A Travellerspoint blog

Guyana

Guyana from Flavia’s perspective...

sunny 35 °C

We have been in Guyana for almost two weeks.
Guyana is a bit of a strange place, certainly more unique than most of the other countries we have visited so far. For a start, there are no Mc Donalds in Guyana!! Secondly, most of the country is rainforest, with the exception of the coast. When you fly over it, it is an expanse of green and no towns, like an unlimited broccoli field.
Culturally, it does not belong to South America at all. The Spanish-speaking countries and Guyana are two worlds entirely apart, and not just because of the language. Georgetown strikes you straight away with its British colonial wooden architecture, while there is no salsa or reggaeton beat to be heard anywhere on the streets - it is all reggae or pop or black hip hop. The country is also scattered with Indu and Chinese-looking temples, mosques, and the churches are either Catholic or Anglican. Guyana is still very under-developed and Georgetown is to me a big messy place. I hated it for the first few days, but later started to get used to it. Another two weeks and I might end up not wanting to leave!! Mmm, maybe not that much, but one certainly gets to like it a lot better after a few days. We met an Irish guy who was sent here 22 years ago and for the first 6 months he kept ringing his managers to be transferred back, only to end up living here for all this time now.

Guyana is a VERY HOT country and my stay here has been considerably affected by the HEAT. While auntie Bridget’s thermometer only indicated 30 something degrees at any given time, to me it has felt more like 40 C and over. As a result, I have spent most of my time and thoughts on one thing: trying to stay cool. Somehow, Gregory has not been affected to the same extent – perhaps too excited for being back in his homeland to notice the scorching sun? It was good and interesting to see the country and where he is from, and even see his grand parents house in the countryside.
We spent most of our days in Georgetown, staying with auntie Bridget and being driven around by Wayne, her grandson. Her house is in the outskirts of GT and quite a good one for the local standards, so we have been lucky to be able to live in a comfortable place with all facilities and eating delicious Guyanese food (though she says she does not like cooking).

Last week we went to see the local zoo and botanical gardens. While the latter were destroyed by some floods years back and there is very little of it left to see, the zoo was a lot more interesting than expected. The huge puma in the tiny cage there is still haunting me, but apart from this, the collection of local animals there is quite striking. Animals I never knew existed!! The manatee, a huge vegetarian water mammal between an elephant and a walrus. The harpy eagle, a huge raptor bird measuring almost a metre in height with dinosaur feet, probably able to lift an 8-year-old child. The giant otter, a beautiful huge otter that apparently can be domesticated and will defend you better than a dog. The jaguarundi and the tayra, beautiful feline-looking mammals with a long body and tail.
Last Friday we went to see one of the country top attractions, the Kaieteur waterfalls. To get there you have to take one of those tiny planes and fly over the jungle for over an hour. We did the tour and the falls were indeed quite impressive. And very hot, of course. Only 10 people in the plane including the pilot!!
Friday night we took the bus to Iwokrama, a centre for rain forest conservation and development where tourists can stay and do excursions into the rain forest. Expensive place to stay but the money all goes to conservation as it is a non-profit place, so go there!! It lies between Georgetown and Lethem (Lethem is the gateway to the Brazilian border) almost 400 km inland. There is one big unpaved red earth road crossing the country north to south, and this is the road we took to get to Iwokrama (www.iwokrama.org). The bus was quite remarkable: tough, more like a four-wheel camion camouflaged like a bus. It was 9 hours each way and it was a long bumpy journey, but nevertheless very interesting. Iwokrama was a good place, though we saw only a few animals. You know the animals are there, all around you, but they are real wild animals and not really keen to make themselves be seen. We were disappointed but had to remind ourselves that we were not in the Galapagos any longer...no more 5 animals per square meter. In fact, they say that a jaguar needs 100 square km of territory to roam comfortably in, so what chances does one have??? The only semi-tame animal there was at the centre was a fairly big black caiman in the river, maybe 3 meters in length or so. The caiman has been living in that part of the river for the past 10 years and has gotten used to the people, so the workers there – and some tourists, though not us!!! – bathe in the water alongside it without too much concern. Other than that, we saw a good few birds, including toucans and scarlet macaws, but not the harpy eagle... We also came across a few monkeys, mostly capuchin and red howlers, and saw a sleeping sloth at the top of a tree. And that was it!! On the second day we got caught in the rain, and what a rain it was! We got absolutely soaked, in a matter of half hour the sky was black and we were on this little motor boat and the rain was coming down so hard that we could not keep our eyes open and were praying that the boatman could see where he was going... to the point that I lent him my sunglasses to enhance our chances of survival and avoid hitting land at high speed. We only just about saved my camera by putting it in a semi-dry cavity in the boat, which should remind anybody going out there walking in the rainforest that the RAINforest is called like that because of a reason...so always take a plastic bag with you for your camera!!

Today we passed by the market and my high spirits were hit real hard: next to the chickens and rabbits, they had cages with capuchin and squirrel monkeys and they all looked really worried and frightened. Not sure if this is legal, I hope it is not. Will have to think about what to do about it.

We are leaving tomorrow for Barbados

Here are some pics.

GEORGETOWN
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Georgetown's cathedral
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Magistrar Court
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Delicious pepperpot
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Local crowd selling local crafts
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The neighbour's goats
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Patrick the manatee
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Cuffy monument - first slave to try revolt in 1763, attempt failed
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IWOKRAMA
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The mighty road to Lethem and Iwokrama
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Jungle from within...
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And jungle from above...
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Sankar the black caiman
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Rhino friendly beetle...
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KAIETEUR WATERFALLS
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Mosquito plane to Kaieteur
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Posted by Flav-Greg 17:24 Archived in Guyana Comments (0)

Quito to Georgetown, Guyana

sunny 26 °C

We have made it!!

We have finally made it to Guyana, URRAH!! The bus trip from Quito to Caracas was quite in order, actually. It took 63 hours, and they went pretty quickly. The bus was excellent, it was clean and comfortable and we actually managed to sleep quite a few hours. What got us by surprise was the type of people that were on the bus: all strictly Ecuadorians and Venezuelans, and not a single Western tourist. Maybe because no westener in their right mind would do take such a long journey to save a few hundred dollars?? Well. We wanted to save the money, but we also wanted to see the country and try the experience, and we are really glad we have done it.

So we were the only gringos on board and this is how we got called for the duration of the journey. It actually didn't start off very well: the bus was coming from another town in Ecuador and was already almost full. So the driver got up into the bus and showed us our seats. While I went back down to ensure our luggage was loaded on with us etc, the original resident of our just acquired seats came back and approached Gregory and started abusing him that 'this was his seat', and trying to get his bag off him etc. Gregory keeping hold of the bag shouting in Spanish that it was his own bag...ah ah ah! Cannot believe I missed tehe scene. By the time I got back up it was like nothing had happened, the guy perfectly peaceful. I went off again, and the guy had another go at Gregory. I came back up, all fine and the man is smiling... ??? So I went and asked the driver if there was a problem, and the driver said not to worry. Eventually, it emerged that the guy was indeed sitting where we were, but was moved so that the two of us could sit together. After a while, after seeing how comfortable we were being a couple and sharing the 2 adjacent seats, he must have realised that there were plausible reasons behind moving him elsewhere and he calmed down. By the time Gregory started talking and opening his big smiling mouth, they became quite 'good friends'. Throughout the journey everybody was making jokes on the gringo (Gregory) and we were all laughing about it, so it was ok. The toilet bit was particularly funny. The toilet was actually pretty clean, even after someone crapped in it, which is not allowed. The driver came out and had a right moan about it. Later, Gregory took a picture of him and showed it around saying he was 'quien caca' en baño'....

We left Quito at 11pm on Sunday night and got to Caracas at 3 pm on Wednesday.

Caracas is a dangerous, chaotic and quite ugly city. The city hasn't retained much colonial architecture due to a few earthquakes and a strong trend to modernise its infrastructure started in the 50's by dictator Jimenez. There is a big contrast between some of the very modern commercial areas and the shanty towns on the hill sides, some of which are beautifully colourful but many of which are pure brick and cement boxes hangling off the side of the mountain. Big contrast also between the many Chavez's and the McDonalds and westener companies ads.

