I am travelling through Ecuador and Peru this summer. Left London on 19 June, and will get back to London on 16 August. I'm writing this post as I travel, though to be honest it's almost a month since I left the UK and had yet to blog.
So the overall plan was/is: UK --> Bilsa Biological Station (within Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve in the province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador) --> Quito --> Galápagos Islands --> Cusco --> Machu Picchu --> Wayqecha Cloud Forest (near Cusco, Peru) --> UK (Holt, Norfolk for Zoology field trip) --> Iceland --> Spain? --> UK
Part 1 - Ecuador
I booked my flights in January/February - prices were still kinda alright, but having to plan travels during school term meant I overlooked some stuff.
Lesson #1 Book multi-city tickets if arriving and leaving from different places! I booked 2 one-way tickets instead and it cost me some $100 more. Felt so dumb when I realised this.
So as always with booking cheap long-haul flights, it's a trade off between cost and transit time. In my case, I chose to try and keep things as cheap as possible and ended up with lots of transits - 1 night in Madrid and 1 night in Cusco.
Upon arrival in Quito, I was supposed to be picked up at the airport by someone sent by Fundacíon Jatun Sacha, a local NGO that runs conservation programmes in 5 different stations in Ecuador, of which Bilsa was one. I waited for 45 mins, and nada (nothing). So I decided to take a taxi to the office myself, since I thought I was gonna go there anw. Arrived at the office to find out that it was closed, and cos I thought they had arranged for me to stay with a host family or sth that night, I had not booked a hostel prior. So I ended up just asking the taxi driver to bring me to a hostel near the bus station.
Lesson #2 it's a great idea to have at least a basic grasp of the language of the place you're travelling to. Or a dictionary. The taxi driver didn't speak English and all I had was my super basic and broken Spanish. But hey, at least I got the message across somehow.
Booked myself on the inter-city bus ($6) from Quito to Quininde, left the next day. Was a 5-6 hour journey, clean and comfortable enough, with a number of stops where they waited long enough for you to pop to the loo/get some snacks. In Quininde, the org had given some rather vague directions on how to proceed from there, along the lines of "wait at the pharmacy opposite the gas station. There are usually a lot of trucks parked there, and one will leave for La Y de la Laguna every 1-2 hours. Check that it is going to La Y before getting on." Waiting there, I was stressing out that the last one would have left without me knowing (no one there speaks English). But thankfully people around were nice enough to let me know when the truck to La Y arrived.
Lesson #3 there are some genuinely nice people who want to help (esp if you look like a lost foreigner I guess...) and I have been blessed to meet many of these people. But still, be cautious cos some may want to rip you off etc.
Truck (known as rancherio?) arrived and I hopped on quick as I could, and could thankfully find a seat with my bags piled on me (and the boy sitting next to me offered to help with one). Other people were standing at the back or on top along with squawking chickens and gas cylinders and what not. Would have been a very uncomfortable 2 hours.
At La Y (a small village) I was to "look for Mr. XX and follow the instructions that was sent for me". The guy wasn't around, and once again I was 'stranded' (I was supposed to get to Bilsa that night). Thankfully someone else figured I was a volunteer with Bilsa and showed me a place to stay and eat and stuff. I was so hungry (had a bar for lunch), and I wasn't sure what the 'restaurant' had, I asked for "anything". They gave me fried plantains and a huge omelette - with cheese in it :( Met the guy later on to arrange the ride for the next day.
Lesson #4 They put cheese in everything (including soups, as I discovered later), and things never go as planned. But then again, we always knew that.
Finally left for Bilsa the next day, in a rather beaten-up truck. Got stuck in the mud, took at least 30 mins I think to get out. The truck then dropped us off at a minute village called Santa Isabel, from where I had to proceed on foot. There happened to be a guy with a mule going the same direction so he carried my big backpack for me. I struggled in the mud, didn't have the foresight to change into my wellies (rubber boots) before heading off, so it was a pretty horrible walk. Thankfully there were a couple other guys heading to their own village on the way who helped me along. Eventually got to Bilsa after maybe an hour plus of walking/struggling/cursing internally.
