while whistles of the traffic police fill the air. I’m pleasantly surprised by my surroundings and the positivity of the regeneration. Quito has come a long way.

After a fantastic dinner organised by my hosts of fire-roasted octopus & Ecuadorian shrimp; I am defeated by an outrageous chocolate marquise and a glass of silky merlot that sends the effects of my sleep deprivation of the last 24hrs into overdrive. I return to my hotel and crawl between the crisps sheets at the delightful Casa Gangotena that stands in all its splendour overlooking the San Franscico Plaza. Tomorrow I leave for the Amazon.

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Returning to Brazil

Just 1 day to go and I will be returning to Brazil, my favourite of the many wonderful countries in South America. This time to explore the historic gold trail through Minas Gerais, the vast sand dunes of Lencois Maranhenses and, fingers crossed, to try and spot a Jaguar in the Southern Pantanal.

There is always such a warm welcome, and with a good dose of sunshine and a few caipirinhas, who wouldn’t feel relaxed? Whilst Brazil is well known for its laid-back charm, it is also full of colour, music and vitality which, for me, make it quintessential Latin America.

As a country which has been in the media spotlight several times since my visit a year ago, I’m eager to return and see whether Rio’s vibrant atmosphere is notably different. The protests this Summer were reported to be the largest for over two decades, with close to two million people protesting in various cities and towns across the country. The vast crowds were voicing their concerns and frustration at both the increasing cost and poor conditions of public services and the exorbitant sums of money being spent on the World Cup.

Earlier this week there were further demonstrations in downtown Rio, the catalyst being a strike by many teachers for better conditions and pay. Of course, being Brazil, a certain number of protesters were wearing Carnival wigs and dancing as they demonstrated.

It certainly seems that Brazilians feel the country is on the verge of change and want to make sure that development focuses on the essential such as education, health and transport, rather than just the football stadiums.

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One of the great journeys in the world

There are many deserving candidates for this title from the Karakoram Highway to the Appendice Orientale in Eritrea, from more well-known routes such as Pacific Highway No 1 in the US to the Ocean Road in Australia. I would like to introduce a pretender to this crown: Sacred Valley to Manu Biosphere.

In a day you will lose some three thousand metres in altitude, meet the most wonderful people, experience dramatic climatic and environmental changes, see some extraordinary birds and if lucky wildlife. I know of nowhere else like it.

It begins in the charmed Sacred Valley, invaluable to the Incas and entrancing to anyone who visits today. Dusty bowler hats, pig tails, Keqpe Rina – the colourful wrap women wear around their shoulders to carry wool, snacks and even babies – are de rigueur.

As you climb out of the magical valley of some 3,000 metres, you leave behind steep hillsides defined by precise Inca terracing for a more pastoral way of life. Trees and shrubs give way to alpine grassland. There are few inhabitants and no agricultural plots. The air is crisp, the sky a dazzling blue, the oxygen getting thinner.

You arrive at a 3,650 metre pass and are confronted by a billowing white cloud bank that tells you, in no uncertain terms, that you are in for change. You head down the perhumid eastern slope of the Andes.

It is a remarkable ecological transition from dusty and dry to dripping and wet in a mere several hundred metres. A normal day sees no sun as thick clouds bathe the slopes and an intermittent drizzle keeps the vegetation soaked in an enveloping Dickensian mist.

As you descend along a series of interminable switchbacks negotiating steeply plunging slopes, trees are cloaked in the thick wrappings of lichens, mosses, ferns and orchids. The cloud forest is a world unto itself, mysterious and intriguing, but almost unapproachable. As you drive along the road, the forest is literally at your fingertips but entering it is not for the faint-hearted – it is a vertical landscape and one wrong foot would plunge you down the hillside into the spray of the streams and river trying to reach the plains in their turbulent haste.

You may well see capuchin monkeys but birds are the real attraction – tanagers, hummingbirds and oropendolas – with the undisputed prize being the cock-of-the-rock. Its iridescent flame orange plumage makes for a dazzling visual spectacle. The males gather in loose aggregations, known as leks, noisy hubs of activity as the males whine and call, bob up and down and fly from perch to perch.

You leave behind the confines of the canyon and enter a swampy plain where the soil is poor – millennia of rains having washed out all the fertility. There are clusters of small holdings, genial people trying to make ends meet. Their clothing is less exotic.

From here you descend a little further into the jungle a riot of vegetation, akin to Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Everything is heard yet unseen. Your imagination is restless as to what lies within. You arrive at Atalaya, a cluster of corrugated iron: the end of the road. The only traffic being the overhead flight of macaws, jays and parakeets, and a nervous husband with two young daughters, wife and baby and wheelbarrow full of their worldly goods, preparing to pole themselves slowly upriver in a dugout.

No they are not dressed in tribal costume. That is another, albeit very different journey further downriver, and for another time. For now this sates my appetite and I feel lays claim to one of the great road journeys of the world.

What and how to pack for the Jungle

When travelling into the rainforest, it’s best to travel light. Your intrepid journey into the jungle is likely to include light aircraft, pick-up truck, motorised canoe, your own two feet and traditional dugout canoe- so leaving the majority of your luggage in a locker in the land of civilisation and taking the bare minimum comes highly recommended. It also adds to the sense of jungle exploration if all you have is your backpack and your wits.

Packing light when you don’t know quite what to expect can be stressful. Therefore, drawing on my experience, I have created…

Sarah’s Top Packing Tips for Trips into the Rainforest (3 nights)

Clothing:

– 2 pairs of light trousers (zip off ones are a genius invention, try to get your hands on a pair)

– Lots of socks (these will get damp. Nothing worse than putting on damp socks)

– 1 top per day and one top to save for the evenings (loose cotton shirts are coolest, nothing that clings)

– 2 pairs of pants per day (one pair for before and one pair for after your pm shower)

– Swimsuit (some lodges allow swimming, this is such a refreshing experience, otherwise it’s nice to sunbathe between outings into the wild)

– Hat (preferably an explorer style one)

– Flip flops/sandals for around the lodge

– Closed walking shoes for transfers in and out that don’t mind getting a tad muddy (trainers are fine) – as soon as you arrive the lodge will give you some wellies

– Yoga clothes if staying in a lodge with an instructor (nothing more tranquil than a yoga class overlooking a perfectly still lake)

– A light waterproof mac or poncho in case of sudden downpours

Other:

– Sun-cream (VITAL. When venturing up towers to gaze over the top of the rainforest canopy you need to be protected from the sun)

– Sunglasses (see above)

– Camera and charger (you’ll want photographic evidence that you spotted that sloth/ red and green macaw/ giant otter/ howler monkey)

– Tiger Balm (acts as a decent mosquito repellent, bite relief and after-sun in one tiny pot- perfect for light packing)

– Binoculars (these are an excellent thing to have, so you can help your guides do the spotting)

Don’t forget when packing for your overall holiday to include a bag to put all this in. The above will fit into a normal sized rucksack, which will come in handy as a general day pack too. Don’t forget to roll clothes rather than fold them and you’ll be away. Let the adventure begin…

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Guyana – The Land of Many Waters

“Can I go down there?” inquired one of the group, peering over the edge.

“You go, I’ll write about it,” was the laconic reply of our Guyanese guide that revealed the immensity of the drop and quickly brought the over-inquisitive group member back from the edge.

At a dizzy seven hundred and forty one feet, the spectacular Kaieteur Falls are immense, the largest single waterfall anywhere in the world. Kaieteur ranks alongside the Niagara, Victoria and Iguazu falls in power and majesty with the added attraction that it is surrounded by virgin forest. In his book ‘Ninety-two days’ Evelyn Waugh described Kaieteur as “one of the finest, most inaccessible and least advertised wonders of the natural world.”

Waugh’s description has stood the test of time as neither the grandeur nor the remoteness of the falls has diminished over the years. Getting to the falls is an experience in itself – either you slog through the dense jungle for several days or you take a stunning flight over the jungle and myriad of rivers in a light aircraft. Whichever you take, the final destination is undoubtedly worth it and arriving at the falls I felt as if I was discovering them for the first time – there were no signs and none of the trappings of tourism that clutter other great natural sights. There were no protective railings and the sudden drop into nothingness sent a cold shiver down my spine.

The sheerness of the drop, the vertiginous height, unsettled me and even slithering forward on my stomach was terrifying. Peering nervously over the edge I watched drops of water fall, fall, fall into empty space. I had expected there to be a thunderous roar of water, not dissimilar to the Victoria Falls (locally known as ‘the smoke that thunders’), but so great was the height of the falls that only at the brink could I hear the muffled sound of water reaching the bottom.

But if you have not heard of Kaieteur Falls, Guyana’s main attraction, then what has the country got to offer you? For as Waugh wrote, “Who in his senses will read, still less buy, a travel book of no scientific value about a place he has no intention of visiting?” To paraphrase Waugh, the answer is that there are hopefully a certain number of people who enjoy the same kinds of things as I do. Thus an experience which for me was worth a month of my time and a great deal of exertion may be worth a few minutes reading to others.

Arriving in Guyana, I was confronted by the poor simplicity of a third world airport building bored by bureaucracy. In contrast to the building the airport staff were colourful and charismatic. The immigration officials were chatty and amiable, asking friendly questions, intrigued as to why we were coming to Guyana. However, I was somewhat unsettled by one question they asked me, “Are ya wid da church?” It seemed to imply that only those on a heavenly mission visited Guyana.

Outside the airport we were consumed by darkness, there being little electricity in Guyana. Other senses heightened to compensate for this lack of sight, I was awash with new and strange sounds and smells. The air had been softened by recent rains and was heavy with the smell of earth, the smell of muddy potatoes. The thick grass that lined the road was singing with the constant siren of cicadas. Occasionally we passed a late night drinking hall from which the big bass of reggae boomed out into the darkness. Arriving at Camp Ceiba, our home on the edge of the jungle for the next two nights, we were faced with the challenge of putting up our hammocks in the dark. As we stumbled and fumbled in the dark we cursed the lack of light and our ineptitude, but were enthralled by everything that lay ahead.

The excitement of our arrival late last night had not worn off, and despite the early hour we were up early, exploring the environs of the camp. The discovery of tortoises, lizards, an enormous frog, a pair of parrots and other exotic birds was met with wide-eyed enthusiasm, which turned to horror when a large pink-footed tarantula was found. Once cameras had been produced, clicked and put away it dawned on the group that the tarantula had been above their heads last night and would more than likely be there for the next night. It was only afterwards that I found out that this type of tarantula is relatively harmless.

Later that day we set off into Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, to explore and buy provisions for the journey ahead. Driving into the city Guyana’s cultural diversity, that it was a melting pot of peoples and cultures, quickly became apparent – for a start our driver, Vishnu, was a Christian. Colourful flags denoted Hindi houses, shoes lined up outside mosques indicated that it was prayer time and towering spires marked the fact that Christianity was the dominant religion. The Church of St George, reputedly the tallest wooden building in the world, was an icon of purity in the otherwise troubled streets of Georgetown. Georgetown is not unsafe; well certainly no more so than any other capital city, but an air of expectation hangs heavy. Young men loitered and stared as stereos were tested to their limit.

I found it difficult to get a feel for the people, partly due to their cultural diversity but primarily due to the fact that they were so difficult to understand. I had asked Aunt Dolly (pronounced ‘Aren’t Door-lie’) what she advised as a good staple food on the trek. “Coup inner tin,” she remarked. “Excuse me?” I replied. “Cow in a tin,” she repeated much more slowly, meaning corned beef. A lot of educated guesswork is invariably involved in any conversation with someone from Georgetown.

The next day we headed into the interior in a Bedford 4-tonner. Such a tried and tested vehicle is a pre-requisite for any such journey – there are only 550 kilometres of tarred road in Guyana, a country the size of the UK. The rest of the roads, and I use the term loosely, are often little more than a single track hemmed in by the encroaching jungle. Rutted and waterlogged, they are impassable for much of the year and the tyre tracks and deep ruts indicated the problems of earlier drivers. Our Bedford whined and discharged diesel at an alarming rate as it slipped and struggled with the surface under tyre. Its efforts were to no avail and not for the first time we had to resort to the winch to rescue us. Travel in the interior of Guyana is invariably a drawn out and protracted process, a real adventure – but it is worth the effort.

Once in the interior we quickly settled into a daily routine and each morning, hammocks and mosquito nets were packed away in the pre-dawn dark.  With torch batteries dulled from overuse and eyes blurry with sleep, or rather the lack of it, our preparation for departure was ponderously slow. Invariably the Kabora fly had got the better of me the previous day and I had spent a sleepless night scratching bites. The itch induced by the Kabora bite is maddening in its intensity but thankfully does not last more than a couple of days. No deet or repellent was foul or strong enough to keep the little buggers at bay.

