Category Archives: Cam

Its all about boobies in the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands are renowned for their unusual birds.  The Islands’ birds have evolved independently of mainland species, and have evolved to adapt to the unusual geographic conditions.  And like other land and water species, most of these birds have no predators, so they are indifferent to human and other animal proximity.  Scientists are not positive how the evolutionary ancestors of these birds first arrived on the islands.  Perhaps blown way off course from the mainland.  Perhaps floated for weeks on debris washed out in flooding mainland rivers.
The first stop on our cruise was Genovesa Island which is the furthest to the NE in the grouping.  First views when coming up on deck after sleeping during the sailing was that of red-footed boobies dive bombing into the water beak-first for fish … in droves – hundreds at a time.  Our first shore excursion was all about birds.  Birds were EVERYWHERE!  Sitting on the ground, sitting in bushes, sitting on rocks.  They would not even flinch as we walked by.

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aptly named red-footed booby

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red-footed boobies nest in trees, because their feet can wrap on branches. The other two species of booby nest on the ground.

Genovesa Island is also home to thousands of Nasca boobies.  These fishing birds are perhaps less dramatic looking, except for the chicks that appear as big cotton balls.

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immature nasca booby
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nasca booby chick
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Kaia & I spotted this blue-footed booby on Santa Cruz Island

Mixed amongst the boobies were Galapagos lava gulls and night herons –  all equally indifferent to us gawkers.

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Galapagos lava gull

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Galapagos night heron

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After snorkeling in the afternoon, we went by zodiac across the bay (Genovesa Island is a volcanic crater – the crater forms the bay, with an opening to the sea) and scampered up some stairs built into the cliff to explore more bird habitat.

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Even more boobies here.  You literally had to walk around them, and had to be careful not to back up onto one.  We walked from the inner part of the crater to the outside on the open ocean where we saw a Galapagos short-eared owls were hunting Galapagos petrels (you might notice a trend here ….  we realized it is pretty easy to name/identify the birds – just put “Galapagos” in front of whatever … because they are all endemic here)

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I'm having a moment with a nasca booby

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males and females take care of egg-sitting ...and fledgling sitting!
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Victor knows a lot things about a lot of birds. The island appears very grey and "dead" at this time in the dry season. It roars back to green when the rains return.
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looking for the elusive owls ...
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found one! wow, now that's camouflage!

Other days took us to other islands that hosted other birds.  “Darwin’s Finches” are well known.  Darwin collected specimens when on the islands in 1835, and while sailing back to England he noted how identical looking brown finches from different islands had markedly different beaks.  Similarly with mockingbirds from different isles. This is one of the things that got him thinking about the concept of “adaptation” and evolution.  Each island had different vegetation and seeds, so beaks were specialized.

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mockingbird on the red sand of Rabida island
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note that this mockingbird from Isabella island has a more straight beak
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in absence of predators, this finch just nests in the sand

Frigate birds also have a significant presence in the Galapagos, but are found elsewhere too.  These birds catch fish, but are unable to swim or take off after being in the water (they die if they end up in the water).  Sailors of years gone by always welcomed the sight of frigate birds because it meant they were getting close to land (the birds have to stay reasonable close to shore).  We saw frigate birds on land, but were most impressed with their inclination to fly with our boat when we were under way.  They would fly about 3 ft off the side of the ship … sometimes 5 or 6 at a time … and were so close that we could actually have touched them if we’d have tried.  It reminds me of dolphins liking to swim just off the bow of a moving boat.

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immature frigate bird
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adult male frigate bird. When courting, the males puff the red pouches out into very large balloons.
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frigate bird on Genovesa Island
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this was a common sight while we sailed
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Jake already talked about the Galapagos penguins. We'd occasionally see them standing on rocks at waters' edge.

Galapagos hawks were the top land predators.  We’d see them circling around above when we went ashore.  They eat mostly lava lizards, snakes and especially marine iguanas.

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Pelicans were also a common sight, and were great fun to watch as they dive bombed for fish

On our second last day we visited Punta Espinosa on Fernadina Island where we encountered the flightless cormorant.  These guys made their way to the Galapagos Islands via flight, but food was so readily available in the water (fish!) that they have evolved to become swimmers, not flyers.  Their wings are now tiny, and useless, though they still like to dry them in the wind like cormorants elsewhere with “real” wings.

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yes, rather sad looking wings ...
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cormorants nest in the open, building nest with sand, seaweed and "guano" (poop)
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sorry ... no cuteness prize for this baby cormorant!
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A rare blue-chested booby was sighted at the Baltra airport, in front of the post box.

