Islands & Cloud Forest by Fred & Sharon Tooley

Sharon and Fred Tooley

10 May 2016

Exploring Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

We travelled to Ecuador with good friends to celebrate a “milestone” birthday. Even though we live on the Gulf Coast of the United States and are geographically close to South America, for some reason we had always travelled to much further destinations. Perhaps we’ve been ticking off our bucket list locations starting with “most difficult” and easing towards ”not quite so difficult”—it’s one theory. Whether that’s the reason or not, now that we have seen this beautiful continent for the first time, we know that it will be the first of many adventures that we hope to experience there.

We contacted Natural World Safaris to plan our third great adventure with them...we were fortunate to work with Tom Brown. His patience was infinite. We started out trying to do, as always, too much with the time and budget that we had. After working to try and fit in both the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands, Tom sent a suggestion that once we saw it, we knew it was our next great adventure with NWS. We were on the way to the Galapagos Islands and the Andean cloud forest. 

Saturday, April 2 - Houston, Texas to Quito, Ecuador

We left Houston on a comfortable 5.5 hour direct flight to Quito, Ecuador. We buckled up with promises from the flight crew that we had great flying weather and that we were expected to arrive almost a full hour early. Since our arrival time was scheduled for 10:30 pm, that was great news. For whatever reason, that one hour early arrival turned into a 1.5 hour “late” arrival time—putting us into Quito near Midnight. It was cold and raining when we landed. We were met by our guide and driver and taken to a very nice hotel, Rincon de Puembo, “near” the airport for a short but hopefully, good night’s sleep. That hope was dashed when our guide told us that we would need to leave for the airport at 4:15 am—when he was telling us this, we noticed that it was almost 1:30 am! Oh well, tomorrow the adventure would begin EARLY. 

Our mantra...the earlier the flight, the sooner we would arrive in the Galapagos Islands!

Sunday, April 3 - Quito to the Galapagos Islands

Up and waiting for our guide in the hotel lobby at 4 am. As promised, the hotel provided what they had called “coffee service” but was actually a very nice continental breakfast that fortified us for the beginning of our Galapagos Island segment of our adventure.

After a scramble at the airport to check in and pay our Galapagos National Park entrance fees and obtain our receipts for those fees to show upon landing (handled completely by our guide), we had an uneventful flight to Baltra Island with a brief stop in Guayaquil.

We were met at the Baltra airport by our first driver and naturalist guide that NWS arranged for us, Steven. He was an American who had been born and had lived his entire life in the Galapagos Islands. His parents had sailed from the west coast of the US in 1946 with the intent to sail around the world. Steven said that they told him that they reached the Galapagos Islands and knew that they needed to go no further...they had found paradise. After our first glimpse of the clear turquoise water of the Itabaca Channel that the ferry we had boarded glided over, to our home for the next four days — Santa Cruz Island—we felt the same way...we had arrived in paradise.

As we arrived on Santa Cruz, Steven told us that “our adventure had begun”—we weren’t spending any time to go the hotel—we were “hitting the ground running”. He approved of our clothing for the upcoming hikes, but suggested alternate shoes for two of us. We opened our suitcases right there on the docks, pulled out boots, wider brim hats and sun protection cream. No down time wasted here!

We hiked the highlands with Steven explaining the amazing volcanic terrain of Santa Cruz Island. We saw our first of many Darwin’s Finches and many other birds in Darwin’s original research. After this first hike we started for the farm where we would be having lunch. Major excitement on-board----we had our first sighting of a giant tortoise in the wild! Steven assured us that it would be first of many seen that day but that didn’t shorten a marathon photo taking session.

We had a brief explanation of the farm’s crops, as well as additional information about the giant tortoises. After a delicious lunch, we started out on our second hike of the day. We headed into an open field in search of tortoises. We weren’t disappointed—we lost count of the number we saw—the largest, Steven estimated to be 80 years old. Being that close to these magnificent creatures seemed almost spiritual. 

We were able to get so close that we could hear their breathing.

Back to the farm for a cool drink and then on to our next stop...the Giant Tortoise Reserve. It was much later in the afternoon, by now, so the tortoises were now actively searching for food and eating. While we were here, we also experienced a climb down into a lava tunnel—Santa Cruz Island was an amazing place and as we found ourselves saying for the next four days...the Galapagos Islands are unlike any other place on earth we had ever seen. We were sure that Darwin must have been one of the first to utter that phrase.

