Ecuador 2: Tena (Amazon Rainforest)

I spent most of the 6 hour journey from Quito to Tena listening to music and staring out the window (if you want good views on your bus journeys then try to get a window seat on the right-hand side of the bus); I cannot explain the beauty and wonder of driving literally in between and amongst the mountains in Ecuador. As you dip down towards the river flowing between the mountains and then weave around the edges, it honestly feels like you are part of the landscape. I don’t know what I expected of Ecuador – or South America – but there are so many gorgeous mountains to be seen within, and connecting, the cities.

I arrived in Tena at around 4pm and made the 10/15 minute walk to Zumac Sisa (or Zumag Sisa) hostel where I had made a booking directly with the hostel for a 6 bed dorm for $8 USD per night, although there was only myself and another female London-based traveller, Sajne, staying in the dorm. I had booked one night here and planned to go into the amazon jungle for a couple of days before returning to Tena for one night. So I spent about half an hour slowly getting information from Pablo, the manager, in Spanish before booking a 2 day/1 night tour for the following day for $100 USD; a bargain with a private tour guide when most agencies would charade a minimum of $120. Sajne and I went out for dinner of pollo asado with rice, avocado, salad and beans for around $3 before hitting the sack for the night.

Up and out at 8:30am the following day, Pablo drove Carlos (the tour guide), Sajne and I first into Misahualli (Carlos’ village) to pick up our wellies, the canoe, plus our food and water for the next couple of days. We then were driven in a different car by Luis into the amazon and stopping alongside Rio Napo. From here we were to be taken on the river via canoe for an hour, further into the jungle, to reach our bed for the night. First, I needed to pee, and when I asked if there was a bathroom nearby and they nodded in affirmation, I was expecting to at least be taken to an enclosed hole in the ground. Instead I was taking further down the river and advised to pee in the bushes, with my guide insisting he wouldn’t look. My first taste of Amazon life was squatting in the trees, my feet sinking into the mud, to then use leaves instead of paper. My achievement was to not fall over in the mud, despite it being a close call. Welcome to the jungle.

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Into the canoe we clambered, my arse immediately getting soaked and remaining that way for the duration of the day. We set off down the river and further into the amazon, passing by some of the tallest and greenest trees I have ever seen. It was so tranquil and bright, the torrential rain of the morning having now passed and blue sky piercing between the clouds. Other than a few birds, there was far less wildlife than I expected (the locals and inhabitants have to hunt for food, making the existence of animals in this part of the amazon far less than going into the extreme depths) but it was so peaceful just floating down the river- although I don’t think Carlos, whom tirelessly paddled us down the river and around the rocks, would see it as “floating”.

After an hour we pulled in alongside the riverbank at our lodgings; after clambering out of the boat and negotiating the extremely slippery mud uphill, we walked into a local family’s home. Shacks built with trees and bamboo, with steps up to the second level, and hammocks hanging in the porch of our shack which came complete with its own “kitchen”. There were a few dogs wandering around as well as cockerels and the land was surrounded by dense trees and forest. The children were running around and playing together outside while the adults were carrying wood and preparing dinner. The simple but beautiful life, they didn’t seem to want for much.

After having a swim in the river (less of a swim and more of a desperate attempt to remain by the riverbank due to the strength of the current) we sat down for lunch prepared by Carlos; fried crispy plantain served alongside spaghetti with tuna and green beans. It was then time to head off on our trek through the jungle, slipping on our knee-high wellies to help us navigate the amazon; trust me, with the depth and sludginess (totes a word) of the mud in the amazon (it rains 250 days of the year, which allows for everything to grow and for it to be as green as it is) you will want to be wearing wellies.

Carlos lead the way, using his knife to clear the way as we weaved amongst the tall trees and various species of plant. For the second half of the walk we mainly climbed rocks and land alongside the river, having to use my ultimate physical strength (and Carlos’) to get myself up the steep slopes. It definitely felt as though I was in the jungle.

We returned to our lodgings around 2 hours later where Sajne decided to stay whilst Carlos and I ventured in the other direction, first using his friend’s motor canoe to head 2km down the river and then for us to walk back on ourselves via various dwellings. After climbing up and down for 2 hours it felt good for my legs to walk it off along flat land for a while, meeting more locals and getting more time to explore the amazon.

Back at base I then had a shower, by which I mean standing in my bikini in the mud and pouring a bucket of soapy cold water over my body, feeling cleansed by the fresh water removing an insane amount of mud, dirt and bugs off my body. At 7pm we sat down for dinner, again made by Carlos and this time consisting of chicken fritter, rice (of course) and plantain (also of course – their staple food item alongside rice). He also prepared canelazo for us; hot water with lemon, sugar and aguardiente – the local liquor. 

I was absolutely wiped from the walking, the fresh air, the heat and the mosquito bites (oh dear god, the mosquito bites – I don’t think I have ever been bitten so many times in such a short space of time before, they are literally unavoidable and so very irritating, I spent far too much time scratching at my legs and feet) so I hit the sack at around 9pm, deciding to first attempt sleeping in the hammock before moving to my bed at around 10:30pm after I almost fell out of the hammock.

I woke at around 7am the following morning to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, banana pancake-type things and mini plantain cooked with onion and tomato. At around 8:30am we then packed up our things and headed back to the canoe to paddle further down the river and further into the jungle for an hour. I mainly zoned out during this time, enjoying the peace and tranquility of the amazon and only being pulled out of my reverie when we got stuck on some rocks and Carlos had to climb out of the canoe to negotiate us over them. When we pulled in alongside the riverbank an hour later, Luis was there waiting with his car. We loaded the car with the canoe and our belongings before being driven to a local Indian community.

