Quito and the Amazon Jungle

I found one of my older blog post on another site the other day (Adventure Life Blog) and I figured I should share my Ecuadorian adventures with piranhas, tarantulas, caimans and red howler monkeys with you all here as well. Enjoy the journey!

Snowy peaks of Ecuador

Snowy peaks of Ecuador

Starting this journal a little early…
Today is September 15th. Only 4 days to go and I am getting thoroughly excited. I am so in need of a real vacation! I am looking forward to testing out my new little camera and just hope the battery will last…

September 16th. Starting my shopping shortlist: batteries and a flashlight. Don’t want to run over this anaconda in the dark – oops. Seriously, everyone keeps warning me about the dangerous species out there. Relax, people! I am Australia trained. Isn’t that where a whole lot of the most dangerous animals live?

September 17th. Got my last shot today. Am now ready to travel the world and the jungle. Some people asked me what I was going to eat… weird question. No, I won’t eat crawly and squiggly worms or huge spiders (do they also taste like chicken?) nor the piranhas that nibble my feet. I bet there will be good old fashioned burgers, fries and beer. Cheers to that!

September 18th. A conversation this morning:
Friend: “Are you all packed?”
Me: “Already?? Kidding?? I am leaving tommorow… ooohh tomorrow… yeah, no. I’ll pack tonight I guess…”

September 19th. 1.10am – all packed. 50 minutes ahead of schedule. 🙂 My flight leaves early afternoon, so enough time for a quick 9 mile run and coffee.

The Forests Of Ecuador Are Home To Innumerable Butterfly Species

The Forests Of Ecuador Are Home To Innumerable Butterfly Species

I am leaving the plane armed with 2 hand drawn maps of Quito, a list of Ecuadorian foods I need to try, a list of fruit juices I need to taste, all the sights I have to see and where to get souvenirs. Miguel, an Ecuadorian living in Houston and sitting next to me on the flight, prepares me fully for my trip. Here is the food list: Tostado, Humitas, Higos con queso, Locro de papa, Fritada, Tortillas de papa (Llapingacho) and fruit juices: Naranjilla and Mora.

I realized my Spanish was too advanced when I heard the pilot say that the temperature in Quito is 12C. And for the few who don’t know, I don’t speak any Spanish. It’s nice being back in a country though where temperature and distance have an instant meaning to me, but 12C? That would have been better disguised in Fahrenheit…

 

Day in Quito – old town and thunderstorms

Quito on a Saturday is pretty busy, add to it a political rally in preparation for the national referendum for a new constitution next week and I start wanting to go to the jungle right now. The old town is pretty colourful.

Old Town Quito

Old Town Quito

Buildings are in all different colours including pink and the white churches and cathedral make an awesome picture against the backdrop of the mountains or the upcoming storm clouds. Streets are narrow and steep and since Quito is kind of a long city inbetween the Andes Mountains, streets to the right and left, both, lead up to the mountains. At the Plaza Grande, the heart of the old town, the political rally takes place and it is impossible to go anywhere. I walk over to the cobblestone Plaza San Francisco and go inside

Quito’s oldest church, the Monastery of San Francisco, which is under construction, probably because it is pretty old. Behind the church the view is breathtaking as the Volcán Pichincha reigns majestically above the city.

Right after lunch a thunderstorm catches me by surprise and I do what makes most sense right now, hide in a museum, the Museo del Banco Central, and try to find out how, why and when Ecuador’s currency went from Sucre to the US Dollar. With my limited Spanish but being try-lingual I thought I found out, but Luis, our guide the following day, corrects me a little… Well, I tried… On the way back to the hotel, I get caught in another thunderstorm with hail this time and it is as easy to find a taxi during a Quito thunderstorm as it is to get a cab at 2am on 6th Street in Austin… That’s why I am sitting by the fireplace.

 

Middle of the Earth – a balancing act

Today, I balance an egg on a nail. And then I lose my balance trying to stand on one leg. Go figure! That’s of course, right on the equator – the real one that is, the one they GPSed a few years back not the fake French one. Our guide there shows us the water running clockwise in the southern hemisphere, counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and straight down right on the equator. It’s difficult to dismiss something so visual, but I still don’t buy it.

