Quito view. Photo by Ben Tavener

A view across Quito on a sunny day. Photo by Ben Tavener.

If the breathtaking flyby as you land in the undulating, mountainous valley speckled with colourful houses doesn’t make you twig, the lack of oxygen in the air as you climb the steep, narrow streets near the Basilica of the National Vow will certainly leave you in no doubt that the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, is the world’s second highest capital city.

View from Quito Basilica over the Old Town and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

View from Quito Basilica over the Old Town and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Sat in a so-called ‘dry’ valley at over 2,800 metres (9,200ft) above sea level, and also known as La Ciudad de los Cielos (The City of the Heavens), Quito was founded by Spanish Christian invaders in 1534, and barely a day goes by without rain.

As far as tourists are concerned, the main city is split largely into two. First, the Old Town – which is all about old buildings, cathedrals, churches and the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary set up on a small hill in the middle of the valley – El Panecillo.

The Old Town has all the hallmarks of that charming Latin American colonial feel you can also find in places like Salvador in Brazil.

Colourful architecture can be found here in the Old Town, and also dotted around in the favela-esque areas on the steeper parts of the valley (- also reminiscent of Salvador).

The centre of the Old Town, Independence Square is bordered by the country’s main governmental building and the Metropolitan Cathedral and pretty streets that just beg to be wandered up nonchalantly.

The streets are a mixture of old and new: cafés, bakeries and second-hand book shops on one side, and mobile phone shops, fashionable boutiques and fast-food outlets on the other.

The Old Town, Quito, photo by Ben Tavener.

The Old Town, Quito: Colonial colours and the criss-cross of narrow streets are a cheery sight, even on one of Quito’s many rainy days. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The Old Town is wonderful just to walk through – guidebook in hand or left haphazardly on your bedside table.

There is fantastic architecture and a lively street atmosphere with people selling things all over the place – food, jewellery, souvenirs. Quite simply, there’s a real buzz to the place.

Taking a look inside Quito’s Basilica of the National Vow – which was built around the turn of the 20th century – is well worth it. $1 will get you inside, and $2 at the south entrance will get you access to the Basilica towers.

Although the ascent is by very steep, not overly safe-looking ladders, the stunning views of the Quito valley make it totally worth it.

Quito and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Quito Old Town, leading to the city’s towering silver Virgin Mary statue – known locally as El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Although many guidebooks warn about pickpocketing and bag-slashing, the usual vigilance will probably see you through unscathed – and taking a taxi (they’re really cheap) after dark is always recommended, rather than taking a bus that’s full to bursting – public transport and crowded places is where the opportunists like to strike.

The second part of Quito to which tourists gravitate, to the north of the Old Town and across a number of attractive parks, is the New Town – the city’s Soho: bars, clubs, and chock-full of gringos (Western foreigners), with the Mariscal Sucre region sometimes known by locals as “Gringolandia” for that reason.

If you like partying, this is the place for you. It’s also where many of the hostels and hotels are located, suiting a variety of budgets – from $10 a night to over $150, depending on whether you wish to leave with all your possessions or not. (I opted for a $40 a night option and did.)

The area is perfectly safe during the day, but take taxis at night – even if it’s just a 10-minute walk. Further north of the Mariscal area, you’ll find La Carolina Park, which is perfectly nice in its own right, but also houses Quito’s beautiful Botanical Garden – which at $3.50 is definitely worth a look. Its orchid gardens are sublime – and those in Ecuador for the wildlife might well tick off another few species in this city haven.

A cloudy day at the western edge of the Pichincha volcano, which sits at 4,700m. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Located 25km south of the Equator – giving Ecuador its name, of course – Quito’s 2.5 million-strong population sits next to the Pichincha volcano, or to be more accurate, stratovolcano.

