The Return Flight

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Today, after 375 days of travel across 5 continents, I’m headed back to the U.S. I pack the remaining things that Stoytcho didn’t take with him last week, then it’s off to the Berlin airport. Wow Air had the cheapest flight I could find, so I have a 4 hour layover in Reykjavik before flying on to Boston.

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I board the first plane in Berlin and fly through overcast skies without incident, spending most of the time thinking about apartment hunting and what I’m coming back to. It has been a tumultuous year in the U.S., exhausting to watch from afar, but likely even more exhausting for those living in the States. I don’t exactly know what I’m coming back to, and though I have a job waiting for me, part of me does not wish to return. It’s easier to not go back to the problems. But running from the problems won’t solve anything, and even worse, it leaves behind those who can’t leave.

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I land in Reykjavik just in time for the winter afternoon sunset and spend most of my layover working on blog posts, wandering through the duty free shop, and staring out at the snowy, golden landscape. I am grateful for the warmth of the airport as I board the next plane and experience a brief blast of icy air.

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The dusk flight from Iceland to Boston is the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. The jagged rocks of Iceland’s coast interlace with the dark sea and wisps of hanging mist. Above the clouds the sun dyes everything a golden orange with purple shadows.

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I drift in and out of sleep and wake to the captain making a PA announcement: we’re passing over Greenland. Below us, a mountainous landscape cloaked in purple and white stretches out endlessly. The winter extends the Greenland landmass with icebergs in the sea.

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Though we are chasing the sun, it outruns us and eventually the plane slips into darkness. I sleep a bit more, and wake to a jolt and the announcement that we’re coming in for landing. Below and ahead, thousands of rainbow lights twinkle on the horizon: the Boston harbor at night.

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As we come in for landing the dots become brilliant streaks of light out the window, and then we’re at a standstill, back on U.S. soil with all of its fear and hope for the future. I spent the better part of a decade planning and saving for this trip. Now it’s time to move on. And while our round-the-world trip is over, the journey is not. It will continue, always, in every person we meet and inspire to take their own first steps away from the comfort of home.

The Beautiful Island of Brač

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Brač is gorgeous. The sun hits green shrubs and flowers, turquoise blue water, and white cliffs. It’s far enough away from the mainland that it lives in its own little bubble, and while we were there it almost felt like we were alone on the island. It’s large enough to explore and hike for days, but small enough to be able to see much of it during just one visit – the perfect size for a day trip.

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We woke up early and hit the docks to catch our ferry. It’s fairly inexpensive and the trip lasts an hour or so. We caught the one to Supetar.

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On the island, the options are walking, biking, or driving. Biking would have been fun but we wanted to see a village on the other side of the island, so car it was. There’s exactly one rental agency so it’s a good thing the owner is a nice guy.

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Our first hike was a pretty short one – just a few minutes’ drive to the east of town. There wasn’t really a place to park so we pulled off on the side of the road in a gravel patch and walked up.

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The goal of this trek is to see an ancient Roman carving of Hercules that was found in an abandoned quarry on the island.

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And there his is! Hercules himself. The carving shows signs of aging but it’s remarkably well preserved for something so old. The other cool part about this quarry is the abundance of tiny fossils in the rocks. It’s not a good idea to take any, but hunting them down is a treat.

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And while we were hunting we saw an old friend! Jumping spiders are cute, and live literally all over the planet.

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Our next stop, sort of unintentionally, was in Splitska. We hadn’t planned on it, but there were signs for a winery that caught our eye and we stopped by. There’s a whole post coming on that tomorrow!

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Next up, a drive across the short axis of the island. This took about 45 minutes and had some nice stretches of curvy road. The speed limit is pretty slow on the island, and there are slow vehicles on the roads. Still, our car zipped around in a fun drive.

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We arrived in the town of Bol seeking a monastery that supposedly made delicious dessert wine. It still might, but when we went it was pretty closed. To make up for it, the beach nearby was clean and relatively warm.

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The town is a standard touristy beach town, but it is very pretty. Everything is fairly expensive so we ate a small pizza – acceptable but not great. Don’t come to Brac for the food. The drinks however, are great.