The Virgin of Quito

The Virgin of Quito

Luis, our tour guide in Quito, is awesome. He tells us a lot about Quito history and explains the upcoming election in Ecuador and about the new constitution. The new constitution is supposed to provide a safety net for the 38% of Ecuadorians that live below the poverty line, provide free education and curb corruption. However, it will also give the president control over the economy as well as the judicial and legislative branches (update September 29th: the majority voted YES for the constitution).

Continuing seeing the views of Quito, we drive up El Panecillo with its huge statue of La Virgen de Quito where we get an awesome view over Quito, The Lonely Planet calls it the “holiest view”. We then take the gondola TelefériQo up Cruz Loma, which takes us up 4,100m on the side of the Volcán Pichincha. Again stunning views over the city and I would call it the “coldest view”.

While we have a look at the inside of the some of the churches, I learn that “baroque” means “fear of the empty”. I finally get this epoch and understand why it’s so OTT.

 

Mountain Biking & getting stuck with the Jeep

Crossing the Equator, Volcán Pichincha

Crossing the Equator, Volcán Pichincha

A stuck-in-the-mud Land Rover and 2 burst tyres later, my bum hurts. Mountain Biking in the Andes Mountains along Volcán Pichincha is somewhat tougher than I thought. We started at 3,200m altitude in the Andes Forrest where the trail starts cobble stoned – not perfect for my bum – did I mention that it hurts? I find out that my cute little hands are not made out for down-hill mountain biking as I can barely touch the brakes with my fingertips. Trust me, going down 1,800m in altitude over a distance of 38km, you want to be able to reach the brakes…

This is the dry season, so I am told. Not sure what rainy season means here. Maybe the preferred mode of transportation will be swimming? The day starts with a full blown rainy downpour and when I look outside I see snow on the mountains. Our mountain biking trail is therefore pretty muddy and hence the Land Rover got stuck. I didn’t know they could get stuck so easily or at all. We get helped out by a dumpster truck – what a great picture… The Land Rover swerves quite a bit on the single file road in the mud and I wasn’t amused on the drive up inside the car as the mountain drops a couple thousand meters to my right…

Today’s ice cream flavours: Guanábana and Naranjilla. Guanábana becomes my favourite fruit!

 

Sacha Lodge – black rubber boots, my new best friends

Sacha Lodge

Sacha Lodge

On the way here, I had this Disney Moment. Looking at the rainforest around me I imagine singing snakes looking up from the tress, joking monkeys dangling from the branches, colourful butterflies dancing around

and a shy jaguar peeking through the trees. None of this actually happened. Sigh.

The short flight from Quito took us across the beautiful snow capped Andes Mountains to Coca, where we boarded an oversized motorized canoe that took us 50 miles up the Napo River. Then a 30-minute walk through the rainforest until we get to a beautiful lagoon that we cross on a small canoe. Then we finally arrive at Sacha Lodge, an eco lodge in the Ecuadorian rainforest far from the Amazon River.

First things first. Fernando, our guide for the next 4 days, assembles our little group of 6 and gives us the most important piece of clothing, black rubber boots. Now, we are ready!

Our first mini hike takes us to the butterfly garden and the forest around the lodge. We see a tarantula hole, an armadillo hole (wait, no, still no live armadillo in sight), bats and a whole bunch of tiny monkeys, Pygmy Monkeys.

 

Sacha Lodge – swimming with piranhas and caimans

I just had my third shower and the day isn’t over yet. The cabins don’t have glass windows, just mosquito nets. Though it doesn’t get quite as hot and humid inside the cabins, nothing dries. Just to make it clear, each room has a “dry box” where we are supposed to keep electronics, all our books and papers as they may get damaged leaving them out in the cabin.

