Saturday, June 27, 2009

rollin, rollin, down white water…

Julie’s cousin hosted a poker night the first weekend we were here in Ecuador and Andrew met some of Ryan’s buddies – all expats who are now trying to live in Ecuador.  One of them, Jeff, is a big, stern American fellow who’s big into rafting (he’s got a rafting gear store in the hostel he runs in Quito).  So in between shots of Ecuadorian moonshine Jeff invited us out to go rafting in the mountain rivers by a town called Tena.  He talked it up pretty good, saying how beautiful the scenery is and how the rivers are so remote that there’s nobody else out there.  So we modified our schedule slightly so that we’d meet up with the group in Tena.

We hauled butt from Banos to Puyo and then on to Tena in order to get out on the river. But after a pancake breakfast, rounding up the gear, getting everybody sorted and arranging a ride, we didn’t get out to the river early at all. And then while en route to the river, it started raining, getting us fellas in the back of the truck prematurely wet, and cold.

As we turned off the highway, local villagers rushed up to the loaded truck clamouring for the chance to be a porter and earn a few dollars. “Solo tres! Solo tres!” Jeff yelled out trying to limit the amount of people climbing onto the truck.  We could barely get ourselves together before an old guy took off with the raft on his back and two women carried the rest.  As we gingerly picked our path down the muddy, slippery clay horse trail we wondered how that old guy managed to nimbly navigate it with a couple hundred pounds on his back.Safety lesson

The canyon did not disappoint: it was gorgeous. Thick green foliage surrounded us as the turquoise waters tumbled around and over boulders between the vertical canyon walls.

Two of our crew had never rafted before, and Andrew was the only male other than our guide Jeff so it’s probably not surprising that weCLICK ME to visit the photo gallery had some navigation issues early on as people were learning the commands. We got jackknifed onto a big rock and admittedly Andrew was a little slow getting over in the boat thereby causing the boat to be breached. The water rushed into it, submerging it and sending everyone to one side of the boat to try and stay above the water. Oddly enough Andrew was the only one who got swept out of the boat, holding onto a rope as Jeff helped him back in. The force of the rushing water was so great that the gear was getting ripped out and the boat was getting bent around the rock. Finally Jeff managed to get the boat to cantilever around the rock, and even more fortunately held onto it as it suddenly regained buoyancy and took off down the river. So, we learned our lesson! But barely 10 minutes later we mishandled another tricky spot and got spun into a corner with no way out. This time our spotter had to throw us a rope to pull us out.

Shortly after the Jondachi River joins with the Hollin River we stopped for lunch. Oh wow was that ever a hard-earned lunch break!  With the two rivers combining, the water volume doubled which meant we had to paddle even harder to maintain our course. It was freakin’ tiring.

The last stretch of the river was actually quite relaxed – more gently burbling rapids instead of wild roaring stuff. although there were some spots with some big click to enlarge photodips that were pretty fun, especially when a wall of water crashed over the bow of the boat thoroughly soaking Julie & Andrew sitting in front. Julie got quite a few waves in the face – haha, funny even now…

So we started paddling around 1pm and didn’t get off the river until 5:30pm – it was a long day but super fun!

We capped off the evening by meeting up with some other friends who took us to their favourite restaurant in Ecuador – the Marquis Grille in Tena, famous for uber-cheap superb steaks, and an in-house sloth who just roams the rafters above you. Only in the jungle! :^)

Andrew says hello to the sloth (click for larger image)

Link to accompanying photo gallery

Ecuador kayaking:

Review of rafting:

Baños; a city in hot water

For a moment there we were feeling pretty brave, reserving a car to do a self-drive tour around the highlands and down to the jungle (The Baños-Tena-Quito Loop). But then the exorbitant cost of a rental car, coupled with the lack of a map and the experience of the stress of driving in a foreign country caused us to change our minds. And for the price of one day’s rental Click for larger viewwe hired a driver to take us all the way from Quito to Baños (about 3hrs away) in relative comfort and peace of mind. And Jorge knows  the area, stopping at the side of the road in Latacunga to buy some cheese wrapped in a banana leaf (queso de hoja).

On the way in to Baños we were offered  brilliant sourced from Flikr (ironmanixs)views of the Tungurahua Volcano spewing ash and smoke. I later regretted not stopping to take a photo as the conditions were never as good again.

Baños felt like a tourist trap, with tour operators on the corner of every block. We stayed at a musky old hostel in Baños called La Petite Auberge which is all creaky wooden floors and woollen blankets. It’s alright, nothing special, but the price is good and the host fellow really tries hard. The included breakfast of toasted baguettes, butter, jam and coffee left a little to be desired – so says Julie. I thought the homemade jam was sweet-as! [aaww…she didn’t like that comment]

We had three goals in Baños: Julie wanted to go horseback riding, Andrew wanted to soak in the hot baths, and Julie wanted a massage since Nuala had highly recommended a place here.  Through a little bit of clever scheduling we managed to get all of them done in one day!  The horse ride was unspectacular although it did provide a Julie looks the part of a cowgirlglimpse of the volcano puffing smoke through the clouds, but it was ruined with an unannounced additional charge for a visit to the guide’s buddy’s landslide-destroyed resort. 

