Anaconda Lodge in the Amazon Rainforest, Napo, Ecuador

For the past year, I’ve been taking Spanish classes online. The people in your class change from day to day, so typically, the teachers start by having everyone briefly introduce themselves. Where are you from? Where do you live? Why are you learning Spanish?

Consequently, one of the first phrases I learned was “Vivo en Tena, Ecuador. Es una ciudad pequeña rodeada de la selva!” Or, “I live in Tena, Ecuador. It’s a small city surrounded by the jungle.

This might seem silly, but it’s a fact that I often forget on a day-to-day basis since most days I am in the city. However, about an hour away from Tena on the banks of the Napo River is Anaconda Lodge, which quickly reminded me that we actually live in the Amazon basin!

We booked the 3 day/2 night package, which started with a ~20-minute boat ride down the Napo to the lodge, located on Anaconda Island (which doesn’t actually have anacondas, much to Sis’ disappointment). We met Francisco, one of the owners, at Punto Ahuano, quite literally where the road ends, and then off we went!

Day 1: The Chocolate Tour

After settling into our room and having some lunch, we were off to our first activity. A quick boat ride up the river took us to la Isla Cacao Wasi, a small family-run cacao farm.

This is where things got interesting, and not for reasons you may think. Let me start by saying our guide, Fredy, was fantastic. He took us on 3 of our 4 guided adventures and really opened up with us by the end. We were all joking around with each other and having a great time! And he’s super knowledgeable about the area. The catch? He spoke Spanish the entire time!

Now, maybe you’re thinking… why is this special? You’re in Ecuador; of course, he spoke Spanish. Well, Sis and Terry don’t live here and aren’t actively learning Spanish, so, based on our arrangement with the lodge, we expected our tours to be in English. However, in an effort to be friendly and practice a little Spanish himself, Shane struck up a conversation in Spanish with Fredy, and the rest was history!

Shane and I became Spanish-to-English translators! 😳

This was actually quite a confidence boost. We were both a little shocked at how much we easily understood and could relay to Sis and Terry. It was nice to see that our learning efforts were actually paying off!

Anyway, back to the tour.

First, we did a short walk around the property. Fredy explained that many families living near the Napo grow primarily one crop to sell (it was cacao for this family), but they also grow smaller amounts of other things for personal use or secondary income, such as sugar cane, yuca, bananas, and guayusa, which is a regional tree, the leaves of which are used for tea.

Gettin’ some of that sweet sweet sugar cane!

Next up was the important part, the cacao! This tour was similar to the one I took in Mindo, where they explained the entire process, from cacao to chocolate. The difference, however, was that this chocolate was made before our eyes over a small wood fire! Also, we actually participated in roasting, peeling, and grinding the cacao beans, then melting the cacao paste into chocolate. Once you have dried beans, the entire process (at least for our small batch) takes no time!

Roast those cacao beans, baby!

The best part? We got to eat it (served with guayusa tea)!

And finally, we got to THE most anticipated part of the afternoon… the blow dart! This thing is HARD to use.

First, I have no aim. This is nothing new. Second, despite having my contacts in, I couldn’t even see the stupid dart after shooting it. I was a lost cause. Luckily Sis was equally as bad (no offense, Sis). Shane and Terry both managed to hit the target*, though!

* “I hit the target on the first try, thank you!” –Shane

Day 2: Hiking, Tubing, and Caimans!

We had a packed day of activities planned for our one full day on Anaconda Island. First up was a hike through the primary forest, a short boat ride away with a mirador (viewpoint) of the river and Anaconda Island.

You might not realize it, but the Amazon basin is not flat. I mean sure, it’s flat compared to the Andes mountains to the west of us, but when you’re walking through the woods, you notice the uphill! Not to mention, it’s hot and humid in the rainforest, which means we were all sweating through our shirts after about 20 minutes… and through our faceprint, for Sis and me.

Ecuador has a large indigenous community, including the Kichwa people, which is an umbrella term for those who speak Kichwa (sometimes spelled Quichua), which evolved from Quechua spoken in other places like Peru. Quechua, as we learned on this trip, was spoken by the Incas, and the language was created to unify the various tribes under Incan rule.

Eventually, the Spaniards arrived in Ecuador and made their way east to cities on the edge of the Amazon, enslaving the indigenous people. Those who escaped fled to the banks of the Napo river and other areas of the Amazon basin and established the Kichwa communities we know today.

Oh, and a little geography lesson: the Napo River feeds into THE Amazon River in Peru, which eventually makes its way to Brazil. So, this river is a big deal.

All of this to say, some of the Amazonian Kichwa paint their faces for various occasions with achiote seed pods, which make a beautiful natural red/orange paint!

We didn’t see any crazy animals on our hike, but Fredy did point out various trees and their uses, for example, the tree used to make the blow gun and the Chonta palm tree, where chontacuro (the grub I made Sis try) live. We also saw a dead tarantula (RIP) and leaf cutter ants and TASTED these tiny little ants that live inside a specific type of tree. They tasted like lemon. It was wild!

