Surprises – Good and Bad

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This is the man I came to see – President Rafael Correa. Whilst in Quito, I was told that he always comes out onto his balcony for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. What surprised me, was the response.

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Hundreds of people were waving flags and shouting, “Viva Ecuador!” The national anthem then started up. Not surprisingly, I didn’t recognise the tune and the older woman standing next to me took the cap off my head and told me to show some respect.

Minutes later, this happened:

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Ecuador’s World Cup football squad arrived. Hundreds more packed into the Plaza Grande to cheer them on. The atmosphere was fantastic. I tried to work my way through the crowds to get a better view, “Let her through” I heard someone say. People do make you feel welcome here. The day before, I went into a shop to ask for directions and the woman gave me her telephone number just in case I got lost.

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Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a beautiful city to walk around. I got a great view from the Vista Hermosa restaurant one night where I tried Canelazo for the first time – an alcoholic drink served in a teapot. What’s not to like?

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The Virgin of Quito can be spotted from most parts of the centro histórico, which is a great place to explore on a Sunday when the streets are closed to traffic. I was drawn towards the gold interior of la Compañía and found that a classical concert was about to start. It was the longest time I’d ever spent in a church.

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Another nice surprise was being invited up to Mindo by some friends I’d made on the road. The town is located in the foothills of the Andes, about a two hour drive from Quito. It was beautiful. I hiked up to the Cascada Reina and felt like I had the entire canopy to myself. Maybe this was why:

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Getting to the waterfalls involves a ride in a cable car high above the treetops. I say cable car, but it’s basically a platform on a pully. It’s not for the faint-hearted. When the attendant dropped me off he said, “Just kick the cable when you’re ready and we’ll know to come and get you.”

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The antidote was a visit I made to a local chocolate factory. They take you through the whole process from fermenting to tempering. Obviously, the best part was the tasting. We tried a 100% cocoa liquid and gradually added sugar to make it more palatable, then some nibs, ginger syrup and even a barbecue sauce. Chocolate is used a lot in the meat dishes here.

After the hustle and bustle of Quito, Mindo was a really relaxing place. This was my favourite spot:

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With good surprises, come bad ones. I’d planned and prepared for credit card fraud on this trip, but I wasn’t expecting it to be inside a bank, during a face to face transaction. But – I prefer to leave Ecuador remembering the kindness of others. One driver I got to know dropped me off at the airport. He gave me a big hug and said “Goodbye my friend!” With any luck, the investigation will be dealt with quickly. The nice surprises will stay with me forever.

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Island Hopping in the Galápagos

image For somebody who get’s seasick, it was an ambitious task – taking photographs whilst sailing around an archipelago. In a quiet moment, I wept into my lifejacket.

But it was the Galápagos Islands and I’d wanted to go there since I was a little girl. Here’s why:

image When you meet a giant tortoise, it’s very clear who’s in charge. As they plod down the path, you soon realise you’re in their way. If you accidentally get too close, they hiss at you. It takes you by surprise, especially when they’re hiding at the side of the road. This picture was taken on Santa Cruz. I was told that the females here walk 15km down to the sea to lay their eggs.

image This tortoise on Isabela was one of many rescued by helicopter when the Cerro Azul volcano erupted in 1998. It’s housed at a local breeding centre. They’re trying to get the numbers back up and successfully bred 200 in the first couple of years. The new generation have gradually been released back into the wild. image With their funny little dance and bright blue feet, you can understand why the blue-footed booby is a star attraction on the Galápagos. I spotted this one at Academy Bay. Conservationists here say the population has decreased by two thirds since the early ’90s. They believe it’s partly due to overfishing in Peruvian waters.

image As you wouldn’t expect tortoises to give you the right of way, don’t expect sea lions to give up their seat for you either. Here at San Cristóbal I learned just how cheeky they can be. After finishing the vounteer project, I went down to La Lobearía for an early morning swim. Suddenly, a sea lion pup popped up next to me as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” He then started to roll around in the water. He did it a few times and I copied him. His Mum then appeared, which made me a little nervous, but we played for a short while and the two of them swam off.

