Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Six Days in Paradise - A Visit to the Galapagos - June 7 - 12

The Galapagos Islands are like jewels floating in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles/1000 km off the coast of Ecuador. Visiting them is like going to Paradise. There are 13 main islands, six small islands and about 42 islets spread throughout the Marine Reserve around the islands.

We flew from Quito to Guayaquil and then over to Baltra in the Galapagos Islands last Thursday. The very smooth TAME flight took just over 3 hours. When we arrived, we, along with 13 others, were met by a guide and ushered through the 1 1/2 hour process of bus ride, ferry, and further bus ride to Puerto Ayora in the southern part of Santa Cruz where our yacht "Spondylus" was waiting. In Puerto Ayora we climbed into the rubber dinghies which took us across the harbour to the yacht. Then braving the significant swell of the ocean, we clambered off the dinghy and up the steps on board. None of us were prepared for the gigantic rolling of the yacht, and we staggered around as if terribly drunk before making it to a seat and sitting down.

We were introduced to the boat and taken to our cabins. Luckily, ours was on the top deck with 3 others, and we were able to leave our cabin door open to let the sea breeze blow gently over us as we slept. The cabin was simple, a huge bed on the left side, a cupboard in the middle, then the bathroom on the right side and a small space for standing in between the lower two thirds of the bed and the bathroom door. On the same level as our cabin, there was a sun deck. On the level below a sitting area, a bar, and the dining area, another couple of cabins, and then on the floor below that another couple of cabins and the crew.The inside of the boat was made of beautiful, highly-polished wood. See this website for facts about the Spondylus: http://www.galapagosyachts.com/spondylus_specificationes.html. I note though, that there seem to have been some renovations done to the boat since this picture was taken, more specifically, the cabin area on the top deck has been expanded.

After the briefing and the introduction to our cabins, we went ashore and were taken by bus to the Highlands of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz was quite varied in appearance. In the northern part near the airport, the landscape was scrub, with small ash-coloured trees, the leaves having dropped due to the dryness, and cactus making the landscape quite bleak. However, in the highlands and in the southern part, the vegetation was quite lush, and in addition there was farming and banana plantations. We went to see giant tortoises which were in captivity for protection. What amazing animals. I couldn´t imagine having to carry shells around the size of theirs. Then we took a walk into a lava tunnel, which included crawling about one meter under the lava to get out the other side. The lava had come from lava flows from the volcano on the island millions of years ago.

After our walk, it was back to the yacht and dinner then after dinner, we took the dinghy back over to Puerto Ayora for a last hit at the internet, then back to the boat around 10.30 p.m. and bed. Around 2 a.m. we set sail for the Island of Floreana where we dropped anchor about 5.30 a.m.

Routine on the boat was rigorous, and we were up each morning at 6.30 a.m. for breakfast at 7.00 a.m. and ready to leave the boat on our first trek at 7.45 a.m. We visited Floreana on Friday, had a really choppy sail to Isabella on Friday night and visited Isabella on Saturday. Saturday afternoon we sailed for about 3 hours to San Christobal. On Sunday around 11 a.m. we sailed to Santa Fee arriving about 2 p.m. On Sunday evening we sailed to North Seymour and on Monday, after a trek on North Seymour we sailed into Baltra where our trip ended.

The most fantastic thing about the Galapagos is the ability to walk among all the animals without them being afraid of you. It is a true experience of man and animals living together. We had wonderful opportunities to see and wander amongst all the animals. My favorourites of course were the sea lions. The females, juveniles and pups are endlessly playful and you can literally kneel down beside them - but not touch them - and they look up at you with such loving eyes it brings tears to your own eyes. On one occasion I was swimming and a baby sea lion wandered over to my towel and got on top of it, then started to go into my open bag and toss out the contents, then lie its head on the bag before getting bored and wandering off. A number of people were watching and apparently the guide took a video. When Ray came back he couldn´t understand why everything was so scattered!! The dominant males can be a little scary if you approach them or enter into their territory and on a couple of occasions one would make his statement and block our path or come and hassle us on the beach. The baby pups were still breast feeding and it was funny watching a baby who had temporarily lost its Mummy waddle across the beach stopping to investigate all the other moms until he finally found the right one that he could suckle up to.

