After 3 months in Quito I was eager to escape its urban din and cross those mountains that looked down upon me every morning. Large cities become very similar no matter what continent you are in and I was getting sick of the walk back and forth to work, the endless lines of buses and incessant cars beeping and roaring around the streets. I had come to Ecuador to climb the Andes, mix with the indigenous tribes, learn from the people and bathe in the warm Amazon River not join the queues and hordes in inner city toil. At last Semana Santa (Holy or Easter week) was my chance to escape.
I had searched the internet for a place that provided cultural breaks and found “The Suchipakari Eco Lodge” which was situated on the edge of the Andes and promised the right mix of relaxation and adventure. It lay about 20 miles south of the town of Tena, a small city that depended on tourism and cinnamon as its main industries. I had to make my own way their but the bus fare would only cost around 10-12 dollars return and I was assured that a local would pick me up from the station when I arrived. So straight after work I headed off to the far edges of Quito and Quitumbe Bus station. By bus it was a good hour to get there so I splashed out for a taxi and zipped my way to the station reaching the busy depot just before 9 o’clock.
Latin America suffers from a stereotypical old fashioned reputation especially the Andean countries where you expect locals to be toiling up hills with donkeys and all the buildings to be tiny adobe walled huts however Quitumbe bus station was more modern than any bus station I had visited in Europe and easy to find your way around. The bus companies each had their own little booth and had their prices, destinations and timetables on view behind attentive and friendly staff. As the biggest holiday week in Latin America the bus station was heaving and people packed out the main hall. Couples were huddled together, kids scrambling about, whole families lying on mattresses and old women were wrapped in thick homemade blankets. Many locals were sipping on coffee in an effort to fight the evening temperature, as when the sun goes down in Ecuador the altitude kicks in and the bitter cold takes hold.
A ticket collector directed me to the proper terminal which already had more waiting passengers than possible for a 50 seated bus. There were a few families in the queue, each with large boxes and overfilled bags. An old woman held a cat in her arms and little boy trailed a wild eyed dog. As I leaned back on a post I heard a quack and looked around to see a couple of bags rumbling at my feet. It was a bag of ducks, alive and being transported along with us humans. I felt sorry for those poor birds tied up in a sack. As usual in Latin America there was a mini battle to get on to the bus and although I had booked a ticket I initially feared that I may not get on. Manners and politeness go straight out the window with the locals, its every man, woman and child for themselves and as soon as the bus driver opened his door the passengers barged, shoved and jostled their way on board. I only managed to get on because I was harder to budge and such a hassle to everyone’s embarkation.
I never find it easy to sleep on buses abroad, there is always the apprehension that someone may rifle your bags or pick your pocket as you snooze also tonight I had the constant meowing of the moggie two rows down and as result the squeaky pine of the overexcited mutt. (Luckily for me the ducks were stowed in the hold below). As it was a night journey the lights were turned off leaving the garish luminous glow like those of low end strip bars to enlighten the bus. I did managed to get sporadic moments of sleep in 10 -15 minute spells but as the journey was a good 6 hours I could hardly say it was restful. I remember waking for the last time after a mini snooze and watching the sun rise over the huge mountains.
The landscape had changed drastically and even within the air cooled bus you could tell the temperature had warmed gathered my gear together while the other passengers began to wake and ready themselves for arrival. I jumped off at Tena bus station, an old broken down building that hadn’t been cleaned or painted in decades. I did have a phone number to call but there was no answer after several attempts and it quickly became obvious that I would have to make my own way to the lodge. As it was early in the morning there were not many people about so I had to hang about until lazy taxi drivers started to show an interest. I finally managed to secure a lift down to the town of Misahaulli where I was promised I could get a 4×4 deep into the jungle where the Lodge was. I arrived in a small town 30 minutes later which had small monkeys nibbling on scraps on the street and chasing cats. These were the famous Capochin monkeys that stole tourists’ cameras and handbags, disappearing up trees with their bounty. Luckily, a local driver was able to leave immediately so we jumped into his new pickup truck and set off down a dirt track and into the never-ending foliage. Plants with huge leaves dominated the sides of the roads, wild banana trees and long grass and vines encroaching on the road and strangling the manmade structures. The only signs of inhabitants were the wooden shacks that were built on huge stilts to protect the owners from floods and crawly beasts below. The track road was uneven and rough and twisted like a long snake up, down and through the harsh terrain.
I managed to strike a basic conversation with the driver.
“Where are you from?” he asked in Spanish.
“Scotland” I replied.
“Where is that, in America?” he asked.
“No, in the North of Europe. Do you know the film Braveheart?” I asked.
“Ahhh, William Wallassh, with the skirts, ha ha” He replied.
“Yeah, that’s the one” I said.
He was middle aged and fairly overweight with a beer belly that spilled over his belt. He was wearing a yellow, Ecuadorian Barcelona shirt (they are the big football team from Guayaquil on the coast) and we were able to share our love for football, our teams and Lionel Messi. Like many taxi drivers the conversation he was keen to learn about the different types of whisky and the women in my country, fed him some invented information given that I knew little about either. After a further 30 minutes and a sore arse from the billion bumps in the road we reached another shack by a dirty slow river. Again there was no one to meet me or offer assistance. The only signs of life were to two horrible spiders lying in the middle of their vast webs that spanned the shacks rafters. I decided to ignore them ad tell myself they were probably harmless. I paid the driver and I reminded him to pick me up again in two days, he laughed and directed me up a dirt path to the Lodge. I could feel the mosquitoes nip my legs and many varied flies bump off my face as I traipsed up the track. There were a million noises made by a million insects, birds and anonymous jungle beasts all around me, this was their home and I was the intruder. In truth, despite the nervous excitement all I could think of was getting a few hours’ kip and maybe a shower before a pre-planned jungle trek in the afternoon.
I was welcomed by a worker at the entrance who needed a bit of coaxing, by showing my invoice, to let me into a room. My room was basic and completely assembled out of wood from the chairs, table and walls to the roof above. The sheets were clean and draped over two sturdy beds at either ends of the room, there was no TV nor internet but one electric plug to charge your phone or IPod. Thankfully there was a net covering the glassless windows as I knew at the dusk those dammed bugs and mossies would be eager to sneak inside. I dumped my stuff and joined a table where a group of tourists were already tucking into breakfast.
As is often the Lodge didn’t look as plush and luxurious as the internet photographs. It was fairly run down and struggling to strive within the jungle. It was really just a big shed decorated with indigenous paintings and ornaments and was attractive in a basic sort of way. It was surrounded by thatched roofed cabanas which were linked by narrow footpaths and shaded by grand palm trees. There was an old swimming pool out front which was full of dank water and green algae with some type of beetles skating on the surface. Large butterflies glided from tree to bush and wasps and dragonflies buzzed in and around the many exotic flowers. At the bottom of the garden were couple of raised platforms where you could lie in hammocks and gaze down the valley. The main reception was also a bar with a beer fridge and spirit bottles on shelves, there didn’t seem to be any computers but a large TV sat above the bar showing some early morning soap opera. In the main dining area there was an old pool table and 5 wooden tables and chairs and some furniture made from tree trunks. There were no windows leaving the whole place open to the jungle but a large corrugated tin roof protected everything from the afternoon downpours.
The other guests were already finishing their breakfast so horsed down my meal of exotic fruits, local delicacies and homemade coffee. I was just beginning to relax when a guide came to my table.
“We leave in 15 minutes, for Jungle trek” he said smiling.
I strained a smirk of faux enthusiasm but it betrayed my utter devastation at the news.