13.05.2013 - 25.05.2013 28 °C
Ecuador had never been part of our plan, but all along our travels the people we met would rave about it, so before long that and the fact it could connect us to Colombia, became good enough reason to add another country to our tally.
Immediately things seemed different - we went from first class bus services to stop-and-pick-up-randoms every five minutes from the road side - and we always seemed to be the only travelers. We connected in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, for our chosen destination of Baños (also the Spanish word for bathroom or toilet!). Baños, the town of natural thermal baths, smoking volcanoes, endless outdoor activities, not to mention it being the gateway to the amazon. After a lot of hours travelling on a scary bus, plus arriving at the wrong destination and having to get on another bus, first (second and third) impressions of Baños weren't quite as expected. Rain, dirty thermal pools, a hidden volcano that was out of bounds to tourists due to the poor weather and lots of outdoor activities...that were out of bounds due to the weather. So we ate lots, drank lots and wrote and re-wrote our calendar plan from then until our home date - could we squeeze in a 4 day trip to the amazon? I'm sure it will fit somewhere... Could we squeeze in a 4 day trip to Galapagos? Probably not according to the bank balance but shall we do it anyway?
Turns out that Baños wasn't really the gateway to the amazon either - we could travel an hour to Puya for a jungle day trip but we wanted the full overnight experience, for which we needed to make our own way to Lago Agrio, 10 hours away. I make Baños sound terrible, in fact we had a great time and I would highly recommend for anyone to visit - the people were so friendly, and when the weather is fine there are lots of things to do. It's a great place for a real feel of Ecuador life. By the next evening we were on our way to Lago Agrio, the same scary bus travelling overnight with 3am police checks in the street before finally arriving at 5am. We waited for a few hours feeling tired, grumpy, unclean and somewhat bemused by the lack of organisation but by 9.30am we were bundled onto our mini bus and taken to our river canoe to start our adventure. It seemed a little strange that there were no other tourists due to be at our lodge, only Charlotte, a lovely girl from Germany who would be staying at the lodge to volunteer for a while. After 2 hours travelling along the river in the rain, we made it to our camp 'Cayman Lodge' and before long we were back in the canoe heading to the lagoon to watch the beautiful sunset.
We spent the next 4 days on what felt like a personal tour, no more tourists arrived and Charlotte had started her volunteering. It really was the real amazon experience we were looking for, our bedroom didn't even have windows - just an open space with a mosquito net over the bed to protect us from the jungle creatures. Our guide Washington took us out on a day walk - probably one of the worst experiences (for myself...Steve didn't seem to mind) given all the spiders including the Golden Silk Weaver below. Before heading back we had the chance to take a quick dip in the lagoon, this was a refreshing daily occurrence considering the sticky humidity. Unfortunately piranha fishing wasn't very fruitful except for the one fish we caught but it was a good thing we did it as the government is not that far from banning it. We felt lucky to have had the experience. Nighttime was filled with more jungle walks and cayman hunting in our canoe before being served a 3 course meal and retiring for bed by 10pm - with no electricity and no other tourists it became the best option! And also the best way to avoid the giant frogs that kept falling through the ceiling due to the rain. On the last day we traveled to visit a local community for a surreal shamen experience, shoot blow darts like the natives and learn how to make bread from Manatoka roots, the highlight though was definitely seeing the river dolphins on the way back - sadly not as social as traditional dolphins but awesome all the same.
On the last day, Washington woke us as 5.30am and took us out in the canoe to hear the morning sounds and do some bird and monkey spotting. That moment, sitting in silence at sunrise in the middle of a deserted lagoon, the chorus of howling monkeys, various birds and cicadas around us, was one of the most amazing moments of our entire trip.
Amazon adventure over, we spent the next couple days in Quito, frantically trying to find a good deal for Galapagos. The flights as standard were USD $400 per person and cruises, the usual mode of exploration, started at $600 for 4 days so we decided to take a risk by booking the flights and arranging the day trips ourselves when we got there. It was the right idea and within 12 hours we were flying to the protected Unesco World Heritage site of the Galápagos Islands. Sunshine and beautiful views greeted us and we spent the first day enjoying the town of Puerto Ayora. We even checked out the famous Charles Darwin Research Station known for it's conservation efforts across the islands. Then enjoyed the rest of the evening at the waterfront fish market where we bought the biggest, tastiest and freshest snapper, surrounded by begging sea-lions and pelicans awaiting the scraps.
The next day we visited Isabela island, the largest in the archipelago, famous for its marine life. Following a very queasy boat journey, we debarked onto a beautiful beach, complete with sea-lions and marine iguanas who were completely unfazed by the surrounding humans. After spending the day seeing flamingoes, sea turtles and giant land turtles, we headed to a lava island just off the coast - dense black rock with no growing vegetation due to the harsh conditions and the best bit - hundreds and hundreds of these black iguanas, everywhere! From the island we could look down into the shallow sea to see reef sharks and stingrays and before we knew it we were in the water with them, snorkelling amongst the intimidating marine life. Reef sharks might be tame and harmless but when they are bigger than you and they look just like the vicious monsters your brain associates with danger, you start to panic!
The next day we stayed on Santa Cruz island and hiked to Tortuga Bay, a beach known for its untouched beauty with the finest flour-like sand, the only thing spoiling the view was all the tourists! Our final day on Galapagos we headed to North Seymour island - a tiny lava island just 1.9 square kilometres. Small enough for us to walk around and take in the vast array of birdlife including the awesome blue footed booby and the magnificent frigate with its inflated red heartshaped gular pouch that expands on its chest to impress the ladies. Everything we saw on the Galápagos Islands blew our minds and the tame animals and birds were just incredible - it may not have been part of the original plan but visiting Galapagos was sure one of the best experiences of our whole trip. With just a few weeks and only 2 countries left, we flew straight to Colombia for our next adventure.