Friday, January 31, 2014

Galapagos Islands - Arrival

Our plane touched down on Baltra Island to begin our five day cruise in the Galapagos Islands. Baltra is really desolate with only the air field and a military base. Used by the US Air Force during World War II as part of the Panama Canal defense shield, the island has never been built up otherwise. The Galapagoans are quite serious about trying to prevent alien species from being introduced. As we entered the terminal, we had to step through a pool of disinfectant to kill any bacteria that may have been on our shoes. Every bag was x-rayed to assure that we were not bringing any food items and the dogs were busy sniffing for food, not drugs. We will go through a similar process when we leave to prevent the removal of anything natural from the islands.

Boobies, Noddies, and Pelicans in a fishing frenzy.
Over the next four days we would visit six of the fourteen islands on our cruise. The other islands will have to wait for another trip. Our ship, the Legend, is on a 14-day cycle. A few years ago the government decided that no cruise ship could visit a place twice within a 14 day period. This separates the tour groups and keeps the disruptions to a minimum. On one stop, our guide said that in the past there would be 5-10 tour boats at a stop. On our trip, we only saw other boats at a distance. We are admonished to follow the rules. The two most important of these are to stay at least six feet away from any animals and stay on the trails with your guide. No self-starting adventurers allowed. Linda is worried about me, but I'll be good.

These pangas will be our second home for the next few days.

The Galapagos are volcanic islands similar in origin to the Hawaiian Islands. However, because they are younger, they are not as lush and because they are not on the way to anywhere, they have not been settled or developed to the same extent as Hawaii. I was surprised to learn that the islands have only been a national park since 1960. It seemed like they must have always been a protected place. In my lifetime, I don’t remember them as anything else. I guess that is not surprising since I was only 11 in 1960. The reality is that the islands were not a conservation priority for Ecuador and there are still conflicts between those who want to preserve the islands as pristine as possible and those who want to make money from them. A few years ago fishermen who had their catch limit cut retaliated by killing 60 of the giant tortoises. That led to a compromise that still allows the fishermen to take too many sea cucumbers showing clearly the problems that they still have today in preserving the islands. Another controversy is over the number of tourists allowed each year. Currently there is a cruise boat limit that includes no boats over 100 passengers. Actually, the limit was supposed to be smaller than that, but a couple of entrepreneurs managed to buy multiple licenses and combine them to reach the 100 passenger size. Now there are efforts to allow even larger boats. After our trip, I see no good reason to allow larger ships than the one we were on. We were already close to interfering with each other as we visited the various islands.


A short drive through the cactus brought us to the harbor where we saw our first animal life. Several birds greeted us in the harbor, including the famous blue-footed booby and more familiar brown pelicans. After settling in an a good lunch, we listened to an orientation and were whisked onto the pangas for a ride to Black Turtle Bay on Santa Cruz Island where we learned about mangroves and watched two groups of turtles trying to mate. Our guide said this is an 8-hour process and the male will have to fight off other suitors to maintain his position.

Spotted Eagle Ray
Brown Pelican
Mating Turtles

Among the birds we saw this evening were the famous “Darwin finches”. It would take me a couple of days to discover that this is what they call any finch they can’t identify precisely and that there is no official Darwin finch. There are 14 different finches and telling them apart is difficult other than ground finches are found on the ground, cactus finches in the cactus, and tree finches in the trees. That doesn’t help a lot when there are at least two versions of each differentiated only by the size and shape of the bill.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Holiday in Ecuador

Spending the holidays in another country can provide some interesting insights into their culture along with being a great time for travel. Over the last month or so, Rick Steves has been showcasing travel in Europe during the season with some great photos and experiences.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that crèches are everywhere. Every church we visited had at least one, several of which were life size. We also saw them on the street and even in our hotel. I already shared one of the most extensive displays in the San Francisco Monastery. We also saw a lot of Christmas decorations on buildings similar to what we would have seen at home. Christmas music was just as pervasive as at home also. It was a bit disconcerting however to hear familiar renditions of White Christmas or “Jingle Bells” as we walked around town.

Our hotel offered a special and expensive Christmas dinner. They promised a great four course meal with music and fun. We signed up right away. The dinner itself was excellent as promised, but over the course of the evening we only saw five other couples in the restaurant, all of whom were hotel guests. The room was nicely decorated and the music was a nice accompaniment even if a lot of it wasn’t Christmas music. The keyboard player was friendly and even tried to get me to play a bit. I declined which as Linda will tell you was a good thing for all of us. We did see a lot of people entering the church in the square below as one would expect in a mostly Catholic country.

Lights and special Christmas decorations
We could see this display from all over town.
The lights were inside the gauze sheets creating a beautiful look during the day, too.
Guayaquil started taking down its display on January 9, later than in the US where we have to get ready for Valentine's Day.

Children were able to ride Santa's train.
It can be a bit hard to keep track of days while traveling because you don’t really have the reference point of having to go to work on Monday morning – or whatever day you happen to work. It was especially difficult to realize it was actually Christmas day because there did not seem to be much difference on the streets. It seemed that stores and restaurants were open as normal and people still filled the streets and squares just like every other day. The only real difference I noticed was that the Cathedral I had been trying to visit every day was finally open for visiting in the morning between services. By afternoon it was closed again and did not open again any time I was in the neighborhood. Lonely Planet recommends paying the small entrance fee, so I expected it to be open most of the time.

I gave this lovely a dollar for posing

It was for the New Year that we saw the big celebrations and closures. Two traditions bring in the New Year. One is that young men dress up as women and beg for money. Ostensibly, the money is to help widows get money they need to survive without a husband. Unfortunately a lot of the money only goes to support the young mens’ drinking expenses as they celebrate. Traffic was stopped on several streets as these young men actually stood in the middle of the traffic to extract money from drivers and passengers. When I went out walking close to midnight, I was warned off one street where this was happening. I was told to “Take care,” because they were “robbers” according to the two well-dressed young men who were worried for my safety. I decided discretion was the better part of valor and took another street.

