Ken Archambault invited me to join him on a trip to Ecuador he had planned. Given his eccentricities I was hesitant but after giving it some thought I decided to join. Despite his atrocious behavior, I had a wonderful time on my trip and saw 298 new species of birds, lots of wild life, and met amazing people.
We flew to Quito, Ecuador on October 25 and stayed at the Hilton Colon. Ken complained so bitterly about the price of the hotel room that it was easier for me to just pay for his room as a birthday present. It’s the last present he will be receiving from me. On October 26 at 4:45 AM Jonas from WildSumaco came to the hotel and picked us up. He drove us to Yanacocha Trail at 11,500 feet in the Andes. My first bird in Ecuador was a Great Thrush as we drove up the mountainside to the trailhead. It started out sunny but soon the fog and drizzle moved in. It was bone chilling cold but worse than that were biting gnats that tormented us all day long. There were not that many birds on the trail and they were hard to see in the fog but I managed to add 29 birds on that first day. The trail is flat and ends at several hummingbird feeders were I saw Mountain Velvetbreast, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, and numerous Buff-winged Starfronlets as well as the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird that has a bill about five inches long. I briefly saw Blackish Tapaculo and Ocellated Tapaculo. The Rufous Antpitta and Tawny Antpittas called repeatedly but would never reveal themselves. When we could not bear the biting gnats any longer we returned to the trail head where I also saw the beautiful Shining Sunbeam hummingbird. Near dusk Jonas picked us up and took us back to the Hilton. On the way Jonas commented on how mean Ken was to me and also said that because Ken enjoyed McDonalds and Burger King so much and failed to see the hypocrisy of his contribution to the destruction of the rain forest, they should name one of the cattle farms at Sumaco after him.
The next day we flew from Quito to the revolting town of Coca, gateway to the Amazon basin on the Napo River. The Napo River flows into the Amazon River where it enters Brazil. Just was we were about to board the plane in Quito, Tame Airlines called Ken back to the check-in counter so they could open his bags. They wanted to look at an aerosol can of insect repellent he had. Actually I think they were getting back at him for having bags weighing 58 pounds when 40 was the limit. He was furious and cussed out a La Selva worker over the phone that his bags probably would not make it onto the plane. I was so embarrassed. We stayed in Coca just long enough to meet a boat from La Selva Lodge. We caught a boat down the Napo River for two and a half hours. It rained the entire time and eventually I was forced to huddle under my rain poncho. Once the boat arrived at the dock we then walked 800 meters on a boardwalk and then were canoed across a lagoon before finally arriving at the jungle lodge, La Selva. It continued to rain so we met our guide for the week, Jose, and just looked at birds from under the roof of the main lodge. There were many Sand-colored Nighthawks perched in a tree right next to the lodge. Yellow-rumped Caciques and Crested Oropendolas nested just above the sidewalk to the cabins. There were some common birds around the main lodge– the very bland colored Palm Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Violaceous Jay, Hoatzin, and Black-capped Donacobius, among others. We put our things into our cozy cabins before heading off to dinner in the eating area. The food at La Selva was fantastic. My only complaint about the lodge was that the coffee was not very good. After dinner I headed off to bed as every morning we got up before dawn to get the maximum bird sightings. By mid-day most birds were hiding from the blazing heat of the jungle. As I dozed off I heard Tawny Screech-Owl and Tropical Screech-Owl calling. They were my constant companions at night. My gnat bites from Yanacocha trail itched insanely and I was so glad I had prescription strength anti-itch cream.