After a breakfast of farine (the Guyanese equivalent of porridge made from cassava), it was out into the jungle, which, despite the humidity and multitude of creepy crawlies, was for me one of the main attractions of Guyana. Although it did not conform to my predetermined stereotypes of snakes slithering through vines and tapirs crashing through the undergrowth, the jungle inspired in me a sense of adventure, a sense of the unknown. The wealth and variety of vegetation, from lianas to lichens, from mushrooms to monkey ladders, never ceased to amaze me.

And yet it was the green, submarine darkness of the jungle that most surprised me and can never be realised until one has been there. Not only did I not appreciate how difficult it was to see, but also how much there was to hear. The jungle was a multitude of sounds, a cacophony that was heard but not seen. It was difficult enough to locate sounds let alone determine what they were. Frogs sounded almost human, insects droned incessantly, humming birds chirped loudly all around us. Straining my ears I heard the distant noise of an aeroplane – the first mechanical sound that I had heard in over a week, which brought home to me the remoteness of the jungle we were trekking through.

Despite the difficulty of spotting wildlife, we did see some, including, perhaps unsurprisingly, the aptly named sloth. It’s head was small, almost absurdly so, its claws long and powerful, as were its arms which seemed to have a sinewy strength beyond its size. The sloth seemed to symbolise Guyana and the sedate pace of life in the interior, where the heat, humidity and blight of insects reduced any movement to a crawl. More than anything the sloth intrigued me as to how it had survived evolution, it seemed to challenge Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest.

The sloth was one of the most bizarre animals that we came across, but the most exhilarating moment was the sight a pair of macaws in flight. Their cry was uplifting as they soared above the canopy; their colouring bright, exotic and vibrant against the greens of the jungle. Seeing them flying in unison was a magical moment.

Each day would invariably involve a river crossing – Guyana is not called ‘the land of many waters’ without good reason. An easy crossing would be in a dugout canoe. A moderate crossing would involve fording the river – this in itself was not difficult, but warrants moderate status because of the inherent dangers of piranha and the discomfort of wet feet. A difficult crossing would necessitate negotiating a half-submerged log or worse still a fallen tree with a vine acting as an improvised handrail. Both of these required a sense of balance and foot dexterity that was nigh impossible in walking boots. At the very least, river crossings added a certain sense of drama to the day.

At the end of a hard but rewarding day’s trek we would walk into a clearing in the jungle occupied by a handful of huts that comprised the local village. In one particular village, Tusening, I was offered a gourd full of a welcoming drink of cassava spirit. Not dissimilar to watery porridge, it looked innocuous enough and I was about to take a healthy swig when I noticed a man passed out under a nearby mango tree. For once in my life I showed some restraint.

Despite being red-faced, sweaty and out of breath, I was always greeted by warm friendly smiles, welcoming eyes and infectious laughter. The Amerindian villagers were very different form the peoples on the coast, in appearance, style and friendliness. The adults were generous and hospitable to the extreme. The children were less certain at first, staring in bewilderment at us, for few if any westerners (or yellow people as we were referred to) come through this area. Once they had overcome their initial reserve, the children were full of unaffected curiosity and eager for us to go fishing or hunting with them. In one of the less remote villages they even wanted us to play cricket against them.

On one Sunday morning, in a scene that would not have been out of place in the film ‘The Mission’, I found myself seated in church. The timid priest struggled to be heard above the creaking of the corrugated iron roof in the sun, the rustling of children’s feet, the scraping of wooden benches and the dogs barking outside. The humidity was oppressive. The congregation sat patiently fanning themselves. In spite of the sweltering heat everyone was in their Sunday best and looked immaculate. I wondered how they managed to keep everything so clean when the rivers were so swollen with mud.

I was awoken from my reverie by a question from the priest, “Brother Justin have you found God?”

I was not sure whether I had, but I was sure that Guyana could be one of the destinations of the future. Right now it is a place for more rugged and independent minded people who have time and patience, and don’t mind visiting a country that most people think is in Africa. But in the future?

Top 4 Festivals

Rajasthan woman

With Glastonbury and Wimbledon on everyone’s lips and with the promise of a summer full of festivals, we were inspired to come up with a list of our top 4 festivals from around the world. With Steppes Travel coming from the home of the Cheese Rolling competition we have put together some ideas that offer something a little different than just Music and mud…

Colombia

The Yeepao Competition in the Quindio region of Colombia celebrates the humble Willis Jeep. A vehicle that has become synonymous with the region is honoured each year by the residents who compete to fit as much in, on and under the jeep. They then drive through the main streets of the town, trying to get further than any of the other competitors. Not only a beautiful area of Colombia but a fantastic opportunity for unique and amusing images.

India

The Jaisalmer Desert Festival in the beautiful Indian region of Rajasthan is bursting with colour and life. Held in the desert city with the Golden Fortress of Jaisalmer it showcases the colourful heritage and folk culture of this region with dancing, costumes and festivities. The friendly locals will invite you to join in and judge the moustache and turban tying competitions!

Kenya

The Lake Turkana Festival is all about the bringing together of the communities within this remote and little visited region of Kenya. The festival is full of cultural dances and local traditions, aimed to offer insights into the lives of the local tribes and to breakdown stereotypes. The festival not only offers a lively atmosphere but also provides the perfect excuse to get off the beaten track and visit a wild and very different Kenya.

Argentina

Celebrated for over 70 years, in early November gauchos descend on the little town of San Antonia de Areco to join in Argentina’s version of a rodeo. The gauchos take to the cobbled streets, dressed in all their finery for a week of celebrations. Perhaps the most impressive day is the jineteada gaucha which ends the celebrations which is of course accompanied by the most mouth watering BBQ laden with famous Argentinian steak.

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Horse Riding in the Andes

Ecuador Day 1

This evening I feel thoroughly worn out in the nicest possible way. In the land of the chagras (an Ecuadorean brand of cowboy), I just spent a fantastic afternoon horse riding through the Andes in the region of Cotopaxi, gently plodding along smelling roses, mint and eucalyptus and using my height advantage to gaze at the rolling green hills and breathtaking volcanoes.

Mostly walking, interspersed with the occasional exhilarating gallop, it was perfect for my intermediate riding level. The area caters for all standards; there are immensely docile and well behaved horses for beginners along with superbly responsive ones for experts. This particular hacienda has a lot of teenagers and families visiting to ride for anything between an hour and a month! I’m positive my inexperienced and thus bruised posterior could not withstand a month, despite the sheepskin lined saddles, but for horse lovers I’m convinced this would be a dream come true. I’m desperate to send my sister out here, a true horsey girl; she’d be in her element!

Retuning home (that’s how it feels staying in one of these traditional haciendas) I enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal, glass of wine and soaked my tired muscles in the hot tub; utter bliss!

Having had a busy day before my ride watching the cows being milked and then winding up the two gorgeous eight week old sheepdog puppies who live here, I think it’s time to go to sleep in my cosy fire-lit room so I can wake up refreshed to my spectacular view of the mountains in the morning. Not a bad first day in Ecuador!

Keeping an eye out to read more about Sarah’s amazing South American journey, or contact the team for advice on taking a holiday to South America for yourself on 01285 880 980.

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Isla Taquile, in Lake Titicaca

Yesterday I went to what I consider hands down the most peaceful, idyllic and beautiful place I have ever been to.

Isla Taquile, in Lake Titicaca is a UNESCO world heritage site for obvious reasons. You couldn’t allow anything to spoil this- it’s just too perfect. It’s a privilege to watch the shy inhabitants of the island in symbolic traditional dress going about their daily lives. The three rules of the island are “don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be lazy”. The latter of these is evident when you see an old lady walking up a steep path spinning yarn as she walks, or small boys walking along together chatting and knitting simultaneously.

The ladies on the island weave and the men knit. You may have heard of an island of knitting men; this is it! They make beautiful tapestries, accessories and items of clothing out of wool. Peru is fascinating for its textiles, as they are used not simply as decoration, but for more meaningful purposes of communication and recording. We can arrange tours that focus on the textiles of Peru, which sounds fascinating; after learning bits and pieces on this trip, I’d love to come back and find out more one day.

The view from the beautiful stone path which winds its way around the island is simply breathtaking. Looking down over the island you have the pretty terraced farm land, growing vegetables and flowers, among which you must keep your eyes peeled for the gorgeous giant hummingbird (I saw three!). Looking across the water you can see the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca – its snow capped mountain range with clouds hovering above, moving forwards from the rainforest behind.

I had the most wonderful guide, a young man called Blady, who was so knowledgeable on the island and the people; I never asked a question he couldn’t answer. We went for a delicious lunch of bread and salsa, traditional vegetable soup and melt-in-your-mouth trout from the lake, in a beautiful silent restaurant on the hillside, before going for a walk from one pier to the next. We wiled away a thoroughly enjoyable hour taking photographs (he’d point out the best views and spot birds for me) and teaching each other Spanish and English idioms. The peaceful silence of the island is something I’ll never forget.

I snoozed and sunbathed on the boat journey back, thoroughly satisfied with a truly lovely day.

N.B. Top tip – due to being so near the equator and the reflections from the water, the sun will destroy you before you’ve got time to say “I’ll just put on some sun cream” so apply before you leave the boat and reapply all the way around. I am the embarrassed bearer of a seriously pink forehead!

For further information on Sarah’s journey through Peru, visiting Lake Titicaca for yourself or for advice on any part of a holiday to Peru contact the team on 01285 880 980.

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The White City of Arequipa, Peru

Ladies – if you’re ever feeling a little bit low and in need of an ego boost, go for a little stroll around Arequipa! I’ve had enough lovely compliments from polite, smiling, friendly people to last me a lifetime!

And of course, that is not by any stretch of the imagination all that Arequipa has to offer. What a beautiful city! Wandering around the gorgeous cobbled streets, surrounded by pretty and varied architecture, overshadowed by breathtaking snow capped volcanoes is an absolute delight.

On the way in from the airport I stopped at a viewpoint on a hillside outside the city to see the famous volcanoes – Chachani, Misti and Pichu Pichu (pictured), with Arequipa below in the valley, alongside the famous terraced farmland with a big river running through the middle.

There I was given some maca root sweets; they taste like toffee and are chockablock with vitamins, minerals and pretty much every essential “good for you” ingredient you can think of. They’re supposed to make you strong and healthy. I tried a couple of other fruits straight from the tree, one of which was in a pod, like runner beans but bigger, and inside looked a little like blobs of cotton with a smooth black seed inside each of them – really tasty!

Peru has a fascinating agricultural history. It has so many microclimates, due to the altitude, that it holds the title of the country with the greatest number of endemic plants in the world, plants that will refuse to grow anywhere else. They also grow a stunningly huge variety of the fruit and vegetables we all know and eat in the UK; and I’m told the tastiest ones are grown here!

Arequipa’s old town is the perfect place to spend a couple of days acclimatising to the altitude before moving onto higher places. At 2,000 feet above sea level it’s a nice midway point before heading up to Colca, Puno or Cusco. There’s a very attractive central plaza with a fountain and hundreds of pigeons in a garden in the centre. It’s supposed to be good luck to bring your baby to this plaza and take a photo there.

Alongside the square is a grand cathedral built from the porous white volcanic rock which has given Arequipa its name “The White City”. Among the cobbled backstreets spreading from here are lots of treasures to find; markets, places to buy incredibly soft alpaca wool products, churches, restaurants and incredible views of the volcanoes. Not to be missed- try some of the local ice cream; vanilla, coconut and cinnamon flavour- delicious or “rico” which is Spanish slang meaning “yummy”!

The jewel in Arequipa’s crown in my opinion is the Santa Catalina monastery. Totally closed until 1960, it’s a beautifully restored walled
village within a village. It is such a incredibly peaceful place to wander and explore. Take a guide and they’ll answer any number of questions and tell you all about the genuinely fascinating history of the place. There’s a roof you can get to which gives you a spectacular view of the city with the mountains behind – my highlight.

After spending a couple of days here it’s onwards and upwards to higher parts of Peru!

For advice designing your own holiday to Peru please contact our Peru specialists on 01285 600 134.

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An Eco visit to the Galapagos

This was my first visit to the Galapagos in a few years and I was delighted to see that the islands had changed little and were still as beautiful and fascinating as they had been.

Tourism has changed over recent months to focus on land based stays, with the arrival of wonderful properties like the Galapagos Safari Camp and the new 15 day itinerary regulated by the Galapagos National Park. During my time on the islands I was lucky enough to stay at the Safari camp and thought this eco-camp offered all the benefits of an African tented camp and a great view of the island.

