San Pedro and Bolivian Salt Flats

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Travelling South America
Salt flats covered in water

If you ever get the chance to visit here, DO! 

Luna Valley, San Pedro

Having taken a 23 hour bus from Santiago to San Pedro, I arrived as the sunset over the Atacama desert. Even with the lights of San Pedro, the sky was filled with stars. 

Moonlit sky over San Pedro

San Pedro isn’t the cheapest place to stay because it is located in the middle of the desert and  surrounded by so many tourist attractions, hostels can afford to up their prices. However, whatever you pay, the cost is worth it. The town in very small and basic, with the majority of the buildings in the centre used by the 40+ tour agencies selling exactly the same trips. Although this choice of agencies can be slightly frustrating, it does present a great opportunity for haggling. 

Mountains rising above the ‘main’ street

San Pedro is one of the starting towns for the expeditions across the Bolivian Salt flats. The other options involve starting in Uyuni or Tupiza. The Tupiza option involves a lot of additional driving.

With the surrounding environment of San Pedro being very similar to that over the Bolivian borders. Many of the San Pedro day trips, visit very similar sites to those included in the Salt flat tour. Whilst in San Pedro, I opted for the Valle De Luna tour which takes you to several different stunning landscapes on the Chilean salt flats before finishing at Luna Valley for sunset. 

Las tres Marias
Licancabur volcano
Moulded by the wind over the years

Other trips offered in San Oedro include various astronomy tours to view the spectacular night skies, early morning visits to the worlds largest Geyser field, Sandboarding, and trips into the Atacama desert to see its lakes and weird geological formations. 

Geyser

Whilst the Atacama desert will wow you, the Bolivian Salt flats will absolutely blow you away. The tour involves a lot of time within the car, but stops are frequent and each is as spectacular as the next. 

James flamingos at Laguna Colorada

The three day/two night salt flat tour includes a visit to a small geyser field with magma pools as well as a number of weird and wonderful rock formations located in the vast desert. 

Geothermal pools
Valle de rocas
Laguna Negra
Camel Rock

Another stunning location is the Anaconda Valley, which offers vast views over a small canyon which hosts a slithering green river.

Anaconda Valley

There are also great opportunities to get up close and personal with the local Lamas and, if you’re lucky, they will have been dressed up by locals. Don’t get too close though, the farmers may get angry and the lamas may spit!

Lama fancy dress

The tour includes stops at various multicoloured lakes. These are coloured as a result of the minerals and sometimes bacteria found within them.

Laguna Blanca
Laguna Verde
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo on Laguna Colorada

Most spectacular of all comes on the final day when you make it to the true salt flats, for sunrise. I was lucky enough to time my visit in early April meaning that there was residual water from the wet season. This meant I had the chance for the sky, reflection pictures that everyone wants.

Pre sunrise
Pre sunrise reflections
Reflections on the salt flats
Sunrise
Stunning pastel colours
Almost as awesome in daylight

The rainy season on the flats comes in February and March, so views like this are almost guarenteed at this time of year. However, if there is too much water, many vehicles struggle to make it through the flats to other promised destinations. By timing your trip for the end of the wet season is you get the best of both! Wet ones allowing for reflection pictures and dry ones allowing for the also cliche perspective pictures.

Crushed by a giant foot
Dry salt flats

Before the tour drops you off in Uyuni ready for a warm shower, there is time for visits to a Salt museum, Artisanal market and the train graveyard. 

National flags outside the salt museum
One of the more modern looking trains at the train graveyard (courtesy of graffiti)
Old car at the artisanal market

If you’re interested, I paid 95,000 Chilean pesos for a 3 day trip which included all food and accommodation (one night in a salt hostel), local guide (only spoke Spanish). I also opted to pay the 5,000 extra so that I could pay by credit card. This means if there were any problems I could withdraw the payment. 

Morning silhouettes

For anyone taking this trip I would recommend taking something to protect your face from the dust which, even with the windows closed, can be brutal at times. Also pack lots of warm clothes as early starts expose you to sub zero temperatures before the desert warms up for the day!

Kick about at one of the lunch stops

For more images from the Bolivian Salt Flats check out my album

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Antarctica!

