Sunday, 16 August 2015

Galapagos Beneath the Waves

The Galapagos Islands and their surrounding waters form an Ecuadorian province, a national park, and a biological marine reserve. The islands are famed for their vast number of endemic species and were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations in the Galapagos contributed significantly to the inception of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

We flew from Quito via Guayaquil to Baltra Airport and spent a few days enjoying the island of Santa Cruz, with its Giant Tortoises, friendly sea lions, Land Iguanas, Blue Footed Boobies and much more.

We then joined the live aboard dive boat Nortada for a week of diving in the northern islands of the archipelago. The 8-berth boat, with 7 crew, only had four guests that week including us! Our dive buddies for the week were Felix and Shiling from Singapore who we instantly hit it off with.

Our week long cruise took us first to the island of Isabela where during the night we could see the glow of Wolf Volcano erupting on the northern tip of the island. Unfortunately the cloud rolled in so no dramatic pictures were caught, however plumes of steam and smoke could be seen rising high into the stratosphere.

We did three dives during the day at Isabela. The visibility wasn’t great but we saw plenty of white tip reef sharks, lobsters, snapper, hogfish, green turtles and even a sea lion came for a quick play.

We got on really well with the crew and our dive buddies. As there are only 4 of us we invited the crew of 7 to join us for meals in the saloon rather than eating on the cramped bridge or their quarters. This worked well as there was good friendly banter between crew and guests, although our guide, Patricio, had to do a lot of translation. The captain Pietro, Chef Francisco and barman Jerry spoke a little English but engineer Carlos and deckhands Aureilio and Pablo spoke only Spanish which forced us to improve our Spanish.

Once we’d finished our dives the boat set sail for the northern Galapagos Islands of Wolf and Darwin. It was a very rocky night but we awoke moored on the south side of Wolf Island. We were surrounded by Red Footed and Nasca Boobies, Frigate Birds and Swallow Tail Gulls – the only true nocturnal gull. The occasional lost Pelican and Blue Footed Boobie appeared along with Fur and Galapagos sea lions on the rocky shore and playing in the water – pure paradise.

There was a lot of swell and chop, which made getting into the tenders all kitted up in our scuba gear a tad tricky, but once we had descended to 10 metres it was pretty calm. Within minutes we saw schooling hammerheads, along with trevally, pacific sierra, black skipjack and green turtles. On the second dive we saw bottlenose dolphins but they didn’t want to play. Once we were out of the water however they accompanied our tender all the way back to the boat giving us underwater and aerial displays.

Our third dive of the day was a wall dive with a number of shallow caves to explore. We found 3 whitetips resting in a cave, outside were a number of hammer heads and towards the end a pod of around 25 dolphins came to say hello, one swam upside down, showing off to us all, and one approached me really close for a little look!

At the end of the dive we explored a cave (old lava tunnel) in the rib and swam in its dim waters. At the cave entrance three sea lions joined us for a play and chew on Felix’s camera! It was wonderful to play and dance with them under the water, they moved like lightning, twisting and turning showing off their flexible acrobatic skills!

We spent the next few days diving at Darwin and Wolf islands. Darwin was a disappointing because of poor visibility but we still saw the odd shark and plenty of fish. Wolf however always delivered something, hammerheads, turtles, eagle rays and plenty of sea lions.

We returned to Santa Isabela via Bartolome Punta and Roca Cousin to do some land visits, getting close to the Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate Birds who, like all Galapagos animals, have little or no fear of people.

A big thank you to Felix and Shiling for their pictures and awesome underwater videos.

It was a fantastic week, jam packed with activities and 17 dives, and one we are looking forward to repeating as soon as we can. The Galapagos Islands provide a window on time. In a geological sense, the islands are young, yet they appear ancient.

A collation of clips from our time beneath the waves

A Blue Footed Boobie looks as interested in us as we were in him

Our route took us from the central island of Santa Cruz, along the east coast of Isabela and up to the far North Western islands of Wolf and Darwin

Sunset with Darwin island in the background

Getting into the tenders is tricky work once your all kitted up. Here we are going for a dive with the Captain Pietro

With Felix and Shiling our dive buddies 

The sea lions were pretty obstinate and would have to be persuaded to leave their sunbathing spots on the jetties so we could disembark!

Watch out for falling pumice from Wolf Volcano!

Giant tortoises on Santa Cruz migrate each year from the grassy highlands down to the coast to mate and lay their eggs. This can take 6 months for a round trip of around 30 miles!

