The Freedom Train

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

After a leisurely breakfast at the hacienda in Otavalo, our driver took us along a newly built highway through villages and small towns on the way to Ibarra, at the base of the impressive Imbabura Volcano. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrived at the newly restored train station, renovated after years of neglect and disused railway services that began over a century ago. The train was an almost forgotten historic achievement until it was resurrected and enthusiastically restored by the Ecuadorian government two years ago. Our tickets had been reserved and purchased online several weeks previously, and we exchanged our payment receipt for a paper ticket at the Customer Service desk. Half an hour before departure time, we were called to board the Freedom Train (Tren de la Libertad) which celebrates both the freedom of the African slaves and Ecuador’s liberation from Spain. We alighted the charming colonial-style Carriage Number 207, a comfortable polished wood coach with adjustable upholstered seats – although slightly narrow to fit two larger western posteriors – and got comfortable. The air of excitement and anticipation throughout the carriage was tangible. We were accompanied by twenty giggling nuns, and four families with curious young children. Two other carriages, both painted bright red, were then boarded and the train driver tooted loudly, ready to go.

Before we departed from Ibarra, our guide Jaime introduced himself and, after a quick safety announcement, began to speak about the history of Ibarra and surrounds in both Spanish and English. Unfortunately, the English translations were a little shorter than the Spanish, and we heard less than half the information in English. When we commented about this to Jaime, he improved his translations. The train took us on a fun ride  through lush green valleys and towering volcanoes, and the arid Andean savannah lining either side of the Andean River, all the while descending from an altitude of 2,210m at Ibarra to 1545m at Salinas. On the route from Ibarra to Salinas the landscapes are as diverse as they are picturesque; one of the country’s most fascinating ecosystems extends over the protected páramo El Ángel, a high-altitude forest of [native Australian] paper-bark trees and wild expanses of intriguing frailejón plants. We chugged past farmland dotted with fields of cabbages, cauliflower, lettuce and broccoli where farmers tilled their fields with horse-driven plows, cattle pastures, hillsides covered in wildflowers of all colors and varieties, medicinal herbs and flowers, prickly pears, several species of cactus and many pretty flowering succulents, alongside sugar cane fields, as well as spectacular waterfalls and the historical cotton fields, and finally the long-abandoned cotton processing plant on the edge of town. Over narrow bridges perched breathtakingly high above the river, and through half a dozen hand-built tunnels ranging from 26m to 300m which threw us all into pitch darkness for a few moments, and we arrived in Salinas two hours later.

The first narrow steel bridge over the Andean River

The first narrow steel bridge stretches high over the Andean River and valley.

The wonderful Freedom Train excursion is complemented by an interesting community-tourism twist that allows the Afro-Ecuadorian residents of Salinas to demonstrate their culture and history through dance and music. We are then refreshed by a delicious glass of chilled cactus juice in the station cafe and have time to wander through the craft shop at the train station before heading into the town square with a native guide for a peek inside the local church, which is 189 years old, and the community produce store, founded by a cooperative of growers who produce jams, sauces, chocolates, nuts, liquors and natural ice-creams from their own harvests. After sampling the Salinas version of Pina Colada and buying an ice-cream each, we wandered through the streets to our lunch stop. The Northern Andean village of Salinas has a population of around 2000 inhabitants, all descended from the slaves of the Spanish conquistadors who were stolen from Africa to work the cotton fields. Most of the inhabitants carve out a living from agriculture; cotton, sugar cane, and fruit for wines and preserves, retaining many of their original African traditions such as the ‘bomba’ music and dance.

Lunch is served in a large restaurant on the edge of the village, overlooking the fields with views of the mountains behind. A traditional almuerzo (set lunch) offered a choice of soups and chicken or meat dishes with rice, as well as a fresh fruit juice and small dessert for $5.00 per person. Chatter filled the room as people discussed the journey so far with great pleasure and satisfaction. Our local guide returned to give us a tour of the Salt Museum where he made a fascinating presentation of the mining and production of salt from the nearby mines, demonstrating how his ancestors used age-old methods and antique equipment to extract the salt and the excess iodine from the final product. After a taste of Salinas’ mountain salt, we wandered back through town to the train station via another route to board the train for the return trip home. Jaime took a break from guiding for the trip back and many dozed as we passed by the same landscape filled with numerous species of bromeliads, flowering prickly pear and other colorfully flowering plants and grasses. Our driver was there to meet us and return us to the hacienda, something we were grateful for after a long but wonderful day touring the Northern Andes.

