Welcome to our website ! Our vision is to inspire & promote international understanding through education and cultural exchange between South America - Ecuador and the rest of the world. To help people rediscover life with purpose, integrity and compassion, benefit from our experiences, and acquire knowledge for living in harmony in a globally interdependent and culturally diverse world. To share our "life changing adventure experiences" with family and friends worldwide. We have consolidated a wealth of the best resources on Ecuador, along with travel journals and photos. Our hope is that you will find this a valuable, user friendly resource network, which enriches your life, enables you to learn, challenges your thinking, and empowers you to discover and undertake your own new experiences and adventures.

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We welcome your feedback, questions and suggestions and hope that you return often.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Panama Canal - Expansion Inauguration June 26, 2016

The Panama Canal - one of the seven wonders of the modern world - a vital artery nourishing the world economy. Today, June 26, 2016 Panamanians will inaugurate their historic accomplishment of an expansion tripling the Canal's  capacity.  

The larger locks allow the huge "neo-Panamax" ships to navigate and  move greater quantities of cargo. Panama has invited 70 heads of state to celebrate as a Chinese container ship will be the first commercial vessel to transit the new locks. The third set of locks, a massive engineering feat taking 40,000 workers almost 10 years to dig and build with an enormous investment of  over $ 5.4 billion.  


It is hoped the Canal's ( the nation's life blood )  expansion will cast a more favourable light on the country where scandal, and the Panama Papers have recently tarnished and embarrassed officials. 


Built 102 years ago it remains a " wonder " today. Quite simply it is an elevator to lift and lower massive cargo and cruise ships 85 feet above sea level to navigate the man-made Gatun Lake.  We have now had the opportunity to visit each of the canals 3 locks on two previous occasions,  


ride the railway line adjacent to the canal - opened in 1855, and in April 2016 enjoy full transit of the Panama Canal aboard the NCL Norweigan Pearl.  


The tariff schedule for passage was $ 138 per cabin and on April 14, 2010 the Norweigan Pearl cruise ship paid the most expensive toll on record of $ 375,600 US .  The lowest toll ever paid was 36 cents, by American Richard Halliburton who swam the Panama Canal in 1928.



Spain's Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first person to navigate the Isthmus of Panama in 1513, this was the start of a number of different countries looking to connect the two Oceans. Despite the best efforts of the Spanish, Dutch, French, British, and Americans it was almost 400 years later before it became a reality. 

Inspired by the diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps with funding raised from the huge French profits generated from the successful Suez Canal, France began working on a sea level canal in 1881. Facing the daunting challenges of a 35 ft rise, and the raging torrents, of the Chagres River during the rainy season, and dense jungle alive with venomous snakes, insects and spiders, many workers died. Public health measures were ineffective because at that time the role of the mosquito as a carrier of disease was unknown. Conditions were downplayed in order to recruit workers however the high mortality rate made it very difficult to maintain an experienced workforce. The Culebra a main cut through the mountain was plagued with landslides, the side slopes had to be reduced to minimize the repeating landslides. The american steam shovels used in the construction, and mechanical and electrical equipment with limited functionality rusted rapidly in this tropical climate.  After reportedly spending $287,000,000 US the effort declared bankruptcy in 1889 wiping out the savings of 800,000 investor's.   In 1894, a second French company, the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, was created to take over the project. A minimal workforce was employed to keep equipment in salable condition. The sea level engineering concept was challenged.  Five years later due to engineering problems and the high worker mortality rate the project came to an abrupt halt.


With the support of the United States, Panama declared independence from Gran Columbia on November 3, 1903. On February 23, 1904 a treaty was signed granting the U.S. rights to build and administer the Panama Canal Zone.  This quickly became a contentious issue between Colombia, Panama, and the United States. The United States acquired the equipment from the French for $ 40 million US, and the rights from Panama for $ 10 million and tookover.

Despite many drawbacks and conflicts, the 50 mile Panama Canal initially opened in 1914 - 102 years ago - enabling ships to avoid the lengthy and hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Drake Passage or Strait of Magellan. It also decimated South American ports large ship traffic.  Indeed an engineering marvel with a dark history where  25,600 workers lost their lives to cholera, malaria, and yellow fever in the dense jungle. This engineering shortcut, saving 7,872 miles, between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean took 34 years and over 100,000 workers to complete.


