Ecuador: A country full of wonders [Part 1]

Ecuador may look quite small on the map but I can assure you that it is packed with amazing destinations!

ecuador_91If you are a nature enthusiast, this tiny country will seduce you by its incredible diversity of landscape and its unique wildlife.

Ecuador is indeed the most biodiverse country on Earth for its size. Quite exciting, isn’t it? The birdwatchers will be especially happy knowing that the country contains 16% of all existing bird species! According to the Biodiversity Group, a dazzling 140 species of hummingbird is awaiting for you there.

Bordering the Pacific Ocean, Ecuador is a mosaic of extremely diverse ecosystems. From high mountains to surprising islands, follow me in my journey there.

1. Quito & the Andes

Being the longest mountain range in the world, the Andes run along South America’s western side from Chile to Venezuela. More than being long, the Andes are also very high and your body will get to experience the effects linked to altitude quite quickly if you fly to Quito.

Perched at almost 3,000 meters, the capital city was already a challenge for me. Headaches, tiredness and nose bleeds were a constant reminder of how high I suddenly was but luckily my body got used to the altitude after few days.

Quito is definitely worth a visit for its beautiful city centre, mix of gothic cathedrals and colorful houses. I totally fell in love with the Basilica del Voto Nacional due to its original animal gargoyles. As a zoologist, it just felt so nice to see the traditional deformed figures replaced by sculpted pelicans and anteaters!

If you are a foodie and like eating like locals, head to a cafe and order a hot chocolate. It will be served with a bowl of cheese that you are expected to drop in the hot drink. Absolutely delicious!

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Once done with Quito and fully adjusted to the altitude, you can then head to the real wild moutains! Make sure to have a guide with you if you go on unknown paths and be ready to experience extremely cold temperatures.

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Hiking the Andes was a beautiful but somehow painful experience for me. Still struggling with altitude sickness, my few hours walking in the cold were pretty miserable. Headaches, short breath and dizziness accompanied me through the entire journey making it hard to fully enjoy the view. So I insist again: take your time to adjust to the altitude before heading anywhere.

When back at lower altitudes, I could breath again and enjoy the mountains a bit more. Visiting the Antisana Ecological Reserve, I thought at first glance that the vegetal landscape was quite homogeneous. But when I started looking more closely I discovered some beautiful flowers hidden here and there, drops of color surviving the harsh altitude and temperatures.

Every plant growing there has evolved to survive the difficult conditions either by growing at a smaller size or by becoming thicker to protect itself from the cold. In terms of wildlife, I had the chance to meet again with two of my favourite birds: hummingbirds and caracaras.

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Autumnal Errands

Autumn is officially here, bringing its grey mornings and cold days. It’s easy to feel a bit low while reminiscing summer memories, beach vibes and picnic parties. For most people, Autumn is bad news: shorter days, cold breeze, trees being stripped of their leaves, and precursor of the winter blues.

Even though all of these are surely true, I somehow always had a special kind of love for Autumn. Spring probably have more fans being all about new beginnings but how can you have new beginnings without proper endings?

Leaves in all their poetry are not leaving without a fight. They showcase their most amazing and intense colors, waving us goodbyes. Look around you and you will notice all possible shades of reds, oranges, yellows and greens. So aren’t trees at their best during this season?

Lights in Autumn can be fantastic to take outdoor photos. Wait for the rain to stop and grab your camera and rain jacket, you’ll be amazed by what you’ll find. Flowers dripping with water will appear in all their glory. Try to play with your settings to blur the background and you will obtain beautiful flower portraits!

If you look well enough during your autumnal walks, you will probably find out that Autumn is not just about endings after all! Indeed, mushrooms are quickly appearing all over the forest, some ready to pamper your taste buds while others are colorfully warning you not to eat them.

In term of wildlife, Autumn is one of the most hectic seasons. While some animals are changing their fur colors to adapt to the future snowy landscapes, others are busy storing enough food to survive the cold days. If you live in a city, squirrels can be great Autumnal models to train your wildlife photography skills.

So what are you waiting for? Go out now and explore this wonderful season!

Meeting with rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

“If an accident happens money will not be refunded.” Warning from friends and travel websites came back to my mind when I read this message written on my matatu ticket. “Matatus are not safe,” I could hear them repeat in my mind. “They are cheap for sure but accidents are frequent.”

