OK, so…if you’ve read the last couple of posts, you’ll know that I had the recent pleasure of taking a holiday in Ecuador. I was looking forward to it in a major way. By UK standards, I feel that I’m not very well-travelled. My Facebook ‘Places I’ve Been’ map (as sponsored by Tripadvisor) includes trips across The States, journeys around England and Scotland, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and France. That’s it. Not bad by suburban girl from Pennsylvania standards but pretty poor, when you consider that I’ve got all of Europe within three hours flight time now. The average Brit has been twice as many places as I have, it seems…even if their travels often involve just going to the British style pubs and clubs in hotter and sandier locations. (Apparently Tenerife is like a boiling hot version of Liverpool nowadays.) So, I was stoked to be going somewhere so exotic. Nobody goes to Ecuador! I have to say, it started out beautifully. The prospect of going to Quito frightened my partner Karey a bit. She had nightmarish visions of a third world country…the type where nuns get murdered and dictators get overthrown on a weekly basis. Coincidentally, our journey was timed for three weeks after a coup attempt. That didn’t help. But, Karey’s nerves were quickly assuaged when we landed in the world-class city that Quito really is. Ecuador may not be the wealthiest country, but Quito has all the amenities you need and more culture than you can shake a maraca at. At any rate, we were only there for a day of rest before we started an amazing jungle adventure. We were booked in at an eco-lodge in the Amazon rainforest for 4 days and 3 nights. And that’s what I’m going to yammer on about for today’s great thing.
154. Yachana Lodge
To get to the lodge, which is secreted away where the Napo river meets the Amazon, we first took a quick cab ride from our hotel to the VIP departure lounge at Quito’s airport…VIP was the private airline that flew us to Coca… It was a small plane…but not crazy scary small. It sat about 20 people, I’d say. Coca, we learned once we got there, is a rather small and slightly impoverished city. But, it was the nearest port of call to where we could meet our guide. At the VIP lounge, we met our liaison who helped with our original booking. She checked in with us and passed us a copy of this New York Times article about the center and its founders. It excited us about our journey even more: NYT
Yachana has many missions…rainforest preservation, eco-tourism, and education of the locals (they have their own school located in the nearest village which teaches students the basics of languages, sciences and math but also tradesmen type stuff like tourism and responsible farming). Pretty angelic when you consider my missions for the day: Refresh my Facebook page for the 70th time, watch today’s episode of The Apprenctice on BBC, and finish that bar of chocolate that I started yesterday.
It turned out, Juan Kunchikuy, the native of Ecuador mentioned in the article was going to be our guide. A super cool guy…growing up hunting with blow darts and living a life that I’ve only read about in adventure stories.
Juan is the real deal. Check out this BBC article about his time spent in East Yorkshire meeting with school children: Juan Karey and I, amazingly, came at a time when it was just going to be the two of us in his group. Through a great stroke of booking, guests left when we arrived and arrived when we left. They must have been warned, somehow…Maybe a Tripadvisor alert…avoid travel to Yachana on these days if you don’t like chatty lesbians… Paradise was ours and ours alone for 3 days! Juan, handy with both a machete and a Swarovski telescope (for bird watching), knew just about everything there is to know about jungle life. He pointed out critters that I would have never seen even if I’d been staring at the tree that they were perched in for hours. He’d find the smallest frog, pick it up and show us, and then find its younger, smaller, offspring 20 feet away and show that to us as well. Mad skills!
Anyway, back to the first day. 2.5 hours down the river from Coca, we finally reached our destination, Yachana Lodge (pronounced Yuh-Chaw-Nuh). We climbed the plain and utilitarian-looking stairs up the river bank but once we were up the trail towards the housing, we were surrounded by gorgeous gardens filled with flora that I’d never seen before. It was like entering the Avatar planet. Naturally, I immediately started clear-cutting and mining for unobtainium. The noise of the surrounding jungle was also immediately evident. Bird and bugs can make quite a din when they want to. There was one bird that made the weirdest little sci-fi noise. I’ve spent ages scouring the net for a clip (a difficult task when you can’t remember the name of the bird) and I FINALLY found one…it’s the second bird featured in this Attenborough show…the Screaming Piha, it’s called.
We took one night-time hike and two daytime hikes (on separate days). Juan pointed out where the primary forest differed from the secondary forest. Primary is the stuff where the trees are bigger because it’s never been levelled or clear-cut. The secondary forest is land they’ve reclaimed from farms and that is basically growing back in. To be fair, when walking through the secondary forest…I thought that was pretty bushy/green/and that the trees were aplenty. But, when you step into the primary, the canopy just gets that much thicker and taller. Over the two hikes, we did tons of birdwatching. Juan found woodpeckers, toucans, parrots, kites, buzzards, kingfishers, rainforest orioles amongst others for us to gaze at. One of the absolute best sightings was of these prehistoric era weirdos. The Hoatzin are also known as ‘stinky turkeys’:
Juan showed us how they use tree sap for candles and incense, we saw some sleeping bats, army ants, scads of spiders, loads of toads and frogs, and one coatimuntdi.
