Mitad del Mundo or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation

posted from Mt. Hartman Bay, Grenada

I planned to write and post this in Quito, Ecuador near the Mitad del Mundo – Middle of the World, but things got in the way.  Travel, lousy internet connections, and other stuff of life conspired to delay this blog entry.

*****

A CHANGE OF PLANS

Jackie has always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands.  She called a travel company to sign up for their trip next year.  They told her they had a cancellation for their upcoming trip and would she like to go now – at a SUBSTANTIAL discount?  We already had a credit from the company that would expire this Fall, so it was a no-brainer – we were going to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, and we were going soon!

BIRDING WITH SAN JORGE LODGES

Despite the discount on the tour, the airfare is still expensive.  We decided to make the most of it so Jackie found the San Jorge eco-lodges that specialized in birding and signed up for a tour that included a couple nights at three of their lodges before our Galapagos tour started.

We scrambled to get our gear together and flew to Ecuador on Tue, July 14.  It was a late flight and was delayed in Atlanta, so we didn’t actually arrive at the San Jorge Lodge lodge in the hills outside of Quito until the 15th.

Our first day was on our own, which was just as well given our late arrival.  The lodge has bird feeders around the main building and we saw lots of humming birds. We hiked the trails above the lodge enjoying more birds and at times a great view looking down at Quito.  For most of the next five days we spent bird watching with a guide on the grounds of the company’s lodges in Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe; at sites between the lodges; and on group tours.

We saw an incredible number of species of birds and the views of the Andes Mountains were spectacular.  Our first guide was very good at spotting and identifying birds.  At one point he amazed us by dropping down into a river bed to follow a Cock of the Rock.  He came back and reported that the bird was on its nest under the bridge.  It was too dark to get a good picture, but we could see the bird nestled up in the supports under the bridge.

We got a bit of a surprise on our first morning at the Tandayapa lodge.  We walked up the trail to breakfast and found the little dining area surrounded by hummingbird feeders and other feeding stations and they were full of birds.  We had expected to go on a hike to look at birds, but it turned out that this was the planned activity and that the fellow who had carried our bags to our room the previous evening was now switching hats between waiter and guide.

The rest of this trip our guide was Jorge, owner of the San Jorge lodges.  He took us on bird walks at the Tandayapa and Milpe lodges, and had us join the people from the Refugio Paz de las Aves company.  They knew were to find a few special birds and could usually call them out to clearings where we birders would stand quietly waiting for them.

 

Tandayapa Lodge

Tandayapa Lodge

 

Our room at the Milpe lodge

Our room at the Milpe lodge

 

Hummingbirds vie for dominance at the bird feeder

 

Racket-Tail Hummingbird

Racket-Tail Hummingbird

 

Birders that we traveled with.

Jackie, our guide, and fellow birders Michelle and John somewhere in the Andes.

 

Rufous-Collared Sparrow

Rufous-Collared Sparrow

 

Screech Owl

Screech Owl

 

Golden-hooded Tanager

Golden-hooded Tanager

 

Toucan Barbet

Toucan Barbet

 

An Antpitta - one of the birds that would pose for food.

An Antpitta – one of the birds that would pose for food.

 

QUITO and JOURNEY TO THE AMAZON WATERSHED

After about a week in Ecuador we started the main tour.  We met the our guide, Diego, and our fellow travellers in Quito and spent a day sightseeing, mostly visiting the old city area.  It was a little touristy, but nice.  It was similar to many South American cities with narrow streets opening on a large plaza.  We stopped to visit a large curch, which was quite spectacular. But what set it aside from all the other old Spanish churches we have seen was that where you would expect to see gargoyles they used local animals such as iquanas, dolphins, sea turtles, and penguins.

This penguin was one of many local animals used instead of gargoyles

This penguin was one of many local animals used instead of gargoyles

The next day we began our journey to the Yarina Lodge in the Amazon watershed.  We were to take a bus over the Andes to meet a motorized canoe that would take us the final stretch to the lodge.

It was a gray day as our bus fought its way out of the city through the morning rush traffic.  We were soon climbing the Andes Mountains which surround Quito.  I could write an entire blog about this trip, but I will try to keep it as brief as possible.

We reached the highest point of the trip and stopped for photos at a roadside shrine.  This was a popular stop to give thanks for reaching the pass and to ask for a safe trip to their destination.

