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Galápagos

Las Islas Encantadas

semi-overcast 25 °C

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Baltra airport is a small airstrip on the east side of the island of the same name, part of the Galápagos Archipelago which lies some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The flight from Quito took 2 and a half hours, including a stop in Guyaquil, Ecuador's huge industrial coastal city. Our guide, Morris, met us at the airport and we set off by bus and ferry to Puerto Ayora, a small pleasant fishing town with plenty of cafes and shops, which has become Galapagos' 'capital'.
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There were six passengers and five crew on the 'compact' catamouran, 'Valkirie'. The cabins were tiny, with most of the space going to the large double beds, which were very comfortable if somewhat claustrophobic. They were set about two feet below the ceiling, which had small peep-windows for star-gazing. This was no luxury cruiser - I had booked an 'activity' tour of the legendary islands so that we could see as much of the renowned bird, fish and mammal life as possible. Since his boyhood bird-watching on various islands off the Irish coast while his older brother was scuba diving, Jan had dreamed of going to the islands made famous by Darwin.

The steep price was in some way justified by what was essentially a private charter with one crew member to each guest, counting our highly qualified naturalist guide. Morris spoke excellent English and was a fund of information on his native islands - their marine and wild life, botanical species and local history. He was also a qualified scuba diver and an agile underwater swimmer, competing with the sealions in their games several metres down.
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The boat was too cramped to spend much time aboard, so any navigation between islands was done at night, when we were tucked up in our cabins. As some of the distances were considerable, we had one or two protracted and turbulent voyages. I was well-dosed with 'anti-mareo' drugs and was fine as long as I stayed horizontal, but there was an extraordinary incident on the worst night, involving a flying fish. The boat was heaving violently every which way and showers of seawater were washing over our skylights with considerable force when there was a muffled shriek from the next cabin. Katrin, one of the other guests, came lurching through her door, carrying a wet, flapping fish in her towel. It had flown in through their slightly open window during a particularly powerful deluge, landing on the bed. She staggered up on deck and returned it to its element, while the captain and crew stared in disbelief.

On San Cristobel, where there is a Jatun Sacha biological station, we walked to El Junco Lagoon, the only natural source of fresh water on the islands, and watched the wonderfully prehistoric frigate birds, Darwin's finches and mocking birds. We visited La Galapaguera, part of the Galapagos National Park, where we saw a great number of giant tortoises (which is what the name 'galapagos' means). These amazing creatures can live to be 150 years old.

From here we walked to Puerto Chino, a pristine beach where we snorkelled in clear water which was just a bit too cold. The fish life is as varied and abundant as the bird life. Shoals of angel fish, damsel fish and silver sardines flitted past - it was like being on the set of 'Finding Nemo'. I had never seen such spectacular colours close up, although my brother has described the beauty of the underwater world in Mexico, where he and his wife love to scuba dive. The highlight of that day's snorkelling was swimming slowly over a giant stingray which was resting on the sea bed far below us. We kept a respectful distance until it flew away, gracefully flapping its huge wings along the sand.

The next day we went to Kicker Rock in a motor launch. Leon Dormido is an old tuff cone eroded by the deep ocean around it. The dramatic volcanic formation now serves as a nesting site for frigate birds; tropic birds; nezca boobies and the famous blue-footed boobies.
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I found it pretty menacing and was not tempted to join the snorkelling group in 200 metres of heavy swell around the sheer walls of jagged rock (a near drowning incident on Montauk beach, Long Island, in 1984 being still strangely fresh in my memory). Morris led three of our group through the central arch of the massive sea escarpment. Masks down all the way, they made their way slowly to the other side of the rock where the launch met them. They were apoplectic with excitement, having seen some very big fish, including sharks, a long way down.
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That night, assisted by the engine, we sailed slowly to Floreana, surely the island with the most fascinating history. A German countess and her three lovers, no less, had lived here for a while in the 1930s. The lovers and the countess had all died or disappeared one by one in mysterious circumstances. She was mad as a brush, as can be seen by some rare cine-camera footage we were privileged to see. There was another family living there too - a doctor, his wife and their sickly son, who was also found dead on the beach of this otherwise uninhabited island one day. They lived in 'converted' caves which we visited - a primitive choice of home indeed. The doctor had had all his teeth pulled before coming to Floreana, so that he would not need a dentist where none was to be found.
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Floreana, like much of the landscape of Galapagos, is dry and barren, its main vegetation the bare, dry season branches of the bleached Palo Santo tree ('holy stick' or 'incense', which is just what it looks like).
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Many pirates and whalers also used Floreana's caves as hiding places. We visited the island's town, which now has a population of almost 100 people, making it the smallest town in the archipalago.

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Isabela island is the largest and one of the youngest islands. Some say it is the most beautiful. We took a bus to the interior highlands and rode horses up to the still active Sierra Negra volcano. This volcano last erupted in October 2005. We rode around its vast caldera, or crater - a lava field of huge proportions. I have never been or seen anywhere like this charcoal baked, jagged, lunar landscape, surely the most inhospitable place on earth. You can understand the horrified descriptions of those who landed on these islands - beautiful they are not, but they are fascinating and unique. And even here, in the "ah-ah" lava (so-called because of the cries of pain walking barefoot on it induces), we saw cactus growing from the brittle surface, with lava lizards and mocking birds aplenty.
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We trekked on a dry lava flow to Vulcan Chico and gazed down at the fumeroles and ashen lavascape, which was turning to violet and pink in the radiating afternoon heat. We rode back in the dust then, arriving sweaty, saddle-sore and covered in lava dust at the bus.

A sunset plunge into the ocean from our boat was heaven.

The next few days included zodiac rides to Tintoreras, a white-tipped shark grotto. These small harmless sharks like to rest in the shallow channels between the lava flows. Walking in this area, we came across whole colonies of baby marine iguanas.

