Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Amazon ... Ecuadorian style!

Zamora street art.
It was now time to get off the beaten track.  We had seen and done so much in Ecuador over our various trips over the years, but had never been to the south-eastern part of the Oriente (Ecuador's Amazon, where the Andes meet the lowland areas of rainforest in the Amazonian basin). We looked at a map and said, "Right, where to"? For all of Ecuador's beauty and fascinating places to see, the government does an appalling job at promoting tourism, and information, especially on places not oft visited is scarce.  But we were determined!  Ummmm, Zamora?  We were able to scrounge some information from the internet: "The bus ride here is itself worthwhile, with the road snaking down from the sierra past numerous waterfalls, giving occasional views onto miles of densely forested hills." SOLD!

The path less travelled. Zamora-Chinchipe
The bus ride was indeed spectacular! As we got lower we could feel the vegetation becoming increasingly lush and giant ferns were hanging over the road.  At 970 metres above sea level, Zamora has a gorgeous sub-tropical climate, quite different to the Andean climate for which the country is known. Zamora sits at the confluence of the Zamora and Bombuscaro rivers and the backdrop of steep, emerald green hills rising over its rooftops gives the town a lovely feel.  We liked it as soon as the bus rolled in.

Back to information ... what information?!  The tourist office looked like it had died a slow and prolonged death years ago!  Whilst Alex sat with the backpacks I walked around to see if I could find something, someone, something ... and I found Inza Coffee, a cafe run by a gorgeous Colombian couple ... who also had loads of information on what to do in the area. Colombians aren't just known for their good coffee ... they also excel at customer service. Sorry Ecuador, they leave you for dead on that front!  I called Alex over and we had a coffee whilst chatting to Linda and ........ about places to stay and things to see.  Great coffee guys! We would be back.  Our mission was to first find a place to stay.

Hanging out with Linda and Julian, Cafe Inza, Zamora.

Downtown Zamora.
What an interesting little town! The town centre is not necessarily physically appealing, but most certainly interesting.  Its main function was to service the local gold-mining industry. Absolutely full of Chinese workers, we had been told that they were employed mostly as engineers working on  number of hydroelectric plants; there's a a lot of water down this way.  Although not a place to spend days, it was still a nice spot to explore, with its markets, rivers and Shuar and Saraguro Indians milling around the neighbourhood, the latter in their distinguishable black shorts. We can highly recommend Hotel Iruna, which was spacious, clean and comfortable, with very helpful owners.

The highlight of the area really is the lowland part of Podocarpus National Park.  We spent a couple of days walking around and in it and it was indeed beautiful.  And what makes it even more so is the total lack of tourists.  It was a pleasure to walk around and take in the beauty with peace and serenity. Bubbling streams, enticing rivers, the sounds of exotic birds, rumbling waterfalls, paradise!

Podocarpus National Park.

Exotic fungus, Poducarpus National Park.
Days were spent hiking and taking in the area's beauty and nights at Inza Coffee where the lovely Linda would not only provide us with excellent coffee, but equally excellent food! To boot, she was a wealth of information on where to go and what to do in the area. Ecuadorian tourism offices move over! She mentioned Nangaritza.  Who'd ever heard of it?  And then she showed us some photos. OMG!!!!  We had to go there! The information on how to get there was scarce, but we were going to give it a crack!

Around Guayzimi.

Around Zamora.
It appeared that Guayzimi was going to be our next port of call then! We had asked around and from the small amount of information that we were able to collate, it appeared that we would be able to do it ourselves ... maybe.  We grabbed a bus and took off.  A small and unassuming town, with a small town square, our first job was to find a place to stay.  It was not that hard as we had so few places to choose from.  We ended up at Hotel Cueva de los Tayos.  It was run by the gorgeous Noe, and we were officially the first guests.  Brand new, modern, clean and safe, we had a blast there.  Noe was helpful and kind, and ended up taking us around to see things and offer us everything from breakfast to afternoon tea.  Tourists?  We were it!  With barely a sliver of information on the town or its surrounds who was about to embark on the unknown?

A lesson on how to make patacones with Rebeca.
Restaurants?  Good luck!  At night there was a little agachadito, or stall, from where you could buy some simple, but tasty, food.  It was there that we met the hospitable Juan and Rebeca. On our first night in town they took us for a walk to the cemetery, from where we were afforded some lovely views of the little town.  Over the next few days they would invite us to their house, just off the plaza, several times. I got to help Rebeca cook (and eat!) patacones (fried green plantains), yum!  They also have a little farm only kilometres out of town.  Rebeca would visit daily and tend to her chickens and garden. We also visited her there.  She cut us some sugarcane (the plant looks similar to bamboo) and we chewed on chunks.  Yum!  Unlike processed white sugar, it's far healthier for you, basically because it's not processed.

Around Guayzimi.
The area was lovely just to wander around, with beautiful views and some interesting, and small Shuar communities. The Shuar are an Amazonian indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru. The only tourists on the (very untouristic!!!) block, we definitely raked in some attention.  It was interesting to walk through their villages and chat to them. Although reserved, they were happy to chat when they could see that could speak Spanish and were making an effort. As is often the case in Ecuador, it's interesting to see the surprise on their faces when Alex tells them that he's Ecuadorian. They always think he's a gringo, or foreigner; it's the look, the clothes they say.  Too long in Australia, hey!?

Alex drinking 'chicha' with the Shuar, in Shaime.
Determined to visit the area around Alta Nangaritza with or without a guide, we took off early one morning on a day trip.  Las Orquideas is approximately 20 kilometres and only an hour away from Nangaritza, on the border of the Peruvian Amazon.  We arrived at about 8am.  A tiny, tiny town situated tight on the Nangaritza River, we chatted to a few people and finally organised a day trip with a local with a boat.  This would end up being one of the most spectacular days in our entire South American journey.

The river itself was spectacularly beautiful, surrounded by high sub-tropical mountains, breathtaking waterfalls and Shuar villages. We did it all! We went on a walk through lush vegetation, high up above the river and passing trees older than our brains could cope with (7000 years!). We were often up to our knees in mud (thankfully we were lent gum boots), but the views still blew our socks ... right out of our gum boots!  To say WOW would be an understatement. I felt like an extra in an Indiana Jones movie! We also visited Shuar villages, like Shaime (and drank the local fermented alcoholic fruit drink known locally as 'chicha'), and a number of waterfalls such as the Cascada Los Dioses (Waterfalls of the Gods). Wow, wow, wow, wow! Ecuador, seriously, you need to start promoting this hidden gem. We also walked within metres of the Peruvian border.  Set in the thick of the Amazonian jungle, this was once a war zone, and there are still live mines.  We saw the signs to prove it.

Day trip to Alto Nangaritza Reserve.
The labyrinth of a thousand illusions.
The day was not over yet ... we also visited the Laberinto Mil Ilusiones (the labyrinth of a thousand illusions), also set in the jungle.  The name says it all really!  More WOW factor ... mystical, exciting and eerily beautiful, I felt like I was now emerging as the protagonist in what could be the next Indiana Jones movie ... the title could simply be 'The Labyrinth of a Thousand Illusions'. I was feeling so incredibly blessed and lucky to see this enchanting place. Wow, wow and more wow! The day did finally come to an end, and we were soon enough back on the bus to Nangaritza.

Noe took us around with his car and showed us a few other places locally.  We also spent a Sunday with his daughter, Marlene, and her children who had come down from Zamora. One of the greatest pleasures of travelling is always meeting and spending time with the locals.

With Noe and his family, Guayzimi.
Waterfall of the Gods.
Our next point of call would be Macas (not of the hamburger kind!), also in the Oriente, and where Alex's uncle Jorge works. We would have to take a bus from Yantzaza.  As Noe has a house there, and goes often, he offered to drive us. The overnight bus would not be leaving until almost midnight so Noe allowed us to leave our backpacks in his house and explore the town until we were ready to leave.  A quaint little town with a not a lot to do, it was still interesting to walk around and observe the 'local life'. It's often these opportunities that give you an insight into the real culture of an area or country.


"If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door." – Milton Berle

Dedication:  To Noe, Marlene, Rebeca and your families.  For taking us into your homes and treating us like family.  Some people you remember, others you forget. You are the ones that leave a permanent imprint on our hearts. Thank you.

DedicaciĆ³n: Para Noe, Marlene y sus familias. Para dejarnos entrar en sus hogares y tratarnos como familia.  Hay alguna gente recordamos y otros que no.  Ustedes son de los que dejan una huella permanente sobre de nuestros corazones. Gracias.

Next: Catching up with Jorge in Macas and visiting Yasuni National Park, deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Remote, exotic, mostly untouched by tourism.  One of my dreams about to come true!

Boat ride along the Nangaritza River.

Flora of Podocarpus National Park.

Walk to Podocarpus National Park.
Zamora street art ... minus Alex!

Practising English with the Guayzimi locals.

Rebeca cutting us some fresh cane sugar from her property.

Alex and Noe enjoying a wine.

Serious looking local fauna.

The walk around Alto Nangaritza Reserve.

Alto Nangaritza Reserve, the trunk says it all!

Breathtaking Nangaritza River.

Podocarpus fern.

Locals crossing the Nangaritza River.

Local boy, Las Orquideas.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Revisiting my second home, Ecuador.

It's always fun times hanging out with my soul mate!
As soon as we crossed the border I felt totally at home.  It's usually like this when I set foot on the country that has become my second residence, and which I have visited countless times since 1999. You know that, sigh, I'm back kinda feeling! I was meant to be with Alex, I was meant to be here. This was just always all meant to be!  Macara is the border town on the Ecuadorian side, and it has always  held a special place in my heart.  Why?  Because when I backpacked South America in 1999, it was the place I crossed the border from Peru into Ecuador;  the locals were so helpful, friendly and generous that I have never, ever forgotten.  It was one of those travellers' minties moments that I have always carried around in my heart.  Little was I to know that only weeks later I would meet my soul mate and love of my life!

