A Travellerspoint blog

Bear tracking in the Andes Mountains

May 2011

I can’t remember the last time I had to be up at 6am, but here I was in a hostel in Quito, Ecuador getting ready for my next adventure: radio tracking Spectacled Bears in the Ecuadorian Andes for 2 weeks. The meeting point was a house on the other side of town where the Andean Bear Project’s Project Coordinator Sarah lives. It would have been cheaper to negotiate Quito’s Metro public transport system but knowing my luck it would have been a disaster. So a taxi was the safer option. When I arrived I met the other volunteers that would be on the project while I was there. Kerry, the Volunteer Coordinator; Rachyl, from Canada who had just finished a PHD on grizzlies in the Yukon; Sam, from USA who had just finished her degree; Nicola an English girl that now lives in Melbourne; Alejandro and Spanish guy studying Ecology in the USA and Alex, a young 17 year old girl who was to be an artist for the project for the next 2 weeks. 3 of us were to be with the project for 2 weeks and the other 3 for 5. Although 5 weeks would have been more fun it would have just been too expensive for me at nearly $200 a week roughly.
Once we had paid and left our emergency contact details with Sarah we walked up to the main road with all our stuff. We waited a few minutes for the metro bus that would take us to the main northern bus terminal and when it came we piled on rapidly as it paused on the road side momentarily.

Back at the bus station I had been at the previous night we got a bus 2 hours back to Otavalo where I had been at the previous day. Here we stopped for lunch and did the grocery/market shopping making sure to stock up on snacks, sweets, and in only my case booze. Then finally we got on another bus that took us a further 2 hours out to the tiny mountain village of Pukara where the “bear house” was located. Town’s population: 60-100 people!!

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The bear house with Bobby our adopted dog in the foreground.

We settled into the girls’ dorm and Alejandro was lucky to have the boys’ dorm all to himself. The beds were all bunks with at least 1 or 2 thin foam mattresses that were so worn in the middle that when you laid down you were swallowed into the middle and felt like a giant human hotdog. Sleeping in these beds after hiking all day left me with a very sore back most days.

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The girls dorm

We had met Armando Castellanos (the project’s founder and director) in Otavalo and he had a room to himself downstairs. The house was rustic and basic but very homely. The bathroom was outside on the side of the house with the sink for washing dishes, clothes etc. The office was a large room downstairs next to Armando’s room and only contained a desk, a bed, the radio tracking equipment and some books, maps and other reference material. The kitchen and dining area was in a large room built onto the front of the house. Outside we had a small vegetable garden and hammocks on the veranda which we widely appreciated after a hard days trekking.

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View from the front of the house

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The crew with Celia the housekeeper at the front

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Alex and Kerry in the office

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The bathroom on the side of the house

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Sam washing at the outside sink

That afternoon we did a half trek along a nearby path to see if we could here Frida’s radio collar signal (a bear that spends a lot of time in the valley that was below). We didn’t get a radio signal on ay of the bears. We tried the channels of all the bears as a matter of procedure. I was soon to find out that this was a common occurrence. The bears are unpredictable and have very large home ranges, especially the males. Just because you heard them in one valley one day, it didn’t mean that they would still be there the next.

I quickly fell back into the routine of work. Other than my short stint at Pisco Sin Fronteras helping to rebuild houses after the 2007 earthquake this was my first time I’d had to get up early for work in a long time! We usually got up between 6 and 6:30am and had a quick breakfast and made our lunches and depending what trail we were to walk would be ready from 7am with lunches, water, notepad, pens and radio equipment packed into our bags.

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Tuning the radio

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Listening for bear collar signals

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Amazing views

There were supposed to be 3 morning buses at 7am 7:30am and 9am. But these times were not to be relied upon. The buses all came from different towns and made their way back to Otavalo but the time they drove by our house depended on the amount of times the driver stopped and how fast he drove. Sometimes all 3 buses came by before 7am and then we had to hitch a ride in whatever vehicle would next come by we’d usually be in the back of a small open top truck with whatever else they were carrying. Possible the craziest of these was a ride with a few dozen crates of empty beer bottles. It was my 2nd day and I was going out with Kerry and Nicola to walk ‘Valle de Osos’ one of the regular trails that was downhill but took all day. I don’t think the truck had any suspension and we were all clinging onto the 3 bamboo posts that had been fastened across the top of the truck and getting thrown nearly a metre in the air at the slightest bump. Kerry told us that this was surfing ‘Intag style’ (Intag is the central mountainous area of Ecuador west of Quito where Pukara was located).

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Hitching a ride in whatever we could

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Surfing intag style

Every trail has a name and certain premarked station stops that serve as our radio listening check points and rest stops. There were about 10 different trails in all and each day we would break off into 2 groups with either Kerry, Alberto or Samuel as the leaders. Alberto and Samuel were 2 local men that had been working with the project for a long time and we needed to be with at least one of these 3 leaders until we were confident we knew the trails and all their station points off by heart. Often Bobby the dog would come along if we just walked from the house to a trail. He was owned by a neighbour but as he spent so much time at the bear house he had unofficially been adopted as the bear project’s dog. He wasn’t well liked in the community as he often attacked chickens and other dogs but to people he was lovely. One walk he had a precarious river crossing. Obviously in the past a part of the bridge had broken so in typical South American style they repaired it with some thin tree trucks and barbed wire. We managed to cross but Bobby got halfway and then laid down and started crying. Samuel just watched in astonishment as we all stalled the trek to help Bobby cross the bridge. He kept saying he’s just a dog, push him off, he can swim. But looking at the rapids below we weren’t so confident.

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Raychl crossing the bridge with Bobby

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Packed into the back of the school truck

The trails all varied in difficulty and we gradually built up to the most difficult ones. Although we were usually home around 2pm we were all exhausted after 6 or so hours of trekking in the mountains of altitudes of 2000-4000 metres above sea level. I really started having trouble with my asthma and found I had to use it sometimes 3-4 times a day. It felt strange to be dependent on my ventalin inhaler again having not had serious problems with my asthma since I was about 12 years old.

But not matter how difficult the climb, even if we didn’t hear the bears it was always completely worth the effort for the spectacular, breathtaking views we were getting to appreciate each day, views that most people wouldn’t see in their lifetime. I felt extremely privileged to have the opportunity to not only track Spectacled Bears in the Andes Mountains but also to live in this tiny isolated village in such a beautiful corner of the world. Pucara, like many of the surrounding villages is a small, self-sufficient community. But unfortunately like many of these places the lifestyle doesn’t really appeal so much to the younger generations. Most youths complete a basic education and then make their way to Quito to find their fortune. Unfortunately without a proper education most of them end up in low paying factory jobs or worse. The result in the town in a population made up of children to the age of 16 and adults over the age of 40 or 50.

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A waterfall seen on one of our treks

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Spectacular views

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Kerry and I at the end of the Valle de Osos trek coming bck into the town. This is the school in front.

In the group at the bear house I was the only one who had been travelling away from home for a while, other than Kerry who had been Volunteer Coordinator for the past 4 months. So I was used to going for long periods of time not giving contact with home. All the other volunteers however had come out to Ecuador almost exclusively for the bear project and almost every afternoon walked up to the general store with their phone cards to call home... leaving the hammocks to me! :)

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Relaxing in the hammock

Initially I was a wee bit apprehensive of the food we would be having. With the town so isolated I was sure it was going to be traditional South American dishes of rice, rice, potatoes, fried bananas, fried meat and uh rice. Celia, our cook and house keeper was a local resident that lived in the house opposite us. Fortunately she had been working at the bears house and cooking for international volunteers for quite some time and Kerry and Sarah had gone to great lengths to ensure she was able to cook some western dishes. These dishes included shepards pie, corn bread, stir fry, etc and were certainly an unexpected and welcomed delight. Though old habits die hard and she often went a little overboard with salt in the salad or sugar in the freshly squeezed juices.

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Meal times

When Celia wasn’t working she would sit on our veranda with her daughter and weave things with a string made locally with flax like plant fibres. She made to order so I asked her to make me a large bag so that I can always be reminded of my adventure here when buying my groceries back home in Aus.

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The plant that Celia’s weaving fibres come from

I felt a little sorry for Alex who instead of coming on the trails each day went into one of the local village to paint murals of the Spectacled Bears. The sights were chosen on their positioning and willingness of the owner(s) to have a mural painted on the wall. So, many of the murals were on walls of main streets, bus tops and schools. There were some around already that ast volunteers had painted but none as good as the ones Alex was able to paint. At only 17 years old and fresh out of school we were all amazed at her talent. As the aim of these murals were to help educate the local community on Andean Bears, the project and conservation in general she always included the website and a little conservation message underneath the painting. She came back at the end of the day to tell us about the reactions from the public and a large amount of the comments suggested the people had no idea what the animal was or that it exists in the area. Many asked her why she was painting a ‘panda bear’ on the wall!

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Alex painting in the community

The biggest threat to the Spectacled Bear is habitat destruction and fragmentation. Armando has been researching bears for many years, has written many scientifically published papers and is one of the world’s leading experts on this species. The current research that we were helping with is using radio signals to triangulate the location of the bears to determine their habitat range over time.
Agriculture, especially maize farms, is the biggest business in the Intag area and unfortunately the maize farmers see the Bears as a pest and shoot at them. The bears with a dwindling habitat and foraging range see the corn fields as an easy meal. Some of the funds of the projects then are used to pay local farmers for the portion of their crop that they have lost to a hungry bear as compensation providing they don’t shoot at the bears. So part of our job was also stopping in at local farms along the trails and talking to the farmer, asking about recent activity including sightings and assessing the damage.

