As our feet touched the tarmac at Quito Airport, we were assaulted with a wall of coldness like that we had experienced more than a week before hand. We were back in mainland Ecuador, where there was minimal blue sky, and the wind coursed across the Andes. It seemed hard to not think of our Galapagos as the pinnacle of our trip given the beauty of both the flora, fauna and people on those islands in the pacific. But we just had to look back at our trip to date and remember the good friends we had made and the extraordinary sites that we had seen to remind us that this was South America, and there will always be places that are unique and beautiful which cannot be compared to anything else.
The next 36 days would see us on a journey from Ecuador to Bolivia via Peru on a basic Intrepid trip. Our trip would see us travelling with 14 other people on various forms of transport, from public buses, taxies, to light aircraft. We joined our group at our meeting hotel in Quito and were introduced (again) to our guide, formally known in my last blog as Mr. Diego. Diego was to be our guide during our journey through Ecuador for the next 10 days.
The next day was a day of rest which allowed us to enjoy a sleep in and catch up with a bit of rest and relaxation as we mentally prepared for the following 10 days through Ecuador. As we met up with the group the following day we found ourselves headed to the bus station for our first public bus of this trip, where we again found ourselves experiencing what can only be described as an experience in itself. Small children came onto the bus and sung songs for money and locals touted their wares in the form of beverages, fried chicken, hot and cold chips, fruit, candy and basically anything else that they thought a long bus trip needed. We departed Quito for the last time holding our bags on our laps as we were warned yet again of the various crimes that occur on these buses to both locals and tourists. Our journey today would see us heading north-east to the Amazon via Tena. The 5 hour trip was accepted as one might accept the dawn of a new day. This was to be a regular experience of buses that seemed to be held together by race tape and movie’s starring Sylvester Stallone and John Claude-Van-Dame speaking Spanish. If we were to be lucky the subtitles would be in English and the bus would have a toilet that was to be only used for number ones and never two’s (however the smell that often wafted from the back of the bus implied that many would disregard the latter).
We arrived at Cotococha Lodge that afternoon with our malaria tablet in our system and were shown to our rooms. The rooms themselves were a magnificent site as they were constructed using traditional techniques but with a modern edge and no electricity. There was no glass, only fly screen mesh to stop the mosquitoes, the buildings were elevated to stop pests entering and the nearest neighbour were some 15 metres away. We walked to a local families dwelling and watched on as traditional pottery was made before our eyes before walking to the river and observing a local finding gold in the river. Unfortunately we were not able to keep the latter, but were inspired none the less.
That night saw the traditional Amazon rainfall allowing us to lay in the security of our own beds and be lost in the storm that thundered around us. The next day we boarded a long boat and navigated up river through the many rapids that we would experience later that day. We hiked through the rainforest persevere through inch thick mud to be rewarded by the Latas Waterfall.
Spending a hour washing the sweat, grime and mud that had built up as we hiked the rainforest, we felt somewhat refreshed and headed back to the river were we donned a tire tube and jumped into the swirling vortexes that were so obviously apparent in the river. Our tubing experience allowed us to ‘silently’ float down the river through rapids and long straights, where we observed a variety of birds and the occasional turtle that would break the surface in the calmer areas of the river. The afternoon found us again trekking through the jungle in a drenching rain shower that lasted a few hours rendering any waterproof clothing virtually useless. Although the comfort factor was virtually non existent, the jungle itself, provided spectacular experiences from drumming on trees to eating ants.
On Tuesday it was time to leave the Amazon, malaria tablets in hand, and backpacks on our backs we boarded the public bus system yet again. Personal space aside, we exceeded the buses people loading by half as many again, but the bus lumbered on. Today’s journey would be relatively short at 3 hours as we headed south to Banos. We arrived in Banos and made a bee line to the thermal springs to enjoy an evening of bathing in 36 degree water. Our weary bus muscles revived we decided to climb the mountains the next morning. We hiked up the 800 metres mountain over a 5 kilometres incline before reaching the top for a rewarding view of Banos nestled inside the valley.
In the interest of pushing ourselves that little bit further, we then decided to continue directly upwards a further 200 meters scaling the mountain path that seemed more suitable for mountain goats than human beings. From there we walked a steady downward gradient to the Virgen Monument that overlooks Banos and were fortunate to see the Tungurahua Volcano unleash a plume of ash. The Tunguraua Volcano over shadows the town of Banos and is indeed still extremely active. As we found out a couple of weeks before, the town evacuated the elderly and sick as it was thought that it was going to unleash it fury. Fortunately for us, this was not the case, although we were advised of the appropriate escape routes from the town if it was to happen. The afternoon found us on a trail bike and we made a bee line for a 4000 meter look out to catch a glimpse of the erupting volcano, however we were not so lucky as we rode into thick cloud cover. Appetites were not to be damped during our stay in Banos, and we found a fantastic Swiss restaurant where traditional rosti was served and the company was great.
Given that Banos is an extreme sports town where bungy jumping can be done for a mere US$10 and this is considered expensive to the locals. We decided to try our hands at some water sports. Our first stop was to be canyoning. We donned our wetsuits and harnesses before heading off to the top of the canyoning.
Now at this point, one must understand that if one can jump off a bridge for US$10, what liability or safety issues are taken into consideration when going down a waterfall backwards with wet ropes. The answer is minimal to none. Fortunately, as we had done a fair bit of abseiling and climbing in the past, we often asked the local guides where the stop knot on the figure of 8 was and would not take “It ok, you have two ropes attached” for an answer. Waiting for the ropes to be retied to our satisfaction we abseiled down some 4 water waterfalls before our last and final waterfall which was some 100 feet high. Leaving the canyons behind, we felt that it was time to head to the river for some white water rafting. 3 hours later and very wet, the words “Cool, lets do that again” were echoing from the group.
Early the next morning we stocked up on taffy and left Banos, on a bus to Cuenca, via the Ingapirca Ruins. The Ingapirca ruins are Ecuador’s best preserved Incan ruins and it was amazing the size of the ruins and the sheer ingenuity of the Incan’s to create such place. Cuenca is considered the cultural hub of Ecuador and the colonial did not disappoint.
The town itself was beautiful with an abundance of markets, buildings, churches and cafés. We spent the afternoon and the next day walking the streets viewing pre-Inca ruins and paid a visit to one of Ecuador’s biggest exports, the Panama Hat Factory.
It was time to leave Ecuador, so we made our long and last journey with Diego, via another public bus to the Peruvian border. As we pasted through the immigration checkpoint, it was difficult not to feel sad knowing that we would not be seeing Diego for the remainder of our trip. We disembarked in Huaquillas, and made our way by foot across the Ecuadorian/Peruvian border, which is in fact a bridge, where we met our Peruvian guide, Sebastian.