During the rest of the stay on the islands I embarked upon a 3 night Galapagos cruise onboard La Pinta teamed with a stay at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel (a short water taxi from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz). I was looking forward to my stay as one of my clients described it as a piece of paradise. Whilst walking down the path from the small pier with Marine Iguanas to greet me, I couldn’t help but agree!

With a love of diving I was keen to see what all the fuss was about, so I took a dive boat from Santa Cruz to what can only be described as quite simply the most incredible dive spot ever. Under the water I was surrounded by a shiver of Hammerhead sharks that seemed to be as inquisitive about me as I was about them. There were also White-tipped and Black-tipped Galapagos sharks looking up at me from below, whilst sea lions weaved through rocks to the left of me, blowing bubbles and nudging me and to the right a bale of turtles were floating by and inspecting my dive equipment! Such an assault on the senses.

My itinerary included Espanola; which was a delight. I got to witness the huge Waved Albatross with its eggs, Galapagos Hawks and Blue-footed Boobies – there seemed to be something in the air as they were all choosing that moment to mate. Next I headed to the island of San Cristobal and was delighted to explore the new visitor sites that were recently opened. I also took the chance to get back in the water for some snorkelling, which mostly involved being bunted by sea lions frolicking between me and the rocks and following turtles as they gracefully glided through the water – what an experience!

I also visited the new all singing, all dancing cocoon in the clouds as it is often referred to, Mashpi Lodge, which quite simply offers a ‘bubble’ in which to explore the cloud forest. It is home to orchids, magnificent butterflies and striking birds plus options to take a cable car and air bikes (still to be completed). There is a hummingbird feeding station en route to the lodge along with a fascinating butterfly house which has been a study point for some time. There is also a camera trap project in operation with a resident researcher.

My time on the islands, witnessing the new conservation policies in action inspired me to continue to help these precious islands and see them conserved for the future. At Steppes we only work together with reputable boat operators and hoteliers who have eco credentials in the form of a specific ISO standard such as Smart Voyager.

To talk further with Sarah about her trip or to gain further advice about planning your holiday to the Galapagos please call her on 01285 880 980.

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Visiting Stanley

*Day five* – we spent the morning in Stanley on the Falkland Islands, a bizarre mix of Victorian cottages with a New Zealand village feel and quintessentially English flower gardens ablaze with bright daffodils.

There were two excursions on offer, a guided history walk with Jim that took in the many monuments along the waterfront and ended at the small but packed museum or a “pub crawl” with Colin who was celebrating his birthday. I decided on the former, on the latter they only managed 2 pubs out of the 5 options but all seemed quite merry when we returned to the ship.

The History of the Falklands was fascinating there is so much more to learn than just the more recent conflict which really put it on the map. I would have liked more time to see some of the battle famous sights and memorials; I will just have to come back! In the afternoon we set sail towards South Georgia taking with us a British couple who are going to be working on the island for 6 months looking after the shop, museum and taking on various other tasks as required, a job they had seen in the local Penguin News.

*Day 6* – the fickle Southern Ocean is our home again for the next few days as we sail across to South Georgia. At times just a gentle swell lulling you into the next set of huge waves that make the ship toss and lurch, she has a tendency to do this during meal times seeing how many plates and bowls of soup she can spill.

On deck you can watch as the huge waves roll onwards, we have the wind behind us which is helping our progress and we have a constant entourage of birds – the ever present Pintados and Petrels have been joined by Black Browed Albatross and today the magnificent Wandering Albatross swung in our wake, tantalising close but never quite as near as the other species. With unbelievable grace and hardly an adjustment of their wings they soar over the tumultuous seas, just skimming the waves but never getting caught out but them, as mesmerising as fire to watch. The lectures today covered Shackleton and his men along with King Penguins and the seals of Antarctica.

*Day 7* – today the seas are much calmer no longer 7-8 meter waves and gale force winds but also no longer the sunshine just a hazy sea mist as we head towards the Convergence where the cold Antarctic waters meet creating a dramatic drop in both water and air temperature. This is a barrier to many species so we are unlikely to see the dolphins in our wake any more.

Yesterday the weather was very changeable with bright sunshine dispersed with squalls of snow that blew up from nowhere and disappeared as quickly, icy blasts of snow like little ball bearings and the waves whipping up blasting the foam off the tops of the waves. The slackening of the wind has reduced the numbers of birds in our wake although a few new species have been spotted including Blue and White Bellied Petrels.

This afternoon we will completed our biosecurity checks, cleaning all clothing and equipment that we intend to take on to South Georgia. At around 4.30 we sighted Shag rocks, five towering cliffs up to 70 meter poking up in the seemingly endless sea, here there were a huge number of Blue eyed cormorants flying around and nesting on the precipitous cliffs. This means we are well on course to reach South Georgia tomorrow.

More coming soon ….

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Heading South

Sue is currently on her South Georgia, Falkland and Antarctica cruise – read all about her adventures as she sends us updates from the boat.

*Day One* – standing on the end of the pier at Puerto Madryn and looking forward to heading south. Puerto Madryn is the gateway to Peninsula Valdez famed for its wildlife including the Southern Wright whales that calve in the bay, fingers crossed we may see some as we set sail this afternoon, setting a course for the Falkland Islands.

The Only Way is South.

You know the omens are good for a trip when the first wildlife encounter is prior to leaving the dock; we had two huge sea lions alongside the ship just lazing on the dock only mildly interested in the to-ing and frow-ing. During the compulsory muster drill, that now has to be performed before the ship sets sail, a couple of Southern Wright whales were breaching in the bay, they continued to put on a show throughout the drill and well into the crew introductions. In the early evening we set sail heading south east towards the Falkland Islands a two day sail away, after a long flight I took advantage of an early night and was lulled to sleep with the rocking of the ocean.

*Day Two* – we awoke to a beautiful calm morning with sunshine, I was on deck by 6.30 watching birds in our wake, Cape petrels wheeling around the ship catching the updrafts with their dappled plumage catching the morning sunlight. Tiny storm petrels that look so fragile dancing across the tops of the waves and then the magnificent Albatross, both Royal and Black browed gracefully glide in with an occasional idle flap of their wings. They effortlessly caught up with us swirling and swooping alongside the ship.

Humpbacks were spotted on a number of occasions their huge blasts of air catching the sun as they took in lung fulls of air, then the tell-tale humpback before they dived again with a final flick of their tail. During the day we were joined by several small groups of hourglass dolphins who came in from a great distant to hang on our bow wave, like kids having fun they whipped back and forth leaping in front of the ship then disappearing as quickly as they had come. This along with six lectures over the course of the day covering everything from the conflicts of the Falkland Islands to whale identification we were never bored. With a slight tail wind and these gentle seas we are making good progress….

*Day Three* – another sunny one but the wind has picked up and the swells of the Southern Ocean have caught up with quite a few of us, lunchtime numbers were definitely depleted! Despite the rougher seas we did see a couple of humpback whales and we were again joined by the hour glass dolphins. The afternoon was set aside for the briefings on zodiac landings and the biosecurity measures. In the late afternoon land could be seen and as we were a little ahead of time we took the opportunity to sail close to the Jason Island group which has a large black browed Albatross colony and many of them wheeled around the boat as we watched the setting sun.

*Day Four* – the first big day as we were to have two landings today. The first was at Carcass Island where we landed at Dyke bay and walked along the head of the beach to the small holding which takes guests, a number of which had just flown in on one of the regular flights by Cessna. The coastline had plenty on offer, ducks kelp and highland geese many of which had chicks and in burrows the Magellenic penguins were beginning nesting. Caracaras were definitely in the mood for love and there was much displaying particularly around the farm house. At the farm we were warmly welcomed by the McGill family who provided us with a great cup of tea and an amazing display of cakes.

We were joined by both Commersons and Peals dolphins during the zodiac trip back to the ship. During lunch we repositioned to Saunders Island, here we were provided with a plethora of penguins – Gentoo, Magallenic, King and Rockhoppers. The landing spot was a stunning isthmus between two hills known as the neck with crashing surf on one side and slightly less on ours – which made for an exciting landing. The punky Rockhoppers were noisy neighbours to the far more serene Black Browed Albatross who looked rather disdainfully at their clamouring behaviour. In amongst these were gaudy Imperial cormorants with their bright red eyes and orange crest.

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More blogs coming soon …

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Venezuela – The Majestic Angel Falls

Venezuela is a land of spectacular scenery and many waterfalls. It is thus only fitting that it is home to the highest falls in the world, Angel Falls. Named not after heavenly bodies but more prosaically after the derring-do American aviator, Jimmy Angel, who crash-landed on the summit of Ayuantepui, the tepui from which the waters of Angel Falls cascade nearly a kilometre to their fate below.

Being less adventurous than Angel, I joined a group of Venezuelan tourists and headed upstream on the Caro River in a long wooden dugout. Despite our proximity to the equator we had to huddle low in the dugout, trying in vain, to avoid the penetrating chill of the dawn as we sped over the still waters of the river. The waters were dark enhancing the warming embers of dawn with a perfect and enchanting reflection.

The jungle, a riot of undergrowth, clambered for space at the river’s edge, branches, tree trunks and foliage spilling over into the water. The jungle was unmoving and quiet, the unnatural sound of our motor announcing our arrival and silencing all.

That is except for the birds. The noisy radio squawking overhead of parakeets, toucans glided from perch to perch, swallows fluttered haphazardly and kingfishers darted decisively along the water’s edge.

The river snaked and worked its way around harder rocks in a series of curves and bends. Negotiating small bubbling raids, the bottom of the dugout gently scraping rocks, we made slow progress upriver scanning the banks in vain for signs of animal life.

A tangled, engorged mass of roots covered the jungle floor, frustrating footsteps and making progress difficult. I was relieved to see that no wooden boardwalks or steps had been built to pander to pampered tourists. It added to the drama of the approach. The natural beauty of the sight was also thankfully not denigrated or demeaned by protective railings and signs.

Angel Falls does not need boards or sign to announce its presence. Its grandness, its height, its beauty speaks eloquently enough for itself. As I caught my first glimpse of the Falls I literally did, clichéd as it might sound, gasp in awe.

Nearly one kilometre above me two channels of water spilled over the dramatic edge unaware of the vertiginous drop below. It fell and fell and fell. I tried to follow a drop from the top to the bottom. It was impossible. Before my drop had got even a third of the way down I had lost it in a shower of fine spray. I tried again. Again and again. I gave up and focused on the bottom third, by which time my original drop had possibly only just reached this section. It was mesmerising and I totally lost myself in the fate of all those millions of drops of water in their stomach churning fall.

Then suddenly the clouds rolled in enveloping the summit and rousing me from my reverie. I pinched myself, stunned by the sheerness of the height and drop.

I thought that it was to be my only view of the falls but was unaware that as you fly out of Cainama, the small airstrip that is the gateway to Angel Falls, the pilots indulge in a flyby of the Falls. I was also unaware of the breathtaking beauty of the falls and surrounding scenery from the air.

Once airborne, I was struck by the endless expanse of green that carpeted the land below. It was broken only by the tortuous bends of the Caro River along which we had travelled yesterday. I was intrigued to see from the air just how much the river meandered, winding, bend after bend after bend.

The geographical display that unfolded below and around us – for some minutes we were flying alongside the northern face of Ayuantepui – was quite simply astonishing. I have never seen such majestic scenery. The precipitous face of the tepui and the dramatic falls themselves; the weathered remnants of a ridge writhed in cloud standing in solitary defiance. It was awe inspiring.

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The legacy of Lonesome George

Clichés like “his kind will never be seen again” are often the mainstay of obituaries. In the case of Lonesome George such platitudes are perfectly justified.

With his passing, so follows the demise of the Pinta Island Tortoise, an animal once so prolific, sailors passing through the Galapagos archipelago, thought nothing of filling their larders with the beasts as convenient and much needed protein for their long voyages at sea.

Scientists estimate that George was about 100 years old – a “good innings” for most yet a premature passing in this case, as life expectancy for a Giant Tortoise is about 200. Such was his celebrity status George was an ambassador for the Galapagos National Park, a poster boy for the Galapagos Conservation Trust and a symbol for endangered species everywhere. His plight resonated beyond the realms of biologists and his inability to procreate made headlines all over the world, such were the tragic consequences of his condition.

While George’s impotence was well documented, the symbolism of his untimely death is potent beyond measure. Mention the word ‘extinction’ and, for most, thoughts of the Dodo immediately come to mind. The term has almost a historic ring to it, something that happened long ago, consigned to dusty encyclopaedias. George’s death is a reminder that the threat of extinction is real and immediate for a large number of the world’s animals. On the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species there are currently 3,947 species considered “critically endangered”, starting with Aaptosyax Grypus (Mekong Giant Salmon Carp) and ending with Zyzomys Pedunculatus (Central Rock Rat).