October 27, 2011, someone came by my cabin and woke me up with a gentle knock and “good morning” at 5:00 AM. After breakfast, Ken, Jose, and I walked to a rickety tower that wrapped around a tree. The best way to see birds in the jungle canopy is from a tower and we saw plenty. Flocks of multi-colored tanagers, huge beautiful woodpeckers and tree creepers, cotingas and honeycreepers surrounded us. The highlights though were one White-browed Purpletuft and a Purplish Jacamar. We stayed in the tower until noon and then headed back for lunch. We took a break during the hottest part of the day and I took the opportunity to take pictures of the many beautiful butterflies around La Selva. As it was very hot I changed into a white t-shirt. At 4:00 PM we met Jose for an afternoon walk in the jungle. Jose heard a Rusty-belted Tapaculo. He asked Ken if he wanted to film it. Ken said yes so we took off into the jungle hacking our way through. Tapaculos are one of the bird species that do not want to be seen or filmed. We were very persistent and I eventually saw it. I knew Ken was dying to film it so I moved up the trail while Ken set up his gigantic video camera. The bird was flitting around very elusive and at one point moved up the trail toward me and Jose. We spent an hour tracking the tapaculo but Ken was not able to film it. So he started saying it was my fault because I wore a white t-shirt and to please not wear a white t-shirt. But he wasn’t just asking me; he was yelling at me in a very abusive manner. Then Ken said that he did not want to go to the Clay Lick the next day and that since I had not paid for a guide and only he, Ken, had paid for a guide, that I was not entitled to Jose’s services and would have to go by myself the rest of the time. Also he said he was not able to film the tapaculo because of me. I was furious. He yelled at me in front of Jose. Moreover, everything he was saying was a complete lie. While Ken was off traipsing around some other country when our balance was due, I took the trouble to wire transfer our balance to La Selva and Wild Sumaco. I said “Ken we both paid the exact same amount. I have the wire transfer receipts and can show you. Moreover, I am not going to the Clay Lick alone.” It was insane. You have to be canoed across the lagoon to go anywhere. How on earth would I even get there without Jose? The price of the La Selva Lodge included a bird guide. I deserved Jose’s services as much as Ken. Ken’s idea of birding though is that everyone should get out of his way because it is far more important for Ken to film a bird than for anyone else to even see it. At dinner another guest, Dana from Austin, who had flown down with us from Quito and ridden on the boat ride asked me about Ken’s strange behavior. I told her how he yelled at me in front of Jose and said that I was not entitled to use his services. Dana said that Ken was beyond eccentric. I was happy because I had seen 44 new birds in one day. Ken was just mad because it was his third trip to Ecuador and he had only seen four new species. He was very rude to the other guests at dinner. However, he did mention that he really wanted to see a Zig Zag Heron, a bird that many people come to La Selva to see.
October 29, 2011 as we were getting into the canoe with Jose to be rowed across the lagoon to go to the Clay Lick in the Yanisani National Park, Ken announced that he would be withdrawing from our planned trip to Mexico in March. I was so relieved. I have no intention of ever going anywhere ever again with that rude, hateful psychotic, selfish miscreant. Jose pulled the canoe over half way across the lagoon up to a Zig Zag Heron. I felt vindicated. He would not have seen it if we had not gone to the Clay Lick that day. After a short ride up the Napo River we came to a clay bank where three other boats were pulled up looking at parrots. The parrots come to the clay to clean their digestive systems. There were a lot of people so we continued on to a boat ramp and got out. We walked up a paved path to a canopy with chairs in front of a pool of water and a large clay wall. We could hear the parrots but none would come down. So after sitting silently for about 30 minutes we went for a walk and decided to check later. We walked up a steep hill and came across a Short-billed Antwren. While Ken was filming it he failed to hear Jose state that there was a female Wire-tailed Manakin also in the same tree. At the top of the hill was a Screaming Piha, a rather drab bird with a loud scream for a song. We saw some other birds and then walked back to the Clay Lick. Now there were hundreds of birds and about two dozen people under the canopy watching them silently. The canopy had a bare wood floor. Ken was mad that other people were there and stomped across the wood floor shaking it violently so as to disturb the other guests. Everyone turned around and stared at him. I was so embarrassed for him. It was very obnoxious but typical Ken behavior. No one is allowed to have fun and see birds unless he is filming them. After about 45 minutes the parrots and parakeets left and almost all the people except for one couple staying at Sacha Lodge on the opposite side of the Napo River. Jose had arranged to have our lunch delivered to us at the Clay Lick. Ken opened his and started complaining to Jose that it didn’t have any meat in it. Then he blamed me claiming that they got confused because I am a vegetarian. The couple from Sacha Lodge offered him their lunch. Later I heard Jose talking in Spanish to some of the other employees at La Selva about Ken’s rude behavior. That night we went owling with Jose but the owls ran away. We chased them all the way to the tower which we climbed in the dark but they went farther and farther into the night. A Great Tinnamou began calling as night descended. At dinner Dana asked Ken if he was pleased about seeing the Zig Zag Heron. He said no. She said but you announced that it was one of your targets. He just sulked and stormed away. Later I asked Ken about one of the parrots at the clay wall and he said he refused to look at them because he had seen them before.
