The South American adventure begins again, this time in Beautiful Ecuador !
Hola amigos! Enjoy the journey……I know I always do! This is my travelogue journal. I shall be covering my travels through Ecuador and Columbia for the next seven weeks, exploring new lands and new cultures. Ecuador is renown as a region accentuated in ecodiversity. I shall hopefully be exploring much of it including the Amazon rainforest, the Andean highlands, Galapagos Islands, as well as chillin with locals in colorful marketplace Andean settings and the lush, dense zones of the Amazon. Maybe sharing stories with a dolphin or tortoise too. Buen viaje…..happy travels.
1ST POST: OTAVALO, ECUADOR
Greetings and buenos dias everyone! I´m only miles from the equator and yet there´s a slight chill in the air. I must be in Ecuador. Four days into the journey and all goes very well. It´s Friday evening in Otavalo, and anticipation is in the air for tomorrow´s Saturday market. Folks from the outskirts of town and neighboring villages bring in their wares for all to see, and hopefully buy. I´m more interested in the animal market. I´m thinking of getting a pig. Just have to figure out how to get him into the backpack.
The local men wear their traditional felt hats, blue jackets and white pants while the women have their shiny black hair pulled back in a ponytail, wrap a gold necklace around their neck and drape a shaw around their shoulders. Some wear the frilly laced white blouses.
A statue in the square is dedicated to the local indigenous hero of the region, a fact two women were proud to point out. The town is surrounded by pristine green valleys and Andean-size 4700 meter plus volcanoes. Today, I easily made arrangements through local bus and taxi to get to the volcanic formed crater lake, Lago de Cuicocha. Overcast, yet still spectacular scenery, I circumnavigated the lake enjoying the surprisingly varied stages of countryside; some parts lush, some parts semiarid with cactus and desert flowers. Eucalyptus and tall needle pine flourish here as well.
There must be some spiritual comfort here in Otavalo being surrounded by three ancient volcanoes, at least, while they are currently in a state of slumber.
My first 2 and a half days were spent in Quito, getting oriented to my new environment which never takes me very long. I am a veteran traveler after all. As cities go, Quito is a very attractive city, situated in an elongated base between the mountains. An aerial tram takes you to the largest peak in the area, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding volcanic peaks, several still snow-capped. Below to the west the misty cloud forest sits quietly enshrouded in clouds.
I easily traversed the new and old town sections by foot. Old town has the numerous colonial era churches, one enormous bastillica, pastel colored buildings and amiable, well-used and enjoyed city parks. Try the fruit juices sold at the vendor carts in the park. An instant pick me up after a long city hike. Quito, especially in the Mariscal new town makes a great first stop for arranging future travel plans including the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands. Once accomplished, I was ready for the greater Ecuador outdoors.
Ecuadorians have been very friendly and accomodating. Have already met some interesting travelers, several recently back from volunteer work deep into the Ecuadorian rainforest. I will be going into the Amazon myself beginning next week. Many other young people are here in Ecuador doing volunteer teaching work or environmental work.
Well, today is the big Saturday market and what a sight for the senses. The animal market is my favorite and yes, I could have purchased a little squealing piggy certainly to the relieve of a patient owner. Several of the little piggies, and a few porkers, did find new owners as several were begrudgingly in tow on a leash, one even put in a large burlap bag and carted into a buses luggage compartment! Later, I saw a happy family who had just sold one of their family cows, all eyes beaming at today´s success.
In town, streets overflowed with colorful food and goods. Everybody, tourists and locals alike, seemed to be enjoying the day.
Ciao for now!
2ND POST CUYABENO RESERVE, ECUADOR
MY ECUADORIAN AMAZON ADVENTURE
Approaching the Ecuadorian Amazon, I shed the layers of civilization with each transitional form of transportation…The hectic Quito taxi ride, the silver bird route that traversed the ecozone extremes, from the Andes to the sultry lowland rainforest in a mere 30 minutes. Next, the mind jogging bumpy gravel two hour drive, navigating the same road utilized by the infamous oil industry’s pipeline.
Now, we bid adieu to the last remnants of civilization, the local Ecuadorians gathered above the river dock. Our motorized canoe boat was loaded with people, belongings and supplies. We were lathered in mosquito repellent, a distinct aroma of citrus filling the humid air. Around the river’s bend, through a kaleidoscope of green and brown colored shades, the heart of the Amazon awaited.
