Tuesday, 9 July 2019


The dizzying variety of what was available at the market 
From above, a sea of tarps, the famous market
Now, how to navigate.... 
The last stop on our travels through Ecuador, Otavalo is renown as a market town, but we found there was a lot of hiking to be had in the surrounding hills.

Otavalo lovely temperature for hiking

Getting there looked tricky, but with the abundance of buses in this country, we made the change easily. No sooner than getting off the first bus, the ticket tout of the next bus had us get aboard his bus and away we went. We were not sure if it was the right direction as all the info said we had to go to a different terminal to get from Quito to Otavalo. "No worries," said the tout (we think, spanish not being our first language.) Sure enough we got to an intermediate town then leaped upon another bus which, as usual, was just about to depart to Otavalo with seconds to spare.
Our accommodation was a colonial style three story house with an enclosed courtyard, with views of more volcanoes from the roof. Many tourists visit Otavalo for the Saturday market, so while the weekend was busy, we had the place to our selves during the week.

Colonial charm of Hotel Dona Esther with inner courtyard
The market is spread out over a main square and many adjoining streets, with lots of stalls selling the same stuff, it was hard to find unique crafts. Much of the weaving seemed mass produced but we discovered a man selling home woven wall hangings, one which caught our eye allegedly took three days to weave.

Condor park was mind blowing and a unique experience where we saw Andean condors, eagles, owls, falcons and hawks which rehabilitates these and other birds of prey. The most incredible was the

Our wanderings took us further afield, a walk around a lake in a collapsed crater 14 km on a hot day took its toll although we were now used to the altitude. There was a indigenous festival to mark the solstice where offerings are made to the lake, villagers carrying racks of fruit and vegetables and a pole live  trussed chickens.

Next day we took an organised bike ride, driven up to 3500 m then a slow ride meandering through farms and villages to a town where leather goods are produced and sold. More Christmas presents!

The last day our guide took us high up another volcano, yet another lake in a collapsed crater. Unfortunately it was cloudy but the walk up through the paramio (alpine tussock) was extraordinary. Our guide explained a lot of the indigenous culture and the lore behind the festival we had seen on the first day. The locals party and dance for several days to awaken Pancha mama for the spring crop planting to thrive. Apparently the festival is also an opportunity for neighboring groups to discuss and resolve local issues, although in the past this could also lead to violence. Now there are strict rules to avoid bloodshed.

Last bus rides to take us to our accommodation by Quito airport, we were old bus pros now, getting off at a remote motorway toll both, cross the highway on an overhead pedestrian bridge then catch the airport bus on the other side. No need to go all the way into Quito northern bus station. Cost $2.80 each instead of the $50 taxi ride we were quoted! The hacienda where we stayed was once in the countryside but the area is now being built up due to the proximity of the new airport.

Quito city is spread out along a narrow valley 35 km long and is surrounded by deep canyons and skinny plateaus, on one of which lays the airport, 45 km from the centro of Quito. The next morning with heavy hearts we boarded our last internal flight to take us back to Guayaquil, where our adventure started 6 weeks ago. 

Sunday, 7 July 2019


We piled out of our bus in Mindo with our substantial backpack (snorkeling and hiking means no 'carry on only' this holiday sadly.) As the wet season allowed the skies to open we were content hanging out with a coffee. Enjoying the small and slow town, we were happy  to take a walk to see the natural attractions that surround it. We stayed above a chocolate tour /restaurant with the tour part of our tariff!

Grinding my own coffee beans
Mindo nestling amounst the cloud forest
Too much chocolate later it was time to hit the natural reserves, hiking, and early morning bird watching tours.Mindo has a long history with the Audobon Christmas Bird Count dating back more than 20 years. Identifying 350 species of birds in 24 hours in a 24 kilometer radius in the year 2000 and have continued to win most years.

