Independent Research Study (ISP) in Puerto López

At the end of every SIT program, students are required to complete a month-long independent study that results in a 20 page (single spaced) report and a presentation.  I was initially inspired by the idea of living on the coast, and through this interest I was introduced to a project in the small fishing based town of Puerto López.  Puerto López is a small town encased in Machililla National Park that was recently titled an “ATP”/Areá Turistica Protegida or Protected Touristic Area in attempts to attract ecotourism. However, the town faces insormountable problems with pollution and infrastructure that it must first face before it aims to bring in more tourists.  I am doing a study on how past development has affected the beach ecosystem, finding the roots of the current problems with pollution and suffering beach flora and fauna, and I am looking into the plans for future development and hypothesizing how it will further influence the natural environment and the citizens here in Puerto López.  My methodology so far has included using Google Earth imagery to measure land use change over the past 10 years, and I am in the process of surveying 150 people about their opinions on who is to blame for the pollution, how it can change, what the town lacks in public services, etc.  The surveys are my favorite and least favorite part of the project because they lead me to have insightful conversations with dozens of fascinating people in the town, but also take FOREVER! As of now I have 22 responses to the survey, and lack 128. Luckily I have 2 more weeks to complete the rest of them and any other data needed before I have a week to write!

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I am living with la familia Serrano, a sweet family who live in the center of town and only two blocks from the beach 🙂 This past week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, which is heavily celebrated in Ecuador.  Many family members from Guayaquil came up for the week for vacation and I tagged along for trips to nearby beaches including Los Frailes in Machililla National Park- beautiful!

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Tomorrow is my 21st birthday and more importantly, Earth Day!  I will be participating in a Minga or a trash collection activity around the town with a club called “Proyecto Puerto López Limpio” that consists of local middle and high schoolers- hope for the future! It is more common to see someone throw their plastic bottles/bags/containers in the street than it is to see them throw it in a trash can.  Its part of the culture, and its something that needs to change. ¡Feliz día de la Madre Tierra!

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La Amazonia

Two weeks ago we spent a week in the Ecuadorian Amazon as our final group excursion. Before the trip I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about spending time in the jungle, mostly because I had no idea what was truly in store for me. Our time in “el oriente”, as Ecuadorians call it, was incredible and was more than I could have expected. We flew to Coca, a petroleum boomtown on the amazon basin that was essentially built by the oil industry and is sustained by them as well. In order to travel to our next destinations we were transported by Héctor, our guide, in a massive motorized canoe. We traveled down the Napo River over its white waters, and its beauty only then hit me. The river is about 200 meters wide at some points, and lush green primary forests line its banks.

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Our first stop was on “Isla de los monos”, an island that Héctor bought years ago to develop a program to help repopulate monkey species and take in black-market stolen monkeys that were intended to be pets. The organization that he runs is called “Sumak Allpa” and it also works with local communities to improve education and also to help give them a form of representation with the oil companies. The most interesting experience from this island was when Héctor showed us his garden filled with herbs and plants that indigenous people use for natural remedies. I was standing in the garden when I heard Héctor say something and then, “…who wants to volunteer?” Having learned over the years that offering to be a volunteer, regardless the task, is always a good decision – I said yes even though I hadn’t heard the preceding description of what I was getting myself into. I walked over to our professor Javier, who was holding an ominous nettle plant. “Ok put your hands on the tree and pull up the back of your shirt.” ….At this point I was seriously questioning my decision. “This might sting a little!” He then started hitting the stinging nettle leaves across my back and he was right, it did sting quite a bit. The part I had missed was that indigenous people use this plant when they have sore muscles because chemicals from the nettles are released in your back and it creates a sort of numbing/tingling feeling. The stinging went away very quickly and it did feel relaxing but what it left behind was quite unpleasant- my entire back was bright red and bumpy.

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We then took the canoe to Limoncocha, a reserve located off of the Napa where we stayed for 4 days in their local community built lodge. This community has recently put efforts towards ecotourism as a source of income. This reserve is truly special with an incredibly high biodiversity and a welcoming community. During our time here we went on many bird watching transects where we saw macaws, “stinky turkeys”, purple gallinules, parrots, and even some troops of pygmy marmosets. The Limoncocha Lagoon was a highlight for due to our time night watching for Black Caimans (we saw a 15 footer!), and especially the magic that was the larvae of lighting bugs. We were floating through the lagoon in pitch dark when Héctor told us to turn off our headlamps: what we were left with was thousands of glowing white dots of larvae in the marsh- you couldn’t tell where they ended and where the stars began.