And adults too. There are many different species.
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And colours.
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They shake their heads in agitation if you come too close.

Morris explained the bleak story of the 'muro de las lagrimas', the wall of tears, a pointless edifice of sharp lava rocks built by inmates of an old penal colony established on Isabela. The men were forced to labour under conditions of extreme duress.

The atmosphere was heavy with sadness, an indescribably poignant remnant of suffering lingering in the still air. I was sorry I had come.
Jan missed it because he was very ill with salmonella, which we'd all picked up from a barbecue the 'cook' had prepared two nights earlier. We didn't know what was wrong with Jan then, but after a blood test and diagnosis in Peru some days later, a strong course of treatment sorted us out.

Back on we cycled from the top of the island down to sea level, spotting many giant tortoises on the way. No trip to Galapagos would be complete without a visit to the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Centre, where all the strategies to protect and preserve the native and endemic animals are developed. There is a successful giant tortoise breeding programme and of course, the grandfather of them all, Lonesome George, lives there.

Lonesome George is the last of his species sub-group left in the world. The tortoises of each island have different characteristics, developed over centuries to best survive in their particular environment. The shape of the shell is the main pointer to a tortoise's species. Some, for instance, have a higher 'collar' allowing the tortoise's neck to stretch up to tall shrubs. Lonesome George is world famous. He lives under protected conditions but his carers have been unsuccessful in getting him to mate. He is 90 years old.
*Update: since writing this, Lonesome George has of course gone to the great shell in the sky*

It was an eventful week on these extraordinary islands. Apart from our issues with food poisoning, we had an exciting and interesting time, with plenty of excercise and activity. I think I would have to rate the Sierra Negra lava field as my most awesome landscape memory.

And swimming with sealions as my favourite experience.
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They are wonderful intelligent creatures whose underwater skills are a joy to watch. They are very curious and playful, coming right up face to face with your goggles but shimmying off like lightning just as you think you can touch them with outstretched arms.
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The babies are left in 'nurseries' with a few females while the other mothers go fishing, and the male of the colony patrols the shore. The males can be very aggressive when guarding the nursery, as we discovered.

Galapagos, the enchanted isles, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime destination in that it is very expensive to visit, but also in that, once having been there, it is not likely you will want to return. Why? If you go, you will know why. One thing I was glad to see firsthand was that the much-discussed disruption of the islands' fragile and utterly unique environment, which is home to such an exceptionally tame wildlife population, is being carefully controlled. The only place we felt part of a throng was the Darwin Research centre, where everybody goes. We were, of course, on a tiny boat which stayed off the popular route - some cruise boats accommodate up to 150 passengers. But the islands feel lonely and desolate, which is how it should be. A good reason for only going once. Some people argue that to go to Galapagos is not sustainable tourism, therefore we shouldn't go at all. I see their point.
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Posted by Eleniki 05:44 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Amazonas

Samona Lodge, Cuyabena Reserve

rain 40 °C

Lago Agrio ('Sour Lake') is only a short flight from Quito, but it's a vastly different landscape to the majestic Andean valley seat of Ecuador's sprawling capital, photographed here at dusk the night before we left it.
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Situated in dense amazon basin rainforest near to the Colombian border in north-east Ecuador, the town is an unattractive jumble of concrete, laid out in the usual grid pattern. Its low altitude means that it's much hotter than Quito, and much wetter. Lago Agrio is not the safest of places - its uneasy proximity to Colombia's active border is made apparent by the presence of armed soldiers at the small airport. We were two of the very few tourists on board the flight; a small plane full of businessmen as smooth as the local oil they trade, and some additional military personnel. Interestingly, one of the latter, a woman, was studying a document on the preservation of the environment local to Lago Agrio - either an encouraging sign or a meaningless piece of red-tape.

We were met by a driver with a van, and rattled off up the road. Three hours later, including a stop in a sweltering and unfriendly road-side cafe for a stale ham roll, we were beginning to wonder how far away our rainforest reserve was. The agent I had booked the tour through had been vague, and our driver was a deeply taciturn man. Finally the road literally ended at a high fence, and we got out. This was the 12km military zone between Ecuador and Colombia, as close as it's possible to get by public road.

We had passed an air-strip, which we later learned was a private airport, owned by a chinese enterprise. On our way, we had noticed much deforestation and settlement either side of the road. Most depressing, however, was the aged pipeline which ran the entire way with us, its discoloured, cracked surface a stark reminder of the large-scale destruction the oil business has wreaked on Ecuador's rainforest. No attempt is made to disguise the 30 year old pipe, propped up by often inadequate supports. It sags and bulges in places and I was later told that much oil leaks into the ground along its length. It's hard to understand why this monstrous conveyor of Ecuador's 'black gold' is not kept in repair, to at least prevent wastage, which in turn would prevent further unnecessary damage to the environment. I was told it would cost too much to repair, but this unsatisfactory answer fails on many levels - we hear constantly of the value of oil,and Ecuador's elite rich class is testimony to that, so surely the upkeep of the pipeline should be high priority?

We were now at the gateway to the Cuyabena river wildlife reserve. After registering at a small office, we boarded our canoe, a sturdy boat well capable of carrying ten people, their baggage and plenty of supplies for the lodge. There were, however, only the two of us bound for Samona lodge that day, and two Colombians who were headed for another jungle lodge on the river. Lodges are restricted in number in this protected area, and are few and far between.

