AUTHOR: LOIS OLIVE GRAY
PHOTOS: KAY ELLEN GILMOUR
Ecuadorian Ecosystems: Quito, Amazon, Galapagos
February 4 to February 18, 2014 Betsy, Dianne, Kay and Lois Travel Company: Overseas Adventure Travel TABLE OF CONTENTS
The First Ecosystem: Quito ................................................................................................................4 Judgment on OAT's trip to the First Ecosystem ..........................................................................9 The Second Ecosystem: The Amazon Jungle ............................................................................... 10 Judgment on the Amazon Portion of the Trip......................................................................... 23 The Third Ecosystem With Darwin In Galapagos......................................................................... 24 Evolution and Natural Selection................................................................................................. 24 San Cristobel Island...................................................................................................................... 26 South Plaza Island ........................................................................................................................ 28 Santa Fe Island............................................................................................................................. 30 Floreana Island ............................................................................................................................. 31 Santa Cruz Island.......................................................................................................................... 33 Isabela Island ................................................................................................................................ 37 Fernandina Island......................................................................................................................... 43 Baltra Island .................................................................................................................................. 45 Judgement on the Third Ecosystem........................................................................................... 47 Shipboard Stories............................................................................................................................. 47 Questions and Answers................................................................................................................... 48 Why visit Ecuador?........................................................................................................................ 48 Why Travel with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT)? ............................................................... 48
INTRODUCTION For Kay & Lois this trip is a return to a fondly remembered country; for Betsy and Dianne it is a first time experience! Ecuador is a fascinating country--not least because of the variety of its ecosystems. From the Andes heights to the Amazon jungle and then to the evolutionary marvels of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is amazingly diverse and special. Its political life is provocative and hopeful as well. And its people mirror the separate land entities: the descendants of the Incas up in the mountains, the progeny of the Spanish conquerors, and the original inhabitants who are the South American Indians in the jungles. In addition, there is the wonderful mélange of all these different peoples who have intermingled over the years since the Spanish colonial period. Ecuador is a magnet for first time travelers, so of course Betsy and Dianne were excited. And why not revisit the country after an 11 year time lapse? SOME FACTS ABOUT ECUADOR In size, Ecuador is a little larger than Nevada and like that state it has mountains, deserts, and one big city. But it adds to that array of different terrains, a seacoast, a mysterious and deep jungle, and the island "province" of Galapagos. Where Ecuador has a population of 15,654,411 (with 2-3 million living abroad), Nevada has only 2,800,000. Nevada contains a small population of Native Americans while Ecuador has a slightly larger group of Amerindians (as they are called in that part of the world). If measured from the center of the earth which bulges at the equator, Ecuador has the highest mountain in the world, Chimborazo at 20,564 feet. On the other hand, Everest is highest above sea level from a base high in the Himalayan range. Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world at19,347 ft. and it is only 50 miles from the capital city of Quito. Though the country is a republic now, it has endured a tumultuous political history over the centuries. Originally it was the northern part of the Inca Empire until the Spanish conquest in 1533. Between 1819 and 1822, the area known then as Gran Colombia, comprised of Ecuador, Columbia, and Peru, won independence from the Spanish. Quito withdrew from Gran Colombia in 1830 and declared itself & its surrounding territory The Republic of Ecuador. Between 1904 and 1942, it lost territory to its surrounding neighbors in a series of military incursions and annexations.
In 2004 the country celebrated 30 years as a republic, but that achievement has been fraught with many changes, such as the adoption of more than 20 constitutions since
independence. The most recent governing document was ratified in 2008 and significantly amended in 2011. As of 2014, Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado remains the president and head of government. According to the current constitution, he can be elected for one more 4 year term but there is already a movement afoot to amend the constitution yet again to allow him to run for a third term. The few people we met were unanimous in their positive statements about Correa's governance, but that limited segment of the population cannot be taken as a true picture of how the Ecuadorian people feel about him. The most insurmountable problems that Ecuador has faced and is facing still lies in the totally unequal distribution of power and wealth in the society. There are 12 wealthy families who completely control the country economically and politically. Even elected officials are chosen from these families, many of whom live somewhere other than their home country. While these people are immensely rich, the majority of the population is quite impoverished. Perhaps the growth of a small urban middle class will eventually morph into greater economic & political influence among all the people of Ecuador? An interesting side note: Ecuador's currency has been the US Dollar since 2007 when the country was facing economic collapse. While the adoption of the dollar did help to stabilize the country and prevent further sliding towards bankruptcy, there are currents of thought alive in the populace to return to an independent currency because of some restrictions that accompany the use of the dollar. No official position as been issued by the present government on this idea. A TOURIST'S EYE VIEW OF ECUADOR Why do so many people put Ecuador on their bucket list of places to visit? And how did our trip with Overseas Adventure Travels satisfy those dreams? Read on to get the answers to these & other questions about visiting Ecuador in general & the Galapagos in particular. Most of us who visit this country are not particularly concerned with Ecuador's history or economic stability. We come to see its magnificent mountains & high volcanoes, its vibrant capital city, the Amazon jungle, and the magical Galapagos Islands. We can only hope that our tourist dollars help all the citizens of this beautiful country live more comfortable lives. It seems that almost every trip to Ecuador starts in the capital, Quito, a city of 2,240,000. It is one of two cities (the other being Krakow, Poland) first designated as World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1978. Quito earned this distinction because its central city is the largest, the least altered, and best preserved in the Americas. Another distinction, not so benign,
the city boasts is its being the largest capital city most surrounded by active volcanoes. The city is ringed by at least 8 very tall and very active ones. Yet another claim on the world's attention is the city's geographical location--only .62 miles from 0 latitude. This former Inca city is also the world's highest capital city at 9,350 ft. and all its governmental entities, administrative, judicial, executive, and legislative, are situated at this altitude. We were to arrive at and leave from the city four times during this trip so we felt that we had seen and experienced many of its special features. That's my justification for labeling Quito as one of the three "ecosystems" I will describe in this journal! So let's climb up to visit the quixotic, quake-prone, quivery, crazy-quilt quadrangle of the city--central Quito & environs.
