magical time in the amazon basin

Deborah and Don have just returned from four days deep in the Amazon rainforest. They stayed at a lodge owned and operated by the Kichwa Community of Anangu, located within Yasuni National Park. They’ve agreed to a share some trip highlights with our readers.

DON: When we were deciding which lodge to visit, we avoided those in the province nearest the border with Colombia – the Canadian government recommends against travelling in the rainforest anywhere near Colombia – and focused on what was available along the Napo River. When we read that the Napo Wildlife Center was owned and operated by the local Indigenous community, and met a variety of eco-tourism standards (and was well-reviewed by TripAdvisor contributors), we were sold. We later also learned that as soon as they decided to embrace eco-tourism as a community development tool, they banned hunting in the area in order to allow wildlife to flourish and be less afraid of people. Motorized boats are not allowed within the tourism zone around the lodge, so people and materials are hand-paddled in and out (one hour with the current heading out, two hours against the current heading in!). Each tour group includes a freelance naturalist and a guide from the community, and all lodge staff are hired from the community. The lodge itself features 16 cabins, some duplexes, built on stilts with thatched roofs, an open-air dining room, and a small observation tower. The cabins are spacious, and the beds come with mosquito netting, although as one would expect, creepy-crawlers do make their way into the cabins. All in all a wonderful place to spend three nights!

DEBORAH: We usually travel alone and visit most places by ourselves, so this was a real treat to hang out with the same people as a group for the whole visit to the Napo. We were introduced to Danny, our guide, as we got off the plane in Coca. In our paddling canoe we met Meliton, our community guide. As tourists, we finally introduced ourselves to each other over dinner the first evening. In our group were Emma and Waheed from Australia, and Cynthia and Bruce with two of their sons, Aaron and Jason, from Southern California. It was a very good group to be with. Everyone was very engaged and loved being in the rainforest. Thanks to all for helping to make it a magical experience!

DON: After ten days touring the Galapagos Islands, canoeing and hiking through the Amazon rainforest was a completely different experience. While vegetation on the Galapagos is mostly twisted, sparsely distributed, wind-sweep scrub-bush, the rainforest is extremely lush, dense, and diverse. We were told that hundreds of species of trees can be found in every square kilometre, and 10s of thousands of species of insects lie in wait to buzz and feast on visitors – and we have the bites to proof it, DEET repellent notwithstanding. On the Galapagos Islands, one has to step over or around the birds and animals that are lounging everywhere – they pay tourists little attention, going about their daily business of eating, sleeping, and doing mating dances. In the rainforest, hikers have to search long and hard through thick vegetation to find the monkeys running along branches just below the canopy, or the birds perched on the top branches.

The birds and monkeys in the rainforest move amazingly fast – so not only is it hard to spot them, it is even harder to aim and focus a zoom lens in the right direction as they zip by. The wildlife in the Amazon is exceptionally diverse, but few and far between. We were really fortunate to see a great range of monkeys and birds, only some of which are pictured below.

DEBORAH: One of the most off the wall, humorous moments of the trip occurred when a young guest ran up to the lodge dining room, where we were talking and having coffee, to tell us he had spotted Giant River Otters. I looked through my binoculars and sure enough, they were in the lake just in front of the lodge. The group of us ran down to the dock. On the way, Danny joined us and confirmed the sighting of the otters. We asked Danny if we could take one of the 20-foot canoes and we jumped in (no cushions but with 4 paddles). Danny was at the back, with Aaron at the front and five of us in between. We did our best to get to the otters. Unfortunately, no one except Danny had experience in this type of canoe.

It was quite a site for the observers on the shore. We spun around in circles, went right when we wanted to go left and then left when we wanted to go right. We learned that our best paddling was in reverse. Can you imagine this group trying to get across a lake paddling backwards! It was quite delightful!

Anyway, we did not get to the otters, but spotted a caiman, a relative of the alligator. We then put our efforts into getting close… not a chance… we were really pathetic. At one point, the order of canoeists changed… it was really scary… out of seven people… three decided to stand up at the same time… I was sure we were going to tip and end up in the lake. Fortunately, they devised a plan for safe movement. It really didn’t help our canoeing though.