Oh, and any guesses on the best natural bug repellant?

Termites. 😳

Break off a chunk of their nest, let them crawl on you, then quickly rub them up and down your arms (smooshing them in the process). Surprisingly, it doesn’t smell bad… a bit musky, but not bad. And, indeed, we repelled bugs! Just gotta get over that creepy crawly first bit…

Getting that all natural bug repellent.

We were hot and ready to relax after the hike. So, a lazy-river tube down the Arajuno river, on the other side of the island, was next on the agenda.

Our phones were in the boat for this one, so there were no pictures. Except, remember how Sis and I had our faces painted? Well, in case you were wondering, sunscreen took it right off. I completely forgot about the face paint and turned myself into an Oompa Loompa. Yay for natural products! 😂

I’m nearly the same color as my life vest. 🤦‍♀️

After lunch, our next activity was a walk to the Caiman Lagoon on Anaconda Island with Francisco, one of the owners. There are two types of Caiman in this protected lagoon. Which kinds, you ask? I’ll have to refer you to Francisco for that because I don’t remember.

What I do remember is how beautiful this lagoon was and how cool it was just to hang out and watch them lingering in the water!

Our final walk of the day was after dinner at night. In the dark, the forest is completely different. I’m sure there were many creatures we didn’t notice, but what was abundantly clear were the swaths of ants that emerged! Small ants, medium-sized ants, BULLET ANTS. Yep, the ones with one of the most painful stings. And there was a legitimate 500 meter (at least!) ant highway, which we named Ant Avenue (obviously, cause You gotta walk on through the Ant Avenue!… please tell me you sang that).

Bullet ants. Please notice the tiny dots next to the big ants… those are regular sized-ants.

And that about sums up our time at Anaconda Lodge! I would be remiss to not mentioned is how delicious the food was and how Francisco and his wife and co-owner, Silvia, work closely with the community to provide support and protect the land. Both of these really made the our experience there feel extra-special.

So, if you’re looking for a little taste of the jungle, I highly recommend spending a few days at Anaconda Lodge!

Nos Vemos,


Rafting in Tena, Ecuador, with Raft Amazonia

We’re switching it up, folks!

When Sis and Terry were here, we went rafting with Raft Amazonia, a Kichwa-run rafting company in Tena. We had THE BEST TIME! However, in this case, I don’t think my words can do it justice. On the other hand, Terry’s a storyteller; his words make you feel our experience.

So, with that, I’m handing it over to him.

Oh, and to avoid confusion, my sister (Kelsey) and I call each other Sis. So, the “Sis” in this story is me (Whitney).

January 2, 2023 – 5:15 am

It’s dark outside, the sound of heavy rain pounding in the courtyard and the roll of the thunder. A humming fan blows warm air onto the bed; the excitement of the adventure ahead looms, and it is hard to sleep. We finally gear up around 7:00 am and head outside to meet the guides at the office. Shane and I ran to the ATM, and in true traveler fashion, my card would not pull out any cash. Shane came to the rescue, and we rallied with Sis and Kels. We whistled down a cab to avoid a walk in the heavy rain, finally making it to the rafting office. Confirming the trip was still on, we knew it would be fun if they were going out in this weather.

We were going to conquer the Jatunyacu and Napo Rivers in the heart of the Amazon Jungle by white water raft!

Thirty minutes in a van brought us to our put-in spot, and we got to know our newest teammate, Molly, a Peace Corp Ranger on assignment in Tena. She was to be on the right side with Kels in the middle and Shane at the bow. Gregory, our local guide, gave us a brief lesson on the river and how to operate as a team. He commanded the helm on the left side, with Sis in the middle and I at the bow. Hush conversations of how crazy it was we were going to whitewater raft the Jatunyacu in this downpour. The company does not simply stop for weather such as this.

This is the Amazon Rainforest.

Practice before we begin.

We geared up, loaded in, and responded to the commands as we began to pick up speed. Within two minutes, the river had picked up, and we were in it. We rammed straight into a giant boulder; Gregory commanded, “Inside!” We obliged by quickly throwing ourselves inside the boat instead of sitting on the side. The boat spun, and the command, forward, was issued. Quick glances assured one another that we were all surprised at what was in store for us ahead. The river beckoned our challenge and pulled us into a giant wave faster than expected. Engulfing the boat, I was knocked into the row behind and scrambled back into position with the aid of Sis. Shane managed to block most of the Jatunyacu with his face and chest. The sheer force was enough to shake you to your core, but the look on his face was what shook me. Almost concern washed across his face; we shared a moment of understanding. The Jatunyacu was not to be taken lightly; she has forged valleys and mountains, fed many, and created life.

Our first set of rapids.

The battle proceeded as it relentlessly rained, and the river gave us just as much as we could handle. It was us versus the Jatunyacu: the two power couples, Peace Corp Molly, and our fearless captain, Gregory. We were a force rarely seen by the Jatunyacu, and we begged her to give us everything she had. Rain fell, and the current ran us into rocks spinning us in and out, wave after wave.

