South America

The plan We plan to travel from Santiago to Quito in 37 days by the following route: Santiago Copiapo (12 hours by bus) Arica (18 hours) Puna (11 hours) Cuzco (6 hours) Machu Pichu (3 days) Cuzco Arequippa (16 hours) Nazca (10 hours) Lima (8 hours) Tumbes (20 hours) Guayaquil (5 hours) Galapagos Islands (8 days) Guayaquil Quito (6 hours) Tena (6 hours) Amazon (3 days) Tena Quito (6 hours)


February 5... We're almost here

February 10... Proverbs 3: 5-6 - Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

February 12... Santiago - We're here!!! We made it!!! This has been one LONG journey! Sydney airport was like Marion Shopping Centre, we spent two hours waiting as it only took 30 seconds to go through customs (much to our surprise). It was easier than getting through the gate at Adelaide! The plane flight was cool and we had little TV screens of our own, there were also spare seats to sleep on. Coming in to LA was amazing - the city just went on and on and on and on. It´s HUGE! Everything went smoothly once again; we were separated only for 5 minutes. We were amazed as we left LA at the smog - this disgusting thick layer of grey over the city. The LanChile flight was also fine but by this stage we were both so tired we tried to sleep for most of it. Once again things proceeded smoothly - and no one tried to cheat us with the US$30 entry fee for Australians. Of course, there were lots of taxi drivers trying to convince us to use their taxi as we left but we finally found a standard bus which cost $1000 pesos (Cheap hey?! Only AUD$2.) One man did offer to take us there for $40000 pesos but we declined. Our first impressions of Santiago were that it was interesting, lots of graffiti and colourful buildings, some beautiful with cast iron doors and decorations, others looking very run down. There were lots of stray dogs, busy traffic and everyone speaks Spanish. We found the Australian owned hostel that we had planned to stay in but it looked shabby and they didn't have any free double rooms so we tried another place down the road, the Hostelling International Hostel, which was great but a little more pricey. We have our own bathroom though. We slept all day because the 40 hour plane flight was so exhausting. The hostel served a great dinner for $3.50 each. Tomorrow we plan to see Santiago. We hope you are all well and are looking forward to hearing some news from home. Lots of love, Graham and Nicole.

February 13... Santiago - What a day - we started walking the streets of Santiago at 6 am today. The city was already bustling. We walked along the main road which extends through the whole city. It is wide and lined with parks and monuments to dead dudes we know nothing about. There were buses and traffic everyehere, dogs everywhere, and frequent homeless people sleeping on benches and under cardboard boxes. We picked up a stray dog, or rather, she picked us up and followed us for at least 5 km, only stopping to sniff other dogs behinds. We stumbled across some very pretty and clean pockets in the town, one of which had a very peaceful church with people coming in to say prayers. We crossed the city´s main river, which looked like it could have been a sewer. There are road works everywhere and crossing the road seems a major undertaking. In the city is an unexpected 869m hill called Cerro (Hill) San Cristobal, which we hiked up. At the top is a 36 m high statue of the Virgin Mary with a fascinating shrine next to it. The view was impressive...largely for the amount of smog seen! The Andes were barely visible through the brown haze. Needless to say, at this stage we had 5 dogs following us. Quite conveniently, there was a cool cable-car that took us down the other side of the hill, with great views, straight into the Burnside of Santiago, aka Providencia. Here we found mansions and tree-lined streets - apparently this is where all Santiaguinos want to live...we wandered on through the town, eventually reaching the bus terminal to buy a ticket for La Serena for tomorrow. Lunch today was hotdogs ¨Italiana¨ - not a pizza flavour as we might imagine, but guacamole, tomato and mayonnaise (plus aforementioned hotdog)- only after did we make the connection - the colours of the flag!! (They´re really big on hotdogs here.) After 10 hours of walking we were totally stuffed. Must sleep now... Love Graham and Nicole.

February 14... Leaving Santiago - Happy Valentine´s Day everyone. We splurged on a fancy dinner at a nice restaurant for a romantic evening yesterday - AUD$13 for both of us. Well, our conclusion on Santiago is that it is a lot of fun to visit, a pretty city in most parts, friendly and efficient but traffic-laden. Worth a visit? Absolutely. Live there? No chance - Its just too big, noisy and busy. We´re on to a beach resort now - La Serena, half-way between Santiago and Antofagasta, seven hours on the bus. Love Graham and Nicole.

