Ecuador: a touch of coast life

As I write this post we prepare to board a bus that will have us leaving Ecuador and entering our third South American country, Peru. For the last week and a bit we have been soaking up the sunshine on the coast. Unwinding after pushing our bodies quite physically at Merazonia and having some time to mentally relax also. I think this is very important whilst on the go in a foreign country. Often we go days maybe even weeks of being exposed to new sights, smells and sounds and it can be quite draining – it’s important to reset now and then. We arrived in Montanita, famous for strong cocktails and an even stronger Gringo presence. We checked it out, wasn’t too fussed then decided to head North.

Unfortunately the day we decided to move on, I woke up and was not feeling too great. We are a bit too laid back with our hygiene caution here. We brush our teeth with tap water, eat raw fruit and veg, I gnaw on ice cubes and cuddle street dogs and cats profusely – we aren’t too careful. So after such a great run I was pretty surprised to be ill from the ice in Montanita. Feeling dizzy we headed to the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Lopez, the perfect place to take easy for a few days. Once I felt better We were ready to do some exploring and headed to the Isla De La Plata – nicknamed the ‘Poor Mans Galapagos’. A small Island 40kms from Puerto Lopez which is home to many different species of birds but primarily Blue Footed Boobies. Our guide toured us around a small part of the island and spoke about their efforts of conservation and animal protection. A large part of the island is closed off in order to protect breeding pairs of Albatross – rare migratory birds. After a few cringe worthy moments in Colombia and seeing animals being mistreated in a National Park, it was refreshing to hear the passion our guide had when speaking about the island. Our day out was beautiful and it was fantastic to view some beautiful wildlife.

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Also whilst in Puerto Lopez we seemed to be magnets for adorable street animals and made quite a few new friends.

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The last few days we have been in Ayampe. A tiny town of bamboo shacks and dirt roads which we fell in love with. Not entirely sure how many people live in the town but we only saw about 15 in the 4 days we were here. It was quiet and peaceful and the perfect end to our time in Ecuador. We had a little place right on the beach where we drank coconuts ate bananas and trip planned. Trent was able to finally have a few days of surfing which he loved. As we look at a calendar and look at out ‘must see’ list which is ever growing, we know we need to keep moving. So on and down we go to giant Peru.
Adios Ecuador – I would have loved to have spent more time in your beautiful country. We did get a nice little taster in the 6 weeks we were here: a little jungle, some andes, some cloud forest and a touch of the coast. Hasta luego – Amor la vida. br />
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Ecuador: A month in the jungle at Merazonia

One thing that we really wanted to do whilst in South America was volunteer with native animals and thanks to Merazonia, we were able to spend a month doing so. Merazonia is a rescue and rehabilitation centre for trafficked and/or abused Amazonian animals located just 15 minutes from the tiny town of Mera. Mera, which you have probably never ever heard of as it minuscule is situated in an area where the Andes meets the Amazon and as you can imagine when mountains and jungle collide you get stunning mountainous jungle.

It was slightly stressful choosing where we would volunteer as there are many options with a limited number of those looking reputable. We had heard/read cases of centres with no plan at all to rehabilitate and release and solely used the animals as a source of tourism and revenue – yuk! Places that cuddled monkeys all day and housed animals in tiny enclosures whilst treating volunteers poorly – not fun. So by the time we had stumbled upon Merazonia we had done a lot and I mean a lot of research on animal centres and had our wits about us. We had a lot of questions, all of which were answered in a first email back highlighting what volunteering would entail. Long days, community living, no electricity, compost toilets and a ‘hands off approach’ to the animals in their care. We were sold – strongly due to the last part and set our arrival date and off we headed to the jungle.

Merazonia at first, seemed like a bit of a mission to get to. From Mindo we headed back on a 2 hour bus to Quito and then a 6 hour bus to the touristy ‘adventure oasis’ town of Banos. After spending a couple of days in Banos (Quad biking through the Andes, jumping off bridges etc) we followed instructions to board ‘any bus heading to the jungle and get off in the town square of Mera’. Having no freaking idea where Mera was located and a little too focused on not throwing up as our bus driver rallied around the mountain side (I get very dizzy if I am not in the front seat of a car) I wasn’t exactly looking out the window. Hence why we were a bit shocked as suddenly the bus driver shouts repeatedly from the front ‘MERA MERA MERA!!!!’ Shit – this is us! I look out the window and see what must be Meras famous town square disappear as we drive past. As we run to the front of the bus to jump off I notice our backpacks have already been hauled from the undercarriage and onto the road, meanwhile the bus didn’t even stop as we jumped off. Picking all our belongings up from the gravel we re-group and quote our next instruction ‘get a transmera (aka jungle cab) to Merazonia – they are white pick ups with green stripes’. As we look around the secluded bus stop on the main road 20 long minutes go past and all we see are buses heading back to Banos. Deciding we should walk back into town and by the looks and smiles the locals were use to the constant flux of Gringos – we find a Transmera and 15 bumpy minutes later arrive.

