Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Amazon Jungle (Cuyabenyo)

First I'd just like to point out that after the last post I added photos to lots of preceding posts, so if you've not seen them you can go have a look!

Well it was an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, departing around 11pm. You had to buy the bus ticket yourself at the station, even though I was on a tour to the jungle, as people had the option to fly if they wanted to (pay for it). Anyway, I thought there'd be some other gringos at the bus station heading to the jungle, but no, I was on my own again. I slept pretty badly at first, especially since there was a group of guys playing music videos on their laptop just behind me. Eventually I did sleep pretty soundly, evidenced by the fact I had to be woken when we arrived in Lago Agrio and everyone else was off the bus.

Lago Agrio was a crappy little town with nothing to offer, and supposedly a bit dodgy (quite near to the Columbian border here). It was 0630 when I arrived and I found my way to the hotel where I was supposedly to meet the guide at 930. There was still no other gringos, but I settled down and had my breakfast. Before I finished a driver from the company turned up for me. Unfortunately he had no English and indecipherable Spanish, only a little sticker with the tour company's name on it. Despite the fact it was much earlier, and I was expected to be met my an English speaking guide, I went off to the car with him, relatively confident that I wasn't going off to tea and scones with FARC. It was going on for 2 hours in the car through the junglish scenery before we got to the checkpoint on the river where I was to switch to a boat. Unfortunately I couldn't communicate with the wee driver guy so didn't know how long it would be. After hanging around for an hour or so the boat came and I got lunch with 4 guys who were on their way out form the jungle before I got onto the wee motor canoe to head down the river. It was just me, the driver, and a small hyperactive child who seemed determined to sink or capsize us. It was nearly 2 hours down the river, with stops to view monkeys and an anaconda before I got to the camp. Here it was deserted, with the English speaking guides out on trips with people, so, not too impressed, I just went to my hut and had a snooze. Eventually people got back from trips and I went to find out what was going on. There were a lot of people around, each day around 10 people had came, except my day, when it was just me. Basically I was just going to be stuck in the other groups randomly, again not too great.

Anyway, that evening I was to go off and see the sunset with one of the groups. Eventually it was decided which one and I was off with the guide George and his group of around 12 to go for a swim in the Lagoon and watch the sunset. The swim in the lagoon was good, despite being told many of the group went piranha fishing nearby the day before. The water was warm compared to the Galapagos, but not so deep - you could often feel the weeds on the bottom. It was a pleasant swim and the lagoon was a lovely place for sunset. We waited a while for the sun to go down and then went hunting for caimans and other wildlife. To find a caiman you go along the river in the boat an shine your torches along the river's edge (or rather other people so as my torch is small and pathetic). When you see the two firey red dots, that's their eyes and you go up for a close look. As we were told the eyes really were obvious. After quite a while searching we found quite a small one, which hung around a bit when we pulled up to it, and a large one which buggered of quite quickly when we got close. We also saw a tree boa, which is quite a small snake. We waited interminably while energetic Frenchman and weird Spanish photo-boy took thousands of photos of this tiny snake and then headed back for tea. Food was fine, but not as good as the Inca trail or Galapagos. There was actually a lot of really nice people here and the beer was reasonably free flowing in the camp at night. There was supposed to be a night walk to see insects I could go on, but no one told me and they went without me. I did meet some good people, including two Aussie girls, a Dutch guy, a Dutch couple and an Anglo-Spanish couple. Unfortunately most of them left the next morning. That night a large tarantula did appear on the roof of the dining area. I didn't take a photo as I thought there'd be plenty more, but turns out this was the only one (I'd heard stories of people waking up with 3 of them sitting on top of their mozzie nets).

The next day I was messed around again. Today was to be a canoeing trip. There were two groups going. First I was to go with one and then the other and then back again. I got so far as getting into the motor canoe to go off with one group before being told it was too full and I had to go back. I was told the second group would go at 10am, so I went for a wee nap and returned at 950 to find they'd gone without me!! I was pretty grumpy now, but the guide who was heading into town with the group who were leaving (he needed medical treatment after getting a chunk bitten out of his finger the day before, part of the reason for the guide problem) managed to get me a taxi out to meet them on the river somewhere. Thankfully he found them reasonably quickly and I was just about able to squeeze into the canoe with the 4 others plus guide, though I didn't have a seat and had to sit on some cushions. Well the canoe trip proved quite a trial. I was second, behind a big Mr Muscle Dutch guy, with his Norwegian girlfriend, Sarky English girl and Canadian girl behind me. You'd think Mr Muscle could put some power down, but he turned out to be the most lazy useless eejit going, and it soon became clear he and his girlfriend didn't have 2 brain cells to rub together. The canoeing was actually good fun and the scenery nice as we paddled through lagoon after lagoon. However, Eduardo who was guiding us had no English, and we had little Spanish. After 2 and a half hours we began to wonder if we were back, but no, that was when we turned around and went back exactly the way we came. We'd had no idea how long we'd be out for and it was pretty hot. It took another us 2 and a half hours to drag the lazy Dutchman's ass back to the camp and we were well knackered when we got there. 5 hours was a long time to be out paddling in the sun, and we were a relatively young, fit group. Anyway, we agreed we'd enjoyed it though it was exhausting and we didn't see too much wildlife. Back at the camp we had a very welcome lunch and had a bit of time to kill before we went Piranha fishing and to see the sunset and hunt Caimans. Most of this was spent reading in hammocks at the camp, and playing with the resident tame monkey (Pancha) who was very friendly, but gets a little excited and looses control of her bladder. The other resident animal is a cat who can barely walk. This is probably to do with her tendency to lie under the dinner table and thus get stood on repeatedly. We were bitching about our long canoe trip dragging lazy dutchman (who compounded his bad favour with an impressive display of snoring from his hammock) when we found out the other group had fared far worse. They were in two canoes, had been unable to steer, and had managed to capsize one of them after someone had abandoned ship to avoid banging into a spiky palm. Cameras had been saved but there was a lot of wet equipment and passports.

