2011 Walleigh Travel Journal: Galapagos & Ecuador

in Blog, Ecuador

AUGUST 16 TO SEPTEMBER 6, 2011: OVERVIEW OF OUR ENCHANTED EXPEDITION INTO ECUADOR—AN
ECOLOGICALLY, GEOLOGICALLY, AND CULTURALLY DIVERSE SMALL COUNTRY.

We were truly impressed with the beauty of so many aspects of Ecuador that it’s hard not to use a bit of exaggeration. This relatively small country had been shrunk to half its size prior to 1942 by Peru, Columbia and Brazil invading to steal much of Ecuador’s oil-rich eastern and southern land.  Despite that theft, this country’s diversity and occasional visionary leadership have worked in its favor.  Ecuador has four very different ecological zones: the isolated Galapagos Islands, the west coast’s ports and industry, the highlands’ agricultural and geological variety, and the eastern Oriente’s oil plains and rain- and cloud-forests.

Having completed our Ecuadorian expedition, I can say that we were fortunate to spend time in the absolutely charming city of Quito as well as experience each of Ecuador’s different zones during our 3 weeks.  From the beginning to the end of this busy trip, each day was unique and fascinating.  Our adventurous time in Ecuador was truly unforgettable. Please read on…

Quito

One of the prettiest cities in South and Central America after Buenos Aires and Rio De Janeiro Quito maintains its colonial charm, shows its indigenous influences, and has transitioned to modernity to keep up with the world.  As we walked through the city we were constantly aware that at 9,400 ft. above sea level, we were not going to walk uphill quickly.  My norm became huffing and puffing with frequent stops.  Ironically, I was looking forward to visiting the elaborate churches touted by our guidebook—funny, a Jew wanting to see more churches but then I loved visiting mosques in Istanbul.

What Makes Quito Special?

–       In 1978, UNESCO declared Quito’s Old City their 1st World Heritage Site which now protects all picturesque old buildings from just being razed to accommodate modern requirements.

–       As we walked outside the President’s office building under an extended portico, we noted it was guarded by 2 soldiers dressed in very colorful uniforms “a la Granaderos” which are replicas of those worn during Ecuador’s fight for independence from Spain in the early 1800s.

–       La Catedral Metropolitana on the fourth side of Plaza de la Independencia is mainly a museum but does also host major church holiday events.  There we saw many examples of both sculptures and paintings from what is now called the Quito School style, where the sculptures’ surface is very shiny and life-like in colors and people’s expressions.  The painting of the allegory of Jesus’ judgment of people to enter heaven or hell is quite grim, along with its companion painting of hell itself.  Our guide told us that parents and grandparents use these paintings to frighten children to be good! Because many of these paintings imitate older Spanish art but were painted by the “Quito School” in the early days of the Republic, artists inserted local scenes or people into what are very traditional religious scenes.

–        “Latin America’s most beautiful church” is La Compana de Jesus. Erected in the 16th century by the Jesuits (aka Company of Jesus), this is the most gold-covered interior of a church I’ve ever seen.  The outside is elaborate, but the inside is over-the-top.  Almost every surface is covered with gold leaf.  However, we were told that despite its appearance, only a total of about 65kg of gold were used.  We could not take pictures inside the church, but besides being golden, there were a combination of architectural styles, including Moorish, Baroque and Quiteno Colonial.

–       Infamous 3-block Calle La Ronda is known for its bars, cafes and nightlife.  It was quiet though picturesque on a weekday morning.  The architecture reminded me particularly of New Orleans French Quarter mixed with a bit of Rhodes’ (Greek Island) Street of Knights with lots flags.

–       The Teleferico, a cable car which starts at the base of Volcan Pichincha, transported us to the top of Cruz Loma at an altitude of 14,000 feet.  The views from the top were amazing 360o of the countryside and city of Quito.  We could see very clearly that the city spreads for miles north and south in the valley between 2 volcanic mountain ranges, so it was not surprising when our guide said that Quito was about 4 miles east to west and 45 miles north to south, not including the new suburbs called “the valleys” on the eastern side of Quito’s mountains.

–       “Typica” Ecuadorean lunch at Clolinda restaurant for tourists was $8 plus drinks per person–not too bad, though our guide said that he and his colleagues often go nearby to small local restaurants where they can have 3- or 4-course lunches for $3.  Our meals were: Choclo (corn on the cob with huge starchy kernels), boiled hominy (white corn kernels), and roasted corn kernels to accompany a fried plantain and fried pork or fried chicken.

–       La Basilica cathedral on the edge of the Old City is Latin America’s largest.  The outside architecture is elaborately-spired Gothic, with water spouts at the roof-line in the forms of Ecuadorian animals: jaguars, turtles, tapirs, etc.  The interior is classically-arched Gothic, but the stained glass windows were glorious, especially the rose-shaped ones with smaller shapes around them, in bright reds, blues, greens, yellows and oranges.  Again no interior pictures allowed.

–       Strongly recommended by our guidebook was St. Augustin church and convent.  The 2-story convent surrounded a lovely garden courtyard, housed a museum of religious art (OK not unique) by famous Quito painter, Miguel de Santiago, who created most of the paintings in both the convent and church. The church’s exterior was less elaborate than some of the others, but the inside was definitely different from Quito’s other churches. The walls and ceiling were painted a pastel blue scattered with beautiful flower patterns.  It felt peaceful rather than grand.  It must have impressed a lot of important people because the Declaration of Independence was signed in one room—where the exact desk and chair were preserved.

Bellavista Cloud Forest

Our guide Andrea led us for a 2.5 hour walk in the cloud forest.  The term lived up to its name.  Within an hour, the glorious vistas disappeared into clouds which surrounded us in any open space.  Most of the time we walked up and down, up and down, up and down inside the jungle.  The path was narrow, often steep and muddy, and minimally cleared because the jungle has a mind of its own, filling a vacuum as soon as it sees one.

Amazing tropical flora
  • Heliconia (related to birds of paradise)
  • Epiphytes (e.g., bromeliads, orchids, other flowers and vines) which settle on a host without being a parasite
  • Large trees  including cedar were plant apartment buildings, covered in fuzzy lichen and often 10s of epiphytes and hanging monkey-tail vines (looked like a Colobus monkey tail)
  • Blood of the Dragon trees whose sap can heal cuts and be used in other ways
  • Medicinal plants (e.g., green leafy plant green on top and partly red below with purple-red seed-like flowers underneath.  Varying amounts, crushed or brewed in boiling water, would cure different aches and pains including menstrual cramps, diarrhea, upset stomachs, headaches)
  • The fact that the jungle has three different plant relationships: parasitic (one benefits, the other loses), symbiotic (both benefit), and partnership/cohabitation where neither benefit but both live together.  Apparently the epiphytes and their hosts enjoy the 3rd relationship
  • Of the supposedly 19 species of Ecuadorian toucans, we saw 2: the Plate-Billed Mountain Toucan and Toucan Barbet. The Barbet had a short, stubby beak, a bright red chest, and black and white feathers
Hummingbirds Galore

Four particular notes: 1) hummingbirds are very loud in their flights, some actually sounding like bees buzzing; 2) some can be aggressively territorial; 3) probably 50 varieties exist in the Bellavista preserve; and 4) hummingbirds suck sugar water 13 times per second–if you look really carefully, you can see the tiny tongue flicking in and out of the beak.  We could only identify maybe 8 species.  One of our favorites was the Booted Racket-Tail which had iridescent blue on it back and 2 tail feathers that looked like threads with extended fins at the end.  Another, whose name we didn’t identify from the chart on a wall, was extremely handsome, mostly black and white, quite tiny (2” tip of beak to end of tail), with a fuchsia throat, and the unfortunate characteristic of rarely being able to land even to eat—probably it couldn’t take off because it required too much energy. There was a lovely black and white hummingbird as well as one with a green iridescent back and white spot on its black tail and 2 white feet.  The most aggressive variety would dive-bomb us as we stood nearby to watch the fracas of getting to the sugar water.  We also learned that hummingbirds are attracted to red particularly (thus the color of many feeders) and to a lesser extent, yellow.  I was wearing a bright red shirt, so perhaps they dove close to me to check out if I could provide food.