Our serpentine portage through the murky jungle river went deeper and deeper into the rainforest. It would not be long before the journey became very interesting.
Surprising us from higher ground somewhere in the thick tree foilage, Amazonian women, easily fifty feet tall, let loose with an arsenal of spears in our immediate direction. Whizzing past our heads, we managed to outmaneuver their unprovoked attack. Around the next bend, the river narrowed. Enormous tree vines hung down to the river’s edge. Clinging to the vines were dozens of slithering anacondas, dangling precariously close to our heads as we past. The Dutch children on board were nearly wisked away by the largest of the anacondas, a mere 6 meters in length. Our swift response with our supplied machetes prevented the children’s abduction.
Further down river the air filled with the sounds of a hundred bees or so we initially thought. The buzzing noises were in fact poisonous darts aimed at us by unfriendly natives hidden in the forest. Fortunately their cursed darts missed their intended marks.
A brief respite from harm’s way was abruptly interrupted by a boiling frenzy of activity in the waters ahead. The source of the frenzy was a thousand piranha hungrily looking for an afternoon snack. We pulled our hands and toes out of the water, steering through their frenzied madness. They continued to chase us down river, as did an armada of fast moving hungry caimans.
Yet, we prevailed, and after two hours of such Amazon encounters, we finally reached our destination, Cuyabeno Lodge, which rested along the Laguna Grande. Now our adventure would really begin…
That’s one version of what happens when you travel in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Now, here’s another….
The boat journey was actually a very calming, peaceful experience. There were certainly creatures in those tall trees that we encountered. There were four different species of monkeys as well as a distant blue and yellow maccaw, and a tucan flirting about the top branches. The pervasive jungle fisherman, the kingfisher, guided us up river. Only one small caiman came into view on a sunny river bank and he gave us little notice.
To the surprise of us, the blacken waters of Laguna Grande were save for swimming and we swam every day. Magical experiences happen in that lake as well. A glorious, dramatic sunset cast pink, gold, aquamarine and sienna blue colors off the developing thunderheads above and the placid surface water below. The rare pink fresh water dolphins were also present for the show.
Very quietly we watched a mama dolphin and her two babies surface and resurface in the still river waters. After sunset, we ventured into the now darkened rainforest. night is when the inhabitants of the Amazon really comes to life, big and small. We were only equipped with our senses and a flashlight. The stillness was incredible. Point the flashlight…tarantula on a tree…point it again, a large hairy spider or a small light green frog under a leaf. Were those big eyes that glittered off my beam.
The short return journey to the lodge was also dramatic. That developing thunderhead earlier now let loose with its stinging patter of raindrops, illuminated by our boat’s searchlight and the distant flashes of lightning.
That same lake the next day was the perfect vantage point for a spiritual silent view of the immense twinkling universe above. So clear was the sky and so free of civilization’s lights that every star in the universe shined that night. So close were they that if you stood on the bow of the boat, you could just touch them.
Earlier that afternoon, we fished for piranha with fresh chunks of meat as bait in the the river’s murky waters.
The Amazon’s jungle silences and sounds are spellbinding. The humidity, especially deeper inland away from the cooling effect of the open waters can be styfling yet no worst than my days living in Florida.
A ways further downriver we visited a small Amazon indigenous Siona community. No more loin cloths and nose pierced bones. Far deeper still in the Ecuadorian Amazon you may still find members of the Huaorani tribe in more traditional appearance.
The jaguar and the anaconda are certainly in the jungle, just more illusive than the stories we’re told let you believe.
The staff and indigenous guides were all wonderful at the Cuyabeno ecolodge. Open air thatched roof, wooden huts with mosquito nets for lodging. Only nighttime visitors were the Three Cucarachas aka cockroaches. The neighboring monkeys kept their distance.
The five days in the Amazon just flowed, peacefully, naturally, like the waters and the inhabitants themselves. Difficult to return to the alleged civilized world.
Ouch! Was that a small dart that hit my neck!
3RD POST: AVENUES OF THE VOLCANOES to TENA JUNGLE
The journey continues south of Quito, a beautiful Andean highland region along the Panamerican Highway aptly called the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Indeed, scattered along both section of the passing road are craggy and snow-capped volcanoes, Cotopaxi being one of largest peaks. Very cloudy conditions have made visibility of the tops of the mountain non-existence for now so I shall swing back later for hopefully better visibility conditions.
