Thursday, July 16, 2009

Las Islas Encantadas

After devouring our dinner on Friday night and seeking out some well-deserved ice cream, the group returned to the hotel for On Assignment meetings. While Photography students held a critique of selected photographs, the Wildlife and Conservation group met to discuss some of the problems facing the Galapagos Archipelago, including invasive species and global warming. Exhausted from our day of boating, walking, body surfing, and beach bumming, we went to bed after our meetings.

Waking up early on Saturday, we headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station to visit Lonesome George, the last remaining tortoise from Isla Pinta. While touring the grounds, we also saw the Galapagos Land Iguana, as well as l tortoises from islands other than Pinta. We not only learned about the invasive species threatening the remaining populations of tortoises, but also about how a tortoise’s shell can reveal from which island it originated. (Quiz your kids when they get back!)

After a nice lunch across the street from the fish market, where we were able to see numerous pelicans, frigate birds, and Sally light-foot crabs, we embarked on our last boat ride of the trip. Just a half hour from Santa Cruz’s Puerto Ayora, we made a quick stop along the coast of Santa Fe, an uninhabited island, for some shallow snorkeling. We then continued on to San Cristobal, the oldest island in the archipelago and our final destination.

Landing in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of Galapagos, the students were astounded by the quantity of lobos marinos (sea lions) sprawled along the beaches and Malecon (boardwalk). Having the largest sea lion population of the four inhabited islands, San Cristobal even has a beach named after the friendly mammals: La Loberia.

Following our arrival, we went to our hotel to unpack and then explored some of the town before dinner. As has become custom after a meal (be it breakfast, lunch or dinner!), the students quickly scurried off to find the nearest heladeria (ice cream shop) and spent some more time watching the mesmerizing sea lions along the beach.

Sunday morning we visited the Centro de Interpretacion, where we learned about the history of the archipelago, including Isabela´s dark side and Floreana´s famous mail system. Though the center had detailed historical tales to read, our visit was made all the more special as Pablo was able to put a personal touch on many of the stories.

We passed the afternoon on Playa Mann, where everyone relaxed, went swimming and met some of the local Galapaguenos. After a stop at Sula Sula for another round of ice cream cones, part of the group strolled along the Malecon and slowly made their way back to the hotel, while the others walked to Punta Carola, where they snorkeled and spotted at least six green sea turtles.

Monday was spent snorkeling along the coast of San Cristobal. Our first stop was Isla Lobos, a small, shallow islet famous for its inquisitive colony of sea lions, many which did not hesitate to tag along with our group. We then boated to Leon Dormido, a volcanic-rock formation divided by a narrow channel. Snorkeling through the channel, we investigated the flat, vertical wall, which was teeming with various species of fish and coral. Looking down, the students realized that we were finally swimming with sharks! Though we did not come across any hammerhead sharks, we spotted numerous Galapagos sharks swimming along the bottom of the channel. Snorkeling around the outer edge of the rock formation, we saw at least 9 green sea turtles before returning to our boat.

From Leon Dormido, we boated to Puerto Grande, where we walked along the beach and were quizzed on what types of mangroves were present. At Pablo´s request, we all sat down for a moment of silence, listening to the waves and enjoying the calm breeze. We then had lunch on our boat, after which the students went for a swim and happened across puffer fish feeding on a shark carcass. Life in Galapagos is never dull! After a dance-party dinner (Michael Jackson´s greatest hits were playing on the t.v.), the students meandered along the Malecon, taking in their last hours of Galapagos.

Tuesday morning some of the group headed to Tijeretas, a nice cove past Punta Carola, for some sunrise photography. Returning in time for breakfast, they joined the rest of us as we packed up our bags and spent our final two hours on the Malecon- either eating ice cream, last-minute shopping, or watching Pablo dance salsa. With a final goodbye, we boarded our plane to Quito and were back on the mainland before we knew it.

This morning we took the teleférico up the side of one of Quito´s surrounding mountains. With relatively clear skies, we had an incredible view of Quito and three of the near-by, snow-capped volcanoes, including Cotopaxi. Though the increased altitude did not sit well with everyone, the view was worth it.

This afternoon the students are finishing up their On Assignment projects, which will be presented this evening. Tomorrow morning we say a final goodbye to Ecuador and return to the U.S.- possibly teary eyed, but with some fantastic memories!

Alex & Jes

Students with National Geographic Expert Greg Marshall at the Mitad del Mundo: the equator.

The front yard of our Hacienda near Volcan Cotopaxi, in the páramo.

Students who braved a ten mile hike up the rim of a volcano
onto a lava field in Isabela, Galapagos islands.