Our next stop was one we had been anticipating since planning for this trip began—the Galapagos Safari Camp—our home for the next three nights. Our group decided that we didn’t want to spend our entire time in the Galapagos, on-board a boat. We had stayed in some wonderful safari camps in Africa and India — when we read about the Galapagos Safari Camp on the Natural World Safaris website, we knew this was exactly where we wanted to stay. Tom planned our trip with that choice being the “for sure”. It was a wonderful place that rivals any luxury safari camp at which we had ever stayed. There were nine large canvas tents, each identical and each with en suite bathroom, sitting area, decks and its own beautiful view. We were met by Katrien, the manager, who was exceptional, as was the staff for our entire visit.

We arrived in time to see one of the most beautiful sunsets we’d ever experienced and then changed from our grubby hiking clothes before meeting back at the main area for a delicious dinner complete with a birthday cake that Tom had arranged with Katrien for Fred—our birthday guy. And, it was his actual birthday—what a wonderful memory.

Monday, April 4, 2016 - Day Trip to Las Bachas and North Seymour Island for exploring

Up for an early breakfast and then met by our driver who would be taking us to the docks where we had arrived, yesterday. We boarded zodiacs or as they are called in the Galapagos, “pangas”, for a trip back across the Itabaca Channel. A note to anyone boarding a zodiac in their future: I grew up on the water and I’m very comfortable around and on boats...however, this was my first “rubber boat” experience. My first introduction to Tommy, our guide, for the next two days, was when I made the decision to not step on the edge of the zodiac (because it was bouncy rubber, I thought?) and stepped over it, one big step onto the boat floor. Since he was assisting me on board, I managed to stay upright but knocked Tommy, on his bottom...I think it took the next two days for him to forgive me for that and trust that I wouldn’t do it again...believe me, lesson learned should there be other zodiacs in my future! We boarded a beautiful 74’ yacht, the “Sea Lion”, with no more mishaps and cruised towards our first stop, Las Bachas---a beautiful coralline beach located on the north shore of Santa Cruz.

Once again, back on the panga for our first “wet” landing—jumping off the edge of the zodiac into hip deep water and wading on shore. We spent two hours walking the beach and exploring. We saw the famous Galapagos marine iguanas, bright orange Sally Lightfoot Crabs, hundreds of shore birds and the first sightings of the Magnificent frigatebirds, in flight...not on the ground, “yet”.

We are from an extremely warm climate with high humidity and hot sun most of the year. That being said, we didn’t think too much about the warnings regarding the extreme equatorial sun. We asked ourselves how much hotter could it be? Answer: it was literally capable of baking us. We were well protected with 50 SPF waterproof sun screen and wide brimmed hats, but by the next stop, we did what our guides and boat crew had done all day long—we put on our long sleeved “dri-fit” type hoodies and pulled the hoods up and put our hats on top of that! It sounds very uncomfortable because of the heat, however, it was quite comfortable and we actually felt much cooler—our packing recommendation/tip for anyone visiting the Galapagos.

Back onto the “Sea Lion” for our trip on to North Seymour Island. We enjoyed a delicious lunch on-board during the one hour trip there. This time, we had our first “dry” landing—I preferred the wet version but managed to maneuver on and off the zodiac without taking anyone down. We hadn’t been on shore five minutes when we had our first sighting of a Magnificent frigatebird on the ground—a large male in full mating behavior...his huge heart shaped membrane completely inflated. We were awe struck! We had hoped to see, if we were very lucky, one male on the ground—by the end of our day on North Seymour, we lost count of the living “red spots of color” dotting the ground and on low branches of the leafless trees.

As we were taking one of our, quite literally, hundreds of photographs of frigatebirds, we spotted what we had come to the Galapagos hoping most to see: our first blue-footed booby! Tommy told us to follow him along the path closer to the shore...then we saw them! An absolute riot of blue-footed boobies—on the ground, strolling along the path, on nests with eggs, calling from above. If our trip had ended here, we would have been very sad but very happy! They really do exist and their feet really are the most beautiful shade of blue we’d ever seen.

On the hike back to board the zodiac and the “Sea Lion” for the trip back to the Galapagos Safari Camp, we saw swallow tailed gulls, a land iguana and a baby sea lion. The beauty of the Galapagos isn’t green and “lush” in a traditional sense...but it is quite beautiful in a stark, other worldly no place else we’d ever seen.

Back to our camp to visit with Katrien, relax on the verandah of the main building of the lodge—a wonderful way to sit quietly with memories of our day. 

