Welcome to the jungle; be careful out there.....
"Si, por favor"
so ran the short conversation 2 hours into our three hour journey from Banos to Quito. I'm not sure what the 15 cent option was called, perhaps an extra ordinario, but it came with two squares of toilet paper collected from the nice lady at the foot of the steps to the toilets. One quick ordinario later and back on the bus to finish the journey. The remainder of the journey would be in the shadow of the mighty Cotopaxi volcano, the dominant physical feature of the surrounding countryside. Now extinct but still reveared by local people and climbers alike.
Our bus to Banos from Cuenca had airbrakes that had a wheeze then sneeze kind of sound whilst the bus back to Quito from Banos had more of a barking dog sound, compounded by the occasional barking dog chasing the bus. Next to the 80's megamix played at full volume through the bus speaker system the airbrakes almost sounded good! Otherwise an uneventful journey with lots of coming and going. We were almost the only people to do the whole trip from Banos to Quito. People selling snacks hopped on and off the bus selling bags of things that were recognisable and other bags of things that, to these eyes at least, looked very different. The competition between buses to pick up fares was intense, leading to some interesting overtaking manouvres, the most memorable as we overtook another bus going onto the Panamerican highway at a 'T' junction, before we eventually chugged into Quito.
The Plaza Grande in Quito is surrounded by is the Presidential Palace, Cathedral and balconied shops and restaurants. There was a great deal of hustle and bustle around the Palace with motorcades being prepared, sniffer dogs in attendance and motorcycle outriders with the only decent police bikes I have seen so far in South America (BMW 1200). The President was clearly going somewhere and, given the history of assasinations in this country it was not surprising that nobody was saying anything. After a while I headed over to the graceful old colonial building that housed the Cultural Centre and saw a moving black and white photographic exhibition telling the stories of the descendents of the many African Slaves that were brought to South America and in particular Brasil. On the next floor an exhibition of lithographs by Goya together with what I think were contemporary Ecuadorian artists reinterpreting some of the themes that Goya presented.
Despite the cultural attractions of colonial Quito though, my mind frequently wandered to our forthcoming trip into the Amazon Basin. Like Machupicchu in Peru this was, for me, one of the most keenly anticipated parts of our trip to South America. Being as economical as possible with our packing and leaving behingd anything that might be badly affected by the high humidity (iPod included) but making sure we had plenty of batteries for torches and changes of socks and undies...no electric power at all at the lodge except for solar powered battery rechargers on for 2 hours per day and no drying facilities other than hanging clothes outside....where the scorpions and spiders roam!
Our day began early with a taxi to the airport to catch the 35 minute flight from Quito to Nueva Loja (more commonly known as Largo Agria). A short trip in terms of time taken but several worlds away in terms of topography. Quito, high sierra city at 2 800 metres to Largo Agrio in Tropical Rainforest at 200 metres. Quito warm and dry, Largo Agria hot and with a humidity of 85% in the dry season (95 - 100% for the remaining 9 months). Quito packed tight and snaking through all the available space between the volcanoes and mountains, Largo Agria spaced out and new since the extraction of oil started here.
We landed at the brand new terminal. I was disappointed that nobody said "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE", or as they used to say in Hill Street blues "Hey...be careful out there...it`s a jungle" but they were probably busy at the time. We were picked up by a young man who said little but drove us in his minibus for 90 minutes along the main road east from Largo Agria. At a steady lick we travelled for 90 minutes along brand new tar sealed road, paid for out of oil money as were the numerous new buildings and the huge strip of cleared rainforest through which the road passed. Two oil pipes, perhaps a mere 9" in diameter, cradled in sturdy tubular steel frames carried the precious black cargo responsible for all of this and also for the over development of the small townships that lined the road. The small towns were frontier towns to all appearances. We finally arrived at a bridge over the Cuyabeno river where, after a short break for lunch, we began our four hour canoe journey down the Cuyabeno River to Samona Lodge, our base for the next 5 days.
Our company numbered five plus our guide Luis and boatman Carlos: Matt from Canada, Tom from the USA, Paulo from Argentina and Jackie and I. A great group of people. We enjoyed their company very much. Our guide for this first part of our trip was William. William came in to his own very soon in to the trip when he shouted out ZLOT!!! ZLOT!!!, pointing excitedly at a tree. We looked and looked and eventually made out a small bundle of fur that turned out to be a 2 toed sloth, resting in the crook of a tree just above the river. The guides being able to spot things that we had no idea about was a constant feature of the trip and their observation skills, knowledge and experience were invaluable. How a) William had been able to spot the ZLOT!!! and b) how the zlot had managed to continue sleeping through the noise of William, each was anybody´s guess. We were powered by the far from traditional but very effective mighty oars of Yamaha. The work horse of the river, these engines and the propeller blades take a real beating on the river . However skillful the boatman the submerged trees and other obstacles will inflict fairly heavy damage....no such problem with paddles but everything takes many times longer and in an emergency you can't beat good old horse power (better than oars power!)
The Rio Cuyabeno was very low. This is the dry season and in just 1 month the river will be approaching 3 metres higher than its present level, covering the banks and rising up the tree trunks where the water marks from the last wet season can still be clearly seen. The practical consideration for us was the extent to which the low water level affected our trip, extending it by nearly 2 hours. Carlos exercised great skill in getting us to the lodge without smashing the propeller.