Eventually, we stopped for lunch at a local Kichwa village. We were happy to buy some locally handcrafted items from the people of the river. Their ancestors have lived with this river for over 500 years.

We refueled with tuna burritos, Oreos, and Doritos, then hit the river for the second leg of our journey.

We fought valiantly! As the bow slammed into boulders, meeting massive waves cresting the boat, Kelsey was sure we were sinking there for a second! The current pulled us away, and the river roared.


The command echoed through our ears as the battle slowly began to subside. The Jatunyacu had given us everything we asked of her and then some. We met her every step of the way with a fierce will to conquer this beautiful river. 

A calming float showed the beautiful life found on the river. The Jatunyacu carried us to beautiful waterfalls, breathtaking views of its landscape, and all the wonderful vegetation it is home to. She showed us the beautiful orchids that resided across the giant cliff faces carved by the life of the Jatunyacu. There was beautiful wildlife, with species of birds and even a few insects that didn’t stop for the rain either. We saw caves, crevasses, and cutouts under the cliffs; we were being shown the true beauty of Rio Jatunyacu. There were incredible sights, vast forests, and a true glimpse of the life she provides for so many. She also showed us her scars. Countless riverbanks are plagued by illegal gold mining operations. The rich soils of the Jatunyacu River are being stripped, altering the water flow and damaging the ecosystem that has adapted to its environment over thousands of years. Piles of debris from the “in-and-out” operations are left stretching hundreds of meters long. It showed the reckless nature of so many of us as we wage war with nature. 

We began our final stretch, transitioning from the Jatunyacu to the Napo River, which started to pick back up. We had just spoken about how tame the river had become, and we must be close to the end. Conversations about how we made it and had won were quickly silenced by Gregory’s fierce “Forward!” command. Looking ahead, we stared directly into the mouth of the Napo herself. “Forward! Forward, team!” Gregory demanded from the helm. The river raged and refused our conquest. Crashing down the rapids, our boat crested a wave, and staring above us was the biggest wave of the day. The Napo opened up a couple feet above our heads and welcomed us to experience a mere taste of her power. The boat was pulled backward, then a powerful wave engulfed the bow and threw us overboard.

Flipping over the right side, Gregory, Sis, and I took a dive while Kels, Shane, and Molly were dunked under the boat. Each of us began our own battle. The current held me down as I pushed to the surface. After breaching the surface and taking in my first breath of air, I took a quick scan to locate the group, who looked slightly disconcerted. I had just enough time to take a breath before being slammed by another wave. The current pulled me down, denying my kicks to the surface. Finally, I crested, and, to my surprise, I was right beside Kelsey. She was feet-downriver (as instructed) after fighting off her own waves. We drifted towards our accompanying kayak guide while Gregory climbed on top of the boat, attempting to flip it back upright. Shane was underneath the boat, trying to stay afloat, managing to get out only to run into the river bank.

On top of that, I watched my croc float away and realized I wasn’t even wearing the other one; it’s a vision that will not be soon forgotten. But, Sis had made her peace with the Napo, quickly positioning herself to dare the bravest rescue of all… the croc. Meanwhile, Gregory flipped the boat and began to haul us in one by one. Finally, after getting situated and accidentally knocking a few folks down along the way, we were all together. I looked around and exclaimed, “my crocs are gone!” I had had them for many years, and they were just… gone. “They’re both there,” said a voice from behind. Sis looked at me and pointed to the floor of the boat. I looked down to find ol’ leftie wedged into the foothold and righty floating in the middle. Apparently, Sis had saved the right one as it floated down the river. A daring and selfless act, the truest characteristics of a hero!

And Molly? She was just cruising and laughing at the mayhem she was witnessing.

It was a hard-fought battle that I now understand why we lost. The Amazon is wild and free; we must respect her force or we must face the consequences. We enjoyed some well-deserved ice cream with cheese, a nice hot shower, and the best burgers Tena has to offer.

It was a life-changing day that I will cherish forever.

– Terry

Hasta luego,


Our first visitors in Tena, Ecuador!


This trip was a long time coming. Sis and Terry were supposed to come to visit back in July, but thanks to the nationwide protests during that time, they ended up canceling their trip a week before they were due to arrive. Shane and I were super excited for them to visit! Somehow, it’s been four years since our Cambodia and Vietnam adventures, so we were long overdue for a trip. Also, we were really excited for someone else to see and experience Tena! We’ve been here for over a year, so our families and friends have heard all about it, but visiting makes it real!

My sissy and me! (Sung to the tune of the 1985 “My Buddy” commercial)

They arrived in Tena on New Year’s Eve, and boy-oh-boy, were we all in for a surprise!

We knew that el ańo viejo (old year) is one of Ecuador’s biggest New Year’s Eve traditions. At midnight, you burn a monigote, a paper mache puppet, so to speak, to get rid of all the bad from the year before. Last year we burned a Covid monigote, which, in all honesty, didn’t really work out in my favor since I got covid 2 weeks later. 🤷‍♀️ This year, we opted for Bugs Bunny (Space Jam version) and a tiger-cat-dog-thing.

