Monday, 13 May 2013


At last, the hot springs.
 A wonderful soaking for an hour or so in 48 degree yellow waters, interspersed with freezing cold showers from the 'angels hair' waterfall. Lots of older locals spend hours there every day, donned in shower caps. It is the first time I've been to public hot baths since Japan, where it was single sex and naked. At least this was fully clothed, which is just as well because according to Andrew I was the 'fifth skinniest person there' - say no more!
A beautiful soak followed by an excellent massage (one that would give even Silvia a run for her money) for $20/hr. A nice way to finish.

A very long bus ride to Guayaquil, with lots of kids and old folks, which was fine.
Guayaquil is interesting - a very bad reputation in the past but with a big clean up in recent years, particularly along the river. It is a successful waterfront development like many others around the world - Darling Harbour, Cairns Esplanade, but you don't have to look very far to see that the poverty is just behind that corner. One day was enough, despite seeing several new birds in the city and staying in a gorgeous little hotel in the old quarter, overlooking the river.
All day flight to Santiago and now we are sitting in the lounge waiting for the flight to Sydney.
All over bar the shouting.
We just love South America - the Andes, the people are all sweet and friendly, only ripped off by a cabby once, Andean Cock of the Rock (plus all the other birds), the fabrics and the weaving, llamas, indigenous pride, the Amazon, free wifi everywhere, low costs of living, all the fresh fruit and juices,etc etc.

Finally a good picture of our volcano! This is the one we could feel and hear all the time.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Coming to an end.

Our last day before the journey home begins. A long bus trip tomorrow to Guayaquil then a long flight to Santiago, an even longer flight to Sydney, a day to catch up with old friends and then home on Thursday. Hope to have the ute packed by Friday and away on our drive to the centre and back around the top for 4 weeks. Thanks to Silvia, Dawn and Dennis for making this all possible.
We are going to miss these wonderful $50 a night rooms (with good breakfast), $20 evening meals (with beer) and $1 taxi fares. Sydney is going to be a shock!
Ecuador is a very well-equipped county, with ever improving infrastructure, and it is not surprising that lots of foreigners are choosing to retire here. It is diverse and beautiful, has a good climate, the people are delightful and it is extremely cheap to live. Subsiding fuel certainly keeps the prices down - diesel is $1.03/gallon, 25 cents a litre. Read and weep!
Yesterday we did a day tour - out of character for us, but the best way to get around. It was great - waterfalls, hiking, amazon rainforest, a local indigenous community, blowpipe practice, face painting, a wooden canoe ride over the rapids, an animal rescue place (from animal traffickers) and lots of good information about the traditional cultures, foods, use of plants etc.
A huge day,11 hours, with only one one problem - we had the worst possible companions for the day. A Canadian/Chinese couple who didn't shut up from the moment we met at 9am, until we got back. 'Shallow', 'vacuous' were Andrew's words - 'dumb as dogshit' were mine.
'does it snow here?' (we are in the Amazon), 'have you got Walmart here?' ( I repeat, we are in the Amazon), and incessant chatter about crap all day and no interest in the information or sights of the tour. I will scream if I hear about how perfect everything is in China again - food, people, society, you name it. You'd have to wonder why you had been living in Canada for 15 years if it was so good!
We made a pact before we left home that we would be patient - I nearly blew it, but spent the day grunting in response instead.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013


Banos is a small town in the central Andes, renowned for its curative hot springs and its very active volcano, Vulcan Tungaurahua, which towers over town. They evacuated everyone when it starts to smoke in 1999 for 3 months, until they got so annoyed with it all that they just went back to town and have stayed. 2 more days forced evacuation a couple of years ago, but life just goes on with this constant rumble, like thunder, in the background every twenty minutes or so. You can see it smoking for miles, but no one else seems worried, so we shouldn't be either!
Also renowned for hiking trails, we're off to check them out.

An amazing 10 km hike yesterday, up hill from town (there are no other options than uphill, we are in a very steep, narrow valley), climbing about 600m to reach a point for viewing the volcano. Needless to say the low cloud swept in and all we saw was cloud with a bit of smoke seeping out from the top. Fabulous views, though and amazing trails -steps up hill (nearly killed me) and sliding on your arse downhill. Just as well the views are good!
Amazingly productive country with all this lovely volcanic soil - tomatoes, tree tomatoes, papaya, melons etc all under greenhouses, plus good dairy country. Steep though - check out the poor cow trying to reach uphill for a feed, legs splayed, hanging on! Her calf is way down the bottom.
Also check out Papa Noel - you may not see all this woolly growth again.
Another speciality is hand-spun toffee - yumm. $1 for 6 pieces - very nice after a long hike!
Hot springs bath and massage tomorrow!

