Amazonia and After – Last Week in Ecuador

Our third major trip in Ecuador took us to the Amazon rain forest. We had booked a 3-night cruise on the Rio Napo (a tributary of the Amazon), and were looking forward to exploring this region of South America.

We flew from Quito to Coca, the main city of Ecuadorian Amazonia. We found that several things differed from our (perhaps naive) expectations. For a start, the River Napo is very wide – up to a quarter of a mile in places – and not the jungle river flowing quietly between tall trees that we had envisaged. It is muddy brown, very fast-flowing, and has many shoals and sandbanks along its length which constantly change position. The main activity along the river is oil production.

Rio Napo, with sandbanks

We knew we had to travel by motorised canoe to reach our boat, and had imagined gently pottering along a winding stream through the jungle to reach our new home. Instead, we roared at full speed down the Napo, weaving about to dodge sandbanks and the speedboats used by the oil companies to transport their workers. Another disappointment was the weather.  After experiencing a lot of cold weather in the Andes, we were looking forward to some hot, sunny weather.  In Coca it was reasonably warm, but travelling at speed in the canoe was like being in a wind tunnel, and we soon regretted not wearing warmer clothes.

Feel the wind in your hair ...

The riverboat itself, the Manatee, was up to expectations. It had three decks, and in appearance was a bit like a Mississippi paddle steamer without the paddles. Our cabin was small but comfortable, and the food was extremely good. Another expectation dashed, however, was that we would be part of a group of 30 people – in fact, there were only four of us on board, outnumbered two to one by the crew, who definitely gave us exceptional service.

The Manatee

The day of our arrival was mainly spent sailing downstream, getting stuck on a sandbank on one occasion and having to be shoved off by the ship’s canoe. In the evening (after dark) we did a short walk on shore, seeing a few insects, a snake, and thousands of really bright stars.

A coiled-up snake on our night walk

On the next day it rained. Oh, how it rained! We had a tropical thunderstorm at lunchtime, and heavy rain the rest of the day. The rain itself was not surprising – after all we were in a rain forest! – but we had not expected it to be so heavy, or last so long. We obviously hadn’t done enough research, because we hadn’t realised that this is the wet season in Ecuadorian Amazonia. However, we were given a clue when we boarded the Manatee, and were supplied with heavy-duty rain ponchos and wellington boots.

Before the rain started, we set off on a canoe trip up a narrow side river, and saw some wildlife, mostly high up in the trees. We saw monkeys, and toucans, and some of the weird hoatzin birds, which are large and ungainly and can hardly fly at all. The canoe was covered, so we were able to continue sailing despite the rain, but a scheduled walk in the forest had to be cancelled.  And we returned to the Manatee very wet and cold.

A toucan - quite a long way off

A Hoatzin bird

The next day was brighter and better. We went in the canoe again and managed to see some parrots licking clay from the side of the river – apparently it aids their digestion. We also went to a cultural centre, where local people sang and danced, and demonstrated traditional methods of cooking, healing and trapping animals. Afterwards we did a walk through the jungle to another parrot clay lick, though no parrots appeared. But it was good because we managed to see the jungle plants, insects and frogs close up for a change. Later on we went for a boat trip on a lake and managed to see some black caimans coming out of the swamps at dusk to hunt.

Parrots at the clay lick

Drummer, with assistant

Red forest flower

Tree frog

Our final canoe trip (back to Coca) was certainly exciting. There was a heavy fog that morning, and when we left the Manatee it was impossible to see anything at all on the river.  The canoe charged along as usual, for nearly two hours, with a crewman in the bows signalling to the boatman when he spotted obstacles ahead – but not far ahead, which led to some rather scary moments. Fortunately we made it in one piece, and were relieved to find ourselves safely on the plane back to Quito.

Fog on the river

Back in Quito

On the flight we got some good views of the volcanoes which surround Quito, including Cotopaxi. That afternoon we took the cablecar up the mountain to the west of the city. We got some fine views over the city on the way up and once we reached the top, but very soon the clouds came down and we saw no more. Later in the week the weather improved, with blue skies and hardly any cloud, so we made another trip up the cablecar to get much better views of the city, and the mountain peak of the volcano Pichincha.

Cotopaxi from the plane

View of Quito from the top of the cablecar

Pichincha volcano, above Quito

On Tuesday we went by bus to the so-called Mitad del Mundo (‘Centre of the World’) just outside Quito. One the way a guy jumped on to the crowded bus and started selling ice creams from a special container he held – a good example of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Stop me and buy one

Mitad del Mundo is a kind of theme park on the traditional site of the Equator, with a big monument in the centre.  Inside is a museum illustrating the different people and cultures of Ecuador. Like everyone else, we had our photos taken straddling the Equator line.

Ian straddles the Equator (1)

Confusingly, just a few hundred metres away is another theme park, Museo Solar Inti Nan, built around a different Equator, supposedly verified by GPS. So again we had our photos taken straddling this Equator. It seems that there may be several different equators, depending on how they’re defined! Our guide demonstrated several experiments, such as water going down a plughole in different directions each side of the line, but these were cleverly faked!

Ian straddles the Equator (2)

Museo Solar Inti Nan

Probably the most famous artist from Quito is Oswaldo Guayasamin (1919-1999), who was a friend of Castro and concerned to portray human suffering under oppressive regimes. We visited a museum dedicated to his work, and a nearby monument, Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man) which he designed, although it was only completed after his death. This is an impressive edifice, on a hillside overlooking the city.

Capilla del Hombre


An example of Guayasamin's polemical artwork

News from home

Back in February (many blogs ago!) we reported that Claire was expecting her second baby in October.  A recent scan has shown that it’s another boy. On her birthday (May 23) she and Raf went out to dinner, and afterwards he presented her with an engagement ring.  She is very happy, and busy with wedding planning as well as thinking of more boys’ names! The wedding will take place in Poland, probably in August 2012.

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