The Infamous Galapagos Islands

I’ve dreamed about visiting the Galapagos Islands since I first learned about the animals there in my 4th grade Spanish class. I’ve learned so much about them through high school and college classes, books, and videos. Last week, my wish came true and I got to spend a very short 8 days in the Galapagos. Now, if you’re unlike me and have not taken many biology classes, the Galapagos are a set of 20 islands about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They are very famous since after he visited them, Charles Darwin created his theory of natural selection which was instrumental in developing the current beliefs about evolution.

During my trip to the Galapagos, my group was split into 2 smaller groups (due to Galapagos National Park regulations) and half the time was spend on a sailboat and the other half was spent on the island of Santa Cruz. My group spend the first half of the time on the sailboat, the Nemo III. We would sail during the night and wake up at a different island to explore each day. We visited the islands of Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Santiago, and Bartolome. At each place we snorkeled and hiked. Over the course of the first few days, I saw sea lions, blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca boobies (I had no idea there were so many species!), marine iguanas, terrestrial iguanas, a penguin, a dolphin, flamingos, and lots of different species of finches. I snorkeled with 3 different species of sharks (hammerheads, white-tip, and black-tip), 3 different species of rays (spotted eagle, diamond, and golden cownose), a sea turtle, and more species of fish than I can count. It was absolutely incredible! Each island was completely different. Some were dry and covered in cacti, some had lava for as far as you could see, and others had lush green forest. My favorite part about being on the boat was seeing a different sunrise and sunset every day. The stars at night were also incredible since we were further from light pollution than I have ever been in my life. Unfortunately, I got very seasick while on the boat, so I was glad when my group switched and got to spend time on the island.

During our few days on land, I saw many different giant tortoises, more sea lions, and many more birds. I learned all about the different habitats in the island and the human impacts that the people living there and the tourists have on the future of the Galapagos. I got to spend time on 3 different beaches with the clearest water and whitest sand I have ever seen. We took a day trip to San Cristobal Island where I snorkeled with sea lions (one even touched me!!!) and more sharks. I was extremely sad when I had to leave. It felt like I saw so much during the trip but so little at the same time. I will definitely have to return one day to explore more of the islands.

Tomorrow I have my final exams and then on Friday I leave for my independent study project. I will be returning to the Amazon for a month to study water quality and the health effects in the indigenous communities then write a 20 page research paper in Spanish. While I know I still have a month left in Ecuador, it seems like it’s almost the end. My time here is flying by. I took a ton of pictures in the Galapagos and below are the ones I think are the best. The animals there are not scared of people, so they are very easy to photograph!

¡Hasta luego!

MK

   

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A Simpler Life

Amidst the chaos of a paper, a group project, and a presentation, among other things, we took a 3 day excursion to Yunguilla, a rural community an hour outside of Quito. Our only task: observe, participate, and reflect on life in Yunguilla. At the beginning of the trip, some people, myself included, thought about how much more productive we would be if we could stay home and get so much of our homework completed. However, I soon learned that a 3 day break where I couldn’t even think about homework because I couldn’t do anything about it was exactly what I needed. On Wednesday when we arrived, we split into groups to begin helping with tasks in the community. I went to the artisan area and made bead bracelets, necklaces, and earrings to sell in the community store. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed making jewelry. Normally when I want to do something like that at home, I’m busy and become more stressed out by “wasting time” when I could be doing something productive.

Later that afternoon we were paired up 2 or 3 people per host family. My host parents were unbelievable. They were in their 80s, had 13 children, and still gardened, raised chickens, and ran a farm. Unfortunately, my host dad couldn’t really hear very well which made communication a little difficult sometimes. That evening we played lots of soccer and volleyball then returned home, had dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning, we woke up at 5:30 to feed the chickens and the cows. However, when we were feeding the chickens, they escaped so we had to chase them around the perimeter of the house a few times before getting them back in the pen. Next, we had breakfast and then had about an hour and a half to relax before we had to leave to meet the whole group. The rest of the morning I washed carrots to make into chips to sell in the store then weeded in the garden. After lunch I continued the weeding until later in the afternoon when we took turns on the cool swing, bought some homemade marmalade and chips from the store, and played some more soccer. After dinner, we returned to the community center for a fiesta put on by the organizers in the community. We danced and sang and it was lots of fun.

