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Day 8: Frigates, Humpbacks and Boobies, Oh My!

June 26, 2014

by Tarina, Emily and Cindy

This morning we woke up in lovely cabañas to the sound of birds and surf in Puerto Lopez. We enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, bread, and coffee. At 8:30 we headed into town to board the boat for a whale watch and hike on Isla de la Plata (otherwise known as the poor man’s Galapagos). We met our guides, kicked off our sandals, and admired the Pacific on our 1½-hour ride to the island. The ocean water was so mesmerizing that it only seemed to take five minutes to arrive.

Our approach to the island was a scene of crashing waves, swarming birds, and high cliffs. Our guide showed us the map of the hiking trails, explaining that some were closed for albatross nesting and off we went. We saw lizards, Algarrobo trees, and even rats. A fisherman had accidentally introduced rats to the island and they have become an invasive species. Therefore, although the island was very clean, several tubes containing rat poison were sporadically placed to the side of the paths. They are trying to control the rat population but aren’t concerned about this affecting the food chain because the rats don’t have predators on the island.

We hiked up the steep terrain to enjoy the cool breeze and panoramic view. As we continued on we saw Blue-footed Boobies preparing for their mating season. Our guide explained how to differentiate between the male and the female boobies: the male is smaller, has dilated pupils, and makes a whistling sound while the female makes a honking sound. We heard this, and were able to witness the dance that the male uses to impress the female.

Blue-footed Boobie Male

Male Blue-footed Booby on the Isla de la Plata.

Next along our trail we stopped at the frigatebird colonies where the males were showing their engorged gular pouches in order to court the females. Once the pouches become engorged, they stay like this for a month, making it hard for them to eat or fly. The nickname for the frigatebird is the pirate bird because they aggravate the Blue-footed Boobies to the point where they will throw up the fish in their stomach for the frigates to steal. Our trip here was a great display of survival of the fittest — and the prettiest.

Male Frigatebird

Male Magnificent Frigatebird with inflated gular pouch.

With a new appreciation for this ecosystem, we hiked back down the mountain to board the boat for lunch where we were greeted by Green Sea Turtles. The guides were feeding them pineapple to keep them close to the boat, and although we loved having them at an arm’s length away, we would have preferred to see the turtles feed and swim naturally.

We headed back out to sea in search of Humpback Whales, which migrate from the Antarctic, where they feed, to warmer waters off the Ecuadorian coast to breed and give birth to their calves. We feel lucky to have not only seen one whale, but also a social pod of six displaying very active behaviors. We were entranced by these huge mammals and took a lot of photos.

Humpback Whale

Humpback whale seen off Isla de la Plata.

We zoomed back to the mainland in hopes of catching the last half of the World Cup game against France. Afterwards we had our nightly meeting where we reviewed our goals, reflected on our travels, and shared our appreciation for each other and the entire experience. Ecuador has treated us so well and there is no disputing that the land and the people will always have a special place in our hearts.

Day 7: A Tour from the Heart

June 25, 2014

by Tara, Julie, Lindsay, and Melissa (Team Malarone)

Our group awoke this morning in an over-the-top, ship-themed hotel in the town of Ballenita. Seeing the sunrise was the perfect way to start our adventures on the Ecuadorian coast. Prior to breakfast being served, one of the owners, Señora Dillon, gave us a brief tour of our accommodations. Some of the items we viewed were treasures from the Capitana, a galleon that sank off the coast of Ecuador in 1654. Captain Dillon, a merchant marine captain at the time, was involved in the discovery which took place in 1997.

Before we knew it, it was time to board our trusty bus. Next stop was the community of Chanduy. For over 1,500 years, fishing has been a way of life for this ancestral community. Three years ago, the community asked Heifer for support with fishing materials. We arrived on the coast and witnessed the impressive bustle of the artisanal fishing community. It quickly became obvious that everyone in the community was accustomed to marine life, including the fresh scents of the day’s catch. Ducking under fish-thieving frigatebirds, our group was divided into four boats, which were then cast off into the Pacific Ocean.

Immediately we spotted large industrial fishing vessels aligned along the boundary of their legal fishing limit. The dispute between the commercial and local fishermen continues because the commercial fishermen push the limits of their fishing boundaries and their catch quotas. On our way out to the fishing location we were overjoyed to come across three ballenas (Humpback Whales) and sea turtles! Our fishermen were accommodating and allowed us to eagerly observe, photograph, and film the magnificent sea creatures for a time. Saddled with our bright orange life preservers, we bobbed up and down on the ocean and observed the local fishing methods.