We proceeded on, but had to stop for crews to clear mudslides from the road. One was pretty dramatic with a large shovel clearing mud from the road as water flooded past and cascaded into the ravine.  Driving through the water was a bit dicey and we were quite glad when we got to the other side. That was when our guide told us that because of the recent and continuing rains we should expect more landslides before this part of the journey was over.

The first major landslide we encounter. A small car drove through so we figured the bus would make it

The first major landslide we encounter. A small car drove through so we figured the bus would make it – it did. Note that you see only the top of the deep ravine in this picture.

We stopped for lunch at a nice little place and then continued on.  We reached another line of traffic waiting for a landslide to be cleared.  We tried to go back, but got stuck at a new landslide behind us, which wasn’t being cleared due to lack of equipment.  We tried to go forward again but shortly after we got in line a terrified woman came running past screaming in Spanish that the mountain was falling.  Our driver turned the bus around and found a safe place to park off the side of the road.  We later learned that the road crew cleared a lane and cars started through, but more of the mountain slid down killing some people in the cars.

Now we were truly stuck and we would certainly spend the night on the bus.  We were parked next to what looked like an abandoned restaurant, but soon a couple cars pulled in the gate.  Our bus driver went to investigate.  It was a hostel that was due to open in a month.  Our guide negotiated lodging and the workers set up beds and stripped the plastic covers off new mattresses.

Our guide talked the work crew into putting us up in this lodge for the night

Our guide talked the work crew into putting us up in this lodge for the night

Things were a bit primitive.  The only toilet in the building didn’t have water connected yet, so they set up a small children’s pool, filled it with water, and put a bucket in it so we could flush.  We only got one blanket each and all they had to give us for dinner was popcorn.  But still, we felt quite lucky.  The only other building between the landslides was a house –  so we were the only people who got rooms for the night.

The next morning one of our hosts got a ride to one landslide, crawled over it, and hitched a ride to the closest town for groceries. Then he reversed the process. After having popcorn for dinner, breakfast was a feast.

The landslide had been cleared during the night, so we got on the bus and headed on our way.  It was a bit eerie because the road was blocked at one end and closed to traffic at the other, so we encountered only one or two other cars.  But what was really spooky was negotiating the landslide after the events of the previous day.  The driver stopped, took a good look, and then drove down the open lane as fast as the bus would go.

Our bus negotiates the path cleared through the landslide

Our bus negotiates the path cleared through the landslide

We arrived at the next town to find that our route was closed due to a collapsed bridge.  Poor Diego once again had to call the office to arrange what was probably plan D or E by that time.  He took us to lunch at a restaurant in the next town for lunch. After a few more phone calls he announced to us that although we couldn’t drive to where we were supposed to meet the boat we need not fear.  The company had arranged for a boat to meet us in a nearby town that would then take us partway down river.  Another boat would start up river to meet us halfway.  What was to have been about a five mile ride down the river would now be ninety miles.

We transferred from the bus to the motorized canoes for the first leg of the river journey

We transferred from the bus to the motorized canoes for the first leg of the river journey

Despite detours and an emergency comfort stop which entailed knocking on the door of a random house to get permission to use their outbuilding, we arrived at our rendezvous point.  Our driver took us as close to the water as he dared, which turned out to be a little too close and he stuck the bus in the mud.  (Just as an aside, this was the fourth tour we took with this company and they had got a vehicle stuck on each of the previous ones.  This time they really did it up right.  “Adventure” is their middle name.)

We boarded the motorized canoe and blasted down the river.  It was mid-afternoon and we had a long way to go.  We rendezvoused with the next vessel and transferred all the passengers and luggage while drifting in the middle of the river.  The second vessel was a more typical powerboat with a steering wheel, windshield, and seating for three across.

Again we blasted down the river and darkness began to fall. The river was swollen, muddy, and had random debris floating in it.  We bumped a couple small logs in the dark, but not hard enough to hurt the boat.  They did have some fuel issues and periodically the engine would stop and they would transfer fuel from a barrel into the fuel tank.

Finally we slowed down and soon saw a small light at the edge of the river.  It was a canoe from the Yarina Lodge.  After some discussion the lodge people convinced our captain that the water was deep enough that he could make it to the lodge rather than transferring us and our luggage back to a canoe.  We headed into a break in the mangroves and wound our way to the lodge’s dock.  We were over 24 hours late, but we had arrived.