After 2 hours on an uncomfortable saddle I was beat and was afraid that a soak in the hot baths would just put me right to sleep.  But the water is so hot in these CLICK ME! to see larger imagebaths (48degC!) that it totally reinvigorates you and I felt fantastic afterwards. Best $2 spent all day!  Unfortunately the massage found all of the knots that have been accumulating over the past few months and it was super painful. Probably should’ve stayed put with the $2 soak, or spent another $25 the next day for a follow-up massage to further massage my sore muscles.

Back at the hostel, we decided to make use of the fireplace in our room. The hotelier brought us some wood but while Julie was in the lobby waiting for some matches she ran into another couple staying at the hostel. As luck would have it, they were about to head out on a volcano tour.  Pablo was a photo-journalist based in Quito and had covered many of the eruptions of Tungurahua volcano. His enthusiasm for the volcano was fanatical: he dialled up the seismographs on the Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute ( using his cellular modem to see what sort of activity was going on up on the mountain at the moment, and then showed us his old pictures of past eruptions. The live (6min delay) data stream from the institute was pretty neat to see. After a couple of hours of driving around the hillsides to see if the cloud cover was dissipating we made one last stop.  Staring off into the blackness, we suddenly saw two glowing chunks come popping out of the volcano, softly glowing through the clouds.  “Did you see that!!??” Pablo excitedly shouted as all of us felt a shiver of excitement at seeing the molten lava shoot through the air.  Admittedly it probably wasn’t all that much of an explosion. A distant rumble could be heard shortly after but then the beast went back to sleep.  A few minutes later we checked the computer to see the jolt on the graph that we just witnessed.  Having seen something, we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel.

In the morning Andrew went out to the bus station to check the schedules to see when we could get to Puyo or Tena, and was assured by a New Yorker fellow that travelling on the buses was safe, given that you don’t leave yourself open. (Nuala and Ryan have done a marvellous job at telling us all of the horror stories that they hear at the embassy, so both of us are not too wary to ride the buses.)  Even though the buses seemed fine, Julie called up a another driver who’s ad we saw at the hotel and arranged for another ride.  Mr. Freddie was another pleasant fellow who showed us all of the waterfalls along the Pastaza River that flows down from the Andes to the jungles in the east.  It’s a great drive; very scenic, offering up dramatic views of the mountain escarpment dropping off into lush green jungle made all the more better with a large rainbow arching across the sky.

Oh, almost forgot. At the largest waterfall of the them all you can climbing up behind the waterfall crawl through a narrow tunnel to get to a platform that’s behind the roaring water. You get wet but it’s pretty neat!  The little cafe offers lovely views of the valley and here Andrew discovered another new fruit – babaco, which makes a tasty fruitshake.

The pictures of this edition are here:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Exclusive frog concert in Mindo

Another good day trip out of Quito, well, more of a weekend trip, is to go to Mindo.  It’s lower down the Andean slopes so it’s back into the jungle and the cloud forests.

It’s a big of a long drive through a winding valley but the views are nice and at the right time of day the sunsets through the misty mountain tops are spectacular.

We stayed at Mindo Lago as recommended by Ryan and Nuala. It’s a pretty nice place, built up around a little pond with a few cabins on one side and the main dining hall opposite.mindo lago

As we wandered around during the day we could hear lots of frogs singing but nothing like what we would hear that evening during our “frog concert” tour. The owner is a bit of a frog fan and with his little tape recorder he coaxed specific frogs into singing by playing back the relevant croak. Then he’d point them out on the lily pads when they responded. It was pretty neat! Fortunately the owner’s daughter was back home so she could translate for us too. He took us on a short walk in the woods around back and showed us these uber-bright fireflies. They look like glowing embers from a fire floating in the air. Another interesting sight was a phosphorescent bacteria decomposing a piece of wood. Shining a light on the wood reveals nothing, but in the dark the interior of the wood is glowing blue with these bacteria.  After that he spotted a massive cockroach up on the tree above us. We quickly moved on…

Butterfly in Mindo Lago's butterfly house

There’s also a butterfly house at the place that houses a bunch of colourful butterflies and various local flora.

The food here is pretty good too. I recommend their “meat on volcanic stone” which is a nice piece of steak sizzling on a hot slab of rock. We were also introduced to a new variety of potato – the yuca. It’s a bit more fibrous but tastes pretty good fried up as wedges.

Mindo’s claim to fame is the handful of zip-lining outfits set up in the valleys around town.  We went to Mindo Ropes & Canopy (Mindo Lago gave us a discount there) and had fun zipping across the cables. One trick they do here is where a guide goes with you and holds you in a “superman” position thereby allowing you the sensation of flying over the valley. It’s pretty neat.

Ziplining in Mindo

We sort of got stranded in town when our cell phone ran out of credit and we couldn’t call our driver to come pick us up.  The stores in town didn’t have any more recharge cards until 4pm (beats me why – I guess the bus bringing more arrived then?) and we were also stuck with only 20-dollar bills and couldn’t buy anything since nobody had change.  We found lunch at one of the Lonely Planet-recommended spots in town and waited until our ride arrived.

Pictures of Mindo: 
– Look for the “slideshow” button at top=right of the page. Hit F11 for glorious full-screen viewing.