2014 started off on a high note. The night after we walked downtown to see the traditional burning of effigies to end the year found us two hours away from downtown Otavalo. We were at the airport at our favorite hour (between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am) to pick up friends Connie and Grant from Sacramento. Their plane was due to arrive at 11:59 pm and actually got in a few minutes early, so they officially made it to Ecuador on New Year's Day.
They had emailed and said they could take a bus from the airport to Otavalo so we wouldn't have to drive to the airport and back. We appreciated the thought, but it would have been impossible to carry it out. There are no buses to Otavalo at that time of night. Besides, it would deprive us of the adrenaline rush that comes with meeting friends at the airport. The adrenaline keeps pumping on the ride home because we're always excited to see friends and they're always excited to be in Ecuador.
Parqué Bolivar In Otavalo
The next day we got up late and took it easy. We walked downtown so Grant and Connie could kind of get the lay of the land. Naturally, we also had to introduce them to some of our friends, including Cesar, Luz, and Yolanda.
Viernes, 3 de enero, 2014
Isabel And Brayan First Flight
At Staging Area
But for a few days after that, we didn't have the luxury of sleeping in. We had to get up early and get ourselves to the airport in time for our flight to Coca, the largest town in the Ecuadorean jungle, located on the Napo River. Someone from Sacha Lodge, our destination, was at the airport to greet us and insure that the check-in process went smoothly. We took Isabel and Brayan with us. Neither had been on a plane before. I sat in the same row with them and Isabel was a little nervous, so I held her hand during takeoff and told her what to expect. However, I couldn't help teasing her. Just before takeoff, I said, "Da oraciónes," which means, "Pray." I know. I'm bad. Everyone here knows it, too.
At Coca, we were met by other representatives of Sacha Lodge. There were about 15-20 people besides ourselves going to this particular lodge and most boarded a bus to go to a house that serves as a kind of staging area a block from the river. Marilyn and I went by taxi. At the staging area we were given snacks and a short orientation. Then we walked the short block to board our motorized canoa (canoe) that would take us to Sacha Lodge, an hour and a half downriver.
Down The Steps
Into The Canoa
Time For Cuddling
Marilyn and I had done pretty much this same trip (but to a different lodge) in 2004 on a vacation with friends Mary and George, so I knew to expect to be carried pretty far down the bank to the boat. It didn't seem as far this time, but was still pretty far. Maybe the river was higher, or maybe it was a different put-in point on the river, because there were also many cement steps that I didn't remember. Of course, 10 years is a long time, especially in a country changing as rapidly as Ecuador. Anyway, between the guides and boat crew and Grant, I was put into the canoa and seated comfortably.
The canoa ride was supposed to take an hour and a half to Sacha Lodge, but we stopped after an hour to eat our box lunches. We stopped at a school for native children run by nuns. The grounds were well kept and they had a small museum that we could explore which was dedicated to the local indigenous peoples. When we left, there were several students at the dock waiting for the boat that would take them home. It recalled to mind tales I had heard my mother tell about children living alongside the bayous of south Louisiana taking boats and pirogues to get to and from school.
We finally arrived at Sacha Lodge to be greeted by a 25-30 minute walk to the lagoon on which the lodge was situated. Back at the "staging area", I had asked if I'd be able to go on this walk. (In 2004, when we went to La Selva Lodge, I had been put into a canoe with the equipaje (luggage) while the rest hiked to a similar lagoon. This trail was mostly boardwalk, however. Still, I wasn't pushed in my wheelchair. Because of muddy spots where there was no boardwalk, I, my wheelchair, and Isabel were loaded into one of the carts used for hauling luggage and other things. Isabel got to ride with me to make sure I didn't fall out of the cart. Thus, I got to go with the entire group, sort of. My "driver" could walk much faster than most of the group, even pulling the cart, and we soon outstripped them.
