Monday, June 26, 2017

Galapagos, a journey into a different eco system

Let me preface this blog by stating that after viewing hours and hours of National Geographic films, arriving on the islands is a disappointing experience. So if you are not into: getting close up and personal while making your own pictures of the prehistoric creatures, if you are not hoping to be personally walking in Darwins shoes, go somewhere else. 
You can cruise from one volcanic surface to another and see some of those iconic creatures from the movies, but the colorful abundance seen at the National Geographic channel will not be found. 
And although I seem to have in the past found the right mating season during nature trips, this time we missed the blue footed boobies courting dance and settled for a view of birds nesting on eggs. 

The sea lions however had their playful young all around them and the fake "harem master" was noisily showing off his command position. The real master, who had the exclusive rights to the ladies, had left the scene as he seems not interested in the aftermath of birthing. He will most likely show up again, when the time is ripe and chase the imposter away.
But lets start at the beginning. The same 3 couples who travelled to Kenya and Tanzania for our safari experience a few years ago and who traveled last year to South Africa, found each other early February at the Quito airport, so we could fly together to Santa Cruz Island, one of the two most populated islands in the archipelago. And by this I mean human population.


A hotel representative took our luggage and directed us to a crowded bus full of screaming youngsters, which gave me the fright of having maybe booked the wrong hotel. Half an hour later after crossing by small passenger ferry to the main island, that scare passed as the crowd dispersed into different vehicles and we found ourselves being shepherded to our own minibus heading for our Finch Bay eco-hotel on the other side of this second largest Galapagos island.

Most visitors are cruising on one of the hundreds of cruise ships with daily shore tours. We were land based with daily guided tours on a bus, or on the hotel yacht. As we were here out of season, the 6 of us were most of the time having our guide and "our yacht" to ourselves, observing, wherever we went, guides with 30 plus tourists, doing what we were doing. 
The hotel is affiliated with National Geographic, with nice sized hotel rooms and good food, a swimming pool and a very attentive bartender.
In short we saw, what could be seen in the Galapagos, while being spoilt with all the amenities only cruise ship visitors might have on the larger cruises ships, but with our personal guide and free time to go to town anytime after the tour of the day, as well as a 65ft yacht with 5 person crew including a chef which we had all to our selves most of the time.
The tours went from the cheesy local coffee plantation, with a donkey that stopped and walked at the command of a remote control in the owners hand while crushing sugar cane to the amazing visit viewing the blue footed boobies and everything in between. 
Every time we had a yacht day, we had two times snorkeling that day. For me it was an opportunity to test my newly acquired underwater camera shell. The pictures will reveal that I am still learning how to change the settings to get the best underwater pictures with my little Sony camera.

Out of the 15 heralded animal species that call the Galapagos home we never saw the largest bird in the islands, the Galapagos Albatross, because they only live on one island too far away from us, as well as 2 other type of Boobies with red and black feet, and the Galapagos Hawk just because we weren't lucky enough. 

That may seem as though we came close to seeing quite a few of the big 15 that are exclusive to the Galapagos, but if one factors in that we only saw one lonely American Flamingo in the distance, you will realize that you need the National Geographic series to get a more satisfactory experience.
It may seem to you my readers as if I am complaining, but that is far from the truth. I think I speak for all in our group, when I say that it was great to have the Darwinian experience and get to feel what he must have felt when getting close to these ancient creatures, especially in watching the Iguanas and the gentle giant tortoises, weighing 550 lbs or up to 250 kg, and can live up to 170 years, who were slaughtered for their meat by 16th century conquistadors, when there were 200,000 of them roaming the uninhabited islands, realizing that now after a lot of breeding programs, we are back at say only 20,000.
All in all this remote island paradise, that may not belong to the most beautiful islands in the world, born out of violent volcanic eruptions that are still ongoing over an area of 53,300 sq miles. (138,000 sq km) is a once in a lifetime experience, where plantlife has found itself some soil creating species not found elsewhere, mixed with crops and domestic animals that humans who settled here brought. A process that the Ecuadorian government nowadays strictly controls. 
Bringing and/or taking to and from the islands is strictly forbidden, as one of us experienced when leaving the islands at the airport. One of us (not going to snitch on a fellow traveler) had a piece of lava in the checked luggage. 
And was summoned to open the suitcase and hand over the contraband. His laments that he had collected the piece on the mainland before coming here and thus that the lava was not from the islands did not make an impression on the officials he faced. He got away with a warning and they confiscated the item. His wife confessed to us she had left a shell he had collected on the islands in the hotel room to prevent leaving him behind in jail.


