Published: February 26th 2011February 26th 2011
To be surrounded by stars so vivid, dark so black, sounds so pure, smells so scented, water so….brown was the absolute best contrast to the wildlife seen days before in the Galapagos islands.
A flight out from Quito, after 2.5 hour delay due to foggy conditions in Coca (eastern Ecuador) began this sojourn, arriving in time to greet the 2nd La Selva staff member that day, Luis. Coca, a town of approx. 20,000 people, sits aside the Napo and Coca river confluence, and our 2.5 hour long boat ride downstream to the lodge went by quicker than planned, thankfully. The conversation topics were fast diminishing with only 2 of us, the captain, and his crew of diesel supplies and meat for the hordes already there. 6 tourists evidently failing to come, I got the welcome star treatment with y personal guide before launching into a summary of the lodge rules (no bog paper seems standard everywhere by now……..), and afternoon of spotting howler and pigmy monkeys, dangerous Bullet biting ants, praying mantises, aphids, and seeing spiders tangled in a fine web if you were not careful to walk through it.
Dinner had, and tackled for information on NZ and
Antarctica by a visitor with a lot of knowledge and travel, I had a blissful night sleep to the vast cacophony of jungle noises you ever could imagine. The next few days I elected to have the late starts, bypassing the 5.30am schedule of the large group of American students staying there. Luis, Luchas the naturalist and I headed towards the jungle this time the emphasis being millipedes (and the difference with centipedes), butterflies, monkeys, termites……..everything you could imagine if only our ears and eyes were quick enough. Happy hour came early and activity continued up to another gorgeous lunch in the restaurant. The spare time that afternoon allowed some exploration by canoe, failing to catch a fish myself and succeeding in soaking up some brown Garzacocha lake water and jungle sounds above the screams of delightful American school kids. An evening hike brought out the bird lover in me, and I spotted several Jay, weaver birds, the azure blue Tanager, scavenging vultures and Tucan with their signature black, yellow and red head.
The next day was almost a blueprint, and although I could not reconcile swimming in a brown lake, the tannin content explanation made it more tolerable
that morning, especially with intense humidity and no way to cool down apart from a tepid shower. A visit to Mandicocha lake that morning, a meer 5 hrs by canoe from the main Napo if you wanted the scenic route, was a tranquil interlude 45 minutes walk away, passing Tamarind and pigmy monkeys on the move looking for fruits. Acrobatic to watch, they quickly left us wanderers for dead, amidst heated discussion on Ecuadorian war, the scaremongering of tourists by media led information, and how ‘gringos’ take too much pre-departure information as gospel thereby stopping local and Colombian tourism…..too much debate for a hot Wednesday, I retired to the main lake for some fishing, before the rampant American kids came back, and managed to feed several piranhas without intending to (I.e. bad fishing!) before another great meal. Thankfully also the 9 foot Paiche in a territorial madness didn’t attack – it paid to hear this after swimming ‘laps’ 2 mornings in a row from a visiting marine biologist and reassured to the contrary that no-one has ever been injured (untrue) by it there.
An afternoon sunset to really write home about, wonderful departure dinner of turkey, fresh veges and
miniature potatoes, and some packing for the departure day completed my stay, and we were all lulled to sleep no doubt with a final night of jungle sounds. A tentative knock on the door the following day at the rude hour of 5.30am started that day off, and then the return expedition began – 30minute canoe ride nearly taking on water (balsa wood is used a lot, heavy passengers and excessive La Selva food weighted us down!) – 3 hour upstream ride where in we got stuck on a sand spit and spent 15 minutes rocking the boat deliberately – and a marginally delayed flight back to highland Quito ended it.
Happily saying farewell to the wild crew of kids accompanying my relaxing time there, I joined a private transfer to my accommodation, arranged prior to leaving for the internet-less Amazon lodge. My driver, Marco, even let me stop to use the banos (loo), get some fruit at a stall in Machachi, and we humoured each other with my basic Espanol whilst toughing out the rocky 10km dirt road to secret Garden hostel in Cotopaxi. Passing tractors, trucks laden with potatoes, mature aged persons ploughing the fields and barking
for the collectors out there.......
dogs, I arrived to thick fog, light drizzle and 10 degrees.
Checked in by a disinterested Australian, I tested out the mountain bikes before deciding it was safer and nicer to wander the hilly path around paddocks of animals and dismal scenery. Nightfall came at 6.30pm, and soon enough the included meal of pizza and salad was served in a convivial dining area with endless cups of tea and free bananas hanging about. Meeting people from around the world as you do in hostels, I slept soundly in a dorm bed next to the wood fire and with rain on the roof to sooth us. The next day it had cleared somewhat, not enough to view Cotopaxi, or Sincholagua until late morning when the warmth burnt away the fog to a better view. A good walk later, late breakfast and relaxation time in the hostel and it was time to depart, sharing a transfer to Machachi with a lovely English family sailing around the world.
Private transfers featured a bit in the coming few days in the central highlands, and my god is it worth the cost when the road quality is nothing short of a 4WD track
with landslides, deep divets half a metre wide, narrow precipices above a high valley of green or roaming animals being led by traditionally dressed locals or kids runnning a muck attempting to throw stones or rocks at us. I am sure the infrequent bus service is not THAT bad but with bus experiences behind me and 4 hours on this road in a crowded Ecuadorian danger-mobile without a stop looks really bad. I checked in to Mama Hilda, saying 'hasta Domingo' to my humorous crew of driver and his 2 kiddies picked up en route, and spent the evening getting to know the other 6 there for similar reasons - nature, the laguna Quilitoa, exercise at altitude and maybe, just maybe, relaxation.
There are of course many markets in the area, but our focus the next day was getting our legs to Quilitoa lake for some hiking, in different directions for the 5 of us it turned out. Sharing a ride for 25USD in the truck the hostel provided, it took 2 hours and several photo stops to reach the entrance point, wherein we paid 2USd each to enter the 'park'. The tourist dollar is clearly of value here,
and several mark ups in the toilet use stakes were evident. You would think also they could rustle up some change from 10USd for a 5USD purchase, do not be fooled. Tourist trap, or just proof that Ecuador really has a coin and small change famine right now! The two Argentinians and I elected to get to the lakeside, and we parted the 2 American retirees who were indeed world travellers to some exotic destinations on a shoestring. Happily down at the lake I babptised myself in the cool waters as every 'loco' swimmer does, which made the return leg uphill, fair work at 3900m, so much better as the mercury was rising with blazing sunshine and high altitude.
Following advice of several people, I made my way towards Chugchilan supposedly 3 to 4 hours away, starting a part of the crater rim walk. But this was not as easy as I was told, and after some sand surfing, village loitering, bush bashing and river fording with my trusty Jacko stick, I actually got back to Mama Hilda in the recommended time. Well and truly muddy and exhausted, the scenery made it all worthwhile. This place is under-rated and
truly spectacular so come and see it before it gets too touristed, especially Quilitoa township.
So the next installment may be from Brasil, depending on the spectacles to see in the next 5 days before I hit there. The remainder of Ecuador wil take me up to then, at Carnaval time, which is heating up everywhere in South America to the sounds of Shakira and the like.
Did someone say zumba?