2022/2023 monigote selection

This year, there were so many more monigote vendors than last year. Keep in mind these are simply little pop-up shops in the back of trucks and in alleyways. Last year, we saw maybe two people with a couple of options. This year, well, you can see the variety in the pictures! Now, in hindsight, this should have been a sign that we got the covid NYE experience last year… this year, things were back to normal!

And by normal, I mean the Viudas were back!

Viudas in Tena, 2023.

Quite frankly, this was wild to see… funny, but wild given that Ecuador is a pretty religious and conservative country, at least on the outside! 🤪 As the story goes, the traditional monigotes were men, created with a paper mache face and real clothes stuffed with sawdust or paper. Every monigote burned at midnight (obviously) leaves behind a widow, the Viudas. In reality, the Viudas are men dressed in drag, complete with balloon boobies and bootys.

The Viudas first started making their appearance midday, and their main goal was to block the road and collect money to fund their partying. So, you can imagine Sis and Terry’s confusion at seeing men in drag holding a rope across the road to stop cars as they arrived in Tena. 😂

As it got later and the partying continued, we went for a walk down the main road. By this point, for the most part, the Viudas we saw were getting continuously more vulgar, stopping traffic to uh… you can use your imagination… causing huge lines of traffic. As a bystander, it was great entertainment, and those people in traffic at that time of night knew what they were getting themselves into!

I will give a couple of groups credit, though; they were clearly just there to dance! Music was a requirement for any Viuda stop, and, because you’re in Ecuador, each group’s music must be louder than the next. But, this handful of groups had choreographed routines and were really fun to watch! Word on the internet is that some Viudas donate their collections, so I’m choosing to believe that these guys donated to their dance schools.

Oh, did I mention we witnessed all this at ~8:30 pm?! We were home and on our roof by ~10 pm for the fireworks and to burn our monigotes, so I can’t imagine what the street party looked like by midnight!

Like last year, the monigotes were hard to burn (too much paint!), but we eventually got them going! 😆

Disappointed Sis because she can’t start a fire.

The next day was mi cumpleaños!

As an ’86 baby, I turned 27 this year. 🥳💁‍♀️

We spent my birthday at… you guessed it… Shane’s work! 🤦‍♀️

Since it’s a holiday, the research assistants had the day off, so Shane and I were scheduled to cover all the butterfly and caterpillar care. In reality, we wanted to take Sis and Terry to see the university and the butterflies anyway, so it was a perfect opportunity to do so! Plus, they *said* they had a great time seeing (and experiencing!) how everything worked.

Arriving at Ikiam, the university.
Putting them to work!

Other than that, our time in Tena was primarily spent hanging out on our roof (they got to see the volcano!) and eating. 😂 We took them to our favorite breakfast spot for empanadas and bolones de verde (Cafetería Hamilton, if you’re ever in Tena), had fancy coffee at Cafe Tortuga, and finally tried chontacuro!

Chontacuro is a type of worm (grub?) common in the Ecuadorian Amazon. They feed on the pulp of the Chonta palm tree (a Peach palm in English, I think), hence the name. We hadn’t tried them yet for no reason other than the fact that “the place” to try them is in the Archidona patio de comidas. Archidona is the next town up, a whole ~15 min away, so you can understand why we had yet to make it there (she says sarcastically). These bad boys are freshly cooked to order and, to be honest, were pretty good! I can’t really describe the flavor, but if someone gave me a chontacuro without telling me what it was I wouldn’t think twice about it.

And, most importantly, we ate helado con queso, aka ice cream with cheese!

Per usual, our time in Tena was too short. We didn’t go up the tower! We only tried 3 of my 4 ice cream spots! We didn’t eat a typical almuerzo (lunch)! And, we didn’t even take a group photo in front of the Tena sign! 🤦‍♀️

However, we did go rafting and spend two nights at a jungle lodge, so more to come!

I swear, you can see the volcano better in person!

Hasta luego,


Munich and Prague: A mini-European adventure

Yep, you read that correctly!

I’m so behind on the blog. I mean, I know I don’t need to justify this to my ten regular readers, but editing as a job really takes away the desire to get back on the computer after work.

Fun fact, we’ve lived in Ecuador for a year! Actually, it was a year back in September. Even further back than that, in August, we went back to Europe for a few weeks (good news, both the German and Ecuador visas were valid! 😆). We needed to go back for a couple of reasons. Technically, our residence permit in Germany becomes invalid if we’re gone for more than a year (we have an exception for this, but you never know). Also, Shane (and Lucie) needed to check in with the lab in person. However, the primary reason for going back was for them to go to the European Society for Evolutionary Biology conference, which just happened to be in Prague this year (darn!).