Yes, it’s still active – last erupting in 1999 and showering the city in a small layer of ash. For those you want to get closer to the volcano (who wouldn’t?), in 2005 Quito built the TelefériQo (with a cheesy Q, pinched, of course, from ‘Quito’) – a gondola lift that will take you up to just shy of 4,000 metres above sea level, to the western edge of the Pichincha volcano – the Rucu (“Old Man”) – and least volcanically active part of the volcano.

Another 4km hike will take you up to the rim of the volcano – but a lack of time, and hitting the cloud after about 1.5km, meant we weren’t to conquer it that day. Next time!

Quito TelefériQo, photo by Ben Tavener.

Quito’s TelefériQo takes you up to nearly 4,000 metres above sea level and provides spectacular views across the city valley. Photo by Ben Tavener.

It takes around 3.5 hours at a steady pace, and bearing in mind the reduced oxygen levels, you should be vaguely fit to do it, and I’ve seen a number of warnings not to attempt it on your first or second day in Quito – let yourself acclimatise properly first.

But the view, even from the top of the TelefériQo is absolutely worth the US$8.50 foreigners pay to get up there and back.

The grasslands at the top make up the special high-altitude Páramo habitat – home to some unique species, particularly birds such as plumbeous sierra-finch and stout-billed cinclodes – which can be easily seen on the pathways.

Things to do at the top: sample the extra-oxygen-filled shops; if you’re feeling lazy – take a horse ride up the hill; take a picture with an alpaca; visit the new high-altitude chapel, or perhaps hire and bike and fly back down the hill on two wheels.

To the north of Quito lies the Mitad del Mundo – Quito’s fairground dedicated to its fortunate latitudinal positioning. A mixture of parlour tricks showing water spinning one way to the north and the other to the south of the Equator line (which scientists will tell you is probably faked, as the Coriolis effect doesn’t have that big an influence on the quantity of water used in the fairground’s “experiments”) and a big Equator line monument (which was actually erroneously placed 240m away from the real Equator line) and that’s an hour’s drive both in and out of Quito, and a few dollars, wasted. I didn’t bother.

Much more my bag, and a feasible day trip from Quito (on the list to do next time) is Ecuador’s best-known and second highest volcano, which can be seen on a clear day from Quito itself – Cotopaxi, which stands just shy of 5,900 metres (approx. 19,350 ft) above sea level:

Cotopaxi volcano, as seen from Quito on a clear day

Cotopaxi volcano, as seen from Quito on a clear day. Photo from

By the way, when talking about prices in Ecuador, I’m not translating into US dollars from a local currency.

Ecuador has been using the dollar officially for some time, after it underwent “dollarization” in 2000 following many years of unofficial use and economic turbulence. And that’s not the only good thing for US travellers, they use the same plugs as in the US – and triband mobile phone system.

And with flights from American cities starting from around $500 (as opposed to $2000 from Europe), it’s no wonder that Americans make up the bulk of visitors who come to Quito, Guayaquil – Ecuador’s biggest and more industrial city on the coast, and, of course, to the Galápagos.

Quito is great to visit as a group or alone – you’ll most likely make friends at some point, as friendly, gregarious single travellers aren’t hard to come by.

Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

In my mind, the Galápagos Islands had always been one of those mystical, far-off places that only biologists and film crews go to to make documentaries. 

A thousand kilometres off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the archipelago – also known as the Colón Islands – is now visited by thousands of tourists each year in search of that unique feeling of being able to walk up to a species of bird or reptile and have it not run away but actually eyeball you right back.

Ever since I was about six or seven, I remember knowing about the islands – seeing something on the TV about giant tortoises, marine iguanas and birds with the name “booby” (the blue-footed boobies are the biggest joke on the island and the inspiration behind a lot of the souvenirs there).

Just 70 individuals of this species of Giant tortoise were rescued by helicopter when the Sierra Negra volcano erupted in 2005. Now, they're mating in captivity on the island to bolster numbers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Just 70 individuals of this species of Giant tortoise were rescued by helicopter when the Sierra Negra volcano erupted in 2005. Now, they’re mating in captivity on the island to bolster numbers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

But my determination to one day go there was cemented by David Attenborough’s 2008 nature documentary Life in Cold Blood, in which he comes face-to-face with “Lonesome George”, the last of one of the species of Galápagos giant tortoises endemic to just one island – Isla Pinta.

