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Gone walkabout

Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands

ECUADOR | Monday, 30 September 2013 | Views [1694]

Ecuador

 
Finally, we arrive in Ecuador. Our last week has been spent trying to get out of Colombia and across the border. It hasn't been easy, with the farmer's protests in full swing, the roads out of the country have been blocked and far too dangerous to try and get through. We resorted to catching a flight into Ecuador landing in the capital city, Quito.
Arriving late, we opted for a  hostel called Secret Garden. It's not a secret and there isn't any garden! Our room was so squeaky.....I mean every step you took on the old timber floorboards squeaked like crazy. The bed squeaked and the door squeaked. We left the hostel first thing in the morning after less than 12 hours in the place, costing us $33. Round the corner we found a cheaper, cleaner and 'squeak - free' room called the San Blas hostel. We settle in and plan our short stay in Quito. A free guided walking tour of the old town is on offer, so we join the group and take off down the street stopping at the many large squares and old churches along the way. Our guide tells us to watch out for pickpockets and bag snatchers, and places to avoid going to, day or night. Apparently, Quito had a high crime rate a few years back, so they bought in heaps of police to help solve the problem. We see police everywhere, just look for the bright green vests standing on every corner!
We are so close to the equator and think it would be cool to stand on it. Well, at least as close as possible to this line that separates the two hemispheres. A couple of buses and a couple of hours brings us to a touristy town cashing in on being located right on the equator, called  Mitad del Mundo.  A painted line on the concrete path allows you to stand with one foot on either side. Gotta do it...and take a photo to prove you were there!
 
Next day we book a trip to Cotopaxi volcano. An old land cruiser troopy, driven by 'the flying D utchman' takes 8 of us on a day of adventure out to this majestic mountain. It takes about 2 hours drive to reach the bottom of the volcano, and we still drive up another 20 mins or so to reach the car park. From here we walk up for an hour to reach the shelter hut, with snow capped Cotopaxi looking down on us every step we take. The track is like climbing a sand hill, loose volcanic rubble makes it really slippery. At nearly 5000metres, the high altitude makes breathing difficult and I start to experience 'cotton mouth'. Leeanne is going well, just a little short of breath. It seems everyone in our group feel the same way, so we slowly climb another 45 mins from the hut and finally reach the glacier and get to touch the ice and snow atop Cotopaxi. The view from here is awesome. It's cold, but we feel exhilarated. Lots of photos, and down we go back to the hut for a hot chocolate, then slide down the steep volcanic rubble to the car park, where our vehicle is waiting. On the roof of the 'troopy' is our transport back down to the base of the  mountain. We strap on our helmets and optional protective gear, and jump on our bikes and roll downhill for the next 12 km. The view is spectacular as we race downhill with both brakes tightly squeezed dodging small rocks on the gravel road. After a late lunch at a remote mountain outpost, we throw the bikes back on the roof and head back to Quito feeling buggered but happy with ourselves. It is always good to get back to a comfortable bed after a day of adventure and hard  leg work.
 