October 30 Jose offered to take us to the Sand Island. Ken said his back hurt and he wanted to go to the tower instead. So Jose and I went alone up the Napo River to the Sand Island. On the way we saw Squirrel Monkeys and White-fronted Capuchins. After arriving at the island we walked across some quick sand to a wooded area and saw lots of neat birds such as Orange-headed Tanager, Little Cuckoo, Mottle-backed Elaenia, and Parker’s Spinetail. We spent an hour stalking a Black and White Antbird which Jose skillfully drew out so I could see it. After lunch and a break we went for an afternoon walk at 4:30 PM in the woods and saw a Neotropical Otter on a tree. Ken was mad because he didn’t see it. After dinner Dana and I went to the bar and had a few drinks. It was her last day. I was sad she was leaving because she had been my ally against the insane and abusive Ken.
October 31 our wake up call was 5:00 AM. After breakfast Jose showed me a Long-billed Woodcreeper in a tree behind the kitchen. Ken refused to look at it. Afterwards Jose took us across the lagoon and up the Napo River to Sendero Cinco- Trail Five. He brought a machete along and we just bushwhacked our way through the jungle. At the beginning of the trail I saw a small snake– a Fur de Lance. Ken asked me to show him where. I said where it was but he couldn’t hear me he said because I am soft spoken. The snake slithered away and Ken became furious because he had not been able to film it. He started yelling at me in a very abusive manner. We were all wearing rubber boots in order to tramp through the jungle. I wanted a picture of myself in my jungle outfit but Ken refused to take one. Jose’s English was not very good and it seemed too complicated to ask him. I stopped to take a picture and Ken and Jose took off without waiting for me. Ken started yelling at me that if I had been on a birding tour they would have asked me to go back to the dock and leave. This was very interesting coming from Ken, who had been kicked off a birding tour in Madagascar with Rockjumper Tours because he was so abusive to the other birders. His behavior was becoming more and more intolerable and even though I loved the jungle and was enjoying seeing all the new and beautiful birds he was ruining my vacation. I was not enjoying being yelled at every single day and blamed every time Ken was unable to film a bird. It was outrageous. In the jungle Jose found a Banded Antbird. Ken jumped in front of me and blocked me from seeing it. It just wasn’t worth it to me. In the scheme of things what difference does it make if I don’t see one bird? I just could not stand to have Ken yelling at me and trying to humiliate me in front of Jose. So I didn’t even try to see it. But Jose noting my frustration, motioned for me to come over to where he was and he showed me the bird. It was beautiful. Later Jose was trying to bring a bird in by playing the bird song on his ipod and Ken started playing a different bird’s song on his ipod. Jose looked at him with incredulity. Later Jose found this other bird, some kind of gnat eater. Jose yelled “stop” but Ken, who is 6’4″, jumped in front of me and knelt down with his camera blocking me from seeing the bird at all. I never saw it. I didn’t feel well that day anyway. The trail was full of large flocks of birds but I could hardly enjoy it due to not feeling well and having Ken treat me so abusively. When the last of the birds flew from the flock we were admiring, Jose’s son, Miguel showed up with our lunch. We were about to start eating it when Miguel said there was a Scarlet Macaw right over our heads. We got up to see it and Ken tried to get his camera on it but it flew away before he could. He said it was Miguel’s fault for making too much motion. I said, “but if it hadn’t been for Miguel pointing it out, you wouldn’t have seen it at all.” That night at dinner Ken said that he intentionally tried to prevent me from seeing the Banded Antbird. I was shocked. On the boat ride back from Sendero Cinco Ken said that I should give Jose a $200 tip. I said well that seems like a lot. The book says $10 a day is customary. Ken said that I should leave a tip for both of us. I said why would I do that when you have benefitted from him as much as I have ? He didn’t have an answer. He is insane. I’m not leaving a tip for him especially after how abusive he had been. My feet hurt from standing all day. After resting in my cabin I went to the bar to get a drink. Bernardo, the bar tender was there. I mentioned that I was surprised that I had not had chocolate or bananas since arriving in Ecuador. He said that we had had chocolate the night before in the mouse but I didn’t have any because it had milk in it. He said he would tell them in the kitchen to fix me something special. During dinner it came out that Ken had seen an Ash-throated Gnateater. I had no idea because all I saw was Ken’s butt. I was shocked. There was a new visitor from Australia, Maryln. Ken didn’t like her. After dinner the servers came out with a big bowl of bananas with chocolate all over it just for me. It was so good and I was so touched that they had made it specially for me. I said thank you and how good it was and Ken got mad and stormed out of the eating area without even telling anybody good night. The other guests were shocked at his rudeness to them.