“Lonesome George” is, scientists think, around 100 years old – and still in good health. I saw him last week at the Charles Darwin Research Station – which is on Isla Santa Cruz just outside Puerto Ayora. There is still a $10,000 reward for anyone who finds a female – and there’s still some time left, as experts think this species can live to around 170.

(EDIT: Unfortunately, George has now passed away, and it is with great sadness that scientists record the death of his Pinta subspecies.)

Other species of giant tortoise have suffered, too. On Isla Isabela, the Sierra Negra volcano – which is still very much active, as we witnessed – nearly finished off the local species of giant tortoise when it erupted in 2005.

Seventy individuals were airlifted to safety and a breeding programme is in full swing on the island. Some of them have bright yellow patches on their shell – burn marks from the molten lava spewed from the 10km-wide volcano.

You don’t go to Galápagos for the species count. Ecuador’s 1600 species of bird puts it right up there with the mega biodiverse countries of the world. But that’s very much the mainland.

The geologically young islands – just 3.5 million years – have a small number of species, but many of them are endemic: they can be found nowhere else.

And due to their history and where they are located, they are generally speaking not afraid of humans one bit.

Marine Iguanas. Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Marine iguanas can be found basking in the hot Equator sunshine throughout the Galápagos archipelago, and are not remotely frightened of humans. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Take for example the Galápagos-endemic marina iguanas. Any lava outcrop around the islands will undoubtedly have a few of these crawling around. They’re found solely on the beaches, swimming between the crags, and don’t mind when the sea lashes them.

Their counterpart on dry land is the Galápagos land iguana – the true dragon of the islands, and also endemic – along with a Galápagos snake, a scorpion and a range of birds.

In fact, many people interested in birds come to the Galápagos as an extension to the mindbogglingly enormous number of species on the mainland.

The endemic species on the islands include the Galápagos penguin (the most northerly-dwelling in the world), Galápagos mockingbird, Galápagos dove and the rare mangrove finch.

Practically everywhere on the islands you will find a member of the endemic Darwin’s finch family.

They appear to come from a common ancestor – and have developed into fifteen species, identifiable by their body size and beak shape and size. Not true finches, but a Darwin-esque exhibition of evolution. Although he did collect some on his voyage on the Beagle, the attribution comes from the 20th century.

To identify the various members of the Darwin's finch family you must consider its overall size and "jizz", its bill and its location, but they can be tricky to tell apart! Photo by Ben Tavener.

To identify the various members of the Darwin’s finch family you must consider its overall size and “jizz”, its bill and its location, but they can be tricky to tell apart! Photo by Ben Tavener.

The best way to see the Galápagos is by take a boat with a naturalist guide on board – and you must by law take an authorised guide of some description with you.

Not only will they point out and identify (most of the time!) what you’re looking at, but they are all local and know the islands like the back of their hand. They are extremely enthusiastic, and one time in particular highlights this perfectly.

We were in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz where there is a boggy area in a woods which is fantastic for looking for wild giant tortoises.

We were squelching around in the mud when suddenly, “PACHAY!”

I didn’t have a clue what a “pachay” was, but it turned out it was a rare endemic bird – the Galápagos’ answer to a water rail, the Galápagos crake or Galápagos rail.

The others weren’t overly interested, but I knew the worth of this little bird and wading into a bog which ran underneath a tall bush – only to spot a female, a juvenile and then a male (the best-looking as always).

Throughout the islands, you come across a variety of habitats.