The road behind camp was a primo spot to see birds
The first morning I let Jo sleep in as I took a hike at dawn by myself up the mountain where there is a good chance of seeing birdlife - with a guide that is. I heard the bush alive with sound but knew I needed an expert to help us, so that's what we did the next day.

yet another tanagier
The belle of the ball in Mindo is the Andean cock-of-the-rock with very unusual looks. At 5am the next morning we went with our guide to the lek where the males perform a courting ritual -seemed they were all trying to outdo each other! Unbelievable.  Other birds we saw that morning included the swallow tailed kite, bat falcon, pale vented pigeon, bronze winged and rose faced parrots, common potoo, and the lyre tailed nightjar owls, pale mandibled aracari, choco toucan and the chestnut mandibled toucan, ornate fly catcher, tropical kingbird, southern rough winged and red necked swallow, lemon rumped tanagers, black winged saltator, and the variable seed eater!

Ivory billed toucan
yet another tanager

We decided to move closer to the action - at Dana Lodge on the deck outside our room looking out over the forests and gardens. It was truly wonderful to be immersed in hearing bird call, with much flutter and buzz going on, almost a din! Sitting out on the deck in the restaurant we saw an owl and fireflies.

our chalet in the forest
chestnut parrot form our deck
Banana flowers
Andean cock of the rock

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Galapagos Islands

Samba, our home for 8 days

Baltra the airport for Galapagos was a low lying scrubby island. We met up with our group, off to embark on our home for the next eight days. Our first stop Mosquera Islet, an uplift of sand, one of the smallest islands. Loads of sea lions, it was a great spot to watch the sun go down and walk from one side to the other (2 minutes.)

Being unafraid and naturally curious they were keen to approach
when snorkeling underwater and totally accepting of us on land. 

All night long with the motor roaring below us we made our way to Genovesa. We left the ship at 6am to get to Darwin Bay where I have never seen or heard so many birds flying. They swooped over cliff tops which were a buzz with action. Most jaw dropping was the frigate birds resplendent with their red breeding pouches (gulag sacks) that they puff up to attract attention from the female.

During the breeding season the males regularly inflate the
thin, red, gular sac on their throats with air. These fleshy, red balloons are used to
show off to and attract females!
Behind the small beach was filled with nesting areas for frigates,
red-footed boobies, and swallow-tailed gulls amongst others

Others tried to grab nesting materials from other birds attacking them in mid air. Red footed boonies collected offerings (sticks and peebles) hoping to attract a mate. Nazca boobies, swallow tailed gulls and red billed tropic birds were leaving for the ocean to fish. Red mangroves, cac and salt bushes were the background for terrestrial birds, Darwin s finches, Galapagos doves and mockingbirds wandered around our feet.

Red footed Booby, with webbed feet perches in the tree!

Juvenile red footed Booby on the way to the beach

Nazca boobies catch fish by plunge-diving into the waters
Ñfrom heights of up to 30 metres

These small herons live and nest along the lava rock coastlines,
saltwater lagoons, and mangrove forests. 

Frigate bird courtship display.
Check out my chest and I will show you my nest!

Prince Phillip's Steps
Late in the afternoon, we took the pangas to stairs set in the caldera rim climbing up onto the highland between the waters. More of the mornings bird routine greeted us, in scattered dwarf incense trees (Palo santo.) As we walked to the oceans edge on the far side, the vegetation thinned out to bare lava. This is home to storm petrels and their apex predator, the short eared owl which waits patiently beside the burrow to capture the returning petrels. These owls hunt in daylight, it seemed to work because the three owls we saw were all having a feed. To get so close to these big birds that didn't seem at all disturbed by us wandering so close was altogether unreal!

The Galapagos short-eared owl hunts in the daytime to avoid competition
with the Galapagos hawk. They are able to hunt birds much
larger than themselves, such as boobies.

Cruising in the early morning we arrived at Punta Mejia on Marchenta island, a forbidding place with black frozen larva flows, dry scrub and no fresh water. The lava was fractured and riven with tunnels, some collapsed in black asphalt like slabs. We drifted over barren lava and scattered coral in deep seas. The current was fairly strong and the group covered several kilometers in 20 minutes.

