Browsing"Ecuador"

Good times in Galapagos

Apr 12, 2011 by     5 Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Ecuador, Uncategorized

So what everyone says is true…the Galápagos Islands are a complete ‘must visit’ if you are in Ecuador, and they are worth every penny. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting…I had obviously heard about Galápagos and knew there was incredible wildlife there and that the islands played an important role in Darwin’s studies and theory of evolution.  But what I wasn’t anticipating was the crazy volcanic landscape. Apparently the Islands are located at the junction of 3 tectonic plates and according to the “hot spot theory” over time as the plates pushed apart the heat led to eruptions that created volcanoes that became the Islands…so everything is lava – seriously. I also wasn’t prepared for how incedibly close the animals will come up to you, completely unbothered by human presence since there are no predatory land mammals that exist in the Galápagos (except for some recently introduced animals like goats, cats, etc. which they are trying to control). This second point was really the most interesting to me (no offense to the lava) because it meant that giant tortoises would cross your path when you were walking, blue-footed boobies would let you approach within arm’s-length to take a picture and wouldn’t so much as flinch, sea lions would swim with you, and basically everything was just so directly in your face that it felt like you were really a part of it all.  Bear with me since this is going to be a long blog post…but everyone has been asking us about the trip (and I know that you’ll appreciate the details Dad and Mom!!) so here goes. I’m hoping I was fairly accurate with the itinerary and things that we saw – I never took Earth Science so a lot of the volcano/geology stuff went right over my head. : ) Oh and a huge THANK YOU to our new friends Laura and Jason for lending us their camera to use on the trip (ours was stolen in Quito) and to our guide Roberto who took amazing pictures that he let us copy. What I’ve included below is a combo of both pictures.

Background

A bit of semi-boring background about our trip – when we arrived in Quito, Ecuador we knew we wanted to visit Galápagos but didn’t know much else. Research through websites and our guide books helped us decide that we wanted to go on an 8-day boat cruise (where at night you travel to your next destination and sleep on the boat, as opposed to land-based trips where you stay in a hotel and take various day trips by boat).  We still didn’t know what type of boat we wanted, what specific boat was most highly recommended, what prices were like, etc. So we started visiting travel agencies to quickly learn and by far the most helpful place we went to was Happy Gringo (www.happygringo.com) which is a silly name but a spectacularly organized agency.  Our contact, Marcelo, patiently walked us through all of the last-minute deals, which in our case were boats that were leaving in the next 1-3 days and still had spots they were trying to fill.  While many backpackers travel on a class of economy or tourist boats, we opted for a 16-passenger luxury boat called the Anahi (or Galapagos Journey I). Why? It is a catamaran (as opposed to motor boat, which means a smoother ride), had a great upper deck for watching sunsets, 2 common eating areas, a bar, and a guide that was level III (the highest level).

Prices on luxury boats are about $700 more than economy boats (for last minute deals) but everyone said do NOT skimp on Galápagos, so we didn’t. Still paid about half of what it would have cost if we booked it from the States, whoohoo!  The agency also booked our flights from Quito to Baltra (near Santa Cruz Island) and then returning to Guayaquil. (Note: Happy Gringo was also kind enough to lend us the $200 park entrance fee since we had been robbed the day before and were operating on a virtually no-cash situation.)

Itinerary

Our itinerary for the 8 days (March 25 – April 1) was very full! Every day we had breakfast at 7am, lunch around 12pm, and dinner at 7pm. In between that we had at least one morning and one evening activity, sometimes more. Felt a bit like summer camp due to the heavy scheduling, but it was necessary and very appreciated and we also had plenty of down time to relax on the boat (even though we ended up going to bed by 9pm every night due to exhaustion from the HOT sun, lots of physical activity and too much buffet-style food).

