There is a danger that you could feel a little homesick on Christmas Day when you are nearly 6,000 miles from home.
Then you remember two things (1) we have the technology to be able to see and talk to our families – which is a great way to start the day, and (2) we are off to the Amazon Jungle.
The place we have booked is fairly remote and our journey there meant the following modes of transport:
- 45 minute taxi ride to the airport
- 35 minute flight to Coco (and the best luggage claim ever)
- 5 minute bus journey (in a school bus)
- 3 hour motorised canoe ride down the Napo River
- 15 minute walk through the jungle
- 15 minute paddle canoe across a lagoon
The motorised canoe ride is mesmerising. Blasting down the river in a narrow canoe seating up to 20 people with a guide at the front spotting sand banks and indicating to the ‘captain’ at the back who sweeps left and right across the river. Given that this is only a tributary of the Amazon, and it still has more than half a continent to flow before reaching the sea, the size is immense. At times it’s as wide as Lake Windermere.
It is a main transport link for much of the area and you see all kinds of materials being hauled up and down, and even large articulated lorries are carried by flat bed boats, as the link from one area to another. The banks are almost totally devoid of signs of civilisation and all you can see are trees, and I begin to understand the phrase used in my Geography lessons that described the Amazon as the “lungs of the world”.
We eventually arrive at our accommodation for the next few days, La Selva Amazon Ecolodge. The place is amazing. Accessible only by boat and set on the banks of a lagoon it is incredibly beautiful, with thatched roofs, bamboo construction and balconies overlooking the water. Our room is simply the best we have stayed in so far and they greet us with fresh fruit cocktails and cake. It is our Christmas present to each other – well that and the Kinder Eggs we bought for each other!
Sat on the jetty we are astounded by the cacophony of sounds from the jungle, never have we heard anywhere sound so alive. The birds are particularly noteworthy, you hear the kind of sounds that in the UK you would assume signalled the arrival of an email or text message on a smartphone but with no signal you are left scanning the trees.
We are in a group of 9 people, and again as with the Galapagos Islands, we are blessed with a really wonderful group. A german couple (Stefan and Marion) and a family from Venezuela (Edwin, Carla, Farid, Kareem and Danny) make up our group and over the next 4 days we have a great time chatting and learning about each others countries and other travels. Meeting new friends is still one of the great highlights of the trip, and we definitely made some more in the jungle.
Similar to our last organised trip, our time at La Selva has a pattern to it. Due to the heat (it can be unbearably hot in the middle of the day outside) the activities take place early (and I mean early, like 5:30 am early) morning and late afternoon. Over the 4 days we are there we do a mixture of walks in the rainforest and canoe rides (in daylight and at night) with a local guide and a technical guide.
The local guide, Julio, has eyes like a hawk and spots things you wouldn’t believe, and Carmen provides the technical explanations of what we are seeing. This is important because unlike the Galapagos Islands where you could literally fall over the wildlife, the life in the Amazon rainforest could give lessons in the art of not being seen.
Ecuador is the most diverse country in the world on the basis of number of species per sq. km and we see a spectacular range of plants, insects, birds, frogs but not a lot of mammals (they are very good at hiding) and the photos hopefully give you an indication of what we managed to see. I wish I had access to my GCSE and A-Level Geography notes so I could re-read them after seeing the things I was taught in the flesh, in fact I think I could probably improve on my B Grade if I re-took them now and do Mr Fletcher proud!
In addition to the nature tour activities we also had a few hours visiting a local family who live and work in the Amazon. This turned out to be one of the most memorable aspects of the trip (not even counting Niki walking into a tree branch on the way – no “duck’s” in the Amazon then). Their lives are almost completely different to anything we have seen so far on the trip – they have no services (power, water etc), they live a subsistence lifestyle (including plants to provide most of their medical needs including contraception) and sell produce at a weekly market held a few miles upstream.
The family share their home, their food (including a horrid version of Chicha that tastes like off milk), and answer questions about their lifestyle. There are 9 children (potentially as a result of using ginger for contraception?), they build their own houses from material from the jungle, and cacao is their biggest money raising crop.
Cacao is a strange red fruit that once opened has seeds covered in a pale white flesh that tastes a bit like melon (we tasted this). The seeds themselves we were given roasted and they tasted like a dry nut. However it is these not particularly pleasant tasting seeds that Silvester and his family can sell for $100 a bag. Why? Because the other name for cacao is coca. The main ingredient of chocolate (though based on what we tasted you would never believe it).
The coco (and coffee beans that they also grow) is sold under the banner of the Rainforest Alliance – a symbol I have seen on coffee and chocolate for years in the UK on Fair Trade goods. It was strangely moving to actually have visited a family that provides produce to this brand after buying it for many years. Before we leave Niki buys a bracelet made by one of the children and proves that even in the middle of the Amazon she can shop.
In between activities you have free time and apparently you can swim in the lake between 6am and 6pm because its OK as alligators are nocturnal (but what about the insomniac ones?) and the piranhas don’t bite. We decide not to, and not because of the story of the ‘rare’ attack in Argentina which we don’t read until later, but instead do enjoy a few kayak trips in our free time between activities.
One of these little jaunts has Niki convinced that we “almost died” when we were following a small group of fish that regularly broke the surface of the water creating in a small 50cm circle. We then see a large fish break the surface just behind them and follow a little further before we experience a large ‘thud’ on the bottom of the kayak and Niki turns in to Ed McKeever.
Initially I may have mocked Niki and think we have hit a tree brach under the surface but discussions later with our guides agree with Niki, and that the large fish was a Paiche (one of the largest freshwater fish in the world) and was protecting its young (the small fish) and had earlier taken a bite out of a canoe paddle. Still, don’t think “we almost died” 😉
One of the lovely aspects of the La Selva lodge is its a location besides the lagoon. Not only does this provide spectacular views, the fact that the lagoon is slightly acidic means that mosquitos are rarely present and therefore enjoying evening meals and drinks with our group doesn’t mean bites.
As I have mentioned we got on really well with our fellow group members and some funny and interesting topics came out. For example, Stefan’s father was held as a POW in Oldham and went back to visit a family he knew years later, Venezuelans find the English accent soothing (even the Brummie one), and the boys LOVE football (I enjoyed discussing it with them for a number of hours). We hope to keep in touch with them all and will always have a accommodation in Caracas whenever we are in Venezuela (and the same goes for Leeds vice versa).
On the last day we return by to Quito via Coco, though we don’t spend anytime in because it is apparently a typical Amazon town in that it’s “not well organised and not pretty with few attractions”. The landing at Quito is challenging as the hills and valleys create some “interesting” updraft for the pilot to contend with, but he does so very well.
Back in Quito we stay at the same accommodation as before and eat nearby and spend some time researching and planning our visit to Peru in early January. It is worth commenting on the Ecuadorian style beer I had at dinner though, with the addition of chilli and pepper with salt adhered to the rim of the glass. Yes, it was as horrible as it sounds.