The government owned Panama Canal Authority took operations over from the US in 1999 and now employs 9,000 people. In this small country dominated by " old money elite " the authority is a power house centre within the government. 


It oversees daily operations, oversaw the design of the new locks and chose the winning bidder. The canal has served over 900,000 vessels in its life. 

There is a tugboat fleet, maintenance yards for locomotives & buoys, 


dredging operations, watershed management, information systems and traffic control.


 In order to navigate the canal a ship must pay a toll averaging $ 54,000 US in cash two days before entry ( no Visa or Mastercard ).


As a result there are over 180 international banks in Panama City. We understand this is the most banks in any city in the world.


It takes 8 to 10 hours for a ship to pass through the Panama Canal. The canal consists of artificial lakes, several channels, and three sets of locks.  Locks raise the ships 85 feet to the world's largest man-made Gatun Lake. The lake which supplies the water to operate the locks also supplies the countries drinking water. Moving each ship through each lock takes 52 million gallons of water - the daily consumption of the entire city of New Orleans. All of the locks are filled and emptied simply by gravity, without the aid of pumps. 

Entering the Gatun locks cables are attached to approaching ships from electric locomotives, known as mules,  that run on rails alongside each of the lock walls. These locomotives pull the ship into the lock chamber and bring it to a stop. The lock doors are closed and the water level raised to the required level . The cable winches keep constant tension so the ship is centered, ensuring safe and efficient passage. When the lock water level reaches the desired level the workhorse locomotives pull it into the next chamber.  The Gatun locks has three chambers.





Once the ship is raised the 85 ft it floats across the man-made Gatun Lake. The level of the lake is controlled at the Gatun Dam both through a hydro-electric plant and spillways. If rainfall is sparse water is released from the Madden Dam on the Chagres River at Gamboa. During rare occasions, this spring's El Nino it has been extremely dry and with the lack of water it has been necessary to implement limitations on the weight ( resulting draft ) of transiting vessels.  Ships then navigate the Culebra Cut through the continental divide and under the new Centennial Bridge.  


The Pedro Miguel single step lock begins the descent  and two more steps / chambers in the Miraflora Locks lowers them into the Balboa harbour - back to sea level.  A 13 km channel leads ships to  pass under the  Bridge of the Americas on their way to the Pacific Ocean. 



National issues such as infrastructure improvement and education have been set aside for this controversial International mega-project. The new canal lane will allow ships carrying nearly three times as many containers to pass.  The ports of New York, Miami and Long Beach, Calif., have heavily invested in their own expansion projects to receive the neo-Panamax container ships.  


Remaining ports are scrambling to expand to be able to handle these ships as well. The original opening date was delayed several years and several ships have already been specifically delivered in anticipation. 


Environmental challenges faced included unstable soil, torrential downpours, and the 17 foot difference in tides between the Pacific and Atlantic, current El Nino water shortages.  Engineering challenges faced included the quality of concrete,  operation of the tugs delivering the large boats through, and the tight squeeze where the new 1,400 ft long locks need to hold a 1,200 ft long ship along with two 100 ft long tugboats fore and aft.   


The timing of the expansions opening is in the midst of a shipping industry slowdown linked to China's faltering economy and sagging global demand. 

Around 90% of the world's goods travel by sea. It will cost shippers an estimated $800,000 for a neo-Panamax vessel's passage through the canal.


In early June, under sunny skies, the Baroque made history with a test pass through all three new Agua Clara locks before anchoring in Gatun Lake. The Spanish tug Cerro Santiago lead the way. The applause on shore was acknowledged with blasts from the ship's horn.

 Panama Canal Museum website     

Museo del Canal 

Well worth visiting, the Panama Canal is one of the signature public works of the 20th century. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Project El Colibrí - La Cruz, Bahia de Caraquez

We have just returned to Ecuador after being away for 7 weeks enjoying a cruise, wonderful visit and adventures with family and friends.  We are now facing the harsh reality the earthquakes here have caused.  Death, injury, incredible destruction and loss.  The 7.8 magnitude quake which struck Ecuador's coast on April 16 has been followed by 2,284 more tremors up to 6.8 in strength. The entire world has watched and been captivated by the resilience of Ecuadorians in this tragic earthquake. The generous response of communities throughout Ecuador has been inspirational. A summary documentary, videos, and photos of the devastation may be found here.

