Ecuador Trip - part eight.
[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]
...in which our heroes head into the jungle, the mighty jungle....
Monday 19th March
An early start to catch a flight to Coca. It's only a short hop of about 25 minutes over the mountains by plane, but it's a journey that takes a full ten hours by car. Coca is a small town on the eastern side of Ecuador, and it's here that we are going to make the journey down the Napo river and into the Amazon jungle. Quito is 2800m above sea-level and is the second highest capital city in the world (after La Paz). Coca is almost at sea level, and you can feel the difference in temperature and humidity as soon as you step off the plane. We're practically on the equator here, and it is hot. We are met at the airport, and after a bit of hanging around at a local hotel we are soon boarding a motorised canoe and starting our 5 hour journey down the Napo to our lodge. It's a very atmospheric journey.
The Napo river - big
The Napo is a huge river (although it has hundreds of miles still to travel before it joins the Amazon river) and the jungle presses up tightly against the river banks. We also discover how the rainforest gets its name, as we pass through squalls of varying intensity. Finally we turn off the main river and dive down a much smaller stream to reach Yuturi, our lodge.
It is set in 500 hectares of lagoon, and it is a lovely spot. Home for the next three nights is to be a little cabin with a palm leaf roof and a small and rather smelly bed covered with a mosquito net. It's certainly not five star, but I'm not here for the comfort. We rest up for the next few hours in the hammocks and watch the rain come pouring down. It's very, very different to the mountains.
home sweet home
Apart from one other couple (Fernando from Ecuador and Maria from Hungary, who met in London on an English language course), we are the only people here. We have a nice meal in the lodge, a few hands of Cuarenta and then hit the sack early as the generator is turned off at 21:00. C. is slightly freaked out by the size of the cockroach sitting on the wall of our hut, but I reassure her that it is surely the only one in the whole jungle and we've just been unlucky. I drift off to sleep listening to the incredible noises coming out of the jungle, which seems to only just be coming to life....
Tuesday 20th March
We make an early star, waking to the sound of howler monkeys somewhere out in the jungle. We head out into the lagoon in the smaller canoes to do a bit of birdwatching. We see lots.
A typical view across the lagoon from a canoe
I know I said I wasn't going to make a list, but you're just going to have to humour me again:
Hoatzin, White Banded Flycatcher, Plumbeous Pigeon, Striated Heron, Greater Ani, Fulvous Shrike Tanager, Nightjar, Cobalt Winger Parakeet, Banded Kingfisher, Great Tinamou, Small Billed Ani, White Hawk, Orange Winged Amazon, Mealy Amazon, Pauraque, Chesnut Headed Crake, Many Banded Aracari, Cocoi Heron, Anhinga, Lesser Jay, Amazon Kingfisher, Blue Crowned Trogone, Yellow Rumped Cacique, Violaceous Jay, Ruddy Pigeon, Less Kiskadee, Masked Crimson Tanager, Neotropic Cormorant, Osprey, Crested Oropendola, Black Continga, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Yellow Dusted Woodpecker....
I'm sure I've missed some. It's a pretty splendid place for looking at birds.
My favourite: The Many Banded Aracari
We return to the lodge for breakfast, but we're soon back in the canoes and off for a 3 hour walk through the jungle. It's not terribly heavy-going, to be honest, but the storm last night has meant that there is plenty of water to be waded through / crossed on fallen trees, so it's never dull. We also see an enormous variety of insects, mainly ants of varying sizes from the tiny lemon ant (which I taste, and yes, they are lemony) to the massive Conga ant that you really don't want to mess with. Perhaps in retribution for eating some ants, the worst bite I get in the whole week here comes from an ant that works its way underneath my shirt and takes a couple of chunks out of my arm.
A big tree, a machete and some sweaty tourists...
Back at the lodge I get dragged into another game of football with the natives - this time it's three-a-side and I'm wearing my walking boots, so it's somewhat harder (and hotter) than the game that I played with the Pinyan in the mountains. I think my team wins, but it's hard to be sure and although I score 3 goals, I think that's about the entire extent of my contribution.
"How the hell do I get round that?"
I am absolutely roasting by the time we finish, but somehow manage to resist the temptation to jump into the lagoon with the piranhas.
That night we go out in the canoes armed with our torches to see if we can spot any caimans... with 500 hectares of lagoon to hide in though, it's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, and all we keep seeing is the same poor Nightjar that must be sick of the sight of us (oh, and the bats that keep skimming the water looking for fish). And mosquitoes.... plenty of mosquitoes....although luckily for me they prefer the taste of C to the taste of me (well, if you had the choice of marble coloured, beautifully soft and smooth skin or hairy, sweaty and slightly yellow skin...what would you choose?)
