Floreana, Galápagos

Monday, January 14, 2019

Our day started very early with a 6:30am walk with professional photographer, Walter Perez. We traveled to Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island, aboard a zodiac, then disembarked in shallow water – a “wet landing.” Early morning is the best time to find turtles before they return to sea, then to witness the flamingoes beginning to feed.

Floreana was named for Juan Jose Flores, the first president of Ecuador. This island has numerous extinct volcanic cones. While there is foliage here, the plants that rely on fresh water were still brown. With a little rain, they will green up again. Other plants that can survive with brackish (seawater mixed with fresh) water do seem to be thriving.

Ecuador had sent a group of convicts to populate the island in the 1800s, but that didn’t last long. It was a stopping point for whalers, and there is a spot where travelers would leave their mail to be picked up by another passing ship heading in the opposite direction.

Floreana is home to flamingos, shore birds, and a turtle nesting beach. After making a wet landing (disembarking in the water), we hiked to the nesting beach where we were treated to the sight of a few turtles on the beach, and many others in the water. The females come to this beach at night to lay their eggs, we were able to see their tracks as they made their way up the beach. Some turtles were mating in the water.

We also saw a yellow-crowned night heron, some least sandpipers and a semi-palmated plover, as well as a brown penguin and several frigate birds at this beach.

On our way to a brackish pond where flamingos nest, we saw a blue-footed booby feeding her chick. She would fly out to the sea for food, then return to her nest. The chick sticks its mouth into the mother’s mouth to take the food.

There were quite a few flamingos moving around. We were able to see a nest across the pond with several young chicks. The flamingos are white when they are born; they don’t acquire their pink color until they are old enough to begin feeding on the plankton in the pond. The mother regurgitates a type of “milk” from the plankton that she feeds the chick.

In the afternoon, we moved to a different beach on Floreana, at Post Office Bay. In the past, whale ships would stop here for water, and to drop off letters for home at the “Post Office.” Ships passing in the opposite direction would stop here and pick up whatever letters they could on their route. We wrote a few postcards and dropped them. We also picked up one to deliver to Plymouth, Minnesota. It’s not exactly on our way, but it will be fun to try to complete the delivery.

 

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Española, Galápagos Islands

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The day started with a review of the rules of snorkeling – a good reminder since it’s been a few years since we’ve snorkeled. Then we were fitted with wet suits, flippers and masks. We had also been told to bring rash guards to protect us from the sun and from sea jellies (correct term for jellyfish here).

We are anchored near Española, one the oldest of the islands, estimated at 4.5 million years.  It is slowly being reclaimed by the sea. The island is unoccupied by humans, but is home to marine iguanas and sea lions. We went to Gardner Bay to try out our snorkeling skills, while more experienced snorkelers went to deeper waters. Although Mark could have gone with that group, he stayed with me.

 

The water in Gardner Bay is quite warm, in the 70’s. We stayed near shore for our practice session, where high waves churned the water, making it difficult to see anything but the floaters in my eyes. Tomorrow, we can start snorkeling in earnest.

Lindblad/National Geographic offers several classes during the week. Today’s was on photography, so I went hoping to pick up a few pointers. I’m a rank amateur, I don’t have heavy, bulky equipment, I just have a passion to photograph the beauty around me.

Later in the afternoon, we returned to the island, at Punta Suarez, for a nice long hike. We engaged in boulder hopping most of the way, with the trail going through shrubbery and along the shore, to a cliff edge where many seabirds were soaring on the wind. There are lots of sea lions here (many females come here to give birth), along with crabs and marine iguanas. One sea lion was in labor, she was very uncomfortable and moaning in pain. We thought she might deliver before we returned from our walk but she wasn’t so lucky. By the end of our walk, she had moved to shallow water, but was still in pain.

Among the many birds were a few blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies with eggs and hatchlings, some young wave albatross and the Espanola mockingbird. The mature albatross lay their eggs near a cliff. These large birds need to jump off a cliff to get enough lift to fly. Nazca young will play dead if they feel threatened.

