As stupendous as the Galapagos was it paled in comparison to our reunion with our Ecuadoran family. Burt has known the Lemas for twenty years and I have known them for twelve. They have visited us in Montana and we have stayed with them in Ecuador. It has been ten years since we’ve seen each other. Tighter U.S. visa restrictions shut down the Lema family music and festival touring business. They’ve spent the last ten years redeveloping from Ecuador. Burt and I were thrilled to finally see them again.
We spent four days touring the area near their home and we took a side trip over to a jungle with friends. I caught three trout from a trout farm pond. The men were skunked. I accompanied Elsi on her work. We taught Fabian to use binoculars. And we FINALLY played music together again. This time we played with FAbian’s 15 year old daughter Quetzali on the fiddle. Ten years ago this was only a dream and now she’s standing up playing tunes on her own. We played American fiddle tune, Andina folk, and Christmas carols.
Christmas starts early in Ecuador but the Lema’s delayed putting up their tree so we could help. They say it was an honor. I suspect it was so they could take advantage of our long legs. Ten years ago Quetzi crowned our tree at our house. This year I crowned their tree in their house. No joke. It was an honor they waited for us.
The gathering is always fun. This family takes us in as their own and treated us like long lost children. We were fed and bejeweled and begged to return. More on them later.
The mama of Elsi had a gravid cow while we were there. She was very worried about this first time mother. Our last day visiting I visited the cow. Two hours later she delivered a female calf. As the supposed last person she saw I was deemed to have brought good luck. That was jueves (Thursday). All jueves cows are named Julieta or Julio. Welcome Julieta Susana to be called Susi.
The wonders of the Galapagos are widely covered in books and magazines and I am running out of time. Burt and I are headed into the Northern Jaguar Reserve tomorrow. I will be incommunicado for another two to three weeks. I can’t keep up. So here is a summary:
Naturalist Journeys runs a well organized, fortifying trip full of exciting wildlife and fun activities. You can check them out. Our tour had two daily walks, a daily scuba and about three sea kayaking adventures. No activity was too long or too draining. My favorite activity was snorkeling. What a surprise. I have had some bad snorkeling experiences and this was mesmerizing and fun. There was time for us to play some tunes and sing with our friends. The boat was well kept by a stellar crew. The naturalists were knowledgeable and generous. I encourage you to go while you can. It is a very active trip and it’s fun to do while strong and energetic. I have lots more photos on Facebook. If I have time I’ll put them up here.
Our fifteen hour cruise through rough waters took us to Genovesa Island. Genovesa Island is shaped like partially eclipsed sun. The island is the tip of a defunct volcano barely peaking above sea level with a water filled crater. The Letty and four other ships were at anchor when we awoke. Access to sites in the Galapagos National Park are strictly regulated. Each ship was assigned this destination over a year ago. Throughout the day the 100 or so people scattered throughout the vessels would take their turns visiting the island and its surrounding waters. Our agenda included two walks, a snorkel, and a sea kayak. First up was a dry boat landing at the Prince Phillip steps for a morning walk.
The names of the archipelago features were originally in English when the first map of the area was made by the buccaneer Ambrose Crowley. In 1684 Crowley honored his fellow pirates and British royalty or noblemen. These names were in use at the time of Charles Darwin’s renowned voyage on the HMS Beagle and so became authoritative as the Beagle produced navigational charts of their expedition. Eventually Ecuador took possession of the islands and chose to rename most prominent locales in honor of the 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus. Genovesa Island is in honor of Genoa, Columbus’s home town. Prince Philip steps are in honor of Isabela’s husband, the Columbus expedition’s patron.
Prince Philip has a mighty memorable feature names after him. The walls of the crater are very steep lava. There’s hardly a break and one small beach. We’d be making a wet landing at the beach that afternoon but this morning our panga driver pushed the nose of the our shuttle up against the cliff and one by one we disembarked onto a narrow break in the cliff. Steep, irregular steps led up to the bird filled island body. Our line of eager visitors was immediately held up by a nesting swallowtail gull. There was no way to pass without violating the 6 foot rule. Welcome to the Galapagos. The wildlife has no fear. Our guide pushed ahead and lead us past. The gull did not flinch. A thousand people must pass every week.