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Antarctica
National Geographic Explorer and a leopard seal during a zodiac cruise in Cierva Cove

Just a quck update from my latest travels. I am currently working as a Naturalist for National Geographic Expeditions. It has been my job to guide lucky passengers on board the National Geographic Explorer around the Antarctic wildlife.

One of the spectacular ice structures that scatter the Antarctic Ocean

During the past few weeks, I have been lucky enough to share the very best wildlife watching experiences in the world with these passengers as we navigate from South America, south through the Drake Passage as far as the Antarctic circle.

Sunset on the ice
Explorer guests look on across the sea ice

Highlights have been too numerous to list but amongst the latest to be ticked off the bucket list are seeing killer whales and emperor penguins, as well as watching humpback whales bubble feeding. On top of this, there were lots of penguins and stunning scenery – plus ca change!

Majestic looking Adelie penguin

When I return to better internet, I will endeavour to update my blog with more images and stories from these latest travels but for now, here is a selection of images so far!

The moment a leopard seal seizes a gentoo penguin off the coast of brown bluff
Not only were there hundreds of killer whales seen, there were the world’s leading scientists working on board
One of the hundreds of killer whale pictures I have taken during the past 3 weeks
Killer whale through the ocean

Other useful tips

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos
  • Fur Seal hiding from the morning sun
    Fur Seal hiding from the morning sun

    No matter how confident you are in your sea faring abilities take sea sickness tablets. The trip is incredible but you don’t want to risk anything as manageable as sea sickness ruining it.

  • Buy sun cream in advanced of travelling to Galapagos. Shops have very limited supplies on offer for extortionate prices
  • Take snacks – Snorkelling is hard work and even the most restraint of our team were craving snacks by the end of our cruise. A snickers on Galapagos will set you back $4 in places so take your own!
  • Trip Advisor before paying for anything! It is not possible to review every tour provider and trip however there is a lot of helpful information on trip advisor, especially with regards to the safety of certain scuba diving providers.
  • If you are taking a waterproof camera, look into buying a red filter for your lens!
  • ENJOY!!!

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When to Visit The Galapagos

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

This is something you need to consider strongly. Some people don’t have the luxury of being able to pick a particular time for their visit. The wildlife at the Galapagos Islands is incredible all year round and I guarantee you will love it whenever you visit. However, if you are flexible, there may be specific species you wish to encounter depending on your interests and you may wish to time your trip to coincide with these species. I thought it would be helpful to put all this information together.

Species Best Time Best Island To See Them  
Waved Albatross Apr-Dec Espanola
Red Footed Booby No Set breeding season Genovesa
Blue Footed Booby July-December All around but breed on Genovesa, North Seymour, Daphne, San Cristobel, Isabela
Nascar Booby Aug-Nov (tower island) Nov-Feb (Espanola) Genovesa, Espanola
Galapagos Hawk All year Most Islands
Galapagos Penguin All year West Galapagos although small colonies also at Bartolome, Pinzon and Floreana
Flightless Cormorant All year Fernandina
Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds All Year North Seymour, Genovesa
Swallow Tailed Gull All Year Most Islands inc, Genovesa, Isabela, Espanola
Tropicbirds All Year Breed in small numbers around most Islands -Genovesa, South Plaza
Galapagos Fur Seal All year (Breeding Aug-Dec) All Over
Galapagos Sea Lion All year (Breeding July-Dec) All Over
Hammerhead Sharks Present year round but peak season Dec-May Can be seen all over however best chance at Gordon Rocks diving, and Kicker Rock snorkelling Best place is on liveaboard dive vessel to Darwin and Wolf
Sun Fish June- Dec Gordon Rocks, Punta Vi cente Roja
Sea Turtles Most numerous when mating (Dec) and Nesting (Jan-May)
Whale Shark June-November peak season sightings throughout year at darwin and wolf,
Manta Ray December-May Isabella, gordon rocks, Seymour, Kicker Rock
Tortoises Lay eggs early year Most Islands, Farms on Santa Cruz Very good
Fur Seal underwater
Fur Seal underwater

Other dates to be aware of are that the best visibility tends to be between January and March. The Dry Season is June – December. And the water temperatures are warmest  between February and April.

 

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Diving The Galapagos

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

If you are an experienced diver and love megafauna then this offers some of the best diving in the world.