Cam

Listos para Machu Picchu

We’re sitting at a table overlooking the river in Aguas Caliente, at the base of Machu Picchu in Peru.  We arrived in Cusco 5 days ago.  2 days ago we started a 3 day trek to here, and mountain biked down 2300m vertical of spectacular mountain scenery, then jumped into rafts for 90 minutes of fun.  Yesterday we trekked about 20km along the river and into the mountains towards Machu Picchu, finishing in a fantastic riverside hot spring.  Today started with 2 hours of zip lining back and forth across the valley, then 3 hours of walking to where we are now.  We will be up at 4:30AM tomorrow to be ready to get to the entrance of Machu Picchu when it opens at 6AM.

We’ll head back to Cusco tomorrow evening, and next day (Sunday) we’ll be up early to start our next trek.  This one is a biggie.  We’re doing a 4 day very high altitude trek on the Mt. Ausangate circuit.  Sleeping at 4700m, and doing several very high passes – one at 5200m (17200ft).  This will be very challenging, and we know that many groups turn back.  We have altitude medicine and will buy some “oxy-shots” for dealing with panicky shortness of breath.  We have a local guide and a horse wrangler – one horse for our gear, and one “backup” horse in case one of us needs to do an emergency exit.  We’ll use our own tent but have rented down sleeping bags as we’ve been told to expect -15 deg C temperatures at night.  Scenery is supposed to be stunning … if we can see anything for the clouds.  We expect snow storms in the afternoons.  As always …we’ll update you on the blog later!

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This is on the Ausangate circuit. Hopefully we'll see some of this sunshine!

Here are a few thoughts from us today:

I never thought my first white water rafting would happen during a thunderstorm in the twilight” (Kaia)

Today’s zip lining was the best of the trip so far.  Some of the lines were more than 200m above the ground” (Jake)

The hot springs felt great after a 7 hour hike and soothed my dozens of black fly bites” (Yvonne)

Aguas Caliente is surreal.  A bustling tourist town squished into a tiny spot in a valley surrounded in every direction by towering, vertical mountains.  Surprisingly quaint, considering 3000 people arrive every day to prepare for Machu Picchu experience.” (Cam)

Galapagos – the Enchanted Islands

The Galapagos Islands have a mythic, even iconic reputation.   Growing up, I’d heard stories of bizarre, prehistoric animals that were not afraid of humans, living on stark volcanic islands.  And the significance of the islands in spurring on Darwin’s ideas of evolution are well known.  But beyond that, I really had little idea why these islands drew in so many visitors.  But now I understand.  I am writing this at 6AM on day 6 of our cruise of the islands – then sun just came up, and poured light onto the top of the huge volcano that is Fernandina Island.  Across the channel is the largest of the islands – Isabella – that is home to no less than 5 large volcanoes.  Their peaks soar to 1600m, which is impressive considering the size of the island.  Until this morning, the peaks of volcanoes have been shrouded in cloud, but this morning they are all in full view.  Wow.
There is much to recount of our time here – it is hard to know where to start.  Instead of sharing a day by day account of our activities and discoveries, we will instead share by theme – the land, water creatures, land creatures, birds etc.  We will also describe the challenges faced by the islands in terms of introduced species and growing pressures of tourism.  In this post I will just set the stage by describing our first day on the islands, and a bit of human history here.
We had no troubles convincing Kaia and Jake to get out on the morning of flight departure from coastal city Guayaquil.  The airport is spacious and modern.  The 1st stop, before checking in, is the inspection station, where they x-ray packs and look in anything suspicious for plants/animals/fruit that could be considered “introduced” species.  Next stop was to the ATM, which proceeded to deny us access to cash, but upon inspection of our bank account a few minutes later (thank goodness for airport WiFi!) we learned that the $300 we’d asked for had indeed been deducted from our account!  A flurry of internet/skyping left us virtually no further ahead.  We have our bank working on that one and will have to sort it out later …
The flight was packed … and it appeared that the competing airline flight that landed 30 minutes after us was also packed.  That adds up about right, because the islands receive on average about 160 tourists per day – 60000 a year!!   That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you’ve been on the islands and see the very limited infrastructure for handling that number.  We got some great sneak peaks out the windows, including a tiny island that Jake and Yvonne would dive at the next day.

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we've been looking forward to setting foot on the Galapagos Islands since well before departing Peterborough.
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Daphne menor is the closer of the two islands - Jake and Yvonne SCUBA dove at the base of the cliffs

The first order of business upon arrival at the airport on Baltra Island is to pay US $100 National Park fee.  Pretty steep.  But clearly it is not a deterrent to tourism, and the Park has their hands full in their introduced species eradication and marine monitoring programs, so if the money is being used wisely, no problem.  The largest center in the Galapagos Islands is Puerto Ayora (pop. 12,000) which is at the southern end of Santa Cruz island. 

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The airport is at the northern end of Baltra Island (remember you can enlarge any image by clicking on it).  By the time we drove across Baltra, took the short ferry to Santa Cruz then drove the 50 minute bus to Puerto Ayora, I got to wondering why the airport could not have been located on Santa Cruz, close to Puerto Ayora, because the island is relatively flat near the coast.  But it turns out that the US built a military airport on Baltra to help watch the Pacific during WWII, and this facility morphed into the existing civilian facility.