February 15... La Serena - It was an interesting bus trip down the panamerican highway to La Serena. We had no idea that the landscape would be so barren though. A few shanty towns, some cloud-topped mountains and lots of cacti kept us awake. La Serena might be 'Chile's Premier Beach Resort Town' but we ain't impressed with this beach!! Grey soil, smelly, horse poo mixed into the sand, grafitti on a few deserted buildings alongside a stip of high rises, and loud spanish hip hop... on the other hand, the township is very pretty and interesting. Population 159 000 but still room for 2 Marion-sized shopping centres (complete with cinema complex and theme park)- we're off to see School of Rock tonight or Escuale de Rock as it is in Spanish. Through hand gestures and a smattering of Spanish, we managed to check that is was subtitled rather than dubbed. We bought a Spanish-English dictionary, which has helped a bit. We are learning a few more words each day. We've spent $8000 on food so far in the last 2 days - a bargain considering a Big Mac meal costs $2000! We caught 2 church services today - the first, a Catholic service with electronic organ music plus beat box, and the second, a very loud Pentacostal service the majority of which seemed to be the Minister holding up collection envelopes. All very interesting... We stumbled across the biggest supermarket in the whole world yesterday and bought some fruit. Dad (Agzarian) will be interested to know they sell Papinos here like apples. They also sell an ice-cream that Nicole really wants called 'OK-BUM'!! (There's also just a K-BUM too) Mind you Graham's in icypole heaven cause they're only $100 here (25c). Tomorrow we're catching the bus to Arica - 20 hours. Hopefully we can swim there as it was only 17 degrees here. We wish we could swap weather with you for a while. Thanks for all your emails - we haven't had time to email today because our time limit is up. Love Graham and Nicole.

February 18... Arica - Ahh... Internet access again... Our last night in La Serena was fantastic - thanks to the Escuela de Rock. We really enjoyed it and felt like we were back home seeing a film in the local cinema. We noticed we were laughing when the locals weren´t - we don´t think the translation did justice to the jokes. We were most anxious waiting for the bus to Arica in the large busy terminal; when everything is in Spanish you don´t know whether you´ve missed the bus or it´s just running late. Luckily it was the latter. We travelled north to Arica - 20 hours with phenomenal scenery - enormous barren mountains alongside deserts, blue oceans appearing on one side and occasional fertile valleys. They even served meals on the bus. We settled for a cheap family-owned hostel (AUD$10 per night) which was comfortable enough until we flooded the bathroom and our bedroom across the corridor (they don´t have drains in Chile!) Arica has a resort-like atmosphere, although once again the beaches haven´t lived up to our expectations. We found the equivalent of Granite Island here, which the hostel owner was extremely proud of, telling us it was the only place in the world where man has built land out to an island! We tried to hire a car but all the small cars were taken and the 4WD´s were too expensive. Instead we hired a taxi and the driver took us out to the surrounding desert to see the geoglyphs on the mountainsides. These are giant pre-Columbian artworks made of stone mostly depicting people and llamas. We also stopped off at some roadside shrines. Weve passed many of these along the highway - collections of minature churches, crosses, flowers, statues of Mary and Jesus - we haven´t worked out how they get there or who they are for but we have seen people laying flowers at them. We think they might be there for protection on the roads or to commemorate people who died there but we´re not sure and there´s no one to ask in English. We´ve spent lots of time once again seeing the city, eating nice meals and just chilling. Tonight we cross the border into Peru and to Lake Titicaca. These overnight bus trips are saving us lots of money in accommodation. Total Spending in Chile (7 days) = AUD$500. We might just make it Dad (Grove)! We hope the weather starts cooling down in Adelaide. Love Graham and Nicole.

