Ecuador Photos Amazonia Waita Lodge, our home in the jungle for four days, is one of just two lodges in the Cuyabeno National Park, near Peru and Columbia in the northern end of Ecuador’s “oriente” region, whose rivers feed the Amazon. Local guides provide endless knowledge about the surrounding flora and fauna.Where the muddy Aguarico River with its Andes runoff meets the black-water, inland Cuyabeno River, there is a visible color line. Schools of fish gather here, so the famous pink river dolphins come to feed. The silver top of one is poking through the surface of the black water.This two-toed sloth, its shaggy coat soaked from recent rains, watched us as we peered up from our canoe. We learned that the fur of a sloth is itself an ecosystem, chock full of moths, insects, fungi, and algae that often give it a greenish tinge. We did not pet it. Giant kapok trees are considered by indigenous people to be sacred pillars connecting earth to the spirit world and containing wisdom and energy healers tap into. They are now protected, at least in the national parks. We climbed a wooden tower to see the Amazonian sun setting above the rainforest canopy. Hanging from the tree is an oropendola bird’s nest created of vines, leaves, and sticks that is used for one breeding season, vacated, and used again by other bird species until it drops from the trees.The only other guests at Waita were a group of six friends with a shared interest (obsession?) in herpetology. They caught, bagged, photographed, and returned to its habitat this giant green anaconda. It is not venomous but has a powerful bite and is essentially 8 ½ feet of raw muscle. These friends caught it with bare hands… in the water… in the pitch dark… Yikes.We saw 42 species of birds, including toucans, macaws, kingfishers, and falcons. And what trip to the Amazon would be complete without colorful frogs (only some of which are poisonous), a gigantic millipede that oozes cyanide for protection, and a piranha caught with bait of raw meat? The Amazon basin here is less a river than a flood plain. The region averages more than 11 feet of rain per year. Whether we used this motorized canoe or sloshed through calf-deep water on the “trails”, the landscape looked flooded. But we were told this wasn’t even the high-water mark—it can be much higher or lower at different times of year! Avenue of the Volcanoes Mount Cotopaxi, one of the tallest volcanoes in Ecuador at over 19,000 feet, was shrouded in clouds most of the time we were at a nearby hostel, but one morning dawned clear. This was the view from our cabin.Riding horses was a great way to see the high plains and get across the many rivers and streams that bring snowmelt and rain down from the peaks. We also discovered the value of alpaca ponchos to keep us warm and dry!Llamas are everywhere in the high sierra, including (l-r) a baby born the day before we arrived at the Secret Garden hostel, a very curious and friendly one at the Black Sheep Inn, and a furry fella who seemed to grin confidently at us.The Quilotoa Crater hike is a must-do. The spectacular vivid green color of the lake is breathtaking, whether hiking the rim trail that runs across all of the near ridges you see here, surrounded by wildflowers and fields (note another snow-capped volcano in the distance) or kayaking in its quiet, clear waters. We hiked about 3 hours each way to reach the San Miguel Queseria, where this lovely woman makes 15 wheels of cheese in her small kitchen every day, then ages it for 5 months until it’s got a strong, sharp flavor. Her husband travels Ecuador selling the cheese, and together they are raising 9 kids. The incredible strength and resilience of local subsistence farmers is evident in the fields that line every hill, no matter how steep, all tilled by hand. Note the mudslide that wiped our a portion of this field, taking a piece of their livelihood with it. Mudslides are an ever present part of living in these hills.Pailon del Diablo (“Devil’s Cauldron”) is a powerful, 250-foot waterfall a short bus ride from Baños de Santa Agua. We got a good soaking from taking a path for tourists up next to—and even behind—the falls at their peak.These volcanic ridges are not as tall as Cotopaxi and so do not have year-round snow at the top. But their craggy beauty is representative of the Andes and the view from our hostal, Secret Garden. Galápagos—Isla San Cristóbal San Cristóbal is known for its huge colony of sea lions. Our most memorable encounter happened on our first day, while snorkeling in a lagoon known as Tijeretas. We floated a few feet away and shared the joy and love of this playful pair as they twisted and rolled and encircled each other.Even in town, sea lions are everywhere—every step of this stairway up from the harbor has an occupant. At night, hundreds of sea lions crowd the beaches in town, barking and braying, nursing pups, snuggling and battling as they cover every inch of sand in a living blanket of mammals.Kicker Rock, aka León Dormido (sleeping lion), rises 500 feet up and many hundreds of feet down. We snorkeled through the small channel, where shadowy hammerhead sharks patrolled the depths below us, and around the cliff, where fish darted away from a hunting sea lion.Near the end of a “360 Tour” around the island by boat, Rachel spotted a pod of dolphins, calling out “delfines!” to the passengers and crew. The captain quickly spun the boat around, creating a wake that a dozen or so dolphins began to leap out of, surf on, and play in. Blue-footed boobies are iconic in Galapagos. They can be found elsewhere in South America, but rarely as up-close as here. This one was on a cliff we hiked to from town, where red- and blue-footed boobies were nesting, fishing, and fighting off other birds when they came too close.There are many species of tropical fish, but these parrotfish seem to be having the best time. Or are they laughing at the clumsy giant that needs to float near the surface and breathe through a tube?There are so many unusual creatures in Galapagos that it’s possible to overlook the littlest ones, yet they can be equally amazing. Barnacles like this are small animals that