...and into the jungle from Coca...
17.06.2007 - 29.06.2007 19 °C
Sunday 17th June - Cuenca to Banos
Whoopee, it's Sunday, and a travelling day, so a double whammy of less traffic outside anyway, and being up earlier than anyone else in town, so woken by the alarm rather than sodding cars and buses.
Our final breakfast at Hotel Milan is good and it has been nice enjoying the views from this 4th floor breakfast room.
After settling up (excellent value here for 20 bucks a night) we grab a taxi straight outside and the friendly driver (we didn't speak, but he had a nice face) gets us to the main bus terminal in time to catch the 8.30 bus to take us to Banos.
Not quite a straightforward journey, and we'll have to change about 7 hours into the trip in Ambato. Whilst we're one of the last on the bus, we seem to have been given seats at the front (a little more dangerous in the event of a collision) which are legroom-heaven. The trip to Ambato is $16 for two.
Easy journey, well, we're just sitting here, and we have some tasty vanilla wafers to munch along the route.
Countryside a delight as we thunder through, and we get a varied selection of traditional dress as we make our way up and down the hills. Lots of greenery around and the patchwork effect of the remote, but very productive, fields as we pass by reminds us of home.
Not sure where the bus will drop us in Ambato, as it will be heading on to Quito, so perhaps skipping the main bus terminal here over the other side of town. Turns out to be a side-of-the-road job, but the conductor suggests the terminal isn't far away.
Decide against bothering with the terminal, we¡re on the main road to Banos anyway, so we do as the locals do and wait by the side.
Just a couple of minutes later we're on the Expresso Banos, where we experience the best ever example of something doing what is says on the tin. How we didn't die, at least 23 times, on this bus is a miracle, though the suggested travel time between Ambato and Banos is thoroughly smashed. Hopefully the driver wasn't. Probably the scariest bus ride of the trip so far, and we've been on some real crackers.
At the main terminal we walk towards the recommended accomodation, though it's a fair walk across to the other side of the smallish town. We checkout the Posada del Arte, a small but charming place seeingly run by an American couple. The room is lovely and we're told the breakfast is very good, though it's $35 a night and a little too much, especially without Cable telly.
Just a little way along is Hotel Volcan, though just walking towards reception we feel that we'll be outpriced again. Looks very nice, but even more expensive at $56 a night.
Try two other small places, without success, before seeing what Hostal Carolina has to offer. The room is small but clean, usualy private facilites, cable TV - all for $10 a night, which is the cheapest for a long time. Snag a room at the back to increase our chances of a quieter night/morning. Really didn't think we'd be paying so little in this tourist town! - means we can splash out on some better food.
After settling into the bargain room, we head back to Cafe Ali Cumba, a nice little place on the central square (there's a couple of squares, this one has some trees and a wooden 'Puente de Amor'). It's run by a Danish woman and her Ecuadorian husband - we met her in the street when we were looking for the hostal.
Great sandwiches, coffee, smoothies, chocolate cake were promised, and we were glad to go back and enjoy some of her stuff. Being gringo-owned, it's a touch more expensive, but worth it, and we'll surely be going back.
Pick up some goodies on the way back to the room, including white chocolate.
TV entertains us in the evening, watching a rerun of the Brit Awards 2007, which seems to be suffering from terrible subtitle translation. Oasis performance only spoiled by Liam's poor vocals.
Monday 18th June
Seem to have picked a winner with this accommodation - hardly a noise from outside, though it does make us rise a little later than planned.
Breakfast not included with our room, so head back to Ali Cumba to get some energy ahead of our planned walk for today, our first exercise in far too long. Best fried egg bap since.......
The walk we're doing is the 'loop' up behind the town, which should give us nice views of Banos.
The start of the route takes up us quite steeply, and we're soon feeling very unfit. We heard that there had been many days of straight rain before we arrived, and we can see the follow on effect of some landslip, which we can just about navigate, though it's pretty slippy.
After less than an hour we get to the Bellavista mirador and get a nice view of the town below. It's staying dry for now, though there's clouds all around us, threatening to open up on us.