February 18... Tacna - Greetings from Peru! We just successfully crossed our first land border. We had bought our bus tickets to Puno in Arica, and part of the deal included the border crossing to Tacna in a 'colectivo' or group taxi. Thankfully our taxi driver handled most of the official stuff. It's hard not to think that the queues, the stamps and the fancy gates are all part of a conspiracy to increase bureacracy. Needless to say the desert wasn't any greener on the other side, although we think we saw a tree somewhere along the way. We're currently waiting in the tour office in the bus terminal, making use of the free internet. Our dinner tonight is chips, chocolate and 'Inca Cola'. Our Dads would be proud - we ignored the urge to buy something more substantial from the street vendors. No traveller's dirrhoea for us! Just before leaving Arica, we passed a small dirty river with kids playing in it happily...we were tempted to join them, as we never got around to swimming in Chile, but that sewer colour just put of off. The kids were obviously having a good time though and smiled and laughed as we filmed them. Our summary of Chile - a great start to our trip, easy to get around, safe, barren and majestic in the country, crowded and bustling in the towns. Love Graham and Nicole.

February 20... Puno and Lake Titicaca - What a journey to Peru... That first leg to Tacna was fine. Unfortunately, the remainder of the journey was dreadful. Firstly it was pitch black, secondly the bus broke down 20 minutes into the trip and took an hour to fix, thirdly it was freezing and we weren't warmly dressed, and finally we weaved up 4 km in altitude of windy rocky roads, resulting in both insomnia and vomiting (we think we had both altitude and motion sickness). However, Puno is fantastic. Its a small city on the edge of Lake Titicaca, surrounded by lush green hills. Peru is clearly much poorer than Chile and more touristy. When we got to Puno, we were so hungry we could've eaten a horse, but instead, we ate alpaca and trout, both very yummy. Alpaca tastes a bit like chewy salty beef. Today we travelled on a boat out to the Lake and stopped off to see the Isla de Flotantes (the floating islands), home of the Uros people. The Uros originally lived on the mainland but they moved onto the islands in Lake Titicaca because of wars with neighbouring tribes. However, they then had wars on those very islands with more tribes. So what did they do? They moved onto the lake itself, and made their own islands out of reeds that grow every where on the lake. These islands are about the size of a small oval and last 12 - 18 years before they start to rot and need to be rebuilt with the help of all 500 residents across the 43 floating islands. These people still live their traditional way of life, with a few panels for TV! Our next stop was the Isla Tequile, a stunning, fertile, real island, with 1000 Quechan-speaking indigenous people, who also still live a traditional life. These people have an interesting traditional dress which includes distinctive hats - for single men, red and white, and red for married men. The men knit the hats (strictly forbidden for women). We think wedding rings are simpler! Seeing the Isla Tequile has been the highlight of the trip so far - natural beauty, a fascinating culture and history (which we won't bore you with) and a fun boat ride. By the way, Lake Titicaca is BIG! And when we mean big, we don't mean down the road to the chemist shop big, we mean MASSIVE! After 3 hours on a boat we were only 10 percent into it. There were about a dozen tourists from around the world with us on the boat - it was nice to speak English for a change with a couple from London. Tomorrow we are off to Cusco, the capital of the ancient Incan Empire. Love Graham and Nicole.

February 22... Cuzco - We think we've found the prettiest city in South America. It was definitely worth the awful bus ride, where we were stopped by the police twice. The first time because the driver didn't have the correct documents (that was sorted out in two and a half hours), the second time to check parcels and luggage for ? drugs (or illegal immigrants??) - very odd... Needless to say our Peruvian Bus Experiences have put us off further bus travel - it seems that a 300 km trip can take nine hours over here. We've decided to buy plane tickets to Quito in Ecuador, leaving on Friday. In the meantime we will be exploring the surrounding region and Machu Picchu. Cuzco has a delightful town square (Plaza de Armas - all South American cities have one). There is a nice grass area surrounded by enourmous old cathedrals and cloisters. We went to Mass at the cathedral today which was very different to any service we'd ever seen. There was a large procession around the church followed by a ceremony and processions to statues and artwork in the church. Inside the church were dozens of large paintings and statues guarded by tall gold gates at which people periodically prayed... Cuzco is surrounded by large green hills dotted with mud brick houses. On the way here we saw plenty of small villages, lots of llamas, and some stunning snow-topped peaks. There are also lots of eucalypts here, so that at one point we could have been driving through the Adelaide Hills. We've seen a lot of poverty in Peru. Everywhere we go people try to sell us anything and everything. There are kids as young as 4 years old offerring to shine your shoes. If we said yes to each one, our shoes would be cleaned 20 times a day! Every time the bus stops, local people try to sell various weird foods to the passengers either through the windows or by getting on and getting dropped off a few kms down the road. Its all very unusual... Adios! Love Graham and Nicole.

