Tag Archives: Ecuador

Hammer time!

In retrospect, I feel like I didn’t give Ecuador enough time. It’s such a geographically diverse country for its size. There were so many places I didn’t get to.

And I could have stayed longer if I wanted to. I turned down a ‘job’ offer teaching English on the Galapagos Islands. Essentially volunteering in exchange for accommodation & a bit of lunch money. I would have had to get a 2nd job to make ends meet, let alone make the most of everything the Islands had to offer.

I’m not 100% sure why I didn’t take it. But put it this way: I was focusing more on the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea rather than the reasons why it was. So I went with my intuition. I’m sure the reasons will reveal themselves in time.

So, exactly 12 months after leaving Aus, I booked my flight home. I admit to having troubles hitting the ‘Confirmation’ button. There was such a big part of me that felt like I wasn’t done. So much more to see. Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina. But it felt like time. I was missing my mama’s cooking, my friends, babies I haven’t met yet, and our beautiful beaches. And besides, I needed to get a job, pull some more savings together and try & be a proper grown up. Enough of this gallivanting around the world with just a backpack to my name & no real plans to speak of.

It was Mother’s Day back home, so I called Ma to let her know. She burst out into tears, she was so happy. Bless.

There was one more thing I had to do before I felt I could leave the Galapagos. I had been chasing hammerheads since Nicaragua in November. The only issue was the next available dive was on Sunday. Same day as my flight out to Guayaquil. Everyone reassured me that getting on another flight on Monday wouldn’t be a problem.

I decided to go on the dive. I had to see these dang sharks. I’ve racked up 44 dives in the past 12 months. This was a pretty hectic dive. For starters, the water was cold. Maybe 18 degrees at depth. We were fitted with 7m wetties which make you feel like the Michelin Man. There was a lot of surge. And the visibility in some places wasn’t all that great.

We came up from the first dive. No hammerheads. And of course the other group came up chattering excitedly like schoolkids. I couldn’t help but be quietly petulant. We had seen some amazing things on our 1st dive. But it wasn’t what I had come here for. I looked down at my wrist: “Gratitud”. Mmmm.

We went down for our 2nd immersion and then my DM started pointing his fist very deliberately. I scanned the deep blue waters & saw what looked like pretty much your run-of-the-mill shark. But then I saw his head. I could not believe my fucking eyes. Shaped just like a big flattened hammer (I’m gunna say his head was close to a metre in width) and with big bulbous eyes on the ends! What a peculiar looking beast. I was spellbound. Then into my peripheral vision swam two more. I looked up and around and saw we were floating in amongst a school of maybe 12 of them. Unlike most sharks, hammerheads usually swim in schools during the day, and become solitary hunters at night.

Up there with one of the most amazing dive moments of my life. I came up from that dive happy as Veruca Salt when she thinks she’s going to get her golden egg-laying geese.

The “next day, ‘nother flight, no worries” actually turned out to be quite the opposite. The only flight with my carrier on Monday was full, and so I had to wait another day. This meant I would be really pushing it to meet my dear old friend Michelle in Peru on time. Shell was coming over from Aus so we could do Machu Pichuu together.

Flights from Guayaquil to Lima were nearly $500 one way, so that was out of the question. I spent a bit of time hunting around & found a cheap flight from a little town just south of the border. I could catch a bus to there and be in Lima on Wednesday morning. Michelle could get a good night’s sleep from her long haul over & we could get on with it.

Well, 4 buses, 2 planes, 2 taxis, 1 boat, 1 tuk-tuk, 1 lost Kindle (GUTTED), 1 scary motherfucker wearing army fatigues, a balaclava & waving a machine gun around, plus another night-time border crossing but this time UTTERLY on my own –

And 26 hours later I was having a good old giggle with one of my besties in the foyer of her fancy hotel in Lima.

Hello Peruuuuu!

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I am a rock, I am an island

The Galápagos Islands

  • An archipelago of 13 volcanic islands spread across 45,000km 2 some 1,000km from the mainland of Ecuador.
  • They were originally discovered by a Bishop from Panama in the 1500s – not Charles Darwin as is popularly believed.
  • Nearly 9,000 species call the Galápagos Islands home. Endemic species – found nowhere else in the world – are common throughout the islands, and many are nearly unchanged since prehistoric times.
  • The Galápagos was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1978. In 1986 it was also declared a marine reserve, 2nd only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

I had wanted to come here my whole life.

