Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hot´n´humid in the jungle

Been a busy but very fun week since leaving Quito. After overnighting at the lovely hot springs at Papallacta we descended over the Andes to the lowlands at Tena. Our first stop was two nights in a Jungle Lodge, Shangri La, which was perched on a cliff looking down on the river Napo and out across the rainforest. A great place to hang out in a hammock. The whole of the area to the east of the Andes is known as the Amazon basin - the area we were in is known as the Amazon highlands as the rivers are still flowing downhill quite rapidly. The Napo joins with the Amazon itself a long way downstream from here.

We set off down the river in a dugout canoe and along the way visited a local culture museum and animal refuge. At the museum we learning about how the local people hunt, their boats, cooking, animals and food. We also got to have a go at using a blowpipe to shoot darts for hunting - well we were trying to hit a fixed target but I was impressed to get a dart into the board at least. The animal refuge houses animals that have been rescued from mistreatment and illegal pets. Lots iof monkeys that liked showing off, some scary looking ocelots (wild cats) and very noisy mackaws. The weather can change very suddenly here, one minute it´s hot and sunny and the next you´re in the middle of a thunderstorm. Guess that´s why they call it rainforest, eh?

The next day we went rafting down a tributory of the Napo which has class 3 rapids. So really good fun and nothing like as crazy as the class 5 rapids I´d been in previous on the Zambesi. We had three boats with 5 in each and actually had the Ecuadorian national rafting team as our guides so in very good hands. I still managed to fall out in the middle of one rapid and went for a bit of a scary swim but picked up safely at the far end. We stopped at one point at a cave where the mud is supposed to work as a very theraputic facepack so the raft-guides enjoyed themselves painting us up in yellow and grey coloured clay. It was a gorgeous, hot, sunny day which was pretty lucky as we were out on the water for about 5 hours.

From there we headed further into the jungle to stay with a local community for a couple of days. Our host family, Delphine, Estelle and their children were lovely and looked after us all extremely well. We were staying in lovely lodge huts. There is no electricity available in this region but we managed fine without it. The family cooked us amazing food each day on a basic gas stove. GAP, the company I`m travelling with, having been working with this family and the local community for the last 15 years.

In the morning we went to visit the local school which has been supported by GAP. Before the establishment of this school the local kids had to walk 1.5 hours to get to the nearest school in the town. There are just 12 pupils in the school at the moment. Estelle, our host mother, is the local teacher. The kids were very cute on the visit. First they all introduced themselves and then sang us some local songs. They learn both Spanish and Quichua here.

We then went out on a walk through the jungle with Delphine to learn more about the area, the plants and animals. It was extremely humid and lots of bugs but really interesting to hear how the local people know which plants to use for food, medicines, building, tools etc. The rivers here still have traces of gold in them so Delphine showed us how they pan for gold and actually found some small traces whilst we watched. We also tried some palm heart, coco fruit (some of us didn't quite get that we weren´t supposed to eat the coco bean raw which wasn´t the tastiest - obviously needs a bit of something doing before it becomes chocolate!) and lemon-tasting ants. And as you can see did our Tarzan vine-swinging impressions (wellies´n´all).

In the afternoon some of the crew went climbing waterfalls. But I decided to engage in my favourite activity instead - lying in a hammock. Apparently it was pretty crazy what they were climbing up but even worse coming down. That evening the family did a show of local music and dancing after dinner.

The next day it was on to Baños, famous for its hots thermals (hence the title which means baths) and the continuously active volcano, Tungurahua, which is just above the town. It`s nice to get away from the humidity of the jungle as we have headed back into the central Ecuadorian region again. We had a great night out in Baños. We were in a funny bar called the Leprecaun Bar which played the bizarrest mix of salsa, rock and classic 80s tunes that we managed to stay out dancing `til 3 am. The group are very good fun and we`re having a great laugh.

This morning we went for a bike trip down the along the beautiful valley from Baños to Rio Verde - all along there are huge waterfalls falling down to the river floor. It was a lovely ride as it was all downhill (we were all a bit rough around the edges after our late night)and we were able to catch a truck back up.

We are hoping to do the Devil`s Nose train ride tomorrow which is a highlight of the region. We then arrive in Cuenca which is another UNESCO World heritage city. So hope to tell you about that and hopefully get to upload some photos over the next couple of days.