If you are visiting Ecuador, a train tour on the newly renovated railways is highly recommended.

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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.

Point Break – Mompiche

Many people come to Mompiche just to surf the Point Break. In the season – November to April – this tiny remote fishing village that barely earns its spot on the Ecuadorian map, becomes a haven for surfers from all over the world. Hostels fill up, restaurants are teeming with diners, and the pristine beach is smattered with the bright sarongs of rapidly reddening sunbathers. Vendors walk up and down the white sand hawking fresh coconuts, tropical fruits and tasty ceviches. The rest of the time, it’s pretty quiet. Don’t be fooled by its reputation as solely a surf beach. Aside from surfing, there are many other activities and tours you can do in Mompiche.

Wakeboarding, Mompiche style when the wave-action is a little slow.

Wakeboarding Mompiche-style when the wave-action is a little slow on The Point.

Naturally, there are plenty of water sports on offer along the 7km white sand beach. Body-boarding and surfing aside, you can also go kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, motor-boating and fishing. All year round, you can see the colony of Blue-footed Boobies on The Point, as well as Brown pelicans, Great and Magnificent frigate birds and even the odd Pink flamingo. From June to September, during the annual migration of the Humpback Whales, local fishermen offer trips out to San Francisco Peninsular to view these enormous marine creatures as they make their way south on the Humboldt Current. Lucky visitors often see mothers and their calves playing in the sea as they travel past Mompiche bay. Frequently during the whale-watching season, leaping whales can even be spotted from the beach. On public holidays and fiestas, a para-sailing outfit sets up shop on the beach and sometimes there are bay tours on a catamaran.

If you’re not a water baby, but enjoy spending time on the beach anyway, Doña Fabiola offers horses for rent. Mompiche’s version of Mrs Doolittle, Fabiola takes very good care of her horses, as well as her ever-growing menagerie of dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese and an abandoned calf named Anabel, which she hand-feeds thrice daily. The well-maintained horses are in lovely condition and can by hired by the hour or for a half- or full-day tour with a guide. There are two tour options: a leisurely walk along the beach and back, or a more adventurous tour through the mountains behind Mompiche, passing by lakes, through dense jungle trails and spotting plenty of wildlife. Depending on the fruit seasons, you can even pick and eat exotic tropical fruits directly from the trees.

You can also go with a Native Guide and hike along Mompiche’s fascinating river, learning along the way about all the exotic water plants, tropical fruit trees you didn’t even know existed, and the magical medicinal herbs the ancient Chachi tribes used and the modern locals currently use to cure their ills, also visiting the Secret Waterfall and taking dips in refreshing pools as you go. A hike along the river takes most of the day and is an education in Mompiche’s jungle flora and fauna in itself.

Miguel, who has lived in the mountains his whole life, takes half-day hiking tours through the jungle. With intimate knowledge of every tree, plant and flower, as well as all the species of wildlife in the area, hiking with him is truly an eye-opener. Sometimes he just stops mid-step. Using sign language, he tells you not to move. Then, straight away so as not to alarm you, he tells you to listen. And then he’ll point out the creature making the sounds he heard while you were noisily opening your water bottle. He will also protect you from any danger long before you even know it’s there. En route, he’ll cut coconuts out of the palm trees to drink and feed you with seeds and weeds, roots and shoots you did not even imagine were edible. Most of the trails are moderate to difficult. But even if you’re a novice hiker, and enjoy the solitude of the jungle, a trip into the wilds with Miguel is definitely for you!

If you are lucky, you can see families of Howler Monkeys in the trees along the path.

If you are lucky, you can see and hear families of Howler Monkeys calling from the jungle.

There are numerous hotels and restaurants of all grades and varieties, as well as kiosks selling freshly made fruit juices and milkshakes made from all the wonderful tropical fruits available in the area. The best “superfruit” juices to try are Papaya, Borojo, Jackfruit and Guanabana (Soursop). Bananas, naturally, are a staple food on the coast and fresh juice blended with a banana is more like a milkshake without the milk. Of course, just like everywhere there are reputable places to stay and eat – and some not so great. Some of the local delicacies not to miss are Corviche, Muchin, Encebollado, Encocado and Ceviche.