Panoramic on Bartolome Punta

The crew and guests of the Nortada

Wednesday, 15 July 2015


On our return from the Amazon we got the chance to explore the capital further. The traffic was still terrible, but taxis were cheap and the city's settling and architecture is pleasant. The city centre is full of old Spanish legacies, particularly religious architecture - superb churches and cathedrals with golden alters, coloured columns, glided balconies and richly sculptured facades. Annoyingly tourists are required to pay a fee to enter these churches, which we didn't agree with, so we didn't go in. The Pope announced that he was to visit Quito on 5 July, which created a visible Pope fever across the city.

Along with our new friends Jessica and Jason, we took a trip up Mt. Pinchincha, an active volcano to get a birds eye view of the once Inca city. Thankfully, a sky tram took us up to the top. From our vantage point at 4100m we saw the city spreading along the high Andean valley in a roughly north- south direction. We took lunch together in the Old Town at San Agustin, a colonial style bakery and restaurant..... I had the ceviche prawns - raw prawns 'cooked' in lime juice and seasoned with herbs and onions, absolutely delicious.

Soaking up the afternoon sun in Plaza Grande was really enjoyable. We were able to watch the passers by; the persistant street vendors, shoe shiners, ambling police pairs, nuns scurrying past and groups of school children with sweet snacks after school - the girls in white pleated skirts with high white socks. We finished off the day with an impromptu karaoke session- such fun!

With many museums to choose from on Friday 19th June we visited the former house, now museum, of Maria Augusta Urrutia. We learned that she was a wealthy lady, part of Quito’s elite, who, following her husband’s death in her early thirties dedicated the rest of her life to caring for the street children of Quito.

Her collection of European furniture was high class and a feast for the eyes. Her bathroom featured two enormous stain glassed windows and followed an Art Neuvau style. Due to her generous charitable work she was awarded many national service medals and gifted many Catholic relics, generally small pieces of bone or hair, carefully presented on a silk backing and denoting the saints name, encased in a finely decorated metal frame.

Later that afternoon we enjoyed walking down the 16th century narrow cobbled streets of colonial architecture. La Ronda is a recently renewed area consisting of a small street now lined with artisanal shops and restaurants. Visiting a chocolatier we received a personal presentation of how chocolate is made from the cocoa bean to the final product - with samples! The local ceramics were jolly, but we doubted we would get them home in one piece. We consoled ourselves with some handmade sorbet, and felt like real tourists wandering the lanes with cornet in hand. We passed whitewashed walls with red tilled roofs, heavy wooden doors and peaked inside to see fountained courtyards, with stone pillars propping up the open galleries, reminiscent of the Moorish styles of North Africa and Southern Spain.

The view over Quito from the cable car as you ascend Mt. Pinchincha

Plaza Grande could be taken straight from Southern Spain or North Africa

 La Ronda is a gem, housing fantastic artisan workshops, artists and family run restaurants

The wonderfully OTT Art Nouveau bathroom of Maria Augusta Urrutia (borrowed from internet)

The fabulous Moorish style central courtyard

Opulence abound, in this room she would entertain her most important guests including presidents and travelling dignitaries from all over the world

Monday, 13 July 2015

Amazon Adventures

The EcuadorIan Amazon is located in the eastern side of the country, in an area called El Oriente. We travelled by bus from Quito for eight hours to the frontier town of Lago Agrio, (which is 40 miles from the Columbian boarder). This area, like much of the Ecuadorian Amazon provides the majority of Ecuador's export revenue in the form of oil. We sat around waiting for the next bus for three hours, watching the rain.

From Lago Agrio we took another bus for a further three hours. The further away we got from town, the more trees and less agriculture we saw. Occasionally we would see a 'Se Vende' (for sale) sign on a patch of cleared land, surrounded by recently dug ditches to reduce water logging. 

At the riverside village of Parador Oriental a couple of houses lined the concrete slipway. A fat pig was teathered under a bush, lying in the shady side. I sat down on a makeshift bench next to a local guy, he got out his phone and played the song that goes 'take my breath away' from Top Gun. I'm not sure if he played it for me, being an English spoken song, or he just like the tune. A woman was doing her families clothes wash in a couple of large buckets on the waters edge, she used powder from two packets then threw the empty plastic wrappers in the river. A man with a huge belly, and his tshirt rolled up into a crop top was talking to her. He might have had a herdener. Another woman was in a canopy area next to the slipway, grilling plantain and chicken legs on her BBQ. It smelt really good. I figured the oil workers were here target customers, as the ramp was industrial sized compared to this sleepy hamlet. 

Then travelling by boat down the Rio Aguarico (a tributary of the Amazon) for a further three hours we saw families living by subsistence farming, reaping coffee beans, cassava, cocoa and breeding cows and pigs. They had cleared the forest around their stilted houses. In some areas secondary tree growth had come through. One thing was evident though, colonisation is increasing. We passed large container-like boats carrying oil tankers and machinery on the river. Apparently the oil companies are now undertaking directional drilling, so the drill is orientated to an oil reserve, and open cast mining (which is more destructive) is minimised. I didn't easily accept the no-environmental impact line which was fed to us, I guess old age has made me cynical. 