On November 1, 2011 Jose, Ken, and I walked behind the tower at La Selva. We saw a Black-faced Antbird and White-chested Buffbird. Ken became outraged that I had been able to videotape the antbird and began yelling at me to stay back. He complained that because I was wearing a white shirt he was not able to film the birds when in reality the birds flew when he moved his lanky arms to change from his long lens to his short lens. He told Jose, “can you believe she cost me two birds already this morning?” Then he turned to me and said out of the blue, “all you care about is getting drunk and picking up women.” Then he said, “all I care about in the world is filming birds and you are ruining my trip by inviting yourself here and preventing me from seeing and filming birds.” If I had had a gun I would have just shot him right there. I remembered a story Ken often told me about going on a birding trip when one of the other guests tried to kick Ken’s camera over. I could totally understand. I’m surprised that any tour group will allow that mentally ill bothersome twerp to go on any trip with other guests. Ken’s idea of birding with a group is for everyone to get out of his way and stand stock still while he films all the birds and you look at his hunchback. We went to the lagoon but Jose’s son, Miguel, who was supposed to pick us up on a canoe never showed up. Ken again complained that the lens on my video camera was too big and bright, that my glasses were reflecting sunlight and scaring the birds and recommended that I ditch them for contacts, my watch was too big and scaring birds (even though we were in the jungle and usually never even saw sunlight). Then he called me a “fucking asshole” right in front of Jose and most bizarre of all said that I must have had a miserable childhood and been very unhappy. Actually I had a very good childhood and have many fond memories of spending hours in the woods behind my parent’s house with my siblings. The only reason I can think of that he would make such outlandishly false statements is that he was projecting about his own bad childhood when he was abandoned by his father. While waiting for Miguel who never came we saw a White-chinned Jacamar and a Spot-backed Antbird. After lunch and a rest we went back to the tower at 3:00 PM. The activity was not nearly as good as in the morning but I had my best sighting of the trip when Jose pointed out a Lanceolated Monklet to me. It was perched in perfect lighting and I saw it and filmed it well.
November 2, 2011 we took a boat up the Napo River to the banks where Jose’s family lives. A mixed flock of Aracari’s flew into a tree. Some of them were Chestnut-fronted Aracari’s. Later we cut through the jungle with a machete and stalked a White-lored Antipitta. Ken yelled at Jose for not stopping the tape fast enough when the antpitta came out into the open and Ken was not able to film it. We heard a Black-throated Antbird and saw the beautiful Green and Rufuos Kingfisher and a Sunbittern. At 3:00 PM we went to Mandacocha Lake. We spent far too long stalking a Rusty-belted Gnateater that never revealed itself and ended up running in the forest to the lake. I tripped on a root and slammed my other knee right into a protruding root. The pain was intense and I collapsed on the ground screaming in pain. It was not serious though and we continued to the lake where we saw a Common Potoo and a Sun Grebe. That evening at dinner they told us to pack our bags and be at the lagoon dock for a 6:00 AM departure the next day.
November 3, 2011 I packed my bags and went to the lagoon as instructed at 6:00 AM but Ken wasn’t there. Some other guests came and said they saw Ken with his tripod and backpack headed for the tower. And there he stayed until 9:00 AM. Everyone else left for their excursion. I asked the workers to get him but he just refused to come down. Finally at 9:00 AM after I had been sitting there at the dock with nothing to do for three hours “His Highness” as one of the other guests took to calling him showed up acting like everyone was sad to see him go. He started saying in Spanish “I’ll see you all soon.” Then he turned to Marcellino and said pointing to me, “es loca.” In reality all the workers and guests commented to me that they felt he was unstable and needed to be institutionalized. When we arrived back at Coca the driver from Wildsumaco asked why we were three hours late and Ken had the nerve to say the boat had mechanical problems. I had had it with that monster. I refused to get in the van and checked into the La Mision Hotel instead. That evening at the suggestion of Lonely Planet Guide to Ecuador I walked over to the Auca Hotel for dinner. While waiting for the restaurant to open a little punk snatched my iphone out of my hand. I ran down the street after him and stupidly yelled for the police. They were more than happy to oblige. The thief threw the phone on the ground and the police picked it up and refused to give it back to me. No one spoke a word of English. The police officer, Oscur Ruedo, assured me that it was the law of Ecuador that they confiscate my phone as evidence and that I must return the following day to testify. The next day I found out it was a five day national holiday. I was a target. The police tried to steal my passport and they already had my phone. I had to get out of there fast before I became a “Disaparaceda.” I was fortunate to get my passport back. I had to call him from the front desk since the phone in my room didn’t work. When I came back the maid had come to clean up. She came in the room and called me “cabrone.” Then she strayed some chemical very near my head. Later I discovered that she has also stolen my sandals.
