Mark’s XXL tour of South America

For the past couple of months XXL owner Mark Ames has been on a trip of a lifetime, covering locations in the southern hemisphere including the Galapagos Islands, Argentina and even Antarctica. This week, Part 1 of his travel diary sees him explore Ecuador and Chile, while next week Part 2 will cover the Falklands and the Amazon.

By the time you read this I will be back in London to celebrate my birthday at XXL on Saturday (18 Mar). Yet I write this travel log as a trip of a lifetime draws to a close. Shortly after New Year’s Eve we headed from Amsterdam to Ecuador with KLM, which does a great direct service to Quito, Ecuador’s capital city…


The Galapagos and Ecuador 

We headed out to the Galapagos for a 10-night journey, seven of which were on a liveaboard scuba diving. This turned out to be a more interesting journey than expected – two days into the liveaboard the air con packed up and we had to take all our mattresses up on to the deck and sleep under the stars.

We set sail from Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, taking in some of the most unique dive sites in the world, travelling to Wolf and Darwin islands where schools of hammerhead, silky and Galapagos sharks were in abundance. It was refreshing to see when so much of the world’s seas are now empty of these amazing creatures.

Just as an example, over 300,000 shark fins were imported into Japan last year, and most sharks take at least 10 years to reach sexual maturity – do that math for yourselves. Not only are sharks being caught in an ever increasing volume but so are other species in the sea, including turtles, seals, sea lions and dolphins.

Enough of the doom and gloom: this is a diver’s paradise and a place in my belief should be left alone. It worries me that tourism is already having a negative impact. As much as I would love to go back there I never will. We head back to Quito for a few days and caught up with the great nephew of Oswaldo Guayasamin, who devoted his life to portraying in both sculptural form and painting the atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime in Chile and the poverty in South America. After being taken round the late artist’s home and museum it was ironic that he lived like a king in a palatial mansion and socialised with the glitterati along with Fidel Castro – a sad example of double standards.

Quito itself has a beautiful old town – it is elevated at almost 10,000 feet in the Andes and is truly fascinating.

Santiago, Torres Del Paine and Ushuaia

We were about the board the flight to Santiago when my name was called and I was ushered away to a baggage control area. I had been chosen for a spot check on the luggage, along with several other people from other flights. Surrounded by guards with guns they opened one woman’s case and a bloody great big tarantula thing jumped out – all the guards screamed and ran away from the thing. Another chap opened his case and his looked like Vauxhall on a Saturday night, and the same screaming guards went into attack position with their guns aimed at him. Then it was my turn – thank God this season’s Gucci floral tops (GFTs) were not creased; I would have been beside myself! Santiago is a beautiful city – very cosmopolitan with a lovely café culture – perfect to show off my GFTs to their full effect.

Everyone knows that cruises are a great place to grow a belly, so we joined the South American-Antarctic expedition ship, Seabourn Quest. All the time I was showing off my GFTs, which I wore with pride as we visited a long list of places including: Valparaiso, Puerto Montt, Castro – beautiful place, the Chilean Fjords, El Brujo Glacier, the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas (we’ll come back to that), Ushuaia, the Drake Passage, Paradise Bay, Half Moon Island, Weddell Sea, Hope Bay, Antarctic Sound, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Armacao dos Buzios, Salvador da Bahia, Recife, Natal and Manaus, before flying onto Machu Picchu.

A highlight of this trip has to be the city of Punta Arenas, where we jumped on a plane to take us to the Torres del Paine National Park. Our guide, Juan – the only gay in Punta UreANUS, as he pronounced it, and camper than Larry Grayson – was highly entertaining on the 12-hour round trip. With his broken English learnt in SoHo, he was a retired trolly dolly and now teacher of English.

If you go to South America this national park is a must – we’ve never seen a mountain range like it. Think the Canadian Rockies meets Glacier National Park meets the Alps, all packed into one formation with the most amazing and unusual wildlife. We can’t recommend Chile enough; it was one of the cleanest and most unique places in South America.

Next week: Don’t miss Part 2 next week when Mark explores the wildlife of Antartica and heads to the Amazon. You can read Part 2 here

Mark’s birthday and St Patrick’s Day XXL is on Saturday 18 March, 10pm – 7am at Pulse, 1 Invicta Plaza, Blackfriars Bridge Road, London, SE1 9UF.

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