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Published: April 6th 2015
If I was given a blank canvas and asked to design a place for travellers it would probably end up a lot like Ecuador. Warm weather, mountains, beaches, rainforest, wildlife, history, indigenous culture, colonial architecture and adventure; its all in abundance in this diverse and beautiful country which straddles the equator on the west coast of South America. Add the colourful and ever so friendly Ecuadorian people, fantastic coffee, chocolate and cheap beer, and you have a magical must see destination.
We flew into the southern capital Guayaquil (Wa ya keel) from Mexico arriving at midnight, something I would not normally want to do, but Guayaquil is a pretty easy city to navigate and so were ensconced in a hotel on the Malecon before 1am. Guayaquil is nothing like Quito, it's an industrial town on the banks of the Rio Guyas, and lacks Quito's charm. But Guayaquil is a handy transport hub for getting anywhere in Ecuador, and the airport and bus station are both in town.
We are in the last 3 weeks of our trip, pretty tired, and wanting to take it easy - so, it's three destinations and lots of downtime... sounds like Cuenca, Montañita and
the Amazon, ie. mountains, beach and jungle...
Cuenca is Quito's little sister in the south. Its setting is a very pretty valley at moderate altitude (2500m), with cobble stone streets and an attractive square or striking building on every corner. I'll give it to them, the 15th Century Spanish could build great cities and towns, and they were prolific. Throughout our trip, we've marvelled at Spanish colonial architecture from the first half of the 16th Century.
In Cuenca there's no doubt we're back in South America - pan pipe bands, ladies in traditional clothing and the most beautiful flower market imaginable. Ecuador is famous for long stem roses, apparently they grow straight stems because the sun is overhead at the ecuator. In Cuenca we wandered the streets shopping for gifts, had dinner in a working monestry, and checked out a Panama hat factory. Panama hats actually come from Ecuador; it's a quirk of history that they were associated with the Panama canal and the name has stuck. Ecuadorians are suitably miffed and call them Montecristos, and we brought home three each... Cuenca is a beautiful town, laid back in its own way, and very gentle on the visitor.
We returned to Guayaquil by light plane, and headed to the coastal village of Montañita. The Southern Pacific coast of Ecuador is dry and barren, which came as a complete surprise. After the mountains and cloud forrests of the north we expected something like Costa Rica, with jungle down to the waves. Montañita is nothing like that, but is still a very cool town with a great vibe and its beach is superb. We stayed at the Balsa Surf Camp which is nestled under palms and casuarina trees behind the beach, with a little pond and a bunch of delightful hand crafted bungslows. The guy who owns it is an original soul surfer, complete with combi collection. He calls his place Balsa because he uses balsa wood to make surfboards, which you can hire or buy. I wished I'd had the space in my luggage as they are works of art. We hung out in Montañita for nearly a week of drifting days. We ate seafood and sushi at a restaurant on the beach and I hired a balsa board to clear out some cobwebs. The locals are happy to share their waves and it felt like I was
back in the '70s.
We tore ourselves away from Montañita because we had booked to go the the Amazon... otherwise we might still be hanging at the Balsa...
Back to Guayaquil, flight to Quito, overnight at the airport and on to Coca in the north west. At Coca airport we were met by our guides and transported two and a half hours by motorised canoe down the Napo River to Sacha Lodge, our home for 6 nights. The Rio Napo is a mightly river and a major tributory of the Amazon, collecting rain and snowmelt from the Andes, flowing east across a vast basin toward Peru and eventually Brasil and the Atlantic Ocean.
Sacha is one of a handful of lodges along the river which cater for visitors to the Amazon Region, the Yasuni National Park and the Indigenous villages along the river. The lodge is on the banks of an oxbow lake, about half an hour by boardwalk from the river, and is surrounded by massive forrest. Wildlife is the star attraction, and we were not disappointed. We saw so many birds (67 different species at last count), 6 different kinds of monkeys, snakes, spiders, frogs
and mammals. The highlights for me were a pair of crested owls, a family of nocturnal monkeys who looked like Yoda and three kinds of toucans... what more can I say...
The Ecuadorian Amazon is vast beyond belief, but is also fragile and threatened by oil production, illegal logging and clearing for palm oil. Along the river we saw oil production in full swing and heard stories of the everpresent danger of spills and pollution. I can only hope that the Ecuadorian government recognises the value of the Amazon as a pristine treasure...
From the Amazon we returned to Santiago to visit family and to catch our flight back to Australia. As always, it was great. Santiago is a cool city, great people, excellent restaurants and bars, plenty to do. We caught up with Pilar's wonderful mum, awesome sister and four beautiful nieces and their fellas. And a highlight was getting to know our new great nephew Beltrán, who is everyone's favourite kid.
So, our 6 month wander around South and Central America has come to an end. It's been the most fantastic journey, and fittingly bookended by the two most significant natural wonders - Torres del
Paine in Chilean Patagonia, and the Ecuadorian Amazon. Along the way we visited eight countries in six months - Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, México and Cuba. So many highlights, so many photos to sort through. Work starts again after Easter, as does planning for the next journey...
Thanks so much for reading my blog, and a special thanks for the comments and encouragement. When my mate Andy suggested back in September that I write a travel blog, I thought it might be a good way of staying in touch with my mum. She doesn't do Facebook, but wants to know I'm staying out of trouble... (still)... However, it's been a lot of fun putting my thoughts into words and I would highly recommend it as a way of keeping in touch and making new friends. The travelblog community have been very encouraging and have some great tales to share.
Oh, yes, and finally, if anyone has got through all 29 of my blogs, I owe you a beer, it's the very least I can do...
Hasta luego, Alan
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