THE FIRST ECOSYSTEM: QUITO
This almost 2 mile high city is also very old--at least 2000 years old according to archeological and historical findings. So it was already ancient when the Incas came north out of Peru and annexed the city & surroundings lands between 1460 & 1490 when the conquest was complete. Their empire lasted until 1534 when the Spanish invaded the New World and remained in control of Gran Columbia as they called the former Incan Empire until Simon Bolivar liberated most of South America by 1822. The city center contains many buildings from the Spanish Colonial period: churches and governmental buildings mostly. The churches are grand in size and decoration with many tons of gold spread all over the altars, the statuary, the walls. It is said that the huge Cathedral of the Jesuits (The Church of St. Francis) contains more of the gold stuff than any other church in the world!
All of it stolen from the last Emperor of the Incas, Atahualpa, of course. But the theft of the Incan gold was justified by Pizarro and the conquistadors because the Spanish had come for more than just the glitter but also to save the barbaric souls of whichever Incans they left alive. Despite that woeful history, however, the churches are magnificent monuments to architecture and the decorative arts.
Many other buildings off the main square also demonstrate the lingering Spanish presence in Quito, creating quaint narrow streets with many little shops and restaurants housed in the old buildings.
La Ronda Street just off the big square is typical of these charming little neighborhoods. It is no wonder that UNESCO designated this wonderful old city as something very special.
One quite surprising cultural encounter for us on the corner of La Ronda and the Square was an interview conducted by our guide with a sex worker. This is a legal and licensed profession in Ecuador and the very pretty 29 year lady was perfectly matter-of-fact in her responses to Patricio's questions. Though she does have a "corner for her market" there, she informed us that most of her customers are regulars so she is not so dependent on "foot traffic." However, her own spot does provide the rendezvous point for the clients to find her. Talk about a unique (at least for us Americans) ecosystem, this little outdoor bordello was certainly something unfamiliar to us. Our very accommodating informant (dressed less flamboyantly but still identifiably than the "ladies of the evening" we see on our streets) rather proudly told us she earns up to $600.00 a week which is more than she could make any other way since she has no education or marketable skills. Her job is also more lucrative than many office jobs, domestic help work, and agricultural employment. Government licensure requires that she undergo monthly health examinations and treatment is provided free should she need it. Thus far in the interview, we were feeling rather relaxed about her life's condition, but that changed quickly when Patricio (our city guide) asked some more probing questions. He asked why she had left school so early (at about 15) and she responded that she was being sexually abused at home and decided to escape that environment. However, she quickly learned that she really had no other choice but to turn to "sex work." Now she sees no way out since she has a child and wants to provide her with a realistic chance for a better life than she has. So "retirement" is not a option she sees for herself while her child is still young. She was so unembarrassed with us that she asked if we had any questions. One woman in our group asked her if she was ever afraid of being hurt or killed by one of her "johns." She replied candidly that she was frightened sometimes but not often since she has so many regular customers that she feels comfortable with them. It is "walk-up" business that has caused the scary experiences for her. A precarious ecosystem to inhabit indeed.
Sinamune as a very different phenomenon in this amazingly diverse city. it is a music school founded in 1993 to provide a safe place, a day care center, an educational experience, and the chance to learn to play musical instruments and enjoy performing traditional native dances. Why is this facility so special? Because all 50 of the students, ranging in ages from adults to children, are people with Downs Syndrome!