Honestly, in Munich we didn’t really do much, so I’ll gloss over our time there. We spent most of our time catching up on dentist and doctors appointments and other adult-like tasks, reveling in the immense options of the massive grocery stores, and beyond that… doing absolutely nothing. However, did meet up with a few friends and check one thing off my Munich bucket list, watching the trains from the Hackerbrücke! Oh, and we couldn’t leave Munich without a maß. 🤷‍♀️

We definitely experienced a few shocks coming back to Europe, the first one being how damn expensive everything was! And I don’t mean inflation; we’ve gotten used to Ecuador prices!

Second, my, lower body is no longer bike-trained… and I’m not talking about my quads! We picked up our bikes from storage and went back to our normal biking ways. After three days I looked at Shane and practically begged him to please, let’s just walk! I couldn’t handle it!

Third, the air is SO DRY. I’ve embraced being a disgustingly sweaty human for all my waking hours (literally). Walk anywhere and you’re sweating. Hell, just stand in a shop for too long and you’ll be dripping sweat. Being back in Germany was the exact opposite. I mean, weather patterns, different climates, blah blah; I get it. But I forgot the feeling of your nose being so dry that it makes you sneeze and the constant need for lotion.

Finally, the roads! The glorious autobahn! ITS SO SMOOTH! 😂 I’ve mentioned before, coming back from our butterfly collecting trip we have to take a 13-hour bus ride. For me, there is essentially no chance of sleeping on this bus because the roads are so curvy. There are no massive highways in this part of Ecuador (the Pan American Highway is near Quito). So, I was shocked when I realized that I ACTUALLY napped on the bus ride from Munich to Prague and back.

As I said, the main reason for going to Prague was the conference, and *humble brag* my main squeeze gave a presentation!

I found the conference to be a delight! This was the first time that I came with Shane as an accompanying person. Basically, this meant that I was allowed to come to the welcome festivities and a couple of other events, but I also snuck in for Shane’s talk and the evening poster sessions with drinks and snacks (🤷‍♀️).

Given that all the lab folks were busy science-ing, I turned the poster session into my own “spot-the-lab-member” game.

The conference center’s view.

While Shane spent the week stuffing his brain with knowledge, I did some sightseeing. I went to the Museum of Communism (lots of reading but well worth it), up the Old Town Bridge Tower on the Charles Bridge (Shane was devastated to miss the 138 stairs to the top), and took myself out to some delicious lunches.

I also went on a walking tour courtesy of my “accompanying person” status. So, uh, funny story. I accidentally joined a private tour not the free tour from the conference… and it was in Spanish. 😳😆

So, what had happened was that the conference gave two time options for the tour: Monday and Thursday. Shane’s talk was on Monday, so I opted for the Thursday tour, which Shane scheduled for me via the conference administrators. Thursday rolls around; I showed up on time but the tour operator was really confused, as was I because I appeared to be the only one there for the tour. After a few phone calls, the tour operator points me towards a small bus with an older couple and a tour guide and tells me to join them.

“Are you sure?” “Yes, yes, its ok!”

Turns out, I got the date wrong; the 2nd tour option was on TUESDAY not Thursday, and they made me a last-minute addition on this lovely couple from Chile’s PRIVATE Spanish tour. 🤦‍♀️

Hey, at least I got some Spanish practice, right?!

To be honest, the tour was lovely. We toured the castle, tried chocolate beer, and walked all through the old town. Once the couple realized that I wasn’t going to commandeer the tour with English they warmed up to me, and we had a nice (but basic) chat in Spanish at the end where I graciously thanked them for letting me crash their tour!

Prague is also known for its beer; it’s literally cheaper than water! So, the Merrill lab did a Prauge Craft Beer Tour! And yes, I long-ago inserted myself as an honorary Merrill lab member. The highlight of the tour was the final stop at the beer gardens in Letná!

The lab
The Ecuador Dream Team!

Shane also managed to sneak out of the conference so we could go to the National Museum. It’s part history, part natural history, part… I’m not sure because we didn’t make it to that annex! The museum itself is huge, but the inside is beautiful and worth the visit. Not to mention, they have a wooly mammoth!

Watch out, kids! It’s my turn!

That about sums up our trip to Europe! Per usual, it was a whirlwind trip, but it was fun to spend more time in Prague. Of course, we had to do a little photo recreation… 😜

Hasta luego,


Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve: Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Remember when Shane and I went to the Buenaventura Nature Reserve to collect butterflies? Of course, you don’t because it was back in JULY (🤯), and I’ve been incredibly slack about writing on the blog.

Well, there was a part two to that trip; the other species we needed lives near Vilcabamba, about five hours away. I’m going to skip that part because it was uneventful. We caught a lot of butterflies and subsequently fed a lot of butterflies. But I wanted to share was our last-day hike in the Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve, which we passed on our way to our good butterfly-collecting spot.

The entrance to Rumi Wilco.