One of us while snorkeling with an underwater camera inched in on a half eaten fish only to be confronted by an aggressive sea lion who was not wanting his opponent to get closer to his catch.
I do hope the pictures and will tell the story better than what you just read.



Sunday, June 25, 2017

Amazon Rainforest

(Napo river from 3000 ft as we approach Coco)

                                                (The same river as we speed toward Yasuni National Park)
In a motorized long canoe-like vessel, expertly steered by Sixto at high speed, we traverse the Napo River from the left border to the right evading sandbanks and half submerged trees. Sixto as it later turned out became our native guide during our stay in the Amazon forest.
(Miguel distributing lunch with Sixto in the background)
Gary, Linda, Sandee and I flew from Quito an hour plus southwest to Coca, officially named on Ecuadors map as Francisco de Orellana, after the famous conquistador that sailed in the first half of the 16th century from the Napo river over the then unknown Amazon river to the Atlantic Ocean, searching for gold Inca treasures, battling with the storied female Amazon warriors (a name he coined) and bringing that new world to the King of Spain to keep.
(At the edge of the lake looking for its next meal)
The sleepy little town of Coca honors him with a statue and city name.
Movies like Indiana Jones were inspired by his exploits.
                  (Miguel peddles us through the rainforest)

                                                                                               (Our first view of La Selva lodge)
About 2 hours traveling downstream (it took 3 hours back) we reached LaSelva lodge in the Yasuni National Park, idyllically situated on the edge of a lake, which we reached after half an hour canoe peddling, when at last disembarking our larger motorized fast traveling expedition canoe on the very wide Napo river.
(A night shot at about 7pm of the lake as we peddle back to get dinner)
Our two guides peddle noise is the only disturbance, as we get familiarized with the Amazon forest sounds, sounds we would get accustomed to in the next days. With big blue butterflies dancing in front of us, guiding us to the next sight around the corner (I never caught one with my camera), and passing liane draped fallen trees, peaking out of the water, we strain to see what will come into sight. 
(Doesn't this picture radiate quiet and peace - but you miss the sound)

                                                                                     (Is this a crow?. Do they even live in the tropics?)
Our naturalist guide Miguel and native guide Sixto lead the four of us the next 4 days every morning early, when nature awakens and temperatures are bearable and every late afternoon for same reasons over well worn paths carved out by thousands who went before us. 
      (It's 6 am and Sandee is on the road again) 

                                                                                     (The stinky turkey is absolutely inedible and very noisy)
The rest of the day people lounge by the lake or on their bed under the overhead fan in their room. Yoga and massage are optional activities. The bar drew always a few. The best way to describe the conditions here at the lodge is the picture of the drybox in each room, where under a heat lamp we store articles, that should be protected from excessive moist, like iPads, cameras and the like. We forgot to store our flashlight and had to buy a new one back home as rust had destroyed it.

On a brighter note, the trip was totally worth it: almost no rain (the rainy season just started a few weeks earlier) few guests (reason why we had two guides to ourselves) and a fast and furious 4 day education in all that is Amazon, and all that in a semi luxurious environment.
               (A 100 ft up to the treetops) 

                                                                 (And this what you see on a misty morning)
There is something magical about a rainforest the size of the USA, where not too far away from us, as we were told, the Hoaorine tribe still avoids contact with the outside world.  Sixto's Kichwa tribe, having converted to Christianity receives primary and secondary schooling within a day travel distance (a primary school was located in Philchi, his village, which is nearby our lodge.)
 (Philchi village main meeting house with communal kitchen)