Wednesday 21st March
We take the short walk to an indigenous community. I suppose in theory this is a chance for us to see how they live, but in practice it amounts to a trip to a hut to be offered the chance to buy some tat (bracelets, spears, daggers, blowpipes...) and a quick stop in another hut to sample some of the local liquour "chicha" and to learn how to do a dance. On the way back to the lodge, I manage to slip off a rotten tree across some scuzzy water and get a wellington boot full of crud. Nice. At least I manage to avoid the cappuccino spider that has its enormous web strung off on the other side of the same rotting tree. It's not much to look at, but apparently it's the most dangerous spider in the jungle.
the jungle canopy
On all of these expeditions we are accompanied by Carlos, an English speaking guide and by "Toro" (real name: Franklin), our indigenous guide. Toro is great. He's a bit of an action hero and always travels at the front with his machete to watch out for snakes and to point out any interesting things he finds along the way (poisonous frogs, millipedes, termite nests, lizards and the like). It is Toro who demonstrates how to shimmy up a tarzan vine and who jumps head first into the stagnant water when the machete falls in. Carlos is a different kettle of fish and is rapidly making me appreciate all over again quite how good Ivan was. Carlos is a bit lazy and not very helpful. He's not disastrous though, and maybe we've been a bit spoilt.. thankfully the jungle is interesting enough for it not to really matter. On our return to the lodge, we are supposed to be blowpiping, but after a couple of hours resting, Carlos discovers that the 3m long pipe is blocked. He spends a fruitless (and unhurried) half an hour trying to unblock it before deciding that we should go fishing instead. Nice to know that he spent the time after lunch fruitfully... asleep in a hammock.
Piranha fishing proves to be a relaxing but mildly frustrating exercise. We sit in the canoe in the middle of a lake in the lagoon and cast a line over the side using fresh meat as bait. Time and time again, the bait is taken but the hook is ignored.... it's actually quite interesting holding the line quite close to the surface and watching the piranha striking the bait and pushing it from side to side. Of course, the only person to actually catch anything is Carlos.... who catches three. C manages to get one out of the water, but it drops back in before she can get it into the boat. It's a lovely spot to watch the sun coming down though and observing the toucans, the parrots and the other birds.
Back at base, the blowpipe has been unblocked and we have a go at hitting the lemon in the centre of the target. The blowpipe is about 3m, and you imagine it would take quite a bit of puff to get a dart all the way down the pipe and out with any force... actually, it's surprisingly easy.
a huff and a puff....
Guess who wins our little competition?
a pair of lemons
Tea includes a piranha... but having seen what they eat, I don't really find it very appetising. Tonight also sees my first defeat in Cuarenta since the night we learned to play. C. was my partner in a match against Fernando and Carlos, and things were looking pretty good until C. misdealt the cards. In cuaranta this is an instant 10 point fine, and it's enough to swing the pendulum back the other way and before long we are beaten. It's a sad moment indeed.... but I don't bare grudges and I barely mention it now....
Thursday 22nd March
We have an early start to leave Yuturi to head 5 hours back upstream to the sister lodge, Yarina. I think the main reason for the transfer is because it means we only have a further one hour hop up the Napo to get back to Coca on Friday to meet our flights back to Quito, but another reason is that although Yuturi is unrivalled for birdwatching, Yarina is better placed for seeing other animals. On the way back up the Napo, we pause a few hours upstream at a place called "Monkey Island" - so named because it is home to a colony of Woolly monkeys. We trek half an hour into the jungle and catch a glimpse of a couple of monkeys, but just when I think that's going to be all, we get a great view of a family swinging about in the trees a few meters away from the boat. They look a little like small gorillas, and this is my first glimpse of monkeys in the wild. It's impossible not to be mesmerised by them and the way that they use their tails as a fifth limb.
Another couple of hours in the canoe and we take another small inlet off the Napo and soon arrive at Yarina. It is immediately apparent that this is a very different kettle of fish to Yuturi - there is hot water for one thing, and the beds are cleaner and more comfortable. It is also considerably busier and is packed with Americans. They generally seem quite nice, and it's great to be able to have a bit of comfort, but it puts the solitude of Yuturi into sharp context. It also seems to be an awful lot hotter here for some reason. The jungle around here is in some ways a lot tamer in the sense that there are more walkways and lookouts and things that have been built by the lodge. It's not quite a jungle theme park, but it's definitely a lot more domesticated than Yuturi. Mind you, the animals don't seem to care, and over the next 24 hours we see some more woolly monkeys, some squirrel monkeys, some pygmy marmosets, an aguti, a tortoise, a couple of big hairy tarantulas as well as lots and lots of birds. There is also a small area with some cages where animals that have been rescued are housed before they are released. Here we are able to see a spider monkey (that rather touchingly reaches out his tail to wrap around my leg as a sort of hello - it's hard to look at a monkey close up and not to see that we are relatively closely related... although some people are more closely related than others.... and this chap seems to take a shine to C.) We also see three adorable ocelots... sadly we learn that they are pretty much permanent residents here now because they had been released in the past but kept coming back. They are a beautiful combination of a leopard and a domestic cat, and even when one of them playfully reaches out through its cage and bats C's camera with its paw, I think she would happily take one home....
