Canadian Janet Greidanus and her husband have been coming to Cuenca for 14 years to provide medical care for poor Ecuadorians. In an article for a Canadian website she describes the joys of exploring the Amazon jungle after one the couple’s recent trips.
By Janet Greidanus
The guide hushed us as we walked through the jungle in our rubber boots. If we were very quiet, he said, we might be able to catch a glimpse of the howler monkey whose howling we had been hearing intermittently from somewhere high in the canopy of the rainforest.
This was the third morning of our excursion into the Ecuador rainforest and the trip had already exceeded our expectations. The guide walked ahead of us with his machete, occasionally hacking away at vines that blocked our path or stopping to cut a plant or a piece of bark for us to study or taste.
Every day we had been discovering the rich biodiversity of the rainforest and we had seen more species of flora and fauna than we could possibly keep track of. We had been awed by the height of the gargantuan Kapok trees, fascinated by the very long pendulum-shaped nests of oropendolos birds hanging from the branches, thrilled to see large, brilliant blue morphos butterflies, caimans, turtles, leafcutter ants, and a tapir footprint; we had tasted many fruits of the jungle and helped our guide weave baskets from the leaves of palm trees.
Some of us had dared to drink chicha mixed with river water; we had laughed at the cute faces of squirrel and capuchin monkeys peeking at us from behind tree branches as we quietly and peacefully motored along the river.
My husband and I have been to Ecuador every year for 14 years since he began leading medical teams to Cuenca to provide free orthopedic surgery to many poor adults and children.
The colonial city of Cuenca, which is about 500 kilometres south of Quito, is itself worthy as a tourist destination. Its historic downtown with cobble-stoned streets, flowering plazas, awe-inspiring cathedrals, and blend of indigenous and Spanish peoples and cultures, was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1999, a fitting honour for what some call Ecuador’s most beautiful city.
Following the medical missions in Cuenca, we have often remained a week or longer to explore other parts of Ecuador. There is much to see and do in this tiny and beautiful country. Over the years and throughout our travels we have found Ecuador to be safe and the people to be gentle, gracious and hospitable.
Having said that, one must always be careful and vigilant of one’s personal possessions in places such as the Quito airport. It is important to use common sense and also to ask if there are any places a tourist should simply avoid.
The thousands of sucres in our dresser drawer are reminders of our trips to Ecuador before the U.S. dollar became the official currency in January 2000. When dollarization happened, Ecuadorians were forced to exchange their sucres at an inflated rate of about 20,000 sucres for one U.S. dollar. The new currency and the terrible exchange rate made prices seem higher than ever to the local people.
The Canadian tourist, however, will not find prices high, especially these days with the Canadian dollar near par with the U.S. dollar. In Cuenca, for example, you can find a clean and comfortable hotel room for $18 to $30 a night, including breakfast. For the past few years we have stayed at the charming Hotel Inca Real in Ecuador is renowned for its leather products, and for $70 or less you can order a custom-made leather jacket. Colourful markets abound with high quality but inexpensive wool blankets, ponchos, shawls and sweaters, pottery, and silver jewelry. Our visit to Ecuador’s rainforest this past February arose spontaneously. With five friends and fellow team members, we booked our trip locally through Metropolitan Touring, an agency that team members have used in the past to book other trips such as to the Galapagos Islands. After considering a few options, we chose to fly to Coca ($100 return from Quito).
East of Coca, the Rio Napo flows steadily toward Peru and the Amazon River. It is through Coca that the original explorers passed on their way to discover the Amazon in 1542.
We would travel by motorized canoe from Coca along the Rio Napo to our mother ship, Flotel la Mision. From the Flotel we would take day trips by canoe to Yasuni National Park, Limoncocha Biological Reserve, and other tributaries off the Rio Napo. The cost of the three-day, four-night excursion was $400 per person.
Excitement escalated during our flight as we glimpsed the canopy of the rainforest below. Once in Coca, we were transported to Hosteria La Mision which overlooks the river and is close to the dock.
We did not have to overnight in Coca, but it appears that one could have a pleasant and safe stay at this hotel for only $18 to $25 US for a room with air conditioning. The hotel has a very good restaurant and a swimming pool with a waterslide.
An hour or so after arriving in Coca, the seven of us plus two guides and a steersman, loaded our small suitcases and ourselves into the motorized canoe that would take us three hours downriver to the Flotel.