Anyway, the piranha fishing was fun, though again we were with Eduardo who had no English. The 3 others fishing had done it the day before when they had English instruction. I'd like to think that was the reason why I was the only one, including the guide and driver, who didn't catch anything. Those who caught big ones did get to eat them. We were still fishing when the sunset came, so didn't get to go back to the lagoon and swim. However, it was a nice spot and the sunset was a good one. We didn't really get to see any Caimans on the way back. After dinner English and Canadian girl continued with their gin-rummy addiction and I chatted to some of those from the night before, and also met two nice Belgian girls (Maaike and Karolienen) who'd just arrived that day. Once more the night walk went off without telling me! 

Next day, once again my group from the day before left, but I was put in a nice group with the two Belgian girls, a German guy and 8 German girls! We also had a good English speaking guide who really new his stuff. This day we were to go down the river to the local village. We took our time on the journey down and stopped a few times to view wildlife. We saw an anaconda, and some monkeys and sloths. A highlight was we stopped and saw a pigmy marmoset, this is a tiny monkey, the smallest in the world. Goodness knows how the guide could see it! We also stopped to hear marching wasps marching, which they did when we shouted at them. In the village we got lunch, then saw a demonstration of a woman making Yucca bread (only ingredient, Yucca) right from the stage of pulling up the tree. This was more interesting than it sounds and quite tasty. Next we got to meet the Shaman! I'd been warned by other groups that this was a bit of a charade, and that hit when age was provided by a random number generator. I think he was 95 when we met him. He made some kind of exotic cigarette for our guide before giving a bit of spiel and cleansing one of the group of bad spirits. His house featured quite an incongruous calendar with pictures of kittens on it, but he seemed quite cool, and had very freaky feet with his toes all splayed. I file this one under not to be taken too seriously.

We headed back at a reasonable speed and had a bit of time in the afternoon to go swimming in the river right by the camp. Here there was quite a current, and you couldn't help feeling you got the occasional nibble from something now and then! Occasionally a boat with some more elderly tourist would come by and look rather bemusedly at us. But this was a lot of fun. In the evening we went back to the lagoon for sunset and then finally off on a night walk. We saw some good wildlife on the lagoon, including the moonbird, which sits very still and is incredibly hard to spot, but has an enchanting song at night. Off on the night walk we saw a variety of insects that reminded us to make sure our mosquito nets were very secure at night. There were various large spiders (wolf, scorpion, tiger), jungle lobsters, snails, ants, grasshoppers and the like. We got the boat back to camp for tea, and then had a nice evening where I was compelled to break open the remains of my Crystal, which the guide seemed to think was good stuff. We played jungle speed, a game which the Belgians kindly provided. I was still trying to use my few Dutch words and pick up some more, but I made an embarrassing mistake due to a word having different meanings in Holland and Belgium, but I think this says more about how the Flemish think! I also learned something our Inca trail guide was getting us to say when we took photos was rather unsavoury too! In the end we were up quite late watching an approaching thunderstorm and the shooting stars (Vollensterren!).

As always I was about last to bed and first up in the morning 5 hours later as I had to be packed before the morning trip as I was the only one leaving. Of course I completely overestimated packing time and ended up sitting there for half an hour before breakfast. That mornings trip was for a walk in the jungle and to see some more wildlife hopefully (most of the activities had been water based so far). We even managed to see some river dolphins (and more tortoises) on the boat trip out to the walk. On this walk we ate some ants, did a Tarzan vine-swing, saw a rather phallic plant, had a photo op in a hollow tree, saw some very hairy caterpillars and crossed some rather swampy land in our wellies. I also learned some more Dutch, so now know how to say useful things like 'Armadillo' if it comes up when I get there to work (we saw armadillo burrows, but not the armadillos. On the way back we stopped for a welcome swim at the lagoon, which was as always pretty fun, though idiot-boy here didn't learn his lesson and lost another contact lens mucking around (I'd lost one in the Galapagos, fortunately in the other eye). Then it was back to the camp for a quick shower (my next 2 nights would be on transport) before saying my goodbyes and getting in my private canoe for the long trip back.

I really enjoyed this trip to the jungle, though at first it was a bit frustrating not being in the one group and being passed around. The last two days were much better though. The camp was a nice place and very laid back. I managed to see all most of the animals you could hope to see, though they were nothing like as abundant and tame as in the Galapagos. This was a really good way to effectively finish off my travels.

Photorama time here:

This is the canoe heading to the camp, complete with small boy to ward of headhunters.

Canoetime, it was a long trip...

Mr Muscle bags a piranha.

A pygmy marmoset, its very wee and far away, this was where my camera earned it's keep.

The shaman and his weird toes.

A moon bird.

Sunset on the lagoon.

I think he's called a jungle lobster.

Wolf spider!

Me Tarzan, or maybe Indiana Jones.

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