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Our canoe had an outboard motor which chugged us along gently in the muggy heat for over two hours. Although our guide was not with us - we would meet him at the lodge - there was a very knowledgeable man in charge. He spoke good English, though both Jan's and my Spanish is by now up to guided tours in that language. He pointed out several bird species, and identified monkey cries in the dense jungle to either side of the river. The water is a murky brown so it's not possible to see what lurks within. Huge kapok trees reach for the light, some covered by parasite strangler vines, while the river's edge is festooned with trailing aerial roots dipping well below the surface and conveying water up through each tree with maximum efficiency.
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Every so often, something would turn in the battleship coloured brew - a fin or a limb, it was hard to say. The Cuyabena is home to freshwater dolphins,or Boto, as well as the world's biggest freshwater fish, the Arapaima, which can grow to 15 feet long. Then there is the enigmatic Manatee, (same species as the saltwater sea cow or dugong) http://usuarios.lycos.es/monte1/manati.htm, which lives throughout the Amazon river basin as well as in many of its tributaries. This species is the smallest of the sirenians, an order that includes all manatees and the dugong. The Amazonian manatee feeds on aquatic vegetation and vascular shore plants. It is preyed on by caiman and sometimes jaguar. Due to commercial hunting, now banned, Amazonian manatee populations have drastically declined. The Amazonian and African manatee's status is now officially vulnerable. We were lucky enough to see an Arapaima turning several times in the water, and the nose of a manatee appearing at intervals to breathe, at a deep bend of the river one morning, as well as two dolphins making a quick appearance above water. We saw many caiman (related to the crocodile) basking on the riverbank, or if we didn't see them in the dusk, we saw their eyes glowing red in the light of our guide's torch. Usually they shot forward into the water with a loud splash when they saw the boat approaching. There are piranha in the river too, which we saw up close when one of the guides caught one.

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As you've probably realised by now, it's not really a river to take a refreshing dip in, so I was glad of our life jackets and the reassuring bulk of our canoe.
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As we were still motoring down the main waterway, en route to our lodge, we weren't really prepared for what happened next. While passing a small mud bank, one of many, my eye was caught by a strange shape at the water's edge. Unmoving and very large, it took a while for me to realise what it was, and in the same moment the driver saw it and the motor was cut amidst hushed, excited exclamations.

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It was a giant anaconda, the biggest water snake in the world, but there was something else - our temporary guide was apoplectic as he whispered "this anaconda is strangling a caiman". We didn't understand until we saw there was something wrapped inside the massive snake folds.

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What we were witnessing was a silent life and death struggle. Now we saw part of the caiman between the anaconda's giant overlaps. This baby was a good 5 metres long with matching width - to give you an idea, it can swallow a caiman whole.

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In his eagerness to aid our front row view, the driver let the boat drift too close, and the anaconda lost concentration, became anxious and loosened her grip. The caiman lost no time in pushing its advantage. The scene broke up in a flash, caiman shooting off unharmed in one direction and anaconda slithering into the muddy depths with astonishing speed. We were glad for the hitherto doomed caiman, yet sad for the foiled anaconda, a creature which, due to its geologically slow metabolism, eats on average once every two months, and which can go up to two years without food if need be. Kind, animal-loving friends of mine have since urged me to bring an anaconda home in my backpack, as they feel they would have use for its asphixiatory skills which would benefit both snake and afore-mentioned friends' immediate social circle. I feel it would be just too cruel. The anaconda would never survive. There are some things you just can't swallow.
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I suppose it could be said that after this extraordinary introduction to Cuyabena, it was all a gentle downhill. None of the men had seen such an incident first-hand before. It didn't in any way, however, take from the next three days' adventures.

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Our lodge was a circle of bamboo and straw huts, themselves circular. A wooden jetty leads up and into the 'village' from the river, which is the only route through the jungle. One of the huts is very big and houses an open-sided dining room with hammocks, in true Ecuadorian custom. Our room had an en-suite bathroom with shower and flush toilet! The water was tepid, which in the wet heat was all you needed, and every night a candle was lit in our room, as there was only generated electricity for part of the day. We slept under a huge mosquito net, and deeted up every day, before setting out on the river or into the forest.
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Manola was a baby woolly monkey who had lost her mother to hunters, and had been brought back by one of the guides.
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She was absolutely adorable, and loved to hold your finger while clinging tight to anyone who picked her up. She slept a lot, usually in one of the hammocks at her adoptive home in Samona. Melon and banana were her favourite foods. Having grown used to human company, she will probably remain a well-loved pet at the lodge.
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Samona lodge is one of about 6 tourist centres in the Cuyabena reserve. Each lodge is miles from the next, as this huge rainforest waterway system is strictly protected and monitored. Only a certain number of boats can operate within its boundaries and speed is limited to an uninvasive putter on the laguna, a place of awesome beauty and tranquility. We had never experienced anything like the dawn visit to watch birds on the laguna.

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Wreathed in mist, trees and islands loomed out of the stillness, as our canoe drifted past.
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We saw many species of heron, kingfisher, stork, parokeet and hoatzin, among a myriad other birds.
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We were very lucky to have Neiser Toro as our guide. A local man who grew up in Cuyabena, Neiser had been guiding from Samona for 8 years. There was very little he didn't know about the place, but the thing that really stood out about Neiser was his exuberant and completely infectious enthusiasm for every creature and plant he pointed out, undiminished after years in the field.

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He also had the sharpest eyes and keenest ears imaginable, easily spotting and identifying precise species of birds from huge distances, when it was about all we could do to verify that there was indeed a bird there.
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He knew particular branches favoured by tree boas, and the feeding place of the smallest monkey in the world, the pigmy marmoset. We saw a colony of these tiny monkeys, extraordinary living furry toys with the faces of ugly miniature lions.

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In one day we saw, and heard, eight species of monkey: capochin, howler, squirrel, pigmy marmoset, woolly, rhesus, spider and sloth. The sapajou is there too, and the short-tailed, big-bellied and nocturnal monkeys, but we didn't get to see them. Without Neiser, we'd have been lucky to spot two of the above.