Marilyn And Grant
Pier At Sacha Lodge
Glenn Found The Beer
There was another dock at the lagoon because the lodge was situated on the far side. We were loaded into canoas (non-motorized) for the quiet journey across the lagoon. Isabel said she saw a baby caiman (similar to an alligator), but I missed it. The canoas were fairly wide and very stable, so they just plunked me into a canoa, wheelchair and all. I was cognizant that we were on a lagoon, but I sort of felt like a king floating down the Nile. The fact that it was so easy to ride in the canoa was my first hint that I'd be able to participate in activities much more than I had during my two previous trips to the jungle (though, in all candor, I could have participated more during the trip to Liana Lodge last year if I had chosen).
The second hint came when the group had all arrived. We were taken upstairs for another orientation before being shown to our cabañas. The guides and other staff didn't bat an eye at carrying me upstairs. (Later, when it was time for lounging, they wanted to take me upstairs again but I declined. I missed out on some socializing, but couldn't see putting people's backs at risk more than necessary.)
Inside A Cabaña
Our cabañas were simply spectacular! They were off the ground by three or four feet and connected by boardwalks of a similar height. The bedrooms were twice as large as our bedroom at home. There was a porch separated from the bedroom by a low wall and screen. It had two hammocks and two chairs. (Grant and Connie later saw some squirrel monkeys while sitting on their porch.) The bathroom was large, too. The shower had a floor-to-ceiling window, so you almost felt like you were taking a shower outside in the jungle. Yet, there was no human foot traffic on that side of the cabaña, so there was no fear of accidentally being seen in the buff, except by birds and animals!
Slideshow Of Mariposaria
Marilyn, Isabel, and Brayan walked to the mariposaria (butterfly farm) a few minutes after we got settled. It was raining a little, so I chose not to go. Besides, it was better that they scout the terrain before attempting to take me. (Good choice. They found they had to go up 15 steps, so I might have been left out in the rain.) Connie and Grant went at another time. The butterflies and pupas they saw were beautiful.
We were summoned to meals by some kind of horn (bamboo?) used by the natives. On the way to dinner that evening, several of our group spotted some animals called watusas. They reminded me of miniature javelinas, but I think they were actually in the rodent family.
All meals were buffet style and very tasty and healthy, so it was easy to gain weight. (Of course, all the things we did took the extra weight right back off!) At our first meal that night, we met our English speaking guide. His name was Daniel and he was from Quito. He told us that he worked for 15 days and was off for 8 days. Sacha Lodge paid air transportation from Coca to Quito and vice versa for him. That first meal, all six of us liked Daniel from the start, even though he had to split his time between us and another group leaving the next morning.
At Sacha Lodge, groups of six to eight sit with their English-speaking guide during each meal. A group also has a native guide. The native guides eat in their own dining room. We asked why this was, fearing discrimination. In fact, I wondered if we'd really get an honest answer. Daniel told us that it was because they preferred traditional food rather than the types of food that most guests like. Living with Brayan and Victoria, that rang true. They seldom like what Marilyn cooks, unless it's baked goods.
Daniel said we wouldn't do a night activity that first night. When we asked what we'd be doing the next morning, he said the Canopy Walk. It involves climbing 130-foot towers to get above the jungle canopy and walking on a suspension bridge between towers in order to see more birds. I thought, "Well, that's one activity I won't be doing. I'll just stay back and read the book I brought.” But Daniel said that I would go, too. They were committed to helping me enjoy my jungle experience as much as anyone else. It shocked and thrilled me.
Sábado, 4 de enero, 2014
We got a wake-up knock on our cabaña door a half hour before breakfast, which was a half hour before our morning activity, which was scheduled to begin at 6:30 am. Do the math. Because it takes longer than average for Marilyn to get me and herself up and fit to join the human race, we had been awake and (mostly) up for a good 45 minutes before The Knock. Do the math again if you want. We did this everyday, so we were not very sympathetic when others in our group complained about the early hour!