 
We prepare ourselves for the next adventure. A place which we all have talked about, a place I studied in geography at high school, such a unique part of the globe, a place called the Amazon. Our appreciation of the Amazon has grown immensely during the short time we have spent touching and exploring the upper reaches of this wondrous ecosystem. Our trip into the Amazon basin began with an overnight bus from Quito winding our way over the Andes and east to the edgy frontier town called Lago Agrio. So much rain falls on the eastern  escarpment of the Andes mountain range, resulting in hundreds of finger like streams and rivers joining up to create the monster, the Amazon River. Arriving at Lago Agrio we get our first dose of torrential rain. The bus pulls into the small terminal and we scramble to grab our backpacks from under the bus getting soaked  by the second. The town is starting to flood, with streets barely visible. We have been told to get to a certain meeting point in town. Simply grab a taxi they say. But, there is so much water in the streets, the small taxis struggle to handle the high water. We eventually get to the meeting point, have a half cooked breakfast and cold coffee, and meet our new travel group for the trip into the Amazon. Everyone is wet, but keen to get into the jungle. A  minibus takes us for another 2 hours overland and down  towards the Cuyabeno river where our longboat awaits. It's still raining as we head down river. Backpacks are stored under plastic tarps, we have ponchos which barely keep us dry. The water is chocolate colour with lots of fallen trees and logs making it a challenge for our young boatman to negotiate each bend. After a couple of hours we finally reach our lodge called Guacamayo. This is our accommodation and base for the next 4 days. It is a well run ecolodge set right on the banks of the river, costing about $230 each for the total package. Money well spent....would do it again in an instant!
We are in the jungle, and for next few days here we are treated to a real taste of the Amazon. Our guide takes us in the boat exploring the maize of waterways searching for animal life. Beneath the surface lurk many caiman, pirahna, unusual types of fish and turtles. The trees are home to spider monkey, sloths, snakes and countless species of birds, including our all time favourite toucan, his beak is so big, must weigh him down. The reason he doesn't fly real well, unlike the falcons or humming birds he shares the forest with. We search for anaconda, but no luck. Our guide is so persistent,  looking in every fallen tree, close to the waterline, searching for this giant snake. he tells us they only feed a couple of times each year. The rest of the time they find a hiding place and 'chill' hoping no tourists find them!
 The sounds of the jungle are really something. Especially of a night when you can here thousands of insects and frogs calling each other. Tarantulas are plentiful, huge and hairy! We share our room with a few....they usually keep to themselves up in the roof feeding on smaller insects.
Our lodge has a 25 m bird viewing platform. We climb up at sunset, look over the jungle canopy and simply listen and look......look at the all the green jungle that stretches for as far as the eye can see. The brown river snakes its way below us. No swimming allowed at night....we might get eaten by something, we swim during the day, a  better chance of survival....you reckon crocs and pirahna really care. If they are hungry, you are on their menu! I found a pole with a short line and hook, added some chopped chicken, and fished off the jetty for some pirahna. Only caught a couple of small catfish, and missed out on landing the famous Amazonian killer fish.
 
We get the chance to travel down river and visit a local village and experience a taste of life through the eyes of an indigenous Amazonian. The Ecuadorian government allows them to live in their traditional way with few restrictions, as it should be. The Amazon region is so fragile, with modern man's impact drastically changing this balancing ecosystem. During our visit here a national issue arising in Ecuador is the debate on oil extraction in the Amazon basin....sadly,  the desire for oil and its income is  prevailing. They are drilling under the jungle to extract the oil from the Yasuni National Park. The indigenous people are protesting but unfortunately for countries like Ecuador the need for infrastructure outweigh environmental concerns.
The Amazon basin contains 60 % of the worlds fresh water and  overlaps six South American countries. 
The Siona tribe live off the Amazon growing many fruit and vegetable and fishing for their own needs as they are not allowed to trade from what is produced. We are shown how to make Yucca bread, the Shaiman shows us many herbs and spices grown for medicinal purposes. He is the centre point of the tribe not only as chief Medical Officer but also provider of Rituals. It takes years of study and as this Shaiman explains he became interested at age 9 but was not ready to practice until age 39. 30 years of learning and practice. He describes the taking of the Ayasa and how the Shaimans use it to connect to Mother Earth (Pachamumma) and to help them see what ails them. Many backpackers are seeking out this hallucinogenic experience but it is not something to be considered lightly.
The Shaiman asks for a volunteer to take part in a ritual and I ( Lee) raise my hand. He explains it is for a stomach and internal cleansing ritual well it can't hurt can it? The ritual starts with hypnotic chanting and cleansing of the aura with the smoking bush. Then we move on to the whacking the back direct on to the skin with what I later find out to be poison ivy. Initially there is a sharp pain but this quickly vanishes. After the ritual my back is inspected by two doctors in our group. I have angry red welts but no itch or pain at all. 
 
The Shaiman has a wonderful gentle mannerism even his voice is soothing. It is a far cry from the picture we get in the movies although the traditional dress isn't.
We meet a beautiful young Kiwi/Canadian girl named Asha and once again our faith in the future generations of the world is restored. We have met so many intelligent, caring young people who are interested in giving back to the world rather than taking all the time. It is truly one of the things I love most about travelling, connecting with a generation as an equal without a label such as Mum, Dad, Boss etc. 
We sadly leave the Jungle (dreaming about returning and travelling down the River by boat) and head to Banos. We arrive at 1.30 am and lucky for us their is someone waiting for the bus that has a guesthouse so we decide to go with him. Banos is a cool little town very popular with travellers and Ecuadorians alike. It has hot springs, volcanos, good food. We decide to board a Chiva (like a chicken bus but with no windows or sides) and tour the route de Cascada. The are 10 impressive waterfalls along the route with loads of adventure activities thrown in. We cross the canyon in a cage attached to a wire to get a close up view of a waterfall. Next is zip lining superman style along a canyon and finally the largest and most powerful Pailon de Diablo where you can feel the power of the waterfall from underneath it.
 