We felt quite vulnerable there, not sure if once again because of the reputation of if the feeling was real. It has happened in lots of other places that you are told how bad it is and so you are paranoid about everything, and then the place turns out to be absolutely fine. Maybe in Caracas we did not stay enough time to lose the paranoia, or maybe it is really as bad as it looks. Certainly the hotel metal bars and the clientele coming to buy cigarettes and phone cards from it did not help to correct our perception, neither did the two crack addicts that started to fight right opposite the hostel, or the recommendations of our Venezuelan friend, Daniela's cousin, not to do this and that. Nor the two policemen on a motorbike who stopped us as soon as we got off the taxi in front of the hostel to search us, with a really threatening look on their faces. We thought the taxi driver was in trouble, not being an official cab, but it was us they were after!! The taxis are a crazy thing in Caracas. They are not regulated at all, anybody can put up a stick on their car and drive around like a taxi. They don't even have to pay taxes or anything. In fact, we actually should have not got into this unmarked taxi that we took, it's like getting into a car with an absolute unmarked stranger. I am not quite sure why we did. I think the guy was older and looked honest, somehow. Or maybe it was because his car looked a lot better than the wrecks that were circulating on the street. Don't know, but we took a chance and thankfully it went all fine. We started chatting and then we asked him how much he wanted for the airport and seen that he did not seem too greedy, we contracted him to come and get us the next day. he did and was early and really nice. In fact, if anybody is out there looking for a reliable honest taxi driver, Pedro's number is 0414 1109032. An official taxi ride from the airport costs $60, we paid less than half. Dollars... this is the reall crazy thing in Venezuela. If you buy dollars at an official establishment, the exchange rate is 2.200. If you buy them on the street, it can be as high as 4.300!!!!! So you cannot really talk about how much things cost in dollars, because it all depends on how well you managed to change your American dollars. We spent quite a lot of our short time there organising the acquisition of local currency away from the bank, and that saved us a fortune. Like departure tax. Departure tax is an astounding 132.000 bolivares. If you pay with money out of a cash machine, that means $65. If you pay with the money you buy with American dollars from someone, it can be half that! I think our departure tax cost us something like $37, not bad hey!!

The hostel we checked into was probably one of the cheapest ones around - Nuestro Hotel in Sabana Grande - and it was both very secure and very basic. We went to check out the terminal and connections to Cartagena for when we are back there, and were lucky enough to bump into the manager of Bus Ven, one of the companies that connects Caracas to Cartagena in Colombia directly. He gave us his number and told us we could phone him to reserve the seats a couple of days before we get to Caracas, so that we can leave the same day. Could not believe our luck!! So we went back to Sabana Grande for dinner but, while crossing Plaza Venezuela, we bumped into the biggest open place we have ever seen for chess street players. So of course Gregory took the opportunity and even managed to win a few games!! In the meantime I went to make some phone calls and contacted Daniela's cousin to see if we could meet him. We made an appointment and he came to see us and then we ended up having a few beers with him and another hotel resident - Italian - so we had an interesting night talking about South American and Venezuelan politics and at the end of it all we finally made it to bed at 1 o'clock in the morning!! At 5:30 we were up ready for the airport, so that by yesterday we started to feel pretty exhausted. We got the flight to Trinidad ok, spent 5 hours there waiting for our connection, and by 7 pm we were at auntie Bridget's house in Guyana.

So everything is fine and today we are already roaming the streets of Georgetown.

No pics, sorry...

Posted by Flav-Greg 10:43 Archived in Venezuela Comments (4)

Bye bye Quito

semi-overcast 22 °C

Today we are leaving Ecuador. We really liked Quito, it is the most beautiful Latin American capital we have seen, apart from Rio, which is beautiful in a different way. Old Quito is really stunning, although our photos this time do not really do it any justice. It`s all Gregory`s fault of course, yesterday he did not really want to wander around and so we only visited a small part of the colonial centre. We went back there for dinner and by night it is even nicer - only problem is that the streets are absolutely deserted. Never seen anything like it.

We bumped into this Tianguez Cafe`and craft museum-shop in the S Francisco square - the art that they were selling!! I wanted to cry for having already bought and sent a package last week and not being able to buy anything else. Just amazing. Ecuador is the most amazing place we have ever seen for arts and crafts, these people are so creative. It is worth coming here only just to buy stuff, even if the place wasn`t also super diverse, super friendly and offering really good and really cheap food throughout like it is.

So today, sadly, we are leaving to continue our journey. We are taking a bus tonight for Caracas, a long 58 hours which we hope to survive somehow. Then, from Caracas we will be flying to Guyana on Thursday 13th, where auntie Bridget is waiting for us.

We`ll be back online in a few days - fingers crossed!

Quito view from super-expensive Cafe Mosaico
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Cafe Tianguez in the background
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Tianguez inside
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Still crying over this one...
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Posted by Flav-Greg 10:58 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Ecuador coast - Canoa

overcast 20 °C

We changed our plans to visit the Cuyabeno reserve in the Ecuadorian jungle and decided to head for Ecuador`s coast for some sea breeze and seafood. So we went to Canoa, a tiny seaside village about 9 hours from Quito. We stopped in Bahia de Caraquez on the way, which was ok for a stay of 12 hours or so.... Pretty run-down, friendly, hot. We went to visit this place called Saiananda , which is meant to be an animal refuge and spiritual centre, but frankly we were not impressed. The place is pretty big and run down, the owner is rearing lots of tank fish and keeps all other animals in pretty cramped cages, included a cow!!! The main reason for going there was to see a sloth, and when we got there we were told that we would not see it because it usually hides behind the refrigerator!!! the only free animal in the place and hiding. Grunt! then fortunately we stayed for a fruit juice and just by chance, while I was lying down in a hammoc, I spotted the sloth under the table!!! it was sleeping hugging another smaller sloth. very nice.

From Bahia we moved to Canoa, our selected destination. we were really lucky and picked the best possible place we could pick - Hostal Bambu. This is a paradise of a hostal right on the beach right in town, with ample spaces, nice cabins, a great restaurant and a fantastic cocktail bar. They had a pool and a ping-pong table on the premises, which we enjoyed throughout our stay. The weather was terrible and we never even entered the water, but it was really nice all the same. We had lots of gorgeous seafood and got semi-drunk every evening, with cocktails at a dollar each during happy hour and 2 dollars afterwards.... Excellent place, highly recommended.

The main reason for going to Canoa...
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In Canoa a very good artisan copied Gregory`s tagua necklace for us, so that we are now officially both Nazcan monkeys
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This unlucky turtle was dying on the beach after probably having been hit by a boat. We tried putting it back in the sea but it kept floating back.
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Posted by Flav-Greg 10:37 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Otavalo part 2: The Market

& living with an indigenous family

semi-overcast 21 °C

Hello all it's me again Gregory. Due to popular demand and Flavia’s writers cramp. I will update the blogger for us.

Otavalo - a wonderful town with nice people where the partying / celebrating does not seem to stop. The first night the bus drivers formed a convoy and were driving through town honking their horns till the early morn. Then there was the yamor festival, which was a real big deal, a kind of small scale carnival procession with all the local pretty girls from all the villages on floats, indigenous dancers and dances, military bands and of course the local dignitaries parading to the crowd. The street cleaners then had a couple of minutes to clean all the streets before the
Otavalo market starts.

Otavalo market is the biggest market in South America which is actually 4 markets spaced out in the town. The market consists of: the big animal market (cattle), the little animal market(guinea pigs, cats, chickens etc), the artesian market & the fruit market. Flavia and I decided to miss the animals this time because we went to another big animal market in Saquisilli earlier. So we headed for fruit and art.
Flavia being in her element visited every stall with great interest and surprisingly after 4 hours we managed to spend very little money. I did manage to get us to a restaurant, since I was as hungry as a wild animal and we had a complete 3 course meal for $3. I then managed to slip away to the Runa Tupari agency , who happened to be sporting a wireless router that I could get a free signal off to get onto the internet with my palm, while Flavia managed to buy a few more chains and hats she does not need to post back to the UK.

After the market Flavia had arranged with the agency for us to visit another indigenous family. I was not really looking forward to it. I expected it to be high altitude, freezing cold, no real facilities for housing guests and if the weather was particularly unfriendly then a pretty miserable time to be had. (We had done this thrice before) and I was happy I filled my belly since I did not know when I would get adequate nutrition again. To my surprise this family we spent the time with was the complete opposite and it was the best and most up to date we visited.
Enough of me………………Here are the photos minus the pretty girls on floats, flavia said.

the hat masks
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men with long hair discussing how much to charge Flavia for hats
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aaaH!!!!! aren't they cute
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Corny in the maize
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Flavia taking a sneaky Pic
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Nice!!! but luckily these break in transit to the UK
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These do not break so bought some
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The guy in the mask formely known as G**G**Y
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Otavalo family house
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Volcan Imbabura in the background. Foreground corn drying before the dog ate it all
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Mercedes feeding her pig who saved her own bacon in the nick of time by becoming pregnant
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Posted by Flav-Greg 19:56 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Otavalo part 1: tours and lagunas

semi-overcast 20 °C

From Mindo we travelled back to Quito and from there to Papallacta (2 hours) for a day at the best thermal springs in Ecuador. The weather was terrible and the road likewise. We got to Papallacta ok and checked in at Hostal Coturpa - we were the only guests and were attended to by two extremely young boys the whole time we were there. The whole thing felt a bit strange, really, including being served breakfast by two male teenagers!! It rained all the time and the whole place was covered in mist. Given that the purpose of the trip was the hot springs, the horrible weather was of no consequence, or maybe even of better consequence. We went to the balneario at around 5 pm and stayed in the hot waters under the rain for a good 2-3 hours. The next day we took a bus back to Quito and from there straight to Otavalo, Ecuador's mecca for artesania and indigenous culture.

Otavalo is a pleasant town and the people here seem extremely polite and happy. They are always smiling at you and are very friendly. This is the region where the local indigenous population have managed to become a majority also in the economic sense. They tend to be less poor than in other parts of the country and retain a very strong and proud sense of their traditions. Most men have waist-long plaited hair and the women generally wear a traditional costume in their daily lives.

