A SAFARI ON THE EQUATOR? AYAYAY!
Pack that Panama hat of yours, we’re off to Ecuador. Incidentally, this iconic headgear has been handwoven in Ecuador since the 16th century. So, you’ll be styling along with the rest of your TAG safari gear in this country situated in northwestern South America. Colombia sits to the north, Peru on the east and south, and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Ecuador can also boast with the magnificent Galápagos Islands in the Pacific, 1 000 km (620 mi) west of the mainland. Incredible Galapagos Let’s start our safari right here on these famous islands with their bizarre, volcanic landscapes. It’s one of the most arresting, wild and untouched places on Planet Earth. And it’s brimming with animals, making it a dream safari destination. There are 18 main islands, three smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. Straddling the equator, they are located in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with Volcán Wolf, and Volcán Ecuador on Isla Isabela smack on the equator. Española Island, the southernmost islet of the archipelago, and Darwin Island, to the north, share a distance of 220 km (137 mi) between them, so there’s plenty to explore. A refreshing 70 000 km2 (27 000 mi2) of ocean surrounds the islands – it’s been declared a marine reserve with only Australia's Great Barrier Reef being larger in size. The archipelago is also a whale sanctuary, and UNESCO did the right thing by recognizing the islands as a World Heritage Site, and later down the line, as a biosphere reserve. As mentioned earlier, the islands are alive with unusual species – both on land and sea. Here’s what you can expect: Galápagos land and marine iguanas (the world’s only sea-going lizard): forget Game of Thrones… these guys prove that dragons exist. Galápagos tortoise: the dudes that gave the islands their name. Galapagos is an old Spanish word meaning tortoise. Get up close and personal with these giant creatures who look like they’ve seen everything the world has to offer. Galápagos green turtle: the seagoing cousins of the tortoise. Sea cucumbers: they look like they sound, but more controversial – there’s a constant battle to protect these delicate creatures from over-harvesting because they’re an expensive Asian delicacy. Prancing blue-footed boobies: they have seriously blue feet, which they show to their prospective partners in a hysterical mating dance. Galápagos penguin: these little tuxedoed birds are the only living tropical penguins. Galápagos mockingbirds: the first species that caught Darwin’s eye, as he noticed they varied from island to island. There are four endemic species on the islands. Darwin's finches (do you see a trend here? The islands were Darwin’s – yes, that Darwin – playground): thirteen endemic species of these birds, otherwise known as tanagers, in birding circles, live on the islands. One of them goes by the dubious name of the ‘vampire finch,’ as it’s known for its bloodsucking habits. Its real name is the sharp-beaked ground finch, but we kinda like the vampire reference. Galapagos sea lions: the smaller, South American cousins of the California sea lion. The beautifully-named (and equally striking in appearance), Sally Lightfoot Crab: sounds like they should be in an old black and white movie, eating cake with Holly Golightly. The candelabra cactus and the lava cactus: also endemic to the islands. Amazonian Splendor at Yasuni An astounding 80% of the forested land in Ecuador is the Amazonian basin. That equates to 98 000 km2 (38 000 mi2) hectares of forest, covering almost 35% of Ecuador’s land. We don’t really need to point out that this makes it a superb safari destination, do we? The Yasuni National Park – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – covers a vast 9 832 km2 (3 793 mi2) in the northeast of Ecuador, on the Peruvian border. It is known as one of the most bio-diverse places on earth and is home to a whopping 200 species of mammal, almost 600 species of birds, 150 amphibians, 121 reptiles and over a 100 000 insect species. And that’s before we even get on to the flora. Think jaguars, monkeys galore, caimans, toucans, macaws, turtles and more, all frolicking in (or below) huge kapok trees, orchids, and bromeliads. It’s a feast for the eyes. Go for guided jungle walks or paddle along one of the rivers in a canoe to experience an authentic South American safari. Some lodges offer canopy observation towers that allow you to see the hive of activity atop the trees. Take note: Yasuni is only reachable by boat or plane, making