Isla de la Plata

We already visited one ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ in Peru, when we took a boat trip to Islas Ballestas, but in Ecuador we had the chance to visit another: Isla de la Plata. The 5km2 island lies off the west coast, near to the town of Puerto Lopez. Many of the same species in the Galapagos are also found here (but sadly not iguanas), including my most favourite sea bird ever; the blue-footed boobie!

Take a look at that fabulous colour scheme!

The females are actually the ones with brighter feet, and they’re also a little larger, with bigger pupils too.

We were able to get really close to them as they were unafraid and trying to stake out their terrritory for breeding.

The island is part of Machalilla National Park, and in order to protect the wildlife, you’re not allowed to go wandering around by yourself. The boat trip took about an hour and once on the island you’re split into groups and taken down different pathways whilst a guide points out different animals and plants.

We were led down Sendero de las Fragatas – Frigate Bird Trail. And boy did we see a lot of frigate birds!

It was both fascinating and repulsive to watch the big, noisy, stinking creatures splay themselves out in the flimsy-looking branches of their roost. I remembered from watching David Attenborough programs that frigate birds don’t have waterproof feathers, so I guess they were drying themselves out in the sun. I also remembered that they attack other birds and steal the fish they’ve just caught. With this thought in my head, I couldn’t help thinking that their sharp beaks and beady eyes looked rather evil.

We also got to see pelicans, another of my favourite birds, that I’d become familiar with in Valdivia, Chile.

I watched a group of them fishing together, which I had never seen before. The noise when they hit the water was really loud! It was interesting to see their strategy of scaring the fish into moving in one direction, making them easier to scoop up.

When we first arrived, we spotted at least five turtles popping up to the surface very close to the boat. It really seemed like they were greeting us, and made me smile a lot as I’d never seen them in the wild before.

After walking around the island, we got back on the boats for lunch and then went snorkeling. There weren’t any turtles around, but I did see forests of seaweed and some big fish. Since this was only the second time I’d ever been snorkelling, I was pretty excited. Although the ocean was calm, I still felt a bit nervous as the water was so deep and every time I lifted my head I was a lot further from the boat than I expected.

I’m really pleased that we made the trip to Isla de la Plata as our budget didn’t allow us to go to the Galapagos. But it was on the way back to the mainland that we experienced the real reason I had wanted to make this trip.

Humpback whales come to these waters to mate and give birth. We were here at the perfect time of year to observe their displays of fin- and tail-slapping.

It was really hard to take pictures as the boat was rocking quite a bit. When one whale jumped completely out of the water, my hand went flying, but I did get a few shots using the sports setting.

20140704-212142.jpg

The trip cost $45 pp, including snorkel gear, boat, guide, lunch, snacks and drinks. There are lots of tour agencies in Puerto Lopez, but they aren’t all that helpful. We finally went with one on the Malecon (near the Ruta del Sol hotel) because it was the only place which could actually tell us what time the boat was leaving the following day.

What’s your favourite marine animal?

Clean water and cultural survival in the Amazon

In 2007, oil was found under Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. In order to protect this biological and cultural reserve, Ecuador asked the world to pay to keep the oil in the ground. Some viewed it as ecological blackmail. Others saw it as a a wake-up call that we are all responsible for our planet; responsibility shouldn’t be restricted by arbitrary borders drawn by man.

The plan failed. Not enough money was raised and Ecuador decided it had to exploit the lucrative resource that could provide one tenth of it’s gross domestic product*. In August 2013, when the decision was made, we were in Quito and saw demonstrations outside the government buildings in Plaza de la Independencia. The demonstrators counted as a few hundred. Riot police seemed to be present in similar numbers. It was pretty quiet as demonstrations go. Somehow I remember seeing more news articles hailing the brilliant plan to save Yasuni than those reporting it had failed. Perhaps the fact that only one percent of the park will be affected makes it seem not so bad. But oil exploitation in Ecuador’s Amazon has been going on for decades and the consequences are only being thought about now.

