Archive | Ecuador

Four months of South America in photos

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

The second part of this year-long around-the-world trip (after a three-month stint in the USA), was South America, a continent I had never visited. It had always seemed so far from South Africa, so I felt like a normal-length two-week trip would never cut it. I saved up South America for a time when I had months to see as much as possible.

In four months, I travelled the length (and some of the breadth, minus Brazil) of this amazing continent, learning Spanish and tango in Buenos Aires, trekking the spectacular peaks and glaciers of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia, getting soaked under the spray of Iguazu Falls, hiking the otherworldly landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where I stood under huge steaming geysers and floated in salt lagoons, 4x4ing through the desert of Bolivia’s altiplano and seeing the sun rise over the world’s largest salt flat, bird watching and piranha fishing in the Bolivian Amazon, exploring Machu Picchu,  snorkelling with sea lions and communing with marine iguanas in the natural Disneyworld Galapagos Islands, walking through mists in the beautiful cloud forest of Mashpi on mainland Ecuador, trekking for four tough days through the Colombian jungle to reach the ancient ruins of the Lost City and learning to dive on tiny Providencia Island.

It was one adventure after another – a wild, wonderful journey that I will never forget.

These are my favourite places in photos.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina-1Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National ParkPerito Moreno glacier trekking, El Calafate, PatagoniaMoon Valley, Atacama Desert, ChileLlama and Licancabur VolcanoEl Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, ChileSalar de Uyuni, BoliviaLaguna Blanca, BoliviaLlama, BoliviaMadidi National Park, BoliviaSarah Duff Machu PicchuView from Wayna PicchuSarah Duff Machu PicchuSarah Duff Galapagos Islands-11Sarah Duff Galapagos Islands-1Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorHiking at Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorColombia's Lost City or Ciudad PerdidaProvidencia Island, Colombia




Mashpi: a cocoon in an Ecuadorian cloud forest


I have a special place in my heart for cloud forests. There’s something undeniably magical about being in a world of trees, where every view is of hills of green wrapped in thick bands of mist, and every piece of moss is covered in jewel-like droplets of water.

After a week in the natural Disneyworld of the Galápagos Islands, it was going to be hard to come back to the real world of industria, highways and concrete, where animals fear their human predators. Leaving Quito after just one night and heading straight for an Ecuadorian cloud forest was the only solution.

Reached by a winding road carved into steep hills, Mashpi Lodge is surrounded by 3000 acres of cloud forest, in the private Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve that conserves this pocket of natural splendour. The lodge itself is described by its founder as a “cocoon in the clouds” which is exactly what it feels like, with a hilltop perch overlooking a dense green canopy, and stories-high glass walls offering views of trees and mist in every direction.

I could have easily spent hours lying in bed – our bedroom had a wall entirely made out of glass, and we were on the side of the building, on the edge of a sloping hill, so the forest began where our room ended. Being in bed was like floating in the treetops. But what we were really there to do was to explore the cloud forest.

Bedroom at Mashpi Lodge

In festival-appropriate gum boots and grey ponchos (one constant in a cloud forest is that it rains a lot), we hiked with guides Sebastian Vizcarra and Carlos Zambrano on muddy paths the colour of dark chocolate through a cloudy world of giant trees, thick vines and huge leaves, discovering this complex and deeply fascinating ecosystem, one tiny organism at a time. We marvelled at glass-winged butterflies, pink shoe flowers and red heliconias, shy forest dragons (otherwise known as dwarf iguanas), frogs and orchids the size of a pinkie fingernail, smelled the almond-like arsenic secretion of a millipede on the defence and the turps-and-mint scent of the resin from a five-hundred-year-old palo santo tree, spotted a twitcher’s cornucopia of species, from rainbow-coloured Chocó toucans, motmots with ludicrously long tail feathers and tiny jewel-shiny hummingbirds, rose-faced parrots and neon yellow and black lemon tanagers.

Hiking at Mashpi Lodge

We watched butterflies hatching out of chrysalises and found the skeleton of tarantula that had been  eaten alive by a parasitic fungus. Our lucky sighting  was of a family of tairas (which reminded me of the marmot in The Big Lebowski) stealing bananas off the bird feeders. We photographed an obliging long-legged frog and a tongue-flicking snake to check if they could be new species – there’s a resident biologist at the reserve creating a catalogue of species. At night we went for hikes in the dark by torchlight to hunt for frogs, snakes and tarantulas (it sounds a lot scarier than it was). We swam in ice cold waterfalls to cool off after hikes and cycled a sky bike across a zipwire above the tree canopy, looking out at five layers of forested hills streaked in mist. At dawn we woke up for a birdwatching session to the beautiful sight of clouds forming in the valley below the lodge, turning golden with the sun rise.

View from the skybike, Mashpi Lodge

We heard the distinctive growl of howler monkeys in the far distance a few times, but never saw them. Mashpi’s reserve is surrounded by farmlands, where the forest has been cleared, so their habitat is limited. They’ve also been hunted for years, so they’re understandably wary of humans.

Mashpi is part of the Chocó, a rainforest that stretches from Panama to northern Ecuador. One of the most biodiverse and wettest habitats in the world, it’s severely under threat from deforestation, gold mining and coca cultivation. Less than a quarter of the forest remains in total, and there’s only 10% of it left in Ecuador. The former mayor of Quito, Roque Sevilla, saved 3000 acres of forest from a logging company to create Mashpi’s reserve. As in many parts of South America and Africa, eco tourism is often the only viable way of protecting habitats that would otherwise completely disappear. It’s impossible not to be moved by the beauty of this Ecuadorian cloud forest, and to know that by visiting you’re helping in some small way to protect the biodiversity, the trees, and the magical mists.