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Listening for bears in a field

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Interesting plants

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Listening for bears on a hike into jungle terrain

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Donkey friend

The regular rain in the area generally ensured the paths were very muddy and we all had gumboots but sometimes it was very hard to judge the weather. As sod’s law if I wore my gum boots it was dry and if I wore my walking shoes it rained buckets. The house had a little cobbled path that led from the veranda around to the kitchen and down the drive. It didn’t extend around the other side of to the bathroom which meant we had to walk across the yard which was compacted mud and slippery as buggery, especially in the damp, dew-filled mornings. One morning in the first week as we were all getting ready I heard an almighty crash. I came running out of the kitchen with everyone to see Nicola lying on the ground, blood beginning to pour from her head. She had slipped over on the mud and split her eyebrow open on one of the stones of the path. The poor girl then had to go to the hospital for stitches. She had a couple of days off and as much as she tried to keep it clean the wound became infected and she had problems for the rest of her stay (she was only there for 2 weeks also). This was a real shame as it meant she had to miss out on the camping trip. As the weather was finally drying up after a long wet season Kerry and Samuel thought it might be about time to do a trek to a mountain lake in the top paramo grasslands at nearly 400m above sea level. We were all extremely excited, even Kerry who had never done this trek before. As it was going to take us a full day to get there we decided to make it a 3 day trip.

The first day I did a trail with Sam called Casa Pumba. It was a road that led to the next village by the same name. This is where Samuel lived and that night we camped at his place. As we got there with time to spare we willed away the afternoon playing with the puppies and eating tons of granadillas that he grew on his farm. Grenadillas I think are my favourite fruit so far that I have discovered in my travels around SA. They are a type of passionfruit but are much sweeter and less tart than normal passionfruit. Although they taste delicious many people are put off at first by the frog spawn-like appearance of the pulp inside. I really wish i could bring some back to Australia and start a farm

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hmmmm grenadillas!

The next day we were up before 5 and had to jump into the back of the school truck on its way out to the most furthest out village where it starts picking up children for school around 5:30am. As the Andean Bear Project uses some of the money the volunteers pay to fund this bus as a part of its effort to support and involve the community it wasn’t too much effort for it to pick us up on the way. Rachyl, Sam, Alejandro and I got the truck but Kerry and Samuel stayed behind to go pick up the horses which they rode to the town we were dropped off in. As it was the furthest out village it was our last point of community civilisation before we headed out to paramo. The 2 horses that Kerry and Samuel picked up were to be our pack horses that we all chipped in some money for. Rachyl, Sam and I also put in for 2 extra horses so we could take it turns to ride through the mountains on horseback.

The sun had risen by the time we were all packed and ready to go and we began the long journey up. I was glad to have a horse 2/3 of the time but sometimes when my horse was racing and slipping up what felt like a sheer cliff face I wished I could just be walking. We had to do a river crossing that was so deep and strong I thought it was going to sweep the horses away. We had gotten off the horses but it was still nerve-wracking as the bottoms of the packs were brushing the water either side of the horses backs and the horses look like they may lose their footing at any time and get swept under. Although we had to go up and down as we crossed valleys and mountains we did notice a gradual change in the vegetation the higher we got until we eventually got to the paramo grassland. Just before this we got to walk through some amazing wild flower vegetation and Samuel pointed out a species of paramo blueberry that tasted delicious and was a nice little sugar booster.

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The horses crossing the river!

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Alpine blueberry

When we finally got to the lake it was an impressive sight. Samuel said the water was the highest he had ever seen it and that we couldn’t use the normal campsite because it was underwater. The lake appeared to be an area Samuel had visited several times before. He made us all laugh when he disappeared into a hidden spot in the bushes for a few moments only to emerge with a bag full of pots, sugar and a local sugar cane alcohol in an old soft drink bottle that he had hidden there on his last trip almost a year previously.
We unpacked the horses, set up camp: erecting tent, collecting water and firewood.

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The mountain lake we walked to

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On horseback through paramo grassland

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The horses were happy to finally be relieved of the packs. The silly black and white horse was enjoying the roll so much that he rolled off the edge into the river by our camp and it took us a few minutes to lasso him and guide him to an edge where he could climb out. I was dark by the time we were done setting up but we had a good fire going and cooked some spaghetti rice veggies and a tomato sauce. As we had a few north Americans in our group it had been compulsory to get smore ingredients. Smores are an American campfire favourite where a marshmallow and a piece of chocolate are lightly melted over the campfire then sandwiched between 2 biscuits. Yummmm so good, I only wish we had bought enough for 2 nights.

The next day after breakie we trekked up to the top of a nearby peak hoping to hear some of the bear signals but got nothing. It was chilly during the day and freezing at night. My little sleeping bag although small and travel friendly didn’t do much against the night’s chill, even with all my clothes on. That afternoon everyone went for a swim in the lake but the idea of trekking through mud out to the freezing water for a dip then coming back through the mud wasn’t too appealing to me. Instead I went to collect blueberries and eventually Sam and Raychl came to help me and between us we picked half a breadbag full of the tiny things. That night we made another simple dinner this time with a pesto sauce. Samuel had also spent all day with fishing lines dangling in the river and he wasn’t disappointed. He managed to catch a lot of trout which we had with dinner and the rest he wrapped up to take back with him the following day.

For dessert I stewed some of the blueberries with some sugar, and made a crumble topping by roasting some of our breakie oats and then cooking them with a bit of butter and sugar. The result was delicious. That night it rained heavily and in the morning it didn’t stop so our plan to leave early was ruined and we just lay in bed for a few more hours listening to the rain pound the roofs of our tents. At about 11am the rain started to slow to a sprinkle so we packed up the camp as quickly as we could and set off. Due to the rain Samuel said the river we had crossed on the way in would now be too high so we had to take an alternative route back through the wilderness. The rain had made the paths impossible slippery and it was treacherous enough for the horses without us being on the back so we had to walk most the way. As sod’s law would have it I didn’t have my boots and being as clumsy as I am I was constantly slipping and falling over. At about 4pm I just gave up and marched through the mud knowing that if I took my time I would just fall too far behind.

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Stopped for lunch on the way back

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Slipping and slidding back down.

It was well and truely dark when we got home and the shower although simple and not very warm felt like luxury. That night there was a going away party for a young German guy who had been living in the community for the past 8 months. It was difficult for us to muster the enthusiasm but we still went across the road for a few drinks and dances with the local characters. Later that night we found out that Bobby, our bear dog was dead. They tried to say that he was hit by a car but we heard the truth from our German friend that Bobby had been poisoned and left for 2 days to die slowly. Bobby’s official owner wouldn’t even let the German guy put him out of his misery as he was hoping he might get better. This was heartbreaking news and we knew there were several village folk who hated Bobby and we were angry that he had suffered. The next day no one was in the mood or really had the energy to go trekking so we had a lazy day to take time and bury Bobby. RIP Bobby.

That night was the village’s fortnightly panela making party. Panela is a moist yet solid lump of raw sugar. The process was started earlier in the day boiling large amounts of sugar cane for 4 hours then as the mix reduces down to a syrup it is constantly to worked until it forms moist granules at which point it is worked into balls of panela. Once the morning lot was done they repeated the process for the afternoon. We attended for this session and even got to help. Some of the sugar cane juice is also put aside to make ‘puro’, the sugar cane spirit that is a favourite with the locals.

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Tiramisu

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The men making panela

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Helping to mix the panela

That day I had also made a tiramisu (or as close as I could with the ingredients available) and Kerry used the left over blueberries to make mini blueberry cheesecakes. As this was mine and Nicola’s last night we had a feast. The woman making the panela across the road were also offering Coy meals. Coy is the Spanish word for guinea pig!! It is a traditional South American dish and I knew I had to try it once so we ordered one between 3 of is to share. The sight itself of the whole guinea pig dead on the plate was a shock. There wasn’t really much meat on it so it was literally only a taste and now at least I can say I have tried it!

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The coy (guinea pig)

The next day Nicola and I were up ready for the 9am bus which came at 8:30am. We said rushed goodbyes and sadly left the bear house to head back to Otavalo and then Quito. But that is all for the next chapter.

So until then... Adios Amigos!!!!

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BTW for those who are wondering, no I didn't get to see a bear my whole time here haha!

Posted by katieOZ 09:28 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

A Journey to the Centre of the World

Quito, Otavalo and Mitad del Mundo

I sadly waved goodbye to the Ecuadorian jungle and headed to Quito, the bustling heart of Ecuador! For tourists there are two parts to the capital of Ecuador; Old Town and New Town. I was still with Yvette and Jan and we decided to stay at the Secret Garden Hostel. I had been hearing amazing tales about this hostel on my way up South America from other travellers. I had heard it was great to volunteer there because they have an organic vegetable garden, bar and reception work and free Spanish lessons, as well as being a very chilled out, funky hostel.