My stubbornness to always travel as local people do and the incredibly cheap price of the ticket still had convinced me to take a seat inside the small mini-bus parked in Nairobi station and heading to Nanyuki.

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One thing to know if you ever decide to travel by matatu is that you’ll need a certain dose of patience. As I sat in the vehicle still half-empty, I quickly learned that the rule number one was: as long as there are seats empty the matatu won’t go anywhere. After a little more than an hour, the mini-bus was finally full and ready to go. Accompanied by the sound of chicken chirping at the back, we finally left Nairobi.

From all the rumours and stories I had heard about matatus‘ drivers, I have to say that my ride went swiftly despite some bumpy roads. I even managed to fall asleep for a while and woke up looking everywhere around me hoping to catch the sight of a giraffe or any other Kenyan emblematic species. After few hours we reached our terminus: Nanyuki. My final destination, however, was still awaiting for me further away.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy had arranged a taxi for me and after twenty minutes (and the realisation that I had assumed incorrectly that there was only one matatu station in town) my driver, Martin, picked me up.

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My eyes widened once we passed the entrance gate of the conservancy few minutes later. I could see antilopes all around and elephants in the background.

“What’s your favourite animal here?”he asked me. After a quick thinking, I answered him: “I love hyenas.” Martin just couldn’t stop laughing at my answer. He explained that people in Kenya usually did not like hyena very much. When asked about his own favourite he told me that he really liked giraffes. “They are tall and elegant. They can eat the leaves that no other animals are able to get.”

Once arrived at the Stables, formerly known as the Research Centre, I was warmly welcomed by the staff and shown the room I will occupy for the next two weeks.

I quickly realised that traveling around the conservancy during my free time (I was there as an intern) wouldn’t be as easy as I thought. I had no intention to be eaten by a lion or charged by an elephant while walking around so my freedom of movement seemed suddenly quite limited.

Over the weekend, however, I noticed the frenetic obsession that people at the camp seemed to have with rhinos. When asking around what exactly everyone was so excited about, I was made aware that a process called rhino notching had been going on for a while and was coming to an end on Sunday.

The notching involved two teams: one team in an helicopter shooting the rhinos to be marked with tranquilliser and a second one composed of various trucks on the ground tracking the rhinos, ready to act once the animals were asleep. Quite exciting indeed!

On the Sunday afternoon, I got lucky enough and was able to join one of the ground team. Packed with various staff members, the truck quickly headed toward an open plain where we watched the helicopter chasing a rhino. Leaning dangerously, the airplane managed to get close enough to the impressive animal allowing the vet to tranquillise it.

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Seeing the rhino slowing down and finally falling asleep was the signal that the ground team had been waiting for to get into action. Speeding through the bush following GPS indications, I could feel the tension and excitement building up among us. Everyone knew that the animal would not stay asleep for very long  so getting to the scene quickly was essential to the operation.

Once the rhino had been located, the wildlife team rapidly went on the ground and started buzzing with activity. While some measured the individual, others painted a white sign on his back, took some blood sample and finally pierced his horn to insert a GPS tracker inside. The process is completely harmless to the animal and the horn made of keratin will then grow back around the tracker.

The pressure faced by rhinos in East and South Africa from poachers make it essential to be able to track the animals inside the conservancy. However, the data collected also allow to gather information on the health, genetics, and distribution of the individuals present in Ol Pejeta.

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Sudan is the last male Northern White Rhinoceros on Earth

Five minutes later everyone has managed to do what they were supposed to do and the staff members quickly go back to the trucks. Slowly, the rhino starts moving again. Looking confused and dazed, the massive animal looks around him and gets up. Now firm on his legs, he quickly disappears in the bush: time to track the next individual on the to-notch list.

The rest of the afternoon was a succession of wild rides in the bush followed by frenetic activity for every asleep rhino that had to be marked. The sun was starting to drift when we reached the last individual to be notched. As for the others, the staff members quickly jump down the truck to start buzzing around.

They were almost reaching the animal when suddenly the rhino started to move and got up. A wind of panic blew across the team and everyone quickly ran back toward the truck. The rhino made few steps and fell asleep again on the ground, breathing heavily. That’s one this last adrenaline rush that a truly amazing afternoon reached an end.

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The ride home gave us the opportunity to watch the sun slowly making its exit through a beautiful spectrum of reds and oranges. While the day was coming to an end for us, the bush was still vibrating with life. I kept looking at the zebras and antelopes around us, trying to print in my mind as many details and memories as I could.