|The truck got stuck in the mud for like 45 mins or so.|
|The muddy road in to Bilsa. Trust me you don't want to get stuck in one of those. I had to dig my wellies out once.|
At Bilsa for the next 18 or so days, pretty uneventful. The place is really isolated and peaceful, which I really enjoyed. Bilsa is some 4000 hectares of private reserve established since 1957?, set within Mâché-Chindul which is a government reserve. A lot of studies have been done in Bilsa, especially bird diversity surveys, and Bilsa is one of 17 biodiversity hotspots. I was expecting that there would be several researchers there conducting their projects and I would be able to tag along and help out, learn what they're doing etc. Unfortunately, I was most disappointed, and most of Bilsa's current projects revolve around planting seeds (whether fruit or native trees or medicinal plants). I decided to spend some time teaching English in the village school (Escuela Bilsa) and the rest of the time planting seeds (or associated work like making compost, putting sticks around a soon-to-be garden etc). There was an American phd student from Tulane University with a bunch of research assistants at the station as well, and I spent a day out in the field with them, which was really fun. He was studying the dispersal of one of the native palms, whose seeds are part of the diet of an endemic bird, the long-wattled umbrella bird. I also had 2 days of hiking in the forest, which was super awesome. Didn't see many animals while we were in, but during the 2.5 weeks I spent there, I saw lots of birds, frogs, some snakes, lots of insects and other critters. Including my first hummingbird and toucan! Super exciting.
|Histrionic poison arrow frog (Oophaga sylvatica)|
|Megasoma actaeon, I think?|
|Hiking through the South American jungle (:|
|View from one of the disused dorms. We saw a sloth climbing down a tree (presumably to pee/poop?) at dusk one day (:|
Equally exciting, I actually watched 3 of the World Cup matches while I was there. Had to walk 20 mins trying to avoid getting stuck in the mud, then watch black and white TV with lots of static - can't say I don't really care about football! Though tbh it's more cos 1) was the Ecuador match 2) was the USA match and 3) was the quarter finals. I can't rmb which right now, oops
Also read quite a bit there, learnt some Ecuadorean card games and such. I was rather reluctant to leave, cos I would have liked to do more field research and see more animals, and the company was great, but at the same time I knew my parents were rather worried about the lack of communication and I was disappointed enough about being 'short-changed' (cos the organisation explicitly told me Bilsa was where there was lots of research being done that I could help with) that I didn't really want to stay longer and give them more money.
Anyway, so left Bilsa, and walked back to Santa Isabel, where I was supposed to be picked up by the same guy with the truck at 1pm. He showed up about 2pm. I meant to catch the rancherio back to Quininde city at 3pm but well that did not happen, and I had to wait an hour plus for the next one instead. Wasn't complaining too much cos well I can't really, and 2 of my students were also headed to Quininde with their mom so I whiled away my time talking and entertaining them.
Lesson #5 Ecuador time is different from standard time. Give 1-2 hours buffer for everything.
Stayed over at Quininde (Hotel Costa, super nice owner whose grand daughter was around when I was and showed me where the bus station was and brought me there to get my ticket), and made my way back to Quito the next morning.
Quito is really picturesque, especially the historic centre (centro historico), lots of pretty churches side by side all crammed into a tiny area, with alleyways going upslope and downslope all the time. It's pretty easy to figure your way around once you get the hang of the street system. The roads stretch forever, pretty much like in NYC but with names like "Chile" and "9 de Deciembre"...
Meant to spend the only whole day I had in Quito going up El Panecillo, where there's a huge statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the city, to the vivarium to check out the collection of herpetofauna and exploring the rest of the historic centre / Mariscal Sucre (the new town) but all that went down the drain when my bank cards gave me issues at the ATMs. Spent most of the day trying to find a solution instead, and credit to HSBC Premier for really trying to help, though I think they need to fix the problem first (still can't draw money from any ATM, whether in Ecuador or Peru...)
Lesson #6 have a back up plan for getting money! Western Union is super awesome (IMO) cos they saved me from... Starvation and being stranded in a foreign country. With WU, you can get someone to wire money to you, and you collect it from the nearest agent.