Day 1: Arrive in Baltra (airport), ferry to Santa Cruz and bus to Puerto Ayora at the south of the island where the boat was docked. Load up the boats and then disembark and take a bus to visit the highlands of Santa Cruz, starting with a tortoise-rearing  place where eggs are brought to be incubated and hatched and then raised until they can be safely introduced to the island. I think there are 45,000 of the tortoises on the Islands (there had been more but they were being killed off by introduced species). Fun facts: tortoises can live to be about 150 years old, and can weigh from 400-600 pounds, and E.T.’s face was based off of a giant tortoise face, and we were visiting during mating season.  They are absolutely incredible to see in person and move quite quickly for such a big animal.  See for yourself:

Day 2: After riding through the night (a bit bumpy) we woke up at Isabela Island.  Lots of walking in the hot sun, went to see the Wall of Tears (Muro de las Lagrimas) that was built by prisoners in 1948. Hard to get excited about that after seeing Giant Tortoises though, in my opinion. Went through a neat Mangrove environment and saw a lot of trees and birds that I of course forget the names of, but started to learn from our guide about endemic species (found only in Galápagos), native species (found naturally in Galápagos but also exist other places), and introduced species (brought there by humans). We also did a short but great hike up Sierra Negra Volcano (last erupted in October 2005) which had a great view of a huge caldera filled with black magma.

Day 3: A bit further North on Isabela Island, we visited Punta Moreno and walked on lava, saw flamingos and lots of different cacti (like lava cactus).  Went out for a panga ride (dinghy) in a mangrove area and saw our first blue-footed boobies (Amazing close up! Their feet are soooo blue!), lots of sea turtles, a few rays, and more. The best part was on the ride back to the boat we passed a small rock that had SO MUCH on it…bright red sally lightfoot crabs, a marine iguana, a baby sea lion, a flightless cormorant, and blue-footed boobies. Our pictures don’t really do justice but we have a great video of the baby sea lion ‘talking’ to us and then crawling over the iguana who didn’t seem to care at all. We were about 5 feet away from it all.

Day 4: Still working our way around Isabela Island! Went to Urbina Bay (wet landing on a black sand beach) and took a walk and saw more lava (“ah ah” lava) that looks all clumpy and rough. Saw wild giant tortoises, our first land iguanas (big and orange-ish), more sea lions, penguins, and then while most of the group continued on for a coral walk on the beach, I skipped out with a few others to head back to the boat and swim (I was absolutely roasting).  Great group snorkeling later, and then an afternoon activity to Tagus Cove, which is sheltered by two volcanic craters. Once we walked up for a while we were treated to a spectacular view of our boat in the cove.

Day 5: On to Fernandina Island for the morning activity! We disembarked at Punta Espinoza and were treated to a great (and hot) walk where we saw lots of sea lions (my favorite) but most importantly – our first marine iguanas! They look like little godzillas and are the only lizards in the world that swim in the ocean. They were EVERYWHERE.  Snorkeling again in the afternoon at Punta Vicente Roca back near Isabela Island, but the neatest event of the day was crossing the Equator and all crowding into the captain’s navigation deck area to toast the event (and take pictures). Cheesy but fun.

Day 6: Wednesday in the Galápagos and we kicked the water activities into high gear with two separate snorkeling outings (I think our guide finally got the hint that we were tired of walking in the hot sun and wanted to be in the water!). I don’t have any underwater pictures but the snorkeling was incredible…huge schools of fish swimming directly underneath us, sea turtles, sea lions, rays, even a few white-tipped reef sharks. Wow. My favorites were the surgeon fish and the loro fish. Look ‘em up online – awesome. As for the land activities, we went to Santiago Island at a place called Puerto Egas, on James Bay. It is a long blackened coastline with lava pools and inlets and tons of wildlife.  We saw our first Galápagos fur sea lion which I think is endemic to the Islands. We also saw this thing that they call “Darwin’s toilet” which is a rock formation that is like a hole made by the lava that gets filled with a bunch of water when a wave comes in, and then it filters out quickly making a loud noise that sounds exactly like flushing a toilet. Later that day we went to another island, Isla Rabida, which was neat because it has a red beach. More cool wildlife and landscapes!

Day 7: Our last full day in the Galápagos – so sad.  Started with a dry landing at Sombrero Chino (Chinese hat – named for its shape, see pictures below). Great walk on, yep you guessed it, lava! Saw fighting crabs, a ton of huge waves, more cool birds, etc. Great snorkeling after too. In the afternoon we went to Isla Bartolome and did a great, short yet somewhat steep climb up the volcanic cone to a magnificent view of the islands and of Pinnacle Rock, which is the distinctive characteristic of this island, and the most representative landmark of the Galápagos. Along the climb we saw lots of tequilia plants, the ones that look like small gray tumbleweeds, and the landscape looked like Mars.