This week, nearly two months after the earthquake,  we traveled to the coast with food, clothing, and other supplies from Mikhuna  and Hearts of Gold   in Cuenca for a  small poor neighbourhood of 32 families in the hills above Bahia de Caraquez known as barrio " La Cruz. " 



These families have lost everything and are living in temporary shelters on a fairly level shady area half way up the hill.  When we arrived they had been without water for ten days ! 


While they have received minimal assistance they are resilient and in good health and spirits. They have basic sanitation, water when delivered is stored in a variety of vessels, they have electricity for their minimal needs, and refugee style shelters.  


They have communal refrigeration and a washing machine. Their chickens and ducks range freely, and there are several dogs for pets and security. The children await the set-up of a temporary facility for returning to school. 


Their local church is no longer safe. They are earnestly trying to rebuild their lives, and their independence and pride keeps them from asking for help.  While they continue to work hard, most are now unemployed without any future job prospects within this community.   

Our heartfelt plea to all of our international family and friends is to join us in providing support to help this neighbourhood rebuild their simple and basic lifestyle with dignity. The need is genuinely severe and we would ask that you pass our fundraising request along to your family and friends, school classrooms, churches, and other social groups and networks. Help us create another good news story in the midst of this tragedy.

Youcaring donation - El Colibrí -  Earthquake Relief -La Cruz,  Bahia de Caraquez

We will be personally administering the funds, co-ordinating efforts, and " rolling up our sleeves and volunteering manual labour ".  Every penny will go to sustain the basic needs of these humble people to ensure  they continue to have sufficient food, water, and required medicines, and receive the necessary support to  re-establish their lives, and help break the " cycle of poverty." Working together with the families to help them re-build their homes using safe building standards so they may leave their temporary shelter. If excess resources are received, the grassroots support will be expanded to other " forgotten " neighbourhoods with demonstrated unmet need.   

While in Canada we witnessed overwhelmingly successful support efforts  for the Alberta, Fort McMurray wildfires, and although devastating,  the disparity in economic levels is such where Canadians after their losses have far more than the people in Ecuador ever had before their tragedy !  

We collectively thank you from the bottom of our hearts for any help you are able to provide. There is nothing more fulfilling than extending a helping hand to those in need.

Follow the success story and heartfelt gratitude. 

Currently we are seeking :

                         2 - 750 ltr Plastigama water storage tanks
                         miscellaneous medications
                         adult diapers
                         dog food
                         2 small boys bicycles
                         2 small girls bicycles

Origin of our Project name -  El Colibrí

Small, beautiful, and varied the colibrí  depends on the nectar from the flower, and is always hours away from starving to death. It provides the vital role of pollination for many fruits and flowers. Emblematic for their vigor, energy, and propensity to work hard.  Similarly these beautiful, industrious people depend on pachamama ( mother earth )  for their basic needs, playing a vital role in the community.    

Observations and assessment from our coastal visit.

We only traveled as far north as Canoa - here are some first hand observations for the northern coastal area  Perdenales, Muisne, and Jama.

We found all roads now passable. Slides have been cleared from roadways, temporary repairs to bridge access ramps, and significant cracks filled with debris. Road surface buckling, separation and undulating pavement was still present, so one must exercise caution when driving, particularly for bridge access ramps.      

The Ecuadorians are working hard to clean up the mess left by the earthquake and keep everybody safe. Most people seem to be surviving at a basic level fairly well, settling in as life returns to some normalcy - albeit different. They are in remarkably good spirits, but the economy is suffering.  The complaints we received were from wealthy folks whose local business was suffering, or they had experienced significant financial losses. The hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that are open are begging for customers.

Frankly we were surprised at seemingly little visible damage or destruction in Manta and Portoviejo, although in both cities the quake claimed 200 lives.  While these larger cities captured the bulk of aid resources and media attention, their damage is primarily the older central areas of town representing much less than 10 % of the total city. Their " tent shelters " seem to already have been dismantled.  In contrast 95 % of the buildings in the communities of Bahia de Caraquez, Canoa, & Perdenales were damaged.   The reality here for many living under canopies of plastic sheeting, or salvaged metal, or tents will probably last for a year or more.   Many residents have left these communities and are  temporarily living with family or friends elsewhere. Many of our expat friends from this area have decided to move out of the country and away from the Pacific Rim of Fire. 

