Monthly Archives: June 2013

Inti Raymi … Cotacachi

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A pleasant half hour drive from the town site is the active Laguna de Cuicocha (Guinea Pig Lake) at the base of Cotacachi Volcano! …… steam bubbles to the surface at regular intervals from this active underwater volcano …….. the fresh air was superb after Quito’s polluted air!! I took the little tour boat for a half hour lookabout, savouring the moist fresh air and the lush green volcanic scenery. To my complete surprise, a small group of high schoolers on a field trip from Quito, broke out in song as we left the shore …. the theme song from Titanic in flawless, albeit Spanish accented, English!! What a delight and totally enhanced the boat experience!! Celine Dion would have been proud of the bunch ๐Ÿ™‚ …. good friendly fun group of kids … however, despite knowing all the words to the song, could not converse in English with me at all! …. lots of giggles and smiles though, mostly at my meager Spanish ๐Ÿ™‚ !! Maybe they were too shy … singing as a group is way easier for communication ๐Ÿ™‚ … I loved it …. the song is still one of my favourites and I tear up every time I hear it.

Clemenia and Eufemia from the hotel encouraged me to take in the annual indigenous celebration in the center of town today … called ‘Inti Raymi’ …. It is an ancestral celebration exclusive to the Otavalenos of this region and coincides with the crop harvest … I had been to Otavalo some weeks ago for their weekly animal market … there are hundreds of thousands of Otavalenos in this Northern Highlands region of the country … they are the most industrious and successful of the more than twenty different indigenous groups within Ecuador … In total, indigeneous people make up roughly 25 percent of Ecuador’s 14 million people. They pretty much dress as they have for hundreds of years in these rural towns of Ecuador ….. Only the hand embroidery on the ladies’ blouses may have become brighter with new colourful threading available and upon closer inspection, (ever the skeptic, I am snoopy that way :)) … some of the embroidery may be done on machines now rather than by hand. The women wear dark skirts with white embroidered blouses and black sandals …. the men, white pants, blue ponchos and white sandals ….

It was a quiet scene when I arrived in the town square shortly after breakfast, but within half an hour, a steady stream of male dancers, dressed up in rather strange cowboyish costumes, topped off with huge black hats, fill the main street. It is quite the explosion of color and sound for a normally quiet small town …… hundreds dancing down the main street …… more of a rhythmic marching stomp than a dance really, and accompanied by a repetitive chant …. this will apparently go on for several hours!!! … wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, girlfriends are all here, passing water, pop, juices to their men …. It would appear to me, after watching and walking about for the past three hours, that a frenzy is taking hold of the dancers …. it also occurs to me that something stronger than water and juices are being consumed!! At this point, I opt to take my leave and head back to Mirage for lunch ….

Unfortunately, as is the case with far too many indigenous people around the globe, much drinking of the homemade hooch variety is a sad reality …… in Ecuador it is ‘chicha’ …. a fermented corn liquor … police holding shields are scattered everywhere … they are needed for later this afternoon when fighting breaks out …. it apparently always does with all the drinking going on … (Last year three died and dozens were hospitalized during the festivities, hence the heavy police presence this year) ….. I noticed many glassy eyed, staggering, indigenous cowboys as I walked back, wildly swinging leather riding crops with hard metal based handles …. these will end up as fighting tools later in the afternoon. At one point, I was jostled about as I accidentally got in the way of the dancers … I was busy taking pictures and was not aware that the dancers had abruptly changed direction and before I knew it, I was jostled and wedged against a wall … causing me a minor moment of panic … drunk mobs are not something to reason with! TIme to vamoose and celebrate the remainder of Inti Raymi with a nice lunch and a massage back at the hotel ๐Ÿ™‚

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Back to Rural Life … Cotacachi!

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I bid hasta luego to Quito for five days and head north two hours to the ‘City of Peace’ … Cotacachi, home to just over 10,000 which includes a good number of gringos as the Ecuadorians call us, drawn here undoubtedly by the clean Andean air, beautiful scenery and general tranquil ambiance. The town is known for it’s leather work, judging by the number of shops lining the main street, selling belts, boots, shoes, luggage, coats …. just ‘leather’ everything!! Market day is Sunday and Saturday so will have to snoop out the shops before I head back to Quito … I join up with a small group of Americans arrive late Saturday and we are back with the children Monday morning.