Up on top we had our first in depth interpretive tour. The highlight was a Galapagos Mockingbird killing a giant centipede. Our group stopped and watched the mockingbird whip the centipede over and over again on the rocks. Satisfied the centipede was no longer a threat the bird ate the centipede’s brain and only its brain and flew away. The centipede’s legs were still moving. Our guides and Howard had never seen this behavior and has never seen a centipede of this size in the islands. Day one and we were already making history.
Next up was a heap of red-footed boobies in all stages of the reproductive cycle. We saw nesting, hatchlings, juveniles all at the same time. Our guide said it was unusual for the red-footed booby to have a mishmash of breeding at one time. The guide speculated climate change was triggering profound changes in currents and food and bird habits.
The swallowtail gulls were all around, too. These birds are the only nocturnal gulls in the world. Their eyes are rimmed in bright red trim that resembles plastic. Nobody knows for sure what the eye makeup does. At night we could see their ghostly shapes following our ship and diving for churned up squid or jellyfish.
After the walk we returned to the ship for lunch. Our afternoon was filled with another walk at Darwin Beach and a kayak and snorkel. More glorious wildlife above and below the seas and too much food. Food was always plentiful and delicious. There’s no snacking on the islands which initially caused me concern. I like to eat on a walk. The return from excursions was always met with fruit, snacks, and juice so I had no need to worry. My friend Pat told me it would be okay and she was right.
That afternoon we headed out to sea for another big overnight crossing.
The good ship Letty was our vessel for the week. She’s about 30 years old but biannual dry dock upgrades have kept her in fine shape. I wish I could go in for a remodel every two years. Burt and I were bunked below deck in a room with three beds. The extra bed made for spacious storage. We had our guitar and mandolin and the usual necessities to stow and the bed made it much easier. Also, it’s generally considered more comfortable to sleep apart in rough seas. There’s nobody else rolling around in your bed. Elbows and knees fly about erratically when trying to exit the bed for a midnight pee. Not a very romantic situation.
The first excursion was to La Loberia on Isla San Cristobal. Here was a harem of sea lions lolling about and a ‘beach master’ bull male guarding his ladies. The beach master was lumbering in and out of the shallows and down the shore break bellowing and grunting. He swung his head back and forth and if his flippers could reach he would have been beating his chest. The beach masters are mature males working hard to prevent competitors from accessing the females. Beach masters work so hard chasing off suitors they only last in charge a short while until they collapse from exhaustion and hunger. Every few weeks they are dethroned and a new beach master takes over until he too is drained of all virility. This sounds entertaining for the ladies in more ways than one.
While the menfolk do what men do, the females are feeding and caring for the youngsters. We saw many nursing babes and juveniles snoozing in the waning sun. Well fed sea lions rolled around and did yoga poses and slept while we gaped and took photos. It was as if we were invisible. Our guides kept us a whole 6′ away. Years of conditioning made it hard to let an animal of this size this close. In a magnificent roll reversal I was more cautious of the sea lions than they were of me. I mean to tell you, those things have some serious teeth and despite the lack of legs they do move fast.
San Cristobal Island is one of teh oldest in the archipelago. At La Loberia the lava boulders are well worn and rounded because it is the oldest lava and the beach faces the harshest waves. Over the milleniums the rocks have been softened. Other places we were to see were full of jagged and scary rocks of new lava. Also, there are two types of lava: aa and pahoehoe. Aa lava is jagged from the time it erupts. Pahoehoe means robes and it is a softer, more sinuous lava. Pahoehoe rocks start out smoother. Our guides explained all this during our walk to the beach.
We returned to our ship where I had an octopus dinner. Burt had beef. The cruise’s food was good and surprising. The menus are very diverse. Lunches are more traditional with a base of beans and rice but dinner was influenced by world cuisine. That night was a 15 hour open ocean cruise north to Genovesa. I took a dramamine and woke up 12 hours later. I highly recommend dramamine if your are prone to motion sickness. I nearly threw up trying to brush my teeth. Once I took my pill and hit the hay I had not a care in the world.
Morning found us anchored in a sea filled volcanic crater. Coolio.
Everybody loves boobies. They are so darned cute. On the Galapagos Islands there are three species of boobies: Red-footed, Nazca (formerly masked), and blue-footed boobies. Foot color and intensity is an indication of health. Blue-footed boobies have an elaborate courtship dance that includes bowing and wing flapping and very sustained showing off of the feet. Look! My feet are bright blue! I am young and healthy! Pick me! Female boobies wave back with their feet if they like a guy. Lucky for us we saw a blue-footed booby couple dancing and calling. There was all kinds of foot waving and bowing.
