Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ants - Why Did it Have to Be Ants?

When the water rises - head for high ground. And that's just what thousands of ants did the night of our exhausting horseback adventure.

Cabinas Yambala is just outside the town of Vilcabama and is run by Charlie, formerly of Boston, who has lived in Ecuador since the 70's. When we returned from the mountain he told us he was getting worried that we hadn't returned. It had never happened that people hadn't returned, but having rained an extraordinary amount in 3 hours, the rivers were raging and darkness would make it very difficult to return. I didn't ask what could have been done if we hadn't come back! But now that we were back, we could get cleaned up, have something to eat and sleep.

Sometime after midnight I was woken by Ma-Le who yelled "something bit me". I tapped the lamp on the nightstand and it began to softly glow, illuminating the low-ceiling, wood-framed cabin and revealing a frantic Ma-Le who had discovered not only the ant that had bitten her, but the army of ants that had taken positions on the battlefield of a blanket.

As a kid I was known to exaggerate - someday I'll retell the story of the "100 dead squirrels", but suffice it to say that the lesson I learned in telling that tale was only embellish that which can not be proven to be false. So when I say there were several hundred if not thousands of ants peppering the blanket, pillows, floor and walls I have an honest Ecuadorian who can back up this claim. Just replace the snakes with ants from Raiders of the Lost Ark and this was the scene we'd awoken to.

The super saturated earth outside had left the ants with no alternative but to join us indoors and remarkably, only one ant had taken exception to our presence by biting Ma-Le. Had it not done so, we may have slumbered blissfully unaware of the insects that trekked on, over and around us just as we had trekked the mountain the day before.

But it did bite and woe were the ants who minded their own business. They were brushed off, swept up and escorted back out into the rain. So tired were we from our excursion the day before that we didn't care that they would just trot right back in - 6 legs at a time.

A few thousand ants? Far better than rats, snakes or spiders.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Andean Nightmare - The Horseback Slip n' Slide

The sun will set. Night will fall, the rain will continue and we will be stuck on a remote Andean mountain at 8500 feet above sea level, with no food or shelter or ability to change out of soaking wet clothes. We may be in Ecuador, but hypothermia is a serious threat and our horses, usually sure of foot are just as nervous as we are on the cliff edge.
In the itinerary that Ma-Le prepared, our excursion for this day was a hike into the hills of Vilcabama, Ecuador culminating in a climb into the jungle canopy where we would experience our first zip line. Excited - I paid no attention to any other details of this day - fixating on what I expected to be the highlight of my trip - zipping through the jungle - 50 feet above the ground.

When our host, Charlie of Cabinas Yambala offered me the reins to his personal horse "Speedy" I realized that I should have asked earlier for the detailed plans of our day. Apparently to get to the zip line way up in the cloud forest, we'd have to travel on horseback from 5000 to 8500 feet above sea level, carefully navigating the cliffs and fording the rivers along the way. Three hours by horse - then 1 hour of hiking - then the zip line.
Speedy knew the way, so I would lead the procession of Ma-Le, our guide Jorge and two other travelers, Nate from D.C. and his girlfriend Brenda from Mexico. We left at 9 am and within less than 20 minutes we were riding a ridge line into the mountains with Mandango in the background. A well-horned cow ambled along in front of us with little room to move from side to side.

For the duration of the three hours up we were literally on edge.

The horses do all the work, laboring all the way, stopping to lick their own sweat from their sides or to eat the grass along the trail. It was cute at first, but the more you tolerate, the more they take advantage. "Vamos!" or "Let's Go!" began routinely echoing through the valley as we all encouraged our horses along.

Dry scrub gives way to cloud forest and as we pushed up higher and higher, gorgeous pink mountain azaleas, aloe plants and giant tree ferns decorated the scenery. I've never seen a landscape like this before - It looks like a wet, painted desert.

After 3 hours of gently kicking our horses up the mountain, a plateau came into view and my horse began galloping along the cliff edge - novel at first, but when I couldn't remember the Spanish word for slow or stop I yelled "he's going faster!" to which the bilingual horse responded by going faster! We had arrived at the camp - where we had lunch before trekking on foot.

After nearly an hour on foot we descended into the valley where the high altitude vegetation gave way to more typical tropical jungle. It was raining higher in the mountains and the streams had begun to rise as we came upon them. We crossed to the zip line by log - an easy task here before the rains had started. The return trip was more treacherous.

