Category Archives: South America

vinales cuba

Cuban Countryside

We wanted to explore Cuba from every angle we could. To do this, we embarked towards the small countryside town of Vinales, where we stayed with a former international Cuban baseball player who played at the Olympics. His name was Orestes, and his wife Lourdes was a phenomenal cook.

We were told that Vinales’ sporting hero Orestes would be waiting for us at the bus stop. We didn’t know he was a former famous player, but when we stepped off the bus and saw an unusually tall and built Cuban man, we suspected he must have been some kind of athlete. Orestes helped us with our bags to his home, where we met his wife Lourdes, and their son’s girlfriend. Their son was away on military duty at the time, and we guessed that the girlfriend was helping them out with the family business (although that term doesn’t really apply in Cuba). Casas can only operate if licensed by the government. The Castro regime has their hand in everything, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a local farmer cultivating coffee or a former famous baseball player – everybody is essentially equal, since the government takes almost all of your earnings anyway.

Upon arrival in Vinales, we were showed the way to our spacious room which had outdoor chairs and tables. In Cuba, there are no hostels and all of the hotels are government-run. This is the only way to impact in a positive way while travelling through Cuba – trying to give what money you can to the locals who allow people to stay in their homes. The government still gets their cut. Nothing rung this home harder than when the police arrived at our home in Havana. The look on our host family’s faces was terror. As the police woman entered, books and records of who stayed and when were presented. Cash was beginning to change hands. We left that place (the best of any accommodation on our trip) with that raw reminder that the government will literally enter your home and take what they want. The implementation of a dual currency (Cuban Pesos [CUP] for locals, and Convertible Pesos [CUC] for foreigners) also means that certain shops won’t serve you unless you’re Cuban. In some places, I couldn’t even buy a bottle of water. This means that trying to leave behind extra money for the locals is worthless, since they can’t convert it, as to do so, they need to go into a government-run exchange house (and they’d be busted). Keep in mind too that one foreign peso is worth 24 local pesos, so you pay 24 times as much for everything than what locals do. Given the average price of a mojito almost everywhere is only $2, you can’t complain.

On the way to Vinales from Havana, we stopped in a few random villages.
On the way to Vinales from Havana, we stopped in a few random villages.

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So, the reality of Cuba’s “tax” system is what made our experience with Orestes most interesting: We reasonably expected a former sports star to live somewhat lavishly, but there was no indication at all that he was better off than anyone else.

The best way to describe Vinales would be as a small, sleepy town with lots of greenery, old American cars and rugged streets. It feels smaller than most country towns we have been to, and reminds us more of a village. As soon as we arrived, Orestes and Lourdes ushered us outside to a table and two chairs and showed us a couple of activity menus we might be interested in. We asked if we could go horse riding through the countryside, and Lourdes arranged for us to leave an hour later. While we waited, she cooked us hot dogs in bread rolls with an oddly-textured cheese. It looked like tofu, but its taste was more subtle feta. Anyway, after we finished lunch inside we returned outside, where Orestes showed us newspaper clippings about him from when he was an international baseball player. He also showed us a handwritten note from Fidel Castro addressed to him, letting Orestes know that he is proud of him for representing the Cuban people at the Olympics (might have been Atlanta or Sydney, we can’t remember). It was amazing to see this handwritten note addressed to him, and he was very proud and happy to show us. Before we knew it, a local came to the front door and we were off to ride horses through some of the remotest places we’d ever been. On the way out, we noticed a huge plethora of baseball trophies Orestes had won as a professional. Lourdes informed us that he now dedicated his time to teaching children how to play.

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Off we left with a young Cuban guy who couldn’t speak much English. We walked around for ages while trying to find bottled water, but everywhere was sold out – and it was extremely hot in Vinales! After conceding that we wouldn’t have any water for the next six or seven hours, we trekked through a village until we arrived at his brother’s house. Before we arrived, he asked if we spoke any Spanish at all. Repeatedly. Nope… Not anything that would allow us to converse properly, unfortunately. When we met his brother and jumped on our horses, we realised why he had sounded so disappointed when we told him no: his brother didn’t speak a word of English. Which was okay by us, but as the day wore on we couldn’t understand anything he said, so we’re sure that plenty of interesting and important facts went in one ear and out the other. For hours on end, we rode through small, rustic villages and at our first stop, we galloped up to a small barn house where a legitimate Cuban cigar roller was waiting. Inside the barn, the Cuban man asked us to sit at his wooden table. This was as farmland as you get – the only difference between the inside of the barn and the outside, was that there were four walls and a roof.