 

Another highlight of Limoncocha was spending time with the children from the community. Dev, Lauren and I decided to spend our free time before lunch playing with the kids on the playground and I had no idea what was in store! We seesawed with little girls, played ‘house’ (I was mama and was frequently told “¡mama dame plata! Or mom give me money!” At one point I was sure if I was going to suffocate due to 5 children hanging off of my neck competing for piggyback rides. Such an overwhelming and fun experience! The children in this community acted as a family of their own and I couldn’t tell who was related because of how they helped and treated each other equally and with love.

 

While on this island we also took the “toxic tour” which was a tour of the local petroleum operation within an indigenous community. In many cases homes are located directly across from wastewater tanks, smokestacks burning off excess gas, or processing plants. Ecuador as a unique policy that you can have property rights above ground, but whatever is below ground belongs to the government thereby allowing them to extract whatever they want wherever they want. We visited one house that is located directly across from an old oil well- during rain storms years ago the oil flowed across the road, into their front yard and down into their back yard/stream. Among the cocoa crops and pecking chickens in their front yard were piles of crude oil feeding into the soil. In the backyard stream you could still see the tint of chemicals in the water that they use for fish farming, all from a spill close to 20 years ago. The only compensation that this family was awarded by the oil company Texac/Chevron was an addition to their house with a washing machine- equal tradeoff? I don’t think so.

 

We also visited a community called Lomo del Tigre where we had the opportunity to talk with locals about the effects they experience from the petroleum industry’s infiltration on their lives. One man shared with me that a 17-year-old girl was just diagnosed with cancer, children frequently have skin fungus due to swimming in contaminated waters, and people are sick at least every two weeks. Through all of this they have received no compensation from the oil companies and the government gives them little to no representation.

 

Another highlight from the trip was hiking and camping in Yasuni national park – the most bio diverse place on earth. There are more species of trees in this small park, which is around the size of the state of Delaware, than there are in all of North America. On one hike our guide Héctor tracked a herd of Peccaries and we got to see 400 wild pig-like animals run only meters away from us, which was incredible.

 

We then went to Pañacocha, a small-untouched region off of the Napa. We stayed in a beautiful lodge that we had all to ourselves, and did mist-netting for bats (we caught two!), a night hike where we saw dozens of wandering spiders, tarantulas, a baby dwarf Caiman (alligator), and some incredible insects. We also went fishing for barracudas, swam in the black waters lake, and did a 2 hour “solo” in the jungle where you are left on a trail alone to reflect on everything around you and have a rare moment of peace and solidarity. Apparently it is tradition to do the amazon solo naked except with your rubber boots on- so everything participated! I was heavily doused in bug spray because the mosquitos were out for blood but this was one of the more unique experiences of our trip to el oriente.

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It is impossible to express how unique this experience was and how much I appreciate being able to spend a week full of cultural and ecological ‘interactive learning’.  

A week en Las Galapagos

This past week in Las Islas Galapagos was truly incredible- this World Heritage Site deserves its title and its fame for being a pristine and unique place.  After this trip, I have a newfound obsession with the penguins and sea lions of these islands.

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Our group of 12 people was split up into two groups of 6 for this visit. For the first half of the week my group stayed with host families on the Island Isabela in the town of Puerto Villamil.  I was paired with Christine to live with Tina and Símon in their pretty home.  Tina works in town as well as manages homestay guests as a form of a hostel, and Símon used to be a fisherman before heavy regulations were put into place to reduce overfishing in the islands. He is now on hiatus saving up enough money to buy a boat to transport and find his place in Pescando Vivencial, a tourism service to take visitors sport fishing in a more regulated environment.  In the past 30 years overfishing of sharks, sea cucumbers, and many other sea creatures has become a massive problem.  Not only were population sizes exponentially decreasing, but also the methods used to collect these highly priced items were extremely dangerous to the fisherman’s health with daily reports of fatal accidents.  Tourism has taken over as a form of income for many former fishermen.  For example, our snorkeling guide and our island guide are former fishermen who now work much safer and more enjoyable jobs in tourism.

During our 4-day stay on Isabela we snorkeled in “Tuneles” a beautiful site of rock formations created by Aa lava.  The lava formed small island formations of rock with tunnels going through many of them, so it was common to witness sea turtles or rays swim under the rocks and appear on the other side. In this excursion we swam with a giant Manta Ray (which we also saw leap out of the ocean, SO COOL), sea turtles, white tip reef sharks, endless fish, dozens of adorable sea lions etc.

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We also went on a daylong hike to the top of Sierra Negra Volcano, which had its last eruption in 2006.  Volcanoes that formed the Galapagos Islands are very wide and not very tall.  This volcano has a massive lava field that looks like the moon, surrounded by lush green vegetation. As our walk progressed we saw more ‘parasitic’ volcanoes that arose out of the main one- it was a type of landscape that I have never experienced.

