So back from Banos to Quito and I was very excited about the pending hook up with Kev and Claire, friends from back home in Brighton. We had arrange to stay at the same place, Hostel El Centro del Mundo in Quito's traveller´s ghetto, Marsical Sucre. Cue much excited screaming, jumping and shouting when we arrived practically at the same time - and off to the nearest watering hole!
What followed for the next two days was much drinking, merry making and story telling. K & C had flown in from Panama as they started their journey in Central America. Wednesday was a highlight (of sorts) as there was free rum and coke in the hostel. Well, they call it rum but who knows what it actually was. We awaited the arrival of their French friend Fabien then hatched an idea to visit Ecuador's slice of the Amazonian basin, known as The Oriente, as none of us had experienced the jungle so far on our respective trips.
Now the most popular method of visiting the jungle is to stay in one of the all inclusive jungle lodges that can be found down that way. These have mixed reports, we heard some complaints of being herded around with 20 other tourists, poor locations and at up to $100 a day we decided it would be far more exciting to go DIY and try to organise our own group when we got down there. So off we went on the overnight bus down to Coca, a jungle town from where you can (possibly) find a guide and everything else you might need.
We arrived in Coca just before dawn, and paced the streets looking for a hotel, breakfast infact absolutely anything that would take us off the darkened streets and away from the gringo hating hounds that were shadowing us (Claire has a real fear of our canine friends - not that these were in any way friendly). Starting to doubt our percieved wisdom, and as the sun rose, we were delighted to find a cafe opening up and enjoyed the best breakfast any of us could remember ever having.
Wandering around town we stumbled across a suitable hostel, cheap as chips with a lovely patio above the banks of the awe inspiring River Napo. The owner was keen to sell us tours to a lodge that he is affiliated with but we stuck to our original plan and set about trying to organise our own tour. With no shop fronts / agencies in town we found the Emerald Forest Blues Bar, owned by the famous jungle guide Luis Garcia. As luck would have it Luis was there, and he shouted us some free drinks in his private side bar, which is filled with photos, press cuttings and other memorabilla. And so we started putting together our 'dream team' for what was to be one of most memorable adventures on our trips thus far.
Luis himself could not come as he was looking after his son during the school holiday, but introduced us to Fausto, his apprentice, and Edison, who was to be our boatsman. We agreed on a four night trip which would take us down the Rio Napo to the Panacocha region for large tracts of primary rainforest and our best chance of wildlife spotting. At $50 a day including everything the price was spot on too.
We set off two days later in a motorised canoe, Edison at the helm, for the five hour trip down to the Panacocha. Needless to say, we were pretty excited. After stopping for lunch at one of Fausto's relatives huts next to the river, we pushed on down the Rio Napo and eventually up one of her tributary's before we arrived at the first campsite. When we agreed that the expedition would be a camping one we had envisaged putting up tents or sheets of plastic in a jungle clearing but what we got was far superior, we would be staying in different locations each night in disused jungle huts..basically we were squatting! So each place had a palm thatched roof, a few peices of old furniture and a fire pit for cooking. We would string up some mosquito nets, place some pieces of foam and hey presto a dry, insect free bed for the night. Edison and Fausto shared the cooking duties - great food and plenty of it.
I won't give you a day by day account of what we did, but basically we would set off in the canoe early doors, Fausto on the stern with his binoculars and pointing out monkeys, exotic birds, sloths, snakes....how he saw these things was beyond us! We enjoyed some jungle treks, observed giant 1000 year old trees, enjoyed pirahna fishing (they taste pretty damn good), kayaking (we borrowed two from some fishermen), night time jungle walks....all pretty damn amazing!
On the last night we expressed our desire for a drink so Fausto suggested that we visit his uncle and his family to experience Chicha, a traditional jungle brew made from fermented yams. This was also to be highlight. Uncle and his 8 children (plus wives, grandchildren and other family members) live a stilted long house on the banks of the Rio Napo. They have a muddy football pitch out front so we had a game of Europe v Ecuador, which suprsingly we only lost by one goal. Then it was onto the main event... bowl after bowl of warm Chicha which has the same smell, texture and probaly taste as a bowl of warm babysick. Throw in some local ´jungle whiskey´and we were off, dancing with the family, sharing stories of life in Europe and on the river...we did our bit for international relations! We ended the night at another ne of Fausto's family's jungle huts, all a bit hazy. Luckily Edison had the presence of mind to get us back into the canoe and back to Uncle's place...not so lucky for Fausto who had fallen asleep in the corner and had to trek back in the darkness.
We left the family the next morning for the five hour trip back up the river to Coca. After some emotional goodbyes we returned to the hostel for a couple of day's recuperation before heading back up to Quito. We talked about the trip for days after... a sure sign that we had an unforgettable experience.