As we watched the fisherman expertly deploy the 1,500-meter-long nets, we were amazed at the skill and strength it took. After a while, we watched as the men pulled in the net, revealing the diversity of the fish in the catch. As we headed back into the marina, the morning’s hustle and bustle had virtually disappeared as the workday came to a close. Up next was a local lunch of fried plantains, plaintain chips, fried Trumpet Fish, langostina (similar to a large shrimp/crawfish), rice, ceviche, and a potato salad. The locals warmly welcomed us with their incredible hospitality.

After lunch, we were honored to meet with the president, secretary and treasurer of the cooperative bank that the community had established for the fishermen. Besides providing low-interest loans to its members, the bank also makes emergency funds available at no interest. Every 15 days, the bank’s members meet to participate in volunteer projects for the community, such as putting together food baskets for the elderly and less fortunate.

Today left our hearts full and our minds much more aware and sensitized to the hard work and life of an Ecuadorian fisherman and the community that supports this artisanal industry.

Day 6: Mountains to Sea – Through the Middle of the World

June 24, 2014

by Kate, Leslie, and Meghan

After the toucans and trogons bid us farewell, we left the majestic cloud forest and the mountains we have grown to love and headed to the Quito airport. En route, we spent time at “Mitad del Mundo” (Middle of the World) – latitude 0°0’0” and, if we had said, “we were the center of the world,” we would have been correct.  After documenting our fun jumping between hemispheres, we looked around at the shopping paradise awaiting us and then took full advantage of our ½ hour opportunity!  Our time passed all too quickly and we reluctantly piled on the bus with bags full of Ecuadorian treasures – tagua nut jewelry, scarves, bags, whistles, llama dolls, and more!

We each had one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the south.

We each had one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the south.

At the airport, we discovered we had internet access for the first time in two days and were thrilled to post Day 4 and to read comments from our friends and family back home in N.C. – it reminded us of receiving summer camp mail!  After a short 45-minute flight, we landed in Guayaquil, where a two-hour bus ride delivered us to the Pacific coast.  Though the ride was long, the company was great and we feel we’ve grown closer as a group, talking, laughing, and learning along the way. The long day’s travel from the mountains to the sea was certainly worth it when our bus delivered us to the town of Ballenita and a breathtaking oceanfront sunset.

Sunset at Hosteria Farallon Dillon

We were welcomed to our hotel with a beautiful sunset.

We eagerly anticipate visiting a new Heifer site, an artisanal fishing project.  We continue to be inspired by this selfless organization that empowers people and communities.


Day 5: Head in the Clouds

June 24, 2014

by Tarina, Cindy and Emily

After arriving at the Bella Vista reserve in the dark we knew we were somewhere beautiful but never imagined the majesty that the morning sunlight would unveil. In our treetop canopies we awoke to a picturesque view of mossy trees, clouds, and wildlife. We did not have to walk far from the lodge for our early morning bird watch to see a lot of activity. We admired toucans, hummingbirds, flycatchers, tanagers, and surrounded by a cacophony of sounds. After a short walk, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast that provided energy for a three-hour hike.

Cloud Forest

View of the cloud forest during our morning bird hike.

Plate-billed Mountain Toucan

One of several Plate-billed Mountain Toucans that was taking advantage of a tree next to the parking lot that produces fruit for two weeks each June.

On the longer hike, our expert tour guide, David, led us through the cloud forest and shared a wealth of information about the flora and fauna we were seeing. The forest contains a wide variety of birds and butterflies, and the rarely seen olinguito, spectacled bear, and snakes. David explained that a flower’s colors indicate what pollinators are attracted to it. For example, yellow and white flowers will attract insects while red flowers attract hummingbirds. Pink, purple, and orange flowers attract birds while bats pollinate dark, smelly flowers. If a flower is a mixture of colors, it will attract multiple pollinators. We also learned about the difference between a rainforest and a cloud forest. A cloud forest sits at a higher elevation and the ground receives more sunlight due to openings in the canopy. We could write a book using the plethora of information we acquired and the connections we made to the flora and fauna of North Carolina. After viewing a minute portion of the 4,070 types of orchids, 2,627 butterfly species, and 131 hummingbird species here, it’s undeniable that Ecuador has the greatest biodiversity in the world.