Red-footed boobies are similar to blue-footed boobies that wave their feet and dance when looking for a sexual partner but the red-footed boobies also do a thing called sky-waving. They point their blue faces skyward and show off a blue throat. We did not see this but we did see nesting red-footed boobies and red-footed booby chicks. Red-footed boobies are very diverse in appearance. There is a white phase and a brown phase and several mixed phases between white and brown. Add to that juvenile versus adult coloration and sometime these boobies are hard to tell apart from other boobies.
Nazca boobies take a different approach. Nazca males find a tree based nesting spot and defends it. The ladies pick the males based on the desirability of the nesting site. Very sensible. Choosing real estate over theatrics and cosmetics is astute.
Boobies deep dive for fish. Their nostrils are permanently closed and a sac of air protects their brains from high impact dives. Each of these species fishes in a different area of the ocean. In close, out further, and out really far. Blue-footed fish close to shore and the red-footed fish scores of miles out at sea. The Nazca booby fishes in between.
Nazca is the name of a region of Peru and the tectonic plate of the Galapagos islands. Nazca boobies can be found in the Nazca region of Peru as well as teh Galapagos Islands.
Marine iguanas are also, surprise, known as the Galapagos Marine Iguana. These reptiles are unique in the world. They forage at sea for algae. The larger males dive deep and can spend many minutes under water. Females and juveniles eat closer to shore and from the inter-tidal zone. Their noses and teeth are specially adapted to eat close growing algae off of rocks. Burt and I saw a few swim by while we were snorkeling. A lizard at sea. In times of scarce food, caused by current shifts, the iguanas can reabsorb bone and literally shrink in size. last year there was a food shortage and large numbers died. We saw many skeletons and got a good look at their vegetarian teeth. This year the food is abundant and the population is bouncing back. Several island have their own unique subspecies. Old mariners thought the iguanas were ugly. Carol Simon and I think they are sublime. Carol is a herpetologist and the marine iguana is her favorite lizard. When watching sunning marine iguanas you will see them occasionally snort spurts of salty water. They expel excess salt through their noses.
I’m too tired to get into the blow by blow trip details. The Galapagos are famous for the friendly wildlife and amazing scenery. They are a volcanic archipelago bathed in cold sea currents. If you don’t know the name of some species of plant or animal stick the word Galapagos or Lava in front of it and you might be right. Lava gull, lava lizard, Galapagos mockingbird, Galapagos prickly pear….Our journey covered more than 500 nautical miles and 5 islands in 8 days. Naturalist Journeys hosts Howard and Carol gave 4 lectures covering the natural history, human history, evolution, and environmental threats. Our local guides were phenomenally well informed, energetic, and kind. Burt and I snorkeled in 8 locations. We saw more than 40 new species of birds and animals. I think you should check it out.
Two weeks ago Burt and I landed in Ecuador and had a memorable adventure. An adventure full of fun and action and family and friends. Here’s how it went.
The Gypsy Carpenters flew out of El Paso which is three hours from Portal, AZ. Our trailer and dogs and cat were stowed safely with friends in Portal. The cat is apparently happier with her friend Dodi than with us and the canines. Our flight was at mid-day and on the spur of the moment we drove to El Paso the evening before. After a few frustrating u-turns on the endless highways surrounding the El Paso airport we found a La Quinta with an authentic taco joint next door. Live music and tacos pastur for dinner. The La Quinta took us in and kept our car for free with a free shuttle to the airport. What a deal. The next morning we slept in, ate the complimentary breakfast and took to the skies.
There’s not much to say about air travel beyond how uncomfortable it is for everyone involved. Twelve hours later we landed in Quito. Burt and I have both been to Ecuador several times but the most recent trip was ten years ago. A lot has changed in Ecuador in ten years. We stepped out of our airplane expecting a third world style-runway exit with lots of intimidating barriers and screaming taxistas. Instead we landed in a modern day airport. It was clean and cavernous and well lit. Everything was orderly. What happened? President Rafael Correa happened is what I hear. A country wide investment in infrastructure has made the place anew. The Pan American highway was once a two lane pot hole riddled byway. Kind cute. Now it is a super highway. Six lanes of well-engineered roadway all the way to Columbia. Welcome, tourists.
