Effing bloody Quito. Here you are again for a fourth time!!!
We had to return because our night bus left the city at 11pm to Lago Agrio, where we were picking up our tour to Amazonia. This left us with 10 hours to kill in La Mariscal before the bus trip. Joy. It was also a Sunday again so the place felt pretty dead.
With bags in tow, we moved from bar to bar drinking tea and juices all day, feeling like a couple of hobos.
The canned square of La Mariscal that we just can't get enough of
How happy are you to be leaving Quito Cookie?
Lago Agrio is not considered a safe place for tourists and this did make us think twice about booking on the trip. It's very close to the Columbian border and as a result the town is associated with drug trafficking and guerrilla activity. The wiki travel page doesn't make for great reading:
'Be careful in this area. The long running conflict in Colombia creates spillover along the northern border of Ecuador.
Drug trafficking activities and general lawlessness in this area create plenty of opportunities for a tourist to find trouble.
If you want to go alone, you should advise the embassy or somebody not travelling with you of your travel plans and return date.'
To be fair, on arrival all the gringos get off the bus, jump straight into taxis and are taken to the hotel pick up point for the tours, so risks are minimised but it does make you feel uneasy all the same.
The 6.5 hour night bus journey (our first) was uneventful and we slept better than we were expecting to, despite the fact that our immediate neighbours looked like just the sort to rob us whilst we slept (all the guidebooks frequently warn you that robberies are more common on night buses). Ah paranoia, our old friend.
We arrived at 5.30am and had a four hour wait until we were picked up. This was followed by a two hour bus journey and a further three hours in a motorised canoe. You could say it's quite a commitment getting to the jungle.
The part of Amazonia we visited was the Cuaybeno reserve, a tributory of a tributory to the Amazon, and a primary rainforest region. It would take 20 days winding through the flooded forest to reach the Amazon itself, which then continues for 4,000km to the Atlantic Ocean. Pretty staggering.
Our guide showed us some fabulous stuff along the way including five species of monkey, tonnes of birds, bats, an anaconda and the highlight for me - a three-toed pale throated sloth.
Hard to see but he's dead centre in the pic
Hoatzin - or 'stinky turkey bird' because the meat smells bad when cooked
Green anaconda - a juvenile, the adults get to 8m!!
Our lodge was on a small spit of land situated next to a large lagoon. It has to be the most remote place we've been so far. It was basic but nice enough - there was even a five inch cockroach in our bathroom as a welcome party!
Our group of 17 were a big mix of nationalities... Dutch, Swiss, German, Austrian, Greek, Canadian, American - we were the only Brits.
We were taken to the lagoon to watch the sunset, it was so peaceful and still.
The next day they took us deeper into the jungle on motorised canoes to visit a small village of indiginous people. We witnessed a type of flat bread being made from a root vegetable which Ant helped to pull out of the ground, and I volunteered to make one of the breads over the very hot plate.
'Noisy nocturnal monkeys' we spotted along the way - or the Furby of the primate world
We also got to try some 'jungle juice' - we had the tiniest of sips as they warned us our stomachs may not take it. There were two home brews; Chicha made from the root vegetable used to make the flat bread, and one made from cacao. Potent stuff and not particularly pleasant either, but the guide wolfed it back so clearly it's an acquired taste...
We had a go at using a blow pipe, followed by a meet with the village's Shaman. It was fascinating to learn about his role in the community, and he talked in length about 'yaje' - a hallucenagenic drink which is widely taken (from as young as 9 years old!) to enable the participant to have visions. As their use of this drink is 'mastered' they start to see 'elegant beings' - above and beyond things like colourful flowers, butterflies and animals. Once they've achieved this - taking some 15 years - they can become a Shaman, effectively the medicine man in the village. Coming from the west, it was hard for us to get our heads around, but once they have seen the 'elegant beings' they can use yaje to diagnose illness in others.
If you have the time or inclination, this website is an interesting read.
