30 Ecuador

ECUADOR                                                                                        November 2006

The border crossing from Peru, by the new bridge at La Balsa into Ecuador, was the easiest ever. The currency concept too: they use US dollars. Dipli went in nearly empty because we knew diesel was cheaper ($0.27 vs. $0.84/ℓ). As in Peru, it is sold in US gallons.

Ecuador straddles the equator; however, we were cool in the central highlands between the hot and humid Amazon jungle and coastal plain. We passed, and even approached many volcanoes, but never really saw one, due to clouds and rain almost every day. 

In one region men wear black ponchos and white trousers. At the markets of Riobamba and Salasaca women wearing scarlet ponchos, were selling hand woven goods.

A resort owned by Germans in Vilcabamba and one near Rio Verde, belonging to a Swiss, provided some mountain views and good facilities. We gathered that it is easy for foreigners to own property in Ecuador.

 A cyber train! We found this unique Internet in a municipal park in Loja.  In front of the freshly painted steam locomotive on tracks, were two wagons with 12 new computers. We parked for 3 nights so Leoné could have her fill of e-mail.

The Pan American Highway continued north through patchwork scenery. At roadside stalls they were often grilling a whole pig with a blow torch. The other choice of fare was roasted guinea pig. We opted for the incredible variety of tropical fruits.

Quito is a compact capital with an attractive Spanish-built old section. In the new part of the city we consulted many agencies to find an excursion to the Galapagos Islands. The available dates eventually decided the choice of boat for us. It was to be the large luxurious “Galapagos Legend”.

 

 

 

Galapagos.

We flew from Quito to the airport on Baltra Island (1000km from the main-land).  Sea lions lolling on benches and pelicans welcomed us to the “Enchanted Islands”. A buffet lunch on board “The Legend” was as welcome a reception.

During our short snooze the ship cruised to the island of Bartolomé. An inflatable boat landed us and our naturalist guide on the beach. Thanks to the cold ocean currents from the south, that bring the plankton and the fish, and thanks to the warm current from the north, that makes the sea not so cold, snorkelling was an amazing experience. Even though, one was often startled by a marine turtle, a penguin, or a reef shark flitting past.

The ship sailed during the night to Isabela Island. Early morning disembarking was in shallow water.  Large lemon-coloured lonesome dragon-like land iguanas were coming out of their burrows. The plants which they feed on were flourishing again. 150 000 flora-destroying goats had recently been exterminated.

The afternoon on Fernandina Island, we saw scores of black marine iguanas lying crisscross over one another on the volcanic rocks; contrasting with large reddish orange ‘sally-light foot’ crabs. In the small bay below, two pairs of the Flightless cormorants were prancing around a sea lion. Right next to us, a Galapagos hawk perched in a low tree, scouting for small-enough prey.

Many such scenes of the fearless wildlife awaited us.

 

Darwin

The ship took us to 11 islands in 7 days. The Galapagos Islands were formed by underwater volcanoes erupting and rising above the ocean’s surface. There is still volcanic activity on the western islands.  Gradually, over many thousands of years, animals and plants from over the sea somehow migrated there and as time went by they adapted to conditions and came to differ more and more from their ancestors and from each other in different locations. Charles Darwin recognised this speciation when he came on “The Beagle” in 1835.  His observations there led to the publication of his “On the origin of species by natural selection”

Conservation: 98% of the Galapagos archipelago is national park. Tourist impact is strictly regulated. The increasing population on 5 inhabited islands is being encouraged to go away. Feral domestic animals are being eradicated.

 

Tortoises.

On Isla Santa Cruz we saw 200kg tortoises lumbering through prickly pear-cactus forests. (These cacti are different on each island) They can survive without food or water for months but surprisingly, we saw how they love lying in shallow pools for hours. They differ from one island to another. Certain subspecies living on volcano caldera slopes have developed variances – having been isolated by lava fields of sharp rocks. Some have a long neck and a curved carapace so that they can stand up to feed from tall plants. They also eat a small fruit – poisonous to humans. During the 17th and 18th century thousands of tortoises were taken by ships as food (up to 500 per ship). The Darwin Research Station is now rearing young Giant tortoises in captivity for re-introduction to the wild. The oldest inhabitant at the station is about 170 years.

We all became gooey-eyed gazers at the sight of so many sea lion pups frolicking with each other or lying with their mothers across our path. The largest male sea lion would waddle about, protectively bellowing. We had to step over some marine iguanas too, who had an orangey colour from the seaweed they feed on at low tide.

 

Birds

The birds are unafraid because there are no predators and we could observe and photograph them effortlessly.

On Española we watched Blue-footed boobies engaged in a courtship ritual, where he would stand on a rock to display his bright blue webbed feet to the female in front of him, by lifting one foot at a time.

The Waved albatross bond for life and breed only in the Galapagos. Within touching distance they were feeding there huge chicks, who would soon also have the wingspan of 2,5 meters.

In startling close-up we watched black Magnificent frigate birds in low trees inflate a large bright red throat pouch to attract his mate. When she chooses him and lands on the branch next to him, he embraces her with one long wing.

 The little brownish-grey birds we saw in the trees and on the ground, were the ones that really intrigued Darwin. These finches had descended from a common ancestor but have developed a range of bills adapted to exploiting soft or hard seeds or to find insects. The woodpecker finch has learned to use a twig or a cactus spine to winkle out exposed insects. We never had to use our binoculars and marvelled at Lava gulls, Swallow-tailed gulls, Masked boobies, Flamingos, and many more feathered creatures.

The haunting beauty of the arid, volcanic land together with the creature comforts on the ship created an unreal world for us. And then it was back to the real world.

 

Equator

Just north of Quito we crossed the equator (with an old and a new marker. Our GPS tallied with the new one.) We had visited the concrete globe in 1971 with the 2CV, in 1981 with the VW camper and now in 2006 with Dipli.
 
            1971                                                                    1981            
                                                                                                                                                   

        2006

 

At the town of Otavalo the Saturday market spread into all the streets of the centre. Apart from woven ponchos, scarves, hats and jackets; there were embroidered blouses, woodcarvings, baskets, leather goods, paintings, jewellery, dolls, alpaca-hide hangings, carpets, hammocks, flutes and much more.

Just before leaving Ecuador, we parked at a lake to prepare for the “dangers” of Colombia. Then we met this Australian horticulturist, who invited us to his home in Ibarra. We were amazed by his immaculate garden and admired his nursery of ornamental plants. In two years with one helper, he has prepared more than 100 000 plants from cuttings, soon ready to market. He also had a clothes washing machine! So, clean and organised, we set off for the border.

 

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