My next favourite was the Blue Footed Booby. These are amazing grey and white birds with pointed blue/grey beaks, and vivid blue feet. People are not sure why the feet are blue unless it is to disguise them when they are flying and fish look up and all they see are the blue feet which are the same colour as the water. These birds dive straight into the sea to catch their food from a great height. Many of them had eggs, and there were also lots of fluffy white babies hidden under the male and female birds caring for them. The males do a wonderful dance to attract their mates, then very sweetly offer a potential mate a twig. If the female is interested, she accepts the twig and they become a couple and make a nest together where the eggs are laid. We were lucky to see this ritual played out a number of times.

The yellow warbler is also a very common bird on the islands. It is a tiny, pretty, yellow-green colour bird that will fly very close to you and again seems to have no fear of people. The other cheeky bird, but not as pretty is the mockingbird. This will actually walk all over you, land on your head, etc. etc. and is generally very brazen, but full of character.

Then there are all the other wonderful animals we saw: pink flamingoes, the giant tortoise, the turtles, the frigate birds, the red footed booby, the Nazca booby, the waved albatross, the Galapagos hawk, the finches, the lava lizzard, the Galapagos Penguin - we only saw a couple of these because 65% of their population was wiped out by the last El Niño - but it is slowly coming back. Fun, but not so attractive, were the marine iguanas and the land iguanas both of which we saw basking in the sun, the land iguanas on the rocks on land, and the marine iguanas on the rocks in the ocean. And then there were the Sally Light Foot Crabs. Hundreds of these crabs covered the rocks so that their red bodies and yellow faces stood out from quite a distance away. Their backs were carved to look like some Inca pottery carvings - they were quite splendid.

On the Sunday when we sailed from San Cristobal to Santa Fee we saw a right whale which circled our boat a couple of times giving us a wonderful display of his majesticness. Then a little further on we came across hundreds of dolphin. They were magnificent. They sped along beside the boat as if racing it, they danced and played in the ocean around us, and we laughed and smiled at their antics.

We were also given a couple of opportunities a day to snorkel in the Pacific either from the dinghies, or off the beach, and we were able to see a variety of sea fish and giant turtles including rays, sharks, and of course to swim with the sea lions. Ray had a really neat experience of two sea lions playing around him. He said it was only a little scary when their noses come straight towards you and then they veer off at the last minute never touching you!

We did have one rather disturbing incident, which I shall let Ray tell you about, but we are happy to say, all was well in the end. I am going to add my bit as to the occurance. We were all dropped in the ocean to snorkel off a substantial outcropping of volcanic formations I understood that the majority of the people were swimming counter clockwise around the outcropping. I followed and then as I understood that the others would do, I cut into the center. The currents here were quite strong and it took a lot of effort to get back to where we were dropped as I thought the others were doing.

As it turned out they, instead of swimming completely through the center against the strong current, went with the current and were picked up on the backside of the outcropping. When I eventually made it back to where we were dropped I signalled two boats thinking they were our group and either they did not see me or chose to ignore my signal as they knew I wasn`t from their boat. Then the broken snorkel pipe which I had caused me to inhale salt water twice as the surf was quite high. I then thought this is not on and headed towards the rocks to see if it was possible to get up on them until our boat returned which is what I did. I did not realize that both of our boats had returned to the main boat without me and there was a momentary panic as to where I was. They eventually returned after I sat on the rocks for about 20 to 30 minutes so it all turned out OK. Meanwhile, Liz was panicking back on the boat, as she went back a little earlier and had told the Guide she had not seen me since she got into the water. ...When we see everyone we will elaborate on this tale.