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Those cylinders are full of cigars that the farmer tried selling to us.

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“You wanna smoke a cigar, my friend?” He asked.

“Okay,” I replied – why else was I in a Cuban tobacco farmer’s barn house?

“This is the best cigar in Cuba. I made this with my bare hands. This doesn’t have any preservatives. It’s fresh. Not like the Montecristo’s they roll in the Havana factories.”

I nodded. He had a point. He pulled out a hand-rolled cigar, chopped the butt off, and dipped the end in honey.

“This allows you to draw the smoke through without it being harsh. it also gives a good taste.” I drew on the cigar, and felt like I always felt when smoking a cigar: out of my depth. Weren’t cigars reserved for older, more hardcore folk? I was a water rat from Australia with shaggy hair and a beard. As much as I wish I did, I did not fit the picture.

As I sucked the hot smoke back through the tunnel of the cigar, it caused the thick honey to crackle and pop. The honey didn’t change the flavour of the cigar as much as one might expect, but it did help to hold in any flaky bits from the cut. It dawned on me that I was surrounded by genuine, hard-as-nails Cuban tobacco farmers, and I was sitting in a tiny barn house in a small village so far away from home that the classic backpacking concept of “Going off the beaten path” looked tired. Where ever we were wasn’t off the beaten path. It was a whole other world.

While smoking the cigar, the man who looked like a darker version of Crocodile Dundee, taught us how to roll a cigar from scratch: How to tell the difference between young and old leaves, how to add flavours to them with rum and honey, how to roll them up inside a bigger tobacco leaf and create the perfect cylinder, and how to store them so that four months from today, they would be ready to smoke! It was all eye-opening, and a much more primitive, simple yet complicated process than what I was expecting. The most interesting part was when the tobacco farmer bent the cigars in half – showing to us how flexible they were when raw. After four months in the bottom of his fridge, alongside his vegetables, they would harden up the way most smokers know them to be.

I’m no connoisseur, but after smoking the finest Cuban cigars money could buy (Montecristo, Cohiba, and Epicure No.2), the cigars this farmer rolled were far superior: Smoother, tastier, and simply more enjoyable – and this is coming from a non-smoker. We heard from other backpackers who had visited Cuba that the very best cigars didn’t come from the legendary factories, which fetch a fortune in Australia and Europe, but rather from the poor farmers in the countryside. We can definitely attest to that now.

After we left the tobacco farm, we rode to a cave where we went… caving. There were a lot of tight squeezes, plenty of bats swooping over our heads, and our young guide was friendly enough to fill us in on a bunch of facts about cave formations which went way over our heads. Out in the remote areas of Vinales, there are wild banana trees and coffee plants, so we were given a chance to try them too. Caving was an interesting exercise. We hadn’t done it before, and probably won’t again, but trying to mend your body in order to make it past back-breaking rocks in pitch black darkness was humbling. I wondered how many poor cavers got trapped, had rocks slide on top of them, or drowned from rainfall – since half way through caving, the rain started falling and the cave began flooding!

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We jumped back on our horses to visit another small village. This one gave us coconuts on arrival and showed us how they farmed coffee plants and pineapples.  We were genuinely intrigued by how much interesting and complicated work goes into farming, and appreciate eco-tourism a lot more now. At this farm, we mostly sat around for a while while our local guide exchanged banter for almost an hour with one of the other farmers. We were given samples of a local alcohol similar to rum, with a piece of fruit in it. A few coconut juices and mystery-rums later, Sam became fixated on the chickens, and took countless photos of them. We shared the table there with an Italian couple from Milan, who were doing a similar trek around Cuba. After we departed, we made our way back to the stables but not before I almost flung off my horse and into a fence heavy with barbed wire. The paths in the Cuban villages are treacherous: there are pot holes everywhere, uneven ground and deep ditches. Our guide decided it was a good idea to yell at my horse to run downhill through ditches and pot holes. Suicide 101 if I ever saw it. My horse absolutely stacked it, fell and seemed like it was a millimeter away from snapping all its legs. I was flung forward but managed to hold on. My horse recovered after falling over towards the barbed wire fence. The guide thought it was funny.