We heard really cool, loud noises coming out of the brush just in front of us… it sounded like the otters were having an argument… perhaps children disagreeing (there had been three of them). Danny encouraged us to go down a stream off the lake to see if we could find the otters. We then waited awhile and the otters did not come any closer, so we decided to head back… it was so much easier, we could paddle backwards really well and got back to the lake in no time.

I don’t know whether it was because we weren’t chasing anything or if we just got better, we glided very smoothly back to the dock as if we really knew what we were doing.

It was such a lark, such a spontaneous thing to do, and for me one of my most entertaining highlights of this trip.

DON: An amazing aspect of the Amazon rainforest is simply how big it is. We paddled and then hiked to the lodge’s well-placed observation tower – attached to a massive Kapok tree like a fire escape at the back of an old building. More than 200 steps up you reach a platform braced between the tree’s massive branches, the perfect place from which to enjoy a commanding view that reaches to the horizon in every direction. And this is only a small part of Ecuador’s tiny share (2%) of the Amazon rainforest. Our tour guide (Danny), and community guide (Meliton) worked together to find and point out birds hiding in the trees or perched on the top branches. Meliton was particularly good at spotting solitary birds perched hundreds of feet away. Two types of brightly-coloured macaws treated us to a fly-by, while toucans and others made us work harder to see them, sometimes only with the aid of a powerful birder’s telescope Danny brought with him. We saw about 20 different species of birds as well as a three-toed sloth, the only creature that day that stayed still for more than a few minutes!

DEBORAH: We had to get up at 5am the first morning we were at the Napo. Breakfast was at 5:30 and we were on the canoe at 6am down the Anangu Creek, which was our major waterway in and out of Anangu Lake and our lodge. It was a two-hour paddle to what they call “The Warehouse” where workers and goods are transferred from motorized boats to canoes for taking to the lodge. We hopped from the canoe to a long boat with motor and headed to the Napo River to see the clay lick on the shore that attracts large Mealy Amazon and Yellow-crowned parrots, and the smaller Blue-headed and Dusky-headed parakeets to feast on the minerals and salts in the clay at this specific bit of river-bank. Eating this clay apparently offsets the toxic build up from the flowers, fruits, seeds and nuts they eat on a daily basis. Early in the morning on sunny days are the best times to view this really cool activity.

We tried an hour later or so to view the clay lick that is inland about 800 metres. It was a well-kept trail and as we got closer to the viewing area the sound of the parrots was quite deafening. Unfortunately, the birds were very high in the trees as they had been scared by raptors circling the area. We waited in the viewing hut for about an hour hoping the birds would come down to the forest floor, but when we counted at least eight hawks flying about we knew there was no chance that day that the parrots would come down – they only have to visit the clay lick once a week to stay healthy. We left disappointed that nature doesn’t always fit into tour schedules!

That night, with the support of our guide, our 8-person group took a vote and decided we would pass on paddling down a second nearby creek and instead return to the forest clay lick the following afternoon. We were so glad we did! When we arrived at the clay lick we could hear the birds about 40 feet up the trees (the day before they were very much higher). We quietly sat on small stools to watch… with our binoculars and cameras ready. We were encouraged when a group of the birds came down to around 30 feet… then 20 feet… then one of the birds (after about 10 or so minutes) flew down to the bottom of the wall where the clay lick was, then another bird and then hundreds of birds flew down and frolicked in the clay and mud. They were so enjoying themselves, chirping, flapping their wings and rolling in the clay. The noise was really loud… we figured anywhere from 600 to 800 birds participated that day… then the forest got really quiet, and all of a sudden the birds burst forth from the clay pond, many flying straight for and through the viewing hut. Don almost had one fly right into him… it was so cool!!! Danny said they had been frightened by a false alarm that a predator was nearby, evidenced by the fact they returned to the clay lick almost immediately and enjoyed themselves again… fewer birds though. They did the loud chirping, playing and licking clay, then quiet and off they flew again. They came back… again fewer birds. They did this for about four more times and then we had to leave as a large tour group was coming in. It was an amazing thing to watch and apparently it is rare for the birds to return after an alarm has been raised. We were really treated to a special event and all were extremely happy we had decided to go back.

DEBORAH: Our last night at the Napo Lodge included an after-dark canoe ride around Anangu Lake looking for caimans. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We had heard lots of splashing sounds from our cabin (we were right at the lake’s edge) every night as we were going to sleep so I wasn’t sure whether we would see huge angry beasts or what.

