I've just finished three weeks volunteering in La Hesperia, a biological reserve in the Western slopes of the Andes. We arrived mid afternoon and immediately had a 1 1/2km hike up a very steep hill- hard work after a week lazing around in Quito! The first afternoon we were introduced to Juan Pablo and Alexandra who run the reserve- they are great people, so friendly and helpful, full of information about the forest and local culture. The work has been hard at times, there were various activities to get involved with in different parts of the reserve. In three weeks I have helped to dig out the foundations for a new volunteer house, cleared pastures and a vegetable garden for the organic farm, built fences and helped maintain a mediation garden and a garden for medicinal plants. I've also had the chance to have a go milking a cow- needless to say I was pretty rubbish, it took me two go's to get anything out, and between 5 of us we got about an inch of milk in 20 mins! The guys who work on the farm full time found it pretty funny I think! We also got to see Romelia the pig have a litter of 11 piglets- so tiny and so cute! Every week we've done a different hike through parts of the forest, the first was along a tiny path with a stream on one side and a sheer drop into the forest on the other- scary in places but fun- have a look at the picture of the giant snail, we saw loads along the path. The second hike was amazing, we had to get up to leave at 6am, and climbed to the highest part of the reserve up in the cloud forest- it was about a 2 hour steady uphill slog, followed by a trek along the top of the reserve through tiny paths sliding down mud and basically trying hard to keep upright! Last week the trek was up a river climbing a series of small waterfalls, got soaked to the skin (excellent way to get rid of some of the mud!) but it was good fun! Besides working I've had a really good laugh here, theres no alcohol allowed on the reserves (!) but at the bottom of the hill from the reserve theres a tiny shack where we found local Pilsner for a dollar- although I had to really want one to face the walk back up again! In the evenings we've mostly been completely exhausted- I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've been to bed after 10pm in the last three weeks, but the house is cool just to sit and read and chat, with hammocks and sofas. Oh, and have seen so many cool bugs- massive beetles bigger than your hand, tarantulas (didnt get too close to those though!), amazing butterflies, giant moths... too many to mention really! We get weekends off which I wasn't expecting, the first I spent the Saturday running round the local big town, Santa Domingo de Las Colorados- nasty place, big dirty town, but I had to get a shirt to stop getting bitten so badly- was entertaining trying to explain in Spanish that I needed something with long sleeves to protect my arms from flies- in the end I resorted to just waving my arms at them and looking helpless! Then on Sunday 20 of us went white water rafting- we got picked up in an old fashioned wooden bus (all wood apart from engine etc, a little scary!) and driven to the rafting. We had three rafts so was pretty fun, lots of splashing and shouting. Most of the rafting was Grade 3 and we did one Grade 4 bit where half of one of the rafts fell out, we rescued a couple of people and then watched in amazement as our guide did a heroic paddle rescue involving a climb out of the water and over a wet mossy cliff face to grab the paddle and bring it back to the boat. We also went past an island where hundreds of white Egrets nested, pretty cool sight! The last section we got to swim/float through some weak rapids, really cool until we realised we had to get back in the boat before we got to proper rapids and were all laughing too much to drag each other in the boat- the poor instructor was stuck with all of us! The next weekend we took a very long bus ride to the coast, was crazy with people jumping on and off selling all sorts of weird and wonderful foodstuffs, corn and cheese cakes, empanadas and anything you could think to sell really. The coast is beautiful, we went to Canoa which has long sandy beaches and waves which are renowned as some of the best surfing in Ecuador- we mostly jumped up and down in it while trying to keep our bikinis on! I think I flashed everyone quite a few times- oops! The seafood was amazing and so cheap- I tried ceviche, which is a local speciality, fish cured in lemon juice and spices, was really tasty. We had a drunken night out at the local bars, complete with Horje the dog on the dancefloor! The second night we had a bonfire on the beach, it took awhile to get started as we forgot to bring paper and had to resort to burning Doritos- worked a treat though! On the way back we somehow managed to charter a bus all the way to the nearest twon, which took half the time it took to get there, although they blared the music so loud I couldnt hear my minidiscs over it! Well.. I have to go now as am heading off to travel around for the rest of the week before travelling to my next reserve on Saturday- hopefully will manage to update you all again before then! Hasta luego.....