Wilson And Daniel
After breakfast we met our native guide and set off on a jungle trail to the Canopy Walk. Our native guide was named Wilson and, again, we took to him right away. He didn't speak English but had grown up in the jungle and knew a great deal about the forest. Daniel was also a naturalist. His and Wilson's areas of expertise were basically different but often overlapped. Wilson spoke Quechua and Spanish. When he had something he wanted to tell us, he would tell Daniel in Spanish (much of which we understood) and Daniel would translate it into English. It was a good system. In fact, we were impressed with all the systems at Sacha Lodge, from The Knock, to the way meals were served and eaten, to the relaxed but thorough schedule of activities. They have obviously learned from past experience and had improved the product they offer.
Because they knew I would require more help, they also shanghaied another member of the staff to go with our group of six. His name was Pedro and he spoke mainly Quechua. Wilson and Pedro pushed and pulled me along the trail. I don’t know if they had ever handled a wheelchair before, but they soon learned the best ways to maneuver it without me having to say anything. I'm always amazed at how quickly people in Latin American countries can adapt to new situations or repair/make things without having to go someplace like Home Depot or Lowes. (Though those types of stores are beginning to spring up in Ecuador.)
Ceibo (Kapok) Tree
Stabilizing Palm Roots
Along the trail, one of the things we passed was a giant ceibo (kapok) tree. The picture we took of Brayan in front of it reminded me of taking pictures of people in front of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park. Ceibos reproduce by releasing cottony-like seeds for dispersal by wind (like cottonwood trees). The fiber of the seed pods is used as an alternative to down. After one kapok tree was pointed out to me, I began seeing ceibos all over the jungle. Several other plants were also pointed out and explained. One that caught my eye was a type of palm which had masses of roots starting from the trunk well above ground and extending to the ground. These helped stabilize the tree during high winds.
First Method Tried
Second Method Tried
Male Amazonian White-Throated Trogon
Then we got to the Canopy Walk. The guides said they were going to take me up, but we couldn't see how. We had to climb 40 meters (13 stories) up a tower! I remember Pedro getting a stick, measuring the width of my wheelchair against the width of the stairs (because they'd thought about pulling me up), and shaking his head. That idea wouldn't fly. Then he and Wilson started discussing the hammock they'd brought along and how to best use it.
The hammock was put under my arms and tied around Pedro's upper body. Pedro wasn't much bigger than I was, but he was muy fuerte (very strong). With Pedro bearing most of my weight, Wilson took my legs, and we started up. One of our party followed with the folded wheelchair. It's good that it wasn't hot that day because the guides, especially Pedro, were sweating profusely with the effort by the time we reached the Canopy Walk.
When we had reached about the third story, Pedro and Wilson decided to readjust. They got the hammock underneath my butt so Pedro could carry me like many mothers carry their babies in Ecuador, the primary difference being that I was on Pedro's chest instead of his back. Wilson still carried my legs, guiding Pedro and I skillfully around the hairpin turns at each landing. Did I feel nervous? Maybe a little on the first few steps when we were figuring things out. But I soon relaxed. I knew I was in capable hands. Besides, almost the entire way up and down, Pedro and Wilson joked and laughed with each other in Quechua despite their mighty exertions. If they could laugh and joke, I couldn't help but relax.
At the Canopy Walk, my wheelchair was put on the suspension bridge and I was placed in it. There were three towers with a suspension bridge between towers 1 and 2 and another between towers 2 and 3. I gave as many ooohs and ahhhs as I could to show my appreciation, but it wasn't hard. There is nothing like hovering just above a vast jungle to make you feel like one of the birds you’ve come to watch! We went to tower 2 because it had a better platform for bird watching than tower 1. Another group was at tower 3. We were only allowed to walk across the suspension bridge one at a time due to safety rules, though Wilson and Pedro both went with me.