There is no Mekong Giant Salmon Carp named George, kept in an aquarium and encouraged to mate with an unseemly line of female Salmon Carps and it is unlikely that obituaries will flood the internet when the last remaining Central Rock Rat draws its terminal breath. Yet what about the Sumatran Orangutan, or the Black Rhino – will the world take note when these animals move from the “critically endangered” list to the list marked “extinct”?

The finality of Lonesome George’s death is a poignant reminder that man’s actions have very real consequences. If we don’t take stock and increase efforts to conserve endangered animals worldwide, then obituaries for species rather than individuals will become commonplace.

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Charles Darwin Foundation respond to The Observer

A letter written in response to a piece published in the Observer on June 10th, written by Carol Cadwalladr on the negative effects of tourism in the Galapagos.

You can read the article by clicking on the above link and below is a letter written in response to the article, by Swen Lorenz, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation:

“Your recent article about the Galápagos Islands (“Galápagos menaced by tourist invasion”, Sunday 10th June 2012 by Caroline Cadwalladr) contains too many factual errors and misconceptions to comment on all of them.

E.g., Felipe Cruz did not speak to Ms Cadwalladr as the Director of Technical Assistance of the Charles Darwin Foundation. He had clearly pointed out that he is currently on leave of absence from our organisation and instead spoke to Ms Cadwalladr as a consultant of the London-based Galápagos Conservation Trust (GCT).

Ms Cadwalladr did not want to take the time to look at the many aspects where great success has been achieved by conservation efforts in the Galápagos. As a matter of fact, the Galápagos have been the location of some of the world’s most successful conservation projects, and Ecuador is the world’s first country to grant rights to nature in its constitution. The very problems that the article mentions have long been identified and are actively being worked on:

– Protective barriers have been erected around the airport to prevent iguanas from entering the airfield
– An education campaign is asking drivers of cars to pay close attention to birds on the roads
– Enormous efforts are going into developing and improving models for responsible eco-tourism

Organisations that are part of these efforts include the Galápagos National Park, the Consejo de Gobierno de Galápagos, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Heritage, NGOs such as WWF, and the Charles Darwin Foundation, as well as GCT, to name just a few.

Unfortunately, Ms Cadwalladr simply chose to ignore much of the information she was given about all this by our staff. Even right after her visit, I sent a message to our partner organisation, Galápagos Conservation Trust, to complain about the unprofessional and disrespectful behaviour of Ms Cadwalladr. The quotes she uses in her article are also partially erroneous, and have been taken out of context. Ms Cadwalladr launched personal attacks on staff and partners, some of whom had taken time out of their personal diary to provide – in good faith about The Guardian’s reputation – their view about the Galápagos Islands.

The most saddening part is that the kind of one-sided reporting that Ms Cadwalladr engaged in directly contributes to the problems of the islands. As Sir David Attenborough succinctly summed up, without tourism the Galápagos would not exist anymore. Our institution’s position is that tourists should visit, but they should do so responsibly. A loss of tourism income would be catastrophic to the conservation measures taken for the islands by the Government of Ecuador and by the many organisations that are working on behalf of the archipelago.

Last but not least, I strongly object – both personally as well as in my role as Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation – to the inhabitants of the islands being portrayed in the way Ms Cadwalladr’s article sets out. Every day, countless individuals living in Galápagos work passionately, tirelessly and often at great personal sacrifices, to deal with the challenges of the island. I am convinced that by working with the population of the islands (and the Government of Ecuador), solutions to the current challenges can be found.

It is people like Ms Cadwalladar – who come to Galápagos to further their own career and ambitions, but without giving anything back – that are the real problem. I have known The Guardian as a source of balanced, factual information. Unfortunately, its readers have also suffered from this slanted article, as they have not been given a complete picture.

Finally, I would like to see an official correction published in your newspaper because of the reputational damage that the Charles Darwin Foundation as advisor of the government of Ecuador has suffered as a consequence of your one-sided, erroneous reporting.

With best regards,
Swen Lorenz
Executive Director, Charles Darwin Foundation”

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Galapagos Islands – The Great Tourism Debate

On Sunday 10 June, The Observer published a piece written by Carol Cadwalladr on the negative effects of tourism in the Galapagos. You can read the article by clicking on the above link and below is the letter I wrote in response to this article:

“I wonder if at any time Carole Cadwalladr felt the slightest tinge of hypocrisy, condemning tourism in the Galapagos while she frolicked with sea-lions and enjoyed the hospitality of the very hotels and tour operators she is so keen to vilify? I should state immediately that I am not an impartial observer in all of this as I manage the tour operator that organised and partially sponsored Carole Cadwalladr’s travel arrangements to the Galapagos. While I am very disappointed that Carole decided to write a polemic against tourism in the Galapagos I welcome the debate her piece has aroused and agree with some of the points she has raised. Tighter control and regulation of tourism in the Galapagos are undoubtedly required however this must be done in a manner that still allows tourism to help local people realise the economic potential of their natural habitat and the wildlife that calls it home. “If it pays it stays” is the mantra of conservation and with this pragmatic approach, tourism is crucial to the future of not only the Galapagos but also numerous other primary wildlife destinations around the world. Remove tourism and the compulsion to conserve and protect no longer has its driving force. Of course, there is a sense of balance required and the problem in the Galapagos is that land based tourism has been allowed to develop unregulated. This has not only had a direct environmental impact but has also increased the tourist capacity of the Galapagos Islands for which it does not have the infrastructure. The sooner something is done to curb this development and cap the number of tourists permitted on land based holidays the better. Rather than encouraging travellers to abandon their plans for visiting the Galapagos, I hope Cadwalladr’s piece makes travellers think carefully about how they should travel to the Galapagos. Look beyond the greenwash and choose a tour operator that pays more than just lip service to sustainable travel; choose a boat based trip over land based in order to minimize your impact on the fragile infra-structure of some of the islands; make sure you , a kite-mark of environmental best practice; if you want to spend time on land, chose a hotel like Finch Bay Eco Hotel that adheres to strict environmental guidelines. Steppes Discovery is a Gold Corporate member of Galapagos Conservation Trust and in the past 5 years has donated £30,000 to GCT’s projects on the islands as well as signing up all of our clients for membership to the organisation. In addition, in the last 5 years we have donated £20,000 to the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Herbarium project, which works to combat invasive plant species. If the Observer feels so strongly that tourism is “wrecking the wonders of the Galapagos” perhaps they would be prepared to donate the actual cost of their journalists’ trip to the islands, to the projects Steppes Discovery already supports?”

Needless to say, The Observer has not put its hand in its pocket…

If you have an opinion on tourism in the Galapagos then the Galapagos Conservation Trust want to hear it. They are currently hosting a debate on their website where you can post your comments – click on the link above.

William Burrard-Lucas and BeetleCam

Will Burrard-Lucas is a professional wildlife photographer from the UK, renowned for his fresh and innovative approach to wildlife photography. Below is a blog directly from Will regarding his latest BeetleCam adventures – a project that has given Will worldwide recognition and acclaim.

“In 2009 I embarked on a project to get unique close-up, ground level photographs of African wildlife. To achieve this I built BeetleCam; a remote controlled buggy with a DSLR camera mounted on top. My brother and I travelled to Tanzania and used the buggy to get some incredible photographs of elephants and buffalo. However, we lost a camera and BeetleCam was almost destroyed in its only encounter with a lion.

We returned home and published “The Adventures of BeetleCam”. The photos were very well received, appearing all over the web, in print and on television networks around the world. However, I wasn’t entirely satisfied… just imagine what I could get with a lion-proof BeetleCam!

Well, in 2011 I set to work creating two new BeetleCams; one with more advanced capabilities and one with an armoured shell. We returned to Africa with the aim of photographing the lions of the Masai Mara.

Two weeks later, our armoured BeetleCam was scarred and battered; the screws that held it together were losing their thread and the carapace was covered in scratches and bite marks. However, we could breathe a sigh of relief because we had reached the end of our trip and we hadn’t lost a camera this time! We returned home with a set of images that exceeded all our expectations and plenty of ideas for BeetleCam’s next adventure!

To read more about the project and view additional photographs, have a look at this blog post “BeetleCam vs the Lions of the Masai Mara”, or watch the below video for a preview of whats to come.

 

 

Brazil Revisited – The Pantanal, Amazon and Rio Coastline

On arrival in Cuiaba, the gateway to the northern Pantanal, the excitement grew as we drove ever closer to the Transpantaneira Road, a dusty supply road which dissects the region, eventually leading to Porto Joffre on the banks of the Cuiaba River. The main aim of the trip was to truly experience one of South America’s top wildlife destinations, and to check out the various lodges that are dotted along the road.

As soon as we set off along the Transpantaneira, a plethora of bird species, capybara and caiman were all immediately visible, however the further one travels the variety of wildlife becomes even more spectacular.

The northern Pantanal offers many small lodges, with varying landscapes and habitats so I believe that the best way to experience the area is to try and stay at two or more lodges. Some offer lakes and flood plains whilst others offer rivers, savannah and forest. This combination gives visitors the opportunity to spot varying wildlife species. As we continued towards Porto Joffre I was lucky enough to spot the likes of Hyacinth Macaws, monkeys, Giant Anteaters and tapir.

For those keen to seek out the ever elusive jaguar, Porto Joffre is one of the best spots in the Americas to find them. The lodges in this area are particularly focused on the jaguar, with daily boat trips along the Cuiaba and Piquiri Rivers and its tributaries. In theory jaguar are easier to see in the dry season from June to October, and are often spotted on the shaded river banks as the heat rises through the months. This is how I spotted my first and only jaguar, resting in the shade after a tasty caiman lunch, I felt so lucky and truly privileged as part of the only boat to be watching this powerful and stocky big cat; that moment will stay with me forever and is without doubt one of my all time favourite travel moments!

My journey continued to the southern Amazon, which with the Pantanal wetlands and the Chapada dos Guimaraes tablelands, makes up the Three Ecosystems of Mato Grosso. On the next leg of the journey, I flew up to Alta Floresta, a remote town in the southern Amazon and the gateway to the Cristalino State Park, where I spent a couple of fantastic days at Cristalino Jungle Lodge.

Set within a vast area of private reserve made up of primary forest, it really does feel like a real Amazon experience. To be honest, I was so surprised to see a wide range of wildlife and certainly bettered the wildlife experience of the Amazon lodges to the north of the country near Manaus. On the interesting jungle walks, boat and canoe trips I saw otters, peccaries, capybara, Scarlett Macaws and many other bird species, particularly from the top of the 50 metre high canopy viewing tower.

My journey continued to the Chapada dos Guimaraes National Park with its vast tabletop mountains, gorges, spectacular waterfalls and cerrado savannah. This area also offers different wildlife species to the Pantanal and Amazon with Red and Green Macaws, marmoset, armadillo and if incredibly lucky, the endangered Maned Wolf. Only an hour from Cuiaba, the town also serves as a handy stop over between the Pantanal and Amazon with some small characterful pousadas to unwind after the heat of the Pantanal.

This was my second visit to Brazil, and the principal aim of the next leg was to explore the coastal areas near Rio de Janeiro. A couple of hours’ drive to the east of Rio, the resort town of Buzios is a great spot to unwind after an extensive tour of Brazil’s most well known highlights. Set on a five mile peninsular made up of around 20 beaches that juts out into the Atlantic east of Rio. Formerly a small simple fishing village before Brigitte Bardot and her boyfriend ‘discovered’ it in the 1960’s, it is a place to go for beautiful beaches, snorkelling, diving, good restaurants and a selection of great hotels.

To the south of Rio, the beautiful Costa Verde or Green Coast stretches for a few hundred miles towards Sao Paulo state. The highlight of this area is the pretty colonial UNESCO-listed town of Paraty, where I was struck by how little seems to have changed since the 18th century.

I was blown away by how pretty it is with its cobbled streets and whitewashed colonial buildings covered in pink and purple bougainvillea. A backdrop of jungle-clad mountains and the beautiful Bay in front make Paraty an idyllic spot to experience a taste of authentic Brazil. Spend the days exploring the bay by schooner or private boat, head into the mountains on horseback or hike to pristine waterfalls in the jungle.

A couple of nights in Rio, made for a fantastic end to the trip. This time around I stayed up in the charming colonial district of Santa Teresa where the majority of the city’s characterful, boutique hotels are located. This is certainly an up and coming area of Rio which feels ‘real’ and makes a change from the busy Ipanema and Copacabana parts of town with bohemian shops and galleries alongside local bars and restaurants. I was particularly impressed by Hotel Santa Teresa and Mama Ruisa, offering a luxurious spot from which to explore Rio and return to a relaxing setting at the end of the day.