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One memorable day, just four of us - Jan, myself, Arata (a Basque vet working in Lago Agrio) and Neiser - transferred from the big canoe to a small paddle canoe and took off down a narrow channel where the big canoe would not fit.

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We paddled through reedy algae-laden waters, more like marshlands or small-scale everglades than the river or the laguna. There was an abundance of butterflies and dragonflies, and so many species of birds that we could hardly keep track.
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Fish periodically leapt out of the water close to our boat. We went out on the sublime laguna, our favourite place, and floated through the lake forest, our oars dipping noiselessly in the shallow water. Out in the centre of the laguna it was possible to swim without fear of caimans, and some people in another boat did, but we...erm... declined, also being wary of certain water-borne parasites it's best I don't describe here.

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It rained every day for two or three hours, even though this was the dry season. That's why it's called the rainforest. In the wet season, it rains torrentially for most of every day. We wore heavy rubber ponchos in the boat, which got just as wet inside as out. But at least it was a warm wet, as the rain could be surprisingly chilly when it was heavy.

We fitted so much into our three days, it would be difficult to record everything we learned at this wonderful lodge. It was a real education as well as a pleasure to get to know Neiser Toro, one of a growing number of Ecuadorians who realise that their country is unique, a hot-spot of bio-diversity contained within such short distances. Neiser is writing an educational text book on Cuyabena for local school children, something which is so encouraging to hear, as it is with this generation any hope for the future of endangered environments such as this lies.

But in all his years of exploring, spotting and guiding, Neiser has never seen.....

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a fully-grown anaconda wrapped around a caiman.

Posted by Eleniki 06:26 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

The Black Sheep of Chugchilan

Walking the talk

semi-overcast 26 °C

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For many weeks I had been planning to visit the Black Sheep Inn (BSI). This oft-mentioned hostel is on the backpackers' trail south of Cotopaxi, round the supremely beautiful Quilatoa loop. The Black Sheep Inn is a fairly expensive place to stay in, by Ecuadorian standards, but there are cheap bunkrooms too. For an experience which made a very deep impression on me, not to mention the great organic food; friendly communal atmosphere; tactile natural building materials in the imaginatively laid-out and situated rooms and sauna; and of course the stunning location, it was more than worth the extra dollars. I stayed two nights and met some interesting people. I chatted a lot to Andres and Michelle, the U.S. owner managers who have a total hands-on approach to running the BSI, essentially sharing their home and their vision with many travellers.

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Rather than writing a second-hand explanation of Andres' and Michelle's philosophy and goals (many of which they have achieved in the 13 years they've lived in Chugchilan), I'll quote from their beautifully printed-out signs and documents. which are used all round the property so that guests are fully informed about all they see and eat. I use quote marks whenever I am relaying their words. They happened upon Chugchilan while backpacking in 1993. They stayed with a family, as there was no hotel in the area, and fell in love with the place. They didn't want to leave, and were blown away when a local farmer offered to sell them a sizable chunk of land. I continue in Michelle and Andy's own words:

"We had to ask ourselves if this was a dream come true - an opportunity we could not pass by. Here in the heart of the Andes, we could tread lightly and live sustainably. We could own our work. We could create a home and realize our ideals: organic gardens, happy animals, ecological toilets, recycled waste, wastewater systems caring for the earth and fostering our talents. Here we could have the freedom to be creative, to experiment and to learn from our mistakes"

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"The idea of the Black Sheep Inn was born in 1993. The name was created before the place. We chose The Black Sheep Inn & La Posada Oveja Negra because everybody recognises the symbol of the black sheep, because it sounds great in every language, because there are many sheep in the area and because many world travellers, like us, are 'black sheep' that have strayed far from the flock. We welcome the Black Sheep of the world!"

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So Michelle and Andy returned to the U.S., each working three jobs until they had sufficient earnings to return in October 1994, purchasing the land in April 1995. The first guests were received in 1996. They write "BSI is a work in progress. We strive to improve the facilities and nurture the land. We've designed buildings using permaculture ideas, building with materials and renewable resources such as adobe and straw, with local labour. We harvest rainwater and humanure (abono turistico) (!). We have and continue to reforest our property with native trees in terraced rows called swales, and we involve ourselves with the community in the most positive ways we think possible. Every day we learn more from the land, the neighbours, the animals and the guests. We try to live in harmony with and respect our surroundings. We welcome comments and suggestions."

BSI's Famous Composting Toilets
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"The most popular question asked about eco-friendliness is on the subject of the composting toilets (and somehow the topic always becomes dinner conversation!). The toilets work wonderfully. The developed world thinks it's normal to defecate in a toilet bowl filled with clean water, while many people in the third world still 'poop' in the fields and walk miles for potable water. In order to bridge the gap between two very distinct norms, we built composting toilets that are attractive, educational and productive."

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All toilets take advantage of spectacular views across the canyon.
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Inside the rooms are beneficial flower/vegetable gardens fertilized with finished compost from the toilet.
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"Roofs are transparent, allowing natural light for the bathroom and gardens. Roofs also funnel rainwater to small tanks used for handwashing. Using biodegradable hand soap, waste water from the sink irrigates interior gardens/ The book 'The Toilet Papers' by Sim van der Ryn explains the design and process of the composting toilet"
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"The condensation that accumulates around the seat overnight is proof that waste is heating up (thermophillic) and decomposing. Faeces and urine are extremely nitrogen rich - in order to balance the mixture, we add 'dry stuff' with every use. This is a mix of sawdust and pods from the cultivated lupin (chochos) which are high in carbon content. A good ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. That's a lot of dry stuff!"
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"The dry stuff is the 'flush' and helps keep insects and odour at a minimum. We also add kitchen scraps. (BSI is a vegetarian inn). Occasionally the toilet smells of ammonia, which means we are not adding enough carbon. The recipe is actually simple and the toilet needs very little monitoring. The finished 'humanure' is used when we plant a tree or shrub, and eventually in the vegetable garden. It's a high nutrient fertilizer that helps everything grow."
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This document goes on to describe permaculture and how BSI is becoming a permaculture demonstration site, with the dry composting toilets, recycling systems for grey water ane recycling of plastic, metal, paper and glass. Over 800 native trees have been planted in terraced swales so far, and all gardens are fully organic. There is a combination greenhouse/chicken house in keeping with BSI's permaculture ideals. In 1998, Andy and Michelle sponsored a two week permaculture design course for their neighbours, closing the BSI during this time. Their document includes a useful definition of permaculture (which one of the volunteers I worked with at La Hesperia introduced to the management of the vegetable garden there also):

'Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way'. This is a quote from Bill Mollison, an Australian who co-founded the permaculture movement.

