Thursday, January 20, 2011

Amazonopoulos (17-19 January 2011)

Casa Kanela Hostel in Quito to Cotococha Lodge in the Amazon Basin took 7.5hrs, 1 van and 2 buses to cover the 193km.

We rode through the Andes along spectacular valley roads passing through 4,000m and descending down to 518m surrounded by thick lush green jungle into a town called Tena (Pop 23K). What a ride. Windy roads, high humidity but the final destination a real treat.

This part of Equador is home to the Quechua indigenous peoples who speak their own language (nothing like Spanish) and are fairly autonomous. I stayed in a wooden, palm-thatched bangalow facing the river (Rio Napo) and surrounded by thick jungle. Rio Napo is one of 12 main rivers that "start" the Amazon from the Andes. The lodge is 15km from Tena, has 22 stand-alone bugalows offering 44 beds, seperate bungalows for eating and entertainment and two long boats for the river.

After our arrival at 3:30pm we were whisked away in a long boat on the river and to the indegenous town of Tiya Yaku where we learned all about local food (mainly the potatoe-like "Yuca"), pottery and poison dart shooting. Back at the lodge, each of us received two kero lanterns for our rooms as there is no electricity.

Maureen and I adjourned to a lovely bottle of Chilean 2008 Cab Sav and local cheese, before dinner, overlooking the river. Dinner slipped past a moonlit night and off to the starrey night of river and jungle nocturnal music...

The 18JAN began with a 12km run at 6:30am through the Amazon Basin, past a village and 3 chasing dogs!

After a quick coffee, we were in the long tail boat across the river and on our half-day walk to a waterfall, deep in the jungle. The Amazon is thick and noisey! It could be Greek! The main feature of visiting this area is purley flora! Animals are here but unlike the low shrub-line of the swampy Pantal, they are hard to spot. The other signature feature is butterlies - they are everywhere. Even the trees "strangle" each other with their roots and trunks in competition for space and light. We also learned that because there are no seasons, Amazon trees have no rings so you cannot tell their age.

The one hour sweaty walk was quickly forgotten in the cool clear waters of the Napo waterfall. After a relaxing swim and sunning on the rocks we headed back to the river and instead of taking the boat to the lodge we "tubbed" back, sitting in huge truck tyre tubes and paddling on our own down the river for 40min. This was a defining moment since we all spread out and with no boat engine, all you could hear was the jungle on both sides of the river and you alone in the middle of the river - such isolation - such beauty. It was at this moment that the enormity and wilderness of the Amazon hit me.

I could not believe I was in a tyre in the middle of the river in the Amazon! Another highlight of tubing is riding the rapids and spinning around as you do it. Back at the lodge and instead of lunch I went for a 30min swim in the river. The afternoon was spent at a butterfly farm learning about the entire life-cycle and observing several species through each stage. The highlight was being let loose in a huge nettted area to chase and photograph these graceful creatures.

We had a mountain of fun getting back to the lodge - instead of the river pebbles on the way there we had to run through a very narrow jungle trail so that the soldier ants below our feet did not have time to climb on us and bite us! On our way back I actually ate some ants that the local guide, Marco, offered to us that live in the stem of a particular plant. They tasted like lime. Back at the lodge we showered and relaxed to the more civilised pre-dinner wine and cheese under lanterns with Maureen at the top floor of the bangalow overlooking the river, jungle and full-moon. Tonight was a special night with "local tucker" before dinner and indigenous dancing after.

The tucker involved a souvlaki of beetle lavae ("Chontacuro") and banana. I proceeded to bite the head off (you do not eat this part) and consume the body - tasted like the skin of a grilled salmon - quite rich and oily but suprisingly tasty - no bitterness. I consumed 3 of these, helped along by my second bottle of Chilean Cab Sav! The dinner featured the local Amazon fish "Tilapia" and local beef accompagnied by the local potato-like "Yuca". The dancing after dinner was like "piss-weak world" in D-Generation.

It started with a local dressed as a medicine man "cleansing" volunteer American tourists and sending Maureen and I to sleep at the same time! Then I tried my hand at some indegenous dancing which was very repetitious so I improvised with my "dag" dance and some Ozzie Aboriginal moves which got the audience going for a while. After watching the locals accidently swash a grasshopper as they danced, it was off to bed. Too much red!

The next day we left the lodge at 8am and started our journey out of the Amazon Basin heading south back up to the Andes to end up in our overnight stop at Riobamba (Pop 182K, Elev 2,7540m), after 10hrs (5hrs on the road), 1 van 3 buses and 1 taxi. Near Banos, we visited three huge waterfalls, the most famous being "La Pailon Del Diablo" (The Devil's Cauldron). Many locals from the coast come to visit these waterfalls via bikes or open-air "party truck" serving booze with music. Banos (Pop 15K, Elev 1,800) itself is famous for its thermal baths (caused by nearby 5,016m semi-active volcano Tungarahua) and "Melcocha" (toffee).
We also visited the town's spectacular cathedral with wood-scuplured fornt door icons and an ornate tiled interior. Poonam tried to bungie-jump off the 60m Banos bridge but I pissed my pants and she couldn't bear the thought of a smelly bus! The scenery between Banos and Riobamba was the best to date featuring a massive valley with Banos volcano Tungarahua steaming in the distance!

NEXT BLOG: to cover our descent from the Equadorian Andes to the Pacific Coast due 24-25JAN.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: My Sincere thanks to Poonam who took the "Insect Photo" and the "Waterfall Photo", in particular, amongst others. She too is in the running for "Best Signature Shot" to be judged by the followers of my blog and a grand prize awarded to the winner by nme on the launch night of "Ai Caramba 2011 - The Movie!" approx 2 mths after my return.

HINTS & TIPS: Definately see the Amazon in Tena Equador or Iquitos Peru via "Jungle Lodges" rather than the boats at Manaus Brazil - the lodges are more isolated and feature a rich array of activities to get you close to the jungle. If its animals you want to see you must do the Lodges at the Pantanal where they cannot hide as easily! Lodges are worth booking from Oz as they fill up.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) Equador has just recently passed a law that forbids the buying and drinking of alcohol on Sundays! I got around this by filling up two water bottles with Sav Blanc and sharing it with Maureen. What a blast. 2) I take my hat off to Maureen who is travelling 2 yrs through South America and europe from 6DEC10 just planning it as she goes. I also admire her ability to "rough it". 3) Equador does not use trains for general transport. There is one for tourism.