A giant cactusI’ve just left the Galápagos islands after spending a week there, and arrived back in Guayaquil. I spent four days on a boat with 10 other people, spending each day on a different island and travelling to the next at night. It was a last minute decision, and was incredible. Each day we went snorkeling from the boat, and I swam with sea lions, sharks, and many colourful and weird coral fish. Snorkeling with sharks isn’t scary as they mind their own business, but the sea lions come right up to people inquisitively and look huge in the water! Most beaches were full of hundreds of sea lions sun-bathing and making strange noises, as well as crabs, iguanas, and cactii. I saw flamingos, sea turtles, one penguin, blue-footed boobies, and of course, giant tortoises.

It was almost surreal to see the fearlessness of the animals. None of the animals are afraid of people. Birds, crabs, sea lions and iguanas will come right up to a group of tourists on the beach to see what’s going on. The islands themselves are a paradise. The sea is transparent and the beaches have the finest, whitest sand I have ever seen. It was amazing to be there even before we saw any animals!

I have many photos of the Galápagos islands, which I hope to upload as soon as I can. Now though, I am back on the mainland, and tonight I’m finally leaving Ecuador after two months and heading to Bolivia by bus.

Me and my hammockAfter ten hours on a bus from Quito, I arrived at the coast of Ecuador – an entirely different world to the capital. No more shopping malls, high-rise apartments, and spring-like weather. Most people’s homes are single-room wooden huts set upon wooden stilts, farm animals are everywhere (even on the buses), and public transport (which almost everyone uses) means being piled into a rusty old bus or the back of a pickup truck. “Now,” I thought, “I feel like I’m in South America!” The heat and humidity there is so intense that it’s necessary to jump into the sea 4 or 5 times a day just to cool off. It’s strange to think this, but the Ecuadorians don’t go to the coast from January to April because it’s too hot!

I stayed in a tent on the beach for a week. I had a hammock next to my tent supported by palm trees (so free coconut juice…after some effort), a tap in the ground to wash myself and clothes, and there was a bar/restaurant on the beach nearby. I spent most of the time walking along the beaches and visiting nearby villages, went to the national park and twice to a fish market right on the beach. Photos are here.

It was sad to leave on the last day. While waiting for the bus, I sat on the street watching the world go by, and realised how beautiful Ecuador is. The streets may be dirty with litter and stray dogs, the pollution is bad and flies are everywhere, yet the people of Ecuador make the place beautiful. People go about their lives with such dignity, grace, and – especially – a smile; something I rarely see in the western world.

I’m leaving Quito tomorrow, and heading for the coast. I’ve been here for over a month now, and have grown to like the city. When I first arrived, I couldn’t understand a word of Spanish (the customs officer in the airport asked me, “¿Vive en Inglaterra?” and I had no idea what she said), but now after 3 weeks of lessons, I can get by, and just about have a conversation with people if they speak slowly enough.

Ecuadorian llama In the past month I’ve been to Otovalo, a famous Indian market; sat in hot volcanic springs in Papallacta; worked on a fungus farm; climbed Cotopaxi – the highest active volcano in the world (in a bus, and we didn’t go very far up); saw a ballet at the national theatre in Quito, followed by a horse & carriage tour of the old city; had my bag knifed on a bus (nothing was stolen, but one t-shirt needed emergency surgery); went in a boat around a lake in the crater of the Cotocacti volcano; cycled 20km through the Andes from Baños to a waterfall near Puyo; got tear gas in my eyes and lungs; and stood with both feet in two hemispheres at el mitad del mundo. Now though, it’s time for some tropical weather. Time for the malaria pills, insect repellent, and plenty of sunscreen.

I arrived in Quito a few days ago. I’m living with a family (well, a 65 year old woman, her 35 year old son, and her very happy dog, who sleeps in the same bed as her!), and I’m taking Spanish lessons everyday for 3 weeks. It costs $9/day to stay with the family, including food and a laundry service, and $6/hour for one-on-one tuition for Spanish lessons. I can’t imagine how expensive this would be in England. The Spanish lessons are definitely needed, as no one speaks English here, I can’t understand Spanish, and all I can do is say, “¡lo siento, soy inglés!”

Quito street vendorsI love noticing the differences here compared to home or the US. Not the little changes I have to make myself, like using bottled water to brush my teeth and putting toilet paper in a bin, but the differences in the streets. The people enthusiastically selling everything from fruit to CD-writing pens on the buses and streets, shouting endlessly in rapid Spanish; the bus drivers’ friends who literally hang off the buses as they’re speeding down the streets, trying to get more people onboard; the kids performing circus acts at red lights trying to make a few cents; the live music in bars, in the streets, and sometimes on the buses; the taxi drivers who stop for no one, even on zebra crossings; the view of mountains from anywhere in Quito; the security guards who protect every shop and building, all equipped with guns and bullets on their belts; and the near-weekly protests in the streets against increasing bus prices, student fees and the ‘free trade agreement’ with the US, which are always broken up with tear gas released by the police.

Yesterday, Meghan’s host family took us to their fungus farm in the countryside. We helped pick and package mushrooms ready to take them to the supermarket. Now I know why you must always wash fruit & vegetables before eating them! There was a little girl on the farm, teaching us how to say the different animals surrounding us on the farm. There were pigs, chickens, dogs, hens, and most farmyard animals. The girl thought it was so funny that her Spanish was better than ours. I just found it funny watching dogs understand Spanish.