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From Galapagos to Amazon

The arrival of my mum marked an abrupt transition from being essentially a travelling bum to being on vacation. Comfy beds, pre-organized trips, and meals worth more than $3 were a few of the luxuries I quickly became accustomed to. On top of all that, I must say it was certainly nice to have a familiar face to spend some time with. After one full day of exploring Quito, a city full of character, history, and insanely steep streets, it was time to prepare ourselves for the Galapagos. However, this was not before we got a chance to check out a few Quito hotspots, including a bizarre modern art gallery featuring the well known painting of Jesus with his good friend Amy Winehouse, and a not so bizarre lunch diner featuring the familiar cilantro soup with a rather unexpected chicken foot.

We arrived the next day on San Cristóbal island, one of two places in the Galapagos with an airport, and immediately found ourselves stepping over snoozing sea lions and watching pelicans fishing off the pier. After a quick visit to the giant galapagos turtle sanctuary, followed by the first of many stunning sunsets, it was time to pull the anchor of our 20-person boat, set sail (so to speak), and go to bed. Sleeps were certainly interesting on the open ocean. Between the rumbling of the motor and the constant swelling of waves, you could consider yourself lucky if not woken up by the slam of a swinging door or the sudden panic of almost rolling out of bed. Amazingly, not a single person was sea sick over the entire 5 days on the water, although we all felt ourselves rocking back and fourth every time we arrived back on land. Our tour of the Galapagos included the south-eastern islands, namely San Cristóbal, Española, Santa Cruz, and Floreana. Mornings were often spent walking around a new island, lying on the beach with the sea lions and marine iguanas, and going for a snorkel in the surprisingly cold pacific waters. The snorkelling here was incredibly diverse, ranging from shallow reefs full of huge colourful fish, sea lions, and sea turtles, to deep water snorkelling, where the only break in the bottomless blue surroundings was the eerie silhouette of a shark or two. We also had to be weary of the not all that uncommon sting ray or puffer fish.

It seemed the cliche of the Galapagos held true - it was near impossible to find a beach that wasn't filled with sea lions, burping and flopping around. Now, although they may seem goofy and awkward on land, when they're doing circles around you in the water, their size and agility is quite intimidating. Indeed, the truly unique thing about the animals in the Galapagos is how close they will let you be without showing any sign of uneasiness. Unless, as my mum learned, you step on the edge of a booby nest. Then, they bite. She had the honour of being the first person (to the knowledge of the Galapagos workers) to have been bitten by a booby - an honour she wears like a badge. However, even if you were to step right on a marine iguana (as was done by one of the staff), they will simply look at you with what I can only assume is a slightly unhappy expression, and slowly walk off. A personal favourite behaviour of these iguanas though, is their sneezing. Since none of the Galapagos islands have any source of fresh water, most of the animals end up with far too much salt in their diet. To get rid of this excess salt, the iguanas concentrate it in a gland near their nose, which they periodically sneeze out (very amusing when they're gathered in large groups).

One evening, during the usual island walk-around, we were fortunate enough to witness the rather comical mating ritual of the albatross. This more or less involves "sword fighting" with beaks, neck stretches, jaw chattering, and noises resembling anything from a howling wolf to a drum roll. All that was missing was the illuminating voice of David Attenborough. The rest of the days on the Galapagos were similarly filled with weird and wonderful animals, but to get a better idea of some of the things we saw, you'll just have to look at the photos.

Before we knew it, we had to say goodbye to the Galapagos, and hello to the Amazon. This next journey started in a town called Coca, which, due to the expansion of the oil industry in the amazon, has grown to 10 times the size it was around 20 years ago. From here, we took a 2 hour boat ride down the massive Napo river, entered the jungle, and rode for another 45 minutes in a canoe down a narrow black water creek to the lagoon where we were staying. For those who aren't aware (which was me 2 weeks ago), black water is a fresh body of water sourced entirely by rain, made dark by the high concentrations of tannins leeched from the trees. The plus side of staying near such water is the lack of mosquitoes, since it's too acidic to lay eggs in. Well, that and the fact that it's stunningly beautiful. Our lodging was right on the edge of the lagoon, and free time could be spent checking out the anacondas and caymans, fishing for pirañas, or going for a swim (no joke). On the evening of our arrival, a simple canoe ride around the lagoon was sufficient to find an array of birds, bats, and three different types of primates (capuchins, squirrel monkeys, and howler monkeys, whose freakishly raspy howl sounds like the beginnings of a storm). Another evening, we got a quick glimpse of the worlds smallest primate, the pygmy marmoset, whose fully grown adults are only 5 inches long.

Whereas the Galapagos has huge numbers of the same animals that were all easy to find and approach, the Amazon is filled with very small populations of a huge diversity of species, each about as hard to find as a stick bug in a pile of sticks. Our days in the Amazon were spent hunting for any and every living thing we could find - a task made exponentially easier by our guides, who not only had the eyes of an eagle, but also knew the flaura and fauna of the Amazon to extremely impressive detail. As if things weren't hard enough to see already, we got to explore the jungle after dark one night. Luckily for us, some animals like to be seen, and what first seemed like a floating ember in the middle of the jungle turned out to be an orange bioluminescent beetle. We also got lucky at times, such as the tangle of breeding anacondas right across from our lodge, and the bright pink roseate spoonbill sitting in plain sight near the river (an animal that our guide hadn't seen in four years). But again, rather than describe all these animals to you, just take a look at the photos.

We were introduced one day to a native family living alongside the Napo river. Obviously these were not the un-contacted, purely traditional natives living deep inside the jungle that might first come to mind, but rather they represented the more modern and widespread amazonian native that still live mostly from the land. We had the opportunity to taste some freshly brewed mate, a drink called chicha (an alcoholic beverage that used to be fermented using the saliva of the natives), and a rather tasty bowl of food (including a very oily weevil larva). Though not at all displeasing to the pallet, this was all in quite sharp contrast to the food we were eating at the lodge, where every meal cooked by our gourmet chef was probably the best I had ever had. Like I said, travelling with my mum allowed me a moment or two of luxury.

As quickly as we had arrived, it was again time to depart. At least we got a goodbye from a juvenile three-toed sloth on the way to our boat. Back in Quito, my mum and I had a few more hours for some wandering and rather interesting people-watching, but eventually we bid farewell, and I was once again on my own. The whole adventure was such an amazingly unique break in my trip, and I couldn't have been happier to spend it with my dear (not so) old mamà.

Stay tuned for the full collection of photos once the internet improves!

Posted by jakegambling 18:00 Archived in Ecuador

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