Andres and Michelle have also been working with local county governments in Ecuador to start environmental education in the schools.
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"Further eco-awarness at the Black Sheep Inn includes the recycling of wine and liquor bottles by building 'bottle walls'. The (wonderful) sauna, bunkhouse shower and upper bathrooms are examples of this eco-architecture. The hardest part of building a bottle wall is all the drinking you have to do first.... Large plastic containers are re-used as planters or to store milk and water. Paper makes a good mulch for the gardens as well as an alternative non-toxic window and mirror cleaner. Food scraps are composted or fed to animals (BSI has 3 huge adorable dogs) as well as chickens, guinea pigs and goats."

In 2005, Andy was elected 'King of Garbage' by Chugchilan. He is working with public officials and has purchased a small property to use as a separate facility, tree nursery and mini-landfill.
See www.EcoClub.com for information about BSI's 2006 Ecolodge Award for building a community recycling centre.

BSI manages water from four sources with admirable efficiency and zero waste. In fact there was no running water in Chugchilan until Andres and Michelle made it possible with their expertise. They use on average 2000 litres of water daily for the entire hotel. They have built ponds to increase biodiversity and to retain water on the property.
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"Because of the dry composting toilets, there is no 'black water' produced at BSI. Grey water is much easier to treat and re-use. All water from showers, sinks, laundry etc is recycled. It is collected in a settling tank and put through a charcoal/rock filter system. The filtered water is then channeled through a reed bed for further nutrient absorption.The reeds produce fodder for guinea pigs, llamas and sheep. There are two 85 watt solar panels that directly power(without batteries) a shurflo submersible pump mounted on the bottom of a raft in the main pond. Even on cloudy days the pump pushes pond water over 200 feet up the hill to a reserve tank for irrigating the organic gardens. This pump also powers a 'fountain of youth' and a (very scary) 'waterslide of death' (down the hill, into the big pond, only for the brave or foolhardy! hr).
See the BSI design for a complete Alternative Energy System at http://www.blacksheepinn.com/HybridSolarWindDesign.htm"
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Organic gardens
"It is safe to eat salads at BSI" (something which is music to the ears after months of avoiding raw food in Sth America, unless personally prepared). "The terraced gardens are fertilized with animal manure and compost/red worm castings/ Plagues and insects are combatted with natural remedies such as aji (red hot chili peppers), garlic and tobacco sprays. Predatory insect repelling species (nasturtium, chamomile, cultivated lupine, calendula etc) are planted around the gardens. Inter-cropping and companion planting are continuously experimented with in true permacultural method. The greenhouse allows for warm weather vegetable production. also providing shelter and warmth for the chickens at night. The greenhouse is heated by passive solar power. 150 gallons of water are used along with think adobe walls for thermal mass. The chickens also produce heat during the night, and lay eggs first thing in the morning."

"All vegetables served in the kitchen are treated with concentrated ozone and a natural disinfectant made from grapefruit extract to kill bacteria. BSI's kitchen is safe for the most delicate of digestions. One of the goals of BSI is to increase onsite sustainable food production."

Energy conservation
"We only use compact fluorescent lightbulbs at BSI. Conserving energy is the first step towards converting to solar and wind power. In 1994, when we purchased the property, we were already connected to the electrical grid. Our goal is to get off the grid and showcase alternative energy technologies".
(note: as I write this entry, I am in rural Nepal, where 'load-shedding' (ie. powercuts) takes place for 8 hours of every day, country-wide, due to massive overloading of the supply. Many Kathmandu homes have invested in solar panels for water-heating, but how wonderful BSI's methods would be, transported halfway around the world. I hand write this entry by candlelight, in preparation for when I can next access a computer, outside of load-shedding hours - hr)

Tree planting, reforestation & forestation at The Black Sheep Inn
"When challenged by choices of how to manage our property, we found that our problems often became our solutions. Terracing can control erosion. All over the property we dug swales (water filtration ditches built along the contours of the land) and planted the lower side of them with native trees, bushes and shrubs. The purpose of these trenches/swales is to prevent erosion and water run-off inevitable on steep slopes. Trees are planted on the bottom side of the trenches so that the root systems help to hold the swales in place while 'drinking' the water that collects in the trench. Leaves and branches which fall into the swales provide valuable organic material and help build up and create soil. The Incas terraced with rocks because they had them in abundance."

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"The most common native trees planted at BSI are:
Capuli (Prunus serotina); Quishuar (Buddleia Incana); Samil (Rapanea Dependens); Yagual (Polylepes Incana); Pumamaqui (Orreopaanax spp); Racemosa (Polylepis Racemosa).
These have been interspersed with a few pine and cypress as well as Alder (Aliso), Black Walnut (Nogal) and Broom (Retana). We also have young fruit trees: apple, pear, tamarillo (tree tomato) and Black Cherry. We are experimenting with planting sub-tropical trees in microclimates, such as avocado, papaya, lime, tangerine and passion fruit."

