martes, 20 de septiembre de 2011

Adios Quito, Hola Galapagos

After getting back from Tiputini, we had to get to work.  We had group presentations throughout the week and our final on Friday.  But, Tuesday, we went into Quito to get our CENSO cards.  It's basically our we're not tourists, but not Ecuadorians ID card saying we're allowed to be here and one of the things necessary to admit us to the Galapagos.  We went to this sketchy building and took numbers and then sat around for 2 hours waiting for our numbers to be called.  I was the last person in our group, and people kept getting theirs and then leaving in groups of four to take taxis back.  Finally I got mine and we made it back to the university with 10 minutes to spare before my class started- just enough time to grab some lunch to take to class with me.  Then, Wednesday morning, we went into Quito to visit the artisan market there.  After going around there for a bit, we went to the mall.  It was so weird to go from being in a market to a fancy mall.

Friday, we had our exam and it was very anticlimactic.  It's so weird to be done with a class after only 3 weeks.  It went well though :)  Then, Saturday we went to Puente Chiche, one of the tallest bridges in Quito to bungee jump.  It was actually a swing jump though.  The rope was tied to the other side of the bridge so you jumped out and then once the rope was taught you'd swing over and then go back and forth.  It was super fun, although jumping out over the ravine was a bit scary.  I jumped out off the bridge and ended up doing a front flip before i started swinging!

Sunday, we met at the university at 5:15am to head to the Galapagos.  We had to put out bags through a special scanner to check for organics before checking in for our flight.  Then they weighed all our bags, but they didn't charge anyone for being overweight.  To go to the Galapagos, you can only have 20 kilos, so my friend Sam and I shared a package to mail all our books.  We flew through Guayaquil, but we only stopped for about a half hour and offloaded some people and got some new ones- we didn't even get off the plane.  Then we flew onward to San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos.  The landing strip was just a runway along the side of the island which was a bit crazy.  We landed and then went around a circle and back to the middle of the runway where the building is located.  We had to go through a customs area and they checked our IDs and rechecked our bags for organics.  The GAIAS staff met us outside the airport and we loaded onto buses that took us to the university.  The university is one building on the edge of town right in front of a nice sandy beach full of sea lions.  The wildlife here is so tame because there isn't much predation and so they just coexist with people.  We had a bit of orientation and lunch and then we pretty much hung out on the beach the rest of the afternoon.  We played soccer on the beach and then went swimming.

Then, at 4, our host families came to pick us all up.  It was really funny because we were all sitting on the steps outside the university watching the families come wondering if this was our family.  My host family is really awesome.  I have a 4 year old sister and a 12 year old brother who are both really cool.  We live in the back of town and my room overlooks all of town with the ocean beyond it.  It's so small!  Most of the island is preserved and belongs to the national park, but there are about 5,000 residents in town.

sábado, 10 de septiembre de 2011

In the Jungle

After returning from Banos at midnight, I had to be at the university at 6:30 to head to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon.  To get to the middle of the jungle, we took a bus to the airport, flew ~25min to Coca, took a 10 min bus ride to a hotel on the Napo River where we took ~1.5-2 hour boat ride to an oil rig where we got off, got on the Maxus Road, a road built by the oil companies and the only one out in the jungle, and rode on it for over an hour to the Tiputini River where we got on another boat which we rode 2 hours to get to the station.  The station is across the river from the Yasuni National Park, an area where the Waorani Indians lived untouched until the oil companies arrived in the 70s.  The Yasuni is also one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.  The amount of species found per hectare is phenomenal.  Walking up the stairs from the river to camp was like walking into a different world.  We walked straight into the dining area, an open air room and looking out the arches into the forest seemed more like we were looking at a mural, than real life, until we heard the woolly monkeys jumping from tree to tree above us.  It was absolutely incredible.
Once we had some snacks and orientation we walked to our cabins which were rather far away.  They were super nice, aside from only having lights from 6-9:30pm and only cold water in the showers.  We had nice bunk beds and everything was super clean.

We spent the whole week in Tiputini and went on some very long hikes through the jungle with local guides who were awesome.  They were really good at speaking slowly and explaining things simply so we could understand with our limited Spanish, but they were so knowledgeable.  We'd stop at a tree and they'd explain how it can be used to cure stomach aches and then we'd go to another similar looking tree which was toxic.  I was amazed at how they knew all this.  We also got to go up in a tower built on an emergent tree (a tree that rises above the canopy) which was amazing.  All you could see in every direction was tree tops.  We also got to go on canopy bridges- rope bridges at the canopy level and there were monkeys all around us.