One Last Hike in the Cloud Forest

After a delicious lunch in the eco-lodge’s restaurant aerie, our guide Andrea recommended that we walk down Path C then back up toward the lodge on the road where the van could pick us up.  She mentioned that going down Path C would be easier than taking the road down and climbing up path C.  What she didn’t say—maybe because she had sooooo much faith in our abilities—was the trip down Path C was like climbing down a steep dirt ladder for what felt like almost a mile—probably ½ mile. We focused so much on the climb down so as not to tumble down ass over heels that we barely noticed the thick, green jungle around us.  We managed to reach the road—no one thought to photograph the path because we were too busy not falling.  A few minutes later the van met us, we bumped back down Mirador Ecoruta for about 35 minutes, and about 1.5 hours later we reached the outskirts of Quito.

Hailstorm in Quito (remember our last day in Swaziland?)

As we approached Quito we saw lightening, heard thunder, and in a short while felt hail on our car roof.  Shortly we actually saw blankets of hail covering streets, sidewalks, parks, fields, and building steps.  Quito couldn’t cope easily with the slippery streets, flooded tunnels, etc. so several key arteries leading to the central New City were closed.  By the time the driver had reached our hotel, it was almost another hour.  No harm, no foul, but Carolyn, Rick and I were haunted by memories of our destroyed car in Swaziland.

No Offense but Guayaquil was Boring—Except for its Historic Rivalry with Quito

In Guayaquil, Deana was our city tour guide and Victo, our driver. They drove us around a modern Latin American city, similar to many we had seen before, and which is the largest in Ecuador as well as its largest port.  It is situated at the confluence of two rivers which merge into the Guayas River which pours into the Pacific 30 miles away.  We learned a bit of its history and walked through its main cathedral, a couple of parks, along the river promenade, and to a new area which will open to business in a few months.  Silly to say, but the city highlight for me was Iguana Park in downtown, where literally 10s of iguanas roam freely to the delight of its many visitors. The iguanas were very comfortable approaching people and vice versa.  Apparently the only predators appeared a couple of years ago, when some Chinese workers raided the park at night to capture some iguanas for food or aphrodisiacs or whatever.  Now closed circuit cameras and human guards have returned the iguanas to predator-free comfort.

Guayaquil vs. Quito

Guayaquil Perspective.  Our Guayaquil guide Deana had clearly been very proud of her city, especially the progress the current mayor had made in the last decade in revitalizing many neighborhoods, trying to clean up corruption, tackle unemployment, and help transition some of the city’s young delinquents into productive citizens. She also talked about how Quitenos look down on Guayaquil’s inhabitants, calling them monkeys.  Though she recognized the importance of all Ecuadorians working together to improve the country’s future, she resented the attitude of the capital city’s citizens.  On the ride from the Guayaquil airport to the Hilton Colon, the travel agent on the bus reflected the same sentiments. I don’t imagine they are alone in their opinions

Quito Perspective. Our guide back in Quito actually said that the “monkey” nickname was applied at one point to all Ecuadorians by the Spanish, and possibly Guayaquil in particular based on conquistadors presenting gifts to the Spanish king, including a monkey.  Supposedly the monkey pooped on the floor.  When the king asked where this gift came from, he was told Guayaquil and he cursed “those Guayaquil monkeys.”  Who knows…

In any case, Simon Bolivar’s grand vision for northwestern South America was an independent Grand Columbia encompassing Ecuador, Columbia and Peru.  The tribes/clans around Guayaquil were forced to join the “Liberator’s” vision and seem to have resented it and the eventually independent Republic of Ecuador’s central government ever since.  Unfortunately, even after Ecuador became a republic in the 1830s, because its land in the eastern part of the country is oil- and mineral-rich, over the years through the 1940s, Peru and Columbia have conquered significant portions of that region, actually cutting Ecuador in half from what it was prior to 1942.

Interesting how much competition between regions and countries is common in so many parts of the world (Calif. vs. Texas).  As I find in most places we visit, people fascinate me the most.

AUGUST 20 to AUGUST 27 – THE GALAPAGOS on the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SHIP ENDEAVOR – TRULY AN EXPEDITION NOT A VACATION

Our 8:30 flight from Guayaquil landed on San Cristobal Island, Galapagos.  At the port of Baquerizo Moreno, a thriving metropolis of 8,000 and capital of the Galapagos Province of Ecuador, we boarded our ship, the Endeavor with a total of 89 passengers + 70 staff.  During our first official briefing by Expedition Leader, Carlos and “Hotel Manager” Willy, they outlined the activities for the rest of the day which included: receiving our personal life-vests with demonstration of how to use them; ship safety drill in case of emergency; as well as an “abandon ship” exercise. After lunch we began our week’s real adventures.

San Cristobal Island

All passengers quickly disembarked onto a total of seven Zodiacs for our afternoon’s first exploration of the “tuff” (compressed volcanic ash formations) cliffs of Cerro Brujo (heel of the wizard/witch).  We rode through a natural tunnel and into a partial cave then headed to a nearby white sand beach, along the way seeing a Tortuga / sea turtle swim by. The water near the shore was a lovely aqua and the sand was like talcum powder in between black lava rock formations strewn the length of the beach.  We experienced our first “wet landing” leaving the Zodiac while in shallow water.  Jeffo, our naturalist for the afternoon, led us across the beach for our main activity.

Our Animal Introduction to the Galapagos

Besides the sea turtle from our Zodiac, we saw at least 50 sea lions, a Storm Petrel bird, Brown Noddy birds, a number of Frigate birds, Yellow-Bellied Warblers, a Blue-Footed Booby flying and diving into the water, and a Brown Pelican also dive-bombing into the water to find dinner.  The naturalist told us the Galapagos Sea Lions are related to the California Sea Lions but smaller, quieter, and definitely friendlier.  We stood within a few feet of them at many spots along the beach.  We also met our first Marine Iguanas who are black when young then become a mottled red and black as adults. Sally Lightfoot crabs are also black when young then mature into brightly colored adults.  Clearly black is the in-color for youth—and to blend with the lava rocks. But toward mating season in December, males Marine Iguanas become redder plus add green highlights so naturalists nickname them Christmas Iguanas.

Water Temperature Required Short Wetsuits

For the whole week the water temperature ranged from 67o to 69o.  Our short wetsuits really did provide warmth plus the vigorous swimming near the sun-warmed ocean surface enabled us to be rather comfortable for the ~45 minutes of each snorkeling session.  Once we got over the shock of slipping off the side of the Zodiac into deep water, it was fine.  In fact, the wetsuit gave me buoyancy; nicely fitting goggles provided water-free vision; and an additional, bright yellow inflatable vest instilled greater self-confidence. Even though each snorkeling session was over greater distance, deeper waters, lava rocks, and in bouncy/choppy/ rolling ocean, I stayed in the water the maximum amount of time. I was very pleased with myself, especially based on my past experience in relatively calm Hawaiian waters.

Animal Antics

–       Lava Lizards do push-ups.

–       Blue-Footed and Nazca (aka Masked) boobies waddle around near their white fuzzy babies.

–       Espanola Mockingbirds are 1 of the 5 mockingbird species endemic to the Galapagos.

–       Great Frigate birds fly gracefully overhead in almost an “M” shape with their curved wings. But they cannot land on water so they constantly fly looking for fish then will quickly touch down to grab a fish or will try to steal it right out of a Booby’s mouth after it is rising back up from its dive. They are Kleptoparasites, stealing food and nest material from each other and especially boobies. Their chicks are also white fluff-balls but as they age, grow rust-colored feathers on their heads and dark feathers on their wings. Males are famously photographed with their red neck-pouches inflated like balloons but unfortunately we were too early for their mating season when this amazing sight occurs.

–       The Galapagos Hawks we saw were posing in profile on nearby rocks or flying overhead.  In flight hawks are easy to identify by the scalloped edge of their wings which look finger-like.

–       Waved Albatross are the Galapagos’ largest flying birds.  However, technically Waved Albatross don’t fly, they soar after launching themselves from rocks or cliffs then must carefully land in an open space.  But we saw one sort-of crash which meant he must still have been relatively young. Fuzzy, gray, baby Waved Albatross hid in the bushes waiting for their parents to come home with food. Waved Albatrosses’ mating ritual includes bowing heads, clacking beaks separately and intertwined, and braying sounds which mean soon they will mate for life.

