Days 332-336: Ecuador (Amazon, Banos & Cotopaxi)

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South America » Ecuador
December 28th 2007
Published: December 28th 2007
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The next morning we left early for our tour around the Amazon, Banos and Cotopaxi, on the way we stopped at some hot springs, but Kristi and I were not really keen on swimming as it was damned cold and pretty miserable weather! We did go on a wee hike around the spring’s area, which was quite cool as we found out about some of the local flora and fauna etc.

The next stop was the town of Tena, which lies just outside the Amazon area of Ecuador; we only stopped here briefly to stock up supplies for our journey into the Amazon jungle!! The drive into the jungle from Tena was pretty hairy at times, as the road was atrocious and there was barely room for two vehicles to pass each other and our van was massive - dodgy as! However thanks to some wily driving from our driver David we made it to the dock where we would catch a boat along the river to our lodge - smack in the middle of dense rain forest! The ‘dock’ turned out to be a set of stairs that led to the ‘boat’ which was an outboard powered canoe! This was really cool, as I could not think of a better way to approach a jungle lodge then by a canoe!

After a 10-15minute blat in the canoe we arrived at Liani Lodge - a very nice lodge run by a Swiss woman and her Kichwa husband (Kichwa are an ancient indigenous race in Ecuador - predating the Incas). The lodge is beautiful, surrounded by dense jungle, yet not seeming out of place. We were shown to our room, which was very nice - a thatch hut with comfy beds and a fantastic deck looking out into the jungle - complete with all the wild life you could hope for, monkeys, birds, butterflies etc etc. There is no electricity in the lodge, but using the candles really adds to the mystique of the place - a TV would be vastly out of place here!! After getting settled we headed to the very cute bar for a cocktail before our lovely 3-course dinner in the wonderful open-air dinning-room/social area - complete with fire pit and carved furniture! As it was already getting dark when we arrived, we more-or-less went to bed after dinner as we had a big day to come!

In the morning we had another great meal and then headed off into the jungle with Rodriguez and a local guide for an up close look at the nature of the Amazon jungle! This was awesome; there were so many crazy plants and insects to see it was incredible. The sheer density of the jungle is beyond description, it is so thick, from the distant canopy, right down to the forest floor - millions of plants and animals all functioning perfectly within their own small niche in the colossal jungle. We climbed up to a peak and admired the view down to the Napo River below, before heading down a very step path and arriving, completely unexpectedly at a tiny little school house! This school is run by the Swiss woman who owns the lodge and educates all of the local Kichwa children, some traveling a huge distance to attend each day. The lessons are taught in English, Spanish and German - the aim being to prepare the children for a future in tourism - which is the largest industry in the area.

We left the school and trudged down to a Swiss run animal shelter just below. (It’s lucky we were given gumboots before our trek or we never would have made it!!). This animal shelter was fantastic. It was set up by the Swiss woman and her husband to house unwanted pets and all the animals confiscated from poachers by the local authorities (Liana lodge was actually opened purely to help fund the shelter and the school!). The shelter is run completely by volunteers (mostly good looking European girls!) - Swiss, Danish, German, Argentinian etc - basically anyone who is willing to help! There were tonnes of animals in the shelter, monkeys, parrots, toucans, wild pigs, capybaras, turtles, ocelots, and many more. We had a volunteer guide take us around to all the enclosures to tell us about all the animals, how they came to the shelter etc - but more interesting was the Trumpet bird who joined us as soon as we arrived and stayed with us the entire time!! This endearing bird thought she was a person and just trotted along in our single-file line - if you tried to over take her, she would run back in front of you and give you a dirty look!! So funny!

The shelter was both fantastic and terrible at the same time, the animals were wicked but some of the stories of their lives before the shelter were tragic - many have become too accustomed to people to ever be released - for their own safety! Poachers often stuff ten birds into a pipe to smuggle them, and are lucky if one survives 😞 One of the best/worst stories of the shelter was the spider monkey who they released a few months ago… they found him a few days later surrounded by twenty dead, decapitated smaller monkeys - he had gone a bit mental and ripped all their heads off !! The shelter had no choice but to put him back in a cage - for the protection of the rest of the jungle!! Yikes!