At 11:00 PM we were shuffled through customs efficiently and with smiles. My ink splattered declaration was not a problem. My crossed-out name not an issue. Quite the opposite of our entry into Miami yesterday where I accidentally pushed a wrong button at the mandatory automatic kiosk and got us swept into the X line of suspicious people. Four in the morning and nobody was smiling. I was told I wouldn’t make that mistake again by the grumpy inspector. The taxis were lined up and regulated. We paid the standard ten US dollars to be ferried to our Air B and B host in Tababela. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency. Another reason to travel there.
We spent a day resting and acclimating to the high elevation. Chester’s B and B was a cozy spot with a comfortable bed in a town where nothing was happening. Worked for us. Most of our tour companions were on a pre-Galapagos side trip to see the condors and were staying in Puembo at the Puembo Birding Gardens. Naturalist Journeys uses the Puembo Birding Gardens as its Quito base camp. The inn is in beautiful location and has many fantastic birds, a friendly hostess, and fine dining. I figure my heart wasn’t up to the elevation where condors soar so we just hung out and played music and read for a day in seclusion.
The next morning we were up early and taken to the airport by our hosts. At the airport we united with our group and began the intricate journey to the Galapagos Islands. There were 18 guests and 2 hosts on this trip. Carol Simon and Howard Topoff were our hosts. In February Burt and I will be hosts and have guests of our own. Our twenty person group was met by the Ecoventuras team and shuttled through the detailed Galapagos luggage inspection and baggage check and sent off to our boarding gate to wait for our nearly three hour flight to the islands. The Galapagos are a unique place full of native plants and animals. The luggage inspection is to make sure we are not carrying anything that might harm the natural environment. No seeds, unpackaged food, plants, or dirt are allowed. I cleaned Burt’s and my shoes before the trip. (Shocking, I know.)
Our group was comprised of a bunch of scientific types with connections to Portal, Arizona. All of us knew someone on the trip. Burt and I knew Carol and Howard, of course, but we also had longtime Helena friends Ed and Rosemary on board. Our flight made a stop at the coastal city of Guayaquil and we picked up two more of our participants and then it was off the the archipelago.
The Galapagos are more than 600 miles from shore in the Pacific Ocean. The airplane makes quick work of what used to be a many day sea voyage. Flying is convenient but it also minimized the vast distance and made it easy to forget how far from the rest of the world we were. Our plane landed on San Cristobal Island around 3 in the afternoon. After another inspection we met our week’s guides, Fabricio and Franklin, and headed right out our ship for a late lunch and a boat safety meeting. After eating and considering a midnight sinking we headed back to land and took our first nature walk to La Loberia. Sea Lions are called Lobos Marinos and La Loberia was the place of many sea lions. They weren’t kidding. More next post.
Babisal Ranch is at the heart of the Norther Jaguar Project’s reserve. The cows are long gone but the original structure is used as a kitchen and two new adobe and stone guest rooms have been added. Burt and I will turn an old water tank into a third guest room. Year round these facilities are used by cowboys and biologists and other visitors. Overflow people stay in tents or hammocks. On this trip Burt and I scored a cabin of our own. The beds are traditional rancho cots made from burlap suspended between two Xs. With a Thermarest pad the bed is pretty comfortable but it moves a lot and the motion made me a little queasy. More Galapagos training I told myself.
Our group consisted of two donors, Mark and Monica, a photographer, Charles, us, and Randy and Turtle, NJP’s staff/guides. After the 12 hours of driving Burt and I headed straight to bed after dinner and didn’t really get a good look at our companions. We were grateful for the warm food and welcome gifts of NJP hats and personal napkins. In the morning we had some more filling and tasty vegan food and then piled in a pickup for a nearby hike.
All seven humans and three dogs rode up the steep mile or so to another defunct ranch. We would hike up the a tight, wet canyon and pass some camera traps and see what some people consider the spiritual heart of the reserve. In fifteen bumpy minutes we reached our starting point. The abandoned ranch buildings were full of wood perfect for our project. It will be fun to deconstruct and reconstruct out in the wilderness. The old wood will look beautiful in a new situation.
Pretty quickly we reached a camera trap. Randy and Turtle removed the data chip and tried to find a camera that could reveal its secrets. There are a few different models of cameras in use at the reserve and they all have their own way of formatting chips. Luckily our third and last try at reading the chip was successful. The chips and batteries are changed out every one to three months. Since this particular trap’s chip had been changed four mountain lions, a few bobcats, and an ocelot had passed by the trap. The ocelot passed just the day before we did. Smiles all around thinking the ocelot was nearby watching us. As Randy says, I haven’t seen a jaguar but I know they’ve seen me. I like that feeling.
