Ecuador is Awesome – Part 6

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on Earth. The amazing diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a stand out destination in South America. You may think I’m biased because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 33 years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the wonderful things about Ecuador that I want to share with others who are interested in visiting, I found many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series is all about their responses.

One thing we unanimously agree on is “the Scuba Diving totally rocks!” For this article, I have chosen five dive sites, because there are so many incredible places to go scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands and even a few cool places on the mainland (but you have to admit there’s nothing quite like logging a few Galapagos dives, right?) These are some of the favorite, and also most popular dive spots, each renowned for their individual attractions.

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Mosquera

The islet of Mosquera is located in the channel between North Seymour and Baltra. Appearing more like a large sandbar than an island, Mosquera is 620 meters long and 130 meters wide, and consists of a long narrow stretch of powdery white sand, black lava rocks, and glistening azure tide pools. The island was created by geological uplift, so its geography is flat rather than conically shaped like other volcanically formed islands. Starting from Mosquera’s dramatic lava rock base, peppered with corals, divers drift with the currents to a depth of 21m along a mixed rock, coral and sandy bottom and along the top ledge of a magnificent cliff wall where a wealth of marine life thrives; from colorful nudibranchs to impressive hammerheads, and large black manta rays to white spotted eagle rays. Meeting playful sea lions is one of the main features of the dives at this popular site, along with the spectacular white sand plateau filled with thousands of Galápagos garden eels, bobbing in the current as far as the eye can see. White-tipped sharks glide amongst the coral reefs and lava rocks along with Galápagos sharks, Pacific green turtles, barracudas, amberjacks and pelagics, schools of and many other tropical fish which are common to this area. Visibility averages 12-15 meters (40-50 feet). Surge and current is usually moderate to strong.

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Daphne Minor

Located 40 minutes by boat from Itabaca Channel, on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz, Daphne Minor is an isolated offshore tuff cone featuring a range of different topographies: vertical rock and coral walls, steep slopes, pinnacles, a marine platform, and also a cave. At the base of Dafne Minor, it is even possible to see the results of lava flows from previous volcanic eruptions. Depending on the strength of the current, which can range from mild to strong, while drift diving along the wall amongst the crags and black coral, divers can encounter the cleaning stations of hammerhead and Galápagos sharks, as well as spot white tipped reef sharks, silky sharks, manta rays, golden cowrays, eagle rays, sea lions, Pacific green turtles, and impressive moray eels. Other marine life that thrives in abundance off Dafne Minor includes sea cucumbers, octopus, slipper lobster, nudibranchs, and an impressive variety of reef fish including bacalao, barracuda, palometas, Galápagos grunts, yellowtail grunts, creolefish, king angelfish, Galápagos ringtail damselfish, chamelion wrasse, rainbow wrasse, streamer hogfish, tuna, parrotfish, razor surgeonfish, Panamic graysby cabrilla, cardinalfish, and yellowtail snapper, and a wonderfully colorful collection of starfish. The best dives hover around a depth of 15-20 meters with visibility generally around 9-18 meters (30-60 feet) depending on the presence of plankton. Diving on Dafne Minor is suitable for all levels starting from beginners through to intermediate and advanced divers.

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North Seymour

Located approximately half an hour by motorboat from the Itabaca channel near Baltra, the island of North Seymour offers two very special dive sites: the Point, and the Channel. On the Point, follow the gradual steps away from the shoreline to a shallow rocky reef, before reaching the sandy bottom at 16-18 meters. The rocky slope follows the platform reef where devil rays, manta rays, eagle rays, marbled rays, stingrays, tiger snake eels, moray eels, camouflaged octopi and sea turtles are a common sight, and even marlins have occasionally been seen. Galápagos sharks, white- and black-tipped reef sharks and scalloped hammerheads regularly take advantage of medium to strong currents here. The sandy bottom at around 15m is home to hundreds of bobbing endemic Galápagos garden eels, and there are plenty of Pacific green turtles, and large schools of barracuda and other reef fish like yellowtail grunts and blue-striped snapper, jacks, flag cabrilla, creolefish, king angelfish and scorpionfish are also easy to find. Razor surgeonfish are especially abundant. An interesting phenomena on North Seymour dives is the ability to observe blue-footed boobies diving to hunt fish. The Channel is perfect for a drift dive, with medium to strong currents, starting from the eastern corner and following the lava rock plateau. Galápagos sharks cruise around and there are reef fish everywhere. The Channel is also a great spot to find hundreds of colorful sea stars, as well as sea horses clinging to the corals, bright blue nudibranchs, and even whale sharks at times.