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short ferry ride across the Itabaca channel between Baltra and Santa Cruz islands.
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Santa Cruz island en route to Puerto Ayora. It appeared flat as we drove, but when my ears started popping, I checked the GPS altimeter and learned that we'd climbed over 600m. This, and all other islands are shield volcanoes means the runny lava flows quickly from the crater, building up a gently sloping cone shape.

Puerto Ayora is basic, with a rapidly expanded population, but the waterfront is nicely developed and tourism planning facilities abound. Yvonne and Jake quickly got to work booking their SCUBA dive the next day, while Kaia and I lined up a double kayak to explore in.
We had a quick introduction to wildlife in the Galapagos when we saw a half dozen sea lions lounging on the town wharf.  Oblivious to gawking tourists.  And not 30ft away a group of equally indifferent marine iguanas.  We would be seeing lots more of these guys in the days to come!

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Yvonne and Jake had 2 great dives on sites just north of Santa Cruz.  This was their very 1st dive (since certifying) so they had their own dive assistant which gave them confidence.  As a 12 yr old Jake is certified to only 40 ft (as opposed to adult 60ft) so they stayed within those bounds.  But still saw tons …. white tip reef sharks, school of manta rays, green sea turtles, and tons of colourful fish.

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Yvonne 40ft down, wearing a single glove to hang on to rocks during the 'drift' dive.
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Jake just before falling backwards in.
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Jake
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White tipped reef shark - about 5 ft long. Not aggressive.
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eagle rays
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green sea turtle

Meanwhile, Kaia and I set out in our kayak with snorkels.

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He had a great laugh as we paddled out of the harbour and saw how crafty the sea lions were in staking out comfortable lounge positions.

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look at ledge on back of boat

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This guy wins the prize. I can't figure out for the life of me how he got up there! (there was netting all across the lower back end of the boat)

Moments later we see our 1st swimming marine iguana.

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We paddled across some bays and through some interesting coves and saw lots of the Galapagos birds, including our first blue footed boobie.  These guys are probably the most famous wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, and you can imagine how much fun the t-shirt and post card designers have with the “boobie” spin-off jokes.

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the very blue feet are so curious looking!

We donned our snorkelling gear and headed out on a reef, seeing some great fish.  Kaia is rather afraid of fish, so she clung pretty tight to my hand.  But as she got used to them, she was able to navigate solo through schools of them.  But nothing could have prepared us for the sight as we turned our heads to see a GIANT (5ft long) green sea turtle swimming right beside us – we could have reached out to touch it.  Actually, we had to swim away from it to prevent bumping into it.  Hard to explain what it’s like swimming next to these gentle giants.  I went ashore to get my GoPro camera (to learn it was out of battery 😦  )   and within another few minutes we either found another turtle or re-found our 1st guy, and swam for 5 minutes with him.  That pretty much made our day, so we headed back to town and felt like we had something to talk about when Jake and Yvonne got back and shared their diving adventure.

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Kaia liked the name of this cruising catamaran
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so we had to paddle under it

We had time after reassembling to hike the 2.5 km to Tortuga beach.  Beautiful clear water, white sand and great fun in the waves.
We visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and tortoise breeding station the next morning.  Galapagos’s famous giant tortoises are actually under great threat (more on that later), so they’ve resorted to collecting eggs and incubating and hatching them onsite.

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I guess you can guess who this guy is ....

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hard to tell from the photo, but this guy is not even a year old yet (about 10" long). But he already has all his wrinkles!
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This guy is full grown

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Many people know the story of "lonesome George". Each Galapagos Island has their own subspecies of locally-adapted tortoises. "George" was the only one found on northern Pinta Island even after an exhaustive search. He lived out his final (many!) years at the reserve here with a couple of girlfriends from the closest island (they hoped they'd mate, but no luck). He is buried on site and this is his memorial.
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These land iguanas are much more rare than the marine variety.

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I'm not sure whether these finches eating out of Kaia's hand and on Jake's head are doing so because they are fearless of humans (as so much wildlife here is) or whether they've just been tamed by crackers)

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We were excited to leave Puero Ayora before lunch because we were headed to meet our cruise boat – the Floreana.  It was waiting for us in the Itabaca channel (which we’d crossed a couple days back).

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Nice boat!  There are 5 classes of cruise boats for the Galapagos.  We were in the middle “tourist superior” class.  We were told by so many people and guide books that you get what you pay for in the Galapagos, and if you want a good itinerary, a good, English speaking guide (so important!), decent food, ventilated cabins, and not too much bouncing around at sea, you need to avoid the bottom class or two.  Yvonne’s mom Betty had hoped to join us for this part of our trip, but in the end decided that the going from ship to zodiac and ashore from zodiac and rough trails would be too much for her mobility.  But she instead helped us out financially with the Galapagos trip … we otherwise would likely have been in the economy boat.  Thanks, Betty!
Onboard we met our travel mates for the 8 days.  A middle age couple from Switzerland, a father and 20-something daughter from Germany, a couple of younger women also from Switzerland, a young couple from Australia, and a couple of VERY energetic, traveled, fit and game senior traveling companions  from Victoria, BC and Minnesota.  They both reminded me of my own mom.  We were 14 in total.  Ship had capacity of 16.

