3. Piqueros

Entrance fee $3, park visitor fee $80, fine for riding tortoises $200.
Sign at Darwin Biological Station, Islas Galapagos

Ecuador was fighting an endless war with Peru for oil-rich jungle areas along the border. They would attack Peru once in a few months, get beaten, beg for the ceasefire, and then try again. Streets were decorated with posters like "The brotherhood of Ecuadorian peoples gives a hug to the Indians of the Southern Areas", or "Workers of Ecuador pin down the paws of Peruvian aggressors trying to steal our land". People supported their government by writing slogans like: “Soldier of my Motherland! You are my last hope! Kill Fujimori, the hypocrite reptile!" All this propaganda was mixed with more mundane posters like “Peligro (danger)! Epidemia de colera! Por favor, pipi y popo solo a lavatores!”.

We spent a week in Quito. The city is very beautiful, full of old colonial architecture, nice parks, and interesting museums. It is surrounded by active volcanoes, which are fun to climb. The only problem was the ongoing football/soccer championship in Brazil. TVs were turned on 24 hours a day in all hotel lobbies and other public places, with nonstop reruns of games, and sports commentators crying "Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooollll!!!" all the time.

Quito is an excellent base for day trips in all directions. We went to the rainforests above Santo Domingo de Los Colorados in the western Andean foothills, to dry paramos of Cotopaxi Volcano, and to wet paramos and cloud forests on a high pass near Antisana Volcano. The landscapes were so different in these three places that we got a bit overloaded with new impressions. But seeing a few hundred new bird and mammal species in one week was a great experience.

In Quito we managed to obtain Peruvian and Chilean visas, and found a relatively cheap way to get to the Galapagos. There was a cargo ship named Piquero (booby), leaving for the islands in about two weeks. We decided to spend the remaining days on the Amazon side of the mountains, and got on a bus to Reventador Volcano. We found a camp of an electric company in the forest near San Rafael Falls. The guard asked us to pay for using one of their cabins, but he could only count from one to five, so it wasn't expensive. Then we hitchhiked to Lago Agrio, a frontier town not far from the Colombian border. Nearby Cuyabeno National Park was a great place for birdwatching because there were lots of small forest clearings there, but most other wildlife could only be seen in souvenir shops in the town.

We ran into a serious problem in Lago Agrio. For eight weeks we'd been so busy exploring remote beaches, Alpine meadows, forest rivers, and cozy little hotels, that we ran out of condoms. Someone had to go to a drug store. "You are a man, you can do it!" Julia said. She was wrong. In one drugstore there was an old seniora at the counter, in another one - a shy teenage girl. Both had no idea what a condom was, and almost collapsed when I tried to explain. Julia would probably have less trouble with them. Fortunately, we found an old condom under the hotel bed. I took it to one of the drugstores and showed to the girl. She turned deep purple, but sold me all condoms they had. I am sorry if we caused a population explosion in Lago Agrio.

We went south along the Andes. Jumandi Caves were a great place. They were inhabited by at least fifty bat species, most living separately from each other in various niches, cracks, and side corridors. One long passage was occupied by about 30,000 vampire bats. Their excrement was liquid and dark-red, so walking there was like wading throat-deep in blood. Nearby Tena was one of the less unpleasant Amazon towns. It was also relatively cheap. Usually everything is expensive in the Amazon, even fruit.

Less than an hour's drive from Tena is Jatun Sacha, a private Nature reserve. It is very small (about 10x20 km), but the forest is in good condition: even some large mammals are still present. It was the first place we saw in the Amazon where most big trees were still standing. We spent five days in that little paradise, enjoying their trails, butterflies-covered beaches along the river, and unbelievable biodiversity. Although tiny, the reserve had both lowland and foothill forests, and the highest number of tree species than any area of the same size in the world. Wading along forest streams at night was the best chance to see some difficult-to-find creatures: water opossums, fishing rats, aquatic caecilids, luminescent shrimp, and weird-looking frogs. Jatun Sacha is famous for having 25 species of poison-dart frogs. Most of them are endemic to the reserve, and all are strikingly beautiful. The most colorful species is shown on T-shirts and other local souvenirs, but it took me a lot of effort to find it. Only when I caught one in a pile of dry leaves did I realize that it was very little: about the size of a pea.

