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Ecuador & Its Stunning Diversity

November 5, 2011


By Kate Turkington

The jungle is thick, impenetrable. Huge trees rear up desperately towards the distant sunlight above the canopy.

Strange bird calls echo around us. Insects thrum, buzz and whine. I’m wading through mud, water and layers and layers of leaves underfoot. Huge orange roots the thickness of a thigh, coil over and under the path.

There are so many different species of plants and trees that even my local guide can’t identify them. His machete slashes a branch out of the way and bright red sap oozes out. “Don’t know name, but we call it chicken blood,” he says. Some trees have “prop” roots, others “buttress” roots, still others, like the mangroves, have “stilt” roots.

Robbie Delgado, top National Guide from Quito, catches a little frog the size of my fingernail. Our small group of friends all peer closely to look at its red and black back and bright blue tummy. “One drop of this frog’s sweat can kill 40 people,” he tells us. “The jungle people use it to poison their blowgun darts.” We back off hurriedly.

Next stop is a space the size of a living room floor covered with muddy bumps. A continuous stream of leafcutter ants – all carrying pieces of cut leaves like flags – marches relentlessly in and out of this huge underground nest. The leaves are used to farm 80 different kinds of mushrooms to feed the colony.

Soldiers with huge mandibles guard the nest, sterile female workers constantly cleaned by tiny parasite-eating siblings do all the work. Down in the depths sits one queen. Her job? To lay 4 000 eggs every day.

This myriad of jungle creatures, birds and insects keeps this living forest in constant change. Robbie explains the soil of the rain forest is not fertile. The nutrients that supply the rich, complexity of this ecosystem are the result of constant interaction between the dying and living organisms on the forest floor.

Another day as we paddle in our dugout along a narrow creek miles inside the Amazon basin, past indigenous villages, watchful monkeys, a sleeping two-toed sloth, and scores of Equador’s 1 600 species of birds, Robbie calls out: “Otters!” The six of us in our canoe now share a precious moment.

Three huge heads rise above the blackwater, peer at us and go under. Seconds later the heads reappear nearer the canoe. Down again and then the big whiskery heads reappear close to the canoe as three of the most critically endangered animals in the world check us out.

We are privileged to see the famed giant otters, of which there are only 300 left in the world. My friends and I are staying at Napo Wildlife Centre in the middle of Equador’s Amazon jungle in the Yasuni National Park. Winner of numerous international awards, owned and managed by the local Añangu community, it’s recognised as the finest example of community tourism in Ecuador.

There’s so much to tell you about the Amazon, but I can’t leave it without telling you about the birds. No other country has as many bird species in such a small area. And the names – evocative, colourful, exotic, memorable.

Use your imagination now: the Amazonian Violaceous trogon; the Golden-tailed Sapphire hummingbird (there are 120 different kinds of humming birds); the Spectacled owl; the Orange-cheeked parrot; the Scarlet-shouldered parrotlet and the crazy-looking Hoatzin. Plus my personal favourite – the diminutive (10cm) Double-banded Pygmy-Tyrant.

Before we delve deep into the Amazon rainforest we follow in Darwin’s footsteps. Exactly 176 years to the month that the author of the Origin of the Species set foot on the strangest islands on earth, we set foot on the Galapagos islands, 1 000km off the west coast of Ecuador.

Stepping ashore on Santa Cruz from the panga (rubber dinghy) that carries us from our luxury yacht, La Pinta, we enter another world. This is Jurassic Park country. Black lava rocks, white sands, fleshy green plants underfoot, weirdly shaped cacti – and then our first dragon.

Not exactly a dragon but the marine iguana, the only Saurian marine mammal in the world. It’s dozing in the hot sun and ignores us when we take photographs.

You are allowed to come within 2m of the creatures on the islands, but they wouldn’t care if you came closer, so unafraid of humans are they. As we walk along an island path we meet Dragon No2 – the land iguana. Green, gold, and with a Mona Lisa smile, it slumbers in reptilian repose.

We meet the famous finches – the birds that first clued Darwin to the idea of evolution. There are 13 different kinds – each island has its own – with special beak adaptations to suit its habitat.

There are many strange and endemic birds that you’ll find nowhere else on earth – the four Galapagos mockingbirds (specific to certain islands), the Flightless cormorant, the Galapagos hawk, the Galapagos doves and martins, and the funny little Galapagos penguin, the most northernmost penguin in the world.

Another day we go snorkelling in what is widely regarded as the best snorkelling destination in the world. This is September, so the water is cold and quite choppy. Clad in short wetsuits and armed with disposable underwater cameras we marvel at angel, damsel and parrot fish, rays and once a white-tipped shark. But it’s not the thousands of fish which are the only delight.

Sea lions bump us, swirling between our legs, begging “Come and play”. Giant turtles brush past us giving us a cold eye. As Liz, one of my friends, puts it: “This is like the African bush underwater. It’s teeming with life…”

The comical Blue-footed boobies cruise the sea looking for shoals. When they spot one, as one single bird or organism they jet dive into the sea – it’s an amazing spectacle. But whereas the boobies whoosh as one bird into the waves, the Brown pelican goes splosh. Hanging about, looking to raid other birds of their fishy catch.

The Galapagos islands are truly another world, a world where time has stood still. But the whole narrow country of Ecuador is another world. One of the smallest in South America, its diversity of ecosystems is among the top seven in the world. Bisected by the Andes, with jungle to the west and the coast to the east, its capital, Quito, is surrounded by volcanoes, some still active. The Cayambe volcano is the only snow-capped volcano on the equator.

Quito, plumb on the equator, was the first city in the world to be proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage site because of its rich colonial history. You’d expect the equator to be hot and humid, but at 2 800m in Quito it’s spring all year round.

There are no seasons at all. We drive to the Equatorial Monument Mitad de Mundo 25km north of Quito which marks the exact middle of the world, and have our photographs taken with a foot in each hemisphere. Here’s something to ponder. The Frenchman Charles-Marie de la Condamine made measurements here in 1736 showing that this was the true centre of the world, the true equatorial line. Today’s GPS measurements show that he was only 240m off the mark.

Perhaps even more interesting is that there was a sacred indigenous site on the same spot over 1 000 years ago. Little is known of that culture except for its superb equatorial and solar calculations. There’s more about Ecuador – the lakes and mountains, the volcanoes, the Spanish colonial treasures of beautiful old churches, monasteries, paintings, sculptures and carvings, the 220-year-old haciendas, the indigenous markets bursting with handicrafts, the Amazon villages and people. – Sunday Tribune l Pannell’s Tours, Knysna, put together Kate’s trip. Louise and James Pannell specialise in trips to Ecuador.


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