February 25... Cuzco and Machu Picchu - In 1911, Professor Hiram Bingham from Yale University stumbled across one of the most remarkable ruins in the world. After a 12 km of hiking through incredible rainforest and mountains, we had the privelege of seeing that same site, Machu Picchu. We joined a dozen other backpackers, led by a knowledgeable guide, and caught the train from Cuzco to near Machu Picchu. We then began the most beautiful hike along an Inca trail up and down cloud-topped mountains, through lush rainforest and along a raging river. On the way we passed several ruins, including farming terraces near the mountain peaks (the Incas built farming terraces at different altitudes for their different crops - potatoes up high, corn down lower...) We were amazed how they managed to build anything at such a height. We saw a waterfall that made Waterfall Gully look... um... just a little small. There were also stunning tiny orchids and whopping great centipedes. Nicole managed not to injure herself and Graham somehow aquired a 5 cm red lump on his back, presumably from an insect bite (fortunately now resolved). Finally, almost out of nowhere, around a corner and through a gate, Machu Picchu appeared. Its sheer size amazed us - it's pretty big... Somehow all these buildings and terraces were hidden in the jungle for 500 years. The Incas abandoned it sometime during the Spanish invasion and hid the paths to it to confuse the conquerors. It was not until after 1900 that two Quechan families started living there again, and by chance Professor Bingham found a young local boy who lead him there. (Professor Bingham was actually looking for a different city - the famed Vilkabamba, the last Incan city destroyed by the Spaniards, but Machu Picchu was certainly a good find.) Much to Nicole's delight, there were plenty of friendly llamas around the lookout (although related to camels, they don't spit as much!). After a long day, we spent the night in a Hostel near Machu Picchu, the first hostel we've stayed at with reliable hot water, soap, toilet paper and a towel! The next day, we had a chance to explore Machu Picchu properly, first with a tour, where we heard some of the many theories about the site, including that no one is sure when the building was done. We then just wandered around, walking through houses and temples, imagining what purpose certain buildings might have had. We reckon we found one which had to be a fancy restaurant, with a stage for the musicians! It was very cool indeed. We made our way back to Cuzco on the train, well, almost all the way. True to style, the train broke down, and was pushed for an hour by another train (mind you, in the dark of night, we were oblivious to this; we thought it was just a bumpy train ride!). We were ferried onto buses waiting at the nearest town, no drama, just a little extra cost... The day before we left for our trek was spent wandering the town, seeing an Inca Museum and a convent with lots of religious art. Those previous days our activities were a little limited by Nicole´s altitude sickness, so we took it easy. Luckily it had resolved by the time we went on the hike. Thanks heaps for all your emails. We'll be in Quito in two days' time - we trust the planes are better than the buses! Love Graham and Nicole.

February 26... Waiting to leave Cuzco - We might be stuck here a little longer than we thought - apparently there is a bus and plane strike (? something to do with rising petrol prices and static wages). Today we had a relaxing wander through some nearby countryside stopping off at different Inca ruins along the way. We hope we can leave tomorrow - perhaps they´ll feel sorry for us when we turn up to the airport and look helpless... Love Graham and Nicole.