It was a long, but scenic bus journey and we arrived in Quito at about 8:30pm and got a taxi to the hostel. Although we had made a reservation it seems our booking had been scrawled on a scrap of paper and left by the computer. The girl at the desk worried us for a moment saying the dorms were all full or being painted. We proceeded to stand there waiting for a more acceptable answer and she eventually told us we could have a private triple room for the same price. The room was colourful and spacious but the bathroom was a toilet in a cupboard hole space and no shower. The breakfasts were very tasty and but not included! The view over Old Town and beyond from the top floor bar/reception and great and I enjoyed sitting up there enjoying the free cups of herbal tea and at night the same view was all lit up. The only bad side was that the upstairs area closed at 11pm so after that there wasn’t a great deal to do. I also found out that the Secret Garden also had another hostel near Cotopaxi Mountain and I think this was the tranquil, relaxing, getaway hostel I had heard of and been picturing. I also discovered that the volunteers had to work 6 full days a week getting only 1 meal a day included as well as lodging. This is quite a bit more than most other hostels ask.

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The view over Quito

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Quito Old Town

Our first night once we were settled we went to go find some dinner. We quickly realised that almost everything in Old Town shuts down by about 6pm. We found a couple of fried chicken shops that seem to be a South American favourite but not an option when you are travelling with a vegetarian. After asking a few different pedestrians and security guards we eventually found an expensive rooftop terrace restaurant called Vista Hermosa. The view was incredible and the atmosphere very romantic. I decided to treat myself to a tasty pork steak with apple sauce and other trimmings (nothing like a roast from mum but it beat the usual rice and potato with a side of fried meat).

The next day we decided to venture out to Mitad del Mundo or “The Centre of the World”. It was surprisingly cheap and easy to get to. We jumped on a Metro Bus to Ofelia Station, one of the two northern bus terminals. After wandering around the station for a bit we finally found a clearly marked bus and travelled on it for a further hour until we came to a big round about. I was speculating whether this might be our stop when a young local girl sitting next to me obviously guessing my destination, elbowed me and said, “aka”, meaning “here”. We rushed off the bus and looked at the museum entrance with its centre of the world monument up ahead of us. There is quite a funny story surrounding this museum. It was built a number of years ago and it was a novelty (and still is) for all tourists to visit the Equator line. Then about 12 years ago tourists started arriving with their modern, handheld GPS units and arguing that it wasn’t actually the Equator. Eventually the military came and took measurements with their state of the art GPS systems and found the Equator line was actually 200m to the right, passing right through the neighbouring Solar Museum. The Solar Museum had long ago used natural science (the sun) to measure the Equator and built their little museum there. So it felt rather pointless visiting a monument that was a lie and we went to the Solar Museum instead. For $3 entry it was actually a great little museum. Not only did it have information about the sun and the Equator, but also about the history and culture of Ecuador, especially from the Orient (jungle).

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Jan Yvette and I on the Equator line (the real one!!)

We got to see shrunken heads, huts, hunting methods and a man weaving traditional fabrics on a loom. The end of the tour we came to the Equator line and did the experiments that you have to do when you are standing on the Equator. We used a bucket of water, some leaves and a sink to demonstrate the difference in the coreolis effect. It’s amazing that just 2m away the water spins in a different direction and 1m away in the middle on the Equator the water just goes straight down! Did you know that you are also weaker on the Equator? We stood either side of the Equator line with our arms raised just above our heads and our hands bundled together in a fist while another person tried to pull our arms down. However when attempting the same exercise on the Equator we had much less resistance and our arms came down quickly making us feel like pathetic weaklings! We also tried walking down the Equator line with our eyes shut and for some strange reason we found it very difficult to go straight. The exercise was easy either side of the Equator! The last exercise was trying to balance an egg on the head of a nail. Apparently this is only possible on the Equator most people had trouble with this one but yours truely managed it in about 10 seconds! I even got a certificate to prove it :)

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Balanced the egg...Wooo

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No I am not drunk, it's the effect of the Equator line I promise!

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Traditional weaving demonstration

On the way back it was peak hour and we were crammed into the rail bus with many locals. When we neared our stop we struggled to the doors and out onto the platform trying to avoid the oncoming stampede of people determined to get on the bus. I made it and looked to the other doors where Jan and Yvette were supposed to exit. I saw Jan standing on the platform alone and as the bus took off I saw Yvette squashed in amongst all the other passengers with her sad, desperate face pressed up against the glass. I panicked first then burst out laughing. It really was a hilarious situation. We waited at the platform for Yvette who had to get out at the next stop (which thankfully wasn’t too far away) and walk back to us.
Pics from solar museum
Our second day in Quito we decided to explore some of the famous historic buildings of Old Town. We started with the Presidential Palace. It was all very official and we had to hand in our passports for the tour. Unfortunately the tour was in Spanish so I didn’t understand a great deal and insead trailed behind admiring the ornately decorated conference rooms and the assorted traditional gifts from heads of other countries.

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Entering the Presidential Palace

When we came out we saw some markets had been set up around the corner and naturally Yvette and I were drawn to them like a bee to honey, much to Jan’s frustration. I browsed the stalls, checking out the local handcrafts but resisted the urge to buy much as I new we would be heading to Otavalo the following day. One of the biggest and most famous markets in South America. Suddenly it started to pour with rain. Although we had our raincoast we knew they wouldn’t do much against such a downpour. We loitered around the markets a little longer and eventually decided to make a dash for it. It’s funny in most South American cities, the moment it starts raining all these little men appear out of nowhere with umbrellas to sell. I wonder what they do when it’s not raining?
The biggest day of the Otavalan market is Saturday so the following day we got a taxi to the other northern bus station and then a 2 hour bus to Otavalo. I have discovered on my bus journeys through Ecuador that Ecuadorians love crappy films, especially cheap asian action films where the sound effects during a fight are exaggerated and delayed and when a man suddenly turns his head the sequence is replayed 5 times just so you know it’s really dramatic. This is when I am ever so thankful to have my laptop and my external hard drive and watch my own movies.

We arrived in the afternoon and checked into a lovely little hostel called Hostel Valle de Amanecer (Valley of Dawn). For $11USD a night we I got a private with a double bed, shared bathroom and breakfast included. For dinner we ended up at a little Mexican vegetarian restaurant at the end of the road and had some delicious quesadillas and banana split desserts.

The next day we were up early to have breakie at 7:30am. We wanted to get to the animal market, which is all happening in the morning, before heading to the main market. But as we approached the restaurant kitchen about 30 Ecuadorians obviously fresh off the bus that morning charged in front of us and ordered food. The poor man was rushed off his feet with the sudden influx of guests and we unfortunately had to wait while these people got their eggs and bread (hold the fruit salad) before we could get our chocolate pancakes (with fruit salad).

Finally a little later than planned we walked to the animal market. There were domestic animals everywhere and men calling out prices. Unfortunately we had missed most of the auctions and chaos and a lot of locals were leaving with their purchases: a group of piglets tied together, a cow being led by a small child, bags of chickens and guinea pigs, puppies etc. It wasn’t as bad as I thought but some the animals were crammed together in cages in the heat without water. Animal welfare just isn’t really recognised in these parts of the world as it is back home!

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Otavalo animal market

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Rabbits, kittens, puppies, guinea pigs, chickens all thrown into the same cage to sell!

Next we walked back towards town to explore the actual market. Almost every street in town was taken up by market stalls of everything and anything. Beautiful handicrafts and artisans. It was a maze. I had $120 on me and I gradually managed to spend all of it!! Mostly on paintings as the artwork was beautiful and often unique. I also succumbed to my weakness to earrings and bought some beautiful silvery jewellery. At 2:30pm I realised I was parched. In my shopping frenzy I had blocked all essential bodily needs out! I found a grocery store and bought water and chocolate to satisfy my cravings then decided to head back. This was a little harder than I anticipated. Although I was only a few blocks away, I got completely lost and ended up wondering up and down the market streets before I found and area I recognised and stumbled back, arms loaded with bags, back into the hostel. That night we went back to the same restaurant with some other tourists staying at the hostel. All us ladies ended up sharing a chocolate fondue!

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Fruit and Vege stall

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Some of the artwork in a stall

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One of the paintings I purchased. The man holding it is the artist!

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Mmmmmmm fondue!

The next day we went on a trek around some of the nearby villages and to the waterfall just outside of the town. On the way we stopped at what we thought was a weaver’s house (we had been told there were traditional weavers in the villages and he had a sign out the front saying so). We stood outside and called out for a while but no one came. As we were walking away a man ran out and invited us inside. It turned out that he didn’t weave but made wooden pan-flutes: a very popular musical instrument used in most traditional music styles of South America. He explained that he was in a band and gave us demonstrations in construction and playing of the flutes. Yvette and Jan ended up buying one each. It wouldn’t be much use to me unless we needed to evacuate a hostel in a hurry so I bought the CD instead. I actually never got a chance to listen to it before I sent it back to Aus so hopefully it can console me when I return and have post-travel depression! :)

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Testing the pan flutes in the musicians house

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Having a break to watch a local Ecuvolley game. This game is played all over Ecuador, especially on weekends and differs a bit from normal volleyball as you are allowed to hold the ball for a second and the net is hire preventing spikes.