On Friday morning, after breakfast, the group went on a trail that was used by the indigenous 2500 years ago for trade. The trip was so short but lots of fun! One of my favorite parts was the views from the community. From everywhere in the community but especially from my house, you could see mountains that seemed to go on forever. It was so peaceful and such a well needed break from the stresses on the city and school. Below I included a few pictures on the beautiful mountains as well as my host house and dog.

¡Hasta luego!

MK

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Palm Oil and Petroleum and Deforestation…oh my!

This past Friday I got back from spending 8 days in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. The first 3 days were spent in a small town called Limoncocha. To get there, we took a bus to the airport in Quito then a 30 minute plane ride to the town of Coca. From there we took an open air bus to the Napo River then a 2 hour boat ride to Limoncocha. On the first day, on the way to Limoncocha, we stopped at an island called Sumak Allpa which means “heaven” in the indigenous language. It was also known as monkey island and we soon found out why. During the hour and a half that we were on that island we saw Pygmy marmoset monkeys (the smallest in the world!) and some wooly monkeys. Unfortunately during the whole trip I didn’t get any good pictures of the monkeys because they were always either too far away or moved too fast. After leaving Sumak Allpa, we finished our trip to Limoncocha. While we were in Limoncocha, we stayed in a hostel and I got to have my first experience with mosquito nets. During those 3 days we woke up early to go birdwatching every morning and at night would go out on the lake in canoes in search of Black Caimans (a type of Crocodile). The first night we went out, my group saw 4 juveniles but the second night we saw 4 adults! The biggest one we saw was 4 meters long!!! Below there is a picture of one but it was very dark so it is very had to see. We also saw some pretty cool piranhas!

 

 

 

 

 

One day during our time in Limoncocha, we went on a Toxic Tour. First, we went to the site of an oil drill. At first sight, it looked pretty harmless. It was small and appeared to not be doing that much damage. But we then learned that when the oil is removed from the ground, water is removed with it. The oil and water are separated and the water is dumped into the ground in a “pool”, then covered up with dirt. However, we then walked across the street to visit a family’s house. We went in their backyard where the kids, chickens, and dogs are running around to find a pile of oil. Their backyard is an old pool where the water was dumped, but now the oil is seeping out of the ground in the middle of where they are trying to grow cacao trees! We went a little further to find a pool of what appeared to be clear water. Our guide stirred it up and put his hand on top and it came back completely black and covered with oil. The worst part was that the children were down there with us playing. Our next stop on the toxic tour was an oil refinery where they burn the gases made by the drills. The fire burns 24/7/365, releasing natural gases into the air. This already seems terrible and then we learned that the fumes go into the clouds which then rain toxic water. However, this water is the only water that the people who live there have to bathe, drink, and cook with. We then changed topics and talked about the African palm. It appears harmless, but the African palm plantations are the cause of the majority of deforestation in the Amazon. At first I had no idea why. But then, I learned that palm oil is in almost everything processed! I had no idea that the foods I was buying at the stores were helping to increase deforestation in the Amazon!

 

 

 

 

 

The last 5 days in the Amazon, we spent at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a research station nestled in the middle of the Amazon, with minimal human contact. To get there, we had to cross the Napo River to arrive at the entrance to Yasuni National Park. And guess who controls the entrance to the park? A petroleum company! We took an open air bus 2 hours to the Tiputini River then took another boat 2 hours down the river. During our boat ride we saw a tapir! It was so amazing! When we got to TBS it was so peaceful. Since it is so far away from everything, resources are limited. It meant there was no cell service, wifi was expensive, electricity was only turned on during certain parts of the day, and the filtered water could run out at any moment. It was so great to get a break from the stresses of the world and enjoy being in such a remote location. Again, we woke up each morning to go birdwatching, one morning from the boat, one morning from the bottom of the forest, and one morning from a tower in the top of the canopy. Over the coarse of those mornings, I saw 4 different types types of macaws, 3 different types of toucans, a hawk, a capybara (the biggest rodent in the world!) and multiple other birds. During the day, we had class, did research activities, and went on hikes. It was about 100 degrees F and about 100 percent humidity every day but I got used to it and really enjoyed my time in the forest. My favorite part of the trip was getting to see monkeys every day multiple times a day. I saw pygmy marmosets, woolly monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and heard howler monkeys. I also saw a giant armadillo, some really cool frogs, spiders, butterflies, and other insects. Overall, it was definitely my favorite trip so far (even if I did get stung by 2 wasps)!