Our group of four good friends and travel mates, climbed to the “view point” for sundowners while we watched another beautiful sunset.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - Day Trip to Punta Carrión for snorkeling and South Plazas Island for exploring

Up for an early breakfast again and then we were met by Katrien with a surprise that provided an answer to the question we’d always wondered about on the NWS client information forms that we’d filled out for each of our trips...our height and weight. We had decided that it was probably needed information for small airplane flights between locations with weight and baggage restrictions. And, sometimes this really might be why, however, this time, it was given so that the Galapagos Safari Camp could have wet suits for each of us in the correct sizes for our snorkeling day! Katrien handed them to each of us along with a thermos of hot ginger tea...just in case seasickness reared its ugly head on today’s adventure.

We boarded the zodiac for transport out to the “Sea Lion”. We were busy getting “suited up” and outfitted with snorkel equipment and life vests. Back onto the zodiac and on to Punta Carrión where we jumped off the side of the zodiac into 15 feet of beautiful blue water for a glimpse into another part of the beauty of the Galapagos—a beautiful world of bright tropical fish and crystal clear water.

Back on the “Sea Lion” for a delicious lunch and onward to South Plazas Island for exploring. Another dry landing—this time onto an actual dock where we were met with several sea lion “parents” on-duty at what Tommy called a “sea lion nursery”. The water was roiling with sea lions of all size and ages...from the tiniest to the largest we’d seen. We hiked up to the island’s flat top to explore. South Plazas is alive with yellow-gray land iguanas. They didn’t appear to be shy in the least and enjoyed using our shadows as a respite from the broiling hot sun as we explored. The sky was alive with small petrels diving and swooping above the pale blue-green water made even more beautiful with the white froth that the churning water created. We stood mesmerized by the “color palette” of this starkly beautiful place---translucent blue water, clear cerulean blue sky, huge yellow iguanas that blended in with the rusty scarlet colored succulents that carpeted the ground, and the nesting swallow tailed gull population with their fine bright red “eyeliner” markings.

It was another beautiful day in the Galapagos.

Back to our camp where four very tired day trippers enjoyed another relaxing visit on the lodge veranda and then dinner. We were already feeling sad that tomorrow we would leave this wonderful place.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - Galapagos Islands to Quito

Up early with good intentions to join Katrien on a tour that she had planned for the children staying at the camp to see the organic farm that is on-site. Those good intentions were forgotten once I finished packing and took a few minutes to swing in the hammock on our tent deck...a few minutes turned into missing the tour but having those quite moments to pack away some wonderful additional memories to unpack, when most needed, once we returned to our jobs and busy lives back home.

We said our goodbyes to Katrien, the staff and Beta, the resident camp dog. They had all been so welcoming and wonderful to us during our stay. We truly hope to return someday...

we couldn’t imagine having done our trip to the Galapagos any other way.

We boarded our flight back to Quito where we were met at the airport with our driver and guide with an itinerary for the next day—we had left the islands behind and were back in the big city!

We checked into the beautiful hotel that Tom had selected for us—Plaza Andaluz—located in the heart of Quito Antiquo---Old Town, Quito. We could not have imagined a better location and certainly not a more beautiful hotel. The concierge helped us to select a restaurant within walking distance of the hotel and we enjoyed our first of several 5 star dinners in Quito. This evening we dined at Mea Culpa right off the main square—delicious!

Thursday, April 7, 2016 - City tour of Quito and a visit to “Mitad del Mundo”

Up early for breakfast at the hotel. We had awoken to a perfect clear blue sky day. The weather prediction had been for cold temperatures and more rain—this perfect weather was an unexpected gift. We were met by our guide and driver for the day. Because of a “scheduled government protest day of demonstrations” we started our tour with the drive to the “Mitad del Mundo” or Middle of the World site, first, because all roads leading into Old Town were to be closed by late afternoon. We arrived at the “actual” middle of the world site—”calculated by GPS”. The site that gets the publicity in guidebooks and where the large equater marker monument was erected, was calculated prior to GPS in 1936—it is, according to our guide, approximately 240 meters off of the actual correct center of the world. We had a great time trying to balance eggs on the head of a nail (two out of our very competitive group of 4 managed to accomplish that feat and were awarded “egg master” certificates), attempting to walk the equator “line” without weaving (actually very difficult if not impossible!) and watching proof that it is not an urban myth that the water swirls the opposite direction when going down the drain in the southern hemisphere. It was a simple demonstration done with a sink, sink stopper and a bucket of water—first on one side of the equator line and then on the other side—each went an opposite direction! Yes, it is a myth that toilets flush the opposite direction—they are ”mechanical”, thus, they always go the same direction. It was a fun excursion with those wonderful “have to have” photo opportunities that we all love.

