Cuenca

Onto my final destination in Ecuador, the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca. I arrived very bright and early on Friday following an overnight bus journey from Quito. The city is quite compact so it is a very easy place for a walking tour and you can’t help but notice there is a church on every corner, clearly Cuenca is a very religious place!

I had a lovely morning exploring the city and was quite surprised by the sunshine as I had been warned about quite how cold Cuenca was. Back in the hostel I met a french girl called Rachel, we decided to visit a Panama hat museum which obviously resulted in hats being bought. Rachel had got to know a couple of ecuadorian guys who we met up with. They insisted that there was a very important football match on, between Cuenca and Quito which we had to go to. So that is what we did. This actually turned out to be a lot of fun!

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After the match we headed out for dinner and a few beers. It is probably worth noting that neither of the ecuadorian guys, Alex and Mauricio, spoke any English ( or if they did they weren’t prepared to speak it), so this ended up being a Spanish speaking evening. Whilst my Spanish really has improved immeasurably keeping up with conversation was tough.  However,  I’m not one to allow a language barrier to stop me putting my opinion across so I used a great combination of Spanish, made up words and gesturing emphatically. This actually worked surprisingly well.

on Saturday Rachel and I went to 3 local villages where we visited women weaving Panama hats, artisan silver and goldsmiths and locally produced ceramics. It was great to see the surrounding area to Cuenca which is this beautiful mountainous region with the odd house and village perched on the mountain side.

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Saturday night was more Spanish conversation practice, however this was made significantly easier by the addition of 3 English speakers to our little group. More salsa dancing and general fun, which was followed by a day of less fun on Sunday!

We had a fairly slow start on Sunday but eventually made it to some thermal spas nearby which did wonders for the hangover! Then it was time to say goodbye to cuenca and to Ecuador as I took a night bus into Peru.

Galapagos Islands

I arrived at the hotel we spent Saturday night at and realised at this stage that this was not going to be the same standard of travel I was used to. On arrival at the hotel my bag was taken to my room before I even had chance to check-in. I met my room mate Jenny,  who is a lovely teacher from London,  she soon became my room mate, snorkelling buddy and Galapagos BFF!

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We flew to the Galapagos islands very early on Sunday morning, which meant we arrived onto our boat by 11am. And what a boat it was. There were 13 of us in total on our boat with 8 staff looking after us all. The boat was amazing, on arrival to the sun deck Jenny and I looked at each other both of us said this had far out-weighed our expectation significantly. At this stage we both felt like at any moment we were going to be expected to partake in a dance video. Our biggest concern was our lack of dancing skills and more importantly our lack of owning a gold bikini.

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We headed straight out to go snorkelling,  where we saw a multitude of fish and even a white tipped shark. After about 15mins our guide called us back into the boat and he said he thought he had seen a dolphin. What it turned out to be was 3 killer whales feeding on a dead whale at the bottom of the sea. We were on a boat above the whales who kept surfacing around us. After about 10mins the blubber from the dead whale floated to the surface and these enormous sea birds fed on this in their hundreds, the birds are called frigates. This whole scene was truly amazing to see, even our guide said he had never seen a display this fantastic, it felt like we were part of David Attenborough program!

In total we visited 4 islands and our tours varied from hikes on the islands to snorkelling around the islands.  The best thing about being based on a boat is that we travelled between islands at night so we had all day to see wildlife.  The islands themselves are incredible to look at as they are all formed from volcanic rock and the younger islands are so hostile looking it is amazing to see so many species survive there.

 

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During our various trips to the islands We were lucky enough to see Sea llions,  iguanas, giant tortoises, finches, flamingos, rays, turtles, sharks, penguins, various sea birds and the wonderful blue footed boobies.

IMG_0814 All in all the Galapagos was a phenomenal experience. My advice; go as soon as you can. It is worth every penny.