February 28... Quito - Ecuador at last... By a great stroke of luck, the strikes had finished the day we left. Air travel in Peru doesn´t have that much to offer over bus travel in terms of efficiency. We spent two hours in queues for a one hour flight, paying taxes and passing through various check points. At Lima, we had to pick up our luggage and transfer to the international airport. Sounds easy enough... we even asked several airline staff where to go so we made sure we did it right. They all just said ¨GO TO GATE NINE¨. After passing through immigration, on our way to the infamous ¨GATE NINE¨, we reached the x-ray machine. As we loaded our big backpacks on to the small conveyor belt, we thought something was a little odd. The airport staff then asked to open up our bags and seized the scissors and Dad's (Agzarian) Swiss army knife. It was only as we tried to explain that these bags were not our hand luggage that we realised we hadn't checked our luggage in anywhere. The loss of sharp objects aside, our next dilemma was how to get our oversized ¨hand luggage¨ on to the plane. The airline staff kept saying ¨no problem¨ and in the end it was no problem. For as we were boarding the plane, our bags were chucked onto a ute. But just to scare us, the driver took them to the wrong plane. We thought ¨Doh! Our bags are lost forever¨, until the driver got out, and a new driver got in and drove them to the correct plane. (Why on earth did that happen!?!). So the plane took off and landed (as they tend to do) and we reached Ecuador. We walked off the plane and essentially straight out of the airport - through immigration and customs within 15 seconds! We like Ecuadorian efficiency! Our main task in Quito has been to organise a trip to the Galapagos Islands. There are about a million tour operators here (and that isn't a Nicole or Graham exaggeration) and it's hard to know how to choose between them. We heard good recommendations for a few, and we also heard stories of fake cruises being sold. So, opening up our Lonely Planet guide we walked, talked and bargained. We've settled for an 8 day reasonably high quality cruise with a university-trained English speaking guide on a boat for 16 people, and we leave on Monday. There's one problem - seeing the Galapagos is pricey! Very pricey. We've bargained down the price by $1,000 and with everything included it's still costing us an arm and a leg ($3,500 for flights, entrance fees and cruise costs). We can't wait - it sounds incredible! Today we've wandered around Quito - it's split up into the old town (old architecture, lots of traffic) and the new town (home of tourist agencies and our hostel). The town has a European feel (we think) with splashes of North America. We ate KFC today, our first lot of fast food for 2 weeks. Here they serve it with rice and disgusting looking beans. We went to a free art gallery, with lots of modern art that Graham thought was hopeless. Then we walked down the main road where artists were trying to sell their works, which we both thought were brilliant and deserved to be in the art gallery instead. Numerous kids asked us to have our shoes shined, but we kept pointing down at our feet and saying ¨Sandals - we are wearing sandals¨. Obviously we are not out of shoe-shining territory yet! According to our Machu Picchu guide, this shoe-shining thing is run by a sort-of-mafia that uses the kids. We've tried to get money out of the ATMs here (they use US dollars in Ecuador), and the machines tell us that $250 is our weekly limit - trying to spend $3,500 with these ATMs is a real challenge. In the end we had to resort to the credit card, which has an 8% government fee! That sneaky Ecuadorian government... Love Graham and Nicole.

February 29... Quito - Last night we searched the internet for an English-speaking church service in Quito and we were happy to find that there was one near where we are staying. It was a mixed Anglican-Lutheran service with a visiting American minister. We heard a good sermon on the temptation of Christ in the desert. There was even a choir and hymns we knew. The friendly, if small, congregation invited us to participate in the discussion group afterwards which was an interesting experience to say the least - most of it was conducted in Spanish because there were numerous local visitors who had come to find out about the Lutheran church. The regulars (mostly Americans) seemed fascinated by the fact that we were Australian and one man seemed to have never heard of the name, ¨Graham¨! In the afternoon, we wandered up and down the streets in search of snorkelling masks and disposable underwater cameras. The search was long and hard - surely you can buy these things anywhere? Then we realised that Quito is nowhere near water... however we did find the cameras in the end thanks to a very helpful local. We also found the equivalent of Rymill Park but with a cleaner lake, packed with families all lining up to use the paddle boats - it was a great atmosphere. We'll write again in a week or so... Love Graham and Nicole.

