Saturday, January 30
After breakfast we caught a taxi to the bus terminal and onto a bus for Ambato where we switched buses for one to Baños. Once again our lack of Spanish caused a bit of confusion but a very helpful bus conductor sped us through the process and got us on our (and his) bus. For the first time in our trip we heading up into the Eastern Andes. Although the day was overcast, and we couldn’t see the tallest peaks, we had good views of the valleys and gorges as we headed towards Baños.
Once there it was easy to find our hotel, Las Rocas, as it was right next to the terminal. Like many modern Ecuadorian buildings it’s sheathed in reflective glass. Which, when you’re sitting in your second floor bathroom, is unnerving, looking out at folks passing just below you. On the first floor was an appended tour agency, next to our room a kitchen for use of guests and a rooftop space for eating and enjoying a view over Baños.
We walked through town, noticing its touristic aspect, with plenty of tour offices, tourists thronging the streets (being a Saturday there were lots of Ecuadorian visitors too) and trendy storefronts. We checked out one of the pools at the base of a high, thin waterfall. We circled around, passing by a street of higher end hotels and spas. Then we sat for refreshments on the main street, watching kids practice squirting one another with carnavale spray cans. We discussed our next move: stay in Baños and take Spanish lessons ($6/hour rather than the $10 in Quito); stay a few days in Baños and explore the surrounding waterfalls and trails; head for the Amazon. We decided on the Amazon option, planning on stopping in Baños on our return to the Andes.
Sunday, January 31
We ate breakfast on the roof of Las Rocas. Even though a Sunday Baños appeared active as ever; a sure sign of a tourist town. We did a quick stroll downtown and then humped our gear over to the bus terminal. While we sat waiting for our bus to arrive I sketched the passing scene, one of my favourite pastimes.
The ride out of Baños was exciting; wind whipping through the bus window; winding down around mountain sides with the river far below; sighting numerous waterfalls with attendent cable cars and ziplines; roaring through long tunnels and seeing the many sightseers in cars, buses, truck and on bicycles and motorbikes.
As we came down out of the mountains the heat increased and we wound by low hills with patches of jungle among the farmlands. After about three hours on the bus we entered Tena, our next rest stop and jumping off point to the Amazon.
It took some time to find a hostal. We had one in mind but no one seemed to know exactly where it was (although we later found it suspicious that a worker from a neighbouring hostal had no idea where it was :o). Starting to overheat we split up; I sat with our baggage on a side street while Sue went in search of a room. She came back with a great deal: Hostal Bambu, brand new and a great price as they`re still installing the air con (we had a big fan). Spacious room; huge bathroom with a rainfall showerhead (I was using that three times a day); wifi; a rooftop terrace for the free breakfast and very helpful, friendly staff.
While Sue rested I went out for a quick recon and found many stores closed as it was Sunday. But I noted the open restaurants and later we returned to Chify, an Ecuadorian Chinese restaurant, for a huge meal. So huge we had half of it boxed up for the next night`s dinner. Plus a huge jug of mango juice for $3. Healthy and filling.
Monday, February 1
During the night we heard thunder and rain. We arose early for breakfast on the rooftop, enjoying the view towards the river. We spent the morning exploring and sorting out a bus for our next day`s journey. Tena is very mellow for a 40,000 people town. We had to ask for directions numerous times during the day, stopped and spoke to a few people and found everyone friendly and helpful. I had a short, but fun, conversation with an artist painting murals on columns at a plaza. We shopped in one of the larger grocery stores, always an interesting experience; checking out the goods and their prices. And we sat in a backpacker hangout, enjoying cold coffee and a batido (fruit lassi), listening to surrounding conversations while I sketched away. Most of all it was one of those transition days, getting ready for our trip to Runa Hausi.
Tuesday, February 2
Our bus wasn’t until 11:30 so we went for a short walk with a stop at Cafe Tortuga for a coffee and a batido. Then we picked up our luggage and hauled it off to the small bus terminal where we stood in the heat waiting for our bus. Right on time it arrived. We all stomped in and began the ritual of departing: various vendors walked up and down the aisles selling fruit, drinks and knick knacks (this trip what looked like a credit card holder). The conductor popped in a kung-fu comedy DVD which came on way too loud through the small, tinny bus speakers.