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Walking through the tiny villages

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At the waterfall outside Otavalo

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Some of the local women playing basketball, not bothering to change out of their traditional dress

I am not sure if I have mentioned already but I was really keen to do some conservation volunteer work in while Ecuador. I had applied for spots with 2 organisations The first preference was to work at Merazonia Animal Sanctuary: $100/week including lodging and food. Unfortunately they were full until the end of May and I lost hope as I was even less optimistic of getting a place at my second preference: radio tracking Andean Bears with the Andean Bear Foundation. According to their website they were full for April but still had limited spots for the start of May. I emailed them and got a prompt reply saying they had one spot left for 2 weeks starting on the 2nd May. This volunteer work was a lot more expensive at $390 for the 2 weeks (hence why it was my second choice). But it was an experience to trek through the Andes Mountains, track bears and experience living in a village of about 60 people in a remote Ecuadorian village. So I reserved my spot.

The base for the project was in the tiny village of Pucara, about 2 hours from Otavalo. I was told by the project that the group of volunteers due to start in May would meet in Quito, then stop in Otavalo to buy groceries before heading onto Pucara. As I was already in Otavalo I asked if I could meet the group there to save me a trip back to Quito for one night only to get up at 6am. I was told however that I would be needed to carry extra bags for the project from Quito. So I had to say goodbye to Jan and my dearest Yvette who were going to Columbia. I got an afternoon bus back. Not difficult as the buses run all the time and there is always at least one man in th4e bus terminal yelling “QUITO, QUITO QUITO!!!”

I found a lovely little hostel in New Town called Casa Agua Canela. I had my own room with chair, desk and bedside for $8 a night, very good value. Unfortunately like Old Town everything nearby was closed so I went hungry that night haha and just got ready for the next stage of my journey. But thats for the next chapter!

xoxoxoxox

By the way the extra things I ended up carrying was a bag with 2 other empty bags in! Definitely worth a mission back to Quito haha!!

Posted by katieOZ 09:37 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

A community stay in the Ecuadorian Jungle

Misahualli and the Rio Napo

Every since I visited the jungle in Bolivia I think a piece of my heart remained there and has been calling me back this entire time! So heading back out the jungle, this time in Ecuador was both a relief and a joy. As I said in my last blog we decided to book nothing in advance and just try and get a good deal directly when we got there. As it is low season here we thought we stood a pretty good chance. I have been lucky in that arriving in Chile in November and travelling slowly north I have been following the off season everywhere I go, the only disadvantage to that is that I am also following the rains!

So I left Banos with Yvette (England), Jan (Belgium), Tara (Melbourne) and Sam (Ireland). We took a bus to the jungle side town of Tena. We then took another bus further into to jungle to the town of Misahualli, a very sleepy little jungle town with Capuchin Monkeys running wild around the town square ready to steal an unsuspecting tourist’s food or camera etc.

We checked into a small hostel called El Paisano. It was $13/night but included breakie, fans, mozzie nets and hot water. The rooms were spacious and clean and the beds very comfortable... are rare luxury in SA. It was nearly 5 by the time we arrived so we went straight to a tour operator we had read about on the net, Luis Zapata. With our numbers we had a bit of negotiating leverage (group discount please?). We eventually booked a 5 day cultural jungle tour to stay in a village with a family for $50/day each.

That night the town was dead and we ate at a cheap little restaurant and then went across the road and played pool and drank $1 600ml beers for a few hours. When we went back to the hostel our Irish friend Sam was a little bemused by his mozzie net. He saw Tara and I tucking it around the edges of our bed then lying down so he got up, tucked his mozzie net in ever so neatly and then said “there!” I lost it laughing at that point and so did Tara. Eventually he figured out what he had done when I said “Sam, aren’t you supposed to be under the mosquito net?”, hahaha!

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Sam struggling with his mossie net

We had a rushed breakie the next day as we had to meet at the tour office 50m away at 9am. We met Luis again and he took us down to the shores of the Rio Napo a couple of hundred metres across town. There we met our guide Ivan (pronounced e-ban), Domingo our cook and Cristian, Luis’s son who would be joining us.

The first day was great! We sped along the Rio Napo until we arrived to a small bank where some kechuwan (indigenous Indian people) locals were fossicking for gold. It was amazing that these women load up large shallow wooded bowls with sediment from the river and then stoop over the bowl skimming it in the water and turning the bowl round and round in a certain way so that the dirt washes out. This ensures the heavier gold particles stay at the bottom. After a few minutes they are left with a few minute granules which they empty into a cup then start all over again. On a good day they say they can get 1-2 grams of gold but the value isn’t the same and they don’t really receive that much for it. I got to have a go and it was really interesting but hard work and my back killed after only a few minutes... I have a lot of admiration for these women!! :) As in most other places I have seen in South America, the men don’t really seem to do much of the work!

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Fossicking for gold

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"I found GOLD"

We continued down the river until we arrived at a small island. There was a museum here with artefacts based on the traditional hunting practices of local tribes of the area. Here we also got to try our hands or lungs rather, at the blow pipe. The pole was nearly 3 metres long and out target: a wooden picture of a parrot with a Styrofoam background. Yours truly was the first to make a hit! Haha born huntress, not a good look for a conservationist!

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Our boat

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Getting face painted with the pigment from some red seeds at the first stop. It symbolises the monkey, how appropriate!

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Some of the traps at the hunting museum

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Having a go on the blowpipe

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Blow pipe champion right here!

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Amazing lunch spread at the hunter's museum!

Speaking of conservation our next stop down the river was Amazoonico Animal Rescue Centre. Started by a Swiss couple and run exclusively by volunteers the park takes in orphaned and abandoned animals, mostly from the pet trade. They have rehabilitation centres and parks off site where they can release suitable candidates of certain species but those who can’t be released at least get looked after properly at the centre. They have Capuchins, Spider Monkeys, Toucans, parrots including Macaws, Ocelots, Peccaries, Capybaras, Jaguarundies, Caimen, Tortoises and Turtles. A German volunteer took us around and I talked to him non-stop not only about the animals there but about volunteering there as well. It was very cheap but seemed to be more about giving guided tours that pay for the centre then working with the animals but I decided to take some information anyway.

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Toucan at amazoonico

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Capybara

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Two tortoises getting around the park

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A Peccary (bush pig)

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Capuchins playing

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Ocelots waiting for their dinner

Next we went a bit further down the river to go tubing! We stupidly didn’t have our bathers on so our guides put up a sheet for us girls so we could get dressed behind it but then they walked to the front of our little boat and just sat where they could see us anyway and proceeded to stare expectantly. We couldn’t believe they would be so brazen but that’s Ecuador. After a telling them to go away at least 5 times they eventually slunk away giving us some privacy. Still, my sarong is one of the best things I have in my pack. It has so many uses including a change room. Then the real fun began and we sat back in our tubes and floated down river sometimes fast sometimes slow taking in the beauty of the jungle vegetation rising out spectacularly overhead. Then we started trying to stand up on the tubes, the guides found this very amusing and grabbed my camera to take some photos.

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Getting set to tube down the river

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In the boat

We climbed back in the boat (begrudgingly) and continued for a further hour down the river to our community. We all loaded up with our food and supplies for the next 4 days and trudged along the jungle track deeper into the jungle to the tiny community that would be hosting us for the next few days. When we arrived we were introduced to Domingo (another Domingo) and his family whose house we would all be staying in for the next week. The house was a wooden hut built on stilts due to the constant rain they receive in the jungle. The house was one big room: bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room. The family went to stay in the house next door because it was not big enough to house 8 extra people. They kindly laid out our mattresses on the ground with a sheet, a thin blanket and of course a mosquito net.

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Inside the house

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Hanging around the dining table

That day was my friend Tara’s birthday and so the guides celebrated by making a dessert with flour and sugar and something else and cooking them in small parcels wrapped in banana leaf over the fire. They even decorated the pile and made it look like a bday cake. Domingo our chef then got out the puro: sugar cane spirit that tastes like a sweet mentholated spirit, probably as potent to. He heated it up with water flavoured with lemon, sugar and cinnamon and the result was quite delicious. He also taught us some kechuwan words. One phrase he ended up saying a lot every night of that trip after dinner (the puro cocktails became a regular occurrence). The phrase was “upi warmi” which meant “women drink”! haha! Our dear guides turned out to be quite characters and were good friends by the end of the tour!

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"Upi warmi"

The next day we went for a 4 hour walk around the jungle learning about utilisation of certain jungle plants. Within seconds Ivan could make a fan, a back scratcher, a head band, jewellery, a grater and with a bit more time, a backpack! We saw many edible fruits like yuka (a yam), pineapples, cocao and coffee plants, many that were now farmed by the community for money, jungle apples etc. Then Ivan picked a really spiky plant and struck it against our skin where we had mosquito bites (which for me should have been everywhere). He claimed it was used as a local anaesthetic but the pain really stung and we all started to come out with tiny lump where the spines had struck us., He said it was temporary and that the pain would go away as the anaesthetic set in and although it did start to tingle a little it still hurt a lot as well and the lumps got bigger and bigger. A week later we still had itchy bumps on our arm but at least it did its job of disguising the itch of the mosquito bite!

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Ivan with the Yuka root (makes delicious chips)

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Weaving headbands from jungle palm fibres!

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Monkey brush, monkeys in the jungle actually use these spiky pods to groom themselves!