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Darwin Finches show evolution in action

Daphne Major Island, one of the most restricted islands in the Galapagos, is home to two species of Finches. It was whilst studying Finches that Charles Darwin came up with his theory of Evolution. Originally the island was populated by a medium ground finch which fed on large and small seeds. Then, in the early 80s, a breeding population of large ground finches arrived on the island.

The result was that the medium ground finches were now competing with the large ground finches for the limited food source. The large ground finches feed solely on the larger seeds of the Tribulus plant and are able to break open the seedpods and eat the seeds faster than the medium ground finch. Meanwhile the medium ground finches with smaller beaks can get to the smaller seeds whilst the medium ground finches with larger beaks have to compete with the stronger large ground finches for the bigger seeds.

A study by Peter Grant from Princeton University over the past three decades has revealed that the medium ground finches with larger beaks have been dying off and that the species has now evolved smaller beaks so as to not compete with the large ground finch which now reside on the island. This is a perfect example of evolution in action re-enforcing Darwin’s theory 175 years after he visited the islands himself.

Happy 12th Birthday Steppes Latin America

Steppes Latin America celebrates their 12th anniversary today. We started from humble beginnings on the 1 February 2000 in a small office in Clapham joining the Steppes Africa team making a total of 5 in the office.

Head office has always been close to Cirencester and since 2001 based in the centre of Cirencester. I remember on my first day, Denise the Accountant, drove up to London from Cirencester, she always got lost trying to find the office in Clapham; and inevitably ended up stopping a cab driver and paying to follow it!

Destination South America was our original name and we produced a leaflet brochure rather than our beautiful coloured brochures we have today. This first year we organised for 22 people to depart on a holiday to South America, covering many of its countries. The office then moved to our home in Cirencester, Gloucestershire – at the time I had no idea where this was! The idea of some good bracing country air for my three young children sounded fantastic and we decided to make the move, we just had to work out where Cirencester was and find ourselves a house! In fact I swanned off to South America for 6 weeks to set up contacts, see hotels and establish ground handlers in each country, while the small task of a move across the country was left to my wife. Twelve years on we are still in the same beautiful Cotswold House, just 7 minutes drive to the office, surrounded by fields and typical honey coloured stone walls.

After 3 years we had a name change from Destination South America to Steppes Latin America, as we expanded into Central America due to rising demand. Over the years we have steadily built up the business and new staff have joined the team that is now made up of seven experts. Each has incredible product knowledge on their specialist countries and between them they cover all of the countries in South and Central America. Sales have grown steadily over the years and we continue to discover new places, which we know our clients will wish to visit and enjoy. Our travels have included conquering fears of deep water in the Galapagos Islands, sampling mouth watering Argentinean beef, spotting jaguar in the Pantanal and discovered a passion for reggae music in Jamaica to name but a few!

Argentina is our most popular destination and we pride ourselves on our expertise and service that we offer to our clients. You can be sure we continue to seek out those hidden gems that can make your holiday extra special and can help you experience that ‘Wow’ factor in Latin America. I hope the next few years will be as rewarding as the past decade.

Happy Birthday Steppes Latin America! Thank you to all our past clients that have made my job such fun and to all our future clients we would like to help introduce to the amazing sights, people and wonders Latin America.

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The Galapagos home to Pirates of the Sky, Wrestling Dragons and Giants of the Ocean

When packing my things at home I couldn’t quite believe I was going to be stepping foot on these strange and fascinating islands and having a large fear of the sea I was nervous and even a little panicky. However, I decided this was the real trip to face my fears and to go alone and brave the waters to see what would come forward from the depths of the ocean.

28 hours later I arrived late in the night at Quito, I was exhausted and noted no client should ever have to do this journey with two stops in Colombia! In the new boutique hotel ‘Casa Gangotena’ which overlooks the San Francisco square, I woke up to see Quito had cleaned up well and I couldn’t wait to see more of the city.

Having read about Quito for the past year I was very much looking forward to seeing the city and the walk around the cobbled streets didn’t disappoint. It seemed every corner I turned there was a church, cathedral or prominent historic governmental building. Walking into the Compania de Jesus church was like stepping into a Buddhist temple in Thailand as it was dripping from the ceiling with gold leaf. It was very grand and drastically different to the Cathedral just around the corner where I learnt a little more about the Spanish Inquisition’s cunning tricks to convert the indigenous people of Ecuador to Catholicism; one tactic involved painting a guinea pig in the painting of the last supper (Ecuador’s national dish)! All in all I could have spent a few days walking around the city which is segmented into the old city and modern city, personally I prefer the old part as the character here is so rich.

Up and out of the hotel by 7am the following morning, I was in that hum of drowsy excitement – I was going to the Galapagos Islands!! I still couldn’t quite believe my luck as we were boarding the plane and before I knew it we were at Baltra airport, but I was brought back down to reality and waited for what seemed like an eternity to get through customs, pen and paper still seemed to be the system for this process.

A short bus ride away we climbed aboard the Panga boat (a dingy with a motor!) and reached the Eclipse which is a beautiful boat. Sitting eating lunch and looking through the window seeing the Galapagos Islands, I wondered what I might see in the next five days (trying hard to push the Jaws theme tune out of my head). Later on in the afternoon we reached Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz island, stepping onto the white sands I took my flip flops off straight away and looked up to see Blue Footed Boobies standing on the rocky black edge. We walked on the black hardened lava ground which was rough and rather painful on my bare feet, I could see why the spiky lava ground was called AA lava!

Bright orangey-red Sally Light footed crabs suddenly appeared around the corner and against the black ground they looked even more vivid and striking. Our guide walked along with us explaining how these funny looking crabs were actually cannibals. I was starting to see the islands were a hard place to survive on. Approaching a small lagoon we came across a sun bathing Marine Iguana and a Pink Flamingo sifting for tiny crustaceans in the water. The flamingo’s pink colour is caused from eating these little shrimps which are rich in the pigments called carotenoids.

Back onboard I felt ready to collapse into bed, what a great introduction to the islands. There was a snorkelling trip the next day and I was hoping I would have the courage to brave the waters.

We woke up to see Puerto Egas, Santiago Island, and on the panga ride out to the island we passed by a feeding pod of dolphins! I had never seen wild dolphins so close up before, their speed was impressive as they kept up with us. On the island we were greeted by lots of sea lions who were lazing about on the beach. We walked around seeing Galapagos mocking birds and Fur Seals with their pups which were so sweet and playful. Whilst watching the seals a Galapagos Hawk swooped down just in front of us, I had been hoping to see one and then moments later a second hawk joined him. On the way back some people went for a snorkel trip but with the Bull Sealion patrolling the beach I decided to hold back this time.

Later in the afternoon we reached Bartolmé Island, this was my chance to go snorkelling! Writing about it even now still gets my adrenaline going. We boarded the panga boats kitted out in our wetsuits and went out towards the Pinnacle Rock. The guide and driver started to get excited and then I realised it was because there were sharks around us. I was so scared I started feeling sick- what was I doing? Why was I here?! The driver explained calmly that the sharks lived in this bay so I could get off round the corner to join the others if I’d prefer – in my bizarre panic stricken logic this made sense – yes the sharks would stay in the bay!

So round the corner we went and counting down three, two, one we plunged into the cool waters. Whilst bobbing around in the sea trying to get used to the snorkel mask my guide appeared next to me holding my arm to say, ‘Jen just stay calm… there is a shark underneath you’. Out of sight, out of mind was my immediate reaction – again panic logic! I kept my head above the water and clinging onto my new friend asked how big it was, she replied to say I think you’ll be ok… so with every ounce of courage in me I lowered my head into the water. A two meter long black-tipped reef shark was resting in the shallows, it turned in an almost cat like elegant motion and swam off into the ocean.

Ha! Haahaa! I did it, but I couldn’t breath properly, sea water coming into my snorkel and I couldn’t let go of my friend, but I did it! The rest of the snorkelling trip was actually one of the best I had on the trip, I saw shawls of fish pass us by – Parrot Fish, Angel Fish, Puffa Fish and a huge Chocolate Chip Starfish. An hour in the water felt like only minutes and then we were heading back to the boat. I had really surprised myself maybe I liked the water after all, no that was going too far! I did however brave the waters every day I was there.

Every island was so different and I could go on for a long time about how amazing it was, but instead l will just leave you with stories of my last days snorkel trip. On the Wednesday afternoon we realised this was the last time we may ever see the Galapagos Islands.

Around Punta Vicente Roca off Isabela Island to our amazement we saw a group of the rare Mola Mola fish (also known as Sun Fish) pass by the boat and quickly getting into our wet suits hoped we might see some in the water! Unfortunately the water was too murky but we found a spot in the sun light which was teeming with Pacific Green Turtles, there were so many there I had to be careful to hover in the water so as not to touch them. Some of the braver members of our group went off to explore a nearby cave, I started to swim along but in the shadowy water I couldn’t see anything so I stayed with the others to watch the turtles and penguins which were zipping passed with effortless speed and flightless cormorants diving down to fish. I was so lucky to be there. We looked up to see our group were quite far away so we decided to catch them up. Swimming close together felt safer in the murky waters, this was the ocean after all – anything could come out of those dark deep waters.

Our guide called us back on the boat and then she called us again a little more forcefully, ‘guys get back on the panga there’s an Orca coming!’ What!?! I practically ran out of the water with my flippers on! We all got back on quickly and turned the panga round and moved a little closer to where the Orca had been spotted, waiting and holding our breath, the Orca broke the water’s surface and brought its head out of the water right next to us in the little Panga boat! It then moved on to the same place we were in moments ago with the turtles. I caught myself repeating ‘this is so amazing…’ as we crept along following the Orca around the rocks.

I can honestly say that I have never been to such an exhilarating place which is brimming over with wildlife both on land and in the waters. I would suggest the Galapagos Islands to everyone and as long as you are fit and steady on your feet there is no reason not to go.

We offer trips on a range of vessels and also hotel and camp options on the islands, so if my trip there inspires you for a holiday to the Galapagos we would be more than happy to discuss different options with you.

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Viva Colombia!

One of my oldest friends is half Colombian and having spent many an evening as a teenager sampling his Colombian mother’s cooking and hearing all about this fascinating country, I knew that I would have to get there someday! Nearly 15 years later, my wife and I were on the plane and after an uneventful flight to Bogota, we finally arrived, descending into the vast crater-like valley within which sits Colombia’s capital.

For some visitors (including my wife!), Bogota is like any other large capital city but I found that it has much to offer. Stunning colonial architecture is found in La Candelaria district which houses some of the colonial era’s most important and historical buildings in the Americas. The gold museum is quite spectacular, showcasing the best historical artefacts from across the country and really informs the visitor of the impressive skills of the ancient civilisations that made these items.

The city is split into Zone’s with Zona T the most well known for its hotels, boutiques, restaurants and nightlife – we arrived on a dry weekend because alcohol is banned during elections, which was a bit of a shame but we still had a great night out!

The likes of Cartagena and the Coffee Region have been open to tourism for many years, however some of the more interesting destinations in the south of the country have only really opened up in the last few years thanks to the government’s strong tactics against the guerrilla movements for which the country is so well known.

We flew south to Neiva, set in a hot and humid region compared to the cooler climes of Bogota. Neiva is the best location from which to reach the archaeological sites around San Agustin, approx. 5 hours drive south west. Along the way we stopped for a short hike into the Tatacoa Desert, a bizarre mini-desert filled with bizarre orange-red rock formations, cacti and various bird species such as the hummingbird which we were lucky enough to see. For the star-gazers out there, it is probably the best spot in the country and has a small observatory. Onwards to San Agustin by part-paved road through sugar cane and coffee plantations as we steadily climbed higher into the Andes.

The archaeological sites in the San Agustin are quite magnificent with uncovered tombs and sculpted figures, some up to four metres high. The most impressive are located in the Idolos and San Agustin Archaeological Parks where some statues, astonishingly, are over 5,000 years old. The region itself is full of sugar cane plantations and coffee farms some of which we explored on horseback; my horse Dynamite was thankfully a lot calmer than the name suggested! Whilst the infrastructure here is quite limited the travel experience that we had was fascinating in every way.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was the road journey to the ‘White City’ Popayan, a five hour drive from San Agustin. We passed through rainforest, home to tapir and spectacled bear, volcanic landscapes and high-altitude grasslands filled with thousands of unusual frailejone shrubs. As we drew closer to Popayan the landscape changes to lush pastures of rolling hills with hot springs and waterfalls. Popayan itself is a pretty town, in keeping with its original white-washed architecture, but I did not fall for the place – probably because it rained for our whole stay! The surrounding area is very interesting with the Purace National Park, traditional villages and an incredible condor viewing point, where feeding condors can be viewed some 20 feet away.