I arrived into Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island around midday on Friday 4th. I scouted around for a room in the scorching heat and then set off immediately to talk to operators about a last-minute cruise. It is possible to do the islands independently, but the most important ones are only accessible by boat and under the supervision of a guide. I had heard that sometimes you can get a deal if you turn up and are prepared to wait. I decided to chance it as I had 10 days on the island and I only wanted to do a 5 day cruise.

I ended up talking to an Aussie girl whose cousin I had met in Cartagena. Alice had fallen in love with a local dive master three years ago. They were now married & had their own dive shop. I was keen to dive with the hammerheads & also price a dive cruise. The latter was way out of my price range. I liked Alice. She was informative, not at all pushy, and organised. She had a good view about the majority of boats which were going out the next week. She told me that La Encantada had the best itinerary of them all.

I paid a little more than I had budgeted for. I could have travelled in South America for another 1½ months. I told myself it was less than I normally earn in a fortnight – in exchange for a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Even if I did get another chance to come by this way again sometime… who knows? It’s not completely unthinkable that there might come a time when the fragile Galápagos would only be open to an elite group of scientists and the super- uber-rich. Currently the Galápagos sees some 100,000 visitors pa which, despite best endeavours of the authorities, is naturally having an impact on the islands.

On Sunday morning, I went back to the airport where our group was convening. We were met by our Juan, our tour guide. He was a stocky Galapagonean with a friendly round face and a big sincere smile. I put him in his early 50s & guessed he had probably been very fit in his younger years and would have undoubtedly been quite popular with the ladies. He had a reassuring demeanour about him and I could see straight away he was a no-bullshit kinda guy. I liked him instantly.

In the bay where all the boats were docked, La Encantada looked like a simple little country girl in amongst a bunch of sophisticated city women. I admit to thinking I might have been getting one of the flasher boats for my money. But when we got on board, I was really surprised. For starters, she was a lot bigger than she looked (70ft) from the shoreline and she was so well appointed.

The first thing we saw when we went below was a lovely dining room set for 12, with proper linen. Each of the berths had decent sized bunk beds with colour coordinated manchester and their own bathrooms with a hot water shower! My friend Martin would have been beside himself. I was beside myself! This was going to be a very different cruise from the one I had taken in Belize or the one from Panama to Colombia.

We had the first of many delicious 3 course meals cooked by a professional Chef, while Juan introduced us to the rest of the crew and gave us our first briefing.

Over the course of the next 5 days we stopped at 5 of the islands. Every day we took guided walks with the most knowledgeable Juan, who had been living on the islands for more than 40 years and had been guiding for 20. He wasn’t formally educated but you can bet he knew more than a beaker-full of scientists all put together.

He had eyes like a hawk and showed us everything there was to be seen: dozens of different birds, iguanas, insects, and plant life (of which there is a lot more than you might expect on volcanic islands). He would tell us about their history on the island, their mating habits, and give us insight into their future. He shared with us what the locals and scientists were doing to preserve the future of the endangered species. And whipped out facts & figures faster than Wikipedia.

Needless to say, the Galápagos Islands are just phenomenal. Beyond words & pictures in many ways. Definitely one of those places you just have to go and experience for yourself. But I will do my best to share with you what I saw & felt…

The Islands are ugly & unforgiving in many ways. But there’s so much beauty that belies the callous exterior. Armies of intimidating cactus steadfastly stand their ground on an arid volcanic landscape – making the islands seem so unwelcoming. Added to this, at the time we were there – it was harshly hot and uncomfortably dry.

Alighting from the dinghy onto jutting jet black rocks, we saw hundreds of Sally Lightfoot Crabs – all brilliant red-orange with luminous aqua-blue underbellies – slowly swarming around, making the rocks come alive.

Everywhere we looked – there were these prehistoric land iguanas. Some sleeping all piled on top of one another, some coolly munching on little yellow flowers, some just staring you down with their wrinkly old eyes. You had to be careful not to walk on them, there were so many. (My only real disappointment of the trip was I never got to see the freaky underwater iguanas underwater, which woulda been well wicked, but you know: this is nature not a theme-park. Nothing is guaranteed.)

I’m not much of a bird watcher ordinarily – but I quite got into it on the Galápagos. There’s just so many different species. And really weird-arse looking ones, at that. On the first day, we saw one of my favourite birds: the pink flamingos. They remind me of ballerinas: despite their long ungainly legs and thin long necks, they look so elegant & graceful. Most of all I love their colour. Apparently, it’s a result of their diet.