On San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands

On San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands

The group, with leaders Alex and Jes in the foreground, boarding a boat
en route to Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Greetings from Isabela Island!

We are in the Galapagos Islands! Not an easy destination to get to – we had to take a bus, a plane, a plane, a bus, a ferry, a bus, a boat and another bus to reach our final destination, Isabela Island. Our guide, Pablo, met us on Baltra Island and whisked us away to his home island, and also the biggest in the archipelago. After a dinner of fresh fish and sweet grapefruit juice, we settled into our home, San Vicente Hotel.

Our first full day in the Galapagos was our biggest hike yet – almost ten miles! Amanda, Mark, Cam, Jess, Fin, Sue, Noah and Jes hiked a rim of the Sierra Negra Volcano, then out to a lava field where we played on lava tubes, lava fields, felt a’a and pahoehoe flows, and climbed for a vista across the entire island. Abby, Emily, Caitlin and Kelsey opted for a day at the beach, and soaked up some Galapagos sun.

On our second full day in Isabela we went snorkeling! Pablo spotted a school of Galapagos penguins and so we jumped in and joined them! Kelsey had a sea lion come up and kiss her camera as she took video – a real highlight. After snorkeling, Pablo took us on another small hike around a lava field to see marine iguanas and a white tip sharks’ resting cove. Mark and Amanda were pretty excited to see wild sharks so close. In the afternoon, we took a quick stroll over to the Tortoise Breeding Center, where we learned about efforts to sustain the dying tortoise population.

The next morning we said goodbye Isabela Island and took a two hour boat trip across the sea to Santa Cruz. We explored the town of Santa Cruz before we ate lunch and hiked forty five minutes along a path to Tortuga Bay, named after the large sea tortoises who lay eggs on the beach. The sand, almost as fine as flour, was hard to get out from between our toes, but felt good anyway!

Tomorrow we head to the Charles Darwin Research Center in Santa Cruz and then leave for San Cristobal!  We hope you enjoy the photo below, taken back on the mainland during our trek around Volcano Cotopaxi.

More soon!
Jes and Alex

Hiking in the shadow of Volcano Cotopaxi

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Adventures in Mindo and Cotopaxi


Eliceo, our driver for our entire stay in Ecuador, maneuvers our off-white 30-seat passenger bus expertly through the lush mountains of the Reserva Bellavista approximately 60 kilometers northwest of Quito. Although our alarms went off this morning at 5:45am (yesterday, at 4:15am), no one is asleep. Eyes and camera lens, pressed against windows, scan across the cloud forest we leave behind. These western Andean slopes afford some of the best bird-watching, hiking and wildlife photography you can find anywhere on Earth. And we have taken full advantage of every moment here.

Mindo is a small village set in a cloud forest. After a morning of On Assignment projects in Quito, a two-hour ride took us to Cabanas Bambusa, our home for the next four days. Niki, an expert biologist and our local guide, met us in town and took us to El Chef for a traditional meal of chicken, rice, fresh juice and a soup made from green plantains. Exhausted from our travels, and full of food, we settled into our bamboo huts for the rest of the evening.

We awoke in Mindo as most locals do: by rooster! Leo, the manager of Bambusa, provided eggs toast, fresh fruit, tea, hot chocolate and coffee. A short walk along a dirt trail along the Mindo River brought us to the Mariposaria, a butterfly farm. There we saw nearly thirty different varieties of butterflies. The Mariposa is a research center first, providing scientists an excellent opportunity to study so many butterfly species in one location. Photography students focused their lens on the amazing colors and textures. A tube ride down the chilly Mindo river took us to lunch at another local restaurant where we warmed ourselves with soup and hot food. In the afternoon, after changing out of our wet clothes, we zipped across thirteen cable lines almost 100 meters above the forest floor. Fear dissolved into nervousness which dissolved into sheer excitement. A few students admitted that ziplining was their favorite activity so far on the trip.

We awoke early on our second day in Mindo. Two pickup trucks bounced us across dirt roads and dropped us off at a cable car system. A conveyer system pulled us nearly 400 meters across a canyon to another mountain. From there, we hiked down approximately 2 kilometers to a beautiful waterfall, where we swam and cooled off. The Photography students played with speckled light and tones, while Wildlife and Conservation students explored the fauna and vegetation.

Although our afternoon brought some rain, it did not deter our community service project. Half of the group painted and cleaned the local hospital while the other half cleaned and maintained the outside walkway. Klever, our local contact, was a great help. Locals passing by saw our hard work and beeped their horns, waved hello and even brought us fresh bananas as a thank you! The connection the students made with Klever turned out to be a highlight of the day for many.