After 4+ hours trekking into the mountains, we arrived at the zip line - to which I said "where's the rest of it?". No really. This is it? The zip line consisted of 2 spans, the first being roughly 50 feet long (as seen above). Once you've zipped down this section, you walk across a rickety rope bridge (with safety harness attached), harness into the 2nd zip line which is about 40 feet off the ground and zip back down. Ma-Le was terrified on the final leg and I must confess to being nervous.
You know something in Ecuador is dangerous when they provide safety precautions. I was underwhelmed, but the trek to get here was stunning and Speedy, my noble steed was a good conversationalist. He claimed to not like getting his feet muddy and would step around puddles on the way up. Bad news for the trip down.

As we unharnessed from the zip line, it began to rain. It was supposedly the dry season in this part of Ecuador and when we asked our guide how the horses do in the rain, walking down a cliff edge, he said he didn't know. He'd never had to do that before.

It drizzled as we hiked back to the horses. A beautiful scene, but if it kept up, the 3 hour horseback ride down would prove to be a nightmare. Jorge decided we should walk them down. Looking at my watch and doing quick math, it occurred to be that if it was 3 pm now and it took 3 hours to climb up and sundown is 6:20 pm, we would probably arrive back at camp in darkness.

To panic would serve no purpose. So we grabbed the reigns and began to head down with 1200 lb animals at our back. The trail is narrow from repeated use by horse and cow. There are no water bars so as the rain falls, it creates a constant cascade of water and horse poop on the trail. You can't imagine how slow an hour passes until you have trudged ankle deep in muck, listening for the sound of a horse sliding on rock and writing your own obituary to this crazy scene.

After an hour, everything on my body was soaked. The soles from Ma-Le's boots had completely come off and she was walking on her socks. And the Mexican woman's horse could have cared less that our time was short and slowed us down by grazing more often than walking. The horse not the woman.

Without good footwear - Ma-Le was forced to climb back on her horse, despite the danger of sliding off the cliff. We all decided to try this for a bit but 90 minutes in, Pamona, Nate's horse slipped on rock near the edge, tearing a chunk of flesh off it's leg and nearly sending Nate 1000 feet into the canyon.

How much further? 30 minutes Jorge says.

By the time we hit the three hour mark, I was continuing to ring water from my clothes. Rain jackets were useless and I would tell you how much water was coming off of me but at this point it was too dark to see. With Ma-Le still on her horse, I led mine through the narrow passages and barely escaped being crushed when Pamona slid into Speedy causing a horsealanche with me trapped and nowhere to go. Like a scene from a cartoon - Speedy stopped within an inch of my face, both legs spread to either side of the trail and Pamona nearly launching over Speedy.

How much further? 15 minutes Jorge says. Of course he said 30 minutes and hour ago.

By the time we reached the cabins, it was pitch black. No street lights, no house lights. The Yambala River was swollen and raging and we were exhausted, soaking wet and covered in mud. We got cleaned up, enjoyed a fantastic four course Ecuadorian meal by a toasty fire and were asleep by 9 pm, lulled into dream by the roar of the river.

at 1 am, the rising river caused a whole new nightmare......

too be continued!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanks For Nothing?

If there was a person lying in the middle of the road you would stop right? And if you stopped you wouldn't ask what their religion or ethnicity was before offering assistance? So why is it different for wildlife? Why do people pass an injured animal and do nothing?

I was driving home Thursday night on SR-80 after having Thanksgiving dinner in Delray Beach. State Road 80 runs parallel to Alligator Alley just north of the Everglades and just South of Lake Okeechobee. It's mostly sugar cane fields and cow pastures with a few small towns dotting the landscape, so at night, the cars are few and far between. Half way across the state, I was switching between listening to the Thanksgiving Day football game on AM radio and Laura Schlessinger railing against an ecologist who was suggesting that humans have reached their "carrying capacity" on the planet. Laura takes the "conserve it so you can shoot it" approach to wildlife conservation.