Sitting in the sparse, harsh, trees that looked like they were dying of thirst – we saw Magnificent Frigate Birds. Huge red bulbous throats on a beautiful streamlined body. All the boy birds were showing off, trying to attract the girl birds. “Look at me! Look at me! See how big my big red bulb is!” How they managed to defy gravity when they were flying was beyond me.

We saw many Blue Footed Boobies, for which the Islands are famous for. They look a little like an oversized seagull but prettier and they have these big webbed duck’s feet in the perfect shade of sky blue. It was amazing at how close they would let us get to them. We were lucky enough to see a pair of them do a little mating dance: somewhere between an African tribal dance and a square dance. They would noisily clack their beaks together in a chopstick kissing game. And then stomp around in slow mo on the sand. Then the boy bird tried to get the girl bird to go back to his place. And they waddled on up the track for some business time. I loved that we didn’t even exist in their world.

We snorkelled every day, and every day we spotted a staggering diversity of fish (evidently more than 400 different species) swimming along happily in amongst turtles, manta rays & lots of different types of sharks. The meeting of two different oceanic currents is what brings this astounding array of aquatic life to Galápagos.

One of my favourite sites though, wasn’t the best in terms of underwater life. Not that we could see anyway. The day we went, the waters were unfortunately quite cloudy and visibility was at best 3m. But it was an absolutely stunning rock formation protruding from the dark blue seas, a place called Kicker Rock. Rising 150m out of the ocean, it was quite a sight to behold. It had split into two and you could swim between its towering walls. Another moment of realising how ancient the earth is, and how small we are by comparison. I love these moments that nature sometimes gives you. So humbling.

For me though, the highlight of the whole trip was snorkelling with huge colonies of happy go lucky sea-lions who just wanted to plaaaayyyyyy!!! They just love to come darting up to you at break-neck speed, and then zoom off in a completely different direction at the last second, they’ll roll their big bulbous bodies around in contorted circles, and if you imitate them, they’ll be your friend forever.

Their big brown cow eyes are so soft & sweet, and they have these cute as a button love heart-shaped noses, tough-as-nails looking whiskers and long long teeth – the latter of which can make them look a tad scary sometimes. The babies are just like underwater puppies and cannot get enough. But you don’t want to be getting too close to the bulls. To illustrate why – they can grow up to 2m long and weigh up to 360kg. Comparable to some motorbikes. They can get very protective of their families, so they’re not really something you want to be pissing off.

We had quite a few sessions with these guys, and I can honestly say it was never enough. I could have played with them all day.

Another highlight of the trip was on the last day when we visited the Darwin Research Station and got to see Lonesome George – the only surviving giant Pinta tortoise. I think his story is worth sharing. Because it really highlights the need for us to take better care of our planet and its natural inhabitants for future generations to enjoy.

Discovered on Pinta by accident in 1971 – George, weighing in at 90kg, was relocated to the safety of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Quite how George is or how long giant tortoises live no one actually knows.

His subspecies, Geochelone nigra abingdon is now officially extinct in the wild, according to the World Conservation Union. Of the 14 different types of Galápagos tortoise, three are now extinct.

For centuries, predators (& this includes us) have hunted these gentle reptilian beasts for their meat & their eggs. It is thought that the last tortoise of George’s kind was carried away by scientists in 1906.

In order to prevent Lonesome George’s genes dying out, the Charles Darwin Foundation has put up a $10,000 reward for any zoo that can offer him a female Pinta tortoise. It seems unlikely this will ever happen.

The research station has tried repeatedly to mate George with tortoises from another island, but so far he seems very uninterested in any advances.

However, the research station refuses to admit defeat. They even employed Sveva Grigioni, a “beautiful” 26-year-old Swiss zoology graduate, to spend four months trying to “rouse the fire in Lonesome George’s loins”. This unenviable job involved coating her hands with the “genital secretions” of female tortoises and engaging in “manual stimulation” of George. Apparently such “genital massage” in the cause of conservation is common. Although locating a tortoise’s penis is a highly skilled, indeed delicate, operation, at least it isn’t dangerous. Grigioni’s ministrations did indeed succeed in awakening George’s interest in female tortoises: “he started to try copulation but it was like he didn’t really know how…” Poor old George.

Today George is on his own again, as the woman known as “Lonesome George’s girlfriend” has returned to Switzerland. But the search for a female tortoise “to put the spark back in Lonesome George’s love life” goes on.