We turned up the Rio Cuyabeno into the Cuyabeno Reserve. Our fibreglass boat was about 8m in lenght and wide enough to sit two across, powered by an outboard engine. We were told later that these long fibreglass boats are now more popular than canoes made of tree trunks. Here the forest was much thicker, with some green giants still standing. We were now at an elevation of approximately 210m. Half of an hour later we were please to finally see our camp, just off the river situated in a lagoon. Our 17 hour transit was over. We were in a group of 13, which were divided into two groups each with a guide. There were 8 English speaking in our group and 5 in the Spanish speaking group. We soon got chatting with the other guests and had a very good time together. 

That night, and each night in the jungle, the sound of the crickets, grasshoppers and creatures of the night chirping away was overpowering and yet, comforting. We were miles away from another habitation and I found the blackness very peaceful.  

The water was everywhere. When I previously thought of the Amazon it would be off one large meandering river cutting through swathes of forest. Here it was more swamp, that is numerous braids of rivers threading through the jungle. It was wet under foot. The earthen floor was less than half a metre thick which meant that a badly placed foot soon sank into the underlying clay strata. At times we hopped from root to tufted hassock to prevent being stuck in the quagmire. Did it rain in the rainforest? Why yes, everyday. The rain was warm and by the end of our trip we just embraced it and let it coat our bodies, knowing the sun would steam clean us in the next hour.

Home sweet home

Over the five days at the lodge our schedule generally consisted of a 6am boat ride along the Rio Cuyabeno or own of its tributaries, followed by three to four hour walk, a second boat trip or walk and then a night walk. It was a heavy schedule, which we were pleased about. We took a siesta or sometimes I just sat on the edge of the lagoon watching the turtles sunbath and the Hoatzin birds (or Stinky Turkeys) poorly balance on branches across the water. 

We did spot a range of animals, and they were expert (as you might expect) at using the jungle as camouflage. Being in a reserve we saw wall to wall green. Tall trees lined the riverbanks, dressed in vines. The creepers and leaniers tie the trees together, forming a highway for the mammals, reptiles and insects. 

Our guide was good identifying birds, which were often the size of a chaffinch and up a huge tree; "See the branch next to the branch with the lighter colour leaves, third tree to the right from the hanging vine". But neithertheless, we did tally up an good list of fauna, which I've listed below (omitting many of the jungle birds). Each evening we consulted the (laminated due to the humidity) identification books with our travelling companions. I made some notes to improve my memory and soon learnt how to distinguish between a squirrel, saki, howler and woolly monkey. 

Two howler monkeys - for those of you who need assistance

As I mentioned in an earlier post our camera is bust, and we missed its' zoom function greatly, so I'm afraid we don't have many animal snaps. We did put out our camera trap at night in three different locations, and one night, much to our delight, we caught a shot of an nocturnal animal. 

Short video of a Capybara captured by our camera trap - apologies the shot is a little overexposed

One day we visited a local house, harvested some cassava (a tubular) and made pancakes. The whole process was labour intensive but the end dish, cooked on a clay plate on an open fire in a wooden house, was plaitible. What stuck in my mind the most was the immaceated pigs and dogs. 

I would have like to have stayed for much longer because the Amazon is my favourite place in South America (so far that is!). I really enjoyed the lush scenery, nature, sunshine and humidity. I often get asked if I would live in any of the places we have visited, and I sure would think about living here. 

List of fauna spotted (but unfortunately not photographed):

Plumbeous Kite, Great Black Hawk, White Throated Toucan, Masked Crimson Tanager, Black Headed Vulture, Chestnut Fronted Macaw, Channel Billed Toucan, Yellow Crowned and Orange Cheeked Parrots, Crimson Crested Woodpecker, Black and Yellow Macaw, Swallows, Kingfishers, Parquets, Jay, Stinky Turkey (Hoatzin), Social Fly Catcher, Large Billed Tern, Common Squirrel Monkey, Monk Saki, Red Howler Monkey, Three Toed Sloth, Common Woolly Monkey, Black Mantled Tamarin, Kinkajou, Yellow Handed Titi Monkey, Yellow Spotted Turtled, Fishing Bat, Toads, Frogs, Stick Insects, Tarantulas, Pink River Dolphins, White Faced Capuchin, Tayra, Capybara, Bush Master Snake, Scorpion Spider, Anaconda, Armadillo and probably a few more!

A few downloaded images of some of the more unusual animals from the list above:

Stinky Turkey

White Throated Toucan


Monk Saki

Yellow Handed Titi Monkey