On a dark section of road I noticed a pair of red eyes glowing just off the shoulder and caught a glimpse of a Bobcat darting into a field. When I looked back to the road I noticed what I assume the cat was after - a Barn Owl - injured and flailing in the road. As I pulled over and put my hazards on, a truck whipped past and barely missed the bird, spinning the ghost-faced owl back towards the roadside. The bird stretched the injured wing and clapped its bill as a warning. I herded it completely off the road and tried to flag another motorist for help. The "Grosbeak Incident" of '05 left me humbled and respectful when handling birds. So when no one would stop (and who would stop for a bald stranger in the middle of the night out here?) I grabbed my cell - 1 bar -but called information to get a number for someone who might help.
"What county are you in sir?"
"I'm not sure - I think Hendry?"
"You're not sure?
"I'm traveling!"
They gave me a the number for the State Fish and Wildlife Department
"Where are you located?"
"Hendry County?"
"We don't handle that county"
They gave me the number for West Palm Beach - 50 miles to my east
"What's your emergency"
"I have an injured bird"
"so there's no emergency?"
"Well to the bird there is"
"What kind of bird?"
"It's a Barn Owl"
"We only handle endangered wildlife or game species and that bird is neither"
"So what do I do?"
"Call a rehaber"
She didn't have a number for a rehaber - nor did she seem to care. Had I told her I was going to kick the bird in the face she might have offered kudos for such a suggestion. Laura Schlessinger would have approved.
By the time I got off the phone, the bird had disappeared into the brush. I'd like to think that it was feigning injury while shaking the "cobwebs" off from an impact from a car before it flew away. It happens. But I still felt like I had not done enough. That bird looked at me with fear. It wanted to live but had the misfortune of swooping into traffic. Some would say that humans are part of nature and this is just nature taking it's course. The bobcat might have had a feast and it's "just a barn owl". But why do we treat humans differently? We would never leave a human to a bobcat. Laura Schlessinger stated on her show that we are humans and they are animals. But if we use the "we are part of nature" argument - then we are animals too.
I guess if I deem this a bird emergency there were probably a hell of a lot of Turkeys that had emergencies of their own recently.
I just don't want to think there is a Barn Owl sitting on the side of the road with a broken wing thinking "Thanks for nothing".

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Pete, Pete, Pete of the Jungle - Watch Out For That Tree!

It's Thanksgiving and there's football to passively watch, turkeys to baste and pies to eat (for breakfast? I'm looking at you Gibbs!) so I won't write much. I know, I know it takes nearly 6.5 minutes to read a typical post....where will some of you get those minutes back?!? (Blog exhaustion? I'm looking at you Gibbs - put the pie down) So I've removed most of the big words and nearly all of the spelling errors. That should help. But thought I'd share another moment from my Ecuador trip and give thanks to my three heroes for inspiring a life of vine swinging, jungle fun.

Pitfall Harry


and of course Indy

This was back on the trip to Tayos Cave. My first attempt I missed the tree - my second try I found out just how high 25 feet off the jungle floor is.

I need a whip.

(Did you get this far Gibbs?)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mandango - The Sleeping Inca

At age 37, with aches and pains from my ears to my toes, I can't imagine what life might be like 73 years from now when I would be 110. I'll be happy to make it to 80, but in the "Valley of Longevity" and in the town of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, the locals are reputed to live long lives and boast the oldest humans on the planet with some suggested to be around 120 years of age.

View Larger Map

Is it true? And if so why? Birth certificates are probably few and far between from 1887 and it would be inappropriate to cut an Ecuadorian in half and count their rings, but apparently some researchers have demonstrated that calcium and magnesium levels in the drinking water are such that they promote healthy bodies and longer life. I drank the bottled water anyway.

With the abundance of Coca Cola and fried foods, I wouldn't hold much hope in the local kids becoming centurions.

The area is also noted as the former royal retreat of the Incas who during their 95 year empire in the 15th century came to this valley. It is said that Mandango, the sleeping Inca protects the valley from earthquakes and other natural disasters and can be seen resting on the mountain above the town, arms folded and quite relaxed.

Our late arrival to town made an ascent of Mandango for that day problematic, but when we were offered a less than stellar alternative, we decided to climb the Incan anyway. We were told it would only take 45 minutes to climb the steep 1000 foot climb. I've learned to multiply all times by 2 to get a better estimate of how long we might need.
Half way up I stopped at this tree, covered with bromiliads, which I found strange for such an arid environment.

