Showing posts with label Ecuador. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ecuador. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Galapagos Excursion

Flying into the Galapagos, I quickly realized that it was nothing like I had expected. The landscape was sparse, dry, covered in leafless trees and tree-sized cacti. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations (I try to avoid Google image searching places before traveling), but somehow this still defied any mental image conjured by the word “Galapagos.”

In an effort to make a trip to the Galapagos Islands as affordable as possible, we decided to use the two cheap tourist towns as base camps for a quick visit. This allowed us a glimpse into the ecology of the island system without the price tag of the multiday cruises.

Cemented in history by Darwin’s evolutionary biology discoveries, the history of the one-time home of Lonesome George is one of exploitation and over use of resources. Fun fact: apparently tortoise oil was once considered a resource for use in streetlamps.

As humans have learned more about the finite nature of the islands’ fauna (having pushed a number of species into extinction), the island chain is now home to a plethora of sustainability and conservation efforts. These include efforts to genetically reproduce as closely as possible the Galapagos Tortoise (of which Lonesome George was the last, his death marking the species’ extinction) and to grow, rather than import, as much of the islands’ food as possible.

Seeing the ecology of the Galapagos Islands is a land, air, and water endeavor. A full day snorkel trip (the splurge of the trip) afforded us the opportunity to swim in surprisingly cold water with sea turtles, sharks, and sea lions (which I’m assured are somehow different from seals), as well as a whole rainbow’s worth of fish.

Taking advantage of the numerous free options on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal provided the chance to see massive century-old tortoises, land iguanas with vaguely prehistoric faces, beaches filled with lounging sea lions, and birds ranging from pelicans to finches.

But, despite the full day of snorkeling and all the various museums and conservation projects, a free hike and a dip in the frigid waters of a tiny alcove provided the highlight of the trip. Donning rented snorkels, we navigated the rocks at the end of the skinny, wooden pier and plunged in. Though the fish life was moderately interesting and we soon became accustomed to the water temperature, the snorkeling was mediocre overall.

However, we were soon joined by a group of the most curious sea lions. Now, we swam with seals in New Zealand and on the aforementioned snorkeling trip, but this was something else. These sea lions seemed almost to want to play with us, zipping right up and spinning away, diving and swirling about our feet. It was absolute magic (and it only cost $5 to rent the snorkels).

Sometimes you pay a great deal of money to observe something unique in nature, and sometimes Mother Nature surprises you instead. Our Galapagos adventure turned out to be a unique, interesting mixture of the two. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Las Amazonas

My third grade teacher was big into hands-on projects, the main one being decorating the classroom as the Amazon Rainforest and holding our own Carnivale parade with homemade instruments. We spent weeks studying the ecology of the rainforest and covering the walls and ceilings with butcher paper vines, trees, leaves, and a who menagerie of animals. The teacher even brought in her pet scarlet and green macaws for a day.

In hindsight, this was a huge fire hazard, macaws are not really intended to be pets, and an incident with the scarlet macaw sparked a lifelong distrust of birds. However, this also ignited a lifelong desire to visit the Amazon and see some of these flora and fauna in a fantastic jungle adventure.

Being on my own in Ecuador seemed like the ideal opportunity to dip my toe in the vast ecological wonderland that is the Amazon Rainforest. And while an organized group tour isn’t quite the fantastic adventure my eight-year-old self may have envisioned, it is the only way to go and see this protected area.  I was also lucky enough to spend my four-day journey with an excellent group and an incredibly enthusiastic guide.

One of two protected areas in the Ecuadorian portion of the Amazon, Cuyabeno reserve covers about 1.5 million acres and, thanks to its elevation, is home to five different ecological zones. On the Hormiga River, which flows into the Amazon River and eventually all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, the reserve is also home to five indigenous groups and hundreds of species of fauna.

The Caiman Lodge, a little over an hour downriver from the reserve entrance, is an eco-friendly space of thatch and bamboo, strewn with hammocks, its observation tower stretching above the surrounding trees. During meals we were joined by a pair of green Amazon parrots looking to scavenge our leftovers (and usually succeeding); reintroduced to the wild after being kept as pets, the birds were accustomed to relying on humans.

The trip included a visit to the local Siona village to see traditional bread being made and hear a Shaman speak briefly on their customs. The bread is made entirely from cassava (yuca) root, which we harvested in the pouring rain. The root is then peeled, cleaned, ground, wrung dry, and made into a large, thin pancake cooked on pottery over an open flame. After the meal, the Shaman sat down to explain the local customs and how he (and his three brothers) learned from his grandfather the ways of a shaman. All told, it was both touristy and highly interesting.

But the main event, the magically breathtaking main event, was the wildlife. From being awoken by the calls of howler monkeys to the ever-present drone of cicadas and calls of birds, we spent four days surrounded by nature. We paddled, boated, swam, and squished through mud and water in knee high rubber boots. Massive troupes of squirrel monkeys leapt through trees, pairs of yellow and blue macaws cruised overhead, anacondas sunned themselves in branches, pink river dolphins surfaced briefly before cruising downriver, sloths existed lazily.

It may not have been exactly what my eight-year-old self pasted all over the walls of a classroom, but it certainly was an awe-inspiring experience. Definitely worth all the bug bites and early mornings.