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We ordered a glass of prosecco from the major winery in town. I enjoyed the dryness of it, but Natalie wished it were sweeter. By the winery is a dock, and we watched the fish swim around in the placid waters.

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These are pipe fish – skinny, long, and quite elegant. There was a big school of them right next to the shore, probably attracted by all the food waste from the town.

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It was getting late and we still wanted to see the peak of the island, so away we went.

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Along the way we stopped at a lookout to take in the ocean.

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Sailboats!

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Our camera doesn’t have a great zoom, but it can still make out the detail.

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In the middle of the island away from the cliffs and beaches, we drove down a forest road.

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All the way at the top of the road was this massive comm tower. This is not quite the peak of Brac, that was up a few minutes walk.

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We gazed on the landscape as sunset came.

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That stub of land is the famous Zlanti Rat, the premier beach near Bol.

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Away from the ocean was the wide span of cliffs we had just come up.

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At last the sky began its orange glow.

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Around us were some buildings, probably an old watchtower.

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One of the more beautiful sunsets on our trip. We stayed until the sun went down, then drove back to the ferry. We were lucky we made it when we did – apparently we caught the last one back for the evening!

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Hiking Baikal, Day 2

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Our second day of hiking Baikal’s eastern shore begins with moonset, followed by sunrise. We decamp and hike north to Turka, a shoreside town where we get breakfast and ask about a bus to Ust-Barguzin so we can get hike Svatoy Nos. We’re directed to a bus stop outside the town’s grocery store and wait for a bus that never arrives, so we decide to walk on to Goryachinsk, through pine and birch forest, sunny fields, and stony shoreline. Around midday we set up the tent in the shade of a tree and nap to the sound of lapping water on the rocks. It feels strange to see so much water but smell no salt, feel no ocean spray, hear no cries of gulls.

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It’s already late afternoon when we finally reach Goryachinsk and discover that we won’t be going to Ust-Barguzin—we had to catch that bus back in Ulan-Ude. All the buses that stop here in Goryachinsk go elsewhere, mostly back to Ulan-Ude. Someone suggests that we could try waving a bus down or hitchhiking up there, but we’re tired. We’ll just have to try for Svatoy Nos the next time. And for now, at least we have the hot spring of Goryachinsk to soothe our aching feet after 33 km of hiking in two days. The water is so hot that it burns our feet, so we make small pools at the edge of the hot stream to trap the water. It’s the perfect temperature after a few minutes of cooling.

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As the sun sets, we return to the shore of Baikal to continue northward to find a place to pitch the tent. Stoytcho feels tired and achy, the first symptoms I had of my flu the previous week, so we’ll return to Ulan-Ude on the bus tomorrow. We find a small copse of trees a couple kilometers north of Goryachinsk to pitch the tent and watch the sun set, illuminating the undersides of clouds with pinks and reds as it sinks beneath the horizon. We watch the chilling wind blow across the lake as we shelter in our sleeping bags and tent, huddled between the trees.

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A Firey Sunset on the Forgotten World Highway

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New Zealand’s North Island has a stretch of road it claims takes you back times before now, when forests were real forest, waterfalls were real waterfalls, and tunnels were dug by hand. By and large, it delivers. The drive has a scenic tunnel dug with handpicks, lots of waterfalls, and readily accessible hikes to see them. That’s day two. Day one was car-commercial worthy roads and a massive, gorgeous, sunset on fire.

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Look at that beautiful mist rising off the super-hot asphalt. A lot of our drive was like this, switching between rain and mist. Not great conditions but great eye candy.

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A rare moment when the clouds cleared – knobby distorted hills is much of the landscape in this part of the island. They look like a music visualizer gone haywire and they go on for ages. Our trusty Ger, as I came to think of the car, waits patiently.

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The day grew longer and we kept on driving. There’s supposed to be lots of stuff you can do and see on this stretch of highway, mostly hiking and old-timey craft shops. We weren’t in the mood for crafts, and hiking was planned for the day after, and we really needed to catch up on miles.. so we drove through most of the first half, stopping only to take some pictures here and there along the road.

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And then we got to Nevin’s lookout. This was a promised amazing viewpoint on the road, and I didn’t want to miss it. We got there just in time for sunset after some waffling about where we would stop and sleep. Don’t let the fence to the right of the sign fool you, the entrance is across the road.