Once we got off our horses we noticed that the animals were branded the old school way, numbered with hot irons. That’s considered animal cruelty these days but Cuba is in a giant time warp, so we doubted they knew any differently. After we headed back to our house, Lourdes cooked up GIANT LOBSTER for us. So big, I had to finish Sam’s for her. They were larger than the plate. We didn’t realise lobster came so big. Back home, it would be well over $100 IF you could order something this size, but in the Cuban countryside (and all of Cuba, for that matter), king lobsters are normal. Commonplace, even. It’s their version of chicken. Something we would both gladly enjoy over the next three and a half weeks in Cuba.

In Vinales, the highlight of our trip was ordering a taxi to drive us an hour away to a beautiful beach called Cayo Jutias. Seriously beautiful. Remember, there are nice beaches to be found all over the world, but this was the Caribbean, which meant the water was warm, flawless, and bright blue. To make the experience better, we were driving in an old American car, with music blaring as we passed plenty of villages in the Cuban countryside. At the beach, we noticed that nobody was drinking beer. Over in Cuba, people buy bottles of rum and drink them at the beach. They even swim out into the ocean with bottles of rum and small glasses, floating around and getting drunk.  We laughed on the drive there and on the way back, as it felt like a scene out of a Hollywood movie: Old American car, perfect countryside, and an even more perfect beach all chaperoned by a young, friendly Cuban guy.

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We would soon get ready to leave Vinales and head to Trinidad. During our week in Vinales, we experienced a secluded Latin experience that was far from commercial or even widely known. Largely, this was attributable to it being Cuba. It may very well be one of the last places on Earth that isn’t Westernised or in some way influenced by the West. Or even modern technology. Before we departed, I bought a few books and newspapers detailing the many botched CIA missions that were sprung into action in a bid to overthrow the country. America had gone as far as poisoning everyday folk just to get back at Castro, and to wage a war. There are of course two sides to every story, and I guess what I now hold in my hands would be declared as anti-American propaganda, but from our experiences with Cubans, there are zero hostilities towards Americans. It’s just the US government they don’t like.

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Sitting down at our house in Vinales. A random horse walks on by. Because this is Cuba.
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Propaganda: Depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

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Che and Castro at Ernest Hemingway’s annual fishing competition: The two revolutionaries were good mates with the legendary American author.

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I did a few background checks on these alleged CIA missions which aimed to cripple Cuba’s agricultural industries, and incite terrorism, and according to Wiki Leaks and even recently released US Government files, they check out. The plot thickens… Biological and chemical weapons were used on innocent Cuban civilians. A ridiculous number of assassination attempts were made on Castro (including giving him an exploding cigar, and a wet suit filled with poisonous algae). I mean, after reading through all of this, including the accusations the US government had admitted to, it was both macabre and creative. You couldn’t even think half of this stuff up if you tried…

But as they say in Cuba:

“A lie runs until it is overtaken by the truth.”

the beach film

Hola From HAVANA, CUBA!

Three countries have been on my list of to-dos since I was a child. The first one was Jamaica. I think Cool Runnings had something to do with that. Investigating it as an adult though, it looks more like a resort island than anything else. Kingston looked good, but all in all unless we could find a remote beach playing Bob Marley with a bunch of chilled out Jamaicans, we didn’t fancy joining a legion of boat cruise passengers as they scrambled for overpriced water activities. I sound averse to cruises. That may or may not be true, depending on whether there’s a cruise out there that suits my philosophy on travel. For example, I’d take a cruise to Antartica, because how else would I get there? I’d take one through Alaska, or any other inhospitable terrain that requires something big to transport me. I don’t like the idea of stopping off in a built up tourist port for a few hours, being denied the chance to really experience the local culture and understand the country, and then being shipped off comfortably to the next destination.

The reason the cruise ship concept is a nightmare for me, is because I imagine myself leaving the blue shoreline and wondering what it is I missed out on. And from our experiences, you find the best surprises by just wandering around. For this reason, cruises to the Greek islands should absolutely be banned. Same with the Danube River. It’s criminal to transport passengers to Eastern Europe or Greece and imply via itinerary, that “what you see is what you get”. It’s like unwrapping a chocolate bar and not tasting it. It’s an unforgivable, overpriced tease. There’s definitely a gap in the cruise market for prolonged stays of even say, 4 days in each place. Just enough time to at least see something genuine. Or a hop on hop off concept. Catch a cruise to Aruba. Hang out for five days. Get on the next cruise to Barbados, then onwards to northern Brazil.