We also vited Baquirzo Moreno on San Cristobal. This is the capital of the Galapagos and has about 4000 residents. It was a small, quiet town with a modern sea front, cafes, internet, cafes, restaurants, and small shops.

We spent Monday in Puerto Ayora after the cruise and took this opportunity to visit The Charles Darwin Research Centre which recapped all the information we had learned and had a couple of displays of giant tortoise breeding stations, and land iguanas. In the afternoon, we walked out of town to beautiful Tortuga Bay and sat on the beach and felt sorry that our holiday was over. I think it would be wonderful to volunteer in the Galapagos, or even stay there for a few months.

The older islands, which were the ones we visited, were formed some five million years ago when underwater volcanoes erupted pushing up volcanic rock and forming the islands, many of which have volcanoes on them. Because of the remoteness of the islands, the fact that 3 currents merge at the islands, and the violent way in which they were formed, the wildlife on the islands is quite unique as it has adapated to surivive the harsh conditions in which they exist.

The history of the islands is also harsh. They were discovered in 1535 by the Spanish and from then until they were incorporated by Ecuador in 1832 they were used by the European and American bucaneers and pirates, then after the pirates came the whalers and sealers all of whom used the islands as a refugio. Charles Darwin visited there for about 5 weeks in 1835 and he recognized the unique qualities of the islands and made observations on which he based his theory of evolution. Once appended to Ecuador, there were several stories of families going there to settle and starting various business, but all of them seemed to fail, and the people either returned to their homeland, or mysteriously disappeared. An exception to this is the Wittmer family, some members of which still live there today.

A penal colony was established on one of the islands (Floreana) but the soldiers sent there to look after the criminals fled the island leaving the prisoners to their fate. As late as 1944 another penal colony was established on Isabela. This was abandoned when there was a riot and mass escape by the prisoners.

Finally, in 1959 the islands were declared a national park, and in 1979 the archipelago was declared a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1985. Later in December 2001, the marine lands around the islands were declared a World Natural Heritage Site in an attempt to control illegal fishing. In 1997 the government passed a law preventing new tourist operations until 2005 and visitor levels are restricted to 65,000 a year. Despite all of this, UNESCO is currently conducting a survey and will make a report on whether or not to declare the islands a "threatened area". The feeling that the wild life in the area is threatened is due, according to our guide, to a number of reasons: (1) Lack of enforcing the existing tourist controls; (2) Illegal residents on the islands who set up tourist operations that are not licensed, but as there is no policing of the regulations these people are allowed to continue; (3) natural causes such as El Niño - for example, 65% of the population of the Gallapagos Penguins were wiped out by the last El Niño, (4) Introduction over the years of domestic animals such as goats, cats, dogs, horses, donkeys; (5) Introduction of foreign plant life on the island by the settlers, (6) the devastation caused to the tortoise, land iguanas,turtles and birds by the sailers and pirates who captured them for food; (7) whalers and the fur sealers. Another contributor to the depletion of natural species on the islands was the American naval base which was housed on Santa Cruz in the second world war. For example, all Giant Tortoises are now extinct on this island because their food source has been removed.

For more information see: http://www.geo.cornell.edu/geology/GalapagosWWW/Colonization.html

I am sure that none of the people who have inhabited the islands and added to the destruction of the wild life have intended to do so, but lets hope that Ecuador in combination with UNESCO can find a solution which will satisfy the local communities and preserve the wild life. If not, the amazing wild life in this very unique part of the world will be destroyed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Quito - June 6, 12, 13, 14