Friday, November 4, 2011 I called Oscur Rueda three times and each time he fed me some song and dance about the judge having my phone and how the trial would be that afternoon. No one at the front desk of La Mision Hotel would help me arrange a taxi to Wildsumaco. As much as I did not want to be around Ken I had no choice. I had to get out of Coca before I was killed or raped or worse. I hired a nice taxi driver to drive me to Wildsumaco and pick me up on November 10. I could not understand his Spanish very well as he spoke very fast and spoke no English but we got by. He told me he lived in Coca and wanted to pick up his son on the way out of town to join us as it would be his first vacation. As we passed through Loreto he pulled the taxi very close to an outdoor grill where meat was cooking and rolled down the window to smell. The sun went down before we arrived and I was frightened at times that the tiny tires on the taxi would pop as we wound our way up the steep gravel road to Pacta Sumaco. Finally after two and a half hours I arrived and gladly paid the driver– the only nice person I met in the whole horrible town of Coca. When I walked in the lodge Ken had a look of shock on his face. Did he think I was just going to go home? I had an awkward dinner at the Lodge at Wildsumaco as Ken and I were the only guests.
Saturday, November 5, 2011 it rained off and on all day. Wild Sumaco Lodge sits at about 4000 feet on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The land sits on a reclaimed cattle ranch so part of it is second growth rain forest and part disturbed. Across the street Wild Sumaco leases land to ranchers still raising cows. The road past the lodge goes all the way up Vulcan Sumaco where adventurous hikers can hike the 3732 meter volcano. The lodge maintains several graded trails that have been laid with gravel or boardwalks so that rubber boots were not needed. They also have a large deck that looks out over some cycropia trees and other fruiting trees that attract flocks of tanagers and other birds. On a clear day which is rare there you can see the snowy summit of Antisanna high in the Andes. The highlight of Wildsumaco though are the numerous hummingbird feeders just off the deck that can be viewed even on a rainy day from underneath the extended roof and that draw fourteen species of hummingbirds. There are also ten more feeders hanging one km down the road. After breakfast I was standing on the deck when a bright red Andean Cock of the Rock appeared in the cycropia. Jim, one of the owners and the person who met us at Coca, gave me a trail map and started me off. We heard a Little Tinnamou calling and saw the bee sized Gorgeted Woodstar hummingbird in the flowering bushes. I walked up the road to the F.A.C.E. trail. I saw many birds I couldn’t identify. They were much easier to see than in the jungle because the canopy is much thinner here. As I walked down the trail I spotted a large bird standing on the trail with a white back– the Gray-winged Trumpeter. It started raining so I returned to the deck to film some hummingbirds. A Japanese birding guide showed up with his guest. We saw a gorgeous male Wire-crested Torntail hummer. After a while they left to go to the lower feeders which is the only place you can see the Andean Piedtail hummer. They came back in 30 minutes and said that some weird tall guy was down there who told them they had to leave because they were bothering him. The Japanese guide came back outraged and complained to Bonnie. Later Ken lied and said he told them there was plenty of room and to please join him. I had a great day and added 34 new species to my life list. Unfortunately I developed a bad case of chiggers and was also bitten by another spider on my hip.
Sunday, November 6, 2011 I left the lodge at Wildsumaco after breakfast and walked down to the lower feeders where I saw the Ecuadoran Piedtail and many other beautiful hummingbirds, pigeons, and Seed finches. However, it was painstaking to remember the field marks and look the birds up later in the book. I needed a guide. I only added 18 new species.