I’ve also wanted to visit Russia since dad bought me a zippo when I was a kid with a gold and red hammer and sickle on it. A symbol of the Russian Revolution. Similar to the red star in where else but…Cuba.

This misdirected rant has a point: The Caribbean, apparently, would never be what I dreamt it to be, unless I got to the West Indies. Well, that never happened, but what did happen was something entirely unforgettable.

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Russian Orthodox Church, right on our balcony!

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Balcony view from a slummy neighbourhood we stayed in.

We went to Cuba. Possibly the most interesting, culturally-rich and otherworldly place on the planet. And it was in the Caribbean. Win-win.

Havana is hot. You will drip with so much sweat you’ll think you’re walking through a pool all day. The people are generous and gentle. At night, the city streets are pitch black. You will be apprehensive about walking through the shadows as figures dart across the street, ramble on the kerb and seemingly appear out of nowhere. It’s the perfect place to mug somebody. But it never happens. Cubans are a different breed. They’re incredibly helpful and brave a smile through their hardship. It’s easily the safest country we’ve been in on our Latin American adventure.

We arrived at our first casa early in the morning. It must have been 6 am. The streets were dark. The sky was black. People were sitting on the kerb. It didn’t feel at all welcoming. A man got up and started to approach us as we knocked on the door to Mildred’s house. He had been watching us for the last few minutes. We had our bags on us, and we were in a poor country that was communist-cum-socialist. If we got robbed, I could hardly blame them. Whatever it is they wanted, they surely needed more than I did. Saying that, after having my camera and wallet stolen in Brazil, I was down to my last debit card. I had brought a backup with me on this trip in anticipation that I’d be robbed at least once. As fate would have it, it was in Rio – the same city that countless other travellers had told me they had been robbed in.

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Wall of “cretins” at the Revolution Museum, Havana.

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Hemingway at El Floridita, Havana

The man was dressed in a white singlet. He said something in Spanish to us that I didn’t understand. I only knew how to order something at a restaurant and how to ask where the bathroom was. My Spanish crash course had failed me.

“No Espanol, discuple,” I said. I looked behind me and then behind him. It was pitch black, and we were standing in a backstreet of Havana that Hollywood told us to fear. I continued to knock on Mildred’s door. A little louder this time. More people moved in the shadows. The man smiled at me and pointed to the doorbell.

All he wanted to do was help two clueless gringos find their way up to their room. I thanked him as he walked away, disappearing into the dark Havana void. The door opened. We were greeted enthusiastically by Mildred’s father – the resident cook, we would later learn. He spoke Spanish to us. We smiled. Had no idea what he was saying. He welcomed us inside.

Up the stairs was a beautiful home, filled with art, statues, and a Victorian-era feel. For the first time this entire trip, I tasted a real coffee. A super strong espresso. Mildred’s father made a cup for Sam, and Sam politely took a sip even though she hated coffee. When he had his back turned, I quickly finished it for her. It was only a few minutes in but Mildred’s home felt like our home. Cubans have a warmth towards strangers than can only be rivalled by family. Mildred’s father – and no, I don’t know his name – proceeded to make us breakfast. Breakfasts in Cuba are massive if you stay at a casa. Each morning, we received omelettes, ham, cheese, large portions of mango, banana, dragon fruit and pineapple, cakes, bread, coffee and tea. We never could finish a breakfast entirely, and that’s saying something – because I can eat a disgustingly large volume of food.

Cuban food

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Mildred lived with her boyfriend and her father. She had the most pimped out apartment you can think of. Three stories, and right beside the Russian Orthodox Church. We had views of the ocean and the ancient Caribbean skyline of Havana. The room we stayed in was spacious. We were eager to hit the ground running in Havana, as we had heard so many great things about the city. After a brief nap after the worst flight we had ever been on in our entire lives – Tame Airlines, pardon my French, is a piece of shit (extremely rough flight from Quito, people gasping onboard thinking the plane was going to split in half, and oh, the electricity constantly going out so everything was pitch black in the cabins; this included the emergency signs and even the seatbelt signs above our heads… those life-saving lights that presumably have a backup generator) – we thanked all known deities and made our way through the dirty streets of Havana.