Richard, Global’s contact in Quito drives me to this paradise on the outskirts of Cotacachi, Mirage Garden Resort and Spa, now in it’s 28th year of business …. A small garden setting that feels like a village of it’s own … I am the sole guest!! There are twenty some rooms scattered about on roughly two or three acres of land … an oldish Inn in a charming setting … the resident peacocks peek through the window, several varieties of hummingbirds flitter nearby, as I enjoy my breakfast … very cool! I may forever be spoiled to ever even contemplate staying in larger hotels … These converted old homes and haciendas, bed and breakfast inns are where it is at to set the stage to learn about the culture of a country.

Richard was a delight as a driving companion and fortunately for me, very interested, fully engaged and knowledgeable about the politics of his country. I added much to my information base as we chatted and drove along through the always stunning Andean countryside. By all accounts, President, Rafael Correa Delgado has done much good during his six years in power. He has basically revolutionized the government of his country ….. everyone now has health coverage, old age pensions, free schooling and uniforms for all children, less corruption by far (just a few weeks ago, he closed down a credit union accused of money laundering ….. the top people in charge of this bank are currently in jail, awaiting trial) …. he is, without a doubt, a socialist … loved by the poor, tolerated by the middle class, reviled by the rich …… what else is new :)?? He is a bit of an arrogant authoritarian, but perhaps not the worst quality to have in a leader of a developing nation … I weigh all the information I gather and feel his good deeds balance out the negative characteristics … I had watched him give an acceptance speech (in Spanish, of course) on TV, a few days after my arrival in Ecuador … He had just won another term on May 24 … very charismatic, handsome and seemingly authentically genuine about wanting to do good for his country (a former professor of economics …. perhaps we in the western world should start hiring profs instead of lawyers to run our show)…. just a cursory first impression. Everyone, regardless of whether they like him or not, agree that he is good for the country for now …

Arriving at Mirage was like stepping into serenity … I literally have the place to myself … indulged in an awesome Ecuadorian style shamanistic healing ritual and massage yesterday …. it was other worldly in it’s entirety!! Cotacachi is magical! I had enjoyed a morning walk in the hillsides earlier …. I am totally in my happy place here in this pastoral rural setting ….

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Week one done … The American Family flies home!

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An exhausting week of painting and child care came to an end … I was distracted regularly by news of the flooding disaster striking my city and province …. the worst disaster in our history, as it turned out!! I could not help feeling I should be back home helping with the extensive recovery work …. It will take years to rebuild Calgary, High River, Canmore, Kananaskis, Bragg Creek and other areas …. but a commitment is a commitment and so I remain. My family and our homes are all untouched by the flooding which helped with my decision to remain here but so many others are in need of help … it feels so surreal to be away at such a time …. sigh, my heart is torn … back to Ecuador …..

Fundac President Elvita and her team of ‘Tias’ put on a performance of indigenous song and dance for our group as a thank you for our work this week. Varinda choreographed our own contribution … The Hokey Pokey and The Chicken Dance, which had the children, the Tias and even us, laughing at our exaggerated antics …. a good day all in all …. the painting is complete, thanks in large part to Ken our organizer and painter extraordinaire, right down to detailed touch ups and trims, the children well loved, well held by Blair, Jake and I, well fed, well played with (the soccer balls we purchased for the Centres came to good use!!), thanks to the young men in our group … yes, mission accomplished for week one with Global Volunteers!

Our farewell dinner at the Hermosa rooftop restaurant in old town Quito was superb! The circular view, spectacular! …. hundreds of twinkling city lights, well lit cathedrals, the royal palace, all helped create a stunning back drop for our evening dining pleasure! Good fun time was had by all …. Ciao, Americans!

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Family Day Celebrations

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Maggie Bjorklund, our vivacious young Global host and leader, (holding large wooden spoon in pictures below) has been guiding us along as we meander through the ins and outs of local life in Quito, Ecuador. She is a wealth of knowledge, having lived here for ten years. Maggie speaks fluent Spanish, so helpful for our group, given so few speak English in Ecuador. The ‘Tias’ (Aunties) who run the child centres speak no English whatsoever … Maggie is always on hand for translations and is also teaching us Spanish during the morning commute to Calderon ..