Monday, November 7, 2011 it rained all night long and into the morning but I got up for 5:30 AM breakfast anyway and afterwards went for a long walk to the waterfall trail. It was a beautiful trail. After a while a flock came and I saw the White-backed Fire-eye the beautiful Ornate Flycatcher, and the cute Common Tody-flycatcher. In the afternoon Bonnie finally arranged for a guide, Manuel. He spoke no English but was very kind and carried my camera and tripod and knew the bird songs well and the names in English. We went to the F.A.C.E. trail at the suggestion of Bonnie. Ken was there but when he saw us coming he put his camera away and harrumphed off. He went to the lodge and lied and told Bonnie that I walked in front of him while he was filming. She had the nerve to tell me to choose a different trail from him next time! As if I know where he is going. I haven’t spoken to him since his assanine antics at La Selva when he refused to come down from the tower. We heard an Ochre-breasted Antpitta and White-tailed Anthrush but couldn’t get them to come out despite Miguel’s valiant efforts. Mercifully two new guests arrived, Howard and Amy. Their son graduated from Clemson.
Tuesday, November 7, 2011 I again used the guide Miguel. We walked the Lodge Loop and saw a Lined Forest Falcon and then the Benavides Trail where we had jaw dropping looks at the Ochre-breasted Antpitta. Later a White-crowned Tapaculo practically walked over my foot it was so close. We also came across a Band-bellied Owl with an owlet. After lunch we walked the F.A.C.E. trail again where we saw the beautiful Crimson-crested Woodpecker and a Short-tailed Anthrush with three chicks! The Spotted Nightingale Thrush called repeatedly but would not reveal itself. Two new guests arrived Alison and Jonas from Connecticut.
Wednesday, November 8, 2011 I went with Miguel to the Coopman’s Trail to stalk the elusive but bizarre White-tipped Sicklebill hummingbird that does not come to feeders because the bill is so severely curved it cannot get into the holes and instead visits flowers. We waited about 30 minutes but finally one came and I saw it very well placing its long bill into the flower. Wow. We also saw a Yellow-throated Bush-tanager and the very elusive Yellow-throated Spadebill and from the deck a Golden-collared Honeycreeper. In the afternoon I walked by myself since it was raining again. I tipped Miguel well for showing me some fantastic things. I walked the entire waterfall trail and Piha trail before returning for dinner. Wildsumaco’s manager, Christina, was there. She was going to drive us back to Quito the next day.
Thursday, November 10, 2011 I was getting anxious to get away from Ken. It was becoming tiresome trying to avoid him and having to listen to his crazy talk to Bonnie. I told Bonnie I wanted to leave first thing in the morning but Jim said some guests were coming and since neither one of them spoke Spanish they needed her there to interpret for them and wouldn’t be able to leave until 9:30. I said great I would like to leave at 9:30. But when I returned to the lodge to pack Bonnie said she told Ken we could leave at 11:00 AM. I think she actually liked him even though he had caused Jim to wait three hours for us at the dock at Coca and had insulted two of her other guests and run them off of the lower feeders. I was outraged. I couldn’t wait to get away from him and them. I will never stay at Wildsumaco again. I didn’t like the cows, the noisy trucks going up and down the road from Parque Nacional Sumaco, and how I was being jerked around on our departure time to please Ken! Finally at 11:30 AM Christina, Ken, and I loaded into a truck and drove four hours to Quito. The road is very beautiful and crosses the 13,500 foot Papallacta Pass. Finally we arrived at the Hilton where I said goodbye to Christina and finally the odious Ken. Near midnight my sister, Sharon, finally arrived.
Friday, November 11, 2011, we walked from our hotel all the way to Old Town. I saw an Eared Dove in Alameda Park to add one new bird for the day. I was too afraid to take my binoculars out into town so I couldn’t tell what the other birds up in the trees were. After being robbed in Coca I was not about to have my binoculars stolen in Quito a day before Galapagos. We walked the narrow Colonial Streets with their quaint shops. Then we visited Basillica Del Voto a huge church with stained glass and iguanas and turtles for ornaments. Next we walked to Plaza San Francisco Monastery, the oldest building in the city completed in 1534. It housed a collection of ancient religious paintings and statues in Museo San Franciscano and had the most ornate altar I have ever seen.