We don't hang around too long and head further up the trail, making our way to the cobblestone-type road that leads to the Runtun Spa. Got barked at by a couple of dogs, but then welcomed by an aging milk farmer a little further up the track.
We joined him for some fresh tea, and had the longest chat in Spanish than the rest of our time in South America, out together. Surprised that we did so well, and grateful that he spoke slowly for us. Stayed for about an hour, then made our way on up the road. Slipped him a couple of bucks.
Walked further than planned and got to the volcano lookout, though not a chance of seeing the summit with all this cloud around. Heading on, we make our way down the steep and slippy (would be a nightmare in the rain) trail towards the "Virgen statue". Shame to see a religious 'spot' decorated with graffiti, but hardly a surprise nowadays.
A couple of hundred steps lead back down to town and we fancy a smoothie, heading back once again to Ali Cumba. Energy levels back to normal after a piece of warm chocolate cake. Also nice to read some mags here - Newsweek, National Geographic etc, despite them mostly being well out of date.
Hang around for a while before facing up to the internet, and another go at getting us up to date.
Nothing interesting to report for the rest of the day, though had a nice Mexican for din-dins at Pancho Villa on the main street. Looking forward to biking tomorrow.
Tuesday 19th June
A delight to wake up to very little noise, though don't rush to get ot of bed.
Head back to Ali Cumba for breakfast, and leave pleasantly full.
Instead of bikes today, we'll have a walk around town and visit one of the thermal baths. We choose to check out Piscina El Salado and follow the map to the narrow stream, where there's supposed to be a bridge.
We pass some unfriendly dogs down the little path, only to find no bridge, and it looks a little tricky to cross anywhere else, other than the traffic bridge at the bottom of the stream.
We walk it anyway, needing the exercise (though thighs are aching after yesterday's jaunt), but arrive to find the pools full of screaming, and grubby(!), kids. We decide to walk back into town and try and find the other recommended pools, Piscina de La Virgen.
Get thoroughly lost and frustrated trying to find it from the map - we wish someone had said 'just head towards the pretty waterfall that you can see from anywhere in town' - it's right beneath it.
It's mid-afternoon and unfortunately pretty busy with kids, swimmers etc, but it's nice in the water anyway and we stay for a couple of hours, chatting to the couple we met at breakfast yesterday. Paul feels quite good that they are also looking forward to going home, a couple of days after us.
We have a shower back at the room, before heading back to Pancho Villa for more good mexican food. Paul's feeling cheeky and asks if he can have an extra tortilla with his fajitas - no problem. Share a starter too tonight, nice beans and cheese nachos.
Watch some telly in the room before falling to sleep...
Wednesday 20th June
Not a lot today - Paul spends 5 hours straight in the internet (not cheap either in Banos, 2 bucks an hour), but it's great to finally get the blog up to date.
Had a short walk around town, and visited the mirador overlooking the rought river below.
Banos also 'quite' famous for its sticky taffy, which you can see being prepared in shop doorways, with the vendors pulling/stretching it and slapping it back over the hook repeatedly. Tried a small fresh piece of the sweet but subtly flavoured stuff we hope the guy preparing it (without gloves on) has nice clean hands....
Returned to the Pancho Villa on the main street for another excellent Mexican.
That's it for today!
Thursday 21st June
It started raining yesterday afternoon, and continued through the night until we prepared our packs and dressed them in rain covers and walked out for breakfast.
Hoping to get to Quito today, about 3 hours away on the bus.
We hear rumours that there have beenlabdslides on all routes out of here, though the bus company sell us $7 worth of tickets for the journey, and we're due to leave in 40 minutes, at noon.
Noon comes and goes, and we slowly hear more info - sounds like there's 10 crucial metres of road missing. Whilst we wait on the bus we hear the Mayor on the radio, essentially, telling people not to travel today, it's too dangerous.
The bus people suggest tat there'll be more news at 5pm, so we jump off and head back to the accomodation and make the most of the afternoon.
The river is very rough today, and very brown from all the mud it must have been dragging from the riversides way upstream.