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Another highlight was visiting a Giant Turtle rescue and production center- they had baby turtles in incubators, and every age of turtle up to multiple giant turtles that had been rescued from the Sierra Negra eruption who are now living in solitude.  We had the opportunity to feed some of these beautiful prehistoric looking creatures.  Once the turtles are big enough they are then released into their natural habitats to try and rehabilitate their population throughout the islands.

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When we weren’t going on excursions with our Galapagos Island Guide Carlos, we were exploring the community of Puerta Villamil and enjoying sunsets and fancy drinks in coconuts 🙂

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After 4 days of fun, we switched with the other group and boarded Nemo II, a 70 ft catamaran! I was not prepared for how shockingly luxurious this leg of the trip would be.  When we boarded the 7-man crew and our Galapagos Guide Lenin greeted us, along with a full decadent breakfast prepared by Fabricio, the chef.  Before every meal a bell was rung to declare ‘meal time’ and we would venture out to the tables at the stern of the boat and enjoy a buffet-style meal.  Some highlights include: ceviche, maduros, many types of fish, and of course Frabricio’s creative desserts.  I could talk about food all day, so I’ll move on…

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On Nemo II we sailed/motored to many islands including: Plaza Sur, Champion, Santa Fé, Cormorán, Post Office, Bartolomé, y Sombrero Chino. At each island we would take the dingy to shore to explore each island’s unique flora and fauna. Lenin, our guide, was extremely knowledgeable about everything we saw.  When visiting the Galapagos it is required to have a guide with you at all times as a way of preventing unwanted erosion, destruction of habitats, and any harm to the many endemic species living there.

Highlights of our excursions include:
-exploring a huge lava tunnel that was 100% pitch-black

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-Becoming best friends with Sea Lions

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-Paddle boarding and kayaking during down time

-Taking in the beauty of the cliff of Isla Plaza Sur which featured a bachelor colony of Sea Lions, and hundreds of birds below feeding and soaring.

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-Snorkeling twice a day and swimming with Penguins who were chasing fish mere feet from us.  The biodiversity and abundance of sea life at these snorkel sites amazed me.  I saw eagle rays, dozens of species of fish, eels, turtles at every turn, reef sharks, sea stars- any of which would have been a ‘find of the day’ when scuba diving in the BVIs this past summer.  It is worth all of the effort that the Galapagos reserve puts into protecting this world treasure.

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-Enjoying the stunning sunsets

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It was a week I’ll never forget!  Now back to reality in Quito…

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A Week en Las Islas Galápagaos

This past week in Las Islas Galapagos was truly incredible- this World Heritage Site deserves its title and its fame for being a pristine and unique place.  After this trip, I have a newfound obsession with the penguins and sea lions of these islands.

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Our group of 12 people was split up into two groups of 6 for this visit. For the first half of the week my group stayed with host families on the Island Isabela in the town of Puerto Villamil.  I was paired with Christine to live with Tina and Símon in their pretty home.  Tina works in town as well as manages homestay guests as a form of a hostel, and Símon used to be a fisherman before heavy regulations were put into place to reduce overfishing in the islands. He is now on hiatus saving up enough money to buy a boat to transport and find his place in Pescando Vivencial, a tourism service to take visitors sport fishing in a more regulated environment.  In the past 30 years overfishing of sharks, sea cucumbers, and many other sea creatures has become a massive problem.  Not only were population sizes exponentially decreasing, but also the methods used to collect these highly priced items were extremely dangerous to the fisherman’s health with daily reports of fatal accidents.  Tourism has taken over as a form of income for many former fishermen.  For example, our snorkeling guide and our island guide are former fishermen who now work much safer and more enjoyable jobs in tourism.

During our 4-day stay on Isabela we snorkeled in “Tuneles” a beautiful site of rock formations created by Aa lava.  The lava formed small island formations of rock with tunnels going through many of them, so it was common to witness sea turtles or rays swim under the rocks and appear on the other side. In this excursion we swam with a giant Manta Ray (which we also saw leap out of the ocean, SO COOL), sea turtles, white tip reef sharks, endless fish, dozens of adorable sea lions etc.

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We also went on a daylong hike to the top of Sierra Negra Volcano, which had its last eruption in 2006.  Volcanoes that formed the Galapagos Islands are very wide and not very tall.  This volcano has a massive lava field that looks like the moon, surrounded by lush green vegetation. As our walk progressed we saw more ‘parasitic’ volcanoes that arose out of the main one- it was a type of landscape that I have never experienced.

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Another highlight was visiting a Giant Turtle rescue and production center- they had baby turtles in incubators, and every age of turtle up to multiple giant turtles that had been rescued from the Sierra Negra eruption who are now living in solitude.  We had the opportunity to feed some of these beautiful prehistoric looking creatures.  Once the turtles are big enough they are then released into their natural habitats to try and rehabilitate their population throughout the islands.