When we got into the canoe, Danny had a very strong search light (reminded us of what the FBI might have) that he shone around the edges of the lake in the reeds and grasses. It was amazing to see red eyes show up all around the lake as we moved across the lake. Apparently, caimans are not anything like their cousins the alligator. Alligators would make sure they took some sort of initiative against us, but the caimans were quite kind and did not attack. We got really close to all sizes of caimans. We could see young caimans about two feet long, with their whole bodies visible in the murky water. As we paddled around the lake, some of the caimans dove under the water just before we reached them. We didn’t wait for them to emerge as they can stay under for hours at a time.

The longest caiman we spotted was just before we headed back to the lodge. It was between 12 to 14 feet long. It just floated in the water, with its eyes very red, and let us enjoy its company. They were neither afraid nor aggressive. Another very special experience… I have never been that close to such a great creature.

DON: Visitors reach the Napo lodge by boat from Coca, a small city dominated by the movement of oil workers on their way in and out of the Amazon. About 30 minutes along the Napo River from Coca, on our way to the lodge, we stopped briefly to discuss an oil flare visible from the river (pictured below). Our guide lamented that the practice of burning off excess natural gas was not only a waste of a good source of energy, but represented 24/7 destruction of the environment, something that is not allowed in most western countries. I appreciated that he wanted to point this out to a boatload of tourists, giving us something to think about as we headed into one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world and the purest air on earth. It also brought to my mind the landmark civil suit brought against Chevron resulting from its purchase of Texaco, the oil company that first exploited and terribly spoiled a huge area of the rainforest just north of here (Amazon Watch has the full story).

DEBORAH: This has been our first foray into the amazing Amazon. We will be travelling to Brazil next month and the plan is to spend a couple of days at the mouth of the Amazon and then do a river cruise into the heart of the Amazon. We look forward to more magical times!

mitad del mundo

One does not visit Quito without heading slightly north of the city to stand on the big red line that represents the GPS-confirmed location of the equator. After all, the country is named for it. The line is painted on the grounds of a quirky little “museum” and interpretation centre called Inti Nan (path of the sun). It’s a privately-run facility, complete with a cheesy display that describes how certain Amazonian tribes turned human heads into grotesque shrunken head pendants. The on-site guide seemed quite proud of this display but we’re sure any self-respecting anthropologist would have a fit at the way these ancient civilizations are depicted.

The walk along the big red line is the fun part. We had some vague idea about the balancing of eggs on the equator, and both of us did succeed in setting an egg on the head of a nail – apparently you can only do this on the equator, although we’ve never tried this at home. Three tourists from Holland were part of our tour group, but only one was able to get it right – Canada 2, Holland 1!

Our guide also demonstrated how water flows straight down a drain over the line, clockwise south of the equator, and counterclockwise north of the equator. Or so we thought. It was a quick but convincing demonstration, however science websites note that the Coriolis effect, which explains why cyclones rotate clockwise in the southern hemisphere, and counterclockwise in the northern, only works with huge amounts of moving air and water. Certainly not with water in a small basin, where they claim water flow is affected more by how the water enters the basin and the design of the drain. Oh well, it was fun to watch just the same.

It was too cloudy to fully appreciate how shadows behave at the equator (in fact, we experienced lightening and intense rain showers within the hour) – but we did try walking along the line with our eyes closed and arms outstretched – it can’t be done, we were told, because at the equator you are being pulled straight down, but on either side you are being pulled in opposite directions – extremely disorienting!

After the Inti Nan visit, we headed over to the public park and monument built on the site that French scientists, on expedition in 1736 to determine the diameter of the earth, believed was on the equator. They were only 150m off. The seven-story Mitad del Mundo  (middle of the world) monument that is there now was built in 1936 to replace a very small monument that was built many years earlier. There is a “colonial town” full of restaurants and gift shops and a covered stage and audience area near the monument. Apparently the place is extremely crowded with locals on weekends when live music is featured, although it was very quiet on the weekday we were there (other than the thunder).

On the way back to Quito we had a long conversation with our driver, Christian. We happened to mention that the streets and sidewalks in Quito were in much better condition that those in Buenos Aires, which were the worst we’d seen – full of holes with broken chunks of concrete heaved up in every direction, and covered with garbage and dog poop. He was happy to hear this and thanked us for saying so. He said Argentinians are always expressing superiority over Ecuador and the rest of South America, and now he had something to fire back.