it a truly wild safari destination. The volcanoes of Cotopaxi While covering just 333 km2 (207 mi2) in central Ecuador, Cotopaxi National Park is home to four volcanoes: Cotopaxi, Rumiñahui, Quilindaña, and Antisana. This smaller park packs a punch, regardless of its size. On the slopes and surrounding areas, a variety of vegetation exists – from humid forests to pines and Palermo grasses to Andean tundra, providing habitat for the numerous animal species who live here. Pumas, llamas, Andean wolves, marsupial mice, deer and a smorgasbord of birds call Cotopaxi home and safari activities offered include hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, mountaineering and, of course, our favorite: camping. Roam around the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve Also, in central, Ecuador, but north of Cotopaxi, near Quito, Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve covers an area of 4 000 km2 (2 500 mi2) and includes both cold and rugged highlands and tropical and humid rainforest, offering visitors the best of both worlds. Between the two? Miles of cloud forest. It’s home to over a hundred mammal species, just under 400 bird species and 116 amphibians. Here you can watch enormous Andean condors soar through the sky, mountain tapirs with their long noses, spectacled bears lumbering about, foxes darting and armadillos curling into a tight ball of shyness. Birder’s paradise galore With 1,659 exotic bird species, it’s no surprise that Ecuador is right there on the top of most birder’s ‘to visit’ lists. We mentioned the Andean condor above, but can we just take a moment to talk about how huge it is: it has a wingspan of over 3 m (10 ft). Yes. Ten feet! It’s closely followed in size, magnificence by the Harpy Eagle, who has a slightly smaller, but no less incredible, wingspan of 2 m (6.5 ft). We’ve also mentioned the fabulously blue-footed boobies, but the colors of many of the Ecuadorian birds will stun and delight: the blue-green Amazonian Mot Mot, the brightly-colored Guacamaya, the inimitable Toucan and the ‘only their mothers could love that face’ Hoatzin, to name just a few. See? Birdwatcher’s heaven. Beach living and Machalila National Park Want to include a little beach time in your safari? Then head to Puerto Lopez, a quiet fishing village set plum in the middle of Ecuador’s Pacific coastline and headquarters of the nearby Machalila National Park. The park includes fog and dry forests, the only tropical scrub desert area left in Ecuador, stretches of beach and a couple of islands off the coast. Here, too, are birds galore and, if you’re lucky, you can get to see humpback whales who come here to breed from about mid-June to October. Puerto López itself has become a popular beach destination, with a spiffy new malecón (built from 2015 to 2017). It is home to a good number of accommodation options, restaurants, and even night clubs for those looking for a little boogie. As the sun rises, way before the tourists get out of bed, local fishermen gut their catches on the beach, attracting large numbers of seabirds including pelicans and vultures. It’s well worth setting your alarm a little earlier to witness an Ecuadorian lifestyle that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. A balmy equatorial climate Okay, Ecuador, as its name suggests, is on the equator, so, as can be expected, its ‘equatorial bits’ have an equatorial climate. Think hot and humid, with almost daily rainfall in the Amazon rain forest (it’s not called a rainforest for nothing). Temperatures average around 24°C (75°F), and it gets about 3 400 mm of rain a year. November/December to March/April is considered the ’dry season,’ but this just means there’s a bit less rain during this period, so whenever you decide to go, pack your raincoat. Up in the highlands, things are a little cooler – and if you’re going to go climbing the tippy toppy peaks, it can get pretty icy. Quito, while just 32 km (20 mi) from the equator, is high up, so daytime temperatures are a balmy 21°C (70°F) but can go down to 10°C (50°F) at night, so remember to take along your Snoopy pajamas. On the coast, temperatures average 27-32°C (80-90°F) and the ‘wetter’ season is considered to be between January and April. Start packing An old Ecuadorian proverb states: Quien a buen arbol se arrima Buena sombra lo cobija. Roughly translated, it means, “He/she who leans close to a good tree is blanketed by good shade” and basically recommends that it’s wise to look for the good in life. We think a safari in Ecuador is precisely that. Start packing!