Children played football as old American cars rode on by. Most were in showroom condition. Bright pink, blue, purple, yellow, and green cars took us back to the 50s. The poverty was obvious but unlike other places in the world, there wasn’t a seedy underbelly present. Cuba supplies food rations and free health care (it’s top quality) to its citizens. So even in the face of poordom, people don’t starve and if they do get sick, they’re taken care of. Old dilapidated buildings appear half finished or half demolished, however you wish to look at it. Pastel greens, pinks, and yellows are applied to the exterior of old buildings. Men constantly ask you if you’d like to buy a Cuban cigar. Taxi drivers constantly ask you if you want a taxi. It’s impossible not to get one. There are more taxis than tourists in Havana.

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We lived with the woman who owned this restaurant (the best in Havana): El Chanchullero de Tapas – get the pineapple prawns!

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The food, outside of the casas, isn’t great. You can pick from chicken or fish, beans or rice, maybe a side salad if you’re lucky. The hotels charge a lot of money for similar dishes. Staying in the casas is best since you get a genuine feel of what it’s like to live as a Cuban, and you also receive home cooked meals, some of which have been the best meals we’ve ever had. Big, big lobsters spill over your plates at dinner time. So large that no sides are needed, and it’s a mammoth effort just to finish it. Sam paid $9 and received three lobsters on her plate – now that’s what I call value! As big as the lobsters are, this is Cuba, and ironically you will NEVER go hungry. We were given delicious soups, breads, side dishes and mojitos until we couldn’t move anymore. It was ironic that in such a depleted country, we felt like we were eating like kings. Lobster is a staple dish. Something I could get used to.

We went to the Revolution Museum and learned about America’s assault on Cuba, according to Castro. Evidence of the CIA trying to blow up, attack, or infiltrate Cuba was demonstrated on the walls. Evidence of Cuba fighting them off was proudly displayed. The Americans were never referred to as such. The term “Imperialistic Yankees” was used throughout the museum displaying Che Guevara merchandise for sale, anti-American books about American foreign policy arresting the economic, political, and social rise of Latin America, and many remnants from the Cuban Revolution are shown. At the end of the museum is a wall with caricatures of American Presidents that Cuba hates. Batista started the wall off and while not American, he was a puppet inserted by the Americans. He eventually went on to commit genocide against his own people, which led to Che Guevara’s legendary mission of overthrowing the dictactor. In essence, Che saved the Cuban people from a mini Hitler. Cubans adore him for it. We didn’t get the impression that Cubans particularly love Castro, though.

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A few other Presidents made the wall, such as Ronald Reagan and George Bush. All were referred to as cretins. All had reasons as to why the Cubans didn’t like them. It wasn’t that far off the mark, since Reagan’s Guatemalan episode and George Bush just being, well, George Bush, hasn’t won them fans in the Western world either. Cubans like Obama though. Maybe progress is in sight. Cubans also don’t hate Americans, so we aren’t sure who perpetuated that myth. I was told by one guy though who was trying to sell me a ride in his old American car, that since I was Australian he would charge me half as much as he charges Americans.

History is written by the winners apparently, and is a polluted concept due to the subjectivity and agenda of those writing it. Is America’s recollection of events in Cuba right, or is Castro’s? Australians tend to sit on the fence with politics, since we believe that all politicians are full of shit, so we enjoyed seeing Castro’s version of events after hearing America’s. It was eye-opening, and if what we read was true about the CIA’s black op missions, then anti-Cuban sentiment would be like the pot calling the kettle black.

The politics of Cuba make it an attraction for people all over the world. Unfortunately, there are heavy restrictions for Americans. Cubans welcome them with open arms, but the US government doesn’t want its people to contribute to the economy it has been trying to crush for 60-odd years. Still, a few Americans manage to slip in via Mexico. There are no problems. Cubans offer to not stamp American passports so that they don’t get in trouble back home. One day Cuba will open more, probably relax its stronghold on its own people and allow them to travel more freely. Communism/Socialism might disintegrate, but hopefully it still retains its old world charm. It would be mortifying to walk down the street and see a Mcdonalds, or a KFC, or God forbid – a Starbucks. Everything changes in the world, and one day Cuba will too. Its attraction is therefore temporary, and if you want to see what the world really was like all those decades ago, then get there now before it’s too late – because once Cuba integrates with the rest of the world more openly, everything I’ve just written will be nothing more than a reminder of how things used to be.