While decising on whether to stick around or not I stayed at a very pleasant 18th century hacienda, formerly called Hacienda Bolivar. The house and surrounding countryside property had been owned by the grandson of “The Liberator” Simon Bolivar. The initial battle that evntually led to Ecuador´s independence from Spain began in a field nearby. Viva la revolution!
I lucked out for a room. Large space, wooden floors and furniture, mustard yellow stucco walls and a fireplace, for 11 dollars. Large wooden door opens up onto the beautiful garden courtyard and the livestock pens nearby. Ol Mike had an Ecuadorian farm, ee aye ee aye oh!
Many fellow visitors were hoping to conduct a bit of mountaineering in the neighboring peaks that day but their was too much new snow in the upper elevations. Snow? Wasn’t I just in the steamy Amazon a couple of days ago? Now I am really getting a feel for Ecuador’s grand ecodiversity.
Next stop, Latacunga, entryway to the Quilatoa Loop, a route that travels through pristine countryside and small Andean villages. Weather still very cloudy.
Latacunga is quite the intrepid, tenacious lil town, thrice rebuit in the last three hundred years after three Cotopaxi eruptions. I wonder how the locals would feel of my presence if they knew I was in the vicinity of Washington’s Mount St. Helen and New Zealand’s Mount Ruapeha when they blew their stack as well.
Anyway, as the guide book says, Latacunga is pretty cool. Nice looking plaza and old world churches, although at night, the churches are lit up in hip neon pastel colors. The food market operates every day. A mix of people in the streets, some dressed in traditional highland attire, others in regular work clothes and teenagers with the latest trends and ipods. As throughout Ecuador, the vibration of Latin pop songs emanates onto the streets.
The usual Ecuadorian staple food of chicken, rice, potatoes and salad exists here. Good soups, usually. Then there are the pizza parlors that serve better pizza and lazagna than in Italy. Oh, and the cuppucinos with their ice cream thick layer of cream are fantastic!
Leaving Latacunga, in the direction of Tena, you pass through Banos and a precipitous stretch of road known as the Highway of the Waterfalls. Directly above Banos I caught a slight glimpse of Volcano Tungaraha’ snowy upper section as well as a steady plume of wisping steam. Gee, I wonder if the locals of Banos only knew of my presence when…..oh you know the rest. The road swiftly descends from highland country back into the Amazon jungle.
The bus ride down to Tena was quite interesting. Passengers, arrived and departed with steady regularity, a 100 percent sometimes 120 percent occupancy at any given time.
A scene reminicent of the movie Romancing The Stone, this was my first South American bus ride that a chicken was finally aboard, though in a more modern covered cage than in past decades. Even a young man with a chainsaw was on board briefly. The bus stops somewhere in the jungle, you think why when suddenly somebody pops out of a wooden hut in the forest and enters the bus. Naturally..claro que si!
Oh yeah, and one final bus observation. The guidebook says that Ecuador’s population growth is at 3 percent annually. Based on my personal observations of buses and small town streets , I would pin the growth rate at about 100 percent, per week. As in many other South American countries, every other women passing by is either carrying a small child or one is “on the way”. The pope should be paying his respect often in South America since the obliging population keeps adding new dues paying membership to the Catholic church.
Small jungle town Tena. My balcony view room overlooks greenery, a river, and the purple misty mountains in the distance. An Amazon jungle white water rafting trip awaits…
I wasn’t sure which tour company to sign up with when I came across the three young American girls that were staying at my hostel (thanks to my quick persuasion). They had just signed up with a tour company operated by a local Quechua family and asked me if I wanted to go with them. The answer was easy….SURE ! Or in Spanish…POR SUPUESTO !
The next morning our journey to the upper Napo River began with a deluge of rain and surrounded by a ubiquitious rain cloud cover. The open air truck drive was down right chilly, slightly unexpected for the Amazon. However, I told the girls to keep the faith, to collectively put out a good vibe for clearer skies. By the time we reached the river, the rain had stopped. We strapped on our lifejackets, helmet, grabbed a paddle and set off onto the rushing river. The backdrop was stunning. Tropical vegetation on either side of the river, blue-purple mist laden mountains in the background which were providing, along with the snowmelt from far distant Cotopaxi, our water source. Needless to say the water was a bit chilly which we soon felt as we began our turbulent run through the class three plus rapids. Whoo hoo, a lot of fun!
