Sunday 9 February 2014

Motorcycle not included, a post about the Galapagos from Heather

I'm usually pretty adamant about just contributing photos to this blog but seeing as Oli wasn't around for the Galapagos bit I'll do the writing thing too. Hear it goes...


Knowing I'd be in the right part of the world to visit these islands it had been at the back of my mind to try and get there during the trip. But since it's such an expensive place to go and our trip isn't exactly a brief one I assumed it wouldn't happen. When Oli announced his ideas to rebuild Janelle's engine in Quito himself, the idea of waiting in a hostel room for that to happen immediately sent me to the travel agents.

The money involved was still a worry. At this point it would be the difference between going home with some level of financial independence or going home flat broke to live with the parents indefinitely. So being a biologist and it being the Galapagos I obviously opted for the latter (hi mum).

I'll tell you how I did the trip and then give you some top tips for things I hadn't considered when doing the Galapagos on a budget. After asking around numerous travel agents I came to the consensus that they do generally all offer the same things. it's always worth asking around a few but there was no huge variation. I wanted a trip that would leave within the week and be a budget option. All travel agents came back to me with the same boat tour options and hotels for the same price so it was just a case of choosing the people I liked best. I chose Shine Galapagos, a small company with two very nice ladies sat in a office doing all their work over the phone rather than online. I don't know why but I found them endearing and they clearly wanted to find the best trip for me.

On the Tuesday I went shopping for a holiday, booked on Wednesday and left on Friday. I would say that in general it rarely pays to book in advance in Latin America. We've never been unable to do an activity because it's been overbooked but we have met people who have payed up to double the price for booking in advance. That being said if you have a limited time on holiday you're quite right to get your time organised in advance.

I booked a 5 day tour on a small boat (10 passengers) called The Flamingo. Flights to the Galapagos from Quito are a standard $480 for foreigners (cheaper for citizens of Ecuador) and the park entrance fee is $100. So before you leave the airport you've spent $600 that can't be avoided. The 5 day boat tour with meals included set me back another $700.
Escaping the mechanical worries
On arrival in San Cristobal it turns out the airport hasn't actually been built yet, so after showing my passport to a nice man sat on a bench and handing over my $100 entrance fee I was greeted by Alfonso, The Flamingo's tour guide. We went quickly to the boat where the rest of the passengers were waiting, on the way passing about 20 sea lions lounging around on steps/boats/pavements in the harbor area. I was utterly amazed by what nobody else batted an eye to.
Chillin' on the boat

We boarded the Flamingo, a modest sized boat but with well kept cabins for 10 and a tiny kitchen that the chef managed to dish 3 full meals a day out of (lunch and dinner being 3 courses) despite the fact that he himself was about the width of the kitchen. I was instantly impressed with the friendly service and also enjoying the company of the other passengers on the boat. We were a very international group coming from Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and the UK and instantly got on well (half of us as it turns out were biology graduates!). Following lunch we set sail for Kicker Rock, a renowned spot for snorkeling with hammerheads. After about a 3 hour boat ride we were ready to get in the water having donned our snorkel gear and hopped on to the small dingy. We arrived before other boat groups and so at first had the place to ourselves. We all jumped in to the water and were first in shock from the cold and then from the sheer number of sharks swimming below us! It was an incredible view of reef sharks and fish swimming through the channel created by the rock formation. we followed them through and were greeted on the other side by sea turtles! Just hanging out and floating around not going anywhere. After about half an hour I was shivering pretty badly and even the sharks couldn't distract me anymore so I got back on the dinghy and we drove a bit further round the rock. I said if anyone saw a hammerhead I'd be straight back in and sure enough just I was warming up I heard the call and got straight back in. Five hammerheads at about two metres a piece swam directly below us. SO COOL!

To finish off the day we took a sunset tour around Isla lobo (sea lion island) and saw the colonies and pups as the sun set. It was hard to believe that morning I'd been in Quito.
Sunset on Isla Lobos

The next morning we headed onto Santa Fe to walk among yet more sea lions and take a tour spotting my first blue footed boobies, iguanas, frigates and Galapagon hawks. Having worked with seabirds previously I was blown away with how tame everything was! The zoom on my camera is pants so any close up photos I took are testament to how unbothered all the animals were to our presence. After lunch we set out for some more snorkeling, this time close to sea lion colonies. Under the instruction from Alfonso to blow bubbles for the sea lions we had a few playful encounters.

