Welcome to the Jungle – The Amazon Part I

We ran out of time in Peru and never made it to the Amazon, so for Matt’s first scheduled vacation, we booked a trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Called the jungle and considered a rainforest, both descriptions are apt. We were in the Amazon basin, but the Ecuadorian lodges are on tributaries of the Amazon, something Matt was disappointed to learn.

Matt in the Jungle

Matt in the Jungle

We wanted comfort, as much as there is comfort in the middle of the jungle, so we stayed at an upscale lodge, La Selva Amazon Ecolodge, just off the Napo River on Lake Garzacocha. After a short flight from Quito to Coca, we took a 2+ hour boat ride down the Napo. The big industry is oil and we saw many drill sites along the way.

After getting drenched in a downpour on the boat ride, welcome to the rainforest, we took a short walk, climbed into canoes and were paddled though creeks and across a lake before reaching the lodge. I was initially uncomfortable with 2 men paddling 6 additional adults around, but got used to it as we traveled that way throughout the trip.

The grounds and accommodations were very nice and about as luxurious as they could be given the journey it takes to get everything there. Shortly after arrival, everyone was put in groups. Like summer camp, your excursions and meals are with the same people. We lucked out and were with a great group: Sally and Clint from England and Stephen and Arturo from the US. Because Matt and I stayed a day longer than the traditional 3-day stay, we were groupless at the end. It quickly became apparent that other guests perceived our group as the “good” group based on the horror stories we heard. We also lucked out with our guides, Rodrigo and Dario. Wildlife viewing in the Amazon is the opposite of wildlife viewing in the Galapagos: the animals hide in the Amazon as opposed to coming within centimeters of you as they do in the Galapagos. Rodrigo was our naturalist and Dario our native guide. However, Rodrigo was also the only naturalist who grew up in the Amazon rainforest. I think his skills in spotting wildlife came from hunting in the forest since he was a young child. He also liked to mention, with a gleam in his eye, how tasty particular species of monkeys are.

The Gang Minus Dario

The Gang Minus Dario

Our first excursion was a night canoe trip across the lake and followed by a hike. Nothing like jumping right into things: tarantulas, a snake and more!

On the way back we stopped to visit this sinister guy:

Caiman

Caiman

Matt and I were in the back of the canoe and couldn’t see him very well, but Arturo took a great photo for us.

Day 2 started with a 5 am wake up call to hike to the observation tower for an early morning of birdwatching. It was overcast, but we still saw many brightly colored parrots and other birds. Unfortunately, we saw most through a telescope so no pictures.

After a few hours, we hiked through the rainforest for a couple of hours. It was a peaceful walk through the forest although I could have done without rousing a tarantula from its lair.

We went back to the lodge for relaxation and lunch before our next hike. The highlight of this hike, and my favorite part of our entire visit, were the monkeys. We saw howler, wooly, pygmy marmoset, red titi, capuchin, squirrel, owl night and black mantle monkeys. My favorites were the appropriately named howler monkeys even though they woke us up every morning with their howling (the first morning we had no idea what the racket was) and the “monkey migrations,” particularly of the acrobatic squirrel monkeys, when countless monkeys would stream overhead. They weren’t always easy to spot, but after a few days we learned a little how to read the moving leaves high in the trees to know if it was wind or monkeys. Rodrigo loved the monkeys and made sure we saw the different varieties.

Listen to these with the sound on:

Next Up: Swimming with the piranhas, eating grubs, stinky turkeys and more!

Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.

Hmmm

Hmmm

Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Day Tripper, Yeah

 

True Love, Booby Love

True Love, Booby Love

Last Saturday we took our first day trip. The trip entailed a 35 minute bus ride across our island (Santa Cruz), a 40 minute boat ride to North Seymour island, a 1 1/2 hour guided walk around North Seymour, a boat ride (during which time we were served a delicious lunch) to a beach for snorkeling that is inaccessible by land on Santa Cruz, a boat ride back to port and a bus ride home. We were picked up at 7:30 am and dropped off around 3:30. While the price seemed steep at $168 per person, we compared notes with several of our fellow travelers and found it was an average price for the tour.

While Matt and I were most excited about the snorkeling part of the trip, the walk around North Seymour proved to be the highlight of the day. We disembarked the Alta Mar and headed out with our English speaking guide, Carlos. Our group had 2 Germans, 2 Norwegians, a Colombian and us. English was the common denominator and everyone was quite friendly and fluent. The other group were older Ecuadorians who stuck to themselves and were led by the Spanish-speaking guide.

