South America

Anadolu Agency

SÃO PAULO — Latin American countries have stepped up their diplomatic protest against Israel, ratcheting up international pressure over its military offensive in Gaza and rallying behind the Palestinians.

Five countries in Latin America — Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru — have now recalled their ambassadors to Israel for consultation: a major protest in diplomatic terms, and on Thursday, Costa Rica became the latest Latin nation to voice its concern over the “escalation of violence,” summoning the Israeli ambassador to the country for explanation.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has also declared Israel a “terrorist state” and torn up a long-standing free travel agreement between the two countries.

ALSO: Read my Op-Ed for Al Jazeera on Brazil foreign policy

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Anadolu Agency

SÃO PAULO – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff condemned Israel’s military offensive in Gaza as “disproportionate” and a “massacre” on Monday, joining international calls for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Speaking with journalists at a forum organised by the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, Rousseff said calls for an end to the bloodshed made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made earlier on Monday were “extremely welcome”.

“I think what is happening in Gaza is extremely dangerous; it is a massacre. It is not a genocide that is being waged, but a disproportionate action,” Rousseff said, echoing statements released by the Brazilian foreign ministry.

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Anadolu Agency

BRASÍLIA – South American leaders attending the 6th BRICS Summit in the Brazilian capital, Brasília, on Wednesday hailed the foundation of a new US$100 billion development bank between the BRICS nations, announced on Tuesday.

The eleven South American leaders in attendance also made clear they were firmly behind a new alliance between the BRICS group of leading emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and the UNASUR bloc of South American nations.

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Anadolu Agency – additional reporting by Lucy Jordan

BRASÍLIA – The heads of state of the five BRICS nations of emerging economies met with the leaders of 11 South American countries on Wednesday in the Brazilian capital, Brasília.

The presidents of the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — which make up the bloc of developing economies, are holding their third official day of the 6th BRICS Summit.

Among the 11 South American leaders are Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Argentinian leader Cristina Kirchner and Juan Manuel Santos, recently re-elected as president of Colombia.

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These pictures were taken by me in and around Curitiba, Morretes and Antonina in Paraná state, south Brazil.

Some of these birds can be seen on my friend Luciano’s superb live camera feed from his garden in Morretes.

Click any image to see in gallery view

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 baloghworld.com

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.

This is a poem given to me in Florianópolis by a homeless man who was also a recovering alcoholic.

It warns about the misuse of the Brazilian spirit cachaça – made from fermented sugar cane juice and best-known around the world as the starting point for the nation’s most famous drink, the caipirinha

Because of its reputation as something drunk by the homeless, it is often sold with no mention of the word “cachaça” on the front of the bottle, if at all – and is instead known by its respective brand name.

I asked the homeless man if I could put it on my blog, to which he happily agreed. A couple of months later, I just stumbled across the paper in my room. I’ve added a simple translation.

Cachaça

Gerador de desgraças
Tempestade de não passa
Falso prazer
Sorvido em amarga taça

Cachaça

Corda que enlaça
Qual líquida força
Levando a morte
Quem esse caminho traça

Cachaça

Animal feroz que das prateleiras
Espreita sua caça
Atacando sem distinção
de classe ou raça

Cachaça

Um dia já foi barco no meu cais
E hoje luto
Para um dia poder dizer
Cachaça nunca mais

Cachaça

Generator of woes
The storm that does not pass
The false pleasure
Absorbed in a bitter cup

Cachaça

The rope that entangles you
Whose liquid force
Leads to death
He who takes this path

Cachaça

A wild animal that
Stalks its prey from the cupboard
Attacking indiscriminate
of class or race

Cachaça

One day it was already a boat at my dock
And today the fight
So that one day I can say
Cachaça no more