¡Hasta luego!

MK

 

 

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A week among the clouds

Well if there is a place that is the complete opposite of the Páramo, it is the cloud forest. It may not be rainy season, but it was wet, warm, and surrounded by everything green. After we crossed the continental divide (on one side rivers flow to the Atlantic and on the other side the Pacific) and began to descend into the eastern slope of the Andes, it was clear we were in an entirely different place. On Monday we arrived in the cloud forest after a long 4 hour drive. We stopped for our first hike. Barely 2 feet into the forest, and I was in heaven. I was surrounded by trees with giant leaves, vines, insects, and the sounds of rushing water and singing birds. It was definitely an interesting hike. When we arrived at the end of the hike, we saw a cave with a river running through it. We began to walk into the cave when we spotted an oilbird, a cool nocturnal cave-dwelling bird. We then decided we wanted to walk through the cave to the other side. We began to wade through the river, when it suddenly began to get deep. So, logically, we put our backpacks on our head and continued on. By the time we got to the other side, we were all soaking wet (the water came up to our chests!) but amazed at the magnificent view. Once we finished the hike, we had lunch then drove to our hotel, named for the visible volcano that erupts every hour.

On Tuesday, we woke up at the early hour of 5:30 for a 6am bird-“catching” class. Now, I definitely slept a lot better than I did in the Páramo (we were in beds this time) but it meant getting up for class at 6 was even harder. However, we caught 3 different birds in our mist nets and got to see them and learn about them up close. And the view from our outdoor classroom wasn’t bad either! We were in class for most of the rest of Tuesday. Tuesday night, we went up the hill to do a field activity. However, the activity didn’t work out so instead, we watched the volcano shoot red sparks into the sky!

 

Wednesday was the earliest day and the longest day. We started our hike at 5:30 when it was still dark outside. We were on an adventure to see a rare bird called the Cock-of-the-Rock. When we started to get close, we could hear them calling. We went really quietly and really slowly. When we finally arrived, we saw about 20 of the most weird looking, bright orange birds. They were very loud and very close. I didn’t get any good pictures but the experience was awesome! After breakfast, my group went to start one of our big group projects. For our project, we are catching frogs in the cloud forest and the Amazon to compare them. Unfortunately, this has to be done at night since that’s when frogs are the most active. So, we went out and hiked about a mile, marking every 100m. We then had class for the rest of the morning. That afternoon, we were dropped off in the woods, one person every 100m, to be by ourselves for what we were told would be about an hour. We were instructed to observe and basically do whatever we wanted as long as we didn’t leave. So, logically, I took a nap. 2 1/2 hours later, we were finally picked up. It was definitely relaxing and cool to feel like you’re in the woods by yourself, with nothing to do but observe, draw, and write (and sleep in my case). That night, my group went out and hiked, catching frogs and recording their calls. I didn’t get to sleep until 12:30 that night but was up for bird-watching at 5:30 the next day!

Thursday, we bird watched in the morning, then had 4 hours to work on our group project. Since my groups project is mostly at night, we took a 2 hour nap before hiking to our next spot to mark every 100m for that night. While we were on that hike, the bottom fell out of the sky so when we got back, we were soaked. After lunch, we had more class and that night, my group went frog catching again. Luckily, we got back earlier that night so I got to bed around 11.