On June 6 we arrived at the centre of the world. What a ride! From the "end of the world" to the "centre of the world"! This is marked by a small museum illustrating an indegenous house and way of life - "El Museo de Sitio Intiñan "Camino del Sol"" (http://www.museointinan.com.ec/). It was especially interesting to see the method used to shrink human skulls for war trophies! We also did four experiments on the line of the Equator, to prove that it was there. We tried hard to balance an egg on a nail - some succeeded! We also poured a bucket of water into a sink and then removed the plug. On the Equator, the water went straight down. It went clockwise in the southern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and we had literally moved the sink a couple of feet either side of the Equator. Next we tried some hand grapling and discovered it was much easier to break through the other person´s grip on the Equator, and finally, we tried to walk a straight line on the Equator - it was impossible - the centre of gravity pulled you off! An interesting hour and a half - oh, and I forgot the best - you are two pounds lighter on the Equator! There is another momument to the centre of the world about 250 meters away, but this is not the real Equator. Apparently this was erected despite the fact that the Indians said the centre was where we went. Then the army came in and tested the Indian site with a GPS and discovered that the Indians were correct and that the spot that we visited was in fact the real centre of the world. Needless to say, we did not bother visiting the old spot as we felt it was a little touristy and we were anxious to reach Quito about half an hour away. In Quito we are staying in the Amazonas Inn on Joachim Pinto and Amazonas in the Mariscal Neighbourhood. Its quite acceptable and the staff are really friendly and warm. We arrived late in the afternoon of the 6th, marking the official end of our 105 day trip. That night we had a group dinner in an Indian restaurant nearby, followed by a couple of drinks in a nightclub. It was sad saying goodbye to everyone, and we couldn´t believe that our odyssey was over. Some driving facts about the trip: We drove 20,767 km in 103 days, or 2520 hours. We used 8306 litres of diesel which cost about US$6000. We had 840 hours sleep (other than the illicit-sleep hours on the Truck!). We had 47 driving days and averaged 442 km a day. The longest drive was from Saint Julien to San Sebastian down in Patagonia when we drove 852 km in one day. The shortest drive was Shangrila to Tena in Ecuador when we drove 11km. The next day, Thursday, June 7, we were up around 6.30 a.m. and off to the airport for our 9.30 a.m. flight to the Galapagos. This part of our trip deserves a separate post and I will try to do that before we leave Quito. We were back in Quito on Tuesday, June 12 around 3.00 p.m. We checked back into the hotel and to our amazement, the lady at the desk recognized us. We have a great little room with one of these typical Spanish balconies overlooking the street, and it was so nice to be greeted with such a smile. The hotel also kept our luggage for us, and she even remembered that and had one of the other hotel staff take us immediately to get it out of the storage room. We dumped everything in the room and went out to have some lunch at the Cafe Espanola. The food since we hit Quito on the 6th has been amazing, and its so good to have familiar tastes in your mouth again, such as the butter, bread, and ham. Quito is the capital of Ecuador and is nestled in the Guayllabamba river basin on the slopes of Pinchincha, one of the active volcanoes in the Andes. It is located at about 2,8oo meters (9,200 ft) above sea level making it the second highest capital city in the world, and so of course there are altitude issues to be dealt with, although I must say that apart from breathlessness, I have not suffered any other symptoms, although Ray woke up with a splitting headache this morning, which seems to have now disappeared. Quito is also the headquarters for the Union of South American Nations and thus the de facto capital of South American integration. It is a growing city, currently about 1 1/2 million people with about 2 million in the extended metropolitan area. It has an old colonial district which is quite pretty, and then the modern polluted sprawl. The way of life is greatly influenced by the American culture and there is a much larger middle class here then anywhere else we have noticed in Ecuador. None the less, the City is very attractive, reasonable clean, and has a good feel to it. Of course there is an underbelly, and you can never walk alone in Quito after dark, not even just around the corner. In fact, the nightclub we were at was literally just around the corner from the hotel - maybe 100 feet - and still we had the bouncer walk us home. If you go out at night, you must take a taxi, even a block or two away. And going to the ATM is quite a dangerous affair at night. One of the girls on our Galapagos trip was robbed after getting money out of the ATM at night, and we have heard of numerous stories like this. The bottom line is, you just don´t do something like that at night on your own, and you certainly don´t walk in the streets alone or as a couple. There are two or three hotels-hostels in the street we are staying in and they have hired their own security guard who has a little cabin at the end of the street where he can sit. One of the issues that we read about in the local paper are the