image They’re usually the first thing you see when you arrive at any of the islands – a wonderful welcome party. Sadly, the El Ninos in 1988 and 1998 have had a drastic affect on their numbers. Conservationists say about half the population was lost and has yet to recover.

image The Galápagos penguin has also been affected by weather events. The species is endangered – there are now fewer than 2000 living on the islands. That matters, because they’re the only penguins who live north of the equator. I found these ones at Floreana. I was surprised by how small they were – about 49cm long.

image Charles Darwin described marine iguanas as ‘hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in their movements’.

image This little family at Santa Cruz certainly look quite sinister, don’t they! Their white faces look ghostly. At Las Tintoreras, they were overtaking me in the water. It seemed strange to see these reptiles swim.

image I came across yellow land iguanas on a hike up to the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela. Pink ones live in the northern part of the island, but the area is closed to travellers.

image I love these Sally Lightfoot crabs. You can spot them out at sea because their red shells are so bright against the black rocks.

imageThey crawl all over the marine iguanas, who don’t seem to mind.

image I was so busy watching the wildlife, that I almost forgot about the beaches. This is Tortuga Bay, about an hour’s walk from the harbour at Santa Cruz. It was a great place to relax. There were more iguanas sunbathing, than people.

image Getting from one island to the other is easy to do. There are plenty of tour companies around the harbours who sell tickets. Some of them offer last minute deals. The average price is about $100. Allow yourself time for the authorities to search and tag your bag – they need to check that nothing organic is transferred from one island to the other. Theoretically, once sealed, you can’t get anything out. If you do have to break in, make sure you keep your tag to show them at the other side. It’s best to put a rain cover over your bag, because it will get wet on board.

image Once on the islands, you can find these white taxis everywhere and they’re inexpensive. The most I paid to get to a local hotel was $2.

image I was very sad to leave the Galápagos. One day, there’ll be a tablet strong enough for me to enjoy the manta rays and dolphins out at sea, instead of quietly acknowledging them out of the corner of my eye!

Cute Crawlers and Creepy Crawlies

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They’re famously slow, but it’s surprising how quickly Giant Tortoises can move once they’ve spotted their breakfast. This was feeding time at the Galápagos National Park and I was lucky enough to volunteer there as part of a conservation project run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation on San Cristóbal. I like this picture. With that backpack on, I look like a tortoise myself.

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The volunteer work has been one of the toughest on the trip so far. It’s based at a biological station in the middle of the forest. Mosquitoes are rife. There’s 90% humidity too. Using a machete is like trying to swing a golf club in a swimming pool – but it’s necessary. Conservationists here say some birds are extinct or endangered because trees like Scalesia have gradually disappeared. So, we’ve been cutting down invasive plants like mora (blackberry bushes) so that endemic trees can be planted instead. The only problem is that these thorny thickets tower over your head. It’s a challenge. Another challenge is getting up close and personal with all the wonderful creatures that nature has to offer. Let me introduce you to my roommate:

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It was the largest of the little gang that was awaiting my arrival. I asked another volunteer if there were any poisonous spiders at the station. “No,” she replied, “although they did find a type of black widow in somebody’s boot.” That would be a ‘yes’ then, surely?

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The conservation project also works with local landowners to help them develop organic farming methods, so that they can sell their produce to restaurants and hotels. It also promotes sustainability by growing its own fruit and vegetables. We’ve been picking pineapples, passion fruit, oranges and bananas but some fruit is best left alone.

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This is one of the smelliest you’ll ever find. Its called noni fruit and it smells like rotting cheese. Despite it’s aroma, it’s loved by many. It’s said to have medicinal or anti-ageing properties and this little specimen apparently costs $60 in the shops.

So, in the middle of a forest, with no shops and temperatures of 80f, how did they manage this?

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It was my birthday last week. It may have been one of the hardest projects so far, but I felt very lucky indeed.