I’ll be honest: Ecuador is a country I loved visiting, but I’d hate living there. Ecuador is blessed with gorgeous nature split into three different eco systems: The Amazon, the Andes Mountains and the beaches along the coast. All three are completely different and beautiful in their own right. What surprised me in Quito was the incredible number of armed guards and security people on virtually every corner. Tons of shops had armed security guards and even some restaurants employed security guards armed to the teeth. I’m not talking about a simple club, they had 1 pistol at the very least, and normally a nice mix of mace, batons and even a shotgun could be thrown into the mix. The funny thing is that all of them actually made me feel less safe. Not that it mattered to us; we had a wonderful stay and never encountered anything even remotely hostile.
We landed in Quito in the evening and headed straight to our Hostel: Hostal Otavalo Huasi, a friendly place run by indigenous people. We had an awesome room with a cool wall painting for $8p.p. The airline food hadn’t quite left its mark, so we headed over to a place called the Texas Ranch and ate probably the best burgers both of us had ever tasted. The local beer helped top off a great meal.
The next day we organized the last few things we needed for the journey into the jungle. Once Mosquito nets and rubber boots could be crossed off our list, we were happy. We grabbed our gear and jumped on a bus to Banos. $6.80 was the total damage for 2 tickets. The 5 hour trip took 7 and by the time we got there it was dark. We checked into the highly recommended Blanco y Plantas and got a nice room. Since we were heading into the jungle the following day we decided to have a better meal. We enjoyed filet mignon and pepper steaks with some fine Ecuadorian beer in a restaurant fittingly called Cafe Good.
We rolled out of bed at 6 a.m. the next morning and headed over to a thermal spring to enjoy a nice warm bath. Banos lies at the foot of the volcano Tungurahua and the water that filters down is rich in minerals and therefore healthy to take a dip in, but also nice and warm. Immediately following our bath we ate a tasty breakfast at our hostel, before we picked up a pair of mountain bikes and set off on the 61 km bike ride from the Andes Mountains to the jungles of the Amazon. The travel guides we had indicated that it was practically a downhill run … he he he … not exactly so. It was quite a strenuous ride, but ultimately very rewarding, because we saw sights you never would from the windows of a bus. Our first stop on the way was at Manto de la Novia waterfalls where we jumped in a cable car and flew across the valley.
The next stop on the bike ride was the spectacular Pailon Del Diablos waterfalls. In Norway we have a lot of waterfalls, so it takes something special to impress me: This place did not disappoint, especially since you could stand right next to where it was thundering down.
After a lot of pedaling and a few muesli bar pit-stops we finally arrived in Puyo. We met the lady we rented our bikes from and she handed us our backpacks in return for $20 and the bikes. A good trade as it would have been VERY strenuous to do the trip with my heavy backpack.
As she was leaving a couple of members of the family we were going to spend the next 5 days with in the jungle showed up with big smiles on their faces. They were surprised to see a guy and a girl, because they were expecting two girls: Steffi and Andrea … Somehow the “s” was left out. After some laughter we loaded up in a taxi, together with the food supplies they had bought for us. Puyo was definitely a frontier town and it cracked us up when Carmen, one of the girls from the family we were staying with, commented that she found it way too touristy. Once we got into the jungle and saw where they lived we understood what would prompt her to think that about Puyo, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. In order to get to where they lived we had to drive for 1 ½ hours deep into the Amazon on relatively rough dirt roads. It was easy to imagine that they would wash away with heavy rainfall. When the taxi dropped us off we donned our rubber boots for a 20 minute walk through wet mud through relatively open jungle before we got down to a river. There we boarded a canoe, were paddled for 15 minutes before we were put ashore in the camp that would work as our home base for the next 5 days. It’s safe to say that it was anything BUT touristy. We spent a little time getting acquainted with the camp, as well as settling in to our “room”. To explain our room: It was on the second floor of a mud floored open bungalow. We were sleeping on two mattresses underneath our newly purchased mosquito nets. Comfy and nice, if not the most romantic thing in the World.
After we were settled in, we headed over to the main area and ate an early dinner consisting of rice and chicken. It was finished off by a warm cup of aromatic water. Not tea, aromatic water, they were very specific about that … it tasted like tea to me though! We spent the rest of the evening talking to them and hammering out the details for the next days. If it hadn’t been for Steffi’s Spanish knowledge, it would have been a real challenge, but with her translating, everything went super smooth. I even tried my luck at talking by “spanishifying” some of the words I would normally use … most of the time it worked surprisingly well. It didn’t take long before our eye lids were dropping and we called it the night. It had been an awesome and very eventful day taking us from high in the Andes Mountains deep into the heart of the Amazon.
We woke up at sunrise and enjoyed pancakes for breakfast. Yes, they made pancakes for us =) Followed by a cup of hot aromatic water. We then repacked the bare necessities into our 20 liter daypacks: sleeping bag, mosquito net, toiletries, raingear, mosquito repellent, a bunch of muesli bars, our CamelBaks and some extra clothes. It was amazing what we were able to stuff into them. We were determined to bring as little as possible, because hiking in the rainforest is hot, humid, strenuous and wet, so the less we carried the easier it would be. We left my big backpack in our room, while we were on the 3 day hike in the jungle.