As we bumped and buzzed our way the main attraction, the Amazon Jungle put on a great opening show. As the light began to fade troops of monkeys crashed about in the tree tops, kingfishers of various shapes and sizes flashed along the river in brilliant streaks. Overhead a yellow headed vulture and hurling themselves onto the boat in ferocious frenzy small 'dogfish', sharp toothed relatives of pirana fish. Every now and again a big swirling in the water would indicate a Pache, a 3 metre fish with scales of such a size and strength that local people use them as plectrums for guitar playing (I would have brought you one home Mark but MAF might not approve and it would probably be fairly smelly by July!). Wafting by at surprising speed were butterflies the size of my open hand with brilliant electric blue wings. We had a lesson in photography on the way, namely that even with digital technology or ASA 400 film the light, or lack of it wouuld be a major factor in trying to get good pictures.
Two hours into the trip the heavens opened and they stayed open for most of the rest of the journey. We were soaked through to the skin. Even with good gear on the water got through. William and Carlos didn't bother with jackets etc...they had been out in this many times before. By the time we reached Samona all our gear was wet and the drying challenge began...to get as much dry as possible before we needed to wear it. Inbetween heavy showers insects hatched, buzzed and flew around bringing out things that ate insects and, in turn, the things that eat the things that eat insects. Scarlet Macaws headed home sceeching and squaking, long nosed bats flapped and every now and again a caiman would slide into the river.
If I turn this blog into a list of creatures we saw it will be dull. We saw many many insects, birds, reptiles, trees and plants. The jungle itself with its heavy air and distinctive earthy, watery, composty smell dominated. Amazing that so much growth can happen on such miserably poor soil. We had numerous activities including going out at night on the river looking for the local version of crocs, the caiman. We saw many including a 4 metre monster in the water within 2 feet of our boat. He didn't move a muscle. He didn't need to. In a head-to-head on the water there would only be one winner.
A night walk along a jungle path near the lodge introduced us to some of the millions of insects, frogs, birds and monkeys that would keep us company at night. Our guide, Luis, found frogs that defeated our eyes and numerous spiders wove fantastic webs. Overhead the appropriately named Noisy Night Monkey was heard then spotted and making a star appearance towards the end of our walk was a very elegant looking black scorpion on a tree trunk. (reminded to shake shoes, bags etc before inserting feet, hands). There is a saying that we encountered in Africa: you only see 10% of everything that sees you. In the Amazon that felt more like 1% and it was because of the guides that we saw that much. There was always the feeling that a jaguar or pink dolphin or anaconda were there to be seen and not far away. We didn't see these creatures but groups before and after us saw some of them. Knowing they were there was satisfying in itself.
Our evening excursions sometimes took us Pirana fishing and Matt, Tom, Luis, Paulo and I went out with some beers and sticks with line and hooks. Luis brought beef for bait and the trick was to hook the pirana before it ate all the beef (which piranas are very good at doing)...not skillful at all but good fun and we had 3 fish to supplement dinner...they tasted good. On our return to dinner we were joined by one of the local tarantulas, looking down on us from his/her roofing support while a tree frog, with one eye on the tarantula watched us from the next one along.
We travelled into the dry part of the forest with Luis who gave us tree bark to chew...quinine, he showed us the local plant used for contraception and numerous other medicines that come from leaves, roots, bark and berries; tattoo ink, leaves that you can write messages on with a stick, lipstick berries and palm leaves for basket weaving....so much more than I can write here. Our people contact was with Lucia from the Sione tribe. They live in the village of Puerta Bolivar, downstream 2 hours from us. We went, first of all to meet the local Shaman. He was either out on a house call or fishing. Either way his son explained the role fully and how the Shaman and local health services work together. From there back up to Puerto Boliva where Lucia showed us how to make bread from Yukka roots. We all had a go and very tasty it was too. Grated, sifted and dried yukka root is simply poured onto a hot clay bake stone, pressed and lifted off. With a little of Lucia's home made concentrated chillie paste and a smidge of marmalade you couldn't beat it with a stick.
Night times were noisy. Very noisy. Insects, birds and frogs can kick up a hell of a din in the dark and the handover period between 04:30 and 05:30 is almost orchestral in its intensity. Things quietened down somewhat after 10:00 as the day gets hotter but by 15:00 they are all tuning up again and itching to make a noise. If the trees are competing for every square centimetre of sunlight either by growing taller or wider than everything else then the creatures that make noise have used every trick in the book to fill all the available frequencies for seeking, maintaining or repelling relationships. In so doing they seem to cross over with frogs sounding like mammals, insects sounding like birds and vice versa.
On our fourth day, sadly, Tom, Matt and Luis left to head back to Quito. I went out on another fishing trip with the group that had just arrived and, after the pirana fishing and caiman spotting was surprised to see how keen some of the group were to get in the water for a swim....not me! We had had rain a few days in a row which meant that the journey back up the river was quicker, just two and a half hours this time.
A quick turnaround in Quito before taking the night flight to Santiago de Chile. We were deeply disappointed that one of Jackie's bags was lost by LAN on the flight via Guyaquil with the inevitable searching around trying to remember what was on it. Fortunately the LAN staff in Santiago city have been very helpful but we are now 4 days on and still no sign of the bag. Hopefully good news before the next blog.
Lots of love and best wishes to family, and friends old and new. We are now in La Serena, 6 hours by coach north of Santiago. It is very hot here by the coast so a plunge in the Pacific will be nice tomorrow....more refreshing than swimming with pirana and caimans in the Cuyabeno anyway!