young kids (around 10 for example) who are forced into working on the street selling cigarattes, etc. to help survive. They do this from 3 in the afternoon to after 9 at night - no mention of whether or not they attended school which they are supposed to do. I believe the figure is 16% of the kids between the ages of 5 and 17. Yet another issue that the government and the people of Ecuador have to address. We did a walking tour of the "centro historico" which was established as the first UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in 1978 (along with a site in Poland) and that was really quite lovely. Despite 3 major earthquakes, the city boasts some 87 churches. We chose a selection of these to visit and as each one was quite different, it was quite a special day. We caught a taxi from the Hotel to the Basilica del Voto Nacional (http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/basilica.htm) which was our first stop. The Basilica was built in 1873 to celebrate the consecration of Ecuador to the sacred heart of Jesus. We climbed up the bell tower about 115 meters and rang the bells. Quite thrilling!! This also gave us a beautiful view over the city and the mountains surrounding the city. The Basilica is compared with St. Patricks in New York and Notre Dame in Paris because of its style. It is simple and plain inside, but the stunning architecture makes it quite outstanding. Next we walked along Calle Cuenca to the church of San Francisco (http://www.in-quito.com/churches-quito-ecuador/quito-churches-san-francisco.htm, and pictures http://www.in-quito.com/pictures/san-francisco-church.htm). This church was one of the first churches built by the Spanish and was started in 1534. It is beautifully old, and does not appear to have been recently restored. It has delightfully creaking wooden floors and the pews are made of heavily carved wood. Unfortunately, we were not able to get inside many of the historical buildings due to restoration taking place in Quito. Calle Cuenca is quite unique with its little clothes stores. We went to the Plaza de la Indepencia via La Merced which was also closed. Around this Plaza we saw the beautiful Cathedral, and the Palacio de Gobierno with the Ecuadorian guard dressed in their ceremonial outfits. Saw an interesting episode in this Plaza. All of a sudden one of the police officers patrolling outside the cathedral blew his whistle, started shouting and waving his arms, and ran across the front of the cathedral towards the corner of the low wall in front of the cathedral overlooking the Plaza. He ran towards a big, well-dressed man who was standing in the corner very blatantly peeing! We were interested to see what would happen. The police officer took the man down to the Plaza and into a little shop. When they emerged, the man was carrying a broom. Curious, we watched as the police officer led the man back up the stairs, across the front of the cathedral and back to the corner where he peed. At this point there were police officers emerging from each direction, but the man was quite calm about the whole affair. The police officer then made him sweep up his pee, and then he was led back down to the plaza to return the broom. Unfortunately, many of the streets in these South American cities have the putrid smell of urine, and we have seen many men openly peeing on walls at the side of the streets. You often smell the scent of disinfectant and it is obvious that the authorities are trying hard to change this rather uncivilized habit. I was glad to see the police officer take action, as this was a rather obvious spot in which to relieve yourself. However, I think he should have had a bucket of disinfectant-water as well to remove the smell! We walked past the San Augustin church, through the pedestrian-only street Calle Eugenio and went into La Compania (http://www.in-quito.com/churches-quito-ecuador/quito-churches-la-compania.htm, and pictures http://www.in-quito.com/pictures/la-compania-church.htm) said to be the most ornate church in Quito. This was built by the Jesuits between 1605 and 1768. It is said to contain 7 tons of gold, and the altar is solid gold. The walls are covered with highly decorated gold plating and there are many interesting paintings including one which depicts the levels of punishment doled out to the sinners in Hell. It is quite gruesome! The final church we saw from the outside was the Santa Domingo. We walked through Calle Ronda which was a quiet little cobbled lane with renovated 16th century houses with their balconies dripping with flowers. Our second and last day in Quito we visited the Museo Nacional Banco Central del Ecuador (http://www.museobibliotecabce.com/). Here we saw some wonderful exhibitions which showed the arrival of man in South America and all of the significant tribes that have inhabited Ecuador from about 6000 BC up to the time of the Incas in the 1500s. There was also a wonderful exhibition of Ecuadorian paintings from the 1500s forward showing the influence of the Spanish and the French over the years to the current day. It is also interesting that it was the US Independence, and the French Revolution that greatly influenced the independence of Ecuador from Spain in the early 1800s (around 1822 I think). We have enjoyed Quito, and once the safety issues are addressed, I am sure it will become much safer and more attractive to tourists. A final fact: Toronto is a sister city to Quito.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Otavalo - June 4 and 5