Our guide Bosco was very knowledgeable. He knew all the plants we walked by and was able to point out medicinal plants as well as give us useful tips for survival in the jungle. We learned about plants that take away pain, that remove swelling, that make you hallucinate, that removes fever, that you can drink, that you can eat, that you can poison people with and of course good timber for building houses … You name it, he showed it to us.
Bosco pulled down a red fruit that they use as a dye, both for clothes and for face paint. He painted Steffi in a traditional pattern.
Bosco also pulled out a snake from the path we were on and definitely kept us informed and entertained. The first day of hiking led us deeper into the jungle and after about 3 hours we reached our destination. 2 bungalows overlooking a pristine lake. It didn’t take long before Bosco pointed out a Cayman in the lake. We were told there was a population of 6 in the lake. My desire to go swimming dissipated. He also told us that there were piranha like fish in the lake that could grow up to the size of my forearm. They had huge teeth, BUT they didn’t attack people … supposedly … I was in no hurry to test the validity of that claim. We did however go swimming: In a small river about 200 meters upstream from the lake. Skinny dipping in the Amazon!
Before we went for a swim, we went on another hike that lasted another three hours, so that by the time we returned to the lake to eat dinner we were both hungry and tired. Dinner consisted of rice, beans and tuna, with … you guessed it: a cup of hot aromatic water.
After dinner he told us some great fairy tales about demons that had plagued the land in ancient times. Feeling a bit jittery, we decided it was time to go down to the lake to look at the Caymans in the dark.
We brought flashlights and crept down to the lake edge. We saw two out of six. More accurately said: we saw the eyes from two of them. This meant that the remaining four were either hiding … or stalking us. If Steffi had been a gambling girl, her bet would have been on the last possibility. We also looked at some frogs and when Bosco went fishing by slashing his machete in the water, I have to admit I was keeping a very open eye on the rest of the lake. He came back with samples of the local piranha and we went back up to the bungalows before the remaining 4 Caymans got the drop on us. We climbed up into the bungalows and called it the night.
Breakfast was served at dawn and it consisted of pancakes and hot aromatic water. We were also served the piranha like fish Bosco caught the night before. They were fried and tasted very nice, I’m glad I got to eat them and not vice versa. We packed our stuff and set off on another exhausting hike. At one point we ended up at a spot where the tribe was building canoes. Bosco set off in the thundering rain looking for palm tree worms and heart of the palm tree. To get the latter he had to chop down two large palm trees.
I thought Ireland had many different hues of green … The Amazonian rain forest has more. True to its name it also rained quite a bit while we were walking, but that didn’t stop us from doing a Tarzan impression: swinging from vines and yelling off the top of our lungs. This scared the shit out of some monkeys that promptly fled. After a few hard hours we ended up by the river, where three kids were waiting with a canoe. They had paddled it there, so that we could take it downstream to where we’d spend the night. The canoe trip lasted about an hour before we saw our destination. We would spend the night in another family’s camp. Their bungalows were on top of a small hill overlooking a bend in the river. They had quite a view of the rainforest canopy from their bungalows.
We had a look around and when one of the girls there came and said hi we were slightly surprised to see that she had monkey latched on to her head. It was a cute little thing, though Steffi was less than enthused when he latched on to her head.
They also had an awesome parrot that could speak. He knew a few words quite well, but was a true master of sounding like a crying baby. Very freakish the first time you heard it. If I hadn’t known I would have rushed out in to the forest to help the baby.
We were happy to have gotten there when we did, because it started pouring down shortly after we arrived and basically rained non-stop until the next morning. We enjoyed another rice and bean dinner with a cup of … yes. In addition Bosco fried the palm tree worms that he had gathered for us to eat. They tasted … OK. Steffi isn’t a fan, but I was able to down three of them. After that chatted and read a bit and enjoyed the awesome hammock that overlooked the river. Before we went to bed we even got to sample a nice hot soup that Bosco conjured up. That night we had a real treat, because they had a double mosquito net over a double bed, so we were no longer confined underneath our private mosquito nets.
The next morning we ate our pancakes (and drank the hot aromatic stuff) before we boarded the canoe and paddled on.
What was supposed to be a leisurely canoe trip downstream became a little more action filled due to the heavy rain.
Several large trees had fallen into the river and at one point, where the river was flowing fast, passage was blocked. With some degree of difficulty we were able to climb ashore on other fallen trees.
Bosco got the canoe over the blocking trees and we continued downstream. After a little while we got back to the camp where we spent our first night. It actually felt like coming home. We were greeted by the family and informed that soon they would come and do some tribal dances … and we’d be able to take part. I didn’t exactly cut a dashing figure: bare-chested, with nuts around my neck, a wooden sweat band and rubber boots, but they loved it. Yea, sexy man!
