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Published: October 25th 2011
Our floating hotel in the Amazon Basin
A Taste of Ecuador
The air is thin in Quito, Ecuador's Capital City. At 2,800m we're back to the heavy breathing regime each night and even the lightest exercise is quite exhausting. But we're not here for the City tour of Quito; that comes much later, at the very end of our five-week journey to Latin America. Today we're flying eastwards, out over the Andes once more and into the Ecuadorian rainforest, the Amazon Basin, starting our two hour transfer by motorised canoe down the Napo River from Coca where we land, a somewhat seedy oil town. Here we join The Manatee, our floating hotel for the next four days. The Manatee looks a little like a mini Mississippi paddle boat; white, three decks up from the swirling river and the gentile feel of times gone by. The Manatee (www.manateeamazonexplorer.com) has room for thirty-two passengers, but for the four days of our stay there are just two others on board - and the crew of eight including our local guide, Ernesto. A further eleven people are due to join the party when we disembark on Monday. This is likely to be the closest we'll ever get to
The Amazon jungle here is as one might imagine; the river flanked by rich, dense vegitation, from the decaying undergrowth beneath our feet to the mighty trees of the canopy more than 100ft above, turkish-bath hot and humid, and the ever resonant sound of bird-calls above and beyond. Our itinerary included a visit to a parrot clay-lick on our first morning, a specific highlight for us, but the day came and went with no mention of it. We were beginning to get a trifle concerned. Cumulus cloud had been building up during the afternoon, bursting high into the blue sunny sky, but a layer of grey edged its way overhead as darkness fell and a rattle of thunder forecast a light show that would please the crowd at a Chinese New Year celebration! Lightning continued to illuminate the sky in dramatic flashes as we watched enthralled for more than an hour. "The weather here is like a woman," Ernesto, our guide informed us over dinner. "Totally unpredictable."
The late evening briefing for the following day failed to include the clay-lick again and we brought the subject up. 'You'll do it on your way back upriver when
you leave,' our guide assured us somewhat hesitantly. Knowing the tight schedule planned for that day we were not convinced, and we went to bed in sombre mood.
The Napo River along this stretch is around half a mile wide. It's the commercial highway for transportation; shallow brown water, seemingly placid but with sand-banks and sunken logs making navigation difficult and at times seemingly perilous. Along the banks there are many small farming comunities, some with dug-out canoes hitched to a tree, others with motorised canoes to get them to market; all with new outside toilets recently provided by the government, and some with their own schools and hospitals. For higher education, students must go to the towns, and therein lies a problem for the furture. Away from small community life there are street lights, clubs and booze, TV, mobile phones, computers, jobs and cars, and they are likely to be tempted to exchange the hard but simple farming life for a hectic 9-5 existance when they leave school. In 20 years there will be no future on the farm for the dark haired, brown eyed, western-dressed youths of the rainforest fringe. As we were to discover, this indigenous
habitation seemingly extends the length of the Napo River to the Peruvian border, forcing all the wildlife ever deeper and deeper into the dense forest. We purposely didn't bring our machettes with us from the UK so it's unlikely we'll get inland beyond the marked trails during our short stay. There are no roads into the rainforest beyond Coca. People and goods are all ferried up and down-river, and oil from the numerous rainforest wells is transported to the terminals by pipeline.
True to our expectations with all that habitation along the bank there were were few mammals to be seen; an occasional bat as the sun went down, capibara footprints in the sand and that's about it. But we did eventually get to find the birds! Ernesto our guide, and Ruben, the manager of the Manatee, put their heads together after our clay-lick confrontation of the previous evening. It seems that our concens were well founded, but, as we discovered, the customer was not to leave the jungle with anything less than total satisfaction - they take their 'eco' tourism very seriously here in Ecuador. Ruben informed us the clay-lick was on for us after all! It was
more than twelve months since he gave up the life of a guide to take on operational responsibility for the Manatee, but he would personally take Janice and myself to the clay-lck by motorised canoe, whilst Ernesto took the other two passengers, Brian and Merlene from Brisbane, on the scheduled itinerary.
And what a day we had! The planned clay-lick on our original itinerary was a little disappointing that morning as we held station against the strong current off the river bank awaiting the arrival of the parrots, slowly edging closer to the lick. Overhead and skittishly squawking in the tree-tops, we watched as several different parrot species, and masses of dusky-headed parakeets almost made it to the lick. But after half an hour the parrots had failed to appear in clear view and it looked as though or hopes were to be dashed yet again.
But Ruben had yet other ideas. A little further upstream we moored up and took a twenty-minute hike deep into the forest, into the land of minute frogs and toads, giant millipedes, stunning butterflies and moths, hunting all the time for birds along the trail until we reached a lookout, a bird-hide,
from which we could observe a natural spring at the base of a steep forest wall. On Ruben's instructions, we took to our plastic stools, and waited - and waited, the squwaks of the parrots high above in the canopy. Around noon a family of red howler monkeys bounded across the treetops above our heads and slowly but surely parrots started to appear; a handful here, a dozen there, gently and cautiously edging their way down from the canopy a hundred feet above, until finally, hundreds of brilliant green, yellow and blue parrots cascaded down to the spring: Orange cheeked parrots, Cobalt winged parakeets and Scarlet shouldered parrotlets, all excitedly squawking their heads off! We sat dumbfounded for ages, happy as little bunnies once again. Absolute magic! That's our sort of day out.