As the afternoon progressed I started feeling unwell, which was soon followed by vomiting in the trees. Oh dear... must have been the jungle juice. It continued on the way home and I was being sick out the side of the canoe. Nice! One of the other girls started up too, and by the time we were back at the lodge, Ant and I were desperately taking turns to use the bathroom.
We skipped dinner altogether and later in the evening one of the guides came to see me. I had my eyes closed lying on the bed. He proceeded to rub my head, face and feet with a round object and started saying that I had a bad ear and it was that which was causing the sickness. I heard a cracking sound and he confirmed again... ah yes, you have a bad ear. I thought, is that an egg he's using to diagnose me?! Sure enough it was. Hmmm... I was too out of it to argue but wanted to say it's not my ear it's food poisoning!
Unfortunately it persisted all night, Ant suffering from diarrhoea and me with sickness. The next morning it transpired that 11 of the 17 in our group had been unwell during the night, but as some didn't have the jungle juice we were never entirely sure what caused it.
The following day's activities were severely hampered as a result, we couldn't face breakfast and only managed a few forkfuls for lunch. But other than very sore stomachs, we were more human by the evening and everyone in the group was reunited for dinner.
The next activity after recovering was a two hour paddle in very rickety canoes, and unfortunately at the same time the heavens opened for a serious downpour. And it's that 'thick' tropical rain... none of that fine mizzle we get in the UK. Despite heavy duty ponchos we still got pretty soaked and I have to say it wasn't a whole lot of fun.
But before the rain came our guide caught a piranha (second attempt too so God knows how many of them were down there). Unfortunately it bit the end of the hook off which got caught in its mouth. Due to its sharp gnashers he couldn't remove it with his fingers so he had to kill it, and once he had, he filleted it and put small pieces into fresh lemon juice for half an hour. The flesh turned white and three brave souls tried it. No way on earth after just feeling better from the dodgy stomach! Bleurgh!
The weather picked up for a pleasant afternoon boat cruise around the waterways and lagoons. Sadly we didn't see much wildlife but our guide did spot a Hoatzin nest and we got a really close up view of two baby birds which he reckoned had hatched no more than two days ago.
A night walk provided some gruesome spider sightings, a tiny poison dart frog and a particular ant which the guide made quite a fuss about. The Conga ant was about an inch long and apparently its bite is worse than a scorpion sting - even the people of the jungle fear it. Oh, and there's the Brazilian wandering spider (or banana spider) - the world's most poisonous spider which can be found in the tropics of SA. One bite and it's curtains. Apparently the poison immediately causes necrosis. Happy walking!
Scorpion spider - check out how crazy long the second two legs are
You're probably not going to get this from the photos as they look like we had an amazing time (hey, I always pick the best ones for the blog!), but after four nights in the jungle the whole experience was 'just ok'. To be fair the first three hour boat ride getting there and the visit to the village were pretty special, but we certainly felt like we were done with the jungle the day before we were due to leave.
The biggest disappointment was being ill which wiped out 24 hours, and it left us delicate for the rest of the stay. The only mode of transport was the motorised canoe so this featured in every activity which started to feel a bit same same - and the lifejackets and ponchos stunk to high heaven!
It rained a lot. Not that this came as any surprise, but it meant everything started to feel damp. There's so much moisture in the air nothing dries in the jungle, so our wet clothes started to seriously honk.
The cabins were very dark and dingy, and started to become oppressive. Even in daylight little light got into the room and with only a dim bedside light available from 6-10pm, it became infuriating to find anything. I was surprised how much it got to us but it was like being deprived of one of man's most basic needs.
Perhaps our expectations were set too high, but it did seem like we went off on an exploration many times to see particular creatures and didn't. Our group our 17 were split between two guides, and the guide with the other group to us was infintely better at spotting things in the trees, so they got to see a lot more wildlife than we did. It was great for them but obviously frustrating for us.
All things considered we were happy to be moving on, but with our jungle stripes earned!
Our smaller group
Leaving the jungle