Friday was our last day. We woke up at 5:30 again for our last bird-watching adventure. After breakfast, we left to head home. We made 3 stops on our way home. The first was to the biggest waterfall in Ecuador, San Rafael. Unfortunately, it’s gotten smaller due to the hydroelectric plant upstream. On the short hike in, we were very quiet, hoping to see some cool animals. Unfortunately, I didn’t see many, but a few people in my group saw a spider monkey! After that, we went to another waterfall, called Cascada Mágica (or magic waterfall). It truly was magic! We got super close to it and got completely soaked! It was so much fun! Our last stop on the way back was in the Páaramo to talk about soil, right before we crossed back over the continental divide. We were all freezing! I definitely preferred the cloud forest!

Unfortuntely, 8 out of the 24 of us (1/3 of the group!) have gotten sick with the stomach bug since then. I’ve been one of the lucky ones. So fortunately for me, our academic director decided to cancel classes today to prevent us from all getting it. We all want to be well for our trip to the Amazon which starts on Friday!

¡Hasta luego!

MK

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From 2800 meters to 4000 meters

The city of Quito sits at 2800 meters (a little over 9000 feet) which is already at a high altitude but for our first overnight excursion we traveled to an ecosystem called the Páramo which is right below the snow level of the Andes mountains at 4000 meters (approximately 13,000 feet). Now, to put that into perspective, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi and the tallest point I had ever been up is Mount Mitchell which is only 2000 meters, lower than the city of Quito. Our trip began on Monday morning and ended on Wednesday afternoon.

On Monday, we all gathered at the bus stop and began our journey. We drove about an hour and a half outside of Quito up the Andes mountains to a volcano called Antisana. Once we were about 3500 meters up, we spotted our first animals, the endangered Andean condors. It was breathtaking! We all got off the bus and watched as they flew right over our heads. We were all glad we had our binoculars ready. Unfortunately, my camera was not good enough to get a good picture of them, but they were amazing to watch. We then got back on the bus and drove a little more until we spotted our next animal, the white tailed deer. Now, for many of us, white tailed deer are something we are used to seeing every once in a while in North America, but they are actually endangered in Ecuador. We finally arrived at our hiking location for the day. It was a short and easy hike which was really good because it helped us get used to the altitude. We learned all about the animals and plants there and about their adaptations. It was very cold and rainy that day (and by very cold I mean between 30 and 40 degrees F). Once we finished our hike, we went and had lunch at a restaurant and conservation center called Tambo Condor. The food was amazing! We found out we were staying there in the little cabanas they had (which meant we had amazing food the whole time). After lunch, we walked up the road a little ways to a cliff where there was a known condor nest. We waited, saw a few more condors, and learned how cold it really gets when the sun goes down. We then went back to Tambo Condor, had a lecture, then dinner. After dinner, we went back to our cabanas where we learned there was no heat or hot water. So, we snuggled up in our sleeping bags and went to sleep. My pictures from the first day are below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Tuesday, we woke up cold and a little uncomfortable after sleeping on the floor all night. We went to breakfast then left for our hike that day. Tuesday was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had. The beginning of our hike was great! It was uphill but it was on a path so it was ok. But then, we merged off the path. We found ourselves walking uphill through tall bushy grass without a trail at 4000 meters above sea level. It wasn’t too long before a few of us began to fall behind the rest of the group. My breathing was labored, my heart was racing, and every step I took seemed to require more energy than the last. I’ll admit, there were moments when I didn’t think I would be able to make it to the top. About 6km later, I was glad I hadn’t given up. We finally arrived in front of another cliff where we ate our lunch and waited for condors. When we finally saw them, they were breathtaking, just like the day before. We saw about 10 condors that day, which for an endangered species with only about 200 individuals, was amazing. We then had to hike back down the mountains (but this time was only about 4km since we took a shortcut). When we finally got back to the bus we were exhausted. We then learned we had to do a field exam/project, counting species in certain sizes of plots of land which took about another 2 hours. When we eventually got back to Tambo Condor, we had an hour break which we definitely needed. Someone found a guitar, so a few people played and others sang as we sat warming ourselves near a fire. We then heard from a local community member about his experience in the small town of Pintag and he sang us a few local songs. We had dinner then completed our field exam from earlier. We all slept really hard that night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday was the shortest and easiest day. For our hike that day, we decreased altitude to 3200m to visit a forest in the Páramo. The hiking was more what I was used to, with rocks, roots, and shade from the trees. We learned all about the lava flow from the volcano and the conservation efforts to preserve land like this from mining. After we got home on Wednesday, I was very excited to take a warm shower and to rest a little.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the Páramo gifted me with a cold so besides going to class, I’ve just been trying to get over that since I got back on Wednesday. I did get to do some really cool things last weekend though. I spent the weekend with my college roommate (who’s from Quito)’s parents. We drove to a town called Otavalo which is known for its high indigenous population. They have a market there every Saturday that fills up most of the streets of the town. On the way there, we stopped on the equator which was really cool! It was kind of surreal to stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. We also stopped in a town called Cayambe which is known for a cookie called a Bizcocho that are only made there. They tasted like a puffy shortbread. I also got to tour around the historical center of Quito, go in many beautiful churches, and go to the big virgin statue called the Panecillo that overlooks Quito.