And there was even more excitement to come. Ruben had not finished with us just yet. Once recovered from all that sheer delight we returned to our canoe and followed a languid charcoal-blackwater creek where the still dark waters glisten silver as the sun breaks through the canopy, where toucans dart like arrows overhead, flycatchers dash to-and-fro from the palms and kingfishers sweep gracefully across the
water ahead of the boat. Here there were Dusky headed parrakeets, Blue headed parrots, Yellow crowned parrots, Mealy parrots and Orange winged parrots, Blue headed parrots, Black headed parrots, Amazoian parotlets, Blue and Yellow Macaws, White throated toucans - and the list goes on!
The rainforest here, though secondary now, is still wonderfully rich in flora; there are said to be more than 4,500 orchids to be found in Ecuador, some minute on the forest floor and others a hundred feet up in the treetops. Numerous walks and canoe trails along the Chaullacocha blackwater river system away from the main river gave us the opportunity to hunt out some of the 1,800 bird species said to frequent Ecuador. To date we have identified some 230 different birds with the help of our guides since we arrived across the border in Peru three weeks ago. This whole trip is as much about culture as it is about birds and wildlife so we're happy with that, though we have yet to find the enigmatic 'Cock of the Rock', a rather special bird which eluded us in the forests around Machu Picchu.
It seems we're forever packing and unpacking as we transfer
from one place and one environment to another. From the humid Amazon jungle we set off once again via Quito to travel southwards through the Avenue of the Volcanoes, sweeping along the Pan-American highway between snow-capped volcanoes, past tunnels of roses cultivated for market, Friesian cattle on hillside meadows, a patchwork quilt of fertile fields on precipitous equatorial hillsides up to 10,000ft - to the traditional Monday market at Latacunga. This is the true Ecuadorian market where hundreds of stallholders pour in from the surrounding countryside, with their fresh - and not so fresh, farm produce; fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, rope and toilet paper, corn and flour and meat in all its forms from gut to steak. All of the stallholders are women here, many, indeed most, a delightful sight, in traditional dress of shawl, heavy layered skirts and weathered hats. At first glance they could be confused with a walking pyramid on short spindly legs, usually bandy, with soft leather shoes. We wandered aimlessly amongst the stalls in sheer delight, rewarded with many happy smiling faces. Unlike all of Peru where you can take pictures of all the wonderful characters for a copper or two, they're shy
From the air
here in Ecuador and reluctant to face the camera. The Ecuadorian people we have seen show no desire to exploit the tourist in the blatant but fun manner of the Peruvians. There are a few beggars, all quite deserving no doubt; elderly ladies and the physically handicapped, profering a gentle hand and some scarf-sellers in the cities.
The road out of Quito passes Cotapaxi, that now docile conical volcanic spire ever present on the Quito skyline, Sangay volcano, erupting a hue plume of smoke in recognition of our presence - and then the magnificent Chimborazo, its peak, at 4,630m, said to be the farthest distance from the centre of the earth - or the closest point to outer space, and consequently a magnet for climbers! We drove through the National Park entrance up and up on a spiralling dirt road to the first climber's hut in the shadow of the volcano for hot chocolate and to admire the incredible close-up view. Several climbers were present, watching the weather in readiness for the two-day ascent. Nuts, the lot of 'em. The 'wows' continue! That night was spent at Riobamba, a scruffy, half started, half-finished town with no sense of permanence,
perhaps awaiting the next volcanic eruption or earthquake.
Next morning we set off early yet again for a little boy's dream day out. We were off to travel on what has been known as 'the world's most difficult railway', to take the Trans Andean train, also claimed to be one of the world's most beautiful alpine railway sections, from the delightful town of Alausi, to the present end of the track at 'The Devil's Nose'. 2,500 souls lost their lives building this railway, which drops some 500m on this short spectacular stretch, in the late 19th Century . Much of the original line from Quito to the coast was lost to landslides and storms in the late 1900's and El Nino finally finished most of it off operationally in 1998. Work restarted to re-establish the route in 2005 and there is considerable progress in evidence now along the steep valleys following the river on this incredible section completed first in the name of tourism. It's a truly spectacular journey along the valley, on incredibly steep gradients, twisting and turning as we rattled the rails for more than half an hour, shunting to-and-fro on steep mountainsides sections to drop to
the valley floor at The Devil's Nose, a bold rockface around which the railway manouvres its way to the station. There was a time when it was possible to take this exciting route on the roof of the wooden carriages, but the loss of a Japanese tourist's head to a fallen cable in recent years put a stop to that! There's no end to the excitement! We kept our heads and survived the journey.
As we travelled southwards from Quito it was possible to distinguish the origin of the indigenous people by their hats. In Quito they wear brown or black felt Sinatra style trilbys, in Riobamba they wear white bowlers, and here in Cuenca, around 300km from the Peruvian border, they all wear - yes, Panama hats. This is too good an opportunity to miss. Tomorrow it's off to the Homero Ortaga factory to seek out a decent replacement titfer for the old one, still floating somewhere in the Med off Egypt. What's good enough for Sean Connery, Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Julia Roberts is good enough for me.
David and Janice
The grey haired nomads
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