Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ecuador Memories

Before our trip to Ecuador, in a rather idle yet morbid moment, I actually made a list of all the things that could kill or harm us there based on the reading I had done.  A bad case of altitude sickness, an earth quake, a volcanic eruption, yellow fever, malaria, piranhas, caymans, tarantulas, anacondas, poisonous frogs, pirates, sinking, political unrest ... The list seemed a lot more exhaustive and all together more concerning than my previous adventures.

I’m glad to report that we are home safe and sound but after a trip as unbelievable as we had, an exhausting total of 9 flights within 10 days and more up close and personal wildlife encounters I had ever imagined, I’m not sure we will ever be the same again.

Our journey started in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, nestled in the impressive Andes Cordillera. At an altitude of 2,800m (which we never quite got used to) the dull headache and shortness of breath we constantly felt there made it a more tiring experience than we had anticipated. But Quito’s dramatic mountain landscape, along with its amazing old colonial style Spanish architecture made it all worthwhile. From the myriad of intricately ornamented churches dotted everywhere to the majestic plazas, it’s easy to see why the Old Town is a UNESCO protected site.

While exploring Quito (and going to a windy view point 4,100m high) was great, we couldn’t wait to get to our first adventure in the jungle of the Oriente region of Ecuador. A short plane ride took us to the edge of the rain forest in the bustling market town of Coca. We felt the change in climate immediately, the heat and humidity hitting us as soon as we stepped off the aircraft.

We were met by our guide Luis and embarked on a 2.5 hours motorized canoe ride, dropping off local Amazon community members who hitched a ride with us at seemingly random spots along the wide Napo river. To realize the remoteness of where they live was frightening but little did we know at the time that we were heading to an even more secluded place ourselves.

Upon disembarking at a make shift jetty and after I was literally devoured by bugs the second I  set foot on land (I felt the painful stings before even noticing the countless insects that were nibbling on my shoulder/arms and only then proceeded to douse myself in DEET), we had to take a 30 minute trek through the jungle to get to the edge of a lake. A couple of men then rowed us in a traditional (and very unstable) hollowed tree trunk pirogue to La Selva Lodge, on the far side of said lake.

There started probably the most intense day and a half of my life. Within that time, we woke up each day at 5am. Took 2 long treks through the jungle and encountered countless spiders, lizards, monkeys and brightly coloured poisonous frogs. Went up 40 meters to the top of the Canopy tower to catch the sunrise over the immense expanse of the forest and watch the feeding rituals of numerous birds, including the gorgeous toucans. Faced our deepest fears by swimming in the lake inhabited by piranhas, anacondas and caymans (our guide challenged us to do it while assuring us it was “safe”). Enjoyed the most stunning sunset I have ever witnessed (so unbelievable in fact that it brought tears to my eyes) reflecting on the perfectly still mirror-like surface of the lake while taking an early evening canoe ride. And later that night, took another canoe ride in completely darkness, armed only with a powerful torch to catch a glimpse of the nocturnal animals and the cutest baby cayman.

I have been to a rain forest before (in Costa Rica) but not nothing as dense, wild and remote as the Amazon jungle. Nothing beats walking a trail cut with a machete, your hands firmly clasped to your chest (you should never touch anything for fear it might bite you!), religiously following the naturalist as his trained eyes spot the tiniest creatures otherwise so well camouflaged.

I don’t consider myself to be a spiritual person but I never felt more in tune and in awe of nature than on this part of the trip. I surprisingly loved the remoteness of it all - no cell phone or internet reception, with only the incessant (and sometimes alarming - howler monkeys sound like horror movies monsters!) sounds of the jungle surrounding us day and night.

All too soon, we had to leave our little jungle paradise and head back to Quito to continue on to the Galapagos islands. I must admit that while going back to a city with lots of people and honking cars was a shock, I relished being able to sleep without being concerned about critters getting in my bed at night. The cabin next to us found a tarantula on their porch on the second night and that was pretty much the end of my “Jane of the Jungle” fantasy!