Eventually I got what I needed, just in time to leave for the Galápagos islands (it's an archipelago of islands, of which 4 are inhabited - Santa Cruz, with the largest population, Isabela, the largest island, San Cristobal, the provincial capital and Floreana). Easily the most expensive leg of the trip, cos flights + ferry rides + accomms + food are all pretty pricey. When leaving Guayaquil for Baltra, there's a $10 fee for some kind of immigration card, and your bags all need to get screened just in case you're bringing introduced species over. On arrival, the $100 park fee is paid in cash. So I flew into Baltra, then had to take a shuttle bus (free) to the port, a ferry ride ($1) and a bus ($2) to Puerto Ayora, which is the main town on Santa Cruz. It's also possible to fly into San Cristobal, but I think the flights are less frequent. Anw, I had no clue what to do once I touched down and just followed the crowd, and it was easy for me (just one person) to squeeze onto the buses. The shuttle bus was a short ride, but the one to Puerto Ayora was about 40 mins. If you miss it, you'll have to pay $18 for a taxi instead.
My expectations for Galapagos was sky high, cos of all the stories I've heard and read. And by and large, I wasn't disappointed. The Galapagos sea lions are everywhere, as were the marine iguanas and brown pelicans, and I sighted the Blue-footed boobies, Galápagos penguins, Great Frigatebirds, some of Darwin's Finches. The Nazca boobies I only saw on one outcrop, Union Rock, during the Los Tuneles tour when I was on Isabela. But the disappointing bit was the snorkels - everyone came back gushing about the rays and sharks and turtles etc, but I barely saw any :( the few days I was out snorkelling we had pretty crappy weather, and the vis was quite bad. I wished I had the time (and money!) to go diving at least once, cos the wildlife sightings are a lot more spectacular! A bunch of Brits I met went on a 9 day dive cruise and saw whale sharks 4 times! And apparently at Gordon Rocks, there is always a school of hammerhead sharks... There weren't many corals - from what I was told, about 90% of the corals got wiped out during the last El Niño (1998) and they never recovered :( but I did get to snorkel with the sea lions and a penguin and some really huge Pacific Green Turtles so overall it wasn't too bad.
|A Galapagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) snoozing on the bench (cos why not?)|
|A lazy Galapagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) chilling on the ground|
|A blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)|
|One of Darwin's finches, I'm sure...|
I spent most days on Santa Cruz, where things are cheaper (hostel for $10/night, possible to find food for $4, though most cost between $8-15. Though if you cook it of course makes things cheaper.) I spent one night at Isabela, where the cheapest hostel was $15 (hostel pasado del caminante, wifi was rather crappy but they did have unlimited supply of oranges). The ferry ride there (2 hours) cost $25, which I bargained down from $30, and was at 7am. But they don't tell you about the boat taxi from the pier to the ferry which cost $0.50 at Santa Cruz and $1 at Isabela, and it was a horrible ferry ride. I usually love boat rides, but felt rather horrible halfway through it. The ferry back cost $30 cos I bought the ticket right before it was about to leave, at 3pm the next day. Went for the Los Tuneles tour in the morning, where we mostly snorkelled around the lava formations looking for sharks in caves (only saw one unfortunately), and saw lots of blue footed boobies.
Didn't really have enough time to visit all the attractions, only went to Tortuga Bay (a very nice beach but the way there isn't really marked) and the Charles Darwin research centre, as well as the Tour de Bahía (bay tour). Would have been nice to explore the highlands a bit, and go diving!
Ecuador overall is a really really nice country (muy bonito!) and I have not gotten mugged/had any unpleasant experiences (apart from the bank issue). I honestly thought, before coming over, that I was sure to get robbed at some point in Quito, from the stories I read online. But I guess prudence and prayers paid off :)
The people I've met here have all been really nice as well, from super helpful locals to other travellers. Travelling alone has some downsides (fewer eyes to watch out for danger/belongings, fewer discounts...) but also it makes people more willing to chat to strangers, and make friends (:
Part 2 - Peru
From Galapagos I flew to Guayaquil to Lima and now Cusco.
It is cold here, 3399m above sea level. Feeling a bit of the altitude, but really hoping me having gone up higher before will mean I won't get altitude sickness, especially during the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu (I first heard about it here, I think), which I'm starting tomorrow. Super glad there's hot water for showering!
[Update 18 Aug 2014: Put in captions and added links in this post. Gonna write a new post for the rest of Peru, will link once I'm done.]
[Update 18 Aug 2014: Put in captions and added links in this post. Gonna write a new post for the rest of Peru, will link once I'm done.]