Monday June 4 saw us leave Tena and the Amazon region and drive for 8 to 9 hours through the magnificent Ecuadorian scenery to Otavalo. We noted a number of landslides marring the magnificent mountain scenery. Apparently these are quite common in the rainy season. The local people are Otavaleños. Otavalo is a small town of about 43,648 people (according to the sign driving into town). Its narrow streets are paved, the buildings are brick and block and look quite prosperous, and shopping is great. The people are most wonderful. They go out of their way to talk to greet you and make you feel welcome. For example, Ray and I were walking along a small street and a young girl coming towards us suddenly looked up at us and smiling, stared straight into our eyes, said "ola", as she passed by. In another shop, a gentleman who spoke English came up to see if he could help us. We chatted with him for a while and went on our way. In another shop, someone said "hello" to me. I realized it was the same gentleman. The best part, is there are no expectations. They are not trying to sell you anything, they are just genuinely welcoming.

We arrived last night about 5 p.m. and had a quick walk around town before having dinner and heading off to bed around 9.30. I think a lot of people were still tired from the day´s rafting in Tena! This morning we were up around 8 and headed out to do some shopping. We walked all around the town, saw some churches, the town hall, and of course the markets. The best market day is supposed to be Saturday, however, there were still lots of stalls of textiles, Panama hats, and other tourist items there today. We concentrated on the artisans market and purchased some nice presents to take back to Canada with us.

The Otavaleños are famous for their textile weaving. Due to their history, they have become one of the most economically successful indegenous peoples in Ecuador, and maybe South America, and have held proudly on to their culture throughout the ages. The ladies still wear the exquisite traditional dress consisting of beautifully embroidered white blouses, colourful skirts, and beaded necklaces, while the men have long braided dark hair, and wear calf-length white trousers, ponchos, and sandals. The story is that starting in the 1550s, the Spanish forced the Otavaleños to learn to weave and after independence their ingenuity brought them worldwide fame for their weaving. Under Spanish rule, their goods were made in "obraje" or workshops, now however, it is a cottage industry. Most of their goods are made from sheep wool or the more expensive alpaca wool and are brightly coloured with reds, mauves, greens, blues, brown, and black.

Sadly, we do not have any more time in this area, but it is certainly one that is very beautiful and has much to offer.

Tomorrow, we leave for Quito. We are due to arrive there around 5 p.m. We have to sort out our Galapagos tickets, pack for the Galapagos, and of course attend our group´s farewell dinner. Then on Thursday morning we fly out to the Galapagos at 9.30 a.m. I am not sure if there will be any possibility of communication before we come back from our 5 day boat trip on the 12th. We fly home on the 14th June in the evening, and I will try and do an update before we finish this fantastic trip.

Shangrila Lodge, the Amazon - May 31, June 1, 2

Thursday morning we drove from Rio Verde through Tena to Shangrila, our lodge in the rain forest about 35 minutes outside Tena. The drive took us about 5 hours due to the problem with the broken spring on the Truck and the fact that we had to travel about 40 km on dirt road. Once again, the drive was very beautiful. We travelled through the lushly vegetated countryside decorated with the corals and pinks of the impatiens.