–       We observed so many of Marine Iguanas it was hard not to step on them—on our path, nearby rocks, etc.  Rugby piles of them were everywhere—all trying to warm up before they dunk back into the ocean to feed (can hold breath for ~12 min. but more mature ones can slow their heart-rate and hold their breath for more than 20 min.). Besides gathering in rugby scrums, we saw many of them snorting salt water out their noses and repeatedly bobbing their heads. The latter we were told can be a male this-is-my-territory maneuver or part of the mating ritual being practiced for their eventual lady friends.

–       Red-Beaked Tropic birds are very graceful when flying because their tails form a single, antenna-like strand that trails beautifully in the sky and curves around as one slows down, changes direction or lands.  Tropic Birds are starkly white with black-tipped wings and bright red beaks.  One passenger spotted a nesting Red-Beaked Tropic bird hidden in a small cave-like opening in some rocks near our path.

–       One naturalist spotted two Galapagos Owls, who are normally active during the day, on rocks about 25 feet off our path.  And then as we were walking down the last steep steps toward our landing beach, we saw a Galapagos Owl literally an arm’s-length from the railing.  Everyone in our group was able to walk by it and look in its eyes.  Talk about up close and personal…

–       Just from one Zodiac ride we saw 2 Green Pacific Turtles hurtling by, 3 juvenile Manta Rays (including 2 Eagle Manta Rays), and a juvenile, 2-foot long Black-Tipped Reef Shark!

–       After snorkeling off a beach for about 40 minutes we gracelessly flopped back out onto the golden sand, closely resembling sea lions warming on the sand except with white faces, arms and legs and a bit of blue and purple patches on our shoulder.  OK not so much like sea lions. As I was lying on my towel, a neighbor called to me that I was about to be run over by a Lava Lizard. Indeed a small, red-throated, pale green Lava Lizard (maybe 6 inches tip of tail to nose and 2 inches tip of toes to top of head) was near my beach towel looking at me curiously. I lay on my stomach and we proceeded to communicate, our noses just a few inches apart. It occasionally blinked, nodded its head while I held my breath, sending good mental vibrations.  After several minutes, it scampered on the sand toward my feet, over my sandals and gear bag, then off to its next adventure.  And I was a better person for having met it.

–       On the day we snorkeled twice, we saw a dark grey, White-Tipped Reef Shark gliding calmly and seemingly indifferent to us, about 30 feet below us!  Rick and I missed seeing his/her smaller companion, but I can tell you that theoretically seeing a shark near you in the water is definitely different from actually being near a shark in the water! Our naturalist leading our group swooped down face to face with the shark to capture for the trip’s video.  I was glad it was he not me…

Kayaking in the Galapagos

Lindblad/National Geographic expeditions provided nice inflatable kayaks for our experience.  Each double kayak bore a rudder which was lowered into the water and steered by pedals by the person in the back who was supposed to be the heavier of the two.  When Carolyn and I were kayaking, despite Carolyn’s best efforts with the rudder-pedal combo, she had to raise the rudder back up and we just steered haphazardly by our paddles.  Sometimes it seemed we would be heading straight then we’d be pulling too much left or right.  I felt that it was my poor paddling that exacerbated the problem until I heard that when Carolyn paired with Rick who is a decently experienced kayaker, they experienced the same unpredictable steering with the rudder down and again with the rudder up.  So it wasn’t just my issue, thank heavens…Maybe I’ll try kayaking again back in Calif.

Ocean Color

Our very amusing expedition leader Carlos told us a funny story about a woman on one of his trips years ago.  She always kept small flasks for carrying water samples back home so she could keep some of the most beautifully colored ocean water.  Carlos did his best to convince her that with the possible exception of little flecks of plant or animal life in a given sample, all ocean water was the same color by itself, but it was the floor below—white sand vs. grey, lava rock vs. coral vs. sand, depth of the floor beneath an area–that most influenced the appearance of the color. Secondarily, the sky and clouds might impact the ocean color.  However, Carlos believed the woman remained unconvinced as well as became grumpy with him…

Husband and Wife Authors as Guest Lecturers included a Pulitzer Prize Winner

Ahead of our Galapagos trip we received a Pulitzer-winning book called Beak of the Finch written by Jonathan Weiner who with his wife, two sons, and two other friends were onboard the Endeavor during our cruise. He lectured about the subject of his book, a research team headed by couple named Grant, on Daphne Major Island in the Galapagos.  Over the 50 years the Grants did research with grad students, interns, etc., they lived for months at a time on this relatively small, barren block with only a ledge to jump to from a boat while transferring supplies, tents, people, etc. In essence they re-proved Darwin’s theory of Adaptation of the Species using the finches on Daphne Major.  First they banded all 1200+ finches on the island, created family trees for the finches over many generations, and then monitored the changes over time relative to environmental conditions.  Of course they documented all of this, eventually enabling them to very accurately predict future adaptations of the finches.  One of the many amazing outcomes was to prove that many significant adaptations occurred in 20 years, not several 100 or 1000. Too bad there isn’t a summary document that can be distributed to the Creationists…but they probably don’t read anything but the Bible anyway…

The next day we were lectured by Jon Weiner’s wife Deborah Heiligman, who had authored several adult, young adult and children’s books,  Most recently she had published Charles and Emma. Her talk was about the family life and relationship between the scientist Charles Darwin and his religious wife, Emma who despite their different philosophies had a long, healthy marriage.

Two Dolphins Lead Our Ship toward Daphne Major and Minor

The Endeavor sailed us around Daphne Major while we drank champagne and celebrated the lectures, evolution, Darwin, and a glorious sunset. Rick and I went to the bow to catch an unobstructed view when another female passenger excitedly pointed down to the water line where we saw 2 huge dolphins streaking through the ocean as if leading our ship toward Daphne Major.  They leaped a couple of times, twirled and rolled under the water and speeded ahead of us for several minutes before disappearing to the depths. I may have held my breath the whole time I watched, it was so breathtakingly beautiful!

Guest Lecturer from Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz Island

Another evening we were lectured by an interesting, passionate, knowledgeable but long-winded researcher about the conservation and policy efforts underway at the Station.  This Aussie woman had originally planned she would spend a month at the CDRS, but had stayed for 20 years so far and raised her son on this island. I can understand how rewarding it would be to save tortoises, iguanas, and other unique endemic species while helping to rid the islands of human- introduced predators such as feral goats, pigs, dogs, cats, and donkeys and of course mice and rats.

The “Rat Man” and Other Unconventional Animal Experts Help Remove Introduced Predators

New Zealanders taught the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) how to effectively round up predators like feral goats, pigs, etc. For example, there were up to 80,000 feral goats on just Santiago Island. One legend/story we heard was that these Kiwis designated one male goat as the sexual scapegoat by castrating him, spraying him with powerful female pheromones, and painting him red on his back.  He would then attract many other male goats. From helicopters flying above these horny male groups, sharp-shooters could pick off the goats but leave the red-painted one to be bait for more horny males, occasionally re-spraying the pheromones. Somehow I do feel sorry–though I shouldn’t–for the scapegoat.  But he didn’t belong on the island in the 1st place…

To eradicate smaller critters like rats, they’ve hired “The Rat-Man” who I believe is an Aussie and who has been very effective at his task. He has helped the GNPS create very specific-to-rats poison pellets that have eliminated rats from vast areas of some islands.

Because so much ammunition was being imported by the GNPS and its partners for sharp-shooters to eliminate the larger mammal predators, the Ecuadorian government became concerned that someone was trying to create a rebellion against them.  I don’t know who calmed them down, but with some accurate statistics, the Ecuadorian government learned that for every 1.2 bullets, an invasive predator animal was eliminated.

Intrigue Still Unsolved But a Heck of a Story Told by Xaviar, 1 of our Naturalists

Many pioneers attempted to start businesses on the Galapagos but failed, and a few died.  Most notoriously in the 1920s or 1930s, a so-called Baroness came to Floreana Island, with her lovers. One of her lovers was supposedly poisoned to death as well as she and one lover disappeared and never returned despite being a publicity hog while she was living on Floreana.  An early Lady Gaga or Madonna???