On another trek, about two hours in, we’d been inundated with frog, bug, spider, and bat sightings, when I heard Juan say “Oh look…jungle crap.” I thought, in a very slangy-American way, that he just meant ‘more cool stuff to see’. Ooh, what other jungle crap do you have for us, I said? “No…jungle CRAB, explained Juan–looking mildly insulted. Look at this little lady, come up from the stream to do some huntin’.
As one final photographic example of the cool animal stuff we saw…oh…I just can’t choose. Let’s do three things! Here are the A.) Best Spider I saw, B.) Best Frog I saw, and C.) Best Monkey I saw.
The treks were more than just animal spotting…Juan also pointed out tons of the flora and explained what they were good for. We tasted raw cocoa (tastes of pixie sticks), Juan made us each a thin bracelet out of palm tree leaf fibres on the spot, and I got to swing across a pit on a vine! This picture of me swinging on a vine does not credit how far the vine actually was off the ground. I was about ten feet up..so, what I’m saying is I’m a hero. A big brave one. Maybe the greatest one the world has ever known.
Ok, now stumbling onwards from the excitement and discovery of the jungle treks and onto a new topic. I wouldn’t say that I’m food obsessed, but I do love eating delicious things and I find that whenever I’m on vacation, I have to document my food with photographs of the stuff that’s especially nice/interesting/tasty/or weird. Here’s just a few of the cool things I ate whilst at camp:
Not pictured here is a cup of Ecuadorian coffee. If you like coffee…man oh man, this stuff was beautiful…thick in the cup even with a little bit of natural sweetness. They also served liquid chocolate in the mornings as a dip for the bananas and homemade bread that were always on the breakfast table.
On the third day, we were treated to a cooking lesson, the camp chef showed us how to cook in banana leaves…and had a nasty surprise for me. Please excuse my disheveled appearance. I had just been in the jungle.
Admittedly, Karey isn’t the best cinematographer. And to be fair, I shouldn’t call the surprise ‘nasty’. The grubs are a delicacy in the area and though they just tasted like fatty water when eaten live, they are bacon-y and very nice after being cooked over a smoky fire.
After eating my fill of grubs (that’ll be two then…one live one cooked), we were taken to see the local medicine man. This is where the fun and games slowed down a bit and the reality of the cultural differences between middle class society and jungle living were made crystal clear. The medicine man lives a true village-style life, away from the lodge. He must’ve been about 50 and although he was spry, he looked his age. Weathered and wizened, he had a slightly younger looking wife who must have been exhausted. She was a mother of 11.. 11. That’s right 11. Probably only because they didn’t have a TV and therefore had never seen 8 is Enough. Their home was a one room house on stilts. I suppose they didn’t spend much time IN the house…they had small gardens to tend and some chickens were fluttering about the yard. The first thing I noticed about the medicine man was how rough his feet were. I’d imagine he only had one pair of shoes, if that, and he obviously didn’t wear them much. Tiny ants were swarming all over his feet but he took no notice. Though he had an appointment with a sick villager, he spent about a half an hour with us. He gave us a blessing, which involved him brushing herbs about our heads and faces and singing a song.
We also learned how to throw spears and shoot blow-darts at the medicine man’s house. Karey turned out to be the best shot with the spear and I was slightly better with the blowdarts. Interestingly, Juan admitted that tribes usually were more skilled with one over the other. He came from people who were better with the blowdart. Mad blowdart skills. Juan also confessed that his tribe, generations ago, had been a war-faring one. His Grandfather had the shrunken heads of slain enemies as trophies. Frickin’ shrunken heads, dude! Anyway…here’s me trying out the blowdart gun.
You can see the medicine man in the shot (wearing a yellow shirt and having a giggle when the second blowdart that was loaded in for me got stuck.) Again, nice camera work there, Karey.
Here she is faring better with a spear.
After the spiritual session–followed by our meagre attempts to blowdart and spear the shit out of a wooden toucan –we took to the river. About 2.5 miles upstream from camp, I reckon, the swim was pretty easy as the current pushed us back. I flapped about with a breaststroke and Karey braved it in an inner tube.
The days were busy and flew by in what seemed like moments. On the canoe ride back up the river to Coca, I was definitely ready to check back into a hotel where there were bathrobes in the closet, but I still wonder happily at the things we got to see and do in the jungle.
Even though the trip to South America ended with me getting the wheelchair treatment through our flight connections back to the UK, (I had contracted some sort of stomach bug and was barf-tacular by the end of our vacation…Karey had it to…but she got it first and was on the mend by the time we left), I’m so glad we went to Ecuador. Mostly, because our time spent in the Amazon rainforest, at Yachana Lodge, was absolutely…wait for it…AMAZON-ING!