Back into the city and a tour of two exceptionally beautiful churches. Basílica del Voto Nacional —-we were told that it’s the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the New World. We had a great time photographing the non-traditional “gargoyles” in the form of native Ecuadorian animals—armadillos, iguanas, Galapagos tortoises and crocodiles. Next, we toured the La Compañia de Jesús, where the extraordinary entrance of worked stone and intricately carved pillars, astounding by itself, was only a hint about what the splendor of the interior would be. When we entered the front doors, it immediately became obvious why it is called the “Gold Church”

After a lunch of delicious traditional Ecuadorian cuisine at our hotel’s restaurant, we walked about a mile to a wonderful shopping area and then back to get ready for our second five star dinner. Tonight we dined at Theatrum Quito Restaurant & Wine Bar—again, delicious!. It was a easy walk from our hotel. When we were ready to leave, it was raining—the manager stopped us and told us that they would drive us back to the hotel at no charge...nice surprise.

Friday, April 8, 2016 - Quito to the Andean cloud forest - the Mashpi Reserve

Up early for breakfast and checkout. We were met by our driver and guide for the trip to the cloud forest. We boarded our van prepared for our 3.5 hour trip from Quito. About 40 miles northwest of Quito we stopped for a tour of the Tulipe Archeological Site. Our guide told us that it was considered one of the greatest archaeological finds in Ecuador— aqueducts, swimming pools, ceremonial “tola” mounds, petroglyphs and stone paths— traces of what was left of the pre-Inca Yumbo civilization (800 to1600 AD). There was a small but very nice museum on site and the pathways to the archaeological excavations were beautifully landscaped with lush tropical flowers.

Back on the road after our tour, we reached the turnoff for the Mashpi Lodge. We have Tom to thank for this astonishing part of our trip. 

It was his suggestion and we will forever thank him for making us aware of this incredible place. The turnoff was just the beginning a bone jarring, one hour, winding drive down the original logging road that leads to the lodge. We survived but had to wait another anxious 20 minutes while another vehicle was coming back from the lodge to pass. The road is too narrow for two way traffic! Finally we reached the lodge and were treated to what seemed like a mirage—a breathtaking structure of steel and glass deep in the cloud forest—a wilderness retreat, set on 3,200 acres of cloud forest of which, we learned from our guide, 80% of is primary growth.

As we stepped down from the van, we were met with iced drinks and cool towels. From that minute on, we were completely taken care of like we’ve never been taken care of before. We saw our room for the first time and words fail—outside walls entirely of glass—we went to sleep every night and woke up every morning with an unobstructed view of the cloud forest and the creatures who live there. By the end of our first day, we joked that somehow if a guest “thought” of something they might like to do or might need, it would appear with the guest never having actually requested it. We had a delicious lunch and then met our guide, Fernando, and his assistant, Klever. We listened carefully to the orientation talk and then discussed how we could make the most of the activities and hikes available in the two days that we would be here. We found out that we could have packed lighter...we were given day packs and personalized water bottles as gifts along with a very effective roll-on insect worked exceptionally well...with the exception of an ant bite, we never felt or saw a mosquito or other flying/stinging insect. We were also provided knee high rubber boots for hiking as well as rain parkas. We worried about hiking in the rubber boots but realized at the end of our first hike that nothing else would really have worked as well—the ankle high waterproof hiking boots that we had packed, would have resulted in drenched socks with the first ankle deep mud or water puddle that we encountered.

First on the itinerary...a trip to the hummingbird observation area. It was raining quite hard and we were concerned that this would ruin our opportunities to spot these small jewel like creatures. Fernando assured us that it was “perfect weather conditions” for hummingbirds. He was absolutely correct. There are 22 species of hummingbirds at Mashpi...16 of which can potentially be seen by guests on the lodge hummingbird observation deck—we saw 14 of those in a single two-hour period. At one point, there were 8 species on one feeder. We sat in disbelief as they swooped and buzzed close to our heads. We saw hummingbirds that we’d only seen in field guides. It was our first of many “once in a lifetime experiences” at Mashpi Lodge.