If too much action is not your scene, there are also some wonderful options that don’t cost a penny: a leisurely stroll north along the gloriously unpopulated white sand beach, followed by a spot of hammock-surfing and a siesta are also “activities” in which you can heartily participate while visiting Mompiche. If relaxation is your thing, shiatsu massage, relaxation massage and yoga are also possible in this tiny village.

A short hike southwards will take you to either the Cemetery on top of The Point, which has a spectacular view of the bay, or go further to Black Beach, a short cove covered in shimmering black titanium sand. Further south, the islands of Portete and Bolivar can be explored on foot (with a river crossing), or visit Jupiter by boat.

Towards evening, people-watching and sunset-gazing along Mompiche’s ever-changing beach-front promenade can also be extremely educational and entertaining, and also breath-takingly relaxing.

Sound good? Ask Footprints how to get to Mompiche.

The Octopus Garden

Just after dawn, as the motorboat pulls out of Pelican Bay, we start to prepare ourselves for the dive, pulling on pre-dampened wetsuits over our bikinis and leaving them hanging half-open at our waists for the rest of the journey. Frigate birds fly overhead, their distinctive red necks deflated as they wait to see if we’re offering them breakfast. Disappointed, they soar towards a flock of blue-footed boobies hunting nearby to bully the boobies and pirate another meal.

The glorious Galapagos Islands shimmer in the bright sunlight as we speed past Santa Cruz and Baltra, Dafne and finally arrive at North Seymour. A large manta ray skims along just under the surface. At first, just a shadow in the distance, we get close enough to see the 4m wingspan of this magnificent creature, with its wingtips breaking the surface as it cruises alongside. We anchor in the channel between North Seymour and Mosquera to listen to the dive brief and finish putting on the rest of our gear: weight belts and fins, masks and finally our BCDs with tanks and regulators attached. The language of the dive has been discussed. We all know how to communicate underwater.

It's another world where nothing above the surface matters.

Twenty meters under the Pacific Ocean there is a completely different world where nothing above the surface matters.

Unless you have been scuba diving, it’s difficult to describe the feeling that envelopes you when you roll backwards into the water and then descend to the first meeting point. The only sound you can hear underwater is your own bubbles as you exhale. A small group with a very experienced dive guide, we buddy-up and head into the channel, adrift on the current which carries us along. Almost no effort is required. I barely wiggle a fin. My buddy drifts along beside me. White-tipped sharks rest of the ocean floor, letting the cool water rush over them. Minutes later, we find ourselves in the middle of a large school of yellow and black striped angelfish. We drift over impressive lava formations and colorful corals until we notice that some of the pretty pink rocks aren’t rocks at all. They’re fish. Scorpion fish.

The Scorpion fish is one of the world's most venomous species

The Galapagos Scorpion Fish is one of the most venomous species in the Pacific Ocean.

Responsible divers in the Galapagos know not to touch anything, so we are never in any danger of being stung by this cleverly camouflaged fish. Starfish abound in all shapes and colors, clinging to rocks and corals as the current sweeps over them. An octopus hides in a narrow crevice, its tentacles stretch over the rock as it moves ever-so-slowly across the rock face to find a more spacious hiding place. Enormous Moray eels peek out from their rock caves, mouths open to allow the Pacific cleaner shrimp to wash their faces for them. Outstanding service, if you ask me! During the dive we glide alongside elegant Eagle rays, and see a large school of Devil rays overhead. Concealed Stingrays shoot out from their hiding places in the sand and a large Manta ray circles overhead. A massive Pacific green turtle snoozes on the sandy bottom, ignoring us as an underwater photo-frenzy takes place above its head.

After a fifty-minute dive, we slowly ascend, making a safety stop a few meters below the surface. As we hold hands in a circle and dance, wiggling and shaking our hips, trying not to laugh out loud and lose our regulators, our friendly Manta ray sweeps by one last time to wish us farewell. On the surface, we board the boat once more, all talking at once, such is the excitement of yet another great dive in the spectacular Galapagos archipelago.

Would you like to come diving with me? Ask Footprints how.

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Galapagos Scuba Diving Tours
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