March 3... Isla Isabella, Galapagos Islands - This has got to be the most amazing place on earth! To see God's creation like this is something we could never have imagined. We've been sailing around the Galapagos Islands for 3 days now (have visited 4 of them so far). The two things that strike us the most are that there is so much wildlife, and that the animals are fearless of humans so you can walk right up to them - within millimetres. The Galapagos Islands are right on the equator and formed between about 6 and 1 million years ago from volcanic action under the sea - so all the animals here, somehow crossed the 1,000 km of ocean from mainland South America. Therefore, there is a relative small number of species, with very few or no predators for many - hence the fearlessness. So far, we've swum with sea-lions, snorkelled with schools of big, tropical fish, stood next to countless species of unusual birds (clown-like Blue-footed Boobies, Hood Mockingbirds, Frigatebirds), seen prehistoric looking reptiles (Marine Iguanas and Lava Lizards), watched crabs scuttle around the rocks (Sally Lightfoot crabs) and duck into their holes in the sand (Ghost crabs), seen tracks left by green sea turtles who laid eggs the previous night on the beach, and seen pink flamingos (who incidentally are pink because they eat pink shrimps) grazing on a saltwater lagoon. There are still five days to go and apparently the best snorkelling is to come (we've enjoyed the snorkelling the most - it's way cool man!) On the slight down side, Nicole has vomited every day so far due to sea sickness, but hey, it's a small price to pay for what we've had the privilege of seeing. There is something special about wandering through the same islands where Darwin first consolidated his ideas about evolution through natural selection. You can really sense that this is a unique environment, one where the animals are now in charge. For example, the turtles and tortoises here once risked extinction because of humans. The land tortoises were collected in their hundreds by sailors because they survived in the ships for up to a year, hence could provide fresh meat. Because they only begin to reproduce at age 30, they had to evade sailors for a lot of years to produce offspring. Since this practice was ended and the Islands and surrounding seas became a national park, the numbers have increased and now the tortoises are not endangered here. The sea turtles were also endangered at one time. They reproduce from age 50 onwards, and are more vulnerable by the fact that only 2% of the 400 hatchlings from one batch of eggs will survive the 20 metre crawl from nest to ocean (birds swoop and eat them as they crawl). It's fascinating to think that people have tried to save them by picking them up as soon as they hatch and putting them directly in the ocean. But this fails - the turtle cannot swim. That short crawl is essential for the lung expansion enabling the baby turtle to survive in the water. For every animal here, we've learnt 10 fascinating stories about it! And we can't wait to read more at home about all the things we've seen... Thankyou for all your letters, and we hope everyone has a good week. Love Graham and Nicole.

March 5... Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands - We've decided we want to live in the Galapagos Islands. There are about 5 villages (total population 12,000) which are all so laid back. They have streets of sand, big palm trees, plenty of wildlife and warm beaches - they're great! Unfortunately, no one is allowed to live in the Galapagos Islands unless he is born there or marries a resident. Ooops, we're both already married. If you fill a really useful occupation, they might just take you. Perhaps all of the doctors want to leave, leaving a space for us?! The wildlife and natural history continue to amaze us. We've seen landscapes that look like they belong on the moon and stood on rock that overnight rose out of the ocean 50 years ago - and already sea-birds, crabs, marine iguanas and sealions have made their home there. We've even now seen some of those finches that Darwin described. All with their different beaks giving them different advantages on different islands. When we learn about the unique adaptations of the animals and plants here, we can't understand how it would make people less likely to believe in a creator... We saw many giant tortoises today. Man they are big - they weigh almost 200 kg. They move so slowly and always look half-asleep and quite comical - they would be very easy targets for hunters... The five days so far have been most relaxing, and the good boat has made it a very comfortable trip. Two more days to go here - then into the Ecuadorian Jungle. Love Graham and Nicole.