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Gordon Rocks

One of the most popular sites for experienced divers in the Galápagos Islands is the extinct volcanic crater, Gordon Rocks with its sandy bottom at 32 meters. The top of a submerged cone at the northeastern end of Santa Cruz Island, the exposed northern and southern lava walls surround the remains of the caldera, measuring about 100 metres in diameter, and three smaller pinnacles are visible under the surface. There is a spectacular 65-meter wall drop off along the northern edge of the crater and one large pinnacle in the center approximately 21 meters below the surface. Gordon Rocks is a favorite place to view large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks up close and personal as they ride the medium to strong currents and circle the massive lava rocks. White and black tip reef sharks can also be seen in the crater, as well as Pacific green sea turtles, sea lions, sting rays, eagle rays, large schools of barracuda and snapper, endemic fur seals, the occasional majestic manta ray and also the fascinating mola mola sunfish. The inside of the crater can resemble a gigantic fish bowl at times and, if you’re really lucky, whale sharks can sometimes be seen here too, and pods of pilot whales frequently pass in the channel between Gordon Rocks and Santa Cruz. Gordon Rocks is also great for a deep dive on the outer rim of the crater, with lots of pelagics and invertebrates to be found along the wall. If close encounters with hammerheads gets your bubbles going, Gordon Rocks is the place to dive.

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Floreana

There are three very different dive sites at Floreana, mostly with mild currents making these excellent sites for beginners, and wonderful sites for experienced divers to relax and observe the fascinating marine life that Galápagos has to offer amongst some of the most interesting topography in the islands from rocky outcrops, extinct volcanoes, walls, tunnels, caves and sandy bottoms to black coral reefs. Enderby is the place to spot whale sharks in the spring months, as well as eagle rays, stingrays, white-tipped reef sharks, Galápagos sharks, cleaning stations, and sometimes hammerheads and pilot whales, and countless tropical fish including giant clouds of black-striped salemas that can envelop divers in their thousands. Champion offers one of the nicest drift dives in Galápagos, gliding along the wall escorted by friendly juvenile sea lions that frequently take a liking to diver’s fins, while keeping eyes open for green morays, blue lobster, octopus, long nose hawk fish and coral hawk fish, and spotting Pacific sea horses clinging to branches of black coral. There are also large Pacific green turtles covered in barnacles, eagle rays and stingrays, and also schools of hammerheads. At Punto Cormorant it is easy to find the famous red-lipped batfish with its leg-like fins and cherry red lips in relatively shallow water, presenting yet more evidence that diving in the Galápagos Islands is a unique experience and the three exceptional sites on Floreana are some of the most interesting dive spots within the archipelago.

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Wanna come diving with me? Get in touch.

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Going to the Birds

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Ex-Farmer-cum-Birdman, Angel Paz, owner of the Paz Bird Refuge in Mindo with a Giant Antpitta.

We wake up at 3.00am, yawning and stumbling around in the dark, getting dressed in warm clothes and trying not to wake other guests at the hotel, but not succeeding very well as we kick the furniture and stagger noisily down the stairs. The manager has thoughtfully left us a packed breakfast in the fridge. We retrieve the bag and then mumble unintelligibly to each other, rubbing our arms to warm ourselves while we wait for our driver, the steam from our breath clouding in the chilly air. Segundo shows up a few minutes late and we finally take off, rattling down the narrow winding track towards our destination. Headlights bounce all over the place as we navigate through mountain streams in the battered 4WD, going slowly on the bumpy road. It rained during the night. The vehicle slips and slides. Catching a few extra winks of sleep enroute is impossible.