And as great as that will be for the Cubans, it’ll be a lost experience for all you travellers out there….

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A Land Before Time: Galápagos Islands

Far off the coast of Ecuador is a cluster of islands so well preserved and protected from human contact, that nature has been allowed to take its course. Wildlife has evolved as Mother Nature intended – uninterrupted by human impact.

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The Galápagos Islands is one of those bucket list items most people are dying to achieve (pun intended). Boat operators have an obvious monopoly on the local market. American owners outmuscle the Ecuadorians, and provide an obscenely expensive service that while worth it, is difficult to justify in a third world country. Regardless, with everything else around the Earth dying (Great Barrier Reef is becoming an underwater graveyard, Maldives are rumored to be vanishing in the next decade), a chance to see the Galápagos Islands before they meet a similar fate is time restrictive.
They won’t always be around.

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This travel blog has allowed us to share our Latin American journey with the world, one place at a time. Sometimes the stories are lengthy, other times pictures tell a thousand words. I’ll keep the stories brief and the photos plentiful. We blew our backpacker’s budget and went all-out on an 8 day cruise (the only cruise I’ve ever done). We did this because it was the only way to truly see everything Galapagos had to offer – it’s not everyday that you fly to little-known Ecuador, so it made sense to make the most of the opportunity while we had it.

We had an awesome crew on the boat, and really great passengers who made the journey extra special. A large group of Americans from Road Scholar were on there – grandparents with grandchildren who, as part of Road Scholar, elect to take the younger generation somewhere cool around the world. Something that doesn’t revolve around Mai Tai’s on the beach, as one American lady put it. It’s a great concept and something Australia should have. We also had other independent travellers, such as Phillip and Daniel from Germany (who convinced us to change plans and fly to Mexico), Livia and Jens from Switzerland (who were doing an epic road trip through South America), and George, an engineer from London working in Angola.

The seas are rough at night. Anybody who had a plan to have a few drinks while on board found themselves detesting that idea, as we wobbled around the cabin and made a beeline for bed each night. Seasickness was common. At times it was pretty brutal, but what we saw each day made those sleepless nights worth it.

We’ve done two big trips in the past six years. Our first was to Europe. That showed us how beautiful the world really is, and how magnificent history is. Europe cannot be compared to. It’s a melting pot of history, culture, arts, cuisine, good people, and a different way of life. Australia is young and for backpackers, is a faraway place best explored with a Kombi van. It’s barren, large, underpopulated and a diverse place to discover, if you have the time and means to go the distances. Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s mecca. So much so that it seems like “travel for beginners.” Australians probably take Southeast Asia for granted, given it’s on our doorstep, but for Europeans and the British, it’s a great, big mystery that backpackers yearn to explore. South America is different from all of these places. It’s the place to come if you want a true outdoors adventure – it blows everything else out of the water. On what other continent can you see a historically preserved natural wonder such as the Galápagos Islands, trek to ancient Incan ruins such as MP, go to “the end of the world” in Patagonia, rough it in the Amazon jungle, or venture into the remote vast deserts of Bolivia? Throw in places like Mendoza, Salta, Buenos Aires, Rio, Salvador, Banos, Santiago, Cuzco and Uyuni, and you’ve got yourself the ultimate backpacking adventure!

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This is, of course, before you even hit the Cuban time warp or Central American identities such as Mexico (the latter of which is a huge juxtaposition in Latin America).

Without wanting to sound pretentios, our Latin American adventure has made us want to dig deeper into the world and see the great outdoors more than sitting on a European beach. It feels like our preferences in travel have evolved, but that’s because we’ve travelled a lot throughout the world. I see ourselves in the future being increasingly armed with rugged backpacks, long matted hair and at least one beard as we climb the heavenly mountains of rural China or trample through blizzards in Siberia. Prior to this trip, neither of us were overly inclined to do either – our main experiences were cultural. South America and its uncompromising brutality in the wilderness, has ignited a thirst for more adventure.