Not long the clouds swiftly vanished and within an hour, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. We beached the raft several times for lunch, to take in the view, to bail the raft, and to enjoy a swim in an adjoining warmer water tributary. Our lunch break was along a stretch of the forest where our tour operators family lived. We chewed on the cocoa leaves from the one cocoa tree the family is allowed to cultivate for their religious ceremonies.
The greatest sources of the waters for the Amazon River originate in Ecuador, the Rio Napo becoming one of the largest contributors. The rapids diminished toward the end and the final stretch was just a relaxing float through the rainforest, grand ceiba trees guiding us along the way. A fine day’s adventure was had by all.
4TH POST : GALAPAGOS ISLANDS , ECUADOR
One island looks like you have arrived on planet Mars, the terrain inundated with red barren volcanic rock formations, stripped of any traces of vegetation. The next island has lush green mangroves where deep into the languid estuaries you find white tip sharks and sea turtles breeding. Has the world turned upside down! Or… have I entered the magical, mysterious world of the Galapagos Islands.
My eight day boat tour through the majority of islands within the Galapagos island chain was truly a lifetime highlight. This strange wonderful isolated world sits alone in the Pacific Ocean, six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos define individuality. Each island has its own uniqueness, including landscape, flora and fauna, both land species and marine.
Even compared to Africa, I have never known wildlife so undisturbed, so calm among human presence. You can easily walk right up next to sea lions, marine iguanas, blue and red footed boobies, without them batting an eye..or a wing..or a foot.
Each day we traveled to a different island. Each day we snorkled, swimming along side sea lions, sea turtles, manta rays, spotted rays, dozens of species of colorful fish and coral, the occasional reef shark and even one penguin.
At night, sometimes we traveled under starry nights, other times we traveled the high seas under dark clouds and choppy waves, always waking up the next morning in a new bay, next to a surreal island landscape. Often in that early morning light, with my first cup of coffee, from our boat´s upper deck, I can hear and see sea lions resting on shore, see frigate birds gliding along a coastal cliff, or see the head of a sea turtle briefly breaching the water for a breath of air. Once, from the famous blowhole on Espanola Island, we watched a humpback whale briefly breach the ocean waves.
The next island might have pink flamingoes drawing strange figure eights in the salt lake muddy bottom layer against a reddish volcanic cone mountain background.
Out boat was cozy but perfect. Our group a wonderful wide array of fellow backpackers, fourteen in total. Our crew and guide informative, helpful and fun. The food was superb. Three meals a day plus our equally much anticipated “delicious snack” after a round of snorkeling. Weather conditions were surprisingly very cloudy, occasional light brief rains and a bit cool, yet we were literally right on the EQUATOR. A very strange world.
So, we were always delighted when a good stretch of sunny weather intervened, especially while lying around on deck.
What else? Giant cactus trees…..horny giant tortoises. Horny birds in general since it was mating season for many while nesting season for many other bird species. And, hey, I have to say, these islands are the Land of the Boobies. I felt right at home!
5TH POST : CAMP COLUMBIA
What I did on my summer vacation…. Finishing six glorious weeks exploring Camp Ecuador, I decided, with one week left before returning home, to venture north to Colombia…Camp Colombia.
The border crossing was painless. Sunday morning, I left the town of Tulcan, Ecuador by minibus, which takes you to the border crossing; a bridge that overlooks a lush landscape and an Andean river. Nobody in the immigration line as I quickly get passport stamped out in Ecuador, walk across bridge, and get stamped into Colombia. Money exchanged, the journey into Colombia began.
In Ecuador, the massive Andean mountain range forms a single line spine up the middle of the country. In Colombia, the range splits into three separate mountain ranges. The tumultous division is dramitcally illustrated along the road to Popayan, a colonial city some 200 miles north of the border.
The first phase of the journey is defined by lush, verdant mountainous terrain and chilled air. As the range begins to break down into its separate directions, wider, deeper valleys emerge as the road road begins its descent. Soon, deep valleys evolve into dramatic, plummeting gorges, the landscape now barren and desert-like. Villagers set up modest restaurants to serve passing travelers, their worn structures perched precariously on the mountainside edge.
The road weaves down to a river crossing, suddenly rising precipitiously back up, then down again along the sides of these dry mountain monsters. Buses and trucks strain their gears the whole way.