The reserve had a 70-m high observation tower. Climbing it was a great way to see birds and mammals of the canopy. I spent a lot of time on the top, and eventually dropped my camera with almost finished film. I lost (supposedly) great slides, and was left with a tiny backup camera, which wasn't good at all for photographing Nature.

We spent half a day on Chimborazo Volcano, then went to Guayaquil. The ship was already being loaded, but it wasn't to leave until five days later, so we went to Cerro Blanco National Park further north. It was only 13 km from the city, but was in surprisingly good condition. We saw some jaguar tracks there.

Most of the park is dry forest, but hilltops get some garrua fog from the ocean, so the vegetation looks more like cloud forest there. There was plenty of birds around, but other wildlife was mostly active at night. We spent days sleeping, until flocks of amazon parrots woke us up on their way to roosts in the mangroves. Then we hiked up the hills along some trail with mazama deer tracks, or a dry creek bed with remaining pools full of tiny golden frogs. At the summit we were always greeted by a small owl, which then kept us company for a mile or two, sometimes picking grasshoppers we flushed. Army ants were mostly nocturnal there, but they were followed by bird flocks anyway. At dawn we heard the calls of the parrots coming back, and went down to our tent, while birds filled the forest with morning songs. The best place for birdwatching was at a meadow where our tent was. We were always surrounded by jays, tanagers, finches, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and tiny green parrotlets.

We returned to Guayaquil and spent the last night on the ship. The city was described in most guidebooks as dirty and unsafe, but we found it very nice and clean. At sunset, thousands of bats emerged from the streets, glided between skyscrapers of the downtown, and moved across the bay to the mangroves further south. I estimated there was about half a million of them.

Piquero, our ship, was regularly taking tourists along with cargo. There was even a guide on board. The crossing took three days, but wasn't boring. During the day, we could see whales and sharks occasionally. At night the boat was followed by gulls. Talking to other tourists was interesting, too. They were mostly hard-core type: a family of Colombian hippies had put up a tent on the deck, and traveled there with a six month-old baby.

The main problem of travel in the Galapagos is that some of the most interesting wildlife can only be seen on remote islands, and getting there is almost as expensive as the flight to the islands from the mainland. Piquero was scheduled to visit three islands, but we spent most of time on Santa Cruz. It has the highest mountains and the best forests, but it is also the most populated one, so many native animals are extinct. The ones which are still there are very tame and easy to observe.

It took us less than an hour on a beach to see how the speciation worked in Darwin finches. We had a pack of crackers wrapped in plastic. A flock of finches gathered and tried to open it, but couldn't. Then a finch of a different species arrived. It had a large strong beak, and managed to break in within seconds. A few minutes later all crackers were gone, except for the tiniest pieces. The large and medium-size finches disappeared, but one bird of a smaller species was left behind to pick up all leftovers.

The coastal areas are teeming with life, while inland mountains seem to have no animals at all. It takes a lot of effort to see rare forest residents: snakes, rails, mice (they only live on islands with no introduced rats), and insects. Puerto Ayora, the islands capital, is the best place to see endemic bats, swallows, geckos, and lava gulls. Diving was great almost everywhere. It was the middle of Northern summer, but there were lots of Arctic waders on the beaches.

San Cristobal Island in the east is very similar to Santa Cruz, but instead of forests its mountains are covered with fern steppes. Fern steppes were probably very common before flowering plants appeared in the Cretaceous, but now they only exist on a few remote islands in the Pacific. A small crater lake contains the Galapagos only freshwater fish (Dialommus fuscus), heavily hunted by frigatebirds from a nearby colony.