A sign at his enclosure reads: “Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”

La Encantada’s itinerary

Day 1 (Sunday 6 May, 2012)

  • Baltra / Playas Las Bachas

Day 2

  • South Plaza Island
  • Santa Fe Island

Day 3

  • San Cristobal – Leon Dormido & Los Lobos
  • Kicker Rock

Day 4

  • Española

Day 5

  • Floreana Island
  • Post office Bay
  • Champion Island
  • Puerto Cormorant

Day 6

  • Darwin Research Centre

Sources:
http://www.worldwildlife.org/what/wherewework/galapagos/species.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/may/13/featuresreviews.guardianreview11

Higher ground

I had underestimated how long it would take me to get from Colombia to Ecuador. As a result I wouldn’t be getting into Otavalo until late Saturday night which unfortunately, meant I would be missing the biggest market day.

The famous Otavalo Markets draws talented local artisans from miles around to flog their wares and in turn, hoards of haggling tourists from all over the world to hunt for a bargain.

I figured I might have troubles finding a room. So I decided on trying my luck in nearby Ibarra – a decent sized town just a few k’s north.

Around 11pm, I found a very cheap room in a huge old hotel which was eerily deserted. It could have easily been the scene for a horror film. I tried not to think about it as I padded down the creaky hall to the shared bathroom before bedtime.

The next morning I set off for Otavalo. I convinced the boys at the bus terminal to ‘watch’ my pack in a very open & most unsecure office – while I ambled off for a bit of retail therapy.

I did quite a bit of damage in just a few short hours. I bought a super soft alpaca-wool throw, a stack of stylin’ scarves, and other bits & bobs. The piece de resistance though, had to be the purple hoodie with llamas all over it. Boom! And all for under $100. The throw alone would cost maybe double of that, back home. One very happy customer.

After a delicious almuerzo, costing just $3 – I caught the bus onwards to Quito, getting in late afternoon with a cracking headache: Altitude sickness. One shower, 2 Ibuprofens, 3 beers & a lil kip later and I was good to go.

I had to go out that night to get some cash as I didn’t have enough to buy dinner. I walked around for about an hour in the Sunday deserted streets before I found an ATM.

Over breakfast the next day, I learned how lucky I had been not to have gotten mugged.

At least 3 tourists from the hostel had been robbed in the last 24 hours. One girl was having a coffee in a cafe – only to have a little old lady with a baby on her back come in, and shove her hand down the girl’s bra to swipe an iPhone she had earlier stashed down there.

After that – it’s all I heard: more & more stories of tourists getting done. Bags getting slashed. Pickpocketings. Taxi hi-jackings. Gun & knife-point robberies at ATMs. And so, I would just like to give a shout out to my guardian angel for watching over me: “Gratitud.”

Next day, I went to the Mitad del Mundo (aka “middle of the world”, aka the Equator) with a lovely Irish couple. We took a fun tour around the Intinan Museum, where they performed a raft of cool experiments: we saw the water in a sink swirl around in two different directions depending on which hemisphere the sink was moved to; and we each balanced a boiled egg on a nail on the actual equator line.

I then had a fun afternoon in the post office, trying to send my box of Otavalo goodies home to Aus. Lucky I had asked my taxi driver to wait for me. It went like this: Line up for 10 mins. Get back in the cab to buy my own box from the nearby supermercado. Line up for another 10 mins. Go to store across the road to procure my own tape. Line up for a further 10 mins. Go back across the road to obtain 2 copies of my passport.

My Spanish is now good enough to get by, but clearly there was a major communication breakdown. Sometimes the simplest things can be so time consuming.

My driver was the same dude who had driven us to the Equator earlier that day. One of the 5%. (See earlier posts for my theory that 95% of taxi drivers are c#*ts). He drove me around to get said items required to post my things and in the end came into the PO with me, to ascertain if there was anything else. He spent more than an hour with me. And he only wanted to charge me $10 for his troubles. I gave him $15.

That night, a bunch of us had dinner at the hostel & drinks by the fire on the rooftop balcony of the hostel, which afforded us amazing vistas of a lit-up city. It was a shame Quito was in the habit of scaring its visitors. I would have liked to have gone out & explored but no one was game.

The next day I went Cotopaxi. It was a scenic if not back-breaking 3-hour drive to one of the highest peaks in all of Ecuador.

Secret Garden Cotapaxi had come highly recommended by a lot of travellers I had met along the way. Everyone said it was completely worth the expense. And it was. When we got to the lodge, I let out a little squeal. It reminded me a bit of La Serrana. But with a Jacuzzi and a fireplace! We were welcomed by some friendly faces and a glass of warm wine. I just chilled out that afternoon. I felt like I had been racing around like a blue arsed fly since leaving Salento.