Yesterday we took a tour with the Runa Tupari agency - it is a community-run agency which also places tourists with local families for both tourism and cultural exchange. We booked a day tour with them to see the local artisans as well as a quick visit to the laguna Cuicocha and also a night with a family for Saturday night after the market. Otavalo is the home of the biggest market in South America, and this is tomorrow!! By coincidence there is also a festival starting tonight called Yamor, so we are about to have a very busy 24 hours...
Anyways! The tour yesterday was good. Our guide, David, came to meet us at the hotel in splendid white shirt and long black plaited hair - only 20 years old! He took us around to visit a family producing totora reed mats, a musical instruments workshop and a wool-processing and poncho family business. Then we went to Cotacachi for a splendid lunch and finally to see the Cuicocha lake. Cotacachi is a small town famous for its leather goods and I couldn´t resist buying a nice posh leather handbag for the whole of $16!!

Today we went with the hostel´s tour offer up to the Laguna Mojanda, which is a volcanic lake set at 3,600 m. From there we walked up to the Fuya Fuya mountain to 4,200 meters. We got lucky with the weather and it was a great day hike. We are staying at the Hostal Rincon del Viajero and it is very good. They have a lovely terrace and a pool table and last night we stayed up till 1 in the morning playing - Gregory still wins.

So now we are ready for the mass party....

Tour with Runa Tupari and David
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Cotocachi
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Laguna Cuicocha
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Fuya Fuya from the bottom
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Going up...
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And Laguna Mojanda from the top of Fuya Fuya
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Posted by Flav-Greg 15:57 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Mindo

or better said, que lindo Mindo!

sunny 26 °C

On Saturday we left for Mindo, only 2.5 hours north of Quito. We wanted to go to the thermal springs of Papallacta, but we realised in time that going on Saturday night was not going to be such a good idea... so we opted for Mindo instead. This was indeed a good move - Mindo is very small and comes alive at the weekend, so we were able to enjoy both the life and the quiter times in this very nice place.

Mindo is set at some 1,200 + m above see level, which means it is quite hot and full of bird and butterfly life. There are a few rivers around and it is a good place to do river tubing, which we did! One of the main activities here is to go down the rivers with regattas, which are huge inner tubes of tractors tied together in 5 or 7 in which one sits and floats in groups. We had a small one put together for the two of us and we went down the small river for about 30 minutes. Really good!!
Other things that we did in Mindo were to visit the mariposario, which turned out to be a really tiny corner with a bunch of butterflies. The real attraction there were the tiny frogs they kept incarcerated in a glass cage, they were absolutely beautiful!!
On one evening we went to a frog concert, which is basically a small night excursion organised at this place called Mariposas de colores just 500m up the road from Mindo. It is a hotel with cabañas set around a beautiful tiny lake where the owner has planted some insect-attracting water plants where lots of tiny frogs live. At about 6:30 PM the frogs come alive and start making a lot of noise, as a sort of collective singing event. So you go there and they give you a glass of wine and you sit down waiting for the frogs to start singing, then you walk down with torches to look at them sitting on the plants. Later you walk down a trail to look at fireflies, fluorescent bacteria on wood and huge cockroaches (10-12 cm, living on trees). Really a nice concenrt! They have a little boat with table on the lake, we liked it so much that we went back the next day to have coffee in it.

On the bus from Quito we befriended this lady from Belgium who had lived in Mindo for 18 years or so, Rosa. She lives in Mindo with her brother, looking after rescued wild animals - birds, monkeys, the most gorgeous squirrel we have ever seen and other animals. The first day we went to see them on their farm and ended up spending a good few hours looking around and talking about stuff. They have no website and no email address and never used a computer! It will be hard to keep in touch or send them info but we promised we were going to look up what is out there in terms of animal associations to help them a little - they said they are spending some $1,000+ a month to keep the animals and nobody knows about it!! Well, the environmental police do, since they send them animals to keep, and apparently they send them lots of Australian parakeets which they confiscate when they shouldn't because they haven't got a clue about what they are doing!!

The people in Mindo are incredibly friendly, by the end of our 2 days there we knew enough people to have to greet someone every time we walked somewhere. Really friendly but, above all, genuine. We kept going back to a place that did fresh fruit juices. The owner there the first time asked us where we were from and then looked at both of us and said solemnly: 'welcome both of you!'. Well it might sound cheesy or whatever but this guy was really genuine and friendly and we really felt welcome, and not just because of our money. So then when he gave us the bill and undercharged us, we dutifully advised him of his error (we could not possibly pay even less than the already ridiculous prices he had). From that point on we were the most welcome ever and became great friends...lol!!!

In Mindo we stayed first at a very small place called Hostal Tranquilidad, a family house all in wood. For the next two nights we moved round the corner to the Jardin de los pajaros, another family run place, bigger and with swimmingpool and absolutely clean. Recommended if anyone goes that way, and real cheap at $24 per double with bath and breakfast.

Mindo toucan at the Belgian's animal refuge
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At the mariposario
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This frog was about 1.2 cm long
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Mindo is also a humming bird paradise
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Mariposas de colores hotel
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Coffee on the pond
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Our hostel's swimming-pool
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River tubing
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Posted by Flav-Greg 17:26 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Baños to Quito through Latacunga, Quilotoa and Cotopaxi

We are finally on the move again...

sunny 15 °C

We met in Baños last Saturday and spent three nights there. Baños has a micro-climate which sees lots of rain throughout June, July and August, and we got no exception. So we didn't do much, we just hung around town, checked out every single souvenir shop (there are tons), ate and slept a lot. On Tuesday we went to Quilotoa, which is a remote indigenous village in the highlands with a beautiful laguna in a volcano crater. The place is at 3,900 m and is incredibly COLD. They tell you it is cold, but you don't expect it that bad. The village - 120 people - is tiny and very basic. We first ended up in Hostal Chosita, which is super basic. Earth floor, 'dormitory only', bathroom outside and no running water, pretty daunting! We put our bags down, thinking that the poor family needed the money. Then out of curiosity we walked into the hostel next door (Princesa Loa) and it was such a difference!! Concrete floor, own bedroom, bathroom INSIDE the building, and clean!! Well, the bedding hadn't been changed in a while, but miles more clean than the Chosita place. When I checked the bed at Chosita I found an ancient piece of mouldy bread under the pillow!!!! The problem is that there is no water in Quilotoa, so as a result they tend to wash things very little. Food hygiene is also a concern. They all charge $8 for bed and half board, regardless of the comfort. The Cabañas Quilotoa, which have running water and I think change their bedding with every guest, charge the same! Anyways, we felt good to stay at the Princesa Loa because this is a community-owned hostel and so the whole community benefits. A bit weird because in a village of 20 houses or so, about 6 or 7 offer accomodation, so we are not sure about the role of this community-owned place, but whatever! The lake and the views are really worth the trip and the cold, though staying in the village is a bit of an experience. There are also very few buses connecting the villages, so we decided to give up our plan for a clockwise circuit of the area and go back the same way we came. We manage to self-invite ourselves to join a group of bikers on a tour from Quito and went back to Latacunga in a jeep at a very slow pace following the bikers, which gave us the opportunity 1) to spare ourselves a squashed journey in the bus 2) take lots of pictures of the beautiful mountain scenery. We then spent the night in Latacunga and booked a tour to the famous Saquisili' Thursday market and Cotopaxi volcano.

Both the market and the Cotopaxi were excellent. The market is famous particularly for the animal trading that take place, which is not something that one sees every day. The local indigenas bring their cows, pigs, lamas, sheep, chickens, guinea pigs, cats and rabbits for sale. There are different areas, one for the animals, one for the pets, one for the fruit, one for the artesania, one for clothes, etc.
We went with a couple from Slovenia, two really young people who turned out to be very nice company, Katerina and Peter. They wanted to go to the south side of Cotopaxi, while we wanted to go to the north. The agency messed up and put us together for the tour but we wanted different things... In the end we went to the north part, the one we wanted, and I think that by the end of the day we were all very pleased we did, because the trip was really nice. Cotopaxi is really easy to trek: it's a peak of 5,800 m and you can get to 5,000 without even a walking stick! The jeep takes you up to 4,500 m, from there you walk for 45 minutes up to the refuge at 4,800 and then from there you can go higher. I think we went to about 5,000, then the slope was too sandy to continue, and I guess the air too thin!! People can go up to the crater with crampons in two days. It was sunny and we had a great day.

We are now in Quito, we have spent the day sorting out our bus to Caracas for the 9th of September - 58 hours on the bus! - as well as a trip to Cuyabeno, in the Amazon jungle, for September 3rd.
Quito seems quite pleasant and very easy to navigate. We could not resist the artesania and ended up buying a beautiful huge alpaca rug. In the shop we met 3 Indian girls who are studying dentistry at Kings College (my college!) and we ended up walking together to an artesania fair. There, not happy to have bought the biggest rug ever, we bought even more stuff, it is just impossible to resist! Ecuador has some fabulous handicrafts to offer at really ridiculous prices, it is crazy.

Tomorrow we are off to Papallacta for thermal springs and then Mindo and Otavalo for river tubing and more handicrafts shopping...