Saturday, we took a mid day break from the painting to join in on the Centre’s yearly, Family Day Celebrations. There was singing, dancing, fun contests of all sorts, a mariachi band, a full grilled luncheon for the children and their parents …. lots of celebrating and good times for everyone. Our group of fifteen formed part of the audience ๐Ÿ™‚ but we also joined in for some salsa dancing. Great day …. hard to get back to work painting after that, but paint we did, until the job was done!

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Hometown Disaster Mingles With Volunteer Post

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I have been so busy these past five days with the volunteer posting that I have barely made it to a wifi zone to check emails. My little hotel in Quito does have wifi, but frustratingly intermittent and when I finally did get coverage, to discover the havoc that Mother Nature has wrecked on Calgary, I was left almost winded with shock! Unbelievably devastating for my home town. My husband, son and brother-in-law all seem to have survived and our homes and business sites are intact, but many thousands were not so fortunate. It will take a monumental effort to clean up our wee city on the Bow, which at the moment, is a raging torrent of water flow! I cannot comprehend how much is involved to bring our city back to some form of normalcy. My blog posting has taken a bit of a hiatus due to my inability to even form a sentence at the end of days … totally exhausted and my head hits the pillow shortly after dinner ….

The American family of 14 arrived safe, sound and travel weary last Wednesday … all from Manhattan and Boston areas … as high powered, and competitive a family as I have ever met!! …. they left me reeling. They are here only for a week and man, did they get moving with our first assignment …. the painting of the Fundac funded Child Centre. With military precision, one was voted foreman, assigning all tasks, observing what we were best at, shifting us around as needed and away we flew! After three and a half days, the work is almost complete!!! Brian could have used this team of hard workers on the hotel!! Maybe I will suggest they head to Calgary for the flood clean up …. they would have it done within a week!!

This is the 15th trip they have done together as a family, but their first volunteer posting together …. Apparently, the idea for the family excursions started as a celebration for whichever child of the family was graduating from high school that year. The graduate got to chose the destination country for the celebration. This years marks their last child to graduate (four siblings, spouses and offspring) … They are thinking up ways to handle from here on in … I imagine, given this family’s ‘can do’ attitude, they will have that sewn up in no time!

The children at the Centre are lovely … I have fallen in love with them all … no surprise there :). Since we have finished our first task of painting the Centre, I imagine next week we will be working more with the children. A few pictures to share of our first days … Firstly our small familyish hotel, Sol de Quito, around the Centre, mostly of painting but did catch Steve, Matt and Colin having a bit of a rest ๐Ÿ™‚ walking to lunch as a group down a dusty road, children napping in the afternoon (several to a bed!!) and some random shots. I am a ‘good’ tired these days ๐Ÿ™‚

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La Nariz del Diablo

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Nariz del Diablo, known in English as The Devil’s Nose, is a rather touristic (as it turned out, much to my disappointment) train ride up a steep 765m mountain cliff of solid rock … built in the 1900’s and starts it’s hour and a half return ride from the tiny town of Alausi … not anywhere near as thrilling as the literature reports but a stunning scenic experience nonetheless … this country continues to surprise, it is just so beautiful! … stopped at the Inca ruins at Ingapirca on the way back to Cuenca … It is Ecuador’s mini Macchu Piccu and best preserved archaeological site, set in open fields with grazing Ilamas and the rather charming little town of Ingapirca in the background. The site was originally used as an observatory by the indigenous Canari people of the area. Had a nice lunch at the Posada in town with an Argentine couple and my English speaking guide for the day, Adrian … again, a delightful surprise as his English was excellent! We had a great conversation on the two hour drive to the train …. and again, I learned much about life in Ecuador … hard to do unless one really gets to know a country’s people. It is very difficult to get by without semi fluent Spanish or have someone available for translation. Only the hotel staff speak English at all and even among those, not all of them by any stretch …. sometimes the random stranger on the street surprises and might understand a bit, but they are far and few between … Tourism is still very new to this country, hence why English is so rare …. I wish I had researched and taken some Spanish classes in Calgary prior to coming ….. I am too accustomed to the Mexican culture where tourism has existed for decades, allowing the locals to understand and speak English quite well ….. oh well, live and learn errr…. rather, do the research, which just happens to be a weakness of mine ๐Ÿ™‚ ….. should be fun next week, communicating with children who speak little or no English at all … my Spanish should start to improve considerably …….. Si!!