Our experience in Bahia was of the sounds of heavy equipment demolishing structures, demolition concrete dust filling the air, and an " eery ghostlike " absence of human presence.  Mounds of dirt and debris are built adjacent to multi-story buildings so heavy equipment can reach high enough to knock down the buildings safely.    Even though there is still a significant presence of both apartment towers and homes that " appear unscathed " upon closer examination in Bahia de Caraquez  you will frequently find the red  " notice requiring demolition."  Virtually all of the apartment towers in Bahia de Caraquez remain uninhabitable with most being unsafe and irreparable.  Several have yellow notices requiring a more detailed technological inspection with specialized equipment to determine the " structural integrity. "  We have learned that due to the undulating nature of this quake, the point at which the towers swayed, ( normally near the first or second floor )  caused the reinforced steel in the structural support pillars to repeatedly bend, stretching and then ballooning.  As a structural pillar descends deep into the ground built on a significant base this support is now compromised at the point of swaying and fails to  provide the remaining upper floors the required structural integrity. We witnessed furniture and appliances from upper level apartments being lowered outside the buildings by rope as it is no longer safe within the central building. They are preparing to demolish the towers, several actually newly constructed.  Another building practice common in Bahia de Caraquez  was for the owners to " gain significant additional space " by placing the structural pillars on the edge of their property then extending upper floors construction by a metre or two to extend over public sidewalks or roadways.  The edificio Nautilus is a prime example of this construction practice and currently is fenced off and labelled as highly dangerous.  

Property values will stagnate or drop as a result of this recent event.  Although it is well documented that earthquakes have been a regular occurrence every 25 years in this region for the last several hundred years.    

 Former gas tankers snake through city streets, re-purposed to now supply water for those in temporary shelters and residents with cisterns. The difficulty is they are too large to navigate successfully into many residential areas or hillside encampments.

Two military wire fenced compounds capable of housing 150 families have been created on the outskirts of both Canoa and Bahia ( near terminal terreste )  While this controlled environment is perhaps an effective way for authorities and relief agencies to provide services, and resource distribution, it is fraught with issues and not very well received by those requiring the assistance. Set on sterile dry ground under the burning sun is row after row of evenly spaced, identical, blue tents providing basic housing for families.  Around the encampment perimeter are the military personnel quarters,  medical facilities, pharmacy, and administration.  Porta toilets and  showers on the rear perimeter.  There is some recreational space, and a tent facility for socializing. Stories of discontent by the occupants are rampant.  Residents have no autonomy, and must follow countless rules. They have to abandon their property, pets, neighbours, chickens, ducks, visitors, and lifestyles to reside here for minimal assistance.    

Politics are becoming strenuous, and polarized. It is very difficult in the latin business environment to co-ordinate efforts in any single direction, or forfeit personal agendas for the greater good of the community as a whole. Associations are often not collaborative and usually embrace the strongest members agenda.  Participation and feedback are often culturally foreign concepts here. Instead of coordinating authorities creating designated dumping areas - tons of rubble and debris is being hauled away to the closest " out-of-sight " place - in some cases this is on remote beaches, or along major roadways.  This is creating an unsightly and environmental disaster that will require dealing with once again.

Some opportunistic entrepreneurs are taking advantage and have raised prices significantly.  For example we found key building supplies were priced 300 % higher than in a neighbouring community. Similarly food and water prices had increased supposedly to cover the vendor's added damage repair expenses.

Health and wellness centres are currently " trending " and seem to be being established everywhere from various foundations funding. They all require medical staffing, continuing resources to be sustainable, and they are competing for clients.

A small group is pressing for the re-opening of the airport in San Vicente for tourism.  There was insufficient traffic before the earthquake to economically support an airport - there is far less now.  They have the " cart before the horse. "  They need to rebuild and create an attractive, dynamic environment with tourist activities prior to " needing an airport " to bring tourists.  

For all of the above reasons we strongly recommend your support be channeled through a " grass roots organization " already operating within and familiar  with the communities needs.  We collectively thank you from the bottom of our hearts for any help you are able to provide. There is nothing more fulfilling than extending a helping hand to those in need.

Update : your donations created 3 family homes, and repaired several others - photos of results :




You will be able to follow the success story and heartfelt gratitude here :

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Bahia de Caraquez, Manabi, Ecuador