Even before flight LAN517 touched down in Quito, I could feel my achievement - the first person in my family to have traveled to South America. I had been selected along with 13 other teenagers to be a part of a National Geographic Student Expedition (NGSE) in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands where we would improve our photography and wilderness conservation skills.
Our first stop in Ecuador was Quito, the capital. Quito is the highest capital city in the world, at an altitude of 9350 feet. We explored the city for two days, enjoying the rich and diverse architecture influenced from Spain, Italy, and Belgium. The monasteries and historic centre are the best preserved and least changed in all of Latin America. The people were friendly and we enjoyed playing in the local park one afternoon. The local food was also delicious, we tried hornado (potatoes and meat) rice, red beans and the prominent cuy (guinea pig).
The day after, we headed up north to Cotopaxi, named after the volcano, at a height of 19,347 feet. We spent four days in this active strato-volcano enjoying several activities such as horse riding, hiking to a waterfall and trekking up to the volcano. The trek up to Cotopaxi was not only breathtaking but overwhelming too. We started our climb from the base at 10,000 feet above sea level and ended at a small school located at 12,000 feet. The hike took three hours but it felt like it was never going to end. We were surrounded by ice and the wind chill factor did not help. The air was thinning by the second and eventually I started to feel altitude sickness, a condition where there is not enough oxygen reaching your brain such that you get headaches and in some cases, extreme nausea and vomiting. Luckily for me, I just felt a migraine but still enjoyed the steep and slippery climb up the active volcano.
After our stay in Cotopaxi, we headed down south, past Quito to a town called Mindo, located right in the middle of a cloud forest. We were all relieved as we could now wear t-shirts and shorts in the daytime rather than four layers of heavy clothing. In Mindo, we enjoyed numerous other activities such as trekking up to another waterfall and tubing, an amazing ride down a river where you sit in these tubes and literally go with the flow.
We also visited a butterfly and hummingbird sanctuary with National Geographic expert, Ivan Kashinsky, who gave us few tips on photography. The highlight in Mindo was surely viewing the Cock-of-the-Rock, a rare bird which is only seen few times of the year. One morning, we got up at 4am to search for this bird. Our guide, with 30 years of experience was simply excellent and knew exactly where they visit. We scoped it out patiently, with all our cameras on silent mode, as we didn’t want scare away the birds. After much persistence, I was really lucky to get a good shot of this rare bird.
My favorite part of the trip was definitely the final week, when we flew to the Galápagos Islands. My excitement overjoyed the minute we landed as whilst on our way to the immigration counter itself, we saw a five-foot Galápagos snake. Every member of the group apart from me ran in terror, while I calmly removed my camera and took some great snaps. This exhilaration kept me in high spirits every day as I knew we would be concentrating on wildlife photography from here on, my forté! I adore taking photos of animals and thus wouldn’t miss out to see the 100-year-old Galápagos giant tortoises or the famous blue-footed boobies. Galápagos further entertained us through activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding and snorkeling. It was also the best opportunity for me to use my GoProTM, to capture and compile memories of probably my best trip ever.
If I would have to choose a highlight for this part of the trip it would have to be snorkeling with the hammerhead sharks. One morning, we followed our local guide Danny, who took us to a remote island where we were told to jump in and snorkel! Upon jumping in, my heart pumped at 180 bpm. On my left, were at least half a dozen blue dolphins frolicking while on my right were two lean reef sharks. We stayed with them for a while before we moved on and saw the giant sea turtles and sea lions. Suddenly, Danny pointed down. I tilted my face downwards and saw something I have always wanted to see ever since I got my scuba diving certificate three years ago - two hammer head sharks swimming right below us. Since they were at least 10 meters below us, Danny grabbed my GoProTM and chased after them to catch them on video. Upon returning to shore, I was reflecting on probably the best underwater experience I have ever had when the boat captain loudly acclaimed “look, look, look there” and pointed to the left. Out in the middle of the ocean, were two 15 metre long humpback whales. The day could not have got any better.
If I were ever to go back and work with National Geographic, I would within a heartbeat. Within three weeks, 13 strangers had become close friends, two trip leaders had become guardians and most of all the experiences had become priceless memories. Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly as fascinating as fragile an environment can be!