Absolutely Favorite Snorkeling Day Brought Me Face to Face with Sea Lions 

Rick and I did see a couple of turtles and penguins swimming by while we snorkeled during the week. Carolyn actually swam very near both on the one snorkel trip Rick and I skipped…oh, well.  The western islands of Isabella and Fernandina were where our friends has swum with penguins and tortoises, but this Endeavor route took us north rather than west.  However, my best snorkeling experience was swimming with sea lions.  I saw a couple of them playing nearby so I swam toward them.  Soon these sea lions swam right up to me, twirling less than a foot from my face, staring eyeball to eyeball.  It was fascinating and a bit scary since they are wild animals who are known to be aggressively playful (e.g., nipping at flippers) so the better part of valor was for me to swim further away.  But I will never forget looking into the sweet brown eyes, and at the cute whiskers of these trusting sea lions.

The Best Naturalists We’ve Ever Had

We thought we’d had great safari guides and naturalists in Africa, but nothing compared to the depth and breadth of knowledge of every single one of our Lindblad/National Geographic naturalists.  Even a Microbiologist Professor at UCLA and other scientist-oriented passengers never could stump them! Not only could they explain the flora and fauna on each island, but also how they were related to each other, whether they were endemic, native, resident, or regular visitors, and the history, geology and ecology of each island. Every time I thought one naturalist was the best and wanted to stick with him/her, the next one turned out to be just as good.  Each one had a different style of presenting facts, but each was quite knowledgeable, passionate, and had a great sense of humor.  And at some point, each of them gave talks before or after dinner about their special areas of interest.  For example, Aura was the expert photographer on land; Jonathan was passionate about the amazing diversity in the ocean (and had applied for a Fulbright Grant for his project); Jeffo sounded like a game show announcer but really knew his stuff on every time we were in his group, plus he was quite an underwater videographer. We couldn’t imagine a more informative experience in nature.  Most if not all the naturalists were born, raised or had lived in the Galapagos.  And they all clearly loved their homeland and their jobs.

Lonesome George was the High Point of our Visit to Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS)

We learned about the work they do here in partnership with the Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS) and Ecuador government to conserve the islands’ geology, ecology, and animals.  They have saved some tortoise populations on some islands and helped GNPS to properly eradicate human-introduced predators, e.g., feral dogs or cats or pigs, as well as rats, mice, and some wild donkeys and goats.  We met Lonesome George, the last tortoise of his sub-species endemic to Pinta Island. We also saw Pinzon and Espanola tortoises being bred to increase or restore their population to certain islands.  We were also shown other “mixed breed” tortoises who will not be integrated with other pure tortoise populations.

Human Population in the Galapagos

Less than 20,000 people live permanently in Galapagos’ 3% unprotected areas, in 3 towns on 2 islands, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. On Santa Cruz after visiting CDRS we walked through the main shopping street of Puerto Ayora. Then we took buses to visit a private sugar cane mill which produced sugar juice, “honey” and condensed brown sugar supposedly good for lots of medical ailments, and distilled cane liquor, which most of us tasted.  We then had lunch in the island’s highlands at Altair, an open-walled, thatched, roof restaurant run by an ex-U.S. Navy  petty officer.  It was very picturesque with a pool, garden, and changing rooms where it happened that male and female barn owls rested on the cement partitions.

Walking with Giant Tortoises

After lunch, the “Wellington” or “Wellie” rubber boots for which we had registered onboard were distributed to all of us.  Buses drove us to a private farm which cooperated with the GNPS to allow giant land tortoises to freely migrate across their land.  In return for following the GNPS guidelines for conservation and allowing the tortoises free access, the farmer earned $3 per visitor.  That was a lot of money just for allowing our tour alone!  Our “Wellies” were definitely needed but more due to horseshit and turtle poop than just mud all over the field where we wandered to meet about 10 tortoises scattered around.  Even though we followed instructions to quietly walk from behind a tortoise, most of the tortoises pulled their heads into their shells when they saw us.  That made loud hissing, growl-like sounds though actually air was just being released sort of like a “bellow”.

Cerro Dragon – Hill of the Land Iguanas

After a “late” breakfast at 7am, we rode a Zodiac to Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill) on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz Island to see the Galapagos Land Iguanas. We walked a 1.75 mi. loop trail over often-rugged terrain.  After seeing a few Land Iguanas hiding in the bushes, we eventually saw one on the path ahead which we followed for a short ways, and then another couple of them near the trail.  Land Iguanas seem to be larger than their cousins the Marine Iguanas, and definitely different colors including yellow and orange though the general body shape is the same as well as the facial expressions and their wonderful fast waddle.

Naturalists Help Us Tell One Booby from Another (Boy, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize them!)

HOW THE BOOBY MAY HAVE GOTTEN ITS NAME.  The name “Booby” was possibly based on the Spanish slang term bubie, meaning “dunce“, as these tame birds had a habit of landing on board sailing ships, where they were easily captured and eaten. Owing to this, boobies are often mentioned as having been caught and eaten by shipwrecked sailors, notably Captain Bligh of the Bounty and his adherents, during their famous voyage after being set adrift by Fletcher Christian and his followers.  For more details, consult http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booby.

Xaviar, a naturalist (for multiple excursions during the week and probably the oldest of the expedition naturalists) explained that Red-footed Boobies were the only of the three Galapagos species to build nests on trees.  The Blue-Footed and Nazca Boobies build nests on the ground with a few twigs and gravel haphazardly spread in a circle with the mother or father in the center sitting on 1 to 2 eggs or 1 to 2 chicks. A sad but circle-of-life fact is that Nazca Boobies birth an heir and a spare but once it is clear that the heir will become a healthy juvenile, the spare is killed generally by its stronger sibling…sigh…survival of the fittest at its best/worst. All Booby juveniles look quite different from adults.  For example, a Nazca juvenile can be mostly brown with some white and blue-ish colored beaks and blue-ish grey feet before they became mainly white with black-edged wings, red-ish beaks with some yellow close to the black eyes. Older Nazca juveniles are aggressive when hungry, begging other parents to feed them and even squawking and pecking at their own parents when they arrive with food.  Other Nazca parents violently shoo away juveniles not their own but with their own juveniles, parents are tolerant of bad behavior.  All Boobies feed their young by regurgitating their digested fish.  We saw one juvenile crash-land after a flight.  He/she clearly had not gotten the hang of the whole landing thing.  Again, survival of the fittest dictates that if he/she had broken a wing, hopefully a “spare” might be alive to replace it then carry on the good-landing genes.

Blue-footed boobies do not inter-mingle on the ground with other birds on the plateau as they nest and perch on rock ledges around the edges of the islands.  They will fly amongst others as the search for food but none of the birds really socialize and definitely no inter-faith marriage…

How do Boobies communicate? Blues squawk like squeaky doors continuously opening and closing. Nazcas and Reds whistle and honk. Chicks cheep-cheep and juveniles loudly squawk as if they are always complaining about something…

All boobies dive-bomb into a fish school, a maximum of about 15 feet deep, then turn quickly up to grasp fish as they return to the surface and sky. Once they catch the fish, if the Boobies have young ones in the nest, parents head back to feed the chicks and juveniles. Multiple times we witnessed this regurgitation feeding of chicks by both male and female adults.

Uniquely, Red-footed Boobies have prehensile webbed feet that can grip a tree branch to perch or nest.  Adults can be two different colorations. One adult-type coloration is mostly brownish-grey with a blue beak and red around the face and always with red feet.  The other coloration is more white and similar to a Nazca except for the red feet and blue beaks. No matter what coloring, if a Booby is in a tree, it’s got to be Red-footed. All their chicks are white balls of fluff with black beaks, eyes and feet. As they grow, the fluff slowly molts into feathers on the wings and eventually the rest of the adult coloring appears.

Our Last Island—Genovesa–Where We Were the Only Inhabitants 

At the last evening’s briefing, Carlos talked about how special today at Genovesa Island was in terms of the animals and island’s isolation. We all were able to go to two locations, just in two groups at different times of day, to walk among the nesting, breeding, wandering, feeding, and flying Red-Footed Boobies and Great / Magnificent Frigate birds, as well as the occasional Marine Iguanas and Galapagos Owls.  What he reminded us was that we were the only ship near the island AND the only ~100 people on the island and vicinity.  We had all these cute, curious creatures totally to ourselves!!!  What an unforgettable way to end our amazing 7-day journey to the Galapagos!!!  Everything was well-organized, high quality, beautifully supported by all the staff, and presented with pride.