The Galápagos Islands sound like smooth sailing, but they aren’t. In between seasickness, we went swimming amongst sharks, sea turtles, Mexican Hot fish, seahorses, sea lions, and other random fish whose names I’ll never know. Sea lions and sea turtles are playful. They swim right up to you and surround you. Apparently because there is little impact by humans here, they haven’t learned to fear them and run away. They treat you like you’re just another organism swimming on by. Apparently sharks don’t attack you either, since the Galápagos Islands have a perfect eco-system and food chain where fishing is virtually illegal (unless you are a local fisherman with permission from the National Park), so sharks never have to try other dishes. I’d be lying if I denied hearing the Jaws theme song every time I entered the dark water, but I trusted our guide Billie, and didn’t see anybody get eaten. That being said, Bull sharks swam all the way from the waters of Quito to this pristine environment and attacked two snorkellers. They had to be hunted and killed. Galápagos doesn’t like outsiders.

On the islands, some of which are volcanic, we came across giant tortoises, yellow iguanas, blue-footed boobies (obscure birds with bright blue feet), birds that were so heavily covered in white feathers that they looked as though they were wearing a giant white afro, black birds with inflated red sacks blowing out of their necks, and large skittering red crabs on the rocks, as well as black and purple-spotted ones running in and out of the cracks. Our guide Billie had a Masters degree in Biology and was exceptionally informative during our 8 day forage into paradise. Here, time had stopped. We saw what life would be like without humans. I half expected to see a dinosaur somewhere.

One of the highlights for sure was coming across a little lake in the middle of an island. This little lake can only fill up when the area floods, and whatever gets in there remains in there until it floods again next time, and they swim back out to the ocean. We stared at this crystal clear lake and wanted to jump in. It all looked so perfect. There were even sea turtles that managed to get themselves in there. It was a small lake. Surely it would be safe to enter, right?

We could see right through to the bottom. Sure, I can imagine fish getting bowled over the rocks from the ocean and finding themselves stuck. Sea turtles too, although that was still a big surprise. We sat and watched the water. On the sides of the mini lake were shadows from the walls. A very small cave. Maybe big enough for a person to hide under. I thought I saw something move. Something large and black. It didn’t make sense. Something big couldn’t be bowled over from an ocean and land in here, surely. Then another large shadow moved.

Then one more, because things happen in threes, right? Then the most irrational sight became apparent.

Fins broke the water.

Out of the thin shadows emerged three large sharks. Big enough to cause serious alarm if you were in the water. Big enough that nobody wanted to get too close to the edge of the lake, incase they fell in and became shark food. Who knows what the sharks fed on down below, but it certainly wasn’t their usual environment. A human would be most welcome, I thought. We stood back and took photos. The sharks just looked so big, and so much bigger than someone would expect. And they were in a lake. Mother Nature was playing games with us.

the beach film

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the beach film

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Seeing this was breathtaking. Everybody was astounded. When I was younger, my phobia of sharks spurred an obsession to learn everything I could about the different species. I knew, for example, that during the day, sharks of all shapes and sizes relaxed in the shadows of lagoons. Enhanced imaging of Australian beaches showed how close these sharks came to the shoreline. Those dark patches of water you see in the ocean, about thirty metres out from the sand? Yeah, it’s not uncommon for sharks to be resting in there, minding their own business. I had a memory flashback to our first time in Thailand, when we were taken out on a boat to go snorkelling in a lagoon. I didn’t know we were going to a lagoon at first. Naturally, with what I knew about sharks, this made me a bit uneasy. The Thai guide assured me there were no sharks in there. This despite knowing that Thailand was a hot spot for shark breeding.

So I ignored science and jumped in. The water was murky with a golden tinge. It was calm. The Brazilian girl next to me got stabbed by a small sword fish and started to bleed – although not too badly. She swam back to the boat. I swam further from it. At the bottom of the lagoon I saw a shadow in the distance start to come into focus. It was a shark. Not big, maybe 1.5 metres, but still big enough to do some damage.

the beach film

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Seeing the shark in the mini lake on a Galápagos island got me thinking: As fun as some of these environments can be, and no matter how many guides want to assure me that the sharks don’t attack, and no matter how many other guides want to lie to me about the presence of sharks, there is still something unnerving about being in the ocean with them.

And now they were migrating to lakes.

Welcome to the Galápagos Islands!