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San Cristóbal Island, Galápagos

Saturday, January 12, 2019

We had to leave the hotel in Quito at 5:30 this morning to catch a flight to our next destination. We arrived here in the dark and we are leaving in the dark.

The Galápagos Islands (official name Archipiélago de Colón) is a volcanic archipelago with 19 islands. The islands and surrounding marine reserve are located at the confluence of three ocean currents. They are isolated from other bodies of land, so that animal life has evolved in ways that are particularly adapted to their environment, different from their relatives elsewhere.

The Galápagos Islands are best known as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As a young man, he visited in 1835 to study the volcanic formations. While there, he was struck by how various species of bird and animal differed greatly from island to island.

The islands have been visited by many peoples, but there is no evidence of long-term occupation until the 1800’s. Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands in 1832, naming them the Archipelago of Ecuador. They were joined soon after by some artisans and farmers. In the late 1800s, a few attempts were made to establish sugar cane plantations on San Cristóbal Island and Isabela Island. Over the next few decades, settlers arrived from Europe and the United States as well.

In the early 1900s, Ecuador attempted to sell the islands to raise cash. The US had expressed interest in buying them for military use, as they were strategically close to the Panama Canal. The US was permitted to establish a naval base on Baltra Island during WWII. After the war, they facilities were given to the Ecuadoran government, which then established their own military base.

A large part (97.5%) of the Islands was designated a national park in 1959. The population at that time was less than 2,000 people. by 2010, the number had increased to over 25,000, many of them fishermen and farmers, who have resisted some of the restrictions imposed by the park service. There have been violent confrontations between some of the locals and the park service in the 1990s and 2000s. Illegal fishing within the reserve is a serious problem.

In 1978, UNESCO recognized the Islands as a World Heritage Site; in 1986, 27,000 square miles of ocean around the islands was a marine reserve; and in 1990, the archipelago became a whale sanctuary.

There are only about 500 native and endemic plant species here. Over the years, another 700 have been introduced, whether accidental or intentional, and they are taking over and eliminating the native species. Goats, dogs, pigs, rats, cats, mice, etc. have also been brought here, and they too are wreaking havoc on the native species on animals and plants.

We reached Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island, the capital city of the Galápagos Islands, in the late morning. Here we were greeted by several sea lions and iguanas, while we waited to be transferred by Zodiacs to our ship, the National Geographic Endeavour II. There are 87 passengers aboard, along with 63 staff (biologists, guides, physician and crew).

After orientation, safety briefing and lunch, we returned to town to visit a local interpretation center at the foot of Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Bird Hill). We took a short hike to observe the natural vegetation and wildlife (including a few swimmers below the hill). There were lots of small iguanas, several bird species, and some carpenter bees along the way.

It was a vigorous walk. There are over 80 tourist ships that operate within the islands. The government regulates which island each of those ships can visit each day. They also assign specific times that the ship’s tour groups can visit each of the sites. As a result, our time is short in any one spots. Also, the sun rises around 6:00am and sets around 6:00pm, another constraint on our time. All parks must be vacated by sunset.

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Last Day in Mashpi

Friday, January 11, 2019

On this, our last day in Mashpi, we took a short hike where we observed a few more birds, butterflies, and even a millipede and an iguana. The iguana flexed his throat in agitation, he looked almost fluorescent against the wall he was occupying.

We left Mashpi at 11:30 for our bumpy, winding trip back to Quito. It’s a bit of a bone shaker. If we weren’t wearing our seatbelts, we’d find it difficult to remain in our seats.

We get up very early tomorrow morning, so it was early to bed tonight.

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Mashpi Dragonfly and Waterfalls

Thursday afternoon, January 10, 2019

Mashpi Lodge has a an open-air cable car ride – The Dragonfly, which carries its passengers on a 45 minute ride over the forest canopy, at up to 650’ above the ground. The setup looks similar to a ski lift, with two main stations and six towers. At one point, riders can disembark to hike to a waterfall and enjoy a swim. The ride is about 1.25 miles each way, and the cars move at about 160’ per minute, giving the riders plenty of time to examine the trees and plants below and around them.