“Oh no!” exclaims Segundo in the dark, cursing under his breath, before pulling up abruptly in the middle of the muddy track.

We have a flat tire. Wondering if we will still make our pre-dawn appointment on time, we work quickly together to change the tire, some of us shining flashlights on his work, others undoing the spare tire and rolling it to the front of the car. The road is slick. Just as he pulls the old tire off the studs, the jack falls over. Segundo moves it to another spot and jacks up the car again. This time, it stays. We help him to lift the new tire and fasten the nuts to the studs. He lets the car down and checks the studs again. After ten minutes driving, he checks them again. The clock is ticking. We don’t want to miss our appointment, but we do want to make it there in one piece. We arrive at the appointed meeting place less than a minute after our guide arrives. Everyone whispers in the dark, as if afraid to break the magic of the night before it’s time.

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Following our native guide, and some wildly dancing flashlights, we make our way down a very narrow slippery track. Just barely keeping our balance, we silently follow Angel Paz, a local ex-farmer and hunter who became a passionate birdman, to the edge of a small cliff as the first grey light of dawn begins to break. Angel indicates we should stay still and remain silent. The ghostly outlines of the trees begin to take shape in front of our eyes. Then, a strange clatter begins in the trees. We can’t see the birds yet, but we can certainly hear them.

As the light increases, just on sunrise, the bizarre red heads of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock appear in the branches as they dance and chatter, all competing for the affections of the plain brown-colored female. The Rupicola Peruviana is one of only two species that live in the neotropics. The noisy mating display goes on for over half an hour, the birds leaping about on the branches, chasing each other off, calling and dancing, until the female chooses her partner. Suddenly the forest is quiet again. We trudge back to the 4WD and head up the hill to another location, snacking on our packed egg sandwiches along the way.

Another hike down a steep slope takes us deep into the forest. Angel goes slowly, shushing us with a finger to his lips.

“There it is,” he whispers, pointing to a tree branch high above our heads.

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The White-Faced Nunbird dances along the branch, hopping back and forth, searching for breakfast. Angel tells us it’s a rare species that many birdwatchers have yet to spot. We have no trouble watching this avian treasure as it flits from branch to branch for a few minutes. Leaving it to find sustenance, we head back up the path, our guide whistling and twittering as he walks. On the way, a Rufous Potoo hides itself on a branch, blending into a tree. We nearly miss it, but Angel points it out with a green laser light.

“Shhh!” says Angel, stopping mid-step with his arms wide. We freeze. “There!” he whispers, barely making a sound as he points to the underbrush.

The Moustached Antpitta is hard to see at first, camouflaged in the thick undergrowth. Then, he hops around, digging worms from the ground just under the path. He flits back and forth, “hohoho”ing as he feeds on rich proteins. We silently observe as one of the most vulnerable species sings and eats.

Further up, Angel sets out breakfast for some Green Toucans. Slicing bananas and placing them on tree branches, he offers the birds almost 30 ripe plantain bananas. We sit back and wait, once again silent and unmoving in the early morning. Soon, the tree branches are buzzing with activity as Crimson Rumped Toucanets compete with Toucan Barbets, Blue Winged and Black Chinned Mountain Tanagers, until a couple of Sickle Winged Guans come in to hog the breakfast offerings. Fluttering and chirping, the birds come and go, feasting on the ripe bananas.

“Look!” says Angel, pointing up into the trees, where a red-breasted bird with a yellow head, a green coat and a black tail rests. The Quetzal. There is silence in the hide as the bird comes closer, easily spooked by the slightest movement. We freeze. Sitting just a few feet in front of our eyes, the Golden-Headed Quetzal pecks at the fruit. Cameras click. Then, it’s gone. On the ground, a pair of White-Throated Quail Doves waddle around, picking up the scraps dropped by the toucans.

