Thursday, October 31, 2013

Save the Rainforest!

We recently returned from a visit to the Cuyabeno Reserve, one of the deep Amazon rainforest areas that is accessible to tourists.  Ecuador continues to amaze me in how incredibly diverse one small country (about the size of Colorado) can be.  We boarded a flight in cold, dry Quito and stepped off the plane 30 minutes later in what felt like a steam room.  I've never been anywhere so humid (and I'm from the midwest/worked in Houston).

To help illustrate, let me explain that we were visiting the Amazon in the middle of the "dry season", although that's a complete misnomer, and maybe they should have gone with "slightly less wet season".  It poured - absolutely poured - every single day we were there.  We hiked in knee-high rubber boots which *almost* always protected our lower bodies from the enormous puddles of mud and water pooling everywhere.  One area we hiked through for several hours is apparently a "flooded forest" that is actually underwater six months of the year. 

Having hiked the entire Appalachian Trail for five and a half months, weathering tornadoes, snow, wind, ran, hail, and a storm that killed two people in Virginia, I like to think that we have a pretty solid level of familiarity with the awesome power of mother nature.  Hearing the thunder in the Amazon, however, was a new and amazing experience.  I'm embarrassed to say that I actually said the words "It sounds like the Rainforest Cafe!".

A short plane ride, a two hour bus ride, and a two hour canoe ride later, we arrived at our rustic lodge on "Laguna Grande", or the big lake.  From there, we spent four days exploring the rainforest by foot and canoe.  We spotted caiman (like alligators), six different species of monkeys, a sloth, Amazonian pink river dolphins, and toucans (and countless wacky bugs and frogs).  One couple in our group had the thrill of seeing a giant anaconda soaking up sun on a tree branch, which we missed out on, although there's still no way I was going swimming in that lake.  

We visited the rainforest at a controversial time in Ecuador, as oil drilling has recently started in the Yasuni Reserve, one of the most unique and biodiverse places on this plant.  There are more species of insects in one hectare of land in Yasuni than exists in the entire continent of North America.  There are also indigenous tribes living there that voluntarily have no contact with the outside world and have killed missionaries and other indigenous people who try to contact them or inadvertently get too close.  

In our two months of sitting around dinner tables at hostels and lodges with Ecuadorians, we've gotten a taste of how passionate people are about the Yasuni issue and the current President Rafael Correa's handling of it.  Correa started his presidency with huge improvements to the country's poverty rates, healthcare systems, education, and crime rates.  He also put forward what many considered a groundbreaking proposal surround the Yasuni Reserve, which sits atop billions of dollars worth of crude oil.  For a poor but quickly developing country like Ecuador, where oil accounts for more than a third of public revenues, tapping into these oil reserves is almost irresistible.  

In 2007, Correa proposed to international leaders that if he could raise $3.6B (about half of what Ecuador stands to make by drilling for oil in Yasuni), Ecuador would refrain from allowing drilling.  The money raised would go into research and development of sustainable energy sources.  Since then, only a fraction of the money has been pledged, and meanwhile, the drilling starts.  More than one Ecuadorian has told us they cried when they heard the news that the oil companies were moving forward.  Many others have criticized that the initial proposal was meant to garner support for Correa, and never meant to succeed.  

Since Correa took office in 2006, he has taken drastic steps to increase his power, and some Ecuadorians fear that he is creeping steadily toward dictatorship.  He has changed the constitution several times to oust opposition in congress and increase the number of terms he can serve (he's now in his third).  In a series of battles with the press, he has ejected editors, closed newspapers, and filed lawsuits for crimes like "spreading false information" for criticism of his administration.  Some Ecuadorians have told us that recently, they are most upset that he has prohibited peaceful protests through his control of the police and military.  