YARINA LODGE

The lodge was nice.  There was a large open dining area and small cabins set up on a hill overlooking the water. They had to compress our activities to try to make up for our lost day.  We started by doing some birding from the dining area while waiting for breakfast.  After breakfast we took a nature hike and met some canoes for the trip back to the lodge.  Lunch was hosted by a local family upstream, so we travelled there and back in the motorized canoes.  The lunch was quite good – they steamed fish which included Jackie and another tourist learning to prepare the fish.  After lunch we got to try our hands at blow guns.  They are very long and take a lot of lung power to shoot the dart. After we returned to the lodge we explored a small lake next to the river in small canoes. And to top off the day we had monkeys visit us in the trees behind a couple huts.

 

Jackie is actually a much better shot at this than I am.

Jackie is actually a much better shot at this than I am.

 

The squirrel monkeys were playing just over the cabins

The squirrel monkeys were playing just over the cabins

 

Fellow travelers on one of our small boat tours at Yarina Lodge

Fellow travelers on one of our small boat tours at Yarina Lodge

The next day we got back on schedule.  We took the canoes to the nearby town and toured the market.  The tour included the opportunity to eat some larvae.

Bugs on the barbie

Bugs on the Barbie

 

Don't think too hard - just take a bite.

Don’t think too hard – just take a bite.

ON TO THE GALAPAGOS

We managed to get back to Quito and then do a daytrip to the market at Otovalo without incident and then it was off to the Galapagos Islands, some 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast.  Diego arranged for us to get to the airport and sent us off.  The flight made a stop in the seacoast town of Guayaquil where our guide for the second half of the trip joined us.

We were picked up in dinghies and transferred to our cruising cat, Archipel II.  We then commenced a week of touring the Galapagos Islands.  We visited one or two locations each day. Sometimes we made short trips between sites midday and other times we sailed at night.  Ecuador is trying hard to limit the impact of tourism on the islands so every tour boat has a very strict itinerary that includes the times within which a group can visit a site.  Tourists must be accompanied by guides and stay on paths except on a few populated islands.

What makes the Galapagos Islands interesting is the diversity among species on different islands and the differences between them and those in North, Central, and South America. The most common example given is the approximately fifteen species of birds that have been come to be known as “Darwin’s Finches.”  Each specie evolved a beak shape to best eat the food available on its island.  The differences in some of these beaks are subtle, but there are other animals with more obvious differences.  These include the shape of tortoise shells, boobies with blue feet, and penguins that live at the equator.  But  probably the most interesting are the marine iguanas – reptiles that swim for their food and flightless cormorants – birds that cannot fly, but swim for their food.

I won’t give a detailed list of where we went and what we did, but here are some pictures.

 

Archipel II, our home in the Galapagos

Archipel II, our home in the Galapagos

 

The Albatross that followed the boat one day

The Albatross that followed the boat one day

 

Tortoise with a high shell - an adaptation to accommodate reaching up to eat taller plants

Tortoise with a high shell at the neck – an adaptation to accommodate reaching up to eat taller plants

 

Tortoise with a "normal" shell

Tortoise with a “normal” shell

 

Flightless cormorant swims for his food

Flightless cormorant swims for his food

 

A penguin - living at the equator

A penguin – another flightless bird – living at the equator

 

Exploring the lava field at Punta Espinosa

Exploring the lava field at Punta Espinosa

 

Mama and baby sea lion and

Mama and baby sea lions

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Blue star fish

 

The iconic blue-footed boobie

The iconic blue-footed boobie

 

Frigate birds liked to hitchhike on the boat

Frigate birds liked to hitchhike on the boat

 

Sea lions liked to hang out at the Santa Cruz fish market

Sea lions hung out at the Santa Cruz fish market waiting for scraps

 

Jackie helps prepare a treat

Jackie helps prepare a treat

 

Isabela Bahaia Villamil DSC_6810

The birds in Bahaia Villamil “rained” from the sky to feast on a large school of bait fish

 

Isabela Bahaia Elizabeth DSC_7181

Rays at Bahaia Elizabeth

 

More rays at Bahaia Elizabeth

More rays at Bahaia Elizabeth

 

Many islands have forbidding terrain like this.

Many islands have forbidding terrain like this.

 

A marine iguana swims by while we snorkel

A marine iguana swims by while we snorkel.  Unfortunately they won’t pose for you in the water like they will on land.

 

We saw these crabs at a few islands

We saw these crabs at a few islands

 

Red-billed tropic bird

Red-billed tropic bird.

That really just scratches the surface of the Galapagos, but I have to stop somewhere.

Next: Back to the Caribbean

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