Wednesday night we went out in a boat to go caiman watching.  Caimans are like small alligators.  We saw a few small ones as well as a bunch of capybaras.  Capybaras are the world's largest rodents, but they are super cute.  Then Thursday afternoon we went on a flotada- floating down the river with life jackets on.  We didn't see anything, but included in the animals that live in the Tiputini are anacondas, piranas and dolphins.

Friday we left at 7am to head back to Quito, which was a fun adventure.  The first boat's motor was a bit sketch and we didn't think it was going to start, but thankfully it did.  Then it was raining and everyone curled up in the middle of the boat to stay warm and dry.  I stayed on the seat along the edge and laid down and pulled my hood over my head to try to stay warm and dry, but the water sprayed up under my rain jacket and my shirt underneath was rather soaked.  The rain cleared up towards the end of the boat ride and when we got out at the Maxus Road, a bunch of Waorani people met us and were selling jewelry and I'm pretty sure bananas  and a few other things.  Then we rode back to the oil rig where we waited forever.  Finally one boat came, but I'd just started a card game, so I waited even longer.  Our boat came another hour later and was a little yacht-like boat with airplane-style seats in the cabin.  They started the boat with a lot of trouble and all of these awful noises were beeping and after five minutes they stopped and we were on our way.  That is until after 25min part of the motor failed and we were just floating along.  Luckily, another boat came rather quickly and gave us a propeller and they quickly repaired the motor and we sped back to the hotel in Coca.  Once we arrived, our professor informed us that our flight had been cancelled due to rain.  It was sunny and hot in Coca, so there must have been awful rain in Quito or something, I don't know.  So we hung out at this hotel for a while and Esteban was on his phone pretty much the whole time.  I felt really bad for him having to organize with the airport, university and hotel.  The airport put us up in another hotel for the night, so we got a bus to take us there and got to spend the night in Coca.  Then we got up this morning and flew back to Quito without any problems.

It's all about the Journey, Not the Destination

Saturday, I met 8 friends at USFQ to head to Banos, an adventure town known for extreme sports, hot springs and waterfalls.  We decided to get our own bus because everyone said the buses to and from Banos are super dangerous plus we figured it'd be faster.  One of the girls, Miranda's, host sister had a friend who drives a 14 passenger van so he was driving us and all was fine and dandy until we were about 45min away from Banos.  There was some sort of checkpoint set up by the police and we were stopped and I really don't understand exactly what happened, but something about his papers for his vehicle not matching his ability to transport us or something... all I know is that we all got out and left him and Miranda's host sister with the police and they had to go back to the station with the cops where they stayed until past 9pm and we began walking along the side of the highway trying to figure out what to do. We talked to some locals who told us various buses we could take to get to Banos and so we began waving down buses and asking if we could get to Banos.  Miranda is excellent at Spanish, so she did all this and eventually we got on a bus that took us to some station in a random Ecuadorian town.  Then we found out the bus to Banos was at a different terminal so we went up to get taxis and the fact that we were only taking the taxis to the new station didn't quite translate, so 4 people got into a taxi and the other 4 of us were trying to get a taxi when these high school boys asked if we were going to Banos.  They were too and they'd flagged down a pickup to take them and said we could come and there was this guy in a clown suit following us around and telling us to go with them.  I was terrified for my life, but my friend Beth who'd been talking to the boys said yes and so we hopped into the back of the pickup.  After talking to the boys for a few minutes and passing signs pointing to Banos, I felt better and then found out we were actually in a fairly legit taxi, it just happened to be a pickup truck.  Finally, 8 hours later, we arrived in Banos and we waited at the bus station where we met up with the other half of our group.  Then we went and acquired a hostel for $7 each, scheduled rafting and canyoning for the next day and got some food, and all was much better.

The boys we rode in the pickup with had been going to the hot springs, so after eating we decided that sounded wonderful so we changed into our bathing suits and walked to the hot springs to find what looked like a municipal pool with an insanely long line.  None of us wanted to wait, but there was this dinosaur bus thing that looked awesome, so we all hopped on.  It was by far the best dollar I've ever spent.  It was essentially like a roller coaster train, but on wheels and we drove all around the city and the driver would weave so we'd slither along and we went to this traffic circle that was the perfect size for the dino ride and we rode in circles around it like 5x.  It was so fun!  Then we just wandered around the city and then went on this party bus up the volcano overlooking the city.  There was some comedy show going on and a ton of people up there, but I had no idea what was going on or why so many people we up there.  We stayed for what seemed like forever, and then the party bus took us to a discoteca, but my friend Polly and I were both super tired so we just skipped out and walked back to our hostel.