We were invited to attend an afternoon performance by these enthusiastic students. We saw for ourselves their proficiency on many instruments: drums, violins, horns, accordions, piano, cymbals and guitars. But what was so inspiring about the performances was their obvious delight in creating music and dance with one another. All these students were just having so much fun together in a safe and encouraging environment. Another aspect of the Quito ecosystem that is equally unique is its presence so close to the equator--actually only .62 miles from that spot. There is a fascinating park which highlights Ecuador's position at 0 latitude and we were intrigued by our visit there. Though some French astronomers & geographers are usually given credit for having "placed" the equator on the globe (The French Geodesic Mission in 1730s), there is considerable evidence that the ancient cultures living in the area even prior to the Incan conquest were aware of the presence of the Equator and many of the strange phenomena that occur in its vicinity.
Some of these interesting events include: how water drains from a sink depending on whether the sink sits directly on the equator or whether it is just off the equator to the north or south. If the sink is right on the equator, the water flows straight down the drain with no circulation at all. If the sink is to the north of the equator, the water will rotate counter-clockwise as it drains out. The opposite circling effect will occur when the sink is on the south side of the equator. And the most amazing thing about this occurrence is that the distance from the equator the causes the effects is quite small--less than 6 inches!
Another strange finding is that muscles weaken on the equatorial line: if you are standing on the equator, it is harder to resist another person's pushing against your upraised arm than if you were both away from the equator. Maybe you're suspicious about this one, but I was there and I tried the experiment and it was completely true! Experts can only say that it has something to do with gravity's exertion on the equator. One of the tricks that the guides at the Equatorial Museum want to show the visitors is the balancing egg. The guide first demonstrates that he/she can stand an egg up on its larger end on a flat surface or even a nail head and it will balance there without tipping over because there is no movement on the equator to tip it over.
Several members of our group wanted to try this one out for themselves and some were successful and others were not. None of the guides even tried to explain why that should be so.
Judgment on OAT's trip to the First Ecosystem
Our hotel (the Reina Isabela) was not a 5 star but it was well-located in the city center and it was perfectly comfortable, clean, and competently managed. Breakfasts were buffet style and included anything and everything any reasonable tourist could request. Our guides, Delfin & Patricio, were excellent in every way. Both were well-versed in the history of the city, its attractions, its culture, its restaurants, churches and museums. But even better for us, both were acquainted as well as with out of the way places not on the typical tourist itinerary: such as a little tucked away chocolate shop where authentic Ecuadorian recipes for homegrown chocolate were available, a tiny family owned museum of art & artefacts from the many different tribal cultures were displayed and a fine non- tourist oriented meal was served, and the always on the menu home-hosted meal. Ours was provided in the home of a middle class Quito family where both husband & wife spoke English, making our chance to meet them much more meaningful since we could actually talk with them and ask questions without an intermediary translating for us. Both guides also seemed to be totally candid in answering our most intrusive and even provocative questions about present day life in Ecuador: education, marriage customs, political currents, economic problems, attitudes towards minorities such as women or Amerindian tribes. As a matter of fact, it was additionally beneficial and interesting that Delfin was an Amerindian himself, born and raised in the Amazon Jungle where Patricio was a descendant of Spanish colonists. The only significant annoyance we had to tolerate on the trip was not the fault of OAT. More importantly, the problem was in process of being solved while we were in the country. As mentioned earlier, this trip required us to come and go from Quito to reach other destinations like the Galapagos and the Amazon. The trip from the hotel to the airport was pretty miserable--over an hour long and in congested traffic. However, the new highway to the airport from downtown Quito is under construction right now. But, as both guides laughingly reported it may be another few years before it is completed since such projects are never on time in Ecuador! But if you are interested in visiting this wonderful country, do not let a little thing like a long bus ride to the airport put you off.
THE SECOND ECOSYSTEM: THE AMAZON JUNGLE
Our main hope in visiting the Ecuadorian Amazon Jungle was to see a jaguar in the wild; realistically we knew that would not happen. So we are not holding OAT responsible for that failure. After all, the jungly wilds are not zoos--the animals come and go as they please. And what self-respecting jaguar would want to show up at our jungle lodge and its vicinity where there are way too many people? Despite that already anticipated disappointment, our Amerindian guide, Delfin who was born & raised in the jungle, made our visit there intriguing and even exciting occasionally, but not because of any frisson of danger. Another trip to the airport from Quito brought us to the airplane that would fly us to El Coca, a little city which has grown rapidly on the banks of the Napo River since oil has been discovered in the jungle nearby. Before that finding, it was a tiny town, usually inhabited by only a few Indians and some highlanders who traded with them. it has now burgeoned into a population of about 30,000, and new arrivals crowd in everyday, looking for an opportunity to share in the newfound chance at employment. Though our time in El Coca was limited, Delfin insisted we visit a local native market to see the variety of products and the friendly people, hear the music both "canned" and live blaring over the whole scene, catch the odors of the delicious cooking of fish and veggies, smell the fragrances of flowers on offer, touch the bolts of fabrics on sale, and taste a strange but sweet fruit.
