Sloshing Our Way Through the Amazonian Jungle

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Jaguar Lodge

Flag of Ecuador  ,
Monday, August 2, 2004

Following our somewhat gruelling, cold week of work in the highlands, we visualized ourselves lazily floating down the Amazon River in a primitive dugout canoe - what a warm picture of tranquillity. Well, as it turned out we ended up in a motorized dugout, thunderously racing down the angry Napo River en route to a damp few days in the Amazonian jungle in eastern Ecuador.

Several days previously, we had left the highlands behind, gradually descending to Baños - a picturesque, tourist town appropriately named for its famous hot springs. Innumerable agencies around the plazas offered tours in the secondary jungle of the area, but never liking to take the easy route, the Channers set out on another expedition further afield, in search of primary jungle.

Snaking along the Baños-Puyo road amidst spectacular scenery, with sheer drop-offs down to the Pastaza river, we stopped along the gorge to watch police trainees practising rappelling from a bridge. Deciding to pass on the adjacent bungee jumping being enjoyed by younger travellers, we elected instead for the more sedate cable car ride high over the river to the Bridal Veil waterfalls - still an exhilarating adrenaline rush. Ongoing construction of a series of long tunnels through the mountains created considerable delays, and we joined the other traffic being shepherded in muddy convoys on what remained of the original roadway along the brink of the ravine.

After Puyo, the road deteriorated even more into three hours of potholes and detours where several bridges had washed out. Although the international oil companies in the area seem to have limitless funds, they appear to be expert at destroying the environment without significant thought for road improvement. In sheer contrast to the state of the roads, and generally dilapidated surroundings of the provincial capital Tena, was the incredibly ultra-modern, sheer glass "Amazonian Ecological Polytechnic". In the final stages of construction, it sparkled like a five star hotel in the middle of nowhere.

With great relief at not encountering any major landslides, we eventually reached Misahuallí - quite literally the end of the road! Having experienced several nights of heavy rainfall, the river levels had risen significantly, leaving the powerful Napo River a swirling sea of rapids and whirlpools, with large trees and other debris floating by at high speed. We climbed aboard the fragile-looking dugout with some trepidation to begin our short foray into the jungle, and headed out into the raging torrent. Not to fear, our expert helmsman José was very competent and had a expect eye for the vagaries of the ever changing currents.

An hours high speed and exhilarating trip downstream brought us to Jaguar Lodge, just in time for a locally caught lunch of Tilapia. After a quick siesta we donned rubber boots and any manner of plastic protection available against the continuing tropical rain (having failed to purchase suitable plastic ponchos, we resorted to wearing fashionable garbage bags). On a three hour hike, our guide Selso made the jungle come alive for us - explaining the medicinal uses of the various plants and how to extract dyes and poisons, pointing out a boa constrictor, and showing us how to steam small termite nests to be used as an insect repellant. All the while we were sloshing along in our rubber boots through raging streams, being careful to avoid the deeper lagoons where the crocodiles lurked in wait for the inattentive tourist!

The rains abated by the next day, permitting us another river run to visit a local Quichua village. This particular community was located on an island in the river, formed some thirty years earlier from stockpiled floating debris, and the inhabitants were enjoying the facilities rent and tax free. The downside was that the island could one day disappear as easily as it was originally formed. There didn't appear much imminent danger though, as the island supported mature trees as well as patches of cocoa, coffee, maize, yams and bananas. Surrounded by ever curious children, we were fortunate to observe the weekly ritual of "chicha" preparation, and taste this local beer - a very potent brew! The late afternoon sun on our return to the lodge created exquisite colouring of river and sky alike.

Continuing torrential overnight downpours brought river levels dangerously high, resulting in a cancellation of two much anticipated activities - listening for night sounds on the river, and trying our hand at panning for gold. Reluctantly we began the return trip to Misahuallí, this time fighting the current all the way. At times we appeared to be going backwards, slowly making our way across the rapids, whilst dodging the ever floating debris.

Returning to Baños after one last rainy night in Misahuallí, the skies cleared to reveal the majestic, snow-capped Volcán Tungurahua towering above the town. After erupting in 1918, the volcano was considered semi-dormant for decades. This changed in October of 1999 when an Australian climber was badly burned by a gaseous eruption, resulting in the entire town being evacuated. Although still on orange alert, the town has gradually resumed business as usual, while Tungurahua continues to shake and blow its top on a regular basis. Driving a further 3,000 feet up the mountain opposite Baños, we were rewarded with a pleasant hour watching the eruptions, and the added benefit of another sighting of the distant yet magnificent Volcán Chimborazo sparkling in the setting sun.
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