AUGUST 29, MONDAY – HEADING EAST TO ORELLANA aka ORIENTE aka EASTERN ECUADOR TO NAPO WILDLIFE CENTER, TRULY IN THE JUNGLE NOW

From Quito we flew to El Coca (25,000 pop.) which grew dramatically since 1990s with discovery of oil in this region. While we received our initial instructions as to where/when/how the next few hours would proceed, a couple of small Squirrel Monkeys crept along the railings, from the ceiling, etc. as a preview to coming attractions.  Then we boarded our motorized “canoe” which held about 30 people, and proceeded to navigate the Napo River (merged with the Coca River at El Coca), part of the “white river system”.  Another similar boat accompanied us with our luggage, some Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) staff, and a few more guests.  Less than 30 minutes later, this companion boat was stopped by a “Navy” vessel labeled Armada del Ecuador—a very ironic name since it was a beat-up small fishing boat with police lights on top. Our boat driver circled back to see what was going on. The Armada then pulled our boat alongside also.  We were told by one of the NWC staff on our boat that this happens regularly: driver licenses, motor certification, and other tourist papers are checked to prevent theft.  I then said, “Oh, I wasn’t sure if they stopped us because they could,” to which he said, “That too.”  Power plays are universal…

Our driver was released to continue down river.  About 2 hours later, during which time we ate a boxed lunch, we landed on a small dock.  All nearly-30 passengers bound for Napo Wildlife Center were divided into 4 groups then ushered onto real canoes on which we’d continue our journey up the Anangu (ah-NYAN-gu) Creek, home to the Anangu village of Quichua people.

Supposedly 90% of the World’s Animal Species are Found in the Amazon Basin

That includes insects, which are still being discovered in droves.  Apparently one tree in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin was home to 1,000s species of bugs. The huge number of species doesn’t mean large quantities.  In fact, the quantities of each species reflect their careful balance with food, territorial safety, reproductive survival, and overall defense.  So the populations of each animal in the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin are not large, but “just right” for their circumstances.  Whatever the actual percentage, we know that there may be 40 to 100 different species in one hectare (2.5 acres) of a tropical rain forest; 25% of all the medicines* we use come from rainforest plants; 2,500 species of just vines are found in the Amazon rain forest; and 40% of the world’s oxygen is derived from the tropical rain forests on Earth.

*Examples: Curare comes from a tropical vine, and is used as an anesthetic and to relax muscles during surgery. Quinine, from the cinchona tree, is used to treat malaria. A person with lymphocytic leukemia has a 99% chance that the disease will go into remission because of the rosy periwinkle. More than 1,400 varieties of tropical plants are thought to be potential cures for cancer.

Our Ongoing Companions for the Next 3 Days

Each canoe had a “community guide” paddler plus a nationally certified guide near the front and a second paddler in the back.  Our front paddler/Community Guide was named Freddy who could understand some and speak a little English but mostly Lena our main guide translated for him.  Our back paddler, Alexander, was silent most of the time. The 2 paddlers plus Lena occasionally, drove the canoe for the next two hours ~10 Km up a very narrow, shallow river.

As they were doing all the work while we sat their weighing down the canoe, I thought of African movies where the “Bwana” was carried on a sedan chair.  But in any case, they were very skilled at negotiating the many fallen logs, plants, etc. in what was now part of the “dark river system” consisting of lots of fallen flora, so the water was dark iced tea color.

Introduction to Jungle Animals—And a Little Jungle Night Music

Along the way, Lena excitedly called our attention to many different birds.  Sometimes we’d stop for a few minutes to look through binoculars or take photos.  One longer stop was to see a troop of Squirrel Monkeys launching from tree to tree.  We learned that 40 to 100 Squirrel Monkeys travel together in their home range, constantly foraging for food except when they sleep.  We arrived at the Napo Wildlife Center to a lake area where our picturesque bungalows awaited with thatched roofs and red-painted stucco walls.  Before we could land, we spotted 3 Giant River Otters (actually theirs heads looked smaller than the typical sea otters in Monterey). Their heads popped out of the water several times, getting progressively closer until they were about 30 feet or less from our canoe.  We said good-bye to them, pulled up to the dock and alighted to walk up the path to the common room/dining /lounge/bar area–which led up several levels to a watchtower to see the treetops around the compound. That night as we drifted off to sleep, we were lullabied by lots of insects, including Cicadas, frogs (though not as many as Swaziland), and some nocturnal bird songs.

Animals Seen in the Jungle from Monday Afternoon – Thursday Morning

Squirrel monkeys

1 White-Fronted Capuchin Monkey (distant in trees)

Sharp-Nosed Toads (tiny, 1 inch or less)

3 Giant River Otters

3 Caymans: 1 on 1st day during day and 2 when Cayman “hunting” where could see the red eyes picked out from the flashlights.

Red Howler Monkeys on treetops in distance from Tower

Spider Monkeys (2 seen from Tower)

Tourney Tail Lizards—1 with spots and 1 which blended with tree trunk from Tower

Long-Nose Bats (hang under dock but when boats pull up in late afternoon, fly to nearby posts)

White-Lipped Peccary (wild, hairy pig; juvenile, injured, by him/herself, swam across creek)

Heard group of Peccaries snorting, snuffling and moving noisily through the thickets on the original side of the stream from which the single one came. Though we waited about 15 minutes, they didn’t get much closer.

Amazon Forest Dragon (Lizard)

Rough Skin Green Tree Frog

Spotted Belly Rain Frog

Birds Seen in the Jungle from Monday Afternoon – Thursday Morning

Hoatzin (Waatt-seen) – like chickens, everywhere, make huffing-puffing sounds & like motors stalling then stopping

Yellow-Rumped Cacique (and their globe and short-sacked nests)

Plum Throated Cotinga

Spangled Cotinga

Antshrike & Antbird (heard calls)

Oropendola (long sack nests near end of limbs to preserve babies from predators)

Social Flycatcher

Hook-Billed Kite

Greater Ani

Smooth-Billed Ani

Grooved-Bill Ani

White-Eared Jacamar

Kiskadee (Greater and Lesser)

Red-Capped Cardinal

Blue-Grey Tanager

Striated Heron

Black-Capped Heron

Refescent Tiger-Heron

Pale-Vented Pigeon

Mealy Amazon (Parrot)

Blue Headed Parrot

Dusky-Headed Parakeet

Yellow-Crowned Amazon (parrot)

Snowy Egret

Great Potoo

Spot-Breasted Woodpecker

Amazon Kingfisher

Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture

White-Throated Toucan

Ivory-Billed Toucan

Yellow & Blue Macaw

Red-Bellied Macaws in far distance

Insects Seen in the Jungle from Monday Afternoon – Thursday Morning

Leaf-Cutter Ants*

Blue-Morph Butterfly (iridescent blue, when wings fold up they look like owl eyes to fool predators)

Millipedes (2 legs per segment, don’t bite, are decomposers)

Orange butterflies with yellow tips

Red/transparent Dragon Flies

Orange fuzzy Dragon Flies (descriptor not actual name)

Whip Scorpion

*Leaf Cutter Ants are Amazing! Workers, Soldiers, Farmers, 1 Queen (can live 15+ years).  Workers carry the leaves that are 20 times their body weight back to the nest. Soldiers (huge jaws, largest of ants) and tiny Midia are defenders of the Workers carrying the leaves. Workers take the leaves to the Farmers who chew them up and spit them out causing Fungus to grow as food for the nest.  If plant leaves are brought in but have a toxin, the fungus responds in such a way that the ants know never to get that leaf again.  Nests can contain 3 – 8 million ants, can be 4 – 5 ft. deep and 15 – 20 ft. long and wide.  I have to say that the Leaf-Cutter Ants were my favorite animals in the jungle! 