As a passenger, if you close your eyes during this stretch of road you´ll soon awaken to a sharply contrasting tropical setting; tall jungle growth encroaching the edges of the pavement. Here´s where the journey gets interesting.
Approaching a small village, a roadblock bars our buses advancement. A half dozen men dressed in guerrilla camouflage clothing wave our bus to a full stop. They are members of the guerrilla group FURC, a benign offshoot of the more notorious guerrilla group FARC. They are looking for people to volunteer as hostages. I was the only foreigner on board. Seeing my hesitation, they quickly announce that tonight back at the guerrilla camp they were having an outdoor showing of classic Laurel and Hardy movies. Popcorn included. The enticement worked…I volunteered. A covered work truck was waiting for us. To keep their whereabouts secret, I allowed myself to be blindfolded.
The journey seemed endless, bouncing around in the back of their truck. Finally, we stopped, and my blindfold was taken away. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dim jungle light. The compound was modest in size. The pungent odors of farm animals and human sweat stung my nostrils. Fortunately, the new aroma of fresh buttered popcorn mullified the pungent odors.
As I started to sit down on a log to watch the movies, I saw her. Caramel-colored skin, statuesque and garbed in jungle camouflage, the Colombian woman who was the leader of FURC introduced herself. It was lust at first sight. The movies could wait. While the other guerrilla men were preoccupied laughing and eating popcorn, we snuck into her large canvas tent and made passionate love.
The next few days flowed lazily like the tropical heat. Good Colombian expresso in the morning followed by hostage versus guerrillas volleyball games. The guerrillas had mistakenly taken a champion Brazilian and Swedish volleyball player as hostages. Our hostage team kicked ass!
Finally Friday arrived, and although nobody in the outside world had paid my dollar hostage fee, I told the members of FURC I had to get back to Ecuador. The Colombian woman reluctantly agreed. Since they had cunningly confisgated a helicopter from a military installation many months back, they hoped to use it in the near future to haul a lavish jacuzzi from a prominent political figures residence and entice more volunteer hostages with their free jacuzzi. I told them to e-mail me. I also mentioned as a possible alternative source of income for them they might want to get on the ecotourism bandwagon, creating FURC tours. They pondered this new idea.
After saying our goodbyes, they tied a blindfold on me and back through the jungle we went toward civilization.
That´s one version of what happened during my Colombian visit. Now, here´s another….
One of the joys and challenges of travelling is separating fact from fiction, the truth from the myths. Though far from completely safe, guerrilla encounters along the Colombian major travel routes have diminished considerably in recent years. My journey to and from Popayan went very smoothly, without incident.
The occasional robberies on buses do still occur, primarily at night. Are they FARC influenced or just the criminal habits of thieves and thugs. Who knows?
FARC does wield considerable influence in the outlying countryside and villages near Popayan however no tourist, from what I´ve heard, has been bothered. All travelers I´ve spoken with had not encountered any problems and were thoroughly enjoying their travels through Colombia. The usual safeguards and cautions to traveling certainly still applied, especially in the big cities.
Popayan is a very easygoing city, especially in the colonial old town section. Whitewashed buildings, wrought iron balconies, churches around every other corner, Popayan had been the seat of power several centuries ago while still under Spanish rule. Power later shifted to Bogota and Popayan, probably to its benefit, has maintained backseat status ever since.
After suffering a devastating earthquake in 1983, within the last ten years, Popayan has gone through a complete renovation, resurrecting itself to surpass its pre-1983 glory. During my first night in Popayan, I experienced an earthquake tremor while sitting in my hostal. The epicenter of the 6.8 earthquake was over 150 miles away, deep below the surface of the Colombian coast. No damage in Popayan, just a wild rolling sensation.
A university town, the cultural amenities in Popayan are plentiful, as are the women. Yes, the Colombian women are pretty. The cafes are plentiful as well. Their interiors speak volumes, alluding to a rich history: old, dark wooden chairs and tables, hard wood floors and balconies, cracked stucco ceiling with a touch of fanciful; sparkling mobiles dangling overhead.
Sipping my espresso, I gaze toward the opened door and the passing crowd. I can imagine militias and guerrillas running past, protesters marching by, workmen moving their horse drawn work carts and colorful villagers moving their produce on the backs of llamas. Was it yesterday or was it two, maybe three centuries ago. Not too much has changed here in Colombia. And, what great coffee!
(I didn´t mention Juan Valdez´s name once!)