It's cool on top of the mountain, but insects abound including this lady bug-like insect being slurped up by a spider. We were told that the Incans or possibly peoples that preceded the Incans may have sculpted this mountain to accentuate the features of Mandango. Scale is tough to tell in this environment but from base to peak is about 20 stories tall.
Ma-Le descends the steep slopes.
All of the guide books say "climb Mandango to the white cross". From the peak it looks small, but it's actually a little taller than an above average sized Ecuadorian.
The hike took just about an hour up and another back down. A nice introduction to the town and Mandango and it gave us enough rest to prepare for the following days harrowing adventure.....


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tayos Cave: One Giant EEEP! for Mankind

When venturing into a cave, there are a few things that you must bring along. A headlamp, good batteries, an adult diaper and a good knowledge of what resides in said cave. Our second excursion in Ecuador brought us to Tayos Cave 3 hours north of Zamora. To reach the cave, we traveled an hour with 3 Belgians (not required, but amusing) and a local guide (Jorge) up the Nagaritza River to a Shuar Community. They're one one of the few remaining indigenous tribes in Ecuador and the people of this particular community have acclimated to "modern" culture, living in centros or centers since abandoning their traditional nomadic existence in the rain forest. The Shuar are most noted for their former custom of head shrinking - a practice that was intended to capture and retain the souls of their victims. There are over 40,000 Shuar living in the eastern slopes and amazon rain forest of Ecuador.This center is an impoverished area, reachable only by boat, but within the next 5 years, a road will cut through the jagged hills and cascade-lined cliffs along the Nagaritza and connect the community to the network of dirt and roughly paved roads leading to Zamora. It'd be nice to think this is for the welfare of these people, but gold was discovered here and slowly and systematically, the powers that be are constructing the infrastructure to mine these Andean slopes. Further to the east, disputed Ecuadorian lands now annexed by Peru after the war in 1995 harbor vast oil fields. (If you are Peruvian and have a different perspective - please fill out a comment form at Regardless of their ownership, the people, wildlife and ecosystem are threatened by future exploration and exploitation.

Although it's the dry season in this region of Ecuador, we experienced heavy rains and strong currents on the Nagaritza as well as spectacular waterfalls along our route.

After embarking on the 3 hour hike to the cave, the peril became more perilous. Conga Ants, or "48 hour" ants are over an inch long and bite hard enough to leave you in pain for several days. I took the picture - the guide chopped it in half.

My previous trip to Ecuador brought us in contact with venomous centipedes, so when I came across this cartoonish looking beast I declined to hold it, despite our guides willingness to do so. He did - he survived - I still didn't trust him. In case you're wondering - Centipedes have 2 sets of legs per segment. Millipedes 4 sets.

After 3 hours of hiking through the rain forest, we arrived at Tayos Cave, named for the nocturnal birds that roost within. With headlamps on - our party of six descended from the glowing green canopy of the jungle into the muddy, damp darkness.

The cave was made famous in the 60's by Argentinian entrepreneur Janos Moricz whose expedition in 1969 supposedly discovered a vast series of tunnels and a "Metal Library". The wild claims drew much attention and in 1975 a scientific exploration set out to settle the claims, bringing along an honorary member of the team, Neil Armstrong. The metal library was never found although there are some interesting limestone formations. What we did find were the Tayos birds or Oilbirds that locals harvest. Just before fledgling, the birds gain a considerable amount of weight. Locals climb bamboo ladders to the cave ceiling where they extract the chicks from the nests and render their fat for oil. The birds don't respond well to these disturbances in their cave as you can imagine and screech out a noise in the darkness that sounds not unlike the Predator from Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie of the same name. Later tonight, turn out all the lights and play this clip of Oilbirds to simulate the effect.

I could have sworn I had good batteries. They had been working fine, but my light - which was also Ma-Le's illumination died at quite the inopportune time. Half way into the cave as we carefully stepped back and forth across the cave stream and just as we were ducking under a large boulder and squeezing through a narrow passage with just one more step to reach the plateau - darkness.

I can imagine how the Neil Armstrong expedition in 1975 would have gone.

"That's one more small step..."

"Holy crap what was that!"

It's no wonder Ma-Le reacted the way she did. As the hideous screams echoed through pitch black - I snapped this chestnut.

If that wasn't terrifying enough - a Belgian exclaimed "What is that" and shone his flashlight against the rock wall 3 feet in front of us and there, perched on the wall and about the size of a dinner plate was a Scorpion Whiptail.