Of particular interest is the next section from the BSI documents, especially to those of us who have noticed that Eucalyptus is an invasive tree which is making an appearance all over the planet, from its native Australia to Asia to Europe to North, South and Central America.
"The Eucalyptus trees which dominate the region were introduced to Ecuador in the late 1800s from Australia. We use Eucalyptus for construction and for firewood. We do not reforest with Eucalyptus. It can be invasive, taking over large tracts of land. It grows back like a weed from the same stump and seeds itself very easily. Eucalyptus leaves are highly acidic, damaging soils around the tree's base for years after it is gone. They also have long shallow roots that suck up all the water surrounding the tree. For these reasons, Eucalyptus makes good firewood that burns without much creosote build-up."

I could write a lot more about Andres and Michelle's life work in Chugchilan, but I think I've given some idea of the extraordinary and exciting challenge they set themselves 13 years ago. A place like The Black Sheep Inn is a lesson to us all, especially to those of us who want to 'tread lightly' and live sustainably, but cannot see our way to getting out of the system. Michelle and Andres started by jumping so far ahead of a virtually non-existent system that perhaps in one way their choice of underdeveloped location was an advantage. They are now ECO certified by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism and Ecuadorian Ecotourism Society as an Ecological Hotel. In 2006 they won an Ecolodge Award.
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Horse-riding (sort-of) above the BSI

I include the BSI's mission statement and vision:
"Black Sheep Inn aims to provide a comfortable, educational experience for guests, informing them about the local area, local customs and permaculture, while contributing to and improving the local community and the natural environment. Our goal is to be a leader in environmental stability and ecotourism. When guests first arrive and walk up our driveway, our goal is to surpass their expectations." (They not only surpassed mine, they made a life-long impression on me - hr)

Land, people and culture
"Historically, people and the land they live on are inherently tied together. Native american tradition believes that people cannot own land; in fact they believe the earth owns the people who temporarily live upon it. When starting BSI, it was the first time in our lives we owned property. We knew that we must care for the land if we wanted it to sustain us."
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"We believe it is important for people to maintain a connection to the planet that sustains them; to know where the foods they are eating come from; to value the resources they are consuming; to appreciate the different foods, art, music, buildings and ways of life around the world."
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"Everyone on earth lives in some type of community. The particular community and world we live in sustains us and therefore we must sustain them. We are neither fanatics nor purists, yet we have become conservationists. We respect our community and the earth. We choose to tread lightly whenever possible."
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To be clear about the criteria ecologically aware travellers should look for in hotels and other places claiming to be eco operations, Andy and Michelle have listed five facets which they feel represent true efforts at being ecological:
1) Conservation
2) Low impact or 'Green' hotels
3) Sustainability
4) Meaningful community involvement
5) Environmental education and interpretation

Some readers may be interested to know that BSI welcomes volunteers to live and work at the inn.
www.blacksheepinn.com

I finish this entry with a piece of advice from the inspired creators of The Black Sheep Inn, Chugchilan, Ecuador:
"We've only got one world: care for it. Tourist - Be Aware."
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Posted by Eleniki 23:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (1)

Moving on

Leaving La Hesperia

sunny 26 °C

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Reserve laneway

When I arrived at La Hesperia in September, the end of November seemed very far away - in fact I almost wondered if I had made the right decision when I chose to stay for 10 weeks. It ended up being 9, because I wanted to stay a week in the beautiful colonial town of Cuenca, taking spanish classes in a very good school there. But right from the start I had loved my temporary home, and as the weeks went gently by like the clouds drifting through the treescape outside my bedroom, I felt great sadness that my time was coming to an end in this extraordinary corner of the world, where time really stands still, and the landscape is constantly alive with the sounds of birds and insects.

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Tree beard
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Our veggie garden at La Hesperia

My last weeks in the reserve were tranquil, as my neck was acting up. I had elected to take over the medicinal garden after Marissa, my Californian friend, left. She was concerned that it would be cared for, after the weeks of nurturing she had put into the beds and the compost, and the research she had done on the plants themselves, in preparation for a new system of signs.

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So I had a project, which is something I enjoy, and, armed with Marissa's scraps of paper, I set about creating a logbook for the medicinal garden, with a map, lists of the plants' names, an updated diary of work carried out and future plans for the garden. With the help of a small team of volunteers, the beds were thoroughly weeded, the compost turned, a new pile made (I did love following the cows and the horses, to collect both dry and 'fresh' manure - picture that: me in the fields with my shovel and my sacks, being watched blankly by a herd of heifers), and the many empty places in the beds were filled with transplants from other sections of the garden. It was time to begin work on the new signs. These were to be hand 'crafted' (I use the term advisedly) from the only colours available in the work yard: white, red and yellow. Obviously, these 3 colours can combine to make other shades, but sadly, we had no blue. Still, I think we did ok.

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Once we were started, there was no stopping us - inspiration flowed, and the medicinal garden became fondly referred to as the medicinal 'gallery' for over a week, with the 'artists' working overtime every day.

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Even the garden's permanent resident seemed to approve.

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So, on my watch, the med garden was completed. It was a satisfying feeling - I even got Raul to cut the grass! Future ideas for the garden include a bench under the cypress tree, as it really is a calm and restful place.

For my last few days, I resumed everyday work in the nursery.

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The nursery, or vivero, is fundamental to the main object at La Hesperia: it is here we bring the collected seeds from the forest; here we plant the seeds in beds or in small bags, here the seedlings are planted on into bigger bags and brought on; and here the saplings are eventually transplanted to carefully chosen sites, or 'lineas' (reforestation lines) around the reserve.