Now, I didn’t start writing this to depress everyone. Instead, I wanted to share something hopeful, something inspiring. ClearWater is an organisation working to provide water filtration systems to indigenous households in regions that have been damaged by the oil industry. In their own words:

“ClearWater believes that building an indigenous-led movement for clean water is the first step towards building a broader movement for health, cultural survival, and rainforest protection.  In addition to the construction of rainwater catchment systems, ClearWater is working to train community technicians in water quality and environmental monitoring. We are empowering communities to administer large projects, including budget management and accountability. We are providing indigenous youth with the tools and web-based platforms to share their own photo-journalism stories about their tribes, territories and concerns. Our commitment is to lasting, holistic, community-led solutions, which can provide indigenous peoples with the strength and tools to navigate the borders of wilderness and the west on their own terms.”

I absolutely recommend taking a look at their Project Map, which links stories and photography to a beautiful satellite view of the region. We can see the location of oil wells and pipelines, roads and rivers, and the communities where water catchment systems have been built. The thing I love the most is that each project is named after the peole who live there; when we see a picture of a water tank, we know it belongs to Telmo & Edemira, or Alfonso & Patricia. We see the faces of people directly involved with this struggle against environmental damage.

I hope you take time to explore ClearWater’s website and maybe even get involved by donating. Here are some of my personal favourite stories from their blog:

  • ClearWater’s New Map and the Mad Genius Behind it: “Most of the time, Gregor was far from electricity or wifi, though he did call in from a satellite phone a couple times, and sometimes sat up overnight in a remote Amazon village, writing lines of code for the map on his laptop plugged into the community’s one generator.”
  • Huangana: Bounty of the Forest: “In Waorani culture, the hunter never carries the animal he has killed. This leaves much of the heavy lifting to the tough-as-nails Waorani women. Obe gently cradles her baby with one hand with the heavy peccary slung over her shoulder.”
  • Going to School in Secoya Territory: “There is not enough gas for Miguel to take them in his motorized canoe, so the kids must paddle upriver about 40 minutes in a small dugout canoe.”
  • Delivering Materials for Rain Catchment Systems in the Amazon: “The whole time Emergildo moved from group to group, organizing the canoes, counting tanks, and directing the traffic. Emergildo was beaming. He was in his element: the conductor of a symphony of Cofán canoes. It was an unforgettable day on the river.”
  • A Song of Oil in the Amazon: “Marina has asked me to share with the world a song that she has been carrying within her for these last 50 years. Marina is one of the last Cofán women who remember how to sing in the way of her ancestors. This is her song.”

What other inspiring organisations do you know that are giving a voice to indigenous communities?

*You can read a nice summary of the situation in this article.

Acaraje

In Rio de Janeiro, we found this street stall selling Afro-Brazilian food. At the time I had no idea what the fried dough and shrimp thing was that I ate. I just knew it was delicious. It was only after reading an article about street vendors protesting FIFA’s resctrictions about selling food near World Cup stadiums that I found out what I ate that day was called acaraje. I’m happy to have finally figured out what it was, and even happier to see that the women vendors in Salvador truimphed over FIFA and were allowed to sell their food outside of the stadium there!

A postcard from Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno, Cuenca

20140627-222043.jpg

The Virgin Mary stands serenely in a nightgown waiting to be dressed, Eve wears Playboy bunny eyes and St Michael poses lasciviously in a very short tunic and boots. This is the Labyrinth of Pieties, a temporary exhibiton by Fernando Coellar, at the Modern Art Museum in Cuenca.

We were lucky enough to stumble upon the place just days before the exhibition was set to close. Having visited some pretty bad modern art and design exhibits in my time (San Jose in Costa Rica, I’m looking at you in particular) this interesting museum in Cuenca came up trumps. Inside the long corridors and blocky rooms of this former-Casa-Temperancia (center for alcoholics)-turned-prison-turned-art-gallery, we found an interactive exhibit of adorable, cartoon religious figures. The aesthetics were kitschy pop-culture, with floating chiffon, shiny acrylics and sequined beads. But it wasn’t all frivolity. I loved the skill and detail with which each piece was executed. Although my knowledge of Catholicism isn’t very extensive, the explanation (in both English and Spanish) gave me a deeper sense of what it meant to Coellar.

And that’s why I love just wandering and getting lost, because we’d never have found this exhibit if we hadn’t.