We had a look at the stats for our blog and discovered that we’ve had over 6000 page views since we started this trip, with visitors from 49 countries. It was no surprise there were many visitors from Canada and the US, but not sure why New Zealand views come in third, followed by views from Bolivia. We have had visitors from many of the places we’ve visited throughout the Americas, but also from as far away as Turkey, Tunisia, Finland, Albania, Georgia, and the United Arab Emirates. Oh the mysteries of the internet!

hammerhead sharks and giant sea turtles

Good morning all you wonderful people,

I am writing this in the garden of our hostel in Quito, July 7th. We got our pictures back from the underwater camera and a I wanted to share with you those and our last 3 days in the Galapagos.  We disembarked at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno—- on Ilsa San Cristobal, picked up our luggage and looked on the large map of the town to see where the Ecolodge was. It wasn’t listed and we only had the address on our computer. Unfortunately the cab drivers we asked didn’t know of the Ecolodge, so off we went to find a cup of coffee and an internet connection.

As the heavens opened up and the rain came down we drank our coffee and waited for the internet. We did find the address and Don emailed Harry at the Ecolodge and quickly he emailed back saying he would pick us up in 20 minutes (I imagine he had a blackberry).

Driving to his place, Harry told us that the Ecolodge sign was promised to be ready a week ago and even though we had an address, the taxi drivers don’t go by addresses. If we would have known, we could have asked for a ride to Harry Jimenez’s house and they would have taken us right there. Apparently, everyone knows everyone else… lots of relatives in the town.

After living in the small cabin and very tiny bed on the boat, our room was like being in a palace. The bed was king size with light switches on the wall in the middle of the headboard of the bed, so you didn’t have to get up to turn the lights off… pure luxury. It had a lovely modern bathroom, air-conditioning, microwave, small fridge, tv and tables and chairs.

Our stay included breakfast which was at 7:30… we made it about 7:45 most days.  Harry and his wife looked after us very well…

We did a snorkelling day which was awesome. We saw hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, spotted eagle rays, giant green sea turtles and lots of regular tropical fish, mostly traveling in schools… great to swim with them all.

We were on San Cristobal for 3 nights and enjoyed every minute. It was a quiet place… we noticed that no one came up to us to sell us wares as we were sitting outside in cafes nor did people try to get us into their restaurants as we were walking around. It was heaven after our six months of travelling and people not leaving you alone.

We also noticed that there were no homeless dogs in the town. We asked Harry about it and he said that all the domesticated animals had a microchip inserted under their skin. Harry’s sisters dog had been stolen and she went to the authorities and they found the dog through their computer tracking program… pretty cool, eh!

Tracking of the domestic animals is important as they are living in the national park and they don’t want animals to disrupt the balance they are trying to preserve.

The other thing to note is that for the first time since we have been away we saw the full moon. The super moon that you saw in Vancouver wasn’t visible to us as we were in Buenos Aires and it was majorly overcast that night. So, our first full moon, half way through our year, it was something to be celebrated.

Anyway, our dear friends and family, you have a wonderful day. We are off to Papallacta Hotsprings about 1.5 hours out of Quito. We are celebrating my 58th today and I wish you all very much love and happiness in your lives.

(underwater photos below taken with cheap disposible underwater camera — the turtle shows up well, but the Galapagos and Hammerhead sharks were in deep water and in a narrow channel with less sunlight)

a bird eat bird world

Awesome; in every positive sense of the word. That’s the only way to describe the past eight days, cruising from island to island, crossing back and forth across the equator, and exploring life under the water, on land, and in the sky, 1000 kms off the coast of Ecuador. These are Herman Meville’s famed “enchanted islands’, better known as the Galapagos Islands.

These volcanic islands, moving toward South America at a rate of about 3 cms per year, are widely varied in terms of landscape and animal life. From the hard, harsh, and hot-under-the-sun lava field of Isla Santiago to the lush highlands of Isla Santa Cruz, each island and bay was teeming with enough unique and very visible flora and fauna to inspire birders, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Charles Darwin’s name comes up a lot. He spent about 6 weeks here in 1835, collecting samples of wildlife and vegetation. His discovery of island-to-island variations of finches and other birds and animals helped shape his thinking toward a theory of evolution (On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859).