Look at the face on that thing! It's just as terrified as Ma-Le! But it does look familiar....

As we left the cave, the Belgians left us behind again to grope the rock walls and slosh through the stream in darkness - eventually emerging back into the rain forest. Why couldn't they wait!

I guess I shouldn't have made that Belgian Waffle joke the night before. But it was a good one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Petey the Drug-sniffing Customs Dog

Nothing is easy to get to in Ecuador. I've returned from the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains where the temperate rain forest meets the Amazon and after 11 days I am wiped out. All told - our "eco"-trip accounted for quite a few miles and many an hour getting from here to there. A round trip plane ride back and forth across the equator, 17 taxis, 10 bus rides (for a total of 28 hours), 2 fantastic boat trips on a raging river and a cliff-side horse back ride up to 8000 feet in the mountains. Once I get some sleep, I'll log the adventures which were spectacular, but right now it's time to sleep in an ant-less bed where a rooster will not wake me up at dawn. This will make sense in time.
One of many (and the largest) waterfalls on the trip. Look closely in the bottom right to spot me.

I will say my return to the states was rewarded with another indignity as I passed through customs/security at Miami International. Typically I get the pat down, the laser scan with the cricket stick or a trip into the Marilyn Monroe air-blast drug sensing machine - all part of a random selection process by homeland security, but this evening as I waited for my baggage a cute Beagle trotted up to me and greeted me with a wet nose and two paws on my hip. "How cute" I thought until the customs agent with "Petey's" leash asked to see inside my bags. Apparently the dog is trained to smell for illicit drugs, bomb materials and handmade wicker baskets from remote Indian villages. As I am neither a drug trafficker or a terrorist, I was quickly dismissed and free to leave with my hand-woven treasures.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Random Monkey Bonus

Welcome to Ecuador - land of beautiful surprises, amazing vistas and random monkey bonuses. After a late arrival in Guayaquil, Ecuador last night, Ma-Le picked me up at the airport and brought me back for dinner with the family. They were nice enough to wait until 11:30 pm to eat. I was nice enough to not fall asleep in my dinner as well as having the stomach to eat again. That is if you can count eating on the plane. I do. It's exciting and I can never fall asleep until after the chicken and rice served in a soap dish is placed in front of me God forbid I miss a meal. (and Walnut Shortbread Cookies? - sounds gross - quite good. Maybe it's the euphoric amount of oxygen pumped throughout the cabin that provides this assessment). But I digress. NO PHOTOS PLEASE! (The Ecuador paparazzi pestering already.) I hadn't been in the country for 12 hours when we were lucky enough to get a glimpse (albeit at a great distance) of our first monkey. We traveled south to a park called Cerro Blanco (White Hill) and hiked the mountainous terrain in search of mostly birds and lizards but this little scene played out much to my delirium. These photos were taken well over 1/2 a mile away, but you can see the Red Howler monkey, hanging by a prehensile tail and swinging out to a very large flower. The leaves have fallen and most seeds and flowers are prominently displayed for seed dispersers like monkeys, squirrels and birds to find.

A few discarded petals and the lettuce head-sized flower is gone.
On to the next flower....I was lucky enough to see one up close. They are huge! The pollen covered stamens are bent inward, requiring pollinators like bees to crawl inside for the nectar and covering themselves with the pollen which they then bring to the next flower to cross pollinate. I learned this after leaning in to take a giant whiff of the pungent flower and a pollen encrusted bee zipped out.

I had forgotten what it's like to climb mountains. The highest point we reached today was near 1200 feet above sea level and that's about 1190 feet higher than I have gotten used to this year.As we left the park, Ma-Le recognized a friend who is a biologist and vet at the park and although my Spanish is terrible, I distinctly overheard them talking about a mark on his throat and I understood the words "Ocelot" and "Attacked". We headed back to his clinic where he brought out this little guy. Turns out this baby Ocelot had only been nursing on David's neck which left the mark. This 2 month old cat had been taken from the wild to be sold as a pet. It's mother was killed to get it and when the poachers were nabbed for this crime, the police brought the kitten to the refuge where it will now live.
They are carnivores, but at this size, their teeth and jaws can't do too much damage to me. Ma-Le's brother Juan Jose was still cautious, afraid the cute fluffy little thing might rip his face off.
I'm off to the Jungle for the next 9 days!