So, unfortunately, you and I may never live to see the Yasuni reserve, a sad fact over which many Ecuadorians are understandably highly emotionally-charged.  There are probably unknown species of birds, frogs, and insects there today that will never be discovered.  And after witnessing the beauty and life of the Cuyabeno reserve last weekend, that makes me really, really sad.  If I could have planned our time here over again, I would have sacrificed some sanity and squeezed in a trip to Yasuni.  I feel your pain, Ecuador. 

And now on a brighter note, I'll leave you with some pictures of this stunning place - enjoy!


PS: If you're interested in learning more, here's a great National Geographic article (credit for finding it to my Dad!) on the Yasuni crisis.

PPS: If you're interested in donating to help protect the rainforest, Rainforest Trust ( is a wonderful organization and Brian and I will be donating our Honeyfund charity gifts from our wedding there, in honor of our love of all things outdoors.

Miles and miles of this in all directions

Tree frog hanging out on one of our hikes

The knee-high rubber boots in action. One couple in our group fell off the submerged log that Brian is standing on and got sucked into mud up to their knees.  

Awesome sunsets every night are just one of the many bonuses of all the clouds and rain

Saki monkey (one of six species we saw from our canoe)

Grating yucca as we learned how to make yucca bread from scratch with one of the indigenous tribes along the Cuyabeno River

All smiles grilling the yucca bread

Squirrel monkeys were the most common species of primates we saw

Can you tell that we're birding in this picture?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Can you believe this ash-hole?

So you're going to think I'm just full of hot air, but last weekend* Kelly and I got to see an actual volcano erupt! We spent a long weekend in Banos, a beautiful city in central Ecuador known for its hot springs which are without question currently being peed in by at least 10 Ecuadorian children. You may gather that we didn't have the best experience at the hot springs, which are essentially warm, non-chlorinated, crowded public pools. But the real draw of this city for us was its natural beauty. Banos is home to more than 60 waterfalls, is known as the gateway to the Amazon (which we'll be hitting up in due time), and is located on the foothills of the very active Tungurahua volcano.

Not the best picture due to the cloud cover, but that distinct black puff back there is volcanic ash.
Our first day in town, we threw some snacks and rain gear into a pack and headed up the volcano. Throughout the day, we kept hearing what we assumed was thunder off in the distance. I joked to Kelly that maybe it was the inner rumblings of the volcano. We stopped for lunch at a small hostel/cafe/commune on the way back down the mountain, and just before our food arrived one of the locals popped his head in the door and motioned excitedly for us to come outside. He pointed up to the sky, and lo and behold there was a big black mushroom cloud of ash! After he did some explaining in the most basic Spanish possible for us gringos, we realized that the sound we had been hearing all day actually was the rumbling of the volcano. Apparently, the volcano has been fairly active since 1999, and once or twice a year it goes through eruptions of varying degrees. Luckily for us, this was just a very small eruption, and we were extremely thankful to be witnessing something so unique without being in danger.

Aside from volcano-viewing and pee-swimming, there is a ton to do in Banos. Most of it revolves around adventure sports like rafting, mountain-biking, zip-lining, and canyoning. We chose to do the latter two. Zip-lining over mountains, rivers, and waterfalls was obviously amazing, but for us, canyoning was the highlight of the trip. Canyoning is essentially repelling down waterfalls. For $30 per person, we were driven by a tour company out into the forest where there is a series of 3 waterfalls that are 50, 65, and 150 feet tall, respectively. I wanted to put an exclamation point there, but it just doesn't fit in after the word respectively. Not only was this an extremely beautiful setting, but we got to get right in the thick of it by donning wet suits and repelling down the waterfalls attached to a safety line. The 150 footer was admittedly a bit terrifying, but well worth the adrenaline rush that stuck with us for the rest of the day.

The 150 footer

No seriously, she's having a great time!

As usual, Ecuador continues to amaze us and give us the opportunity to do incredible things at an extremely low cost compared to most other tourist destinations and the U.S. On the docket for the next two weekends...the cloud forest in Mindo and the Amazon rainforest, respectively!