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Talk about resourcefullness: Ivan makes a backpack out of jungle plants

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"uhh ouhhh ouhhhh" (say like Tarzan)

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The evil spiky plant

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Lumps appearing on my wrist after being struck by that awful plant

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Cocao beans drying by someone's house. They are covered with little orange and black butterflies

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Me with a little girl from a house near our community

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Leaf hat!!!!

One bad thing about the jungle... MOSQUITOS!!! No matter how careful I was I got eaten alive. Even 98% Deet was useless.

That night was the highlight of the trip! It was the Easter weekend after all and that night we collected some cocoa beans that had been drying in the sun for days and made...CHOCOLATE! We roasted the beans over the fire then peeled off the outer shell as they cooled. The peeled beans were then put through a grinder and the crumbly mix was then cooked with a bit of sugar and milk over the fire until a runny chocolate was the result. We ate it with bread and out of the bowl. When we were done Domingo presented us with our dinner which we were too full to eat!

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Grinding up th cocao beans

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Eating the chocolate YUMMY!!

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One of our delicious meals, roasted palm heart wrapped in banana leaf!

The next day we went to another slightly larger community to see the process of making fermented yuka, an alcoholic drink for the local people. The men drink at least one cupful with breakfast. The process was quite simple. They skin and boil the yuka until soft and then tip large amounts into a large shallow dish on the floor about 1.5m wide. The women of the family then sit around with wooden pummelling instruments and mash the yuka into a paste gradually adding water. They then leave the mix to ferment for anywhere between 3-10 days depending how strong they want the drink. We politely had a taste (it tasted like sour fermented watery mashed potatoes!) and left the rest for our guide at that town who happily drank several bowlfuls!

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Mashing the Yuka

After that went with to see the school and gave out some sweets to the kids peering shyly at us from around the corner. Then spying the football pitch next door in the middle of the town we got some of the kids from the house to play a football match with us. It was hard in the strong humid jungle heat but lots of fun! Gradually the teams grew as more and more children from the community came out to join us! At the end I went to boot the ball and then Jan cut in and my bare foot instead found contact with the side of his leg. I thought I had broken my foot. It swelled up very quickly and I couldn’t walk on it properly for the next 4 days!

The journey down river had been in a very shallow dugout canoe. For our guides, trying to push the canoe back up river was a little more difficult. Our return was delayed as me and the other 2 girls swam in the very, very shallow river, silly but necessary after our football match. We went a bit further up river then had a picnic lunch on the riverbank and found a good tree to climb and jump from. We had to walk parts of the way back up the river because the water was either too shallow and the current too strong. On one occasion Ivan accidentally hit a log and very quickly sunk the canoe!! So funny! We also found a very long collection of vines to swing out on and drop into the river below! So much fun! When we got back we went down to the river about 40 metres away from the house and washed ourselves and our clothes in the river as had become our evening activity. While waiting for dinner we either played cards or pondered frustratingly over the riddles that Jan kept giving us.

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Picnic on the river bank

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And the canoe sunk hahaha!

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We saw this tree on our way to the community. The trees underneath are normal size which just goes to show what a giant this tree is!

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Two mating dragonflies land on my hand at the same time...what are the odds!!

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Cruising along in the dug out canoe

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Vine swing over the river!

That night we had 2 activities. First Ivan taught us to make some local handcraft with a fibre made from plant of the jungle. I made a bracelet and an anklet with beads made from jungle seeds threaded through. When we were finished Ivan led us out for a night stalk. We saw a miniature tarantula (about the size of a huntsman), a coral snake and a little tree mouse. The jungle was alive at night more than during the day and the roar of insects and frogs calling was so loud. Back inside I had a large green cricket, longer than my finger fly into my hair, and yes, I dod freak out a bit! :) When we went to sleep we could see the glow flies flashing around the roof overhead and listen to the bats flying into the house and under the ceiling to catch moths (the outside walls were only waist high in places.

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Coral snake that we saw on our night stalk

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Little tree mouse

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The tarantula

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In front of the roots of the Ceiba giant

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The Rio Napo from a lookout point

Our last day in the community we went out to find the biggest tree in the area, supposedly taller than the one we saw the other day. We walked about 45min until we came to the Ceiba giant. The spaces between its buttress, wall-like roots were about the size of a bedroom. It was a truly a giant of the forest and we had a great time walking around the edge and just sitting back admiring its sheer size feeling very, very small ourselves. When we asked Ivan how tall and old the tree was we didn’t really get a straight answer so I think he didn’t know. We got back around 12, had a quick lunch and then packed up as we had to head back down the jungle trail to the Rio Napo. Our boat was waiting to take us back up the river to a larger community that was largely supported by tourism. Here we got to talk to a Shaman then be ‘cleansed’ by him. He took us individually and whistled, blew banana leaf smoke on us and tapped our head with bundle of surupanga leaves, sweeping it over us and shaking it out to remove all the bad spirits. Once cleansed, we went into a wooden hall and watched some of the local women perform a traditional dance. We even got to join in at the end haha!

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Joining in the traditional dance

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Getting cleansed by the shaman

After that we went further back up the river to Sinchi Sacha lodge where we had comfy beds and hot showers, a luxury after the jungle! Domingo cooked for us again in the restaurant and that night there was lots of “upi warmi” as it was our last night on the tour. The next day we were up early again and set off into the jungle one last time to see more of the incredibly unique and wonderful vegetation and wildlife. Walking through the jungle was so calming and I truly felt at peace! We also found this awesome tree swing that swung out 20m over the canopy below and Ivan had to beg us to leave and carry with our walk! So we returned to the lodge, had lunch, then sadly packed up our things and went pack down to the river for the cruise back up to Misauhualli.

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Trekking through the jungle

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The amazing tree swing

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View of the jungle and over the Rio Napo

When we arrived back Luis offered us a good deal to stay at his hostel and we rested up and the next day was a fasting day because Jan, Tara and I had decided to visit a local shaman that evening and try ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink made from the Banisteriopsis vine. We were driven out to the Shaman’s house and listened to the Shaman talk about the ritual and reasons for ayahuasca. He also told us the story of how his father became a shaman and the process for others. It begins by going out into the forest and fasting until you are invited by the spirit of the forest to join the spirit world where you are given are drink that gives you the powers of a Shaman. These powers vary depending on the individual and his experience but include healing, shape shifting and communicating with the spirits for various reasons through ayahuasca.

The drink was about 2/3 a shot glass and tasted awful. After about 15min my limbs started tingling and then I began to see shapes and figures come to stand in the dark room. At that point Jan ran out and was violently sick. It’s common to be sick on ayahuasca, it is part of the cleansing process but unfortunately Jan had a bad run and its effect was quite strong on him and he vomited all night and had very strong hallucinations. I went outside and sat in the Shaman’s garden and saw a garden that was completely different to the one I saw when I turned on my head torch. A wave of nausea overcame me and then I too was sick followed by Tara and the Argentinean man who was also there. I then found a quiet space to sit down and just watch the sky and the stars and the figures moving around me, some seeming more real than others. I got quite a shock when a dog came and sat beside me, I thought it was a hallucination but when it snuggled next to me I jumped out of my skin! Haha! I then became very tired and sat with my eyes closed and listened to my heart race and felt my hands shake like crazy.
The shaman then called us in one by one and cleansed us like the other shaman had down in the jungle. He whistled his song or taquina because he was afraid that if he said the words other shamans may steal them, along with his secrets. He also battered our head repeatedly with his bundle of leaves and blow smoke over us. I was thankful he didn’t spit on us which has happened to other people I have met. So he did his cleansing and washed away all the bad supais (spirits). After lying down some more with the others we went to the beds the Shaman had prepared for us and went to sleep.

We woke up the next day feeling a little tired and incredibly hungry. The experience for most people supposedly shows them a course they should follow in the immediate future but as I didn’t had any epiphany than I guessed all is right in my world!

We went back for a delicious breakfast at Luis’s and then packed our things and walked to the centre of town to wait by the wild capuchins in the park for a bus to Tena where we could get a bus to our next destination, Quito, the capital of Ecuador. But that’s the next chapter so until then...

Hasta luego!!!

Posted by katieOZ 23:31 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Banos and the Quilatoa Loop: Mid April 2011

After the Galapagos it was time to kiss the beach goodbye once more and head inland. Our destination this time was the small town of Banos, set 1800m above sea level with a population of about 15000 people. Banos is the adventure capital of Ecuador and after so long bumming around and doing a whole lot of nothing at the beach it was time to get my body moving, the effects of my inactivity were becoming obvious!

So still travelling with Yvette and Jan we got a night bus from Guayaquil to Banos leaving around midnight and arriving around 7am. We had made a reservation at the Transylvania Hostel owned by an Ecuadorian/Israeli couple (and their 2 young kids, dog, rabbit, budgies and hamster). The rooms all had 1 double or 2 single beds. It’s strange but very few hostels in Ecuador have dorm rooms, but for $7.50/night and a delicious breakie included, it was still quite reasonable. Also because Jan and Yvette were sharing a room it meant I got a room to myself!!!! Yes, that’s right for the first time in nearly 6 months I had a room to myself and I celebrated by stripping down and going to bed having slept little on the bus last night. I was all the time a little wary because the woman at reception had said they will put someone in my room if they get a lone traveller but I was still determined to enjoy my space while I could.

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View from my hostel balcony

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There are taffy making places like this all around Banos and its fun to see them whip, loop and tug the taffy like this over and over again! mmmm taffy!

