A week of adventures in Ecuador's Oriente
01.03.2008 - 07.03.2008 31 °C
The Amazon Jungle couldn't have seemed more vast than the way we traveled to and through it. Travel, though, was really only I could ask for and more. I felt tested at every step of the way, battling the most unforgiving environment in the world while trying to kick away the lingering effects of illness that never seemed to rest.
Our first day was a bus ride through the "easiest" passage in the Amazon Jungle that Ecuador has to offer, but it was nothing more than switch backs and tunnels. It took us nearly ten hours to travel north in the inter-Andean valleys and veer east to plummet into the low altitudes of the Rio Napo watershed. We experienced on the drive far more than I was expecting. The Pan-American highway, in parts, is no more than a gravel road, recently carved into the steep cliffs of the Andes. The flat terrain of the valleys were for the rivers and its inhabitants, not for the long distance traveler. So, high up in the mountains we could see nearly everything but the closest point on Earth to the sun. Chimborazu was blanketed in clouds. Unexpectedly we stopped in a small town that seemed to have no specific purpose. Its church was supposedly the first establishment in Ecuador and most of South America; a little unbelievable, like most of the historical sites found in this country. But the church was remarkable in its minimalism, something rare for the Spanish. Later, we reached the provincial capital of Riobamba, where hopefully at a later date I will return to take "el nariz del diablo," a switch-back train going west towards Guayaquil. From here, we started to head east towards the perpetually erupting volcano of Tungurahua. As if to let us know that it was still there the clouds surrounding the mountain parted to show a high ash cloud ascending into the heavens. The volcano looked higher than any mountain I had ever seen before, and its black silhouette showed the jagged edges of its crater. Further on, vegetation identifiable as tropical forest became more and more lush but still, we were high in the mountains. We stopped for what I thought was only for a casual view of the grand valley of a tropical river which flowed over one thousand meters below our feet, but to my unhappy surprise I was in for more than just a casual view. To get a better view of a stunning waterfall on the other side of the canyon, Ecuador's fine tourist department had built a zip line gondola spanning the canyon. Gratefully I was not first to find myself speeding down a steel cable on a shaky gondola, but the wait may have been worse. Not for the faint of hearts. At last, what seemed like a whole in the wall location, we found our hostel which was no less than a tropical paradise in the capital of its province, Puyo. There we observed how those with money can "experience" the grand Amazon jungle.
That wasn't our final destination, though. On the following day, we stretched our legs for another long bus ride through jungle. We traveled in a little procession of public buses. It seemed so out of place for coach buses on dirt roads at full speed winding through hills where tiny tributaries to the world's largest river began. This was the best route of transit in Ecuador's Oriente. If we decided to go from the border of Columbia to the southern border with Peru, it would take five days in a bus on this road. Fortunately, we were upon the Rio Napo before noon, and a rather bumpy ride led us to our trip guides with a motorized canoe patiently waiting our arrival. Our hostel was comfortably named Hostal Anaconda. Immediately as we stepped off the canoe, we saw what the jungle had to offer. On my first steps along the upper Napo, I spotted a parade of leaf-cutter ants, looking like a thin file of grass on the move. That afternoon, we took a trip upstream, taking twice the time it took going down, in order to get our first true introduction to the Amazon rain forest. It was like I was with the camera crew of the Discovery Channel, seemingly every twenty paces had something unique about this ecosystem. The first was a tree fruiting large green, mango-sized fruits layered in black life. Ants. Hundreds of them on each fruit. It was an example of symbiotic relationship between plants and animals that are so frequently found there. The next was a gnarled tree that is actually a type of vine. It suffocates it's host, like a boa constrictor, killing it. The tree inside rots away, leaving the perfect cove for bats. Inside this particular tree, there slept four of them. There were seemingly infinite instances of unique life. After the hike, we drifted back down to our hostel in poorly constructed rafts of tethered tree trunks. This is claimed as Ecuador's finest river rafting. I saw not one white capped riffle. That night, there was no way I was going to lay still and go to sleep. I gathered up a troop for a night hike into the jungle, unguided as to give us as much time as we wished. I have never had such an exhilarating and terrifying experience in my life. The insects, spiders, and frogs were abundant. Every step had something to see. But the darkness was think, and in the background played a jungle soundtrack coming from some far off party. I felt like Indiana Jones, leading our group of four into perpetual darkness, guided by the pathetic light of my tiny flashlight.
We still weren't at our final destination. Not even close. The next morning, as the sun started to rise, we drowsily boarded our dugout canoe for the longest boat ride I hope to ever take. Eleven long hours until we stopped. I wished I had brought more to keep me occupied. Two hundred pages of The Panama Hat Trail wasn't nearly enough. Midway down we passed the city of Coca. Ironic name, as Ecuador strives to keep itself a clean country. The town was just like I read in my book, however. It was the modern "wild west." Each block housed at least two bars, prostitution houses, and shifty-eyed walkers. This place originated in the oil boom. No other purpose could give rise to clearing land under the harshest sun I have ever felt. The presence of the first-world to the north was very apparent. The best example I'll give came upon finding fairgrounds. We were lured in by the siting of a farris-wheel and sought to get a better look. I choked back tears of childhood joy when I saw behind the gates a Mickey and Minnie caterpillar train. I couldn't be anymore disgusted by this place. I was glad when we finally left. At this point, we still had another four or five hours ahead of us, weaving around sandbars and barges of oil trucks heading towards their company-paved roads. We arrived at last as the sun set. We had a lodge tucked away behind vegetation alongside a placid lake of Rio Piraña (Piranha River). I settled in, knowing for the first time ever, I had absolutely no idea where I was, only the knowledge that I was further away from civilization than I will probably ever be.