Up the Amazon and around the Galapagos

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JohnM

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Continuing the natural attractions and wildlife theme of my recent TRs* this TR is from a trip to Ecuador in May 2013 to visit the Amazon basin and to cruise the Galapagos. I’m resting a minor calf muscle strain, so it gives me a good incentive to get this TR done before I leave on a 7 week DONE5 on 1 September.

*(http://www.australianfrequentflyer....s/aerial-safari-kenya-gorilla-trek-53313.html
http://www.australianfrequentflyer....hill-patagonia-chilling-antarctica-62166.html
http://www.australianfrequentflyer....otos/johnms-e-africa-aerial-safari-61231.html
http://www.australianfrequentflyer....s/kruger-national-park-61318.html#post1076257)

Often, Galapagos cruises are about one week and cover either a north/eastern circuit or a south/western circuit. I opted for one of the rarer ones that combined both circuits for a two-week voyage. I’d recommend this; I don’t think one week is enough – but YMMV. I combined with this a few days at a lodge in the rainforest about 80 km downstream from Coca on the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon. Following the Galapagos, it was back to Quito briefly, which included a day trip to Cotopaxi volcano.

Here’s the routing: PER-xSYD-xAKL-xSCL-xGYE-UIO-OCC-UIO-xGYE-SCY-xGYE-UIO-xLIM-xSCL-XSYD-PER. It looks a bit complicated but it was driven by a few factors: the PER-SCL-PER was a JASA and the outbound leg on the dates required was QF SYD-AKL and the QF codeshare on the LA bird AKL-SCL. No problem – I like LA and they serve Louis Roederer!

Very few flights seem to go directly to Quito, necessitating a brief stop (staying on the bird) in Guayaquil – both into UIO and out to SCY. Coming out of UIO, I opted for the evening/night flights, first to LIM and then on to SCL, as I didn’t want to enter Chile just overnight for my QF connection to SYD. So there are reasons for the apparent madness.

OK, let’s put all this into spatial perspective:

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Quito is interesting enough, but nothing special IMO. The central square (first pic), with the Presidential Palace (2[SUP]nd[/SUP]) on one side, is surprisingly small. Another square and rather large monument on the hill a long way behind.

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JohnM

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Moving right along to more interesting things in the Amazon rainforest. The Napo River and the typical long, narrow boat used to ferry people.
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They motor along pretty fast. The river is a major transport route. The area is in a major new oil region, so some land-use conflicts are occurring.

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Typical dense forest. Arriving at the transfer point to canoes and a paddle to the lodge, which is located on a lake surrounded by creek-dissected rainforest.

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The lodge (Sacha Lodge - Amazon Rainforest Lodge, Ecuador - Book an Amazon Tour).

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Activities each day included half-day bush walks and canoe rides along the creeks twice a day, night walks and an evening canoe ride (to be buzzed by enormous numbers of bats – that were obviously there but not clear to see), climbing a tower built in a very large kapok tree, and a canopy walkway. They break the guests into groups of 8 maximum, each of which is assigned a lodge guide and a native guide. Those guys are invaluable for spotting wildlife in the dense forest.

Without a heavy-duty telephoto lens, it’s difficult to photograph a lot of the wildlife. It is also quite shady in the rainforest and animals like monkeys tend to move about quickly in the canopy. I found it best to take it all in and use the binoculars and telescopes the guides carried to facilitate viewing of such things as toucans and sloths at a distance.

Tarantula on a night walk. Canoeing along a narrow creek. Rain forest walk.

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JohnM

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Kapok trees have an enormous base. Pretty owls. Our native guide with a prinha caught in the lake. They are very difficult fish to catch as they very quickly nibble the bait without taking a big bite.

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Some nice butterflies.

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Up in the tree platform. Note the bromeliads growing in the canopy.

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The canopy walk and one of many trails of the ever-industrious leaf-cutter ants. They form huge nests, in which they use the leaf fragments, carefully harvested at the right growth stage, to cultivate fungi for food.

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JohnM

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Now to the Galapagos. Some of the photos are not mine, so thanks to the sharers – especially for the underwater shots.

Approaching home for the next two weeks. Maximum sixteen passengers and with eight crew and the national park guide. Two Zodiacs for the group. It is mandatory to have one guide for a maximum of 16 passengers, so quite a few of these Ecuadorian-built cruise boats are various models of this one.

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The boat was very comfortable. Dining area and twin-share cabin that I had to myself for the first week until we did a changeover of a few pax. Lounge with guide giving our welcome briefing. Each evening was a similar wrap-up of the day’s events.

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Upper rear deck with outside bar and spa. Top deck for the post-lunch siestas.

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The crew and caipirihna-time! The young dude behind the bar had the (not-so-young) women swooning! Dinner and lunch on the upper deck.

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Each day’s activities consisted of an early wake-up call 0530-0600, usually two shore excursions a day and one or two snorkelling excursions.

Sea lions make themselves at home everywhere. The garua, a mist that commonly forms seasonally around the islands. Although the islands are very near the equator, the cold Humboldt Current sweeps westwards from the coast of South America just south of the equator towards the Galapagos. Wet suits were provided when snorkelling. Idyllic sunset and the boat.

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JohnM

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Now for the natural history lesson. I’ll let the pics do most of the talking. Somewhat random order – but you’ll get the drift.

The volcanic nature of the islands is apparent.

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Eagles.

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Flamingos – and an iguana.

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Iguanas.

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JohnM

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Tortoises. There are some breeding stations where different species or sub-species are being bred pure to return them to their home islands once feral pests are removed or the tortoises are big enough to fend off predators. The famous ‘George’ had died not long before my visit.