Touring North Seymour

Touring North Seymour

First spotted animal: the Sally Lightfoot Crab. We didn’t find it too exciting as Santa Cruz is loaded with them.

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Sally Lightfoot Crab

The birds are the real stars of the show on North Seymour and we were not disappointed. Within a few steps we came upon these Swallow Tailed Gulls.

Carlos urged us along. Gulls are strictly supporting cast around here.

There they were: the Frigatebirds in all their glory.

Roadblock

Frigatebird Roadblock

The adult male Magnificent Frigatebird is essentially indistinguishable from the adult male Great Frigatebird unless you are close enough to see the sheen of the feathers. The Great Frigatebirds have a green sheen and the Magnificents a purple sheen. We saw Great Frigatebirds and the green sheen was gorgeous.

Green Sheen

Green Sheen

A few fun facts about Frigatebirds. They have the largest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird. Per Carlos, if they end up submerged in water, they drown because their wings get too heavy. They look impressive but are sneaky kleptoparasites, meaning they steal their food and nest materials from other birds. One way they steal food is to chase down a bird that recently caught something, shake it by its tail feathers until the bird pukes up its catch and then eat the catch. Lovely, right?

We were incredibly lucky to see the birds in all phases: eggs, babies, adolescents and adults. The birds live in colonies on sparse nests that look more like the birds just plunked themselves down rather than actually did any building. The single males scope out a territory where the posse then congregates and attempts to attract the females that fly overhead. The red throat pouch is their pickup move. It takes about 1/2 hour to inflate with air and then slowly the process of deflation occurs.

Couples are monogamous for the season and produce a single egg that is tended by both birds for a 6-8 week incubation period. Baby birds are allowed to stay in the nest for a year during which time their parents (although eventually just the mother) continue to feed them. As a result, usually a bird produces every other year. The adolescents have either white heads (Magnificents) or white heads with rust colored patches (Greats). The females of both species look essentially the same and are black with white breast and shoulders.

We also saw Blue Footed Boobies on the island. This couple was particularly sweet.

This one was incubating an egg in its nest, which basically is an indentation in the sand with one twig. No McMansions here.

Booby With Egg

Booby With Egg

In addition to the birds, North Seymour is home to many land iguanas. These guys look sleepy, but we saw one chase another out of its territory and they could sprint pretty fast! Interestingly, the iguanas on North Seymour were introduced from Baltra in the 30s. Subsequently, the iguanas became extinct on Baltra when it was used as a US military base. Because they are on nearby North Seymour, they can now be reintroduced to their original habitat on Baltra.

Finally, lest you think we live in paradise, we don’t.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost

 

The Birds and the Beach (Vacation Part VI)

The two main draws for tourism in Paracas are the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve, and neither was a disappointment.  The Ballestas Islands, dubbed the “poor man’s Galapagos,” are a group of rocky islands teeming with birds.  Those with ornithophobia beware: the pelicans, terns, boobies, and cormorants are everywhere, swooping, gliding, diving, soaring, cawing, trilling, tweeting and pooping.  Oh yes, pooping.  We were forewarned to wear hats and while the trip ended with only a small splatter on Matt’s sleeve, others in our boat weren’t as lucky. Guano is a big cash crop for Peru and the islands have a guard to protect the poop.

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In addition to the flying birds are Humboldt penguins and sea lions. As an added bonus, the boats pass the Paracas Candelabra, another gigantic sand figure, believed to date to around 200 BC.

The day after the Ballestras we toured the Paracas National Reserve.  I really had no idea what the reserve was and assumed the tour was to see animals of some kind, but I was wrong (except for a few seabirds).  Instead we saw amazing yellow and red sand beaches.  Poor Paracas – when it was hit by the earthquake in 2007 its landmark, a rock formation called the Cathedral toppled into the ocean.  The guide still points it out, but now it is just a couple of rocks jutting up from the ocean.  In addition to guano, another Peruvian marine export is seaweed for cosmetics, and we saw men in wet suits exiting the ocean with bags of seaweed.  We met Peter and Annie, a couple from London who now live in the Falklands, on the excursion and joined them for a few drinks at the upscale Doubletree after the tour.  (Check out Peter’s blog at http://www.peterspenguinpost.blogspot.com.)  All in all, a pleasant day!

Last stop on the Paracas Tour: Tambo Colorado