*Editor's Note: I actually wrote this blog a week ago and forgot to post it, so Banos was two weekends ago, and we went to Mindo last weekend so we're a week behind. Which means we're going to the Amazon this weekend!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ecuador in Pictures - Some Favorites!

It's been awhile since we've posted pictures, so I thought I would dedicate a post to some of our favorites so far (with a de-emphasis on my 500 pictures of Galapagos're welcome) .  Ecuador is an incredibly beautiful and diverse place, and it's sometimes hard to describe it in words, so - photos will have to do.  Enjoy!


The sun beginning to fade over Cumbaya Valley in Quito

Horses and tortoises grazing in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

Ecuadorians seem to love these like mini "scenes" and hang them up all over the place.  I get it....they're pretty!

Iguana food

Funky plant life on the Galapagos

Sea lion snoozing on the beach

My adorable husband :)

Lagoons and volcanoes

Sunset boat ride

Brian and I watching the sunrise in the Galapagos

I *think* this is a flower that blossoms on the cotton trees in the Galapagos.  But I could be wrong.

I love this pictures - fond memories of our friends from the Galapagos trip!

Kayak with a Magnificent Frigate Bird in the background

Lava Cactus (and some lava)

The skeleton of an unlucky Flightless Cormorant in the Galapagos.  I love this pictures because to me, it represents the havoc that the warm El Nino current wreaks on the Galapagos by destroying the rich marine life there that so many of the animals depend on.

Some old married people

Sunset over the ocean
Flowers in Quito's botanical gardens (which we have visited not once, but twice!)
The race track in Ibarra where our hosts, Jose and Ana, took us for a festival in which people chase a man dressed as Zoro (on horses) and try to grab his cape for a prize.  Not a joke!
View of La Plaza Grande in old town Quito, where there is literally ALWAYS a political gathering.  The Presidential Palace is the long white building in the background.
View from our bedroom of the volcano Pichincha
View of Banos from the San Francisco bridge.  You can participate in "puenting" (puente means "bridge" in Spanish) by jumping off in a harness.  
Panoramic view of Banos from our hike up the volcano

View of Quito and beyond from our hike up the volcano Pichincha
View from our hike up the Tungurahua volcano in Banos

Lovely alpine flora on the hike up the volcano Pichincha

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Price is.....Weird: The Random Costs of Living in Ecuador

Whether we are getting together with our gringo friends or getting to know the locals, one of the most popular topics of conversation here is the cost of living.  The reason this is so fun to talk about is that, compared with what we are used to in the US, prices here are really wacky (in either direction).  This post is dedicated to a complete non-expert's unofficial observations on the Ecuadorian economy from a gringo's point of view.

Let's start off with the list of things that are randomly, abhorrently expensive here:
  • Sunscreen - $25 for a small 4-5 oz. bottle
  • Liquor - $80 for a small bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label
  • Electronics - $1200 for an iPhone5 (yikes....guess I need to be careful about flashing those bad boys around....)
  • Ecuadorian chocolate - $9/bar
  • Touristy Travel - a week long trip to the Galapagos Islands can easily cost around $4000/person
Ecuador also has some very interesting trade relationships with other countries.  Many items I expected to be cheap, because they are grown here in Ecuador or in nearby countries (coffee, chocolate, wine), are actually really expensive.  While the backbone of Ecuador's economy is built upon exporting raw goods (chiefly oil, bananas, seafood, gold, and flowers), they don't do a lot of processing of those raw goods, so many things have to leave Ecuador and be imported back in at a higher cost.  

The locals also tell us that the current President is all about making Ecuador more reliant on domestic business, so many imports are highly taxed.  Because of this, what we as American's bring into Ecuador is highly scrutinized - one computer, phone, etc. per person.  We even know a woman whose parents shipped her a box of clothes that was confiscated by customs and sold off, because apparently you can only bring in the clothes that will fit in your suitcases.  They don't want people smuggling in these foreign items that are so expensive here to sell for profit (e.g., iphones, American-brand clothes).  