As we rode above the canopy, we enjoyed views of the river flowing through the forest, a couple of waterfalls,  and all of the vegetation, including the Mashpi Magnolia tree. We could see our lodge and the Life Center from a distance.

After the Dragonfly ride, we took a hike to one of the waterfalls. It was tough going, down a narrow, twisting and muddy path, but well worth the effort. The return hike back up gave us a workout that we could still feel the next day.

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Mashpi Cloud Forest

Thursday morning, January 10, 2019

What’s a cloud forest? How does it differ from a rainforest? These were questions we had after coming to Mashpi. The area feels and looks like some of the rainforests we’ve visited. The difference is that a cloud forest is almost always covered in fog. Low-level clouds are frequently at the same altitude as the plants. We rarely see the sun here, and it rains most days for an hour or . Since we are close to the equator, the temperature doesn’t vary much throughout the year, between 71-75 degrees. This provides a long growing season so the trees and plants grow quite tall and large.

This morning, we visited the Hummingbird Garden at Mashpi Lodge. Of the 130 species of hummingbird in Ecuador, 22 can be found here. Hummingbirds have the fastest metabolism of all warm-blooded animals, their hearts beating more than 1,200 times a minute. They can hover like a drone as well as fly in all directions – forward, back, side to side, and all around. This was the first time we had ever seen them perch, although they don’t sit still for long. When they do, they move so fast that they may already out of sight by the time the camera fires.

We were told the names of some of the hummingbirds that came to the garden, but I don’t remember most of them. I can remember, however, how delightfully mesmerizing and beautiful they are. Unlike the mostly brown ones we see at home, these are blue, green, red, yellow, black, and all combinations of colors. As I watched them flit from tree to feeder and back again, I couldn’t help but wonder if they are the inspiration for fairies.

Besides filling the hummingbird feeders (which are quickly emptied), the staff put out pieces of banana, and where there’s nectar and fruit, there will be other creatures wanting to get their share, including a squirrel that grabbed an entire banana and took it up into a tree.

 

 

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Quito to Mashpi: 70 miles in 3.5 Hours

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

We left Quito at 9am to head to Mashpi Lodge. The lodge is only about 70 miles away, but it takes 3.5 hours to get there, descending about 6,000’ and crossing the equator three times. Ecuador’s topography makes it difficult to get anywhere in a short time.

On our way, we stopped at Tulipe Archaeological Site. This was the home of the Yumbo culture between 800 and 1660 AD. It’s speculated that they left the area after a major eruption of Pichincha Volcano in 1660. About 2,000 pyramids and mounts have been unearthed here. Surrounding roads show that they regularly traveled to the coast, probably trading with other people along the way. The roads were dug several feet into the ground, so that they were partly sheltered.

The Yumbos built ceremonial pools that were located to allign with certain points in the sky. Several have been excavated at this site.

Mashpi Lodge is a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World, meaning that it is a boutique hotel in an extraordinary place with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability, authenticity and excellence. The lodge had to go through a rigorous evaluation process, and must be committed to protecting the cultural and natural heritage, embracing sustainable tourism practices.

The lodge is nestled on a plateau in the Andes, at about 3,100 feet above sea level. The large windows make us feel like we’re staying in a treehouse.

When we arrived, we received a short orientation, then set out for our first activity: a visit to the Life Center. It was about a 1.5 mile hike through Jurassic Park.

At the Life Center, we were able to observe several birds and animals in their natural habitat. Guides put out bananas to attract the birds. An agouti and a tayra also joined the feast.

There is also a butterfly farm here, with several species of orchid as well, where we learned about the metamorphosis from egg to butterfly. Most of the butterflies here are the large Owl butterfly, with its fluorescent upper wings that contrast with the brown, black and white under wing that are most often displayed. Their caterpillars look like something out of Aliens.

Owl Butterfly

So much beauty in one place. We were definitely exhausted by the end of the day.

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