Travel

Anadolu Agency – by Steffen Stubager & Asger Mow, additional reporting and editing by Ben Tavener

RIO DE JANEIRO – Hundreds of football fans in Brazil for the World Cup are refusing to pay sky-high accommodation prices and instead are opting to sleep rough during the key sporting event.

In Rio de Janeiro, football fans from all over the world can be seen sleeping in the main bus station and on the city’s famous beaches, where temperatures have tumbled to 15°C at night and rain has been a regular feature.

Fans, including many from Argentina, Colombia and Chile, have come to Brazil for weeks in some cases without booking any accommodation and, for most, the risk is directly linked to hotels inflating prices during the World Cup.

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Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida is the holiest site for Catholics in Brazil and much of Latin America, and featured in Pope Francis’s visit to Brazil earlier this year.

See gallery of photos from my trip to Aparecida at the end of the text below.

Located more or less halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, it is easily accessibly by intercity bus, and is free of charge to visit. The bus from São Paulo’s Tietê bus station is around R$37 and takes between two and 2.5 hours.

The place is often likened to France’s Lourdes, and is a tourist hotspot, seeing as many as 9 million tourists a year. However, we visited on a Wednesday and it wasn’t crowded at all.

At the centre of the Aparecida story and its rise to prominence is a small 18th-century clay statuette of Our Lady of Aparecida, just 40cm tall, which legend has it was found in the 18th century in a nearby river by three fishermen after they invoked the Virgin Mary. They went on to catch a lot of fish.

The fact that it is a dark-skinned Mary is of great importance to some Brazilian Catholics. You can read more of the background of Aparecida here, including about how the statue was destroyed in 1978 and meticulously put back together. A replica of the statue was also publicly vandalised by an Evangelical Protestant on television in 1995.

My first impressions were that it was Catholic Disneyland: you are greeted by a fun fair, a visitor centre, an aquarium, children’s rides and inflated prices for everything from ice cream to the plethora of tacky statuette replicas, crucifixes and other Catholic novelties.

Even when you first get inside the basilica, it feels very new and modern. And it is, of course. The Basilica isn’t even technically finished, after being started in 1955 and inaugurated in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. It isn’t exactly Canterbury Cathedral.

However, once you level with the place – you can see some that quiet church-like dignity. Some of the design is very modern and in-your-face, but parts of it are also subtle and stylish.

It is a very open place – with services ongoing throughout the day. Although I’m not a Catholic, my partner’s mother got stuck right in to one of the services, where audience participation was clearly very much welcomed; she was soon microphone in hand next to the pastor.

It is a peaceful and, thankfully, cool place, given it was nearly 35°C outside.

Natal in Rio Grande do Norte state in north-east Brazil is the City of Sun.

Surrounded by dunes, it makes an excellent location for sand buggying “com emoção” (which should translate as “fast and furious”) around the sandy hills, where you can zipwire into a cool lagoon or just relax and drink some coconut water.

In this video we travel from Genipabu (Jenipabu) to Jacumã via nine beaches and four lagoons.

A full blog on the trip is coming soon.

Music – various forró songs from the region.

However you arrive in São Paulo, by plane, bus or car, it leaves you in little doubt that it is Brazil’s business powerhouse: it is the country’s richest city, the largest city in the southern hemisphere and the 7th biggest city in the world. Miles and miles of favelas and outer neighbourhoods slowly fizzle into a smart, business-like centre that many consider the pride of Brazil.

MASP, the São Paulo Museum of Art, is unmissable on Avenida Paulista. Photo by Ben Tavener.

São Paulo – or Sampa as some locals call it – and its vast, sprawling metropolitan area are home to over 20 million Paulistanos (people from the city), Paulistas (people from the wider São Paulo state), and of course people from every corner of Brazil and the globe.

Whether you are here on business, or you are yearning for a couple of days in a busy NYC-esque megatropolis, this city – often described in shades of “bustling” and “chaotic” – is exciting, invigorating and chock full of things to see and do.

Aside from hustle-bustle, subway chaos and bankers, São Paulo is most definitely a place of culture, history and great cuisine.

Arriving here from Curitiba, we had two days in the city – of course, barely enough to scratch the surface.