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Chris working in the vivero

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The areas we are replanting were once used as a sugar cane plantation, and are therefore 'secondary cloud forest', ie. terrain that was deforested and reforested (an ongoing process in many parts of the reserve). The wonderful and increasingly unique thing about La Hesperia is that it comprises a significant amount of primary cloud forest, ie. virgin forest that has never been touched by the destructive force of the human hand and is vital to the survival of thousands of species of animal, insect and bird and plant.

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Caterpillar chain
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This forest is so dense and unknown that we never venture into it, for to do that would be to destroy parts of it. The old Yumba and Inca trails, which are still used today, avoid going into the real depths of the upper reaches of the cloud forest, following the ridge of the reserve only.
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The percentage of primary cloud forest left in South America

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But there is hope..

Meanwhile, there were many events which stand out in my memory of my last weeks at La Hesperia. We had another 'tremblor' - a stronger earth tremor than the first one I experienced. It happened on the same night as the Chile earthquake which measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, but apparently it was unrelated. I was in bed again as it was late, and this time it was as if somebody was shaking my bed quite roughly; the door latch rattled loudly and the volunteer house shook. This lasted for less than a minute, but was pretty scary.

Then Izaskun, Chris and I found a snake in one of the toilets when we were cleaning the bathrooms. She was hidden in the door frame, seeking out a dark corner - her markings were beautiful and she was small. As to whether she was venomous, the jury remains out - many smaller snakes are more poisonous than the big ones, but it seems that the shape of the head is an important factor when identifying a poisonous species.
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I of course felt the need to help the little creature find her way back to the safety of the undergrowth (remember, our bathrooms are outdoors), so, ignoring some bizarre advice to kill the snake (even if I´d wanted to, I couldn´t help wondering, with what?), I herded her towards the scrub with a brush handle.
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She was pretty quick - she was terrified of course - and after some further coaxing from under the sinks she slithered off into the greenery, accompanied by the screams of my wussy companions, who were not helping combat the reputation we women have when it comes to creeping, crawling things.

There were spiders too, some small, some really huge, although not as big as I think we will see in the rainforest. I had a small red spider friend who lived above my bed - I often wondered if she would try to drop in on me, but my net would have got in the way. But she was content in her own little net, and lived happily in her web for my entire time at the reserve. I liked to see her there, spinning away and catching the little flies she loved and I hated.

However, some spiders were more impressive in their appearance - I did find one about this size under my pillow one night, and was thankful I had made that last minute torch-check.
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She has quite large eyes and antennae - her torso is almost the size of a matchbox and her legs longer than our fingers

I often found Tarantula spiders when I was working in the soil, proving the point about wearing gloves (and rubber boots) at all times. They are shy, nocturnal creatures and like to snooze in warm cavities in the earth, so any digging would invariably dislodge one or two. They would scurry off as fast as they could, terrified. Again, our Tarantulas were small in comparison to those found in the Amazon, where they can grow to giant proportions.

I also had a bat who lived in the wall above my bed. The most unfortunate part of this arrangement was the havoc wreaked on my clothes and net by his droppings, which look almost identical to mouse droppings - you´d just find yourself wondering how a mouse could run so far up the wall, where my clothes hung. But I grew to enjoy the nightly visits, where our bat friend went several laps of the room, often hanging out on top of our nets awhile..

I suppose life on the reserve is not for the faint of heart. There were volunteers there who had a mortal fear of snakes and spiders, but they were there to confront these fears, which I thought admirable.

But there are so many things I will miss.
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Pacific Hornerids:cheeky birds who make the most awful racket
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Huge tree with trailing vines
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The first sugar plantation tractor, now a nesting place for wrens
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Lace moth
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No really, it´s a moth
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Giant cicada (see matchbox below)

I have loved my time here; have felt privileged to be part of this sublime place; have learnt so much and met so many wonderful people, who will be friends for life; but that time is over and it is time for me to move on.

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Primary cloud forest, La Hesperia

Posted by Eleniki 15:22 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (1)

La Hesperia

Head in the clouds

all seasons in one day 26 °C

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The cobbled path from the Quito/Santo Domingo highway winds steeply up from the small community of La Esperie. Once through the flowercovered stone archway, you enter a domain of abundant trees and humming birds, startlingly coloured butterflies and huge iridescent flying beetles, snakes and well-hidden monkeys. P1000483.jpg It was about half-an-hour's climb up to the reserve, I was told, and so I set out with determination, 20kg of pack on my back and front. A lot of weight, but the contents have to last me till May or June 2008, and I can leave some things behind when I leave here at the end of November.

Some 30 minutes later, I was wishing I had taken the advice of the volunteer coordinator in Quito, and left my backpack in the little shelter just inside the arch. It's not as high as Quito here in the western flanks of the Andes, but my body was still acclimatising and the afternoon heat and humidity was not helping me. When I thought my heart was bursting, I gave up the challenge and dropped my pack at the side of the path. Lighter physically and mentally, I went on up into the forest. At last I came on a welcome sign, with handpainted butterfly, and found myself approaching the hidden farmland and forest hacienda paradise of La Hesperia.
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Words cannot do justice to the beauty of this place. Months of research on where exactly to volunteer in South America have paid off, as this must surely be heaven on earth. P1000537.jpg There was nobody around that hot afternoon, and I later learned that every Wednesday at 4pm the volunteers take on the staff and local kids in a game of football at the reserve. Juan Pablo, the owner/manager, and his wife Alexandra were in Quito at an important meeting about a hydro-electric power plant planned for the area, and so there was nobody to meet me or to collect my pack. However, volunteers soon began to appear, and soon I was surrounded by friendly faces and began to feel at home. As darkness and the inevitable nightly downpours descended, there was concern about the stray pack, but this was later picked up in Juan Pablo's jeep, with me shining my torch out the window, desperately searching for it in the dense darkness and vertical rain of the selva.