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New Zealand back/farm country etiquette asks that you walk freely and close the gates behind you. To get to the lookout (there are several) walk up the hill keeping a bit to the right. There’s a worn trail for most of the way, and you’ll go through one more cattle gate before getting to what we thought was the first lookout, about fifteen minutes worth of hiking. We reached the top just in time for sunset, and then the sky was awesome.

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The epic clash of ice and fire.
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A rainbow appeared off to one side.
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Towards the sunset the sky burned orange.

 

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Behind us the brewing of a far off storm
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Between east and west.

 

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The sun slowly starts to set.
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The last rays before the sun sinks below the horizon.

Shortly after this spectacular skyward display, it started raining. Again. This part of New Zealand, and in fact the entire North Island, was covered under a massive moving storm for the whole week. That we got to see any sky at all was fantastic luck. To see such a beautiful sunset was something else altogether.

Next time : a Republic in New Zealand.

Sweet Northland Beaches

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New Zealand has some fantastic beaches. They’re plentiful, pristine, and varied. On the way north we saw calm, sheltered bays. On the way back south towards Auckland we visited two much more spectacular ones. The first was Rarawa Beach, a long strip of black and white sand with shallow water and small but powerful waves.

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Like many other beaches in New Zealand this one has a massive stretch of sand, 50 meters or more from the high water mark to the edge of the water, perfectly flat. The sand at these beaches tends to be constantly compacted and a little wet, no wispy yellow clouds dogging your steps.

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When we got there, no one was swimming. Of the half dozen or so people there, not a one seemed interested in touching the water. We’ve been to beaches that look great but have massive “no swimming” warnings, we hoped this wasn’t one of them.

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In we went, boogie board serving its purpose fantastically. The issue with the beach, as it turns out, is that the water is very cold. Not instantly numb cold, but uncomfortably cold. I always hesitate at the first submersion, Natalie jumped right in. After getting out the chill persisted. Even with the bright sun, the wind was just strong enough to keep us mildly shivering until we towelled off and got in the car. Which I guess explains why no one was swimming.

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A quick shower and a bit of driving later, we were presented with a view of forever. The landscape in New Zealand does this a lot. Not so far after that, we got to see how the country handles logging.

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At first it seemed like any other logging site, but bigger. Huge swathes of countryside laid bare, devoid of trees, grass growing in small patches. Any logging site looks a bit sad to me, a manmade scar on the land. With good practices though, the land heals, more trees grown, and the logging is sustainable.

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This site looked abandoned. There were none of the usual markings of a next harvest – neat rows of tiny trees. Weirdly, piles of sun-bleached logs lay all over the place. Natalie, who knows more than I do about trees, noted that the remaining logs must have been there a long time to get that bone white, even in this weather.

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We’re not sure what the context was here, but for a country as obsessed with its nature as New Zealand seems to be, something feels amiss. Our best guess was that the logging company finished up, and left the useless logs on site.

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We continued south and wound up at the southern end of Ninety-Mile Beach. Though the beach is only fifty five miles in actual length, it may as well be five hundred as viewed from any one point. It goes on forever in either direction.

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The thing to do on this beach is drive. It’s legally a road and any 4×4 can go down it. The drivers here tend to go pretty fast so it’s good to keep an eye and ear out. The other thing to do here is stare at the sky and surf. This is one of the best looking shorelines we’ve seen. The sky and the surf are enchanting, espectially near sunset.

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The sand here is a shiny brownish-black and much of the beach is covered in a thin film of water. It’s a lot of fun to walk on, but flip flops have a habit of getting suctioned down making it hard. The water has a tendency to bury lots of pretty shells under just a thin layer of sand. We spent a good hour beach combing and looking up at the ever-shifting cloudscape.

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A Photoessay for Arica

13-IMG_6853 Sandwiched between the sands of the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean, Arica can best be described as a desert city with a beach. Though it sits at the nexus of two fertile valleys fed by the Lluta and summer-running Azapa rivers, they do little to quell the sweltering desert heat. For most people, Arica is a stopover while travelling from Peru to Chile, especially to Iquique in the south or the Atacama Desert in the east. But the town has its own beauty.