We went on a weekend, hitting the museums on the Saturday – when some are free to visit, and spent our Sunday soaking up the historic centre.

A walk down Avenida Paulista – São Paulo’s most famous, seemingly never-ending central street lined with skyscrapers – will give you a sense of the city at large: one minute you walk past the headquarters of a world-class bank, the next you find yourself outside the internationally-recognised São Paulo Museum of Art, MASP (R$15, metrô Trianon-MASP).

São Paulo’s Estação da Luz houses the Museu da Língua Portuguesa. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The building housing MASP is considered a tourist attraction in itself: the Sixties-built concrete and glass gallery sits up on two red lateral beams, which support around 10,000 square metres of both permanent and temporary exhibitions, including Latin America’s biggest collection of Western art.

However, we started with the Jardim da Luz, where you’ll find the Pinacoteca do Estado (metrô Luz, R$6, free on Saturdays), São Paulo’s oldest art museum, which is set in a house built at the turn of the 20th century. The museum is dominated by paintings and sculptures by Brazilian artists.

Next to the Pinacoteca is the idyllic Jardim da Luz park: tall palm-lined avenues, ponds and park benches infused with modern and classical sculptures. Like a lot of the many parks dotted around São Paulo, Jardim da Luz offers a quick breather from the chaos of the city, a place to wander round a green space and hear the birds.

Opposite the park, in its enormous, Colonial-style home – and actually quite similar in style to St Pancras Station in London – is the Portuguese Language Museum (Museu da Língua Portuguesa, R$6, free on Saturdays), which pays homage to the history of the language and its various incarnations around the globe and is a must-see for anyone studying Portuguese or with an interest in languages.

Central, historic São Paulo: The Theatro Municipal, Praça Ramos de Azevedo and the Viaduto do Chá. Photo by Ben Tavener.

After that we headed for the historic centre, working our way from Luz down through to São Bento.

We walked down Avenida Ipiranga down to the Praça da República, and then through to the Theatro Municipal. We then continued over the Viaduto do Chá (noticing the jungle growing out of the top of the Prefeitura (City Hall) building across the street).

This area is full of enormous skyscrapers – home to banks and other financial institutions.

Make sure you leave time (and room in your stomach) for a visit to São Paulo’s historic Mercado Municipal (metrô São Bento), a massive open-plan fruit and meat market, known locally as the Mercadão, and is famous for its friendly fruit sellers – who will treat you to a taste of fruits which you have probably never even seen before.

In fact there was one fruit that even the seller couldn’t name: “We just call it café-com-mel (coffee with honey).” Just be careful if you have any strong allergies to exotic fruits or aversions to intimate physical contact – I had a lychee popped into my mouth without any warning whatsoever!

São Paulo Mercado Municipal, the “Mercadão”, is usually very busy, but is big enough to cope. Samples of fruit are given out constantly, so go hungry! Photo by Ben Tavener.

Round off your trip to the market with a traditional mortadella (hot ham or baloney) sandwich – just join the nearest line of salivating market-goers.

If you have time, head to Avenida 25 de Março, a Mecca for those who want to buy electrical goods on the cheap (much like Ciudad del Este on the Brazil-Paraguay border), or simply to experience the utter chaos of São Paulo most crowded shopping street. Just make sure you keep a close eye on your valuables!

Given São Paulo’s enormous Japanese community, it is hardly surprising that the city is famed for its excellent sushi restaurants: take advantage of a rodízio de sushi, where for a set fee (normally around R$40 at weekends, and a little cheaper during the week) they keep bringing you food until you can eat no more.

Again, make sure you’re really hungry to take full advantage of this wonderful experience!

Metrô Liberdade will lead you to a mishmash of Japanese, Chinese and Korean communities and a vast array of related restaurants. In fact, you might well hear locals telling you that there are only more Japanese people in one city in Tokyo, and that São Paulo is Japan’s second city. You be the judge on that one!

And if you like food, you’ll be utterly spoilt here: locals say there are over 12,000 restaurants, but they quip that 11,000 of those are out of their price range.

São Paulo really is a great place for tourists – and although the rhythm of Rio or the blissful beaches of Bahia or Santa Catarina certainly deserve their prestigious places in tourists’ hearts, this big, bustling, means-business bruiser is definitely worth visiting.

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.

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!