We continued our overland journey to the Coffee Region or Eje Cafetero, which admittedly was a welcome relief with some more upscale hotels and a bit of comfort after a few days off-the-beaten track! I must say that this part of the country is so well set up for tourism but not over the top. We stayed at traditional coffee haciendas (a real must!) and saw that the best of the region, visiting a lovely old coffee farm where, after 29 years, I was converted into a coffee drinker – I now realise what I have been missing all these years!

The Vallee de Cocora was another favourite spot with lovely hikes and horse rides into the valley and surrounding rainforest – I have never seen so many orchids or humming birds for that matter! Colombia’s endangered national tree, the Quindian wax palm manages to survive here, reaching some60 metres in height. Combined with visits to the beautiful towns of Salento and Filandia with their coloured houses and intricately decorated balconies, this was a special day and it felt like we had experienced the true coffee region.

After our tour to some of Colombia’s lesser-known highlights, I relished the opportunity to spend a few days in Cartagena, secretly hoping to find the spot where Michael Douglas held on to the alligator’s tail in Romancing The Stone! I was disappointed to find out that it was actually filmed in Mexico!

The old town of Cartagena is stunning and within hours it has made it on to my favourite destination list. It is a bustling and thriving city with real life coexisting alongside the lovely boutique hotels and tourists. In fact this was the first place on the trip where we saw more than a handful of tourists. Beautiful colonial architecture, fantastic seafood, great nightlife and friendly people, Cartagena is not to be missed and if I could I would fly there for a long weekend away! Sipping mojitos atop the city walls at sunset with views to the ocean and the old and new parts of the city will always stay with me.

Heading east of Cartagena, by road, our next destination was the Tayrona National Park where we stayed at the government run Eco Habs overlooking to the beautiful Caribbean coastline. It is possibly one of the most idyllic settings I have ever been to, with jungle clad mountains to the back and golden sandy beaches to the front. I had wanted to visit this area for years after reading a book called The Gringo Trail as a teenager and I was not disappointed by the location.

The sea here is quite rough with strong undercurrents which means some of the beaches can be dangerous, however this did not detract from our stay as we rode on horseback to a lovely protected beach and walked back. My lasting memory of Tayrona is waking up at sunrise, flinging open the large doors and laying back down in bed to watch the sun come up over the blue Caribbean Sea.

Colombia has already become one of my favourite South American countries with its diverse, interesting destinations and landscapes and above all the people are genuinely the friendliest I have ever encountered. Safety is always a concern when travellers are considering a destination, however we felt as safe as in any other country and felt reassured by well organised security in the cities and countryside. Colombia is finally shaking off its reputation for cocaine and banditos and is fast becoming one of the top ‘up and coming’ destinations in Latin America and deservedly so given that it is such a wonderful country.

Please feel free to email or call Oliver on 01285 885333 to discuss Colombia or for any further advice on your holiday to Colombia.

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Brazil Whale Watching

Having recently returned from my holiday to Brazil, I wanted to share the new places I discovered and the amazing whale sightings.

Having flown into Sao Paulo, we were transferred the 2 and a half hours to Fazenda Catucaba. This is an old building dating from the 1850’s that was formerly a coffee farm and has been converted into a comfortable boutique property. There are 5 villas spread out around the Fazenda, the property includes an organic farm, swimming pool, fantastic horse riding, rivers, lakes and rolling hills covered with Atlantic Rainforest. Fazenda Catucaba offers relaxation, outdoor adventure and great service, located close to the coast and a few hours from both Rio and Sao Paulo.

We then flew south to Florianopolis and drove just over an hour to Praia do Rosa (pink beach). This area offers stunning beaches, great surfing and during the season whale watching. The southern right whales travel along the coast, often with their calves, between July and November where you are almost guaranteed to see these huge cetaceans that reach up to 17 meters in length.

Finally I flew up to Rio de Janeiro, passing Maracana football stadium where they will be holding the 2014 world football cup and seeing where they will be building the 2016 Olympic Stadium. We headed to the Private Reserve of Ibitipoca, where they have an ambitious programme of reforestation of native flora and planting a wildlife corridor.

The centre piece is the Fazenda do Engenho, dating from 1715, the traditional farmhouse has been rebuilt creating 8 sumptuous guest rooms. Fazenda do Engenho offers a choice of relaxing or adventurous activities including; horse riding on Anglo-Arabian horses, 4×4 trips, explore on foot the natural waterfalls and mountains or relax and enjoy the spa, sauna and hydro-massage pool.

I visited such a tiny part of Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, that offers so many sights and sounds – I must return soon as I only scrapped the service of this amazing country.

For more information about planning your own holiday to Brazil, contact the Latin America team, who specialise in tailor made holidays to Brazil, on 01285 885 333.

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Tree lions and Booby traps in the Galapagos

The journalist Chris Haslam travelled with Steppes Discovery on a Galapagos Islands cruise and his write-up below featured in the Sunday Times:

Something is stirring off to starboard. It could be dolphins rounding up yellowfin tuna, whose dorsals break the surface like a summer shower. It could be a brite whale, feeding on krill, or a giant marbled ray, tossing itself skyward to rid itself of parasites. It might be a bull sea lion looking for love, or a feeding frenzy of hammerheads. Captain Pepe shrugs and heads back to the wheelhouse.

“Could be any of the above,” he concedes. “You’re in the Galapagos now.”

I’m aboard the Diamante, a 110ft brigantine schooner chartered by Steppes Discovery for its 10-day voyage around this extraordinary archipelago. I have nine fellow passengers, an easy mix of couples and singles, old and young, and though we’ve only been here an hour or so, a general feeling of wonder is already making us goggle-eyed and slack-jawed.

“Get used to it, my friends,” suggests Bolivar Sanchez, our guide, gathering us together in the Diamante’s saloon. Here, he lays down the national-park law: do not touch the animals; do not let the animals touch you; stay on the path. Breakfast 0700, lunch 1230, dinner 1900. Between those hours, we will hike, swim, snorkel, kayak and take rides in the Zodiac. We will see birds, fish, dolphins, whales, sea lions and many marine iguanas. Maybe, he whispers, we will see tree lions.

A ripple of doubt sweeps the saloon like an Ecuadorian wave. Field manuals are thumbed, memories racked, guidebooks consulted. Tree lions? No more questions, says Bolivar.

On this first afternoon, we cross a few hundred yards of ocean in the panga, the local term for the Zodiac, to North Seymour Island. Scarlet Sally Lightfoot crabs scatter as we step ashore, climbing over burnished boulders of black lava. They tumble down into water so clear that we can watch parrotfish grazing 15ft below.

Charles Darwin never visited this sunburnt isle, just 12 minutes south of the equator, but if he had, he would have seen boobies. Hundreds of them, lining the narrow trail like blue-wellied penitents, with something Chaplinesque about their big feet and sad, stereoscopic eyes.

“We don’t know why boobies’ feet are blue,” admits Bolivar. “Their name comes from the Spanish bobo — fool — and this tree, my friends, is Parkinsonia aculeata.” He points to a thorny bush, bright green in the arid cactus landscape, with a pile of bleached bones at its viciously barbed base. “The babies fly into it and die,” he says, lifting a fledgling wing from the spikes. “We call this bush the Boobie Trap.”

Tree lions? Boobie traps? Bolivar leads us on through a lava desert to a breeding colony of enormous black birds with bright-red throats.

“Magnificent frigates, my friends,” he announces. These birds lack waterproofing and can’t fish, so most of their food is stolen from other species. Bolivar calls this kleptopara- sitism, and I watch dozens of males trying to pull the birds by inflating their beachball-sized gullets and strutting their stuff.

Our attention is distracted by a fat yellow land iguana, belly-down in the dust like a leftover dinosaur. He poses defiantly for photos, his scaly skin falling in keratin-spiked folds across his powerful forelegs. Suddenly, he is old news. Bolivar has spotted another, as big as a labrador, crashing through the brush beyond, and as we scurry along the path, we meet six locals kicking a football through the forbidden zone.

“Off-duty military,” seethes Bolivar when they’ve gone. “This is a nesting site, and they should know better. Now you know why we didn’t let the army go after the goats.”

Ah, yes, the goats. The goats arrived when man first stepped off the path in the Galapagos. They were put ashore by whalers, survey ships and pirates to provide protein for the future. Now they act as if they own the place. Isabela alone is home to an estimated 500,000, and their effect on endemic species is devastating.

A huge Galapagos tortoise, his ancient shell a yard across, rests in the meagre shade of a denuded shrub. Not a single leaf within goat’s reach remains. Every bush in sight has been similarly stripped, and the noble reptile looks wistfully upwards, wondering where his next meal is coming from. It’s like a lesson from Aesop, and a dramatic demonstration of the vulnerability of this continually amazing biosphere.

We head for the shore, where young sea lions ride perfect waves beneath the setting sun. Their mothers, aunts and siblings sprawl in the warm sand at our feet, while the dominant male patrols the rocks. He may be the daddy now, but managing his harem is a full-time job and he has no time to eat. In two weeks, he will be so weak that he’ll be easily usurped, and another bull will own the beach.

Gazing seaward, I am suddenly overawed by the pri-mordial splendour of this emerging environment. Pelicans soar like pterodactyls and smoking volcanic islands float across the horizon like backdrops from The Lost World. From this fertile ocean, new land has emerged, still hot from the oven — and in its mineral soil, pioneer plants are struggling to put down roots. The cool water teems with life, but untamed nature here is wild and savage, and that’s what 80,000 visitors come to see every year.

Beneath the ecofriendly sails of the Diamant, our energetic guide is now trying to persuade us to go snorkelling in shark-infested waters. They come here to clean up, he says, and they’re harmless when going about their beauty regime. Most of the time.

Captain Pepe smiles wickedly and drops off the side of the panga. Like a half-witted bait fish, I follow. In seconds, I’ve lost him in a maze of undersea lava tubes with a multicoloured cast straight out of Finding Nemo. When I locate him again, he is pointing excitedly to a cave 10ft below. I suck air and dive, steadying myself on the cavern’s lip to peer inside. A pair of white-tipped sharks glare back before barging past me with the disdain of white-tied gourmets passing a discarded kebab.

Back at the panga, I’m dizzy with adrenaline and disbelief. Bolivar steers the inflatable into a mangrove lagoon, cuts the engine and drifts into an inlet.

A thick trunk leaves the water at a 45-degree angle, and a good 8ft up it lie a pair of dozing sea lions. Deeper in the woods perch a dozen more, precariously comfortable. It’s evolution in action, and Bolivar can’t help grinning.

“Tree lions,” he announces.

Unbelievable.

Please call 01285 643 333 for further details

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A walk to the end of the path – Sierra Negra Volcano

A new day and a new adventure in the Galapagos. To make a change from my coastal adventures, my guide and I headed inland. Taking the only road, right to the end – we began the walk walking to see the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island.

It was cloudy and misty, when we started, but I was assured it was often like this on the South side but it would clear up as we got round to the northern side. I wasn’t convinced, it looked like it was set for the day, but off I went anyway. Sure enough as we reached the top and started around the edge of the volcano, the cloud started to lift. It was rather eerie watching the clouds move to reveal a very large black hole. The caldera is the second largest in the world at 9km in diameter. The volcano is still active and last erupted in 2005, what remains is black volcanic lava. It looks like lumps of broken up tarmac. It is hard to get a sense of scale when you are standing on the edge looking down 200m at this lifeless black expanse below.

You can walk around the edge for a while before dropping down the northern side to walk onto Volcan Chico. This is a totally different landscape, this is a series of smaller craters and a huge lava field. Here, you can walk over the lava to see huge lava tunnels and vent holes with steam rising from them. Volcan Chico last erupted 30 years ago, you can see very clearly where the rivers of lava flowed and then just froze in time. It is a bizarre but fascinating landscape. Reaching the end of the trail you have wonderful views back over the small craters and lava field.

Looking north on a clear day you can see both the East and West coast of the island as well as the other three volcanoes and nearby Fernandina Island. This is as far inland as you can walk on Isabela, the rest of the island is uninhabited and inaccessible, a wild and rugged landscape that is still very much alive and still growing. It is a long walk, but definitely rewarding in terms of incredible scenery, you are unlikely to get so close to in other areas of the world. Another really great day in the Galapagos, a fascinating insight as to how these island have formed and evolved.

