Ecuador and Galapagos, July 2005
We flew to Buenos Aires and spent the night at a B&B near the airport. They fetched us from the airport and took us back next day. We then flew to Santiago where we had to change planes and fly to Quito. It was amazing flying over the Andes and seeing all those interminable stretches of snow covered mountains, including Aconcagua. We arrived very late in Quito and by the time we got to the Hotel it was 9.30 pm, 2 hours earlier than B. Aires! - and straight to bed. Next morning we were picked up early and taken to the airport for our half-an-hour flight to Coca. We had booked into Sacha Lodge, right in the middle of the Amazon jungle, for 3 nights, before joining the birding group from America. At Coca we boarded a motor boat and went down the Napo River (which eventually joins the Amazon River after crossing over Peru) for 2 hours. Then a short board walk and a dug-out canoe trip through the "lake" to the Lodge. We saw beautiful (and new!) birds on the way, including the weird looking Hoatzin. The Lodge is built on stilts, nothing luxurious but nice. All the wooden "rooms" are connected by board walks. We had 2 guides just for ourselves - very lucky! and saw over 150 species of birds. On the second day they woke us up at 4.30 am to have breakfast at 5 and walk the "mud walk" to the observation towers. There are 3 metal towers, 40 metres high, connected by 300 m of board walks, 150 m from the 1st to the middle and another 150 m to the 3rd. It was very misty and unfortunately we had to wait more than 2 hours for the sun to come through. The towers are above the canopy of the trees and have a magnificent view over the forest. The largest trees seemed to be Kapok trees but the most curious were the Cecropia trees with their enormous palmate leaves and silvery colour. We saw an amazing amount of birds, including King Vulture. Also saw some Tamarin monkeys. That afternoon we went to another observation tower built around a kapok tree and in addition to birds, we saw the Howler Monkeys - they sound as if strong wind is passing through a pipe. Quite an experience. On the way back, through the canal, we saw a Fishing Bat - didn't even know that there are fish eating bats! Rather large too! Next day we were taken by boat to the Parrot clay licks and saw thousands of parrots and one Scarlet Macaw. Also saw a host of birds in the forest which was a real mud bath. They lent us rubber boots at the Lodge so that we can walk over all this mud without ruining our own shoes. We only had rain on the day before leaving, while canoeing back to the lodge. Despite our rain coats we were totally drenched. The weather was fine at this time of the year. I didn't think it was humid at all and at night we had to wear something warmish with sleeves. While walking we had long sleeve light shirts but around the lodge, mid afternoon one can easily wear shorts. On the river we definitely had to wear a pullover and wind break because it becomes coldish with all the wind on your face. As soon as the boat stops, then it's warm. I was surprised that there were no biting insects around but we got pepper ticks, like in S. Africa, that lasted for a few days. Apart from anti-mosquito stuff we should have taken some tick spray.
The next day we went all the way back to Coca and Quito. We had a nice morning visiting the botanical gardens right in the middle of town. The rest of the group arrived late next evening. Next morning the guide picked us up at 5.30am to go to Antisana, at 4300 m altitude - by bus. They put these busses through roads where I would hesitate to take the 4x4! Again, saw a lot of birds and at the top, saw the Andean Condor. It was awfully cold, although we had warm clothing, and I could feel the lack of oxygen. Had never been that high. The next 4 nights we spent at Tandayapa Lodge. They put up bird feeders at the Lodges and a lot of different Humming Birds and others come to eat and drink. The last night at Tandayapa we were surprised to see a Possum on one of the feeders, nicking some fruit for supper. After this, we flew to S. Cristobal in the Galapagos and boarded the "yacht" for 7 nights. One of the women was so sick the first 2 days that she decided to stay in Sta. Cruz for the duration of the trip and join us for the flight back. The boat was small and not very comfortable but, apart from the 1st day, I wasn't sick, although I had to go down to my berth whenever they sailed during the day. The routine is to sail from island to island during the night and visit the islands during the day. That is a completely different world! The birds, iguanas and lion seals come very close to you and Howard couldn't stop taking photos. We also snorkelled and saw colourful fish and turtles. Howard doesn't stop talking about swimming with the sea lions and turtles. From some of the beaches we could see the sting rays and sand sharks and also white tipped sharks and a lot of turtles. Saw thousands of Wedge-tailed Storm Petrels and Audubon Shearwaters. Saw the Waved Albatross performing their courting antics with their beaks and Blue-footed Boobies dancing their ridiculous courtship dance, showing their feet, one at a time while cocking their head to one side and the other. It was really amazing. We went to S. Cristobal, Sta. Fé, Sta. Cruz, Floreana, Espanola, North Seymour, the Plazas and Genovesa. Of these, only S. Cristobal and Sta. Cruz are inhabitted although there seems to be a small settlement on Espanola. The other inhabitted island is much further West, Isabella, but we didn't go there, so we missed the flightless Cormorant.
All in all it was an unforgetable trip. The American group were very nice people and keen bird watchers and we fitted in well with them. On the last day back in Quito, we still had time to go up the cable car to 4000 m (Quito is over 2 800 m high) and watch the views over the city and the mountains. Even at that altitude, the mountains are covered in grasses and other plants and everything is green like the Drakensberg. Ecuador is a tiny country but with an amazing diversity of habitats, from coastal beaches to high altitude mountains. The highest mountain, Volcan Chimborazo at 6 310 m is higher than Kilimanjaro. We didn't go to that side. The country has 1600 different species of birds - almost double the nr. in SA. We saw 450!
Things in Ecuador are rather cheap but the trip to Galapagos is very, very expensive and people are advised not to bother if they are not interested in the wildlife. This time of the year is the dry season and we hardly saw a green leaf but, on the other hand, we only had a bit of drizzle twice. Apparently in Dec/Jan the water is warm and lovely to swim but you have a lot of rain.
This was really a trip of a lifetime!