Saturday, November 12, 2011, we flew from Quito to San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands. From the tiny airport we were met by our guide, Rafael, and driven to a boat dock and then boarded our home for the next week, the 147 foot long M/Y Grace. After a short briefing we were driven in a zodiak to shore and took a walk along Playa de Oro where we saw the first of Darwin’s finches, the Small Ground Finch and the Medium Ground Finch, two week old Galapagos Sea Lions, Lava Lizards, and Sally Lightfoot Crabs. There was one Lava Heron but I could not add it as a new species because Rafael said it is actually a subspecies of the Striated Heron I had seen at La Selva. After our walk we headed back to the boat and set sail for Genovesa Island. As we headed away from San Cristobal Sharon and I scanned the water and saw White-vented Storm-Petrels, Great Frigatebirds, Galapagos Brown Pelicans (which DNA testing has confirmed to be a separate species), Galapagos Shearwater, and Galapagos Petrel. That evening we met the whole crew including our wonderful hotel manager, Deborah, and the great bar tender, Glenda. We continued sailing all night in order to be at Genovesa by morning. Unfortunately the engine is very loud and I was not able to sleep well. The rocking of the boat didn’t bother me but even a pillow and ear plugs could not keep the engine noise out.
Sunday, November 13, 2011 we visited Darwin Bay after breakfast. We had a dry landing at Phillips Steps and saw Galapagos Mockingbird, Large Ground Finch, Vampire Finch which obtained its name from sucking off of other creatures and out over the water Wedge-rumped Storm Petrels, Red-billed Tropicbirds.
We walked right up to Nazca Boobies and Darwin’s favorite food on the island, Galapagos Doves. After enjoying all the birds we went snorkeling. It was incredibly cold even with a wet suit so no one could stay in for longer than 30 minutes even though it was wonderful to swim with all the beautiful bright colored fishes including Mexican humped fish and Parrotfish among many others.
In the afternoon we visited Darwin Beach where we walked right up to Red-footed Boobies and their chicks, Large Ground Finches, Lava Gulls, Swallowtailed Gulls, Genovesa Mockingbird, and Granti Warbler Finch. After our walk Sharon and I kayaked back to the Grace. It was Sharon’s birthday and the crew brought out a cake after dinner and sang happy birthday in English and Spanish.
Monday, November 14, 2011 we had sailed all night to land in the morning on Isabella Island, the largest of the chain. We awoke to a pod of Bridys Whales. After breakfast we walked to Tagus Cove to Darwin Lake a curiosity that has no outlet but has a higher salt content than the Pacific Ocean. On our walk we saw Galapagos Flycatcher, Flightless Cormorant, and Galapagos Penguin. Then we took a zodiak ride past a wall with bright yellow corral. Later we again went snorkeling. While snorkeling a Galapagos Penguin flew right under us inches away. The water was 19 degrees celsius. Burr!
After lunch we visited Fernandina Island which is across the bay from Isabella and saw hundreds of Marine Iguanas standing guard of the beach. There was a Galapagos Hawk in a tree. Back at the boat I jumped in the water and went for a swim around the boat before we set sail.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011 we awoke at Urbina Bay where we took a short walk and found a juvenile Giant Tortoise and one Land Iguana. The Land Iguanas are more shy than the marine iguanas we had seen previously. They would let you get close enough to blow salt water out of their nostrils and into your hair but the Land Iguanas were much more wary. As we returned to the beach to board the zodiak we found two juvenile Galapagos Hawks one eating a lobster that let us get very close. We boarded the Grace and sailed to Punta Vicente Roca where we had the most amazing time snorkeling. The water was slightly warmer allowing longer time in the water which was nice because as soon as we got there we found two Sunfishes. We tried for photos but decided it would be more fun to actually swim with the sunfishes. Rafael was very excited and said divers lived to swim with sunfish and that we were very lucky to have found them. There were many Galapagos Sea Turtles as well and some swam right up to my face which was very exciting for me. But the most exciting, one of the most exciting things of the whole trip was when a Pacific Manta-ray came within feet and turned its huge body toward me almost touching me. I was a little bit scared but later Rafael said they only eat plankton. There were also some puffer fish and many White-banded King Angel Fish. Wow what a day!