Magnificent frigatebirds are by no means endemic to the Galápagos, but they do provide a spectacular display as they trail the cruise boats. That red pouch under the males' beaks inflates like a balloon during breeding season to impress the ladies. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Magnificent frigatebirds are by no means endemic to the Galápagos, but they do provide a spectacular display as they trail the cruise boats. That red pouch under the males’ beaks inflates like a balloon during breeding season to impress the ladies. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Lava outcrops on white-sand beaches where you can find marine iguanas, brightly coloured Sally lightfoot crabs, and shorebirds like marbled godwit and semipalmated plover; rainy, humid highlands home to vermilion flycatchers, Galápagos martin; brackish lagoons where you can find Caribbean flamingo, white-cheeked pintail, black-necked stilt and least sandpiper; and arid, baking-hot drylands – home to the fiery-coloured land iguanas, cactus-fincheszigzag spiders, Queen butterflies and Galápagos mockingbird.

One of my favourite habitats is the mangrove areas – trees stood on stilts in the warm coastal waters. The trees are home to yellow warbler, mangrove finch, brown pelican, egrets and herons, including the beautiful yellow-crowned night-heron.

You can go by dinghy into the mangroves in Galápagos in search of wildlife - such as turtles, sharks and herons. photo by Ben Tavener.

You can go by dinghy into the mangroves in Galápagos in search of wildlife – such as turtles, sharks and herons. photo by Ben Tavener.

But a trip in a dinghy into the mangrove can provide unrivalled views of turtles and sharks – biding their time and reaching adulthood from the safety of the tangled networks of mangrove trees.

Most nature-lovers visiting the islands take a boat to go between the different islands. As you go, you see magnificent and great frigatebirds following in your wake – or even perching on the top wire of your ship.

A variety of tubenoses – like Elliot’s storm petrel – can be seen flying near the ship, with brown noddy and Galápagos shearwater sometimes coming in close.

However, if the air- and land-loving wildlife doesn’t really do it for you – then those just under the waves definitely will.

We snorkelled just twice – but there are plenty of tours that will include snorkelling or scuba diving (for those who know how) every day.

In the two hour-long snorkels, we managed to see green turtle, a 2.5-metre-wide manta ray, white-tipped reef shark and more clownfish, parrot fish, puffer fish and other amazing, vividly-coloured fish that I’ve ever seen in my life.

Sea lion cuts through fish, Galápagos

An endemic Galápagos sea lion cuts through a shoal of fish.

However, one aquatic experience you won’t be forgetting in a while is an encounter with an endemic Galápagos sea lion. Curiosity gets the better of them, and they come right up to you – in our case, circling us and then virtually pressing its nose up again your mask – attracted by the bubbles.

At the very least you should take a waterproof disposable camera (a 27-snap Kodak model will set you back about $20 on the island – mine’s still being developed!). But if you can – try to get yourself a waterproof digital camera, especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of snorkelling.

In contrast with the Galápagos, travelling around mainland Ecuador, once you’ve paid your airfare there, can be done on the cheap. Buses on the mainland will take you from one side of the country to the other for a little over US$10.

However, there’s no real way to do Galápagos on a shoestring – and for good reason.

Firstly, the airfare from Quito is around $500 for foreigners, and then there’s the fact that you have to be with a guide to visit most parts of the National Park – most likely as part of a tour, which also don’t come cheap – and you have to pay $110 to get into the National Park itself ($10 Ingala entry card, and $100 entrance free at the main airport on Baltra Island).

However, I haven’t found a person who’s come back from Galápagos and regretted a penny of what they had spent. Most, myself included, simply wished they had stretched a bit more and booked a longer trip.

Here are few more photos from my trip – which I organised with Tierra Verde on the Yacht Fregata.

Galápagos land iguanas, like this one we found on Isla Santa Cruz, will cower away from the sun under a bush in the midday heat. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos land iguanas, like this one we found on Isla Santa Cruz, will cower away from the sun under a bush in the midday heat. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos mockingbirds, endemic to the island, are normally quite curious and will pretty much pose for swooning photographers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos mockingbirds, like this one on Santa Cruz island, are endemic to the Galápagos islands. They are normally quite curious and will pretty much pose for swooning photographers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Brown pelicans are common around the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Brown pelicans are common around the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos snorkelling, photo by Ben Tavener

If only I knew as much about the fish as I do about the birds! Snorkelling is a must in the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos sunset. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos sunset. Photo by Ben Tavener.