We spent a relaxing afternoon in the hot springs and eat the yummy taffy which is being pulled all along the street. It starts off as a gluggy, sticky black mixture, which is hung on a wooden peg on the wall. It is constantly pulled and thrown back over the peg, stretched ,pulled and thrown over again until it changes into a golden silky colour. Roll it up and chew away, and be careful not to break your teeth in the process.
 
It is time to head to Guayaquil and find a flight to Galapagos. We are both a bit excited to finish our trip in this way. After nearly a year and a half, we are on the doorstep of one the world's most famous wildlife destinations. We gotta do it. After landing in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, we find a cheap hostel and spend the first couple of days on foot checking the place out. Sea lions greet us at the pier, the water is clear, birds everywhere. Why are the animals so tame? They don't seem to be worried at all with human presence. Something I have rarely seen anywhere else. Time for wildlife later, we are on a mission to find a cheap 'last minute' cruise. In and out of travel agents, ask questions about boats, prices, schedules, dates etc. Perserverance pays off, and after a few days we book a 6 night/7day cruise on a luxury catamaran called Treasure of Galapagos, at a third of the usual price. Now the pressure is off, and we have this sorted, we still have 3 days to kill before the cruise starts, so we jump on a small boat and head to San Cristobal, an island famous for its large population of sea lion. They are everywhere you look. Walking down the footpath  you are likely to trip over one having a nap. Try sitting on a park bench, and be prepared to share it with a friendly sea lion. Over the course of the next 10 days or so we lose count of the number of these creatures we come across, both on land and in the water. To snorkel amongst playful sea lion is an experience we will never forget. 
 
Our cruise turns out to be an amazing adventure. We are given 1st class treatment on board a luxury 100foot boat with only 16 passengers. It's easy to form new friendships with the others and we manage to play up the best we can, especially with the mad Irishman, Colm, who provided hilarious entertainment. 
Each day we cruise to a new island in the Galapagos, going ashore in the zodiacs, and exploring beaches, volcanos, lava fields, and many inland lakes.
Animal life is prolific. Blue footed boobies nest on rock ledges, marine iguanas lie around on the warm rocks before crawling  into the sea to feed on weed. You rarely see one, they are usually in their hundreds, and some are one metre long or more.....huge black prehistoric monsters. Giant Galapagos tortoises walk slowly through the undergrowth. These harmless animals live more than 100 years and grow to about one and a half metres.
 
Pink flamingos feed in the shallow inland lagoons, while the bright orange coloured land iguana guard their territory, they are bloody big and look mean. We witness the flightless Cormorant protecting their nest from the swooping Frigates and the small finch bird is everywhere, so tame you could catch them with your hand. Charles Darwin studied these birds as part of his research towards his 'theory of evolution'. The islands have changed little in the 150 years since Darwin arrived on these shores. The water surrounding the islands are full of marine life. We get to snorkel every day with penguin, sea turtle, manta rays, reef shark, heaps of different fish and our favourite sea lion. What a buzz! The babies are especially playful and provide hours of enjoyment. 
 
We leave Galapagos with great memories. From a nature / wildlife perspective, the Galapagos is truly up there with the best....an awesome place.
Time to reflect on our time in Ecuador as we make our way to Brazil for our flight home to Australia. An easy place to travel through, Ecuador has it all, from the Pacific coast (Galapagos out there somewhere) across the snow covered Andes mountains and down into the Amazon jungle. Ecuadorian people are traditional yet embracing and welcoming. Until next time, gracias Ecuador. Time to get home ......time to see the kids, family and friends. Excited.
 
 

Tags: amazon, banos, coatapaxi, galapagos, islands, otavalo, quito

 

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