Shortly after nightfall we enjoyed a nice dinner where we were able to sample some of their local food and drinks made from yucca plant. It tasted quite bitter, but was fine to eat. We sat and talked with them for quite a while and were even able to help out with a few math problems they were preparing for the next day when they would head to a town to go to adult school, something they do every Saturday.
The next day we ate pancakes at 6 a.m. and were canoed across the river by 7 a.m. Then we trekked for 30 minutes through the jungle up to the road we were dropped off 5 days ago. Before we knew it an open air bus arrived. We scrambled on and enjoyed the bumpy ride back to Puyo. 5 unbelievable days in the jungle were over. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.
When we got to Puyo we jumped on the first bus to Latacunga and leaned back and enjoyed the ride. We ended up on a really nice bus with big reclining seats, everything was very plush … just a damned shame we were dirty and stunk of the jungle. Luckily no one seemed to mind. 3 hours later we jumped off the bus and headed straight to Hotel Central. Our room was kitschy as anything I’ve ever seen, but it had a comfortable bed and most importantly a fantastic warm shower. We cleaned up and went for a walk around town. We booked a car for the following day to take us to Quilotoa, before we headed to a huge market. We bought nice wool sweaters and some small stuff. When we walked around in the food area of the market we were amazed at the enormous amounts of pig fat they were selling in all shapes and forms. It seemed very popular, but after living and eating in China, nothing surprises me in the culinary sense. We ended the day in a lovely Italian restaurant where we talked to a very friendly German couple who were 9 months into a drive from Canada to the tip of South America on a pair of BMW F650GS bikes. I was immediately very envious. Needless to say I got their email addresses, so that I can get tips from them for future adventures.
After a great night’s sleep we threw in a hearty breakfast, checked out and were picked up by our guide in a new 4×4. We headed straight for the mountains and went from 2800 meters to 3854 meters. This is normally not a problem, but considering that we came from the lowlands the day before we weren’t exactly acclimatized. We did OK, because we forgot about the altitude and focused on what we were passing. The Andean landscape is very barren, but farmers were entrenched along the way, squeezing crop out of a small plot of land in front of their huts. What amazed me was how colorful their clothing was. I’ve seen the pictures before, but I didn’t think they actually dressed as colorful in real life, I thought they only did that for special occasions. After a couple of hours we reached our destination, Quilotoa Crater Lake: A lake inside a volcano.
We stopped at the top and trekked about 30 minutes down to the lake. It had a wonderful green color and even though the volcano isn’t active, we still saw plenty of bubbles breaking the still surface.
We relaxed and polished off a couple of muesli bar before we trekked back up again. The trek up was a breathtaking affair. I believe altitude was the culprit.
The lack of acclimatization wasn’t a problem, but it brought back memories of Tibet. Once we got back to the top, we ate lunch in one of the houses and did some Christmas shopping at the little market, before we hit the road. On the way back to Latacunga we stopped at a huge open air market in Pujili, where they were selling everything imaginable. Steffi ended up buying some sugar thing, while I bought some sugar cane to suck on in the car back to town.
Our driver dropped us off at the bus station and made sure we got on the first bus to Quito.
In Quito we checked back in to Hostal Otavalo Huasi and hit the sack after dinner.
There was a big festival going on, where they drive around in trucks and play loud music, so if you plan to go to Quito in the beginning of December either sleep in the daytime or bring earplugs. We opted for the latter. The following morning we had a bright and early start. We headed over to the old town and crisscrossed every bit of it.
We were particularly impressed with the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a big cathedral that you can climb around in.
We were also very impressed with the HUGE hot chocolates and massive portions of cake we were served at Fruteria Monserrate; it helped us postpone dinner till well after dark.
The next morning we found ourselves on the TeleferiQo, a sky tram that takes you on a 2.5 km ride up a mountain to 4100 meters above sea level. At the top we had spectacular views of Quito and the nearby volcanoes.
We also trekked a bit on, getting to about 4200 meters before we called it quits and headed back down again. We headed into the old city again and chilled out there, before headed back to the hostel to pack our stuff and chill out with a good meal. We decided to eat our last dinner at Texas Ranch, in an attempt to copy the sensational first meal we had there. It was a success. Though we were tired, we decided to take a look at the festivities and a big stage around the corner showed big promise. The concert kicked off with some spectacular salsa dancing, followed by … an incredible let-down. The dude that entered the stage after the dancers sucked. To our big surprise the crowd loved him, so we quietly escaped to let them enjoy his tormented squealing. We hit the sack and got up at 4:45 the next morning, just in time to throw on our clothes and catch a taxi at 5am. At 7:30 our plane took off and our Ecuadorian adventure was over.
It had been an amazing stay. I loved every aspect of it and would love to come back to do more of everything we did. There are several tall volcanoes that beckon to be climbed. I’d also like to rough it even more in the jungle. The good thing is that there can always be a next time.