Eco-tourism and Ecuador: Amazon, Andes & Galapagos Islands

by Warwick Lister-Kaye

Ask any naturalist to name the number 1 wildlife location (after Dorset) and the answer may well be Ecuador, which encompasses the Andes, the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon Rainforest. Ecuador, means Equator. Quito the capital, is the centre of the earth - but you can see the Andes from here, within 20 miles Condors can be flying overhead.

There is nowhere like the Galapagos. The only predators are the short-eared Owl and the Galapagos Hawk, thus the animals and birds are fearless (Why no Eagles?). There are abundant fish all year round, consequently birds do not have to migrate, nor indeed even fly, thus evolution has developed the only flightless Cormorants in the world. (Do certain birds actually enjoy flying? Has this no consideration in functional evolution?) Although advised not to touch the animals, they may touch you, but normally, they don’t even bother to ignore you. Despite being on the equator there are penguins. It is - - - - unique.

Here Warwick, describes a holiday he led in 2005, together with his father, the naturalist Sir John. Downsides: other side of the world, 8-hour flight delay, then I had all my valuables immediately stolen from the hotel check-in. But, all the naturalists agreed it was the most perfect 3 weeks of a holiday.

Warwick runs Rolling Earth Travel, unusually he always travels with the groups, and as with all nature holidays, the company employs professional guides who know when and where to locate the wildlife. Some say that eco-tourism does as much harm as good to the environment, what with airline emissions, but the reason the Galapagos is a National Park is due to tourism. Most of the islands are off-limits anyway. If you decide that one day you will go there, ensure you go for at least a week, 3 or 4 days are insufficient if you wish to see everything. In ffact, there are not a vast number of species, but what you get is being closer to animals than even a zoo can allow. The Sea Lions actually play with you as you swim.

We all know of the Amazon possessing the highest numbers of life-forms on earth, how it is being diminished, and even though Ecuador embraces just 2% of the Forest (although 30% of the species can be seen here), even this is being dramatically reduced. Eco-tourism is one of the lifelines.

If you are into ‘roughing it’ there are alternative travel companies that specialise in this. Nowadays, even in the heart of the Amazon jungle, there is in truth unexpected luxury, electrical generators and certainly, no ‘hole in the floor’.

There are holidays galore both abroad and here at home, whale-watching, birds, butterflies, photography, from the Peak District, to Cumbria, Wales, Ireland, anywhere here or abroad, just browse through the internet or nature magazines. A nature holiday may be more expensive, as they employ guides, but the memories will last a lifetime. Many travellers are total beginners who simply love nature and scenery.


Ecuador: Amazon, Andes & Galapagos Islands

In November 2005 twelve nature lovers travelled to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Our aim was to explore the key eco-systems of this tremendously bio-diverse country from the high volcanic peaks, down through moorland, cloud forest and Amazonian jungle to the unique evolutionary crucible of the Galapagos Islands. Every day brought many and varied highlights; too many to describe but I will mention a couple of particularly magical moments.

We spent a day amid the cloud forest of Mindo; a moist, cool, lush forest of trees, epiphytes, mosses, lichens and ferns where shrouds of mist drift slowly across the steep slopes hiding and revealing peaks and saddles in the mountains. We settled onto benches in a woodland grove and spent an hour watching hundreds of hummingbirds feeding at man-made feeders. When we arrived we were aware of thrumming noises in the air around us and the occasional streak of vivid colour but as we settled down with our bins trained on the feeders, the most extraordinary sight unfolded.

The air thrums and where there had been empty space there appears a hummingbird. Its body is held perfectly still next to the feeder while its wings beat so fast as to be a blur about its back. Its eye is a tiny pinhead of dark intensity as its tongue flicks back and forth into the hole in the feeder, glistening with false nectar.

They move in a blink from one space to the next, never still for more than a couple of seconds and one replacing another like a conjuring trick. An ever changing array of tens of tiny birds dance in the binocular's optic and all the while our guide sat beside us whispering wonderfully exotic names; “There’s an Andean Emerald, that’s a Violet Tailed Sylph, that one’s a Fawn Breasted Brilliant, oh look there – a White Whiskered Hermit!” And so the iridescent dance continued with mesmerising intensity until we were forced to break the spell, stand up and walk away.

A few days later we were staying a Sacha Lodge in the Amazon rainforest. The lodge is small and comfortable, beautifully situated on the edge of a lagoon in the jungle. Every day we walked out on the network of narrow trails that stretch out into the dark expanse of vegetation that crowds all around. Our superb guides brought the jungle floor to life, showing us tiny Poison Arrow Frogs, or medicinal plants, or the nest of Leaf Cutter Ants, the buttress roots of a Kapok Tree, Salamanders, Pygmy Marmosets, an Army Ants’ bivouac or how the Quechua Indians set a trap for Agoutis. The real joy for me, though, was to return from the walk, sweaty and sapped by the humidity and plunge into the soft, sweet water of the lagoon. It was the most blissful, revitalising experience to swim slowly away from the landing stage and enjoy the sound of the frogs’ chorus as the sunset spread red light across distant anvil-head thunder clouds.

The last week of the trip was spent island hopping in the Galapagos Archipelago. Zodiac dinghies transferred us from our comfortable cruise boat to sandy bays, where we stepped off barefoot and waded ashore onto beaches crowded with Galapagos Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas and the startlingly scarlet Sally Lightfoot crabs.

The wildlife of the Galapagos is legendary and we watched it all – Giant Tortoises, Blue-footed Boobies, Fur Seals, the famous Darwin Finches, Greater Flamingos and ‘Magnificent Frigate’ birds. The sea lions are very endearing, with their soft fur, Labrador faces and intelligent eyes. They are also fearless and regularly break the national’s park ‘no touching’ rules as they trundle over to relaxing tourists to sniff and nuzzle curiously.

They appear ungainly on land but when we snorkelled with them we witnessed their aquatic ballet. Regularly we found little gaggles of females playing in five feet of water. Like frolicking puppies they would encircle each other, chase and hide; their flippers flying them through the water with breathtaking agility. They would roll, tumble, loop the loop and porpoise for air and all the while they were aware of our smiling faces just feet and inches away. If we dived amongst them they would include us in the game, circling around us or rushing at us in a startling feint, just to dart away again, streaming bubbles from their nostrils in mirth, (or so I imagined.) It was breathtaking to watch their sleek torpedo bodies twisting and sliding through the water. But, more than that, the feeling of mutual trust and enjoyment with an intelligent animal was heart-warming; bringing one of the ladies in my group to tears in her mask.

Towards the end of our Galapagos cruise we had all congregated on deck late one afternoon to celebrate crossing the equator for the fourth time and to enjoy a couple of sundowners. Quite suddenly a vast school of Common Dolphins appeared all around us. As far as the eye could see to port and starboard, fore and aft, they porpoised in the same direction as us. At any one moment there were a hundred dolphins clear of the water. We estimated that there were between five hundred to a thousand individuals. They escorted us for over an hour as the sun raced toward the horizon and the sky turned orange, then red and darkened and our straining eyes could no longer pick them out. Pure magic.

Warwick Lister-Kaye


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