Thursday, 30 January 2014

Ecuador - Galapagos I

The Galapagos are an hour-and-a-half flight from the mainland, one reason they are distinctive - they are well beyond the continental shelf, so they have never been connected to the continent when oceans are low during ice ages.  The flight lands at an airstrip made by the US during WW2 on Baltra Island, where visitors get on their boats.  In our case, this was a 12-passenger catamaran with an 8-day itinerary around the western and northern islands.

Our first stop was on Seymour Norte, a small, low and dry island with nesting frigatebirds.  That evening, we sailed down to Puerto Ayora, the main town in this end of the islands.  The next day, we took a bus inland into the highlands, mainly to see giant tortoises.  This was the only time we could get to the wetter and fascinating highlands, because park rules on the uninhabited islands only allow fairly short land visits, and only along very carefully controlled trails at visitor sites.  The rules are obviously needed for conservation, but they are a bit frustrating for biologists who would love to explore further afield.  And also for sketchers, who didn't have much time to draw on land (which is why most of my sketches are views from the boat).

The next day, we left civilization behind and headed to the western side of Isabella Island, the largest in the archipelago, formed by 5 joined volcanoes.  The western islands are the youngest ones, and still very active volcanicly.  They also have the coldest currents, supporting unique birds like the Galapagos penguin and flightless cormorant, as well as thriving communities of reef fish.  We saw one other boat occasionally, but otherwise there was no sign of humanity - just raw geology and wildlife everywhere.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Ecuador - Tababela and Otavalo

The old airport in Quito was right in the city, with a short runway surrounded by buildings and roads, not to mention mountains.  A much safer new airport has recently opened outside the city.  The only downside is that they haven't built roads to it from Quito yet, and none of the existing roads in the mountainous area go in any one direction for long.  This makes a long, slow and highly unpredictable journey from airport to city.  So our first and last nights in Ecuador we avoided the city altogether and stayed in the little village of Tababela near the airport.  It seems like a prosperous little place, soon to be more so, as the spare bedrooms in every other family's house are becoming "Quito International Airport Suites", "Airport Hotel Quito", or some variation thereof.  Our version was cheap and good, and the friendly owners arranged a cheap pickup ride for us to Otavalo the next morning.

Otavalo is a town of mostly native Andean (Inca) people about two hours north of Quito.  It has the biggest indigenous market in South America on Saturdays.  We arrived on Friday, so spent the day walking around town, including the central square with a bright green city hall, then out through surrounding fields and forest to a big waterfall, and on to the native village of Peguche, which is famous for its weaving.  It's a small, dusty village, but thriving, because the weaving is excellent and the people are savvy enough to sell the best work to North American and European markets. We also started to learn Ecuadorean food in the market, including llapingachos, fried potato and cheese dumplings served with a fried egg, rice, beets, beans, peas and - for the intestinally daring - salad.  All for $1 (the US dollar being the official and only currency in Ecuador).
The Saturday market is an amazing event, with pretty much the entire town full of people selling or buying almost anything imaginable.  The "official" events are the textile market in the Plaza de Ponchos and overflowing for several blocks, and an animal market on the edge of town, but anything else people need for the week is there someplace too.  It is clearly the major social event of the week for everyone in the surrounding area, who pour into town from the buses along the highway.  The crowd was about 90% native, 9% Spanish (half a head taller) and 1% gringo (full head taller).  Many people sit with an armful of corn or a small basket of quinoa to sell - the economy is small-scale enough that that is a worthwhile economic venture for the day, but I think the opportunity to gossip with neighbours is the big incentive.  And to laugh at the crazy gringo being buffeted by the crowd as he tries to draw the impossibly busy scene.  After the market, we hiked up a hill above town, in the noticeably thin air at almost 3000m, towards a sacred tree on a summit with great views down to the town, a nearby lake and the surrounding volcanoes, then scurried back to Quito for our flight to the Galapagos early the next morning.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Ecuador - Getting there

I've been off-line - also known as "in the real world" - for most of a month in Ecuador.  I'm back now, with a small sketchbook of drawings, coming soon to a blog near you...

They say that getting there is half the fun.  They are wrong.  Particularly when getting there involves three flights over 20 hours, starting at 11pm.  And when Air Canada serves you boiled tofu and raw potatoes in tepid water for breakfast.  But we did fly over some interesting places in the Caribbean, offering a free preview to check the potential for future visits: the pristine-looking white sand, cyan shallows and ultramarine deep water of the Bahamas (yes for future visit), the neat but diverse rural landscape of eastern Cuba (yes), and the chaotic-looking mess of Kingston Jamaica (maybe not).  We also had a few hours in the airport in Bogota Columbia, where the clouds from the tropical lowlands were building over the mountains around the bigger but otherwise similar Andean sister city to Quito Ecuador, where we were headed next.