Walk around, before stopping for an icecream and then, to cheer the frustration, buy some KIT Kats from the supermarket and escape the ongoing rain to watch TV. Manage to get 5 hours of back to back cop shows, though realise we've missed dinner.
It's still raining at 2am...
Friday 22nd June
Up earlyish to check out the status of the buses. Tourist Office, with a smirk, suggest we'll not be heading to Quito from here for a couple of days, though we can take the roundabout route via Puyo...
We're due on a trip into the jungle on Monday, but need to be in Quito by Saturday to pay for it. Thankfully, we've received an email this morning that offers the chance to pay when we're back in Quito - that's very handy, and very trusting of them.
After a final breakfast at our favourite Cafe Ali Cumba (thought we'd get a discount after daily patronage), we head off to the bus station and get our tickets for the 12.30 bus.
12.30 comes and goes, and we finally leave at 1.20, for the 5 hours to Tena. The ride was fine and it was nice to experience the road that we would have done the bike ride on - shame the rain never, seemed, to stop whilst in Banos.
Obvious evidence of fresh landslides, but we felt safe most of the way along. More waterfalls than usual, thanks to all that rain, though of course this place is also referred to as Highway of the Waterfalls. It follows the Rio Pastaza canyon, dropping from Banos at 1800metres, to Puyo at 950metres.
We're the only tourists getting off in Tena, with the others heading on to Quito. The bus station is a little out of town, though just a few minutes walk towards the centre. We had a couple of places in mind to stay, but walking past Hostel Yasuni ($12 a night, though no breakfast, or hot water - probably won't need it desperately) we're beckoned in and the rooms turn out okay, though we forego a double bed for twins as it looks like it's quieter at the back of the building. Oh, we also forego a toilet seat, but hovering is good for the thighs.
Certainly 'jungle' temperatures here, though the drizzle is probably helping things keep a little cooler.
It's evening now, so we first make a couple of enquiries at rafting shops, though the first one we go to (River People) say that the rivers are too high and they're unlikely to go tomorrow - a little dangerous, and we're grateful for their honesty.
Went into Rios Ecuador next, and they seem to still be taking bookings, though we're put off with the fact that we'll lose 100% of our money if they cancel in the morning. Double pleased we went to the nice/honest people at River People, who perhaps should be called Honest River People.
Dinner followed, at Cositas Ricas - nice enough, though there's not much choice in town.
Nothing after that, and we went back to the room and watched the box, though no AXN channel. Saw a mediocre Denzil Washington flick instead.
Saturday 23rd June
Quietest night's sleep for a while, and we get up later than usual, returning to Cositas Ricas for breakfast.
Nice to see some blue sky too, and that 'tshirt and shorts' feeling - big smiles as we walk to the bus station to buy our ticket out of here for tomorrow, to Coca.
Not much to do in Tena (this is moreso our route into the jungle), though it was nice to visit the small island/jungle reserve in town. It's $2 to visit the spot, where there's some monkeys (sadly some in a cage, though we're told they are rescued), and some other monkeys loose around the place, including a funny looking rat/bat/monkey, called a Tika (maybe wrong spelling). Also some snakes in glass houses, though disturbingly, one of the 'houses' was open at the back.
Several huge Boa Constrictors were kept in a larger cage, and were hanging off a tree.
Various birds flying around the place, and also some Toucan's in a too-small cage, looking bored and frustrated, and some ducks and an Emu too.
The foliage is also nice, and gives us something to look forward to in our trip starting Monday. Not sure if the snakes will be in cages out there though....
Met a nice English couple, Vicky and Mark (Hello guys, if you're reading this - see you in Quito next week!), just as we were leaving and found out that they are in the first week of a year away, and it sounds like they're doing a similar route to us, but the other way around - South America, NZ, Australia, Asia.
Keen to share some hints and tips, we all head off to Cafe Tortuga for some drinks. End up staying there for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying various drinks and some tasty chocolate cake.
The chat continues through dinner at a pizza place just a couple of doors up - Paul says, best pizza in a long time, though it's not the cheapest restaurant in town.
Halfway through dinner, all the rain in the world seems to fall in this town, but times it well enough to stop when we leave to find the ATM, which in turn doesn't work.