Greg Marshall, a biologist expert working with National Geographic, joined our family Wednesday night. After a quick introduction, we all went to bed (on Thursday we had woken up at 4:15 AM to travel to Angel Paz, a reservation nearly forty minutes away from our hostal). After a brief hike down into the dark forest, Angel, our guide, fed a few of his birds and explained the unusual mating ritual of the Cock-of-the-Rock. Students watched as his birds fed and some took advantage of the opportunity to take pictures. After so many activities during the last few days, we spent the rest of the afternoon resting and relaxing at our hostal. We ate one last dinner in Mindo on Thursday night and this morning we find ourselves being whisked away deeper and deeper into a very different part of the country: the páramo (Andean highlands).


Waking up before the roosters for the second day in a row, everyone was eating breakfast by 6am on Friday in order to make our 7am departure from Mindo. Though there was quite a bit of last-minute packing to accomplish, most of us spent some time marveling at and photographing the gorgeous morning rainbow, which had formed behind our hostal during breakfast. With bags in hand, we said a final farewell to Leo and shuffled down the road to meet Eliceo and our bus.

Less than two hours later, we arrived at La Mitad del Mundo ('the middle of the world'), just outside of Quito, where we toured the grounds and did some shopping. A park of sorts, La Mitad del Mundo is modeled after a colonial Ecuadorian village and home to an enormous monument, which (incorrectly!) signals the location of the equatorial line. Calculated by Charles-Marie de La Condamine in 1736, the equator was thought to pass through the park until modern calculations proved it actually exists 240 meters to the east of the monument! Museo Solar Inti Ñan (inti ñan is the Quichuan word for “sun”), a museum on the actual equatorial line, was our next stop. Full of interesting activities proving the existence of the equator and a tour of various housing complexes used by the indigenous people, the museum was a hit for believers and skeptics alike.

Skirting Quito’s city limits, we began the 2.5-hour drive to Hacienda Porvenir, where we spent the weekend visiting the area around Volcán Cotopaxi. Though some people slept for a portion of the drive, everyone was wide-awake for the adventurous last leg, when Eliceo expertly maneuvered our large bus up a winding cobblestone road.

Upon arriving at the hacienda, we were greeted by Señor Alfredo, the manager, who served us mini empandas, a pastry-like snack of fried dough encasing queso fresco (Ecuadorian cheese), and an outstanding tea. Still hungry, we then moved to a different part of the hacienda where we had a filling lunch of lentil soup and pork chops.

Bundled up in jackets, sweatshirts, gloves and hats, most everyone then embarked on a hike around the area, stopping at a near-by waterfall and checking out the local flora and fauna. Surrounded by volcanoes and high Andean forest, we were absolutely astounded by the scenery. After a delicious dinner, students split up into On Assignment groups-- Wildlife and Conservation students had a quick review of what they had learned in Mindo, while Photography students meandered around the hacienda shooting dusk and night photographs.

The next morning we got our first look at the snowy peak of Volcan Cotopaxi, which had been shrouded in clouds the previous afternoon. Dressed as chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys) in ponchos and chaps, the majority of the group spent Saturday morning horseback riding through the area surrounding the hacienda. Riding from high Andean mountain forest into páramo, they spotted American kestrels and caracaras (a native hawk) and heard tawny antpittas.

Saturday afternoon was spent at a nearby campsite, where the group contributed to the reforestation effort by planting over twenty alder saplings. Wildlife and Conservation students then performed a biodiversity transect and water sampling in the same area, while the Photography group held a critique of selected photographs.

On Sunday morning the majority of the group traveled to Santa Rita, a nearby nature preserve owned by Tierra del Volcan. We spent the morning hiking the trails in the area and ziplining over the small river passing through the forest. After a quick lunch, the group built a 9-post orchidiario on the side of the interpretation center. While they do not currently have any orchids to display, the managers hope to salvage and replant ill-fated orchids that have fallen off tree limbs, so that visitors will always have the opportunity to view the unique plants.

After a short hike to a nearby waterfall, we made our way back to the hacienda for some free time, during which students read, took photos and walked the grounds. That evening Greg gave a presentation on his work at National Geographic. As inventor of the Crittercam, a tiny video camera that is attached to wild animals for days at a time, Greg had some incredible footage to show us, including footage of green sea turtles, emperor penguins and a lioness with her cubs. Amazing!

Up at 7am today, we left Hacienda Porvenir for the last time and drove to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. While we were unable to climb the volcano, everyone enjoyed a long walk around Laguna Limpiopungo and then a guided tour of the nearby interpretation center. Taking our last look at the snow-capped summit of Cotopaxi, we embarked on another adventurous ride down a dirt road and made it back to Quito.

¿Y mañana? A Galápagos!