We stayed there for 3 nights. That first day was pretty lazy and we slept until noon and then roused ourselves only because our stomachs were screaming. It was then that Yvette started to unpack properly and realised that she had been robbed on the bus and someone had taken her document folder and her toiletries bag (probably thinking it had something more important in it). Although Yvette had 2 credit cards this was the first time she had put both cards in the same part of her bag while travelling, along with her insurance documents, claim receipts and spare cash. Fortunately she had her passport somewhere else so that she still had. She reported it to the police but unfortunately now she has to get her mother to transfer her money via Western Union which costs a whopping 10% each time! So we left the hostel and dumped our loaded dirty laundry bags into a Laundromat for $1/kg washing and found a nice vegetarian restaurant to eat at. Then we went to the supermarket and bought Yvette all new toiletries. During our wander around town we had seen signs along the street that said “Volcano erupting tonight 9pm, BOOK NOW”. Curious that Banos’s Tungurahua volcano erupted so precisely on schedule we decided to book a tour for that night. It cost $3 and was supposed to include the bus there, a hot alcoholic traditional drink, a guide to talk to us about the volcano, fire twirlers/jugglers/drummers and of course a spectacular show from the volcano. Funnily enough we only got the first 3 and the guide spoke in Spanish so I only understood dribs and drabs of what he was saying. The performers were a no-show and we couldn’t even see the volcano. It was supposedly active and had had minor eruptions in 2000 and 2006. All around the town of Banos there are street evacuation signs guiding people where to go in case of an eruption. They show people fleeing desperately, which I guess is a little more accurate of what would actually happen than the usual “proceed calmly” evacuation messages.

Anyway the night wasn’t so bad. It turned out that most of the people from our hostel had also individually decided to do the volcano tour that night. On the drive back the bus stopped by a discoteque and the guide asked if we wanted to go in for a drink. We were all pretty keen to get back after our uneventful evening but then the words “free drink” were thrown in and suddenly we were all following the guide into the club. Our free drink turned out to be a round of shooters of a distilled sugar cane liquor called ‘puro’, which they lit on fire. So we all decided to just go with the flow and have a dance and ended up having a fun night. We had bought some wine and cheap boxed strawberry flavoured alcohol drink (it was $1 for a litre) for our volcano adventure but hadn’t gotten around to drinking it so our night was pretty cheap. You become pretty resourceful on a backpackers budget!

The next day we walked down the road and hired bikes for the day for $5 from a local adventure tour shop. Two other guys from the hostel Daniel and Mike from Texas came with us. We decided to do the downhill ride to halfway to Puyo, about 30km, to see the waterfalls dotted along the way. So the five of us set off out of town, I was in second following Daniel. When we came to a fork in the road we were going so fast we didn’t have time to really look at the street signs and Daniel decided to take the uphill fork. We didn’t get very far before we were huffing and puffing and walking our bikes up the hill. I started insisting that in must be the wrong was because it was supposed to be a downhill trek but No, both Daniel and Jan were certain that the signs said that this was the way so we continued struggling uphill for an hour in total. Each bend I would look around the corner and hoping it would start going down only to have my hopes dashed by another mother of a hill! At an hour we were all stopped at a spot in the shade and I convinced the guys to take out the map and double check. By now even they were starting to have doubts and we had only seen one little waterfall that wasn’t even listed on the trail. Of course when we checked the map we were drastically off course and should have taken the downhill fork. The 2 good things about that whole detour

1) I earned myself an icecream by the time we got to the next waterfall, and
2) We got to ride really, really fast back down the hill!!

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The cascades tour bike ride

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Yvette and I with our welldeserved icecreams going across in the lift for a closer look at the waterfall

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Waterfall!!!

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This littlle old lady was cutting up and selling raw sugar cane on the side of the road! A nice little energy burst to finish our ride!

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Daniel, Yvette, Me, Jan and Mike on the walk down to the second last waterfall

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Looking up from behind the second last waterfall

So the waterfalls were spectacular! Especially the last 2, even though they were a hike to get to the second last one we got to climb through rocks and stand behind the waterfall listening to its thunderous roar and the last one we got to go swimming in. However, when it’s slightly chilly and the water in the pool is trickling down from the top of a mountain the swim suddenly isn’t so appealing, but we had come all that way with our swimmers so we took the plunge and MAN! Was it cold! Haha
We went back up and took a few minutes to have a rest and something to eat after climbing over 800 steps back up to the road. Then we found a caminetta (local truck or car) to take us and our bikes back to Banos for a small fee each.

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Standing behind the second last waterfall and getting absolutely soaked!

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The last waterfall

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The return home in the caminetta

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Soaking in the steaming pools at the hot springs

That night the only thing we could do was pay a visit to one of the local hot springs to ease our tired muscles. Banos in English means “bathroom” and the town gets its name from the natural volcanic hot springs dotted around the area which are now very popular among tourists and locals alike! It was quite crowded but noice!

Day 3 was a chore day spent updating internet stuff and putting all of photos so far (16G worth) onto DVDs to post back home so that I would have back up copies just in case my laptop were lost or stolen. Postage was quite expensive but I also decided to send some postcards home coz I figured by 5 months it was about time I sent some! We also spent the day trying to plan a trek to Lake Quilotoa, a volcanic lake set high up in a crater in a tiny town of about 100 people.

We set off for this trek the next day and caught a bus to Latacunga. We then found our way across the town and boarded a smaller bus that was filled with locals dressed in local attire and giant rice bags lining the aisle. We were told the bus would leave straight away but we ended up having to wait 45min for the bus to fill up before it would leave. So we decided to pass the time with the amazingly portable monopoly cards, much to the unabashed fascination of the locals.

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Playing Monopoly Cards on the rice bags in the aisle of the bus

We got off the bus in the tiny town of Tigua, famous for its local colourful paintings depicting the lake and the life of the local people of the area. The style of art was started by one man but he then taught others and now there are around 200 artists in and around Tigua and Quilatoa imitating his work and making a living off it. We stopped in at a couple of local galleries and bought some of the beautiful artwork.

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One of the art galleries in Tigua

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Some of the artwork in the gallery

We then flagged down another passing bus and continued onto another small town called Zumbahua. We checked into a small hostel on that Friday night called Hostel Condor Matzi so we could attend the Saturday morning market the next day. There was only one restaurant in town so we decided to buy some ingredients to make some kind of dinner and I ended up making a good old tuna bake haha! I had chest infection and was on antibiotics so wasn’t drinking but that didn’t stop us from having a crazy night and we ate and sat by the fire. I ate so much that I said my button was going to burst and Jan, our dear Belgian friend, thought I said my bottom was going to burst. When he told me this and I understood his reaction I suddenly fell into fits of laughter and those who know me well may have seen at least one of these laughing fits. 45minutes later of continuous laughter, holding a sore stomach and wiping the tears away we washed up the dishes and went to bed.

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Jan was so impressed with the high ceiling in the Zumbahua Hostel.

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Cooking tuna bake in the freezing cold hostel

The market is not really for tourists but amazing all the more because of it. The men and women are all in traditional dress and there are people buying and selling all sort of animals including llamas, sheep and chickens, fruit and veg, wooden crafts, fried dough with sugar on top (this became a popular snack for us), woven fabrics and artisans. A great sight is the old men on the old singer sewing machines making new clothes and repairs for the locals.

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The view of the markets from the Hostel balcony

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Bananas Anyone??

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I bought a hat and this great poncho at the market, which is now in a box on it’s way back to Perth, along with the paintings I bought, as it takes up too much room in my pack :)

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How much can we fit in the back of a caminetta

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This poor old duck was in the car but the man made her sit in the back with her potatoes when we asked for a lift. We insited that we sit in the back but he refused! I am sure we were paying more probably!

After that we hitched a cheap ride with another caminetta to Quilatoa, about 4000m above sea level. When I saw the lake from the top looking down into the crater in took my breath away. The photos really don’t do it justice. It sparkled every shade of green and was surrounded by the deep vegetation covered crater walls.

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Lake Quilotoa from the top of the crater

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The rough path down to the crater mouth

We walked town to the lake for a closer look and by the time we got there the clouds had descended, so that when we walked back up the view back into the crater was completely obscured. We then asked around some of the locals about the bus and although we got mixed answers we eventually gathered that the last bus had passes through at 2:30 and it was now 4pm. So we walked a little way again trying to hitch a ride but everyone wanted $20-$30 to take us to the next town on the loop, Chugchilan. Eventually (cars were few and far between) we flagged down a German couple in a 4WD that had their young daughter in the back. He worked for the embassy in Quito and they were on a weekend holiday. They only had room for 2 (though we could have easily fit 4 :)) so I went with Tara, a girl from Melbourne that we had met the day before in Banos. She had overheard us talking about the trip in the hostel. Yvette and Jan ended up hitching a $20 ride, which we realised later, was the going rate, and we split the costs. We stayed at a really cute little place called Hostel Cloud Forest. The views were still incredible and the mist of the cloud forest added a hint of mystery to the place. The cost per night was a little more expensive than we were used to but it included breakie and dinner so I guess it balanced out. The following day we went on a horseback tour up the mountain, out of the community past some little farms to a ‘cheese factory’. I put this in commas because it was little more than a shed with 2 rooms with a very basic cheese making system. We bought a block, or rather a wobble, of cheese from the lady (they like their soft cheeses here) and then rode back on the horses.