Quilotoa crater right hand side...
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Quilotoa crater left hand side...!
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The Quilotoa surroundings
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Saquisili' market
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Volcan Cotopaxi

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The yellow box mid-way up the slope is the refuge, at 4,500 m
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Did not quite manage to touch the glacier...
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Posted by Flav-Greg 19:06 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Campo Cocha continued

sunny 28 °C

Yesterday I left the Cabañas Nanambiki and Campo Cocha. Was I sorry to leave? I am not sure. I had been counting down the days, but to say that I could not wait to leave would not be correct to say either. Mixed feelings... I guess the water, the bat and the insects were not helping to make me feel 100% comfortable there?

In the last few days more tourists came to stay in the cabañas, and this time they could speak English, so it got quite pleasant. Then on Thursday Elise got there - the girl we shared the flat with back in Cuenca. This round, however, most of the people fell sick. I mean, food sick. I cannot understand why none of the first lot did, and the second lot all without fail, at different intervals. Maybe a change in the water? I got sick also, right on the day when I came into Tena, but in my case it was the food back in the community at the cookery class. The French girls, Leila and Tania, got the ladies to prepare 3 different types of raw salad in a kitchen with no running water!!! Not such a brilliant idea, thinking about it. All three of us and none of the locals got sick for a day - the locals thought it was a 'bad breeze' because of Claudio's death. Better not to argue there... So I spent the day between the Internet and the toilet, only to come back home from Tena in a pitiful state on the bus for 1.5 hours and find that we had no water!! Not only no electricity, no water either. And 9 new people had just arrived!!! Of course nobody was worried or panicky, apart from me and my diarrhea state, and just like a miracle electricity came back that same night along with water - which needs a pump to come up from the river, so no wonder it ran out with no current for 2 days....

The tarantula's predicament suffered a bad turn. One day I was folding the washed sheets when I saw a small spider looking like a baby tarantula. I showed it to Ariosto, Cesar's brother-in-law, and he confirmed that indeed it was a baby tarantula!!! I must say that it looked really cute, just like a miniature tarantula but with beige hairy legs and a darker body. Really quite cute. From there we inferred that there must be a nest, so we set out looking for it near the laundry lines and surely there we saw it, hidden under the roof. This was a crucial moment for the tarantula, because it meant that it was not going to get away the next time it showed up - there were obviously far too many around and they needed to be killed. So they did... this is how you kill a tarantula: you throw petrol on it and set it alight! A really tragic death, I felt quite sorry for the tarantula, like with the snake dying in the alcohol, but nothing I could do about either of them.

On the last day I was there a group of 4 young French guys arrived. Somewhere between 22 and 25. They started looking around, examining the snake jars, then at dinner they announced they wanted to do a 2-day hike in the jungle, camping out. I thought to myself, bloody hell this lot are really couragous, these young people have no fear! So after dinner Cesar, just to make it more interesting for them, pulled out a couple of animals from one of the jars: a small black venomous salamander and a huge insect, which he described as extremely dangerous and with no remedy if bitten. Everybody was there taking pictures when the tarantula appeared, which was then set alight. At this point the most torrential rain I have ever seen in my life started - all around us were falling buckets of water and flowing water. Insects started crawling in from everywhere, different spiders, beetles, and a conga. The conga is a 4 cm black ant that bites and is quite horrible. When you see one, you make sure you kill it before it stings you. Then we all went to bed. The next morning, the 4 guys announced that they were leaving immediately!!!! That really make me smile. So much for brave young men!!!

The other interesting event of this last week was the chocolate making. Cesar and Ariosto showed us how you make chocolate from raw cocoa! The first step is to let the cocoa beans dry in the sun for a few days. Then you roast them in a pan in the fire, like with chestnuts. Just like with chestnuts, you then peel the skin off. At this point you grind the beans together with a cup or two of sugar a couple of times, till the mass starts to melt. You then place the paste in a leaf or aluminium and leave it to harden, and there's your chocolate bar!

Other than that, not much more happening. I gave my last two lessons and they went well, I had 8 people each time and it seemed to me that they did learn the few things I taught them, which is nice.

Saturday was good-bye time and a nice bus ride to Baños to meet Gregory.

Kids activity group at the cabañas
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Eleli, Celina, Maite and Narcisa
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Cocoa fruit and dried cocoa beans
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Ariosto roasting the beans
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Grinding the beans
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Elicia making real chocolate bars...
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These are called mayones and are palm giant maggots that the locals eat...notably a lot worse than cuy!!! They fry them and it seems that they taste like fat, say mayonnaise...I did not manage to try them so cannot say.
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Nicely fried mayon with rice dish
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Posted by Flav-Greg 07:34 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Tena: the Kichwa community of Campo Cocha

sunny 28 °C

Gregory and I decided that it made sense for me to go and visit the community of indigenas where Anne and Luis had volunteered (friends we met in Bolivia, who also volunteered in Bolivia helping out the children of Cerro Rico) - find myself something to do, speak Spanish and leave Gregory in peace to do his much homework.

So I left on Sunday August 5th, stopping in Banos overnight to avoid arriving in Tena at night. When I got to Tena on Monday, I discovered that a road blockade had been called, right on the way to my community!! Argh!! So I checked into the German-run Hostal LimonCocha and waited. On Tuesday the strike was still on. On Wednesday again strike still on, but this time only the bus company was striking: the roads were passable. At the hostel a friend of the owners offered a lift to a couple who were also stuck there like me, so I took the opportunity and, jumping into the conversation with my pathetic German, I got a lift too. By the time we got to destination the sentences were coming out in German, which I found quite amazing. Maybe there is hope...
When I got there, Cesar, my contact and head of the community, was fortunately in the village – his house and cabañas are 30 mins away from the centre of the village. So we got introduced, met the vice-president of the community Alberto and two nice French girls who are also volunteering there, Maite and Carina. We all then went back to the cabañas for dinner to discuss the volunteering business. Cesar announced that I was going to give English lessons. Erm. I thought we said that I would be helping the kids with their holiday homework...but what the heck! I said it was fine. The other volunteering projects were going to be 1) to decide what services can be offered to tourists, decide the prices and then produce a leaflet and promote 2) the cookery classes project, which would be run by another couple of French girls currently staying in the community also. It was a nice evening, within a few hours we had put together the PR project, the English course and cookery class for the community. Not bad! At one point during the evening Carina says to Maite – completely cool – watch out! A tarantula coming towards you! So Maite very casually gets up and calls Cesar, who chases the spider away. The tarantula came out the second night also, and again it got chased off. All you need to do with tarantulas is to blow on them and they will run away in the direction of where you are blowing. Good to know...isn't it?!
The first night I dreamt of a lot of snakes and calling Cesar to chase them away, but I managed to sleep. The second night I worked out where all the crap around the room comes from: resident bats which shit everywhere at night. Cesar said he was going to sort it out and indeed in the evening he prepared his darts and, using the cerbotane, got the one bat that was there. He got him at first attempt but the bat flew away with two darts in his body. Cesar thinks he will live – they usually break the wooden darts off and carry on. The next night was bat-free but the one after they came back and got really smart - they only appear really late when everybody is already in bed and not a chance that they will get up to shoot the bats.
On day 2, after coming back from my first lesson, I find a moving snake in a jar. Cesar had just got him and put it in alcohol, apparently a fatal snake that cannot be left alive if found. It was on a palm leaf only 2 meters away from the cabaña!!!! That I really didn’t like, a bit of bad luck and bye bye life. The community is fairly isolated, there is no signal and nobody in the community has a car!!! If something really bad happens and you need immediate help, you are dead. So I keep myself to the road, look at where I put my feet and try to survive as best as I can....

This place is a real culture shock. They live in really basic conditions – if it wasn’t for Cesar, who provides a lot of contribution with his cabañas, these people would be fairly lost. Cesar is really trying to help and share, he attracts volunteers to help out and bring some cash into the community, he provides opportunities to earn for tour guides and catering, and he pays a percentage of dollars into the community fund for every tourist who stays at his place. I am not sure if others contribute to this fund? I am sure he does a lot of other things as well, I think he is really generous. The community does not really seem to progress much though, they clearly lack some solid education and professional solid direction. When Cesar started out building the cabañas, they were all in there until he run out of money, then nobody wanted to help anymore. Now that he has built it all on his own, they want to build cabañas! But of course they have no money, and in the meantime he has got it all. Very difficult. If anybody with community development experience is out there looking for a place where to practice, please come here!! They need a general development project manager, an English teacher as well as people with plumbing and electrical skills. I have no idea if family houses have toilets with running water. I am staying at the cabañas in Cesar’s house and that works fine, but the school toilet, for example, does not seem to have water that runs. And people do not have showers, they bathe in the river.
The river... this is the crazy part. The community depends entirely from the river. The river that provides the water to bathe, to wash clothes, and the drinking water!!! The people here drink the river water. We are not talking about a clean, spring water river, we are talking about a muddy, dirty river. And I am drinking the same water!!!! The difference is that the water I drink is disinfected with purifying tablets, but still, it is the same water that flows downstream from Tena, passing lots of other towns before us. So we are all drinking the water where people and dogs bathe; the water where thousands of families wash their clothes; the water where the motorised canoes drive all day; the water where people rinse their dead chickens, dirty shoes, and so on. And the miracle is that they all live and I have not even got sick yet!!! Simply quite amazing.

