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.

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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?

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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.

A postcard from Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno, Cuenca

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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.

Waste disposal and recycling

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This sign on a bus in Ecuador says, ‘Don’t vote for trash out the window.’

[Obviously it’s supposed to say ‘Don’t throw trash out the window’, but despite Spanish being one of the easiest languages to spell, I often see people mixing up votar and botar. But that’s another story.]

While it might seem like common sense, or at least common courtesy, not to throw rubbish out of a moving vehicle, it isn’t in Bolivia, Peru and, to a certain extent, Ecuador. But at least Ecuador puts up signs like this one and provides bags for rubbish on bus journeys. And since I’ve only seen someone throwing rubbish out the window once, I’ve got to assume it’s working.

This behavior seems incredibly selfish and ignorant to me, and I get really mad when I see people doing it. However, the other side of it is that people make a living sorting through rubbish and recycling salvageable material. If someone is always ready to go through your waste for you, then you don’t really have any need or incentive to do it yourself, let alone think twice before littering in a public place that will get cleaned up quickly.

If you’d like to find out more about recycling and the informal economy, this interesting article explains about the system in Lima (which is very much like that in La Paz). For a look at Uruguay’s recyclers, see our blog post.