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A view of the city from the south looking northward

 

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People walk back from the beach in the midday heat

Five nearby rivers act as water sources for Arica, enabling plants to flourish in spite of the heat. Palm trees and grassy parks line the city’s main streets, giving it an oasis-in-the-desert feeling.

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People meet in a plaza in the afternoon

 

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A grave on the side of the road just outside of Arica

Shipping and transport are major activities in the city, with the city acting as both a maritime port and a stop for freight trucks from Bolivia and Peru.

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Shipping containers in Arica’s port

 

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Ships moored in Arica’s port

 

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A stray cat eats scraps at a nearby fish market

When we visited the main thoroughfare, we noticed a group with speakers and microphones outside of the grocery store. They were calling for donations of food and water for the region of Maule, which had recently been devastated by forest fires.

 

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People fundraise for victims of intense fires in the Maule region

The city’s largest landmark is El Morro, a massive sandstone cliff to the south of the city. The top of the cliff is home to monuments to the Chilean (republic?), a museum, and a massive bronze statue of Jesus. It also offers sweeping views of the ocean and the city, and a chance to see scores of turkey vultures soaring on thermals or resting on steep rocky ledges below.

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El Morro rising above the city

 

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The Cristo de la Concordia atop El Morro

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A turkey vulture rests on an outcrop at El Morro

The shimmering ocean and desert haze combine to make some of the most stunning ocean sunsets imaginable. Climb to the top of El Moro in the lengthening shadows, after the heat of the day has passed, and enjoy the view from the top.

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A view of sunset from El Morro

Sure, Arica isn’t a standard tourist destination. There aren’t any brand name hotels, and no specific must-see attractions. But it’s a place worth visiting if you’re not into running with the tourist hordes and just want to relax.

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Sunset over the beaches to the south of Arica

Our 14 best landscape photos from the Galapagos

This is the end of our time in the Galapagos, which despite tourism has been one of the wildest, most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. Here are the fourteen best landscape shots we took while on the islands:

 

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Salt water is dried to create salt crystals in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

 

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Waves crash on the rocky shore of North Seymour Island

 

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A frigatebird flies in the early evening sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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The moon rises over the Palo Santo trees at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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Green lowland scrub and Palo Santo trees against the backdrop of blue sea and cloudy sky at Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

 

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Ripple patterns in the sea in Tagus Cove, Isabela Island

 

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Ripples in a hardened lava flow reflect the afternoon sun at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island

 

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Silhouttes of Palo Santo trees against the cloudy sky at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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A volcanic hill overlooks the marsh at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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Isabela Island rises behind the Santa Cruz II at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island

 

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Champion Island, an extinct volcanic cone, rises from the ocean off the coast of Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

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The sun sets over Fernandina Island

 

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Ancient volcanic hills and vents in the sunset at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island
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Sunset on the beach at Punta Comorant, Floreana Island

 

Now we’re off to Cusco, Peru! See you there.

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Natalie flaps farewell to the Galapagos

Our last island in the Galapagos

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Sunset over Isla Floreana

Day five of our cruise is drawing to a close, after visiting Post Office Bay on Isla Floreana and snorkeling away the better part of the day. It’s time for our last excursion onto land, this time at Punta Cormorant in search of the American Flamingo. It’s already around 3 pm when we arrive on the shore, removing our shoes for a quick water landing and wading the last few feet to the beach. A trail leads us from this beach inland, past the now familiar Palo Santo trees and dry brush. We walk though the volcanic hills, home to the now familiar lava lizards, finches, mockingbirds, and land iguanas. Then it winds down to the edge of a long, flat marsh, where the flamingos live.

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The moon rising early over the Palo Santo trees and brush

 

The viewing area is fenced off from the rest of the marsh, and today the flamingos have decided to graze all the way on the other side of the marsh, half a mile away. They’re nothing but pink dots on the horizon, and even with my camera’s zoom I can’t see much detail. Someone in our group was smart and brought birding binoculars, so we pass them around. Using these I can make out the birds, standing on one leg, gracefully dipping their heads along the water’s surface to feed. I try to take a picture with the camera pressed to the binocular lens, but no luck. Sometimes this happens; in the Galapagos and elsewhere, nature does what she pleases and not what we want. But that’s part of the thrill.

