Ecuador, Galapagos (1994)ADVENTURES IN ECUADOR Our trip to Ecuador was really three vacations combined into one . . the mountains, the islands and the jungle . . a train ride through the Andean Highlands, a cruise to the enchanted Galapagos Islands and a trip by dugout canoe into the mysterious beauty of the Amazon rain forest. Such is the variety that the small country of Ecuador offers the tourist.
G alapagos Tortoise Andean Llama
Train Ride in the High Andes. The first leg of our journey took us by bus and train along the Pan American highway, through the Avenue of the Volcanoes and gave us our first glimpse of life in the Andes from a breakfast in a comfortable hacienda to a stop at a Saturday morning Indian market with all its colorful sights and sounds. But the most exciting leg was the train ride from Riobamba to Sibambe past snowy-covered volcanoes and through breathtaking mountain passes. We boarded the train early the next morning and the open air train cars were soon filled with colorful Indian families going to the next village with their children, chickens and wares. The sights, both inside the cars and from the windows, were a photographer's delight.
Halfway through the trip, the train screeched to a stop when one of the cars jumped the tracks and derailed. Not to worry! The trainmen, assisted by all the passengers, who climbed down from the train to watch, built a ramp of rocks under the wheels while the engineer inched the train ahead and the car gradually (and thankfully) slipped back on to the rails.
Riding on the Roof Derailment in the Andes
By then, the train was full and many of the passengers were riding on the roofs so we clambered up the ladder on the side of the car and joined them for the most dramatic leg of the trip down the famous Devil's Nose switchback . . a marvel of engineering where the train descends the mountain face forward and backwards through a series of switchbacks down a otherwise unclimbable mountain. We've been on a lot of exciting train rides around the world but none to compare with our rooftop ride through the Andes.
Our final destination was Cuenca, a charming city with a Spanish colonial flavor, where we spent two days visiting the city, touring the nearby Incan ruins at Ingapirca and shopping in the colorful markets.
Scenes at the Market
Galapagos. Our next leg was the Galapagos Islands, a chain of volcanic islands located 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian mainland into the Pacific Ocean. The islands are largely unchanged since the rose from the sea millions of years ago and present a unique opportunity to experience nature much as it was originally created. The islands were made famous by Charles Darwin, who stopped there in 1835 during his five year voyage around the world in the HMS Beagle and made note of the differences between the species of birds and tortoises from island to island . . giving rise to his theories on the evolution of the species, which shook the world and challenged a whole train of scientific and religious thought about creation.
The shipboard routine aboard the 75 passenger Santa Cruz was very pleasant involving morning and afternoon excursions ashore in small groups accompanied by a naturalist . . followed by overnight cruising to the next islands. The animals are unique and fascinating and included sea lions, fur seals, land and marine iguanas and, of course, the famous giant Galapagos tortoises. The hundreds of varieties of birds are equally fascinating including the red and blue footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds and their sensual mating ritual, albatross, pelicans and even warm water penguins.
Blue Footed Booby Frigate Bird in Mating Pose
The most amazing aspect of the walks through this ultimate natural zoo was the absolute lack of fear displayed by the local fauna for the human interlopers having never been exposed to predators. It was, therefore, another photographer's paradise with all the inhabitants posing for shots and staring back into the lens for as many close-ups as you want. Or even more fun, was our chance to swim with the sea lions, who welcomed us into their ocean playground and happily engaged us in games of tag or underwater races.
Amazon Rain Forest. Our final leg in Ecuador was our trip into a jungle camp in the Amazon rain forest. Getting into the camp was half the fun. We flew to Coca, at the jungles' edge in a turboprop, which the local airline had bought from the governor of Ohio and which still bore his seal. From Coca, we were transported a hundred kilometers down the Napo River by Quichua Indians in a motorized, dugout canoe, hiked a mile into the rain forest and were paddled the final mile in another dugout canoe to our jungle camp, La Selva, located on the far side of Lake Garzacocha (Heron Lake).
Cruising Up the Napo River La Selva Jungle Camp
The buildings at La Selva are constructed, with thatched roofs and on stilts, Indian-style. But the comparison ends there. Each cabin is complete with bathroom, cold water showers, kerosene lamps, mosquito nets and private balcony. And the main lodge is a large thatched roof building in which the jungle-gourmet dinners were served by a staff of Quichua Indians.
Here, too, our daily schedule called for morning and afternoon excursions by trail or canoe into the rain forest accompanied by a naturalist and an Indian guide. Dark, damp and muddy, the jungle is not all that inviting but certainly fascinating particularly with our knowledgeable guide, who taught us much about the flora and fauna of this unique ecosystem. Hacking our way through almost impenetrable jungle trails, we saw colorful parrots and toucans, watched families of monkeys, glimpsed electric blue butterflies and even ate lemon ants along the way. (We were told that 30% of the biomass of the rain forest is made up of ants . . a fact that I'm still trying to digest . . along with the lemon ants!). We climbed to the top of a 110 foot observation platform built by the La Selva staff high in a tree overlooking the jungle canopy . . a great vantage point for viewing the actual home of 80% of the birds and animals of the rain forest. But probably, the most fun was just lying in our beds at night inside our mosquito nets, listening to the sounds of the jungle all around us. Unforgettable.
Our three days in the rain forest ended all to quickly and we retraced our steps back up the river to Coca and flew back to Quito in a military C-130 cargo plane flown by Ecuadorian army pilots and drummed into service as backup to the regularly scheduled flight. In between our three side trips, we stayed in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador located at almost 10,000 feet elevation high in the Andes. Just north of Quito is a monument marking the equator. As a result of a little fast footwork back and forth across the well marked line, we're now able to say that we have, in fact, crossed the equator dozens of times. And then on Easter morning, we climbed aboard our Ecuadorian airline plane and winged our way back home - past the mountains, over the jungles and across the Caribbean - to the U.S.
Several people asked us before our trip why we had chosen to go to Ecuador. One of the main reasons was that Jill and Katherine had traveled together around Ecuador in the summer of 1990 following Katherine's summer at a biological research station on the Napo River and had recommended it highly. Without question, it proved to be fantastic recommendation!
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