The Parrot Clay Lick, Ecuador

The Parrot Clay Lick, Ecuador

Today, we get up at 5am to visit the Parrot Clay Licks. We get to see quite a bunch of parrots mostly green ones. (You’ll see my excitement for anything flying decline of the next few days…)

After lunch I am brave and go swimming in the lagoon which is full of piranhas. I know this because one group is piranha fishing right from the sundeck. One thing suddenly becomes clear as I swim around the lagoon: our guide told us the piranhas are vegetarians, so it’s safe to swim. The kicker is: the group fishing piranhas uses worms as bait not plankton. Get it?

In the afternoon we head out to the canopy walkway which is about 50m above ground and way above the

Piranha fishing at Sacha Lodge

Piranha fishing at Sacha Lodge

trees. After 2 hours of bird watching, my patience wanes. Bird watching will not be my forte. We just left a little late for the walk back to the lodge, so that we end up walking in the dark through the rainforest (Fernando before the hike: “You don’t need flashlights, we will be back in daylight.” – this will become a theme…). There are lots of creepy sounds in the dark, if you ever noticed. I am in luck though, there are glowflies showing us the way.

We are off to a nightly canoe trip on the lagoon. The moon is shining, the stars are hanging low. The lagoon is dark and quiet. The canoe crosses it silently. Peaceful and nearly romantic were it not for those big yellow eyes looking at us from the water. There are about 12 caimans in the lagoon raging from 1.5m to 3m in length. And one sits right below the sundeck…

 

Sacha Lodge – no anacondas, but my Disney Moment

Red Howler Monkey

Red Howler Monkey

1h25min. That’s how long I can sit or stand still and not talk. Any quiet activity lasting longer than this is killing me. Another round of bird watching this morning. A different tower, same birds. No, not really. We saw some amazing colourful birds, but there is only so many times I can ahh and uhh over seeing yet another bird. Luckily, we got saved by a thunderstorm (I wondered if I would ever be able to say that). So, we get off the tower and take a short but eventful rainy hike through the mud, crossing a creek without a bridge (Thanks, rubber boots, my eternal friends!) and crossing a river by zip line. Sweet .

In the afternoon, we are on a 2.5-hour canoe trip searching for anacondas. It sounds like a loud wind blows through the forest as we first hear then see the Red Howler Monkeys. They are all jokingly jumping from tree to tree and are having all the fun in the world or

Tarantula at Sacha Lodge

Tarantula at Sacha Lodge

so it seems. This is my Disney Moment! The anacondas are in hiding, none to be seen. As we approach the end of this canal way, the sun starts to set, following the “no flashlight needed, really” theme. Way out of my comfort zone we canoe back in the dusk as the animals of the forest start waking up and are not to be seen but very much to be heard, creepy.

Back at the lodge we see a tarantula at the deck.

 

Sacha Lodge – Jane and the ant eater

sacha-lodge-ant eater

An Ant Eater – How Many Ants Does This One Eat For Dinner?

I am Jane today. Walking through the rainforest in search for some so far undiscovered gems, we come by a liana and I can’t help taking a swing. Where is Tarzan when you need him?

On the hike today we see a giant ant, a Konga, which is the size of your pinky finger and poisonous. Then we see an anteater. Wow, this thing is enormous. This guy needs a whole lot of Kongas for his dinner, never mind how many regular sized ants.

On this final day in the jungle I skip the afternoon excursion and relax on the sundeck. Yes, skipping the swim… At this point I could really do with a massage or a day at the spa.

 

Back in Quito – Ecuadorian foods all checked

Old Town Quito

Old Town Quito

Back in Quito, Luis, our guide, meets us at the airport. Quito airport has now become a place to see familiar faces. Luis tells us where to buy souvenirs and go for a good Ecuadorian dinner.

I still have a whole list of food items on my list to check off, so here is my chance. And I have it all, including the figs with cheese and the fried pig’s skin (or whatever that was). Miguel, I tried all the foods that you recommended!

 

Back home…
Not missing the black rubber boots, though they became dear friends, and the humidity, but missing the tranquility of the jungle. A new adventure shall be around the corner…

 

Biking Volcán Pichincha

Biking Volcán Pichincha

 

Early Morning Dusk at Sacha Lodge

Early Morning Dusk at Sacha Lodge

 

 

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