After leaving the shelter we made our way to the Arajuno river and hopped into tire inner tubes for a leisurely float down the river to the lodge! (no piranhas here thank god!) This was brilliant, sooooo relaxing and quite surreal, floating in a tube in the middle of the Amazon jungle! We reluctantly got out of the tubes at the lodge and had a great lunch and a quick rest before putting our gummies back on for a tour of a local Kichwa village.

We crossed the river and disembarked near a couple of Kichwa homes - very basic two story houses, open air and in complete harmony with the surrounding jungle. Many of the occupants of the tiny island village worked at the lodge or the shelter, the rest farmed the jungle for its natural bounty. This tour was cool as we saw the way these people lived in the Amazon and had done for centuries without too much change! We sampled the liquor they made from a root vegetable and saw all the plants and crops they made use of in their daily lives. The village children were ridiculously cute and in awe of all the strange white people wandering around their homes! We were also shown some poisonous ants about 3-4 centimeters long - which were bloody scary!! Finally we had a turn with the local man’s blow pipe and I am exceedingly proud to say I hit the target (a wooden bird) first time! (no-one else in our group even got close… heeheehee). When the tour was finished we took to the tubes again (with beer this time!) for a second relaxing float down the river.

Finally we floated home for a brief siesta before our special Christmas Eve dinner - pretty wacky being in the Amazon for Christmas! The meal was sumptuous to say the least - 5 courses of delicious food all in very generous portions!! So yummy! That evening Kristi and I stayed up drinking with Donny and Ronan (2 guys from our group) until about 12.30am, we were joined by a German guy working at the lodge named Udo - he is quite possibly the happiest man on earth! We had a great night and were reluctant to go to bed, as it meant we were leaving when we woke up!

Waking up on Xmas morning to a group of monkeys screaming at each other was surreal to say the least!! Soon enough we were packed up and back in the canoe, leaving the lodge, to begin a longish drive to the town of Banos - lying in the shadow of the awesome and still very active Tungurahua Volcano! We stopped just before Banos for a tour of an Orchid farm, this was considerably more boring than you might think, while some of the minuscule orchids were cool, by the twentieth one it was a little hard to get excited! Eventually (!) we left and headed off, but not before I managed to trip over a dog, knock over a vase of flowers then crash into a table and knock off a giant barrel sitting on a stand!! Everyone was in hysterics (except me for some reason…) but luckily the only injury was to my pride!  Just before Banos we stopped at a beautiful lookout across some intertwining rivers and Kristi was stoked to see they sold sugar cane juice there! - which we last tried in Zanzibar! (I had a beer instead!). We also stopped to visit a waterfall quite near Banos - this was awesome, we trudged down a precarious and slippery path and then arrived at one of the dodgiest suspension bridges we had ever seen! Most of the slats weren’t even attached to the cables, they actually moved and wobbled as you walked across! Luckily there was only a raging river below and rocks everywhere! Still, the bridge provided a great view of the awesome waterfall and it was certainly an experience - as was the climb back up the cliff to the van… pphhheeeeewwwww! In fact, there were literally hundreds of waterfalls of every different size in this area, it was sensational!

Finally we arrived in Banos and settled in to our hotel then went out for a lovely meal and a chance to explore the town. Banos is completely surrounded by towering peaks (similar to Quito but on a much smaller scale), the town is supported solely by tourism, so every other shop is a bar, café, restaurant or tour office. After dinner, Kristi, Donny, Ronan and I headed off to find a bar - this took a while being Boxing day, but we eventually found a cool bar with a pool table (and mentally unstable bar staff… but beggars can’t be choosers eh!?). We had a great night here and only headed back to the hotel at about 3am when we were kicked out due to the bar closing, just before heading home we had a hilarious photo session at and on the pool table, was a great laugh!