The experience was certainly sensual, as he had intended. The photographers delighted in the colors and the faces of the older people and the charm of the children. All too soon for them it was time to get back to the portside of El Coca to catch the local transportation to the Yarina, our local jungle lodge.
A major tributary of the mighty Amazon, the Napo River is 668 miles long from its birthplace on the flanks of the volcanoes in the Andes to its confluence with the Amazon. It is muddy and turbulent and creates temporary sandbars which occasionally morph into ephemeral islands. There is much debris in the water from the shelving sandbanks where trees and bushes collapse into the river. Its width is impressive as it grinds its way through the soft sands and tangled jungles that line its length. The swift current makes navigation against the flow without an engine a very exhausting task.
We, however, were not expected to paddle. Instead we boarded a vessel shaped like a very large canoe topped with a tarp against the sunshine, and outfitted two rows of seats, a single seat on each side. The motors were large enough to keep us moving briskly along. The ride took about 45 minutes and then we reached a much smaller creek spilling into the Napo and motored our way slowly into the jungle until we reached the Yarina Jungle Lodge. On our way in, a beautiful blue morpho butterfly floated along beside the "canoe" for a short while. We all took it as a positive omen for our Amazon jungle visit.
The Lodge is on a high bank above the creek about 75 steps, broken into three flights. The cabins are made of bamboo with thatched roofs with hardwood floors. Each cabin has a private bath and a small porch decorated with a hammock. The main lodge where we had our meals and meetings prior to activities was comfortable and centrally located. The staff was friendly and eager to please. The grounds were well maintained and punctuated with several kinds of trees, including citrus and palms. Birds, squirrel monkeys and lizards played, fed, and courted in the trees every day.
One day we were surprised by a visit from an Agouti in our yard. It’s is a dark brown rodent, a little larger than a good-sized domestic cat. But he’s built nothing like a cat. With large haunches, he can jump up to 6 1/2 feet. His front legs are shorter so he appears to be in a crouch. He eats fruits, nuts and berries. Preyed upon by the native people for food. But, as far as we know, he was never on
our menu at the lodge.
Meals were actually quite tasty and interestingly spiced. Fruit was fresh, though most of it was familiar to us: citrus, cantaloupe, watermelon, papaya. Meats were predominantly chicken with some beef occasionally. Breakfasts comprised traditional American choices, eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, & fruit juices, and Ecuadorian coffee. No one complained about leaving the table still hungry.
Our activities in this area included walks along the jungle paths, often muddy, because it had rained before we arrived and we had one afternoon of very heavy rain to add to the moisture. The growth along the paths was dense and tangled. Many trees were supported by butress prop roots because there is very little topsoil in the jungle and clay underlies that thin layer. So it is difficult for a plant that needs deep tap roots to stand straight as it reaches for the sunlight filtered weakly in among all the plant life. In the jungle we saw several bird species including woodpeckers, flycatchers, the wonderful oropendula, and yellow rumped casiques. Many species of ants crossed the paths in front of us including the very industrious leaf-cutters and the dread army ants which devour anything in their way. These walks were never very difficult except for the occasional slippery spots and we were always alerted as to the type of shoes we should wear before venturing out.
There were three very special events that all of us greatly enjoyed. Two were planned by OAT itself and the other could be replicated by any travellers no matter how they came this part of the Amazon jungle. Number One was our visit to a local school for Amerindian children. The principal lives nearby and the teachers are provided by the Ecuadorian government. We visited on a day when school was "out' so we did not get to meet the teachers. However, the children seemed very pleased with our visit and particularly delighted in a soccer game with us "oldie-goldies." They sang a couple of songs for us and asked some questions of us as well- -prompted by the principal. All were very shy, except on the playground outside their school building.
Number Two on the list was our visit to an Amerindian family who live in the jungle very much as such peoples always have. Their house is built up on stilts, made of wood slats (probably bamboo), roof thatched with local palm fronds, and a floor made of boards with spaces in between so the clay ground beneath the structure was visible. No protection from local insects but they had 5 dogs to alert them if something more dangerous came into their little compound.
We were only a little surprised when we were introduced to the man of the family to see that he is the principal of the school. He is obviously a very forward-looking young man who would like to see his children and the neighboring kids have a chance in the modern world. Paulino had completed only 5 elementary grades himself and his wife Maria had had no formal schooling. Both of them clearly understood their own limited opportunities and wanted much more for their children. This couple has been married 9 years after both were widowed. Between them they have 7 children to raise & educate.
Maria met us at the entrance to their compound and walked us to her "farm" which was a nothing but an open patch in the jungle foliage. The area was quite small and it appeared that her only crop at this time is yuca. She showed us how the root vegetable was harvested through digging and then cutting the bulbous root free of the plant. The women of this tribe do all the farming activities. Men are responsible for the hunting and fishing.