At tower 2 Daniel set up his spotting scope. We also had three or four pairs of binoculars among our group, so many birds were sighted. I don't do well with either binoculars or spotting scopes, so I mainly used the naked eye. Besides merely enjoying the scenery from so high up, I saw some toucans and oro pendulas flying around. Oro pendulas have long brilliant golden tail feathers. (Oro is the Spanish word for gold.) Between the Canopy Walk and the other activities we did, we saw 27 species of birds.
Pedro And Me - We're Down Safely!
Too soon for me, it was time to leave my perch because it was time for another group to use it. (You should have seen their unbelief at finding me up there. There were also a lot of comments at lunch and dinner in the dining room about our feat that day.) We went down the same way we came up, going back to tower 1 and descending.
Wilson Explaining Cooking Pouch
On the way back to the lodge, Wilson schooled us some more about the forest. He showed us a leaf that was very durable. We could wad it up into a ball and it would spring back to its original shape. It was even hard to tear. The natives put food in these leaves, folded and tied them, stuck them in the fire, turned them from time to time, and thus had hot meals. The leaves do not burn up. He also demonstrated how to get fiber (for, say, a fishing line) by peeling the membrane from another type of long leaf and simply rolling the resultant cellulose fibers between hand and leg to get a long continuous fiber. It took him about two minutes. If a longer length was needed, two or more of these resultant fibers were rolled together. The resultant string, or line, was exceedingly strong and Wilson said that it didn't rot for about a year.
We got back to the lodge at about 11:00 am and our next activity was not scheduled until 4:00 pm. That was one thing we liked about Sacha Lodge. We may have had to get up earlier than most vacationers would like, but we had plenty of time to relax between activities. It made for a very enjoyable and leisurely pace without causing boredom because of a lack of fun and interesting things to do.
In The Canoa
Squirrel Monkeys (The One At Right Has A Baby On Her Back)
An Anhinga Flying
For our afternoon activity, we took a canoa and looked for birds and animals. This was an easy activity for me to do, as I had learned when we came to the lodge yesterday. The tranquility of gliding over the lagoon was wonderful. We went into two creeks that connected to the lagoon. My guess is that one entered the lagoon. The other definitely exited the lagoon, because it led to the Napo River. There was no readily discernible current (the same as with bayous in Louisiana). We enjoyed asking about the birds we saw, including several called Hoatzins (or Stinky Turkeys) which were really pretty. (I forget why it was called “Stinky”. We must have asked that obvious question, right?) We also saw a very beautiful heron called an Agami Heron. Daniel told us that it was highly secretive and that we had been lucky to spot it.
A troop of squirrel monkeys were moving in trees close to the shore of the lagoon. Wilson and Daniel timed our entrance into one of the creeks so that the monkeys were crossing it (in the trees, of course) at the same time. We got great views then, as they leaped from limb to limb right above us, sometimes as far as 20 feet, bending limbs down until I was sure some would lose their footing and fall. They never did. The mothers seemed to bring up the rear of the troop. We could tell they were mothers because each had a baby on her back. Once again, there were lots of ooohs and ahhhs, especially from the women in our canoa.
After dinner we went for a night ride in the canoa. The object was to spot caimans by shining a flashlight in their eyes, which glowed red when our flashlights found a pair. Caimans are very similar to alligators so, to me this was nothing new. In Louisiana we call it alligator hunting.
Not long after we were out on the lagoon, Daniel said we should go back because it was going to rain and we didn’t have ponchos on this trip. It had rained lightly during the day and hadn’t bothered us. We said we’d chance it. We weren’t going to be tourist wimps! A few minutes later, Daniel asked if we heard that noise. We listened and heard a dull roar that was getting louder by the second. When we asked what it was, Daniel said it was the rain falling on the myriad leaves in the jungle as the storm approached. That convinced us. Wilson and Daniel paddled hard for the dock (just beating out a couple of other canoas for the closest position) and we managed to get out of the canoa just as the downpour let loose. NOTE: When in unfamiliar territory, ALWAYS listen to your guides!