We were off. Returning south to Rio Napo and then off the main road onto a secondary road following the river. The jungle much thicker than what we saw on our ride from Baños. We stopped at tiny villages and places where paths must have gone into the jungle to villages. We worried about whether we’d know when to get off but a fellow passenger assured us it was still ahead and then gave us a few minutes warning of Puerto Barrancillo.
We disembarked and found ourselves on a dirt road with only a path leading off. We walked along and saw a house and then the Rio Arajuno. A man pointed the way. We met an Italian couple waiting for a boat and chatted to them until their boat arrived. Soon after our boat arrived; a long, narrow wood boat with a fabric roof and a 40hp motor on the stern. Our ride was short, maybe 5 minutes, but it was nice to be on the water.
We were greeted by a young man who showed us to our steep,papyrus roofed duplex cabin at Runa Huasi, a lodge owned and operated by the local Kichwa community. We had it to ourselves: a large covered porch looking out towards the river, our own bathroom with a large shower and three single beds. No electricity, no wi-fi and no air-con. We sorted out the activities the lodge offered that we’d like to do, day by day on a notepad, with our man. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading on our deck. Around 4 the skies opened and a torrent of rain washed down, sending cascades of water off our steep-pitched roof.
At 7 headed to the dining hall, a huger, steep-roofed hut (the roof rose about 10 meters from the top of the walls). We were the only diners in the dining hut, lit by a series of candles on the tables and rails. We there met our only fellow traveller (I’ll call him’Patrick’) a very interesting, well-travelled Irish man, who now lived and worked in northern Europe. He was at Runa Huasi on a quest for a shaman from the neighbourhood so that he could do a cleansing ritual and partake of ayahuasca, a psychedelic found in the jungle. He sat with us while we ate but as part of his preparation wasn’t eating.
We went to sleep listening to the incredible cacaphony of sounds from the jungle mingled with a radio from the Kichwa village on Anaconda Island, across the river.
Wednesday, February 3
We awoke and Sue went out onto the porch first. She soon called to me that a troop of squirrel monkeys was passing by and to grab my camera. The small monkeys were hurling themselves from branch to branch, tree to tree; rapidly crossing in front of us.
That afternoon we visited AmaZOOnica, an animal rescue refuge. We walked a path through the jungle and soon saw some large cages, then few small groups, finally arriving at the official entrance where we joined an English language tour. A young Danish volunteer gave us the tour, explaining how most of the animals were delivered by the government who had confiscated them from poachers and traders or from owners. However, they often had no information about the animals’ past lives. Many were rehabilitated but could not be returned to the wild due to their domestication and so spent the rest of their lives in the relative comfort and protection of the refuge. We saw many monkeys (of several species), many birds (macaws, parrots and toucans), mid-sized turtles, peccaries (wild pigs) and a variety of small wild cat called jaguarinas. The tapir and caimen were in hiding and of the moulting anaconda we only saw about one foot, poking out from under a log. Although it was sad to think of the abuse the animals had suffered, and how they were now in cages, it was good to know they were now taken care of and to be able to see many varieties we might not otherwise see.
In the afternoon we did a two-hour tour of Isla Anaconda with Christian, one of the lodge staff and guides. He showed us a variety of trees and plants, many of them medicinal and some that had familiar names but with which we not familiar. He split opened a cacao pod and showed us how to suck the tasty outer coating off the bitter pod. He pointed out breadfruit and cinnamon trees; tall papaya trees and short ginger plants. Everywhere we looked it seemed as though there were something to eat or a medicinal plant. (below are three photos showing a cacao pod, opening it, and pulling out the fruit – the outside of which is delicious to eat, the inner part being very bitter)
Dinner at 7 again and ‘Patrick’ joined us; the shaman was due at 8 (at this point all was being confirmed by cell phone). We briefly saw the shaman when he arrived and began organizing a fire in the large, wooden boxed fire-pit in the dining hall. We wished ‘Patrick’ good luck and retreated to our cabin.