Wednesday, November 16, we landed at Bartolome Island and hiked to the Bartolome Summit for stunning views of Pinnacle Rock. Afterwards we went snorkeling. As soon as we got in Rafael found a White-tipped Reef Shark down in the rocks. He touched its tail and made it swim toward us. How exciting. It was an incredible experience. When we got out of the water the wind on the boat made it uncomfortable so we jumped in the hot tub on board to warm up. Glenda was always there to greet us on board with some fresh squeezed juice. Then we sailed to the refueling area which took quite a while and allowed me to finish my book while lazing on deck. In the afternoon we sailed to Bachas Beach, a small but pretty beach with two lagoons behind it, to look for Flamingoes. They weren’t there. It was the first day of my entire trip to Ecuador that I did not see a new species of bird. I had told Rafael on the first day that I had seen 265 bird species by the time I arrived in Galapagos and that it was a goal of mine to reach 300 before I left. In looking over the potential species there (and there aren’t that many birds in Galapagos) we both agreed that it would be extremely difficult and probably impossible but he said he would do his best. He told me that he was an ornithologist and had studied birds on the Faralone Islands off the coast of San Francisco for a month. I looked over my book trying to see what was possible. We both agreed that the crake and the Galapagos Rail would be very difficult if not impossible. He 100% guaranteed a Cactus Finch though.
Thursday, November 17, we landed at Rafael and Glenda’s home town, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island. There is a bustling city there full of tourists, internet cafes, restaurants, and hotels. In the morning we visited Charles Darwin Station to see the captive breeding program for Giant Tortoises. The little tiny ones were so cute. At the station Rafael found a Cactus Finch just as promised. Afterwards we wandered around Puerto Ayora looking for souvenirs and getting some much needed exercise. All that eating, eating, eating was developing into a bulge around my mid section. At 11:45 we caught a bus in town that drove us up to the “highlands” to Primicias a ranch where you can get close and personal with wild Giant Tortoises. First we met Glenda there and they served us a delicious lunch of fresh fish and fresh fruit. Then we walked around looking at these ancient creatures. As I was trying to get a picture Rafael yelled for me to come over and low and behold there was a Paint-billed Crake! Holy Cow. I had written that one off. Then incredibly a Galapagos Rail flew up. Oh my god. What a day. Rafael also showed me a Small Tree Finch there. After enjoying all the tortoises we drove a little bit farther to visit a lava tube and still later two giant sink holes where Rafael found a Woodpecker Finch and a Warbler Finch to bring my daily total to six new species. I was getting very close now at 295. We returned to the boat and sailed all night.
Friday, November 18 we awoke at the best island of all and Rafael’s favorite, Espanola Island. After a delicious breakfast we landed on Punta Suarez and went for a walk where I saw Large Cactus Finch and Hood Mockingbird. Finally I was able to walk right up to the beautiful Blue-footed Booby. But the best sighting of the day and indeed the entire trip was to sit within feet of two Waved Albatrosses performing their bizarre mating dance. What a treat. Joy rapture. It was something I will never forget my whole life. We all walked back to the boat as if stunned. Everyone had been effected. After lunch we went snorkling. The water was nearly tolerable but we didn’t see anything exciting like sharks or sunfish, just some colorful fish and one swimming Sea Lion. Then we sailed to Gardner Bay where we walked on a gorgeous white sand (actually ground up coral) before returning to the boat for our sail back to where we began. That night Rafael bought some fresh lobster which the cook prepared for us for dinner which was fabulous. That evening we sat in the lounge drinking with the four British people. Glenda came in and put on a Spanish song that she lip sinked and danced to. It was hilarious.
Saturday, November 19 we said goodbye to our wonderful staff. I hugged Glenda goodbye and we got in the Zodiak which would take us to San Cristobal. As we loaded up the zodiak Glenda stood on deck waiving goodbye. The zodiak driver said to her in Spanish, ” are you going to cry?” When we landed Rafael called over a taxi for me and we drove up a dirt road a few kilometers until he heard a bird singing. We got out and saw the Chatham Mockingbird which brought me to 298 birds! Wow. Incredible. So close to 300 which seemed so impossible when I got to San Cristobal a week earlier. After visiting the Galapagos National Park Visitor Center we drove to the airport and then flew back to Quito for our return to the US. It had been an unforgettable trip. I will never forget all the great wildlife sightings, beautiful birds and beautiful scenery of Ecuador but most of all, all the wonderful people I met like Rafael and Glenda, our fantastic guide Jose, kind Miguel, my guide at Wildsumaco, and the sweet bar tender at La Selva, Bernardo and Victor. They all made getting over the shock of the robbery in Coca by the Coca Police easier,getting over the abuse of Ken earlier in the trip, and made the whole experience of Ecuador such a pleasure.