Sunday, 26 February 2012

Otavalo and The Amazon Jungle

Our first excursion from Quito was to Otavalo, a small city nestled in an Andean valley ~2 hours north of Quito. Heeding warnings from our host family and Spanish teacher, we attempted to pre-purchase bus tickets for Saturday on Thursday afternoon. Our teacher accompanied us to facilitate the process (navigating Quito by public transit has proven exceedingly difficult, primarily due to the lack of hard copy or internet-based information about routes).

After a 40-minute bus trip, we arrived at Terminal Ophelia only to learn that buses for Otavalo now depart from another station, Terminal Carcelen, further to the north. Another bus brought us to Carcelen in about 20 minutes where our teacher ascertained that it was not possible to reserve tickets for a future day. Le sigh. Mildly perturbed, we thanked our teacher for at least trying to help us out and made our way to La Mariscal in search of Quito's main post office. Earlier in the week we'd attempted to send a parcel to Canada via the small post office in Old Town but, to our surprise, it did not stock packaging materials. We were directed to an office supply store in La Mariscal that had what we wanted. I almost felt like I should inform the post office that they were missing out on a very lucrative part of the postal service but whatever. They'll figure it out eventually.

Friday evening marked our last dinner with our homestay family. We gave them a bottle of wine as a thank-you gift and they elected to share it with us that night. The family had also welcomed two new guests: a couple of German girls, one of whom was there for work and the other to travel. I didn't realize our host family had so many rooms! Actually, Beatriz told me they are planning to renovate their house into a hostal over the next year or two. Que chévere!

In the hopes of beating the crowds, we left for the bus station very early on Saturday morning, picking up Christa en route. The line-up for Otavalo tickets wasn't overwhelmingly long and we reached the front pretty quickly. Chris and I bought our tickets and then waited while Christa got hers. Only when she rejoined us did we realize our folly; they put Christa on a different bus than us in order to fill up the single seats remaining on an earlier departure! We tried to explain that we wanted to travel together but had no luck. So we waved goodbye to Christa and hoped we'd see her at the hostel in Otavalo. As it turned out, our issues with the bus system were not quite finished. Not a major fiasco, but, when we boarded our bus and made our way to our assigned seats, #s 40 and 41, we discovered that the bus contained only 38 seats. The driver directed us to two seats near the back where we remained despite a few other travellers eyeing us with confusion as they inspected their own tickets, also bearing seat #s in the 40s. In fact, we overheard one woman state that she had been assigned the exact same seat numbers as us. I guess you can expect a certain amount of error when the bus companies write out their tickets by hand and bus capacities vary or one bus replaces another at the last minute. Regardless, we were granted seats and made it to Otavalo without incident. Entirely without incident, no less; Chris wasn't sick at all!

Otavalo turned out to be bigger than we'd expected but it was only a short taxi ride to Hostal Chasqui where we reconvened with Christa. She and I ventured out in search of coffee while Chris took a nap, presumably still feeling the effects of the Gravol he'd taken prior to the bus ride. I found walking around Otavalo considerably less sketchy than in Quito. Christa and I found a restaurant and sat down to breakfast, grumbling in unison when we realized the coffee was instant versus brewed, as we'd hoped. After a few minutes of Christa picking at her undercooked eggs and me apprehensively probing the mystery meat on my plate, we left unsated but, fortunately, only a few dollars lighter in the wallet. We retrieved Chris and headed for the market areas of town. Wow. Hundreds upon hundreds of stalls adorned with a cornucopia of textiles and artisan wares (allegedly) manufactured by local indigenous people. For a while we just wandered and "window-shopped" but eventually we bolstered the nerve to try our hand at bartering for a few items. I tried on a few chompas (zip-up sweaters) while Chris snapped photos so I could see how they looked (no full-length mirrors in the market!). After considering Chris and Christa's votes, I chose one and it was time to barter. Fortuitously, I'd managed to eavesdrop on the merchant's earlier exchange with another group of travellers and knew he'd refused to drop his price below $25. We haggled back and forth from either end of the twenties, settling on $25, as I'd surmised. Meanwhile, Chris launched an enthusiastic campaign in support of the local economy, selecting and bartering for some neat artwork and handicrafts. Although I teased him that he wanted to buy everything and, of course, seized the opportunity to point out the counter-gender-stereotypical behaviour, I was actually glad that he picked out some things for us because I am notoriously inept when it comes to shopping for art/household accessories. I know I'll be glad to have those artefacts when we are settled somewhere in the future, reminiscing about this year.

During our hours wandering the blocks and blocks of the market, we frequently fell victim to the regional Carnival tradition of surprise assaults with "Spuma de Carnival": aerosol spray-foam. To us, it appeared that this activity was reserved for combat between los niños (children) with one blatant exception: tourists are fair game. We never saw another adult get sprayed aside from being collateral damage in the prepubescent mock warfare constantly erupting around them. The three of us, along with other tourists we encountered, were certainly not spared from the mayhem. In truth, it was a only mild nuisance because the foam dried within minutes, leaving no visible residue on our clothes and only a bit of extra sheen in our hair. The foam actually smelled pretty good too.

