From Islands to Mountains

It’s been about a month since we left Galapagos for mainland Ecuador and while it is certainly a change it’s been good – of course we do miss the beach though. The biggest changes of course are that our house in Galapagos was at an elevation of 11 m (37 ft) while our house here in Cumbayá on the eastern side of Quito is at 2348 m (7702 ft) and that we are living in a city of ca. 3 million people.  It’s just a different life.

Professionally I have traded in my hand clippers, dirty field clothes, and plant press for pipettes and a thermal cycler as I work in the lab at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) screening genomic regions for phylogenetically useful variation in the Galapagos genus Scalesia.  While it took some time to get things set up and running we are now making progress. I’ve also been taking time to visit the larger herbaria here in Quito including the National Herbarium and the herbarium at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) to study additional specimens. And lastly I gave a seminar on my work in the Galapagos at the Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas (ESPE) where my friend Dr. María Claudia Segovia is the coordinator of the research group in Biotecnología Celular y Molecular de Plantas.


At work in the Laboratorio de Biologia Evolutiva at USFQ.

Outside of my professional work I have had a few exciting botanical finds (at least to me).  After having read about it and mentioning it in lectures I finally got to see the family Calceolariaceae. And I got to see Chuquiraga jussieui a member of the basal Asteraceae subfamily Barnadesioideae endemic to South America  –  ok like I said it was exciting to me! And I have also been enjoying seeing similarities at the level of families and genera between the alpine floras of the Andes and the Rockies at home including the numbers of Caryophylaceae, Gentianaceae, Valerianaceae, and genera such as Castilleja and Lupinus.


A lone Lupinus shrub above treeline on the slope of Volcan Pichincha.

As a family we have been able to take time to do some exploring to better know some of mainland Ecuador.  Due to the process of exporting research samples from Galapagos I needed to wait a few weeks for my samples to arrive here in Quito.  No samples of course means no lab work and thus free time!  We were able to travel to the south of the country visiting the city of Cuenca before heading to the coastal city of Machala.  Among the highlights were visiting the ruins of Ingapirca – the most significant Inca ruins in Ecuador and the small town of Alausí where we took a train excursion down La Nariz del Diablo.  This feat of railroad engineering takes the train through a series of switchbacks to allow for the great change in elevation.

Closer to Quito we have been taking a number of smaller excursions to know both the city and the surrounding areas.  Emiliano is fascinated by the volcanoes surrounding the city.  He is attending school for the couple months that we are living here and each morning on the way to school he looks to see which volcanoes he can see and is particularly excited when he can see them.  Due to the frequent rain that is sadly not every day.  His favorite of course is Volcán Cotopaxi – the snow-covered cone just south of Quito which is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world at 5897 m (19347 ft).  But he knows the names of all the volcanoes around Quito and wants to know if they might erupt.


Emiliano with Volcan Cotopaxi.

We have been able to go hiking on Volcán Pichincha just outside of the city and we have visited the Laguna de Cuicocha located in a dormant caldera and Volcán Quilotoa. We’ve also visited a number of museums and the nearby city of Otavalo, best known for hosting the largest craft market in South America.


Crater of Volcan Quilotoa.

One other thing we have been exploring and enjoying is the trail known as El Chanquiñan following the old route of the railroad connecting the towns of Cumbayá and Puembo, a distance of 22 km. We can walk to the trail from our house and access parts further away via a short taxi ride.  The trail is very popular with runners and cyclists, particularly on weekends, and its crushed gravel surface and easy grades make it perfect for pushing Ian’s stroller.  Our favorite part is the section crossing the valley of the Río Chiche. This deep valley near the town of Tumbaco required the train to wind a long distance, pass over one bridge, and then through a series of three tunnels.  It’s far from roads and thus is a natural oasis near the city.


Aurea and Emiliano enjoying a day walking El Chanquinan.

We have a little over a month remaining here in Quito and we are feeling that there is a lot to do that we won’t get to.  Let’s see what we can see.


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