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here we are on our last day, with guide Victor lying in front of us.

We met our crew of 7 that evening at dinner.  Captain, mate, sailor, engineer, cook, purser/host/cook, and our guide Victor.  Victor had been guiding in the Galapagos for 21 years, spoke fabulous English, was enthusiastic about all our adventures and had a good sense of humour.  Rooms were small, with a bunk bed in each.  But dining area lovely, and great common lounge up top.
First trip outing was back to Santa Cruz island to visit the “El Chatos” Tortoise reserve.  Here you walk among the many many wild tortoises.  You can get as close as 2m to them … beyond which they do a little hiss then retreat into their shell.

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Before arriving here, I'd never paused to wonder how big tortoise poop is. I don't suppose many of you have either. Pretty substantial, thought!

The attraction at this site are the “lava tubes”.  When this part of the island was formed, lava had been running through underground tubes.  When the volcano/lava retreated, it left quite remarkable tunnels.

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Then back to our ship for a celebratory drink and dinner, then set sail for Genovesa Island in the north.  So all these adventures …and we hadn’t even started our cruise!  A good omen for things to come.

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server Luis offers up our first dinner.

Cam

Black Sheep Inn lives the Eco in “Ecolodge”

Kaia & I went kayaking today out from Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos.  Highlight:  snorkelling 3 ft away from a HUGE sea turtle (4-5ft long)!  Actually, it swam to us and surprised us.  So fabulous, after seeing these guys nesting up in Tortuguero Park in Costa Rica (not sure if same species though).  Yvonne and Jake went on two SCUBA dives and saw sea turtles, hundreds of rays, sharks, and fish all around – they loved it.  So we had a great warm up day for our cruise tomorrow.
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If you read the previous entry (posted last night) you’ll know we spent a few days hiking around Chugchilan.  About 20 years ago a couple of young Americans  – Andres & Michelle – were visiting this very off the beaten path area, and had troubles finding a place to stay.  Long story short … they decided to put down roots and built the Black Sheep Inn

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They loved the fabulous landscape of the Andean paramo, the very welcoming people, and wanted to tread lightly on the world.  They especially liked the remote feel of the area.  Why did they name it the “Black Sheep”?  Because there are lots of them around.  Because it sounds good and is understood in lots of languages (eg. Oveja Negra), and because the type of traveler that would even find the village of Chugchilan could be considered a “black sheep”

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this stained glass greets you at the entrance of the Inn

They built an eco-lodge, and tried to create a community feel in their space.  Lots of places call themselves eco-lodges.  But I have to hand it to Andres and Michelle – they really thought this one though.  Andres toured us around the eco-features.
Highlights:
– all walls are “adobe” in construction – bricks made from mud and sand on-site
– most roofing is thatch or tiles recovered from other buildings being torn down

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This is the 3-storey bunk house we stayed in (on 2nd floor). Note roof material and chairs/swing made of recovered wood

all toilets on site are composting.  recovered compost is used in gardens around the property.  water for washing hands and flushing the urinals is collected from the roof

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composting toilets ... all with a FANTASTIC view
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typical view from Black Sheep toilet
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Even the urinals have fabulous views. A flush is one cup of rain-water.
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This is the mirror above the "bathroom" sink. I rather enjoyed shaving here!

– much of the furniture and other wood construction was recovered from demolition in town
– as much as possible, features were made from recovered parts.  For example, the weights in the “gymnasium” were adobe or car motor parts.

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mud weights. notice the beautiful bottle windows at far end.

– natural lighting prevails.  For many years there was no recycling for glass bottles, so Andres and Michelle saved all their bottles and used them throughout the Inn for “windows” – for function, for beauty, for waste management.

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shower, from the inside
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a slightly unorthodox-looking shower from the outside

– the Inn needs heating at night, owing to the 3300m elevation.  They space heat with wood and use the scraps left from milling local lumber, and only the non-native pine and eucalyptus
– the kitchen uses as much local food as possible … but this is a challenge, so much does need to be brought in from Quito (this is the key challenge of remote eco-lodges)
– the operation is fastidious about waste generation – SO much is avoided or re-used, resulting in only 1 oz of non-recyclable waste per guest per day

Low environmental impact is of course a key aspect of ecotourism.  But community involvement and benefit from the operation is also key.  Andres and Michelle still own the lodge, but it is run entirely by Ecuadorians from Chugchilan (OK, save for a few months stint of dutch Tecla) – including the manager/operator Edmundo.  The lodge started a waste management/recycling system in town, has contributed to the school, and funds the internet cafe in the library for local kids.  Andres and Michelle have worked in the schools and helped maintain the water and phone systems.