We made it to San Cristobal island in the Galapagos after a couple of delayed flights and met our guide, Tatiana, and the rest of the group on The Odyssey, a gorgeous ship and our home for the next 4 days. There were 14 of us in total, 6 of them being backpackers traveling through South America, which kept our group young and lively.

Within an hour of landing, we had been given a short briefing, chosen our wetsuits and snorkeling gear and been taken to shore to snorkel off a local beach. As we approached, we spotted the first of many sea lions basking in the sun. We had been warned that the sea was cold (no more than 18C) but with the excitement of it all, I hardly felt it and dove in only to find myself swimming with a sea lion and a giant turtle almost immediately. I was so shocked and exhilarated by the surprise encounter that I stopped breathing for a few moments.

The Galapagos archipelago consists of a dozen or so of barren volcanic islands with little vegetation and dramatic rocky cliffs that huge waves crash into noisily.
The wildlife is so abundant and you have to watch your step for fear of hurting anything! Animals are mostly unconcerned by us, barely acknowledging our presence. As relatively new visitors to their territory, they do not see us as predators. It is really one of the only places on earth where one can stand so close to them and observe them in their natural habitat from the endemic blue footed boobies birds, majestic albatross, sally lightfoot crabs in their dazzling red coats, to iguanas and of course sea lions. It was like being inside a National Geographic documentary.

The days were roughly divided into 3 parts. Early morning land based hiking on one of the islands from 8am to 11am. Lunch at 12pm followed by a couple of hours of relaxation (i.e drinking tons of the very strong but deliciously smooth Ecuadorian coffee). From 2pm onwards, we’d start the sea based activities with deep sea or beach snorkeling to partake in our daily swimming with the sea lions, turtles, myriads of fish and the occasional sting rays.

We didn’t realize quite how much snorkeling would be involved. Especially “extreme snorkeling” as we all came to call it. On the 3rd day, we dove 3 times and each time came out of the sea having lost all sensations in our fingers and toes, our lips blue and teeth shattering. I must admit that we questioned our sanity for doing this (and paying for it) more than once! The ship’s crew certainly seemed to find it a highly amusing spectacle. But there was no way that any of us were going to miss any snorkeling opportunities and what was essentially like swimming in a huge aquarium - despite one of them involving being dropped at a 30 meters deep point at 8am and snorkel in strong currents along the cliffs to get an unparalleled glimpse of maritime feeding time and playing hide and seek with 4 young sea lions.

Most of the sailing was done at night, which considering how rough the sea got was a blessing as we could take sea-sickness medication and more or less sleep through it. The second night in particular was very, very choppy and the slightly over-friendly Captain (4 weeks into an 8 weeks stint at sea made his zeal a little more understandable!) took us to the Bridge although getting there via the narrow passageway, with only a handrail between us and the huge waves was terrifying! Sailing in such conditions requires a lot of concentration and the First Mate and him alternated 2 hour shifts each throughout the night.

We also made a stop at Post Office Bay on Floreana island. We expected something resembling a post office but were surprised to find instead an old barrel amongst piles of driftwood. Legend has it that sailors back in the 1700s left letters to their loved ones in the barrel for other passing sailors to post/hand deliver when returning home. The tradition continues and we all left postcards for our respective families around the world and in turn took postcards from other travellers to post on our return. I can’t wait to see how long it will take for my parents to receive theirs!

Our trip ended back in Quito where we made an obligatory stop at the Equator line. It was fun taking pictures of ourselves straddling both hemispheres and the small Inti-Nan museum was particularly interesting as we took part in various experiments showing the effect of zero gravity on the line. From watching water go down a drain without spinning, to quite easily balancing an egg on top of a nail and walking with our eyes closed and arms outstretched on the line, feeling ourselves very destabilized by the opposite pull of the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Coming back from such a diverse, intense, adrenaline-filled adventure is always hard and I returned to New York with a serious case of holiday blues and a bad cold. But all the pictures and memories will hopefully keep me going through the inevitably cold New York winter.

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