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Colonial Cuenca

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What an easygoing place for quiet reflection and meditation … I am holed up at the lovely Mansion Alcazar, yet another homey, lovingly restored old house in Ecuador, in yet another World Heritage Site city, Cuenca. I am surrounded by peaceful gardens, humming with hummingbirds and step out from the front door of this beyond charming 12 room Inn, into the cobbly streets and balconied apartments of old town Cuenca. There is a church seemingly around every bend, and I wander in, often sitting a spell in quiet contemplation if not exactly prayer ๐Ÿ™‚ … some days, I go in to escape the rain which has not let up since I arrived Sunday night but it is not heavy rain and the downpour only lasts a few hours in the mornings … afternoons are usually clear and I explore the various museums, churches, coffee cafes and restaurants; Tiestos is my favourite …. the best food in town!

The Panama Hat Museum presented some interesting history and I decide on the spot, to buy a few hats from the museum shop! … For over a century, Ecuador has endured the world mistakenly crediting another country with it’s most famous export! The work involved in making these hats is quite arduous, from harvesting, to drying, to splitting the fronds … the prep work takes days, before the fine art of weaving can even begin! …. Cuenca happens to be the Center for the Panama hat trade. To an Ecuadorian, the hat is known simply as ‘sombrero de paja toquilla’ … (toquilla straw hat) or to hat connoisseurs, a Montecristi! The origin of the misnomer dates back to 1800’s when Spanish entrepreneurs began exporting these beautifully hand crafted hats via Panama. During the 19th century, workers on the Panama Canal wore these hats to protect themselves from the tropical sun ….. and when U.S. President Roosevelt wore one, well, all this helped equate the Ecuadorian hat with Panama. I shall rename my hat to honour the people who grow, harvest and weave them …. The Ecuador Hat!

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Hasta Luego Hacienda Zuleta

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Sad to leave this bucolic location and the many varied and interesting people I have met both in this little village of Zuleta, and the guests at the hacienda …. Fernando and his aunt Marcela, the amazing staff .. all of them! …. the local people from town and although no one spoke English, we communicated in very limited basic Spanish daily ….. I miss their smiles and friendly waves already … sometimes the best communication tools …. throughout the week there were two different American families … Hans from Switzerland … a road bum like me, he has taken six months off from life in Zurich “to live his life” as he aptly put it, exploring South America, Dick a global tourism consultant from the Netherlands, working with Fernando on the development of his various hacienda properties, Lucia from England, a journalist with London’s Financial Times is doing an article on Ecuador for the paper, a sweet Ecuadorian couple from Quito celebrating a 9th wedding anniversary, a large extended family of fellow Canadians from Vancouver and the Okanagan …… intrepid adventurers all! I have discovered over the years, it is not your usual tourist who ventures into the back roads of any country! The conversations around dinner are fascinating and I love how everyone willingly shares their lives, adventures and travels …..

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Otavalo Market Day

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Otavalo has hosted a weekly market for perhaps hundreds of years. A colourful, open air market where vendors hawk anything from handmade crafts to carpets, woven scarves, shawls, clothing and all manner of trinkets. The animal market is not a sight for the squeamish …… screaming piglets, bags of chickens and guinea pigs, cows, goats, sheep, horses … all for the trading or purchase. Guinea pigs roasted on a spit are an Ecuadorian favourite! My favourite were the cute little puppies which I knew would not turn up in a soup or grilled as they are in Vietnam!!! I was tempted to bring one back to the ranch ๐Ÿ™‚

The Indigena people of Otavalo wear traditional clothing, taking great pride in their appearance. Women wear white floral embroidered blouses, long wool skirts and head cloths, black canvas sandals and gold coloured beads …. the men, felt hats, blue ponchos, white pants and white sandals, with hair braided down their backs …. they are the Kichwa indigenous people of the region, and the most commercially successful of the twenty or so different indigenous peoples within Ecuador. The market was certainly evidence of that!