Sunday, we met at the adventure place where we'd made our reservations and we got on the bus to go whitewater rafting.  We drove for like an hour to get to the place we were rafting, but it was totally worth it.  We ended up with the most experienced guide in our boat and he was amazing.  He's 23 and a professional kayaker and was hillarious.  He had the girls take turns sitting on the front of the boat which was super fun.  I thought I was gonna fall out at first, and it was a bit scary seeing yourself being steered into the largest rapid, but it was amazing!  Definitely the best place to sit when rafting.  When we were done rafting, we got back on the bus and lunch was included, which in the US means you get an apple and a pb&j, but in Ecuador, it means a 3 course meal, which I was a huge fan of.

Then the bus took us directly to the place where we were canyoning which was awesome!  It was just 6 of us with one guy from England and everyone else went back.  They gave us wetsuits and harnesses and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  Once we were all geared up, our guide took us to the middle of this huge waterfall and started tying his rope into a piece of metal in the rock and then he began explaining how to rappel to us... in Spanish.  I was terrified and then Polly just hopped up and began going down.  The first part we just rappelled down about 15 feet, with the waterfall gushing over our ankles as we went.  I was so scared and even though I was told numerous times to keep my feet flat as I went down, it was more natural to go on the ball of my foot, until I slipped a couple feet from the bottom.  The guide just lowered me the rest of the way to where I could stand, and I have some awesome burises on my legs.  Then we walked alongside the water to the next drop where we slide down the drop which was super fun.  Then to get to the next drop, we had to go through the water to a boulder with a ledge.  We were clipped in, but I was so scared, the guide had to come get me and hold my hand to get to the ledge.  Then we had to go off the edge of what was more than a 60ft drop.  The guide essentially had to push me off, but it was totally worth it.  We had to rappel down about 6ft and then the wall just disappeared and we swung in and out of the waterfall as we were lowered down.  It was by far the craziest thing I've ever done, but it was definitely worth it.  Then our guide waved to us pointing to the trail back up and disappeared.  The walk back up was almost as much of an adventure, with ladders ascending the steep mountainside.  Once we made it back up to the little hut we were dropped off at, our guide was waiting for us with hot tea which was amazing.  We decided it tasted like McDonald's sweet tea warmed up.  Then we chatted with Christian, the guy from England as we waited for our ride back to town.  He moved to Ecuador about a month ago looking for a job as an English teacher, but isn't really ready to work, so he's just been traveling around and doing cool stuff.

Once we got back to Banos, we went back to our hostel and picked up our bags and then changed and went in search of a place for dinner.  We couldn't find anywhere and time was running low until the last bus was leaving, so we got some empanadas and plantains from street vendors.  Then we couldn't find our bus at the station, so Miranda went and talked to the lady we bought our tickets from.  She said the bus was on its way, but after our adventures getting to Banos, we didn't want a repeat.  Miranda kept going back to the lady and once our bus arrived, she came out and walked us to the bus like little children.  The bus ride back went swimmingly and once we got to the station in the South of Quito, we got out and it was too late for local buses so we went and got a taxi.  We were able to get a pickup truck taxi with a cover over the back to take us all the way back to Cumbaya which was perfect since it was midnight.

jueves, 1 de septiembre de 2011


The start of week 2 of class, and I'm getting the hang of things.  Monday, my friend Polly and I went into Quito in the morning before class and went hiking in parque metropolitano.  It is a huge park on the East edge of Quito and there were some awesome hiking trails.  We ran into some runners and mountain bikers as we explored.  The we came back to Cumbaya and went to the cafeteria at USFQ where we had a nice, large Ecuadorian lunch.  I am generally not a fan of this huge meal because I prefer to snack throughout the day, but after out hike it was nice to eat bread, soup, a main dish, and dessert.

Tuesday, I went back to the aerobics class with some of the girls in my ecology class.  The professors at USFQ are all pretty chill, especially with the workout type classes, so we've "joined" the class for the few mornings we're around to attend.  Not only is step aerobics interesting to figure out in itself, but doing it in Spanish just makes it that much more interesting.  Then we went to what is my new favorite place, the crepe station on campus.  They make everything from nutella to burrito crepes right in front of you, and they're so delicious :)  Then, after my ecology class, I went with my host brother to one of his friend's houses and it was the largest, nicest house I've ever been to.  When we arrived, my host brother asked where the party was at and his friend lead us down like 4 floors to a gorgeous patio with a stained glass window on the house next to it.  It was a lot of fun and we just hung out and they played the guitar and sang.