Domingo, 5 de enero, 2014
The Knock was a half hour earlier on Sunday morning. Ugh! Again, Marilyn and I had started getting up about 45 minutes earlier so we greeted The Knock cheerfully, more or less. It had rained hard and thundered during the night. Some of our group heard it, but Marilyn and I slept like logs in our comfy bed.
At breakfast Brayan reconnected with the boy he had made friends with the day before. He was from California, about Brayan’s age, and spoke excellent Spanish because he had had an immersion experience in the school he attended. Whenever we were not doing different activities, Brayan and this guy could often be found together. It was a good experience for Brayan, I think.
Entrance To Yasuni National Park
The activity for the morning was to join several other groups and take a motorized canoa to a parrot lick another half hour downriver. It was adjacent to the entrance of Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse spots on our Blue Marble. So we donned ponchos (because it was still raining intermittently), traversed the lagoon, retraced our steps on the boardwalk, and headed down the Napo. Dawn had just broken.
Closeup Of Parrots
The parrot lick was a clay bank along the river. It contained minerals that parrots needed for their health. Thus, parrots flocked to this site from miles around. Daniel had told us that the reason we went so early was that the parrots were not to be found there two or three hours after dawn. Further, the parrots didn’t care much for the rain and would probably leave even earlier that day.
There were still a lot of parrots there when we arrived, mostly green parrots with some black-crowned parrots. There were also a lot of other boats from other lodges up and down the river. We all remained 100 to 200 yards out in the river so as not to disturb the birds. There also seemed to be a system in place that put each boat in the closest position in turn. Pretty neat. Not long after we had our turn in the best vantage point, the rain was blowing pretty much sideways and, despite having a "roof" on the canoa, we left. We were as ready as the parrots to leave and try to get dry again. The ponchos were good, but not impervious.
Reading Interrupted By Marilyn
After lunch, we went piranha fishing at the dock near the lodge. Well, I went but read my book (one of the few times I read). They used cane poles, but I couldn’t use one like I used to do because the railing around the dock was too high. That’s really why I read my book.
They also allowed people to dive into the lagoon from the dock, though not when there was piranha fishing going on. In fact, when we first arrived at the lodge, we saw people swimming and diving. Now, all of our group was adventurous to one extent or another, but none of us had a strong desire to swim in a lagoon filled with piranhas and alligator-like creatures, no matter how many times we were told it was safe as long as no one was fishing for piranhas!
Brayan caught a piranha and Grant carefully unhooked it for him and threw it back even though the guides had offered to cook any we caught. Grant caught a couple, also. The hook, of course, left a little blood when it was removed. Since the piranhas were thrown back, one or two caimans were attracted to the area because of the blood. We even got a picture of a caiman carrying off a piranha in its jaws.
That night they had a barbecue for dinner. Really good stuff! They have a barbecue two nights a week at Sacha Lodge, so virtually all guests have a chance to partake in it at least once. Remember I said that the native guides ate in their own dining room because they preferred traditional food? This is one meal the native guides share with the guests because they like barbecue as much as anyone else. I’d like to take them to Cooper’s Barbecue in Llano, TX.
The rest of our group decided to take a night canoa ride again to look for the devilishly red eyes of a caiman, but Marilyn and I declined. We knew we had to pay for our incidentals, pack for our trip home before hitting the sack, and greet The Knock early the next morning for the canoa ride back up the river to Coca. The others did see the eyes of a couple of caimans in the beams of their flashlights.
Lunes, 6 de enero, 2014
Goodbye Sacha Lodge
After breakfast, the ponchos went back on and, after saying goodbye to the manager and other staff, about 20-25 of us made the trek back to the Napo river. Because it took a little more time to get me there, our group of six was asked to leave 10 minutes early. No problem. They had done so much to make our stay so fantastic that it was the least we could do for them.