come in seemingly infinite varieties. Darwin himself tried to categorize and classify them for seven years! Galápagos—Isla Isabela The beach is the focus in the ultra-relaxed, nature-appreciating town of Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela. We were feet-in-the-sand nearly all the time, with small bamboo-roof bars and restaurants like this one lining the beach near town, and a mile-long stretch of white sand, teal water, waves gentle enough for beginning surfers, and gorgeous sunsets.You’ll see more marine iguanas than people on this beach, though they blend in nicely with the rocks. They often hang out in tight groups, even lying on top of each other, but not playfully like sea lions. “Resting iguana face” would not be a compliment. One of our favorite outings on Isabela was to Los Tuneles, a marine landscape where multiple tunnels have been carved out of the sharp volcanic rocks. It’s shallow and protected, so it’s filled with marine life and interesting rock formations, perfect for snorkeling. It can get crowded with people, unfortunately, but still well worth the boat ride there.Swimming sea turtles like this sun-dappled Hawkbill are among the most peaceful sights you can experience, as they glide effortlessly, slowly, and without malice or fear. We saw dozens of various shapes, sizes, and species at Los Tuneles. Two of the more exotic sights at Los Tuneles: a spiny lobster battling a moray eel and a nest of sleeping white-tipped sharks. We saw white-tips swimming as well — they can be 4-5 feet long but did not seem especially interested in us!The famed Galapagos penguins, which have adapted to the non-polar climate, are harder to find near land at this time of year when the water is warmest. But we did see one on the rocks while kayaking at Las Tintoreras and one fleeting underwater glimpse at Bartolome Island (technically part of the Santa Cruz portion of our trip but these are the only two sightings we had!).Isabela was formed by six volcanoes. This one, called Sierra Negra, is closest to town and last erupted in 2018. This photo shows the black rocks from the 2005 eruption bordering the red rocks of an earlier one. Sierra Negra has one of the largest calderas in the world, at 6×10 miles wide, as well as a vast expanse of moonscape-like rocks and multiple conical fissures and vents that also spew lava. Galápagos—Isla Santa Cruz We first saw giant tortoises at the Darwin Center in Puerto Ayora, but our best sightings were in the highlands at El Chato Ranch, a tortoise sanctuary, where this one gave us a wary eye and we saw another 550-pound male try to mount a smaller and less-than-enthusiastic female (who escaped).The water here is Caribbean teal and warm for swimming. The beaches have the finest, softest sand, sharp volcanic rock, and legions of red Sally Lightfoot crabs. The power of the sun is like a weight, but breezes are near-constant at the shore, and the highlands often attract clouds and rain.Sea lions are everywhere, from the ferry dock near the airport to the crystal blue waters. They play, they fish, and they sleep on piers, anchored boats, and park benches. We even saw one that appeared to be aqua-dancing to the music of a pier-side Carnaval fiesta.Did I say sea lions are everywhere? Look closely by the table of this harbor fish market in Puerto Ayora, where the daily catch of small-boat fisherman attracts local people (and hopeful animals) as well as tourists.Marine iguanas are also everywhere, from beaches to coastal hiking paths to restaurant decks. They swim like snakes, tucking their limbs next to their bodies, sleep flat on their bellies with legs splayed, and walk on clawed feet, swaggering side-to-side and dragging their tails through the sand.A short boat ride away from Santa Cruz is North Seymour Island, home to the famous blue-footed boobies (left and center) and frigate birds that inflate their red throat pouches to attract mates (right), as well as big yellow land iguanas. Notice the boobie on its nest is sitting on two eggs (center).This iconic view of Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé Island, a two-hour boat ride from Santa Cruz, shows the volcanic rock that built the islands. Galapagos were never attached to any mainland, but sprung up from undersea volcanoes and fissures.As unforgettable as seeing sea turtles swim under your kayak was snorkeling with huge schools of tropical fish like these blue surgeonfish at North Seymour and Bartolomé, where we also encountered a spotted eagle ray, a sea turtle, and, for one fleeting second, a small Galapagos penguin. Feliz Navidad from Cuenca The iconic, blue New Cathedral domes are always lit at night, but in December the adjacent Spanish colonial courtyard includes this angel and a créche.Some parks have Christmas fairs for families where the leafy trees are decorated for daytime festivities, but not lit at night.The little tiendas (shops) sell anything red and green this time of year—in addition to Santa hats, there’s Spiderman, Little Mermaid, and Mickey Mouse.In a place where the temperatures almost never leave the 50-80 degree comfort zone, it can be surprising to see a snowman!Cuencans do not go overboard with Christmas lights and decorations, but those they have, like these in a courtyard in Old Cuenca, are beautiful at night.Of course, not all Christmas decorations are sacred, just like in the U.S. Apparently red negligees and PJs are also part of the festivities!In Spanish, the “h” is silent, so there’s a different spelling for Santa’s laugh on this display in our language school.Firecrackers are common at Christmas here, and on New Year’s Eve, these monigotes (effigies) will be burned, exploded, or cracked open like piñatas to destroy the bad things from last year and make room for the good.Unfortunately, we did not take this picture. Covid precautions canceled this year’s Pase del Niño parade, or Passing of the Child, which is one of the biggest events of the year in Cuenca. We’ve read that it starts at 10am on Christmas Eve and continues for hours, mixing a traditional celebration of baby Jesus’ journey with modern twists like the Three Wise Men on Harleys!