Cuenca

Travelling from Peru to Ecuador was a bit of a culture shock, but the differences were made all the more acute because the first place we spent any time was in Cuenca. Fancy restaurants, cafes and (mostly retired, American) expats were everywhere! Still, it was a nice place to spend a few days strolling old streets, eating in cafes, visiting odd museums and cloud-watching.

 

Real thieves eat caviar.

Better late than never

Shelley, over at Travel-Stained, recently posted about the Black’s Epic Adventures Photo Contest and nominated some other bloggers to join her in entering. I may be too late for the competition, but I still think it’s fun to share the photos I would have entered.

Also, I decided not to use any of my South America photos.

Here goes…

WILD: Mongolia

Mongolia is absolutely the wildest place I’ve ever been. We would drive for days through landscapes devoid of any human features except occasionally a ger or a herd of domesticated camels. Even the towns (and there weren’t many of them) had a strange Wild West quality to them, with make-shift compounds of gers alongside concrete blocks of buildings.

PANORAMIC: the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

I’d wanted to visit the Giant’s Causeway since I first learned of it’s existance as a chid. It was a blustery, cold January when we visited a friend we’d met in Seoul, back in his hometown of Strabane. Despite living most of his life in Northern Ireland, he’d never visited the Causeway! Everyone told him he had to take us to see it while we were there, and so we set off on a road trip along the coast. The whole landscape was littered with variations of the unusual rock formations and it was much bigger than I had anticipated. Of course, we had to take a shot of them ‘stealing’ a stone.

EPIC: trekking up Rinjani volcano, Indonesia

I’ve got a bit of a problem with this category. You see, I really don’t like the word ‘epic’. It just sounds so American! :P And yeah, I’m well aware that this word is now used world-wide, but I just can’t get behind it. I’d rather just use the word ‘wow’.

So, WOW for me was the first time I went trekking and camping on a three day trip up a volcano crater, down into the centre, and up and out again on the other side. The views were amazing, the physical feat like nothing I’d done before, and the fun of travelling with one of my best friends topped it off as a truly epic experience.

FAST: water at Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

Whilst the river in Taroko Gorge is known for being a beautiful crystal-clear, blue-green hue, after a typhoon it turns a cement-like grey as sediment is washed down from surrounding land. Less than 24 hours after Typhoon Fanapi in September 2011, the waters were still churning. Back when I had visited in July, it was calm enough for swimming (although the fish were still too fast for this guy to catch them).

Thanks Shelley for inviting me to join in the fun!

How to cure a cough in Peru

Everyone gets sick while travelling. It’s inevitable. You go to a doctor, you take medicine, you get better. If you’re lucky, it’s just a minor inconvenience. What’s really annoying is when you get sick, but it really isn’t all that serious so you can’t do anything about it. Like a persistent dry cough. And yet to everyone else it looks as if you’re dying and they avoid you as if you’ve actually got the plague.

After the beautiful trek in Huaraz, I was looking forward to another multi-day trek in Chachapoyas that would take me to the ancient site of Kuelap. But it was not to be. I picked up a bad cold in Huaraz that, despite the sea air, only got worse in Huanchaco. After a night of air-conditioning on an overnight bus to Chachapoyas, I was done for. The lining of my lungs and throat was so irritated from cold, dry air that I could not go for more than 7 seconds without coughing! It was so bad that I worried I might break a rib or tear a muscle.

Any kind of physical activity was out of the question – it just set off more coughing spasms – and being in public was impossible (a little old lady even stopped me in the street to ask what was wrong). Although I was pretty upset, I knew I had to rest and concentrate on soothing the awful cough. Luckily for me, we were able to get a private room with cable TV in Chachapoyas Backpackers. I spent the next two days watching reality-tv cookery shows and sci-fi movies, with my scarf wrapped around me like a facemask. The lovely owners at Chachapoyas Backpackers recommended drinking tea made from matico, a large green leaf. Combined with the humidity of the cloud forest climate, the matico tea worked wonders. From previous experience, I’d say it was one of the most effective home remedies I’ve tried. I wasn’t cured, but I was able to go out and about again. I never got to do my hike, but I did get to enjoy Chachapoyas.

Have you ever tried a traditional remedy while traveling? What did you think of it?