Hiking and Canoeing to Visit Jungle Flora and Fauna—Including Caymans

Though we were on dry land for the most part, our busy routine made us feel as though we were back home on the Endeavor.  Up at 6am, breakfast 6:30 and in canoes at 7am with our canoe companions who were from Los Gatos and San Jose but the younger couple and her Ecuadorian husband had lived near Quito for 1.5 years, both involved in agriculture. Wellington boots were part of our regimen for the next 2+ days–for which we were very grateful given the jungle’s muddy trails.

On our 1st morning hike we learned lots about the flora, saw cute, tiny toads, and were tricked by Freddy the community guide into thinking we saw a huge grasshopper but which was really part of a palm frond he had made into a grasshopper.  For our afternoon hike we left the dock at 3pm to canoe across the lake. We hiked to a tower built for viewing across the top of the jungle canopy and which was adjacent to a huge Kapok Tree*. After about a 10+-story climb, we reached the tower platform which was actually wrapped around the Kapok Tree!  The view was breathtaking across the jungle canopy for miles in every direction. Freddy and Lena had brought a powerful telescope and tri-pod so we could observe in the distance: Howler Monkeys, Ivory-Billed and White-Beaked Toucans, lime-colored parrots flying by. We had all carried flashlights because on our way back to the lodge we’d go Cayman searching. But they actually came in handy on our hour-long trek back to the canoe due to the already-dark jungle floor becoming quite dark at sunset and then night. Back on our canoes we searched the edge of the lake for Caymans.  Quickly the lights picked up sets of red eyes nearby, so we pulled up within 10 feet to see the one animal whose head was so large it indicated that his body would be about 2+ meters long!  We left him/her in peace after a few minutes, saw several small pairs of red eyes indicating baby Caymans, and then headed toward the next larger red eyes.  This Cayman may only have been 1.5 meters, but large enough for us, considering they are Amazonia’s largest predator (of animals, not people!).

*Useful Kapok Trees.  These trees originated in South America but now are found in tropical rainforests across the world.  They can reach 150 feet and 9 foot diameter trunks with “buttresses” that can extend out 30 feet to help the root system gain as much water as possible from the poor tropical rainforest soil.  The crown has an open umbrella shape. It is a great utility tree: it hosts many epiphyte plants like orchids and bromeliads; birds nest in it; mammals use the huge branches as highways; other animals grow and live in its branches; bats love the flowers and seeds; and frogs breed in the pools of water that collect in the bromeliads. The woody, pendulous pods burst open while still on the tree after the leaves have fallen during each dry season. Inside, whitish cotton like fiber surrounds the brown seeds which is wind-born away.  In many places the straight trunks of the kapok tree are used to make dugout canoes, flotation devices, and padding. The seeds, leaves, bark and resin have been used to treat dysentery, fever, asthma, and kidney disease.  And the main way we know kapok, the white, fluffy seed covering is used in pillows and mattresses.

Up at 5am to See Parrots & Parakeets at Clay Licks

By 6am we were being paddled in the canoe by Freddy and Alexander again, with our goal to reach the first clay lick by 7am. Along the way we saw many birds, as well as a troop of Squirrel Monkeys accompanied by a couple of White-Fronted Capuchins.  We learned that sometimes different monkey species travel together, symbiotically helping each other find food and more importantly have greater awareness of predators (hawks, kites, shrikes, etc.) that could strike when there’s a clearing in the canopy.  Indeed by 7:20am we were at the first of two Clay Licks, witnessing the first scout emerge.

What is a Clay Lick and why do these birds seek them?  Like salt licks for certain mammals, clay licks provide birds with key minerals needed to supplement their diet or help digestion.  One may be near water or the clay may be mixed with water in some circumstances.  In any case, the clay is found on open spots in the jungle which makes the birds vulnerable to predators (again hawks, kites, shrikes, etc.).  So parrots and parakeets continuously chatter and squawk from trees and shrubs a lot near the Clay Licks in order to communicate about predators.  AND they also figure out who will be the risk-taker / scout to start licking.  Then one by one or few by few, several kinds of parrots and parakeets descended onto what looked like carved out ledges in the open space. At a second Clay Lick in a cave with an underground lake, we walked to an observation “deck” to watch the small opening to the cave where tens of birds gathered before flying down into the water area for their “clay fix.”  At both sites, at any odd sound, they scattered back into the surrounding trees in a heartbeat, so not every one of the 100s of birds in the area were able to grab their minerals. I guess that’s part of the “only the strong survive” cycle of life…

Anangu Women Add Special Insight into Rural Jungle Life 

The original Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) founders—men, of course—envisioned a community-benefiting resort that would provide jobs, income, and preserve their most valuable treasure, the jungle. The village’s men played the dominant role in the Napo Wildlife Center’s most visible jobs.  In 2010, the Anangu women added their own stamp to the NWC by building (with help from the men) an interpretive center that would demonstrate Quichua and Anangu values, culture, daily lives, etc. as well as provide income specifically to the women. This included a larger version of a typical Quicha home, a community room, and crafts store. Through an interpreter who was also an NWC guide and husband to the leading woman, she explained about how the villagers lived, slept, cooked, ate, divided labor, raised children, etc.  The women also danced for us, pulling in some of us visitors including Rick, to dance along with them.  We also witnessed the local Shaman perform a typical cleansing/healing ceremony with a volunteer from our visiting group.  Again through the interpreter, we learned how this Shaman knew he was a healer from his early childhood, trained and learned Quichua medical traditions and local healing plants, then began successfully helping his people. I found this fascinating, especially in light of our different experience with a Shaman in Uganda (huckster!) and healing ceremony among !San Bushmen in Namibia.  The connection of mind and body is clear no matter the methodology of healing or the culture.

The Dry Season in the Jungle is Still Really, Really Damp!

The Napo River and Anangu Stream’s water levels were probably 3 – 4 ft. lower at this time of year despite the daily rainstorm.  Though this was dry season, by the time we left after 4 days, absolutely everything in our suitcase was damp.  It took clothes to dry over 2 days and even then they were still damp when I put them on and packed the rest away.  Even worse was the effect of the heat + humidity on my skin!!!  I remember occasionally having “prickly heat rash” as a child in New England, but here my armpits, tummy, and elsewhere were covered in a thick red rash that was very itchy and painful, as though my skin were rotting while I wore it.  I tried putting soothing creams on, wearing a cotton t-shirt under my long-sleeve “safari” shirts (to minimize insect bites) but nothing worked except drying off well after showering.  A guest advised me that the best treatment is to wear no or very loose dry clothes until it disappears on its own.  And Carolyn loaned me some talcum powder.  Between the two methods I healed. But I must say, my enthusiasm for jungle traveling is severely diminished.

One Last Jungle Adventure Returning the Way We Came—But by Storm

Our wake-up call was 5am and by 6am we, the family from San Jose, an Indian-American couple from San Diego, and an Ecuadorian couple boarded our small canoe. This was the 11TH of our 1ST 15 days in Ecuador that we had to wear life-vests!  As we left the Napo Wildlife Center, there were mists rising from the lake and Anangu stream while we were again paddled by Freddy and Alexander. This ~10 km. leg of our journey to the Napo River went faster than before because we didn’t “brake for animals”.  At 7:40am eleven of us embarked on the motorized canoe.  About 1 hour into the 2-hour trip a huge storm cloud passed overhead.  Within a few minutes it began to rain with strong wind, The canoe’s transparent curtains were lowered on one side and shortly after, the second side.  However, the winds were blowing so strongly that the curtains acted like sails, blowing us onto a sand bar.  Up went the curtains, out came the ponchos for all of us, and with the lucky wake of another motorized canoe, we were lifted off the sandbar to continue upstream toward Coca.  However, the torrential rain soaked all of us even with the ponchos.  We had to put all our hand luggage under tarps.  Soon the side curtains came back down with the wind blowing less from side to side.  As we sat in hoods and ponchos a small wave washed over the top of the curtain to soak three of us on one side, including me.  Without more incidents, we arrived in Coca about 30 min. late.  We off-loaded, got on a bus for a quick ride to the airport to sit for any extra 1.5 hours because (surprise, surprise) our flight was delayed.  Today is the last day I had to wear a life-vest though I did feel greatly comforted by it on this trip!