The next day I went with a lovely Argentinean girl, Vanessa (who only spoke Spanish) to walk part of Cotopaxi – a snow-capped conical volcano which is the 2nd highest peak in the country at 5,900m (and about 2 & ½ times the size of Mount Kosciusko). We were driven to 4,300m and then walked to the Refugio at 4,800m. It took us an hour & a quarter ‘cause it was so steep and a bit slippery. When the clouds cleared, we were treated to a spectacular view of the peak. We had a hot chocolate, and I decided I had it in me to walk an extra 200m to see the snowline. It took nearly 45 mins for the round trip. Basically 10 steps at a time – stop & catch my breath. The air was so thin.

When I finally got to the snowline, I felt a little sense of personal achievement. And I was lucky to get the whole place to myself. I couldn’t help it: I had to throw a snowball at my guide. He good humouredly threw one back at me. We powered back down the volcanic sandy bits and were back at the lodge in time for lunch. What an amazing morning it had been.

The next morning Vanessa & I went for a short walk through the fields and to a nearby waterfall. The place reminded me a little of Cooma, NSW. After lunch, we shared a cab back to Quito. She for her flight back to Buenos Aires and I for my flight to Guayaquil, where I spent a fairly non-descript night.

Next morning I was on an early morning flight to fulfil a lifelong dream: visiting the Galapagos Islands.

Keep on moving

On the morning of Wednesday 25th, I shed a few tears saying goodbye to the staff of La Serrana & my little friend Niamh. And then some more on the bumpy old ride into town.

It was just a happy accident that I got to see Jon and Big Mike on my way out. We had already said our goodbyes on Monday morning after my last Ayahuasca, but it was super to be able to give them one last hug in the middle of the dirt road I’d walked almost every day.

I’d gotten quite used to having Big Mike around. Big Mike is a bit of a lone wolf from The Yukon: An exploration miner. His work involved getting dropped out into the middle of nowhere by chopper and then he’d go out in these wild unchartered lands on his own – for days, weeks at a time to look for mining opportunities (oil that is, black gold, Texas tea). He’s a man with a lot of stories. A little bit of darkness. And a big big heart. He saw me. And had my back when I needed a friend. He reminded me a bit of Rog. He loved The Rolling Stones. And was forever bashing away on his guitar. I have a lot of time for the man & I hope to see him again one day.

I remember looking through the back of the Jeep and seeing La Serrana getting smaller and smaller. And I remember thinking, ‘I want to hold onto this memory forever’. Sometimes I worry I’ll forget.

We all come in the same way, and we all go out the same way. And all we take with us is knowledge (& hopefully some wisdom) gained from relationships and experiences. I know I got a while to go yet… but sometimes I fret: What if my mind goes first?

What becomes of amazing experiences when they get forgotten? Do they still exist?

 

Pravin was a beautiful young Sri Lankan boy from Melbourne who had (no questions asked) helped me out of a banking pickle by lending me a few hundred dollars (– there’s a long boring story attached to this where I yell down the phone a lot to various bureaucracies in Australia & in the US to people who either don’t have the capacity to solve problems or aren’t empowered to do so, and so don’t. Do not get me started!)

Anyways, Prav & I went to Cali together for a couple of nights. And it was there I got my tattoo. We tramped all over town meeting artists – none of whom particularly grabbed me … until we walked into Zebra Studios. Stylish. Professional. Clean. And the artist was a dude. Crazy. But in a good way. I had agonised a bit over the placement of it, worrying that putting it on my wrist might mean limiting future professional opportunities but I figured I’m supposed to be creative. And I probably don’t want to work for the sort of organisation where that’s a problem anyways. I could cover it up if I absolutely needed to. Besides, I stand behind the words & their significance to me.

The day after I went to pretty Popyan with its big wide cobblestone streets & clean white washed walls. The trip there took twice as long as it should have, due to a savage accident. When we later saw one of the cars, it seemed unlikely there would have been any survivors. Many of the passengers on my bus made the sign of the cross, as we inched slowly past. As a result I got in late in the evening and only had the morning to have a quick look around. I wished I had more time there.

But I was now a girl on a mission. I still had a bit I wanted to see & do in Ecuador on the way down to the Galapagos Islands. I had a flight booked for the 4th – which gave me just 6 days.