I’m now seven weeks into my stint at Tandayapa Lodge, 7” north of the Equator in Ecuador’s Pichincha state – and it’s almost time to go.

View from Yanacocha, photo by Ben Tavener

View from Yanacocha, photo by Ben Tavener - click on the image to see my gallery of photos on Facebook.

This week I’ve been mopping up the things I’d not yet done in the area, like today’s visit to Mashpi nature reserve to tick a few more birdies off the list.

As cliché as it might sound, it’s going to be a wrench to leave. The people, the wildlife, the climate, the food – it’s all been so welcoming, diverse and intriguing.

Even the tarantulas and weird bugs buzzing round the lodge have been fun, and although I’m not the morning type, getting up at 4:30am to get to an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek before sunrise, followed by a full day’s guiding a group of nature-lovers round a nature reserve, has been great.

After squeezing the most out of the usual-sunny mornings, the afternoon is usually anyone’s guess. Here in the subtropics, rain is a common afternoon feature, but if I’ve missed the morning sat in the dark somewhere waiting for some elusive BBJ (bloody brown jobby) to give the group a ten-second flyby, I’ve often enjoyed a lot of good early-afternoon hikes, even if the altitude means you pant around parts of it.

One reserve we visit, Yanacocha, is at 3,500 metres and you can really feel that oxygen is in much shorter supply than the relatively low Tandayapa Lodge which is at 1,700m – just a bit lower than Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.

After the numerous warning I received before coming to Ecuador about its inedible food, I have to say I think it’s either rubbish, or I’ve been extremely lucky – and not just with Rosita, the lodge cook’s fabulous cooking.

I’d tried things like the local bolón – a fried ball of mashed plantain with chicken and spices, and sugar-filled empanadas (like a pancakey croissants) with locally shade-grown organic coffee (apparently the slower cultivated shade-grown coffee is better for you and the environment – you’ll have to Google it, sorry…).

And there are vegetable and types of fruit here I’d never even heard of – like babaco, tree-tomatoes, white carrots, and about eight types of bananas and plantains.

I’ve had some really wonderful encounters with nature down here, too: having hummingbirds, like tawny-bellied hermits, fly up to you while you’re on a hike only to eyeball you for a few frenzied, fleeting seconds, buzz around your head and then fly off again back to attacking heliconias for their nectar; going owling in the jungle when it’s pitch dark; stumbling on a manakin’s weird lek – with the males dancing on branches as if they’re possessed, or thrusting their primaries into the air with an electronic-sounding “beeeeep” as the wings touch 1,000 times per second; rescuing booted racket-tails from the lodge ceiling with a red rag on a long pole; and last night I was returning the amorous advances of a common potoo at dusk, only for it to come right up to me and rode over the lodge until it realised I wasn’t a lady potoo.

Anyway – I’ve so far seen around 285 lifers (species new to me) and with any luck, I’ll have bumped that up to 330 by the time I leave Ecuador.

But this is where the really fun bit of this two-month stint in Ecuador begins, fulfilling one of my lifetime ambitions, and going to the place where you are unlikely to win a staring competition with any of the local wildlife. Galápagos.

So I’ve now been in Ecuador for a month, living at over 1700m, at 0° 0’7″ north of the Equator in the remote village of Tandayapa. Not much by way of communication with the outside world, but a truckload of wildlife.

Plate-billed mountain toucan, photo by Ben Tavener.

This plate-billed mountain toucan is fairly common in the Upper Tandayapa Valley, photo by Ben Tavener. Click on the photo for the rest of my photos from Ecuador.

I’ve been volunteering and guiding for a bird lodge in the village, and I’ve got another four weeks to go in Ecuador.