My new puppy

Chillin' on the beach

Star of the show

Each day followed the same general pattern of onshore exploration in the morning followed by snorkeling in the afternoon. More sea lions, sharks, frigates, flamingos, boobies, turtles and the occasional stingray entertained us each day. It's hard to get bored of these close encounters but after 5 days I was definitely tired. I particularly suffered from the cold water more than the others in the group and had to remind myself not to push it for the sake of a sea lion, even though i was tempted!
Blue Footed Booby (stop giggling Oliver)
Iguana and Flamingos

Hawk, needs no introduction
A Frigate feeding its young

A marine Iguana poses for the camera

Flamingos, they're pink from something in the water


The last night we spent near shore. Chef cooked us an amazing chocolate cake wishing us happy travels and the boat crew were allowed a night on land to stay with their families. Early the next morning we headed to the Charles Darwin research station to see the giant land Tortoises. Sadly lonesome George is no more after his passing in 2012 but the new guy on the block is "Super Diego", a tortoise with over 80 descendants who frequently tries to procreate with anything and everything including the males in his enclosure and rocks. So no way he's gonna let his species die out. It was a miserable rainy morning and soon we were saying our farewells and I was back on a plane to Quito.
Giant Tortoise survival meeting
Everyone from the boat

I absolutely loved my short trip to the Galapagos and it is something I will remember for a long time to come. If you want to visit the islands but aren't Angelina Jolie or Bradd Pitt who recently visited, here are some money saving tips:

1. Fly from Guayaquil.
Flights from Quito are about $200 more expensive so if your travel plans take you to Guayaquil, it's worth flying from there.

2. Book a cruise when you get to the Galapagos.
Don't be afraid to fly to the Galapagos without having booked a boat trip. Others on my cruise had done just this and it turns out there are very reasonable hostels on the Galapagos (some for $10) so not only will you get to explore the islands at your own pace but also you can get better boat trip deals from within the islands.

3. GO NOW!
I went in October 2013 when flights from Quito are $500 and the park entrance fee is $100. Both are set to go up, according to Alfonso they want to double the park entrance fee this year.  Also there is increasing pressure from the 'galapagon mafia' to do away with small affordable tour boats and just allow the wealthy Jacuzzi clad cruise ships permission to tour the islands. It would be a shame to limit this amazing place to the wealthy retired and Hollywood superstars but that is the direction it's heading with full support of the people with power on the Galapagos.

I hope you have enjoyed my brief detour from the mechanical turmoils of motorcycle travel, I certainly did!

Friday 31 January 2014

This title purposefully left blank (Colombia to Ecuador)

writing this one from a campsite in Chile, turns out Chile is damn expensive, paying $20 a night just to camp, don't even talk about the food!! Quite a shock after Bolivia where a meal cost a buck fifty and a room wasn't much more!

So yeah, it's been a while but I'll fill you in from Colombia, sorry if I go over old ground.

We spent 2 months waiting in Medellin for parts, piston rings and gaskets. Who knew the local mechanic would lie about it only taking 3 days? We decided to go camping early in the wait and headed up to a national park where we stayed for 3 nights but only paid for one. It was an organised camp ground and there was some kind of relationship seminar going on. The tents had nice soft mattresses and rose pettles scattered on them. a big bonfire was setup in the middle of the tents and everyone got drunk, played with fire and I assume had sex although who would want to do it with the neighbours 2 feet and a thin plastic sheet away I don't know.
View from the cablecar over Medellin
"wild" camping with our nice BBQ area and lots of wood!
When we returned to the city we called into the mechanic who informed us that it'd be another day or two so we didn't wait around and visited another town. We'd repeat this several times over the next two months. I'll save you the surprise and explain what happened now. The address in Miami I was told to send the parts to was abandoned. It took us a week or two to find this out with the parts sitting all alone in a mailbox, finally got them redirected to the correct address. It then turned out the mechanic had not ordered the parts he said he would so they took even more time. Finally with everything in Miami they were sent to Medellin as part of a larger shipment of which someone forgot to fill in the import papers so we had to wait even longer. Most of the time we waited in Medellin in a small hostel where the owners got to know us and we became part time nannies for their daughter. Fun times!
Just another pretty street in Guatape
Anyway, the parts arrived and they installed them, rebuilt the whole engine and when I turned up to pick it up the engine was making a clunking noise. At this point I was beyond angry. 2 months and they put the damn thing together wrong. We left anyway, Our visas and bike import were running out so we had no choice.
We left with a churning feeling in my stomach and headed south towards Ecuador. The noise persisted but we tried to ignore it. I've kinda taken to hiding problems a bit from Heather. I've put her through hell with this bike and she deserved to enjoy the trip considering the time, effort and money she's put in. So we headed to Tatacoa desert in the south. Nice roads most of the way, we slipped off the main road onto a dirt track into the desert. At least with the rough ground I couldn't hear the noise from the engine. After several miles and wrong turnings we eventually found a campsite and pitched our tent looking out over a multicoloured, wind shapped landscape. It was beautiful, we watched the sunset and when it was totally dark we visited the observatory for a lecture on the stars and some moon viewing. We were even lucky enough to see a huge meteorite. Someone else saw a plane and thought it was another meteorite. We tried not to laugh too much.
The next day we headed south running for the border. The GPS showed lovely tarmac the whole way. It lied. We've posted the video already but there's another copy here. It took us two days to reach the border, a couple of close calls with trucks and general amazement at the condition of the road we finally made it with a day to spare on our visas. Phew.
Parked overlooking the Tatacoa Desert (the roadmap is Heathers artwork)
My future career path (Americans please research what fanny means in english!)
this sign is always reduntent. If you don't realise you're on a twisty road then you probably shouldn't be driving!
Borders seem to be getting easier as we head south. This one was simple enough, they barely looked at our papers. One more country off the list, 5 to go. That's half of them for those who are counting.
And into Ecuador, another easy entrance, show papers, get stamps, buy insurance. Worthy of note, the insurance here actually covers you in an accident as well as whoever you hit. $25 for the month and you're covered for $2,500, enough to get things started while someone sorts out your own insurance. We stopped in Otovalo for a couple of days, bought all our christmas presents (sorry they were so small but we had a serious weight limit), Got my waterproofs fixed (we burnt them on the tailpipe, you think I'd learn) and welded a shield over the exhaust so it wont happen again. All in all one of our more productive cities. We soon headed south for the Equator. A big moment in the trip yet the actual equator we crossed was not marked in any way. I marked it on the GPS and as we approached I walked the bike to the "line" and drew an actual line on the road for future travellers. What's the point in crossing the equator if you don't mark it somehow?
forward a bit, forward a bit wait wait back a bit... That's it. The moment we crossed the equator 0.0N
the "line is right under my foot, honest guv.