The ‘road’ to Otavalo was a different story …. More like a goat path on some stretches … and in parts, we had to wait ten minutes while logs were removed from the road so we could pass … yes, the back roads of far flung Ecuador ๐Ÿ™‚

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The Back Roads of Ecuador

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My home for the next week is the sixteenth century Hacienda Zuleta, a two thousand acre working farm, three hours north west of Quito set in unbelievably beautiful rolling pasture land, surrounded by forest and protected areas of native primary forest, high in the Andes Mountains. Like Quito, it sits close to 10,000 feet about sea level … huff and puff … This area is well known for it’s roses and they are everywhere!! Two dozen beautiful yellow roses were in my room upon check-in and as the days passed, were changed for red roses. Beautiful!

Hacienda Zuleta is the home of former Ecuador President, Galo Plaza Lasso (1948 – 1952) and both his father and grandfather before him, who were also Presidents of early Ecuador …. a Presidential family dynasty!!

The hacienda now belongs to Galo’s five daughters, Elsa, Luz, Rosario, Marcela and Margarita and to his only son, Galo. Fernando Polanco, a grandson of Galo Lasso, is now the general manager of Hacienda Zuleta … all in the family! The hacienda is a veritable history course about the Lasso family. Original artwork, embroidered linens, table cloths and curtains, antique furniture, family photos and travel curios are in every room. The hacienda guests and sometimes visiting family members, sit down for meals on the same table used by the Lasso family for a hundred years. Fernando shares stories of large family dinners when he was a little boy …. the table has leaves allowing 32 to sit comfortably in the dining room if need be. It is extraordinary, enjoying our meals in this historic dining room, at this old table …. the wood is well worn, smooth and beautiful.

In the late 1600’s the Bishop of Zuleta and his descendants initially owned the property for the first hundred years or so, followed by the wealthy Gangotena family of Quito for another hundred years ….. The Lasso family took it over sometime in the 1890’s and it would appear, will remain in the hands of this very large, distinguished, patrician family, for generations to come. It has been my pleasure to enjoy some meals with Fernando and his Aunt Marcela who drives from Quito regularly to check on the cows. There was a very lively discussion over lunch yesterday (‘Latin passionate’ … reminded me of political discussions around the Webb family Sunday dinner table on occasion ๐Ÿ™‚ … when Fernando’s cousin, Aunt Marcela and a family friend joined the hacienda guests … most of the conversation revolved around the business side of running the hacienda …. one becomes a member of the family here quickly … I even threw my two cents of opinion into the Latin mix ๐Ÿ™‚

The hacienda produces 6,000 litres of milk daily, processed mainly into cheese and yogurt, sold to local small communities in the area, as well as in Quito. Hundreds of cows, dozens of horses and around 2,000 sheep roam the pastures … land is also cultivated for vegetables and grains … corn and potatoes are staples everywhere in Ecuador. Everything served in their restaurant is grown on the land and is most definitely organic and delicious! I have spent the last two days, walking the land, exploring it’s many meadows with the family dog, Fido, happily following me, or rather leading the way :).

I hiked to the family condor rehabilitation Centre yesterday, which is manned by volunteers from Europe at the moment, but volunteers come from all over throughout the year …. Ecuador’s condor population dropped to fewer than 60 in the country in recent history …. the Lasso family is hoping to remedy the drastic drop in numbers with this facility.

I am totally in love with Ecuador; it’s gentle, friendly, courteous, kind people, it’s amazing and varied scenery, it’s food, it’s wild life. Every morning here at Hacienda Zuleta, during my morning walks, I pay my regards to the cows and horses! I love this farm!!!

Ecuador is the smallest and most accessible of the Andean countries and is one of the most bio diverse on the planet! They are 14 million strong, and self sustaining …. a country that cannot even remotely be called ‘third world anything’ anymore, but is very much a rapidly developing nation. They have a growing tourist industry, oil, beef, every vegetable one can think of, fruits of all sorts, roses they export, and a million other products I continue to learn about as I explore! In a space smaller than Italy, or the same size as Colorado, surprising and dramatic changes of scenery are frequent ….. much of Ecuador is off the beaten track and and truly an adventure for the senses. I am flat out humbled by it’s beauty and it’s people.