In her two-room home, Maria has an ingenious "stove" made of a wooden box lined with metal and filled with dirt, like a cat sandbox. On top of the box sits a grill and the fuel is always charcoal. She has aluminum pans and plastic bowls but her plates are the large ginger leaves. Despite the simplicity of her kitchen, Maria very efficiently prepared a delicious meals of fresh caught tilapia fish, both sweet and green plantains, mashed yuca root, and watermelon for dessert (bought in El Coca). The fish was cooked & served in the ginger leaves directly on the open fire. It was the best- tasting fish I have ever eaten anywhere! The ginger leaf supplied a bit of flavor but otherwise only salt had been added. The yuca was flavorless to me because no seasonings were used nor was butter available in this house with no refrigeration. The green plantains were rather tasteless as well but the sweet ones were delicious. The dessert was the most anticipated part of the lunch for Maria's family who all were very excited to have watermelon slices after the meal!
All told, Maria prepared this sumptuous repast for the 14 OAT tourists, our guide, Paulino, Maria and their 7 children. She was amazingly quick too and seemingly unfazed by the large guest list.
I have saved the best for last however--in good biblical fashion. The appetizer to begin this meal had also been harvested by Maria but earlier in the day before we arrived. With a flourish, because she definitely was anticipating our reaction, she opened another of the large ginger leaves on her food prep table to reveal some fat, white, wriggly critters, squirming around on the green plate. We all recoiled even those who tried to repress their reaction. It turned out that these pal weevil grubs were really on our menu. They are a delicacy when eating raw & still alive or for the squeamish they are skewered & roasted over the fire, like fleshy marshmallows. Delfin demonstrated the proper way to consume them raw, but I don't remember any of our group following his lead. Some did try the roasted ones--tasted just like chicken, I'm sure! OAT always offers home hosted meals in whatever country or area they lead trips. Sometimes we enjoy them; sometimes we find them uncomfortable--especially if the hosts speak no English and we cannot speak their language. However, most of us had a little Spanish and of course we had Delfin who could speak the couple's Kichwa tongue as well. So this was one of the best such events we have ever experienced.
Besides the friendly interactions we enjoyed with this amiable couple, the chance to contemplate the interesting lifestyle they inhabit was of paramount importance. They live caught between the ancient ways of their tribe in the wilderness of the jungle yet also are aware of and touch the cusp of the modern world as well. They know about cellphones, they have one electric wire to power a small lightbulb in one room of their house, they can take the water taxi to reach El Coca for shopping--yet they stay on the property of their parents and grandparents & continue to live as those forebears did. But their dedication to education for their children demonstrates their awareness of the changing world their children must inhabit. When we asked Paulino what modern item he would most like to add to his life, he told us with no hesitation that he wants an outboard motor for his handhewn canoe. Yet in his front yard lay a long, thin, hollow bamboo pole he can still use to blow poisoned darts at prey when he is hunting animals for food.
Yet right outside his jungle "doorstop" is an oil drilling operation just down the Rio Napo which will bring unexpected upheavals to his half in-half-out life and very fast too.
Number Three was our night canoe ride on a lake not far from the Yarina Lodge. It started at dusk so we were able to watch several of the amazing Hoatzin birds before the last light slipped into the lake. These are the most amazing birds anyone can imagine. Like cows, they have a chambered stomach which allows them to digest their only food source--vegetation. This physiologic characteristic also makes them the smelliest birds anyway: they burp and break wind just like cows and for the same reason. This rather unattractive aspect of their lives is more than overcome by their beautiful feathering and their comically
awkward movements. They are quite heavy and do not fly very well, but they can clamber around in any foliage with the help of a "hook" claw on the "elbow" of their wings which they use to grasp branches and fronds when they climb around. Their feathers are a shiny brown touched with many other colors, yellows, blues, greens, etc. Wonderful as the Hoatzins were, the best part of the experience came after the lights went out in the sky, except for the silvery twinkling of the myriad stars. But that wasn't the most unexpected event either. That honor goes to the bioluminescent larvae of the lightning bugs. Having been hatched in the floating vegetation on the little lake, these thousands of larvae lit up the black water "sky" like the stars in the heavens. It was profoundly beautiful-- the sky and the water mirroring each other, the newly cool air on the skin, the many tiny sounds of frogs. What a way to say goodbye to the Amazon Jungle of Ecuador.
Return Bus Ride from El Coca to Quito
While the short flight from Quito to El Coca had given us a condor's eye view of the mountains, the volcanoes, the rivers and the jungles separating the big city from the back country, our bus ride, while long, permitted us an eye level view of all that terrain. El Coca is at 1000 feet of elevation and the good road took us as high as 13,200 feet in the Eastern Andes before we began the descent (surprise) into Quito at just 9300 feet.