Chachapoyas

Whilst Kuelap is the most famous attraction in the area, the whole Chachapoyas region is full of archaeological and natural sites which, with a little effort, can be visited. The tourism industry is mostly geared towards domestic tourists, but in the last few years has started to cater to backpackers. Still, don’t expect to find anywhere open and serving food during mid-afternoon siesta time.

The town is probably the cleanest and prettiest I saw in Peru. The colonial buildings are well-kept and the climate makes it pleasantly green without being too hot.

We took three different tours and were surprised to see the same group of people each time: Peruvians using their annual holiday to explore more of their own country. They said it wasn’t as jungle-like as they expected when they imagined the Amazonas region, which Chachapoyas is the capital of.

After visiting Kuelap, we took a day trip to some funerary monuments of the ancient Chachapoyans: the Karajia sarcophagi and Quiocta caverns. It was a little frustrating because, as usual, information was incomplete. No one told us we would need wellington boots nor that the cave had absolutely no lighting except the single hand-held torch the guide had. We could rent boots easily enough for 2 soles each, but I really wished I had my headlamp with me. We sloshed through puddles and sticky clay mud with only our camera flashes and the single beam from the guide to light our way. The plus side of this is that we all made friends quickly as we warned each other about invisible holes or extricated those unfortunate enough to get stuck in sucking mud.

The caverns were only ‘discovered’ and opened to the public very recently. This is something I find really exciting about the region – there are many more sites that were previously unknown and are only now starting to be studied by specialists. If only I could get a job here!

Consisting of six connected caverns, human remains were found in the first two near the entrance. Chachapoyans often deposited bones in difficult-to-reach niches in caves and on cliff-sides. In Quiocta, they’ve now become sites of offerings by modern day people, with coca leaves strewn over the bones. I found it pretty interesting how these archaeological remains were being treated in a non-academic way.

At Karajia, mummy-containing sarcophagi were built high on a cliff.

Here you can see three different sets. On the right, there is only one damaged sarchophagus; the rest have been destroyed by looters and an empty niche left behind. In the center is a well-preserved group, 2.5 metres tall, some decorated with human skulls on top. Finally, on the left is a simpler mausolem, also decorated with molded faces and paint, but less well-preserved.

It was amazing to think how the original builders managed to get up to those niches and carry the equipment needed to create the tombs as well as the remains they were going to place there. Walking along a path below, we found more bones that had once come from tombs; the whole cliff-side must have had many more burials that have since been destroyed by time and man.

It’s nice to know that the archaeological remains are now being valued and safe-guarded as an economic resource rather than being looted. I don’t know how much revenue goes to the local communities, but we paid them directly for lunch, refreshments and even horses (for those too lazy to walk to the sites) so it doesn’t all go to outside stakeholders.

On two legs or four, the walk to Karajia was beautiful.

We saw more gorgeous scenery the next day when we went to Gocta falls.

The waterfall is said to be 771m tall and, depending on which souce you quote, is the third, fifth or sixteenth tallest in the world.

And did I mention it was only ‘discovered’ in 2005? Kind of odd, considering it’s so big, but it further demonstrates what little notice the outside world, and the Peruvian government, has taken of this region.

This is definitely somewhere you might consider travelling to independently, unless you enjoy walking at a snail’s pace with the rest of the group. We tried to stick together so we could listen to the local nature guide, but it was physically impossible for me to go that slowly.

As luck would have it, we went ahead and were able to reach the waterfall, sun ourselves on a rock and head back in time to miss most of the huge downpour that fell in the afternoon. We also got to eat our lunch at a more reasonable time. I suspect the rest of the group wished they had stopped a little less and taken fewer pictures on the way there.

Even if you choose to pay for a horse once on location, both trips still involve some hiking, traversing steps and mud, which the horses can’t do. If you’re an averagely fit person you should have no problem. The tour to Karajia and Quiocta cavern cost 50 soles per person, excluding lunch, boot rental (2 soles) and entrance fees (10 soles). The trip to Gocta cost 30 soles, excluding lunch and entrance fees (5 soles).There are a selection of agencies on the main square in Chachapoyas, but prices vary a little bit so check around for the cheapest. Chachapoyas Backpackers have lovely owners who can also arrange tours.