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We continue along the rough track, heading upwards until Angel stops us again. A rare Giant Antpitta gathers worms in her beak to feed her offspring. She jumps back and forth, stuffing food into her mouth and then vanishes to her nest in a nearby tree branch, returning a few minutes later to eat her own breakfast. Nearby, an Ochre-Striped Antpitta dances on a branch, swinging its hips from side to side, assessing the danger. “Huewee! Huewee!” It sings. We don’t move. No one speaks. Soon, they both disappear.

At the top of the path, hummingbird feeders are attracting a number of species: Velvet-Purple Coronets, Fawn-Breasted Brilliants, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, and the shimmering Andean Emeralds, amongst several others whizzing by too fast to identify. There are 137 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and we spot at least a dozen of the 49 species in the region. After a feast of raspberries picked from the vines behind the hide, we trek up the final part of the path to dine richly on a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast of Bolon (green plantain banana balls), sweet Empanadas (cheese pastries) and aromatic local coffee, before heading back into town feeling sleepy but satisfied by our early morning adventure.

Interested in Birdwatching Tours in Ecuador? Ask us how.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part 5

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on Earth. The amazing diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a stand out destination in South America. You may think I’m biased because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series is all about their responses.

Four men roll the boat down the beach on balsa rollers, Flintstones-style, dragging the back roller to the front as the launch lumbers down the sand towards the sea. A man checks our life-vests, to make sure they’re properly secured. We’re in shorts and wind-cheaters, knowing the ride will be wet and cold. Our shoes are safely stowed in our small waterproof holdalls. As the small motorboat nears the edge of the water, the guide calls us over. We push from the stern, floating the boat into the waves lapping the beach. Then, as two men hold it steady, we climb over the back, past the outboard motor and scramble over a fiberglass partition to take our seats. A little rustic, it may be, but we consider it a part of the overall adventure, getting our hands dirty and our feet wet.

36,000kg of awesomeness

36,000kg of awesomeness

The navigator dips a carved wooden paddle into the waves and pushes into the sand, propelling the boat further out into the waves. When the water is deep enough, the driver lowers the motor into the gently rocking breakers and pulls on the starter. After a few coughs and a puff of smoke, the engine roars to life and we are off, skimming over the tops of the waves just as dawn breaks over the bay. The village disappears from view as we speed out to the peninsular of San Francisco on the edge of the Galera National Marine Park. The water is deep blue. The air is crisp and smells fresh. Whizzing over blue-green crests, it’s easy sit back and relax, as we enjoy the ride. About an hour later, we slow down as the driver shouts, “Over there!”

We nearly snap our necks turning to see where he’s pointing, as the huge tail of a humpback whale slaps the water to our starboard side. A spray shoots up into the air, as the giant mammal disappears below the surface. The motor chugs in the water, we creep along, looking and listening for breaching whales. As we come to rest on top of a deep reef, a mother and her calf swim by slowly, the young calf hugging its mother’s side. “It’s just a few days old,” says the guide. The mother takes her time, drifting just below the surface of the clear waters. We sit in silence as the awesome animal weighing in at around 36,000 kilograms passes by with her new offspring, heading south for the winter to feed on krill during the annual humpback migration. Further out to port side, an enormous whale breaches, leaping out of the water and slapping the surface with its massive tail on reentry. Even though we’re not that close, we are splashed with spray as the breeze carries the droplets of seawater over us. Even the normally chatty guide is speechless as we watch another two younger whales breach one after the other. The only word anyone says for over an hour is “WOW!” After a while, no more humpbacks appear and we head back to the village, feeling honored and privileged to have witnessed the migration of a few of the world’s 80,000 remaining humpback whales.

There are few sights as impressive as a breaching humpback whale

There are few sights on earth as impressive as a breaching humpback whale.

Fancy a look? Get in touch!

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Four

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating places in the western hemisphere. The incredible diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of the equator a definite stand out destination in South America. You may consider me biased because I have chosen to live in Ecuador, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30 years, and this is the only country in the world that ever inspired me to buy land, build a house on it and stay for a while. That in itself is a testimony to Ecuador’s amazing attractions. Before writing this series, I asked my friends about Ecuador’s highlights, and they all mentioned volcanoes.