Banos

From the rainforest I travelled to a thermal spring town called Banos.  Banos is a very picturesque town settled in a valley. With the lovely hot springs and virtually every outdoor activity possible available, Banos is as popular with ecuadorian holiday makers as it is with gringos.

I was lucky enough to time my trip with some friends who I had met from the rainforest.  We all stayed in this amazing hostel that doubles up as an art gallery and studio, so you end up having breakfast amongst artwork of varying degrees of completion.

Friday was a very good day. Catherine and I decided to get up early and visit the thermal springs at 5:30am and sunrise whilst in the baths, which was actually a great start to the day. We then went zip lining across a canyon a short distance from Banos.  This was amazing fun, the photo below is of us climbing between the 2 zip lines, which actually was scarier than the zip lining!

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I then walked up to a viewpoint on one of the mountains, which gave the mostbeautiful view of the town.  After this catherine and I decided that we were in need of some TLC, so we decided to have a full body massage and a facial.  Absolute bliss!  I did have the realisation as I was having the facial that this was the first time my face had been properly clean moisturised for 2 months.

To end the day off, a big night out obviously! The other volunteers from the rainforest arrived on Friday night and we hit the Banos night scene,  which is pretty good. The night started in a fairly civilised way, but ended at around 4am in a bar that the owners had tried to close several times, but we prevented them from doing by buying more shots and insisting that we needed to be in charge of music.

IMG_0648 I feel like this photo sums up the end of our night. With everyone a little worse for wear!  A great final night with the group I met whilst in the rainforest.

Jatun Sacha – amazon rainforest weeks 3 and 4

I have just finished my final week at Jatun Sacha,  so yet another goodbye to some friends I have made. I have now realised that most of my trip will be spent saying goodbye to various people along the way! It has been an amazing month here. I feel like I have learnt an enormous amount,  however im not convinced that Jonas,  our boss at work, would agree as he asked me to name a tree on Friday and I could only actually remember 2 names. Needless to say the tree was neither of these!

Whilst I won’t miss the continual dampness of everything, I will miss the noise of the rainforest and the fact that at any given time there is usually something pretty amazing to see. Outside our dining room at the centre we would often see monkeys, saddleback tamarinds for those interested. I was very pleased with the picture below of them. However I was kindly informed that everyone else had managed to get superior photos to this already.

IMG_0572 The other very exciting animal we have had at the centre was a sloth. I totally failed to get a picture! However i can confirm that they are the cutest animal ever. I am keen to get one as a pet on my return to London.

Below is a picture from the bird observation tower of myself with  the lovely Charlie. It is 30m high and has the most stunning view from the top, very much worth the terrifying climb up.

IMG_0553 I am now spending a couple of days in a town called Banos, which has some great thermal springs. Then onto Quito and my Galapogos tour begins.

Jatun Sacha – Conservation project week 2

So, my second week (and a bit) has come to an end. Starting to feel really settled into life here in the Amazon and the routine of work. Monday to Friday we work from 7:30am to 4pm. This includes a mile walk to our work from the base where we live to where we walk. We are however pretty good at hitchhiking so we frequently dont actually have to walk this distance. So far I have travelled in the back of a truck, a van, the boot of someones car, on a pile on pineapples and in a military vehicles. The Ecuadorians appear to be very happy to pick up people for a lift even if they dont have any space!

We then work to 11:30am, when we walk back to our base for lunch and a siesta (still not decided if a siesta is a good thing or not), then back to work afterwards. Work is pretty varied from planting trees, fruit and vegetables in the gardens, composting, weeding the very extensive nursery and gardens. We also spend quite a lot of time chopping down trees, im assured for the right reasons though! Most of this work is done with a machete, which I am slowly getting used to now. Last Friday one of the rangers who works at the centre took us on a hike into the rainforest, which was amazing and we saw loads of different species of plants, insects, trees.

