“Imagine a man without lungs. Imagine Earth without Amazon Rainforest.” ~Vinita Kinra
After a blissful week in the Galapagos Islands, a change of scenery (and temperature) was in order. My friend and I decided to extend our stay in Ecuador with a 3-day excursion through the Andes Mountains, into the Cloud Forest, and ultimately arriving at the rainforest in the Napo River Valley.
We hired a tour guide in Quito to drive us, but you could, of course, rent a car and drive yourself. After leaving Quito, already at 9,000 feet in elevation, you begin a steady climb into the Andes and the highway quickly becomes a two-lane road – in need of major repairs in some areas. The road is insanely busy and filled with trucks, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians and sometimes, men on horseback. A few minutes into the drive, I began seriously contemplating covering my eyes for the rest of the journey. Driving in the Andes is not for the faint of heart. (Or for nervous people. Or for control freaks.) Driving between a truck and a bike in the same lane while trying to avoid a stretch of road that has crumbled completely down a cliffside? Yep. Watching for and swerving around stray dogs, cows, and birds? Yep. Passing multiple cars on double blind turns? Yep. That’s a regular thing. After it happens 10 times or so, you decide you can look out from behind your fingers (you know, the ones covering your eyes) and glance out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of the incredibly shy spectacle bear. (We didn’t).
You do really want to look out the window. The Andes are beautiful and the climate changes dramatically in a short amount of time. Rising up over the city of Quito, the landscape becomes greener and greener. Mountains rise sky high out of the Earth. (The average elevation in the Andes is 13,000 feet with some peaks rising over 22,000 feet.)
There are several quaint villages along the route and we stopped in the adorable village of Papallacta which boasts a world class hot springs. (As anyone who knows me knows, hot springs are on Heather’s top ten list of things to enjoy in life). There is a lodge at Papallacta and I could have easily spent a week in this charming spot relaxing and contemplating life while I munched on a bag of chifles (plantain chips). There are pools of varying heat for soaking and relaxing. And, one odd pool that is a short rectangle with stairs entering the pool from one side and another set of stairs immediately exiting the pool on the other side. (What?!) That pool is filled with Napo River water and it’s, ummm, brisk. (Read: freezing). You enter the pool via the first set of stairs, and exit via the second set. In the time it takes you to enter and exit the pool, you’ve lost all feeling in your extremities. From there, in order to improve circulation, you sit your butt back down in some hot water. Aaaahhhh, now that’s more like it.
Papallacta is in what Ecuadorians call the Cloud Forest. It’s a beautiful, lush landscape so called because the altitude and humidity cause a perpetual layer of clouds to hang just above the forest. The climate is much cooler here and after cooking in my own skin while in the Galapagos (worth it!), the Cloud Forest was a nice change of pace.
As you continue your descent into the valley, there are a number of resort towns each with their own claim to fame: adventure sports (think white water rafting), rock climbing, bird watching, etc. We made a detour into the Guango Lodge, well known for its bird watching and famous for its hummingbirds. It’s a quaint little place and well worth the $5 admission fee to catch a glimpse of these sweet little birds in varying sizes and colors.
By the end of the day, we had made our way into the valley and were ready to head to our hotel for the evening, La Casa del Suizo. The hotel is stunning and sits overlooking the Napo River. You must canoe to the hotel. I know, some of you just panicked. These are motorized canoes, captained by someone hired by the hotel. After a short ride down the Napo River, you’ll arrive at the hotel and climb the one million stairs required to get to the registration desk. (Ok, it’s really only about 100 stairs, but it feels like a million after you’ve climbed them for the fourth time).
The hotel was truly amazing. It makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. It boasts comfortable, clean rooms with amazing river views. There was no air conditioning here but large screened in windows that allowed for a nice airflow. Our first night here, we heard something that sounded a lot like a duck except that the noise kept up into the night. Not a bird, then; birds typically nest in the evenings. I asked our guide about it the next day. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Can I ask you a question about this noise we heard last night?”
Guide: “Of course. What did it sound like?”
Me: “It sounded like a duck, but the noise continued all night long.”
Guide: “Oh, those are toads.”
Me: “Oh, toads! Are they big ones?”
Guide: (spreads her hands apart to basketball width) “No, they’re small.”
Gah! If small toads in the rainforest are basketball sized, I have no earthly desire to run into a “large” rainforest toad.
Lodges in the area are able to book several different activities for you. We took advantage of a canoe ride to an animal rescue center where we got to see many of the native species. The rescue center seeks to rehabilitate and re-release the animals, but some will live their lives in this volunteer run center mostly because of their exposure to humans in the illegal pet trade. The center was opened by a German family and in addition to caring for the animals, they have opened a school for local children. We also took a hike in the rainforest with a guide from the Quechua tribe. The Quechua were among the first native peoples to be conquered by the Inca and they’ve been in the Amazonian basin hundreds of years. A hike from the river up into the rainforest, which lies at the edge of the Andes, is quite steep…the equivalent of 70 flights of city stairs, according to my Fitbit. (As if I needed more stairs after hauling myself up and down at the hotel.)
You quickly forget about your burning quadriceps though. Plants and flowers so green and beautiful, giant trees, and howler, squirrel and wooly monkeys in the wild. After getting hot and sweaty – again – we tubed down the Napo River enjoying the cool water. In the afternoon, we visited a Quechua village. I learned to use a traditional blow dart gun. The gun is 9-feet long and I was not sure I’d land a dart anywhere close to the monkey decoy hanging from the tree, but I got him squarely, on my first try…right in the monkey balls.
Our days in the rainforest were not terribly hot; however, they were humid. Luckily for us a dip in the beautiful lodge pool was an option. While enjoying the cool water one afternoon, we encountered another tribe of people known simply as ‘Mericans. Settle in, because I’m going to share with you a cautionary tale.
One of the best things you can to do be an understanding, global citizen, in my opinion, is to travel and to be open to new experiences and to people that differ from you in the hopes of expanding your world view. Some Americans traveling abroad give the rest of us a bad rap and I’m going to outline why just below:
- ‘Mericans changed their departing flight to Ft. Lauderdale to avoid Miami because there were “too many Spanish speaking people in Miami.” (I’m really not sure who they thought they’d encounter in Ecuador).
- ‘Mericans thought it “weird” that we’d hired a guide in Quito and allowed her to drive us into the rainforest. Nope. Ecuador has professional people and our guide was amazing.
- In the midst of an amazing buffet full of local and international foods, ‘Mericans complained that this was the only resort where you’d “lose weight because the food was so bad.” (I guess, if you think garlic shrimp, beef tenderloin, curry chicken, plantains, and fresh fruit is bad).
- And, ‘Mericans miss their junk food. “I mean, you can’t even get Cool Ranch Doritos or Diet Dr. Pepper here.”
Be American. Be proud to be an American, but don’t assume that different is bad. Don’t assume that people living in other countries don’t deserve your consideration or your respect. Open your mind (and your mouth) to try new experiences (and eat new food).