Day 8: Woke up super early at 5am to squeeze in an activity before breakfast. Went to North Seymour Island and braved the buggy elements to witness tons of blue-footed boobies wandering around and best of all – frigate birds that were doing their mating ritual. The males have a big red throat pouch thing that normally hangs at their neck, but when they are trying to attract a mate they inflate the red pouch until it looks like a giant balloon and they make these gobbling-like noises. We saw literally dozens of them on the island – incredible.

Final Thoughts

Well, that was our trip! We decided to stay for an extra day and night in Puerto Ayora, which many others from the boat did as well. It was a very happy day for us since our replacement credit card arrived (hand delivered on our boat – yay!) so we finally were able to access our money and feel normal again. We went out for a nice dinner with two other couples we met on the boat and then caught a 10am flight the next morning to Guayaquil.  All in all it was an incredible week full of  just amazing discoveries, lots of sun, good company, and lasting memories. We would do it again in a heartbeat and are happy to share additional details with anyone that is interested in learning more about our trip!

 

 

 

The Amazon

Mar 23, 2011 by     9 Comments    Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, Ecuador, Uncategorized, Where two now?, Where we've been

This isn’t like any other Sunday night. This Sunday I don’t have what we’ve dubbed “The Sunday Blues.” Every Sunday I used to get anxiety over my pending workload in the coming day. This Sunday my beautiful wife and I are sitting under candle light in the Amazon Rain Forest. We are three days into our five day trip into the jungle. We took an overnight bus from Quito into the Cuyabeno River Valley what was supposed to be 10 hours away. Quito’s bus station has been the nicest bus station I have ever seen anywhere. It was well organized and clean.

There’s a general rule that for every hour you’re on a bus you pay $1. So this ride was $10. The bus arrived; the underbelly was stuffed with truck tires and vegetables so our luggage had to be taken on the bus with us. Fortunately, we are able to sit in the front seats of the bus and put them under us. When the bus took off I knew immediately that this was not going to be a 10 hour ride. The bus drivers and their lackeys stop and try to get people to get on the bus even if it is for 5 minutes.

The anti-nausea medicine was kicking in and it was lights out for Brandyn. Sleep was shitty and my ribs were getting bruised from being tossed back and forth with the mountain roads. Around 630 in the morning it was impossible for me to get back to sleep, not because I wasn’t tired but because I was miserable. Our bus went from the bus going from Quito to the Oriente to a school bus picking up local children; every local child. The aisles of the bus were stuffed with children from 4 to 16 all in different uniforms on their way from the very rural areas to the rural areas to their schools.

I remember how easy it was for me to get to school and how I thought about all the things that I would rather be doing. These kids were clearly from less affluent neighborhoods and families than mine and were wearing their freshly pressed uniforms with pride riding on overcrowded buses teething with morning commuters, travelers, and peers all standing vying for balance on the windy subpar roads.

With the eleven and a half hour commute behind us and aching legs in front of us we met our guide who was waiting for us at the bus stop which was little more than a billboard with a bathroom with no running water beside it. Rumelo is the man. He’s the guy that Bear Grylls and Les Stroud talk to before going out and trying to ‘survive’ in the Amazon. I trusted and would again trust my life with him and his skills. We took another 15 minute or so bus ride back from the road further into the jungle.

Upon arriving at Cuyabeno I had a perma-grin. I wouldn’t stop smirking at the massiveness of these amazing structures. Entering in the facility I could tell that no shortcut was taken in their construction. Breakfast of pancakes, French fries, and fruit was served. Still feeling like shit, I couldn’t eat much and forced myself to eat as much as possible so that the cook wouldn’t think that I had a weak appetite and skimp on future portions.

After a few minutes rest and deciding which clothes we wanted to have smell like a ‘barn’ as Cori says we set out on foot into the jungle and saw far too many things to name. (Browse the gallery to see pictures from the trip.) I’m very glad I read The Lost World of Z before coming out here. That book did a great job describing the competition of the rain forest and everything in it. David Attenborough’s voice amplified through my head when seeing different species of plants and animals only known through the Discovery Channel and Planet Earth DVD set.