March 8... Quito - Well, the last three days of our cruise was wonderful. There were only three of us on the boat... Us and a kindly, but very eccentric elderly Danish gentleman. He carried around a small motorised fan which he used frequently and would occasionally stick in our faces unexpectedly. He'd also offer us his ear phones from time to time to listen to his music but we declined because he'd told us he had some incurable ear disease. By the end of the trip we were quite used to his antics but were ready to go our separate ways. The most memorable moment of our trip has to be standing on a small rock, amongst hungry crabs, waving and yelling at our boat in the distance to come and rescue us. How did we get ourselves in this situation you may ask? We'd been snorkelling for about an hour, enjoying the plentiful fish, when Nicole starting screaming at Graham "SHARK! SHARK!" Graham thought she must have lost a limb the way she was screaming and told her to take her snorkel out of her mouth so he could understand her. Needless to say once the message got through, Graham started panicking too, and we both scrambled to a nearby rock. A bit of background... We had been told that the sharks never attack humans here. In fact, we were quite envious of the other snorkellers and divers who'd chanced upon some sharks earlier in the week - "wouldn't that be cool?" we thought. But when you're actually staring at an animal you know back home chews through a few innocent swimmers every year or two, it's a very different story. These creatures are perfectly designed for cold blooded killing and ripping of flesh! The boat crew saw us and came within a few minutes, laughing, having guessed correctly that we were too scared to swim because we saw a shark... Back on board, we identified the offending fish as a white-tipped reef shark, usually scared of humans! The next day, we saw another one, kept our cool, and took an underwater photograph, before it swam away, ignoring us completely. We also saw a sting-ray, a big lobster, and the usual multitudes of fish and sea lions. At the end of the trip, we found out we were expected to tip the crew, which came as a bit of a surprise - we'd already lost an arm and a leg paying for the cruise, now we were expected to lose our one remaining hand and foot! The crew really were good though - the waiter changed clothes for every meal, wearing a bow tie and waistcoat for dinners; they even cooked a cake for us on our last night as we gazed up at the stars. We would love to bore you with all the hundreds of things we've learnt here but we thought we'd do that over a multimedia presentation on our return... (only kidding!) Love Graham and Nicole.

March 9... Quito - We got our underwater photos back today - much fun to look at although most will need some fiddling with on the computer to make the sea creatures appear out of the darkness. We went to a large museum this morning (Graham is now museumed-out for the day) which had many interesting exhibits - Ecuadorian aboriginal pottery, Incan gold work, colonial Spanish art and modern Ecuadorian art (this is where Graham really started to moan). The most interesting things we saw were deformed skulls. It was the practice of certain tribes to massively deform the skull from a young age as a mark of nobility and ethnicity. They used weird contraptions and even bore holes into the skulls to elongate them or make bulges on either sides (similar to ET's head). We thought it was pretty gruesome. Tonight we're going to try and catch a blockbuster at the local Megaplex to remind us of home (good excuse anyway). Of course we have no idea what movies are out at the moment - where is Uncle John when you need him!? We're dying to get out of the clothes we've worn for the last four days straight; we're still waiting for the laundromat to fix our last lot of ultra-smelly clothes (hmm.. bet you're glad we're many miles away now). Love Graham and Nicole.

March 10... Quito - Last night's movie was Rio Mistico (Mystic River) which we both enjoyed even though it was a Draining Drama. We were surprised to see that Clint Eastwood had directed it and composed the music - he really must be branching out from the days of "Are you looking at me, well are ya punk?" Today we took a gamble and caught a bus to a small village two hours from Quito. We went in search of some hot springs near the town. By the time we got there it was raining and cold and so we were hoping they lived up to their reputation in the temperature department (on the way we both almost got frost-bite because Graham said "let´s wear shorts and sandals"). We weren't disappointed - there was a large complex of gardens with several gorgeous pools and the water was beautiful and boiling. We couldn't believe we were warm in an outdoor pool whilst it poured with rain. The mist coming off the pools looked fantastic... Now Nicole had said we would just flag down a bus back to town at the end of day - Graham was a bit sceptical and figured we'd have to spend the night in the village. And whilst we stood at the edge of the dirt road things weren't looking good (this is a main highway in Ecuador mind you, and it is filled with pot-holes, mud, rocks and stretches where you think the bus is bound to fall off the edge of the cliff) - but finally, a bus came, and it had a few spare seats so we could jump on... Back in Quito we had some spaghetti bolognese for tea - they make it really strangely over here. South American style! With pieces of steak instead of mince, and some weird sauce, but still yummy... To the Amazon tomorrow, and we can't wait to see all those massive spiders, snakes, scorpions, ants, bugs and whatever else lurks out there. Love Graham and Nicole.