SEPTEMBER 1, THURSDAY – THE AVENUE OF THE VOLCANOES–10,000 FEET AND HIGHER ALTITUDE

The Andes Mountains–the Spine of Ecuador

Starting from the volcano of Pichincha just north Quito which can be seen from the city, all the way to southern Ecuador’s town of Chimborazo (Chimborazo volcano is nearly 20,500 feet), the Andes form two ridges with a valley ranging from 7,000 to 9,000 feet deep in between.  The ridges are formed by volcanoes of varying ages, ten of which dominate the region, including five that are considered active—having erupted in the last 500 years.  Several of the ten are 18,000 to over 19,000 ft., almost the height of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is a cone-shaped volcano similar to the active ones in Ecuador. For example, the most famous still-active volcano which has its own national park is Cotopaxi at 19,347 ft. (tallest in Ecuador), last erupting destructively in 1877.  Its name means something like “throat of the moon” combined from Quichua and a pre-Incan language.  We only drove as far south as the city of Banos, known for its thermal springs and the nearby Tungurahua volcano at 16,000 ft. but which annually spews smoke and sometimes lava.  The Avenue of Volcanoes’ scenery is quite dramatic as is the thought that at any time—including as we drive or sleep in the area—one of these volcanoes could erupt.  That is why the travel agency booked us at two haciendas far enough away from both Cotopaxi and Tungurahua that even toxic gases wouldn’t affect us…think about that for a minute…

*STREET SIGNS OF VOLCANO WARNINGS were seen throughout this region.  Many towns displayed triangular signs announcing “Volcano Zone” or square ones with pictures pointing either to the direction to run if a volcano erupted or actual shelters. But the locals seemed to be as cavalier about occasional volcanic eruptions as we are about earthquakes!

300 Years of History at La Cienega Hacienda

The mansion in the town of Lasso with its 2-meter thick volcanic stone walls and surrounding large lands is one of Ecuador’s oldest colonial properties, belonging to the descendants of Spain’s 17th century Marquis of Maenza.  Over the centuries, the hacienda’s guests have included many famous people: scientists (e.g., Charles Marie de la Condamine, French participant in 1736-1744 mission to prove earth’s true shape) and the German, Alexander von Humboldt who studied Cotapaxi’s volcanic activity in 1802 as well as its alpine flora); generals who fought with Simon Bolivar (Liberator of Ecuador from Spain); and Presidents of the Republic of Ecuador including 5-time president Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra.  As we traveled during our trip, we talked to various people we met who all knew of the famed La Cienega Hacienda, its wonderful ambiance, and great hospitality. Plus it has a clear view of the perfectly cone-shaped Cotopaxi volcano.

Major Ecuadorian Families

With the town of Lasso and a local drink Canalasso named for the family that owns La Cienega Hacienda and its huge holdings, clearly the Lasso family is an important member of Ecuadorian high society. The Plaza family also plays major roles in Ecuador’s history as well as integrating into the Lasso family tree at several points.  Our brother-in-law Fernando represents two other glorious Ecuadorian families: Alban (includes current deputy-mayor of Quito) and Ribidineiro (his cousin’s husband who has built many parts of Quito as well as owns a major hacienda, rose farm, dairy, etc.).  It was also clear from our guide that these strong influencers are not particularly forward-thinking, putting their own interests above the general Ecuadorian population.  Sound familiar?

Ecuadorian Roses

In the late 1960s the visionary then-president led the diversification of the country’s economic sectors, which led to the founding of the Rose Industry. Globally 2nd only to Kenya, Ecuador’s roses are their most important national product after oil from the Orellano/Eastern area of the country.  I believe that the Ribidineiro family (see Major Ecuadorian Families) were one of the founding drivers of this beautiful industry.  We visited Verdillano farm, one of several belonging to Roses & Roses, Ltd., another key player.  There a staff member led on a tour into one of the several large greenhouses—it was two hectares (4 – 5 acres) under one roof!  We learned about the preferences of different countries: Russia likes roses 90 cm. long; Europe about 40 -50 cm.; U.S. 25 – 40 cm.  In terms of colors Germans and Asians like black and fake-colored roses! Individual roses are often covered as they grow to prevent imperfections, sometimes with a black net to absorb extra sunlight to achieve the perfect color.  Roses & Roses’ organization was about to be re-certified as a Fair Trade Organization, so we saw some roses packaged for shipping but did not see the actual cutting and processing because the staff (80 employees on the one of several farms) was preparing for inspection.  As part of the Fair Trade commitment, the company has been supporting several local communities’ schools, computer training, and female empowerment.  This facility was not only well-run, produced beautiful products, employed many local people, but was also a good corporate citizen—very impressive.  Also now I can understand why “long-stemmed” roses are deservedly so expensive with so much hand-labor involved!

Altitude & Climate Changes Drive Our Bodies Crazy 

After being in the jungle at 1,000 ft. altitude where sweat dripped off our bodies 24 hours a day and we constantly dodged the many insects, we lived at 10,000+ feet in altitude wearing as many layers of clothes as we owned.  In fact, over the next couple of days we walked around at 12,000 to 15,000 feet altitude in extra layers that we had to buy, trying not to be blown away by gale-like winds.  I didn’t even mention headaches and interrupted sleep…But somehow we survived and thoroughly appreciated our surroundings at all the altitudes and temperatures!

Unique Quichua Artists

Our next stop was Tigua, a small village which housed a community art cooperative and gallery featuring the work of Alphonso Toaquiza, his family and friends.  His “naïf” style is imitated across Ecuador in “typical rural “ scenes painted on sheepskin or on wooden surfaces (bowls, trays, etc.).  He’d been painting since 1976 but over the last few years he’d been coached by Olga Fisch (currently the country’s longest-time collector and retailer of high end artisan Ecuadorian products) and influenced by artists from Europe, so his works are truly superior.  All the cooperative artists paint either religious themes or Quichua myths and village life.

Our Climb at Quilatoa Crater Lake at 12,500 ft. Altitude  

Our guide Raul tried to convince us that we’d acclimatize well enough by then to tackle the full hike 1,500 ft. down to the edge of the lake—which we promptly rejected. Then he thought we should at least walk down 400 ft. to the 1st viewpoint. However, just 20 feet down this very dusty, steep trail convinced me that I would inevitably fall on my butt as we slip-slided down, so I stopped my descent.  Immediately Rick and Carolyn agreed because their eyes were already flooded with flying dust.  To fight the strong winds and low temperatures, we were already bundled in many layers yet were still uncomfortable.  AND no one wanted to face the huffing and puffing of the 400+ foot ascent after what looked like a not much different view of the lake…

St. Augustin de Callo–Spanish Colonial Hacienda Built Around Incan Ruins

Raul took us to another hacienda with a history going back to the Incas in ~1400s.  Originally, the Incas built the compound as both a fortress and royal palace for the Incan Kings and families to stay as they traveled through their Empire extending from Ecuador through Peru.  In approximately the 1700s, the St. Augustine order took over what was left of the impressive ruins engineered in the Incas’ amazing style and strength.  Walls were made by trapezoidal-shaped stones linked together with heavy wooden dowels so that no cement was required yet they would withstand earthquakes and volcanoes.  The monastery added on sections that typified Spanish colonial style.  In 1921 what is now St. Augustin de Callo Hacienda and surrounding land was “awarded” to General Leonidas Plaza Gutierrez, leader of the “Liberal Revolution” and who donated a nearby farm for the St. Augustine monastery.  General Plaza eventually became President of the Republic of Ecuador.  His granddaughter, Mignon Plaza still runs the updated hacienda as a hotel, though now much less illustrious guests stay there now than in its past when again famous scientists (Germany’s von Humboldt described it in his reports), presidents, generals, bullfighters (Mignon’s father was a Congressman and bullfighter!), and other celebrities visited.  We toured the lovely facility which integrates the smoke-blackened Incan walls and Incan Temple converted to a chapel by the St. Augustine monks.  Also, with much less dignity and history but more fun, the hacienda allows guests to feed raw carrots to the local herd of llamas.  The good news was none of the llamas spit as I fed them!