As the name suggests, it’s a nature reserve, but it’s on the other side of Vilcabamba, opposite the Cerro Mandango hike we did on the first collecting trip. There are a series of trails, and you could honestly spend all day if you wanted, especially if you packed some lunch. We only had a few hours in the morning before we needed to go pack up the butterflies for our 13+ hour bus ride home. Being the sucker I am for a view, I insisted on Ridge Trail 3.

The trail map.
A trail marker.

The trails were clear and well-signed with indications on the amount of time to the next trail crossing (they all cross each other eventually). They even had notable trees and plants marked with a short description, which I thought was a nice touch! And, as expected, the views were stunning!

Going up!

Remember when I said I chose the ridge trail? Well, that was an accurate description. The higher up you went, the more ridge-like the trail became. And the way down? The path was maybe three feet wide, straight down on each side. Certainly not for those afraid of heights!

But come on, LOOK AT THAT VIEW!

The way down.
On the ridge.

So, mostly, I just came here to say that if you’re ever in Vilcabamba, check out the Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve. It’s certainly worth the $2 (honor system) donation to enter!

A quick notable side-story before I go. Shane and I have been working hard on learning Spanish. Spanish is really fun, and not only does Shane need it for work, but we both really want to be able to speak it!

Anyway, when we were in Vilcabamba, we were in our hotel room feeding the butterflies with the curtains open because we needed the daylight and because it was hot (no aircon here…). A family with two boys was staying in the room next to us, and the boys quickly noticed that we were doing someeethinggg with butterflies. So, before you know it, we’ve got two kids lingering outside the window. Turns out, the family was half French, half Spanish (and zero English), but the kids were interested and asked about the butterflies. So, the next thing you know, we’ve had a 45 minute conversation IN SPANISH with the boys and their moms, explaining what we’re doing, where we’ve been, how you feed and care for them, and about their trip through South America.

I know, this seems like not that big of a deal, but it was notable because this was the first time that Shane and I looked at each other and were like… we can have a conversation in Spanish! It was one of those moments where you could feel your efforts paying off, and it blew my mind a little to think that our shared language in this conversation was NOT English. For me, until this point, the shared language has always been English!

So, on that note. I’m going to go schedule a Spanish class, and you should check out Vilcabamba. 🤪

Hasta luego,


Buenaventura Nature Reserve, Ecuador

Remember that time I got to go butterfly collecting with Shane and Lucie?

Well, we’re back, baby!

The lab needed more butterflies, so Shane and I headed back to the field! This time, we started the trip in the Buenaventura Nature Reserve, in the south of the country. We had hoped to come here the first time, but since it’s a reserve, it required permits, which we couldn’t get before the trip.

Getting to Buenaventura was quite an adventure.

It takes ~11 hours to get there by car. We don’t have a car. So, we planned on flying, but the national protests back in June canceled our original trip, and we were out the cost of the flights. So, instead of risking it again, we decided to go by bus.

In theory, you take a ~3-hour bus ride to Baños, an ~8-hour overnight bus to Cuenca, then an ~5-hour bus to the city of Piñas. From there, you catch an ~45-min cab ride to the cabins on the reserve. Getting around isn’t quick, so we planned to spend two nights in Cuenca to see the city and break the trip up a bit.

Unfortunately, there was a ton of rain and several mudslides on our route to Baños. It’s good that I always insist on travel snacks because the mudslides were so bad that we spent the night on the bus in a tunnel about half an hour outside of Baños.

Mudslide ahead.

We were actually lucky, though. We were able to pass in the morning, but shortly after, they closed the road for a few days to clean everything up. We eventually made it to Cuenca and even tried guinea pig, which I said I’d never do, but when in Ecuador, right?!

From Cuenca, we caught a pretty uneventful bus to Piñas. However, this ride was unique because we were in a big ‘ole charter bus on a dirt road winding our way through the mountains for at least two hours. No interstates or autobahns here! The views were stunning, though.

Views from the bus.

Finally, after another very bumpy 5 km ride on a dirt road (take a truck taxi!), we arrived at dusk at Buenaventura… which had no electricity. So, our hosts prepared us dinner by candlelight, and with nothing else to do, we went to bed at about 8 pm. 😆

The next morning, the electricity was back, and the birds were out in full force, which made up for the night before. We also made a new friend!

Meet Jerry, the coati!

He’s like a South American raccoon.

Butterfly collecting at Buenaventura was like living in the lap of luxury compared to our time in Balsas! The reserve has seven cabins that sit on the edge of the forest. We’d heard rumors that you could see Heliconius butterflies (the ones we needed) from the cabins. I’m happy to report that rumor was true! We caught ~6-8 butterflies around the cabins on our last afternoon at the reserve!

The cabins.
Each cabin has its own bathroom.

Follow the road next to the cabins up a short distance and you’ll find the common area. Presumably, since you’re in the middle of nowhere, the reserve cost (~$40 per night) includes all meals, which was perfect since it required no additional planning.

