For tourists who are visiting Ecuador and can't afford a trip to the Galapagos, the giant tortoise shell in Rodrigo Dueñas' recently opened science museum in downtown Quito is a good way to get close.
Dueñas, a former middle school science teacher, says the shell used to belong to his school's unofficial pet: an 80-year Galapagoan tortoise that his students named "Yayito." The tortoise used to roam the school yard and was fed lettuce and collard leaves, until one day she ate a piece of a playground garbage can and died.
Ecuador's capital is practically a living museum with dozens of churches and a well-preserved colonial neighborhood that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Still, there is probably nothing quite like Dueñas' three-room science museum, showcasing his personal collection of beasts, birds, and bugs accumulated over a 20-year teaching career.
Many of the items on display can't be found outside of Ecuador's beaches and jungles: spondilus princeps shells, or "mullos," once used as currency and as holy offerings by pre-Columbine indigenous groups. "Jumping" snakes preserved in jars of industrial alcohol. Stuffed eagles and tropical birds dangling from the ceiling. Shark jaws with five rows of teeth, dried bats and lizards arranged on volcanic rocks, a starfish with dozens of arms.
Dueñas taught himself how to preserve the animals, none of which he ever purchased alive. Some were brought to him already dead from the jungle by the parents of students, some are roadkill he came across during his travels. Every beast has a backstory. A stuffed hummingbird was once a classroom pet that his students named "Rocky Balboa, for how marvelous and strong he was," says Dueñas. They kept him alive in a box for 21 days until he died "of the cold."
Other animals were more lucky. The classroom pet boa constrictor, "Ruby," was eventually donated to the reptile house in Quito's Botanical Gardens, where she is still alive and healthy.
Dueñas' collection also includes hundreds of Ecuadorean insects: spiders, tarantulas, mantises, beetles, butterflies. "My kids learned to no longer stomp on things," he says. "They would find bugs and bring them to me."
The number of tropical and rare animals in Dueñas' museum is partly a reflection of how openly eco-traffickers once operated in Quito, making it all too easy for families to buy monkeys, toucans, and other species not native to the area. "They used to sell wild animals on the street like they were gum," Dueñas comments. "You would see men walking down the street with a parrot on their shoulder, a bear on a leash in one hand and an ocelot on a leash in the other."
Asides from the natural science display, Dueñas has put together a small exhibit detailing the history of his working class neighborhood, Villaflora. It is an intriguing look at an area of Quito that few tourists will probably ever visit, with old newspaper clippings, black-and-white photographs, and profiles of some famous theater and radio personalities who once lived in the neighborhood.
Dueñas opened his museum at the end of March after retiring from teaching four years ago. After he retired, he kept much of his collection stored at his old school. But after school authorities tossed out part of his collection of animal skeletons, he decided to move the items to his sister's house. "To them it was just a bunch of junk, a bunch of distractions that didn't serve any purpose," he says. "But for me, it was a treasure."
Dueñas, who is married and has two children of his own, says he doesn't expect to make a profit from running the museum -- the entrance fee is 25 cents for kids and 50 cents for adults. He uses a downstairs room to run his tutoring business, and says he hopes his collection will teach kids to appreciate Ecuador's richness in natural resources. "I've always collected things in nature that no one else seemed to want," he says. "Kids should be able to learn about nature by seeing and touching things. Even the best screens don't compare to reality."
Museo de la Villaflora can be visited in Quito's Villaflora neighborhood, at Pedro de Alfaro and Díaz de Pineda streets. Hours are Mondays to Fridays, 8.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., 3.30 p.m. to 7 p.m.