Another key element of ecotourism is promoting understanding of local ecosystems and cultures.  The Inn’s focus on hiking the surrounding hills and communities provides ample opportunities for this, as detailed in our my previous entry.

It’s also worth noting that the Inn has lots of fun, low impact stuff to do; yoga in beautiful studio, zipline, waterslide, frisbee golf.

All this aside, the Inn was lovely .. to look at, to eat at, to play, to relax, to socialize.

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The Inn's very own black sheep

I recall Yvonne’s reflection on the challenges faced by Monteverde community in Costa Rica, as “development” marches on.  Locals were worried about the impact of a new paved road on their rather remote town.  Chugchilan is now at a similar crossroads.  Our trip up to Quilatoa was delayed about 15 minutes because of road construction.  You can now drive the 20km in from Zumbahua into Chugchilan on a beautiful paved road.  Andres was really worried … even to the point of wondering if he and Michelle would ultimately have to leave as the “remote” part of the Inn disappears …

I will leave you with the following definition of ecotourism.  It comes from Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin who is considered by many as the “father” of ecotourism, with some modifications by Black Sheep Inn creator Andres:

“Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy, study and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present), that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations”. This definition was officially adopted by IUCN – The World Conservation Union – in 1996. According to this definition, ecotourism denotes nature tourism with a normative element. Also, ecotourism should be seen as a component of sustainable tourism (which should now embrace all types of tourism, including city and beach tourism). In general, I may say that I am quite surprised and satisfied with the evolution of Ecotourism since I coined the term back in 1983. However, I am also concerned that the term has been variously abused and misused in many places. In my own country, Mexico, and in many others, I am sad to see that “ecotourism” is seen mainly as adventure tourism and carrying out extreme sports in a more or less natural environment, with little concern for conservation or sustainable development issues.”

Cam

Living the High Life at Chugchilan

We landed in the Galapagos Islands this afternoon.  Yvonne and Jake are doing two SCUBA dives tomorrow while Kaia and I rent a double kayak to explore the shoreline and snorkel west of Puerto Ayora.  We board our ship Florianna on the 23rd.  We haven’t met anyone who hasn’t been captivated by a visit to these islands so we’re really excited. A little taste of the islands presented itself during a stroll through town before dinner … with a bunch of sea lions lounging on a dock 50ft from the main road.
If I don’t get to the Black Sheep Inn eco-blog tomorrow, you won’t hear from us in the next 9 days …
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We REALLY wanted to travel deep into Yasuni National Park and spend some time with the indigenous Waorani.  Yasuni is lowland jungle in NE Ecuador draining into the Amazon basin.  It is both wildly remote/pristine and sitting on top of a vast reserve of oil.  Yasuni has become famous recently because of an innovative attempt by Ecuador’s president to get the world community to pay Ecuador to keep the oil in the ground and protect the park and the Waorani.  This was a great idea  … that didn’t go anywhere.  Only a pittance was committed internationally, so the oil companies are slowly pushing at the borders of the park.  This jungle area on the Peru side of the border is already overrun by the oil companies and the indigenous folks (many of whom were contacted only very recently) are undergoing great stresses.  Oil spills are a huge problem.
However, after many hours of internet searching and phone calls from Costa Rica, Panama and Quito trying to line things up, we realized this journey would not happen this time around.  It would be a 10 hour bus ride followed by a 10 hour motorized canoe ride down the Rio Napo, just to meet our guide and start our trip.  And the same on return.  The guides generally don’t speak any English, and we were looking at a cost of over $300/day.  Our time and budget in Ecuador was somewhat limited, so we very grudgingly gave up on this idea ….
So instead we headed towards what is known to tourists as the “Quilatoa loop” which involves several days of bus travel and hiking through a remote and very high elevation area (“alto plano” or “paramo” – high plains) about 2 hours south of Quito. 

An easy bus ride took us from Quito to the large center of Latacunga where we boarded a bus to start the loop counter-clockwise.  Within a half hour we were climbing through VERY steep valleys, gazing across at what seemed near vertical potato, bean, corn and pasture fields with snow capped volcanoes in the backdrop.  Hairpin switchbacks up the valley wall … then down the next.  Thrilling, actually. 

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enroute to Sigchos

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Mt Iliniza Sur

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Chugchilan is just north of Quilatoa

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The first map can be placed within Ecuador using this map - look for Latacunga in center of map - south of Quito.