Back in the room and we pack to leave tomorrow, up at 6.30. Several puddles in our room following the rain, one dripping near to the ceiling light.
Pleased to be moving on, though not looking forward, too much, to the bus journey tomorrow - supposedly 6 hours.
Sunday 24th June
Groggy start to the day, but jump to it and into the cold shower. Soon woken up.
Thankfully the ATM is working today and we've got enough to cover the next few days in the jungle. No charge for using this ATM, just by the footbridge over the river.
The town is quiet this morning, and only a couple of the shack-shops are open. Our bus leaves just a few minutes after 8am, and slowly makes its way out of town. We assume it was dragging along in the hope of picking up more passengers - there's only about 6 of us on here.
The nice green scenery takes our minds of the snailspace progress, just.
Pleased we snagged seats at the front, for the extra legroom, though we're right in the path of everyone who gets on, and they seem to have other things on their minds than where they are putting their muddy boots. Right on my shiny new trainers. Grrr.
Journey starts to drag as we get towards 2pm and we've just passed a sign that suggests 'Coca - still a little way to go...'.
Football day obviously on a Sunday here too - each town/village we passed seemed to be hosting a kickabout today.
Finally arrive, after countless stops to pick up and drop off other passengers, in Coca and walk the few minutes towards the centre of town.
Checkout the Hotel San Fermin, though find it's closed, and walk on to Hotel El Auca, which looks a little more pricey, though nice for just the one night.
Manage to work our way down from an airconditioned room at $40 a night, to a pretty wooden cabin with ceiling fan for $24. Got the usual private bathroom, Cable TV, as well as a minibar - good for keeping the shop-bought choccies nice and cold.
It has a pretty backyard - lots of trees, and hammocks, together with a handful of various animals and birds - monkeys, parrots and Paca's (cat-size rodent things).
Off to find some internet, though a little concerned that we've read it's $7 an hour....
Phew! - there's a fancy internet place just across from the hotel (it's got an orange colour front), and relieved that an hour online is 'only' $1.40, though you get free popcorn, and waitress service for drinks.
Started to pour with rain next, though we managed a quick look around the smallish riverside town, before having a bite to eat at the hotel, and stocking up on some edible goodies.
Not much else for the rest of the day, it continues to pour with rain, drowning out most of the sound on the TV.
Monday 25th June
Not being picked up for our trip into the jungle until 11.30am, so have a nice breakfast at the internet place we used yesterday - first pancakes in a while.
Other than the last minute packing, we spent a few minutes looking at the animals/birds in the hotel garden. Sorry to see that the parrots and a Toucan had had their wings clipped, though not sure if this is preferable to them being stuck in cages like we saw at the zoo-thing in Tena. The Toucan seems happy jumping around the place and, maybe out of total boredom, chasing Paul's shoelaces, and digging around in his pocket.
Picked up on time from the guys at Sani Lodge and we walk a couple of minutes down to the dock for our 3 hour journey down the Rio Napo (a tributary to the Amazon River)to the lodge.
Sani Lodge is an ecotourism facility, owned and operated by the Sani Isla Quichua community, there's about 500 people in the community, and they own a vast land holding of over 37,000 hectares (90,000 acres), being the largest privately held area of rainforest in all of Ecuador.
The journey is fine as we skim across the surface, weaving from side to side of the wide river to avoid sand banks. Funny that the river develops such shallow areas considering all the rain that falls in these, and surrounding, parts. Whilst we were already aware of the huge oil operations out this way, I guess it was quite sad to see a remote part of the jungle spoiled by huge ferries carrying large lorries connected with the oil industry.
The lodge is located 20 minutes up a small inlet off the Rio Napo, and we transfer to a smaller, slower, dugout canoe for the final stretch through the greenery. Thankfully the canoe has a small outboard motor to speed it through the stream, called Challuayacu, arriving at the lagoon where the lodge sits on the edge. The lagoon is called Challuacocha.
We're greeted by some of the team, including our guides for the next 3 days, Xavier and Freddy. The latter is our 'native' guide, who was born and raised in the community.