Volvo Classics Adventure: The Pan American Highway

100 classic Volvos and 200 participants have arrived in Buenos Aires for an epic journey through Argentina, up South America along the Pan American highway and all the way to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia.

Organised by the Dutch Volvo Classics association, this incredible drive sets off from Buenos Aires on 10th December, heading south to the ‘End of the World’ in Ushuaia and driving through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and ending in Cartagena on 14th January.

The cars will make 10 border crossings and travel over 15,500 kilometres, passing some of the most spectacular landscapes on the continent. From the towering granite peaks of Las Torres Del Paine and the glaciers of Argentine Patagonia to the snow-capped volcanoes of the Chilean Lake District and shimmering Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia; not forgetting the incredible history of Cusco and Machu Picchu, before heading north to the historic cities of Lima, Quito and Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

Why not follow the Pan American Highway as part of your own epic South America holiday?! Steppes Travel’s Latin America specialists can put together an incredible holiday to South America, completely tailored to your personal travel requirements. We have first-hand knowledge of Latin America and know the region intimately after our work travels and our own holidays.

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Jaguars in the Pantanal

Our recent group trip to the Pantanal has just returned having seen 3 jaguars.

Our local guide Munir called us with the news and was very excited by such a prolific tally! “We have seen jaguars, one, two and three! This is not a lie!!”

Tourism in the Pantanal is still in its infancy and consequently accommodation has a long way to go before it matches the kind of camps one can enjoy in Africa. For lovers of big cats however, seeing jaguars from a river boat in the Pantanal is a real privilege and one that is only made possible through local entrepreneurs realising the value of their land through responsible tourism.

To see amazing images of mating jaguar taken by a lucky photographer on his trip to the Pantanal take a look at Wildlife Extra’s latest posting.

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Alternative Safari – Ibera wetlands

Arriving in a thunderstorm, after my journey on the overnight bus from Salta, “Bienvenidos a Corrientes” (Welcome to Corrientes) was my welcome, for which I replied thank you and thought I do hope this clears soon! We then set off on the four hour journey by 4×4, as the rain cleared and it began to get light, the real gaucho territory of Argentina and some incredible wildlife revealed itself.

Yesterday I rode through the diverse habitat of Ibera. What could be better than riding on a comfortable horse admiring capybara, parrots flying past with twigs to build their nests, Crab-eater Foxes scavenging for food, Chinchilla’s coming out at dusk whilst watching the sunset! You would be forgiven for thinking this sounded like Africa! Well try a safari in Ibera staying at Estancia Rincon del Socorro in Argentina, it makes for a wonderful alternative!

This morning post breakfast and whilst others were sleeping I took a 4 seater plane across to the island of Laguna Parana to visit the second small remote lodge. Accessible by plane from Posadas or Rincon del Socorro or now by boat – just an hour and a half from Corrientes. Upon arrival there was a definate change in climate and was met by a small family of Howler Monkeys and clouds of dragonflies.

I’m now off on a boat trip on the Laguna… watch this space for further blogs. . .

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Drive the spectacular Carretera Austral Highway

I have recently returned from a fantastic week-long holiday to the little visited Aisen Region of Chilean Patagonia, organised by the Aisen Tourist Board. As one of the few areas of Chile that I had not visited, I jumped at the chance and the excitement grew as we finally flew from Santiago to the regional capital, Coyhaique. Passing by the snow-capped peaks and volcanoes of the Andes and landing in Balmaceda, this is where the week-long adventure began!

After a one night stop on the edge of Coyhaique, we set off north to the small town of La Junta, travelling 180 miles along the renowned Carretera Austral Southern Highway, one of the great road journeys on Earth. The camino is partially paved so a 4×4 is a must, and enables travellers to experience the best that this region has to offer. The route north heads all the way up to Puerto Montt in the Lake District and towards the Argentine border close to Esquel.

We continued our journey south again towards the Queulat National Park, which is close to Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa. Reached by boat, the lodge has a privileged location at the edge of a beautiful fjord, surrounded by mountains and forest. Whilst guests should make use of the hot thermal baths, the excursions on offer are excellent, heading off the main highway to hike to glacier viewpoints and through the rainforest. The highlight of my stay here was a lovely hike to view the spectacular Ventisquero Hanging Glacier plunging into a lake-filled ravine.

In trying to fit as much as possible into the week-long trip, we travelled around 1,000 kilometres in total after driving south of Coyhaique to Lake General Carrera for the second half of the trip. Again, the journey was spectacular with glacier covered mountains, waterfalls, vast fjords and huge rivers such as the Baker River. The fact that we must have passed ten cars at most during the day illustrates how few people live in the region, let alone how few tourists there are! We spent a night on the shore of Lake General Carrera, the second largest in South America and it is quite simply one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Visitors will find some great lodges all offering fantastic trout fly-fishing and outdoor activities to make the most of what the region has to offer.

Few people visit Aisen Region and it is important to get the season right, with October – April being the optimum period to experience this beautiful region. Visitors can ski out of season though. It is an area that will suit travellers seeking an off the beaten track experience with hiking, horse riding, white water rafting and world class trout fly-fishing combined with the independence of travelling by 4×4.

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Ecuador – The Coast Less Travelled

My last holiday to Ecuador took me to some new areas, not often on the list of many people travelling to Ecuador. I travelled along the Central coast, an area with natural beauty, ancient archeology, small sleepy fishing villages, beautiful long empty beaches, surfing, whale watching and very good food. What more could you want?

My journey took me from the beach resort town of Salinas, very popular during the summer months and weekends with Guayaquilenos. As soon as you are out of this busy town the pace of life slows, the beaches empty and the buildings shrink. You come to small towns each specialising in a different craft. For example, one town produces wooden furniture and toys, another carves the Tagua nut (known as vegetable ivory), one makes beautiful traditional style ceramics and another processes the palms used to weave Panama hats.

All the people in these villages are very friendly, they welcome you into their homes and workshops to proudly show off their skills, they do this
for your interest and not as a hard sales pitch. All the coastal towns along this stretch are very simple and laid back and many rely on fishing as an income. If you go down to the beaches early in the morning you will see the fishermen bringing their boats back laden with fish, if you are willing you can help push the colourful boats back onto the beach, a really great experience. Watch out though as there are many birds circling overhead waiting for an opportune moment to swoop down for breakfast!

Mid way along the coastal stretch, I visited the Machalilla National Park. It is a beautiful national park on the coast, with fantastic marine and wildlife; a diverse area and a real unexpected treat. It is a special area as it is the meeting of two currents, Humbolt from the South bringing food and El Nino from the North bringing the species. If you want to stay dry, take a boat trip to the nearby island of Isla de la Plata or for those happy to get wet, jump in and do some snorkelling or diving.

Species that can be found here are Hammer Head Sharks, various rays, sea lions and whales. Along the coast I saw many bird species too, often associated with the Galapagos Islands, including Nazca, blue and red footed boobies, Waved Albatross and Frigate birds. It is a lovely area for walking too, very varied landscapes in either the tropical dry forest, tropical moist forest or the cloud forest, the later two areas are the best places for seeing Howler and Capuchin monkeys, jaguar, ocelot, sloths, deers and anteaters.

If nature and wildlife isn’t your thing then the National Park also has some incredible archaeology, with ruins and ceramics dating back to the Manteno civilization, the Pre-Incan Cultures (AD800 – 1530).

Having driven along a short, dusty road I reached the small, friendly settlement of Agua Blanca within the National Park. A number of ruins have been excavated already, the people are very proud of the artifacts found here and have worked hard as a community to preserve them. I went with my guide to view some of these and looked around the fascinating local community museum, the ceramics on show are beautiful but the incredible thing is the area has not been fully been excavated but surveying of the ground has shown many sites are still hidden.

I found this stretch of coast to be very peaceful, incredibly friendly and hugely diverse. If you are looking to experience an area off the main tourist radar then I would highly recommend the coast of Ecuador. It is easily accessible from both Quito and Guayaquil so can be combined with other areas on the country or the Galapagos Islands.

To discuss this, or any other holiday ideas to Ecuador please contact me, Lucy, on 01285 885 333.

Travel is all about the little things

It’s a quirky old world. Every day, all over this wondrous planet of ours unusual things are taking place. Chance meetings are leading to random conversations, animals are behaving in spectacular ways and the forces of nature are painting great masterpieces on imaginary canvases. And if you stay at home you might just miss it all.

For me travel is, in part, about seeing the highlights but beyond that it is about the little things, the unusual occurrences, the random conversations. Here are a few snap-shots, Kodak-moments if you will, of my own chance meetings with the small things that make this world beautiful and travel just about the best thing you can do.

Years ago I found myself sat on top of a temple in the great complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It was late in the afternoon and I was staring out at a view of jungle and ruins below, the sun gently warming my face. A Cambodian boy approached me and sat next to me. “Do you know who I am?” he asked, “My name is David Beckham, I play for Manchester United.” We conversed for the next half-hour and the boy in question never broke character. That was the day I met David Beckham on top of a temple in Cambodia.

My first trip to Rwanda was some years past. Like many people I had been drawn to Rwanda by the lure of seeing Mountain Gorillas, an experience which, to this day, still ranks as my best and most intense experience whilst travelling. After seeing the Gorillas I decided to visit the town of Gyseni on the shores of Lake Kivu in the west of the country. On our way to Gyseni the public mini-bus we were travelling in made some stops in small villages to drop off and pick up passengers. At every stop the sight of two Mzungus (white people) turned the head of everyone who noticed. One of our fellow passengers asked me whether black people attracted this much attention in our home-lands to which we replied that there were sizable black populations where we came from so it wasn’t an unusual site. A second man came and shook my hand and told me “today I am happy it is the first time I meet a white man.” That was the day I realised the world still had places where discovery was a two-way street.

Staying on a small estancia in the Argentine pampas our hosts took us on walks through the fields pointing out the local wildlife of prairie birds, armadillos and rabbits, on horse-rides to through the pampas in the company of a local Gaucho and made sure that our stay was relaxed and comfortable. And if this hospitality wasn’t enough in the evening we all sat down together, guests, hosts and gaucho, and spent the evening drinking wine and enjoying a traditional lamb asado (cooked on a fire), joking and laughing under a star-filled sky. That was the day I embraced fully the Argentinean cowboy culture.

And there are so many more such moments, all over the world: drinking vodka with Russian guards on the Trans-Siberian and Ukrainian scientists in Antarctica; swimming with Whale Sharks in Mozambique; playing dominoes with Brazilians whist navigating down the Amazon; finding myself in the heart of a parade of 500,000 Cubans celebrating May Day; seeing an Anaconda in the Amazon; singing around a fire with Karen tribesmen from Thailand; watching a lightning storm in Uganda; star-gazing in Chile’s Atacama desert; watching a birdsong competition in Surinam…. and the list goes on and on and grows with every trip, with every new chance encounter, with every random conversation, and with every new animal encounter.

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Galapagos Islands suffer minor damage during tsunami

On the 11 March the terrible 8.9 magnitude earthquake which hit Japan set tsunami waves out across the Pacific Ocean. Sat at my desk my thoughts turned towards the Galapagos Islands which lie right on the path of the waves and how that would affect the very special wildlife and communities on the islands.

The Galapagos Islands are deep-ocean islands which have risen out of the seabed due to volcanic activity. This means the waves grow less than if the islands were surrounded by shallow waters. Despite this in Pto. Ayora, the main town on the Galapagos, a 6ft wave surged some 200m into town. This surge inflicted minor damage on coastal buildings and our friends and partners at the Darwin Research Station have reported damage to one of their laboratories which is located right on the waterfront. The surge crashed into the lab and damaged some furniture and equipment.

Local residents, including, Lonesome George and the other Giant Tortoises at the Charles Darwin Station were evacuated to the highlands and were safe.

Evaluation to the various islands is still ongoing but it seems that Santa Cruz and San Cristobal were the most affected islands. Most other sites around the archipelago fared much better. There is some concern that this is iguana nesting season and a lot of iguana eggs may have been washed away thereby affecting this year’s iguana birth rates.

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Hunting the lost Beagle

One of the world’s leading marine archaeologists, Robert Prescott of St Andrews University, has discovered what he believes to be the final resting place of the HMS Beagle.

His research using geophysical techniques with ground-penetrating radar has located the remains near Potton in Essex on the River Roach. This is known to be where the HMS Beagle was last used as a deterrent to smugglers before she was sold for £525 to the local scrap merchants. Using timber sample testing he hopes to confirm this is Charles Darwin’s famous vessel on which he explored the South American coast and the Galapagos Islands. Darwin spent 5 years from 1831 observing the wildlife of the region and the variations within species to come up with his evolution theories which he published in “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.