 

I have pretty much got used to the wet here now. The humidity means that you are constantly damp, but since that becomes normal you no longer even notice! The weather is either boiling hot and very sunny or it rains. When it rains it rains. Last Thursday it rained for 24hrs solidly, the worse part about this is that once you get things wet they never get dry again! The other things I have become accustomed to is the insects. There was a tarantula above the hammock I was lying on last night and I wasnt even bothered, I suspect that this would not be the case in the UK! I continually have ant or mosquito bites all over my legs and arms, despite my best efforts.

Evenings and weekends are spent chilling out in hammocks or heading to local bars or clubs. Last Friday night we went to a club basically in the middle of nowhere except for being next to a dual carriageway. I suspect we were the only gringos who have ever been there, but by the end of the night we were getting shout outs from the DJ being shown how to salsa dance properly! The only thing about Ecuadorian clubs is that there seems to be little sense of boundaries. If you are a girl and you are not dancing then it is totally fine for an Ecuadorian guy to grab you onto the dancefloor. I have not yet found a way to refuse one of these situations!

The other volunteers here are great. There are 10 of here in total, from Ecuador, USA, UK, Canada, Germany and Sweden, so lots of variety. I am one of the oldest, which was kind of weird to start with but its amazing how quickly you forget about that kind of thing. Given how we spend every minute of every day together we have all made friends very quickly!

Jatun Sacha, Amazon conservation project – week 1

So, I safely made it to the Amazon on my own! Been here just over a week and absolutely loving it here. The centre I am volunteering at is pretty amazing, it covers around 2200 hectares of rainforest and particularly focuses on species of trees and plants that are nearing extinction due to deforestation. The work is fairly repetitive and made harder by the fact we use machetes instead of any more advanced tools for most things! Good fun though and my knowledge of tools in Spanish is now pretty impressive.

It is a truly beautiful place, which is evident where you climb up the 30m observation tower and can see only surrounding rainforest and the mountains in the distance. There are loads of different hikes to do around the centre, so I have started to explore a bit of the area.

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The other volunteers are great. A total mix of people, lots of Americans and rather a lot of 18/19 year olds, However made some good friends, cemented with rather a lot of beer in the local town as we experienced the nightlife, which was pretty good fun.

We dont work at weekends and have managed to see a few places already and have plans for a weekend trip next weekend.

Adventure week part 2

So, after an afternoon of recovering from climbing a mountain we headed off on Monday morning to do our 80km cycle ride. This was, thankfully, virtually all down hill and mainly on paved roads.

The weweather,  yet again,  was not on our side. It rained with an absolute vengence, so that after about an hour our waterproofs had let water in and we were all totally drenched.

IMG_0393 However the views along the way were really beautiful, and we did have some sunshine just as the ride came to an end!

We spent that night in a basic cabin in the rainforest,  as Tuesday was due to be our day for a trek in the jungle. Once again the weather was not on our side, so we were unable to do as was planned. We ended up having a really fun day where aAndy had his chest painted at a body paint specialist, we visited 2 conservation reserves and learnt about traditional medicine used still today.

IMG_0411 Yet another fond farewell to our guide Juan who had been with us for all of the tour. He was a brbrilliant guide, Spanish instructor and card player.  Then we headed up to Tena, the capital of rafting in Ecuador?

Wednesday was spent rafting along 27km of level 3 river. We ended up being part of a group of 24, made up mainly of a group of school boys from Kansas. This was not how we had hoped our trip would be. As it turned out the 3 boys on our raft were great. Lots of fun when it came to games which involved pushing each other out of the raft and generally nice boys. This was certainly a nice suprise!

The rafting itself was absolutely brilliant. A great balance of being scared but not at any stage thinking you would die. I think is the perfect pitch for rafting.

After rafting we headed back to Quito, back again to the same hostel, where i think we are nearly residents. Holly and Andy very kindly took me out for a lovely meal in a restaurant high up in the city with a beautful view. A perfect last night.

IMG_0416 Tearful goodbye with Holly and Andy this morning, and my first steps as a solo traveller..