The English classes have worked out quite well so far - I have only managed to give 4. The students are all fairly young, ranging from 13 to 36, and most have no idea. They are meant to have studied English at school but it is virtually non-existent. The first day I had a group of 13, it was good. We decided to offer 2 sessions so that everybody could attend, so the second day 20 people turned up for the first one and 10 for the second. The first one was pretty chaotic, new people again, toddlers running around (I had to chase them out), a real mess. The second session, however, was really decent and so I regained hope. When they asked me if I could do a session for 20 young children, though, I said I was not qualified. And it is true! Can anybody honestly see me with 20 screaming children under my supervision??? No way. So I managed to get out of this one and say no. Session 3 was on Sunday and most people were more interested in the football, but I still managed to get 7 people together and we had a fine class. Even a chicken turned up, crossed the class and went outside. Obviously it was also more interested in the football...
Today and tomorrow the classes have been cancelled for mourning, as one of my students has died. He was only 22 years old, he was electrocuted. On Sunday the electricity went. It usually happens when people attach themselves directly to the cables so not to pay for the energy. When they do, sometimes the electricity breaks and one of the fuses jumps. Because nobody really wants to involve the electrical company, which otherwise discovers the illegal handling, without mentioning that it takes 1.5 hours to town with nobody with transport and the usual 2-5 days before anybody turns up to fix, the community usually sorts out the fuse by themselves. This round the boys were drunk and so they did the job with carelessness - he climbed up and lifted the fuse with his bare hands, instead of keeping the due distance and using a cane pole covered with plastic. So he was dead on the spot and everybody run away in terror. So it is a bit of a disaster at the moment. No electricity, nobody dares to go and touch it, a very young dead in the community who will be buried tomorrow nearby his house (no cemetery), and the situation in the cabañas is also not that pink: Cesar was expecting 16 people and so bought a lot of meat. While, after a week, the local bus strike has finally ended, a national strike has now been called, so the tourists could not make it to Tena. Because we have no electricity, all the meat has gone off and also we have no idea when they will arrive... A bit messy really.

So today I have taken the opportunity to come into town and catch up with Internet stuff. In three days, buses allowing, Gregory and I will meet in Baños.

The cabañas
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Dead snakes collection to welcome the tourists
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Cesar preparing the darts for the bat
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Campo Cocha centre
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Maite & kids drawing with achiote, a natural colorant
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Last Saturday I joined one of the groups of tourists and did the canoe tour. It was a really long and interesting day: we went to see the museum of the traps (how the Kichwas catch wild animals); Amazoonico, a Swiss-run animal refuge here nearby; a ceramic workshop and a butterfly farm. Here are some pics:

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Ceramic workshop: everything made with river mud and natural colours and resins
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Capybara
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Tigrillo
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Chorongo monkeys
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Butterfly farm: caterpillar of the big blue butterfly
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Cabinet full of different types of pupas, all nicely tidy...
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And the finished product!
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Posted by Flav-Greg 07:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Cuy

Ecuadorian as well as Peruvian specialty...

overcast 23 °C

Last night we had a dinner party with Esperanza and her family, since I am leaving this Sunday to go to the Ecuadorian jungle to volunteer for a couple of weeks. Life in Cuenca is obviously too comfortable for me... Gregory is staying and continuing with Spanish classes, he's already at the preterite tense!! We will meet up in Baños, 8 hours north of here, practically mid-way between where i am going and where Cuenca is. I'm going to this place:
www.amazanga.org

So we organised a farewell dinner with Esperanza. She bought a live chicken at the market and made a chicken soup. I never went to see the live chicken or the killing, what I got to see was a unusual chicken for my standards, a chicken full of growing eggs in the belly like I used to see when I was about 5 yrs old. I have never seen eggs in chickens again until yesterday. It makes you wonder about the chickens we eat in Europe, all perfectly clean and disinfected, like the rest of the food. Here you go to the market and they sell EVERY single part of the animals, and they are not all the same either, they are actually real animals with all their different bits and pieces, feathers, insides, teeth, hairy legs...in fact you do not feel like eating the animals at all!!!

Anyways. The chicken soup was nice. The meat was actually a lot harder than we expected, maybe it was an old hen?? Or maybe real roaming chickens are as hard as rocks because they actually have muscles in their bodies? I had the leg and it was dark meat and bloody hard.

We offered to buy the second dish from a restaurant, the Ecuadorian delicacy par excellence: cuy, that is, Guinea pig. City Ecuadorians do not cook this animals themselves, because the preparation is somewhat lengthy and also the guinea pigs must be killed in a very specific way. They should not be scared before death or adrenaline will go everywhere and then they taste bad - well, not that they taste good in the first place... So they need to be killed quickly and then one eye is taken out so that they bleed from it... yaKKKK! Then of course you need to remove the fur, and only then you can roast them. So we went for ready cuy and took it home. Well, it was pretty disgusting, Gregory had some but I just could not touch it. It smellt and tasted of the same: a wild, musty acred taste of wild something between a very wild rabbit and a pig. The worst was when Esperanza took the head and stripped it completely clean!!!! I wanted to vomit!! I was so disgusted that I could not even eat the potatatos it came with. Well, I guess it all comes down to habit, the kids loved it too and were eating it like you eat chicken. And I saw Wilson grabbing the head at one point, but then he put it down, maybe he wanted to leave the best bit for Esperanza?? Gregory had the cheek to say to me that I am just the same with prawns, I too like to strip the head and I say it is the best part... Like tiger prawns and cuys are the same thing!

So here are some pics for everybody's enjoyment:

The real chicken with its eggs
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Chopped up cuy in sight
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Roasted cuy looking at you
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YAKK!
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Posted by Flav-Greg 10:38 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Life in Cuenca

sunny 25 °C

We have now been in Cuenca for a while. The day is quite different for each of us: while Gregory spends all morning and one hour in the afternoon in school, I only have a 45 min class and that's it! Gregory is really busy and spends hours doing homework and he is improving fast. Myself, I have been fairly busy with 'housework', sorting stuff out, reading, doing some school homework, planning the next travels through Ecuador, etc, so in effects I have not been bored. But I think that 6 weeks of this might be a bit long, so I may go to the jungle region for a couple of weeks while Gregory finishes school. Nothing finalised yet, but quite possible.

The weather in Cuenca has improved since we arrived a month ago - thankfully - so the days are quite sunny and bright, while the evenings remain fairly cold but ok.
After spending the first week on our own, the flat finally filled up last week - literally, we have no spare rooms left! So now we have Sitara, a meditational Canadian who has lived 15 years in India; Jiny, a South Korean woman who, since has been in the house, has only eaten cucumber and red cabbage marinated with garlic and chilli - raw - with wholemeal rice, of which she drinks the boiled water; Hans, a very tall German student who goes to our same school; and finally Bart, a Dutch young chap whom we hardly see who plays guitarre and goes to capoeira classes. Apart from Bart, all other flat mates have been 'recruited' by Gregory off the street to come and live with us, since Esperanza and Wilson do not speak English and find it hard to find foreigners to fill their rooms. Wilson and Esperanza are the owners of the Gato Liquour Store on Calle Larga 5-79, near the Escalinata, whom we met while buying rum. If anybody wants to reserve a room with them, which is currently $5 per person, they can contact them on tel 282 91 25. They are really nice people and very sociable. Esperanza is particularly sociable, she can talk for hours and is always smiling. We are quite good friends now and she takes us to places with her whenever there is a chance. So we have been to the Virgen del Carmen fiesta with her here in town, which was a really nice traditional church party with traditional dances and fireworks - one of which reached Gregory's eye and worried us a bit for a bit. Then she took me with her to the countryside to do cosecha de maiz, ie pick corn and beans. The last event was Nayeli's - her daughter - last day at school, which was great as all kids were dressed up in either traditional clothes or fancy dress for the end of year dance performances. They also have a son, Pablo, who's won a medal for being the year's best pupil.

Last weekend we went to visit Vilcabamba, which on the map seems quite close by, but it isn't. So we spent some 15 hours on the bus to go and come back - thankfully we decided to leave on the Friday to have at least one full day there. Vilcabamba is a place for relaxing, there are nice hills all around the tiny tranquil town and plenty of oportunities for hiking or horse riding. We took none of these, we simply stayed in the hostel to play pool, enjoy the views and read. And recover from the crazy bus journey and get ready for the way back!! The drivers here drive at incredible speed round blind corners, it is really scary and also quite unpleasant - almost as bad as being in a boat!