After a welcome drink, we are shown to our nice cabin, and unpack our bags, before returning to the bar cabana, which overlooks the lagoon. Not as pretty as it could be, with complete cloud above, though it's dry....for now.
It's midafternoon, and we're pleased that there's an activity squeezed into this first day - a trip across the lagoon and a few minutes walk through the (primary) jungle to a 30 metre tower that has been built around a huge tree. At the top of the tower we get a good view of the canopy, though there are still many trees around that are above us.
We're told that there's not a lot of activity at this time of day, though as the afternoon wears on, to around 5.30, we start to see some more life, though only birds, no monkeys etc. Oh, actually, there are some insects that live in the vines around the top of the tree, including inch-long Conger Ants, which are said to have a nasty bite that will stay painful for many hours. We keep a distance.
Glad we have the binoculars, though not quite powerful enough to afford super-closeup views of the many birds we see, including Toucans, and some others we can't remember the names of.
We stay at the tower until dark comes upon us, and return to the lodge for dinner at 7pm. Nothing to write about re. the dinner - it's 'okay', though portions are small.
After dinner we hang around the bar for a while, playing Jenga and chatting with Colin and his son Joe, before we meet up with our guides for a night safari, which is just a short walk behind our cabins.
Saw a stick insect, various (big) grasshoppers, two small Salamanders and a Tarantula sitting at the edge of his/her nest. Whilst not too many mozzies around the bar and our room, they seem to all be congregating in the jungle, and must be pretty hungry tonight! Survive the night walk, with not even getting pee'd on by a bat.
To bed quite early, as we're due up for breakfast tomorrow morning at 6!
Tuesday 26th June
Up for breakfast for 7am, and the food again is okay, though again we leave still feeling peckish, and we'll be waiting til 1 for lunch.
Today we're off for a visit to the 'centre' of the community - it's the last day of school today, so there's a few things going on for us to see - dancing, singing, school presentations.
Before we get to the centre, which is a 30 minute ride on the canoe, we make a stop on the riverbank and clamber up for a visit to Freddy's house, where we are shown a few medicinal plants and food, and meet a friendly little monkey that lives with the family, as well as 2 dogs and a bunch of chickens.
At the centre we see some preparations for today's dancing, which turns out to be maybe their first run-through - it's a little embarassing, as none of the girls seems to want to be there.
End of term report cards are handed out to the students and while this is happening we step out of the community hall and sit by the football field and enjoy a snack.
We were going to hang around and watch the guys play some football, but we'd rather be making the most of the mostly bright weather to catch site of some wildlife. Gladly we soon make our way back to the boat, and stop on one of the sand islands on the river to have a swim, which turns out to be a swim from one island to another, crossing a fast flowing stretch of water. Pleased that we found a balsa wood log for us to grab onto as we crossed........and missed our island by quite a distance, floating on to the next one.
Glad to survive that jaunt, and be back on dry land (in wet clothes) for a hike through the jungle.
Animals quite quiet as we make our way through, though we come across a group of Woolly Monkeys, the largest and most endangered monkey species in the region.
The rain comes down as we walk along, though we're quite protected by the canopy above, and the ponchos that Xavier magic's out of his backpack. As well as the rain, the wind gets up and Freddy is keen that we make our way out quickly. Even without wind and rain, you can always hear large pieces of shrubbery falling from above, and the trees bury themselves in quite a short depth, making them prone to toppling, though this is good for regeneration of the ground.
The canoe picks us up at the end of the trail and we're soon back at the lodge, relaxing in the bar and again enjoying the views over the lagoon, and the peace and quiet.
After dinner (no change in quantity yet), we head out onto the lagoon in the darkness to trackdown Black Caiman (the largest relative of the alligator - up to 5 metres!). The torches soon pick out the telltale eye reflections and we side up (touching distance, by both parties!) to a 2.5 metre beast. It lets us stare it out for a while before suddenly dropping underwater, making most of the boat occupants jump out of their skin.
No others found, and we're back to dry land and head off early to bed, to be ready for breakfast at 6am!
Wednesday 27th June
to be continued...