A brief stop in Sigchos to take on the high school kids, then south towards Quilatoa – our destination was a little village called Chugchilan (emphasis on the “lan“).  The school kids got off the bus one by one, and we watched them start walking up or down the fields towards little homesteads.
Upon arrival at the Black Sheep Inn http://blacksheepinn.com we were immediately greeted by one of the most outgoing, friendly, warm, enthusiastic (you get the picture …) people I’ve ever met.  Tecla is a dutch woman living in California who spends about half of each year exploring the world, and for now she is the assistant manager of this fantastic Inn.  This Inn is well known as an eco-lodge,  and indeed it is.  So much so that I’ll do a separate post to highlight it.  Within minutes she had us out hiking the “ridge” trail … with just enough time before dark.  First 20 minutes were straight up, and we started at 3300m, so breathing did not come easy.  We scrambled down some very steep fields to arrive back at the Inn in the final rays of daylight.

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fading light on the paramo

Dinner is included at the Inn, and is served “family style” – with all guests sharing a big table.  Erica & Chris from the US, Stephanie and Maria from Switzerland/Germany, Karl from Germany, Marco & Katie on a motorcycle with sidecar from Italy/California.  Great company!

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Next morning we set out on the signature hike of the area – to Quilatoa lake which is set in a large crater.  A 20 minute pickup/taxi ride puts you right at crater edge for a fabulous view of the lake/crater.

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It's hard to believe that we are only about 100km away from the Equator! But the wind was howling, and we're at 4000m (13200ft) vertical - we had all our warm clothes on, and were still cold.

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Quilatoa lake/crater. It is panorama - click to enlarge

The first hour of the hike follows the ridge of the crater, with outstanding views all along.  We got a few minutes of respite from the wind when the trail ducked behind the crater edge.  Kaia’s stomach was a bit off … owing most likely to the altitude.

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Cam, Kaia & Jake atop Quilatoa overlook

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The trail then descends from crater ridge back towards Chugchilan, via the little town of Guayama San Pedro.  Spectacular views abounded, and we loved to see how the local farmers (all Indigenous) successfully grew their crops and kept sheep & cows & pigs in such challenging geography (steep, remote, little water).

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click for panorama

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A potato field. All cultivation done by hand, and notice the attention to "contour" cultivation - furrowing perpendicular to slope to maximize water retention and minimize soil erosion.

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started warming up a bit ...
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These boards had very recently been hewn from trees growing only 10m away ... with only a chainsaw. Pretty good chainsaw work, I'd have to say!
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the locals have spent some time and money developing the hiking trails - benches and signs.
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great fun!
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Kichwa girls coming home from school
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we had already dropped 700m, but had another 300m to go - down this steep switchbacked trail

We marveled at local folks making their way through this country side, with babies and larger loads on their backs, trudging up hundreds of meters of vertical, as part of a daily routine.  We were greeted with smiles every  encounter.

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highly eroded trail from hundreds of years of use ... and they turn into drainage ditches
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This type of hat is characteristic of the local (Indigenous) women and many of the men from this and many other areas of Ecuador
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looking back on the trail from Chugchilan. We left the crater ridge in the low spot on the horizon. The last steep section descends from the plateau.

We had to climb 300m out of the valley floor to get back to Chugchilan, and got back in time to relax a bit at our comfy inn before dinner.  It was a 7 hr hike .. we were tired.  Yvonne managed to find her way to the yoga studio to stretch out a few sore muscles.  And Kaia, Jake and I had fun on the Inn’s home-made zip line.

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Whihoo! The line runs down to beyond the end of the shed in the distance.

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Kaia at end of zipline. You climb off onto the tire platform.

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A fantastic dinner followed, with some new guests joining. 

Tecla had arrived at the Inn only one week before us, but had already discovered most of the local trails.  She was anxious to try a new route back from the (somewhat) nearby cloud forest the next day, with a guide, and invited us along.  We gained about 500m of elevation very quickly, past farms, with ever present beautiful views.

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A local school, with no road to it. These kids and teachers must be in great shape!

This is truly the paramo country – we felt like we were on top of the world.

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Our cloud forest destination is in the distance ... as you can imagine from this photo!
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A cloud forest gets a significant amount of precip from water vapour, as opposed to rain.
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We'd seen cloud forests in Costa Rica before. But cloud potatoes were a new concept.

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This contrast from the very dry open plain only 500m and 15 minutes away was astounding. Here we are in thick, dense forest with lots of moss and other plants growing off the trees.
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our local guide Juvon (sp?)
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Yvonne with Tecla, admiring some new fruit

From this remarkable little cloud forest we made our way to a cheese factory that had just recently closed its doors and was for sale.  Enroute we passed through a small village where the school kids were outside playing soccer.  Keeping with the theme Kaia & Jake started in Zancudo Costa Rica, they joined in for 15 minutes of fun.  It was pretty fast paced.  Although the concrete field was pretty small, even a short sprint at 3900m altitude put them into oxygen deficit.  Kaia just about puked as we left the school.