The land changed radically from jungle growth to the paramar in the high mountains-- grasslands with no trees. Some cattle but not much sign of life at the highest altitudes. The skies changed as well from bright sunshine with broken clouds as we drove out of El Coca and into dense clouds and low hanging fog in the highest places.
We made several memorable stops along the way in this wild part of Ecuador. The first was a visit to the home of Andean highland woman and her family.
They have 1000 acres of land along the highway with a 2-story farmhouse and some outbuildings as well. Olga, the lady of the house, said they have three cows, chickens, and dogs. They use some of their land to raise vegetables, such as the delicious "tree tomatoes" which we had sampled all during our visit in Ecuador. It is red like our tomato but it is not really that species. It has a tangy flavor and we wished it could be purchased in the USA.
Olga’s home was provided with many more modern conveniences than the jungle home of Paulino and Maria. Where they had one electric lightbulb, Olga’s house was fully electrified to the point there was a television set, refrigeration, and lights throughout the structure--both upstairs where the bedrooms were and downstairs in the large sitting room area. Interestingly, though, Olga and her daughter who lived in the family home preferred to cook in another building using propane gas.
Because her property is below the level of the highway, we had a bit of a hike to get to her home, across a small but rushing streamlet using a suspension bridge which the husband and neighbors had built themselves.
All the grasses were wet, probably from the thick fogs over the area, and the soil definitely looked richer than anything we had seen in El Coca or along the Napo River and certainly better than the clay soils in the Amazon jungle itself.
A beautiful and bountiful waterfall next brought the bus to a stop!
We walked down a rather steep trail from the bus stop parking lot to catch snapshots and more professional pictures of the tumbling waters. Though the falls were certainly not hidden deep in the mountains, the noisy cascades drowned out any motor noises from the highway and birds were twittering all around. It was actually quite a lovely stop (and there were even public facilities--always welcome on a long bus ride). Little jeweled flying hummingbirds next claimed our attention at another stop. The refuge for the birds is called "Guango" and we were also promised freshly made hot chocolate, using only real Ecuadorian chocolate as a snack. The birds were stunning and probably represented most of the species found in the whole country. The hot chocolate was as tasty as we had been promised. Needless to add, the serious photographers were dancing on the air caused by the continuous speedy beating of the tiny wings of the hummers. They were sipping sugary sweet fluids from the many feeding stations throughout the preserve. A really satisfying treat for eyes and tastebuds at Guango. Though our ride was long back to Quito, it was thoroughly enjoyable, educational, and fun. We had started at 9 A . M . and arrived back in the capital at 4:30 P . M . but no one was sorry about the overland trip back. We saw such different terrain, got impressive views of the many volcanoes on the horizon, learned a little about life in the highlands, got to sample some unknown to us fruits: such as the tree tomato and a fruit called a "guava" which is nothing like any guava any of us knew. This one a long legume with ridges on the rind which cracked open when twisted. The rind was inedible but inside was a soft white pulp wrapped around a large seed. The pulp was sweet and smooth. Another add fruit was a "tree grape" which was more like a litchee nut in appearance and taste than any grape we had eaten at home or on another trip. Both the "guava" and the "tree grape" were cool and refreshing in the mouth before chewing and swallowing. We also were given a fruit drink to try that our guide called "naranzilla" juice. It tasted rather like a combination of orange, pineapple and peach flavors--not as thick as peach though.
Judgment on the Amazon Portion of the Trip
While fascinating in every way that we had expected, there were two different disappointments. One we have to concede OAT had no control whatsoever over. We never saw a jaguar, but that is not too surprising when you learn that people who have lived in the jungle all their lives, like our guide and the family we lunched with, have never seen one either. So that failure cannot be counted against the travel company.
The second disappointment concerned the monotony of the location we inhabited. Because the area around the lodge was so small & restricted , there were not enough different trails for us to hike or activities for us to pursue. So our suggestion to OAT was that the stay in the Amazon either be reduced to two and a half days from the three and a half scheduled for us OR that we have one night and a day in a different locale altogether.
Otherwise, this part of our itinerary was interesting, fun, and totally enjoyable.
THE THIRD ECOSYSTEM WITH DARWIN IN GALAPAGOS
Not exactly the same as Darwin's long voyage on the Beagle, our travel to the Isla Encantadas began with short flights from Quito to Guayaquil and then on to the airport on San Cristobol Island. A short Zodiac ride brought us to the Archipel II--our floating/moveable home for the next 7 days. This catamaran which was large enough to include 8 double cabins, 2 singles, and a large central room between them with the dining table and the bar at opposite ends of the "hall" and a small lounge area near the bar. Much more comfortable than Darwin's digs I am sure. There were crew quarters and the kitchen below decks. Our chef served tasty dishes three times a day and the barman was constantly at our command for drinks, both soft and alcoholic. The vessel carried two zodiacs which were more than comfy for the 14 of us and the drivers and guides. Another decided plus over the Beagle is the fact that the Archipel II is a catamaran which makes it much more stable than that fabled vessel. However , we did experience a couple of rocky nights as we rounded the top of Isla Isabel which did try the ship's stability.The air- conditioned rooms were definitely a luxury that Darwin and his fellow crew members did not enjoy. However, the many groans, sighs, shrieks, dying gasps, and coughs our room's unit made all day and night did detract a little bit from the cabin when it was time to sleep. The cabins sport the names of creatures of the Galapagos: Betsy & Dianne are in the Penguino while Kay & I stay in the Blue-footed Booby.