Hammerhead Shark, Gordon Rocks
Hammerhead Shark, Gordon Rocks

First thing you need to know is that at present tour cruises are not allowed to offer diving as part of their service. If you want to dive you have two options Cruise on the Specific Dive Liveaboards or Dive on day trips from San Cristobel or Santa Cruz.

Dive liveaboards are the only vessels that are allowed to visit the famous Darwin and Wolf islands. These offer magnificent diving with a huge array of species including mega shoals of 100-200 hammerheads, manta rays and also whale sharks. However by choosing a diving trip you are sacrificing the landing aspect of your cruises since you will spend the majority of your time around Darwin and Wolf which prohibit landing.

It is possible to dive from Santa Cruz and also San Cristobel. This offers much of the same quality diving just to a slightly lesser extent, depending on which trips you opt for. I dived with Academy Bay Dive Centre, in Puerto Ayora, and had an incredible diving experience. Day packages included a safety check dive prior to two dives with lunch and snorkelling during the dive interval.

If you are diving from Santa Cruz, I would recommend diving Gordon rocks. Even though decent in the currents was slightly tricky conditions at the bottom were calm. I completed 4 dives here with highlights including 46 Hammerheads on one dive, 2 sunfish (outside of season), sealions, manta and spotted eagle rays, white tip and Galapagos shark as well as good numbers of large silver fish (tuna and amberjack) and bait fish.

Other popular dive sites are Floreana for its seals and seahorses and North Seymour for its White tip reef sharks and rays.

As a result of strong currents, cold waters and variable visibility, diving around The Galapagos can be very technical and hard work at times. To anyone who hasn’t dived in a while, I would recommend a refresher before you visit The Galapagos, to re-familiarise yourself with everything and to remove any cobwebs/nerves.

Due to the location of the islands, temperatures fluctuate massively between sites, as a result of different oceanographic currents. On average water temperatures are approximately 15 degrees centigrade. So for those of you used to diving in the tropics, be prepared to be a little cold!

 

Sunfish, Gordon Rocks
Sunfish, Gordon Rocks

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Classes of yacht

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

There are 4 classes of yacht available for cruises. Differences in price can be huge between these. You are effectively paying for comfort of living as the itineraries run, are the same. One thing to consider when booking is that tour guides around The Galapagos are designated classes of yacht they can work on based on their experience and skill. So better yacht = better guide

  1. Luxury
  2. First Class
  3. Tourist Superior
  4. Economic
Yacht Fragata, Plaza Island
Yacht Fragata, Plaza Island

 

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Which cruise route?

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

This is a decision generally based on time and price. Boats are constantly working on heavily regulated 15day cycles designed to ensure that the quotas for visitors per islands are not exceeded. Vessels pass Santa Cruz and Saint Cristobel (both of which you can fly to) on various points during this cycle and it is possible to jump on and off at these points. For most people 8 days is a good compromise of time and money.

Your two basic 8 day trips, starting and ending in Santa Cruz are as follows.

  1. A week covering the east, north and south islands. My recommendation.

Of the 4 most unique and recommended islands this should cover Floreanna, Espanola, and Genovesa. Both Espanola and Genovesa are inaccessible by day trips and offer incredible biological splendour and diversity on the land. They are also the breeding grounds for waved albatross and red footed boobies respectively. Whilst the snorkelling with the sea lions of Floreanna is magnificent. You also visit Saint Cristobel and Kicker Rock, which, with good visibility, offers the best snorkelling the Galapagos has to offer.

Galapagos Hawk. Galapagos
Galapagos Hawk. Galapagos
  1. A week around Isabella and Fernandina

Isabella is a huge island with an active volcano, it offers some great snorkelling and a days good hiking, which if the weather stays clear can give you some great views. The cruise will take you west of this island to Fernadinha, also inaccessible by day trip. Here is your only opportunity to see the endemic, flightless cormorant. On top of this, this area around Isabella and Fernadinha is where 80% of the Galapagos penguins can be found and therefore offers you the best chance of sightings.. However there are small populations around Bartolome and Floreana and Pinzon.

As touched upon earlier, it is possible to join at slightly different points of the cruise for different periods of time. My recommendation would be to pick the itinerary that allows you to visit the most of the following: Genovesa, Floreanna, Fernandinha, Espanola and Kicker Rock.

Galapagos Penguins
Galapagos Penguins

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Which day trips to take?