Waterfall, Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador

Travelling to Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi’s cloud forest is three hours’ drive northwest of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, and transfers are arranged by the lodge.

Mashpi Lodge has 22 simple, but tastefully elegant, rooms with incredible views, attentive service (think cold towels and fresh juices or hot blackberry tea each time you arrive back after a walk) and great food, with the focus on Ecuadorian dishes, such as octopus ceviche, mashed manioc with egg and cheese-stuffed yucca breads for breakfast, stuffed plantains with shrimps and peanut sauce and banana cake.

The best time of year to visit Mashpi is in the driest time of year, in June, or in November and December for the arrival of migratory birds from the northern hemisphere.

Book Mashpi Lodge through the Mantis Collection.

Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador


Butterfly, Mashpi Lodge Butterfly hatching, Mashpi Lodge Frog spotting, Mashpi Lodge Snake spotting, Mashpi Lodge Snake, Mashpi Lodge Mashpi Lodge


An evolutionary Eden: the Galapagos Islands

Sarah Duff Galapagos Islands-11

“No area on Earth of comparable size has inspired more fundamental changes in Man’s perspective of himself and his environment” said ornithologist Robert Bowman of the Galápagos Islands, which he surveyed for UNESCO in 1957.

Humans first stepped ashore on the Galápagos Islands, which lie just less than a thousand kilometres offshore from Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, five centuries ago. Since then these extraordinary volcanic islands have taken a hold of our imagination, and they remain one of the most naturally fascinating places on Earth with a unique biodiversity of species.

From the moment you land on a hot, dry, barren patch of land and disembark in an open-air airport filled with the sound of tweeting finches, it’s like you’re in another world. In this world, the largest land animals are impossibly giant tortoises and fat pink, orange and black iguanas, which lie on top of one another in scaly piles and snort projectile jets of salty water into the air. There are tiny penguins who once came from another colder environment on the other side of the planet, and have now adapted to life in the tropics, birds with artificial-looking blue feet and cormorants with wings that no longer work. There are very few natural predators here (not counting humans), so the animals have evolved to be fearless. As a result, you need to watch where you’re walking in case you step on creatures sunning themselves on pathways.

Under the water, marine life is equally rich. On snorkelling trips we swam with white tip reef sharks, playful sea lions, placid turtles, zippy penguins, huge sun fish, manta rays and flightless cormorants. In the sea, animals are as devoid of fear as they are on land, so penguins and cormorants dive into the ocean centimetres away from you and sea lions invite you to join them in a balletic synchronised show of leaping in and out of the water.

Every day you spend in the Galápagos is different. Each day you step on the shore of a new island with a unique geological history – collapsed craters and solidified fields of lava telling the physical story of their formation – and its own species, adapted to live there and nowhere else. Each day you learn more about the complexity of evolution. To visit the Galápagos Islands is so much more than a holiday – it’s like getting an education in nature.


How to visit the Galápagos Islands

The main thing you need to decide on when planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands is whether you want to stay at a hotel on land or go on a cruise. If you stay on land, you can pick and choose what day trips you’d like to do – snorkelling, visiting other islands and boat cruises. If you go on a cruise, you see a lot more of the islands and don’t have to spend time on travelling (the boats generally cruise to the next island at night while you’re sleeping).

Pikaia Lodge, Galapagos Islands

I couldn’t decide which option to pick, so I chose both. I stayed at the newly-opened Pikaia Lodge, set on a ridge in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island with expansive views over lush green plains to the ocean. The only sign of human habitation visible from the lodge are the big wind turbines of the airport in the far distance. The lodge has a sleek, modern design with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that make the most of the views, a huge rim-flow pool, fabulous spa and an aesthetic inspired by science in the form of decor such as a double helix steel sculpture. The library is filled with books on Darwin and evolution, and in the evenings you can watch David Attenborough’s documentary on the Galápagos in 3D on the giant TV screen. Each day’s activities are different, and for snorkelling trips and visits to other islands, the lodge has its own luxury yacht.

Pikaia Lodge, Galapagos Islands

For the cruise, I stayed on the M/V Santa Cruz, a 90-passenger boat with luxury cabins, a big deck, Jacuzzi, dining room and lounge where there was a scientific presentation every day and excellent, super knowledgeable naturalist guides. Ours was a six-day Western itinerary that took in visits to North Seymour, Isabela, and Fernandina Island where we walked ashore and snorkelled in coves and at offshore reefs, as well as the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz and a stop off at the famous post office barrel on Floreana Island, where you drop off a postcard and wait for another visitor to pick it up and hand deliver it to the address.

Both Pikaia Lodge and the M/V Santa Cruz can be booked through the Mantis Collection.

M/V Santa Cruz Galapagos Islands

Responsible tourism 

Like almost every ecosystem in the world, however, this natural wonderland hangs in a delicate balance. Many conservation projects on the islands have been funded in part by visitors, and tourism provides an incentive to protect the wildlife of the Galápagos, but each visitor who comes here has an impact on the fragile ecosystem. Boats ship in the food tourists and the locals consume, bringing in invasive species like ants and flies with them. There are pollution and waste problems. Several native species are now on the brink of extinction. It took us hundreds of years to stop exploiting the Galápagos Islands after we first discovered them and to turn to conservation.

When you visit the Galápagos, try to reduce your impact by consuming as little as possible, and taking away some of your waste with you when you leave. Don’t bring in any plants or animals to the islands, and wash your hiking shoes before you leave home to make sure you don’t bring in any seeds stuck to your soles. Choose where you stay wisely – pick lodges and cruise ships that are committed to eco-friendly practices.

The Charles Darwin Foundation, an independent scientific research station which runs important conservation projects on the island, is desperate for funds now that the government has shut down its souvenir shop. Even if you don’t visit the Galápagos, consider donating money to the foundation to help fund their projects.

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