After spending the night in Otavalo, we hired a taxi to take us up to Parque Condor, a Dutch-owned bird-of-prey reserve that overlooks Otavalo and the surrounding farmlands. We arrived in time to watch the interactive show but were disadvantaged by our limited Spanish comprehension. Nonetheless, we got to see some pretty cool birds in action, including a bald eagle, various falcons, hawks, and owls. All the birds were rescue animals or donated to the refuge for rehabilitation. At least that's what they said... They seemed well-cared for in any event.

When we'd finished exploring the refuge, we hovered around the entrance for a few minutes before conceding that we were unlikely to find a taxi this far from town. We began walking, decidedly happy to get some exercise and be able to enjoy the views from the road. And then one of the passing cars "spuma'd" us. Haha. We weren't safe anywhere! Eventually we made it back to Otavalo where we grabbed a quick lunch and then walked to the terminal to catch a bus back to Quito, this time ensuring that we bought our tickets together.

Chris and I had left our big packs in Christa's dorm so we returned to her place to reorganize our stuff and prepare for our impending bus trip to the jungle - we'd arranged with our teacher to take an overnight bus to Rio Cuyabeno on Sunday in order to spend the next week at a lodge in la selva (the Amazon jungle). We were told the trip would take between 8 and 10 hours, depending on traffic and weather, etc. Needless to say we were really excited about that...

It was far FAR worse than we'd imagined. Seriously. I thought I'd had scary bus rides before. Nope. This one was positively terrifying. It didn't help that I felt sick just before getting on the bus. Not nauseous... the, errm, other sort of affliction... Miraculously, I held it together (ahem) for the first half of our journey, despite being tossed and bounced around for hours (after yet another incident of overbooking the bus, we were shunted to the back seats even though we'd purchased seats near the front). At about 3 am our bus became stranded at a bridge gridlocked with traffic. After surveying the chaos of transport trucks, buses, and angry travellers  for what seemed like an hour and weighing my discomfort against all conceivable risks of disembarking, I finally succumbed to the (harpy-esque) call of nature and ventured into the blackness to find a "bathroom". In my stupor I'd managed to forget to bring toilet paper with me but was saved by our Spanish teacher, who'd (prudently) followed me from the bus to ensure my safe return. I'm sure that's a bit TMI, but, I felt it was pertinent in order to really convey the ordeal.  However, my torment seemed a delight in comparison to how Chris fared throughout the trip. Yes, he was struck with motion sickness again. Severely. And who could blame him!?! Blech. It was an awful awful bus ride. And it lasted for 9 hours. Enough said.

Finally, a few hours after daybreak, we were dropped off at a bridge - we'd reached the Rio Cuyabeno, the launch point for the remainder of our journey. A group of about 10 other travellers was already assembled at the launch area and we endured a few of their inquiries before pleading exhaustion from our trip. Shortly afterwards, we found out that we were not going to the lodge we'd been told about (Yarina) but would be joining the group and heading to nearby Cuyabeno River Lodge. Fine. Whatever. We were happy as long as wherever we ended up had beds. Twenty minutes travel by motorized canoe and we arrived at the aforementioned lodge, which consisted of cabañas branching off a raised boardwalk that ran the length of the riverfront property and a larger central building with a kitchen, dining area, and office. Immediately after reaching the top of the stairs from the water, we were served a hot breakfast (it was almost 10 am but I guess they take their 3 meals/day very seriously). 
Young boy who was adopted by the lodge owner after being abandoned
there as a baby. We fancied he looked and acted just like Mowgli from
the Jungle Book.  :P
Next we were shown to our "matrimonial" accommodations, once our teacher rectified a miscommunication that had lead to all three of us being booked to share a "group" cabaña. It was a fairly rustic hut, primarily constructed using wood panels made from deadfall, but it did have a private bathroom with running water and the grass/palm frond roof appeared to be wholly intact.  Harkening the incessant chorus of insect and bird calls from the jungle, we eyed the bug net hanging over our bed, nervously noting the pony-walls and widely spaced floorboards that left our abode open to the surrounding wilderness. Fortunately, the lodge's summoning bell distracted us from further contemplation of the matter.

Unwilling to resign their guests to potential boredom (rest!), the staff had arranged a hike through the jungle to precede lunch. Although extremely weary, we indulged them and joined the rest of the group for the rainy trek. It was pretty cool to take a moment and realize that we were actually in the Amazon rainforest. We saw many butterflies, a few birds and our guide pointed out a some plants of significance to the indigenous people. After lunch we forced ourselves to take a 2 hour Spanish lesson before finally retiring for a short nap before dinner.