 

Here, Sajne went with Carlos’ wife and daughter to a nearby waterfall while Carlos took me on what I can only describe as a caving adventure. Cavernas Tamiayura is something Carlos only heard about 6 or so years ago as it was only then discovered by the local Indian community. One of the men from the community came with us as we first walked 30 minutes through the jungle, tasting sweet like from the trees and me avoiding falling over in the mud numerous times (seriously I have no idea how they move so quickly – the mud is insanely deep and slippery – and most do it barefoot).

When we reached the mouth of the cave I realised it was not going to be like the other Caves I had been in on my travels (I liked to imagine it was a similar moment to when Aladdin reaches the mouth of the Cave of Wonders). I have done tubing down long, high Caves filled with water from a river in Laos; I have climbed inside small and close-to-the-surface caves in Cambodia; I have walked through deep, high and spacious caves in Malaysia. But I have never gone so deep and far into a fairly narrow cave where I have had to crawl, climb and wade inside, negotiating various spears of cave hanging from the “ceiling” and contorting my body in order to fit through narrow gaps between the walls. 

At one point I had to climb and then worm my way through a narrow gap in between the caves, with bits jutting out at all angles and the mud making it very slippery. Suddenly my adventurous and up-for-it spirit diminished and my fear and anxiety took its place, my mind telling me that my body was unable to do what it needed to and out of my mouth came a refusal to carry on. Carlos tried to encourage me with “it’s not dangerous; you can do it” to which I replied, like a petulant child, “yes but I don’t want to!” Attempting to explain in a Spanish that I didn’t want to do it – that I believed I couldn’t do it – whilst already wedged between the rocks I had to climb through inside an echoey cave make for an entertaining story now but in that moment all I could comprehend was the intensity of the voices in my head telling me I was unable to do it. Everything became noise as all I could hear was the shrill ringing of self-doubt in my ears. Then something switched – maybe becoming aware again of the wider periphery around me and the kind Indian behind me, whom had thus far heaved me up when I couldn’t stretch that far and caught me when I slipped back down again – and I found myself attempting it. And then I found myself doing it. And then, eventually, I was through.

We had only made it halfway by this point and I honestly didn’t think I could carry on but we eventually made it to the end of the cave, climbing up wooden steps through a hole above us and wading through water so deep it filled my Wellington boots. Another achievement was having a huge spider placed over my face and me not moving an inch (but then again I’ve never been bothered by spiders and quite fancied having one as a pet ever since seeing Home Alone as a kid).

It was soon time to head back and I didn’t know how I would muster the energy but somehow, using all the physical strength I have and combining it with sheer will and determination, I managed to make it back out alive. Absolutely soaking, covered in mud and sweat dripping over my face, it was one of most physically demanding and difficult things I have done and I was utterly exhausted, but also super proud and, in the end, I had a lot of fun. But I think I’m caved-out for now.

Back at the Indian community Carlos picked up some biscuits and drinks from a little local shop, where he then gave away some of his drink and some biscuits to the children of the shop owner. I couldn’t quite understand, when speaking quietly with Carlos, how rife poverty is here, but their loving is certainly very basic and they have very little. Early I had been moved by the kids swarming around Luis’ jeep and then surrounding Carlos to look in awe at his phone and have their picture taken, and now I was humbled by the local children greedily and happily taking biscuits from Carlos to then collect all the rubbish surrounding their home with a plastic bag. It really does make you reevaluate what we need and the kind of lifestyle we seem to strive for.

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Carlos and I then walked 30 minutes through the jungle in the opposite direction towards a casacada, the waterfall where we were to meet his family and Sajne. Utterly exhausted I found myself feeling irritated with Carlos as he stopped to point out the plant life and thus slowing down our arrival at the falls – after 4 hours of walking and caving I was tired, hungry, dirty and hot – and had to try to talk myself out of my rudeness and frustration. When we finally made it to the cascadas I barely said a word to anyone before removing my filthy clothes and water-filled muddy boots and immersing my mud-sodden body into the water; bliss. It wasn’t so blissful when, after lunch of cheese and ham sandwiches, I had to then put back on my soaking socks, smelly clothes and muddy boots to walk back out of the waterfall. A beer and a cigarette cheered me up but unfortunately didn’t take away the smell. Never have I been so repulsed by my own body stench.

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Pablo eventually arrived and drove us back to our hostel at around 5pm. After showering and changing we took our belongings to the laundrette around the corner and then picked up some cigarettes, rum and snacks for the evening. I don’t know if I have mentioned, but marajuna seems to be very popular in South America. Later that evening Pablo drove me to pick up some chips (proper chip shop chips) as Sajne and I had a sudden craving, before I went to bed at around 11pm after a much-needed evening of drinking and smoking.

The following morning I collected my laundry and packed my things before checking out of the hostel and being driven to a nearby spot along the river by Pablo’s wife, Marcia. I spent a couple of hours lying in the sun and paddling in the river before walking back to the hostel, collecting my bags and heading to the bus terminal for my 3pm bus to Banos, which cost me $5.25 USD. Although I expected to come across more wildlife and animals in the amazon I did love my experience in the jungle, however I’m looking forward to Banos and hoping for a few less mosquito bites there (can you tell I’m scratching at them ferociously as I type??)

LS.

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