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Riding the horses through cloud forest

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Little boys in one of the communities we passed playing with bike wheels and sticks! So sweet!

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Mmmm cheese!

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Mmmmm fried dough filled with cheese!

We had a wonder round the tiny village that afternoon and bought some more fried dough and a corn on the cob for lunch (all that was available). We then played cards by the fire with a glass of red wine. Then we continued on the loop the next day. We booked a ride with a caminetta for a few dollars each to take us back to Latacunga. A small landslide prevented us from going back the way we came so we turned around to go another route via the small village of Saquisili. I am so thankful for that little landslide because the scenery along this route turned out to be the most impressive on this trip yet! I couldn’t take my eyes away from the window, simply spectacular.

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The trip back to banos from Chugchillan to Saquisili

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Renting the buggies in Banos

Back in banos we took a couple more days. We rode around town in little motorised buggies and drank some very tasty chai tea in some of the lovely little restaurants. Of course we visiting the hot springs again but I think the best thing was booking our waterfall canyoning tour. This involved gearing up and jumping/climbing down 5 waterfalls on a guided rope:

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Canyoning waterfalls

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We also spent these days researching cheap jungle tours in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I have learnt now that the best way to get a good deal on a tour is just to go to the place and book direct, and as it is low season we stood a pretty good chance of getting something reasonable. We met an Irish guy called Sam back at the hostel and convinced Tara to come with us again. So the 5 of us set of for Mashualli for the next stage of our adventure, but I will save that for the next chapter!

So until then Amigos...Adios!!!

Posted by katieOZ 11:46 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Peruvian Paradises and the Gorgeous Galapagos

Lima, Huanchaco, Colan, Mancora, Guayaquil, Montainita, Galapagos

As I am writing this blog I’m sitting on the deck of a giant motorised sail boat, cruising around the Galapagos Islands. So as you may have guessed I have continued my travels moving north along the coast of Peru and up into Ecuador!
Now I am having a holiday on holiday and the Galapagos Islands are really amazing! All that people say they will be! But more about that later...

At the end of my last blog I was still in the hospital with Biddy in Lima, Peru. I stayed there for a further week to help Adrianne, Biddy’s Mum, get settled and to await the arrangements of Biddy’s transport back to Australia. I stayed for few more days in the hospital as Adrianne was staying at a family friend’s house in Lima nearby. But a combination of the hair raising taxi rides and having an unmarked taxi trying to pull her into his car one night outside the hospital meant that she preferred the hospital room so I happily moved out to a hostel with our friend Oliver. After a few days there I knew it was time to get on the road again. So after a very sad goodbye to Biddy, Oliver and I caught a bus to Trujillo 10 hours north. There we got a 15min taxi for $7 to Huanchaco, one of Peru’s biggest surfing towns. I think after spending a month in the hospital I was ready to expel some energy and that weekend in Huanchaco was a big one. Although the town itself was just a small surfing community they had 2 night clubs (discotheques) that had great live reggae bands both Friday and Saturday night. So both nights ended up in us walking back along the beach as the sun was rising having danced until we couldn’t dance anymore.

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The crew at the Huanchaco Hostel

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From the upper level in Huanchaco hostel: looking across at one of the rooms and the living room below it

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Shopping at the market in Huanchaco

The hostel in Huanchaco was amazing. It was owned by Juan Carlos, a local surfer who ran a surf school and also did a lot of volunteer work with kids in the local community. It was only $3.50 a night and the hostel (all the upstairs rooms and boardwalks) were built out of bamboo. He had built it all himself. With the tiki masks, dreamcatchers, hammocks and casual wooden sitting areas it had a very relaxed Bohemian feel.
That weekend Huanchaco was hosting a national surfing competition. Some of the surfers were world champions and were staying at the hostel. Unfortunately 2 big night of partying resulted in me sleeping in for most of the day so I didn’t get to watch any of it! Meanwhile our Guardian Angel in Lima, Jaime was heading to Piura to make his way to his beach house in Colan. Before leaving Jaime had said to Biddy and I that we were welcome there anytime so I jumped on the invitation immediately. So Tuesday after the partying weekend in Huanchaco I jumped on a 3 hour bus ride up to Piura. I thought the ticket was a little expensive (45 soles or $20) but it was a top of the range Cama (bed) seat and when I got on board it was the comfiest seat I had ever been in! I slept the whole way! Talk about leather luxury! During that time I also got 2 meals, and for South American bus food it really wasn’t that bad!
When I arrived in Colan. I texted Jaime and waited for him outside the bus station. Unfortunately Piura like many busy towns doesn’t have the safest reputation. While I was waiting there at 3pm in the afternoon in broad daylight on a busy street with all my luggage a thief snuck up to me and ripped my gold necklace off my neck. He took off sprinting down the street through the crowd leaving me standing helplessly with all my luggage yelling, “Hey, HEY, STOP HIM!” (I was unable to think in Spanish in my moment of panic, ha). What surprised me most is everybody just stood by and accepted it and nobody made any attempt to stop him. It all happened very quickly and I was quite shocked. So after a few moments I made my way back round to the passenger terminal and decided to wait for Jaime inside. When Jaime arrived I suddenly was overwhelmed with the shock of what had just happened and burst into tears. He helped me to the car a blubbering mess and I took a few minutes to compose myself to explain what happened. I guess you always hear about these things happening and when you’re travelling you hear these stories first hand so in a way I was half thinking it was only a matter of time before something happened to me. Accidents always seem to find me, especially when I am travelling as many of you know well :) At least it was just a necklace and not something more valuable like my credit card, passport or my life. Not to say that I am not very sad for the loss of the necklace. It was a going away present from my co-workers at Mogo Zoo and was engraved.

But my time in Colan made up for it and it felt like a true tropical holiday! Jamie’s beach house is amazing and you really have to see it for yourself to believe it but I will try my best to explain it. From the dirt road you enter the backyard into a massive grass area with coconut palms, an outdoor dining setting, some deck chairs and a small swimming pool. Then you walk up the back porch into the house. It’s very spacious for a beach house with 3.5 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms. The living room overlooks the sand and the waves and you walk from there onto the back veranda down 2 steps onto the sand and into the waves 3m away. The first night we got there it was a full moon and the waves were washing under the house. It was the first full tide after the Japan Earthquake tsunami, which also did some damage to some of the houses neighbouring Jaime’s.

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My room in Colan

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Jaime's Living room. The beach is just outside but you can't really see it.

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There it is!!!

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The waves washing under the house!

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The view of the house from the beach

So that is where I spent the next week. On top of that they have a housemaid, Marcela and a groundskeeper, Santos who was also an excellent fisherman. He would bring us fresh seafood almost everyday and give it to Marcela who would make us a delicious lunch each day. I know most of you aren’t going to believe this but I started eating seafood...AND LIKING IT! Peruvians really do know their seafood and there is one dish called ceviche that is especially good. It is small pieces of fish (or other seafood) cooked in lime acid so it is still a little raw but the sauce is a watery, white colour... I have to get the recipe!! It is served with slivers of Spanish onion, and a big wedge of cooked sweet potato.
So each day would be waking up for a big breakfast already laid out on the table, swim, lunch (usually 2-3 courses), ice cold beers, swim, reading on the deck or cards, siesta, beers, walk, swim, dinner.
After a few days Jaime’s parents and 2 of his best friends arrived then the next day my friend Yvette came. Jaime had met her at the hospital and invited her along. She was just a taken back as I was with the house and the wonderful hospitality of his family. No one would let us pay for anything so we usually snuck out during siesta time to the corner store to restock the fridge with more beer and wine, it was the very least we could do.

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CEVICHE!!!

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Lunch on the balcony in Colan

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Enjoying the sunset

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Playing cards on the deck with Jaime

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Yvette fishing in Colan

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Admiring the sunset from "the cross" lookout point. Colan village is below.

I think I could have stayed there forever but it was time to keep moving. Olly and some of the guys in Huanchaco were heading up to Mancora, one of Peru’s most northern beach towns that in recent years has become overrun with tourism. We decided to meet at the Loki Hostel in town. Loki is a chain of hostels in South America that is designed especially for young, backpacking, partying gringos (western tourists). A little pricier but as you will see in the pics below it was like a resort. The rooms were plain but very comfortable 6-8 person dorms. There was a swimming pool, hammocks, volleyball, pool table, table tennis table and the most dangerous of all a bar with bar tabs running for guests. Most people get a nasty shock when they discover their bar tab when they check out a few days later. Plus it was on the beach with some steps at the base of the hostel, behind the swimming pool leading out to the sand.