And then, there's the list of things that are unbelievable cheap:
  • Cabs - $2 can get you anywhere you want to go
  • Fresh meat/seafood (from the markets) - $2.5/pound fresh shrimp.....and Kelly's in heaven!
  • Fresh produce -  You can always buy a bag of 25 oranges for a dollar on the street.  What???
  • Public Transportation - buses in Quito are 25 cents without exception; long- distance, cross-country buses are $2-4 each way
  • Restaurants - there is a ridiculous number of decent (not amazing....just decent) restaurants that sell a four course lunch for $2-4.  But that's all I will say about that, since Brian has already laid claim to a blog post fully dedicated to "almuerzo" (lunch).
  • The Help - private housekeeping costs between $10-20 per day.  PER DAY.
  • Beer - there are about four types of local beer here, and they all cost about $4/six pack and $2 each at a decent bar/restaurant.  Side note - they are all equally bad.  
  • Gas - $1.40/gallon....not helping with your traffic problem, Quito!
The item from that list that has taken a lot of getting used to for us is private housekeeping.  For the month of October, we are subletting a room in a 3 bedroom apartment in downtown Quito from a local couple.  Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, they have a housekeeper come from around 8 am - 5 pm, and she spends the day cooking and serving elaborate breakfasts, lunches (each meal complete with fresh squeezed juice of some variety), packing up leftovers for dinners, doing the grocery shopping, doing the laundry, and excessively cleaning the entire apartment from top to bottom.  While this has been wonderful, it's hard not to feel guilty and lazy when you feel like everything is being done for you.  But in our hosts' eyes, it is a win-win situation; the housekeeper has steady, well-paying work and they get taken care of to the max.  

After all is said and done, Ecuador is a country where you can definitely choose to live on the very-cheap, which is one reason for the large (and increasing) number of American ex-pats retiring here.  Our own financial goal is to break even and completely fund our travel through Brian's remote, part-time work (my full-time job is comprised of grocery shopping, cooking, planning all of our travel, and being less awful than Brian at Spanish).  After we see how these first few months shake out, I'll dedicate a post to our traveling budget, tips for traveling on the cheap, and the lessons we're learning along the way.  

Until then - hasta luego amigos!


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Turtle Recall

After coming down from the high that was the Galapagos Islands, and reviewing our 500 pictures of turtles, it's time to reflect upon the honeymoon.

Up until a few months ago, all I knew about the Galapagos Islands was that Chuck Darwin hung out there for awhile, studied some wildlife, and subsequently developed the theory of evolution. It never occurred to me that the islands were a place that people could actually go visit until we started researching Ecuador and realized that a trip to this exotic location was actually in the realm of possibility. We're considering this entire Ecuadorian/South American adventure an extended honeymoon, but since it's not everyday that we have the opportunity to prove to ourselves that something called a blue-footed booby actually exists, we decided to treat ourselves to a honeymoon within a honeymoon and booked an 8 day Galapagos cruise.

Booking the trip was a little bit stressful as there are a lot of different cruise options, and even the cheapest ones are pretty pricey. Luckily, since September is considered the off season, we were booking very last minute, and we were already in Ecuador, we were able to book a cruise on a beautiful 16 person motor yacht for nearly half price. Don't get me wrong, the amount we paid was still high enough to cause beads of sweat to accumulate on my ever-growing brow, but somewhere between snorkeling with playful sea lion pups and witnessing a Magnificent Frigatebird inflate it's red throat pouch to the size of a birthday balloon in the hopes of attracting a mate (I'll spare you the intimate details, but he succeeded), I decided that the price tag was more than justified.

A trip to the Galapagos is essentially a journey back in time to when your elementary science classes had you telling your parents that you wanted to be a marine biologist, geologist, or veterinarian when you grew up. It's impossible not to be excited by what you see and learn in this magical place. I'll get into the science of it all in a moment, but the main selling points of the trip include wildlife that is literally unfazed by your presence meaning you can get closer than you would ever imagine, exotic and downright weird species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and other-worldly volcanic landscapes that give you a pretty good idea of what it would be like to walk on Mars.