The Umbrellabird Lodge

The hotel, if you will, on the reserve is named after the Umbrellabird, which is what most people come for. Birds. The reserve has six or seven trails that weave through the forest, one of which is called the Umbrellabird Trail. We were on a mission for butterflies, so we didn’t see any Umbrellabirds. But, if I’m being honest, that bird could have been sitting on a tree in front of my face, and I probably wouldn’t notice it. Unless I can watch them eat strategically placed rotten bananas while I sip coffee, I’m probably not going to see them. I’m a bad birder!

So, as I said. Luxury collecting. Nice cabins, prepared meals, and, most importantly, easy terrain! In Balsas, we were hauling ourselves up big mud-covered hills. Here, we could casually walk up and down the main road, collecting as we saw things.

Views from the road.

Which, by the way, see things we did! We left with ~50 butterflies, which is a lot for the species we were looking for. I also had a lifetime butterfly achievement. I caught THREE IN ONE SWOOP!

Shocked and very impressed with myself!

For the record, butterfly collecting isn’t all fun and games. I mean, it’s a lot of fun, and you can certainly make a game out of it. But you also have to hand-feed every butterfly you catch. So, by the time we left, we were getting up at 5:30 am for an hour of hand-feeding butterflies before breakfast, and then we were back at it in the afternoon.

Butterfly breakfast is served! Blurry picture… we were tired.

Nonetheless, if you’re into birds (or nature in general) and looking for a truly off-the-beaten-path experience, then Buenaventura is a place to try. Without the goal of butterfly collecting, this place would have never been on our radar. So, I’m happy we had a chance to see this beautiful area!

Hasta luego,


BFF Ecuadorian Adventures, Part 3: Mindo, Ecuador

The last stop on our BFF Ecuadorian Adventure was the small town of Mindo, located in a valley about 2.5 hours northwest of Quito. Mindo is known for its biodiversity, and after a few days in Quito, we were ready for a slower pace!

Tip: Bring enough cash for your entire stay in Mindo. There is no ATM!

Where to Stay

Casa de Vista Alta

This place is magical! I don’t consider myself a birder. Birds are cool and all, but I need someone to point them out to me. Even still, I rarely actually see them. I feel like it’s mostly people going, “Hey! Look at that bird!” and me going, “Yeah… I see it!… ???”

Spoiler alert. I don’t see it.

BUT! At Casa de Vista Alta, I saw ’em!

Casa de Vista Alta was started by Fernando, who used to be a guide but decided it was time to start his own hotel. He’s really made something special here, and I’m not just saying that because he let us borrow his telescope and binoculars and spotted all the birds for us. 😆

Well, not all the birds! Plenty of Choco toucans, parrots, and hummingbirds flew by the porch. So, both mornings were spent on the porch, drinking coffee and watching birds!

Beyond the birds, the hotel itself is beautiful. Fernando has made the rooms feel really welcoming, and John, the chef, made some delicious meals. Meals that I wish I could have eaten more of. Remember how I said I think I got some altitude sickness after going to Quilotoa? Unfortunately, that hit my little tummy full force on our first day in Mindo. So, I wasn’t up to my full eating capacity. However, I can confirm that the bathrooms are nice! 🤦‍♀️😩

Our two-bedroom villa.

What to Do

Cable Car and Waterfall Sanctuary

The Tarabita de Mindo is a bit out of town. You’ll definitely need to take a taxi. Lucky for us, it was a ~20-minute walk from Casa de Vista Alta!

Five dollars per person gets you a return trip on the tarabita and access to the sanctuary of waterfalls across the valley. We hiked for maybe three hours, but you could easily fill an entire day on these trails. Especially if you bring lunch! There was also a restaurant near the start of the trails, so that’s an option.

Even if you plan on lunch elsewhere, bring plenty of water! We were shocked at how tough some of the trails were. The paths are well marked and easy to navigate. But, we didn’t really consider that to reach the river we flew over in the tarabita, you have to go down… and those who come down must come back up!

El Quetzal de Mindo Chocolate Tour

Take this tour!

Fernando, the owner of our hotel, recommended the chocolate tour to us, and it was a fantastic activity! The $10 hour-long tour gives you the full run-down on the chocolate process: from cacao bean to chocolate, which was really interesting and informative! Moreover, there’s plenty of tasting involved at the end–several types of chocolate, hot cacao tea, and a brownie!

The best part of this place is that they are completely self-sufficient. Everything used in their chocolate is grown in-house, including their chocolate additions, like nuts or coffee.

Tours are offered every hour on the hour until 5 pm. You can book online, or just walk in, which is what we did. Naturally, I forgot to take any pictures, except this one of Mary Beth holding a freshly cracked macadamia nut (yep, got to taste those, too!)

Mariposas de Mindo Butterfly House

I mean, Shane and I are IN Ecuador for butterflies, so how on earth could we possibly skip the butterfly house?! We couldn’t.

A little rotting, smushed banana on the finger does the trick for butterfly-holding.