The summit of Cotopaxi

The snow-capped summit of Cotopaxi

The proximity of the Andean volcano belt from everywhere in Ecuador makes it possible to see snow-capped volcanoes from your lodge in the rainforest, from your hotel on the coast and, in the wonderful case of Papallacta, even from your outdoor hot-tub where Antisana (5753m) is easily visible. It takes no more than five hours from anywhere in Ecuador to find yourself near a volcano or two. Snow-capped or smoking, there are 44 volcanoes in Ecuador, some long extinct, some just resting for a while, and some recently active and still spitting plumes of wispy grey into the azure sky.

Nowhere else in the world can you drive up a mountain range to an altitude of 5000m and then climb to even more dizzying heights to reach the peak without first trekking for days. Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Volcano (5,897m) is around the same height as Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m). There are many travelers from all over the world who have climbed both. A summit-climbing trek to Cotopaxi takes one weekend. Most tours drive up from Quito on Saturday morning, stay in the First Refuge and hike to the summit late on Saturday night to descend on Sunday morning, and then head back to Quito, arriving in time for a nap before dinner, whereas climbing Kilimanjaro can take 4 to 6 days depending on the route you choose.

While Cotopaxi is a live stratovolcano and monitored for activity, Ecuador’s highest volcano, Chimborazo (6,267 m) is an inactive stratovolcano; its last known eruption is believed to have occurred around 550 AD. Cotopaxi and Chimborazo attract thousands of climbers each year, and are also visited by more sedate tour groups who just want to swing by for a look and a quick photo op.

The highest volcano in Ecuador

Chimborazo: the highest volcano in Ecuador

Just a few hours from Quito, which boasts its own impressive Pichincha Volcano (4784m) that last erupted in 2004, the famous mountain town of Baños, visited most for its spectacular waterfalls and extreme sports activities, frequently finds itself cleaning up after an ashy wind blows over from nearby Tungurahua (5023m) which most recently had the townspeople evacuated in 2012 during its last impressive eruption, the lava flow destroying a number of houses as it ran down into the Pastaza Valley.

On the island of Isabela in the Galapagos archipelago, a trek of just a few hours up the lava rock sides of the shield volcano Sierra Negra (1124m) is a must, with its crater measuring 11km in diameter, as well as its cinder cones, spatter cones, and tuff cones. This is one of the most active of the Galapagos volcanoes with its most recent historic eruption in 2005. A note about tours to Sierra Negra: Footprints Ecuador does not recommend horseback tours to the crater because of the maltreatment of the horses. From the crater of Sierra Negra views of Cerro Azul (1,689m), another shield volcano on the south western part of Isabela Island which erupted in 2008, are possible on a clear day.

Wherever you go to find volcanoes in Ecuador, there will always be another one, or two or three nearby. Some of them have wonderful legends and stories attached to them, but I will leave those tales for you to discover on your own when you arrive in Ecuador.

Get in touch if Volcano Tours are your thing.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Three

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with travelers who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I began to write this series of ten articles, I asked my friends who live now or have lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” Here’s what they said:

Ecuadorian cuisine totally rocks. Ecuador’s geographical and cultural diversity allows for easy availability of a wonderfully vast range of fruit and vegetables, seafood and varieties of meat: domestic and wild. Restaurant menus from the Galapagos Islands and the Pacific Coast, the Andean Sierra and the Amazonian Orient offer a treasure trove of culinary delights to sample, and some also cater to many special diets including gluten- and dairy-free, diabetic and low carb, simply because of the nature of the range of foods available, and the dishes from which they are prepared. It may also interest you to know that Ecuador is GMO-free, although some of the larger produce growers do use toxic pesticides.

Fresh seafoods abound on the Ecuadorian coastline

Rock lobsters and other fresh seafood abounds on the Ecuadorian coastline

Several hundred species of potatoes are grown in The Andes, which is the original birthplace of the humble spud. The Incas treated potatoes so that they could be stored for many years, and the potato was valued not only as a good source of nourishment, but also as a measure of time, the unit being the length of time it took to cook one. So, you could say, “I’ll be there in four potatoes!”