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the girls were watching the boys (& K & J) play, and were disappointed when Kaia left as they took to the field.
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Solar hot water makes so much sense in the high altitude (cool) part of the country. I'm surprised we didn't see more of it.
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Dramatic views all the way back down to Chugchilan

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These chocho beans are a staple of the local diet and were being harvested and shelled as we hiked past. They were terribly bitter to our taste, and apparently are soaked for 10 days before cooking.
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The other local staple ... maize (a lovely taste, with big white kernals)

The descent from the paramo was challenging as our guide struggled to find a trail, but our very tired feet found their way home to make another 7 hr hike.  I had arranged with the owner/creator of the Black Sheep Inn for a tour of the “eco” side of the Inn.  Upon return from the hike, Jake and Kaia fronted the questions, Andreas explained, and the video camera rolled.  Andreas’s passion, vision, and sheer hard work was astounding – stay tuned for the next blog entry.
We had decided that we couldn’t afford another night at the Inn (above our budget) and had opted for a cheaper option right in the little town.  But the night before I had helped the manager with digitizing his trail map/photos, and he was very pleased – so he graciously offered to us to stay at a very reduced rate … and we were only too happy to not pack up and move.  Edmundo had until this point given hikers photos on paper of key points in the trail to ensure they stayed in right direction.  I had shown him how to resize the digital photos and add arrows with MS Paint, so he could then email the photos to hikers to use on their phones.
We had a relaxed morning next day then began our multi-bus ride to complete the loop back to Latacunga then on to Banos. These were good days.

Cam

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Our road south from Chugchilan towards Zumbahua, taken from the back of our open-air pickup truck

Panama city is booming

this entry typed enroute to Quito from Panama City …

Our travel from Zancudo beach in Costa Rica to Panama City was pleasant but a bit gruelling.  We were up very early to eat and pack up to be ready for the 5:45AM bus out of Zancudo.  This bus served as public transport and the local school bus for high school kids who had to attend about an hour away in Conte.  A two hour bus ride took us to Laurel where we found a 20 minute taxi to the CR/Panama border.  We were busy here … had to change our remaining Colones into $US, then purchase $7 exit stamps, then through CR immigration/emigration.   Took a while, but Yvonne eventually found an ATM that would dole out $US, because we were told by just about everyone that Panama authorities want to see that you have at least $500 cash on you!  All told, our border prep took about 2 hours, then into Panama fairly painlessly and onto a 1.5 hour bus to David.  A 30 minute layover in David then onto a huge swanky air conditioned bus for the 8.5 hr trip to Panama city.  We were stuck in the first rows of seats and the driver had the curtains pulled, so we saw virtually nothing – good thing we all had books.  Arrived Panama city 8:30PM without much of an idea where we were going to stay.  Our SIM chips from CR didn’t work in Panama, so we were without mobile internet for the 1st time in our 5 weeks on the road so far.  I had pulled up a few hostel names at the CR border for this eventuality, but no taxis had heard of them.  Fortunately the bus station had some WiFi and we selected a hostel in the “Casco Viejo” section of town.  Taxi took us there only to find that hostel didn’t accept kids (just as well, probably – there was a pretty raucus party going on there), but another around the corner (Magnolia) did, and we got quite a deluxe private room for hostel prices.  It was now 10PM, so that had been a 16.5 hr travel day.  Fell to sleep pretty quick …
We slept in a bit (all relative … we were up by 7AM), found some groceries and planned the day.  1st stop was the Miraflores Visitors Center for the Panama Canal.  Aside from the fact we were over-run by school trip kids at the center, this was fantastic.  We watched a bulk carrier go through the two-tiered lock, then worked our way through their interpretive museum, then went back out to watch a huge car carrier pass through, all from an observation deck very close to the locks. 

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bulk carrier entering the lock, heading Atlantic to Pacific, 2 locks away from Pacific at Miraflores Visitor Center/lock
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A boat this size as 6 locomotives (known as "mules") to guide it through the locks and keep it from bumping into the sides. I mentioned this to Kaia, who thought about what I'd said, then asked "isn't it hard for 6 mules to pull a boat that size? What don't they use some sort of machine?" 🙂
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Just left 1st Miraflores lock, and into last lock before Pacific
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These boats are built to JUST fit - 2 ft on either side!