Anyways, here are some pics.

view from the flat

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our room

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shared areas

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Esperanza, Wilson, Pablo and Nayeli
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Vilcabamba

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This is a nice place in town of which we have forgotten the name, with its two nice owers. Gregory had a glass of the alcohol in which the snake was soaking - 75% alcohol so well disinfected, but still pretty disgusting for my standards...
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Posted by Flav-Greg 13:18 Archived in Ecuador Comments (3)

GALAPAGOS - part 2

semi-overcast 24 °C

Day 5

Santa Cruz – all day

Santa Cruz is the most heavily populated island in the archipelago. Its port, Puerto Ayora, is an obligatory stop for all ships, and this is where we woke up. In the morning Valerio took us to the north of the island to look at the local flora and fauna. We saw what looked like 2 huge craters with overgrown vegetation which he explained were rather sunk-in craters. Here we spotted a couple of really bright vermilion flycatchers, which are small and bright red birds with a black mask around the eyes. There were quite a few different small birds but frankly we cannot remember them all. One that stayed in our memory was the carpenter finch, which is curious in that this bird kills worms by spiking them with a cactus needle – and then they use the very same needle to feed the worm up to their beak!!! Apparently one of the very few animals who use tools to kill and feed, wow.

From here we went to see a lava tunnel, which is a tunnel dug by a jet of lava. Not far from the tunnel was a tortoise rearing centre, where we wondered around looking for the huge tortoises, which were not difficult to find. It was rainy, muddy and quite horrible but this is the weather for this time of year in this part of the island, which is when the tortoises go down to the coast to find a suitable nesting area.

We went back to the boat for lunch and then visited the Charles Darwin Scientific Station. There were quite a few people around but we managed to get our little private space here too. Here they rear land iguanas and the giant tortoises, which are being re-introduced in the various islands after they were decimated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their ability to survive long periods of time without food and water made them the ideal source of fresh meat on long voyages, so whaling ships took thousands of them to eat! Bloody hell!!
14 breeds of giant tortoise have been identified but only 11 survive, one of which is represented by lonesome Jorge, the famous solitary turtle from the Pinta island, which is the last surviving animal of his kind and really really old. The National Park has been looking for a mate for him for ages but none have been found so far. They are currently offering $20,000 worth of prize for anybody who can provide a female for him plus all shipping costs!!! In the meantime they have provided Jorge with a couple of similar-breed females, but he doesn´t want to know, not identical enough!! On the other hand, in the same centre we came across very active Superdiego, an Espanola island male tortoise who has fathered thousands of babies in the last few years. And we saw him in action too!
Ah yes! Do you know how male giant tortoises fight for females? They stand in front of each other, stick out their necks high and the tallest wins!!!

On the way back from the Darwin Centre we had the chance to do a little shopping on the million shops along the main avenue – guess its name, Charles Darwin Avenue! - and then we went back to the boat for dinner. After dinner Gregory and I went back to shore for a couple of hours and then we sailed off to my favourite island – Espanola.

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Vermilion flycatcher
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Mockingbird
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Superdiego in action
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Lonesome George
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Iguana in captivity
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Young reared tortoises car park - numbered in different colours, each colour representing a particular island and breed
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Day 6

Espanola Island

Gardner Bay - AM
Punta Suarez - PM

Garner Bay is GORGEOUS.
Though Valerio had told us that we were about to see the most beautiful beach in the Galapagos, ´if not in the world´, from the boat we could not quite understand what he was on about. Till we got to the beach! We are not going to get into discussions here if this is the most beautiful one in the world or not – we have seen some pretty places in Cuba and Thailand that may or may not make it a little hard to stand up for this one – but Gardner Bay is a white-sand paradise. The beach is white, large and pristine AND covered with huge colonies of really friendly sea lions. The young pups are really inquisitive and, if you stop to take a picture a little close, they run up to you to find out what you are doing! One really took me aback as she run towards me, I think she wanted to smell me or something, I got so shocked that she might touch me that I fell back on my bum!! Then I remembered that it is WE that are not allowed to touch THEM, but surely THEY can touch US if they wish? It was funny. Gregory had the same but with an adult female, and he stepped well back, got him on camera! Less funny was my encounter, together with Daniela and Tina, of one of the few beach masters. The sea bull went for us and it took all three of us to raise our hands before he desisted. First Daniela raised them. Nothing, it kept charging us. Then Tina and I reacted and only then he decided that three 1.8 m or so tall humans with stretched arms were not worth the fight. We agreed to leave the beach only because Valerio was taking us snorkelling with the sea lion pups on the other side of the bay. This was our best snorkelling session, we had sea lions pups right left and centre, all coming towards us to play. They are really playful, especially if you respond to their acrobatics by twisting and turning in the water with them. At one point Valerio picked up a sand dollar (it is an echinoderm which looks like a flat round large white pebble), to be exact, a DEAD sand dollar, and started throwing it up in the water. The pups were just like dog puppies, picking it up in turns and passing it around. We all played in with the dead sand dollar and it was great memorable fun, till we were reminded that it was lunch time and we had to go to Punta Suarez.

Punta Suarez is another extremely worthwhile spot, if not the most worthwhile, given the high concentration of animal quantities and types all in the space of a couple of km.

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Underwater pics with the sea lions

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Punta Suarez

We disembarked in Punta Suarez near a lovely white beach covered with - guess what - lots of sea lions! The beach is protected by a stretch of piled rocks where rather rough waves break. As we were stepping out of the dinghy, sea lions were playing body surfing, which is basically throwing themselves into the waves as they break ashore. It was a beautiful sight to see the seals in the transparent wave, but we were not quick enough to take a picture, and Valerio rushed us off the platform towards the beach, where piles of marine iguanas were sunbathing. I think they were sunbathing, all collectively staring together into the sun. Quite funny. Not only are they funny in their looks, they also move funnily and sneeze out the salt from their noses in a funny way.

So we went through the many marine iguanas crowds into a trail of birds again: the by now usual blue-footed boobies, the Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, the mockingbirds, etc. Valerio warned us that it was not allowed to offer water to the mockingbirds. Espanola is scarce on water and these birds crave it and they can tell that you have some in the plastic bottles! So they hang around you and if you open one, then suddenly you get covered with mockingbirds, which, like Valerio said, ´looks rather cool but it is not. Don´t do it´!!

The bird trail takes you to the nesting area of the waved albatross, a beautiful, graceful and huge sea bird which only breeds on this island. We found them in courtship season, which provided us with a really curious courtship display resembling a fencing duel. The ´duels´ lasts several minutes each and consist of bill-snapping and bill-rattling in a certain sequence that only the mating couple can perform together. So they use this to remember each other.

When we left the island the sea lions were still wave-surfing, but by then it was quite late and the waves were not see-through any more. Sigh. On the other side of the beach from the surfing sea lions, another group of sea lions were resting and drying off, when what everyone thought was shark fin suddenly broke the surface. The sea lions on the beach moved up a little further, then we realised that it was a sea lion lying on its side with its fin in the air pretending to be a shark patrolling the beach!!

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Waved albatross
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My perfect picture of a blue-footed booby
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Wave-surfing sea lions
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This is a short movie of the albatross courtship sequence

Day 7

Santa Fe Island - AM

This was, for me, the least interesting island we visited. What was special here was a type of land iguana which only lives on this island – the Santa Fe iguana – and the few hawks that we saw really from close-by. One interesting fact around this iguana is that it has two penises, one connected to sperm and one not, and the male iguanas use one or the other depending on the state of things!! According to our talking encyclopaedia Valerio, many other animals have ingenious forms of birth control. For example, the blue jellyfish that we saw washed up to the shore. They looked like bits of blue plastic bottle, but they were jelly fish with an air pocket that could be popped. These were the males, who have an air bubble so that they float in a different current than the females, who have no bubble, so that they rarely meet and that one time is enough to keep reproduction and their numbers under control. Crazy, not?

The island is also home to a forest of giant cacti and Palo Santo trees, but by then we had seen lots of them. Unimpressed!

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Santa Fe iguana
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Galapagos hawk
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Galapagos snake
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Valerio loves the giant cactuses
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South Plaza - PM

This island was our nice closure to the trip. We really liked it and it ranks at least fourth in the compilation… which goes as follows:

1) Espanola – the WINNER!
2) Rabida
3) Santiago
4) South Plaza
5) North Seymour
6) Genovesa
7) Santa Cruz
8) Santa Fe

We were greeted by a couple of barking beach masters, who nevertheless allowed us to disembark trouble-free. This island is home to many sea lions and it is due to their high concentration that snorkeling here is banned. Lots of males compete for the females and those who lose the fights end up living in the bachelor colony in the southwest of the island. We saw a few of them sleeping off their wounds high up at the top of the cliff and could not quite grasp how they could climb up this high?? From the cliff we saw lots of red-billed tropicbirds, which are beautiful white birds with a long string tail and a red bill, as the name tells. They were very fast and unfortunately between the two of us we were not able to take one picture of them.

Past the sea lions it was a few nice yellow land iguanas, a rare hybrid iguana from a female marine iguana and a male land iguana and then, by the beautiful cliff, lots of the funny marine ones with the white crest on their heads. The island in this time of year was covered with carpet weed of an amazing red which contrasted beautifully with the cute prickly pear cactus trees.

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Bachelor sea lion resting at the top of the cliff
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Too much sun these ones...
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Here's a couple of movies of sea lions on Plaza, the one in the water is the nasty beach master - I hope their sounds can be heard, they're sooo horrible!!!!

And this was our last night...

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Day 8

Our last day was an extremely short one: get up at 6 am to be on the dinghy at 6:15 and off to Caleta Tortuga, on the north side of Santa Cruz. The idea was to see the mangrove swamp at low tide, which acted as a nursery for marine turtles, sharks and rays, each having their own part of the swamp. We got up on time and everything but the tide at 6:15 was already quite high and so all we saw very little – a turtle, a ray and a few pelicans.