Evolution and Natural Selection
Darwin's observations in the Galapagos Archipelago cemented his ideas about speciation and how it occurs. In particular, he was impressed by the changes in beak size, strength, and purpose over generations of Darwin's finches, particularly on Daphne Island which is not visited by tourists, only scientists who continue his observations and researches there. What Darwin saw involved the relationship between the type of seeds plants on the island
produced depending on weather patterns, particularly the amount of rainfall. When rain was scarce, the seeds were harder to crack. The finches who had short stout beaks were better able to feed on those seeds and therefore their reproduction rate was higher, i.e., more new chicks with the shorter beaks. In years where the rainfall was plentiful, the same plants tended to produce softer seeds which the birds with the longer, slenderer beaks were better able to utilize than those with the short beaks. Next season, guess which kind of beaks were most prevalent in the new generation of finches. Thus, Darwin saw the evolution of seed production in the plants dependent on rainfall and the evolution in the finches in their ability to exploit the seed types produced. If you are interested in more details about Darwin's studies and the ongoing studies which have confirmed his findings, read a book called "Darwin's Finches"; it is truly fascinating. In our own visit, we were told about newer alterations in the colors of the skin of some lava lizards in the islands as well as changes in skin pigments in the land iguanas. As yet no one has definitely decided on why these evolutions have occurred, but the changes are being observed. On one island, the usually grayish, white-spotted males are developing red pigments on their heads. The females are not demonstrating these changes. On some islands, the land iguanas are beginning to appear more yellow than before-in this case, both males and females are changing. Perhaps it is for better camouflage as the sands on their islands are altered through erosion? We will await the conclusions of the biologists who are studying these phenomena.
Island Hopping San Cristobel Island
In addition to its airport, this island offered us the chance to visit the Galapagos National Park Educational Center, a good introduction to the flora, fauna, history both human and geological, and the geography of the islands. There is so much on all these topics that it is much easier to refer any interested readers to the many internet sites such as Wikipedia to read as deeply as you wish. I don't intend to try to compress all these materials into a short blog about our trip.
However, there is one topic which we all found fascinating & new--the formation and continuing "evolution" of the islands themselves. There are currently 18 major islands, 3 smaller ones, and 107 rocks and islets. These are distributed on both sides of the equator and all are the product of the movement of tectonic plates over a stationary hot spot of undersea volcanic activity which has been boiling away for millions of years. The islands form over the hot spot which spews materials up until they are taller than the ocean surface, creating islands. Because the islands ride the Nazca tectonic plate which is moving east southeast, the oldest islands are those closest to the South American continent and they will gradually erode away and disappear. The geologists and vulcanologists have found the remnants of old Galapagos islands which have slipped beneath the sea again. Newer ones are forming over the hot spot which is "cooking" the materials of the Nazca plate. The oldest extant islands are San Cristobal and Floreana which are more than 33 millions years old and the youngest are Isabela and Fernandina, youngest of all at a mere 500,000 years old. Besides the often sad history of the islands, we got acquainted with Pepe, a 63 year old tortoise who had been raised as a pet for 18 years. Because he had never lived on his own in the wilds, he now must be fed and cared for. Now he is the mascot and emblem of the Educational Center. So many of the birds of the Galapagos are indigenous to only one of the islands, a fact that intrigued Darwin and helped him develop his theory of evolution.
Species peculiar to San Cristobal that we observed were the San Cristobel Mockingbird (on the left), yellow warbler, and Darwin's finch. In addition to these birds, we also saw the San Cristobol lava lizard and many sea lions (not inhabiting only San Cristobol.
South Plaza Island
This is one of the minor islands mentioned above and also one of the older ones since it is farther to the east than the younger ones. On a very rocky walk on this desert-like environment, we saw the characteristic opuntia cactus which is only seen here and a couple of the other islands, many indigenous lizards, and the wonderful land iguanas with their predominantly yellow reptilian skins.
A red-billed tropic bird raced across the clear and almost cloudless skies above our heads and we enjoyed seeing a pair of swallow-tailed gulls with their chicks who were quite large but not ready for life on their own yet. The waters surrounding this small piece of land were luminous, aqua, and crystal clear.