The Ecuador rainforest is home to several indigenous tribes but there were few visible dwellings along the mighty mud-coloured Rio Napo. We saw the occasional dugout canoe tied up at the shore and people doing laundry in the river or fishing. Our guide told us there were more dwellings deeper in the forest.
Sadly, we also witnessed the effects of oil exploration: wide swaths of trees cut down to create roads into the rainforest and big machinery associated with the oil industry assembled on barges tied up along the river. In 1991, despite Yasuni National Park’s protected status, the Ecuadorian government gave a U.S.-based oil company the right to explore for oil.
Flotel has 32 staterooms, each with a private bathroom, air conditioning and hot water. Upon arrival, we discovered we were the only seven guests on the ship with 14 crew members. February is considered low season. August is the busiest time for tourists. In February, however, the weather was perfect: very warm and sunny days with no rain.
With the canoe as our transportation, we explored the Limoncocha Biological Reserve, a lagoon teeming with literally hundreds of species of birds.
We saw anis, hoatzin, different kinds of herons, king fishers and flycatchers, macaws and toucans, to name a few.
The Ecuador rainforest is indeed a birdwatcher’s paradise. We stayed motoring around the lagoon until dusk at which time we canoed close to shore to find the lurking caimans.
The next day we explored the Rio Napo and some other tributaries, stopping at the homes of a few indigenous families. But no one was home. At the last place, a simple thatched hut on stilts, our guide toured us around the grounds anyway.
On this plot of land alone, there were trees for building furniture, trees whose waxy leaves were used to roof the house, and trees whose leaves were used to weave baskets and hats.
Chonta, heart of palm, is a vegetable harvested from the core and growing bud of yet another kind of tree.
Growing alongside these trees were cinnamon trees and trees with cocoa and coffee beans, guava, oranges, lemons, papaya, bananas, as well as corn, yucca, and several plants that had medicinal properties.
There was a tree whose bark could be used as a grater and one that had a sponge in the middle of it. A supply of protein was available in the river in the form of catfish. Sometimes monkeys are hunted for their meat. Basically everything this family needed for daily life was right there at their fingertips. It was quite a contrast to the way we live back home.
The next day we were up at 4:30 a.m. and in the canoe at 5:30 a.m. for a 90-minute trip to the Napo Wildlife Centre, which is in the boundaries of Yusuni National Park.
The pilot had to carefully navigate the canoe across the wide river in the dark. In the early morning light we disembarked and walked along a short boardwalk until we came to a blind, our post to watch (in amazement) hundreds, if not thousands, of parrots and parakeets were coming and going, some having flown as far as 32 km to lick the clay here. We learned that the minerals in the clay neutralize the toxins contained in the seeds and nuts that the birds eat.
From the clay lick we travelled another 90 minutes to the Panacocha River to the place where we would don rubber boots and go for a jungle walk. Meanwhile, the Flotel moved further downriver.
We never did see the howler monkey. The two-hour jungle walk ended with lunch that was set out for us on a table clothed with broad palm leaves. After a siesta in hammocks strung between the trees, we motored out of the tributary, stopping along the way to fish for piranhas.
We saw fish come near the surface to eat the meat off our hooks, but we were unable to catch any. Further along, we peered out into the water for pink river dolphins. The pilot sighted one ahead of the boat, but it was gone before we could look in the right direction.
Close to the Flotel we stopped to visit a Quichua couple and their child who were harvesting “jungle grapes” from the top of a very high tree. They offered us a taste and a bunch to take with us back to the boat. We offered them some of our granola bars and other snacks.
Back at the Flotel, we felt content sitting on the deck and watching the sun set, But three nights and days had passed too quickly and we had to leave in the morning to return to Coca. The Flotel, the captain informed us, was going to Peru to pick up 55 Israeli tourists and then continuing on its way to Brazil.
It took five hours by motorized canoe to get back to Coca. Once there, Hosteria La Mision offered us the use of two rooms and the swimming pools and waterslides while we awaited our flight to Quito. This was included in the price of our excursion.
We knew it would be difficult to sustain the sense of serenity and peacefulness of these last four days once we got back to our lives in Edmonton. But this journey from Coca along the Rio Napo to the Ecuador rainforest was one we would never forget.
Credit: Janet Greidanus. www.canada.com; photo captions: a jungle waterfall and local family