From there it was a quick sail back to Baltra, where we sat for 3 hours waiting for the plane, thinking about the blue-footed boobies we had left behind.

Posted by Flav-Greg 15:33 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

GALAPAGOS - part 1

8 days of Galapagalactic experience!!

semi-overcast 24 °C

It has taken a few days to put this blog entry together, but it´s been well worth it – the Galapagos are absolutely fabulous!! Before going we had heard all about it, the Galapagos are great, lots of fearless animals, and of course Darwin. We even came across an amazing blog that opened our eyes to what we were about to go and see, but…it is nothing like the real experience of being over there. Those who can go, GO NOW!!!

So where do we start? From the beginning, I guess, one island at a time, since each island is a different world in many ways. In fact, we will start from the boat, the crew and our fellow passengers - the infrastructure of the journey - though the islands on their own are the real centrepiece of the experience.

Our boat was the MS Sea Cloud, a small vessel which holds 8 passengers and 6 crew. We were only 7 passengers and eventually got 7 crew, which made for a pretty good “looked after” group of passengers. The crew included Valerio, our naturalist guide, Pepe, the Captain, Manuel, the chef, Luis and Juan, do-it-all men, Gustavo, the mechanic, and Randy, our mid-week-acquired mechanical engineer who joined the ship to refit it in dry dock at the end of our cruise (the Sea Cloud is some sort of replacement vessel when any of the 3 jewels of the Angermeyer Cruises fleet cannot sail, we think, and it will stop operating after our cruise - maybe to be sold off?).
Of the passengers , we got the worst cabin on the boat: cabin 4, at the back of the boat, the closest to the engine. Given that we paid almost $2,000 each for the pleasure, we were pretty disappointed. The noise was so loud that if any of us two spoke looking away from the other, we could not hear what we were saying….pretty bad!! However, after the first couple of days we got used to it and not even the fact that the generator was on ALL THE TIME bothered us any longer. Once we then got to know how much the others had paid and how long before us they had booked, we just gave up any thoughts of ever even complaining about our bad luck…
The other passengers were a father with his two daughters from the US and a couple from the UK. I was the youngest!! Given the first class status of the cruise, we were already prepared for a fairly mature crowd, but never expected Egbert to be past 78!!! Egbert was actually German, a retired music professor who moved to the USA some 40 years ago. He still had a very strong German accent – so maybe I am not that weird with my so strong Italian accent after only (!!) 15 years in the UK. Anyways, Egbert was in excellent shape and managed all walks but the last one, because by day 7 his feet had swollen a little. He even attempted snorkelling and only gave up because he could not deal with the snorkel!!! Egbert and his daughters, Tina and Daniela, were all above 6 feet tall (1.8 m), which made us feel a little small at times. The British couple, Deny and Peter, were also retired and mature but nevertheless managed the snorkelling and everything else. Peter had a very fine British sense of humour which kept us amused. So our cruise turned out to be one of pure exploration, i.e. no wild partying but an intense program of observation and photography. Not that I could have partied anyways – I was out sea sick most of the evenings, which is when we were moving from one island to the next. I took tablets and patches, but that did not help much, my body just didn´t like the waves. Gregory was absolutely fine, as usual.
So we were a very small group and could enjoy some really private island visits, made all the more so by Valerio´s concern to ensure we stayed away from other groups. Valerio was an excellent guide. He struck us as an extremely committed conservationist, super enthusiastic about his islands and very concerned about their future. The rules were spellt out very clearly and loud at the beginning:

- never take anything, only pictures with NO FLASH!
- never touch the animals
- keep strictly to the trails

The archipelago is a national park financed by visitor income – each tourist stepping on the islands must pay a $100 fee. The preservation of the ecosystems is only possible with the right balance between wildlife and humans, so tourism nowadays is very tightly controlled. At the same time, tourism is vital for the Galapagos, since it provides the considerable income needed to fund the various conservation programmes, first of all by eradicating the introduced species that are the greatest threat – since Darwin, lots of domestic animals were introduced that have now multiplied and become feral, and the national park is now employing some 300 park rangers to go around the islands identifying and shooting the pests (feral goats are in the thousands, and they eat everything!!).
There are limits on the number of visitors overall, and to each particular landing site around the islands. Boats are tightly regulated down to such matters as anchoring and long-term allocation to fixed itineraries encourages responsibility for the proper conservation of the islands. The end result seems to be quite successful: the islands appear really pristine, in fact it is like walking around a natural living museum with unique species of animals exactly the same as Darwin found them in the 1830s!! It is obvious that the park is doing a great job and hey, no wonder if all guides are like Valerio! The only thing that I did not particularly like was Valerio´s enthusiasm for the likely introduction of a new tourist capping system which is supposedly going to be based upon ownership of a black American Express credit card (disposable income of £50k a day or something stupid like that), that is to say, the intention is to limit the numbers of visitors to the few super rich!! That would be completely and utterly wrong and I really hope it won’t go that way. The Galapagos are expensive enough as they are and everybody should have the chance to visit them, with a little bit of saving effort.
Anyways! Let´s not get into the political here.

This was our itinerary:
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Here´s some pics of the boat and people

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Captain Pepe
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Captain Gregory
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Our noisy cosy cabin
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The crew
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Manuel, our chef
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Oops, Egbert is missing!
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Deny and Peter skinning Gregory
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Day 1

North Seymour Island, PM

This was our first island experience, and a very good one. On this island there are lots of birds, including the famous blue-footed boobies (beautiful birds with very blue feet that look quite daft) and nesting magnificent frigate birds, which are very distinctive with the males inflating a red sac under their throat like a balloon to attract the females. The frigate birds have lost the waterproofing on their feathers and so cannot land on water. They feed by pursuing other birds and harassing them for food after they have done all the work!! Horrible birds really.
Once on the beach area, we came across the first sea lions and marine iguanas. Marine iguanas are incredibly ugly and funny at the same time. The sea lions and iguanas were everywhere and at times you really have to concentrate on where you put your feet and not step on anybody! It was here that we saw our first Palo Santo trees, which are endemic of the Galapagos and look dead most of the year – but they are not!

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Blue-footed booby..erm...missed the feet!
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The white circle is excrement, laid this way to protect the nest from enemies!
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Notice the grin...´

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Sea lion bull
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Day 2 Genovesa Island – all day

This island is known as the Island of the Birds. It took us 7 hours to reach the island overnight. We first disembarked in Darwin´s Bay, where all birds were nesting - frigate birds, red-footed boobies, lava gulls, doves, tropicbirds, petrels and many others. There we were able to see, between one nest and the other, an inflated frigate bird from really close by, which is really curious. After lunch we went up the Escalera del Principe, which is a stepped passage through the rocks up to the island platform. We walked through the lava rocks and Palo Santo forest and saw many nesting red-footed boobies, which we did not see anywhere else.

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Here's Egbert!
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Swallow-tailed gull
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Sally Lightfoot Crab
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Palo Santo trees
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Red-footed booby, missed the feet again!
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Nazca boobies
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Magnificent frigate bird
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Young frigates
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They do look a little daft, not?
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Day 3

Bartolome Island, AM
Santiago Island, Sullivan Bay, PM

Bartolome is one of the most visited and photographed because of its Pinnacle Rock and the sea lions and penguins around its base. It is dominated by a volcano and it consists of porous lava rock – huge rocks relatively light as they are half air! It is quite barren and low plants like the mollugo and tequilia plants are starting to grow, and some tiny cactuses. We climbed to the high part through a wooden stairway, where we could see a beautiful view of the nearest bays and islands. After the land excursion we did some snorkelling from the beach. First we actually went over a sand dune to the other beach, where snorkelling is forbidden, to look at the ´resting´ white-tip sharks. There Valerio explained to us that the males bite the females on the fin when mating, so the way to tell the females from the males is to look out for love bites! We walked back and went to discover the underwater world, which was sooo much better than what we saw on Genovesa. There were lots and lots of panamic cushion stars (forgive the precise terminology, but we had a week´s worth of name learning!!) – basically big velvety red starfish, and chocolate chip starfish, which are smaller and cream color with dark brown tips and dots here and there. Beautiful. I wanted to pick one but did not have the guts to either do it or ask Valerio if I was allowed. Only take photographs!!! Then there were a couple of penguins, a marine turtle, a couple of small sharks and a chirpy sea lion. The water is meant to be about 15 degrees but once you are in it is not too bad, actually, so we decided not to hire a wet suit for the week.

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Marine iguana
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This is the underworld at Bartolome

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panamic cushion stars
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From Bartolome we had a 15-minute sail (!) over lunch to Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island. Sullivan Bay was definitely another very unique and peculiar place. We disembarked on this solidified century-old black lava flow that looks like it has just cooled down and walked on this crust for a good hour or two. It is a moon-like black landscape full of wrinkles and broken crust, really curious. This night was good because we only had to sail less than an hour to Puerto Egas, still on Santiago just on the other side, so I managed to enjoy a full dinner along with a rum and coke. Hurrah!