When we decided to tour Central and South America this year, we were certainly aware of the Galapagos Islands, but we didn’t start thinking we should go until so many fellow travellers, in conversations at hostels, on day tours, and in restaurants and bars, insisted that a year in this part of the world would not be complete without a visit. The final push came from a British couple we first met in Guatemala who were also doing a year on the road, and who visited the Islands in March while we were in Chile. They e-mailed us with the details of their experience, and when we crossed paths again in April in Peru, they convinced us it was worth the effort. We`re glad they did.

There are two ways of seeing the wonders of the Galapagos Islands – from a boat equipped with dinghies for landing at beaches, hiking trails, and snorkeling areas — or on day trips from one of three main cities. We opted for an eight day cruise aboard The Eden, an 80-foot yacht with eight cabins and a crew of five. The itinerary included stops at many of the islands: Genovesa to the north, Floreana and Espanola to the south, Bartolome and Santa Cruz in the middle, and San Cristobal to the east. Each day featured two or three excursions with our guide, Eduardo, who helped us understand how the islands were formed, the different currents and weather systems that effect plant and animal life, and the human history of the islands. He pointed out endemic species (only found in the Galapagos), native species (found here and elsewhere), and animals and birds introduced on purpose or by accident by pirates, whalers, and settlers.

For the first four days we were a group of eleven, and then some left and others joined us to bring the total to 16 passengers – from as far away at Sweden, Holland, Russia, Israel, Australia, France, Ireland, Greece, and the US and the two of us, the only Canadians. We were all astounded by the diversity of wildlife along the trails, on the beaches, and in the water – and we were all excited when someone, frequently Eduardo, spotted a new bird, animal, or underwater creature. We could hardly go more than a few steps on the ground or a few metres through the water before seeing more fascinating creatures. Mostly don’t pay humans much attention. Park rules are to stay two metres away from wildlife and to stay on marked trails – hard to do with Blue-footed Boobys sitting on nests in the middle of the trail or juvenile sea lions swimming into our midst to play as we snorkel across a bay!

The islands are teeming with life, but every time Eduardo introduced a new bird or lizard and talked about what it ate, it was disturbing to hear that the main food for so many birds are the eggs of other birds, chicks, and baby turtles. From mocking birds to Frigatebirds to Galapagos Hawks – they are all on the constant lookout for unattended eggs, new babies, and even injured or dead adult birds. Frigatebirds even swoop down and steal the meal the Boobys are regurgitating for their young! A real bird-eat-bird world! Nevertheless, there are large colonies of many species of birds on the islands, although some, because they’re not as careful with their eggs, are at risk, such as the Greater Flamingo and the American Oystercatcher.

Our excursions included treks across lava fields, hikes up mountains to cliff side bird colonies and dramatic viewpoints, walks along the shore, climbing down into a 400m section of a lava tunnel, and a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. This centre is one of two in the islands where the giant land tortoises are bred and raised for repopulating the islands. Sadly, a famous giant tortoise by the name Lonesome George, the last of his kind from Pinta Island, died the day we arrived in the islands. Our guide was sad because he volunteered at the centre while in high school, and later brought hundreds of tourists to see George, who was at least 100 years old. Diego, another very old giant tortoise at the centre, will now likely get more attention.

Our cabin on the boat was really small, and there’s no way it was a full double bed. That would have been okay except the boat was on the move through rough seas on four of the seven nights which made restful sleep impossible. The boat really rocked and pitched – there was a real feeling that we would be tossed from our bed at any moment. Such was the price of getting around to so many islands in just over a week – but we’re sure glad we did. The pictures below show much, but not all, of the birds and animals we encountered. We will have some additional underwater pictures once the film is processed back in Quito later this week. In the meantime, enjoy (and if any birders out there spot any identification errors, let us know and we’ll make corrections).

We’ve just passed the halfway point of our year on the road – the past six months have been remarkable, and we have some solid, some vague plans for the next six months. In the short term we have two more nights on Isla San Cristobal before we head back to the mainland and research a trip into the Amazon basin. From there, we’re looking at spending some time in Brazil, then maybe Colombia and Panama. We are going to spend October on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and finish the year with stops in Cuba and Mexico. Any suggestions, dear readers?