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

If you do opt to go for day trips. I would recommend the following.

Santa Fe

Snorkelling here is amazing, you will spend an hour within a cove used by huge quantities of sea lions which as long as you keep your hands to yourself are always inquisitive and keen to play. I promise you will not forget these guys!

The landing also has a lot offer; sea lions can be found loafing all over the island tops, both marine and land iguanas are here as well as the Galapagos hawk and the Santa Fe mockingbird.

Fur Seals, Santa Fe
Fur Seals, Santa Fe

 

Snorkel Kicker Rock – from San Cristobel

This is a snorkelling day trip to a submerged islet. Water around the islet varies between 5-15m and offers spectacular snorkelling. You will see huge shoals of bait fish and as a result the area is used by good numbers of black and white tip reef sharks, Galapagos shark and if you are lucky hammerheads also. We were also lucky enough to see double figures of green turtles, spotted eagle rays, golden cownose rays and sea lions.

North Seymour –

If the frigate birds and blue footed boobies are breeding this is a must do. Watching the Frigate Birds displaying is like nothing you will ever see again and the blue footed boobies are also stunning animals.

Pinzon

If you are based from Santa Cruz this trip offers the best opportunities for seeing the Galapagos penguins. You will also visit a mangrove area which is used as a hangout for white tip reef sharks and on your way back you will stop within a cove used by good numbers of green turtles.

Galapagos Penguins, Pinzon
Galapagos Penguins, Pinzon

Day Trip Around Santa Cruz.

There are many activities available on the main islands of Santa Cruz and these can be done very economically. Many of the tour companies around the islands will try and sell you a package where you visit 4 of these in a day and pay a lot of money. For me, this is a rip off. Whilst walking through the town you will see white 4x4s everywhere, these are taxis. If you decide on which activities you want for the day you can ask a driver to chauffeur you between these venues over the course of the day. This allows you to prioritise which activities you want to do and also saves you massive amounts of money.

I would recommend visiting one of the Giant Tortoise reserves, Las Grietas and the Lava Tunnels. For me, the twin craters are just holes in the ground.

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Day Trips vs Cruise

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series Booking a Trip to the Galapagos

Fragata Yacht, Galapagos

If you are trying to save large amounts you may have been recommended to stay on the islands and book day trips. This is definitely an option and you can go on some great trips. However I think that having decided to do the Galapagos you should experience everything it has to offer. Here are some useful things to consider when making this decision.

With the exception of Isabella and Saint Cristobel day trips set off at 730am and return the same day. This immediately limits the distance that you can travel around the islands. As a result there are many islands that you are not able to visit on day trips. For me, these are the islands that offer the most. Espanola, Fernandina, Genovesa and Floreanna are the 4 most highly rated islands according to me and everyone that I spoke to around South America. Of these Floreanna is the only one that you can access on a day trip.

Another thing to consider is that many of the islands are wide spread and involve long boat crossings. The cruise schedules are designed so that you make most of long notoriously bad crossings over night when you are sleeping. You are also on board a larger vessel and therefore the motion is less exaggerated. Finally, if you are on a day boat, all passengers are confined to a small area so if someone is very annoying or violently sick, you are stuck next to them for the duration of your crossing. So it may be a good idea to take headphones and a few spare sea sickness tablets.

There are a few hostels around, however for what they offer, they are not very economic. When you consider for a day trip you are paying $110-$150 a day plus evening meals and accommodation, you don’t save much compared to a cruise.

Having completed a cruise followed by a day trip I have to say I found the latter experience comparatively underwhelming. However the experience is still incredible.

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Patagonia

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Travelling South America

Torres Del Paine

Simply breathtaking. I was almost bored of awe-inspiring glaciers by the time I departed this southern region of Argentina and Chile. I started in El Chalten, walking the Fitzroy mountain range and ice climbing on the Viedma glacier. I then travelled to El Calafate and visited the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier, spending the day watching huge chunks of ice, calving into the lake below. Next on the agenda was Chile and the 8th wonder of the world, Torres Del Paine, for several days hiking amongst soaring mountains, Guanacos and brilliant blue lakes – oh yeah, and more glaciers. Last stop was the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, where I cruised through the beagle channel with seals, sea-lions, petrels, skuas and a distant albatross before seeing one last glacier.