Sunday, June 24, 2012


Saturday morning started off with breakfast at seven so we could get on bus and get to airport for a 10 o'clock flight to Coca.  We arrived at the check in counter about 8:35 and quickly realized that our flight was now at 9 a.m. Who knows why the flight time changed.  We hustled through "security" and boarded the plane.  Our flight was about 25 minutes.  To travel from Quito to Coca by car would take nine hours. The Coca airport was very small and we quickly found our Amazon guide Libbio.  We loaded up in an open air bus and rode to the dock where our 16 passenger motorized canoe awaited.  We watched for about 30 minutes while the crew loaded everything up on this long skinny boat. Two 40 hp engines were attached to the back of the canoe.  As we waited at the dock Libbio took our  European shoe size so that rubber boots could be supplied….hmmmm…..what are these for?

I wonder how many people realize that the Amazon river can be very shallow?  I certainly did not…but 30 minutes into our five hour Amazon river canoe ride we were stuck.  Yes, our boat got caught in very shallow water and we were beached.  The crew jumped in the water and began to push us backwards looking for deeper water. It took 5 - 10 minutes to dislodge us. Finally free we continued on.  Every so often we would really slow down so the crew could look for the current to decide what route to follow. Our destination was 96 kilometers from Coca but there are no roads that lead here…only the river. 

About 30 minutes from our Amazon Dolphin Lodge the boat pulls over to a small dock in the middle of nowhere.  I young lady and two children come out and we pay a $10 per person fee to travel.  

The lodge that we stayed at for four nights is the farthest east on the Amazon.  No tourist cabanas are past us.  Our accommodations are typical for this area.  We stay in thatched roof, bamboo walled, generator supplied cabanas (lights from 6-9 p.m.).  We do have mosquito nets to sleep under.  This is a big improvement from Mindo where we had NO protection from insects.  In fact one day in Mindo I woke up and drowsily walked into bathroom to brush my hair…Holy cow! I had about 50-75 tiny red bites across my forehead. They did not itch but I looked like I had the measles.  Anyway, here we have other bugs but our repellent seems to be working and we are getting a break from all of the Mindo area biting. We do share out accommodations with lots of insects….I have seen the largest spider in my adult life living here amongst us. In fact once student, Callie, was taking a shower and down came this 4-5 inch spider.  They do not harm us other than giving us a heart attack when we first see it.

Our days are filled with walking in our rubber boots through the massive jungle or riding in our canoes looking for toucans, monkeys and caymans.  We have seen lots of interesting wild life but we have not been really close up for great photos. On our first jungle hike Libbio talked about the indigenous people of this area and how they survive.  He showed us plants used for medicine, palms leaves that he wove and could be used for roof, mattresses, camouflage from the jaguars, etc.  Very interesting hike and stories from Libbio.

But overall, my favorite experience was fishing for piranas. Libbio and the crew made each of us a fishing line attached to a piece of wood about six inches long.  How re we going to land a fish using this, I thought. We loaded up on three canoes. the big wooden canoe had an 8 hp engine attached to it ( I chose this boat ). The two lighter canoes were attached by rope to the big one and all three boats glided slowly across the laguna and over to the river. soon we were fishing, using beef for bait. I tossed my line overbaord and got a hit quickly and pulled in the first piranha of the day. It was about 8-9 inches but had grande teeth. Everyone in my boat caught piranhas (other boats were not so successful). Sam and Dennis, the boat captain, caught several big piranhas.  We had fresh fried piranhas for lunch. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

From the Jungle to the Beach

We all have long blog post to put on our blogs but we do not have wifi so we have to use a dialup computer in the lobby for internet. We are safely to the Galapagos Islands. We had an interesting and educational time in the Jungle. I will let you read details later when we get to post from our own computers.  We arrived here yesterday, took a long hike and ended up snorkeling in the lagoon...with lots of fish, sea lions....

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hummingbirds, hiking, helping

Days three and four, in Mindo, finds the group split into two.  One group will hike to the Las Tangaras, a biological birding missnetting activity and the other will hike to the waterfalls. Then we switch the next day.

The stay in Mindo is full of environmental and biological activities.  

We are starting day four in the Mindo village.  We are surrounded by hills and in the mornings very low lying clouds blanket the green canopy of trees and plants. By mid morning the clouds give way to blue skies….but only for a few hours.  The afternoons and evenings bring dark clouds and rain.  The group activities continue….my rain coat gets used every day. We spend part of every day having a session or two or three with Massimo.  Then we go out and practice newly taught photo skills on local subjects.  We travel by "taxi" (a white small pickup truck with special rails attached so that 8-14 people could stand and hold on).  Michael thought road surfing was fun and that he would like to do that everyday. I say road surfing because the roads are dirt and full of pot holes.  We bumped and jiggled along slowly… there was not a chance to fall because we were tightly compressed against eac other.

On day two we spent hours trying to take portraits of hummingbirds. Very difficult but so cool when we finally got a good photo.

The afternoon was spent taking photos of the town and highlighted by a surprize,special chocolate making class. 

In the evenings we bug hunt. Yes, we turn over leaves and look behind rocks to find the nocturnal insects and frogs waiting to be uncovered by us.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mindo, Massimo, Mariposas

The day started with a photo workshop with Massimo. After lunch we headed out for the Mariposas Reserve to take pictures and practice the photo lessons from the morning.  Lots of beautiful butterflies flew around but few enjoyed posing for their portraits.  However, the students managed to get some nice photos.  Then the next part of the day was the much anticipated white water tube ride.  We split into two groups, put on some wet and cold life jackets and boarded the tube raft.  The water was mucho frio. Heading down the river was exhilerating.  Having the ice cold water hit your body was breath taking. After getting completely drenched the body aclimated and the water did not seem as cold until the next dip and surge of water. The ride gave everyone a big adreneline boost.  Even those in the group who were a little nervous about the excursion had a fun time and felt good about conquering a fear.  We have seen this lesson several times like when Sarah Jane and Callie held giant beetles in the palm of their hands.