I’ve been helping out doing whatever is needed to keep me there gratis – including serving the food, guiding guests, lugging suitcases up steep slopes, refilling up hummingbird feeders, and even filling holes in trees with worms to lure in the antpittas.

Of course, it’s not all work, and I get to do a lot of birding. So far, I’ve racked up over 240 species of birds new to me (known as “lifers” in the business) just in the area around Tandayapa and the surrounding including Milpe and Río Silanche.

Bird highlights have included the stunning plate-billed mountain toucan (pictured), Andean cock-of-the-rock, lyre-tailed nightjar, common potoo, and many, many species of hummingbirds.

Photographic highlights of my trip so far – including lots of the birds (sorry!) – can be found here.

After another three weeks or so, I hope to be doing some proper travelling – seeing the capital, Quito, and maybe other parts of the country before I head back to Brazil.

Until then… Hasta luego!

It was a long day – not doubt about it. About 15 hours of travelling – from Curitiba, through São Paulo and, as there are no direct flights to Ecuador from Brazil, through the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

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Flying into Quito just after dusk was breathtaking

However, nothing prepares you for flying into the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, which is set in a “dry valley”, 2,800 metres up, and has an long, undulating shape.

It’s a mixture of clearly planned districts, and other areas which are more reminiscent of Rio’s favelas – home to its 2.5 million inhabitants.

So far, it seems like a pretty modern city (for the region) and pretty lively. There seem to be far more Western companies here and in Colombia – like KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts – than in Brazil. Perhaps due to a lack of their own homegrown equivalents, which Brazil has.

Things are pretty cheap: a cab ride just cost me $2 (they use US dollars here) and my accommodation last night – private room with en-suite – cost $20.

Due to its location (near the Equator) and altitude, the place has very predictable weather: normally around 18°C, with about 60% chance of rain. (Right now it’s sunny.) It’s an easy life for a weather forecaster here…

I haven’t seen it yet because of all the cloud, but just beyond Quito is a volcano, or more accurately a “stratovolcano“, by the name of Cotopaxi.

At 5,900m tall, it’s a bit of a monster, and apparently can be easily seen from Quito’s northern suburbs in July. Weather permitting, of course.

Volcano Cotopaxi, near Quito

Volcano Cotopaxi, near Quito

Could’ve fooled me…

OK – so, time to log off for a while. Perhaps a month or so. I’m off to Tandayapa and the mountain cloudforest.

Today is my last day in Curitiba for the next two months, as tomorrow I’m flying to Ecuador for a stint of volunteer work and South American exploration.

Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador

Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador

You’ve probably spotted, and perhaps even raised an eyebrow at, my fascination with our feathered friends, and this trip will see me well and truly wallowing in birdy goodness.

Tandayapa Bird Lodge, located about 30km northwest of Ecuador’s capital, Quito (as the crow flies), is a purpose-build cloud forest lodge, sat around 6,000ft above sea level – and is something of a Mecca for bird lovers.

Here, I’ll be helping visitors make the most of their stay, and most importantly, making sure they get the right snaps of the nature they travelled so far to get. I also intend to offend the locals with my dead-in-the-water Spanish, and pretend they are instead speaking Quechua.

Despite its small size, Ecuador has the biggest concentration of hummingbirds on the planet, as well as many endemic species.

This should keep me on my toes, as nearly every bird I see will be a first, a ‘lifer’ as us birders call it.

Towards the end of my trip, I’ll be doing so more run-of-the-mill sightseeing – and shall be reporting on Quito – Ecuador’s capital, and the world’s second highest, altitude-wise.

Of course, Ecuador is also where the Galápagos Islands, of Darwin fame, are – only a few hundred miles off the coast. Whether I get to visit these, and Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayaquil – time, and this blog, will tell, and will likely depend directly on how generous visitors’ tips are! (Kidding!)

Anyway, time for some more packing and a last-minute checks online for which plugs they use, if the water’s OK to drink, (wow, just found out they use the US dollar! Handy!) and what the chances are that I’ll be stabbed by anything worse than a hummingbird: