Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ecuador - in the jungle

Lucy having breakfast with a large macaw
watching her every mouthful
Ecuador is about the size of England, but it has a much more diverse climate. The coast is tropical, then you head east and upwards into the Andes, where the altitude (even on the Equator) means there's snow on the high volcanoes.
In Quito, the capital, the weather is like a perfect summer day in England (although the sun can be much stronger). Once you cross the Andes, you descend towards the Amazon basin at the eastern edge of the country and things start to get hot and sticky again.
We were heading from BaƱos to Tena and Misahualli in the Amazon basin to experience some jungle heat, but the weather was remarkably cold in the jungle this particular week, so we found things warm, but rather quite pleasant - back to that perfect English summer's day.
The jungle area of Ecuador is where the oil is and jungle + oil extraction = a mess. We saw little of the worst excess. The Americans were the first to win contracts to extract oil and they made an unholy mess of parts of the country. The Chinese have now bought the next tranche of extraction rights and it will be interesting to see if they are more careful with this delicate environment (my cynical nature thinks that's unlikely). The oil towns we passed through, including one called Shell, were just sad-looking, cheaply built and fairly small. Think Whittlesey made from breeze block. None of the refining takes place at the point of extraction, this is simply an exercise in getting the crude out of the ground and pumping it away.
As you descend, the vegetation changes. There are fields of sugar cane, which is grown commercially, but also for personal use (mainly to make cane spirit) as someone in the west of England might keep a cider orchard. You also start to see banana trees, rather ugly things which, helpfully, bend towards the ground under the weight of bananas. The fruit grows in a massive bunch, perhaps 50-60kg, at the end of the branch.
We shipped up in Tena to have lunch and also watch the last of England's World Cup matches. The TV reception was decidedly ropey, but then so was the England performance. When you saw the skill and commitment of eventual winners Germany, we didn't really deserve to be there - they were a different league.
From Tena, we went to Misahualli (monkey town) a small port town on the Rio Napo, which is a tributary of the mighty Amazon and has its source in the melting glaciers at the top of Cotopaxi. The rivers form communication channels older than roads and they are still used to move goods and people about.
In Misahualli (pronounced miss-a-who-aji) you can hire a boat and take a day trip downstream to see indian villages. It's one for the tourists and, like other tourist experiences across the developing world, I suspect there's an uneasy relationship between people needing the tourist dollar and wishing all these people with cameras would piss off. After a short stay in Misahualli to see the monkeys and look at the river and port, we set off for our overnight accommodation. This was to be an Amazon hotel offering the unique jungle experience - wooden huts on stilts, no electric light, just the sounds of the jungle.
It took a little finding (another case of a tourist attraction, without basic marketing) and when we got there we found that our booking hadn't been passed on from the office in Quito and the place was full of American youths who looked as if they were on a field course, but were, perhaps, apprentice missionaries.
There were two lodges left, so we'd have to share with my sister. It didn't look too enticing, so Lucy gave them a stern lecture while we watched a long, long line of leaf-cutter ants carrying back chunks of leaves to their nest. Lucy managed to book us into an alternative hotel in Misahualli - the Amazon Lodge - and in the gathering gloom of evening, we set off back to monkey town.
We'd no idea where the hotel was and so Lucy stopped to ask some people in the main square. They said it was on the other side of the river and they would send a boat for you. It sounded unlikely, but when Lucy called the hotel, they said we should wait in the main square and they'd send a boat for us.
It was better organised than that: they sent a boat, but they carried your bags and also had a garage in town to park your car. The monkeys had disappeared from the main square and as we walked down to the boat, got ourselves seated, all the lights went out. It seemed a fuse had blown in Misahualli.
Sitting on the boat in the darkness
 The town is a port, but not one in a sense that we'd recognise in England. There are no docks or quays, just a beach. The boats are long, flat-bottomed craft with a high prow and driven by large, powerful outboard motors. Docking at the port involves running the boat up onto a sandy beach; everyone jumps out and goods are carried up the steps into town. In a shallow, fast-flowing river, it's the best way.
The Amazon Lodge Hotel has a similar beach, slightly more stony than sandy, and we were soon delivered to reception. This hotel was very nice - a massive reception area open at the sides, but well roofed and a collection of detached chalets set in lovely gardens alongside the Rio Napo. We were the only guests.
Next morning I had a wander around the grounds after sunrise (about 7am) and came across a bird table (left) with two huge, colourful macaws and a monkey sitting there eating fruit. It makes a change from tits and blackbirds. I got a little bit too close and the monkey was very interested in me (and what I might have to offer). When I turned my back, he took a leap and landed on my head, had a mouthful of hair and then bounded off. Later, at breakfast, he sat at the next table hoping for some scraps, while a large macaw sat on the rail of the verandah. The waiter shooed it away and it flew off across the river, a magnificent, colourful sight.

View of the Rio Napo from the Amazon Lodge Hotel (above) and
(below) one of the individual chalets