The internet is very spotty here.  When the students have free time in the evening is when they want to use it and it has not been working.  I get up earlier than the group and have some quiet time and have been able to connect. Speaking of getting up early....Massimo and Sam said they were going birding at sunrise this morning.  Last night when the students were invited to join them many said yes.  How many do you think got up today and went sunrise birding?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Visit to the equator and new destination Mindo

Madeline flew in late Friday and I was happy to see her join the group.  Luis cooked us eggs for breakfast and then we loaded up the bus and took off for Mindo.  Quito is so spread out that it felt like we were driving for an hour before we ever got out of the city. First stop, the equator monument.  Callie asked how wide was the actual equator line…this sparked interesting comments but in the end we did not know. However, a nice 3-4 inch wide yellow line was painted at the monument site and we spent lots of time sitting, standing, and laying on the two hemispheres.  We loaded back on the bus and drove through hills and valleys and saw the scenery change to the lush green cloud forest of Mindo.  Mindo is a small tourist destination village.  The big draw is birding.  It is said that more birds have been spotted in the Mindo area than any other place in the world.  You will need to verify this information yourself…this is just what I have been told.  Anyway, we drove through the small town area… the paved road ended and the dirt road to our Bambu Hotel began.  Up the muddy road was our destination.  Jorge, the bus driver, decided to back the bus up the very narrow, muddy road. About 100 yards up the road the incline was too much for the bus to handle and Jorge announced that he could not go any further. We needed to get our bags and walk the last 50 yards up the road to the hotel. All I could think of was how much fun I was going to have dragging my extra heavy rolling suitcase up the muddy road.  Others had the same problem but they are about 1/3 my age and 5/3's stronger…but we all made it.  Our accommodation is remotely situated.  We are in wood cabins.  The windows are unscreened with wooden doors. The lighting in the room is dim.  I have to use my flashlight to look for things. It feels like we are in the country.  I can hear insects talking like they did when I was a kid camping out on the Brazos river on a warm summer night.  The grounds are very green and the plants are overly healthy looking.  Lots of flowering plants add color. It feels like we are on an adventure, not a vacation even though there is a nice pool and hot tub. We spent the afternoon and evening walking to town, eating and having a big photo lesson with Massimo.  Massimo Bassamo is our Nat Geo photo expert.  I worked with him two years ago when we took this program to Tanzania.  He traveled 27 hours from Italy to come and work with us.  He is a great guy. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Day One in Quito

We are staying in a family run hostel some where in Quito.  This city in enormous. We got up and had freshly cooked eggs for breakfast maid by the hostel owner.  Our leaders Taylor and Sam made us order in Spanish.  The students are way better at that than I am.  Next we had a 2-3 hour orientation session and photo lesson. Then off to lunch. English is not spoken very much here so our lunch and dinners have been interesting. Let's just say I had corn nuts, pork skins and molassas soaked fruit for dinner.  Earlier in the day we took a tram up to 12,000 feet for a panoramic view of the city.  Quito is located at 9,000 elevation so what is 3,000 more feet when you cannot breath anyway. The views were grand and the students took lots of great photos.  There was a horse corral up in the mountains which also made for some interesting shots.  For our night time activity we went on a historical tour of the city with El Diablo as our tour guide. It was well done and very educational.  Now we are in our rooms trying to figure out who is showering when and how soon can we get in bed and get some rest.  The day way typical Nat Geo exhausting.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

So the summer blogging will begin again. I look forward to this  adventure with a new group of great students. We are not sure how often we will have access to upload to our blog. Our leaders, Sam and Taylor flew to Quito today and will meet us at the airport.  Both leaders have led this trip to Ecuador before. I hear the weather is cool and rainy today but better weather coming.  

Sunset on the Amazon

Sunset on the Amazon
We had some of the most spectacular sunsets. Our cabanas over looked Piranha Laguna. From our open air lodge you could see the most beautiful close to the day.

National Geographic Ecuador Group

National Geographic Ecuador Group
We gathered with Massimo (front and center) for a group shot before he had to leave us and return to Italy. We are all back in Houston now and have made many wonderful memories.

White water tubing

White water tubing
In freezing cold river water, our group loaded onto two tube rafts for an adventure ride. Lots of gasping for breath as the cold water hit the body, lots of screams as your tube raft headed into the rapids, and lots of smiles from everyone.

Watching and waiting for Hummingbirds

Watching and waiting for Hummingbirds
Biologist, Nicki, names some of the birds that we are trying to photograph.


Day four started with a ride across the canopy in the tarabita.

Bug Hunting Hikes

Bug Hunting Hikes
In the evenings, when it is not pouring down rain, we hunt along the road for nocturnal critters. It is quite entertaining to see the students excitedly looking under leaves and rocks. I would have to say that Callie and Madeleine Ham won the most critters found award for our time in Mindo.

Making Chocolate

Making Chocolate
As one drops the cocoa beans into the press the other pushes down and out come delicious chocolate. We had bananas, kiwis, apples, and pineapple to dip. We even had left overs....wish I knew where that tub of chocolate was.