Tena is situated at the foot of the Andes about 500 meters above sea level in el Oriente, the Eastern part of the Amazon. It is a small city of about 26,000 and has expanded rapidly during the past 10 years. Unfortunately, they say that the area covered by the rain forest has been halved in the same period. Also concerning is the fact that the Ecuadorian government has just approved the re-direction of half of the water from the Napo River (the ninth largest tributary leading into the Amazon) to Tena in order to satisfy the water supply to the city. The Napo River feeds the rain forest. Tena is often considered as one of the gateways into the Amazon.

One of the other threats to the bio-diversity of Ecuador, is the oil production. While looking for more information on this, I discovered this quote in Wikipedia:

"The impact of oil exploitation in Eastern Ecuador is now notorious as a result of a long-running $6 billion lawsuit involving 30,000 Amazon forest dwellers and Texaco, once one of the world's largest energy companies but now part of Chevron. In the 25 years that Texaco operated in the Oriente region of the Western Amazon, the oil company spilled 17 million gallons of crude oil into the local river systems (by comparison, the Exxon Valdez only spilled 11 million gallons in Alaska in 1989), dumped more than 20 billion gallons of toxic drilling by-products, and cleared forest for access roads, exploration, and production activities. As of the mid-1990s, lands once used for farming lay bare and hundreds of waste pits remained. In August 1992, a pipeline rupture caused a 275,000-gallon (1.04 million L) spill which caused the Rio Napo to run black for days and forced downstream Peru and Brazil to declare national states of emergency for the affected regions." (downloaded June 5, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tena,_Ecuador).

Once again, we were told that there is some concern amongst the citizens of Ecuador, that the money received from the oil is being ploughed back into the economy of Ecuador as opposed to the off-shore bank accounts of the elite or government officials.

Tena has a highly developed indigenous political community. As a result, according to our guide Miguel, the government provides a lot of support for the indigenous peoples including education, which, according to our guide, may also detract from the assistance given to the non-indegenous population. The area around Tena also supports a lot of volunteer projects in areas such as reforestration and wildlife

However, problems apart, Ecuador is a very beautiful country, with high mountains, volcanoes, fast flowing rivers, and an active indegenous culture.

Shangrila is situated high above the Anzu River, which runs into the Napo River. Our room was on the top level of the wooden lodge and our view extended over the river to the primary and secondary rain forest which stretched as far as we could see with the Andes as a backdrop at the end of the horizon. In the morning we woke up to see the rain clouds drifting through the sky, covering the river and the trees, then allowing us partial glimpses, then clearing around breakfast time to give us the full beauty of the view. It was stunning and many in our group were completely awe-struck.

We had two full, busy, and exciting days at the Lodge. In the morning of the first day, we were taken for a 4 and a half hour trek through the rainforest with a naturalist guide, Miguel. We trekked up a narrow (about 2 to 3 feet) river bed, struggling through the sandy bottom over rocks and boulders, squeezing through bat-filled rock crevices, scrambling up small waterfalls, and getting thoroughly soaked with all the water which came from every direction, underfoot, from waterfalls above us, and from the rocks in the crevices. It was an awesome experience. The scenery was lush, and the shapes of the leaves from the palms and ferns provided beauty which can only be experienced from visiting the remote landscape that our strenuous river walk had led us to. We saw one of the most poisonous snakes in the jungle - sorry, but I didn´t catch the name. In fact, I walked right past it as it lay curled up at the side of the stream, then our guide who was just behind me, jumped back, and told us all to stop and be very careful and not to get too close. Of course, we were all brave souls, and crept as close as we could to get a good picture. Then it moved, and slowly, unwound its 3 meters of slim, round, body, and glided slowly away from us up the bank. The fruit bats too were amazing. There were hundreds of them flying around or hanging upside down from the rock, as we disturbed their habitat while squeezing our way between the crevices of rock rising up from either side of the river, but they never touched us. The flew so silently, and seemed like black velvet moving swiftly above us. In contrast, the smell of their urine was putrid, and touching all the slime on the rocks made us squirm as we thought of bat urine and bat shit. Once through the crevice, we quickly rinsed our hands off in the freezing cold river water.