The Samba moved west to another anchorage where we went ashore to walk across fresh lava fields to an inshore lakes called a larva grotto. Another snorkel with playful seals, juvenile fur seals and fish, with a narrow channel to the open sea. Our first intro to marine iguanas.  Who said they're weird with wide set eyes, smashed in faces and spiky dorsal fins? We learned that due to high salt intakes, they sneeze it out so they also have salt encrusted heads!

The Galapagos Islands are a paradise for reptiles:
the conditions are perfect for iguanas, lizards and tortoises. 

Transiting that afternoon to our next destination ( lsabela) we crossed deeper water, true to our guide we encountered sperm whales. Our skipper, Hose carefully manouvered the Samba to parallel their track, affording a long clear look as they glided along. These huge creatures seemed so attuned to their environment. Yet another dream come true.

Friday 31st May
Punta Albemarie, an early boat ride to a small bay where sea lions hunt cooperatively to drive tuna into and rocky cul de sac where they can catch these speedy fish. We saw at least three tuna caught and torn to pieces by a pack of adult male and juvenile sea lions, with attendant pelicans and frigate birds cleaning up the scraps. It was straight out of a David Attenborough scene.

Further along the rocky coast we encountered penguins, the only ones north of the equator, although by only a few kilometres.

Galapagos Penguins breed in colonies in the cracks
and caves of the islands lava flows
After breakfast a boat ride took us to an abandoned US base from WW2. It was a radar station built to send an early warning for the Panama Canal in case of Japanese attack, which, fortunately never came. This site was also our first encounter with the Galapagos flightless cormorant, building nests with seaweed just above the high water mark.

Natural selection led to them no longer having functional wings
as they had very few land predators

Travelling south the real equator was reached, 00000 showing on the GPS. Captan Hose blew the horn and cocktails were passed around. Soon after a molamola or sunfish made an apearance. Jelly fish eaters, these huge disk shaped fish have no tail, but can swim quite fast despite their strange shape.

Next stop was Punta Vicente Roca, a small sheltered cove below huge volcanic cliffs. The cliffs are composed of tuff, a soft volcanic ejecta and riven with lava dikes. Snorkeling along the wall we encounter another molamola, turtles and a penguin. Marine iguanas looking like they were from the Jurassic period scaled vertical bluffs to absorb the last of the sun.

The best but spookiest part was swimming into a sea cave, the light becoming dimmer and dimmer, turtles resting on the rocky sea floor.

Our companions when snorkeling. One snorkel I counted 8 large turtles
swimming around my area, I had to try hard not to make contact.

Sat 1 June   Punta Espinosa Fernandina Island
An early morning walk, we encountered marine iguana in untidy piles, conserving warmth, until the rising sun could warm their exothermic metabolism to enable them to go out for the daily undersea grazing session.

Overhead sat a Galapagus hawk which gave us fabulous photo opportunities despite us being so close. That is something that still makes me scratch my head as up until now getting a good shot at wildlife seemed to be out of my league. Here with the birds being so unworried by us, we are spoiled for good choices.

A rare Galapagos eagle completed the array of amazing life.
The local apex predator, this impressive bird showed no fear of our group beneath its perch.

Other wild life included snakes, preying on juvenile iguanas and finches. Amazing with the volcanoes always looming above any scene.

Go to this link below

Next came the best snorkel of the trip, a multitude of big sea turtles swimming above and under us, marine iguanas feeding, pelicans diving and even a penguin zooming around. The underwater rocks held an octopus first pretending to be a rock to get away from the black fish trying to have a go at it. Then it turned mildly white which seemed to scare away everything before camouflaging itself again.

Move to Urvina Bay
Wet landing, a hot walk through scrub/forest. More excitement with a massive land tortoise, land dragon the iguana looking much bigger and yellow, orange and brown than its marine relatives, loads of finches, all washed down with a delicious swim in the blue waters complete with blue boobie flying overhead.

Land iguanas are known to live for at least 60 years.