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Gregory running from the lava river..
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This is where this beautiful cactus was!!!!!!!
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Day 4
Puerto Egas – Santiago Island AM

Puerto Egas was another highlight, a spot full of life both in and out of the water. We disembarked on a black sand beach and walked down along the coast to the beginning of the tidal pool trail. This is basically an area of black volcanic rocks that create crevices and natural rock bridges – the result is several natural pools of crystal-clear sea water where lots of animals can be seen. First of all the ubiquitous marine iguanas, that in this area are almost totally black and blend in perfectly with the colour of the rocks, so that you need to keep your eyes glued to the ground to ensure you do not step on one. Or trip over a sleeping sea lion… We saw a turtle floating in one of the pools, which was really nice, and I think it took us over 2 hours to walk the length of the trail. Then we jumped into the water and saw lots more turtles and swimming iguanas.
From Santiago we then sailed over lunch to Rabida, one of my favourite islands.

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Tina in her typical photographer pose...
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Rabida
Rabida is quite small and most striking. It has a red sand beach and earth and at the time of our visit had a colony of fur seals with a very very angry beach master. The beach master is the chief male seal lion who owns the harem. They are enormous, black and with big teeth and whiskers. They tend to stay in the water and keep poking their head out and make the most horrible sound to fend enemies off their females and cubs. The cubs also make quite an ugly noise, sounding like belching sheep, but at least they are pleasant. Anyways. If you get too close to the females, they run for you and then its trouble!! Valerio explained that we should never run and especially never turn our backs to them. In case of attack, we should raise our hands high to show how much taller we are than them, and if that does not suffice, show our teeth and shout loud. Same like with pumas, we are experienced ;-)) ! This reminds of one scene where we saw one of these monsters chasing another smaller male away – cannot remember on which beach any longer - the chased sea lion put himself right behind a group of people standing on the beach! That was a funny sight, to see an animal seeking refuge from another one using humans as shields!
Back to Rabida. We went for a walk round the edge through a Palo Santo tree forest and the inland was just as beautiful as the beach. The contrast of the red earth with the grey of the Palo Santo and the beautiful prickly pear cactus trees was just stunning. In the water, a seal was playing with two birds that kept picking at it. Then we went back to the beach to snorkel along the rock wall – the very same spot where the angry beach master was. We were not too keen but Valerio insisted, entering the water not too far away from the beast. On this occasion 3 of us did not snorkel, I went in only because Valerio had mentioned scorpion fish (it blends it perfectly with the red sand and the rocks..). Well, we saw no scorpion fish, but the reef was beautiful. And the beach master did not bother us at all, he was protecting the ladies and his babies on the beach so in the water we were no threat, of course!

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From Rabida it was another evening sail to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the National Park headquarters.

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ITALIAN (VERY SMALL) CORNER

Bene. Dunque. Che scrivo? Impensabile tradurre tutto questo romanzo in italiano. Muoio! Ci ho messo tre giorni tra il selezionare le foto e lo scrivere il diario, e vi assicuro che tre giorni non sono pochi!!
Che dire. Sapevamo che le Galápagos erano molto belle e uniche, pero´credo che abbiano sorpassato le nostre aspettative – che forse erano piu´ basse del dovuto? O, piuttosto, forse uno non puo´ immaginarsi esattamente a priori com´e´ la faccenda.

Allora. Le Galápagos sono un posto unico e bellísimo. Le isole sono tutte molto diverse e presentano panorami e geografie particolari. Su ciascuna ci sono moltissimi animali che non hanno nessuna paura di noi: si passeggia vicinissimi a uccelli strani e coloratissimi, le foche ti vengono incontro (a parte i maschi dominanti, che se ti vengono incontro non hanno buone intenzioni) e quando una guida ti racconta dei vari fatti e abitudini intorno a ciascuna specie, tutto questo mondo unico resulta veramente speciale e ci si sente privilegiati a poterlo guardare dal vivo. La nostra barca era di uno standard piuttosto alto e ci e´costata un occhio della testa, ma sono stati soldi ben spesi: questa e´un´esperienza che restera´con noi per sempre. Le isole sono chiaramente minacciate dal grande numero di persone che le visitano ogni anno, quindi il parco nazionale sta cercando modi di ridurre l´afflusso e di mantenere alti gli ingressi di moneta. E´ prevedibile che cercheranno di ridurre i numeri sempre di piu´ aumentando i prezzi allo stesso tempo per non perdere i fondi, che significa che con quanto piu´passa il tempo, tanto piu´caro diventera´ il visitarle. Qual e´il punto di tutto questo giro? E´ che bisogna cercare di andarci al piu´presto, prima che qualche cretino decide che solo i portatori della American Express Nera possono accedere, tagliando fuori i comuni normali. Il discorso finale della nostra guida, a pensarci bene, e´stato proprio questo: e´nostro dovere spargere il messaggio di quanto speciale e´questo posto! Che sia riuscito a lavarci completamente il cervello? Mah, forse sono stati i leoni marini…
Finisco qui, ho esaurito le energie con questo blog. Spero che le foto provvedano alle mie mancanze linguistiche.

Posted by Flav-Greg 11:02 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

On the way to Galapagos: Guayaquil

sunny 28 °C

Guayaquil was on our way to the Galapagos in that our flight was leaving from there. All planes that go to the Galapagos must pass by Guayaquil, which lies only 4 hours by bus from Cuenca. But what 4 hours!! The road goes through the mountains and descends from 2,500m to 0 with a very high number of curves and bents, all of which are taken at insane speed by the bus drivers, who seem to be completely oblivious to the dangers of taking blind corners at the speed of light. Anyways! We made it both ways.

While we were passing by, we decided to give ourselves an extra day in Guayaquil, given the good reports we had read on other blogs. And it wasn´t actually a mistake, despite the first impressions. As we first stepped out in the city (second biggest in Ecuador) we wondered if the authors of those positive blogs were weird or what. What a horrible sticky and dirty place! We checked in at the Velez Hotel, which is a large ugly building that looks and smells like a hospital. For $10 dollars you get a white and super clean double room with fan and bathroom, so it is not bad really, especially if you manage to get past the really unfriendly receptionist – the worst we have come across so far.
A few squares from the hotel, which lies quite centrally, is the Simon Bolivar square, or the iguanas square. This square is literally filled with rather large iguanas, which are absolutely beautiful and do not have any fear of people. They all come out in the morning during feeding time and they are everywhere, including in the trees – despite the care and attention not to stand underneath one, I almost got shat on my head by one of them! Got some drops of water from above the high trees, and it was not raining…
So this was the first highlight of Guayaquil. The second one, not necessarily in this order, was the Malecon. Since 2000, the Guayaquil authorities have made a great effort to clean up the city and make it more safe and tourist-oriented. One of the ways to do this was to build two very attractive promenades – the Malecones - one on each of the two riverfronts of the city, which are really modern and pleasant. There are gardens, fountains, monuments and walkways, and the whole area is heavy guarded and patrolled and so very safe. The funny thing with the Malecon 2000, on the main river, is that this river flows in opposite directions depending on the time of day!! There are 2 tides and each time the tide changes, the river flows in the opposite direction. Quite weird. At the end of one of the Malecones there is a super modern IMAX cinema, where we went to watch Spiderman III for the whole of $4!!
But this is not all. Past the IMAX there is Guayaquil´s third showpiece: the old district of Las Peñas, a very picturesque neighbourhood built on a hill made of brightly painted wooden houses. The whole lot is extremely manicured, everything is painted new and perfect, there are guards everywhere and it is a beautiful place where to stroll up to the top of the fortress, even though the place is so polished that it looks almost fake.

On both nights we were there we met with extremely strange characters. The first night on the Malecon 2000 Gregory hooked up with a black Ecuadorian young guy called Stalin!!! He eventually sat himself at our table and ended up escorting us home. Communication was not easy – and it wasn’t my Spanish, trust me – this Stalin guy was really a little strange. Not happy enough to hang out with someone with such a name and weird, we also walked home with him in the deserted dangerous streets of Guayaquil. I really was wondering what´s the point in being so careful with the food I eat before the Galapagos and then walk home in the middle of the night in the centre of Guayaquil with a weirdo!!!! Anyways, he was harmless and nobody attacked us, thank god. The second night Gregory walked into a shoe shop and we started talking to this 16-year-old very young girl with braces in her teeth. We asked her where the Malecon del Salado was – we were after a seafood dinner - she ended up escorting us there and eating out half of our food!! Another really weird one, and we both stood there and watched each other as she misunderstood our offer to share the food by grabbing hold of the main dish and gobbling it down, while she was telling us that we must have been sent by god to help her go to Europe to find fame…She was a very good opera singer (she was, she did sing us the Ave Maria...) but could not give us an email address because she did not use the internet. Because her pastor had told her that the internet is evil. Right. Thinking about it, Stalin did not have an email address either…

So we quite enjoyed Guayaquil. But THE GALAPAGOS WERE ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC!!!!! It will take a while to put the pictures together though, bear with us a couple of days…

Parque Simon Bolivar

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Malecon

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Las Peñas district

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Central Guayaquil
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Michaela and one of her God sent...
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Posted by Flav-Greg 07:53 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

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