- Alex & Jes

Monday, June 29, 2009

Saludos from Quito

Buenos dias, family and friends!

After a long day of travel, everyone made it to Quito, Ecuador on Saturday night! Though we were delayed for a bit in Miami, the extra hour gave everyone more time to get to know one another and the flight was a breeze. By the time we landed in Quito it was as if everyone had been friends for years!

After being met at the airport, we traveled to our hostal en La Mariscal of Quito, where we had a brief meeting and the students were introduced to our early leader, Jess. Once our pow-wow was finished, everyone headed to bed and promptly fell asleep. We slept well that night!

Sunday morning we awoke for an early morning breakfast and then held our main orientation. Using a few very clever games, we all got to know each other a little better and have decided that this will, without a doubt, be a phenomenal three weeks.

We then spent the rest of the morning walking around La Mariscal taking photos and exploring the area. During lunch everyone was introduced to the delicious, fresh fruit juices of Ecuador and it was eventually agreed upon that there would be no need for Coke, Sprite, or any other sodas while we're here! Later in the afternoon students broke up into their On Assignment teams and had mini-orientations of their own.

To top off our first day in Quito, we took a guided tour through Old Town, including a walk through Plaza Independencia and a look at the oldest monastery in Quito. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the tour,
especially since it was not only educational, but also theatrical. We then stopped at the oldest ice cream shop in Quito, and headed out for a late, relaxing dinner back in La Mariscal.

After a good night's sleep tonight, we are off to Mindo tomorrow afternoon for some tubing, hikes and swimming!

Alex & Jess

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The group has arrived

We've received word from the expedition leaders that the group has arrived in Quito.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Meet the Expedition Leaders

Wildlife & Conservation
Alexandra Silva.
Cornell University, B.S. Alex was an Animal Science major and a Natural Resources minor at Cornell, with a special emphasis on wildlife and habitat preservation. She spent a semester at the Universidad San Fransisco de Quito’s Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation in the Galápagos program, where she studied and traveled the varied regions of Ecuador, including Quito, the rainforest and the Galápagos Islands. She served as a volunteer veterinary technician at CEMEII, an animal hospital on the island of San Cristóbal, where she worked directly with the Galápagos campaign to limit the damage caused by domestic cats and dogs, and as an animal keeper at the Santa Marta Rescue Center in Tambillo, Ecuador. At Cornell, Alex was a teaching assistant for a course on domestic animal biology, a journalist for the New York Forest Owner Association newsletter, and an administrative assistant for the Cornell Cooperative Extension. She worked as a veterinary technician at the VCA Berwyn Animal Hospital in Berwyn, Illinois. In the fall of 2009 she begins a two-year fellowship with Environment America, an environmental advocacy organization. Alex has traveled throughout Ecuador, Venezuela, and Chile. She is fluent in Spanish.


Jes Therkelsen. Amherst College, B.A.; American University, M.F.A. Jes is a Washington D.C-based photographer, filmmaker, media consultant, and educator. He graduated magna cum laude from Amherst, where he majored in Geology and collaborated with NASA on his thesis project. After receiving a one-year Hellenic American Educational Fellowship to teach in Athens, Greece, he relocated to Washington DC to study social media at the Center for Social Media at American University. Jes has written, produced, and directed several award-winning independent films, and is the owner and founding director of Sensory Media Arts LLC, a Washington-based media production company. He serves as a lecturer in Film and Visual Media at American University and Catholic University in D.C. As a 2008 Advocacy Peace Fellow in Nepal, he initiated The Clean Hands Project – a media campaign meant to empower and mobilize Nepali Dalits by teaching them photography and video-making. The project may be viewed on-line at Jes’s photographs have been exhibited at numerous venues in Washington, including the Washington School of Photography, Touchstone Gallery, Tryst Café, Healing Arts Gallery, and the New Media Center at American University. He is currently a 2009 Washington D.C. Artist Fellow. Besides filmmaking and photography, Jes is an avid musician and composer.


Welcome family and friends of National Geographic Student Expeditions participants!

We have created this blog in order to keep you updated on the progress of your child’s National Geographic Student Expedition this summer. We hope that occasional updates throughout the expedition will help keep you informed about the activities, projects and successes of the program.

The expedition leaders will post entries approximately once per week during the program. The leaders’ first priority is the students and the program. If updates are infrequent, it is likely due to the group’s very busy schedule and inconsistent internet access. Please know that any important issues that arise during the program will be discussed and resolved with leaders and parents by phone, not through the blog.

We suggest that you subscribe to the blog so that you receive e-mail notifications when a new update is posted. To subscribe, enter your email address under ‘Subscribe via e-mail’ on the right-hand column of the blog.

Best wishes from us all at National Geographic Student Expeditions