It rained and was a little cold all the way back to Coca but that didn’t faze us. Because it had been raining fairly constantly for a day and a half now, the river was a good deal higher than it had been when we arrived. This had two main effects. A beneficial effect was that it made it much easier to get me in and out of the canoa because I didn’t have to be carried as far. A detrimental effect was that the pilot very often had to slow his speed to pick his way around sandbars that had shifted, as well as avoid floating trees and such. The part of the Napo river we traversed was wider than the Mississippi river at New Orleans. The Napo is formed from streams that descend the slopes of the Andes, and it in turn is a main tributary of the Amazon. We were told that the Amazon’s maximum width is about 6 kilometers (4 miles). All my life I’d been proud of growing up near the “mighty Mississippi”. This taught me that the Mississippi was a relative pipsqueak.
When we landed, Isabel told us she had started feeling queasy on the plane back to Quito. Five more minutes, she told us, and she would have had to use the barf bag (which we had explained on the flight to Coca.) All in all, she and Brayan did remarkably well for never having flown before.
Isabel And Connie With Milkshakes
Since it was about lunch time when we got back to Quito, we ate at Johnny Rockets in the airport. Despite not feeling up to par, Isabel was not about to miss that. The rest of us rocked out to golden oldies while eating our hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, milkshakes, Cokes, and any other not-so-healthy foods we could get our hands on. The law of averages said we deserved this meal after eating healthily for three days.
Our car was right where we had left it. This was the first time Marilyn and I had used long term parking at the Quito airport, so we were just a wee bit nervous about it. Connie and Grant would be with us another ten days, so we drove back to Otavalo talking about the other fun things we would do while they were here. But we knew in our hearts that nothing would top what we had just done.
Sounds like such fun. You are truly an inspiration to us all. I guess I never realized all there is to do and see in Ecuador. Thanks for making us aware.
I am very entertained by your latest blog (and others too)--because I am tantalized by that wonderful country that I miss while I am here in Texas. It is good that you and your friends are enjoying it all! I love the forest and the food and the people and all. Looking forward to seeing you both on the ground in 2014--Lord willing and the crick don't rise.
I think the only scary part for you might be the suspension bridge. Not that it moves a great deal, but because you're "out there". Climbing the towers is no different than climbing stairs, and the viewing platforms are solid as rocks. Then again, I LOVE heights.
Glen, this was great writing and reading it made me want to head your way. Maybe I will have an opportunity to visit again someday. Thanks again for the post. (You would make a great travel writer for a magazine.)
The first time we were in Ecuador for New Year's Eve was three years ago. We spent a nice evening in Isabel's apartment (this was before we started sharing a house together) eating dinner and snacks and playing games. But then, just after midnight, we walked back to the hotel where we lived through downtown because Isabel's apartment was located on the other side of town center from our hotel. The sight amazed me - the streets were littered with burning effigies in every block. Some effigies signified bad things that had happened during the year and were being burned so they wouldn't carry over into the new year. Some had been made just to have something to burn at midnight.
We didn't walk downtown the next year because we had a party at our house. Last year we were in the United States for New Year's Eve. This year I wanted to see the spectacle again. So, we bundled up Victoria, put her in my extra wheelchair I have here mainly for spare parts, and set off from the house for downtown. It takes about 25-30 minutes to walk downtown, so we left a little after 11:00 pm.
There were many things to see walking downtown, including effigies, musical bands, and parties spilling into the streets. When we got downtown, there were also dancers, including men in drag, another tradition. On one of the main streets downtown there were one or two dance groups per block in the middle of the street stopping traffic until they were paid for their "performances". As an aside, if you drive on any but wide thoroughfares on New Year's Eve, you're likely to be stopped by children holding ropes across the road. We discovered this tradition two years ago.
At midnight fireworks erupted all over town. The effigies were also set alight and burned brightly. What a sight. In my opinion, the way they celebrate New Year's Eve in Ecuador far surpasses the "Dropping Of The Ball" in Times Square.