Hiking in the cloud forest

Stopping to examine the plants along a trail in the cloud forest.

Although we didn’t want the hike to end, our stomachs were happy that lunch was ready. We found it incredible that even in the middle of the cloud forest, the chefs prepared a meal for us with the freshest and tastiest ingredients. As we ate lunch the clouds rolled in and we had our daily debriefing. We discussed how appreciative we were for this Institute and for the people we are sharing it with. We even got choked up recapping our experiences and reflecting on our new friendships. Finally, we finished out the day surrounded by hummingbirds, watching the US battle Portugal in the World Cup and enjoying a final visit with the olinguitos. Gooooaaal x3!

Day 4: Páramo to Cloud Forest

June 23, 2014

by Lindsay, Melissa, Julie and Tara (Team Malarone)

We ate an early breakfast and packed up to head back to Communidad Cumbijín. On the bus ride up to the community, we learned about the cultural significance of guinea pigs (cuy in Spanish) and how they are used in medicinal ways, which date back to pre-Columbian Incan tradition. We continued further up in altitude (13,255 ft) to the Parque National Llanganates, a community-protected area of the páramo. After a winding, uphill drive we opted to walk the scenic route to the Laguna Anteojos, two lakes that look like eyeglasses when viewed from above. The vegetation in the páramo acts like a sponge to slowly release the large amounts of fresh water that flow down from the surrounding mountains. As we meandered up to the lakes, we had to remind ourselves to not just take in the panoramic view, but also to observe the microhabitats that consisted of a huge diversity of flowering plants, lichens, mosses, horsetails and grasses.

Páramo scenery

Páramo scenery at Parque Nacional Llanganates (Llanganates National Park).

We then loaded back onto the bus and drove to the site of the Cumbijín community’s alpaca project, which is supported by Heifer Ecuador. Once there, the project director introduced us to the community’s herd of 76 alpacas which were given to them two years ago by the Morochos community, a Heifer-supported project that previous Ecuador Culture and Ecology Institutes have visited. This illustrates one of Heifer International’s 12 Cornerstones of passing on the gift.

The director of the alpacas debriefed us on their care regimen; which includes deparasitizing, clipping down nails, and filing teeth. Due to a wet climate, the vegetation is fairly tender, therefore the alpacas’ teeth were not worn down as they naturally would be by tougher vegetation. We anxiously awaited the alpacas’ arrival as they were herded up the road to meet us. Without a sound, they walked past us, evidence of how their padded toes don’t negatively impact the soft ground of the páramo. Cameras were flashing in an attempt to capture the quirky, yet adorable camelids.

Alpacas of the Cumbijín Community

Alpacas of the Cumbijín Community

After about 30 minutes of watching the alpacas interact with each other and graze, it was time to let them return to their pasture.

When the alpacas left, the park rangers invited us in out of the cold and shared with us Sunfo, a sweet, minty, warm tea made from a native plant that helps detoxify the body. Then we returned to the Cumbijín community for their annual festival. We feasted with the locals on typical Andean food — fava beans, cow cheese, chicken and cilantro soup, rice and beef, and  a drink called chicha, a lightly fermented drink made from maize and spices. After lunch, we went to the community square to enjoy costumed dances to celebrate St. Andrew. We were honored to be invited to watch another community tradition, Torros del Pueblo, a sport that includes horses, bulls and brave young men. Unlike in bullfighting, the bulls are not injured. The first bull was released in our honor and we enjoyed the spectacle.

Torros del Pueblo, an annual event in the Cumbijín community.

Torros del Pueblo, an annual event in the Cumbijín community.

Once back on the bus, we drove north of the equator and headed up to the cloud forest. We reached our final destination, Bella Vista Cloud Forest Reserve, after traveling on a road that would keep out the faint of heart and tender of tush. We checked into our Swiss Family Robinson-style accommodations and on our way to dinner, checked off team goal numero uno: to see the newly-described olinguito, a two-pound, omnivorous, raccoon-like mammal. (We were especially excited to see the olinguito because one of the Museum’s researchers, Dr. Roland Kays, was involved in the field verification of this mammal.) A few olinguitos started visiting the Reserve’s humming bird feeders a few months ago and have become fairly regular evening visitors. This sighting was the perfect welcome to the cloud forest and the beginning of our next eco-adventure.