March 16... Banos - We saw our first real live tarantula! And only 20 metres from where we were sleeping. They are pretty big - this one was about 15 cm wide and very hairy. Apparently they eat small birds and are "not really that dangerous." Yeah right! We travelled east to the edge of Ecuador, to the Cuyabeno Reserve. The road to the base town (Nueva Loja) was blocked because of land slides due to the rain (the same road we were on the day before) so the eight hour trip we were expecting turned into a fifteen hour bus ride, mostly on rocky dirt tracks, passing through Puyo and Tena. The bus driver displayed true Ecuadorian driving at it's finest - overtaking around blind corners, overtaking when a big truck is coming the opposite direction and is right near the bus, overtaking vehicles in a pitch black tunnel, and generally driving at excessive speeds for the very narrow highly pot-holed dirt tracks. From Nueva Loja, it was still another three hours by road and another three hours by canoe - we were really going deep into the jungle. On the way we saw squirrel monkeys in the trees, birds including toucans, and a turtle. The scenery of the large trees along the winding river, with vines dangling into the water was stunning. We slept in mosquito nets in the open air under traditional-style thatched rooves. Despite the net, a large and dangerous-looking spider was there to greet us INSIDE the net on the first night. Even though the spider was removed and a thorough check for holes was made, it was not until Nicole woke up still alive in the morning that she could start to relax. We were with five other backpackers from Europe and a terrific guide, who had amazing skill at detecting the well-camouflaged wildlife. We visited a local Indian community the next morning and fished for piranhas in the afternoon. Their teeth are even sharper up close. Later in the evening, we searched for caimans, which are like alligators. You spot them by looking for their red eyes reflecting in the torch light. We were especially lucky to come across a nest with three baby caimans, only a few days old, which we were able to hold. We did plenty of hiking along tracks through the jungle, learning about plants and animals. We even came across the quinine tree from which malaria treatment is derived. We bumped into about a million creatures - giant blue butterflies, stick insects, leaf-cutting ants, frogs, crickets, social spiders... Every now and again one of our group would let out a yelp and you'd know that would mean that something had flown into their face. Our guide kept assuring us that the bugs were harmless, except one time when he shouted to get away from a particular fly - it lays eggs under your skin if it lands on you and they grow into maggots. Perhaps the most striking thing about the jungle was the soundtrack - a constant humming that would suddenly crescendo to an ear-piercing, chain-saw-like sound - this is the noise of the cicadas. Suffice to say that the jungle is a really interesting place, and once you get used to the bugs, it's even better! We caught the bus to Banos after leaving the jungle. This time we had a much more sensible driver who actually slowed down to go round corners and over bumps, so we got some sleep overnight. The area around this small town is beautiful. Today we walked around some hills to see the nearby river and waterfalls - it was like a much larger version of Waterfall Gully... Love Graham and Nicole.

March 18... Quito - We're back in Quito, getting ready to leave for the land of opportunity (the US of A). We put our sense of adventure to the test yesterday with our first white-water-rafting experience - it was brilliant! Of course, the road to the river was blocked in the morning, this time by locals protesting (about healthcare or education or something), and not by the forces of nature. Instead of sitting in the car for 3 hours, we wandered around a nearby village, and entertained ourselves at a small reptile house and zoo. We saw the world's biggest rodent, the capybara (a true R.U.S.) - it really was huge! We also had a chance to see some wildlife that is a little hard to spot in the jungle - jaguars, pumas and tapirs. The reptile house was equally fun, with piranhas and other weird fish (we didn't realise these were "reptiles" but were glad they made it in to the exhibit), boa constrictors, cobras and caimans... Next it was back to the now-unblocked road and down to the Rio Patate, with it's raging torrents. We started by learning what to do when the raft flipped and we fell out but fortunately we didn't need to use our newly-acquired safety skills. Basically, you get in a big inflatable raft, do what you can with a paddle while the guide yells instructions, brace yourself for freezing cold water and hold on tight (with your feet, that is!). The contact lenses have certainly proved their worth here (and in the Galapagos) because we would've lost our glasses within 2 metres. All up it was a lot of fun. And now we say farewell to South America. Our impressions (in no particular order): friendly people who don't mind if your Spanish is awful; lots of posters with SCW's (scantily-clad women); very elaborate churches and road-side shrines; cheap everywhere except the Galapagos; gorgeous scenery from deserts to towering mountains and dense jungles; crazy bus drivers; an over-supply of shoe-shiners and street vendors; great fresh bread in Ecuador, terrible powdery bread in Peru; a strange mix of things modern and things past. Overall, we've had a wonderful time and would recommend a visit here, especially to Peru and Ecuador. We think we're into the swing of travelling now. We've loved hearing news from home and thank everybody for their emails. Love Graham and Nicole.

Photos from South America