Ten days later, I am part of La Hesperia's furniture (of which there is precious little). There were 16 volunteers when I arrived, but people come and go on a weekly basis, which is difficult, but part of the routine here. We are a truly international community of diverse ages, backgrounds and experience, but socially we work extraordinarily well together. I have made friends from Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, England, Norway, Germany, France, Denmark, Canada and the U.S. in the short time I've been here. P1000617.jpg

I share one of the smaller rooms with an English woman and an American student. P1000435.jpg The volunteer house is a five minute walk from the main hacienda and our kitchen and eating area. In the house we sleep, shower, do our laundry and generally hang out.

Everything here is semi-outdoors, so we are breathing pure forest air every minute of every day. There is only one jeep on the reserve, so there is no pollution. The walls of our house are half Cabuya fibre, half window, so the air constantly circulates in the rooms.
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The showers have ceilings, but little in the way of walls, and our eating area is the same. The kitchen, where we wash up after meals, is completely outdoors, with a shelter overhead. It's the most wonderful kitchen I've ever worked in. P1000500.jpgP1000513.jpg

There are three women who cook for us. Lolita, the main cook (yes, my cat's name - it's got to be good sign) cheerfully presents us with simple, mainly organic food (which I'm learning to grow in our fantastic veggie garden) three times a day. P1010295.jpg
I was never one for breakfast, at best grabbing a banana or apple to eat in the car on the way through the traffic, but here I'm hungry for our first meal at 7.30am, and starving by lunchtime. The work is hard, though the hours are short compared to my Dublin workday. The jobs change every day, so we get a chance to try everything. For the first two days, I worked in the veggie garden with Eleanor, my room mate, who knows a lot about organic and sustainable farming.
P1000627.jpg It was so interesting, and provided plenty of opportunity for hard labour too. The hoe is officially my favourite tool, but not your pathetic little city garden hoe - no, here we have real hoes; huge, strong handled implements with broad sheets of sharp metal to swing and uproot the ubiquitous 'devil weed' from the soft, brown, humus-rich soil. I love using the hoe - it acts like an axe too; can hack through thick wood.
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Another tool high on the popular list is the machete, although I have not used it yet. This is for the jungle, the selva, or forest.
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Last thursday, a group of seven of us walked up to the high forest reforestation lines (a 40 minute uphill hike just to get to work) and Raoul, Juan Pablo's right-hand man, started to carve a path through the under and overgrowth. When I say a path, you may imagine a level track through soft vegetation. Not so - this 'path' dropped straight down from the main track at an angle so alarmingly steep that if you slipped, you fell several metres, and the growth was mostly dense, hard wood with some bamboo (stems thicker than both my hands can encircle). Raoul is a superb machete man. He merrily swung and hacked his way down impossible, impassible terrain, drawing swiftly far ahead of the other macheteers until the only evidence of his whereabouts was his cheery whistle and melodious song. Raoul is 42, looks 35, is fit, slim, strong and healthy. Like his colleagues Pablo and his wife Freda, Raoul is always laughing and telling jokes, and I look forward to improving my spanish sufficiently to understand them, because they must be hilarious, judging by the Ecuadorians' reaction. I have conversation classes in spanish most days (4 dollars an hour) and speak as much as I can with the Ecuadorians, so, it's slowly improving.

Meanwhile back up the mountain, my job was to follow in Raoul's wake with my ridiculously heavy 'digger', a tool I have since fallen in love with and want for my little garden, although I know it would be sadly out of place. Having taken most of my energy just to carry the damn thing up to the tree lines, I was then expected to clamber and slide down this mountainside, avoiding overhanging branches and vines (perhaps with snakes or spiders, and yes, there are poisonous species a-plenty), taking extreme care not to trip and fall, or step on anything living, lug my digger, AND dig a perfect hole every five metres (the lads claim this is five steps; it is not five of my steps, so some confusion reigned). P1000636.jpgP1000649.jpgP1000546.jpg

The job is hard - first, find a level site (everything's relative and standards slipped after 30 minutes, but hey, this is Ecuador and things are gentle and laid back); clear the ground of creepers, weeds, small seedlings and other invasive species, making sure there is no fire-ants' nests around); then lift and poise the extremely heavy digger (basically two long wooden pole with two sharp conjoined metal spades facing each other at the end, and a mechanism for closing them when full of soil, to remove same); thrust it with all your might into the earth, clamp soil and release in mound beside hole. P1010387.jpg The joy of this, once started, is immense, because the soil is soft and clean and workable. After five or six minutes, you have a perfect, cleanly outlined hole, 2 feet deep, for the baby trees, raised from seeds in the nursery, to begin their new lives in the forest. And muscles - you have muscles too.

The idea is simple: clear invasive species and reforest with threatened species, carefully nurtured at La Hesperia. We plant a different tree in each hole, repeating only every six or seven holes, so biodiversity is encouraged as much as possible. The seeds are collected by volunteers too, so the process is a complete and wonderfully satisfying one.
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Having worked so hard that morning, I thought the afternoon would present an easy task, perhaps some pottering in the medicinal garden or collecting some green beans and basil for dinner. I was wrong. Eight of us went up to one of the high fields to roll dry scrub down the steep slope, where it will slowly decompose when covered with a light layer of earth, then can be used for fertilizing the same field. It was a searingly hot afternoon and the scrub was dry and dusty, so before long our eyes, noses, throats and mouths were filled with stinging dust. Between that, the heat and the bugs which persist despite copious quantities of Deet, we were completely shattered when the job was finished. The scrub had been cleared to grow a special tall skutch grass for the farm livestock. It may seem a little ironic that the farm has cleared land in an area of conservation, but firstly, this has been a farm for generations, and secondly, it is necessary to grow food to sustain the animals and hence the workers on this project. The bigger picture is happening, and I am glad to be even a tiny part of it for a tiny amount of time.
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Posted by Eleniki 08:15 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (4)

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