Olinguito at Bella Vista

Olinguito at Bella Vista

Day 3: A Day of Sharing

June 20, 2014

by Kate, Leslie and Meghan

After a light breakfast, during which we tried two new juices, guava and tree tomato, we headed to the Community of Cumbijín, a mountainous páramo partner with Heifer Ecuador, to distribute the lessons, activities, and materials we had prepared.  As we entered the school grounds, we were overcome with emotion as one student ran over to hug each of us!  We immediately felt welcomed!  The NC teachers divided into three teams, accompanied by a translator, to lead the professional development with the teachers and students of the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.  The three topics were Human Body, Wildlife of Ecuador, and Outdoor Investigations.  We were excited to interact with the teachers and students and they were eager to learn and participate in the activities.  We asked the students if they would be able to repeat the activities with the younger students and they yelled “¡Sí!” in unison!

Ecuadorian student with bug in a box.

Ecuadorian student with bug in a box.

Ecuadorian students assembling a model human skeleton.

Ecuadorian students assembling a model human skeleton.

After many hugs and pictures, we gathered with the community and students in the town plaza where we were honored with a presentation of traditional Ecuadorian dances by the students.  Then we were asked to dance with the students!

We said “adios” to the students and enjoyed a traditional Andean meal of melloco (a tuber similar to potatoes), fava beans, cheese, papa chaucho (potatoes), hard boiled eggs, and ají sauce (which is very similar to salsa).  The meal was a “bamba mesa” which means “potluck” and was prepared by the students’ families and was produced within the community.

After performing a dance traditional to the region, the students asked us to dance with them.

After performing a dance traditional to the region, the students asked us to dance with them.

Our wonderful meal of typical Andean cuisine.

Our wonderful meal of typical Andean cuisine.

In reflection of the day, we realized that though we are geographically far apart, we are similar in many customs.  For example, the school was organized similarly (with a principal, classes by grade, a parent-teacher association, & a student council).  More importantly, we met passionate teachers and enthusiastic students, which inspires us; all of our hearts grew a little more today!

So … we must mention Futbol de Ecuador!  We walked to a local restaurant to watch the big game and share in the excitement when Ecuador beat Honduras 2 to 1!  The celebration that filled the streets was overwhelming!  People were honking car horns, blowing trumpets, waving flags, and chanting “Ecuador” and “Sí se puede” which means “Yes, we can!”

Day 2: Coca Tea and Cotopaxi

June 19, 2014

By Tarina, Cindy, and Emily (Los Cocodrilos)

We started the day with a great breakfast at the Hotel Sebastian in Quito at an altitude of approximately 2,850 meters. Que delicioso!

We got our shopping fix at the local Arte Folklore Olga Fish then took a short walk through the city to Heifer Ecuador Headquarters. After a warm welcome from the Heifer Ecuador team, we were engaged by a presentation by Rosa Rodriguez. She informed us about Heifer’s mission to promote sustainability through environment and development in five programs: Mangroves, Dry forests, Highlands, Páramo, and the Amazon forest.

More than 13,000 families in need have benefited in 7 short years and will continue to do so through the value chain model. Within this model, Heifer assists the family, who then shares with the community, which develops the region to produce better conditions for everyone involved. Check out for more information about Heifer’s work.

We then began traveling through the cities, valleys, and rural areas on our ascent to Cotopaxi National Park. The ride was beautiful and dizzying with the increased altitude but thankfully we had consumed Coca Tea to help us acclimate to the steep paths. At more than 12,000 feet some of the group were feeling the effects of high altitude.

City Street with school children walking home from school.

Ecuadorian children walking home from school.

We rounded a corner and saw that the clouds had parted for us to see the magnificence of the summit of Cotopaxi. One of our leaders, Patricio, told us of a legend that says when the clouds part, the mountain is welcoming you, and it only happens to good people.

Cotopaxi Volcano

The clouds part as Cotopaxi welcomes our group with a magnificent view.

We continued up the mountainous road and witnessed the wild horses and grazing cattle just before we arrived at our lunch spot. We sat together in front of a looming volcano and a lake — how magnificent! Some of our group members presented topics about the Andean condor, calderas, and the Páramo. After our delicious lunch of guacamole sandwiches, mayonnaise potato chips, apples, chocolate muffins, and Oreos, we started our descent back down the mountain to the Hotel Villa de Tacunga in Latacunga.