The range of delicious tropical fruits in Ecuador is mind-boggling, from common bananas and pineapples to the lesser-known naranjilla and taxo, delightfully refreshing fruits you may never have even imagined. Not only is the list of tropical fruits longer than an iguana’s tail, there are also several different species of passionfruits, granadillas, melons, dragonfruits, mangoes, jackfruit, papayas, borojos, pomegranates, custard apples, bananas, guavas, tamarinds, and a massive selection of tree-ripened citrus fruits. A favorite of the locals is the fist-sized tomate del arbol (tree tomato) which makes delicious fresh juice and is sometimes used in tasty chili sauces. Another unusual fruit endemic to Ecuador is the babaco, which looks a bit like a papaya but tastes a bit like apple with a tropical twist when it’s stewed for a delicious dessert. Naranjilla, a small greenish orange fruit also known as lulu, also makes wonderful fresh juice, as does soursop, sweetsop and jackfruit. Thanks to the diversity of climates across the country, you can buy a range of tropical and temperate fruits such as pineapples and strawberries, both in season, from the same market on the same day.

Babaco is endemic to Ecuador and tastes like tropical apples when cooked.

Babaco is endemic to Ecuador and tastes like tropical apples when cooked.

Until the Spanish introduced cattle and sheep as sources of domestically farmed animals, guinea pig was the favored meat in Ecuador. Known as Cuy, it’s still an Ecuadorian delicacy. Whole charcoal-grilled guinea pigs with their teeth bared, eyes closed and paws intact are tasty and sweet, the smoky flavor reminiscent of barbecued pork, although there is not a lot of meat on one animal. Ecuadorians all over the country argue about the best places to eat cuy, some preferring Latacunga while others favor cuy from Ambato or Baños. There are times you might want to be a little careful about choosing wild meat dishes, because Giant Armadillo (now on threatened/endangered species lists) is offered in some eateries along the coastal region, along with Tatabra (Tayussu Peccari), Guanta (Cuniculus Paca), Perico Ligero (Pale-throated Sloth), Manta Ray, and also Pacific Green Sea Turtle.

Yucca is a staple food of Ecuador and can be found in soups, stews, patties and as a side dish.

Yucca is a staple and can be found in soups, stews, patties and as a side dish.

The wonderful soups of the highlands are probably more acceptable to European and American palates: Locro de papas, more commonly known as simply locro, a thick potato and farm cheese soup, is delicious and requires zero culinary courage to enjoy. Also tasty is yahuarlocro, a potato soup made with blood sausage, avocados and onions. Fanesca is a thick soup/stew made from fish, eggs, beans and a variety of grains, and is traditionally eaten over the period of Easter.

A favorite snack among Ecuadorians is llapingachos, potato or yucca patties made with cheese and onions, split and served with a salad of grated carrot and shredded cabbage. Also try empanadas: wheat flour or green banana pasties stuffed with cheese, shrimp, chicken or meat, and also corviche: green banana dough wrapped around a fish filling and fried. They’re very filling and can be found just about everywhere. Empanadas de morocho (corn meal) are usually filled with meat. The most typical Sierran cuisine includes fried or roast pork (fritada or hornado) served with white corn (mote), bananas, fried potato or yucca patties, popcorn and crispy pork crackling.

Roast pork, served with a smile, as well as corn, bananas, potato patties, salad and hot sauce.

Roast pork, served with a smile, corn, bananas, potato or yucca, salad & hot sauce.

Abundant with fresh seafood, tropical fruits and organic vegetables, the best cuisine in Ecuador is undoubtedly found on the coast. Competing for King of Coastal Cuisine would have to be Ceviche (Manabi Province) and Encocado (Esmeraldas Province).

Ceviche is fresh fish, shrimp, lobster, octopus, clams, mussels, or oysters marinated in lime and tossed with finely sliced onions, peppers and tomatoes, and spiced with fresh cilantro or wild chillangua. While rumor has it that best ceviches come from Province of Manabi, it is a popular dish throughout the country and indeed along the length of the Pacific coastline of South America. Sometimes it’s served with patacones (green banana chips), and sometimes with fresh popcorn.