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Loki Hostel, Mancora

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Our room at Loki

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Mancora Sunset

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Yvette and I at Mancora

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Chilling at the beach, Mancora

It was great to hang out with the Huanchaco friends again. Olly and John Francois were very set on practicing their guitar playing and would always draw a crowd down at the beach. We also met some other people so there was always good company.
On the Friday everybody decided it was time to go and to head up to Ecuador. Olly and the boys went one way early in the morning to go and work on an organic farm in the south for a month or so while Yvette and I went straight up to Guayaquil (pronounced why-a-kil). Although it’s not the capital, Guayaquil is Ecuador’s most populated town with over 2 million people. We got a night bus at 9pm and couldn’t really settle in for a nights snooze because we had to cross the border and get immigration stamps on either side. All went smooth, they didn’t even bother checking bags or anything (which would have been horrible at 1am in the morning), jeez South America is soo funny!
We arrived in Guayaquil at 5am. We had a hostel address because Yvettes friend Jan, a Belgium guy we met in Mancora was there already. But the taxi driver read the address wrong and dropped us off in a completely different area and when I went to the villa number I woke up an elderly couple and their dog. The man walked out with a small plastic stool in his hands and when I treied to ask him if I had the right address he kept yelling “No” but in the background his wife was yelling “Yes”. Eventually I apologised and gave up thinking if it was a hostel they would have let us in by now. We walked back to our original spot and there wasn’t anybody around then suddenly a taxi drifted around the corner and dropped someone off at the next block. So I looked at Yvette and we both started running and yelling after the cab trying desperately to get his attention. He saw us and stopped. We explained our situation and that we had the wrong address and asked him if her could take us to an internet cafe. He told us her would take us to the Sheraton Hotel and we said no we have a hostel, we just need the internet and there was no way we could afford a night in the Sheraton. Eventually I realised he was saying we may be able to use the internet at the Sheraton, which was just around the corner. We were then fortunate again that the staff let us in and use there internet room. At a quick check I realised we had the right address but it was just read wrong!! MZ5 was read as M25 so when explained this to our cabbie we were off again and around 7:30 found the hostel and collapsed into bed. Jan woke us up at 11 with a cooked breakfast. I nearly cried in happiness. It turned out the hostel was really just a guys house that he was gradually converting into a hostel but as we were the only guests there at the time and the man was out most of the time we pretty much had the place to ourselves. There was a giant mall opposite us so we could buy whatever we needed for a meal, come back and cook it and usually sit in the pool with a beer or a glass of vino and eat. It was like our own house. I actually get really excited when I get a kitchen to use in a hostel because I miss cooking and I don’t get the chance to do it much. With a few people it can often work out cheaper to cook and if you have leftovers it can often span 2 meals. Anyway Jan and I had talked about doing visiting the Galapagos Islands and as he had got there a day early he said he would start trying to scope out some cheap deals. So over the weekend we tried to book something but the agency Jan found had sold their spots by the time I got there. We tried booking through an online site but first the agent couldn’t get us two spots and then when he did he couldn’t get us flights! The tours left either on a Monday or Thursday so we decided just to wait and book a tour for the end of the week. Yvette listened to us plan our trip and talk about how amazing it would be. Eventually even with her lack of funds we convinced her that this was a once in lifetime experience and that she should come. So we arranged the tour for the end of the week (after a few troubled phone calls, mis-hearing credit card numbers and emails). With a few days to kill and not much to do in Guayaquil we decided to head to Montainita on the coast 3 hours north. The buses are pretty much $1 an hour anywhere in Ecuador. Montainita is a tiny surfing town that now runs primarily on tourism, much like Mancora. We met some of Jan friends and stayed in a beachfront hostel for $4/night. So you can imagine that for this price we didn’t get anything flash. We stayed on the top floor of a 4 storey timber hostel. It was all open and around the edge of the area there were nearly 40 mattresses laid on the ground, each with a mosquito net over them. There were usually 2 mattresses separated by 2 great chests with a lock on that you could keep your stuff in. In the morning you could walk up to the front and look out over the beach below. More amazing sunsets which left me wondering... is it possible to have too many sunset pictures?

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Yes, another beach sunset, in Montainita

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The giant room at the hostel in Montainita

During the day we swam, ate $2 set menu lunches and $1 icecreams, laid on the beach and just relaxed. I thought about getting a surfing lesson but I chickened out, I just don’t want to admt that surfing really isn’t my thing! Haha! At night everything was very quiet. We were told Friday and Saturday nights were the big nights and we were there mid week. On the last night though the bar next to our hostel started playing music and so we started drinking and playing cards in the hostel and our group went from 5 to about 15 then we all went across to dance in the bar next door. As soon as we walked in Yvette and I got pounced on by some latin men already dancing (I am slowly getting used to this although it’s often annoying because they don’t seem to understand ‘no’). I decided to give it one dance but the guy I was dancing with turned out to be a dance teacher from Cuba and so for the next 3 hours I got a very fast paced salsa lesson, stopping only to scull bottles of water now and then. I must have looked funny- the white girl trying to shake it and salsa on the dance floor but I don’t care because I had so much fun. When I eventually left with Yvette and Jan I was soaking in sweat and so we all went for a quick dip in the sea before going to bed. Montainita is a very small town, about 4 square blocks so you can stroll around the whole town in about an hour. So after 3 days we were happy to head back to Guayaquil to prepare for our flight to Galapagos the next day.

We had to be at the airport around 8:30 and wait around nearly 3 hours for our flight. We had booked a 5 day cruise on a 16 passenger motorised sailing yacht. It included the flights there and cost $1265 each. Upon arrival in the Galapagos we had to pay an additional $100 national park tax and then we met up with our guide. Unfortunately there were 2 other tourists on our boat that had been put on the earlier flight and had to sit around for half the first day waiting for us to arrive. We got a bus then a boat then a car to an area where they had some of the giant tortoises. We wrer told that the less rings they have on their shells the older they are. Our feet were getting eaten by ants everywhere so I told the guide that I would have put proper shoes on had I known we were going walking straight away but he said it was okay because we were going back to the cars anyway. But then we got another surprise stop at an underground cave tunnel that was constructed by lava from a volcanic eruption. It was extremely slippery in here and in my head I cursed the guide again for not telling that we would need proper footwear. Of course I was the only one that slipped and fell onto the muddy floor, but we all got a good laugh out of it. We had lunch and dinner on the local Isnad and then went onto our boat. I ended up sharing a little twin bunk bed cabin with an Israeli guy named Yadeen. It was very cute and cosy. All rooms also have A/C and a small ensuite.

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The Yacht

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Inside the boat

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A Galapagos Tortise

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The new species of Galapagos Tortise...what do you make of that Darwin?

So the second day we went to Post Office Bay where we saw an unusual postal service. In the old days ships visting the Galapagos wouldput their mail home in a postbox on this Island. The mail would stay there until someone about to depart came along and checked the mail and if they were headin back to anywhere close to where the mail was addressed they would take what they could and hand deliver it when they got there. The post box is still used today. I wanted to put a postcard in btu I hadn’t any on me. I wonder how long it would have stayed there until someone from Perth who was nearing the end of their trip decided to take it back for me. We then went snorkelling in the bay. The snorkel equipment wasn’t included in the price but we were able to hire some for the 5 days for $15. I was very happy to properly try out my underwater camera. I took many photos but only a few turned out. The highlight was seeing a sea turtle and getting to swim along with it for a while. We went back on board for a tasty buffet lunch (all the meals were delicious buffets!!) then in the afternoon we went to another bay for some more snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and I saw so many creatures it was just incredible. I had a playful young sea lion swim around me, sea turtles swim by me and sharks and eagle rays and a wide assortment of fish underneath me. I was totally awed and was completely happy fpor the rest of the afternoon until we hit some rough seas moving to our next location and I got seasick. That was a rough night trying to sleep :)

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Swimming with a sea turtle, simply unreal!

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A Parrot Fish

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A School of fish

The third day we went to another bay to visit a Sea Lion colony. There were pups and mothers everywhere. Lots of pups were flopping crying out for their mothers who must have been away fishing. If they came too close to or tried to suckle on another mother they got a nasty telling off from the mother and sometimes from her infant who wasn’t happy to share. We had to be wary about the mothers because they were quite protective and could get quite upset if they felt we were too close. I got quite a shock when a very small pup came silently and sniffed my leg from behind hoping to find it’s mother! We also saw many marine iguanas. They have colourations around their necks often spreading down their body. The colour is usually red from the red algae they eat out at sea. Some eat other coloured algaes and are therefore different colours. They can’t stay out in the sea for too long because being cold blooded reptiles they get cold quickly and after 15-20min they have to spend a couple of hours warming up again on the rocks on the shore. To complete the day we did another round of snorkelling!

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Spot the odd one out!

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Awwwwwww!

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Marine Iguana swimming

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Jumping off the Boat!

The fourth day we went to went for another walk on another island to see Land Iguanas, Lava Lizards, Blue Footed Boobies and many other birds including Albatross’s soaring in the skies. They were huge!! Apparently they were all male. They arrive in the area for the mating season a few weeks before the females. When the females do arrive they find their mate (they bond for life) and begin a reunion/courtship ritual. Wish I could have seen that, but still a spectacular day. More snorkelling in the afternoon.

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Watching the Albatross from the cliff

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Albatross

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Lava Lizard

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Land Iguana, yellow colouration from the yellow cactus flowers they eat

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Male Frigate Bird

On our fifth and last day we popped out to another Island to see the Frigate Birds. The males try to attract the females with their large red inflatable throat pouches. Now I am back on the yatch, sadly no snorkelling this afternoon as we are making out way down back to the Island with the airport to fly back to mainland Ecuador. From there I plan to head with Yvette and Jan to Banos, a small town set at 1800m above sea level. It’s an adventure town so I will probably be doing more trekking, water sports, cycling and anything else I can find. After that I will look into doing some more volunteering, hopefully in the jungle! But I will keep you posted!

Ciao for now! xox

Posted by katieOZ 19:18 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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