  

Well, I leave tomorrow for my next excursion, the Cloud Forest! I’m super excited and I’m glad I’m almost over my cold!

¡Hasta luego!

MK

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The Beginning of an Adventure

Well believe it or not, I’ve been in the beautiful country of Ecuador for almost a whole week!! On the one hand it feels like so much longer and on the other it feels like I arrived just yesterday. After a long day of traveling, I arrived in Quito, Ecuador on Sunday, September 2 (with a very shaky landing that I did not like). I met up with the other 8 students on my same flight from Miami and successfully made it through customs. After (again successfully!) getting all of our bags, we met Diana, our program assistant, who helped us get to the hotel where we spent the first 2 nights. We met everyone else from our program and bonded over some pizza before heading to bed.

The second day, Monday, we woke up, had breakfast in the hotel, then met Diana and walked to the program building where we will have our classes. Monday included lots of get to know you activities as well as lots of orientation. That evening, we got to go on a nighttime bus tour of Quito and learned all about the historic parts. A little bit about Quito: Quito is the capital city of Ecuador and is located in the valley between the Andes mountains. Now, even though it is in the valley, it still has an altitude of 9000 feet above sea level (which means I’ve had a headache every day while my body adapts to the altitude). It is also home to 2.6 (or 4.7 if you count the suburbs) million of the 16 million residents of Quito but is only 143 square miles (which means the traffic is really bad).

Tuesday, instead of going to the SIT program building, we instead got to go to the Jardín Botánica de Quito (Botanical Garden). We learned all about the types of ecosystems in Ecuador and about the different types of plants that grow there (see my pictures below). After lunch and a little bit more orientation, we headed back to the SIT building. It was now time to do what I had been dreading, take the SIELE exam. SIELE is a 3 hour Spanish exam with reading comprehension, listening, writing, and speaking parts to determine your overall Spanish level. We will take it again at the end of the program and the hope is that our Spanish should improve. After that (very) long test was over, it was time for us to meet our host families!!! We were all extremely excited (and nervous too). It was definitely overwhelming at first, but I love my host family. I have a sister who is my same age (her birthday is a week before mine) and she is studying medicine like me! So far, everything with my host family has been going great!

Wednesday was not very exciting and included continued orientation, but Thursday was different. On Thursday we took our first excursion to the Jerusalem Andean Dry Forest Reserve. At first sight, it looked like a desert. The roads were sandy and there were cacti. But, it was a completely different ecosystem. At this point, we split into our Spanish groups and went around with our professors, taking notes while they were talking. It was definitely a different kind of learning than I am used to. After we finished our hike, we ate lunch then got into a freezing cold “pool” (it was only 2 feet deep) to cool off. The pictures below are of the dry forest (unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of the pool).

Today we finished orientation and started our Spanish classes. The work is definitely going to be hard but I can already tell I am going to learn a lot. I’m super excited to have this opportunity to explore the ecosystems of Ecuador and become a better biologist (especially in the field). It’s not going to be easy but nothing that’s worth it ever is.

Sorry for such a long first post! I’ll definitely try to do better next time.

Hasta luego!

MK

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