A long crossing to Izabela island in the far western part of the archipelago was great. We got a chance to see group feeding of thousands of boobies, diving for fish in one endless downpour and then rising back like a living tornado. Sometimes they were assisted by herds of dolphins who helped to make a school of fish more compacted. Huge flocks of shearwaters and storm-petrels floated on the swell. We also encountered groups of beaked whales, the less studied of all large mammals.

Izabela is a chain of five active volcanoes. Its eastern shore has mangrove lagoons where you can see very tame flamingoes, owls, waterbirds, and hammerhead sharks chasing penguins among mangrove roots. There are also lava crevasses in which two species of large sharks gather to sleep. You can join them and even pet them as long as you swim very slowly and avoid rapid movements. The western side of Isabela and nearby Fernandina island are the only places where flightless cormorants live.

We crossed the island on horseback in heavy rain. It was Julia's first riding experience, and she liked it so much that she didn't pay any attention to the rain. The trail followed the rim of a large caldera, with giant tortoises and land iguanas grazing inside. A hawk was riding on top of a tortoise, looking for baby iguanas. On the western side the weather was better. We found a small crater among colorful lava fields. It was a steaming pit surrounded by dry desert. We looked into the crater and saw lush ferns on moisture-covered walls, and a small rainbow deep inside.

On our way back we entered the rain once again. It was already getting dark, and the slopes were hidden in dense fog. Male vermillion flycatchers were perching on snags and cacti, sticking out of fog like emergency exit lights. This cute little bird is one of the most popular residents of the Galapagos. Many American tourists buy T-shirts with its picture, not aware that it can be found in the US as well.

The nights we spent on board Piquero in Galapagos harbors were among the best moments of our trip there. Bright electric lights penetrated deep into the water, and schools of fish were attracted to them. On Santa Cruz we were visited by large triggerfishes coming for barnacles on our hull and for kitchen leftovers. On other islands the most common guests were California sea lions. They circled in green space below, waiting for needlefishes to come to the light. Than a chase would start, and we would watch them flying in the water in all directions with amazing speed and agility, until the fish was caught.

We discovered that air fares were much lower on the islands than on the mainland, and decided to go back by plane instead of another 3-day trip on Piquero. This way we got a few more days there, and made some trips to smaller islands. I liked Islas Plazas the most. They had huge numbers of both marine and land iguanas, and a tall sea cliff with hundreds of birds breeding in niches, caves, and cracks of the rocks. Julia had to hold my legs while I was hanging head down, trying to look into the caves with gull, tropicbird, and petrel nests. There were also some fur seals under the cliffs. Marine iguanas managed to climb the entire height of the steep rock face, and shared the caves with birds.

The scales in the local airport were off so much that they showed twice the weight of your luggage. We didn't have to pay for extra weight, but the flight was still a heavy blow to our finances. We had only two thousand dollars left. There was a cheap flight from Guayaquil to La Havana. Julia decided to take it and go home to avoid getting stranded somewhere in Peru or Chile with no money left and no direct flights to Cuba or Russia. She gave me a haircut in a hotel room, and I took her to the airport.

I was a bit worried about her having to spend three days on Cuba alone. When we were planning our trip to South America, I asked my friend who was going abroad to get me a Lonely Planet's guidebook to the continent. It stated that not wearing a bra was totally inappropriate there. But on the day of our departure from Moscow we discovered that Julia didn't have a bra: she hated them and never used. Then we noticed that it didn't make any difference. If we were together, nobody paid her any attention. But every time I left her alone for more than thirty seconds, I then found her surrounded by a small crowd of machos, no matter what she was wearing.

Anyway, she made it just fine. It took her two days of wandering around the old city to find the Aeroflot office. Then she had to spend some extra dollars to get on the first flight, so by the time she arrived in Moscow she had no money left and was very hungry. But she got home eventually.