(We all shot 3 times with the blow pipe)
                                                                                             (And the winner is?)
We visited Pilchi  (you know, the cheesy "visit a local village routine")Here I successfully pierced a fruit with a blowpipe arrow, a weapon as well as hunting tool, that is still in daily use by the tribesmen. 
                         (We were told the anaconda had come into the village a few days ago)
Although,  I doubt that many of you have had the same type of cheesy visit, where we were shown a giant anaconda with a clearly visible chicken bump half way its shiny 17 ft muscular body, placed in a hastily constructed wire cage, with his/her next meal prancing around unaware of its fate. 
(Monkeys always a delight to watch)
    (He/she took off right after this shot, diving into the lake)

The Amazon forest becomes visible to us through our guides, a forest full of macaws, monkeys, parakeets, parrots and umpteen numbers of birds I will never recall the names of. 
(Shot through the lens of binoculars)
(It's a long way to the bottom) 
                    (We looked at it and it looked back)
We climbed a tower to the top of the tree line and with binoculars spotted birds and monkeys for a few hours in the early morning light, listening to the deafening cacophony of sounds, that the forest produces at six in the morning. 
               (Resident tarantula about 10 feet from our bedroom)
 (Don't ask me what this is)
                                                                    (A new sprout for the next leg of this walking tree in search of sunlight)
We were shown the resident tarantula just outside our rooms, the marching wasps, insects that beat their wings in such a way that it sounds as if an army battalion is coming towards you as they prepare to defend their hives.
(Ants never stop working) 

We went fishing for the  "man eating" piranhas, which Gary expertly caught several of. Sandee had to take as consolation prize only a sardine, be it a large one. In the early evenings as light dimmed around us our flashlights exposed cayman eyes at the waterline. 
(Gary and his first piranha)
( see those teeth?)
(Sandee after half an hour of fishing for piranhas shows off her sardine)
                                                                                            (There are more fish types to be caught)
Sixto who did not speak English (Miguel did the translating) brought us his forest expertise, regaling us about medicines that the forest provides like Agouti Tail mushrooms (they almost look like coral) against earaches or the red air roots of a certain palm that reduces snoring in the village bedrooms, which are often communal.
                                                                                          (A native nut that is waxy and is used as candle material)
 (Base of a walking tree- these trees are living in the shade of the taller ones and move to survive)
(We saw so many mushrooms flourishing on the rot of dead plants) 
(Wasp nests and termite hills were all around us) 
                                                  (Another beauty - I wish I knew my birds)
He spoke to us about the Fernando Sanchez tree, a tree that attracts stinging ants for its sap. The name comes from a plantation owner that found his wife having an affair with his foreman. He tied them both naked to the tree and had the ants do their thing till they were dead. (Never saw the tree)
                          (These are also lake residents)
                                                                                              (If I remember well this toad was poisonous)
                  (At night you heard these bats swarming)
On the Sunday we were there it was Presidential Election Day. We had already marveled over the fact that this country uses US dollars as its national currency with dollar coins that not only sported Susan B Anthony  but also several US presidents all minted in the US of A.

      (Another kingfisher drying his/her wings after multiple dives)
We learned that every citizen over 18 has to vote or be fined 100 US.
Those like our guides who had to work and could therefore not reach a voting station had to produce an employer provided document in which the employer certifies their work requirement while still paying a $50 fine. Showing up at the wrong voting booth, where you are not registered, cost you 50 US also.  
(Night pictures)

                     (Leaves that look like lattice work prove they are food for the many creatures living on them) 

Voting provides you with a certificate that is needed for mortgages and bank loans you may wish to apply for later. No certificate, no money. Absentee ballots do not exist. We found that a fascinating tidbit.
(Plants living on tree bark - a colorful picture)
May the pictures bring you to do an Amazon visit.
(Cellphone charging on the playground)
(Miguel explaining daily use of blowpipe)

                                          (This mushroom shaped itself to catch water)
(All that is dead creates new live and this mushroom had medicinal use)
( more mushroom varieties)
(Water lilies covering major swaths of a lake)
(In closing this picture sums up what we experienced best)