Our 8-legged roommate... The light color wood panel
to the left and behind was 4 inches wide, for scale. Yah.
When we were leaving our cabaña to head to the dining room, I turned back to get something from the room and as I reached over to open the gate (=the door) I saw 4 long, spindly legs dart down around the post. I leaped back in terror, sputtering to Chris that I'd seen a big spider. Big. Massive!!! I persuaded Chris to peer around the post and he confirmed that an enormous spider was indeed trying to hide in the corner joint between our pony-wall and the middle of the door post. Chris removed his sandal and I thought he was going to try to whack the spider with it. All I could imagine was the epic failure of such an endeavour, complete with our 8-legged guest (or were we the guests?) running wounded up my leg to bite the suspected perpetrator of its injuries. Yah, no thanks. In actuality Chris was simply planning to use the sandal as an invulnerable extension of his hand in order to open the gate. This I gladly permitted, standing as far back as I felt I could get away with while still appearing to support my valiant man. Once the gate was opened, we mustered our courage and ran through the entryway, about-facing to reconfirm the location of the spider. It was still there. And it was still huge. Approximately the size of my hand. /GULP. Well, welcome to the Amazon I guess. Definitely the biggest living spider I have ever seen without a pane of glass separating us. At that moment I developed serious concerns regarding the integrity and effectiveness of our bug net...

With great trepidation, we snuck back out the door and joined the others in the dining area for dinner. By the time we returned, the spider had retreated to the rafters (yes, we actually took pains to locate it with our headlamp - also found 3 more large spiders lurking above...) and was no longer an immediate threat. But we had a new roommate to contend with. Several new roommates, in fact. Cockroaches. Yep. I am more grossed out by cockroaches than terrified. Typically. But in the dim light of our cabaña, every little insect appears more menacing. Heck, every knot in the wood panels or shadow in the corner appears menacing! It was actually pretty comical how on edge we became as soon as the sun set. Justifiably so, but it still made me feel a little ridiculous to jump three feet whenever a moth inadvertently flew into my head. The first night I was admittedly pretty freaked out but fatigue from our night on the bus got the better of me and I slept rather soundly. The bug net did its job.

One of many precarious crossings during a hike in 
the Cuyabeno reserve.
The remainder of our days at the lodge were spent hiking through the jungle and taking boat trips to the nearby laguna and an indigenous community. The hiking was not too strenuous apart from some very precarious crossings of Cuyabeno's tributaries... We had an opportunity to fish, bating our hooks with some sort of red meat. There are many types of fish in the river but I think we were fishing for piranhas. At least I was imagining piranhas when I felt the spastic "nibbles" on the end of the line. I donated several morsels to the fiends beneath the surface but didn't catch anything. One of the other girls caught a little fish and the kitchen staff cooked it up for her when we got back to the lodge!
Mist on the Rio Cuyabeno

Speaking of the kitchen staff... a rather amusing thing happened involving the guy that served us our meals. One rainy afternoon I'd slipped on the walkway en route back to our cabaña and snapped the toe-strap of a flip-flop. They were only a $5 pair from Canadian Tire and I reckoned they'd served me well enough during our stay in Costa Rica so I tossed them in the garbage in our bathroom. The next day I happened to glimpse the server's feet and noticed he was wearing my discarded sandals! They were a bit too small for him but the broken strap appeared to have been repaired. I guess this perfectly exemplifies the idiom "one man's trash is another man's treasure"!

Chris helping in the kitchen.
During our long journey by boat to the laguna we saw four species of monkeys and glimpsed a freshwater dolphin. We also saw several Amazonian green kingfishers, various herons, anhingas, vultures, a wild turkey, and lots of other birds that I can't recall the names of or which we weren't given the English name of. Our visit to an indigenous community was a less interesting than I'd hoped. The guide didn't give much info about them or show us around aside from taking us out to the area where they grow coffee and yucca. We watched as an indigenous girl prepared pan de yucca from freshly-harvested yucca. Chris actually helped shred the root. It was surprisingly tasty despite not having anything in it besides yucca.

Baby monkey at the indigenous village.
The main lodge at dusk.

When we were at the lodge we found out that it was possible to catch a flight back to Quito from one of the nearby towns. Chris was eager to investigate this opportunity to avoid another horrific bus trip and, with the help of our teacher, we arranged for one of the lodge staff to purchase us plane tickets. Unfortunately, it turned out that the airplane was grounded for repairs until the following week. Our teacher managed to find another  alternative - a private van that could reduce the trip to 6 hours. Even though it meant taking the same route back we figured it was a better option than the bus. We were correct. It was actually a beautiful drive in the daylight. The Andes are spectacular and we even caught a glimpse of an active volcano a few hours before we reached Quito.

All in all it was a cool excursion and we also met some nice people, including two Argentinian sisters that we hope to reconnect with when we make our way further south in a few months. However, recognizing that we spent the majority of our time enjoying the jungle and not taking our Spanish lessons, we re-evaluated our plans to study-and-travel next week. We've decided to just study in Quito for another week in the hopes that we will actually learn a bit more Spanish before we head off to other parts of the country. AND, we are moving back in with our former homestay family! Hurray for REAL coffee again (the jungle lodge only provided instant coffee, which really doesn't deserve to be called coffee). We're not ecstatic about moving back into our mini-dorm but all the other perks will make it worth it!

1 comment:

  1. I find the sandal incident an interesting reflection on the differences between the "rich" nations and other nations.

    Look forward to the next update!