And the "real" equator, monument and everything. Honestly if you're an equatorial country and you don't draw a thick red line across the whole damn place then you've failed as a government.
We carried on down into Quito and then back up to the equator monument which just so happens to be in completely the wrong place. We can thank the french for that. We watched the usual gimicks and got the photos anyway! We're also lighter at the equator, I call it the equatorial diet and it has nothing to do with the suspicious food. Aparently the world is wider at the equator so you are further from the center so gravity has less of an effect. Photos taken, gimicks bought we headed back to Quito and the motorbikes salvation.
ME. Ok not only me but after months of shite mechanics and dodgy work the only choice was to try again. We found Diego online and I visited him the next day. We talked about the bike and he was clearly unhappy with the sound but also informed me that he no longer works on engines. One look in his garage and I was convinced he knew what he was doing so with his supervision I was to do my own engine rebuild. Talked about it with Heb and we both agreed that while I slaved away she should take a vacation. For five days she would be in the Galapagos (which I am pursuading her to blog about) and I worked on the engine. Day one and the engine was out, day two torn down and problem found. I wish it was something crazy difficult but it was glaringly obvious. I'd followed the haynes manual through the whole teardown and when I got to the output shaft I carefully checked how it was built against the manual. They put a washer in the wrong place. This started with the mechanic in Costa Rica who installed the new output shaft, it was continued by the second mechanic in CR who took it apart again, looked at it and rebuilt it WITH AN EXTRA WASHER! This is not just absurd, it's beyond that! They even had the damn haynes manual with a diagram of how to build the damn thing! I cannot express my hate for those mechanics in words. I trusted them and paid good money to have it fixed only to be left with a bike that made me sick to ride. I'd lost alot of enjoyment and still not back to 100% even now. The next mechanic, in Medellin, also with the haynes manual took the whole thing apart and reassembled it incorrectly AGAIN. In a slight defense of the mechanic he would have reassembled it the same way as he saw it when it came out BUT I told him of the problem and he should have looked at the damn picture.
Engine disassembled, clutch in the top box, alternator on the right and some parts that are probably important on the left.

Motorcycle gears, input shaft on the right (takes power from the pistons) and output on the left (turns that power into some mean torque and spins the rear wheel) a precise and incredible piece of engineering

at the top is the 5th gear, then a static washer (it can't move along the shaft) and a free washer. They are the wrong way round. this is the difference between silky smooth gear changing perfection and engine failure.

engine going back together

Anyway, problem found we took it to a gears specialist who examined it and even before looking told us that the gear pinion would have wear if the washer was in the wrong place, it did, we corrected it, tested it and rebuilt it. There were a couple of other problems that we fixed as well and put the engine back in, wired everything up, hit the starter motor... Nothing. Long story short we started to panic about a broken CDi unit, a part you cannot fix and is essential and is expensive. We tried everything, brought in other mechanics, nothing worked. We eventually took the bike to an eletrician out of town, he couldn't find the problem, said it was the CDi as well but we pursuaded him to keep looking. Eventually Diego decided to try changing one of the wire connectors and bingo it worked. A full day of worry and it was simply me wiring shit up wrong. In my defense it was pretty ambiguous which plug connected to which connector. A happy ending? this bike? Not on your life! Everything back together and guess what, is that a crack in the break disc? Of course it is! We got a new one modified to fit and left. the next day and headed for the amazon. Needless to say I was nervous about the bike but she is running beautifully now. Apart from the problems the insides are in great condition which is a testiment to Honda. Inspite of bad mechanics she is running beautifully.

Ok, I'll leave you there. Next post will be from Heb about the Galapagos trip and then back on the road.