Nature’s playground

I’m standing on the pristine shoreline of a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific, watching a baby sea lion excitedly, though slightly ineptly, make its way toward me across black volcanic rock. In my haste to capture the moment on camera, I move through the jagged terrain with my eye glued to the viewfinder. I only notice the adult sea lion snoozing behind me when I’m a few short centimetres from it. Sea lions, I’ve been told earlier that day, can be very aggressive and you shouldn’t get too close, lest they take a chunk out of your leg. I feel a jolt of adrenaline as this one wakes and turns towards me. My eyes meet with a pair of sleepy brown pools and she considers me a moment, before turning to rest her head back on the sunny rock with a soft snort. This, I have come to realise, is one of the extraordinary things about the animal residents of the Galapagos Islands. They show no fear, as they have known no fear or devastation at the hands of humans.

Guided by the handsomely-weathered Diego (who has been touring travellers like our group through the islands since 1979) and our Abercrombie & Kent Guardian Angel Aleyda, the past few hours on North Seymour Island have brought us within arm’s reach of inquisitive land iguanas and nesting frigatebirds of both the great and magnificent variety. We’ve watched on from mere feet away as a male blue-footed booby attempted to woo a lady booby with his adorable mating dance; the rejection palpable when we realised she was not impressed. The animals have returned our pie-eyed rapture with mild curiosity, followed by a profound disinterest that only comes with familiarity. For us though, Galapagos is unlike anything we’ve experienced before.

The Galapagos archipelago comprises 18 major islands spread across the Pacific from its central birthplace, a submerged volcanic hotspot about 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coastline. The islands lie at a crossroad between two competing tropical winds and three uniquely converged ocean currents; a Goldilocks-style recipe that has made for some truly remarkable evolutionary traits in the local flora and fauna. It is one of the most distinctive and diverse marine ecosystems in the world, with more than 20 per cent of the marine species alone found nowhere else on the planet.

Spending even a short amount of time exploring the islands, it’s not tough to see why Charles Darwin was so inspired on his visit aged just 26 – his subsequent research changing the course of evolutionary theory. On the final day of our Galapagos tour we make a not-to-be-missed trip to the iconic naturalist’s namesake Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. The facility is dedicated to Galapagos conservation through research and education. When we stop by, the resident scientists are experimenting with a fungus that kills wild raspberry, an introduced species that has claimed thousands of acres of land and wreaked havoc on the native populations. We also meet Super Diego, a giant saddleback tortoise who is the proud father of more than 1,800 baby tortoises born via the centre’s breeding program.

Galapagos may be considered the crown jewel of Ecuador, but the adventure certainly does not stop there. Straddling the equator between Peru and Columbia, the small yet startlingly diverse mainland is essentially its own microcosm of South America. From the fertile palm-fringed coastlines and lush tropical rainforest and cloud forest ecosystems in the west, to the snow-capped peaks of the Andean volcanic highlands and the Amazon jungle provinces of the east, Ecuador has much to offer any intrepid traveller. And that’s not to even touch on the rich tapestry of cultural and historical legacy woven by thousands of years of Amerindian and Inca settlement followed by Spanish colonialisation in the 16th century. (Ecuador emerged as its own sovereign state in 1830.)

Ecuador’s ecological and cultural diversity is driven home when we leave the sparsely populated island paradise that is Galapagos to fly a few short hours to Quito, Ecuador’s bustling capital. Home to some 2.6 million, the sprawling city is piled upon monstrously steep volcanic peaks that reach elevations of more than 2,800 metres above sea level, making Quito the highest official capital in the world. The old town centre, with its cobblestone streets, neo-Gothic churches and colonial architecture, is one of the best-preserved historic centres in the Americas and was one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in the late 1970s.

Narrow alley Guayaquil in old town of Quito, Ecuador | Matyas Rehak

A rich cultural mecca in its own right, for us this time Quito is a short stop on our journey. We rise early the following morning to make the four hour drive northwest of Quito to Mashpi, a thriving cloud forest ecosystem rolling down the western slopes of the Andes. We receive a warm welcome at Mashpi Lodge, our base from which to explore the surrounding 1,300-hectare Biodiversity Reserve. The area is regarded as one of the world’s most important biodiversity hot spots, home to virtually thousands of plant species, more than 500 species of birds, tens of thousands of insects, countless rodent species, monkeys, peccaries, ocelots and even puma, to name a few.

Our first outing on arrival at Mashpi is a hike along the Cucharillos or “little spoon” trail, named for the towering hard woods that produce tiny spoon-shaped, delightfully aromatic flowers. They are one of the 500 plant species endemic to the area. Their dense wood has made them a popular construction material and as a result their numbers have dwindled to only 300 to 400 individuals. We are lucky to see four Cucharillos huddled together along the trail, towering high above the canopy. The hiking trail leads us 950 metres down to a waterfall, where we cool off in crystal clear pools before making the return ascent. As we climb, the coming rains excite the rain frogs, who begin to sing in loud chorus from the surrounding trees.

“A trip to Mashpi isn’t complete without a ride on the Sky Bike,” our knowledgeable guide Juan Carlos tells us the next morning over a spot of bird watching on the Mashpi Lodge terrace. The Sky Bike, he informs us as we hike to its secluded location, is a contraption of the lodge’s own invention that offers a slightly different perspective of the surrounding rainforest, that is, via riding a suspended cable machine 60 meters above and 200 meters across a rainforest ravine. On arrival we are strapped in two-by-two and thrust into the gaping abyss, where the forest reveals itself in an entirely new way. Around 70 per cent of the flora and fauna in Mashpi calls this part of the rainforest home, safe from the forest floor and just below the sunny open canopy above.

The Sky Bike, Mashpi | Camilla Wagstaff

It’s difficult to say goodbye to Mashpi, and even more difficult to say goodbye to Ecuador the following day. But I leave the country with my inner biologist satisfied, a camera full of baby sea lion snaps and a deeper appreciation for the astoundingly rich and diverse natural world around us.

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