Why not join us in the Galapagos on a cruise tailored to what you would like to explore across the islands.

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Underwater Adventure in the Lava Tubes

Wow! What an incredible morning in the Galapagos. This being my second trip, I thought I had seen and experienced most of what these islands had to offer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong!

A boat ride from Porto Villamil on Isabela Island is an area known as the Los Tuneles (The Tunnels). This truly amazing underwater lava field is a maze of crystal clear pools, some with arches of black volcanic rock and covered with large cactus. With the water so calm and still, we swam in the pools with dozens of Green Turtles and Eagle Rays graceful gliding through the water – it was like a giant aquarium. Surely, nothing could beat this!

I was wrong again – we moved locations to try a spot of snorkelling. Exploring the different pools, I swam with the turtles and a few White Tip Reef Sharks, many more of which were sleeping under the rocks. In an area of mangrove I then saw the most incredible thing I think I have ever seen – seahorses. In one area there was a solitary sea horse swimming in the reeds close to the bottom, it was hard to believe this was real, a real seahorse in front of my eyes. It is the thing of fairy-tales. If this wasn’t enough we then saw a second one with its tail wrapped around an underwater tree trunk, I stayed watching it for some time, transfixed. It was hard to move on – I’m pretty sure this will be a once in a lifetime experience.

It seems that is the beauty and charm of the Galapagos Islands, you think you have seen everything and then it goes and surprises you again with something more incredible and wonderful. Truly amazing and unique.

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Just a regular afternoon in the Galapagos

I flew into Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island today. The largest Island and one of the youngest in the Galapagos. After leaving my bags at the hotel, I jumped in a small boat with my guide and off we went to explore this paradise.

Five minutes from leaving the shore I was face to face with a Galapagos Penguin and Blue Footed Boobie as they sat sharing the same rock. Setting foot onto the small island of Los Tintoreras, we literally had to step over huge numbers of Marine Iguanas just lounging around soaking up the sun. It is almost as if they have all been put there just for the tourists, obviously this isn’t the case, they are in their natural surroundings and have no fear of humans so just sit and watch as you pass by.

After a short walk we then got into the water and were immediately surrounded by playful sea-lions, blowing bubbles and diving all around us. They followed us the whole time swimming round and trying to get us to play, like a couple of young children having fun in the water. We also saw two green turtles gliding effortlessly along, numerous fish and a couple of sting rays flapping like serene birds in the water. Not a bad introduction to this wonderful island, all this in just one afternoon, as my guide said “this is just the way it is in the Galapagos”.

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Live long and prosper

A few more days have been added to my life!

I was in Vilcabamba in Southern Ecuador a few days ago, the area known as the valley of the immortals. For some reason there is a large number of people living to over 100 years of age. Theories are that it is due to the year round spring climate, clean air, and fresh spring water.

The small town itself is very pretty with a traditional main square, surrounded by a church, a couple of restaurants and houses. It is set in a beautiful valley with steep sided mountains covered in lush vegetation. It is such a peaceful, relaxing place to spend some time, I do feel refreshed and can quite see how the stress-free life and beauty of the surroundings could add a few days to anyone’s life. I would definitely recommend this area to anyone wanting to see a quiet, friendly part of Ecuador off the beaten track.

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Ancient Civilisations of Northern Peru

During my recent trip to Northern Peru to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, I followed in the footsteps of the fascinating Moche. As one of the pre-Incan civilisations, they were socially, politically and culturally very developed and it is believed it as these traits that enabled the Incas to thrive in Southern Peru for nearly 100 years.

Many Pre-Incan sites remain near Trujillo. Amongst others, I visited Huaca del Sol y de la Luna (Temples of the sun and Moon) built by the Moche and the archaeological site of Chan Chan, an incredible sprawling town covering nearly 20 km2. I was most intrigued by Museo de Cao, home to the mummified remains of ‘Senora de Cao’. Her tattooed body buried with numerous ceremonial artefacts, leading you to wonder what important role she played in Moche history.

I was privileged to meet with the leading Peruvian archaeologist Dr Walter Alva, who unearthed the tomb of the ‘Lord of Sipan’. Untouched by thieves, the tomb is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the world, containing the mummified remains of a Moche warrior and leader. The majority of the finds are now housed in The Tumbes Reales Museum of Sipan and is a truly fascinating exhibition.

Off the beaten track, visiting the archaeological site of San Jose de Moro is a real adventure. This is one of the most important cemetery sites ever discovered, containing ritual burials from numerous Mochica civilisations. The excavations have given archaeologists an incredible insight into the beliefs, artwork, traditions and governmental structure of these ancient societies.

I spent only a fraction of my time in Peru exploring these archaeological sites, however they give a fascinating insight into the incredible history of Peru. For anyone with a keen interest in archaeology I cannot recommend Northern Peru enough.

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Paddington Bear’s cousins caught on camera

When Paddington Bear famously arrived on a cold and rainy day at the famous London train station which gave him his name, he’d travelled from the cloud forests of deepest, darkest, Peru.

In fact, Paddington Bear is a Spectacled Bear, the only South American species of bear. These bears are some of the most elusive animals in this part of the world so it is always a great moment when they are caught on camera, even more so when it is out in the open and with the family. The attached photos of Paddington Bear’s cousins were taken in Ecuador near the Cayambe Coca Reserve not too far from Quito.

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Amazon in style

All the 5* comforts you wouldn’t usually expect in the heart of the jungle

I am sure most passengers thinking of travelling deep into the Amazon are expecting the voyages to be a little “rough around the edges” – well think again. We are now offering 3 vessels that will take you into the Pacaya Samiria Reserve located deep within the Amazon rainforest at the headwaters of the Amazon River basin. This region is one of Peru’s most well preserved havens for Amazon wildlife, plants and birds. The Amazon Basin contains a third of all animal species and one in five of all bird species; from the tiniest hummingbirds through to the great caracaras.

Spend your days exploring the region with excursions by comfortable motorised skiffs, visit communities who are an integral part of the reserve and learn about their ancestral traditions.

Exploring some of the smaller rivers such as the Pucate, Yanayacu and Dorado you will hopefully encounter both pink and grey river dolphin, giant otters, a plethora of birdlife, sloths and monkeys. You will have chance to paddle through blackwater lagoons, walk in regions of terra firma and possibly fish for piranhas. As night falls, you will hear the cacophony of the Amazon rainforest as the nocturnal wildlife comes alive.

Returning from your excursions to a your small luxury vessel to relax in large air-conditioned suites. Watch the Amazon slip by from magnificent panoramic windows, while you are served gourmet meals. Chill out with a book on one of the comfortable observation decks, or slip into the Jacuzzi.

If this sounds like your ideal cruise contact the voyages team on 01285 880981 or go to our Amazon Cruises page

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Solar Eclipse on Easter Island

On 11 July a total solar eclipse crossed the Pacific Ocean along an 11,000km arc and Easter Island was one of the few locations from which this spectacular sight could be seen.

The eclipse started in Tonga before crossing the Pacific and ending over the far south of Chile and Argentina. Thousands of travellers made the journey to the remote island to take in the mysterious iconic moai statues and the rare opportunity to view the solar eclipse. Despite forecasts of cloudy weather,

Take a look at a video clip of the lunar eclipse on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10592671

Why not combine a trip to Easter Island with the likes of the Atacama Desert, Patagonia and the Lake District on mainland Chile.

GO TO CHILE! It really is a spectacular country of such contrasting landscapes!

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Amazon Adventurer

The Amazon conjures up images of huge rivers, amazing rainforest, weird animals & brightly coloured birds, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

I have recently returned from a 7 night voyage along the Rio Negro which flows into the Amazon at Manaus, our starting point. Manaus is a big city in the heart of the forest and the port is a hubbub of boats all departing up different rivers and tributaries to various destinations. I travelled aboard the comfortable 18 passenger Tucano with a crew of 9 including 3 naturalist guides.

We spent our days exploring the biodiversity of various eco-systems within this region. In May the flood waters are very high and the rivers are huge. Paddling amongst the tops of huge trees is a very bizarre feeling and an excellent way to get close to birdlife. Toucans, Macaws & Parrots screeched as they flew over head, the vultures & Caracaras simply looked down on us rather scornfully. During our voyage we saw various species of monkey including the noisy Howlers who trumpet in the as the dawn chorus. By night the frogs were in full song as we paddled silently under the darkness of night with a single spotlight searching for Caiman, Boas and the rather lovely Giant Bamboo Rat. During the afternoons we were generally repositioning for our next foray and frequently saw both Grey & Pink Dolphins surfacing and Sloths sitting motionlessly in their trees. In some places we stopped at tiny villages where the people live by subsistence fishing and farming of manioc their staple diet. This was a full on up early in the morning and active trip with 4 canoe trips & walks most days to make the most of the 8 days we had.

It really is a jungle out there so get out and explore it……

David Plummer to lead Discovery Photographic Tours

Author, photographer and conservationist, David Plummer is in his element when watching and photographing wildlife. For most of the year David can be found at his beloved Scrag copse in Sussex where he hosts a range of wildlife workshops from badger watching to forest bird photography. He also works as photographer for Sussex Wildlife Trust and teaches nature photography on their beautiful reserve at Woods Mill.

It takes something special to entice David away from Britain’s wildlife, however, the carrot of photographing the world’s most beautiful yet endangered wildlife is difficult to resist. David has long had a love affair with the Pantanal in Brazil where he visits every year to photograph jaguars and recently had to fight off an alligator that took a liking to his camera lens! With Steppes Discovery, David is pursuing his interest in endangered mammals and will be leading a number of photography trips around the world, starting in January with a trip to Rwanda to track mountain gorillas, followed by a trip in March to India to photograph tigers.

These trips are for anybody with a love of wildlife and in interest in photography. Whether a beginner or an experienced amateur, David will spend time helping to hone your photographic skills and making sure you are getting the most out of your camera. David shares our commitment to the mantra ‘the wildlife comes first’ so all trips will be run according to strict responsible travel guidelines while still giving you fabulous opportunities to photograph the world’s most enigmatic wildlife.

 

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In the Saddle in Ecuador

My desire to visit Ecuador started with reading a holiday report from our Galapagos expert, Lucy Ings, on a hacienda she had found that apparently had the ‘best horses in Ecuador’.

Being an avid horse rider myself (I was jumping at the age of 12 and flat racing at 14), I really and I mean really – wanted to go there on a riding holiday. Lucy decided to book places for three friends and me to go on a 14-day trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. We spent seven days at the Hacienda Zuleta in Ecuador and then went sailing for another seven days around the Galapagos Islands on a motor yacht called Sagitta.

After a long flight to Quito via Miami (take a packed lunch if you choose to fly with American Airlines – their food leaves a lot to be desired), we spent our first night at a boutique hotel called Villa Colonna, which was just magical. Like most of the properties we use, Villa Colonna is privately owned and the owners had taken a great deal of care to ensure that we had the perfect stay. Our bedrooms were simply sumptuous and our breakfast on the first day did a marvellous job of alleviating the mild headache we all seemed to be experiencing from adjusting to the higher altitude of 2,850 metres.

The horses are the most responsive I have ever ridden. The gentlest of nudges would provide instant left/right turn, a gentle lift in the saddle a trot, a wave of a rein and you get instant cantor. We jumped, walked, trotted and galloped over the course of 4 hours. I did feel a bit like being on set in a Zorro Film. The hacienda is colonial working farm and has been in the family of Mr. Galo Plaza lasso, a former president of Ecuador, for more than 100 years. The approach and surrounding roads are all cobbled, so to be kited out in cowboy (hard) hat, and jodhpurs and gallop down a cobbled road, then put the ‘horse’ breaks on to skid, is a fond memory.

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Up close in the Galapagos

Having spent the best part of a week in the saddle, we changed direction completely and boarded the Sagitta for our seven-day voyage around the Galapagos Islands. Take it from me – it was just breathtaking.

The islands are not just a national park, they are also a World Heritage Site. About 70% of the wildlife there is endemic and totally fearless. I can confidently say that we had the best insight into totally unspoiled marine and bird life that you could ever imagine.

It’s hardly surprising that the local guides are very protective of their environment. As there are so many different species of wildlife on the islands and so many of them have very few inhibitions, we were able to get up, close and personal.

Needless to say, I have photo albums literally dripping with pictures on my bookshelves at home and they all bring amazing memories to life. Perhaps my fondest memory of my trip to these islands is sitting on beach rocks, completely alone, and watching three baby sea lions coming out of the water. They didn’t just come up on to the rocks. They came and sat on my legs and lapped at the sea. We are told never to touch the animals. But if they touch you, that’s OK. I am proud to say that, at Steppes Travel, we have had many such encounters.