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Some general pictures of activities and scenery around the islands.

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The wall of stones, known as the ‘wall of tears’ (El Muro de las Lacrimas) was built by prisoners at a penal colony stone-by-stone.

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Orcas feeding. Lots of stirred-up fish for the seabirds. Turtle returning the ocean after laying eggs. Sea lions.

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JohnM

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The famous blue-footed coughies. Mating ritual; those boys have style. Mating – which was lightning-fast. The initial and final results of the aforementioned activity. Guess what species of coughy (much rarer than the blue). Very tame – nesting on the path. Visitors must stay on the paths.

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Albatross in flight. Beak-clacking mating ritual. Mating and result. Fairly high-density living.

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Moving on from the avian cough. Nature and natural selection in action here. Some turtles had hatched and come near to the surface sufficient to cause the sand to start collapsing around them before dark. Fools! The top ones take out the Darwin award. Eagle-eyed frigate birds were onto it like a shot. A little tacka that didn’t make it on another beach.

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coughys and frigate bird displaying. Frigate bird chick. The elusive vermilion flycatcher. It occurs in the dense lichen-infested hills where the garua maintains the moisture. Great blue heron.

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JohnM

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A Darwin’s finch (one of many species). Cryptic colouration but, biologists, note the beak! Sorry, no other species to show to illustrate different beak-shapes. Tropic bird; beautiful tail. A gull and chick. School of rays.

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OK, let’s go under water. Aptly-named chocolate chip sea star and another sea star. Turtles. Sea lions are really playful to swim with. I had one come zooming past me so closely that I felt its whiskers on my face. So cool!

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OK, that’s it for the Galapagos. Just to finish – a little walk part the way up Cotopaxi. I made it to the refugio at just under 16,000 feet. Serious altitude-sickness territory. It was a very slow slog, especially after being at sea level for the previous two weeks. The peak is almost 19,400 feet so it is an extremely serious hike to go there. It started to snow on descent. Too bad the cloud blotted out the peak.

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The end!
 

Bundy Bear

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Continuing the natural attractions and wildlife theme of my recent TRs* this TR is from a trip to Ecuador in May 2013 to visit the Amazon basin and to cruise the Galapagos. I’m resting a minor calf muscle strain, so it gives me a good incentive to get this TR done before I leave on a 7 week DONE5 on 1 September.
...

Thanks for the pictures, I will have to add this place to my bucket list, it looked too hard to get to.

Have you been trying to keep fit; you know you can just take a rest during these cooler months, and maybe get through a bit of wine you have stored away.
 

RooFlyer

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A bit late here; great report, thanks :)

Galapagos - now that is on the 'to do' list. Can you suggest optimal time of year to visit, and also what might be 'shoulder' for tourist season?
 

JohnM

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A bit late here; great report, thanks :)

Galapagos - now that is on the 'to do' list. Can you suggest optimal time of year to visit, and also what might be 'shoulder' for tourist season?

January-June is the wet season but apparently it can be rougher around August during the dry season. I may have been just lucky, but there was virtually no rain during the two weeks. The weather was warm without being too hot and it wasn't very humid, with the nights cooling very nicely. Perfect conditions, in fact. There were a few rough-ish sections that had a very few people queasy-seasick but not debilitated.

As you can see from the bird photos, it was breeding season so I think you can take it that May is a good time. I think the fact that they did what I think may have been the only specified two-week trip of the season at then is also an indication that it's a good time (I guess anyone could make a two-week trip by stitching the two singles back-to-back if they all counter-rotate).

There are options for staying at various places on the islands and doing day boat trips but I think the cruise covers everything in the way that best suits the situation. It's what I would recommend - and it's not outrageously expensive. I went as a 'willing sharer' so there was no single supplement. The towns were busy but not frenetic.

I can PM the name of the 'adventure-type' travel agent I used. They have offices in various parts of Australia. Hint: look at the detailed map of the Galapagos in post #1 that I snipped from the voyage notes. I have no hesitation in recommending them and their associates in Ecuador. It was all very professionally done.

Feel free to PM as many questions as you like.
 

JohnM

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JohnM you have completely thrown my bucket list into disarray after your last few TR's !!!

Glad to be of (disruptive) service :p. The Atacama Desert is coming up in late September-early October as part of an upcoming DONE5 (it will follow Glacier NP in Montana and the Skyline and Blue Ridge Parkway drives in the eastern US). I'm particularly looking forward to the Atacama; by all accounts it's sensational.
 
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LadyC

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Thanks for posting! The Galapagos islands are definitely on my bucket list. It looks fantastic. Seems like you are living a few AFF members bucket lists - good for you :)
 

Paddy55

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Love the TRs and photos JohnM - excellent!

Lucky enough to visit some of Sth America in the 80s but missed out on Galapagos - kicked myself ever since
 

drron

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You are bringing back so many memories.Fortunately we have been to Africa,Antarctica and the Galapagos as well as staying in the Napo basin.Loved them all.
If you are into nature the Galapagos are a definite must see.Snorkelling and seeing penguins swim over coral reefs,surfacing with a sea lion with his flipper around my waist,being in a school of bait fish with the blue footed coughies exploding into the water all around you,seeing the mating dances of the coughies and gannets at your feet.It truly is the only place where watching an Attenborough documentary doesn't do it justice.
Ours was a DONE5 getting to the Galapagos BNE-SYD-AKL-PPT(on a QF codeshare on TN)-IPC-SCL-LIM-UIO.No LAN flights out to the Galapagos in 2008.
We have also been to the Glacier NP and the Blue Ridge Parkway-will be driving it again in 2015.
I am guessing JohnM that you also think this is the best time of your life.
 

JohnM

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