Lunch on the Paramo

Delicious lunch prepared for us by Hacienda El Porvenir.

Lunch on the Paramo

Our group enjoyed a picnic lunch on a wildlife viewing platform.

Hotel Villa de Tacunga

Our beautiful hotel in Latacunga, Ecuador.

We are about to begin putting our teaching boxes together and enjoy the city! Hasta pronto!

Day 1: Hasta Luego US of A!

June 18, 2014

By: Julia, Tara, Melissa, Lindsay (Team Malarone)

The Educators of Excellence Team arrived promptly at RDU with our expertly packed luggage in tow. While we each thought we were the lightest packer of the bunch, to our dismay, we all had various standards of “packing light.” Before the security check, we redistributed teaching materials that will be used on Day 3 when we go to the school in Comunidad Cumbijín. Once on the other side of security, without filled water bottles or sharp objects, we settled in at our gate. The time passed quickly with discussion of what medicines we were taking, convertible pants, and that Nordstrom just released fashion-friendly Tevas!

We boarded onto the plane bound for Miami and were rushed to sit down, but relieved to find out the bathroom facilities were back in working order. Two hours later, we were in Miami … with five hours to spare. We found a quiet corner to have a team meeting where we reviewed the itinerary, how we were feeling, and the goals of the trip, and got to know each other better.

Our team was privileged to be the first bloggers and are happy to introduce the team photo, complete with two stowaways that we would like to further introduce. First, we have Acrocito (little Acrocanthosaurus) who is joining us from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Our second friend is Olinguito, a newly-described mammal from the South American cloud forest. You may see them pop up in future blog photos. 🙂

We now have two hours remaining before departure to Quito! Thanks for joining us in the Ecuadorian experience and please remember our Internet access will not always be reliable, but we will post when we can. Please comment and ask questions and we will do our best to respond.

Ecuador Route

The journey we will take over the next 10 days!

Team Photo

All of us in Miami Airport; photo-bombed by Acrocito and Olinguito.

About Ecuador Culture & Ecology Institute

June 18, 2014

Alpaca looking at cameraSince 2004, select groups of North Carolina educators have joined a special collaboration in Ecuador, South America, between the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Heifer International. On June 18, 2014, a new group of NC educators will explore Ecuadorian ecosystems, from the high altiplano to the Pacific coast, and learn about the animals and people who live in these places.

Day 8: Beyond the Sea

June 27, 2012

Somewhere, beyond the sea, await our lives back in North Carolina.  Here on our last day in Ecuador, we traveled to Los Frailes National Park for some reflective time on the preserved, pristine beach.  A few years ago Ecuador became more diligent about preserving its natural resources through the national park system and ensuring that the flora, fauna, and geography are intact for future generations.

Upon arrival at the park we were greeted with breathtaking views of sand, beach and crashing waves, bordered by mountain rock cliffs.  Seeing this remarkable spot truly made our group appreciate once more all of the natural beauty and biodiversity of Ecuador.  Each person took about 30 minutes to quietly reflect on their experience over the past week and find one object from the seaside to bring back to the group.  As each person came back to our starting point,  they added their object to the seaside collage and reflected on how this symbolized all of our many experiences and adventures. In a group circle, we shared our final thoughts and feelings about Ecuador and our experiences.

After our time on the beach we headed back to Puerto Lopez for lunch at the Hostel Mandala, before departing for Guayaquil.  We then boarded our bus for one last ride to our departure city, stopping for a final shopping trip at ProPueblo.  This unique store supports local women and their handicrafts trade by selling natural fiber baskets, paper goods, ceramics, and tagua nut jewelry or artwork.  We said our final goodbyes to Roberto, our fearless bus driver, and Miguel, our intrepid interpreter.  It was another bittersweet moment as we realized that our time here was coming to a quick close.

Despite our sadness over parting ways with Roberto and Miguel, we had a luxurious evening at our hotel in Guayaquil, enjoying a final dinner in a private room (meaning we pretty much took over the whole restaurant).  We left our hotel at 5 a.m. for the airport, saying final goodbyes to Marcelo and Monica, our tour guides, knowing that this was now the final chapter of our Ecuadorian adventure.

We arrived at Raleigh-Durham Airport one week ago as a group of strangers, embarking on a unique adventure; however we are leaving Ecuador as a group of friends and colleagues who will always treasure our time in this amazing natural wonder, creating a sisterhood which will only continue to grow and blossom.