Next morning Kristi and I were feeling a bit worse for wear, however we put on a brave face and headed off to our morning excursions of horse-riding up near the volcano. On the way I bought some VERY styley Alpaca wool socks for the cold weather to come - they even have Llamas on them! The horse riding was excellent, Kristi and I had wonderful horses - very well trained and with lovely natures - ‘Gringo’ and ‘Beauty’, guess who was on which horse??!! Our guide Jose was great, he let us canter any time we could and we had a great time (no safety helmets in Ecuador!). We often found ourselves a huge distance form the rest of the group and this gave us more time to hear the cool stories of our guide - he was such a laugh and even hear the active volcano rumbling above us - FREAKY! We rode up through a valley of volcanic rock that had been caused by a superheated cloud!! We could here the Volcano grumbling, but couldn’t see it due to the thick cloud cover. Jose has lived in Banos his whole life and had many fantastic stories about the Volcano and the town’s several evacuations. It would take time to go into them all now, but suffice to say he had taken on the army and the police force to ensure Banos was not looted during evacuations… and spent many nights in prison as a result!

After the horse riding was over we went back to the hotel as the night before caught up with us, Bunny had a sleep and I went to use the internet for a while. We did mange to pull ourselves together for lunch at about 4.45pm though (weak I know!). That evening we had dinner as a group and then more-or-less went to bed, nobody was to keen to repeat last nights drunken antics!

The next morning we left Banos (sadly - it really is a great little town - full of adventure tourism… and great bars!) and drove towards the Cotopaxi national Park. We stopped several times on the way for snacks, including a stop at a famous ice-cream town - where the local specialty is multi-flavoured ice-creams yummy! We arrived at Cotopaxi at about 1pm and began the arduous drive up the mountain that would take us to just below 4500metres above sea level. The scenery on this drive was fierce, such a barren area with volcanic rock and grim steppes everywhere! We ended up driving through clouds much of the way and eventually made it to the car park in a thick white fog. Our mission now was to walk the next 300metres to the refuge at 4810 metres above sea level - the altitude at this height really hits you, the air is so thin it’s really tough to breathe, let alone while hiking up a extremely steep gradient! However I’m pleased to say we both made it up without any problems (I thought my asthma would have prevented me making it, but it was fine!). There was snow and driving hail much of the way, which while it was uncomfortable, painful and bloody cold, made for a much more memorable experience - it was truely surreal! - and we were chuffed to finally reach the top! (The actual summit is 5700metres - but you need oxygen to attempt that, 4810 is all they let normal people attempt - and many don’t make it!) We had a lovely hot chocolate and many photos at the refuge before making our rapid decent - at one point Kristi actually couldn’t stop and covered about 100m in about 10seconds! This was a magic experience, the difference in the air and the general diabolical weather made it a real thrill to have reached the refuge! It was definitely a highlight of our trip to Ecuador! What was most bizarre was that just 3 days earlier we had been sweating away in the humid Amazon, and now we were being blown around in snow on a mountain side!

After leaving Cotopaxi we made our way straight back to Quito (our guide and driver were very keen to get to their families for a belated Xmas!). After fond farewells to Rodriguez and David we headed to our room for a rest before our last evening in Ecuador! Kristi and I joined Ronan and Donny for a few cocktails at the hotel bar, this was great fun, between Donny’s shameless flirting with the Ecuadorian waitress (who was sooo in love with him) and the cheesy 80s music videos playing and the very strong drinks we were soon in great spirits! Next we all headed off to La Chacha for a yummy dinner, followed by more drinks at a cool nearby bar called ‘Dragonfly’. We returned home pretty tipsy and said goodbye to Ronan (Irish) and Donny (Scottish), both of whom we will definitely keep in contact with - great guys!

The next morning we slept in, then went about repacking our stuff for our next leg of the journey - Peru! As we had a late flight we had all afternoon to kill, so we did some more blogging and had a leisurely dinner before heading to the airport and then onto Lima!!

In general, Ecuadorian people are really lovely people, they are friendly and genuine and its great to stay at family run guesthouses where they treat you like one of their own! They really are a highlight of visiting beautiful Ecuador!

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