At dinner, C. is able to make public use of the indigenous dance that we learnt yesterday when she is pulled up by Toro to dance in front of everyone else as part of a demonstration. She professes to be embarrassed but is clearly as pleased as punch at the chance to shake her stuff on the dancefloor. Luckily, my undoubted prowess is not required in the demonstration.... Later that night we go out in the canoes looking for more caiman, and this time we have more luck, seeing several - their eyes glowing back red as we shine the torches out from the canoes. We get so close to one that Toro is able to shoot out a hand and grab it out of the water with a firm grip behind it's neck. This enables us to get a closer look at this 1m long alligator and even to touch it's very smooth armoured belly..... and then Carlos decides that he wants to hold it and to show it to some of the other tourists in the other boats. Toro seems unsure but hands the poor thing over. Carlos promptly drops the caiman into the canoe, where it not surprisingly starts snapping around C's ankles before it is picked up again. I'm not sure who is more relieved when the poor thing is popped back into the water - the caiman or C.
Friday 23rd March
Before we head back to Coca and our flight back to Quito, we just have time for one more expedition to a little fenced off lagoon with a short trail.... we are told that there are anaconda here, but unluckily (?) we don't encounter any, having to make do with more birds and monkeys. The jungle is starting to get under my skin: it's very different to the mountains, but it has a charm all of its own, and there is something very soothing about gently paddling down a small river surrounded by dense foliage, exotic birds and the distant sound of howler monkeys. Carlos also appears to be coming into his own here now and is clearly fascinated and animated by the monkeys in a way that he wasn't by the birds at Yuturi.
Carlos & Toro
After lunch we pack up and head back into Coca, just 45 minutes upstream. It looks as though we are going to have to wait a few hours for our flight, but the airline bumps us onto the first plane and about 35 minutes after we have disembarked from the canoe and said goodbye to Carlos and Toro, we are stepping off the plane in Quito -- and immediately I can feel that we are back at altitude as find myself gasping for air. We drop our bags at the hostel and then spend the next couple of hours wandering around "Gringoland", a mixture of restaurants, shops, internet cafes and hostels that is full (as you might imagine) with gringos. We manage to find a really great t-shirt shop and pick up a couple of souvenirs - t-shirts for ourselves, but also a nice hand-printed Ecuador football t-shirt for Lord Bargain (Ecuadorians are quite small people, so it's actually really quite hard to find a t-shirt big enough for a man who is the best part of 2m tall).
We have an early-ish tea at the "Magic Bean" (where a traditional band is playing just outside the window, and as they inevitably strike up a rendition of "El Condor Pasa", I am incredibly amused to hear a lady seated at a table of extremely pretentious Canadians nearby listen for a moment and then remark in deadly earnest to her friends "I wonder if Simon and Garfunkel were influenced by South American music at all". Good grief. What makes you say that? The song they did called "El Condor Pasa"?
Back to the hostel and the awful packing for the long day of travelling tomorrow.
Saturday 24th March
Up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport for our flight to Miami, our pointless trip through customs and immigration in the USA and then on to Heathrow. We leave Quito at around 8am on Saturday morning and land in London at a little after 06:30 on Sunday morning. A couple of hours later and we are finally back at home, where all I can do is drag myself upstairs to bed for a couple of hours of sleep.
What a brilliant, brilliant holiday.
If you like what you've seen here and you're thinking about a trip to Ecuador yourself, allow me to point you in the direction of a couple of very helpful gentlemen:
Equatorial Travel --- this is a small fair trade shop/ travel agency based in Ashbourne in Derbyshire and operated by a nice man called JP. It was JP who organised our trip to the Sahara in 2001, and it was because that was such a brilliant holiday that we considered going on this trip in the first place.
All About Eq --- this is the travel company that our guide Ivan helps to run. If you are not based in the UK but you are thinking about taking a trip to this beautiful country.... I strongly advise you to check these guys out. As with JP, sustainable tourism is the name of the game here, but this is a great way to get off the beaten track and to get away from those hordes of gringos! If you are based in the UK, then you should be talking to JP!
Okay. I'll try and talk about something else from now on.....