Tandayapa Bird Lodge

A week at Tandayapa in the cloud forest on the the north west slopes of the Andes, at 1800 metres and about an hour and a half from Quito. This was the place that had offered us the job, so we were keen to check it out.
They have a local bird list of 600 species, but bloody hell, it was hard to find them!! A lot of the birding sites are a distance away and we didn't have a car. Lots of great walking trails though and the humming birds at the feeders at the lodge are spectacular.
Hard to resist names like Sparkling Violetear, Violet-tailed Sylph, Booted Racket-tail, Glittering Emeralds - if they sound colourful, they are.
We had a guide for a couple of days, which was great and we saw fabulous things like quetzals, more cocks of the rock, barbets, toucanets, hummers galore, antpittas and more. 4 am starts with him as they like to have you in place at dawn, 1.5 hrs from home.
By staying for a week, we also managed to get lots of lovely rest (we were on our own mostly) so reading and writing took precedence. No Internet, which was very good for us!
A fabulous spot, nice people and extremely good food - poor old Rosita was a bit horrified when we said we really didn't need three courses at both lunch and dinner.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Quito and indigenous markets

Back to Quito for a couple of days after the rainforest and before our week at Tandayapa Bird Lodge. These are the guys who offered us the job, so it is going to be interesting to see what we think of it. Seriously birdy - that's for sure.
A day at the famous Otovalo markets yesterday - famous for textiles and weaving, so very hard to keep the hands in the pockets. Saturday is also animal market day where people trade everything from cows to guinea pigs and chickens. Not all cooperative, as one of the photos below shows - - .
A visit to the national museum today, which has a wonderful collection of pre-Hispanic art - ceramics and metals mainly, with great examples of beaten gold from inca times and much earlier. Some of my favourite art.
Again, lucky enough to be here on a Sunday, so music and parades of traditional dance and costumes, and people everywhere. A really nice user-friendly city Quito - all transport is 25 cents, no matter how far you go, and every Sunday is family day. Can't ask for much more!

Ecuadorian Amazonia

The magical sounding Amazon Basin!
How nice to be able to compare and contrast our own tropical rainforest in Daintree to that of the awe-inspiring Amazon.
The similarities are amazing - the structure of the rainforest, the vines, the orchids, the palms, the epiphytes, the cauliflory fruiting for pollination by bats, the huge canopy trees, the buttress roots, the richness of plant species, the butterflies, the birdlife.
The most noticeable differences, though, are the species themselves, including bromeliads, kapok trees and enormous fruiting palms. There are flooded forests, tannin-rich blackwater lakes, harmless caiman rather than crocs, several species of monkeys, toucans, macaws, woodpeckers, piraña, boa constrictors, poison dart frogs etc, etc, etc.
Most striking is the familiarity of so many of the plants - you realise that half the plants in your garden originate from the Amazon!! And look how tall they can get!!
Also is the knowledge that when you look to the east, the rainforest continues for millions of square miles. While that is encouraging - it is the earth's lungs after all - the rate of deforestation and the amount of oil drilling that is going on is threatening this resource. They say there is probably only 20 years of oil left in the Amazon in Ecuador, but there certainly appears to be a big push to get it while you can, and to keep exploring for more.
We are told that 50% of the Ecuadorian budget is from Amazonian oil. The new socialist government is working hard to replace this dependency and roses, funnily enough, have become the country's third biggest earner and they are working on other industry and tourism to fill in the gaps.

Our stay was at Sacha Lodge, one of the oldest lodges perched on the edge of a black water lake where you can both swim with and fish for piraña. We did both!
You share your time with a guide and local paddler/guide in a small group. In our case, as birders, we had the head guide Oscar, his son Oscar and local guide Jaime and a lovely English/Sth African couple from New Zealand who were also birders. Oscar was fabulous - local Chichewa names, English names, scientific names and a great eye and ear. Also a good laser pointer which we couldn't have done without in the dense rainforest.
It is very intense - up at 5 am every morning to get going, home for a rest after lunch and then out again in the canoes from about 4pm. Well organised, but a little Germanic at times. (The owners are Swiss). Who would ever think of having a full staff meeting at 7 pm when you have 20 people at the bar clambering for a pre-dinner drink?
They own 2000 acres of forest, mostly primary, and have a huge canopy tour which straddles a 45metre kapok tree and can be a little vertiginous, plus an aerial walkway which is 270 m long and 60 m high. Fabulous birding from the top early morning as the fog lifts to reveal toucans, barbets, antbirds, woodpeckers, fruit crows, cotingas and many more.
Canoes take you through a labyrinth of creeks and waterways with great names like Anaconda - no luck with wrestling (or seeing) an anaconda!
All in all a fabulous time - 130 or so species of birds, 4 of monkeys and zillions of other little critters. It was a great rainforest experience.

Quito, Ecuador

What a contrast - from bustling, chaotic, stinky, loveable, steep La Paz to a brand new airport (only open a few weeks) and the modern, glitzy buildings, wide avenues and clean streets of Quito. Only thing is, they forgot to build a new road to the airport, so after about 20km you are back into winding, steep, smelly streets! Same, same but different, as they say!

We'd booked a package which included four nights out in an Amazonian Lodge and two nights either side in a B and B in Quito. A gorgeous little place full of antiques, paintings, fresh flowers and fireplaces ( very handy at night). Also in the package was a half-day walking tour in the old colonial city and, then when we get back, a full day visiting the famous indigenous markets at Otavalo, which I'm looking forward to.

It's a lovely city, towered over by the volcano Pichincha, and the worlds first city to be given UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Awash with historic churches from the early Spanish times - there are 86 in the historic centre, all of which are well used, most of which are extremely ornate, and most of which have huge underground crypts for the wealthy. It's a bit like an amusement park underground in some. The half day walking tour was great - a young man, enthusiastic and patriotic, with a nice sense of humour.

Fortunately Sunday has become people's day and they have blocked off the streets to traffic and opened them as cycle paths. Absolutely everyone does the 40 km lap through the streets every Sun am, then hangs out in the squares and parks for the day listening to music, eating, drinking etc. A delight!