The second tradition is to create paper maché effigies which to be burned at midnight in the streets. In this way they destroy the old year and make way for the better New Year to come.  These effigies are for sale along with masks at many of the stores. Some stores built their own dolls for display. Others put them on the front bumper or the roof of their car as they drove around the city. Many of the effigies are of politicians. The president is, of course, a popular target. One of these was displayed at the Presidential Palace. Others are of popular culture figures. We saw one of Mario, the computer game hero.  There were also a lot of little girls, under 5, with bright pink long hair wigs.

My walk that evening was intended to discover what was happening on the squares. On the Friday before Christmas, each of the three nearby squares had a live band and partying until late into the morning. The band at our square played until 2:15, making it hard to be up at 5:00 to get to the airport for our trip to the Amazon. However, each of the squares was silent on New Year’s Eve. I almost gave up before trying La Ronda Street which is supposed to be a great party street every weekend evening. The street was busy and the open space beyond it was filled with people and a lot of effigies. Most of the restaurants had music and one man had set up his own microphone to sing to the crowds. He was pretty good, but I wouldn't have paid to listen to him. I also saw a crowd of young men chasing around the area. One of them was the object of the chase. I was unable to decide if they were serious or just having fun, but I did see several police in the immediate area and most of the families walking through the space were looking nervously at the action. It was nice to see the large number of families with small children enjoying the evening. I did not stay long enough to see the burnings, but there was plenty of evidence the next morning if you were out early enough to see it before the cleaning crews came by.

We chose New Year’s Eve Day to take the gondola trip up the mountain side  for the great views of the city it offered. We were joined by a number of people with back packs. We decided that they were probably going to hike the rest of the way up the mountain to greet the new year from there. Starting at about 12,000 feet the rest of the hike was certain to take some good physical conditioning, but I imagine the view of the fireworks was spectacular.

New Year’s Day was what I expected to see on Christmas Day. Very few stores were open and not many were on the streets. With Linda’s still sore ankle we decided to do the city bus tour and have dinner at what looked like a special Italian pizza restaurant that advertised using local produce. The tour was on, but the restaurant was among the many that were closed. The hotel restaurant was also closed so we ate at the one next door where the food was just decent and we ended up with three orders of fries and an extra order of rice because the waiter and I were not able to communicate clearly. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

La Selva - Trails

When we weren’t on the lake with our guide we were out on one of the trails hiking through the rain forest. We never had any rain, but there were still wet spots where the rubber boots were necessary. We were fortunate that the four of us had our own private guide so it was easy to hear him tell us all about the flora and fauna and how the indigenous peoples used the various plants and animals.

A termite home. They don't harm the trees unlike some other parasites.

This flower is used for birth control. The black spots are flies.
We saw lots of spiders and other creepy-crawlies, but never saw a snake. It looks like Linda will get her wish and not have to see a snake here just like she never saw one in Africa. They do have anacondas here, but none showed up for us. We also saw quite a few birds, but pictures are difficult in the dense, dark forest. Even when you do get a clear view, the birds seldom stay put long enough to get a clear focus.

Find the Leaf Frog

One morning we started by climbing some 125 steps to the top of a tower built around a kapok tree. This put us at the top of the forest where we had a unique opportunity to see birds that were unavailable at ground level. Andres, our guide was disappointed in the number of birds we saw that morning. He said they needed some rain to get things growing and making the birds more active. I found it hard to be too disappointed when we saw eleven new birds that morning and had some great views of capuchin and spider monkeys playing in the trees.

On two evenings I went out looking for owls. Andres arranged for another guide, someone who knows where to find owls, to take me out alone after dinner. We had  just our flashlights to guide us. We stopped several times with the lights off. It was so dark that I had visions of being left behind with no idea which way would get me back to the lodge. After a couple of hours of nothing but owls calling in the distance we made our way back to camp. The next night I joined another couple from Costa Rica with a different guide who is an expert at finding owls. We stopped in one spot for about 45 minutes while he tried to call them to us. Again we heard them, but did not see anything. He said that to have the best chance of seeing owls, we needed some moonlight which was available at 4:00 in the morning. There were no takers. Maybe next time. 

On the last morning as we were preparing to leave this very rare Bald-faced Ibis stopped by for a visit. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

La Selva - A Lake in the Amazon Basin

The Lodge
The view from the lodge

At La Selva, we had two types of activities: paddle by canoe or walk the trails. Often we started in the canoe to get to the trail head. The lake is a beautiful backdrop to the lodge and our dining area, especially in the early morning and late afternoon light. While not huge with steady paddling, it would still take an hour or more to circumnavigate it. For us, it would take much longer as we stopped to see monkeys, birds, caiman, or other flora and fauna. We also learned that the lake has several little bays where birds and animals might be hiding. At times we were able to get within a couple of feet of some birds by just floating into one and staying very quiet.

One of the lakes many tiny coves

While we did not take advantage, we could have done some kayaking on the lake during the late morning or early afternoon downtime we had each day. People also are able to fish for piranha, catfish, and small-mouth bass off the dock – catch and release only. Linda, Taylor, and Danette did some fishing from the canoe our last evening there. Linda was skunked, but they did catch one each of the fish varieties.  I was off for an evening of owling so I missed that experience. Some of the kids also went swimming in the nice, warm water. It is totally safe since piranhas are only attracted to blood. 

This Sand-collared Nighthawk was one of the few birds that sat long enough for a portrait.