We had a chance to sit down with the main guide at the site who filled us in on some key details:
– price of passage depends on the length of the ship as well as the value of its cargo.  The large car carrier paid almost $400,000 for its passage through!  A small sailing yacht would pay the minimum passage of $800.  These fees bring in about $1 billion to Panamanian economy and represent 15% of its GDP
– it takes about 8 to 10 hours to pass through.  In the morning, ships from both ocean sides work their way up through the locks to high point of the lake in the middle.  Boats rise 26m through 3 locks (in both directions).  They use the width of the lake to pass each other, then in the afternoon they descend the 3 locks on the side.  We asked “wouldn’t it be more efficient from a water use perspective if you had boats going in both directions at the same time through the locks?” but he explained that the only place boats could really pass each other was in the central lake
– 30 to 40 ships transit each day
– canal was completed by the US in 1914 – so we saw quite a few centennial celebration signs around.  In 1975 the US signed an agreement “treaty” with Panama to transfer ownership/control of the canal to Panama in 1999.  There was a huge national celebration on this transfer date.
– ships that transit are for the most part of the “Panamax” size – that is, they were built to just fit into the Panama canal locks – with only 2 ft to spare on each side!.  There are many ships larger than this though, and Panama wants to be able to capitalise on their desire to transit the canal.  In 2007 they had a national referendum and 76% voted in favour of enlarging the locks to increase the length by 40% (to 1400ft!) and width by 60%.  Construction started immediately and the new locks are supposed to open in early 2016, but there is some question about that date

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car carrier entering lock
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I think I heard that these car carriers hold up to 5000 cars! This one had cars from Europe.

We thoroughly enjoyed that visit.  Then set off for the “Cinta Costera” sea-side walking/cycling path that follows a good portion of the Panama City waterfront.  It is full of playgrounds, tennis and basket ball courts, and generally full of life. 

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Kaia & Jake uptop a lovely climbing web along Cinta Costera

A very short walk took us to the VERY lively Fish Market for some ceviche (raw fish).   The ceviche was pretty good, tho Jake stuck to a more recognisable form of whole (and cooked) fish filet.  I have to give him and Kaia credit though, as they polished every morsel .. brain, and both eyeballs too!  Jake and I were curious to learn from a trip to the bathroom here at the market that it costs 25cents to pee on a weekday and Saturday, but 50cents on Sunday.  hmmmm?

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shrimp ceviche
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Kaia said she'd have enjoyed hers more if it weren't 75% onions.

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The remainder of our day was spent strolling around the Casco Viejo section of town where we were staying.  FASCINATING!  The original Panama cith was built in early 1500 in a different section.  But in 1613 when the town governor heard that privateer/pirate Captain Morgan was about to attack, he ordered the burning/destruction of the

town to spoil Morgan’s looting.  From there, a new town emerged in the location now knows as Casco Viejo.  Over the past decades or 100 years, Panama city migrated into a more central location and Casco Viejo was mostly abandoned.  But its colonial architecture is nothing short of outstanding, and in 1997 it was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site and has since undergone a remarkable restoration.  Buildings untouched for decades (centuries?) sit right next to buildings that have undergone full restoration … painted, woodwork redone, stone repaired.  Cafes and restaurants have come to life in the narrow streets and around the plazas.  We took in an art exhibit, got some food, wandered some more, then took a few steps back to our hostel for a snack before bed.

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Casco Viejo of Panama
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Freshly restored in Casco Viejo
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restoration work in its early phase in Casco Viejo

We’d love to have had another day or two to explore Panama Viejo (the old original city) and the new modern city.  Speaking of which … what a remarkable story.  For reasons I still don’t full understand, money is pouring into Panama City.  Our taxi driver this morning pointed out to us the tallest building 10 years ago – it was about 12 stories high.  Now the skyline is actually more impressive than Toronto’s. 

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the "New" city of Panama seen from the fish market

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Huge office skyscrapers, dozens and dozens of really tall condos … all in the span of 10 years.  Panama is apparently now an international banking hub and enjoys very low personal and corporate tax rates.  I guess that explains things partly.

Cam

Cam’s Costa Rica Top 10

Costa Rica has been wonderful. We were here 4 weeks … could have spent a year … and perhaps then ended up like that thousands of gringos who came to visit but never quite made it back home.

In no particular order, here’s my top 10 list for Costa Rica.  Kaia and Jake have included lots of photos, so I’ll leave that part to them

1. Easy going, very welcoming people.  Costa Ricans (“Ticos”) use the expression “Pura Vida” to mean “good life”, “things are good” … and in general, “all is well”.  It says a lot about them.

2. The environmental consciousness exuded around Monteverde … especially the climate change rally

3. Swimming in the very clear, cool pool at the base of the waterfalls in remote Rara Avis

4. The turtle life cycle … especially watching the nesting process at Tortuguero (and seeing little “Squirt” making a run for it!

5. The sounds in the cloud and rain forests …. birds, crickets, frogs, and especially the howler monkeys

6. Exquisite beaches – tree-shaded at Manuel Antonio and the vast and deserted beach of Zancudo

7. moonlit skinny surfing on Zancudo beach, while watching an electrical storm (in the distance!)

8. local fruit that is packed with flavour – the pineapples, mangoes, lichi, coconuts & bananas

9. Awesome critters revealed to us by our guides on day and night hikes: frogs, snakes, lizards, spiders.  My favourite bird has to be the Scarlett Macaw – stunning, raucous, and they always travel in their pairs

10. The way Costa Rica lives the “eco” in ecotourism

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Cam