Then, Wednesday and Thursday we went to Maquipucuna.  It is a reserve in a tropical cloud forest in Northwest Ecuador.  A tropical cloud forest is a forest in the mountains at the altitude where the clouds hit the mountain (~1000m).  It is generally a very humid and wet place, but we got lucky and only had to deal with the humidity while we were there.  We arrived Wednesday to this awesome lodge in a lush jungle:  We went on an hour long hike after dropping our stuff off where we learned about some of the different plants in the area and then we had an amazing lunch at the lodge.  Then we went to one of the nearby streams and sifted for bugs and learned about the different types we found and where they prefer to live.  Our professor's wife is a stream ecologist and she was teaching us all of this and she would just pick up some fairly nasty looking bugs and be super excited and then give them to us to hold.  If you were standing near her, she would just set the bug in your hands.  Luckily I was only handed smaller ones, but there was one called perro de agua which made me jump when I saw it.  Then we took some water quality measurements and hiked to a different stream to compare/contrast.  Then we had free time at the lodge til dinner, a lecture reviewing the stuff we did in the stream and then some of us went on a night hike which was incredibly disappointing.  We just walked along the main road and didn't really see much.

Thursday morning, we got up early to go bird watching.  I soon reaffirmed the fact that I am not a birder and really don't care that much about birding.  We hadn't eaten breakfast and went on an hour and a half hike in silence in search of birds which I could never find.  Our guide had this really cool scope and zoomed in on some sweet birds I was able to see (marmot and toucan!), but overall, I was dying of hunger and boredom.  We returned for breakfast which was super exciting and then embarked on a 2 hour hike on an ancient trail to a waterfall.  The trail was amazingly beautiful and because it was so old, it cut down 3-10 feet in most places so the vegetation was growing up around us :)

The waterfall was super cool, although the water was quite cold.  There was a huge boulder covered in moss in front of it and we slide down it and then there was a cave up inside/behind the waterfall.  It was incredibly rocky and slippery, and a fair amount of us got scrapes and battle wounds, but it was totally worth it.  We then ate our pb&js and hiked back.  Towards the end of the hike I was fading fast, so when we returned to have a late lunch prepared for us, I was super pumped.  We then packed up our stuff and headed back to Quito.  We had a nice stop for a half hour on the way to wait for them to finish some road work.  Instead of closing down part of the road to do work, they just plopped down in the middle of the road stopping traffic both ways :/

On Monday, we head to Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the  Eastern Amazon region of Ecuador where we'll spend the whole week!  

First Week of Class

Last Wednesday we started class.  The program is set up so that we have one class at a time every day for 3 hours for three weeks.  My first class, tropical ecology, is here in Quito and then I will go to San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos for the rest of my classes.  My class is from 2-5 every day, which is an awkward time in the middle of the day, but we have so many field trips that it hardly makes a difference.  Wednesday was a general review of ecology, thursday we learned about paramo ecosystems (Northern Andean ecosystems above 3200m) and then friday we went to Paluguillo Reserve, a paramo.

We met at the university at 7:30am and drove about an hour and a half to Paluguillo where we were dropped off at the top of a 4300m peak at the continental divide.  We had talked about Mt. Washington in New Hampshire being the windiest place on Earth in class, but I'm convinced this place is.  We stepped off the bus into about 36 degree weather with wicked winds.  I had enough clothes to keep my core warm, but when our professor told us to wear a hat and gloves, I thought he was overexaggerating.  My host mom and other Quito natives keep telling me it's cold when it's like 65, so I figured I'd be fine, but my professor knew what was up.  Luckily, one of the guys had an extra hat for me to borrow.  After taking far too much time learning about the continental divide and the plants that live in the highest parts of the paramo, we embarked on our 5 hour hike down.  After a couple hundred meters, we turned a corner out of the wind and I instantly felt a whole lot better, although I hiked virtually the whole way with my hands in my pockets.  The hike was gorgeous with lots of grasses and lagoons and as we neared the end and got back into a more forest-like area there were some waterfalls as well.  Our busses met us at the bottom and then we drove about 15 minutes to some hot springs, which was amazing.  The warm waters were a nice welcome after out brisk hike :)

Then, on Saturday, I went with a bunch of the other students to Otavalo, a town about 2 hours outside of Quito with the country's largest indigenous market.  We went around and haggled for goods- which was an interesting undertaking.  Not only am I bad at haggling, but I had to do it in Spanish as well, but overall it was successful.  Then a few of us took a taxi up to a condor reserve which was basically a small zoo with only birds.  After we'd seen everything, people were gathering in the amphitheater and we got to see a flight show.  They brought out different birds and talked about their habitats and had them fly around which was really cool and they talked about the paramo which was really cool since we'd just learned about it.  At the end, we were able to go hold a little bird whose name I never caught which was also super awesome.  Then, we hiked a couple kilometers to El Lechero, a "magic tree" that is said to have healing powers and grant good luck.  The fact that we were able to get a taxi back into town, and safely take the bus,taxi and other bus back safely at night leads me to believe the visit was well worth while :)