Seafood in coconut sauce is a favorite dish along the coast.

Seafood in coconut sauce is a favorite dish along the coast.

Esmeraldas is famous for its fabulous encocados; meat or seafood simmered in a rich coconut cream sauce, made with the flesh of freshly grated coconuts and squeezed by hand. This dish is generally cooked with fresh ocean or river fish, rock lobster, slipper lobster, giant shrimp, crawfish, crab, or the superb blue mangrove crab, which is only found in the province of Esmeraldas. Other meats are sometimes cooked in coconut sauce, but the seafood varieties of encocado are more common. Some chefs make it soupy and saucy, and others make it thicker and creamier, but most agree that encocado is definitely a dish not to miss while visiting Ecuador.

Viche is a delicious soup of fish, crab, crawfish, conch and calamari with peanuts and bananas. Similarly, cazuela is a mixed seafood stew made with peanut sauce and green plantain bananas served in clay pot. Chupe is a delicious north-coast seafood dish with a wonderful combination of peanuts and coconut blended into the thick sauce. Another coastal specialty is encebollado, a hearty fresh tuna and yucca soup which is said to alleviate hangovers, is traditionally served for breakfast piled high with finely sliced red onions. And on just about every Ecuadorian table you’ll find a small dish of salsa picante (hot sauce) made with fresh chili peppers which can be anything from super-mild to tear-inducing-hot.

Encebollado: a staple for breakfast on the coast of Ecuador

Encebollado: a staple for breakfast on the coast of Ecuador

Unfortunately, for a country which produces the best coffee in the world, coffee is typically not well prepared in Ecuador. A national disgrace, coffee is often served in a concentrated liquid, to which you add hot water or milk, and most local hotels and restaurants prefer to serve instant coffee. Good organic locally grown and processed coffee is available from some of the higher quality hotels and renowned coffee shops in the larger cities. Good quality Ecuadorian chocolate, however, both in hot beverages and candy bars is relatively easy to find.

Cacao pods and Sweetsop picked from the trees in the jungle.

Cacao pods and Sweetsop picked from the trees in the jungle.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Two

Blue-Footed Booby

Colonies of the adorable Blue-Footed Booby are found all over Galapagos

When I asked all my friends about the best things Ecuador has to offer, we unanimously agree that one of the most spectacular not-to-be-missed destinations in Ecuador is, without doubt, the incredibly beautiful and mystical Galapagos Islands. Straddling latitude zero, 1000km west from the mainland, this archipelago is home to an amazing array of wildlife; numerous species you will never see anywhere else in the world abound on these enchanted islands, unusual and fascinating creatures to someone who has never visited, and yet often quite common to those who know the islands well. Landscapes – or  moonscapes – of shimmering black lava and hardy flora forcing its way through the rock to thrive in such an arid environment where rainfall is extremely scarce in many places is a miracle so fantastic to behold that it’s worth every penny to come and discover the secrets of Galapagos for yourself.

There are 10 species of Giant Tortoises in Galapagos

Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) are the longest-living vertebrates on earth. The average life-span is over 100 years, and some live to over 170 years.

There are four inhabited islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana, with an international airport on Baltra, near the abandoned WWII American military base. While the Galapageño capitol of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is on San Cristobal, which also has an airport, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is the most populated settlement, with its infrastructure firmly in place to serve the requirements of around 175,000 visitors per year to the World Heritage National Park and Marine Reserve. Whether tourists participate in land-based or water-based activities, Galapagos; its phenomenal wildlife, unique vegetation and breath-taking landscapes, are bound to make a life-long impression on anyone fortunate enough to experience the magic.

Las Grietas, a fissure in the lava rock, is a wonderful local swimming hole.

Las Grietas, a fissure and a swimming hole where dare-devils leap in from the cliffs.