The jungle only has about a meter of nutrient rich soil and under is red clay incapable of sustaining life. Because the soil is so shallow competition is as ferocious and sometimes as silly as that of reality television. Alliances between plants and animals are made. Adaptations and evolutions determine which will eat and which will starve. One of the first things that struck me was the walking palm. The walking palm has what looks like many stilts that it walks on to move towards the light. Large trees expand their trunks to take up more space and to keep their balance in the shallow soil. These trees are absolutely massive taking 30-45 seconds to walk around the base of. Orchids bloom from their bases while vines are draped all the way from the canopy to the ground. The trunk of the tree has many large finger-like structures at the base which house other species of plants and animals which thrive in the shade.

One of these alliances is between hunter ants and these behemoths. The hunter ants make their nests at the base between these ‘fingers’. The hunter ants protect the tree from any animals which jeopardize the tree. One of these ants can cause an adult to cry and have a fever 20 stings can kill. The anteaters, because their bodies are so wide cannot get their snouts in between the areas where the hunter ants have their nests.

As soon as one tree falls faster broad leafed plants will consume the area sucking up all the sunlight. Their premature leaves which resemble trumpets house nocturnal animals like bats. Termites form above ground tunnels shuffling traffic about. Grasshoppers cut perfect lines through leaves.

This is truly the most important place on the planet. Its diversity is inconceivable. In total we spent approximately 15 hours walking in the Amazon basin. We could have not walked an inch and in that 15 hours not even scratched the surface of what surrounded us.

The first day we arrived at the Cuyabeno River Lodge and were totally bushed but managed to thoroughly enjoy our breakfast and go on a 3-4 hour hike around the lodge and explore. After lunch we went piranha fishing and managed to catch three for dinner that evening. Piranhas are nasty bastards but almost totally safe to humans. In order to catch the piranhas we had to bate our bamboo sticks with around 5 feet of thread with raw bloody beef. Once the poles were baited we had to shake them as if there were a disturbance in the water then wait a few seconds for the piranhas to bite and pull them up.

Sleeping was so easy. It was like I was inside of a white-noise machine. The different sounds of the jungle resonating and reverberating through our barren cabin made me have some of the most vivid dreams I could remember. I dreamt that I was hanging out with the guy from Mastodon whose face is tattooed but he was a centaur. Instead of having a body of a horse it was that if a goat and very short.

The next morning we went for a long hike up to the highlands which were approximately 200 meters higher than our camp. The plants and animals changed significantly which every step. There were so many things I’m certain I’ll never see again. That afternoon we went on a long canoe ride. We paddled about two and a half hours up stream. The craziest thing that I’ve ever seen happened. We spotted a wasps’ nest. Rumelo said to scream “MARCH” after doing so the wasps funneled air through their nest up and down and it sounded like a brigade marching. It was so insane. When the internet connection is good enough I will upload the video to youtube.

On our third day we had another couple join us. Their names were David and Denise. They were from the Netherlands and good people. She was the host of a very popular television show and he was the director of a Dutch travel show. They were there to discover the joys of ayahuasca while visiting the local shaman. Our hike that morning was especially long. We went through the swamps and to the highlands spending well over 4 hours that morning trudging along. After spending two days with only Cori in the jungle it was at first disappointing to have other guests. Lunch made these disappointments go away. They were both very nice people who were fun to chat with.

The next day we spent all day on a motor boat. We started by going down stream about 2.5 hours to a beautiful laguna. We saw prehistoric birds that have been unchanged for the last 60 million years. From there we took the boat another few hours to the Shaman’s home where he told us how to make ayahuasca and how he became a shaman. It was a lot less cheesy than I thought it would be. Following that visit we went to an indigenous tribe’s village to make yucca bread and chat with the village elders. The couple had been together over 80 years. He was 100 and she was 98 years old. His feet because he had never worn shoes resembled that of a monkey. The large toe was out like a thumb.

After the 9 hour bus ride back to Quito, I still am on a high from the experience.

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