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Fickle flamingos favor feeding far from us

After squinting at the flamingos for several minutes, the guide leads us on a continuation of the trail in a pass between the hills. We emerge into a sandy white bay, the kind that we’ve seen all over the Galapagos. Our guide asks us to walk only on the shore, and not on the dry sand or in the surf. The former is a routine request, because sea turtles nest on these beaches and a single misstep could crush a whole nest. But the latter request to stay out of the water is new. Our guide leads us to the water’s edge to show us why: stingrays and skates, dozens of them, cling to the sand under the pounding surf. Occasionally a rough wave will dislodge one, sending it swimming off in search of a calmer part of the beach.

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A ray swims off after a particularly rough wave

We’re turned loose to explore the beach, and Stoytcho makes a game of burying his feet in the loose wet quicksand at the water’s edge. Then the two of us walk over to the tidepools, where we meet with Sally Lightfoot crabs, anemones, and a sea cucumber. We’ve spent so much time snorkeling and chasing the rare megafauna of the Galapagos that we haven’t had a chance to explore life on the rocky shoreline. Between the animal life and the algae on the rocks, it reminds me of California and many other Pacific Coast beaches.

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A sally lightfoot crab; alright, they do have brighter colors than the Californai variety
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Sand-snowed anomenes wait for relief as the tied comes in.

Finally, it’s time to head back to the cruise ship one last time. Our guide calls to us, and we straggle back along the trail to our boat, stopping often to take pictures of the scenery and the sky. The sun is low now, a brilliantly blazing ball of orange in the sky, overshadowing everything else. In the distance, we can make out old fumaroles and volcanic vents, once molten hot and orange of their own accord, now still and dark against the horizon.

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Extinct volcanic vents and fumaroles at sunset

Our feet meet the soft sand of the beach one last time, and just before we board the boat, someone asks if Stoytcho and I want a photo together. So with lifevests donned and and bare feet, we pose for our photo.

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Bidding farewell to the Galapagos

To the Galápagos

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The landscape of Baltra, with Daphne Major and Minor in the distance

It’s 7 am on New Year’s Day, and we’re just waking up to head to the airport. Outside the streets are empty save for the refuse of last night’s celebrations: scattered confetti, spent fireworks, and the occasional abandoned wig or costume prop. We stand in front of the hotel, waiting for our ride to the airport. Our travel agent, Gabby, arranged to have one of her relatives drive us since there wouldn’t be many taxis today.

“What do we do if he doesn’t show up?” Stoytcho asks me nervously. “We’ll figure something out then. We can always have the hotel call us a cab,” I reply. But Stoytcho’s concerns aren’t unfounded. We’re placing faith in someone we haven’t met, recommended by someone we have known for less than a week. And the biggest celebration of the year happened last night. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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A quiet day at Quito’s airport

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long. Five minutes later our ride pulls up and helps us load everything into the car. Then it’s off to the airport, along empty city streets that widen into equally empty highways. That means no delays in getting to the airport, the blessing of travelling when everyone else is at home with family and/or nursing a hangover.

The airport is also subdued, but plenty of people are queued up and running around, trying to catch flights. Our procedure is slightly different than usual: we have to pay a transit fee and go through a miniature customs for the Galápagos National Park before we can enter the standard security checkpoint. We hand over our $40 in cash at the transit control and receive printed pages that will serve as our transit control cards. Once we have that, we proceed to the miniature customs, where a man hands us a list of food products banned from the Galápagos and asks us whether we have any plant or animal material in our luggage. We don’t, since we had heard about this and threw out most of our food at the hostel, although looking at the list I slightly regret doing that. We could’ve brought our peanut butter.

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A long list of permitted, restricted, and forbidden food products for the Galápagos

Our flight ascends and descends with barely enough time for us to register that we’re on a plane, and we’re at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos. We step off the plane and walk the tarmac toward the terminal, a line of tourists of all shapes and sizes. We enter immigration, plastered with signs reminding you of the park rules: don’t damage plants, don’t take anything, stay at least 2 meters away from all animals, and so on. We’re prompted to pay the $100 per person park entry fee (cash only), then the immigration officer stamps our passports and waves us on. So far, we’ve spent $240 to enter the park alone.