Rice fields of Macara.
Christmas with the family.
After taking a quick look around we ended up at Los Arrozales Hotel. The room was big, airy, clean and had air-con, which was fantastic given that it's both hot and humid in Macara.  It ended up being the perfect place to charge our batteries for a week or so. Alex has family that are from Macara, and so we spent some time with them.  For Christmas we were invited to his Aunty and Uncle's house, where we had a great night eating, drinking and hanging out with all of the cousins.  It was a really fun night.  Alex's Aunty Gladys and cousin Volney also came down from Quito.  It was lovely catching up with them too. Lazy days, relaxing, lots of eating (the food's good down here!), walking, visiting ... this is the life!

Strret art and family.

Living to a ripe ol' age in Vilcabamba.
We really wanted to visit the south-eastern part of Ecuador's Amazon, so it was clear that we were not going to get to Quito for New Year, but we did need to get moving.  Heading east we made our way to Vilcabamba.  Again, last time I was here was on my 1999 trip. My how it had changed!  The first thing I noticed, as we walked through the central plaza, was how many foreigners there were!  It really was 'pick the Ecuadorian'!  Vilcabamba has a reputation for breeding humans who live to a ripe old age and is very popular amongst tourists ... clearly! 

Vilcabamba home.

To be honest, I was a little shocked at how much it had changed and how many tourists there actually were (although I was one of them!) The area has over recent years attracted hippies and bohemians alike, both from afar as well as nationally.  The marijuana-chuffers and drunks always seemed to be sitting in the same place, at the same time, every day. I would often look at them and wish they'd disappear. I know these comments are highly judgemental, but visiting far-away places to see this just isn't my gig really!

Having said that, nobody can take away from Vilcabamba  that it is set in a historical and scenic valley with spectacular views and a superb climate.  Once out of the central plaza, there really is a lot to see and do. We spent many days strolling around, drinking good coffee (OK, that was around the plaza, but sometimes you have to make exceptions, hey!), and going on some breathtaking walks. 

Podocarpus National Park.
We visited Parque Nacional Podocarpus, which has one of the most biologically rich areas in the country.  It protects habitats at altitudes ranging from 3600 metres (near Vilcabamba) in the paramo to 1000 metres in the steamy rain forests near Zamora.  We did the former and a few days later the latter too! The day we visited the Vilcabamba side of the park it rained, and rained, and rained.  But then, that's nature.  Still very, very beautiful!

The 'widows' playing soccer.
And yes, we did end up spending New Year in Vilca, as it is now fondly referred to by both locals and foreigners alike.  All the usual Ecuadorian New Year's traditions and customs abounded, such as the burning of effigies at midnight and the 'viudas' or widows dressing up to signify the death of another year. The viudas are hysterical; men provocatively dressed up as women give everyone a good laugh!  I loved watching the viudas play soccer too.  Another custom is that when the effigies are burnt at midnight, you are supposed to leap over the flames ensuring a great new year! I was happy to simply watch others doing this and cut my losses, hoping that my following year would be reasonable even if I didn't straddle these great balls of fire!

With Nick.
New Year's dinner was at Pura Vida and I must say that the food was truly good.  Really, really, really (really!!!!!!) good olive oil. Seriously, South America does not really do olive oil, and what's imported is usually not much more than average.  One of the owners here is Spanish, and she brings in the good stuff! Good food and good company ... I finally got to meet you Nick Vasey!  You are great on Face Book and even better in real life!

Thanks for having us at your gorgeous property Nick. Just outside of the centre it's a true getaway.  Beautiful, relaxing, tranquil, spectacular views and ... the amazing coffee was a bonus!  I have  a lot of time for people who 'get' good coffee!

PS  Found a nice little coffee place, Del Paramo. Excellent coffee!


"Fun is good."– Dr Seuss

Next:  Ecuador's southern Oriente, where the eastern slopes of the Andes meet with the lowland areas in the Amazon Basin.

Macara river, dividing Ecuador and Peru.
Christmas with the family.

Macara by night.
Macara local.
Yogurt and 'pan de yuca' (casava bread).

Macara life!

Alex cathing up on the food he loves.

Out and about in Macara.

With the family.

Some of the Macara locals.

Wasn't going to stop until he tried all of his faves!

With Tia Gladys and Volney.

Family pic.

Fresh mangoes ... from the tree to our mouths.

Yum ... with Alex's cousin Tamara.

Christmas with the family.
New Year masks for the effigies.
Getting ready for the New Year.
Happy 2015!!!!
Supposedly jumping over the burning effigy brings you good luck!
Beautiful Vilcabamba surrounds.
Vilca street art.
Podocarpus National Park.
Nick's pet peacock.
Some more of Nick's 'housemates'.
Malacatos, close to Vilcabamba.
Peacock at Nick's.
Alex and cousin Volney, Macara.