Thursday, February 4
We saw ‘Patrick’ at breakfast. He was a bit disappointed with his experience; the strength of the ayahuasca wasn’t up to what he’d expected and the experience not very transcendent. He also felt the shaman hadn’t expressed much interest in his preparation and therefore wondered where the shaman’s interest lay. However, he wasn’t to be deterred. He was setting off again that morning to look further afield for another shaman, another chance at visions and cleansing.
We went on a jungle trek. Led by another guide, Adrian, (and brother of Christian) we hiked up through the jungle from the river to a high ridge where we looked out over miles of trees. Then we hiked down to the gravel road which we crossed, opened a gate and entered Selva Verde, a huge protected forest. Along the way Adrian pointed out different plants and animals, the nests of termites and ants and things to watch out for (don’t just reach out and grab a plant for balance – it may have spikes). It was hot. My shirt was soaked through with sweat. We went down and arrived at a small river where we pealed off our sweaty clothes and boots and entered the very refreshing water. Ahh… the bliss! I noticed that Sue’s boots had attracted a swarm of small flies, all gathered on the boot tops, feeding on the salt. Soon most of our boots and clothes were coated with a collection of insects feeding. They weren’t bothering us while we swam but as soon as we put our clothes back on we were swarmed. Eating our lunch reminded me of many hikes in BC: being pestered by small buzzing insects while you try and enjoy a peaceful setting. As soon as we were back on the trail the bugs were mostly gone. It was nice to set off in dry clothes but soon enough my shirt was sweat-soaked through again. Despite the insects it was a great experience and once again we learned a lot from our guide, who was very patient with our lack of Spanish.
That evening we were joined by a few more guests at the dining hall. While waiting for dinner we all gathered around to get a good look at a local tarantula who lived in one corner, under the roof. After dinner Adrian asked if any of us would be interested in a night tour of the jungle. Five of us, including Sue and I, joined up. We retraced some of the path we’d done earlier in the day, this time lit by our flashlights. We saw a number of ‘scorpion spiders’, fairly large, long legged beasts with antennae; a couple of small frogs (one with a red upper and blue under); a few fireflies and numerous grasshoppers, stick bugs and other uniquely coloured insects.
Friday, February 5
Our last tour was to the village of Ahuano, via a wonderful boat trip on both the Rio Arajuno and the Rio Napo. The river trip was great. We went through and by numerous rapids. With the first few, rather tame ones, I was thinking that it’d be fun to kayak but then some of the rapids looked far beyond my capabilities. Sue assured me they were no more than Class 3. We do love the water though and it was refreshing and invigorating to be on the water.
In the village we first visited a pottery studio where a woman showed us how she worked, using very basic, traditional tools such as pieces of calabash husk and smooth stones. Her glaze came tree sap and she then fired them in a firepit. Next we visited a wood carver working in balsa. The village itself was quite small but had a huge lodge on one edge. We could see lots of children covered in flour and water; Carnavale is fast approaching!
Every day we spent some time swimming in the river in front of Runa Huasi. Some days it was a chocolate brown, others a clearer aquamarine – all depending on the rainfall. Apparently it can rise quite quickly if there’s been a lot of rain (several feet in a matter of hours).
Saturday, February 6
This was one of our lazy days: reading on the porch, swimming, watching the rain fall, watching the monkeys go by, having a beer on the porch, going for a short walk, and lazing on the deck. Plus packing as we’re leaving on Sunday to go back to Baños to catch the end of Carnavale.
(a parting note: I was pretty excited to even see the upper reaches of the Amazon. Rio Napo is one of the bigger rivers which eventually flows into the Amazon River, further into the jungle. Where we were there are few mosquitoes and malaria is not a risk. However, even that touch of the Amazon is the stuff of dreams. Many thanks to our hosts and guides, especially Christian and Adrian, who showed us so much and were so patient with our hesitant Spanish.)
…. and now a sneak preview of what it’s like in Baños during Carnavale!