After seeing her off, I took a bus to northwestern Ecuador. It was a long sad ride through fog, dry pastures, and small villages. Most of the passengers were teenage girls from a Catholic school, guarded by nuns. On every stop vendors got in and tried to sell water, ice cream, or cookies, making speeches about the stuff they were selling. At one point a tall woman climbed into the bus and opened a huge colorful book in front of us. She was selling aphrodisiac pills, and the book was an anatomy encyclopedia with lots of illustrations. In loud, well-trained voice she gave us a forty-minute lecture about the interactions between male and female genitalia, causes of male impotence, and the miracles her pills (and customers) could perform. The girls were mostly seated behind me. At first I could hear only quiet laughs, then they turned into moaning and sobbing. I looked back. The nuns were sitting with their eyes closed and fingers in their ears, while the poor girls stared at the pictures. They noticed I was watching them, and after some giggling one of them ran to me with money in her hand.

"Senior, could you by some pills for us, please?" she whispered.

"What do you need them for?"

"We'll slip some into Father Prior's tea!"

You just can't stay in a bad mood for long when you travel in South America!

Late at night we got to Puerto Lopez, a small fishing town near Machalilla National Park. It was foggy, cold, and rainy there, so I found a cheap hotel to spend two nights. It was Saturday, and I had to wait until Monday to get on a boat to Isla de la Plata. Next morning I discovered that someone had stolen a piece of bread from my table. After a day of looking for wildlife in the park, I got back to the hotel and decided to find out who the thief was. I put another piece of bread in the middle of the room, and waited with my flashlight ready. About an hour later something moved towards the bait. I pressed the switch and saw a cute black-masked creature with large ears, long tail, and gorgeous whiskers: a mouse opossum.

A day trip to Isla de la Plata by a small boat is bumpy, but costs only $20 - that's why the island is called "a poor man's Galapagos". It is divided between eight species of birds: tropicbirds breed on rock faces, turkey vultures nest on tall Cordia trees, frigatebirds prefer steep slopes with palo santo (Pursera) groves, while four species of boobies nest separately in the hills of the interior. There were also five pairs of albatrosses on the island, hiding under bushes among rocky outcrops of windy western shore. Just as the Galapagos, Silver Island is sitting right at the edge of cold Peruvian Current, so the surrounding waters are cold and very productive, while coastal shallows are warm enough to have small coral reefs. Snorkeling was great there. On the way back we saw some dolphins and a few dozen humpback whales. Some of them kept jumping out of the water for at least half an hour. One was entirely white. We also got a distant view of a huge manta ray leaping in the air.

I continued traveling north and reached Bahia de Caraquez, a city at the mouth of San Vincente river. I arrived there at night, and waited for dawn on a narrow beach under a concrete embankment. Nearby was a large tree with beautiful blue flowers, surrounded by a swarm of tiny bats. They crawled inside the flowers and moved there like bumblebees. Nocturnal shorebirds kept patrolling the water edge, passing by at regular intervals. At five o'clock the incoming tide forced me off the beach. I climbed on the embankment and saw that all the bats were gone, and the flowers were quietly falling on the ground one by one.

Just across the river dry forests were supposed to give way to the rainforest. It took me a day of searching around to find a tiny patch of trees. It was a great habitat for birds, frogs, and lizards, but locals told me it was scheduled to be logged within a month.

The islands in the mouth of San Vincente are among the last places in Ecuador with good mangroves. Most mangrove forests have been replaced by shrimp farms. Two small sandy islands are called Islas de Fragatos, and every tree there is crowned with a nest or two. It is better to get there at low tide, because at high tide only treetops are above the water.

I returned to Guayaquil, and after riding a bus through seven checkpoints got to Huaquillas at the border with Peru (or 35 km before the border, according to Ecuadorian maps). I slept under a bush at the neutral strip before entering Tumbez, the first Peruvian town and a mirror image of Huaquillas. Now I only had to follow the coastal desert for 3,600 kilometers to get to Patagonia.

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