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The last airport bus of the day

Arriving at Seymour Airport isn’t the end of the journey, though. The airport sits on the island of Baltra, and after the last flight each day the island closes. Everyone leaves for their hotels and homes on other islands, primarily on Santa Cruz Island, while the Ecuadorian military enforces the closure, banning anyone from entering Baltra when it’s closed. So camping out to wait for an early morning flight isn’t an option here. Good to know.

We get on the last bus of the day, full of tourists and airport employees going home. Since we’re the last bus, we wait for everyone to get on board. Then we’re puttering across the island toward the coast, past an arid landscape studded with small, leafless tree skeletons. Then it’s past massive wind turbines, their propellers drifting slowly, generating electricity for the island. After that, we pass a few abandoned shacks, alone inhabiting this dusty landscape. Though surreal and beautiful, this unforgiving land hardly looks like one of the richest and most unique environments on the planet. Is there anything living out there?

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Wind turbines in Baltra’s dusty landscape

As if to answer the question, our bus suddenly stops. We’re not sure why at first, but then someone shouts “Iguana!” and we look out the window to spot a meter-long, mango-hued lizard meandering across the road. Immediately we tourists spring into action, pressing against the windows and clicking our camera shutters to capture our first animal sighting in the Galápagos, trying to immortalize the moment, poor angle and terrible lighting be damned. I don’t know if the bus driver needed to stop for as long as he did, but he was kind enough to wait a few extra seconds so we could get our pictures. The locals probably get a kick out of us doing this, since they see these animals daily. The animals are a show for us, and we’re a show for the locals.

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A land iguana crosses the road in front of our bus

It’s near sunset when we reach the ferry that will take us across the narrow channel to Santa Cruz. We climb into the boat while the ferrymen load everyone’s luggage on top. Stoytcho and I have a vested interest in keeping our packs with us: for one, they’re not that heavy, and I imagine them breaking free of friction and sliding off into the depths of the sea. If we get to keep them, it also means we don’t have to wait for the unloading on the other side. We’ll be on the next bus earlier, meaning maybe we can find a bus seat that Stoytcho fits into, though that’s a long shot.

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The ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz

We pay the $1 a person fare for the 10 minute ride and we’re off across the water, where the current is strong but waveless. The ferrymen don’t bother to pass out life jackets though a few people take them of their own accord, and we count 38 passengers with us (a plaque on the boat puts its capacity at 35). So it’s business as usual here, despite increased governmental regulations. The other shore grows closer, and we can see beached boats hiding among the mangrove trees in the dying light. It’s eerie, but beautiful.

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Boats beached among the mangroves on Santa Cruz

On the other side, we leave the ferry and get on another bus, this one taking us from the north end of Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora in the south. Unlike the airport bus, this one isn’t free, and the $2 per person fare for the hour-long ride is the first inkling of how much more expensive thing are on the Galápagos; a ride of similar distance would be about $1 on the mainland. The only other option is a more expensive taxi, so we ride the bus over the darkening landscape. Santa Cruz is a totally different environment, mountainous and thick with greenery. There are occasional houses along the road, ranging from modest shacks to opulent ranch houses. This is an island of life, for both animals and people.

It’s night when we finally arrive in Puerto Ayora, four hours after we disembarked from our flight. The bus drops us off at the pier on the waterfront, where you can catch boats to other islands. We find some cell signal and plot a route to our hostel, in the north-eastern corner of the town known as Barrio El Edén. We’re soon wandering along empty concrete streets, devoid of life except for the occasional dog. At the end of our journey, a hundred meters from our hostel, Google Maps tells us there’s a street where there’s nothing but a steep rocky path with someone’s laundry strung across it. We’re about to turn around when the laundry’s owner comes out from the house next to us. “Best Homestay Hostel?” we ask him, pointing up the rocky path. “Sí, sí!” he gestures up. We duck beneath his laundry and scrabble upward, negotiating the rocks on the dimly-lit path. In seconds, we’re up the hill and in another street, with our hostel in front of us.

“WELCOME NATALIE AND STOYTCHO” is scrawled on a whiteboard out front. Thank goodness, we’re home.

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Our first sunset in the Galápagos