Santa Fe Island
This tiny island is one of the oldest in the archipelago and it hosts a variety of the prickly pear cactus as well as the palo santo tree. What we saw most of were the sea lions who literally made the beach on which we landed barefoot look like a Coney Island Beach in the middle of a hot New York summer. There seemed to be hundreds of the creatures splayed all over the sands: babies crying for their mothers, big and small males honking and generally annoying all the others, and the females dodging passes from the frisky fellows.
We also surprised to see how many of the big males had laboriously climbed up on the rocky hillsides. All the sea lions are quite immune to the presence of humans; they are actually rather insolent in their refusal to give way on paths, stairways, in lawn chairs, and even at the "lobby" area for the airports. They lounge anywhere they like and seem to enjoy their pride of places in the islands.
Ancient but not yet eroded completely flat; as a matter of fact our visit here involved a ride in a local bus (dubbed a "chiba") which carried us up into the highlands where a combination of National Park and private lands provided a sanctuary for several hybrid tortoises--meaning they are the result of the pairings of tortoises from different islands as each island supports its own species.
Since the aim of the national park is to maintain the separate species, these hybrids are not sent to any islands which still have their own tortoises. Instead, they are fed and cared for until an island whose own species has been wiped out is freed of rats, feral cats, and other introduced animals. Then some of these creatures will be moved to that environment. To date, of the 52 hybrids originally housed here, only 25 are awaiting new homes. No doubt some will go to islands where other hybrids have been established, but none will ever go to those islands with their own pure species surviving.
Besides offering a home to these orphan hybrids, Floreana also is the site of the only fresh water spring in the entire archipelago. Though the spring flows constantly, it is also dependent on rainfall on its aquifer. For this reason, the people of the small town on the island can access anywhere from 2hrs of water to their homes, etc., to a constant flow all day, entirely dependent on the amount of rainfall. So it’s clear that this water supply is precious and it is closely guarded to insure that no water thievery occurs.
After visiting the tortoises, we took a hike up into a forested area for an overview of the island. The views were lovely but our walk was cut short by a rapidly approaching storm.
Santa Cruz Island
The second largest of all the Galapagos Islands, it is situated in the center of the archipelago and is the site of a long extinct volcano, meaning that it has moved away from the island-forming "hot spot." Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galapagos with a population around 15,000 people. When Kay & I visited 11 years ago, there were many fewer folks living there, so it is clear that the Ecuadorian government has had limited success in controlling migration from the mainland and population increases in the islands themselves.
Charles Darwin Research Station
This is where the famous Lonesome George lived until his death in 2012, still unpaired despite worldwide efforts to find pure-blooded Pinta Island female. So when George died, his race became extinct. There were many changes in the Station since we had visited: more buildings, restrictions on entering any of the tortoise corrals (we had been allowed to go inside everyone of the outdoor corrals & we were not allowed inside any of them on this visit, more paved pathways to keep the visitors "corraled" in the areas where the authorities wanted us to be. What has not changed is the emphasis on research, breeding and conservation of the Galapagos wildlife, particularly the tortoises.
After the unhappy failure to save George's species, the Center is happy to present their successes: particularly the significant rise in the population of the land iguanas which were considered endangered when we last visited. Now the numbers have almost reached the level where the population is stable and self-sustaining. The scientists still go out to the islands where the pure-blooded tortoises live and take eggs from the nests for incubation in the Center so that feral animals do not eat the eggs. The baby tortoises live at the Station until they are considered large enough to be uninteresting prey for any dangerous creatures who live on the islands. Some of the endangered trees and cacti are also being nurtured at the Center and the guides were quick to point out those successes as well.
The heat & humidity in the Galapagos in February was beginning to bear down on us and we were all glad when we were on air-conditioned buses for some of our excursions. After leaving the Darwin Station, we boarded one of those comforting vehicles to be taken to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island for a visit to a privately owned farm (Las Primicias) whose owners cooperate with the government and the Darwin Research Station to keep the Santa Cruz race of tortoises living free on the island. They cut fields to heights comfortable for feeding giant tortoises, they leave swampy areas untouched for drinking water and swimming, no fences impede the migration of the tortoises over the landscape.
While we walked through the farmlands, we saw about 25 of the wild tortoises living their customary lives undisturbed by the resident humans or the tourists. When we walked alongside these huge and long-lived reptiles, we were impressed by their enormous sizes. They usually weigh in at around 800 pounds making them the 13th heaviest reptile on the planet. Next stop on Santa Cruz was a 2000 ft long lava tube which was 20 ft. high and 20 ft. wide. Lava tubes are formed by flowing lava which moves beneath the hardened surface of a lava flow. Tubes can be actively draining lava from a volcano during an eruption, or can be extinct, meaning the lava flow has ceased and the rock has cooled and left a long, cave-like channel. This tube we visited was dimly lit by low watt electric light bulbs so it was not difficult to see the lava flows. We were told that though the channels looks inviting to bats, none occupy this particular tube. Some birds are seen to roost inside but we saw no guano along the way.
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