In the afternoon of the same day, we went tubing on the Jatunyacu River. This was a tame, but enjoyable, affair, with three pods of 5 inner tubes tied together on which we sat and floated calmly down the river. We stopped off at a Chachi indegenous community called Santa Monica and visited one of the families to learn about indenous life. We tasted some of their fruits, drinks, and food, and learned about the healing properties of the various plants in the forest. Then it was back on the tubes to float down the river to the Lodge. We arrived after dark, and had to climb up the dark cliffside on a narrow, and in some cases circular, staircase, about 80 meters to the Lodge - - carrying our tube. We certainly had our exercise that day!

The next day, we were up early and off in a pick up truck for a 45 minute drive into the forest to Amarongachi Lodge to do a waterfall hike. You might think this sounds relaxing. No, not at all. It was another 4 and half hours of strenuous trekking. This time as well as climbing up another stream, we also climbed up 4 waterfalls, one about 80 feet with the help of a rope. The guides tied a rope around our waist so that if we fell, we would not hit the bottom. It was thrilling to have the cold water pounding down on top of you as you tried to find foot holes in the rock and the guides yelling instructions at you as to how to make it! Then we climbed up through the jungle on to the top of a ridge and down the other side back to the Lodge. In the afternoon it poured. Not that that mattered. We had already spent 2 days being absolutely soaked from the water of the rivers we had climbed up, tubed through, or swum in.

Ray and I drove back to Shangrila in the back of the pick-up, shivering cold, but enjoying the company of an indengenous family, and the 45 minute drive through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and watching the peaks of the Andes float in and out of the white rain clouds produced by the eco system of the rain forest.

Our stay at Shangrila gave us a super experience of everyday life in the Amazon jungle.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Tena - Rafting - June 3

During the night on Saturday, it poured a heavy, consistent, rain-forest rain for about 6 hours. However, when we got up on Sunday morning to leave at 7 am for Tena, the rain had stopped. I should also mention, that just before we left Shangrila, Duncan, yes the same guy who broke his arm, was bitten by a scorpion. The locals sucked out the sting, and put antibiotics on it and apart from a very sore hand (the opposite one from the broken hand) - he was fine. We were going rafting on the Upper Napo River known locally as the Jatunyacu - or Big Water in Quichua (http://www.riosecuador.com/html/rafting.html). We had been told that the water in the river would be warmer after the rain. Huh, don´t believe it! We have never been rafting before and this Level III experience was terrific fun. Ray and I went in separate boats, Ray with the guys and one girl, and me with a mixture, about 6 or 7 in each boat and a guide. I have to compliment the Ecuadorian guides in all of our activities. They have been safety conscious, fun, strong, good looking and charismatic. The ride was a perfect combination of fast rapids, quiet river, and gorgeous jungle scenery. We went through the rapids, up over rocks, round rocks into the dead spot where you thought you would never escape from, body surfed in the water through some of the safer rapids, swam in the river and floated, fast, down stream. At one point we all squeezed up as tightly as we could in the back of the boat so that when we took the rapids, the front was high in the air. Great fun. Then we all stood around the sides of the rubber boat holding hands and leaning backwards until the guide let go of our hands and we all fell in. We stopped for lunch on a wide beach and played with some of the indegenous children. After we had finished eating, the guides called to the kids and about 15 little, brown, lithe, bodies ran across the beach and finished off the left overs from our meal. I am sure we would all have eaten a little less if we had known! We had one other stop for a mud facial. We swam up a small tributary coming into the larger river and the guides covered our faces with browny-green, and yellow mud. This was supposed to remove all the wrinkles - so beware, we are coming home younger looking!

The trip took us 25 km down the river to the outskirts of Tena, where we boarded a bus and drove into Tena City to stay the night at the Travellers Lodge Hostal, another perfectly acceptable accommodation.

This was definitely one of the fun activities on the trip.