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador and are situated on a hot spot of volcanic activity. The islands are actually the tips of numerous volcanoes that are constantly being created and shifted slightly east towards the South American coast. Therefore, the eastern islands are the oldest, and the western islands are relatively new in geological terms. The word "new" has a slightly skewed meaning in a place where the maximum lifespan of the tortoises cannot be exactly pinned down due to the fact that whoever decides to start keeping track will inevitably die well before the tortoise. The islands were essentially created by magma bubbling out of the earth's crust underwater, hardening into solid land and gradually forming these gigantic volcanoes. Since the islands essentially just appeared on their own and didn't break off from the mainland, it is expected that the distant evolutionary cousins of the native wildlife somehow got blown off course to these islands and adapted into an entirely new species in order to survive in this strange, volcanic landscape. 

Basically, a really long time ago, a distant ancestor of the Marine Iguana was sleeping on his favorite beach-side log and woke up to realize that the log had drifted out to sea and he was now floating in the middle of the ocean without the evolutionary ability to swim. After convincing himself this was not a nightmare, he sucked it up, slowed down his metabolism, and survived the 600 mile impromptu raft ride to the Galapagos. Upon finding himself on a relatively desolate island largely covered in solidified lava rather than soil, he learned to eat cactus despite the uncomfortable sensation on the roof of his mouth (I learned a similar lesson with Captain Crunch cereal as a child), and taught himself to swim so he could eat algae off of the ocean floor. Each of the endemic species has a similar story. The Galapagos Penguin figured out how to keep himself cool enough to maintain his status as the only penguin living north of the equator. The Flightless Cormorant devolved in a way, losing the ability to fly in favor of the ability to dive deep into the nutrient rich waters for his meals. The Galapagos Blog Reader evolved to skip to the next paragraph once he started reading too many tedious details about animals that he had never heard of.

For any animal that could not fly or swim, the only way to get to the island was to hitch a ride on a piece of floating debris and stick out the 600 mile journey. Since mammals don't really have the ability to slow down their metabolism long enough to survive the journey, herbivorous reptiles are the largest land based species resulting in a lack of natural predators on the islands. The reason I'm still going on about all of this scientific mumbo jumbo is to provide an explanation for the fact that most animals in the Galapagos have no reason to be afraid of any other animal. There is no risk of being eaten. This ability to get up close and personal without activating any evolutionary alarm systems is what made the trip so incredible. We were able to watch the Marine Iguana and Flightless Cormorant eat algae off the ocean floor while we snorkeled only a couple of feet away. A curious adolescent sea lion found a way to board our boat and playfully posed for pictures before we had to shoo him away after he tried to enter the cabin.

Close encounters with animal species that we never even knew existed became part of the daily routine. Each morning and/or afternoon there was an excursion to a rocky, hardened lava landscape where we would get within feet of rare birds, 600 pound tortoises, or Marine Iguanas huddled in piles to keep themselves warm while periodically launching salt water out of their nostrils to cleanse themselves from their last underwater foraging excursion. The islands are also a hotbed of sea life due to a unique combination of ocean currents that brings nutrient rich deep ocean water to the surface. So when we weren't exploring the geological features and land-based wildlife, we were snorkeling so close to sea lions, giant sea turtles, sting rays, sharks, and penguins that we practically had to dodge them. 

All in all, for two nature-loving newlyweds, the Galapagos was an absolutely ideal honeymoon. In the interest of brevity I won't go into the details of our guide, crew, and fellow passengers, but they also played a huge role in making our honeymoon absolutely perfect. I will say that there was one family on board the cruise that made a lasting impression on us. They had decided to take a year off work and home-school their children (ages 8 and 10) for a year so that they could travel around the world. This reassured us that there is always a way to make room for adventure in our lives. And judging by how intelligent, funny, and outgoing their children's probably best for everybody to veer off the beaten path every once in awhile.

- Brian