Back to the lodge for an incredible dinner and then back in boots and parkas for a night walk. We saw lots of tiny colorful frogs, insects, a tarantula the size of a dinner plate, and an owl faced butterfly that gave us all heart failure by dancing around our faces...we had no idea that butterflies were out at night...we were sure it was a bat! We returned to the lodge for a drink and then to our beautiful room for a reasonable bedtime making it easier to get up for bird spotting with the guides at 6:30 am the next morning.

Saturday, April 9, 2016 - Mashpi Lodge

Up and on the deck for coffee with our guides and the birds—the clouds were hanging low but we still saw several beautiful birds. Fernando had a unique talent. Once he spotted a bird in his scope, he would ask for one of our iPhones and then take incredible photos for us through his scope. We’ll never discount phone photos again. Don’t forget your phone if you’re visiting was an amazing bonus.

Back inside for breakfast and then booting up for our first big hike to one of the waterfalls. The hike wasn’t the most difficult we’ve ever done but it ranked as “difficult” in some places where it was very steep. We had packed hiking poles and the lodge also provided them. We were glad that our friends, who hadn’t packed them, had each grabbed one as we left that morning. Fernando was vigilant about our safety and was a text book of facts about the flora and fauna that we encountered along the trail. Once we arrived at the falls, with excited caution we “balanced” our way across smooth, slippery, river stones and then finally waded across a knee deep stream to sit and enjoy the beauty all around us. Each of us had a huge feeling of accomplishment—we had “made it”. We took our time just taking in the sights and sounds. Yes, yet another once in a lifetime experience. Sitting down and looking “up” we realized that the climb down now required a more difficult climb up but it was so worth the sore muscles and aches that we knew we’d have tomorrow!

Our second hike of the day was to the Life Centre: a research station including a vivarium with a collection of rare butterflies. We spotted a huge number of colorful tanagers as well as a huge toucan on the trail to the center. Fernando and Klever seemed to sense the birds presence before they even landed within our sight. Our photo opportunities were incredible. We moved on to the butterfly research area and then were treated to sundowners and appetizers on the veranda of the life centre before starting our hike back to the lodge—this time with the sun gone and flashlights making the trip even more exciting.

Our full day was made perfect with a delicious meal and relaxing conversation with our good friends who had shared this wonderful day.

We went to bed with a melancholy thought...tomorrow, we would leave this beautiful place.

Sunday, April 10, 2016 - Mashpi Lodge to Quito for return flight home

Up for 6:30 am coffee and bird watching on the deck. We had incredible sightings of a male Collared Trogon and a Racket Tailed of the most incredibly beautiful birds we had ever seen. We had a delicious farewell breakfast at the lodge and then “booted up” for one last hike. We left the lodge and hiked into the forest. It was an incredible morning for bird watching. We added five or six new birds to our lists and wished that we had one more day in this beautiful cloud forest paradise.

Back to the lodge for a shower and final packing, then lunch while we waited for our van and driver to pick us up for the three and a half hour drive back to Quito for our return flight. It had been many, many years since we’ve felt actual sadness about leaving a place we’d visited. At the end of an active trip like this one had been, we were usually anticipating being home. Not today. As we drove through the Mashpi Lodge gates for the last time for the long drive back to Quito, we were sad to be leaving and already lonely for this beautiful place in the clouds and the people who had made our stay, quite literally, indescribable.

We arrived at the airport and were escorted to our waiting area where our guide recommended several places where we could eat a light dinner and shops where we could finish up any last minute souvenir gift purchases—think coffee and chocolate! We thought that we would have a six hour wait but unfortunately, quickly learned that our return flight was delayed by almost 2 hours...our Midnight departure turned into a 1:45 am departure putting a very tired and cranky group of four back home again in Houston around 7:30 am. As we finished customs, took the shuttle to the car park and then faced morning rush hour traffic to our homes, all of a sudden it dawned on us—we had just returned from paradise and anything we faced would be easier with the memories of our nine days there. We could just sit quietly, remember the colors, the smells, the breeze, the water, the flowers, the birds and most of all the people we had met in each place that we visited. It was a gift that we could keep for always.

Thank you Natural World Safaris, especially, Tom—the trip was simply, perfect. We have a long list of places that we still hope to visit and we know one thing for sure—wherever we travel to in the future, NWS will have planned the trip and all the details. 

This was our NWS “Trip of a Lifetime Number 3”— here’s to many more!


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Arabella @ Natural World Safaris

11/5/2016 9:38 AM

What a lovely read, so glad you 'Bucket List Road Warriors' had such an amazing time in Galapagos and thanks for sharing your experiences! - Arabella

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