Wednesday 20 to Friday 22 December
We had negotiated with Jose to be our driver and guide for the next few days. We had been wondering how we would spend Christmas and Jose assured us he had no special plans for the festival and was happy to drive us south to Guyaquil over the next 8 days. We negotiated a rate that would include his accommodation and fuel costs, of USD150 per day, which we would pay by bank transfer. This turned out to be problematic – the transaction to transfer funds from Australia to Ecuador via USA just didn’t seem to work, so we were left to chase ATMs to dispense the cash we needed. Jose was happy with this – he was still paying off a car he had wrecked some years earlier.
The other interesting aspect of our journey was how Jose picked us up from our hotel. Since his friend Victor has given him the first gig of taking us to Otavalo, he had more or less taken our patronage from Victor. So we were to wait outside the hotel while a ‘friend’, also called Jose, picked us up and drove us around the corner where our Jose was waiting. His choice of vehicle was a tiny white Renault Sandero that lacked power for the big mountains.
We drove down the mountain that Quito sits on – it was a long steep drive, dropping more than 1000 metres. Then we were on our way.
Our first stop was at Papallacta Hot Springs, where Jose thought we would enjoy a bath in the springs. It had started to rain and the thought of getting into swimming gear and getting wet – albeit warm water, in no way appealed to us. We settled instead for a cup of coffee in a little café that had an open fireplace and a particularly friendly dog, much to Bruce’s enjoyment.
We drove out of the rain and stopped at Zoológica El Arca – a fairly ordinary nature park. There were lots of caged animals and birds, and we certainly saw some we didn’t recognise. There was the Capibara (capybara) or water hog, which is the largest living rodent. There was a distressed puma, pacing its cage and an Oso Hormiguero or giant anteater that was burrowing for its food. We also saw a Pecari de Collar or Sahino (collared peccary or musk hog), a Coatí amazónico / Cuchuchos, Capuchino o Mico (cappucino monkey), a Mono Araña de Vientre Amarile (white bellied spider monkey), the famous Tortuga de Galápagos (Galapagos Turtle) as well as a Motelo (yellow footed tortoise). There was a Cabeze de Mate (Tayra or Eira barbara) weasel family and of course a Crocodilo Americano (America crocodile) lurking in the waterway. The animals were all caged and photos were difficult at the best, however we found a couple of monkeys out of their cage and some interesting flowers.
To be honest, it was probably the best collection of South American animals we saw, just that the cages were small cyclone wired constructions and not at all comfortable for their inhabitants.
Jose would give us a destination the day prior and it was up to us to book a hotel. Our first night was in Tena, in the Amazon rainforest. It is known as the cinnamon capital of Ecuador and sits at the confluence of the Tena and Pano rivers, one of the tributary systems of the Amazon River. We had dropped to 420m above sea level. With more than 4000mm of rain per year it was warm and humid.
We explored part of the Amazon Park, which, sadly, had become overgrown in some parts. Cappucino monkeys were putting on a noisy display near the entrance to the park, which stopped the tourists.
The park is accessed via el puente peatonal or pedestrian bridge, which has a tower lookout. Although it was closed, the guide (or was he the guard?) very kindly let us and anyone else climb the stairs to the lookout. Up there we met three young students who were making a new year video message on behalf of their college. They asked us to provide a message for them. They were enthusiastic and had great plans to travel to Brazil for further study.
We enjoyed dinner overlooking the bridge which was lit up for the Christmas season.
The following day Jose took us to Misahualli where we journeyed down the Rio Napo. It was our chance to experience some culture of the Amazon region in Ecuador. Marina from the Kichwa Shiripuno Community showed us around the village. She made us a fermented drink from the local Guayusa plant, then a group put on a demonstration of song and dance for us. Marina explained how they were trying to retain their indigenous identity but still allow their children to go to school. There was a sacred rock, which was significant to the villagers.
We went further down river to the Jamal Maki (Museum, Zoo and Botanical Garden), where our guide showed us through the garden, pointing out various medicinal plants. We were entertained by one of the very small monkeys in the garden. This village also had some native animals – the water hog, the musk hog and a crocodile. And a very tame and cheeky anteater, who seemed to regard the whole property as his.
We returned upstream, with a young lad at the helm of the boat – he can’t have been more than 10 years old, but he seemed a competent sailor.
We were greeted on land by some cheeky cappuccino monkeys, but Jose warned us to stay clear as they are well known thieves.
We also stopped by the small town of Puyo on the Rio Puyo, another of the many tributaries to the Amazon River, The word Puyo, from the Kichwa language means cloudy, indicative of the local weather, which is often overcast. The average rainfall ranges from 300mm to 480mm per month. There was a nice statue commemorating the indigenous people.
That evening was our last in the Amazon basin, at Baños de Agua Santa, known for its mineral-rich hot springs. It was cool when we arrived, and rain was promising, but we wandered into town and found one of many ex-pat bars for a drink. The hot springs is a popular stop off and stay put for the nomads.
We had booked into a hotel called La Posada del Arte which was run by an American with rather limited Spanish. I was concerned when we reached the room assigned to us as we had to step over a glass floor tile, which was broken. They changed our room for us, but really didn’t understand the danger that concerned us.
As we were leaving in the morning there was a Christmas parade of young school children outside the Basílica Nuestra Señora del Rosario. There were lots of angels and elves and each age group seemed to have their very own Jesus, Mary and 3 Kings, which play such an important part in the Spanish Christmas festivities.