Not Climbing to Cotopaxi’s Base Camp–15,000 Ft. Altitude was Diminished Enough Oxygen

As cold as we had been at Quilatoa, Raul suggested that we could buy scarves and gloves outside the Cotopaxi Park entrance, which we did. Imagine, within 48 hours of our leaving the jungle where we were constantly sweating, we were at 12,000 to now 15,000 feet wearing hats, gloves and scarves so we wouldn’t freeze!  When we arrived at the actual volcano, we were drive to parking lot at the end of the road–the highest point that cars could travel.

As we learned from Raul, Cotopaxi’s glaciers have significantly receded in the last decade.  Serious climbers who want to summit the peak, stay overnight to acclimatize further at Base Camp which is at ~16,000 feet, where until about the year 2000, the snows/glaciers started.  Now they begin at 17,000 feet. The road ended at 15,000 ft.  We got out of the car all bundled up to walk less than 20 feet to the sign noting the altitude and location. It was so windy, we could barely stand straight.  Raul had suggested earlier in the morning that we might want to walk up to base camp.  Once we experienced the cold and wind, we looked up at base camp to decide that the view couldn’t be that much better that it would be worth the hike from 15,000 ft. to 16,000 ft., so once again, we “wimped out.”

On the previous day, Rick had stopped the car for what was to be our clearest view of all of Cotopaxi in its glory, with just a few clouds surrounding the snow-capped peak.  His idea proved valuable because after that we never saw Cotopaxi without several clouds blocking a full view.

Laguna Limpiopungo (Say That fast 3 times!)

Instead of hiking to 16,000 feet in the freezing wind, we drove down the mountain to hike for 1 hour around a moor-land lake, Sendero Natural Laguna de Limpiopungo, at merely 11,500 ft. altitude.  Raul told us that this area of the Andes is considered “moorlands” vs. highlands elsewhere in the world vs. tundra in the Artic, because vegetation here is the same year-round without seasons. But similar to the short-seasoned, quick-growing tundra, these plants are highly adapted to fierce winds, cold temperatures, and volatile rain levels.

Eating Chugchucaras at Rosita’s in Latacunga (Another tongue-twister)

At the end of our lake walk at 2pm, we were quite ready for lunch so Raul suggested we try a different but typical Ecuadorian dish which he said so quickly we couldn’t quick catch it. He said that many places along Latacunga’s main street serve this dish but one spot–Rosita Jimenez de Callo restaurant–was so famous that it was busy every hour of the days it was open. As we waited for the food to be served we were fascinated by the mountains of meat, pork rind (size and shape of a whole pig), and corn cooked in various ways over large burners.  When servers delivered our platters piled high with food, it was clear that the one Chugchucaras platter between Carolyn and me would be more than enough: boiled corn kernels with fried pig skin (tasted like fat bacon), roasted corn kernels, salted popcorn, fried plantains, fried potatoes, fried sweet potatoes and many slices of fried pork, plus a large wafer of pork rind. To accompany all this we had a spicy tree tomato* “aji” or sauce.

*Tree tomatoes are fruit with thick skin that are red when ripe with bright yellow flesh and seeded like tomatoes.  But they are grown on bushes propped over wire like grape vines, dangling individually down from branches, looking more like elliptical plums than anything else.  The only other place we had tree tomatoes was Kenya where the flesh was purple and more tart-tasting.  Tree tomatoes in both countries are mostly served as juice, sauce, or flavoring in other foods but could be eaten raw.  In any case, they are deliciously unique!

Special Industries Characterize Many of the Small Towns in the Southern Avenue of Volcanoes

Tungurahua Province where Banos is located is called Ecuador’s fruit basket because it grows so many varieties of fruits particularly popular and unique to Ecuador, like babaco–a large yellow star-shaped papaya, and tree tomatoes.  Crops were planted virtually to the tops of the mountains surrounding the valley in the middle of the Avenue of the Volcanoes.  The slopes were so steep that they looked impossible to sow, maintain, and harvest the crops except by human labor.  It seemed as though any animal which might pull a plow or a cart would need two legs shorter than the others so they wouldn’t just slip down the mountains.  Some of the unusual town industries besides agriculture:

–       The town of St. Michael of Salsedo aka Salsedo is famous for its triangular-shaped, layered ice cream on a stick in local fruit flavors.  A long-ago priest named St. Michael suggested the unique striated treats in multiple colors and flavors, often including passion fruit, blackberry, babaco (a star-shaped papaya), and guava.

–       Pelileo is known for manufacturing and selling blue jeans made in Ecuador.  Apparently about a decade ago, the then-Ecuadorian president declared that textile companies in Ecuador could no longer sell clothing if workers were not company employees vs. current practice of only hiring contracted labor.  So some corporations moved south to Peru.  In a brilliant move, the government subsidized the re-training and helped finance those Ecuadorian skilled laborers to start their own textile companies now operating in Pelileo.

–       The town of Salasaca is known for its woven goods spun by hand then loomed by women in the Peruvian Incan style. During the Incan Empire some Peruvian clans were purposely moved into this area by Incan leaders to help integrate their culture into both countries. Thus as we stopped to watch women spinning and to shop in a small marketplace, we saw a replica of what we had seen the times we traveled to Peru, samples of which now reside in our family room!

Hacienda Manteles’ Owner

About 5pm, we drove us up a long, narrow, bumpy road to our next hotel, Hacienda Manteles in the town of Patate.  The views from the road and the hacienda itself were breathtaking. Patate looked miniaturized from the hacienda, surrounded by a green, quilted patchwork of crops spreading up the steep mountain-sides. The verdant views from all sides would fit perfectly in some fairy tale.

We settled into this lovely hacienda, which had clearly been decorated with much thought and care.  Cesar Duran the owner told us that his grandparents had bought the land in about 1921 which his mother handed down to him with the hacienda.  He expanded the land, preserved the ecological integrity, employed local workers, and helped develop the surrounding communities in many ways.  Though he worked as an engineer for many years in California and Massachusetts, he returned to his roots about 10 years ago while simultaneously earning his doctorate in community development from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  He is definitely serious about more deeply investing his time, love, and future in his home town.

Banos and the Wobbly Cable Car Along Avenue of Waterfalls

Raul asked Marco to drive us via the Ecoruta to Banos—you may recall that Ecoruta  supposedly means sustaining the old road.  In reality it actually means bumpy, muddy, narrow, and uncomfortable road for passengers.  Once again, all of Marco’s driving skills were required as we plowed through muddy mounds, forded streams, tried not to lose an axel in the dips and ruts, and just bounced along the cobble-stone stretches.

We passed through the unremarkable-looking town of Banos which attracts young backpackers as a center for extreme sports like Category 4 and 5 kayaking and rafting as well as bridge-jumping, zip-lining, and other activities. Then we headed down what is nicknamed the Avenue of the Waterfalls, a long stretch of road next to a river. Along the way are many different waterfalls from the Andes’ watershed which flow into the several tributary rivers which in turn flow into the Amazon basin and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.

In order to closely view the largest waterfall, we had to take a cable car across a gorge.  A little while earlier, I had declined the opportunity to zipline across this gorge.  As we boarded the open-air “car” which was a wooden floor surround by orange metal fencing, I realized we were about to experience almost the same thrill as a zipline.  With one man operating a small, electric-engine-run pulley, we and four Ecuadorian strangers plunged across the open space 100s of feet in the air toward the tall, foaming dual waterfalls at what felt like break-neck speed. I’m sure the terror on my face would have been no worse than if I had ridden the zipline. We did not require spending time at the waterfall-side of the gorge so we immediately re-crossed to the entrance.  We wobbled off the cable car, back to the van.

La Luna Runtun Thermal-Spring Spa

La Luna Runtun hotel had an amazing view of Banos and for $30 per person we could have a light lunch and soak in their four private, different, volcanically-heated pools.  Café Cielo (Sky in Spanish) was aptly named because the front and side window-covered walls were at the edge of the high cliff overlooking the valley about 4,000 feet below!  Stuffed from the not-so-light lunch, we then waddled off to change into our bathing suits, showered, then slipped into the outdoor pools also overlooking the valley. It was heavenly to slide into the warm water up to my chin while experiencing this amazing view all by ourselves, at times each of us in our own pool. We left Luna Runtun in a much more relaxed state than when we arrived.  And we were ready for our next day’s ride back to Quito, then the following day through multiple airports to reach home.

 

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