Regardless of age, there are activities to suit every level of fitness and include a vast range of interests, from a gentle 2.5km walk to Tortuga Bay near Puerto Ayora, to a strenuous hike up the challenging slopes of Sierra Negra on Isabela to see the massive crater, which is 11km in diameter, from stretching out in a bikini under the hot equatorial sun while your launch cruises leisurely from island to island on the azure Pacific Ocean, to rolling back off the launch in your scuba gear to experience the fascinating world of Galapagos marine life 20 meters below the surface off North Seymour, from observing the Magnificent Frigate Birds bathing in Lagoon El Junco on San Cristobal, the only fresh water lake in the archipelago, to leaving your postcards in Post Office Bay on Floreana and hoping they’ll arrive at their destination at some point in the future, and once you’ve done all that, there is still so much more to do… like visit the Giant Tortoise breeding center at the Charles Darwin Research station, or just lay on a towel on a pristine beach and relax.

Divers are always thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks

Scuba Divers are thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks at Gordon Rocks.

A trip to Galapagos is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience. Admittedly, it’s a little costly to get there. Between airfares, national park fees,  and the high cost of cruises and many other vacation activities, you almost need a second mortgage just to put your feet on the enchanted islands. And because most of the food is shipped 1000km, it also costs more than on the mainland. Even so, if you spend every penny you’ve saved for this trip, just to make it one single time, you will spend the rest of your life enjoying the wonderful memories of a natural phenomena not to be found anywhere else on the planet. Galapagos is worth every penny. There are also a number of land-based and water activities that don’t cost a thing. Depending on which island you are on and, if you have the time and resources, it’s highly recommended to go island-hopping on at least two islands in the Galapagos, and you can easily find out which activities are free. Whether you’ve lived in Ecuador for many years, or have just passed through as a visitor, the magic spell of Galapagos remains with you forever.

Ask us how to get to Galapagos:

Ecuador is Awesome – Part One

Green tree snake

Green tree snake

Ecuador is one of the most interesting countries on the planet. The incredible diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero stand out in South America. You might think I’m being biased just because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question:
“What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This post, and the following nine posts will be all about what they said.

The Jungles and Forests

In a country that is made up of half rainforest, whether it’s the lush cloud forests high in the Andean Sierra with bird sanctuaries and butterfly farms, the verdant  tropical rainforests fringing the Pacific coast filled with howler monkeys, sloth and Pecari tajacu, the wild jungles of the Amazon with the richest variety of flora and fauna on earth, or the moist highlands of the volcanic Galapagos Islands with its giant tortoises, the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, and wildlife is equal to none.

With 3500 species of orchids, 1600 species of birds, and 415 amphibian species, not to mention mammals, reptiles, insects and marine creatures such as the unique Amazonian pink river dolphins, there is no shortage of fascinating wildlife and countless species of exuberant vegetation to observe in the magical wildernesses of Ecuador. In every corner of the country there is something fascinating to explore and discover, from strange pink caterpillars that will give you an electric shock. gigantic boa-constrictors capable of swallowing a grown man whole, healing shamans who will take you on a natural psychedelic journey to your inner-self, and traditional indigenous tribes who are the fiercest warriors around, as they shrink heads and eat delicious grubs right out of the ground. Critters you’ve never even imagined abound in Ecuador. Flowers and plants that are beyond imagination thrive in the jungles and forests.

Despite its remoteness, the Amazon is alive with people. plants, creatures and adventures just waiting to be enjoyed. Historically, indigenous communities of the Siona­ Secoya, Cofan, Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar and Ashuar have been able to maintain a productive subsistence within the existing ecosystems of vast Amazonian forest preserve, estimated to cover around 12 million hectares. The Amazon ecosystem, particularly its tropical jungles, is considered one of the richest and most complex communities of plant and animal life in the world.

Esaltamontes amazon-boardwalk-in-jungle achuar

Friends from all over the world, and from all walks of life, we all agree unanimously that the forests and jungles of Ecuador, and the vast range of indigenous peoples and their cultures and traditions, and the amazing wildlife, incredible nature, countless activities, wild and tame adventures and wonderful education they have to offer a visitor to the country, are definitely not to be missed if you are thinking of coming to Ecuador.

Footprints can take you into the highlands, rainforests and jungles of Ecuador and show you a wonder-world of nature and eco-fun.