Isabela Island Elizabeth Bay
Dingy ride took us to another 'the only place on earth' where mangrove forests and penguins are together. It was time for spotted eagle Ray's, sea turtles and sea lions. It was fun to watch their interactions when we weren't sure if the penguins were fighting or kissing.

A first for me was being tapped on my foot underwater by a penguin to which I let out a cry and everyone thought I was taken by a creature. But there don't seem to be any scary things in amongst all this life which is very nice. At the end of the ride we circumnavigated a small island volcanic cone, blue footed boobies, marine iguanas & flightless cormorants sighted, to round off the trip.

Punta Moreno snorkel. A small bay lined by jagged black lava and mangroves amongst steep black boulder beaches belied the life below the surface. Turtles abounded. Penguins zipped amongst clumsy snorklers and a flightless cormorant entertained with its battle to eat an eel.

Punta Moreno lava field was vast, stretching kms away to the volcano that spawned it. The hard surface showed the wrinkles and eddy's of its 800 degree liquid origin. Scattered upon it were small lagoons of brackish water, ringed by rushes, scrub and decorated by gaudy flamingos.

The pink colouration is about the amount of carotenoid pigment that is ingested.
These pigments are found in the flamingo’s food sources –
algae, crustaceans and microscopic plant materials.

The walk culminated with a dingy ride past torturous lava ridges festooned with blue footed boobies, piles of marine iguanas, pelicans, penguins and the ever present sea lions. Water, either salt or fresh, bought the sterile lava alive.

Navigate to Floriana
It was a long journey to our next mooring, we had just settled in when the call went up " Whale". To our surprise and joy it was a blue whale, largest living creature on earth. We watched spell bound as it went about its feeding routine; submerging gracefully for a few minutes before returning to the surface on it's back, lower jaw ballooned full of water and food. A graceful roll, one huge flipper arches over then the smooth rounded back of the whale appeared, two long blows before gracefully sliding below the water again.

Blue whales can weigh as much as 200 tons with a heart  heart as big as a car 

The following day we awoke off Floriana where went ashore to visit an giant tortoise reserve where they have been reintroduced after being hunted to extinction. Galápagos tortoises lead an uncomplicated life, grazing on grass, leaves, and cactus, basking in the sun, and napping nearly 16 hours per day. A slow metabolism and large internal stores of water mean they can survive up to a year without eating or drinking.

Further on there was a couple of caves and an rare fresh water source utilised by the first inhabitants, basic living kitchen shelves and beds carved out of rock. A small group of German settlers in the 1920s and 30s brought more than their share of drama, including a self-styled “baroness” named Eloise Wagner de Bosquet who arrived with two male companions and immediately started infuriating everyone else. She disappeared on a boat one day with one of her “friends,” supposedly sailing for Tahiti, and was never seen again. The other companion disappeared himself aboard a small boat soon after. His dessicated body was found months later on Marchena Island, weighing less than 10 kg. All very mysterious!

Devil's Crown was yet one more of the best places for snorkeling that we experienced on our North West route and we loved it. Starkly stands a ring of jagged rocks on the island’s south side formed by a partially submerged basalt volcanic cone. Strong currents sweep around and through the formation, which is only a few meters deep inside and full of life. With yet more sea lions, turtles, sharks, dolphins and fish diversity along with tropical birds nesting in rock crevices. The center of the cone is a place full of diving sea lions and colorful fish, including schools of parrot fish and barracuda.

After this joyous time we chugged along and were wrenched back to out of our time capsule back into Port of Santa Cruz with many boats and tourists. It was a bit sudden after us being the only ones at sea.

Our wonderful  naturalist guide who wove humour with facts and stories,
some made up at times! He was a master diver as well so our ventures underwater were incredible 

Lazy days followed on Puerto Aryora then we ventured to San Cristobal

Waiting at the pier for the boat to San Cristobal where the Galapagos sea lions are in charge.
White tip sharks swam in the waters below.

Snorkling cove on the path to the west of town, sea lion play ground

Frigate bird resting in the trees above the cove.
Beach at the end of the track, all to ourselves.