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When we weren’t going on excursions with our Galapagos Island Guide Carlos, we were exploring the community of Puerta Villamil and enjoying sunsets and fancy drinks in coconuts 🙂

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After 4 days of fun, we switched with the other group and boarded Nemo II, a 70 ft catamaran! I was not prepared for how shockingly luxurious this leg of the trip would be.  When we boarded the 7-man crew and our Galapagos Guide Lenin greeted us, along with a full decadent breakfast prepared by Fabricio, the chef.  Before every meal a bell was rung to declare ‘meal time’ and we would venture out to the tables at the stern of the boat and enjoy a buffet-style meal.  Some highlights include: ceviche, maduros, many types of fish, and of course Frabricio’s creative desserts.  I could talk about food all day, so I’ll move on…

Image

On Nemo II we sailed/motored to many islands including: Plaza Sur, Champion, Santa Fé, Cormorán, Post Office, Bartolomé, y Sombrero Chino. At each island we would take the dingy to shore to explore each island’s unique flora and fauna. Lenin, our guide, was extremely knowledgeable about everything we saw.  When visiting the Galapagos it is required to have a guide with you at all times as a way of preventing unwanted erosion, destruction of habitats, and any harm to the many endemic species living there.

Highlights of our excursions include:
-exploring a huge lava tunnel that was 100% pitch-black

Image

-Becoming best friends with Sea Lions

Image

-Paddle boarding and kayaking during down time

-Taking in the beauty of the cliff of Isla Plaza Sur which featured a bachelor colony of Sea Lions, and hundreds of birds below feeding and soaring.

Image

-Snorkeling twice a day and swimming with Penguins who were chasing fish mere feet from us.  The biodiversity and abundance of sea life at these snorkel sites amazed me.  I saw eagle rays, dozens of species of fish, eels, turtles at every turn, reef sharks, sea stars- any of which would have been a ‘find of the day’ when scuba diving in the BVIs this past summer.  It is worth all of the effort that the Galapagos reserve puts into protecting this world treasure.

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-Enjoying the stunning sunsets

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It was a week I’ll never forget!  Now back to reality in Quito…

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El Páramo

Last week our group went on our 2nd ecosystem excursion to el Páramo.  This ecosystem is located above the cloud line at 3300 to 4500 meters- it is above the cloud forest up to the volcanic glaciers.  

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On the first day of the trip, we had the opportunity to put into practice the first lesson we had on this program: flexibility. Javier S, our director, has never failed to mention how important flexibility is. In Ecuadorian culture if things don’t follow the schedule, then they are going according to plan. We took a bus to Cayambe Volcano and glacier. On the drive there it became apparent that the roads were impassible and that we would have to do more trekking than expected. After an hour of walking around, the roads were declared passible after all, and made our way up the mountain. After a certain point we began our hike to the base of this gorgeous glacier.  The refuge to which we hiked was originally built at the true base of the glacier, but is now hundreds of meters from it due to climate change and retreating ice.  

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After this adventure, we drove through el Páramo to Oyacachi, an indigenous community with Kichwa roots. This community was the first indigenous group to gain a legal title of land in Ecuador in the early 1900s. http://www.oyacachi.org.ec/sitio/  Their community was originally based around subsistence farming but once the government claimed the nearby lakes as the primary water source to Quito, their lives have changed. Part of the community is now working on the development of eco-tourism as a way of bringing in visitors and profits.  Three friend and I stayed in a vacant home with trout ponds outside-some of these trout neighbors were served for at least one meal a day. There is a growing system of hosting visitors in home stays, a restaurant, incredible handicrafts for sale, and the biggest draw of all- luxury hot springs. These hot springs were INCREDIBLE, with multiple pools and resort quality architecture. 

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During our time in this community we visited Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve where the government has turned a large mass of land into an untouchable reserve to preserve their capital’s water source.  They have damed rivers, diverted rivers and decimated waterfalls for this viscous gold: potable water. (Fun fact: while Ecuador puts this much effort into providing water to its people, there is no system for filtering used sewage water before it is directly dumped into one of the largest rivers outside of the city. Terrible.)  However, on the bright side, this reserve has allowed hundreds of endemic species of plants, animals and birds to thrive in undisturbed land.

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We also spent time working on our group research projects. My group went on a 1km transect for bird watching, while other groups climbed through the jungle measuring trees and searching for insects.  This ecosystem is so beautiful in a way that I have never seen. Although there are major issues with field burning, over grazing, agriculture etc., its unique soil structure acts like a sponge and provides reliable water to most of Ecuador year-round.  (Ecuador is turning me more into a plant-lover, who knew?)