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Trekking near Rio and the Galapagos Islands

ECUADOR | Monday, 18 June 2012 | Views [592]

Petropolis to Teresopolis Traverse

As we had a couple of days to spare in Brazil, we thought it would be nice to do a couple of days walking in a National Park. The Parque Nacional Serra dos Orgaos (Organ National Park, presumably because the towering peaks look like a pipe organ?) is only 90 minutes from Rio, and contains a multiday walk across the park. We arranged a guide by email. He had warned us that the walk was hard. We thought he was just saying that to scare off inexperienced walkers, but it transpires that the walk was actually quite hard!

Before the walk we spent the night in Petropolis in a fabulous new hostel, Samambaia Hostel, a converted colonial farm house that previously hosted parties for the likes of Errol Flyn, Bridget Bardot and Eva Peron. It was more like staying in a National Trust house than a hostel. We got a bus out to the National Park the next morning, carrying all we needed for 2 days, plus my Spanish dictionary that I had forgotten to remove from my pack. The landscape was an extension of the towering granite pillars that makes the views of Rio de Janeiro so famous, but just on a much bigger scale. The walk went up, along the top and then down the other side into Teresopolis. It was impossible to work out how the path would ascend up these hunks of granite, but somehow it did. We started in Atlantic rainforest, which was very humid. The path wound up to the grasslands on the top of the plateau. The wind whipped across the top, and it was often in cloud, though we did get hazy views out across the bay down to Rio. The refuge for the first night was at 2,150m, next to Castelos do Acu (castles of big rock). The refuge was very nice, very new, with hot showers and they even provided all your cooking utensils. Before the refuge was built, you camped in make shift shelters under the granite rocks.

Day 2 was much longer and a much more gruelling affair. The walk can be done in 3 days, but we were doing days 2 and 3 together. We naively thought we would walk along the plateau and then walk down, however the walk along the plateau also consisted of a lot of up and down over the granite peaks. I now know exactly what gradient of granite my boots will grip onto, both wet and dry. There were also nice sections of mud overgrown with long grass so you couldn't see what you were stepping into. Everyone ended up on their arse at some point, even the guide. For some sections we were just advised to go down on our bum in the first place!

Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, we stopped and the guide got some climbing accessories out! They were only needed for 2 short sections on the last climb to the highest peak in the park. "Just put your left foot there", "....I can't reach! My legs aren't that long", "now just swing your leg over like you're mounting a horse (and don't look at the 50m sheer drop just off to your left!)". We all made it with no injuries, maybe a graze or 2, though there were quite a few expletives. In the morning (6am) there had been good views, but the wind picked up and the cloud soon came in. There was some fabulous cloud forest nestled into the valleys up on the plateau, with some crazy coloured flowers (they were bright blue and looked like they were plastic).

We got the bus back to Rio that night (unfortunately no time for a shower or a change of clothes, so we were quite muddy and smelly on the bus - that is how backpackers get a bad name!). On our last day in Rio we went up to Copacabana and had calamari and caipirinhas on the beach.

The Galapagos Islands

From Rio we flew up to Quito in Ecuador. We had a couple of days in Quito which we used to explore the old town. Given that boats tend to make me sick, we opted for a land based trip in the Galapagos, which spent time on 4 islands: San Cristobel, Floreana, Isabela and Santa Cruz. There were 11 of us in the group, and we had to go to all the visitor sites with a National Park guide. Our guide was Zambo, who introduced everything as "beautiful", and "endemic", "native" or "introduced" as appropriate, which became a running joke of the trip.

The trip started with lots of snorkelling which was amazing. The only problem with swimming with balls of sardines is the risk of being hit by pelicans as they dive in for a mouth full (no closer than 1 metre, but that is still a shock). Also the baby sea lions were a delight everywhere - desperate to play, they would dive if you dived, turn if you turn, and swim into your face diverting at the very last centimeter. Plenty of big turtles too (one was too busy eating to care about the tourists less than 1 meter away), eagle rays, a few sharks, though I missed the head of the hammer head shark!

The trip ended with an overdose of giant tortoises - you have to smile when the guide tells you that the tortoises can travel up to 500m a day as though that is something impressive! Each island, and in some cases, each volcanic cone, has its own distinct sub species, though some were driven to extinction as the tortoises were a good source of food for passing boats (and given how speedy they are, they were very easy to catch). In the tortoise centre on Santa Cruz you can see Lonesome George - the only remaining tortoise of his sub species. They are trying to get him to breed, but he doesn't seem very interested!

The animals really have no fear of humans. You were told to not go within 2 metres of the animals, but with the iguanas they are quite camouflaged, and there was a real risk of treading on them when you walked across the rocks. I had a baby iguana trundle across my sarong as I sun bathed on one of the beaches. Also sea lions were a bit of a trip hazard on some of the waterfronts in the evening. While taking a photo of a pelican I obviously got too close to a blue footed booby (that I hadn't noticed) - he nipped my toe!

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