It remains one of the delights of travel for me, that I can land in a country, knowing little about it beyond the odd historical reference via books or a nature show perhaps and discover a whole amazing country full of gifts to share. Travel continues to open up a wondrous world. There is nothing like physically walking a country, inhaling it’s scent, tasting it’s food, laughing and sharing stories and histories with it’s people, swimming it’s oceans, observing it’s wildlife! My natural born wanderlust continues to be fertilized …

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Playful sea lions

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I love these pictures, not just because of the colours, which are lovely in themselves, but because it is such a delight to watch the playful nature of two entirely different species, the sea lions and turtle in their natural habitat, not stuck in a zoo or aquarium, in a space way too small and confining …. but playing in what nature has carved out for them …. in this natural tidal pool cavern, where when they tired of play, could swim out to the vast ocean. These juvenile sea lions and turtle played together much like children anywhere … one could just feel their smiles as they swam around, through, behind, over each other … almost like a game of tag …

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Fantastical Galรกpagos Islands

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How to capture on a simple blog, the most peaceful five days of my life … Quite simply, I am ill equipped to do so! … and, despite a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast this morning, which did not even begin to rival the cooking skills of Louis, our chef on board the Ocean Spray, I remain in culture shock, back here in Quito. To quote my favourite singers, Deva Premal and her mate, Miten, “there is so much magnificence, in the ocean” … on both land and sea but it was the quiet, that surreal other worldly quiet and stillness, that left me moved the most … the wind the waves, the birds the sea lions … no words that would do the ambiance justice. Just know that it was magnificent.

It is the giant tortoise that gave Galรกpagos it’s name … they live happily up to 150 years on both a large reserve in the rainforest island of Santa Cruz and other islands in the highlands and volcanoes … apparently 11 species live in this archipelago that is the Galรกpagos. I would need to spend months here to see even a fraction of the wild life …. five days was a delightful intro. Our guide, Xavier said he has been to the Galapagos frequently and sees something new always as he walks the paths. There are thousands of birds, 19 seabird species that breed here, seven are endemic. The frigate was particularly visible everywhere we went, with it’s unusual mating ritual, whereby he blows up a huge flap of lose bright red skin that sits under his chin, flaps his extensive wing mass several times, while perched on a bush … this continues until a female flies by, is interested enough to pick the dude and mate.

The cute little blue footed boobies … booby is derived from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, meaning ‘clown’ …. with their own unusual and quite funny mating ritual of prancing and dancing, showing off their turquoise feet, opening their wings wide, pointing at the sky with their beaks … males whistle and females honk! It is all about survival on these far flung, primarily wind swept, arid, volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, 900 plus kms from mainland Ecuador. There are some lush forests in the highlands of some islands and Santa Cruz has a rainforest but dry landscape is the norm.

Most of the wildlife is fearless due to the lack of predators and one can calmly and safely walk by a blissful doe eyed resting sea lion, giant tortoise, any kind of bird, (in fact they are on the trails and one has to cautiously walk around them in order to avoid stepping on them!), marine iguanas, which are the planet’s only bathing lizard wander freely over rocky formations! … skittish Sally Lightfoot crabs with their bright orange shell and turquoise underbelly are literally everywhere clinging to seaside rocks … Nazca booby, pelicans, blue herons, red footed booby, Galรกpagos penguin, the only penguin living north of the equator, lizards of every description, slithering here and there … even managed to site a few short eared owls, well camouflaged in the rocks …

It is a beautiful quiet serene place to observe life at it’s most basic … procreation and survival are pretty much it! Humans remain the islands’ greatest threat and challenge …. Limits are in place for numbers allowed on the islands, but still, I felt almost as though I should sweep my footprints as I left. Intrusion into the natural order of life in the Galapagos, no matter how cruel it may seem, as nature often is …. is strictly forbidden and severely fined …. a year ago, a kind gentleman who could not leave a tiny turtle struggling on it’s back, trying to right itself, stepped off the trails and turned it over …. upon leaving the island, he was pulled over and fined $3000 and could have been jailed …. the laws are strict. There is a huge educational component for all visitors … the naturalist guides who take us to these wild remote islands do an amazing job teaching in a kind, gentle, yet firm manner. Xavier was a lovely lovely man and taught us all so much … I was with a group of 12 others on a small catamaran capable of holding up to 16 guests plus 10 crew members. We came from everywhere …. another veritable mini UN ….. United States, Germany, Belgium, England and the crew from various parts of Ecuador and me, the token Canadian. Hopefully we did not leave a huge negative impact on the islands … may my pictures tell of the experience better than my words …..

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