Our walk to the canyon wasn’t more than half an hour. We could have gone further but we didn’t feel like swimming and mud crawling so we sat around and enjoyed the scene. I visited the spiders. Snacks and water and getting to know you conversations were had by all. After people were satisfied with the hanging around we had a choice, return home by the trail we had taken in or canyoneer our way down canyon. We chose the adventure route. It was pretty rough going but Randy was a competent guide and very able assistant. Burt and I did fine on our own. We mostly traveled ahead of the group. It took us much longer to reach the truck going down the boulder filled stream bed but it was also more fun. The dogs have a different version. One ran home on the trail. Another was lifted through the worst spot. The third either jumped or fell twenty feet into a pool. She was not happy. Eventually it was just a stream bed and we all dispersed. Burt and Randy went to inventory wood and I wandered downstream alone.
At the truck point we all reunited. Burt and I opted to avoid the truck bed for the downhill jostle and walked back to camp along the stream. It was a tussocky and watery route back. It was noticeable that there were not a lot of birds. When we finally reached camp it was time for lunch and a siesta.
That evening we took a silent sunset walk. We heard an elf owl. Or was it pygmy? I’ve forgotten. Tracks were seen in the creek bed sand. Quail flew up. We thought they were scaled quail but they were Elegant Quail. Similar but not the same. Dinner and bed.
Sunday last Burt and I slipped away from Portal at 5 AM. Mimi. Elvis, and Olive were all at their respective captor’s homes. We’d stayed in Portal to play music for friends getting married. Without the wedding we would have headed to Mexico on Saturday and attended the 10th anniversary of the Northern Jaguar Project reserve celebration in Sahuaripa. Instead we made a mad dash to the border and where we entered the weird Sunday morning amateur hour of la frontera. All the border staff were in their twenties and female and serious about their jobs.
First problem was Burt ad stuffed a tissue over the VIN number on the dash and the the guard couldn’t verify our vehicle registration against the VIN. Except the VIN is also on the door. The youngster didn’t want to look at the door she wanted the tissue covered number plate. I admit it looked kind of odd. I tried to dig out the tissue with a rusty scalpel I’ve been keeping on the dash for just such an occasion. The sun decayed tissue did not budge but produced a lot of dust. While I wheezed and dug, Burt kept trying to get the guard to look at the door. She refused. I decided it was because his grammar was slightly off. She could pretend not to understand him and watch me dig. Exasperated, I politely rephrased Burt’s statement and she suddenly looked at the door, took down the number, and let us pass.
Next we got our 6 month visitor’s visa. This time I had to rouse people from hidden chambers. Nobody crosses at 6 AM on Sunday. Tired eyed youngsters materialized at the windows. Our visa forms filled out we took them across the way to pay the fee. This second window was where we needed to get our TIP, too. Mainland Mexico requires a Temporary Import Permit for all vehicles. Baja does not have this requirement so the step was new for me. Sadly, I accidentally threw away our original 2017 registration in a fit of organizing a month ago. Luckily, Burt discovered it missing so we had a copy the Jefferson County tax assessor had emailed last week. More sadly, the Mexican government’s representative would not accept a copy. I showed her last year’s original. I explained sweetly and repeatedly that I lost the original and the US government gave me the copy. I wondered if an older more hardened representative would have let me pay the TIP. I wondered if speaking Spanish was working against me. I wondered what to do. Burt and I decided if they didn’t want our money we didn’t need a TIP. We shrugged our shoulders and hoped one arm of big brother didn’t talk to the other arm of big brother and we headed on our way in violation of the law. Most luckily, nobody ever stopped us and there were no checkpoints between the border and our destination.
At noon we arrived in Sahuaripa. We ran into Randy, the ranch manager, leaving for lunch. We ate, did some errands, shifted gear from our truck to his and finally, around 2 PM, started the trip into the mountains. It was 100 degrees. Cholo rode up front with the menfolk. I held my own with Farmer in the backseat. Six hours of single track gravel road later we arrived well after dark at the camp called Babisal. Rancho Babisal is the heart of the reserve. Fresh vegan food and our companions greeted us. We ate and went to bed.