The Mariposas de Mindo butterfly house was also within walking distance from Casa de Vista Alta. However, the walk there was mostly downhill (~45 min), so you may consider taking a cab back to the hotel. 😆

This place was pure joy. Butterflies are all over the place from the moment you enter the grounds! The entrance fee is $7.50 per person, but you can stick around for as long as you like. Plus, you can feel good about your contribution since Mariposas de Mindo also does conservation work for the native Mindo butterflies.

Inside the butterfly house.

Given that we only had two nights in Mindo, I feel like we fit in a lot! Mindo offers a lot of outdoor activities. There’s zip lining, tubing, and more waterfalls to explore. Plus, BIRDS! So, if birds are your thang, then you can’t miss Mindo. Apparently, the Cock of the Rock (heh heh) is THE bird to see… maybe next time. 🤪

Hasta luego,


BFF Ecuadorian Adventures, Part 2: Quilotoa Lake

The strike is over!

After 18 days, the Ecuadorian government and the protest leaders reached a peace agreement. In the end, they negotiated lower gas prices, more money for education, some debt forgiveness, subsidies for farmers, healthcare improvements, amongst other things.

Unfortunately, Sis and Terry still had to cancel their trip (they should have arrived on July 1). We had no idea when the protests would end, and everything was changing daily, so at the time, it felt like the right decision. Especially given that the day they canceled, there was a vote to impeach the current president, and a soldier had been killed, so the negotiation talks had stopped indefinitely. Shane & Lucie also ran into roadblocks on their way to work, so they decided to pause all experiments. But, this roadblock was minor compared to others in the country.

This guy voted not to impeach the president. The residents of Napo were not pleased.
The roadblock on the way to Ikiam University.

Naturally, everything is nearly back to normal now. Food and gas supplies are still a bit low and the prices are little higher now, but overall the shortage is over, the shops are open, and the streets are clean! The government has 90 days to enact the changes they agreed to. Let’s hope they do, so we don’t have another strike!

Anyway, back to Quilotoa.

This place is STUNNING, and when the light hits the water… 🤩

We visited Quilotoa as a day trip from Quito with Community Adventures Ecuador, which I would absolutely recommend! The tour was $50 per person, including transport and lunch, and had a 10-person limit, but there were a few added bonuses! The tour was about 10 hours, starting around 7:30 am, so our first stop was at a local market for breakfast (at your own cost). Our guide recommended colada morada, a warm, thick drink made with fruits, spices, and corn flour and eaten with empanadas (dunked in the colada morada, por supuesto!)

Colada morada (minus the empanadas) ($1.50)

After our pit stop, we were off to Quilotoa! Lady Luck was working for us this trip for two reasons. First, when the guide took a group a few days before, it was so rainy and foggy that you had to walk into the canyon to see anything. Second, the protestors blocked the road to Quilotoa the day after our trip.

We, however, had great weather AND met some friendly alpacas!

It was 50 cents to take a picture with the alpacas. That was 50 cents well-spent.

So, have I mentioned that Quilotoa is around 3,900 m (12,800 ft) in altitude? 😳 In case you’re wondering, that’s in the “very high” altitude range, higher up even than Quito, which is around 3,000 m (10,000 ft).

You can absolutely feel the altitude. Mostly, we noticed being out of breath a lot faster than expected. Mary Beth noticed some dizziness at times, and I think I had a bit of stomach-related altitude sickness the next day (it can happen up to 24 hours later). Oh, and did I mention it’s cold at 3,900 m?

As for the lake itself, it formed after the collapse of a volcano about 800 years ago and is 250 m (820 ft) deep! 🤯 Its green color comes from dissolved minerals, presumably from the fumaroles (gas/heat vents) at the bottom of the lake.

Overall, we had about 2.5 hours to explore our surroundings. You can hike down to the lake, but then you have to come back up. That was a hard no 😂. Our guide told us to expect 40 minutes down and an hour to an hour and a half back up! So instead, we walked the path around the rim of the crater. The entire thing is ~10 km, so we only walked about an hour and then an hour back.

Obviously, you can hike the entire loop around the rim if you have more time; we were told it takes between 4 and 6 hours. Or, you can turn this into an overnight adventure. The Quilotoa Loop is a 4 to 5-day hike, starting in the town of Latagunga and ending at the lake, sleeping in hostels along the route.

Oh, and the best and most surprising part of this hiking adventure?

We were alone on the trail! Since Quilotoa is one of Ecuador’s most popular tourist spots, I expected it to be quite crowded. The main entrance has a viewing platform. So, most people seemed to stay there or hike down to the lake. It felt like a real treat to have this entire beautiful path all to ourselves!

After our free time at the lake, the group had lunch together before heading to our next stop, the mirador (viewpoint) for Cañon Toachi ($1). You can’t tell from this picture (or any I took, for that matter), but this canyon was very impressive! Our last stop on the way back to Quito was at the house of a woman from the indigenous community, where we learned a little about daily life (and the struggles) of this community.

Mirador de Cañon Toachi

Visiting Quilotoa was a long but great day trip from Quito! It was really nice to get out of the city and see a bit of the countryside along the way, so I highly recommend it!

Next up, Mindo!

Hasta luego,