The next month we worked 6 consecutive days for four weeks, from 7.30am – 5pm. For two of those we lived in the volunteer house with 11 others. It was damp, dark and smelly but the beds were comfy and thats all that mattered. We struck gold at the end of our first two weeks when capacity was maxed and we were given the opportunity to move to Frank and Louisa’s (founder/vet) to the downstairs of their brand new cabin! Incredibly beautiful and we more then appreciated the privacy, I already miss the chorus of frogs at night. After our first week of introductory rounds – learning to feed and clean the cages of Capuchin and Woolly Monkeys, Parrots and various Macaws, we wanted to do more. We had noticed that the Capuchin enclosures needed a lot of love.The enclosures had turned into mudslides and mudpits and over our time were slowly transformed and filled with steps, retaining walls, rocks and many, many bags of sand. Whilst myself and other vollies assisted, Trent did much of the work on his own and I am incredibly proud. All construction materials were (painstakingly) sourced from the river, sides of the mountain and fallen down trees. We spent a lot of time up at the Capuchins and we fell in love with these incredible creatures as we were able to observe them out of their hyperactive feeding times. I’m going to miss them the most and primates are truly incredible mini humans. Meeting and interacting with the non-animal part of the refuge was also a joy and the communal dinners by candlelight were definitely a highlight. I also had the opportunity to teach two early morning yoga classes in the new long term volunteer cabin which was an incredibly memorable experience.

I learnt a lot from our month in the jungle and if I were to write everything down this post would be ridiculously long. But most importantly to summarise:
•Woolly monkey poo smells like human poo and 2 hours of picking it up in torrential rain, by hand, with a holey glove is real character building.
•We consume an unecessary amount of electricity as humans and I can easily (and romantically) live with candle light. And come to think of it, I wasn’t at all phased being so called ‘disconnected’ from social media.
*Re-introducing yourself to new volunteers can be exhausting and we often thought about making up new life stories – mainly that Trent was a woman.
*Water, lime and rum can be mixed to make a delicious and hydrating cocktail at the end of the day.
*Cooking for 17 people, without electricity and a fridge isn’t as difficult as it sounds.
*A Merazonia experience isn’t complete without March fly bites on the ass and doing a jungle poop.
*Riding in the back of a ute, wasted, through the jungle will always be amazing.

Thanks to Merazonia for letting us be apart of your project, maybe someday in the future we will return to see what you are up to. Please check out http://www.merazonia.org to read and learn more!

P.s
The photo you will see of a monkey on my shoulder is Ollie the Tamarin (not being pat) currently there is no way to trap him whilst cleaning his enclosure so he jumps on you as a tree – this is one of the treats of doing the solo animals. Also the other baby monkey (Seamus the Howler) is currently undergoing quarantine and received daily sunlight on the back of a long term volunteer or Louisa/Frank. Louisa and Frank are very passionate about the correct rehabilitation and release of the animals in their care: for example many of the Macaws are imprinted and have had their wings clipped – meaning their odds of survival in the wild would be low – so the refuge focuses on creating and maintaining a natural and comfortable enclosure. The similar rule applies for releasing monkeys in the areas, packs must be bonded in order to survive life in the jungle – a process that is long and often difficult. We admire all the work that has been put into the refuge and are proud to have spent a short time contributing. Currently the refuge was caring for a troop of Capuchin and Woolly monkeys, two Tamarin monkeys, 2 Howler monkeys, a variety of parrots and Macaws, a Guatin (adorable rodent type thing), a group of Kinkajus that were being soft released and a Puma.

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Ecuador: Quito and Mindo

We left the tapestry lined streets of Otavalo (vowing to return one day) and headed by bus to the Capital. By now we were getting pretty good at this whole bus thing and had already decided that so far Ecuador was far better and cheaper then Colombia. With Bus travel in Ecuador the general rule for cost is $1 for every hour that you travel. Coming from a city infamous for it’s overpriced public transport (Brisbane) this rule was music to our ears. After an estimated 2 hour trip that of course turned into 5 and 1/2 we arrived in Quito early one evening and descended 3 flights of stairs to our hostel room in the Old Town. Noticing that we were finding breathing a tad harder then usual, the 2’800m above sea level altitude had made itself known straight away. Ignoring the Lonely Planet ‘dealing with altitude’ tips to avoid drinking and rest upon arrival we bought a bottle of Rum and headed out to the bar/gringo district of Plaza Foch to toast our final night with our new amiga and travel confidant for the last 3 weeks – Queen Zohra. It isn’t often that you meet someone on the otherside of the world and feel as if you have known them for many years and Zohra’s friendship (and spanish) will be greatly missed by us both. The following day we bid farewell to our friend and spent the next couple of days recovering from colds , the result of a two day bus trip and a little bit of altitude sickness and managed to do a little exploring. Really testing our lungs with a walk through the hilly Old Town up to the towering La Basilica.

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Not being a fan of large cities we agreed that 3 days in Quito was more than enough and boarded a bus to the small town of Mindo only two hours away. Mindo was beautiful and completely exceeded my expectations. Set in the Andean foothills amongst a stunning cloud forest this quaint village of only 3000 people attracts birdwatchers from around the world. After only 5 minutes in the town it wasn’t hard to know why as we were surrounded by various species of hummingbirds. We spent 3 days relaxing in our forest cabin, visiting a cacao farm and factory (heaven), walking to cascades, riding in cable cars and zip lining over the jungle canopy. We were surrounded by butterflies, hummingbirds and even had our first Tucan spotting! Mindo was the perfect place to unwind and chill before we began our volunteering stint.

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